A Swedish pigeon’s perspective

Slussen as seen on rooftop tour in Stockholm

Slussen from the rooftops

I gaze down on Stockholm from a giddy height. I’m feeling uneasy having been abruptly struck with vertigo, so I’m not feeling too good although I’m securely clipped to a safety wire.

Along with a five other people I’m standing on a narrow steel walkway encircling the roof of Stockholm’s criminal court and the adjacent old parliament building on the island of Riddarholmen. I have a unique pigeon’s eye view of Sweden’s capital city although my sudden nausea threatens to swamp the serendipity of the moment.

Roottop tour guide Elias Drakenberg chats with tour participantI steady myself with some deep breaths, relax my grip on the handrail and focus on the ancient shingles of a nearby rooftop. Our guide EliasElias Drakenberg is telling us about an ever-shifting Stockholm.

Much like Venice, this fascinating city is built on many islands – 14 in total – and is forever, subtly, on the move in tectonic terms. That’s why the precinct called Slussen that we see below us must undergo extensive reconstruction.

Slussen is a complex concrete network of roads and railway bridges linking the city centre the neighbouring island of Sodermalm. Roads and rail tracks are built over a lock that links the Baltic Sea with Lake Malaren.

Elias points to a whirlpool swirling in the water beneath the railway bridge. “See where the water disappears beneath the city,” he says. The whole of Slussen needs to be re-engineered, a project that’s causing considerable civic consternation. 

Gamla Stan as seen on Stockholm roof top tour

Gamla Stan seen from the rooftops

I take another deep breath and we continue our tour, which lasts about 45 minutes. In our safety helmets and full-body harness we are clipped to a steel wire throughout the entire experience.

Halfway through the experience we clamber off a roof into a tower and inside find a cosy room with views of Lake Malaren and Slussen. Elias tells us this room is a welcome hot chocolate pit stop when it’s snowing. The rooftop tour runs year-round, rain or shine, only ever cancelled when it’s too cold for comfort.

Riddarholmen ChurchOur aerial adventure takes us beside the lofty spires of adjacent Riddarholmen Church. Elias points out the towers in which Swedish royalty are buried. We have fabulous views and frequently pause to hear more about city history and landmark buildings we can see in adjacent Gamla Stan (Old Town).

The final stretch sees us traverse the topmost ridge of the court building with no handholds. “You’ll feel heroic afterwards,” says Elias encouragingly.

The rooftop tour is the only chance for such a unique perspective on Stockholm. Although I’ve flunked the bravado test my short time spent “aloft” like a Swedish pigeon is, if you will pardon the pun, the high point of my city visit.

All the info about the Stockholm Rooftop Tour 

Chengdu’s cuddle factor

IMG_0059Chengdu does not rank yet as one of China’s top tier cities yet I’d say it can definitely claim bragging rights in any rating of the country’s myriad tourist attractions.

While in the capital of Sichuan province I’m all to easily and swiftly seduced by utterly adorable creatures.

A few kilometres from town is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding – more simply known as Chengdu Panda Base. This is the best place in the world to get up close to these cute and cuddly-looking bamboo munchers. Cough up a couple of hundred dollars and you can even have big black and white squat momentarily on your lap for a prized photo.

Giant pandas are an endangered species. They’re only found in remote areas of the provinces of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu and current estimates suggest between 1600 and 2000 exist in the wild. Approximately another 300 giant pandas live in captivity in China and in zoos in various other countries.

IMG_0072Chengdu Panda Base is the number one attraction for millions of domestic and foreign tourists who visit Sichuan each year and it’s easy to see why. Apart from seeing more giant pandas here than you can anywhere else the base is also home to red pandas. These creatures are also fascinating but they simply don’t have the pulling power of the tubby species.

The Chengdu pandas inhabit spacious, forested enclosures set within a large landscaped park. Dense groves of shady bamboo form natural arbours shading the winding paths between the enclosures. The prospect of seeing pandas up close while also enjoying cool, shady escape from the noisy streets of the city is what makes the Panda Base such an irresistible drawcard.

While here I see a new arrival, a female cub born to the panda called Yuan Yuan. Lying in an incubator, the tiny, pink, hairless, blind creature looks nothing like the magnificent animal and national treasure it will become. But it’s the latest triumph in the ongoing program to secure the pandas’ future. Chengdu has already made its first steps in returning artificially-bred pandas into the wild.


Too close for comfort in Ethiopia

ethiopia_mapThe Ras Hotel, near the gates of the ancient walled city of Harar in Ethiopia, ranks among the worst hotel stays of my travels. But this statement must be taken in the context of the perils involved in getting there.

We arrive late in the eastern Ethiopian city of Dire Dawa and finding a 50km onward ride to Harar is problematic as no one wants to leave town at sundown. But we have rooms booked at The Ras and our schedule is tight.

By flashing enough cash we flush out a driver called Desta who takes our money while warning of roadblocks by both army and local brigands. My travel companion Michael is battling a stomach ailment and hardly cares. He collapses onto the taxi’s back seat.

“Okay,” I say jauntily, feigning Dutch courage as I climb into the front. “I’ll stay awake and see who kills us.”

The ramshackle Peugeot 404’s headlights cast a woeful beam on the dirt road ahead. Desta ignores my attempt to chat and instead stares ahead in deep concentration. I hear Michael muttering in feverish sleep. Suddenly a group of men appear from the surrounding darkness, straddle the road ahead and wave us down. They’re wearing civilian clothes and a few have AK47s slung over their shoulders.

ethiopia man and gun

Hotel guard, Harar

Three of the men approach our car and glare through the windscreen, no doubt surprised to see a foreigner. Winding down his window Desta leans out and starts chattering nervously as the men encircle the car. One of them opens a rear door to study a comatose Michael. There’s more talk from Desta before he hands over a fistful of local currency. Soon as we’re on our way again. He gives me a dark, angry look. “Very bad,” he says. “Very lucky”.

Twenty minutes later we hit another roadblock, this time manned by guys in tattered khaki shorts and threadbare shirts. I see a couple of ancient rifles and, more chillingly, hefty pangas glinting in the beam of the headlights.

I sit frozen as this group surrounds the car. There are shouts and Desta kills the engine, then steps out of the car.  There’s a clammy sweat on my face and a prickling down my back. Michael is still prone but now wide-eyed. He asks where we are. In deepest shit, I reply grimly.

Desta gets back in the car, gestures that I must open my window and a grimy, brutal-looking face appears before me. My heart is racing. The man studies me for a moment then barks, “Twenny dollar!” There’s no argument from me. I fish a couple of $10 notes from my pocket and hand them over. “Him too,” he says, flicking bloodshot eyes towards Michael. More cash is handed over and the face disappears.

Immediately Desta starts the car, guns the motor and we hurtle into the Ethiopian night. I feel lightheaded at our narrow escape. Desta is shaking his head, muttering to himself.


The Ras Hotel

We reach Harar without further misadventure. Checking into the old, ramshackle Ras Hotel I don’t care one jot that Michael gets the best room or that mine is tiny and grim in comparison, lit by a solitary naked five-watt bulb. Neither  do I care there’s been no water for several days and all the toilets are blocked. Who gives a damn about five star? I’m just glad to be alive.

A night of perfection in Pauillac

lafite 2 From a dark corner of my humble cellar-under-the-stairs I carefully pick up the Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1985 and carry it upstairs. I’m fearful it may not live up to expectations, having been moved more than once including a change in homes. But then, if I never open it I’ll never know. And what’s the point of having a bottle of fine wine other than drinking it?

This precious bottle, now worth an estimated $500, was a gift from Baron Eric de Rothschild himself, presented to me as I left the Bordeaux chateau at the close of the most amazing wine night of my life.

In the space of a few hours, in the august company of the baron, other Bordeaux luminaries and a coterie of owners, managers and sommeliers from top restaurants in Paris, I’d feasted royally in Chateau Lafite’s superb underground cellars and sampled the finest array of top French wines that I’m ever likely to taste.

cellarBefore we sat down to eat Baron Eric had led us through the estate’s oldest cellars where racks hold vintages of Lafite dating back more than a century, the sight of which prompted gasps of passion all round. Nobody does the act of homage quite like the French.

Dinner was many dishes, each served with a different vintage of Lafite. Meanwhile, other great wines of the Medoc were being freely dispensed from tables set up around the circular cellar. Between courses we roamed among these tables sampling whichever wine we fancied. It was a phenomenal affair.

I tasted Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild, Palmer  and Pichon-Longueville, then moved on to Leoville Barton, Latour and Margaux. The evening climaxed with the serving of Lafite 1959, poured from magnums left untouched in these cellars for decades.

Lafite lableMy only possible regret about this singular experience is tasting so many incredible wines in just one night. Given the choice I’d have opted to stretch my Bordeaux blitz across my lifetime.

I intended saving my gift for a significant occasion yet suitable moments had come and gone and here it still was unopened.

Enough is enough! Carefully I ease the cork from the neck and notice with joy that it’s still pretty much intact. I allow the bottle to stand for a couple of hours then gingerly pour the first splash.

The wine is deep purple and has that reddish brown tinge from age. The aroma is slight, mere suggestions of wood, leather and plum. I take my first sip and instantly I get the message in the bottle – a trifle past its prime. It’s enjoyable but no longer spectacular, the lesson being never leave a wine too long.

Nevertheless, my gift bottle of Lafite does retain hints of the magic of that one night of perfection in Pauillac. As Baron Eric told me: “Whenever you open a Lafite, it is a special occasion”.

A star-splashed land of ice and fire

There can be few places on earth where active volcanoes, sea and snow can all be part of your day. On the Big Island of Hawai’i I plunge into the surf before breakfast, get up close to glowing molten lava after lunch and, after a freezing excursion to the summit, I have dinner on the slopes of mighty Mauna Kea.

Mauna Kea telescopes – spectacular but icy

From its 14,000ft summit, surrounded by snow and wearing chunky parka, gloves and balaclava for protection against a biting wind, I can just see the Waikoloa beach where I’d basked in warm sunshine earlier in the day.

The Big Island (Hawai’i by its real name) has the most action-packed diversity of all the fair islands in the Hawaiian chain. It’s both the youngest and largest archipelago island and a place where real estate simply, albeit ever so slowly,  keeps on expanding.

Off the Big Island’s south east coast a new island called Lo’ihi is forming below the ocean and is expected to appear above the surface in about 10,000 years.

The Big Island has five  volcanoes, two extinct, one dormant and the other two active. Kilauea has been erupting constantly for more than 20 years and regularly spews molten lava across the island’s south. Mauna Loa is also active but last erupted 28 years ago. It’s the world’s largest volcano.

chopper BI

Not surprisingly the biggest island attraction is Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. At certain times you can watch red hot lava plunging directly into the sea, although the steam produced by this primordial spectacle often obscures the view.

A helicopter ride above the lava flows is the perfect way of understanding this extraordinary landscape. Driving through the park is equally fascinating.

As if all these spectacular attractions aren’t enough the Big Island also has superb scuba and snorkelling – and unrivalled stargazing.

volcano BI

Don’t miss seeing the volcanoes from the air

An array of 13 international telescopes populate Mauna Kea’s summit. Two gleaming domes protect the twin 10m Kecks, the world’s biggest optical and infrared telescopes. Another dome houses the Subaru Telescope, the only summit telescope open to the public.

Half way up the mountain is the Onizuka Visitor Centre, named for Hawaiian astronaut Ellison Onizuka who died in the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. It has a couple of telescopes for public viewing. This same day I’m on Mauna Kea a local amateur astronomy group is holding its monthly gathering so I get to peer through a variety of expensive telescopes at heavenly attractions such as the Rings of Saturn, star clusters, nebulae and our nearest galaxy, Andromeda.

# Although I’m never going to summit Mount Everest I enjoy a fractionally smug satisfaction knowing I’ve been to the top of Mauna Kea. It’s more than 33, 000ft (10,000m) when measured from its base on the ocean floor and it’s also bigger in volume than Everest. Mine is a patently feeble boast, but there you have it ….

Click here for a guide to the Hawaiian Islands