In 2002, the BBC aired a programme entitled “Fifty places to see before you die.” The fifty places were voted for by the British public, and were shown in the order of number of votes for each place. These consisted of countries, natural sites, and buildings, and were located all over the world although, rather surprisingly, none of them were in the UK. I watched the programme with intrigue, to see which location would come first and also to see how many of the fifty sites we had already visited. Quite a few were already under our belt — bought the T-shirt, read the book, and had the photos to prove that we had been there. I was bewildered at how some of the locations had made it into the top fifty, but most of them were either already on my wish list or, after seeing this programme, were being jotted down as we watched! At that moment I decided to set this as our target for travel over the next few years, and from then on, most of the holidays that I booked were aimed at trying to tick off another location from the list.
Not every holiday covered the fifty places, as we still travelled to many other countries that included natural sites and buildings that were not included on the list, like Inle Lake in Myanmar, the Northern Lights in Norway and Kyoto in Japan. We also saw a lot more of a country than just the single site mentioned in the programme. As a result of this, not only have we seen all of the fifty places, some of them several times over; but we have also visited over a hundred countries in the process.
The list is still available on the internet, but there have been some small changes. For example, instead of Disney World, it shows Florida and instead of Lake Louise, it is now listed as the Rockies. My journey has been true to the original list that was shown in the programme, aired by the BBC, which has been burnt into my memory over the years and I can now recite the fifty, not in the right order, but I know every place by heart.
But my story does not actually start in 2002. It starts three years earlier in Venezuela when we ticked off the first of the fifty that we saw together. One of the key facts about achieving this list is that, not only have we seen all fifty places, but, we have seen all of them together. This is our story, not just a travel journal. I hope that this will be a tale of commitment and perseverance, showing that whatever it is that you set your mind to, if you are determined enough to achieve your dreams and goals, then there is nothing stopping you!
This book shows each of the places in the order that we saw them in since we had met. Some holidays enabled us to tick off several sites from the list at the same time. Each chapter details the place, the year that we saw it and the position it appears on the list of the fifty. I have included details of other sites in the area that may be of interest to anyone wanting to follow the same journey, as it is an interesting one!
This is not meant to be a guidebook: it is a personal travel journal. Since before Richard and I met, I have kept travel diaries and I have referred back to these for the inspiration I needed to write this book. I have included quite a lot of information about the places that we have visited, which has not all come from memory or from my diaries, but also from some additional research. Most of the information is personal and expressed from the heart. Where I have used Internet facts I have shown the source from which they were gathered.
Just a little explanation for the subtitle – My story, our journey, your itinerary! The first part is self-explanatory – I am telling my story from the diaries that I have written during my travels over the years. Our journey is referring to the fact that Richard and I have seen all the fifty places together since we met in August 2000. And finally, as the fifty places were chosen for the BBC by votes from the British public, then it is you who had decided on the places that we would visit, so it is actually your itinerary.
Angel Falls, Venezuela (47) – August 2000
I have to start my story here, as it is where Richard and I had met, and it is the first on the list that we both saw together. It was the first time in South America for both of us and the trip was an amazing one. It was run by Sovereign Small World and was aimed at both single travellers and groups. The actual tour was entitled “The Lost World of Conan Doyle”, as we would go to see the tepuis that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write this book of dinosaurs and cavemen lost in the midst of time on top of these huge monoliths. Both Richard and I were amongst the four single travellers; there were two couples and a group of four ladies who made up our tour group of twelve.
Our journey started with a flight from Gatwick to Margarita Island where we stayed for one night before we flew to Puerto Ordaz on the mainland of Venezuela. The flight to the mainland was an adventure in itself—there were thirteen of us including our guide, Morton, and we were all squeezed into a small Cessna-type plane to make the crossing, which took a couple of hours. During our flight, it started to rain very heavily and you could see it pelting down onto the Orinoco River, which we could see way below us. There was lightning too, which made it a rather frightening experience. Richard was sitting behind the pilot and he told me later that the pilot was battling with the controls to try and keep the plane stable and in a straight line, as we headed for the runway. To say it was a relief when we landed in one piece was an understatement!
The hotel at Puerto Ordaz was very basic but clean and the food served that evening was pleasant. One thing that we did notice with all our hotels during the trip to Venezuela was the high walls and gates that surrounded the compounds. This stopped us from going out, but also kept us safe, by not letting anyone else in when the gates closed each night after we had returned from our tour. It was only when we were on holiday that we found out just how dangerous Venezuela was at that time; due to gang warfare as a result of the ruling President imprisoning the previous gang-leaders/drug barons, and now the other minor gang members were trying to get control of the illegal underworld. However, we never felt at threat or scared during the whole holiday, none of these problems affected us at all.
On our first full day in Venezuela our little group went to the banks of the Orinoco where we visited two forts built in the 1600s. These were both attacked by that famous pirate – Sir Walter Raleigh! These were the words of our guide, a Venezuelan. In England, Sir Walter Raleigh is a hero, not a pirate—it just goes to show how history is written as in the eyes of the victor and not that of the vanquished.
We then headed out onto the Orinoco Delta on a boat, where we went piranha fishing. Nobody caught one except for the guide, and we suspected that he was dragging a dead fish behind him during the whole trip, to be able to produce it if no-one was lucky enough with their endeavours! We were then informed that we were going to have a picnic on the Orinoco. The boat we were in was quite small and only big enough for the twelve people in our group, Morton and the boatman. It certainly did not offer a lot of room for us to eat in comfort. To our surprise, we stopped at a huge rock in the middle of the river and we all climbed ashore onto the rock, where we proceeded to have an excellent picnic with wine and beers. It was quite an experience and one of those events that will stay with you forever. We watched as other boats sped past us and waved to the bewildered passengers.
When the boat trip was over, we boarded our coach for the drive back to our hotel and this was the first time that we were given the local drink as a sundowner—Cuba Libre! It is a mix of dark rum, Coca-Cola and a slice of lime. I didn’t like it very much as it was strong and, at that time, my preferred choice was vodka. But it was complimentary and after a long, hot day on the river, it was refreshing.
The next day we were taken to Cachamay Park for our breakfast. We were seated in a small restaurant facing the most amazing waterfall on the Caroni River, which was truly spectacular—breakfast was good too!
We walked through the Loefling Park which included a small zoo, where we got to see a jaguar as well as the Orinoco crocodile, giant sea otter and a caiman. We continued our journey into the Gran Sabana, a long drive, but we stopped for our sundowners on a bridge, built by Gustave Eiffel, located in the middle of the rain forest, miles from anywhere. This time I gave my drink away and it was Richard who accepted the extra tipple. That night we stayed at a camp where we were all allocated small “Wendy” houses for the night and had a lovely communal meal at the main building, located down winding paths away from our rooms.
The next day we headed for Santa Elena de Uriens, stopping at three waterfalls. The first had a seventy metre drop and was quite spectacular; the second was a series of shallow falls where we were able to take a swim if we wanted to. I just had a paddle as I am not a strong swimmer and the current was very strong in places. I slipped at one point and almost fell in! This was where we had our lunch which was a barbecue. The spot was very busy with locals as it was obviously a popular spot for them to enjoy their Sundays. The final waterfall was probably the most beautiful. We had to walk through the jungle to get to it but it was worth every step. We were rewarded with the sight of water falling over a wall of jasper. The red rock shone and glistened through the thin layer of water that slid down the sheer face into the clear, shallow river below. We were able to walk right up to the waterfall and taste the cool, refreshing water as it cascaded down the rock face. During our journey, we were able to see the table-top mountains in the distance, shrouded in mist and you could understand how these mysterious peaks gave Conan Doyle the idea of a lost world high on their eerie plateaus, inaccessible to man (well, not now that we can fly over them!). That evening we had a surprise as we went over the border into Brazil, where we drove onto a small hill to view the surrounding area, while we had our sundowners. By now I was getting used to this drink; now that I had reduced the amount of rum that Morton was pouring!
Our evening meal was served in a hall that looked more like a garage! There was a large central table laid for the whole group, plus Morton and our driver and we enjoyed our very first Brazilian barbeque. All manner of meats were served from skewers and carved directly onto our plate, accompanied by salads and vegetables. It was truly delicious. The next day, before we headed into Canaima, we went to visit a diamond merchant. The prices and quality of the stones he had to offer were quite amazing, but I was on a tight budget and could not go mad, so I bought a third of a carat diamond for one hundred and fifty dollars – this becomes a lot more significant later in my story, which is the reason I have mentioned it here.
On our sixth day in Venezuela we took our flight to Canaima where we would fly past Auyán-Tepui, the mountain where Angel Falls is located. We were all very disappointed as it was cloudy and wet and the chance of us seeing anything was pretty remote. As we took off I remember how low the clouds were, and that visibility was really poor and I thought that we had no chance of even a peek at these famous falls. But, as we approached, the clouds lifted and we had the most wonderful view of the world’s tallest, single drop, waterfall.
The plane circled inside the Devil’s Canyon, going very close to the cliff edge, which created thermals that rocked the plane. Two of our tour group were very ill, but for once, I did not suffer from the motion. The falls are named after Jimmie Angel who landed his plane on top of Auyán-Tepui in October 1937. He had flown over the tepui and had seen the falls four years earlier, but it was in 1937, after getting his planes wheels stuck in the mud, that Jimmie, his wife and two other passengers had to make their way down from the top of the highest tepui in Venezuela. It took them eleven days! But as a result of this, the waterfall was later named after him in his honour. His plane remained on top of the Auyán-Tepui for thirty-two years until it was airlifted off by a helicopter, and, in July 1960, Jimmie Angel’s ashes were scattered here. The falls are a true natural wonder; falling for almost one mile in a sheer vertical, uninterrupted drop. It is difficult to get to the falls on foot as the tepui is isolated and surrounded by jungle, so to visit the falls means a strenuous hike, involving rafting upriver in the heat of Venezuela or rains depending on the season. It’s much easier, and probably more spectacular, to see them from the air as you circle around the Devil’s Canyon.
We were each allowed to go into the cockpit to be able to get a pilot’s view of the falls, which cascaded from the tepui top to the river below in a single unbroken jet of water. I thought that I would try and get a dramatic video showing the falls in reverse and I started to film the river, ready to lift the camera up the fall of water from the floor to the mountaintop. I then got a tap on my shoulder from the pilot who pointed out the opposite window from the one where I was filming and there was Angel Falls almost crashing onto the plane – I was looking the wrong way! My video sped round to film the more important feature of the falls rather than the river way below us! When I viewed the video later, you could see the whirl of the filming of the cockpit as I refocused my video on the right subject.
We arrived at our camp in Canaima exhilarated and delighted at our sighting of Angel Falls. The camp was beautiful, set right on the lagoon with the wall of Canaima Falls crashing down almost outside our door. This was by far the best accommodation we had had in Venezuela and the most beautiful location. We went to visit Sapo Falls which we travelled to by boat, firstly travelling very close to the powerful waters of Canaima Falls. We went on foot to the Sapo Falls and we were able to walk behind the rushing waters.
At first it wasn’t too bad, the water was not too strong, just a little cold, but as we walked further along the slippery path that lay behind the falls, the water became a torrent and the force of it took your breath away. The path was not completely dry either as parts of it were hit by the water falling all around us. I closed my eyes in fear of losing my contact lenses and I took Morton’s hand as he led us along the walkway to the other side. As we looked back, I could not believe the ferocity of the water that was cascading over the rock edge—but there was no chickening out now, as there was only one way back and that was under the falls again!
Venezuela is an amazing place and has to be one of the best holidays that I have ever had as every day there was something different. The sights were amazing, the views were spectacular and the adrenalin rush was exhilarating. After our week in Venezuela, we had a week of relaxation on Margarita Island staying at a hotel in Playa El Agua. It was perfect—our rooms were facing onto the pool, so you practically walked straight out of the door and into the blue waters if you wanted to. The town was ideal as there were lots of restaurants, bars and shops and a beautiful golden sandy beach with clear aqua blue waves crashing onto the shore.
The four single travellers, Richard, Mike, Isabel and I were staying at this hotel. The others were staying elsewhere on the island. As we had become close friends during the tour, we continued to enjoy one another’s company for the remaining week of our holiday. This included our ritual sun-downers of rum and coke, which, by now, I really enjoyed and I had ditched the vodka completely. Richard had been a whisky drinker prior to this holiday, but he too was relishing this local drink. Between the four of us, we bought quite a few litres of the local rum to see us through the remaining part of the holiday and after one boozy night, Richard and I were left alone and, as you might say, the rest is history! That was the 10th of September 2000, and we have been together ever since, continuing to keep in contact on our return home to England and commuting between Sheffield and Leeswood, North Wales, to see one another every weekend until February 2001 when I moved to Sheffield to live with Richard. But we have another of our fifty places before that date!
Margarita is a beautiful Caribbean island which does not feature heavily on the tourist route. It has so much to offer with many excellent five-star hotels, beautiful beaches with soft, golden sand lapped by the clear, aqua blue waves from the ocean, and a lot of sites to keep you amused if you are not lounging by the pool.
Each year on the 8th of September, there is a fiesta in Espiritu del Valle to celebrate the discovery of the statue of the Virgin Mary found by locals, which now resides in the main church in this village. She is the patroness of the island, fishermen and the navy, keeping them safe whilst at sea. We were lucky enough to be on the island on this date and took a taxi to the village to be met by thousands of locals—it seemed like every living resident of the island was in the town square that morning.
There was a religious ceremony attended by many priests, nuns and local dignitaries that took place on the streets outside of the church. The statue of the Virgin, dressed in her finery, was paraded through the throngs of people for this special occasion. To our surprise, at the end of a hymn, the priests, choir and the crowds started to sing “Happy Birthday” to the statue! Now, coincidentally, this day was also Isabel’s birthday, and as all these people were singing in Spanish we changed the words to celebrate Isabel’s big day quietly, of course, so as not to offend anyone!
This village also had an interesting museum where the clothes of the statue, worn on other religious occasions, were on display and also all the donations and gifts bestowed on the patroness for keeping people safe. We also discovered that there was a tradition to “ask” the Virgin for requests and in return, you would bequeath a gift in exchange for your request being granted. These requests could be a good harvest, safe passage on a trip, good results in examinations and other things in this line. I thought I’d have a go and, silently, I asked the Virgin if she could arrange for me to be married within a year, and if this happened, that I would return the diamond that I had purchased on the main land. As it happened, although I was living with Richard within five months of this “wish”, we did not get married until March 2002, which was eighteen months later, so when I didn’t return the diamond, I did not feel that I had reneged on the deal! But I did have the diamond set into a gold tie stud as a wedding gift for Richard so that he had my memories of our holiday to keep forever.
Other places to visit on the island are Porlamar, La Asuncion, the Mangrove Lagoon, Juan Griego for the sunset, the artisan village and lots of other lovely nature spots for views of the island from mountaintops to off-roading in 4 x 4’s over rugged landscapes. There are lots of tour operators who organise day trips to see many of these sights and who will also do catamaran cruises around the island.