Monday, 9 April 2018

Gorilla Tracking, Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda

Words and photos by Brett Goulston 

Along with my small group of 8, I crossed the border into Rwanda from Uganda with the typical level of bureaucracy expected in a developing African nation. After an hour or so and several processes which didn’t make a lot of sense, we were on our way.   

We head to Mountain Gorilla View Lodge in northern Rwanda, not all that far from the border with Congo, where we check in for two nights. Almost all visitors staying in this lodge do so purely for the gorilla tracking experience.  The chalet style accommodation is very comfortable with large rooms, pleasant staff and decent food.  

The next morning we’re off bright and early for a once-in-a-lifetime experience – spotting mountain gorillas. We’re going to spend an hour or so viewing them close-up and taking as many photos as we desire. On arrival at the park entrance, we receive a full briefing from our local guides and 30 minutes later, off we go. 

Spotting these rare primates is not necessarily difficult because the gorilla families which the tourists track have been habituated. In other words, they have become used to people and, providing you follow the basic rules set by the guide, it’s safe. The only difficulty can be trekking to their location. There’s a 90% chance you will get to see the gorillas because they are tracked each day by professional trackers whose job is not only to help protect them but also to liaise with the guides as to their whereabouts. On occasions, you may have to walk for many hours up and down hills and through difficult terrain to get to them. We’re extremely lucky on this occasion because the family we’re going to follow has come down the mountain to the edge of the jungle and is just a kilometre or so from our starting point. 

However, it gets even better. The silverback – the dominant male - from the family we’re following has decided to leave the jungle and go out into the open. This makes for amazing photos and a dream opportunity to watch all the others follow him into open space.  

There were 19 in the family and we were up close and personal with most of them. We watched them as they ate their way from bush to bush. The young ones played like children and the older females disciplined them when things got out of hand. They really are very human-like and in fact, share 98% of our DNA. It was truly a magical experience – one that none of us will ever forget.  

If you are interested in seeing the gorillas of Rwanda or Uganda on a small group tour, visit our website.   We have a small group tour departing in February 2019 - click here for details.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Paramaribo, Suriname

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

I’m on a research trip with my wife Kate, doing our homework for a tour to what is collectively knows as The Guianas. We travel from Guyana to Suriname, flying into the capital city on a small “caravan” flight, arriving at a small airstrip in the middle of town. Originally we thought we had landed at the world’s smallest capital city airport but as it turned out, we’d arrived at a domestic airport for local flights from the region, not the international airport (phew).  

The main centre near the old Dutch fort, Zeelandia, is dotted with beautiful old wooden houses. Some have been totally renovated and reflect their former glory but sadly, others have been badly neglected. Money – or lack of it  of course  is the problem. Suriname is a poor country with very low wages. The old part of the city has been UNESCO-listed since 2002. While strolling around what is a great walking city you can see why it was so important to preserve.  

After the fort the first stop is the herbal markets where you will find promise of a natural remedy from the Amazon jungle to fix anything you may have, or might get! There’s a lot of weird stuff for sale here but everything, according to the locals, has a medical purpose. Next door is the local produce market with all kinds of food from fruit and veg, fish, various meats and a whole lot more. Don’t be surprised if while walking around the market the locals stare at you as not many tourists visit this city.  

Among the many places of interest are three very interesting religious sites. Firstly, St Peter & Paul Basilica dates back to the 1830s and used to be a Jewish Dutch theatre. It’s said to be largest timber building in South America but then others claim the same title. Next door to each other is the Keizerstraat mosque and the Neveh Shalom synagogue, testament to the rich religious and cultural history in this city – the locals are very proud of their tolerance towards all faiths. We visited all three sights but it was the synagogue with which I personally felt a connection, being of Jewish faith. It’s a large building with a very small congregation I’m told a rabbi has to be flown in from overseas for the high holy days.  

Paramaribo and the surrounding suburbs and towns has wonderful local and colonial history. There is ample entertainment in the city and surrounds for the savvy traveller. See the best of it with Blue Dot Travel’s small group tour. Click here for more information.  

Monday, 19 March 2018

Georgetown, Guyana

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

I arrived with Kate into cricket-mad Guyana from Panama City. The airport at Georgetown (named after King George III) is about an hour’s drive from the city. Our driver, Patrick, talks the entire journey so we feel like we know a lot by the time we arrive in town.  

We’re booked in to Cara Lodge, a famous colonial-style building not far from the city centre. After a lengthy flight the lodge is indeed a very pretty sight: a beautiful timber construction built in 1840. We’re upgraded to a room where Prince Harry and Mick Jagger have both stayed on separate occasions. How cool is that! we say to ourselves while high-fiving. While this region is not necessarily known for its food, the restaurant in Cara Lodge is very good. Try the pepper pot stew, a local dish with tamarind, bay leaf and heaps of pepper added to slow cooked beef.  

The next morning we start our city tour. It takes in the local sites of significance including some beautiful timber buildings left over from the British and Dutch eras, before Guyana claimed independence in 1966. After taking many photos of the buildings, I ask our guide Salvador – born and bred in Georgetown  if UNESCO has listed any of them. I find out it’s quite a sore point because Paramaribo, the neighbouring capital of Suriname is  UNESCO-listed and Georgetown is not. He changes the conversation.  

The core sites of the city include the gorgeous St George Cathedral, which we’re told is the biggest wooden building in South America; the famous Stabroek markets and the parliament building constructed in the 1830’s. The highlight for Kate and I however is the GCC  the Georgetown Cricket Club. We’re taken on a tour inside and out. The bar, full of test cricket paraphernalia, is something straight out of the 1970’s. You can just imagine Clive Lloyd (a local hero and captain of the West Indies Cricket team for many years), having a drink with fellow players at this bar.  

Georgetown is a lovely half-day walking tour.  Blue Dot Travel includes the core sites in our small group tour to The Guianas’ departing early 2019. Click here for more details.  

Monday, 12 March 2018

Ilies du Salut (Devils Island), French Guiana

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I watched the movie Papillon with my parents at the local drive-in theatre in North Ryde. The Steve McQueen/Dustin Hoffman classic left a huge impact on me as a young boy so almost 50 years later I was really excited to visit the islands off the coast of French Guiana where the movie is set. 

Kate and I arrived in Cayenne after driving from neighbouring Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana) and crossing the border at St Laurent. We were collected by Mike, our driver, and Gwen, our guide, at the transport station where many of the convicts from France first arrived. The drive to Kourou, from where you depart for the islands, is about two hours through jungle. The town itself is a big nothing (it exists primarily as a base for the European Space Centre) but the trip to the islands via catamaran is a gem!  

There are three islands with the main one being Isle Royale on which our guide walked us around all of the major sites in about two hours. We visited the museum where, among other stories, you can read about the injustice of France’s General Dreyfus, the old jails including the solitary confinement cells, the officer’s quarters and hospital. There’s also a cemetery but this was not for the deceased prisoners as they were just thrown into the water (with weights attached) for the sharks to feed on! 

The highlight of the day-trip is St. Josephs Island, which technically we were not allowed to be on as it is not open to the public. The buildings and other infrastructure on this island have not been repaired at any stage so it is more authentic – and frankly, more spooky - than the others! Walking through the ruins and seeing the prisoner’s tiny cells where they may have spent most of their life, you can’t help feel for them regardless of their crime.   

In the late 1940’s the then US President started to put pressure on the French Government to close the facility due to its barbaric nature, likened to Hitler’s concentration camps. After much pressure, the islands ceased being used as a prison in the 1950’s.    

I really enjoyed my visit to these historical isles. You can join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to the Guiana’s departing early 2019. Click here for more details. 

Monday, 5 March 2018

Danpaati River Lodge, Suriname

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

In Surinamese (a combination of Dutch and local language), danpaati means “dam on the parting waters”. The eco-resort is in the middle of the Suriname River, surrounded by thick jungle and small villages mainly inhabited by descendants of African slaves who fled from their captors in the mid 1800’s when slave labour was abolished.   

From Paramaribo, it’s a two-hour drive to the small river junction town of Atjoni where where you board your long-boat for the long ride (2 hours) to the lodge. With hat, sunscreen, water and sunglasses, it’s a delightful journey even though it could not be described as luxury in any sense of the word whatsoever!  

On arrival we’re greeted by some of the staff singing and dancing and then shown to our lodge overlooking the river. Now we’re in heaven! The manager of the lodge, Noah, is a delightful, warm and friendly Surinamese from the capital. He and his number two, Gabrielle, explain all the workings and facilities of the lodge. They also tell us how all staff are from surrounding villages and being a community lodge, our stay here makes a major contribution into the local area.     

During our short stay, we undertake a 3km flat forest walk and learn about the amazing jungle plants and wildlife. Our guide, Tony, shows us how the locals use the trees and plants for a multitude of purposes. We also walk through a local village and go swimming in the river at some small rapids.  

The lodge itself is a delightful place to stay. The food is very good, the rooms are lovely (full-on western-style bathrooms in each cabin), there is a swimming pool and lovely places to sit and read, eat or talk. All in all, it’s a gem of a destination in the middle of the jungle and the fact that we did not spot mosquitos added to our enjoyment.  

Join Blue Dot Travel’s three-week small group tour to The Guianas in Feb 2019. Click here for more information.  

Monday, 26 February 2018

The people of Suriname 

Words and photos by Brett Goulston  

Our guide is Tony. He is a lovely young man from Paramaribo who has an amazing story to tell. His heritage is like many others from the country in that he comes from a multitude of backgrounds. I ask him where his parents and grandparents were from and I received the most amazing answer (which I needed him to repeat several times… 

“My grandmother on my mother's side was part Chinese and part Amerindian. My grandfather was part Indian and part Creole. On my father’s side, my grandmother was Creole and Amerindian and my grandfather was a Dutch Jew”.  

The ethnic make up of Suriname is evident in every direction you look. It’s best described as a cultural cocktail. There are the indigenous Amerindians, “Hindustanis” (the name given to the Hindus from India), a large Dutch population, Javanese, Jews from Europe, Portuguese and Africans who are descendants of slave labour. It’s a wonderfully exotic cultural mix and noticably unlike most places I have visited.  

Suriname was colonised by the Spanish, Portuguese, British and Dutch from the 1600’s and became independent in 1975. The main language is Dutch but most also speak Surinamese which is a combination of Dutch and a local language. There’s a story which suggests the Dutch and British fought over the region many times and in the end, the Dutch swapped Manhattan Island for what is now Suriname. Not sure how true a tale it is but it is widely accepted.

The villagers living along the river nearer to the capital are mainly descendants of African slaves who fled from their captors in the mid 1800’s when slave labour was abolished. Their ancestors were brought to the region during the 17th and 18th centuries by the Dutch, English and Spanish colonialists of the time. There are also villages populated by indigenous Amerindians who have lived here for centuries.  

To meet this wonderful mix of people and experience their diverse and colourful culture, join Blue Dot Travel on our small group tour to Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana. Click here for more information.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Can I recommend Corsica? Course I can!

The former capital of Bastia is the economic power of the island and mixes old with new
Words and photos by Marion Fagan

What an island of surprises Corsica proved to be. It may not have been on my radar as a destination but having visited recently, its many delights deserve to be shared. Barely an hour’s ferry ride from the northern tip of Sardinia, the final approach into Bonfacio is breathtaking and immediately, the scenery and vibe is different, intriguing and inviting. Starting with the towering cliffs of chalky white limestone topped with an expansive fortress, it draws you in and compels you to find out more.

We explored the island from south to north, east to west and while Corsica is definitely chock full of nuts, three things in particular stood out for me …

Geographically, Corsica is deliciously diverse. The roads twist and turn and rise and fall as they trace the challenging topography. Around every corner is the promise of something different – steep mountain ranges and plunging deep valleys; expanses of scruffy desert or forests of tall leafy timbers; raw rocky coastlines and charming historic villages hugging equally rocky inland tors.

The island’s colour palette is that of a gifted French painter. The eye is continually drawn by rich hues, be it steely grey granite shrouded in white cloud, bold red pinnacles reflecting the sun or glowing golden sandstone. The legendary blue of the Mediterranean provides the island’s surrounding sea and sky delivers in spades. The colourful patchwork of the quaint villages offers splashes of character and variety. It’s visually gorgeous.

The stories the island tells are endless and fascinating: its prehistoric standing stones, its numerous and centuries-old Genoese watch towers, its many impressive cliff-top citadels, its thorny relationship with Bonaparte … and somewhat with mainland France, its cities blending old with new, its warm and inviting culture of fine food and excellent wine.

Our small group came away both surprised and delighted with how we fell under the spell of this enchanting island with its strong sense of identity and independence. There’s so much to appreciate, it stands alone and proud as a great destination. 

Visit Corsica with Blue Dot Travel as part of the itinerary to three very different and lovely Mediterranean Islands, including Malta and Sardinia, with two departures in 2018. What’s not to like? Click here for more information.
Corsica lies an hour's ferry ride north of the tip of Sardinia
Bonifacio's citadel, perched on the high white limestone cliffs, extends a striking welcome

Bonifacio's fortress guards its harbour

The roads twist and turn, rise and fall through Corsica's varied topography
The calanques near Porto are imposing to wander through
The old town of Corte is a former capital of the island from medieval times
The seaside citadel of Calvi glows in the setting sun
History in spades - the 1,000 year old tree and its massive trunk was wider than the 11 of us side-by-side