Dracula: The Man Behind The Myth

Dracula: The Man Behind The Myth

A blog post by Lady Felicity

Back in January (2020) Greg and I had finished editing our Turkish adventure (which you can watch here) and were pondering where to go for our next episode. We bounced ideas back and forth, all of which had merit, but when Greg suggested Romania and a film about Dracula, all the other places were instantly filed away in the back of my mind for later. Romania had my full attention (and if you want to watch our travel adventure video before reading on, you can do that here).

The country occurred to Greg because he knows I enjoy my fictional books and have a hoard of fantasy books, many of which indulge in mythological creatures of all types. I know a lot of teenagers go through that stage and I think I started younger than most! I remember when I was at primary school, we had a day where you could take a favourite toy into school with you and I chose to take my deck of tarot cards with me, passed down from my mother’s youth.

My childhood reputation amongst my class as a witch and then, due to my pale skin and long, dark hair, a vampire, was born. I didn’t mind, though my mum was quite shocked when the class bully took one look at her, went a shade of white and ran in the opposite direction when she was waiting in the playground at the end of the day to collect me. Even back then I had a creative imagination and hinted at what the mother of a vampire witch might do to naughty, tasty children.

Much to my Nan’s discomfort, my Mum understood my fascination and indulged me. My collection not only of fantasy fiction but particularly reference books relating to myths, legends and their origins. I loved history and became intrigued with old religions, their beliefs, gods and monsters. My collection of not only books but ornaments, models and decorations grew over the years too. It amused me when I met my sister-in-law, a golden blonde with a love of Disney collectables, me standing beside her with my pale skin and dark hair and my collection of swords, statues and pewter dragons back home. Then you add Greg beside me and I have my hairy, werewolf companion!

This interest has never waned and my enjoyment of fantasy fiction remains strong too. My favourite writer, Karen Chance, features some genuine historical figures in the fantasy world she has created and I love that combination. It was the fact that Karen Chance features Dracula and his brothers in her series which inspired Greg to suggest Romania and Dracula’s Castle.

While Greg’s mind jumped to Bram Stoker’s famous novel, ‘Dracula’, my mind instantly went to the arguable origin of that book and Vlad the Impaler. Thus our documentary title was decided – ‘Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle’.

Greg would take me in search of the fictional Vampiric Dracula while I would search for the Wallachian Warlord, Vlad Dracula.

I must admit I confused my best friend when I was talking about Vlad. There are many variations to his name, and he has a number of different titles.

Sometimes he is referred to as Vlad Dracula or Vlad III of Wallachia. He is also known as Vlad the Impaler – in Romanian that is Vlad Tepes – while to the Ottomans it was Kazikli Voyvoda, meaning ‘Impaler Lord’. I am aware I switch between all of these names for him throughout the documentary and it can cause confusion.

Over ten years ago I first read a book called ‘Vlad: The Last Confession,’ a novel by C.C Humphreys. This was a historical adventure novel and the author did much research into Vlad Dracula, including much of what he learned in the story to create a realistic feel for this historical ruler (if you’d like to read the book, it is available here).

The thought of doing our own research into Vlad Dracula and walking in his actual footsteps had me so excited that we booked our flights to Romania that very night!

Vlad Dracula is a controversial figure, and that is probably putting it mildly. I will explain…

Vlad was born in 1428 in the town of Sighisoara. He was the second legitimate son of Vlad ll of Wallachia (Yes, I know that his father having the same name also doesn’t help with the confusion and it is about to get worse!)

His father, Vlad ll of Wallachia became a member of a chilveric order known as ‘The Order of the Dragon’ in 1431. Thus he became known as Vlad Dracul or Vlad the Dragon. He, like his son, had a complicated reign and was Voivode aka ruler of Wallachia from 1436- 1442 and again from 1443-1447. With me so far? Good.

Now, Vlad the Dragon (our Dracula’s father) had three legitimate sons, Mircea ll, Vlad Tepes (our Dracula) and Radu the Handsome.

Being ruler of Wallachia always seemed to require help and originally Vlad the Dragon seized the throne with Hungarian support. After the death of the Hungarian ruler, Hungary’s position weakened, resulting in Vlad the Dragon having to pay homage to Murad ll, the Ottoman ruler. It all gets rather involved, convoluted and complicated at this point, and if I am not careful I go off on a tangent about all the other rulers too. There were invasions and power struggles between various lands, some of which now make up the country of Romania.

All of this affects our Dracula as his father basically got caught in the middle of a power struggle between the ruler of Transylvania and the Sultan. Vlad the Dragon was captured in 1442 by the Sultan and later released, but our Dracula and his younger brother, Radu, remained with the Sultan as hostages to ensure Vlad the Dragon’s loyalty. Meanwhile the oldest brother, Mircea, remained in Wallachia as the heir.

Mircea ruled Wallachia in his father’s absence and was also caught in the conflicts between the Ottoman Sultan and the ruler of Hungary. In the end he only lived to the age of 19, only ruling for three months from September to December, 1442. He was actually captured by his own boyars from Targoviste who blinded him with a hot poker and buried him alive. His father, Vlad the Dragon, was captured and killed shortly thereafter. A sad state of affairs for Mircea and The Dragon.

Meanwhile Vlad III (our ‘Dracula’, meaning son of the Dragon) and Radu were also having a difficult time. It is said that so long as their father remained loyal to the Sultan, the boys were taught and well looked after. They were educated in logic, the Quran, the Turkish and Persian languages and literature. Radu also became friends with the Sultan’s son, Mehmed ll.

Once their father’s loyalty moved away from the Sultan, things changed for the hostage princes. There are rumors of torture and brain washing. Radu converted and became a puppet for the Ottomans, while Dracula resisted and was treated accordingly.

With Vlad the Dragon and his eldest son dead, the ruler of Hungary invaded Wallachia in 1447 and installed Vlad’s second cousin, Vladislav ll, as the new Voivode (I know – too many Vlads, too many Dracul/ Draculas and now a Vladislav too!).

Hungary then launched a military campaign against the Ottomans alongside Vladislav. It gets complicated again now, with our Dracula sneaking into Wallachia in Vladislav’s absence (and with Ottoman support), then being forced to flee when Vladislav returned. There was much moving around for Dracula until relations between Hungary and Vladislav deteriorated. In 1456 Dracula gained Hungary’s support and invaded Wallachia, killing Vladislav and retaking what he felt was his rightful place as ruler of Wallachia.

As I said, all rather messy and complicated. However, so far our Dracula has only been known as Vlad Dracula- the son of Vlad the Dragon. This is about to change.

Dracula is now in charge of Wallachia and he knows it was his own boyars who killed his brother and father. He has also seen and learnt some unpleasant things from his time as a hostage. Things such as torture methods… and impaling in particular. He began a purge among the boyars, as well as plundering the Saxon villages as they had supported his opponents (Vladislav’s brothers as well as Dracula’s own illegitimate half brother, Vlad the Monk!). His enemies were impaled. Peace was restored in 1460 and with it we have his new names: Vlad Tepes and Kazikli Voyvoda.

Vlad the Impaler had arrived.

Now we have Vlad the Impaler in charge of Wallachia and a new Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed ll. When the new Sultan ordered The Impaler to pay homage to him, Vlad instead captured the Sultan’s two envoys and impaled them. Dracula had not forgotten what was done to him or his younger brother during their time in Ottoman hands and the conflict his family was dragged into.

In February 1446, Vlad the Impaler attacked Ottoman territory and massacred tens of thousands of Turks and Bulgarians. The new Sultan tried to replace Vlad with his younger brother, the Sultan’s puppet, his beloved Radu the Handsome. Many Wallachians switched allegiance from The Impaler to his brother as Radu promised the surviving boyars that he would restore their privileges and promised that defectors from his brother’s camp would not be punished. Radu preached of lasting peace and a gentle reign with no revenge for any past wrongdoings. He approached the Saxon villages punished by his brother, converting them with talk of advantageous trade regulations.

Once the Ottomans secured Radu’s place as the new ruler of Wallachia he chased his brother, The Impaler, to his mountain stronghold in Poenari Fortress.

In desperation in 1462 The Impaler fled to the King of Hungary (Matthias Corvinus) for help, but Corvinus had him imprisoned on what were likely false charges of collusion with the Sultan. It is said that there were incriminating letters found, but these are believed to be a forgery by Corvinus himself.

The Impaler was held in captivity from 1463-1475. Stories of his brutality spread in Germany and Italy. The neighboring Moldavian ruler requested his release in 1475 and he was allowed to fight in Corvinus’s army against the Ottomans.

Radu (thanks to Sultan Mehmed ll) was ruler of Wallachia on and off for thirteen years (1462-1475) and by the time Vlad the Impaler was ready to try again to reclaim rule over Wallachia, Radu had been dethroned by another- Basarab Laiota.

Radu was born in 1437/ 1439 and died in 1475. (Aged 36/37)

With the help of Hungarian and Moldavian troops, Vlad the Impaler forced Basarab Laiota to flee but he soon returned with Ottoman support. Vlad the Impaler was killed in battle in January 1477.

To our knowledge Dracula was born in 1428 and he died in 1477. (Aged 49)

He ruled for one month (October-November) in 1448. His second reign was from April 15th 1456- July 1462. His third and final reign started in 1476 and ended with his death in 1477.

Thanks to the new invention of the printing press, books describing Vlad’s cruelty were among the first best-sellers in German-speaking territories. These tales spread to Russia and were even adopted by Romanian historians in the 19th century. This was largely the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s novel ‘Dracula’.

Despite all of this he is often considered one of the most important rulers in Wallachian history and a national hero of Romania. A ruler who looked after the people rather than making the rich boyars richer. A ruler who protected the people from invaders and was such a strong ruler, theft and aggression disappeared from Wallachia while under his rule.

During our time in Romania and throughout all of our research we were constantly faced with these conflicting impressions of this Wallachian Voivode. Facts were hard to find as so much was propaganda by his enemies or wistful stories from his supporters. At the end of the day I decided that there is no black and white, pure good or pure evil. Vlad Dracula, The Impaler lived in a time so unlike my own that I cannot judge his actions or fully comprehend his reasons. I will always be fascinated by him and enjoyed my time in Romania, walking in his footsteps. All I think it is safe to say is that he was a hugely important figure in the history of a beautiful country which he dearly loved.

Thanks for reading, I hope it wasn’t all too confusing!

Felicity

P.S. We are very pleased to announce that Romania: Seeking Dracula’s Castle is now available on Prime Video! Watch it in the UK HERE, and in the USA HERE!

P.P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

 

A Treatise On Magic

A Treatise On Magic

A bonus blog post by Greg

This blog post, while mentioning one of our travels, is not a ‘travel blog’. It is something about the other part of my life, something which I felt the need to write and share, and something which didn’t seem to fit anywhere else…

 

I never used a wand when performing magic shows – I wasn’t that kind of  magician. For as long as I can remember, performing magic, I worked on a simple theory and style of performance:

“The audience know I am using tricks. I know I am using tricks. Why not just admit that I am using tricks?”

This led to my persona when performing magic – I was a trickster, I was playing a game with you. My greatest joy performing magic was when I managed to leave you entertained and befuddled by what I knew to be a simple secret and a big risk taken on stage, to know that you had entered my game and I had ‘won’. Not, I should be clear, in an adversarial kind of way – my ‘victory’ only had meaning to me if it brought you joy – but it was a game clearly laid out at the start. I would usually admit in my patter towards the start of the show that ‘I’m going to keep lying to you all evening, it’s basically my job’.

Then, last year, things started to change. There was a big upheaval behind the scenes in my personal life (don’t worry, everyone is fine!) which left me for a few months in quite a difficult place psychologically. During this time a change started to come over my performing style, and my attitude, with one really odd symptom.

I stopped caring about applause.

This is an odd thing for a performer like me to say. As someone who is used to doing large outdoor shows the sound of applause was a great way to know I had done a good job, entertained a crowd. In the state of mind I was in, however, that suddenly felt a little bit hollow.

You see, false modesty aside, I know I am good at my job. In the situation where my job is to gather a big crowd, entertain them and gather applause at the end, I can do that. I have learnt over the course of more than a decade doing that kind of show how to build to an ‘applause cue’, to offer up subtle body language and ways of speaking that lead to applause. This sounds more cynical that it is – this wasn’t a planned and measured thing, it was something which naturally developed, but I knew it was there. I enjoyed the big shows, and I enjoyed the applause which meant I had done my job.

Suddenly, however, as I say, that was gone. I could still perform, and I could still get the applause, but now it felt empty. There was a crowd who enjoyed what I was doing, but I wasn’t feeling connected to them like I had before. Something had changed.

Between my bigger shows, I usually performed odd bits of magic here and there. As the applause seemed less important to me, however, I began doing more and more of the close-up magic, one on one, in what would normally be my breaks. It also became less and less about playing a game, about trickery, and more and more about finding a moment of ‘magic’. Finding a genuine connection with someone, and seeing a moment of awe – just a tiny moment where they forgot that we both knew it was a trick, and for a fleeting moment they lived in a world of pure magic again- flash across their face. That suddenly became the meaning in performing magic to me, and began to inform the way I performed more and more.

Fast forward to March this year. Felicity and I were in Whitby, a few days before the lockdown started in the UK. My friends in Italy were already in lockdown, and we were all getting daily reports of a growing death toll across the world.

From a more selfish point of view, I had just had my first show officially cancel, but the writing was on the wall – I could see that my shows would be cancelled for months to come, and my career and financial outlook were bleak in the foreseeable future, and I knew that many people would be facing similar prospects. Pandemic and recession were looming over us all.

Yet I was there, in the sunshine, with the most truly magical thing that has ever happened in my life, Felicity (in fact it was a running joke at our wedding two years ago that I had never performed a greater piece of magic than getting Felicity to marry me).

I told Felicity that weekend in Whitby that I didn’t want to ‘get through’ the next few months, I wanted us to come out in some way better that we went in. A big goal considering what the world was facing, and still is, but one which has helped me a lot more than just trying to get through.

I also wanted something else, and Felicity agreed that we would find the right one in one of the shops in town and that she would buy it for me.

It was time for me to get a magic wand.

The magic of Felicity, and the little reminders of magic in the faces of people as I had performed close up for them, had got me through hard times the previous year. I knew that going forward into what was to come that people wouldn’t need a ‘trickster’, and they wouldn’t need me to tell them that I’m going to ‘lie to them all evening, it’s basically my job”.

But they just might need a few magical moments. A few child-like seconds where the world is alive with possibilities, hopes and dreams. Felicity bought me a magic wand that day, in a little shop which also contained a number of mermaids, a good omen for us, and it felt right.

I don’t know what the future holds, I don’t know if one day the wand will be put on display and I will return to being a ‘trickster’ again. Right now I simply know that what I need, and what a lot of other people need, is a little bit magic in their lives. So for as long as it feels right, I will perform ‘magic’, and I will wave my magic wand, and see if we can all share some magical moments together!

If you’d like to see some of my magic, you can see my ‘(Almost) Live’ show on Sunday at 3pm here.

You can find out more about my magic performances at www.gregchapman.net

Stay safe, and, to borrow a phrase, ‘Stay Alert’ for the magical moments all around us.

Greg

 

Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure – Part 3

Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure

Part 3 – Jungle Ruins!

A blog post by Greg

Hasn’t the world changed since I last sat down to write one of my blog posts?! Many of us are now in various levels of isolation and lockdown – and Felicity and I both wish you all well, and hope that you and yours are managing to stay safe!

On to happier things – since we last wrote we have also released a new travel adventure video with a lot of history included all about Romania, and our attempts to find ‘Dracula’s Castle’, dealing with both the fictional Count Dracula, and the Wallachian warlord Vlad the Impaler. It was an amazing journey, and will be the subject of future blog posts – but in the meantime you can watch the video here! For now, however, I must finally finish up our three-part blog post on Calakmul, and our first travel adventure video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’!

It seems a long way from not leaving our house at the moment, to being halfway around the world last March, deep in the jungle, and headed deeper towards the Mayan ruins at Calakmul. Isolation is a word that applies to both situations, but there was a real beauty in the isolation that we found in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and particularly when we arrived with our guide to the entrance of the site and went in.

The three of us probably accounted for about a third of the people in the site for most of the time we were there – a far cry from the fifty thousand people who would have called the vast city their home at its peak! This was truly reclaimed by the jungle – only three structures breached the canopy of trees and when sat atop them, it was a sea of green as far as the eye could see. In fact, after the city had dwindled and was finally abandoned in the 10th Century, it was so thoroughly overwhelmed by jungle that it took the invention of flight before, in December 1931, the site was rediscovered from the air when these temple tops were spotted.

What added to the magic for me was that from the ground the centre of the city is still remarkably well preserved.

Here you can see some of the genius of the Mayan culture at its very finest – there are pairs of temples on opposite sides of one square which align with the sun on the solstice and equinox, and other buildings built to line up with the movements of planets. The feel is that there is no random building going on here – the city, and especially the city centre, was a planned layout which joined together to create an intricate whole. At least, that is how it appears when you look at the significant astronomical markers like the solstice. A few of them where the line of planets and dates seem a little more random do make you wonder whether sometimes a combination of archaeologists and tour guides may just have wanted to find intricate connections a little too much and are stretching them just a little bit. The people here at Calakmul were clearly very advanced in their use of astronomy and their charting of stars and planets, and they were clearly very skilled at charting these in such a way that two connected perfectly. Some of the buildings, however, I would dare to suggest, just may have been put in locations without necessarily taking into account where Neptune and Jupiter on the third full moon after the sun shone through the left temple after midday … you get the idea!

When we set off to climb up the first of our three temples that day our guide, who had been there many times before, wisely opted to head for the shade and wait for us to return. We would later find out that after our early start into the jungle with him leading us on our animal trek, and then the long drive into the site, he would then return to the hotel with us before he set off for his other job, donning full protective gear in the heat and going to work as a beekeeper! Suddenly I felt quite feeble for having struggled so much in the heat when the air-conditioning had packed up for a couple of hours in the cabin the day before (if you haven’t done so already, you can read about that here).

For this couple from England, climbing those pyramids in over 32 degrees with the suns rays on us was hard work. The steps are all a lot steeper than you might expect, and we had spent most of the last fortnight climbing up and down similar steps all across the county. We had been taught to climb on a slight diagonal to protect our knees, but I think it is fair to say that, although we would miss being among the temples, we were both looking forward to bidding farewell to the temple steps for a while – at least until our legs had been given a rest.

When we reached through the tree line and stood atop the first temple we looked out over the treetops and saw another temple rising above us. It was the most ‘Indiana Jones’ that I think I had felt in the entire time we had spent in Mexico – we had been edging closer and closer to it and here we were, atop one temple hidden in the trees, and looking out at another temple rising above us and aiming to get to it. Once we had our breath back we went back down to the courtyard, and worked our way through the trees towards the second temple.

As we went along our guide made us particularly jealous as he explained that he had been inside this temple, known simply as ‘Structure II’. This is particularly impressive as this is the highest and largest pyramid yet discovered in the Mayan world, and is currently sealed off. He only managed to see inside as he was part of the team working there to excavate the site, which has had two excavations since the turn of the century – one in 2005 and one in 2008. When he told us, the idea of going into those temples immediately struck me as an incredible experience to have. Since we were lucky enough to get a look ‘behind the curtains’ at the dig on a Greek site at Laodicea (see our Turkey travel adventure video here for details on that one), I can’t even begin to imagine how special it must have been to be one of the few who had the opportunity to explore inside the pyramids!

We made our way up past the stelae (large inscribed stones), of which there are 117 in total around the site, although many of these are so warn by time and weather that the information which they were built to preserve has long since been lost.

Finally we made it to the top, and once again looked out above the trees. We could see the slightly lower pyramid which we had stood on last, and one more we had yet to climb. We paused there, high above the ruins, high above the Mayan city, and tried to picture for a moment a city below us, the trees cleared, fifty thousand people living their lives beneath us. To imagine the people leaving as the city dried up, to imagine the first trees starting to take route among the buildings left behind. The rains returning, the water rolling over the stelae which such care had gone into making, washing away the writing and images which had been recorded there. Finally the trees covering the site, wildlife running freely through the ruins as they fell silent but for the sound of the animals and the breeze in the trees.

Finally the sound of a plane flying overhead in 1931, and the first people returning to the site to discover a monument to a great city which had stretched too far, and ultimately disappeared – not with a dramatic clash of swords and annihilation, but with a slow fade into history.

All of these images and thoughts were what flashed through my mind as we stood atop that pyramid, which left room in my head a short while later as we sat atop our final pyramid for a moment of reflection on our journey so far.

The Mayan stage of our adventure had been truly incredible. There was a real tinge of sadness that this was the last time we’d be standing atop a Mayan pyramid, certainly for the foreseeable future. As I said at the time, however, if one has to have a last Mayan pyramid to stand on (or indeed a last Mayan ruin to visit), then Calakmul is a wonderful choice!

We’ll be back next week with our first blog about our Romanian travels, but for now thanks for reading, and stay safe!

Greg

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures – plus a few new videos (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’) on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

 

P.P.S. While we aren’t able to travel, we are performing new ‘(Almost) Live’ online magic and comedy shows – and you can see a couple of segments here – a little magic clip and some of my puppets!

 

Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure! – Part 2

 

Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure

Part 2 – Calakmul Wildlife

A blog post by Lady Felicity

Calakmul was a very special place. Hopefully by now you’ll have read about our incredible jungle cabin accommodation in Greg’s last blog post (read it here if not) and in the next blog post you will be able to read about the unique Calakmul ruins. Once again I’m here to talk about some wildlife.

As our accommodation was in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, we could listen to the birds and, on occasion, howler monkeys in the distance from the comfort of our bed or hammock, protected from the insects by mosquito net walls.

When booking a guided tour (through our accommodation) for the Calakmul Archaeological Zone we saw that they also offer a guided tour through a section of the jungle to attempt to spot some wildlife. Naturally we jumped at this chance.

This lead to a 4:30am wake up call as our guide met us at the hotel reception at 5:30 and we were pleased to find that he was fairly fluent in English. He hopped into the back of our car and we set off on a 40 minute drive deeper into the jungle.

Our first stop was at a ‘car park’ aka a gravel ditch type space at the side of the road, from which a jungle trail led us away from the road and through the trees.

We soon spotted the rather vocal howler monkeys and, by comparison, beautifully dainty spider monkeys. (If you have never heard a howler monkey before, check out our video HERE – their call is rather distinctive!).

We also saw white-chested parrots, olive-chested parrots, lorikeets, and other similar species of birds whose names I can’t recall. There was also a roadside hawk perched in one tree giving us a bored look as we passed by.

Amongst the trees we saw a flash of white, which was actually the aptly named white tailed deer. We also saw male and female curassows running through the brush (these are large birds, once eaten by the Maya. They are a bit like over-sized, exotic looking pheasants).

Next we made a stop at a drying up swamp area which was home to lots of baby crocodiles and, apparently, the considerably larger mother who (thankfully!) remained buried amongst tree roots and mud.

At one point our guide climbed around the tree to see if it was possible to see the mother in her tree-root den. This put him between the baby infested swamp and the den itself making us somewhat nervous – what if the mother didn’t like anyone between her and her babies!? The guide assured us she has never attacked anyone… yet! Suffice to say Greg and I passed up on his offer to get any closer and try to see her for ourselves, I’ve seen enough nature documentaries, not to mention the film Crocodile Dundee!

On our walk along the road back to our car I spotted an Agouti, the same creature I had spotted in the grounds of our hotel when staying in Palenque. Agouti, or Sereque as they are known in Mexico, are related to guinea pigs and have a similar face but a larger body and much longer legs. I know some people keep them as exotic pets but I always enjoy seeing animals in the wild, even if it’s just rabbits or guinea pig related creatures like these.

We went from our jungle walk to the Archaeological Zone and during our hour plus drive to the Calakmul Ruins along ‘roads’, with more potholes and craters than actual road (it became a bit of a game, with our guide trying to tell us which holes to avoid (and when it was just impossible to avoid them), and which side of the road to drive on so as best to avoid blowing our tyres! Apparently many people get the guide to drive their car as the road is too stressful for them. As you can imagine, this was not the case with Greg who quite enjoys a driving challenge! We also passed many wild Oscillated turkey (one of which decided to attack our car!) and even a wild boar!

The best part of the drive for me was when we stopped as a massive herd of Coati streamed through the jungle on either side of the road as well as across it. They were beautiful!

In English they are apparently known as hog-nosed coon! I can see why, as they do resemble (and are related to) raccoons and have a cute little up-turned nose. They are also double jointed like raccoons. Their ankles can rotate beyond 180° which allows them to descend a tree head first. We saw a lot of this as they flowed through the trees on either side of us. Quite fascinating to watch.

Coati are also known for their intelligence, also like raccoons. I note this in particular as it also links to my interest in spindle neurons. (If you read my blog about Whales -read HERE- you’ll have heard briefly about this) Only highly intelligent species such as humans, great apes, cetaceans and elephants have spindle neurons, but they have actually also found a lesser evolved version of these cells in raccoons. Such a rare thing, it makes me wonder quite how intelligent and emotionally diverse the raccoon and coati actually are.

If you are anything like Greg and myself, if you like the wildlife, the tranquillity, the less touristy, more organic, untouched and more adventurous versions of everything, but still welcome a bit of luxury, Calakmul is definitely a place to visit in Mexico. The accommodation, ruins, wildlife – all of it was brilliant! I highly recommend the guided tours too, although make sure you book early if you need an English speaking guide.

Our guide was clearly passionate and very knowledgeable about his subject. He actually helps the archaeologists still working in Calakmul and he adores the nature too. We told him that on our journey from Palenque to Calakmul, in the middle of the day, we had been shocked to see a small black jaguar slinking across the road (a main road!) and, unsurprised, he explained that it was a Jaguarundi.

Where I had thought it must be a young unusually dark Jaguar, our guide explained they are actually just a bit smaller than a jaguar and have a black to brown/grey coat or in the case of the eyra, a red- chestnut coat. They are also known as ‘Otter-Cats’, and are related to the puma.

They are diurnal- usually active during the day rather than at night, and while they are fine in trees they prefer to hunt on the ground.

Jaguarundis make an unusually wide range of vocalisations, including purrs, whistles, yaps, chattering sounds, and even a bird-like chirp. I wish we had spotted it in the jungle and could have perhaps witnessed some of this but the fact we saw one at all really made our day! I was happy when a toucan flew over our car, let alone when a large(-ish) wild cat crossed in front of it! Amazing!

Our guide didn’t have any pictures of the Jaguarundi but he did show us some stunning pictures of the Jaguars and puma he has managed to encounter through the years.

Our time in the jungle and at the ruins with our guide was fascinating and terrific fun. If we had known in advance to hire an off-road vehicle, there are more ruins in the jungle, even more remote and untouched than the main ones we saw – which we could have visited with him. If we have the chance to return one day, it’s on our next to do list!

On this visit though, we had one more place to visit before leaving this amazing place.

At 3:40pm Greg and I drove though the jungle, returning to the main road. A short stretch along it took us to a little car park. There was just one other car when we arrived but it filled up (about 30 people in total) as we all waited for the sun to set.

A short walk through the jungle took us all to a dried up sink hole cavernous pit with a recessed cave area. In the cave, called Zots Cave, live bats. When we arrived we could see one or two had ventured out of the cave and were circling the pit in front of it.

While we waited for the rest of the bats to emerge we spotted that, feeding from the tree right in front of us, overhanging the sink hole pit, were Emerald hummingbirds. Maybe ten or so.

Hard to film, they are incredibly fast, though we got some good footage in the end. As warm up acts go, they were rather fantastic. So unexpected and delightful to watch.

To the Aztecs the hummingbird was the symbol of strength in life’s struggle to elevate consciousness—to follow your dreams.

At about 5:50 the hummingbirds flitted off and the bats came out to play. About three million of them. They circled around and around the cavern, up into the sky like a funnel or vortex till they found open air and space to filter out over the jungle and away into the evening sky. It is known as ‘volcan de los murcielagos’ meaning ‘Bats volcano’ and that suits it perfectly.

I went prepared with my waterproof coat (much to Greg’s amusement- it was swelteringly hot and he thought that only a usually freezing cold person like me could stand it in such heat), and, as it turned out, I wasn’t the only one. A few of us spectators wore our coats, in my case it was to deter the insects and mosquitoes, I suspect in many people’s cases it was to guard against bat guano (Some people also recommend covering your mouth and nose with a hanky or paper mask in case the bats stir up any cave mould. The air remained clear and odourless while we were there but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t there).

Though the bats flew above our heads, flitted around and amongst us, dark blurs that appeared to be brushing past our arms and legs, Greg and I escaped remarkably poo and bug-bite free.

After about 15 minutes of the amazing spectacle, people started to trickle away. We were the last to leave (after about 40 minutes with the bats), just before it got too dark to see the jungle path back to the car.

I’m glad we stayed as long as we did. The straggler bats flew closer and closer to us as the people left and the area opened up for them. It felt like such a privilege to see them (and the gorgeous hummingbirds!) like that.

Eight different species of bat – seven types of fruit eating bat and one insectivore – live together in this cave, one of the top three caves in the world for bat biodiversity. The part of the cenote pit we can see is dry but apparently, in the cave, there is still a trickle of water for thirsty bats.

It’s a magical place and seemingly untouched by people, but for the gravel path to reach it.

It was a special evening and the perfect way to end the Mayan/ Aztec/ jungle part of our Mexico adventure before moving on to the marine part.

To quote our video – ‘Calakmul we like!’

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

 

Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure! – Part 1

Calakmul – A Real Jungle Adventure

Part 1 – A Jungle Hotel

A blog post by Greg

When we began the research to start booking our Mexico adventure (which would become our video, Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty), one of my main goals was to find a remote jungle ruin to visit. In my mind I had visions of Indiana Jones at the start of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Felicity was looking through the Lonely Planet Guide when she found a place named Calakmul – at that point in time little more than a word on a page – and we began to look at visiting, and whether it would be possible to get to the site during our time in Mexico.

To begin with we would have to drive quite a long way out to the Calakmul Biosphere, a jungle filled biosphere reserve covering nearly 2,800 miles, including the Calakmul Archaeological Zone. It feels a world away from the tourist metropolis of Chichen Itza, with its crowds of tourists in beachwear bussed in from Cancun, and even feels a long way from the jungles of Palenque which, although they felt so remote, had a huge row of large hotels leading almost right up to the entrance of the archaeological site.

When Felicity found a hotel for us to stay in, the website ‘warned’ that it is 36 miles from the nearest petrol station (which seems even further to us as it is longer than the whole way across the Isle of Wight), and about 60 miles from the nearest reasonably sized town. It may surprise you that the hotel’s website has ‘warnings’ – but this hotel wanted to make it clear that it was decidedly in the jungle, and so you couldn’t expect everything you would in a city hotel. They actually say on their website at one stage:

“From what you have read to this point, it may look like we are trying to scare you away. On the contrary, this is a wonderful/magical area. We just want you to be prepared before coming here.”

As you can imagine, with the way Felicity and I enjoy adventures and avoiding the crowded ‘touristy’ areas as we go, the ‘warnings’ of how they were remote and didn’t have all the mod-cons and a string of shops, bars and restaurants nearby just made us want to stay there even more.

Even on arriving at the hotel, a mile into the jungle from the road, we would then have to drive over an hour further into the jungle to reach the ruins of Calakmul itself.

There was no question that here we had discovered our remote jungle ruin, and fast forward from the planning stage to our arrival at our hotel in Calakmul to see a slightly overexcited Greg driving along a jungle road and pulling up at the entrance to the Hotel Puerta Calakmul.

‘Hotel’ doesn’t really do justice to the place we had arrived at. Yes, it has a reception, rooms and a restaurant, but not in the traditional hotel style. The reception is a covered hut beside the carpark, and from there you are taken through the jungle to your ‘room’. The rooms are actually wooden cabins in the jungle, with no glass windows, just mesh to keep out the worst of the insects.

This led to a wonderful feeling of experiencing sleeping outside in the jungle, while at the same time being comfortable. To be laying in bed and listening to all of the sounds outside, and to feel the warm jungle air blowing through.

To my mind it was better than camping in a tent because it felt as though you were completely open to the jungle outside. For Felicity it was better than camping in a tent because… well, because it wasn’t camping in a tent! We could spend time outside in the hammock, and time relaxing inside the cabin, and the whole time we could hear the sounds of the jungle all around us, and it was beautifully peaceful.

The restaurant, a short walk along a pathway, was of a very similar style. On one side it had the bar, offices and kitchens, while the three other sides were just discreet mesh walls allowing unrestricted views of the jungle. It was a civilised way to feel a part of the jungle, so we could sit here, miles from the nearest town, enjoying the jungle surroundings but also enjoying tortillas, enchiladas, the odd beer and wonderful hospitality – we were on our Honeymoon after all!

All of this, and we still hadn’t made it into the jungle to search for wildlife, or visited the Calakmul ruins yet. Which will take place in our next posts!

If you are interested in learning more about the hotel we stayed in you can look here. Just to be clear, we haven’t been paid to promote them or anything, we just really enjoyed the experience!

For now, thanks for reading, and safe travels!

Greg

P.S.

You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

 

The Cotton Castles of Pamukkale, Turkey

The Cotton Castles

A post by Lady Felicity

In November 2019 Greg and I went to Turkey to film an episode of our travel  adventure documentary series. From the title, ‘Turkey: Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities’ you can easily guess what first drew us to the country – but during our short time there we wanted to explore as much of what the country has to offer as possible. One place that really stood out for me while we were researching our journey beforehand was Pamukkale, also known as the ‘Cotton Castles’.

We started our Turkish adventure in Goreme, Cappadocia but to reach Pamukkale we had to catch a short flight from the nearby Nevsehir to Denizli (via Istanbul) which is then about a fifty minute drive to Pamukkale.

Today many people consider  Pamukkale the eighth wonder of the world. Once there, it’s very easy to see why.

Turkey, through my eyes, is mostly a landscape of soft golds, browns and creams. Even the sky had a soft palette to me. Soft sunrise and sunset, it could all have been painted with delicate watercolours. To have that gentle golden brown interrupted with what looks like a snippet from a snow covered arctic wasteland is so unexpected that it can be quite jarring. It just doesn’t look like it belongs there.

Imagine a cliff made up of individual pools which form in large step-like terraces. Imagine it’s all formed from hardened, compacted snow and ice with icicles forming decorative stalactites here and there. The pools sparkling with sometimes crystal clear, other times milky but always quite beautifully blue tinted water. A stream of the water gushes along in a narrow channel alongside the cliff’s sharpest edge. That’s the best I can do to describe what my eyes felt like they were looking at when visiting this incredible place.

Legend said that the formations are solidified cotton, the area’s principal crop, giants left out to dry long ago. In reality, however, it is something much more unusual than snow or cotton.

These travertines are believed to have been formed in a process which lasted 15 thousand years. Underground hot springs located 160m above the plain of Menderes, containing 34’C water rich with calcium bicarbonate, allow water to trickle down the hillside. As it does so there is a chemical reaction that results in the formation of the pure white limestone terraces we see today.

The thermal pools have been a tourist attraction for thousands of years. Only in more recent years, when the site was declared a World Heritage Site, were preservation efforts and methods put in place to protect this natural wonder. The surrounding hotels, erected on top of the ancient city of Hierapolis located above the terraces of Pamukkale were then torn down and where once motorbikes were permitted to drive up and down the white slopes, now all but one footpath through the pools is closed off to the public. This footpath is also restricted to barefoot only.

So much damage took place in the past, I was glad to see they are now doing their best to preserve the site while also allowing admiring tourists to enjoy it.

For those of you who have watched our video (link here) you will already know about the issues we initially had when visiting the Cotton Castles of Pamukkale – that the thermal pools combined with a cool morning created a white blanket of mist. Trying to see the white travertines or the ancient city of Hierapolis through a shroud of mist proved tricky bordering on impossible. Once the afternoon sunshine broke through it though things improved.

We walked along the beautiful path, struggling to connect the snow-like appearance our eyes were seeing with the thermal pool temperatures and hard, rock surface our feet were feeling.

A lot of the pools and much of the path we had largely to ourselves as the majority of people don’t seem to stray too far from the entrance and the first handful of pools located there.

When we first arrived in Hierapolis and struggled to even find the Cotton castles, the mist was that thick, I was so disappointed. How glad I am now that it cleared in time for us to explore them. I now know properly what I would have been missing and it is something, if you’re visiting Turkey, not to miss. Such an incredible natural wonder and one of the many beautiful highlights from our time in Turkey.

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

The Underwater World of Mexico: Part 2: Whale Sharks and Sea Lions

 

The Underwater World of Mexico: Part 2: Whale Sharks and Sea Lions

 

A post by Lady Felicity

 

I’ve always admired sharks. I once read that they originally evolved from a tiny, leaf like fish and from there they split into bony fish or cartilage fish – the latter being the category which sharks fit into. This cartilage is lightweight and flexible making sharks incredible agile.

Sharks are prehistoric. They have existed for about four-hundred million years, which is about two-hundred million years older than dinosaurs. While some (like the famous, sixty foot, inspiration for Jaws, the Megalodon) have become extinct, over five-hundred species of shark – not including the six-hundred species of ray and skate or fifty or so species of chimaera which are also part of the shark family – are still in existence today.

Shark species are diverse and each one is perfectly adapted for its environment, even when that means living in fresh water rather than salt!

From tiny lantern sharks that glow in the dark, to the beautiful tasselled wobbegong, so well camouflaged you probably wouldn’t find it hidden on the sea floor while swimming right above it, to the epaulette shark using its specially adapted fins to run across coral reefs, to the hammerhead, the most recent shark to evolve (35-50 million years ago) with its head being the equivalent of a satellite dish for the electro-sensory receptors located in the head and particularly snout area, and finally to the impressive whale shark, the largest non-mammalian vertebrate alive today (The average length of the whale shark is 32 feet but the largest on record grew to an incredible 61 feet in length!).

I could tell you about the amazing adaptations they have (the camouflage for example doesn’t only include the beautiful carpet sharks like the wobbegong or the whale shark, all with decorative patterns on the skin, but even the great white when you consider the white belly and darker back so that when looked at from above or below you easily lose them), or the fact that their skin is actually made of tiny teeth- dermal denticles (so that as they swim, each little tooth creates its own vortex, therefore reducing drag as they cut through the water), or the fact that the majority of shark species have a brain as complex as that of mammals. Plus not only do they use the same five senses that we use, in addition they also sense electrical currents which helps them locate prey as well as orientate themselves using the earths geomagnetic field and they sense pressure changes. They have something called a  lateral line- a small row of pores running the length of their body. As water flows through the pores sensory cells calculate pressure change. It gives the sharks spatial awareness, the ability to navigate and to create a pressure map of the area around them.

The only downside I can see to their incredible senses is that when they use ‘touch’ they don’t have hands, so instead use their teeth, which contain pressure sensitive nerves. A little tester nip to a shark can sometimes be fatal to a human or unpleasant at the very least! It’s why a second bite is very uncommon however, as we aren’t their intended meal and don’t taste particularly good to them!

That brings us to their teeth- sharks have rows of teeth which they replace every two weeks. For some species this means they will shed about 30,000 in their lifetime. They aren’t all the same, scary teeth everyone pictures either, their teeth are adapted to their diet. This means flat crushing teeth for those eating shellfish. Pointed teeth for gripping fish. And sharp serrated teeth for larger prey, such as seals.

You can learn so much from looking at sharks. The shape of their fins for example (particularly dorsal fin) which indicates speed and lifestyle, and even their mood.

Some people think that sharks have to always be on the move or risk drowning- true for some but not all. Swimming forward, water is driven in through the mouth and pushed out over the gills where they absorb the oxygen. Some species of shark however are able to suck the water into the mouth and squeeze it over the gills while laying stationary.

Sharks are also sometimes believed to be cold-blooded, hence the ‘cold blooded killer’ title. While some are cold blooded, however, others are not. The great white is actually as much as 10’C warmer than the surrounding water due to a network of tiny capillaries which act as a heat exchange system, keeping the muscles warm making them far more efficient predators.

Ok, I know I’m going too far now. Unless you’re a shark ‘fin’atic (sorry!) then you probably didn’t need to know all this, but, truthfully, I hope that the more people who learn just how incredible, how misunderstood and how beautifully evolved and adapted these creatures are, the less people will fear and dislike them – avoiding news like the headline ‘Killer Sharks Swimming To Our Shores’ which drove Greg into a rant in this video:

Despite surviving 5 mass extinctions, many shark species are threatened with extinction once again today. It’s all down to human activity which has led to sharks becoming one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet. You look at the huge rate of over-fishing and the demand for things like shark fin soup. Even as that slowly declines the demand for shark meat increases. Plus Chinese medicine want shark teeth, shark liver oil is used in cosmetics, their cartilage is a health supplement and their jaws are sought after ornaments. Every year tens of millions of sharks are caught and it greatly harms not just the shark population but the marine ecosystems they are such an important part of.

Add to that the fact that sharks are slow growing. Taking things to the extreme is the Greenland shark, it can live for 400 years and doesn’t reach sexual maturity till the age of 150. Many are caught before they’ve ever reproduced, and reproduction is not quick for sharks either! Shark pregnancy averages between about 9-12 months, but it can be as long as 31 months. They don’t produce many young and often rest a few years between reproducing.

I don’t want to preach to those that don’t wish to hear it, but I hope to spread the word to those capable of caring in the hopes of making a difference to these incredible creatures that should be admired rather than killed.

Anyway, this is a travel blog, so on to our adventure…

The intention was to dive with bull sharks while in Mexico. You must be careful with this for a few reasons. The first is that it has become relatively popular in Mexico and some companies use food to encourage the sharks into the area they wish to swim in, even though this area is not safe from shark fishing, thus putting the sharks at great risk. The second is that the bull shark is not only the shark famous for being able to swim in fresh as well as salt water (specially adapted gills), but also for having the highest amount of testosterone, meaning that it is naturally the most aggressive of shark species. Bull sharks, tiger sharks and, largely due to mistaken identity when hunting, the great white, are the only sharks that make me especially nervous. So, of course, I was crazy enough to want to swim with them.

Greg’s perforated eardrum (which you’ll have hopefully read about in part 1 of this post HERE) put a stop to this plan. I was disappointed till we discovered what else we could swim with instead.

When doing my initial research I had found out that Mexico is a good place for swimming with whale sharks… in July and August. This didn’t work for us as we were going in February-March for the grey whales in Magdalena Bay (see HERE). When we started looking at what we could do instead of diving around La Paz, however, we found a snorkel tour where you can swim with not just whale sharks but sea lions too!

I like a lot of different shark species but I must say, whale sharks are one of my favourites.

As I mentioned earlier, they are the largest non-mammalian vertebrate alive today. They are certainly the biggest fish in the sea. Their life span is estimated between 70-150 years.

They are migratory animals, they like warm water and will follow their food source. Like other sharks, they have a mouth full of teeth, about 3,000 to be exact, all in a mouth that can be between 4-5 feet wide. They don’t use these little teeth to feed though, they are one of only three species of filter feeding shark (the other two being the megamouth and the basking shark) and have gill-rakers (long, comb like structures on their gills) to trap and filter krill, crab larvae, jellyfish etc.

To be honest, they are probably one of my favourites because they are gentle giants and so beautiful. Their skin is a beautiful blue/ grey and decorated (carpet shark, remember) with bright white speckles. These speckles seem to glow against the blue background and are as individual as a humans fingerprints. They are stunning.

The trip itself was with Karla from MexPlore and I highly recommend it. It has three parts, they take you to a location where the whale sharks are feeding and get you close enough to swim with them. You are then taken to the sea lion colony where you can swim with them and admire the beautiful corals and parrot fish there. Lastly they take you to a gorgeous Sandy bay where they set up a picnic for you to enjoy before taking you back to the harbour where the tour began.

I mentioned earlier that you have to be careful when booking the Bull shark dive as some companies encourage the sharks into areas where they are not safe. To be honest, for any experience where you come into close proximity or contact with animals, please do your research first – for both your safety and theirs! I have even found some instances where a place is claiming to be a sanctuary, but they are still training animals (think Elephants, big cats and whales and dolphins) and treating them appallingly to do so  – and those are just the ones I’ve found. The worst places have no problem with lying about their activities, so dig as deep as you can before booking anything.

Especially when coming into contact with wild animals you should be an observer and not interact, unless the animal instigates it – and even then it should be done cautiously.

That’s why I was pleased when Karla used our boat ride out of the harbour not only to kit us up (wetsuit, fins, snorkel if you didn’t have your own), but also to give us some general information about whale sharks and to go through some rules with us about not getting too close and certainly not touching the sharks. The area of the bay is also strictly controlled, only so many boats out there at a time and only so many people are allowed in the water with the sharks at once. Only five people in the water per boat, that sort of thing. It stops us from overwhelming the sharks, amongst other things.

Sliding off the boat and into the water, my first glimpse of those beautiful spots and then the size of her enormous tail as she swam past me, that distinctive shark tail… left me breathless.

I quickly recovered and started to swim alongside her, making sure I was at least the instructed distance away. Her movements were graceful and unhurried but she was apparently a ‘quick’ one. Greg and I could keep pace, but the other two in our party were not swimmers. Karla called us back to the boat to locate a slower moving shark. We did this relatively quickly and off we went into the water again.

This next shark actually started vertical feeding!

Whale sharks have three methods of feeding:

The first is passive- swimming slowly with mouth open to get the plankton. This is most common and what we saw most of.

The second is vertical feed- where they stay almost motionless and use a suction method to pull in the food.

The third is active or ram-filter-feeding where they suck the water in as they swim to filter feed it at higher velocities.

Watching them do the things I had heard about was fantastic. We were so absorbed watching this shark feed, we failed to notice another one swimming towards us till it collided with us. It actually happened to us twice!

The sharks mouths are unusual in that they are on the front of their face rather than beneath like most sharks. The position of their eyes, to the sides, also means they can’t see anything in front of them. We were in their blind spot and they were in ours. On the first occasion Greg and I both felt the impact but were quick to swim back, trying to get out of her way. On the second occasion she bumped into Greg who was quick to alert us so the other swimmer and I could move before the shark caught us too. We both agreed afterwards that you can feel the strength in the sharks, they are moving slowly, drifting and feeding and yet when they collide with us you can feel the size and strength of them. The fact it didn’t hurt, they really are gentle giants.
The sharks seemed as surprised at the collisions as we were yet they didn’t panic, like us they just tried to adjust course to get past us. You should never try to touch them, in fact you should try very hard not to touch them, it’s not natural for them, but I was pleased that the experience didn’t cause us or the shark any harm. How could anyone want to harm such an amazing creature. The fact that some people do, it baffles me.
When we went on our honeymoon, we didn’t know we would be filming a documentary or that it would start us on the documentary making path. It was just our incredible honeymoon. Greg filmed the experience for a while and then returned the camera to the boat.

We then swam hand in hand, keeping pace with this fantastic fish. She knew we were there and she didn’t mind. We kept a reasonable distance but kept pace with her for quite a long time. It was something I want to return to Mexico to do again. It was incredible.

I could have happily spent all day swimming beside those sharks. But it was time to move on to the sea lion colony.

Sea lions are Pinnipeds – carnivorous, fin footed, semiaquatic marine mammals. Sea lions are the ones with the visible, external ear flaps and can actually move well on all fours.

Again we had the safety and rules briefing. While sea lions are not normally aggressive to humans, incidents are not unheard of. The males often stay on their rocks, but if you approach the males on the rocks you’re invading their territory and they don’t look on that kindly. The males are a lot bigger, stronger, more agile not to mention faster in the water than us and have a powerful bite with sharp teeth.

Being respectful of the creatures and the environment around us sounds so obvious but you’d be surprised by how many people seem to think everything around them was put their purely for their own amusement and that they are entitled to do what they want, when they want.

Once in the water, the female sea lions turned into water puppies. They were everywhere. Dashing around, above, beneath us. Floating upside down having a good look at us. It became a bit of a game, diving down, spinning around, they would almost mimic us. Where the sharks had been majestic, full of grace and beauty, the sea lions were boisterous, inquisitive and playful. I was so careful to try to tuck arms and feet in so as not to accidentally bop one but looking back at our footage, there was no danger of that. They were in control in that water, coming only as close as they wanted. I couldn’t have touched one without it’s wanting me to even if I had tried. (Which you never should!)

The smell of the area isn’t pleasant, at one point my snorkel clearing wasn’t good enough and I got a mouth full of… I don’t even want to think about it. Yuck! But overall it was such an amazing experience, just the kind of interaction I want. You should never chase an animal down, forcing it to interact with you. It should always be on their terms.

The whales in Magdalena choose if they want to surface beside a boat to say hello. The sharks here had the ability to swim away at speed if they didn’t like us being near them. The sea lions can certainly either swim quickly away or return to their rocks if they don’t want to be near us. In each place, these animals were fine with our presence and some even chose to play and interact with us. It makes the experience special and meaningful.

The thought of marine parks (I’m not going to open that can of worms here but I highly recommend everyone watch the BlackFish film documentary!), where animals are badly treated and forced to perform and interact with us when it’s not what they want, it’s beyond terrible.

Watching Greg spinning underwater and having two inquisitive sea lions swimming around him, the beautiful reef behind him and the sound of the nibbling parrot fish in my ears… memories I will treasure forever.

Again, I could have stayed with the sea lions all day but other people’s tummy’s were rumbling. Another quick ride on the boat took us to our final destination.

The sandy bay with its warm, shallow, clear water, warm gold sand and a quickly erected table and vegetarian friendly (on request) wraps, salad and crisps with a selection of soft drinks… what a lovely way to end an incredible experience. It was the last day of our honeymoon and what an incredible way to end it.
Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

The Underwater World of Mexico: Part 1: SCUBA and Cenotes

 

 
 
The Underwater World of Mexico: 
Part 1: 

 

SCUBA and Cenotes

 

 

A post by Lady Felicity

 

 

When Greg and I agreed on Mexico as our honeymoon destination we knew there was going to be some fantastic marine life to see. In preparation for this we decided it was time to learn to SCUBA dive.

We went for the basic ‘Open Water PADI ’ certificate, with the assistance of ‘Island Divers‘ on the Isle of Wight. This entry level qualification allows us to dive to 60 feet. Most marine life, coral reefs etc can generally be found within this depth anyway, so it’s the ideal one to start with.

It does, however, require both pool and open water sessions as well as passing a few theory tests. The pool and theory were no problem to either of us – we passed easily. Finding a time when the weather and water conditions in England were suitable for diving, when we are also both fully booked with work throughout the warmer months, was another story. Add to it that you cannot dive when you have blocked sinuses (Greg suffers from hay fever and I have a knack for catching colds!) and the time between us and the honeymoon started fast disappearing.

In the end, we had to bite the bullet and went to Lake Andark for our first of the two necessary open water dives. In January. To say the water was cold would be a huge understatement. If my memory serves, it was about 3 degrees.

Luckily our fantastic instructors took pity on us (they told us quite frankly that they weren’t getting in that water without a dry suit on and it seemed a bit harsh to make us do it if they weren’t willing to) and showed us how to be efficient enough in a dry suit to get by on our open water course. This worked a treat on Greg’s body. That stayed warm and dry – although his lips didn’t fare so well. Even a lip filler fanatic wouldn’t have wanted his huge, purple tinted cold induced swollen lips! Our instructors and I were quite bemused!

I was less lucky in the body department. I have somewhat skinny wrists and a skinny neck. This meant that every time I moved, a lovely cold trickle penetrated my suit, soaking me and my padded clothing beneath. Add to it that the algae was so thick, I couldn’t see anybody if they went more than a couple of feet away from me… it was an interesting introduction to open water diving. Despite this, the session was a success and we scheduled our final one to take place, just in time before our honeymoon.

Then Greg got earache. Which ear drops made worse. Turns out he got an ear infection most likely caused by the combination of temperature and sediments in the water. It was severe enough to give him a small perforation, which meant that diving was no longer an option (as with the infection he couldn’t equalise air pressure at depth).

Initially we were gutted. We had already booked to dive in four separate locations in Mexico. Luckily some of these could be changed to snorkelling trips instead, while others we had to cancel. It was also fortunate that the marine parts of our honeymoon were during the second half of the trip, giving Greg’s ear longer to heal, or all water activities would have been impossible.

 

One of the things we had initially booked as a dive but had to change to snorkelling was our trip to the Cenote Dos Ojos, and for those that don’t know what a cenote is, I will explain:-

A cenote is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath.

The meteorite that collided with earth about 66 million years ago, causing the chain of events which scientists attribute to causing the dinosaurs extinction can be found (if you go underwater and dig deep enough!) close to this part of Mexico. We also heard that these cenotes were a result of that meteorite. How could we pass up an opportunity to swim in them after hearing that!?

As well as this, cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings. In one documentary we watched, it explained that the Mayan pyramids are usually built over a cenote or near to a river. There is also usually a tomb inside the pyramids. This is to replicate sacred mountains as well as the cenote that runs beneath them.

This is a sacred place to the Mayans – they believe it to be the gateway to the afterlife. Many of the Maya used to perform a sort of pilgrimage to these sacred places and it would be replicated in the cities in the form of their great pyramids.

Some cenote are large, open pools, while others are caverns or cave systems. The water is usually clear, mostly due to being rain water filtering through the ground. When the cenote contains fresh rainwater but also connects to the sea, a halocline is created. The salt water meets the fresh water and it creates a blurry wall type effect. This in particular is, I think, the area which the Mayans believed led into the afterlife. They also believed that cenotes are home to demigods and water sprites.

All of these theories and beliefs fuelled my intrigue and desire to see them for myself.

The Cenote Dos Ojos, meaning two eyes cenote, is actually two cenotes connected by a 1,312 foot passageway. It’s famous for having the deepest known underwater cave passage at 387 feet deep. The cave system itself is also at least 200,131 feet in length. Add to it that the fact that the water maintains a very comfortable 24-25’C temperature throughout the year and is a great place to snorkel as well as scuba dive… it’s no wonder it’s so famous!

As we had originally booked to dive here we kept our guide, a lovely lady called Andrea from DivingPlayaDelCarmen.com, for the snorkel session. She kitted us out with wet-suits, fins and flashlights (we had our own snorkels and masks) and into the first of the cenote’s eyes we went.

This first Cenote was stunning. Quite deep in places and with stalagmite filled caves around the back and sides. The walls were decorated with fossil corrals and the water had a few delicate, beautiful, silver fish. As we dived underwater these fish were the only visual sign that we were in water at all – it was so perfectly clear. As we looked up at the surface it was a strange sensation. We could have been standing on land looking into the water rather than the reverse. As I ventured into the darker recesses towards the back of the Cenote I could see a line along the cavern floor- a line for the scuba divers to hold onto to guide them through the cave systems to the next cenote. I wondered if it would feel claustrophobic or fascinating. Likely both. I hope to return one day and find out.

Instead of going through the underwater cave system to reach our next Cenote we walked along pretty little jungle paths. Instead of going straight to the second eye, however, we went to a smaller, less visited Cenote.

This one had a sediment floor and pretty lily pads. It was home not only to fish but also to terrapins/ turtles. They were adorable little ones, more terrapin than big sea-living turtles. It was Greg’s first time seeing them in the wild and a very special moment.

Deciding we had intruded on the turtle long enough, we headed to the back of the cenote, where through a narrow maze of winding passages created by stalactites and stalagmites, at times only centimetres from our heads, was a bat cave. Lots of beautiful little bats flew around the cave and around our heads. For those of you that have watched our Mexico video, (Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty), it felt a bit like the bat cave in Calakmul if we had been standing in the centre of it! It was amazing!

There were also little silky string-like lines made by worms dangling from the stalactites, waiting to catch bugs for dinner. They were pretty (they seemed to glow around us) – but I didn’t fancy them in my hair!

**For any of you considering a trip to Mexico and to the Cenote Dos Ojos, to enter the bat cave you must be with a guide. To swim in the two eyes cenotes you don’t need one but to dive or enter the bat cave you do.**

The second eye cenote was another big, deep one. Open space, crystal water, caves along the edges and a larger, more open bat cave but home to a lot less bats.

No wonder the Mayans thought that the cenotes were spiritual, a place connected to their gods and the afterlife. It felt otherworldly and strange to me and I understand some of the science as to how they were created and why the water looks that way. Picturing the ancient Maya exploring cenotes without that understanding, without the diving or snorkel equipment… it’s not hard to imagine how it must have felt and appeared to them. It was certainly magical to me.

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.

 

The Isle of Man – Too Close To Home?

The Isle of Man – Too Close To Home?

A Blog Post By Greg

 

It was while we were halfway through our Honeymoon in Mexico that I was looking at some of the footage we had taken so far on our adventures and I came up with an idea. Why wouldn’t we edit together the footage into a travel adventure video to release to the world (we had planned on making a video for ourselves and our family anyway), and Felicity really liked the idea. Fast forward to late July 2019 and the video, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ was ready for release on YouTube.

I had released videos on YouTube before. Together we had put out a Steampunk series the year before called ‘The Last Airship’, which to date has had an average of 2,000 views per episode. Within a few days the Mexico video had surpassed the views on any of the videos which had been out for eighteen months at that point, and we quickly realised that we had made something that not only had we enjoyed, but also which other people seemed to be enjoying watching too. Could we, we began to ask ourselves, make this more than just a one off, and actually try to make travel film making a career which would allow us to travel the world?

We decided we wanted to give it a try, and the first step would be to see if we could make another video that people liked, and so we began to discuss our next destination. I pointed out that I had a show on the Isle of Man in October 2019, and that instead of just flying over for a night, we could stay for a few nights and turn it into our next travel video. Felicity wasn’t sure, as after Mexico it seemed a little close to home – and so we agreed to film an episode on the Isle of Man, and then later in the year head a bit further away from home for a third video as well (in the end we opted for Turkey, where we filmed ‘Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities‘).

It therefore became my task to try to prove that we could make a travel video on the Isle of Man, as well as in the more far-flung corners of the world. So I tried in the planning to look at the Isle of Man as though we were looking at any other destination we were planning to travel to for a video, to find out what it had to offer, and to see as much of it as we could.

By now, you may have seen the result, ‘The Isle of Man – Railways, Castles and Seals‘, and you may have noticed, even from the title, that in my early research I found three main areas. We always start researching any new travel with a view to any wildlife in the area, as this is one of Felicity’s big passions, and in particular it is marine wildlife which interests us.

Although we were unfortunately out of season for basking sharks, I found that there is a point on the south of the island which is good for spotting seals – and if you want to hear what that was like when we got there, you can read Felicity’s blog post on them here.

Once we have had a look to see what wildlife is local, we then look into the history. In Mexico, this was the Mayan ruins which we visited for most of the first half of our trip, and in Turkey this meant the underground cities and Greek ruins. On the Isle of Man, this meant the castles.

From our point of view, having grown up, and still living, in the British Isles, these castles were a very familiar style to us. While they seemed familiar to us, and we both worried that this might hurt the travel aspect, each of the castles we visited had their own fascinating stories, some of which you can see in the videos, and some of which I will write about in a future blog post. We were reminded that you don’t have to go a long way, or to somewhere ‘exotic’, in order to find something fascinating to see and learn about.

Finally I found an abundance of historic railways on the island, everything from steam trains to electric railways and mountain railroads. I have always been enamoured with steam trains (part of how I got involved in the world of steampunk), and so it was a joy finding out about all of them, and choosing which ones we could fit in to our travel.

We spent a wonderful week on the Isle of Man, and although it was a very different style of adventure from our others of 2019, (in that it was closer to home, we spoke the language, stayed in one place, and everything felt very familiar), it was still an incredibly fun week. When we got to the editing suite we realised that as we had only been there a week that the video would necessarily be shorter – half an hour as opposed to an hour – but that we had a lot of footage.

Once we finished the video and released it, we were so pleased with the response it received. Far from being a ‘difficult second album’, it had been a joy, both to film and edit. People’s responses so far have been really nice, with some people saying it is their favourite out of our first three videos. It was an important lesson to us that with the right planning we can make travel videos even in places which are more familiar. We are also pleased that both the Isle of Man and the Turkey videos have, in their first twenty days, done even better than the Mexico video did in the same window.

We have learned that we have a chance, if we work hard, to make travel our lives – and so expect our videos and blog posts to continue for a long time to come!

If you want to help us with that, then please head over to YouTube and be sure to ‘subscribe’ to our channel and ‘like’ the videos. Perhaps you could also leave a comment on your favourite of the videos to let us know that that is your favourite one, and why, and that will really help us make more videos that you all enjoy!

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and safe travels!

Greg

P.S.

You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.

The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia: Part 2

 

The Fairy Chimneys of Cappadocia: Part Two

A post by Lady Felicity

The Fairy Chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey, are big business. While flying in the hot air balloon during our first morning in Turkey, we got to see first hand just how big a business it’s all become – but if you want to know more about the hot air balloons, you’ll have to read the first part of this blog post!

The locals in Cappadocia have found just about every way imaginable to celebrate and make a living from the views. We saw horses riding through the valleys, people posing atop vintage cars and ATVs zooming along, kicking up dust behind them. Lots of photo shoots –  wedding photographs, romantic roof top accommodation, love seats, horse and carriages, all sorts of things to incorporate not just the landscape itself but us in our balloons above it too in the photographs. The balloons have become an important part of the view which draws people to this incredible part of Turkey. And why not – it is certainly an incredible spectacle to behold!

We decided that we should explore the fairy chimneys and these picturesque valleys from a different perspective, given the range of options available. We decided on two methods. First was an afternoon ride through the valleys on an ATV and second we went for a sunset horse riding tour.

The ATV (all-terrain vehicle – which in this case mean quad-bike) tour had me a bit apprehensive as I cannot drive and have never ridden a bike (unless you count Greg’s Stage-Tricycle!).

After a quick practise (despite what Greg tries to make out in the video, ‘Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities’) on their test track I was confident enough to give the tour a go, so long as Greg and our guide didn’t mind my cautious approach.

Our tour lasted two hours and included a visit to the areas main valleys: Rose Valley, Girls Monastery, Red Valley, Swords Valley and Love Valley. At each of these valleys we would park up and hop off of our ATV’s for a quick look around and a picture or two before carrying on to the next one.

Each valley was special and distinctive in its own way, whether for the colour of the stone or the shape of the chimneys. All of them were beautiful.

As the tour went on I gained in confidence enough that our guide took us on a few bumpy, hilly, fun paths, much to Greg’s relief. Greg wanted to play and by the end, play we did!

While Greg wanted and enjoyed the bumpy, twisting, hilly paths when on an ATV, he was less keen on them when on a horse. Greg and I are not experienced horse riders by any stretch of the imagination – you can count the amount of times we’ve ridden horses on one hand – and still have a few fingers spare.

The horse riding tour offers views which you cannot see in any other tour because the places they take you are only reachable by horse. This is why some companies will not take you unless you have some riding experience.

When we booked our tour, we explained our inexperienced position to the owner of Moonlight Horse Ranch and he reassured us that we would be in safe hands, that he would show us how to ride the horse and, like the ATV’s, his horses are practically automatic.
Upon arrival at the ranch we donned our helmets, mounted our horses (the stunning, eager Cappadocian Caradot in my case and the stubborn Arabian beauty, Caramello in Greg’s), he explained the basic commands and off we went with our guide.

This tour also lasted for about two hours with a short rest stop in the middle. That rest stop was in the middle of nowhere… a nowhere that was an incredible journey to reach.

At times we were on flat or gently sloping tracks, enjoying the fairy chimney and valley views around us (when Greg’s horse wasn’t planting its feet and completely ignoring his words and nudges of encouragement!), while at others we were completely focused on our horses and the incredibly steep inclines or, worse, declines in front of us. Often with a cliff edge on one or both sides of us. I’d never seen a horse’s back legs resemble a frog’s before, but I have now. Watching the guide’s horse jump in that manner to ascend a steep incline and knowing mine was next was one thing, but when it came to the declines I quickly learned that I didn’t want to even look at his horse, didn’t want to see the crumbly, dusty floor which made the horses look as though they were stumbling and slipping as they descended.

When we reached the rest stop I suspect Greg and I were more in need of the rest than the horses were! Perhaps Caremello wasn’t just being stubborn so much as knowing what was coming and wanting no part in it!

Considering the rest stop was in the middle of nowhere and accessible only by horse, it was all remarkably civilised. A fresh fruit juice bar station, canopy covered seating, a blanketed, cosy cave room and, up some frankly disastrous looking steps (May once have been a wooden ladder but when it’s got that much glue and that many nails at odd angles trying to hold it together, I’m reluctant to call it even that!), a cave church with beautifully preserved, colourful frescos.

Greg was so shaken, he opted not to test the steps or his knees, and left me to explore the church while he sampled some juice and enjoyed the fantastic view across the valley.

While at the rest stop, another group of riders joined our small party of three. While some were experienced riders and were exhilarated and loving the views, one couple were as inexperienced as us and quite frankly terrified. The poor lady didn’t want to get back on her horse, she just wanted to stop. Her guide was reassuring, explaining the steepest parts were now over but also had to point out that the horse is the only way out of there, much to the lady’s dismay.

I had thought that Greg and I were afraid but not like this. While we were truly frightened at times we were still giggling rather than crying. Excited as well as scared. Enjoying the incredible views and experience even though it made us gasp in my case and sound like a religious sailor at times in Greg’s. If we had known what it would be like beforehand, we may not have been brave enough to do it and that would have been an incredible shame. It was an amazing, terrifying, exhilarating, extraordinary experience and, having both survived it injury free, I’m so very glad we did it.

If you have never been on a horse and have a real fear of heights, just don’t do this one. It’s not for you. Stick to the ATV and unless the fear of heights means you struggle in tall buildings, try the balloon too. Both are excellent and purely enjoyable.

If you are fine on a horse, however, this is an experience not to be missed.

If you’re like us and inexperienced but want to give it a try, do it but don’t be surprised when you break out in a cold sweat or question your sanity for doing it!

At the end of the day, remember that the horse doesn’t want to fall over the cliff either and they tread this path regularly, they know what they are doing. So long as you don’t fall off the horse, you’ll be perfectly fine and have a chance to see some stunning views and have an experience like no other.
I’m less sure if Greg’s legs (or Caremello!) would let him but I would certainly be willing to do it again.

The Fairy Chimneys are incredible and however you wish to explore them, I doubt you’d be disappointed. We certainly weren’t. Just fantastic.

Thank you for reading, and safe travels.

Felicity

P.S.
You can watch all of our travel adventures (and ‘Like’, ‘Subscribe’ and ‘Comment’ on YouTube at www.youtube.com/gregandfelicityadventures.
You can also find out about everything else that we do at www.gregandfelicityadventures.com.