Getting my Hands Dirty

It was just like a science lesson – at least that’s what I kept telling myself. I was hunched over a dead wildebeest cutting off its hind leg with a pocket knife. It was a long process but there were five hungry lions that needed to be fed. They were living in a boma and couldn’t fend for themselves.


Piece by piece, the big beast was thrown over the electric fence. The lions shot out from under the trees and dragged the fresh meat back to their hiding place. There were fights of course, but they were full. This is the dirty side of the volunteer work in Kwa Zulu Natal.


A few days later, the lions were released from the enclosure and the clean up operation began. It was a bit like cleaning up after your own cat, but with big bones scattered around the place too. Then came the grass cutting, paying particular attention to the electric fence which had been helpfully turned off. No machinery here – just scythes and machetes. Unsurprisingly, I’d never used a machete before I started this project. Now, it’s routine. What is surprising, is that I haven’t seriously injured myself.


It’s a handy tool to help get rid of this stuff. Chromolaena looks pretty, but it’s a pest. It originally came over in animal feed from South America and has spread. It stops indigenous species from growing and it’s flammable – an unwelcome addition to the bushland that’s susceptible to forest fires.


Every week, we dodge the spiders, ticks and thorns to pull it out by the roots. It’s a hard job. We all hate it! Yet the dirty work does have its rewards.


This is a crèche we’ve been helping to refurbish in the nearby town of Mange. Mixing cement by hand in 30c temperatures wasn’t easy, so being stopped by local children who wanted to play, was a welcome distraction.


The crèche is run by local women to educate small children – some of whom have been orphaned. Our cement path was just a minor improvement, but it put a huge smile on our tired faces.

A Different Kind of Christmas

I was staring across the valley, taking in the thousands of acres of beautiful bushland we’d been exploring the day before.


I’d finally arrived in South Africa. Elephants roam these hillsides and I was scanning every gap in the acacia trees to see if I could spot them. This was my Christmas Eve. I was just thinking how lucky I was, when somebody called my name. It was my turn to put an impala dropping in my mouth and shoot it as far as I could.

I’m volunteering as a researcher in Kwa Zulu Natal with It’s detailed work and it’s fascinating work. Did you know that leopards smell like buttery popcorn? Me neither. The idea is to monitor the Big Five for conservation purposes. Most days involve a three hour game drive across the Thanda reserve. Using GPS and identification kits, we log the movements of every single animal. Some are identified by the notches in their ears, some are identified by their whisker patterns.


Imagine the triangles above are a lion’s nose. The two lines on either side are the top two rows of whiskers. The circles show the whisker dots and the ovals show the smudges. We even monitor the lion’s behaviour every two minutes. Has it greeted the others? Is it playing with them? Is it grooming itself? There’s a reason for this. Some of their parents were brought up in captivity and we need to know if that’s affected the way they live.


On Christmas Day, we came across Skhondla Khondla. He’s a bruiser isn’t he? He was brought in to the northern part of the reserve to rehabilitate the lion population. Sadly, that means the male cub there will probably be killed – he’s the offspring from a previous male and won’t be tolerated.


Conservationists here say around one thousand rhino have been killed in South Africa over the past year alone. That’s because in some parts of the world, their horns are believed to be a cure for almost anything – indigestion, low libido and even cancer. Rhino horn is also used for jewellery and is said to be more expensive per gram than gold. Around 85% of people living in this region are unemployed. Poaching is inevitable. Monitoring them is essential.

imageChristmas Day was also special because I finally met the mammals I was searching for the day before. It involved a close inspection from Sawubona. His name means ‘hello’ in Zulu and that’s exactly what he does:

We’re keeping an eye on the elephants because some of the cows are on the immunocontraceptive PZP to try and stabilise the population. So, if there are no new calves coming in, how does that affect the existing ones? Are they being spoiled? Are the cows getting distressed because they’re not getting pregnant?

I’m staying here for a month and every day I’m surprised and informed. Sometimes, not in a good way. I’ve bumped into a baby boomslang and woken up to find a scorpion on my leg, but even that has it’s upside – I have a genuine fear of spiders and those bath dwelling beasties back home don’t seem half as scary now.

Chocolate Penguins – it must be Belgium

I’ve lived in Brussels as a student, au pair and civil servant. This part of the trip has been less about exploring and more about late nights and long chats with old friends. Here’s a Top Ten of things I like about the city I used to call home.


If you can’t afford the antiques, you can always afford a coffee




Browse before brunch below the Palais de Justice




Great atmosphere at some of the city’s best delis



Its beautiful. Better at night having a drink on a terrace







So many brands, so many tastes, so very tempted to dive into these penguins



Always good for a bit of Bosch and Brueghel







Waffles and frites at every corner. There’s a good pitta street near the Grand Place too



Few houses in the city look the same








Never disappointed – there’s always a treat



They can look like bottles of whisky and are produced with the same amount of care. Over one thousand to try – next trip perhaps


Magical Copenhagen

I had a good feeling about Copenhagen when I stepped off the train and heard hundreds of people laughing hysterically. I looked up and spotted Tivoli the second oldest amusement park in the world. “This really is a fairytale city” I thought to myself. (The birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen even has love hearts on its coins). Filled with this good feeling, I happily made my way to the hostel. Like a child getting the bus home from school, I even counted the stops as I was told to – one, two. I jumped off and found myself outside Christiansborg “Borgen” Palace. Image Following the Swedish yacht incident, I’d got used to a little luxury, but this didn’t feel quite right. A passer-by then pointed me towards a long shopping street. In fact, Strøget is the longest shopping street in Europe. With nineteen kilos on my back, it felt like the longest shopping street in Europe. After fifteen minutes, I’d arrived. There were Christmas carols, candles and Carlsberg. There were people laughing again. But once upstairs, I found myself in a locked room, on a cold bunk bed, staring at a list of rules on the wall. Was I in a prison? The next morning, I got up early to try and rekindle the magic feeling I’d felt the night before. I wanted fairylights, towers and Danish pastries – but the door to the bar was locked. I was stuck in a corridor. It really was a prison. The reason? I was just too early. After my release, I had a Sunday morning stroll through the grounds of Rosenborg Castle

and had breakfast at the Torvehallerne indoor markets.
I then walked back down to the canals and past the brightly coloured buildings on Nyhavn. Image
I carried on towards the harbour and in the distance, I spotted her. The Little Mermaid is one hundred years old this year. I don’t care that she’s considered ‘touristy’ – I think she looks lovely. But even this iconic fairytale figure has been decapitated and drawn on. That’s the thing about this magical city – you don’t expect things to go wrong and you’re surprised when they do.
Little Mermaid

The Journey Begins

“It’s like the Hobbit leaving The Shire” – that’s how one friend described my first stop and they were exactly right! I’m very close to my relatives in Ireland. I’m also close to their local stout. It was the perfect combination to start a short trip around Europe saying goodbye to family and friends. One of my favourite places is Strandhill in Co Sligo.
We’ve walked this beach on St Stephen’s Day and watched the hunt. It’s usually rounded off with a glass of the black stuff at the local pub, with the hounds running around our feet. This time, the beach was practically empty, but even that didn’t entice a curious seal closer to the shoreline – perhaps it was warmer in the sea.

Sweden is my current resting place and I’ve discovered something alarming about planning world trips months in advance – you forget the detail. I told my friends I was staying on ‘a boat’ in Stockholm. I don’t remember it being a yacht once owned by the Woolworth Millionairess Barbara Hutton.

One of her seven husbands was Cary Grant and the vessel, now known as was a birthday present from her father. As her expensive heels once graced the gangplank, my worn walking boots stomped down it and I headed towards the cobbled streets of Gamla Stan. I stopped at the Christmas Market at Stortorget and carried on down to the Royal Palace The Royal Palace
and Parliament building – the architecture around Norrbro/Strömgatan/Skeppsholmsbron is stunning. If Ms Hutton was still with us, she may well have employed the services of the fine food merchants at this fantastic hall

Ostermalms Saluhall
Being of more modest means, I settled for a coffee and a cinnamon roll. I then entered the brilliantly weird world of Cindy Sherman at the which got me in the mood for the boho streets of Södermalm. After sampling a herringburger at Nystekt Strömming, I ended up at Mellqvist Kaffebar. The coffee was delicious and the music was cool – I know that, because I didn’t recognise it. Someone told me it’s where Stieg Larsson used to hang out. I think that’s pretty cool?