Elephants!

We sleep soundly despite our ordeal by PowerPoint last night and the all night long cacophony from the frogs chorus a few yards away on the pond. We’ve arranged to meet Solomon this morning, and at 10 am he arrives on his Royal Enfield 350, the connoisseur motorcyclist’s choice in these parts, and we make our introductions.

I admire the bike and he generously asks me if I would like to ride it? I don’t need to be asked twice, and so I find myself following our car into Masinagudi to the steady thump of the Enfield engine. It’s an easy ride, and I can see why these bikes are popular here with their 80kph speed limit. My own Adventure Ashram!

Unfortunately the ride comes to an end too soon, and we park in the town square whilst Solomon goes to get his car. He’s allowed into the Park but our car would need a permit, so he drives us up to the local dam which feeds the area with water and powers the hydro electric station further down. There’s a village alongside, and Solomon explains that some of the houses serve people who work at the dam. It’s quite remote here, and the villagers rely on local buses to get around. Walking through the forest isn’t recommended, and can be dangerous.

We head back to Masinagudi, and along the way we spot numerous deer, mongoose (like furry tailed otters), and a large hawk looking down on us from a tree. Solomon knows his wildlife. Regretfully no elephants, though.

We return to the Jungle Hut and sit enjoying the afternoon warmth. We’ve arranged to meet Solomon again at 5.00pm, and at the appointed hour we head off with Biju back to Masinagudi. Solomon waves from the busy street side, and we pick him up and head out of town. Our destination is the Elephant Camp. As we approach, Solomon points out what’s happening in the river below, and we look down to see a large elephant, mahout on its back, wading across. Our first elephant sighting!

We pull in to the Safari reception and buy tickets for 600 rupees – it’s more expensive for foreigners. We cross back over the road in the car and walk the short path to the Camp, and here they are! The elephants are lining up next to the feeding station, and they are a magnificent sight. Solomon explains that the oldest animal here is 70, and they are semi-wild. Their mahouts (keepers) help feed and train them, and this place is a sanctuary for them, many of which have been rescued. He explains that one beast was used in Hindu processions and festivals, and among the noise and chaos, including music and firecrackers, it panicked and killed someone. It was brought here to be trained. Another large bull elephant killed two people before heading for the jungle. In trying to capture it the elephant was shot but didn’t die. A tranquilliser dart was used to little effect, then a second, and the animal fell into the river where it could be controlled. Appeals were made to kill it due to it’s nature, but it was brought to the Elephant Camp where it was trained for six months and became tame enough to be trusted.We recognise one of the elephants as the one crossing the river earlier, with a distinct marking on it’s trunk. It joins the others as feeding takes place, with large balls of rice and horse gram moulded into a pack that the elephants take into their mouths and stand munching, making more noise than our family Christmas dinner.

The light is fading, and our day is by no means over yet. We reluctantly leave the scene to head back up to one of the tribal villages. As we travel in the half-light, suddenly there’s a large bull elephant beside us. It’s great to see it truly in the wild.

We continue our journey. We’re going to school!

Into the Jungle!

It’s Monday evening and we are sitting in a presentation by Rohan, brother of the owner of the Jungle Hut, our home for the next three days. He is showing us pictures of the animals that come through the hotel ‘campus’, captured on motion sensor cameras. We watch an elephant walking by the swimming pool, a pangolin, porcupine and hyena in the grounds, and bears walking past our lodge in the middle of the night. I can feel Sue tensing up.

He goes on to show us pictures of the many colourful bird varieties resident here. She relaxes.

Next it’s snakes. The Russell’s Viper apparently accounts for half the 50,000 annual deaths from snakebite, hissing like an airhose before it strikes. Rohan’s video shows a close up view of a simulated human foot treading on a snake, which responds by sinking it’s fangs into said foot. This is not good.

When we move on to the six-inch long tarantula seen on campus, I’m expecting Sue to be out of here. She braves it out.

The Jungle Hut is laid out with its 16 rooms arranged in lodges dotted around the grounds. On returning to ours for the night we scour the floors, windows and cupboards for signs of snakes and arachnids. Suggesting that at least they’ll be big enough to see doesn’t help.

Our day had begun earlier with breakfast in the luxurious Radisson Blu Hotel, surely the best hotel in Mysore. We check out and hit the road, back into the melee of cars, bikes and cows. As we head out of the city the traffic gradually thins out and becomes less frenetic, although this is still a busy road. The buildings give way to fields of rice, palm trees, sugar cane and many other crops. The occasional hill in the distance reminds us of Wiltshire, except for the palms of course.

The driving style remains one of keeping going regardless of what’s ahead. Biju overtakes as traffic is approaching, and I think he’s maybe cutting it a bit close, until another car appears at my right shoulder overtaking the overtaker. It’s standard practice here, and no wonder Mysore road deaths are 10 times higher than London per head of population.

We stop for a comfort break at a coffee chain restaurant. The cappuccino is first class, although a lot dearer at 150 rupees per cup than the family run stop on our first day here which charged 30, equivalent to less than 30p.

As we continue the hills begin to rise around us, and eventually we enter Bandipur Tiger Reserve with great anticipation. Now the land is mainly forest, a bit like untended woodland in England but denser and very green. Signs give stark warnings about stopping, taking selfies, or getting out of vehicles. They take the conservation of their parks and animals really seriously here, but they have no need to worry. If I see a tiger I certainly won’t be taking a selfie with it.

We cross the state line out of Bandipur Park in Karnataka, and into Mudumalai Park, Tamil Nadu. We’re looking out for elephants and I think I catch a glimpse of one in the distance, but Sue maintains it was a flying pig. This terrain is remarkable for having no habitation and very few pedestrians, other than the occasional uniformed Forest Rangers, until we reach Masinagudi, a busy, frenetic town bursting with activity. Biju stops to ask for directions, and we continue out of town for a mile or two, then turn right up a single track road. A couple of miles further and we pass a colourful temple and then, in front of us, is the sign for the Jungle Hut, our home for the next three nights. We pull up in front of reception, part of the open-fronted main building, and sign in.

Our lodge is only a few yards walk away, and it’s apparent that this is going to be a hugely different experience from the Radisson. As the porter carries our bags to our room, monkeys play on its roof and spotted deer watch us from a few yards away. As we are soon to find out from our host, that’s not all there is here.

So now we sit through Rohan’s presentation with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. Tomorrow we’ve arranged to meet Solomon from Grace Charitable Trust, one of the charities we have come to visit. We hope we make it through the night.

Palaces, Temples and Shopping

We are sitting in the Shoppers Stop centre adjacent to our hotel in Mysore, sharing a McDonald’s burger and fries in the fourth floor food hall (all in the interest of research, you understand). It’s a bright, modern retail complex, rising from floor to floor by twin elevators, with a range of fashion, clothing, homeware and other shops, coffee bars and a fast food range that includes Taco Bell and KFC as well as Indian names. There’s a cinema and modern facilities. We could be back in Leicester.

It’s all quite different from our shopping experience earlier this morning, when we visited the famous Mysore market for the second time. Here, we felt as though we were part of something that hasn’t changed for centuries, with stall after stall of colourful fruit and vegetables, alongside the filth and grime of people subsisting on little. Amongst the noise and bustle we are urged to buy by the traders, although most here are respectful and don’t push hard. There is one though who, sensing a possible sale, pursues us through the market, all the while dropping his price to a fraction of the starting point. We are too polite to be blunt so we do the British thing of trying to ignore him. Even when we emerge back on to the main street he is still behind us, offering discounts at his uncle’s silk shop on the corner. We can’t fault his persistence but manage to resist.

Our day had begun earlier with a visit to the famous Mysore Palace. This being Sunday the crowds were already amassing as we entered the car park at around 10.30 am, and we braved the obligatory vendors and passed through the metal detector at the Palace entrance, pinging away merrily as it did with every other visitor. No-one took any notice.

We weren’t quite prepared for the next stage, when we realised that we were required to surrender our shoes and socks before entering the Palace. Our driver, Biju, obtained a carry bag from the busy desk and we deposited our footwear, hoping they had a good system for tracking the thousands of pairs in their care. They did.

We dutifully joined the river of people as we meandered through the Palace barefoot, it’s splendour still evident despite the passing of time. Six million visitors come here every year, making the Palace second only to the Taj Mahal in popularity. They come to see a hugely opulent monument to the wealth and power of the King of Mysore, and it’s massive colonnaded halls, once used as meeting places for the ‘Durbars’ – members of the Royal Court – are rich in colour and fine painted detail. The long front facade of the Palace is laid out with tiered rows and galleries like a giant grandstand, and paintings display representations of the gatherings, ceremonies and processions that have taken place here in the large area laid out before us, watched by Royals and dignitaries. It must have been an amazing sight.

Mysore has a long and chequered history, and it is easy to see why the building draws so many visitors, playing as it does a significant role in the history, culture and religion of the people.

In the afternoon, after our market visit, Biju drives us up the winding road to the Chamundi Temple, or Chamundeshwari Temple to give it it’s proper name. This is one of the ten most sacred hills in India, and is a place of huge significance to the thousands of Hindus who visit. A recently built multistorey car park indicates the popularity of the place, although like most of India it seems half finished as we walk out over newly paved paths mixed with dirt track, piles of blocks stacked alongside waiting to be laid.

There’s a line of souvenir shops and stalls, most selling Hindu religious items, mementos and offerings to be made once inside the Temple. As non-Hindus we aren’t allowed in, but the long queues snaking around the building suggest worshippers could be here for some time.

We return back down the hill and stop at the roadside to enjoy the view over Mysore and the plains beyond. Despite having twice the population of Leicester, Mysore is a small city in Indian terms, and we are struck by how much green there is below. Our hotel and Mysore racecourse immediately below us, and the Palace near the city centre are obvious landmarks.

Later in the evening we are back in the Palace grounds to witness the turning on of the lights. Apparently the city was one of the first to install electricity, and the King arranged for nearly 100,000 bulbs to be strung around the Palace and its adjacent walls and buildings. In true Royal opulent tradition, the original bulbs used silver filaments, but these proved too tempting to light fingered visitors. Nowadays all of the bulbs are made by a local company using a special screw fitting that is incompatible with standard Indian lights. Most of the bulbs seem to have remained in place, and they are switched on for 45 minutes every Sunday evening. A brass band plays stirring music on the Palace forecourt, and thousands of visitors come to see the show. It’s all very good-natured, and there is a collective chorus of delight as the lights come on. It’s quite a spectacle.

As we wend our way through the throng enjoying the atmosphere, we are accosted by a young man. “I have very good offer for you” he promises. Sue does a double-take and says, “Oh, it’s you!” She’s recognised our persistent vendor from the market. He is taken by surprise and gives us a big sheepish grin before moving on. We think he’s finally got the message.

We retire for the evening after a day of contrasts and having had a sumptuous taste of this fascinating place. Tomorrow, the jungle!

Stopping the Traffickers and Building Love

Yesterday Nikhil, our guide for the morning, took us to the centre of Mysore and the gates to the famous Palace, as well as the huge Market. Here traders sell a huge range of fruit, vegetables, spices and flowers as well as everything else in the world you can imagine. It’s a frenetic, noisy, colourful, smelly (in a good and bad way!) place that overwhelms the senses.

Especially prominent are the long, dark aisles devoted to bananas. Nikhil explained that there were over 300 varieties of banana, and many of them must have been on sale here. Every part of the banana plant is used, and he showed us the stacks of shiny green leaves that people use as plates. They are not only bio-degradable (no washing up!), but they apparently give off a substance that enhances the flavour of the food. Little did we know that, less than 24 hours later, we would be eating from banana leaves ourselves.

Today we had arranged to visit Stanly and Parashu, who between them run the Seva Odanadi Trust, an Indian charity that works with girls and boys who have been victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. This morning we drove to the girls house in Mysore and were welcomed by Stanly, who showed us to his office where Parashu greeted us too.

House mother and staff of Odanadi Girls house

House mother and staff of Odanadi Girls House

These two ‘men on a mission’ began their activities together when, as young journalists, they chanced upon a young prostituted woman who asked “Do you think any woman would choose this life?” They discovered that many women were trading sex for a bowl of rice to feed their children. They helped her, lifting her out of prostitution to become a woman’s rights campaigner, before she sadly died of AIDS. However the roots for Odanadi had been formed and the organisation has grown over nearly three decades to its current form.

That form encompasses a girls home and a separate boys home with a range of facilities and projects linked to them. What we hadn’t realised is that Stanly and his team are actively involved in trying to stop the traffickers by raiding their lodges, houses and brothels to release girls who have been lured or kidnapped into a world of sexual exploitation. Stanly’s team showed us videos of raids on properties in Mysore and elsewhere, all carefully planned to be able to capture and convict underworld bosses and ringleaders to take them out of circulation. They showed us the meticulous lengths to which criminals go to avoid capture and to protect their ‘stock’ of girls, by creating almost invisible ‘caves’ behind walls and wardrobes, above toilet cisterns, and in drains in which people can be hidden during such a raid. This is dangerous work, and Stanly showed pictures of a ledger from one of the brothels that had been raided detailing payments to police officers as bribes, equivalent to a months salary each time. They can’t always rely on support from the authorities.

A main focus of the work of Odanadi is to rehabilitate, train and educate girls who have been through these experiences. Most are traumatised, often under 16, and without education or qualifications. It is a sad fact that, having been torn from their families, these girls are often rejected by their parents on being subsequently freed because of the stigma attached to them, whilst for others their families are themselves the perpetrators. Odanadi provides a safe place for them to live where they can regain confidence, go to school and rebuild their lives.

The home has a range of facilities built into it, which have been expanded over the years. We were taken on a tour of the building by some of the staff and residents, visiting the library, gymnasium, art room, and meeting rooms. They also proudly showed us the beauty parlour training area, where girls can receive training in becoming a beautician, and work in the separate beauty parlour adjacent to the main building which is also open to the public, providing valuable training experience as well as a service to the community. There is also a bakery which also provides training and experience in cakemaking and cooking skills, and we were given mouth-watering slices of cake that they had made for us.

It was clear that the Odanadi girls house was not only a safe place, but also a happy one. Everyone was pleased to show us around, and to share their enthusiasm for this special place. We couldn’t fail to be impressed by the work they are doing here.

After lots of photos we followed Stanly and Parashu across town to the boys house. On arrival, Stanly explained that some of the boys who live here are themselves victims of trafficking or sexual exploitation, or they are the children of girls who are involved. One boy came at the age of 3 months when his mother was rescued in an operation, and has lived at Odanadi ever since.

The boys presented us with a delightful flower bouquet that they had made, and then we sat down for lunch on long steel tables in the large, open building that doubles as their canteen. We received our banana leaf, and enjoyed a delightful meal of fish, chicken, rice and bread with the boys. We were a bit unsure about Indian dining etiquette in the absence of the cutlery we’re used to, but we followed the lead of our hosts and soon felt at home.

After lunch the boys started to open up to us, and their warmth and sense of fun started to shine through. We were taken by the hand on a tour of their house, and proudly shown their dormitories, the gym that they obviously enjoyed using, their library and offices. The ‘house mother’ was on hand to guide us and the boys, and we had a lovely time getting to know them better.

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One of the boys wanted to show us his dancing skills, and we were treated to an impromptu cabaret as his breakdance routine, all to lively Indian music, stole the show.

Later, Stanly took us a few yards in to the grounds to show us the new building that will house their mechanics workshop. He explained that they expect to get under way in January, offering basic training in carpentry and cycle and motorcycle maintenance. The aim is to be able to offer boys a qualification in these skills, and to be able to offer a repair and servicing facility for the local community in order to bring in revenue.

Adventure Ashram has played a huge part in the construction of the new boys house and the workshop building, and there are details on their website. We are delighted that some of the funds that we have raised on behalf of the Ted Jervis Fund will be used to provide toolkits for the students, which will help them in their training and to be able to gain a trade thereafter.

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As we leave the boys home and travel back to our hotel, we both confess to having a huge range of thoughts and mixed emotions. Our experience visiting the two Odanadi houses, meeting their residents and staff, and hearing about their history, work, and future aspirations has been humbling, inspiring and saddening in equal measure. Our sadness is due to the reality of the need for this type of project in today’s modern world, and the cruel, avaricious attitudes of the people who can inflict such suffering on others in the name of financial gain. Our inspiration is that people like Stanly and Parashu are prepared to make a stand against such evil, and to create such loving places as the Odanadi houses as a sanctuary for the victims of such heinous crimes.

There is so much we can do to help, from simple items to make the lives of the residents easier, to bigger ideas like developing the sites further and helping to improve the facilities that they enjoy. We’ll be liaising with Stanly and Adventure Ashram to come up with a list of ideas.

You’ll be hearing more from us about Odanadi soon!

 

Meeting a man with a chisel

One the the great things about being a member of Rotary is that there are Clubs in most cities in the world at which you are made to feel welcome, and Mysore is no different. Last night we joined with the members of the Rotary Club of Mysore at their weekly meeting in their building on Krishna Vilas Road.

We met Club President Chetan Vishwanath and were introduced to Secretary Ravi and other members before enjoying a simple but enjoyable meal served outside. The Club sponsors a school in the adjacent building, and has a long and illustrious history of service to the local community, having been formed in 1944. We were warmly welcomed by everyone, and several members shared their experiences of visiting the UK to holiday, work and study.

We also met the speaker for the evening, Arun Yogiraj. When the meeting convened, Arun told us about his work as a sculptor, having learned his trade from his grandfather. Arun has gained much recognition for his work, including a visit from former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, to his workshop in Mysore.

Arun’s slideshow gave us an idea of the range and scope of his work, and we were amazed by the skill of this modest but hugely successful man. Arun had brought an example of one of his smaller sculptures, a detailed representation of a gentleman who had passed away last year aged 107. Arun showed a photo of him with the man, adopting the pose he had portrayed in his statue. Some of his larger works can take several months of sustained effort with a hammer and chisel, often for 12-14 hours a day. He is clearly a master of his craft.

I told Arun how much our members in Loughborough would appreciate knowing about his work, and he kindly shared his presentation with me to use when we’re home.

The meeting closed with the traditional gift of a Club banner to me from Chetan, although I was unable to reciprocate having been unprepared with a banner from Loughborough. Good reason for another visit?

I thanked the members present for their hospitality, and mentioned the reason for our trip to Mysore, being our intention to visit the Odanadi Trust as mentioned in an earlier blog. Rotary can achieve great things when Clubs work together, and possibly there may be scope to do so in the future. I was pleased to have been able to meet Chetan and his members and enjoy their friendship.

It had been a very long day, having arrived at Bangalore at 4.50 am in the morning before making the 4 hour journey to Mysore. In all we’ve had about 2 hours sleep in the last 40. We gratefully climb into bed back at our hotel and are oblivious until morning, having had a fascinating introduction to this unique country.

Look out, there’s a cow in the road!

In fact there are two of them, emerging from a side road without stopping, pulling a cart laden with sugar canes like miniature lumber. They join the goats and dogs wandering in the verges, adding to the melee of cars, lorries, tractors, trailers, buses, wagons, bicycles, pedestrians, motorcycles, scooters, step-thru’s and the ubiquitous tuk-tuk 3 wheelers that must breed here, there are so many of them. All of these come from every direction as we navigate the Bangalore ring road on our way to Mysore, horns tooting and engines revving around us. It’s utterly bonkers to behold.

Our driver, Biju, seems completely unfazed by it all. Indeed, despite the utter confusion of the street scene and everyone’s determination to stake their claim to their piece of road, they all seem quite good-natured – or maybe totally resigned – to the situation. Unlike the UK where horns are mainly used as a sign of anger or annoyance, here it seems to mean ‘I’m warning you I’m here, please make space’. No-one takes offence.

That warning is very necessary as we all squeeze into every available space. Lane markings seem to be an advisory only, largely to be ignored, and even the direction of travel seems up for grabs. If you can’t get through this way just go the other way against the flow of traffic. When motorbikes decide to go the wrong way half up the verge it’s one thing, but when tractors and buses do the same it’s quite another. We have no idea whether this is supposed to be a two-way road, but we’re pretty sure it’s not.

At busy junctions it’s utter chaos. Vehicles of all types fly in all directions, the bikes thread through any gap they can find, and the people walk out into the middle of it all.

A tuk-tuk sheds it’s load in front of us and bags of something looking like garden waste bounce along the road, causing the traffic to part in waves around it. A scooter sails serenely past, driver choosing his course, gaily saronged wife looking laid back as she sits side saddle behind, and child squashed between the two of them, resplendent in his school uniform.

All of this sounds really scary, but actually we don’t feel rattled at all, just fascinated. It all happens at a fairly modest pace, and we are able to watch our journey unfold. It’s nothing like the taxi ride we took in Italy where we rarely dropped below 70, through toll booths and all, swerving violently across other traffic. Now that was scary.

Eventually we reach our hotel, the Radisson Blu in Mysore. It’s a well appointed place with an impressive lobby area, and the staff are anxious to please. We sit and enjoy excellent bowls of soup in the light and modern restaurant whilst we wait for our room to be ready, it’s still only 11.30 am.

When we are shown to our room we’re told we’ve been upgraded. It’s a lovely space with a view over the city, the Mysore Palace, and the road outside. And there, as we watch, is a cow wandering along the central grass strip between the two traffic lanes, helping itself to the choicest mouthfuls. The cow doesn’t notice the traffic, and the traffic pays no regard to the cow.

They are all as mad as each other. It’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks.

An assault on the senses

The streets are thronged with people of all shapes and sizes, many speaking in foreign tongues. We are surrounded by multi-coloured messages and glorious images, and our nostrils are assailed by the scents of rich spices, elaborate perfumes, and sweet confections. Our taste buds are tempted by a mouth watering choice of street food, beers and beverages. It’s a fascinating experience for the uninitiated. And we haven’t even left for India yet.

Terminal 5 at Heathrow is a huge metropolis in its own right. We arrive in good time and wait patiently in the security queues amongst the multitude. I am picked out for closer inspection and suffer the ignominy of having to empty my bag so that the lady can thrust her security probe into its innermost recesses. If it keeps us safe then it’s a price worth paying.

We opt for the walkway to the C gates in preference to the train, and travel down in the lifts to find ourselves in a deserted world of endless corridors, the travelator humming beside us. It’s like a scene from Star Wars as we encounter BA flight crew coming the opposite way in full uniform. They chuckle as I ask whether they are lost too?

Eventually we emerge into the natural light, and look out over a forest of red white and blue tailfins. Which one is ours, we wonder?

Our holiday has started as we hope it will go on.MVIMG_20191106_112349

 

Looking forward to an Indian Adventure

The idea of a trip to India began 10 years ago, when my Dad asked me if I’d like to join him on an Enduro India adventure. This 1500 km motorcycle ride across the sub-continent had captured his imagination, and as he was already in his 80’s at the time, maybe he needed a chaperone. I didn’t go with him then, or on any of the several other similar trips he did in subsequent years. Along the way he gathered quite a fan club of fellow adventurers, and it seemed he was chaperoning them rather than the other way around. 20150712_163616

Out of the India trips had arisen Adventure Ashram, a UK charity that helped support work in India that had been touched by the adventurers. When Dad passed away in 2017 (see my separate blog post) the members of Adventure Ashram proposed a new fund in his name, and you can read about it here. Adventure Ashram holds a UK Rally for cars and bikes each year, and money is raised towards Dad’s fund.

When Sue and I celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary earlier this year, we suggested that guests make a donation towards the fund instead of gifts. We were delighted by everyone’s generosity, and we’ve ended up with over £3,000 to use for the charity in India.

What better excuse, then, for our first trip to India? We’re looking forward to a great holiday, and along the way we’ll be visiting two of the projects that Adventure Ashram supports. We’ve been planning our trip for several weeks, and as I write this we’re an hour away from setting off to catch the train to Heathrow, where we’ll be staying overnight.

I’m planning to keep a record of our experiences, and if you would like to know what we’re up to you can follow my blog and you’ll be notified of any new posts.

If you’d like to help boost the fund we’d be honoured to receive your donation. We can promise you the money will be put to good use.

Next stop Heathrow!

 

It’s a Very Long Way Down

The rock face is immediately in front of us and our rate of ascent has slowed almost to a stop. Whereas the view from from our cable car was spectacular as we rose the 1,000 metres from the base station in just 6 minutes, we also seemed detached from it, as though floating across the valley towards the mountain. But now the sheer height of the receiving station, and the fact that it is invisible above our heads, makes this a scary – no, terrifying – experience. My god, it’s a very long way down.

We’re on the Dachstein in Austria, near the former mining town of Schladming, now a thriving holiday resort. We’ve been high up a few times in the last few days, but this takes ‘high’ to literally a completely new 20190916_134256level.

I may have led a sheltered life, but I don’t think I’ve been this high before without being inside an aircraft. The lovely warm summers day below is transformed into a 7° winter landscape this far up. There is a glacier up here and it’s frozen.

There’s also a full-blown restaurant, a snack bar, gifts and lots of seasonal mountain goers, I guess as I notice I’m the only one wearing just a T-shirt. Austrians obviously live in their mountains. I may never have been this high before, but I’m clearly in a small minority in this company. They are wearing fleeces, walking jackets, thermals and brandishing walking poles – they obviously knew the score.

We need to sit down after the last few minutes since docking. Opening the restaurant door we are hit by a cosy warm blast. Life is going on as though this were a diner in a bus station, catering for its transient visitors. The fact that the staff here clearly make the terrifying cable car journey at least twice a day as a matter of routine makes me appreciate that there are just some jobs that I really wouldn’t want to do.

Our reason for being in Austria is to help John, a Rotary friend, to celebrate his 60th birthday. Two days ago we had been driven up into the mountains by bus to a local restaurant, complete with its own trout lake from where many of the menu dishes clearly originated. It was a great party.
The day before that, in Salzburg, we had savoured tripping through the Mirabell Gardens in the footsteps of Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family as we do-ray-me’d our way through the Sound of Music Tour. Whether or not you’re a fan of the film (which I am) this is a great experience, as you learn about the way that films are made and the grand deceits that take place along the way, and relive some of the key moments from the film. Highly recommended.

We hadn’t visited Austria before but there is clearly plenty to enjoy. Salzburg is a fabulous city full of delights, and the mountain regions around the area are clearly a winter sports haven when it’s snowing, and an outdoor pursuits playground when it’s warm. We’d love to return and spend more time here in the future.

Canal Trip: 4 – Boating Past Rooftops

It’s a strange sensation, navigating a boat along a channel whilst looking down on the rooftops of houses.

 

At 500 feet above sea level, the Peak Forest Canal lives up to its name, entering the fringes of the Peak District and offering delightful views over the hills beyond. We begin our journey in the light sort of drizzle that isn’t really rain, but fills the air with damp. The hill tops are obscured by cloud, and we’re not far below.

 

As the day progresses the sun appears and the clouds lift, until by the time we reach historic Bugsworth Basin it’s gloriously warm. This site, at one time one of the country’s busiest inland ports, has been recovered from dereliction and restored to glory by the hard work of a large group of volunteers, and their enthusiasm shows in the welcome we receive and the displays chronicling the history of the Basin that are part of the site. Now a scheduled Ancient Monument, the Basin saw huge amounts of lime and other minerals transported from local mines to the heart of Manchester and beyond in its heyday, fuelling the Industrial Revolution.

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Historic Bugsworth Basin

Today it’s a pretty and peaceful spot, filled with brightly painted narrowboats and surrounded by greenery, quite a contrast from its working days. It has made the trip down the Peak Forest, an extension of the canal from Marple, a real pleasure.

 

We return over the next 3 hours, enjoying the summer afternoon. At Marple Junction we turn left to the start of the Macclesfield Canal and a 27 ¾ mile journey to Kidsgrove. It’s many years since we last travelled this canal, and we take 2 days to do it this time, mooring at Higher Poynton on Saturday night and and then below Congleton last night. Yesterday was our best day of this holiday so far, being blessed by glorious weather and enjoying one of the most scenic lock flights you could experience. The 12 Bosley locks are stone built and delightfully picturesque, dropping through secluded countryside with the sound of only the water and the local sheep population for company. With single width locks and double gates at each end as well as being closely grouped, they are easy to operate and quick to empty. Still hard work in the rising temperature, though.

 

The canal is busier today, and halfway down the flight we meet a flotilla of hired boats coming upwards one by one. They are crewed by a large contingent of Swedish holidaymakers, obviously enjoying their canal experience. The canals seem very popular with Swedes, they are one of several such groups we’ve met over the week. Must be our climate that attracts them.

 

This canal was one of the last to be built on the system, and it benefited from advances in technology over the canal building era. Unlike the early ‘contour’ canals which followed the line of the land, this one charges over valleys and across roads and rivers on huge embankments and majestic aqueducts. Walking along the towpath ahead of our boat, we peer over a set of attractive iron railings to suddenly step back as we face the hundred foot drop to a river passing beneath the canal. Later at Congleton, we glide over a huge embankment with superb views of the valley below, dominated on the right by a many-arched railway viaduct following the line of the waterway. It’s just one of many dramatic sights that constantly surprise on this enjoyable trip.

 

As we chug gently around the perimeter of Congleton we pass many boats moored on the towpath, occupants enjoying the lovely summer evening with wine or beer glass in hand and jovial banter in full flow. There is a peaceful quality and a sense of camaraderie about the waterways that makes stepping on to the towpath a transition in time and space, and it’s very welcome.

 

As our holiday draws to a close, there is talk onboard of acquiring our own boat to be able to continue our experience and share it with our family. Whether that idea comes to fruition or not, we know that, one way or another, we will be back.