The Favourites of Matthew Lightfoot

Please introduce yourself

I’m 54 years old and based in Leeds in the north of England. I worked in Telecoms for 35 years but travel and writing were my real passions. Due to work commitments, all my trips had been undertaken using my work holidays, hence the title of my first book, The Two Week Traveller. In 2020, I took voluntary redundancy from my job, with the aim of travelling, and writing, more. Unfortunately, Covid has changed all that for now! My second book, Snapshots, is due for release in March 2021.

How many countries have you been (The UN list)?

I’ve not counted up for a long time and the last time I did I used the territories and colonies ‘241’ list, so I was interested to see that I’ve visited 131 of the official nations of the world.

Your book, The Two Week Traveller is doing very well on Amazon, who is this book for?

The Two Week Traveller is for anyone who loves travel but also, unfortunately, has to work! I started work at the age of 16, so all my trips were undertaken using only my annual holiday allowance. The book aims to show that with careful planning, you can still travel to the farthest-flung corners of the world and have incredible adventures on a fortnight-long trip.

What are three of your favourite countries and why?

Burma – The people are so welcoming and curious. In the cities, a western visitor will find themselves at most times accompanied by a couple of young monks, eager to practice their language skills. The tourist infrastructure is unsophisticated which can make for some great adventures. We took the local slow-boat from Mandalay to Bagan which can take anything from 12 to 24 hours as it stops at every local village, and negotiates treacherous sandbanks via a boy with a pole prodding the river bed ahead.

Ethiopia – I loved the strangeness of the place. They have a different calendar and clock to the rest of the world so they’re 7 years behind us, and an Ethiopian day begins at 6 am rather than midnight -midday is 6 o’clock! The people all have an unshakeable belief in magic and sorcery. Anyone will tell you that monks can fly, become invisible and change the weather. Also that the rock-carved churches of Lalibela were created by a workforce supplemented by angels, and as you gaze upon these wondrous feats of engineering, that doesn’t seem so hard to believe!

Namibia- I’ve visited around 30 African countries and when asked to recommend one for a first time visitor to the continent, I always opt for Namibia. It’s relatively safe, with a compact and walkable capital in Windhoek, and has a plethora of things to see and do. Etosha National Park is a great introduction to self-drive safaris; the dunes around Swakopmund provide opportunities for quad biking, sandboarding and other high octane desert activities; and the lonely roads of the Skeleton Coast offer the possibility of a unique African road trip adventure.

Are there any countries you don’t enjoy travelling to?

I generally find something of interest wherever I travel, so am struggling to think of anywhere I really didn’t enjoy. In terms of places I wouldn’t return to, I’d say the tiny city-states of Europe such as Luxembourg or Monaco, simply because once you’ve been there once, you’ve probably seen everything there is to see.

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What are three of your favourite cities, and why?

La Paz, Bolivia – The city in the sky is totally unique due to its geography and altitude, plus its futuristic public transport cable car system. I was also lucky enough to be there at Easter where I witnessed the parades of hooded penitents on Good Friday- an amazing experience.

Cape Town – Again a unique city due to its geography, with proximity to spectacular mountains and stunning beaches, countered by some urban grit and fascinating recent history.

Leeds – My hometown. The place I’ve lived all my life, and consequently know every hidden gem which a passing visitor may overlook. The reason I’d never want to live anywhere else is that a thirty-minute drive from the centre, with its world-class shopping and nightlife, you’re in the countryside. An hour will take you into the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, my spiritual home.

What are three of your favourite hotels or places you’ve stayed and why?

I tend to view hotels as a place to sleep rather than an attraction in their own right, so my favourite places to stay aren’t buildings. One is a tent on the rooftop of a safari vehicle. Sleeping under canvas in a totally wild environment with no other humans for miles around, and hearing the guttural night time roar of a nearby lion is an unforgettable experience. A little tamer but equally enjoyable is wild camping in a campervan. We spent two months touring Europe in ours in 2019. Scandinavia is especially perfect for van life in Summer, with 24-hour daylight.

What are the three worst places you’ve stayed?

Only one stick in my memory. We arrived late in the small town of Kota Belud in Borneo and found only one lodging option available. It seemed to be a dormitory for itinerant construction workers, with horrifically low standards of hygiene and facilities. To make matters worse, the entire town was closed down due to a festival. Unfortunately, we only discovered this after paying for the room and for the only time in my life, I sneaked away without actually staying. A night sleeping in the car seemed to be a preferable option!

What are three of your favourite restaurants, and why?

I’m not really a restaurant connoisseur so I’m going to change this one to my favourite bars!

One was the Woodstock bar in the ‘free city’ of Christiania in Copenhagen. Kristiana is an old army camp occupied by ‘alternative lifestyle’ enthusiasts, and Danish law doesn’t apply there. The bar was as wild as you’d expect, with drunken Greenland Inuits dancing on tables, tourists toking on huge cannabis spliffs, residents sporting spectacular tattoos, piercings and headwear and a huge pack of feral dogs tearing around the place! The craziest bar I’ve been in.

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As a reggae aficionado, I love local bars in the Caribbean. One of my favourites was a place called Sunday School in the small town of Grand Riviere in the North of Trinidad. To say it was off the tourist-track was an understatement, and you needed an invite from a local to be admitted. We were the subject of great curiosity which meant we were rarely allowed off the dance floor for the whole night.

I also like an edgy locals bar in a city, where the patrons look at you as if you’ve arrived from a distant planet. One such bar was in Georgetown in Guyana. Filled with prostitutes and characters who resembled scar-faced pirates, they seemed friendly enough to us, and we were having a good time until a local sidled up to us and whispered that we were in great danger and must leave immediately!

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

A great travel moment for me is something that changes your way of thinking forever. I spent two weeks experiencing the voodoo culture of West Africa in Benin and Togo, and one day we were taken by motorbike to witness a ceremony in a remote village, which resulted in a local man receiving a protection spell. I saw things that day which I can’t explain and left me believing that such cultures, with traditions passed down orally through generations, have retained knowledge which the developed world has long forgotten.

Another instance I’ll always remember was in Cambodia in 2003. We’d bought the brand new Lonely Planet Cambodia guide at the airport. The cover had a photo of a stooped old hermit at Ta Prohm temple, and as we sat in the silence of a forest glade, the same old man emerged from his cave. We showed him the cover photo, which he was obviously unaware of, and the look of amazement on his face and toothless smile was something I’ll always remember.

I also love to see religious festivals which are obviously of huge significance to the local people. In addition to the Easter parades I saw in Bolivia, I was lucky enough to be in Lalibela, Ethiopia for the festival of St George, which was celebrated at dawn at the iconic rock-carved Bete Giyorgis church. To be amongst hundreds of white-robed pilgrims at sunrise, listening to the haunting chants of the monks was a unique memory.

What are three of your worst travel moments, and why?

The following were all scary at the time, but have since become well-told travel tales, showing that a near-miss can also become an indelible memory!

We rented a 4×4 safari vehicle with a rooftop tent in Zambia and travelled to Chobe National park in Botswana. I’d self driven on safari before, but hadn’t appreciated how tough Chobe would be. Unfortunately, the Zambian rental company were also ignorant of the conditions across the border. After a series of near-misses with wildlife, flooded rivers and undrivable roads, we became stranded in deep sand on a remote track. Stupidly, we had no GPS, satellite phone or distress flares. We knew other travellers had recently perished in the same area, and that we had only around 5 days worth of supplies. Amazingly, we were rescued in a few hours by the only other vehicles we’d seen in three days. A very lucky escape.

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I’d always felt lucky to never have been mugged on my travels. That ended in Madagascar in the days following a military coup when I was dragged from a taxi and robbed at gunpoint by a stoned teenage soldier. His rifle looked to be about fifty years old and I had some nervous moments as he jabbed it into my chest while fingering the rusty trigger, before I handed over the contents of my wallet. On the return journey, no taxi driver would take us unless we agreed to crouch in the footwell of the backseat, hidden by a blanket for safety.

Another memory which left a mark, literally, in the shape of a three-inch scar on my shin, came when I attempted a short cut on a dark path in Ghana. I fell into an open sewer, gashing my leg badly. I staggered into a nearby restaurant with one leg soaked in blood and the other in sh…..something very unpleasant! Nervous about stitches in a smalltown West African hospital, I attempted first aid on myself and unsurprisingly ended up with an infected leg, which swelled to three times its normal size!

Do you have any little known travel tips?

Smile, offer your hand in greeting and introduce yourself when dealing with officials. Smiling is the key!

Use lots of hand sanitiser – most stomach upsets come from handling dirty money.

When hitchhiking, you’re more likely to get a lift on a quiet road.

If you need a toilet, walk confidently into a top-class hotel without looking at the reception clerk. Toilets are usually to be found near the restaurant.

If travelling by bus, try to get a seat above the luggage compartment so you can keep an eye out for your bags being removed at stops on the way to your destination.

Even if in a beach resort, never negotiate or haggle bare-chested or while wearing sunglasses!

You can follow Mathew on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. His book can be bought on Amazon.

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