Virtual travels in the year of Covid – a light in the darkness


YOU soon lose track of the steps you’ve taken. Six hundred and fifty to the top of Guatape Rock in Columbia; an epic 850 to reach the monastery in Jordan’s ancient Petra; all of 1,200 to claim the summit of mighty Lion Rock in Sri Lanka.

And those are just the ones you counted. How many were there on the trek to the city in the shadow of Peru’s Machu Pichu? All those steps along the Great Wall of China, and let’s not forget the scary scramble to the Icelandic edge of the Fagradalsfjall volcano.

All during the Covid-19 catastrophe. And all without risk to my own life, limbs and health.

Welcome to the wonderful world of live streamed virtual travel, keeping local guides in business and helping stave off the claustrophobia of global lockdown in the 21st century.

Paul Cole at the Geiranger Skywalk

Before I retired in 2020 as travel editor for one of Europe’s biggest newspaper publishers, I was privileged to enjoy all manner of adventure and excitement as I discovered destinations around the world for real, boots on the ground, bag in hand.

I snowmobiled on frozen Finnish lakes close to the Russian border; went white water rafting and quad-biking in Alaska; rode jet boats on New Zealand’s South Island; went helicopter hopping in the Swiss Alps. I learned to scuba-dive in St Lucia.

On snowmobile safari in Finland

I joined a mini-submarine ecology expedition to the bottom of Lake Geneva, mountain biked and kayaked in Norway, flew over an active volcano in Montserrat, watched the sun set over Surtsey, and tried freefall flying in an air tunnel on a cruise liner.

I cruised the Med with Jon Bon Jovi and, in my earlier role as showbiz editor, variously partied with The Who in New York, John Hurt and Richard Branson in Miami, Duran Duran in Rotterdam, and Neil Diamond in Dublin.

With JBJ off the coast of Palma

But all that came crashing to a halt in March 2020 when it became clear that Covid wasn’t just something happening on distant shores that you only read about in the news, before all of our lives changed and unrestricted global travel became a thing of the past.

We all battened down the hatches, rarely venturing further than the boundaries of our own homes for anything other than essential reasons such as shopping and medical appointments. Like so many others, I started working from home – and still do today.

In August of that first Covid year, I reached a milestone birthday and retired from a job that was thankfully never nine to five, but which brought with its benefits increasingly weighty administration and management chores. I decided to set up my own travel blog.

Working at home in the new normal

It might have seemed an odd time to launch such a site when travel was just a dream – but whatever life throws at you, it’s important to keep dreams alive. They are a light at the end of the tunnel.

It was in February this year that Teresa Green, a good friend and former colleague, asked me if I’d heard of a website called virtualtrips which, she said – in a take on the famous Ronseal ad campaign – did what it said on the tin. It took people on live trips around the world and, what’s more, for free.

Liam and John in London

Set up by university pals John Tertan and Liam Garrison and John Tertan – pictured above at the site of the first London tour that launched the project – here in the UK, it seemed too good to be true. And you know what they say about that…

I admit I was sceptical – you tend to acquire an unhealthy degree of cynicism during a lifetime as a journalist – but I took a look, and found advertised a Game of Thrones walking tour of Dubrovnik, one of the cities where the dragons and sorcery show was filmed.

Nikola Plećaš on my first virtual trip tour.

Come the appointed time, I logged in and met Nikola Plećaš – the first of many guides I would get to know – on the marbled waterfront. There followed a 45-minute stroll round Dubrovnik, seeing GoT locations and hearing behind the scenes stories.

Sure, the signal was a bit iffy at times – I found that it looked better on my iPad rather than cast onto my big TV – but Nikola was hugely entertaining, showing us scenes from the show and their real-life counterparts shorn of all the CGI and special effects.

The fact that it was a live streamed tour, and I could not only chat with our guide and other travellers but also take my own ‘postcard’ pictures along the route, piqued my interest. Here was a way to visit places from my own living room while Covid closed down the travel trade.

Anna Levina in St Petersburg

In short order, there followed trips in the company of Anna Levina in St Petersburg, Stephan van der Meer in Amsterdam, Anna Belousova in Moscow, Aaron Kaburick and Patrick Wetzel in New York, and a certain Albert Armannsson in Iceland.

I was hooked. Since then, I’ve taken 119 trips with the virtual trips platform that was rebranded Heygo earlier this year. I’m currently trying to decide where to go for the milestone 120th – and that’s small fry compared to some who have clocked up hundreds more.

The indefatigable Albert Armannsson

I’ve come to know some of the guides well, and took time out to interview both Iceland tour guide Albert and ex-pat Lesley Hammam for features you’ll find elsewhere here on paulcoletravels.com. I’m delighted that we’ve kept in touch on social media since.

Speaking of which, Facebook hosts the Heygo Voyagers group, originally set up by Colleen Alexander Keyes as a space where users of the platform could share their postcard pictures and experiences, and which now has more than 7,700 members worldwide.

Watching the group grow and evolve has been a textbook example for sociology students. From casual chats to earnest discussions – some of them deeply divisive, leading to more moderation – it has been fascinating. It has become a real self-sustaining community.

Autumn equinox sunrise over Angkor Wat

And, all the time, John and Liam have been tweaking the main Heygo platform, improving signal strength – some of the streaming is crystal clear UHD – investing in new kit and bringing more guides and destinations into the fold.

So where have I ‘heygone’ since that first fledgling foray? Well, Iceland tops my ‘most visited’ list with 20 different trips with Albert, including the infamous first climb up to the Fagradalsfjall volcano, a drama which lasted four hours or so, and on which I reported here.

The Fagradalsfjall volcano

There have been multiple meanders round Machu Picchu with the marvellous Mike Lazo Gamarra, the most memorable of which saw him cutting through red tape bureaucracy and scampering up and down steps like a mountain goat to make sure he could bring us unforgettable views.

The iconic Machu Picchu viewpoint

The lead image at the top of this blog post was taken at Machu Picchu on winter solstice, by the way, during an inspirational trip with Mike.

Heygo guides Lesley and Saffy Hammam

I’ve been back to Egypt several times with Lesley and husband Saffy Hammam, also a Heygo guide, and I’ve loved gondola rides along Venice’s canals with Igor Scomparin. I’ve been to school in Senegal with Alioune Diané and paraglided over Columbian city Medellin with Santi Lopez.

The Mutianyu stretch of the Great Wall

Then there have been the real bucketlist blockbusters. With Jenny Liang’s team, I’ve walked China’s Great Wall, met the terracotta warriors in Xi’an, marvelled at the giant Leshan Buddha and even walked the streets of Tibet on a couple of vacation away days.

Guide Jihad at the Petra monastery

Among the most memorable places I’ve virtually toured have been the lesser-visited monastery in Jordan’s rose city of Petra with Jihad Abu Zahra, while Dilip Kumar took me to the remarkable Chand Baori stepwell, where The Dark Knight Rises movie was filmed, in India.

The Chand Baori stepwell

I’ve ridden horses and sailed in both Iceland and Egypt; been skiing with Patrick Twomey at Canada’s Lake Louise; been out on boats in South Africa; skated on frozen canals in Amsterdam; boarded a plane in Reykjavik and been up close with elephants thanks to Dilip Fernando in Pinnawala, Sri Lanka.

Samneang Ty at Ta Prohm

I’ve strolled under the blossom trees of Japan with Yusuke Hirayama; met the giant pandas in Chengdu with Jenny’s team; celebrated autumn solstice at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and toured the Ta Prohm ‘Tomb Raider’ temple with Samneang Ty; watched the African sardine run with Ashley Wormald.

Close to home on Birmingham’s canals

I’ve virtually walked the canal towpaths of Birmingham with the inspirational Ian Braisby, even though I live only 12 miles or so south of the UK’s Second City and have worked there for more years than I care to mention – and still learned something new.

There have been many, many other trips too numerous to mention and, other than the occasional technical glitch, pretty much all of them have been excellent. The fact that even now, with physical travel windows opening (albeit uncertainly with the new Omicron variant) I’m still heygoing says much.

Diamond Beach in Iceland

So thanks to all the guides, to John and Liam for dreaming the whole thing up, to Colleen for building the Facebook community and to the many travellers I meet online.

The platform has been a light in the darkness, especially when lockdown was at its most stringent, allowing us to see the world outside, our voluntary tip donations providing a helping hand to the guides and, perhaps most crucially, whetting our appetite for the real thing once we learn to live more normally in the Covid era.

Check out the latest Heygo tour calendar at www.heygo.com

  • All destination images are ‘postcard’ shots taken via the Heygo platform except the snowmobile picture, which is courtersy of Kola Extreme (www.kolatravel.com) with whom I travelled, and the mountain top portrait taken at the top of the Geiranger Skywalk in Norway.
Categories:Africa, Asia, Europe, Film & TV, heygo, Long haul, UK Breaks, USATags: ,

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