FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Sunset over Whakatāne

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

After returning from White Island there was still plenty of daylight left, so we took a drive over to Ohope Beach, voted NZs most loved beach in a poll a few years back. It’s a gorgeous stretch of coast line and a popular holiday destination. On a quiet weekday it was more or less deserted. The beaches in New Zealand always seem to have a little surprise up their sleeves. In this case, the sea had perfected the most beautiful natural artworks on the beach.

Sunset over Whakatane

In the late afternoon I took another walk, along the waterfront, to the point where the Whakatāne river meets the sea and waited for the sunset. One of the landmarks at this point is the Wairaka statue, situated on a rock, which was given to the town on 27th November 1965 by Sir William Sullivan. It’s a landmark with a story.

Wairaka was the daughter of Toroa, Captain of the Mataatua waka (canoe). The men had gone ashore, leaving the women and children on the waka. While they were away the boat began to drift back out to sea. In Maori culture women were not allowed to touch the paddles, but knowing that they would be doomed if she did not act Wairaka picked them up and cried out “kia tū whakatāne au i ahau” to give her the authority to take the place of the men. Wairaka’s actions saved her people and gave the town it’s name.

The statue also turns out to be a popular pigeon perch as I discovered at sunset!

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Wanders around an active marine volcano

Posted in New Zealand, Whakatane by folkestonejack on April 9, 2019

A spot of good fortune saw the best weather of our trip coincide with our long awaited trip to White Island, an active marine volcano in the Bay of Plenty that was given its name by Captain Cook on 1st November 1769. It is believed to be around 150,000 to 200,000 years old and is the northernmost volcano in the Taupo volcanic zone.

White Island (Whakaari)

The 49km journey out to the privately owned island (on the Peejay IV) took around one hour and twenty minutes on a wonderfully calm sea, albeit with choppier waters for the final 10 minutes of our approach towards the island. Once we were moored offshore groups of eight were transferred to the island in an inflatable wearing life jackets, hard hats and gas masks.

On reaching the island we had to step up from the inflatable onto metal ladders set into the landing stage and then make our way across the boulders to the beach. The tour party was split into two groups of around 25 to take a walk around the inner crater.

First up, the safety briefing. Our tour guides stressed the importance of sticking to the path they had taken and not wandering off. To illustrate this point, they highlighted a relatively benign looking mound with a grey crust. These innocent looking sights are best described as egg shells as there is no way of telling how thick these crusts are from looking at them. Their hollow interiors could easily hide a boiling pool of water, mud or something far nastier.

Exploring White Island

Volcanoes can be unpredictable beasts so we were also given a run through of the evacuation plan in the event of an eruption. If the volcano starting spewing out rocks, the advice was to shelter behind even bigger rocks! Thankfully, this was reckoned to be quite unlikely. Volcanic activity is measured on a scale of 1 to 5, with White Island currently on 1 for ‘minor volcanic unrest’. In the past it has spent 90 seconds at 5 for ‘major volcanic eruption’.

The first groups to return to the island three days after the eruption of 2000 had no idea of the conditions they would find. They discovered that the ladders were encrusted with volcanic material which had not entirely set, giving it the consistency of chewing gum. Apparently, one of the tour guides picked up a large rock to show his group but dropped it as it was still hot. On reaching the ground it broke in half, revealing a still molten core!

In 2003 monitoring equipment was put in place, including 24 hour cameras that allow remote observation of activity in the crater. These have helped pick up recent developments, including clear indications that the crater lake is starting to reform.

Steaming sulphur chimneys

Our walk took us around the sights in the inner crater, starting with the strikingly yellow sulphur chimneys which were belching out steam. The potency of the steam was soon demonstrated when the wind changed direction and blew the steam towards us. We had all been issued with gas masks that we could use whenever we felt the need and boiled sweets to help generate more saliva (this was very effective at counteracting the effects of the environment on my throat) but on this occasion it was just enough to turn our backs to the steam.

The next stop was the crater lake, getting near enough to get a good view but not close enough to test how crumbly the cliff edge might be! From here, we headed on to a couple of streams with water coming from different sources on the island and got to dip our fingers in for a taste. The first had a flavour a bit like blood, showing the presence of iron, while the second had a tangy lemon flavour.

Finally, we reached the remains of the last sulphur mining operation on the island which finished in the 1930s. It was a pretty inhospitable and dangerous place to work, evidenced by the loss of all 10 workers from the operation of 1913-14 after a collapse of the crater rim caused a landslide. The remains of the factory amply demonstrate the corrosive nature of the environment.

The remains of the sulphur factory

The only survivor of the 1914 disaster was one of the camp cats, nicknamed Peter the Great, who was discovered by a re-supply vessel three weeks later. Peter was later re-settled in Opotiki and his long and happy life led to a long line of cats. Peter was supposed to have sired over 500 kittens and it is said that most of the cats in the area can trace a connection back to him!

Once our exploration of the rusting factory was complete we returned to the wharf, ready to make our way back to our ship by inflatable. There was time enough for a packed lunch (provided by the tour company) and a circumnavigation of the island before we headed back to Whakatane, accompanied for part of the way by a school of dolphins who happily played alongside the ship.

As well as taking boat trips to White Island you can also fly in by helicopter and mid-way through our tour we saw a couple of Volcanic Air helicopters arrive, swooping around the curve of the crater impressively and then dropping down onto the wooden landing pads. The view of the island from the air must be impressive, but I think I prefer the more relaxed views of our boat trip.

Our transport to and from the island – the Peejay IV

I was incredibly impressed with the efficient operation of the trip by White Island Tours, the smooth boat transfers to the island and the knowledgeable explanations provided by our tour guides. It has undoubtedly been the highlight of my trip to New Zealand and I would thoroughly recommend the experience. After all, how often do you get the opportunity to set foot on an active volcano?

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A hike around the Mt Tarawera crater rim

Posted in New Zealand, Rotorua by folkestonejack on April 8, 2019

Twenty one years ago I came to Rotorua in the depths of winter and booked a four wheel drive trip to see the crater at Mount Tarawera, a dormant volcano. Unfortunately, the day served up thick fog and I could barely see a metre in front of me. The tour still ran, but it was pretty pointless as the closest I got to a view was looking at the scoria at my feet. I thought I would never get the chance to go back and see the view again, however fate has led me back here to rectify that.

The stunning colours and dramatic scenery at the crater rim

Things have changed a little since my first visit. Public access to Mount Tarawera was withdrawn in 2002 so the only way to go up to the summit is through a tour with the licenced operator, Kaitiaki Adventures. Also, one of the three domes of the dormant volcano (Wahanga) is completely closed as it is considered tapu (sacred) having been used as a burial site by the Maori tribe that owns the site, Ngāti Rangitihi.

Our trip with Kaitiaki Adventures took us by road for thirty minutes, then up an increasingly bumpy unsealed road and finally on foot to the top. Once we got up there we could stand by the crater edge and see the challenge that faced us on our crater rim walk. The steep scree slope we would need to descend to get to the crater floor looked particularly daunting from our starting point. However, under the guidance of our guides nothing was impossible.

Our slightly daunting path to the crater floor!

Our walk around the top was pretty straightforward, barring for a bit of wind and the angle of the scree slope, while still sleep, was somewhat less daunting once you got up close. The trick of making a descent was to dig your heels into the scoria and lean back a little, rather than letting your toes lead the way, pulling you forward into a probable tumble. It also needed a little pace – the slower you went the more difficult the descent would be. Everyone made it down safely and enjoyed a little breather before the climb back out on the other side.

The walk around the crater rim was exhilarating with incredible views in all directions, stretching from Taupo in the south to White Island in the north. Up at the top you got a really clear view of the 17km long rift that opened when Mount Tarawera erupted on 10th June 1886. It was striking to think that the landscape in front of us was created in just one night of deadly and destructive explosive force.

The view from the top of Mount Tarawera

Although the access restrictions are understandably not popular with everyone it has allowed the landscape to recover, particularly with the removal of invasive plant species, and it looks gorgeous in its raw natural state.

I was grateful for a bit of luck that was lacking twenty one years ago. Our walk was carried out in near perfect conditions, but the next scheduled walk was cancelled due to the bad weather that was expected to hit mid-way through the afternoon slot. Thanks to our excellent guide and driver, Ben and Steve, for a terrific morning.

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Waimangu Valley and Wai-o-Tapu

Posted in New Zealand, Rotorua by folkestonejack on April 7, 2019

The geothermal delights of Rotorua have long been attracting visitors to the central plateau, but the sights on offer today are quite different to those experienced by the more determined tourists of the Victorian age. The reward for travelling to Lake Rotomahana by steamer, horse drawn coach, canoe and by foot would have been the extraordinary pink and white terraces.

The salmon pink siliceous sinter terraces at Lake Rotomahana were regarded as one of the natural wonders of the world. The spectacle had first attracted European visitors in the 1830s but the numbers really picked up by the 1870s after an increase in publicity ensured their existence reached a wider audience. All of that changed on 10 June 1886 when Mount Tarawera erupted.

Waimangu Volcanic Valley

The eruption created the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the youngest geothermal valley in New Zealand, while destroying the pink and white terraces. It was assumed that no trace of the terraces remained, but a small piece was discovered at a depth of 60 metres in 2011. Today, visitors can take a walk through this young geothermal wonder and take a cruise on the lake. Sights include a steaming acidic crater lake, steaming cliffs, a multi-coloured terrace, geysers and an assortment of steam vents (fumaroles).

On our visit we had a couple of hours to wander along the set route through the valley, followed by a cruise around the lake and a bus ride back up to the entrance. In the afternoon we continued on to another geothermal wonder, Wai-o-Tapu, with some equally delightful spectacles, including extensive sinter terraces and a bright orange edged ‘champagne pool’ that was drawing gasps of wonderment from everyone as they got their first look.

The geothermal delights of Rotorua are astonishing to explore, but deserve a bit of time to see properly. I first visited both sites on a minibus tour in 1998 that only allotted a few hours to the two sites in total, whereas on this trip we were able to devote an entire day. It is perhaps no surprise that my main recollection of that trip were of running down the gravel tracks to try and see everything, rather than the spectacle I was supposed to be enjoying!

Champagne Pool at Wai-o-Tapu

I really appreciated the time on this trip to understand the events that led up to the creation of the natural wonders we can see today and the price paid by some of the unlucky tourists in the late 19th and early 20th century whose visits coincided with the most significant changes in geothermal activity. The most recent of these events took place in 1917 when the hydrothermal eruption of Echo Crater created Frying Pan Lake.

I think this is one of those places that you have to see for yourself, as no pictures can really do the place justice, but I’ve picked out a few shots to give a little flavour of the place.

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Geothermal delights at Orakei Korako

Posted in New Zealand, Taupo by folkestonejack on April 6, 2019

Our travels have brought us to Orakei Korako, a spectacular geothermal site between Taupo and Rotorua. The site is an interesting one, located across the waters of the Ohakuri Dam and only reachable by boat. It’s a little bit off the main tourist path so it doesn’t tend to get as busy as the geothermal sites in Rotorua but has been gaining more attention since Lonely Planet declared it as ‘arguably the best thermal area left in New Zealand’.

Across the water to Orakei Korako

The history of the site is a long one, beginning with the settlement of the area by the Maori tribe Ngati Tahu-Ngati Whaoa who used the natural geothermal resources in their daily lives. The spectacular formations have attracted visitors since the early twentieth century, though the waka that were initially used to ferry tourists across the water to the site have long since been replaced by more modern ships.

The colourful silica terrace that greets you when your ferry gets closer to the other side is simply spectacular and amply explains why tourists have made such an effort to come here over the past 100 years. At one time there were silica terraces of even greater repute at other nearby locations, though these have long gone. The Emerald Terrace is now the largest of its kind in New Zealand and what you see on the surface is only part of the story.

In 1961 the completion of the earthen Ohakuri Dam saw the water level rise 160 feet above the original water level of the river, submerging two thirds of the geothermal area. Today, the silica terraces continue for 35 metres under the lake hidden from human gaze. It is stunning now, so it is hard to comprehend how much more amazing it must have been in its original state.

The colourful sights of Orakei Korako

As we explored the site over the next hour or so we discovered more wonders, such as the ‘Golden Fleece’ terrace (a fault scarp formed in 131 AD); the Rainbow and Cascade Terrace; the ‘Kohua Poharu’ mud pools and the Soda Fountain.

The site also features one of only two known geothermally located caves in the world (the other is located in Sicily) possibly created by a massive geothermal eruption. Known as the sacred cave it holds a poignant plaque in memory of Atama (Adam) Mikaere who was killed in the Far Libyan desert, aged 22, in 1941. The inscription reads ‘His spirit hovers in this lovely cave where as a lad he guided and delighted visitors with his manly bearing’.

Who doesn’t like the sights and sounds of a bubbling mud pool?

Over the next couple of days we should get to see a few more geothermal sights and see the results of some of the volcanic eruptions of the past as we explore the area around Rotorua, but this was the perfect way to start.

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The Taranaki Falls and a little of Taupo

Posted in New Zealand, Taupo, Tongariro by folkestonejack on April 5, 2019

How do you follow an exhausting walk like the Tongariro crossing? According to the genius itinerary planning completed in the comfort of a desk in South London the answer seemed to be another hike! Hmmm…

The view at sunrise over Lake Taupo from our apartment at Oreti Village Resort

I had doubts about the plan as I headed to bed last night, but awoke feeling surprisingly fresh and ready to get walking again. A hike it was then. We drive south to the Tongariro National Park, parking up at Whakapapa Village near the incongruous hulk of Chateau Tongariro (a grand hotel built in 1929 to encourage tourists to visit the area).

The hike for today would be the two hour loop to the Taranaki Falls, choosing to start from the more exposed upper track as I think this is the easier way round and offers a succession of watery treats for the return leg.

The Taranaki Falls

After an hour of walking through alpine grasslands, red tussock, eroded volcanic soil and a forest of mountain toatoa we descended 100 steps to the satisfying sight of the falls. The weather was pretty grey, so I had plenty of time to muse upon my good fortune in doing the Tongariro Crossing in the considerably better conditions of yesterday.

My breath was taken away by the sight of the water tumbling 20 metres over lava flow which spewed from Ruapehu in an eruption 15,000 years ago. The way back offers further sight of the water flowing away from the falls, passing through a narrow gorge and over the Cascade Falls down to the Wairere Stream. There are a multitude of smaller delights, such as a small section of path completely covered in exposed tree roots. I have rarely seen a walk quite so varied. I was completely charmed by this.

The Huka Falls in Taupo

After a spot of lunch we drove around Lake Taupo to the Craters of the Moon, an hour long walk on a thermally warmed boardwalk around some smoking craters; the spectacular Huka Falls and a brief stop to admire the small wooden church at Mission Bay. A relatively relaxed afternoon which my tired feet certainly appreciated!

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Taking on the Tongariro Crossing

Posted in New Zealand, Tongariro by folkestonejack on April 4, 2019

I have been wanting to tackle the Tongariro Alpine Crossing for 21 years so when the opportunity to add it to our itinerary for this trip came up I grabbed it. The 19.4km crossing takes you across the volcanic terrain between Mt Tongariro and Mt Ngauruhoe, climbing 800m in altitude from Mangatepopo car park to the summit of red crater (1886m) before descending 1000m to the finish point at Ketetahi car park.

The sunrise over the Tongariro Crossing

Our accommodation at Oreti Village on the shore of Lake Taupo was a fair drive from the national park, requiring a drive through the darkness to reach the start point as the sun rose. The outlook for the day was good and thankfully the thick fog we encountered on the drive was nowhere to be seen as I started my walk. The advice given by the Department of Conservation is to begin before 8am, allowing plenty of time to complete the walk in daylight with plentiful stops to take in the scenery.

Although I was hiking on my own, I was far from alone. When I first read about the hike in the 1990s the Tongariro Crossing received around 20,000 visitors in a year but by 2015 that had risen to 109,000. I didn’t get the sense that this was one of the busiest days on the crossing and everyone was fairly well strung out after not too long. A key indicator of this was that the toilets placed strategically across the route never had more than 1 or 2 people queuing at most. Perhaps this is no surprise, this is the shoulder season and I was taking to the crossing after a string of fine days (hikers often funnel into the first fine day after bad weather).

A view across the south crater to Mt Ngauruhoe

I was glad to have worn layers of clothing to cope with the cold at the top and the sun-warmed slopes of the latter stages, having seen plenty of folk ill-prepared for the conditions that awaited them on the walk. It was a problem recognised about ten years ago, when the word ‘alpine’ was added to the name of the hike to stress the strenuous nature of the route. The weather forecasts suggest that a few days after my attempt the crossing will see the first snow of the season and temperatures at the tope are predicted to drop to -6.

The Department of Conservation provides a handy checklist of essentials for the hike. I was carrying the recommended amount of fluid (1.5 litres), plenty of food and scroggin to give me an energy boost when I needed it. I probably could have done without the bulky photographic equipment, but ditching that was never an option! One thing I really valued was a pair of tough, fingerless gloves that I could use on some of the rockier sections.

Incredible views abound in every direction

Before I started my walk I wondered how I would cope with the devil’s staircase, where you ascend from 1400m to 1600m to reach the south crater. It was an exhausting effort for sure, but for me the trickiest part would be the steep descent from the red crater on the loose scree. I stayed upright through my descent but could understand entirely those who had chosen to slide down on their backsides.

The scenery throughout the walk is marvellous and surprisingly varied. The view from the south crater to Mt Ngauruhoe was the first treat, especially with the low cloud hanging below the peak. The black summit is a brooding presence in the dramatic landscape and you could see why this was picked as Mount Doom for the Lord of the Rings films. That’s not to discount Mt Tongariro itself, which was thankfully well behaved on my walk. It last erupted in 2012, sending hikers scurrying down as fast as they could manage (it’s well worth reading the sign along the way telling you what to do in the event of an eruption just in case!).

First view of the emerald lakes

The biggest smile that crept across my face during the walk was on the first glimpse of the emerald lakes glistening in the autumnal sun. It felt like a terrific reward for all that initial effort, though it was a little sobering to realise that this was just the half-way point. I took the chance to sit down and eat my lunch by one of the lakes, watching as some Danish lads demonstrated their impressive skill at stone skimming after carefully selecting the best stones on offer.

The last three kilometres seemed like some of the longest of my life, so I was glad to have some music to help me through the final stages (a little bit of Strangeland by Keane and the most recent album by White Lies). I was very glad to see some familiar faces at the exit from the crossing. A car park has never looked so beautiful or been anticipated quite so eagerly!

Nearing the end

I took 7.5 hours to complete the hike, but that did include a 45 minute wait at one spot for the crowds and clouds to clear to get the perfect shot. I’m glad I wasn’t attempting this in high season or that might have been a complete impossibility.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and would highly recommend it. It is, without doubt, the most amazing hike that I have ever completed in my life and absolutely worth waiting 21 years for.

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A three cave day

Posted in New Zealand, Waitomo by folkestonejack on April 3, 2019

Our overnight stay in Waitomo allowed us to make an early start on three of the cave experiences available in the neighbourhood.

The caves have been receiving visitors since 1889, when the main glowworm cave was opened to tourists by local Maori Chief Tane Tinorau. The sight is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in New Zealand with coaches arriving through the day from Auckland and Rotorua. Most tourists only see the one cave on their tightly scheduled coach itineraries, which is a shame as the Ruakuri and Aranui caves are even more spectacular in my opinion.

First on our list was the Ruakuri cave, discovered some 400-500 years ago after a Maori hunter was attacked by two wild dogs (kuri) just outside the cave. The cave was discovered to be the den (rua) of the wild dogs. Once the wild dogs were dispatched the area around the caves became home to the local Maori population and the cave entrance was used as a burial ground.

Inside the Ruakuri cave system

The Ruakuri caves were opened to visitors by the Holden family in 1904. The NZ government claimed ownership and operated the caves until 1988 when the Holden family were able to re-claim ownership. However, with the dry access point through the burial ground out of bounds a new entrance had to be constructed. Many millions were spent digging a new and spectacular spiral entry point and the caves re-opened to the public in 2005.

The caves are now entered through a temperature controlled air-lock that makes it feel as though you are about to enter the lare of a Bond villain. Instead, what awaits is a wonderful walk through the caves on a series of walkways and bridges. The sights were a delight but as much as anything, it was the ability gto get up close to the glowworms that was realkly fascinating. We could see the glowworms moving about the rockface and all the threads they had dropped to catch insects.

Next up on our itinerary was the glowworm cave, which is the one most tourists see. It is a spectacular, if short, experience as you take a short boat trip in absolute silence looking up through the darkness to the thousand of glowworm tails that light up the ceiling. It was the most touristy of the three caves we entered but that doesn’t lessen the enjoyment.

I was particularly impressed to learn that since the cave was returned to the ownership of the descendants of Chief Tane in 1989 the majority of the staff working on the site are descendants of the chief and his wife Huti.

Inside the Aranui cave system

Finally, we visited the Aranui cave which was approached through a short walk through the forest accompanied by a couple of friendly fantails who hopped about and showed off us as we walked. Our wonderful tour guide Missy explained some of the useful plants we were passing and the Maori way of being guided by nature, eating the leaves that the insects have nibbled.

Once inside, we were once again treated to some incredible formations and a highly decorated ceiling, though I didn’t like the large wetas at the cave entrance or the information from our guide that they can leap a metre and cling on tightly! We all agreed that this was our favourite of the day. Across all the caves we were invited to spot the various shapes formed by the stalactites and stalagmites, which had included bungie jumping kiwis, a statue of the madonna and an elephant. The Aranui added an entrance guarding dragon to the list!

The three caves are very different and each has a special magic that makes it worth seeing. In short, it is well worth doing the triple cave combination.

The road to Marokopa

Posted in New Zealand, Waitomo by folkestonejack on April 2, 2019

Our trip to the central plateau began with the relatively uninspiring drive south on the motorway, escaping the humidity of the Auckland basin. At first the sights were pleasant but unspectacular, though I had to admire the people of Huntly for creating a lookout with a view of a power station. As someone with a love of industrial scenery that is something that really speaks to me!

Industrial scenery in Huntly

It was fascinating to see the snapshots of NZ life along the way, as well as more unusual activities such as tree felling (all road traffic was stopped in both directions for five minutes while a couple of trees in the adjacent forest were brought down) and a field of crosses being prepared in Ngaruawahia for Anzac day. We got more of a taste for local life in café stops along the way, sampling the baked treats and pies on offer.

The most surprising sight would have to be Hamilton’s oldest surviving church, St Paul’s Methodist church (1906), sitting in a green field site at Te Kowhai. The church was moved in January 2019 by Uplifting Homes in a remarkable 10 hour effort from Hamilton to its new location 15km to the south, ready to begin a new life as a cafe.

In the early afternoon we reached our accommodation for the night, the Top 10 Holiday Park in Waitomo, where we have a lovely two bedroom cabin with a fully fitted kitchen and shower. Once our tightly packed car boot was emptied (a masterpiece of jigsaw like arrangement) we headed back on the road with a lighter load to see the sights on the road from Waitomo to Marokopa.

The main attraction in Waitomo are the glowworm caves but the road to Marokopa offers some other treats that get overlooked by the majority of visitors – the Marokopa Falls, the Mangapohue Natural Bridge and the black sands of the beach at Marokopa itself.

First on the road is the Mangapohue Natural Bridge. An easy twenty minute loop takes you on a boardwalk through a limestone gorge and underneath a 17 metre high natural arch which is all that is left of an ancient cave system.

Marokopa Falls with a rainbow

Next up were the 35 metre tall Marokopa Falls, looking especially spectacular after a full day of rain yesterday with a heavy torrent of water tumbling over the undercut greywacke basement rock to a pool below. It’s not hard to see why these are described as the most beautiful in the country and to top it off the conditions had generated a rainbow over the river this flows into. This was an easy sight to see too, with a 10 minute walk from the road down to the viewing platform.

Last, but not least were the near deserted black sands of Marokopa beach. Starting from the small car park by the albatross anchor (a relic from a ship that foundered here in 1916 and remained on the beach for many years) we headed on to the sands for a walk into the wind.

The black sands of Marokopa

The views of the west coast from Marokopa are simply stunning and we pretty much hard to ourselves, barring a couple wandering arm in arm. It was hard to know where to look as there were wonders in every direction – the views along the beach and out to sea were beautiful, but the closer you got to the sandstone cliffs you could see the remarkable geology of the area and the rich fossil legacy. So much to absorb. Personally, I loved the striking mix of colours – black sand, white driftwood and orange cliffs. It was the unexpected highlight of the day.

Our day ended back at Waitomo, where we settled in to the cabin for the evening for a tasty meal accompanied by the first of many bottles from a box of Gibbston Valley Wines that we had brought with us!

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Familiar sights

Posted in Auckland, New Zealand by folkestonejack on March 30, 2019

Our base for the next three weeks will be the family home in St Heliers, a seaside suburb of Auckland sitting at the eastern end of Tamaki Drive. It has been three years since my last visit but was pleased to see that I could find my way around from memory. A little wander down to the sea front provided plenty of re-assuring sights and the temptations of Village Co-op Ice Cream Shop, though I resisted the latter for now!

The canopy of the Moreton Bay figs covers Tamaki Drive

One thing I had somehow quite forgotten were the two massive Moreton Bay fig trees that sit on Vellenoweth Green. The two trees are not too far short of 100 years and in that time have grown to a considerable size, completely covering the road with their canopy. Their aggressive roots have ripped up the pavement and no doubt disrupted any pipes that lay under the surface. It is not hard to see why they are not thought to be a good idea for roadside planting.

Over the next few days we plan to catch up with family, recover from our jet lag and relax a little before re-packing our bags for a trip to the central plateau.

A little luck in Dubai

Posted in Dubai, United Arab Emirates by folkestonejack on March 30, 2019

Our travels had brought us to Dubai Terminal 3 at the mid-way point on a journey to New Zealand to visit family and see a little more of the country. The first leg, from London Gatwick to Dubai, saw us arrive perfectly on time and in a suitably exhausted state for a night’s recovery in the airside Dubai International Hotel. However, opening the curtains the following morning brought the unwelcome sight of thick fog and the news that many flights had been severely delayed or even cancelled.

Our Emirates A380 for the journey from Dubai to Auckland

The Emirates flights covering the 8,823 miles to and from Auckland are among the longest commercial flights in the world. The outbound leg from Dubai tends to be a little shorter, clocking in at just over 16 hours, compared to 17 hours for the return. If you travel to and from New Zealand you will probably flown plenty of long flights, but somehow the extra couple of hours on this routing pushes me through a psychological barrier. In short, I have been dreading this leg of our travels for some time!

The in-bound flight from Auckland (EK449) this morning had been diverted to Dubai World Central International Airport due to the fog, followed by a 22 minute flight between the Dubai airports that effectively saw it arrive at the right airport three and a half hours late. Taking that into account, along with the many other delayed flights on the boards, we felt extremely lucky to be boarding more or less on time. Although our flight (EK448) left around 90 minutes late, most of that time was recovered and we landed just 20 minutes behind schedule.

Landing in Auckland

The flight was made considerably less painful by a late upgrade that gave us a little more space and the novelty of drinking cocktails in the bar on the upper deck mid-flight. As a once-in-a-lifetime experience it was pretty neat and ensured that we were a little fresher than usual when we stepped off the plane and into the welcoming arms of family in the terminal. Time to chill out and relax!

Inescapable Brexit

Posted in England by folkestonejack on March 29, 2019

I have travelled to the other side of the world and still can’t escape Brexit. It’s everywhere. On the rolling ticker of news updates on the in-plane entertainment screens, on local television and in the papers.

The perspective to be gained as you travel away from the UK is interesting, which I think can best be summed up as bafflement at how a country can voluntarily choose to tear itself apart like this. One question running through through some of the recent international coverage is how such a close 52-48 result came to be interpreted in some quarters as a mandate for the hard Brexit that Parliament is now rejecting. Mostly, it seems to have become a spectacle for all the wrong reasons and I think can only be destroying the credibility of Britain on the international stage.

Banksy mural in Dover

I am no political activist, shying away from political matters. However, I supported the recent ‘Put it to the People’ march and signed the petition. Not because I want to see democracy thwarted, but because I wanted to see the close result respected. It was a small way to get my voice heard and was pleased to hear this reflected in the words of Donald Tusk in his stirring speech to the European Parliament.

I don’t know what will unfold in the coming days, but I hope that the Brexit that is finally delivered takes a much softer form.

London’s newest rooftop viewpoint

Posted in England, London by folkestonejack on February 24, 2019

I have been known to grumble, every now and again, about the monstrous skyscrapers that have been filling the skyline of the City of London over the past couple of decades. However, I have to confess that I rather like the rooftop spaces that they have created for the public to enjoy. The newest addition to the list is The Garden at 120 at 120 Fenchurch Street.

The view from the Gardens at 120 across to the Walkie Talkie

A week after the public opening I took a look for myself. It’s not on most tourist itineraries yet, so there were just ten of us queuing for the morning opening (10 o’clock) while a much larger queue was in evidence just a short walk away at the Walkie Talkie. There might not have been many of us, but I was still impressed by the speed that the staff got everyone through the security checks and into the lift to enjoy the tranquility of the gardens fifteen storeys up. Over the next hour a steady trickle of visitors arrived to join us but nowhere enough to trouble the limits.

It was a glorious morning to go up top with the morning fog giving way to clear blue skies and full sun. Needless to say, the views of the surroundings were superb. The walkway around the gardens offered sight lines to St Pauls, the Walkie Talkie, Lloyd’s Building and the Gherkin. In particular, I liked the fact that you are looking across the rooftops of these mid-height buildings, rather than looking down from a great height with little chance of admiring the detail.

The garden aspect of the rooftop is still in its infancy but once the wisteria reaches maturity this will be a lovely spot. There are plenty of benches spread around the spacious rooftop and a handful of visitors were taking advantage of the opportunity to bask in a little of the unseasonably warm weather on offer today and admire the bravery of the cleaners washing the windows of the Scalpel next door.

If the planners at the City of London have anything to do with it we will see more accessible and free to enter roof terraces and spaces. The draft City Plan 2036 would require the provision of ‘free to enter, publicly accessible areas’ as part of all tall building developments to help deliver their vision of a more inclusive city.

Views of St Pauls and the Lloyd’s Building from the rooftop gardens

In the space of a week there have been quite a few reports from the rooftop, including IanVisits and Diamond Geezer. The Guardian also published an interesting architectural review of the development, describing it as a candy-striped miracle in the central London skies.

Information on opening hours and a live footfall counter is available on the official 120 Fenchurch Street website. In the rush to get up top don’t forget to admire the wonderful giant video screens (with accompanying sound installation) on the ceiling of the entrance.

Photography is permitted but a little tricky, on account of a sloping see through barrier that runs around the 360 degree perimeter of the roof garden. Not that it stopped anyone from trying today!

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A flying visit to Belfast

Posted in Belfast, Northern Ireland by folkestonejack on January 6, 2019

Our visit to Belfast for the gig was a short one, arriving just before 1pm on the Saturday and leaving just before 12pm on the Sunday. I don’t think I’ve ever flown into a city and stayed less than 23 hours before, but I’ve seen enough to know that I will have to come back to do justice to the city and the surrounding countryside. Even from the windows of the airportlink bus I could see sights that I wanted to come back to take a closer look at, such as the striking celtic cross on the facade of St Anne’s Cathedral. I was mentally compiling a list for the next visit before we had even made it to the city centre for our first…

As the gig we had come for was taking place at the Belfast Empire Music Hall we had booked a hotel in the Queen’s Quarter. The friendly and welcoming IBIS proved to be the perfect choice, just a short walk away from the venue and
the terrific family-run restaurant Scalini on Botanic Avenue. It is no exaggeration to say that Scalini served up some of the best Italian food I have eaten anywhere and easily rivaled the best meals of the past twelve months. No wonder they were queue outside the door to get a table when we left!

The extent of our sightseeing would be a couple of hours exploring the Ulster museum and the neighbouring botanic gardens, about five minutes walk south from the hotel. The museum offered far more than we expected and there would have been still more to see had we not reached saturation point.

One of the willow dragons created by Bob Johnston, basket maker at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum

Highlights of our visit to the Ulster Museum included the last weekend for the 137th Annual Exhibition of the Royal Ulster Academy which had plenty of brilliant exhibits to admire (including the memorable and amusing tale revealed on the back of the exhibit What my cat ate today) and the willow dragons that hang from the rafters.

The Ulster Museum had an incredible amount of history to reveal, much of it unfamiliar to me, such as the tale of the ships from the Spanish Armada that foundered off the Ulster coast as they attempted to escape around Scotland and back to Spain via the North Atlantic. The treasures (including a golden salamander) from one of these ships, The Girona, help bring the story to life in a fascinating display.

More recent history is tackled in The Troubles And Beyond exhibition which was opened in March 2018 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

The exhibition places a strong emphasis on the human cost of the conflict. This is really brought home with one of the most ordinary exhibits, an otherwise unremarkable lined notebook that was used as the visitors’ guestbook at the Ulster American Folk Park, signed by a 12 year old schoolboy who died hours later in the Omagh bombing without having the chance to grow up. Other artifacts on display range from a bomb disposal robot to a remembrance wreath not laid at Enniskillen. Plenty to reflect on as we left the museum behind.

Adventures in Belfast

Posted in Belfast, Northern Ireland by folkestonejack on January 6, 2019

The most heavily played album of my teenage years was The Sea of Love by The Adventures, a terrific rock band from Northern Ireland formed in the early 1980s. I hadn’t heard of them until their breakthrough song, Broken Land, hit the UK charts in 1988 but I was instantly hooked. That track made it to number 20 in the UK singles chart and should have opened the doors to greater commercial success but somehow that was never meant to be. Nevertheless, there was plenty for the fan to feast on with four terrific albums.

The Adventures

It has taken me some 30 years or so from that initial hook to get my act together and see them play live at what was billed as their final shows as a band at the Belfast Empire. It doesn’t sound as though that is quite the case now, with the lead singer Terry Sharpe saying in recent television and newspaper interviews that you never close the door. Anyway, it did the trick – it got me on a plane to go and discover for myself just what a terrific band they are playing live. Better late to the party than never!

The Belfast Empire Music Hall, based in a converted Victorian church, has character in abundance and proved the perfect venue for the sold out gig. There were clearly plenty of long time fans and friends in the audience, adding to the feel of an intimate gathering. As well as a core of support from Belfast there were fans that had travelled from Denmark, Germany and the Phillipines. The atmosphere built up nicely in anticipation of the 10.45pm appearance of The Adventures on the stage.

The night really got going with the opener of Love in chains, followed by a set-list spread across all four albums that served as a good reminder (as if it were needed) of the strength of their back catalogue. Marvelous songs like Send my heart, Feel the raindrops, Hold me now, Your greatest shade of blue and Washington deceased. The live performance of Broken Land was as thrilling a moment as you could hope for. There was also the surprise of a new song that they have only played live a couple of times before and the wonderful choice of Two rivers that they had been persuaded to play for the last song of the night.

If that was the end, then it was a great way to finish, but I am taking encouragement from Terry’s ‘See you next time!’. If there is a next time, I think it will be impossible to resist.

The Belfast Empire

One of the quirkiest facts about Broken Land was that it ended up being the most played track on BBC Radio One in 1988. You might think it unlikely that a song that only made it midway up the top 40 could have achieved this, but it was released early in the year and had something of a slow burn. I guess the promoters were working very hard to make it a success too, though that’s harder to quantify.

The track spent 12 weeks in the charts, slowly but steadily progressing upwards in a relatively unusual pattern for the time. It finally peaked at 20 on 21st May 1988 a week or so after their appearance on Top of the Pops. I recall it being pushed on the radio and tv fairly heavily, so presumably someone at the BBC was a big fan. I certainly didn’t tire of hearing it!

The success of Broken Land didn’t follow through to the second single from the The Sea of Love, probably because this was released after the album. The album made it to number 30 in the album charts. I picked up a copy on cassette tape and it got plenty of my play in my room that summer, especially as a welcome distraction from my exam revision!

The albums The Sea of Love (1988) and Theodore and Friends (1985) have been re-issued in expanded form by Cherry Red Records with a rather splendid set of sleeve notes about the history of the band and the recording of the albums.

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Farewell to 2018

Posted in England by folkestonejack on December 31, 2018

I am glad that I am not one of those journalists having to round up a year filled with as much madness as 2018 has seen and can just focus on a much narrower field. It has been a great year for travelling and I am particularly glad to have finally made it to Eritrea some six years after abandoning plans for a trip there. I really thought my chance had passed so I was absolutely made up that it was possible again. It exceeded every expectation.

The year in numbers…

15,800 holiday photos taken
450 hours spent commuting
67 blog posts written
58 hours endured in the air
49 plays watched
36 museums visited
33 roast dinners consumed
16 steam locomotives seen in action
13 castles/forts explored
5 rounds of minigolf played
3 art exhibitions wandered
1 wedding attended

The year has brought about some stunning surprises, many of which did not make it to the blog. One of those that I did not really know how to describe at the time was the Good Friday service at Westminster Abbey. I got absolutely drenched waiting to go in with Jo but the strange yet beautifully sung Solemn Liturgy of the Passion and Death of Our Lord (Tomás Luis de Victoria) was quite unlike anything I have heard or ever expected to hear. I still don’t know how to describe it!

Although I rarely talk about theatre much in this blog, there have been some absolute crackers this year. The standout for me was a heartbreaking performance of Peter Gill’s play The York Realist at the Donmar. Honourable mentions should go to a few more: Seawall at the Old Vic; Julius Caesar at the Bridge; The Inheritance at the Young Vic; the Lieutenant of Inishmore at the Noel Coward; the gutsily staged Troilus and Cressida at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; and the wonderfully bonkers Tell-Tale Heart at the National.

There were plenty of TV highlights in the year including the big dramas of Bodyguard and Killing Eve. One of the unexpected delights for me was ‘A Passage to Britain’, a fascinating documentary series that set about tracing what happened to the individuals recorded on ship’s passenger lists who were emigrating in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Some fascinating and relatively little known nuggets of history were recalled during that – I certainly had no idea there was a Polish settlement in India in the 1940s.

Plenty of good food was on offer during the year, but the best meals got served up at The Medina Restaurant in Mdina, Malta (the background music and sound of cannons firing to celebrate a saints day added to an already excellent meal); Rubino in Valletta, Malta; 4 Stagioni in Gibraltar (especially if your better half is too ill to eat a second dessert and you have to bravely step in…); Tides in St Aubin, Jersey; and rather surprisingly, the tasting menu at Belle Epoque at Heathrow of all places!

It has also been a year of family re-unions. Two events, my parents golden wedding anniversary and my brother’s wedding, brought together family members that I haven’t seen in years and some that I had never met. I thought that was all quite wonderful. Sadly, my brother didn’t get any luck with the weather – heavy rain on his big day was a bit of a downer.

In the equivalent post last year I wrote about the long established businesses closing down in my local high street. Since then, the last bank has finally closed but aside from this the degree of change has been less dramatic. That is likely to change in the years ahead as there are plans to build a 17 storey tower block (8 storeys higher than the existing buildings) behind the Victorian high street that sits in the South Norwood Conservation Area. Not quite sure how that squares up, but what do I know!?

I had a little chuckle when I read the suggestions in the planning documents that the design of the new tower block would be an elegant addition, echoing the historic buildings of South Norwood, and that it would ‘fix’ the aesthetically unpleasing ‘broken tooth’ skyline that we have already.

An unexpected sight at the end of the year – a festive slug at Tate Britain this Christmas

I suspect that 2019 will be a challenging year on many fronts, not least the sad denouement of the Brexit saga, but if it gets anywhere close to the highs of 2018 I will be very happy indeed.

Model railway marvels in Hamburg

Posted in Germany, Hamburg by folkestonejack on December 3, 2018

There are two record-breaking model railways in Hamburg, but the chances are that you will only have heard of one of these – Miniatur Wunderland. It is absolutely stunning and entirely deserving of all the publicity it gets, but it is also well worth making the effort to see the other model railway in the city which is much older and ground breaking in a different way. It could also be your last opportunity to see it as it was originally intended…

Miniatur Wunderland

Miniatur Wunderland is the largest Model Railway in the World. It is also Hamburg‘s top tourist attraction drawing 1.2 million visitors every year. I have to admit that I am not the biggest fan of model railways (not sure why, as I loved my model railway when I was a child and it clearly led to my interest in international railways) but this place had me completely engrossed for three hours.

The massive layout, split over two levels, currently features over 15,000m of track with 1,040 locomotives and more than 10,000 rail cars. However, it is the incredible attention to detail, sheer inventiveness and the playful sense of humour that has gone in to building the world that surrounds all of this that lifts this attraction to another level. On top of that, they have the largest working model airport in the world too!

I could say alot more about this place, but I think it is pretty hard to capture in words or numbers. I’ll let their own new video explain just what makes this place so amazing…

The only disappointment at the end of our three day stay was that no giant flap in the sky opened up when we took off from Hamburg!

Modelleisenbahn Hamburg in the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte

One of the star exhibits in the Museum of Hamburg’s History is an impressive model railway layout created by MEHEV, the oldest model railway club in Germany (established 1931). The layout is the largest Gauge 1 (1:32 scale) model railway in Europe, which was started in the attic of the museum in 1947. The current management are redesigning the museum and have not ruled out the possibility of forcing the downsizing of the 69 year old model railway to fit it into a smaller room.

The club recommends that visitors take the opportunity to see the railway in its original home while it is still in operation. It certainly seemed to be a message that the visitors to the museum had enthusiastically taken up on the day we visited, crowding the room to watch a demonstration.

The Hamburg-Harburg layout features a major station, docks and delightful background details such as a man playing a fiddle while his dog holds an upturned hat in its mouth for donations. Overseeing all of this action is a wonderful control room styled like a signal box. In short, it was a pleasure to see it running. I just hope this piece of the city’s history can be preserved in its original form to bring joy to visitors long into the future.

Three days in Hamburg

Posted in Germany, Hamburg by folkestonejack on December 3, 2018

I have been meaning to visit Hamburg ever since we made a brief stop at the main railway station on a long distance train journey in 1984. Somehow, I didn’t get around to it until now but better late than never!

City of Hamburg

Our short trip to Hamburg gave us an opportunity to visit some of the fascinating sights on offer in this port city and pick up a few delights from the bustling Christmas markets. Along the way we visited the world’s largest model railway, explored the remains of a church by George Gilbert Scott, took a tour round the impressive Rathaus and walked along the city’s oldest underwater road.

The Rathaus

The impressive Rathaus (Town Hall) in Hamburg was built in 1886-97 as a replacement for an older headquarters that was intentionally destroyed in 1842 to form a firebreak as part of the overall effort to stop the great fire of Hamburg from spreading. Thankfully, the ‘new’ building survived the devastation of bombing in the Second World War while buildings all around were wiped out. A bomb did fall on the Rathaus but luckily didn’t go off. The detonator is now on display in one of the 600+ rooms.

The lobby

The courtyard and entrance lobby are impressive enough, but a guided tour gave us the opportunity to see the even more sumptuous interiors which feature expensive leather wallpaper (essentially Victorian bling), marble staircases, intricate woodcarved doors and wonderfully elaborate lights (look for the chandelier featuring the castle from Hamburg’s coat of arms intertwined with serpents!). To put it simply, I have seen Royal Palaces that are less palatial than this!

Queen Elizabeth II visited the Rathaus in 1965 during something of a political storm, which saw some opportunists attempt to bring down the popular mayor, Paul Nevermann, by whipping up some hysteria around his failing marriage and the oddness of the protocols adopted during the visit (at a function at the Rathaus the mayor broke a long held tradition to greet the Queen at the main entrance rather than making her walk up the stairs to meet him at the top). Paul Nevermann resigned 13 days after the visit.

Hamburg Senate

At the time of our visit hour long tours were offered in English three times a day at 11.15, 13.15 and 15.15 for the modest price of 5 euros per person (with a 1 euro reduction for holders of the Hamburg Card). However, tours are not offered when the building is in use for official business. The basement restaurant, Parlament, serves up some good traditional German fare too in a beautiful setting.

St. Nikolai Kirche

The St. Nikolai Kirche was a gothic church designed by George Gilbert Scott (perhaps best known for St Pancras station) after its medieval predecessor was destroyed in the great fire of 1842. The re-built church was consecrated in 1863 and was the tallest building in the world for a few years (1874-76). Ultimately, the height of the tower would prove to be its undoing – it served as an orientation point for RAF pilots during the second world war and was badly damaged during a bombing raid on 28th July 1943.

Museum in the crypt

After the war the idea of re-constructing the church were dismissed but the tower was preserved as a memorial against war. Today, a viewing platform at 76 metres up the tower (reached by a glass lift) offers a splendid view over the city. The tower itself is still the fifth highest church tower in the world.

A fascinating museum in the crypt provides an insight into the history of the church, the terrible bombing raids that set the precedent for ‘Operation Gomorrah’ and the impact of the firestorm in the city. It is a terrible reminder of the human cost of war across Europe.

St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel

The St. Pauli Elbtunnel was constructed at great expense to connect the city ith the rapidly growing port on the southern banks of the Elbe and help tackle the strain on the existing ferry service. The tunnel officially opened on 7th September 1911 and is still well used to this today, though mostly by tour parties if our visit was anything to go by!

St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel

The shafts on each side contain six lifts – two for pedestrians, two for cars and two for goods. It is apparently the only tunnel of this type in the world stll in use by road traffic – something that we saw proof of as we walked from one side to the other and back again.

All of this might sound quite functional, but the entrance buildings on each side have real character to them – especially the majolica reliefs that adorn the walls, including representations of the architect (holding a model of one entrance). It’s well connected to both the rail and ferry transport networks so easy to fit into an exploration of the city.

And a little more…

Other sights that we managed to see in the city included the view from the Elbphilharmonie Plaza, the Warehouse district, the Chilehaus, the Museum of Hamburg History, the St. Petri Kirche, Mehr! Theater am Grossmarkt, Hamburg Hauptbahnhof, the rather unloved Bismarck-Denkmal and the Kriegerdenkmal am Dammtordamm with its associated memorials to the victims of war.

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Farewell to Eritrea

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on November 2, 2018

Our time in Eritrea came to an end with a convoy of cars and minibuses to take us to the airport around 11pm, ahead of a flight to Istanbul scheduled at the rather unfriendly time of 2am. You can’t enter the airport until three hours before your flight so there was little point getting there any earlier (passengers for later flights were stopped in the open air walkway to the terminal). To be honest, there are few facilities in the airport and you really wouldn’t want to be there too early.

The whole process at Asmara airport was a bit more intense than anywhere else I have been, but others who have been here before tell me that it is actually much more relaxed than it used to be.

Eritrean Stamps

A few years back they counted every bank note and repeated the process when you left, checking exchange receipts. You also had to fill in a form with the serial number of each piece of equipment that you brought in (camera, computer and lenses) which was also checked on departure to make sure you took everything out of the country. Now, there is none of that – just a thorough check of luggage and a near obsessive check of tickets/boarding passes (from our arrival to departure these were checked six times).

Once we made it through the formalities we thought we could relax, but no sooner had we sat down in the small airside departure lounge than the speakers crackled into life and called selected individuals called down to basement to open their hold baggage. This was, for example, just to check where the x-rays were not clear enough to distinguish a hairdryer from something of a more menacing nature. Slightly on edge, we sat waiting in the lounge with crickets chirping menacingly in the background and counted down the minutes to departure.

There is little in the way of distractions – just a few handicraft shops, a small bookshop, a liquor store and a bar. Most took US dollars but the bookshop only accepted Nafka. Tempting as it seemed, there was little point in buying bottles of Asmara Gin as these could not be brought through the transit security checks in Istanbul. The few books on offer in English were not light holiday reading to pick up either – one was about managing mass casualties in wartime and the other was about abdominal war wounds.

Ten Nafka Banknote

The inbound Turkish airlines flight arrived late but was turned around relatively quickly. Unsurprisingly, there was no traffic at all to slow our departure – a pleasant change from the clogged airports of Europe. Flying relatively low on a clear night offered some terrific views of the night lights of Port Sudan and the communities strung out along the Nile in between short bursts of sleep.

I was quite bleary eyed by the time we landed at Istanbul around 6.30am but mustered up the last reserves of energy to find my way through the brightly lit terminal to the queue for transit. I had no need to hurry with a long gap before my onward flight. The nightmarish scene at the gates was a shocker, with staff screaming at and mimicking passengers who hadn’t followed their precise instructions. I passed through smoothly enough but felt sorry for those targeted. Not a great advert for Istanbul’s plans to challenge for the world’s top transit hub with their new airport.

Although I was only halfway home it was good to relax a little at Istanbul before a flight to London Gatwick in the afternoon. I finally made it through my front door around 5pm and didn’t take long to collapse into a long and much needed sleep.

Fiat-astic Eritrea

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on November 1, 2018

One of the things that the guidebooks don’t mention about Eritrea is that as well as the marvelous modernist buildings and natural wonders there is also an abundance of vintage vehicles on the roads.

In particular, there are some gorgeous FIAT trucks (manufactured 1952-88) and cute FIAT 500 driving school cars (manufactured 1957-75) on the roads. I gather that this is changing, as those who had been to Eritrea before noted an increase in trucks manufactured in China, but right now there are still enough around to catch your eye fairly regularly.

A FIAT 682 truck in front of the San Francesco Church (Paolo Reviglio, 1938)

I think my favourite would have to be the FIAT 682 trucks, produced between 1952 and 1988, which became known by the name “Leone d’Africa” ​​(King of Africa). I am no expert on road vehicles, so I’ll let the pictures of the vintage vehicles (mostly Fiats) do the talking…

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Cimitero Italiano di Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on November 1, 2018

The cultural tour was officially over, leaving me with a free day to mop up a few last sights by myself. I made the decision to take a walk to the west, up Beirut Street to the high ground overlooking the city. This brought me to the doorstep of the church of St Michael (1957), a relative youngster compared to most of the churches in the city. The church was closed when I turned up, but the faithful were undeterred by this – kneeling on the steps and praying in front of the locked doors.

The gates of the Italian Cemetery in Asmara

Across the road from the church was my intended destination, the Cimitero Italiano di Asmara, where many of the individuals who established and ran the country in the colonial era can be found, as well as their many descendants. After spending days admiring the city it felt only right to come and pay homage to the people who left such a lasting legacy for future generations.

The first Italian settlement was established on a spot of high ground at the centre of the Asmara plain, named Campo Cintato, but it was soon recognised that it was vulnerable defensively. In 1889 General Baldissera ordered the occupation of the high ground to the west of the city, a move which required the relocation of the existing village of Biet Mekae. A large fort was constructed in its place – Forto Baldissera – and the cemetery was established in close proximity to its southern gates.

All traces of the fort have long gone, but the cemetery has remained in use ever since. It has always had a strong military association. Some of the earliest burials in the cemetery were of the soldiers who had taken part and fallen in the campaign to seize the highlands (as well as others veterans of the campaign who lived into old age, such as Vincenzo Giannavola). Today, the cemetery holds the remains of 178 soldiers who died in military service up to 1950, some in formally delineated military plots while others were located among the civilian graves.

I noted a few of the many military graves on my wanders. These included Capitano Giacomo Stevenson (1892); DalPiaz Giovanni (1889); Sergente Maggiore Lareschi Umberto (1919); Maggiore Cav. Luigi Ferrari, Comandante d’Artiglieria (1920); Sergente Maggiore Quero Antonio (1898-1923); Capitano Medico Dottore Giuseppe Bagarotto (1886-1920); Luogotenente Generale Vittorio Verne (1915); S. Tenente Talamo Tarchi (1921-41) and cavalry Lieutenant Santilli Oscar (1913-41) who fought in the battle at Keren and died on the Asmara front.

Memorial to Giulio Rebecchi inside one of the ornate tombs

There are also other memorials of note from the Second World War, such as the Asmara born partisan fighter Giulio Rebecchi (1924-45) whose nickname of ‘the lucky charm’ was sadly not true enough to save him on a dangerous reconnaissance operation to supply intelligence on the strength of the fascist forces on the Bologna front in April 1945.

Among the most ornate tombs from the nineteenth century you could see that the grass had been cut and neatly stacked, while in other parts of the cemetery workers were busy tidying graves. It must take some effort to keep nature from reclaiming the space but I gathered that funding provided through the Italian Embassy has helped. Not everything had been cleaned up – the lanterns inside some of the grandest tombs had been adopted by birds who had successfully converted them into impressive nests!

One of the most striking graves in the cemetery was that of Ferruccio Vignali (Milan 1908 – Asmara 1947), described on his tombstone as an exemplary husband and father, as well as an ardent and irreverent soul. Ferrucio’s passion for the sport of motorbike racing that would ultimately climb his life is represented through a sculpture of a rider in goggles.

The striking sculpture and a photograph from the tomb for Ferruccio Vignali

I spent a good couple of hours walking around the cemetery before heading back to the centre of town for a look inside the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary (1923), usually just referred to as the cathedral, and a reviving drink at the bar inside the Opera House (1918).

In the afternoon I continued my exploration of art deco Asmara with a walk that took in the marvelously preserved interior of Crispi Bar (est. 1938), the former soap factory (1937) and the BAT offices (1938). Those last few visits took me over 5,000 photographs for the trip which seemed like a good place to stop. Time to chill out in the hotel, pack and prepare for the journey homeward.

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Recycling and reinvention

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 31, 2018

One quirky attraction in Asmara is the recycling market, or Medeber Market, on Qelhamet Street. It was, at one time, the home of the Caravanserraglio (literally a stopping off point for caravans travelling across the country) but gradually developed into a manufacturing centre by the 1950s and now to its current role as a recycling centre.

Sign at the recycling market

The first thing that hits you as you enter is the incredible sound of bashing, battering and clanging accompanied by sparks from welding equipment. All around you can see the result – rows of crosses and pans fashioned from scrap metal, bed frames constructed from poles and belts being cut by knife from old tyres. It is truly incredible to see the ingenuity on display, adapting old material to fit new purposes.

It’s worth paying close attention to the materials awaiting adaptation, which seemed to include an East German motorbike from the 1950s/60s, and to the craftsman setting about their work who often wear the most remarkable improvised googles and shields as the photographer Ayla Hibri captured in The welders.

Little remains of the original buildings. Those buildings which hadn’t fallen into ruin by the mid twentieth century were mostly destroyed by a large fire in 1958 and subsequently replaced by small manufacturing workshops in the 1960s. Today, just the entrance gateway from Odoardo Cavagnari’s 1914 construction stands to greet visitors. Nevertheless, it’s a striking sight.

The site is also home to a number of chilli-pepper mills. It’s quite something to wander that section of the market as the intensity of the chilli powder is so strong that you can only bear to stay in the area for a minute or two before your eyes start to suffer. I have total respect for the women working at those mills and the stalls attached to them. I don’t know how they do it day in, day out!

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The tank graveyard

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 31, 2018

The tank graveyard is one of the more unusual sights in Asmara, located roughly 1km from the Fiat Tagliero Garage on the outskirts of the city. At a first glance, it can be a little hard to spot on satellite maps of the city as the density of the tangled metal makes it look like thick forest. It gives no sense of what you will actually see on the ground or the strangeness of the arrangement.

Inside Asmara’s tank graveyard

Our guides handled the process of obtaining the permits needed to visit the site, giving us an hour to explore the vast piles of scrapped vehicles left over from the thirty year war for independence. It is sort of a war memorial but not necessarily a permanently fixed one – members of our group who had been here before noted that some vehicles no longer appeared to be at the site.

I had seen pictures of the graveyard before I arrived but nothing prepares you for the extraordinary scale of the place, nor the fascinating detail visible as you wander around. Among the strange sights were a Berlin bus; a Fowler traction engine (stamped with the number 16555); a MiG; various railcars; an assortment of cars; a tank or two; some Eritrean airways steps; a boiler manufactured by E. Loman (I think) of Chatham Street, Manchester; medical phials and empty shell cases. Ultimately, the rusting relics of war make a sobering sight.

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Architectural wonders of Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 31, 2018

Our trip to Eritrea gave us an opportunity to visit some of the most interesting sights in Asmara, ranging from off-beat sights like the recycling market to the stunning modernist buildings that saw the city added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in July 2017.

Eritrea was Italy’s first colonial outpost in Africa and a stepping stone towards grander ambitions of an Italian empire to rival the Romans. Asmara was established as the capital in 1897 but the growth of the city was relatively modest until the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935 triggered a massive increase in the size of the Italian population (rising from 4,000 to close to 70,000 in a decade). In the six years that followed an entire city was constructed in modernist styles. A relative lack of development means that this is still largely the city before you today.

Asmara is a relatively compact city so most places are easily reached on foot and a copy of the Asmara City Map and Historic Perimeter (Municipality of Asmara and the Cultural Assets Rehabilitation Project, 2003) makes it easy to locate the most interesting buildings. There are a few books that are really helpful in explaining the background to the architectural wonders of the city, but my recommendation would be ‘Asmara: Africa’s secret modernist city’ by Edward Denison, Guang Yu Ren and Nancy Gebremedhin (Merrell, 2003).

I have picked out a few highlights, but I found plenty to admire wherever I wandered. Although the big set-pieces were superb I got just as much delight from discovering the humblest buildings superbly realised in modernist styles.

1. Fiat Tagliero Service Station

The former Fiat Tagliero Service Station is the poster child for the art deco wonders of Asmara, featuring heavily in articles and tourist promotions. It is entirely justified too – this place has a visual impact like no other building in the city. It is no longer in use, but its architectural value has long been recognised.

The former Fiat Tagliero service station (Giuseppe Pettazzi, 1938)

The styling of the building is spectacular enough in its own right, giving the appearance of an aeroplane with its streamlined office and striking wings. However, the real marvel is that Giuseppe Pettazzi was brave enough to deliver those spectacular unsupported 30 metre cantilevered concrete wings in the face of considerable opposition.

Not everyone shared this confidence in Pettazi’s engineering skill and the authorities insisted that the building be constructed with wooden support columns underneath. Legend has it that the architect put a gun to the head of the builder before he would remove them…

2. Società Anonima Alfa Romeo (Unknown architect, 1937)

The former branch office of Alfa Romeo looked to be in a sorry state when we visited. The plastering over the breeze blocks is steadily disappearing, many of the windows are broken and the decorative flagpoles are now decidedly wonky. Somehow the faded grandeur of its entrance still manages to impress and the lasting legacy of the name can be seen in the eateries and internet cafes nearby named after the company.

The crumbling exterior of the Società Anonima Alfa Romeo (Architect unknown, 1937)

Seeing the state of this building and others like it reminded me that the unique selling point of Asmara, in terms of the extent and consistency of the modernist architecture across the city, is also its downfall. Maintaining one architecturally significant building is one thing, but maintaining an entire city of architecturally significant buildings is quite another!

3. Cinema Capitol

The Cinema Capitol offers another striking design, intended to visually represent a reel of film. It has not had the luckiest of histories, having been destroyed by fire in 1941 and then repaired in 1944. Today, it looks very much need of more love and restoration.

Cinema Capitol (Danielle Ruggero, 1938)

As the cinema is just over the road from the grounds of the Presidential Palace and located in close proximity to other ministerial buildings we didn’t hang around long with our cameras. The guidebooks provide ample warning of the perils of photographing government buildings and we didn’t want to put this to the test. Later, when photographing buildings near the American Embassy a guard came out to make sure that we didn’t point our cameras in the wrong direction!

4. Cinema Impero (Mario Messina, 1937)

The maroon exterior of the Cinema Impero with its illuminated roundels always draws the eye whenever you pass, but is actually situated in an architectural hotspot among striking large commercial, residential and municipal buildings from the same era. It’s still in use today and the caretaker was kind enough to unlock the doors from the lobby so that we could take a look at the two-storey interior of the auditorium.

Cinema Impero (Mario Messina, 1937)

The auditorium is quite wonderful, still retaining (I assume) its original wooden seating on both levels. On the walls you can see stucco decorative elements that included two horned antelopes gracefully leaping over cacti, palm trees and some athletic figures. However, my favourite element would have to be the pillars decorated with lions’ heads at the front of the stalls.

Lions at Cinema Impero

One of the buildings I didn’t photograph, for obvious reasons, was the Ministry of Education. This monumental building, originally the Casa del Fascio (Fascist Party Headquarters), was built in the late 1920s, then extended in 1940. It would have featured a fascist eagle on its frontage and included a balcony for delivering speeches to the masses on what would, at that time, have been Viale Mussolini. Some say that the appearance of the F on its back was a sly criticism from the architect but I’m not sure that I buy that.

Other highlights from my stay included a villa from the 1930s (re-opened on 6th September 2018 as the Ethiopian Embassy); the Central Post Office (1916); the medieval styled villa and offices of the Ministry of Water Resources from the 1910s (known as ‘the Castle’ in its early days, it acquired a darker history when it was converted into a prison by the Derg regime); the Market (1938); the Grand Mosque (1906); the Asmara Soap Factory (1937); Tamoil Service Station (1937); Ministry of Tourism (1938); Cinema Roma (1937); the now waterless Mai Jah Jah fountain (1938); Bar Zilli (1930s); and the Asmara Swimming Pool (1945).

A villa, later used as offices for the World Bank and now the Ethiopian Embassy

Our sightseeing in the city has been spread over a few days, but even if you didn’t intend to seek out the modernist architecture you soon discover that they pervade the entire city and that any drive will reveal countless wonders. There are too many for the guidebooks to document, which makes every turn of a street corner exciting.

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Travelling down the old trackbed to Asmara

Posted in Asmara, Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 30, 2018

The chances of seeing the restoration of the railway line between Keren and Asmara seem pretty slim, but the trackbed is still driveable using four wheel drive vehicles. After our experience of the road from Asmara to Keren, which winds its way over the hilltops, I was intrigued to see how different the route forged by the railway engineers would be. The railway takes a much lower route, never straying too far from the river Anseba, so I hoped that at the very least the scary bends and precipices of the road wouldn’t be repeated!

A rare piece of track in situ at Halib-Mentel

As we set off in a convoy of four vehicles we all wondered how good the condition of the old trackbed would be, knowing all too well the problems with the section between Asmara and Massawa. Initially, the indications were not terribly good. A short while after leaving Keren (8.15) we left the road and joined the track (8.30) at a point where the track cuts across the main road near Halib-Mentel. We didn’t make it far before we were forced to return to the main road (8.45). Our drivers said the trackbed was in no condition for the cars.

We continued our drive down the main road, passing what our driver described as a former orange plantation established by the Italians in the early twentieth century. There was scant evidence of this to the untrained eye, bar for a villa and church overlooking the site that our driver pointed out to us. It was a familiar story – many of the terraces on the hillsides that we had seen during our week on the railway had once been planted with orange trees and the like.

In his book ‘Keren: A handbook’ (Francescana Printing Press, 2007) the late historian Mebrahtu Abraham explains that in the first phase of Italian colonisation the plan had been to re-settle unemployed Italians in large numbers and this would in turn help their agricultural projects. The rich arable land of the highlands in which Keren sits were a prime target for re-organisation into modern farms. In 1893 one of these settlers had established a modern farm at Ela Bared growing tobacco, green peppers and oranges. I assume this was the same farm that our driver had been trying to point out to us.

The ruins of the station at Ela Bared – including bullet holes from the war of independence

At Ela Bared we turned off the main road, taking a local road under a railway bridge (part of the old alignment of the railway), over the dry bed of a tributary, across the river Anseba, along a dusty track and finally reached the ruins of the station building at Ela Bared (9.30). The station platform and building have survived, albeit as a shell, with a square water tank wagon dating to 1915 (according to a plate on its side). There was also a circular structure above the station, presumably a water tank, with holes where a ladder must once have been attached.

The station building was marked with bullet holes from the thirty year war of independence (1961-1991). The railway and the passengers who relied upon it often ended up in the front line, as can be seen by a photograph from December 1970 showing a rebel soldier, with a Soviet made submachine gun, guarding passengers who appear to have been forced to disembark at Asciadira and another showing the deliberate derailment of a train at Asciadira.

It was good to finally reach the railway and be in a position to start our journey in earnest, starting with the ‘new’ alignment of the railway. The first surprise as we started to drive along the line was just how much track was still around, usually stacked up to the side of the trackbed. At a stop by a bridge (10.00) we noted that most of this track was of US origin and dated 1919.

The spot featured in one of the most striking photographs from the 1940s

The next sights on our drive were the ruined station at Furkutu (10.45) and the two giant boulders just beyond (10.50) where one of the most well known photographs of the railway was taken in the 1940s (a Littorina between the boulders). It wasn’t long before we approached the entrance to tunnel 33, which surprised our driver who seemed to suggest that he hadn’t expected to drive ‘underground’.

I thought we had discovered Big Bird’s nest (of Sesame Street fame) but sadly the more mundane explanation was that haystacks were being constructed in the trees, presumably to help the hay dry quicker after the recent rain. After passing through the tunnel (11.00) and through tunnel 32 (11.15) we reached the next station at Amba Derho (11.45) to find that it too was being used for hay storage.

Big Bird’s Nest

Our four car convoy provided an entertaining runpast at a stone arched bridge (12.15). Besides the bridge we noted the presence of lumps of coal from the 1970s, which presumably fell off the loco at this spot before the line met its end.

At the next stop, at Abrascicò station (12.35) we took a longer stop, soaking up the atmosphere of the community that had sprung up around the station. The station building still has its name sign, which most have lost, and looked considerably better cared for as a family home. One of our group soon found himself surrounded by kids and led an impromptu and slightly bonkers english and drawing lesson which thoroughly won over the locals.

Abrascicò station

Our journey onward continued, reaching tunnel 31 in the early afternoon (13.30) where we noted a changeover from earth to something more like ballast on the trackbed. A little later we reached the next station on the line, Andennà (13.45), followed by the scenic setting of Dem Sebài (14.15) just after a single arched bridge in a narrow valley. Next up was tunnel 30 (14.30) and a sequence of three bridges. Not only was the scenery spectacular, the wildlife was pretty impressive too – ranging from squirrel like creatures to a family of jackals.

The final stop on our drive down the line was at a water column standing in splendid isolation on a relatively open stretch of track near Zazzega. There were a few blocks on a spot overlooking the column, but I couldn’t see any sign of any surviving station buildings. Of course, it is possible that we may have left the trackbed before reaching the station site. We turned off the line (15.25) as it crossed what looks like a relatively fresh unsealed red road, driving up to the main road into Asmara. It didn’t take long from this point to reach our accommodation at the Savanna Hotel (16:00).

Water column at Zazzega

It has been a wonderful day and gave us all a fascinating glimpse of the quite different scenery on this stretch of the line. It doesn’t look as though there would be any major obstacles to relaying a line on this route if the desire to do this is there barring for some re-grading of the trackbed and repair work to a few of the structures along the route.

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Railway remnants in Keren

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 29, 2018

Our afternoon sightseeing in Keren gave us a chance to see some of the remains of the railway in the city. The railway line to Keren opened in 1922 and was a significant factor in the development of the city, helping to transport the agricultural produce of the surrounding area to the capital. Two round trips a week brought passengers to and from Asmara.

The old station at Chèren-Tantarùa

The first stop on our tour was the station building at Chèren-Tantarùa at 222km from Massawa, just a short distance from the Sarina Hotel. The suburbs of Keren have swallowed this place up, so it no longer sits in isolation to serve a village. The station building has been adapted for housing and demonstrates the contradictions of life in Eritrea today – there are four satellite dishes on the roof but no-one has been sufficiently bothered to repair the roof, which is now falling in.

The next railway relic on our list was the depot at Keren, located 2km further on, now in use as a bus workshop and repair facility. The turntable and water tank from the railway are still visible here. A short walk away from the depot is the former station building for Keren (Chèren), now at the heart of the bus station. Inside the original decoration is still visible in the cafe with murals depicting local scenes on the walls and ceiling.

The old station at Keren (Chèren)

Finally, we visited one of the last remaining semaphore signals on the line between Keren and Agordat. It now stands in splendid isolation at a crossroads in the middle of a cluster of houses.

The railway may be long gone but it is clearly far from forgotten, as we encountered murals depicting the railway in two locations – one near the Giro Fiori roundabout and the other opposite the Ditta de Ponti building. Maybe one day the sound of steam engines will reverberate here once again, hard as that is to imagine right now.

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Sightseeing in Keren

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 29, 2018

Although the camel market was always going to the highlight of our day sightseeing in Keren there was still plenty to occupy our time all the way through to sunset. I will cover the railway remnants we visited in the next post, but here is a quick round up of the other sights we visited.

A view of Keren towards the Grand Mosque (built 1896, renovated 1956)

My out of print guidebook only devotes a few paragraphs to the city but a small 57 page book (Keren: A handbook by Mebrahtu Abraham) about the origin and development of Keren is available from the bookshop at the Giro Fiori roundabout. It’s an important work, based on interviews, that collects strands of local history that could all too easily have been lost.

Although the Italian period of rule tends to get the most attention, it is worth remembering that the Turks and the Egyptians had sought to colonize the area first. Indeed, wherever you wander in Keren you are overlooked by the hilltop Tigu Fort, built by the Egyptians during their short lived occupation of Keren (circa 1865 to 1884).

Our time in the city gave us ample opportunity to see some of the key sights, listed below, but this should not be regarded as a complete list of sights to see in Keren as there are other places that we did not get to, such as the Grand Mosque. Nor did we did not seek the permits needed to go and visit the battlefield sites outside the city.

1. The General Market

The general market, located on a dried up river bed in the centre of town, is a colourful affair and fascinating to watch from the bridge or mingling with the crowds. I was most fascinated to see camels loaded up with straw for roofing at the far end of the market. You would have thought I would have seen enough camels for one day, but apparently not.

The colourful sights of the general market

If you find yourself needing a drink to cool down after a visit to the market I can happily recommend the Red Sea Bar, located at a spot overlooking the nearby Giro Fiori roundabout. It was a pleasure to watch the world go by from their shaded outdoor tables.

2. The Shrine of Mariam Daa’rit

On a slow October day the shrine in the hollow trunk of a giant baobab tree seemed a quiet spot, but on one special day in May each year pilgrims come from far and wide to pray at this site and to see the bronze statue of the Madonna that was installed in 1878.

The shrine that contains the Madonna of the Baobab

It is said that a group of Italian soldiers sheltering inside during a mortar bombardment in 1941 emerged unscathed, despite a bomb breaching the tree (a scar which survives to the present day).

3. The Italian War Cemetery

The Italian war cemetery, laid out in 1950, is situated in a peaceful compound just off a dusty square. The site holds over 1200 burials, split in half between Eritreans and Italians with the flags of each country flying over the opposite section in reflection of their status as brothers in arms.

The Italian War Cemetery

It appeared to us as though they were treated as equals in death, though in his handbook the late historian Mebrahtu Abraham notes that the majority of the Eritrean graves have no names or ranks, whereas the opposite is true of the Italian graves.

4. Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery

The largest battle in Eritrea during the Second World War took place just outside the city of Keren in early 1941, following the withdrawal of Italian forces from Agordat. The Italian forces positioned 23,000 riflemen and a mixture of mortars and machine guns in the heights surrounding the deep gorge that carried the road in to Keren and on to the Eritrean plateau.

After months of hard fighting British forces led a surprise attack from the shelter of railway tunnel number 3, under Cameron Ridge, once it was cleared of mines. This action allowed the British to capture two crucial hills, Railway Bumps and Railway Ridge, which would ultimately lead to the fall of Keren. In turn, this was followed by the surrender of Asmara and Massawa.

Keren War Cemetery

The appearance of Keren War Cemetery would be pretty familiar to anyone who has visited the battlefields of France and Flanders, albeit with earth rather than grass at your feet. The grounds contain 440 Commonwealth burials from the Second World War, of which 35 are ‘Known unto God‘. A separate cremation memorial stands within the cemetery to remember 285 Sikh and Hindu soldiers from India and Pakistan killed on the battlefield at Keren.

5. The Italian Quarter

The central district of Maekelay Ketema, known as the Italian Quarter, was reserved for the Italians during their time in power here. It holds some of the most striking buildings in the city, including the Ditta de Ponti building (1916), the former Governor’s House, the villa of the Italian Police Commissioner (1910s), the red brick Catholic Cathedral of St Antonio (1932), the Cinema Impero and the Casa del Fascio (1930s).

Some of these buildings have been restored, such as the former Governor’s House, which is now a municipal office. Others looked to be in varying states of decline and decay.

The Ditta de Ponti building

Not all the sights in this area were historic – a modern cathedral of St Antonio has been constructed alongside the older church (2006) with striking blue domes. Amusingly, a closer examination of the Cinema Impero showed a notice for a screening of the upcoming match for Crystal Palace (my local team) which was the last thing I expected to see here!

6. Rooftop bar at Hotel Keren

Our day came to an end at the Keren Hotel (1971) which offers a rooftop bar with a marvelous view over the city and a ready supply of Asmara beer. It proved to be a popular spot – we shared the sunset with two other groups: an Italian tour party and a German medical mission based in the city.

The Keren Hotel and observation tower

The hotel is topped by a rather precarious observation tower, located atop a seemingly unsupported concrete column with a wobbly metal staircase strapped around it. It can only support a couple of visitors at a time. When an entire tour party turned up and tried to climb up everyone screamed in unison. The mime of a collapsing tower didn’t need much explanation! In truth, I am not sure the small improvement in view merits the risk involved – the view is perfectly fine from the rooftop terrace.

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Camels for sale

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 29, 2018

The weekly camel market, held on Mondays, is one of the must see tourist sights in Keren according to my old and out-of-print guidebook. The market is located in a walled compound a little way out of town on the road to Nafka, accessed from the sandy bed of a dried-up river. It actually offers much more than camels, including goats and cattle, but inevitably it was the more exotic creatures that caught my attention.

The camel and cattle markets

Although the market nominally starts around 8am, a few of us opted to skip breakfast and head down to the market am hour and a half earlier to see the camel market being set up. It wasn’t that hard a decision to make, having seen how painfully slow it had been for the hotel to rustle up dinner the previous night. In truth, after a week of omelette for breakfast and omelette rolls for lunch (with the occasional chilli to catch you off guard) I was happy never to see another omelette again!

I wondered if I had made the right call when the bus dropped off, sensing that despite the market’s appeal as a tourist attraction we were the only westerners wandering around. However, after the initial curiosity faded everyone got back to herding their charges towards the market, setting up their stalls and greeting their fellow traders. Nevertheless, with animals wandering in every direction, you still had to keep your wits about you.

The spectacle felt timeless. I think you could have stumbled into the same place a couple of centuries back and seen hardly any differences in the way that the market operated. A little bit of negotiation on the dry river bed, perhaps a cup of tea brewed in a structure assembled on the morning and then the main event. It was a privilege to be able to be able to wander so freely and watch events unfold.

Inside the camel market

Inside the compound potential buyers were testing the abilities of the camels for sale from sitting down to getting on their knees and so on. There must have been at least 50 camels in the compound when we arrived, though it is hard to be precise as the numbers were fairly fluid. Camels were still being led to market as we left, while others were already on their way home with their new owners.

Beyond the camel compound was a much larger market for cattle, including a ploughing area to put potential purchases to the test. I would guess there were around a couple of hundred animals in this space.

Upon entering the cattle market, I noticed that the man in front of me had dropped an envelope containing all the money he had obviously brought to buy some animals. I tried calling out, but quickly realised that no amount of calling in English was going to succeed. I picked up the stash and went to run after him, but then stumbled on the uneven ground and almost started a cattle stampede! The commotion of the one bull I had managed to startle was enough to get the trader to turn round and I was able to return his cash. All’s well that ends well…

One last train of camels on the way to market

Our time at the market came to an end at 9 o’clock. It was long enough a stay for me to have racked up a couple of hundred photographs, but there was still room for a last photo or two as a camel train passed by on the way to market. You can never have too many camel photographs it seems!

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The road to Keren

Posted in Eritrea, Keren by folkestonejack on October 28, 2018

Our week long photo charter through the mountains might have been over, but we were far from done with Eritrea.

On the morning after the photo-charter I joined a smaller group to see the sights of the capital, Asmara, and the second largest city in Eritrea, Keren. To some extent we had already seen quite a few of the sights of the capital as we traveled to and from the railway, but Keren would be entirely new to us. I was intrigued to discover how far the Italian influence extended beyond Asmara.

The railway line between Asmara and Keren has not been restored so our journey would take us on the winding roads through the rugged hills and then down into the river valley to the city. It is approximately 80km north-west of Asmara. Our initial estimate was two hours, but it turned out to be closer to three and a half hours allowing for stops along the way.

The debris of war sits beside the road to Keren

Along the way the drive, which began at 2.30pm, gave us an opportunity to see the changing landscapes of the Anseba Region as well as some of the debris left over from the 30 year war for independence. At one spot we stopped to see two armoured vehicles by the roadside, then a tank in a gully and lastly a village with two rusting tanks as a centrepiece. I opted to skip the last ‘request stop’ as the bus was besieged by kids with baskets of fruit trying to make a sale.

Besides the relics of war there was plenty of stunning scenery to admire, though one memorial at a hairpin bend illustrated the perils of the road. At another we saw a mother nursing a goat that she had just given birth to and then for good measure some children waved chickens at us as we left the hills and drove along the valley floor! Striking also to see the change in building styles, with many traditional huts with thatched roofs now included in the mix, as well as industrial activity, such as the brick making on display all along the riverside.

The sun was just dropping below the hills as we walked into our hotel for the next two nights, the Hotel Sarina, located just on the edge of town. Indeed, it could be described as being barely in the sprawl of today’s city – the official checkpoint for entry was located just outside the hotel gates.

The hotel looks somewhat plusher than the one we left behind in Asmara, with a soft bed that I could already feel tempting me. I even have a balcony that overlooks the huts on the fringe of the city and a selection of abandoned/burnt out cars by the petrol station. It’s not perfect (curtains falling off the rails, power sockets coming off the walls and only half the lights work) but it will do. The only real difficulty was trying to get food before falling asleep – it took one and a half hours for the hotel restaurant to serve up the pizza I ordered for dinner!

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Last thoughts from the Eritrean lineside

Posted in Eritrea by folkestonejack on October 27, 2018

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time on this remarkable railway at the farthest end of the steam age, somehow clinging on against the odds. The line’s revival and restoration in the aftermath of the thirty year war help was one of the most unlikely railway stories of the 1990s and seeing the beautiful scenery along the line amply demonstrates the massive tourist potential it has. It might be some way off its best right now, but I hope one day it is able to deliver on its full potential again.

The sun sets over Asmara, as seen from the railway depot on the last day of the railway tour

There are many complex issues behind the difficulties that we experienced on our week long photo-charter, but I was glad to have seen the railway in action at all having thought that my opportunities had passed a few years ago. To be fair to the railway, it would have been remarkable if the whole operation had gone 100% to plan after a three year gap in photo-charters like this.

The ultimate test of a trip is what you bring back in the way of images and memories. My collection of photographs certainly looks every bit as good as those I have brought back from trips in other parts of the world, if not better. In part that is testament to the astonishing scenery to be found on every stretch of this railway but also to Bernd’s ability to get the best out of the limited resources available.In other words, my glass is at least half full rather than half empty!

I had long thought that this would be my one and only trip to Eritrea but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a repeat, particularly if the line to Massawa re-opens and if the railway gets a grip on the problems with its loco fleet. I can understand entirely why one member of our group has been back 14 times.

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