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Why Egypt is safe for single ladies to travel to.

April 30th, 2015 by Dan Saunders

 

Finally made it to Egypt!

Finally made it to Egypt!

Why Egypt is safe for single ladies to travel to. For years I have dreamed of vacationing in Egypt, and I decided now was the time. So I booked on a tour with Encounters Travel www.encounterstravel.com, to where the Nubian people of Egypt live. As usual, I had the horror stories of everything that ‘could go wrong’ from strangers and friends – all of whom have never visited Egypt.  But as a seasoned traveller, those stories fall on my ‘deaf ears’.  I was determined to go.

The trip started perfectly.  I was collected at the airport, and more of a surprise, was when I was walking through the airport, and there waiting for us inside the customs area was their Cairo Representative – all cheery and welcoming.  He waved excitedly at me like I had a friend meeting me! He assisted with purchasing my Egyptian Visa, and then proceeded to guide me directly through the customs area with no so much as a luggage check, whilst I noticed others having the contents of their bags being pulled apart.  I was so impressed, and it was a nice touch to the start of my tour. As we drove through the empty streets of Egypt in the early hours of the morning, he pointed out how ‘normal’ the city felt – like any other city.

The tour group congregated together on the first morning, and most of the ladies were also single, with a lady from Zimbabwe, and others who were from New Zealand, Australia, residing in UK, and an America too.  And some couples as well, but we ladies seem to be the majority in this group.

First day out just had to be the pyramids. Our guide gave us some good tips on avoiding the haggling sellers, who really were suffering with the lack of tourism – in fact we almost had The Pyramids of Giza to ourselves it felt, and in fact, a few from our group went into a pyramid, and we were alone – it was so cool! Being in a group and driven around meant that we were never expected to walk the streets on our own.  We were even driven inside the Pyramid area, and then driven again to the Sphinx.

Next was the Cairo Museum to see the Tutankhamun exhibit next to the square where the 2011 Revolution started, so the Egyptian Army has a heavy presence, and tanks and soldiers greet us, but this is because they won’t allow any demonstators or problems to occur again – it felt good in a weird way.

The Hotel Soluxe had really great wi-fi so I was able to share my latest photos and Tweets with my family and friends when we returned.

We all went as a group to the airport, and the guide gave us a bulk check in and handled al the tickets – it was a breeze so far.

In the morning we arrived as a pretty tired group to the beautiful Hotel Helnan in Aswan on the River Nile.

Sunbathing by the pool

Sunbathing by the pool

There was a nifty under the road tunnel to get to the pool area, and I ordered a pizza. Most of the ladies were already out in their bikini getting a tan by the time I arrived, and I sat reading a magazine by the Nile on a sunbed – what a life!

After lunch we all met and went to the Aswan High Dam and then a motor boat to Philae Temple.  It was a time we could learn and take some photos, and the locals hung around and wanted their photo taken with us too.  Quite often we found that school girls or young guys all wanted to pose with us and have their photo taken – and one time all the girls were individually cheered as we hopped off the bus – it was hilarious.

Early that evening we went as a group to the Aswan Souks / Market at sunset.  Again our guide helped us, and told us what to buy that was good in the area, and what to avoid, and even how much to barter the price for.  Pashmina scarves and spices are the main things here that are recommended.

Then it was a traditional Nubian Restaurant on the River Nile with some fresh juices. Being a Muslim country, a lot of places just sell fresh juices or soft drink, so there are no experiences I had with any drunk guys either.  But we did have the chance to buy wine and spirits at the airport so we could enjoy a drink tomorrow – but more about that later.

Super early next day we all went to Abu Simbel.  Because this is quite a few hundred kilometres and close to the Sudanese border, the police offer an escort service to assist the tour buses.  This escort service operates two times a day in each direction, and the convoy must stay together.  It helps if anyone breaks down, aids in keeping track of tourists, and also as they stop the many trucks on the side of the road, we found it was a clear road of traffic.  I think there must have been about 40 tour buses that morning – maybe more, and can only imagine what it used to be like before the Revolution when tourism in Egypt was in full swing.

We headed on back to the Helnan Hotel and packed the room.  Then it was time for lunch to be served on the felucca boat, and they even catered for special dietary needs (you need to advise when booking).  We had one big felucca which meant the tour group could all stay together, and there was also a 2nd motor driven boat. This boat housed the two toilets, showers, the crew and also a kitchen and upper deck where we dined.

That evening before the sunset we were all relaxing; talking; playing cards; drinking (I could purchase beer on the felucca, or we could use our own); telling stories and getting to know each other.

Visiting the sites, Egypt

Visiting the sites, Egypt

That day all the meals were included and I started with a great Egyptian breakfast which was super healthy and nice.

We sailed off but the wind picked up, so the wise crew sailed to a safe sandy bank and waited for the wind to die off while about half of the ladies in the group went for swim and some sunbathing to top up their tans.

Later we found a nice spot on the river bank, and the local kids came down on a donkey and some jewellery and other items to try to sell us – they know girls like to shop – anywhere!

I had a walk on my own next and headed up the river bank – I felt really relaxed and there was no-one to bother me.

It was a fun campfire that night with some dance music – Nubian style, and learning to play the musical instruments.  We spied another felucca not far away, and that was mainly guys – we should have asked them over, but we were a bit embarrassed for some daft reason.  A few days later we met them, and they said the same thing about us!

Day five was visiting the Kor Ombo and Edfu Temples. and I hit the local market stalls, and helped my friend pick some nice pieces of jewellery out.  There was always places to stop and shop at the temples and attractions.

The hotels on this tour ere really, really nice.  Rooms are usually shared, but you can talk about that with the tour company if you want to be alone.

This hotel had an amazing and heated swimming pool, a Jacuzzi hot tub, and you could order food and drinks by the pool.

At sunset it was tour time again with a visit to Luxor Temple as the evening breeze started to gently blow. It was a beautiful and different way to see one of the incredible pieces of Egyptian history.  It is nice to walk around on our own, but it is OK to stick with the guide if you feel you want to.

Local women, Egypt

Local women, Egypt

I found it good to carry a heap of Egyptian Pound coins and a packet of Kleenex or a toilet roll for the bathrooms though, as a hint, but usually when they charge they were pretty clean.  This was great as no-one had any bad illnesses on our tour. The tour guide was always on our backs ensuring we only drank bottle water, and a lot of it!

The next morning we had a really early start so I was dressed for the cold but it wasn’t cold at all. You might ask why? I’d selected an optional tour with Dream Balloons so silly me figured it would be cold up there, and it wasn’t. I never was hassled for wearing shorts, or summer strappy tops either, but if we went into a temple or mosque, we just carried a scarf, and made sure we had decent footwear for the nice hotels, so all those stories I’d heard about people being nasty just wasn’t true for me either.

I was joined on the hot air balloon ride by the American girl on our tour, and the bus then collected on the way, and then to a motor boat for coffee and a snack, and to reach the opposite bank of the Nile River.

We enjoyed our breakfast boxes from the hotel, we then joined the rest of our group to visit the Valley of the Kings.  To see these ornately decorated walls as we tunnelled down inside their graves was really great, and I was so glad we came when there is a lull in tourism and not as busy as it would have been before the Revolution in 2011, which has caused Egyptians to suffer greatly.  Egyptians are generally friendly and eager to have tourism return in full swing, and their livelihood depends on it.

Single lady in Egypt!

Single lady in Egypt!

For any of you reading this, let me tell you that Egypt feels incredibly safe, and our guide and drivers always made sure we were where we should be at the right time and place.  There has been a lot of negative media publicity giving Egypt a bad wrap, and this is causing the tourism to really suffer.  For those wishing to visit, and who might feel concerned, then can I suggest you use www.encounterstravel.com to book your tour. They can minimise risks, and put your concerns at ease, and the tour guide will only take you to places that are of course safe (most of Egypt is safe anyway).

Later we visit the Temples of Queen Hatchepsut, Medinat Habu and Colossi of Memnon and then it is the end of our morning – it has been a long one for me and I wanted a bit ore sleep.

There was free internet in the hotel lobby so I opted to jump on Facebook etc, but the rest hung out by the pool again that afternoon.

We finished off the afternoon with a visit to the Temple of Karnak. Then it was time to learn at the ISIS 2 Papyrus Museum.

Next was a nice feed – the Irish Pub for dinner. Our group individually decided on either a flight back to Cairo or to sleep on the train.

Khan al-Khalili bazaar, Cairo, Egypt

Khan al-Khalili bazaar, Cairo, Egypt

It was back for a sleep and a late start next day – yay.  I was able to get really good internet in our room here, and the group sat around the pool with a jewellery maker and ordered some exquisite pieces from him.

After lunch we as a group decided with the help of our guide to organise our optional tour and to visit old Cairo and the souk markets and mosques.

I selected the optional tour of the Sound and Light show Pyramids of Giza, along with a few other ladies in the group. Then we returned and gathered for farewell drinks on the rooftop of the hotel.

Egypt is an amazing place to visit.  I’m so glad I didn’t listen to all those nay-sayers about not coming.  It has just been the greatest time, and I leave here with a small bag of treasures I shopped for, and a head for of memories, and a heart full of friendship.

Ruth Johnston
Email: exploramum@gmail.com
Website: www.exploramum.com

Egypt: Experience of a lifetime

April 15th, 2015 by Bianca Venmans
Bianca Venmans

Bianca Venmans

Egypt was a milestone for me in many ways. It was the 10th country that I have explored and my first time in the continent of Africa. Egypt has always been at the top of my bucket list and without ever having been there, I always felt connected to it somehow. All of my expectations for this vast country were superseded and any fears were quickly forgotten. The country and its people welcomed us with open arms and friendly faces, excited to see us and the prospect of an increase in tourism. Since the revolution in 2011, the country has been struggling to find its feet and rebuild its tourism. It fights negative international media attention warning travellers of unsafe regions and impending terrorist attacks. I believe that all of these negative broadcasts once had their place however are no longer warranted. During our stay in 3 different cities along the Nile, including Cairo where most of the demonstrations took place, we felt completely safe. The Egyptian army ranked #15 in the world and much loved by their people, were everywhere to be seen which originally startled us and made me feel on edge but soon made us feel more comfortable and at peace.

I warn you, this post will make you want to visit Egypt and you should! Don’t let the media confuse you, the only signs remaining of the revolution is the lack of tourists at the major landmarks and temples and I implore you to change that.

Edfu Temple, Egypt

A human EGYPT, Edfu Temple, Egypt

Our trip was completely organised through Encounters Travel which is a UK based company who I can’t fault in any way. The only thing we needed to worry about was the return flights to Cairo and everything else was hassle free! Our Egyptologist tour guide, Waleed was a man full of passion for his country and its ancient history. He imparted his wisdom over the course of the tour, revealing more and more of Egypt’s history, of their Gods and Goddesses and of the people who worshipped them at each temple or landmark, allowing us to slowly piece together an intricate puzzle that would have otherwise been left unfinished. The combination of a stress free tour and amazing tour guide, who showed us more in 9 days then we would have been able to do independently in 9 weeks, helped to make the trip what it was and my opinion may not have been so high without these factors in place.

I have in no way been endorsed by Encounters Travel but feel recognition should be given when it is due and so please check them out if you’re considering a trip in future. They go to plenty of other places and I intend on using them again in the future:

http://www.encounterstravel.com/

Day 1

We departed London Heathrow at 10:00pm and made a turbulent plane journey to Beirut, Lebanon. Unlike Encounters Travel, we were not as organised and our late flight booking had caused the prices to sky rocket and in turn meant we chose a longer route with less favourable airline companies. I’m almost certain that I lifted off of my seat at one point during the flight. We had a four hour layover in Beirut which allowed us to get some rest before our second, much smoother leg to Cairo. We stepped out of the plane and onto the tarmac in the dry mid of the day. Once through the doors, we were immediately met with Ahmed, who purchased our visas and assisted us through the gates before handing us over to the driver. I can’t recall our driver’s name but we appreciated his attempt at pointing out the sites of Cairo in his broken English all the way to the hotel.

On arrival at the hotel, we were met with Tom who gave us a quick run-down of events. That night, Matt and I went to the sound and light show which projected laser lights onto the front of the pyramids and sphinx, allowing us our first shaded look at the iconic structures. For dinner, Tom took us to a local spot and shouted us to Koshwari, a traditional Egyptian dish consisting of macaroni, spaghetti, rice, lentils, chickpeas and a tomatoey sauce on top.

Day 2

After our second day in Cairo, I didn’t know how it could get any better (I was proved wrong many times). Our first stop was outside the pyramids, the structures I had waited my lifetime to see. I couldn’t believe I was standing in front of them and I kept thinking of all of the other people who had stood where I was standing and who had seen what I was looking at. I was picturing the Ancient Egyptians who were so much more intelligent than their times to be able to construct such colossal structures. We had plenty of time to gawk and take photos at the main pyramid before being taken to a higher vantage point at which you can see all three pyramids from. Again, we had fun posing for silly photos and taking in the immense landscape. We stopped off in the middle of two pyramids allowing some to enter one of them while others rode camels around. We then continued down to where the sphinx lay in front of the pyramids and walked through a temple to come to a point where I felt like I could almost reach out and touch the head of the sphinx.

Back in the bus, we drove to the Egyptian Museum where Waleed walked us around and showed us the highlights. It would have taken all day to see everything and he tells us that many of the country’s treasures are in archives awaiting the new museum to be finished which will be big enough to house everything. We were delighted to get the chance to see all of the artefacts found inside Tutankhamun’s tomb by Howard Carter in 1922. There was so much gold and everything was so detailed and exquisite. What was interesting was that he hadn’t reigned for very long and his tomb was significantly smaller than many other of the great rulers of Ancient Egypt so with that in mind, imagine what would have been found in another tomb like Rameses II’s by the tomb robbers who had cleared them all out before they could be rediscovered in modern times.

Although exhausted, we still had one more stop to make and that was at a local perfume shop where we were greeted by the owner who served us koshwari and peppermint tea whilst telling us about his perfume. He could produce any scent we requested from a bottle on the shelf, explaining how they made the original perfumes which were sent off and then watered down with spirits and sold at a much higher price across Europe. We were able to purchase our favourite perfumes in their natural form and for a fraction of the price!

Day 3

Our wake up call startled us to life at 1:30am and we hurriedly organised ourselves to be downstairs with everything packed for 2:00am when we hopped on our bus which took us to the airport. We dragged ourselves through the airport like zombies, got on our 4:30am flight, followed by another bus and at 7:00am somehow arrived at our new, flashy hotel in Aswan which had stunning views overlooking the Nile that swept directly past us. Exhausted, we agreed to have a quick nap but not waste the day and be down at the pool which was reached through an underground tunnel by 10:00am for a swim, bake and feed. By 2:00pm we were on a bus again, making a quick stop at Lake Naser which is the largest man-made lake in the world and were shown the dam walls which prevent the Nile from flooding. We continued on to our main destination, Philae Temple which we reached by boat. It had been dismantled from its original location and put together again almost seamlessly. We found out along the way that a lot of temples had to be relocated due to the flooding of the Nile and we were always amazed at how flawless the work was considering the size of these structures that were moved.

Excited, we arrived at Aswan markets which were surprisingly calm and the only underwhelming feature on our tour. Having been to Bali and other intense market settings, we were expecting an onslaught of vicious hagglers all vying for our attention and money. In fact, it was quite peaceful to walk through and more interesting to watch the people go about their usual business. We each took turns haggling as instructed by Waleed and purchased many velvety soft pashmina scarves for a price we couldn’t have made them for ourselves. We then took another boat to a restaurant for a big family dinner of meat, rice and a bolognaise style tomato sauce which followed the breads and dips that seem to be a staple in Egypt.

Day 4

It was another early morning with a 3:00am start in order to join the convoy of tourist buses and police support vehicles to Abu Simbel. We drove along with the Sahara desert only 10km from the roadside though the landscape would have suggested we were already amidst it. We arrived after four hours of attempting to sleep uncomfortably and then made our way to the temples built by Rameses II. Their colossal size was again surprising especially once we learned that these temples too were relocated. I loved learning about the history of Egypt and it was here that Waleed cemented a lot of the things I already knew, allowing it to make more sense and fed my thirst for the knowledge by giving me more.

Rameses II temple was huge, its ceilings so high, its artwork so deep and detailed. It was impressive. It had been built to receive sunlight into the back room (holy of the holies) only twice a year on October 22 and February 22 (there is much more to this, but I could write a whole blog on the information we learned on this trip alone so I will leave it at that). His wife, Nefertari’s temple which was beside Rameses II, was less impressive after walking through his but still amazing.

We made the long trek back to Aswan, boarded our felucca and enjoyed a lunch on board before setting sail for the afternoon. We stopped again for dinner, enjoyed some drinks, card games and conversation and eventually went to bed when we had no light left. The felucca, a boat whose centre is completely covered in mattresses, was surprisingly comfortable and I enjoyed the unity I felt as we all slept together on the same level with only a canvas material between us and the stars.

Day 5

Today was free for us to wake up when we wanted and relax all day. The felucca set sail after breakfast but we weren’t on the water for very long as it became quite windy causing the boat to tip to a frightening angle. I found it exhilarating but our guide’s face showed a different emotion. We docked and once safe on the shore we were able to disembark and sun bake on the sandy cliff. We ate lunch here too, swam in the Nile and took the only chance we’d been given so far on the busy trip, to relax. That afternoon, we continued on before finding somewhere to stop for the night. We ate dinner, played cards and later, the Nubian crew put on a show, creating a bonfire, singing and playing the drums. We danced around the fire with drinks in hand until late that night.

Felucca on the Nile, Egypt

Felucca sailing on the Nile, Egypt

Day 6

This morning following breakfast, we sadly bid farewell to the felucca and its crew of friendly Nubians as we hopped on another bus destined for Luxor. We were to make two stops on the way with about an hour drive between them. The first stop was Komombo Temple and the second stop was Edfu Temple, the most well-preserved temple in Egypt.

As we approached the temple, hundreds of Muslim girls aged in their teens, adorned in bright coloured head scarves and other dazzling garments swarmed towards us with a chatter of gleeful giggles and wide smiles. As tourists ourselves, we were celebrities to these girls visiting from the countryside. They bombarded us with questions of our nationalities and opinions of Egypt. They touched our white skin and grabbed at our fair hair while taking photos, their faces lit up by the wonder and excitement in their eyes. Although an impressive temple dedicated to the God Horus stood before us, we were the true attraction for them. I felt grateful and humble as we walked on. Once we arrived at our five star hotel, we went straight for the pool where we ate lunch, sun baked and swam, making the most of the luxury following the felucca.

That night, we went out to see Luxor Temple where Waleed helped me to make connections in my knowledge of Egypt and the Christian Bible Stories (ie Moses). It’s like having epiphanies I imagine. Everything is already there, I just didn’t have it in the right sequence or didn’t realise they were linked. Afterwards, we went to dinner nearby where we had the restaurant to ourselves again. We ate so much food over the course of five meals which only cost us the equivalent of £5.30! During our meal the power in the restaurant and all surrounding areas went out which caused a little unnecessary panic to rise inside me for the first time on the trip. The restaurant had a generator running within five minutes which powered the lights and allowed us to continue as we were before.

Day 7

Another early rise. After an extensive breakfast, we got a ferry across the Nile to where our bus awaited us and took us to the Valley of the Kings. We visited three temples which took my breath away upon entering them. Never had we seen so much colour and even though we were told so often of the colour that would have adorned all of the temples, you still couldn’t imagine it until we saw it on the walls inside these tombs. We visited the tombs of Rameses III, Rameses VI and Merenptah. Some of us had also paid extra to enter Tutankhamun’s tomb which as I mentioned earlier, was considerably smaller than the others. Due to his unexpected death at an early age, his tomb was not even carved and only had large, simple paintings instead of the detailed designs we had seen in other tombs. Tutankhamun’s mummified body remained inside the tomb and we were able to see just how small he was. Despite being 18 or 19 years old at death, he looked the height of someone no more than 10 and this would have most likely been a deformity caused by an incestual mother and father.

We then went to Al-deir Al-bahari Temple which was the mortuary temple of a Queen who wished to be treated as a man, wearing male clothing, including the false beard. We stopped in at Habu temple and then returned back to the hotel for a swim and lunch. Because we had started early, we had missed all of the lines to enter the tombs and our photos are almost tourist free.

That afternoon, we went to Karnak temple which was huge and still had some mud brick foundations remaining on the sides of the walls. Waleed then took us to a Papyrus store where we were shown how they create the paintings atop of the papyrus plant and some purchased pieces. Lastly, we went to an Irish pub for dinner where Waleed gave us a two hour talk on Islam and the Revolution. As I listened, I scribbled notes in the back of my journal in fear that I wouldn’t take in the onslaught of information he was giving us. His talk along with our personal experiences, changed my perceptive and opinions on many things.

After dinner, we picked up our luggage from the hotel, got on our bus to the airport and caught a late flight back to Cairo, arriving at the hotel at 3:00am.

Day 8

We got to sleep in after our late night and once we were all up and had had breakfast we met with a friend of Waleed’s who is an owner of a jewellery factory and made us custom pieces. He had so many beautiful pieces, it was hard to pick from. Then, Waleed took us to old Cairo. Our bus pulled up outside a group who were in front of the large walls that surround the old town. We emerged from the bus feeling like celebrities as tourists from Egypt’s countryside applauded our white skin and fair hair. They took photos like the paparazzi and waved to us as if we had met before. Over the course of the day, we were approached a number of times with the request for photos so that they too would have evidence of their experiences and be able to look back at the wonders they encountered as we did the same, taking photos of iconic landmarks and beautiful scenery.

Once inside the towering walls, we walked upon the cobblestone streets and entered a serene mosque, covering our hair with scarves and removing our shoes. It was so peaceful inside. We continued our tour of old Cairo and sat, smoking watermelon flavoured shishas and sipping on deliciously sweet mango juice in a local restaurant for some time. It was so nice to slow down at the end of the tour and enjoy each other’s company. We hit the busy end of the town where we walked through markets, haggling with shop owners and collecting souvenirs along the way. These were the sorts of markets I was used to. It was cramped and busy, people were pressuring and pleading and I enjoyed every second of it.

Once out of the markets, we grabbed a lunch of falafels and shwarmas then crossed the manic street where our bus was approaching, without stopping, we climbed into the slowly moving bus in order to not anger the drivers of other vehicles nearby. On board, Waleed began to talk and I felt tears welling for the man who imprinted Egypt onto our heart as he gave one last family thank you speech. We headed back to the hotel where we bid farewell to Waleed with tears threatening to breech. We were sad to leave our tour guide who became our friend and sad to leave this country which for just more than a week became our home.

Turkey

July 10th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

One of the leading tourism destinations in the world, Turkey is a land of contradictions and diversity and effortlessly combines the old and the new. Offering warm and gracious local hospitality and world class cuisine, vibrant cities and important ancient sites, beautiful beaches and stunning landscapes, it’s no wonder the country’s tourism industry is growing rapidly year on year. Straddling two continents Turkey is a meeting of East and West as well as the ancient and the modern. Seen as a bridging nation between Asia and Europe, it also touches Africa and holds a unique position as the historical capital of the Ottoman, Roman, Latin and Byzantine Empires.

An exotic melting pot of different cultures and people, the thriving city of Istanbul boasts a dazzling array of attractions. From beautiful historic palaces and mosques to bustling, vibrant and world famous bazaars, there is something for everyone in this enchanting city. The 2010 European Capital of Culture boasts some of the most famous landmarks in the world, including the world famous Blue Mosque with its wonderfully intricate blue tiling and proud minarets. There are countless mosques and palaces to explore but the 14th century Topkapi Palace with its lush gardens and courtyards is another must-see. The exciting bars and nightlife of the city combine with a renowned restaurant scene, offering all manners of top quality global and traditional cuisine, to offer any visitor a multitude of stimulating nights out. If shopping is your thing you could not be better placed – Istanbul is widely regarded as one of the top shopping cities in the world, whether you are seeking intricately crafted souvenirs, rugs, carpets and jewellery or designer label clothes. Do visit the thriving bazaars, don’t forget the world famous intoxicating spice markets and don’t be afraid to haggle, it’s all part of the fun!

Often initially overlooked due to Turkey’s incredible cities and cultural sites, the beaches and resorts are stunning. If you are looking for a relaxing holiday on a beautiful beach lapped with turquoise waters, Turkey couldn’t be better. The southern areas boast nearly 6 months of summertime and the sandy beaches along the Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines with their sparkling turquoise waters are a must-see for any sun, sand and sea worshippers. From large beaches with countless water sports to secluded coves with turtles and sparkling waters, there is a great variety of beautiful resorts for you to choose from and Bodrum and Antalya are especially popular.

Aya Sofia

View from Aya Sofia, Istanbul

Turkey has a wealth of rich history and culture and the country boasts more archaeological sites than anywhere else in the world. From the WWII sites at Gallipoli (ANZAC Day is a particularly poignant time to visit) to the ancient city of Troy, Turkey has probably more key historical and cultural sites that anywhere in the world. The ancient city of Troy lay undiscovered until the mid 19th century and the Roman site of Ephesus is regarded as one of the best preserved ancient cities in the Mediterranean. The beautiful landscape of Cappadocia is a must see for any visitor, a fairytale setting of underground villages and incredible rock formations that capture the imagination like nowhere else.

Cappadocia

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia, Turkey.

 

In short, Turkey is an intoxicating country full of natural splendours, wonderful people, beautiful scenery and incredible food. We highly recommend it for a truly memorable experience.

Egypt – Dahab

July 7th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

For most people, a holiday to Egypt either involves exploring the ancient historical sites or busy, bustling Cairo, or some beach time in the famous Sharm El Sheikh resorts. All these places have much to offer any visitor but they also come with the inevitable crowds. For those wanting something a little more off the beaten track there is Dahab – a place that makes you feel after a week like you’ve been away for a month. Dahab, meaning ‘Gold’, is a small coastal town on the Red Sea, traditionally a Bedouin fishing village that is now one of the premier dive and water sports places in the world. Its laid back atmosphere is incredibly relaxing and the shore is lined with cushion filed cafes and restaurants where you can while away your days drinking traditional Bedouin tea and smoking apple shisha pipes.

DahabThe food is superb, offering everything from tiny falafel shacks to global cuisine and the wonderful Egyptian fare of fresh fish and seafood, koftas and soft pitta breads with tahini and baba ganoush. El Fanar is one of my particular favourite haunts where the staff make you feel like an old friend. Indeed that may well be the case – loyal travellers return to Dahab again and again. I have travelled widely across a number of continents and the warm hospitality in Dahab is second to none. Never have I been anywhere that has made me feel so instantly welcome, with such friendly, helpful faces at every turn.

Accommodation ranges from small guesthouses and budget backpacker haunts to top class hotel resorts like the stunning Le Meridian a short jeep ride up the coast. Designed by an award winning architect the hotel is a real treat, offering beautifully designed rooms and pool areas and a long private beach with ‘bungalows’ to shade from the sun. As with most of Dahab, sympathy with the surroundings is paramount and to that end nothing is more than one storey high. This is not your usual beach resort. Surrounded by the incredible Sinai Mountains and sand dunes, those who want to while away their days in the sun have a perfect backdrop in which to do so.

For those who look for a little more excitement however there is an array of opportunities available. The area is world famous for windsurfing, scuba diving and snorkelling with coastal reefs teeming with fish and underwater flora and fauna. World famous diving sites are to be found here, including the Blue Hole, Canyon and Lighthouse Reefs and people travel from all over the world to experience these dramatic dives.

Winsurfing. Speed.If land based activities are more your style, how about a desert safari? Guided trekking, dramatic canyon walks, jeep excursions and camel trekking are all available and I can personally recommend the Bedouin dinner safari where you spend an enchanting evening in the desert eating traditional Bedouin fare around a camp fire while you relax on the multitude of cushions, listening to local stories and enjoying the spectacular scenery that surrounds you. Should you be interested in exploring further afield, Dahab makes an excellent base for climbing Mount Sinai, visiting St Catherine’s Monastery and exploring the ancient Lost City of Petra in neighbouring Jordan. These excursions make for a long day but it’s certainly worth it!

Mt SinaiDahab is a short road transfer immediately out of Sharm El Sheikh airport and the climate means you can visit all year round with temperatures ranging from 20 to 30 degrees. The summer is especially hot but because of the desert landscape and the strong winds it never gets too humid which makes it much more pleasant. Dahab may well be my favourite little town in the world and I defy anyone who experiences its many charms not to want to return again and again.

Maldives Magic

May 6th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

The sun dipped down below the horizon and the beautiful white sand turned a golden yellow. This was the picture postcard start to my trip to the Maldives with Encounters Travel. The group was small, just four of us, but that actually made it better as it really felt like a private tour. It started with a tour of the capital, Malé, which was interesting enough but I really couldn’t wait to get out to the local islands and see the real Maldives. The tour visited a couple of  ‘local’ island’s, something few other operators offer, as most stick to the dhoni cruise boats or the extortionately expensive resort islands.

P1040145

From Malé we caught the local ferry to Guraidhoo Island, about an hour and half away. The ferry was full of local Maldivians and a spattering of tourist. Luckily our guide was with us to make sure we understood the safety drills and where to find the life jackets, as the boat crew certainly didn’t seem concerned.

P1040131

Guraidhoo Island was a small, ‘typical’ local island, as far removed from the sterile resort islands, that have made the Maldives such a popular destination, as can be imagined – and just what I was looking for. The small guesthouse was basic, but very clean and the staff were really friendly. We took a tour of the island but unfortunately it was right in the middle of Ramadan, so everywhere was a bit deserted. Over the next few days we explored the surrounding islands, coral reefs  and sand bars on various excursions. These included a day on a deserted picnic island, dinner with a local family, dinner on a sand bar, and various snorkelling trips. Everything was pretty well organised and great fun, especially the snorkelling, which was the best I’ve ever had.

snorkelling

We then move to nearby Maafushi Island, a bit bigger and more set up for tourists. Our guesthouse was much better and really very nice and clean and again wonderfully friendly staff. We continued to enjoy more snorkelling, local song and dance and an evening out fishing on boat, which was great fun and we even caught dinner. There was a small beach area on Maafushi Island set aside for tourist to sunbath away from the gaze of the locals, as being a Islamic country bikinis are a non starter away from the resort islands. Of course the girls can still go swimming and snorkelling, but they just need to keep covered up whilst in view. Though to be honest more than a few tourist were not paying much attention to this rule. The only other down side to being on the local islands was the lack of alcohol, but I personally didn’t miss it that much.

Fishing

All to soon we headed back to Malé and I spent a day on a resort island to finish off, which was certainly nice to enjoy the luxury and the booze, but i enjoyed the local islands much, much more.

 

All in all our guide was excellent and kept everything ticking along nicely, though you do really need to embrace the idea of ‘local time’ as, and this is not unusual in very hot countries, timings can be pretty loose! I loved this tour, it was great value for money and I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking to discover the other side of the Maldives you don’t find in the glossy brochures.

Amazing Food

Trekking in Nepal

March 13th, 2014 by Dan Saunders

Nepal offers some of the best trekking to be found anywhere in the world. It is home to 8 of the 14 highest mountains in the world, including Mount Everest (8,848m) the world’s highest..

There are 3 main regions that the majority of trekkers choose to visit, Annapurna Region, Langtang Region and Everest Region and each has a uniquely different feel to it.

View of Machapuchare (Fishtail mountain) and the Himalaya from Damside at Pokhara, Nepal

Everest Region

Most trekking in the Everest region starts with a flight into Lukla airport, which in itself can be a real adventure as it’s one of the most challenging airports and also quite a hair-raising experience. Once in Lukla most trekkers head out towards Everest Base Camp, which can be done in a little under 2 weeks. The trails are fairly straightforward and generally speak the trekking is not too challenging, however the altitude can be. With the majority of this trek being over 4,000m, altitude sickness can become a real issue. However is you take your time and acclimatise properly by taking a few rest days on route you should be able to dramatically reduce the risk of suffering form AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). There are a number of excellent side treks available if you have more time, including visiting the wonderful Gokyo Lakes region.

Annapurna Region

Situated to the west of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, this mountainous region is one of the most popular in Nepal. The starting point for most treks into this region is the picturesque lakeside town of Pokhara. The most popular treks in the Annapurna’s are the full Annapurna Circuit, which takes around two weeks to complete; the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, which take you up to the Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130m; and the Jomsom Trek, which finished in the holy shrine of Muktinath (3,710m) before flying back down to Pokhara.

annapurna range

Langtang Region

Langtang region offers the closest quality trekking to Kathmandu and can be reach in half a day by bus. There are a number of routes available up into the Langtang Valley and also the neighbouring valleys including the Gosainkund Lakes area. Although the peaks are not a big as in the other two regions, the closeness of the mountains makes this region no less impressive and should you want a high altitude challenge, there is always the Ganja La pass trek, which at 5,130m will test even the toughest of trekkers.

Himalayas-Nepal

The Colours of Morocco

January 21st, 2014 by Dan Saunders

 

A blog by Erina Kilmore

Morocco was always one of those exotic destinations that I had dreamed about but never thought I’d get the chance to visit.  I feel so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to experience the many colours of Morocco on the Encounters Travel Moroccan Mosaics tour.

Moroccan Mosaics

I have travelled through many parts of the world solo so to be greeted by the warm, friendly face of our guide at the arrivals gate in Marrakech was a welcomed change.  He immediately took my bags and made me feel at home in this new country.  From that moment on there was nothing I would want for as every detail was carefully considered and taken care of.  As we drove from the airport I could see the amazing Atlas Mountains in the distance and large, busy roads dotted with palms and beautifully sculptured trees.  At the hotel I was showed to my lovely room and then requested to meet in the lounge to meet my fellow travellers.  At this meeting we were given an overview of the tours, some choices we could make about day trips and the opportunity to make connections from the get go.  The group was varied and interesting with people from all over the world and different walks of life.  I can honestly say we all got along and it made the trip so much more fantastic!  That night at dinner, we shared travel stories, expectations of Morocco and excitement for what was to come…

Day 1 was a tour of Marrakech and that is where I first got to see all the magical colours that make this country so exotic and beautiful.  The mosques and palaces were decorated with intricate mosaics, marble and timber work.  Walking through the bazaar to the main square was fabulous and I could see that the rest of the group and myself were already planning our shopping sprees with the abundance of leather, pottery and silver wares for sale.  Sunset in the square was just brilliant as the group shared some mint tea and took in all the musical sounds, food smells and bustling life of the city.

Moroccan Souk

The next few days the group and I embarked on an adventure through the Atlas Mountains that I had seen tower over Marrakech that weekend with stops that gave us some incredible views.  We stayed in lovely hotels that you really wouldn’t have thought could exist in these towns.  We ate beautiful traditional Moroccan meals every day and usually laughed at the silence at the dinner table as we all enjoyed every bite.  The conversations were then great!  We shared more stories, talked about our discoveries of the day and showed photos.  We visited many Kasbah’s, took some great group photos and continued to eat fabulous local food every day.

By day 4 we were all very excited to disembark the luxurious coach where we all had 2-3 seats each and jump into some new model 4WD’s for some fun.  Driving through the Sahara Dessert was hilarious as the drivers thought themselves to be rally drivers more than tour guides, nonetheless we felt safe and laughed very hard the entire time.  We arrived just before sunset at our dessert camp for the night – the HIGHLIGHT of our trip!  Our bags were taken to our very luxurious ‘tents’ and we jumped straight onto some waiting camels and into the dunes.  The camel ride was awesome.  We laughed, took cool photos of our silhouettes in the dunes and chatted with our local guide as they directed us towards the best viewing point for the sun to set over Africa.  Once we walked a short distance to the top, the colours on the sand were remarkable and was matched by the changing hues of red and orange that the sun created in the sky.  It was a truly breathtaking moment that our group shared as that sun set.  Unforgettable.  That night we shared drinks under the stars and sat up late into the night as a group and listed to local musicians play some mesmerising tunes.

Sunset on the dunes in the Sahara desert

Sunset on the dunes in the Sahara desert

The next morning we woke early for the sun to rise over the Algerian border.  It was soooo cold but so worth it.  The rest of the day was relaxed as we drove to probably the nicest hotel of our stay in Zagora.  We enjoyed another fabulous meal and shared a beautiful birthday cake for one of our fellow travellers birthday, she was very surprised.  The following day was a bit of a slog driving back to Marrakech but because we had already made some fantastic relationships in the group, we laughed, we sang songs and played card games to make the day go quite fast.  That night I think we all collapsed…

The last day was at leisure and sadly I had to fly home but my tour friends enjoyed crossing off all the shopping items they had wanted earlier, visited a beautiful garden and ate more of Morocco’s finest foods.  The colours of Morocco will always stay in my mind and heart and I look forward to visiting again to experience the coastal towns and the romance of Casablanca.  That was my first group tour, and I’d do it again.  It was so easy, so fun and I’ve made some friendships for the rest of my life.  Thank you Encounters Travel!

Morocco Red Cotton

Finding Magic in Morocco

September 27th, 2013 by Dan Saunders

By Rekha Thomas

Sahara dreaming

“En route to Morocco. And I’m not talking Epcot (Disney World). Thank you to my husband for holding down the fort so that I could experience the trip of a lifetime!”   With this post that I hastily thumbed onto my Facebook timeline, my journey began.  I was sitting on board my Royal Air Maroc flight in New York City and although I could hardly have known it at the time, I really was embarking on the trip of a lifetime.

Being a solo traveler was new to me after having been used to family vacations with my husband and two daughters in tow. I was nervous about meeting new people and traveling to a more exotic location than most people would ever visit in their lives.

Immediately after going through immigration at Marrakech Menara airport, I was greeted by our guides. It was at this point that I met a few of the fellow travelers with whom I would spend the majority of my waking hours over the next few days. Although we came from all different geographies and walks of life, it quickly became clear that we shared a bond with our common love of travel and adventure. After arriving at our hotel, our first impromptu group bonding activity was to get everyone’s smartphones connected to Wi-Fi!

I have generally steered away from packaged tours since they have been stereotyped as regimented, touristy, and rarely give one a chance to venture off the beaten path. I chose this particular tour since I love photography and wanted to explore and “shoot” the diverse landscape and culture that I had only read about in books, in addition to experiencing the thrill of a city like Marrakech.  The itinerary that was presented allowed me meet both goals and quite frankly has changed my view of tours!

Although the destinations highlighted on our trip were exciting to see, what was truly memorable were the unique experiences that we were able to share as a group and that can’t be written into any travel itinerary. The first night, one of the guides took several of us, who were interested, on a walk to Jemaa El-Fna Square, the world famous souk (marketplace) in Marrakech. Seeing it come alive at night was magical. The sight of monkeys and snakes, the feel of a small Moroccan child tugging at my sleeve asking me to purchase a trinket, the sounds of thousands of feet making their way through the crowds as a smoky haze rose from the aromatic kebabs and enveloped the market was nothing short of incredible. The sheer size was more than I had imagined.  There was so much to see that I could have lost myself for hours. And I probably would have, had I not heard the guide raise his voice and shout, “Stay together! You don’t want to get lost!”

The next day, we returned to Jemaa El-Fna square during the afternoon and were given time to explore on our own. A few of us ventured out together with the common goal of exploring and shopping. As we wandered through the winding alleyways trying to find our way back to the main square, I was drawn to the packets of fragrant mint tea displayed in a basket in front of a tiny shop.  The five people I was with were also solo travelers and we had met each other the day before. We christened ourselves “The Circle of Five.”  We were amused by the bottles of Berber Viagra proudly displayed next to the amber and Chanel-scented fragrant bars, saffron, and curry powder in the “Berber” pharmacy, as locals called it. The shopkeeper was an affable young man who persuaded us to enter by saying that we didn’t need to buy anything and that he was a University student who just wanted to practice his English. In very fluent English, his first question for us was, “How much is an iPhone 5 in the U.S.?” Being hospitable, he made fresh mint tea for us that that he served on top of a large flipped over metal can. At first I waved off the sugar cubes that he offered. After a quick sip and an involuntary puckering of the mouth, I proceeded to do what the locals do and dunked several cubes of sugar into the small glass of fragrant tea. I fondly remember it as one of the best mint teas that I had in Morocco.

The day ended with dinner and agreement at a local Moroccan restaurant. Although a vegetarian myself, the kebabs looked so fabulous that I had to take a picture! The belly dancer, with her gyrating hips, was the crown jewel of an enjoyable night of live music and dancing.

The next day we boarded a coach bus to begin our journey through the Atlas Mountains. We travelled through the Tizi N’tichka pass (which is the highest pass in Northern Africa) and arrived at the impressive Ait Benhaddou Kasbah (rock fortress). We scaled to the very top and were treated to amazing views of the surrounding landscape. There are no words to capture the scale of Ait Benhaddou.

Yet another unforgettable experience wasn’t printed on the itinerary.  In the town of Ouarzazate, known as the gateway to the Sahara, our guide was able to borrow a guitar for one of the young men on our tour and, with the instrument in tow, we took off for the town square in Ouarzazate. Our group sat on the steps, singing and enjoying the night air, while local Moroccan kids, who initially observed us shyly, began to dance freely around us. They were as intrigued by us as we were of them.

As we continued traveling up and down the changing elevations of the Atlas Mountains we were welcomed with amazing views, each more magnificent than the other. It is truly a landscape photographer’s paradise. The Todra Gorge, Tasseurte, Erfoud, so many beautiful places.  Several of these locations offered us chances to immerse ourselves in the local culture and experience Berber dancing, cooking our own tagines and watching artisans make local handiworks.

“Tsk…tsk….tsk.”   “What, you may ask, is that?” Well, that sound is the first thing that you hear when you wake up in a Berber tented camp in the Sahara desert! It’s the sound you hear as you gently brush the sand that has slowly fallen during the night, forming a thin gritty layer on your face. The Sahara desert was one of my favorite experiences and the spectacular combination of sky and sand provided yet another dream location for a photographer. We started by leaving our buses and boarding 4×4’s that would take us to our tented Berber camp in Merzouga. It was a thrill to be part of a caravan of 4×4’s that raced each other over the rapidly changing terrain. As the miles flew by, paved roads slowly became rocky flat landscape, which then made a dramatic final transformation to brownish-orange sand. We had the added excitement of getting stuck on a small sand dune and needing another 4×4’s help to be towed out. After arriving at our camp after the slight delay, we were ushered onto camels for a sunset camel ride. Lugging my clunky camera and with my gear bag strapped onto me, I made for an interesting figure in the desert. One hand clutched my camera, trying to protect my lens from the sand, while the other white-knuckled hand held my camel’s reins in a vise-like grip while my guide half pulled, half guided my camel up to the top of the sandy dune that loomed ahead of me. Occasionally he would stop for me to reposition myself as I slipped precariously off the camel’s hump due to the weight of my gear or needed to snap a photo. It must have been amusing. I can’t complain. It was a gorgeous sunset!

The only thing better was waking up at 5 am with a couple of fellow travelers to hike out into the desert to patiently wait for the glorious sunrise, which was another amazing experience. Writing my kids names in the sand was an added bonus!  It lies there imprinted forever, or at least until the next sandstorm! Tranquil, serene, beautiful…

On the last day of our tour, about half of our group opted to go to the coastal town of Essaouira. The landscape and vibe here is a far cry from the elevation of the Atlas Mountains, the sandy terrain of the Sahara desert and the hustle and bustle of the crowded marketplaces of Marrakech. Today, it is a laid-back beach town, which is in sharp contrast to its history as an 18th-century fortified seaport town. You can still see the ramparts with ancient cannons that protected this fortress town along the esplanade. The medina (old city) itself is picturesque with distinctive Moroccan blue shutters and doors that frame and accent almost every building. Hundreds of brightly painted blue boats are anchored on the dock and form a sharp contrast to the fishermen tinkering with their vibrant red fishing nets. Leisurely walking through the colorful souks in Essaouira was a fitting end to an incredible journey.

As I reminisce about the trip and peruse through photos, I realize that not only do I have many memories to cherish; I also have the desire to visit even more faraway places. I leave you with the refrain from the French/Arabic song by Cheb Khaled that became an anthem for us on our tour bus.   “C’est La Vie!”   With experiences like this I can’t complain, it really is a good life!

To visit Rekha’s website and see all her images click  here.

Trekking in Thailand

September 3rd, 2013 by Dan Saunders

by Anthony Horrobin - 

Thailand is best known for its pristine beaches, intricate temples and world-renowned nightlife but the north of the country provides a perfect base for an authentic Thai trekking experience. The northern jungles of Thailand are home to a diverse mix of hill-tribe villages and ethnic minorities, each with their own customs, costumes and building style.

Whilst travelling in Thailand at the beginning of 2010 I took part in our 2 night trekking tour and thoroughly enjoyed myself, the experience was very different to what I expected and I would recommend the trip to anyone looking for a little adventure!

We began our trip in Chiang Mai and drove north to the town of Mae Malai, where we purchased various supplies to take with us on the trek. The market at Mae Malai was very authentic and certainly not aimed at tourists. Our guide explained the various produce that was being sold, including the interesting sounding ‘Thousand Year Egg’ – I chose NOT to try this! From Mae Malai we continued our drive to the beautiful Pang Lan Waterfalls where we had the opportunity to swim in the refreshing waters and listen to the hum of the wildlife in the surrounding jungle. Later in the afternoon our driver dropped us off at Huay Nam Dang National Park where our trekking began.

Pang Lan Waterfalls-Thailand

Pang Lan Waterfalls-Thailand

Day one of the trek saw us walking for approximately 2-3 hours along forest paths used often by local hill-tribe people. Along the way we passed by a few locals and cattle from the nearby villages (and also lots of HUGE cobwebs, where giant spiders were no doubt lurking inside). The terrain was reasonably flat on the first day, apart from the slope leading down into the village. This path offered some fantastic views of the surrounding landscapes and brought home just how remote the village actually was!! – There was no sign of civilization in any direction. Upon arrival at the village we were led to our accommodation, which was located in the center of the village. Although the hut was very basic, it was probably more comfortable then I had been expecting (see above pictures). After settling in and resting for our while, our guide took us on a tour of the village where we were able to witness the day-to-day life of the local people. The houses were mainly built on stilts and underneath lived their livestock – mainly water buffalo and pigs. I was surprised to learn that many of Karen villages actually follow the Christian faith and a modest church was located on the outskirts of the village. After seeing the bright lights of Bangkok and Chiang Mai, the basic conditions of the village were a real culture shock, however the people here were some of the happiest I met whilst in Thailand. In the evening we joined some of the local people who taught us how to make spring rolls and we enjoyed these whilst being serenaded by one of the local villagers and his guitar. The lack of electricity meant that the only light available was candle-light, which with the buzz of the forest around us and the thought of being in such as remote location gave an almost magical atmosphere.

On day two I was awoken very early by the crowing of the many cockerels roaming around the village. We had a light breakfast before beginning our trek again. The walking on day two was more difficult with many inclines. The path was also much thinner and the forest surrounding us seemed much thicker too. Along the way we again had the chance to view many amazing landscapes including the tiered rice paddies so famous in southeast Asia. Unfortunately we were travelling during the dry season which meant that the Paddy fields were dry; however it gave us a good idea of how the lush and green fields would look in the rainy season. We walked for between 4 and 5 hours on day two and the journey ended at an elephant camp, located in a valley surrounded by jungle on every side. Here the elephants were clearly treat very well and were free to roam around the surrounding area. We joined in with bathing one of the elephants in the river before climbing onboard to begin our elephant trek through the jungle. We rode for just over 1 hour whilst the mahout and our trekking guide walked behind. Our mahout was obviously very well trained and directed the elephants throughout the whole journey without any physical contact, the strange sounds coming from the guides’ mouth were clear enough to keep the elephants on the correct path. The elephant ride ended close to our second Karen village and after walking a short distance we arrived. The second village was much larger and some of the villagers actually had cars too. The houses were still very basic but not on stilts as they were in our previous village. We arrived in the middle of the day and many of the villagers were swimming in the river, along with their water-buffalo. We spent a little time relaxing beside the river bank before crossing a DIY bamboo bridge to the small island on the out-skirts of the village where out hut was located. After walking along dusty tracks for such a long time today were we all very dirty and decided to clean up by taking a ‘bath’ in the nearby river. That evening we were all very tired and after hearing stories from the guide for a while we all retired to bed for an early night.

Elephant Ride - Thailand

Elephant Ride – Thailand

On day three we boarded a basic bamboo raft and sailed downriver for much of the day. The dense forest on both sides of the river caused the imagination to wander and conjure up images of what animals might be lurking beyond the river bank. Our journey took around 6 hours, however during the rainy season when the water levels are much higher the journey can be done in 3-4 hours. The steady pace of our journey was very relaxing although quite exciting at times too; especially when the boat became stuck between rocks and we had to wade through the river to help lift it free. Our adventure ended at a riverside café where we enjoyed lunch before being collected and driven from here back to Chiang Mai.

Access bridge to our accommodation

Access bridge to our accommodation

I would recommend our Trekking Adventure to anyone looking for something a little more exciting whilst in Thailand. The trip makes for an excellent addition to a Northern Thailand tour and gives a great insight into how Thailand may have been many years ago.

The Sahara

August 29th, 2013 by Dan Saunders

Post written by William Maddicott 28/08/2013

The Sahara, or ‘Greatest’ Desert, as the locals call it conjures up all sorts of images; Scorpions, Snakes, Oasis’, vultures.  The hottest desert on the planet is the size of China, and home to all sorts of unfriendly animals, the most notorious being the Deathstalker Scorpion.

With these images in mind it is with trepidation that we head out to spend the night camping in a Traditional Berber camp in the middle of the Sahara. The Berber people are a Nomadic race who dominates much the Saharan Morocco. Traditionally livestock herders, they follow the Sahara’s natural cycle of grazing and water, always on the move.

Shadows in the sand

Taken on the sunset Camel ride up the dunes.

Arriving at Arfoud at the Edge of civilised Morocco we get out of our Mini bus and check into a rather nice hotel, safe in the knowledge that this is only a temporary stop before we board 4x4s and head out to Mezouga and into the real Sahara. After making suitable use of the hotel’s Wifi, air conditioning and creature comforts we board our jeeps ready for the 50km drive out into the wilderness. About 10km outside Arfoud, the road’s all but disappear and we appear to be driving through the featureless landscape in search of the Camp. The drivers seem to know the way, but we’re unsure how as there’s little to aid navigation other than a great expanse of sand, the odd palm tree and the Algerian Atlas mountains directly in front of us.

Desert 4x4's

4×4′s used to get to the beginning of the Sahara.

After about an hour of driving including a few photo stops to take in the vast expanse of nothingness, we arrive at a camp that looks a lot more luxurious than anyone in the jeep had anticipated. Flushing toilets, towels, even a fridge to keep beer cool, and a swimming pool greeted us. This was more than even the most optimistic members of the group are expecting, our tents even had little electric lamps in them.

We are met from the jeep by an exuberant staff member and helped with our bags into a court yard, bottled water is passed round, and we feel instantly comfortable and at one in the desert. The atmosphere is relaxed and there are plenty of Berber’s hanging around enjoying the late afternoon cool sun. After about 10 minutes a group of 15 camel headers appears and, after we have been introduced to our designated beast, we board and set sail into the desert. Camels are notoriously grumpy creatures and mine takes what can only be described as in instant dislike to me sitting on his hump, after a lot of Sqwarking, and ‘Nurrring’, and a little bit of gentle persuasion from the camel herder he rises and is ready to go. After enquiring the name of my camel I was simply met with ‘his name is camel’ from the herder, there appears not to have been much love lost between these two.

Our not so basic berber camp.

Trekking through the sand dunes you get a great feel of how remote the desert is. Other than the casual banter between the camel headers and the slow plod of the camels there is absolute silence. Nothing! Not a noise. Something which is very hard to come by when you live in the confines of large city! It truly is a magical place. The sun is starting to set when we leave our camels at the top of the sand dune. And we sit watching the sunset without another soul around over this magical desert. One of the herders then whips out a snow board and we then proceed to take turns in the sedate sport of snowboarding down sand dunes. It turns out snowboards are designed for snow, not sand, and they take a bit of coaxing to slide down the deceptively steep sand dunes. With dusk now setting in we board out camels again and return back to the camp. ‘Camel’ has not forgotten his dislike for me and proceeds to make the journey home as uncomfortable as physically possible, ending off with nearly throwing me off backwards when we sits down back at the camp.

Sahara Sunset

Fancy a glass of wine with your sunset?

The same exuberant man then welcomes us back off the camels, and ushers us into a hall for a feast of Moroccan Delicacies, Soup, Tagine, and the infamous ‘Casablanca’ Beer. After dinner and a few beers we are led outside where the local Berber tribe have lit a massive bonfire, and pulled out a couple of drums. A little more beer then appears and a lot of ‘Darbukkah’ bashing, and before I know it I’ve been taught the rhythm to a traditional Berber song. Despite not knowing many words of each other’s language we communicate well through the language of beer and music, a sure fired winner.

It’s easy to forget how remote the region is, and it’s only when you look up to see thousands upon thousands of stars that you remember that you are in the middle of one of the natural wonders of the world. The stars are crammed into the sky everywhere you looked it really was a sight to behold. A cry of ‘Scorpion’ quickly bought us back to our senses. Our brilliant, ever observant, guide Idris, is crouching next to a rock beckoning for us to come and take a look, but at the same time maintain a healthy distance. We got a quick glance before the Scorpions decided they were more worried about us and scuttled away hurriedly into the sand.

The next morning, after an incredibly comfy night’s sleep, we are treated to a staple Berber breakfast of bread and eggs. We board our 4×4’s and headed back out into the civilised world, sorry to say goodbye to our fantastically welcoming hosts, and their Camels.

New Friends