‘Driech’ in the Highlands

scotland2

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in a small town called Pitlochry in the Highlands of Scotland.  Storm Frank is in full swing outside.  The sky is a dark shade of grey, the rain is horizontal and relentless. The entire valley – or glen – has been turned into a series of great lakes with small fishing sheds and treetops poking incongruously out of the middle of them.  Both the Tay and the Tummel have burst their banks and there is flooding of biblical proportions.  We’ve been lucky – our cottage further down the valley is just high enough up the hill to be above the waterline but the cat has her wellies ready and her eye on her favourite Christmas bauble just in case.

I cycled the 6 miles over the hills to this the nearest coffee shop, from a hamlet called Logierait.  My wheels covered more water than road and my trousers are now dripping onto the polished wooden floor.  I’ve just picked another lump of mud (I think – although it could be cow dung) off my cheek and have been edging my sodden boots towards the big open fireplace near the end of the table.

scotland3

Believe it or not, this is when Scotland comes into its own.  On days like this when I have lost sensation in my toes, my ageing and injured hamstring is crying out for a hot bath and I am reminded as I glance at the sleeve of my fleece that half-way through one of the downhills I may have used it to blow my streaming nose.   When I am covered in mud from head to toe, am so wet that even my underwear needs wringing out and my cheeks are stinging from a combination of hail, rain, sleet and snow.  It is only then that I can truly appreciate the crackling log fire and the huge pot of tea served by the welcoming and chatty landlord who makes a passing comment about how ‘driech’ it is outside and doesn’t blink an eye when I position my wet feet so close to the fire grate steam rises off them.

scotland1

It is tempting then to sit back into the weathered leather armchair, read my book and nod off against one of the soft tartan cushions but the waters are rising and what is left of the afternoon light is fading fast.  I have squeezed the last drop out of my pot of tea, that was definitely a drying splatter of cow pat not mud, and I still have the cycle-wade-swim home to tackle.  I don my snotty fleece and damp waterproof, reluctantly remove my soggy boots from the fire place and head back out into Frank’s path.  I will be back at the cottage soon, and it is only 6 miles away.  But thanks to the Scottish hills and weather, my cycle will have been an adventure and the open fires, mugs of tea, wee dram of whisky and cosy evenings a delicious reward for venturing out.

warmth1

A Hidden Gem in Residential Cape Town

cape town by night

A Christmassy Cape Town by night

Tucked away up a quiet leafy residential street in Cape Town, we nearly drove past Four Rosmead boutique hotel assuming it was one of the many white-washed gated private properties in the affluent hilly district nestled under Table Mountain.

Its unassuming but polished exterior is reflected in the discreet and immaculate interior of the property and its warm and welcoming staff. We were greeted with the warmth of familiar guests returning to their country retreat. We were led through the comfortable sitting room complete with fireplace and complimentary evening drinks tray and out onto a balcony overlooking a walled garden. A handful of rattan loungers were arranged over a gravel suntrap near a small swimming pool, opposite which was our room. Four Rosmead has generously upgraded us to a suite – a huge living room with kitchenette, bedroom and vast bathroom – with its own private sunbathing area and outdoor shower. There were building works going on in adjacent properties but they were confined to a few hours during the day, during which time we were exploring Cape Town and the surrounding area.

rosmead

A welcome cup of tea in the haven of Four Rosemead

Breakfast was plentiful and freshly prepared to order. Dinner was available on request, although we chose to eat out on the V&A Waterfront one night and had the inevitable ‘braai’ with family and friends the other.

Four Rosmead is a small and cosy setting in the hustle and bustle of Cape Town. The owners and staff clearly take great pride in delivering a personal and exclusive service while making guests feel at home in the cosy surroundings. The attention to detail, beautiful setting and quality of the service are what makes Four Rosmead a hidden gem: easily accessible to the shops and sights of Cape Town, but secluded from the hustle and bustle after a busy day exploring the South African city.

prothea

A South African protea – the national flower

An African Thunderstorm

African thunderstorm Rorkes Drift

There’s nothing quite like an African thunderstorm.
In the UK we are treated to grey skies and clouds that can’t seem to make up their mind if they’re just going to float above us indefinitely, push off to Belgium or be decisive enough to whip up something spectacular. More often than not, they decide to hang there and spit on us for days at a time – the kind of rain dubbed ‘miggie-pis’ (pronounced mihhy piss) by my Zimbabwean husband – then sit around some more before the next half-hearted offering.
In Africa there’s no pussy-footing around. The flamboyant display arrives unannounced in between two stretches of scorching sunshine and bright blue sky. It makes a brutal cacophonic entrance then deafens, blinds and blows you away. The only warning is a subtle smell of damp in the air and a quietening of birdsong. If your nostrils and ears are tuned, you may have just enough time to find shelter and move the ‘braai’ under cover.

African thunderstorm threatensAfter a short spectacle, the billowing clouds, torrential rain and deep drum rolls of thunder are gone. Blue sky and bright sunshine return. The ground sizzles and lets off steam, grateful to have had its thirst quenched even for a minute. The birds re-emerge from their hiding places and resume their chattering. The braai is nonchalantly rolled back out into the open and smoke rises off the coals. As the sun turns a deep shade of orange there is no more than a wisp of cloud high in the sky. The silhouette of a lone tree appears on the horizon as steaks the size of suitcases are laid across the grill. The only remnant of nature’s onslaught is the perfume of wet jacaranda tree flowers competing with the cooking marinade.

After the storm

GOODBYE HEATHROW TERMINAL 1

Airports are loud, bright, busy places where no-one and nothing stands still.  Of all these beasts, the ever-improving, ever-expanding London Heathrow was, until last year, the busiest in the world. 24-hours a day, sombreros, flip flops and tanned limbs jostle with skis, puffer jackets and woolly hats. Ibiza party-goers gulp pints of lager at dawn in the ‘olde English pub’ style drinking holes, honeymooners sample bubbles and caviar perched atop the chrome stools around the minimalist shiny glass bar at the pretentious but delicious seafood stand. Babies in the wrong time zone scream while harassed parents with ruffled hair and a dazed look trail battered suitcases and pushchairs piled with cuddly toys, Louis Vuitton matching luggage gets wheeled across the concourse on a trolley while its owner teeters through Duty Free in the highest stilettos and ‘Jackie O’ style designer shades en route to the executive lounge.

Heathrow’s terminals have borne witness to heart-wrenching goodbyes, obscene mementos brought back from far-off tourist traps that never look quite the same when they get back home, unbridled screaming matches between tired travellers in a multitude of languages, tearful reunions and joyous departures to long-awaited sun-drenched destinations.

So it is sad to watch one of these behemoths be put to bed. Terminal 1 has just days before it is closed down. And demolished. It’s making way for further expansion and no doubt more caviar stands in the gleamingly new Terminal 2. It apparently has aspirations to match the retail and hospitality experience that is currently Heathrow’s T5. I can’t say I blame it – I’ve on occasion almost missed my flight I’ve been so busy enjoying the trappings of the British Airways hub and dancing across its vast shiny hangar-sized concourses. Which terminal wouldn’t want to be T5?

In fact, I have become so familiar and attached to my T5 ‘experience’ that on a recent trip to Jordan, I turned up there on automatic pilot assuming my British Airways flight was there waiting for me. It was news to me that some (or just that one, I think) BA flights still depart from Terminal 1. So that was how I came to see the old lady in her final days.

After a mad dash on the transit shuttle, we emerged from a lift into a dark and unoccupied check-in hall. I thought we had accidentally been ferried into a parallel universe like the ones in films where everyone has disappeared and the protagonist is alone on the planet running around in the deserted school corridors and shopping malls of his life. I might even have seen some tumbleweed but I can’t be sure.

LHR T1 empty check in hall

Terminal 1 Check-in hall – where is everyone??

I self-consciously walked across the huge hall up to a line of unmanned check-in desks, almost walking on my tip-toes to try and dampen the single echoing sound of my flip flops slapping the floor.

One lady in a stretched and faded British Airways navy blue uniform (the new crisp tailored ones must be reserved for the high-flyers in T5 – excuse the pun) had been left behind by the invading aliens, ostensibly to provide a semblance of normality.

She smiled and was cheerful, over-compensating I thought, for the deathly quiet, or perhaps just relieved to be getting the chance to speak to another human-being during her shift. I almost asked her what she had done to deserve to be sent to what seemed to be Heathrow Airport’s most remote outpost but decided it would be mean to rub it in.

Security and passport control went by so quickly I almost felt guilty for not giving them more to search through after they’d gone to the trouble of turning on their machines and lining up the plastic trays for me to choose from.

LHR T1 beefeater

London Beefeater welcomes no-one in particular in darkened arrivals hall

By the time we returned to Terminal 1 two weeks later, I really did think our captain had parked his aircraft in the wrong place. First off the plane, we strode down dark corridors. The life-size Beefeater and London Taxi driver welcoming us into the UK from the billboards were left waving at nobody in particular. I almost walked straight through passport control, barely noticing the diminutive Customs and Excise lady nodding off at her terminal.

LHR T1 reclaim closed

“Reclaim Closed”

The whole place looked like closing time in a shop, where the tills have been totted up, they’d rather you didn’t buy anything thank you and could you please just go home. We followed the half-lit yellow signs underground to the baggage collection area to find silent carousels stationary and all signs showing an apologetic “Reclaim Closed”.

As I typed texts into my phone absent-mindedly, a sign flashed up suddenly announcing “Reclaim 1” for my flight from Amman. But like a ghost house in a movie, reclaim 2 behind me whirred into action inexplicably, with a steady thump thump thump of rubber catching on the worn rivets in the mechanism.

No sooner was my suitcase catapulted onto the deck, and I was out of the “Nothing to Declare” channel in a shot, seeking daylight and normality, and to reassure myself that the world had not ended during my time within the grey walls of Terminal 1.

LHR T1 empty baggage hall2

Arrivals and baggage collection

London Heathrow’s Terminal 1 will close at 21:15 on 29th June this year. It has served us for almost fifty years, starting out as the biggest short-haul terminal of its kind in Western Europe. Opened by Queen Elizabeth in 1969, it is somehow fitting that it should be replaced by the recently opened and now expanding Terminal 2, the ‘Queen’s Terminal’.

A little corner of paradise….

I’m back on a beach, looking out to a crystal blue sea in the sticky bright heat. Bliss to be away from the seemingly never-ending winter we’re having in the UK. And bonus, this time there’s no barbed wire, no soldiers to brief and I’m not traipsing around in desert boots and flowing garments, looking forward to a cold seawater shower. We couldn’t be further from Mogadishu here on the island of Medhufushi in the Maldives. Paradise doesn’t quite do it justice.

As an eternal cynic, when I look at holiday brochures, I always take the pictures of deserted pristine white sandy beaches, calm turquoise waters, lone palm trees silhouetted against breathtaking sunsets with a bit of a pinch of salt. I’ve seen what can be done with Photoshop, the deft angling of the camera to exclude from the frame the large building site next door and the colour palette that could ‘enhance’ even the Basingstoke canal to tropical luminescence. This is now my third visit to the Maldives though (the first two were to Bandos island, about 45 minutes away on the Male atoll), and still it delightfully fails to disappoint. Medhufushi – which apparently means ‘ centre of the sand bank’ in the local language Dhivehi – is in the Meemu atoll and a 40-minute seaplane flight from the capital Male. The island resort has a collection of ‘water villas’ out on a row of stilts above the water and looking out to an uninterrupted glistening horizon. We’re in one of the wooden ‘beach villas’, at the water’s edge, tucked away in amongst the coconut palms and leafy bushes with our own private area of white powder stretching to the water’s edge. It’s difficult not to relax when the setting is so serene and the discreet but attentive staff’s sole intent is to prevent you from lifting a finger and make your stay as memorably decadent and lazy as possible.

On Medhufushi, you’re barely aware there’s anyone else on the island, except at meal times when couples and small family groups emerge from their thatched bungalows for a bite to eat in the central open air dining area. We seem to have one entire side of the island to ourselves. We’ve spent hours paddling up and down it in sea kayaks – almost heading off to a neighbouring island we were so intent on following a curious turtle yesterday. Although this is one island that is surrounded by lagoon rather than a reef, there is still plenty of wildlife to be seen underwater. I will no doubt pay later in the sunburn stakes, for the amount of time we spent being toyed with by a couple of reef sharks earlier this morning. Always an exciting sight for anyone who grew up watching ‘Jaws’. Thankfully there were huge shoals of smaller prey around so we thought they were probably not very hungry and anyway we were too big a bite (and yes I am aware that reef sharks are harmless but they always say that until something happens so you can never be too careful I say). Our own feeding times are equally plentiful. Spread across various chefs’ stations interspersed with silver-domed buffet counters, every meal is freshly prepared with local fruits, spices and the day’s catch. For those less adventurous diners, there are tray-fulls of gourmet European food as an alternative to the Maldivian curries. If the chocolate monster in our gang’s orgasmic reaction to last night’s gooey chocolate and pear tart is anything to go by, the dessert selection is nothing short of sinful. The only complaint I would offer on this is that the melt-in-your-mouth coconut cakes, home-baked naans with cinnamon and clove fish curries are not conducive to showing off one’s brand new glamorous bikini in the most flattering light. Which is why having one’s own private beach is a doubly good thing.

Image

Enjoying the view

It’s hard to imagine this and many other islands of the Maldives were completely wiped out by the tsunami in 2004. It has been painstakingly rebuilt and cared for, making it once again one of the most exclusive destinations in the world. And they’re obviously keen to keep it that way. Alongside the extreme luxury and enjoyment of this paradise, runs an ethos of caring for the environment and preserving what’s left of the reefs, the natural wonders living on them and the tranquil surroundings.

If what you’re looking for is clubbing and parties, this is not for you. If you’re looking for monuments, museums and a cultural journey of discovery, this will leave you frustrated. But if, like us, you need a sledgehammer to properly wind down and let go; if like me you’ve read and re-read Chapter One of that bestseller twenty times over the last few months without getting any further; if paddling around with turtles, sting rays, sharks and rainbow-coloured fish in your very own ocean, challenging yourself with the full range of watersports and topping it off with burning purple and orange sunsets over a totally peaceful Margherita or two, then this is for you.

If that all sounds a bit too energetic, there’s always the spa. It sits out at sea, a haven with nothing but the smell of spices and flowers mingling with the sound of the tide lapping up under the floorboards against the stilts.

We’ve got that planned for tomorrow. This evening, we’re off fishing; and who knows, we might even manage to catch our own dinner.

Image

Our ride from the capital Male to the island of Medhufushi on the Meemu Atoll

10 Reasons you’re missing out if you haven’t visited Scotland

1.         You can walk for miles over hills, through woods and heather, savouring the complete isolation as you conquer a ‘Munro’…and just when you thought you’d mastered this mountaineering lark, you find yourself knee-deep in marshes laughing so hard you haven’t the strength to extract yourself.

2.         The people are so friendly, you’ll be ‘pals’ with every shop keeper, pub landlord and passer-by within minutes of arriving.

3.         You can order most of the menu knowing it’ll be tasty hearty fare (fattening but after those hills absolutely necessary re-fuelling material), even if you have no idea what it is – think neeps and tatties, haggis, rumbledethumps, black buns, Ecclefechan tart, tablet and soor plooms.

4.         Scotland has thousands of different varieties of whisky.  If you weren’t a whisky lover before, you will be by the time you’ve spent a couple of days here.  Alternatively there’s always whisky-flavoured fudge, whisky cream, whisky-flavoured cheese, whisky-flavoured tablet…

5.         It’s cold, wet, icy, snowy or ‘driech’ as a true Scot would say.  Which means you are entirely justified in spending whole afternoons by the crackling log fires drinking tea or sampling your way through ‘wee drams’ of the aforementioned vast collection of whiskies.

6.         Nothing but nothing beats a pipe marching band in full swing on a bright summer’s day in the Highlands (for a taste have a listen to Highland Cathedral played by massed pipes).  Hairs on the back of your neck, lump in throat stuff…

_MG_8357

Nothing quite like a marching pipe band

7.         Where else can men wear skirts and look more manly than any of their trouser-wearing counterparts.  No, really.

_MG_8313

Throwing the hammer Highland Games-style

8.         The tough Scots spirit peaks in towns and villages across the Highlands throughout the summer.  The Highland Games have something for literally everyone: Girls of all ages in clan tartans deftly dancing over swords looked upon sternly by a row of judges, pipers in the corner of the field warming up for their solo piping contest, cross-country runners setting off up the nearest hill to return some miles and large clods of mud later in the afternoon, large burly (kilt-clad – see no.7 above) men hurling a 19ft lark tree into the air, and others bulging out of their vests carrying large boulders as far as they can down a track (think ‘World’s Strongest Man’ but with stones that are shaped as nature left them rather than manufactured perfect spheres).  And if you’re more of a couch potato, there are always craft stalls, falconry displays and rows of tasty food stalls to keep you going (essential when the sun goes behind a cloud or the heavens open – which in this part of the world doesn’t even elicit the batting of an eyelid.  Even the highland flingers have special waterproof macs and clogs to keep their costumes dry).

9.         If you’re a budding Tiger Woods or a retired Gary Player, you are spoilt for choice.  You could play golf on a different course every day for over a year and a half and the views are spectacular.

10.       And to finish off the day, there’s no leveller on the dance floor like a Ceilidh.  With hands, arms and legs flailing, you’ll find yourself grabbing hold of complete strangers as you attempt to ‘Strip the Willow’ or keep up with the ‘dance caller’ as you fumble your way through an ‘Eightsome Reel’.

Train or ferry? A lesson in European travel

There was a time when Eurostar was an easy, smooth and somewhat luxurious way to hop across – or more accurately under – the Channel.  As a family who live scattered across the European continent, we would make the train journey feel part of the whole holiday adventure by travelling en-masse for family events, carting a huge picnic on-board or upgrading to the glass of bubbly, three-course meal and comfy seats of business class.  Now though, it is more akin to a 2-3 hour journey on any cross-country train and a little scruffy at that.  At peak times like Christmas, under the chipped gloss, it heaves under the seemingly unexpected (although since it happens every year on the same day you’d think by now they’d have got it sussed) strain of expat families racing to get together.  St Pancras teams with queuing hordes loaded high with luggage and presents travelling to Brussels, Paris and further afield.  All are funnelled through electronic gates and then bottlenecked at security and left waiting for space on the x-ray conveyor belt, while standing in between electric doors that keep closing on your luggage or on your upper arms.  Last time I went through, after surviving the automatic doors, I spent half an hour watching a security official grunt and waft orders at me to unzip bags and pouches, then unceremoniously dump the contents of my case onto the counter and walk away.  It gave me just enough time to re-pack, push through UK border control, then French border checks and get to the escalator for the platform in time to be told off for almost missing my train (clearly I should have arrived more than the recommended 2-hours before my train’s departure).

So when my husband and brother suggested we go across ‘retro-style’ at Christmas – on the ferry – I thought why not.  Needless to say we picked the best day for our crossing – gale force winds and blinding torrential rain.  But we were not to be cowed and set off whacky-racers style on our convoy down to Dover.  Nostalgic to be back at the white cliffs before being swallowed up into the belly of the Pride of York.  Nothing like the number of cars I remember in the lanes in those pre-Eurostar and Chunnel days though.

IMG_1249

Retro travel queueing for the ferry

It may have been a little choppy and there were a few very green looking faces bouncing off the walls as we made our way up and down and across the Channel.  There were also a great many people enjoying hearty fish and chips, doing a spot of shopping and chatting over tea while staring out resolutely at the horizon, thereby batting off the onset of sea-sickness (yours truly).  Despite the weather, we were off and on the road to Brussels on time and even had plenty of time to stop off in Ghent on the way to Brussels for some Belgian chips, mulled wine and a browse around the Christmas market.  So full points for the good old-fashioned sea voyage across the Channel.

Or so I thought.   Just how old-fashioned only really came clear on the return journey when rough (understatement) seas prevented us from crossing for over two hours.  Not a problem said the apologetic note from the French port authorities as they would like to “draw our attention to the facilities offered in the Terminal building: toilets, a cafeteria and a bar”.This, we soon realised after arriving at said establishment after braving horizontal rain and gusts sweeping you off your feet, was actually a ‘slight’ overstatement.  We found no Terminal building.  Just a big sign pointing to a small (heated – small mercies) room with a toilet and three overused heaving vending machines.  Not quite what it said on the tin.  The contents of my thimble-sized plastic cup were most definitely not ‘rich tomato soup’.  The ‘creamy hot chocolate’ and ‘rich vegetable soup’ (naive waste of money or generous attempt to give the machine the benefit-of-the doubt?) were neither creamy, rich, or chocolate or vegetable.  Rather than apologise for the “adverse weather conditions causing delays”, they might have wanted to focus on their “cafeteria and bar”.  Just a suggestion.

IMG_1250[1]

The “Terminal building”

Tomato soup, vegetable soup or hot chocolate?

The “cafe” and “bar”

So the retro road-trip, Channel cruise choice falling short of a gold star.  But then if we were judging on authenticity of the retro journey, I suppose the French port authorities have indeed stayed with a traditional 1970s ‘coffee shop’ offering; rather apt for fer ry crossings that have been around for decades and survived the advances in technology and invasion of Costa offee shops everywhere else.  It just would have been nice if rather than dressing it up as ‘Le petit café du coin’, they’d told us it was indeed a coin’ and ‘petit’, but your chances of any ‘café’ were slim to grey and luke-warm.  They could in fact learn from Eurostar, which on an earlier trip, as we pulled out of Waterloo station (in the olden days before the move to St Pancras) we were greeted with the announcement that the buffet car had run out of tea, hot food and small cups.  Abysmal and in record time, yes.  But at least there was no attempt at cover-up or glamorising.  You will pay through the nose, probably be delayed on the French side due to strikes, and on the UK side due to leaves on the line, and throughout your journey you WILL enjoy a wide range of snacks; namely ready salted crisps and large cups of coffee.  Simple.

So if you’re looking for speed without frills and a city-to-city jaunt – I’d go Eurostar, but take a picnic and a good book in case there are leaves on the line or a fire in the tunnel (to be fair that’s only happened once I think).  If you’re looking for a road trip and are happy to take it easy and see some countryside – I’d go with the ferry, but take a picnic, sea-sickness tablets and check the weather forecast first.

Either way it’s all part of the experience of seeing family when like mine, it’s multinational and everyone’s scattered across Europe (I haven’t tried the trains across Germany but am told by my German relative that they are very punctual and clean – well, they would be wouldn’t they).  I just wonder what some of the visiting tourists think.  The Japanese manage to get drink dispensers to the top of some of the highest mountains, the Americans have food outlets every few hundred yards on every road, and the Australians couldn’t have horizontal rain and weather-delayed ferries if they tried.  What a culture shock it must be when they come and visit our Europe.  And on reflection how delicate of them to only call it ‘quaint’.

A FLEETING CITY-HOP TO KAMPALA

It’s just a flying visit.  I arrived at Entebbe airport yesterday evening from Mogadishu via Nairobi.  I’ve turned my hand to a spot of recruiting for the vacancies that have come up over the last few weeks at AMISOM’s Information Support Team in Mogadishu.  Intent on spreading the net across the region a bit; I’ve done Skype interviews with candidates from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Kampala.  Now I’m on a manic city-hopping extravaganza to meet the front-runners in person.

We landed to glaring dry and hot sunshine – my kind of weather – and I shared my ride from the old capital Entebbe (and location of the country’s only airport) to today’s capital Kampala with a couple of gentlemen from Djibouti, also on their first visit to Uganda and firing questions at our driver about the sites, the politics and the history.  I had been told by one of my team in Mogadishu who lived here for a few years that it was a beautiful country.  What I saw as we drove through the countryside confirmed it.  The lush green rolling hills, the vast Lake Victoria with its beaches and resort hotels dotted around it, the banana plantations all made me wish I was here as a tourist rather than a would-be recruitment consultant.

The traffic and its behaviour reminded me of the roads around Sri Lanka where moped drivers take their lives into their hands (and yours) competing for tarmac with the seemingly never-ending supply of Toyota minibus taxis.  Weaving around the road and barrelling into oncoming traffic, on a couple of occasions, they forced our driver to swerve into the gravel, narrowly missing them and lulling me out of my sight-seeing reverie.  By the time we rolled into Kampala just under an hour later, the clouds had gathered and droplets were hitting the windscreen.  Seconds later, the road was a river of orange mud-laden water, with the regular speed bumps creating mini waterfalls at pedestrian crossings.  Clearly a regular occurrence during the rains season though as suits, dresses and school uniforms alike navigated deftly through torrents without so much as a brolly in hand.  It did serve to slow down the moped maniacs though, who were suddenly nowhere to be seen amongst the criss-crossing rush-hour traffic.  I realised as we went past a couple of service stations that these kamikazes on two wheels were not quite as hardy as their pedestrian counterparts.  I found them all cowering under the forecourt awnings waiting for a break in the clouds; swarms of bikers patiently chatting and eyeing up the more glossy, more powerful and desirable mount parked up alongside them.

For my twenty-four hour flying visit, I’m staying at the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of the smarter hotels in town but of an older era than the luxurious modern chains; with wide ornate corridors, leather sofas and writing bureaux made of dark polished wood lining the lobby area.  I’m just sorry that with meetings and interviews, I’m spending far too much time in it working, than exploring well beyond its ornate pillars and welcoming staff.  Barely a taste of Uganda, but enough to say I’ll definitely be back.

A breather in my Maldivian paradise

Image

Fine white sands, light turquoise waters lapping up towards the edge of my hammock and peace and quiet so complete that I can hear a lizard scuttling up the coarse husks of the palm tree overhead.

This is what I call paradise and it’s one of the very few places I can really properly wind down and – unheard of for me – find myself nodding off in the middle of the day.

We came to the Maldives last year after a week trekking around Sri Lanka, for a bit of sport, sun and cocktails over the water at sunset.  We’ve never returned to the same spot for a holiday before but it fitted the bill again this year, after spending five months in Afghanistan and running around the subsequent flurry of meetings, lectures and conferences when I got back to the UK.

We chose one of the smallest islands and only a 20-minute scoot in a speedboat from the arrivals hall of Male airport.  The staff are discreet but attentive, the food delicious – mine’s a Maldivian curry every night despite not being a huge curry fan back home – and the location idyllic.  On both our visits, we’ve landed up sunburnt on the first night, not because we’ve shunned sun cream and gone for maximum exposure with baby oil ‘a l’Anglaise’ and not because we’ve been sun-worshippers spending every waking moment glued to our towels.  The problem is once we’re snorkelling on the reef with hundreds of multi-coloured fish, anemones and sea creatures, we forget the time and the fact that our pink British skin is a prime target for the relentless tropical sun.  And just as we’re about to negotiate our way back through the coral to the white sands of our island, we get lured back out by a friendly turtle on his daily outing or we land up half-way round the island in the wrong direction after finding ourselves unexpectedly nose to nose with a reef shark.  Harmless I’m told and not into taking a bite out of big lardy humans with chewy flippers, but not a rule I’m willing to test or become the exception to.

What a shame every holiday must come to an end.  After just a week this time, we’re shaking hands with our friendly waiter Nauf.  He’s spent the week making sure we’ve had everything we needed, giving us regular updates on the weather forecast (mostly scorching), and telling us about his home 400 kilometres away on the South Male atoll.  Then it’s back into the speedboat bound for our Air Sri Lanka flight via Colombo.  There is time for one more memorable moment as we arrive in the dark and pouring rain at Heathrow airport after an eleven-hour flight.  The aircraft’s cabin is jerked out of its slumber just as the wheels are about to touch down with the Terminal 4 in sight.  The engines thrust us forward and up again suddenly and we’re heading abruptly back up into the storm clouds.  As we settle into the approach pattern again, the pilot tells us he’s had to go around as there was an aircraft on the runway.  An abrupt end to the horizontal pace of life and relaxation of my hammock on Bandos Island, but then there’s nothing like a bit of excitement to get me back in the mood for the next adventure….