Only thrill seekers need apply

Only Thrill Seekers Need Apply

GO ADVENTURE: From white-water rafting to diving with sharks, RÓISÍN SORAHAN on the holiday experiences that set the heart hammering but are definitely not for the faint-hearted.

A SENSE OF self-preservation and power of reason are some of the weightier items we often leave at home while holidaying.


It seems that when we’re out of our norm, the tendency to behave out of our minds is greatly increased.


Even the most grounded individuals, who wouldn’t dream of driving without fastening their seatbelts, have been known to throw caution to the wind once their feet have left terra firma.


It’s an odd phenomenon, but one that keeps the thrill-seeking industry thrumming along in sync with the accelerated pulse-rate.


The attraction is the chance to live outside the rules of our “real lives”. Risks that would normally be unacceptable become those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.


They make for great stories and are moments that, with the hindsight of distance, can be savoured again and again with a shiver.

A fishing dhow in full sail in the Lamu Archipelago, Kenya. Photographer: Will Chin

Getting the heart hammering on holidays can come with a high price, however. It’s desperately exciting, personality defining, but it can also be death defying. So, whatever you do, don’t tell your mother!


Biking Death Road


What should serve as a warning has become a sales pitch. Descending 3,600m over 64km from a mountain pass outside of Bolivia’s capital La Paz to a rainforest basin in Coroico, Death Road is billed as the world’s most dangerous road. For thrill-seeking cyclists this is its attraction.


At its highest point it reaches 4,700m, and it’s all downhill from there. The first 20km are on a slick, paved route. Despite the cloud cover that freezes the fingers to the brakes, it’s exhilaratingly easy to barrel along at 40km/h, tears streaming down the face.


However, that’s just the taster. The road splits and those who haven’t come to their senses veer onto a dirt track with a 600m drop. The trail’s approximately 10ft wide, pockmarked with fallen rocks, drenched with waterfalls, and ne’er a crash barrier in sight. It all makes for terrific viewing, but crazy cycling.


Local people are less flippant about the road and most make offerings to Pachamama (earth goddess) if forced to travel it.


Built in the 1930s, it’s dotted with crosses and faded flowers. The death toll has fallen significantly since it was upgraded over a 20-year period ending in 2006; but parts of the original route are still used as a short-cut by drivers and by adrenalin-shot bikers.


* Get there: Dozens of tour operators line Sagarnaga Street, La Paz, offering Death Road trips – some include the T-shirt. Bike quality can vary, so check in advance what’s on offer.


White Nile rafting


Leaving Lake Victoria in Uganda, the River Nile thunders to life. Known as the White Nile, it lathers and foams as it tears out of the gates to begin its 6,600km race to the Mediterranean Sea.


Chaotic, unbridled the stretch of river at the Bujagali Falls has some of the best white water rafting in the world.


A day on the water begins with a safety briefing in a calm pool where the boat is flipped and novices are instructed on getting out from under and back on board. From there on you’re tossed in the torrents as you negotiate eight major rapids and several lesser runs.

Róisín balances her backpack on a boda boda (motor- cycle taxi) in Uganda. Photographer: Will Chin

The thrills kick off with the legendary “Overtime”, a 4.5m roiling waterfall. It’s followed by a heady mix of still water and massive waves. Rafters negotiate huge rocks and terrifying drops, including the “Bad Place”, which is aptly named and has been touted as the largest commercially rafted hole in the world.


Certainly, the scenery’s beautiful and the birds sing as sweetly as you’d expect in an African idyll. But in reality the focus is on figuring out which way is up and gasping for breath before being rocketed down the river like a cork shot from a champagne bottle.


* Get there: Nile River Explorers. Plot 41, Wilson Avenue, Jinja, Uganda, 00-256-43-412-0236,

Extreme travelling


In Uganda, US Peace Corps volunteers are sent home if reported riding on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi). They’re the main mode of transport in these parts, but are considered a risk the organisation is not prepared to take.


Travelling in Africa is as extreme a sport as I’ve encountered. It’s filled with uncertainties and unanswered questions. When the bus will depart is just about as clear as when Godot will arrive.


But the real riddle is: how many people can you fit in a battered bus, then add livestock and subtract roads. It’s a head-scratcher.


Every available inch is jammed with arms and legs, sacks of potatoes, live chickens, docile goats and the smells of diesel and semi-digested food.


On occasion, I’ve counted 28 passengers in a Hiace van, plus the driver and conductor who hangs out of the door declaiming the van’s destination.


The newspapers are filled with headlines of car crash horrors and passengers have been known to make citizens arrests of drunken, belligerent drivers.


Simply getting around is as high-wire a trick as a traveller can perform.


* Get there: Stick out your hand and see what stops.


Hiking on lava fields


Ash plumes regularly rise above the cobbled streets of Antigua, a Unesco World Heritage site in Guatemala.


Volcan Pacaya, the town’s sentential, has been spitting and snarling for years, but last spectacularly erupted in May 2010. Located in a protected national park, the volcano is the region’s most popular tourist attraction.


The Pacaya hike begins in the late afternoon, so that trekkers reach the summit as the sun is setting. In semi-darkness, guides lead their groups onto cooled lava fields, using stout walking sticks to check their solidity.


Underfoot the heat rises and fiery lava can be seen between the fissures. In other spots, it breaks out oozing upward in rivers of molten puss.


Visitors can get as close to the centre of the earth as they dare. In fact, some go so far as to jimmy a poker from their walking sticks to toast marshmallows on the bubbling lava geysers.


As the sparks fly, the air is desperately hot, tinged with the scents of melting sugar and singed hair.


* Get there: Antigua’s streets are lined with agents offering Pacaya tours. Summiting depends on the volcano’s stability. Walking sticks can be rented from children on the slopes. Don’t forget to bring your own marshmallows.

Dhow sailing


Kenyan newspapers regularly quote the Somalian pirate spokesman and it seems that Pirate Cove is not just a figment of Enid Blyton’s imagination.


However, drifting on a hand-crafted dhow around the Lamu Archipelago, just a fist-full of miles from the Somali border, it’s easy to forget the dangers and fall sway to the romance of the Indian Ocean.


The traditional Arabian boats, with their fluttering lateen sails, look like props in a movie rather than modes of transport as they cruise the north Kenyan coastline.


The road to Tupiza, Bolivia. Photographer: Will Chin

They can be hired for a day trip or multi-night adventure to explore pristine islands where the old ways linger and visitors from the outside are viewed with a mixture of fascination and suspicion.


Views by day of mangrove-anchored islands are matched at night by star-laden skies. It’s an incredible trip, but as darkness descends, the light of an unknown boat is a source of real anxiety.


Yet for all the talk of pirates, it’s hard to shake the notion that you’re sailing through the night sky in a scene from Peter Pan.


* Get there: Lamu House Hotel, Lamu Island, has two dhows equipped with a crew and guide. 00-254-42-463-3491,


To do list: the adventures I’ve yet to try . . . 


Over many adventures I’ve learned that survival is less about skill than dumb luck. So while my luck’s still holding, my thrill list is growing.


Shark cage diving


Who wouldn’t jump at a chance to go eye to eye with great white sharks off Cape Town in South Africa? Shielded by a metal cage built to withstand a barrage from a 2,000kg marine missile, apparently it’s perfectly safe.


London-Mongolia rally

It’s a 10,000-mile rally across mountains and deserts in a car you wouldn’t normally be seen dead in. However, if you make it to Mongolia you can get rid of the piece of junk you’re driving by auctioning it for charity.


Paragliding in Ireland


Maedbh’s Cairn stands on Knocknarae Mountain, lording it over Sligo Bay. A magical spot, it’s an ideal perch to take a leap and trust fate to the winds and a fabric wing.


Ice wall climbing


Glacier hiking through a blue palace and scrambling up a frozen waterfall in Iceland will surely sate the most ardent adventurer’s appetite. Tours available for all levels.


Dog sledding


A thrill list has to include mushing over miles of frozen landscape with your very own dog-sled team in the Arctic reaches of Finland. If your luck holds, you might even see the Northern Lights.

Article originally published by The Irish Times

Hottest ticket in town

Hottest Ticket in Town

RÓISÍN SORAHAN joins the volcano tourist trail in South America.

VOLCANOES aren’t something we think about too often in Ireland. Carrauntoohil, our highest peak, is a sleepy, docile creature; the most threatening thing about it is probably the name of its access route, Hag’s Glen. So when we get showered in volcanic ash and our airspace is closed again and again, we could be forgiven for thinking we had ended up in a scene from Apocalypse Now.


Ironically, however, volcanic ridges across the globe have become top tourist attractions – and the more active they are, the greater the interest, as adventure travellers and the foolhardy curious – I fit into both categories – are drawn to the possibility of roasting marshmallows on flowing lava as the soles of their shoes melt.

Volcan Villarrica, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, towers over the idyllic town of Pucán in Chile. Photographer: Will Chin

Travelling through Latin America’s volcano-dotted landscape, I have noted that villagers living in their foothills approach them in two ways: they put their faith in some deity or other to protect them from the inevitable, and they build a town based on ecotourism and carve a trail to the crater. It’s a simple approach: tell people that they can climb an active volcano and, bizarrely, they will come from the four corners of the world to give it a lash.


The Chilean town of Pucón, which nestles at the base of the Villarrica volcano, in the Andes mountain range, is possibly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. If Disney did adventure tourism, it would look something like this: eternally blue skies above a towering volcano that is wrapped in a shining glacier, its head in the clouds and its feet in a glittering lake around which an affluent town has grown. Add a plume of smoke, for effect, and the seismic warnings that sprinkle the streets are hardly noticeable. If anything, the green, orange and red warning signals, complete with a system of sirens, add to the sense of adventure.

Hikers start the ascent of one of the world’s most active volcanoes. Photographer: Will Chin

This town exists for one reason only: adrenalin. Villarrica, which is 2,847m high, is one of the world’s most active volcanoes. It sits in Villarrica National Park, which boasts a line of three volcanoes, Villarrica forming its centrepiece. Using the town as a base, visitors can take part in an array of activities: riding horses over the volcano’s foothills; riding bikes on out-of-the-way routes that offer wonderful perspectives of the towering peak; hiking in the national parks (there are three within reach in the region); and rafting the white water of the River Trancura, the main tributary of Lake Villarrica, which sits at the base of the volcano.


Then there’s the mama of adventure: scaling to the rim of the crater, if the volcano allows it and weather permits.


I visited in February, and arranged my guided trip to the summit with one of the many tour operators that line the streets.


The group tackling the ascent gathered early the following morning, when we were equipped with a safety helmet, rubber over-trousers, crampons, an ice axe and gaiters. I poured on my sunscreen and pulled on my thick-soled boots before we were ferried to the starting point, thrown on to a ski lift and dropped at the mouth of a really steep ascent.

The first part of the hike was over loose shale that slid underfoot like iron balls. Hikers ahead of us had dislodged the trail even more, causing cascades of stones and larger rocks that hurtled towards us at breakneck speed. Once the cry of “Rock!” rang out, the instruction was simple: get out of the way, fast.


When we reached the glacier we strapped on the crampons and moved even more slowly. Again, the direction was unambiguous: if you lose your footing and start sliding, use your ice axe as a brake and hold on tight. As we climbed, a condor soared overhead, and the Andes stretched as far as the eye could see. 

We made it to the top and spent about an hour on the lunar-landscape summit, overwhelmed by the view and overcome by the fumes. I’m not sure if it was the panorama or the sulphur that made my eyes water so. The descent was swift, undignified and exhilarating. We donned our rubber trousers and slid on our backsides down ice-carved shafts. Later that night we soothed our rears in hot mineral baths.


For many of us, the lure of a glacier-capped pinnacle is impossible to resist. It’s the mixture of danger and beauty and the thrill of the climb. Once the ash settles in Iceland, volcanoes will continue to be big business: while they remain within our reach, their biggest draw is that they are ultimately beyond our control.

View over the Andes from the summit of Volcan Villarrica. Photographer: Will Chin

Article originally published by The Irish Times

Mighty time in Yosemite

Mighty Time in Yosemite

GO LONG HAUL: Being woken by scavenging bears only whetted the appetite for a greater taste of the wild at California’s Yosemite National Park, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN.

OUR BREATHS lingered in the chilly air as we muddled our way through the labyrinthine camp and pitched our tent under a cluster of pinewood trees.


If it hadn’t been for our neighbours’ giant RVs (recreational vehicles) and motor homes, fitted with satellite dishes and plasma TVs, we might almost have felt like pioneers. Our site was equipped with a picnic table, a fire pit and a metal bear box where we stored food and toiletries. I had never faced a bear and had pegged them for elusive, exotic creatures. But we had been warned that the hint of a Hershey bar or Dove soap could cause them to drop the cuddly facade and tear open a car door, or tent canvas.

Autumn in Yosemite. Photographer: Will Chin

Temptation out of harm’s way, we settled in for the night. But, barely warm enough in my sleeping bag and blankets, I slept fitfully and was easily woken by a dawn commotion. “Git away! Git on now!” accompanied by clanging saucepans. I wriggled my snout out of the flap and caught sight of a furry flank. Sleep forgotten, I was outside in moments. A black bear, head hung low like a scolded dog, stared back from the safety of the creek, clutching a stolen apple.


As you get older, firsts become scarcer and, as a result, more valued. My first bear. The morning shone. Soft autumn light warmed the campsite and the day just got better.


John Muir, America’s forerunner to the eco warrior, famously claimed that people need beauty as well as bread. As I caught my first glimpse of Yosemite Valley, it seemed I had been given more than my share.


Jutting peaks and sheer rock faces, carved by glaciers millennia ago, towered over pine trees and bleeding maples. The Merced River, following its lazy course, refracted light the length of the valley, glittering like a perfectly cut diamond.


Stupefied by months of dull skies and dreary routines, I felt like I’d been slipped a couple of hallucinogens. My head spun in a kaleidoscope of colour. It wasn’t New England’s shades, mind. Yosemite park is drawn from a different palette.


The medley of vegetation includes sun-soaked scrub and woodland oaks; three magnificent giant sequoia groves; mountain hemlock; sierra junipers; whitebark pine; red fir and, in Yosemite Valley, the showier deciduous trees, notably the dogwood maple which puts on its best display around mid-October.


We spent the first day exploring the valley – Yosemite’s centrepiece, though a mere 18sq km of the park’s expanse which covers 3,080sq km in total. We were warned that this area is often congested in the summer when day trippers collide with longer stay tourists. However, in autumn, after the hordes have passed through, the park breathes out, leaving visitors space to stretch and glut the senses.


Leaving the campsites, lodges, stores, restaurants, rangers’ offices, recycling and information centres behind us, we followed the course of the river through a string of meadows, under the shadow of waterfall-stained rocks, pausing to watch harnessed climbers scale “the nose” of El Capitan.

Hiking trail above Yosemite Valley. Photographer: Will Chin

Some 900m of sheer granite, El Capitan lures big wall adventurers from across the globe. While we were there, the weather was ideal and the sun glinted off numerous dots, splashed against the cliff face like spatter paint blotches, clawing their way to the summit in a thrilling four to five-day ascent.


With more than 1,200km of hiking trails in Yosemite, we opted for easier routes – though no less dramatic for all that. The park is in the central Sierra Nevada mountain range and is a magic looking glass into the landscape that prevailed before the country was settled.

Despite the fact that visitors have been coming to Yosemite since the 1850s, the majority of the park is pristine. It supports a bewildering variety of plant species and ranges in altitude from 648m to 3,997m. The result is a dizzying mixture of unspoiled woodlands and meadows that include old growth forest unspoiled by logging.


Our days in Yosemite were perfect for hiking. Dry warmth without the summer swelter of the Californian sun meant that we could trek higher, for as long as our legs could take us. Climbing to Glacier Point, for its magnificent views over Half Dome, we crossed five vegetation zones, hardly passing a soul along the way.


On reaching the top, eyes dangling over the spectacle of wave after wave of glacier-capped peaks, we met a wedding party in full regalia, posing before the panorama. The flowing frocks and needle point heels made me wonder if there wasn’t an easier way to the summit. Sure enough, a bus poked its nose into the scene and a clatter of scouts spilled into the path of the cameras.


We left the fray by the mountain path and returned to the valley just as photographers in battle fatigues were coming out in their numbers to stalk the evening light. Working alone, armed with expensive cameras and heavy tripods, they burrowed into foxholes in sight of their prey. They had an image to capture and, in the face of their focus, the setting sun on Half Dome peak didn’t stand a chance. In Yosemite, you just can’t help yourself. The flight into the American wilderness is the hunt for beauty and the desire to capture and keep it.

John Muir campaigned vigorously in the 19th century for the preservation of such areas of pristine beauty.


Born in Scotland to a strict Presbyterian family who emigrated to the US in 1849, Muir exemplified the life described by naturalist philosophers of his time, such as Thoreau and Emerson. He nurtured the life of the soul, living simply for some years in a cabin he designed and built himself in Yosemite. The passion of his writings and the impact of his advocacy resulted in the founding of the US’s National Parks Service, described justifiably as “America’s best idea”.


The effect on the national psyche was immense as it redefined its relationship with the natural landscape. For the first time, places of beauty like the Sierra Nevada Mountains could be explored as spiritual temples, rather than natural resources to be conserved for national consumption. This led to the growing awareness that people were not made to spend their lives in sterile cubicles, pondering red staplers, starved of light. At some point, the spirit cries out to be fed.


Muir’s preaching seemed more pertinent than ever as we stood in Yosemite Valley, watching the sun ripen the granite rocks. Desperate to preserve this pristine wilderness, we drew our cameras and joined the beauty hunters to capture the fading light.


Get there


Airline carriers from Dublin to San Francisco include Aer Lingus (, United Airlines (, Continental (, BMI (, Lufthansa ( and KLM ( It’s around four hours drive from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park.


Yosemite Valley, reflected in the Merced River. Photographer: Will Chin

Yosemite what to . . .




The weather in Yosemite varies greatly in autumn; from hot days in shorts in the valley to woollen hats and down jackets in higher altitudes. Nights are really cold, so bring thermal underwear and, if camping, a four-season tent and a good quality sleeping bag.


When to go


Yosemite Valley is open all year round, but many of the roads in the rest of the park are closed due to ice and snow in late autumn and throughout the winter. The park fully re-opens in mid to late spring.




There is a vast array of places to stay within the Yosemite Valley area, ranging from high-end hotels to cabins, camper homes and basic tent sites. Throughout the summer months, places need to be booked weeks and sometimes even months in advance. However, there is greater flexibility and availability in autumn after the Labor Day holiday (the first Monday in September). Visit for accommodation and permit details.


Planning your trip


The National Parks Service has federal responsibility for America’s national parks. Visit its website,, before planning your trip. Note that all overnight trips into the back country require a wilderness permit.


Article originally published by The Irish Times

Drama in the desert

Drama in the Desert

GO JORDAN: Retrace the steps of T.E. Lawrence, and lodge with a Bedouin family in the magnificent desert of Wadi Rum in Jordan and you are sure to be smitten, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN.

I COULDN’T understand a word, but their intimacy was obvious. Black-kohl eyes danced above the glow of a cigarette. Her deep, coarse laugh blared confidence. Her husband, capable and strong, smelled of camels and desert sands. The cigarette passed between them and we were forgotten for a time as we lounged on the mattress spread by the fire, eyes smarting as the smoke thickened the air of the Bedouin tent.


We had travelled to Wadi Rum desert, a protected area in the south of Jordan, just one day earlier. Crossing sand dunes on camels, it felt like we’d journeyed much further. Arriving at this goat-hair tent, our rest-stop for the night, we encountered a lifestyle that had hardly changed in centuries. There was no television or any fixed furniture. Possessions were counted in herds and our nomadic hosts relied on their desert skills for survival. We were eons from our world of iPhones and cable.

Wadi Rum is a protected area in South Jordan. Photographer: Will Chin

The temperature dropped as the night deepened and the children circled closer to the warmth. The man poured sweetened tea, re-filling our cups with a nod. We settled into the uncomplicated silence of strangers who had shared a meal and a fire, and watched this other life play before us.


The drama began the evening before as we stepped off the bus on a desert road. There was only one path and it led towards a range of low sandstone mountains, where the sun was already beginning to set. We hadn’t arranged a guide or a pick-up, preferring to get a sense of the place before we committed to a tour. A truck was parked by the road-side and, with some negotiation, we climbed on board and waited while it filled with women wearing black jalabiyya robes.


We were deposited at the recently constructed visitor centre, where we paid an entrance fee to Wadi Rum, a gorgeous area renowned for its inhospitable landscape and its epic scenery.


It has tumble-down dunes, scramble-up mountains, wandering camels, ancient rock graffiti, and bona fide nomadic tribes of Zalabia Bedouin. It’s the stuff of 1960s movies, riddled with romance, turbaned men, scorched desert and wistful music played under an impossibly star-laden sky. Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here, depicting the controversial T.E. Lawrence’s exploits during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the first World War.


More prosaically, the Bedouin population has come to recognise the economic rewards of capitalising on the natural beauty of the landscape and their intimate knowledge of it. A local co-op has been formed and is managed through the visitor centre where tourists can view exhibitions and book 4X4, camel and horse-back tours offered by Bedouin guides. The alternative, and usually cheaper, option is to contact a recommended guide directly. The co-op requires that the guide receives a fax or e-mail confirmation 48 hours prior to the visitor’s arrival. The idea is to circumvent tour agencies and hotels scooping up the business and creaming off the fees through commission.


We took an alternative route. We flagged a jeep travelling from the centre to the village of Rum, which is 6km away, where we figured we could talk with the guides and look at our options.


The village, which houses about 1,000 settled Bedouin, is a ramshackle affair on the lip of the desert valley. There’s one rest-house, which was originally built to accommodate the crew who filmed Lawrence of Arabia in 1962. Prior to this, the only man-made constructions in the valley were the tents of the Zalabia who moved their herds to watering holes and grazing patches.

On a camel with no name. Photographer: Will Chin

On arrival, we were greeted by tour-guides and drivers, anxious for our business. Camels were paraded before us to admire, but we settled comfortably into the rest-house which provided us with a tent, bedding and a hearty meal.


Later that night we wandered through the village, necks craned, gazing at the stars. The village was dimly lit and the jagged line of mountains cradling the settlement could be clearly seen against the sky. The road petered off and finally conceded to the expanse of desert before us. Then we heard a soft voice: “Is there anything that I can help you with?”


A dark head and easy smile emerged from under the bonnet of a jeep. Tools were laid down and conversation sparked up. The man, wearing the traditional kufiyya cloth head-gear of the Bedouin tribe, invited us to his home. We were in search of a guide and negotiations of this nature, he assured us, could not be rushed. First, we must drink tea.


We followed a warren of lane-ways before pulling into a long, low structure. Inside we settled on cushions and a tray of sweet tea was laid before us by a young boy who manfully tried not to stare, then gave up in a fit of giggles. Our host, all eyes and black hair, cradled his oud, an ancient Arabian instrument similar to a lute, and talked in poetry about sleeping under desert skies. His words painted canyons, dunes and camel-racing, before petering into silence softened by his gentle strumming.

We had come looking for a guide to lead us through the desert. Fatefully we had met this man. The hard sell and brass tacks were forgotten. I simply hoped he would deign to accompany us. The tables had turned. Along with my head.


My partner wasn’t as smitten so, as I fell into reverie, he negotiated the cost of spending two nights in the desert, travelling in turn by jeep, camel and on foot. We arranged to depart at sunrise the next morning and we returned to the rest-house where we spent a peaceful night under a nest of blankets.


The following day we drove for a while through desert landscape before getting out and climbing on camels. Mine was a feisty young thing. A mass of long legs and youthful exuberance. After the initial excitement, however, the camels took stock of their riders and settled into the pace of a slow heart-beat.


We spent the rest of the day in the saddle, stopping only to tumble down talcum-soft dunes; clamber across wind-carved stone archways; and scramble up sandstone formations, with hundreds of footholds shaped out of bleeding rock. When the sun grew wearisome, we lounged under an overhang to eat home-made hummus, baba ghanoush, pita bread and eye-wateringly spicy salsa. Finally, on the watery horizon, we watched the sky explode into a firework sunset.


Weary and bone-jarred, I was relieved when our mounts rounded a boulder and we were in sight of our home for the night. Our Bedouin hosts had pitched their tent in the shelter of the rocks and we arrived to the clamour of goats and the sounds of dinner being cooked over an open fire. We settled comfortably into the chaos, shared the family’s meal, which we ate from the pot with our fingers, and waved off our guide who had been called back to Rum as his racing camels – his pride and joy – had bolted.


The night brought an easy sleep – disturbed only by a desert mouse under my blankets who sampled, then spat out, my finger before fleeing the scene. Unwilling to wake the family who snored softly behind a curtained partition, I stifled horrified giggles before tightly tucking my blankets around me.


Arising before dawn, I slipped outside and climbed to the highest point. I had never been anywhere so silent. The desert was as quiet as freshly fallen snow. From my vantage I watched the woman herd goats across the valley floor, a black asaba cloth wrapped around her forehead.

The sun rose and our second day in the desert began. Our guide dropped us off at the mouth of Barragh Canyon, promising to meet us on the other side. We sauntered slowly between its gloriously shaded over-hangs, stopping to watch camel herders squat over fires heating billy-cans, or to crane at climbing teams, strapped and harnessed, mere specks of colour in the distance.


Days in the desert, it seemed to me, were marked by shifting colours. Soft dawns, leading to brilliant mornings, followed by changing rock-hues and full-palette sunsets. It was the sky, and the mouse, that convinced us to abandon the tent on our last night and sleep on mats under the stars.


Our guide cooked a rich stew over the fire, after which he played achingly beautiful music and invited us to stay. We could exercise his horses, he offered. It wouldn’t pay much, but then . . . he gestured at the dazzling sky above us and miles of desert before us.

Bedouin goat hair tent. Photographer: Will Chin

That my partner had encountered few horses growing up in LA and I was a passing poor rider, at best, hardly crossed my mind. Of course we would stay. I wasn’t delirious for lack of water. It was the desert talking. The morning blossomed. The offer remained open. We could learn to ride. We returned to Rum and the fever abated, ever so slightly. Not on this trip, I conceded. But maybe, next time.


Wadi Rum desert




Wadi Rum is located 322km from Amman, 114km from Petra and 70km from Aqaba.




Admission to Wadi Rum Protected Area is tightly controlled. It costs 5 JOD (€5.30) to enter.



For more information on guided tours visit


Don’t forget . . .


Bring a brimmed hat, sun-protective clothing and sun-screen. Pack appropriately for cold nights and bring a flash-light and toilet-roll.




Wadi Rum Resthouse is basic, but the only show in town. Tel +962-3-201-8867


Get there


Direct flights from Dublin to Amman, which is the capital of Jordan, are plentiful. See the following:;;;; and

Article originally published by The Irish Times

On the trail of Rwanda’s mountain gorillas

On the Trail of Rwanda's Mountain Gorillas

RÓISÍN SORAHAN felt like she was starring in ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ as she trekked through dense jungle in pursuit of an elusive prey, armed only with her camera.

IT FELT LIKE I was watching an old cinema reel. Thick mist cloaked the volcanic peaks. Trackers with machetes led the vanguard. Exotic plants with exaggerated genitalia leered drunkenly. Dense vegetation threw up its almost impenetrable shields. All the while, a cricket banged on about the silence.


Even the nettle stings, scratches and ankle-deep muck could not dispel the sense of unreality as we battled through rainforest in north western Rwanda in pursuit of the mountain gorilla, one of the world’s most elusive primates.


We were in search of the Susa group – the largest in Parc National des Volcans and the one that was studied by the American anthropologist, Dian Fossey, for 18 years and dramatised in the film Gorillas in the Mist. Normally the trackers can locate a group within one to four hours, but this particular family tends to range to higher altitudes.

The dominant silverback of the group. Photographer: Will Chin

Time dissolved as we ducked under the trapeze of flying branches and wedged our bodies through spaces carved by machetes. Breaths laboured as we steadily climbed to about 3,000m and started to feel the physical impact of the altitude gain. The cultivated terraced fields on the lip of the park seemed very far below us. We had entered virgin territory, shielded by clouds and draped in legend.


Our apparently random path was carefully chosen by our guide who maintained radio contact with the highly skilled trackers. Slowly, slowly we continued upward, breathless for word of a trampled clearing, a heap of dung, anything that would offer a clue to the whereabouts of our quarry which moved their nest from night to night.


The radio crackled. Our guide’s face tensed. He picked up the pace. The gorillas had been located. After a few more minutes we were instructed to leave our bags and walking sticks and continue, armed only with cameras. Our guide told us that the gorillas were accustomed to humans, but unfamiliar with some of our trappings, so anything that might startle them was discarded in a pile.


No sudden movements, we were warned. No shouting, gesticulating, or attempts to touch the primates. I recalled Sigourney Weaver’s performance as the extraordinary Dian Fossey, so I knew the drill if charged by a silverback. Curl into the foetal and squeeze the eyes shut . . . in theory. If tested I planned to kick up my heels and run as fast as my fear could take me.


Cameras were either buckled across shoulders or dangled dangerously from wrists before we stealthily inched forward. Sweat burned our eyes and anticipation prickled the air. Once faced with the animals, we would have one full hour to observe them. No more.


Anxious not to disturb the silence we cautiously entered a trampled clearing and the movie reel spun forward as the fastest 60 minutes of my life played before me.


Two young gorillas broke from the vegetation and plummeted towards us. They veered off and careened around a tree, in hot pursuit of each other. A parody of a Laurel and Hardy movie as the pursuer and pursued became obscured in their circular chase. They beat their chests in a wild performance, yet remained utterly unconcerned by our watching presence. Finally, they fell in a heap of dispassionate love-making.


I hardly knew where to look as we wandered into the heart of the group. Mammas breast-fed their babies, while youngsters brushed past our legs in play. I had never imagined we would come so close as to feel the touch of a shoulder as it ambled by. Others tumbled from trees above my head while the older members of the group chewed thoughtfully on celery sticks and stared at us with disquieting awareness.


A silverback sat in their midst, the leader of the group and potent with strength. The saddle of silver hair was the stamp of his authority and his stillness did little to dilute his sense of latent power. Almost three times the size of an average man, he must have weighted about 250kg. He never paused in his feeding, focused as he was on satiating his huge bulk, a task which consumes an adult gorilla’s most active hours between 6am and 6pm.


We kept our voices to a whisper to ensure that we didn’t startle these fascinating creatures who, despite the devastation wrought on their numbers by humans, accepted our presence with surprising gentleness.

Members of the Susa Group in Parc National des Volcans. Photographer: Will Chin

Mountain gorillas are peaceful creatures and will only respond with aggression if they believe that a member of their group is being threatened. They live in a stable family cluster which is led by the dominant silverback, who is overlord to a harem of females and their youngsters. The younger males will, however, try their luck with the ladies when the grand daddy of the group has his back turned.


There are about 655 mountain gorillas left in the world today and all of them are found in the wild. There are just three areas in which they can be located, all of which have been preserved as national parks: Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in southwest Uganda, the Virunga Volcano region which straddles northwest Rwanda, bordering eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Mgahinga Gorilla National Park in Uganda. The wild forested terrain in which the threatened species roam covers approximately 630sq km.


The population of mountain gorillas has catastrophically dwindled due to a number of man-made threats to them and their habitat. These include poaching, lax governments turning a blind eye with the argument that the money earned through illegal trading is important to the indigenous people, and pressure on the land for farming, fuel and construction.

Mountain gorillas also suffered during the Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s and on-going civil strife in the DRC. Landmines and settlement of land by fleeing Rwandan refugees in the Virunga Volcano region on the Congolese side of the border resulted in the deaths of a number of gorillas as their habitat was stripped and the transmission of human disease became a very real threat.


Since then, gorilla conservation programmes have worked tirelessly to disarm the mines and minimise the pressures presented by humans. There is also greater awareness among policy- makers of the value of the mountain gorillas in terms of tourism revenue in countries that have struggled to present a positive international image.


The opportunity to observe these creatures at close range in their natural habitat is a rare privilege. The hour I spent with them didn’t even shave the edge off my curiosity. I couldn’t imagine what they thought of our prying eyes, or understand why they accepted our intrusion so graciously.


As we watched they shared intimacies, played, preened, stroked and nurtured their young and each other. And all the while the reel spun and our time, too soon, played out.


We retreated down the Karisimbi Volcano to the border of the national park, after which the scenery gave way to the terraced fields that characterise Rwanda’s landscape. Subsistence agriculture is the mainstay of Rwanda’s economy and the town of Ruhengeri, which is the staging post for the gorilla trek, is surrounded by lush cultivated countryside and overlooked by a ring of volcanoes. The idyllic setting and friendly people overcome the vestiges of poverty that cling to a town that has suffered greatly by its border location.


However, resilience appears to be an emblem of the Rwandan nation. Arriving in the capital Kigali, I was struck by the level of optimism and opportunity in the city. Cranes dotted the skyline and I met a number of people who had moved there to open up businesses. The city sprawls across hills which overlook its spreading suburbs, and its greatest attraction is its lively street life. It is determinedly looking forward and outwards and the scale of its physical recovery from the insanity of the 1994 genocide is remarkable.

The genocide museum in Kigali, which is a must for every visitor, displays the emotional scars the country carries. Its informative displays catalogue the background and build-up to this bloody nightmare in which more than one million people were murdered; while life-sized photographs of victims and video testimony from survivors give voice to the screams.


It is harrowing, emotionally draining and frighteningly challenging. It forces the question of how the world ignored the promise of “never again” after the Holocaust and idly watched the slaughter unfold, night after night, on its TV news broadcasts.


The progress of the city and the beauty of the country are not diluted by the brutality which tore through its population. However, most visitors remain cautious about visiting Rwanda and mainstream tourism has been replaced by aid workers and UN personnel. For many, Rwanda remains yoked to their memories of headlines and horror.

Woman carrying firewood at the base of the Karisimbi Volcano in the Virunga Volcano Region. Photographer: Will Chin

What they have never seen are the fertile terraced hills, the forest reserves and the densely vegetated volcanoes that are havens for some of the world’s most elusive and threatened primates. It is described as Le Pays des Milles Collines – The Land of a Thousand Hills. It is a country for window gazing from a bus, or for hiking volcanic trails. It is also the land in which I spent one of the most memorable hours of my life, observing a group of the planet’s last remaining mountain gorillas.


Tourists to Rwanda are almost as rarefied, but those who do take the time to peel back the edges of this country are rewarded many times over.


What to do and where to go on a visit to Rwanda


All permits to visit the mountain gorillas and golden monkeys are booked through the Rwanda Tourism Board offices (ORTPN) in Kigali or Ruhengeri. Office Rwandaise du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Boulevard de la Révolution 1, PO Box 905, Kigali, Rwanda, htm, e-mail Cost: $500 (€377) per person.

There are a number of different gorilla groups in the national park. We requested to visit the Susa group to ensure maximum hiking time. Other families can be viewed with less trekking and so are suitable for people of all ages and moderate fitness levels.


Anyone suffering from a cold or flu is requested to defer their visit to avoid spreading the virus to the gorillas. Spaces are limited to eight in a group, so be sure to book your permit in advance.


For further insight into the conservation of the gorillas visit the Karisoke Research Centre in Parc National des Volcans, which was founded by Dian Fossey in 1968 and is now run by the Dian Fossey Gorilla Funds,


There are endless trekking opportunities in Rwanda. The terrain ranges from small hillside farms cultivating coffee, tea and bananas, to volcanic chains in the northwest and rainforest in Nyungwe Forest National Park in the southeast.


Lake Kivu, on the western border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, is as close to beach chill as this land-locked country gets. Rural idyll is tempered with three resort towns, the most developed of which is Gisenyi, which makes the most of its sandy shoreline and colonial era hotels.


Nyungwe Forest National Park is the largest area of montane forest remaining in east and central Africa. The park hums and thrums with the din of monkeys and more than 270 bird species.


Go there


Klm ( flies from Dublin to Nairobi via Amsterdam. Kenya Airways ( flies from Nairobi to Kigali. Lufthansa ( flies from Dublin to Addis Ababa, via Frankfurt, continuing to Kigali with Ethiopian Airlines (

Article originally published by The Irish Times

Hiking the Himalayas

Hiking the Himalayas

GO NEPAL: A 300km trek which wraps around the Annapurna Range in western Nepal is considered by many to be one of the finest hikes in the world, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN.

RIVERS CAN’T keep secrets. Over time they spill onto their banks. Even the old dark ones that have remained hidden for centuries.


There’s a river that flows from the upper Mustang region in the Himalayas, known as the Forbidden Kingdom. Having spent almost two weeks hiking in the legendary mountains of Nepal, we stumbled upon its banks and spent a day following its course, scouring its cache for secrets. Coiled ammonites, which had been buried from sight for aeons, lay scattered among the shingle. I found the first fossil, my friend found the most beautiful.


Surrounded by such scenery we took what we could, filling our lungs and stuffing our senses. Scarce believing that we were teetering on the edge of the fabled Tibetan plateau, having scaled the great heights of the Himalayas.

View of the peaks from Manang. Photographer: Will Chin

The Himalayas stir every hiker’s dreams. They sing to us like a siren. There is no other range that can compete in terms of peaks and promises. Even in monsoon season.


I was warned that it wasn’t the best time to tackle the mountains, but I had the chance to try. Like many hikers who know they will never conquer Everest, I was drawn to the peaks in the Annapurna region like a junkie to a methadone clinic.


The Annapurna circuit, a 300km trek which wraps around the Annapurna Range in western Nepal, is considered by many to be one of the finest hikes in the world. It crosses north of the main Himalayan range to the trans-Himalaya on a well developed route that reaches an altitude of 5,416m at the Thorung La pass. The average trekking duration is between 17 and 21 days. My adventure stretched two weeks as I waived-off the final leg in the lower regions, in deference to monsoon and mosquitoes.


My route followed an ancient trading path between Nepal and Tibet which encompasses Annapurna 1 (8,091m), the world’s 10th tallest mountain; the Dhaulagiri massif, another magnificent monster ranking seventh (8,167m); and the boots-on-the-break beautiful Machhapuchchhre peak (6,993m). In terms of mountain lore and legends the circuit surpasses even the most hardened hiker’s expectations.


It was first opened to foreigners in 1977 and has become one of the most popular routes in Nepal. Ascending from 820m it traverses a range of climactic zones from greenhouse humidity to glacial bitterness. The bewildering variety of flora reflects the diversity; while the span of cultures, religions and traditions is almost as diverse.


The path, which is ideally followed anti-clockwise to facilitate the summit ascent, passes through numerous cobbled villages that embrace Hinduism on the lower plains and practice Tibetan Buddhism in the upper reaches. It’s laden with gompas and pilgrimage sites, ancient scrolls and gleaming stupas.


It’s an insight into a world that’s only been open to peeping eyes for 34 years; and a lesson in the power of commerce to accelerate change.

A trekker on the trail to Kagbani. Photographer: Will Chin

We set out from Besisahar, 140km from Kathmandu, at the end of June with reliable rain-jackets and the necessary hiking permits to gain access to the 7,629sq km Annapurna Conservation Area that’s home to the circuit and numerous other routes.


It’s a well worn path, so we decided against a guide and porters, preferring to take our chances and confident that directions and accommodation could be easily found in the villages along the way.


The first few days were spent in a haze of humidity, marvelling over tropical plants, overlooking cultivated plots, resting in the shade of Hindu temples and pausing by secreted, forest alters. Nights were passed in basic, wooden rooms with clean beds and communal solar showers. It rained, the clouds gathered and the peaks teased and hid like peep-show strippers. But we had the trail to ourselves and when the mountains put on their show it was for our pleasure only.

The only other souls on the path were loaded mules clattering across steel suspension bridges that span the Marsyangdi river; road labourers manually carving a new route around the mountains; and local people bent double under impossibly heavy burdens, muscles straining and sinews screaming. I followed slowly in the wake of steel pipes, glass windows, cages of fowl and crates of beer destined for villages many miles along the trail.



The road, which it’s claimed will be completed in 2012, is an issue of great local debate. It will change the lives of the inhabitants immeasurably and hack the face off the scenery indelibly. The tourism industry will respond with day excursions and stylised trips, but the mountain trekker, lured by the Himalayas, will not be seen for the dust of the trucks.


As we travelled higher the Tibetan Buddhist culture became increasingly apparent. Age-worn prayer wheels lined every village, white-washed stupas leaned over every outcrop and colourful prayer flags fluttered off every peak and bridge. The trail became much drier as the full effect of the monsoon was cut off by the Annapurna range. Blue skies and glaciers formed backdrops to crimson-clad monks who spilled down the mountain like drops of blood.


The air also got much thinner. As we reached the village of Manang at 3,570m, altitude headaches were starting to slow me down so we decided to re-charge over a couple of days to acclimatise sufficiently before pushing on to the Thorang La pass. We took a room which stepped onto the first floor roof of the neighbouring building, a perfect deck to watch the shifting light on the magnificent Gangapurna glacier which towers over the town.


It was also an opportunity to observe the changes that tourism has brought to these traditional communities. It wasn’t positive. Accommodation providers, store keepers and restaurant owners all approached the visitor with the opportunism of a swindler with a stolen credit card. Even Buddhist gompas were beginning to extract fees from hikers for crossing their thresholds. Disappointing, certainly. And depressingly predictable. But in the face of such scenery, they were mere irritants. Flies on a summer’s day.


Leaving Manang we trekked steadily upwards, gaining ground and testing stamina before tackling Thorung La in a bitterly cold dawn three days later. Barren scree gave way to a soft covering of snow and a blasting wind. Clouds swirled, but the path was clear and we reached the pinnacle marked by a cairn and bedecked with prayer flags.


A glacier lake dangled like a jewel on a white throat beneath us. Mountains encircled us. For all the temples we had visited in the past days, no deity could have inspired more wonder.


The achievement was gratifying, but the moment was brief. We lingered as long as we could in the frost-bitten world, before setting out on the knee-jerking 1,600m descent to the town of Muktinath, a place held sacred by Tibbetan Buddhists as well as Hindus as it’s home to a holy site revered by both.


It deserves to be worshipped for its location alone as it overlooks the Annapurna range to its south and the Tibetan Plateau to the north. The Buddhists call it Chumig Gyatsa (Hundred Waters); the Hindus have named it Muktichhetra (Place of Salvation). A Buddhist gompa exalts Dakinis, sky dancing goddesses; while a Hindu temple venerates the god Vishnu who, stories tell us, transformed into stones and can now be found as ammonites in the Kali Kandaki river.


Over the next few days as we followed the river’s downward course we passed Sadhus, holy men, who had made the long pilgrimage on foot from India. My two-week sojourn in the mountains withered in the face of their faith.


The landscape also significantly changed. Yak herders gave way to blossoming wheat fields, golden against the white mountains and clear blue skies. We passed through neat villages, some frozen in time, others emerging like islands in the midst of marijuana fields.


My favourite was Kagbani, with its warrens and whispers, perched on the edge of the Kali Kandaki river. The village is the gatekeeper to the Forbidden Kingdom, which was annexed by Nepal in the 18th century; its monarchy dissolved in 2008. This land, which was kept veiled for decades, was finally opened to visitors in 1992. However, travel remains strictly regulated and a special permit is required to pass the threshold.

A Stupa bedecked in Tibetan prayer flags. Photographer: Will Chin

But rivers don’t heed boundaries. Any more than they keep secrets. Old, twisted ammonites that have been hidden for centuries drift past the gatekeeper and are dropped onto the banks. In the Himalayas, it seems nothing is sacred. Even gods lie scattered amongst the smooth black stones.


Annapurna circuit how to . . .


Get there

A number of airlines fly Dublin to Kathmandu, including:;;; and From Kathmandu take a bus to Besisahar, changing at Dumre.


When to go

High season runs from October to November, before the winter snows. But I’ve heard tales of hundreds of trekkers swarming the trail and sleeping on tables in overcrowded accommodation. Monsoon season isn’t ideal, but we practically had the route to ourselves and our pick of beds as most guesthouses were empty.


Where to stay


The Annapurna circuit is a tea-house trail, which means that food and lodging is available along the route. This significantly lightens the load as sleeping bags, tents and provisions can be left behind.


What to bring

Cash: there are no ATMs and no-one’s taking cheques. A mix of clothing: it’s hot, humid and muggy on the lower plains, but once you gain altitude it gets bitterly cold and fresh falls of snow are common in high season. Sunscreen, hat and shades: you’re a helluva lot closer to the sun up there. Altitude medication: the negative effects of altitude should be taken seriously. If impacted severely it’s critical to retreat to a lower elevation.


The trail


It’s easy to navigate the trail. However, if you opt for a guide and porters, trekking companies are two-a-penny in the streets of Thamel in Kathmandu. Ensure in advance that there’s no ambiguity about what’s included in the package – particularly regarding those three square meals.



You will need an Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) permit as well as a Trekkers’ Information Management System (TIMS) card. These can be purchased in Bhrikuti Mandap, a tourist centre a short taxi ride from Thamel. Buy in advance or you’ll be charged double on arrival at the Annapurna Conservation Area.

Article originally published by The Irish Times

Under African Skies

Under African Skies

Most people arrive in Africa full of preconceptions. Best look for the real continent, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN, whose time in Zanzibar prepares her for a trip up Kilimanjaro.

AFRICA HAS been over exploited and over explained – usually in terms of what it is not. It has been described as a dark star and a heart of darkness. It is an absence to be filled and a dilemma to be solved. “The problem with Africa” is a line I heard repeatedly when I arrived in Tanzania.

Every traveller I met carried expectations to the continent and, in some cases, wandered until the Africa they had read about, or seen on the news, was dragged out of hiding. I met Chad, an aid worker who had arrived in northern Tanzania with a pocketful of cash. The project he had signed up for, which provides vocational training for orphaned girls, was not what he had anticipated. “This isn’t Africa as I had pictured it,” he told me. “I want to help, like, starving children.”

Women harvesting seaweed off Jambiani beach, Zanzibar. Photographer: Will Chin

I’m not sure why I wanted to come to Africa so badly. I wasn’t filled with a desire to do good and fix the continent, although my sense of Africa was as constructed as Chad’s. I wanted to make long journeys in bad buses over red-dust roads. I wanted to see the sun rise on Kilimanjaro.


I wanted to look at the women, bright as butterflies, in their colourful khangas. I wanted to get lost, lose track of days and sit by roadsides. And I wanted to follow this adventure with the American I had met on my travels in Latin America, who had already traipsed through the southern region before we met in Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, to begin our travels through eastern Africa.


When I landed in Zanzibar I was greeted by a pack of legitimate drivers and wayward chancers who stalked the doorway, straining to snatch the sun-dazzled travellers. As I was taking stock the man beside me, who was welded into a plastic chair, lazily introduced himself as the head of smuggling, narcotics and international terrorism. He had my attention, and I was in no hurry to face the fray, so I settled my backpack and listened as he chatted about his two wives and six children, the strains of maintaining two houses and his plans to open a hotel.


Tourism is a serious business in Zanzibar, driven by the island’s great beaches, dilapidated Arabic architecture and heady scent of spices. Walking the narrow maze of Stone Town, in Zanzibar City on the western side of the island, I felt I had returned to medieval times, and half expected to see bandits around the next corner, or a bucket of slops to fall on my head. A scent of drama mingled with the smell of barbecued fish as clusters of men gathered in the cool of the evening at Jaws Corner, and an erotic draught of colour escaped from beneath the black shrouds worn by many of the Muslim women.


The conservatism of Stone Town recedes on the beaches that cover the coastline, as does the volume of shady traders slavering for easy dollars – though in Tanzania you are never fully free from either. Wherever I wandered I was followed by the strains of “My friend, my friend, where are you from? What do you need? I can help you, sister.” Most could be shrugged off; others, once it became clear you weren’t going to buy anything, were happy to point you on your way and welcome you to their country. The word karibu – the Swahili for “welcome” – is used liberally and sincerely throughout Tanzania.


I spent a few days on a beach in southeastern Zanzibar called Jambiani. About three kilometres long, and flanked by a village, it is a world away from the full-moon-party exuberance of the northern beaches. Still, it’s a very busy spot. The tide goes out before sunrise, followed by women who harvest seaweed.


The seaweed farms are created by grafting the plant on to string that is wrapped around wooden poles driven into the seabed. The seaweed is collected, dried and then sold to a Japanese-owned factory in the village. The work is back-breaking and the rewards slim. The women receive 150 shillings – less than 10c – for a kilo. The money gives the women a degree of economic independence, however, and often helps improve household comfort.


I loved the pace of Jambiani. The sea went out, the women harvested; the sea came in, the men fished; and all the while children played on the sand. I also ate some wonderful food.


I stumbled on a restaurant overseen by Ailish, a lively man of about 60. As we ate he entertained us with stories of life in Jambiani and the secret of good food and happiness. He is a farmer who met his wife on a neighbouring island. She was smitten by him on sight – or so he told us. “But of course it is much easier for the man to say: I like you, I want to marry you.”


She said yes, and, 26 years later, they have six children. She is clearly loved deeply, and with humour, by her wise husband. He told us that he has just one wife. His eldest daughter is a teacher, his son a policeman. Education, he believes, is very important. So are his wife’s cookery skills.


As we wiped our fingers after the fresh, meaty catch, he seduced us with tales of his dinner earlier that evening. Full as I was, Ailish caught the hungry look in my eye and gave a couple of shillings to some youngsters who materialised from the darkness. They disappeared, returning in time with leftovers from the family’s evening meal of steaming coconut-laced curry. His wife is indeed a wonder, and our host had many, many reasons to be content.

The snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro. Photographer: Will Chin

The ease of Jambiani was a soft introduction to Tanzania. My plan was to soak my mind with sunshine before tackling Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, in the north of the country. It was a crazy idea. I had spent seven months in front of a computer. My body was lazy. So it was with a mixture of grim foolhardiness and the confidence of the ignorant that I headed for Moshi, to start a six-day hike. My fingers began to tingle and my ears popped before we had even reached the entrance to Kilimanjaro National Park. It didn’t bode well.

The first couple of days passed in relative ease, however. I got to know our guide, Joseph, who was saving to send his children to secondary school. I came to recognise our porters, who wore ragged clothes and bounded ahead, carrying over their heads weights that I could not even lift off the ground. And I received daily instruction from our trekking companion, a boy-scout leader and US navy captain who was clearly in his element.


Then day three sneaked up and the route got steeper. One foot in front of the other. The hours passed. It was Monday. Talk of grey gloom and the Irish recession were far from my mind. Joseph chanted “ pole, pole” – “slowly, slowly”. We finally arrived at our camp for the evening, which was in the shadow of the snow-capped summit. It was beautiful. But the peak was really, really high, and I started to feel nervous.


On day four we reached our final camp before the summit assault. We had three hours’ sleep before we awoke in freezing cold to a cup of tea and a couple of biscuits. By midnight I had layered on every piece of clothing I had brought with me, and we set out for Uhuru Peak, Africa’s highest point, at 5,895m above sea level.


As we trekked through the night I heard other hikers softly singing. I was drawn forward by their gentle rhythms, like sirens in the mist. We arrived at the summit at 5.20am. The sun had not yet risen. The wind was whipping. My head was swooning from the altitude, and ice pearls formed on my eyelashes. Joseph had to secure my mittens on my hands, as I could no longer move my fingers. But when I reached the age-beaten sign that marked the end of my journey the geologist grabbed me in a bear hug. “You sure are one intrepid girl,” he boomed. I nearly burst with the euphoria.


I ran down from the summit. I had made it. I could do anything. Running was no bother.

I was at the start of my African adventure, and I had passed the test I had set for myself. I’m still not sure why I climbed Kili, and I’m still not sure if I would do it again. Each night on the trail I was riddled with dreams that whispered of failure. But when I reached the tent after the night ascent I slept deeply.


I woke up no wiser about where my path would lead me as I wandered through Africa with the American. But I was certain I was fit for the journey. I still don’t know what “the problem with Africa” is. But I do know its roads are as dusty as I had imagined, its buses tyre-worn, its drivers even wearier.


Throughout Tanzania I crammed with up to 27 other passengers into Hiace vans that smelled of flesh and diesel and semi-digested food. Yet while sweating on a bus, as I waited for it to fill up before it would move from its sun-roasted spot, I noticed, outside, a boy of about nine with his nose pressed against the window. He had given up trying to sell his cigarettes and was intently watching me. After a time he lost interest and left, but not before planting a kiss on the glass.


My Irish skin, long hair and khaki trousers marked me as just about the oddest thing that many of the people in the villages had seen this past while. There were days when I felt like the Pied Piper as clusters of youngsters giggled in my wake. Many I talked to wanted to be doctors or lawyers when they grew up. Most of the young adults dreamed of going to the US, the land of Obama.


I found myself in the midst of a new life with no guide other than my instincts. Each bend in the road offered another perspective, and every hill was a summit to be conquered as the bus I was on creaked and groaned towards its peak. It was a good life, with no signposts and no rules. I was on the road and in my element.

Where to stay, eat and go

Where to stay

Where to eat

Ngalawa: Zanzibar’s traditional canoe. Photographer: Will Chin

Where to go

Daranji Market. Off Creek Road, Stone Town, Zanzibar City. Pineapples, passion fruit, cinnamon, curry spices, lemon grass and vanilla pods spill off the stalls. Visit early, when the food is at its freshest and the bargaining is in full flight.


Old Slave Market. Stone Town, Zanzibar City. The memorial statue and slave holding cells, under St Monica’s Hostel, are a sobering reminder of the role played by Arabic traders across Africa.


Go there:


Aer Lingus (, British Airways ( and BMI ( fly from Ireland to London Heathrow. Ethiopian Airlines ( flies from Heathrow to Zanzibar via Addis Ababa. ZanAir ( flies from Zanzibar to Arusha, for a bus to Moshi.


Want to climb Kilamanjaro?


The children’s charity Barnardos is hosting a trek up Kilimanjaro in October. To take part, call 01-7080480, text TREK to 51444, e-mail or download a brochure from In the meantime, here are some tips.


Don’t listen to the legends. Yes, it’s hard, but of course you can do it. I met a woman who had scaled the peak to celebrate her 60th birthday.


Do listen to your body. It is impossible to predict how the altitude will effect you. Doing the hike over seven days lets your body adjust. Pack altitude medication as a precaution.


Women, come prepared. Altitude can mess up your menstrual cycle – something neither guidebooks nor your tour operator will tell you.


Bring lots of layers. It may be warm at the base of Kilimanjaro, but the summit is below zero. If you don’t have proper gear, use a guiding company that can provide it.


The meals served by the cook are full of carbohydrates. Eat them even if you’re not hungry, to keep your body fuelled and the cold at bay.


Ensure your boots are well broken in before you set out. Trust me, it’s not the time to test a new pair.

Article originally published by The Irish Times

On the crest of a Mexican wave

On the Crest of a Mexican Wave

Go Mexico: Last year RÓISÍN SORAHAN wrote about leaving her good job and comfortable life to travel through Central and South America. Moving north, to Mexico, she found a fiesta-filled country that puts its best foot forward.

MEXICO LOVES to party. Any excuse and it’s off: no snobbery, social nuances or age restrictions. Everyone is invited.

I set off for the hills to a small town called Capulalpam. My partner and I planned to spend a night there, do a little hiking and visit the local traditional medicine centre. Three nights later and we were loath to leave. I have never come across a village quite like it. It calls itself the pueblo mágico, and, sure enough, there is magic in the air.

This tiny town sways to music. As the sun rises, loudspeakers that tower above the municipal building pour music across the hills. Every home in the village is drenched by the sound. The airs vary from salsa rhythms to religious music and back to mariachi swing.

A boy in traditional costume for the Danza de los Negritos. Photographer: Will Chin

My feet were fairly dancing as I stepped across the flagstones and pulled myself up the hills to a restaurant that served bowls of steaming hot chocolate made with cacao nuts, cinnamon, sugar and almonds.

The town’s music was interrupted by announcements at odd times throughout the day. I could understand only bits and pieces, but most of what I heard had to do with a fiesta that kicked off that day and would run for three days and three nights in honour of St Mateo, the town’s patron saint.

The people had been working feverishly for the fiesta. We stayed in a guest house atop a hill where the señora and her daughters had spent days baking bread and stirring huge cauldrons of mole – a thick, rich, chocolate-based chilli sauce that would be mixed with chicken, wrapped up in tortillas and served to friends, family and stragglers throughout the three-day party.

Everyone we met on the street took the time to greet us, and paused long enough to see if we liked their town and if we would be staying for the fiesta. One woman assured me: “Everyone’s welcome. We don’t care here if they are black, white or yellow!”

During my visit to Capulalpam I trekked in the forests and hunted for mushrooms that have more colours than I have names for. I also had a limpia, an “energy cleansing” ritual conducted by a herbal medicine woman. She brought me into a room where she selected a handful of herbs. Then she filled her mouth with alcohol and spat it on my arms, stomach and back. Afterwards she wiped me down with the herbs and had me blow three times on an egg, which she cracked and placed in a cup of water. She asked me to close my eyes, so she could “cleanse my aura” with the herbs. Then she put them on the floor so I could wipe my feet on them. The bad energy in my body had now moved to the egg, she said.

In other villages I watched cleansings taking place in churches where Mayan and Catholic traditions have merged. Shamans perform these rituals using live chickens to “take on” the negative energies. The bird is sacrificed at the end of the ceremony.

My somewhat tamer experience in the traditional medicine centre was topped off by a temazcal, or sweat bath. We went into a brick room each armed with a handful of stalks. As the fire heated the room – the medicine woman had been stoking the fire long before our arrival – we swatted ourselves and each other and sweated profusely for about 30 minutes. Afterwards we wrapped up in sheets and let our medicine mama tuck us up in bed under a nest of blankets. She came back with sweet herbal tea and instructed us to rest. We drifted off to sleep, drying off and cooling down under the blankets. We just about managed to rouse ourselves with the promise of a bowl of hot chocolate up the hill.

By noon on Saturday the loudspeakers had been turned down and the music was replaced by the sound of the local children’s big band warming up for the parade. We had heard them practise the night before as we wandered past the school. One of the mothers noticed our interest, ran after us and invited us to stay and enjoy the music.

The children’s parade, which marked the start of the festivities, left from the church in the early evening. From what I could tell just about every family in the village was represented. They followed a float bearing a figure of St Mateo, and everyone carried baskets of flowers, huge coloured balls that danced aloft on sticks and papier-mache figures that had been made in classrooms, kitchens and outhouses the length and breadth of the countryside.

The parade snaked through every street in the village until it came to rest in front of the municipal building, where the artistry was judged and prizes awarded. Afterwards, sleepyheads were carried home and the adults came out to play.

Dancers in Cuernavaca. Photographer: Will Chin

Throughout our travels in Mexico I stumbled on a number of fiestas, whose purposes ranged from honouring patron saints to marking the start of the coffee harvest and ringing the bells to celebrate, once again, the country’s proud independence.

I also came across ancient rituals openly practised in candle-lit corners. I visited a town renowned for its annual witches’ gathering. Old wisdom that had been handed down through generations sat side by side with modern practices. I met people who respected plants and trees not only for their beauty but also for their healing functions. I drank in juice bars where two menus lined the wall – the fruity version and the healing version, catering for everything from sinus problems to gout and infertility.

What struck me most in Mexico, however, was the country’s capacity to shrug off its worries about its teetering economy and shattered reputation. It is a lesson in presenting your best face and ensuring there’s a fancy frock in the wardrobe even if the day clothes are in tatters.

Mexico wears a smile. And it means it. No matter what time of the year you visit, a party is sure to be starting. The sun will warm your days, your nights will be filled with fireworks and stars, and there will be magic in the air.

Go there

British Airways ( flies to Mexico City via London Heathrow, Air France ( flies via Paris Charles de Gaulle, Continental ( flies via Newark and KLM ( flies via Amsterdam. Mexicana ( and Aeroméxico ( fly within Mexico.

Yum: salsa with everything

Make it social
You eat Mexican food slowly and with relish, downing it with conversation and beer. Food is celebrated, feasted on and revelled over. It is an inherent part of the Mexican psyche, perhaps even rivalling the Italians for their love of the family dinner gathering, which is always large enough to accommodate every distant relative – no matter how small the table.

Spice it up
Salsa is at soul of every Mexican meal. Chilli peppers, of varying degrees of hotness, are mixed in myriad ways. To the Irish tongue they’re all roaring.

Folded tortillas wrapped around cheese and placed on the griddle are perfect for breakfast or lunch or as a snack at any time of the day. More exciting versions can include anything from mushrooms to beans – served, of course, with a little salsa.

Baguette is crusty on the outside and light on the inside, so it’s perfect for soaking up that guacamole mix and spicy salsa dressing that drenches chunks of your favourite meat filling.

A basket made from baked or fried tortillas is filled with a pile of toppings. My favourites include chicken, lettuce, beetroot, shaved carrot and, you’ve guessed it, salsa.

There’s no good reason to drink a bad cup of coffee in Mexico. Step away from the jar of Nescafé and get a whiff of those gorgeous Chiapas beans.

It’s the real deal in Mexico. Cacao nut, laced with sugar, rich with cinnamon and crushed almonds. Melt a couple of bars in a bowl of milk and purr.

Where to stay

Hostal San George
. Guadalupe Victoria 26, Col Centro, Morelia, Michoacan, 00-52-443-3124610. The rooms are stuffy, and most face on to an inner corridor. But it’s a reasonable budget option catering mainly for Mexicans.

Posada el Mirador
. Brasil 1, Capulalpam, Oaxaca, 00-52-951-5392095. Overlooking the hills, it’s worth it for the views alone. The rooms are basic but clean, and the family is welcoming.

Posada Del Abuelito
. Calle Tapachula 18, Barrio El Cerrillo, San Cristóbal, Chiapas. Tastefully renovated rooms of varying sizes around a central courtyard. Competitively priced for frugal travellers.

El Jaguar
. Carretera Palenque-Ruinas, Chiapas, 00-52-916-3418209, The peace of the jungle was disturbed only by howler monkeys and a lively creek that runs through the grounds. The pretty cabins are all well fitted with mosquito screens; some have verandas and en-suite bathrooms.

Hotel Las Brisas
. Avenue Carranza 3, Boettiger, Catemaco, Veracruz, 00-52-294-9430057. Nicely situated, with lovely views from the rooftop terrace. The rooms are impersonal, however, and those at the back a little dark.

Hotel Posada La

. Calle Guerrero 31, Col Centro, Cuetzalan Puebla, 00-52-233-3310085. On one of the many cobblestone hills in this gorgeous mountain village. The rooms are basic, clean and comfortable.

Hotel San Antonio
. 2a Callejón, 5 de Mayo 29 (between Isabel La Catolica and Palmas), Mexico City. 00-52-55-55181625, Five minutes walk from the zócalo, or plaza, in the Centro Histórico, this is a great budget option. What it lacks in charm it makes up for in location, comfort and security.
is a good one-stop-shop for budget accommodation.


Where I went: my journey from Guadalajara to Mexico City


It’s the home of mariachi music – and musicians hang out in full sombrero regalia, waiting for work on Mariachi Plaza. If you can drag yourself from the music, Instituto Cultural de Cabañas hosts magnificent murals by José Clemente Orozco.


Museums, murals, art galleries, magnificent brickwork, theatres and street drama tumble over each other. The air in Morelia is thick with mariachi music, and bodies in the parks at night burst from their skins as they sway and finally give in to the dance.


This was the glamorous face of central Mexico, where high society escaped for its year-round warmth and attractive architecture. Today it’s fairly pedestrian, with a spreading waistline.


It’s an easy day trip from Cuernavaca to this Mecca for New Age folk, who probe Tepoztlan’s “energy”. A pyramid that supports a temple dedicated to the god Tepoztecatl stands on a cliff overlooking the town. It’s a hefty two and a half kilometre hike to the top, but it’s worth every ragged breath.


A jewellery lover’s dream. Almost everyone in the town is in some way employed by its thriving silver industry. Stalls of high-quality silver line the streets, and bangles, pendants, rings and ear-rings spill over their edges like an abundant farmers’ market. Silver aside, it’s a treat to visit. It has a picture-perfect central plaza and gorgeous cathedral encircled by steep cobbled streets.

Plaza in Morelia. Photographer: Will Chin


Oaxaca is tattooed into the gringo trail for a very good reason. As well as being an ideally located staging point for exploring the villages in the surrounding hills, it has magnificent colonial architecture, a vibrant cultural life and ancient ruins within day- tripping distance.


One of dozens of engaging villages in the mountainous region of Oaxaca state, where old beliefs and value systems have been least diluted. Community tourism, as in other such villages, focuses on ecotourism and traditional medicines. Cleansings and temazcals are easy to organise at the traditional medicine centre.

San Cristóbal

Travellers are drawn here for its lovely highland location and indigenous traditions. It is also one of the main trading posts for renowned Chiapas amber.

San Juan Chamula

Most people visit this unassuming Tzotzil town as part of a day trip from San Cristóbal. The inhabitants have retained a hybrid of Catholic teaching and indigenous practices. The church is a mesmerising peephole into beliefs that have been held on to by sheer force of will in the face of a rapidly modernising country. Makeshift altars cover the floor, and hundreds of candles burn as shamans lead cleansing rituals.


If you have the appetite for a few more ruins, these classic Mayan sites, which are located on the border with Guatemala, make a wonderful guided day trip from Palenque. The approach to Yaxchilán, accessible only by river boat, is fantastic.


The risk of ruin fatigue is high in Mexico, but even the most jaded visitor will be impressed by Palenque’s Mayan magnificence. Pyramid temples, crumbling stones and creeping vines awaken the Indiana Jones in all of us.


Hundreds of witches, shamans and healers gather in Catemaco on the first Friday in March for a mass cleansing ceremony.


It’s off the beach-bum track, but the sea was warm, the grey-sand beach was almost deserted and pelicans dipped their beaks and skimmed the water a hand’s reach from me.


The plazas are among the most beautiful I saw in Mexico. The broad streets and colonial-style houses deserve their Unesco heritage status. The river adds to the picturesque haze. But, Lord, it was hot.

Cuetzalan (via Puebla)

The drive from Puebla to Cuetzalan is gorgeous and the destination did not disappoint. It’s a remote, mountainous town, with desperately steep cobbled streets. It is famed for its festivals and Sunday market.

Mexico City

Mexico City can be whatever you’re looking for. Culture hounds can pore over Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s paintings, murals and tempestuous relationship. History buffs can get lost in the Museo Nacional de Antropología. Foodies can roam between taco stands and top-class kitchens. The dark side of the city is also apparent in its street life and in its art: police corruption, murder and other horrors are depicted in a riveting mural by Rafael Cauduro at the supreme court.

Article originally published by The Irish Times