This is the blog of journalist, Lonely Planet author and photographer Stuart Butler. It features news and travel updates from the regions in which Stuart works, including northeast Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan), Yemen and Sri Lanka.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Europes 50 Best Beaches

Basil Fawlty; the man who made Torquay great.

The Independent newspaper in the UK recently asked me to be a panellist alongside Simon Calder (the Independents travel guru) and Emma Gregg (Rough Guide author to various African and European destinations - and here I'm going to deviate somewhat and recall how a couple of years ago Emma and I met by chance in a small port in the beautiful Cape Verde Islands. We were both working on guidebooks to the islands at the time and both needed to catch a ferry from one island to another the next day. The problem was the ferry was full and no tickets were available  - unless that was you were willing to go dodgy, in which case a man in a cowboy hat could magically conjure up some fake, black market tickets. One of us was honest and didn't want to do the government out of some money. One of us wasn't honest but did sail away into the sunset on a ferry... I will leave you to guess who was the dishonest one!). Anyway, I digress. I was asked to be a panellist for the Independent for a feature about Europe’s 50 Best Beaches and beach resorts which came out a couple of days ago (25th June 2011). I should make clear that not all the places I nominated were included in the list. In fact my top two beach destinations; Moliets on the coast of Les Landes in southwest France and San Sebastian in the Spanish Basque country, didn't make the list (although Torquay in the UK did which just goes to show that you shouldn't believe everything you read!! Sorry, only joking Torquay; you're great really!).

Anyway here is a link to the online version of the feature and when my brain gets big enough to work out how to do it I'll post up the pdfs of the complete feature.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Spanish Basque Country Travel Guide for Independent Newspaper

If you're in the UK then get hold of a copy of todays (18/6/11) Independent newspaper which contains a major feature/supplement on the Spanish Basque country which was co-written by me. For those not in the UK my original text is below (note that the final printed version may differ). If you want to read about Bilbao, Vitoria and inland areas then you'll need to get the paper which contains the other writers features although i shall try and scan a copy up here when I can.

Decathlon: San Sebastián

(1) Sample the sands
The glorious coastal city of San Sebastian is both glamorous and supremely playful – and its beaches are the envy of coastal cities across Europe. There are three to choose from. Playa de Gros (Playa de la Zurriola) in the east is the most popular with locals and its exposure to Atlantic swells also makes it a great surfers’ hangout. But it’s Playa de la Concha, and its western extension Playa de Ondarreta, that is the real heartbeat of San Sebastián’s quest for fun in the sun. This perfect curve of sand, lapped by gentle waves, gets many people’s vote as the most attractive urban beach in Europe and throughout the long summer months a youthful party atmosphere prevails. From June to September you can take a five minute boat ride (or you can swim!) out to the rocky islet of Santa Clara, which sits in the middle of the bay. Boats depart roughly every hour from the harbour.

(2) Get a flavour of the old town
San Sebastián’s old town, which is centred on both the 16th Century Gothic Iglesia de San Vicente (church of San Vicente) and the Plaza de la Constitución which once doubled up as a bullring, is rumoured to contain more bars per square metre than anywhere else on Earth and in almost every single one of these the bar top is overflowing with tiny pintxo (the Basque name for tapas). There are also plenty of small, independent boutiques and quirky back street shops to delve into. With its funky and funny designs Kukuxumusu (; tel-00 34 943 421184; Calle Major 15) is probably the best known local clothes designer.

(3) Fish for compliments
Drop by the city’s superb aquarium (; tel-00 34 943 440099; adult/child €12/6) just beside the harbour and get to know the fishy denizens of the deep in a little more depth. Highlights are the vast open ocean pool with its sharks, rays and turtles, the tropical reef exhibits and the collection of slippery, flippery things hailing from the Bay of Biscay. The aquarium also houses exhibits relating to San Sebastián’s maritime culture and past.

(4) Aim high
For great views of the city, take a walk to the summit of Monte Urgull and the statue of Christ which overlooks the old town. However, for an even more spectacular viewpoint head to Monte Igueldo (; admission €1.80, rides extra) at the far western end of Playa de la Concha and Ondarreta. From the base of the hill you can ride the funicular railway (adult/child €2.60/1.90) up to the summit where you’ll be greeted not just by a breathtaking view over the entire San Sebastián bay, but also by a small rollercoaster, a house of horrors and various other amusement park attractions.

(5) Tour for some top tastes
The chefs of San Sebastián are a competitive bunch who endlessly push each other in the creation of ever more sublime pintxos. Few would doubt that the hidden-away La Cuchara de San Telmo (www.; Calle de 31 Agosto 28 is not one of the finest. Unlike in many bars the pintxos are not displayed on the bar top and you need to order from the list chalked up on the board.
Penetrating the complex culture behind San Sebastián pintxos is no easy task, but Jon Warren is one of the few foreigners to really know his stuff and his company, San Sebastián Food (; 00 34 634 759503), offers highly regarded guided tours of the city’s finest pintxo bars (Guided tour €85 per person) as well as a range of cookery courses (Cooking course €145 per person).

(6) Get surfing
Playa de Gros, with its (comparatively) mellow waves is one of the better beaches in the region on which to learn how to surf. The surf lessons organised by the Pukas Surf Shop (; from €53 for 3 hours) will have you hanging ten in no time. If you already know how to surf you’ll find the eastern end of the beach, which gathers the most swell and tends to have the best quality waves, the most rewarding part of the beach.

(7) Kursaal
Overlooking Playa de Gros, the double cube shaped Kursaal (; 00 34 943 00 30 00; Avenida de Zurriola 1) is easily the most eye-catching building in San Sebastián. Designed by Rafael Moneo, this award winning, translucent congress centre and exhibition space was designed to look like two beached rocks. Numerous events, including live music, film festivals and dance shows, are held here. Over the last half of July this year the centre will play host to numerous live jazz gigs as a part of the International Jazz Festival ( Hour long guided tours of the building run Friday to Sunday at 12.30pm.

(8) Take a walk on the wild side
The three-hour hike along the coastal cliffs between San Sebastián and Pasajes takes in wild seascapes and a deserted beach or two. The walk starts at the eastern end of Playa de Gros and is clearly way-marked. Once in the pretty port town Pasajes (which involves taking a small ferry boat over a narrow channel) treat yourself in one of the superb seafood restaurants, such as Casa Camara (tel-00 34 943 523699; San Juan 79) which is renowned for its crab and lobster dishes. A full meal will cost around €40 excluding wine. It’s closed Sunday night and all day Monday.

(9) Museo Naval
With a maritime past awash in tales of pirates, whales and far flung expeditions (some say the Basques were quietly slipping off to the cod fishing grounds off America long before Columbus even knew what a compass was) it’s natural for San Sebastián to be home to an excellent naval museum (; tel-00 34 943 430051; Calle Muelle 24; adult/child €1.20/free). Sadly signage is mostly in Spanish or Basque.

(10) Dine out in style
San Sebastián is one of the best cities in Europe in which to eat – and it’s safe to say that gastronomy will be the enduring memory of anyone’s visit here. There are also a huge number of Michelin stars being hoarded here. One of San Sebastián’s greatest chefs is Juan Mari Arzak, whose three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Arzak (; tel-00 34 943 278465; Avendia Alcalde Jose Elosegui 273)  is widely considered one of the best eating experiences in Spain. Expect to spend around €160 per person on a meal and reservations, months in advance, are essential.

Where to Stay
Pensión Amaiur Ostatua (; 00 34 943 429654; Calle de 31 de Agosto 44; doubles from €50 Breakfast not included) This budget hotel in the old town, with its crazy mix of decoration styles, stands head and shoulders above the rest. The best rooms have miniature flower bedecked balconies overlooking the street.

Pensión Bellas Artes (; 00 34 943 474905; Calle de Urbieta 64; double from €99 Breakfast not included) With its spacious rooms (some with glassed-in balconies), exposed stone walls and excellent bathrooms this is easily one of the best value hotels in town. It’s also the friendliest and the staff take genuine delight in helping their guests explore the city.

Hotel María Cristina (; 00 34 943 437600; Paseo de la República Argentina 4; double from €275 with breakfast) When the glitzy and glamorous  hit town for San Sebastián’s film festival ( in September this decadent hotel is where they will stay.

More information: The city’s helpful tourist office (; tel-00 33 943 481166; Boulevard 8) is open Mon-Thu 9am-1.30pm & 3.30-7pm, Fri-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun and holidays 10am-2pm. In July and August it’s open Mon-Sat 9am-8pm & 10am-7pm Sun and holidays.

Park and Hike

Santuario de Arantzazu
The hills of the central Basque country make for impressive hiking country, and Oñati, roughly equidistant from both Bilbao and San Sebastián, is at the heart of this region. The town itself contains some memorable architecture, but it’s in the lush green surrounding hills that the real interest is to be found. The drive from Oñati to the love it or loath it pilgrimage site of Santuario de Arantzazu is a stunning wobble up and down mountain roads. From the Santuario itself numerous hiking trails fan out. Oñati’s tourist office at 14 San Juan  (00 34 943 783 453) offers comprehensive information on walking routes.

Parque Natural de Gorbeia
Inland of Bilbao the great rolling massif of Gorbeia ( forms part of the largest natural park in the Basque country. From Bilbao take the N240 to the small village of Areatza and then follow road signs to Pagomakurre, which is little more than a picnic area under the shade of beech trees. From here a fantastic walk leads to the Ojo de Atxular (eye of Atxular), a huge window-like stone arch. You could content yourself with the views from here or complete a five-hour loop through twisted limestone landscapes, dense forests and open pastures. There’s a park information centre in Areatza (Plaza Gudarien s/n; tel-00 34 946 739279) open 10am-2pm & 4-6pm.

Parque Natural de Urkiola
Driving the A8 motorway between Bilbao and San Sebastián there’s no missing the massive hulk of the Anboto mountain, mythical dwelling place of the Basque goddess Mari. Anboto sits inside the Parque Natural de Urkiola (, which is best accessed from the Puerto de Urkiola halfway along the BI623 which runs between Durango and Vitoria. From the Puerto de Urkiola the most popular hike is the five-hour ascent of Anboto itself, which starts off as a gentle ramble over the pastures before climbing steeply through forest toward the summit. However, be warned that the final part is only for those with a serious head for heights. There’s a park information centre at the Puerto de Urkiola (Tel-00 34 946 814155) open 10am-2pm & 4-6pm.

Oma Forest
One of the more unusual walks in the region is the easy stroll in the Omo forest. Local artist Agustín Ibarrola has enhanced nature’s natural art by painting the trunks of all the trees in rainbow colours and surreal swirls and bands. The forest is several kilometres north of the small market town of Guernica and all the trails around it are family-friendly. See for further information.

Lakes of Laguardia
A little less challenging than the previous hikes, this gentle stroll around the protected wetlands below the wine town of Laguardia is nevertheless a rewarding way to walk off all those boozy meals. The wetlands here, which are a protected RAMSAR site, are home to over a hundred bird species including great-creasted grebes, white storks and rails. There are bird-watching hides and a disabled accessible walkway of 2.5km. the best time for bird watching is September to March. Laguardia tourist office (Tel-00 34 945 600845; Plaza de San Juan s/n) can provide more information on the lakes. It’s open Mon-Fri 10am-2pm & 4-7pm, Sat 10am-2pm & 5-7pm, Sun 10.45am-2pm.

Basque Culture

The Basques are different. How different they really are though is open to interpretation and subject to political manipulation. The Basque’s claim to be the oldest Europeans and to speak a language unrelated to any other European language. Whilst there is no doubt that the Basques have inhabited their western corner of the Pyrenees almost forever, almost everything else about Basque origin and identity is open to interpretation and no one theory has been fully proven. One thing is clear however, the Basque language (known as Euskara) is the most important aspect of Basque cultural identity. In fact, so important is it that the Basque name for the Basque Country is Euskal Herria, which translates as Land of the Basque speakers. After many years of suppression the Basque language is enjoying resurgence and has become the language of choice amongst young Basques.

The Basque Coast – Five Great Stops

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
The tiny island and hermitage of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe overlooks some of the wildest and most impressive coastal scenery in the Basque country. The hermitage (which is often closed) dates from the 10th Century and, according to local legend, was once visited by St John the Baptist. On 24 June, 31 July and 29 August the island, which is accessed via a pretty bridge (and far too many steps), is the focal point of large processions. The island sits between the small towns of Bermeo and Bakio.

The Basque coast is serious surfing country and below the pretty little town of Mundaka can be found a wave that is regarded as one of the best surf spots in Europe. On its day, it offers a 500m-long, heart-in-the-mouth sprint over a shallow sandbar. The town itself has resisted becoming an international surf ghetto and retains a distinctly Basque fishing culture. Beginners shouldn’t attempt to surf Mundaka at any size, but the Mundaka Surf Shop (; tel-00 34 946 876721; €50 per person for 4 hrs) at Txorrokopunta Ibiltokia 8 will get you in the surf somewhere suitable to get to grips with it all. While in the area don’t miss the chance to explore the beautiful Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve (

One of the most attractive villages along the coast, the tiny hamlet of Elantxobe clings to the edge of such a steep cliff face that it’s likely to give vertigo sufferers fluttering hearts. Its precarious position, as well as the lack of a beach (the locals dive in to the water off the harbour walls) has meant that tourist development is minimal. The waters here are always calm thanks to the shelter provided by the surrounding cliffs and headland. There are no hotels here but you will find a couple of simple bars selling seafood pintxos down by the waterfront.

With an old quarter filled with wonderful Belle-Époque buildings, an overstated 16th Century Gothic church (the gold plated alter piece is one of the largest in the country), lots of fantastic seafood and two stunning beaches (the one just east of the river and the town, with a small rocky mound of an island just offshore, is the prettier of the two), bustling Lekeitio is the highlight of the central Basque coast. The tourist office is on (; tel-00 34 946 844017; Plaza de la Independencia).

Largely overlooked in Spain-France border crossing, graceful Hondarribia consists of a wedge of colourful, old town streets surmounted by a castle turned luxury hotel, the Parador de Hondarribia (; tel-00 34 943 645500). It was built by Navarran King Sancho Abarca in the 10th Century and is as regal as you’d expect.  San Sebastián locals flock here at weekends in order to enjoy the unusually calm, sandy town beach and tuck into some of the most delicious seafood and pintxos in the whole region. While you’re here don’t miss walking out to the Higuer lighthouse to watch the sunset over Spain and France at the same time.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Sudan Travel Update:

                                               (Picture - Village in Nuba Mountains - Sudan)

As South Sudan gears up for independence from the north next month mounting tensions between north and south over the still disputed oil rich region of Abyei have recently boiled over into heavy clashes. The fighting began last month when northern troops and ethnic Misseriya Arab cattle herders moved into the region. The fighting has forced around 30,000 Ngok Dinka to flee their homes and the UN estimates that around 15-20% of homes in Abyei have been razed to the ground.

This unrest now appears to have spread north into the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, which is an area that I highlighted in the Sudan chapter of the current Lonely Planet Africa guide as a highlight of Sudanese travel. At the weekend a police station in Kadugli, the regional capital, was raided and weapons stolen. Some hours later a gunfight erupted in a nearby village. Whilst tensions between the two sides remain high I’d advise visitors to Sudan to keep away from the Nuba mountains area (and, were you somehow given permission to visit, anywhere near the border of the north and south.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Travel to Sudan

This is a couple of months old but this is a link to two pieces I wrote recently about South Sudan. The first focuses on the background of South Sudan and the second on actually visiting the region. I have also pasted the second one up below. Independence will take place on July 9th so if you want to be there for it start getting organised now. i'll be on a job in Kenya at the time and am hoping to have time to go there for it myself.

Link to background on South Sudan -

Link to tips for visiting South Sudan -

Visting South Sudan

The votes have been cast, the name of the nation decided upon, a national anthem composed (via an X Factor-style competition no less), a flag designed and, on 9 July 2011, South Sudan will officially come into being.
The road to independence for the world’s newest nation has been long and hard. Sudan, Africa’s largest country, is an ethnic jigsaw comprising hundreds of tribes and languages; broadly these can be divided into a black African south and an Arab Islamic north. Southerners have always complained of discrimination at the hands of northerners and it was partly due to this discrimination that for 40 of the past 50 years Sudan has been at war with itself, a war that left around two million dead. But with the hammering out of a peace agreement, the people of South Sudan went to the polls for a referendum on whether the country should stay whole or split in two. In January this year, they voted overwhelmingly for independence from north Sudan.
It’s not every day that a new country is born. So if you’re wanting to head to South Sudan for the celebrations, Juba, the capital of the new country and centre of the independence celebrations, will be the place to be. Though we must stress that travel to Sudan can be a dangerous affair, so any visitor needs to be fully prepared and keep up with the latest travel advisories.

How to get there

Perhaps unsurprisingly, visiting South Sudan isn’t that straightforward. To start with the visa situation is quite complicated. A standard Sudanese visa is currently required for anyone visiting either north or South Sudan and these are not easy to get (use a local tour operator to help you). However, if you’re travelling straight to South Sudan (and only South Sudan) from Uganda or Kenya then you don’t need a Sudanese visa but can instead make do with a GoSS (Government of South Sudan) permit. These are issued without fuss in Nairobi (Kenya) and Kampala (Uganda). Once paperwork is sorted you can fly to Juba from Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Khartoum, or you can be more adventurous and come overland.
Buses now run daily from Kampala direct to Juba, although security issues are still a cause for concern on this route. Once in Juba, be prepared to shell out some serious cash for a bed for the night. Most people stay in one of the tent camps along the banks of the Nile, but a bed in one of these costs around US$200-300 a night! Fortunately a couple of cheaper budget hotels charging around US$50-60 are starting to open up.

Juba and beyond

As well as taking in the independence celebrations, make time to visit some of Juba’s colourful markets and the grave of John Garang, the former leader of the South Sudan independence movement.
After July 9, if you’re not suffering from a post-party hangover, you could try pushing out into one of travel’s final frontiers – the South Sudan hinterland, but be warned, travel here is unbelievably tough and not at all safe. There’s almost no infrastructure, roads and public transport are basically non-existent, accommodation is a wishful dream and the security situation highly unstable. Only the most intrepid travellers need apply.
The most obvious route through South Sudan is to follow the Nile northward toward Kosti and the border of north Sudan. Currently no passenger ferries ply the Nile, but cargo boats do. However, with the journey taking around two to three weeks all foreigners tend to fly.

The future of tourism?

In years to come, the big attraction of South Sudan might well be the wildlife of the vast, and almost completely unknown, swampy region known as the Sudd. Scientists were left dumbfounded when, in 2007, they discovered that this forgotten wilderness contained herds of white-eared kob, Tiang antelope and Mongalla gazelle over a million strong. In addition it’s thought that around 8000 elephants call this area home as well as vast numbers of buffalo, ostrich, lion and other African classics. For the moment though, unless you happen to have a helicopter in your backpack, you’ll just have to dream about seeing this wildlife spectacle.
Visiting South Sudan will not be for everyone but for those after genuine adventure the 9th of July will be an unmissable day in the travel calendar.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Yemen Updates: A letter (well ok an email) from Sana'a

I recieved this email last night from a friend in Sana'a. I have edited the email slightly to remove some personal extracts and details (ie - his current phone number etc).

Dear Stuart,
Thank you for your concern. Things are definitely getting worse in Yemen and especially in Sana'a. Tribesmen are all over Sana'a and I think 2000 is an underestimated number. But we have gotten used to tribesmen entering Sana'a every Friday to take part of the anti-Saleh (note the original email said pro-saleh but this was a mistake which I have changed) demonstrations for the past couple of months. At the same time, most major cities like Sana'a, Taiz, Hodeidah are blocked and whoever wants to enter goes through a very long check-point.
Demonstrations are taking place in almost all governates, but nothing as violent as Aden, Zinjibar, and Sana'a. On the other hand, it seems that the government have lost control of Marib - the main electric power plant in Yemen is based there and we have not had electricity for the past 3 weeks. We have heard that tribesmen have taken control of the power plant and have cut its supply as their way of participating in this uprising. We have been using personal electric generators for the past 3 weeks at our office and our homes, and those need diesel and petrol (which is also very difficult to find and very expensive in the black market).
I am still staying in Sana'a and I cannot evacuate - many of my friends and family members have taken their families and left to Cairo or Amman, but we cannot just simply close the office and go. I am not saying that there is a lot of work, but the business we are currently getting is barely covering our operating costs and providing salaries to tens of families.
 Ahmed is doing well and still working with us. Murad and Mujahid have not been in touch with me for a long time, and that I imagine is because they know that we have no tourists. All businesses are suffering and many are closing and Dawood hotel as well, but still open. I will try to call Hassan in Marib tomorrow and will let you know. As for the girls, I have not been in touch of any of them after you left.
The news coverage we are getting today is more than Egypt and Tunisia, and that is because the events that took place today. Let me explain: for the past week, there have been clashes between Al-Ahmar family and the government, but that is far away from where we live. Last night, Yemen Airways building was burned down, and today the attacks on Hamid Al-Ahmar (who's house is not far from mine) are very loud and could be heard all over Sana'a. There was also an attack on the mosque where President Ali Abdullah Saleh was praying and it seems he suffered some slight injuries - and some prominent government figures have been hurt also.
My friend I cannot picture a way out of this situation for Yemen and Yemenis, and it seems we will be in the same spot as the Libyans are in currently. Some government spokesmen have mentioned that the President is willing to sign the agreement but I honestly do not think that this will happen.
Your prayers and thoughts are very much appreciated.
Best wishes,

Paul Theroux - North Kenya

A link to a story published in the Guardian by travel writer Paul Theroux about the Moyale (Ethiopia/Kenya border) to Nairobi road. Don't let this put you off as it's a fantastic adventure.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Kenya - Loiyangalani Festival

And as if you need another reason to venture up to the wilds of Kenya's far north, Loiyangalani gives you one with it's desert festival. An article from The East African -

Yemen Updates: President Saleh Injured

Yemen Updates:

Rumours President Saleh injured in attack on Presidential compound:
Al-Arabiya TV reports Saleh has been lightly injured in an attack by tribesmen loyal to tribal leader al-Ahmar. Suhail TV, run by one of al-Ahmar’s brothers, reports President Saleh has been killed in the attack. Sana’a is alight with rumours.

No matter whether Saleh has been lightly injured or killed, today, and the remainder of the weekend, are likely to be the critical days in the Yemeni uprising. Friday has been the traditional day of protest in the Middle Eastern uprisings and Yemen has been no exception to this rule. Last Friday, as with all previous Fridays for the past few months, saw huge numbers of people protesting peacefully on streets throughout Yemen. This Friday though things are very different. The atmosphere in Sana’a and other towns and cities is said to be extremely tense and though protesters have gathered on
60th Street
and the so called ‘Change’ Square in Sana’a numbers are said to be much lower than in previous weeks. This is partially to do with the sheer number of people who’ve fled Sana’a in the past few days and partially to do with a genuine fear that Saleh’s security forces will attack protesters in a repeat of events that took place in Ta’iz earlier this week. Last night security forces fired at protesters camped out in
Change Square
, although there were no reports of injuries. Very heavy fighting between Saleh’s forces and tribal fighters loyal to Hamid al-Ahmar, leader of the Hashid tribal federation, has rocked the city all night and this fighting has now spread beyond the Al-Hassaba neighbourhood where al-Ahmar has his base and is now engulfing many parts of the city.

It is quite likely that this will be the last Friday of peaceful protest in Sana’a and that by next Friday Sana’a will be largely deserted by all except gunmen and the city, and country, will be a war zone or that Saleh will be gone and a new chapter will have opened in Yemen. And what will that chapter hold?

A few weeks ago many assumed that if the protesters managed to topple Saleh that an interim government representing all the opposition parties would govern the country until elections were held. Sadly, with the protesters peaceful movement now largely overshadowed by the fighting this seems increasingly unlikely. If Saleh were to leave power (or has indeed been killed – though this is likely to be mere propaganda) today then it would likely need a huge amount of effort on the part of the international community to get all sides involved in the Yemeni uprising to sit down and agree to share power until elections can be held. This has been an uprising essentially organised through social media and the problem the protesters have is that they don’t have a single unifying, charismatic leading figure to rally behind who can lead the country after Saleh is gone. It is possible that one of the military figures who’ve joined the protesters could run the country, but a military government with ties to the Saleh regime is not what the youth of Yemen started the protests for. Not that any of this may matter as now that tribal divisions have been brought violently into the mix and it now seems much more likely that a power struggle will ensue between various tribal groupings. If Hamid al-Ahmad’s fighters get rid of the Saleh regime it’s unlikely that al-Ahmad will merely lay down his arms and disappear behind the scenes again (although he has always wielded considerable power in Yemen). By getting involved in this way he is clearly stating that he wants power. However, other groups and many of the peaceful protesters who started this are unlikely to want to accept the man who helped turn their uprising violent to be their leader. Sadly, unless the fighting stops very soon the most likely scenario is that Yemen will descend into total chaos as old scores are settled and fighting erupts along tribal lines. My guess is that were this to happen the country would disintegrate into at least three parts. The far north around Sa’da will absolutely refuse to be governed by Sana’a anymore. An on-off war between the Houthis and the government in Sana’a has been taking place since 2003. The Houthis are a rebel Shia group claiming to be fighting against discrimination of their minority Shia community and essentially the government has had no control in this region for the past few years. The far south and east is also very unlikely to want to be governed by Sana’a anymore. Prior to 1990 this whole region was in fact a separate nation (South Yemen) and in recent years there has been a growing separatist movement in the south that has become increasingly violent over the past 18 months. This desire for separation is due to the fact that southerners have felt themselves marginalised by the government in Sana’a and they claim that despite the south having the vast majority of the oil wealth (what little remains of it anyway) that the north takes all the profits. If the country does split into three it’s likely that a relative peace will be quickly established around Sa’da and the north. The south, where tribal influence is not that strong, may also be relatively calm, but that’s far from certain. The central mountains, where Sana’a and most of the country’s population is based, is deeply divided on tribal lines and this area could split into numerous tribal fiefdoms and be subjected to much inter-tribal fighting in a manner similar to Somalia. And then of course there’s al-Qaeda, whose influence on day to day life in Yemen has been minimal in the past, but who will almost certainly use the power vacuum to try and expand their influence and turn parts of the country into a new Afghanistan. Whatever pans out in the next few days it’s now going to take something of a miracle to pull Yemen back from the edge of the abyss. 

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Yemen Update

A Youtube video of Sana'a tonight. Not much to see on it but the sounds of gunfire and mortars are crazy. Will there be anything left of the city?? Saleh please go!!!  -

Yemen Updates

Why does al-Jazeera make Yemen its main news story and the French news doesn’t even mention Yemen. Not a single word! If it weren’t for internet news nobody in France would even know what is happening there. Disgusting that unusual weather was a bigger news story….

Sorry, rant over! So, the news over the course of the day continues to get worse from Yemen. There are not yet any casualty figures from today but the first wave of tribesmen have broken through and entered the city. More are reported to be en-route to Sana’a from the small city of Amran a short way north of Sana’a. After a short pause in the fighting things have started up again and people are reporting heavy explosions and mortar fire almost non-stop. Thousands of people are said to be fleeing Sana’a. The airport, which closed earlier today, has now reopened (presumably people will be leaving rather than arriving!) I have not been able to get in touch with any of my contacts anywhere in Yemen today. I would love to hear from the rural areas about the situation, but nobody seems to know much. One bright bit of news from Sana’a though is that kids are still playing in the streets of the old town! There is also a rumour floating around that Saleh might now be willing to sign the GCC agreement to hand over power – he has said he will sign three times now but still not done it. I will believe it when I see it. Tomorrow is Friday normally the biggest day of (peaceful) protest. Tomorrows protests are still scheduled to take place (in a different part of the city to the fighting) and are ‘in memory of the people of Ta’iz (many protestors were killed there by security forces earlier this week). I would imagine that with a combination of Friday protests and more armed tribesmen arriving at the gates of Sana’a and other Yemeni cities tomorrow might well be a crunch day.

I’ve just heard that explosions are being reported in other areas of Sana’a – it seems the area of fighting is expanding….

I’ll update again tomorrow.

The Rest of the World

This blog is supposed to focus on news, events and travel info for a range of countries I work in (Kenya, Ethiopia. Sudan, parts of West Africa, Sri Lanka, Spain, France and so on) as well as lots of surf travel news, but due to the fast changing and critical situation in Yemen and the fact that Yemen is one of my key areas of work (and favourite places) I will be concentrating mainly on Yemen until things calm down.

Oh and the above photo is taken in Ethiopia.

Yemen Updates

Why is Yemen being largelly ignored by western news agencies? Finally, Hilary Clinton has indicated in a roundabout kind of way that maybe they've been backing the wrong man. When peace does return to Yemen the people will surely remember how the west ignored them but gave non-stop coverage to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisa and Libya.

Latest news from Sana'a isn't pretty. Al-Jazeera backed up by Yemeni journalists are reporting around 2000 tribespeople massing outside Sana'a in anticipation of a big attack. The BBC reports 100 and several hundred more reportedly arriving.

Sana'a airport has been closed and flights are diverted to Aden instead. Yemenis on the ground say that fighting is spreading out towards the airport.

Bloggers from Yemen report non-stop shelling in Sana'a, a heavy air raid taking place now over Zinjibar (the southern town reportedly taken over by al-Qaeda) and security forces firing on protesters again in Ta'iz. All entrance roads to Ta'iz have been sealed off presumably in an attempt to stop tribesmen entering that city to support protesters.

Will try and contact friends on the ground in Sana'a now and get an update if possible.

Yemen Updates

There are reports of thousands of tribesmen massing on the outskirts of Sana'a - possibly in an attempt to storm the city? Will post more as I get it.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Great Yemen Blog

I came across this blog by a Yemeni woman which gives a nicely simplified overview of the Yemeni uprising in the FAQ section -

Yemen Updates

A quick summary of the situation in Yemen.

The Yemeni uprising against the rule of President Saleh continues to turn ever more violent. Protestors, who’ve been camped out in the streets of many Yemeni towns and cities for several months now, are attempting to continue their largely peaceful demonstrations calling for Saleh to leave power. ‘
Change Square
’ in Sana’a remains the central focus of these demonstrations. Elsewhere though, events have taken a serious turn for the worse.

In Sana’a fighting has once again broken out between security forces and fighters loyal to Sheikh Sadiq al-Ahmar, head of the Hashed tribe (the largest tribal grouping in Yemen). Fighting between these two groups first broke out last week. A ceasefire was declared at the weekend and then broken again at the start of this week. Both sides blame the other for breaking the ceasefire although most residents of Sana’a are blaming Saleh’s security forces. According to residents last night (31/05/11) Sana’a saw its heaviest fighting since the civil war in 1994. Reports say that at least 37 people were killed in the city and that al-Ahmar’s fighters have taken over the ruling party’s headquarters (General People’s Congress).

The following is the text of an email I received from a friend in Sana’a. It was sent to me on Sunday evening (29/05/11) before the resurge in fighting in Sana’a.

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for your concern.

I honestly do not know what is going on and where it is going to take us. The fighting is taking place away from our offices and from where we live, but it is still inside Sana'a. You remember Yemen Airways building in al giyada street - that's where all the fighting is taking place.

I was driving to and from work today and I noticed that there was no traffic jams at all. It seems most people have left to their villages. Or it could be that most people did not drive to work because of the lack of petrol and diesel.

We do not have electricity either and it is very close to the situation we lived during the 94 war.

We hope this ends soon and that Gulf countries could intervene and find a solution.

I heard that the ceasefire had ended today and that they are fighting again.

So far I have no plans to leave Sana'a but if things get worse we might send our families to Cairo or Amman or Addis Ababa.

Will keep in touch.

Elsewhere, in the large central city of Ta’iz the army moved in on Sunday night/Monday morning to clear protestors from their camps. Witnesses say that the army fired live rounds indiscriminately into the square and sprayed petrol on the protestors tents before setting them alight. Exact casualty figures are hard to verify but at least fifty people were killed (including disabled people who were burnt to death in their tents) and many more injured and then arrested by security forces. On Tuesday protestors again took to the streets of Ta’iz and a further twelve were reported killed by security forces.

In the south of the country the town of Zinjibar close to Aden was bombed by the Yemeni air force after the town was reportedly taken over by fighters loyal to AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula). There were an unknown number of casualties in both the initial take over of the town and the bombing raids. It should be noted that there has been much confusion over the identity of the fighters who have taken over Zinjibar. Saleh describes them as al-Qaeda militants (who certainly have a presence in the vicinity of Zinjibar) but many Yemenis and other observers say that they are actually government sponsored gunmen who Saleh has sent into the town in order to frighten western and other Arab governments into thinking that if he leaves power then the country will fall to al-Qaeda and other militants. To back this theory up it appears that just prior to the arrival of the fighters the regular army and police inexplicably left the town.

News from the rest of the country is becoming increasingly hard to come by, but it would appear that Yemen is now virtually in a state of civil war. And just in case you were wondering whether it was still possible to continue with planned visits to Yemen the answer is very much NO. Even if the fighting were all to die down tomorrow it appears that no foreigners are now being allowed to enter the country (thus making independent verification of news coming out of Yemen hard to verify).

As the situation in Yemen develops I shall add updates to this blog.

Surfing Indonesia for Lonely Planet

A link to an article I was asked to write for the Lonely Planet website on surfing in Indonesia. This was written last week on a plane on the way home from two fantastic months on the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra. The two pictures are of One Palm Point on Panatain island off West Java. It is probably the most ridiculous, and dangerous, wave I have ever surfed.

I'll be posting up further photos and news from my time in Indonesia shortly.

Questions on French Atlantic coast for Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter

As the author of the French Atlantic coast and Basque Country chapters for the Lonely Planet France guide I was recently asked by Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter if I could answer a few readers questions regarding visiting this part of France. Here is a link to the article

If you don't speak Swedish (like me!) then you may find the following translation useful! I had to write this feature from a tiny village on the Indonesian island of Java and was only able to get an internet signal through my phone by standing at a very specific angle under a certain palm tree!

My husband and I (around 50 years young) would like to travel to the Atlantic coast of France.
1. Where is the best place to start if we rent a car to travel from north to south?

This very much depends on how long you have available and how quickly you want to travel. In the average two week holiday it makes a lot of sense to just concentrate on one part of the Atlantic coast. Brittany, in the far north, has a beautiful coastline with lots of little coves interspersed with long stretches of sandy beaches, but of course its northern location means it’s the area with the most temperamental weather. Nantes (which is technically no longer in Brittany) is probably the easiest place to fly to and has numerous car hire outlets (both at the airport and in the town itself). It’s an attractive city with a good range of museums, an excellent art galley and a large, walking mechanical elephant! Further south La Rochelle in the Poitou-Charentes region is an ideal place to begin an Atlantic coast holiday. The city might be the most attractive on the Atlantic coast, has several quirky museums and a world class aquarium. Numerous flights (including a number of budget airlines) fly into the city’s airport and there are plenty of car hire outlets. La Rochelle also makes an excellent base from which to visit the Île de Ré, the Marais Poitevin and even Cognac, all of which are amongst the highlights of the Atlantic coast.

2. We both like good food and culture. Can you please tell us about some places we should not miss?
Mats and Pia

Almost anywhere along the Atlantic coast has good food, but the Basque country, on the Spanish border in the far south really combines both your requirements for good food and a notably different local culture. The area is renowned across France for having the best food in the country and the Basques have a culture that is notably different to the rest of both France and Spain. The Basques claim to be the oldest Europeans and to speak the oldest European language (and one that is unrelated to any other language). As well as some superb restaurants there are an increasing number of tapas (or pintxos as they are known in Basque) bars which are not just good fun, but a great way to taste a variety of the regions food. The pretty city of Bayonne, capital of the French Basque country, is both the best place to eat in the region and has the most visibly Basque culture. The Chiloa Gurmenta Restaurant (rue des Tonneliers 7) in the heart of Bayonne, is as Basque a restaurant as they come. For tapas Bar Jean (Rue des Halles 5) in Biarritz is a great find.
Further north, Bordeaux is a city renowned not just for its wine, but also for its food. The city centre is filled with classic French bistros serving equally classic French food. Le Cheverus Café (Rue du Loup 81-83) is maybe the best of these sort of places. On weekdays it’s a good idea to eat your main meal at lunchtime as many places do great value set menus. Whilst in the Bordeaux region take a day trip to the seaside town of Arcachon and have an oyster lunch – this is where the best oysters in France come from – or try those at La Bôite á Huîtres (Cours du Chapeau Rouge 36) in the city itself. You should also make time to visit some of the vineyards. The Bordeaux tourist office organises a variety of different day long wine tours as well as various wine courses. See for more information on these. The École du Vin ( based inside the Masion du Vin de Bordeaux (Cours du 30 Julliet 3) organises introductory wine tasting courses everyday but Sunday throughout the summer.

I'm going to Biarritz this summer and I'm going to travel around. Which are the best places that can offer surfing lessons for beginners?
Almost every beach in the Biarritz region is home to at least one surf school, but not all the beaches here are suitable for learners. By far the best place to learn to surf is in Hendaye, a small town right on the Spanish border and about twenty minutes drive or train ride from Biarritz. The waves here are always small and gentle and normally the only other surfers in the water are other beginners. Closer to Biarritz the Plage Côte des Basques, just a short walk south of the town, is another great place to learn to surf. Wherever you go make sure the surf school you pick is one affiliated to the French Surfing Federation and bear in mind that some instructors use giving lessons as nothing but an excuse to go surfing themselves. You should also insist that your instructor keep you well away from more experienced surfers who don’t tend to take kindly to having groups of beginners in the water with them.