Archive for the 'Travel & Adventure' Category

Travel & Adventure

Naked Greece, 30 years on

The Times January 09, 2010
– Ginny Dougary

My Greek trip brought back memories of naked fun in my youth, but would the country’s history add extra magic on my return?

zsithonia

Skinny tripping: Crab Hole beach can be reached only by boat or on foot

Floating in the cool water, the waves lazily lapping the tiny cove, all I can see are naked brown bodies.

A father attempts to inch up the ledges of one of the sculptural rock formations with his little girls; a drowsing figure with a sun-bleached red cap bobs along on a lilo; clusters of mahogany young women and men hang out, chatting or playing cards.

High above them, not far from a winding track, a more permanent sunbather has set up a small tent and a hammock. Crab Hole Beach, like all good nudist enclaves, can be reached, with some difficulty, only by foot or by boat.

My goal for this holiday is to sleep, rest and eat simply but well, without the pressure of being in a place where you feel guilty if you neglect to visit cultural sites. It doesn’t quite work out like that but the Crab Hole experience certainly goes some way to fulfilling the brief.

Our base is the Danai Beach Resort, a family-run (rather luxurious) hotel on the tip of the bluffs of the Aegean Peninsula, on the middle Macedonian finger of Sithonia in northern Greece. This is my third visit to Greece in 30 years and the only time I have not stripped off in public. The first trip was in the mid-Seventies, to the islands of Naxos and Paros as a student in my late teens.

That was the era of horrible loos, the treat of local honey-drizzled yoghurt (decades before its British supermarket ubiquity) to be eked out over breakfast and lunch (my boyfriend and I were broke), picnic suppers of feta and sun-sweetened tomatoes, and a bottle of retsina on the quay, watching the sun go down and stars come out, before we retired to our tent.

Later, we met up with friends who had secured sole residence of a beach, on a farmer’s property, and spent all summer naked, sleeping communally in a straw hut, buying vegetables from a man on a donkey, treading grapes, gorging on figs from nearby trees. The Greek beau of one of our party thrilled and appalled us by wading into the sea, armed with a spear, and returning with an octopus, all wriggling tentacles, before he bashed it against a rock and barbecued it over a fire.

Several decades on, when my boyfriend had become my husband (now former) and father of our two boys, we returned to Greece, this time to Corfu to stay in a well-appointed villa with my late mother. It was a bit more adventurous than the boys’ poor granny had bargained for.

After a day of heaving ourselves in and out of the sea to get on to our hired boat, followed by a perilous hike down a steep cliffside to a secluded beach, my aged mum cracked a heartfelt joke: “You know, there may be easier ways of bumping me off.” There was great interest in one particular painting the next term at my older son’s primary school parents’ evening: “Granny at the nudist beach.”

A decade later, while my younger, 18-year-old, son grooves it up in Mykonos,my partner and I are being driven past signposts pointing to beaches with the most un-Greek names of Goa, Bahia and Banana, now synonymous with the international rave scene. By the side of the curving road, there are a chilling number of shrines in memory of the kids who partied too hard and plunged to their deaths.

Demetri, our driver — who looks a bit of a raver himself with his shoulder-length hair, leather bracelets and cool-dude-shades, but who devoutly crosses himself every time we pass a church — points to Mount Athos on the other side of the sea.

This third Macedonian peninsula is a World Heritage Site, and self-governed monastic state, with 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries. It is accessible only by boat, and women are forbidden because we are descendants of Eve and so carry the same sin-laden genes of temptation. “Jackasses,” my American pal mutters after this earnest, slightly Talebanish explanation.

The new tourism market in this area is dominated by Russians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians. Demetri tells us that they “come here and meet the olive and fall in love”, so there is a big olive export trade, especially to the Russians.

The best things about the Danai are the restaurants and bar, which are all close to the beach. These really come into their own at night. You can sit at a long candle-lit marble slab, savouring grilled fish or meat and salad as you hear the soothing whoosh and retreat of the waves.

You can eat more formally with all the frills one level up, or go for gold at the Ferran Adrià and Heston Blumenthal-inspired (and slightly unfortunately named) Squirrel, where an over-pompous waiter will endeavour to perform the same nitrogen fireworks. But this occasional pretentiousness is more than made up for by the staff, who are down to earth and sweetly welcoming to children.

One day we drive past olive groves, orange earth and white houses with terracotta roofs, goats huddled by the roadside, up the mountainous terrain into Parthenonas, a cobblestoned village that dates back to the 10th century.

We stop for a beer and meze at a vine-covered taverna. It’s another family-run concern and, when we visit, is more populated by tourists than locals. But it’s charming, nonetheless.

On to the lovely Porto Koufos, with three or four restaurants at its tip. We are advised to go to the farthest one, where you pick your own fish (delicious dorado, in our case). All around is the chatter of Greek families. Boats clink and there are red geraniums and lavender at our feet. In this instructive lesson of the simple, good life we are attended by the owner, named — what else? — Socrates.

We can do nothing more strenuous than loll around on our sun-loungers, with the odd mini excursion, but once we hear that there is something really worth seeing, not that far away, the descendants of Eve succumb to the temptations of history.

First stop is Olynthus, described as the most important cultural centre in Halkidiki during the Classical era, first inhabited during the late Neolithic period (3000-2500BC). From 432BC, it was the seat of an alliance of 32 cities in Halkidiki, and played a leading role in the political life of the region for a century before being destroyed by Philip II (the father of Alexander the Great) in 348BC.

It is a long slog up the hill but at the top it is incredible to step into the houses of those townsfolk, marked out by some of the original stones mixed with modern additions. You can see how the town functioned, the hierarchy of the wealthy and less wealthy, and how (mistakenly) omniscient, at that great height, the inhabitants must have felt. There are also several stunning mosaic floors.

But the real revelation, for me, is some hours away: the royal tombs at Vergina, the old capital of Macedonia, buried under a huge man-made mound and undiscovered for centuries. After experiencing the destruction wrought by Philip II at Olynthus, here is a salutary reminder of death’s great leveller — although to gaze into his burial chamber you might consider that all of us die but some corpses enjoy a more illustriously appointed resting place.

The tombs, discovered in 1976, were buried so deeply that the treasures are in pristine condition. And what treasures. There are wonderful murals, including the abduction of Persephone by Pluto with his late Rembrandt-like physiognomy; tiny ivory sculptures of Philip and Alexander’s faces, breathtakingly lifelike with all their human facial flaws; and beautiful silver urns, with the most delicate gold leaf filigree wreaths.

Visit these tombs if you can, particularly if you’re lucky enough to get a guide as good as ours (also called Demetri), who made ancient history as throbbingly alive and intriguing as the best pageturning thriller.

The other highlight is a trip on an immaculate boat, built in the style of an old schooner and controlled by Captain Stelios and his first mate, Kyriakos. The idea is to fish and eat the spoils, but we manage to catch only one tiddler between us.

Fortunately, the captain’s wife has taken the precaution of buying another fisherman’s catch of prawns and swordfish, which are fried in olive oil with oregano and lemon. Served on deck with crusty bread and a Greek salad, ripe peaches to follow, this is a feast of the highest kind. But best of all is shrugging off my swimsuit to glide through the shimmering, clear sea. It’s a brief taste of my own ancient freedom — for old times’ sake.

NEED TO KNOW

Getting there

Kuoni (01306 747008, kuoni.co.uk) offers seven nights at the five-star Danai Beach Resort and Villas, Halkidiki, from £1,542pp based on two sharing. The price includes B&B in a junior suite, flights with British Airways, private transfers and an airport lounge pass in the UK.

Travel & Adventure

Driving San Francisco to LA – Chlling out in style on the West Coast of America

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Where better to start than Haight-Ashbury, the San Francisco centre of the Summer of Love? At first glance you could be forgiven for thinking that this was 1968 rather than 2008

The main drag is dominated by “head” shops selling crazy-looking bongs, and the boutique windows are full of tie-dye T-shirts. The pavement panhandlers, however, are very much the new generation of dropouts, mostly in their teens and twenties.

Our cheap and immensely cheerful digs were around the corner, also close to the great green swath of Golden Gate Park. These quiet streets are lined with grand old houses painted in dark aubergines and greys.

I had hoped to find suitably idiosyncratic accommodation, along the lines of Anna Madrigal’s guesthouse in Armistead Maupin’s epic tribute to San Franciscan life, Tales of the City — and Inn 1890 was the next-best thing: amusing fellow travellers, laid-back management and big breakfasts around a communal table, with a view of an ancient sprawling fig tree.

We made various sorties: to goggle at the giant redwoods in the national monument of Muir Woods; take vertiginous trolley rides; a Sound of Music singalong at the Castro Theatre; and to worship at the foodie shrine of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse.

Off on our road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway to Los Angeles; no Beach Boys soundtrack, alas, but the boys were gobsmacked by the views. Monterey’s 17-mile peninsula was so beautiful, the beaches black with a mass of sea otters and lions, we had to keep jumping out of the car to take a closer look.

New Year’s Day was at the knockout Post Ranch Inn, which is firmly at the well-heeled end of hippydom. My sons wallowed in the open-air hotbaths, while I went for a hike through the woods and valleys of the extensive grounds.

We arrived late in LA having stopped off at the kitsch spectacle of William Randolph Hearst’s castle in San Simeon. It’s worth checking out for the vanity of its vision but it’s a bit of a mission: advance booking strongly advised, a 15-minute bus ride from the car park, and so on.

The sightseeing in LA was unashamed gawping, with a tour of celebrities’ homes — the Beckhams are the No 1 top sighting — and Universal Studios, where a creepy Norman Bates lookalike ran after us with a shower-scene-from-Psycho knife (ho-ho). Venice Beach offers free freakshows, if watching men jump on shards of glass is your thing.

I used to be a Mondrian loyalist but have recently defected to the Sunset Tower hotel next door. No hippies or hip-hop artists there, but a perfect, soothing ending to a West Coast holiday.

Music, Travel & Adventure

A hip-hop tour of New York’s Harlem

The Times May 23, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Ginny Dougary and teenage sons take a guided tour of Harlem and the Bronx to find the roots of hip-hop

ginny and sons at the wall of fame

So there I am with my solid crew, two teenage sons and me in Kangol berets, dripping in bling, on loan from our hosts Grandmaster Caz and Reggie Reg, the grandaddies of hip-hop, manoeuvring our way through Harlem and the Bronx in a tour bus rapping to “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under”.

What a great way to start a family holiday in New York. Caz (short for Casanova) is an A* teacher; no slacking permitted as he fires out questions, checks whether his pupils have been listening, points out places of interest — where such and such a gangsta rapper was shot dead (“We always pause here to pay a little love . . . a little respect”) — and lists the four cornerstones of hip-hop culture: the DJ, the MC, breakdancing and graffiti. And then there’s the clothes.

“What’s the difference between fashion and style?” Headmaster Caz asks. To my astonishment, son No 2 puts up his hand: “Style isn’t what you wear, it’s how you wear it.” “Excellent answer,” Caz replies.

Our first stop is the playground of an empty school in Harlem, walls ablaze with cartoon figures and slogans, which has been dubbed the Graffiti Wall of Fame. Caz, who does most of the talking, finds it amazing that what was once considered an “outlaw” activity has been transformed into Art — depending on who’s doing it and where it’s displayed.

We learn how hip-hop started on August 11, 1973, when Kool Herc (whose father was a DJ in Jamaica and taught his son that James Brown was god) decided that his Party Must Go On.

After several nights of booming music that could be heard three blocks away, “it started getting out of hand”, Caz says, and the party moved from a tiny living room to nearby Cedar Park, which is where things became creative.

He leads us to what looks like a lamppost and says: “We needed electricity so you open this up and inside is a ‘thingummyjig’. You go to a hardware store and get a ‘thingummybob’ and you plug the thingummybob into the thingummyjig and you’re away. So the authoriteee of New York Citeee unwittingleee kickstarted hip-hop.”

Soon hip-hop parties were taking place all over the boroughs, from its birthplace in the Bronx to Brooklyn and Harlem — the boom box became known as “the Harlem briefcase” — while the Manhattanites remained in thrall to square old disco.

The first hip-hop single to enter the Top 40 was the Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight in 1979, and the original words were written by none other than our tour leader who performs the number for us on the bus, urging us to sing along to his “signature” line: “I’m the C-A-S-A, the N-O-V-A, the rest is F-L-Y”. Grandmaster Caz fought successfully to get a writer’s credit but has never received a cent in royalties; all the more reason to book a ride on his illuminating, and massively fun, tour.

After we are deposited, now sadly bling and beret-less, the boys (boyz?) and I walk down the streets of Harlem, all the way to our serviced appartment near Times Square. This is something of a nostalgia-fest since the last time I spent any time in Harlem was back in 1981 when the boys’ father, Bruce, and I were in New York as part of an extended honeymoon.

He ended up working on 125th street, the main vein of Harlem, selling fruit and vegetables from a stall with Gillie who — a quarter of a century later — is the photographer for this trip.

Harlem, then, was considered something of a no-go area for many native New Yorkers. Bruce would always take the subway to work from our studio sublet in Greenwich Village, since most yellow cab drivers simply refused the fare.

Our Harlem circle of friends and acquaintances tended to be in a less respectable line of work than our downtown gang, and their recreational habits were more self-destructive. Manchu, the fruit-and-vege boss, was an engaging figure who lived on a diet of Thunderbird wine and various heavy-duty drugs which, sadly, did for him in the end.

The Apollo Theatre, Cotton Club and Lenox Lounge, whose heyday was in the 1930s, are still in operation and thrive under the new tourism, as does Sylvia’s famous soul food restaurant.

The Body Shop, The Gap and other international brands have long since moved in, along with Bill Clinton’s headquarters, and the magnificent brownstone terraced houses that were once derelict and used as shooting galleries for junkies (Manchu once offered me a look around, but I declined) are restored and selling for millions.

On Sunday we returned to Harlem on a gospel tour. On our way to church we stopped to admire a number of striking historical buildings which, rather shamefully, I wasn’t even aware of as a twentysomething. Sylvan Terrace is a double row of wooden two-storey houses, very quaint with their ivy-green shutters, built in 1882 across a cobblestoned street.

This was the carriage drive for a substantial Georgian mansion, Mount Morris, built in 1765 for Colonel Roger Morris, a Royalist, and his Dutch wife. George Washington used it as his headquarters during the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. In 1810 the wealthy French-Caribbean wine merchant Stephen Jumel and his wife, Eliza Bowen, restored it.

Jumel died in mysterious circumstances, according to our guide, and his widow — who had become the richest person in New York — went on to marry Aaron Burr, Vice-President to Thomas Jefferson, in the front parlour.

The church service, itself, was a bit of a letdown and too long for our unGodbothering tastes. I loved the way the congregation dressed up and the warm, sprawling family atmosphere. But the gospel singing was distinctly tame (its members, we were told, are recovering addicts) and not a patch on the choir I saw at a gospel brunch in Jimmy’s, a celebrity hangout in Harlem in the late Nineties. The singers were ultra-lively and rejoiced in such bonkers lyrics as “My Lord is a washing machine”.

The rest of our week was packed with all the enjoyable New York clichés: the free entertainment of opera-singing, rollerblading show-offs in Central Park; carb-filled breakfasts in the Empire Diner; oysters in Grand Central station; the Rockettes in Radio City Hall; jazz in the West Village; Polish food in the East Village; ice- skating at the Rockefeller Centre.

After a break in Philadelphia we returned for a last night at the Mandarin hotel in a suite of Madame Jumel-like luxury. The boys were thrilled with their eyrie views of Central Park. The staff, with the minimum of fuss, converted the sofas into beds while we were dining downstairs and both sons pronounced the hamburgers “excellent” and the female diners “fit”.

Earlier, I had a half-a-day in the company of a personal shopper, Deanna, who picked me up in a white stretch limo. We were, alas, a mismatch; she being a willowy Sex and the City girl, while I am more Rosemary and Thyme (not Felicity Kendal, the other one).

Deanna was frank: my look “definitely needed updating”. Thus I found myself, in slight panic mode, buying absurdly feminine shoes, a white coat and Prada boots, most of which have remained in the wardrobe. I should have listened more carefully to the hip-hop headmaster or, indeed, my son: “It’s not what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it.”

Bang that, shoppers, to the boogie, boogie beat.

Getting there

The Mandarin Oriental (001 212 805 8800, www.mandarinoriental.com/newyork), 80 Columbus Circle at 60th Street, has double rooms from £515 a night including breakfast.

Hush Hip Hop Tours (001 212 209 3370, www.hushhiphoptours.com) of Harlem are $50pp.

Fashion Junkie (www.fashionjunkie.com) offers four-hour guided walking tours from $100pp, and private shopping from $275pp including transport.

Further information NYC & Company (020-7367 0934, www.nycgo.com).

Virgin Atlantic (0844 8747747, www.virgin-atlantic.com) flies from Heathrow to New York from £315 return.

Travel & Adventure

Return to Indochine

The Times – January 19 2008
– Ginny Dougary

From Graham Greene to Apocalypse Now and the vanished world of French colonials, in Vietnam Ginny Dougary encounters a land of haunting resonances

My travelling companion, a most unquiet American, was beginning to feel picked on. You would think that she had become accustomed to it by now, having weathered the anti-Yank onslaught of taxi drivers, shopkeepers, anyone really in Europe who on hearing her accent would launch into a diatribe about those arrogant, swaggering, ignorant folks across the pond who had the most stupid president in history and had landed us in all this unwanted aggro.

But in Vietnam, it was a whole new level of awkwardness for, perhaps, the obvious reasons, and all the more disorientating because of the friendliness of the people. The different perspective on recent history makes an immediate impression from the moment that you hear what we have always known as the Vietnam War referred to as the American War.

Wandering around the Ho Chi Minh City Museum, a popular setting for wedding photos (six different couples when we were there), the museum’s guide points to a photograph of a local hero. It was the first stop of our trip and we hadn’t yet adjusted our mindset, so we asked what act of heroism the man had carried out to receive this commendation and were told, with an earnestly helpful expression, that he had come very close to succeeding in blowing up Robert McNamara, the former US Secretary of Defence and architect of the Vietnam (or American) War. The young woman nodded her head and smiled and we smiled and nodded back.

Since the early Nineties when Vietnam first opened up to tourism, the promotional emphasis has been on Vietnam as a country, not a war. And, boy, from what we went on to see, what a country it is. I was particularly struck, further on in our trip, when we escaped from the already slightly tarnished strip of Nha Trang’s extended beaches in south central Vietnam, by the beautiful drama of the sweeping cliff-drive views – an implausibly stunning amalgam of Byron Bay, Big Sur and the Côte d’Azur.

Hotels and restaurants have been privatised and various international companies are now marketing Vietnam as an exclusive holiday destination. The problem is that the staff simply don’t have the necessary language skills yet to be able to provide the seamless service they would like. But they are so very willing and sweet and anxious to please that even I, with my princessy tendencies, felt rather ashamed of my spoilt Western ways.

The smiling warmth of the people makes Vietnam an extremely appealing place to visit and is all the more striking because of all the horrors its people have had to endure – from the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and, of course, the Americans.

I re-read Graham Greene’s story of The Times correspondent’s betrayal of a quiet American agent provocateur and re-read the story of his Fifties Vietnam war (the French War?) in my hotel room, the palm trees waving in the tropical downpour, down the road from where he wrote his book in the Continental in what was called rue Catinat. I was struck again by the power of his recoil from the repugnance of war – the description of the canal stuffed with bodies over which their boat got stuck into the human clay. The horrid sight of a mother and her boy: “He was about six years old and he lay like an embryo in the womb with his little bony knees drawn up.… He was wearing a holy medal around his neck, and I said to myself, ‘The juju doesn’t work.’ There was a gnawed piece of loaf under his body. I thought, ‘I hate war.’”

In the tunnels, Michael Herr’s Dispatches came back to me with some force. I had read it when it came out in the late Seventies and when I saw Apocalypse Now it reminded me of the book – not surprisingly as Herr co-wrote the script. Herr hung out with the young infantrymen known as “grunts” and wrote their stories, as well as those of his photographer comrades, the likes of Tim Page, Sean Flynn (son of Errol) and Dana Stone. Flynn and Stone are among the roll call of the dead in a series of rooms, sponsored by the state of Kentucky, at the War Remnants Museum, formerly known as the War Crimes Museum.

It would seem to be almost a dereliction of – what? – I struggle to find the right word – responsibility? morality? historical rectitude, even? – not to visit these places when you come to Vietnam. Visitors are actively encouraged to go as a sort of recognition of what the Vietnamese have gone through and suffered (and continue to suffer, more than 30 years on, from the devastating after-effects of Agent Orange), and to marvel at how they have endured. But it is also part of Vietnam’s “moving on” that America’s losses are recognised, too, and that after you have absorbed these horrors, you should go on and enjoy the ancient temples and buildings that have remained unscathed and the loveliness of the landscape.

There is so much that is upsetting at the museum that it is hard to isolate what is worst: the big books filled with small biographies of each family’s son or daughter who was killed in action; knowing that some day there will be another book like this when another war has ended; the bottles of foetuses in the Vietnam wing; the report written after the My Lai massacre, with its stark list of 504 civilians killed – most of them women and men over 60, babies, young children, mothers and expectant mothers.

We drive out of the city, with its fronds of electric cables hanging in great garlands over the narrow buildings and its small armies of scooters, into the green and gold rice paddies, the sun glinting over the water buffalo and men and women in their ao dai trouser-dresses up to their knees in water, faces shielded by their cone-shaped hats. Past the trees with their seeping sap of rubber collecting in bowls, into an area associated with the most intense warfare, the Cu Chi tunnels and the headquarters of the Vietcong.

It is eerie to wander through the muddy forests – with that nightmarish sense of recognition from seeing precisely this setting in Hollywood’s version of the war – hearing the sound of distant gunfire (from tourists at the shooting range), as V points out the trap doors concealed under foliage, and the booby-traps which left young American soldiers mangled or crushed. “Ingenious” you say, as you listen to the names for different inventions, such as “The Leaving Present”, and I think of Michael Herr’s words about “the lean young men, with only the teenage fat of their innocence to keep away the chill; and then they lose that”.

As for the tunnels themselves – they may have been widened for the big-bottomed tourists but I had visions of being stuck like Winnie the Pooh, with my legs wiggling in comic desperation, and decided there were some experiences better left to the imagination.

After all this reality, we were looking forward to a dose of nostalgic escapism in Dalat – the Vietnamese equivalent of India’s hill stations where homesick French colonials built their Normandy mini-manoirs and tried to be elegant against the odds. The odds being, as we discovered: heavy and unceasing rainfall, muddy walkways, damp. We stayed in a curious compound of painstakingly restored Twenties villas – one vast pad all to ourselves, with a claw-footed bath in our bedroom, a triple-size bed swathed in mosquito nets, dark wood floors and views of the dripping, mulchy green highlands beyond. In the retro restaurant, we ate delicate meals in dim lighting to the mournful strains of Edith Piaf.

We did what we could to enjoy our sodden summer holiday, aided by daily massages, but Dalat post-colonial and in a deluge is not a place that offers endless divertissements. So we boarded a train in a station that was a gaudily-painted, possibly once splendid Deco delight, visited a village chief who played some pipes and offered a suck on some sort of fermented honey brew, and sampled noodle soup in a street café.

How interesting it would have been to talk to the descendants of locals who had serviced the French colonials who had come to Dalat on their weekend and summer retreats. How did they entertain themselves, what sort of intrigues unfolded, did it bear any resemblance to the glamour and casual cruelty depicted in the videos of Indochine and Les Amants we watched at night by the stoked fireside on the weirdly chilly summer nights?

In the end, we were dispatched to a safer prospect of sunshine in the Robinson-Crusoe chic of another resort, where we spent our days lolling around in our own private infinity rock pool. This was the closest thing to paradise. And still what surfaces from my “Vietnam is a country not a war” holiday is the image in the War Remnants Museum of a little girl’s schoolbag, retrieved from a French crackdown, next to a picture of her hopeful face and a pencil case, and I thought how useless it is to think, “I hate war”.

Travel & Adventure

Travels with my son

Times Online – Parents, January 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Raw adventure or 007-style glamour…Ginny Dougary and her teenage son had different expectations of their holiday in Oman, but in the end it was a uniquely bonding experience

Oman

It was clear from the start that there was a considerable gulf between Darcy’s idea of adventure and mine, and that our challenge would be to find common ground. From the time he entered his teens, my 15-year-old son has been taken with the James Bond approach to risky living, stylistically, at any rate. He likes the whole shaken-not-stirred, suave Bond ethos: the unruffled tailoring, glamorous locations and even more glamorous consorts.

He also loves hotels ­ the ones, that is, which are garlanded in stars. His mother, on the other hand, likes the idea ­ if not always the reality ­ of placing herself outside her comfort zone, and has the credentials to prove it, having camped on the ice in Antarctica to take one (admittedly, yes, all right, the only one in recent times) example. But while I think it’s absurd to visit an exotic country without sampling its culture and seeing something of its people, traditions and landscape, I do love to be able to retreat at the end of an adventurous, possibly uncomfortable, day to a stylish and comfortable hotel where I can be guaranteed a delicious meal and efficient service.

Our destination was Oman (our ultimate travel goal Kuwait, where I was born and spent the first ten years of my life, which will be the subject of another article in this magazine). There we had two fabby hotels to stay in:
the new Shangri-La and the Chedi, both of which offer the comfort I crave and enough 007-style glamour to please Darcy. The Shangri-La resort is a vast sprawl of hotel complexes, carved out of the blasted, unusual sandy-coloured rock jutting out of the coast, about an hour’s drive south of Muscat. Our digs there were nothing short of fantastic: a gargantuan suite, the whole outer length of which was ceiling-to-floor glass, opening out on to a wide balcony where we enjoyed a lavish cooked breakfast every morning.

Even within these pampered confines, the hotel still managed to lay on some adventures for us ­ although some were less rugged than others. Darcy, for instance, experienced his first massage. I went first and heartily recommended being beaten by a heated poultice containing turmeric, frankincense and ginger. Darcy’s notes read: “Nervous at first… Knew what to expect with the bashing but still surprising.”

One of the highpoints of our holiday was fittingly on the morning of my 50th birthday. Hector, the assistant recreations manager and local turtle expert, drove us to a nearby beach where we met his brother and boarded a fisherman’s boat. Then off we went, past the unspoilt coastline of cliffs plunging into the sea, and many small, secret coves. Darcy had already announced that there was something so improbable about the Shangri-La resort itself, a luxurious settlement shielded by a towering escarpment, that it felt a bit like the hidden domain of one of the Bond baddies. But this boat-ride felt even more Bond-like to me, particularly when we all jumped overboard to snorkel, Hector’s brother speared a cuttlefish, and the clear water was filled with a mass of black ink which erupted volcanically, even more so when he bore the fish aloft which made us shriek and scuttle away in our flippers.

Our next stop was the Chedi, where we were chauffeur-driven in a Mercedes, which made my son’s day. Deprived child as he is ­ his parents only ever having owned second-hand wrecks ­ Darcy delighted in showing me all the fantabulous things an A* vehicle can do, such as, “Look, Mum, see how I can make your air-conditioning different to mine!” The Chedi’s reputation precedes itself and the hotel in itself has been responsible for transforming Oman into a high-end tourist destination. This is the perfect hotel for well-heeled designer-junkies and romantic couples ­ indeed, Darcy gave it the ultimate accolade when he announced that he might come here for his honeymoon.

The Bond theme ­as in narrative not dadadadadda tune ­was reprised, oddly enough, at the Grand Mosque. This is a very grand affair, commissioned by the Sultan in 1993, which can accommodate more than 20,000 worshippers. The finest carved sandstone, marble, gold leaf, mosaics, stained glass and crystal all contribute to its opulence, and in the main prayer hall (men only; the women’s area is far smaller and comparatively modest) the handmade Persian carpet alone took four years and the service of 600 women weavers to produce. What impressed Darcy, in particular, as he wrote in his notes was that: “It’s more elaborate than any church, and more high-tech than a James Bond film.” He was delighted by the retractable stone canopy in one of the outdoor areas, the secret wood-panelled doors, the mobile phone sound nullifiers, the hidden air-conditioning and so on.

Respectful as I try to be about other people’s culture, I was less delighted by how vigilantly our very sweet and devout guide kept fussing with my headscarf. Mostly, however, I felt quite comfortable and free as an unveiled Western woman moving around in public in Muscat and its environs ­ although I would say that Ramadan isn’t the best time to visit Oman. The Sultan went to Sandhurst and his affection for the Brits appears to have been passed on to his people. It is still possible, nevertheless, to make an unwitting faux-pas.

Our longest day of pure adventure started with a three-hour drive into the Wahiba Sands ­an immensely picturesque desert of deep-red sand and dunes rising to 200m, whipped by the wind into fabulous abstract patterns, throbbing with colour against the electric-blue blaze of cloudless sky. We stopped off at a distinctly untouristy produce market and attempted to converse with the rows of women seated on benches, shrouded in black, their faces hidden by slightly sinister-looking metal visors. The male stall-holders and women alike were quite happy to be photographed with us.

We bashed up and down the most vertiginous dunes in our guide’s four-wheel drive ­ which was almost too exciting for me. Here and there, we saw goats or a family of untethered camels lolloping along. I had hoped ­in a slightly half-hearted way since I’m not the happiest of campers ­that we might stay the night in the desert. But this was out of the question, apparently, because of the unseasonally hot temperatures (around 95 degrees).

Finally, we stopped off at a Beduin family’s home, known to the guide, where we sat under the reed-plaited roof on the carpeted sand and drank tiny cups of dank-tasting cinnamon-spiced coffee and ate deliciously sticky dates. The father of the family was away and the mother was in hospital with a sickly new baby. So we were entertained by their older son and daughter, a mischievous toddler with sultry khohl-rimmed eyes (to ward off infection) and a 12-year-old sister with Down’s Syndrome. This cheerful little girl had a hole in her heart and her skin was ashen pale. Our guide told us that she didn’t have long to live. Whenever I spoke about her in the days to come, it was clear that Darcy could hardly bear to contemplate something so sad. I’m still not sure whether this meant that he understood, in that small glimpse of how other people in other far-off countries live, how immensely fortunate he and his friends are.

After all that heat and dust, we drove on for several more hours to the oasis-like Wadi Bani Khalid. Picking our way along the walkway of falaj water canals ­ an ancient system of irrigation introduced by the Persians around 2,500 years ago ­ we came upon emerald-green pools of fresh water surrounded by massive boulders and palm trees and fronds of delicate oleander. Darcy and I couldn’t wait to strip off to our bathing costumes and plunge in, and it was blissfully liberating to cool down in such an idyllic setting. But soon after we arrived, a group of migrant Indian male workers also turned up to take a dip. Clearly starved of the sight of so many ample inches of unclad female flesh, their collective gaze was transfixed by my most un-Venus-like clumsy scrambles in and out of the rock-strewn water, so we left sooner than we might have liked.

Back at the car, there was a charming sight of three young boys cuddled up, apparently fast asleep on a colourful rug. I asked our guide whether it would be OK to take a photograph. “No problem,” he said “They’re only children.” But as I raised my camera, the eldest reached for a stone to throw at me. And what a look he gave me: pure, malevolent hatred, almost adult, as though I were the enemy of enemies, intent on robbing him and his brothers of what they held most dear.

We went on several more trips ­a boat ride to watch the amazingly large numbers of spinner dolphins, one or two obliged us by performing their acrobatics in the air; a sunset cruise on an old teak dhow, the graceful trading vessels which were designed like a Portuguese galleon. This dates back to the 16th century, when the Portuguese developed Muscat as their prinicipal naval base, until they were ousted in 1650 by an Omani military force. The handsome ancient forts that flank both sides of the harbour date back to this time. But perhaps the biggest travel boost of all was to discover how much fun Darcy and I could have together, just the two of us, away from all our usual known safety nets ­ and in this sense, with or without James Bond, we definitely had an adventure.

General, Travel & Adventure

Ice castles

Times Saturday Magazine, November 11 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Francis Latreille’s photographs are a tribute to the North Pole’s majestic, glacial beauty – and a chilling reminder of man’s careless destruction of the natural world

ice castles

These unique sculptures, each one fashioned by the elements, seem to be living proof that there is no artistry more entrancing than that which is created by nature. They are so dreamlike in their beauty that it is hard to look at them without falling silent, and in that small space of time you step out of the humdrum everyday and into an icy place of the imagination. But flicking through the pages, you also rec­ognise majestic echoes of ancient cathedrals, blades soaring into the sky which resemble the creations of our best modern architects, an iceberg whose profile amusingly mirrors the questing form of a polar bear on the hunt.

You may enjoy these natural art works without pausing to consider their ephemerality. They endure as a sort of trick of visual fiction – their permanence achieved only because they attracted the attention of Francis Latreille, who happened to be there, in a remote place that few people get to visit, and chose to transform something fleetingly spectacular into a lasting pleasure. When he lined up his camera in that chance moment, he knew that the glorious sight that filled his lens was a one-off that could never be recaptured by himself or anyone else.

ice castles

The experience of gazing at these images – stunning as they are – cannot compare with the exhilaration of witnessing for yourself the treasures of the Arctic gallery in their full monumental glory, the chill of the air on your cheeks, your heart soaring at the sight of the turquoise glowing under the white transformed by a shaft of sunlight into an iridescent gem-like blue. The satisfying crunch of the icy sea-floor under your booted foot, which opens up here and there to reveal: intricate patches of lacework, curious fibre-optic networks, bubbles of air trapped and frozen. You stop to marvel and move on to the next breathtaking vision. The rubble-yards of snow whipped up by the wind, then caught at precarious, tilting angles – as though nature were a mischievous faery child who had waved a wand. A day later, another windstorm, and that frozen Giacometti or Hepworth will have gone. So being there not only gives you the weirdly omniscient sense that each sculpture has been made for your eyes only, but is a constant reminder of change and fluctuation.

ice castles

It took a man, inspired by the treasures of the Arctic gallery, to bring this evidence back home to share with us – and it is man who is destroying the environment in which these wonders are found. Our first thoughts on looking at these chilly beauties is not of warming and hothouse effects, but the stark facts in the text that accompany these photographs make it clear that Latreille’s book comes with a message.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The ice floe or ice sea has lost more than 8 per cent of its surface area and 40 per cent of its thickness over the past three decades – which is why Pen Hadow, the explorer, found himself swimming as much as skiing to the North Pole on his last historic expedition. The Greenland ice cap – containing 90 per cent of the northern hemisphere’s reserve of fresh water – has begun to melt away. The glaciers are retreating. The layer of perma frost, made up of earth, vegetable matter and ice, which covers some four million square miles in Siberia, Canada and Alaska, is thawing on a scale that has not been seen in the past 11,000 years. Fresh water is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, affecting its salinity, which is already having devastating consequences on the food chain. The tundra has begun to transform into a swamp, releasing incalculable quantities of methane gas – compared to a “sleeping dragon” – presently fossilised in the ice.

ice castles

What do these bleak bullet points mean? To the Inuit people, it is the destruction of their homes and their livelihoods. The ice shelf is forming much later in the year and is infinitely more fragile than it was before, which means the hunters and fishermen who dare to move across it run a much higher risk of drowning. They are having to dismantle their houses and move them to less vulnerable areas – but as the sea encroaches inland, how far will the Inuit be forced to retreat?

The hunting season has shortened significantly. Reindeer are no longer able to feed themselves because the constant melting and freezing has created a new crust which their hooves have not been adapted to penetrate to get to the lichen below. The caribou population around Peary in Ellesmere Island declined from 26,000 in 1961 to 1,000 in 1997. The most abiding symbol of the North Pole, the polar bear, is fighting for survival because the ice shelf – its food store and playground – is shrinking. There are also disturbing signs that they are being dramatically affected by the pesticides and chemical wastes spilled into the environment, especially into the water, as the pollutants ride the ocean currents that flow into the cold zones… into algae eaten by fish which go into the bellies of the seals which end up powerfully concentrated in the polar bears at the top of the food chain, affecting their ability to reproduce and leading to congenital malformations.

And what do these inconvenient truths mean for us? Do they take the shine off our enjoyment of the photographs, or do they make us more concerned about what happens in these imperilled places of remote and mysterious loveliness? Will we only care when we start to suffer the consequences of such carelessness ourselves – and will that be too late to remedy the effects? In May 2005, in Brussels, representatives of the Arctic Circle, an intergovernmental forum created to promote circumpolar co-operation, issued an alarm declaring that what happens in the Arctic is a barometer for the rest of the world. And that is Francis Latreille’s wake-up call behind the beauty of his book.

Photographs from White Paradise by Francis Latreille, published by Abrams and available from BooksFirst priced £22.46 (RRP £24.95), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy

Politicians, Travel & Adventure, Women

The labours of Cherie

TIMES SATURDAY MAGAZINE – May 13, 2006
Ginny Dougary

Photographs – Jenny Matthews

For all her achievements as Cherie Booth QC, Cherie Blair has had a rocky ride at No 10. Ginny Dougary joined her on last month’s tour of Pakistan and Afghanistan to gain a remarkable close-up view of the PM’s spouse in action.

Cherie Blair

The period of our travels with Mrs B, wife of The Boss – as the couple at No 10 are known by their staff – began with admonishments from one of her advisers that I was not under any circumstances to write “fluffily” about Cherie’s clothes, and ended back in England with Hairgate, the front-page disclosures that the Labour Party had paid £7,700 to Cherie’s hairdresser – the bill for a month of styling her locks – during last year’s general election campaign.

In between the warning and what felt like its fulfilment, a photographer, Jenny Matthews, and I had spent a week more or less “embedded” with Cherie and her entourage in Pakistan – where the Prime Minister’s wife had been invited as a guest of the Government, in her own right as patron of Breast Cancer Care – and Afghanistan, meeting the most remarkable women, from the loftiest to the lowest echelons of their societies.

My first sighting of Mrs B was one that has somehow stuck through all the other images of her more buffed public persona, perhaps because it was more “real”. She emerged from the plane, as we touched down at dawn in Islamabad, uncoiffed, no make-up, sleepy, casually dressed. She may be an ambitious woman with a formidable brain, and a pronounced drive to change the world for the better – a consequence of both her unpampered upbringing and her faith – but the ability I witnessed in her to connect with people from the most humble backgrounds, is to do with her humanity and natural warmth.

Watching her at close quarters, over a prolonged period, I sometimes caught a glimpse of her as a young girl – when she walked from a stage to her seat, with her modest, unshowy deportment; an occasional suggestion of lack of confidence in her general mien. I had come across her daughter, Kathryn, years ago, in a different context, and was struck by something similar in the way that they carried themselves.

Throughout the trip, Cherie was at pains to point out to the women she met that the fight for equal rights was something that was still being fought in her own country. This was partly a diplomatic move, an attempt to minimise the gulf of difference and maximise mu­t­uality, but also because it happens to be true. While it would be almost grotesquely absurd to equate the deprivations of most Western women with the barbarisms that are meted out to some women in Pakistan – honour killings, burnings and the like – it is still undeniably the case that certain prominent women are filtered through a particular prism. At one point in our journey, I asked Cherie whether it irk­ed her that a woman’s image is so pivotal to the way her actions are perceived. “You don’t have to worry about lipstick in the law,” was Cherie Booth, QC, bencher of Lincoln’s Inn, and founder of Matrix Chambers’ response.

At the end of our time together, when we sat down to a formal interview, I asked her how she felt about her depiction as a greedy, freebie-chasing, slightly loopy – here, she chuckled – creepily alternative, Lady Macbeth figure. “Lady Macbeth!” she chuckled more. “Is there anyone else evil we can identify me with? Look, in the end, you’ve spent a week with me. You can make up your own mind whe­th­er you think I’m a completely Loopy-Lou, freebie-loving person. But I am here with a serious purpose, actually, and because I think that if we can try and do something to make a difference, we should.”

THE LADIES WHO LUNCH
We arrive for the lunch in the President’s house, through security and into various spectacularly high-domed rooms, and thence into the banqueting hall. It is the start of a dizzying jerk between different realities, only a helicopter or convoy drive away: from opulent palaces, hallucinogenic flower displays, and fragrant ladies who mostly have their heads uncovered, to refuges, tented schools, widows, orphans, the stench of dung and poverty, scorched earth.

At the central table, Cherie is seated between Mrs Musharraf, the wife of the President, and Mrs Aziz, wife of the Prime Minister, and patron of the Breast Cancer (Pink Ribbon) Campaign in Pakistan. Other tables are filled with an impressive array of female academics, lawyers and campaigners. It is this sort of dual hosting of Mrs B’s trips that is so often a matter of political delicacy: when does Cherie Booth become Cherie Blair? But the statistics that we are to hear again and again override the temptation to speculate about any such tensions.

Pakistan has the highest rate of mortalities from breast cancer of any Asian country; statistics show that 35 per cent of women suffer from breast cancer. It is shocking, is it not? – as Cherie is to say in one of her many speeches – that more than 50 per cent of women diagnosed with breast cancer in Pakistan don’t even report for treatment. And it is shocking – is it not? – that so many women die from the disease without even passing through the health system.

There are all sorts of reasons why women from a predominantly Muslim country would not feel free to check their own breasts – or have their husbands, or anyone else, check them for them. But beyond the cultural obstacles, there is also the question of lack of funds, a shortage of female health workers, general ignorance and, until now, a lack of will to do anything about the problem. I was told that a “proper” word for breasts doesn’t even exist in Urdu; only demeaning slang.

Cherie’s personal connection with breast cancer – and most activists have one – is that her aunt Audrey, who played a significant role in her niece’s upbringing, died of the disease aged 52, having spent years in denial about the lump she had found. As the Patron of Breast Cancer Care points out, even in our own country it is relatively recent that the stigma and secrecy around the disease has lifted.

THE UNACCOUNTABLES
Off by helicopter to “Aashiana”, a Persian word meaning nest, a temporary government-funded refuge for widows, orphans and women made destitute by the earthquake that claimed 87,000 lives. The figures produced in a random survey by the Population Council and UNICEF of vulnerable people in earthquake-affected areas suggest that there are 6,047 orphans, 1,724 widows and destitute women, 4,686 disabled. This refuge on 50 acres has the capacity to care for just 1,500 of them.

We go into a room where 15-year-old boys and girls in neat blue cotton sit in front of a dozen computers. Mrs B makes a beeline for one of the girls and asks her to explain what she is doing. “I use the computer a lot,” she explains, always offering an example from her own life to try to put the other person at ease. But this is not just small talk. Over a curry lunch in a restaurant the next day, the most relaxed event of the week since it was spontaneous, she tells me what a lovely job she did on Euan’s history dissertation, designing and laying out the pages on her computer at midnight. She laughs when I accuse her of being a techie. “Do you not know about my great skills at IT? I was the first chairman of the Bar’s IT committee. I’m very proud of that. And I enjoy playing with my Powerpoints. Are you not impressed by them?” Most mornings Cherie was up at 7am, writing her speeches and working on their presentation.

As we move into other buildings, where the children are younger, the distress is more evident. There are two small rooms, with space for no more than a double bed in each, in which 16 of the unaccompanied infants sleep huddled together. Cherie moves right in and sits among them and when a little boy starts wailing at the sight of all the towering strangers, she takes him on to her lap and comforts him. He doesn’t let go of her hand for the rest of the tour.

We move on to meet the widows, who tell their harrowing stories. A number of them have lost their sight since the earthquake devastated their lives, as though they have been struck blind not dumb by what they have witnessed. One woman weeps inconsolably and her tears flow throughout the meeting. Her whole family was wiped out by the earthquake and she cannot forgive herself since it was she who persuaded her brother to visit her with his children. She was out in the fields working while at home were her two daughters, two sons, her grandchildren, nephews and nieces and brother… all of them lost. There is a look of real distress on Cherie’s face as the interpreter recounts this, and she reaches out to hold the woman’s hand. “Tell her it’s not her fault, can you?” She asks each woman what she wants – to stay in the refuge or go back to what’s left of their villages, are they being trained, and so on. When I comment on how much she en­gages with everyone she meets, she puts it down to the women in her family: “My mother and my grand­mother were always very interested in people and what made them tick – endlessly fascinated by life.”

PINK RIBBON DINNER
We arrive at the Prime Minister’s house for pre-dinner drinks and a meeting of various health ministers, Dr Maleeha Lodhi, the Pakistan High Commissioner in London – a well-respected figure who was in New York during 9/11 and is said to have played a pivotal role in influencing the Pakistan Government’s subsequent decision to work with the United States – and various other political figures.

The hum of noise from a connecting room becomes louder, and we walk in to meet diplomats, senators, heads of NGOs, police officers, a general, two commercial pilots, two fighter pilots in their early twenties, the governor of the Central Bank… all women. As Cherie says in her speech, she would be hard-pushed to present such an impressive roll-call in London… “I’m sure this means that your society will be on the up and up.”

Around my table are some faces that I recognise from the first lunch. Zarine Aziz is the president of the First Women Bank. Why is it, she asks, that Western journalists perpetuate the myth that all wom­en in Pakistan are dumb and downtrodden? Why, when there have always been strong women of influence. Benazir Bhutto? Oh, long before her, Zarine waves her hand dismissively. The other wom­en agree that they feel misrepresented by our media. Look at the part Fatima Jinnah played, the sister of the founder of Pakistan in 1947, they say. The new quota that was introduced in 2003 of women councillors at local level was 33 per cent, which translates into 30,000 new women councillors. In the National Assembly, 60 women are assured places out of a total of 342 MPs.

We troop downstairs for a fashion-cum-culture show. It’s been a long day and it’s now around 11pm but Cherie is still looking perky and smiley in the front row. The models are well-known local actors, all doe eyes and Bollywood strained sincerity. There’s a wildly exuberant twist on the Raj – a handsome young man is dressed, frankly absurdly, in puce britches, turquoise waistcoat and lime cravat, with some sort of codpiece device. He fixes Cherie with a devastating smoulder, and when she gives him a distinctly bawdy look back, he is so flabbergasted, he breaks out laughing. This, no doubt, would be considered evidence by some of Mrs B’s vulgar streak, but it does lighten proceedings. When we tease her about her flirtatious behaviour, she gamely joins in. As she says to one of the women we meet in a less glam­­orous setting a day or so later, “Everyone’s entitled to a bit of fun.”

WOMEN AT WORK
Although Cherie’s main brief in Pakistan is to raise awareness of breast cancer, as a guest of the Government she is also expected to make appearances at other events. This raises the question that exercises her critics, namely, where does her role as Ms Cherie Booth blend into that of Mrs Cherie Blair. Although she has undeniably achieved a great deal in her own right as Cherie Booth QC, would she really have had the red-carpet treatment (as well as the first-class plane tickets), were she not the wife of the Prime Minister?

Left to her own devices, my guess is that she would have chosen to spend more time in Pakistan seeking out the company of ordinary women – “a horrible phrase”, she says, but we know what she means – and less high-society hobnobbing. It’s where she certainly seems most comfortable. This is partly to do with what she once referred to as “the little bit of grit” in her faith, particularly in its social teaching, which is part of its enduring appeal to her – and one of the reasons why she wanted to raise her children as Catholics. When I asked her to explain this, she said: “It’s not quite the same these days where everyone seems to be Catholic as far as I can see… but certainly when I was growing up, to be a Catholic was something that meant you were not part of the Establishment. And so, being from a fairly humble family myself, and knowing that my children are having a pretty privileged life, I don’t want them to be simply part of the Establishment.”

The next morning’s seminar is on women’s entrepreneurship and development. In front of the LokVirsa cultural centre are many stalls covered with all manner of different handicrafts. Gifts are thrust upon her at every stall – “What a lovely doll, thank you. Wherever I go in the world, I always bring back a doll for my daughter”; “It’s a dear little camel. My son Leo will love it”; “All these bangles, really?”

Cherie says she can’t claim to be an entrepreneur herself but “I’m a mother and a working woman – a barrister specialising in human rights – apart from being the wife of a prime minister… I feel passionately that equality for women is an end in itself but the advancement of women helps everyone… women hold up half the sky… It’s a long journey ahead but the longest journeys start with the smallest steps. And remember, you’re not just helping yourself, you’re helping everyone. Thank you.”

We set off to view room after room of artefacts. It’s a chaotic gallop, Cherie attempting to say something meaningful about each tableau as the crowd pushes her relentlessly on, the heat, the confusion, and then we’re out and running to get into our car so we can make it to the airport to catch a plane to a destination that is so top secret no one has yet mentioned its name.

KABUL
We were able to have our informal lunch in a restaurant the previous day because our flight was cancelled due to inclement weather. So today we board the UN plane which makes two journeys a day to Kabul. Cherie is reading a book on Catholicism. That evening she has a private service with the papal nuncio, to which we are invited to participate. But none of us non-believers feels that it would be quite right to sit in. One of her advisers stresses several times that Cherie would have preferred to go to a public service – but it seems clear that her hosts would have considered this too much of a security risk.

We are greeted at the airport by a number of armoured tanks and a great many men with rifles. Our first stop is the Al Fatah School in the old Russian quarter – one of the largest girls’ schools in Kabul with 8,000 pupils, from the age of 7 to 18, and in some cases, 21. In the staffroom, Cherie asks the director what she most needs for the school. The list ranges from the optimistic – a science lab – to the more achievable volleyballs and basketballs, which Cherie commits to sending. On a table, there are books provided by the British Council: Sherlock Holmes, Around the World in 80 Days and Hard Times.

Throughout the years of the Taleban, the director continued to teach: “We met secretly and if we had been caught, our men would have been punished – not us. But we put up resistance and we never gave up. In the Taleban years, there were no desks or chairs but the girls would bring the bed clothes from their homes and sit on the ice so that they could learn.”

We walk past empty, abandoned rooms filled with blocks of cement and rubbish and into a room where two girls are sitting at a table and reading – one a copy of the Koran, the other a comic with pictures of movie stars. For all her rallying cries of “Remember – girls can do anything”, it was this vivid illustration of the limited range of options available to them which really seemed to depress Cherie when we talked about the visit afterwards.

Into the playground – or, at least, open ground since there doesn’t seem to be any equipment for play – Cherie links arms with the director, a wide-faced, indomitable woman with a simple manner, and wishes her luck. “It’s very important what you’re doing,” she says, looking at her face intently. “And you’re a very brave woman to have worked through the years of the Taleban.”

Later that day, Cherie arrives from a private meeting with Pres­ident Karzai, on whom there has been a recent assassination attempt – since when his wife, Dr Zenat Karzai, who was trained as a gynaecologist, has been a virtual prisoner in her own home. The discussion around the table of human rights commissioners and lawyers is fascinating – like watching history unfurl. The main thrust seems to be that there is little confidence in the government, the police are seen as corrupt oppressors, torture in prisons is still going on, the legal system is a bad joke… and landlords and warlords are ruling rural communities.

We are whisked off to the compound of the President’s palace to a lunch hosted by Dr Zenat Karzai and attended by various women MPs who have been elected as part of Afghanistan’s new quota system. Mrs Karzai is youthful-looking, with an air of sweet sorrowfulness. While woman after woman around the table speaks in an urgent torrent of words, she remains silent. The MPs are telling us how the men wouldn’t even acknowledge them during their first days in parliament, only instructing them to sit behind them. But the women insisted that they were their equals and would sit where they pleased. Now the men speak quite freely to them and seem to take their presence for granted. An MP says that it was funny to see one of the fiercest warlords – famous for his legend “To kill you is easy” – flanked by women.

LAHORE
For the first time, Cherie is looking tired, drained and slightly ratty. But then by now, everyone in the party is beginning to feel the strain. She hardly meets my eye and I wonder whether there’s trouble brewing back home. We arrive in Lahore to a military band playing Strang­ers in the Night, more dignitaries, more bouquets of flowers, more smiling for the cameras. There’s a “quiet” lunch at the home of an old friend from the Bar, with a convoy of a dozen vehicles, including an ambulance and two armoured trucks of the Special Comman­do team with their snazzy black ELITE T-shirts (Cherie thinks these should be ad­opted by her blokes from Special Branch), road blocks, marksmen on the roofs.

After another day of visits and speechmaking, that evening there is another – very swanky (£100 a ticket) – Pink Ribbon fashion show and dinner, hosted by the Governor of the Punjab. The buzz around the tables is that her breast-awareness campaign is making an impact. One woman says she has heard the word “breast” men­t­ioned on television for the first time in living history. Another says the Governor doesn’t seem to be able to stop saying the word. People are moved by the humanity of her speech and by how natural she is.

The next day we’re on to the launch of a pro bono legal project, which has been the initiative of yet another amazingly effective twentysomething, a solicitor trained in London, Mahnaz Malik. Its main imperative, Malik says, is to tackle the problem of the thousands of innocent children who are being jailed – sometimes for years without trial – and forced to share cells with adult criminals. The families of these children have no access to legal assistance.

Cherie gives a good and clever talk, with her trusty Powerpoint, illustrating that the quality of justice is not strained – and stressing the crucial role the judiciary can play in improving society – while managing to avoid offending her hosts. “People say that human rights is a Western construct foisted on others. But that’s not true. Equality, dignity, respect and justice are as much an integral part of the Islamic tradition.”

THE EARTHQUAKE ZONE
It’s our last day and we’re off in helicopters again, this time to the North West Frontier. Looking down on the hills and valleys, with the houses dotted so few and far between, does make you question what impact all those high-powered, reforming women can have on the vulnerable, uneducated women who live in these remote communities. We land first in Chakothi, which is a transit point close to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. When Dr Lodhi acts as interpreter for the villagers who have been asked what they need most of all – after water, hospitals and schools, it is always (this delivered with her knowing smile) “…oh yes, and freedom for Kashmir”.

The security is fiercer here – army, police, it is hard to tell the difference – men with guns, anyway, shoving us into the back of Jeeps, grab on to a bar if you can, hurry hurry hurry. Since the earthquake, there have been landslides, which means the road is usually closed. It’s difficult to get materials in to rebuild the school which is still being housed in tents. Cherie arrives, rose petals are thrown over her head and a garland of red, pink and white roses is placed around her neck.

Into the first tent which smells of animal dung. She asks the little girls, “What are you doing? Reading? Do you like reading? Shall we do the alphabet? That’s excellent [e x c e l l e n t, they spell out in a chant] and so clever [c – l – e – v – e – r].”

Cherie is taken to meet the parents of the children – the mothers sitting together in one area; the fathers in another. We are circled, in this stricken valley, by the lovely green embrace of mountains which are capped in snow in the distance. The women see that the guest of honour is really interested in what they have to say, and one by one they rise from their seats until she is surrounded. Cherie tells them it is their right to speak out – which makes the women smile – and that she will keep an eye on the rebuilding of their school, and that she’s happy “to see that the men are so docile. I’m sure they give you no trouble.” The men, one cannot help noticing, are not smiling.

Our final destination is Balakot, the area which was devastated by the earthquake, and the last tent we visit is the Adult Literacy Centre. We squeeze into the packed space, and sit crosslegged on the floor with the women who have been learning reading, writing and arithmetic… two hours a day, for 180 hours. The test is for a woman to be able to read a newspaper without assistance. Cherie asks if she can see their work. A woman, who was illiterate three months ago, inches her finger across the column of a newspaper article – voicing the words as she goes. What would she like to do now that she can read? The woman says she wants to learn English.

Another mother says that she is able to help her children with their homework, since she has completed her course. Cherie asks her age – which is 35 – and then tells her she is 51 since “it’s only fair to tell her mine, too”, Another woman gets up to do some simple sums on the blackboard. Cherie suggests that she adds her age to the 35-year-old’s. Painfully slowly, taking her time as though her life depended on it, she drags on the chalk to form the letter six and to the left, a very wobbly eight. That was the moment when a tiny step felt like a giant stride towards the possibilities of hope.

THE INTERVIEW
Back in Islamabad, at the end of the day before our night-time flight, we sit down to a formal interview in the living room of the British High Commiss­ioner’s residence, where Cherie has been staying.

It has been my belief that this will be a one-on-one, so I’m somewhat surprised to see not one but two assistants – Sue Geddes and Sara El Nusairi – sit down on chairs at the back of the room; particularly as they have already positioned their own tape recorder on the table along­side mine. In retrospect, it was probably quite a useful misunderstanding since it enabled me to catch a glimpse of the steel behind Cherie’s warmth. It is no exaggeration to say that her face darkened when I asked her why she felt it necessary to have an audience. (I wondered who was more frightened by what Cherie might say – she or they?).

She said words to the effect that it was normal protocol for someone in her position to have a press assistant sitting in – which, to be fair, it probably is. Norma Major had someone with her, she added, when Cherie interviewed her for The Goldfish Bowl, her book on Downing Street spouses. It takes a good 15 minutes – half our allotted time – to get back to the easy to-and-fro which has made my dealings with her so pleasant. Indeed, she is so accustomed to asking questions that I have to remind her (and myself) that we are in interview mode.

What has surprised her most about the trip? “Hmm. I suppose I wasn’t surprised to find the women interesting and into all sorts of different areas… perhaps what did surprise me was to find that the men were more accepting of that than I thought.”

What one has to wonder is how much of it is pretty words and how much of it will be action? Although it’s interesting, perhaps, that they feel those are the right words to express? “I think the fact they want to use that language is important and shows some progress at least. Some people are paying lip service, I’m sure. But I’ve met the President a few times, and Mrs Musharraf, and actually, I think he’s made those words before and he has delivered on some things. For example, the women’s quota. I mean, that’s a huge thing and it wouldn’t have been done unless he wanted it to be done.”

Where did the pressure come for the President to do it? After all, we hardly think of him as an enlightened feminist or a human rights person (in 2005 the President caused an international outcry when he was reported to say of an alleged gang-rape: “A lot of people say if you want to go abroad and get a visa for Canada or citizenship and be a millionaire, get yourself raped”). “No… no…” (It must be tricky remaining true to yourself, without badmouthing your host.) “He probably sees it as a way of making sure this country doesn’t become more extreme Islamist.” Pressure from the United States? “That’s what the international community wants, that’s for sure, but I also think he wants this country to be a secular state and therefore empowering women is one way of doing that.”

Did she notice a certain sullenness from the men in the rural areas? She says that that they were noticeably quiet but some of that might have been cultural. “I was careful to put my hand out to them but only shake their hand if they indicated that’s what they wanted. Some of them clearly didn’t, not because they were being nasty but because I’m a woman and in their culture they might not want to touch me.” She did concede that the other reason may well have been that she was so clearly focusing her attention on the women. She was very heartened by the sight of the women doing the electrics during a visit to a retraining programme in the earthquake zone. “OK, they weren’t being taught how to wire up a new house but learning how to mend household appliances and be self-sufficient makes total sense, doesn’t it? Remember that many of those women would be widows, and if they don’t know how to do that, who is going to do it, in a society where women can’t just ask a stray man in to help?”

Her own household skills are not all that hot. So is Tony any good? “Oh no,” she laughs. “If anyone did change the fuse in our house, it was me, not Tony. But I’m not claiming that I’m an electrician.” We talk about all the shocking practices against women we have heard about during our stay. In the Hadud law, sex between any two people, outside marriage, is considered adultery (although Dr Lodhi stresses this law is under review). If a woman is raped, unless there are four male witnesses to confirm her story, she will be accused of committing adultery. The honour killings and such are all tied up with the question of whether a woman has shamed the honour of her family: “So if you’ve been perceived to have been flirting, the reprisal could be the complete disfigurement of your face,” Cherie says. In Bangladesh, she says, the most popular punishment against women is to fling the acid from car batteries on their faces.

In some of the tribal areas, if there’s a dispute between two families, the local form of justice is that a daughter will be taken as compensation. “At the end of army rule, the General [ie, the President] had taken [these practices] out of the family law and put them into this special Hadud law which is particular to the Islamic law. So it makes it much more difficult now for the Government to repeal a law which is perceived to be Islamic.”

Do we call Pakistan a military dictatorship? “No, we don’t. We certainly don’t.” But he did seize power… (in a military coup in 1999). “But there have been elections since.” Nevertheless, some people do still call it that. (Imran Khan, for one, in this magazine – who has his own political ambitions, of course – recently described the regime as “a military dictatorship with a democratic façade”.) Says Cherie: “Pakistan has been restored to the Commonwealth and is working its way towards a fully non-military involvement. This is the question of whether [Musharraf] should continue to be General. [If he is re-elected.] And certainly our policy remains that he should not.”

As a human rights lawyer, and a passionate human rights activist, how would you weigh up the compromises involved in visiting a country whose regime you disapproved of, with the good you feel you could do for the people who are living there?

“Well, that’s – um – that’s – always a – I mean – that’s always a ques – um… To some extent, I feel, particularly in relation to women – that sometimes just by going to these places and showing your face and talking about women’s issues, at least you’re both, hopefully, giving some sort of encouragement to those who are pushing those issues, and making people who are against those issues face up to the realities. But there’s only so much you can do, and in the end, it has to come from the country itself.” We move on to more general questions. It has been made clear that questions relating to the Prime Minister’s policies are off-limits. I wonder whether there’s part of you that thinks it will be a tremendous relief when you leave Downing Street; do you think you will regain part of yourself?

“I don’t know about that. I mean, ever since I got married, I’ve been Mrs Blair – who’s the wife of Tony Blair and the mother of…” Aha, I am reminded of her slightly poignant quote: “I started life as the daughter of someone, now I’m the wife of someone, so I’ll probably end up the mother of someone.” Does that suggest you feel that you will never be able to be seen as a person in your own right?

“Certainly I feel that as Cherie Booth, QC, the law is my thing, isn’t it? And within the law… well, it’ll be 30 years this year since I qualified as a lawyer.”

Do you think you might like to become a politician? “A politician?” You’re looking at me as though you think I must be crazy. A deep, rich laugh. Well, you did think about it at one time. “No, I did. [She was a candidate for Thanet North and lost; the year Tony gained his seat at Sedgfield.] And I’m fascinated by politics but I’ve lived 26 years in politics – more than that because I’ve always been interested. But, you know, you can change the world through the law, too, and that’s the path I’ve chosen.”

Have you been paid to come here? “No. As you know, we’re guests of the Government. That means they paid for our flights and, well, actually, not our hotels since we stayed here.” No fees for any of the talks? “No. No. In fact that’s the norm. I do these things all the time and I don’t get paid for them.” (Although sometimes she does – as in last year’s controversial speaking tour in Australia for a children’s cancer charity when she was reportedly paid a fee of £100,000.)

Do you think you could have married or fallen in love with someone who didn’t have a faith? “Not all the people I went out with were particularly religious but it was one of the things that Tony and I had in common from the beginning. One, was an interest in politics and the Labour Party, and the other was in the spiritual. And we both still retain both those interests.”

You’ve said on a number of occasions that your first love was history but that you felt that if you studied it at university (as her two older sons, Euan and Nicholas, have; Kathryn is showing interest in following in the thespian footsteps of her maternal grandparents), you would end up a teacher; an idea that clearly filled you with dread.

“I know. What a terrible thing to say because I think education is so important. But I think the ethos in the Sixties from the nuns was that you would go into teaching and you’d become good Catholic mothers. I haven’t got anything against good Catholic mothers and I’ve tried to be one myself but I wanted to do something a bit more bold.”

Enrolling at the London School of Economics – which certainly had a reputation in the late Sixties for political radicalism – must have been Cherie’s way of giving two fingers to the nuns. If you have a rebellious streak, where does it come from? “My husband always says – and heaven forbid that he ever disagrees with me – that I’m a bolshie Scouser. Maybe that’s the explanation.” He doesn’t really call you that. “He does! But I always point out to him that I think the women from the North West are very strong and independent. A surprising number of women High Court judges come from the North West.”

We talk about her being brought up by strong women herself. Her parents, Gale and Tony, met at RADA and toured together in a repertory company in North Wales, where he played the juvenile boy lead and she was the juvenile girl lead. Cherie was brought up by her grandmother and aunt while her mother was away touring. After the birth of her second daughter, Lyndsey, Gale stopped acting. Did she miss the theatre? “Yes, absolutely. And if you asked me why I feel very strongly about women’s empowerment and why women have to be independent, it’s partly because my mum found herself abandoned by my father and had to go out to work. First of all in a fish and chip shop and then in Lewis’s, a big department store in Liverpool, and that was because she had to work to keep my sister and me.”

I ask her, just for fun, whether she finds Bill Clinton sexy. Mass squawking from all the women present. “Well, I can see what people see in Bill Clinton,” Cherie says, panting with laughter, “but as you may have noticed – um – I enjoy – niceyoungmen!” Do you think any of your children will go into politics? Have they expressed any interest at all? “They’re all interested and they’re all members of the Labour Party, for example.” Would you mind if they were members of the Tory Party? “It’s up to them. Let’s just say that I’m pleased they’re all members of the Labour Party so I don’t have to worry about it. They’re interested in the world and they’ve had a wonderful chance to have an insight into the world.”

Finally, what do you think you will miss when you leave No 10? “It’s difficult for me to know yet. I’m going to wait and see when it comes. One thing I can say is that it’s such an opportunity and a privilege and you do get a chance to make a difference – which is partly what this trip has been about.” Will you continue to do so through your charity work? “If they want me to because I think you should always try to make a difference if you can and so it depends on what opportunities come along. But it’s not… well, it’s not over yet, darling!”

LONDON
Before I went to Pakistan, there was so much secrecy and high security around the trip that there hadn’t been an opportunity to gauge people’s responses to Cherie; a woman so much in the public eye, she has no need of a surname to identify her. But back in Britain, even before the hair business, I was left in no doubt at all about her unpopularity. I spoke to lawyers, academics, actors, architects, singers, house­wives, secretaries and, of course, other journalists. Although most of them voted Tony Blair in, a couple of them said they would not be voting Labour in the next election. The central point of their disenchantment was undoubtedly the Iraq war, but they also seemed to blame his wife for somehow symbolising everything they disliked about the current regime. These are some of the words they used to describe her: “mad”, “vile”, “manipulative”, “power-mad” and “dreadful to look at”.

One person asked, “How can such a smart woman be so stupid?” In all my years of interviewing – a cast list that includes Jeffrey Archer, Donald Trump and Imelda Marcos – I have never encountered such overt and sustained hostility to a subject. Before our travels, I shared some of their misgivings but did not judge her quite so harshly. Her apparent reliance on Carol Caplin made me feel uneasy (Peter Foster and the flats didn’t help). But I also understood how a woman in Cherie’s position and with her natural temperament – a swottish bluestocking, in some ways (“There’s no need for lipstick in the law”) – might come to rely on someone who could take care of all the packaging involved in being the wife of a modern prime minister.

Hairgate was part of this, of course. But since I have had the odd snip at Michaeljohn, where her hairdresser Andre Suard works, I know that a day rate of 200-odd quid was a deal. (Andre wasn’t on the trip to Pakistan, although I was told that Cherie had asked for him to come, but the budget wouldn’t stretch to it.) The holidays chez-Berlusconi and Cliff Richard were similarly off-putting. So, let’s just say, I wasn’t an uncritical devotee of Cherie before I had the chance to observe her at close quarters for a week. However, I also felt that she was good-hearted, a genuine champion for women and the underprivileged, and someone who had achieved a great deal through the force of her own intelligence and efforts – and that these qualities were perversely and consistently overlooked in favour of concentrating on her defects.

If a picture paints a thousand words, then Cherie is stuffed. The constant refrain from anyone who has actually met her, is that she is so much more attractive in person than in photographs – which do not do justice to her flawless, milky skin (this she attributes, she tells me, to drinking 2 litres of water daily), her handsome eyes and, often, strikingly sweet expression. Part of her appeal is the way she is so animated. But this is the very thing that produces such unflattering pictures.

One or two people told me how much they loathed the way she hung on to her husband’s arm in public. But Cherie is a touchy-feely person and, from what I saw, reaches out to make physical contact with anyone she warms to. In Pakistan, one of Cherie’s aides told me that one of the reasons Mrs B is keen to usher other people into her photo opportunities is that it distracts her from feeling so nervous. Like Tracey Emin, whose response to a camera is to pull a lopsided grin, Cherie’s face tends to freeze into a panicky rictus; hence all the references to her being Cruella De Vil et al.

Spending so much time with her, however, left me in no doubt about the genuine, empathic parts of her personality, and it would be difficult for anyone to dissemble for so long while being watched so carefully. The different people who work with her seem very attached to her and her husband, which speaks well of them both. Although she is clearly by no means a saint. I asked one of the retinue whether Cherie ever spoke harshly, and the response was “No, but she sometimes speaks carelessly, which can be hurtful.” I am still left with a feeling of being tremendously privileged to have met so many impressive women in Pakistan and Afghan­istan at such a key point in their battle for personal freedom and democracy, but feel daunted by how far they have to go – and how tenuous that progress may prove to be. But as Cherie said, “The longest journeys start with the smallest steps.”

Fighting Breast Cancer: A Journey with Cherie Blair is on BBC News 24 tonight and tomorrow

Travel & Adventure

Mother and son find themselves in Bangkok

THE TIMES – December 02, 2005
Ginny Dougary

When Ginny Dougary decided to visit Bangkok with her teenage son, the only question was, who would be looking after whom?

bangkok

The last time I was in Bangkok was in my late twenties, 20 years ago. My husband, Bruce, organised a trip which included Bangkok, but also took us beyond and into the remote hill tribes of the Golden Triangle. Transport and accommodation was a log raft built by our guide from Chiang Rai up the Mekong river, in which the villagers fished, pissed and washed.

As dusk fell, delicious smells would rise from the end of the raft – the signal that Ann-Ann was preparing supper: coriander, lemon grass, limes, chillies and garlic, sweet coconut, something shrimpy and fermented, the sizzle of duck or beef, rice steaming in a pot. We ate well in Bangkok, too – filling up on food bought from the many stallholders, skewers of meat and bags of noodles with dipping sauce. As instructed by our guidebooks, we avoided the tempting displays of cut fruit – pineapple, ruby melon, quarters of orange which you longed to suck in that billowing heat.

Last year I returned to Bangkok with our 16-year-old son, Tom. Two years ago, our younger son, Darcy, went on a week-long fishing holiday in Holland with Bruce, and the three males in my family have taken to going on skiing holidays without me, since falling on my bottom on freezing snow is not my idea of a good time.

So this trip was a chance for me to spend some time on my own with one of the children. I wasn’t apprehensive about whether we would get on: Tom’s Kevin-phase of teenagedom was shortlived, and I find him bright, funny, stimulating and generally good company. He also has adventurous tastes, particularly when it comes to food, so I knew he would be a fun travelling companion.

My only vague anxiety was who exactly would be looking after whom. We both have an appalling sense of direction – would this make the aimless wandering around strange streets, one of the pleasures of straying from the tourist path, a nerve-racking nightmare?

For his part, Tom was slightly worried that he might get bored of my company and hanker after people his own age. But, mostly, we were both incredibly excited to be going somewhere so faraway and exotic and culturally rich, as well as being lucky enough to stay at the Oriental; as Tom gleefully read out from our guidebook: “one of the best hotels in the world”.

The first shock when we arrived was the heat. The second was the very evident signs of boom-and-bust – the flourishing economy of the early Nineties, giving rise to the term “tuppies” (Thai yuppies), and its dramatic collapse at the end of the decade – as we drove into the city on a giant highway that didn’t exist when I was last there.

In Tom’s notes, scribbled under duress and abandoned by day three, he observed: “huge amounts of advertisements (gigantic billboards) + modern towers, looking futuristic”. I observed that Kate Moss is a goddess in the sky here as everywhere else in the world.

The Oriental was just about as perfect as a hotel can be. We were installed in the turquoise, green and gold Noël Coward suite in the famous Writers’ Wing. (Tom’s notes: “camp, opulent, expensive, decadent”.) Snooze then stroll in the backstreets around the hotel, where we are struck by the contrast between our neighbours’ digs and our own. Tom notes: “Discomfort looking into people’s homes, washing lines, etc.”

Most of the rooms are dark and cheerless and seem to have no furniture. Children and elderly folk sitting on the pavement playing some sort of board game. We stumble across a wonderful old building with shuttered windows and columns. I was told that many families were squatting there but soon won’t be, as some developer is planning to turn it into a boutique hotel or luxury flats.

Tom has his first fitting for his first-ever suit at the tailor recommended by the hotel – navy cashmere pinstripes with a dandyish red silk lining, five buttons on the cuffs. Can’t remember whether or not that was the requisite number dictated by the late Sir Hardy Amies, the undisputed authority on such matters. A swim in the lovely pool. We share a fruit cocktail with straws jutting out of a coconut. Followed by a buffet of amazing deliciousness and variety. Tom picks the most outré dessert of caramelised shallot and egg yolks rolled in coconut. That’s my boy, I think, and then: gosh, isn’t he like his father.

The next four days are a whirlwind of activity, interspersed with periods of pamperific bliss. We spend a couple of mornings at the Oriental’s own Thai cooking school – across the river near the gym – under the tutelage of San who, as Tom declares, is a most “charismatic chef”. We are encouraged to taste, sniff and touch leaves and spices and nothing we eat is like any Thai food I’ve tasted before: sticky rice sweetmeats scented with rose-candle smoke; little packages containing chopped garlic, chillies, nuts, tiny dried fish, ginger, kaffir lime skin, tamarind – the alchemy of sweet, sour and salty – which are like fireworks exploding in your mouth. And all the time we are entertained by San’s anecdotes and odd observations; at one point he starts waving at a fly: “Ah, that’s my pet. I call him Jeff, you know… Goldblum.”

One evening Tom, a keen jazzo (as is the King of Thailand himself, who writes his own pieces) jammed on the keyboards in Vanda’s restaurant and bar with a group of Thai musicians headed by Mr Ko Saxman, who kindly offered to take him on to his next gig from midnight to 4am. We elected instead to go to Sirocco, an al-fresco hotspot on the zillionth floor of a building a block or so away from the Oriental. This was very much the new Bangkok, full of whatever the latest word is for tuppies.

There is a massive Busby Berkeley-style staircase plunging down to a terrace, on which diners seem to be suspended in the twinkling neon sky, with only a waist-high sheet of glass to shield them from plunging into oblivion. A Jessye Normanesque woman sang from a circular platform, jutting out even higher above us, her kaftan billowing in the breeze. A sky bar flickered between different primary colours.

In our remaining time we took in Jim (Mr Thai Silk) Thompson’s house and the major wats – both Tom and me finding ourselves surprisingly moved by the Emerald Buddha, remote, glassed-in and inaccessible; perhaps because it is so small and yet there was something large about the solemn silence which fell on so many of us scruffy tourists sitting on the floor with our toes pointed punctiliously away, gazing on his beatific form.

Tuk-tuks, the three-wheel motorised health hazard, became my favoured mode of transport. This way you get to see all the street-level snapshots: children asleep on blankets as their parents sell their wares, busy eaters stuffing their faces with fragrant mouthfuls, the fresh flower-decked shrines on almost every corner, three generations of a family on a scooter.

Save the best for last, as Tom and Darcy always say. On our last day, the Oriental, anxious for us to avoid the disappointment of devoting hours getting to the floating markets – now apparently a totally phoney tourist-trap – arranged for us to do something infinitely more special. And for this, witnessing the look of entrancement on Tom’s face, as the secrets of Bangkok’s rivers and canals slowly revealed themselves, I hope I will always remember to be grateful.

After meeting our guide, Mr Tim, in the hotel lobby at 4.30am, we board a long-tail boat – a sort of exaggerated gondola, reminding us that Bangkok is known as the Venice of the East – and set off in the inky darkness. The silence and the movement through water is magical. As the hours go by, the water world gradually comes to life.

We see: stilted houses, one or two grand, but mostly modest – their decks smothered in pots of flowers iridescent in the half-light; girls and boys in school uniforms, standing in front of shrines; men washing in the river; women cleaning pans; two very young girls in uniforms rowing to school; an old lady in a straw hat in a boat full of vegetables for sale; T-shirts hanging up to dry (Tom reckons he spots one with the letters spelling Arsenal). Then the shaven-headed monks paddling up to the houses where they are presented with offerings of food – bowls of soup, curry, rice, fresh fruit, money. We make our own offerings and they look grave and uncomfortable when Mr Tim photographs them.

Still, it was a wonderful experience. We stopped off for breakfast at a riverside stall: tiny bananas, a hot soy milk drink with sweet red kidney beans and lotus seeds, into which we dunked a Thai version of the doughnuts the Spanish dip into their hot chocolate. On to a flower market with bunches and bunches of orchids; girls knotting together saffron marigolds which will be offered to Buddhas; my favourite dusky pink lotus flowers with their bright-green centres, beautiful furled and even more glorious unfurled… and then the sun and the dizziness and the lack of sleep began to take its toll.

On our first night back home in London, Tom and I regaled the rest of the family with our stories. On the table, I had placed a couple of the little buddhas you can buy anywhere in Bangkok for wildly differing sums of bahts; all of them cheap. There were dark lilies in a tiny vase and half-a-dozen candles; my own little shrine in homage to our holiday. Whatever else of our time there endures, Tom’s first suit is certainly wearing well.

Travel & Adventure

I stand in terror on the edge of the ice. What have I got myself into?

THE TIMES – March 24 2004
Ginny Dougary

This adventurer went to the Antarctic to fulfil a lifelong dream of experiencing the purity and isolation that enticed Scott and Shackleton. Here, in the first of two reports, we follow her diary as she learns the ways of penguins and has a close encounter with whales.

JANUARY 21: The British stiff upper lip is an admirable, indeed possibly a requisite, mechanism for those who wish to cope with the extreme rigours of the resting place and spiritual home of Captain Scott and Sir Ernest Shackleton. But in my case, unfortunately, the upper lip stood no chance against the extreme wobbliness of the lower when I was first deposited on the great white continent of the south.
The noise was tremendous as the Russian cargo plane, an Ilyushin, reverse acceleration at full throttle, landed on the blue-ice runway marked out by a line of snow-weighted black rubbish bags. The plane screamed to a halt, its wide back opened out in two arcs and an extraordinary commotion ensued.

Large green drums were rolled down ramps to be caught, in what looked like an elaborate game, by teams of men and women, some adorned in brightly coloured comical hats, who harnessed themselves to the containers while seemingly racing one another to deliver their booty to a finishing line on the opposite side of the runway.

Elsewhere — standing, talking, gazing — were as many as 30 or 40 men, scattered across the turquoise ice. A Korean (could he be the same gentleman who had drunkenly dismantled parts of the stranded DC3 at the edge of the camp the previous year?) kept hurling himself on to the runway and sliding on his belly while whooping loudly. Half a dozen Skidoos — motorbikes on skis — thrummed on and off the ice, pulling sledges piled high with gear.

More and more people emerged from a point in the distance, walking down a long snow-path which appeared out of nowhere.

Here is Babs Powell, my favourite dancer from Pan’s People when Top of the Pops was a boarding-school highlight of the week. She is arm in arm with Rosie Stancer, who has just walked to the South Pole on her own and looks frighteningly thin, with scabs hanging off her lips and nose. Now comes a man on a throne of a wheelchair strapped on top of a sled: Mike McGrath, who has muscular dystrophy and who has, in walking upright a short distance to the Pole, achieved the equivalent of a double triathlon in an able-bodied man.

I stand on the edge of the ice, terrified that I’m going to slip over and bash my head. I feel fragile and raw, aware from the frenetic activity of the people around me that I will be expected to be self-sufficient in an environment where I am least equipped to be so. Camping, for goodness’ sake, in well-below-freezing conditions, with primitive lavatory facilities and no washing, where there could be katabatic winds — that accelerate downhill — which knock me down, and white-outs so dense that I may be uanble to see the tent next door, let alone walk to the dining tent. My confidence has been further undermined by a representative of the company that is allegedly looking after me — a bully and a boor, he turns out to be totally unrepresentative, but at this stage I don’t know that.

The skies are an intense, otherworldly powder-blue, and even the clouds look like no other clouds I’ve seen before. The nearby monochrome mountains of Patriot Hills, starkly black and white, give way to a blurry, soft-focus range and at the far end of the horseshoe become an electric navy and cream. Beyond, the lone and boundless snow stretches far away. Welcome to Antarctica. What the hell have I got myself into?

JANUARY 1, 2004: They say that whatever you’re doing at midnight on New Year’s Eve will dictate the direction of the rest of your year. I spend it working: writing about my fears now that I am actually on my way to Antarctica — a place I’ve dreamt of visiting for almost a decade.

Why on earth would you want to go there, some people ask. And, as the observation goes: if you need to ask the question, you will probably never understand the answer.

I am drawn to the stories of the impossible valour, the largeness of spirit, the gentle manners of the Edwardian polar explorers who “did not forget the please and thank you” even when they were on the point of death.

The challenge of getting there when it’s so damn difficult, either by boat or plane, appeals to me; its associations with danger and death make me suspect that there is nowhere else where you feel so bracingly alive. When I look at photographs of spectacular icebergs — the old, really turquoise ones — I feel a surge of awe and joy. They are like the most beautiful sculptures. How thrilling it would be — will be — to be on the water at their level, weaving in and out of them in a rubber dinghy.

I’m attracted to extremes and Antarctica, as the well-known litany goes, is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest continent in the world. Its minimalist canvas — huge expanses of white, with occasional lines etched across it — reminds me of certain American abstract canvases that I love. Where other people would say, “What’s the point? It’s a picture of nothing”, I always felt that the conscious absence of things was not the same as no thing. The purpose of the works was that they had been pared back and emptied; transformed into an act of visual meditation.

Even at quite a young age I would stand mesmerised, finding something suggestive and beguiling where others might merely see a blank. Abstract expressionism tends to polarise people: you either get it or you don’t — much, indeed, as do the polar regions. Antarctica is a clean slate at another level: a place so empty and pure, the only place in the world that is not owned by anyone, that you feel you might emerge from it cleansed in some odd way, or at least imbued with a fresh way of looking at your old life.

It is a metaphor, too. For Shackleton: “We all have our own White South.” For Thomas Pynchon: “You wait. Everyone has an Antarctic.” When my late mother was very ill, too ill for me to risk sailing to Antarctica as I had planned five years ago, it seemed to me synonymous with a merciful oblivion. When I felt trapped and constrained by work and domesticity, it represented the most desirably far-flung of escapes.
And here I am, on the opening day of the year, at midnight on a plane on the first leg of my journey, bound for Buenos Aires.

JANUARY 2: Emerging from the airport, the warmth feels as welcoming as an embrace. I’m staying in the Four Seasons, all luxe, volupté and not a little charme, either. I am stalked, however, by the spectre of Madonna. She stayed in the extremely elegant old palazzo in the grounds of the hotel in a suite opposite mine; the manicurist who comes to my room was also summoned by Madge and found Madame very haughty, judging by her rather good impersonation. And on a whirlwind tour, my favourite building is the presidential palace — delightfully pink — where Madonna was granted permission to sing to the people from the central balcony in her role as Evita.

When in Argentina, eat steak. And I do, with relish. I also have my last proper (full, not midget-length) bath for more than a month.

JANUARY 3: First travel trauma. My ticket from Buenos Aires’ local (as opposed to international) airport to Ushuaia — the end of the world, as it calls itself accurately if rather melodramatically — is not recognised, and I cannot understand why or even begin to make myself understood. A lovely family from Mexico City intervene, interpret and give me some local currency to make phone calls.

Ushuaia, when I do get there, is a cross between a cowboy frontier town, an out-of-season ski resort and a hippy mecca. It is also a former penal colony. The houses are brightly painted shacks with corrugated roofs, the backdrop is ice-capped, jagged mountains. A boy rides down the main street on a horse. Everywhere one looks there is a profusion of poppies and bleached peach lupins.

I stay at the unfortunately named Albatross hotel (very basic but clean, at least). My copolar correspondent, Jonathan Gornall, finds the combination of the Albatross and my Antarctic Russian cruise ship, the Orlova — or the It’s All Over for Dougary, as he likes to call it — absolutely bloody hilarious.

Solitary dinner in carrillo (grill, pronounced carri-jo) with gaucho theme. I end up joining a pilot and his wife for coffee. He has met Jennifer Murray — wife of Simon Murray, who this year, at 63, became the oldest man to walk to the South Pole — after her helicopter crash in Antarctica. He tells me that she was incredibly lucky to have escaped so lightly — something I am to hear many times in Patriot Hills.

JANUARY 4: Board “All Over” at 4pm, after interviewing Simon on his satellite phone. He seems far more concerned with how I am going to cope camping in Antarctica than with his own expedition woes. He and Pen Hadow make Patriot Hills sound like Cold Comfort Colditz; Martin Hartley, the photographer, makes it sound like Club Med-sur-snow. Have my own dark suspicions about which version will prove more accurate.

The ship is not in the first flush of youth; its “forward lounge” has the faded aura and mirrored ceiling of a Seventies bordello. My cabin is quite appealing, largely because I’m not having to share it with anyone.

I am surprised to find myself in a gang of sorts already — all American. There is a Californian doctor whose regular house guests when he lived in Alaska were Ted Hughes and his son, drawn by the fishing; a lawyer; a foot specialist; an illustrator; and a Manhattan commercials director who reminds me of a (less dizzy) Grace from the TV series Will and Grace.

Sadly, she and I concur, there don’t seem to be any Wills on this boat — on which point we are both happy, a day or two later, to find ourselves proved quite wrong.

JANUARY 5: O woe! My first experience of sea-sickness crossing the notorious Drake’s Passage. It may be a Lake rather than a Shake, ie, relatively calm, but the lurching motion is horrible. Unable to walk in a straight line. Sweat profusely. Attempt to stagger along the corridor — plastic bags adorn the rails at convenient heaving distance — and crawl up the stairs to the main deck, which is like the Mary Celeste.

Retire for the day, like most of my hundred-odd fellow passengers, emerging at tea-time for an excellent Shackleton lecture in the bordello lounge, where many of us favour the velveteen pouffes at floor level (less queasy-making) over the circular banquettes. Note that no matter how many times I hear the Endurance story, in whatever form, I find it enthralling and moving.

JANUARY 6: First iceberg spotted just before lunch, looking ghostly in the mist. By the time we are sitting in the dining room, the sun has scorched through the fog to reveal dazzling blue water and more and more bergs, some quite monumental.

We are to have a landing to view a chinstrap penguin rookery at Half-Moon Island, and go through elaborate drill for embarking on Zodiac dinghies. First we have to tog up, which is a real palaver in Antarctic conditions, especially where water is involved: thermal leggings and top, layers of fleeces, thin socks and thick socks, level-four goggles or specs (to protect eyes from massive hole in ozone layer), wellies, waterproof trousers and jacket, inner gloves, waterproof outer gloves, spare gloves and socks in case of soaking which will then freeze, causing frostbite and loss of digits, rucksack with waterproof inner lining to carry camera, sunblock, lip block, etc, hat and neck tube . . . queue to get into Zodiac; turn key to show one has departed (turn back on return); avoid falling into Antarctic water (on previous trip several people did not); when disembarking into shallow water, legs must be pointed down towards fellow passengers but not thrust into their faces, and so on.
The first passengers off tread a path through the snow, and those of us who follow find that if we deviate from it we are liable to sink through the soft layers up to our knees. When this happens we have to turn round and fill each hole with snow to prevent penguins falling in and getting trapped.

Olle, our masterful Swedish expedition leader, has gone to great lengths to explain to his shipful of tourists that we must do everything we can to make a minimal impact on the environment. Here, for instance, the penguins rule: if you see one making towards you, remember that it has right of way.

The penguins are so humorous with their self-important, busy waddling. I love it when they trip over and then look round to check that no one noticed before resuming their ascent or descent along their penguin highway. High up in the rocks, we watch as the males steal pebbles from the females’ flinty nests and deposit them on other nests. Why? Seemingly just because they can. Olle tells us that a group of scientists placed bright-coloured stones on the nests and watched in amazement as the stones were transported all over the rookery.

Mike, a middle-aged American pilot with a cautious smile and melancholy eyes, lies down on the snow next to “the highway” for a full 30 minutes and is rewarded by having several penguins peck at the back of his head before leaning over and staring him straight in the face.

At dinner, “Grace” decides that our first real day in Antarctic waters deserves a celebratory toast and buys the gang a bottle of Moët. Afterwards we play Scrabble and my partner — a banker from Las Vegas — disappears to the bar, then goes crazy when I make a move without him, bellowing: “I CANNOT BELIEVE YOU DID THAT! HOW COULD YOU DO THAT? YOU JUST THREW THE POINT AWAY!”, resuming the tirade at regular intervals. As justification for this, he explains that he is a member of Mensa “which is both my blessing and my curse” — the curse obviously being having to deal with quotidian morons like myself.

My Manhattan gal-pals inform me that his peculiar behaviour is par for the course back home; most American men are as angry as hell and don’t care who knows it.

JANUARY 7: Good weather has momentarily deserted us and a landing has to be cut short because of fears that winds may soon prevent us returning to the ship. This did happen last year at this same spot on Turret Point, King George Island, and six passengers had to huddle under a Zodiac for 21 hours before they were rescued.

I fall for one particular Adelie penguin that looks terribly lost and lonely and keeps swivelling round as though to say: “Oh, oh, where’s me mate?” Penguins, you see, are sociable creatures. I watch him, trying to put on a brave face, as he takes off as fast as he can to catch up with the other Adelies in the far distance, waddling too fast, falling over, scooting along on his belly until he finds his pal — and then off the two of them go: waddle, trip, sliding along.

The wallowing elephant seals lumber out of the water and give us baleful, accusatory looks.

Go to bed to the sound of Olle’s voice on the loudspeaker: “Come on deck to see the beauty of it all, the sun caressing the snowy peaks . . .”

JANUARY 8: . . . and wake up to the sound of Olle’s strangulated cockerel impersonation. “Cerkle derkle dooooooo!” Landing on a black volcanic Deception Island. Very dramatic but doesn’t feel Antarctic at all.

JANUARY 9: Best day so far, and hardly a penguin in sight. But oh, what glorious blue icebergs in Paradise Bay. I see castles, the Sydney Opera House, mating polar bears, the grandest of arches above pools of phosphorescent turquoise light. The sun glints on the water, there is a lone white yacht at the edge of the bay, the silence . . . well, actually it’s not silent because of all the camera and video activity. At times the whirring and clicking can seem like a Tourette’s affliction. The beauty is not being enjoyed and experienced here and now but for some time hence. Not trusting the mind’s eye to recreate the moment in private, the camera’s eye will collect evidence of paradise to be witnessed later by friends and family and neighbours.

But I appreciate the photographs that people are kind enough to send me when I get home much more than the ones I feel impelled to take myself. And anyway, who’s to say that setting these experiences down in words doesn’t reduce them. I make a note of seeing a group of penguins at the top of an iceberg: one slides gingerly down into the water, then — most tentatively — another and another until suddenly, whoosh! They ’re all tumbling over one another as they fall in, and it’s a glorious and hilarious sight. The grey, fluffy newborns with their touching mini-penguin forms, being fed while still in their shells. The unexpected elegance of the penguins’ movements once they are in the water. The furry, wrinkled faces of the seals as they gaze back at us with their round, solemn eyes. The words trigger the memories but also dilute them in some way, making them seem less real as they move from private to public domain.

In the afternoon, another landing. This one, Olle has announced in his deadpan mode, should bring out the inner child in us. We are to hike up a glacier, then fling ourselves down it (much like the penguins, but hopefully not into the water). Once again I am struck by the gusto and fitness of the over-sixties brigade. There are people in their eighties ascending the mountain, fleet as gazelles. I have to push myself to keep up. And there are at least four disabled passengers with sticks way ahead of me.

The climb is vertiginous, the views sensational, and there are far too many of us perched on a narrow rocky ledge. I am really scared — disliking heights and speed, let alone a combination of the two — but grit my teeth and set off on my behind down the run we have made. And I like it so much I do it again, albeit from the halfway mark — this time on my belly like my new penguin friends. Is it worrying that I have started walking like them too, stomach out, extending my arms stiff behind me for balance?

JANUARY 10: Visit the old British base of Port Lockroy, which has been charmingly restored (primary-coloured tongue and groove, red gingham curtains) by British Antarctic Survey. Find pile of old Woman’s Weekly with first short story by Barbara Cartland: “As gay as St Moritz!” reads the promo line. Penguins tend to their newborn chicks and kleptomaniac rituals on the steps of the hut.

In the evening the BAS chaps come to shower and barbecue on the deck of the Orlova while the Russian staff dance to Dancing Queen. Much later, around midnight, there is a wonderful blaze of pinks and blues on the horizon: the icebergs look as though they have been brushed with mercury.

JANUARY 11: It has been agreed that Kara, the whale expert, will take me on a private Zodiac cruise on which there will be no quips or clicks or whirrs or shrieks, and no sound of revving engines. Finally, just tranquillity as we float and reflect.

I’m not even all that interested in the wildlife, but you can’t help but respond when you see a crab-eating seal sunbathing on an iceberg. We hear a whoosh in the distance which Kara thinks may be another seal breathing. Then we see the spume rising not far from the surface of the water, and seconds later another arc of spume alongside. So there are two! We make our way towards them and as we get close, Kara exclaims: “Oh my God! They’re humpbacks and they ’re sleeping. I have never, ever seen this before.” We are now very close indeed. White-ish stripes glow under the water and the heads are crusted with barnacles. Not having done my whale homework, I’m wondering if what is visible — sort of log-like shapes with a fin — is the extent of their size. “Oh no, humpbacks are immense,” Kara says. “Maybe 45 to 50ft long.” This is both thrilling and terrifying to hear. We seem to be in a dream with no will of our own. We’re drifting dangerously close to them now but neither of us wants to turn on the engine and wake them. It feels weirdly as if we’re sharing their bed; the gentle sound of their intermittent breathing is soothing. They are less frightening because they seem to be unaware of our presence.

Before we actually collide, Kara comes to and, as quietly as she can, revs the engine. The whales react immediately but we are able to follow them and keep at a sensible distance.

All is calm again until one of the pair makes a circular motion and it swiftly dawns on us that he is coming straight towards us. Kara is jumping up and down with excitement. Five years of studying whales and she has never been this close, at this level, to a large whale.

Humpbacks don’t attack unless they are in a mating or a feeding frenzy, she says, and this one doesn’t appear to be in any kind of frenzy. Nor is he likely to overturn our little Zodiac because whales have good spatial awareness. They don’t bang into icebergs, for instance. But the closer it comes, the more aware I am that if the dinghy capsized and we were trapped underneath it, our lifejackets would automatically inflate and we ’d drown.

But just at this moment, I don’t care. Kara starts banging the rim of the Zodiac, and I follow suit. The other whale is staying away but this one now circles us — Oh my God, he is actually alongside us. We could reach out and touch him. With one flip of his magnificent tail, he could . . .

The adrenalin is absolutely pumping. He circles us again and then disappears. Now we are really alarmed. What if he were? . . . Could he be? . . .

Kara sees it first, the blue whiteness of the sides of his belly; the white flecked with grey under the tail; the whole great, beautiful being of him gliding right under us.

We are both euphoric and overwhelmed when we finally return to the shore. I am being asked to keep this extraordinary experience to myself, in case other passengers are put out.

The staff, however, all know. Brendon, a fellow whale worshipper, lends me his arm to steady me as I step out of the Zodiac and grins beatifically: “Welcome to my church,” he says.

JANUARY 12-14: Not surprisingly, after that the rest of the cruise was unremarkable. At night Kara kept dreaming about the humpbacks and didn’t even bother to go on deck when the waters were teeming with them, as though she were afraid of cluttering the purity of our encounter with other images.

Some hours after dinner on the final Sunday, I go up to the deck by myself and take in the last white, ghostly form of Antarctica. The winds that will make the return crossing of Drake’s Passage such a nightmare — Perfect Storm waves bucking our ship around like a child’s plaything — are already picking up. The dining-room chairs are strapped down, the white tablecloths dripping wet to prevent plates and cutlery falling off — to no avail. The Orlova turns into the Mary Celeste once again, and then we are back in Ushuaia.

Later that day I fly to Punta Arenas on the tip of Chilean Patagonia, where I am to wait — and wait — for the go-ahead to take off for Patriot Hills and the mainland of Antarctica.

Ginny Dougary was a guest of Quark Expeditions. Tel: 01494 464080 www.quarkexpeditions.com

Travel & Adventure

It’s the world that’s gone mad and had a war while I’ve just been sitting quietly in my tent

THE TIMES – May 28, 2003
Ginny Dougary

Explorer Pen Hadow, rescued from the North Pole after his record-breaking walk, tells Ginny Dougary of his triumph.

A MAN looking like a cross between Howard Hughes and Barry Gibb – yellow, grey and white flecked beard, salt-sweat hair – smelling less awful than one might expect and appearing astonishingly lucid stepped off the plane at 1.30pm Arctic time.

Bearing only a dim resemblance to the handsome Old Harrovian last seen more than two months ago. Pen Hadow declared: ”Dearie me, the world´s gone mad.”

The British polar explorer was speaking to The Times just after being rescued from the top of the world where Mother Nature had held him captive for eight days at the end of his record-breaking expedition. ”It´s been quite a 75 days,” he said. ”Good nerve-racking stuff, particularly the last couple of hours. It´s the world that´s gone mad and had a war, while I have just been sitting quietly in my tent.”

Hadow was finally picked up at 7.35 am yesterday (2.35pm BST) and flown away from the North Pole. He had arrived last Monday week alone and on foot after a 64-day trek; he left by air in the company of two men who had tried time and again to reach him and return him to civilisation.

Almost his first action on arriving at the Eureka weather station in the Canadian High Arctic was to leap into the shower. Then, a towel wrapped around his skinny midriff (he has dropped from 14st 7Ib to 11st 12Ib), he described to The Times the nervous hours spent waiting for his rescuers, the race against time to prepare a landing strip, and the elation of his first human contact in two months.

”I was expecting the plane any time after 1.30 am, so I was lying on top of my sleeping bag, fully dressed and booted in a state of hesitant anticipation because I had had three or four false alarms. I did feel that this was the one which was going to work because I was quite in tune with what the weather was like.

”When the plane still wasn´t there at 3am, I was beginning to think it hadn´t taken off. If it had been a problem of aircraft maintenance, I thought that would be another two or three days at least before they came to get me. Then I had an adrenalin charge.

”All I had left was a teabag and some milk powder and that had been my last meal because I had been so sure on Monday that this plan was going to work. So now I was going to be on a snow-melt water on the rocks diet for the possibly the next six days, which was fine since I had enough fuel for 15 days.

”I was moving into a new realm – I had already had on a previous expedition nine days of minimum rations of 150 to 200 calories but this would definitely have been a new challenge.”

The appalling conditions of the past week meant Hadow had not picked out a landing strip for the Twin Otter pilot Steve King and his mechanic Paul Pitzner. The air crew´s first task was to make sure that Hadow had supplies to see him through if they were not able to land.

”I knew that they were going to drop a radio, food and fuel,” Hadow said. ”The plane made a low pass at 75ft andjet tisoned three boxes about 400 metres past my tent. Then the plane circled and I saluted and I already had my harness on and was making my way towards the boxes to confirm that I had seen the drop.

”They landed to my northeast, 30 miles away, where they were sitting in sunshine. The pilot said they could wait for three hours before they had to head back.

”The pilot then asked ´Can you try to select a strip for us?´ It was a partial white-out. I was tripping over bits of snow. It was murky, no contrast, no perspective, no shadow, no sun. I made a runway using dark ration bags filled with snow. It was a bold decision on both our parts. I had 20 minutes in each direction to make the runway. In the partial white-out, the plane came over in a low pass twice. They trusted me and went for it.”

Then, describing the moment the aircraft landed, he said: ”I had been out here for 75 days and my first thought on seeing my first human being was that they were small – they looked like dwarves in stuffed jackets because the light had a shortening effect – they looked very odd indeed like Russian dolls. They didn´t seem like humans. I certainly did not think ´Gosh there´s a fellow human being. ”Face to face, inevitably it was one of those special moments. When the pilot offered his hand and congratulated me, saying ´Well, you´re certainly tougher than I am. I said: ´I don´t think we´d better shake because my hand is less than hygienic.´ And I put a mitt on.

”At this point I was still seriously anxious – because the curtain does not come down until the strip has proven suitable for the landing and the take-off. When we took off and were airborne was the first time that I actually started the process of relaxing.” THERE has been an explosion of interest in Pen Hadow since news of his record-breaking feat spread around the world.

From The New York Times to The New Zealand Herald, the world´s media have picked up The Times´ story and wondered how and when Hadow could be plucked from his icy camp on top of the world and brought back to civilisation.

”Britain´s latest Arctic challenger – dubbed The Human Icebreaker´ – has lost direct contact with his rescue team,” reported the Orlando Sentinel this week. ”A successful rescue from the North Pole can cost up to $100,000,” Canada´s National Post said.

Reporters have been camped outside the Hadow family home on Dartmoor and in Resolute Bay, the remote Arctic station where the sup port aircraft are based, Hadow´s team has been fielding ten media inquiries an hour.

Rebecca Seeley Harris, who volunteered to run Hadow´s official expedition website, said: ”It has just gone berserk. It has been absolutely extraordinary. I wasn´t expecting the numbers of inquiries.”