Buzzing the Rock

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Ayers Rock, or Uluru, has long been on my Bucket List and I’ve finally arrived in Australia’s Red Centre to check it out for myself.

The arrival into Uluru was breathtaking. I’d already had the red hot tip from my brother to sit on the left side of the aircraft – the approach can be from either end of the runway, but on the left, you will definitely see it – and he was dead right!

We waited anxiously for a first glimpse, disappointed that our window was so filthy. When Ayers Rock finally came into view, it was a surprise to see how close it was, I almost felt like I was Maverick in Top Gun, buzzing the tower!

We’d had to sit in the very last row to get a left side window seat, and although the view was grimy, this was our reward….

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Looking on the Bright (Orange) Side

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As much as I love planning my adventures, I’m a huge fan of the unexpected. Sometimes things happen while you’re travelling and at first it may seem like a set back, but rolling with the punches can lead to the most extraordinary experiences.

So it was I found myself in Iceland, bogged in the snow in what was supposed to be a snow-worthy superjeep with gale force winds howling all around and our window of opportunity to get to the glacier rapidly dwindling.IMG_3236

We had spent a magical day touring the famous ‘Golden Circle’, marvelling at stunning waterfalls,IMG_3179

waiting for exploding geysersIMG_3153

and learning about the app that Icelanders check to make sure they’re not too closely related (there’s only 320,000 of them after all) before, well, you know.

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The high point of the tour was set to be walking on one of Iceland’s largest glaciers. And then we got bogged.

Twice.

The struggle to free ourselves involved our poor guide Sven (his real name) trying to let down tyres with bare hands and only a fleece against the elements. Oh and 3 other jeeps-full of tourists taking photos.

No sooner were we free, then we stopped to inflate the tyres….and got stuck again. We had to give up all hope of making it to the glacier.

And then the magic happened.

As the wind howled and blew snow in snaking lines, the sun sank low on the horizon and turned the snow bright orange. It glowed and I was mesmerised.IMG_3276

But it didn’t stop there. As the sun sank lower, the colours in the sky intensified and a spectacular sunset unfolded.IMG_3295

While Sven inflated our tyres one more time, we were able to brave the wind and quietly enjoy an incredible moment in an incredibly unique location.IMG_3318

Had all gone to plan, we would have been staring wistfully out of the window of our jeep speeding back to Reykjavik. Sometimes these little flies in our ointment really can turn out to be currants in our custard.

Amsterdam Reflections

If there was ever a European city to uncover an obsession, Amsterdam would be high up there. I’ve spoken before about my (not so) secret obsession with knobs and knockers, however my obsessions do not end there.

Probably equally as gripping is my obsession with reflections, and the canals of Amsterdam do not disappoint.IMG_1991

At the risk of being run over by a cyclist, or even running head first into a lamp post (that was embarrassing!) I spent a disproportionate amount of my time in Amsterdam with my head down, peering into canals.

You can get reflections anywhere, I hear you say, but the reflections in Amsterdam’s canals are just so interesting.IMG_1769

It becomes a quest to see how many gables you can fit into the one shot.IMG_1790

Or how many bikes.IMG_1994

Or how long a row of houses.IMG_2011

Or how many arches of a bridge.IMG_2137Rather than curing me, I think Amsterdam’s canals may well have made this obsession worse!

Tripping the Light Fantastic, Northern Style

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Ever since I was lucky enough to witness a truly breathtaking Northern Lights display in Canada 20 years ago, I’ve been hankering for more. So it was I found myself in Iceland over New Year’s in what was supposed to have been the Northern Lights peak of the decade.

Trouble was, I think someone forgot to tell the Northern Lights.IMG_3016

After arriving in Iceland I eagerly stalked the very handy website that tracks Northern Lights activity and cloud cover, only to find that I had struck a week of the deadly double – full cloud cover and low activity. Added to that, my trip up to the north had to be cancelled due to shocking weather. This was not part of my plan.

So when I saw that one night promised a partly cloudy night (an improvement over the solid cover we had seen) and moderate activity, I leapt at the chance to possibly see something of what I had come one hell of a long way to see.

I even shelled out extra to go in a Superjeep, thinking that the small group size would mean we could have a say in location to find somewhere suitably fabulous. Wrong. I found myself as part of a 10 jeep convoy which drove a little way out of town, found a bald knob of a hill, and formed a circle the pilgrims would have been proud of.IMG_3037

Then it was a matter of setting up my tripod, trying to ignore the light pollution and people wandering aimlessly in front of my camera and setting out to capture what I had come for.

To the naked eye, there was a glimmering green in the sky, however once you set your camera for a long exposure, a violent green stripe could be seen across the sky. Although it wasn’t really what I had fantasised about, it was still pretty amazing.IMG_2992

So while I feel like my itch hasn’t been scratched, I can possibly last the decade until the next peak.  Hopefully someone will tell the Lights next time.IMG_2991

Wiwi’s top tips

  • take a tripod, you will need it! I took photos with 20-30 second exposures
  • if there is little ambient light (city lights, full moon) you may see the lights brighter
  • If a small group is what you’re after, make sure you investigate whether your ‘small group’ tour will be hooked up with 10 other ‘small group’ tours.
  • check the Iceland Met Office’s website for the Aurora forecast
  • Take a spare battery and dress warmly

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Hot and Steamy Start to 2014

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If a cracking New Years Eve, celebrating until the wee hours and watching the sun come up on the first day of the new year sounds like something you’ve always wanted to do but you just can’t last that long, good news!  Reykjavik could be your perfect solution.

Not only does it have New Year celebrations in spades but in winter the sun doesn’t rise until after 11, and so it was that after celebrating into the wee hours and getting some sleep, we found ourselves watching the sun dawning on a brand new year.

While soaking in a giant thermal pool.  With mud on our faces.P1030278

The Blue Lagoon is about 30 minutes outside Reykjavik and is actually a by-product of the nearby geothermal powerplant. Clever Icelanders started bathing there and noticed the effect the silica mud had on their skin.  Fast forward almost 40 years and today it’s a major tourist drawcard and one of the top must do’s whilst in Iceland.IMG_2881

The hot water comes out in several spots around the lagoon and you can decide just how lobster-like you’d like to become.  Those wanting only a mild prawn pink can stick to middle areas where the water has cooled but if you’d like to go the whole rock lobster, you can hang out by the vents and feel the water coming straight in.P1030282

Depending on the package you’ve bought you can also try a volcanic scrub or an algae mud mask.  A word of warning, the volcanic scrub is serious scrubbage – go gently!  Or else lose a few layers of skin.

There’s also the silica mud you can try on your face.  I did see some intrepid souls bringing this up from the bottom of the pool to put on their faces, but unless you’d like to rub someone else’s dead skin cells, hair and god knows what else into your face, I’d stick to the nice fresh bucket provided over by the bridges near the massage area.P1030322

In winter you can almost lose yourself in the steam which really adds to the whole experience but it was the spectacular sunrise at 11am that kept changing colour that will remain with us.P1030272

My Top Tips:

- if you’re going with a friend and get the Comfort package which includes either a volcanic scrub or an algae mud mask, you are given enough to share.  So get the volcanic scrub first, share with your friend, then go over to the other side of the lagoon where there is a pot of fresh silica mud (do NOT use the stuff from the bottom of the lagoon!) to apply as a mask.  Once that’s dried and you’ve washed it off you can then go back and share the algae mud mask.

- there is a private change cubicle in each locker room for the more private amongst us (me).

- You must shower first but you’re not supposed to shower with your bathers on.  Icelanders, and indeed most northern Europeans are completely fine with shared showers and change rooms, but this little black duck likes privacy.  Wear your togs into a private cubicle with a door and then shower to your hearts content.

- allow enough wallowing time.  Soaking in the warm water is divine and even once you’re out, you may feel the need to get back in!

- You can book your tickets online for a 2 euro discount to guarantee your admission within an allotted window of time.  We were there right on opening and walked straight in with no booking, but apparently it can get extremely busy with long wait times.

- If you have enough time, there are airport transfer companies who arrange a stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way to or from the airport.  There’s luggage storage onsite for a few euros.

- don’t get your hair wet – it’ll feel like straw afterwards.  If you do, you can wash it in the showers and there a hairdryers available to use.

- there are actually other thermal swimming pools that the locals use that are much cheaper and closer to Reykjavik if the cost is a little much or you’d like a less touristy experience.  From what I’ve heard and read, it’s not for the shy.

- most of my shots are taken on my dodgy underwater camera.  i did see some people take their non-waterproof cameras in but I wouldn’t risk it.  It can get really steamy and accidents do happen!

And the Fun’s Not Done!

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Just when I thought the whole of Iceland’s stock of fireworks must be well and truly exhausted, they’ve rallied for what seems like round 10 of Reasons to Let Off Fireworks.

Apparently January 6 is Twelfth Night where families gather to let off fireworks, have bonfires and farewell the 13 Lads of Christmas back into the mountains.

Here’s some of the action right outside our hotel (we’re not at the bonfire as the wind is ripping through at 80 kms per hour!!). Please excuse the poor quality – hastily taken on my iPad in -1c while wearing slippers.

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All Fired Up in Reykjavik

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Imagine a bonfire 15 metres tall. Imagine 300 people crowded in front of it, singing songs and lighting flares and sparklers oblivious to the sparks raining from above.  Imagine snow on the ground and fireworks going off all around you as impatient locals can’t wait for midnight.  This is New Years Eve in Reykjavik.IMG_2314

To say that Icelanders enjoy fireworks would be a gross understatement, so when New Years rolls around and fireworks are legal to buy (and let off), Icelanders quite literally get all fired up.

As we arrived into Reykjavik in the late afternoon of New Years Eve, fireworks were already going off all around town.  As the day darkened, more and more people lost their patience and added to the growing symphony of bangs, whistles and cracks.IMG_2851

After dinner families all gather around their local bonfire which has been a tradition for hundreds of years. We joined in a local bonfire which was easily the largest fire I’ve ever seen.  Walking through through the trees we though someone’s entire house must have been lit up!IMG_2310

The scene was magical with snow on the ground, the fire blazing, and families lighting sparklers for kids (big and little!).  IMG_2728

Icelandic music was playing and most people sang along with gusto.  All around, fireworks were let off as people couldn’t wait to try out their new purchases.  As the bonfire burned low, a fireworks display exploded above us as a teaser for the main event at midnight.IMG_2555

We were taken to a rooftop viewing point to view the main fireworks and ring in the New Year.  As midnight approached, we could see more and more fireworks being let off all around us. and it was hard to believe this wasn’t the main event.  When the clock finally struck 2014, the fireworks doubled in intensity, and it was hard to know where to look – were ringed on all sides by deafening displays of colour and fire.IMG_2804

The intensity of the midnight fireworks lasted for a full 45 minutes with fireworks being let off less than 50 metres away from us and locals were still letting off fireworks at 7am the next morning. And the following evening.IMG_2833

After midnight and most people have exhausted their stockpile, the main drag in Reykjavik is full of revellers jamming into all the bars determined to carry on the festivities.  As we walked down the street, one local greeted us with “Where else but Iceland will you party with your Mum on New Year’s Eve??” as his mother joined in the passing parade.

If you find yourself in Iceland for NYE, dress warmly, get some sparklers, find a bonfire and party like a local.  If you’re brave enough you can let off your own fireworks but whatever you do, don’t forget the earplugs.

 

 

Roll on 2014!

As some of you will know, 2013 was a troubling year for me however it’s ending with good news.  Good news in that my family is healthy, and good news in that I’m writing from the Netherlands, on my way to Iceland!

I will be ringing in 2014 in Reykjavik which will hopefully be the start of a cracking year of adventures, starting the year how I mean to continue!

Thanks to everyone who showed me such kind support throughout the year and may all of you have a safe, happy and healthy start to 2014 that continues with love and laughter throughout the year.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!IMG_7682

 

The Rijks has gone to the Dogs…

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The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has long been one of my favourites, however on a recent visit I noticed something that has even more firmly cemented it into my Top 5 – the dogs.

Like many nationalities, the Dutch love their dogs.  It’s not often you go out into a green space in the Netherlands without seeing someone walking along with their best friend by their side (and unfortunately leaving the evidence behind to step in!) and even today a little terrier was sat up at the table with their owner enjoying lunch in a busy cafe.

What I hadn’t considered however, even after seeing their current joy of all things canine, was just how entrenched dogs were in the Dutch way of life.  So much so that even 16th century painters could barely portray an everyday scene without man’s best friend featuring somewhere.

There were droopy-eyed hounds,IMG_1684

scrounging thieves, IMG_1690

unfortunate mutts with regrettable grooming, IMG_1689

hopefuls waiting for handouts,IMG_1705

dogs enjoying a day at the beach,IMG_1693

dogs chasing ghost dogs (?!),IMG_1698

pups in that awkward not-a-puppy-but-not-fully-grown phase,IMG_1674

and just about every other scenario any dog owner would recognise.  In a tribute to the Dutch Masters and their hairy friends, here is a small collection of the Dogs of the Rijksmuseum…

 

 

Peeking into Jakarta’s Spiritual Heart

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I’m going to be honest, Jakarta really wasn’t on my Bucket List, but when faced with a work conference with limited free time, I was determined not to go all that way and come back without any glimpses into the culture of our closest Asian neighbour.

Of course there were the usual opportunities for drinks with amazing views,

Skye Bar view

Skye Bar view

but I wanted to see something that would be close to the hearts of the locals and with that in mind, I set the alarm early and took myself and a few other colleagues off to the world’s 5th largest mosque, and the largest in South East Asia – Istiqlal Mosque.IMG_9040

The word istiqlal in Arabic means “independence” and the mosque is certainly a tribute to Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands.  It took 17 years to build , but I’m sure the locals feel it was worth the wait. The guide (compulsory for visitors) who showed us around the mosque was certainly proud of it’s heritage.IMG_9019

We visited between prayer times so there were only a few devotees in the main prayer hall, however that didn’t detract from appreciating the incredible scale of the dome – 45 metres in diameter as a tribute to their independence in 1945.  IMG_9018

I could only imagine what it must be like full of worshippers – a mind boggling 120,000 can fit, not only on the floor of the hall, but in the 4 tiered balconies that ring the hall.  It was cool, calm and peaceful when we visited, despite the heat outside, and our guide assured us that even full, the temperature remained comfortable.IMG_9023

Outside in one of the courtyards is a massive drum carved from a single tree trunk with the hide of a single cow (must have been huge!), or else it was a bullock – perhaps a lost in translation moment.IMG_9030

Although you’re not free to wander at will, it was interesting to hear about the building from our guide with only a small donation asked in return.  All in all, I was glad to have seen a glimpse into the spiritual heart of Indonesia, albeit though my western eyes.

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