Having left the craggy heights of the Rif mountains, we now headed toward the ancient city of Fes, home to one of the most intact medieval medinas in the world. Our route took us through undulating farmland and scattered villages, underlining the value of agriculture here. At the beginning of the modern era, the Roman city of Volubilis had been the centre of the Imperial bread basket in North Africa and still fulfilled much of that role today, as the landscape became more alive with tractors and people. Large, clanking trailers were crammed with farm workers being ferried to and from local markets with produce and livestock jammed in underneath or between scarf-wrapped, dust-blown families.
In the slightly rising gloom outside I could hear a muffled coughing and grumbling, and the background clatter of hooves on the road nearby. As I had so many times before, I dragged myself out of bed in the dark and tried to wake myself to appear as if I knew what I was doing. What followed was quite an eye-opener.
Norway is famed the world over for dramatic scenery, with high mountains alongside a sometimes surprisingly blue sea. In the span of humankind, most of the region was beneath an ice sheet, kilometres thick, which sliced the tops from mountains, then carried the debris along in rivers of ice to the sea. Some areas in the far north and offshore islands like the Lofotens escaped glaciation, leaving a coastal landscape of jagged peaks.
The BBC recently broadcast a series of one or two hour films on #slowtravel, one was a canal journey, another a reindeer sleigh trip in north Norway and another entitled ‘The Country Bus’ featuring a local bus journey through the narrow lanes and wide landscapes of the Yorkshire Dales. They recalled a time not long past when travel wasn’t really about timetables, or at times, even specific destinations ! The early forerunners of modern adventure travel almost all operated on the basis that the traveller was not guaranteed to get to, or to see all the sights along the way, but they would do their best to attain a final objective. Thus, London to Kathmandu, Cairo to Cape Town became ‘routes’ followed by a steady stream of buses, converted trucks filled with hopeful wayfarers happy just to take things as they came.
“Texas always seemed so big, but you know you’re in the largest state in the Union when you’re anchored down in Anchorage”
(song by Michelle Shocked, theme to this summer, sung by Mary McCarthy)
Lumpy air buffeted the plane as we coasted over a choppy looking sea and threaded between snowy peaks toward our landing. This was the land that Jack London had brought alive for generations of armchair adventurers; land that offered promise, a sanctuary, a new start for so many, and literally a dead-end for as many more.
Podcast version here
Art and Survival in the Tassili Plateau
As I’d spent my formative tourleading years in Morocco, when one of the rarely operated tours to the middle of the Sahara came up for grabs, my managers and I both made a beeline for it.
The tour involved taking everything with me to run a trip which was centred around the charming sounding town of Djanet, pretty much smack in the centre of the Sahara, sandwiched between the mountainous region of Tassili n’Ajjer and the legendary Tenere stretching away south to Niger.
In the mid 1990’s a company I was working for as a tour leader wanted to capitalise on the Channel 4 TV series “Beyond The Clouds”, the name referencing a mis-translation of “Yunnan” (South of the Clouds), a province of southwest China. I would be the first person from the office to visit the area and therefore there was no tour leader manual, save some pages photocopied from the Lonely Planet China guide for the region.
The question of value, and of values, can often be highlighted by travel in countries with which we may only have a passing acquaintance. The commonest example of this disparity is when people part with money willingly. It stands to reason, I think, that when people dive out of a tour bus in a small town to get a few bits of fruit or whatever from the market; one, you’re a stranger to local prices; two,Europeans are usually unversed in haggling over prices; three, whatever you’re asked for a bunch of bananas e.g. will be still be trifling compared to what you pay at home; four, as a foreigner, you’re likely to be one of the richer people around and therefore fair game for what I like to call “skin tax”.
Podcast version here
We were on a tour through Ethiopia soon after the summer rains, and much of the country we saw was covered in a green pointillist haze for the time being. We were in Bahar Dar, a substantial town on the edge of Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. A normally wide and shallow outflow within walking distance of our lakeside hotel allowed us a view of the waters at the start of their long journey through Ethiopian gorges until debouching onto the lower lands of Sudan, at Khartoum, where our Nile joins the White Nile, already well travelled from Lake Victoria. From there the combined waters would irrigate an intermittent strip of habitation until reaching Egypt where the population crowded around the river as far as the Mediterranean. Read more . .
I was entranced and delighted to hear chunks of a programme on Radio 4 one day, (link at end) which confirmed what I’d been telling folk for years – particularly those who travelled with me on camping trips in Scandinavia. I’ve since found that my mishmash of ideas is far from novel, but at the time I got a lot of strange looks from m’learned punters who clearly thought I’d lost the plot a bit (Okay, okay, evidence-based). I hope you’ll enjoy this exploration of the people from whom significant chunks of the Santa Claus story derive.
Podcast version here