Michael Wasley – Travels with a Geographer

Travel Talk

Eleanor and Michael Wasley have been regular contributors to Silver Travel Advisor for over 4 years. Sadly Michael passed away in October 2015, and Eleanor has written a moving tribute to her globetrotting husband. Together they travelled way off the beaten track (the remoter the better), taking full advantage of the freedom that retirement offered to them to discover the world at a slower pace, enjoying authentic experiences and creating memories for a lifetime.  

Michael WasleyMichael was a geographer and was always fascinated by landscapes and man’s effect on it. Linked to this was a love of railways. He was the only person I knew who could spend hours reading old timetables. This interest has passed down through our daughter to her two sons who live and breathe steam railways.

For many years holidays were spent in Britain, especially the Llŷn Peninsula for the Ffestiniog Railway or Northumberland for Hadrian’s Wall and Kielder Forest. We took our rucksacks and boots and walked, as to really understand a landscape you need to walk it. We did, looking at buildings, industrial archaeology ancient remains and vegetation. Michael enjoyed taking photographs but could never see the point of pictures of ‘me in front of …’ which may explain the rather esoteric content of many of his pictures.

GreenlandOur first venture abroad was on the Norwegian Coastal Voyage, Hurtigruten. We had been talking about this for thirty years but never got round to it. Feeling very brave we booked a trip on one of the traditional boats in 1999. This really was the voyage of a lifetime and we loved every minute of it. There were tears as we left Bergen on the ferry back to Newcastle. Having said “that was so perfect, we couldn’t do it again” two months later we booked a trip for the next year.

This led us to think of Faroe and Iceland which we could do then using the Smyril Line ferry from Shetland. Faroe was superb but Iceland was mind blowing with the volcanics and ice. We rapidly ran out of superlatives to describe it. Two trips to Greenland soon followed, again dramatic if you like nothing but plenty of ice.

Great Wall of ChinaBy now the travel bug was beginning to bite. We sat down one winter night with a bottle of serious red wine and began to draw up a list of all the places we would like to visit. First up were New Zealand and Canada, to be quickly followed by Patagonia. How about China for the Great wall and Terracotta warriors? This quickly lead to Russia with Lake Baikal and Siberia and we might as well include Mongolia while we were at it. Later, Bhutan and Ladakh joined the list, along with Tunisia.

A bit of googling quickly revealed that many places inaccessible in our youth now had a tourist infrastructure. We began planning in earnest, using Audley Travel to design tailor made holidays to our very detailed specifications.

Our first long trip was seven weeks across Asia. We flew to Irkutsk for Lake Baikal and then caught the train into Mongolia for a few days before continuing to Beijing where we spent a day on the Great wall. This is a mindblowing structure and makes Hadrian’s Wall look like our garden wall. We then travelled west following the Silk Road across China which got us into areas Europeans never get to. Jaws really did drop when people saw us. We then crossed the Tian Shan Mountains into Kyrgyzstan before flying home.  

BhutanWe had wanted to get into Tibet this visit, but the Chinese had closed the border to tourists. A couple of years later we thought about Tibet again, only to hear the border had again been closed. In the end we decided to visit Ladakh instead. This is the top north west corner of India beyond the Himalayas and  has a Tibetan Buddhist culture with prayer flags flapping in the wind. This is seriously high desert scenery with incredible monasteries. It is popular with Indian visitors who love the snow or others looking for extreme adventure.

On another trip to Asia, we headed to Bhutan, a mountain kingdom with a Buddhist culture which is just beginning to be discovered by tourists. It still maintains a very traditional way of life with families working in the fields and was an absolute monarchy until a few years ago.

We have made two trips to South America. The first was to the southern most tip of Argentina and Chile. ChileFrom Tierra del Fuego we headed north into the Andes and Torres del Paine before heading up through Chile to the Atacama Desert.This was added on as an after though. We loved the high altiplano and returned two years later to use this as a jumping off point into Bolivia. The drive across the Salar de Uyuni must rank as one of the most incredible experiences in the world. There are no roads and each driver has his own route, navigating using the mountains. Lake Titicaca with is reed boats made famous by Thor Heyerdahl and the ruined city of Tiwanaku which predates the Incas were other highlights.

SaskatchewanIn comparison, Canada seems almost main stream. My mother grew up in the Canadian Prairies during the Great Depression, so our first trip took us to Saskatchewan to meet family and see where she grew up. The Canadians were intrigued by an English woman looking up her Canadian roots. Usually it is the other way round. Again this is an area ignored by the tourists and the prairies weren’t as flat and boring as we had thought. We finished up in the Rockies, seeing something of Alberta and British Columbia.

Wanting to see more of Canada, we headed for Newfoundland which is very different to the rest of Canada and was an independent country until 1949. It also has a history stretching back to the Vikings and a tradition of whaling and fishing. We also experienced a full blown hurricane while we were here. The guide books don’t warn you about that.

TunisiaWe chose Tunisia for the Roman remains in the north, which are much better and more extensive than in Italy. In April the countryside was very green and we began to understand why it was regarded as the grain basket of the Roman Empire. We also spent time in the south for the Sahara Desert, but not the Star Wars Sites. We even managed to find a train here, the Lézard Rouge, a wonderful run through deep gorges.

There have also been trips to Estonia,, the Golden Ring in Russia, Gozo, New Zealand as well as France and Spain. Each of the trips has been very different and we have enjoyed all of them. We have got to some amazing places and feel privileged to have visited places like Greenland, Mongolia, Ladakh and Bhutan before they get over run by tourism.

Michael and boys, PorthmadogOur final holiday together was to the Llŷn Peninsula at Easter 2015. The weather was perfect with wall to wall sunshine. We went on the Ffestiniog Railway with the two grandsons and revisited many of our old haunts including Madryn, one of the small hills we always climbed. We didn’t go up this time, but walked around the bottom. My abiding memory will be of Michael standing gazing up the peninsula at all the hills we have climbed in the past. We had come back full circle and he was saying his goodbyes.

Michael’s website of pictures can be found here.

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