How to pack to travel the world with less than 5kg! – Part 2

 Part 2 – what to pack it in!!!

Obvs,  as a kiwi backpacker, I am not toting a suitcase (although I do when I am travelling for work – the samsonite b-light non spinner version, in case you wondered – it has the highest volume to weight ratio)!, so what pack to choose???

my perfect travel pack!
Finding the right husband was easier than finding the right pack! I am looking for something black or grey, with a sexy streamlined design.  It should be extremely easy to pack, and open up like a suitcase (clamshell opening).  It must be comfortable with decent straps and a hip belt.  And it should weigh less than 800 grams and be about 30 litres of capacity.   I haven’t found this pack!!!!….. so my dating exploits for your entertainment…..
Packs close to my heart, but not for travel
I am a pack obsessive, and at any given time will have 8-10 packs in rotation in our hallway cupboard.  (hubby totally doesn’t get this! although I will forgive him as being a frenchman he is fine with me having too many pairs of shoes and handbags) .  Each pack has a different niche – from my  Salomon Slab 12 set  for day running, the  Ultimate Direction Fastback 30  for overnight running, the Gossamer Gear Pilgrim for ultralight multiday backpacking.  I love all of these packs and wouldn’t trade them for anything!  However, I still haven’t found the perfect travel pack, in spite of dating several……
packs that came close, but didn’t cut the mustard
  • So I broke up with the Northface Angstrom 30 as even though it was the perfect size, and I love the stretchy side and pack pockets, it was hard to get it open easily and get stuff out of the bottom (they no longer make these, but the closest is probably the new Northface Aleia
  • The Minaal 1.0 got a lot of hype and was massively oversubscribed on kick starter.  But she got relisted on eBay after one use as while she was pretty, she was really tough to pack and couldn’t take much volume – the ‘scoop side packing’ made it unwieldy and cumbersome.  It is also a really heavy pack, and without a hip belt.  I really really wanted to love this pack as the design was lovely and the founders are fellow kiwis, but I just couldn’t get over how tough it was to get gear into the pack relative to my tortuga air!  Shame – maybe they will come up with a design at some point that works for me…

    Minaal 2.0
    Minaal 2.0
  • I flirted with the idea of buying a Tom Bihn Aeronaut  but couldn’t get my head round the fact that it is really a duffel bag not a backpack (but it does look nice)
  • The Eagle Creek 35L Systems Go Duffel Pack looked promising – it opened all the way down, was designed to take Eagle Creek pack cells, and had a nice form.   She also got relisted on eBay after one use, as the back straps were crazy uncomfortable
  • I did manage to stick with the  Lowe Alpine eclipse 35L for six months (until something better came along).  It is comfortable, super light weight, useful for hiking and travelling, opened all the way down one side, but it looked too much like a hiking pack, and I prefer something a little more unobtrusive when travelling.pp-giroblue
the pack that i am in a semi MONOGAMOUS relationship with!
  • So, I am currently in a semi monogamous relationship with my Tortuga Air  She fits most of my requirements!  She is easy to pack with a great clamshell opening, has the handy side opening laptop pocket, and more space than I actually need.  However, she isn’t particularly pretty (aesthetically it is a bit like carrying one of those old IBM laptop backpacks around), nor lightweight.  She weighs 1.1kg – I would like them to figure out how to make it weigh 700grams, which my gossamer gear pack weighs, and can carry a heavier load.   I would like this pack more if she was a bit sexier and had a hip belt.   But she is the best pack I have ever had, though fingers crossed someone will make one that meets all my requirements….. (black, sexy, clamshell opening, less pockets, a hip belt, lightweight fabric).
    tortuga-air-front2_grande
    The outside of the tortuga – looks just like an ugly HP/IBM backpack from the 90s

    Interior Tortuga
    Interior Tortuga
THE PACKs THAT I AM flirting with
Alchemy soft shell 40 litres
Alchemy soft shell 40 litres
I am contemplating checking out this sexy beast, but it is at least 30% bigger than I actually need!!!!  But it looks lovely!!!!  Alchemy Soft shell 40L
Good websites to check out when pack shopping are carryology, and snarky nomad
Total weight of clothes and tortuga air pack 2.7 kg.

Off the Beaten Track – Sudan

The trip got off to an auspicious start.   I was on an Lufthansa flight from Munich to Addis Ababa with a stopover in Khartoum.  As I tried to disembark in Khartoum, the hostess blocked my exit and double checked my boarding card.  “Are you sure you want to get off here?????, I am ok if you want to stay on until Addis, as I really don’t think it is safe for you here!!!!”.   In her defence there were only about 10 other people getting off and they all looked like wealthy local business men!!!        Sudan definitely has a reputation, but it was probably one of the most interesting and friendly places I have been, and there was lots to see.  Highlights of the trip were!

Pyramids of Meroe

Meroe has more pyramids than Egypt!  And I didn’t see a single tourist the whole time I was there.  I barely saw any people, just the guardian, and an opportunistic young boy who wanted to sell me some jewellery.  I actually bought some too as wanted to applaud his entrepreneurialism.   I had a glorious two days wandering up and down the ruins here.  The light was magnificent in the evening and the morning, and it was a totally different experience to seeing the pyramids in Egypt.  Blissful solitude, just me, the sand, and the pyramids which were tombs to the Nubian Kings and Queens.

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I treated myself to a night at the tented camp at Meroe.  I was the only guest.  Apparently they occasionally get Italian tour groups http://www.italtoursudan.com/en/.  The food was great (enough for four people), but it wasn’t cheap.  Worth staying though, as unless you have your own camping gear, this is the only place near to the pyramids, and they are worth seeing at sunrise and sunset

Whirling Dervishes at Omdurman on Friday

Head to the  Sheikh Hamad-al Nil Tomb in Omdurman to see the whirling Dervishes – Sufi Muslims who wear patchwork robes and dance to the beat of drums twirling and stamping their feet until they go into a trance.    Apparently the dancing helps them communicate with Allah.

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Lead drummers

I had a blast here talking to locals, enjoying the ambiance.  No-one bothered me, though a few of the women came for a chat.

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Temples at Naqa

These temples are the largest archaeological sites outside of Meroe, and are still being excavated.  It is a bit like going to luxor, but before it was excavated and without any tourists.   I had all of the temples around Naqa entirely to myself, and the only humans I saw were goat herders sleeping under the trees.  I am not sure I would make a special trip to see these, but they were lovely, and they were en route to Meroe

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Additional tips
  • The best (and only) place I would ever stay in Khartoum is the acropole. http://acropolekhartoum.com  These guys were amazing, they sorted out my visa, had a fixer at the airport to help me navigate immigration and they sorted out a driver and all the permits tourists require to take me to Meroe.  It ain’t flash, and it isn’t that cheap either, but it is good.  They also serve a decent dinner, where you will meet lots of other crusty travellers, archaeologists and aid workers.
  • There are no ATM or credit card processing in Sudan.  Take cash!  lots of it!  I ran into an american couple who had had an accident, and they were stuck without anyway of paying their hospital bill, and they couldn’t leave the country without payment.   Eventually they worked out a solution of wiring money to the foreign account of a third party and getting cash – but it was complicated and took weeks!
  • Its hot here!  really hot! As I was travelling alone with a male driver, I started off wearing a headscarf and sitting in the back seat of the car.  I gave up on the headscarf on day 2, and moved to the front seat (closer to the aircon) after a bout of heat stroke of day 1.  Would still bring light loose clothes and keep your legs and upper arms covered.
  • I am not the only one who liked Sudan, check out this guardian article http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/09/-sp-sudans-tourist-gems-pyramids-gaddafi-bin-laden

Visited November 2013

Off the Beaten Track – Nauru

Visiting Nauru was a bit challenging and conflicting.  Challenging as the flight was outrageously priced on the monopoly airline carrier and it took me 47 emails to the consulate in Brisbane to get permission to travel.  Conflicting as I am deeply troubled by the Australian governments approach to ‘outsourcing’ their ‘refugee problem’ to the pacific.   (For those of you who are not familiar with the refugee camps Australia has opened and funded in Nauru, the Guardian has decent coverage of the events and issues http://www.theguardian.com/world/nauru)

It started off well!  At the check in counter, the conversation went like this….
A: Why are you going to Nauru?
M: I’m a tourist
A: They don’t have tourists, are you one of those crazy people that are trying to visit every country in the world?
M: Yes, how did you know?
A: Well you weirdos trying to tick off all the countries are the only ‘tourists’ who visit Nauru as there is nothing to see!
The old phosphate mine - which created all of the islands historical wealth
The old phosphate mine – which created all of the islands historical wealth

Hmmm, ok.   Went to the boarding gate and was surprised to be surrounded by at least a hundred buff tattooed ozzies and kiwis in shorts and jandals.   I got chatting to a few of them (they were friendly even though burly), and they were all working on Nauru.  It was considered a major hardship assignment (worse than Coober Pedy for those of you who know where that is), and they were all dreading going back.    Curiously, when I boarded, there were only six female passengers on the plane – and we were all seated together in the same row.  I asked the attendant why this was, and apparently they had had a few problems with other passengers being a bit drunk and harassing women on this flight before so they put us together for our safety.  To clarify, it was 7am! and in Australia!  I can’t imagine being worried about serious harassment from an Australian at any hour, let alone 7am on a plane surrounded by people.  And the guys all seemed to be polite!  But I guess there must be some history there…..,   Nothing to report on our flight, though I had braced myself for some entertainment 🙂

Landed in Nauru, and was told by the immigration official that I had to go sort out my visa but the hotel would help.  Of course the hotel shuttle wasn’t there.   O2 didn’t roam in Nauru, but one of the Ozzies called the hotel for me and an hour later Jasmine showed up.   “Sorting the visa out’ required visiting the visa office (a non air-conditioned shipping container) to fill out a form, then going into town to pay a fee at the revenue department and then back to the shipping container.   Two hours later I arrived at the ‘glamourous’ Hotel Menen – the best and most expensive hotel on the Island.  Fortunately I had been warned by my fellow adventurer Evelthon, that the Menen was minging and I wouldn’t want to sleep in the sheets or walk on the floor barefoot.  He was right!  The water didn’t  work half the time (so no toilet flushing or showering!), the hallways smelled like cooked piss, and I got a rash sleeping in the bed (even though I slept in my clothes).

Eroded Phosphate on the beach
Eroded Phosphate on the beach

Fortunately forewarned, I had packed enough food for three days (berries, vegetables, eggs, dehydrated couscous, salami), as had been told the food on the island was dire.   Having seen the cleanliness of the room there was no way I wanted to eat anything out of the kitchen.  Nauru probably doesn’t make it into global stats given the population size of under 10,000 but I would bet that this is the most obese nation in the world (and I have been to Tonga and Texas).  The diet consists of spam, fried chicken and fried rice!   Without a hint of sarcasm, I have never seen motor scooters working so hard to support the weight of the drivers.

the pentecostal church!
the pentecostal church!

I set out to tour the island.  Inspired by a post I read on Gunnar Garfors blog (http://www.garfors.com/2011/04/nauru.html), I decided to run around the island – it is only 16km to circumnavigate the whole country.  That was a hoot!  I didn’t get to run uninterrupted for long as the locals kept stopping their scooters to ask if I was ok.  “Girl, what you running from????”.   And I wasn’t running that fast in 30 degree heat with 80% humidity.  I don’t think running is much of a local sport.  There isn’t really much to see on the island, but the remnants of the phosphate mine are interesting, and the rock formations from the erosion on the beaches were also pretty cool.

Possibly one of my favourite store names ever
Possibly one of my favourite store names ever
I also managed to chat to a bunch of people on my slow run around the island.  The refugees I met were universally friendly, but desperate to be anywhere else.  They were mostly concerned about the quality of healthcare and education available to their kids locally.  Apparently the refugee camp school had been terrific, but due to funding cuts it was closed, and now their kids had to go to the local school which apparently didn’t have flushing loos.
The locals I met were friendly too, though they hated the refugees and wanted them to leave.  The common concern was that the men were stealing their wives!  I was too polite to ask how they thought Nauru would survive without the Australian aid provided for the camps, as the government had blown the billions of dollars that Nauru once had from phosphate (at one time Nauru had the highest wealth per capita in the world).  Curiously, most of the locals had never left Nauru and had no desire to…… and they thought I was odd to be travelling at all….
And the Australians, well most of them really didn’t wanted to be there either, and I couldn’t blame them.
However, every single person I met was friendly, albeit with very strong and opposing view points.
It was interesting!   Am not sure I would go again, but it was certainly a thought provoking trip.
Additional tips
  • Yes you kind of have to stay at the Menen as there is nowhere else.  You will be ripped off to the tune of AUD 150 per night, and the hotel is always full of aid workers so book ahead
  • Take food with you!!!!  there is a fridge and a kettle in the hotel, so I boiled eggs and steamed veg in the kettle.
  • Transport is non existent but hitching is easy.  I wanted a ride to the airport the day I left and the hotel were faffing about.  So, I asked the first person I saw checking out for a ride and of course he said yes.  (happened to be the pilot for my flight, so I felt like I was in business class getting a free limo to the airport)
  • If you want to go for a swim, pretty much everyone swims at the harbour at Anibare as the beaches are too shallow and rocky.  It is a short walk north of the Menen
Anibare - the best swimming spot
Anibare – the best swimming spot
Visited November 2015

Places to Return to – Guatemala

I was quite torn about visiting Guatemala! While the pictures looked beguiling, I was taking my mum, dad and husband on a trip around central America, and was worried about their safety.   A legitimate concern given the violent crime rates are the highest in Latin America (which is a high bar to begin with).  My dad too is a stubborn hardy kiwi bloke who contrarily seeks out dangerous situations.  Case in point, when I asked him not to walk up Cerro de la Cruz in Antigua (as apparently it was a hot spot for tourist muggings).  He promptly went up there the next morning before breakfast.  I told him he might have been robbed, and he proudly told me he took no money so they couldn’t rob him.  Note to non frequent travellers – you really want to make sure you have some money for people to steal from you, at least $20 if not $50!  I am not joking!….. better they steal $50 from you than get pissed off and shoot you as you have nothing for them.   Anyway, parental frustrations and concerns aside, Guatemala was the highlight of that trip for us all.   The only other thing to note is there are more gringos here than I typically like to see on holiday, so make sure you time your visits to places to avoid them as much as possible!
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Girl in the street in San Pedro
Visiting the villages around Atitlan
Be smart, as there are quite a few tourists in Panajachel, so go and find the villages which are less visited.  There are lovely places to eat, and hugely photogenic local ladies to take pictures of.  The air is clean and it is is stunningly beautiful on the lake.  We went to Santa Cruz, San Marcos and San Pedro and enjoyed wandering around.
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Buys carrying a heavy load in Atitlan
Stayed at Hotel Posada Don Rodrigo in Panajachel, but there are tonnes of good options in Atitlan, eat anywhere as it is a bit of a gringo paradise
Head to Tikal to see the ruins
Make sure you stay the night, as the flights from Guatemala city land en masse in the morning and then there are swarms of people all over the ruins (we made the mistake of being on the plane with the swarms).  Frances Ford Coppola has a famous hotel nearby if you feel like going glam https://www.thefamilycoppolaresorts.com/en/la-lancha/location.
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Ruins of Tikal
The ruins are amazing, and if you are fit and ok with ditching your guide there is some terrific hiking.    While you are out there definitely pop over the border to Belize and see the ruins of Caracol and Xunantunich (a regret of mine that we didn’t as I ended up flying in 3 years later to see these)
go to the market in chichicastenango
Yes this was a tourist nightmare, overrun with gringos by 10 am.  However, if you want to see the locals, then stay the night, get up at 6am to watch them set up and get the hell out before the hordes arrive at 10 am on their buses.  We really enjoyed having breakfast at one of the stalls and chatting with the locals
Dad bargaining at the market
Hang out with the gringos in Antigua
Antigua really is lovely!  There is really nothing to do here except eat!  We whiled away plenty of hours drinking decent coffee and eating cake…. it is just one of those things you do when you have been travelling and haven’t had a decent coffee or anything yummy to eat for a few weeks.  Thats why places like Antigua suck you in and you get stuck doing nothing but energetically finding new coffee and cake places every day :-).  There are some nice things to see between the cake shops, so take your camera with you.  The plaza Mayor, Arco de Santa Catalina, Cathedral San Jose and Convento de las Capuchinas are all lovely!
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Locals Laundry in Antigua
Stayed at the uber luxurious Palacio de Dona Leonor.  It was beautiful and enormous.  Not my normal travelling style, but it was a gift for Ma and Pa for their 60th birthdays.  Eat anywhere with cake!
Additional tips
  • Reading back on this post it seems that visiting Guatemala is a bit like going on safari.  You want to be up and out between 6-10am and then again perhaps in the late afternoon.  But you want to avoid the middle of the day, when the gringos are at their most active.   It really is worth the early mornings
  • I prebooked almost everything in Guatemala as was keen to look after Ma and Pa.   Elizabeth Bell came highly recommended, but charged a premium.   Things did work like clock work.   You can contact her at www.antiguatours.net. If I was going by myself I would probably use local buses
  • Guatemala City is one of the dodgiest places in Latin America.  Antigua is less than an hour from the airport in a car, so there is no reason to stay in the City.  We were amused by how many carpet and plastic stores had armed guards!

Visited December 2011

Places to Return to – Uzbekistan

Few places have captured my imagination like Uzbekistan. The first time I went in 2011 I was there for two weeks and apart from Russians, I only saw two tourists (Australian ladies). It was astounding that a country with such incredible architecture, reasonable food and friendly people had so few people visiting it, but how lucky I was to visit then (and to have my buddy Rob along for company). I have since been back to Bukhara and Tashkent (in September 2015), and in one day in Bukhara I saw over two hundred tourists. It was certainly different with so many people around, but still worth going.

Visit Tamerlane’s capital – Samarkand

Tamerlane’s capital, and home to some of the finest Islamic architecture in the world. There are amazing buildings everywhere and you should wander the streets until your feet hurt, but make sure you don’t miss

  • The Registan – truly astounding and widely ranked as one of the most grandiose pieces of architecture in the Islamic work and as one of the noblest public squares in the world. While the building complex has been aggressively renovated, it is still largely faithful to the original design, with tile makers today still toiling to create replacement tiles.Registan
  • The tombs of Shah i Zinda are the holiest of Samarkand’s sites. Many famous samarkand historical figures are buried here, but alas my history education in NZ was too pants to give me much of a grounding in the who’s who. However, it is stunningly beautifulShah i zinda
  • Gur Emir – was my favourite place in Samarkand. A little quieter, and the mausoleum of Tamerlane.Registan 3
  • Bibi Khanum Mosque – worth visiting as it hasn’t been intensively renovated and so is more archaeologically interesting. Was built for Tamerlane by his favourite wife, a chinese princess calls Bibi Khanum, as a surprise for him while he was off devastating North India

Stayed at Malika Prime which was fine, unremarkable but with ok wifi. Arrived by fast train from Tashkent. No guide required, take a map and walk everywhere

 

Drink tea in Bukhara
Bukhara is a delightful village with plenty of tea shops (and even a german cake shop) deeply contrasting with the hustle and bustle of Samarkand.  I would happily spend a few days in Bukhara hanging out and drinking tea.    My favourite places to while the day away and watch the light are these:
  • Kalon Mosque and Minaret and the Mir i Arab Madrasah – Both the Mosque and the Madrasah are beautiful, but the Minaret is incredible.  It is 48 metres high and has stood for 850 years.  Used for the call to prayer, and as a city lookout, it also served as a place to punish criminals, who were thrown from the top in sacks!

    The Minaret late afternoon (with Rob)
    The Minaret late afternoon
  • Ismael Samani Mausoleum – the best preserved building in Bukhara.  It is a perfect brick cube with brickwork ‘woven’ to look like a basket.  It looks magnificent in the afternoon light

    Tomb of Tajikistan's most loved son
    Tomb of Tajikistan’s most loved son
  • Bolo Hauz Mosque – a beautiful mosque which reflects in a pool across from the Bukhara fortress.  You can take tea at the chaikana next door

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    Bolo Hauz
  • Chor Minor – last but by no means least, the small but perfectly formed gatehouse of an old madrassah with four minarets.
Chor Minor
Stay at any of the pensions around the Lyabi i Hauz.  They are reasonably cheap.  I have stayed at the Emir and the Amelia Boutique and they were both fine.
Get Married in Khiva
There must be something auspicious about getting married in Khiva.  When I visited, it was 5 degrees celcius i.e. bloody freezing, so hardly peak wedding season, but I saw no less than 8 weddings in the old city that day.  The couples all looked in their late teens, with full ‘big fat gypsy wedding’ regalia.  I tried to figure out how to get invite to some of the parties but with no luck.
Khiva wedding
Khiva is more like a museum than Bukhara, but the old city is beautifully preserved and a lovely place to wander around.  My personal highlights were the  the Tash Hauli palace, which has beautiful carved pillars and incredible tiles, and the Kalta Minaret – one of the few minarets which was fully tiled
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Ichan Kala Khiva
Stayed at Malika Khiva, which was fine but overpriced for food.  Can walk everywhere!
Some additional tips!
  • There are police everywhere, and life as a local citizen is likely pretty crap.  I was stopped often, but always waved on once they realised I was a tourist.  You feel very safe there, but can’t help feeling bad for the locals in such a totalitarian state
  • The trains are amazing!  I did a couple of night trains by myself and ended up sharing with Russian business men both times.  And in both cases they tried to feed me vodka, and also made sure I was ‘safe’ from the locals
  • Tashkent is an ok city, very easy to get around on the metro system which has some great stations
  • The food is ok, but not extraordinary.  Rob wished he had brought his hot sauce to spice things up.  I ate a lot of the local bread (delicious), tea, pomegranates (amazing!) and cheese.
  • Wherever/whenever you can try and visit the sights 2-3 times during the course of the day.  the light and mood changes significantly, particularly in the late afternoon and it is worth the multiple visits to watch the light play on the walls and take better pictures
  • I watched a good documentary on the bbc the other day on Samarkand – worth a look if you are interested http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p03qb25g/the-silk-road-episode-2
 Kaon Mosque and minaret

Places to Return to – Ethiopia

May 26, Castelsagrat, France

I am spending the bank holiday in our house in France.  Our second home here is in a wonderful sleepy village, surrounded by baking fields of sunflowers in the summertime, and the biggest thing that is likely to happen when we are here is a gathering of hearty eighty year olds on the village petanque field right outside our front door.   Coming here for a holiday is like putting on a warm and familiar pair of flannel pyjamas.  Our routines are comfortable and effortless, from popping down to get a morning croissant at the bakery, to driving to the local market town to see our butcher.    The smells, sights and experiences from here are clearly etched in my memories and bring me comfort even when I am not here.   It has made me think about places in the world I have visited that have left similar indelible impressions on me.  Places I felt incredibly comfortable and would like to go back to to spend some more time.  So, this week, I am going to share with you a few of the special places in the world that I can’t wait to (or already have) revisit (ed).  Amazing places which fed my soul (and most likely my belly), and that I would highly recommend you put on your to do list.   Today – Ethiopia!  There are lots and lots of things to do in Ethiopia, including hiking in the Simiens and seeing the Danakil Depression, but my favourite places are…..

visit Bet Giyorgis Church, Lalibela at Dawn

Lalibela is a relatively sleepy high altitude town surrounded by small mud hut villages with a surprising surfeit of ‘barack obama’ gift stores.   The town is famous for the most incredible rock hewn churches.  Unlike normal churches where rock is excavated and a church is built, here they have dug the churches out of the ground!  It is hard to describe without seeing them.  For those of you who have been to Petra, think that but 10 times more impressive.     I have vivid memories of visiting the church at 6am to hear the amazing chanting from the white robed monks.  The music was haunting, the smell from the incense pervasive, and sight of the worshippers in the dawn chill is indelibly etched on my brain.  Spend a few days in Lalibela to visit all the churches but also head out to Yemrehanna Kristos which is a beautiful chocolate box church in a cavern about an hour or so from Lalibela.  I loved Lalibela and can’t wait to go back (stayed at Tukul Village, picked up a decent guide on arrival at the airport)

Bet Giorgis from above
Bet Giorgis from above
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Woman worshiping at Bet Giorgis (not allowed inside)
Yemrehanna Kristos
Yemrehanna Kristos
Do the dawn procession in Axum

Axum is apparently the home of the Arc of the Covenant at the Cathedral of Tsion Maryam, though no one ever gets to see it.  Apparently it is so sacred only the guardian gets to see it, and that job passes down when the guardian dies.   The Cathedral is worth a visit but isn’t wildly interesting.  There are also some extremely famous stelae (pillars), which are mildly interesting and the reason most people come to town.    Axum town itself is a boring strip of poorly built glass and concrete buildings with none of the charm of Lalibela.  So, why come?  Two reasons, a) it is the gateway to the Tigrai – more on that later, and b) the Wednesday procession at dawn where pilgrims walk around town paying homage to the churches.   We joined in, (sporting the obligatory big white scarfs) and it was a wonderful experience……  (stayed at Sabean Hotel which was basic but fine, and hired a guide and driver from Dawit tours – travelcovenant@yahoo.com)

End of the dawn procession
End of the dawn procession
Climb to the monasteries in the Tigrai
  • If you have a head for heights and are comfortable rock climbing in bare feet, definitely hike up to Abuna Yemata.    I bowed out as am petrified of heights, but my feisty companion Tamara made it up with some rope and some help.
  • If you have a penis, definitely head to Debre Damo.  Again, this is a rope climbing effort, but sadly only men are allowed to visit (apparently women aren’t clean or holy enough)
  • I did make it to Debre Maryam Korkor, which was at 2,500 metres.  I thought I was climbing well until I was overtaken by three nuns who were in their seventies, bare foot, and carrying all their food and water – very humbling!!!!   While up there, pop round the corner to visit the monk at Abba Daniel Korkor (he had the most amazing face)
(Stay at Gheralta Lodge in the Hawzien region if you can penetrate their useless reservation system, we hired a driver and a guide as there is very little public transport anywhere in the Tigrai.  Dawit from covenant tours sorted this for us too)
Monk at Abba Daniel Korkor
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to
The barefooted nuns overtaking me climbing to Debre Maryam Korkor
Some additional tips!
  • Apparently the attendants on Ethiopian are often asked if there will be food in Ethiopia.  Yes there definitely is food!  and the food is actually pretty good, provided you stick to the vegetarian.  The goat and the chickens were the toughest things I have ever eaten. However, injera (ethiopian bread made with teff) and vegetarian food is pretty delicious.  Favourites are shiro wat, kik wat and shira tegamino!
  • Addis is a crap hole!  the hotels are overpriced, its dirty, and the taxi drivers are what you would expect in Africa.  Get in, get out as fast as you can
  • The kids here have been ruined by overly generous foreigners.  If you stop your car in the middle of nowhere to pee, you will be overrun by kids within three minutes.  Pee quick!  Apparently kids don’t bother to go to school in some places as they don’t want to miss out on begging from foreigners
  • Ethiopia is extremely traditional.  Neither Fish nor Teddy (our driver and guide) thought women could drive a car.  After much persuasion Fish did let me take the 4wd for a spin around the desert and he was most impressed that I knew how to use reverse!  Ladies – keep your expectations for equality low!
Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian Hawzien
Church Guardian
Church Guardian

 

How to pack to travel the world with less than 5kg!

Part 1 – what to wear!!!

Ok, so this is targeted to women!  but guys feel free to check out snarky nomad who has a good equivalent post for blokes

A little black dress

I have two black dresses from Icebreaker and I always pack one of them.  The t-shirt tech lite dress in particular works a treat.  I use it as a cover-up when I am at the beach or the pool, it works as a dress when I unexpectedly have an opera or posh dinner to go to, it is merino wool so you can hike in it,  and it has even been used as a nightie when I am sleeping in mixed dorms.

Icebreaker tech lite dress, also doubles as a nightie
Icebreaker tech lite dress, also doubles as a nightie
A headscarf

I have a cheap one I picked up in Iran.  Works as a sarong, a scarf, a belt and obviously a headscarf.  This has saved me on numerous occasions where I wanted to blend into the crowd, and is mandatory in many mosques and orthodox churches

3 t-shirts and 2 singlets

I swear by Royal Robbins and Icebreaker t-shirts.  These two of my current favourites

Icebreaker SpheriaRoyal Robbins Noe

Icebreaker shirts are terrific, they are merino, they never smell, they are cool in the summer and warm in the winter, they dry quick and they don’t look too bad.  These you can hike in, wear to dinner and they don’t look too bad to wear around town.  For singlets, I love UA…., and take a couple of black singlets, mostly for running in.

3 pairs of trousers/shorts

So, key is to find something that you can wear up the mountain, sleep in on the plane, wear to dinner in Paris or London, and do yoga in.  My best find ever has been the Mountain Hardwear Dynama Trousers in Black.  They wick, they are cool, comfy and warm.  I like them so much, I also have the capris and the shorts.  These three (all in black) are my go- to pants to cover travelling, running, and hiking.     I vary the lengths when I am going to more conservative places, taking more long ones and less short ones

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Mountain Hardwear Dynama Pants
A buff

I swear by this, my buff is the most important item in my pack.   It’s primary use is as an eye mask, and it works better than anything else as it is wide, doesn’t leave an elastic mark on my face, and holds the ear plugs in!  It also works as a scarf, hat, balaclava, headband, and in one instance it even worked really well as a Islamic Republic of Iran compliant headscarf for running in.    Invest a bit more and get the merino one!!!

A hoody

I swear by my Icebreaker hoody (I promise they don’t sponsor me)

Allure Hoody from Icebreaker

It is sporty enough to the hiking, but actually looks cool enough to wear around town.  Even if you are going somewhere hot, you really need something warm with you as there is always air conditioning.

3x Underpants

So, much to many peoples disgust, I never pack more than three pairs of underpants (i used to pack two, but have decided to go luxurious).   I use icebreaker merino wool underpants, as while ex-officio and royalrobbins are ok, they are too synthetic.  I won’t go into the pros and cons of merino vs synthetic, but suffice to say merino does not smell, is easy to wash and is super comfortable on the rear end.  Synthetics, not so much!

3x Bras

Always take at least one bra that makes your boobs look amazing.  And then I always take two sports bras (which every woman knows do not make your boobs look amazing) – at least one merino one and then one from either oiselle or north face.  I wear these when I sleep on the plane.  I also run most days when I am travelling so sports bras are pretty compulsory.  If you don’t run every day, you could easily get away with 2 bras (one to wear and one to wash)

2x socks

Ok, so in a rare departure from Icebreaker, I have a unbreakable allegiance to smart wool phd run socks.  I take two pairs only and wash them when they get dirty (confession, i normally wear them for at least two days before they need it).

Shoes

Runners and flip flops – they are really all I ever need.  For my runners, I always wear altras (to accommodate my wide kiwi feet), and depending on whether it is trails or roads I will be running on, I take the lone peaks or the paradigms (https://www.altrarunning.com).

Being a New Zealander, flip flops pass as formal footwear for me, and so I am comfortable going most places with my flip-flops on, and these ones even have some shiny crystal on them so they really are formal.     On the rare occasion I have taken a pair of ballet flats with me, I hardly ever wore them, so I don’t bother anymore.  But if you are going somewhere where you might have a few hot dinner dates, then take some lightweight ones.  I use the Vivo Barefoot Shoes

Optional items
  • Waterproof jacket – I love the  Salomon Bonatti Jacket and take it with me if i think things will be cold, wet or windy
  • Puffer jacket – again, if it is winter or likely to be cold, I will take one with me.  In the UK or anywhere likely to be wet, I take my Rab Xenon Jacket as it is waterproof (but weighs 330g).  Otherwise I take my beloved mountain hardwear ghost whisperer jacket which weighs 200g
  • Swimsuit – if I am going anywhere with a pool plus goggles so i can swim lengths
Overall

I mix the colour palette to be mostly black, grey and occasionally something blue.  Everything mixes and matches.  And depending on whim or mood, i substitute (note the word substitute not add) items in and out of the pack.  Note, that these are ALL the clothes I take, and include what I am wearing when I leave home.   I am sure most of my fellow lightweight packers are taking all of the above, the trick is to take no more than what I have listed (or even less if you fancy, i could take off one pair of underwear, one shorts, one t-shirt if I really wanted to, but I find it easier not to have to do laundry more than 2 times per week).

I pack my clothes in two  Compression Packing Cells – one small, one large, and both of them are compressible

Total weight of clothes in the bag is under 1.2 kg (not including what I am wearing)
Recommended outfitters

 

Stay tuned for posts 2-4 on what pack to take, toiletry hacks and everything else you need to put in your pack

My Facebook Page is a Lie

My Facebook page is a total lie!  I only ever post the glamorous parts of my travel on it – the stunning vistas, the great meals, the new friends and perfect wildlife shots.   Everything I post is, of course, something I have done, I am not making these experiences up.  But the lie is in that my posts represent at best 20% of the travel experience…. So, what do I leave out……

  1. The hours spent sitting in airports with nada to do.  Yes hours!!!!  In my former career I arrived at the airport as late as possible, and did not think I was doing a good job of time optimisation if I didn’t miss a flight or two a year (as if I made every flight on time, I was clearly getting there too early).    You can’t do that when flying to most of the places I go to now, as if you miss the flight there might not be another one for days.   And most airports in Africa are chaotic, so you need to get there early to make sure you actually get your seat.  As a result, I have spent more time than I like to recall sitting on floors at the airport (sometimes blissfully next to a power point so I can charge my phone) waiting for flights.
  2. The huge number of stomach issues and resulting time spent bonding with grubby bathroom facilities.   Hand on heart, i would prefer to crap behind a tree than use most of the public conveniences on offer around the world (Iran and Japan being notable exceptions).  India gets my vote for worst global toilets.  At least in Africa, they don’t normally bother to even pretend their is a loo.    I can’t resist trying local food, and while most of the time I get by, at least once or twice per trip I have some issues.
  3. How much I miss good food and would chew someones arm off for greek yogurt and berries.   Proper total greek yogurt, free range meat, dark chocolate, asparagus and crab.  Things I miss enormously whenever i travel.  We are so spoiled for choice i London and can get everything anyone would want to eat….., that it is even more of a challenge when I am travelling somewhere remote.  The worst experience to date was probably the weeks of fish and cabbage I ate in the pacific.  And fish was bizarrely quite tough to come as the locals didn’t really like it.  I just couldn’t bring myself to eat the fried rice, fried battery chicken and spam that everyone else was ordering.
  4. Bed bugs, bites and mysterious rashes. Always get them, and never sure where they come from.  So far, haven’t died, so they can’t be that bad.

I guess all of these things add some colour to my travels and make me appreciate my life when i go home.  But next time you read one of my glamorous travel posts, take heart in the fact that as I am posting it I probably have the craps, am covered in bug bites and am sitting on the floor of an airport somewhere feeling hungry

Is it possible to cough up a lung?

May 22, City Hotel St Polten, Austria

Well you can probably tell from the title….  the day didn’t pan out exactly as I hoped.   I was up at 4am, had my prescribed Ironman breakfast of bread and bananas, and got a taxi to the race area.   I borrowed a pump from a delightful Austrian girl, sorted out my tires and made sure my bottles were all sorted for my bike.   Wandered over to the swim prep area, got my wetsuit on to the waist (mostly because I was freezing) and found a cafe for a latte….  I was so organised, I was ready an hour before the race.   Everyone was super friendly and supportive, a random stranger wandered past and helped me hoick up my wetsuit.  Pretty soon we were all in the pens getting ready for the rolling start.   I had easily swum the distance in 43 minutes in training, so I assumed that was a reasonable estimate for the swim.  I made lots of friends in the pen, and feeling calm and zen, plunged into the water.

And thats when it all started going wrong.  The water was freezing and black.  Within about 10 meters I had sucked in what felt like a litre of water into my lungs.   I tried to swim freestyle but couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even get my head into the water let alone do normal strokes.   I tried to do a weird freestyle version with my head out of the water like a drowning puppy, but that didn’t work either, and I was coughing and spluttering like a wheezy old emphysema sufferer.    Well, I ended up doing a weird side stroke for the entire distance…. it was honestly the longest and toughest hour of my life…. punctuated by the swim officials paddling up to see if I was ok.  The swim was split across two lakes, and by the time I got out of the water in the first lake, I would have been happy never to have seen water again.   Darling Hubby was there when I got out of the first lake and ran with me to the second lake.  What a legend!!!  I wanted to die, I had to stop a couple of times to try and cough up my lungs (the coughing didn’t actually stop until mid afternoon).

With tenacity I didn’t know I possessed, I got into the second lake and kept swimming…. or at least approximating a swim….. another 1km of side stroke with a fantastic nonstop coughing symphony.  I was clearly in terrible shape, because in this lake the swim officials paddled next to me for all of the race, handing me off from one to the other.  They did ask if I wanted to stop, but I wanted to keep going.  I knew if I could just get on to the bike things would be better.   The agony finally ended as I stumbled out of the water.  Darling hubby has some video footage, but nobody needs to see that.   I summoned all the energy I had and ran to transition, worried that I was not going to make it under the cut off time for the swim (you only have an hour and 15 minutes to get out of the bike zone or you are out of the race).   I was pretty sure I was going to be too late as pretty much the entire field had passed me in the water.  A lovely Israeli girl helped me get my wetsuit off (this is much harder to do than you might think), and I geared up and sprinted to my bike.     A very scary looking Austrian lady stopped me taking my bike off the rack and said I was done.   The race director checked my time, and confirmed that I was just under two minutes over the cut off so I was out.

I am really bummed I didn’t get to go on, though I probably wouldn’t have turned in a stellar performance given my lack of training and the shape my shins and back were in.  I also felt incredibly guilty that I had dragged my Darling Hubby to Austria, shipped my bike, spent a lot of money, and all for a vile 1 hour and 15 minutes of coughing up my lungs in a freezing lake.   I am mostly trying to stay zen about it, and in my more grown up moments I am excited about the potential to overcome the lake demon and get in some more practice swims (oh yes – confession time – I had never swum in open water before the race, and only been in my wetsuit once in the tooting bec lido).    On the bright side, I was genuinely impressed with how wonderful the volunteers were, I wouldn’t have made it around the lake without them.  And, I am proud of myself for giving it a shot, and not quitting, although there were a couple of times in the lake where I did consider swimming up to the official boat and getting a ride back.

We did enjoy some of the day, we watched the first finishers come in, in some truly astounding times!  Then we wandered back to the hotel along the run course past some truly varied body shapes….. I am wildly impressed at the age and shape of some of my fellow competitors….. and some of the chubbier runners were doing times at least 40% faster than I would have ever been able to do.

Huge thanks to my darling hubby, who has my eternal gratitude for his support.  It wasn’t fun having to go back to the race later in the day to pick up my bike and hand in my timing chip surrounded by tired but elated finishers. It was even less fun going to dinner that night and being surrounded by people wearing their finishers medals.    My husband was an absolute darling and kept me company the whole time! and amused me by joking about the nobs.    Love ya babe!!!

Enormous, Scary Lycra Clad Aryans

May 21, City Hotel St Polten, Austria

My darling hubby/support crew extraordinaire and I are in gorgeous St Polten for the weekend.  Several months ago, when i was uninjured and feeling strong, I signed up for a half ironman…. thinking this would be a pretty easy race distance and good practice for the full ironman I intend to do at some point.  I have run, cycled and swum all the distances pretty easily in the past and within the cut off times.   Hmmmmm, feeling a whole lot less cocky now!  It has been six weeks since I injured my shin, and i have only run for 20 minutes in that time (two x ten minute runs in the last week), and only cycled a couple of times.   Worse, I seem to have developed a back problem so everything hurts – even walking hurts.   Oh well, I paid the money and it was non refundable, so i thought I may as well try and race.  And, my hardcore physio was ok with me giving it a bash…. in his words, ‘oh well, just gut it out and see what happens’.   I am oscillating between crapping my pants with fear and then trying to remind myself that it doesn’t matter – ideally I will finish, but if not, it aint the end of the world.   Think I managed to mostly hold it together today, except for a bout of overwhelming panic and awe as we went down to breakfast this morning –  we were surrounded by enormous lycra clad, ironman branded, bronzed, aryan looking germans and austrians!  f@ck me – they were giants!!!! with long rangy muscly legs!!!!  Holy crap on a crap stick, these folks are going to eat me up and spit me out.

The panic eventually abated enough for me to leave the hotel and go and figure out the registration process.   All signed up, collected the bike, sorted out the transition bags, dropped the bike, went to race briefing, went back to bike area as had forgotten to pick up timing chip………, hopefully everything is in the right bag.  If you have never raced a tri before,  be warned, there are epic amounts of kit that you need to have, and it all needs to be in the right place.  Oh, and don’t forget the lube!!!!!!      there are also too many rules for me to follow, so i am sticking to remember the drafting rules, and not too litter – as that is grounds for immediate disqualification.   Also trying to remind myself that as long as I finish, i will be the first woman from NZ to finish (I am the only one entered!!).   Am heading to bed now, stomach is stuffed full of carbs as have gone on a major carb loading effort today.  Fingers crossed I can get my wetsuit off easily tomorrow and I don’t miss any of the cut off times.  Oh, and fingers crossed I can figure out how to pee on the bike….. maybe just a quick google before I sleep to figure that out.  Alarm is set for 4.30 am 😃.