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.

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.