Uluru sunset - photo Zoe Dawes

2012 has been a winding, bumpy road with a few potholes and some fabulous scenery along the way.   For me it’s been a time of learning, thought-provoking encounters and extraordinary quirky travel experiences.

Switzerland in winter

There have been a great many travel highs, including watching boiling hot geysers erupt in Iceland, marvelling at mountainous snow-covered majesty in the Swiss Alps, overwhelmed by the scent of technicolour tulips and hyacinths in Holland, walking all the way round tiny Herm in the Channel Islands,  a close encounter with a wild boar in Lancashire, sitting in solitude in a tiny cave chapel on Gran Canaria, eating Michelin-starred food in an old Blacksmith’s Forge in Cartmel,  and flying across the River Thames in London’s first cable car, feeding one of the world’s biggest alligators in Darwin and most memorably seeing the sun rise over Uluru from a tussocky hill and on the back of a friendly camel.

Uluru from our camel

One of the most surreal was …

1.  Meeting the President of Iceland …

Iceland President's Residence, Reyjavik

I was on a media trip to celebrate easyJet’s new route to Iceland, led by their CEO, Carolyn McCall, which resulted in our group of journalists and bloggers being invited to meet this quirky country’s President, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson. In a  low-slung white building surrounded by silver-glinting mountains and Reykjavik’s icy cobalt water, it was extremely informal and strange.   Very little security, a suavely charming President extolling the delights of his uniquely curious country, political ping-pong as the Daily Mail travel reporter tried to get an ‘angle’ on the bank loan the UK gave Iceland, having my question answered on why people should visit this wonderfully bonkers country with reference to imposing paintings on the walls around us (the stark, volcanic beauty that feeds the soul and is ever-changing).  Finally juggling warm berry-bedecked pancakes and bitter-strong coffee whilst pinching myself ever so gently to see if it was really happening.

Pancakes with the President of Iceland

2.  Listening to an Oompah Band amidst Dutch flowers

On a very cold weekend in April I sailed over to Holland on an overnight ferry to sample the delights of Amsterdam.  I’d never been before and thoroughly enjoyed it all, including the cycling tour, canal boat trip, many museums and the city’s beautiful old houses.  However, the most memorable excursion was to the world-famous Keukenhof Gardens, with their tapestries of spring flowers in every colour of a painter’s palette.  Even in a bitingly cold wind the scent was overwhelmingly heady.

Keukenhof Gardens windmill & brass band, Holland In a corner of the grounds is a huge wooden windmill, in front of which played a lively brass band, delighting the audience with their musical antics.  It was so different from our somewhat reverential brass bands seen in public parks around the country, usually watched by old folk falling to sleep in fading deck-chairs. In their patriotic bright orange jackets and mischievous smiles, these musicians encouraged the audience to dance and young Japanese tourists dared each other to have their photos taken with this crazy gang of Dutch fun.

Dutch Brass Band & tourist, Keukenhof Gardens

3.  Learning about wartime occupation in Guernsey

The Guernsey German Occupation Museum is moving, informative, disturbing and illuminating.  Recreations of living conditions and crammed full of fascinating artefacts from the dark and stressful days of the early 1940s, it brings home what daily life was like for the occupants of Guernsey, a tiny British island a few miles off the French coast, when the Germans took over and life changed in the blink of an eye.  A short black and white film poignantly shows the story of the islanders’ struggle and newspaper pages tell of starvation, arrest and liberation. Wartime street in German Occupation Museum, Guernsey - by Zoe Dawes

Amongst all the signs of hostility, fighting and austerity are quirky objects like the horse’s gas mask, a make-shift ambulance and home-made makeup and toys.  They give a sense of reality to what for most of us today is a couple of lines in a history book.  Particularly evocative is a dark street with a police bobby keeping an eye on what’s going-on along its virtually empty shops.  The museum cafe is watched over by a soldier manning a machine gun but  the red, white and blue bunting is a positive reminder of the eventual freeing outcome of the Occupation.

4.  Being Proud to be BritishDiamond Jubilee fireworks - Buckingham Palace

For many of us Brits 2012 was a truly memorable year for two especially significant reason.  The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebrations and the Olympic Games seemed to give us back a sense of self that had been missing for some time.  Whether you were an ardent royalist, an avid sports fan, a lover of a good party or someone who believes every country should have something to be proud of, there was a way to join in and have fun, even if it was simply watching it on TV with friends and family.  Although many of the big events were in London, cities, towns and villages throughout the UK held parties and bedecked the streets with patriotic flimflam.   The Torch Relay was what ignited the flame for the London 2012 Olympic Games, as it travelled up hill, down lanes, along rivers and through fields in some of the worst weather this country has ever experienced.  And the crowds turned out in their millions to cheer on the chosen hardy souls who ran, jogged, walked, wheeled and staggered through wind, rain, snow and hail carrying this beacon of sporting excellencefor us all to see.

Olympic Torch arriving at Bowness on Windermere - by Zoe Dawes

My personal highlight was being able to hold the Torch and also the tiny golden Davy Lamp that kept the Flame alight as it sailed along Lake Windermere on a foggy day in July.  I’ll never forget the fantastic atmosphere as we arrived in rain-sodden Bowness to a  crowd of thousands all revelling in a little piece of national pride.

5. Soul connection at the Ultimate Rock Concert, Uluru in Australia

Shane Howard playing at Uluru Rock Concert - by Zoe DawesWithout doubt, my absolute favourite highlight of 2012 was The Other Side of the Rock very special concert that took place in the shadow of Uluru, one of Australia’s most famous sights and a place of deep spiritual significance for Aboriginal people in the Red Centre of this incredible country.  I was on trip to find out about Aboriginal food and culture and was staying at the luxurious Sails in the Desert Hotel at Ayers Rock Resort.  Our group was invited to go to the Mutitjula Community Carnival, about 15 minutes drive from Yalara, where Aussie music legend Shane Howard was putting on a concert together with a load of his friends to celebrate 30 years since he released the anthemic hit ‘Solid Rock’.  The song was inspired by a visit he made to this area and it’s become embedded in the country’s psyche.  A few hundred people came along – it is literally miles from anywhere in the heart of the desert, and those of us who were there knew we were privileged to experience this awesomely uplifting concert.  Elderly Aboriginal women chanted hypnotically as they performed one of their ancient dances.

Sunset at Uluru, at Solid Rock Concert, Australia

The rhythmic, pulsing beat of the feisty musicians boomed out through the sunset as Aboriginal and white singers shared harmonies that must surely have uplifted the Ancestors as much as they delighted the appreciative audience.  The image that sums it all up for me is of laughing children covered in ochre dust leaping for joy as the sun set over their very own special piece of Planet Earth.

Wishing you a truly magical and fulfilling 2013 full of quirkilicious adventures in mind, body AND spirit