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Monthly Archives: May 2017

Climbing Gunung Merapi, most active volcano

Every now and then life pulls the rug from under your feet and leaves you lying on your back – this sibling-esque prank is often referred to as a ‘reality check’. Dangling off the side of Merapi with one hand on a fern root and the other on the arm of Khalid was my mine. I had taken too lightly to climbing the most active volcano in Southeast Asia, and when the path I was walking on suddenly gave way, it turned out to be a mentally draining, yet emotionally rewarding challenge.
Known to locals as Fire Mountain, Gunung Merapi sits on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta in Indonesia. There have been regular eruptions since 1548, with the most recent in 2010 where 30 people died.
Our walk was to start at 4:30am, under night at Desa Deles, the ranger’s hut at 1,300 metres. By 10am that day I’d be up 2,930 metres high on the summit of Merapi.
The smell of sulfur was in the air, and our torches pierced through a feint haze that slid up the cliffside, our visibility was low and we had to mind shrub, after fern when making our way up the gentle incline.
Our three Javanese guides were trekking without torchlight, one was even in sandals, they used the moon and the stars to guide them.
When the sun rose the air felt cold and we had our first rest break. Looking back down our path we could see the vast settlement that bowed down by the foot of Merapi. It’s hard to believe that so many people still choose to live there, but locals have their reasons; ideal farming soil and religious beliefs. Many believe that the previous eruptions are a result of spirits being angered by not receiving gifts, which they offer them at the summit annually.
The sun rise rays was flowing through the trees and the hike was about to get harder, as the gentle slalom route suddenly inclined along the cliff face.
We had to wrestle with branches, and grab what we could to pull ourselves higher. We’d sometimes encounter clearings in the jungle where we could peer out, always seeing Merapi to our left.
The group of 15 people was now dwindling, as experienced hikers thought they had met their match. Even the hike leader, German Carl had suspiciously caught a chesty cough when the path started to get steeper around 2,000 metres up. In the end five of us remained, with the guide in sandals who had now fashioned a ragged towel into a head scarf that made him look like Little Bo Peep.
Those that remained were determined to conquer Merapi whether our blisters bled, our water ran out or Bo Peep lost his sandals. The steep incline under thick forest meant that we would gain altitude at a faster pace, and gradually the hills, and rice paddys below shrunk and cold streams of air came and went as we entered different air pockets. We found ourselves alone on the side of the mountain, no sign of Indonesian settlements in the distance, or anybody on the mountain top.
The ash was becoming difficult to grip with my shoes, and I found myself bouldering, up vines and branches just to follow the path. It was then that I misplaced my foot and the side of the path that I was on collapsed. Dangling off a cliff face isn’t like they show it in the Mission Impossible films; I wasn’t coolly gripping the edge of the cliff with my fingers, nor was I suspended up in mid-air like a character from Looney Toons, instead I was holding onto a fern root for dear life as Khalid grabbed my arm and yanked me back up.
Shortly after our stop at around 2,500 metres (10:30 am), we reached the dusty, dead plain of Devil’s Bazaar. This is where the locals gather every year to place their offerings to calm the spirits of Merapi. The volcano has erupted every 5 – 10 years without fail, yet the locals still make the treacherous climb to hopefully bring peace between themselves and the mountain.
With every step a rock would tumble down and ash would be kicked up into our shoes and mouth. We passed weather stations that looked like they hadn’t been touched since the Seventies, and yellowing shrubs trying to survive as we continued our walk through what felt like the world’s most depressing desert getaway. We were now face-to-face with the clouds that wrapped around our ankles and passed along the cliff tops.
The head of Merapi stood above us and the surrounding wasteland with the white haze of sulfur circling it like a halo, we had reached the final stretch.
With smoke rising from the peak we began our ascent. The remaining point was like an old pub fireplace covered in ash and dust which covered our faces as we tried to scramble up the cliffside on all fours.
It was slippery. Every step we took we fell two steps down. Even Bo Peep in sandals seemed to tire, as more dust kicked up into our faces and the wind blew the clouds and ash into our sides. But I had to see the top, and so I pushed up the cliff face, hopping from rock to rock.
Standing on the shoulder of a giant, when I broke through the clouds I was surrounded by a deep blue and the air felt clearer. Finally I had reached the summit. I clambered up to the peak, which was an uneven rock around the width of a boardwalk and surrounded by a 200 metre crater drop which was covered by eery sulfurous fumes that seemed to escape from every rock crack. I was an ant on a pen nib, anxiously looking around, watching my step. The others joined me, and we waited a while in silence as the clouds sifted through our hair, and the monster of Merapi quietly slept.
We had to get down before nightfall, and luckily our guide knew a few tricks to get us down safely and quickly, no helicopter or ski lift. With our feet we skied down the side of the mountain, kicking up dust and dislodging rocks.
It was a huge challenge, but the summit will reward you in its own special way.

Tips on travelling with children

The thought of travelling with children in tow may bring you out in a cold sweat but provided you plan ahead it can hopefully be plain sailing.
From my experience, the less travelling time the better, particularly if you are holidaying with under-fives who have limited tolerance when it comes to sitting still!
There may be no avoiding travelling further afield if you have a family occasion or are planning to visit relatives but after several disastrous attempts with two little ones I have put long-haul flights on hold. Toddler tantrums are not a pretty sight at the best of times but in the confines of a small space, it can be super stressful!

TIP: Under-2’s do fly for free on most airlines (on budget airlines you may be charged), so you may be tempted to travel before you have to pay for a seat!

If flying further afield, prepare yourself for the disruption of travelling across time-zones. Kids like routine and the onset of jet lag can be extremely difficult to deal with. Some families like to remain on UK time but this can prove extremely difficult as there is no way your child will agree to go to bed when it is bright outdoors.
A few tips though if you do travel abroad, especially if it’s somewhere exotic, be sure to know when the rainy season is or if the country gets a period when extreme weather conditions, such as hurricanes, are possible. Places such as Florida and parts of the Caribbean, for example, can get torrential rain storms that last for weeks in the early autumn.
On the other hand, remember that while some countries – such as those in the Far East and Indian Ocean – have quite a long rainy season that doesn’t mean you’ll get rain all day, every day. During this low season you can get much better deals and you may only get a short, sharp tropical downpour each day while the rest of the time the sun will be out.
Also, keep in mind if travelling within Europe, August is peak holiday season time so the beaches of Italy, Spain and Portugal can be heaving. If you can travel either side of August it is worth doing so, especially as most hotel prices dip towards the end of the month.
As for the best form of accommodation, if you have younger kids I always found self-catering was the way forward. The last thing my kids wanted to do was sit in a restaurant for more than five minutes and on the rare times we have dined out abroad the frustration of spending a huge amount on a kids meal only for half the food to be wasted proved too much to bear.
Many families select their resort on the basis of its ability to offer a kids club to keep the children happy and entertained and I am certainly one of them! When researching my holiday, I always check the accommodation I choose has facilities for kids as provided they are happy, everyone’s a winner!
Some of the best hotel kids clubs I have discovered are very close to home. They include The Grove Hotel in Watford which boasts an incredible kids club, complete with its own swimming pool, endless list of activities and playground. In a bid to make it more family-friendly, Scotland’s Gleneagles Hotel has so much to offer kids there’s little chance you will see them.
On a past visit my kids took part in a baking workshop and even drove mini cars around the hotel’s grounds. And then there is the Four Seasons in Hampshire that again has everything available for kids, from its baby area to the teenage zone. The hotel even greeted my kids on their first night with their name written in biscuits!

Mob Museum in Las Vegas

Las Vegas Mob Museum celebrated its first birthday on February 14, 2013 and shares the day with St Valentine. It tells two stories, the Mob story and the story of the law.
Throughout the museum, there are some of the most infamous Mob artefacts, such as the wall from the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the barber chair where Albert Anastasia was murdered.
Ellen Knowlton, who retired in 2006 as FBI agent in charge in Las Vegas and was at the helm of the not-for-profit museum’s organization during conception, said FBI officials have shared photographs, transcripts of wiretaps and histories of efforts to kneecap organized crime in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. She comments:

“Despite the sort of edgy theme, this museum is historically accurate and it tells the true story of organized crime.”

It opened on February 14, 2012 in a brick federal building that was the centerpiece of this dusty town of 5,100 residents when it began in 1933. In 1950, the three-story building hosted a hearing by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver’s special investigating committee on the rackets.
The stories of mob’s biggest players including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, Bugsy Siegel, John Gotti are revealed.
It was Bugsy Siegel who pioneered the transformation of this one-time desert stopover into a glittering tourist mecca, opening the $6 million Flamingo hotel on the fledgling Las Vegas Strip in 1946 with financial backing from Lansky.
The movie-star handsome Siegel was rubbed out six months later in Beverly Hills, perhaps because he angered the mob with cost overruns on the hotel.
Spilotro and Rosenthal were associates in the 1970s, when Rosenthal ran several casinos, including the Stardust. Spilotro was killed in 1986 and buried in an Indiana cornfield.
Organized crime was eventually driven out of Las Vegas in the 1970s and ’80s by the FBI, local police and prosecutors, state crackdowns and casino purchases by corporate interests.
The Mob was brought to justice, including Joe Petrosino, Eliot Ness and Estes Kefauver. The museum has the actual courtroom where one of the 14 federal Kefauver Hearings was held in the early 1950s.
Many of these stories have been dramatized by Hollywood in such movies as Bugsy, The Godfather and Casino. But documenting Mob history was not easy.
Dennis Barrie, who directed the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the popular International Spy Museum in Washington designed the museum to show how organized crime and the fight against it shaped modern life. He says.
Entrance to the Museum costs $19.95 for adults and $13.95 for children and students.

Top 5 places in Havana, Cuba

Cuba can be a lazy beach holiday if that’s what you’re after, but it’s also a multi-faceted gem of an island, boasting astonishing natural habitats and grand colonial buildings. The largest in the Caribbean, it’s also an island which owns both a complicated past and an exuberant modern-day culture and nowhere is this most potent than in the capital, Havana.

Once home to pirates, poets and gamblers, the city is now known for rum, cigars and a stomping good time. Here are some of the top highlights.


1. Old Havana (Havana Vieja)

At one time this Unesco Heritage Site was a Spanish naval port. This north-eastern section of the city dates back to the 16th century and evidence of its rich history is everywhere you look. Defensive walls still line the narrow streets, left over from pirate raids and its five European-style plazas are overlooked by Cuban Baroque facades – the most striking is the Plaza de la Catedral – and soaring spires, whilst street-level attractions like the book market and numerous cafés continue to bring in the visitors.

2. The Malecón

Five miles of seawall and esplanade divides Old Havana’s harbour and the Vedado district and is prime walking territory if you want to get a feel for the city through the ages. Pass by the famous pastel facades of the Old Havana sea front and revolutionary monuments of Máximo Gomez and Calixto García to the high-rise skyline of Vedado, traditionally a Russian area. Sunsets out on Havana bay are not to be missed.

3. Capitolio Nacional

Clearly influenced by Washington’s US Capitol building, the Capitolio is nonetheless imposing with its huge stone steps, classical wings and rising dome. This building was once the seat of Cuban Congress prior to the 1959 revolution but venture inside and you’ll now find a planetarium, the National Library and the Academy of Sciences, along with vast halls and ceilings filled with beautiful Neo-Classical decoration.

4. Parque Almendares and Parque Central

Along the river of the same name, Parque Almendares is a welcome burst of green and fresh air, a world away from the heady pace of the city. Beneath the Calle 23 bridge, you’ll find abundant plants, a miniature golf course, riverside eateries and an outdoor theatre space if you’re lucky enough to catch a performance. Old Havana’s Parque Central is a local meeting point as well as an attraction and offers some superb people-watching opportunities amongst the exotic landscaped gardens.

5. Ernest Hemingway Museum

The world-renowned traveller and writer Ernest Hemingway spent 20 years of his life in Cuba and although his connection to the place went far beyond mere residence, it’s fitting that the home where he once wrote some of his most famous works is now open as a museum. Just outside Havana at Finca Vigia (meaning “lookout house”), you can view the typewriter that produced The Old Man and the Sea, as well as the 8,000 books in his library. Plaques marking the writer’s favourite haunts are everywhere to be found in the main city and harbour areas.