The Goldfish

This story starts with a goldfish flopping around the kitchen floor in 1967. There’s really no end, as memory prevails. Let me explain.

I grew up in the country, and was indulged (to a degree) in my pet-owning ambitions by my long-suffering parents. Some pets were functional. Dogs chased rats. Cats chased mice, bred with regularity, and were regularly culled by the adjacent road to everyone’s trauma and regret. Oddly, one cat (a female, called ‘the old cat’ for obvious reasons) had the wit to evade the threats from the road, and eventually died of venerable old age, having produced a huge number of kittens over the years.

I was permitted to keep pigeons. Sadly, on many occasions, the newly-purchased homing ones flew back to their previous home upon eventual release and were never seen again. The theory was that if you kept them in their new abode for a few weeks before letting them out, they’d stay. This was an early life lesson in never trusting pigeons. In fairness, the ones that I bred myself did normally stick around, once they got past the incredibly ugly squab phase.

And then there were goldfish. Irresistible to a small kid when sold in plastic bags at the travelling carnivals we attended regularly. Compared to the rest of my menagerie they didn’t do an awful lot except swim around in circles in their glass bowl. And then they did it again. It was somewhat hypnotic to watch, but a bit boring. I suspect I killed a number through over-feeding, and the phrase ‘I think he looks hungry’ almost certainly filled my parents with dread and apprehension.

But, then, ‘the incident’ happened. And I need to explain why I was recently reminded of this traumatic event, some 50-odd years later. A friend of mine recently told me about a  poet/author he’d heard called Seamus O’Rourke, who hails from Leitrim in Ireland. And about a poem he wrote, called ‘The shop’. So I found it online, and listened to him read it in his thick country accent. Basically it’s about how the local country shop was once the axis of everything, where people bought their supplies, caught up on the gossip, and, effectively, socialised. The brands he listed were familiar, the newspapers on the counter which came in on Thursday, buying a batch loaf and some ham and (exotically) tomatoes to make sandwiches for going ‘up the fields to work’.

We lived about 200 yards (this was pre-metric, you see) down the road from our local country shop. There was one room with a counter, backed by big square boxes of Jacobs or Bolands biscuits. A fridge with blocks of HB ice-cream, which were ceremonially taken out and a metal ‘measuring grid’ applied. Then you would decide if you could afford a small one for 3d, or a big one for 6d. With wafers on each end, naturally. Behind the counter stood stacked packets of John Player Navy Cut, my mother’s only vice, and probable cause of her later death. And a row of sweet jars, filled with bullseyes and other sticky unwrapped gems, to be poured into small brown bags and weighed out on the gleaming Avery scales.

Back home, I had been cleaning the fishbowl when it crashed to the kitchen floor and shattered. The flopping fish were scooped up and put in the hurriedly-emptied blue-banded milk jug, which was plainly never going to work. So my mother said ‘Run down to the shop and see if you can get one of those sweet jars’. Five minutes later I was breathlessly telling Mrs Stanley about the tragedy, and to her credit she gave me a 12-inch tall (still pre-metric) heavy glass sweet jar, complete with lid with a round glass ball on top. I rushed home, gripping the jar tight. The fish were rescued and went on to swim in ever decreasing circles for some time afterwards (until I killed them with kindness).

The jar long-outlived the fish, and after it was retired from pet-keeping duties it became a receptacle for cotton balls in our en-suite bathroom. Where, after about 40 years of duty, it too hit the ground one day, and was no more. But I thought of it when I heard that guy reading the poem, and I was back in ‘the shop’ again, breathlessly seeking a solution to my goldfish crisis. Funny thing, goldfish memory.


A sojourn in Cyprus

A long, long time ago, when I was just a kid, my next door neighbours (and also my cousins) who were in the Irish army, were posted as part of the UN peacekeeping battalion to Cyprus, where trouble had broken out between the Greeks and the Turks. As a result, on their return our house was awash for a while with exotic souvenirs, items like ashtrays, cigarette lighters and playing cards with Cyprus written on them.


I thought of these items as I recently slipped through the green line that still divides Nicosia right up to today – it proudly describes itself ‘The only divided capital in Europe’. My wife and I had decided that we needed some early Summer sun, and the availability of direct flights to Paphos in Cyprus tipped the scales. So off we went. At the back of my head I also had the long-standing invite from a Cypriot former work colleague, reinforced every year in the annual Christmas card, to ‘come visit him in Cyprus’ so we decided it was now or never.

Paphos is very nice, but I think we saw the best of it because we stayed in the ‘old town’ which is about 200m from the harbour and a small ‘city beach’ but which was also surrounded by swathes of comfortable sunbeds. So if we chose not to stay by the apartment complex pool, a five minute walk saw me jumping into clear, clean (and slightly cold) open water. Wonderfully refreshing. Followed by a beer to get rid of the saltwater taste.


Apart from reading a number of page-turners, while broiling painfully on the sunbeds (gotta top up that tan), we also tried a number of the recommended local Cypriot restaurants. Wonderful lamb, authentic moussaka, fresh fish, and stuffed vine leaves. Plus the obligatory ‘Greek Salads’. We discovered that while it’s emotionally attached to Greece (as that 12 points in the Eurovision proves every year), the Cypriots are keen to point out their own identity, and that they have not suffered the same degree of economic calamity as Greece. There is definitely money in Cyprus, whether from tourism or ‘Russian investments’, as the numbers of new Mercedes, BMWs and Audis on the roads indicated.

I hired a much less salubrious (but very reasonably priced) Kia and we set off to explore the island for a few days. The Troodos mountains are famous for a) stunning vistas, b( winding roads, c) great hill-walks and d) Byzantine churches with wonderful Unesco-recognised frescos. We saw the views, we drove the roads, and we did no hill-walks (although we did walk the last 300m to the summit of Mt Olympus, the highest spot on the island.  Our big defeat was the attempt to see some of the churches. The first one was a monastery that ‘did not admit tourists’. Fair enough. The next one, after we drove 4km up a winding sideroad was closed with no indication of where one might find a key. The last double-header of two churches as per the (relatively) main road sign-post, took us down into a valley and then up a switchback goat track through what appeared to be people’s back yards. Conscious of the large security deposit on my car, which was in any case wheezing badly from the uphill effort, I decided to turn back. My wife stopped praying and helped me to achieve an (approximately) 15 point turn on the hillside. This was in a village called Moutoullas by the way. Avoid!

After this, the drive to Nicosia was a piece of cake. We had a light lunch of Lamb kebabs en route at Louis restaurant in Prodromos village, and before long we were pulling into the divided city. The miracle of Google maps and EU-wide roaming took us to my friend’s house on the city outskirts, where we were overwhelmed with hospitality. I also was very happy to use the pool in their garden, and we caught up on old times as we lounged in the warm water. Off for dinner, to an open air restaurant on a hillside which was run by a guy from my friend’s wife’s village in the hills. Family connections worked a treat, and we had a wonderful and simple meal for a very low cost. Needless to say, we were the only non-Cypriots there, and our friends did all the ordering (and did an excellent job).

Downtown Nicosia was hopping on a Saturday night, so we walked around, soaked up the bouzouki music from many quarters, had some ice cream and marvelled at how clean everything was. It feels somewhat Middle Eastern, and yet British at the same time. A strange combination. And there’s no litter, anywhere on the island. Next day (Sunday) we were treated to a walking tour of Nicosia, and my wife and I slipped ‘across the border’ for a quick look at the Turkish side. Our friends decided to ‘stay at home’.  It seemed a bit less developed than the Greek side, and I think the commerce is mostly on the south (Greek) side of the line. As far as I can tell, people can come and go quite easily through the checkpoints, although it still seems a bit ominous, and passports are inspected rigorously by both parties. We concluded our flying visit to Nicosia with a meal at a wonderful fish restaurant – again no tourists, and again our friends did the ordering, in Cypriot. But the food was very, very good. That evening, my friend pointed out the illuminated giant Turkish flag on the mountains just North of the city and visible from his garden. Quite a provocative gesture in many ways, so I think there is no prospect of an accommodation on the island anytime soon.


After breakfast (by the pool, obviously) we bid our goodbyes to both Nicosia and our friends, and headed back across the island by motorway toward Paphos. En route we stopped at the rock where Aphrodite (who is HUGE in Cyprus) is supposed to have emerged from the sea. Then back to a chilled out evening in Paphos and some more work on ‘the tan’. Next day we visited the beach resort of Coral Bay, about 15km North of Paphos. It’s got a nice beach, and the water is shallow, warm and clean. Our final cultural expedition was to the Paphos archaeological site (about 300m from our apartment complex) where we saw some very cool preserved mosaics from the Greek and Roman villas that have been excavated on the huge site on the promontory. We went early, because by now the daytime temperatures were edging up to and beyond 30 degrees…


I headed for the seafront for a final swim in the cool, clean deep water and floated as I looked back at the shops, bars and restaurants that lined the quayside. And then, one final meal, and we bundled our bags into the luggage hold on the bus, and off to the airport. I think we will try to return to Cyprus at some stage. It’s clean, reasonably priced, civilised, they drive on the same side of the road we do (the British legacy) and in early Summer and – presumably – early Autumn, temperatures are reasonable. A very nice experience, all in all.

Andalucian interlude.

Our trip to Andalucia started with a weekend in Seville, then a few days on the coast in Cadiz, followed by a flying visit to Jerez and Sanlucar de Barrameda on the way back to the airport. So a bit of a whistle-stop tour, but a nice introduction to the south of Spain.


First, Seville. When we were there in March, temperatures were from about 15 to 20 degrees. Very pleasant, even if the one day I wore shorts it felt a bit chilly. Just my luck. However our tour guide for the Real Alcazar (more later) told us that during the Summer it gets up to 47 degrees. So on balance, I think our temperatures were preferable.

We stayed centrally and realised quickly that the centre of Seville is the proverbial rabbit-warren of narrow streets, some of them seeming to be only about four feet wide. I have a decent sense of direction, but at times in Seville I was completely lost. Our first stop was the Setas de Seville, supposedly the biggest wooden structure in the world. It’s a free-form mushroom-like structure with great views from the top, and a surprisingly interesting museum in the basement built on Roman and Phoenician ruins.

After that, my guide book recommended the Cathedral of Seville and the adjacent Giralda Moorish tower. It also said ‘don’t try to do this AND the Real Alcazar on the same day, it’s too much’. Good advice. The cathedral is massive, very ornate, but also very beautiful. There’s a tranquil orange grove in the grounds, and the climb up the tower is not too difficult – it’s a ramp rather than a set of stairs. And the views are, again, breath-taking. The cathedral history is intriguing – it was Moorish and then mostly levelled and converted to a cathedral.


After this exertion we simply had to sit in a plaza for a break, have a cortado coffee and a glass of chilled white wine, and reflect for a while. Off to the Flamenco museum where we caught what seemed to be a very authentic performance, with excellent guitar playing driving the performers on to energetic performances. The night finished with a visit to a wonderful tapas restaurant called Brunilda (we queued – they don’t take bookings) where we muddled our way through a very tasty menu. We slept well…


Day two, we prioritised the Real Alcazar, which was the Moorish palace in Seville and is just around the corner from the Cathedral. Wow. One of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. We took a guided tour, which was great, because it really informed us about what we were looking at. It’s a beautiful palace, quite like the Alhambra, with amazing tiled rooms, pools in courtyards, etc. And then, you go out to the gardens. Which are something else again. Pools, fountains, orange trees, parrots, peacocks, just sheer beauty. Really stunning. We spent about 3 hours in the Alcazar, and I had to be dragged away. Next was the Plaza de Espana, which is in a large park that runs down to the river, and which is a monument of sorts created for the Ibero-American exposition ‘fair’ back in 1928. By the way, between the cathedral and the Plaza you pass by the former massive cigarette factory, about one of whose workers (called Carmen) Bizet wrote his famous opera. So there.

The rest of Seville is, in my mind, a happy blur. We got to the oldest Tapas bar in town – El Rinconillo, wandered around the narrow streets and plazas, soaked up the atmosphere. And soon it was time to head on down to Cadiz.

Cadiz is about an hour’s drive from Seville, easy to find. It’s out on a peninsula, with a ring road running around the perimeter. The plan was to park our hire car in a car park and walk the short distance to the centre city apartment. Everything was going great, until….

We hit roadworks on the relatively wide ring road, and were forced into the old town. At this point I was driving an unmarked brand new Peugeot 208 down streets that were about 2 feet wider than my car. I was only doing about 5km/hour, but people in restaurants were pulling in their chairs so I could pass by. And my front seat passenger (long suffering wife) was feeling very nervous indeed. As the whimpering indicated. So I had to grit my teeth, pretend ‘everything is ok, honestly’, follow the one way signs, and pray under my breath. Miraculously, after about 8 minutes (that felt like an hour), we more or less came out where I had hoped. We headed underground on the ramp, parked, my perspiration glands began to close, and we reflected on another ‘near miss’, albeit a slow motion one. We found our apartment. I had a beer from the pre-stocked fridge to calm my shattered nerves, and we hoped Cadiz was worth it. Well, it was.


We were lucky enough to have been able to avail of a friend’s apartment for a few nights, located in central Cadiz and about 150m from the ‘cathedral by the sea’, which stands like an outpost looking out over the water. So, naturally, our first stop was to tour the cathedral and then climb the adjacent bell-tower, which afforded stunning views of the long string of beaches heading South, the ‘teardrop’ peninsula with white houses and red roofs, and in the distance  the roadworks that had temporarily derailed my entry.

After getting our bearings, we headed off to La Caleta beach – about 400m from the cathedral. The water was clear, blue and a bit too cold for swimming. But it was nice to lie on the sand and doze for a while in the sun. There are better (and bigger) beaches to the South, but this ‘city beach’ had the edge because of it’s proximity. Over the next few days we went there each day, and in the morning and evening we sauntered through the narrow streets, ate wonderful tapas, and wandered around the food/fish market and wondered what half of the fish we were looking at actually were. We stumbled one evening upon a pre Holy Week religious procession, saw some great paintings in a small urban church, went to the Cadiz museum for a good understanding of the origins of the city, and generally chilled out in the very pleasant temperatures. It’s a lovely place to saunter around, quite small in the centre, and the sea walls provide lovely views out to the Atlantic.

Reluctantly we packed up our car at the end, summoned up our courage and drove up the ramp onto the mean streets. We exited across the same huge bridge that we had entered by, and headed for a brief pit stop in Cadiz, about 25km away. Along the way, the road skirted salt flats, where hundreds of flamingos were feeding – that was quite a cool bonus to see. Jerez was a bit of a let-down after Seville and Cadiz. One of the main things to do there is sherry tasting (obviously) but since we were driving, that wasn’t an option. Also the Andalusian riding school (think white horses) have a show, which would have been nice, but it was only on one day a week. So we sauntered around for a few hours, had lunch on the main square, and then returned to the car and headed down the road to Sanlucar de Barremeda. This small port, at the mouth of the Guadalqivir river, was Christopher Columbus’ last stop before he headed west in 1492 to discover America. There are – it seems – a string of excellent fish restaurants facing the river, but we’d already eaten. At this point one is looking across the river at the Coto Donana wildlife reserve, generally seen as one of the most important in Europe, because of its population of migratory (and resident) birds and it’s unique eco-system.


I had tried to book a three hour jeep safari  through the reserve (you get a ferry across the river) but there was not enough people to run the trip in mid-March. So we had to console ourselves by gazing across, and promising ourselves that we’d be back. In fact there are also tours which run from the North side of the reserve, but that would have required a massive looping horseshoe drive back almost to Seville, and it just wasn’t worth it given the time we had at our disposal. But it was a nice way to end the trip to Andalucia, imagining Columbus sailing off to the New World from the quay we were standing on. He came back, and we probably will too…

Firworks in Valencia

We went to Valencia for a four night city break and more or less stumbled into the midst of the annual Fallas festival. This is, effectively, a pyromaniac’s dream trip. So what’s the background? It seems that historically at this time of year, artisans used to clear out their workshops and burn all the scraps. Over time, they began to make some sort of figures out of these, and they would all be burned on March 19th, the feast of St Joseph, patron saint of carpenters.

Fast forward to today. Nowadays every commune in Valencia fund-raises every year to engage artists to create amazingly detailed (and beautiful) models made from papier-mache and wood, and these are unveiled around March 16th. They are all over the city, at intersections, and are on a huge scale (see the photos). Themes vary, but there is a strong hint of satire in most of the exhibits. From March 16th to the 19th the communes erect beer tents and use meeting halls to have big sociable meals (giant paella dishes on gas burners are the norm) and kids generally seem to be let do what they want for the last few days of the festival.


Every child seems to have a wooden box on their shoulder, filled with bangers and small fireworks, which they are encouraged to hurl in all directions. I actually personally saw a mother instruct her (approx) 14 month old child (strapped in a buggy) how to hurl a small banger which exploded on impact. I have no idea how dogs or people of a nervous disposition survive the festival.

And speaking of fireworks. For the last 4 days leading up the 19th there are two separate displays each day. The one at 2pm in the square opposite the townhall is called the ‘Mascleta’ and the idea is to create a rhythm using fireworks. Sort of like a drum solo with lots of cordite and smoke. Then each night, typically at midnight, there is a mega-display where the sky is ripped apart.


On one of the nights, I literally thought my head was about to explode at the very end of the display, it just kept getting louder and louder and louder. And then, deafening silence and a ringing in my ear.


On the Sunday morning – our last day – apart from the constant backdrop of ‘everyday fireworks’ and what sounded like mortar shells, marching bands took to the streets in huge numbers – i.e. hundreds of them. Each was preceded by a parade of women (and some men) dressed in traditional costume. Just sitting down having a coffee and watching these parades go by was a huge thrill.

We flew out of Valencia about 24 hours before the ‘Crema’ which is basically a massive exercise all across the city in burning down the exhibits into heaps of ash. The last one to go is the big one on the plaza beside the town hall – which was broadcast live on TV and I was able to watch from my sofa back home in Ireland. Lots of patriotic songs are sung, bands play, the inevitable fireworks explode into the sky and the giant effigy goes up in flames. And it’s all over till next year. What an event…


And apart from all of that, Valencia is wonderful. There is an amazing cathedral and many other beautifully decorated churches. There is a park that snakes through the city and traces the former river bed (the river was diverted may years ago).


You can rent bikes and cycle down this safe, car-free channel to the sea, passing by a zone of futuristic architecture, much of it created by the architect Calatrava. There are great restaurants in Valencia too, and we discovered that ‘Agua Valenciana’ is a potent mix of orange juice, cava and gin.


I think even outside the festival time it’d be a great city to visit, but the Fallas certainly added a whole new aspect to our visit.

Sourdough. What else?

I was actually quite surprised when I checked back and discovered that the last time I wrote anything about Sourdough baking was back in March 2018. A whole ten months back. I know time flies, but this is ridiculous.

And so, a brief recap. Back toward the end of 2017, I managed to tick another bucket list item by doing a sourdough workshop in Fumbally, Dublin with Shane Palmer, who is the main-man behind Sceal bakery in Dublin, and a big supplier to the Dublin restaurant scene. It was fairly mind-blowing, and got me on track to try making sourdough regularly. Practice makes perfect, and I set myself a target of getting to 100 loaves and seeing how I would improve ‘along the way’. The good news is that on 1 December 2018 I baked loaves 101 & 102 (yeah, I know this is sad, but I like numbers) and the even better news was that those two loaves were the absolute best I have made so far. And that made me very happy indeed.


In between, what happened? I acquired quite a lot of added bits and pieces of equipment along the way, (like the above, which is called a Lame) and as I had been extra good in 2018, Santa Claus brought me a dough mixer for Christmas (still to come out of the box, but I expect great things). I also benefited from a few people who had no idea ‘what to get the man who has everything’ and plumped for Sourdough Baking books. But the big injection of pace in 2018 was going on a ‘second level’ one-day Sourdough baking course at Riot Rye Eco-village bread school in Cloughjordan on the Tipperary/Offaly border. There, Joe Fitzmaurice took me and a small number of (mostly male) fellow enthusiasts through a full-on, hands-filled day about the ins and outs of Sourdough baking. He also answered many questions, helped identify what we were, individually, doing wrong, and generally gave us a massive boost in confidence.

And so, armed with bubbling enthusiasm and some new techniques, I rushed back to my oven and began to produce much better loaves. To the relief of my neighbours and friends who had – I suspect – suffered through my learning curve and acted as my guinea pigs – you can’t eat that much bread on your own, so I give away a fair proportion of what I produce – it’s called ‘spreading the gospel’.

And so (I hear you ask) what were the main lessons of ‘the first hundred loaves’ – both good and bad? Here’s a brief list…

  • You can’t expect the Sourdough to work at your pace. You have to work at the pace IT dictates in terms of how the gluten and structure of the dough develops. When it’s ready to bake, it has to go in the oven, whether it’s convenient for you or not. There are ways you can retard the growth – mostly, it seems, by putting it in the fridge – but beyond that, when it’s ready, it’s ready. And so you literally have a to plan out a bake over 2 and maybe 3 days. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but for consistent results, this (for me) is now the number one rule. The dough drives the process.
  • Quality (fresh-ground) flour and correct temperatures will mean that the cycle can be telescoped. Basically if it’s left to ‘prove’ for too long, the dough more or less ‘eats itself’. The white flour leaven/mother/active yeast culture should float if it’s ready to use – you try a teaspoon of it in a glass of water. And pray. A starter made with Rye flour wont necessarily float, so you have to go by the bubbles in it to judge it’s ready. I use bottles still (obviously) water for making my initial leaven – my impression is that the Fluoride in tap water might not be great.
  •  Bake in a really HOT over – like 240 degree fan.
  • I also moved away from using cast iron saucepans (pre heated) to dome-type pyrex dishes, which means I can control temperature better and burn my hands a lot less (this is important, believe me). It also helps with moisture in the oven – the micro-climate is better. I ‘mist’ the inside of the pyrex dome before I bake – which may or may not help, I’m not sure.
  • Use a thermometer to test internal bread temperature at the end. If it’s 96 degrees or better, it’s probably cooked inside, and you are just working now on browning the crust.
  • Instagram is a great place to find fellow Sourdough enthusiasts and recipes – use the hashtag ‘sourdough’ and you get some amazing results. It’s a bit addictive…
  • Once your initial mix of the dough is done, you test that the gluten is developed by stretching and holding up a thin piece to the light – it should be translucent. This is called the windowpane test. Also at this stage (about 10 minutes of kneading) the dough sort of creates ‘webs’ across your fingers.
  • It’s nearly impossible to bake sourdough without making a mess, but you do get less hassle from your nearest and dearest if you clean up as you go along. Wire pot-scrubs are good for cleaning wooden chopping boards, and your dough-covered fingers too. You never have too many tea-towels, but a) they are cheap and b) you can hide the ones that you destroy along the way and put them into the bin. And if you end up with a tea-towel that has lots of dough stuck to it, you can pick a lot of it off if you put the tea towel in a deep freeze for a while.

The last thing I learned over the year is that making Sourdough is addictive. It’s really complicated in one sense, and (fairly) easy in another. The number of variables is mind-blowing, from flours to mixes, climate, temperature, time spent developing gluten, water quality, oven temperature, elapsed time etc. But that’s what makes every bake an adventure (no, really) and adds to the excitement. You just don’t really know what’s going to happen. And if there is anything to beat a still-warm slab of crusty sourdough with melting butter and slice of mature cheddar on it, well I’d like to hear about it. Now on to the next hundred loaves….

Reading my way across Africa

Somewhere recently while posting a review on Goodreads of a book I had just finished I stumbled across a list of ‘recommended books about Africa’ on Listopia. It sort of piqued my interest and as I went down the list I realised with some surprise that I had read most of the books involved. Apart from travelling to Africa a number of times I have also read a lot of books set in that continent, a quite diverse set of reads.


Africa does intrigue me, for reasons that I can’t fully explain. Maybe it started with me as a kid and my life-long interest in wildlife (partly fuelled by Gerald Durrell, who ‘makes my list’). In any case, here’s my own list of ‘Great books about or set in Africa’. It’s not in order of merit, but I do think each of these books have something to offer when it comes to understanding out about what makes Africa so interesting. A lot of the books are about Rwanda, because I spent some time volunteering there in 2015 and I read a lot about the area before, during and after my trip. And I allowed myself one sentence about each, to avoid going on and on and on…


One thing – this is a mix of Fiction (marked F) and non-fiction (you guessed it, NF). Of course, much of the fiction is actually based on facts…


  1. Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe (F)

Essential but sad reading, proves civilisation existed in Africa before the white man arrived with his version of same.

  1. Blood river by Tim Butcher (NF)

Author crosses the Congo warzone, survives with some close shaves, and shows how the jungle is reclaiming the transport links that once existed.

  1. We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families by Philip Gourevitch. (NF)

Chilling book about the systematic genocide in Rwanda, and not for the faint-hearted.

  1. The power of one by Bryce Courtenay (F)

A coming of age story set in South Africa, oddly engaging, compelling and emotional.

  1. Dark star safari by Paul Theroux (NF)

A favourite travel writer of mine heads overland from Egypt down to South Africa, and offers his usual insights and observations along the way.

  1. Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (F)

Powerful story about unfettered power, how it corrupts, and much more besides.

  1. The shadow of the sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski (NF)

Dispatches from the African front line, by an amazing and experienced journalist, and some very revealing essays about the hardships of life on this contintent.

  1. The last train to zona verde by Paul Theroux (NF)

An elegiac, informative overland trip from Capetown to Angola, with a lot of astute observations and self-reflections on ‘why am I here’?

  1. The first ladies detective agency by Alexander McCall Smith (F)

Whimsy set in Botswana but eminently readable and a wonderful sense of place.

  1. Congo by David Van Reybrouck (NF)

A detailed history of the last 120 years or so in one of the world’s most interesting and unstable countries, taking in music, sport, economics, war(s) and much more besides.

  1. Visiting Rwanda by Dervla Murphy (NF)

Written in 1997, three years after the genocide, these are the observations of one of the world’s foremost travel writers.

  1. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (F)

Life as a missionary in darkest Africa, and it’s engrossing trials and tribulations.

  1. King Leopold’s ghost by Adam Hochschild (NF)

Bewildering account of how one man more or less ‘owned’ the Congo, and the brutal way in which it was systematically stripped of its assets and dignity.

  1. The lost world of the Kalahari by Laurens Van der Post (NF)

Dated (in an interesting way) account of an expedition circa 1958 (?) to search for the Kalahari bushmen through countries that no longer exist today.

  1. Gorillas in the mist by Dian Fossey (NF)

Landmark book by a dedicated and idealistic naturalist who probably preferred the contact of gorillas to that of humans.

  1. The scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham (NF)

How the so-called ‘Great Powers’ carved up Africa and in the process created endless instability from their greed.

  1. Bad News by Anjan Sundaram (NF)

Idealistic journalist takes on the Rwandan establishment and – as might be expected – comes out of the experience second-best

  1. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (F – I think!)

‘I had a farm in Africa once’…enough said.

  1. The Bang Bang club by Greg Marinovich (NF)

Life and death as a freelance press photographer in South Africa during the townships uprisings – life on the front line.

  1. A Sunday at the pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche (F)

Terrifying ‘fiction’ based on the facts of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, and disturbing because of the banality of the killing.

  1. I do not come to you by chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (F)

Very funny morality tale about scammers in modern-day Nigeria who want to be good, but just can’t help themselves.

  1. An ordinary man by Paul Rusesabagina (NF)

The manager of the Hotel Rwanda tells his credible, brave story.

  1. The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al Aswany (F)

A history of modern Egypt via a building’s occupants, and an insight into the roots of fundamentalism.

  1. Shake hands with the devil by Romeo Dallaire (NF)

The commander of the UN mission to Rwanda tells the whole sad story of the 1994 genocide from his frontline perspective

  1. Overloaded Ark by Gerald Durrell (NF)

The naturalist/conservationists first overseas ‘collecting trip’ to Cameroon in the early 60s (I think) and the humorous challenges and tribulations he faced along the way.

‘It’s in the mail’

Here’s a sad story about how hard it is to receive a parcel in Dublin these days. It’s not a ringing endorsement of An Post, our national postal service, rather the opposite.

In early November I ordered some books from Amazon UK, and rather than using Parcel Motel, as is my norm, I decided ‘Hey, this is simple. I’ll just get them delivered to my door by An Post.’ BIG mistake.

Sunday November 11 – as I am watching the ceremonies to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, I get a text from An Post. Basically it says ‘your parcel is ready for delivery – so click this link to select delivery options. Netting it down, I was offered a number of choices to follow ‘if I was not at home when the delivery arrived’. So I entered an instruction along the lines of  – ‘if no-one is home, leave the parcel in the porch’. Easy, joined-up thinking, I liked it. Except that’s not how it worked out, not even close.

Monday 12th came, and went. Tuesday 13th came. Still no parcel. I began to wonder if it had been stolen out of our porch by unscrupulous book thieves. Unlikely, but hey, your mind starts to wonder/wander.

On Tuesday night I decided to log onto An Post’s ‘parcel tracking service’ and lo and behold, when I typed in my 13 digit code I saw that it had actually ‘been assigned a delivery route’ the previous day, ie Monday. Which could only mean that, as it had not yet come,  it’d be surely be delivered the next day, Wednesday 14th. And if no-one was home, my helpful instruction regarding the porch could/would be followed. Well, no. Wednesday came and went. No delivery.

So in the absence of any other ideas I phoned An Post’s ‘Customer Service Number’ on Thursday 15 November 2018. After speaking my tracking number into the phone the voice (you know the one) said ‘this service is unavailable’ so ‘please wait for the next available operator’. I did. After about 10 minutes of ‘we are experiencing high levels of calls’ and ‘you have been waiting for a very long period of time (I knew this) but your call is important to us’ I finally got to speak to a human.

He was relatively understanding and said that since the system did not give him the information he needed, he’d have to phone my local parcel depot where the delivery would/should/might emanate from. He came back after a few minutes to say that ‘no one was picking up’ so he’d try the manager. Then the manager didn’t pick up either, so the human on the helpdesk wrote an e-mail to the manager and talked me through the text, which basically said ‘where is this customer’s parcel’? Then sent it. I asked if it’d help if I called to the parcel depot. The man said that I’d probably be wasting my time because the parcel could be out for delivery.

However, I decided that since I was probably going to have to work from home that afternoon (on the off chance that the parcel might arrive), and as the Parcel office was more or less en route, I’d call in anyway. Another dead end. The man behind the bulletproof glass went and checked and said ‘it’s not here’. And so it’s ‘probably out for delivery’. I suggested that four days (now my best possible outcome) to deliver a parcel 2km away was ‘not great’. He told me – despite my incredulity – that ‘if a parcel from Amazon was taken to a house and could not be delivered, ‘they didn’t leave any note to say ‘we missed you’ but just brought the parcel back about three times’. By now – my mistake – my blood pressure was so high that I forgot to mention my own instruction (remember that, where my woes started?) to ‘leave the package in the porch’. I doubt it would have changed anything anyway. But my 90 seconds with the man behind the bulletproof glass was up, so I trudged home, hopefully. Possibly it was actually sitting in my porch already?

It wasn’t. But before I made it home, I saw an An Post van delivering parcels about 500m from my house. Losing all inhibitions, I pulled in in front of him and gently asked the driver, who was a bit taken aback (lest I be some kind of crazy guy), if he might perchance have a package for my house number. I waved the tracking number hopefully in front of him. Sadly, he indicated that he ‘only delivered big parcels’. Then, in fairness, seeing my glum face, he suggested I visit the Delivery Office as ‘they should know who has it’. I grimaced and said that I had just come from there. But – I said – ‘who knows, it may be waiting for me down the road’. But, as you already know, it wasn’t.

So at this juncture, late on Thursday 15 November 2018, my parcel has been ‘lost in space’ for about four days, between my house and a parcel depot about 2km way. I’m afraid to leave the house in case someone does actually try to deliver. On the positive side, it’ll be the weekend before I run out of milk. If I try to phone the parcel office, I’ll be diverted to a queue at the call centre. The current status of my package on the An Post ‘track and trace’ website is (since Monday) ‘assigned delivery route’. And I don’t know what to do next. I did find – and Tweet at – an An Post twitter handle who suggested I log a call with their Customer Service desk (see above). Then silence.

I do however know one thing for sure. Next time I’ll be using Parcel Motel.

Wild times in Botswana

This post is a bit longer than my norm, but it was an extraordinary trip so I felt it justified a bit more depth….rightly or wrongly.


When the honey badgers attacked the camp’s cooking pots collection at 3am, I was sitting on the camp bed in my two man dome tent, debating with myself whether or not I really needed to go out to the bush toilet. The clattering dissuaded me for a short while, but inevitably I had to get up and make the short trek to the nearby latrine. My head torch was augmented by the bright light from an African full moon, and I was soon back in my tent, protected from the outside world by a small strip of canvas. But, you may well ask, how did I get here? My wife and I were on a Camping safari in Botswana, one of the best places in the world to get up close and personal with a bewildering selection of wildlife. But what had persuaded us that this was a trip worth making? Well, there were a number of factors.


First of all, Botswana – a country the size of France but with only about 2.5 million inhabitants – is home to the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s most famous and unique wildlife zones. The annual rains in Angola, about 1000km to the North, seep underground through geological strata and literally bubble up inland in the Okavango. This up-flow peaks in July and August each year, and the water creates an influx of mammals and birds to join the population which lives there year-round. Basically it turns into a massive inland swamp, dotted with low-lying islands. And then it slowly evaporates over many months, there is eventually a dry season, and the cycle begins again. Apart from this amazing feature, Botswana is also home to the Kalahari desert, and has many other well-stocked wildlife reserves strung along the Chobe river in the Northeast of the country. The Chobe flows into the Zambezi River and ultimately Victoria Falls, where Zambia and Zimbabwe own the river banks.


Ever since I was a kid I had been interested in African wildlife, and getting to Botswana had long been an ambition. And then, on more recent group trips of other parts of the world, well-seasoned fellow travellers would say ‘Botswana, absolutely’ when asked ‘Where would you go back to’? Finally, the whimsical series of books called ‘The first ladies detective agency’ were big favourites in our house, and their wonderful descriptions of Botswana had captivated us. So Botswana floated inexorably to the top of the must-see list. And off we went.


We travelled as part of a small group tour of twelve, including ourselves, and we met most of the crew in Johannesburg airport as we boarded the Air Botswana plane to take us to Maun, the jumping off point just South of the Okavango delta. After a few suspicious glances in the queue to check-in we cracked and said ‘Are you with the Exodus trip?’ and so, in the course of about ten minutes, we met most of our fellow travelers. Happily they all turned out to be seasoned travelers with realistic expectations, and great company. Not the kind of people to panic over a broken fingernail (which was just as well, in retrospect).

After the airport pickup, our first stop in the frontier town of Maun was the Audi camp, where our tents were pitched and waiting for us. Our orientation meeting was very thorough, and it emerged that while we’d be spending some time in ‘fixed camps’ like Audi, most of our halts on the 13 night trip would be ‘wild camping’ where you literally stop under a shady tree, pitch your tents, and leave no trace when you depart, barring a few cold ashes from your campfire.

The Audi camp, to which we’d return a few times, had the relatively basic facilities of shower blocks, a bar, a small swimming pool and wi-fi near reception. It’s worth noting that after a number of nights in the bush, what we once thought of as ‘basic’ became impossibly exotic. Running water! Flush toilets (with doors). Mirrors! But it was all ahead of us as we set off the next morning in a 12 seater open-sided truck that would take us to the delta. There we were met by a fleet of ‘mokoros’ or traditional canoes, in which we were poled into the delta along papyrus-lined channels created by hippos. Happily the hippos were ‘only active at night’ as we were told. We landed on an island in the delta, the four man crew got busy, and soon our two man tents were assembled and our bags stowed away. Our cook John began to perform his daily miracles on an open fire, and before long we were all seated around the fire on camp-stools, having a very tasty lunch. In fact the food turned out to be excellent on the trip, and endlessly varied. There was always a kettle boiling for tea or coffee, and galvanised buckets beside the fire with water heating for showers (of which more anon).


We soon set off into the surrounding bush on our first walking safari with local man Willie – there were no arms in evidence and our understanding was that our guides just relied on their knowledge of the terrain and animals behaviour to keep us safe. The walking safaris were great, a very interesting experience. Willie showed us different tracks, what various droppings looked like, identified with ease all the birds we saw, and we spotted – at a safe distance – Elephants, Hippo, Cape Buffalo, Impala, Zebra, Giraffes, Kudu, Baboons and more.

This established the pattern. Every morning we’d rise before dawn around 5am, grab a quick breakfast, and start walking, returning to camp around 11am. We’d have a lunch, discuss what we’d seen, compare notes and then either have a siesta or read a book.  Showers were optional, and consisted of a canvas bag rigged on a tree branch over a small enclosure about 40m away from the campfire. After a while we just took lukewarm showers as the water naturally heated up. With early afternoon temperature around 35 degrees, the cool water was a joy. Toilet arrangements consisted of a deep slot dug in the ground, with a toilet seat balanced over it and surrounded again by a canvas ‘box’. After using the facility, you threw a spade’s worth of dirt on top, and when we left the site the crew just filled in the hole. No-trace camping at its best.

In the late afternoon, around 4pm, we’d set off again on another ‘game walk’. Sunset was at 6.30, we generally got back by 6.45pm and ate around 7.15, and by 9pm the whole camp would be in their tents, as the campfire in the centre of the circle of tents deterred any wandering animals. Well, mostly! Further down the road, we’d be visited by Hyenas, Honey Badgers, and an elephant expressed some vague interest in our camp another night. Most people’s fear was snakes, but in fact on the entire trip we just saw one, and he was on the roadside rather than near our camp.


After a few days in the delta, we canoed out again, and after a one night stay in Maun (Civilisation! Showers! Beer! Wifi!) we set off on the road. But, before that, five of us paid out a bit of money to take an optional light aircraft flight over the delta. Ignoring the fact that our pilot looked to be about 22 years old, we piled into a light Cessna and soon we were flying over the delta, as our shadow sped across the bush below. We got a great view of the whole area, realised how vast it was, and were ignored by the animals a few hundred feet below as we took photo after photo. A great end to that leg of the trip.

Net morning we pulled out, and without going into too much detail, we first stayed for one night at the Makgadikgadi salt pans (the size of Wales…). It was like being on the edge of the world, with salt flats stretching to the horizon. We trekked on and crossed the border into Zimbabwe before, ninety minutes later, pulling into our Victoria Falls campsite where – crazy luxury – we actually got to sleep in a real bed in chalets on the campsite. The falls were amazing, but it was hard to avoid the feeling that Zimbabwe was in a bad way, as people tried to sell us Banknotes printed with One Billion for a single US dollar. Two nights at the falls, and we headed back over the border for the home stretch of wild camping. Over five days we visited Chobe, Savuti and Moremi game parks. Again, the quantity of wildlife we spotted was amazing. This time we did our morning and evening games drives in the truck, and when you are in that the animals tend to ignore you, so you can get quite close. We were lucky enough to see an elusive Leopard, endangered Wild Dogs several times, Lions, hundreds of Elephants, herds of Buffalo, Impala, Wildebeest and so on. I got a bit closer to a large Crocodile than I wanted to while on a boat trip on the Chobe river (happily he wasn’t hungry). And we saw amazing sunrises and sunsets, and a full moon shining down on us every night. Truly memorable.


But all good things must come to an end, and we rolled back into our Maun campsite mid-afternoon on the last day. Whereupon we all raced either to the shower-blocks or to the bar to fulfill the fantasy that we’d built up over the previous five days in the bush. At our farewell dinner that night we all swapped contact details and agreed to keep in touch – it’s funny how quickly you become friends with people, when you travel with them 24/7.


And the final question – would I do it again? Absolutely, no question. It might not be for everyone, and it is ‘full on’. You are tired by the end. But the proximity to the animals in bush camping, hearing them call at night, the excellence of the organisation and support crew, and the camaraderie with our fellow travellers all added up to a great experience. And one that we’d readily take on again, no question.


When you gotta go…

I was lying in my tent, looking at the radiant full moon through the mesh window. It was 3am, and I was seriously debating with myself whether or not I needed a pee. The primary difficulty was that the ‘bush toilet’ – which was effectively a deep slot in the dry ground, surrounded by a canvas box – was about 15 metres away. And at that precise moment a pair of Honey Badgers attacked the camp utensils box with a crashing of pots, pans and anything else they could ransack. This in turn caused John, our cook to wake up, and they retreated when torches were produced. I decided to ‘hold on’ for a bit longer. And when I did eventually strap on my head-torch and venture forth in the moonlight, I could see the springer-spaniel-sized badgers as dark muttering blobs about 40 metres away.


We were on a full-on camping safari in Botswana, which is generally seen as one of the best countries in Africa to see game animals in the wild. But it also tends to bring ‘the need to pee’ to the forefront of campfire conversations. Especially at the ‘wild camping’ locations which represented about 70% of our overnights. To explain – you arrive at a big tree, which is important for shade, as temperatures climbed into the mid-30s. The crew erect the tent, and do all the hard work. They chop a slot in the ground for a toilet, and (mostly) erect a canvas box with a canvas bag of water help over it by a rope slung over a branch. This is your shower. They build an open fire in the middle of the tents for a) cooking b) focal point and c) generally to dissuade animals from wandering in. And when you leave, you literally leave just some ashes behind you. It’s immersive, exciting, cumulatively tiring, and very sociable in terms of engaging with your fellow travellers – basically you don’t have any other distractions.



We were a group of 12,and the trip involved touring the game parks of Botswana with a brief excursion over the border into Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls. And – the luxury – to sleep there in an actual room with a bed and an en-suite toilet for two whole nights (before being dragged, screaming, back to the Botswanan bush).


Don’t get me wrong. The trip was great, and the proximity to the animals and birds was exactly what we had expected and hoped for. But as the trip went on, the topic of ‘did you have to go last night’ became pervasive around the evening campfire. We were – typically – going to bed around 9pm at the latest, for a 5am start. First light was around 5.30am, and it was pitch dark by 7.15pm. So the hours where ‘going to the toilet’ played on the mind were long and troubled.


The last two nights, in Moremi Game park, featured a cacophony of sounds from the bush. Both nights (we were told), a hyena had passed through the camp at some point, and some particularly noisy birds (maybe) woke us up around 3am. The problem with waking is that you immediately begin to have ‘that’ conversation with yourself. As in ‘Do I need to go’? First answer is (always) ‘No’. Then, when you don’t immediately sink back to sleep, you start to think about it some more. And pretty soon you realise you have silently talked yourself into slipping on the boots, putting on the head torch (greatest invention known to man), undoing the tent zip, and heading that 15m into the great unknown of the night-time.

I won’t be taking my en-suite so much for granted in the future, that’s for sure.

NYC in B&W



I was lucky enough recently to spend a week in New York – in Manhattan to be precise. I was visiting family, but also went to the US Open Tennis and used my central location to catch up on many aspects of New York that I had either a) done before a long time ago, or b) never done. I had a great, action-packed week.


Before I went, I watched Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan’ again. It’s one of my favourite films, and even if seems a bit dated now in parts, it still packs a punch. Especially that scene where he and Diane Keaton are sitting beside the Brooklyn Bridge with her dachshund, watching the lights glitter across the East river. Magical


I decided this time around that I’d only bring my iPhone with me, just to travel as light as I could. And on the basis that a picture tells a thousand words, here’s a short summary of the highlights of the week that I had – but in black and white, naturally. All photos taken with an iPhone 7+…