Category Archives: Travel

Grand Canyon – and yes, it’s all for real

Now, this is something that needs to be seen to be believed. Everyone told me to be prepared to be impressed. We had seen the most unbelievable scenery on the drive down from Wyoming. The mountain ranges between Utah and Arizona, the Vermillion Mountains, must be the one place on earth where you can see further than anywhere else on the planet.

The first thing you notice about entering the Grand Canyon National Park as you drive from nationally protected wilderness, is that it’s actually quite manicured. Not nearly as wild as the hours of driving through magnificent scenery you’ve just done to get there. Decent roads, proper verges and occasional tantalizing glimpses of the canyon itself. As ever, the distances are something you are unprepared for. From the west entrance to the park you still have 25 miles to drive to get to the main ‘village’ area where the hotels are located.

There are essentially no words that you can use to describe the course the Colorado river has taken over some 6 to 20 million years as it carved its path into the canyon. Regrettably the central area where you stay is quite commercialized, but I guess this is to be expected as it is one of the premier tourist destinations in the US. We saw the Canyon the only way that I think you can really appreciate it – by helicopter. Jaw-dropping scenery and stunning sunsets. You need to go and take a look for yourself just once!

The hotel experience is not great. There is really only one decent hotel, sort of 50s style, but it does have a good bar and a quite decent restaurant. The adjoining accommodation is more like up-market hostel living – clean rooms, ensuite bathrooms, but nothing to write home about. We made the mistake of leaving unwrapped food in the room which wasn’t a great move. A rat rummaging through your suitcase at two in the morning is not the most welcome of room mates.

If this isn’t on the list of places you need to visit before you die, then it certainly should be.

BitterRoot Ranch – a little piece of paradise

There are moments in your life where you wonder whether things can get any better. If you like horses then the BitterRoot Ranch in Wyoming has to be a place that creates one of those moments in life. It would be possible to describe it in just one sentence and then to leave it at just that – if you like horses, this is the closest you will get to horse paradise on earth.

We spent a week as guests of Mel and Bayard Fox and their son Richard and his wife Hadley. Bought in the 1970s, the BitterRoot is a working ranch where they farm cattle as well as a small number of sheep. There are BitterRoot Dog 1also llamas, dogs, cats, ducks, chicken, peacocks and turkeys (the llamas live with the sheep to guard them from wolves). So everything to make the place heaven for children, especially the dogs who they never left alone while we were there. By the way, don’t engage a Wyoming farmer in a conversation about the (re)introduction of Alaskan wolves into the region by the ‘conservationists’ – it’s like going to a dinner party back at home and talking about politics, sex or religion – you just don’t want to go there. But most important of all, there are 140 of the most beautiful horses. This is Mel’s department where she breeds Arabians and other breeds. They are the perfect hosts – both horse and human alike! Bayard spent much of his life abroad in government service, Mel was brought up on a farm in Kenya and educated in the UK. So there is a genuine international feel to their hospitality and the table talk over dinner. The week we were staying there were French, Dutch, Japanese and American guests as well as us lot (the English and the Irish). Plus the game warden who came in for dinner after having checked on a couple of wolf-kills in the herd – another interesting insight into a life that most of us will never experience.

The ranch itself is 17 miles along an un-made road from the main highway. The nearest town, Dubois, is another ten or twelve miles further along the highway. It’s essentially a long way from anywhere. And apart from the entertainment of meeting the other guests the only other ‘entertainment’, other than the riding of course, the fishing (which didn’t bite despite eating most of Bayard’s flies) and (as we found out, if you ask nicely) the clay (skeet) shooting, is the weekly rodeo on Friday night in Dubois, which is well worth the experience and something else you will never have experienced back home. The place is definitely remote, you won’t see anyone not connected to the ranch and you don’t need to lock your door.

Guest accommodation is in a series of cabins ranged along the river that runs through theBitterRoot Ranch House 2 ranch. Not 5-star hotel stuff, but clean and comfortable. Anyway, you come here for the riding, not the beds. The food is great, all locally produced and there’s loads of wine supplied. Although you learn, just once, that getting up in the morning for a 5-hour ride with a hangover isn’t exactly the greatest way to spend the day. There are never more than 30 guests at any one time and when we were there it was more like 15 of us, so it’s rather like a large family gathering. This might seem a bit intimate, but it really works in the environment once you get to meet and talk to the others.

So … to the riding. Where to start? Mel is very strict with her riders and horses alike and theBitterRoot Horse 9 first thing that happens is an assessment of riding skills to make sure she understands what you can and cannot do. Here there is fast riding for the best riders and trail walks for the less experienced. You need to know the basics like trotting and so on, but if you can gallop (well, they call it cantering, but by European city riding standards, it’s actually galloping) then you really experience the open spaces and the quality of the horses. There are a lot of steep ascents and descents on the trails, so the discipline of standing in your stirrups to take the weight off your horse’s back on difficult steep sections of the trails is important. The horses are mostly neck-reined of course, but this is an easy transition which you pick up in moments if you are used to the more rigorous contact method. The Tortuga (who had at one point threatened to sleep through the entire week) had only done a ‘learn to ride in a day’ course and one other lesson and she quite happily rode 40 hours during the week. Unless you are off on pack rides or the all day picnic rides, then you do three hours in the saddle each morning and another two to three hours in the afternoon after a lengthy lunch break. BitterRoot Horse 1Mel matches you with five or six horses for the week so you never have a tired or over-worked animal. Each of the 140 horses has a name and a character and a circle of friends. It’s very touching when you ride out and the wranglers point out all their idiosyncrasies and you realise just what a personality each horse is. And yes, inevitably you get to find a favourite. It’s clear just how much they all love their work – both horses and wranglers!

The scenery is breathtaking. There is no other way to describe it. Mountains, rivers, forests, plains – you ride it all. The ranch is about 7,200 feet above sea level, so you really do notice the altitude when you wake up in the morning with that characteristic shortness of breath – one day we rode up to 9,500 feet for what must be one of the most stunning views anywhere on earth. Each ride has two wranglers who ride out with you. There were six of them in all looking after us during the week. They are experienced women who clearly delight in what they do and most of them seemed to have come back to work at the ranch year after year and often after being guests themselves. They really know the terrain, the trails and their horses. We had a few tumbles in the group and they knew exactly what to do and how to restore confidence back in the saddle. Mind you, when you’re still two hours riding from home and there isn’t a nearest road, there’s not really too much choice in the matter but to get back on.

One of the most extraordinary moments is standing by the corral gates in the evening when the rides are all back home just as they let the horses out to the overnight pasture above the ranch. Watching a hundred or more horses rushing past you it’s hard to explain the thrill and the energy, the swirling dust and the excitement among the animals. It’s like they’ve been let out of school at the end of a long summer term day. I can’t think where else you would ever experience this.

BitterRoot Horse 2BitterRoot Horse 3BitterRoot Horse 8BitterRoot Horse 4BitterRoot Horse 7BitterRoot Horse 5

Did I mention the unbelievable stars at night? The startling brightness of the Milky Way (both bits of it)? Did I mention playing with the heart-breakingly beautiful foals? BitterRoot Foal 2 Did I BitterRoot Foal 1mention the beef? Did I mention hugging your horse? Did I mention being taught to fly fish by Bayard (unsuccessfully)? I can’t fit it all in. This is a blog, not a travel guide … but I hope you get the message.

Dinan – a medieval city and a wonderful church

Looking up into the organ loft

The medieval city of Dinan is straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale. There are a few cities like this in Europe, but you can never quite believe them until you see one. Winding streets of old houses, shops and restaurants complete with a beautiful river and a castle. The houses in the meandering medieval streets are of timber and plaster and hang over the streets at all sorts of alarming angles. If you painted a picture of them you’d be accused of making it all up. But the jewel of it all has to be the church of Saint-Malo. Built in the XIVth century the interior is a wonderfully quiet and cool sanctuary away from the bustle of the town centre. As you enter you are immersed in beautiful warm and dusty light suffused with the many colours that just glow from the stunning stained glass windows that surround the church. There is stained glass everywhere and although they are not all old they are spectacular just from the sheer amount and the colour. It is a truly spiritual place. You don’t have to have a faith, but I defy anyone not to be moved by this place. But the very best part is just sitting in the nave listening to the organist play. There is nothing on earth like the sound of a really good church organ; the way the sound fills the enormous space and the notes resonating inside you. There’s just nothing like it. Sitting here in Saint-Malo you can’t but reflect on the hundreds of years of history that have passed through this place and the surrounding town. The wars of the last four hundred years and the thousands of lives that have been through here and gone. A true feeling of your own mortality.

Amusing story about a flight in Russia and an airline seat

While writing the last blog entry I remembered an amusing story about an airline seat that was told by a man who took part in a TV documentary quite a few years ago now about air travel in Russia. This didn’t actually happen to me and I don’t know the person who was being interviewed, but I have been on so many outrageously dangerous flights in developing countries that I can believe it.

In the early part of the 1990s when Eastern Europe and Russia were opening up to foreign travel it was a bit of a Wild West frontier. I spent time in Siberia among many other places and often air travel would be on one of the ‘Baby Flots’. These were essentially regional airlines that grew out of the Russian state-owned monopoly Aeroflot. When the Wall came down in 1989 and the former USSR began to break apart, newly autonomous countries acquired the airframe assets that were grounded on their territory at the time. As a result there was a plethora of newly created airlines, most of which don’t exist today and frankly most of which paid scant attention to safety and maintenance. This story was told by a man being interviewed about the more outrageous travel experiences of this interesting period.

If I recall correctly he was a consultant with one of the big firms who had been doing a lot of work in Eastern Siberia. I am assuming he was doing exactly the same thing that I was at the time, namely traveling in to Sheremetyevo to the north of Moscow, which was where most international flights went in those days and crossing the city to the south of Moscow to the world’s largest airport, Domodedovo, where the majority of domestic flights to all points east departed from. Russia covers eleven time zones, so flights to the farthest parts of Siberia take many hours. It was without a doubt one of the world’s worst places to be, but that is the subject of another story for another time. The man’s wife said she was keen to see where he worked and so he agreed to take her on one of his trips. She must have had a death wish is all I can say. They made the journey to Domodedovo and eventually boarded their flight. But when she sat down, there was no seatbelt. I can confirm that this was often the case. The seatbelt was either missing or it didn’t work and after a while you didn’t bother to point this out to the cabin crew, because they didn’t care anyway.

You have to picture the scene. You are boarding with a mad crowd of people who are traveling with everything from designer bags to jars of pickled mushrooms and even the odd chicken, intent on bagging the best seat. You needed to be part of the rush, in a sort of pre-Easyjet frenzy, because no one gave a damn about the seat allocation rules. British Airways it was not. It is an extraordinary fact that when surly and rotund passengers well insulated in layers of clothes against the minus 30 degree cold are really putting their mind to getting a good seat, their bodies become lethal weapons suddenly sprouting elbows and knees like spears. The one good thing about being a foreigner was that on the odd occasion when someone did mount an indignant complaint about the fact you were in their window seat, you could just look blankly back, not understanding a word. Of course there is a kind of internationally recognised set of sign languages that are pretty obvious. Particularly, an overwrought Russian woman who has angrily fixed you in her sights and is jabbing her finger frenetically at her boarding pass. In fact I once shared my seat with a St Bernard and a rottweiler, both of whom followed me up the steps of the aeroplane in the snow. The rottweiler started the flight by sleeping on the floor beside my feet, but shortly after take-off he sauntered off to the galley, where he cornered the stewardess. Every time she tried to move he let out a low growl and she froze. She was still there when we landed hours later, at which point he walked over to the steps and exited the flight. His friend, at least they seemed to know each other, slept on the seat beside me. I am assuming they were some sort of frequent flyers.

But back to our story about the man and his wife. He gallantly swapped seats with her and she happily strapped herself in, now confident of the security afforded by an Aeroflot seat located in the jewel of the Russian aviation industry, a Tupolev 154 airframe that probably left the factory some twenty years previously. Its little sister, the shorter range Tu-134, used to come complete with a dual purpose glass nose cone. The popular myth was that this was so that in another life it could double up as a medium range bomber with somewhere for the bomb aimer to sit. Actually it was for the navigator when operating as a military plane in difficult terrain. But it was a good story.

Aeroflot Tupolev Tu-154

I can just imagine the scene now. The trusty Tu-154 workhorse trundled to end of the runway and the pilot revved her up and let out the hand brake. At which point the wife’s seat is pitched backwards into the lap of the passenger behind. Someone had removed the bolts that secured it to the floor.

Nowadays in the time of a safety-obsessed airline industry, you may find this story hard to believe. But let me assure you that, stripped of the dramatic license, it is a true story and there are many more like it. Incidentally, the stewardess of the enforced detention in the galley with the rottweiler fame, well her absence during the flight didn’t have an especially detrimental effect on the general service level in the cabin. There would always be one female member of the crew who stood apart from the others in terms of her good looks and sulky attitude. She was the one who seemed to have just one relaxed purpose in life, to occasionally push a trolley along the aisle during the flight, dispensing for a price toiletries, the odd bar of chocolate, cigarettes and other useful sundries. I don’t think they liked dogs very much.

If you are at all nervous about flying, then for goodness sake do not look at this website and do not look-up the aeroplane you are about to fly on.