Monday, 25 September 2017

Naadam Festival in Mongolia - "The Three Games of Men"

Wrestling Mongolian style

Mongolia’s annual Naadam Festival first ran in 1920 but has its roots in the centuries-old traditions of the great Khans. The “three manly sports” of wrestling, archery and horse racing — the three skills that Chingis Khan valued most for his Mongol warriors — are showcased each July as part of Mongolia’s annual Naadam Festival.

Mongolia in general and the Naadam Festival in particular have started to attract world-wide attention from those tourists seeking unique travel experiences. Unfortunately, increasing tourism has seen the part of the Festival held in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar turn into a modern spectacle which at times feels like a performance created just for tourists. Travellers are crammed into a large stadium and a great amount of pomp creates a carnival-like atmosphere not unlike that of an Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.

In contrast, at many rural locations in the country, tucked away on a lake’s edge, in a mountainous region or on the vast steppes, locals experience a truly authentic Naadam Festival where wrestlers, archers and horse racers are not on display for tourists. They are simply locals participating in traditions so very vital to their Mongolian culture. They are not sponsored athletes but rather, simply local people honouring the traditions of their forefathers. The Naadam Festival is one of the most pure and honest cultural celebrations that to be experienced anywhere in the world.

Come join Blue Dot Travel as we travel Mongolia and experience the rural Naadam as part of our upcoming small group tours of Mongolia. Click here for more information.

Map of Mongolia
Opening ceremony of Naadam Festival

Naadam horse racing

Opening ceremony

Locals heading to rural Naadam

Getting ready for horse race

Wonderful costumes for Naadam

Monday, 18 September 2017

Infatuated by the beauty of Ilulissat Greenland

By Kate Goulston

Bucket lists were pretty much invented for places like Greenland. Perhaps it is because the immense sense of magic and wonder is present in every moment of every single day. There is not one part of this experience that does not impress and excite.

To reach Ilulissat, fly with Air Greenland from Reykjavik or Copenhagen to Kangerlussuaq and catch a connecting flight from Kangerlussuaq to
Ilulissat,  The awe starts shortly after take-off with jaw-dropping views over slushy, icy seas before flying hundreds of kilometres across a mesmerising packed-snow landscape intermittently dotted with fluorescent blue melting waterholes.

The airport is tiny, a mere 5 minutes down the road from the town of Ilulissat which is small enough to fully explore in one morning. You can discover the fish market offering musk ox and whale blubber, the local school, colourful traditional wooden dwellings, a handful of shops and cafés and the supermarket.  All the while you will be hearing the Greenland dogs howl inconsolably for food. Don’t be fooled though 
 the young ones may look cute but they would take your arm off as they exist on only the most meager of rations. 

At the edge of town, the entire view of the magnificent Ilulissat Icefjord is revealed and it is absolutely spectacular. This world famous UNESCO World Heritage Listed fjord runs 
40 km east from just south of the town of Ilulissat to the Greenlandic ice sheet. It is into this bay that giant chunks of ice “calve” away from the glacier and drop into the sea. You are surrounded by jaw dropping views of icebergs from every possible angle. Some icebergs are so enormous they get trapped for years until they roll or have melted enough to finally break free and drift north through the Arctic Ocean. One of the most remarkable buildings is the iconic Zion’s Kirke built in the 18th century and the largest man-made structure in Greenland at the time. If the sun is shining, your photos of this church could well be worthy of a National Geographic cover.

Blue Dot Travel has a three-week tour to Iceland/Svalbard with Greenland as an optional extra tour. Click here for more information.

Where is Greenland?

Brett and Kate Goulston in Greenland

Monday, 11 September 2017

Wadi Rum and its lunar like landscape

Wadi Rum and its lunar landscape
By Kate Goulston

Jordan had a little surprise in store for us: we came to tour Petra but it was Wadi Rum that blew us away with its special kind of magic. It is an ancient desert in Southern Jordan which encompasses over 700 square kilometres of jagged formations, towering dunes, cylindrical cliffs, natural rock bridges and an endless cascading red sand valley. Touring the desert in a 4WD pick-up truck is an unforgettable experience - a fun adventure ride rather than a scenic tour, taking you flying over the top of sand dunes and across the bumpy terrain. Be prepared to get stuck in sand and feel the driver skillfully manoeuvre backward and forward to release the wheels before commencing his daredevil descent down the face of the mountain. First photo stop on our tour was the magnificent Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an enormous stacked stone formation which has been named in honour of T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia), a British solider who helped lead the Bedouin tribes to victory over the Ottoman Turks during the Arab Revolt of WWI.  Most of the classic movie was filmed here on location at Wadi Rum. This huge rock formation, with its seven fluted turrets, is spectacular in its scale and beauty. From there we were driven to a giant sand dune and invited to scramble up the top to take in the full drama of the desert panorama. Our shoes were filled to the brim with red sand but it was worth every grain. 

Our last stop is a visit to a Bedouin tent camp for refreshments, complete with a unique glimpse into the way of life. Bedouin means “inhabitant of the desert” and refers to a group of semi-nomadic, tribal Arab people. The Bedouin are renowned for their hospitality and live by the ethos that today you are a host but tomorrow you may be a guest. This understanding has a long tradition throughout the Middle East and is a means of survival for tribal people living and crossing some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth.

To tour Wadi Rum is to see a unique and beautiful place. Baked for centuries under the rays of the desert sun it glows a magnificent deep red orange. The colours are spectacular and against the purest blue sky backdrop your photos will look as if you have landed on Mars. The quiet and stillness of the desert is part of the wonder, only marred on occasion by the cranky bellow of a passing camel. Wadi Rum is a true gem.

If this is somewhere that interests you, join Blue Dot Travel's small group tour.  To find out more click here

Map of Jordan and Israel
A moment with one of the locals

Camels in the desert - no better transport

Amazing colours of the desert

Marnie and Holly Goulston around the indoor kitchen with the locals

Amazing desert landscapes

Brett Goulston hanging out with the locals

Monday, 4 September 2017

The Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia

Flaming Cliffs also known as Bayanzag
The Flaming Cliffs is an escarpment on the edge of the Gobi Desert in southern Mongolia, by road some 660kms from the capital Ulaanbaatar. The cliffs became famous in 1923 when young American explorer and paleontologist Dr Roy Chapman Andrews from the American Museum of Natural History discovered the first dinosaur eggs and the now infamous velociraptor, the scarily intelligent dinosaur made famous by the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. This is one of the most significant sites on Earth for dinosaur fossils.

Part of Asia’s largest desert, the South Gobi was once an inland sea where life flourished some 80 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous Period. Many experts speculate that it was also a site of mass extinction where avalanche-like sand-slides both swept dinosaurs away and preserved their remains.

Apart from fossils the cliffs provide a wonderful vista of the steppes. At sunset, as the sun drops below the horizon, its rays bathe the sandstone cliffs in the fiery colours that give them their name. Blue Dot Travel offers Mongolia tours. 
Come and join us on a small group tour to this raw and wild destination and share a sundowner as the sun sets on this wonderful part of the Gobi Desert.  Find out more... click here.

Map of Mongolia
 Unique red sandstone formations in the Mongolian Desert

Brod Brennan in Mongolia

 Joanne Coughlan navigating her way down the cliff

Monday, 28 August 2017

Discover Northern Cambodia

Village built over the mighty Mekong River

Words and photos By Brett Goulston

Without doubt, Cambodia is a poor country – probably the poorest of the region. Some of the rural areas face particular struggles, lacking in basic infrastructure. But regardless of the hardship much of the population endures every day, one thing is evident 
– the locals appear happy, more often than not with a smile on their face and always ready to exchange a wave with anyone who passes. This was evident on my trip from Phnom Penh, the capital city, to Kratie and through the northern rural parts of the country.

The trip by car takes about 5 hours on a decent sealed road. There are a few great stops along the way including Kampong Cham and its famous bamboo bridge of which you’ll want to take heaps of photos from every angle. There’s also Wat Nokor Bachey, a temple with a large reclining Buddha statue and a bustling local market. A few hours in, you’ll cross the Mekong River and continue along rural countryside to Kratie. The road stays close to the Mekong most of the way so you’ll watch the locals going about their daily activities and using the river for washing, cleaning and drinking. 

When you arrive in to Kratie, there’s a small market, local shopping area and just a few small hotels that lining the river. The township offers a good few hours of entertainment and a Chinese meal by one of the local restaurants on the river is popular.  

The main thing to see in Kratie is the rare Irrawaddy dolphins with the best time to visit being late in the afternoon when they are feeding. For a few dollars, a local boatman will take you out and it’s most probable you will see the dolphins. It’s quite a special moment when you first spot them given there are less than 100 left in this part of the river and they are an endangered species. Photographing them is difficult as they pop up for just a few seconds at a time. Take time to walk though the village on the way back to township. The houses are beautifully made wooded structures and with the sun on them, they make for fantastic photos.

Most people know Cambodia for the Angkor Temples and these are truly spectacular but there is much more to see including the rural north. The best time to visit Cambodia depends on the heat, rainfall and the number of tourists. Cambodia is warm year-round with temperatures rarely dipping below 20C but most travelers visit in November to March 

Blue Dot Travel offers Cambodia travel with small group tours.  Click here for details. 

Map showing location of Cambodia
Local village

Fishing Cambodian style

Meet the local children

Selling traditional clay stove pots

Exotic fruit of Cambodia

Mobile traditional clay stove seller in Cambodia

Monday, 21 August 2017

24 Hours in Bogota


After three days enjoying Colombia tourism, I expected more tropical weather in Bogota but the first thing I notice on arrival is the temperature. No … it’s not blistering hot … it’s a cool 15 degrees and I need a jacket! How can this be when I’m not that far from the equator? Well … Bogota sits at 2,500m above sea level at the foot of the Andes so it is cold to mild all year around. But the city itself is Colombia’s warm and beating heart, a vibrant and sprawling metropolis cradled by the tall surrounding peaks and offering heaps to do.

My guide Andrea (Andy) tells me we can race around and see the best of this city in one day if we go at a quick pace. I’m up for the challenge…

The second thing I notice about Bogota is that there is graffiti everywhere. Andy reassures me it’s street art – well tolerated although technically illegal. Strangely, they have an official “changing of the street art” every six months so it can’t be too frowned upon. Much of it is very clever work and there are even street art tours if that’s your thing.

I make my third core observation … there is security everywhere. Police, army and private security guards stand on every corner. I witness one handcuff arrest and another search of a young man spread-eagled against the wall. (I couldn’t help but stare – you just don’t see this stuff in Oz).

Andy advises there are about a dozen core sites around the city. The first – and most renowned – is the gold museum. Set aside a good 45 minutes to learn how the Spanish stole gold from the indigenous people who had used it in their daily life without recognising the value to the rest of the world.

Seventh Avenue is closed to cars to make a people-friendly public space. A walk down the wide, bustling avenue will take you past many shops and cafés and eventually lead to the Plaza de Bolivar, the centre of the city.  The square has all of the government buildings including the Supreme Court, the national capitol where government sits and the mayor’s offices plus the iconic Cathedral of Bogota.

We visit the Fernando Botero museum, a local artist who paints people and other items in “large” proportions. Apparently, he never uses the word “fat” and I couldn’t stop laughing at his version of the Mona Lisa (“way funny” as teenagers would say).

My favourite part of the city is the bohemian La Candelaria precinct, the historic cobbled old town which attracts many travelers with its tiny bars, cafés, craft shops, graffiti (whoops – street art) and young people everywhere … with that ever-present police presence.

Keen to travel to South America?
Blue Dot Travel offer small group tours of Columbia and Panama.  Click here for more information.  

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Galapagos Islands - one of the foremost wildlife experiences on the planet

Photos and story by Brett Goulston

All the documentaries I’d seen on the Galapagos Islands inferred that it’s one of the foremost wildlife experiences on the planet. Friends and family members who had travelled there only reinforced this. It was time to experience these famous islands for myself so, along with my family and some friends, we took at Galapagos cruise,  joining National Geographic Lindblad’s Islander, an expedition ship with a capacity of just 48 guests.

These isolated volcanic islands are a province of Equador, lying about 1,000kms off its coast. Whichever way you come at it, it’s a haul. From Guayaquil, Ecuador, we fly to Baltra Island, board the ship and before too long, head off on our first adventure – North Seymour Island via zodiac. The wildlife’s impact on us is strong and immediate. Just minutes after hitting the shore, a blue-footed booby poses for us on a rock, fur seal pups bask in the sun, land iguana’s are everywhere and we see dozens of bird species – too many to name. Special mention to the frigate male with its red chest puffing out to attract a female!

There’s a general rule on the Galapagos that tourists are not allowed within 6 feet of the wildlife. Problem is, the wildlife didn’t get the memo and doesn’t abide by the rule so expect to get close … real close … to many different and extraordinary species.

Over the week we snorkel, trek, paddle and witness the very best this archipelago has to offer. The list of wildlife we see first hand is extensive and brings with it the best possible boasting rights! There is no single highlight to mention – every activity or viewing brought its own wow factor.

We couldn’t fault any aspect of the cruise either. The staff’s knowledge, enthusiasm, and willingness to assist were simply outstanding. A real plus was their genuine passion for conservation and that care-factor can’t help but rub off on you. The food on board is varied, healthy and good quality. Our basic level cabin was more than comfortable. The activities, the planning, overall organisation and logistics all worked seamlessly. I could go on and on… and on… but the best thing to do is to go see this special part of the world for yourself.

The Galapagos Islands is one of the greatest places on the planet to get your fix of wildlife. Just remember the 6 feet rule – even if the wildlife doesn’t!   

Blue Dot Travel
is an authorised agent for Lindblad Expeditions - National Geographic and can book you on any one of their Galapagos Islands tours or other itineraries.  Click here for details. 

The Galapagos Islands lie nearly 1,000kms off Equador

Heading out on a zodiac to  meet the wild life

Easy does it for this old tortoise - who could be a century old!

Want to see unusual critters? Galapagos is the place!

Galapagos abounds with iguanas and reptiles ... kicking back in the sun for all to see

Lots of seals and sea lions to be spotted too - hard to get isn't in their vocab!

The famouse blue-footed booby - not to be confused with the red-footed equivalent!

The dramatic landscape that is home to some of the world's most unusual creatures

Bird life abounds

It's tough being out there all day in the equatorial sun

Told you the red-footed booby was different to the blue-fotted one!