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A decade in travel: Frances Linzee Gordon’s review

By Tom Hall   22 December 2009 9:07pm Europe/London

We continue our review of the past ten years of travel by talking to writer and photographer Frances Linzee Gordon. Frances is one of Lonely Planet’s best-known authors, writing on the Middle East and Africa as well as talking about travel on television and radio. Here she contributes her highlights from a decade of adventurous travel.

Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter

Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter

Best place visited in the past ten years?

Saudi Arabia‘s Empty Quarter (much more evocatively  known in Arabic as Rub al-Khali, Abode of Silence). Mesmerising for it’s sheer size (spreading over half a million square kilometres, it’s the largest sea of sand on the Planet), the sheer scale of its shifting dunes (which can reach over 200m high), its colour (which turns crimson at dusk) and for its history (frankincense and spice caravans risked the gruelling journey, as did some of Europe’s most famous explorers), it is also home to the endlessly fascinating Bedu and the Arabian oryx, one of the most beautiful creatures on Earth.

Biggest let-down?

Gibraltar. Known in Antiquity as one of the Pillars of Hercules, I once harboured romantic notions of the ‘Rock’ rising out of the sea. Instead, it’s Britain’s best (think fish & chip shops, tattoo parlours & karaoke bars) meets Spain’s proudest (concrete seaside high-rises and tourism tack). Even the famous Barbary apes (the island’s top attraction) are pot-bellied, balding and snarling. Overcrowded, over-priced and unwelcoming, it’s best over-looked too.

Biggest surprise?

Ethiopia. Contrary to the popular perception of a country stricken by poverty and wracked by famine, it’s extraordinarily rich in natural attractions, including some of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes and national parks, exceptional endemic wildlife, enthralling tribal peoples, and some jaw-dropping historical monuments.

Astonishing rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Astonishing rock-hewn church, Lalibela, Ethiopia

As almost the only country in Africa to escape colonisation (bar a brief but brutal seven-year assault by Italy), it also gives a precious and priceless insight into what Africa might have been had the Europeans not arrived. Fiercely proud, the Ethiopians retain their own language, script, calendar, clock, church, cuisine and culture. Even more surprising: it’s still relatively unknown.

Best or funniest single moment on the road?

I love travelling in regions where few people have ever heard of Lonely Planet. After handing over my business card on past gigs, new acquaintances have mistaken the company for an international dating agency or even a porn enterprise. Sometimes the name itself causes confusion. In western India, I became known as “Ms Planet”; once they’d got to know me better “Lovely”. In Morocco, upon arrival at a restaurant and about to face a persistent and pesky challenge for solo female travellers – the embarrassment of eating alone, I was mortified to find emblazoned in large, sequined letters on the table cloth: “Lonely Plant”.

Name one way travel has changed in the past decade

I sometimes slightly regret the advances of modern communication. There’s nothing quite like going AWOL in a remote country or continent only to emerge months later with thrilling tales of terrible trials and tribulation (as once happened to me when researching a new edition in Africa).  I read in the paper the other day of a mother tracking her student’s son every step around Australia via his mobile phone. Travel was once about learning to stand on your own two feet and discovering a resourcefulness and initiative you never knew you had. Now you can be followed around the world by thousands thanks to Twitter, create a virtual holiday album before you’ve even arrived home courtesy of  Facebook, or spend your whole holiday emailing friends and family thanks to the ubiquitous internet cafe.

Thing you most wanted to do, but missed?

Obvious choices in recent times might be super-sonic-ing across the Atlantic courtesy of Concorde, or a bit further back, hopping on a steamship London-New York. It would have been fun too to have ‘discovered’ the source of the Blue Nile – a mystery occupying mankind since the time of the Pharaohs – though the whole idea of ‘discovering’ anything that the local people had somehow not noticed is a nonsense of course.

First thing you’re going to do in 2010?

Learning to fly

Learning to fly

Sneak off to San Diego following a presentation in Las Vegas in early January in order to investigate the area’s flying schools. I’ve fancied learning to learn to fly for as long as I can remember, though it’ll probably remain a pipe dream until I’ve finally saved enough Lonely Planet pennies to complete my PPL…