absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the category “nature”

Nairobi National Park (and a small car crash) #travel

Dear G & B

I’m sitting by the pool on a Sunday in Mombasa at the Whitesands Hotel, palm trees swaying in the wind and Afro beats music drifting over from the bar, sipping a beer. I can’t work today and downtime like this is great, although it is over a week since I left you guys at home and would much rather be there. Or have you here.
I’ve just arrived from Nairobi after a short flight past Mount Kenya. I haven’t been here for 6 years and nothing much has changed, except it is a lot quieter, I suppose because of perceived risks of terrorism.
Mt Kenya from the plane

Mt Kenya from the plane

I was working for 3 days in Nairobi but finished yesterday at 3pm so managed to arrange a quick trip to Nairobi National Park, which is a game reserve right next to the city containing all the wildlife you expect in Kenya. The car that picked me up (along with 4 other people) was a bit beaten up and I assumed that we’d be on Tarmac roads for the whole trip. After a short drive we arrived at the gates and had the usual wait for tickets that you expect with any organised activity in Africa. As soon as we set off we saw small antelope and a tortoise walking along the side of the road. We stopped at the ivory burning sites where dignitaries burn seized poached tusks as a symbol of disdain for the Ivory trade. Great views out across the plains but weird to still see the city in the background.
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Wild animals

Wild animals

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Just chillin'

Just chillin’

We next came across herds of huge buffalo with calves and birds sitting on their backs, more antelope, zebra, a lone ostrich running behind us and some distant giraffes striding through the tall bush. As the sun went down it cast a lovely hue over the clouds and the big sky turned dramatic. Seems unreal to be so close to a capital city with that backdrop.
Pano of the National Park

Pano of the National Park

Up close with some big buffalo

Up close with some big buffalo

Buffalo feeding in some amazing light

Buffalo feeding in some amazing light

Ostrich silhouette

Ostrich silhouette

The roads were not Tarmac, but very much potted dirt tracks and boulders. After a while there was a knocking noise from the fron of the car which sounded a bit serious. We made it out of the camp after dark and started the short journey home, the knocking getting louder. I told the driver I thought he might have problems and it sounded serious, so he should slow down. He did, and sure enough we turned a corner and his front right wheel snapped off sending us skidding into a lay by. We were close to the hotel, so after checking he was ok, we set off on foot to finish the journey. If he had been going faster it might have been serious.
Whoops!

Whoops!

Only two days here then back to you guys. Bea has had her first hair cut and G keeps getting all the awards possible at school, bright as a button. So proud.
Love
Dad x
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Eating Brains and Climbing a Mountain in Chengdu, China

View from the top of Mt Qingcheng

View from the top of Mt Qingcheng

Dear G & B
I haven’t been overseas since April, possibly the longest time in about a decade when I have been just in the UK, and it was wonderful. We’ve had a lot going on, including moving to our new house and G starting school, so it has been great to spend so much time at home.
But, travel has started up once again and my first stop has been Chengdu in south west China. It is the 4th largest city in China and famed for being (I think I might have mentioned this before) the home of Pandas, spicy food and pretty girls. One of those myths that the people here like to proliferate, but isn’t necessarily true. I’m only here for a few days before flying over to Kenya via Doha.
Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Chengdu, Sichuan Province

I arrived on Saturday and couldn’t work on Sunday, so decided to go on an adventure: Climb Mount Qingcheng, an ancient place of buddhist worship about 2 hours drive from Chengdu. I thought I would save cash and make it a real challenge by forgoing a taxi/driver and taking public transport. First stumbling block was buying a ticket at the bus station and navigating my way to the mountain itself.
The station signage is almost exclusively Chinese as are the announcements, so I was particularly happy with myself by being able to order my ticket in Chinese and ask if I was on the right bus. I struggled a bit when the bus stopped and I didn’t know if I should get off or not, but the universal language of mime and a few key words saved the day. The bus still stopped quite a distance from the Mountain and I managed to find an English speaker to ask advice from. She turned out to work at the American Embassy and was waiting for her colleague – she said that I was free to join them to make it to the mountain, which was really nice of them. We got a cab to the cable car (it was already about 2pm as the bus had taken over 2 hours to get there) and then had something to eat. I say something because I wasn’t at all sure what it was and didn’t ask, just some kind of meat in spicy oil. The walk through the “high town” was really interesting, a lot like a European mountain town, but with traditional Chinese architecture and lots of stalls selling cured pork, heads and all.
Chengdu bus station

Chengdu bus station

My bus ticket

My bus ticket

Dried pork, high town

Dried pork, high town

The cable car up allowed us to skip 4km of the climb but there were still three more to tackle to the summit. But it was steep. What amazed me were the amount of people carrying young children and even some women wearing high heels! Dressed like they were off to a nightclub. I struggled in sensible trainers. The path was thin at times, the concrete steps wonky and the it wove through the mountain following a stream with waterfalls, bridges and a cool damp atmosphere. It was really beautiful and peaceful. Well, unless there were a group of men spitting and shouting in front of us. There was a small lake where we had to board a boat and get punted across which was very serene. After about 40 minutes my new friends decided they didn’t have enough time to get to the summit and turned back, but I pushed on, adamant that I had to keep going if I come this far. I virtually ran up the remainder of the hill and it was really tough, I was covered in sweat when I finally reached the White Cloud Temple, expecting great things. It was a bit of a let down, the temple was pretty generic, the statues concrete and recent, the view no better than several hundred feet below. I stayed only a few moments to watch people pray with incense and then turned to bound down as fast as I could. If I missed the last gondola I would have an 6km descent to deal with and would be doing the last of it in the dark!
Looking like I just rushed up a mountain

Looking like I just rushed up a mountain

White Cloud Palace at the top

White Cloud Palace at the top

Cave with hundreds of buddha statues

Cave with hundreds of buddha statues

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Wonky steps

Wonky steps

Punting the lake

Punting the lake

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I did miss the last gondola, but there was a dirt track and some cars waiting. Again in broken Chinese I negotiated a trip down the hill, which turned out to be one of the most terrifying drives I’ve been on. I often read the newspaper when tourists die overseas doing stupid things (like getting into unlicensed taxis and asking them to drive along a mountain road) and think “idiots!” – well, that was me. Terrifying but relieved to get to the bottom, where I bumped into my two chums again. We arranged a car for £5 each to take us back to Chengdu and I finally got back to the hotel, exhausted, at around 8:30pm.
I was taken out for dinner by a prospective business partner last night and I requested hot pot, which is the local speciality. Essentially a pot of boiling chilli oil that you dunk food into to cook and eat. I said I eat everything so he really tested me, first with gizzards, then arteries and then finally with pig’s brain. Not to look like a wimp I scoffed it down with (feigned) relish although the texture was pretty revolting. It had been in the boiling oil for only a few moments when my host scooped it out and plonked the whole thing in my bowl. I chalk it down as an experience.
Love
Dad
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Hot pot!

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Pig’s brain

How not to keep 157 tigers: Harbin, China

Dear B and G

Yes, I’m in China again, for the fourth time in as many months, but this time seeing some new places, including Harbin in the very north of the country. It is covered in snow for about 5 months of the year and is close to the Russian border and North Korea. It is a relatively new city for China, not showing much growth until the 1920s when foreigners (mostly Russian) started trading there. Many of the older population still speak Russian. With the communist ties between the two countries and common enemies, Harbin became a base for the development of weapons and the institute that I was visiting started as a weapons research college.  It still invests heavily in ship building, weapons development and government nuclear research, which means there are a lot of troops on the streets. According to our hosts this makes Harbin a very safe place. I’m not so sure about that..!
After seeing a museum dedicated to war ships and missiles we were given the opportunity to visit the Siberian Tiger Sanctuary which protects the majority of the remaining population of this massive apex predator. I groaned as we approached the park, upon seeing fibreglass cartoon characters of tigers guiding us to the parking lot, a huge tiger head that was a shop selling all kinds of tiger-related tat and the tiger models put in undignified scenarios (pulling a cart, sitting like a human, etc).
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The parks concept was to charge punters £9 a time and then show them the tigers, apparently undergoing a re-wilding experience ready for re-introduction to their natural habitat. Although training a tiger to be wild seems like an oxymoron to me.
We entered a holding area before boarding a bus with the other tourists to go on a safari-style excursion through various gated pens that were where the tigers were being made to feel all wild again. Unfortunately they were exhibiting the usual zoo animal behaviour of walking along well trodden paths by the fences and doing figures of 8. They looked hungry and bored. There were some white tigers, which aren’t even a wild species, but a domestic breed created by man.
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After the safari we got off into a caged walkway which showed the other main tiger areas, which were concreted, sparse and crammed with the beasts, only separated by sex. What I wasn’t expecting was the opportunity to feed a tiger. Tourists can pay 20 yuan (about £2) to have a live chicken tied by its feet to a pole and then dangle it about a pit of tigers. Which the Chinese did with glee, jiggling the terrified bird just out of reach and taunting the tigers as they jumped for it. And boy can they jump – about 3 metres clear off the ground. When one of the tigers finally got the chicken in its teeth there was a terrifying scuffle and roars as they fought for the meat. Makes you realise you would be dead within seconds if you fell in. Apparently one tourist did last year as they were drunk. She got torn to bits.
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There were then some rather depressing zoo exhibitions:  a white lion that was trying to throw up, a jaguar in a small concrete pen and a liger (a sterile hybrid of a tiger and a lion) straight out of a Victorian menagerie.
I left feeling a bit upset, but perhaps the tigers are better off there and a few are released every year as they claim they are. If I was a tiger though, I would rather be free and risk the poaching.
On the way back we stopped at St Sophia cathedral, a Russian Orthodox Church in the centre of the city, which is now used to exhibit historical photos. Never seen a building like it as I haven’t visited Russia, so that was interesting for me.
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I’m on a high speed rail train now between Ningbo and Shanghai. Amazing speeds and the Chinese country speeding past in a blur. A few more days work in Guangzhou in the south and then the long flight home to you two monkeys.  At the moment we are trying to buy a house in the countryside so that you guys can grow up with space and freedom to roam. Your mum thinks we have found the place, so when I get back we will be trying to get the mortgage and move in time for G to start primary school in the village. Exciting times. Bea is now repeating almost any word you say to her, George continues to be obsessed with all things Lego Star Wars related and is sometimes like a moody teenager already, although in an adorable way.
Love
Dad

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