Monday, 15 July 2013

Pivotal times in Sofia, Bulgaria

When I arrived in Sofia a couple of weeks ago, I was given two pieces of advice from the lady renting me the apartment.

The first thing she said was, 'Be careful of gypsies.' After a quick double-take, I wondered if I'd wandered into a horror movie where the naive heroine is warned (usually about something wince-inducingly politically incorrect) by a well-meaning but menacing crone. 'Beware the curse of the full moon...'

The second thing she said was, 'Don't worry about protest. Is like big beer party.'

Tsar Osvoboditel by twilight. Image © Anita Isalska
I knew in the run-up to my travels in Bulgaria that protests were in full swing, demanding the resignation of the Socialist Party government and pushing for reforms (and they're continuing to protest as I write) but there didn't seem to be any cause for concern.

Sofia Public Mineral Baths. Image © Anita Isalska
Protests take on a different sheen in other countries. I'd happily march for a cause on home turf, but distance naturally muddies our ability to take the political temperature. At the back of my mind, I wondered whether I should avoid Sofia centre after dark, or steer clear of the protests.

Saint Sofia gazes down over bul Todor Alexandrov. Image © Anita Isalska
When I first heard the protest approaching, it was a loud musical hum, accompanied by the cheering you'd expect at a football match. When crowds of people marched to the crossroads at Serdika in the city centre, late in the evening, they were waving flags, holding hands with sweethearts, bouncing toddlers on their shoulders. The 'beer party' comparison from the apartment owner suddenly made sense. And it felt like the change had already happened; the mood of the crowd was triumphant, as if change would inevitably come.

The splendid Alexander Nevsky cathedral. Image © Anita Isalska
But aside from a few blurry pictures of crowds walking calmly at twilight, there isn't a single snap of unrest on my camera. In fact the most unruly mob I came across in the Bulgarian capital was probably this lot. You know what travellers are like at the prospect of a freebie:

I'd highly recommend this free walking tour if you're in the city. Image © Anita Isalska 
It felt like a privilege to see part of a turning of the tide in Bulgaria. Everyone I met, in Sofia and beyond, was eager that international reporting of the protests didn't drive away visitors - I found it a fascinating time to explore the city and speak with locals (although of course, always check your government's travel advice before planning a trip).

Glorious wide boulevards and blue skies in Sofia. Image  Image © Anita Isalska
Barring any huge escalation of the situation in Bulgaria, which currently looks unlikely, the protests are no reason to avoid a visit.

Now, the curse of the full moon, on the other hand...

Read more about Eastern Europe in my article for Lonely Planet, Seven startling sights of Eastern Europe.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Best wildlife encounters in Cradle Mountain National Park, Tasmania

Wildlife-spotting can require patience and a good pair of binoculars. Hoping for fabulous fauna to drop from every branch, or alight on your shoulders Snow White-style, is a recipe for disappointment.

Unless you're in Cradle Mountain National Park. This most famous reserve in Australia's island state, Tasmania, is known for its distinctive summit but also for the eye-popping wildlife. I'm rarely the kind of traveller to lie in wait in swamps, hideouts or dawn safari vans to steal a glimpse of a coveted creature, but I didn't have to look far to be amazed. Here are a few of the best animal encounters on my trip to Cradle Mountain.

Skittish pademelons

Don't run away, little guy! Image © Anita Isalska 

This cuter cousin of the wallaby has a rabbit-like face and a daintier gait than a kangaroo. In Cradle Mountain National Park, it's almost difficult to get away from them. It's like being a rock star with dozens of adorable furry fans. In the early morning and at dusk especially, it seems you can barely open a car door, unzip your tent or take a stroll without seeing pairs of dark pademelon eyes blinking anxiously at you before they bounce off into the brush.

Exhibitionist echidna

A snuffling echidna, one of many on our trip. Image © Anita Isalska
I thought these guys were meant to be shy? Several echidnas graced us with their presence on this trip, from shuffling along the roads to ambling around the national park at dusk. The fella above stayed in full view, sniffing out ants, for a good 20 minutes before becoming bored of our camera. Aside from the noble platypus, the echnidna is the only mammal to lay eggs, but the conception is the weird part. Apparently male echnidnas will form queues of up to ten animals, following around a fertile female - sounds like comedy gold, or a really awkward date.

Bone-crunching Tasmanian devils

Adorable, yes - but this little fella can bite through your bones. Image © Anita Isalska
Ok, so these weren't a chance sighting. Your best chances of a Tassie devil experience - if you aren't satisfied with overhearing their harrowing nocturnal screams - is a trip to a sanctuary like Devils@Cradle (or closer to state capital Hobart, Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary). Seeing these shy marsupials scamper around and you could be excused for finding them adorable and puppy-like, until someone throws them a piece of carrion. There's nothing quite like this animal's guttural screams, and the sight of it crunching straight through a wallaby's skull, to put you off your lunch. Devils deliver one of the strongest bites (per unit body mass) in the animal world. Luckily for us, they are scavengers who prefer a juicy bit of roadkill.

Furious wombats

Don't be fooled by that cuddly exterior. Image © Anita Isalska
Little furry tanks. That's the best way to describe these stocky Aussie natives. Their teddy-bear looks don't prepare you for how fast these critters can move. I was creeping up on one of these fellas around the national park when a Japanese tourist screamed at me to turn around. When I spun round, I saw a second wombat barrelling past me into the trees.

These creatures are much-feared by motorists. When threatened, they present a muscular posterior armoured with tough cartilage that can tear through a car. If this creature won't survive a car strike, it plans to take you down with it.

Almost too many pademelons at Cradle Mountain Lodge. Image © Anita Isalska