Turning around in Georgia

Things rarely go as planned.  When we decided to travel, our aim was to reach Mongolia via the silk road and the famous Pamir Highway.  The Pamir Highway climbs to an altitude of 4600 metres, so there is a limited window of opportunity for crossing it, dependent on the season.  Setting off from the UK in September 2018, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to cross the Pamirs before the summer of this year.

After spending the winter in Morocco, it was our intention to start travelling East in early spring.  This would give us plenty of time to reach the Pamirs before the coming winter.  However, we then decided to convert the inside of the Land Rover, taking three months out of our schedule. 

We reached Turkey at the end of June, passing the easternmost point we had hitherto reached.  On a campsite on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, we met some young Turks who approached us to look at the Land Rover, saying how much they liked it and asking questions about how we cooked, slept, washed, etc.  They were visibly impressed with our set up and stayed with us for a pleasant half hour talking about Land Rovers and camping and showing us the best places to visit in Turkey.  Later they brought us baclava; a small gesture of thanks for the time we’d spent with them.

Our original plan had been to hug the north coast of Turkey, following the Black Sea all the way to Georgia.  However, our new Turkish friends suggested we travel south to see ancient Greek and Roman ruins and to visit the rock formations of Cappadocia and then travel eastward, staying inland.  The coast road, they said, was just a busy dual carriageway with the sea on one side and mountains on the other.  We heeded their advice and set off to explore this interesting and beautiful country – first visiting the Phrygian valleys where Midas was once king, then to Hierapolis with its Greek amphitheatre and travertine pools, and on to Cappadocia with spectacular rock formations, cave villages and hot air balloons.

Greek amphitheatre at Heirapolis

We travellers don’t like to think of ourselves as tourists.  This is pure snobbery of course, there being little to distinguish the tourist from the traveller, particularly from the point of view of locals.  We visited the ancient town of Hierapolis with all the other tourists visiting that day and did what all the other tourists did – marvelling at the amphitheatre, paddling in the slippery travertine pools and taking photographs to put on Instagram in search of those approval-bestowing ‘likes’.

In Cappadocia, however, we strongly felt the separation between us as travellers and the tourists that flock to the region.  We found a place to camp using an app – which was described as a great spot to see the hot air balloons at dawn.  We arrived to find a flat parking area surrounded by sandy valleys with deeply fluted stacks of rock in shades of beige and pink.  Looking down into these valleys, we saw animal tracks in the sandy valley floor and Steve spotted a family of jackals living in a rock crevice.  The sun was just starting to set and we were sitting down to eat our dinner when half a dozen vehicles arrived, including two Defenders from which a number of Asian tourists emerged.  They had been brought to this spot on a guided tour to watch the stunning palette of colours the setting brought out in the rock.

On seeing the Land Rover, the Asian visitors took no notice of the beauty around them but proceeded to take photographs of us eating our dinner by the car.  One man gave his camera to his wife and came to stand behind us, asking if he could have a photograph with us.  We sat eating our dinner while this random stranger stood behind us smiling at his wife taking several photographs.  To these people we had become a tourist attraction as interesting as these majestic structures surrounding us!  It amused us to imagine these people returning home and showing their friends and families photographs of a Defender and two English people eating their dinner – smiles fixed like exhibits in a waxwork museum.

Although these vehicles disappeared with the sun, it was not a peaceful camp.  Two cars arrived late at night and noisily set up camp next to us and after a brief respite in the small hours, the activity recommenced before dawn.  This time, however, it was worth being woken as we opened our door to a sky full of newly launched hot air balloons, with many more still on the ground around us.  The balloons glowed like giant lightbulbs in the pre-dawn twilight, as their roaring burners heated the trapped air enough to lift the baskets full of eagerly awaiting tourists into the sky.  We watched as balloon after balloon paraded past, so close they blocked out the sky, rising briefly before dipping down into the valleys in turn and then up high into the sky.  As dawn broke in a clear sky, the sight and sound of over a hundred balloons climbing and descending over the dusky pink landscape around us was truly spectacular.

We find that in our determination not to be tourists, we tend to shun tourist places.  In Turkey we did join the tourist trail, visiting the ruins at Hierapolis and the open-air cave museum at Goreme.  We found these experiences expensive and disappointing and although interesting, our experience was marred by other people.  In Goreme, it was hard to move in and out of the caves due to the number of people blocking staircases and doorways, and groups of friends stopping to take photographs of each other at every opportunity.  In Hierapolis we paid twice the normal price for a simple bottle of water.  In many cases, we refrained from taking a photograph of something beautiful because it was almost impossible to do so without other people in the frame.  In Istanbul we decided against visiting the Aya Sophia and found the Basilica Cistern disappointing and crowded.  We have found that we prefer to find our own places well away from tourists and in this way have stumbled across some achingly beautiful and peaceful places.

Mountain tracks in the Great Caucasus

Having been surrounded by people in Cappadocia, we craved solitude for our next camp and in search of that we drove up into the mountains to a place we found on our app next to a volcanic crater lake.  The long, but easy off-road track took us up to 2300 metres, where it was blissfully cool and quiet.  Despite numerous gambolling marmots, the lake itself didn’t appeal to us as a camp place, so we decided to continue along the track, which became much rougher as we climbed higher.  We finally reached a place where we could pull off the track and make the car reasonably level.  It was perfectly quiet with no-one in sight and a view over the distant plains to one side, and the peak of the volcano, still capped with snow, to the other. 

We have learned that wherever we go we are never alone.  Nowhere on this planet seems to be truly remote.  Whether in Saharan sand dunes, arctic mountains or the Swedish wilderness, people are never far away.  The silence of even this remote place was soon disturbed by the sound of sheep bleating and goat bells and within minutes we were surrounded by a huge flock, accompanied by a donkey, several Anatolian shepherd dogs and a solitary herder.  He took no notice of us, however, and the flock inexorably moved away with only the dogs peacefully lingering to ensure we were no threat.

As the sun set and we prepared for bed, we noticed a fire on the side of one of the surrounding hills.  At first we assumed this was the herder’s camp fire, but on looking through our binoculars, we saw that the fire was far too large to be a camp fire, and that there was no person in its vicinity.  As we watched the fire burn and start to die, another fire sprang up some feet away from it, quickly followed by two more.  The fires didn’t burn for long, each one flaring brightly for ten or fifteen minutes before beginning to die as another was born.  Eventually there were ten fires in various stages of life, clearly visible in the darkening sky.

By morning the fires were all out and we could see the scorched grass showing where they had been.  Another fire sprang up further away on another hill, but it quickly died and seemed to be isolated.  We were puzzled about the cause of these fires and have, as yet, found no explanation for them.  Google gave us nothing and the fires didn’t seem to fit the description of the ‘eternal’ fires sometimes associated with erupting volcanic gases.  These were certainly not eternal.

The rest of our journey through Turkey took us across vast arid plains and up into the mountains of the north, where we were able to escape from the heat, if only briefly, before descending to join the coast road that would take us into Georgia.

Batumi at sunset

Our first stop was Batumi, Georgia’s answer to Dubai.  The city was a mix of old colonial style buildings and ultra-modern skyscrapers, with a beach front on the Black Sea and surrounded by cloud topped mountains.  Our only task in the city was to buy a local SIM card, which we did quickly before heading for the mountains to escape the heat, something of a theme with us since arriving in the Balkans in early June.

Georgia quickly became one of our favourite countries and rivalled Norway for its spectacular beauty.  We spent a few days in Tbilisi, which, although the capital, was compact enough to get around on foot and occasional taxis, which were cheap enough to be a good option.  The crumbling old town of Tbilisi contrasted starkly with the modern shopping mall on Rustavelli Avenue, where we treated ourselves to a visit to the cinema.  Accommodation was plentiful and inexpensive – and Georgian food was delicious.

After resting in Tbilisi we explored the Caucasus mountains in the north, driving along bumpy dirt tracks to over 2800 metres looking for places to camp, and finding them in stunning high valleys alongside clear mountain streams.

Laundry day in Sno Valley, Georgia

It had been our intention, while in Tbilisi, to apply to the Russian embassy for the visas we would need to continue our journey east through Russia to Kazakhstan.  The alternative to travel through Russia was to cross the Caspian Sea from Baku in Azerbaijan to Aktau in Kazakhstan.  We had read that the ferry from Baku was notoriously unreliable, with no timetable and the possibility of a quayside wait of as much as two weeks.  The ferry was also expensive and uncomfortable offering meals of which the only meat-free option was the soup with the pieces of meat picked out and left on the side of the plate.

For entry to Mongolia, there was no other option for us than Russia.  The only other border with Mongolia is Chinese and overlanding in China had never been an option, as the requirement to travel with a guide is prohibitively expensive.

We discovered that there is no Russian Embassy in Georgia, but they do have an office within the Swiss Embassy where visa applications are processed.  There is also a recently opened Russian Visa Centre, and this is where we headed to apply for our visas.  On arriving at the Visa Centre and explaining that we wanted to apply for tourist visas, we received a positive response.  But when we explained that we were driving and would be taking a vehicle into Russia, we received an emphatic ‘no’.  It was not possible to obtain a visa.  No explanation was offered but the interview was clearly over.  We think that the only way to obtain the necessary visas to drive in Russia are through the embassy in the UK, but even contacting them didn’t help us.  The simply said that each country had its own rules regarding issuing visas and that we needed to contact the embassy in Georgia.

So we had to make a decision: continue across the Caspian Sea and along the silk road as far as Bishkek in Kirghizstan, then turn around without reaching Mongolia, or turn around now and return to the UK to prepare for another trip in the spring.

We decided on the latter.

Our vie on road, therefore, will shortly end when we spend the winter in the UK arranging the next part of our travels.  Whether we will apply for Russian visas in London and try for Mongolia again, or head west, shipping the car to Canada to explore the Americas – we don’t yet know.

Things rarely go according to plan but we always knew that our life on the road was about just that – the journey – and not the destination.  So while we are sad that we are already facing west again, we are excited about time at home with friends and family and looking forward to the next part of our adventure.

Feeling homesick in the Balkans

It is hard to keep track of time.  I expected that being released from a busy life full of routine would free time, allowing a new perspective and appreciation of the present moment.  In fact, constantly moving and an ever-changing environment keeps time beyond our grasp.  I sit here now in Georgia in July looking back on two months of travel and already find it hard to recall events and places beyond a few days and one country ago.

We left Germany in May, excited to be travelling again with our newly converted Defender and relishing the prospect of enjoying cold and stormy nights tucked up and cosy inside the car.  It felt strange to be back on the road after a three-month break and to be on our own again after so much time enjoyably spent in other people’s company.  We had arranged for two of my children, Mary and Peter, to fly to Croatia and join us for a few days in June.  With that appointment in mind we travelled at leisure southward through Austria and Italy, by ferry to Sardinia and back, and finally across the Aegean Sea from Ancona on Italy’s east coast to Split in Croatia, arriving in Croatia on the same morning as Mary and Peter’s flight.

We spent a wonderful five days together in Croatia, introducing the family to wild camping – an experience I’m not sure they relished – spending a couple of days on a beautiful campsite on the island of Brač and being tourists in Dubrovnik searching for Game of Thrones locations.  Croatia didn’t disappoint in terms of its beauty but Dubrovnik was very hot, very crowded and very expensive.  Nevertheless it was fun visiting the Red Keep and Blackwater Bay – locations easily recognisable – and the Purple wedding location, which required more imagination as in reality it is just a large car park overlooking the city.

After Mary and Peter’s departure we left Croatia for Montenegro, hoping it would be less busy and less expensive.  It was both of these things, and also much less developed but sharing Croatia’s stunning mountain and coastal scenery.  We also stumbled upon the remains of ancient Illyrian ruins amidst modern day villages with their ever-present mosques calling the faithful to prayer.

One of Montenegro’s Illyrian ruins

While in Montenegro I suffered my first real homesickness.  Triggered by Mary and Peter’s departure, it took me by surprise and was for a time quite overwhelming.   For the first time I experienced the isolation of travelling, even when part of a couple.  We have many aspects to our personalities and these seek reflection in all the different relationships that make up our world.  When travelling, we have no choice but to seek these multiple reflections in just one individual – our travelling companion, or in my case, my husband.  I suspect it is rare to find a partner capable of reflecting all aspects of our personality and therefore fulfilling all our needs.  I think my personality type is such that it would be impossible to find one person capable of that.

My relationships with my children, my family and my friends provided a balance within which my marriage existed.  In the absence of those relationships the balance has been disrupted and led to a feeling of isolation.  That in turn has put pressure on the marriage.  I had thought that the hardest challenge I would face during this journey would be dealing with fear.  In fact, this isolation and the relationship issues it has created has been the hardest challenge. 

Whilst dealing with my homesickness and feelings of isolation, we travelled through Albania and Greece.  Albania was surprisingly beautiful and remote, its people welcoming and friendly.  In Greece we dealt with the stifling heat by camping either on beaches, where we could cool off in the sea, or by seeking refuge in the mountains.  We drove up Mount Olympus to the head of the trail leading to the summit and found ourselves caught in a violent downpour that washed rocks and mud from the hillsides onto the roads, which became temporary rivers.  The relief from the oppressive heat was  blissful!

We were surprised both in Greece and Albania by the amount of rubbish littering the roads, parks and beaches.  In the mountains there were places where rubbish was just tipped from the roadside; beaches where plastic was strewn, either washed up by the sea or left by visitors.  It was sad to see places of such beauty marred by plastic detritus and interesting that, as western Europeans, we are supremely aware of the ecological effects of plastic. We have David Attenborough to educate and remind us. Here it seems the same awareness is, so far, limited or absent. It seems to be up to us, as visitors, to care for the environment we are passing through.

As we leave Greece and enter Turkey, I reflect that travelling is a bit like a new relationship.  The early months are full of excitement and romance, where everything seems new and interesting and anything seems possible.  Then after the initial six month ‘honeymoon’ period, the routine becomes established and familiar, bringing not only a level of comfort and security but also the reality of the mundane.  It is no longer a holiday, a break from life; it is life with all of its problems, challenges, highs and lows.  And with the same sense that time is rushing by, as ever out of our control.

Morocco – coming to the end of our mini African adventure

I seem to have been suffering from writer’s block – if I can take the liberty of calling myself a writer.  Since my last post just before Christmas, our pace of travel slowed dramatically and I found myself procrastinating over my next post; just enjoying our continued exploration of Morocco and our slow pace.  Now that we have left Morocco behind, we have been able to reflect on our experience of that spectacular country.


Snow at 2700 metres in the High Atlas

It is not only Morocco’s diverse landscape that is spectacular; it is its culture and people.  We have found that our most memorable experiences all involved our interaction with local people, their openness, friendliness and stunning hospitality. 


I took a brief break from travelling over Christmas, flying home to spend a few days with family and giving Steve a brief break from me.  He remained in Marrakesh where he was joined by his son during my absence.  Before my departure on Christmas Day, we spent a very enjoyable Christmas Eve together on a campsite near Marrakesh, where we celebrated with other campers, including a lovely French family with whom we became good friends during our brief time together.  Christmas Eve provided a bizzare cultural clash – this familiar Christian festival, complete with Christmas trees and decorations, being accompanied by music from a Berber troupe, who sang traditional songs about their freedom from slavery!


On my return to Morocco we headed south from Marrakesh to join our German friends again for New Year.  They had found a camping place in the southern part of the country near a hot sulphur spring and had spent their Christmas there alone but for the local people who frequent the springs to bathe and share a picnic.IMAG1343


We joined them here and celebrated New Year’s Eve with a barbecue over a campfire.  We had the place to ourselves until quite late, when a group of young local men arrived to share cigarettes and some illicit local whisky.  We spent some time talking to them and they told us that despite being well-educated, some with law degrees, they could find no suitable work in Morocco, having to take labouring jobs to make ends meet. 

Following recent events there has been a change in the treatment of tourists by the authorities, desperate to ensure that tourists come to no harm.  Tourism is vital to Morocco’s economy.  We encountered Europeans travelling in camping cars bemoaning the loss of ability to stop and camp freely, the authorities regularly moving people on from wild camps to official campsites.  We were moved on ourselves from a lovely spot we found overlooking a beach on the Atlantic coast, having to resort to a nearby campsite that was overcrowded and enclosed by high walls surmounted by rolled barbed wire.  It felt like a prison camp.  However, we couldn’t help thinking that, small as the risk might be, spending a night on a campsite was a small price to pay for our security.IMG_9688_Moment

During a visit to the beautiful fishing town of Essouria on the Atlantic coast, our attention was drawn to a boat being repaired in dry-dock.  Seeing our interest, a man approached us, explaining that he was first engineer on the vessel and was overseeing the repairs. He took us on a tour of the harbour, explaining the development that would soon take place, modernising the harbour facilities.  The boats were currently hauled out of the water uIMAG1400sing winches and wooden logs but these were soon to be replaced by electronic hoists.  Like everything, the old would disappear to make way for the new.  It was a fascinating and unexpected interaction, and also provided us with a place to camp for the night, as the engineer recommended a beach 20 kilometres away where he said we would be able to stay.  We found the beach, with a military post directly on it, and asked for permission to stay there overnight.  This was readily given and we set up camp alongside several other assorted overland vehicles.  It was a beautiful beach, with an extraordinary rock shelf at the high tide line.  The rocks were being steadily dissolved and eroded by the sea so that the shelf was riddled with tunnels, caves and blow holes.  Below the tide was a sea of bright green seaweed, interspersed with clear rock pools.  Local women were harvesting and drying the seaweed, which was then sold to the cosmetics industry to be used in the manufacture of sun creams and cosmetics.


Fishermen & seagulls in Essouria

The attitude of the authorities on this beach was so relaxed it surprised us to find a very different attitude in other areas.  Two days after our beach camp, we found ourselves looking for a place to camp inland as it was getting late.  We were still travelling with our German friends and decided to head for a guest house listed on our navigation app.  However, when we arrived at the coordinates of the guest house, we found nothing but a couple of farm buildings on the edge of a village.  A man was walking nearby with a young child and, as it was getting dark, we decided to ask him if he knew of anywhere we could stay for the night.

Steve, being the designated French speaker, approached the man who greeted him with the warmth of a long lost relative.  This man spoke no French beyond a simple greeting but clearly indicated that we should accompany him to his home, which was one of the nearby buildings.  He showed us where we could park our vehicles and invited us into his home to meet his family. 

The family name was Hami, and I remember the names of each family member, apart from the father, whose name we never did manage to get to grips with.  Upon our arrival, his wife, Fateha, brought us Moroccan mint tea, bread with oil, butter and jam and a freshly made omelette.  They brought a water bowl and jug which they poured for each of us in turn to wash our hands before eating.  We ate with his three sons, 21-year-old Ayoub, 13-year-old Osama and 5-year-old Saad.  The family also had two married daughters and three grand-children.  No one in the family spoke French, apart from Osama who was learning French at school.  Using a mixture of French, mime and an Icoon (a book of universal images designed to assist communication where there is no shared language) we managed a form of communication with this lovely family.

Mr Hami took Steve to the local shop to introduce him to his friends and shortly after their return the police arrived outside the Hami’s home.  Mr Hami took Steve outside to talk to the police, who wanted to know why we were there and what we were doing.  Mr Hami introduced us as friends, but the police clearly didn’t believe this and were very uncomfortable about us staying there.  We explained that we had nowhere to go and that we were invited to stay for the night.

The police left and we remained with the family while Fateha prepared a meal for us.  She cooked a whole chicken (which had been alive and well roaming the courtyard prior to our arrival) with olives and chips but our meal was interrupted by another visit from the police, this time with more senior officers and members of the local Gendarmerie.  Steve and Mr Hami were detained for some time outside with the officers who made it clear that Mr Hami was responsible for our safety while we were staying with him.  Despite Steve’s objections, they insisted that a police officer stay with us all night as a personal guard.  In the event, both the officer and Mr Hami spent a very cold night watching over us while we tried to sleep in the roof-tent, feeling so sorry that our presence had caused so much inconvenience to this family whose hospitality to us was overwhelming.

The night passed without incident and the following morning we were invited in for a delicious breakfast of Moroccan crepes, omelette, bread and tea.  The policeman shared the breakfast and we were also joined by a local school-teacher, Mohammed, who spoke fluent French as well as some English.  We said to Mohammed that we were so grateful to the family for their hospitality and that we wished we could do something for them in return.  Mohammed assured us that nothing was necessary and that this hospitality was normal for them and part of their culture.


The police and gendarmes returned in the morning to ensure that we left and we bade the family farewell with gifts we found amongst our possessions.  We were surprised by the conflict that was apparent between local Moroccans wanting to offer hospitality to strangers and the authorities, desperate to ensure that no harm comes to tourists on their patch.  As Europeans, we are unused to being welcomed in such a way by complete strangers, and offered food and a shelter without any agenda or expectation of anything in return.  It will be a huge sadness if this part of the culture is lost because it is no longer tolerated officially.  The result will be to force travellers to use only established campsites, restricting them to known tourist areas, already congested with the 30,000 French camping cars that arrive in Morocco between January and March every year.

We have sadly reached the end of the first part of our travels, and have returned to France to carry out some repairs and modifications to the Land Rover.  The past five months have passed so quickly but we have learned a lot about living this new life, how it best works for us, and the richness and variety of people and places just in the small part of the world we have covered so far.  Morocco offered us the richest experiences; we have explored a stunning, varied and surprising landscape, made new friends and seen real poverty, beauty and incomparable hospitality.  We both stepped outside our personal bubbles and pushed the limits of our comfort zones through our contact with locals and were rewarded by the warmth of the response we received. 

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In Morocco – wishing we’d brought more pens

I didn’t know what to expect in Morocco.  My main feeling as we left Europe was anxiety about our health when travelling in a country with a reputation for poor water quality and upset stomachs.  We stocked up on anti-bacterial hand wash in Algeciras and filled our water tanks with nice clean European water before departure.

Everyone in Morocco wants to shake your hand.  I quickly became ashamed of my need to clean my hands immediately after any contact.  Unfortunately, my anxiety was greater than my shame, and the hand-wash was always within reach.  As our journey through Morocco has progressed, however, I have found the anxiety beginning to slip away.  Time has passed before I realise that I forgot to clean my hands after shaking someone’s hand.  The further we have explored this country, the more we have felt at home here and the more we have loved it.


Our first destination on arriving in Morocco was Chefchouen – ‘the Blue City’ – in the Riff mountains.  The main agriculture in this region appears to be marijuana, locally known as kiff, and we only had to wait until 8 am on our first morning in Chefchaouen to be approached by someone wanting to sell us kiff.  By midday we had been approached 3 more times.  The medina was beautiful, with its white and blue painted buildings separated by narrow pathways lined with shops, but this was definitely a tourist destination, the locals looking for the opportunity to sell their carpets, blankets and djellaba at inflated tourist prices.  At every restaurant we passed we were invited in for tagine or couscous with the assurance that theirs was the best.  In Marrakesh, however, the street restaurant touts went a step further, offering us a guarantee that the food offered in their restaurant would not cause diarrhoea!

IMGP5679Our relentless flight from bad weather kept us moving south, as the rain and cold caught up with us in Chefchaouen.  We followed the roads southward, enjoying the dramatic changes in landscape as we left the Riff mountains and crossed the vast plain between mountain ranges and desert.  The roads were lined with people selling tagines and fruit, and people invariably waved as we passed, or beckoned towards us wanting a lift, or for us to stop and buy their produce.  As we approached the desert, we encountered the first of many fossil-sellers; from those with hundreds of rocks spread on blankets by the roadside, to boys on bikes or on foot who pulled a handful of rocks from their pockets or knapsacks, carefully wrapped in newspaper.

The first few times we met the fossil sellers, we looked at, and politely declined to buy, their fossils.  We quickly learned that if we stopped the car anywhere near the road or villages, it would be a very short time before we would be approached.  On one occasion we were driving across what appeared to be a wide, featureless (but nevertheless beautiful) plain dotted with small towns and villages.  On turning a bend in the road, we saw that a deep gorge ran through the plain, only visible at certain points, and containing an oasis of palm trees and villages.  This, we later found, was the Ziz Valley, and it was so spectacular that we pulled off the road and drove up to the edge of the gorge to stop and take some photographs.


Within five minutes a small white van turned off the road and came towards us.  A man got out of the van and approached us.  He spoke French well and also spoke some English and he simply talked to us, asking where we were from and whether this was our first time in Morocco.  He was interesting and pleasant to talk to, and the conversation was enjoyable.  He made no mention of fossils.  It was only when Steve asked him what he did that he told us he sold fossils.  He then opened the back doors of his van and took out boxes of fossils to show us.  He told us that his family found the fossils and worked them to reveal the trilobites or shape and polish the marble stones to make dishes and worry eggs.  His approach was so unpressured and our conversation had been so pleasant, that we decided to buy a small dish as a present for my mother, as it was her birthday.  We had also learned that it was the prophet Mohammed’s birthday on the same day.  When we explained the reason for our purchase to this man, he was delighted.  We paid 50 Dirham for the dish (about £4.50), said goodbye and returned to our car.  He then came running after us with one of the worry eggs, which he offered me as a birthday gift for Mum.

On arriving near the desert tIMAG1091own of Merzouga, we stayed on a campsite adjoining a lovely auberge, called ‘La Gazelle Bleu’.  We received the customary welcome of a tray with sweet mint tea and a bowl of nuts, but with the addition of a small bowl of Moroccan pastries, made with honey and sesame, which were delicious.  The auberge stood between the village and the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi and with the doors on both sides open, you had a view through the cool interior to the hot orange sand beyond.  We went for a walk on the sand in the late afternoon and no sooner did we reach the dunes, than a 4×4 vehicle drew up alongside us and a man asked if we wanted a tour of the desert.  We said no, that we preferred to walk, whereupon he offered a camel ride.  We declined this offer as well, saying we needed the exercise so he offered us fossils.  When we told him we already had fossils he finally left us to our walk undisturbed.

We soon found there was no art to finding fossils.  They are everywhere in this part of Morocco.  Practically every rock you pick up has traces of some ancient creature embedded within it.  We spent a few days on a lovely, quiet campsite near Tazarine – called Camp Serdrar.  Brahim, the campsite owner, showed us a route we could take for a hike from the campsite into some nearby hills where there were fossils.  “You can walk on fossils” he said.  He wasn’t wrong.  The hills were composed of rocks that were literally littered with fossils (thousands of Orthoceras from some 400 million years ago apparently).   The marble basins in Camp Serdrar’s sanitary block were made from the polished marble quarried locally, which is full of these creatures.

We have met so many different people during our time in Morocco and every encounter is interesting.  In every village, children run to the car to say hello and ask us for pens, school bags or clothes.  They usually have little French beyond the words they use to express what they want – “stylo, madame, stylo?”  We bought a bag of pens to distribute to children but the pens soon ran out.  On one occasion, a young girl clutching a baby goat asked us for clothes so I gave her one of my t-shirts (whereupon she immediately asked for some trousers) but it is impossible to give enough to make a difference to people who have so little.  We felt such impotence when being greeted by a family of children asking us for shoes for their baby brother (a toddler, who ran behind them naked from the waist down) when all we could offer them was some sweets.

We have become used to these approaches by local people and as we have journeyed into less travelled parts of Morocco.  Near more remote villages, our encounters have become more human and enriching.  We made friends with a young German couple travelling with their two-year-old and 8-month-old sons.  They planned to take a number of off-road tracks through the desert and through the mountains and we were happy to follow.  We had an amazing, if sometimes terrifying, experience crossing a mountain track consisting entirely of rocks, in some places dramatically displaced by now absent water torrents.  Our Defender and our friend’s Land Cruiser coped with everything we encountered, the cars stepping their way over the rocks and straddling the gullies.IMGP5557

After taking most of a day to travel just 40 kms in this way, we found a lovely place to camp in a rocky valley about 2 kms from a tiny village.  The interesting thing about wild camping with a young family is that it is impossible to be stealthy.  The two-year-old, Samuel, played with his toy cow making loud moo-ing noises, while the baby cried in frustration if the route he wanted to crawl along was blocked by something he couldn’t negotiate, such as a car.  Steve and I try to be inconspicuous when we wild camp, choosing places where we are unseen as much as possible.  We abandoned all such hopes as the bedtime routine was accompanied by cries reverberating between the valley walls.

It wasn’t long before an elderly villager walked past and came over to greet us.  He spoke very little French but Steve managed to conduct a brief conversation with him using a mixture of pigeon French and sign language, while he responded in what we guess was Tamazight – the local Berber language.  He was carrying a bag and when he started to open it, we imagined he would show us the fossils he wanted to sell.  But he took dates out of his bag and offered them to us, indicating that he had found them in the valley.  He accepted a glass of water and some mandarins from us and went on his way towards the village. IMGP5238

The following morning, after a night broken by some hearty crying from the baby, we saw four women walking along the valley a short distance from our camp.  They looked at us and we had the impression that they had come specifically to see us.  We approached them and said hello, but again we had no language in common.  They were fascinated by the children and especially the baby, and readily came into our camp when invited to watch us while we packed up.  The youngest woman played with Samuel, using the sound the cow makes as the basis of communication and a game, which he loved.  We offered the women water and they again gave us dates.  We have found interaction with women in rural areas here is infrequent; women and girls being far more reticent that boys and men.  Travelling with a family gave us the opportunity to engage with these women, because they were driven to interact with us by their interest in the children.  It was a wonderful experience.

In the desert we had one of our most interesting encounters.  We found a camping place surrounded by dunes in the Erg Chegaga region between M’Hamid and Foum Zguid.  We were some way off the track and were invisible beyond the high dunes around us.  IMAG1251As it was such a nice place we decided to stay for two days.  On the second day a man appeared on top of the dune; he wore a long tunic, was barefoot and carried nothing with him.  He walked towards us and greeted us but his language was incomprehensible to us, and ours to him.  He told us he was a nomad – we had this word at least in common.  We didn’t know what he wanted, so offered him bread and water, which he took.  He pointed to his back, indicating pain, so we invited him to sit and rest and we offered him two paracetamols.

I am sorry to say that these encounters start with suspicion. We didn’t know what he wanted from us and we were not entirely comfortable when he came right into our camp.  I wondered what we would do if he didn’t leave.  At the same time, we wanted to appear hospitable and I hate to feel that I appear fearful or unwelcoming to people I meet.  As it turned out, he did leave shortly afterwards and Steve climbed the sand dune after him and watched to see where he went.  Steve watched him with binoculars until he had disappeared over the dunes on the horizon.  We thought little more of it, beyond the interest of meeting such a person, walking for miles barefoot in the desert.

About four hours later he re-appeared.  I felt uncomfortable seeing him come back to our camp and supposed he had come to beg from us.  This time he was wearing sandals and he was carrying a bag and a bundle of sticks.  He sat down just away from us and started a fire with the sticks.  He then called us over to him, gave us some (very hard, sandy and frankly inedible) bread and asked for some water.  We took him some water and he poured it into a small teapot that he extracted from his bag.  He put the teapot on the fire embers and brewed mint tea there in the desert on a fire conjured from a handful of sticks.  He invited us to drink tea with him and pointed to his back, smiling.  He clearly wanted to thank us for the relief from pain that we had given him. All he had to give us in return was his tea. The tea was both bitter and sweet – he had a lump of sugar in his bag that he broke chunks from using the tea glass – but we sat on the sand with him and drank it, allowing him to refill our glasses until the teapot was empty.  We offered him two more paracetamols, which he gratefully accepted before walking off into the dunes again.

Our encounters with Moroccans have brought our wealth and their poverty into stark contrast.  It feels wrong to travel through villages in our car full of our possessions and tell people we have nothing to give them.  They are the ones who have nothing.  Yet at the same time, the act of giving is so difficult in our culture.  We find it easier to overspend in an expensive restaurant in Europe and leave a generous tip, than we do to give 10 Dirham to a beggar in the medina in Marrakesh.  We haggle and negotiate to reduce the price asked for a souvenir so that we feel good about our purchase, instead of paying maybe too high a price in order to increase the wealth of a family struggling to survive.



Morocco is a beautiful country and our encounters have demonstrated its people to be open and welcoming.  We have experienced no aggression or hostility.  We have been asked for things, but even when we have refused, we have been wished well.  Driving through villages, people smile and wave hello as we pass.  Children shout ‘bonjour’, wanting to show off their French.  In one village, situated in a stunning palm filled valley in the Anti Atlas, we were headed the wrong way across a football pitch and three boys came running, shouting for us to stop and pointing out the right way.  The oldest boy came up to the car and spoke such good French that Steve complimented him.  He showed real modesty and his friends some embarrassment that they couldn’t speak French as well as their friend.  The boy demonstrated his fluency by proudly rattling off his curriculum vitae in French – “my name is…., I am 11 years old, I am in sixieme…”  The boys wanted nothing from us, but we wished we had something to offer them but our supply of pens and sweets had long since run out.

We haven’t decided how much longer we will spend in Morocco, or where we will go next, but as the tourist season gets under way in January, we expect we will want to move on to the next part of our journey.  I am glad that I didn’t know what to expect from Morocco because having no expectations left me open to experience it as it is, without preconceptions or any risk of disappointment.  It has been far from disappointing.  It has been beautiful, fascinating and humbling.







“In Europe you have watches; in Morocco we have time.”

After nearly three months since leaving the UK and two weeks in Africa, we at last feel like travellers.   To answer the question posed in my previous post, I think I now know the difference between being a traveller and being on holiday.  The difference is in the expression of personality and the perception of time.

IMAG1016We arrived in Morocco two weeks ago, having just managed to stay ahead of the bad weather as we travelled south through Spain.  Our idea was to spend a month or so in Morocco and be back in Europe before Christmas.  However, we have fallen in love with Morocco.  Since arriving here, we have settled into an unhurried life where we decide each morning whether we will move somewhere or stay where we are.  Before arriving in Southern Morocco our decisions were mostly based on the weather. Here in the desert, the weather is the same every day and so we base our decisions entirely on how we feel that day.  We have felt less motivated to move.  When we stay in one place we rest, save money, have time to catch up on chores, contact family and friends, write new blog posts and bring our daily journal up to date.

Our need to keep ahead of the bad weather in Spain kept us moving, perhaps more quickly than we would have liked.  We travelled through mountains and national parks in Northern Spain that were beautiful and offered the opportunity for some great hikes, but the weather prevented us from exploring the area.  We stumbled upon a small town called Viladrau in the Montsenay massif, thinking that we would take advantage of a free parking area we had found through an app to spend the night.  We arrived early, so ventured into the town to look for a café, just as it started to rain.  Having spent the previous night listening to the rain fall on the tent we had hoped for a dry evening but this began to look less and less likely.  As it was early afternoon, the cafes in Viladrau were closed, so we ventured into a nearby hotel bar.

IMGP4871The hotel, called Hostal Bofill, was serving lunch to town locals but were happy for us to come in for coffee and to use their Wi-Fi.  As we sat in the comfortable and nostalgic bar the sky outside turned crepuscular and the rain became heavier.  We decided to enquire about staying in the hotel for the night, and discovered that they had a room available for a reasonable price, by European standards.  The room was simple but beautiful, with a high ceiling, tall shuttered windows and a small balcony overlooking the street.  It contained two narrow single beds, a 1950s wardrobe, a sink and a television that we were warned didn’t work.  We loved it.  We ate in the hotel restaurant that evening, as it filled with visitors and locals expecting to see a show in the town square to celebrate the Dia de las Brujas (Day of the Witches), it being 31 October.  The rain won in the end, cancelling the show, drowning everyone’s expectations and keeping the hotel busy.

The following morning was bright and sunny and we enjoyed breakfast in the hotel’s beautiful dining room with the sun streaming through the stained-glass panes of windows shaped like hazelnuts.  We left the mountains and ventured southward, past Barcelona and Valencia.  We travelled south along the coast, avoiding the large cities and tourist hot spots.  We stayed mostly on campsites to take advantage of hot showers and free Wi-Fi, until we reached Cartegena, where we decided to dive into the tourist hot spot and spend a day visiting Roman remains and watching ships in the harbour. 

IMGP4915Reaching the South coast, dominated by Almeria, Malaga and Marbella we regretted leaving the North so quickly and looked forward to reaching Morocco!  We had an enforced stay of a week on a campsite outside Marbella (waiting for a parcel to arrive from the UK), by the end of which we were desperate to get moving again.  The area was dominated by holiday villas, bars, spas and golf clubs.  The presence of expatriates was demonstrated by the proliferation of English advertisements and signs, estate and insurance agents and restaurants providing fish and chips.  Thirty years ago, we imagine, this would have been a very different place.

We had decided to take the ferry from Algeciras to Tangier Med as this seemed the best route from Spain to Morocco, according to most of the articles we’d read on the subject.  We bought our ferry ticket from one of the numerous ticket agents that line the motorways and occupy small offices in retail parks.  Our agent was Carlos and he offered us an open return ticket for 180 Euros and rewarded us for the purchase with a gift of a bottle of ‘pomagne’ and a packet of Spanish biscuits!

After a night sleeping somewhat uncomfortably inside the Land Rover in a retail park car park outside Algeciras, we headed for Algeciras port to take our ferry.  We were warned that people wearing hi-visibility jackets at the port are usually not official and will try to sell you tickets or obtain payment for information.  We encountered our first such person as we negotiated the long road to the ferry check-in.  On hearing we already had our tickets, he simply directed us right, when the road was left, and we wandered in parallel to the other vehicles until finally reaching a point where we could exit our route to re-join theirs.

Otherwise our departure from Europe and entry to Morocco was unhindered.  We queued on the ferry during the crossing to have our passports stamped by Moroccan immigration and were stopped by customs in Tangier Med along with all the other passengers, to present our documents and answer questions about whether we were carrying guns or drones.  A cursory inspection of the vehicle and a wait of about 20 minutes was sufficient for them to let us go on our way.  Not so lucky were the Africans entering through the port with cars packed to their roofs with random items from clothes and blankets to children’s replica motorbikes.  They were instructed to remove entirely the contents of their cars, which were distributed on the tarmac around them for inspection by customs officers and their dogs.

During our ferry crossing we talked about how few people we had met or made any contact with in Europe, beyond a passing hello to a campsite neighbour.  We mostly encountered Europeans in camping cars who only travel within the limits of Europe and rarely venture outside their camping car bubble.  Since arriving in Morocco, we have met and talked to many different people from different countries travelling by different means and for different reasons.  It is interesting introducing yourself to different people, expressing yourself in different versions of your, or their, language depending on respective abilities.  This is our experience of personality as we travel.  Our personalities change with our experience of different people and conversing in different languages.  You can almost reinvent yourself each time.  Past blunders or embarrassments that you may share with friends and acquaintances at home are unknown.  You have the chance to start again.  I have found this quite liberating and I have felt my confidence in speaking to people grow.  We have spent evenings with Dutch, German, French and Swedish people at different times and each experience is unique, revealing a new aspect of personality. 


Although we have only been in Morocco for two weeks our initial experiences and impressions are already becoming hazy and distant.  This is our experience of time as we travel.  From a life spent looking either backwards or forwards, we now look only at the present.  What has gone behind quickly fades and we give little thought to what is ahead.  We literally take the time to watch the sunset.

We met a Moroccan who put it very succinctly when he said “in Europe you have watches; in Morocco we have time.”


When is a holiday not a holiday?

People assume we are on holiday.  “When are you going home?” we are asked after the usual small talk about where we are from and what we are doing.  It’s a difficult question to answer; we don’t know.  In fact, “we don’t know” is the answer to a lot of questions relating to our trip.  Ultimately, we don’t know where we are going, how long we will travel for or even whether we will actually enjoy it.  We have plans, outlines of a journey and destination but until we actually do this, we don’t know whether it will turn out to be the life we are hoping for.

It is hard not to feel like we are on holiday.  We expected it to feel like a holiday at first, but thought we would arrive at a turning point when it would change.  I expected to find myself feeling like a traveller – not that I know what a traveller feels like – I just expected to feel different. 

However, we are on day 57 of our journey and I still feel the same.  If anything, it feels like we are taking a number of holidays one after the other, as we move from country to country. 


Taking a turn at the helm

Steve feels differently from me.  He explains it as having left behind a cluttered life and it taking a while for all that clutter to slip away from him.  He now feels clear of his clutter and is living in the present; thinking about each day at a time – where we will drive that day, what we will eat, whether we need fuel or water.  He doesn’t feel like he’s on holiday but that he is living his life like this and turning his mind to future projects that we will share.

Maybe we just express things differently, as I also feel that I am living each day in the present – perhaps that is the difference between feeling like you are on holiday and feeling like a traveller: when you are a traveller your mind is not focused on the end.  You spend so long planning and looking forward to a holiday that when it arrives it is hard not to think “only 10 days left”, “only a week left”, “only 3 days left”.  That feeling has truly left us and with it the stress of having to enjoy every minute.  It’s ok to have a bad day, because there is always tomorrow, and tomorrow will be better.

My son once described me as the ‘stressiest’ person he knew.  I was quite hurt by the statement at the time, but thinking back to family holidays I can understand what he meant.  I remember the months of looking forward to going away and then the stress of not enjoying myself; the disappointment of things never being as good as I hoped.  We are supposed to have amazing holidays.  On returning home, who answers the question “did you have a good time?” with an honest “no, not really”?  The pressure to enjoy a holiday is immense, for me anyway.  The inevitable disappointment when things don’t go as planned leads to stress.  I have the impression that I suffer from this more than most, but maybe other people just don’t admit it.


The old port in Marseille

I found that this anxiety about whether I was having a good time was the first thing to go.  Maybe that’s when I became a traveller without realising it.  That’s not to say that there is no longer anxiety.  A life-long sufferer from emetophobia, I am used to living with anxiety.  I accepted this as part of who I was when I was young, and accommodated my life to it, rather than challenged it.  As I’ve become older I have recognised the impact my anxiety has had on my life and resented it.  I have also seen its impact on my children’s lives and tried to teach them to challenge and rationalise their anxieties from an early age.   The only way to deal with anxiety is to challenge it, to venture outside the comfort zone.  This was one of my goals in embarking on our journey.

Steve and I previously talked about what we thought would be the most challenging thing we would face on our travels.  I knew the answer immediately; it would be my anxiety and fear.  I also realised that Steve’s biggest challenge would be dealing with my anxiety and fear.  Although, like anyone, he has fears, he rationalises them and doesn’t suffer from anxiety.  He therefore sometimes finds it difficult to cope with mine. 

The first time we camped together was a wild camp on Kinder Scout in the Peak District.  We took sleeping bags and a ground tent up onto the moor in August, hoping to see the annual Perseid meteor shower.  In the August evening light, camping on the moor was wonderful.   However, when we emerged from the tent after midnight to watch the sky things appeared very differently.  The meteors were invisible to us, behind the low cloud that had enveloped the mountain.  Walking just a few feet away, the tent disappeared and the ghostly atmosphere felt very different from the evening before.  Giving up on the meteors and getting back into the tent, fear set in.  Every sound became an approaching threat; I imagined creatures both real and mythical.  Keeping Steve awake with my constant “what was that?”, he learned how much fear I suffered and I learned how little he did.


Steve making friends with a chien de Bordeaux called Chewbacca

The first time we camped in the roof tent in a strong wind we both learned more about how close to the surface my fear lies.  I lay awake listening to the sound of the wind all around us mingled with Steve’s snores.  In my mind the wind was a hurricane, powerful enough to sweep the roof tent off the car, or to lift the car off its wheels.  I was unable to rationalise the fear and fight the anxiety it created, waking Steve and depriving him of a night’s sleep in the process.  I didn’t believe his protestations that everything was fine, that the wind wasn’t that strong and that both the tent, and the Land Rover could stand far more.

Climbing out of the tent at dawn, bleary-eyed and bad-tempered, the wind hadn’t abated.  But standing outside in daylight, I could feel that it was no more than a stiff breeze and that the cause of my fear was just the amplified noise created by the canvas around me.

Every experience that takes me out of my comfort zone challenges my fear and helps me to cope with my anxiety.  But I know that the further we travel, the more fear I will have to face and I know how hard it will be for me at times.  But I also know that deciding not to do something for no reason other than fear is the worst way for me to live my life and the only thing I will regret.

I have found that after spending the best part of two months sleeping in the tent I am already much less anxious than I used to be.  I spend less time listening to every noise and imagining approaching threats.  But being out wild-camping as night falls still makes me uncomfortable and I am yet to venture outside the tent during the night.  I realise that it is very un-feminist of me, but I see night-time excursions (to check the severity of the wind, or to secure an awning) very much as Steve’s department.  Since part of my reason for travelling is to challenge and overcome my anxieties I will push myself out of my comfort zone and get up in the night one of these days – but perhaps not just yet!

Leaving Scandinavia has meant staying on campsites again, as wild camping is illegal in most European countries.  I always feel more comfortable on a campsite, which makes little sense when you consider that most harm comes from other people, and campsites are where other people are found.  I suppose it is the familiarity of being within civilisation that makes it feel comfortable, despite the potentially higher risk that being around other people brings.

We found a lovely campsite in Denmark, near to a coast known as ‘Cold Hawaii’.  We understood why when we found that most of our co-campers were young Danish and German surfers.  They disappeared each day in their assortment of camping vehicles, and returned in the evening to cook in the communal kitchen and dining area and to share stories of their day’s surfing.  At least, we assumed they were talking about surfing, but understanding neither Danish nor German we can’t be sure.  Spending two days on this campsite, renting a little wooden hut as the 90 km/h wind prevented us sleeping in the roof tent, we appreciated the advantages of campsites.  We were able to cook and wash up in a proper kitchen with running hot water, and to eat in a heated dining room.  There was free Wi-fi, hot showers, clean and well-lit toilets.  There was also the comfort and familiarity of being around people.  The anxiety of wind and wildness being removed I enjoyed two worry-free nights in the little wooden hut.

Travelling south through Germany, Holland and France we stayed on many different campsites, some very enjoyable and some anything but. 


Curious garden artefacts displayed on the roadside in Germany

The worst was next to a motorway near Dusseldorf where the roar of passing goods vehicles didn’t abate all night.  The best was outside Nancy in France, where we stayed for three days to catch up on some washing and clean out the tent and car. 

A weekend in Marseille tempted us to trade the Land Rover in for a ketch and live a life at sea rather than on the road. 


Sunset aboard a ketch

We took a detour to Marseille to visit Steve’s son, Tom.  With a group of twenty-something friends, Tom had chartered a ketch for a day and invited us to join them.  We didn’t see the ketch to its advantage as there wasn’t a breath of wind that day, just a beautiful hot sunny Mediterranean sky.  While the younger generation jumped off the boat into the clear water, we sat on deck with Antoine and Joelle, the ketch’s owners, drinking wine and talking about our respective travels.  We loved their beautiful boat and envied their plan to sail to Odessa via Istanbul and the Black Sea.  Given that I am terrified in a roof tent during a stiff breeze it is hard to imagine how I would cope with a storm at sea – but that day a storm at sea seemed unimaginable.IMGP4715 (2)

We are now in the Camargue, staying for two nights on a free campsite next to a vineyard.  Apart from the mosquitoes it is a lovely place, with the added advantage of an adjacent ‘caveau’ selling 5 litre cubies of wine for €12.50!  Having enjoyed sunny and settled weather since leaving Denmark the cold has caught up with us, driving us south to Spain and Morocco.  France is comfortable and familiar to us.  Steve’s knowledge of the country and fluency in the language makes travelling here effortless and I have been happily existing within my comfort zone.  I anticipate that Morocco will be much more challenging, providing the first truly unfamiliar environment we will encounter.  I hope that what we experience there will stretch the limits of my comfort zone, making the prospect of further and more remote travel less daunting.

Not knowing when you’ll return home is certainly one thing that differentiates travel from a holiday.  More than this, though, it is challenging yourself to live life differently and to accept the discomfort, fear and anxiety that unfamiliarity can produce.  We were advised to write a statement of why we were travelling to refer to when things get so bad that we wonder why on earth we are doing this.  The statement is written but we haven’t reached that point of referring to it yet.  Maybe when we do we will feel like travellers.  So far, the moment I most felt like a traveller was when my children said that their friends enjoy reading our blog and thanked us for being cool.  That’s good enough for me.

abbaye de gaussan

La vie on water: Our Norwegian mini cruise

As a young girl, ‘Hurtigruten’ was one of those Scandinavian words I remember thinking sounded funny.  I didn’t know that Hurtigruten means ‘Ocean Express’, or that it was founded 125 years ago as a port to port postal service in Norway.  Nor did I know that I would one day take part in what was, to all intents and purposes, a mini cruise – and absolutely love it. 

IMGP4238It is impossible to travel through Norway without being very aware of the importance of the sea.  Villages dot the shore, their harbours full of fishing boats large and small.  The Norwegians are masters at building sweeping bridges and deep tunnels joining their many islands.  In the absence of bridges and tunnels, ferries carry vehicles from shore to shore across fjords and from island to island. 

We have always enjoyed ferries – there is something so exciting about driving on to a ship and being at sea.  Seeing the beauty of the Norwegian coast gave us the idea of hopping along part of it by ferry to experience the different perspective travelling by water can give.

A quick search on Google immediately brought up Hurtigruten.  Their website offered Norwegian coastal cruises, cruises to Iceland, Svalbard, Alaska, the Caribbean and even Antarctica.  While these cruises looked amazing, with their images of polar bears, penguins and icebergs, they weren’t precisely what we were looking for.

After a bit more digging and a couple of phone calls we discovered Hurtigruten’s port to port service, allowing us to use the ship as a ferry, subject to availability.  IMGP4079Now we started to get excited.  We were near North Cape at the time so decided to take the Hurtigruten ferry from Honningsvåg to Harstad, from where we could explore the Lofoten Islands.   

So we started the on-line booking process; we’d chosen our route, the date of travel, the ship and the cabin.  It was then that I noticed a small description of the ship’s vital statistics giving the following crucial detail: ‘Maximum vehicle height: 230cms’.  With roof rack and tent, our vehicle stands at 245cms.

Immediately determined to find a solution to this apparent problem before our hopes began to crash, I started scouring the vital statistics of the eleven ships in Hurtigruten’s Norwegian fleet.  Most had maximum vehicle heights between 210 and 230cms.  Beginning to give up hope we found MS NordNorge, with a maximum vehicle height 240cms. Maybe we could let some air out of the tyres and squeeze under 240?  Maybe they weren’t too strict and our 5 centimetres wouldn’t matter. 

It had been a dream of mine since studying glacial geology at school to visit the fjords and I couldn’t imagine when I would have a better opportunity than this.  As we were staying overnight at North Cape, we were within easy reach of Honningsvåg – one of Hurtigruten’s ports of call.  We were sure that there would be a Hurtigruten office there where we could ask whether the crucial 5cms would prevent us sailing with them.

The following morning, we made our way to Honningsvåg harbour, where Hurtigruten’s MS Trollfjord stood in dock.  Apart from the huge red and white vessel in front of us, there was no sign of anything relating to Hurtigruten.  The gangplank on to MS Trollfjord was down and passengers were moving on and off the ship.  We decided to ask the crew member at the top of this gangplank where we could find information about Hurtigruten ferries.  He welcomed us on board and directed us to the ship’s reception, who he said would help us. 


As with everyone we met in Scandinavia, the question “do you speak English” was entirely unnecessary – being met with a perfect “yes, of course. How can I help you?”  Explaining our 5-centimetre problem, the receptionist looked grave.  She believed that they were indeed very strict about the height limit as there was little room on the car decks.  She didn’t know if any of the ships would accommodate us but said she would look on the system.  After some minutes anxiously waiting while her computer did its thing, she announced that MS Finnmarken could take vehicles up to 250cms – but that didn’t sail from Honningsvåg for another week. 

So now we had a ship that could take the Land Rover, but as each ship cruises inexorably backwards and forwards along the Norwegian coastline from Bergen to Kirkenes – a 12 day round tip – we had to work out the best way we could catch MS Finnmarken, assuming it had space for us and the car, without spending another week in the inhospitable-to-camping climate of North Cape.

After much poring over the map and the Hurtigruten website, we settled on a journey from Harstad, just north of the Lofoten Islands, to Ørnes – back on Norway’s west coast just north of the Arctic Circle.  The ship would travel through the Lofoten island fjords and straits and the journey looked like it would be stunning.  Our qualms about the cost were reasoned away by factoring in the saving on fuel, the benefit of a night in a proper bed safe from the Arctic winds – and the included all-you-can-eat breakfast.  Booked.

A week and a day later, we were waiting at Harstad harbour for our morning departure on MS Finnmarken.  We knew we were in the right place because a large red and white ship stood proudly in port.  It was not our ship though, it was MS NordNorge, on her way northbound to Kirkenes. 

As soon as MS NordNorge vacated the dock, MS Finnmarken arrived.  We were immediately impressed with the tight U-turn such a large ship performed to arrive port-side.  We waited in the car while the gang plank was lowered and the car deck door raised.  Passengers began to disembark, and cargo was loaded on to the car deck via a fork-lift truck.  Eventually a man beckoned us on to the car deck via a car lift that lowered us about 2 metres to the deck.  We realised as we emerged from the car lift that the height restriction was there for a reason.  There was little room to spare above us. 

IMAG0791Harstad had been very cold and wet over the past couple of days, but this morning the sky was clear and last night’s rain had fallen as snow on the mountains.  The view leaving harbour was stunning.  We had the deck to ourselves; most passengers having been on board for some time apparently more interested in the breakfast buffet than the departing shore.

After enjoying our own breakfast, we started exploring the ship.  Each ship in Hurtigruten’s fleet is unique, and MS Finnmarken was decorated in an Art Deco style, giving it a slightly nostalgic feel.  The cabin was comfortable and spacious, with the usual small bathroom in the corner containing ‘Arctic Pure’ soap which, the label assured us, was made from cloudberry and silver birch.


Having explored inside we went out on deck again, well wrapped up against the cold arctic wind.  Everywhere mountains dropped into the sea, with arching bridges carrying roads from one island to another.  The bridges have to be high to accommodate the ships constantly sailing beneath them with such precision it seemed there was only a metre or two to spare between ship and the impressive structure overhead.

IMAG0775_BURST003Our day on board MS Finnmarken was spent between excursions on deck when the weather would allow, and stalking the public areas inside looking for free chairs to occupy while we warmed up with the free tea and coffee on board.  Making our way southward, we approached the Lofoten Islands, where the ship entered Raftsund, the 20 km narrow stretch of water separating the Lofoten from Vesterålen islands. 

An announcement on board sent us out on deck despite the cold, as this was to be the most spectacular part of the journey.  We were surrounded by steep mountains dropping straight into the water, with scattered dwellings dotted along the shores.  The deck was now crowded with passengers.  A crew member had joined us to inform us about the straits we were crossing and about the Trollfjord, after which one of Hurtigruten’s fleet is named.  If weather permitted, the Captain would take MS Finnmarken on a small detour into the Trollfjord, which, we were told, was only 70 metres wide at its narrowest point. 

Not knowing what to expect from this we eagerly Sea eagle over shipwaited to hear whether the weather was favourable, while our crew companion told us that this was one of the best places to find sea eagles.  As if on cue, a sea eagle flew past the ship low to the water.  Others flew high overhead allowing Steve the chance to photograph them, while I randomly waved the GoPro in what I thought was the general direction of an eagle.  The nauseating video I produced from this activity confirmed that it wasn’t.

Despite being bitterly cold, the weather did not hinder our detour into the Trollfjord and we waited on deck while the ship gracefully turned and headed for what appeared to be a mountain side. 


The entrance to the Trollfjord

At the last minute the entrance to the tiny fjord appeared before us, its sides climbing almost vertically out of the water.  A small dinghy had entered the fjord ahead of us and at this point we assumed they were making their way through and out the other end.  As it turned out, there was no ‘other end’.  On a map, the Trollfjord is the shape of a keyhole; the narrow entrance widening out into a roughly circular basin, entirely enclosed by steeply walled mountains.  Inside it was cold and quiet, the water still and silent beneath the ship.


We didn’t have long to wonder how we were going to get out of the fjord having arrived in this dead end.  The ship came to a halt and then started to turn clockwise on its own axis, barely deviating from the spot.  Not content with turning the 180 degrees needed for us to sail out of the fjord, the captain took the ship through an additional 360 degree turn before sailing out of the fjord and re-joining our route.


Inside Trollfjord, looking back towards the entrance after a 540 degree turn


As darkness fell, the wind picked up and the ship pitched and rolled as we made our way across the Norwegian sea towards the mainland and our destination port – Ørnes.  We were enjoying being on board so much, that on arrival in Ørnes we extended our journey to Trondheim – another 24 hours on board – bringing us much further south into what we hoped would be better weather.  A storm was forecast that night that would render camping in the roof tent impossible. 

Our second day on board was spent in similar fashion.  The scenery, although less spectacular, was no less beautiful but the approaching storm kept us inside most of the day.  We used the time to catch up on writing our blog, sorting out finances and transferring the many photos and videos we’d shot the day before onto the laptop.

We arrived in Trondheim before dawn the following morning.  Leaving the ship was an unremarkable affair as far as the crew was concerned; they are so used to passengers embarking and disembarking at every port that they took little notice of us.  We, however, felt genuinely sad at leaving.  Although looking forward to continuing our journey in the Land Rover, we had both loved being at sea.  We have already decided to return to Scandinavia, the Arctic and Hurtigruten.


The Arctic: wind, rain and reindeer

Our journey through Sweden & Norway

We have just booked our ferry away from Norway to Denmark for the next leg of our journey.  When discussing where to go prior to our departure, we thought Scandinavia would be the best place to start. We were hopeful that Sweden & Norway wouldn’t be too cold in autumn, clinging to our belief that September often brought settled weather.  We quickly progressed Northward through Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark, anxious to reach Sweden where we felt our journey would truly begin. 

We enjoyed Holland with its perfectly neat, IMAG0601 (2)well ordered farms and good campsites and because it gave us the opportunity to meet up with our Dutch friends.  We met Mickey and Ed on a campsite in Northern Portugal last summer and bonded when Steve went over to help tie down their tent awning during a nigh-time storm.  We think it was the action-man-esque cut Steve sustained on his cheek from a flying guy rope that elicited their sympathy – the bond later cemented over a meal at a local village eatery.

Mickey and Ed recommended a campsite to us in Polderland and met us there before taking us out for dinner.  We enjoyed another meal catching up and hearing of Mickey’s adventures with a bear in the US this summer.  I know Mickey can laugh about it now, so won’t mind that we still chuckle at the image of her achieving a turn of speed worthy of Yussain Bolt as she sprinted away from the bear with Ed shouting “don’t run Mickey!” to her disappearing form.

Since become addicted to the Nordic Noir series ‘The Bridge’, we always knew that our route into Sweden would be from Copenhagen to Malmo via the series’ eponymous structure.  Entering a tunnel adjacent to Copenhagen airport, we were surprised to emerge directly onto the bridge, it’s familiar pylons just visible as the apex swept into view ahead of us.  Our excitement at being on the bridge rapidly evaporated when we reached the toll on the Malmo side.  We hadn’t registered there would be a toll, let alone that it would demand an eye-watering £45.  Given the frequency of Saga Noren’s journeys across the bridge we assume the police travel free of charge!  This was an early indication of what was to come throughout Sweden and Norway.


Having recovered from the loss of one day’s travel budget on the bridge toll, we quickly fell in love with Sweden.  The autumn colours were stunning and, although cold, the weather was largely settled.  As we travelled north, however, things began to change.  We spent one very damp evening sheltering in a log hut just off the road, managing to light a fire which provided more cheer than warmth.  The heater we’d installed in the Land Rover became our most valued imag06541.jpgpiece of equipment, as we piped warm air into the roof tent, maintaining a cosy environment to sleep in.

It was becoming apparent that we would have a smaller window than anticipated for travelling and camping once we reached the Artic.  We therefore headed north as quickly as possible, with only a short diversion to travel the Vildsmarksvägen – The Wilderness Road – from Stromsund as far as Saxnäs where we would re-join the northward route.  The Vildsmarksvägen didn’t disappoint.  Emerging above the treeline north of Geddede, the landscape was spectacular and we encountered our first herd of reindeer on the high moors.  This generated a fair bit of excitement and scrambling for the camera until, descending back into the trees, the numbers of reindeer swelled to hundreds.  They were clearly being farmed and herded with what appeared to be a local reindeer market in progress.  From then on we saw so many reindeer both domestic and wild, that we became immune to them, generating no more excitement than a flock of sheep. 

The Vildsmarksvägen furnished us with a stunning camp spot next to a river, with mountains in the distance and woodland all around.  The fire we lit that evening took Steve’s constant attention to keep alight, hissing and steaming as it tried to consume the saturated deadwood we had gathered.


Having crossed the Arctic Circle just south of Jokkmokk, we continued north, leaving Sweden to cross the narrow finger of Finland that pushes between its two Scandinavian neighbours.  We were disappointed in our hope to find a camping place in Finland, as possible wild camp locations became fewer and campsites were closed to anyone not wanting to rent a cabin.  We managed to find a small takeaway kiosk offering burgers for a hasty meal, before leaving Finland and entering Northern Norway.

By now the soft golden forests and lakes of Sweden had been replaced by a harsher arctic landscape with fewer, smaller trees; almost exclusively silver birch and mountain ash.  Everywhere the ground was covered in dense carpets of plants with leaves varying from dark green to deep russet.  Norway is stunning and we loved being in the arctic but this presented us with challenging camping options.  Not only was the temperature plummeting, but the weather became more and more unsettled with strong wind and persistent rain. 

We headed for Nordkapp; Norway’s most northerly point, but found it enveloped in cloud with visibility of around 50 metres.  The dramatic Barents Sea was invisible to us, as were the reindeer that suddenly appeared out of the mist and on to the road.  We took refuge in a hotel near North Cape that was comfortable but, like everything in Scandinavia, cost about twice what we would have expected to pay for similar elsewhere. 

We attempted North Cape again the following day in the hope of clearer weather.  The entry fee was £22 each but this included permission to camp overnight in the Visitor Centre car park.  Enticed by the promise of a warm visitor centre including free wifi and a cinema showing a 15-minute panorama film of North Cape through the seasons, we decided to go ahead.  In retrospect this may not have been one of our better decisions.  The Visitor Centre was warm.  We did get free wifi and we enjoyed the panorama film, which was surprisingly dramatic and engaging.  But the car park was barren and windswept, offering no shelter but a small staff accommodation hut.  We parked alongside the south wall of this, convinced by the weather forecast that the wind would come from the north.

IMGP3840By 3pm, the Visitor Centre had closed (no more warm free wifi) – the entrance barrier left open and the toll hut deserted.  Anyone could now enter the car park and walk to the North Cape monument for free. A few breaks in the cloud meant that we did glimpse the Barents Sea but for the rest of the time we huddled in the car, heater on, looking out into nothing but cloud.  The wind persisted in coming from the West but our faith in weather forecasting kept us committed to our choice of location, convinced that when the wind swung to the north, we would enjoy a calm, sheltered night.  It didn’t and neither did we.  The wind did not change in any measure other than its strength.  We were relentlessly buffeted all night, making sleep impossible and tempers short. 

Up as dawn broke, we found no lessening in the wind but an improvement in visibility.  We returned to the North Cape globe for a final view of the arctic seas before resuming our travel southward towards the fjords and what we hoped would be better weather.

This was when we reached the point where a) we abandoned all faith in artic weather forecasting and b) we realised the naivety of our expectation of a calm settled September in Scandinavia.  As we talked to more locals in Norway, we learned that wind, rain and storms are typical at this time of year.  We learned that this is referred to as ‘fall storms’.  We learned that things would get worse before getting better.

We also learned another difference between Sweden and Norway.  Being largely flat, places to wild camp in Sweden were plentiful.  Being largely mountains separated by fjords, places to wild camp in Norway were scarce.  Motorhomes and caravans tend to opt for roadside laybys, but eschewing the association with this type of camping, we preferred somewhere more hidden and solitary.  Driving a Land Rover opens up possibilities denied the motorhomes but even so, places were scarce.  Mostly we relied on the flattest clear areas we could find in woodland by rough tracks.  Keeping in mind the rule that you are not allowed to camp within 150 metres of a dwelling, this was not always easy.  One night we found a lovely spot on a stony beach in the bend of a river.  At least it was lovely until heavy rain during the night swelled the river at an alarming rate, forcing Steve up twice to check that we weren’t in imminent danger of being washed downstream.

These difficulties, together with the exorbitant cost of being in Norway, forced us to leave sooner than we would have liked.  Deciding on a Hurtigruten ferry to take us all the way south from Lofoten to Trondheim (about which we will write separately) we quickly headed inland and south – away from the coastal wind and rain and towards the ferry that would take us from Oslo to Fredrikshavn in Denmark.

IMGP4002We have loved Scandinavia, and especially the arctic.  Something about the harshness of that environment draws us both and we were genuinely sad to leave.  But there is only so much cold, wind and rain that you can stand living outdoors so if we are to visit this beautiful place again, it will have to involve a more permanent dwelling, hopefully allowing us to experience the different seasons, midnight sun and midday darkness, and the Northern Lights, which no doubt put on a spectacular show invisible to us above the unremitting cloud.

We thought you were writing a blog…?

IMAG0639It is now three weeks since we packed up, transferred occupancy of our home to the new tenants and set out to start our very own ‘big adventure’.  If we just unwind those three weeks, plus a few more going back, we arrive at a point in time when we still had every intention of being super-organised.  All necessary items would have been sourced and purchased. All packing would be neatly arranged according to meticulously prepared lists ensuring nothing could be forgotten.  Our home would be thoroughly cleaned, renovated and prepared for its new occupants. All goodbyes would be properly made, ‘good wishes’ messages replied to and social media updates posted.  And most importantly, La Vie on Road, the blog that would record our adventure would be up and running – beautifully designed and laid out – just waiting for the first post to be uploaded. 

Now fast forward back to the present, three weeks post-departure, and it won’t be hard to guess that none of the above good intentions was realised. There are things we meant to get but didn’t; packing became cramming things into the car to be re-arranged ‘en route’; essential items, safely installed on the do-not-forget-these-pile for weeks, were forgotten; new paint was hurriedly applied to only the worst worn areas of the house; messages were left un-answered and people missed from the goodbye list. There were no social media updates. There was no blog. 

‘Never mind’, we thought. ‘We can get the blog up and running as we go. We just need to put together some video, sign up with WordPress and we’re good to go.’  We duly started videoing our progress: the ferry leaving the white cliffs; endless miles of flat Belgian Motorway; immaculate Dutch farms; incomprehensible life-size plastic animals standing sentinel in German front gardens; the Øresund bridge, so often seen crossed by Saga Noren, and the beautiful autumn forests and lakes of Sweden.  Now for a café with free WiFi, and we can get started! 

Problem number 1: For some reason that neither we nor the technical support chaps at GoPro have been able to fathom, we can’t use GoPro’s own video editor on our laptop.  No problem, we will use another editor instead.  We just have to find one that is a) free and b) not completely incomprehensible to average humans such as ourselves.  Some internet research offered what appeared to be a suitable programme.  It might be, if we manage to figure out how to use it, but one thing is certain – two hours in a café in Jönköping is not time enough for these average humans to edit even a minute of uploadable video.  Ok, so the video will have to wait until we’ve found time to climb the editing software’s vertiginous learning curve.  In the meantime, we can always work on the blog, can’t we?

Problem number 2: WordPress. We thought decide on a name, sign up and away you go. But no, it seems that even putting together the simplest of travel blogs is defeating us and we are presented with another learning curve to overcome. 

Problem number 3: One imagines that when one gives up work, one has all the time in the world to do everything one wants.  Unfortunately this isn’t true.  It turns out travelling takes a lot of time.  When ‘la vie’ is not actually on the road, the business of setting up camp, cooking and clearing meals, sleeping and packing up camp the following morning, fills what time is left.  So finding the time to tackle the two learning curves before us is challenging.  Sometimes I’ve managed a page or two in the car, laptop on knee, in between navigating and looking up to note something of interest passing by. Other times we’ve found inspiration crouched in the roof tent, cosy and warm with the heater on and the rain falling overhead.  IMGP3753

Having said all of the above, it will be apparent by the fact that you are reading this, that we have managed to break through enough of the blogging barriers to complete and post this, our first article.  It is by way of an apology, explanation or excuse, as to why we are three weeks into our journey and this is all we have managed to produce.  It’s not the article we intended to post first but it’s also not the only intention we’ve failed to meet.  More will follow, even some video hopefully, but maybe, like our journey, not in the way we planned or intended.