SAIF AL ISLAM GADDAFI – MY TRIPOLI TOUR GUIDE

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Nathan, Saif, Lisa and I return from our tour of the city

Saif al Islam was fashionably late. So fashionably late in fact, that we had got more and more comfortable in his suite as the minutes ticked by. We were wondering if he would actually turn up when he suddenly appeared in the room unannounced. We shot guiltily out of our seats, although I am not sure why since we had been let in by his security guards and he was expecting us.

Nathan the cameraman and I had had ample time to nose around – ostensibly setting up the lighting for the interview – while his secret police stood around the doorway with scowls on their faces and bulges in their dark leather jackets. The living room was the height of decadence, with gold brocade sofas carefully distributed across the shiny parquet floor to be shown off to best effect under the discreet spotlights in the ceiling. Chaises longues covered with plush burgundy cushions occupied corners, accessorized with delicate dark wood occasional tables and standing lamps. Although seemingly designed to mimic a period style cosy reading corner, it looked more like an expensive furniture show room and there were no books in sight. Nathan and I took pleasure rearranging the furniture to suit our purposes, upsetting the delicate feng shui in the process. Lisa the correspondent and I had read that the rest of the suite included a jacuzzi and an intriguing-sounding Finnish bath somewhere too, although none of us dared venture that far into the lair.

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Gaddafi’s army on the streets

Colonel Gaddafi’s son was dressed in ‘skinny’ jeans, a casual rumpled checked shirt and trendy trainer-esque shoes. He was clean-shaven, his hair closely shorn and sported expensive looking rimless glasses. He had everything of the cosmopolitan jet-setting playboy about him, relaxed and smiling – seemingly without a care in the world. He oozed confidence and a certain ‘ownership’ of the situation and circumstances. But if you had been asked to guess at his background or position, powerful son of an African or Middle Eastern dictator would not have been your first choice.

It was 3rd March 2011 and barely a fortnight into Libya’s revolution. The Regime was still feeling strong; the Gaddafi family still very much in charge. We were ‘guests’ of the regime; fed propaganda, and at this point gently imprisoned in the 5-star Rixos hotel in the centre of Tripoli and ‘invited’ to be escorted to events set-up by the regime. This was before Gaddafi’s closest entourage became aggressive, before their desperate attempts to cling onto power translated with the foreign press into overt intimidation and monitoring.

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Hosted as guests of the regime, Gaddafi supporters mysteriously ‘appeared’ everywhere we went

The interview had been a coup and one we had secured by literally loitering outside the doors of Saif’s suite and badgering his entourage. It was the first interview given by Colonel Gaddafi’s heir apparent and his most media-savvy and cosmopolitan son. Saif had studied at the London School of Economics and had a reputation for being a bit of a party boy as a student. Now he was back in Libya alongside his father, running his media campaign at a time when the country looked to be heading in the same direction as Tunisia and Egypt before it – adding another uprising to the so-called Arab Spring.

Saif did not seem unduly concerned that his father’s empire might be about to come crumbling down around them and his legacy with it. He humoured us as we asked pointed questions and laughed off any suggestion that Colonel Gaddafi was losing his grip after over 40 years in power.

Lisa then asked him why every journalist invited into the country was effectively imprisoned in this luxurious spa hotel. Was it because he and his father did not want us to see what was really going on? What of the demonstrations on the streets we were hearing about? And the youtube videos purporting to show violence bubbling in some districts of Tripoli?

His response was a dismissive wave of the hand as if swatting away an annoying fly, followed by a magnanimous sweeping gesture and with the lightest chortle:

– “You are free to go wherever you wish! You can see whatever you like, we have nothing to hide.”

– “You are not in prison here!”

Lisa grabbed the opportunity:

– “So prove it.”

His bodyguards looked uncomfortable and one of them shuffled in his chair, scraping the legs across the parquet floor. Saif waved them off. He was enjoying this.

– “Prove it. In fact, why don’t you come out with us, show us your city.” Lisa insisted.

– “Of course! No problem, we will organise it.” He said.

Lisa was like a dog with a bone. If he left the room, we would never get the chance again.

– “9 o’clock tomorrow morning? You’ll take us to where we want to go in Tripoli”

And before he knew it, he had agreed. Much to his bodyguards’ alarm.

We never expected Saif to actually turn up the following morning. But he did. Colonel Gaddafi’s son arrived with a flourish. His cream armoured car, closely followed by an identical SUV with bodyguards on board, was waved through the gates by the armed guards. The mini convoy sped down the long driveway flanked by towering lush bushes and manicured flower beds towards the grand pillared entrance of our palatial prison. As the cars came to a halt beside us, bouncing our reflections back at us in the bullet-proof glass, Saif al-Islam hopped out of the passenger seat and greeted us warmly. He remembered our names and joked as we got in “you don’t have any guns with you do you?”

Journalists who had been hanging around in the lobby were left open-mouthed as Nathan, Lisa and I clambered into the armoured car and drove off. Nathan filmed Lisa and Saif’s conversation from the front passenger seat and, squeezed between Saif and a side window in the back, I filmed shots of Tripoli and close-ups from an alternative angle, so that we could edit it later as a standalone exclusive interview.

Saif had no prior knowledge of where we wanted to go and playfully left the itinerary in our hands; instructing his driver to take us where we wanted. We chose the districts of Fashlun and Tajoura, both suburbs of Tripoli where anti-Gaddafi feeling was rumoured to be taking hold.   I have to be honest, there was no sign of unrest or evidence of the regime using violence to squash public discontent. We were only in any one place for a matter of minutes so who knows what was going on under the surface. It was clear though that Saif’s armoured SUV was recognised immediately wherever we went.   But Gaddafi did not bat an eyelid when we asked him to pull over and get out for a walkabout on the main street of Fashlun. And no sooner had he emerged from the armoured car than he was surrounded by supporters waving pictures of his father, and lunging at him to shake his hand.

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Saif goes on an impromptu ‘walkabout’ on the streets of Fashlun

On this occasion we could not accuse him of having set it up and if the people coming out of their homes to greet him – who arguably could just have stayed indoors – were doing so out of duress or fear, they were hiding it well. He was by no means mobbed, we passed through quickly and this was just one road in Tripoli on a single day in March 2011.   I am not suggesting that this represented a country’s support or indeed that this meant Saif al Islam was loved by the Libyan people. Indeed, a matter of days later we would witness demonstrations and riots in Fashlun and Tajoura for ourselves. But he had done what very few leaders and commanders I have worked with before and since would dare to do: he had taken a big risk with the media and brazenly pulled it off. As far as public relations exercises went, it was an impressive display.

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The uprising Saif denied was happening – a captured tank in Zawiya

As Tripoli fell to the rebels in 2011, Saif al Islam was pictured smiling broadly – reportedly still in the capital. Sitting in an armoured SUV, he wagged his index finger – a gesture that had become a trademark during his rallying speeches – warning that the Gaddafis were not done. When he was tracked down just over two months later by rebel forces, he was pictured with a bandaged right hand. Although official reports said the injuries were sustained before capture during a NATO air strike, others suggested his rebel captors had tried to chop off the offending digit to silence its wagging once and for all.

That was nearly four years ago. Last week, after a trial that lasted nearly 18 months, a court in Tripoli sentenced Saif al Islam to death by firing squad.

But he was not in the courtroom. He was in a jail over 100 miles away in a town called Zintan. His captors are refusing to hand over their prize to the government in Tripoli. That government in Tripoli is locked in a power struggle with another government based in the Eastern city of Tobruk. The initial optimism after the fall of Gaddafi in 2011 for a united and democratic Libya is long gone. The country has descended into civil war with ISIL fighters reportedly cashing in on the chaos. It is hardly surprising then that the verdict has garnered more column inches in the international community than it has in the country itself.

International organisations focus on reports of torture, human rights and the fairness – or lack thereof – of the Libyan justice system. Their arguments are falling on deaf ears with Libyan leaders battling for survival and fighting each other. And in practice, a sentence passed down by a court that does not hold the prisoner, and with little real control over the country it purports to represent seems somewhat academic. Most Libyans have more pressing worries than the fate of Saif al Islam anyway.

I remember the once grinning, defiant playboy cum aspiring leader. I reluctantly found him educated, eloquent, convincing and even charming. He made the mistake of believing his own hype. When trusted confidants and government ministers defected to the West like rats leaving a sinking ship, he laughed. As his people rioted in the street, he dismissed them. He ignored the most blatant signs that his time was up. It was the behaviour of the most arrogant of men. So it is difficult to imagine how he feels now: dressed in grubby prison overalls, sitting in a dingy cell in Zintan, with his home and country in a violent semi-anarchic chaos. His own arrogance robbed him of a chance to start a new life abroad. His captors now deprive him of the chance of a martyr’s death. And the people of Libya, many of whom used to cheer his name and many of whom thought he heralded a new era for their country have expressed barely a passing interest in his fate.

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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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 window into Iraq

First published in Soldier Magazine in Jan 2008.

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Back at base camp: Capt Lorna Ward and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) at the COB outside Basra

OVER the past two months I have been living a very different existence from usual. There isn’t really a typical day on the flagship Live at Five show on Sky News where I am a producer, but it is a long way from the British Army’s base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where I am at the moment.

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Patrol break: Capt Lorna Ward (centre of picture) and Cpl Andy Holmes (with camera) in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with 1 Scots, US and Iraqi troop

As a Territorial Army officer, I was mobilised in October 2007 to deploy to Iraq as the commander of the Combat Camera Team. Essentially the team provides in-house broadcast and photographic output of the activities of the British military in Iraq. In a country where few foreign journalists have the ability to get out on the ground, we provide an essential window into south-eastern Iraq.

Providing footage and access to troops on the front line is vital so that people not just in the UK but all over the world can see what we are doing and how – and why – operations are carried out. But it is important to point out that this is not about propaganda. We aim to provide objective coverage, albeit from a UK military perspective, of what is really happening on the ground.

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In the thick of it: Capt Lorna Ward (centre) and Cpl Andy Holmes (left) on patrol in the West Rasheid district of Baghdad with a member of 1 Scots

Since arriving out here we have deployed on and covered all the operations, while dealing with the hazards associated with service in the Iraqi theatre – roadside bombs, rockets and bullets. So far we have managed to get video footage and/or stills into the national press on average once a week.  Our words, pictures and videos are also featured on a daily basis in specialist publications, as well as in UK local, regional and military media outlets.

It’s been a very busy few months and the team is now past the half-way point of the tour of duty.  There have been a few close shaves but morale is high and our tightly-knit team is having a ball doing the job it has been trained for and providing an important insight into the on-going, if changing, role of UK forces here.

With the run up to Christmas we had our hands full with charity runs, carol services and hundreds of messages from the troops, which we sent back to print and broadcast outlets. On top of the normal festive messages, we covered visits from Prime Minister Gordon Brown as well as the handover of Basra Province to Iraqi control.

Christmas may be over but the pace of life here is still intense. The team and I have just got back from Baghdad.  We were based in the ‘red zone’ and went out on dismounted patrols with the joint US/UK Military Transition Team and the Iraqi Army in the volatile, divided Sunni/Shia district of West Rashid. Not only is this a first for a Combat Camera Team, it is a rare experience for any British troops, the vast majority of whom are based in Basra.

The challenge of working in the field, writing copy, editing pictures and distributing stories takes on a whole new meaning when you are in the middle of the desert, eating rations, living out of a backpack and dodging rockets. Add to that the nightmare of communications and accessing email, it’s easy to see why this might not be everyone’s cup of tea. But for me, as an ex-Regular soldier, it has to be one of the most rewarding jobs I have ever undertaken.

The Media Operations Group is a specialist Territorial Army unit that provides operational capability and training support to the Armed Forces – wherever they are deployed. Our role is providing the expert knowledge, experience and equipment, to create an effective link between the military, the media and the public. 

It’s a dog’s life in Afghanistan patrol base

First published on Sky News on 31st May 2010.

Frankie

By Lorna Ward, Sky News Producer

His large red and white blanket has pride of place under the main operations-cum-dining table in the Patrol Base. He’s had his jabs, and he dines on leftover rations.

Frankie may not be a pedigree, but he’s won the hearts of the soldiers on a small and dusty Patrol Base in Sangin.

The scruffy white and brown dog is only about nine months old but has already been through the mill.

As a puppy, he was destined to be trained up as a fighting dog.

This meant grooming him according to Afghan rules, including cutting off his ears and tail.

As it turned out, he just wasn’t aggressive enough, so his career ended and he was left homeless.

Cue the arrival of the boys from 1 Scots.

Sgt Jamie Campbell arrived ahead of the rest of the soldiers who would call this small patch of land on the edge of the Green Zone home for the next six months.

He found cockroaches and rats, and one mangy, lonely dog with no ears and no tail.

Ridding the place of pests and turning it into a liveable hygienic base was a priority. Along with the rats and the cockroaches, the mangy dog had to go.

But the disfigured, mournful looking mutt won his first battle – the animal was spared and Christened Frankie.

Just under three months later, Frankie is part of the furniture.

So much so, that he insists on following the soldiers on patrol into the Green Zone.

Despite being firmly instructed to stay on the Patrol Base and left with his water bowl and snacks, he occasionally manages to escape.

Blissfully unaware of the improvised explosive device threat and the serious job the men are here to do, he bounds towards the gate of the Patrol Base, before being shooed back to safety.

Sgt Campbell has taken a particular shine to the camp mascot and plans to take him home as a family pet.

It’ll mean jumping through a number of administrative hoops and raising money – but with the process already under way, this is one ‘rescue’ dog that looks set for a loving home in Scotland in a few months’ time.

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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

BLOG – What NOT to do on an inter-continental flight….

Just when you think you’re well-travelled, just when you think you’ve got the packing, the transfers, the finding your way around an alien country in the dead of the night totally sussed and you are the special forces operatives of adventures….you get caught out.  It doesn’t matter how often I march off on a new adventure or how many bags I pack and unpack, I never get rid of that small niggling feeling of controlled panic that hits me when I’m on my own in a foreign land, it’s the middle of the night, I’m in the wrong time zone, a bit smelly after a long flight, and I’d rather lie down on my bags than actually try to get to the bottom of the fact that the driver I should have been meeting hasn’t turned up, he has the keys to the apartment I’m meant to be staying in, and I have no idea where said-apartment is.  Of course the feeling passes as quickly as it appeared, as I tell myself to ‘man-up’, find the phone number of the contact on the ground and hump my bags to the nearest obvious pick-up point (no, not that kind of pick-up point).  But it’s still there, waiting to rear its head after years of doing this kind of thing.  Keeping me on my toes.

What threw me literally off my toes recently however was what will now be classed as my most embarrassing travel episode.  I was taking my flight back from Nairobi to London for a break.  I had made it through the chaos and remote airstrips that represent the geographically short but in practice convoluted and bureaucracy-heavy journey out of Somalia.  I had spent an entire day (longer than the duration of my actual flight home) in the airport in Nairobi.  So far so good, although I could have done without the group of Scottish musicians having one last blow-out in the airport before heading off to bother other passengers at their next destination.

I boarded the Kenyan Airways flight to London and after the dinner trays had been cleared, curled into my best pretzel position to try and get a bit of kip.  If I’m honest, I was feeling a bit smug that I’d nabbed one of the ‘emergency exit’ seats so had loads of leg room AND had remembered to take my travel pillow out of my hand luggage before stuffing it into the overhead locker.

The next thing I knew, I was flat out of the aircraft floor, with half a dozen air stewardesses peering down at me (a desirable dream for some but not my own), a cold wet flannel on my forehead and some chap with a concerned ‘doctorly’ look on his face, holding my wrist.  My instinctive feeling was one of mortification.  I remember years ago coming-to just as I was being loaded into an ambulance after I’d been found unconscious on a coast road in Ireland following a biking accident sans helmet – the first thing that came to my bleary half-conscious mind was the realisation that I must be in the middle of ‘causing a scene’.  It didn’t matter that I had a trashed knee, a head like elephant man and had left a pool of blood on the tarmac; I started trying to get up off the stretcher and telling the paramedics that really I was fine and could they please stop making such a fuss.

Exactly the same thought came into mind on the deck of the Kenyan Airways flight.  How embarrassing, I’m fine, please talk amongst yourselves.  And what the hell am I doing down here??

I had apparently gone to sleep, then some time afterwards slumped across the aisle in my seat.  When someone tried to rouse me and get me to move (trolley coming through no doubt), I was out cold and didn’t respond.  The alarm was raised and I was lifted onto the floor of the cabin where a cardiologist – who fortuitously was on his way back from honeymoon with his GP wife – was called over to sort things out.  Poor chap spent the rest of his flight taking my blood pressure (“in my boots” according to him), my pulse and making me drink gallons of water then making me go to the loo with air hostesses on ‘keel-over-watch’ with door ajar.  My hero-doc was a star and very sympathetic; putting up with my repeated “but this never happens to me, I don’t get ill, oh how embarrassing” burbled statements, and the fact that by this time I was a sweaty (sorry, glowing) mess with the shivers from the aircon which had now been turned up to the max by the air hostesses, to stop me from dying on them, and causing the rest of the aircraft to request extra blankets.

The rest of my family will tell you I’m not averse to story-telling and being the centre of attention.  As my sister will also tell you however, I tend to prefer to be the one who ‘saves the day’, rather than be the damsel who collapses in a dribbling mess and needs saving.  Particularly in such an undignified heap in amongst my grimy desert boots and collection of glossy mags.  So not quite the five minutes of fame I had in mind.

But I like to look on the bright side; I was fit enough to decline the golf buggy and wheelchair on arrival at Heathrow and managed to make a pale and reasonably dignified jog out of there as quickly as I could.  Dignity almost recovered.

My Somali adventure. First stop: airport ‘no-man’s land’

It doesn’t matter how many times I go through an airport, whether it’s for business or pleasure, or how many corners of the world I visit.  Every time I pick my way through the crowds of people all intent on making their flight, not forgetting their belongings or children and selecting last-minute overpriced ‘genuine craftwork’ paraphernalia to take home for friends and relatives, a childish wonder and excitement wells up in me at the exotic destinations announced over the intercom and the fascinating lands they suggest.  This time was no different and travelling at night added to the sense of embarking on an adventure.

I had to negotiate my way through a couple of Chinese tour groups waiting for a flight home; their trolleys linked into one long snake, and a family destined for a flight to Abu Dhabi who had lost their boarding passes.  Then there was the very nervous gentleman who had insisted on wrapping every last suitcase, bag and box in luminescent white plastic – preventing not only a would-be dodgy baggage handler but I fear also himself from ever gaining access to the contents again.

Seamlessly through my photo shoot at passport control, the ladies and gentlemen wafting the explosive-detector wands slowed me and the rest of Terminal 4 down on our quest to reach the blissful no-man’s land of the departure lounge.  I spent half an hour loitering for my bag, during a security scan so heightened that every man, woman, child – by this stage already barefoot, holding up their trousers with clenched fists and having emptied their pockets of any small change and remaining dignity – got patted down and every bag, belt, boot and plastic container of toiletries rummaged through manually after having already been zapped by the xray machine.  It may have delayed my progress through airport bureaucracy but it did afford an unexpected opportunity to peer into my fellow passengers’ belongings and therefore their lives, as they were unceremoniously laid out by latex gloves like evidence in a murder trial.  And there’s nothing more amusing than that aloof and ill-mannered superior woman who’s brushed past you in the queue, to whom the rules clearly do not apply being stopped in her tracks by an unflappable security operator.  An obsequiously delivered “madam, is this a bottle of perfume?…then. It. Must. Go. In. The. Separate. Plastic. Bag.……And is this an IPad? Then. It. Must. Also. Go. In. A. Separate. Tray….” And pedantically, patiently on, item by item, as her ladyness’ face makes its way progressively from the expensively rouge’d-at-the-cheeks look, to a rather less desirable dark puce of hopelessness, humiliation and barely contained rage.

Having just about managed to contain my guffaw at the now-deflated superior one still nodding her way through each painstaking question and item presented, I had ample time to find all sorts of lotions and potions that I absolutely HAD to have (well, it is very difficult not to when the packaging is so shiny and anyway everyone knows money spent in airport no-man’s land doesn’t count).  Ample time in part because I’m very particular about being punctual – you can take the girl out of the military and all that – but mostly because on checking in, I found out our Kenya Airways flight was delayed by at least two hours due to a technical fault.  No complaints from me as they compensated us with a meal voucher and I can think of worse airports than Heathrow to have a few hours to kill.  So I settled on a stool at the seafood bar on the main concourse and sipped a chilled glass of Chablis while people-watching over the top of my newspaper.

I had my boarding pass, I’d made it through to airport no-man’s land.  I was on my way to my next adventure.