Tag Archives: Tours

Arabian Nights

It’s late afternoon. The sun slants across the dunes, throwing long shadows behind the sparse desert grasses. Everywhere there is sand, vast rolling hills of it, ridged and scored as if by the sweep of an invisible tide.

The endless dunes

We’re in a caravan of white Toyota land-cruisers. I’m wedged into the centre of the back seat, thrust backwards as the vehicle strains towards the top of a ridge, then hurled forward as it tilts over the crest, rolls sideways and plunges down. There are screams and expletives from my travelling companions. I’m mute with terror.

In the driver’s seat, Ramzan is po-faced and silent behind his sunglasses. With one hand on the wheel, he steers us up and down the dunes. Ed Sheerin’s In Love With The Shape Of You blasts from a speaker behind me.

I’m light years from my comfort zone, heading into the Arabian night, location – desert wilderness, destination – a camp somewhere out there in the dunes, distance – unknown. I’m alone with my language, cut off from my culture, far from anything familiar. My only means of communication is an eye roll, a scream, a gasp. This is travel adventure, I think

Just an hour ago, Ramzan picked us up from our hotel. We sped down the freeway, through the sprawling outer fringes of Dubal, past scattered enclaves and occasional lone houses. We pulled in at a busy general store, the last outpost before the desert. My fellow passengers robed up – black abayas for the ladies, white robes for the men, checked headscarves for both. Later, standing on a dune, with my shoes full of sand, the sun burning through my city active-wear and my hair whipped into stringy threads by the scorching desert wind, I wish I had too.

We pass camel farms, flimsy fences in the middle of nowhere and flat-roofed huts, but apart from us, there’s not another human in sight.

The desert camp

With a sense of regret and relief we roll into camp. There’s a faded, sand-blasted look to it, but within its walls there’s shelter from the wind, shady corners and cool shadowy rooms. There’s a stand with cold drinks and tea. I make a beeline for it. Nearby a white-robed man is preparing shisha. I try that too. Next, I line up to hold a hooded falcon. Its wrinkled feet curl around my arm.

Outside the walls there are more adventures; quad-biking, camel rides and sand surfing. I watch two bikers disappear in shower of spraying sand.  I opt for a camel ride. It groans when it feels my 56 kilos on its back, staggers protesting to its feet and moans loudly as it takes a short circle around the carpark. I swear it gives an extra forward lurch as I dismount. I head over the dunes to check out the sand surfing.

A sand-surfie conquers the dune

The sun is setting now and an orange glow filters up from the horizon. Back inside, I sink onto the cushions at my stage-side table. On the left a couple of white-robed men giggle like schoolboys at the halfway point of a wine-bottle while their black-robed wives twitch and fidget over cans of red-bull. On the right a gang of lads in checked headscarves drag with concentration on sheesha and survey the scene through cool, narrowed eyes.

We cue up for dinner – ladies on one side, gentlemen on the other. After the parched, monochrome desert landscape, the brightly-coloured dishes on the buffet (tabouleh, cucumber with yoghurt couscous, chicpea and rice, curries and kebabs, chicken, fish and lamb) are a welcome sight.

Night falls. There’s a bright orange moon overhead and a scattering of stars in the dark sky. It’s showtime. To the beat of urgent drums and the clash of cymbals, a young man in heavy embroidered skirts whirls onto the stage. His skirts separate into layers. They light up. He peels them off layer by layer, revealing more and more with brighter and brighter lights, all the time spinning faster and faster on the spot, a master of control and balance. Later, he invites a trio of ladies to give the skirts a whirl. Their clumsy attempts highlight his mastery of the art. The music changes.  A belly-dancer takes the stage. We all love a belly-dancer. There’s something surprising and delightful about her exposed flesh and sinuous movements in this modest culture. She shows her skill but doesn’t seek to flaunt it against the audience’s efforts. Thank goodness!

The evening is over. The moon throws silver light across the car-park. Ramzan is waiting, a dark silhouette against his white Toyota. ‘Are we going on the dunes again?” ventures a timid voice. “Show us your night-driving skills” says a bolder one. But Ramzan is giving nothing away as he rolls out of camp. I must confess to a tinge disappointment when we turn onto a straight, sealed highway and speed towards Dubai’s distant glow.

The desert safari is a quintessential Dubai experience. Do it with Arabian Nights.

 

Time Unlimited Tours wins National Geographic World Legacy Award

The Auckland based tour company TIME Unlimited has just won the prestigious National Geographic World Legacy Award  in the “Sense of place Category”.  http://www.newzealandtours.travel

Time Unlimited's guided walks on Auckland's wild west coast
Time Unlimited’s guided walks on Auckland’s wild west coast

It’s no surprise to those who know Time Unlimited. For 11 years now they’ve been welcoming visitors to “their place” showing them its unbelievably beautiful landscapes and sharing its unique experiences with them.

Time Unlimited was established in 2005 by bicultural couple Ceillhe and Neill Sperath. Ceillhe is Maori, a direct descendant of the Ngapuhi chief, Patuone. Neill is tauiwi, of Irish and German origin, and a New Zealander by choice. Both are passionate about their country. Both are equally passionate about how its unique culture and environment should be shared. TIME Unlimited reflects this.

TIME Unlimited says Ceillhe Sperath, is founded on three essential pou, or pillars, of Maoritanga, or Maori culture; manaakitanga or hospitality, whanaungatanga, or relationships and kaitiakitanga, or guardianship. On their tours, the Speraths explain, manaakitanga translates into welcoming, respectful, caring, reliable and punctual service; whanaungatanga means sharing experiences, finding common ground, forging links, making friends and becoming like family; kaitiakitanga means responsibility, respect, care and protection for the environment – the streets, parks and institutions, the land, sea and bush that they pass through.

This highly contested, coveted National Geographic World Legacy Award is a fitting tribute to a company that has a true sense of place, that cherishes Aotearoa New Zealand and is dedicated to safeguarding it for future generations.

He mihi nui ki a koutou katoa!

Newcastle in the blink of the eye

Coal, Geordies, ships, the River Tyne and hardy natives, known as Novacastrians, who brave glacial winter temperatures in t shirts – this was the extent of my knowledge of Newcastle until chance took me there on a whirlwind trip.

Millenium Bridge
Millenium Bridge

Determined to make the most of the one day I had to explore, I began with the City Sightseeing Newcastle-Gateshead Hop On-Hop Off bus tour.

The tour is a comprehensive look and commentary on Newcastle as it is today – a city of contrasts, where old and new sit side by side, the juxtaposition of ultra-modern and ancient structures highlighting its long and still unfolding history. It takes in all those reminders of the past, like the Roman city walls and the Norman Castle Keep. It covers the houses of the Mediaeval Merchants who grew rich on coal and ship-building. It passes through the opulent 19th century inner city area of Grainger Town, the neo-classical masterpiece of Richard Grainger which, now discoloured by time, is like sepia-tinted print of ancient Rome.

The bus paused at St James Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club. With a history stretching back for over a century, today St James Park is a gleaming modern structure which seats over 53, 000.  The tour  crossed the river by the old Tyne bridge, giving spectacular views of the regenerated area along the banks and of those stunning and innovative landmarks, like the gently pivoting Gateshead Millenium Bridge, the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Sage Gateshead Music Centre, which shines like a great geodesic dome in the light.

The City Sightseeing Gateshead Newcastle Hop-on Hop-off bus tour was gave an excellent overview of the city as well as a potted and lively history. It was a good indication of the size and scope of the place (walkable!) It highlighted places worth a re-look. It was cheap (7 pounds per adult ticket valid for 24 hours) and it fitted perfectly (with hops on and off) into a morning, leaving the afternoon free for rambling at will and exploring galleries and museums.

 

Canberra’s new parliament house

Undoubtedly, the centre point of Canberra is the new Parliament House. All roads, paths, parks and even the lake seem to lead to it, point to it, highlight it or underscore it. There is truly, no missing it.  It’s a striking building, by anyone’s standards – a sprawling white stone mass, semi-submerged in a rolling green lawn with great, gleaming metal flagpole at its apex.

New Parliament House
New Parliament House

Parliament was not in session at the time of our tour, so the place was ours to explore and enjoy.  Our wonderful Education Officer/ Guide made certain that we didn’t miss anything and that we felt truly at home there, stressing that the New Parliament Building and indeed, the whole of Canberra, belongs to all Australians.

We began our inspection of our new Parliament House in the Great Hall, where we stood in silent admiration of the beautiful and enormous tapestry that fills the far wall. Then followed a long, long walk through narrow corridors running north, south, east and west, past closed doors and past portraits of familiar political faces past and present. Occasional banks of windows gave glimpses of quiet green courtyards below. We crammed into a lift and burst out onto the roof under the flagpole. It rose above us like a giant tripod, its pointed end lost in wisps of cloud. From here the roof-top lawn seems made for roly-poly but better games await us in the chambers below.

In the House of Representatives, my 30 twelve-year-old travelling companions dress up and enact a parliamentary debate “Should ads be shown during kids TV programmes?” They follow the protocols of parliament really well and they read their scripted lines with conviction. They put an end to advertising during kids TV shows. But the truth is they’re far too polite, well-behaved and downright decent to be convincing as Australian Members of Parliament!

 

Vigeland Sculpture Park

It’s another morning of sharp, contrasting blue, yellow and white but the snow has peeled back further on patches of bright grass and dark brown soil and there’s a fine, barely visible dust of palest green on the branches of the trees.

Today I take a tour bus from beside the huge red-brick Rathus or Town Hall, to see some of the parks and museums of outlying Oslo. Oslo has a plethora of magnificent museums and fascinating attractions. It’s big ask to see and absorb them all in just one visit, let alone just one day, but that’s all I have left of my stay in Oslo, so I set off armed with camera, notebook and a large dose of determination. The tour begins at Vigeland Sculpture Park.

DSC01379

Oslo is a city of sculptures – people, animals, ancient ship-parts, abstract plinths, obelisks and stone chunks – they’re everywhere. They hide behind bushes in Karl Johan’s central garden, stare out over the fjiord from Aker Brygge, crouch on the hillside in the park by the palace and guard every room of the National Art Gallery – it’s a sculpture-lover’s dream.  But the park designed by Gustav Vigeland and peopled with over 200 of his statues, is sculpture paradise.

At the gate of Vigeland Sculpture Park our guide, a statuesque figure herself, with hair like iron filings, the stance of a solid stone block, a concrete-coloured military great-coat and a flinty expression, explains the rules

“When I am talking, you are silent”

Who could speak anyway? We follow her, dumb-struck and awe-struck, through rows of restlessly flexing, twisting, leaping, thrusting, crouching, clutching, clinging, embracing bronze, granite and cast iron humanity. There are old men and women with expressions of despair and hopelessness, ecstatic lovers, anguished parents, bereft-looking babies, rebellious youths, playful children, all individual and perfect in every detail. They’re knotted together in groups and bound together in pairs. They’re tossed on top of one another in bunches and clusters. They sit back to back and lie front to front. They stalk off alone. They stand in splendid isolation.

Here, at Vigeland park, art imitates life to perfection. The eloquence in the attitudes of these stone  bodies and the expressions in these stone faces is both moving and unsettling. Most of all it’s unforgettable

Vigeland Park is Norway’s most famous and popular attraction. Over 1 million people visit it each year.

 

 

A day out with Cosmos in Athens, Part 1

We stood on the steps of the hotel and took in the panorama of blue and white – the sun-bleached stone houses rising in thick layers across the slopes of the low, rocky hills and above them, against a flawless, early morning sky, the pale cliffs of the Acropolis, crowned by the towering columns of the Parthenon. We had one day, one frustratingly, almost insultingly, inadequate day to explore Athens. How could we cram thousands of years of civilization, history and culture into twenty four hours, less if we planned to sleep? Where should we start? How should we start? As luck would have it, the doorman had an uncle, who had a taxi…

The Parthenon, Athens
The Parthenon, Athens

The doorman’s uncle was an imposing, bronzed figure, with a head of thick white hair, a gravelly voice which rang with conviction, a hearty laugh, an enthusiastic handshake and a profile which would have looked well on an antique medallion. His name was Cosmo. As a young man, Cosmo had worked, married and raised his family in Australia. He had returned to Greece twenty years ago, to settle and enjoy the prime of his life, sharing his home in the hills or his villas in the islands with friends and showing his city to tourists. He knew Athens. He knew Australians, New Zealanders too. He knew what we liked and what we wanted to see. He knew what would make us happy. No worries!

He gave us Athens, its ancient monuments, their history and their stories; the Arch of Hadrian, the gateway to the benevolent Emperor’s new Roman Athens; the mighty Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest in the ancient world, conceived by Peisistratus and completed by Hadrian 700 years later; the beautiful marble Panathinaikon Stadium, built in the 4th century, where the first modern Olympics took place in 1896. He gave us the Acropolis, the ancient citadel, propped up with scaffolding now, still but dominating the cityscape and still haunted by the spirits of the ancient gods. He left us to wander at leisure through the ruins of the “glory that was Greece”, to the architecturally perfect Parthenon, the sanctuary and the theatre of Dionysus, birthplace of drama; the theatre of Herodeion, home of the annual Athens festival; the Agora, the political, commercial and religious centre of the ancient city;  the high slippery limestone rock of Mars Hill, once Athens’ highest court, where St Paul first preached the Gospel in AD 51. He gave us the  cemetery of Kerameikos, the oldest and largest in Attica. He gave us the capricious gods, the mighty kings and the super heroes who shaped this great city.

It became clear, as he whizzed us around, pulling in under monuments while the traffic banked up honking around us, parking in clearways, seizing spaces from tourists coaches and idling with impunity on pavements, that Cosmo belonged to Athens and Athens belonged to Cosmo.