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God’s own country: a slice of heaven in Kerala

This feature appeared in issue 8 of Journeys magazine.

We arrived in Kerala on one of those bleary-eyed night flights, the kind when you’re so tired you no longer know or care what day it is, bumping off the airport highway onto endless dirt roads, the silhouettes of coconut palms shadows in the moonlight. We stole into Purity, our lakeside villa, in the darkness, like thieves, greeted by a sleepy night watchman.

I woke to bright sunlight streaming through the window and stood on my balcony blinking the brilliant colours of rural India: scarlet flame trees, red and yellow hibiscus, pinky-white frangipani. At the end of the villa’s garden, the vast expanse of Lake Vembanad, India’s longest lake, shimmered metallic grey in the morning heat. Fishermen in loincloths, nets heaped high on their dugouts, were returning with the morning’s catch. Great rafts of purple water hyacinth formed islands on the lake. Kerala dubs itself ‘God’s own country’ – and I could see why.



Shaking off the journey and the stress of London life was no trouble in this exquisite spot. We flopped around in the infinity pool and dozed in the shade. I had an ayurvedic massage which I can only describe as extreme; no whale music and Western spa modesty here. I slithered out, dazed and still drenched in oil, a bindi on my forehead and curry powder in my hair.

Tropical flowers at Purity

Tropical flowers at Purity

Later that evening, we toasted the sunset with an excellent Indian rosé while some of our fellow guests went out with a fisherman in his dugout to admire the Chinese fishing nets, complex wooden structures characteristic of this area, cantilevered over the water’s edge.

Read the rest of the story here.


Kingdom in the sky: falling in love with Lesotho

This feature appeared in issue seven of Journeys magazine.

I’m enjoying an early evening beer in the warmth of the Duck & Donkey Tavern at Semonkong Lodge. Thunder is crashing across the heavens outside, lightning ripping apart the night sky, rain hammering down relentlessly.

A guy staggers in, wearing a glazed expression. He’s American, touring southern Africa for three months on a motorbike. He came off once today in the sea of mud that used to be a road and he’s had several near misses with skidding 4x4s. “It took me a whole hour to defrost my feet when I arrived,” he rasps. I ask if, like me, he’s visiting Semonkong for walking and pony trekking. “No, I gotta move on tomorrow,” he says, a faraway look in his eye. “I’m here for the Sani Pass.”

Maliba Lodge

Maliba Lodge

The tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho, surrounded entirely by South Africa, attracts this kind of thrill-seeker. The Sani Pass is one of Africa’s most legendary roads, a series of treacherous switchbacks snaking over the Drakensberg mountains that straddle the South Africa-Lesotho border. In the world of motorcycling, it’s the Big Daddy of extreme off-road racing, impassable in winter, when Lesotho is blanketed with snow, and claiming vehicles and lives when it rains.

Driving from Maseru, the capital, had been tough enough for me, battling for hours through one bone-shaking thunderstorm after another, enveloped by dense cloud at altitude, wallowing along a quagmire of a road that’s still only partly built. The arduous journey, though, is a small price to pay for the extraordinary beauty of this tiny country, located entirely between 1,000 and 3,000 metres above sea level.

A few days before, we’d crossed the northern border at Caledonspoort, just beyond the chichi South African town of Clarens, all teashops and art galleries in the centre, a sprawling, depressing township tarnishing the outskirts. But once on the other side of Lesotho’s bustling frontier town of Butha Buthe, I felt as though I’d stepped into a parallel world; a time warp in which there were no mechanised vehicles, no satellite dishes, no teashops. More to the point, no townships.

The road to Tsehlanyane National Park climbed through steeply terraced valleys, high above rivers carving channels through the red earth. Weeping willows draped over the rushing water, knee-deep in meadows of pink, white and magenta cosmos flowers. Mud brick rondavels with thatched roofs clung to the hillsides. Ladies in their Sunday best were walking to church, gossiping.

Locals in traditional garb - courtesy of Shutterstock

Locals in traditional garb – courtesy of Shutterstock

Most strikingly, there were horses everywhere, grazing on the hillsides or mounted by young boys ushering herds of sheep and haughty-looking Angora goats along the dirt road. Lesotho is famed for its sure-footed mountain pony and the Basotho (as its people are known) are fast and fearless riders, clad in their standard garb of a colourful wool blanket, a conical hat and in winter, a balaclava. Everybody rides; the horse is the main and usually, the only form of transport.

Lesotho only has a smattering of tourist lodges (not forgetting one ski resort), mostly dedicated to pony trekking, fishing and walking. Our first night was spent at Maliba Lodge in the Tsehlanyane National Park. We feasted on velvety pumpkin soup, mountain trout and molten chocolate fondant for supper and slept in a rondavel with a giant-sized bath and a fireplace; more honeymoon than the hardship I’d expected in a place where tourism is still at the cutting edge. I rose at dawn and stood on the wooden deck, clutching a mug of steaming tea and
watching the rising sun striking the tops of the hazy mountains. It was a scene of incredible beauty and peace.

The raison d’être of Semonkong, our second stop, high in the mountains in the very heart of Lesotho, is the Maletsunyane Falls, one of the highest waterfalls in southern Africa. A Guinness World Record certificate for the world’s longest single drop abseil, on which you drop down the height of the falls, tied to a rope and drenched in spray, is proudly displayed in the bar where I’m drinking. There’s a royal
connection, too; Princes William and Harry came to Semonkong in 2010, visiting projects connected with Sentebale, the charity for vulnerable children that Harry co founded with Lesotho’s Prince Seeiso. They, too, partied in the Duck & Donkey.

Maletsunyane Falls - courtesy of Shutterstock

Maletsunyane Falls – courtesy of Shutterstock

The following morning, the rain has stopped and the American biker has packed up and left. We ride with a guide to the waterfall and yet again, I am blown away by the ravishing beauty of this strange and exotic place. The clouds have cleared to reveal high peaks encircling the lodge. We follow the contours of the hillside, past rippling patches of maize and barley. The horses’ hooves squelch in the mud. One huge, sweeping vista after another unfolds, the constant stream of blanket-clad Basotho and their animals creating splashes of brilliant colour against the lush, green fields. Some are accompanied by donkeys, weighed down by sacks of grain, headed for Semonkong village to shop and trade. Cowbells clank and people call out greetings to one another. In such a remote place, where an individual may ride the mountain trails alone for days to reach a village, extending greetings to all and sundry is an essential ritual.

In the distance, a deep, red chasm opens out in the rocks, great spikes and towers of basalt and sandstone rearing up from hundreds of feet below. We tie the horses up in a copse of pine trees and pick our way along a narrow trail to a view that takes my breath away. The Maletsunyane Falls cascade in a long, graceful silver ribbon over a vast cliff, the water thundering as it hits the rock and spray creating a cloud
of white mist. There isn’t a soul in sight.

This magnificent isolation could change as World Bank money is paying for the road across the centre of Lesotho to be tarred, which will bring a new kind of tourist once the need for a 4×4 and a pioneering spirit has gone. The opportunity will create much-needed jobs for locals, which is, of course, a good thing, but I, for one, feel privileged to have stepped briefly into a world still so utterly beautiful and unspoiled.

Call of the wild: Kenya with a difference

This feature appeared in issue six of Journeys magazine as a result of a visit in January 2014 with Aardvark Safaris.

A herd of zebra is occupying the airstrip. Not ideal when you want to land a plane. The aircraft is approaching, a tiny, white speck glinting in the brilliant blue sky over the terracotta-and-green landscape of Tsavo West, so we bump up and down the runway in our safari 4WD like lunatics, shooing away the herd.

They won’t budge. The pilot spots the action below and goes around for another attempt. He does finally manage to land, the zebra eyeing him moodily from the sidelines, but as we take off, lifting high above the vast expanse of bush, the last thing I see is the van, madly zooming up and down again, our guide still fending off the beasts.

Ushering a herd of zebra off the airstrip

Ushering a herd of zebra off the airstrip

On any safari, you learn to expect the unexpected. A large, blue lizard occupying the bikini I’d left lying around my tent? No problem. One member of our group found a small scorpion in his bathroom and another had rock hyrax snuffling around the bed. We soon learn that this is nothing; Alex Walker, founder of the Serian Camp in the Masai Mara, was due to return to Africa from leave and the worker cleaning his house in preparation found a leopard using Alex’s wardrobe as a nest for her cubs.

Sundowners in the wilderness (Image courtesy of Sabuk)

Sundowners in the wilderness
(Image courtesy of Sabuk)

I’ve opted for what you might call ‘rustic chic’ on my journey around Kenya. No sanitized hotels or overcrowded game parks for me; instead, four lodges that are as remote as it’s possible to be, outside the parks in conservancies – private land leased from the local tribes for tourism. I’m also approaching this journey with an open mind. I don’t want my trip to Kenya to be about checking animal sightings off a list. I want it to be about scenery, people, experiences.

Read the rest of the story here.





A family cruise on the Rhine

Cruising the Rhine on Uniworld's River Ambassador

Cruising the Rhine on Uniworld’s River Ambassador

River cruising and children aren’t the first holiday combination you might think of. But I took my kids on a family-friendly Uniworld cruise on the Rhine and we had a blast. We cycled to a castle for wine tasting (or apple juice for the children), learned how to make apfelstrudel, had a water fight on the river bank and rode the cable car in Koblenz up to Schloss Ehrenbreitstein.  As a bonus, I won a Passenger Shipping Association (now CLIA) award for the piece, which appeared in Cruise International magazine, for ‘Best river cruise feature of 2012’. 

We cycled to a castle for a wine-tasting - or apple juice tasting for the kids

We cycled to a castle for a wine-tasting – or apple juice tasting for the kids

Cruising in Turkey

All you need to know about cruising in Turkey, published by The Daily Telegraph in 2014. I’ve always loved the Turkish coast, from the remote Dalyan River and the scenery around Olu Deniz (below) to some of the bigger ports like Bodrum, which may be tourist-ridden but has a spectacular museum and some decent restaurants.


Read the story here

Hiking the Hebrides in style

Published in Sunday Times Travel magazine, September 2013

At the base of the cliff, the sea is a brilliant, incandescent turquoise, smooth, white rocks gleaming just beneath the surface. We are strolling along the cliff path towards a distant beach, the sand an amazing shade of pinky-yellow. As we get closer, we can see that there’s nobody there apart from a few wading birds. When the breeze drops, the sun feels blisteringly hot. We could be in the Caribbean if it weren’t for the bleating of sheep. We are, in fact, at Scotland’s Loch Torridan, looking across to the islands of the Inner Hebrides.

hebridean ifcCaribbean they may not be but the islands of the Hebrides are scattered over a large area off the coast of western Scotland and as such are less than easy to string together for a mere week’s walking holiday. Fortunately, just as in the Caribbean, there is a cruise ship that will do all the work for you, in this case, the Hebridean Princess.

Hebridean Island Cruises’ ‘Footloose’ walking cruises on this petite, 49-passenger ship are a stroke of genius. What could be more blissful than a very small, very luxurious floating home which takes you to wild, beautiful locations every day fo a week’s worth of hiking through dramatic landscapes, over volcanic outcrops and along clifftop trails?

The cruise begins in Oban, where I have joined with some trepidation. While the brochure describes the my voyage as ‘walking or strolling at your own pace’, I’m worried that my assorted sporting injuries wouldn’t stand up to seven days of hard hiking. I am not alone; as we cast off our lines and sail out of the harbour and into the sunset, dinner conversation seems to be a general swapping of war wound stories, as everybody sizes each other up. Fellow passengers are clearly fairly wealthy (these cruises don’t come cheap); there’s a fair smattering of titles on the guest list. But the wine flows and later, the single malts. Ted, one of the three resident guides on the ship, plays the guitar and rattles off jokes and I can already see some of the ladies getting misty-eyed and mentally signing up for his walking group.

Needless to say, Day One turns out to be a baptism of fire. We awake, having sailed through the Sound of Mull, anchored off the tiny islet of Eigg, inviting in the unexpectedly brilliant sunshine. But Eigg is dominated by a sheer-sided, black volcanic plug called An Sgurr. It towers menacingly over the rolling fields and moorland. We are to go up it – not round it, but right to the top. Did I mention that I don’t like heights?

The walk starts out innocuously enough, through beautiful shady woodland, the ground in late May still a sea of bluebells and the scent of wild garlic hanging in the air. We tramp across boggy moorland, looking for wild orchids as the call of a cuckoo echoes across the heather. The push to the summit is up a steep, rocky slope, on top of which there’s a sheer drop on one side and breathtaking, 360-degree views as far as the Outer Isles. Hebridean Princess sits far below us, a black and white speck in a glassy, flat sea. On the way down, a heat haze shimmers off the heather. I fantasise about moving to the Hebrides until someone tells me it’s like this for about one week of the year.

Sunday finds us on Skye, stepping ashore at the tiny town of Portree. Everybody knows each other by now. The tough ‘walkers’, have opted for the hardest climbs and have been assigned Pat as their guide. Pat is a man of few words and an archly raised eyebrow but displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds, flowers and geology. I soon learn not to ask him daft questions such as ‘How scary is the steep bit at the top?’ for fear of being kicked out into the slow-moving ‘strollers’ group, escorted by kindly Kate to see local attractions like Inverewe Gardens, Flora MacDonald’s grave and Skye’s Talisker distillery.

Today’s challenge is the Quiraing trail, a tilted wall of ancient lava that forms part of a long fault line. Like An Sgurr, it’s a huge slab of rock, this time reached through a hidden valley littered with giant boulders, each one brilliant with patches of yellow lichen. We squelch through bright green moss (proper walking boots are essential for this trip) until the path becomes steep and narrow, with a big drop-off on one side. Once again, we’re rewarded with dazzling views, this time as far as Cape Wrath in Scotland’s far north, a hazy headland shimmering in the hot afternoon sun.

Life on board settles quickly into a comfortable routine, mainly consisting of eating everything in sight, as all the fresh air and activity makes us hungry. We get back to the ship in the afternoons, glowing and muddy, kick our boots off and flop in the cosy lounge with tea and chocolate cake before wallowing in long, hot baths.

Dinner is a communal affair in the ship’s dining room, all fresh, local ingredients; lamb, beef, fish and Scottish cheeses and whisky-laced puddings. One night, a haggis is produced, addressed with great panache by Ted, sporting full kilted regalia. After supper, everybody retires to the lounge for further appreciation of single malts and the occasional talk by the guides on Scotland. I miss most of it, though, as I fall into the deepest sleep imaginable as Hebridean Princess hauls anchor and potters slowly to the next island.

The furthest north we reach is Harris in Outer Hebrides, quite a contrast to the lushness of Eigg and Loch Torridan, bleak and bare. This is our only grey day and the gloomy town of Tarbert is hunkered down, with nobody on the streets. We warm ourselves with swigs of the ‘wee drams’ – miniature bottles of whisky – that sit in a ‘help yourself’ basket at the ship’s reception desk. Today’s trail, the Postman’s Route, turns out to be a long march up a scrubby hill and down an incredibly steep, zig-zagging path to a narrow inlet where the royal yacht Britannia apparently used to drop in for a ‘wee barbecue’ on the beach, observed only by seals. (In fact, the Queen has chartered Hebridean Princess twice since her beloved yacht was decommissioned, revisiting old haunts in the islands.) The path is called the Postman’s Route because it used to lead to two hillside villages, now just sad, empty shells. The silence of the ruins and the overgrown, crumbling walls are a chilling reminder of the brutal land clearance of the islands in the 19th century.

Tonight, the sky clears and there’s a special treat. We’re invited to assemble on deck after dinner, just as the sun is setting. Nobody knows why. But as the champagne corks pop and the sun begins to sink towards the horizon in a blaze of burnt orange, Mendelssohn’s Hebridean Overture begins to echo out across the deck. We are sailing right past Fingal’s Cave, a sea cave on the end of Staffa, formed from perfectly symmetrical hexagonal rock columns. Mendelssohn visited from Oban in 1829 and despite his seasickness, was inspired by the geometric shapes and the shafts of sunlight penetrating the turquoise water at the mouth of the cave and immediately scribbled down the beginning of the score. It’s an unforgettable moment; just our little boat, the fading light and the haunting music echoing across the deck. Everybody falls silent.

Our final walk on the penultimate day is on the lushly wooded island of Ulva. We’re lacing up our boots when a fellow walker says to me: “Look at you. You’re a different person from a week ago.” I reaslise she’s right. I arrived stressed and tired and in just six days, I feel tanned and fit. We set off, stepping around piles of lobster pots cluttered on the jetty, along country lanes framed with purple and scarlet wildlflowers, passing a solitary phone box that’s doubling up as a greenhouse for growing tomatoes in a Gro-Bag. We see buzzards, fat, basking seals and views of the much browner, bleaker hulk of Mull across the water. I don’t want to leave. So many things have surprised me about the Hebrides. The dazzling sunshine. The contrasts between the islands – some bleak and rocky, others carpeted with flowers. And the sheer ease of this trip; essentially, I haven’t had to make a decision all week other than whether breakfast is too early have whisky with my porridge. You can keep the Caribbean. I’ll take Scotland any day.

Sailing the Sea of Cortez

Bottlenosed dolphins were riding our bow wave at dawn. The sun was still below the horizon and the mountains of the distant Baja peninsula were etched in salmon pink. The light and the water glowed a soft grey as we gathered on deck to watch the shadowy figures, chasing us, surfing in front of us, arching gracefully out of the water, calling to one another.

DSC_9911Nature is at its purest in the Sea of Cortez, accurately and thrillingly described by underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau as ‘the world’s aquarium’. My dawn dolphin-watch quickly became a regular activity, clutching a steaming cup of tea on the foredeck, waiting for the first sighting of a dorsal fin breaking the water.

We’d slipped away from La Paz, at the southern end of the long finger of the 800-mile Baja peninsula, in darkness, kissing goodbye to civilisation and a mobile phone signal for a week-long adventure exploring a sea of metallic blue, the horizon studded with spiky green cacti against a backdrop of purple mountains. Un-Cruise Adventures’ Safari Endeavour was our home, a comfortable little expedition ship carrying 86 (although there were only 50 on my cruise).

Read the whole feature, which was published in 2013, in Journeys magazine.