Travelling – Malawi



Malawi sits at the southern end of the rift valley, its lake that runs the length of the country, 580 kms in length, its prime feature. It’s a poor country, in 2015 the poorest in the world and to give you an idea of what that means for a country of 16m people, the per capita GDP of the states in 2015 was $51000.00, that of the UK $41000.00 and that of Malawi a mere $494.00. That is poor. Chances are the computers we use cost more than that.


It is a landlocked country with few raw materials in exploitable quantities, its main export being tobacco, and the huge bulk of that economy is in agriculture. The country’s existence is an accident of history, a result of the European imperial growth of the 19th century, its culture unique but influenced by Zambia, Mozambique an Tanzania which surround it. It has only ever been poor.


Having listed all that gloom, it is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful countries in Africa. The grasslands of the 2000ft Nyika plateau with its wildlife and unique flora, to the valleys and mountians of Zomba and Mulanje, and the lake itself, the centrepiece, long, freshwater and more than 1000 species of fish. It’s a place where a safari is really wild and very exciting.


Malawi calls itself the “warm heart of Africa” and it is. Its people are renowned for their friendliness, tolerance, and acceptance. Despite all the tribulations the country has suffered in its history, politics, floods, HIV, its people are proud and feel in themselves a uniqueness which makes the country special. Poverty and pride are not mutually excusive. Anyone who really wants to see, feel, hear and experience sub Saharan Africa at its most beautiful and most African, loves Malawi.


I need to declare in interest here in that I was born there, my parents both working there, that country and indeed Africa are in my blood as they say. Life was not comfortable, all water had to be boiled before drinking, occasional electricity in the early days, malaria and the health risks of the tropics, but the sense of freedom and space and the desire to learn were bred for me there. The beauty of nature and the people teaching so much. The contrasts for mw in Europe were enormous, I found the sight of people locking their doors to go out very, very weird indeed. The last time I visited I arrived at Lilongwe airport, the immigration officer looked at my passport, saw that I was born in Zomba Malawi, smiled, and said “Welcome Home”! It was so good to be back.

What is art?







I was reading a blog about art today which started discussing the perennial question “what is art?” That question is a recipe for a looooong inconclusive discussion in which we can drain all our resources of intellectual savoir faire, as will all the others in the discussion, and end up hours later none the wiser.

Anyone who travels will visit great works of art in one form or another, The Mona Lisa, great galleries of the world, cathedrals that contain artistic masterpieces in carvings, frescos, or just the architecture. We will visit strange lands where the indigenous art is part of our journey and will be part of the enriching experience.

But in the same way that it is not good to talk about politics or religion at dinner parties since it is a recipe for a disastrous evening, so conversations about art can have that same addictive fate even when the discussion is in one’s own head. In the end it is often about perspective, we see something in a gallery or building and we know its art because we went there to see art. It is quite simple.

It all reminded me of a picture I had taken that I posted in my blog about Cape Town’s townships so I played around with the picture for a while and the three outcomes told a story. The first is just a street scene. The second a building with a mural on it, a splash of colour in the grey street. The third is what? A painting? A work of art? Should I go and ask the owner whether I can buy their wall? Should I introduce the person to a gallery? Is it a work of art or is it just a tiny splash of colour in a grey street? Or is it nothing but some person having a bit of fun with their house? Is it Banksy???

I leave it to you.

Travelling The Townships of Cape Town



When democracy came to South Africa in 1994 townships had developed on the borders of the city, some created, some the results of migration, ignored and sometimes not even on maps and they became part of the city itself.


The contrasts between the Mediterranean cosmopolitan Cape Town of the brochures and the harsh realities of township life are stark. But while the areas can seem intimidating to many people, they are in fact fascinating worlds of culture, an economy, a society of their own, and the strongest community links.


Having worked in those areas extensively before leaving business and not having been there for a while I went back the other day to see an old friend. As I came into the area I was reminded of what vibrant places there are. There is a true unique vibe, one that the residents recognise. There is an energy and drive.


The townships have endless activity, music, family life, and economic and political structures. It’s alive and passionate and progressing. The days of seas of shacks now changing into formal housing, spaza shops, shops in shacks, now starting to include small malls, the township economies starting to grow and trade outside themselves.


There is an irony there you can see in the names of businesses, my favourite on this day the Miracle Driving School. !! People are friendly welcoming and really enjoy visitors preferring the individual approach rather than coach tours that can make residents sometimes feel as if they are in a zoo.


There is a famous township restaurant called Mzoli’s on the edge of Gugulethu where many visitors go to sample township food and township fun. Well worth a visit.

Whilst to go there is a great cultural experience and fun, its important not to forget that these are places of hardship, poverty, crime and sometimes destitution, but the positive is that there is so much talent and energy there, that there is a definite future of possibilities

If you go to Cape Town, don’t ignore the townships while enjoying the Europe in Africa of the city. Give it a visit, its great!

The Hippie Trail




I am soon setting out on another journey and while I sit and think of where I am going, what I want to do, who I want to meet and what I want from the trip, I always end up reminiscing about old trips I have made what they were to me and most of all think of the anecdotes that so often make the story of a journey.

In 1967 I left school and took a “gap year” before university and with a couple of friend bought a land rover and set out on what had become known as the hippie trail, the overland route to India from London. Sadly the globalised world has given rise to seemingly globalised war so it’s not possible, but an amazing adventure for a 17 year old.

Three and half months of living with 3 others under, inside or on top of a vehicle is a real “learning to live with other people experience”, not helped by the fact the only place you could get water was from an open tap somewhere, and if you wanted to wash you needed to find a hotel and persuade them to let you have a shower. No email, sms, or phones meant a post restante somewhere obscure every week or so, to write to say you were still alive and receive any news from home.

Having arrived we went our separate ways and I stayed in India for a while travelling around. What do I remember? Goa being just a huge stretch of sand with a few huts and some hippies playing guitar. Spending a week in an ashram with many others, under the guidance of a guru where in return for teaching in meditation we had to carry large amounts of earth to make a huge mound, the reason being that in a recent India/Pakistan war the guru had stood on a mound of earth with his arms in the air and as a result the Pakistani air force bombs had failed to demolish a nearby bridge, the bombs being diverted by his incantations. Being approached one day in Mumbai, Bombay then, and being offered a large amount of hashish at a discount price and when I declined being offered and western girl for the night in exchange for the shirt I was wearing. Declined both. Buying a sitar in old Delhi simply because it was beautiful and when I stood there confused not knowing what was bad or good, being helped by a western man who came over to me and turned out to be George Harrison from the Beatles, Lying on my bed in a cheap guest house under a fan, avoiding the pre monsoon heat and 90% humidity, listening to news of the death of Robert Kennedy and the on-going carnage of Vietnam. Registering with the authorities as an alcoholic so that I could buy a beer in a city that was dry using my alcoholic’s allowance. Sitting on Juhu beach watching the sunset. Travelling on the roof of a train since it was full and having a long stop at one station cause some had died of heat stroke. Seeing a Tiger in the wild. Having to ask all the time for gallons of water since the food was so spicy I could hardly eat. Sitting on the banks of the Ganges at Benares and watching cremations. Drinking water that was green and filled with chlorine pills since there wasn’t anything else. Learning the beauties of Indian music and dipping my toe into the extraordinary world of Indian spirituality. The endless crowds of people everywhere and the friendliness and curiosity of Indian people. And so it goes on.

Hope this trip will bring as many memories although since I am older and marginally wiser they will be different.

Travel – Architecture and Cities



I love it that every city I visit is different. Sometimes people ask me what is my favourite city out of all those that I have visited, and of course that’s an impossible question, but I sometimes try to work it out.


There is a big difference between cities that were built as cities and those that simply evolved over centuries, from settlements beside rivers or the sea, into those that exist today. There are the great cities of the world, London New York Paris etc, and then there are cities, none the less great to those who live there, but not one of the places that everyone feels they must go to.




London is a city that has evolved over centuries from a small settlement in Roman times to the metropolis of today. The City of London is formalised architecture the result of the great fire in the 17th century which led to the city being laid out but for the rest it has grown and evolved over centuries resulting a whole mixture of styles uses and inhabitants, some would say a whole series of villages strung together.




As a contrast the centre of St Petersburg was planned and built and preserved, despite wars and changes, such that even today you can get the feeling of being just a step from the world of Tolstoy and the characters of War and Peace. Sometimes that purity has an almost big chocolate box feel about it, almost too good to be true, but such a pleasure to explore, and a living cultural museum.



Eastern cities reflect the rises and falls of their history and culture and have become a world of enormous contrasts, where ancient powerful histories have faded and been replaced by new modern recoveries of prosperity, interlaced with the growth of informal settlements resulting from the migration of poorer inhabitants from the countryside to the city in search of a better life.



Some cities are defined by nature, the physical environment dictating the shape and limits of the city, and nature itself being the limiter of its expression. Then there are the new, purpose built, modern cities of the 21st century, pragmatic, functional but none the less appealing for the imagination of their design.



Which are your favourites, well you pay your money and you take your choice but for me, despite my efforts to analyse, I don’t know, I still love them all because what ever they look like, however planned organised or random and chaotic they are, it’s the inhabitants that define them


Wat Phra Kaew – Bangkok




In the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok stands Wat Phra Kaew, the temple that houses the Emerald Buddha, a statue 45 cms tall depicting the sitting Buddha made of jade and clothed in gold. The image is thought to have originated in India and was moved from place to place before finally coming to Wat Phra Kaew in the 18th century. The image is said to bring prosperity to each country it resides and so is deeply revered and the protective image of Thai Society.






The buildings that house the image and surround it are exquisitely created with fine detail grandeur and the reverence that the image commands. Traditional Thai art did not distinguish between the artist and the artisan, seeking to depict the Thai sense of community and religion. These works of art were created to achieve some religious merit for the creators of the shrine and buildings.






The area is right in the heart of Bangkok near the Chao Phraya River around which Bangkok is built. It is away from the main bustle crowd and stresses of Bangkok but an important tourist site. THB500 buys you a ticket and there are endless guides to lecture you if that is your thing, otherwise just wander and absorb the magnificence.


Given that you will have experienced the pollution crowds traffic and general stresses of Bangkok, it’s hard to believe you are in the same places despite the crowds of fellow viewers. As always in Bangkok ask the price of everything specially taxis and tuk tuks before you start since this is a prime hunting ground for transport looking for willing tourists.


The tradional Buddhist colours, ubiquitous gold and terracotta create a sense of light and contrast that reflects the importance of the place and is in major contrast to the heat and greyness of most Bangkok streets. It is crowded but you can find your own space and absorb the wonderful detail and care that is taken of this place. Good to go with a local if you know someone Thai, they don’t pay to get in and can give you a great flavour for what it all means.


PALAWAN- Puerto Princessa


The island of Palawan is a one hour flight south west from Manila. The north of the island is in the South China sea and the south the Sulu sea. This you need to experience if you love island life, island hopping, diving, nature and experiencing desert islands. Its relatively undiscovered but that is changing fast so the sooner you go the better.


The Provincial Capital, Puerto Princessa, a typical provincial town with a small airport, is the gateway to hidden treasures. Malls, lots of restaurants, a million tricycles and Jeepneys, and lots of local people about their business. Take tricycles, easy to find, quick to move and cheap. Not good for the lungs, but a perfect street level experience of life. Philippine driving is an experience in itself, highly aggressive but tolerated by all the drivers. Sit in a tricycle and watch the driver compete one on one for a small gap in the traffic with a lorry, a moving experience!! The Philippines is a land of negotiation and tips. Hone your skills and be prepared. If you can move around with local people so much the better or the cost of a tricycle grows exponentially each time you use it. Lots of restaurants, and bars but at the end of town is the Baywalk, at night the best place to eat with lots of open air restaurants set up as in a market, with great food, great atmosphere and a real slice of Phillippine life. A great one is Boyet, fish and seafood laid out for you to choose and have cooked while you wait, the price so good you can feel proud you are spening the money. The other end of town is Blessies Bamboo Huts, a small hotel, entirely ecologically made, where the rooms are bamboo huts with bedroom and bathroom built in a courtyard in which is a butterfly garden. Just opff the main road into town, pick up tricycles outide the front door to go anywhere and you can get a lift from the door to any excursion. Family owned and brilliant people.


Go island hopping. Pick up a boat at the harbour and take a day or more to visit 3 or 4 small islands, snorkling, scuba diving, sit on white sand by turquoise waters disturbed only by the odd wild pig running around. The boatmen make traditional Philippine food. It’s a languid lazy experience but allowing you to use as much energy as you feel in the water and exploring. Move from island to island and include a visit to an island only visible at low tide where any buildings are on stilts.


All Filipinos are curious, friendly, accepting and helpful. They are comfortable in their culture natural surroundings and love to show it to you. The experience of eating food is a highlight and Filipino food simple but really tasty. You have to enjoy rice!

The Puerto Princessa Subterranean River National Park is a must. A world heritage site, pride of place is the underground river, 24 kms of caves and 8 kms of a river that flows into the West Philippine sea. Take a boat and experience it, a world of huge caves rock formations, bats, echoes, and a softly flowing river carrying you along. The park is an hour or so from the city a drive through thinly inhabited hills, along empty white beaches, seeing birds, mangroves and rivers. The underground river itself is an introduction to real darkness, remoteness and silence and the rock formations and size of caves carved over millions of years just inspire awe. As you sit in the boat you are aware of the river beneath you, coursing endlessly to the sea, and understand this is something that happens whether humans are there or not. Nothing we can do except look and feel


Like any journey you arrive in a place and tell your self you will stay for 2 or 3 or however many days it is, but by the time you leave Puerto you are tuned to the island and the lotus life, and really want to stick around, but other even more fascinating places beckon.

Why Are We Here?


Everyone loves to travel, I dont know anyone who doesn’t. But in just the same way that two people looking at a picture will notice different things, so when people travel they have different reasons, different objectives, different priorities and different memories. So what or who is a traveller? Is a holiday maker who travels a traveller, or do you need to suffer a bit in your travelling, is lounging by the pool of a beachside hotel travel, or is it something more severe, something more esoteric perhaps?. Are such distinctions a form of traveller’s snobbery? Maybe its simpler to say that when you go from the place that is familiar to one that is not, it is travel.

109 countries and endless experiences later, I come to the conclusion that travelling is a bit like love, everyone can feel it, most of us experience it or have experienced it, but no-one can really create a definition, or really understand other than emotionally what makes it so special. It is all things to all people, but one thing we all feel is liberated by it.

This blog is  a series of reflections on travels, and travelling, places, people, how it feels, what it means, why its so addictive, and most importantly what makes it such fun. Its intended to stimulate the thoughts of others too and generate memories, ideas, reactions and a desire to do it even more.

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