Going gaga on GoGo – in the Simien Mountains

Day three in the Simien Mountains was a day of expanding joy. It took us higher than the first two and the views were astounding. In the lead up to the trip, when I had been day-dreaming of being in the mountains of Ethiopia, these were just the views I had envisaged.

I jumped for joy up there.

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Here are my best pictures from the morning. I don’t really have the right lens for wildlife or birds but I think I’ve done okay.

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We had a long trek ahead of us in the afternoon, so I had a wee ride on the mule for a while (we had to hire one for medical reasons in the morning). I have always been quite sniffy about riding on a mule; as I gave myself a rest and gently plodded along, I began to shift my view on that. So restful!

Alas, we reached a point where the mule had to go back to its village and there was no escaping the long, hot path uphill.

There were more lovely views up there and every now and again, our guide pointed into the far, far distance and claimed our campsite was in view. He promised us a shower when we got there – with hot water. As the afternoon wore on, he urged us to speed up but we didn’t really understand why. But we did our best and as we clambered the final long push downhill, we found ourselves singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ for some bizarre reason.

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Eventually, we arrived at camp. To our huge disappointment, all the hot water had been used. All of a sudden, we twigged why our guide had been urging us to hurry. There was a limited supply of water in the tank. Instead, we had bowls of water – not quite the same but at least we got clean.

A lammergeier was floating overhead, so I had to race to get dressed again and grab my camera.

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Feeling slightly disgruntled for about 10 minutes in that weird way that comes with the privilege of having running water back home, we took ourselves off for a stroll to look at the view on the other side of the road. We lucked out – first, a great big old Ibex strolled into camp just as we were about to leave and then, when we crossed to the viewpoint, three gelada monkeys were huddled together on the cliff edge, giving me one of my favourite gelada shots of the whole holiday.

The perfect end to a perfect day.

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Ethiopia: Further into the Simien Mountains

A year ago, I had a month to go before travelling to Ethiopia. I was bouncy with anticipation and eager to get going. There were mountains to hike in, wildlife to see, coffee to drink.

I don’t know what happened when I returned; I failed to blog about the trip beyond my arrival and initial sight-seeing (Gonder) and my first day in the Simien Mountains. It wasn’t through a lack of enthusiasm. I had a truly fantastic time and one that I want to remember forever.

I’ve decided that it’s never too late to blog about a travel experience. There could be someone gearing up for a trip to this magical country now and who will find my posts useful. Or maybe someone just fancies looking at some cracking photos of Gelada Monkeys for a few minutes. You may simply enjoy travel blogs and stories. Whoever you are and however you have arrived here, you’ll find me blogging about Ethiopia for a while so that I capture the memories before a whole year goes by.

In this episode, we join our intrepid writer as she begins her second day in the Simien Mountains. I’d like to remind readers of our wonderful guide, as I’d like to think that he might get enquiries. Eshete Berju of Travel Simien really was a star.

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It was cold and barely light. Sunrise in the Simiens comes slowly. The ridges on the other side of the gorge were hiding the sun but the light was changing. Gold was beginning to light the grass and I bent down to capture the moment with a few photos. The air was so, so pure.

On our second day in the mountains we hiked for about 14km. It doesn’t sound much but when you’re tackling some steep uphill sections and still acclimatising, it’s tough! Tight chest, short breaths, pumping heart. It’s a vile feeling, as I felt as if I were a wimp and unfit but the minute I got onto the flat or downhill, I was right as rain. But it’s worth it for the views, the seclusion, the wildlife.

In the morning we saw buzzards and a young lammergaier.

It was hot that day. Or hot enough to make us very glad indeed to find out that our lunch spot was by a river. Tempted though I was to jump in, I resisted and instead, stuck my head under a miniature waterfall – half a metre of delicious, cold water.

Happily we saw more gelada monkeys. It’s a fantastic daily occurrence up there.

The afternoon was tough and when we reached our second camp – Gich – we had reached 3,650m. It was still early when we got to camp but as it was near a village, there was a good deal of people watching to be done. Locals gathered and children played on the high open high. It was easy to sit and watch, taking shot after shot as the light changed. Here’s a selection.

Here are the best photos from that second day.

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The next day was spectacular. We went up to Mount Gogo and experienced the views we had dreamt of before we set off. More about that tomorrow!

My top Boston travel tips

I’ve visited Boston many times in the past three decades, as my Aunt moved there when she got married. I love the city but don’t go as often now, as Margaret lives in Atlanta. But I’ve been back recently for Christmas and weddings, as two of my three wonderful cousins are still there.

So I thought I’d share my tips. They are probably well known but I if they’re useful for even one or two people about to go there, then that’s a job well done.

  1. Make sure you see the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Prioritise it, as it’s unique and lovely, and filled with a staggering array of art.
  2. Walk. Boston is a small enough city to get to know on foot. Walking from Boston Common, to Quincy Market, to the North End is a great way to spend the best part of a day. Even better, you can have a fantastic Italian lunch and cake in the North End.
  3. Do visit the Holocaust Memorial when you’re walking in the Quincy Market area. There are many around the world but I find this one particularly haunting and moving.
  4. Book a table one evening at the Atlantic Fish Company on Boylston Street. Not only is the Lobster simply supreme but pretty much everything else on the menu makes my mouth water. It’s a blow out because it isn’t cheap but it is very much worth it if you love fresh, perfectly cooked seafood and fish.
  5. Sign up to ‘Secret Boston‘ – it’s an email service that lets you know of cheap/exclusive/unusual things to do. They’re all at really short notice, so it’s best to sign up shortly before you go.
  6. Have a drink in the Top of the Hub – the bar at the top of the Prudential Center. The views are fantastic and the drinks are not outrageously priced. Obviously it makes sense to do this on a clear day, though! Now that the John Hancock tower observatory has shut, this is the place for views and if you want the full 360 degrees, you’ll need to pay $17 for the Sky Walk a couple of floors down, as that’s where the full landscape can be seen.
  7. If you have time for more than one museum, make your Number 2 visit the Museum of Fine Arts. It is fantastic. A great collection and they always have fantastic exhibitions too.
  8. If you have time for a third culture vulture experience, go on an Art and Architecture tour of the Boston Public Library. I did this for the first time on my most recent trip and I was very glad I did. It has a gallery upstairs filled with murals created by John Singer Sargent and they are a wonder to behold.
  9. Visit Harvard. It’s lovely just soaking up the atmosphere but there are good museums too.
  10. Trinity Church on Copley Square has free lunchtime organ recitals. If you want an unusual break during the day, it’s impressive. This is on a Friday only.

Here are my photos from the Art and Architecture tour of the library and the views from Top of the Hub.

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Do you have a ‘happy place’?

“Years ago I decided that the greatest need in our Country was Art… We were a very young country and had very few opportunities of seeing beautiful things, works of art… So, I determined to make it my life’s work if I could.”

Isabella Stewart Gardner, on the creation of her Museum, 1917

Whenever I walk up to the Floral Hall of the Royal Opera House in London, my spirits lift. Even if they are good to begin with, they lift. I call it my ‘happy place’. I find it impossible to be anything other than filled with joy when I am there.

The same is true of my favourite museum in the world; the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, USA. Even though I now feel I know the collection well, I like to go there each time I visit Boston, revelling in the courtyard, the cloisters and delighting in discovering a piece of art I missed last time or simply enjoying my favourite painting.

Isabella Stewart Gardner was a wealthy art collector who created her museum in 1900 and opened it in 1903. She had travelled extensively and had a profound love of Italian art and architecture, so she had the building designed to look like a 15th-century Venetian palace.

Walking in through the modern entrance and arriving at the old part of the museum, first-time visitors gasp with pleasure when they arrive at the courtyard. Even though it no longer surprises me, I still have a mental gasp as I look out onto the atrium-covered terrace, as its beauty staggers me every time. With a central square of roman mosaics, the courtyard is filled with Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures nestled among seasonal flowers and plants.

A cool, calming cloister surrounds the courtyard and it is almost a struggle to drag oneself away from it but delights and surprises are tucked away on three floors of galleries, so it does pay to move on when you can bear to.

The Spanish Gallery houses the best jewel; El Jaleo by John Singer Sargent. I will never tire of being drawn in to this picture. I am transported to a cave in Granada or Jerez, and want to stamp my feet and clap along. It is so intense that I can almost hear the guitars and mournful wailing of Flamenco singing.

There are many more Sargent’s to discover, along with two ground-floor rooms stuffed full of glorious early 20th-century paintings and two floors that offer an A-Z of masterpieces from Fra Angelica to Anders Zorn. Play the ‘which one piece would you take away, and only one’ and you will struggle to decide. Will it be a haunting Whistler landscape or a priceless renaissance masterpiece?

If you do ever get the chance to visit Boston, prioritise The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Yes, you need to troop around Faneuil Hall and do the Freedom Trail, I’m not going to tell you not to. But give yourself a wonderful cultural treat and get to Fenway for art and not the Red Sox!

In the meantime, here are my few photos to give you a flavour of what’s in store!

 

A great start to 2016

I’m having a wonderful start to 2016.

If that sounds complacent or boastful, trust me, it isn’t. It’s relief and joy. I had an up and down (more down than up) 15 months leading up to the New Year, so to be able to say with confidence that the first 10 days of the year are good is a remarkable feeling.

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I published my first novel on 30th December. After two years of sitting on it, too scared to put it out in the world, I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to move onto ProjectP (as novel number two shall henceforth be named until I publish it!) until I had released ‘The Broken Heart Repair Plan’ into the world.

January 1st dawned with a nice handful of sales and a heart-warming and loving reaction from friends and family. Then, on my first day back at work, I made it onto the New Year Woman’s Hour phone in, which focused on big changes that we women were planning to make in 2016.

Having taken five years in total to produce Novel Number One, I have resolved to write, edit and publish ProjectP within the year and it felt amazing to say that out loud, live on air to circa 4m listeners. It made it a commitment, not a resolution, and that feels different; more solid, more planned, much more achievable.

Yesterday, I put that commitment into action. I went to the first Writers’ Circle brunch of the year and wrote the first few paragraphs of the first chapter of ProjectP. I read them out to three friends later in the day and the reaction was wonderful – ‘more please!’ It doesn’t get much better than that.

And today, here I am, starting my writing day with a new blog post, which will be the first of many and regular ones.

So for what it’s worth, here’s my New Year’s advice for any writers who might be struggling to turn a resolution into a commitment:

  1. Join a writing group. The support is tremendous and the encouragement to keep writing is regular and a vital top up.
  2. Just write. Kevin, one of the guys in my group, said he writes at least 500 words each day and he works full time like I do. If he can, I can. Make it a habit.
  3. Publicly voice your commitment to your writing project – put it on Facebook, Tweet it, tell all your friends, blog it, write it in capital letters in your personal journey. Commit to it publicly and you increase the chances of making it happen.
  4. Write. Even when you feel dull and lacking in inspiration, just write.
  5. If you don’t have a specific project, then find competitions to enter. Even if you don’t send off the finished piece, you will at least have a rich source of writing prompts to choose from.

Happy New Year to all writers, everywhere around the world. Here’s hoping 2016 is a stellar year for all of us.

A new departure

I have sorely neglected my blog for many months. But there’s a good reason. I have been finishing up a project that has taken over five years to complete – my first novel.

I fell in love with Jordan way, way back in 1994 and the inspiration was so deep than when I turned to writing, I knew that my first novel must be set there. If you love the country, I think you’ll enjoy the descriptions of Petra and Wadi Rum, two places that stole my heart and still rate as my favourite in the world.

And if you love a good, easy read with a splash of heartache and love, then ‘The Broken Heart Repair Plan’ will make a nice New Year read for you.

If anyone has been to Jordan – either recently or in the past – I would love to know what you think of the descriptions in the novel. If you haven’t been but are toying with the idea, then I hope it might provide a bit of inspiration to start off 2016 adventure-planning.

And if you have travelled there in the past couple of years, I would dearly love to hear what this gorgeous country is now like. Did you receive a warm welcome? Is Petra still the beguiling, mysterious, beautiful place it was? I hope so.

Above all, I have to start my first day as a published novelist with a plug – please do buy the book. If you like it, please recommend it to your friends!

 

Ethiopia: Into the Simien Mountains

Five minutes drive into the Simien National Park we came across our first group of Gelada monkeys. Our driver shrugged when we asked to get out. What was an amazing sight for us was, we now know, just part of everyday life 3,000m up in the mountains.

Our guide, the wonderful Eshete Berju, was thrilled at our enthusiasm. He urged us to go nearer.

“Are you certain?” I asked, looking nervously at the 100 or more baboons frantically tearing at grass whilst grunting at each other. Posing for a photo we were urged nearer and nearer by Eshete and by the total lack of reaction, it was clear the monkeys didn’t give a monkeys about visitors!

It was a glorious introduction to the Simien Mountains and hanging out with Geladas became a necessary and magical part of each day’s trekking; and one that never bored.

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The trip up to the Park was easy and fun. It started really when we got to Debark, to the park office. Craggy, rugged rangers hung around outside, ancient guns slung over their shoulders like troubadours would wear their guitars. Assigned to us for the four day trip was Fantoun, whose museum piece wouldn’t scare a five year old, let alone a hungry leopard. In the truck, Kate asked: “When was the last time you fired it?” Eshete translated and everyone laughed – Fantoun, our driver, Messi the chef and his sidekick. “Well?” Prompted Kate.

“Oh, he’s never shot it,” declared Eshete, seemingly amazed.

“So how does he know it works?”

“Well, he takes it apart and puts it back together all the time, so he knows all the parts work.”

Our laughter set them off again. It was going to be a fun trip.

Debark is at 2,800m and our first camp was 3,250m.

Altitude Guide to our camps and peaks.
Altitude Guide to our camps and peaks.

It’s not much of an elevation but when you’re trying to acclimatise the heart starts to pound and the breath shorten the very second that a path heads uphill. Thankfully that first day, nothing was too steep. Once the driver left us to trek, taking Messi and his assistant onto camp, Eshete, Fantoun, Kate and I set off for a few hours to walk to camp.

Just twenty minutes in, Eshete chatted to a couple of children and then pointed off track into a flat, almost treeless plain.

“There is a big group of geladas across there.” We couldn’t see them but we set off. It took me a long time to spot them but when I did, I was astounded. Hundreds of them. Hundreds. We had lunch with them. Geladas have absolutely no interest in the food we eat, so we were sitting surrounded by them. It was weird. And amazing. The noise is fascinating, as mostly it’s the sound of constant tearing and munching of grass. Every now and then, there would be a minor squabble about nothing and a minor game of chase, but mostly just tearing and munching, munching and tearing.

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Eventually we set off again and the afternoon was filled with great views and birds of prey. As Kate said, “The Simien Mountains: a great place to be a buzzard.” I think I could watch birds coast the thermals for hours on end. It was hard to tear ourselves away from each and every cliff face.

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We arrived at camp to find our tent up and a camp table laid out with flasks of tea and coffee. Popcorn arrived within minutes. It’s the snack of choice in Ethiopia – it’s part of the coffee ceremony that takes place all over the country in most houses, hostelries and hotels.

The view just beyond our campsite was fantastic; a gorge so peaceful that the only sounds were bees (do they have bees that high up or is this a figment of my imagination?) and the occasional distant chatter from the campsite. It was a lovely place to sit as the light mellowed.

The view from the campsite
The view from the campsite

The minute the sun started to sink, however, it got cold. Suddenly we were very grateful for the fire in the cooking hut and layering up, we rushed inside. Expecting a simple supper, we were staggered at what Messi had achieved. He had one big gas ring and about eight different pots. Vast quantities of vegetable soup were followed by a main course of about six different veggies and pasta. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, we had banana fritters for pud. I had been expecting very simple one pot cooking on the trip. I couldn’t have been more delighted.

Messi the chef - a genius of the cooking hut and a nice bloke to boot.
Messi the chef – a genius of the cooking hut and a nice bloke to boot.

And to top it off, we were given a hot water bottle each to take back to our little tent.

Not bad at all for a first day in the mountains.

travel, pics & assorted thoughts from Carole Scott

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