Longleat Ahoy!

The adventure continues…….. where was I going for my 30th, everyone knew but me! But being in the Wiltshire area, I had an inkling, but it wasnt until we saw the first sign was it confirmed we were going to Longleat! Yes that fabulous safari park that we watched for years on TV! Not only were we going to the Safari Park but we were staying on the estate in one of their cottage, awesome!

A cute cottage but the highlight was definitely the view, through the  garden fence was the Park, giraffes and zebra right up to the garden fence, how amazing. Now I have been on safari in Africa and loved it but you do not get to sit and observe the life of animals like this, they were so close and after the park closes it was magical sitting in the garden with a glass of wine watching animal life unfold. Whats better than watching young giraffe playing chase, the monkey troop going crazy after closing time and keepers trying to herd hoofed animals indoors when it’s all just a big game to the animals.

Just chillin Lemur style

Just chillin Lemur style

Our fabulous vehicle!

Our fabulous vehicle!

Seen as it was my birthday, the being spoilt rotten continued with a VIP tour of the park. This includes going in one of their fabulous zebra print jeeps with a guide and getting to go off-road, up close and personal with the animals. Our guide Steve was fantastic. Having been a zoo keeper for over 20 years he was a font of knowledge and funny! This was a man who enjoyed his job and loved the animals he worked with.

Big kitty!

Big kitty!

Cute!

Cute!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What you looking at?!

What you looking at?!

Penguin encounter

Penguin encounter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now as well as the Safari Park, there is an area next to the Big House that houses its smaller animals and Lake cruise. Both are set up to give you full on animal encounters, from walking through the penguin enclosure ( watch out penguin poo is projectile and smelly) to the manta-ray pool. I know some people do not believe in Safari Parks and Zoos, but Longleat was the first Safari Park outside Africa and their work on conservation is vital to keeping species alive especially when maniacs are running around Africa killing animals just for fun or for ‘traditional’ medicine. Not cool! Yes there are places around the world that keep animals in small cages, and they have no form of active life or enrichment but having watched life at Longleat I didn’t see one animal that looked unhealthy or mistreated. Just watching life in the giraffe and zebra field every morning and evening, these were animals going about the life they would lead in Africa and yes they have less space than they would in the Masai or Kruger but they have no threats and enough space from what I could tell for both species to get a good run on.

With Longleats position in Wiltshire its a great base for visiting the surrounding area, one day we went to Bath ( do the park and ride!) and I showed the family around the cute Spa city. But Bristol is also close by and of course you could go to Stonehenge as we did on the way. Wiltshire and the Cotswolds is a font of things to do and see so if you want a base in the area then definitely try here and of course there is also a Centre Parcs.

Bath Cathedral

Bath Cathedral

The fabulous baths of Bath

The fabulous baths of Bath

Fancy a dip

Fancy a dip

Longleat was an amazing treat and definitely somewhere I would want to go back to as an animal lover and now my friends have seen the pictures I am sure someone will find an excuse to celebrate something there!!

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Cuba!

The streets are alive with music! It’s everywhere, from the bands playing in cafes, the busker with his saxophone on a stoop to the radio playing in someone’s car. You cannot escape the musical beat that pumps its way around Cuba. This is an island full of life, soul and music, and you just do not want to leave.

Music everywhere!

Music everywhere!

Walking around Old Havana is like walking around a time capsule, the architecture, and the cobbled streets and of course the 50’s cars. It’s a city that exudes life. With the streets being narrow you find very few cars in and around the old squares which adds a tranquility to your wandering. One thing I found surprising about Havana and Cuba in general is their attitude to tourists, they are friendly and will ask you to look in their shop as you pass but there is no hassle, life just goes on in Havana. You would never think you are in one of the most visited destinations in the world. The streets are filled with people going about their business; in fact we are probably an inconvenience to them with tour groups filing through on walking tours. It’s by far one of the most relax capital cities I have ever visited.

The Capitol Building in Havana

The Capitol Building in Havana

With such architectural variety, from the colonial to the art deco you could wander around for days taking everything in. The amazing thing I found about Havana is, if a city was protected by UNESCO it could almost feel a bit Disney – everything a little too bright and shiny – but it doesn’t. The buildings are crumbling around you, a huge amount of restoration is going on, but people are still living in these buildings and life goes on. This is one of the contradictory things about Cuba and one of things that left me asking more questions. The Old City is protected and there is a huge amount of preservation going on but you have so many people living in these cramped buildings. Yes they are building new housing outside the historic centre but then you are in the suburbs and have to travel in (on highly unreliable public transport). Having all this amazing architecture protected is a privilege and it’s a reason tourist’s love Havana but with houses in need of dire repair how good is it for the actual Cuban people when they are being relocated out of their homes.

The colourful streets of Havana

The colourful streets of Havana

Even the rain cannot dampen the spirit of Havana

Even the rain cannot dampen the spirit of Havana

The stunning architecture of Havana

The stunning architecture of Havana

IMG_6034Havana is a city with so much to see and take in that it can be hard to leave, but leave you must as there is still so much of this country to see. Setting out we headed to Las Terrazas, a community and nature reserve named a biosphere reserve in 1985 by UNESCO. It’s a beautiful place. This community tries to be as self-sustaining as possible and was a dream of Castro’s soon after the revolution when he ordered a reforestation programme due to the heavy deforestation that had been taking place over the centuries. It’s like a small paradise in a bubble, the standard of living here is higher than in much of Cuba but you cannot simply move to Las Terrazas, there is a waiting list as they do not want to over populate the area. It’s a great example of what can be achieved by a community working together and by using what they have around them to attract visitors it creates an income for the community. I would certainly not hesitate going back and staying within the community for a short time in their hotel, the Hotel Mako. Leaving the lush green forests we headed further west to the Vinales valley and its stunning karst landscape which is encircled by mountains and dotted with spectacular dome like limestone outcrops (mogotes). The moment you descend into the valley and you get your first view of the mogotes you want to whip out your camera and start taking photos, but resist you must because there will be plenty of opportunity for photos in this photogenic landscape. With much of the land being fertile this is a key tobacco growing region, but also home to more than one organic farm that is striving to promote vegetables and growing your own, something Cubans need to take on board because eating their greens is something they are not doing. If more people grew their own food then they wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on rationing as they would be able to supplement their food much more easily, but with a diet focused on rice, beans and meat getting them to eat their greens may be a long term project for the government. In fact the food at one of these organic farms was the best food I had the entire time we had in Cuba, farm to table in a matter of hours!

Vinales doesn't have a bad angle

Vinales doesn’t have a bad angle

The stunning Vinales

The stunning Vinales

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A beautiful organic farm

The all important tobacco leaf for the Cuban cigar!

The all important tobacco leaf for the Cuban cigar!

Vinales is one of those places I could have quite happily meandered around for a few days but alas our time there was short and having done a cave tour and tobacco farm visit we had to leave after 2 nights. With the quaint little town full of paladars to try this is definitely somewhere to take your time, rent a bike, go for a walk, explore the valley do not rush it. With the forests and valleys done we headed towards the coast and the colonial town of Cienfuegos, the only town in Cuba to have been settled by French colonists. The long roads, colonnaded walk ways and squares this is a chilled out town. The brightly coloured buildings entice you to explore.

Treasure Lake on the way to Cienfuegos

Treasure Lake on the way to Cienfuegos

From Cienfuegos it’s the perfect opportunity to head into the mountains and to Topes de Collantes National Park. Here you are overwhelmed by the views you get climbing high into the mountains to the dense forest that cover these mountains. There is an abundance of flora and fauna and the birds, oh the birds, if you like birds this is the place to come and look. As someone who isn’t too bothered by twitching, having hummingbirds flutter around you is just breath taking, stunning miniature creatures.

The serene world of the Topes de Collantes

The serene world of the Topes de Collantes

Watching the world go by at the pace of a hummingbird

Watching the world go by at the pace of a hummingbird

Disappointingly we had to leave being this landscape and head down to the coast and the beautiful town of Trinidad. This sleepy colonial down a short drive from white sand beaches is an ideal place to settle down for a couple of days. Take in the colourful cobbled streets, enjoy the delicious food of the paladars and take your book down to calm crystal waters of the Caribbean. Trinidad is an ideal place to relax and take in everything you have experienced in Cuba so far.

The colonial square of Trinidad

The colonial square of Trinidad

Cuba

The brightly coloured houses and cobbled streets of Trinidad

The brightly coloured houses and cobbled streets of Trinidad

IMG_6289Before heading back to the happening city of Havana we headed to Santa Clara, the home of Che. His memorial and mausoleum is the main point for passing through. It dominates. It certainly made me wonder what they have planned for when Fidel dies. It certainly makes you think about the part he played in the revolution, his drive and passions for the communist and socialist movements. He is much more than just a face on a t-shirt that has become a bit of a fashion statement. This is a man who is an idol, a founder of modern Cuba, the respect for this man can be felt as you enter his mausoleum and walk around his memorial. It’s certainly thought provoking. Cuba

The monumental Che

The monumental Che

Arriving back into Havana I scrambled to fit in the last bits of sightseeing but just didn’t have enough time. There are still lots of galleries to explore, streets to wander and bars to try out. Cuba is a country that just keeps on giving, the friendliness of its people, its culture, and the way it makes you think about your perceived thoughts about its politics. There are so many reasons to return to Cuba. I have so many unanswered questions, and things will only keep changing and evolving there, especially if the continuing talks with the USA hold. Hopefully things will not change too quickly for the sake of the people and the islands innocence. Cuba

South Africa – Johannesburg

I tend to leave a city with a set opinion of whether I liked it or not and would go back but Johannesburg has left me perplexed. Did I like it as a city, I just cannot decided!

In fairness I was only there for a couple of days and one of those was spent out in Soweto but usually I can form an opinion by then – instant judgement. I like a walkable city, one where you can stroll around and find hidden gems and explore but you cannot really do this in Johannesburg as everything is so spread out and everyone drives everywhere.

One thing that I did like about Johannesburg was the chance to learn. I think like most people of my generation we know a little bit about Apartheid but we were too young to really know what was going on at the time and when I was of an age to understand Apartheid had ended. My time in Johannesburg has allowed me to really learn and understand the history of South Africa. I definitely left the city and the country more educated.

First stop on our trip was stopping by the house where Nelson Mandela died. Outside the house were piles of stones that had been painted with messages and pictures by people who had wanted to leave something, a thank you or get well while Nelson Mandela was ill. They were such simple gestures but one of the most moving things I had ever seen. While we were taking photos, a family pulled up in their car and the father got out and planted a small tree in the garden outside the walls of the house. Even now the people of South Africa keep thanking him for what he did for them. Over my time in South Africa I was to realise just how important Nelson Mandela was to the people. It is very hard coming from the UK to understand how people can feel so connected to a man, a politician!

Messages left outside Nelson Mandela's house

Messages left outside Nelson Mandela’s house

From Mandela’s house we moved onto the Apartheid Museum and here we started our education. The museum is set on a hill that gives you great views of downtown Johannesburg, set in a peaceful garden its a stunning setting to get people thinking. As you enter your tickets are labelled either white or non-white and here your education in segregation begins. Depending on your ticket you enter the museum through different doors and passageways.

Outside the Apartheid Museum

Outside the Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Musuem

The Apartheid Museum

Inside the museum ( allow at least a good couple of hours to really explore) there is much to see and read. It takes you through the history of the country and lead up to Apartheid and then into its history and laws. When we visited there was an exhibition about Mandela, but this may only be temporary. The museum uses the power of architecture, word and image to convey the history and struggles of the country. It was definitely moving and a great way to educate people.

Apatheid Museum

Apartheid Museum

Our second day took us further into South Africa’s history by visiting Soweto, one of Johannesburg’s townships that was created during Apartheid. I think like most people I went to Soweto with an image in my mind of what it was going to be like. You hear all the stories on TV and the news about violence and it gets a reputation. Now I am sure there are some undesirable parts and there is a level of crime and violence but we didn’t see any of this and to be honest we were on a tourist trip so it’s not like our guide would walk us into areas where there would be trouble. However, everyone we met was lovely and from what I saw Soweto was really turning itself into a pleasant place to be.

As you drive past Baragwanath Hospital ( once first, now third biggest hospital in the world) you pass the Soweto taxi rank. Getting closer to the centre life seems to get better, but on the outskirts there are still so many people living in unofficial houses – shanty towns. Charities, like the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the government are building houses and parks to make the area better but it will take quite a few more years before everyone has a proper house to live in. Your heart really does sink when you see these shanty towns made from corrugated iron squashed together, no running water and makeshift electricity. You really appreciate what you have.

the 'unofficial' housing in Soweto

the ‘unofficial’ housing in Soweto

Life on the streets of Soweto

Life on the streets of Soweto

Amazing use of space for art in Soweto

Amazing use of space for art in Soweto

 

The main reason for going to Soweto is this is where Nelson Mandela lived and where Winnie Mandela lived during his imprisonment. It is also the site of many protests and tragedies during Apartheid. The Mandela house is now a museum and definitely worth a visit to learn a bit more about the ANC and what went on in Soweto. The other main museum Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial. He was the first child to be killed on 16th June 1976, when the children of Soweto marched in protest for being taught only in Afrikaans. The museum is cleverly put together through film and first hand accounts (more than 400 people died in the uprising), by those in the protest and the police. The most moving thing was our tour guide who was present during the march. He was shot but the bullet passed through him killing his cousin. It was a privilege to hear this first hand account but also hear about how someone who lived through Apartheid managed to get an education through underground schooling and has spent his adult life trying to educate tourists but also help charities within townships in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.

A portraid of Nelson Mandela in the Mandela House Museum

A portrait of Nelson Mandela in the Mandela House Museum

Mandela House, an ANC Poster

Mandela House, an ANC Poster

 

So much tragedy and sadness filled the history of Johannesburg and South Africa but our entire time in the city and the rest of the country we came across some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Even though they had lived through so much and had so little the people we met found a way to smile. I may not have fallen in love with Johannesburg the city, but I certainly did with the people and their optimism for a better future.

Art in Soweto, bringing the place alive.

Art in Soweto, bring the place alive.

From Johannesburg we left and headed to the place I was most excited about in South Africa, Kruger National Park!