Legend of the Long Weekend

The magnificent Houses of Parliament in London, England - photo by E. Jurus

What happens when you fly to Europe for a long weekend? You become a legend among your friends, that’s what!

A few years ago one of our brothers-in-law died very unexpectedly in March at the age of 47. My hubby Mike was very close to him, but didn’t have any time to grieve as he helped his sister and kids cope with all the legalities. Mike was holding up manfully throughout, but I could tell how much it was affecting him, so I thought it would be a good idea to plan a bit of a break in June once everyone got past the most pressing duties.

The most we could afford that year, both time-wise and budget-wise, was a long weekend away, so I pondered what would be feasible.

Option 1: long weekend in northern Ontario. Pros: 3-6 hrs driving time. Cons: the beginning of insect season and the unreliability of our weather – we stood a good chance of being stuck inside for 4 days while it rained throughout.

Option 2: long weekend in one of the New England states, just across our border. Pros: hopefully better weather, lots of history/culture to explore. Cons: up to 12 hours driving time, i.e. not conducive to relaxation.

Option 3 popped into my head rather unexpectedly: fly to London, England for a few days. Pros:

  • We’d already been to London a few times, so no urgent need to go sightseeing – we could just meander around enjoying the ambience, and explore a few sights we hadn’t seen before if we chose
  • Transportation required only 7 hours relaxing on an airplane (except for the then brief airport waiting times – it was pre 9/11)
  • London is one of our favourite cities, great pubs with lots of atmosphere, the lively theatre scene, enough history to never run out of things to see…

Cons: Getting a good package – at the time, travelling for less than 7 days could mean exorbitant rates.

I checked first with British Airways because in the winter they offered 3- or 6-day theatre packages…but not in June as it turned out. I had our local travel agent, Marilyn, on the hunt, but nothing was coming up in my price range until I spotted an ad by Caledonian Airlines for low one-way fares to Great Britain. I got Marilyn on the phone and asked if she could find out whether they would still give us the low rate on each leg (to London and then back) if we booked them for 4 days apart.

Hallelujah, they would! We were off and running. I asked Marilyn about any special rates  (pre-internet days) at our wish-list London hotel, the Russell in Bloomsbury, a huge old Victorian pile that was the epitome of a classic English hotel. We’d had breakfast there before – fantastic English breakfasts – but the normal room rates were out of our reach. I think Marilyn pulled some strings, because she got us in for half the normal price, including the fabulous breakfast, which was worth about $25 per person all by itself.

We packed a few clothes and set off on our adventure. We decided to wing it for this visit – we didn’t book any theatre shows in advance, as we had access to a ticket office right in the hotel and we thought we’d take our chances with whatever was available, and we didn’t pre-plan an itinerary other than to make a beeline to our favourite pub in all of London, the Museum Tavern across from the British Museum. We discovered the pub on our very first visit to England and have been enjoying its Victorian décor and delicious home-cooked food ever since.

It was wonderful to settle ourselves into our high-ceilinged old English room at the Russell. The bedroom and bathroom were straight out of a British novel, with dark wooden furniture, old-fashioned marble surfaces and loads of faded charm. We checked out the ticket office and were lucky enough to get tickets to see both Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s only play and the longest-running production in history.

For three days we meandered around the city as we felt like. We did make a day trip out to Leeds Castle in Kent, on a drizzly afternoon that just added to the atmosphere. Leeds is a beautiful moated castle dating back to Saxon times, and is known as the Queens’ Castle, as six different queens have lived in it. The interior is surprisingly light and airy for a medieval castle.

It was time to return home all too soon, of course, but the trip was successful – as relaxing as I hoped and a good break for Mike. The fun wasn’t over when we reached Toronto though: Customs had a hard time believing we weren’t smugglers of some kind. The conversation went something like this:

Customs: “How long were you away?”

Us: “Four days.”

Customs: “Were you travelling on business?”

Us: “No, it was a vacation.”

Customs: “Did you go anywhere else?”

Us: “No, just London.”

Customs: “ You flew to England for vacation for 4 days?”

Us: “Yes.”

Customs: “Please see the man over there.”

We trucked our stuff over to the other desk, where luckily the presiding officer took one look at our documentation and told us we were free to go.

Our story quickly made the rounds among our friends and co-workers, growing in stature until we became the stuff of legends: jetsetters who might take off to Europe for a weekend at the drop of a hat. In actuality, we don’t have the funds to do quite that, and prices have probably doubled since then, but for a one-of-a-kind adventure it was a blast and remains a fun possibility for everyone. And every now and then Mike will still come home from work and say that someone has once again brought up the ‘legend of the long weekend’.

Dr. Livingstone, I Presume


I remember vividly the first time I saw Victoria Falls in Africa. We’d travelled on our first safari specifically to see the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a unique wetland where animals roam across a shallow flood plain formed when the Okavango River drains into the Kalahari Desert, and Victoria Falls, one of the most famous natural spectacles in the world. I wasn’t sure how impressed we’d be with the Falls, though – after all, my hubby & I have lived just 15 minutes away from Niagara Falls since we were children, but I’ve always been fascinated by the story of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of Victoria Falls and the man who gave them their name.

Spray from Victoria Falls billows over 1,000 ft into the air - photo by E. Jurus
Spray from Victoria Falls billows over 1,000 ft into the air – photo by E. Jurus

We entered the park that protects the Falls (points over the 3-ring circus that Niagara Falls has turned into), had our orientation talk, and followed the path towards the Devil’s Cataract, the first part of Victoria Falls that you encounter. Then the Falls came into view, and I stood there literally with my mouth hanging open. May is high-water season at the Falls, when 2 million litres of  Zambezi River rushes over the precipice every second, with a thundering noise so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves speak. When the water reaches the bottom, over 300 ft below, it churns up spray rising over 1,000 ft into the air, obscuring the sun and falling back down as a heavy rain that turns the banks of the Zambezi from a dry savannah to a lush tropical jungle. The local people called it Mosi-oa-Tunya, “the smoke that thunders”, and we could see why. I took a movie clip with my newly acquired digital camera so that everyone back home could hear and see what it was like.

Victoria Falls has been named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, and there’s so much history attached to it as well, much of it tied closely to David Livingstone, one of the most famous explorers in history. He was born 200 years ago, in March 1813, and many areas in Africa associated with his journeys are celebrating the bicentennial with special events and safaris.

Livingstone was a Scottish missionary who travelled to Africa to spread Christianity and became an instrumental figure in ending slavery. He explored a large part of the continent, braving serious injuries and illnesses on his mission. He was led to Victoria Falls by his native bearers in November 1855, and an island in the middle of the Zambezi River above the falls is named after him, as well as the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the falls.

He made international headlines when he disappeared without any outside messages around 1866 and journalist adventurer Henry Morton Stanley was sent on behalf of the New York Herald to find him, which Morton finally did in 1874 near Lake Tanganyika, purportedly uttering the now-legendary phrase “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Livingstone and Stanley formed a strong friendship, and Livingstone was much loved by the local Africans, so much so that several of them wrapped his body in bark and sailcloth and accompanied it to London so that an official identification could be made. Livingstone is buried in Westminster Abbey with the following inscription:


If you’re planning a trip to Africa and are interested in visiting some of the places that David Livingstone explored and mapped, this year several safari companies are offering trips dedicated to portions of Livingstone’s travels, including:

– Africa Adventure Consultants are featuring 4 safaris based around different areas that Livingstone explored, including In Livingstone’s Footsteps: Victoria Falls and Beyond, which spends 10 days visiting the Zambian side of the falls and a safari in Botswana

David Livingstone’s Bicentenary Birthday Safari with Robin Pope Safaris (which devotes 11 days to exploring Malawi

– the 15-day Footsteps of David Livingstone safari available through Sun Safaris, which visits Victoria Falls, Zambia and Lake Malawi.

One of the many views of Victoria Falls from a helicopter - photo by E. Jurus
One of the many views of Victoria Falls from a helicopter – photo by E. Jurus

If you can’t make it this year, you can visit Victoria Falls as part of a safari at any time through any number of safari companies; usually at least one day in Vic Falls is included on safaris in the surrounding area: Zimbabwe, Zambia or Botswana. As well as the history of Vic Falls, the area is one of the adventure capitals of the world, so I’d recommend scheduling 2-3 days if you can. Activities to consider include:

  • A flight over the Falls, which are so large (a mile wide) that it’s impossible to get a sense of the full extent of them from the ground. I’ve done a helicopter flight and really enjoyed it, but there are also flights on microlights (small very light 2-seater planes), although you can’t take your own camera on a microlight (there are wing cameras to record the flight for you).
  • Walking across to the other side of the Falls — you can walk across the Victoria Falls Bridge, although you’ll need to purchase an entry Visa for the day at the border. There are more views of the Falls from the bridge, and the views of the Falls are quite different depending on whether you’re on the Zimbabwe side or the Zambia side. The most extensive views are in Zimbabwe, including Devil’s Cataract and the central curtain of water, but on the Zambian side you can get right up to the water’s edge (carefully), and there’s even a quieter section of water that you can wade in — local residents can often be found there cooling off on a hot day.
  • You can bungee jump from the Victoria Falls Bridge at one of the most famous bungee locations in the world, but check current safety records first, as there was a non-fatal accident in January 2012 when a jumper’s heavy cable broke and the woman dropped into the water. Luckily it took place at low-water season — in May the rapids are so strong they can’t run white water rafting. You can also Zip-line and Abseil across the gorge.
  • This is also one of the greatest places to do white-water rafting, but depending on the water levels the rapids below the Falls, as they churn through the narrow canyon carved over millions of years, can reach Category 6! If you’re travelling at high water season, don’t book and pay in advance — if the rafting isn’t running, you won’t be able to get your money back.
  • Who could resist a cruise on the African Queen? - photo by E. Jurus
    Who could resist a cruise on the African Queen? – photo by E. Jurus

    A sunset cruise on the Zambezi is de rigeur — you can even do it on the African Queen, as we did (for all fans of the Bogart & Hepburn movie). You can see some wildlife on the cruise, but the real draw is the sunset, and it is magnificent.

  • Walk with lions! One of our most incredible experiences in Africa has been to do a 1.5 hour bush walk with lions. The African Lion Encounter is a program that rescues lion cubs who wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild (orphaned, injured, lame), habituates them to people for several months, and then allow visitors to walk with them through a private game reserve. It’s a rare and very special opportunity to spend time with the juvenile lions, and even to be able to touch them. It was our first lion walk that changed my life and eventually led to the creation of Lion Tail Magic.

All of these activities, and many others, can be booked through organizations like Safari Par Excellence, the company we used ourselves (http://safpar.com/activities.html).

The Zambezi Sun resort - photo by E. Jurus
The Zambezi Sun resort – photo by E. Jurus

There are many places to stay in the Victoria Falls area. We stayed at Matetsi Water Lodge, a gorgeous, quiet and very romantic lodge on the Zimbabwe side about 40 miles outside of town (the lodge can provide transportation into town for activities), and we’ve also stayed on the Zambian side at the Zambezi Sun resort, which is located just steps from the Falls and inside the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. While it’s a busy resort popular with business groups who want a quick taste of Africa, you can watch the spray from the Falls create rainbows over the rooftops and enjoy the animals (no touching!!!) that wander freely through the resort grounds.

The town of Livingstone in Zambia is a pretty town with a bit of a frontier feel to it, and one of the few places where you can buy memory cards if you run out! There’s also a fascinating museum dedicated to the life of David Livingstone and the history and culture of Zambia. The town is hosting a series of international events this year for the bicentennial.

If you’d like to learn more about David Livingstone and his explorations, there are a couple of terrific websites, Livingstone Online and the National Museums Scotland Livingstone exhibit site.

Watch our website for future articles about what it’s like on safari and how to prepare for one, or contact me directly at liontailmagic@gmail.com. I’ll be happy to give you any feedback that I can about travel to my favourite place in the world, the magnificent continent of Africa. Happy exploring, virtual or otherwise!

Lessons in a sunset

Savute sunset, Botswana 2007 - photo by E. Jurus
Savute sunset, Botswana 2007 – photo by E. Jurus

I was driving home this evening from a funeral home; a friend’s mother, who’d been ill for quite some time, passed away unexpectedly from a sudden heart attack. As I crested our local skyway, in the distance a beautiful sunset lit up the sky in a rare burst of glory. It seemed a metaphor for life — moments of grief counterbalanced by moments of beauty. We all know the impermanence of life, but it’s hard to accept when we lose someone close to us. If I’ve learned anything from all the friends, family and pets we’ve lost over the years, it’s that time doesn’t really heal wounds, it just makes them bearable so that you can do what you have to do to survive, which is to move on. After I lost my beloved dog Ramses 8 years ago, it ripped my heart out; it took me months before I could even say the words “he’s dead”. Gradually I was able to go a day or two without crying, then maybe a week, then longer and longer, but even as I write this I feel the pain of his loss and miss him enormously. I wouldn’t change having had him in my life — his love and courage taught me a lot. And so life goes on, and after our adorable second dog Isis passed away the following year, also from old age and sickness, my husband and I went on a trip to Africa that we’d been putting off for a while, and we discovered magic and some healing in the beauty of nature.

This evening I couldn’t stop anywhere to take a photo of our local sunset, so instead I offer you one of the magnificent sunsets we enjoyed on that first safari. As I drove down the far side of the skyway, watching Nature’s artwork in the sky and musing on the meaning of life, I watched an idiot driver cross two lanes of traffic to take the exit ramp, just barely missing the concrete abutment. Sigh. The lesson of the sunset was clearly lost on whoever the driver was, as was the concept of driving safely. Here are two thoughts to take home with you:

1. We only get to watch so many sunsets in our life — don’t squander them!

2. Nature is the mother of all that’s great on our planet — we can only use the tools she gives us to make beauty, or ugliness. Which would you like your legacy to be?

Travel with a mixed bag

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February flowers in St. James’s Park, London – photo by E. Jurus

 I often get asked about travelling with other people, particularly with a parent. I was lucky to be able to travel with my mom twice to Europe, and my hubby Mike and I were able to take his mom with us on a combined London & Paris trip. Both women were in their 70s at the time. We also had good friends join us on a trip to England after my mom passed away. Each experience was unique, with its own dynamics. Travel with a senior is very possible – it just requires some planning to take into account their slower pace, need for more rest breaks and perhaps taking more public transport than you might yourself. Older travellers, particularly if they haven’t travelled abroad before or since they were young, are generally more apprehensive about the entire experience, but their worries can be allayed by: a) making sure their room is on the same floor as yours, even if you can’t get them next to each other in a smaller European B&B/hotel, b) outlining all the arrangements for them so that they have a good idea of where you’re going and when, c) keeping calm yourself and reassuring them when something unexpected occurs, and d) being patient with all the questions they may ask.

Both my mother and mother-in-law were terrific travellers, but sometimes things that Mike and I considered relatively minor could throw them off. For instance, my mother-in-law really wanted to see Paris but hadn’t really thought about the language barrier, so she was taken aback after we got off the Chunnel train at Gare du Nord and no one around her spoke any English. She holed up in her room at our lovely little hotel in the Latin Quarter and had a nap while Mike and I went for a walk up to Notre Dame. On our way back we picked up some quiche and a delicious apricot tart at a nearby bakery, along with some tea at a little shop across the street; after having some comforting food and stories about how fascinating the city was around our hotel, and then a good night’s sleep, her enthusiasm was restored and we set out next morning in unanimous high spirits.

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The Clarence, a great pub with bar lights in the shape of black bowler hats, or ‘derbys’, Whitehall, London – photo by E. Jurus
  • if staying in one spot, like a resort, and driving around, consider renting 2 cars — that way you’re not glued at the hip to go places and if one couple wants to see a particular sight but the other doesn’t, you can easily split up for a half-day or day
  • plan to spend some time apart: you’ll feel better after a bit of a breather — with our friends in England, we decided to split up to walk around the small city of York, then met up at a pre-designated pub for dinner, and spent the evening together on a ghost walk
  • plan a variety of activities that incorporate everyone’s tastes — everyone on the trip should be able to enjoy something they particularly like, and if you have to split up for a few hours to do it, that’s fine
  • make sure everyone has a guide book with a map, and a transportation map as well, so that everyone can find their way around
  • with other travellers in your group, you have a wonderful opportunity to take photos of each other, and these can form some of your best memories

To sum up, travelling as a group can be a great experience or a terrible one — it’s all in how you approach it. Keep a sense of humour, schedule rest and food breaks, check your fellow travellers for comfort regularly, and include something for everyone, and you’ll have a terrific time!

Post-shopping tea breaks

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Going out shopping, even just for groceries, can be such an exercise in frustration. A few of my pet peeves include: people who leave their shopping cart in the middle of the aisle while they wander off somewhere else to grab an item, blocking everyone else’s way; people who block the entire aisle at food-sampling booths; people in the parking lot who can see you backing out from 10 feet away and still think it’s a good idea to walk behind you…

On days like that, I restore my depleted energy and sorely-tested good nature with a mug of tea and something both yummy and easy to make. The tea I usually have is a heady mug of Assam, full-bodied and aromatic. The carb-supplier is a gluten-free English muffin by a company called Kinnikinnik, toasted to a golden brown and topped with a lovely dollop of crème fraiche (I use Liberty brand) and a really good jam (in this case, Greaves’ wonderful apricot jam). We’re very lucky in Niagara to have ready access to Greaves jams, produced locally and some of the best jam outside of homemade that I’ve ever had — not too much pectin, so their jams have a nice texture for spreading, and a perfect amount of sweetness without being cloying. They’re nicely balanced by the mild tartness of the crème fraiche, and toasting the English muffin provides a slightly crunchy base along with great flavour.

If you’re on a gluten-free diet, this is a great combo to have with tea, and even if you can eat wheat you may want to check out these English muffins, which are perfect for the purpose. The muffins can be found in the freezer compartments of health-food sections in grocery stores, and in health-food stores as well. I recommend putting them into the microwave first for about 15-30 seconds, depending on whether you’ve thawed them out or just pulled a frozen one from the bag; microwaving softens them up and produces a nice crumb texture when you split them with a serrated knife. You can put the whole thing together in about 10 minutes, leaving you lots of time to put your feet up and relax!

Stranger in a strange land?

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Dust devils on the Nazca plateau in Peru, October 2012 – photo: E Jurus

Ten years ago a tiny skeleton unlike anything that had been seen before was found in the Atacama Desert. It’s only six inches long, with a very elongated, alien-looking skull – shades of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skulls!

Recent DNA testing has indicated that it’s a human skeleton, but there are many issues: the skeleton appears to be of someone who was roughly 6-8 years old, and it has fewer ribs than would be normal in a human. The cone-shaped skull could have been the result of a birth defect, but not all the genes matched those found in humans.

There are theories that it was a primate, or a human with a number of birth defects, although in modern history there’s never been a medium-aged child that tiny. Unsurprisingly, there’s also been speculation that it could be an alien from another planet – if you look at the photo in the original article in the Live Science website, you’ll see why people might think that.

I was in Peru and Bolivia last fall, and the landscape in southern Peru, which is sometimes classed as part of the Atacama Desert, is very alien – it would make a great setting for a sci-fi movie! The Nazca Plateau in particular is a fantastic sight, layers of multi-coloured earth covered in the hundreds of strange shapes, both animalistic and geometric, sculpted by the Nazca peoples many hundreds of years ago.

Seeing the shapes from the air is an amazing experience – you can see why the gigantic animal shapes might be used for ritual purposes, but there are also straight lines running in a variety of directions for miles and miles, and huge trapezoids running across the plateau and into the mountains, that don’t seem to make any sense at all.

On the ground, we walked the burning sands around Chauchilla Cemetery, strewn with the house-like tombs of the Nazca dead, and churned by numerous towering dust devils. I’d never seen one in real life before, and they are eerie. In the photo above you can see three at the same time silently whirling around in the distance: one on the left, another in the centre and a fainter third on the right to the right side of the road.

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on our planet and has been compared to the planet Mars. The heat and aridity are forbidding; it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to live there. If you want to experience a truly other-worldly landscape, you don’t need to go into space — just head to the west coast of South America!