Rwanda: Looking for Lions – Akagera National Park (2/2)


The sun was hotting up as we started our drive to the north of Akagera National Park to meet the ranger who would take us lion tracking. In hindsight I should have put pedal to the metal (or flipflop to the floor) and got up there sooner, but the wowing and wooing over the amazing animals we saw meant we had to keep stopping. We had to.


Impala, monkeys, baboons, buffalo, topi, klipspringer, waterbuck, warthogs (and baby warthogs!), giraffes, zebra, guinea fowl, sea eagles, hawk eagles, lilac breasted rollers, all kinds of birds… hippos and a crocodile! I saw some elephant poo too, does that count?


We drove up to Hippo Beach and stopped for a sandwich as a storm came in. Heavy rain and thunder. I offered Maddy the hard boiled egg from my lunch bag. Whack, whack, whack, she cracked it open on the arm rest as we sat and watched the weather moving around us.


The rain slowed and we drove on, opening the windows and breathing the scent of the warm, damp, nutty earth.

Several hours after setting off, along the bumpy tracks, slowly sweeping round the deep puddles and wonky crevices, we arrived at the ranger’s post. Maddy kept telling me how well I was driving, keeping me focused and enthused. I think driving an Elise in the Fens has given me strong pot hole awareness skills. (Also a strong sphincter. Just saying.)


The windows of the ranger’s lodge were lined with the skulls of animals. Nathan, the ranger, came out with his telemetry gear in hand, a rifle hanging from his waist. ‘Its okay’, he explained, ‘I would only use it to scare if I had to.’


We bundled into the 4×4, me still driving, suddenly more aware of every move – now that there was a man with a gun sat behind me.

We drove and stopped, drove and stopped. Each time Nathan got out and held his lion finding wand in the air. We got closer and closer, tracking the lions to an unreachable hillside, before eventually turning back.

Disappointed. I really thought we’d see the lions. I wondered how we’d be able to tell the story now. Then we spotted a bunch of baboons. One of them was limping. I was fully distracted. While the others ran off, he stopped, sat down, looked me straight in the eye and held his leg up to show me it was injured. Ignore his winky, he was cute. I wish I could have helped him, not just taken his photo.


We headed back, checked in to the beautiful Ruzizi Tented Lodge, a solar powered eco-lodge on the edge of lake Ihema with only nine tents.

Along the boardwalk through the trees was our tent, crickets and birds chirping outside. Tiny lizards scurrying across the netted windows.


Up at the lodge we sat round the fire, surrounded by velvet darkness and so many unusual sounds. We ate delicious barbecued beef from skewers, and an unexpected sticky toffee pudding.

Returning in the dark to the sound of hyenas barking calls across the clearing in front of our tent, we zipped ourselves in and got into our beds, air cool enough to warrant duvets, leaving the front covers up (mosquito nets down) so that we could be woken by the sun.

I slept so well, strangely soothed by the wild sounds of the dark night. I woke for a short while to hear hippos shouting, making their ‘wha ha ha’ noises, just like the Predator when he learnt to laugh.


In the morning the chap on reception said to me, ‘You slept well!’ I must have looked puzzled, wondering how he might know. ‘When you arrived here you looked like –‘ he did an impression of a miserable hunchback. ‘Now you look –‘ he stood up straight and smiled.


I sat on the veranda overlooking the lake, for a while I was in so much peace, watching a cormorant dive for fish, and hippos bob up and down. ‘Crocodile!’ shouted the Americans on the next table. Sara joined me for breakfast, fruit salad with tree tomatoes, pancakes with ginger syrup. Thank you world!


We packed up our bags. I’m far from a seasoned traveller, but I would always recommend packing plenty of medical supplies, sunglasses, a warm shawl, portable phone charger and a small mini bar in case you need to appease your travel buddy. I think it’s wise.


I drove back to Kigali feeling much more confident on the roads. Gladly so, as we reached the city in rush hour and it was hectic. Arriving early at the airport, after the engine bay was searched and we put all our things on the pavement for a dog to sniff, we waited for the car to be picked up and watched yet another storm, thunder and lightning. And I saw a domestic cat.

We flew home through the night. Sara slumbered, snored and shuffled beside me, I jotted notes and watched Suicide Squad, wide eyed and wondering about the next adventure.

linked here Huge thanks to Sarah Hall and Jess Gruner from Akagera National Park Discover More Here for all their hospitality and knowledge, and to Away, David Bath, Rebecca B, Carrie Betts, Kevin Betts, Phill Capstick, Camila Cavalcante, Kate Chase and  Chase Distillery, Collingwood Norris,  Petra Dumbrell from Adjustus V, Juliet Ferguson, Ian Foulsham, Rachel Gill, Dil Gladwell, Paul Golding, Emily Kate Holmes, Averil Deirdre Hume, Juice, Anita Kerai from Anita’s Kitchen, Penelope Marshall, Stephen Mason, Aoife Maxwell, Annie McCredie, Alan McCredie, Patrick Minee, Susie Moore, Phil Peek, M Perry,  Mads Petersen, Liz Roberts, Martin Roberts, Shade Station, Wendy Stevenson, Miriam Winsor, Laura Ward, & those cheeky anonymous donors, for their amazing support and generosity.

Rwanda: Looking for Lions – Kigali to Akagera (1/2)

Our flight was delayed by Mr Fisher. Or Fischer. Fysher, maybe. I thought about it a lot. Who was this man who had checked his luggage but never made it to the flight? ‘Maybe he had to go home for an emergency?’, I said. ‘Dead in the toilet’, said Sara.

We rushed at Brussels airport to get our connecting flight to Kigali, via a stop in Entebbe. (Hashtag travel blogger. Done Uganda. OMG hashtag two countries in one hour. Avocado emoji. Hashtag vom. Or something similar.)

Sara worked at hacking the inflight entertainment system whilst the man in front of her jiggled back and forth, shuffling his bum bag from side to side and plucking long white hairs from his nose.

‘It’s Monday?’ I asked, too many times. I ate an inflight meal of bread roll and antihistamines and snuggled into my blanket-like shawl stroking it gently and calling it my new best friend.

Some months earlier I’d met Sara through Instagram. She lived not so far from me and always shared pictures of her lovely old house, antiques and things. One day we met for a cup of tea, and the next, well…

Sara told me she’d spent years working on a book about lions for Bloomsbury. I was enthralled. I couldn’t believe that I’d not known how close lions had come to extinction in the wild. In Rwanda, they’d been completely wiped out in the 1990s because of the horrific Genocide.

Sara told me there was a chance for me to do something, to travel with her and document a project in Akagera, where lions had been successfully reintroduced. I was in, totally in, but there was a slight hitch – no funding. I’d have to take time out of work, work for free, and pay for the privilege. Sara said she couldn’t afford this either, she’d put everything into the book, so she set up a Crowdfunder for When The Last Lions Roars, and asked people to support us, writer and photographer, to go to Rwanda and get the story direct from the lions mouth (Spoiler, we didn’t meet any lions).


I was overwhelmed by the support from people I knew, people who I didn’t expect to be interested in what I was up to, let alone be so generous. Three quarters of the funding came from those dear kind people, and a bit more from my things that Sara sold.

So, there I was, flying to Africa with a woman who I only really knew through tiny squares on the internet, Instagram snapshots of her life through her eyes.

After a long queue (a short queue, a long time) for our Visas we stepped out into the night. The air was warm and smelt of wood fires. Armed police stood on street corners, dressed as men, looking like boys. Our driver took us to the hotel, up and down hills, the city scattered with lights. ‘Left hand drive!’ I exclaimed, at last noticing. Sara shrugged, ‘You’ll be fine’.


We checked in to the Marriott Hotel, admired the carpet, and headed up to our room. The lift doors opened, two men stood there, half dressed in robes. Three floors up and we’d already learnt that they were from Istanbul, they knew the city, and they would be in the bar for drinks later should we wish to join them.

I had other plans. Chugging a pot noodle in my hotel room was top of my list.

Hold the line. I noted that our toilet was branded Toto. And that we were in Africa. (If you get that you’re a music fan of the 80s).

It took me a while to get to sleep, overtired and slightly startled by hearing Sara demand ‘Sleep!’ as she dozed off (apparently it was a ‘silent’ meditation).

We woke to a view over the city and a large buffet breakfast.


Heading to the airport to pick up our pre-booked hire car we discovered that it wasn’t at the airport at all. There was a man there, holding a sign that read ‘Mr Harvey Karen’ and looking very bewildered. When we finally arrived at Europcar the car that was ready for Mr Harvey Karen wasn’t available to Miss Karen Harvey and we were asked to fork out another $100 for a new Toyota Fortuna, which turned into a beat-up Land Cruiser after the payment had gone through.

I’ve never driven a manual left-hand drive 4×4 through an African capital city before. (Make that – I’ve never driven a left hand drive anything, or a 4×4, or been to Africa.) First stop petrol station, then road works.

Attempting to master the knackered clutch and spongey brakes, we set off on our 100km journey across the land of a thousand hills, east to Akagera National Park.


I focused myself on the busy roads – first swerving pot holes, cars, trucks and cyclists, then later, school children, bicycles laden with bananas, and a mongoose. Gentle rain fell on the dusty red roads as we headed further and further from civilisation.


After several hours we arrived at Akagera National Park. Relief. Tiny brightly coloured birds bathed by a dripping water tap and baboons hung out on a  football pitch. We were met by Park Manager Jes Gruner, he gave us a brief introduction to the wonderful work they’re doing there, and then took us to meet the dogs.

Raging and snarling at their kennel doors, these beasts were quite terrifying, trained to take down a poacher in a matter of moments. Rizo was let out, immediately calmed, looking up with adoration at Jes, most obviously his favourite human, and then moving over to me with his big brown eyes for a good rubbing.

As he walked away to get back to work Jes pointed at my blue t-shirt and said, ‘Don’t wear that tomorrow’. It seems the tsetse fly likes blue, and black, so much so that the park had hung striped flags around to attract the flies away from us.

We checked in to the Game Lodge. I checked my suitcase – all blue and black.


The lodge had an air of 1960s holiday chalets, not at all what I had imagined. The curtains were a heavy patchwork of animal print. We slept under a big mosquito net. Sara tucked me in, passing me my laptop, phone, books, water and more. It felt like indoor camping.

Waking to a breakfast of banana cake, watermelon and anti-malarials, we gathered our packed lunches and headed out from the lodge to pick up my new co-driver, 22-year-old community freelance guide, and custard-cream eating kind heart, Maddy Uwase.

It was time to go on a lion hunt, and we were more than ready.

With great thanks to Kigali Marriott Hotel for hosting me and my guest for a night in their wonderful new hotel.

These Recent Things (Cats, Cruise Ships & Cars)


I should have written sooner. All those days blurring busily into weeks, months. Today I’ve found, in between baking an apple cake and prepping for the Renaissance Photography Prize portfolio reviews, a pocket of time that would have otherwise been filled.

Right now I should have been in Tel Aviv launching an exhibition, giving portfolio reviews, hunting down cakes of excellence. But, flights cancelled, exhibition postponed, I’ve found myself at home with time, and sunshine, and an abundance of autumn fruit.


I’ve been busy, I’ve been away, I’ve been to Scotland, and Amsterdam, I’ve driven half way across Rwanda and back. I’ve seen giraffes, and baboons, and cats (no big cats) and funny little birds that roll over as they fly, offering glitzy glimpses of their colourfully feathered undercarriages. I even found myself accidently on a cruise ship (never again).

I’m not sure that, however I try, I can really remember what I’ve been up to, let alone tell you in any detail, but that’s what photographs are for, right? Right.


I’ve done some good eating out – Crown & Punchbowl, Kimchee, Dishoom, Bills in Victoria (because of the great company and velvet corner nest), and eating in – when I had the pleasure of welcoming chef Anita Kerai into my kitchen. She arrived with boxes full of food and spices, and a big grin on her face. Within minutes she’d begun, cooking up a Gujarati feast in my Fenland kitchen, completely relaxed in this stranger’s home. After a day of cooking and learning it was time to eat. We sat down, friends over a feast of delicious food, and Anita shared with me the story of how she became a chef (and I shared that story over here on Surf4).

Adam and I sprinted at Brands Hatch at the Lotus Festival alongside Lotus Cup Europe and all sorts of other wondrous racing. I love Brands Hatch. I was 8th out of 11, which isn’t particularly exciting, but I did knock just over 3 seconds off my time from the previous year, so that was good.

Then we went to Rockingham for a two hour track evening with Alan and that was great fun.


Shutter Hub continued to fundraise for the GIRL TOWN exhibition, dozens of people came forward to share their messages of support (read them here), and Laura’s brilliant article  ‘Celebrating the Culture of the Female in the 21st Century’ got featured on the World Photography Organisation blog, and in Amber Magazine.

We made the selection of work for our forthcoming ‘Artificial Things’ exhibition with Cambridge University which opens on the 3rd November, and we’ve begun work on the accompanying events – come and join us for drinks and talks on 30th November if you can. We’ve also started work on plans for an exhibition in Fleet Street, London early next year, so I’ll let you know about that sometime soon too.

I was very happy to be asked by the FORMAT team to join them at Unseen Amsterdam and give portfolio reviews last month. Unseen is heralded as one of the best photography festivals in the world, I’d never been before and I was excited to have a doubly good reason to go. And I love the Netherlands.

I left my car at the station and got the train to Stansted, plane to Schiphol, train to Amsterdam, and arrived in time to meet my friend Dagmar for Vlaamse Frieten and good chats.

I’d picked a central spot to stay, although Unseen was over at Westergasfabriek (near where I once ate a gold and silver clay covered purple potato), I wanted to be able to enjoy more of the city for my few days. The Nova Hotel (with a bit of a  Hoxton-Shoreditch vibe to the rooms, but more space) was just minutes away from Dam Square and gave me good reason to walk – apart from when I overslept, of course.

Rushing to the reviews in the morning my driver couldn’t see the map, or where he was going. He fumbled and swerved, searching for his glasses. ‘On your head,’ I told him, wishing I’d been up in time to walk.

De Bakkerswinkel was the most lovely venue for the portfolio reviews. Perhaps we could have done with brighter lighting, but the calming atmosphere and fascinating space made for a really relaxed and engaging day. I gave eight reviews in all. I felt inspired, alert and tired, all in one big bundle. I walked back across the city, stopped off to buy orange juice, grapes, salad and a big bar of Tonys Chocolonely, and then headed back to my hotel room where I sat at the table and enjoyed my picnic. It was great!

In the morning I went back over to Unseen – I saw friends and photography, I saw a pig being spit roasted in the street, and a pigeon smiled at me from a bush. Walking back to the station in the sun I met the most magnificent cat sitting outside a bakery sniffing the breeze.

That’s what I call a successful trip.

No sooner was I home than I was rushing off to Rwanda, but that’s another story, a long story, with baboons and hippos, tree tomatoes and passionfruit juice, and a crappy death trap of a hire vehicle. (Thanks Europcar!)

In stark contrast to driving freely across a African National Park, I found myself, last week, accidentally aboard a cruise ship with no hot drinks, shrieking waiters, and a Swarovski crystal staircase worth a couple of hundred-thousand Euros. Nuts. (Literally – in a cake, that the waiter said was nut free. And that’s another story, a boring one about antihistamines, swelling and excuses. Yawn.)


The MSC Preziosa was a frenzy of bloggers rushing everywhere from the restaurants to the pools, taking pictures of half-naked old men (it was an accident, I deleted it) and photographing things they couldn’t have, like cups of tea, apparently only reserved for passengers, not guests.

I’d stayed the night before in a pretty awful hotel. Always wanting to look on the bright side I made a list of good things about the place. 1. It was called The Dolphin  and 2. It looked like a prison.


What next, hey?

North Coast 500 – Scottish Highlands Road Trip


The drive up to Scotland didn’t seem too long. We saw two camels at Scotch Corner and stopped off at the Falkirk wheel for a cup of tea, before arriving, early evening in Perth – a city of grand buildings with a stunning bridge running over a wide river. A place steeped in history, where you can stay in a castle if you want to, or not. Our hotel was opposite a funeral parlour and smelt like the dentists.

We explored a little, noted that the things I am interested in probably aren’t in any tourist guides – climbing frames that look like insects and the fanciest glitziest mirrored foyer at Morrison’s supermarket. We walked down the road and eyed up blocks of flats sporting a beautiful pebble dash and pink paint combo. Some of the buildings were incredible, some of the buildings were incredible and derelict. The Waverley Hotel had been taken over by pigeons, wafting in and out of their broken glassed net-curtained windows.

We ate in the hotel restaurant, a tartan carpeted conservatory extension to the front of the building. I felt like I might be by the sea, and also quite elderly. I was reminded of the time I stayed in Eastbourne – I breakfasted with a bunch of lovely ladies who didn’t want to see me sitting alone. I joined them and accidentally ate rather a lot of prunes.

I slept for a few minutes at a time, managing to hook the open end of the pillowcase around my wrist so that the weight of my hand would pull the pillow down tight over my head and protect my ears from the drone of vehicles and traffic-light racers outside.

Breakfast was black pudding, potato cake, poached egg and mushrooms. We didn’t want beans. ‘Musical fruit!’ the waiter exclaimed before taking our order to the kitchen. The Grampian Hotel has a charm of it’s own.

From Perth, we drove, through the Cairngorms – heather, ferns, rosebay willow herb, rock, trees, so many trees – to Inverness, and on towards Wick.

Tastylia Oral Strip without prescription  As we headed further north I noted, less trees, more sheep. We stopped off at a small cemetery atop a hill overlooking the sea. We climbed steps, hauled over a stone wall, to explore, to feel the breeze.

In Wick, on the shortest street in the world (reason enough to go there for me) we checked in to Mackays Hotel. In our room, a tipple of sherry and a Werthers Original each. Winning. Also, relief, a welcoming bed. The view of the bay from the window was almost timeless.

Again, we wandered and explored. Hand painted signs in shop windows advertised ‘Superdry’ and ‘White Stuff’. Another, framed brightly in orange, read ‘YOUTHS’ in bold letters.

We ate in the hotel restaurant, No.1 Bistro.Presumptuous name!’ I thought, but then I got eating and decided they were probably right.

Orkney handdived scallops, black pudding risotto (peppery, creamy and rich, with shredded apple), Monkfish and Serrano ham ballotine, venison with golden beetroots, tiny wild mushrooms, pink tinted potatoes and a creamy parsnip sauce (deliciously earthy and foraged flavours), a pre-dessert (why did I not know about pre-desserts before? Who has been hiding this from me?) of chocolate sponge with Wick strawberries and white chocolate mousse, soufflé with gin gel and raspberry puree, petit fours, a cup of tea… rejoice, and breath!

We slept well, ate breakfast, and drove to John O’Groats to watch people queue for photos in front of the sign. We didn’t get a Starbucks, but (sadly) we could have done. I watched little birds (twites, I think) hop in an out of crab baskets, whilst Adam tried to lure a lone seagull.

Heading west we stopped at Canisbay Church. There were lots of photos of the Queen Mum in the entrance porch and some fascinating monuments. I fell in a hole.


On to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland. Beside the lighthouse lay  minor fortifications – a Second World War radar station and observation post, and a bunker used during the Cold War. My kind of place, I love a bunker.


We continued driving, slowing to watch sheep crossing the road, and stopping to observe Dounreay Nuclear Facility. The tourist guide called the site ‘impressive’ but I’m not so sure, maybe it was in the 1950s, when it was built, but ‘frightening’ seems a more accurate word for me. The last reactor was decommissioned in the 90s but the site is still full of dangerous nuclear materials, and so is the shoreline and seabed nearby after over 20 years of leaking radioactive fuel fragments. The beach is closed off. I’m fascinated by radioactivity, but not impressed. We drove on.


So many sheep, then cows – proper highland cattle standing beside the road looking glorious. Adam videoed their long hair wisping in the wind. One of them looked like Donald Trump and was chewing on an old plant pot.

Each and every turn we made opened up a new and stunning view as we drove east, stopping in Durness to admire Britains largest sea cave entrance at Smoo Cave (and a pigeons nest) and then heading inland along some of the most incredible open and empty roads, to Overscaig House Hotel on Loch Shin.


I wasn’t sure what to expect, I was concerned I would feel uncomfortable in this remote and isolated place, with no phone signal to call for help. I needn’t have worried. It was like being welcomed into a distant relative’s home. Patterned carpets, coloured bathroom suites, cushions and quirky ornaments. I’d normally be put off by this, but the personalities just won me over, I felt so at home.

We ate in the dining room, walls covered with every tartan you could imagine, a hearty dinner of Aberdeen Angus ribeye with vegetables and chips. One of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

Silent, comfortable sleep. Weighty feather duvet dreams.

We ate breakfast (sultana and cinnamon loaf with banana and maple syrup) overlooking the loch. Magnificent. 150 metres deep at its deepest point. Can you imagine?

We could just work out the shape of a tiny cottage on the other side of the loch. With a telescope we could see much more detail, it was something like looking through a keyhole into the past. A memory of a house. A ghost of a home.

Only accessible by boat and last inhabited in 1953 by an old lady who’d spent her life there. The story goes that when she was expecting a baby she had to climb down a ladder onto a boat that took her across the loch. Her husband then strapped her to the ladder, strapped the ladder to a donkey, and took her 14 miles up the road to the hospital in Lairg.

As we left Overscaig House Hotel it was cool and still. I was interested to know what it was like to be bitten by a midge. ‘You won’t get bitten by just one!’ the owner chuckled. He was right. I first felt a sting like a pin prick on my lip, then my cheek, then my eyebrow. For something so small they were fierce. I recalled the time I let an owl bite my hand to see what it felt like and wondered why I had to have all these ‘experiences’.

To Ullapool, in the rain, for lunch at the Ceilidh Place and then on to the magnificent Corrieshalloch Gorge – a slot gorge cut by glacial melt water between 2.6million and 11,500 years ago and fed by water from the river Droma. (Apparently the name Corrieshalloch means ‘ugly hollow’.)


We sped down a steep trail, through midges and mizzle, to the gorge, spotting a fly agaric mushroom on the way. First time I’ve ever seen one. It was too far from the path for me to lick.

Turning right, then left, then right again, we reached the twenty-five metre long suspension bridge swaying away with tourists who’d ignored the ‘6 people maximum’ sign in favour of a group photo.

Further along on the other side we reached the cantilevered viewing platform which jutted out over the vast drop. It was a phenomenal view, such a height that it was hard to tell the distance. I felt slightly uncomfortable, vulnerable even – mostly because an old lady with a stick was barging me and there wasn’t much space to manoeuvre, but also because of the immense scale and the splendour of nature.

The Gairloch Hotel had plenty of empty rooms to go with it’s plethora of bad reviews but we checked in any way. Adam said the best thing about the place was the revolving doors.

The old lift had been given an ‘update’. Now fully carpeted and resembling a coffin, it shunted it’s way up and down slowly. The loose carpets ruffled in waves as we creaked our way to the room. Every step causing wood to squeak and graunch against more wood.

Our room was in the roof. I moved the bed out of the eaves, so that I could actually get into it and, from the tiny tiny window, we took it in turns to watch the storm move in, waves crashing.

There was no wifi so we watched  the sticky old CRT tele that, when it could get a signal, squashed the widescreen picture into it’s square screen (I kept thinking everyone was Celine Dion), and tried to ignore the mould, and the hairs.


If you want to feel like you’ve been institutionalised half a century ago, this is the place for you. Adam’s verdict – a horrible, potentially dangerous, misery hole.

The non-edible  breakfast was accompanied by ‘traditional tea’ – pre-made brown stuff stewed in an insulated flask jug. We left as quickly as we could.


What an absolute relief it was to come across All The Goodness, a coffee and bake house between Ardelve and Dornie, on the edge of three lochs, and overlooking Eilean Donan Castle. Elderflower shortbread and a roasted strawberry bun, chai latte and a flat white. We consumed with joyous gratitude.

It began to rain. Fuelled on cake and faith in humanity restored, we drove on, through the Trossachs and Loch Lomond National Park to the Four Seasons Hotel in Crief.


We stayed in a chalet on the hillside, overlooking the loch. By day, the drone of jet skis on the water, by night, pitch black with the gentle rustling of trees and something scurrying in the roof.

We slept well, waking to natures gift of mouse droppings in the morning. All I could think was that I wished I’d put my toothbrush away the night before.


And then it was time to begin our final journey home. We stopped off in Ayrshire, tried to get a glimpse of the old Loudoun Castle, but couldn’t see a thing. My great aunt lived there once (before there was a fire and a theme park) and although I’m not madly interested in family history, we do have her cauldrons and I like to place objects in spaces.

We stopped off at the golf club and I chatted to a lovely man called Frank, he reminded me of my late grandad, the gentle accent. He said Countess Sheila had married a New York policeman and moved to the US, and he sent us up to the kirk to look for Loudoun graves before we headed towards the motorways and the ‘real’ world again.

We didn’t go to any Whisky distilleries, we didn’t play any golf. We didn’t try on kilts or tam-o-shanters. We didn’t drink Irn Bru or play the bagpipes. And I didn’t say ‘Och aye the noo’ to anyone (apart from Adam).

___________________________________________________________________________

We were guests of Mackays Hotel and dinner at No.1 Bistro was complimentary (and very delicious).

Gairloch Hotel kindly refunded our stay and assured us that they were undertaking a programme of improvement and fixing the carpet that week.

As always,  my opinions are my own.

 

Old Holland – Beemster, Edam & Zandvoort

Catching an Easyjet flight is a bit like playing Russian roulette. I would have normally still been in bed, but instead I was on a plane full of mouthy drunk men who at the slightest bit of turbulence yelled, almost simultaneously, ‘Whoa f*cking hell, don’t like that much!’ as I sat, head pushed as far into the tatty inflight magazine as I could manage.

I stepped off the plane, bacon sandwich remnants covering my clothes (not mine, the man next to me really enjoyed his breakfast) and headed across Schiphol airport to meet Mara.

We got a car to Amsterdam, and once we’d met up with our travel gang, we drove 20 minutes to the north of the city to the peaceful and flat waterlands.

At Broek in Waterland we boarded an eco-friendly boat and took the water way to Theetuin Overleek tea gardens. It was something of a fairy tale. We stroked giant white rabbits and collected our picnic baskets. Blankets over laps, we sipped homemade lemonade as the ‘whisper boat’ broke gently through still waters, risen above the land along dykes and canals, passing wooden houses and tranquil meadows.

I saw a cat chase a duck into the water, many chickens, and a funeral.


Leaving the boat behind, we travelled North to the dairy farm of Jan Uitentuis in Beemster Polder, where the flat land lies low, 3.5 metres below sea level.

Welcomed to the family farm we set to work making cheese. Mara and I teamed up, cheese team, cheese dream team, and sorted the curds and whey. The waste whey goes to feed the calves, rennet from calves stomachs is used to make the cheese, I am not sure about this circle of life.

Outside I befriended the farm dog, a chunky boxer staff cross, and we went to meet the cows. I managed to chase some chickens and spotted a cat, before feeding bread to the most lovely Hampshire Down sheep. Interesting fact: you can’t fit a lamb in your pocket, even if it is stretchy fabric.

Lambless, we headed over to Fort Resort Beemster. Built in 1912, once a fortress and now a wellness centre, it’s a fascinating UNESCO world heritage site.

We sat down for dinner, the long table stretched the length of the room and raw crystal lights hung like stalactites from the ceiling. Plates of veal, quail, calves cheek, and more veal, fed us all with flavours of the region. The dessert was a delicious blueberry mousse with blackberry puree and ice cream. So nice I ate two, thanks Mel!

It was quite late when we got to Edam, to the beautiful L’Auberge Damhotel. We checked in to rooms, wandering along the hallways as keys were handed out. My room was in the roof. A huge chandelier hung from the low ceiling over the bed, bigger than the bed. I wondered if I’d survive the night.

On the way down, catching a glimpse of Jessica’s room, I commented, ‘Oh, your room is very nice, mine is much more plain.’
‘This is plain,’ she said.
‘No it’s not!’
‘Yes it is, it’s plain,’ she said adamantly, as I looked on at the gilt framed paintings and dark velvet furnishings.
‘But you’ve got a f*cking piano in there!’

The light was fading, but the air was warm, we wandered the streets, nosing through windows into perfect homes. It was like something you would dream up if you were trying to create the most idyllic Dutch town.

I slept well, waking to find myself wedged deep in the gap between the two single beds that were making a double. Reluctantly I prised myself from the bed nest and joined the others for breakfast before heading out into the sunshine for a tour of Edam.

Edam, a 14th and 15th century fortress town, was once one of the country’s most important commercial centres with thriving shipbuilding, timber and cheese trading industries. Wood and cheese, two of my favourite things.

We talked about cheese, we looked at cheese, walking down cobbled streets, along the canals of Edam. A lady was loading things into her car, in the back window fluttered a large moth. ‘House mother,’ she told us. I died slightly at the beauty of the words.

Through the perfect streets, passed the most incredible buildings, trying to take everything in – architectural details, beautiful colours, door knockers with painted eyes, windows with lives going on behind them – brunches, newspapers, coffees.

We turned the corner into Edam’s 15th Century shipyard, Scheepswerf Groot. It was dark, the air thick with the taste of old oil. Chains and pulleys, the bones of ancient boats, carcasses, stacked against the wall.


‘Where are we?’ asked Moran. ‘Edam.’ I said. ‘Yes, but what is this place?’ her big brown eyes wide and confused. On the radio came Starship’s ‘We built this city’, the mood lifted, we sang along until the radio was switched off.

Back across Holland, in no time at all, we were at Beach Club Tien for lunch. Zandvoort, also known as Amsterdam Beach (because it’s so close to the city, believe it or not), has all the things you could want – pale sands, blue skies, seagulls stealing lunches from children, and a race track.

We hired bikes and peddled over to Circuit Zandvoort. I wobbled along, holding on tightly, sure my front wheel was buckled and it was nothing to do with my lack of balance. It was a beautiful sunny day, there was a 24 hour cycling event going on, and we were allowed to join in for a lap, and… circuit director Edwin gave me a lift round in his car.

Busy wondering what it would be like to drive there myself (and take it out of first gear) I realised it was time for me to head off. I needed to get back to the airport, to get home, to drive my own car round Silverstone in the morning.

The flight back to London was full of women and smelt of perfume. What a difference a day makes!


With the greatest thanks to the wonderful people of  iAmsterdam for inviting me to join them on such an excellent adventure. 

Welcome to the World of Karen Harvey: photographer, writer, creative consultant… self proclaimed cat whisperer, chicken wrangler and chief cake taster!