Diary for Gary & Trish


Buenos Aires at last!!!

2008-01-03 to 2008-01-04

 

Well, we have finally arrived in South America, and the enormous Buenos Aires. Its about 35 degrees and unfortunately both Trish and I are struggling to blend in due to unexpected and enthusiastic tans. Despite this I think I have slipped seemlessly into the travellers role, adapting to life on the road with a certain aplomb. Trish however thinks im bumbling around like a northern pillock with the observational skills of David Blunkett. We will see.

BA is  huge, colourful, chaotic, and completely enthralling. We paid a visit to the South American Explorers Club Clubhouse and met lots of enthusiastic yanks who immediately gave us the low down on where to go and more importantly where to eat. Fully armed we left and immediately sampled our first  parilla, traditional argentinian steak house. We followed this up with a splendid steak evening dinner.....with great wafts of smoke from the grill billowing down the street. mmm, and all for about 12 quid with beer.

Trish: Ok, so far so good. It´s hot, the hotel´s pretty tasty (though there´s no ac in the room which takes a bit of getting used to) and we´ve not yet been mugged, poisoned or broken up. We have done a fair bit of walking over the last 2 days. Probably more than I´ve done in the last year in England, but I´m a traveller now so I´m ok with that. Today we went to Eva Peron´s tomb in a massive necropolis in the Recoleta. Have to say it was pretty awe-inspiring. Huge tombs with altars inside and stairs leading down to all the family coffins. I tried to reserve one but they said my family was just too big, even by South American standards. We´ll try to work out how to download photos in the next couple of days.

Just as a footnote for the day, I´d like to let those of you who know me best that I did in fact smuggle into the country in my ´travellers´ backpack my ghd straighteners, 3 times the amount of tops I was ´allowed´ to bring, and lots of lovely creams and makeup. All I can say is, this travelling malarky is really not as hard as everybody says. xxx

 


Buenos Aires es muy muy caliente!!

2008-01-05 to 2008-01-07

Its nearly monday lunch time in BA, and forecasted to hit 40 degrees!, not sure any of the guide books suggested we would be in one of the hottest cities on earth this week!! We´ve had a tremendous few days exploring, and I cannot think of a better place to have started our travels. BA is probably the ultimate "chaps city", and whilst trying to keep it short here´s why... 

The ´budget´ hotel is wicked, right in the middle of everything worth seeing, the equivalent to a good 3 star in London for a fifth of the price. Taxis appear as if by magic wherever and whenever you need one and are cheap as chips. Beer comes in 1 litre bottles of fine local vintages for around US$2. Parillas (local steak restaurants) are everywhere, the good ones have huge grills, bustling atmospheres and serve up fantastic fat steaks and charge about $25 for two, including drinks, tip and your magic cab home. (The avenues criss-crossing BA are generally 4-8  lanes wide of one way traffic, one is ten lanes wide...with apparently no rules to how you drive on them, great fun if not a little scary). The city is fanatical about football, to the point that there are over 20,000 members of the church of Maradona! A behind the scenes visit to the sacred BOCA Juniors stadium sets you up nicely for a night of watching very fit BA ladies dancing the Tango in see through skirts and french knickers. What more need I say.

No one speaks English here which is really refreshing, and as a result I´m actually learning some Spanish. The city has felt extremely safe and welcoming although the immense suburbs surrounding  BA are a constant reminder of the scale and levels of poverty and popular unrest also present. At night hundreds of locals and street kids root through the city´s garbage collecting cardboard for what you can only imagine is miniscule reward. Nevertheless  I would love to stay here for weeks more but alas, the southern most town in the world is calling, and tomorrow we head for Ushuaia and Antarctica. 

Trish: The last few days have shown us the 2 extremes of BA, from malls with Tiffany & Co and Christian Dior to the areas surrounding the BOCA stadium where the people really have nothing and you´re not really advised to even walk through in the day. Obviously, we trudged back to town through these areas because Gary is ´bigger than most of these guys anyway´(!) but I had the same feeling of uneasiness as when I had to walk through the Bronx with someone, whose name I won`t mention, wearing a real fur coat. Gary insists it was full of character and compared it to a concrete Wild West, for me it was more like a very poor Caribbean backstreet. But, you know, it was fascinating and we have truly seen how the majority of people get by on next to nothing.

Yesterday was market day in San Telmo, the antiques district. We did another epic walk through all the markets in 37 degree heat and then headed for a beautiful Ecological Reserve past Puerto Madena, their ´Canary Wharf´ with converted warehouses and beautiful yachts. 2 hours after heading off for the reserve, we broke one of the primary rules of safe travel and bought 2 dirty burgers from a mobile Parilla. Gary then followed up with a dirty Chorizo from the next one. (24 hours later we are still alive). We eventually gave up on the Reserve... we got to within visual contact but had to turn back with exhaustion.

I have enjoyed our time in BA though I have at points felt a bit nervy. But what else can you expect from a city of 15 million people. It´s just unfamiliar. The parks are beautiful, and everywhere we go in the more affluent areas is fantastic. The people are friendly, street salesmen aren´t pushy, and they´re putting up rather well with our broken spanglish (which is improving daily). I feel quite at home here.

I remarked yesterday as we crawled back to our hotel for an afternoon nap (!) that maybe we shouldn´t waste time in our room, and Gary replied with an enormous knowledge of all things travelling that ´This isn´t a holiday, Trish, this is our life now´. Brilliant. I love it. 


If you`re passing through BA...

2008-01-08

 

We have been to some fantastic spots for food, mainly recommended by the wise folks at the South American Explorer`s Club Clubhouse. If you are planning to visit BA we can certainly recommend these eateries:

Los Cholas, our first parilla, in Las Canitas on the corner of Arce and Arevalo (roads). very cool area and great steaks, cost about $24 for two with beer.

El Trapiche, Rua Paraguay. Neighborhood grill, really Argentinian with a huge menu. Superb.

Cafe Tortoni, 2 doors from the Gran Hoptel Hispano (hhispano@hhispano.com.ar). Oldest traditional cafe in BA, great Russian salad and pokey whiskey ice cream.

La Cuartita, 937 Tucuman. Wicked pizza cafe covered with boxing and footy memorabilia. The best pizza we have ever had!! Trish, writing on 21/03/2010: PLEASE NOTE: it has been brought to my attention 2 years after we wrote this entry, by my dear nephew Steve who trawled the backstreets of BA in vain looking for this restaurant with his own travelling buddies, that we may have got this address wrong. He says it's actually 937 Talcahuano and it's called El Cuartito, not La Cuartita, which apparently is very important when you're dealing with the good people of beautiful Buenos Aires. As far as we know, the other names and addresses are accurate!

El Desnivel, Cheap and chearful steak house in San Telmo, really busy, huge cuts of meat off the grill, and about $14 per head.

If you`re not heading to BA, which is probably most people reading this, shame! Keep all the messages coming. Horrific first posting Rich.  We´re off to check out and fly somewhere a little cooler.

 

 


To the southern most town in the world

2008-01-08

 

Our last day in BA and another scorcher. We are sad to be leaving, although Trish has driven us round the city mercilessley to the point that her power walking has resulted in her suffering a minor leg strain. Highlights were definitely the cheap and tasty food, learning much more Spanish then expected, Tango, and the sheer size and contrast of this huge city. 

This contrast was certainly evident as we drove in a taxi to Jorge Newbury domestic airport,  first past mile after mile of concrete slums and suburbs before drivng along a pleasant waterfront with views out over the river plate. The airport was surprisingly modern and very chilled, which is more then can be said for the temperature on the plane before take off....even the air hostesses were sweating. Soon after take off things returned to normal and Trish was soon wrapped in her North Face jacket and asleep!!!!

As we approached Tierra Del Fuego the plane banked really sharply downwards plunging through dense white clouds then emerged above snow capped peaks and the splended Beagle channel. We dropped to a few hundred feet above the channel then did a dramatic 270 degree loop before landing on a concerningly short runway on a narrow spit of land surrounded by water. As far as landings go, this was pretty stunning, and we had arrived in Ushuaia the most southerly town on the planet.

It is 30 degrees cooler here and it immediately felt as though we had arrived in another country, a proper wilderness frontier town, albeit a large one with around 60,000 inhabitants I think. After 2 hours of baggage chaos, where several planes arrived with about 5 items of luggage between them,  including what looked like a large mess tin with some monkey nuts sat in a recess on the top and a bunch of baby mice inside!!, we took a taxi into town.

It wasn`t long before we were sat in our pre cruise hotel restaurant looking out over the channel and several sturdy looking cruise ships. It was completely light outside as we finished dinner at about 1130 pm!!!!! We were told by several people that very often many of the crew on Antarctic cruises spend the crossing of the Drake passage throwing up. And that the coldest ever recorded temperature in Antarctica was minus 89 degrees.

But at least we know the ships are unsinkable. 

 

 


Leaving Ushuaia, and the cruise begins...

2008-01-09

We had a full day to explore the world´s southern most town before departing. The weather was beautiful and the views out across the bay superb. We sighted the MS Andrea early in the dock and excitement began to build. We had time to walk around town and visit the Maritime museum which is set inside the old penal colony jail established in the late 19th century. Not a nice place to see out  your guilty years as you can see by the snaps.

At 4 we were picked up from the hotel along with an eclectic looking mix of cruise companions and bussed down to the dock, through various scanners, and onto the ship. The HM Andrea is regarded as a classic, with all its 1960s machinery etc still going strong (so we were informed). Our cabin turned out to be a smart little number although due to international law our portholes were closed. We were immediately up on deck and making friends, particularly with Tom and Leonara, a Croatian couple about our age who had been invited on the cruise by the Croatian owners to film a documentary. Tom works for Croatian national TV and they normally film extreme sports and diving!! Safe to say we became firm cruise buddies. We thrilled them with repeated tales of our one bungy jump and we patiently listened to their stories of sky diving, paragliding, cave diving, down hill mountain biking etc etc!!!

Two hours later and we are away, or taking off as Tom excitedly shouts. It takes about 5 hours to sail down the calm and beautiful Beagle Channel. Trish and I stay on deck with a few other hardy travellers determined to witness our arrival at the open sea and the ominous Drake passage. At 2 am the land slipped away, amazingly it was still light enough to see, and immediately the swell began to rise. Armed with lots of sea sickness tablets I strode confidently to bed, determined to show the O´Donnell / Wickenden doubters the true Iron nature of my constitution! 

Trish: We have chocolates put on our pillow at night. Yeh!!


The Drake Passage

2008-01-10

Trish: After much bravado up on deck as we waited to enter the Drake Passage, we spent nearly the whole night awake due it´s 25ft big rollers. No sickness, purely the fact it´s difficult to settle when your whole body is in motion. Hence we spent most of the next day asleep, not due to better conditions but pure exhaustion. The boat was still all over the place, and getting up and dressed was no mean feat, and I did begin to question Gary´s ìron constitution`. But while he collapsed in the cabin, I, at least, made it to the first ´lecture´ of the day, having fallen asleep on a sofa in the lounge and woken up surrounded by eager passengers waiting to learn about Whales. 

We have a team of experts on board...Our Whale and Seal Man is Sam (crazy Aussie), Penguins and general birds are covered by Frank (ex Corp Vice-President at Seaworld - built the first ever Penguin habitat in the world there - all round Penguin hero), Cecilia (an Ushuaia local) knows everything you need to know about invertebrates, and finally Damien, a fellow Brit with 100´s of Antarctic dives under his belt and an enormous knowledge of all things geological and historical. They´re all ace to be honest. They have awesome jobs and love the Antarctic. Our expedition leader is Stefan, big Swedish guy who wakes us in the mornings on the ship´s tannoy with ´Good Morning, good morning, good morning´ (except the day he was hungover when we got it in Swedish). He´s also in charge of waking us at stupid o clock should there be any whales on the radar. God help those whales if I´m warm and cosy when it happens.

The seas calmed late afternoon, the sun came out, Gary appeared, and all was well with the world. We had several Wandering Albatross and Giant Petrels following the boat dipping down to within an inch of the water to check there were no fish disturbed in our wake. After a lecture on Krill and it´s importance in the Antarctic food chain, our first Whales appeared...3 beautiful Humpbacks. I say ´beautiful´because someone told me they were... I was asleep again!

 

 

 


Penguins!!!

2008-01-11

Trish: Though we wake up to a heavy fog surrounding the ship, due to ´calm´ seas in the Drake Passage we are ahead of schedule and get to do a bonus landing today. So after an excellent Penguin lecture, we piled into 4 Zodiacs and set foot on `Aitch Island`, wellies and all. 

Let me just give you some Antarctic fashion details. Today, I am mostly wearing... Underwear (surprise!), 2 pairs of thermal leggings, 1 pair of combats, 1 pair of waterproof trousers, 2 pairs of thick walking socks, 2 long sleeved thermal tops, 1 Merino wool T-shirt, 1 Merino wool zip-up long sleeved top, 1 200weight fleece, a jacket, 2 pairs of gloves and an enormously stupid looking bobble hat. In fact, this is pretty much all of my christmas presents in one outfit, so thanks to all who chose so well! I can just about move still.

Anyway, back to the landing....Penguins, penguins and more penguins! 2 different types are nesting here. Gentoos and Chinstraps. And they nearly all have babies, which are very cute. One thing... they smell quite bad. They projectile defecate from their nests because they can´t leave their young when their mate is at sea feeding, and since all they really eat is Krill the whole place is covered in pink crap. Literally. 

We saw 2 elephant seals near where we landed then walked over a snowy bluff and found maybe 20 more. They were all adolescent males going through `catastrophic moult` which is where they lose their outer layer of skin in a 2 week period in order to become more waterproof. Tremendous.

After 2 1/2 hrs on shore my toes had turned to ice, but it really didn´t matter.  


Antarctic Sound. More Penguins.

2008-01-12

Trish: At 4.30am, we sailed through the Antarctic Sound, or Iceberg Alley. You´ll see from the photos that this was pretty cool and we didn´t hit one, which was a bonus. We´re really getting into the swing of it now, with 2 landings today...

Paulet Island. Proper Antarctic conditions here. Add to the previous clothing description my only other jumper, a green hoodie. Moving is now awkward. However, in the snow and cutting wind, we find over 90,000 breeding pairs of Adele penguins! Bless. Next to them is an enormous colony of Blue-eyed Shags (birds, in case anyone else like me had no idea), also with babies (yes, I know, `chicks`. But babies makes them sound cuter). And all these birds going through their daily chores as if we weren´t there. It´s really quite moving. We also saw here a shelter built from rocks which Captain Larsen (from the Nordenskjold expedition in 1903) and his crew spent an entire winter in after their ship sank in storms. We spent 2 1/2 hrs here and my fingers and toes nearly died. And this is Summer!

Both Gary and I took part in a highly educational interview here for Croatian National TV. Whilst Gary describes himself as a natural, I´m hoping they cut my stupid grinning face in that bobble hat. Lets hope no one in Croatia except Tom and Leonara speak English and then they can sub-title it with something worth hearing.

Brown Bluff. Our first continental landing. Better weather here, the sun came out and 2 self-described mentally ill Israeli guys went swimming! I focussed my photographic efforts on jumping Penguins (and men in pants). Many more Adele Penguins and babies here, that surely puts us at over a million by now.

After a Seal lecture, dinner again with the Croatians and I´m now being warned by Gary that although they speak great English, they may not get some of my British humour. Rubbish. They love the fact that I pretend I think that they are all gypsies who eat off the floor with their fingers and live in caves. They give as good as they get and, in fact, I´m thinking of moving to Croatia. 


Postcards from Antarctica

2008-01-13

Trish: Lectures this morning on Emperor Penguins with Frank and Seals with Sam. 2 more landings today, and we just can´t get enough of those Penguins!

Port Lockroy. An old British WWII base which now houses the only post office in Antarctica and, of course, more Penguins. Gentoos here, nesting under and around the building. I´m afraid I only sent 3, so you lucky people will know who you are in about 5 months when they finally work their way around the globe.

Neko Harbour. After an early dinner, the ship was anchored in this stunning bay named after Christian Salvesen´s floating factory ship - Neko. Here we had an enormous glacier face (100-150ft) slowly carving off (falling off in pieces) into the sea. We landed on a sandy beach, obviously filled with penguins (Gentoos, for those of you who are still keeping track), and waited for some dramatic crashes. All the able-bodies went for a trek up the mountain to get a better view, and it started to snow. How wonderfully perfect. I do hope you are all enjoying work.


Did we mention the Penguins?

2008-01-14

Trish: A clothing update for you all. I have now ditched a pair of gloves and my green hoodie, and feel substantially cooler. I´m adjusting well to the Antarctic.

First landing today was Dorian Bay where we find our first Weddell seal and of course use half a memory card up on it. It has been snowing all night and Antarctica looks all the more beautiful. Gary and I sat with Frank Todd, the Penguin guy, for over an hour just metres away from the seal and it just laid there not really doing very much. After this intensive learning hour we are now considerable experts in our own right and are thinking of publishing a paper. We then got a chance to go in an emergency shelter for those marooned in the Antarctic storms. Rations still intact from the 1970´s will, I think, still be there in the 2070´s since they looked pretty unappealing. We crossed paths with some British special forces guys training down here. No sign of Ross Kemp yet.

Back on the boat we have 4 Humpback Whales swimming next to us for quite some time, feeding and playing. And during lunch as always the obligatory Penguins float by on icebergs, closely followed today by a Leopard Seal also floating by. 

On through the Lemaire Channel to Petermann Island, where we and the Penguins were guests at the wedding of 2 crew members. What a cool place to get married. Tom and Leonara wanted us to get married for Croatian National TV, but unfortunately I didn´t feel my wellies and bobble hat were proper attire. This is the most southerly of our landings at 65 degrees 10 minutes South, 64 degrees 10 minutes West. Lots of Blue-eyed Shags, Gentoos, and Adeles. Another 2 1/2 to 3 hrs here, and we´re starting to show wear and tear. We are in semi-hibernation on the boat, barely waking for food and lectures. The whole ship has Antarctic Fever and all nationalities are deliriously sharing Penguin stories over dinner.

 

 


An Antarctic Swim!

2008-01-15

Trish: Last day of landings today before we set off back through the dreaded Drake Passage. First we stop at Hannah Point, which was Gary´s favourite stop but my worst. There were so many Elephant Seals undergoing their Catastrophic Moult and just hanging out with/on top of each other. They reaked. To high heaven. Sweating and farting and belching and crapping themselves (sorry, but it´s true). Of course they were all male adolescents. Elephant seals are now my least favorite seal, and I told them that everytime I had to walk past their accrid body odours. Gary felt right at home.

Then on to Deception Island and Walker Bay, an old Whaling Staition built on the shores of a collapsed Caldera. Because the volcano is still active, the earth is heated by thermal vents and the first foot of so of water is more Barbados than Antarctica. So, of course, we went swimming! Everyone was gathered around one part of the beach, so I ever so quietly stripped off and ran in off to the side before they knew it. Unfortunately, my brave idea of running out and diving 15 m or so offshore led to a severe headache as soon as my face touched the water. Turns out that after the first foot it really is the Antarctic again. Not to be outdone, Gary then had to also run out and dive in, and we were cruise heroes (The Israelis had already proved what they were made of). We got free drinks and most importantly, massive respect. Or was that pity.?!

After our dip we headed back towards the Drake Passage...

 


The Drakes Revenge!!

2008-01-16 to 2008-01-18

 

It seems only right that I should conclude this stunning and in depth account of our incredible visit to Antarctica. By this stage of the cruise my knowledge of the white continent was enormous, and my confidence at sea even greater. As we headed out into the swell of the Drake I laughed at those running for their tablets and instead strode to the bar, demanding strong lager and tales of the high seas.

As dinner was called however I lay in bed and shamefully watched Trish head upstairs. After 4 visits to the bathroom the entire contents of my stomach had departed via the route it had entered. Was this enough to satisfy the Sea sickness demon, oh no. I spent until 3am pretty much couching on the tiny bathroom floor feeling horrifically sick but with nothing left to give. Horrific.

The next day dawned however and I had survived, and was man enough to crawl out on deck and see Cape Horn drift past before sleeping till noon. I was not the only victim, but again the crew insisted it was  one of the calmest crossings!! We finished the trip with a captain´s farewell dinner docked in Ushuaia and spent our last night on board.

It´s impossible to sum up such an amazing visit to what is truly a remarkable place. Antarctica is so special because it is the only continent on earth where the human being is irrelevent, and that there are no large land predators. The result is a vast beautiful wilderness. A safe distance to these mammals and birds is 2 meters!!, unless curiosity gets the better of them!! We are priviliged indeed to have started our trip in such a place. 


The perils of hostels and camping

2008-01-18 to 2008-01-20

After a farewell dinner with our fine Croatian friends Tom and Leonara we headed off early on the 19th into Tierra Del Fuego National Park, the southern most NP on the planet, with the southern most road and campsite etc, etc....although our friend formally known as Mr Burton might have more accurate info? Despite one or two issues we managed to erect our tent in a tasty spot right on the edge of a lake with snow capped mountains behind....lovely. Our first camping trip. We took a steady 3 hour stride along some trails to warm up for our Patagonia trekking trip before settling in for the night with rabbits surrounding our tent and bizarrely lots of Red Kites (birds of prey) hopping around as we watched the sun set. At about 11pm however the local campers came alive, music fired up and grills were lit. We responded in true English fashion and fired up the Ipod and watched Paddy McGuinness live from Blackpool!! 

The next night was to be our first in a hostel, the Yakush in Ushuaia. Recommended,  it turned out to be very nice, we had a private room of course but bravely agreed to no private bathroom! All seemed to be going smoothly as we returned from dinner and I hit the bed and Trish courageously headed for the washrooms on her own. Minutes later I heard a distant thud, perhaps some young hippy after too many bongs? Seconds later the door burst open and a distraught Trish troops in and collapses on the floor holding her arm. It appears that she had mistakenly visited the washroom in hiking socks, inappropriate for the tiled corridor, and hit the deck with some style, and attracted several fellow hosteliers to ask of her well being in several languages. Well, as the song says....things can only get better!

Can I just add that unfortunately The Antarctic swimming picture does indeed cast me in a cruel light, I blame both the extreme cold and poor photography skills. We are expecting a much more complimentary shot to be emailed with which I will hopefully redeem myself and more accurately resemble the sleek Leopard seal as everyone was no doubt expecting.


Trekking in Beautiful Patagonia

2008-01-21 to 2008-01-25

A  5 hour delay in Ushuaia airport, par for the course here it seems, gave us the chance to fine tune our Su Do Ku and patience skills further before we jetted off to Patagonia. We landed at the stunningly located El Calafate airport, right on a green glacial lake in the Andean foothills, and were greeted with great relief by our mountain guide Pedro....who had been desperately trying to keep the other 5 members of our party entertained. We piled straight onto a bus and took off for El Chaltan, a climbing town 200km drive away across the Patagonian steppe in the mountains. 

Its not long before giant hunks of granite can be seen in the distance, Mount Fitz Roy is a giant 3500 meters high and the hightest peak in this part of the Andes. Cerro Torre is like a giant jagged spear and at 3100 meters renowned as one of the toughest summits in the world. They look stunning. We arrive in El Chaltan at about 10.00pm, a rugged little climbing/trekking place in the shadow of the Fitz Roy and Torre mountain ranges. After yet another great Pizza we hit the sack. It seems that I am certainly more excited then Trish about the impending 5 days trekking.

A bit of geography for anyone interested is probably relevent here. The Patagonian Andes receive as much precipitation as anywhere in the world brought by winds from the Pacific that rise over Chile. The result is the world´s 3rd largest ice field running about 350km north to south, and 100km at its widest. Only the tips of peaks break its surface. The mountains we would be trekking around mark the eastern wall of this ice cap, and huge Glaciars spill from it all the way down Patagonia...

Our guide Pedro sets us off at 10.00am on Tuesday morning on our "warm up day". He certainly looks the part, not an ounce of fat on him. He soon points out a vast granite rock just under 3000m meters he has recently climbed to assure us of his credentials. We are trekking with 3 ladies from the US and Mona and Sara (who is 5 months pregnant!!), a little younger then me, from San Francisco. The group would suggest that the trip would be relatively easy, although we soon learnt that the two girls did triathlons and marathons and the 3 more experienced ladies would visit the gym everyday and all trekked regularly....still, how hard could it be. We walked through forests and flat glacial valleys for a few hours before climbing up through morraine and boulder fields to a glacial lake for lunch. It was surprisingly hot, and after 5 hours I knew my hastily applied sun block was too late. As we began our decent from the lake, we began to realize that our lodge was at least another 4 hours away. 8 and a half hours into the trek and all was not well. The group was strung out along the trail and heads had dropped. As the 9 hour mark past Trish turned and glowered at me declaring this was now the worst day of her life and that trekking was for idiots! (little did she realize!!!). We all fell into the lodge after nearly 10 hours. Dinner was a shocked affair with everyone exhausted and desperately trying to replace lost calories.

Day 2 dawned with not a cloud in sight. Pedro was skipping around outside fresh as a daisy , announced that day 2 would be a much more strenuous affair with a tough 400 meter climb as its highlight. Trish gave me a look that spoke volumes and reminded me who chose this trip! The trail would through beautiful scenery with giant granite peaks right above us. After 3 hours we arrived at a lovely campsite at the foot of a steep looking peak. after a snack we began our ascent. I loved it, steep enough that you nearly needed to use your hands all the way up. It was about 90 degrees to boot. Trish and I set the pace and after less then an hour we reached the top. We were perched on the edge of one glacial lake to the right, and another a severel few hundred meters drop to the left, each with a mountain Glaciar above it. One of the most amazing places I have been. 3 Condors soaring just above us on thermals were the icing on the cake. Even Trish looked pleased. This pleasure soon vanished as we then made the difficult decent and a further 3 hour trek to our campsite by Lake Capri, where we had a wonderful swim in the icy glacial lake. The only dampner on this stunning day was the swarms of giant flies brought out by the freakish hot weather

Day 3 was to be an easier affair, but how wrong could Pedro have been? The first to feel a little off were Mona and Sara, and as the temperature soared by midday they were physically very sick. We arrived at a lovely forest  campsite by early afternoon and Virginia was looking decidedly pale. Only myself, Jacqui and Sherry set off with Pedro on the optional off trail forest climb, Trish opting for an afternoon of leisure. Worryingly Jacqui declared she felt a little iffy as we began our climb. We finally emerged from the boulder strewn forest hillside after a great climb onto a huge morraine surrounding Laguna Torre and the large Torre Glaciar. Two very different things happened at this point, Pedro excitedly handed me his powerful binoculars to whow me two astonishing tiny black dots just short of the summit on Torre, and Jackie is overwhelmed by the dreaded lergy. We headed down quickly to find Virginia is indeed also very ill. Trish however has had a lovely afternoon dozing, plucking her eyebrows!!!!, and watching Frasier in our tent. It turns out that other trekkers are also ill, and that the unusually high temperatures have allowed some bacteria to grow in Capri lake that we swam in, but most people also filled their water bottles in. The mountain rivers and lakes are normally full of the coldest purest water you can Imagine. Only Trish, myself Pedro and Sherry manage Dinner. Sherry enters the dinner tent and brilliantly declares "its like a field hospital out there!"

The final Trek starts at 7am and we are up at sunrise.......although concerningly Trish declares her normally Iron constituition is not as it should be. Only me and Trish head out with Pedro, back up to the lake and then traverse the Fitz Roy river suspended in a harness from ropes. Great fun. We then traverse across a very steep mountain side, across a vast landslide using guide roped, abnd then descend about 100m onto the Torre Glaciar. Crampons on, we follow Pedro along crevass edges and up and down  impossible gradients....these crampon things are wicked. Next thing Pedro pulls out 2 ice axes and we are ice climbing up 50 foot cravess walls. Great stuff. After two hours we begin our climb out of the Glaciar, with even Pedro feeling ill and Trish´s condition deteriorating dramatically..... by the time we get back to camp at 1 she is asleep on her feet and immediately hits the deck. Unfortunately we still have another 3 hours trek back to El Chaltan in the blazing heat. All I can say that it was a sad, forlorn figure stumbling behing me and Pedro, pitifully soaking her hat at each stream, and murmuring in a feverous way about not been able to make it, but still refusing to be sick. Finally, after nearly nine hours we dropped down into town and had a glorious shower before taking the last bus 3 hours back to El Calafate!!

The whole trekking experience was unbelievable, far tougher then we ever imagined, with awesome mountains and Glaciars and a real test in the heat. I had the time of my life, Trish however is far from converted. Our guide Pedro was a legend, he never complained, didnt panic when the plague struck, and just loved the mountains of his home and wanted everyone to enjoy them with him. Muchas Gracias Pedro! 

Trish: On reflection, now that I feel human again, it was a great experience. The views were stunning and as usual we met some really cool people. But, really, trekking is not for me. Next time we´ve agreed that Gary can go on ridiculously hard trekking trips into the mountains as long as I have a spa hotel to luxuriate in at the base!

Pedro was a real star, and I cannot recommend him highly enough as a guide. We now know he has his own trekking company, which I´m sure would be a lot more organised and cheaper than going through an overseas tour company as we did. If anyone is ever interested in the Patagonia experience, his contact details are: info@pedrofina.com.ar and www.pedrofina.com.ar

 


The Perito Moreno Glaciar

2008-01-26

After a late farewell dinner with Pedro in El Calafate we were up at 6am ready for a trip to the moreno Galciar. Everyone looked shattered! This is a giant, some 30km long, and over 300 feet deep, edging down from the ice cap near El Calafate at 2 meters per day into a vast lake. This is also one of the few big glaciars that is not shrinking as it get enough snow fall in the mountains to counter warming down at the lake. The glaciar periodically reaches the far side of the lake effectively cutting it in half. This cuts off the water supply to the right side of the lake which drops to 5m below the other. The resulting immense pressure eventually forces a hole and eventually ruptures in dramatic style. It is as a result much more commercially developed and we join dozens of others wearing basic crampons to troop around the glaciars edge, as opposed to the enormous glaciar we had to ourselves yesterday(!), although it`s still an incredible experience. Finally we go to a view point where the glaciar reaches the far shore. From here the true scale of this monster can be seen and we watch and listen fascinated by big chunks of ice groaning and creaking then crashing into the lake. 

 El Calafate is a great alpine sort of town with a great vibe and cool bars and restaurants.  That night we have a farewell dinner with our intrepid if not exhausted trekking buddies (Trish: who are all off for another week in Chile - crazy fools!), with a list of free places to stay when we visit the States and some amazing memories.


Buenos Aires to Iguazu

2008-01-27 to 2008-01-31

Trish: As we fly into Buenos Aires for the 2nd time, it feels like coming home. This massive, sprawling city of 15 million+ seems even bigger after the Patagonian frontier towns we have left behind. After checking back in to the brilliant Gran Hotel Hispano we sat back and chilled for a day and a half, even managing to take in a flick (AvP2 - if you haven´t already, don´t bother!). Having sent some cold weather gear home, our packs are back down to 18 kilos, which apparently is still not light enough...No, Gary, I cannot send any of my 15 tops home!!!!

So, onwards to Iguazu Falls and another awesome landing where I´m 99% sure the pilot is too low on approach and we are going to end up in the treetops. Luckily, I am wrong (imagine!) and we land at the smallest airport in the world with nowhere to stay. A local bus later into the smallest town in the world, and some extensive walking with backpacks and we found ´Los Helechos´, $40 for a private room, our own bathroom, no a/c, and several gecko friends. Straight onto more local buses and into the National Park of Iguazu Falls. It doesn´t disappoint. The Falls are amazing. Our first sighting is of the´Garganta do Diablo´- Devil´s Throat - and it´s like an enormous plughole. The upspray alone gets you soaked and the sheer volume of water, 7000 cubic meters per second, is unbelievable. It is 100 times more beautiful than Victoria Falls. 

Our 2nd day in the National Park is a bit more hectic. We walk every walk, climb every observation deck, motorboat into a couple of the falls, and as you can see, took photos of everything. The Falls get more beautiful with each sighting, and the park is enormous due to the fact that there are 274 individual falls which make up the whole Iguazu experience. A rainstorm halted play just after lunch, which suited us fine since we were shattered. We never did find a Toucan or a Jaguar, but we did get harassed by hungry Coatis and rather spectacularly Gary was stung by a wasp!

For those of you thinking of going to Iguazu, don´t expect much from the town (Puerto Iguazu) on the Argentinian side. It´s not even lively enough for tumbleweed. But it´s a means to an end and I recommend Iguazu Falls to you all.

Today we took a local bus from Argentina to Brazil, which was an experience in itself. In spite of having to leave our luggage on a bus full of scroats while we had our visa´s stamped at border control in Argentina, we were reunited only to be dumped along with all the other Gringos at Brazilian Border control. No signs, no buses, just a dusty road leading to Foz D´Iguacu, a slight contrast to Puerto Iguazu with 250,000 people in residence. A dirty concrete jungle where the people are actually extremely helpful even though our Spanish attempts have been thwarted by the fact that they speak Portugese.

Having now conquered our ignorance of the local bus system, we whipped straight off to the Itaipu Dam, the biggest hydroelectric dam in the world. It´s 9km long, and 200m high. The concrete used in it´s construction would have been enough to build a 2 lane highway from Moscow to Lisbon, and it provides 25% of Brazil´s electricity needs and 90% of Paraguay´s. It is pretty impressive, and as we drove over it we crossed into Paraguay which means we can cross that off the ´countrys visited´ list! Bonus.

Tomorrow we´re off to the jungle at last to find that elusive Toucan...

  


Does anyone here speak English?

2008-02-01 to 2008-02-02

 

Alarm call at 0430 and we left the excellent Hotel Del Rey in Foz and boarded our flight to Sao Paulo. A quick change around here and off again to Manaus, in the heart of Amazonia, and bizarely 2 hours behind Foz. Pretty exciting landing into Manaus surrounded by forest. We were met in the departures lounge by Francisco, a small local chap who immediately shook his head at our complete lack of Portuguese and hearded us into the back of a very old white VW camper van. We drove down a long and chaotic street through a large and fairly uninviting Manaus. Big, hot, ugly with too many people and cars pretty much sums up first impressions. We arrived at the Docks in the early afternoon. Apart from  the rambling Mercedes trucks dumping goods and piles of modern  litter at the waters edge it resembled a scene from the 1800s. Sinewy powerfful dockworkers carrying immense loads of everything you can imagine on their shoulders across wooden planks onto brightly coloured Amazon river boats.  Two flat barges were laden with tons of bricks, sacks, fridges, everything loaded by hand. Loads of large black vultures hovered around. It soon became apparent that no one here spoke any English. We headed up a plank onto the Princess Laura, and after much pointing were led up 2 sets of stairs to the top deck, and amazingly shown our private cabin with bunk beds, en suite and even a/c!! Not luxury but saved us from hanging from a hammock on the bottom deck. Just after 6pm, after hours of Trish entertaining local kids with her pronunciations of Portuguese words and photos of her cats dressed up at Christmas (Trish: Go on Tiggy, enormous breaker of language barriers!), we sailed out onto the mighty Rio Negro, the sun set and the top deck of the Laura turned into the entertainments lounge. We were immediately befriended by Louis, who thankfully was heading to the same reserve as us and spoke Spanish, Never have we been so pleased to meet someone who spoke Spanish. Enough to say that whatever we wanted he could get!! Soon he was asking if we knew his favourite singers, Freddie Mercury, Patrick Swayze, Eric Clapton and Aha. Immediately these were blaring out of a huge speaker and we sang with the locals before escaping to our Cabin.

We woke the next morning to find beautiful dense forest drifting past on either side as we navigated the sometimes narrow and then vast waterways of the Rio Negro, some bits several miles wide, we were finally sailing up the mighty Amazon! Unbelievable. After several hours we were dumped on a small floating platform with pigs, chickens, oil drums and a couple of non-english speaking locals.We said our farewells to the Laura, and Trish to her troop of young girl followers, and half our later boarded a long dug out canoe with a fat motor. Our new man was Gerardo, and soon he was powering us, our packs, a watermelon, 2 dozen eggs and a crate full of beer and meat up the Jauperi river, a tributory of the Negro. A truly awesome experience, so low in the water with Jungle flashing by on either side. The stresses of the docks in Manaus long forgotten. After 3 hours we pulled off the main water way past a lovely beach and pulled up to a  wooden floating dock. Here two women sat gutting and scaling piranha watched by a large Caiman just feet away....fantastic.

Soon we were shaking hands with Chris Clark, founder of the Xixuau Xiparina Reserve and the Amazonia Organization, and his good mate Dave! It should be said at this point that Trish and I really didn´t know what to expect from this visit to the rainforest, it was a boyhood dream of mine but our expectations were definitely in check. Little did we realize how lucky and truly brilliant our choice of reserve would prove to be been. Our home in the amazon was a large round maloca, traditional Indian dwelling in a beautiful setting overlooking the xixuau river surrounded by untouched rainforest. Chris Clark was first lucky enough to travel here in the mid 1980s, and just could not stop going back. After several years his friendhip with the local village was such that they asked if there was anyway he could help them as they had no infrastructure, medical assistance, and commercial fishing etc from Manaus was destroying their way of life. The result is a stunning reserve of 1720 sq km, soon to be much greater hopefully, run by an organisation set up by Chris with the help of some friends. Some 120 people live in the village across from the reserve surrounded by a now beautifully protected forest.

After bombarding poor Chris with questions we met our guide, Zezinho and he immediately took us out for a night canoe along the river. Absolutely stunning stuff. Drifting along in dead silence under a sky so full of stars occasionally flicking on our torches to pick out eyes in the forest. Trishs super torch (Trish: Thanks, Pat - a great choice) soon spots some and seconds later we are literally 3 feet from a submerged Caimen about 8 feet long looking none too pleased at being disturbed. 2 hours later we are back in our hut listening to the incredibly loud sounds of the forest all around and the Possum in the organic bin in the kitchen. Despite Chris´s advice that there are no mozzys here, we tucked ourselves safely up under our Mozzy net. Little defence this will be however from the 3 Boa constrictors, 2 of which we have already seen, who prowl the palm tree branches that make up our roof, preying on the dozens of bats that make their home here! What a day!!!!

 

 


XIXUAU XIPARINA RESERVA. Paradise in the Amazon

2008-02-03

We woke to a fabulous dawn chorus, led by the astonishingly loud Howler Monkeys who sounded like they must be sat outside our door, who were supported by a host of  birds and insects and bats returning from a nights hunting. After a lively cold shower and a tasty breakfast we headed out once more with Zezinho.

Almost immediately we had several river dolphins swimming around our canoe, surfacing to breathe but damn difficult to photograph. Suddenly Zezinho pointed enthusiastically forward and we saw several Giant Otters swimming towards us. Next they began to periscope out of the water revealing their bright individually marked chests before breaking into a startling range of coughs, grunts and snorts of alarm and headed off up river. We rounded a corner to see Dave and his guide Mambeechi fishing, just in time in fact to see a fish leap off Dave´s hook as he tried to land it in the canoe. We followed the incredibly peaceful meandering river further and soon encountered another Giant Otter family, this time on the bank. They vanished but we waited in silence for about ten mins and soon they emerged again, this time in the water, barking and whistling at us. Zezinho explained their holt (nest) was nearby. We explored further along the river then headed back. As we past the nest site again we really had to pinch ourselves, the whole family were sat on the river bank just staring at us. The alpha male and female are easily 6 feet long and magnificent. Soon their alarm calls sound and they disappear once more.

After a fantastic lunch of pasta, rice, and freshly grilled pacu and piranha we canoe to the beach with Chris and Dave. Its a fabulous setting, a large exposed sand bank in the middle of the river surrounded by forest. After a lovely swim in the warm water we sit and drink a jug of caipirinha, A type of brazilian rum called caçasa with sugar and lemon, and pokey, before charging back as a dramatic looking storm appears from nowhere.

We found out that the Possum that got in the bin last night had a sad fate. This morning, it was chucked into the river as a means of ´giving it a fright so it doesn´t do it again´, only to have a big Caiman appear from under the floating dock and crunch it up. Poor Possum. I guess it won´t do it again.

We aim more questions at Chris at dinner, The reserve by the way can accomodate around 20 guests but Trish and I are incredibly lucky to have it to ourselves for our first 4 days!! Chris has had most of the major documentary channels here filming, and its the best place in the amazon to see Giant Otters, as well as having a tremandous wealth of birds and fish, attracting some serious fishermen who turn up with thousands of dollars of equipment and still fail to out fish the locals who use a hooked line wrapped around a beer can and spears. Some of the catfish can weigh 70 kilos. Dave is a regular visitor who now spends several weeks a year here to avoid the English winter and will front the English arm of the organization. Fondly nicknamed Uncle Dave by the locals.

Our first full day in the Reserve, and what a belter!


Our First Jungle Trek

2008-02-04

Scrambled egg for breakfast and then we canoe up river to start a forest trek. The forest is as dense as you imagine, with the forest floor covered in leaves and fallen trees. The Canopy is dense and really does cut out a lot of light. Although it´s fairly humid and hot it´s far more pleasant then we expected, certainly far less oppressive then at Iguaçu. Unsurprisingly Trish is soon perspiring pleasantly but I push on like someone from a Sure advert!  Zezinho leads wielding a 2 foot machete. Its very difficult to find animals whilst walking this way, especially with 2 westerners clattering through the under growth, but we are eventually rewarded with a troop of squirrel monkeys.

Back for lunch and then siesta, which is the pattern of life here. It´s such a chilled out place. After a couple of beers with lunch we have an hours nap then read until about  three thirty before heading out for another canoe trip, this time winding our way through narrow channels and flooded forest, ducking under fallen trees. We catch site of our first stingray. Another spot of geography, the Amazon actually used to run west into a giant gulf and then the pacific ocean. When the Andes sprang up 20 million years ago this initally formed an inland sea which slowly turned to fresh water and the species trapped there evolved. Finally the mighty river pushed its way east to the Atlantic.

(Trish: whilst having lunch the big caiman climbed into one of our canoes after a fish which had been left behind. It sank pretty quick and the locals had to retreive the canoe from the bottom! Go on the Croc!)

We spend the evening sat on the decking drinking Caçasa and chatting. Chris explains that he is very close to extending the reserve to cover an area of about 1.3 million acres, and that this all should be protected by  next year. Fantastic achievement for a chap originally from Scotland!  

Trish: Possum update. The one that got in the bin last night (obviously hadn´t heard about his mate´s end) managed to swim to shore this morning after being unceremoniously thrown in. Let´s hope he learns his lesson before the Caiman gets clever.


Village Visit and a night in the forest

2008-02-05 to 2008-02-07

We started the day with a canoe trip across the lake to the village, where Chris has an office with the internet. We were soon surrounded by the village children who insisted on giving us a guided tour. They now have a school with lessons each morning. They show us with great enthusiasm the various herb gardens etc and alarmingly set about chopping up fresh Brazil nut pods with machetes! Trish is unable to walk anywhere without 2 young characters holding her hand.

Next ít´s my turn to learn to paddle, perched in the front of a wooden canoe with Trish acting as ballast and of course my lovely forest companion. We wobble off down a narrow river and find negotiating fallen trees etc harder then it looks. Trish is soon complaining, demanding to see wildlife immediately (Trish: Not complaining, pointing out that 1) Zezinho never got us wedged between trees, 2) Gary paddles as if he´s the only one in the canoe and hence I get hit by branches from all angles, and 3) the only wildlife we saw due to Gary´s noisy paddling was a Caiman which he then wouldn´t take me anywhere near to in case it jumped in the canoe and ate us). I´m glad to get us back to the village in one piece.

After a big lunch time storm I opt to miss out on the afternoon canoe trip, Trish enthusiastically points at pictures of Giant Otters and heads out with Zezinho. The sun comes out for a while so I nab Dave´s canoe and paddle to the beach. Almost immediately on arrival big clouds appear, I head back, stopping to watch a troop of Squirrel monkeys before getting back before the heavens open. An hour later a very wet and very cold Patricia returns with not an otter in sight.

The next day we head off in 2 canoes with Zezinho and Isaac joining us with supplies for a night camping in the forest. As we prepare, I get Trish´s waterproof jacket off a hook and gasp to find a healthy looking brown tarantula clung to it. (Trish: Horrific, I´m just glad I didn´t grab it when I went out in the canoe yesterday. I´m pretty sure in the resulting freaking out I would have upended the canoe and me and Zezinho would have got even wetter than we did!) We have a 4 hour canoe journey to get there with fishing stops to catch our lunch! The first of these is resounding failure. We stop and Zezinho confidently hands me a small rod with a worm already squirming on the hook. He is unaware that the entirity of my fishing experience was half a day in the Florida Keys. Trish with as usual a little more technical knowledge also has a go, but after half an hour we all fail and head off. The second stop is a resounding success and very amusing. I Immediately pull in two handsome looking green fish about ten inches long. Trish then battles bravely before landing a rare and much prized branch!! Finally Trish launches an almighty cast that sails out over an overhanging branch and in the ensuing chaos has to be retrieved by Zezinho and Trish stood precariously on either end of the canoe. This signals the end of the fishing, but with Zezinhos help we have 7 fine looking specimens.

We arrive at camp to find Isaac has spread a big tarpaulin over tree stumps and has a fire going. Our hammocks are hung beneath the tarp. Next our fish are placed on a grill made of sticks and soon we are eating a fantastic lunch of boiled rice with peppers and tomatoes with our beautiful grilled fish straight from the river....awesome. Then the rain comes, a torrential downpour that lasts through into the evening. At 8pm it´s stopped enough to allow us another night canoe, great stuff although I get stung by an awful night wasp, confirming my hatred of this awful pointless species. We fall asleep about 10pm in our hammocks but I wake about midnight really cold. I grope around in the dark for my jacket, but can´t find it and huddled under another t shirt listen to the sounds of the forest, finally sleeping until dawn. Dawn infact reveals Trish cocooned in her hammock with all of her clothes and most of mine including my jacket wrapped around her. Bless.

We enjoy another jungle walk in the morning, Zezinho coaxing some kind of large bird in with odd sucking noises. On our way back in the canoe we stumble on another family of giant otters and follow them along a narrow channel. We canoe under a really low fallen tree, requiring us to limbo beneath it. As i slip under second we here a cry from the back of the canoe, " ARAGNA..SPIDER!!!". A big black tarantula is clinging to the underneath of the tree, and Trish refuses to go under. We paddle back until I dip just under it, and then the otters re-appear and Trish bravely shouts onward, sending me back under the spider before bravely making it herself. (Trish: Horrific again. It was bigger than my hand. I thought the jungle would cure me of my fear of spiders but alas I think it has made me worse)

As we head back to camp we pass 3 canoes heading our way with some amusing looking westerners wearing white hats on board. It looks like a scene from 1920s Africa. Later that afternoon we meet Malcolm, an old friend of Chris´ and his friends from Paris, Italy and Israel, and Torben, a lively Dane here to do some fishing.

Trish: Off to the beach again after lunch, and we finally see a stingray sat in the shallows, thus proving us correct in shuffling around like idiots so as not to stepon one when we get in. The water is so hot that it´s more like sitting in a bath. Beautiful. Dinner is a much noisier affair than we are used to, and ends with the entire group sprawled out on the walkway to the dock counting shooting stars.


Trish´s 27 1/2 Jungle Birthday

2008-02-08 to 2008-02-09

Trish: Really long canoe ride this morning where we first hear then see the noisy Howlers. It´s amazing that these massive animals live in the tree tops. Looking at our photos, you can see how strong and long their tails are. Incredible. Later we see a Saki Monkey (black hairy fellow) and some Capuchins, but they´re too far off/small to photograph.

Just after we got back the heavens opened, and twently minutes through the downpour a sorry bunch of French, American and Israeli canoeists arrive back from their trip to the beach! Luckily, Caipirinha was on hand and everybody except me got set on becoming well and truly rat-arsed. In celebration of my birthday (well, we needed an excuse for a cake-fix), we were made a massive and delicious pineapple-upside-down cake and I was serenaded with Happy Birthday in more languages than I can remember. Later, whilst half the group withered and crawled back to bed and the other half sang the Danish National Anthem lead by a very animated Torvin, I took my favourite photo of the yellow boa eating a bat. A tremendous David Attenborough moment only appreciated more by me and the guides when a stones throw to the right Gary, Malcolm, Chris and Torben started crooning ´Sitting on the Dock of the Bay´. 

The next morning, after a sleepless few hours listening to Torben sleepmarch around his room next door, falling over anything and everything in his way and swearing in Danish (to his great disbelief and amusement when we told him!), it was a sad breakfast. We packed up our rucksacks and went out for one final canoe with Zezinho before preparing to set off after lunch for an overnight boat-trip to Manaus, this time in hammocks on the lower deck. But then we got a huge reprieve when one of the ladies asks us why we don´t just go back on the return journey of the 12 hr motorboat bringing in a bunch of Italians and Brazilians tonight. So we got a bonus day in our jungle paradise, chilling and watching the world and the Caimans go by.

The only canoeing today for me was after dinner with Isaak and Michelle. But what a way to finish. His keen eyes found us 4 croaking bullfrogs, a big Caiman, a rodent of some sort weeing into the river from a branch (!), and a ´Fer de Lance´, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. All this and under the most amazing starlit sky I have ever seen.

Tonight we slept in a one room Maloca with Dave and Chris swaying in their hammocks outside. Very Waltons. The Italians arrive at 4am and shatter the peace, but at least we won´t be around to witness the speedos and´Ciao-Baby´s´ (that one´s for you, Dave!).


Farewell Xixuau

2008-02-10 to 2008-02-11

It is with heavy hearts that we say our fond farewells and board the `luxury` fast boat back to Manaus. Michelle was to come with us as she needed to visit her sister in New York urgently. It does however turn out to be a wonderful journey, despite us hitting a sandbank in the first ten minutes which resulted in 40 minutes of repairs. Once underway we climbed on the roof and sunbathed watching the Amazon forest drift past on either side. After lunch and Siesta and a fuel stop its back uptop to watch our last sunset in the Amazon forest.

We are sad indeed to be leaving such a wonderful reserve in the heart of extraordinary Amazonia. Its impossible to describe how vast the rivers are, and how beautiful the forest. We were so lucky and very priviliged to have chosen Xixuau, with its incredible flora and fauna, great people and wonderful chilled atmpsphere. We certainly didn´t want to leave and will definitely return. A huge thankyou to Chris and the people of the reserve. If anyone is lucky enough to visit the amazon we cannot imagine a better way to experience the rainforest. Contact Chris Clark at xixuauxiparina@hotmail.com .

Returning to Manaus was a real culture shock, a crazy city port in the heart of the Amazon with nearly 2 million inhabitants! We arrived at 10pm and thankfully Fransisco was there to meet us in his trusty Camper. We had opted for a cheap and chearful hotel, and we certainly got cheap, about US$25. Seedy is more accurate then cheerful. We do however enjoy exploring Manaus the next day. The city is congested and very poor, with some lovely old architecture from the early 1900s still evident but in a mess. The one gem remaining is the wonderful Theatre Amazonas. This opera house was built following the rubber boom which saw Manaus form as a wealthy port of 4000 English and French speaking rubber tycoons. It is constructed with the finest marble, wood, and iron that could be imported from Europe at great cost. The rest of Manaus is unfortunately dirty and sad, as more and more people come here for a life in slums with few opportunities. The British built floating docks are interesting and provide a vibrant, colourful scene for anyone visiting, but to some up Manaus, for a city of 2 million there is one nice bar!  


Rio De Janeiro

2008-02-12 to 2008-02-15

We survived another rainy day in Manaus  pottering around the markets and  docks. It has to be said these are fascinating, colourful and bustling with life and characters....surrounded by run down buildings and poverty. Finally on Wednesday it was time to leave....getting a local bus from the chaotic bus station was an adventure in itself but finally we were away.

It turns out that we have landed another belter on the accommodation front. The Arpoador inn is a wicked little hotel right on the surfers end of Ipanema, and the only hotel without a road between it and the stunning beach. Our plan was to stay for 3 days in Rio, but after taking a walk along the beach we quickly changed this to 9 days,  struck a deal with the hotel, and hit the beach. Again we were in luck as waves up to 12 feet high were rolling in. I have never been on a beach as interesting as Ipanema. Loads of stunning birds (sorry ladies), people selling everything you can imagine, people doing weights, power walking, dogs wearing shoes! Awesome stuff. We found out later that thay have had nearly 3 weeks of rain here, even through Carnaval...but now we are due a week of 30 degrees and sunshine....

Ipamema is a stunning place, the place to live in Rio. Tasty restaurants, tree lined avenues with loads of bars, nestled between the ocean, mountains and a lake. Copacabana is more commercialised and pretty seedy, although still spectacular, with a 3 mile beach and the greatest concentration of people in the world, 25,000 per each square km. Busy to say the least.  We spent the first 2 days exploring, chilling on the beach and trying not to spend too much money on cold beer and food, Ipanema is not cheap.


Clubbing in Lapa & Maracana madness

2008-02-16 to 2008-02-18

 

A big weekend in stunning Rio. We started Saturday with more attempted body surfing in glorious 30 degrees on Ipanema beach, harder than it looks. We then headed out excitedly to meet our pal Alex who we met in Antarctica. A young lad like me, Alex is working on a contract in Rio and fortunately has rented a pad in Ipanema.

We met in a bar and fired down some small cold draught beers (choppes), in Brazil you drink small beers ice cold, a new one in place as soon as the waiter decides your current one has dropped from the ideal temperature.....awful approach but when in Rome and all!!!!! We then wobbled our way to a steak house and met his mate Kwok, from Brisbane, a fit brazilian lady called Flavia!,  and had a load of meat cooked at our table and a raft more ice cold beer before piling in a cab and heading to Rios new cool clubbing capital, Lapa. Turned out to be loads of fantastic bars set in big old mansion houses from the early 1900s, with a real street party atmosphere. We went to a tremendous club, Rio Scenarium,  a vast Antique shop by day and a beautiful venue on 4 floors by night, complete with a full Brazilian Jazz band in one room, a wicked chill out bar surrounded by Antique clocks etc, and a vast Samba room. All I can say is to every guy now lucky enough to have a loving partner.....disaster, and to all those still single, get your ass to Rio before its too late. Never have I seen a room with so many stunning, and happy  ladies (and probably guys), great music as well. Great stuff and a truly fine evening. And to all Alex`s buddies, yes the English are very funny and we did produce Benny Hill!!!!

No time to worry about hangovers the next morning as we piled into a coach and headed for the legendary Maracana stadium, Rios great shrine to Football. Built for the 1950 something world cup final when Brazil lost to Uruguay in front of 200,000!!!!, and were the same number watched Pele play his last game. Lady luck continues to shine on our fine trip as we get the chance to see Rios two biggest teams, Flamengo and Vasco De Gama battle it out. It`s chaos on the way to the ground, but nothing compared to the madnss inside. It`s not full, probably about 80,000, the capacity is now 100,000 seating but the atmosphere is astonishing. We find ourselves in the midst of about 30,000 fanatical Vasco fans  singing and bouncing like mad, facing about 50,000 from Flamengo. Cannot compare it to any game in England, not even a Yorkshire derby at the KC. Unbelieveble....we become immediate  die hard Vasco fans to ensure our own safety. The roar when Edmundo trudges onto the pitch is immense, but still does not prepare us for when Vasco bang in the opener after about 30 mins. Beer and clothes, shades, kids, are thrown everywhere, people diving over seats, rolling on the floor, whacking us round the head with Vasco shirts, brilliant.(check out the movies with volume).  Desolation is soon to follow however, as Flamengo score right on half time and then at the start of the second. We wonder for a while whether we will leave alive.  Brazilian football fans are mad, but it`s just another excuse to party really. As we left the ground hordes of fans took to the streets, but instead of fighting they were dancing, stopping traffic and putting moves together. 

Rio is such a contrast, without doubt the most beautiful setting of any city I have yet seen. The people are party mad, every street has bars with people drinking outside, music everywhere, and everyone seems happy, a definite high on life. However, the longer we stay  the more we here stories of atrocities in the Favellas. Whist in the restaurant on saturday a waiter told us in a very matter of fact way that military police whilst storming into a favella after drug gang leaders shot dead an eleven year old girl amongst others! Apparently the gang leaders arm young kids who will sometimes shoot the police in the back, so they take no chances!! For such a corrupt country it`s incredible that the people have such an amazing attitude to life.


Christ, Hang Gliding and a new tattoo!

2008-02-19 to 2008-02-21

Trish: Hola mis amigos! Feels like a while since I wrote an entry, but Gary has left me the honour of finishing our Rio tale. He has waxed lyrical enough about how great the beaches and people are so I´ll just tell you how we filled our last 3 days. We spent an exhausting day doing the tourist thing.... Taxi to Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer up close, along with about 400 others (it was an intimate gig). Views from there were stunning, but for me the best bit was definitely seeing the huge statue, seemingly watching over the city. Whoever came up with the idea, well done them. All of South America has been so Catholic that it seems perfectly apt to have Christ sat there. Straight from there we went to Santa Teresa, where 200 years ago the rich and beautiful lived, but now it´s nestled in between a couple of Favelas and whilst the beautiful old colonnial buildings are still there, some have forests growing through them and there`s not much money here now. But nevertheless it was worth a look, and a crazy tram ride over a viaduct 100m over the city to get there. We saved Sugarloaf Mountain for last, after having been advised that it was the place to be at sunset. Which was a great suggestion, if only we hadn`t got there 2 and a half hours early. Talk about a watched kettle never boils. No sudoku, no playing cards... we actually had to talk to each other. But it was worth the wait (even through the rain) and I wasn´t too grumpy even when Gary then told me we had to wait for all the city lights to come on.

The next day, needing to not frazzle on the beach for the whole day, I found a guy called Paulo to take us Hang Gliding. We were whisked off to Sao Conrado beach within half hour of my phone call, and before I knew it Gary was wearing a very gay rainbow coloured hang gliding outfit. Tremendous- a bonus I wasn`t expecting! We were 500+metres above the beach on the edge of a cliff, and I´m not saying he was nervous but his instructor made him do 2 practice runs towards the end of the cliff (me only one, oh yeah), and then as they were about to leap into thin air I heard him being told to `relax, you seem a little stressed`! Northern coward. Seconds later he was flying and me and Paulo followed shortly, sprinting 40ft down some wooden decking then dropping off the edge. It was a great experience and what a place to do it for the first time. (check out the pics to see the real flying hero, living the dream!)  Gary.

Our last day day in Rio was spent doing not much else except enjoying our last beach day for a while (apparently, we`re off trekking again which fills me with the joys of spring). Then before dinner I thought it only appropriate to get a little momento of our travels so far... another tattoo (sorry Mum/Dad-it`s not very big I promise), 3 stars on my wrist to remind me of the amazing night skies we`ve had and the amount of times I´ve had to point out Orion`s belt to people! Gary now has a serious tattoo itch but can´t decide what to get so is waiting for inspiration. Best not hold our breath!!!


La Paz, and The Worlds Most Dangerous Road

2008-02-22 to 2008-02-26

With hindsight it was probably not the shrewdest bit of planning to fly from Rio, via Sao Paulo and Santa Cruz into La Paz at 3600 meters above sea level with zero time to acclimatise; still, in it to win it and all!  Apparently not many airlines like to fly here, and those that do have to land nearly twice as fast because the air is so thin...apparently. 

We have again been really surprised by this city, nestled in an amazing valley surrounded by mountains and clouds. Despite Bolivia being SA poorest country La Paz is full of character, well organised, safe (ish) and fascinating. The old town is full of wicked markets and old colonial cobbled streets, where strangely popular Llama foetus´s are sold amongst everything else you could possibly imagine. And it´s unbelievably cheap.....dinner for 2 with drinks about four quid! The only problem is that it´s exhausting to walk more than about 100 yards. Altitude does some weird things....I´ve had a headache for 2 days and i´m stuck in a permanet state of Malaise....Trish has insomnia and is lazier then usual. Copious amounts of coca tea have helped a little. It also takes twice as long to digest food at this altitude so my regular morning routine has been ruined.  We did manage to get a local bus for about 10p to one of La Paz´s tourist attractions, the Valle de la Luna, half an hour outside the city. Billed as a geographical wonder it turned out to be lots of eroded clay looking like a valley of termite mounds, albeit 50 feet high. The Bolivian Tourist board need some help..

After 3 days however we are pretty much acclimatised; and still completely unprepared to tackle "The worlds Most Dangerous Road". We are infact following in the footsteps of my good friend Mr Sparks in attempting to Mountain bike from the top of the La Paz Valley at 4700 meters down to  the rainforest at just over 1000 meters in about 5 hours. We make our attempt with the best company in La Paz, Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, and as a result this really is a case of all the gear, but no idea!! Full on downhill bikes etc. It´s only a minor concern when Trish asks "are these the brakes or the gears". The first 30k are on tarmac and brilliant fun, tearing downhill through the clouds with long sweeping corners and increasingly dramatic drop offs. There are only 2 uphill sections, but these are a killer. My lungs feel like they are full of ice, and everyone has to walk the final climb. Recovering at this altitude just does not happen. It´s noted that at least one bike arrives at the top of the last climb on top of the support bus!!!!!!

We have a briefing before finally navigating the "Most Dangerous..." section. During the 70s and 80s buses and lorries used to plunge off the edge of this road on a regular basis, giving it its name and the highest annual death count of any road in the world. Our Kiwi guide casually explains that a girl died last March, and one guy peddled off an 80 meter cliff edge whilst watching an eagle. He tells us that we must stay to the left, which is the side furthest from the cliff wall and next to the drop off, as climbing vehicles get to hug the mountain in Bolivia, and that the road is gravel, and that due to all the rain there have been several landslides and many of the waterfalls landing on the road are now fairly strong. Its a shame I did not take a picture of Trish´s expression at this point. We are also at the mercy of several other less professional companies also on the road, Bolivian run, with about zero regard for etiquette or safety. Turns out to be brilliant fun, although we are absolutely soaked when we break out of the cloud at about 2000 meters. The road is only really one vehicle wide, and at certain points we are peddling along mini rivers running down the road with 500 meter sheer drops only 2-3 feet to our left. We even manage lunch, a wet sandwich next to a large landslide that wrecked the road 3 days earlier. At the bottom, in balmy rainforest, we are greeted by hot showers and hot food at a charming little animal sanctuary before the 3 hour bus drive back to La Paz. An awesome experience, and I recommend it to anyone who visits La Paz, just make sure you go with Gravity Assisted!!!   

Trish: More fool those who devastated their bodies cycling up those killer hills. As I said to Gary at the time, I paid to ride DOWN the WMDR, not up.

  


Lake Titicaca: Copacabana and Puno

2008-02-27 to 2008-03-01

Trish: Riddled with aches and pains, we caught the bus from La Paz to Copacabana, on the shore of Lake Titicaca, and found ourselves even higher above sea level. There´s nothing stranger than being 4km up and having a lake the size of a sea outside your hotel window. Copacabana is a sleepy town which I think survives only on the tourist trade it gets as people travel from Bolivia to Peru. It´s pretty to look at, and has a beach onto Lake Titicaca (strangley over-run with plastic Swan-Pedalos!), but this is primarily a place to chill and there´s not much going on. The hotel is lovely again, but alas no bath. Surely I am not the only traveller who doesn´t want to get their hair wet in a shower every day. I´m going to have a word with the manager. In spite of our serious apres-biking muscular injuries we (Gary) decide to undertake a hard climb to the top of a local pilgrimage site. Apparently Michael Palin has done this and this is the only thing that keeps me going. Well worth it for the view, I wonder if I now have a special bond with Michael. Found the best fajitas in South America for dinner so life is good.

The next day I would like to title `Gary makes Trish trudge across an Island to look at views that she feels she could have seen from the shore`. We got a ferry over to the Isla del Sol, supposed birthplace of the Sun in Inca mythology. The short walk uphill to a set of Inca ruins was acceptable, even when I got shouted at by (and so shouted back at) an indigenous man herding his sheep who got in the way of my photo. But then... then we walked the ´ridgeline` of the island from North to South for 3 and whatever hours, 4km up (did I mention that), in blistering sunshine. Yes, we saw wonderful views over Lake Titicaca. Yes, we saw lots of indigenous people with their Llamas. And Yes, mountain goat Gary loved every minute. But will someone please tell me what is the point of walking up a mountain only to walk back down the other side straight away. Why not go around it? Or better still, just look at the pretty Lake from the bottom?! We both got frazzled and the only reason I am still talking to Gary is that he bought me Chicken Fajitas again for dinner.

The next day we spent recovering from extreme facial sunburn and Gary has man-flu. I have no interest or sympathy and spend the day contemplating why I agreed to trek up Macchu Picchu next week.

Alas, it is too quickly time to leave quiet Copacabana. Despite Gary´s efforts to spoil it for me by making me exert myself, the fine food could have kept me here a week at least. But onwards, and downwards, from Bolivia to Peru. A 4hr bus ride takes us to a new country and the concrete jungle that is Puno. We quickly scrap our plans to spend 2 nights here and after checking into the ´Joy of Titicaca´ hotel (hmm) we jump on a boat to the floating Reed Islands. As always, it´s interesting to see how other people live, and the fact that they have to change their reed floors every 2 weeks to stop them rotting and therefore having their huts fall through into Lake Titicaca makes them probably more different than most. There were 20+ islands in the section we went out to, with up to 10 families living on each island. The best bit was that if one family doesn´t get along with the rest, they saw their bit of island off and float away to tie themselves to a new one with better neighbours. Tremendous approach to life! Unfortunately, the floating Islands are now a massive tourist attraction and it was a shame that everywhere we stopped, instead of seeing them repairing their floors and going about daily life, we were confronted with 10 stalls of the same crafts for sale and pushier salesmen/women than Comet (Greg!).  I´m sure they were great to see 20 years ago before the american dollar arrived, but we both left a little disenchanted.     


Cusco and the Sacred Valley

2008-03-02 to 2008-03-09

We left Puno early, clambering aboard a fairly plush Mercedes bus to Cusco, 7 hours North of Puno. As bus journeys go, this was a belter...following beautiful fertile valleys at altitudes of up to 4000m. The highlands of Peru are frozen in time, local people still living in tiny farms, each with a bull in the garden! The valleys are a patchwork of fields and terraces on incredibly steep mountainsides, dotted with herds of llama and alpaca. Each small town has it´s own little 5 a side pitch, some of which are on hilarious gradients. No wonder the Peru national team has had limited world cup success.

The outskirts of Cusco look far from inviting, but a short taxi journey from the bus station and we arrive in the historic centre, a fascinating mix of cobbled streets, old churches, markets and swarms of locals desperate to make a dollar from the Gringo´s. We check into a cheap hostal, but the lack of heating and TV soon has us stalking the streets for a better deal. After inspecting 6 or 7 options we reluctantly try the Royal Inca....Top end according to the Lonely Planet. The place looks empty, and is, and as a result, and some hard bargaining we strike a half price deal and land ourselves a huge room overlooking a cool colonial street one block from Plaza de Armas. Job done and a very happy Patricia!

The following day we head straight for the South American Explorers Clubhouse. Its in a wicked house in the old town with a roof terrace overlooking Cusco. They have a vast array of info, guide books, and loads of files with reports by travellers on where they stayed, tours they did etc, a thorough list of the best bars and restaurants, and discounts at all of them. Anyone intending to travel in SA should join, these guys are amazingly helpful and it saves on loads of research and eating rubbish food. Feeling like a touch of home we had dinner that night in the real Mccoy, meat pies, jacket spuds and baked beans.

We spent the next 2 days exploring this amazing city. You have to buy a tourist pass which gets you into a host of museums (which in general are pretty average) except the Inca museum which was very good. The surviving Inca walls in Cusco are stunning, which is saying something for a `wall´. The main square, Plaza De Armas is beautiful, grand old churches and houses and loads of colonial bars and restaurants. The relentless tide of locals trying to sell you "city tours, Machu Picchu, post cards and massages" (Trish told me no!) is annoying at first but you soon get used to it. Cusco is the kind of place you can walk round for days on end and never get bored, although the altitude, 3300m, still takes it´s toll after a while.

The first ruins we visit are at the top of the valley, about a 150m above the town, called Sacsayhuman, or "sexy woman". It´s a huge old Inca fortress and the site of a major battle with the Spanish. The fortifications are made of immense stones, the heaviest of which is an incredible 300 tons. The walk up from Cusco was steep, and does nothing to buoy Trish´s enthusiasm for the approaching Inca Trail.

We spend two days exploring the Sacred Valley which is absolutely beautiful. An hour away on a local bus (about 40p) is Pisac, a delightful market town at the bottom of the Urubamba river valley. It´s the main market town of the region and has a vast array of stalls and a very professional feel.  Trish announces she has found "blue water"in the Andes, a signal for me to leave her to it and climb up to the imposing Inca citadel some 700m above the town on a giant rock spur. The climb up is brilliant and exhausting, following a winding Inca track then scaling steep rock terraces to the ruins at the top, resulting in fab views down the valley and sheer drops on both sides of the spur. The result of Trish not joining me on this climb is a 6 kilo box full of local goods that we have to post back to the UK the next day. That night we have a traditional Peruvian dinner at the SAE club and meet a host of other travellers, including some good lads from northern Canada and a couple from Minnesota. 

The next day we visit Ollantaytambo (actually it´s the day after as all plans are cancelled the previous day due to a big night in the Cross Keys English pub with our new buddies and a severe hangover). It´s the best example of an Inca planned town, and if it was not for the combi vans and tourists could have been in the 15th century, tiny cobblestone streets that have been inhabited for 800 years. Huge steep terraces rise above the town leading to a cool Inca fortress, one of the few places that the Incas actually whooped some conquistadors ass! Some of the stones at the top are immense, and amazingly were quarried some 6km further up the valley then somehow dragged across the river and 100m up the mountain. Huge respect for the Incas. Their history and the mountains they lived in is truly spectacular. That night we have a few beers and pack our stuff ready for the legendary Inca Trail, we are due to be picked up at 5am! Following the trials and tribulations of Patagonia Trish appears apprehensive at best, and is already planning the various colourful ways she can explain to me that trekking is my idea and my fault over the next 4 days!


Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu

2008-03-10 to 2008-03-15

Trish: The time has come, the Walrus said, to think of many things. Of climbing hills, in mud and rain, to see the Inca ruins...

Day 1. We were picked up at 5am by a mini bus filled with a guide and 6 porters all for us. After a drive back to Ollantaytambo and a quick breakfast stop, we soon found ourselves at `Km 82´ (82km from Cusco) the official start of the Inca Trail deep in a valley in the Andes. Our 6 porters are decked out in smart boots and black and red uniforms, resembling giant ladybirds, and as they divide up the tents, food, our bags, and even a toilet seat (!) it is clear that we have the best organised team on the mountain. The many chaotic groups of fellow trekkers we meet at the start with porters in sandals and bits of rope holding their gear together confirms this.  Finally, at 8am, and 2700m altitude, we set off onwards and upwards along the valley of the Urubamba river. We come to our first Inca ruins of the trek after 3 hours, by which time it has changed from rain to sun to rain to sun more times that I can remember, resulting in a confused outfit of poncho (beautiful) over shorts. Hubert, our guide, gives us our first Inca history lesson and it feels good to be here. An hour later and we are sat in our lunch tent eating  a 3 course meal of Avocado salad, soup and Trout. More food than we imagined, together with a worry that we might not get a big dinner leads us to overenthusiastic eating and we practically roll out of the tent to start our afternoon climb. Early into it the porters cruise past us carrying their 20 kilo packs, and by the time we reach camp for the night our tent is set up in the best spot with a dinner tent nearby and fresh popcorn and hot chocolate on the go. As we arrive into camp, the porters come out en mass and clap our arrival, leading me to believe that they may have seen through my rugged trekker appearance and feared I may not have made it through the first day. So, at 3300m, 2 hours after ´afternoon tea` we are served a 4 course dinner, and I am given a hot water bottle to take to bed!!! I now love camping.

Day 2 is what they call ´the hard day´ and we wake up raring to go (though I am secretly wishing one of the porters would carry me). Toast, porridge, fruit salad and pancakes set us up for the 2 and a half hour climb up an altitude change of 900m. This is the day I have been dreading, but we scale the mountain in half the time predicted and I rejoice in passing many more unfit people than me along the way while Gary preaches to me on the art of chewing Coca leaves. The porters run past us half way up, but I think they are robots so they don´t count. At the highest point of our trek, Dead Woman´s Pass, 4200m, we sit and laugh at those unfortunates who are yet to summit. A 2 hour trudge back down to 3600m sees us clapped into our lunch tent, and although at a weaker moment I may have asked why no-one has thought to just blow a hole through the mountain so you can walk through the middle, I feel dead chuffed to have done it. Gary is, as usual, walking around camp telling anyone who will listen (mainly himself) that the mountains are amazing, the views are amazing, the Incas are amazing... We climb back up to 4000m after lunch, which proves to be the hardest part of the day as we did it almost without a break and my lungs go into semi-collapse, before our final descent of the day down some seriously narrow Inca stone steps down to camp for the night at 3600m. We descend this time through a cloud forest and it looks like we´re on the set of Indiana Jones. It is beautiful, and as Gary tells me for the hundredth time that the Incas were an incredible race I can´t help agreeing. They built this whole stone trail by hand over 500 years ago, on the edge of steep cliffs sometimes, with no real lifting or cutting tools, and yet it still stays secure to the mountain for us to use all these years later. The amount of manpower and time involved is just beyond comprehension. At dinner we look out over the valleys to the snow-capped mountain ranges of Salcantay and eat to our hearts content. A minor disaster in the tent when the Ipod dies from the cold means I resort back to my stalwarts of reading and sudoku whilst Gary listfully tells me over and over that he wishes he had been an Inca.

Day 3. We left the cloud forests and descended into the rainforest, though to be honest they look pretty similar. All beautiful, lots of flowers, rain then sun then rain then sun, and the obligatory ´Wows´ from Gary at each part of the Inca´s building prowess. We take it nice and slow as we spend 2hrs or so climbing down Inca steps to 2700m, following a route that the youngest and strongest Incas would run along to deliver reports to the Principal Inca at Macchu Picchu. Fair play to them... it´s pretty slippery and hard work just walking. Hubert points out what must have been about 40 different types of Orchid along the way, and we quickly learn that looking at the views, the flowers, and climbing down steep steps in the rain don´t mix well. After the beautiful camp sites of the previous 2 nights, tonight´s is a bit of a letdown, having some really awful concrete buildings housing a povvy looking restaurant, disco bar and hot showers for a pound. Our porters set up camp for us in a quiet spot overlooking some more incredible ruins called ´Winay Huayna´, but I say sod that and spend most of the night getting lashed with the locals and dancing on tables. OR, we have an early night in preparation for the final climb tomorrow. You decide.

Day 4. Macchu Picchu at last. Up at 4am for the day we have been working towards. It starts strangely as we are presented with an iced cake wishing us a good trip for breakfast, and we are soon joining an exodus of zombies leaving camp in headtorches heading for the gates to the national park. At 5.30, the gates open and everything I have felt about enjoying going at our own pace during the trek goes out the window. It´s like a stampede to be the first to climb to the Sun Gate, the Incas official entrance to M.P. and the first place you can see it from. Gary is striding ahead like a llama on speed and I am nearly dying trying to keep up. Layers are being ripped off mid-trot, and there´s no time to take photos along the way. After an hour of this stupidity at altitude, we are one of the first to reach the Sun Gate, but I can barely stand and so don´t even now, looking back, remember what it looked like.  But most importantly, we can see Macchu Picchu at last. 5 mins of clear skies give everyone the photo op they desired, but then the clouds ascend from the valleys below and it is gone. Another mini stampede from the Sun Gate to the sacred site and we sit and wait for the clouds to evaporate. 10 mins later, they do, and we have the most belting sunshine for the rest of the day. The best weather of the trek. Hubert gives us a thorough tour of the whole site for a couple of hours, then leaves us to explore. There are 3 main areas: the agricultural terraces where they grew their crops, the religious sector where they have their temples of the Sun, Mother Earth, and Water as well as sacrificial altars, and the residential area where up to 500 people lived, including the principal Inca in his mighty palace. It´s a pretty amazing place (as Gary tells me another 300 times during the day), with architecture that seems beyond possible considering their lack of tools and equipment. The stones of the temples are fitted together so perfectly - without any clay - and weigh up to 40 tons each. 2 windows in the Temple of the Sun are set in such a place that the sun shines through each one directly only once a year, one in place for summer solstice, one for winter solstice. How they knew how to build like that is a mystery. Even the architecture in the residential area is pretty impressive. Doorways built in the exact right way to withstand earthquakes, loops carved into the rock walls to enable them to tie their roofs on to withstand the extreme weather of the Andes. They broke massive 300 ton boulders into stones for the walls by making small holes in a line along the rock then inserting wooden stakes into the holes and soaking them. The wood expanded and split the rock. Pretty clever people all round. Except when it came to fighting off the Spanish.

Gary, not satisfied with the 4 day hike, climbed up Huayna Picchu, another peak 300m above Macchu Picchu said to be an hour´s climb up and an hour down. He does it in a superhuman one hour round trip and spends the next 3 hours sweating. I have no aspirations for this act of foolery and spend the time adding to my South America base layer tan.

We eventually jump on a bus down to the town below, Aguas Calientes, have some lunch with our guide and head off by train back to Ollantaytambo where our minibus is waiting to take us back to the beautiful Royal Inka Hotel and the best hot bath I´ve had all trip. Straight to an Irish pub for the best lasagna and shepherds pie in the world.

What an exhausting 4 days, but in spite of all my previous trekking dramas, well worth doing it the way the Incas did, on their trail. For Gary, it constitutes his `greatest wonder of the world` as I am reminded every hour. For me it was more of a personal acheivement and a test of character.

Oh, but I have hung up my boots and given my trekking trousers to charity...!

For anyone crazy enough to do this trek, we used Llama Path Sustainable Tour Operator (They definitely treated their porters the best, with all the right gear and a weight limit on what they are allowed to carry). Their email is: info@llamapath.com or www.llamapath.com. Hubert is highly recommended as a guide.

 


Tha Nazca Lines and Boarding in the Desert

2008-03-16 to 2008-03-20

We had 2 days of well deserved rest and recuperation following the trials of the Inca trail. Can I just confirm here that I did indeed think it was quite good!!  One of our days of rest was disturbed by me leaving one of our Visa cards in an ATM, most unlike me I have to say, a rare error which thankfully cost us nothing. Trish is now taking great delight in reminding me on an hourly basis the benefits of being thorough, her revenge I suppose for my Inca trail gesticulations.

Two days later and we climb aboard a Cruz Del Sur sleeper bus, destination Nazca. We leave at 1800 and it takes us 14 hours to get there, a fairly harrowing journey through the Andes along a winding and pot hole ridden road. Its pretty cool at dawn however as we descend out of the foothills into the desert and finally roll into Nazca. Nazca is a really nothing more then a desert outpost town, very dusty and hot, with very little to see except plenty of skulking dogs and people who look tired of living in the desert. There is definitely only one reason to visit.

We book our flight  at 8am as morning is the best time to fly over the lines. We sit with a German couple in the tiny airport and amusingly watch a documentary from the History channel on the what´s and why´s of the lines. Briefly, they are very old, done by clearing away the thousands of scattered volcanic rocks that litter the Nazca desert to make huge lines and images. There are hundreds of them including the major touristy ones about 20k from Nazca. There are it seems several reasons why the ancient Nazca did them, to replicate the shapes of the stars, to map the vital underground aquifers and aquaducts carrying water under the desert, and probably just because they thought they were pretty cool. And indeed they are, the flight was superb, about 35 minutes of fairly dramatic loops and banking turns in a small 6 seater light aircraft. The images are vast and very clear, some of them on rock faces, the majority on the sand, and some of them are huge.

The lines done, we took a local bus north up the panamerican highway for about 2 hours to the desert market town of Ica, and more importantly the dune lagoon of Huacachina. It´s an awesome little place, a tiny lagoon about 100m long, ringed by chilled little hostels and restaurants, and surrounded by vast desert dunes. We stayed in the very lovely Hosteria Suiza with a pool and great gardens. The pace of life here is very slow, almost too slow in fact, but we still stayed for 2 days, for one desert dune buggy and sand boarding trip is certainly not enough. The dune buggies are big old beasts, with 9 seats, big metal roll cages, big tyres and loud Dodge Ram engines, perfect for charging around 100m high dunes. The desert was beautiful,  great views and big slopes, ideal for boarding down. Sand boarding is actually very difficult standing up, our experience on snow availed us little, and the guide mentioning how far the nearest hospital was helped little. Lying down and plunging face first down immense dunes however proved to be great fun and much easier. Our second tour on day 2 proved to be even better as we had a smaller buggy with just the two of us and the driver. As a result we did 4 times as much sand boarding, watched a great sunset, and sped around the dunes at break neck speed, plunging down worryingly steep slopes and even making some good air!!, all in near darkness. Safe to say that sand found it´s way into every nook and cranny and we both have our fair share of sand burns and bruises as souvenirs.


Flying visit to Lima and on to Ecuador

2008-03-21 to 2008-03-24

Nursing our sand wounds we took another local bus up the coast to Lima. We had had various reports on Lima, none of them great, and which turned out to be pretty accurate. The bus drove through mile after mile of grim looking  poor concrete housing, hot dusty streets and people looking like life was far from easy. Lima is huge, sprawling, chaotic and very hot. Miraflores, with it´s big western style avenues, department stores, casinos and restaurants certainly bucked the trend. Sat in the relative calm of our hotel we met a couple from Boston, he was an executive chef and they had taken 3 months out to explore the culinary delights of SA. After several beers and lots of talk of food we headed off to a restaurant recommended to him by a peruvian friend. It turned out to be one of the most upmarket joints in lima, full of cool looking characters in suits etc, with a huge open air terrace overlooking some major ruins, a large temple from around 400AD. Trish and I tried to take the shocked look of our faces when we saw the prices, and I think they blew their first weeks budget on Dinner. I thought I best sample Guinea Pig, and tucked in to a fairly lean little fella, who provided me with a smattering of dark crispy and very tasty meat, and lots of sinewy fat!! Should have left him pottering the streets of Lima in peace I think.

The next day we dropped in at the South American Explores club and decided that we might as well get our backsides to Ecuador asap and booked some flights for the next day. Trish was already being drawn to the Galapagos, and I had to agree that Lima just looked like hard work. We did spend a nice afternoon in a funky new shopping / restaurant centre built onto the high cliffs overlooking the Pacific, and had a beer watching people paragliding along the cliff front meters above us, but the call of sharks was too strong.

Landing in Quito, Ecuador was a similar experience to La Paz. We flew what seemed precariously close to snow capped mountains then dropped into a large valley and landed at speed into Quito. The city is sat in an impressive valley at about 2900 meters, ringed by mountains and several volcanos, and is split into the old town and New town with a population of about 1.3 milliion. We chose a cheap and cheerful hostal in the old town, renowned for it´s beautiful colonial churches, culture, and for being  safer than the new town!  We were sadly disappointed with Quito, perhaps we were a little churched / monasteried out but the sense of poverty far outweighed that of culture and charm. We did witness some intriguing Good Friday parades, where people almost fanatically dragged immense crosses on their backs, whipped themselves until they bled, and wrapped themselves in barbed wire. We read later that over 50 people died over the Easter Weekend in Ecuador. Of all the places we have visited in SA we felt the least safe in Quito.  Our most interesting visit was to the Bolivar Theatre, a beautiful old building which seated 2700 people. Unfortunately, several years ago a Pizza Hut situated next door had a gas fire, gutting half the building. A devoted team are desperately trying to restore it, a painstaking project with limited funds, but fascinating to wander round. 

We had no idea in fact that Easter was so early, and disaster threatened. We went to various travel agents to book a Galapagos cruise and got told that due to Easter most places were closed, and because it´s a big holiday in the US, there were very few last minute deals, indeed the chances of a flight to the Islands was bleak! Trish took this badly, especially their apparently lack lustre efforts to resolve it for us, and we left on the grounds that we would return after the holiday weekend and things WOULD be different! Thankfully they were, and a very helpful lady at Safari tours presented us with a few 8 day cruise options. These looked OK, so she then called on the off chance the owners of the Eclipse, a big luxury boat that visited all the outer Islands. Her huge grin said it all, they had a last minute cancellation, and we could have a cabin half price....not only that but this also provided us a flight to the Islands the next morning, and the chance for us to stay on the Galapagos for nearly 3 weeks! Job done, our travel luck had not deserted us after all. 


Hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands

2008-03-25 to 2008-03-28

Trish: With a new spring in our step we left Quito on our flight to Isla Baltra, Galapagos! Had a quick touchdown in Guayaquil (which was 1/2 underwater and we later found out that 55 people have died this summer in floods) then finally landed in the place I have been looking forward to for all those nights I was made to spend up mountains. The beautiful Galapagos Islands. It´s hot, in the 90´s, and the dark volcanic make up of the Islands is contrasted by the blue water smashing into the lava. We got a bus, ferry, bus to the main town on Santa Cruz Island, Puerto Ayora, checked into a hotel then made straight for Scuba Iguana to get some dives booked. Devastatingly, they were full for the next day so we booked up 3 other days with them and went in search of someone to take us. Then it all turned into a massive drama. We found another company, Galapagos Sub Aqua, to take us, but to cut a (very) long story short, they took our money then drove us to yet another dive shop and left us there, where I overheard the new place quoting $30 per person less than we had just paid. The guy had pocketed $60 for dropping us 100yards down the road! Cheeky sod. Gary then had to try on an assortment of 7mm (pretty thick) full length wetsuits in an absolutely stinking mood and ended up ripping one nearly in half putting his leg through an arm hole! Sweating rivers and looking half-crazed by now, he stormed back up to Galapagos Sub Aqua ready to throttle the guy and we very quickly got our money back. First time we´ve been ripped off and it was a dive school... I´m disappointed.

Anyway, all that was soon forgotten as we got into the water the next day at Floreana and saw our first Hammerhead sharks. The visibility isn´t great due to the 5 different currents which converge at the Islands causing massive upwelling of plankton and nutrients. So on the down side you can only see about 10m max into the blue (green), but on the upside this intensity of nutrients means that all the big stuff is here and by the time you see it it´s close! 10 mins into the dive we saw 2 beautiful Scalloped Hammerheads (about 10ft long) ghosting past and the rest of the dive was taken up with Galapagos sharks, whitetips, a big turtle and lots of big ocean game fish. The divemaster was rubbish, too interested in taking photos for a cd to notice that one of the guys was nearly out of air and so me and Gary had to go up early with him, so only 46 mins this dive but we were so chuffed with the H/heads that we didn´t care. Lunch back on board the boat was followed by an hour of frolicking at the surface with Sealions (see pics) then back in the water with our tanks on a wall dive. The Sealions came too, so that´s all I´ll bore you with... about 30 Sealions chasing us along for nearly an hour. Like underwater dogs, they really played with us and it was so different from a normal dive. 

The next day we did our first dives with Scuba Iguana and you can see why they are the top recommended school... organisation was ace, the divemaster, Quike, was ace, there were less people, and it was all much more relaxed. Headed off to North Seymour and as soon as we hit the water a H/head cruised by. More turtles, a tiger snake eel, whitetips, pacific stingrays, and for the last 15 mins a family of 8 spotted eagle rays stayed with us with sealions pestering them by biting their tails! Never seen eagle rays in this number... this place is dive heaven. On our second dive we had a really strong current, and after 20 mins of flying past caves with whitetips sleeping, morays, turtles and stingrays, we put on gloves and grabbed onto the rocks (solidified lava) and just like a program on the Discovery Channel 25 whitetip reef sharks drifted in and out swimming against the current for lazy breathing. For 20 mins we just sat there, in a washing machine, with them just feet away. Tony, where are you?!! Dinner at The Rock - great food and surfing DVDs played nonstop topped off another tremendous day.

Our 3rd day of diving took us off to Beagle Rocks and 2 more awesome dives with Quike. Octopus, a big Galapagos shark, distant Hammerheads and more sealions. Then as we were doing our safety stop on the first dive a Manta Ray swooped in and swam between me and Gary. My first Manta Ray. I think I am in Scuba heaven. The second dive was back at North Seymour and another stunner... I found a weight belt on the bottom and as Quike ascended with it to take it to the boat and we waited (clung to rocks again in the current) a school of H/heads swam by!!! Then a school of Mantas as we swam out into the blue. Barracuda everywhere, and the creme de la creme... the school of H/heads came by about another 3 times. After the dive Quike said he had heard Killer Whales feeding while we were down there but to be honest I don´t think I could take anymore surprises so I don´t care that we didn´t see them. (Anyway, they´re more dangerous than sharks).

Tomorrow we set off on our 8 day cruise so no diving for a while but I think my pupils need a rest from overdilation.

Oh, p.s. Gary had a great time diving too but I wouldn´t let him write about it... leave it to the professionals!

p.p.s. Seriously, Tony, where the hell are you?!!!!

  


Cruising the Galapagos

2008-03-29 to 2008-04-05

Can I just say that our first 3 days diving had been unbelievable....crazy currents and loads of big marine life, diving heaven as Trish said. Thus we headed back to the airport for the arrival of our  cruise companions and the crew of the Eclipse in high spirits. We sat and watched as the other 46 passengers checked in, a mix of US and English, and as we expected, some elderly characters and some who certainly enjoyed their food! We were aware that we had traded having a smaller group of younger international travellers for a luxury boat and the chance to see all the best islands, but with more holiday based companions. The Eclipse didn´t disappoint, big enough to accommodate 80 people but with only 24 tasty cabins, bar, hot tub, sun deck etc, professional crew and a team of 4 excellent naturalists. The set up would be similar to Antarctica, briefings each evening on the wildlife, geology, etc, and then 2 or 3 zodiac (panga) landings each day. After the Captain´s welcome cocktails we had to chuckle as some of the guests began relentlessly asking the most ludicrous questions you can possibly imagine, or asking to see the doctor! Whilst watching a presentation of a map of the Islands with super imposed pictures of Sea Lions and Marine Iguanas on (not to scale), one lady declared fearfully to the group she had not realised that Iguanas were much bigger then Sea Lions! At dinner that evening we are relieved to sit next to Guy and Mandy and their 2 boys Danny and Olly, 12 and 9. They lived in Bath, but after a few beers Guy´s Scouse accent revealed itself and much fun ensued.

The next morning we make our first landing, heading ashore in groups of 12 on a Panga to a beautiful lava and sand beach Puerto Egas on Santiago Island. We are greeted by loads of blue footed Boobies and fantastic Marine Iguanas, warming up on the rocks and blowing salt out of their noses. We see reef sharks in rock pools and plenty of Sea lions. In the afternoon we sail to Bartolome Island, try not to eat too much of the huge buffet lunch, then went deep water snorkling and finally climbed a 100m volcano. The second day finds us back at Santa Cruz Island with a morning walk along a trail dotted with plaenty of Land Iguanas. Larger then their marine brethren we see 2 males wrestling over territory. We follow this with more snorkling then lunch. In the afternoon Trish and I, Guy Mandy and the lads go kayaking around the Island. Great fun, we get right up close to Galapagos penguins and Sea Lions. A big downpour sees us paddling back to the Eclipse to warm up in the hottub with several beers before dinner.

The following morning I get a wake up call at 5.30 for an early morning power walk up a volcano....strangely Trish rejects this option. Its above a cool bay where pirates and Whalers used to hide out, and bizarrely the cliff walls are dotted with their graffiti dating back to the early 1800s. After breakfast we snorkel around Tagus Cove. It´s become amusingly apparent by this time that Guy hates snorkeling, and is not that fussed with animals either.....and i have great fun watching him snorkel bravely behind his lads trying to keep the fear from his face. At the end of the snorkel we get a brilliant 10 minutes with several playful sea lions. These guys enjoy it more then we do, swooping around us, blowing bubbles at us, and even trying to scare us by stopping right in front of our masks then pretending to shoot forwards and watch our reaction. Brilliant. We are supported enthusiastically  from the Panga by Guy!

The next day sees one of the best landings of the trip on Fernandina Island. It´s a beautiful peninsula with a dramatic lava beach, covered with literally hundreds of Marine Iguana. Loads of Sea Lions posing for us, including some big males, and flightless cormorants pottering around our feet performing their courtship routiness. In the afternoon we go snorkeling  with literally dozens of big Pacific green turtles, close enough to touch (Trish: but we didn´t). About 6pm that evening the Eclipse crossed the Equator and we drank till midnight to celebrate! The following day we visited the Darwin centre back at Puerto Ayora, caught a sight of the famous Lonesome George, along with loads of baby tortoise and some huge old boys. The oldest recorded age for one of these giant tortoise is 180!!!! In the afternoon we explored some very cool lava tubes, hundreds of meters long amd some 50 feet in diamater.

The final full day of the cruise is spent at beautiful Espanola, the oldest of the Islands. After an early morning Kayak we visit a gorgeous white sandy beach home to a large Sea Lion colony, great fun. it´s a genuine privilege to be around these fun loving, intelligent animals. We then walk along a stunning cliff top, nesting site of the Galapagos waved albatross, who are just returning from 3 months at sea, swooping just above us. Loads of Boobies plunging into the ocean from 30 meters, even a Galapagos hawk....red marine Iguana.

The following morning we disembark the Eclipse for the last time, some fond farewells, armed with a bunch of new places to stay in the US. The cruise was brilliant, and although it did not have the unique wilderness feel of Antarttica the volcanic islands and wildlife were brilliant. If anything the animals here are even less afraid of humans....either trying to interact with us or carrying out their unique behaviour oblivious to our presence. These islands are indeed unique, the endemic species fascinating. It´s a relief that we have another week to explore and get back underwater...love it.


A tale of Hammerheads, Giant Mantas and a Donkey

2008-04-06 to 2008-04-12

Trish: Back out on the dive boat to Gordon Rocks, a site famous for Hammerhead schools. Fingers and toes crossed we jumped in for our first dive of the day and were immediately pummelled into the lava wall. The currents to date have been strong, but this is out of this world. The site is named after 3 huge rocks in a line protruding out of the ocean, and the water rushes between them leaving you caught in the middle hanging on for dear life. Held onto the walls for 10 mins or so hoping a school would swim by, but only one solitary shark cruised by so we let go of our hand holds and flew around to the other side of the rock. There we grabbed hand holds again and it all came together. A school of 39 H/heads cruised in and out of view, coming in pretty close for a while. The divemaster was doing underwater dances, ´Woohoo´s´ were coming from everyone´s regulators, and it was everything we had hoped for. They were so graceful, not bothered by us even with our celebratory excited gestures. Fantastic. Oh, more turtles, eagle rays etc also on the dive, but it was all about the H/heads! Second dive had much to live up to but the school had moved on so we had to be happy with a large Galapagos shark and the usual suspects. I turned around near the end of the dive to check Gary was still there, and was pretty surprised to find he wasn´t! Last time I had looked back he was watching the large Galapagos shark out in the blue at about 15 metres, so this was rather worrying. I motioned to Quike that he was gone and we spent 5 mins or so scanning the blue but to no avail. All sorts of things were going through my head regarding whether he would panic and the difficulty of trying to conduct an underwater rescue in this current, not to mention the fact that we were in all probabilities surrounded by sharks that we couldn´t see!! We did our safety stop whilst still searching for him and I couldn´t stop thinking that diving was my thing and that what would I do if something awful had happened. Feeling pretty awful, we surfaced and there he was, a grinning idiot sat in the dive boat after experiencing buoyancy issues, losing sight of me and coming to the surface alone. From now on I´m going to have him on a child´s leash underwater!

Spent the next day at the Tortuga Bay, a beach only reachable by a 4km trail in 90 degree heat. But once there we were the only ones on this beautiful km long white sand. Companions were marine iguanas, sea lions, pelicans, rays, baby sharks, and a baby moray swimming desperately in the shallows trying to get back out to the rocks. Hope he made it.  Afternoon drinks back at The Rock where we bumped into one of our dive buddies Joern who had been diving that day whilst we were at the beach and had seen a Whale shark!!! Gary spent the rest of the day and night desolate, but you can´t have it all!

Gary. I would like to defend my impromtu departure from the last dive.....my only excuse is that I had on a 7mm wet suit, far too many weights, too much air in my bcd to compensate, and rather rashly pursued a Galapagos shark, lost everyone, then surfaced fins first....horrific.

The next day we took a 2 day tour to Isabella Island, starting with a 2 hour ferry crossing. The ferry however was a large motor boat with 2 huge yamaha 200, 4 strokes strapped on the back, one of which refused to start. We spent an hour bobbing around in large swell while the captian struggled to fix it. Eventually it roared to life and we shot off into the waves, bucking and learching all over the place. We had chosen seats out the back and were soon soaked. We eventually arrived in just under 4 hours. We were joined by Antony and Ruth, coming to the end of a years travel. First stop was another tortoise sanctuary before taking a truck half way up the Volcano, 1600 meter high Sierra Negra. There waiting were 5 pretty small looking horses. Ant declared he hated horses, and my only experience was being led around hyde park. Everyone was mounted, but my intended ride looked decidedly ill. The guide was prepared however and proudly led me to what he described as a strong mountain mule, definitely a Donkey!!!! Much to the great amusement of everyone else "Bill" the donkey lurched off up the trail, big ears twitching in front of me. It must be said that he was indeed a sturdy proud little chap, taking point immediately and refusing to let anyone else pass. It made me feel better listening to everyone encouraging their mounts with cries of "lets pass that Donkey!"

The humiliating ride was well worth it. At the top the 8km wide crater was very impressive, all black rock and tendrills of smoke. We then took a walk across wicked lava flows from the 2005 eruption with great views across the Island. Sadly, dense cloud rolled in and the heavens opened, thunder and lightning everywhere. The horses looked terrified and much to Trish´s dismay it was decided to abandon them and walk back. Trish had declared she would not do the Volcano if it involved walking! We had to trudge back through massive puddles, bogs, and horse poo, I dare not turn back to see her expression. We made it back however, and finished the day by snorkling with Penguins. Thankfully the ferry crossing back was much smoother, although we had to be up at 5am as it left at 6!! We spent the rest of the day pretty tired either in our room or in the Rock. We met our good friend Joern for drinks then had Pizza with him and Joed later, before saying farewell to Joern as he headed to Mexico for more diving then a Harley road trip around Florida! And he got to take his Whale Shark video with him....gutted. 

Trish: Our last day on the Galapagos was spent, of course, diving. Back to Beagle Rocks, a 2 hour boat journey off the island. First dive started well. Visibility seems much better today and we saw quite a few Hammerheads passing in ones and twos. Then half way through, a HUGE Manta Ray came flying in. Wow. We´d seem loads of Mantas to date, but we could appreciate that even Manta´s have different sub-types. The ones we had previously seen were Mobular Mantas, about 2m across. This one was a Manta like you see on TV... black and white markings, 4 and a half metres across. Now I have seen the Manta that you imagine... a beautiful creature so graceful as it flies past, once so close that it looked like it was going to knock Gary off the rocks! It did about 3 or 4 laps around us, ever so slow, and in the end it was time that stopped the dive and we left it swooping around beneath us. Brilliant dive. The second dive was in the exact same place, and the Manta was waiting at the surface when we arrived fresh from snorkelling over lunch (Gary found an American freediver to play with). We scared him off with our splashes entering the water, and the first half of the dive was pretty non-descript - some turtles, whitetips amd a couple of Hammerheads (see how blasaie we are now about H/heads!). The Manta was nowhere to be seen. Then all of sudden as we were, as usual, clambering across the rocks in the current  he reappeared and stayed with us for 7 or 8 laps, this time with a smaller Manta buddy. It was a fitting farewell to our Galapagos diving. Had dinner at The Rock (surprise!) with Ruth and Antony. 

Gary.  Awesome Manta experience, At one stage I could feel the whoosh of it´s wing as it sailed past me. As Trish said, a phenomenal way to finish a truly amazing visit to these beautiful Islands.

 

  


Top bombing at Chris & Laura´s Wedding

2008-04-13 to 2008-04-27

Trish: I´m writing this from Utila, looking back at a quite hectic fortnight in Cyprus and the UK. We flew back from Ecuador to Heathrow for a fleeting dinner with Mum, Dad, Tony and Ann, then hopped to Cyprus early the next morning for a week in Ayia Napa! We had a wicked villa, 9 of us youngsters and Tony Allch to make tea and get generally harassed. The run up to the wedding was spent luxuriating far enough from the pool to not get bombed by the boys, drinking cocktails and playing pool (Chris/Dave, never mind, it´s only a game. Losers). The perimeter of the pool was a hazardous zone with slippery toads constantly on the prowl to push you in. As you can see from the pics, Tone came a cropper after letting his guard down. The Hen night was a belter, though somewhat subdued by the fact that the Stags gatecrashed our final destination and so we had to cancel the strippers. 

Chris and Laura´s wedding was really lovely. Beautiful hotel gardens on a cliff overlooking the sea. Neither one messed up their lines, and, as you can see, they both scrubbed up very well. Best Man, Dave White, pulled one out of the bag with his speech, surprising those of us who thought all he was good for was stealth bombing. Tony lamented the loss of his ´little boy´, but not for too long... the plants were way too interesting. Great Greek buffet where Joe won the ´how many plates can one man manage` competition. Back to Laura´s Mum and Dad´s villa for a great end to a perfect day... more bombing action from the groom, best man, ushers and guests. What better way to celebrate.

The week was great...take care of yourselves, guys. And remember, any problems, just bomb it out.

Back home we barely had time to catch up with family (hello all!), delegate all washing to Mum, and stock up on a new medicine kit before we were packing again. We barely had time for an early birthday dinner for Gary´s Mum (27 again) what with all the downloading of photos, and my lovely Dad finished the job for me after I nearly hurled the computer across the room.

Spent the night before we left to fly to Honduras up till 5am putting right an Ipod disaster where Gary wiped all our films, but that gave me some more quality time with my cats so we´re still talking.

Excited about upcoming adventures, but sad to leave after just a week, we left heathrow bound for Madrid, then Costa Rica, then Honduras mainland, and 2 more internal flights out to the island of Utila!

  


Welcome to Utila

2008-04-28 to 2008-05-04

 

After a pretty exhausting 22 hours travelling to Honduras we still had 2 flights to go to get to the small island of Utila. Our first plane seated 10 and our luggage was under a cargo net behind us. Our final flight took us the 25 km from the mainland out to the 11km long Island, and seated 4! We landed on an earth runway with a shed at one end. Utila is not easy to get to, and as a result is wonderfully devoid of big chain hotels, Mcdonalds, in fact any real modern infastructure. Instead it`s a proper shabby, laid back, off the beaten track kind of place, full of divers, travellers, and weird and wonderful refugees from the modern world. The island itself is beautiful, fringed completely by a coral reef and full of mangrove forests. Unfortunately the multitude of dive shops, restaurants and bars, and fishing potential has seen a steady stream of arrivals from the mainland to provide a work force, which is having a really negative impact. Wealthy characters buying swathes of mangrove forest to build luxury retreats is adding to the issues. 

Luckily a chap called Steve has started the Utila Centre for Marine Conservation, UCME, employing a bunch of Scientists / Researchers to assess the range of issues effecting the marine ecosystem and hopefully to help save and preserve them. We are here for 4 weeks having volunteered ourselves to help out in whatever way they see fit.

We are met at the airport by Monique, an underwater videographer originally from Italy who has spent the last 10 years living on some very cool islands, and who is responsible for running the volunteer house and generally keeping us in line. The house is a fine colonial structure with a wicked wooded balcony where we spend the first evening with our volunteer chums, Louise, Fiona and Tracy, drinking Rum. Monique has very kindly given Trish and I the master bedroom, ensuite and all (Trish: Oooo, I have all my lovely Chanel, Clarins, Biotherm samples out... it looks like Boots!!! Yeh!!!).

Trish: First proper training day sees us in the classroom (the balcony of a colonial house overlooking a a lagoon - not too shabby!) improving our knowledge of coral reef structure, corals and fish. Day is topped off by a couple of coral identification dives so that next week we`ll be able to collect data for the project on our own.

Day 2 in the volunteer house and it`s all about Seagrass and fish. Seagrass is pretty self explanatory.... it helps hold the sand together and hence the islands, and lots of baby fish live in it. We`ll be collecting samples during our time here. In fact, we went out for a practice count in shallow water, and in the same quadrant Gary counted 15, I counted 29, and Sharon the proper Seagrass researcher counted 59 separate stems. I don`t think we`ll be much use here! Then general fish id`ing with Steve followed by a session with George, one of the researchers living here, who trains us ready for Parrotfish surveys. Yes, really.

Day 3 and it`s all about the diving again. Parrotfish surveying first hand. Out we go, boards in hand with one afternoon`s identification skills behind us, ready to collect data for an ongoing research project. Not just counting Parrotfish, oh no that would be way too easy. Noting down which type of Parrotfish and whether they are juvenile, female, or male adult. Tremendously hard to remember which fish is which when they`re different colours when they`re young to when they`re old. The importance of Mangroves is our afternoon training with Steve. They basically build the islands up from a sandy bank and grow so closely together that particles get caught and the substrate grows and grows and grows until soil can form on top and other plants can seed. They build the islands. And they are being cut down to make room for development every day. Steve is here to try to work with the islanders to make them realise how important they are to protect the island against hurricanes etc. Knowing what has just happened in Burma (22,000 dead counted so far after a typhoon ripped through areas previously protected by mangrove forests - they slow the hurricane down when it hits them and absorb a lot of it`s energy) it seems even more relevant. This island is pretty much at sea level. 

Day 4 is training with the dolphin and whale researcher, Ossie. We`ll be out with her 3 times a week to conduct dolphin surveys and because she`s out in the deep waters the most, we`ll have the best chance of seeing Whale Sharks when we`re with her. Come on the Whale sharks. They`re being spotted every day but we`ve not yet been in the right place at the right time. 2 more afternoon dives finish our working week with Seahorses, Seahorses, and more Seahorses...

Saturday we had our first day off but it was sooo hot (and Gary was sooo hung over from a night out with the lads while I went to the Flicks - cool little cinema) that we barely made it out for lunch before retreating back to the shade of our balcony at the house and the rocking chairs and old fashioned swing chairs that adorn it. I feel like we`re sat in a movie about the deep south when we`re sat there with the housemates chilling and reflecting on life. Yeah, it get`s pretty intellectual at times. Saturday night was 80`s night at one of the beach bars and I felt the need to be social and went for it. Leggings, side ponytails, bangles, the lot. I now have a reputation for not bringing anything practical in my rucksack, just accessories for all occasions! A special thankyou to Lee and Astrid who bought me multicoloured eyeliners for xmas... they went down a treat with the housemates... I`ve never had such beautiful eyes!!! Gary, still recovering from last night, didn`t join the boys in their Adam Ant make-up, but still managed to drink my free drinks all night. It was so funny seeing everyone looking so silly after our week`s training, and there`s nothing better than dancing on a dock to 80`s music with only the sea and the stars to look out on.

Sunday was fun dive day with the housemates, so we got up stupidly early and felt awful til we hit the water. A wreck and a wall dive later and we were finished for the day. Lunch was a tired affair and the rest of the day, for me, was spent asleep on the decking of the veranda with the dog. 27 years old, and I still can`t drink to save my life. All in all it`s been a tremendous week. Bring on the Whale Sharks!!! 

 

 


Whale Shark & Dolphin Spotting??

2008-05-05 to 2008-05-11

We begin our our second week on Utila bright and early, meeting at the office at 6.45!!. However it´s all good as we are to spend this monday morning out on our first Dolphin and Whale Shark search, doing a full loop of the island in search of some big marine creatures. We are given different roles on the boat, some of us spotting, others taking water samples, GPS points etc. Dolphins and whales are our actual survey beasties but everyone has their fingers crossed for the magnificent Whale Sharks, which were spotted every day last week. Barely are we out of the harbour when a shout goes up from the front of the boat, and suddenly 4 Spinner dolphins are streaking around beneath us. They disappear soon to return with 12 or so mates. They stay for only a few mins though, apparently on their way out to feed.....normally they wll bow ride for ages. There are 2 resident pods around the island, the largest consisting of over 200 Spinners. These guys spin vertically out of the water, we saw one do just 1 spin but they have been known to do 7!!  Sadly it´s the last we see of them for the next 3 hours, and after some snorkelling to finish we head back to dock......at which point a weary looking Trish troops off the boat looking suspiciously red, obviously regretting her lack of suncream. A very amusing afternoon sees us snorkelling through mangroves to appreciate the volumes of rich nutrients, visibility is about 1 foot and the water is full of floating brown organic matter;  a real favourite with the girls this one, but Steve the mangrove guy loves it. After this we head out diving, Conch hunting to be precise. These big football size underwater snails are pretty vital to the reef ecology chain and have been practically fished out, so UCME is trying a breeding program. Trish and I get one each in a surprisingly competitive dive.   

Day 2, and no rest for the wicked, and very tired today after a power cut deprived us of our fan for the evening......This Island is very very hot. We are diving by 8, counting parrot fish along a 30m line.....We are now pretty good at identifying the bewildering array of these chaps....although exhilarating it´s not. After lunch we head out diving with Seagrass.....a dangerous dive to 3 meters!!

Day 3 and the busy schedule and heat are starting to take their toll. First today is another much anticipated  loop of the Island, this time with half a dozen tourists on board. Unfortunately the highlight of this trip is me losing the salt density measuring cylinder over the side of the boat, although it´s certainly great for tanning. We do see the beginnings of a "boil", when thousands of small fish are pushed to the surface by feeding Tuna, creating a large mass of apparently boiling water. Finding a boil normally means a Whale Shark soon after.....but our boil faded from a weak simmer to a pimple, just a sniff hopefully of things to come next week. We also get to snorkel around one of the beautiful cays.  In the afternoon we have a fun dive at a wicked dive site, slowly winding our way up around a small under water peak. When we surface the swell is really up, and we have all sorts of fun clambering back on board. Our boat captain Ivor then finds it amusing to sit the boat sideways in the swell for as long as possible trying to make the "sweeeeet ladies" sick. Thankfully I seem to have overcome my motion sickness weakness. After our second dive the rudder then pretty much packed in, and we took nearly an hour to limp back to shore. We finally trudged home at about 6.30. nearly a 12 hour day...nearly double what Trish and I were used to in London. It´s all great fun but we are knackerd, these UCME folk certainly get the most from their volunteers.

Thursday proves to be a real day of highs and low. Things started pleasantly enough out diving amongst seagrass again with Sharon, this time checking  the damage done by sea anchors. After lunch we head out with Kenny on our second Conch hunting trip...but disaster strikes almost immediately. Descending slowly to about 15m I peer across at Trish who is making alarmed gestures at her camera, she then jerks her thumb up and disappears to the surface. On her return the expression through her masks says it all.....the camera has  flooded. As we swim off in a 10m spread line Trish reveals the diaster has not taken away her sense of cunning, suddenly charging across onto my line and scooping up the first Conch of the day. Her punch of delight confirms it is alive and old enough to breed, and is particularly annoying to say the least. Kyle, one of the interns and Louise are both leaving tomorrow so everyone heads over to the volunteer house tonight for a bbq. Turns out to be a splendid affair, grilled baracuda and Tuna, potato salad, 7 layer dip, and lots of rum and cold beer. About 20 of us spend a fine evening on our veranda listening to George, who surprises us by being an excellent guitarist and produces some fine renditions of Metallica and U2 amongst others. 

Reasonably hungover on friday morning and its really hard work loading tanks and dive gear onto our trusty skiff at 7am in the already blazing heat .  However plunging in the ocean is always a great cure. Sadly it looks like the end of the camera, Trish had caught some string in the case seal and it completely flooded yesterday.  A very sad Patricia, I´m relieved it was not me!!  In the afternoon we wandered through town putting up posters for the Dolphin trips before escaping at 3pm.......at last the weekend. The week  has been very hard work but very rewarding, we are learning loads and getting in plenty of diving, the elusive Whale Shark remains a challenge for next week.

Trish: Saturday is our only day off each week, and so the only time we can explore the rest of the island, but it is sooo hot! Last week we barely made it out for lunch before returning to sleep the day out on the veranda. Determined to actually see some sights, I went off with one of the researchers and Fiona for a half an hour stroll to the ´Bat Caves´. Now I don´t know why this always happens to me, but somewhere along the description of the ´half hour´ stroll we got crossed wires. An hour later, attacked by mozzies, sunburned, dripping with sweat and wishing I´d stayed on the porch with Gary to help him revise for his Divemaster course, we arrived at the cave. I have to admit I was imagining a huge cavern by the sea that we would walk into and shine our torches way, way above us to the cathedral-like ceiling where we would maybe be able to make out some bats. Oh, no. The entrance to the cave was a hole in the rockface 8 metres up, about a metre wide and a metre and half high, and that was it´s widest point for the first 20m of crawling through!! We immediately disturbed hundreds of bats and in the pitch black you could just sense them everywhere… the vibrations from the flapping of their wings, even the rush of wind as they flew past. It was wicked. Me and Fiona couldn´t stop laughing and giving the obligatory girly squeals of ´oh my God, look at those ones asleep, they´re soooo cute, there´s one on my foot!´. We got to a bit further in where you could stand up, and stood there oohing and ahhing for ages (see some of my shots below). We could see bigger caves further in with our torches, but there was no way we could have squeezed through any more. After we had maneuvered ourselves out into daylight again, we went to one of the beaches on the North of the island for a quick cool off and to get rid of all the bat guano on our hands and legs (it was pretty slippery in there and I had a few comedy moments with the bat poo). It was so worthwhile sweating our way out to the caves and when I got back I found out that there´s a false Vampire Bat that lives there but we didn´t see it. Maximum wingspan for those is over a metre so heaven knows how he fits in but apparently he´s pretty freaky looking – Dave and Nick, we´re going back when you get here so bring your torches!

Saturday night was a few drinks at ´Treetanic´, a bizarre treehouse bar. One of the girls was telling me about all the tarantulas she´s had to evict from her property and the one that bit her in the night etc. This worried me considerably but she assured me that one has NEVER been seen in the volunteer house. Guess what, we got back that night and there was a big brown one in our bedroom. First one they´ve ever found in the house and it was a metre from my bed. That´s luck for you.

You´ve heard about my camera mortality. I cannot speak of it, I am too upset. Hence the lack of photos from this week... memory card also dead from drowning. Will try to recover and put some more photos on next week. Sad Trish.

                                             


Dolphin fever and Gary takes a dive!

2008-05-12 to 2008-05-18

Trish: We started the week going our separate ways... Gary sailed off to the Cays for the night to help Kenny build his Conch breeding centre whilst I stayed with the girls. As we waved him off Monday morning, the last thing I heard was "I expect you`ll see lots of Dolphins now I`m not with you". And guess what: that morning we were barely out of harbour on the spotting boat when we were surrounded by a pod of 100 Spinners!!! Usually quite a shy species, these ones stayed with us for an hour and a quarter whilst we got in and out the water taking identification shots of fins, videoing their behaviour and doing all sorts of water tests. They were beautiful - so close, within metres of us snorkelling, and when you looked down you could just see layer after layer of dolphins in the water, all vocalising so loud with whistles and clicks. It was the best start to the week ever. Went diving in the p.m and had a girlie night in at the house with lots of chocolate brownies, nail painting and facepacks. No tarantulas to report, thankfully. 

Gary:  No surprises that on the first Dolphin survey I miss they have one of the best encounters Ozzie (dolphin girl) has had in almost a year. Not all bad though because I get to spend a couple of days over at the beautiful cays, tiny islands with a population of a few hundred, no roads, just wooden docks and houses surrounded by turquoise water. I spent a proper chaps day helping Kenny construct his Conch breeding facility. Basically the plan is to grow vast amounts of algae in different stages in controlled  conditions as food in order to breed hundreds of thousands of conch in stages to be released back into the waters around Utila. Long term it is hoped the local fisherman will run this themselves  creating a sustainable catch of these important, and almost wiped out beasties After grafting all day in the 100 degree heat we watched the sunset sat on a wooden jetty eating baracuda steaks and drinking beer. We had done so much in fact that the next morning  we worked for an hour then ate fantastic fish burgers and slept until Trish and the girls arrived full of jubilent tales of Dolphin glory.

Trish: Tuesday we did some more Parrotfish and Grouper survey dives. No groupers in my area but I did find a beautiful 3 1/2ft Nurse Shark under a coral outcrop, and a large green moray. Much more exciting than Parrotfish! We picked up Gary from the Cays in the p.m and went off for 2 Seagrass dives. 45 and 32 mins in 4.2m of water, counting and pulling up grass. Forget the sharks, this is why I took up diving! The week is taking it`s toll already. I was asleep by 8.15pm!

Wednesday saw us all out on the Dolphin boat again, this time Gary included. And as a little reminder of Monday, and a taster for him, we had a pod of 30 Spinners round the boat. Spent the afternoon Kayaking around one of the Mangrove lagoons measuring trees and counting leaves and roots. Very, very hot work. Am so tired today that I ruined a batch of Brownies back at the house, a sure sign that I am not functioning properly. Big night tonight… made it to 9.15pm.

Thursday morning we took the big boat and the skiff around the Island to Turtle Harbour, a marine reserve where only UCME are allowed to take their boats in order to conduct research. Very pretty… white sandy beaches and water so clear that we could see rays swim past our feet as we waded to shore. Me and Gary somehow ended up on Mangrove duty again, but this time like I said, we were wading and had lots of marine life swimming around our legs so it was pretty cool. We aborted the après-research snorkeling when James swam up in a flurry telling us he had just seen a fish head with no body, a clean bite, which then gulped. Positive (or hopeful) that there was a big shark in the shallows with us we called over the skiff and got out. Personally, I wish there had been, but I doubt it. All the sharks have been fished to extinction in these waters which is why I’ve been so happy with my Nurse shark finds. A near miss out at sea as I fell backward off the big boat into the skiff. In slow motion I could feel myself plunging for the bare benches and upright tanks 2m below and then the hero that is one of our boat captains, Tyrell, managed to grab my arm so that I ended up falling upright in a heap on the skiff instead of snapping my back across the benches. Have some nice big bruises and scratches but all in all I was very lucky. Fully recovered, we went Conch-collecting in the afternoon (although without Gary as he had had to return to the house with heat exhaustion…bless) and picked up another 6 to go with the 13 already collected. These bad boys and girls are destined for a life of sex to repopulate the Island’s waters. Happy Conchs.

Friday was the highlight of the week. Morning Parrotfish surveys went awry when we forgot our tape measures and had to guess all the distances, and then the GPS co-ordinates for the 2nd dive put us in the middle of the boating lane of the harbour. There was a mutiny and we ditched the survey tools and took the boat somewhere else for a fun dive. In the afternoon we were back out with Ossie spotting dolphins. Somewhere along the way we ended up in a pod of about 50 of the Spinner chaps, with 15 or so bow-riding. Ossie has a video with an underwater housing and she wanted to get some jostling behaviour by hanging her camera into the water at the bow. This proved difficult because her arms were too short, but then a strong, manly voice stated that his arms would reach. Gary the hero took the video, positioned himself in a spread-eagled pose on the edge of the boat (we’re still moving by the way) and wrapped a large piece of rope which was attached to the bow around his arm. He then proceeded to lean back, using the rope as a balancing tool to hang out over the dolphins below and get some National Geographic footage. Small problem… he let out too much rope. All we saw was a backwards roll by Gary off of the bow leaving only his right foot still on deck tangled in the remaining rope. After the shock had worn off and the crying with laughter began, we peered over the bow (still moving – Boat captain Ivor knew what had happened but was too laid back to worry about stopping) and found Gary hanging upside down in the water, shades on, filming but half drowning at the same time. Don’t know what the dolphins must have thought!! Crazy humans. We laughed our way back to the harbour, and he has much to do to regain his street cred.

Friday night I was going to stay in a read my new John Grisham book. I got cajoled into going to a house party at Georges, then on to bar Tranquila. By the time we moved on again to Bar in the Bush, a locals hang-out, half our party had fallen by the wayside, been sent home in disgrace, or as in Fiona’s case taken on an alter-ego, bumping and grinding with everyone in sight! I escaped with a barely-walking Gary at 2am. Not the quiet night I had planned but a very good one.

Gary: Pretty delicate on Saturday morning after a splended evening grooving caribbean style. I felt I had made it after declaring to a very cool islander with dreads that I was finally getting this Caribbean thing. He howled with laughter and shouted "I can see it in you man". Brilliant.  After a steady day we met up with Ozzie and Kerry and went for a very cool night snorkel, spotting a couple of octopus amongst various sleeping fish. We finished the day with awesome food at the driftwood cafe, fish and shrimp kebabs and bbq chicken.

This morning we dragged ourselves out of bed to go on 2 fun dives with Katy and Christine, very chilled diving, and Trish (who is that good at spotting things it`s almost annoying) found a turtle, a stunning eagle ray that swam with us for 10 minutes, and a huge moray hidden under a rock.  A fine way to finish a fantastic third week on Utila.


Last few days at UCME

2008-05-19 to 2008-05-22

Gary:  Back out on the Dolphin boat monday morning, no tourists today, just me, Ivor and 4 blondes! Not long out we approached a boil of feeding fish and immediately see a couple of large shapes heading towards us....definitely not Spinners. We soon have two large male oceanic bottlenose Dolphins bow riding with us, almost 10 feet long and a magnificent site. After 10 mins Ivor puts his foot down and one of them peeled away. The other sped on and then decided to entertain his human observers. As we crouched on the bow he lept 10 feet out of the water right in front of us, pulled some kind of front side fakey then dropped back down, he repeated this several times soaking us in the process. Then, obviously satisfied with the awed looks on our faces, went off to join his buddy. Awesome encounter. An afternoon of seagrass diving was slightly less exciting (sorry Shaza), and the day was capped off with a visit to Utilas amusing cinema.

Tuesday and a very hazy, surreally calm day. We head out with George for two dives, the sea is like a pond and the visibility is stunning, making both dives absolute belters, despite the second being a working dive. Probably feeling a little guilty Sharan in the afternoon feels its about time we have a fun dive with her as well. Not so good news as we return to the island late afternoon though, another power cut, and this time the main generator has packed up. The good news is that some one has gone to the mainland for another part, the bad news is that it could be tomorrow before its back and installed. Fearing the worse we head to Tranquila with Fiona for some sunset drinking, before returning to the stifling volunteer house for more beers with Dutch Martin in the hope of alcohol induced sleep. I pass out at ten, and wake up at 11.30. Shockingly my side of the bed looks like ive thrown a bucket of water over it....horrific sweating along with itching and mozzys galore, and little sympathy from Trish. Thankfully, at one thirty power returns, I jump in the now working shower and survive the night.

The entire Island is grumpy on wednesday, and all talk is of sweating itching. The day passes uneventfully, no dolphins grace our presence, and a very early night is welcomed by all.

Thursday is our last official day working at UCME. It has been a terrific experience, learning lots about marine ecosystems, loads of great diving and dolphin encounters, and with a great bunch of people. We visit turtle harbour on the north side with Sharan, who only needs 2 helpers in the seagrass, so Christine and Trish nobally step up, leaving Fiona, Tracey and I to enjoy a wicked wall dive.   We all meet up in Tranquila for sunset  before going out for Pizza.

 


Roatan: Pale Nick & Tigers Glory

2008-05-23 to 2008-05-25

Time to enjoy a well deserved break!  Myself, Trish, Monique and Sharon head over to the neighbouring island of Roatan for some R&R, and also to meet Nick who is flying in from Houston on Saturday. He will not however be accompanied by Little Dave as planned who in true Dave style has decided to go for a job interview in the US during the first week of his holiday and will instead be arriving on thursday!!!

We travel in style, four and a half hours on Vernon`s catamaran across to the West End in Roatan. Roatan is the upmarket Bay Island, but the West End is very cool. Real cars, no scooters or golf carts, like Utila, but really chilled and very picturesque. We stay in a cool hotel with an infinity pool right on a coral reef. In the morning we do a fantastic dive called the hole in the wall, where we descend down a giant jagged crack in the volcanic rock to about 43 meters before swimming through lots of caves and narrow passages in some impressive rock formations.

After an afternoon nap I suddeny realize that the City game will have long since finished. As I head to the hotel bar Trish shouts over...."there is a guy in the bar from Hull checking the result on his laptop" !!!!! As there are only 8 people staying at the hotel I cannot believe that I am soon sat with Brian from East Hull waiting for BBC sport to open. We are greeted with a picture of Windass with arms aloft....THE TIGERS ARE PROMOTED, UNBEEELIEVABLE....GET IN, I`m soon dancing round the bar with Brian, raising a beer to the astonishing achievement, a bizarre scene really on a small island off Honduras.

The celebrations continue as I greet big Nick at the airport with a beer....tremendous to see the big fella, looking well but remarkably pale! The evening is spent toasting Tigers glory. After a sunday morning snorkel we all pile back on the catamaran and soon Nick arrives in style to the crazy island of Utila. It has to be pointed out that not many people come here on holiday, so the whole island is pretty tanned, so it´s very amusing to see a white and part red (despite using factor 60 on the catamaran)  Nick sweating his way up Utila high street!


Dave and Nick - enormous Open Water Divers!

2008-05-26 to 2008-06-01

Trish: All the boys are out diving as I write this. Me, I opted for a lay in this morning. After all, we are on holiday. Sort of. The week has gone pretty quick now that 1) we have visitors and 2) we are in a luxury hotel room. When we got back to Utila on Sunday, me and Gary checked into Dave`s room at the Lighthouse, thinking we`d sort out an appartment when he arrived but enjoy a bit of pampering in the meantime. Well, we`re still there and Nick and Dave are sharing - come on... it has a/c, looks out over the harbour, and most importantly has a bath. I can`t just give that up! So I have had a wonderful week of lay-ins and hot soaks while the boys do their respective dive courses. And Nick brought me out a replacement camera for my undewater housing so I am a thoroughly happy dive bunny! 

Monday I went out on the Dolphin boat again searching for those dastardly Whale Sharks. Needless to say we saw neither Dolphins or Whale Sharks. It`s not fair. There can`t possibly be a person on the island that wants to see one as much as I do. Whale Sharks suck.!

Tuesday I started an underwater videography course with Monique. It was so much fun, but my excitement threw all diving etiquette out the window. I swam into every darn piece of fire coral down there, scared away a big Barracuda and a massive Stingray before I could film them by acting like a big unstreamlined dufus, and even managed to headplant the sandy bottom! But the scrapes and burns are worth it... I`ve fallen in love with underwater videography. Meanwhile, Nick started his Open Water Course today and Gary is a Divemaster Trainee at Utila Dive Centre. It`s all going on out here.

Wednesday the boys were off diving on their respective courses, so I headed out with a friend who Divemaster`s at one of the dive schools here for a 4 dive day. Cool. Been a while since I did 4 in one day and I`d forgotten how tiring it is! 4 excellent dives - one deep, one exploring caves (navigating some seriously small tunnels), and 2 easy wall dives; Turtles, Morays, Lobsters, Stingrays, Barracuda, Grouper...the list goes on. Nick finished his Open Water Diver today and has already enrolled for his Advanced course so I guess he has the bug. That night I went to cinema with the girls while the boys went out for a `quick dinner`. 2am Gary stumbled in, followed by Nick at 3am...the calling of Bar in the Bush was too strong. 

On Thursday, I finished my videography course with Monique. Was a great morning with lots to film, including a beautiful little turtle. I have more fire coral burns to add to Tuesdays, but for the sake of good film I really don`t care. Oh, I want to be an underwater videographer! Monique says I`m a natural, but then every night we ply her with rum so I think she`s biased! Tropical Depression Alma is passing close by and we are now starting to feel the effects. The sea was pretty choppy this afternoon, and by the time Dave arrived on the Ferry from Roatan there were some serious swells and (dare I say it) a chill in the air (ok, still in the 90`s but there`s a definite wind-chill factor). It actually rained tonight for the first time since we arrived on Utila, which was amazing because it was torrential, but not exactly what we had hoped for on Dave`s first night.

Woke up to stormy seas on Friday, and all diving has been cancelled. Boats are all sheltered in the lagoon and I suddenly realise that without sun and diving there`s nothing to do here. Well, except drink, but that`s not really my bag so I left the boys to embrace that on their own. Luckily, in Dave`s room I have Cable tv so for the first time in over a month I stayed in and had a lovely day of watching films and sleeping. That night Monique turned up at our door in a souwester complete with Gecko sheltering in her hood. A few drinks later and a quick bbq dinner, and we forgot the rain and wind and headed to Tranquilas for some dancing. Then off to Bar in the Bush where some drunkard stole my flip-flops while I was dancing!!! Is nothing sacred?!

The weekend has been a mix of cloudy skies, occasional (but torrential) rain, and stormy strength winds. Met up with the UCME crew on Saturday for  a games afternoon of Monopoly and Scrabble (do I even need to say who won that?!). More drinks on the balcony at the Lighthouse (the boys are keeping the local supermarket in business) then a dinner with the gang. All in all a very sedate day. Sunday a.m. Dave finished his Open Water course so me, Gary and Nick all went out on the same boat for some fun-dives. Halfway through our first dive I gave Gary the signal to turn around and head back to the boat only to get in response that Nick had only a quarter of his tank left! Bloody boys and their massive lungs! We made a speedy return to the boat with Gary and Nick at only about 10 metres, only descending to me when I found a barracuda then making a swift retreat to the shallows. How funny. I`d forgotten the adventures me and Tony used to have where he`d spend the entire dive 10m above me due to his enormous initial air consumption, then end up sharing my air at the end anyway. Where are you, my good old buddy, when I want someone to reminisce with?! Anyway, the 2nd dive was shallower so we all finished together and Nick`s already getting the hang of it. Dave is now a qualified open water diver, so I guess I should say watch this space for some photos of the boys next week....    

 


On our own again. Utila week 6.

2008-06-02 to 2008-06-08

Trish: Me again! I have been abandoned. Me and Gary have had a massive row over the fact that he hasn`t take me to enough theme parks, I told him this Island wasn`t big enough for the both of us and he is now waterskiing on 2 sea turtles to the mainland. That would be a far better story, but actually he`s off doing his Divemaster stuff again. Dave and Nick have now left us to go back to work (sorry to rub it in, lads!) even though I tried to persuade them to claim a tropical storm had hit and their flights were cancelled. You two are just too honest! We had a cool 2 weeks diving together. Nick and Dave both powered through both their Open Water and Advanced Open Water qualifications while they were here, and the good weather soon broke through the storm. We are now back to complaining it is too hot again!

Gary`s been busy with his DM course again this last week so me and Nick went out diving with Graham on Tuesday while Dave plodded through his Advanced course. 2 very cool dives - the first one 71 mins, the second 73 mins. Fair play to Nick who is getting the hang of his air consumption pretty quickly now and only ran out of air on the first dive 20m from the boat.! So, 2 very long dives and lots of fishies, turtles, and a seahorse (which Nick pestered - awful diving b*stard). 

Dave`s still doing his Advanced so me, Gary and Nick went out on the Dolphin boat on Wednesday. Saw nothing but flying fish. And I don`t mean enormous majestic leaping Whale Sharks. I bailed out early that night after a dodgy bbq dinner and left the boys to their own devices. Big mistake. Dave crawled in at a sociable 11, cleverly opting not to go to Bar in the Bush with the others who spent the whole night sucking balloons and drinking copious amounts of Rum and Coke. Needless to say, diving the next morning was cancelled.

They dragged themselves out of bed eventually for a couple of afternoon dives on Thursday. Not Dave, though. The little guy`s got ear problems and though he has now finished his Advanced course he was in too much pain to come out and play with us. So me, Gary and Nick went out with Graham again to dive the wreck of the Halliburton and then explore some caves. Dad bought me a fish-eye lens for my birthday last year and this is the first place it`s had a proper outing. So my wreck photos are (in my opinion) ace because the fish-eye brings in a really wide angle and condenses the shot so you get more in. Thanks, Dad! We found a beautiful Green Moray inside the wreck and I took photos of everyone with it, then decided I wanted one of me so I gave the camera to Gary. He got confused with the new lens so I started reaching out to fiddle with it and forgot I was hovering over the Moray. Next thing I know, Graham`s banging on his tank and telling me to `come up`.... as I looked down I suddenly noticed I was practically perched on the end of it`s nose! Would have been an interesting butt-scar! The caves were fun, as always. Graham knows them well so he led us through some very small swim-throughs and into pitch black caves. 2 cool dives for Nick to finish on. Went out for a farewell dinner at Driftwood cafe that night and met up with most of the UCME crew.

Waved the boys off on Vern`s catamaran the next morning and now we are alone again. Obviously we spent a very romantic day skipping along the beach hand in hand, laughing and flicking our hair around. Or, you choose which version to go with, I went out Dolphin spotting (saw none - big surprise, I`m cursed) while Gary sat in on some Open Water courses as part of his DM.

I`ve had a very hectic weekend. While Gary has been off doing his DM course (see, I am sooooo abandoned!) I have been doing laundry, cooking meals as best I can with only a microwave, and reading about Canada as the next leg of our journey draws closer. Sunday I actually strayed out to the beach with Sharon (not from Essex) and we ended up sunbathing with a Scarlet Macaw called Jerry sat on a sunbed next to us and his friend Jerry in the tree above. See, I know all the locals now. Oh, and the bonus of the week... the lady who owns the Lighthouse hotel has gone stateside for a few weeks and offered us a discounted rate if we keep an eye on the place. Well, ... ok then.!

So, fairwell Dave and Nick. It was fun, guys, get your asses out to the USA for part 2!    


DIVEMASTER P and a horrific Snorkel Test!

2008-06-09 to 2008-06-21

To say that I`m writing this with a hangover is an understatement, but it makes me feel slightly better when I remember I am now a fully fledged Divemaster!!

It´s been a pretty full on 4 weeks at Utila Dive Centre and trying to keep poor abandoned Patricia entertained, but at least now I can hold my head high in the diving community, and step out of her eldest, and significantly older  brothers shadow! I loved the course and shocked many by managing to pass both the physiology and physics exams with flying colours. It was kind of like a 4 week internship, assisting various Instructors taking students through their Open Water and Advanced courses, sorting equipment, preparing the dive boats, mapping dive sites and so on. I am now a professional diver!! It`s very cool helping people learn to dive, even when they are absolutely clueless for much of the course, the looks on peoples faces when they first drift over the edge of a reef above a huge drop off is brilliant. I definitely plan to complete my Instructor exams when we eventually get to Thailand.  

It was probably not the wisest decision to start my DM whilst NIck was still roaming around Utila, embracing island life and it´s rum with gusto! Great to have the two boys over although definitely not great for my liver.

Trish and I have managed to squeeze in some pretty cool diving as well, including 2 wicked Nitrox dives as part of our enriched air course. Basically this means we can now dive with a higher % of oxygen in the air in our tanks, meaning we can stay down much longer. First we did the wreck, staying down between 25-30 meters for about 45 minutes. The second dive was a belter as we found by chance a stunning bait ball, made up of hundreds of thousands of small fish, looking like a giant underwater tornado. 8 big 5-7ft foot long Tarpons were circling around it, taking it in turns to dart in for a snack and causing the whole thing to shimmer....splendid stuff. Other cool diving action included watching a big Grouper snap up an octopus. Although it`s body was swallowed completely it`s tentacles snaked out of the groupers mouth and gills making a pretty ghoulish spectacle. We watched for about ten minutes as the grouper just sat there looking perplexed! We also had a very close encounter with some very cool squid, who swam right up to our faces before occasionally fanning their tentacles at us as if trying to scare us.

We have spent every evening this week eating at all our favourite Utilan restaurants, gormet dining it´s not but some great venues on wooden docks above the sea, culminating last night at our favourite Driftwood. Various characters from UCME and UDC joined us as a kind of farewell dinner. We then trooped to treetanic, a bar bizarrely built half way up a tree and where the evening was to take a sharp turn for the worse.

There is a global diving tradition that no one is fully confirmed as a Divemaster until they have completed a final non-PADI test, named the Snorkel Test. Kind of like an initiation ceremony into the world of professional diving. I have had the privilege of watching several victims face the test on Utila, and was quietly hoping that I would escape unnoticed, perhaps too old now for such foolishness. Fat Chance. I soon found myself sat on the bar in Treetanic, with little Steve from UCME ringing a bell and announcing to the bar  my impending fate. In his hand was a large coke bottle filled with (ignore this bit Mum) Vodka, Rum, Tequila and Sambuca (Trish: Itw as just cordial!)!! I put on a mask and snorkel, and Steve upturned the whole lot for me to gulp down through the snorkel. Horrific, and it was not long before I lurched forward off the bar dousing myself and various punters in the vicious cocktail. The rest of the evening was a blur to say the least, although I manfully refrained from vomiting (Trish: Wow, I`m so proud).

And so our work in Utila is pretty much done. It´s been a pretty busy 2 months, infact I think I`ve done more studying and exams etc here then I did at Uni. All in all a fantastic experience, Loads of wicked new buddies, and great to contribute something to UCME. The work these guys are doing gives this Islands stunning ecology and reefs a fighting chance of survival.

I`m off for a lie down and to revel in my new realm of diving professionals before Trish and I head up to Belize next week to dive the world renowned Blue Hole!!  Living the Dream!

 


Diving the Blue Hole

2008-06-22 to 2008-06-26

We spent an unusual first night back on  mainland Honduras, staying in a very cheap and not so cheerful hotel across the road from La Ceibas "Shopping Mall". It seems strange to be sourounded by Burger King, KFC, Pizza Hut and co after Utila, but nice to put away a double whopper. I think Trish had been expecting a mall to rival that in Edmonton Canada so was no doubt disappointed with the Honduran equivalent, particularly when a local band cranked to life in the main concourse and proceeded to deafen the entire mall with reverberating renditions of Chris De Burgh. We took refuge in the cinema and thoroughly enjoyed the new Hulk film.

No rest for the wicked and the next morning we flew straight to Belize city; about an hours noisy journey north. We landed, took a suspiciously expensive cab straight to the water taxi jetty and hopped  on a launch to Cay Caulker, Belize`s Utila. It was inmmediately apparent that the Belize cays are beautiful, hundreds of small islands protected by the worlds second longest barrier reef, running south from Mexico, beautiful turquoise water and mangrove islands. Caye Caulker reminded us more of the West End in Roatan then Utila, sand roads, quaint restaurants and hotels, very caribbean. Also incredibly expensive, US prices at least for a so called back-packers island.

The following day we were up early for some planned local dives, but had to wait till the afternoon due to a series of fairly dramatic tropical squalls. As a result the afternoon diving was dramatic to say the least, charging out across the protected reef into choppy seas in a very small dive boat. Well worth it though as we descended directly above a dozen nurse sharks.

Wednesday was our day to dive the famous Blue Hole. The hole is a huge cave that collapsed during the last ice age, about  300 meters across and 130m deep, over 2 hours by boat out at the stunning lighthouse reef reserve. The journey out was an adventure in itself and set the standard for a truly "chaps" day of diving. We powered out of Cay Caulker at 5am on Irene, a 30ft dive boat with 3 Yamaha 200s strapped to the back, and charged straight into a big storm, crazy swell and driving rain...tremendous fun though, and once through it the sun shone as we curved our way around shallow reefs to the hole itself. The dive was dramatic, descending straight down like skydivers to 40 meters through amazing shades of blue next to  gigantic cave walls. At 40 meters a huge lip curves inwards revealing some of the biggest stalagtites in the world. A truely eerie and awe inspiring experience and made us feel very insignificant and vulnerable. High levels of nitrogen certainly added to the experience! Sadly it is all over far too quickly, but cool as we are escorted to the surface by distant reef sharks. In the afternoon we do 2 very cool reef dives around the lighthouse reef  reserve, great to see such a rich variety of life in this protected area. We charge back to Cay Caulker literally doing loops to avoid storms.  

Our final day on Belize is spent chilling and and avoiding the squalls. Diving the blue hole is a must do for divers, although frustrating that you only get one dive in the hole itself and its certainly not cheap. Indeed that sums up our visit to Belize, beautiful, dramatic, lots of must dos and sees, fantastic marine reserves and islands etc, but really expensive, to the point that you almost doubt why you went, but its too good to miss. 


The Honduran Jungle

2008-06-27 to 2008-06-30

Trish: So now all our diving is behind us, for the time being at least, and we are slowly but surely working our way to the Caribbean to meet Dad and Tony in Martinique. The night before we left Cay Caulker it was thunderstorms, lightning and torrential rain all night, so we were very glad to find that the ferry was still running back to the mainland. Weather plays quite a big part out here in whether day to day things happen or not, and I had visions of being stuck on the island (with nothing to do but dive...what a trauma) sitting out a tropical storm as our friends did last month. Anyway, we got our boat/taxi/plane/taxi combo from Cay Caulker, Belize, to the Pico Bonito National Park in the Honduran jungle and checked into our luxury tent for the night. To be fair, it was an enormous structure, but luxury?... not so much. 

After a surprisingly good night`s sleep we got up bright and early to go White Water Rafting on the Rio Cangrejal. Only 2 rafts - me, Gary and guide in one, and a German couple with their guide in the other. It was, as predicted, really good fun. We tumbled over some decent waterfalls and used more energy than we have for the last 2 months put together. The German couple got some cool footage of us flying over a 6ft waterfall, but unfortunately when it was my turn to video them I got the `on/off` buttons confused and taped only my feet. Which were nicely painted... I don`t know why the girl wouldn`t speak to me the rest of the weekend.

We never toppled the raft, but opted to jump out for the last 2 sets of rapids and body-raft them. Great fun until you hit an only-just-submerged rock with your arse.

As if that wasn`t enough exercise for the day, Gary then led me out on a 3hr hike through the jungle. I was less than enamoured with him for the hike out, but then we got to this amazing 80m waterfall. It was so slippery at the bottom that we both fell over dramatic-stylee clambering over the rocks, but when I got under it for the best shower ever I soon forgot about my cuts and bruises. Seriously, it was the most amazing feeling...80m of water cascading down on you whilst looking out onto dense Honduran jungle. We were in Jurassic Park but without the gory bits! Oh, and (Mums please don`t read the next bit!) I saw a snake on the way back to our camp which was pretty cool.

That night we upgraded to a jungle cabin so I could unpack my rucksack and `put my things out`, which is one of the things that most relaxes me when we`re constantly on the move like this. I feel much more stable when I can see my things nicely tidied and folded on shelves instead of knowing they are crammed in my rucksack. Gary watches in amusement as I unpack everything only to re-pack it all again a few hours later! At dinner the German girl is still giving me the evil eye, but I`m smirking in the knowledge that our room is nicer than theirs and I bet her things aren`t put out nicely.

The next day we said goodbye to the jungle and headed  to San pedro Sulla, a big ugly, dirty, Honduran city where we stayed overnight (and I put my things out nicely) before a manic day of flights to get to Martinique. Honduras to Miami, Miami to Dominican Republic (which was delayed so by the time we landed in Dom Rep our next flight was due to take off in half an hour) then a mad run through immigration, customs, baggage claim, check-in, immigration and passport control all in 30 mins to get our flight to Martinique! Sweat-soaked, we made it in time for Gary to have a beer at the Gate! He`s got his priorities straight.

Now we are waiting for Dad and Tony to arrive in 4 days time for the next leg... a 17 day sailing bonanza! Watch this space...if the site`s not updated in 3 weeks it means we`re run aground on a coral outcrop somewhere in the Caribbean sea! 


Sailing the Caribbean Part 1 - it`s a tough life

2008-07-01 to 2008-07-07

Trish: Well, after 3 flights and a sprint through Dominican Republic airport we finally made it to Martinique. We had 4 days to relax and explore the island before Dad and Tony arrived for our sailing trip, so we hired a car and saw the sights. Which, really are just mountains and beaches. And the busiest roads you have ever seen around the capital of Fort de France. Like being in Paris! We spent as little time as possible in the towns since a Caribbean island did not seem the place to be stuck in traffic, spent 4 happy nights cooking dinner on our balcony/kitchen, and waited for our crew to arrive. 

Gary: Martinique was certainly a bizarre experience, like someone had taken a spade and literally heaved up a chunk of France and dumped it in the Caribbean.  Lots of very French people speaking only French, a motorway, and Parisian prices to boot. There is an argument that France looks after its islands, governing them as a province of France with good infrastructure etc, but the sacrifice is the loss of that laid back Caribbean vibe mon!!

The most laid back spot is actually Le Marin, the large marina where our boat was waiting. All we needed now was an experienced captain and a no doubt enthusiastic third able seaman to make up our crew of four. And so we found ourselves back at Martinique airport in our trusty white Clio picking up Captain O`Donnell and first mate Tony Wickenden, Trish`s Dad and eldest (though young at heart) brother (Trish: I told him not to put `eldest`, Tone!!!). Our home for the next 16 days would be the Molokai, a 47 foot single hull sailing boat, reassuringly described as a `class A ocean going vessel` able to cope with 7 metre waves and tasty winds. The captain indeed was quick to point out that we were entering the rainy / hurricane season, and the marina weather office informed us that Tropical storm Bertha was currently out in the Atlantic but luckily heading north. I was quietly reassured by the outward calm of a captain with decades of experience at sea and by Tony`s stories of seafaring prowess !?!?  

Our first sail was a loosener from Le Marin around the corner to St Anne, via  Diamond Rock - a tiny island that the English invaded and held against the French for  many months which must have been pretty annoying for the French since it is less than a mile offshore of Martinique! But it`s hardly the Falklands so we let them have it back in the end. A beautiful day and fantastic to be motoring along the Caribbean sea. We very quickly had to get to grips with the boat, the engine, on board GPS, charts, the jib and main sail, the windlass, winches, the galley, cabins and cosy heads, fenders, and various other nautical necessities. Dinner on our first evening was spent on board - a somewhat spicy pasta dish made with some of the wonderful local peppers and chillis.

Day 2 and our first major crossing from Martinique to St Lucia, a good four hour sail. Again, beautiful summers day and a pleasant following wind. First mate (Trish: Ships Janitor!) Tony whipped up his speciality, just fried eggs, fueling up the crew for the journey ahead. We soon had both sails up and were making magnificent progress, waypoints entered on the GPS and properly sailing......splendid stuff. Trish took the wheel but very quickly abandoned it again after what she called `an onslaught of back seat sailing`. Events soon took an unexpected turn, however, as Tony took her place. Within minutes I noticed he had on a pained expression, and was soon lying flat out bravely attempting to hold down his eggs! Mercifully for Tony however we were soon sailing along the protected leeward side of stunning St Lucia and into Rodney Bay for lunch. We chugged out again an hour later but only for a short motor along the coast to the hidden gem of Marigot Bay, hidden away behind forest covered hills and fondly known as Hurricane hole (thankfully because it is a good place to hide from them!). The first bar we went in declared they have a 2 for 1 happy hour, all day every day!! The joys of sailing were toasted by all, many times!

Trish: I must just add here that in spite of only just recovering from his egg-sickness, Tony still managed to get us in trouble with the locals in Rodney Bay. As in all the ports of call, various boats came out to our mooring to try to sell us fish, T shirts, diesel and water etc. At Rodney Bay Tony unbeknownst to me started calling the fruit man back after I`d said no thankyou, and then disappeared into the galley below. I ended up being the focus of a 5 minute swearing and gesticulating backlash at our boat for wasting the fruit man`s time when I tried to send him away again! My years of selling used cars did me well here as he could not shock me with any language I hadn`t heard before, but Cheers, Tone, for abandoning your baby Sis!  

Gary: The following morning we had a fine breakfast at Doolittles, famous due to some film with Eddie Murphy (Trish: Rex Harrison!!! Someone doesn`t know his push-me-pull-yous from his Big Pink Sea Snails!). We watched with some concern as Tony enthusiastically chomped his way through a fried egg dominated fry up. It was also during breakfast that we first noticed his odd habit of wearing his watch incredibly tight, resulting in a swollen hand, and his pirate name for the rest of the trip, `Watchstrap` Tony Wickenden. It will come as no surprise that no sooner had we clambered aboard the dingy and fired up the outboard old Watchstrap was looking less then ship shape. As we sailed out of the bay in glorious conditions he once again prostrated himself out on deck, this time munching an apple which he weakly claimed was an old  mariners cure for the dreaded sickness (I have to say that I found this whole episode enormously entertaining, especially as Tony had suggested his concern at the start of the voyage for my well being in this area!!)  The glorious Pitons soon rose up ahead of us, two giant spears of volcanic rock around 800m high knifing up from the St Lucia coastline and we were soon moored up in majestic Souffriere bay between them. After an hours snorkelling the Captain took us for a quite splendid lunch. The venue was a hotel 300m above the bay in between the 2 pitons, and you`ve guessed it, an open air terrace with truely breathtaking views out across the bay. The entire crew agreed if there is a better spot for lunch with a view we are yet to find it, anywhere! Four hours later and a very sleepy, full and satisfied crew headed back to the Molokai for an early night in preperation for an early sail to Bequia the next morning. 


In the footsteps of Captain Jack Sparrow

2008-07-08 to 2008-07-12

Trish: All hands on deck at 5.30am the next day as the boys prepared courses, sails and other manly things whilst I took photos of a beautiful dawn under the Pitons. This is such a dramatic landscape and the lunch venue yesterday was so fantastic that Dad is now trying to leave harbour as quick as possible so that I forget it and drop the idea of it as a perfect wedding venue! We have a long trip today, but the wind is not with us so we motor the first 4 hours to St Vincent where I as Galley Maid prepare another tremendous `deli quality` lunch before the boys whip us the sails and we really get going. We were joined by 2 sets of Spinner dolphins during the day, neither of which hung around long enough to get in the water with. We did have one `overboard` incident as Tony threw himself across the deck whilst attempting to lay out a sunbathing towel. He stayed on board, but his hat alas launched itself out to sea. Captain Patrick had no interest at all in turning around for it, but as it floated further and further away like Tom Hanks` Wilson ball, our ship`s janitor`s face got so forlorn (it was his `Egypt hat`) that we did go back for it and in more of a destruction than rescue attempt Gary dived on top of it, brought it back on board and all was well. We arrived in Admiralty Bay, Bequia, early afternoon, and I now know what Dad and his sailing buddies do for 2 weeks - sail from one island`s bar to another! We spent the afternoon enjoying more happy hours looking over the turquoise water of the harbour. 

The next day we spent chilling out in Bequia. The town has one main road, with very quaint multicoloured shops and a great fruit market. Me, Gary and Tony took the dinghy an spent the afternoon snorkelling -  lobsters, squid, morays and lots and lots of fishies (Gary managed to put his hand through an urchin (again))  - while Dad had the diesel man top us with water and fuel. A very civilised day.

We sailed out of Bequia the following day. It`s cooler today, probably mid 90`s, so we had one more quick stroll around town before putting up sails and heading for Mustique. As we hit 7 knots and the waves started crashing over the bow, Dad retreated below to check the charts and I had a doze in the galley. 2 hours later, they were very wet and tired and me and Dad were fresh as daisies... I`m learning from my father - when it looks like hard work on deck, it`s time to check the charts!! More snorkelling ensued followed by cocktails at Basils Bar, haunt of the rich and famous of Mustique. Had a wicked taxi tour of the island and saw Mick Jaggers, Brian Adams, Lacostes, Tommy Hillfigers house etc then dinner back at Basils. Incidentally, me and Tony are thinking that hiring Brian Adam`s house would also be a very cool wedding venue. Dad ignores this idea completely.

So, finally we set off for the Tobago Cays. Tony, now having avoided eggs for several days, is free from sickness and embracing his janitorial role of cleaning the toilets. We also let him pretend to be in charge of sails and tying up the dinghy at night (a role which involves his getting up to check it hasn`t floated away at unearthly hours). Gary is Nav man since he won`t show anyone else how to use the GPS, (gary: And thankfully chef, a word on Watchstrap and Trish`s Corned beef hash later!) and maker of all other knots (hence we lost a fender out to sea on the sail from St Lucia). Dad is Captain and must be obeyed immediately unless you want the same instruction repeated 22 times. He also takes charge of the charts in a storm, when it is imperative he is below decks in the warm. Me, I`m in charge of cleaning the Galley, which isn`t such a great job when you live with 3 men who leave trails of destruction behind them whenever they use the fridge/stove etc. My other job has become sleeping in the face of adversity, when mayhem is ensuing all around and the crew are proving their hardiness it`s alot easier to lay my head down and doze the hours away than fight for who gets to take the wheel or put the sails up! 

Anyway, we arrived at the Cays around lunch time. I`ve seen it on postcards and it makes you think `it can`t be that nice, they must have photoshopped it`, but it is. It`s the most beautiful spot in the Caribbean. We anchored up 50 metres or so from one of its desert islands, and donned our snorkelling gear. There were turtles and stingrays everywhere, so many that in the end we didn`t even bother pointing them out to each other. We swam to shore and sat on the beach looking out to sea and it was just breathtaking. The next Cay over, about 300m away was the one where Captain Barbosa abandoned Captain Jack in the first Pirates film, with only a bottle of rum and a gun with one bullet. The water is so shallow everywhere... probably never more than 15m in the `deep` water between the Cays... and it`s clear blue and green. We were one of only 4 or 5 boats in the whole place so it was like having our own palm tree covered desert island paradise. It`s my favourite place in the Caribbean for sure. We spent 2 days and nights zipping aroung in the dinghy between islands, and it wasn`t enough.  

 

 


Sailing Part 3: The Corned Beef Hash diaries

2008-07-13 to 2008-07-20

Gary: Sadly we had to leave the Cays, definitely our number one contender thus far for the best snorkelling site on the planet, tremendous. As we cautiously made our way across the low lying reefs the Captain shrewdly sent old Watchstrap up to the bow on `reef watch`, an interesting role considering the accurate on board GPS system. Perhaps it was to keep the strangely accident prone Tony out of harms way. I guess there are only so many times you can bang your head before doing some long term damage. An hour later and we sailed around a protective reef into Union Island. The Anchorage Yacht Club there had a very nice bar and according to the Captain served a mean Rum Punch. `Mean` was in fact an understatement and the entire afternoon disappeared in a blur for most of the crew. After an unruly hour back on board singing wildly to Credance Clear Water Revival it appeared that Watchstrap and me had indeed gone up around the bend. Dinner ashore was a shambles really, and we left shortly after I covered my entire pizza in salt thinking it was Parmesan cheese! (Trish: No comment I could make here would do that incident justice)

The next morning we purchased some supplies before making the short sail across to Petit St. Vincent. It`s a beautiful privately owned palm tree covered island with one large luxury hotel. We spent the day relaxing, and were a little disappointed when we popped ashore to be told the restaurant was full. Making a reservation for the following evening we consolled ourselves with the fact that we had some fresh supplies. After an afternoon nap I awoke to a busy galley, Tony and Trish preparing dinner (Trish: Hang on, I had nothing to do with this other than mentioning that Mum makes good Corned Beef Hash. I hold no blame for the resulting culinary incident). Although it didn`t  taste as bad as it sounds, I suppose, their mushy corned beef, tomato and onion fried thing with beans was certainly different. The Captain certainly had not seen its like aboard ship before, and as Trish slyly flung hers over board even the waiting gulls were heard to cry "yours, yours, yours"!!! The next morning we sailed out along the reef from PSV a short distance to what is officially the smallest island in the world, Morpion. Just a tiny permanent sand island with a wooden parasol. Lovely. We were joined by a jolly French family who shared their bubbly with us. That evening we realized why the Captain had been so disappointed at missing dinner in the restaurant (other then the corned beef special). Fantastic outdoor setting and great food.

The 16th is indeed an important day in the Maritime calander, old `Watchstrap` Tony Wickendens birthday no less. We started the day with Tony opening his cards before heading back to Union to refuel. The Captains concern at how much fuel we appeared to be getting through was justified when we realized that the gauge was stuck on a third empty. We then began our journey back northwards and made our way up to Canouan Island. We past through several downpours on route. Upon arrival we were reliably informed that a tropical depression was lurking in the Atlantic and heading our way possibly tomorrow. Unperturbed by the now persistant rain, we had a splendid afternoon and evening playing cards in a bar then dinner. Tony opened a selection of fine local gifts and a very insightful poem by Trish O`Donnell. Her  `Ode to a Ships Janitor` is now regarded as a classic in nautical writing, chronicling the immensely entertaining highs and lows of `Watchstraps` Caribbean adventure.

The Captain was satisfied with the weather report he picked up at eight the following morning, so with a couple of shrewd reefs in the sail we headed out for our return sail to Bequia. As we rounded the headland the swell picked up along with the wind, but nothing too alarming so the Captain hands me the wheel and we sail on. A little later however and it is obvious that the wall of grey off to starboard is heading our way and we are soon hit by a hefty squall. Rain drives in and a fine following wind, and we are soon ploughing along at 12 knots, Tony and I are suspiciously the only ones on deck but high fiving and whooping as we cut through the waves, pretty exhilirating stuff. Suddenly however we are in the eye of the storm, and the wind dies then changes direction. Visibility is about 20 meters. We are hit by a viscious wind from our starboard side. The Molokai shot forward and lurched wildly to port, the jib almost in the water, I was looking down to my left practically into the ocean. This was definitely a little scary."Turn into wind", yelled Watchstrap, and soon the Captain was back on deck and he and Tony struggled with the flailing jib as I turned us into the gale. Next several ropes got tangled and Tony bravely groped his way to the main mast to put things right. Amazingly, during all this excitement Trish remained below decks completing a jigsaw puzzle, popping up just to calmly take some snaps before heading back down for a snooze!!!!!! Soon the squall passed by and we were sailing back into the calm of Bequia.

Trish: A note here on the squall from the inside of the ship. It`s pretty difficult, let me tell you, to put together a 500 piece `Marine Scene` puzzle when the pieces are jumping off the table, the room`s tilted at 30 degrees and half of your crew are just outside the window distracting you with their shouts and lurches across the deck in bright yellow souwesters. I wasn`t the only O`Donnell in the galley when we hit the squall. Dad had quietly put himself on Chart duty just before the rain came in but when my entire puzzle started to shake off the table and I had one foot on the wall (which was nearly the floor) to keep upright I had to urge him outside to offer some expertise. So I spent the rest of the trip alone in the warm and dry, got bored, and fell asleep. Now there`s a sailing story for you. 

After a day of relaxing in Bequia we prepared to make our final sail across to St. Vincent on the morning of the 19th. The weather was still a little unpredictable but we were determined to take some snaps of the Molokai in full sail. Half a mile out of harbour, and still in the relative protection of the island I got into the dinghy with the camera and was cast out to sea. The boys then put up the sails and did some laps around me while I shot away with the trusty Nikon. After 5 minutes or so of bobbing up and down I noticed that I could no longer see the island behind them due to a wall of grey water heading our way very quickly. I shoved the camers into its case and wrapped it in a carrier bag then set out to try and catch them up to get back on board. Unfortunately, the seas were by now pretty choppy, the Molokai was pretty much enveloped in the rain, and I, being the only weight in the dinghy sat right at the back, was getting nowhere quickly except up in the air. I could see Dad shouting and pointing as they tried to turn in my direction but the wind was all over the place and all that was happening was I was chasing them around in a big arc in the middle of the Ferry lane, bailing out my dinghy and hugging the camera for dear life! By the time they got the sails down and I caught up with them I was drenched, shattered and crying with laughter. They looked alot more stressed than me and Gary had a huge rope burn on his hand so I guess Dad had been working them hard to try and rescue me!  Looking back, I`m amused that they let me take the dinghy out on my own in the first place since the only other time I`d taken the tiller I lost all control and rammed into the Molokai at full speed, but at least I have a story to tell now of a storm where I wasn`t asleep!

The rest of the day`s sail back to St Vincent was equally as eventful as we had gale force 8 winds with us most of the way, along with 2-3m waves. At some points the entire bow was underwater! These were the biggest waves we`d had all trip and it was full on for a good hour or so. Tony and Gary again loved the excitement, though it took a while for Dad to give up the wheel. I was still pretty wet and cold from my dinghy ordeal and decided to take a few snaps then go back to my role of chief snoozer in the galley. By the time I came back on deck we were moored up in St Vincent harbour, but I remember waking up at different points and seeing them out the window looking like someone was throwing buckets of water over them!

The next day we had to say goodbye as me and Gary headed for Miami and then Canada, and Dad and Tony went home. It was a wonderful 2 weeks and I`m leaving with a heavy heart, excited to be starting the next leg of our trip but sad that this one is over. Definitely looking forward to many more sailing trips in the future. We have a Captain lined up, and as long as he doesn`t further injure himself, a Ship`s Janitor. What we really need is a chef....

Thanks, Dad, for a fantastic trip.  

 


Vancouver

2008-07-21 to 2008-07-27

Trish: After a stopover in Miami, we flew to Vancouver where our friend Shari (who we met on our Antarctic cruise in January) met us and took us back to her place. We are renting the guest appartment in her block for a week, and it`s huge - we can see the whole of Vancouver city from our 21st floor balcony. We are 10 mins out of town on the Skytrain (Monorail) so on our first day we went in, had a quick wander around the shops - bit depressing because I`m not allowed to buy anything - then met Shari after she finished work and walked through Gastown to have dinner with one of her friends, Rob, in the Steamworks Brewery there. Saw some Totem Poles for sale for $12000. Who buys them?! The next day we did more sightseeing in Granville Island (big marketplace), Yaletown (the yuppie area), Chinatown and Gastown again. Met Shari that night after work and we headed down to the beach to watch the World Fireworks Championships. It was Canada`s entry and the beaches were packed. The theme was Godzilla, and it was set to music. All in all a pretty impressive night. 

The next few days Shari took off work and proved herself to be as energetic as all the Canadians we`ve met on our travels so far (We`re thinking of you, Shazza!)! We went to the aquarium and saw the new Beluga whale calf that was born in June, then walked around the entire sea wall at Stanley Park in spite of Gary`s continued attempts to get her to take a short cut! The park is beautiful, but we weren`t dressed for the unexpectedly good weather. That night we had dinner with another of Shari`s friends, Murray, an expert on road trips around British Columbia who helped us plan our upcoming trip to the Rockies. Still recovering from all the previous days` walking, we set out the following morning for Grouse Mountain, situated right next to the city. There, me and Gary did the `Grouse Grind`, which entails walking up the mountain ignoring the perfectly good cable car which could also take you to the top. 900m vertical climb in 2.6km worth of steps, 2850 steps to be precise. No flat places to recover, just step after step after step! Nature`s stairmaster, they call it. I did it in 1hr 18 mins, Gary probably could have done under 1hr but he had to keep waiting for me (because he lurves me!). Shari met us at the top, looking annoyingly fresh after having to endure no more than a crowded Gondola ride. At the top we saw a lumberjack show and some orphaned Grizzly bears who had been rescued and now live in a reserve up there. Grouse Mountain is a ski-resort in the winter and has all the rolling hills and trees you`d expect. A very pretty place with great views over the city. After another long day we headed back to Sharis. Once again I find myself asking the question how did I get talked into doing something so stupid as climbing a mountain?

Our last few days in Vancouver city were spent recovering aching muscles, doing normal things like going to the cinema, and buying a tent. My first ever owned tent. Not sure if that`s a good or a bad thing. We put it up in our room (told you it was a big room) and it seems ok so far. I have suggested to Gary that we keep doing just that... renting rooms and setting up the tent in them therefore being able to tell people that we were camping but actually being warm and cozy, and safe from bears. And cougars. And beavers (just joking, although I`m told that Beaver Fever is a nasty incapacitating disease. Shazza!).

We have been bowled over by Canadian hospitality. Bearing in mind we only knew Shari for a week in Antarctica (mainly spent smelling of penguin poo), she has let us take over her apartment, her car, and her life for the time we were here (and even delivered me a raccoon when I wanted one)! So my last entry here has to be to say a big `Thankyou` to you, Shari. I hope we can repay the kindness in England (but I won`t urge you climb any mountains I promise!). 

      


Vancouver Island: In Search of Grizzlies & Killer Whales

2008-07-28 to 2008-08-04

Gary: Almost 4 months ago Trish and I were sat in our favourite bar, The Rock, in Puerto Ayora on the Galapagos Islands with a new diving buddy of ours, Joern. He introduced us to a couple he had made friends with on a cruise of the Islands, Paul & Geri, both retired and incredibly well travelled teachers. We had a few beers and chatted for an hour or so, and when they left they insisted that if we made it up to Vancouver Island we should stay with them. I presume they thought that would be the last they would hear of us!! It  turned out to be an extremely fortunate encounter for me and Trish.

We took a very scenic hour and a half ferry journey across from Vancouver to Vancouver Island in glorious sunshine to the port of Nanaimo on the east coast of the Island. VI is over 400km long and over 100km wide running just off the west coast of British Columbia. We were met by Paul & Geri and driven for about an hour to their home town of Port Alberni, pretty much in the centre of the Island on the end of a long inlet that runs in from the west coast. We have our own room with a big comfy bed and much to Trish`s delight they possess a large bath. We spend the first evening eating fantastic fresh prawns and drinking copious amounts of wine and amaretto with Paul & Geri and their friends Jim & Laura, the first of many more teachers (retired or otherwise) we will encounter.

Unfortunately the next day it rains, the first here for a few weeks and we are politely accused of bringing English weather with us. It does appear however that for much of the year the west coast of BC is even wetter than England. This is in fact one of the few faults we can find with this incredible Island. We do make it out to explore the stunning  Cathedral Grove, a reserve of 300 year old giant Douglas Fir trees.  We spend the rest of the day chilling, drinking and eating steak....The following day is wet again, but in the afternoon the clouds vanished and me, Trish, Paul and Jim headed out mountain biking along an old abandoned logging railway line through forests and farmland (Trish: no bears yet. Or beavers.) before another splendid roast chicken dinner. (Trish: We will leave Vancouver Island a stone heavier if we`re not careful!) 

For the next three days we had the house to ourselves as Paul and Geri went off to Vancouver and then to a wedding. We spent the first couple of days just enjoying having a house again before hiring a car and heading up to explore the north east coast of the Island. In true Canadian style the smallest car they had available was a big old 7-seater Dodge Grand Caravan, perfect for our camping trip. The 4 hour drive north took us over 7 hours as we stopped so much to admire views en route. We spent an hour spelunking in Horne Lake Caves - possibly the worst prepared cavers ever...crawling through narrow wet tunnels with completely the wrong gear on and only one working torch between us in the pitch black (Trish: ah, yes. It appears that my headtorch is far better at lighting up a Sudoku in the tent at night that lighting up a huge subterranean cave). Trish stole the show by falling nearly waist deep with one leg in a subterranean puddle. (Trish: We had to leave the caves soon after that as my right leg started to go numb with cold) We travelled up the coast road dotted with smaller and increasingly remote and rustic old logging and fishing towns before a splendid 2 hours along an almost deserted highway into the wilderness of northern BC, surrounded by mountains and forests. Our destination, Telegraph Cove, turned out to be perfect. With an official population of only 6 during the winter, it`s an old logging/fishing bay now recreated with a very traditional style boardwalk, little cabins, a cool campsite, and is the home to a range of whale and bear watching companies, fishing charters and the like. It`s full of outdoorsy types with immense 4 wheel drive trucks here to fish for salmon and view the incredible marine and wildlife. We are given a great little spot in the camp site for our new tent and celebrate our arrival at this amazing place with a few beers and fish & chips. One of the locals directs us out to the edge of the Cove where we stand amongst some new plots of land waiting for development and catch our first site of Orcas in the bay. It`s a quite beautiful spot, stunning views and what could be better then viewing Killer Whales from your back yard!! Trish and I ponder the chances of us ever buying a plot for a summer retreat before pottering back to our tent.

At 9 the following morning we head out on board a whale watching boat, well wrapped up as it`s extremely cold out on the water until the clouds are burnt off in the afternoon. We are literally only ten minutes out when a shout goes up and several big black dorsal fins are heading towards us. We spend the next 2 hours following a magnificent pod of 7 Killer Whales, `A-pod` to be precise, patrolling the bay looking for the salmon which normally pass through the Johnstone Strait in huge numbers in July and August. They are over 200 Orcas that visit this area every year to either feed on salmon or seals and dolphins. `A-pod` are what`s known as `resident` orcas, they solely eat fish and never mix with the `transient` pods which eat mammals. The seals in the bay aren`t even scared of `A-pod` since they recognise the difference between the Orca types. Our boat has a hydrophone so we can listen to these magnificent creatures chatting away to each other as they hunt. We leave this pod only to watch some fish eagles and Harbour seals before following a huge feeding Humpback. These giants have just started to return here after being whaled to extinction in the area 30 years ago. 

Trish: We also saw our first Black Bears from the whale watching boat. As we headed back to Telegraph Cove we passed a small beach round the back of our campsite where a mother and 2 cubs were forraging at low tide for shellfish. Very, very cute. We walked round there once we returned to camp, but the tide was now in and the bears had moved on. That night on our way to get some dinner we saw them again, this time eating berries on bushes by the side of the trail from camp into the Cove. It seems that they live here next to humans quite happily, and this could even help their chances of survival as the noise that we make will possibly keep the bigger, more agressive males away. They look just like little Teddy Bears, perfect little ears and noses. I want one!!!

Gary: Although such a magnificent encounter sounds hard to beat the following morning we set out to do just that. An early start, packing up our tent at 5.30a.m., we clambered aboard a powerboat at 7 and set off for the famous Knights Inlet on the mainland. It`s a breathtaking journey along the inlet, the largest on the North American west coast, surrounded on both sides by forested mountains and heading inland towards snow capped mountains and glaciers. It takes us two hours, with stops to watch Dalls porpoise (the fastest dolphins in the ocean looking like small Killer Whales) and Pacific white-sided dolphins fishing. We finally arrive at Glendale Cove, a beautiful river estuary and one of the best places in North America to watch Grizzly Bears. We transfer to a flat bottomed herring skiff and almost immediately spy a female Grizzly and her cub feeding along the shoreline. Our guide then hops out and drags us up the shallow river and we get to watch another female fishing for salmon.

Trish: The salmon run hasn`t really started yet... it will be another couple of weeks before the rivers are full, but I guess the bears are hungry and this one stared at the empty river for a good half an hour before one lonely salmon swam by. She charged in after it, splashing up and down the river then rearing up on her hind legs in a desperate last-ditch search as it escaped. It was a bit sad - the bears are so beautiful that you really want to see them succeed. Many die from starvation each year, even here where the salmon run is quite predictable. I hope our ones are well fed in the next few months.

A quick note on the salmon run: This year, the salmon are not starting to appear in the abundance that they do usually. All the fishermen back at the Cove are saying there is nothing out there and coming back with poor catches. It`s due to lots of reasons, all of which being our (humans, not specifically me and Gary who are trying our best to be at one with nature) fault. A big problem is that Atlantic salmon are being bred in fish-farms in the Island`s waterways and they are harbouring sea lice which then attach themselves to any wild salmon swimming by. The smaller fish can`t handle the lice (which fall off when cooked so aren`t harmful to humans) and die, meaning there are far less wild salmon around the following year. It`s an evil cycle. Note the fact here that the fish being farmed are `Atlantic` salmon, in the Pacific ocean. 30,000 of them escaped from a farm a few weeks ago, and that`s apparently not a rare occurance. Think how much that messes up the marine balance. Global warming is always an issue, but the worst problem of all is over-fishing. If too many females are fished then there are not enough fry born to fill the rivers in following years. Another big problem, mainly for the killer whales, is pollution. All the chemicals that we use eventually get washed into the sea and the salmon get them in their system. It may not make them sick, but the Killer Whales that eat them eat so many that the toxins build up and up and up in their systems and eventually leads to death by poisoning. Killer Whales can live up to 98 years old, but we are causing their very premature deaths. It`s very sad. So only buy wild salmon, buy organic food (the pesticides from crops go into the water, is eaten by whatever the salmon eat, and ends up in the Killer Whales` tummy) and use as few chemicals as you can. Seeing these beautiful creatures up close makes you want to spend your whole life protecting them. Anyway... the lesson endeth here...

Gary: We saw one more Grizzly on our trip, eating grass in the sun. We felt really priviliged to see these magnificent animals in such stunning wilderness, and again it has only whetted our appetite for more. Our Grizzly guide works for 4 months with the Grizzlies before heading up to Churchill at the end of October to guide with Polar Bears....we have his email address and who knows!!!!  


Vancouver Island Part 2 - Beaver Fever

2008-08-05 to 2008-08-11

Gary: After our wildlife adventures we next spent several days enjoying the more civilised aspects of this fine Island. First Paul & Geri drove us across to the West coast and perhaps the Islands most popular destination, Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park. Tofino is a charming fishing town turned into a high end tourist trap on the edge of the National Park, which consists of miles of stunning beaches, old forests and a dramatic rocky Pacific coastline. 

Trish (I`m taking over while Gary packs): After choosing 3 live crabs to eat for dinner (yeah, didn`t feel that great about it at the time but man they tasted good!) we visited the slightly more rustic Ucluelet and had a quick sample of the Wild Pacific Trail, a pathway cut around the coastline of the Pacific. It`s a good thing I`m writing this else you`d be being told about the rugged, dramatic, waves crashing down blah blah blah... All I`m going to say is that it was a cool walk and I saw a seal. Yeh!!! After our day out on the west coast we spent a day chilling on Jim and Laura`s boat at Sproat Lake. Very hot, lots of beautiful posh houses with boats docked outside and people whizzing around on wakeboards and inflatable chairs. We all went in, crazy fools, and it was freeeeeezing. That night we went to a dinner party at one of the lake houses and I saw ...wait for it... 2 beavers swim by. For the last week or so I have been asking Paul and Geri`s friends where I might find a beaver and getting nothing but chuckles in reply. Even the Grizzly bear guide laughed at me. I was beginning to lose interest in my beaver-quest but now I am vindicated. 2 Canadian beavers, which is a lot more than Gary has seen (Gary: not for the lack of trying! ).  

No rest for the wicked (or the retired), and the next day we are taking part in a 32km, 14 person bike ride through mountain trails and beachside paths. Fortunately this is followed by an afternoon of beautiful food and lots of drinks at Ken and Irene`s. By the time we left there me and Gary were shattered and had to bale out of the game of `Batchi` (correct me if my spelling is totally out... some Canadian version of lawn bowls which seems to involve serious amounts of alcohol consumption). So we enjoyed an evening of trashy TV - n/b: if you can find `Trailer Park Boys` on cable, you`ll love it. Very british comedy - while Paul and Geri partied the night away. Seriously, if retirement is this hectic, I`m working forever. Well, maybe not forever. Let`s not be too hasty.

We spent a couple of days in Victoria, which is meant to be just like England. Well, I can sort of see it... Lots of manicured lawns and floral arrangements spelling out `Welcome to Victoria`, and their government buildings are in the same style. But I think it`s more an idealised version of what England looks like to tourists. No traffic and therefore no road rage, and no drunken idiots outside the local boozers. No, they`re not quite there yet. It was very pretty, and we had a great curry (now THAT felt like home!) and stayed over at another set of Paul and Geri`s friends houses for the night. By the way, rent the film `In Bruges` if you don`t mind the swearing... very funny.

And that, really, if you bulk it out with lots of great food and even more drink on Gary`s behalf was how our trip to the Island went. Lots of days out and about, and lots of time spent with a group of really nice, really funny, mainly retired teachers. Who are a lot fitter than we are! Paul and Geri have made their house our own, and even lent us a car now for our road trip (see next entry)! We just keep thinking how lucky we were to bump into them in the Galapagos. Because, remember, we only met them for about 1 1/2hrs before turning up on their doorstep. We have been welcomed into so many people`s homes for lunches and dinners and overnight stays. Again we have been bowled over by Canadian hospitality. Thankyou to all of you, we look forward to returning the kindness when you come to England. (But not before we come back for more Canadian hospitality in November!)

Gary: A quick note to explain that Beaver Fever is a very unpleasant Canadian stomach bug!

 


Meet Steve French

2008-08-12

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that Paul & Geri offered to lend us their old car for our planned road trip around British Columbia and the US. Their `91 white Toyota Corolla had not been driven for a year and looked in a sorry state. However, after a clean  looked not bad at all, especially considering the 237,000km on the clock !! Paul insured it for 3 months and put Trish and I on as names drivers and in no time we found ourselves the proud temporary owners of  `Steve French`. An odd name for sure, and came about after we watched several hilarious episodes of a cult Canadian TV show called `Trailor Park Boys` which follows the comical exploits of a bunch of hillbilly pot growers. In one particular episode a cougar ate a batch of their weed and spent the whole episode bumbling around stoned with the munchies...and you guessed it, they bizarrely named it Steve French!

After fond farewells to our slightly older buddies Paul & Geri we drove the first leg of our journey across Vancouver Island and took the ferry back to Vancouver. Steve French was purring along and we cruised into downtown in search of a camera servicing centre (Trish: after a spelunking disaster - long story, don`t worry about it). As we pulled up however a cloud of steam rose from under the hood...and a large pool of green stuff issued from underneath the car! Fortunately the camera guy knew a man, and so after putting water in the extremely hot radiator we hobbled to a local repair centre, Import Autos. They in turn were extremely helpful and spent 2 hours replacing pipes and the like and sent us on our way for a few dollars cash in hand, but with an invite to return tomorrow if problems persisted. Things seemed fine although Steve French was still suspiciously warm, and low and behold, as we pulled into a supermarket near Shari`s apartment it spewed green liquid once more. 

After a pleasant evening with Shari watching the Olympics we are about to attempt to drive the 2 hours and 2000m climb up to Whistler....via Import Autos!!! Will the Steve French road trip last more than 2 days??   


Whistler: The Kokanee Crankworx Mountain Bike Festival

2008-08-13 to 2008-08-16

Gary:  After 5 hours, a new fan switch, a few test drives, another hour, a new thermostat, and a few more test drives, Steve French was declared ready to roll. Although very late in the afternoon we headed out of Vancouver heading north for Whistler. The Sea to Sky highway is a great drive, and Trish put Steve French through his paces on the first real leg of our North American road trip climbing up to the famous skiing mecca. We camped the first night and made full use of our range of camping equipment (most of which is on loan from Paul & Geri)...Tarps, pots & pans, cutlery, cooler, 2 burner stove etc etc were all put too good use. It`s amazing all this stuff fits in the boot of the Corolla along with Trish`s pack!

We wasted no time the next morning and headed straight up the Whistler Mountain Gondola for some spectacular views of the Coastal range mountains in really hot sunshine. I suggested we should do a short trek but Trish surprised me by insisting that as we were up here we should do the renowned High Note Trek!! ( It`s obviously good for the soul this travelling lark). It was a beautiful hike around the shoulder of Whistler mountain before heading back along snowless ski runs.

Trish: Let`s just go back a bit before I continue... The High Note Trail. It`s a scorching day, and Gary wants to go walking around mountains again. Everyone is telling us to wear sunscreen even if it`s cool at the top. It is not cool at the top. In spite of the fact that trekking up some of these trails is comparable to an army training exercise, we have to pay $30 each to get the gondola up to them. Let me reiterate that... I am paying someone to make my limbs ache and my clothes soaked with sweat (I never said this was going to be a pretty picture). So if I`m paying to go up there, I was determined to get my moneys worth. Hence the suggestion of a longer trail. In retrospect, a mistake, but what doesn`t kill you makes you stronger and all that. On the plus side, the views were very beautiful - much like I`d imagine the Swiss Alps in the summer. We saw a Marmot (looks a bit like a badger crossed with a small bear) and Rambling Gaz loved it as usual (for those of you out there who used to watch the Fast Show, he`s like the Paul Whitehouse`s Val-de-ree, Val-de-rah character, always annoyingly chipper after hours of walking over hills and vales). And at least we heeded the warnings and didn`t get sunburnt. At the base of the mountain we watched the Kookanee Crankworx (Mountain Biking) Freestyle Jumping Tricks competition. These guys were crazy, doing somersaults on a bike with no feet on the pedals over a 30ft jump. Accomodation tonight and for the next 2 is the very rustic Fireside Lodge hostel since the campsite is fully booked. But we`ve come up trumps again because this place has a huge kitchen for Gary to cook in, lounge with leather armchairs for me to read in while Gary cooks, and games room with pool table for me to whip his arse afterwards.

The next day we got up early and headed back to town for a day of pampering and massages at the Whistler spa. OR, we headed straight to the mountain bike shop and hired 2 bad boy full suspension downhill racers for the day. I`m not sure when it was that this suddenly struck me as not the best idea I`d ever agreed with. Maybe at the point where I was strapping on full arm and leg protection pads and saying no thanks to the chest and back harness. Either way, before I knew it I was up Whistler mountain very carefully contemplating which way to best get down with the least amount of injury while guys flew past me doing tricks and jumps. I had very little interest in tricks and jumps at this particular moment in time. So, in 36 degree heat, I joined the realms of the Mountain Biker. I`m not going to say that I had style, elegance or grace, but I damn well gave it my best, hung on for dear life and made it down all day long with no falls. Gary sailed over jumps more concerned with getting air than safety, and did a pretty good job of looking like a seasoned biker, whilst I pottered along behind concentrating on staying upright and looking for bears in the forest. I did go over all the trail jumps, but didn`t quite fly over them like my fiance. It was more of a floundering, sometimes no feet on pedals due to loss of control sort of half jump effort. At the end of the day, thoroughly shattered and my hands stuck in a gripping position, we joined the leagues of young, hip bikers swaggering with our bikes across the main square, all pads still on. If I could just release my fingers from this grip position I`d have felt pretty cool. We sat in a bar and watched the Slalom and Grand Slalom events, which were very fast and very scary and convinced me that I am never going to be a professional mountain biker.    

Our last day in Whistler was spend walking in that sort of `yes, we spent all yesterday throwing ourselves down mountains over logs and jumps and can`t walk very well now` manner. We hung around the festival tents getting loads of freebies, which sort of felt like shopping so I was happy, and I was able to enjoy the town for a day without putting my body through any sort of trauma. 

Whistler`s been a very cool stop on our trip and we surely picked the best time of the summer to be here with the Mountain Biking Festival going on. I`d be hard pushed in the future to decide whether I`d rather come back in the summer or winter. Because you know I`m a bad ass mountain bike chick now.


Jasper National Park

2008-08-17 to 2008-08-20

Gary:  The next leg of our Road Trip took us north east across BC and over the border to Alberta and Jasper National Park. It was a 2 day trip and certainly looked like a true test for Steve French. From Whistler we headed north and east descending through more fantastic mountain scenery. After passing more than one 13% downhill warning sign we were forced to pull over by a strong smell in the car.  Even I was surprised to learn that it was in fact not me, but the brakes. A timely reminder of the age of our trusty chariot and to take it easy. We have enforced a rule that neither driver is allowed to exceed the 100 km/ hour mark, one which Trish seems to be having more trouble with then me!  300km later we rolled into Kamloops, a busy stopover town in the dry interior of BC. We chose the very pleasant Knutsford campground and spent the rest of the day chilling in the sun.

Early start the next day and a long run to Jasper, around 450km. Again the scenery is quite stunning, Provincial parks galore protecting mountains and forests. To put things in perspective Canada`s National Parks alone cover an area larger then the UK. The most spectacular part of the journey however is when we finally turn east and head along the Yellowhead pass up through the Rockies into Alberta. We pass right by the magnificent mount Robson, the highest in the range at 3950 meters and crowned with numerous glaciers before dropping down into the vast Jasper / Banff National Park and the town of Jasper. 

I don`t want to over do the flowery descriptions here which I know Trish loves but safe to say it`s a pretty jaw dropping location for a town, surrounded by huge mountains and powder blue lakes ......you know the rest. We stay at the Wapiti campsite just outside of town, and treat ourselves to another very hot Chilli...great camping food. We are woken in the middle of the night by a massive thunder storm that is apparently sat right on top of us....the huge groaning cracks of thunder are even more magnificent through the nylon of our tent, as is the lightning. I won`t tell everyone but Trish grabbed my hand for protection!

The next day and the weather looked decidedly dodgy, great conditions I thought for heading out on mountain bikes. We opted for the most difficult trail first, up a big forested hill to some lakes with great views to boot. Things did not start well as we approached some horse riders along the narrow trail. The horse at the back reared in alarm then bolted forward up the trail. The horse in front took offense to this and kicked out knocking the bolting horse sideways off the trail where it violently dumped its rider, a shocked and stunned lady of middle years!! We sheepishly continued on, sometimes pushing our bikes up the steep and muddy tracks until we made it to the lakes. After a brief snack we decided to crack on and get our rental money`s worth and complete another easier trail. A major downpour and poor navigation made this anything from easy, and we finally rode back into Jasper 5 and a half hours after starting. Trish had a brave smile on her face, especially after falling in the mud just before the end! (Trish: Trish was fighting through the pain, and the niggling "why did I agree to do this to myself again" thoughts like a trooper.)

We were both exhausted and after a great shower and pub dinners we watched numerous Elk parading around our camp, one of which chased me, I think trying to assert it`s dominance. It certainly succeeded in this judging by the way I scarpered.

Trish: Another hard day in the mountains... if I`m following this trend correctly I should be suggesting to Gary that we avoid mountainous regions from now on. I just wanted to add a quick note here that the reason we hired aforementioned bikes was to go wildlife spotting in the forests. We have been told that bears, moose, wolves and elk are abundant, and you`re even meant to wear a bear bell so they hear you coming and you don`t surprise them. Or it`s one of those `let`s make the tourists look stupid by wearing bells` ideas. We played it safe and went bell-less. Image comes before safety. Anyway, halfway through this massive 5hr ordeal I mentioned to Gary that all the animals were probably outside our tent. I wish I`d known at the time how right I was!! Would have saved the last 2hrs of agony, and my fall in the mud!

Our last day in Jasper was spent walking around the town and recovering, again.   


The Icefields Parkway to Banff National Park

2008-08-21 to 2008-08-22

Gary:  Rated in the top ten drives in the world by whoever gets to decide these things, the Icefields Parkway runs south from Jasper town for 230km to Lake Louise, climbing to over 2000m at its highest point. Luckily we are in the perfect car for such a journey.

We left Jasper early in slightly overcast conditions and soon made our first stop, the Athabasca falls...very cool powerful falls crashing through an ancient canyon. From here we then climbed slowly following the magnificent Athabasca river valley surrounded on both sides by jagged peaks.

Next came the famous Glacier of the same name, which drops down from the Columbia ice field, the largest in North America at around 300km squared in area and 350m deep! The weather wasn`t great so we decided against the famous snow truck ride onto the Glacier and instead trooped to it`s toe. Only ten years ago the Glacier reached down to the road but now it`s a half mile walk upwards...Global warming eh? Apparently the stuff here inspired Al Gore. Considering it`s August it was damn cold so we headed back to the car on up to the highest point of the parkway, the Sunwapta pass at 2030m, walled on both sides by glaciers and icefields beyond. It was here in particular that we both noticed the throaty growling sound coming from the car, more like a pimped escort with a phat air filter (Trish`s term) than our trusty Corolla. Please be a hole in the exhaust!?

To make things worse it began to throw it down, and we spent a very edgy hour on our very slick tyres winding through the Rockies through storm clouds. Thankfully we made it down to Lake Louise, but the weather was so bad we sped on past and trundled our way another 60km to Banff. After bravely erecting our tent in the rain and arguing pleasantly as to how to hang the tarp above it we went to explore the almost iconic Banff town. It didn`t look that great in the rain so we went to an Irish pub and drank Kilkenny and ate shepherds pie. They were having a  major street concert with big name Canadian bands on with an anticipated audience of 30,000. Only a thousand turned up due to the rain!

The next day was thankfully brighter, and I celebrated by charging straight up Sulphur mountain, overlooking Banff town. The trail switchbacks sharply under the gondola to the top, a climb of about 5km, 1200m to the summit which stands at 2300m. The views were breathtaking, despite the fact that the first thing I heard upon staggering to the top was an elderly lady fresh from the gondola declaring to someone "I was born in Yorkshire". Trish had similarly triumphed by traversing the doorways of all the shops on Banff high street (Trish: getting freebies by giving my camping sobstories to all the ladies working on cosmetic counters, yeh!). We spent the rest of the day driving around stunning lakes and valleys looking for wildlife, mainly big horned sheep, mountain goats and bears, but despite Trish`s never say never attitude our search was fruitless. We had to return to Banff high street to cheer her up. It is a gorgeous alpine style town, and probably deserves all the hype! The surrounding mountains and meadows are magnificent, and it`s no surprise that it`s a globally acclaimed destination. Not cheap, but fine when you`re camping for 20 dollars a night.

 


Lake Louise and more importantly, a Moose

2008-08-23

Trish: Just a very quick entry here to show our final movements before we hit the States (and what a rigmarole that was, but I don`t want to spoil my final Canada entry with tales of woe at US Immigration... see next page for those). We packed up our tent with now military precision and drove back up to Lake Louise, which we had bypassed a few days ago due to bad weather. 

By the time we got to the lake, the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and there were already about 200 other people there all crowding around to take the same photo... the lake with the mountains and glaciar behind. Tourists began multiplying so what we did was hire a canoe, paddle out into the middle of Lake Louise and made sure we were in all their shots! There was something quite therapeutic about sitting on the lake, away from all the hustle and bustle of the shoreline. We paddled around the edge in search of Mountain Goats, but I`m starting to believe they are nothing but a myth. We spent a while looking at the sprawling Chateau that I stayed in 14 years ago with Mum and Dad, and contemplated just how much more authentic a trip it is when you get to return to a cold, slightly damp tent and hotdogs instead of a huge suite with a bathtub big enough for 4 and a silver service dinner. We then very quickly tried to book ourselves into the Chateau for the night, happy to splurge away our money for a proper bed, but it was not meant to be and they were full. Good for the wallet, bad for my cold toes.  

We went to another lake, Moraine Lake, in the same area and walked around the edge for a while. But most of the trails were closed unless you were a group of 4 due to bear activity (a Grizzly has never been know to attack a group of 4 people) and since we are antisocial Brits we decided to clamber up the moraine (hence the name of the lake), take some photos, and hit the road. (I haven`t really done this lake justice to be fair. It was probably more beautiful than Lake Louise, baby blue water caused by minerals coming off of the glaciers, and 7 jagged peaks surrounding it. But a lake`s a lake, ain`t it?!)  

As we left Banff National Park and drove down through Kootenay National Park towards the U.S. we finally saw our first Moose. After all those treks and rides into the mountains, it was grazing on the side of the road. Strange looking fellow, with a really long face. Not to be confused with my fiance.  

Camped in Radium Hot Springs for the night, ready and excited to be crossing into the US the following day... 

 


Welcome to America: The US Road Trip Begins

2008-08-24

Trish: Like two teenagers we drove up to the border between British Columbia and Montana, singing along to Nickleback and getting excited about the US part of our road trip. Never had 2 people been so happy in a Corolla that sounded like a Hummer full of camping equipment. Then we were stopped by Immigration and it all went a bit squew-wiff.

Problem 1: We don`t own the car we are driving and we don`t have a letter saying that we have permission to use it. No biggy really, we gave them Paul and Geri`s details and they went away for a while presumably to check it hadn`t been reported stolen.

Problem 2: When we changed flights in Miami back in June en route to Martinique, the good people at US Customs started off our 90 day visa waivers. We have to leave the US before the 28th September.!!! That would give us just over 4 weeks to drive down the inside West then back up the coast to Canada. Oh, and by the way we`re meeting Mum and Dad in Vegas on the 26th Sept. We stood, astonished, at border control for 2 hours while I showed flight ticket stubs to prove we had not actually ever been in America during this time, at first pleasantly begging the guy to show some compassion and then just showing our feelings about how absolutely ridiculous the system was that we had been using up a visa without actually being in the country. We got nowhere.

So off we drove into the Montana sunrise feeling like we`d been let down by American bureaocracy, and I for one wishing we were still in Canada. It was a very sad car that pulled into Whitefish for the night, booking into a Motel to try to get our spirits back up. Only thing is, once inside the Motel checking in we heard a loud crunch come from the car park and sure enough Steve French had been reversed into and his rear tailight was in pieces on the tarmac. This was not a good day. We took $100 from the Kansas Ministers who did the damage, taped some of the cover back together, and wished we`d stayed in Canada even more.  

But after a good night`s sleep we now have a plan. We can`t drive into Mexico to renew our 90 days because they`ve tightened up on border control there and we may quite possibly not be let back in for several months. So we have booked a cheeky trip from Vegas to Guatemala over the expiry date of our present visa, pretty sure that we will be issued a new one on our return (if you leave the North American continent completely it`s ok. Apparently). So, back to Central America!

 


Montana, and Glacier National Park

2008-08-25 to 2008-08-26

Gary:  Thankfully it seems that the panic is over, and that with a return trip to Guatemala, and onward flights booked from Vancouver to Down Under all will be well. So back to enjoying fabulous Montana. It really is big skies, the Rocky mountains and endless rolling yellow hills, frontier types wearing dungarees and cowboy hats....perfect road trip country and we love it. Due to spending so much time in the Rockies we had planned to skip Glacier, but ironically it was the very nice ministers from Kansas who reversed into Steve French who said it would be a sin to miss it! And were they ever right. After buying a bargain annual National Park pass for $80 we set off up the `Going To The Sun Road`, an incredible climb hugging the edge of jagged peaks up to Logans Pass at 2000m. Even more rewards at the top with rolling Alpine meadows and hidden lakes.

As we parked up Trish declared that she would go hiking only if we saw Mountain Goats or Big Horned Sheep. Remarkably, after only a few steps from the car someone yelled across the car park, `over here, Big Horned Sheep`. We were then spoiled with close encounters with Sheep and legendary Mountain Goats. Brilliant stuff. Glacier seems a lot more intimate then the Canadian parks, different and easier to explore and certainly more rewarding for just a days visit. 

After a final night camping in Whitefish, a fantastic frontier town first founded by trappers in the early 1800s, now a mecca for skiing and outdoorsy stuff, we prepared for a big days driving. Only first we had to go shopping, although I will admit that the grotto-like Bear Mountain Mercantile was a very cool place. As a result we now have another Moose to add to our collection. We then set off heading south along Highway 93 through Montana. Beautiful rolling hills and long straight roads made the next 250 miles a real treat. We even managed to pass a freight train that we guestimated to be a km long. Steve French is running well, averaging around 550Km per full tank which costs us around 40 dollars, not bad considering fuel prices are the biggest gripe in the US as well as Canada. Cruising along listening to Bear 106 country music station where most of the artists seem to sing about farming and big trucks all added to the general delight in cruising through Montana.

Finally we pulled into a campsite just outside the town of Anaconda, near Butte in central Montana. We were the only tent amongst lots of giant RVs and trailers, but had great views across the rolling plains. Even better, this campground had a big games room, TV, internet, pool table etc and only us using it. Tomorrow we should make it to Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park...


Yellowstone National Park

2008-08-27 to 2008-08-29

We continue our journey east on Interstate 90 on the lookout for a Mcdonalds breakfast. Sadly as we spy the golden arches I also spy a state trooper hot on our heels! I pull off the interstate heading for Mcdonalds and, no surprises, he follows. A little edgy I fail to stop completely at a stop sign and red flashing lights herald our arrival to Macdonalds car park. A fully kitted out Montana state Trooper strode up to the car, declaring that we had run a stop sign, and that also we looked a little out of place!?! I will admit that Trish looked a little dishevelled but other then that I think he was just wanted to check us out considering our old car and the Canadian plates. After running some `routine checks` he returned all smiles, and then spent several minutes asking about our trip and providing suggestions on scenic drives around Yellowstone. This was all very well and he turned out to be a very amiable trooper but we missed breakfast by about 3 minutes!!

Dropping off I90 we headed south on Highway 287 heading through Lewis & Clark country...these guys were sent to explore the vast areas west of the Mississippi into the northern Rockies following the Lousiana purchase in the 1800s. We past through some charming frontier towns, the pick of which was Ennis, a hunting and fishing town full of character and friendly locals and some rugged country before finally arriving at West Yellowstone, the western gateway to the park and the Montana / Wyoming border. Barely slowing we headed through the park gates, across the border into Wyoming.

Yellowstone is the world`s first national park, and as we were to discover possibly it`s finest. On the advice of one of many Rangers we headed for the centrally located Canyon campground, in the middle of the two road loops through the park, north and south which cover a few hundred miles. Following more advice we headed out along the Hayden Valley, one of two wildlife hotspots in the park, as a bison carcass had been attracting Grizzlies and wolves!! We arrived to find only people, but a ranger said two Grizzlies had been feeding on the remains that morning. We spent a while gawking at our first bison herd, over a hundred of the beasts crossing the road in front of us. They are normally pretty docile but if provoked will charge at 30 mph and can be extremely dangerous. The big bulls weigh 2000 pounds!! A very cold night in the tent reminded us that the park sits at over 2000m elevation, with our campsite closer to 2500m.

The next day we headed off early to the Lamar Valley, in the more remote North East corner of the park. It was here in 1995 that wolves were successfully reintroduced from Canada, considered the greatest wildlife achievement of the 20th century. It has been a remarkable success, there are now nearly 200 wolves in about a dozen packs spread across the park. We headed north stopping at Grizzly spotting vantage points, no joy before finding a coyote heading straight towards us on the road. Excited we headed up the beautiful Lamar valley, passing more bison and antelope until we came to a bunch of parked cars, and a crowd of people stood on a hillside.

We ran up to find a croud of wolf watchers, scopes aiming out across the valley. A Ranger immediately let us use his scope and there they were, 5 wolves sat by a watering hole out across the valley. Blacks and greys, already preparing to rest through the heat of the day. Thrilling to see wild wolves, really making the park feel like a true wilderness, but for more action we were advised to get there at first light.

We spent the afternoon exploring Mammoth hot springs and Geyser basin, after buying a crucial pair of powerful binoculars! The springs are huge, created by water heated by the giant lake of magma beneath the park, which rises and absorbs minerals which it deposits on the surface. The results over millions of years are huge colourful formations, golds and blues and other vivid colours caused by Thermophiles, tiny and bizarre heat loving organisms!?! An odd lunar type landscape. Geyser basin is also home to `Steamboat Geyser`, the highest guyser in the world, when it erupts 400 feet high, but sadly only once every 50 years! Also lots of fascinating bubbling mud pools, steaming springs, hissing vent holes...

Acting like we only had one day in the park, we headed out again at dusk, this time along Hayden Valley. No surprises as Trish spots a wolf as we are driving along, apparently leaping in the greas by the river. We stop at a large group of people surprised to find that they have not even seen it but are looking at bison! A single wolf is hunting rodents along the river bank and they are looking straight over it at the bison! We head on and come to a herd of bison camped on the road, the big males dwarfing Steve French. We get out and start chatting to a lad from Newcastle, a lovely lad who has been travelling since 2001! We end up giving Rich a lift back to Yellowstone Falls, near canyon. He has his pack with him and shocks us both as we drop him at the falls(it`s now dark) by declaring he will sleep under the trees near the falls. Trish, alarmed, declares `but it`s freezing` and then regurgitates parts of the book of Grizzly attacks that she`s reading, saying that he really shouldn`t be camping alone out in the backcountry. Rich laughs declaring he has a warm sleeping bag, but is worried about bears and thanks but he`d rather not be reminded about recent attacks!!! That night sat around our fire eating chili it was a little disturbing to think of Rich asleep under the stars. Good luck pal. (Trish: Disturbing?! I was so worried about him I wanted to drive back out there and bring him back with us -yes, he was quite cute, too. This book I`m reading just tells you over and over the precautions to take when out camping on your own, and when I asked him he didn`t even have a bag to string up his food in a tree out of the way of bears. We don`t actually know if he even had any food. It was a very pensive night for me sat eating my toasted marshmallows around one of Gary`s super-fires thinking about Rich in the cold on his own. It made me realise that even when we`re camping we`re still in relative luxury with our big tent and portable stove. I hope Rich is away having some other extreme adventure wherever he is. He certainly made us think about what `real travelling` is.)

The next morning we were back on the road just after 6 am, and driving up Lamar Valley at dawn. We would spend a magical 3 hours watching the Druid Pack and their pups. We chatted with people who spent 6 months of the year living in th park just watching wolves, Rick McIntyre, a Ranger who has no official home but has watched wolves daily for 15 years in Alaska and 15 years here. And Ralf the Grizzly man, who spent a vacation in Yellowstone 30 years ago, went home long enough to quit his job, and has studied the Grizzlies in Yellowstone ever since. Quite remarkable people with thrilling stories to tell.

Ralf seemed delighted to have such enthusiastic young Brits firing questions at him. Just 2 weeks before he had slept in his car just outside the park ready to watch bears at dawn. He was awakened at 4am by a big male Grizzly sat on the hood of his car trying to pound in his windshield. It took him several frantic minutes to get out of his sleeping back so he could drive away. He said that if there had not been so many mosquitoes he would have slept outside! The same bear had dragged someone out of a tent in a camp site in the park the day before and badly mauled them. The bear was tracked down and saved from euthanasia by a university that wanted to study it!

(Trish: Gary has omitted to tell you that Ralf and I had an instant connection and I have had the title of `Yellowstone National Park Wolf Ambassador` bestowed upon me. I have a badge to prove it, and Gary is very jealous.)

We had a much needed break for the rest of the day, but extended our tent site for a few more days, reluctant to leave this stunning park

   


The Wolves Of Yellowstone

2008-08-30 to 2008-09-02

Dragging ourselves away from the Wolves we went to the south western part of the park, home to Yellowstones most popular attraction, the `Old Faithful` geyser. It`s one of several in this corner of the park that erupt at varying intervals, some predictable others not. Due to it`s popularity, there is a huge lodge, shopping areas, vast car parks, all a bit theme-parkish after the wilderness of the northern part of the park. We waited half an hour and were joined by several hundred people to watch the eruption, which occurs roughly every 90 minutes. The eruption itself is pretty special, surprisingly quiet and lasts about 3 minutes.

The following day we went to explore the Yellowstone canyon, not far from our campsite. The lower falls plunge several hundred feet into the stunning rocky canyon. The steep sides are yellow, orange and red in colour, giving the park it`s name. They are again caused by water heated underground and rising up depositing minerals on its way. We see Ospreys nests all along the canyon. 

Almost half  the park is actually a giant caldera, over 50 miles across, containing a giant underground lave lake a few miles benaeath the surface. From the high Dunraven pass heading to Lamar valley you can see the caldera`s outline. Odd to think that several hundred thousand years ago this super volcano erupted and will at some stage, do so again. 

As dusk approached we headed back out to Lamar. As we arrived Ralf told us that we had missed a Grizzly by about 20 minutes....this would become a regular and frustrating occurance. Thankfully over a dozen members of the Druid pack were out in the open, including the alpha female. Using Ralf`s scope I spotted a black wolf approaching from way up the valley, an impressive shout judging by the response of Ralf and Rick. We followed it in and watched it regurgitate food for the pups. I was only a little disappointed that Ralf still didn`t award me a `Wolf Ambassador` badge.

Back at camp we have now perfected both the art of making a wood fire, and scavenging campgrounds for wood supplies...otherwise $7 a bundle. The result is a fine blaze each evening with mugs of hot chocolate and toasted marshmellows. A good thing as it`s getting colder every night.

Indeed the next morning there is ice on the our tarp and the trees around camp. The first day of September and it seems summer is over in Yellowstone. Only 2 days ago we were in shorts and t shirts and sweating in Steve French. It takes a big effort to get out of our sleeping bags at 5.40 am, but the wolves are worth it. We drive through the now frost covered forests, and surprise surprise, pull in at the grizzly viewing point minutes too late. A friend of Ralf`s has been following a big male amble through a meadow for half an hour, but just as we arrive it disappears into bushes and fails to emerge!!! Back up Lamar valley though a new wolf pack is out and about. 11 members of the Slough Creek pack are heading along the valley towards the Druids` territory. We watch fascinated as they harrass a herd of Bison before marking the boundary between the two packs territory.

It`s so cold that we spend the afternoon back at camp huddled around a big fire before heading out to the closer Hayden Valley looking for bears. You can tell we quite like this wildlife watching. No bears, but a third group of wolves to watch. This time 5 members of the newly formed Canyon group, and our closest encounter as they are just across the river. As they leave we are astonished to find the surrounding mountains covered in snow, and indeed it starts snowing as we drive back to camp. That night Trish puts on 2 pairs of hiking socks, two full base layers, a t-shirt, hat, a cardigan and my fleece, for bed!!!

Sadly, it`s finally time to leave this stunning park, a kind of North American Serengeti in many ways, but you get to drive yourself. We pack up camp and head for the NE exit, at the end of Lamar Valley of course! A real treat is instore. At the usual spot Rick Mcintyre points out a big bull elk carcass, killed by the Druids during the night and in the river just across the road. The pack are away in the valley resting, but soon enough 2 blacks cautiously make their way down to the carcass and start feeding. Thrilling to watch them tear into the carcass, and through scopes we can see their bright yellow eyes. It`s difficult to describe how thrilling it is to watch these wolves in the wild, but nothing else represents true wilderness like this. We force ourselves away at lunch time, but will surely return to this incredible National Park in the future.

(Trish: Obviously, we both loved Yellowstone, and even thought of staying even longer to wait for the real winter`s snow to settle in the next few weeks then pelting it down to Las Vegas at the end of Sept. It would have been beautiful to see all the animals in the snow. Especially the wolves. We made a bit of a name for ourselves with the old Wolf-Spotting community down there, turning up at all hours in our noisy car and using their scopes for hours on end. But as Ralf said, they get their enjoyment from being able to share the wolves with visitors. We didn`t see any bears, but we know they were around so maybe that`s enough. From the books I`m reading they generally do better the less humans they see as they become used to people and end up either entering campgrounds and getting in trouble or killed on the roads. It`s just nice to know we were camping in their territory. We will definately return to Yellowstone sooner rather than later, though I`m not sure about Gary`s idea to leave England permanently to become year-round spotters with Ralf and Rick! Goodbye, Yellowstone, we`ll miss you!!)

Our destination today is Cody, down on the plains of Wyoming. Little did we realize that the route was along the famous and incredibly scenic Chief Joseph Highway. Descending first into a rugged valley we then climb up the other side on a winding road full of switchbacks to the summit at 8000 feet. Despite Steve French sounding more like a monster truck then a corolla the views at the top are superb. The pass is famous in US history, where Chief Joseph led his Nez Perce Indians through in a successful escape from the US army in1877. It is the only pass down from the mountains to the great plains. Dropping down the other side we look for miles out across the plains and descend to the wild west town of Cody.


Cody - Buffalo Bill`s home town

2008-09-03

Trish: Had the best night`s sleep last night. Our first hotel room for a week. Warm and cosy and quiet and clean. These are all the little luxuries in life that I will never again take for granted. But sadly no animals to wake up to either. Apart from the yapping Chiahuahua who has taken a dislike to us in reception.

We bit the bullet this morning and took Steve French to a local auto repair shop to see why he sounds like a souped up Hummer. Gary wouldn`t let me go to the `Cowboy Repair Shop`, but maybe that was for the best. Turns out that we need a new muffler. Not the end of the world, and not an expensive item to buy but we`re going to leave it for the time being and see how loud it gets before it explodes. Only joking, Paul. We`ll get it sorted soon but maybe it would be kind of funny to roll up to a posh hotel in Vegas sounding like a steam train. 

Spent a good portion of the day in the Buffalo Bill Historical Centre. A huge affair with sections on Guns through the ages (very Yee Ha American and sadly including lots of hunting trophies), Native Indians and basically how we broke all our promises over land and Bison to them and very nearly wiped them out, Cowboy art, and of course Wild Bill Cody, Buffalo Bill himself. Long story short, he was brought up as a trapper, became a guide for the armies, got himself into showbusiness for a while and made films about how the West was won etc, joined the army for real and eventually founded this town. An all round legend who hunted Bison but never took more than he needed (unlike the fur traders who pretty much wiped them out in one foul swoop - there used to be more than 30 million Bison on the plains, down to 2000 at it`s worst), befriended and was respected by the local Indians, and made a ton of money.

Good thing we went to the museum, because later that day as Gary went to the bar of the Hotel Irma (Buffalo Bill`s daughter`s hotel), I got talking to the man himself and then also Wyatt Earp and Sheriff Holiday before they proceeded to rid the streets of some nasty outlaws in a gun fight. A very surreal situation where we discussed the effects of a high altitude desert on the weather whilst they sported shotguns and pistols. Had dinner in a proper saloon, the Silver Dollar Bar, then back to the motel to enjoy one last night of Cable TV and a bath.


Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

2008-09-04 to 2008-09-05

Trish: 700km and 8 hours drive from Cody, Wyoming, took us to the Keystone, home of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota. The route suggested to us in Cody as the `easiest on our car` ended up taking us through an ancient canyon predating the dinosaurs up to a pass at 10,000ft and through a snowstorm. Every turn we make on our slick tyres seems like one more closer to the one where we slide straight off the side of a mountain. Paul and Geri suggested we may need new tyres back in Vancouver Island. 5000km on we`re really winging it now.! This rather large detour to South Dakota from our planned route was all my idea and the pressure was on for Mount Rushmore to deliver. I just felt like since we were only actually a day`s driving away from this National Monument we should really see it. We`re never going to be this close again and it must be pretty impressive.

We drove through Keystone ready to go and see the mountain the next morning in all it`s glory. However, after the long day`s drive our campsite of choice was closed so we had to drive on a few miles more to a Kampground of America site. This unfortunately took us on the highway next to Mount Rushmore and though we tried to `not look`, by the time the road has twisted around and we were heading straight for it there was nothing we could do! Sadly, it looked a little smaller than I had expected. But we set up our tent for the night and spent a very, very cold night in the only tent in a huge campground full of luxury RV`s. Sad Trish. 

The next day, the sun was shining and we headed into the Mount Rushmore exhibit. I feel totally vindicated now. It was excellent. We were 2 of only about 20 people there to see the morning light flood across the 60ft high faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin. The faces are about 300ft off the ground, and you can walk right up to the base of the mountain. It was smaller than I had expected... I imagined some huge mountain 100`s of metres high which you viewed from a mile away. I don`t know where I got that idea but it was better in reality. We could see the marks that the sculptors made on the faces we were that close. They had a really good exhibit that went with it telling you all about how the idea was formed and then how they made the idea work. It was amazing, really. They started work on Washington in the 1920`s and eventually finished Franklin in the 40`s, just before WW2 broke out. They had no real safety equipment and no modern machinery, and yet they did it without any deaths and it looks as smooth as can be. They did most of the sculpting with precision dynamiting as the rock was so hard, then finished off only the last few inches by hand with jackhammers and chisels. I read a story where one guy got blown 60ft when an electrical charge in the air set off his dynamite early. It blew his shoes off his feet but he didn`t have a scratch on him! And the pulley lift that they used to get the workers up to the top broke free one day and plummeted down with no brakes and 4 men on board. One guy jumped out near the bottom and broke several bones. The ones who stayed in and crashed ended up fine. It said that after that accident quite a few workers opted for climbing up via ladders instead of using the `lift`. Not surprising.

Well, I`m sure you can tell that I`m very glad we came here. I was dreading turning up and it being overly patriotic and `Go America!`, but it actually seemed a very subtle and downplayed shrine to the determination of the artist and hard work of those men all those years ago. As we wandered round the gift shop, the last surviving worker on the sculpture was in there signing books. It was very cool to see an old man so proud of what he`d done. By the time we walked out, there were tour buses spewing out tourists left, right and centre. Lots of crazy Japanese ladies and Yee Ha Texan cowboys. We timed that right.

On the drive back to camp we stopped off to see another huge sculpture in the rock face of the Black Hills. This one`s called Crazy Horse and will be a depiction of the Indian Chief `Crazy Horse` on his aforementioned horse pointing to the west with an inscription which will read `My land is where my dead are buried`. It`s going to be larger than Mount Rushmore. Maybe. If it`s ever finished. It was started in 1948, is 568ft either high or across (can`t remember), the guy who started it is now dead (!) and they think it will be another 20 years before it`s completed!!

Back at camp it is getting colder and colder each night. Gary is trying to overcome that with towering inferno `fires to beat all fires`. Tonight`s lasted about 4 hours and was so hot that I kept having to move my chair around it, mainly due to the fact that we had about 3 night`s worth of logs to burn. We`ve realised that when people leave sites, they often leave unburned wood next to their firepits, which the campgrounds then go around collecting and re-bundle to sell on to the next camper. Ha! We are now beating them at their own game and creeping around very quietly and unsuspiciously in our car that thinks it`s a Hummer taking all the unused wood and hoarding it outside our tent! Yes, that`s right, we have become sneaky wood-stealing pikeys. My Dad would be so proud.

 


Ancient Mammoths and cruising Colorado

2008-09-06 to 2008-09-09

Mount Rushmore was certainly worth the detour east, but it now left us with some serious driving to do. We headed south on HW 385 down through South Dakota to Hot Springs and its mammoth site. Apparently some time in the 1970s a local chap was clearing his land to build property and unearthed a bone, which turned out to be a mammoth tooth. He called in some experts and they discovered an incredible pit of literally dozens of mammoth remains, along with ancient north american lions, giant short nose bears and other beasts all from about 26,000 years ago. Apparently a deadly sink hole had trapped the giant mammoths trying to drink, and then predators who foolishly followed them in to eat their carcasses. These giants were 13 feet high at the shoulder, and the bears were 1500 lbs brutes. There is another 20 years worth of digging to do and they predict over 100 mammoths all told were trapped here! It was quite eerie wandering around it, now all enclosed in a giant shed.

Bizarrely we then turned a little south east, further off route but allowing us  to drive through the vast prairies of northern Nebraska, and notch up our fifth state. Quite extraordinary driving through these vast rolling fields of nothingness...you can see for dozens of miles in every direction, pass another car every half hour or so. Every 40 miles ish we pass through a small town, and this really is `small town America`, ...population 18 appeared to be the smallest until a sign reading `Lost Springs` population 1 !!!

We then had a long old cruise of a few hundred miles west taking us back into southern Wyoming and real ranch country. City Slickers was filmed around here and Trish was determined to not only find Jack Palance but enroll us in some cattle driving fun. Sadly, although probably a relief for my backside, it`s the wrong season. We settled for a night in a wooden cabin at the Kampground of America in Laramie.

The next morning we dropped down into Colorado heading south to Boulder. On route we pass through a couple of biggish towns and it`s a shock encountering traffic and congestion. Boulder is a cool, hip outdoor university town nestled at the foot of the Rockies, where everyone cycles everywhere and pedestrians have right of way. The weather turns bad, but we spend a day in Boulder Library (we have discovered that Libraries provide free internet and international papers!!) and Trish even gets to go shopping.

(Trish: Gary has neglected to mention that not only did I get to choose some birthday presents but we also went to the cinema 2 nights running! Yeh!!!!! I almost feel normal again)

The 9th turns out to be an epic driving day. An hour north west from Boulder and we drive through Rocky Mountain National Park. A very impressive road, HW 36 winds up to over 12,000 feet to an arid, fascinating area of alpine tundre. Although it`s a beautiful park we are through it in a few hours, perhaps spoilt by the stunning Glacier and Yellowstone parks further north. We then drive west on Interstate 70 through the famous skiing resorts of Breckenridge, Vail and Aspen following the Colorado river as it begins it`s epic journey west. After about 9 hours we finally roll into Grand Junction and another KOA, not far from the Utah border.


Big red rocks of Moab, Utah.

2008-09-10 to 2008-09-14

Trish: Finally we arrive in Moab, Utah. We`ve been looking forward to getting here since  we read a book by Dave Gorman called `America Unchained` (kindly sent by O`Donnell air to the Caribbean by the O`Connors) in which he drove coast to coast of the US attempting to not give any money to `The Man` i.e. Corporate America. He stayed in independent motels, ate in Mom and Pop Diners and, the hardest part of all, only used Mom and Pop gas stations. No chains allowed. From our few weeks experience I can tell you that all of those things are sadly a dying breed. Anyway, the book is great. (I think the documentary he made along the way will have already shown on TV but if not maybe someone could tape it for us?!!!) By the time he got to Utah he`d had all sorts of car problems and his camerawoman had had to fly back to the UK with back problems so he ended up stranded in Moab and wrote a big chapter on all the outdoors things he did there and how nice the people were. 

We didn`t stay where he stayed because even Mom and Pop motels are mostly out of our budget, but that`s ok for the moment because we ended up in a great little campsite with huge red cliffs on one side and rolling sand dunes on the other. Moab is indeed in the middle of the desert., as small sandstorms around the tent constantly remind us. Made the mistake of leaving the tent just a little open and had to empty half the sand in Utah out of my sleeping bag.

Our first whole day in Moab we drove into Arches National Park (with our staple lunch of 2 foot-long tuna Subways for $10 in our coolbox - literally, every day is the same protocol...Dave Gorman would not be happy). It`s pretty impressive just driving around inside the park because the different layers of sandstone have eroded away to form some unbelievably gravity-defying shapes. We passed one structure which looked like a 20m wide golf ball sitting 100m up on top of a razor thin tee. Balanced so precariously to the naked eye but apparently has been there like that for decades. Walked lots of trails in the sweltering heat to see naturally formed arches, where the softer rock below has eroded away leaving up to 60m wide arches suspended in the air. You stand and stare at them and kinda wish they would collapse in front of you, but obviously that`s not an every day occurrance. There are just over 2000 arches in the park and the last one to collapse was in August, so we only just missed it. Must have been awesome to see. I thought Steve French`s roaring motor might have set off a tremor but no such luck. By mid afternoon we were ruined by the heat and headed back to camp where our plans of a nice campfire dinner were scuppered by an immense thunderstorm sucking up sand and whipping it around the campsite. We settled for the `Branding Iron`, a cool locals cowboy joint.

Gary:  A bit of geology!  About 300 million years ago a large sea flowed into this area and then slowly disolved leaving hundreds of feet of salt deposits. This was covered by about as much eroded rock and dust from nearby mountains which compressed into rock. Then the Giant Colorado plateau rose up from sea level to between 4000-10000 feet across all of South East Utah down to the Grand Canyon. This created deep faults, as did the unstable salt layer that turned to goo when water reached it. The result was giant fins of rock...which in turn have been eroded by freezing and thawing water and wind forming these dramatic Arches and other crazy red sandstone rock formations leaving SE Utah looking more like mars then earth. Perennial rivers like the Colorado and Green have since eroded through the cement like substance holding this sandstone rock together creating vast and dramatic canyons and valleys. Phew!

Trish: The next day was rock-climbing-tastic. We met our guide, Rob, in town - he pulled up in an old ambulance painted khaki green, his transport, office and home. We piled in and drove out to `Wall Street`, a long winding road on the outskirts of Moab with cliff faces on one side and the Colorado River on the other. Pretty scenic spot. There we were...Rob, veteran of climbing the peaks of Fitzroy, Cerro Torre (both Patagonia), and El Cap (Yosemite) as well as a seasoned guide on the highest mountain in Alaska, Mount McKinley, and then Gary and I... 1 weekend course on rock climbing in a Mile End climbing club about a year ago. It was not an even match. But he very patiently talked us back through the basics and spent the next 3 hours watching us belaying (massive use of climbing term) each other up the wall. This was not easy, and when we eventually untied from the ropes I truly thought that was the end of our day. But no, Rob drove us farther down the road in his ambulance (I worried that that was a bad sign) to a harder wall. This one was super sheer and we learnt (very agonisingly) the art of `crack-climbing` - all fingers and toes wedged into very small vertical cracks in the rock face. This, it turns out, hurts A LOT. Just when we though the torture was over, SuperRob drove us to yet another part of the wall. Remember, the temperature is in the high 90`s and we have been in direct sunlight for over 6 hours! Gary looked about to pass out and I thought my fingers were going to disintegrate under pressure but with many slips and slides (mainly on my behalf) we both in turn made it to the top and finally Rob let us finish for the day. I kept asking him if he was hot/exhausted/on-deaths-door like we were but this is all in a days work for him. In fact he was going to go back after he dropped us off to "climb a bit, have a beer, climb a bit, have another beer..." Unbelievable day, and an unbelievable guy.

The next day we were still ruined. My hands were permanently in a gnarled position and Gary had some serious blisters. But nevertheless we made it back to Arches National Park for a 3 hour `Ranger led walk` into the `Fiery Furnace"... oooo.... Not as strenuous as we had imagined due to the amount of `older` people also on it, and propbably a bit too much time spent talking about history for me, but an interesting place to walk through. All the canyons have been formed into weird shapes by erosion and again lots of huge rocks planted in odd places. Afterwards, we drove to the trailhead of Delicate Arch where Gary made me trudge uphill for way too long to watch the sunset over the arch. Someone had kindly told him that this was `The Photo` to have so he had become obsessed with getting there. Lucky me. I sat with doing my Sudoku whilst Gary and around 200 other people took photo after photo after photo of the arch in different stages of sunset. Thrilling. (Just joking, Gary... maybe)

Our final day in Moab was spent on a whirlwind tour of Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park. There was to be no walking today, I had put my foot down. So we drove though both parks stopping only to look out at view points. A much more civilised affair. We ate our Subway lunch (of course) sat on rock protruding out over a cliff face of the canyon, probably the most amazing lunch spot we will ever have. The canyons are huge and dramatic and there are, again, lots of odd formations because this whole area is made of the same sandstone layers. Gary is getting phototastic on all the views and I have to remind him that our next stop is the Grand Canyon and we don`t have enough memory cards to let him keep going at this rate! (And anyway, a canyon`s a canyon, surely... you`ve seen one, you`ve seen them all.!?) Dead Horse State Park is famous for that wonderful thing... views of the canyonlands. Fantastic. It`s like a canyon-fest. I`m sure Gary will have already butted into my writing at some point to describe the formation of all these rock structures, so I need not bore you with such. I`ll just say that Dead Horse Point State Park is so named because back in the days of wild Mustangs roaming freely the cowboys used to use the `Point` (an island of rock some 100m above the Colorado River Basin connected only to the main plateau by a very narrow spit of land literally a few metres wide) to corral them and then fence them in, taking the ones they wanted only as and when they needed them. Legend says that one band of cowboys forgot to go back to let the unwanted Mustangs free and the horses all died of starvation and thirst. A grim way to go, especially when they would have been able to see the river from 100m up. And on that happy note, I`m off.

 


4 limbs in 4 states and Monument Valley

2008-09-15

Another  `Trish detour` planned today as we headed south from Moab in roughly a Grand Canyon direction. First however I made us drive 25 miles West along a sand desert road to the Needles Overlook. Back on the borders of Canyonlands National Park. I`m sure that Trish has not taken in enough grand vistas yet. Well worth the drive in my opinion. From here we continued south through desert then headed out east along the San Juan river heading back into Colorado!! Once there we turned south and reached the 4 Corners Navajo Monument.

This unlikely spot in the middle of nowhere surrounded by desert in the middle of a navajo tribal reservation is unique in the US as the only point where 4 states meet. So, like many tourists before us, we each took turns prostrating ourselves on all fours to be simultaneously standing in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado! Our state count is now 9.

This whole area is full of Tribal lands and reservations, mainly the Navajo and Apache tribes. They have a rich history but sadly this area was one of great persecution during the 1800s as the US army drove the likes of Geronimo and others off their land. They now have very little but money from tourists, and the landscape is dotted with rundown settlements and help centres, and shacks selling basic handy crafts.

From here we had to track back west and then north along Highway 191 so we could then take the famous drive south through Monument Valley. This place is as famous as anywhere in the western US, the location for many a John Wayne western and the hiding place for Airwolf!! We camped right in the middle in a cool campground called the Goulding Trading post....right in amongst the giant orange rocks.

A 4 wheel drive tour is the recommended way to see the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, but a touch pricey so we opted to chug round the 11 mile unpaved road in Steve French. Bad call.....although we made it half way the road was pot holed and full of big sand ruts and mounds. Fearing for the rest of our roadtrip we turned around and hobbled back. We did however get right in amongst these huge red rocks jutting thousands of feet up from the desert floor.  An awesome place to be as the sun set, creating some amazing colours and shadows, and then watching the moon rise behind it all.

 


Turning 28 at the Grand Canyon

2008-09-16 to 2008-09-19

Gary:  South again through more desert and Indian lands. We have noticed that since we entered this tribal area the sides of every highway are littered with discarded beer and wine bottles, it seems that the reservations either have no highway maintenance service or they love drinking by the roadside.....sad really (Trish: you can`t buy booze in the Reservations so I`m guessing that they`re not all alchy`s!!).

Eventually we turn west and begin climbing up towards Grand Canyon National Park, following the `little Colorado river` along an already impressive canyon. At the entrance gate a very amusing chap asks us for recommendations on English comedians as he needs a good chuckle. We suggest Peter Kay before heading into the park. Almost immediately the forest to our right gives way and the road follows the south rim of the canyon. To say it`s enormous is an understatement. Even from the road you can tell this thing is vast. After a near miss with a coyote and some mule deer we chug into the Grand Canyon Village.

The Campsite is spot on, and we pitch our tent between pine trees and immediately set about practicing our wood acquiring skills. The Village is a little bit of a shock however. Hundreds of cars line the roads and car parks, and the visitors centre has a coach park with around a dozen of the brutes parked up. Slightly overwhelmed we scoot off to walk along the rim. Despite the numbers of people....Germans, French and Japanese everywhere, it is impossible not to be awed by the canyon.

A trail runs for several miles along the south rim, with magnificent views along the canyon which stretches over 200 miles to the east and west, and 10 miles across to the north rim. The walls plunge over 4000 feet to a plateau which runs into the centre of the canyon where it then drops another 1000 feet to the Colorado River, which has spent the last 6 million years carving out the canyon. Nothing you read or see on TV prepares you for the sheer size and incredible colours. As we potter along the rim a big sign points out the South Kaibab trail which follows a huge butress out and down into the canyon towards the river...now there is an idea!!  Perhaps not tomorrow as it`s Patricia`s birthday, not the kind of surprise  she`s been looking forward to I`m sure.

Trish: No, not quite what I had in mind! And I have to say that I`m kind of disappointed by the activity options here. I thought we`d be able to do something amazing like a parachute jump over the canyon or white water rafting down the Colorado on my birthday, but it doesn`t look like anyone jumps out of planes over the canyon, and the white water trips are all 5 or 6 nights long so that`s no good (I want to do it for a day, but I`m not a glutton for punishment). So I have a promise from Gary that since we can`t do either of those, he won`t make me fill in the time by walking all the trails, at least not on my birthday. So I was allowed a mini-lay-in and cooked a full English breakfast while I opened lots of cards from home which Steve French had been hiding, and a few pressies picked up along the way by Gary. One of which looked alot like a book I bought several weeks ago and couldn`t find ever since. Moose pyjamas, Lush products, and the promise of something from Vegas Tiffanys, I am a very easily pleased birthday girl (there was no specifications of limit to money available to spend in Tiffanys!). We eventually left camp mid afternoon, after I made Gary sit down and read all morning (I can tell it`s killing him with the canyon just there!), and headed over to the posh lodge in the Park for afternoon drinks at sunset and dinner. What a rubbish way to spend a birthday. I must add that it was not a complete day of leisure for me, regardless of promises from my fiance. We did go on the hunt for Californian Condors along the rim by the lodge, an enormously ugly bird to be honest but Gary tells me that at one point there were only 30 left in the wild, which were all caught and bred in captivity then re-released so the numbers are now up to a few hundred. Since it`s still endangered I showed a little interest. Dinner was very nice, quite expensive and we decided that we are just as happy sat in front of the campfire toasting marshmellows... oh how times have changed.     

Gary: Having agreed to a very relaxing birthday day with Trish, it was time to make amends the following morning. Up at 6am, Trish was dropping me at the Kaibab trailhead by sunrise. After some umming and aarring Trish has decided to monitor the trek progress from a cunning vantage point on the rim. There are big warning signs everywhere of the dangers of trekking into the canyon.....heat and dehydration etc. By no means should you aim for the river and back out in a day, and they recommend stopping at the Cedar view point and heading back up...a 3 hour round trip. With a 3 hour time limit agreed with the trek coordinator I trooped off.

It is one of the greatest walks / treks I have done. The trail, which is very well marked,  plunges down the Canyon edge then follows a large cliff the that cuts it`s way down into the canyon, particularly cool watching the sun rise as I trudged downwards. Certainly not for vertigo sufferers with 1000 foot sheer drop offs not far from the trail. I reach Cedar Point in half an hour so troop on. I pass maybe 10 people at the most and as I get lower the vastness and silence in the canyon is awesome. After just over an hour I arrive at skeleton point, 3 miles along the trail. The next section is a stunning looking drop down with steep switchbacks to the plateau floor. It seems a shame to stop here, and the theory that the canyon sucks you onwards and downwards seems to be true. Despite the rather large looming canyon walls now behind and above me and ten minutes of indecision, I head on. Two hours into the trek I reach the end of the plateau rim, to be greeted with magnificent views of the Colorado a thousand feet below. Far further down then I planned, 5 miles and 3500 feet below the rim!

To say that the climb back out was tough is an understatement. By this time the sun was shining, my water was getting low, and my chilli flavoured Beef jerky was losing it`s energy boosting prowess. It took me another 2 hours to get out and by the time I reached the top I felt like I`d finished a marathon.....luckily I didn`t feel the need to lie down in a St John Ambulance tent or I would still be in there now! Trish was waiting and had been watching my progress through binoculars, fearing I may need a taxi to the finish!!

The following day, still feeling reasonably wiped out, we headed back east and then north along highway 89 on route to the more remote north rim of the canyon. Another awesome drive along the face of the dramatic Vermilion cliffs, part of what is known as the Grand Staircase, a series of giant rock steps heading up from the canyon up the Colorado plateau into Utah. Then up into the Kaibab forest which sits on a giant mound through which the Colorado river has eroded to form the Grand Canyon. The North rim is a thousand feet higher then the south, over 8000 feet, colder and attracts only a 10th of the visitors. The lodge is spectacular, built right on the edge of the rim. The views are very different, as you look along the  Bright Angel Canyon as it open out into the main canyon. Surrounded by alpine meadows and forest it has a far more chilled, wildernessy feel.

Incredibly, having seen some Rim-to-Rim trekking t-shirts in the gift shop, Trish is now trying to formulate a plan where we go back to the canyon in October and Trek the 21 miles, camping in the canyon half way, going from north to south rim. Lets hope there are no permits available!!!! 

 


Bryce & Zion National Parks

2008-09-20 to 2008-09-23

It`s been a while since we were in Utah but here goes. From the north rim of the canyon our road trip took us back north across the Arizona/Utah state line and through Kanab, an isolated desert town now referred to as the Hollywood of the Wild West due to the number of westerns filmed here. A cheeky Subway for lunch and up to another KampGround of America, this time in Glendale, conveniently situated between Zion and Bryce National parks.

Bryce Canyon National Park is famous for its `Hoodoos`, hundreds of pinnacles of rock pointing up like orange and red daggers from the canyon floor. Created by the same bewildering earth upheavals as the rest of southern Utah the canyon lies along the Grand Staircase, made up of different layers of sandstone that have been eroded away by flowing water and freezing. Not a big park but very beautiful. We did it in several hours, including a cool hike down into the canyon to get in amongst the bewildering Hoodoos.

Trish: The Hoodoos were cool. It was actually my idea for once to explore them on foot. Ancient Indian legend says that they once were animals who lived in the canyon, bad spirited animals that could take on a human form at will. I don`t know what they did that was bad but the Indians say it is so and who are we to disagree. One day a Coyote came into the canyon (Coyotes apparently being very good spirited magical beings) and turned all the bad animals to stone in their human form, which became the Hoodoos. Confused?

The best thing I read all day was a quote by a Mr Ebeneezer Bryce, original resident of the canyon. He and his wife built a homestead in the the Hoodoos area, living there from 1875 to 1880. When asked about his home by friends he described it as `A hell of a place to lose a cow`. It certainly would have been.    

Gary: After a rock and roll saturday night spent chatting to various odd fellow roadtrippers in the campground laundry we headed out early the next morning west to Zion. More red sandstone and canyons and yet different again to all the rest and equally as beautiful. Zion differs in one major way however to the other parks. It no longer allows public road access down it`s main canyon, instead you have to park and get on a shuttle. The park celebrates how much congestion and environmental damage this has prevented, which is great, but we definitely felt we were rolling into Disney not wild desert canyons.

The main aim of our visit was the legendary Angels Landing Trail (Trish: This was not my `main` aim I can promise you), a much hyped `vertigo inducer`! So, after a quick lunch we said goodbye to the shuttle based hordes and began to climb. The first half of the trail is stunning following steep switchbacks right up the canyon walls, tIring but easy compared to what followed. The trail, a term to be used loosely, then zigzags along a disturbingly sharp and narrow ridge edge to a rocky ledge summit 1500ft high with tremendous views along the length of Zion Canyon. Some sections were literally a few feet wide with more than 1000ft vertical drop offs on both sides. The chains along the route were of some comfort but they were few and far between and all in all it was pretty racey, great to be alive stuff. (Trish: seriously petrified at the summit after hauling ourselves up boulders with cliff edges on either side, I could move only on all fours like a demented crab. It was windy and my stomach was doing somersaults fearing a rather serious fall to the ground. Picture the scene... Gary wants to pretend he`s surfing on the edge of the leaning rockface over the valley of Zion and I can barely slide my way over on my stomach to take a photo. I didn`t look or feel very cool, or safe, at all. It was super scary. I was so happy to be back down. I`ve never had a fear of heights before but it reared its ugly head up there for sure.) One sinewy chap passed us heading down declaring if he felt like this commuting to work life would be great! (Trish: I felt like kicking him over the edge but it involved too much effort.)

Departing Zion that afternoon we headed south west to St George. Deciding to treat ourselves to a hotel after 17 nights camping on the bounce and 34 of the last 40 nights in a tent, we landed a right old bargain of a hotel with a big room, 2 queen beds, cable tv, and a pool and hot tub outside our room. It felt like we were rocking up to the Dorchester and only $50.

We ended up staying for 3 nights. 50% of St George`s  inhabitants are Mormons. I will not go into how outrageous this religion (cult)(Trish: It`s not a cult) is, but it was founded by a chap a few hundred years ago who claims to have been visited by an angel and God who told him that Jesus actually went to North America with followers and left a golden book, explaining that current worship of Christ was wide of the mark, or something along those lines!!! There are now 12 million members worldwide and each one has to pay 10% of his / her income to the church!!! That been said it was a very friendly peaceful town, clean and neat  etc, although the fim `Stepford wives` springs to mind.

Trish: I truly believe `each to their own` and all that, but did find it strange when I found myself sat in the library opposite girls my age wearing badges saying `Sister Amy of the Church of Latter Day Saints` and boys with `Elder Jack of the blah blah blah` who actually believe that Jesus came to America to tell them how to live their lives. The girls will never be treated equally to the men, in either status or pay...Mormons believe that man is superior. Need I say more. I`m sure they live very peaceful, pleasant, polite, very very sheltered lives, but it`s not for me.

Nevertheless we spent a lovely 3 nights in St George, lazing round the pool and burning up the quiet roads in Steve French looking for somewhere for Gary to buy beer (not sure what the actual Mormon stance is on that but there weren`t many liquor stores). It was such a treat to have a room we could walk around in, a proper bed, and of course a bath. Luxury at last.

Many apologies to any Mormons reading this entry.

 


Guatemala for the weekend

2008-09-24 to 2008-09-29

Trish: Heading to Vegas, we were adamant that we’d go budget for the night since it was purely a stopover on our way to Guatemala before coming back to really do it in style. There was talk of camping out the back of the Strip (Circus Circus has a tent/RV park), but that didn’t last long once we started the drive across the desert from St George to Vegas because it was the hottest drive ever and we soon craved a cool room to chill out in. So, we took a quick cruise down the Strip to look for budget motels and ended up in NewYork NewYork. Budget out the window but huge smiles all round. We spent a day and a half wandering around air conditioned casinos and came out only 5 dollars down between us. Not a bad little foray into the city that never sleeps. I’m sure we’ll win the big bucks when we come back. 

Gary: Flying out of Vegas at 1am having only arrived there the previous day was definitely not part of our original plan. However, our destination, Guatemala, is not only cheap to get to but it’s the first nation the US considers to be outside North America and so is pretty guaranteed to allow us to begin another 90 day US visa waiver on our return. So, after a pretty tiring few hours changing flights in Houston in the early hours we landed in Guatemala City just before lunchtime. The immediate chaos outside the airport for taxis and shuttles was reassuringly Latin American. Soon we were hurtling through the Guatemalan capital and out into steamy forests on route to Antigua as if the taxi driver’s life depended on it. After haggling the cost they had produced a guy with a car twice the age of Steve French for us! Clogged traffic, stray dogs, chicken buses, bizarre smells, it did feel great to be back in Central America…..even Trish looked excited….well a little at least! 

Antigua is an absolute delight. The old colonial capital feels like it has been preserved deliberately as a museum…cobbled streets, ancient crumbling churches and convents, colourful houses and markets, a really chilled friendly atmosphere and cheap as chips. Our budget hotel is a belter, the charming Casa Florencia with views from its terrace of the three volcanoes ringing the city. Our first hour of exploration takes us past O’Reillys Irish bar, just as a very stocky British looking chap runs out, shouts something, and pegs it back in. Intrigued by this we wandered in and found Mark from Bolton. A character to say the least, he drags me to a seat at the bar and pours me a large Irish Whiskey, finishing the bottle as he does so, which he has been drinking since 11…its now 3 in the afternoon. An ex para and engineer now working in Belize, he keeps us more than amused and an impromptu afternoon session begins. He soon has Trish doing very odd cockney impressions (Trish: “I’m a little bit ‘woo’, a little bit ‘way’, a bit of a geezer" ) and keeps complimenting me on being a Yorkshireman he does not want to kill! whilst periodically dancing on the bar with the barmaid! 

Our exploring of Antigua starts again the following day. Pottering around Parque Central and exploring the ruins of Las Capuchinas, keeping Trish appeased by allowing relevant market time. On our last day we head out at 2pm for a tour to Pacaya Volcano. After the relative luxury of the highly organized US parks the trip to this active volcano in a Guatemalan National Park is refreshing to say the least. First, 14 of us are squeezed into a tiny minibus, the driver lights a smoke, then tears off on the two hour trip to the Volcano. Upon arrival we are mobbed by a horde of children very determined to sell us a stick. The NP centre is a large hut with some pictures of lava and a few armed police lounging around (the volcano used to be plagued by bandits). We are led up the trail by a seasoned guide accompanied by more older kids on horse back trying to get us to pay for a ride. 

After an hour of trudging up through forest we emerge suddenly at the base of a huge black cone…as barren and dramatic as you could hope an active volcano might be. Even more exciting….up on a ridge near the summit we can see the glow of lava! Brilliant. Not only is it a steep climb up crumbling basalt and black ash but it soon starts to rain…torrentially. All worth it though as we reach the summit and a small flow of lava. Our guide seems unimpressed but points over a large steaming mound then clambers off. We follow hesitantly, as smoke rises from the rock beneath us….soon we are stepping over crevasses with glowing red rock beneath. Rounding a corner we are greeted with a magnificent river of lava flowing slowly past us and down the side of the cone. No walkways, warning signs, no restrictions of any kind, just free to clamber on freshly cooled lava. Our clothes dry in minutes and we can smell the soles of our footwear starting to melt!! The sun sets as we begin our descent, and we spend the next 90 mins bumbling back down in the dark!!!!! Luckily people in the Irish pub had told us to take torches, and Trish had been sober enough to remember. We rattle back into Antigua at about 9pm after a truly third world national park experience, surely the best way to see your first active volcano.   

Trish: Well, we were never meant to be here in Antigua. It was never even mentioned in our original plans, and to be honest I was a bit wary of going back to Central America after being in Canada and the US for so long. I was used to, and happy with, everything working properly, being able to understand what people were saying, the little luxuries like aircon in buses (sorry, pathetic I know!), and the general safe feeling that comes with being in a country much like your own. I had this paranoid feeling that something was going to go wrong, and by the time we got on the plane I was a nervous wreck. I was so relieved when we got to our room in the Casa Florencia and we still had all our luggage, had not been mugged, lost our passports, or been run off the road in our crazy taxi. I’ll confess that I thought I would have been happy to sit in the room for 3 days hugging a pillow to save going out into the scary third world again. It’s amazing how quickly you forget. I loved South America and Central America for the 6 months we were there at the start of this year, I don’t know why I was so worried to be back.

Needless to say it took about 5 mins wandering down the quiet, quaint, pretty cobbled streets to feel a whole lot better. And then meeting Mark and his missus in the pub, though not the ‘city tour’ I had been promised, was a nice way to wind down (some of us more than others, Gary) and feel at home. We left the pub once, a few hours in, only to get about 10m down the road and decide that neither of us had really wanted to leave and trooping back in to start another singing/cheering/shouting session with Mark, a man you would definitely not want to be on the wrong side of but who embraced us as lifelong buddies.    

Antigua was beautiful, and so laid back. Of course it is a very poor place, but we weren’t hassled by anyone and the markets had such lovely handicrafts that I didn’t mind buying some local goods. Funny though, at times I found myself bartering over a matter of pence (the exchange rate is very good in our favour) on something that that was so cheap anyway. In the end I always felt guilty and gave them what they wanted. I think I spent something like 20dollars in one market and came out with 3 bags of stuff! Gary was so pleased. The ruins were very, very cool. Gary hasn’t really said why there are so many ruined churches etc… earthquakes. They have had 2 big ones that I can remember reading about and many, many smaller ones. The cathedral in the main square was once 4 times the size it is now. It was flattened by an earthquake not that long after it was first built. They rebuilt it, another massive structure with ornate architecture, only for another big one to come alone and bring it down. Now they have rebuilt only a small section of it for religious use, and the rest is there in its après-earthquake state for tourists to walk around. It was pretty sad to see where the original foundations used to be, and paintings of its former glory. It took so much time and money to build. Apparently the whole town’s foundations are unstable. There are so many small earthquakes that cracking and crumbling of walls is obvious. And then take into account the various volcanoes surrounding the town… what a place to live.

Pacaya volcano was wicked. My feet got hot through the thick soles of my walking boots and we kept having to move backwards away from the flow of lava as it came towards us. Just looking at it burned our faces when we were a few metres away.

Eventually our detour to Guatemala was over and though I ended up really enjoying it I was pleased to be back on the plane to Vegas as I knew that Mum and Dad were already there waiting for us. It’s a bit sad but every time I have felt a bit down or frustrated, either due to tent/weather conditions, too much trekking (Gary’s fault!), feeling totally unglamorous, or just missing home, Gary’s been telling me how long till we get to Vegas and I get to see family, go shopping, and have a massive bath (not saying in which order I would put those things!!!)!We parked Steve French in the Bellagio, an amusing event in itself as we growled past security, and found Mum and Dad waiting in the lobby. Checked into our beautiful room overlooking the fountains and went for a catch up till Dad fell asleep in the bar as I wowed them with travel tales. Ahhh… home sweet home.!      


Vegas, Baby!

2008-09-30 to 2008-10-04

Trish: I love Vegas! I just can`t help it... the bright lights, the beautiful hotels, the lure of the casinos, the stronger lure of the designer shops, brides walking past slots, Elvis walking down the street posing for photos... how can anyone not love Vegas? After all those nights spent in tents in National Parks there was nothing more beautiful to me than the room that Dad put us up in for my birthday present in the Bellagio. A bath I could have done laps in, and floor to ceiling windows overlooking the ever-dancing fountains between us and the Strip... heaven. 

We spent the first couple of day in Vegas having a wander up and down the Strip, eating well (and often, and far too much in quantity), gambling, and shopping. I hadn`t seen Mum since April so we had plenty to talk about, though I`m not sure if the `gossip` I got from her on M&S, WI, school fetes and Bridge nights was really worth the wait! Mum, Gary and I played lots of roulette while Dad sought out the cheaper slots (no doubt to make up for the rooms!). I got asked to leave one roulette table after losing half my money because I didn`t have any i.d. on me and apparently still look under 21. What can I say... some of us have it.!

On the 3rd night there was some suspicious behaviour over dinner times and locations, and throughout the meal we didn`t seem to have Mum and Dad`s usual attention. I knew something was up but couldn`t weasel any details out of them, so spent the night on edge wondering what was going to happen. Turns out that my worst fears were realised as we walked through the lobby and guess who walks up to me? My little nephew Steve who was always being sick on me as a baby, getting run over for attention, and telling on me when I was mean. Of course now he`s taller than me, looks like he`s just been kicked off the Razorlight tourbus, and not sick so much that I have had to experience recently, thank God. Accompanying Steve on his first ever trip to Vegas... his Granddad Charlie!!! It was so nice to see them both that we stayed off the `Vegas with your Grandparents` jibes for at least a few hours. 

Well, we had a real fun-filled 4 nights with them, with lots of laughing. Charlie turned up with only one pair of shoes, the explanation not being clear but necessitating a first-morning-in-Vegas shopping trip, Steve and I both got thrown out of a bar due to lack of i.d., only made slightly more embarassing by the fact that the bar was in the middle of Paris` casino floor, Mum made her way serenely around every roulette table in Vegas with a seemingly unending supply of `today`s gambling budget` while Dad shouted at the 25cent slots to urge them on. Gary in the meantime perfected the art of getting free rounds of drinks from the casino waitresses and feeling flash as he tipped them a dollar a time. We all went to see `O`, the new Cirque de Soleil show, which was amazing, set on, above, and in a huge water tank the size of the entire stage. I`ve seen lots of their shows in the past, and this was the best by far... the high divers were unbelievable.

On our penultimate night with Steve and Charlie we all went to the Stratosphere for dinner overlooking the Strip. At 1am we ventured onto the roof to see the views from outside, and before we knew it me, Gary and Steve were in the queue for tickets to the 3 rollercoaters on the top of the building.! (Well, 2 of us did all 3, the other one chickened out of the last one saying it would make him sick. No names mentioned, but his name starts with a G.) So, in all our best gear (me in my new party dress and stilettos), at 1.30am on the top of the Stratosphere in Vegas, Me, Gary and Steve found ourselves being flung at 100mph upwards in a reverse bungee style ride! Well, this is Vegas, baby!

Our last night in Vegas was spent at Freemont Street, Downtown. Steve`s lucky number 12 was coming up every other spin. That`s my new roulette number now for sure. Him, Charlie. Mum, and Dad all had massive piles of winnings in front of them by the end of the night, leaving just me and Gary, the travellers with no cash, to contemplate our losses. Never mind, we`ll win big when we come back!!!!

Very sad to say goodbye to Steve and Charlie. Thanks for coming out, you two. We missed you (just a little bit) when you were gone.  

       


San Diego

2008-10-05 to 2008-10-08

Trish: Much as Steve French has been an integral part of our road trip so far, it was time to give him a rest in the Bellagio car park while we hired ourselves a big old Trailblazer and headed to San Diego with Mum and Dad. We hit Seaworld the first day, Mum and Dad remembering many happy times spent in its sister park in Orlando with certain other family members… and ultimately deciding that it was much better this time round with no bleedin kids! We fed stingrays, watched shows involving dancing walruses, seals and otters, saw lots of sharks, and of course Shamu the killer whale (or at least a few descendents). Gary spent the rest of the day contemplating if he had left it too late to become Shamu’s trainer as ‘wouldn’t it be amazing to have a relationship with something that big’. Plonker.

Going aboard the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Midway was Dad and Gary’s choice for the next day. No shops nearby so me and Mum had to go too, but it turned out to be really interesting and after 4 hours we had to leave in a rush because our parking ticket had run out. The biggest ship on the oceans when it was launched in the 1940’s, it had a crew of 4500, and was only decommissioned in 1992. The whole ship was set out as if it was up and running, and we went everywhere from the engine room to the Captain’s dining area. There must have been 30 aircraft on the flight deck, Chinook helicopters to F-15 fighter jets. Very, very cool. Many of the former crew now volunteer on the Midway giving talks on life on the ship, and the mechanisms involved in launching planes off the deck as well as catching them in the giant elastic bands (not the technical term) when they landed. Veterans of wars, surrounded by fighter jets, guns and state of the art radar systems, Dad had soon wowed them with his own voluntary role in St John Ambulance.

After 2 busy days, we relaxed on our last day in San Diego with a drive out to the beach on Coronado Island. There’s a big naval base on Coronado and lots of retired captains, admirals and other obviously well-paid retired sailors have their homes here, overlooking their old office, the Pacific Ocean. After morning coffees at the very posh, very old Coronado hotel, and a very civilised walk along the beach looking for sand dollars (Dad was disappointed when I told him they weren’t legal tender) we drove around the coast to Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma. The point where, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo stepped into history as the first European to set foot on what is now the West Coast of the US, there is now a big military base here. There was a beautiful cemetery which reminded me of photos I’ve seen of Arlington, small white headstones in rows and rows and rows spanning as far as we could see into the distance. Servicemen of many wars. There were also lots of larger headstones denoting the deaths of entire ships/submarines companies sunk in battle which was very sad and humbling to see.

Dinner that night was a winner chosen by Gary (and paid for by Dad – an excellent combination), ‘OceanAir’ in the heart of the Gaslamp Quarter. We’ve had some great seafood dinners in San Diego, but for ambiance and class this was the best so far so I recommend it to anyone heading that way.

L.A. Here we come…


Los Angeles

2008-10-09 to 2008-10-13

Trish: Leaving the cliffs and beaches of San Diego, and Gary’s dreams of becoming Shamu’s next trainer behind, we hit Interstate 5 north and headed for Los Angeles. After a longer than necessary drive due to the navigator falling asleep and the turning being missed (sorry about that everyone), we ran in and out of half the hotels in Santa Monica and Downtown L.A. before finally finding one that a) fitted mine and Gary’s budget, and b) wasn’t miles away from everything and c) didn’t give me the fear that we’d be consumed by bugs in our sleep. We ended up in the Liberty Hotel, right behind Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and, sadly for Mum, right next door to a huge Renaissance that looked very plush but was well and truly out of mine and Gary’s league.

True to form, we hit a theme park our first day full day in L.A., ticking off all the rides and shows at Universal Studios. Next was a drive around the stars homes in Beverly Hills, and some well-needed culture at the Getty centre. Mum and Dad being Theme Parkaholics, we also had to take them to Six Flags Rollercoaster Park for the day where they practised extreme Suduko whilst me and Gary sampled the park’s many loop the loops including the biggest flying coaster in the world (you’re attached by your back to the tracks above) and the first 4d coaster, X2, which plays music to you and spins you independently to the bit attached to the tracks so while you are going through a loop, you are also spinning round on your own seat. When we both came off complaining that we’d hit our heads really hard I realised we may be getting too old for all this and our days of extreme Sudoku were not so far away.           

Our last day in LA was spent down at Malibu beach. We found a great restaurant in Paradise Cove for fish and chips by the sea, and sat under their sunshades for several hours until the sky started turning yellow and small bits of ash rained down due to the massive forest fires not that far north of where we were. And despite Dad’s protestations on the journey there, he was the one left doing Sudoku on the beach whilst me, Mum and Gary ate an enormous chocolate brownie ice-cream back in the restaurant.

In between our theme parks, culture and beach time, we also took a tour round Manns Chinese Theatre, saw the red carpet laid out on Hollywood Boulevard for the premier of Max Payne, and, I can’t believe I forgot to mention it before(!), went shopping on Rodeo Drive. Gary learnt how to play Bridge on the nights that we didn’t go clubbing (OK, that would be every night) and we had a lot of great pasta and salads!

Despite having to endure several cold baths, awful continental breakfasts and being kept awake at night by nightmares of mice in the air conditioning unit, Mum and Dad never deserted the Liberty for the call of the much nicer Renaissance next door. As we drove away, destination Las Vegas, I swear I saw a tear in Mum’s eye…  


Leaving Las Vegas

2008-10-14 to 2008-10-16

Trish: Eventually we had to return to Vegas, and we sure did it in style. For Gary’s birthday, Mum and Dad booked us 2 nights in the Wynn, Vegas’ newest and poshest hotel. It was luxurious and opulent and everything we’d expected and more. Our room was even better than at the Bellagio, on the 5th to top floor with 2 panoramic windows giving us views up and down the Strip. Mum and Dad were only slightly put out by the fact that our view was better than theirs! We even had a flatscreen tv in the bathroom so I could watch CSI whilst soaking in the enormous tub!

We had only one night left with Mum and Dad, for which we ate at one of the Wynn’s restaurants overlooking a lagoon with a waterfall onto which light shows were played and at one point emerged a giant frog to serenade us. That night was our last proper night of gambling, and at last I won back all my money so far lost on roulette and some. We’d all joined the ‘Wynn red card club’ (check us high-rollers out!!) and with every win came points. After a full night on the slots and tables, between us we had enough points for 6 free buffet breakfasts and a dinner for 2 (kindly sorting out any issues I had on where to take Gary for dinner on his birthday)! Walking the casino floor I had Mum and Gary at one end quietly but remorselessly throwing their chips down on roulette, and Dad at the other shouting ‘Yes!’ at his slot machines. I feel I may be genetically predisposed to gambling.

It was Gary’s birthday on the 15th, so we all had our (free) enormous birthday breakfast while he opened his cards and pressies, including several items from the Wynn gift shop due to lack of planning on my behalf and most bizarrely of all a selection of pants from my Dad. After a sad goodbye, Mum and Dad finally had to head to the airport and we headed to the mall. Another birthday present for Gary in hand, we returned to the luxury of our room and didn’t leave it until we had to for dinner. (Well, why not make the most of it… we’re going back to camping in a few days! Aargh!!!)

Not wanting to leave just yet, we moved heavy heartedly out of the Wynn and into Excalibur for a not too budget-busting last night in Vegas. We did a bit of shopping, a bit of gambling, and a lot of planning for hitting the road again. We didn`t quite have to abandon the Wynn - courtesy of Gary’s slot machine action we had another free dinner to use so we scooted back to their Chinese restaurant and ordered enough food for 4, probably managing to eat enough for 3 ½. Tomorrow we diet.

So ends our 3 trips to Vegas. I’ve had a ball, especially having Mum and Dad here with me, and what a cool place for Gary to celebrate turning 35. Goodbye nice hotels, the next part of the adventure starts here…

 


Hoover Dam to Death Valley

2008-10-17 to 2008-10-18

Gary: With a sad look on Patricia’s face we left Vegas for the third time. Heading south east past yet more casinos we drove out to Boulder and Lake Mead. The car feels older and noisier then before, but perhaps that’s due to how much weight I’ve put on after eating for England over the last few weeks. (Trish: we covered 1000 miles in the Trailblazer, cruising at the speed limit without excess vibrations, noise or fear that the chassis will snap or something might fall off. It just wasn’t the same. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we pulled back into the car park and found no-one had stolen our beloved Steve French.)

The Hoover Dam was definitely worth the detour. A vast concrete monster that until after WW2 was the biggest man made thing on the planet. Just as impressive is the new suspension bridge being built just in front of the dam spanning the valley ready for a new bypass. 

Just to remind Trish of what we’d left behind we drove back through Vegas on our way north again and away into the Nevada desert. This is a desolate and slightly suspicious part of the world home to military testing sites, Area 51 and various alien sightings. Sadly the most alien presence on this day is Steve French growling his way reluctantly through the heat with us sweating inside listening to the new Metallica album. We stop briefly in a bizarre little outpost town called Beatty, apparently the gateway to Death Valley, with a myriad of advertising boards along the road offering oddities such as stuffed olives, buffalo jerky, 100% honey and cashew nuts!

Even Trish is happy to pass on shopping here and we head west towards Death Valley and California. A long lonely road heads up and through a pass in the ominously named Funeral Mountains into the park. We drive for a long time through a surreal parched landscape to Furnace Creek, the main visitor hub (Trish: ‘hub’ being a relative term since we are in the middle of a desert). Our campsite is over 100 feet below sea level, and thankfully under the shade of some trees. We watch a cool sunset from Zabriskie point not far away, having to run up the hill to make it in time. And back at camp that night after offering to help a novice camper on how to light a wood fire we end up with half his wood and a fire we really don’t need, nights here are warm to say the least. 

In the morning we drive up along the valley’s rim to 5400 feet and Dantes view point. Below us the immense Death Valley stretches for miles, very eternal and desolate. From here we descended back down and out onto the valley floor itself, to Badwater Basin. This is the lowest point in the western hemisphere, 282 feet below sea level. Apparently the water run off from an area the size of New Hampshire (no idea how big that is but sounds impressive) ends up here in Death Valley, then evaporates leaving a crusty salt plain, an eerie and beautiful place. It’s only about 100 degrees by the time we leave just before lunch….the hottest temperature in US history was recorded here some time in the 1930s of 134 degrees!! 

Feeling pretty hot and exhausted we then make the gruelling drive west across the rest of the park, past 100 foot high dunes through baking desert on a road that disappears into the distance in one straight line until we eventually climb up and out and drop down onto the very scenic Highway 395. This road runs north right alongside the stunning Sierra Nevada Mountains, including Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states at 14,500 feet. We get as far as Bishop, a cool little tourist town with a splendid mountain backdrop. Shattered, and after trying numerous motels we finally land a bargain with free wifi, back to back CSI’s for Trish, and some degree of comfort before heading into Yosemite. 


Camping with Black bears in Yosemite

2008-10-19 to 2008-10-23

The Tioga pass eastern route into Yosemite, at over 9000 feet, is often already closed and very white at this time of the year. Lucky for us, Steve French cruises over the pass under beautiful blue skies. It’s a great drive, up amongst massive granite peaks and sub alpine meadows.   

We stop at various spots as we drive west through the more remote and higher eastern part of the park before descending into the world famous Yosemite Valley. It’s soon easy to see what all the hype is about. First the magnificent El Capitan looms into view, a 3000 foot sheer granite wall looking stunning bathed in sunshine. The road winds through the valley along meadows and huge pine tree forests as more giant granite walls rear up on either side. Then Half Dome appears, 8000 feet tall with an almost perfect half-a-dome granite summit, as if half of it had sheared off straight down the centre. The valley looks spectacular, although the number of cars and people about is a little worrying…..as it’s Sunday we hope this will get better. 

We stay in Upper Pines campground, and a site that is far from the most private we’ve had, but not bad. Every site has big bear proof lockers in which all food must be kept, it’s not even safe to leave food in your car!! Pretty chilly as soon as the sun goes down, so after a big fire and a hot chilli we hit the sack early. (Trish: After dinner we had 3 little visitors rustling around the side of our food locker… a family of raccoons… how cute!) 

At 3am we are woken by frantic voices in French and English accents. The words ‘big’, ‘huge’, ‘bear’, and ‘locker’ seem to dominate the nearby and energetic exchange. After a half hearted ‘take a picture’, and ‘who put the food away’, quiet returns. Trish angrily mutters that it is probably just a raccoon. Turns out that the 2 French lads and their mate from southern England in the tent next to ours got back late, and a little drunk. The English lad apparently failed to properly secure their locker. He woke up to a rustling noise and his tent wall being pushed inwards. A large black bear doing what bears do very well, had quickly discovered this error and was rubbing it’s backside against their tent whilst enjoying their cheese and chive Philadelphia and some crackers!!! 

Sadly, despite being a funny and fairly exciting event, this kind of incident is bad news for the bears. Once they gain access to high calorie easy access human food they become persistent and sometimes aggressive in trying to get more, and after 3 strikes from Rangers some bears have to be removed (Trish: which also can mean ‘euthanised’, which is really sad). 

We spend the rest of the day on a fine hike up towards Half Dome, past Vernal and Nevada Falls, the latter of which drops nearly 700 feet. Sadly, Yosemite Falls, the biggest in North America, falling 2400 feet, and most others in the park are dry as California has had so little rain this autumn. And even more sadly (Trish: For Gary) the summit of Half Dome, a must do U.S. hike, is now closed for the winter and the safety cables used to scale the vast slippery dome removed (Trish: Disaster, we’ll have to spend a day sat in the sun reading our books instead). That evening as I’m cooking pasta in camp what we presumed to be the same bear ambles casually past heading expectantly for the food locker next door again. A young kid skids to a halt on his pushbike and his squeaking brakes scare it away. 

The next day, once again in the early 80’s, we have another guided climbing lesson. It seems wrong to visit Yosemite, the home of big wall climbing, and not at least have a crack. Great day with a very cool guide. Jo Whitford has been climbing for 30 years, a pioneer in women’s climbing and a member of the Yosemite Search and Rescue team. She teaches us about anchoring, all sorts of funky climbing equipment, then sends us up various routes. The more we climb, the more we love it, although El Cap will have to wait! As I’m belaying Jo up a pitch a young bear ambles into the clearing and ponders our kit bags for a while before heading on its way. (Trish: me and Gary are both only metres away, tied in place by anchors and belaying ropes! Luckily the bear had no interest in us and only the smell of our breakfast bars) 

All is not well as we return to camp. The 3 sites adjacent to ours are literally strewn with camping gear, and all sorts of kit. Sadly this is not the result of a bear invasion, but 3 families with about a dozen kids from ‘near lake Tahoe’. The ‘kids’ tent has been erected literally 6 feet from our tent, which we move immediately. I’m grumpy, and even though they are a decent bunch our semi wilderness camping is ruined. 

After 2 active days we decide to chill, pottering around Yosemite lodge then taking our chairs to the meadow at the foot of El Cap to watch the tiny climbers dotted across the granite monolith on their incredible bids to scale this monstrous rock. Quite amazing to watch, you can hear them yelling to each other, and through our binoculars see them hauling up gear or hanging from anchors. We watch 2 guys make the top of what is called the nose. El Cap was first climbed 50 years ago this year, an ascent that took a few weeks. The speed record is now held by a legendary Japanese climber who has made it up in around 2 ½ hours!!! Whilst sitting in the sun I’m reading a book recommended by Jo called ‘Deaths in Yosemite’ a fascinating account of every one of the 900 or so fatalities in the park, including climbers falling from near the summit of El Cap, some repelling right off the end of their ropes and falling almost 3000 vertical feet to their death, often flailing past other horrified climbers!! 

Sadly a magical day is ruined when we return to camp, to find our lovely neighbours having a party. Music on, about seven kids screaming in their tent, everyone bellowing to each other in a way only Americans can. (Trish: By 9pm the entire campsite is silent and dark except for us huddled round our fire miserably wishing our neighbours would go to bed, and them hollering next door.)  

The next morning we pack up camp (Trish: noisily to get payback). Fortunately we have acquired a new site, a beautiful spot on the edge of the campground with nothing but forest and boulders behind us. The day turns out to be a bit of a wildlife fest……following a big male bear along a forest trail, only to have a BobCat troop out in front of us (Trish: Gary thought it was a mountain lion). Later, just after we finished a tasty spaghetti bolognaise, there was a commotion from the other side of the campground, and cries of ‘bear..Bear..BEAR’, and lots of flashlights. Suddenly a bear wanders into view, walks round Steve French, strolls into our camp, and examines our fire before sticking its head into our tent. One sniff is enough in there however and he heads on into the night. 

Trish: So our last night in Yosemite was the best experience camping to date. The bear was only a couple of metres away from us and it was just so big and beautiful. These bears aren’t scary looking like Grizzlies, they make you want to bury yourself in their big furry bodies! Don’t get me wrong, they’re wild bears so being only a few metres away is really too close for comfort, but we felt honoured to have experienced that sort of closeness. And it didn’t get my marshmallows, so double bonus! 


The Biggest Living Organism in the World

2008-10-24 to 2008-10-25

 The following day we leave magnificent Yosemite and its curious wildlife. We stop on our way at Glacier Point for final fab views of the valley before descending out of the park through its south western gate. 7000 feet later and we arrive in the scorching lowlands. Everywhere is yellow and dry, and it’s uncomfortably hot in Steve French. Even the mile after mile of fruit plantations look parched. Stopping in Fresno only long enough to grab a subway we head back east and back up into the Sierra mountains. We climb back up to about 7000 feet again with the welcome relief of cool mountain air, and head into Kings Canyon National Park. 

This must be our shortest stay in a US national park as 10 minutes later we leave, but only to drive into its sister park Sequoia! A cool drive along the General’s highway through shady pine forests. The only campground open this late in the fall is at Lodgepole, and it’s unmanned, so we grabbed the biggest rv site we could find. It gets pretty cold as the sun sets…..big wood fire called for. Late in the night we have 2 guests, coyotes skulking around in the dark. The first slinking past at a respectable distance. The second, much larger visitor stops next to a tree 6 feet from us and our fire. Yellow eyes regarded us suspiciously for a while before he plodded on.

After porridge and hot chocolate for brekkie and a morning fire we head off early in search of the biggest living organism in the world! A half mile trail (Trish: all downhill therefore pre-warning a big climb back up. Rubbish! Who put all these hills in?) takes us down through a grove of stunning Giant Sequoias and the General itself. They are not the prettiest trees in the world, with a vast trunk and a few short fat branches, nor are they the tallest, this honour goes to Coastal Redwoods. But by bulk they are the most massive. The General is over 2200 years old, over 34 feet wide at the base (and still growing), and weighs around 1500 tonnes, more than 2 fully loaded 747 Jumbo Jets!! They never actually die, but instead become unstable and topple over. The oldest tree has been recorded at 3000 years old.

As we drive around the park, and after a visit to the very good museum, we pass more stunning groves within the forest. We drive through a fallen giant on our way to Moro rock and great views of the Great Western Divide. 

We leave the park heading South West along the Generals highway, twisting down out of the mountains back down to sea level and stop at a very smart KOA (Kampground of America) in Visalia, central California. After 6 nights in National Parks, it’s a treat to use the campground pool then spend the night in a comfy TV room!  


Elephants and Humpbacks on Highway 1

2008-10-26 to 2008-10-28

Gary: Refreshed and well rested we head west, an interesting drive through fruit plantations   along HW 41. 100 miles later through rolling hills we finally arrive at the Pacific coastline and the world famous Highway 1. Turning north we head up through Cambria, a very quaint tourist town to San Simeon, a tiny town right on the coast but with a line of very cheap chain motels and our home for the night.

We head out immediately to a nearby beach. The reason, this is now home to the largest coastal colony of Elephant seals. Sadly, once again we have arrived at the wrong time of the year to see the massive bulls. As in Antarctica we are a month early and the 2 ½ tonne bulls are still out at sea eating, preparing themselves for the gruelling task of protecting their harems through the winter. Still, dozens of younger animals line the beach, and thankfully we can stay upwind of most of them. Trish: A few quick facts about Elephant seals which surprised me… They live most of their lives at sea, ie Adult males spend 8 months at sea and 4 on land, and adult females and juveniles spend 10 months at sea and only 2 on land! Although they huddle together on the beach, their sojourns at sea are solitary. It seems that the adult males make the 5000 mile trip to the Aleutian Islands twice a year, travelling along the continental shelf feeding on fish at 2000ft or so. The females and juveniles also go north and northwest, although not as far as the males, feeding on squid and fish. This is the most amazing bit, I thought… While they’re at sea, the seals spend most of their time deep under water, spending less than 15% of the time at the surface although they can only hold their breath for just over an hour. They even sleep underwater during these 1hour long dives, as opposed to at the surface where I guess they would be much more at risk from predators. Imagine spending 10 months of the year at sea, only getting up to an hour’s sleep at any one time! That’s quite a feat. 

Gary: A first this evening. We try and eat dinner in the hotel grill, but the food is so horrific we actually send it back and leave! Trish’s fajitas consist of nuked chicken cubes, some peppers and rice and mushy beans, and my chicken alfredo was cooked at least the week before. A take out pizza sorts us out and saves us cash. 

The much anticipated drive north up along HW 1 to the Big Sur does not disappoint. The road does indeed hug the rocky cliffs above rugged beaches, and the Pacific swell does crash in, and all manner of marine and bird life thrives here. The infamous sea fog drifts in throughout the morning, caused apparently by deep trenches in the ocean and up welling cold currents then warmed by the sun. After a hundred miles of coastal bliss we eventually chug into Carmel–by-the-sea. Much hyped by my Mum & Dad, this again did not disappoint. Beautiful little coastal town, each house immaculate, every shop, hotel and restaurant in keeping with a quaint country garden theme. Starbucks can only sponsor a coffee shop here. We potter around tiny boutiques and neat little art galleries before retreating to the safety of Steve French and roar out of town and into neighbouring Monterey.  

Once the centre of the US sardine canning industry, Monterey is now a pleasant tourist town. The bay has been a marine reserve since ‘92 and is a sanctuary for whales, dolphins and sea otters amongst others. The Fisherman’s wharf is a little tacky but also full of character and great for seafood. 

Early the next morning we find ourselves heading out into the bay in thick fog on a whale watching trip, I spotted the first Humpback of the day surfacing through the fog, soon followed by several others as the mist lifted. 1400 of these giants travel between here and Mexico each year. The highlight of the trip were 3 so called ‘friendly whales’! We approached 2 other whale watching boats that already had 3 juvenile, though fully grown whales ‘playing’ around them. The massive creatures, about 50 feet long, were nudging the boats, and rising head first up out of the water to apparently peer at the amazed humans on board, then adding trumpeting like sounds as they exhaled through massive blow holes. Yet another awesome whale encounter, a real privilege to see these gentle intelligent giants, and great to see them thriving.  I have to add that this is the time of year to see giant blue whales, the largest ever animal on earth…but sadly they are apparently feeding further south near Santa Barbara….gutted. 

After a brief visit to see the bizarre spectacle of tens of millions of Monarch butterflies sleeping in a small grove of trees…on route to Mexico for the winter, we left Monterey and continued up highway 1, stopping only to gawp at a bunch of kite surfers before heading for Sara and Mona’s flat in San Francisco.


Halloween in San Francisco

2008-10-29 to 2008-10-31

Trish: Arrived at Sara and Mona’s (the girls we met in Patagonia way back in January) flat in San Francisco last night and set ourselves up for maybe 10 days or so. They have a lovely flat, in a suburban part of the city, with 2 cats, Spinnaker and Fraidie, and baby Elena also in residence. As a reminder to us of what seems like a very distant memory, the girls both set off for work early leaving us to explore the area. After a girlie morning for me crying at the Sex and the City film, we wandered down to the Golden Gate Park, only a couple of blocks away, and The Haight, so called `G-Spot of the Summer of Love` in the 60`s. Loads of punks, artistes, oddballs, tramps and misfits passing time outside the many 2nd hand and vintage clothes stores. After being asked what food we missed from home, Mona cooked us a great, super spicy Thai soup and curry for dinner. I think I’m still sweating. 

Mona took the next day off work to take us on my new favourite pastime, hiking! After a promise of ‘not too many hills’, we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and to the very top of a large mountain, from where I was informed we were going to hike 3 miles down to the beach and then obviously back up. I’m loving that to Mona this was just an everyday walk! On our way down we past through forests, the meadows, then a gorge. Even saw a snake. Once at the beach, after devouring tuna melts we watched some learner surfers in the breaks, sealions further out, and, even further out, some whales. The 3 miles back up wasn’t even so bad in the end. Could it be that I am beginning to enjoy hiking? No!!!!!! 

No daycare for Elena the day after, so after Sara headed off to work again the 4 of us headed to Golden Gate Park. We walked round the botanical gardens and went up the De Young tower for views across the city. It was Halloween so once Sara got in we all walked a block up from where they live to street where the night is taken so seriously that they shut off the road to traffic. It was ace. Every house in this big street had a Halloween theme going on. Open garages transformed into scary witches grottos, monsters and ghosts behind every window, and owners fully dressed up handing out sweets and scaring the kids! In fact we were nearly the only ones not in costume, even the dogs had Halloween outfits. I wish we did Halloween like this in England, it was so much fun. 


Catsitting in San Francisco

2008-11-01 to 2008-11-06

Trish: The girls left us to fly to Mexico for a week’s holiday on Saturday, so we said a fond farewell and took on our role as cat sitters for Spinnaker and Fraidie (as in fraidie cat, if you hadn’t already got it). Vancouver, Vancouver Island, the car, and now a flat in San Francisco, we have been so lucky with the people we’ve met along our travels. It just shows you how nice people can be. Won’t the girls be sad if we flog their computers for fuel money!  

We eventually found our way into downtown and Union Square. We saw the old trams, walked around Chinatown and the Italian Quarter and met lots of people trying to convince us to vote for Obama. I felt so guilty for not being American and therefore not being able to vote that I bought an ‘Obama 08’ bumper sticker for Steve French and donated money to the campaign fund. At Fisherman’s Wharf we stood and watched (and smelled) 100’s of sealions fighting for prime position on floating platforms in the harbour. It was so noisy with them all barking at their neighbours for getting too close or at others in the water for daring to come near their part of the platform. A very funny site. We had a very homely night in watching dvd’s (‘Run, Fatboy Run’ – hilarious) and eating Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. Is it bad that we can nearly polish off a whole tub in one night now? 

It rained some of our time in the city, but it hasn’t mattered at all because we have the girls’ flat to chill out in. I’ve enjoyed tuning in to Capital Radio online and listening to Johnny Vaughan’s breakfast show, and been very pleased that we are out of the country whenever the traffic report comes on. The day of the election, however, it was a beautiful sunny day so we took the girls’ mountain bikes out and rode across town and over the Golden Gate Bridge. It’s very impressive up close, and the views out over the bay are as you’d expect…great. That night, a little bruised from some bike handling errors (me, not Gary), and very tired, we went to the local Irish pub and watched the results come in. The east coast results were already in, and as soon as California’s votes were counted and in favour of Obama, the race was over. He had the majority. It was a very, very happy crowd in the packed pub, cheering, whooping, clapping, hugging and even dancing. Not quite the same as our election nights back home! We sat at the bar with a local girl who ended up getting very, very drunk, more and more outrageous comments coming out with every beer. Let’s just say that she did not like John McCain, people from Alabama, and fat Texans. We had to agree (although I don`t actually know anyone from Alabama, but you hear strange things). So, Barack Obama is to be the 44th President of the United States and their first black president. It was a very moving evening, especially when they showed over and over pictures of Jesse Jackson crying his eyes out at the Obama Raleigh in Chicago. 

The day after the election and everyone in San Francisco was on a high, everyone on the tram talking about it. We got ourselves onto a boat to Alcatraz and had a tour of the prison. The main prison, the isolation cells, and the ‘holes’ where they were in pitch black for days on end. It was a very sad place. I understand that the prisoners there were there for a reason, but seeing the cells and hearing interviews with ex-inmates saying how cold it got and that every day out the window they could see the city and know exactly what they were missing, it looked like harsh punishment. We earned about all the escape attempts that went wrong, the most deadly attempt leaving 2 guards dead, 2 of the escapees dead, and a further 2 executed not long after for their part. Only 3 people have ever escaped and been unaccounted for. Clint Eastwood played one of them in a film and the ending suggested that they made it to land. But apparently the next day 2 bodies were seen floating in the bay, though never recovered. The water is so cold and the tide so strong that it is thought they surely died. It’s still an open case, but one of the Rangers there (it’s now a National Park) told me they hope the case is never solved as the mystery is far better than reality. I met an ex-convict from Alcatraz, signing his books in the giftshop. Buying his book (because I’m a sucker) I asked him whether he had any good memories at all from his 4 years spent here (for bank robbery). He replied no, all bad. I said surely he made friends and remembers some moments of laughter, but he said that he made friends because he had to and Alcatraz left no good memories with anyone. Persevering, I asked him had he not made good enough friends inside that he may have stayed in contact with them once released. Answer: No. I guess it really was an awful place.    

So, San Francisco crossed off the list. Another big city seen and explored. We liked it here, so much in fact that we have messed with our schedule a little and decided to stay a day longer than planned. I have to admit that no small part of the reason is our 2 new pals, Spinnaker and Fraidie. Spinnaker is possibly the most loving cat I have ever met, and Gary thinks he has made some sort of special chaps bond with Fraidie. We’ll miss them. As a compromise with Gary for staying, this morning we went for another bike ride (more bruises) down to the Castro and Mission districts. Gary read that there are something like 44 hills in San Francisco, and I think he has been attempting to make ride up every one. I’m now shattered and looking forward to a prawn pasta dinner and dvd fest with the cats. Tomorrow, on the road again… 


The Greatest Drive In The World?

2008-11-07 to 2008-11-08

We have driven on some superb roads in British Columbia and the US. The ‘Icefields Parkway’ from Jasper to Banff is in most people’s top 10, the ‘Going to The Sun Road’ in Glacier National Park was magnificent. The Chief Joseph highway down onto the plains of Wyoming from Yellowstone, numerous routes through Colorado and Utah…all great driving and all very different. 

Highway 1 up the Pacific coast of northern California towards Oregon is however simply brilliant, no doubt one of the worlds great drives, even in a 20 year Corolla. Heading out early over the Golden Gate Bridge, the single lane 1 starts immediately winding up and down coastal hills. It snakes around so much that after the first 1 ½ hours we had only done about 30 miles. A little concerning as we need to do about 300 miles! Ascending and descending each hill we climb in and out of the fog which today is hugging the base of the cliffs. At times it feels like we are on a mountain summit looking down on dense white clouds, when actually we are only 10s of metres from the ocean. Occasionally the fog clears, presenting amazing views of the rugged coastline, black volcanic cliffs and crashing waves.       

Eventually the cliffs flatten out and the road runs right above the crashing surf. The patchy fog makes the rock strewn beaches, dotted with big jagged boulders, look incredible. Amazingly there are hardly any other vehicles on the road. We pass through a handful of quaint coastal towns, some shrouded in fog, others under blue skies. We still manage to find a Subway for lunch…without which no great US drive is complete. 

We take it in turns driving. Trish generally puts in a ferocious hour at the wheel, then goes very quiet. We swap, and she sleeps for an hour whist I drive and enthuse to myself about the amazing landscape. 

In the afternoon the road suddenly heads up and through 25 miles of beautiful Redwood forest. This section is even windier then the early hills, tight s-bends, hairpins, and switchbacks up and down dozens of hills. The road surface is smooth tarmac, narrow and lined by the giant trees…Jeremy Clarkson eat your heart out!! Trish sleeps throughout. Once out of the hills, Highway 1 joins the slightly larger, mainly 2-lane 101. The thrills are not over though, as alongside this runs the ‘Avenue of the Giants’. Trish stays awake to drive this 30 mile road running right through the middle of some of the tallest trees in the world. By this point it’s practically dark. We finally arrive in Eureka at around 7pm, over 9 hours since we left San Francisco. We have covered over 350 miles of quite incredible driving on what has to be one of the greatest roads in the world.    

The following day is only slightly less impressive as we follow the 101 north up the coast into Oregon. The weather reports are grim, several storm fronts heading in from the Pacific bringing torrential rain to the NW coast!! Indeed we are soon in it and regretting not having replaced Steve French’s super slick front tyres. 

More rugged coastline and Redwoods first in the very northern corner of California. We drive through Redwood National Park, containing the tallest trees in the world at around 350 feet tall!! Probably the world’s most beautiful forests. Across into Oregon for more fine coastline and some serious driving…and some serious rain. We make it as far north as historical Newport (Trish: not sure about the ‘historic’, but there were lots of seals in the harbour again), another 350 mile day!!


The Last 2 States

2008-11-09 to 2008-11-15

Trish: Woke up to stormy weather, fog, and lots of rain…a running theme over the last few days. Before hitting Gary’s beloved coastal highway again, we went down to the Historic Port of Newport and saw lots of old fishing boats and even more sea lions. It seems that sea lions and harbours on the west coast come hand in hand, and even though we’ve seen thousands of them and it was pouring down, I couldn’t resist taking some more shots. We should have these things in Greenwich… they’re awesome!

Back on the road again on our last stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway. Dozens of people are out storm watching as in Gary’s words, “several high and low pressure storms rolling in across the Pacific have created quite a swell.” I can’t begin to explain how happy he is driving what he calls ‘”one of the most scenic roads in the world”. It dominates our in-car conversation. There’s fog everywhere and it is very pretty, a sort of ghostly feel, but I’m beginning to think that this is just a road, in spite of all Gary’s excitement at every bend. I sit in the car, warm, dry and snoozing, while he gets soaked taking scenic shots of waves crashing into harbour walls. Everyone’s a winner! 

Eventually we head east through the Coastal Range across the lowest pass (still on racing slicks), and into rural Oregon. Very England in Autumn, just less people. We arrive in Portland and to Sara’s Mum (Anne) and Stepdad’s (Ray), house. No surprises that we are welcomed into their home (even though we had never before met), given a comfy bed, home cooked dinners and lots of red wine for Gary. There’s that North American hospitality again… the rain is soon forgotten. 

We finally bit the bullet and bought Steve French some new front tyres after days of weather warnings on the tv. $90 for 2 tyres and free coffee and popcorn while you wait…bargain. Luckily we didn’t need to test them in the snowy hills of Oregon as Ray chauffeur drove us all up to the Timberline ski lodge on Mount Hood (highest mountain in the state) in their big Dodge Ram 4wd truck. We had lunch there, looking out onto lots and lots of snow covered forests and runs, and got very jealous that they live so close to a ski resort. It was a few weeks away from opening for the season, but some hardened boarders were out in the torrential rain getting a headstart. The weather cleared up as we came down the other side of Mt Hood and drove along the Columbia River Gorge, stopping for fresh cider, an impressive waterfall (with all this rain now considerably more impressive than the trickles we saw in Yosemite), and finally at the dock where they keep the boat that Ray made at home on their porch! It’s very impressive. We even went out on the river in it so we know for sure there’s no leaks. If you look at the photos and don’t believe they hand built it, click on this link which shows it in their back garden during all the different stages.

http://www.backporchboat.org/ 

And Ray has started a trend. Whilst out on the river with him and Anne we stopped to see another chap in the middle of following Ray’s plans and building his own boat too.  

We spent 3 nights with Anne and Ray in Portland, and only moved on because we do need to get going to Canada. Many thanks to you both, Anne and Ray, for opening up your home to us, feeding us, showing us around, and introducing us to some new American tv shows! 

Leaving Portland really feels like we are on the last legs of our journey. We drove into Washington, our 13th and last US State, and headed straight to Seattle for some not so sleepless nights in a motel in downtown. Walking distance to everywhere, we spent 3 days exploring yet another US city, this one perhaps one of our favourites. There’s a great Fisherman’s Market with fishmongers throwing huge chilled fish around (maybe with more flair than needed, for the tourists, but we loved it), and of course the first ever Starbucks. We bought a coffee there and got laughed at for it by the busker outside, cheeky sod! We had a wicked tour of the ‘Underground’, subterranean storefronts and sidewalks entombed when the city re-built on top of itself after the Great Fire of 1889. For a while the owners tried to keep the underground parts in use, but no-one wanted to shop underground and eventually they were boarded over and forgotten. 

2 visits to the cinema, a couple of nice dinners and an eviction from a pub later (for neither of us having correct id, with our youthful under 21 looks), it was time to leave America for good. Well, this time round, anyway. We drove up our final stretch of Interstate 5 out of Seattle with Mount Rainier behind us, in all its volcanic glory. In my excitement to get a photo of the state sign for Washington (it was raining far too hard on the way in to stop), and Gary’s subsequent rush to get back to the highway we nearly get pulled over by the cops just a few 100m from the US/Canada border, but after following us with lights flashing and a feeling of dread descending upon us, they veered off and went after someone else. Panic over. And so off into the Canadian sunset we went. 

As I write this we are sat on a ferry to Nanaimo, Vancouver Island, to return our beloved Steve French to his rightful owners. Another chapter of our travels nearly finished.


Road Trip North America…the stats

2008-11-16

Gary: Late in the evening of the 15th of November Steve French finally rolled off a BC Ferry back onto Vancouver Island, thus completing an epic road trip through western Canada and the western United States. After the car vomited green fluid everywhere back in August on the very first day, the odds looked stacked against us. The shocking declaration by US customs on the Canada / Montana border that we had actually started our 90 day US visa waiver 8 weeks before whilst in transit through Miami looked destined to reduce the road trip to a month! 

However, 95 days (and a visa-renewing trip to Guatemala) later we have renewed faith in Steve French, and those Japanese car makers at Toyota. We have driven a total of 9630 miles (1005 of which were around southern California in a Chevy Trailblazer). We travelled through 2 Canadian Provinces and 13 US States burning through roughly 300 gallons of gas, costing almost 5 $US at the start, and just over $2 per gallon before the end. The highest pass was over 12000 feet through alpine tundra in the Rockies, the lowest, 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley. Only once did we have to admit defeat, attempting a 4 wheel drive track through Monument Valley! All told we visited 16 National Parks and spent 40 nights in a tent. 

Despite the Corolla being nearly 20 years old, and having passed the 250,000 km mark as we drove through California, we spent only $200 on maintenance: 2 new tyres, water pipes, a fan switch and a thermostat to be precise. 

Trish: I‘m not sure if Paul and Geri ever expected to see their car again, so the broken tail light, dented rear wing and extinct muffler don’t seem a big deal (we hope!). Now we’ve proven its reliability it may become hot property. We owe a huge thanks to the 2 of them for lending us the Corolla, and all the extra camping gear. We could never have done all the amazing things we have done if we had been reliant on public transport or, even worse, having to pay for a hire car. How lucky we were to bump into them in that bar in the Galapagos.

Steve French will always be remembered as an integral part of our 2008 travels. We’ve become quite attached to him but now we must say goodbye and give him back to his rightful owners. Jericho, our stuffed Moose from Whistler, it seems will continue on to Australia with us… 

So, here’s a brief summary of our trip… 

Canadian Provinces: British Columbia, Alberta

U.S. States: Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington

Canada National Parks: Jasper, Banff, Kootenay 

U.S. National Parks: Glacier, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountains, Arches, Canyonlands, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Death Valley, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, Sequoia, Giant Redwoods                               

Quite an adventure.


Jolly hockey sticks! - Farewell Canada

2008-11-17 to 2008-11-23

Gary: To say Canadians enjoy their hockey is an understatement, so it seemed only right to spend two of our final nights in North America watching men on skates beat the life out of each other. I have to say that I am pretty much converted. 

On our final night in Port Alberni we went down to the local rink to watch the Alberni Bulldogs with Paul, Jim and Norm. Though with not one home grown player on the team the Bulldogs are on a real losing streak and sadly receive a sound thrashing, Trish and I however are now thoroughly schooled in the finer rules of the game. Soon, the constant and previously random-looking player swapping and referee arm waving all makes sense. Towards the end the 2 hard men from each team square up. Oddly in modern sports, the officials keep a respectable distance and allow the two to get a firm hold with their left hands and pound each other until they fall over. After the game we went to rescue Geri from a cloth party at Jim and Laura’s, which is a party where people watch cleaning cloths put through their paces!! Trish felt she may have made the wrong choice in opting to watch the hockey. 

Back in Vancouver, Shari had secured tickets for a big night at the Colloseum as the high flying Vancouver Giants took on the Kamloops Blazers. Over 12000 people and a cracking atmosphere as the Holy Grail of Canadian trophies, the Stanley Cup, is displayed accompanied by 5 legendary NHL heroes. A raft of goals sees the Giants win 6-4. 

Trish: Our time in Canada passed far too quickly. We had only 5 nights on Vancouver Island with Paul and Geri, during which we were again spoiled with lots of home cooked food and store-bought wine (coca cola for me… after 11 months of a substituting this for water I am now truly concerned for the welfare of my teeth). We had lazy days followed by lazy nights consuming copious amounts of ice-cream and watching such film greats as ‘Harold and Kumar; Escape from Guantanamo Bay’ and ‘Borat’. And when Gary trekked up to the lookout on one of the mountains overlooking the town, I was taken shopping. I love this town! 

As Paul, Geri, Jim and Laura dropped us off at the ferry terminal to go back to the mainland (I think they all came to make sure we actually left), we walked off into the rainy port with heavy hearts and even heavier bags. We have been so welcomed again by everyone, and we keep thinking just how lucky we were to have met Paul and Geri in that bar on the Galapagos for an hour and a half back in March. Paul, Geri, Laura, Jim, thankyou again for all your kindness (and for not making me walk up another mountain). We’ll miss you guys. 

Back in Vancouver (mainland) the rain just kept coming and by the time we had picked up the key to Shari’s and made our way to her apartment block (feeling like pack mules under the strain of all our gear) we were very much ready for the warmer, and drier, climes of Australia. Shari had a couple of tricks up her sleeve, though, in giving us a proper Canadian goodbye. The ice hockey game that Gary mentioned above, and a chocolate buffet. Yes, these really do exist. I became quite obsessed with the idea of such a decadent meal, and starved myself all day in preparation. Murray (who gave us road trip advice before we left Vancouver first time round) joined us and was equally excited. In fact it was only Gary who couldn’t get his head around the idea of a meal made of chocolate. Who is this fool I am marrying? Anyway, it was all Shari had promised and more. I have never eaten so many strawberries and pineapple pieces dipped in a fresh chocolate fountain. It was chocolate heaven. And as for Gary, he ate just as much as the rest of us in spite of his protestations. (Gary: not true) 

So after those 3 final days chilling out at Shari’s, we had to say goodbye, to her and to Canada. We never actually had planned to come here but meeting travellers who had either been here or were from here convinced us it was a country we would love. And we do. With bears, killer whales, beavers, moose, elk, and Whistler just up the road, we can’t wait to come back.


Old friends in Melbourne

2008-11-24 to 2008-11-30

Having completely skipped Monday the 24th of November by flying out of Vancouver and passing over the date line, we landed in Melbourne Australia early on the 25th after a long but not too painful journey via New Zealand. Our choice of hostel proved to be a good one, The Olembia in the centre of St Kilda. Jet lag and general exhaustion reduced our first day to some local exploring…St Kilda is a mecca for backpackers and all sorts of other weird and wonderful characters, and plenty of places to get drunk and do your laundry. We did neither though and had a very, very early night. 

The following day we hit the beach in St Kilda. The sun was shining, but it didn’t feel particularly hot so we spent a few very chilled hours reading and people watching. It was only on the walk back that we began to feel a little raw!! Sadly, despite our 11 months of travelling experience, we had failed to heed the warnings about the ruthless Aussie sun.We now know that the ozone layer is particularly poor down here, and Aus is second only to New Zealand in skin cancer cases. Lesson learnt. 

And so it was with bright red faces and sunglasses marks that we met up with my old mate Rich Smith later in the evening. Great to see the old chap, and as perky as ever, and obviously enjoying Melbourne life to the full. Rich took us out along very cool Brunswick Street for some local brews and a thai curry. 

The next day we made our first foray into Melbourne CBD, or downtown. Spacious pleasant centre, with almost as many coffee shops as Seattle. We made use of the free wifi in Federation square, and I took a genuine gamble on the rest of our trip here, by booking a suspicious looking camper van for 2 months. (Trish: hhmmmm) 

We spent a fine evening in the company of Trish’s half sister Sarah and her Kiwi chap Simon. The night immediately descended into much drinking and laughing, fine food and more drinking. The good news was that Simon could not believe how young I looked for my age (good lad), the bad news was that only Sarah ended the night drunker then me!! 

The following afternoon found us walking Rich Smith’s Labradoodle Chile (Rich’s spelling - I think he meant it to be a hot pepper) along the beach. Suitably wet and sandy (the dog and us), we went back to his pad for a nice cup of tea, then met up with his amusing Aussie mate Mike and spent the night eating Tapas and discussing whether Rich was in the same league as Michael Hutchens. 

Last but certainly not least, Saturday we finally met up with Stevie D. He and his gorgeous Girlfriend Misa looked after us in style, with a sumptuous barbie round at theirs. Mussels in chilli, jalepeno’s stuffed with goats cheese wrapped in parma ham, lime marinated lamb, spicy chicken, enormous aussie steaks, tremendous stuff. Very sophisticated stuff, but those who know Steve well will not be surprised to hear that this was accompanied by a ‘Keg’ of ale, a bottle of Vodka and some booming house tunes. Along with Misa’s friend Kai we had a splendid evening. I cannot decide whether the highlight was Misa’s drunken modelling of her stunning traditional Kimono or Steve’s dance moves. 

Our final day in Melbourne was spent nursing hangovers, and preparing ourselves for picking up our ‘campervan’ the following day. Great to see old friends here, all apparently loving life in this very cool city.


Don`t you wish your campa was hot like me...

2008-12-01

Trish: Well, Gary has finally gone over the edge. One minute I was sat on the floor like a pikey in Federation Square, Melbourne, picking up free wi-fi and trying to work out costings for a hire car to drive us and our tent up to Cairns in the next 6 weeks. The next, a beaming Gary returned from the payphone with cries of "I`ve done it!" and "What a bargain!". And I found out that I have sentenced to spend my time in Aus driving around in  `Jucy` campervan. If you have any queries about the problem with this, please see photo below. I am a bemused, ashamed, and not very happy bunny. 

Our `Jucy crib` (their words, not mine, as is the slogan I have used as a title for this entry) is in fact a Toyota Previa converted to a prison cell complete with fridge, sink, stove, benches that convert into a double bed, and a dvd player (don`t get excited, they only had 3 dvds at the depot and we have watched one already. We have 58 days left). There is a serious lack of storage space and I can`t find any of my beloved toilettries when I want them. I miss Steve French, at least we knew where we were with a boot and a backseat to fill up with my things. Gary, however, is still thrilled with our vehicle/accomodation in one and it looks like we are really going to do this. All I can do is be happy in the knowledge that this will truly be an adventure I will NEVER repeat, and after all what doesn`t kill you makes you stronger.

Again, please see below for my main problem with the vehicle (no name as of yet - it doesn`t deserve one).      

Gary:  In my defence it was a bargain (wonder why) and it`s hilarious. Although I must admit I would swap it for Steve French tomorrow!


The Great Ocean Road

2008-12-02 to 2008-12-03

We set off from Melbourne decidedly undecided about our green Campervan. Also, despite our planned route taking us east and then north, we were heading west. The reason: the so called Great Ocean Road, a drive rumoured to rival Highway 1 in northern California. We headed out to Geelong, got a host of info and continued to the coast.

Unfortunately the fuel gauge seems more enthusiastic then we are. We pass through the pleasant coastal towns of Torquay and Anglesea and then sadly are diverted away from the Ocean Road due to an oil tanker explosion which has killed the driver and closed the road (Trish: it’s just like home). We eventually cruise into Lorne, a pretty town and our intended home for the evening. The weather is not that great, only adding to the sense of disquiet inside the camper. Things are not helped by the fact that our ‘free’ campsite (from our book of free or cheap sites in Victoria!), is walking access only…so we park up in the car park. Not good, and Trish I think does well to not remind me that this was all ‘my idea’ (Trish: didn’t feel the need to point out the obvious). Later a car drives by, and a local drunk Aussie pops his head out and bellows at us aggressively “Fackin Ducy wrenal”, which we translate to mean ‘you have rented a very uncool camper van from Jucy Rentals and I don’t approve’. 

The weather remains poor the next day but things improve at Kennett River, where we wander up a short trail and encounter a dozen wild Koalas up in the eucalyptus trees. Very cute indeed, although they do very little but sleep and eat. We drive on, along the pleasant but not amazing coastline….the fuel consumption not helping our state of mind, I’m sure. We stopped at another free campground at Johanna beach…but are forced on by a plague of flies (the beach itself was impressive though) to Princetown. We spend the night in a large field, albeit with a decent shower block, with just the campground caretaker for company, a genuine rural Aussie in a big hat who keeps saying “too easy mate”! 

A windy but sunny start the following day at the 12 Apostles. Thankfully these live up to the hype, huge sandstone columns left behind by the eroded cliffs…dramatic stuff. Despite this, though, we are not at peace in the Jucy. Perhaps because it is costing us much more than Steve French. It looks pretty cheesy, and seems to be guzzling gas so we ring Jucy and try to return it. Unfortunately an aggressive Aussie girl says that they will have to charge us $800 cancellation charges.

Reasonably gutted we head back to Melbourne and take refuge once more with Steve and Misa (en route back we fill up and discover that the tank costs less than $50 to fill, not $70 as we thought). (In retrospect parts of the Great Ocean road were beautiful, better weather would have helped I’m sure. In my humble opinion highway 1 is in a different league.) Once again their hospitality is second to none. After the best Indian curry we’ve had since leaving London and several frosty beers, we watch a movie and begin sorting our heads out.         


Penguins, possums, wallabies and wombats

2008-12-04 to 2008-12-06

Trish: We left Melbourne in a far better state of mind. I could even say we are at peace with the Jucy. It`s warm (and air conditioned too when we want that), comfier than a tent to sleep in, and most importantly dry. It has rained at least a little most days, in spite of the fact that it is `summer`, and driving the camper away on a rainy morning sure beats packing up a wet tent. We have 55 nights left with the Jucy... we need to learn to love it.

From Melbourne we drove south to Phillip Island, home of the `Penguin Parade`. Just before sunset we sat ourselves in a big viewing area next to the beach with about 1000 other people and waited for `Little penguins` to emerge from the sea. Not imaginatively named, little penguins are the smallest breed of penguins in the world and a full grown adult stands approx 30cm high. They spend all day at sea feeding and only return to their burrows after sunset, en-masse, when they feel brave enough to cross the scary beach. We waited and waited, and saw lots of heads bobbing around in the shallows. Eventually a few penguins broke cover and started to creep up the beach,  making it a vew metres before turning and running back to the safety of the sea. Then a larger group emerges, and maybe 50 penguins start running in a long line towards the grassy dunes, one by one the ones at the back change their mind and turn back until only the first 2 or 3 are left heading home. As they turn, metres from the cover of the dunes, and find out there`s no-one behind them anymore they panic and scuttle all the way back to the water. It was an amusing few hours of animal comedy. Once they cross the beach, they lose their fear and run along next to us back to their burrows. Even back in the car park, we find little penguins outside their burrows. We have to check under the Jucy to make sure none have been fooled by it`s camoflage and tried to nest up for the night. 

The next day we start to drive east along the south coast to Wilsons Promontory National Park. The sun is shining, and (this time covered in a mish mash of all sorts of sun factors) we enjoy a day on a white sandy beach with barely a handful of other people. Finally summer is here. Swamp wallabies are hopping around in the forest, and wombats are all over the place, taking no notice of us whatsoever. This is the Australia I have been waiting for. 

Almost like an english summer, it is raining when we wake up the next morning and so we head further east to Cape Conran coastal park. It`s another beachside spot for the camper, but the weather doesn`t improve enough to get our cossies out. Instead, we watch braver souls than us surfing, read our books, light a fire, and spend the night shooing possums away from the flames. 

     

       


Kangaroos don`t eat donuts

2008-12-07 to 2008-12-11

Trish: After hanging around at the beach half the next day, it becomes clear that the sun is not coming back anytime soon and we keep on going, crossing the Victoria/New South Wales border heading north along the coast in a Sydney direction. We drive through more small Aussie towns, chuckling as we are reminded of our vehicle by reflections in shop windows. After a night in Eden, an old whaling town, we eventually arrive at Pebbly Beach, in the Murramarang National Park, where Gary has read that we can hand feed Kangaroos. Oddly he has purchased a box of donuts for this purpose, though I am pretty sure that if anything is not in a Kangaroo`s natural diet it would be donuts. Walking from our camper site onto the beach we are then warned several times by large signs `Do not feed the wildlife`. The donuts are returned to the van and we stroll back down, only camera in hand. And there are the Kangaroos. Maybe 20 of them. Not just small wallabies, but actual adult Kangaroos with legs made of pure muscle and front claws that look like they could split you in half. We didn`t need the donuts, they let us walk right up and sit amongst them. It was, for lack of a less `London` word, brilliant. We spent some time sat with them there on the beach then retreated to the van for the rest of the night to shelter from some more Aussie summer weather. Gary re-read the passage about hand-feeding Kangaroos and realised it was Lorikeets (birds), not Kangaroos. An easy mistake. 

A day on beautiful Pebbly Beach followed, in blazing sunshine. The `Roos stay in the shade of the forest in the day so it was just us, on a beach, in December. Weird, but nice. 

The next couple of days were spent heading slowly north to Sydney. We camped by a creek one night, and tried to educate the locals on not catching and eating Octopus because we`d rather see them free in the ocean. I don`t think they really cared. Gary had a close call when a Kookaburra flew into the windscreen and I nearly hated him forever, but it flapped it`s wings and picked itself off the road and all was well again. We spent one last night in the bush, in Boodaree National Park, more white sand beaches and even dolphins swimming offshore. The weather is truly all over the place, and we enjoyed the beaches in hoodies, not swimsuits, but the usual suspects were all there to keep us company... wallabies, kookaburras (alive and non-suicidal), possums... and even another night of torrential rain did nothing to dampen our spirits. After all, we have our now beloved Jucy to keep us dry.


Slumming it in Sydney

2008-12-12 to 2008-12-15

We were definitely a little smug when leaving Booderee National Park on Friday morning. It had rained hard through the night and several people were toiling in the wet trying to pack away tents and gear covered in mud. We rolled up the duvet and cruised off. In fact, it rained so hard through the morning that we ignored any scenic drive options and headed straight north to the imaginatively named Sydney suburb of Epping, and the home of Trish’s cousin Martin and his wife Bronwyn. They were so happy to see us, and even more so the green and purple Jucy in their driveway. (Trish: I was pleased to see that in the 8 years since I last stayed with Martin and Bronwyn their home improvements had really come along. Instead of the bed I last had in the spare room we now have a mattress on the floor, several walls have been partially painted, there is a bath in the middle of Martins office, and in the actual bathroom, the bath apparently broke last week. To be honest, I almost thought about getting back in the Jucy and continuing north, but it’s family so you have to be polite don’t you.)    

Trish and I trooped in with arms full of washing and a selection of frozen food and milk from our overzealous fridge. In exchange we were provided with a fine selection of beer and wine. Indeed, a very merry night was had by all, and they surprised us for Aussies by being reasonably sharp and witty throughout! (Trish: What else can he say when we’re going back in the New Year) 

The night was such fun in fact that the next day I suffered cruelly from a hangover from hell, for which I received no sympathy from Trish, and from which Mervin (Trish: Martin’s alter-ego, my family don’t really have names like that) seemed to claim some kind of victory for having provided the best night in Aus so far as I had not been sick following any other nights of excess. I only dragged my sorry behind off the sofa in the evening to go and visit Mervins two sisters Deb and Bev, and his parents Bill and Joyce (our top message-boarders, Chownsx4). Another splendid evening with great homemade Shepherds pie followed by chocolate Viennetta, mmmm! 

Our final day in Sydney was a relaxing affair, both of us just enjoying having a sofa, TV and the internet. That night we were cooked Mervin’s Marvellous Butter Chicken while Bronwyn worked the late shift, a dish which had provided so much laughter the night before due to its potential after effects. Luckily on this occasion Trish was fine. 

Much to Mervin and Bronwyn’s relief, Monday soon arrived and Trish reluctantly helped me pack the van. Mervin insisted we took some fine cakes and sweets made fresh at their family business (Trish: Boston Bakehouse – buy some online and help keep my Aussie family fed and clothed), so we took a batch (or 3) to be polite. We also relented on an arm full of DVDs for the van. And so, fully supplied, rested and content we took to the road again, leaving Martin and Bronwyn to ponder our return early next year.       

We are saving exploring the city until we return at the end of Jan, although we did drive past the harbour which looked awesome. 

Trish: please hurry with the bath installation, and feel free to use the toothbrush I left behind… it makes me feel better for all the other stuff we stole from you. How much did you say the Strat was worth? I think we’re being underbid by the guy in the pawn shop.


Diving South West Rocks

2008-12-16 to 2008-12-18

The first thing we did after leaving Martin & Bronwyn’s was to get lost in central Sydney on it’s bizarre road network…we are sure to have acquired several toll non-payment fines. We did eventually find the dive shop we were looking for and got loads of good advice on where to dive and who with along the NSW and Queensland coastline. 

The drive north from Sydney was fine indeed, a beautiful day driving through lush forests and over lagoons. We cruised over 200k north along the Pacific highway until we reached Myalls Lake National Park, and our destination Seal Rocks. The extensive park is all about lakes, except the northern corner which has some amazing remote beaches and rugged rocks. We chose a campsite with a view of the ocean and settled in for a few days. Unfortunately, as with much of Aus so far, dusk brings mozzys, which have an uncanny ability of getting in the van. Luckily Trish is a fairly specialized and very patient Mozzy killer and soon we are alone to watch the fascinating Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor in peace. 

More beauty weather the next day and we are the first on the beach, joined by perhaps a dozen others at peak time. There is some big surf crashing in and later a surf school arrives reminding us that we have to get our act together and organize lessons. Instead we have a wander up to the historic lighthouse, from where more dramatic views of beaches with great surf remind us even more. 

The next day, after a splendid pre-breakfast swim we continue our journey north. We head through the large and pleasant town of Port Macquarie, where a nice Scottish Lady (there are lots of Scots near here apparently, selling Haggis and such like) recommends South West Rocks further north. And so onwards we go. Once we leave the highway and head east we drive through some lovely old farmland, meandering rivers, rickety old farmhouses….some real Australia I guess, and very nice, before arriving at the very laid back South West Rocks. This is the kind of place we were hoping for. Laid back friendly Aussies, great beaches, Kangaroos a plenty, and a world class dive site. We spent the early evening booking dives for the next day. The first of 2 dive shops in town offered no discount…the second, and amusingly named Costa Rica Dive Centre, was a little less glitzy but eventually did us a deal for 100 bucks less!! 

The next morning we were on the dive boat and away by 0830. Definitely a case of thrown back in at the deep end as we bounced out of the bay over big breakers then sped across some big swell to the exposed Fish Rock. It’s about 80m across and juts about 20m above the ocean. We pulled on 5mm wetsuits and plunged in to shockingly cold water. We descended and battled against a stiff current around the landward edge, and then crossed a ridge. The current here was so strong that we were literally stuck battling the ferocious surge for a few minutes. We finally descended into a sheltered bowl, gulping down precious air in an attempt to recover. And then suddenly we are surrounded by around 20 Grey Nurse sharks (we call them Sand Tigers), up to 3 meters long and incredibly curious. We knelt for around 20 minutes watching these magnificent sharks drifting into the bowl in the current then right up to us, close enough to touch. 

The second dive was even colder. This time we dropped down deep and entered the cave which runs right through the rock. It’s more like a big fissure, about 90m long. We headed through the narrow entrance, up a chimney and then along the eerie and pitch black cavern. Big crayfish peered at us from every corner, and we passed over enormous bull stingrays, more than 2m across and 4m nose-to-tail….massive, hellish looking things. On our exit from the cave, big Wobbegong sharks were nudging us out of their way, strange khaki design skin and mouths with fronds all over them to help them camouflage against the ocean floor. We had disturbed them and they simply barged into our legs out of the way to get back to their preferred positions. We came out of the cave into the bowl and there had more face to face encounters with the grey nurse sharks. We finished by heading back through the cave, and it was so cold that it was a relief to get back to the boat. The coldest I have ever been on a dive, but an absolutely brilliant dive site.  

That evening we made dinner down by the river next to some kangaroos, watched the sunset, then parked up free right next to the ocean. Our van was literally 30 feet above a rocky shoreline. We sat and watched big lightning storms out at sea and listened to big waves crashing in…awesome stuff, and even clean toilets nearby in the morning! 

Trish: The dives were brilliant, as Gary I think has clearly shown from his perspective! I will never forget the feeling I got when Gary got my attention as were fighting a very, very strong current and pointed down at the rocky bottom where a Wobbegong lay still, just feet away from us. I watched so many programmes about these sharks when I was little and all I could do was put my hand on my heart to try to show him what a special encounter that was. They are beautiful. And the Grey Nurse Sharks are not Nurse Sharks as we know them, they are the Sand Tigers that you always see in big aquariums. The big fat sharks that look overfed. These ones were not like that at all. They were streamlined, and very aware of us, and that meant that we quite often got a face full of teeth as they swooped in on the current to have a look.

Sadly, these sharks are now endangered and on the verge of extinction… overfishing, as always, the culprit (every shark we saw had at least one hook hanging out of its mouth). I hope I get to come back one day and dive with them again… maybe we’ll do the right thing by these creatures before it’s too late.


Surfing Byron Bay

2008-12-19 to 2008-12-23

Trish: Did the long drive up the coast from South West Rocks to Byron Bay in blistering heat, past lots of beautiful beaches with rolling surf. It feels like time we should be getting in the water and catching waves. Or at least trying. Byron Bay itself seems to be a backpacking mecca. We are by no means the only ones arriving in a campervan, in our campsite alone there are 3 other Jucys knocking around and many more variations on the theme. Population of Byron Bay is around the 7000 mark, but the streets are packed and I would guess that the tourist influx doubles that. And we are now in the height of summer, with school holidays well underway. There are surf shops next to cafes next to more surf shops. 

We spent a couple of days just chilling in Byron, I was allowed to go shopping – hurrah!– and as a trade off the next day had to visit some weird hippie town called Nimbin. We struggled to find it, and found out later that the locals periodically go around taking down all the road signs as they consider it their piece of Utopia and don’t want to share. The town was painted in bright colours, there were petitions everywhere for the legalization of cannabis, and everyone seemed pretty happy in their own ‘peace and love pot smoking luvvies’ way. Gary loved it and reveled in the ‘eclectic mix’ of people and cultures. I just wanted to get back to the shops in Byron. 

After a few days we finally had our first surf lesson. Gary has been so looking forward to this. Everytime we pass a beach I have ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s and ‘did you see that guy!’ wafted my way, and we have sat and watched so many surfers that I feel I almost know what to do without needing the lessons. We went out with the dubiously named Kool Katz surf school, and Tezza – a cross between Gerard Depardieu and Greg Norman, a veteran of many decades of sun and surf with bleached blonde hair and leathery skin. He was the king of cheese and started off by telling us that this ‘could be……..the best day……of your lives’ (dramatic pauses included - awful). But once we got past all that crap it was just us and our boards in the water, a mixture of scrabbling, face dives, aching arms, and cockney slang being thrown at me by Tezza everytime I asked him a question. Only slightly annoying! After a couple of hours we were catching waves on our own and starting to look almost cool which, as we were told by Tezza, is ‘the…..only……reason to surf’. 

Another lesson the next day, and though the waves weren’t that great, it’s all coming together pretty nicely. Next time we’ll just hire a couple of boards for the day and head off on our own. 

It’s nearly Christmas, and it feels like July. There are decorations up around town, but it’s so damn hot that it just feels weird. No carols on the radio in our van or the shops, and days spent at the beach… it could be any time of the year right now. All the other backpackers we speak to agree that it is just so unfestive to be sunbathing, but that’s all there is to do when it’s in the 90’s. It’s almost as if we are skipping over Christmas this year. No snow, no midnight mass, no family dinners, no brussel sprouts, no cards, no pressies, just a bunch of travellers hitting the beach. I can’t put it into words, it just feels … weird.       


Christmas Down Under

2008-12-24 to 2008-12-25

 We had to battle through xmas eve traffic on our way into Byron to finish our Christmas food shopping. On a very last minute deal, we had landed what looked like a fine retreat about 20 mins outside of town, complete with large gas powered barbie. We stocked up on over a kilo and a half of big local shrimps, and a couple of salmon fillets before heading back to camp, farewell to Dutch Marc, and then away. 

We drove up into the Koonyum range of hills, covered in Eucalyptus trees, and arrived at the Koonyum Retreat. Run by a girl from Seattle and her Israeli husband, who bought several acres from the National Park 10 years ago, and have just finished building their own home and 2 lovely villas with great views out across forest to the sea. It’s pretty much perfect, Aussie Sky TV, hot tub, big old barbie, and a kitchen just a little bigger than that in the Jucy.

In the evening a big electrical storm sits pretty much on top of us, and emits a thunder clap so loud that Trish nearly fell over. The resulting power cut was exciting at first, candles on, wine out etc. However, 2 hours later we began to get worried, especially as all water in the villa is also out. Torch in hand we head through the darkness up the hill to their house. The front door is strangely wide open. As we approach 2 bright eyes gleam at us, and Leo the rather large Rottweiler emerges. We both hastily start repeating his name and he potters over for a rub….thank God. Trish wanders inside, declaring that there is a half eaten bowl of pasta on the table…all a bit odd. We make a retreat, cook some early xmas prawns by candlelight and ponder what may have happened. An hour later and they are back, explaining that they often leave the door open, and the power always comes back on after a few hours. And indeed it does. 

Christmas day is a fine Aussie affair, lots of great barbecued sea food, bubbly, hot tub, and old UK xmas comedies. I’m still trying to bbq food in the dark in the evening after a few bottles of the festive stuff, and end up falling asleep while Trish watches Vicar of Dibley re-runs. Merry Christmas! 

Trish: A very different, but fun Christmas. We’ll certainly never forget it. And I will probably never eat another prawn in my life.


Australia Zoo & Australian O`Donnells

2008-12-26 to 2008-12-28

Gary:  I’m pretty sure that Boxing Day in England is a day of rest and digesting (not always pleasant if sprouts were on the xmas menu!), not driving around. As a result we decided that the roads here would be quiet and it would be a perfect day to head north. 

We finally left splendid New South Wales and entered Queensland at the infamous Gold Coast. Our intended destination, Coolangatta, the ‘most chilled out town on the Gold Coast’ according to the Lonely Planet, was busy and built up, so we threw away the Lonely Planet and pressed on. It actually feels like we have teleported about a thousand miles closer to the equator, very humid and incredibly hot. It’s an unexpected and most unwelcome surprise therefore to then hit Boxing Day sales traffic in Surfers Paradise, which feels more like Benidorm. After sitting in queues reminiscent of Bluewater (Trish is sad at this memory) (Trish: there’ll be one less car in that queue this year. Sniff sniff.), but in 36 degree heat, we finally give in and enjoy our first blasts of air con, a luxury we had been trying to avoid in order to help ourselves acclimatise and save fuel.

We battle our way out and decide to flee that Blackpool in the tropics, and hit the M1 north to Brisbane. In the midst of all this simmering heat and road chaos a new plan has formed. We bypass Brisbane, still in traffic more reminiscent of the M25 than Aus, before finally dropping onto the Steve Irwin Memorial Highway and into the ‘bush’, far away from shops and sales. The first campground we find is thankfully still open, and cheap. A restful evening is disturbed only by a horrific attack of mozzies at dusk, which in usual style ignore Trish and surround me in teams of 3 and 4! 

Trish: After 2 nights in the villa, the van seems small and stuffy again. Gary gets around this by drinking the remaining xmas booze and stumbling around camp telling tales of supposed mosquito ambushes. Aah… here we are, on the road again. 

We felt that we couldn’t pass through Brisbane without seeing Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo. We enjoyed his tv frolics back home and were genuinely sad when he died, so it felt right to go and see his creation, and his crocs. After an hour spent stroking blue tongued lizards and baby crocs whilst waiting for the Zoo to open (a New South Wales/ Queensland time difference no-one told us about), we spent a good few hours being generally impressed by the whole place. The habitats are large, and well kept, and there does seem to be a definite emphasis on conservation and all things eco. We sweated it out in the sun whilst Terri Irwin fed Monty the croc in the Crocosseum, her kids Bindi and Rob sitting in the stands, stroked koalas, and read about all the good work that the family (mainly Steve) have done saving animals from inferior captivity, or in the case of most of the crocs a bullet from the humans it chose to share it’s home with. There is a big tribute area to Steve which was really moving, and it just reaffirmed again how much he loved his animals and what a tragedy it was for him to die in the way he did. In short, a great place to visit if you’re in the neighbourhood. 

After the zoo we headed back into Brisbane on the off chance that my Dad’s cousins, the Aussie O’Donnells, might be at home. In spite of feeling awful for just turning up on their doorstep, we didn’t have their right phone number so there was nothing else for it. And of course, as has been the story all the way through our travels, we were welcomed in. Peter took it surprisingly in his stride to open the door and find me standing there after 14 years since I last saw him, and it took Betty all of 10 minutes to start recounting my Doc Martin inspired wardrobe of the time. Together with their son, and my cousin, David, we caught up on family news and tried not to bore them too much with all our travel tales. 

The next day we were invited to lunch at Peter and Betty’s other son, John, and his wife Wendy’s house. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to walk in and find a table properly set up for a traditional Christmas dinner. Our first one, if a little later than usual! John and Wendy’s 2 girls were also there, Catherine and Samara, as well as Betty’s sister Alison. In fact, we had well and truly gate crashed their family Christmas as all had been elsewhere on the actual day. It was a really lovely afternoon with a great roast dinner, and it felt very homely for me to be with O’Donnells again, so far across the globe from the ones I would usually be spending Christmas with. We had an après-dinner walk along the beach with Peter, John, Wendy and Emma the dog, and then sadly had to say goodbye in order to keep heading north. Like I said, I haven’t seen any of the Aussie O’Donnells for 14 years and they had us sat round their table at their family Christmas. How nice was that?! If you’re reading this, all of you, thankyou (and a big thanks from Gazza) … let’s not leave it another 14 years! 

Not really wanting to leave, we ended up driving for a few hours in the dark through National Park forests as, per usual, our planned destination for the night, Noosa Heads, was actually a hub of tourist activity and a bit too plush and busy for us meagre campervanners. We ended up in Rainbow Beach, a much quieter place and remarkably cheap as the campground we drove into was officially closed for the night and had no-one on duty to take our money. Lovely jubbly!


Surfing New Years Eve

2008-12-29 to 2009-01-01

We woke in a panic the next morning, thinking we had slept in and we needed to escape the campsite before the office opened at 7am. It was roasting in the Jucy, the sun already beating down. Astonishingly it was 5.45am!! It was apparent that our decision to head all the way to Rainbow Beach was a very good one. A really chilled little town with plenty of parking and amenities, a few bars, restaurants, surf shops, and a great beach. 

We wasted no time in renting a surf board and hit the waves. The waves however were big, close together, and surging in with force. Trish and I battled bravely for several hours, but with average and frustrating success. It was exhausting trying to get out past the break, only to be repeatedly pummelled by big waves. We had to use a long board as beginners but this resulted in us being repeatedly planted head first by bigger waves. Definitely NOT cool. By the time we trudged off the beach we were exhausted and rather burnt, even having smothered on the factor 30 (we discovered later that it had been 37 degrees!). The benefit of being so wiped out was that intense humidity failed to prevent sleep. 

We are staying in a mad campground, an immense sprawling affair where you camp wherever you like in tree dotted fields. Half of Queensland seems to be here, big family groups and rowdy schoolies who seem to erected small tent cities. Others are permanent residents and even have full Christmas light displays (not like those in Sydney though Merv). As a result, at 6am the place is a hive of activity and noise. Not that this matters though as it’s far too hot by this time to sleep. Even Trish is happy (ish) to get up early here (Trish: not so happy with the half hour queue for a shower, though). On the plus side, it`s so busy that we have only paid for 2 nights out of 5! 

After a day of forced rest and shade-finding, we hit the beach again on New Years Eve. The surf is a little milder, and as it turns out, perfect for us beginners. In no time Trish and I are catching waves and whooping excitedly….and then even have time to remember to be cool and start nonchalantly cruising towards the beach, throwing in the odd turn for good measure. At last….proper surfing, and it’s tremendous. A bit like snowboarding when you are up, but far more difficult due to timing waves, and paddling like mad to drop in on them. As a result we are once again shattered (and a little sunburned) in the evening, but it’s a successful shattered. The campsite, which we actually really like, is in NYE party mode. People are running around in glowing suits, starting huge fires (odd as it’s hardly any cooler at night), and generally getting drunk. Some kids next to us are playing a variant of strip poker, 2 of the lads sat round their fire naked and 2 of the girls a little exposed up top!! 

Trish: Gary wouldn’t let me play with the kids next door,(Gary: Didn`t want to humiliate them) so we contented ourselves with a roast chicken and some coke and beers. I have to admit I needed a powernap at 9.30ish, but was wide awake and up and about again by midnight. And so we saw in the new year staring up at a sky full of stars, stood in the middle of a field surrounded by hundreds of crazy Aussies. Today (1st Jan 2009), as we write this it is our 365th day of travelling. It’s gone so quick, I can hardly believe it’s been a whole year. I’ve been keeping track of days away in my diaries (diligently provided by the Wickendens of Spring Gardens), and it seems only yesterday we were excited about the 100 day mark. We’ve done so much, I can’t even start to think about what 2009 will bring…


Fraser Island

2009-01-02 to 2009-01-06

Trish: After much consideration, we had decided that we definitely wanted to hire our own 4x4 and drive around Fraser Island alone, avoiding all the tourist trips which bundle you into big buses and ferry you about with a load of people you’ve never met before. 

However, our choice of the busiest month of the year to visit the largest sand island in the world meant that all the 4x4 companies were sold out and so I found myself sat in the front of a 14 seater off road truck being driven around by a very enthusiastic tour guide, Greg. The weather wasn’t great as we boarded the ferry for a 5 minute trip to the Island from Rainbow Beach, but it was so nice to get a break from the blistering heat that a little rain couldn’t dampen our spirits.

Fast forward a couple of hours of driving along 75 mile beach (huge waves crashing down as we cruised along in the sand), to our walk in the rainforest and the then torrential rain that accompanied us, and we were still happy as Larry, if not a little cold and wet. Even a leech attaching itself to the foot of one of the Irish girls with us was greeted with excitement as opposed to running and screaming, especially when one of the French guys burnt that it off with his lighter and we all felt very brave for having overcome our first leech encounter (well, ok, the Irish girl was a little hysterical). 

By the time we reached Lake MacKenzie, the sun was shining again and we all swam and exfoliated (even Gary, don’t let him tell you any different) in the silica-rich waters. The lake is formed and maintained solely by the build up of rainwater and so is very nutrient poor compared to say river water, but great for the skin and hair apparently. We unfortunately didn’t come out looking 10 years younger as Greg had promised, but maybe it takes a while to work.

The rain returned for the rest of the evening, but our little group of 12 (2 didn’t show) were actually a good bunch and we spent all night recounting all our individual travel stories. More hints, tips and ideas for places to go. Gary keeps telling people we are heading to China… I’m wondering where he thinks we will find the time and money… I think he has decided to give up his UK citizenship completely. 

The next day was rainy again, but it is truly a relief from 36 degrees in the shade so we walk through fresh water creeks and the beached wreck of the Maheno in the rain. The weather is best described as stormy and all the time we are driving along the beaches the seas are crashing in just metres from the huge wheels of our truck. 75 mile beach is the only beach in Australia also officially designated as a highway and it’s a bit scary to see other 4 wheel drives tearing along towards us from all directions (official highway status apparently doesn’t mean you have to drive on a set side of the road). The police conducting random breath checks looks a little out of place on the same portion of beach as a wild Dingo running by, but what the hell, we’re in Australia now and nothing is normal! 

The sun came out again just in time for our hike up to, and swim in Waddi lake, a lake formed when sand dunes moved into a river’s path and cut it off therefore leaving a big mass of water with nowhere to go. They reckon that the dunes are moving about 3m a year and that eventually they will move right over the lake and consume it. It was pretty green, not crystal clear like lake MacKenzie, so I’m thinking probably not a huge loss. 

After 2 days, we had to leave Fraser Island. As I mentioned earlier, we were lucky to get here at all and had to wait 5 days in Rainbow Beach for our tour. It was nothing like I had imagined. Described as the ‘biggest sand island in the world’, I thought it would be like a Caribbean desert island with palm trees and sand dunes, and a lagoon in the centre. I told Gary we should hire a 4x4 to get there and then walk around it. Well, thank God we had to do the tour because it was so big there’s no way we would have been walking anywhere, and every time we drove the beach in our truck we passed several ‘geographically challenged’ tourists stuck in the sand in their hired 4x4’s. That would, for sure, have been us.

When I say that Fraser Island is big, I’m talking over 70 miles long and 10 wide… as described above, this island has its own rainforest in the middle. It was a very cool place to explore, but I wouldn’t have fancied trying to navigate it on our own. And anyway, the group turned out to be a lot of fun. Doris and Danni from Germany, a couple of Father Ted quoting Irish girls, 4 French people who never spoke to the rest of us but were there when leeches needed to be dealt with, and a British couple just out of uni and very down in the dumps about the lack of jobs in the UK. (I’m very glad we don’t have to think about that for a while at least.) 

But now, back on the mainland, it’s just us 2 in the Jucy. On the road again… 

Gary: Following our eventful Fraser Island jaunt we actually drove over 300k north out of Rainbow Beach and stopped in the dark in a rather useful overnight rest area alongside the A1, complete with an amenities block and, best of all, free. The facilities were pretty good and fairly clean considering. However, they had no doors, and as a result resembled some kind of eerie nocturnal zoo exhibit. Various species of frog, toad and lizard loitered inside waiting patiently for the myriad of moths and insects to drift too near. We brushed our teeth rather promptly and retreated to the Jucy. 

The following day we needed to cover some ground, so we did exactly that, cruising around 700k up the A1 all the way to Airlie Beach. It was an interesting drive, lush green vegetation, vast sugar cane plantations, and muddy creeks…we had definitely arrived in croc country. The weather was hot but not unbearable, and a steady 80-90km/h meant that the Jucy was generous with our gas. Not to say we didn’t annoy the hell out of truck drivers, hurtling up behind us in their 34 wheelers, sitting right on our arse trying to scare us off the road, then bellowing past terrifying oncoming drivers. 

Airlie Beach is a cool little town in a lovely bay setting, reminiscent of Byron, just a little more laid back. Our plan had been to visit Whitsunday Island and Whitehaven beach, possibly the finest in Aus. Unfortunately, you can only go on full day tours with snorkelling etc, a little expensive for what we wanted, and a little too touristy. Having no desire to snorkel with dozens of people we elected to chill for a day and save our cash for our dives on the legendary Yongala. 

Another few hours north through Queensland and we arrived in Ayr, a small pleasant town south of Townsville. From here we drove out to the coast and Alva Beach, a remote little spot with a campground, one shop and a few houses. The campground was a beauty, with a fine pool. Sadly for us, lots of rain here since the new year has resulted in an explosion of dreaded mozzy’s, clouds of the awful b******s. We spend the night hidden in the camp kitchen with mozzy shutters, hurling insults at them from inside.


Diving the wreck of the S.S.Yongala

2009-01-07

The S.S. Yongala was a coastal steamer that met her tragic end in a 1911 cyclone travelling from Melbourne to Cairns. All 122 passengers died with her. She lay hidden for nearly 50 years until being discovered by accident by mine sweepers in 1947, lying in 30m of water half way between the coast and the barrier reef. (Trish: No life rafts were deployed, and noone will ever know the story of how she went down. It is a national heritage site, and a mass grave. In the nearly 100 years since it sank, it has become completely encrusted with coral, and is supposedly one of the top ten wreck dives in the world.) 

Visibility is not amazing, maybe 12 meters as we descend, the water thankfully warm. The wreck looms into view, and a vast school of barracuda to welcome us. Beyond is a dive site like nothing I have ever seen. Virtually none of the structure is visible, completely covered by coral. Vast schools of small fish are everywhere, and around them cruise big travelli, groupers, and enormous wrasse, just huge fish everywhere. The biggest turtle we have ever seen is sat resting on the deck. Next a beautiful olive sea snake drifts pass, letting us stroke it as it heads to the surface. 

The wreck is around 100m long, but it’s like someone has taken all the marine life from 5 great reef dive sites and put it all in one place…incredible. Off the stern we see a huge Queensland grouper bigger than me, and a black tip shark ghosting in the current. It’s a gentle drift back along the top of the wreck, with more sea snake and turtle action. 

The second dive is possibly even better….a huge marble ray as soon as we reach the wreck, and lots more snakes. On the drift back a gorgeous tawny nurse shark resting inside the wreck, almost snuggled up with a turtle. The school of barracuda join us, and it’s only the beeping of dive computers and decompression issues that drag us away.

We manage over 50 minutes on both dives, and are very grateful to the relaxed but professional Yongala Dive staff letting everyone complete their own dives, meaning that we were last back on board each dive.     

The Yongala lived up to all the hype, a truly incredible dive site with an amazing array of marine life…It’s how you imagine a reef should be, teeming with so much life that you never know which way to look…brilliant. 

Trish: Yeah, I can’t really add to Gary’s description. The dives were unbelievably full of life. The wreck is overflowing with fish, we saw another new type of shark, and now know how to handle a sea snake. But it’s ok, this particular type was only about number 10 on worlds most dangerous sea snake list. Awesome.       


Undersea Explorer Liveaboard

2009-01-08 to 2009-01-12

Trish: In accordance with sods law, after all this heat and humidity, the day we board the Undersea Explorer for our 4 day dive liveaboard it is raining. We weren’t complaining, because the usual heat is so oppressive, but along with the drizzle comes the threat of a cyclonic weather system fast moving in our direction. 

I should mention here that the Undersea Explorer is a research vessel (which is why we chose it) crossed with a diveboat, it uses diver’s fees to fund its marine biologists’ studies of the reef. Researchers conduct annual tiger shark tagging programmes, and take divers snorkeling with minke whales during their migration to educate, as well as studying nautilius’ first hand. They also keep a record of all marine sightings on the outer reef, which we all had to contribute to after every dive. Sadly, the news is generally bad. Carbon dioxide is poisoning the reef, and the sharkfin trade is killing an average of 12 million sharks a year. 

But on with our trip...the overnight ride out to the Ribbon Reef, on the outer Barrier Reef, was pretty rough and we both spent a sleepless night as the boat lurched back and forth.     

The next morning, the sun was still nowhere to be seen and everyone else seemed to have had similar sleepless nights, but when the ‘dive briefing’ call went out all 12 of us divers sat up alert and ready to get in the water. We made 4 dives that first day, 1 at Challenger Bay and 3 at the Cod Hole (a pretty famous site due to the huge potato cod in residence). Visibility wasn’t great, and we got more than a little geographically challenged on one dive, somehow managing to navigate our way inside the reef at one point. But the fish were all there, even if we could only see the ones within about 15m. We saw whitetip reef sharks, a grey whaler shark, big schools of barracuda and bumphead parrotfish, puffers and the usual array of reef fish. It always makes me wonder how many sharks were watching us from outside our range of vision (despite the myths, sharks have much better eyesight than us). 

A special mention must be made about the potato cod at the Cod Hole. These guys/gals are bigger than us, and have a mouthful of sharp teeth, but they are so unbelievably docile that if we’d had the tendency to hug one, we could have done. Instead, we spent a long time staring them down (they won) and trying to get that ‘perfect photo’ (I don’t think I did, but I blame the vis).  Our last dive of the day was a night dive during which we were continually shadowed by the potato cod, using our torchlight to feed on blinded fish. It was a weird moment when I was shoved out of the way by ‘someone’ only to find it had been a potato cod as big as me shooting past my shoulder to grab an unsuspecting fish. They certainly were not so docile at night! Best moment of the night dive, though, must go to Rob, our Swedish friend, who got headbutted by a whitetip reef shark blinded by his buddy’s torchlight and on the run. Unfortunately it hadn’t seen Rob in its route of escape and went headfirst into his leg at quite some speed. I saw it happen, but only his buddy heard the supposed ‘girly scream’ emitted. 

Day 2 diving and the weather system on our tail has been officially named a cyclone. We are trapped between that and a ‘low’ and to be honest I wouldn’t have cared about any of that except it kept the visibility low and the skipper of our boat worried. We still managed another 4 dives, but unfortunately not in the preferred spots. Fish inventory included a leafy scorpion fish, loads more barracuda, a manta ray out in the blue, olive sea snakes, green turtles, lionfish and pipefish.

The night dive was another massacre… this time we were followed by an army of red bass and giant trevallys going for anything our torches picked up alive and unsuspecting. Sad fish. I didn’t like that and spent half the dive shouting and punching large fish out the way as they schooled around me waiting for victims (Gary on the other hand ‘accidentally’ fed a petrified squirrelfish to a cod). You couldn’t look at anything without the big fish darting in. We were recalled after 67 mins due to a weather emergency. The mooring was at risk of snapping and we needed to move back inland within the safety of the reef. 

Day 3 diving and we awoke to more stormy skies and the news that the weather was still on our tail. And sadly because of this we only managed one dive all day, out last dive of the trip. It was a good one, I mean visibility was poor but we went off on a Gary and Trish search and found a wobbegong at about 30m. Awesome!!!! I love these sharks. It laid still and watched us until we had to leave, just twitching a fin every now and then keeping us on our toes (they can be quite aggressive if they feel under threat). It was a more than decent way to end our dive trip. 

But all further dives were cancelled after we broke a mooring on another site and then the first diver in on the next attempt got shot nearly to Fiji on unbelievably strong currents. So, back to shore for the night and a farewell evening moored up in Pt Douglas drinking up on deck while the operations manager played guitar, the marine biologist played ukulele, Swedish Rob banged on a water drum, and the rest of us tried to sing. The evening continued in that manner, ending with an inflatable pool being erected at the bow full of bubblebath and divers starved of alcohol for the past 3 nights.


Cape Tribulation

2009-01-13 to 2009-01-16

No surprises really that the next morning dawned bright and sunny….the tropical monsoon depressions that dogged our diving on the outer reef had gone, and the cyclone up near Darwin had hit land and had blown itself out. Much of Cairns and Townsville was suffering from flooding, and northern Queensland had been declared a natural disaster zone! 

However, back in the Jucy and with the sun shining we headed on the final northerly leg of our east coast jaunt. After so much rain the drive up to Daintree was very impressive, lush tropical forest and sandy beaches. Daintree itself is a very small and very sleepy village and we headed straight on over the Daintree river. It’s an unusual and interesting cable guided ferry across the swollen brown river and then on towards Cape Tribulation. 

It’s a great drive through the forest across swollen rivers, one of which has risen far enough to be flowing about a foot deep across the road. Cape Trib itself is a little disappointing really. There are some decent boardwalks through the rainforest and some impressive beaches (and some big spiders), but as with much of Queenslands coastline it’s dominated by a finely tuned tour group network. We abandoned plans to stay the night and made our way back south, spending the night at a campground in Mossman, with, bizarrely, a full Olympic size outdoor swimming pool. 

The following day we take a Trish-devised route south back to Cairns. Instead of just following the Captain Cook Highway we head inland over the coastal hills and through a drier region of termite mounds and lakes working our way round to Kuranda. En route, Trish, who slept for most of her alternate route, actually managed to grab our map book and leaf through a few pages, in her sleep (Trish: conversation is at an all time low)!!! 

Kuranda was pleasant, kind of a sophisticated Nimbin with less drugs and more tour groups, but an hour here was enough, and soon we were back in the campground in central Cairns…Jucy’s home for the next week. Trish is far from delighted when, within minutes of parking up, a bunch of drunken Aussies stumble over to welcome us. Clutching bottles of corona they slur and shout about poms, cricket and beer. The most entertaining of the bunch, a wild looking Tasmanian, sets up a game of cricket next to our van and commences firing down wild and very fast deliveries. Safe to say Trish moved the van, cursing uncouth locals. We spend the next day basically killing time.

Cairns is a bit of a concrete jungle, so we potter round shopping centres and go to the cinema. Characters in our campground continue to provide the most amusement. Early the following morning we are woken by cries of “smelly moo, where are ya?” A rough looking chap is bumbling around camp looking for his missus who answers grumpily to this delightful nick name. A few minutes later they get in their car which she then drives straight into a post! A few hours later he comes wandering back through the campground, announcing cheerfully to everyone that he has had an accident which was entirely his fault as he drove straight into the back of another car. 

Things are far more civilised in the evening as Trish and I stand on the platform at Cairns station watching the Queenslander train rumble in, depositing Patrick and Bridget and plenty of luggage. Minutes later back in their hotel room, Trish is excitedly setting out a whole range of new toiletries gathered from hotels in Dubai and Singapore. The display resembles a cosmetics counter and will go wonderfully well with the 5 toilet bags already wedged in her pack!!! 


Cairns with the O`Donnells

2009-01-17 to 2009-01-21

Trish: The next few days passed in a blur of picnic breakfasts stolen by mum and dad from their buffet, scrabble games by the pool, memory card downloading and bridge nights interspersed with all sorts of culinary delights as we worked our way around the restaurants underneath the Shangri-La. We made full use of Mum and Dad’s hotel facilities, leaving our campsite as the sun came up (before the temperature in the Jucy soared) and returning after even the crazy drunken cricket playing/pom abusing aussies and tassies had retired to their tents for the night. We’ve invested in a battery operated tent fan for the Jucy and for the first few nights in what seems like weeks it has been pleasantly cool to sleep. The mosquitoes are still there, waiting for us as we trot to the camp bathrooms and back, but we haven’t yet contracted the Denghi fever that has had a massive outbreak here and our net-positioning routine is honed to perfection now. 

We studied weather reports and chose our day carefully for a trip out to the Barrier Reef, and enjoyed torrential rain all day. The ride out to the reef was pretty smooth because we are on the biggest Quiksilver catamaran in their fleet, but even so there were a few seasick faces rushing down the aisles! Gary, however, was not one of them and he now feels he has been ‘cured’. We’ll see. Once out at the reef, although it all looked a little grey, Gary and I jumped straight in (opting not to wear the delightful blue stinger suits provided to prevent jellyfish stings – style over safety every time) and were really surprised by the good state of the reef. Quiksilver have a permanent floating platform out here and bring thousands of tourists here over the course of the year. I have to admit that I was expecting the corals to be polluted, dull and mostly dead, but they were very much alive and the brightest of colours. We saw so many fish, and huge giant clams which really do need good water quality to survive (I know this from mine and Dad’s repeated efforts to keep smaller ones alive in our tank at home). Dad, meantime, was enjoying the luxury of seeing the fish but keeping dry in semi-sub trips around the same reef, while Mum stayed on the boat and had a crossword fest. 

On a nicer day we would all have been in the water (and I was so looking forward to taking a photo of the wonderful illuminous yellow floatation devices that Dad had brought with him), but Gary and I (hardened travellers that we are) were the only ones willing to get wet today. And now we’ve swum in the Antarctic Ocean nothing can ever feel truly cold again. Raining or not, the Coral Sea was a bath in comparison. 

We had one last day chilling around the Shangri-La pool with Mum and Dad before the Pearts’ arrival. I finally brought the Scrabble score back to evens, pulling a 7 letter worder out of the bag to prevent Mum walking away the overall winner, thankfully, because we all know how much she likes to gloat. 

We had a terrific seafood dinner at Barnacle Bills, a restaurant we had been to on our first ever visit to Aus some 14 years ago. Dad was still ranting about my refusal to let him order Barramundi (it’s depleted in the Coral Sea due to over fishing, like so many things, and so pretty to see when we’re diving) but we all nevertheless enjoyed an enormous meal and made it back to the hotel before the nightly downpour arrived. One last bridge game to assert overall winners (me and Dad, need you even ask?) and then a farewell to Mum and Dad for the moment. Janet, Roger and Tracey arrive tomorrow and we are off to Port Douglas with them while Mum and Dad take the train back to Brisbane to see our family there. 

Cairns was a great stop for us because we spent all our time at the posh Shangri-La. If we’d have cruised in on our own with no plans, and just a campsite as our base, we definitely would have cruised straight out again. It is quite a big town, and not at all wilderness and without money to burn on organised trips there’s not a lot you can do to explore. We, however, had a taste of luxury for the week and I think even the hotel staff thought we were guests! Ah, bubble baths for a week… how will I re-adjust…?


Pearts in Port Douglas

2009-01-22 to 2009-01-28

 We are at the airport in good time for my (Gary) Mum and Dad’s arrival. Sadly their flight is delayed by 4 hours. We make a hasty retreat back to the Shangri-la and a/c before heading back to the airport at lunchtime. 

Thankfully this time they arrive, all 3 looking well, a little tired and rather pale. Talk about a contrast, leaving the freezing temperatures of Hull for summer in Tropical Queensland! We manage to squeeze them and their luggage in the back of the Jucy and head up to Port Douglas. Thankfully their hotel is great, and soon everyone is sprawled out by the pool with a beer. This however was not the shrewdest move. Despite numerous warnings from Trish and I, they creamed up and began tanning. My sister in particularly seemed horrified at how tanned her big bro was in comparison.  I guess you have to learn the perils of the Aussie sun the hard way. And after all, it’s a Pommy tradition to burn upon arrival. To say my family looked like English tourists the following day is a grand understatement. 

Said following day we headed out on Quicksilver’s ‘Silversonic’ a splendid fast-cat which sped us out at 32 knots to 3 awesome sites on the Agincourt outer reef. Thankfully the weather was perfect, flat seas, blue skies and a gentle breeze, and what an awesome day it turned out to be. My dad and Tracey enrolled immediately for 2 introductory Scuba dives. Things started well during the briefing etc, but took a nasty turn when they had to slip into their flattering blue stinger suits. The crew I’m sure had never seen anything quite like it. Giant stride entry proved no problem, despite Tracey’s embarrassing squeal, and soon both of them were descending onto the reef. My dad certainly didn’t win any prizes for style or cool on that first dive, but it was brilliant duck diving down to see him and my sister diving. Dad was gulping like a moray eel and swimming with a slight doggy paddle but did brilliantly well. Tracey was soon gliding around like she’d being diving for ages. 

We visited 2 more sites with loads of fish life and good visibility. It had been a few years since Mum had been in the ocean, but putting fear aside she donned her own rather fetching stinger suit and went snorkelling. At the third site her and a new found buddy not only had to be called back to the boat by a blast on the ships horn, but had managed to find a white tip reef shark! All in all a fabulous day….Dad defying age and style to start scuba diving, and earning the respect of other senior passengers who dare only snorkel. Great memories of the reef and some very fine photographs….the worst of which would you believe didn’t even make it on the blog (Trish: I’m holding them back for blackmail purposes)!! 

Luck was with us and the weather held out for the rest of out time in Port Douglas. We had a wander around Mossman Gorge and surrounding rainforest, 4 mile beach in Port and had some great Mexican food. Trish and I managed to spend these 6 nights in various campgrounds around Port at a cost of only $10…there is a lot to be said for arriving late and leaving early. Rumours in town during this time suggested that members of the famous Cousteau family had been spotted doing vital research out on the outer reef!? I wonder…


The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

2009-01-28 to 2009-02-03

It was a surprisingly emotional farewell to the Jucy, which had carried us almost 7000km up the east Coast of Australia. Although living in a campervan during the summer in tropical Queensland is not something I would recommend we have had a brilliant time. Sure, some evenings were a little tough - 90% humidity and relentless mozzies can be frustrating…..but all part of the fun and definitely better then a tent up here. One poor chap in Cairns returned to his tent to find it in 6 inches of water….camera and laptop ruined!! 

And so to Sydney, and at last the chance to explore this globally renowned city. It goes without saying that Martin and Bronwyn were delighted to have us back…and thrilled to discover that we intend to stay for another 2 weeks!! Luck is once again with us, another opportunity to explore a major city cheaply whilst staying with friends or family (victims!). Martin even offered to drive us in to my parent’s hotel each morning… after making fine coffee first. What a splendid chap. 

The weather is great and we soon embark on some epic walking tours around Sydney. I think Sydney lives up to all the hype. A stunning harbour location that is right up there with Vancouver and Rio. The CBD is modern and impressive and the Harbour Bridge and Opera House are as grand as you hope…the bridge is especially magnificent. The second day and my sister leads us off on the Manly ferry. For a bargain $6 this old ferry heads out through the magnificent harbour, past the exit to the Pacific, and round to Manly. Thankfully all three of my family are starting to lose that English bright red look and turn a little brown. Manly is busy and much fun is had in the large surf. Much to my dad’s delight we discover a great bar/restaurant later in Darling Harbour called the Blackbird Cafe. All drinks are half price during a lengthy daily happy hour and pizzas are just $5!!!! 

A hectic tourist schedule also included a very hot day out at the Blue Mountains, mainly gawking at grand views and trying to get Dad to stand near the edge of the gorge..(to his credit he did couragously go on the cable car and vehicular railway). We also trooped around the Botanical Gardens and enjoyed the Chinese New Year street parade.

Another fine day, and another chance for some of the Peart’s to don embarrassing clothing. This time me, Mum and Tracey embark on the Harbour Bridge Climb. Dad gives it a miss…deciding instead to thrill Trish with tales of his many ailments and of nights in northern social clubs in the 1950s and 60s as she takes photos of the intrepid climbers. Great experience, stunning views of the harbour…..another world must do crossed off the list. 

In fact the next day we crossed off another, taking a swim at Bondi Beach. We are joined by Patrick and Bridget who have now successfully driven down from Brisbane with no prangs, parking tickets incurred or major arguments (Trish: they say). Bondi is great, far better then expected…plenty of character and a lovely beach. We celebrated my mum and dad’s last night in style, with Patrick, Bridget, Martin and Bronwyn at the Summit restaurant. On the 42 floor of Australia Square, this revolving restaurant is brilliant, with awesome 360 degree views of Sydney at night…breathtaking stuff. A splendid way for Mum, Dad and Tracey to finish their trip down under. They flew off to Hong Kong the following morning, complete with respectable tans and great memories.


And even more Sydney

2009-02-04 to 2009-02-08

Trish: Janet and Roger drove us like slaves around Sydney, and I’d like to say that in their absence we had time for some well deserved rest and relaxation. But the whip was cracked once again, and we have had another 4 days of hardcore sightseeing with my Mum and Dad. 

First up, a tour of the Boston Bakehouse, my 3 cousins’ business and production hub of the world renowned Rocky Road chocolate slices which have become part of my daily diet over the last week or so. We had a very English afternoon tea with the family, and walked away with bundles more cakes and goodies (I wonder if they’ve noticed how much is missing yet?). That night we scrubbed ourselves up and headed to the Sydney Opera House for a viewing of ‘Madame Butterfly’. An Italian Opera with ‘English’ surtitles above the stage, and very authentically Aussie they were too, as 10 minute’s worth of lamenting on behalf of Ms Butterfly was translated as ‘I feel used’. I wish I could speak Italian to know exactly what was being said, but it was sad enough anyway so maybe I simply saved myself the embarrassment of leaving the Opera House with mascara stains down my face. 

The next day we visited Taronga zoo and spent a lot of time looking for animals who were obviously more intelligent than us and hiding away from the 40 degree heat wave we are currently experiencing. No platypus, no wombats, no orangutans, even the kangaroos were sat in the shade. The only animal out and about was a huge Kodiak bear who really must have been cursing his huge fur coat. One thing they do have at the zoo is a pair of leopard seals. They are the penguins’ top predator in Antarctica and the reason that the birds are so scared to make that first leap into the ocean. We only saw one the whole time we were down there, and it floated by on an iceberg as we were eating lunch, too fast to really see. Up close in the zoo, though, they are huge. And they even look mean for a seal, which is hard. I can see now why the penguins are so petrified of leaving the ice. 

After the zoo we spent a few hours cruising around Sydney Harbour, watching the world go by and getting Bridget Jones hair. Wind and salt swept (and feeling pretty glamorous), Dad treated us to dinner at the very posh Peter Doyles in the harbour. Beautiful gourmet starters followed by fish and chips. Mmm. 

The weekend became a very civilised affair as Gary disappeared with 2 of his friends and Mum, Dad and I were wined and dined by the family. We had afternoon tea with Aunty Florence, who is more an honoured friend than actual family member. She’s 93 years old, lives in a beautiful old house with a 100 year old piano and lots of photographs and china (it reminded me of Lady Haversham’s house in Great Expectations), and is very much still with it, for lack of a better term. We reminisced about our previous visits over the last 14 years, and I ate more mince pies than I care to remember. I felt like I was 8 years old again in my Nan’s house. 

Gary: I spent Friday afternoon with my old mate Nick (Shooter) who had travelled down from Hervey Bay for a chaps reunion. Sadly the organiser of this chaps event, Stevie D, had in his words ‘busted’ his ankle playing tennis and had to pull out. Shocker, especially as he had booked flights and all from Melbourne. Better luck for Rich Smith who managed to escape melting Melbourne and join me and Shoots for a fine night out. After some civilised beers around the rocks we headed to Kings Cross and parked ourselves in a bar window for some fantastic people watching. Kings Cross is colourful to say the least, with members only clubs, smart bars, rough dark pubs and emaciated prostitutes all within a few kms. We went to a friend of Rich’s leaving do and had a trip down memory lane boogie…a fine night and great to see the chaps. Stevie you were sadly missed. 

Trish: Meanwhile, the rest of us had a roast dinner over at my cousins’ Deb and Bev’s house on Maroubra Beach with their Mum and Dad (my Dad’s cousins), Joyce and Bill. After lunch, sitting round their pool we could hear the shark siren going off at the beach below. How very authentically Australian. It really is just like Ramsay Street over here. Gary returned that night and broke the spell of calm by making Martin, Bronwyn and I order a Thai curry. Whilst Bronwyn went out to get it, the boys got overexcited (a glass or 2 of red) and the next thing I know is that budgies are being removed from the room in preparation of Martin ‘cranking it’ on his Bose speakers. I think it would be safe to say that the entire suburb of Epping was vibrating to Metallica and Nickleback until Bronwyn returned and Martin got scared and turned the sound down from bone shattering (and budgie exploding) to simply pounding. For a while there it was very touching, Martin and Gary, sat in the centre of the room in the ‘sweet spot’ for the speakers like 2 little boys. Bless their simple little minds. 

We had one more day in Sydney before heading to Lord Howe Island. I pottered round the markets for a while and sat round Mum and Dad’s pool. It was meant to hit 47 degrees in New South wales today, to be the hottest place on the planet, but I don’t think it got much past 40, so it didn’t seem to matter that we were all off to meet the family for a curry before we left. (Gary: Nick and I hid from the heat throughout the afternoon in some of Sydney’s watering holes before meeting said family and enjoying a fine vindaloo). Great night, but the butter chicken just wasn’t the same as at Chez Merv’s in Epping. 

I’m looking forward to leaving the city behind for a week on an island in the South Pacific. And to having an actual bed to sleep in (‘they’ make us sleep on 2 mattresses on the floor). I know that Martin and Bronwyn will be sad to see us leave, but the good news for them is that we’ll be back on their doorstep in just over a week. Ah, we do love spreading the goodwill.


Lord Howe Island

2009-02-09 to 2009-02-16

After a few weeks of pretty intense tourism what we really needed was a remote volcanic island, not too far from Sydney, where we could rest and relax. World Heritage listed Lord Howe Island looked perfect, and we had never heard of it so even better. Lord Howe is definitely not a regular holiday destination from the UK (which is what true travelling is all about so I’m told), so on Monday off we went. 

Bridget was not overly excited by the reasonably small plane waiting for us at Sydney airport, nor the sight of its 2 propellers. The flight however was half empty and very pleasant, and just under 2 hours later we were circling above a quite stunning subtropical island in the South Pacific. 

Lying north of Sydney, south of Brisbane, and almost half way to New Zealand, Lord Howe Island is only 11km long and a few kms wide. Formed by an ancient volcano the island was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1982, one of only 4 island groups to do so. The island has a stunning turquoise lagoon, several pristine beaches, and is ringed by the world’s most southerly coral reef. Its two mountains are topped with virgin rainforest and much of the flora and fauna is endemic and found nowhere else. 

The first settlers arrived by boat and then sea plane 5 generations ago, and there are around 300 permanent residents (islanders) now. There is one road around the island, a few cars and lots of bicycles. One policeman is enough to make sure everyone wears a helmet whilst peddling around. It is a fantastically laid back island, with tourist numbers limited to a few hundred. 

The first few days provided glorious weather. Trish and I hired bikes and pottered round the island exploring and snorkelling over some really unusual and beautiful reefs. Patrick and Bridget found a delightful little spot with a view of the lagoon and embarked on some serious puzzle solving. And so we relaxed into island life, bbq-ing in the evening or eating fish and chips at the bowls club. 

On Thursday I peddled off early to the southern end of the island to join a guided climb of Mount Gower, at 875m the highest point on the Island. Our group of 12 followed Jack (a 5th generation islander, fisherman, guide, marine park chairman and airport baggage handler) out along the beach under blue skies and a cooling sea breeze. The climb is described as ‘moderate to difficult’, which was more then a moderate understatement. We trooped along the beach, then donned hard hats and pulled ourselves up along ropes to traverse along a 4 feet wide ledge to the base of Mt Gower. We then climbed steadily through different layers of slippery forest to the saddle, a shoulder of land linking the two peaks. Here we left one lady exhausted before clambering towards the summit. This was great fun, hauling ourselves up ropes, then practically crawling through twisted ancient rainforest. The summit of Mt Gower is reminiscent of Fangorn forest in the Lord of the Rings, covered in moss and creepers. 

The views from the summit were magnificent, and we sat and shared our lunch with wood hens and other birds leaning against palm trees that grow nowhere else in the world. We finished descending over 8 hours after setting out. We had trooped / clambered over 15km and were all exhausted. The final 15 minute bike ride home was a killer, but what a great day. 

I could barely walk for our final few days on the island. The aftermath was in fact far worse than after a marathon (whether completed or not!). Fortunately the weather was poor, and we all lounged around watching BBC world and reading without a care in the world. Trish and I even managed to win a few games of Bridge against the old masters. 

Lord Howe Island is a stunning and rare environment. The islanders are doing an incredible job of preserving such a unique and fragile ecosystem, constantly under threat from alien species and pests. The local fisherman were constantly complaining of the huge numbers of sharks taking fish of their lines….there are sadly few other places in the world with such a problem!         

Trish: Great week on a fantastic little island. We never got to dive the world’s most southerly reef as it was too windy to get the little boats out far enough, but we did snorkel and even hand fed some rather large kingfish. Gary got cautioned by the only policeman on the island for not wearing his hat when riding his bike – brilliant, one copper on the whole island and he got caught! You may have noticed no mention of me in Gary’s description on the climb to Mt Gower. That’s because I’m not stupid enough to embark on such a huge task when I’m on an island made for relaxing. Mum, Dad and I drank lots of milkshakes that day in the sun, and felt 100% all week as opposed to Gary who suffered the aches and pains of an old man. They had a great museum about the history (discovered in 1788 by the HMS Supply the year after we first colonised Australia) and ecology of the island into which we lost ourselves for a few hours. It was a lovely island and I hope I get the chance to go back. 

I have to lastly mention that Gary and I spent a few hours on the beach one morning in the rain filming a video application for me for the ‘world’s best job’, to be caretaker of Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef for 6 months. We couldn’t edit it so we had to get one good take, which proved to be amusing, if not a little frustrating as I got tongue tied over and over again and random snorkellers and native birds ushered their way into the background. Do me a favour and click on the link below, rate me a 5 and maybe I’ll be the one in 20,000 applicants they choose!!!

http://www.islandreefjob.com/applicants/watch/ZYbtAT6mw44


Goodbye Australia

2009-02-17 to 2009-02-21

Trish: Our last 6 days in Sydney, all spent with my family in some form or another, can be categorised into: a) living it up at the Intercontinental in the city, and b) sleeping on a mattress on the floor in a hostel in the suburbs (or, as they like to call it, my cousin’s house). 

After our return from Lord Howe, Mum and Dad treated us to a few nights in their very posh hotel (2 baths a day, yippee! ... what drought?) before they flew back to the UK. We had a very civilized couple of days doing lots of my favourite things like visiting the awesome Sydney Aquarium, shopping, arguing with managers over refund policies, museum trips (OK, not one of my usual favourites, but it was a pet exhibition), and an out of this world 9 course dinner at one of the best restaurants in town. 

I can’t continue without telling you some of the details of our meal at Aria. Swordfish sashimi, goat’s curd (cheese which deserves a nicer name because it was truly delicious), lamb, pork belly, corn gaspazcho, scallops and more. Dad and Gary even had the wine tasting menu to accompany, Mum having to opt out because after only one pre-dinner cocktail, in her words, she could already ‘see 2 of Gary’, and me still trying to recover from the enormously strong Bloody Mary I had requested mainly because I fancied a stick of celery. It was a brilliant night, though everyone but me seemed to be suffering the next day (I didn’t gloat). 

The day Mum and Dad left, Cunard’s 3rd largest cruiser, the Queen Victoria, came into harbour. Circular Quay was overflowing with rich Americans, so we just sat and watched the world go by from a selection of cafes and eateries including Peter Doyles delicious fish restaurant. When the time came to say goodbye it was a double blow. Not only have we had a really lovely time together in Cairns, Sydney and Lord Howe Island, but also now they are leaving we have to pay for our own accommodation again so it’s back to ‘Mart and Bron’s Hostel’ in Epping. We said a sad farewell, watched them drive off in their limo, and plodded down to the train station. 

And so begins part 2 of our final foray in Sydney… the Epping diaries.     We were greeted with Mart’s famous butter chicken dinner and stories of another Huntsman spider found in the house. When we first turned up in Australia, they told me they are a once a year occurance, and in 3 months I’ve had one in my campervan, one found in my room in Epping, and now one lurking in theirs. Whatever next… one coming to the airport to see us off?!! That’d never happen. 

The next day Martin did something totally out of character and went to work before 9.30am. He’s just installed a compressor and automatic chocolate slice cutter (not the technical term) in the factory, which does pretty much everything he used to do but faster, and in this economic climate we can see that he’s desperate to hold onto his job, which now constitutes the use of 2 fingers for ‘on’ and ‘off’. We’re right behind ya, Mart. So with just Bronwyn left in the house to pester it was a fairly laid back day. She made Gary coffee, she went shopping, she made us lunch, she made us dinner. She did try to read at several points but we quickly thought of things she could do for us instead. 

On our last day in Sydney we finally had to say goodbye to the rest of the family. Debbie, Bev, Bill and Joyce came over for a very English morning tea with scones and jam and cream (mmm) and the heavens opened just to make it that little bit more authentic. It seems kind of strange having family so far away from where you call home, you see them so infrequently that you would think they are almost strangers. But these guys are just so damn easy to get along with that we have slipped right into their lives (weedled our way in without them even noticing, you could say!) as if we live a few blocks away. We’ve had a lot of fun. I know you’ll be reading this, Chownsx4, so thankyou for everything. We’ll miss you. See you in England? 

Back at Chez Merv’s, we spent the rest of the day having deep, heart to heart, soul searching conversations with my remaining cousin. OR, we passed the time while Bronwyn was at work watching Martin’s dvd’s, copying his cd’s, and eating the last of the Rocky Road (before going cold turkey tomorrow). It was a relief when Bronwyn returned and the pressure was off me and Gary to fill the awkward silences. 

Because Martin doesn’t like prawns (who doesn’t like prawns?!), Gary and I couldn’t cook the two of them our signature ‘chilli prawn pasta’ dish and so we had to send Bronwyn out for a Thai curry. Poor Bronwyn, she got 5 minutes down the road before noticing a Huntsman next to her head on the inside of her car and had to pull over and ask for assistance at a petrol garage. The spider retreated under her car in the ensuing panic and she bravely completed the curry run, if not a little wide-eyed and shaky by the time she returned. If only Martin had just eaten the prawn chilli pasta she would have been spared that ordeal. 

I packed my rucksack up (always a depressing job because I seem to have nothing I want and everything I do have never seems to want to fit), we watched Jaws and ate more Rocky Road. After the last 3 months of randomly turning up on Martin and Bronwyn’s doorstep, I’m pretty sad to be leaving. I didn’t tell them that of course, not after me and Gary had ridiculed Merv’s idea that maybe for just one day before we left we should be nice to each other. I’ll miss our room, with the mattress on the floor and the question of whether we will find a Big Charlie or a Huntsman on the wall each morning. I won’t miss the fact that they have 2 baths and I wasn’t allowed to use either. I’ll miss the 2 budgies, though they won’t miss Gary with his ‘stare them into submission’ face. I’ll miss the skink (lizard) that lays out on their back step in the sun and nearly gets trod on everytime I take my washing out. And after all the p*ss taking of the last 3 weeks or so, I really will miss Martin and Bronwyn.

I know for sure that Martin will be reading this, in fact he’ll probably read it 675 times to make sure that his entry has the highest number of hits. That crazy Aussie humour! Martin, Bronwyn, thankyou so much for letting us sleep on your floor. We had the best time. Thanks for all the food, drink, rides into town, towels, pillows and cutlery for our onward journey, the bathroom tile, the expensive coffee beans... 

Before I sign off 2 last things to add. 1) As Bronwyn pulled up at departures to drop us off, the Huntsman reappeared on the rear window, only to crawl across it, over her door and back under the wheel arch. And 2), who knew you needed an onward flight from New Zealand to be able to board the plane to N.Z? Not us, that’s for sure. Bronwyn’s feet barely touched the floor as the threat of us possibly having to stay longer reared it’s head. We were in and out of her office in 7 minutes flat, flights to Bangkok booked, and her friend holding check-in open. 

Aah, goodbye Australia. For now.        


Road Trip Middle Earth

2009-02-22 to 2009-02-23

After nearly not been allowed on the flight from Sydney it`s with a big sigh of relief and much excitement that we touch down in Christchurch, New Zealand. We jump straight into our Hobbit sized hire car, another trusty Toyota, this time a very compact Vitz (yaris), but for a bargain 200 pounds for a month!

Christchurch is in fact not very exciting, and despite varied attempts by guidebooks to sell its cafe and market garden delights we don`t hang around. The most noticable atraction turns out to be Iron Maiden, visiting NZ on a world tour. The aging rockers are obviously still making it happen as there is not a single hostel room in town, so we spend our first night in a very dubious motel (big discount for a broken TV). 

The next morning after a quick coffee and a stroll around town we hit the road. Within minutes urbanisation disappears and we are in fab rolling countryside. We head round to Governor`s bay and take a tiny country lane around it then up into the huge sloping hillsides of the Banks Peninsula. Our road, which soon becomes unpaved, winds up and down from bay to bay and it takes us several hours to finally reach Akoroa. 

This quaint little French town sits in a stunning bay on the peninsula. The peninsula itself was created by a vast volcano, and it`s huge fingers of lava spread out to form the peninsula and it`s bays. We find the last hostel room in town (NZ it appears is bursting with budget travellers), a very cute little bungalow, and potter round the charming town. Hectors, the smallest dolphins in the world, live in the bay but poor weather the next morning denies Trish any efforts to go and see them.


Lake Tekapo & Mount Cook

2009-02-24 to 2009-02-25

Bidding the rainy Banks Peninsula farewell we chug off early taking the less rural route back to Christchurch before heading south. Our nimble little Yaris auto is proving itself perfect for the job. We put up with the busy coastal highway for a while then head inland....it is already clear that the South Island is great for road trips, only a million people live here and it`s about the size of England. Turn off the highway and the top notch paved back roads are empty.

We cruise through the skiing resort of Methven then stop for a Subway (still the best value roadtrip lunch option) before heading up into Mckenzie country. Vast rolling hills, meandering valleys, a few million sheep all surrounded by distant mountains...looking good. I can see the excitement in Trish`s eyes as we enter some of NZ finest Tramping country (Trish: Tramping = trekking/camping. Not late nights with strangers) 

Lake Tekapo is as powdery blue as we hoped, caused by ancient glaciers crumbling up the rock, apparently. We wander round the remarkably picturesque church perched on it`s shoreline before coach loads of Japanese tourists arrive and signal our departure. We flee straight up Mount John to a cool observatory with great views of the lake.

We finally arrive in Twizel, a tiny town and our base for exploring Mount Cook National Park. Our chosen hostel is a beauty, a lovely working farm just out of town. The communal house has a quaint kitchen and front room with a big wooden fire...just the job.

Trish has us up early the next day (Trish: yes, you can imagine) and we drive the 60k along stunning lake Pukaki to the base of mount Cook. There is an excellent info centre, grand hotel and the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine centre. We park the car and embark on our first NZ tramp. It`s a spectacular walk along the base of Mt Wakefield to Hooker valley and glacier with great views of Mt Cook. The highest mountain in NZ, Mt Cook stands at 3750m and is the old stomping ground of Si Edmund. The moving alpine memorial at the start of the trek pays tribute to the 200 plus climbers and hikers that have died in this mountain region.  

We undertake a slightly foolhardy second tramp of the day to the Tasman glacier, but fatigue and tiredness set in and we retreat to the info centre for coffee. A hearty bowl of pasta that evening, then cookies and a cup of tea with fellow trampers in front of the fire wraps up a fine day indeed.   

 


Jumping off cliffs in Queenstown

2009-02-26 to 2009-02-27

Trish: After all that mountain action I was definitely due some `Trish time` - my choice of activities and no trekking involved in any way, shape or form. We were headed for Queenstown, the so called adventure capital of NZ, and it didn`t take very long to decide that we should be throwing ourselves off of something high. 

The big bungee they have here, A J Hackett`s `Nevis` jump, is no higher than the one we did in Victoria Falls a couple of years ago (130m ish), so thankfully there`s no need to do that. We hear from other backpackers that China have just opened a 200m bungee, and if we ever get there it may have to be jumped (please, God, don`t let us ever reach China!). 

We`re thinking that we`ll do a skydive in the North Island, so we signed ourselves up for the 3rd option... a canyon swing. Didn`t sound too bad, swinging from one side to the other and so forth. If anything I was worried it might be a bit tame. We paid our money, then read the brochure... a 60m freefall before the `swing` starts to kick in, then a 200m swing at 150km/hr across the canyon. 5 minutes after we`d handed over the money we started to query whose idea it had been, and that night I `m not ashamed to say I had some trouble sleeping.

We arrived at the canyon the next morning, terrified (that was me, I can`t speak for Gary - we hadn`t spoken for 12 hours since I decided it was his fault I was throwing myself off of a cliff). In our now usual style, I had to go first fearing that I may watch him go and then chicken out, and I`d never forgive myself for that (just as I`d never let him forget it if he changed his mind after I`d jumped!). There were several options of `jump style`. I went for the `strapped into a plastic garden chair` look. So there I am, seatbelted into a chair, 110m above a ravine, being told to "tip yourself back until you`re balanced on only the back legs", thinking "I am a fool!!!!". They let me fall after a couple of false starts and I can`t really describe the feeling because words don`t come for that sort of thing. It was incredibly stupid, ridiculous, scary, but loads of fun!

Gary went next, opting for the `fall backwards` stylee. Hard, because you actually have to let yourself fall, and everything in your body is screaming "don`t do it!". He let out his usual tarzan-like bungee call, and plummeted to the depths of the canyon staring at the sky. Scary even to watch. 

I felt I had something left to prove, after all surely anyone can sit in a chair and be pushed off a cliff? So I had one more go, this time taking their `gimp boy goes to Hollywood(!)` option of being suspended over the canyon by my feet, held there for a while, and then released unexpectedly. Worse on the nerves than the first time, but I felt very brave and ungirly. 

All in all, the morning had gone very well, and we bounced around Queenstown like a couple of hero celebs. Of course, everyone here is into their extreme sports, so we weren`t the only ones on a high. The whole town is permanently buzzing.

I loved Queenstown. It`s really pretty, and if you came here for just a holiday you could burn so much cash doing all sorts of cool and scary things. I feel like we paid our dues to the extreme sports world, and I don`t even mind too much that tomorrow we head to Milford Sound for more of Gary`s beloved mountain views.

One downer - our laptop has died, possibly a `motherboard` misfunction due to a power surge. Gutted. For the time being at least we are back to internet cafes.          


Milford Sound

2009-02-28 to 2009-03-02

Gary: As I`m writing this blog it`s 7:30 am. I`m sat in the front room of a cosy little hostel in NZ and a very exotic asian lady is performing an intense and most impressive pre breakfast yoga routine on the floor next to me. Travelling certainly is good for the soul!

Anyway, after surviving more Trish-induced extreme sports action in Queenstown our journey takes us south again, about 250km or so to Te Anau. A remote little town nestled on the banks of NZ`s second biggest lake of the same name, and very beautiful it is too, surrounded by mountains in typical NZ style.

Once again our hostel is terrific, Barnyard backpackers, about 9k south of town. It`s a charming working red deer and sheep farm, sat on a hillside looking out across a valley to the Fiordland National Park mountains. The big communal house has a sprawling farmhouse kitchen and huge wood fire, get in.

The weather is a little grey but we set straight out for Milford Sound at lunchtime. The road to Milford is a stunning drive, winding it`s way through forested valleys up into jagged mountains before coming to a halt in a huge ice carved amphitheatre. Thankfully some brave souls decided to chip out the rough, dark, and very eerie Homer tunnel many years before. OUt the other sid, we chug wearily 1200m down through the mountain, emerging in the beautiful Cleddau valley and descending down to Milford Sound itself.

Milford is little more than a ferry terminal, but in a pretty stunning location. We choose the smallest and cheapest cruise and are soon chugging out into the sound.  It`s dramatic stuff, with sheer mountain walls rising up to 1600 meters right out of the water. Numerous waterfalls plunge down thses cliffs, although far more impressive in the rain apparently. It takes around 2 hours to do a full circuit, our little boat getting within a few meters of tthe towering cliff walls, and poking it`s nose into the Tasman Sea. Despite numerous seals Trish seems a little disappointed with the event, I think expecting to at least see some Hobbits or the odd elf.

After a very relaxing day of leisure loafing around the farm and snoozing in front of the fire we heard north again, as we start our 15th month of travel. Trish tortures herself on the journey, pitting her will against the Nevis bungee. I refuse though and not fancying it alone she waves us on.

We drive through more beautiful mountains north of Queenstown to Wanaka, another Queenstown in the making. An even more striking lakeside location with the snow capped peaks of Mt Aspiring NP as a backdrop. Strangely Trish leaves me to clamber up Mt Iron, a pleasant romp up to 500m for great views, instead choosing to keep the car company and read about Ghengis Khan!  Tomorrow we head to the West Coast and its famous glaciers.


Flying over NZ`s highest mountain

2009-03-03 to 2009-03-04

Gary:  As the Kiwi`s continue to torture their vowels the weather continues to improve and we head towards the west coast in brilliant sunshine. The winding road through Mt Aspiring NP is fantastic, heading over Haast pass and finally out to the west coast and the Tasman Sea. The coast road is yet another  `best drive in the world` contender crossed off our list. This whole area is part of the vast southern `world heritage zone`, and amusingly one of it`s protected birds is the `Porkmore`. Long may it prosper I say!

The drive is superb, big swells rolling uninterupted from Antarctica crashing onto exposed driftwood strewn beaches, temperate rainforests, lakes.....you get the picture. Soon the coastal hills become snow capped mountains as we enter Glacier country. We are now on the west side of Mt Tasman & Cook, only several kms from the coast. The huge amount of moisture coming off the sea is dumped as snow, forming some of the fastest moving glaciers in the world, Foz and Franz Josef. 

We stopped at the tiny Fox village to ponder what to do. So far we have hiked on glaciers with crampons, trekked around and along them, ice climbed crevasses.....what next? Half an hour later we bundled ourselves into the front of a suspiciously small helicopter and headed up into the mountains. We were worried, would this 45 minute splurge be worth the cash, flying along both glaciers and close to the summit of Cook and Tasman.

We dropped over a huge forested ridge and swooped down and along Franz Josef glacier, all 11km of it, heading up into the ice field. Next the pilot announced that as conditions were unusually perfect we would cruise right over the summit of Mt Tasman then Mt Cook, 3750 meters high. Incredible stuff, vast folds of snow and ice on the top of each, and views across the southern alps and out to sea. Breathtaking, we were so close to the top of the highest peak in NZ. We then landed on the vast ice field that forms the top of Fox Glacier before cruising down its 14km bulk and back. Hopefully the pics give some indication of just how vast and beautiful it was up there.

We spent the night at Franz Josef village before heading north again in the morning. The road and coastline is very reminiscent of the Big Sur in California. We stop at Punakaiki, a tiny settlement around some unusual rock formations, called pancake rocks due to their erosion into many flat layers.

We spent a great night in the Te Nikau retreat. Fellow travellers included an Irish lady who had performed a brain scan on Saddams wife in Baghdad, 2 Portuguese guys, a German couple tramping across the south Island, a kiwi with her bloke from Surrey, and a very lovely and very eccentric military nurse from Washington DC who had been travelling for 3 years, flying free with the military then "hopping on big ships I keep finding to wherever they will take me" !!

Trish: Gary has well and truly covered the `vastness` of the Southern Alps... his descriptive skills are why I leave the scenery write-ups to him. All I have to add is that we saw some very rare Hectors dolphins swimming off of Pancake rocks. They have very noticeable round dorsal fins so there was no mistaking them for another species. They exist only off of certain places on New Zealand`s shores and are facing extinction, so we were very lucky to see 3 of them. 

And lastly, a short note for my brother Tony. You would not believe the number of clack-clacks here.

 


Kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park

2009-03-05 to 2009-03-10

Trish: The next leg of our NZ road trip started with a 400+km drive across the mountains from the west coast to the east coast. Sounds nice enough, and it was very picturesque, but after 400km of windy mountain-hugging roads we were well and truly ready to see the coast and the straight roads of Kaikoura. 

Kaikoura is famous in NZ for it`s whale watching as it has resident sperm whales outside the bay. Unfortunately for us, we had stormy weather for our day there and we really felt that it wasn`t worth the (enormous amount of) cash to see a flash of whale too far away to take photos of, in between white horses. We spoke to a few people who had been out the day before, and seasickness had been rife, which seemed like another good enough reason not to go... can`t think of many things worse than being stuck on a boat full of sick people. 

So instead of seeing the whales, we spent our time in Kaikoura walking along the stony beaches with waves crashing in, and watching sealion colonies from clifftops. How very Wuthering Heights of us. Oh, and we had the obligatory English fish `n` chips by the sea. Since then we`ve seen a pamphlet saying that the blue cod we have been eating is in danger of being overfished, and now we feel really sad and guilty.  

After 2 days of stormy Kaikoura we drove northwards to the very top of the south island, our accomodation for the next 2 nights being the `Green Monkey` hostel in Nelson. Just another hostel in NZ we have been pleasantly surprised with. We had a huge room, even a tv, and the owners cooked fresh cake every night for dessert. Mmm. (I have to admit I got overexcited at the sight of chocolate cake and was quite sick on our first night!) And these hostels have been surprisingly cheap. This is definitely a better way of travel than sleeping in a campervan each night, though we know the hostels aren`t as good in Aus so I`m only speaking for NZ.

Gary has been excited about kayaking since we first arrived in NZ, and the weather wasn`t really good enough in Milford Sound so the pressure was on for our trip to Abel Tasman National Park. We had a coach pick us up from the hostel and drive us into the park, from where we picked up a sea kayak and guide and headed out to sea. It was a beautiful day, possibly the best day so far. The skies were blue and the sun was shining. Not a breath of wind and amazingly calm waters. Gary was nearly exploding with enthusiasm.

We kayaked around the coastline for an hour or so then headed for one of the islands offshore, a bird sanctuary. Loads of birds, as expected, and also some more of our friends the sealions chilling out in the shallows. We had one fellow follow us in our kayaks for a while, and it was just `lovely`. Our guide, Sam, was young, muscular and handsome and had just come back from Thailand which gave me a great reason to chat to him non stop while Gary`s brain went into overload over the beauty and vastness of the surrounding area. Every now and then I heard an `it`s just stunning` murmured from behind me.

After the 3hr kayak we had a picnic on the beach then got a water taxi further into the park for the start of the second part of our day. Disasterously, a walk. We seemed to be in the water taxi a long time, which had me questioning Gary over the distance of the trek I had been cajoled into with promises of wildlife. But in the end we practically ran the distance through the forest and over rope bridges, grossly overestimating the time it would take us to get back to the beach. In 2 hours I was back on sand, having seen no wildlife but happy nonetheless that I could sit down and chill out for a while.

That night we forgot about the sad plight of the blue cod and had fish and chips DELIVERED to the pub next door to the hostel. What a great idea. I had my coke, Gary had his beer, and another of NZ`s highlights was ticked off. We were truly content travellers. 

Our last 2 days on the south island were spent in a town called Picton, where the ferry to the north island leaves from. We thought about a dive on the world`s biggest penetrateable wreck, the Mikhail Lementov (a Russian cruise liner) but the seas were a little stormy again and we`d heard the visibility wasn`t great (as in 3-5m, not enough to grasp the size of an ocean liner). Our hostel here was called the `Jugglers` Rest`, and since we arrived to find lots of hippie-types juggling in the garden the name was very apt. We spent our time reading, researching south east Asia and eating Subways, and somehow avoided the urge to juggle. 


Ferry to Wellington

2009-03-11 to 2009-03-13

Gary:  Time to say farewell to the South Island and head across the Cook Straight to  North Island and New Zealand`s capital, Wellington. No doubt you could lose a month or two on the south island, incredible landscapes, deserted roads, fantastic budget accommodation and all really affordable. We have driven over 3000k, however, and seen some incredible stuff, so onwards and upwards. The ferry takes a scenic route out through Marlborough Sound before entering the narrow Straight.

Wellington is busy, and hectic after the remote south. After bravely trying to park in the centre and then tackle the jostling Info centre we give up and drive 21k north to Plimmerton. Chilled little town in a bay and a super hostel, the Moana lodge, a 100 year old house with huge bay windows right on the water.

We head back into Wellington the next day and straight for the Thai Embassy. The embassy is based in a rustic old building in the suburbs which is strangely promising. Inside we are greeted by the friendliest Thai lady who, unlike any embassy official we have ever encountered, cannot do enough for us. She excitedly explains that a 60 day visa is currently free, and ours will be ready `this` afternoon. Fantastic, old memories of grim arrogant African officials and frantic dashes around London banished immediately. 

We kill the necessary hours by visiting the Weta studios. These guys are responsible for all the models, props, graphics etc for most of Peter Jacksons films, in particular King Kong and the brilliant Lord of the Rings. Later we pick up our passports and the Thai lady has a bunch of leaflets on Thailand and a lots of advice on where to go in Bangkok.

Tomorrow we head north to Tongariro National Park, Mordor and Mt Doom.  


The Tongariro Crossing, and the ascent of Mt Doom

2009-03-14

Gary:  The Tongariro National Park, was the world`s fourth NP, and in 1993 became the first place in the world to be listed as a World Heritage site for both natural and cultural values. The Maoris revere these volcanic peaks sat right at the heart of the North Island next to Lake Taupo.

The Alpine crossing, a 19km track that winds up through the very active volcanoes is touted as the greatest day trek in New Zealand, and possibly the world!? Well, there is only one way to find out. You will be surprised to hear that Trish opted to sit this adventure out, dropping me at the start, saving the $35 bus fare, and not disturbing these sacred sleeping Gods and upsetting the Maoris whose traditions she so cherishes.

It`s a chilly but beautiful day, which is good as the crossing is often closed even in summer due to poor weather. The first section of the track winds up through scrub and then over ancient lava flows climbing 400 meters up to the saddle of the so called south crater. All the time the hulking cone of Ngauruhoe looms up on the right, just tempting people to climb it. It`s a perfect volcano shape, only about 2500 years old, and standing 2287 meters high. It is also Mt Doom, and much of this park was used for filming Mordor scenes from the LOTR. Well, if two Hobbits could make it up!

I cannot get too excited about the next few hours or I will make Trish feel sick, but what a tremendous climb. The route up is a rocky ridge line of black and red scoria, 45 degree angle and about 600m straight up. Proper scrambing using hands all the way. In gaps between th rocks it`s just volcanic scree in which you take two steps up and slide one back down. Exhausting stuff, but the views opening up around are immense. Near the top the rock itself starts smoking and turns red and stinks of sulphur. Finally the summit and the crater ridge. It takes 20 minutes to walk around the two crater rims, with astonishing panoramic views across much of the north Island. Snow covered and very active Mt Ruapehu, at 2700m the highest peak on the island, and even even out to Mt Taranaki, almost 300km away in the west coast!! Ngauruhoe`s last major eruption was 1975!

After a well deserved bar of Cadbury`s whole nut it was time to descend. A couple of local lads at the top suggested that the proper way down was to take the main scree slope, ignoring the jagged ridge line which would take hours, and instead slide down the snow/scree chutes. Sounded great. The top section however was just rock, no scree to sink into, and a very nervy 10 minutes followed sliding down the top of the 600m face. Soon however the scree deepened and it was like a kind of downhill skiing, sledging from foot to foot in a rapid decent taking less then 20 minutes, brilliant stuff. Various cries from up above of `watch out below`, and football sized rocks tumbling down were a reminder of the danger of this free flowing scree.

Back on the crossing, and a gruelling climb up another 500 meters to the summit of red crater, at around 1900m. More great views, spectacular black and red rock and views of all 3 volcanoes, including Tongariro for the first time. I had lunch by the Emerald lakes, inhaling sulphur and looking out across more mountains to Lake Taupo. One final climb after lunch, and then thankfully a gradual descent out along a beautiful valley, all 10km of it down past Ketetahi hut to the finish.

What a tremendous, and exhausting day. Thankfully Trish was laying in the sun reading about Maori culture, desperate to hear every detail of my adventure when I stumbled in.

Trish: This town is obsessed with the Tongariro crossing. The guy at the hostel tried to persuade me to do it, the lady in the info office tried to persuade me to do it... Don`t these people understand? NO, I will NOT regret it for the rest of my life that I came here and did not put myself through yet another bloody walk! Being the only one left in town, and spending the day painting my toenails, straightening my hair and reading my book healed my soul. And anyway, the night of enthusiastic description from Gary made me feel like I`d done the damn walk anyway! 

 


Skydiving Lake Taupo

2009-03-15 to 2009-03-17

Trish: The big day was finally upon us. As Gary nursed his aching and damaged legs (did he mention that he fell down Mt Doom?) I drove us to the tiny airstrip at Lake Taupo. It was a fantastic day... the sky was as clear as it has ever been and the sun was shining down. I think I can safely say we were pretty damn excited.

We booked the 15000ft skydive here because it is meant to be one of the most beautiful places in NZ, with the lake surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, and 15000ft supposedly gives you 60 seconds freefall time before they open the chute. 

We had no training, just got suited up, met our instructors, and followed them into the little plane. I think about 18 of us got into the plane, all cramped up in each other`s laps, 2 rows facing backwards and straddling long bench seats. Within minutes we were in the air, and still I can honestly say I was not nervous one bit. It`s weird because we have had this booked for 2 days, and we have barely mentioned it. There`s none of the intense fear or sleepless nights that I get pre-bungy. Or maybe it`s just that Gary has been going on about his Tongariro crossing so much that I haven`t had time to think about anything else.       

At 12000ft the back door opened and one tandem jumped/fell out. That was weird. One second the guy was there, the next there was just a blue sky hole and the door was being closed again. I got a bit nervous just then. There was lots of giggling going on between me and Gary (mainly him). As we continued upwards, Malakai, my instructor, fastened me onto him (which startled me a little as I thought I had been fastened on from the start, and we had just had the door open!) and we all started breathing through oxygen masks because of the drop in air pressure.

At 15000ft the door opened again and things started to happen a bit quick. First the plane did a little dip as the pilot slowed the engine, then it tilted upwards. Then, against everything my mind was telling me, people started to jump out. I was the furthest back in the plane, so I watched everybody leave before it was my turn. Now I was nervous, sat on the edge of the plane door, in flight. But before I knew it we were falling, and it really wasn`t too bad.

The first thing I noticed was that it wasn`t at all a horrible falling feeling, nothing like a bungy, not even a rollercoaster. My body didn`t go rigid in panic, and it didn`t actually feel like we were falling at all, except that my hat and goggles were being almost ripped from my face. But it was freezing! I couldn`t stop smiling and my teeth felt like I was biting on ice. The 60 seconds freefall went so quickly, and we never seemed to get that much closer to the ground.  

After Malakai released the chute, a smooth operation as opposed to the upwards jerk I had imagined, the rush of air past my face stopped and it all got very sedate and chilled. He let me take the `reins`, for lack of a better word, and we did some spins above Lake Taupo (on purpose). He pointed out some volcanoes and waterfalls, and I pretended to show interest in popular walking tracks!

Gary was already on the ground by the time we landed, and I think his big grin mirrored mine. For me, the best day in New Zealand.

The next 2 days were a little bland in comparison. We drove north to Rotorua, famous because of it`s hot springs and Maori culture. Translate that as very expensive and touristy, and extremely nastly on the nose. The whole town smelt of bad eggs. The Maori stuff all looked a little staged, so we avoided that and instead went to a Kiwi sanctuary. 

Turns out that the Kiwi is so endangered by introduced ground predators like stoats and dogs, that it`s set to be extinct by 2015. So this sanctuary has set up a breeding program during which they monitor the chicks up to a year old then reintroduce them to the wild at a size where they are more likely to fend off attacks. We saw some one month old Kiwis being weighed, and they are very strange looking birds. No wings, a huge long beak and strong claws. As chicks their bodies look so wrong with these big long beaks. There used to be 20 million+ Kiwis in NZ, now less that 70,000. Nasty stoats.  


Caving, and the Little Earth Lodge

2009-03-18 to 2009-03-21

Trish: At last we left the stench of Rotorua behind (I don`t know how people can actually live there)(Gary has just told me off for writing that because he says it is a very sacred place for the Maori`s. Sorry, Maori`s) and drove on northwards for 4 or 5 hours, leaving the rain behind and getting slowly but surely hotter until we had to have the a/c on. We drove through Auckland, where we will be returning in a few days, and on towards the Bay of Islands for a few days look before we leave NZ. 

We arrived at our little hostel, the Little Earth Lodge in Whangerai, and were filled with a feeling of contentment. It`s a sort of eco-farm scenario, a modern shed-like construction surrounded by rolling fields, miniature ponies, and a pet dog called Mutley.

We woke the next morning to the sound of cows mooing and chilled out in the sunshine for a while, before grabbing hardhats, headtorches and climbing shoes and heading off across the fields to `Abbey Caves`. We didn`t know what to expect, and last time we went caving on Vancouver Island I fell in a hole, got soaked and scratched the camera lens, but I thought it couldn`t be as bad as that, and it`s free, and in we went. 

Long story short we scrambled about alot in the pitch black and saw loads of glow worms, we waded through waist-high underground rivers and spent ages trying to reach the end of the cave where we knew we could get out. But daylight never seemed to come, and before long I had mistaken a pool of water for solid ground and taken an unexpected plunge down a small rock face. Like a brave soldier I hobbled on after Gary who continued to disappear around corners ahead of me (did I mention it is pitch black in there!), until we finally saw light at the end of the tunnel and in my excitement I actually fell over face first into the river we were wading through. Laugh, we nearly wet ourselves!

The caves were full of amazing stalagtite and stalagmite mineral formations, and some fresh water eels. There were 3 caves in all, though the first was by far the biggest. We were in that one nearly an hour. At some points we were waist high in water with only about half a metre clearance above our heads. A decent adventure.

The rest of our time at the little Earth Lodge was spent playing fetch with Mutley and watching the LOTR trilogy, which it seemed like we should do since we have now driven through a lot of the areas used as sets for Middle Earth.

We took a day`s drive even farther north to Paihia in the Bay of Islands, and that was nice but not quite as dramatic as I had hoped. Now I am sat back in the Little Earth Lodge, happily catching up with the blog and trying to finish another book before we head to Auckland tomorrow and then to Bangkok.       


Last few days in Australasia

2009-03-22 to 2009-03-24

Gary: Almost a quarter of the population of New Zealand lives in Auckland, and it sits on top of 50 volcanoes, not all of them extinct. Visually it looks like Sydney`s younger brother, with a baby harbour bridge and climb to match. For us there was nothing exotic or demanding enough to lure us into any determined sight seeing, instead we used our final 2 days here to prepare for our move to Asia.

We stayed at the recommended Varandahs, 3 historic villas built around 1900 overlooking Western Park in Ponsonby, a hostel owned and run by the very friendly Cameron, a man regarded as a legend by other hostel owners on the North Island. We did muster up enough energy to take a stroll along impressive Ponsonby high street, which felt a lot like being in north London. We also returned our hire car, and said a potential final farewell to having our own transport on this now epic trip.

It is impossible not to recommend NZ to anyone and everyone. The South Island has enough wilderness, dramatic mountains and glaciers, rugged coastline and adreneline activites to lure you on for months, with a delightful lack of people to have to share it with. The North Island is a different beast, stunning volcanic parks, sub tropical coastline, but more people, distribution centres, highways, even the odd traffic jam! It is however still deserted compared with home, like northern England but in more gentler times is my favourite analogy. NZ is the perfect place to travel, great budget accommodation, everywhere is reachable in a day. The food is fresh and cheap, the people have that Canadian enthusiasm and interest in helping travellers, and the landscape is majestic.

We are, however, ready to move on. We have spent the last 6 months in the western world, and I think we are ready for something more exotic, unfamiliar, and definitely cheaper. Hence we flew to Sydney! We had a 6 hour stopover, which was great as we got to meet up with Bronwyn. We shared a smoothie and laughed at Martin, great as he was not there, and kept an eye out for rogue Bikies! (Trish: I wasn`t laughing at you, Martin. I was too busy mopping up the tears at not seeing you again, but hey on the bright side we found out our visas are valid til September!)

Bronwyn had worked her magic and we finally boarded our BA flight to Bangkok and took our splendid free upgrade seats, the only backpackers so far forward on the flight. We arrived in Bangkok late, shared a cab with a very jolly leicestershire lass, and were soon on the Khao San Road. People everywhere, small wooden bars on the street, techno and trance beats, phad thai street vendors and tuk tuk drivers cajoling us, our first intense and exciting taste of SE Asia. 


Bangkok we love you longtime

2009-03-25 to 2009-03-28

Trish: Sawa di ka! We are now in Bangkok, a quiet town with not much going on. Yeah, right. This is one of the craziest cities we have been to so far, perhaps next to La Paz in Bolivia and Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon. But I love it. There are people in front of you, behind you, 10 people wide walking along the street next to you, the odd beggar lying on the street under you...it is not the place to come for quiet reflection. I had built this place up as a bit of a worry, thinking that I would feel unsafe, different, and hassled the whole time. I felt so obviously a foreigner in South America that I thought it would be the same. But the Thais are so nice that even though we are being approached by someone selling something every 5 steps or so, or having "Tuk tuk", or "Phad Thai" (or "Ping Pong"!) shouted across the street constantly, a quick nod of the head in recognition and a "no thankyou" does the trick and there`s no animosity or continued hassle. 
 
We are staying on Soi Rambuttri, one down from the Khao San Road, where Leo went on his rice run to the mainland in "The Beach". Everything you can possibly think of is on sale on both streets. Clothes, food, massages, lazer pens, used shoes, incence, scarves, wooden elephants, copied dvds, even those really old fashioned hard cigarrette cases that glamorous ladies use in old movies. But it is actually quite civilised in a chaotic way. People are just smiling everywhere. And we don`t stand out because of course we are just 2 of about 1500 white tourists walking down the Khao San Road at any one time.

In our 4 days in Bangkok we have taken it pretty easy, though it probably won`t look like it from the photos, but trust me, we have barely scratched the surface. We spent one day visiting Wats (temples) and ticked off the Grand Palace, Wat Pho, Wat Arun and a few other Wats we passed along the way. The temples are pretty impressive, Wat Arun was my favourite even though the Grand Palace is of course a huge and opulent place. Wat Arun is said to be the most Khmer influenced Wat, which I still don`t really understand but it looked much more authentic and less sparkly, like it could have been buried in a forest for a thousand years. Odd moment in the Grand Palace when we saw a Shao Lin monk taking a photo of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha on his cameraphone!

After that hectic day we treated ourselves ot a day of leisure, starting with a Thai massage. My first one ever, and possibly my last one ever. With hindsight, there was a sign outside the massage parlour which said "Thai Massage. Pressure Points", but in my excitement I just blindly signed us both up for a full hour (2pounds 50pence each). The most painful hour of the last 15 months. My lady started by pulling each of my toes till they cracked out of their sockets, then an endless amount of leg kneading followed by dead-leg punches. Fingers and arms went the same way, with the worst saved til last... my back. This little lady manipulated my arms behind my back and above my head and cracked every single bone in my spine, sometimes in a gentle way, sometimes in a big jerking effort that had me asking for mercy, at which my tormentor only laughed. It is now 24 hours later and I am still in pain. Next time I`m having the aromatherapy hot oil massage, even if it does cost an extra quid. (Gary, incidentally, was apparently laying next to me in bliss and says his massage was a wonderfully relaxing event, despite his lady being older, fatter and generally more masculine than mine. God I hate him sometimes.) 

After our massage we both had a haircut for another 2pound 50p and then Gary sat in a cafe and wrote in his diary (swap that for `drank beer`) and I was set free on the delights of the Khao San clothes stalls. 1 dress, 2 tops, a handbag and a headscarf later (everything on average 2 pound each) I was back in the air conditioned room, happy.

We were due to leave the next day, but I made lots of sad faces and Gary agreed to book us one more night here so I could spend Saturday wandering around the 15,000 stalls of the Chatuchak market! At first I thought "Yay! Shopping heaven!", but after an hour in the heat and humidity, surrounded by everybody and their sisters, it was more like shopping hell. However, 7 hours later (!!!) we emerged with all sorts of necessary clothing items (aren`t they always) and having tasted many more of Bangkok`s delights. We actually only got about 1/2 of the way around the market, and I left a forlorn and wall and truly beaten shopper. Bluewater I can handle, even in heels. This place, even in flip flops, impossible. Chatuchak is my shopping nemisis. Gary spent the day taking photos of the sights and smells, and says the market was, quote, "fascinating and intoxicating", but he sure looked happy when I said I was done.

It`s 9pm at night here as I write this, and we have had our dinner sat in a little makeshift `restaurant` on Rambuttri Road, literally on the road. Phad Thai, 2 cokes and a large beer for 2pound 20pence. Big spenders. I expect when we leave this internet cafe we will do the usual and find a bar on the Khao San Rd to sit and watch the world go by. With any luck we will find another live singer with his renditions of Tears in Heaven and Hotel California... "Such a lovely prace, such a lovely prace". On our way back to the hotel we`ll be tempted by more street food, maybe a bag of fruit for 15p, or some fried coconut pudding, always a winner.
 
Tomorrow we fly to Phuket to meet up with Paul, Geri, and Jim of the Vancouver Island Retired Teachers Association, and their carer Laura. They have been in SouthEast Asia for 3 months now and head home in a few weeks so we want to catch up with them, and maybe they will let us buy some drinks this time. 

 


Phuket and Koh Phi Phi

2009-03-29 to 2009-04-03

Gary: Not an easy thing to leave Bangkok behind, but after spending our last night there enjoying a foot massage, smoking a shisha and drinking Chang we took a cab the following morning to the airport. Our driver entertained us by pointing out "very sexy" ferang tourists on route whilst singing along to Boney M`s greatest hits (unexplainably popular out here) and weaving from one side of the road to the other.

Our 40 pound flight down to Phuket with Bangkok air was surprisingly pleasant, with lovely smiling Thai air hostesses serving complimentary drinks and food. At Phuket airport we took a minibus south to Karon, and the Little Mermaid hotel. As we trooped up with our packs on Paul & Geri emerged from inside, and within minutes we were on the beach with them and Jim & Laura drinking Chang and sharing travellers tales. Since leaving Paul & Geri`s on Vancouver Island we had hoped to find them in SE Asia, the 4 of them have been travelling here since the start of the year, and it was great to meet up. Safe to say that the first 2 nights were spent in the Hotel restaurant then in Paul & Geri`s room drinking rum. Paul & Geri had first arrived here in the mid seventies, staying in a bamboo hut on the beach with a scattering of hippies well before the first tourist hotel!

Karon, as with much of Phuket, is busy and incredibly westernised, a very international tourist destination. It seems that half of Sweden is here on holiday. Karon itself still has a lovely long beach, busy but relaxing, with palm trees hiding many of the big hotels. The Mermaid was a bargain, with a huge fridge mini bar in each room costing less than nearby supermarkets.

To see some of the Island Trish and I hired our first scooter, 4 quid for the day including a bottle of fuel, and went on a whirlwind tour. After a shaky start we were soon tearing around the Island mixing it up with hundreds of other scooters, tuk tuks and trucks. We headed up onto the hills to see the `Big Buddha` some 45 meters high gazing out across the Island. From here we crossed to the east coast of the Island, up towards Phuket town, then across to Patong, Phuket`s Ayia Napa. Hot, dusty, congested and noisy we were happy to motor through the so called epi centre of hedonistic Phuket and back to Karon.

Waving goodbye to the droves of big, blonde, tattooed Sweedes (a complete contrast to the tiny dark Thais greedily collecting their tourist cash) we headed for Phi Phi. The journey was interesting to say the least. A very old, and already full minivan collected the 6 of us from the Mermaid, our bags were slung on the roof, and we sped off to Phuket town sweating profusely on the way. At the docks we dragged our bags onto the ferry to watch them be slung inside and disappear under an avalanche of others. The ferry was delayed by an hour, so we sat and sweated some more until we finally chugged away.

An hour later and we approached the magnificent Island of Koh Phi Phi Don, dramatic limestone cliffs and the greenest sea you can imagine. At the surprisingly bustling ferry dock we then wrestled our bags off. and were herded onto a long tailed boat to our hotel, some 10 minutes around the Island. We had booked in advance as there were 6 of us, but the Phi Phi Hill guesthouse was a disaster. After climbing a huge flight of wooden steps, we checked in to very very basic cabins. The Canadians paid extra for a sunset view and yet could only see the cabins surrounding theirs. After a 30 minute walk through the forest back to town we secured better lodgings for the rest of our stay.

The next 2 days were spent pottering around this crazy Island. It was one of the worst hit islands during the devestating Tsunami when most of the town was simply washed away. You would never guess that now, with dozens of bars, hotels, restaurants and dive shops jostled together. It`s busy, even though there are no roads, with little thought to planning, drainage or rubbish. It`s such a shame, the Island is truly beautiful, and yet the insane number of visitors has led to an unplanned sprawl, and some discouraging smells! It`s impossible not to like Phi Phi, but also impossible not to be saddened by it`s unchecked tourist boom and Thai residents eager to cash in.

On a brighter note, the food was great, our new rather pricey bungalows were ideal, there is an excellent party atmosphere in town, and no surprises then that big Nick turned up out the blue on an afternoon ferry. We are now a group of seven, 3 getjealous blogs combined, and keen to explore the famous marine life around the Island.

 

 

 


Diving Phi Phi Leh

2009-04-04 to 2009-04-05

Trish: After years of watching travel programs on TV and reading articles in Diver magazine we are finally here to start our Thailand diving campaign. We headed out of Koh Phi Phi Don harbour with Nick as a 3rd buddy and Laura and Geri on board to do their Discover Scuba first ever dives. The whole area is so pretty and the atmosphere on board was one of excitement... I for one couldn`t wait to see my first leopard shark.

The first site was off of Phi Phi Leh at a tiny rock island called Bida Nok. It was fantastic. The water was like a bath, visibility was still clear over 15m and within 10 minutes we were hovering over a leopard shark. Happy Trish. Dragging myself away from that, we also saw an abundance of all sorts of fishes, a huge octopus sat on his rocky home, many different moray eels, a banded sea krait (snake - highly venemous but not generally aggressive) and a stocky blacktip shark with a few battle scars. Towards the end of the dive we came across Geri and her instructor (hand in hand, Paul!) looking pretty comfortable and happy. 

The second dive was at Bida Nai, another small rock off of Phi Phi Leh. More octopus (normally a very rare sighting wherever I have dived previously), 2 leopard sharks and lots of morays later and we were chilling out in the current when suddenly Gary gestured `Shark` out into the blue. Since this is a known Whale shark cruising area, he was immediately run down by myself, Nick and our guide Mario, staring out hopefully looking for the biggest fish in the ocean. He forlornly managed to convey that it was another Blacktip, and got an array of chastising gestures from the 3 of us, none of which I can politely describe here! 

Back on the boat we had an elated Geri, totally chuffed with herself for finally trying diving after all these years of travelling (and "at her age" in her own words, which we all shouted her down for - when you see the pics you`ll see she`s as fit as a fiddle). Laura had some water-in-the-mask issues and completed both dives at about 1.5m, but saw the same amount of underwater life as the rest of us anyway. For me, it was a great taster for diving in Thailand and I hope you`ll think my photos are improving.

The night before we had had dinner at Papaya`s, memorable for huge portions of phad thai and curry, and cats in the fridge at which I nearly fell off my chair. But they were there by choice apparently, choosing the airconditioned accomodation over the muggy kitchen. Tonight was good old burgers, no cats in the fridge (and hopefully not in the burgers either), and a break from thai cuisine for the first time in 10 days.

The next day was our last on Phi Phi Don as myself, Gary and Nick have secured a last minute deal on a liveaboard in the Similan Islands. We hired a longtail boat for the morning and headed back out to Phi Phi Leh, this time with Paul and Jim also aboard. We saw Viking Cave, where the locals collect birds nests for the Chinese soup, and then went on to Maya Beach where "The Beach" was filmed. Sadly about 50 other longtails and a ferry had made it there before us so it wasn`t quite as I had imagined and we pretty much just stepped on the beach then left again. The snorkelling was cool around the island though, we saw another banded sea krait and tons of sergeant majors and parrotfish.

We had a final lunch together and then said another farewell to Paul, Geri, Laura and Jim at the ferryport. We had a fun week catching up with them again, and they still have more time here so you may yet see them on a future blog. Their blog is, by the way, http://getjealous.com/my2centsworth 

Our group is now down to 3, and we made our way up to Khao Lak where we boarded the Manta Queen for a trip to the Similans.... see next blog for (hopefully) details of our awesome dives there.

    


Liveaboard to the Similan Islands

2009-04-06 to 2009-04-09

Gary: Does the Whale Shark really exist? After `so near and yet so far` encounters in the Galapagos and Utila Trish and I were beginning to doubt it. The prospect of seeing our first, and the fact that the Similan Islands, lying some 60km off the Andaman coast of Thailand, and just south of Burma, are a world renowned diving destination meant we just had to get involved.

Along with Nick and 21 other divers we sailed out of Khao Lak on the excellent Manta Queen and awoke the next morning in paradise, 9 beautiful little islands surrounded by turquoise water and rich coral reefs.

Dive, breakfast, dive, lunch, dive, snack, night dive, dinner, beer was the order of our 4 days on board. We spent the first 6 dives around these islands, drifting in some belting currents over giant submerged granite boulders, rich coral reefs home to leopard sharks, turtles, schools of tiny fish, hordes of moray eels and more octopus then we have ever seen.

We then sailed north to Koh Bon, a cleaning station for giant manta rays. Sadly, despite searching the entire reef, none of these 5 meter rays were passing through. After a night dive at Koh Ta Chai, another tiny remote island, peering at rays and crabs and sleeping fish with our torches we woke the next morning in the middle of nowhere, the Thai and Burmese coastlines on the horizon. The Captain had not lost his bearings, we were moored above Richelieu Rock, a giant underwater pinnacle that only breaks the surface at low tide. Discovered by Jacques Cousteau after chatting with local fishermen way back when, it`s regarded as the best dive site in Thailand.

We did 3 incredible dives at the Rock, descending down through vast purple forests of soft coral to big schools of barracuda, squid and fuseliers. Loads of amazing tiny nudibranch, harlequin shrimp, sea horses and ghost pipe fish, and hordes of day walking octopus changing colour in apparent fury at us when we got near.

On each dive tiny cleaner wrasse nibbled our ears and lips and any insect bites on our legs. They actually have some kind of healing stuff in their saliva. This was a little alarming and then very funny. Sadly, along with us, they were really waiting for a whale shark, alas none of these ocean giants came by. Another global whale shark site with no sign of the mythical fish.

On route back south we did a fantastic sunset dive at Koh Ta Chai. Battling against erratic currents, we weaved in and out of boulders watching big schools of fish pulsate and flee in terror from hunting barracuda, trevalli and groupers. We ascended gripping tightly to the mooring line in fear of being swept off to India. We surfaced in the dark beneath a lightning storm with swell kicking up. It was some relief to see the dingy speed towards us and tow us back to the waiting Manta Queen.

We finished the trip with a final look for mantas at Koh Bon then a great wreck dive near the mainland. The boat and dive team had been great, the Thai crew absolutely brilliant. They scuttled arount the boat like ants doing everything for us before we even remembered it needed doing. The chef, a member of the Thai third gender had served up super hot curries and huge breakfasts, providing enough energy for an exhausting number of dives.

Perhaps the only downside was the concerning lack of sharks in the Andaman Sea. Thai waters are suffering from the shark-finning industry just like the rest of the world. Alarmingly at least 20 million sharks are killed each year just for their fins. The Chinese believe that sharks are immune to disease, and that eating fin soup will pass on this remarkable attribute. Absolutely NO scientific evidence exists to support this. As shark populations disappear, and fishing them becomes harder, the fins of  the whale shark and mantas are used instead. A party from Hong Kong on our trip complained at the lack of sharks on each dive. When the dive leader pointed out why this might be, they said they only ate it at weddings. 1.3 billion people means a lot of weddings! Hopefully we were just unlucky on this trip, but the crew said that that each year brings fewer and fewer of these magnificent ocean giants.

 


Post-liveaboard celebrations and recovery in Khao Lak

2009-04-10 to 2009-04-11

Trish: We were so tired as we trooped off the Manta Queen and got ferried to the lovely Fasai guesthouse in Khao Lak. The 3 of us had a nice quiet dinner, a few games of pool in a local biker bar, then went for a `quick one` with the rest of the liveaboarders at the Happy Snapper bar. 2 hours in, we were downing shots at the bar and jumping around raucously to the live band, a young Lex Luther lookalike lead singer bringing down the house with everything from kula Shaker to White stripes to Oasis.

4 hours in, I think we were still downing shots at the bar and having a seemingly wonderful time. The bar was a pretty cool place, and absolutely rammed with divers from all around town. Gary got to the point in the night where he felt the need to talk to someone about deep and heavy things, so we left him at the bar with a Welsh ex-army guy who had been shot at some point in the past (that was my introduction to him from Gary). Lots of dancing, shouting and stupid photos ensued, and some minor stripping from a Kiwi on our boat to Tina Turner Simply the Best brought on a bout of abuse from Nick and Gary. Poor Ianthe, who stuck it out to the end with us, was engulfed by Gary, Nick and Thian for many many photos.

Great night. Sadly not such a great following day for Gary who just made it out for breakfast before retiring for the rest of the day. We had a quiet dinner sat in a shop-front on the street in khao Lak, bizarre but tasty (and very cheap) and played cards on the patio of the guesthouse.

Tomorrow, Nick is off to Chiang Mai for Thai New Year and we are heading over to see Pete Morris on Koh Samui.  


Ko Samui

2009-04-12 to 2009-04-17

Trish: Back on the road again as Gary and I headed across the Thai peninsula from the west coast to the east coast. Our means of transport was local bus, which we were pleasantly surprised by...normal looking, normal sounding, mormal smelling, super cheap (2 pound 50 each for the 4hr journey) and hardly anyone else on board. No chickens and thankfully no pigs, always a relief, which we have been told are regular users of the local bus system. Then via mini-bus, coach and finally ferry we made the final leg over to Ko Samui. One side of the country to the other, a 9hr trip and really not too much hassle involved at all, for less that 20 quid between us. See, this is what`s wrong with London... if we could only share our buses with livestock it could be a lot cheaper. 

My Dad`s friend Winston was on Ko Samui visiting his son Pete who has lived here for 10 years on Bo Phut beach. Winston was out for a 2 week holiday with one of his other sons, Tim, and his wife, Clare, and 3 girls, Jess, Celia and Anna, so they had this beautiful wooden house with a/c set in lush green palm tree surroundings right next to a pool, and a spare room (well, actually Pete volunteered to move out and back into his own bungalow on the beach so we could have the one he was using). It didn`t take me long to make the room my own, strewn with all the toilettries that I have been collecting along the way and that Gary always stares at with a slightly disgruntled look.

Initial thoughts of staying only a couple of nights went out the window as we enjoyed the Morris family holiday as if it were our own. We ate enormous buffet breakfasts and spent wonderful relaxing days reading around the pool. Evenings were pleasantly begun with cocktails on the beach followed by great curries in Bo Phut and dvd fests for me and the girls while Gary was swept around bars in town under Pete and Tim`s bad influence (he said it was that way round anyway).

We arrived on Ko Samui on Songkran (New Year`s) Eve expecting to get water and flour bombed on arrival at the pier. But all was quiet until New Years Day (2052 or 2053 on the Thai calendar) when all hell broke loose and even getting across the road to breakfast was a slightly wet affair. Later in the day going for a walk around town was impossible unless you were happy to be attacked with water pistols and buckets - Clare found this out to her detriment on the ice cream run. Gary embraced Songkran and went off in the back of Pete`s truck with a bunch of Danes, coming back hours later soaking wet with tales of water fights in traffic jams and a flour-painted face.   

We took Pete`s truck for a spin one afternoon, circumnavigating the island, which is the third biggest in Thailand. I was expecting a little desert island and this is certainly not that! There are still beautiful beaches, but most have bars and restaurants built on them and aren`t really secluded. I was also surprised at how lush and mountainous the interior is - it`s really an incredible island of extremes... white sandy beaches, dense forests, concrete-jungle towns, beautiful spa resorts and shack villages. As we drove back to Bo Phut we passed locals collecting crabs in the muddy areas where the tide had receeded around the port. This was quite lovely to watch... a completely view of Thai life to the heady "Good discount!" vendors aimed at tourists along all the main roads. 

More pool days followed, interupted by a day on the beach which ended as more of a morning at the beach for me and Gary as we got quite burnt and had to retire to to the villa. Not the end of the world as between them, Jess, Celia and Anna had bought 23 copied dvds from a man up the street so we watched Slumdog Millionnaire, and then Wolverine (although that particular copy was a little odd as we could sometimes see the strings holding the actors up during stunts!). 

We had a truly restful week on Ko Samui thanks to all the Morris` who were so welcoming and didn`t seem to mind 2 sweaty travellers turning up on their doorstep with a rucksack on their back and nowhere to sleep! We didn`t leave until we really had to, on the same day that they left to fly home to England.

Winston, Tim, Clare, Jess, Celia, Anna and Pete - we had such a lovely, fun time with you guys. Thankyou so so much. Let us know where you have your next family holiday planned and we`ll see if we can make that one too!!! 

Now we head onwards to Ko Tao, where we will have one final night with the Canadians before they also head home. 


Settling in on Ko Tao

2009-04-18 to 2009-04-29

Gary:  Because of our air conditioned luxury on Samui I don`t think either Trish or me had realised quite how hot it was. As a result we trooped off the ferry onto Ko Tao sweating impressively despite having lightened our packs significantly by lumbering poor Winston with some unworn extras.

Almost 40 degrees, and really humid, the main little town of Mae Haad was busier then expected, lots of taxis and scooters. We trooped on to Sairee beach and there found Paul out looking for us. He led us quickly back to their air con bungalow where him and Geri had been hiding from the heat watching cricket and drinking beer. This made a lot of sense and we immediately joined them, and our first day on Ko Tao thus disappeared.

The island is about 20k long, with one main road running south to north along the west side of the island linking the 3 small towns. It is home to an astonishing number of dive operations, at least 40, so the dock is bustling with Thai style dive boats and ferries. We said our final final farewells to Paul, Geri, Jim and Laura as they headed back to Bangkok then Vancouver Island...Jims mind now firmly set on a bike ride in the mountains and a can of Kookanee.

Trish and I then spent the next few days inexplainably busy sorting things on the island. We had `meetings` with the big dive shops and recommended course directors, and after much stressing decided to do our PADI Assistant Instructor courses at Buddha View. This is a much cheaper option than full IDC (Instructor course) but counts towards it and means we get to dive and assist on courses for the next 2 months. 

We also needed a new place to live, our little fan bungalow was hot and not cheap (Trish: 8 pound a night but not cheap for here). Luckily help was at hand as Monique arrived. We had not seen our very lovely Italian friend since leaving Utila last June so great to have her back for a few weeks. Monique did her instructor course with Buddha View nearly 10 years ago and we had been name dropping to gain street cred since arriving. We had managed to hire a scooter, so with both ladies behind me we headed out and scoured the island for a place to stay. Patience paid off, and Trish and I found a great bungalow, a/c, fridge, tv, hot shower (for Trish), 30 yards from the beach for 6 pound a night. Monique took the very cute toy house next door and finally everything was falling into place. We had dinner that night with Monique`s Argentinian friend Monica, who runs the free diving school on Ko Tao, and has recently won her first competitive Thai Boxing match! More name dropping opportunities for me and Trish at Buddha View the next day. 

The last few days have involved lots of diving. Buddha View was a great choice, a big, extremely busy dive centre and yet it has a great chilled out friendly atmosphere. We have lots of new dive chums, have both assisted on full open water courses, and had plenty of fun dives. 2 days ago I dropped Trish off at 7.00am for the final day of her open water course, then scootered home and went back to bed to watch premiership highlights. Only when I got back later did I discover that they had seen a WHALE SHARK. First a bunch of Japanese divers returned, all smiles and whooping. Next Trish`s group rolled in, and confirmed it. After 15 years of diving Trish had seen the mythical Shark..albeit a young one at 4-5 meters.I was of course delighted for her, and by no means gutted! 

Monique has already completed a free diving course with Monica, and is now doing Thai boxing training! Talk about setting the standard. Looks like we will need to step up next week.

Trish: I have to tell my Whale Shark story. Sit back and maybe get yourself a cup of tea because I`ve been waiting 15 years to be able to tell this!

As we pulled up to the dive site an excited Japanese diver came running to the back deck gesturing wildly with his arms and babbling indecipherably. We got that there was something big in the water. A radio message had come across from one of the boat already at the site. Suddenly the boat was in chaos, people jumping around pulling up wetsuits and running about getting weights on and tanks ready. Before I knew it it was just my group left on the boat, an Open Water course I was assisting on.

They, not really understanding yet the significance of having the biggest fish in the sea under the boat, took their time and with only a little encouragement from me ("Come on guys, hurry up and get your weights on"... "Come on guys, get those jackets done up"... "Come ON guys, there`s a whale shark in the water!"..."Don`t worry about the leak in your tank, I`m sure it will be fine once we`re down!") we got ourselves in at last.

The group descended, all but me and one student who was having trouble equalising. Resisting the urge to yank him down by his fins I hovered 3m down in a sea of bubbles made by all the other divers 15m below me staring at the whale shark doing pirhouettes or something. It was a sad moment for me when I finally got my student down and realised the shark was gone and I could be that person for the rest of my life who was 15m from such a great beast and never saw it.

But 10 mins later an eruption of underwater screams and shrieks got my heart going again and there it was, swimming in from the blue, passing about 8 metres behind me and then off again into the blue the other side. A beautiful baby whale shark, maybe 6m long max, surrounded by it`s own little ecosystem of other fish hoping for leftover plankton. 

Sod`s law says of course I didn`t have my camera as I was assisting on a course, so we`re still praying for the next one that maybe Gary will see too. For now though, I`m pretty happy.  


Notes from a small island

2009-04-30 to 2009-05-05

Trish: What else is there to do when you live on an island 20km long surrounded by reefs and ocean pinnacles but dive, eat curries, and read inexplicably long books. And that is exactly what we have been doing.

8 more dives in the 30 degree blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand where even I cannot complain of being cold have produced more beautiful underwater creatures and impressive geology. There`s no escaping the fact that we know there are whale sharks out there, but we have learnt from experience that you can`t spend your whole dive looking out in blue else you go insane. So though another shark would be nice, we have been enjoying searching out the more subtle animals that you could miss in a blink rather than wait for a fish the size of a bus to come and mow us down. I`ve been busy practising my photography on the nudibranchs, shrimp, octopus and gobies while Gary hovers patiently nearby waiting for me to move on to the next photographic victim.  

We`ve been eating like kings, heading out to different restaurants with Monique each night and spending ridiculously low amounts of money on large amounts of food. Mainly curries, working our way through all the various thai dishes, but an occasional pizza fills that western gap. One night after dinner we sat in a Sairee Beach bar and watched a 9 year old boy and his only slightly older brother fire-dance for a couple of hours. Awesome. It`s got me thinking that my nephews and nieces are surely wasting away all those potential years of earning by going to school. So lazy!!!! 

And finally, in between all that diving, eating, and appreciation of child labour we are getting on with our new aim of reading `more intelligent` books. After 16 months of reading whatever I can find in English in hostels around the world, I have now embarked on War and Peace, with the thoughts that when am I ever going to have time to read a book this big again? And Gary is reading the Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Check us out for a couple of sophisticated dive bums. 


The WHALE SHARKS are here!

2009-05-06 to 2009-05-08

Gary: After 2 days off diving we boarded the big boat full of enthusiasm early on wednesday morning. The Captain immediately announced reports of a whale shark out at South West pinnacle, a 30 minutes trip out. We dropped expectantly into the water, great vis, hardly any current, and definitely NO whale shark. We did find a big fish-catching box full of fish being patrolled by 2 large Cobias out in the blue, which we intend on going back and liberating at a later date, but sadly the shark had gone. 

After another morning dive then lunch we headed out in the afternoon to Green Rock. This was our first time at this excellent site, full of swim throughs and loads of wicked tiny nudibranchs (tiny colourful sea slugs!). After an hour Trish and I surfaced, bemused at the lack of any other divers. As we clambered on board  we noticed a mob of people out on the water 100 meters from the boat. "Did you see the shark?", someone asked. Seconds later Trish and I, fins and mask on, leapt into the water and swam out to where everyone was swimming and snorkelling with a whale shark, and had been for 30 minutes. No surprises, as we got there it had gone.

We were gutted back on the boat as everyone else high fived and celebrated. (Trish: and Gary had the gall to tell me that if I "hadn`t spent so long photographing see slugs we would have seen the whale shark" which made me very sad for me, and the beautiful sea slugs). Just as we set off, however, someone yelled, and the shark was back. We launched off the back of the boat and my first ever whale shark was cruising right up towards us. What followed was a quite incredible half an hour snorkelling and duck-diving with a beautiful 5m baby whale shark. Despite 30-40 people in the water it was completely fascinated by us, nudging people, poking it`s nose above the surface, completely relaxed. I never believed they could be so curious, nor quite so graceful in the water. A truly memorable experience. For a while I swam right next to it`s left eye, close enough to touch...fantastic.

The following morning Trish had enrolled herself on an EFR (First Aid) course at the dive shop, so I went out diving. As we stretched out on the top deck of the boat the Japanese divers began yelling and signalling a whale shark had been spotted at Chumphon Pinnacle, and off we went. I descended, clutching Trish`s beloved camera, followed by a bunch of Divemaster trainees. And there it was, a bit bigger then yesterday, gliding around the bottom of the pinnacle at about 30 meters. We spent the whole dive, at least 40 minutes, following it around. It slowly circled the pinnacle, leading us out into the blue but always leading us back. 

After 20 minutes it cruised away. I found Dale and Carina and we began following the rock face looking at barracuda. As I looked across at them the shark reappeared right behind them, swimming the opposite way. I yelled frantically and the look on their faces was brilliant as they slowly turned and it was practically on them. We had 5 minutes with no other divers around, unbelievable. It`s difficult to describe quite how awe inspiring these fish are, amazing colours and spotted pattern, incredibly graceful and so inquisitive, truly gentle giants....The youngster today was 5-6 meters long, fully grown they can be 17m, the length of a bus.

Two beautiful whale sharks in two days, the second for an entire dive. Surely it doesn`t get any better then this!? 

Trish: Frustrated by my day spent in the pool and the classroom tweaking my first aid skills while Gary was out diving with a whale shark, I got us straight out on the boat the next morning. First dive, 5 minutes in, I`m attempting to take artsy coral photos when a whale shark swims in out of the blue. It`s another different one, bigger than the ones seen so far, maybe 7 metres (we have a very tall friend and we`re going on how many of him make the length of the shark). For 30 minutes Gary, me, Bjorn, Lucy and Rob followed it. We lost all the other divers when we sped off into the blue, and all navigation went out of the window, but the shark brought us back to the pinnacle before finally giving a couple of big swipes of it`s tail and disappearing.

I took loads of photos of the others, and finally got my moment when I was next to it and it banked in towards me. For a few seconds I was hovering less than a metre from it`s head, then the dorsal went under me, and finally I had to lift my legs to let the tail pass below untouched.

My thoughts keep jumping between what a perfect and gentle animal the whale shark is and the fact that they are fished so cruelly for the sharkfinning industry in so many places in the world. I watched the film Sharkwater a few weeks ago and it`s a killer for crying the whole way through, but the horror is real and everybody should see it and know just what is going on. We`re finning sharks in the 100`s of million each year. And now smaller sharks are getting rarer, whale sharks and manta rays are being targeted. To kill a whale shark, it is caught in a net and a hole is drilled through it`s head the whole way down and a huge pole attached. The shark is then dragged along by the pole in it`s head until is is exhausted and they can finally bring it in for the kill. It`s awful, but it`s something people should know. Please don`t any of you ever eat sharkfin soup, without the desire for that there would be no industry and these beautiful, gentle fish would be safe.

Sorry for ending on a sad note but I can`t help wondering if our friendly giants will end up on some Taiwanese fishing hook one day and that`s such a horrible, horrible thought. They deserve to be allowed to grow in peace for everyone to see.     

 


Starting our Assistant Instructor Courses

2009-05-09 to 2009-05-13

Gary:  For the last 3 days we have trooped triumphantly back to our little bungalow and regailed Monique with accounts of beautiful whale sharks. By the third day she simply turned around and stormed back into her little gingerbread house. Later that night she completely surprised us by declaring that the next morning she WOULD get up before 7am and join us. Never underestimate the power of the whale shark.

We chugged out to Chumphon and were the 13th dive boat to arrive there, no surprises that we spent the dive studying...other divers. And no whale shark was going to be within 200m of that chaos. But, to Monique`s delight and our relief a young whale shark was waiting for us at Green Rock, the second site of the day. Less boats here, but enough that I still actually felt a little sorry for it surrounded by so many divers, but at least Monix would no longer blame us for dragging her out of bed for nothing. She was delighted, and no surprises that Trish was the last diver to give up following it out into the blue. It was of course still beautiful to watch....4 in 4 days is something I will always remember. Trish has now sent pics of all 4 of our sharks to the Eco Ocean Whaleshark organization, and one of them has never been recorded before, marvellous stuff. 

We spent the next few days enjoying island life, and a hard life it is too. Diving when the mood takes us, watching fire dancers whilst quaffing buckets (plastic buckets full of either Vodka, Rum or Whiskey with red bull and mixer) on the beach. And that was before we started our Assistant Instructor course. After an orientation with the IDC (Instructor wannabe`s) group we had a `get to know each other` bbq at Mark`s house (Course Director at Buddha View Dive Centre). We arrived at 4pm, and finally stumbled out at midnight. Due to me drinking Red Label Whiskey with Mark, Trish insisted that she drove the scooter home. This was a terrifying experience, even when very drunk, let me tell you. I laughed hysterically to cover my intense panic the whole way.

The IDC classroom was hard work the next day, physics theory amongst other delights. We survived this and then went out for ONE at the Buddha View bar for Bjorns birthday. This time it was Trish joining in on the bucket scene, and our planned early night disappeared. Relief is on it`s way however as Nick arrives on the Island tomorrow. He`ll have no interest in bars and buckets I`m sure!!  


A right Hull Ladyboy send off for Monix

2009-05-14 to 2009-05-16

Trish: So Big Nick has arrived on the island, only to find us buried under a huge mountain of Physiology, Equipment, First Aid and teaching presentations and exams. Obviously we have been taking our AI course very seriously and we sat him down and said "look, we understand you came here to have a good time, but we just have to stay in and study, so find yourself some new friends". YEAH RIGHT. Nick was here about 10 hours before we were sat on the beach in Sairee sharing buckets of unidentifiable but very potent rum and vodka mixes. Luckily we all managed to stay sober enough to avoid volunteering to jump the fire rope set up by the locals, and were still able to see the foolishness of those drunkards who did, and suffered big falls wth their legs entangled in fire.

Monique and I made an early exit that night at half one, when it became apparent to me that Nick felt he could no longer speak in any language other than Italian (he can`t speak Italian), and Gary began his 3rd hour of discussions on the British Empire with Dor, our Israeli friend. A few hours after we were safely tucked in, Gary came rushing in saying that they were back, but Nick had fallen off the scooter and he was going to go back on foot and look for him. 5 mins later I heard them bumble by, a crash and a thump as Nick threw himself into a bush next to the path, lots of girly giggling from these 2 strong northern men, and finally Gary`s skip back to our bungalow ending with a slide and a thump as he also hit the deck. An amusing first night for Nick, but I`d expect nothing less.

Luckily for Gary we had the next day off from studies so he spent the day passed out in the room whilst I did all our homework for the AI. Fair? No, but I`ll get my payback. Once Nick came back from his first day`s diving (he only managed one dive after throwing up through his regulator on the safety stop! Note to Tony here: What has happened to the standards of divers these days?) Monix and I got the boys back down to the beach at Sairee and after much discussions managed to talk them into coming to see the Ladyboy show with us. In hindsight, the phrase "Me thinks he doth protest too much" springs to mind.

Crossarmed and glaring, and looking thoroughly bored, Gary sat through the first half with the classic look of "I am not here by my own choice". At least Nick looked amused by the whole thing. Me and Monix were singing and dancing along... I really enjoyed it., especially when one number was "I did it my way" and the ladyboy took out her bra padding, stripped down from her beautiful dress to boxer shorts (great body by the way - they are so toned), put on some trousers, took off her wig and scrubbed off her makeup all whilst singing along in a woman`s voice. Right at the final `I did it my way`, when all the makeup was gone and the eyelashes were in a  box on the floor with the dress and killer heels, a man`s voice sang out. Really good part of the act... quite moving I thought.

Any emotional moments I was having were soon shattered as Nick and Gary were dragged backstage and emerged minutes later in full ballgowns and pink and orange wigs. I still feel a little damaged by their enthusiastic ladyboy-style dancing to YMCA, and the fact that Gary looked so pretty in pink. Nick does not make for a subtle ladyboy beauty, and his floating arms in white chiffon whilst in a dress stapled across his wide chest may also stay with me for a long long time. I can`t make any further descriptions...its raised a lot of questions with regards to my future. Look at the photos. 

The next day was, very sadly, Monique`s last. After 3 weeks or so living next door she is abandoning us to go draw Buddhas in Bangkok and return to her pad in the south of France which she is turning into the start of a b&b empire. We did classroom work all day long, (I may have accidentally shown a few of the Instructors and DM`s around Buddha View the video from last night), before a final dinner with Monix on Koh Tao and a few drinks in the Irish pub. As she boarded her rather dismal looking overnight cargo boat to the mainland I`m not sure if I was sadder that she was leaving or that Gary might also make me take the same boat when we leave.

JUST JOKING MONIX!!! COME BACK, WE MISS YOU!!!! As I write this I know that I no longer have anyone to talk about clothes, Thai men`s bodies (very very good), the difference between a dictator and a communist, or a second lightweight to share the bucket as we discuss how the island sends people crazy (not the buckets, the island). Farewell for now, me mala detesta.!!!

p.s. your adopted streetdogs won`t leave our balcony.  


Probably the best Island in the World

2009-05-17 to 2009-05-28

Gary: The last week at Buddha View dive centre has been tough, I have several new girls names, and lots of people keep winking at me. With Monique sadly gone, and Nick`s enthusiastic arrival now sedated, it was time to rebuild my shattered reputation and restore some northern pride. 

First we completed the final 4 days of our PADI course and are now fully fledged Assistant Instructors. This was more demanding then expected, lots of classroom and underwater presentations, homework, public speaking etc..but I hitched up me skirt, erm, pulled my socks up, and got stuck in. 

The guys from Miami Ink (famous MTV tattoo show) have been on the Island filming, Trish has done a lot of swooning at the main guy (Arnie or someone who I`m sure must have also had cross dressing moments in his past) and even I had a tattoo drawn up....no surprises however that I am still unable to decide on a design.

Having been in Thailand for 2 months it was also time to do our first visa run. We hopped on the ferry back to Samui and were met by Pete Morris. He whisked us off to immigration and with a few winks and nods had us another 30 day stamp in minutes...well as long as it took us to drink 2 Changs in a local bar. We checked back into the fab Smile House in Bo Phut and then spent a very cultural evening with Aussie Mark and Danish John. Pete agreed reluctantly to make an exception to his latest detox program!

Back on Ko Tao a day later and we plunged into a 2 day Free diving course at Apnea Total, owned by Monique`s friend Monica. This is a whole different ball game to diving, and pushed us right out of our comfort zones. It`s all about breathing...long slow filling of the lower then upper lungs for 4-5 minutes then descending head first down a line either finning slowly or pulling down the line. By the second day we were both down at 20 meters. hovering in the blue with our diaghragms jumping demanding oxygen. It`s a very odd sensation, slowly pulling yourself down over 60 feet, and then hanging around for a while before slowly ascending. You hold the one breath for the entire time, and as you ascend the lungs expand again...bubbles of air pop out from your inner ear and you breath them up your nose (every drop of O2 counts). Just before surfacing you feel giddy, your legs go a bit wobbly, and then you surface and perform several hasty recovery breaths. And this was just the beginners course! We managed over 2 minutes, and are trained in rescue techniques should one of us suffer a shallow water black out as the brain likes to switch off for a while if it is really deprived of Oxygen. Reputation restored somewhat !?


We followed this with 3 days of traditional diving, and finally found a sea horse out in the sand at Twins. Trish continues to keep the rest of the DMT’s at Buddha view enthralled by pushing the limits of recreational diving, disappearing frequently in pursuit of some unseen creature or an elusive photo, only to return and tell me off with various signals for some unfathomable error. Nick is now a Rescue Diver and has embarked on his Divemaster at Buddha View. However, if anyone is likely to need rescuing it is him. I think he misread read the PADI course as Drinkmaster!


Last night was our first visit to the Muay Thai (Thai boxing) stadium. A bunch of ferrangs (westerners) fared well against toned Thai opponents. Next a brutal bout, a big mean Burmese street fighter using old rules proceeded to elbow a Thai opponent ruthlessly in the back of the head, drawing plenty of blood before the guy was carried off! Finally 2 tiny Thai pros put on a thrilling contest before the guy obviously losing pulled a leaping head kick out of the bag and knocked the other guy out cold.


We only have a week left on this incredible island before heading down to Malaysia. Is Ko Tao the greatest Island in the world…probably


Whale Shark No 5

2009-05-29 to 2009-06-01

Trish: Every day is the weekend over here, and occasionally you need to sit back, chill out, and not think about getting on the diveboat for a few days. So we did just that. We had 2 days of doing absolutely nothing but reading our books on the beach, watching films on HBO, eating meals out with fellow resting divers and enjoying nights out without having to worry about getting up early the next day. One of the guys from Buddha View got married so we went to his reception and hung out with our new cool and zen freediving pals, and went to Lotus bar on Sairee beach for one last look at the thai firedancers bodies, I mean skills.

I can't help thinking 3 things while I stand and stare at these guys. 1: My God they have awesome torsos, and the thai skin colour is just made for tattoos, 2: wouldn't it be great to have one at home that you could bring out for bbq's and parties, and 3: Has Gary noticed that I'm drooling just a bit?

We timed our return to the diveboat perfectly, finding whale shark number 5 waiting for us out at Champhon Pinnacle. A 5m female, she appeared at the start of the dive and we followed her energetically for about 15 mins before she sped up and into the murky depths. 3 more times she came back, meaning that I never even saw the dive site - each time we headed back towards it she came back into view. By her 4th return I was just about ready to head to the surface... chasing whale sharks is a tiring activity and my air was being burnt like I was on my first ever dive. We had lost all other divers and there was just me, Gary and Lucio out in the blue. In she came again and eventually I had to bail out. Out of air, out of breath, and totally out of energy I started the long surface swim back to the boat only to find her underneath it by the time I got there! Another 10 minutes spent snorkelling in full gear around the boat and I was gone. I love the whale shark, but she was trying to give me a heart attack!

Back into activities mode we went out boulder jumping the next day with Nick, Dale, Carina, Roy and some other Buddha Viewers. After a hard trek across the island in the high 90's we got to a beautiful bay and proceeded to throw ourselves off very high rocks. My knees were shaking at 6m, and by the time I made it up top 12m I could barely move. I did them all, once, then went back to the 6m one and concentrated on that while the boys tried their best to break their bodies doing backflips from the higher ones.

A tiring day jumping off cliffs followed by another romantic dinner with Gary and Nick... what more could a girl want.?

 


Goodbye Ko Tao

2009-06-02 to 2009-06-04

Trish: I find myself writing our last entry for Ko Tao with a heavy heart. Once again I have to say goodbye to a place I happily called home, good friends from all over the world, and even 2 dogs that adopted us and reminded me how nice it was to have an animal to love. We really do have to leave, else we'll find ourselves still here a year from now not having seen any more of SE Asia, but it sure feels sad to leave it all behind.

We went out on the dive boat for one final day... practised our freediving and had one last dive with Nick, Dale and Carina, who are now our neighbours at Kallapangha Bungalows and will take the dogs over. Dinner at Tukta's, my favourite massaman curry on the island, followed by a learn to play poker session, which I won but who's keeping track?

Then a day of nothing. Packing, playing with the dogs, buying souvenir t-shirts, all the essential things. Our last night on Ko Tao was spent at Lung Pae viewpoint for dinner with the Buddha View crowd then a bucketfest back at the diveschool bar. I was pretty sick afterwards so I guess I had a great night!

We said our goodbyes HT and Big Dog the next morning. We'll really miss them. I wish I could package them up and sent them back to England, but they're beach dogs so I guess they'd hate our climate for one thing.

Off to Ko Phangan now, home of the hedonistic Full Moon Party. I think I'd much rather stay where I am, but we'll see...


Koh Phangan is good for the soul

2009-06-05 to 2009-06-06

Gary:  As with Utila pretty much one year ago, we leave Ko Tao after 2 incredible months of great diving, chilled island living and an eclectic bunch of new friends and memories. Extra special that we also met up with Paul & Geri, Monique and Nick whilst there.

So it was with heavy hearts, and heads, after too much Tequila on our last night on Ko Tao, that we boarded the Cat to Koh Phangan. This much bigger, rugged island lies just north of Samui, and has been firmly wedged on the travellers map since some characters in the late 80s celebrated someone's birthday on Haad Rin beach on the night of a full moon. The rest, as they say, is history.

As a result the town has a strange temporary, expectant feel. It has rooms for over 5000 people but for 3 weeks every month it's deserted. As a result the people, restaurants, atmosphere in general is less bothered and friendly than on Ko tao.

We checked into a cheap and cheerful bungalow for one night then spent a few hours trudging round in the heat looking for the right place to stay for another 4 nights. Patience paid off and we checked into a lovely bungalow at the Blue Marine resort right on Sunset beach, TV (BBC World, so news at last), a/c, fridge etc, and great views to Samui.

We spent the next few days doing everything I wanted to do. Each morning we had a massage on the beach then fresh fruit shakes, followed by snoozing in the hammock before dinner, watching a glorious sunset, then a movie! Bliss. Trish, however, was getting restless, and as the night of the 7th (full moon) drew closer, young international revellers began to gather, Haad Rin came alive and Trish with it. A text from Nick the day before saying he was booked on a ferry with some other reprobates from Ko Tao sealed my fate, the R&R was over, and the bad moon was rising!

Trish: After the laid back Ko Tao I found getting to grips with Ko Phangan a bit of a struggle. Dinners were pretty poor and I couldn't help feeling I was in a slightly worse-for-wear town on the Costa del Sol surrounded by underage drinkers and English skinheads. But to be fair our bungalow setup was beautiful, so we just ended up venturing into town as little as possible and enjoying the views out to Samui, where we could even see Pete's beach at Bo Phut.

Full Moon Party is looming and town is getting busier and busier... it's all very strange.  


Full Moon Party, June 09

2009-06-07 to 2009-06-08

Gary: I can say with some conviction that in my youth I could hold my own on a night out. In fact I may go as far as to say that I was quite good at it! (not a proud claim I know but a claim nonetheless.) Pottering around Haad rin on the morning of the 7th, however, I felt decidedly old and not that cool. The young, lithe, international crowd now numbering in the thousands averaged I would guess about 19. I felt a little better when Nick arrived, and was immediately bolstered by his unflagging enthusiasm for another 'big night'.

Soon we gathered on our balcony with Aussie Sam and Ranya for some pre-party beers and energy drinks! These consumed, we hit the beach. Haad Rin Nok (Sunrise Beach) is a lovely serene 2km long stretch of golden sand....except on the night of the full moon. Already several thousand people crowded the beach, which looked like a giant theme park. Every type of dance music boomed out from various beach bars and clubs. In between these are dozens of serenely named bucket stands (a plastic bucket with either rum, whiskey, or vodka with coke and insane Thai redbull is the chosen party tipple).

We made our way to the end of the beach and took refuge in the mushroom mountain / magic mountain bar. Here we met up with Dutch Roy (known as ladyRoy after a particularly fine performace at the ladyboy club on Ko Tao) and Lotti.  We all decided to take it easy and have a strawberry & honey flavoured shake or two before hitting the buckets later!! From then on words just don't suffice.

The photos pretty much outline the rest of the night. I have to say it is one of those things you have to experience, once. As you walk the beach the music from different bars merges into a crazy hectic beat. People randomly throw themselves through, under or over fire. I guess it's like having a 10,000 capacity outdoor dance club, with no bouncers and no rules. All I can say is that as we left the beach there were people in all sorts of states, 'disgraceful' does not come close....and suddenly it felt a bit cooler to be older, and dare I say it, a little wiser.

That's not to say that at 7am we were not still sat on our balcony, watching the moon set over Samui, and the sun rise, wide awake from the insane (illegal in Europe I think) red bull, laughing at people stumbling home along the beach.

The Ko Phangan Full Moon Party is now a global event, attracting over 15,000 people during peak months. It's a phenomenom for sure, and incredibly well put on by the locals. All in all a friendly giant beach party, but not for the faint hearted!

Trish: Yeah, seconded by me, a great night. I didn't drink much of the buckets for fear of a killer hangover occurring whilst still at the beach, but having said that I didn't need to because those shakes were pure happiness in a glass. We had to sit on the floor in the Mountain bar for a good hour and a half before we could even contemplate getting up, everyone was rolling around giggling at absolute twaddle. I remember Gary saying something along the lines of "it's really light over there" meaning towards Ko Tao, and I could barely talk for 5 minutes thinking he meant the beach, which of course was really light because of all the lights. I couldn't work out how he could be so stupid. And my line of the night... "Does anyone know when full moon is?". Now, we cried with laughter over that, so you can tell the standard of the shakes. Nick did a lot of grinning and leaning in that bar, which provided no end of entertainment as we tried to catch the laser lights in our hands. Awful immature behaviour all round!

The rest of the night was chaos as we tried to stick together moving along the beach bar by bar. I loved watching all the crazy fire things, though why people submit themselves to jumping through rings of fire and over fire-ropes, I don't know. We certainly weren't that under the influence. It was a bit like watching a horror movie where you know what's going to happen and you scream at the tv "don't go down into the cellar!" but then you watch anyway to see the gruesome outcome. I was shouting "don't do it!" to the revellers around me, but then stood at the front watching them burn as the ropes got caught in their limbs. I walked away from the fire rope and said to Gary "It's just so dangerous", to which he burst into another fit of giggles at my statement of the obvious.

Great night, stupid night, funny night. Woke up the next morning with Nick passed out on our spare bed. The Big Man is becoming part of the scenery!

 


Night Train to Malaysia

2009-06-09 to 2009-06-10

Gary:  It looked pretty close on the map, just south of Thailand on the north-west coast of Malaysia; and it would only cost £20 each it to get there without flying. So we left Haad Rin late in the afternoon in the back of a very full taxi truck for our first leg of the journey to Penang. Next we boarded a big old car ferry which chugged its way south past Samui then across to the mainland in about 3 hours. From here a waiting coach took an hour to drive us to Suratthani train station. We then had 4 hours to kill so parked ourselves at a roadside eatery and had an emotional farewell Phad Thai, laughing at the old Thai ladies who could not believe how many weary customers they had at 11pm. 

The train rolled in an hour late at one in the morning. Thankfully the second class sleeper coaches are brilliant. The chairs swing up to make impressive bunk beds, complete with curtains, table, reading light. Trying unsuccessfully not to wake those who had been sleeping since Bangkok, we crashed. Until 6am, when the staff wake us to see if we wanted breakfast. Back to sleep for an hour, then shouts of 'eveyone off, with all your bags', for the Malaysian border. We stumble through immigration, get checked out for Swine flu (a little disconserting that all the border staff are wearing masks) then get back on the train in Malaysia. Sadly the bunks and bedding are long gone.

Despite feeling fairly exhausted I'm quite happy watching Malaysia roll by the window. Patches of tropical forest, rice fields, villages, more forest. After a few hours though this gives way to mile after mile of palm oil plantations. Malaysia has some of the oldest rainforest in the world, and is still home to tigers, rhino, elephant...although only isloated pockets now remain. 

The train then shudders to a hault and after several minutes we reverse slowly back to a little station where a team of engineers appear and spend an hour fixing us. As a result we finally arrive in Butterworth almost 24 hours after leaving Ko Phangan. Thankfully it's only a 2 minute walk to the ferry port, and only 15 minutes across to Penang!

Trish: Shattered.


Georgetown, Penang

2009-06-11 to 2009-06-14

Gary:  It was only after arriving on Penang that we discoverd it had been declared a UNESCO cultural world heritage site in 2008. We had had very varying reports from other travellers, ranging from fascinating, to an open sewered dump!

Heading across the Malacca Strait on the ferry Trish stared at Penang in amazement, declaring she had been expecting a prestine coral atoll. Penang is in fact 1000 km squared and home to over a million people. It was claimed for the Crown back in 1786 when Francis Light landed and recognised it's strategic location in helping us grab control of the spice and trade routes dominated by those pesky Dutch. As the Empire prospered Penang soon attracted enterprising folk from all over SE Asia, merchants and the like. Soon Chinese and Indian settlers were joined by Malay, Indonesians, Arabs and Thai's in a cultural melting pot. Malaysia gained it's independence in the 1950s and Penang's capital Georgetown is like a giant living museum exhibit of it's fascinating history. 

We stayed at the Cathay Hotel, a 150 year old colonial house run by several grumpy old chinese guys right in the heart of Georgetown. Our room was vast, big high ceilings and an old bath tub for about £10 a night.

Georgetown is wonderful, an old, crumbly, bustling colonial city made up of distinct cultural areas like Little India, Chinatown etc. We spent 3 days wandering around eating. It really is a foodies delight...breakfast of dumplings and rice curries wrapped in banana leaves washed down with freshly squeezed bamboo juice at the chinese market on the first day. We had lunch at the top of Penang hill after taking the old Funicular railway, opened early last century for the wealthy Brits to escape the heat below. Devonshire Tea and scones sat in English country garden looking out over Penang! DInner was tandoori chicken, huge samosas and a pick'n'mix indian curry buffet! Heaven.

The next evening we wandered over to the Orient & Eastern Hotel, just for a look. Many a famous face has stayed at this old hotel, Rudyard Kipling and the like. The doormen still wear safari suits. We wandered in and discovered a huge dinner buffet in progress, and were amazed to discover it was £12 a head, almost the same price as a cocktail in it's prestigious bar. We spent the next few hours sat on the terrace looking out over the Malacca strait eating 7 or 8 courses.

Our final night we wandered into the night market situated right outside our hostel. We sat and watched various asian ladies performing Kylie covers before tucking into a  large loaf of bread, hollowed out and stuffed with chicken curry, then baked.

In order to make room for all this food we did our fair share of sightseeing. We visited the beautiful Kek Lok Si temple, the largest buddhist example in SE Asia, with Chinese, Burmese and Thai influences. We wandered the old colonial streets, went to Fort Cornwallis and the Penang Museum. We took a tour of the much hyped house of Cheong Fatt Tze, a remarkable chinese entrepreneur who copied the English trade business to make his fortune. His blue house is the finest example of Chinese design and Feng Shui decoration outside of China.

We loved Penang. It's true that some of the sewers are open, many of the buildings are crumbling, it's streets are congested. But where else can you eat  authentic Chinese, Indian, Malay, Thai, Japanese and even English delights surrounded by crumbling old English buildings and all at unbelievable prices.

  

 


Kuala Lumpur

2009-06-28 to 2009-06-30

Gary: KL is a city of contrasts… parks and pleasant open spaces, gleaming modern high rises, congested roads, and the usual organised chaos of any large (ish) south east Asian city. It has the obligatory china town and street market districts but without the charm and colour of Georgetown or Bangkok. It is a city that serves a purpose. KL’s skyline is perhaps its most impressive feature, one of the highest communications towers in the world, several grand hotels, gleaming financial skyscrapers, and of course the Petronas Towers, formerly the world’s tallest building complex.

We stayed a few nights in the impressive Citrus hotel, a functional mid range affair with a cool modern room, flat screen tv, mini bar, a/c etc for a pleasant £15 a night. The website boasts views of the towers, which was true if we hung out of our 19th floor window and peered left to see them shining like a beacon over a km away.

Our ‘things to do list’ in KL was remarkably short, and included the towers by day, it’s mall, cinema, and then the towers at night, some western food and treats before heading into Indonesia.

Luckily the Petronas Towers are quite magnificent. Finished in 1997 after 3 years and a race between the two construction teams working on each tower, they stood as the world’s tallest building until Taipei 101 stole it’s crown in 2004 (no surprises that Dubai has since gone higher and are in the midst of completing their Burg Dubai). The Petronas Towers must be the most impressive modern man made structure we have seen. Each tower stands at 452 meters, linked by a sky walk. They are constructed with a beautiful mix of modern and traditional styles, and look even more magnificent at night. It is difficult to be anywhere in KL after dark and not see them.

We pottered around the complex, which is now surrounded by international chain hotels desperate to cash in on ‘Tower view rooms and suites’! Inside is an enormous mall that Vegas would be proud of, and I have to admit that I think I enjoyed our day of Starbucks, fast food, buying cheap gadgets, and watching Transformers 2 as much as Trish did.

Local buses are cheap and very effective in KL, so we avoided their modern but expensive train and monorail system and arrived at the new low cost airline terminal with plenty of time to spare. Air Asia is making hopping around SE Asia cheap and easy. We were reassuringly the only westerners in the check in queue for the flight to Bander Aceh, surrounded by locals (compared to whom in general we are giants), some of the women dressed in full burkas, some not, all trying desperately to get past us. It was funny to stand, ferociously guarding our spot, and watch the Indonesians in line. They would put their trolleys in the queue but then run to the front and gather in a massive scrum around the desk apparently all trying to help the fairly chaotic process. Whenever a new desk opened they would surge across to it, although even Trish and I could work out that it was one desk per flight!

Although we didn’t stay long in Malaysia, it was a very pleasant country to travel. Great food, cheap, warm friendly people even in bustling KL. It seems to me that Malaysia is a great example of how different races, cultures and religions can live together, with big rewards for the visitor.

We are both very excited and probably a little apprehensive about Indonesia. I think that of anywhere we have been Indonesia is the most difficult to imagine. Flying straight into Bander Aceh, a province torn by civil war for 30 years, and one of the worst hit places by the 2004 Tsunami, should be a gentle introduction!!


Getting to Pulau Weh

2009-07-01

Trish: It was a pleasant and easy journey from KL to Bander Aceh. The only other foreigner on the flight was sat across the aisle from us and turned out to be an instructor at Lumba Lumba dive school on Pulau Weh, exactly where we were headed. The flight was only just over an hour and once we had disembarked and Gary’s rucksack had been searched rather disinterestedly (Gary: a little alarming when it came off the carousel marked with a big white cross!), we hopped in a taxi with Rich to the port.

Driving through Bander we didn’t really see any of the town, just lots of houses, some ramshackle, some not. We’ll be coming back through on our next leg, but for the moment all I can say is that there are a lot of people living here. Cows and goats share the roadside with happy looking children and street vendors. There’s no sign of the tsunami as yet, though after 5 years most of the rebuilding is said to be complete and the NGO‘s are on their way out.

We had to wait a few hours for the ferry, in the searing heat, and there was no way I was going to sit there in a hoodie so I caused a fair amount of stares and giggles with my uncovered shoulders. Bander is still a strict Muslim province under Shia Law and all the women wear long sleeves, trousers and a hijab (hair covering shawl). I felt no negativity from anyone, no scorn, just an amusement at my strange foreigner‘s dress. They looked at me in the same way I suppose I would look at a women wearing a full burka walking down Orpington high street, not really sure what to make of me. There still aren’t many tourists coming in to Bander Aceh, even now, though I am sure this will change.

In 2004 it was still on most countries’ ’No Go’ list due to civil war (thousands of people died - the one good thing to come out of the tsunami was that it spelt the end of this fighting), and it was almost impossible to get a visa for fear of mercenaries. Recent troubled history of the province is based on the fact that Aceh has huge natural gas reserves, for which the government in Jakarta took all the profits. In response, in 1976, the Free Aceh movement formed to fight the government for independence and control of the gas. By 1990 the government made Aceh a ‘special combat zone’ and 8 years of near-military rule followed. Stories of army atrocities and human rights abuses are now well known, continuing for years with army massacres and intimidation. Deaths, tortures, disappearances and arbitrary arrests occurred on a daily basis, with each side blaming the other. A brief ceasefire in 2000 was followed by peace talks in 2002, then a reversion to Martial Law was declared in 2003 paving the way for a full scale military assault on the rebels. More arrests, more disappearances, more deaths.

Then Boxing Day 2004 brought the worst natural disaster Asia has seen since Krakatoa erupted back in the 1800’s and rules had to be relaxed as NGO’s, volunteers, and charities rushed forward to help. Peace talks were prompted between Jakarta and the rebels, and on 15 August 2005 a peace accord was signed. But now there are new visa problems… the NGO’s are all supposed to be leaving after the big rebuild, but many do not want to and are simply flying back and forth to KL every 60 days to get extensions. Thus, with no employment to return to, no onward flights booked, just a lot of paperwork ’proving’ our obligation to return to the UK at some point, we are lucky to be allowed in.

The ferry took about an hour from the mainland to Pulau Weh, our new island home 30km off the northern tip of Sumatra. I walked off the boat down the pier sweltering in my hoodie unsure of further responses to my risqué attire on a small Muslim island and hopped in a rickety minibus to Gapang Beach, our home for the next ….well, we’ve booked for 7 nights so far.

We’re here on recommendations from various instructors on Koh Tao, and there’s always the risk that one man’s idea of paradise will be simply average to another. No fear of that here. It’s beautiful. The beach is about 300 yards long in a bay surrounded by palm trees and wooden buildings nestled into the forest behind. There are 3 diveshops on Gapang Beach. Lumba Lumba is the biggest, but is a very laid back affair with a self-service attitude and a great wooden front porch. There’s a line along the windows at about 18ft high which signifies the highest water level reached in the tsunami. It wasn’t a wave when it reached Pulau Weh because the surrounding ocean is too deep, no shallow sandy plateaus like on the mainland, it was a surge that came in and went out several times leaving similar structural devastation as we all saw on the tv, but luckily only minimal loss of life: A fisherman who ran out onto the sand to collect the floundering fish after the first surge went out, an elderly resident who couldn’t get to high ground in time… ten people in all.

I’d like to say we are roughing it in some run down wooden shack just because it sounds more like ‘proper travelling‘, but I made Gary abort the search for cheaper accomodation after seeing the bungalow I could have here at the dive centre. Our balcony overlooks the diveshop grounds and the beach, has it’s own bathroom, and we have a 50 yard walk to the aforementioned front porch and another 40 yard walk from the shop to the sea for a shore dive. All in all I am a very happy traveller.

We did a quick reccie of the beach for dinner and found a total of 4 restaurants, using that term in the loosest possible term because they are a kitchen with plastic tables and chairs outside. Food was a vegetable curry and rice each, which took about an hour to arrive as we later found out we had made the schoolboy error of going to the busiest place thinking that was good reasoning, but actually with only one stove per kitchen it’s chaos. Our bill was 30,000 Rupiah, which luckily for us is about £2.

The island power is supposedly unreliable and the internet mast crashed down 2 weeks ago in a storm. No tv, no emails, no electricity (?!)… it’s going to be a hectic stay…


Life on Pulau Weh

2009-07-02 to 2009-07-08

Gary: In Gapang Beach on Pulau Weh, I think we have found diving paradise. On our first morning we wandered into the dive shop, wrote our names on the board, threw our dive gear on, and wandered straight onto the beach and into the Indian ocean. The water was 30 degrees, and the house reef spectacular. We dived for almost 2 hours, encountering a whole legion of fabulous underwater critters, turtles, morays, ghost pipe fish, beautiful nudibranchs, spearing mantis shrimp, scorpion fish, octopus…the list goes on. …and fantastic coral just meters from the shore! After a veg curry for lunch we plunged in again, no guide, no time limits, just us and our cameras.

Life out of the water is equally bliss. The tiny beach has a sleepy ambience, incredibly chilled. There are maybe 30 westerners here, mostly diving for fun or work, several NGO or UN workers from Bander, and a small community of locals to cater for them. Ton and Maryann, the Dutch owners of Lumba Lumba, have created a dive shop that is equally as laid back. You sort yourself out for shore dives whenever you want, or the local guys will set up your gear for boat dives, carry it to the boat and back if you want them to. The little restaurant next door will deliver plates of noodles, curry or chips and cheese to the dive shop balcony, and there are goats and cows munching around the bungalows, kept in line by Tyson the Lumba dog.

The locals are a extremely friendly, curious, and always helpful. ’Mama Donut’ arrives after each dive with a basket of warm donuts, rice cakes and little veg pastries. Mama Jungle will prepare a fish bbq if booked in advance, and do your laundry, and Mama Cigarette, who lost her teeth in the tsunami, fills her own little niche.

Due to the 30 year civil war Pulau Weh has remained remarkably unchanged, even falling off the remote travellers route for a while. I guess it’s a chance to see what some of the Thai islands must have been like 10-15 years ago. The people diving and working at Lumba are consequently an interesting bunch. There are instructors working here during the off season up in Koh Lanta and the Perenthians, instructors on holiday, spending 2 months here taking underwater photographs before returning to work, divemaster trainees and fellow recreational divers from India, Germany, UK etc. Within a few days we are downloading copies of Photoshop, movie packages and getting loads of wicked advice on taking photos and movies. In fact, our new external hard drive is now crammed with movies, music and programs.

The days soon take on a delightful pattern. Coffee, dive, then lunch, which is either delivered to the balcony or I wander up the hill to a very traditional little buffet restaurant. They put a big bowl of rice in a banana leaf, then you choose from a selection of fish curries and veg. Then it’s either another dive or chilling out in the dive shop listening to tunes and editing photos. Dinner is normally early, and pretty much identical in each of the 4 food huts. During the first week the power is off rather than on. The island power has been so bad that Lumba have almost burnt out their generator and have had to strip it down for an overhaul. We often wander home down the beach with a torch then read the menu by candlelight. With no fan it has been a little hot, but it’s all part of Gapang’s charm. Our initial concern at having no internet is soon replaced by a sigh of relief. No Facebook, no news, no emails, but it’s really quite nice.

Our first boat dive out to the exposed west coast of the island was superb. The winds and waves head in across the Indian ocean and hit the rocky coast of Pulau Weh. The boat journey was thus pretty hairy. Under water is a kind of volcanic playground, jagged rocks and jutting towers, raging surf, unpredictable currents, and “bloody f***ing loads” (a tribute to our Indonesian guide Aris’ posh swearing vocab) of marine life. We dropped to 40 meters on our first dive and looked up to see a 20m high column of hundreds of trevalli spiralling above us like a tornado.

The rest of the first week was all about diving. We did a small wreck in the harbour, followed by a funky dive on some underwater hot springs. Then Tokong, a world class dive site. On our first visit the currents were unusually mild, but spectacular vis (30m+) meant the field of giant sea fans below 30m looked stunning. A little shallower and a sloping rock reef is home to what must be the greatest concentration of moray eels on the planet, literally one every metre, sometimes 3 sharing the same hole. And near the surface, just under the waves breaking on the protruding pinnacle, as many fish as we have seen anywhere.

After more shore dives, one over 2 hours long, and lots of photography we ended the week with our deep check dive with Aris at Canyons. Aris is a young Indonesian who has led over 6000 dives here, more fish then human, and with a splendid nickname ‘Mr. Narcosis’. We dropped off the little boat with a negative descent, swimming straight down to 25m, all signalled ok, then plummeted to 46m! Aris wants to check our air consumption and our susceptibility to nitrogen narcosis before we dive the wreck of the Sophie Rickmer. This is the first of many deep dives with Aris, going way deeper then we have before.


Diving beyond limits on the wreck of the Sophie Rickmer

2009-07-09 to 2009-07-15

Trish: This week has seen us do our deepest dive ever, and then another one deeper still, and a sad turn of events as we have had to move from our luxury bungalow to a budget room due to the shop getting busier and busier.

We started the week with our first dive to the Sophie Rickmer, a German cargo boat sunk by it’s own crew to prevent the Dutch taking it and it’s cargo during WWII. It’s 134m long and laying in 60-80m of water. It’s a bit of a local legend.

Having heard of this dive on Koh Tao and doing subsequent research on the internet, we were still unsure of whether we were actually qualified to do it. After all, PADI standards say dive no deeper than 40m on normal tank air because the partial pressure of oxygen as you approach 60+m makes it extremely hazardous to breathe. But in all the accounts written by former Sophie divers we found none that said you needed specific tech diving training.

And we didn’t. Just a certain level of experience and an ok from Aris. After a very thorough briefing by Mr Narcosis himself, we got on the boat; 5 divers - Gary, myself, Aris, Thijs (instr) and Kate (dmt) - and Lucky our boat captain. The site is only 10 mins away from the beach so we were soon getting in the water. After a final ok at the surface we swam hard straight down to the top of the Sophie Rickmer deck at 47m, officially our deepest dives ever. After 1min at 47m we popped over the side and dropped to 51m. A new deepest dive within a dive!

The 18min max bottom time at 51m flew by. It’s a big old boat when you’re swimming next to it merry on nitrogen narcosis. It’s absolutely encrusted with coral after all these years, lots of places for scorpion fish to blend in. It was so dark down there, too, it really felt like we were exploring the depths. After 18mins we swam up to 26m accompanied by a school of inquisitive batfish for a decompression stop of 1min, then up to 12m for 6mins, 9m for 5mins, 6m for 5 mins and finally up to 3m for the remainder of what our computers wanted us to do, more than 30mins of deco before we could finally surface! We had drop tanks available on the decompression stops and it all went very smoothly, even the 30 minutes at 3m went pretty quick as Gary and 1 reviewed pictures, Thijs wrote his shopping list and Aris and Kate ‘chatted’ on their slates.

That night we celebrated our safe return from the Sophie with drinks on the balcony with our new chums at Lumba Lumba. Coke for me, while Gary shared the illegally purchased bottle of vodka Ben and Ipsi had smuggled in (Muslim law in Bander Aceh says no alcohol to be sold or consumed - I would have made a good Muslim except for the uniform). Funny night with a bunch of characters. This place really just keeps getting better the more time we spend here.

Anyway, 51m, deepest dive ever! Or rather 51.8m for Gary and 52m for me when we checked our computers later and he realised I’d dipped down the extra bit just to beat him.

The next few days went by in a blur of shore dives, boat dives and editing photos and videos as we try to learn how to use our cameras with all the programs we have been given by people here. Gary’s getting into macro photography while I concentrate on making movies, a hobby I now appreciate to be very time consuming and frustrating as neither fish, cameras or computers tend to do exactly what you want them to do at the right moment.

The shore diving continues to be first rate. It’s easy to spend 2 hours in water that‘s 29 or 30 degrees, and there’s no shortage of creatures to keep us interested. I’ve seen turtles nearly every dive, eels, lionfish, scorpion fish, maybe an octopus if you’re lucky, and our new underwater favourites the nudibranchs (beautiful brightly coloured sea slugs). We lose a lot of time photographing those fellas.

Boat dives included more 40m+ depths with Aris (no big deal, we’ve been to 52m now!) and washing-machine currents at Tokong, Rubiah North and Aris Belee (which fittingly translates as “awful b*stard current” in Indonesian). When finning against the current gets you nowhere and the only way to stop is to hold on to a rock and be churned around, we tended to fly along with the sea trying to take photos of the animals we passed along the way: sharks, morays, octopus, nudibranchs (if you can stay still long enough)... It’s a real workout diving off the boats here and at the end of each day I feel completely drained in that great “I know I’ll sleep well tonight” way.

Daily routines have formed as island life becomes normal, and very much enjoyable. A morning dive followed by Gary walking up the hill to get a curry from a locals buffet while I simply order from the café next door and have rice and cheese or a toasted sarnie delivered to the dive shop. For me now the afternoons are spent staring at our laptop trying to edit movies I have taken while Gary chills out in the room or the dive shop. Dinner is limited on options so we tend to go where our dive buddies are. I am getting very bored of vegetable soup, but I’m dubious about the standard of the chicken especially with daily power cuts. The generator is still in pieces on the floor and island power is unpredictable to say the least, but we’re getting used to it and who needs a fan when you have windows and a sea breeze (she says, lying to herself - it‘s so damn hot!!)?

The last dive of our week was back on the Sophie Rickmer. Last time we covered the bow, this time the stern. We had another briefing from Aris, for a 54m dive, deeper again than ever before, but I had already made a secret request for the possibility of hitting 60m and had a smile in return so I thought our plans might be flexible. Just me, Gary, Kate and Aris on the boat today, and before getting in the water he very pointedly mentioned no depths but told us that “this will be a deep dive so we must be careful to follow our computers for decompression”. Same as last time we swam straight down to the deck at around 47m, this time at the stern. We dropped straight over the edge and down to 53m, already deeper than our last dive here. Then Aris spotted a huge grouper on deck and we started to ascend to see it. I felt it was now or never so I swam up to Aris, tugged on his fin, pointed at my computer, pointed to the sandy bottom some 10m below and put my hands together in prayer. He grinned back and we headed downwards. My heart was absolutely racing, and I’d say for the first time ever I felt a little unsure if what I was doing under the water was safe. Thoughts of oxygen toxicity and the bends flew through my head and adrenaline sent tingles through my body. We laid with our wrists on the sand, all computers registering 60m, shook hands, did some cheering, and swam back up to 52m to finish the 18mins bottom time.

The stern was more beautiful than the bow, with lost fishing nets draped over the collapsed masts adding to an already eerie effect and the giant grouper cruising in and out of view. The boat looked sinister in the gloom at that depth, sitting on a sandy bottom like a ghost ship. We probably had about 15-20m vis on the deck, but everything away from the boat looked green and forboding. The scorpion fish were again out in force, protecting their wreck against human invasion, and the bright reds, whites and oranges of the corals growing on the Sophie provide perfect camouflage so beware resting a finger on the wreck to pause for a moment. The batfish came and found us as we started our 47 minute tiered decompression-stop ascent, and we said goodbye to the Sophie for this trip at least. I think 60m is enough for the moment.

After another jovial return to the dive shop we sadly had to vacate our bungalow and move in to Lumba Lumba’s new budget accomodation, still being built just behind the luxury pads. We have the only room that’s finished, no railings on the balcony, no ensuite, not even a proper toilet but an Indonesian style ceramic hole in the ground in the communal loo we share with the builders, and we have to shower in the dive shop because the shower rooms in the budget block haven’t been done yet. But the room itself is nice. Clean and comfy, just lacking in toilet and bathing facilities. I have optimistically set out all my toilettries anyway, hoping for a miracle to happen in the form of a freshly tiled bathroom in the block. In the meantime I will trudge back and forth to the proper toilet and shower in the diveshop. I feel a little less elated with my island life as I did this afternoon, but I’m sure I’ll get used to weeing in a hole (she says, with a horrified look on her face at the thought of it).

One last thing. When we checked our computers to log our second dive on the Sophie, it turns out I had a max depth of 60.4m while Gary only had 60.3m. Another win for the sneak in me! (Gary: In an effort to overcome my unfair depth defeat I went out the following morning and did our longest recorded dive, 2 hours and 10 minutes, a record that sneaky will never beat as the cold will always send her scurrying for the beach!)


Simply diving, Pulau Weh

2009-07-16

Trish: The diving was so beautiful, and we spent so much time underwater with our cameras that I thought we needed a page dedicated to our favourite shots/encounters. Enjoy...


Practicalities of a life without luxury

2009-07-17 to 2009-07-23

Gary: The Indonesian toilet is a practical affair. A hole in the ground , tiled, next to a large square tub (mandi) of water. You use a scoop to flush the hole, and also to bath / shower! I have to admit I’ve been impressed with Trish’s quiet determination in approaching each use of the facilities, although I am a little concerned at her reduced intake of food and drink!


Our evenings in the budget block (we are the only residents as the rest is under construction) involve lighting mozzy coils at the windows and periodically removing preying mantis from the room that insist on landing on the bed between us whilst we try and watch episodes of the brilliant ‘Dexter’. We brush our teeth in a pot borrowed from the dive shop kitchen and hope we don’t need the loo in the night, or it’s head torch on and a twilight thigh work out!


Our dives on the Sophie Rickmer were incredibly intense, as exhilarating as any extreme sport we have braved on this trip. Our proximity to the main dangers in diving, decompression sickness, oxygen toxicity and hefty nitrogen narcosis meant the adrenalin was pumping, but what an experience. To be sat on the sand at 60m with the giant hull of Sophie looming above us is certainly a moment I will never forget.


The rest of our third week at Gapang beach was taken up mainly with shore diving. The dive shop has become surprisingly busy, the big boat booked as soon as the dive site destination is posted on the board. This is no problem for us though as we are more then happy to head out from the beach. We continue our search for the mimic octopus and illusive frog fish but with no joy. Indeed, a few days of rain see Trish confined to the dive shop, busily editing her Sophie videos and avoiding the 1-2 degree drop in the sea temperature!


By the end of the week ’island power’ seems to have been restored, and the Lumba Lumba generator, now fixed, is hardly ever needed (a good thing as it’s actually right below our room).


As you may have guessed we are finding it very difficult to leave Pulau Weh, the owners laugh every time they see we have extended, and remind us that they have done the same for 15 years! The diving and island life just gets better and better, in fact I will stop pontificating and let the photo’s tell the tale!


Dragging ourselves away from the island...

2009-07-24 to 2009-07-25

Trish: Well, 4 weeks after we arrived to stay a week we must finally say goodbye to our friends and the wonderful diving of Pulau Weh. We are leaving under the pressure that if we stay any longer we may never leave and there's a whole lot of Indonesia left to cover.

I have logged 23 dives on the island, Gary a few more as I have been lazy a few days and sat on the Lumba Lumba deck happily passing the time with those unlucky enough to be also having a rest from the water, picking up tips on editting programs and listening to people far more travelled than me talking about places I now want to go. It has been a superb start to our Indonesia adventures, though I am well aware of the fact that we may have made travelling the rest of Sumatra extremely difficult for ourselves after the relaxed and westernised atmosphere in our little world here.

For me, as usual, the hardest part is packing up my bags and knowing that tomorrow I will not be spending the day with people I know in a place I know. Gary is excited about the onward journey and adventures to come whereas I would be more than happy to stay on Pulau Weh until our visa runs out. I am happy to admit I am a little apprehensive about backpacking through the Sumatran countryside, not least because I'm sure it will involve Gary dragging me up and down volcanoes to get his beloved dawn pictures.

So we spent one last day diving the house reef, then had a farewell barbeque fish supper at Mama Jungle's. I was particularly glad not to see barracuda on the barbie after the enormous one we had spotted on our dive just 100 yards from the beach. It lives another day. Great dinner, a nice change from my usual rice and cheese, and a nice way to say goodbye to everyone.

I will miss this place for sure.

 

 


Bander Aceh- recovery from tsunami

2009-07-26 to 2009-07-27

Gary:  Lumba Lumba dive shop has a morbidly fascinating scrap book of the 2004 boxing day Tsunami. Pulau Weh was lucky in comparison with the Aceh mainland, as the ocean floor drops off quickly. The result was a surge rather then a breaking wave; as a result loss of life was minimal, although most of the properties on Gapang beach were wiped out. The dive shop survived due to it's open design. There is still a water mark at about 7m on the outer wall. The scrap book has pictures of the destruction, and accounts from locals and visiting divers of the terrible day.

There is an incredible story of a local guy trapped in his house as the first surge hit. The water pushed him up through the roof and then sucked him several hundred meters back out to sea, along with debris and trees. He managed to clamber onto a floating door just as the second wave surged in. He was washed back to Gapang beach and dumped 30m up the shoreline. He survived with a gashed leg, possibly the only human to have 'surfed' the enormous wave that day!

Other divers actually on the ferry heading back to Bander felt nothing more than a big surge, the boat lifting quickly up and down, but  knew something was amiss. Devastation greeted them when they arrived: the Bander Aceh dock had simply disappeared, debris covered the ocean, bodies floating everywhere. They had to scramble for 5km inland through the carnage, over bodies of animals, people, structures and mud before finding a road and passage to the airport.

Shockingly over 60,000 people died in Aceh, many from the earthquake itself, before the wave even arrived. The western Aceh coastline is flat, and slopes gently out to sea, disasterously allowing the wave to travel many km inland. Many of the coastal villages in Aceh lost 70-80 % of their populations.

Over 5 years later and the UN has just closed down it's operation, costing around 7 billion US dollars! We became good friends with Ben, responsible for overseeing the wrapping up of UN programs here and in India. There is little left now to mark the Tsunami's passing, except huge graveyards outside of town. The vast number of UN and NGO workers are leaving, slowly. Their legacy seems mixed, some of the work has been impressive, others not so good, over promising and under achieving. We were told stories of UN workers driving around in huge blacked out SUV,s,, and of NGOs travelling around in helicopters whilst living in luxury housing.

The most astonishing legacy perhaps is the huge generator ship, left high and dry by the wave in the centre of Bander Aceh. As our photos show, it's huge, just sat in a field surrounded by houses and mosques. It must be 40m long, it's weight colossal. To heavy to contemplate moving, they are leaving it there as a 'tourist attraction'/monument. The rest of Bander is functioning once more; a busy, polluted dour looking place, a taste of things to come in Sumatra cities. 

We flew from Bander to Medan ($35 each), the capital of North Sumatra and home to well over 2 million people. Our taxi driver, a protestant christian Batak from Lake Toba, expressed his concern at the bombing in Jakarta, and what a shame it was as many religions live happily side by side in Indonesia. Medan is grossly congested, polluted, an extremely poor concrete sprawl and a testimony to how tough living in a poor Indonesian city must be. We stayed the first night in a nice 4 star hotel, desperate for our first hot shower in a month. We took a bajaj (2 stroke motorbike with a caged sidecar bolted on the side) to Pizza hut. Driving in Medan is a noisy business, every driver honks constantly even when there is no fathomable reason, chatting inanely with beeps and blasts.

The next day we took refuge in a modern shopping mall, doing the usual fast food and cinema thing. Although this time with a twist. We felt like local celebs, or aliens. Everyone at least stared, many giggled or said hello. Lots of school girls shyly asked if they could take our picture. One lady offered to escort me round the shops for the day whilst I waited for Trish who was in a clothes shop. After watching the new Harry Potter we headed back to our second hotel, a big eerie Indonesian affair where the staff peered at us as though we had just flown into the lobby. Mata Hari was supposedly bedded there, but since we don't know who she is it makes no great impression on us.


Orang-utans in Bukit Lawang

2009-07-28 to 2009-07-29

Gary: Our relief at checking out of the bizarre Inna Dharma Deli hotel ready to leave Medan was short lived. We managed to hail the oldest taxi in town to take us to the bus station, driven by an ancient old boy whose love of his horn was extreme even for Medan. It took us nearly an hour to battle through snarled, choking traffic to the bus station. Here, Trish skilfully manoeuvred us through the bunch of middlemen who tried to get us to line up near the exit and pay double the price. We found the Bukit Lawang bus stop and waited, chuckling at the ancient buses parked nearby; and you guessed it, we were soon ordered onto the oldest. 20 minutes later we had made it no further than the street. Then a bus maybe a year newer chugs up and we were told to change. Finally, probably 2 hours after leaving our hotel, only several km’s away, we set off.

It took over an hour to clear the brutal, polluted, urban sprawl of Medan’s poor suburbs, honking our horn and our bus guy yelling at anyone and everyone on the street. A young opportunist was busking, playing his guitar and singing on the bus. Soon smiling guys wearing ‘jungle’ or ‘ranger’ shirts clambered aboard to try to befriend the foreigners. We were prepared though, and explained politely that we have a guide already booked in Bukit Lawang. A solo western traveller at the front of the bus is not so lucky, and has a new best friend sat with his arm around his shoulders for the rest of the journey (the Indonesian way of doing business, certainly with tourists, is to form a friendship, ask lots of questions and offer advice and finally a service, never mentioning that there will be a charge). Trish as you can imagine is a huge fan of this part of Indonesian culture, eagerly anticipating the next brave approachee.

After 2 hours we had left grim urban sprawl behind, trundling through farm land and palm oil plantations with jungle covered mountains enticingly ahead. The road then deteriorated dramatically, huge pot holes and craters slowed us to a crawl, and the convoys of palm oil trucks didn’t help. It was midday by now and very hot on the bus, which was thankfully only half full. Until, that is, we stopped outside a school, and at least 30 maybe 40 kids hit the bus in a running maul, clambering over us and our packs. The sheer joy etched on Trish’s face kept me chuckling until we finally arrived.

Bukit Lawang is actually only 90km outside Medan, but is at least 4 hours on the bus. The Government seems very reluctant to finance road building in Sumatra, much less national park facilities. BL sits on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, a mountainous jungle covered park that is pretty much the last refuge in Sumatra for it’s once majestic wildlife, tigers, rhinos, elephants and orang-utans cling on here. It’s a fairly charming place nestled in a river gorge with no banks, cars or Pizza Huts. We follow some dutch travellers with a guide to the Jungle Inn, the recommended guest house in Bukit Lawang. It’s over a km along an undulating rocky path and completely full, along with most other places! And so we troop all the way back, cross a swing bridge and get a room at the Eco lodge, the most expensive place here….pretty nice though. We spend the evening sat with a beer watching ‘not so lucky’ fellow travellers arrive in the dark and pouring rain to be told that even here is now full. A kind of guilty smugness I guess.

The next day we do get to see an orang-utan in the wild, albeit a young one. A group of us follow a guide into the park and up into the beautiful looking jungle. They continue to feed recently released and rehabilitated animals, particularly mothers with young, inside the park in designated areas. The orang-utan rehabilitation centre itself is now much deeper in the park and off limits to tourists. We actually waited by a wooden feeding platform for over an hour whilst the ranger whacked a piece of wood against it and made orang-utan calls, but no joy. The official park rangers use bananas and milk only, knowing that the diverse diet foraging in the forest can offer is far tastier and that only those in dire need of a meal or too old or weak to go looking will remain dependant on the human offerings. We were told later that sadly many guides taking tourists on day treks feed the apes, or bang to attract them as they are walking through the jungle, confusing the orang-utans and leading them away from the official, monitored platforms where they can get the milk they need.

Only as we trooped back did we stumble upon an apparently relaxed young male walking up the path we were coming down. He took a look at us, thought we were weird, and loped off to sit in a tree and watch us watch him. (Trish: It was only as I walked out the gate of the park with the rangers chasing me that I realised I was hand in hand with the orang-utan and had been taking photos of Gary for the last 10 minutes)

The future looks bleak for the orang-utans. These incredibly expressive apes need vast areas of forest to roam around and forage in. There are thought to be 5000 of them in Gunung Leuser Park, as many as it can hold. In Borneo the situation is even more critical. Illegal logging and poaching threatens the few parks that are left in Indonesia and Borneo, the precarious last refuge for our closest relative!

Everybody you meet travelling in Sumatra has either been to or is going to Bukit Lawang. For us, its charm was overshadowed by the touristy feel, and although we saw our orang-utan it was a little saddening to think that even their lives in the protected national parks are being negatively affected by us visiting. 2 days after arriving in Bukit Lawang we were on the move again, heading further south…


Berastagi - a refuge from the chaos

2009-07-30 to 2009-08-01

Trish: The adventures just keep coming as we travel by land south through Sumatra. Determined not to have a repeat of the Medan-to-Bukit-Lawang bus experience; 3 hours of constant stares, hopeful guides wanting to be our best friends and giggling children trying to touch us, we decided to take a mini-bus. Still public transport, but on a smaller scale. Less people should equal less attention and more luxury. That's what I thought. 

In terms of time, 2 hours instead of 3 to Medan was a definite improvement, no schoolkids shouting at us another, but personal space is a non-existant concept here it seems. As we drove out of Bukit Lawang with only us and 2 others on board I was cheery and hopeful for the trip ahead. But we tootled along the road at about 10km/hr bibbing our horn until we had a full house of 12: 2 in the front with the driver and 3 rows of 3. This was still ok and I at least now thought we would pick up speed and peg it into town. So it was rather frustrating when the horn bibbing continued, along with the picking-up of extra locals. Eventually, now a more than full house of 18: 3 in the front with the driver hanging half out the window, 6 on our row (3 sharing one seat), and 8 in the 2 rows behind, we could hold no more and continued uninterupted to Medan, By this time I am once again confused about whether the joys of the Sumatran mainland outweigh the lows of actually travelling between places, but Gary is as always embracing the 'adventure' of it all and still has smiles for every hawker thrusting goods in our faces at every stop. I have smiles for no-one.

In Medan, where I am reminded how dirty and horrible the city is, we are ferried off our minibus and onto a dubious looking colourful but very old full sized public bus. Food and drink is only a mistaken eye-contact away at the bus-stop and it's a constant 'Hey Mister' zone. I have my sunnies on and ipod up full volume. Still people poke their heads in the window to sell me chickens feet on sticks. By the time the bus is full, and I do mean full, I am about ready to throw myself under it. Another 2 hours later, as we finally pull into Berastagi, I feel it would have been a relief to have done so.

But the town of Berastagi was a breath of fresh air. A little oasis in the Sumatran countryside where the people were far too busy doing their own thing (it's a busy market town where villages from all over come to trade their goods) to worry about us. As we walked through the high street with our packs on, we attracted barely one Hey Mister, and had to actually approach someone to ask for directions. I love this town. 

So for 3 nights we stayed in a small family run guesthouse in town, just chilling out and being able to pretty much do our own thing in peace. We climbed Gunung Sibayak, 2094m above sea level, the volcano which looms 1000m over Berastagi, and I even enjoyed the trek. The 9km from town to the summit was a breeze walking through farmland where the locals were collecting their harvests and ignoring us, and the view from the top while we ate our packed lunch (the smell of sulphur topped off by the taste of our boiled eggs!) was pretty awesome. The troop down led us to to a little fruit and veg growing village from where we crammed into a minivan full up with baskets of tomatoes picked fresh from the fields back to Berastagi.

We spent another day navigating our way to and from a neighbouring village called Lingga where people still live in and are trying to preserve the traditional Batak houses,  some 350 years old. As soon as our opulet (public minivan) dropped us off we were approached by a middle-aged local man with excellent English and no Hey Mister pushy sales technique. For once I was happy to follow along. He knew his stuff and we would have seen nothing without him there to show us around. 

There are 2500 people living in Lingga, and 2 kinds of living quarters. There are the standard concrete buildings we have seen throughout Sumatra's countryside, basic but newish and adequate. Then there are also about 10 Batak houses, which are the traditional houses of the Batak people, the tribesmen who dominate this part of Sumatra. The Bataks were chased out of Malaysia by the Mongolians and Siamese several hundred years ago and found refuge in Sumatra. Over the years they converted from their original Animist beliefs (demons, bad spirits, ritual sacrifices etc) and became Christian Protestants. 

They built houses where 40 people lived under the one roof, one big room with 6 open fire stoves positioned so that 2 families shared one fire, and tiny sleeping areas partitioned off at the sides for the women to sleep in. Young boys were moved to a male-only house until they were married and then they moved in with the bride's family. The houses were built without the use of a single nail, sort of tied together with pieces of woven palm strands. The roofs were made of sugar-palm fibres and were never replaced, simply had more palm fibres added on top as the original roofing began to rot. They end in sharp rising points made to resemble buffalo horns. The Batak houses are on stilts, with the animals being reared and kept safe underneath. 

All in all, my impressions of the Bataks were that they made impressive houses, but boy did they pack them in, and I'm pretty sure they didn't smell so  good with all those buffalo and pigs living underneath. They don't build these traditional houses anymore. Our guide told me it is because the wood is too expensive compared to cement because most of the Sumatran trees are now protected (Gary and I were secretly pleased for the wild animals who live in the forests), but really I can't see the modern generations of Sumatrans continuing to want to live with another 39 people. So they are trying to renovate the ones which they have, many in total disrepair, but I hope for their sake that it is more for a memory and a tourist pull and that they will modernise their actual living arrangements. I couldn't help noticing that a lot of the Batak houses had satellite dishes outside, so I guess they're not as traditional as they used to be!  (Gary; the toilet is still 'in nature' and they take a piece of bamboo with them to fend off the pigs!!). We bought a divining calendar which he said is used to decide on important dates for celebrations, We close our eyes and pick a wooden stick and it will tell us what date to get married. Very useful in the modern world, and helps them pay for their cable tv. (Gary will be annoyed that I wrote that!) 

Had our last dinner sat in the kitchen of our guesthouse in Berastagi where I feel like we have become part of the furniture. They are so helpful and I've managed to get a more than just edible avocado salad for dinner 3 nights running, a real treat after too many noodle and rice dishes! Tomorrow we head to Lake Toba, dormant super volcano and hopefully somewhere I can get a hot shower (4 and a half weeks in Sumatra so far with only one night of hot water in Medan).     

 

 


A little bit of luxury

2009-08-02

Trish: We finally made a good transport decision and hired a private car and driver to take us from Berastagi to Lake Toba. In our spacious 4x4, the 4 hour journey flew by. We broke up the trip with stops along the way at a waterfall, another traditional Batak village (the usual satellite dishes outside the old ‘no nails’ houses), and a ‘King’s Palace’ from the time when each village was ruled by it’s own monarch (up to 1947 for the one we stopped at), complete with tombs of these Kings of old. It has to be said that the term ‘King’s Palace’ is rather loosely used… it is just a larger version of a traditional Batak houses where he lived with up to 13 or so wives.

For just under £30 we enjoyed a spacious, cool and relaxed journey through the beautiful Sumatran surrounds as opposed to a slow, sweaty and uncomfortable 6, or more, hour ’adventure’ on another local bus under the watchful stare of every local on board. We arrived at Parapat, a small town on the edge of Lake Toba, from where we get the ferry to Samosir Island in the middle of the lake, feeling calm and revived. This feeling vanished immediately I stepped out of the car and found myself being herded against my better judgement into someone’s travel agency and café.

For the hour we had to wait for the ferry, we were badgered non-stop into buying a ticket for the luxury executive air-conditioned sleeper-bus to our next week’s destination, Bukittingi. Gary thrust a coke in my hand and escaped, going for a wander around Parapat taking photos, whilst I sat absent-mindedly smiling at the man, his sales-patter falling on deaf ears as my mind was more importantly focussed on: 1) is the pizza restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet on Samosir Island still up and running? and 2) would we definitely be getting a hotel with hot water showers because washing your hair in cold water really sucks?

The ferry ride across the lake to the town of Tuk Tuk on Samosir took about an hour. Gary bought a bag of what at first appeared to be peanuts but definitely weren’t off one of the old-lady hawkers, and we sat on the top deck trying to force them down or throw them surreptitiously overboard. It was hard to believe we were traversing the caldera of one of the world’s biggest super-volcanoes, which when it last erupted 80,000 years ago covered the whole of India in 15cm of ash. Recent studies of this place have suggested that it’s gigantic eruption was the biggest in the last 25 million years, and came very close to wiping out humanity at the time. It caused earth temperatures to drop by up to 30 degrees for several years! Fresh water later filled the caldera, and what you see now is enormous Lake Toba, 1707 square km and 300+metres at it’s deepest, surrounded by huge sloping forest-covered walls, the edges of the original cone.

We found a room for the night after a long trudge with packs on in the once again stifling heat and humidity of sea-level. A brand new hotel for only £6 - easy to bargain when you are the only guests(!), with an ensuite bath, but no hot water (what’s the point?!). However, the much anticipated Rumba Pizzeria was very much still going strong and despite the obligatory ‘Hey Mister’s and the prospect of a cold morning shower my first night on the island leads me to think I will enjoy our time here.


Tuk Tuk Peninsula, Lake Toba

2009-08-03 to 2009-08-05

Gary: During the 1980’s Sumatra, apparently, was for backpackers what Thailand is now, and the Tuk Tuk peninsula on Samosir Island in the Toba caldera was the epicentre, with perhaps thousands gathering here for Indonesia’s very own full moon parties. The Bali bombings, the West’s fear of Muslim nations, and even ignorance about the extent off the Tsunami have almost wiped out this party scene.

The Tuk Tuk peninsula, shaped like a mushroom growing off Samosir, is approximately 3 km long stretching out into Late Toba. A road rings it, and is full of losmen (guesthouses), restaurants, travel agents and hotels, enough for hundreds of tourists. Today only a handful of westerners are here, mainly Dutch and French, outnumbered by local tourists from Medan. It’s such a shame because it is a quite beautiful place, with a majestic setting, and some wonderful Batak locals. It makes for a slightly odd atmosphere, but laid back and addictive, with some great little restaurants dotted around to keep Trish happy.


Our second morning after changing hotels to the busy Carolina’s (our first gambit a bit too new and empty), we headed off on motorbike to explore Samosir, the island and traditional centre of Batak life in Sumatra. Trish perches on the back snapping rustic rural landscapes of rice fields and water buffalo whilst I drive. There are dozens of Christian churches and burial grounds, old Batak houses and farmers, always waving and laughing as we stop to watch them farming using traditional methods hundreds of years old.

After a few arse-numbing hours we reach halfway, at which point we were told to turn tail and head back. However, there is a road that runs right across the island’s central plateau, hundreds of meters high. It looks a third of the distance, and an adventure, although the line is only a dotted one on our map. And sure enough we are soon spluttering our way up a steep dirt track in first gear in blistering mid day temperatures doubting our wisdom (Trish: Gary‘s wisdom). We are truly up in the rural highlands, and there are very few people about. We stop each passing local on a scooter and point ahead asking “Tuk tuk?”. Some laugh, others just stare, but 2 or 3 nod enthusiastically and we plod on. After a couple of hours we finally reach forest and the end of the plateau. Sadly, tiredness is kicking in, we are swerving around a lot and Trish has a so called scooter-tattoo from the exhaust, a big burn on her calf. Disaster. It takes another hour to descend on what is a winding hiking trail until we finally hit tarmac. (Anyone who has seen Ewan & Charlie’s ’Long way round’ we knew exactly how they felt after the Road of Bones)! Battered and bruised we returned to Tuk Tuk, where a lovely local Batak lady soon took charge of Trish‘s burn, cutting up cactus and produced a whole tub of fresh aloe vera.

We followed our epic bike ride with 2 days of chilling, lounging in the hotel by the magnificent lake. We had a fantastic fish bbq at Poppy’s fish farm; 1kg of fish plucked from the lake in front of us, and more rice and veg than we could eat in a week.

The Bataks spend most nights singing and playing guitar and bantering with tourists with a wicked sense of humour. The lack of tourists is obviously hurting this island, but you would never guess!

It’s full moon on our final night, and as if to prove just how different this is now to Koh Phangnan we sit and listen to a group of locals playing guitar and singing to God! Big day tomorrow… our luxury bus to Bukittingi…


Road to Hell

2009-08-06 to 2009-08-07

Trish: The “luxury executive” bus to Bukittinggi was the worst description of transport that we have seen in the last 19 months. Like a nightmare where you can’t wake up and escape, I think this bus journey over the Trans-Sumatra Highway tops my list for the worst experience of our travels.

It started as a pleasant day spent around the hotel at Lake Toba. We got the ferry back to Parapet late afternoon and had a few drinks with Daniel and Gertie from Holland who were also booked on the luxury bus. We had been told it was a 14 hour trip, with reclining seats, loads of space, maybe even a movie. Didn’t sound too bad. We were all quite merry until the bus pulled up, already nearly 2 hours late. Silence reigned and I nearly cried. Our ‘luxury executive’ bus was an old banger, already full of locals having travelled 5 hours from Medan. The seats were small, the air stuffy, the floor was dirty, and after the amused look on Gary’s face after returning from the toilet I became petrified of getting that ’need to wee’ feeling.

Ten minutes in to this connection from hell, Daniel marched down the aisle to tell the driver that it was ‘raining inside the bus’. The a/c unit which they were sat behind was dripping. Excess drips were wiped off half-heartedly, but nothing else could be done. Later on after one of our numerous stops a whole waterfall of a/c water fell on the guy sleeping right behind Gary, making me think that although I was about as low as I could get, it could still have been worse.

Never before has so grand a title of a road been so misleading. The ‘Trans-Sumatran Highway’…what a joke! It is in fact a single lane road, winding it’s way around volcanoes and through villages and forests. Patches of tarmac very soon disappeared and we were left on a dirt track, and yet still able to overtake other trucks and cars on blind corners.

The temperature inside the bus hovered around freezing from the overzealous a/c, and we were all wrapped up in our blankets like Eskimos. At one point I became so frustrated with the a/c vent over me that in trying to point it away I ended up pulling it off the ceiling and Gary had to thrust a banana in the hole to stop the flow of cold air!

Gary took some sleeping pills and had, it seems, a rather pleasant rest of the journey while I sat awake, feeling very sorry for myself as we stopped at first a suspicious looking restaurant for roadside fare at 2am, then a Mosque at 4am for the locals to get out and pray. Trying to doze away the hours on my luxury bus I couldn’t help wondering if this is what being kidnapped feels like… being driven god-knows-where in the dead of night on awful roads in horrific conditions. Even more so when the driver started to vomit 2 hours into the trip and continued to do so intermittently INSIDE the bus for the next 3 hours, I put my fingers in my ears and prayed that sleep or death would come quickly.

At 9am the next morning, now already 12 hours in, we stopped for breakfast at another roadside restaurant. Sadly, all that was on offer was chicken curry. We tucked in, Gary more enthusiastically than me, Daniel and Gertie, and went off to use the facilities of the truck stop before loading back onto our prison on wheels. The women’s ‘facilities’ consisted of a big concrete room with about 15 holes in the ground along one wall, walls between them but only one with a door. I made a beeline for that one, which was another horrific experience, but not quite as horrific as Gerti’s who walked in straight off the bus, didn’t find the one with a door and then witnessed the local ladies from our bus coming in and simply dropping their pants and weeing in a group on the floor! I was glad she didn’t tell me that till after my visit.

Back on the bus, I immediately started getting stomach cramps and the urge to vomit. For 3 hours I held it in, sweating and bent over and miserable. Much as I wanted to repay the driver for making me listen to him vomit through the night, I couldn’t bring myself to that low. I ran off the bus at Bukittingi bus station, straight into the toilets, only to find someone with similar problems to me but from the other end had already been in and not bothered to clean up. Absolutely appalled, I ran back out, cried to Gary to just get me in a cab to a hotel and somehow made it to the room and spent the next few hours puking.

I feel like I have survived some major calamity, even that night as I laid in bed I couldn’t sleep because every time I shut my eyes I could picture the bus trip. Gary thinks I am crazy, but I think traumatised is a more appropriate word. Luxury bus??? Never again. Next time I fly.

Gary: It was certainly an adventure, and the bus was a bit old. However, I slept well, ate well, and enjoyed waking up at dawn whilst winding through the Sumatran jungle as we crossed the equator! Most of the locals on the bus slept the entire journey, which is more then can be said for my western travelling companions! A journey we will never forget!

Trish: What a tosser

Gary: Hero!


Bukittinggi

2009-08-08 to 2009-08-11

Gary: Bukittinggi is a bustling market town almost a thousand meters above sea level. It is surrounded by 3 volcanoes and rich fertile valleys home to the traditional Minangkabau (‘Buffalo winners‘) people, migrants from the Malay peninsula living in a fascinating matrilineal Muslim society. Property and wealth is passed down through the female line, and every Minangkabau belongs to his or her mother’s clan.

After a good nights sleep at the Asia hotel the horrors (more for some than others) of the journey here were forgotten (Trish: They will never be forgotten) and we went to explore the Saturday market, Pasar Atas. We ambled along pretty non-descript rows of clothing stalls covered in orange tarps, a little disappointed until we stumbled into the food market.
Dark, low roofed, crowded, very smelly, exotic and shocking. After some rows of vegetable stalls we were suddenly plunged into the poultry section. As we walked up to the first big cage full of chickens, the guy behind it grinned, pulled three of them out and cut their throats! The cages next to it had a large cockerel tied to the top. A neighbouring chicken seller pulled out one of his own and the two cocks tore into each other, feathers flying as they fell off the back of the cage. This caused much amusement for the local stall holders and shoppers, and a horrified shout from Trish. We wandered on, past huge baskets full of dried fish, plates of huge chopped up tuna, slabs of concrete full of slapping fish and eels. The next turning led us into the ‘red’ meat area. Great hunks of buffalo; steaks, stomachs, livers, intestines, lungs, eye balls and testicles and more grinning stall holders.

Trish: It is hard to properly capture the horror of the poultry area. As it dawned on me that the rows and rows of cages piled on top of each other contained very sorry looking skinny, alive chickens covered in blood from the ones being pulled out and butchered on top, I was struck with a sense of terrible sadness and disgust at these terrible conditions and the blasé attitude of the vendors. This is, of course, very normal here, and great delight was taken in slitting throats whenever I walked past with the camera. I know we have battery farms at home (we only buy free range organic, though), but when it’s out of sight you don’t think about it, and I‘d like to think even those in England are better than the conditions here. This market was just awful. Trying to walk through as quick as possible, past all these rows of chickens poking their heads out through tiny bars, I ended up in the fish section.

This was just as bad. Live fish gasping for breath in bowls with no water, just lots of other gasping fish. Live fish being scaled, live fish having knives thrust down their throats and their stomachs ripped open. Beautiful big fish and eels flapping around on concrete slaps waiting to die. I hated the market for the lack of any care towards the animals they were selling. It seems to me that there is no sense of animal welfare at all in this country. We have driven past dogs in the street with appalling injuries and skin complaints, the cats are on the whole covered in sores, the horses skinny and the chickens balding. It’s just a horrible place for an animal to live, because if you have no money to feed your family you are not going to take your dog to the vets. The market reflected this lack of importance of animals as anything but food. Not for me, this place, not at all.

Gary and I have very different perpectives on this argument, and he wants me to delete my passage here but I have to point out that these are purely my opinions of the market, I‘m not saying it‘s any worse or better than any other food market, just that I didn‘t like it. (Gary: I think it is a shock to see any animals being killed at such close quarters. I admit hygiene and particularly the chicken and duck section was rough, but not that different to western ’out of sight, out of mind’ mass livestock production. At least most domestic livestock in Sumatra lives in a green rural environment before it’s inevitable demise!)

Gary: It was almost a relief to wander into the spices section. Huge mounds of red and green chilli, much of it being ground into curry pastes, along with vats of orange and red powders. Lines of coconuts, flour, and the usual bounty of fruit and veg. Everyone wanted to say hello. In fact, instead of us asking if we could take photos, we were besieged by keen mums thrusting their kids forward to be in the next picture.

The market was certainly an experience. The lack of any refrigeration, cleaning or much running water was disturbing, and the butchering of fish and animals a little close for comfort. It was, however, fascinating to see people from all over the area congregated in this hectic covered market selling absolutely anything and everything. I munched on various local nibbles and snacks (usually presented with a fresh chilli or 2) whilst Trish held out for a coke back in town.

In Bukittinggi it is impossible to ignore the presence of the numerous Mosques. 5 times a day, starting at around 5am, the Muezzin wail out their call to prayer, although more often now this is just a recording, blasted out of speakers at remarkable volume. It’s a strange, mournful, out of tune, erratic kind of noise which either creates a sense of otherworldliness or a headache! The town itself is pretty cool, and easy to walk around. It has it’s own miniature Big Ben which it is ever so proud of. It’s busy, with scooters and vendors everywhere, but we found a nice little Rasta restaurant to spend our evenings in and share ‘apres-bus’ recovery stories with our new Dutch friends.

We are still reluctant to join organised tours so the following morning after waking up with the Muezzin we set off on a motorbike to do our very own Minangkabau cultural tour of the surrounding area. First we headed north to the Batang Palupuh nature reserve. We followed a road through a delightful traditional village, then a winding path alongside rice paddies. Only when an animated local waved at us to stop did we realize we were a long way up the guided-only walking trail. Ooops. A guide appeared and led us into the forest to a blooming Rafflesia, the worlds biggest flower. Ours was not huge, maybe 50cm across, but they can be a metre in diameter. The guide blamed a lack of rain. Back in the village we popped into a Luwak coffee house. A gregarious sales lady making coffee from civet shit. The cat eats the beans, the farmers collect the poop, and she cleans it and makes the coffee. Only here, she repeats excitedly, is the whole process completely wild. I have to say it was damn good coffee.

Next a very long drive out to remote villages looking for traditional village industry and housing. At Rau Rau village we failed to find the much hyped traditional old houses, and so after a brief heated debate (Trish: read “argument” because Gary wanted to stop at every sodding village along the way and my butt hurt) we turned off the main road and rode off up a hill, for quite a while. Eventually the road kind of stopped so we got off the bike next to a hut selling some cakes for a rest. The guy didn’t speak any English and was looking at us a bit wide eyed as he gave us a cake. Walking out if his ‘shop’, we found most of the village stood there peering at us. We were obviously a very rare sight. Initial suspicion was soon replaced with much grinning, laughing, and posing for photo’s. Children slowly emerged from behind parents, and parents gathered around us. No one spoke a word of English. By the time we left we had an escort of youngsters yelling “da da, da da” (bye bye). Quite a moment really.

After another long drive we saw the King’s palace, disappointing as it is currently being renovated and was covered in scaffolding. Onwards through some more stunning countryside. We stopped for a drink in a local restaurant watching traditional farmers burning and reaping the rice crops. Finally we reached Belimbing to see a 400 year old house before making the gruelling 60km loop back to Bukittinggi. We stopped on the way at a kite flying festival, where hundreds of competitors were flying home-made kites hundreds of meters up in the air. The much sort after prizes included goats and chickens! After 8 hours we finally made it back to Bukkittinggi, a gruelling bum-chafing day.

After a day of rain, only about the 4th since we got to Sumatra 7 weeks ago, we spent our final day exploring the Hurau Valley. This time we had a guide, the excellent Fikar, along with a car and driver. Halfway to the valley we stopped in a roadside shack and drank ‘Niro’ - raw duck eggs beaten together with tree sap and vanilla (Trish: it tasted a lot like carbonara sauce… not too unpleasant as a drink but would have been much better poured over pasta and bacon, which of course wouldn‘t happen here because Muslims don‘t eat pigs).

The Harau valley looked a lot like a mini Yosemite, but the sheer granite cliffs enclose a valley of ancient farmland and jungle pretty much untouched by the outside world. Farming techniques have changed little in hundreds of years (as in most of the country so far). We take a 10km trek around the valley, stopping at Mama and Papa’s homestay for a coffee. This old couple have been letting travellers stay since the 70s, the only family in the valley to do so. Papa is out, but Mama, who is 70, makes us coffee and proudly shows us her dried beetle collection, including a very rare 3 horned rhinoceros beetle. It’s a magical little place, surrounded by rice fields and jungle, with gibbons howling from the trees.

Fikar our guide points out a mind boggling array of crops and plants: chocolate, guava, durian, jack fruit, lemon grass, coffee, peanuts, egg plants, lime trees, pineapple, chilli, peppers…the list is endless. After lunch we head back stopping to see a 300 year old traditional mosque and some very traditional muslim villagers.

A great final day in a fascinating and beautiful part of Sumatra. Tomorrow we will leave the timeless peace of rural Sumatra behind and fly to Jakarta.


Jakarta

2009-08-12 to 2009-08-14

Gary: It’s funny how you read things in guide books about the country or place next on an agenda without digesting what that will mean when you actually arrive. Java, for instance, is described as the most populous island in Indonesia, the country’s powerhouse and home to half it’s population. In reality this means that over 130 million people live on an island half the size of the UK! And so we should not have been surprised that the bus journey from Jakarta airport to the city centre took two hours. The traffic in Jakarta was incredible, lanes of choked traffic practically gridlocked. Hundreds of scooters, bajaj (smoke-belching 3 wheeled metal rickshaw-type things with incredibly noisy 2 stroke engines), angkor (minibuses), becak (bicycle rickshaws) cars, taxis, buses and even jingling horse drawn carts (dokar) forming chaotic lines at every junction. The highways and roads wind through an intense mix of high rises and malls and ramshackle poor housing and street stalls.

We try to take refuge from the heat and pollution by taking a becak to Plaza Indonesia, supposedly the nicest mall in Jakarta. Very bad idea… we lurch about a hundred yards then sit in the metal box in belting sun and gridlocked traffic for about 10 minutes before giving up, paying the happy driver, and walking back to our hotel. Fortunately a nearby air conditioned Burger King and cinema provides relief.

Jakarta is an Asian mega city, home to millions of people and surprising wealth. New Japanese and German cars are everywhere, as are the old faithful US fast food and drinks giants. Most surprising of all though are the dozens of shopping plazas: ultra modern shopping centres that put Trish’s beloved Blue Water to shame. Indonesians, it seems, love designer labels. When we eventually made it down to Plaza Indonesia the next day, we found it full of designer boutiques: Prada, Gucci, Dior, etc, selling at western prices. Not the place for a cheap wardrobe update, so we headed to one of the two other giant malls we could see right across the street. Crossing the road takes precision timing, with all these crazy modes of transport careering towards you from all angles, and as we make a run for it we pass street-food vendors, slums and litter-strewn canals (relics of the Dutch era) wedged down alleys between the 3 malls. Jakarta is a city of extremes, the very poor living literally in the shadows of the very wealthy. Never dull, always hot and a challenge to explore, absorbing but exhausting.

At each plaza entrance any bags are searched and security guards half heartedly look under cars with mirrors, a sad reminder of the continued bomb threats in this city. The local Starbucks we use for it’s free internet is generally full of westerners and security is tight.

The city is full of strange and epic memorials and statues, giant monuments that are a sure sign of the rule of a dictator. In this case Soeharto, who ruled in a fascinatingly corrupt fashion for over 30 years until he stepped down in 1997. We see several of these, including the giant monolith named his ‘last erection‘, from a Bajaj before taking refuge in more plazas.

Getting out of the city proves to be a real hardship. The trans-Jakarta bus network works really well, dozens of buses running along bus lanes. Until that is, we get further out, and hundreds of motorbikes and the odd truck join us in the bus lane. We finally reach Kalideres bus station, a concrete sprawl which as usual in Indonesia makes no sense at all. We are cajoled onto various old buses, which Trish either refuses to get on or makes us disembark immediately as we are, as always, mobbed by new best friends in the form of local vendors thrusting goods at us. Trish’s screams of ‘AIR CON’ are finally heeded and we chug off west. The insane traffic is of no matter to our progress, as the driver crawls along honking at everyone whilst his ticket man hangs out the door screaming at locals who have given no indication that they might want to take a bus!

Shrewdly we have sat near the front, right above the engine. Vents of hot air negate any effect the a/c might have had. This bus is also unusually busy with hawkers. I sit trying to be polite as food, drinks, clothes, flip flops and finally a box of donuts are thrust under my nose, and various terrible buskers get on and off. Several hours later we get off at a dusty bus terminal, still miles from our destination, Carita. We are so mobbed by taxi drivers, scooter owners and minibus touts that we can hardly move. We get on and off a minibus twice (deciding that we can/can’t/can/can’t handle being wedged in like sardines in this heat, and after our previous leg of the journey) before admitting defeat and jumping in a cab. Java is a congested, riotous island, and getting from A to B is as tough here as anywhere we have been so far. But I’m confident it’s worth it, as Carita is the nearest town to the legendary Anak Krakatoa, and we are booked on a trip there in the morning .


Camping at Anak Krakatoa

2009-08-15 to 2009-08-17

Gary: In 1883 the loudest recorded explosion in human history rocked out around the planet from an island in between Java and Sumatra. Krakatoa, an island with 3 volcanic cones was ripped apart as a huge eruption allowed millions of gallons of sea water to pour inside, creating a blast that blew most of the island into dust. 20 cubic kilometers of rock was blasted skywards, sending a column of ash 80km into the air and around the globe. The ensuing tsunami was 30-40m high and claimed forty thousand lives. Bizarre paintings of red sunsets done from Europe years after are now known to be a result of the ash layer that circled the earth’s atmosphere. The explosion itself was heard over 5000km away!

It’s a legendary story, one I loved to read about growing up, and so I was just a little excited.

Trish: Well, I certainly don’t share Gary’s boyhood fascination with the Krakatoa eruption, but I know the story and was looking forward to seeing the volcano, which has been very active recently with up to 300 minor eruptions a day.

We headed out on a motorboat from Carita, and within an hour could see the outline of Anak Krakatau looming ahead. Anak Krakatau (“son of Krakatoa”) emerged ominously from the ocean in the 1920’s, in the very same spot that Krakatoa blew itself to bits 40 years previously. The new volcano is already 400m high and covers 300 hectares. Gary shouted that something was happening, and sure enough a cloud of ash billowed up and out of the cone, accompanied by small rock projectiles. The cloud looked a couple of km’s high. Nearing the beach of Anak.Krakatau we saw more eruptions, mostly similar ash clouds being spat out, but one big one announced by a deep boom instead of the usual thunder-cracks. Right now it is making these large eruptions every 2 hours, with smaller ones every 15 minutes or so. We knew we had a 2 hour window and started to walk up towards the cone.

The whole island is made up of the volcano, and in a constant state of unrest. We walked over new rockslides and past huge blocks up to a metre across embedded in the ground that our guide said were not there on his previous trip 3 days ago. The thunder kept cracking and the ash clouds kept coming every quarter of an hour or so. It’s far too dangerous to walk up to the caldera rim, so we stopped on the approaching slope and waited to watch a couple more eruptions. We were close enough that before we saw the ash clouds we felt the rumbles under our feet, and during one large explosion rocks were landing maybe 100m in front of us. (Gary: Incredibly the island already has a small forest and a thriving ecosystem of plant and animal life, established in just 80 years).

We had to leave the slopes of Anak Krakatau really before myself and Gary wanted to, but as our guide kept reminding us, this is not a predictable volcano and the whole time we were on the island we were in danger. So we headed back down to the beach for a quick lunch and then got back in our boat for a trip around the whole volcano, watching it erupt from different sides.

We set up our camp for the night on the neighbouring beach of Rakata, part of the remains of the original Krakatoa caldera wall. And there we sat for the remainder of the day and night, watching A.Krakatau furiously blowing smoke km’s into the air. Some of the larger explosions caused huge boulders to career down the sides of the volcano, big enough rocks that we could see from our beach 3km’s away. A couple of times rocks were propelled so far from the cone that we could see the splashes as they hit the ocean, seemingly just about where our boat had been earlier. Goes to show you never can tell.

At 4pm we saw and heard the biggest explosion of the day - the whole volcano seemed to bang outwards sending rocks almost sideways off the slopes. The ash cloud was huge and the noise was deafening.

After a surprisingly good barbeque fish dinner, we all sat like zombies on the beach staring at A. Krakatau as the sun set and the eruptions started to show up a red colour, the heat within the clouds more obvious. Red sparks and glows shot up into the sky and down the slopes like fireworks - the rocks were molten hot but we couldn’t tell this during the day.

At 4am the ground shook and the air vibrated with an enormous boom. I shot up an stared out of our tent to see the whole of Anak K. covered in a red cloud with streaks of molten rocks cascading all the way down. The best explosion of the trip, bigger that the 4pm one and more startling because of the shock at being woke up by the beach reverberating like a bomb had gone off. We were all awake again, happy to be watching from our tents and not on the island, as people could have been if it had been in daylight hours.

We all got up early, had breakfast on the beach while the guides packed up our tents, and headed back to Carita via a snorkelling stop. Leaving Anak K. behind it is hard to image that at approx 400m high it is still only one quarter the size of it’s ‘father’ when it erupted in 1883 and killed 36,000 people. Experts say when it reaches that size then Anak K. will also blow, but at it’s current growth rate we won’t be around to see it. It’s an amazing thing to see, an unpredictably active volcano. Sat on the beach we were watching land being created. It was a hell of a journey to get here, but so worth it.

Just as a last note, all trips to Anak Krakatau were cancelled a few days after we left due to increasing volcanic activity... bigger and more unpredictable eruptions. Exciting.

Our trip back to Jakarta was slightly more luxurious, having been offered a seat in 2 of our fellow Anak K. watchers’, Kevin and Vietta’s, hired car. (Gary: Vietta and her brother, both from Jakarta, told us how their mother and grand mother were huge Premiership fans, and would sit in front of the TV in the early hours screaming and swearing as they supported Man Utd!) We treated ourselves to a Pizza Hut dinner (yes, I know, but the salad bar really is a treat when all you can normally get is rice and noodles), and collapsed in our hotel, both feeling unwell with the start of a cold. All that Krakatau dust I guess.

The next day was spent in my usual chosen way for a big city in Indonesia… we went to a beautiful mall and ate fast food. I dragged Gary into a ’Fish Spa’ recommended by Vietta where small Doctor Fish (family members of Carp but much smaller) nibbled at our feet and legs, supposedly cleansing us of all dry skin whilst enjoying a hearty meal themselves. Weird, but nice.

We are leaving Jakarta both sick with a variant of what Gary has self-diagnosed as manflu. Obviously mine could never be as bad as his, but we’re not feeling too hot and I pity the passengers sat around us on our flight to Yogyakarta. We’ll be starting mass panic about Mexican flu in the airport for sure!


Yogyakarta bird market

2009-08-18 to 2009-08-20

Trish: I feel quite helpless walking around Yogyakarta. It’s quite a big city, but with a much stronger cultural influence than Jakarta – the buildings are old and somewhat the worse for wear, market stalls spill out onto the streets, horse-drawn carts line up waiting to taxi tourists around, and there is not a Louis Vuitton to be seen. The atmosphere is bustling, as in any of the Indonesian cities we have visited, and it is overflowing with character.

But it’s quite sad. I’m sad for the horses that have to queue up in the sun and pull traps around all day long in the unbearable sweaty heat (humidity must be 80%+). Do they have their shoes changed enough and do they ever get to run around a field? Probably not.

Then there is the immense amount of beggars. Now more used to it after the few days spent in Jakarta, we carry around coins and small notes in our pockets to give away. There is no welfare system in Indonesia. Unemployment benefit is an unknown term. From friends who live in Indonesia we have heard that very occasionally money will be sent by the Indonesian government to areas of extreme poverty, but that this is usually swallowed up by corruption in local government and very little ever filters through to those who really need it. . And so if you are poor, and too sick to work, the only chance you have is to get on the streets and ask for money from passers-by.

But most of all I am sad as I write this for the beautiful monkeys, civet cats, wildcats, owls and bats we saw amongst many other animals squashed into tiny cages at Yogyakarta’s “Bird Market”.

It’s called the Bird Market because it was originally set up as a trading post for songbirds, fighting cocks, singing cocks, and racing pigeons, but now sadly it has expanded to include anything that the locals can catch. Some people we had met along our journey had warned Gary not to bring me here, but the Lonely Planet didn’t make it sound too bad so I decided it would be ok. We unintentionally acquired a guide, as tends to happen here, as we tried to walk around on our own, and unable to shake him off, we went with the flow and let him show us around all the different shops/stalls. It was quite heartbreaking.

From the sad little red monkey/marmot-like animal with huge eyes continuously and methodically feeling his way around every criss-cross of wires making up his little cage barely big enough for him to stand in trying to find a way out, to the 4 beautiful owls crammed in a cage underneath, wide-eyed and helpless. Wild cat kittens curled up in tiny cages, puppies, rabbits, snakes, fruit bats with no space to do anything but hang with their wings curled around them, ‘Australian’ squirrels, even a hedgehog. All kept stacked on top of other animals in the unbearable heat. Our guide thought it was ok and completely normal.

When we passed a cage with 3 sad little monkeys looking out, hands through the bars, I couldn’t keep quiet any more and said that I thought it was illegal to trade in monkeys. No, apparently they are nothing more than a pest. It is only illegal to sell Orangutans, and we all know how much notice is taken of that law. The wildcats, too, completely legal according to him. And the birds of prey, described by him as ‘from Borneo’ (surely they are protected?). Appalled, I told him that there was no way in Europe that we would be allowed to keep animals in these conditions and that our government requires special licences for the sale of anything considered exotic, i.e. most of what they have here in the Yogyakarta market. He thought that was funny.

Fully grown Persian cats in small cages – had they lived their whole lives in that cage? The fruit bats with no room to open their wings, let alone fly. Large geckos stuffed into coffin-like boxes, unable to move – often these are bought and sent to Singapore for ‘medicine’. Disgusting, all of it.

We did see ‘prize winning’ singing birds, cockerels waiting to enter cock-a-doodle-do-ing competitions (worth 2 million Rupiah each, about 120 pounds, to buy since the prizes for each competition can be up to 10 million Rupiah), and racing pigeons. But as with all the other market animals they are kept in tiny cages with no shade from the sun. One area of the market had wooden crates absolutely jam-packed with small birds. These were the lucky ones it seems... wedding guests buy the box for the bride and groom to release the birds after the ceremony, if the birds survive that long.

The bird market could have been a lot worse, I guess (at least there was no slaughtering), but seeing what we saw was enough for me to hate again this culture of not loving or respecting animals. I told our guide I would never keep an owl in a cage, or a wildcat as a pet because they should be free, and he just didn’t get it. He just smiled. Gary told lots of the vendors to buy bigger cages and they laughed. It makes me so angry and upset.

Apart from the market visit, our first few days in Yogyakarta were quite nice, and a welcome rest while we recovered from our Krakatau flu. We explored everything within walking distance, including wasting some time walking around the walled palace of the Kraton, where the Sultan of Yogyakarta still lives, but wasn’t worth the 2 pound entrance fee. One thing you can say about the city is that there is always something to look at, either interesting or just plain weird. We had a Mc Donalds, bought some souvenirs, and planned our onward journey. The guesthouse we are staying in is nice, and serves hot chocolate and some western food. My interest in rice and noodles is well and truly gone.

I apologise if this has been a sad blog entry, but it was a sad experience and I think it’s important to portray that not everything is always rosy. We still talk about if we should have/could have bought that first monkey we saw in it’s cage, to free it. But what do you do? You can’t just release it. Give it to a zoo? Like I said at the start, I felt helpless because apart from showing disgust to the vendors, there was absolutely nothing we could do.


Borobudur & Prambanan

2009-08-21 to 2009-08-23

Gary: Dawn in Java is definitely the best time of the day, cool and quiet, and clear, before the annoying haze which covers this island forms as the sun rises. Trish is not so sure, and I doubt she shares in my enthusiasm as our alarm goes off at 5am (sadly for Trish this will become something of as habit during our last week in Java!). We clamber on a hired scooter and head north, surprisingly chilly in our shorts and tshirts. The reason for this apparently ‘awful’ early start is Borobudur temple, touted as one of the 7 or 8 wonders of the world. It takes us nearly an hour to get there, and the sun is up on arrival, but thankfully most tourists are not.

Borobudur is a colossal Buddhist temple built around 1200 years ago. Constructed from 2 million blocks of lava rock from nearby Gunung Merapi it is indeed an ancient marvel. It was apparently abandoned soon after its construction then completely buried by ash and lava from Merapi eruptions, remaining hidden from the world until 1815 when Sir Stamford Raffles (of Singapore fame, and Governor of Java at this time) rediscovered it and ordered the site cleared. The huge restoration project was carried out first by the Dutch, then UNESCO, costing millions of dollars to stabilize the whole hill and remove each individual stone block to insert a drainage system, then replace it. This process is still going on, and the temple as a result looks magnificent, now a world heritage site.

The whole temple is a Buddhist representation of the world / universe. Big terraces and stupas leading up towards Nirvava - Buddhist heaven. There are nearly 1500 intricately carved panels and relief’s telling the story of the first Buddha and other doctrines, as well as hundreds of stone Buddha’s and other figures. The effort involved and the skill of the carvers carrying out such detailed work on such an enormous scale is astonishing.

After a few hours tourists buses begin to arrive and the hordes of local tourists we were warned about began to swarm the temple, clambering over ancient guardians and statues. We scurried away, dodging the legions of demanding stall holders near the entrance before scootering back to Yogya.

The next day started better for Trish, with no dawn alarm. However, after lunch we were back on the scooter and heading out to another temple. Prambanan temple complex is thought to have been built just after Borobudur, and is apparently a mix of both Hindu and Buddhist works, some of the finest in the world. The huge Shiva temple is said to be one of the finest examples of Hindu art in the world, standing nearly 50m high.

The nemesis of these temples has been earthquakes. Huge shudders in the 16th century collapsed many of the temples, and a big one in 2006 caused further destruction. Painstaking restoration work continues, though some of the temples are now just enormous piles of rubble, an impressive site in itself. All in all there are over 200 temples here, and in our opinion more dramatic and impressive then Borobudur. Prambanan is also world heritage listed.

Our final day in Yogyakarta is spent chilling and relaxing. It seems that I have nearly recovered from man flu and ash fumes both contracted back at Krakatoa. Trish focuses on enjoying the fab western food at the Bladok guesthouse, confused as to why tomorrow she will be getting up at 5am to drive east across Java looking for volcanoes for 3 days!!


Sunrise at Bromo

2009-08-24 to 2009-08-25

Gary: After much negotiation, inspired by a fear of long journeys in cramped mini buses, we had managed to book a private car with driver for 3 days to take us east through Java to the coast and the ferry to Bali. We set off just after sunrise for the first leg, a mere 10 hour drive east to Gunung Bromo (gunung means volcano). Thankfully we have a comfortable air conditioned car, and a sane driver, although he speaks virtually no English and bizarrely we never actually find out his name. It’s a relief after a while to leave the urban chaos and actually see some rural Java. It’s different to Sumatra though, vast flat rice plantations but more organized, a suggestion of bigger companies and profits.

The journey is surprisingly painless, and we soon have the a/c switched off as we begin climbing up the Bromo-Tengger caldera . We climb steadily for 30 km before finally arriving at the remote village of Cemoro Lawang, sat up in the clouds at over 2000m and perched precariously on the rim of the old crater. The Tengger crater is huge, over 10km across, its flanks covered with rice fields and forest. It’s also pretty cold, and we have trouble rustling together enough layers to ward off the chill. Thankfully our bed at least is covered in a fat duvet, this and a hot shower prevents Trish from ‘seriously’ doubting the wisdom of our expedition.

Her doubts were more apparent however when the alarm went off the following morning at 2.30am. Various travellers along the way had told us how incredible Bromo was, and that we absolutely had to climb to the Penanjakan view point for sunrise. The previous night all the locals had told us this was very dangerous, would take several hours, and that we should take a jeep like most tourists. Thankfully we had also met an English couple who had been here for several days and confirmed that it was fine to do alone.

And so we trooped out of the village in the dark with our head torches on at 3 in the morning. A tall Dutch chap was stood in the road, wearing shorts, a few t-shirts and wrapped in a towel. In Indonesia to surf, Tom was ill-prepared for the morning trek and keen to join us and our light. Looking back this was a fortunate meeting all round. Tom could see, and Trish would be somewhat restricted in her colourful assessments of clambering up a caldera rim at 3am in the dark and cold. And so the 3 of us climbed about 600m to the highest point on the caldera, about 2800m high, and waited for sunrise.

My biggest fear on these kind of jaunts is that it’s an anti climax. Thankfully, watching the sunrise over Bromo was absolutely magnificent. Inside the old caldera Bromo and 2 other volcanic cones have risen from the ash floor. Behind them stands the giant and very active Semeru, looming 3700m high in the background. It really is a scene from Mars, the most incredible volcanic landscape I have ever seen. Bromo emits a constant flume of clouds and steam, and in the background Semeru erupted ash into the air every half hour.

After descending back down to the village, passing weary old locals trudging out into the steep fields to start their days work, we then descended down into the caldera itself. It was a hot and weary trudge across the ash and sand to the base of Bromo. Here many locals offer horse rides to and from the village, and we also see saner tourists heading back in their jeeps. The landscape just gets more bizarre and more magnificent, and another hard climb puts us on the top of Bromo itself. I turned round at one stage to see Trish surrounded by enthusiastic horsemen, believing they had found a potential weary customer, too tired to finish on foot. Red faced, and angrily trying to wave them off, Trish trudged on with a line of them following behind, until I had to gallantly shoo them away, proud to announce that my fiance would walk to the summit! Tom shrewdly pointed out how much it was possible to achieve before breakfast. Trish grunted, but looked secretly impressed with her efforts and her surroundings. She was probably more impressed with the fact that even Tom and I were relieved to clamber onto the back of a horse and ride back to the village.

At the time I felt like an Afghan warlord leading loyal Mujahadin out of a mountain stronghold, although the photos and Trish’s comments at the time would suggest that the heat and altitude must have impaired my judgement. I at least had a grand looking mountain horse, whereas Tom was perched amusingly on the smallest pony on the volcano. Annoyingly Trish cantered ahead across the ash and sand, leaving the horse’s owner and us stumbling after her in the dust. Incredibly we were back at the village in time for breakfast at 10am. After a well earned hot shower we hopped back in the car, shattered but ready for the 7 hour drive to Ijen.


Sulphur miners of Ijen

2009-08-26

Trish: Up at the respectable time of 4am, we had breakfast at our coffee-plantation home-stay and set off in our car with the driver whose name we still did not know (and now felt it was too late to ask). Our destination this morning was Kawah Ijen, a sulphur lake lying at 2148m above sea level and surrounded by the volcano Ijen’s steep crater walls. The reason for this delightful morning climb? To see the men who collect the sulphur for a living making their long treks out of the crater with full loads of sulphur on their backs.

We were dropped at the base of Ijen, and set off in the faint dawn light on what I had been told was a short hike to the crater rim. 3km up the path used by the men who work in the volcano mining the sulphur didn‘t sound so bad, but it was really steep. Along the way we were passed by many workers on their way up, all cheerfully saying hello, many trying to hang around to ’guide us’ along the one-track marked route but I was out of breath and in no mood to be anyones best friend. One poor guy kept stopping with me as I took breaks, even though I was mainly stopping to try and get rid of him. He kept saying “We go”, and I kept replying “You go, I stay”. Eventually he realised I was slowing his work day down and left us, smoking the cigarettes we had been told to bring to give the workers in return for taking their pictures.

Many workers were already on their way down as we trudged up, nearly all shouting “photo, photo” as they approached us and stopping with their enormous sulphur loads on their shoulders to pose for a picture. We happily gave out our cigarettes, though it seems they have now wised up and ask for cash! We stuck with the cigarette payment method.

It took us about an hour to reach the crater rim, 2368m above sea level and way above the cloud line. The sun had well and truly risen and we could see all the way down into Ijen crater to the huge turquoise lake and the billowing sulphur vents around it’s edge where the men fill their baskets. It’s important to remember that, forgetting the huge loads that they carry up and out of the crater, this volcanic terrain that they work in is still very active and not a safe area. Ijen’s last major eruption was in 1936, but the vents around the edge of the lake are constantly pumping out steam and the lake will still bubble during increased volcanic activity. Another eruption could come at any time.

We climbed 200m down into the crater to the sulphur vents where the men work. All the way down we were having to get out of the way of men carrying their baskets of sulphur back up. They have 2 baskets each, suspended across their shoulders by a piece of flexible wood. It looks incredibly heavy and uncomfortable, creaks like it’s about to snap, and we found out later that each load weighs up to 70kg. The strength and endurance needed to carry that up out of the crater makes them superhuman in my eyes. One guy walked past bare chested, and his neck muscles were double the normal size. The crater wall path was steep, gravelly, and slippery, and I fell a few times even with trainers on. Most of the men coming up past us with their loads were wearing wellies, flip-flops or barefoot. These guys are incredible.

At the bottom of the vent the smell from the steam was so pungent that it hurt both throat and eyes, and if the wind changed you absolutely had to get out of the sulphur-cloud’s way. The workers have a much lower life-expectancy than the national average because of all the time spent inhaling this poisonous gas. We watched them mining the sulphur for a while, just awestruck at the conditions that these poor guys have to work in. We gave out more cigarettes and shared our water and watched as they dug out big rivers of molten sulphur from the vats they have placed in the walls of the crater to collect it from the steam that constantly billows out of the volcano’s vents. Then they wait for it to solidify and break it down into pieces small enough to carry (not that small), fill their baskets to 70kg and set off up the crater wall. Not forgetting the 3km hike back down to town the other side, which was also treacherously slippery even with no load to carry.

By the time we climbed out of the crater again I was exhausted, and I had again an absolute and complete disbelief that it is humanly possible for these Ijen men to do it with 70kg on their shoulders. I don’t know what the sulphur is used for, but I hope they do it because the pay is better than average, by choice and not because they have no other way to feed their families.

The sulphur-men of Ijen do the climb up and down the volcano twice a day, bringing down their 2 loads of up to 70kg of sulphur in the mornings (often barefoot) before it gets too hot. Trust me, at 9am it is already HOT. As we slipped and slided down the path back into town we were passed at a run by the workers, who only paused to shout ‘photo, photo’ or to try and sell us a piece of sulphur moulded into the shape of a turtle or a starfish. We didn’t buy - what do you do with a lump of pure sulphur? I don’t even know if it’s legal to carry on a plane. But we gladly gave out our ‘gifts’ of cigarettes, which in retrospect seems to not be a good thing as they need their lungs to be healthy, but was always well-received with a smile or a clap on the back.

As you can hopefully tell, I really enjoyed our morning at Ijen. The views and mountains are Gary’s ‘thing’ and I normally participate with a somewhat heavy heart, afterwards feeling like I’m glad I’ve seen it but thank God it’s over. But Ijen was incredible, the men were incredible. I have never seen a job so hard, and done in such a cheerful manner. They often stopped, with their loads, on the path to let us pass, and always said hello or smiled. I can’t imagine why anyone would choose to do what they do, how that first day on the job must feel… we were shattered after just hauling ourselves up and down. It was an unbelievable thing to see.

Later that day we got a ferry from Java to Bali, and a 4 hour local bus into the resort where we were staying. After what we saw this morning I don’t think either of us (i.e. me) were in the mood to complain about cramped conditions, crawling speed and no a/c, and even though we shared the back of the bus with packages of fruit and even half a tree at one point, and then that bus broke down so us and all the locals had to get off and flag down another, already full but we squeezed in with our bags on the roof, it was an ok journey.

We are now in Kuta beach, the only 2 Brits in a throng of Aussie tourists. A long way from the sulphur-men of Ijen. Who incidentally we later found out earn an average of US $10-11 a day, which doesn‘t sound that much to me.


Bali - Singapore - Bali. A visa run.

2009-08-27 to 2009-09-02

Trish: We are now in the uber tourist destination of Kuta beach. Every street and alley is a sea of stalls selling Tshirts, sunglasses, handbags, watches etc. The cries of ‘Hey Mister, where you go?’ from rural Sumatra have developed into ‘Transport, transport’, ‘Yes, leather jacket’, and ’Aussie Aussie Aussie’ here in Bali. It’s very full on, quite funny, and quite infuriating at the same time. We are surrounded by Australians, hence everybody thinks we, too, are Australian and the vendors put on an Aussie accent when they launch their sales pitch. Not wanting to be associated with that riff-raff from down under, we are quick to correct.

Kuta is a party town with a huge white sandy beach, packed full of a mix of families on summer hols and throngs of surfers and just-out-of-uni backpackers. Walking down the street in a straight line is impossible in the hustle and bustle, and yet we are told that the tourism industry here is still suffering in the wake of the bombings, here in Kuta, in 2002 and 2005. During our wanderings we went to see the memorial put up in memory of the more than 200 people who died on Saturday 12th October 2002, when 2 separate bombs exploded in bars virtually opposite one another on the main road through town. The first went off in Paddy’s Bar, seconds later a larger explosion obliterated the Sari Club. The blasts and fireballs that followed caused maximum damage, and, on top of the 200 dead, more than 300 people from 23 different countries were injured. You read this in the Lonely Planet, and it sounds awful. But 200 people is a big number to comprehend until you look at a plaque listing all their names and the countries they were from. Bali is on most backpacker’s routes through South East Asia, and standing there looking at the empty lot where the Sari Club used to be, and the long list of names, it hit home that these were people just like us, away from home for a week, a month or a year, just wanting to experience a bit of the world. There were still fresh flowers laid at the base of the plaque, and a note to one of the dead from his family. It was an extremely sad reality check.

This is the incident that really brought Indonesia’s tourism industry to it’s knees. 90% of those killed were foreigners (the majority Australian) and it was clear early on that the clubs were targeted for specifically that reason. Although no-one has ever been charged, the finger of blame is pointed at Muslim fanatics, that tiny fraction of the Muslim population that causes so much terror and fear across the world, and so much bad feeling towards all Muslims in those who can’t see the line between the two.

We spent a pleasant couple of days in Kuta, once we got used to the chaos of leaving the hotel. I even managed to fill a 15kg box with accessories and ceramic plates to send home, though I have been warned not to get my hopes up for it ever arriving at it’s destination.

And then, finally, our 60 day Indonesian visa ran out. We took a flight to Singapore and stayed with my old school friend, Kirsten, for a few nights. Walked around the city, which is full of designer shops, cinema complexes, Starbucks and ladies who lunch, and got asked to leave Raffles Hotel because Gary was wearing improper gentlemen’s dress (he had forgotten to pack his chinos and deck shoes). The hotel was beautiful (we had time to walk around the grounds before being noticed), but the dress-code hurdle saved us from spending an extortionate amount on a Singapore Sling each.

To be honest, after one hot and humid day of sightseeing we were more than happy to really just chill out in Singapore, once again embracing the chance to be in a ‘home’ for a while. I hadn’t seen Kirsten for about 6 years, so we had a lot to catch up on while Gary slowly moulded himself to her sofa, watching every documentary on Nat Geo. We ate pizza, Kirsten and I went to the cinema, cooked home-made lasagne… it was all very civilised and a very deserved break from trudging around with our packs on. After 4 days, leaving her fridge devoid of any Branston Pickle, Cheddar cheese or Marmite, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Bali, now on a new 30 day visa.

Once there, we met Nick in Kuta and are now preparing to go on a 9 night diving liveaboard to Komodo National Park. 28 dives around the National Park, as well as walking on land with the dragons. We’ve been looking forward to the possibility of doing this for a long time…


Komodo liveaboard

2009-09-03 to 2009-09-06

Gary: I think ‘Mermaid’ was the first diving liveaboard company Trish emailed asking if they had any last minute spaces for some desperately keen but cash-strapped travellers. The boat looked great and I had dismissed it as been out of our league. We got a response immediately, 3 spaces available and a great deal if we could go in less than a week.

And so we met up with Nick in Kuta. He had just flown back out from the UK after taking a holiday from his holiday. Must have been hard for the poor lad! And so we were soon handing our travel stained packs to the Thai crew on board the excellent Mermaid 1. Purpose built, 15 guests, by far the most luxurious live aboard we have been on. Nick had to share a deluxe cabin, while we had a budget cabin below, but equipped with a/c, tv, dvd player and en suite.

The welcome aboard dinner consisted of several fine Thai and western dishes. The rest of the guests were all incredibly experienced divers, several repeat customers on the Mermaid. Eli for example had started diving in the 1940s before the introduction of Scuba equipment! We soon got chatting to Stephen and his wife Takako, professional marine photographers whose pictures have appeared in most international dive publications as well as their own marine coffee table books.

We sailed out of Sanur in southern Bali and crossed the channel past Lombok through the night arriving at our first warm up dive destinations, Pulau Moyo and Sangeang, volcanic islands along the north side of Sumbawa. Within the first day we had seen pygmy sea horses, baby white tips sharks, Maori wrasse, giant frog fish, octopus, a rare halimeda ghost pipe fish and more nudibranchs than we have ever seen before. The second day was even better, diving around an active volcano (Sangeang), hot springs and black sand, our first lively currents, and fantastic macro marine life.

The third day was our first ‘big stuff’ day. Pinnacles called the Castle and Crystal Rock. Plenty of sharks, huge Trevalli, Maori wrasse. And it just got better as the currents picked up, we attached ourselves to rocks with reef hooks and were soon flying in ripping currents watching sharks and even a huge Manta Ray gliding around us. Heading south along Komodo island during the third day we dived at the infamous Batu Bolong, in the middle of the channel between Komodo and Rinca. Ripping currents, gloomy, and only 24 degrees. We all came up freezing cold, and tomorrow we are heading further south.


Walking with Dragons

2009-09-07 to 2009-09-08

Trish: No early morning dive for us on our 4th day aboard the Mermaid. Instead we found ourselves following a ranger armed with a long stick around the island of Komodo looking for dragons. After a couple of hours trapsing through the brush, we eventually found 3 sat right outside of the Rangers’ Station, attracted by the smells of their cooking.

Big old mean-looking lizards, at around 8ft in length and covered in a leathery armour-like skin. Their saliva is full of poisonous bacteria, and if the initial bite doesn’t kill you (they don’t let go of small prey like deer till it‘s bled out) then 12 hours without medical treatment probably will. They are ambush predators, hiding in the brush until some unsuspecting prey (deer & wild pigs are their main source of food on Komodo, now the Rangers have thankfully stopped tying up a goat each day by their watering hole for them to devour in front of tourists) wanders past, then spring up into an attack. They are known to track larger prey after it has been bitten, and the poison is killing it, for a week or more.

Our stick-wielding Ranger told me that so far 2 people have been bitten this year. One was a local from another island collecting fruit on Komodo. He died. The second was a Ranger who sat at his desk in the office only to be bitten on the foot then the arm by a dragon hiding under the table. His arm was torn to shreds as he ripped it out of the dragon’s jaws, but that was the least of his problems as, on trying to run away, he was met by a second dragon at the door. He jumped out of the window and his screams alerted the other Rangers. He lived, but has some pretty severe scars.

3 afternoon dives that day brought us more new critters: a blue-ringed octopus, spiny scorpionfish (Rhinopias), an array of giant frogfish and so many nudibranchs (brightly coloured sea slugs) that we barely put our cameras down.

The next day we were back to 4 dives - 3 at Cannibal Rock and a night dive at Torpedo Alley, so named because of the abundance of Torpedo (electric) rays. Rhinopias, lionfish, ghost pipefish, bobbit worms (ugly ‘Tremor‘-style creatures with big jaws), tiny bobtail squid and more new nudies. 24 degrees in the water means that we are all trying to insulate with 2 rash vests, a long wetsuit and a short wetsuit over the top. Nick has managed to score a borrowed hood and looks a lot like a Tellytubby. I am freezing cold on every dive now, and though the diving is spectacular and we are kept busy with a constant supply of new photographic subjects, when the shakes set in it’s hard not to look at the surface and wish I was in my hot shower already!

All day and night we were moored up just off of Rinca beach, next to Komodo. The sun was shining (as always), and between dives we watched dragons walking up and down, and warming up on the sand. Late morning those of us who wanted to piled into a dinghy and joined them on the beach. This was very different from the day before. With no ranger with a pointy stick to protect us, we each had to find our own sticks and be prepared to use them. If you run from a dragon you trigger the chase-reflex and it will come after you like prey, so we had to be ready to stand our ground and whack it on the nose (hilariously ridiculous defence plan!). Easier said than done, when a 6ft lizard with a deadly bite approaches you aggressively, within feet, and all you have in your hand is a flimsy branch. I have to admit I didn’t turn and run, as we were severely warned not to do, but I did do a lot of scuttling backwards trying to put bigger guests between me and any approaching, and drooling, amphibians.

PJ, our ‘cruise director’ and dive leader had told us as we pulled up to the beach that we were too far from medical treatment to survive a bite and that it was each of own individual decisions whether to stay in the dinghy or step on the beach. Though I tried to keep a direct route back to the dinghy in sight, at one point a big dragon stopped in front of it and just stopped and stared at us. We were trapped on the beach, and my heart was really thumping. The boys seemed less concerned than me, although Nick’s half-a-tree-sized stick probably afforded them more confidence as they poked their camera lenses in the dragons’ faces.

Back on the boat we spent our time between dives eating, sunning, and reading, every now and then distracted by the sight of more dragons on the prowl on the beach. The food is so good that we eat way too much at every meal consoling ourselves that back on our backpacker budgets we will be eating rice and noodles for the next month.


Last few days in Komodo

2009-09-09 to 2009-09-11

Gary: 5 days of demanding diving is beginning to take it’s toll. PJ’s ‘morning morning’ alarm calls at 6am are losing their appeal. It is now no surprise to see Trish troop wearily off to bed immediately having finished dinner. Day 6 finds us all stood on deck supping coffee at dawn whilst watching the crew peering cautiously at a big black rock that emerges from the swell every few minutes.

We are anchored right at the southern tip of Komodo, an imposing remote place with arid volcanic hills and rugged rocky outcrops, exposed to rolling swells from the Indian ocean. If we head south from here I think we miss Australia and would eventually reach Antarctica! The crew are keen to dive the already mentioned submerged rock, called Langtoi Pinnacle. It’s very exposed and they have never dived it before, swell and currents making it too dangerous. Today is borderline, but our guide Debbie, after a quick dip, gives it the OK, and off we go.

It’s chaos from the start. After a negative descent from the dingy we follow Debbie as she battles down to the pinnacle. Suddenly I’m grabbed in a down-current of water rushing over the rock and into the depths, pulling me down to 30+ meters before I know it. Then, practically hyperventilating, I’m sucked along the rock face and back up towards the surface. Thankfully I get just near enough to the pinnacle to find a bit of shelter and battle round to everyone else. Unfortunately the entire pinnacle is covered in soft coral and has no handy little ledges or holes visible in which to attach our reef hooks. The current is rushing round both sides and over the top of the rock, this along with the big rolling waves create a crazy washing machine effect, hurling us in every direction. Hesitating just a second on where to place the reef hook results in a crazy sideways freefall and the possibility you will not get another chance.

I see Trish careering towards me, laughing manically, bubbles pouring out of her mask. She then wraps her legs around Nicks head in an extremely un-ladylike manner whilst desperately trying to get a hold on the rock. This frantic underwater struggle between the 2 of them lasts no more than a minute before her new reef hook hold tears away from the rock and she is gone around the corner. After 25 minutes we have to head to the surface low on air, out of energy and severely wishing we had worn gloves. Some divers fled after 5 minutes. Even the safety stop is hard work. There is a brief moment of worry as we scramble aboard the dingys and Stephen worriedly tells us the last time he saw his wife, Takako, she was pinned in a crevass by the current, but she appears within minutes 100m away from the pinnacle. A memorable and crazy dive.

Next, and Manta Ally sadly fails to provide any Mantas, it does provide more ripping currents and 23 degree temperatures though. Trish has a bamboo shark swim right under her belly, to which she is completely oblivious. It’s exhilarating enough to make the cold bearable, just. Some relief from the chilly waters as we finally head north again, stopping for a drift dive in the middle of the channel on route. It really is a stunning location, volcanic peaks, blazing sunsets. Standing on the deck of the Mermaid we can see Komodo on our left and Rinca on the right. Vast volumes of water move up and down this channel, we can see the currents on the surface, and head on they slow the boat by several knots.

Our final full day provides more crazy current and shark action back at Castle Rock. This time more sharks than on our outward trip, including a big grey reef gliding around in the current and a passing eagle ray. We miss the final night dive, warm and dry after the afternoon dives, me and Nick content to have a beer and wait for dinner, Trish to sleep until food is ready.

Our last 2 dives on the morning of the long trip back to Bali are very special. A black sand volcanic beach full of rare and unusual critters: tiny wonderpus octopus, more ghost pipefish than you can shake a stick at, thorny seahorses and a ‘velvet’ fish to name a few.

Our final evening on the Mermaid is spent eating one last excessively large dinner whilst watching PJ’s brilliant video of the trip. Thankfully the crossing from Lombok to Bali is smooth and we are able to enjoy some farewell beers and a good night’s sleep. I don’t need to reiterate how fantastic it had been. An incredible diving experience with some of the most memorable dives we have ever done. Komodo National park is a magical place, it’s only fitting that it’s home to dragons.


Ubud, Bali

2009-09-12 to 2009-09-13

Trish: When we woke up on the 12th the Mermaid was already moored up in Bali. After one last big breakfast and a reluctant disembarkation the 3 of us got into a bemo (old rusty minibus) and headed for Ubud, a town in the hills highly recommended by fellow travellers for it’s international cuisine, traditional architecture, and for being slightly less touristy than the towns on the coast. We stumbled out of the bemo in the boiling heat and proceeded to do the usual trudge around looking for somewhere to stay.

Ubud is certainly nothing like hedonistic Kuta, though it is most definitely on the tourist map. Rather than groups of surfers and gap year students we are surrounded by a slightly older crowd with more money to spend. The restaurant décor reflects this, as do, sadly for us, the room prices. After some extensive alleyway exploring we found a cute little place with individual bungalows set in a walled garden. No a/c, no hot water, absolutely no bath, but the structure is traditional with intricately carved doors and window shutters. It’s funny, we must have walked in more than 15 of these backpacker set-ups, with the quaint walled grounds, and they put so much detail on the outside but the inside is so basic. Gold-leaf painted on top of red on the carved doorways, but half the wallpaper falling off the walls inside! As is often the way we ended up back in nearly the first place we looked at, a lot sweatier but happy it was a good deal.

Believe it or not, we are all shattered from the liveaboard. So our time in Ubud was mainly spent in a café or restaurant or back in the room sleeping. We continued to eat well, and sat in some really nice places in our old shorts and tshirts surrounded by well-dressed couples on a 2 week holiday. A couple of days were spent wandering around the streets of Ubud, which is a mish-mash of jewellery and craft shops, fake dvd stands, cafes, optimistically named ‘designer’ shops (which, by the prices, I gather were not all they seemed) and some beautiful old architecture. There was a market, housed in the ruins of an old palace, but truly not having the energy to engage in a massive bartering game I bought nothing.

The only time we ventured out of Ubud centre was to walk to the Monkey Forest. It did exactly what it said on the tin and provided us with a track through the forest on which we were pestered by Macaque monkeys looking for banana handouts (they sell bananas outside the gates for this purpose, so it’s all a big tourist set-up, but the monkeys seemed healthy and well fed for sure). Gary and I were rather tentative with them, weighing up the pros of getting a nice picture against the cons of getting bitten and having to be treated for rabies. Nick on the other hand threw himself straight into it, we had barely walked in the gate before he had one on his arm. They are very curious, and happy to steal sunglasses from heads and food from inside handbags. You have to be on your guard because they’re so quick, and they assume everybody has food for them. They are on you before you know it. A ranger actually had to step in when Nick was crouched down taking a photo and a large monkey jumped onto him and started some sort of dominance dance, jumping up and down on his back and making monkey noises! We laughed a lot.

And then it was time to move on again. With only limited time left on our new one-month visas, there is still lots of Indonesia to try to see. We left Ubud and the monkeys behind and headed to the east coast of Bali, to Tulamben and the wreck of the Liberty.


Diving the US Liberty

2009-09-14 to 2009-09-15

Trish: The USS Liberty, a 120m long shipwreck, is the remains of a US WWII freighter torpedoed on January 11th 1942 by a Japanese submarine whilst crossing the Lombok Strait carrying material from Australia to the Philippines. 2 US Destroyers hitched up to the ship and tried to tow it to the port of Singaraja (Bali) but the damage was immense, she was taking on too much water, and her crew ran the vessel up onto the beach of Tulamben, 70km away from the nearest safe harbour.

For 21 years she stayed there, and the people of Tulamben slowly secured all items of any value, even parts of the deck. In 1963 the Liberty was pushed to her present location by a huge eruption of the volcano Gunung Agung. During this process the hull broke into 2 pieces. She is now laying just 30m from the beach on a sandy slope 90 degrees on her side, parallel to the shore.

The Liberty is the most visited dive site of Bali, sitting at a maximum depth of 30m. It is unstable and every year parts of it collapse as it becomes more a reef than a wreck. It is encrusted with coral and home to thousands of fish. We knew it could be crowded so we dived late in the afternoon on the day we arrived, then early in the morning before the dive-shop groups appeared. They were 3 easy dives, so near to the shore that it made no difference when we all got distracted by different parts and separated. The water was warm, a relief after Komodo, visibility was good, and there were some very cool fish around. A huge barracuda that looked big enough to take a hand off, schools of jacks being hunted by trevally, and all the small critters we love: ghost pipefish, nudibranchs and supposedly a pygmy seahorse that I spent much of my air looking for but never found!

The 3 of us got cheap accommodation on the beach, right opposite the wreck, had our fresh tanks delivered between dives, and all in all felt we could have stayed longer. But the next destination calls…after 2 dives on our second day in Tulamben we took a car south to Padangbai, the small port from where we will get our boat to the Gili Islands.


A birthday treat on Gili Trawangan

2009-09-16 to 2009-09-22

Gary: We were lucky enough in Padang bai to meet a man in a restaurant whose brother worked for the ‘fast boat’ company to the Gili islands, and although that might sound dubious we got 3 very cheap tickets.

The 25km crossing from Bali was indeed fast, crashing through the swell, and although the boat had various leaks we arrived just over an hour later in good shape. The 3 Gili islands, just a few miles off the NE coast of Lombok, looked fantastic, each only a few km long, ringed by sandy beaches, turquoise reefs and dotted with palm trees. We hopped off on Gili Trawangan, the largest and busiest of the 3.

There is basically one sand road running the length of the east of the island, lined with restaurants, bars and dive shops. And blessedly, the only transport is bicycle or horse drawn carts, not a bemo or scooter to be seen. As Trish’s birthday was the following day we trooped up and down the strip looking for a sea view treat. After several circuits we found the charming Good Heart bungalows, right on the beach, and booked ourselves in for several days. Nick, shrewdly balancing out his beer and food money found a functional spot in the village.

The following morning the birthday girl enjoyed an eggs Benedict, smoked salmon and avocado breakfast, opened a surprising number of cards, and even a few pressies. Our bungalow was great, a vast open air bathroom, a view of the sea from our bed, and private loungers on the beach. A birthday splurge, and only £25 a night.

Our days on Gili Trawangan thus fell into place. Each morning we would hit the loungers, and Nick would troop along later to make full use of the facilities. There was good snorkelling right along the beach, and we used boat mooring lines to free-dive down to almost 20m, spotting turtles and plenty of fish. After lunch we would find a suitable shady beach hut and play rummy, which we have become rather obsessed with.

Trawangan has the reputation of being the ‘party island’ of the Gili’s. However, it’s the last week of Ramadan and the scene seems pretty mellow. There is a lively Irish pub selling hearty western food, along with a whole range of other restaurants. It’s a surprisingly swanky affair really, with some top end resorts, finely dressed holiday makers, and some stiff prices. We discover that the dive shops do a fine bbq each evening, we warm up before hand with rum & cokes and more rummy.

Surprisingly it’s Trish that suggests that we get off our proverbial backsides and do a tour of the island, on bikes! It’s hot and hard work in the sand but a fine tour. The west side of the island is practically deserted, beautiful white sand beaches and coral reefs. We stop for some snorkelling action and pizza lunch on the beach. In the evening me and Nick even manage several beers whilst watching the Manchester derby. Afterwards the Irish pub has turned into a street party, with locals popping moves for the keen young travellers. We manage one JD and coke before bumbling home feeling a tad old!

After 6 leisurely days we finally summon the energy to organise leaving. We are reluctant to leave our beachside bungalow, and our adopted island cat (one of hundreds on Trawangan). After a great dinner at Scallywags restaurant, where I have as good a chicken and leak pie as anywhere in England, we watch the last sunset supping ice coffees, and of course playing rummy. We have a boat booked tomorrow to Lombok, and a small hill to climb which the locals call Rinjani!


Trekking Gunung Rinjani

2009-09-23 to 2009-09-26

Gary: The 3 of us were crowded onto the ferry from Gili Trawangan to Bensal, Lombok for a choppy 45 minute crossing. Up above, the summit of Rinjani was covered in cloud, as it had been for the past few days. From Bensal a bemo took us south along Lombok’s very picturesque west coast down to Senggigi, a sleepy (ish), wanna-be tourist hub. We liked this place immediately, grabbing the last 2 budget rooms at the beach-front Lina bungalows before heading out to explore.

Our exploring had a purpose, to gather information on climbing Gunung Rinjani, a huge volcano that dominates northern Lombok. The mighty Rinjani, second highest volcano in Indonesia, is revered by locals and the Balinese, and it seemed only natural, to me at least, that we should climb it. Nick and even Trish showed surprising enthusiasm for the ordeal, and after chatting with several tour companies we struck a cheap deal with a slightly too smooth agent in a restaurant. We signed up for the 3 day, 2 night trip, ascending to both sides of the rim and the summit. I said nothing about the fact that the guide books suggest this should be done in 4-5 days, nor dwelled on the fact that the volcano had no bathroom facilities!

The next morning we were picked up at 5am and driven a few hours north to Senaru village, up on the flanks of the volcano. Here the tour manager, who spoke very poor English, gave us a grim banana pancake, then tried to convince another traveller to do a different route than he had paid for, before packing us into a windowless bemo for another hour’s drive to the actual village we would start from. And so we arrived in Sembulan some 5 hours after setting out from Sengiggi, hardly filled with confidence, but I guess you get what you pay for.

And so the trek began, about 900m above sea level, and in the glaring mid morning sun. Unfortunately the start was steep, and got worse as we trooped up across the undulating savannah on the volcano’s flanks. Soon Nick was sweating fiercely, resembling Yassar Arafat with a towel wrapped around his head. Trish had a very, very red face, stomach cramps from last night’s chili, and was not smiling.

After 3 tough hours we stopped for lunch. Our porters unloaded the baskets they carry on bamboo poles across their shoulders, and our surprisingly gruff guide whipped up some egg and noodles. The going then got tougher, of course, and we began the gruelling trudge up the alarmingly steep flank to the crater rim, still some 1300m above us. We had befriended 2 others in our group, Will from near Oxford and Wendy from Holland. The fact that Will was a strapping young ex-England and Henley rower, and Wendy a sportaholic did little for morale. (Trish: well, it depends which way you look at that!)

Trish and me fell into a routine, I carried both our packs whilst she ate sweets and counted out 50 steps at a time. It was a surprisingly effective strategy and after 3 more gruelling hours we emerged on the crater rim, just behind big Will, almost 2700m up Rinjani. Considering that Nick had spent the previous 8 months preparing for this challenge by drinking his way through Oz and Thailand, he lumbered up not long after, though with a slightly haunted look.

The views out to sea were excellent, and inside the crater magnificent. The giant caldera is several kms across and a big crescent shaped lake sits inside, some 600m below us. After some celebratory snaps we realized it was bloody cold, with icy winds whipping over the rim. We wrapped up and shuffled along to the camp site, which to Trish’s delight was perched right on the rim. We guzzled down hot sweet tea and ate rice and chicken before collapsing in our tents, escaping the bighting wind.

After what felt like an hour the porters were calling ’morning, morning’. I stumbled out the tent just before 3am to find the porters huddled around a small fire, wrapped in thin sarongs, trying to heat water to make tea. Shortly after, the summit party set out, in the cold darkness, up a steep steep trail to the summit ridge. Neither Trish nor Nick had emerged from their tents and I could hardly blame them. I bent into the wind, wrapped up in hat and gloves, head torch on, and trudged up. The ridge bends up and round to the summit, 1km above camp, a narrow track of fist size rocks and scree with plunging slopes on either side. The wind kept whipping in clouds and rain, which would then clear to reveal the black summit, slowly becoming visible as dawn approached. The last section was particularly tough, 8-10 steps then rest, but the clouds had gone.

Thankfully it was all worth it, stood on the freezing cold summit as the sun came up, 3700 meters above Lombok. In less then 24 hours we had gained almost 3km in altitude. Rinjani stands alone, so it really felt like being on top of the world. We had fab views across to Bali and down into the caldera. Forced off the summit by the cold after 10 minutes it was an easier descent, sliding down the loose scree.

After breakfast the day’s trekking continued, or started for my 2 companions. We dropped over the side of the crater and began a steep rocky 600m descent to the lake. It was a weary bunch that emerged on the lake shore at lunch time. It was however an incredible spot for lunch. A new angry looking cone is growing from the lake, Gunung Baru, spewing lava which spits and steams as it slowly rolls into the water. It was a surreal experience swimming in a lake with lava at one end. We then had a nap, a bad idea, before beginning the torturous climb out of the caldera to the opposite rim. My legs were done by this point, and the 3 hour final climb of the day was horrific. Exhausted and relieved we did eventually reach the final camp, rewarded with more great views and sweet tea. Nick and I cracked open a Bintang, as we sat and watched a magnificent sunset over Gunung Agung on Bali.

We slept for 9 hours, emerging to catch sunrise in the morning. Trish murmured the words ‘cold’ and ‘tired’ from her sleeping bag and would only leave the tent when the porters began packing up camp. After 2 epic days the final descent from Rinjani down to Senaru was agony. We all had blisters, and every step down sent jarring pain through our quads. But it was down hill, and after 5-6 hours we finally reached the end. Sadly the owner of our trekking company had forgotten to provide transport back to Senggigi, and only after a 2 hour wait and heated discussions with our miserable guide did we get a car.

We spent the next day recovering in Senggigi, hobbling around like old crones and eating heartily. Trish may not have conquered the summit, but was soon showing her mastery of bartering, deftly dealing with a small army of experienced sarong vendors on the beach, practically stealing their entire stock whilst me, Nick and other Lina guests looked on with wide eyes and concrete legs.

What an experience Rinjani had been. Mentally really hard, physically gruelling, and never comfortable. But the amazing landscape and huge satisfaction of getting up there made it all worth while, and Trish never even mentioned the lack of any toilets….funny thing this travelling!

Trish: Once again I found myself caught up in a big trek, after weeks of saying I would be happy waiting at the beach for a few days. This was a hard one, always too hot or too bloody freezing, and relentless on the legs and feet. No showers, no toilets, no clean socks by the third day. But for the first time, I never felt like crying. And that for me was a big thing. But never again!


Goodbye Bali, Indonesia & Nick

2009-09-27 to 2009-09-30

Trish: It was to be our last cross-island journey in Indonesia, across the channel to Bali from Lombok, and we decided we could handle the public ferry for the sake of saving some cash. All seemed ok until we actually boarded the ferry to find no seats, just a pile of mattresses for rent and an interior cabin full of Indonesians spread out like picnics on the floor. With 3 rusty decks to choose from, we found a tiny corner of shade up top and camped out with our bags as personal space defenders, fending off the usual throng of food, drinks, sarongs and sunglasses sellers.

The local guy next to Gary had a nasty spitting disposition, which unfortunately affects the majority of the male population of Indonesia, and after a while of this followed by his expulsion of an empty packet of cigarettes into the ocean, we moved. On the main deck we found prime squatting space in the corridor (a little lady even gave me half her bench to share, which was very kind given the fact that she‘d probably boarded 2 hours early to make it her own), the boys set up camp on the floor again, and we spent quite an OK 4 hours watching Lombok disappear and Bali get bigger.

It’s actually quite nice being back in Kuta, despite how overbearing and touristy we found it the first time round. I guess as with all places, it has become nicer as I have become more familiar with it. We stayed in a great little hotel with a pool, and pool bar, and even Nick gave up the hunt for a cheaper room without a fight in favour of a/c and 60 channels of cable tv. So for our final nights together as a trio we had a mini-holiday. Souvenir shopping, sunbathing around the pool, nice meals, and lots of Rummy, to which both the boys are now addicted. I am disappointed to report that they never followed through on our bet of “if I beat you 7 hands in a row you have to run around the pool naked”.

We had a Koh Tao reunion one night as one of our friends, Bjorn, was passing through Kuta on his way back to Thailand to find a job as an instructor. Last time we left him he was a divemaster with plans to return to his job in Berlin. Diving, and travelling, changes people. Nick had never dived before he came to visit us on Utila last year, now he is 10 months into 2 years travel and planning to do his instructor course in Mozambique.

We had a very funny night with Bjorn, catching up over dinner then being very silly in Paddy’s Pub on the main strip. Who would have thought a cheap bandana could provide so much entertainment.

And before we knew it, it was time to say farewell to Nick for the fourth time in 2 years: Utila, Australia, Koh Tao and now Indonesia. The next time we see him it will be us visiting him on his travels, which is quite a sad thought. After an emotional last game of Rummy, and still no naked runs of shame around the pool, we said goodbye and suddenly it was back to the 2 of us again after a month of being ‘an angel with 2 handsome bodyguards’. Not my words, but I think they fit.

One final day for me and Gary in Bali, and one more 14kg package sent home, full of sarongs and teapots and masks. Who knows if they will ever reach their destination, but I’ve had a lot of fun buying them.

3 months in Indonesia: sweltering heat, communications confusion, travel chaos, conservative rural dress and a diet of mainly rice and noodles. All in all, it’s been brilliant. Eye-opening, thoroughly disorganised and a little oppressive at times, but always an experience, and always the chance of meeting someone who will go out of their way to help you. Gary’s had his volcanoes and I have had my r and r and nudibranchs (though the ratio has been slightly in his favour I feel).

I don’t know how we’ll top Indonesia, but flying into China as it celebrates 60 years of communist rule might be a good way to start…


Yangshuo: China's 'peaceful' paradise

2009-10-01 to 2009-10-04

Gary: Guilin airport was quiet and organized. After 2 flights and a layover in Kuala Lumpur, we got straight onto a shuttle bus which headed off down the newly built airport express way, which was also quiet. Maybe China’s population numbers were exaggerated?

Guilin bus station on the other hand was heaving, which kind of makes sense when you realise that the small quaint town of Guilin we had imagined is actually about the size of Leeds and a holiday hotspot for Chinese tourists. We stood in the centre of the bookings hall and tried to find some semblance of an English word or destination. Nothing. Just stares, giggles, and touts waving tickets for buses and boats in our faces. A Malaysian chap called Roger from our airport bus thankfully found us looking lost and harassed in this sea of small Chinese people, purchased tickets to Yangshou on our behalf and pointed us towards our bus. We took refuge in a local café where Trish went and stared at the options and returned with a plate of duck and a plate of pork, supposedly the only 2 recognisable items.

Yangshuo, thankfully both on the maps and in person, looked smaller. Our decision to visit China during Golden week and communism’s 60th birthday bash had meant that we could not find any accommodation in town, but a local lady called Lilly, who owns the Climbers Inn hostel, which was full, had offered us a room in her apartment. We stood in the waiting room in Yangshou bus station waiting for a Chinese lady, which suddenly felt like very bad planning. Having never met her or even seen a picture and being surrounded by Chinese ladies, we just hung around by our packs trying to look like people who were waiting for someone. It worked. We followed Lilly through a pleasant park to her home, a 3 bedroom apartment in an oldish block of flats. Our room, which we think was usually hers and her husbands was nice enough, big double bed. The bathroom however was a tiny partly tiled box, with a shower fixed above the toilet, no sink, a dank mouldy smell and a door that was held shut with a hair band. Lilly, however, was lovely and spoke good English, her husband and young son just peered at the two white people now living in their home in bewilderment.

The town of Yangshuo is nestled amongst a mesmerising range of limestone karsts, (a limestone mountain range eroded into hundreds of individual peaks and towers by acidic soil and rain) at the meeting point of the much famed Li and Yulong rivers. It is considered unique by the Chinese because of its gorgeous geography and its mix of western and traditional Chinese culture and food. It is popular with climbers, travellers and, as we soon discovered, the holidaying Chinese. We went out for dinner on our first night, incredibly cheap local noodles and dumplings, and joined tens of thousands of wide eyed Chinese, shoulder to shoulder massing around the cobbled centre.

Fortunately Yangshuo is a charming place, a great mix of bars, cafes and restaurants, and for us the crowds were fascinating, we would spend the majority of our 5 days here eating and people watching. But we did get out and explore. First we hired some mountain bikes and headed out to explore the Yulong river. We set out early but it was already hot, the temperature here has been 35 degrees and pretty humid. Locals and guidebooks positively gush about the Yulong river…“a scenic paradise”. As we peddled along various ladies on bikes joined us, and began chirping “bamboo, bamboo?”. Other locals stood along the roadside called out the same thing. We turned a corner and arrived at the river. We were not the first, already dozens of bamboo rafts were being poled downstream, excited Chinese in life jackets waving and firing water pistols. The riverbank was lined with rafts and touts. We quickly left this tourist hum drum behind (Trish: read as ‘got lost for the first time today‘), and found rural peaceful China at last. Traditional little villages, rice paddies, fish farms, with an awesome backdrop of soaring limestone peaks.

At the famous Dragon Bridge we stopped for a drink, and fell out with a lady selling baby turtles trussed up in a tiny net bag. After much gesturing on our behalf that the turtles were sad and should be free in the river, not squashed in her bag, she went off screeching and pointing back at us.

As is customary on this kind of venture we proceeded to get lost on the way back, missing the track for the opposite river bank, instead following an unattractive gravel road for about 12km winding along beneath a newly built 2 lane highway. After asking several bemused locals on motorbikes we finally got directions for a path snaking between two karsts and eventually back to the river. Here, a strange thing happened. As we headed up the road a scuffle broke out between some locals, and suddenly they were wielding bricks and sticks. Within seconds the road was full of youngish men, yelling and charging each other. They ran on up the road in a sort of mini-riot in exactly the direction we needed to go so we had to follow, managing to thread our way through the mass as they trapped someone in a roadside building and stood outside shouting. They took absolutely no notice of us.

Back in Yangshuo we collapsed in a bar exhausted. The Aussie barman explained to us that the bamboo rafting on the Yulong river is now a major source of wealth for previously poor locals. The Government had tried to nationalise it but violent protests had persuaded them to leave it in local control. However, local families, gangs, even the Chinese mafia are now involved and disputes are often violent. You can feel how new money and personal wealth is here…Yangzhou is alive with the urge to sell, to sit bums on seats. There are now hundreds of thousands of Chinese heading out on holiday with money to spend, whereas 10 years ago there were hardly any. Lilly suggested that the new generation is under great pressure, school classes are huge, competition for jobs intense. She said family as a cultural force is fading, and that wealth is replacing happiness. She also tried to ’help’ us book various tours and trips every day!!

We slept the afternoon away then went out to sample the local delicacy, Beer fish. Basically a huge river carp cooked in a sauce of beer, tomato and chilly…good but a bit bony, and enough to have fed four of us. Strangely, considering the 1.3 billion people that China has to feed, restaurants dish up huge portions, and the Chinese sit round big tables, raucously devouring a range of dishes and always leaving plenty. There is often a little old street man or lady waiting to come along with a bowl and take the leftovers. It must not be forgotten that this huge country has the second biggest number of people (behind India) living below the poverty line.

We sat and watched the hoards drift by, many couples and families wearing interesting matching clothes, many trying to surreptitiously (or not) take our picture, or just staring at us, giggling. They deal with such close proximity very well, bumping and jostling, surging when appropriate with minimal fuss. The Chinese way seems to be to simply go for it en masse when a space opens up, regardless of whether someone is in front of you. They have a Disneyland now somewhere in China, and I wonder how on earth they enforce the queuing system.


Ballooning in Yangshou

2009-10-05 to 2009-10-07

Trish: The next morning we were up at 5am, and as the sun rose so did we, perched in a basket beneath a hot air balloon. Apparently, the only way to really appreciate the limestone peaks is to get above them, and so we did. It was a perfect morning for it, no wind, a great experience with an Asian price tag. You get a real sense of how unique each karst is from the rest when you are looking down on them. Some are connected in mini-ranges, some make circular ridges which look like crowns around the farmland, others stand completely alone. They are all covered in trees and greenery, but we didn’t see any birds, just a few wild dogs running from the noise of the flame. Our pilot skilfully dipped in and out between the karsts for a whole hour, eventually landing in a field next to locals wielding huge sticks, fortunately for us knocking chestnuts out of trees and not at all bothered that we had landed in the middle of their orchard.

And after that, the rest of our time in Yangshou was spent chilling out and adjusting to Chinese life. We found ourselves sat in numerous cafes just watching hundreds of people milling around. A lot of the Chinese seem to be amazed by small blonde children, and so quite often a European family would stroll by followed by a fan club of tourists trying to take the hands of their children for a photo. Since the first few days here we seem to have avoided being the subject of group shots with people we don’t know. People still touch my hair, and pretend to be looking at something else while they take our photo, but we haven’t had to pose with a family recently. I think we are beginning to fit in. Or it could be that everybody is scared of Gary’s new haircut.

He went into the barbers, ominously named S&M hair, and asked for a trim. This was going very well, very carefully and professionally snipped at. I was thinking of getting mine done too. But then out of nowhere shears appeared and before we knew it the back of Gary‘s head was shaved. We both immediately agreed he looked like Adolf Hitler and better to take the whole lot off. Now he looks like an cross between a hardline communist and a shao-lin monk.

The town continues to be busy for Golden week. Every step you take someone is waiting to sell you postcards, communist hats, Mao t-shirts, all sorts of trinkets. Yangshou has the appearance of a very happy town, the traders always smiling, the sales pitches always very sweet, the English speaking young girls very pretty and well educated. A lot of the older local ladies are extremely hunched over, you can see that their lives started in a very different way to how it is now. Years spent toiling in the fields take their toll, and it’s sad to see them trawling the cafes with their little bags of good luck charms and flowers for sale. They should be at home with their feet up, surely. But then you walk around a corner and see the little old lady who was selling trinkets earlier sat drinking tea with a little old man at a makeshift table on the side of the street, seemingly quite happy with her lot. Maybe life is better now.

I was on Skype with Mum and Dad one night in a street café and a little old man flute player came up behind me and stared at the screen. He was so amazed that my ‘Mama and Papa’ were in England and he could see them, that he immediately started up with ‘Auld Lang Syne’. The whole song later, egged on by their online clapping, we got a further treat of a Chinese folk song. By now we had attracted quite a crowd, all jumping up and down to get a glimpse of Mum and Dad’s faces on the computer screen. Aware of this continued attention I whispered to them through the microphone to just keep smiling and waving. The flute player was thrilled, pointing and shrieking at them in between lines of music. Eventually I had to log off, the attention was too bizarre. Gary bought the flute as a memory.

We left Yangshou after 6 easy days, sad to say goodbye to the pretty town and café culture, but quite happy to no longer have to share a bathroom with a rabble of baby cockroaches, or get up to brush my teeth in the morning and find Lilly’s husband and son sat in their lounge staring at me like I’m from another planet!

The last night before we head to Shanghai to meet Dad was spent in Guilin, the larger town we had originally flown into. Golden week was nearly over, so it was a lot less crowded and we enjoyed a stroll around 2 pagodas of the Sun and Moon which promised that “your life will be fulfilled if you take a lift to the top”, but we thought £3 was too high a price. Instead, Gary spent our eternal happiness cash on some suspicious looking hairy squid balls and other unidentifiable street food. Disgusted by his ability to eat anything handed to him on a stick, I made him join me for a 2 hour massage session to ‘cleanse’.

The walk to dinner that night was a little depressing, past big furry rabbits and a really sad looking Marmot in cages outside restaurants, for sale to eat at £3.80, plus turtles and fish in overcrowded bowls waiting to be sold for next to nothing. It made me think how can a child feel love or respect for a pet if he sees the same animals in cages waiting to be killed and served up for dinner? We had a nice dinner in a restaurant without cages outside and shook our heads in distaste as we walked past the rabbits again.

The morning of our flight to Shanghai we were woken by a knock at our door and “Hello, can I come in… I am Polish girl.” An interesting start, but sadly for Gary it turned out she just wanted to share a cab to the airport. We are meeting Dad in Shanghai in just a few hours… an ally in my fight against street-eater Gaz to not have to sample strange hairy foods at every street corner!

Footnote: As I am putting this blog on our page I have just seen a raft of newspaper articles online running a story that 4 Dutch tourists have just been killed doing the exact same balloon trip we did. It was only a couple of days ago, the pilot lost control of the balloon and it caught fire. The 3 others in the basket are all in hospital, hopefully they will pull through. This is so sad to read... we had such a special morning. They were just tourists like us. We are thinking of them and their families.  

 


Shanghai..'watch out the United States'

2009-10-08 to 2009-10-10

Gary: It was a 2 hour flight north and east from Guilin up to Shanghai, before the Olympics probably the most famous city in China. It is certainly the biggest, with a population of around 16 million and rising. To be honest we were a little concerned as to just how big and hectic it would be. The taxi line at the huge domestic airport did little to alleviate our worries, it must have been a km long!! We were with the amusing Poles we had shared a taxi with from the hostel in Guilin, 2 exchange students and very reluctant friends studying in Shanghai. We liked her a lot, passionate about language and travel, frustrated with her dour and rigid homeland compatriots. He was dour and rigid, the perfect abrupt stereotype. We didn’t complain however when he barged into the taxi line near the front. Our cab driver listened stoically to our request to be taken to the nearby subway station, then drove us for miles into the city, resulting in us having no choice but to take his taxi all the way to our hotel.

Our home in Shanghai was certainly not the average travellers hostel, and as we checked into the Westin we were told we had a free upgrade to a suite! Wow, our room was the size of a hostel, with a big living room and an enormous bath. An hour later Trish’s dad Patrick arrived, fresh (ish) from London after a stop over in Dubai and checked into a room that amusingly for us was slightly smaller than ours. We didn’t dwell on this ironic outcome for too long however!

We headed out to explore the Bund, the historic waterfront and old colonial centre of the city along the banks of the Huangpu river. Unfortunately, due to a huge expo in Shanghai next year, the entire waterfront is having a facelift, and we stood staring at a vast building site. Above it however we still had a magnificent view across the river to the Pudong skyline. We wandered down the main shopping drag (Nanjing street) looking for food. I led us into a little local place down a side street, but the looks from both O’Donnell senior and junior suggested it was a little too rustic. We battled our way back past various watch and handbag sellers, Nanjing street feels more like Piccadilly or Oxford street then Asian cities we are used to, and ended up back at the hotel for an Italian.

We spent the next day across the river in Pudong, Shanghai’s London Docklands. Only 15 years ago this was 350 sq km of marshland. Now it’s a financial behemoth, skyscrapers and business hotels as modern and impressive as any western city. The worlds 3rd tallest building, the Shanghai financial centre, tops the lot at almost 500m, but a whole forest of shinny towers and buildings surround it. We gave Patrick his first sample of ‘street food’, a tray of noodles and a spring roll. He seemed delighted with the price if not the food itself. We went to the 88th floor of the impressive Jinmao tower (the one climbed by the French guy dressed in a spiderman costume, and astonishingly, by a random Chinese shoe salesman who climbed it ’on impulse’!), and took in some great views. The Shanghai Oriental pearl tower is symbolic of Shanghai, and looks pretty good at night. Up close though it’s a giant concrete carbuncle that prince Charles would surely have waged war on. We stayed in Pudong for dinner, on the 56th floor of the Jinmao tower, sat by the window eating steak and sipping red wine. Have I mentioned just how great it is to see Patrick again. Shanghai at night from up high looked magnificent.

The next morning we visited the excellent Shanghai museum, a modern and well ordered affair, full to the rafters with priceless Ming porcelain, ancient carvings and Chinese art. Some of the pottery dated from 6000 BC, and it was quite something to see just how advanced their civilisation was here when we were still running around in animal skins worrying druids ( a little like modern day Australia in fact!). Next a Trish-guided walk of ’old town’ Shanghai. We wandered through narrow alleys with washing festooned from every window, through craft and food markets. The pet / animal market was cleaner than the one in Java, and fascinating. A popular pass-time amongst the locals is ’cricket fighting’, and dozens of stalls sold just crickets, each in its own plastic pot. Outside, gangs of locals huddled around each contest, goading the crickets into action by persistent prodding with sticks. ( A little like we have to do with Patrick when the bill arrives!). In the evening we went to see ‘Era’, China’s very own Cirque de Soleil. A little more rustic, lower budget perhaps but as a result the acrobatics looked even more impressive.

The views of giant glimmering skyscrapers up above the old Shanghai alleys summed up this fascinating city. The old Shanghai is still there, bicycles and rickshaws, street markets and hawkers. But it’s hard to find, and much of what looks Chinese is in fact built for tourists. This vast city is now a high rise financial powerhouse, driving China up the world economic table. Its inhabitants rush around in cars and taxis, enjoy European food, and bustle around in that now familiar no nonsense Chinese way, bumping and surging without an apology or a cross word. The city works, it feels clean and organised. As Patrick declared on his first day here, “watch out the Unites States”! Fascinating, but time to move on, north to Beijing.


Beijing - Mings, Qings and Mao

2009-10-11 to 2009-10-13

Trish: 2 hours after taking off from Shanghai we were in Beijing, enveloped in a thick haze and unable to see more than a hundred yards off to the side of the road. Coal is to blame, burnt liberally as winter nears and producing clouds of nitrogen dioxide which descend periodically to cloak the city, the bane of the 2008 Olympic committee. We had no idea if we were surrounded by the same amount of new skyscrapers as Shanghai, or if Beijing had indeed kept it’s historic charm.

It didn’t really matter all that much to us that first night as we walked out of the Hilton (well, you didn‘t think I‘d make my Dad stay in a hostel, did you?) and down to Dadong, the most famous Peking Duck restaurant in town. Mmm mmm mmm, now this is what coming to China is all about. After a selection of bizarre starters ordered by Gary and Dad, including a bowl of grey splodge and what appeared to be and tasted like a large ball of purple plasticine, we finally tucked into a crispy duck, pancakes and all. Delicious. Even the sight of the raw ducks hanging on hooks waiting to be put into the big roasting kilns couldn’t spoil my appetite.

The haze was gone the next morning as we headed to the Forbidden City, the home of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors, and so called because for 500 years since it was built in the 1400’s if you weren’t royalty, royal guards or court officials, the price for uninvited entry was execution. We paid £9.

This place is massive… a km long by 750m wide containing audience halls, temples for ritual purification, processional paths along which only the emperor was allowed to walk, huge living quarters with gardens for all members of the royal family, shrines for ancestral rites (sacrifices), and temples of Buddhism, Lamaism and Taoism. Stones were quarried from a suburb of Beijing and a well was dug every 50 metres in between in order to pour water onto the roads to make them icy enough to slide the rocks along in winter. In summer they were rolled along on huge logs. Nearly all the buildings in the Forbidden City face south, away from the ‘evil north’ from where came chilling winter winds, evil spirits and invading warriors (Mongols).

It’s a beautiful set of buildings, re-painted now but in the style of the original. A mixture of bright red paints, blue and green ceramic tiles, and gold and bronze figures throughout. The open spaces are enormous… supposedly you could get 100,000 people into the main square for official speeches. And I couldn’t even guess at the amount of buildings, but we spent about 5 hours there and didn’t see them all. A lot of them now house museum-style exhibitions of weapons, armour, gifts to the emperors from visiting dignitaries, imperial jewellery etc. But back then it was just like a massive playground. It’s easy to see how most emperors hardly ever left the compound, preferring to stay inside surrounded by their concubines, entourage and slaves. More surprising than that is the news that some emperors never even attended their own court inside the FC, completely disinterested in the lives of their people and the state of their empire, leaving it in the hands of court officials.

Eventually, after being the home of 24 emperors (14 Mings and 10 Qings), the Forbidden City ceased being the political centre of China in 1912 with the forced abdication of the last emperor, Puyi, at the age of 6 after a reign of 4 years(!). He was probably one of the ones who never attended court.

Another day, and another imperial home to cross off, we went to the Summer Palace, second home to the emperor and his family in case they got bored of the Forbidden City complex. Situated on a lake on the outskirts of town it is of a similar size and houses similar buildings… temples, audience halls, court buildings. It’s massive, and ornate, and absolutely rammed full of Chinese tourists in big groups following behind a tour guide with a flag held high. Woe betide anyone who gets between them and their guide, you’re liable to be trampled or spat on for sure. We are literally surged around the outside corridors of the Summer Palace, buffered between these tour groups. It’s very funny, a little bit frustrating, and extremely tiring. The Palace was really lovely, with a lot of history (sadly involving us and the French plundering, destroying and burning in revenge for deaths of our soldiers in the Boxer Rebellion in the 1800‘s), but it was too manic to stay very long.

We took refuge in Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest public square and home to Chairman Mao‘s Mausoleum (you can visit the embalmed body if you wish but we didn‘t have it high on our list of priorities). As with all of Mao’s visions, the square is massive, impressive, intimidating, and built mainly for the purpose of showing the enormity and power of the communist party. During the cultural revolution, the so-called ‘Great Helmsman’ spoke to over 1 million people at a time congregated in the square from the balcony on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the north end of the square. A huge picture of him hangs on the wall of the gate under the balcony still. To the east of the square is the Great Hall of the People, China's monolithic version of the Houses of Parliament, which contains a dining room big enough to seat 5000 people.

Halfway through our circumnavigation of the square we were suddenly being ushered out by the army, along with a few thousand other visitors. The soldiers are all very stern and adept at completely ignoring questions as to why we were being thrown out. We gave up trying to find an explanation and went with the flow, as with so many other times in China. It’s very rare we ever know what’s really going on here, if you ever get an answer it’s normally to a question you didn’t ask (as Dad is finding out in his quest to believe that every taxi driver speaks fluent English). We left the main square and climbed up to the balcony from which Mao declared China the Peoples Republic in 1949. 3 British faces in a sea of Chinese, we looked out onto Tiananmen Square and pondered what life was like back then, when the communist party was just getting going. 60 years on Gary and Dad are impressed by how far China has come, but I still have this feeling that we only see what we are allowed to see. It’s so rigid. Everything is so showy, so impressive, so grand. 150 million Chinese people still live beneath the poverty line, I want to be in the countryside to see if life really is as good under the communist regime as everyone wants us to believe.

We never did find out why we were shooed out of the square. We waited a while, but nothing happened. Vladimir Putin is here signing some trade pact with the current Chinese Chairman. Maybe he was about to drive past and they wanted to project a feeling of open space for him.


Birthday, Buddhist and Tea ceremonies

2009-10-14 to 2009-10-15

Gary: Beijing has a list of ‘must do’ attractions as long as your arm. We extended our stay from 6 to 7 nights accordingly, updated our ‘done’ & ‘to do’ list and headed out once more, 3 brave Brits against the hordes of Chinese tour groups. Beijing is incredibly likeable, big boulevards, vast squares, loads of history, eateries galore, a great metro and droves of very cheap taxis which means getting around this vast metropolis is easy, providing you have the name of all destinations written down in Chinese characters.

We started our 4th day with a visit to the Temple of Heaven Park. The park itself was more interesting than the temple. We wandered through trees and gardens watching locals with smiley faces performing all sorts of activities. Many old couples waltzed to bizarre wailing music, old chaps played badminton whilst ladies performed fan-wielding Tai Chi. Strangely popular was a kind of hacky-sack game played with a big odd shuttlecock-type thing. Locals stood around in groups of 4 back heeling the feathered object back and forth with surprising skill. Less surprising was how poor we were after Trish bought one of the shuttles. Next we passed 2 old guys playing with coloured felt hoops. Standing maybe 20 meters apart one hurled each hoop and the other caught them round his neck. I applauded only to be enrolled in the game, and after several embarrassing attempts at catching it on my nose, got to grips with it much to the amusement of the locals. The park was really pleasant, a great escape from the concrete sprawl of surrounding Beijing, despite the masses enjoying it. We made light work of the temple complex, stopping for Patrick to do his usual ‘pointing at object / attraction photo poses’ before heading on.

Lunch was McDonald’s. Indeed, you would be shocked at how often we have or will eat US fast food on this China city tour. Trish and her Dad are keen to eat ‘something they recognise’, and even I have to admit that although Chinese street food is good, it’s a bit much every day!

The Silk market, once the third most visited tourist attraction in Beijing, was a hoot. A big 7 floor building crammed with professional looking stalls selling everything fake that has ever existed. There must have been 50 watch stalls, each carrying cases full of every watch brand you could think of. Lower down in the clothing section stall girls were literally dragging us into their shops, yelling and gesturing and smiling manically. I turned round at one stage to see Patrick surrounded by a scrum of young ladies, dragging him by his arms and his bag in different directions. The huge smile on his face suggested he was far from annoyed. For dinner we tackled one of Beijing’s famous night food markets. Pretty touristy and very clean but still not for the faint hearted. Still alive skewered scorpions, bugs, sea horses, urchins, various feet, intestines, livers and hearts are all on the menu. I started the ball rolling with some stewed pork buns, and was impressed to see Trish and her Dad sharing various dumplings and other treats (Trish: We took turns in taking the first bite).

The next day, being the 15th, was my birthday. I don’t want to sound smug but Iceland, Vegas and now Beijing is a pretty good run for my last 3. The day started with a cake and cards in bed, bizarrely I got more cards here than I have since I was about 8 years old. Next we went to explore the Lama Temple, my favourite in Beijing. It’s the most renowned Buddhist temple outside of Tibet, full of as many worshippers as tourists, lighting incense sticks and bowing repeatedly alongside numerous peaceful orange robed monks. The last hall houses an extraordinary 18m high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, apparently carved from one block of sandlewood. Patrick expressed his fascination with the structure, gave a few suggestions as to how it was built, then requested coffee!

Instead we went for birthday tea, a full on tea ceremony in a traditional tea house. We each chose tea, then a pleasant lady walked us through the ancient ritual, pouring water over little pots, inhaling the aroma and even using the cup to moisten our eyes, before flipping tea from one cup to another and drinking. We then wandered around Beijing’s traditional Hutongs, or alley ways. Unfortunately it seems that this supposed voyage back to the original heart and fabric of the city has almost disappeared. Development has left little untouched, and the most popular areas are now tourist hot spots full of expensive cafes and touting rickshaw drivers. Beijing has many fascinating historical sites, but they are surrounded by a modern and very functional city with few reminders of the traditional Chinese way of life.

For dinner we went back to the excellent Dadong duck restaurant. We had to wait a while for a table, not an issue as they provide unlimited complimentary wine and beer. Feeling more confident after our previous visit, and perhaps a little inebriated, we ordered a whole range of flamboyant dishes, and of course a roast duck. I even braved the duck brains…our reluctance to eat this delicacy last time was greeted with polite shock. Maybe now I possess the brain capacity, if not the grace, of a duck, a big improvement I’m sure.

After such sustained ‘touristing’ our to do list looks impressively reduced, and hopefully we have saved the best till last. Although, as Trish’s Mum would no doubt say, if you’ve seen one wall you’ve seen them all!


The Great Wall of China

2009-10-16 to 2009-10-17

Trish: The Great Wall of China, surely the most famous ‘attraction’ in the People’s Republic. There’s only so much I can say about it because it is, basically, just a very, very long wall. Don‘t let that fool you, though, it was also pretty damn cool.

A quick lesson for those of you not up on your Chinese history… The original wall was begun in 221-207BC, during the Qin dynasty. Tens of thousands of workers/ political prisoners/ slaves spent 10 years joining bits of different walls built individually by each province (to keep out invading forces from the north) together. Not 10 easy years with short work days and good benefits, 10 years of hard labour. Legend has it that one of the main building materials used was the bones of the dead workers, there were that many. One thing known for sure is that this original wall was built mainly out of earth. (It wasn’t re-built in stone until the Ming dynasty in the 1400s.)

Sadly for the Chinese rulers, the wall did not prevent Genghis Khan and his Mongols from invading China, as sentries could be bribed, gates could be broken, and earthen walls could be climbed. Instead it became a sort of highway, an easy way of transporting goods and people across the mountainous region.

2000 years later, it has become one of China’s biggest money spinners. We joined a fair few other tourists in a well advertised 10km walk along the top of the wall from Jinshanling to Simatai. Setting out early we drove almost 120km to this more remote and less touristified section. Dad walked the first 100 yards or so, proudly wearing an ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ hoody he had acquired due to the unexpected cold , then left us to it, preferring to do the trip in the back of the taxi we had hired for the day.

The wall is really quite beautiful. It stretches into the distance as far as you can see, along the very top of the ridgeline, often with steep drops either side. It’s not difficult to see how so many workers died. It is now made of stone, cut into blocks with precision edges and stretches for 6000km (the length that the Mings repaired back in the 1400s). In some places it is in a bad state of disrepair (after the fall of the Ming dynasty the wall was largely forgotten about and large sections have now turned to dust. Was it not for the tourism industry the wall may have disappeared completely). It has definitely been touched up on the portion we walked along, but it still retains it‘s ancient crumbling character.

We walked up and down, and up and up and up and down, as the wall follows a steep undulating path. Not much of it is as flat as you’d imagine. Again, a tribute to the workers who built it in such difficult terrain. Randomly, but not surprisingly, there are many vendors well placed every few minutes for stocking up on any provisions you may need along the way. Coca cola (always a winner), beer, crisps, biscuits, postcards, cuddly pandas, even champers. I managed to purchase a quality tshirt for £2. No-one offering rickshaw rides, though, for which I believe there may be a strong market.

Dad was waiting for us at the end, still proudly sporting his new hoody even though the sun was now shining. In fact, it had turned out to be a great day for our walk… blue skies and good visibility across the mountainous landscape. And the other tourists seemed to dissipate as we got further along the wall, even the group of 50 teenagers in matching all-white tracksuits didn’t spoil our photos.


We only had one day left in Beijing after we went to the Wall, so we popped back to the Silk Market for some more fakey bargains. If anyone mugs me for my new Breitling, they’ll be more gutted than me.

Beijing was an excellent city to visit, and I’m sad to be leaving the home of delicious Peking duck behind, but we have lots more to see in a short amount of time. Off to Xian tomorrow for some pottery soldiers…


Xi'an & the Terracotta Army

2009-10-18 to 2009-10-20

Gary: Driving into Xi’an felt very different to our arrival in either Shanghai or Beijing. Our taxi followed a brand new airport expressway, crossed by other highways and spaghetti junctions in a sea of tarmac, and we were virtually the only vehicle on it. (China is obviously investing heavily in it’s future, and we have just read that they have sold 10 million cars here this year alone. These giant toll express ways won’t be empty for long). In the distance a vast line of concrete tower blocks, under construction, gave the city outskirts a bleak unwelcoming look. We drove down crowded dilapidated streets, dust everywhere and definitely not a very glamorous view of Chinese modernisation. Once inside the old city walls however things changed, and the mix of historic buildings and modern high rises was far more welcoming, as was the impressive Sofitel complex where we checked in.

Xi’an is the ancient capital of China, the terminus of the mythical Silk road, and home to the first ever emperor. Although much of this epic history still remains in and around the city, modern day Xi’an is a choking concrete giant. No exaggeration, there must be over a hundred massive tower blocks currently being built here. Patrick has a photo of each ready to show Bridget on his return!

We headed straight out to explore the old Muslim quarter, a series of narrow lanes home to mosques and Islamic markets. We pottered round the fascinating street food stalls, nibbling on spicy breads, pittas filled with meat, and a very odd rice desert. We pointed at things with inquiring looks hoping someone would know the English word, but to no avail. Trish and Patrick ate what they thought they could identify, or relied on me to be first taster before deciding whether to take the plunge. I was fascinated by a huge pan of what looked like potato covered in a spicy curry sauce so we sat in a bustling street café and I ordered a bowl, with some dubious looking kebabs and some green veg for the O’Donnells. I have to admit that my dish had a funny texture, and looked odd. Trish and her Dad stared at in in horror, tried a bit, managed to look even more horrified, exchanged knowing glances, then insisted I was eating a bowl of cubed fat! A local lady told us it’s name, and it did sound like she said ‘lambfat‘, so I left it, though I was sure it tasted pretty good.

The next day our brave plan of taking a local bus out to the Terracotta army was dashed by a smart looking chap in a suit, who intercepted us in the bus station and offered to be our driver for the day for about £15! And so we cruised off in a new Toyota, and after a brief stop at a soldier-making factory (tour group souvenir trap) we arrived at the famous site, 30k or so outside the city.

The tombs containing the army of Terracotta Warriors were discovered by accident in 1974, when some local farmers, attempting to drill a well, opened up an under ground vault. We were pretty excited to get inside the vast complex and meet one of these very farmers (Trish: Yes, I could barely contain my excitement at meeting another local who didn’t understand a word we said), signing books in the entrance hall. What a discovery, one of the most important archaeological finds ever. No surprises that the farmers got no financial reward for their efforts… hopefully he gets a cut of the book sales as Patrick bought one.

The 3 partially excavated tombs containing the army are extraordinary, as incredible as any ancient site we have seen. Pit three is pretty small, containing maybe 70 generals and some horses. Pit 2 is big, a football field at least. Most of the excavation work is still to be done but over a thousand figures reside here. The main pit. Pit 1, is enormous, like a giant airport hangar. Inside over 6000 life size figures have been found, mainly facing east in battle formation. The detail on every figure is incredible, every one different. Equally as remarkable is the excavation process, carefully digging through the clay and restoring the figures, many of which were vandalised by marauding peasants just after the first emperor‘s death.

The story of their creation is also fascinating. Very briefly, Qin Shi Huang declared himself the first emperor of China in 221 BC, the first ever to unite China. He enslaved hundreds of thousands of people and put them to work on a mammoth building program of roads, canals, much of the early Great Wall, and his own immense burial complex. He was obviously concerned about life after death as the complex is spread over an area of 50km, within which lie the warriors. His own burial chamber, some distance from the warrior pits, is suspected to be one of the grandest mausoleums ever made, but is sadly said to be too dangerous to excavate. He died before all this work was finished, and was buried in his tomb along with thousands of its builders, who were shockingly buried alive with him to hide the tomb’s secrets!

On our way back into town our driver explained that the dish I had eaten was indeed a local muslim delicacy named lamfar, made of either rice or sweet potato, with chilli and spices!! Not an ounce of lamb fat, though Trish and Patrick refuse to believe.

We spent our final day in Xi’an circumnavigating the magnificent old City Wall on bicycle. Built in 1370, it is 12m tall, 10m wide and forms a rectangular perimeter 14km long. We wandered up on the south gate, hired a bike and a comedy tandem for me and Trish, and set off. Patrick was determined to show us he still had what it took, and set off like Lance Armstrong on his 1-geared bike. The rental people cunningly only give you 100 minutes to make it round, or they would charge extra. I’m not suggesting that this motivated Trish’s dad, but we had a job keeping up with him, and had much fun en route before making it round with a defiant ten minutes to spare!


What's black & white and very very cuddly?

2009-10-21 to 2009-10-25

Trish: We are now in Sichuan province, one of the 3 last refuges of the Giant Panda. Our 6th stop in China and our 4th with Dad, who is on a real whirlwind tour of the People’s Republic. Sadly, the big furry guys aren’t so easy to find in the wild, numbering less than 1500 at a generous estimate. As with all wild animals, humankind has encroached on the Giant Panda habitat, hunting was rife in the past (not so much now as it carries a penalty of death), and an earthquake in 2008 devastated an area through the centre of the largest Panda conservation areas in the province. And so we find ourselves in Chengdu, 5th most populous city in China, and home to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.

We’re staying in a little Chinese B&B on Jinli Street, a very popular tourist spot. It’s a bit more basic than Dad‘s used to, but more authentically Chinese than the posh hotels we have been frequenting. And there’s a Starbucks across the street so who cares if the bed’s hard and the breakfast is a hard boiled egg, a sweet potato, a small corn on the cob and a cardboard carton of milk delivered to your room at 7am (all of which Gary and I chose to leave, thinking we were bound to be swept off for a breakfast croissant, only to find out Dad had devoured the lot).

We had a bit of a look around the city centre, but apart from a big square with an overbearing statue of Mao at one end, it’s just another concrete jungle. Dad had his first experience of being in a family snap with some locals, and we retreated to Jinli Street where Gary sniffed out more street food. Possibly the worst selection to date in terms of looking and smelling supremely suspicious, Dad nibbled very slowly on a bread roll stuffed with chicken and I walked round with a half chewed dumpling in my hand looking for a bin while Gary excitedly returned time after time with a new delicacy. Weird. Luckily we found a Mexican restaurant for dinner - no chickens feet or sour stews, just Margaritas and tacos.

We got to the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base early and went straight to the nursery. In there were a couple of 3 month olds rolling around half asleep in a cot, and one 2 month old snoozing in an incubator, all under the stern watchful eye of 2 security guards ready to tackle you to the floor if you even dared raise your camera. But we didn’t really mind that… let them have their peace as babies, they’ll have enough public attention as they grow up. They were very cute, just little miniature versions of the big guys whose pictures adorn everything here in China from cigarette packs to chopsticks.

From there we made our way around to the adults, all in pretty large enclosures where the pandas seem to have plenty of room to move around and lots of places to hide from the public should they wish. It was breakfast time as we wandered through - the juveniles wrestling each other and the adults sat in the middle of piles of bamboo munching away on the leaves. It’s hard to believe that such a large animal can survive on a diet of nothing but what is effectively woody grass. Take into account that their bodies are so bad at processing that they can only get 20% of the nutrition out of what they eat before it is excreted, and you can understand why these ‘bears‘ can‘t afford to hibernate - they need to keep eating to survive. To make things even harder for them in the wild, every 25 years or so bamboo plants flower and die en masse, and the pandas must move on to other feeding areas. Habitats have become so limited for them that even back in the 1970’s 130 pandas starved to death when their bamboo supply flowered and died and they had nowhere to go. It’s a sad fact, but without these breeding in captivity programs the panda probably won’t be around much longer.

On the up side, over 120 cubs have been born at the base, and although none have yet been released into the wild it seems like China’s doing their best to preserve what’s left of their natural habitat for the ones who are still out there. There are 11 panda reserves in southwest China, and laws now prohibit hunting or tree-felling in giant panda habitat. Locals are offered the equivalent of double their annual salary if they ’save a starving panda’, and life sentences or public executions are imposed on convicted poachers. The value of the panda as a tourist pull has saved it from extinction.

Turns out that giant pandas are indeed very cool animals. If they weren’t too busy trying to steal bamboo from their buddies, they would come and sit right in front of us giving us the once-over as they chewed on their breakfast. They are not the most graceful of creatures, lumbering around looking a lot like a person in a big panda suit. Little eyes surrounded by big black circles, white faces and black ears add to their overall funny appearance. Even Dad was suitably amused by them, in spite of the fact that he had stipulated that his itinerary need not include a trip to see the ‘Polar bears’.

The base is also home to a bunch of much smaller red pandas, which look more like a cross between a fox and a raccoon than their larger relatives. Entertaining chaps, they were chasing each other around their enclosures for most of the time we were there.

And that was really what Chengdu was about for us: Pandas and Starbucks. After just over 2 weeks gallivanting around China, Dad sadly left us on his homeward journey to England the day after we visited the base and we vacated our b&b to move to the cheaper Sims Hostel at the other side of town. Run by a husband and wife team from Japan and Singapore respectively, who had spent many years travelling themselves, it turned out to be a great place: dvd player, en-suite bathroom, café with western food, and massive stocks of info on places to go in China. So for 2 days we chilled out at Sims watching films and planning an itinerary for Tibet, where we hope to go next week but due to China’s security paranoia is proving to be logistically frustrating.


The Giant Buddha of Leshan

2009-10-26 to 2009-10-28

Gary: Our 30 day Chinese visas are nearly expired, and now that the very helpful staff at Sim's hostel are helping us rigidly plan a trip to Tibet (you need a complete day-by-day itinerary in order to get a permit), we need an extension and pronto. Chengdu Public Security Bureau takes 5 days to process an application, whereas the office in neighbouring Leshan will do it in 24 hours, and so we hopped on a bus and headed south.

The Lonely Planet suggests that Leshan is a fairly laidback town with a population of around a hundred thousand. Funny what can happen in a year I guess. Leshan is big and dirty and busy, and very Chinese. There are no helpful English signs here, a lonely KFC the only hint of the western world. We head straight to the Bureau and all goes very smoothly. They suspect nothing of our plans to visit the 'Tibetan Autonomous Region' - admittance of this is a surefire way to not get a new visa - and our visas will be ready tomorrow. Sadly, the only 'travellers guesthouse' in town has definitely seen better days, but it sits right on the Leshan's 3-river meeting point. Not that we can see anything but other people's washing from our window. 

There are several atmospheric alleys around our hotel offering very 'local' street food...so Trish leads us to KFC for an authentic Chinese Zinger burger. Not wanting to overdo the chicken intake and Trish seeing no other acceptable options, we walk along the street trying to make 'buying food' gestures and are finally pointed in the direction of a supermarket to buy some snacks for dinner. While Trish hides in the room, I take an evening stroll along the river where dozens of locals are either performing a bizarre style of street yoga, or wandering around in lines waving flags.

The next morning we head across the river to Leshan's very famous (in China, at least) giant Buddha. And it is big - 71m tall, the world's tallest - carved from a cliff face in the 8th century. His shoulders are 28m across and his big toes measure 8m long. The Buddha is just part of a big temple complex along the cliff top, which we explore for a few hours trying to match up Chinese symbols on info signs with ones in our L. Planet to work out where we are going.  

After an authentic lunch of KFC we picked up our passports with nice new 1 month Chinese visas, and headed back to Sim's in Chengdu. Concerningly I now have only 1 page left free in my passport, and even that has part of a US immigration stamp in the corner. Our, or my, hopes rest on a friendly chap at the Nepal border else we may find ourselves in limbo - not wanted in either Nepal or Tibet. Back at Sim's, Cathy the travel desk girl excitedly waves permits and train tickets at us....We are officially allowed to enter Tibet for almost 2 weeks, and we will head to the capital Lhasa on the 29th on the highest railway in the world! 

With just one full day to kill, we decided to go back for a 2nd look at the giant pandas. All the usual suspects were out - the juveniles play-fighting, the adults eating their bamboo breakfast and staring at us, and the red pandas chasing each other around their enclosure. And one more baby to add to the mix - a 1 month old which looked a lot more like a rat with black eyes than a giant panda. 

 

 


Chengdu to Tibet on the world's highest railway

2009-10-29 to 2009-10-31

Gary: Following China’s ‘Liberation’ of Tibet in 1950, the Communist Party was desperate to build transport links up onto the Himalayan plateau and hasten Tibet’s merging into the People’s Republic. In the 1980’s they began building the track, extending the existing Chinese network from Xining in the north-western province of Qinghai through the foothills of the Himalayas, but managing to get only halfway to Tibet before running out of cash. It laid dormant for 20 years. But by the year 2000 the Chinese economic miracle was underway, and 6 years later the line finally reached the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. It began operations in 2006, at a cost of over 4 billion US dollars and counting: the majority of ongoing expenses going towards the upkeep of huge sections of cooling pipe, installed to keep the permafrost upon which the railway is built from melting in the summer, a sure sign of the Chinese government’s determination to overcome any challenge to build a line into their newly acquired share of the Himalayas. Most of the final stretch is above 4000m, making it the highest railway track in the world, and since Chengdu is now one of the 7 big cities across China from which you can pick up a connection, it was just too big an opportunity to miss.

It was dark when we got to Chengdu’s vast train station, and we were shocked to find a semi-orderly queue waiting for train T22 to arrive. Yes, there was an immense throng of people and baggage, and we were about number 200 in our line, but there was a line nonetheless. 2 in fact. The only people going anywhere were the dozens of young Chinese soldiers dragging huge camouflage bags straight through a side gate to the platform. We stood and waited, guarding our bag of supplies - pot noodles in various suspicious-looking flavours, snickers bars, M&Ms, teabags, coffee, fruit and biscuits. We had heard only bad things about the dining car.

An hour later the gates opened and our queue erupted into the usual scrum. For 30 minutes we were enveloped in a confusing mass of barging, crushing, sneaking, spitting and shouting, as a big surge pushed us and hundreds of others slowly through the ticket gate into a waiting room that felt more like a holding cell, all metal bars and turnstiles. Trish looked less than thrilled and her dismayed frown said ‘we should have flown’. The smell from the nearby toilet was not encouraging. A second surge pitched us onto the platform, and thankfully the train looked big and impressive.

Our carriage contained 6 soft-sleeper cabins each with 4 berths. We had been warned in advance that these cabins were cosy in the extreme for 4 people, and Trish was petrified of getting “stuck with someone noisily eating chickens feet and hoiking up phlegm the whole way”, and so we had taken the liberty of booking all 4 berths. As we laid out our stuff on the 4 bunks, we knew it was a shrewd move. A lady in uniform who spoke no English took our tickets, pointed at a thermos on our table, smiled and moved on. In the carriage were 3 sinks, a hot water dispenser and a communal toilet (sadly for Trish of the Asian traditional variety).

The train departed exactly on schedule, at 20:59, quiet and smooth to the point that at times we had to look out of the window to check we were still moving. We drank tea, ate snickers and read our books. Sherlock Holmes for me and an appropriate account of a mountaineering disaster on Everest for Trish. After walking down the carriage to use the facilities and finding that the other cabins all had 3 or 4 people squashed in them, we felt pretty smug.

I slept like a baby, and in the morning even discovered a western toilet at the other end of the carriage, much to the obvious delight of my partner. I enthusiastically asked a young Italian traveller in the next cabin how he had slept, but he wearily explained that the Chinese couple he was bunking with both snored like troopers for the entire night.

Our first full day on the train was pretty much brilliant. We reclined next to the window watching rural China drift by, the train followed a series of river valleys, plunging through dozens of tunnels and over bridges. Our cabin had a thermos, a vase of flowers, even a tv that didn’t work. By one o’clock we had had morning tea, twice, and instant noodles. Amusingly we didn’t bring any cups and none were provided, so we had to cut the bottom off a water bottle for one, and Trish finished her ‘surprisingly nice’ instant mash-in-a-pot at lunch providing the second.

All afternoon the landscape was clay hills, dotted with brick villages and farms. Occasionally we passed a random town in the middle of nowhere with a huge ugly factory. Half the buildings looked deserted. The land between these towns was just barren. By early evening we arrived in Xining in Qinghai province, at 2200m, 1360 km from Chengdu and still 2000km from Lhasa. The start of the world’s highest railway. I had a walk along the platform and it was chilly. Trish sat happily in the warm and waved through the window. As it got dark the English travel announcement gave us the history of the Qinghai - Lhasa stretch of the railway, declaring that “the train is like a steel dragon bringing happiness and good luck to Tibet”… hmmmm

I set my alarm for 0630 the next morning, not wanting to miss any of the Himalayan plateau. It was still pitch black when it went off; Tibet is now set on Beijing time, about 2 hours wrong really. Breathing was difficult, but the stars and the moon looked superb, and after a pot of tea and some herbal altitude pills all was well. The sun rose just before 8am, to reveal an epic frozen landscape and distant mountains. Trish woke up and went through the same huffing and puffing that I had already overcome, complained it was too hot, then complained it was too cold, and eventually settled into her seat with 2 tablets and a instant-mash pot full of tea.

Soon we were passing herds of very woolly sheep, antelope and Yak. Gone are the towns and factories, replaced with tent-based herders, a lone motorbike or horse outside their only means of transport across this desolate land. In danger of getting too excited and waxing lyrical, let me just say that the Tibetan Plateau landscape was magnificent. I sat drinking tea and eating snickers bars with a big stupid grin on my face for the whole day. After lunch we wound our way between snow covered peaks, across the Tanggu-la pass at a staggering altitude of 5200m. As we came over the other side of the pass, the snow slowly dispersed and the rest of the day was spent travelling across a very flat and very yellow land somehow supporting lots more random outcrops of tent settlements with their Yak, sheep and furry antelopes. Land that looks inhospitable and devoid of any greenery that could support life, all the time surrounded by snowy mountain ranges. Stunning stuff, and the oxygen being slowly pumped into the carriage kept potential altitude sickness at bay. That being said, any quick movement or physical effort left us short of breath immediately, and the man in the cabin next door was having some serious issues.

Finally the desolate expanse became a valley dotted with farms and livestock. We passed farmers ploughing dry-looking earth with Yak pulled ploughs, and crumbly old brick villages. The occasional red-robed monk waved as we passed. It was everything I hoped the train journey would be, I could have stayed on board for a week. Even Trish had been impressed with the desolate plateau rushing by the window, and it has hopefully acclimatised us to being at altitude. Regardless of your view on the implications this railway has for any kind of autonomous future for Tibet, it is an engineering marvel and a stunning achievement.

It was with great excitement that we wobbled off the train at 3600m into a grand looking station in Lhasa, capital of Tibet. Our Tibetan guide for our time here (you aren’t allowed to travel in Tibet without a guide - just one example of the strict control held over this supposedly autonomous region), Dawa, was waiting for us, and after wrapping a white welcome scarf round our necks, he took us to our guesthouse. Leaflets in the room warned us not to overexert ourselves for a few days as our bodies adjust to the altitude, so we venture out only for a quick stroll before dinner. By the time we return, I have a pounding headache and Trish is vomiting. Maybe we are not as adjusted as we thought!


Lhasa: Temples, monks, pilgrims, and yak meat dumplings

2009-11-01 to 2009-11-03

Trish: I have to admit that, at first, the prospect of going to Tibet filled me with dread. Once we knew we were going to China, Gary started talking about the train to Tibet, and he got so overexcited about being up in the Himalayas that a fear descended on me. All I could see was that we were going to be surrounded by mountains and of course he was going to try to make me climb them. I became annoyed and frustrated every time he mentioned it, and refused to entertain the idea. As far as I was concerned, I’d done my fair share of trudging up mountains for the time-being. And I really wasn’t in the mood for being freezing cold, eating bad food, using awful squat toilets for a week, and sharing a train cabin with an overbearing stranger with no personal hygiene. I really didn’t want to go.

But Gary persisted, changing tack a little and talking about private train cabins, nice guesthouses, and Everest Base Camp - the one mountain I really would love to see and that I knew he couldn’t drag me up at the last minute.

And so I find myself in Lhasa, capital of the ‘Tibetan Autonomous Region’, once known as just ‘Tibet’. So far so good, the train journey here was very easy and comfortable, and we have a western toilet in our hotel room. We do not, however, have a working heater. Still, it’s warm during the day and our new sleeping bag bought in preparation for just this type of emergency does it’s job nicely on top of an already thick duvet.

Trying to take it easy on our first day, still wary of any effects of the 3600m altitude taking their toll, we strolled to the Barkhor (old town) and found ourselves quickly swept up in a steady flow of pilgrims doing a ‘kora’ (religious circuit that pilgrims take around the monasteries here) around the Jokhang temple. The majority of the pilgrims are nomadic, from eastern and north-eastern Tibet, using this time in which they cannot herd their animals across the land (it’s coming up for winter and about to get very cold) to complete a yearly pilgrimage to holy sites in Lhasa and the surrounding area. The koras are very intense, with a constant chant of prayer in the air and pilgrims interupting their walk only to touch their foreheads to prayer flags, parts of the temple, or religious statues, or to throw juniper leaves into huge incense burning pots. Some perform prostrations for the entire kora - a few steps forward then down on their knees, then fully face down on the floor before getting up again and repeating the process. Some, we hear later from our guide, perform prostrations for the entire pilgrimage, taking up to 2 years to reach Lhasa. Many have large calluses the size of a 50p piece on their foreheads. This is the most religious and spiritual place I have ever been to. Religion is absolutely life in Tibet.

Pulling ourselves away from the enthralling koras and the 1000’s of pilgrims taking part in them, we wandered around the old town for a few more hours eating street-made chips and bread, and getting lost in the maze of old alleyways. There are a lot of street kids and beggars. There are also a lot of police. Everyone is under the constant gaze of Chinese soldiers, some in army fatigues, others in full riot gear with helmets and shields. All heavily armed. Doing the koras we noticed them watching from the rooftops as well as on foot patrol through the crowds of pilgrims. Big Brother is most certainly watching.

The next day we went with our guide, Dawa, to the huge Potala Palace. (From the moment we stepped off the train, we are his responsibility. You are no longer allowed to be in Tibet without a guide, after 2 Americans put up a ‘Free Tibet‘ banner at Everest Base Camp a couple of years ago. Strict rules on permits for foreigners were made even more rigid after the deaths and disappearances of large numbers of monks in last year‘s ‘peaceful‘ demonstrations, and China‘s attempts to limit the outside world‘s knowledge of these events. Walking around in Lhasa on our own is ok, but visiting the monasteries, we must be with Dawa.) The home of every Dalai Lama until the present one, number 14, escaped to India in 1959 after China ’liberated’ Tibet against the Tibetan people’s wishes, it is now an empty museum for tourists and a shrine for pilgrims. No religious ceremonies are allowed to take place here, in these immense chapels. No monks live here. Should the present Dalai Lama wish to return, the Chinese government have said ‘all he has to do’ is accept China’s rule and proclaim all the good that China has done for the region. Until this unlikely event, all pictures, paintings and references to him are banned. It is as if there is no current Dalai - all the pictures in the Potala Palace are of the number 13 Dalai who is now dead and buried inside an immense tomb in the palace.

The Palace is actually 2 palaces combined. One white one built in the 7th century, and a red one built on top in the 17th century. It was a steep climb up to the red palace, and with this thin air we were absolutely gasping for breath. As we walked around we were again surrounded by nomadic pilgrims, all praying, touching foreheads to shrines, and giving small denominations in every chapel. It was very emotional watching them give money when they have so little. It is even more moving to think that their spiritual leader is in exile and they still walk so far from their nomadic lands to pay respect to him and his home. And even in the palace we are under the ever-watchful eye of the Chinese police. Dawa tells us that some are dressed as monks in the hope of catching a Tibetan muttering something anti-Chinese government. He calls them ’spy monks’ and says he knows of guides who have been caught out and ’disappeared’.

That afternoon we went back to the Jokhang temple. Today, it turns out, is one of the 3 holy days a month in the Buddhist calendar and what with it being the pilgrimage time of year, we join an absolute surging mass of pilgrims trying to be blessed by the statues inside the temple. Everybody but us is pouring yak butter and oil into lighted vats, throwing money onto Buddhas and rubbing against religious shrines. It is pandemonium and we are systematically pushed, shoved and elbowed through. Somewhere along the route through the dark corridors of the temple we passed the oldest Tibetan Buddhist statue in existence, from the 1300’s, when this temple was built. Because of this one statue, the temple is the spiritual centre of Tibet, and the continuous wave of awestruck pilgrims prostrating themselves inside and out are a testament to this.

Our last day in Lhasa, Dawa took us to the Sera monastery, founded by a disciple of the yellow-hat sect in 1419 and one of the biggest monasteries in Tibet. We went in the afternoon to see the monks ’debating’, or testing their knowledge of skills and anger management with a question and answer session between themselves. The questioning monk is standing, and makes loud claps, stamps his feet and jerks his body as he shouts at the answerer, another monk sat on the floor in a humble posture. If the sitting monk doesn’t know the answer from the scriptures, he gets a foot or hand put on his forehead and called a loser. He must not lose control of his Buddhist calm.

It was fascinating. Some monks looked so angry and serious, others laughed at each other as they got questions wrong or overdid the clapping. Some of the younger ones were definitely trying to look serious but under the gaze of all us tourists couldn’t help breaking into smiles. It was nice to see them behaving like normal young boys. One boy sat on the ground had such an expressive face and I couldn‘t stop watching him - angry, then pained, then laughing. A real furrowed brow as he tried to remain serious under my gaze. He was probably no more than 16.

The public bus back from the monastery to Lhasa was filled with us and about 50 nomadic pilgrims with their long robes and sun-beaten, rugged faces. We were separated - Gary at the front and me at the back - and whilst I tried to nonchalantly look out the window, it was difficult to ignore the open-mouthed gaze of all nearby rows of nomads on my blonde hair, my clothes and my clean white face. I did a lot of smiling and a lot of looking really interested at imaginary things out of the window. Gary apparently spent his time uncomfortably trying to gesture that his watch was a fake to all of his staring audience.

So Lhasa turned out to be very cool. We found some nice places to eat, I even ate Yak dumplings and wasn’t sick. I’ve got prayer flags and prayer wheels in my rucksack, as well as a multitude of cheap North Face gear which we think must be fake. And more than anything I think we both feel a deep sense of sadness at the way the intensely spiritual Tibetan people have to live under such strict Chinese control, where they are second class citizens in their own country. And a sense of awe at the strength of their religion in continuing their extraordinary worship through this oppression.


The Friendship Highway

2009-11-04 to 2009-11-05

Gary: Despite the relentless spread of Chinese modernisation, (Lhasa’s population has leapt from 20,000ish in 1950 to half a million today, mainly due to migrating Han Chinese supported by Beijing), the Tibetan old town still felt remarkably ancient, and as far removed from a western city as you can imagine. In fact, apart from the ever watchful Chinese soldiers, it was easy to forget China altogether. The intense spiritual atmosphere here is like nothing else I have experienced, even more astonishing considering the Chinese efforts to dilute it over the last 60 years. I guess if Tibetans are prepared to spend 2 years walking and prostrating across a 4km high desert plateau to worship Buddha then the Chinese have their work cut out.

Sad to be leaving Lhasa, but very excited to be heading off on a road trip along the fabled Friendship highway to Nepal, we jumped in the back of a Toyota Landcruiser with our guide Dawa, a Tibetan driver, and our new ’North Fake’ gear, and headed south. In no time we were climbing out of the vast Lhasa valley, a winding snaking road that quickly climbed 1000m, over a dramatic pass nearly 5km high. We hopped out for photos, and were mobbed by farmers with Yaks and mountain dogs all dressed up and demanding money. We fled, down to the shores of holy Yamdok tso Lake. Sitting at 4600m it’s a holy lake and the locals will not fish here. We felt woozy and out of breath at this new altitude just sitting in the car. We passed intrepid cyclists attempting to peddle the whole 900 km route…I looked at Trish and raised questioning eyebrows, but was instantly dismissed as an idiot.

Lunch was noodle soup, in a dusty little town with cows roaming the streets, before we took off into the mountains. Another high pass, this time over 5000m where the road wound past a mountain glacier. Every day so far has been brilliant blue skies, 20 degree temperatures. Out of the sun though and the temperature plummets towards freezing, and the wind is bitter. Eventually we pull into the ancient monastery town of Gyantse, in the middle of a dry brown valley at 4000m. Thankfully our room here has a heater. Dawa showed us round the fascinating Pelkhor chode monastery complex, built in 1418. There are few tourists, and I feel like we have stepped back in time 500 years or so. Inside is the Gyantse Kumbum (100,000 images stupa) a magnificent 9 tiered white stupa, the largest in Tibet. We troop to the top and watch locals painting the red monastery walls by throwing buckets of paint at the lower sections, or pouring it down a pipe from the roof. We explored another maze of elaborate chapels and are finally getting to grips with the complex shrines and images, though Dawa seems a little exasperated at times, explaining once again why some Buddha’s have a thousand eyes and a thousand arms, and protectors have their evil faces covered over (to prevent children getting nightmares apparently).

The original assembly hall survived the looting and destruction of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1959 (all across China, now including Tibet, rampant troops destroyed many Buddhist statues and chapels, stealing anything of value). Inside are a handful of monks deep in prayer, chanting and swaying to a slow drum beat. These great old monasteries used to house thousands of monks and were the only places of learning in Tibet. Before 1950, the populations inside were as great as the towns outside. The numbers are much reduced today, but the atmosphere inside is still extraordinary.

For dinner we went looking for the restaurant of Zhuang Yuan, but he found us. He appeared next to us with a huge beaming smile excitedly showing us pictures of westerners in his restaurant and describing his Lonely Planet-renowned sweet & sour chicken dish and magic flower tea. He charmed us inside and we ate everything he recommended, which was very good, including the flower tea that I had and caramelised banana devoured by Trish. He even insisted that we watched him at work in the kitchen, setting his wok and nearly the kitchen on fire as he stir fried broccoli. He is very proud of his restaurant’s guide book fame.

The following morning was extremely chilly, and we took a walk around the traditional old town. It was a fascinating wander past old white houses with dung walls and cows tethered outside. Elderly locals were just emerging to fill urns with water, feed the cows and collect dung. They peered and laughed at us in genuine amusement, especially with Trish shivering inside her numerous coats. Most of the houses had a semi-decomposed Yak head nailed above the door. It was a timeless place, a glimpse of the old Tibet.

Next was a 2 hour drive to Shigatse. The new highway, finished in 2006 is used by the locals like the dirt track it replaced. All manner of livestock potters along the road: Yaks and horses, herds of sheep and goats, the odd donkey. The local farmers chug around in odd tractors, normally with entire families perched on the back and dogs following behind.

Shigatse is Tibet’s second city and a bustling market town sitting 4km above sea level. We stay in another decent little guesthouse with heating, pretty crucial now as the nights are getting colder and the stone concrete rooms are bloody freezing. The streets of the Tibetan part of town are full of market stalls selling trinkets, carpets, yak and sheep wool rugs, cabbages, and sheep carcasses. I had fancied a big Tibetan fur hat, but unfortunately they are made by skinning a mountain fox and simply wrapping it round some hide, head, tail and all.

The Tashilhunpo Monastery is one of the most fascinating of the trip. Built in 1447 it is the seat of the Panchen lama, the second most powerful Tibetan lama. We have to wait for the main chapel to open, and spend 20 minutes stood with a big crowed of pilgrims who gather round and just stand and stare at us, occasionally giggling and pointing. Many local farmers will only make a major pilgrimage to the towns of central Tibet once or twice in a life time…they had definitely not seen many white faced and soft lowlanders before. It was a great scene, until I tried to take a photo of a child who started shrieking madly. Inside we watched the pilgrims prostrating before a majestic golden statue of the Maitreya Buddha, almost 27m high and the biggest of it’s kind in the world. There are also some impressive tombs of previous Panchen Lamas.

At dinner Trish’s new love for yak dumplings is sadly dented by some tough and very chewy filling, but my lamb curry goes down a treat. We sit in the restaurant in our coats and hats, drinking tea and beer, with a yak skull on a stand beside us. The walk to the restaurant had left us short of breath and it is freezing outside on the walk back. We have a flask of hot tea back in the room, and crank up the heating. Tomorrow we head to Everest Base Camp, and I have been gradually forewarning Trish of the inevitable demise of western facilities ahead.


Everest Base Camp

2009-11-06 to 2009-11-08

Trish: As we head higher and higher up into the Himalayas the landscape looks less and less likely to support life, and yet we continue to pass small towns and sporadic farming settlements, the buildings all decorated in the same traditional way: white walls, black window frames, and intricate floral decorations painted on wooden fixings below the roof. Aesthetics is surprisingly important to these people living over 4000m with only animals to herd, yak dung to burn to provide heat, and a steep hilly terrain as their back yard. As the Landcruiser altimeter goes through a full 360 (since we left Lhasa), it’s getting colder and colder, and it‘s not even winter yet. These people are made of strong stuff.

It was an 8hr drive from Shigatse to Everest Base Camp, up over passes (the highest: 5240m at the entrance to Mt Qomolangma - local name for Everest - national park) and through valleys where the massive mountains around us met. 4 hours in we caught our first glimpse of Mt Everest itself, a big fat triangular peak way off in the distance. Lunch was the usual noodle soup in a small market town where the road splits off towards Everest, full of horses with colourful bridles pulling carts of all sorts, cows ambling through nonchalantly, and dirty-faced and dirty-clothed children begging for money. And possibly the worst public toilet I will ever have the misfortune to have to use. No cubicles, no doors, just a row of holes and a stench so bad I didn’t even care that I wasn’t the only one in there.

We were soon on the road again, although this time it was a 90km long dirt-track - the road to base camp. After 80km of boulders, iced over rivers, potholes and a very narrow road through barren, hilly land, past vast moraines left over from what must have been gigantic Himalayan glaciers thousands of years ago, we finally got our second look at Everest. Thankfully now a lot closer, the late afternoon clouds that covered the rest of the Himalayan peaks left Everest alone as we drove straight for it. It stood alone (Llotse is actually very close to it, but from the Tibetan side is completely hidden behind Everest itself), a now enormous looming triangle of snow, rock and ice, with only a wisp of cloud flying from the summit.

Our home for the night was the ’guesthouse’ attached to the Rongbuk monastery (highest monastery in the world next to the highest mountain in the world), at approximately 5200m above sea level. It was absolutely bitterly freezing when we stepped out of the car, and there was no relief to come. Our room was a concrete box with a huge window (broken panes replaced with plastic bags and a bit of tape) looking at Everest, which was why it was a ’deluxe’ room. No heater, no ensuite (as if I could have ever hoped for so much), just 2 wooden beds, 4 duvets and 2 blankets. And a bowl of water for us to wash in that had frozen over.

Took some photos of the highest mountain on the world for as long as we could stand to be outside in minus 10 … about 4 minutes… then retreated to the ’restaurant’, more accurately described as a dark room with a yak dung burner in the centre. The scent of warm dung had at least taken the edge off the cold and we huddled inside with a handful of other tourists, drinking jasmine tea and staring in disbelief as every single local who walked in - and there are only maybe a dozen nomads plus the monks - inexplicably left the door wide open. The mountain loomed over us as we ate dinner and tried to delay going to bed. By 10pm the power was out and the yak dung was all gone, and we reluctantly went to our box and undressed then redressed in as many layers as were comfy for sleeping in.

We laid awake for ages - just having your nose outside the duvet was enough of a cold shock to keep sleep away. (It is the first time I have ever heard Gary say he is cold at night.) I drifted off eventually, only to find myself wide awake again at 3am (Gary was already awake reading), out of breath (the lower air pressure at base camp means you only get 1/2 the amount of oxygen per breath), and disastrously needing a wee. Half an hour of indecision later I was running across a moonlit courtyard headed for the outside hole-in-the-floor toilets. It was totally surreal, with Everest lit up bright white by a full moon and the milky way stretched across the sky, and me using yet another latrine with no door. The view was so great that I convinced Gary that he, too, needed to use the loo. Another surreal episode…in the time it had taken me to tell him about the stars and the moon and Everest, a Yak had entered the courtyard, and as Gary ran out of the door to our block he nearly ran straight into it, sending it charging startled into the hills and nearly giving himself a heart attack. The rest of the night was spent pretty much wide awake watching sitcoms on the Ipod and looking at our watches, sitting up every now and then to look out the window and check that we really were at the base of Everest. And trying to breathe.

What a relief when morning came and we could get up and do something. We hopped around our ice-cold room (there was literally ice on the inside of the windows) hurriedly throwing on every layer we had plus hats and gloves, scoffed some hot tea and pancakes, and got in the car for the 8km drive to where the climbers pitch their tents. The sun was shining at 10.15am when we stepped out of the car and stood in the very spot where the expeditions set up their base-camps for months on end while climbers prepare and do their acclimatisation runs to camps 1, 2, 3 & 4 before the final push to the summit. It is now empty because climbing season is April/May/June and any other time it is too cold at night (we had ‘slept‘ through -15 degrees, we found out later) and too windy at the summit.

So just us and maybe 8 other tourists stood on a mound staring up at Mt Everest: from 5200m we were still over 3.5km below the summit at 8844m above sea level. Gary translated that to me as “the height of Rinjani above us” which I couldn’t work out whether was to help me get my head around the scale or suggest that we could do it. It looks cold, icy, snowy and inhospitable, but not too steep along certain ridges. Me, regardless of my lack of love for trekking and the fact that I am struggling to breathe here at base camp (you get only 1/3 the amount of oxygen at the summit than at sea level), I know I could never bear the low temperatures, full stop. But even if Gary could and he had the $80,000+ it costs to join a group, he’d be risking an approximately 1 in 8 chance that he wouldn’t make it back. The mountain looks so beautiful and so serene, but it continues to take lives. We walked around an area of stone and pebble shrines, handmade and inscribed with the names of climbers and Sherpas who had not returned to base camp. They were mostly young, and many died on the way back down from the summit…. An incredible achievement that they lost their lives for.

So we took our pictures, none really capturing the mountain’s full glory in the morning light, and sadly left the Tibetan‘s and Nepalese ‘Mother Earth Goddess‘ behind, now heading for the Nepal border. The 90km of dirt-track passed quickly and we were soon in our next overnight port of call, Old Tinggri. In spite of Gary’s promises, our room is very similar to last night’s: no heater, no inside toilet, the communal showers are frozen. The town is perhaps 150m long, the usual white and black buildings, cows, goats, horses and wild dogs in the road, and dirty-faced children pawing at us asking for money. The snow-covered Himalayan peaks form the backdrop to this very, very poor town. But our ’hotel’ has a nice warm front room with 2 friendly young teenage girls as waitresses, who in between serving us hot drinks and food happily chase each other round the premises with buckets of cold water. We spent a very enjoyable evening, ending with a power cut which left us sat round a dung-burner playing cards and eating yak momos (dumplings). The candle we had to take to bed even warmed the room a little.

The last day on the road was spent covering the final miles to the Tibetan/Nepalese border town of Zhangmu. We slowly crept down over 2000 meters on cliff roads with huge ravines to one side and crumbling mountain-sides to the other. Coming into Zhangmu itself was crazy. It was chock-a-block with trucks waiting to cross to Nepal, and more trucks coming the other way laden with goods from Nepal. The town is built on a steep mountain-side, in a zigzag manner to make the road passable. It wasn’t pretty, and it wasn’t serene. It was noisy and polluted, but our hotel had hot water and a warm restaurant. We sat there for the rest of the day playing cards and eating momos, sad to have finished our Tibet/Everest adventure but looking forward to getting some home comforts in Kathmandu (or at least I was).


Kathmandu, Nepal

2009-11-09 to 2009-11-15

Gary:  We loaded our stuff in the Landcruiser for the last time and headed down out of Zanghmu to the Tibet/Nebal border crossing. Literally dozens of garishly painted Nepalese trucks lined the narrow zig zag road, and we soon encountered a jam of trucks trying to go up and down past each other. Dawa, our guide laughed and suggested we trudged the rest of the way. The Chinese crossing was still closed due to computer issues. This actually worked in our favour as we met 2 ladies from western Canada, also heading to Kathmandu, who had a car waiting for them on the Nepal side. It was certainly no surprise but a huge relief when they offered us a lift. Dawa finally saw us through Chinese immigration, we waved goodbye, and walked onto the Friendship bridge, into a sea of Nepalese literally sprinting for the Tibetan border office. We stopped to take a final picture of us leaving China, and were almost jumped on by a plain-clothed agent, grabbing for the camera. He would only let us cross after watching us delete the photo…a fitting final memory of the People’s Republic.

The Nepalese side of the border was even more chaotic: a ramshackle affair of old buildings, a mud road and food stands. I was nervous. I had one page left in my passport, the one with half a US immigration stamp in the corner. Most immigration officials will demand a completely clean page for a visa. As we had hoped, however, the Nepalese official had no such concerns, and within minutes we each had a visa and were on our way. We jumped gratefully into a 4 wheel drive with Kim and Christine and headed into Nepal.

We continued down the dramatic and comparatively lush valley on a dirt road, stripping off layers as it got hotter and hotter. After a few hours we climbed up the side of the Kathmandu valley, to be rewarded with stunning views of the white-capped Himalayas. The Kathmandu valley is a huge bowl sitting at around 1300m, dominated by the sprawling mass of Kathmandu itself. We were soon stuck in traffic, ancient buses, rickshaws, and tiny white Suzuki taxis jostling and beeping. The level of poverty was immediately apparent, the hectic roads lined with tiny wooden shops, piles of rubbish, dogs and people everywhere. Soon dirty children were banging on the windows holding out hopeful hands.

Thamel is the tourist and trekking centre of Kathmandu. Just as chaotic as the rest of the city, straining at the seams with travel agents, souvenir and North Fake outdoor shops, and excellent restaurants. We checked in to the Tibet guest house, got a great room with cable TV, hot water and a balcony for £10, and settled in. I had been before, several years ago, but I think Trish was pleasantly impressed (Trish: ‘relieved’… that I was in civilisation again). The almost impossible number of shops and western food make this one of the world’s great travellers ghettos, and Trish was soon bargaining like a trooper.

We spent the next few days exploring Thamel, shopping of course, and eating pizza, steak and kebabs. We discovered a fantastic restaurant / bakery called Helenas, which has a terrace on the roof 8 stories up, with great views of the jumbled sprawl of the city. The narrow bustling streets of Thamel can be annoying, persistent calls of ‘taxi, trekking, tiger balm, smoke, hash, yes‘, become amusing after a while, but the relentless beeping of scooters and taxis is a pain. Otherwise, Thamel is a fascinating place to hang out. Foreign tourists and trekkers are everywhere, everyone garbed in North Face and Mammut clothing, most of which is good quality fake and incredibly cheap. I was finding it difficult to ignore the dozens of trekking agents and inevitably dragged Trish into one. The snow-capped Himalayas, visible from the roof of Helenas on a clear day, were definitely calling. I had a cunning plan, to enrol us on a 6 day trip to summit Island Peak, a 6200m mountain standing just in front of Everest and Lhotse. The trip included ice climbing and mountaineering training. Sadly for me, though no doubt a huge relief for Trish, the trip also required a 5 day independent hike just to get to the training camp, followed by 6 days of training and summiting, before a 3 day hike back… Maybe next year? (Trish: maybe not)

We did drag ourselves out of Thamel, taking a walk through the old centre of Kathmandu, a maze of alleys and narrow lanes bursting with market stalls and pashmina shops. We wandered around ancient Durbur square and Freak street, named in the 1960’s by locals as the first dreadlocked hippy travellers made homes here. We also wandered out to the Swayambhu Buddhist temple overlooking the city. The temple itself was touristy and disappointing after Tibet. More fascinating was a small temple by the river that we passed en route, where 3 buffalo had just been sacrificed, their lopped off heads sat in a pool of blood next to their still twitching bodies.

There is a more disturbing side to Kathmandu and Nepal. The country has been in political chaos for over 10 years, since the King’s eldest son murdered 10 of his family and then turned the gun on himself. Since then the Maoist party has fought with various governments for control. Tourists have never been targeted, but tens of thousands of Nepalese have died. The country was declared a Republic in 2006, but things are apparently no better. There is a new prime minister every 6 months, corruption is rife and human rights abuses wide spread. Even worse, the constant strikes and protests merely serve to close businesses and further deprive the Nepalese any chance of escaping poverty. The people here are fun and friendly, strangers are constantly greeting us with a warm ’Namaste’ the Nepalese greeting. It’s impossible not to feel very sorry for these disillusioned people.

Instead of trekking we came to a team decision to travel south. Leaving our packs at the guesthouse we would head towards the Indian border to Chitwan national park, home to elephants, rhino and even tigers.


Royal Chitwan national park

2009-11-16 to 2009-11-20

Trish: Our ‘tourist bus’ is, as usual, not quite as described. A handful of us actual tourists sit in the old, hard seats waiting to leave while it fills up (and I really mean fills up, even the aisles) with locals who undoubtedly are paying a lot less than us. My heart sinks as we are serenaded with the usual hoiking up and spitting out the windows (thank goodness for small mercies) and I tell Gary in no uncertain terms that this is the last public bus I will ever get on (apart from the one we have to get back to Kathmandu, sadly).
Just over 6 hours after leaving Thamel, after a couple of toilet stops which involved stopping the bus by the side of the road while whoever feels the need gets out and squats on the ground next to it, we reach Sauraha, a small dusty town on the edge of Royal Chitwan National Park comprising of one main street next to a river. Guesthouses, a few souvenir shops and restaurants line each side, and as we look for accommodation an elephant walks past. Found a nice room with a balcony overlooking the river and settled in to a far more sedate existence than that of crazy Kathmandu.

After much deliberation we had decided to take a ‘government’ elephant ride on our first full day. Only government elephants are allowed in the park, ‘private’ elephants must make do with the buffer zone between the park and the town. We were on the lookout for rhinos and it seemed a good place to start. So off we went, sat on a small platform on the back of a large male elephant while he waded through a river and into the park. The early morning start meant that the ground was still covered in a low mist as we waded through grasses higher than the elephant, him swishing them out of the way with his trunk, looking for the elusive rhino. As the mist cleared the birds and monkeys woke up and with the foliage so overgrown it seemed exactly the place wild animals would thrive. But no rhinos for us this morning, just a very cool 2 ½ hour adventure on the back of a pretty big elephant who carefully moved whole trees out of the way to stop the branches hitting our faces.

That afternoon we went out on a jeep safari, again in search of horned beasts, but found ourselves on more of a twitcher’s day out than a proper hunt for mammals. 4 hours of driving through the forests and grassland brought us lots and lots of birds, which our jeep mates seemed to find terribly exciting, a crocodile breeding farm and a captive tiger ’belonging’ to the military inside the park who apparently ‘rescued’ it after it’s mother was shot for killing a villager. According to our guide, it had tasted human meat from it’s mother‘s kill, and was therefore a ’maneater’ itself. The choice was to kill it or keep it in a cage. We all had other suggestions, including at least a bigger cage.

On arrival back in town I am beginning to question the 95% rhino spotting success rate given by the owner of our hotel, when the Dutch tourists from the jeep in front come running over. No rhinos, but a Royal Bengal Tiger, a real live wild one and just 300 yards from the riverbank across from town. We were 5 minutes too late. It didn’t matter, it felt good to know that the poachers hadn’t won. It was serene that night, having sunset drinks overlooking the river and the park watching elephants walking through the grasses, and wondering if the tiger was watching from his side.

With time on our side and no definite day to leave Sauraha, we spent a very chilled out morning watching river life go by. Everyone else was out on trips and it was as if we were the only ones there. Tourists occasionally went by in canoes and into the park in jeeps, the rottweiler puppy that keeps us awake at night with it’s yapping stumbled around chasing ducks, and working elephants collected grass from the river bank, mahuts on their backs giving instructions with their feet. At 10.30am the elephants came down to the river for bath time. You can join them for £1. I was straight in.

On my own, Gary too scared to play with the pachyderms, and very soon saturated, it was the best pound ever spent. This huge animal waded into the river with me on it’s back and then the mahut gave it instructions to spray me with water, roll over so I fell into the river, sit down so I could climb back on and then start it all again. I lost any air of gracefulness I may have had when the mahut told me to climb up it’s trunk from where I’d been unceremoniously dumped in the river for about the 5th time. Way too much momentum sent me careering up and over its body in an out of control stumble, straight back into the water. The second try was better, but by then I’d lost my street-cred with the laughing crowd.

That afternoon we went on a private elephant ride into the buffer zone and within 5 minutes were looking at a rhino. We followed it through the forest and found another 2. So on the wildlife front, brilliant, but from a wilderness perspective not so great. The private elephants all go out in one big troop so there were at times 10 elephants all in a semi circle around the rhinos. On the government elephant we had been alone out there, and that had seemed a lot more authentic. But we saw 3 rhinos and were very excited to be only a few metres away as they chomped on grass below us. They have the weirdest bodies… they look so strong, the way their skin hangs around their skin hangs around their haunches really looks like solid armour. And that one little horn, for which their numbers have dropped from around 500 to 200 in the park in the last 5 years. Even in the national park, it’s a losing battle against the poachers. Our friend Norris, who will be mentioned soon, told us that the locals strongly suspect that the head of the army patrols stationed in and around the park is actually in league with the poachers, sending his men to one side of the park on a given day so the hunters can have free range on the other side.

Our second elephant ride was cut a little short after the tourist behind me dropped his big red canvas bag onto the ground twice in about 5 minutes. The first time, the elephant picked everything up with her trunk and passed it back, it was really impressive. The second time, she was freaked out by this big red thing landing on the floor next to her again and wanted to walk away. Well, the mahut absolutely screamed at her and hit her until she picked up the bag, a pack of chewing gum and then a camera that had also fallen out of this idiot’s bag. But after that she was not happy and kept trying to charge off, stop suddenly, sway side to side, head butt trees, or rip foliage out of the ground with her trunk. The mahut was really disturbing us by then, with his repeated shouting at her while she trumpeted back and then using the stick they normal just tap on the elephant’s head to signal left and right to hook into the front of her ears until she did what he wanted. By the time we got back to the compound, in fits and jerks as our elephant was clearly very stressed, she was bleeding from her ears and we were very disenchanted with the mahut, who had been a bit of a tosser before this happened, always asking us if he was a good mahut, looking for tips. He got nothing as we walked away, shaken up and really sad for the elephant.

That night we told our hotel owner, Gungha, also the owner of the elephant, what had happened. He seemed to think it was just one of those things, but we felt that at least we’d told him. We sat in KC’s restaurant up the road and had great food but still I couldn’t stop thinking about the elephant and if it was hurt. Gary says they have very tough skin, but it was bleeding nonetheless. Sitting around a big firepit, we were joined by KC’s owner, Norris, whose brother turned out to be Gungha’s brother. Small world. He said that every elephant costs around 20,000 euros, an extremely big investment, and that the mahut was usually a good one. He made us feel a little better, and was actually a really cool guy. We sat there for hours chatting with him and he invited us to his mother-in-law’s tomorrow for a real traditional Nepalese dinner.

We had one more full day before heading back to Kathmandu so we decided we wanted to end on a good encounter with the elephants. 10.30am brought them strolling down to the river in front of our balcony and Gary chose the only male, a massive beast, to go in on. A similar scene to yesterday, he was showered and thrown off many, many times, but not allowed to climb up it‘s trunk. The males are both bigger and more unpredictable than the females, I guess that’s why this was the first one we’d seen down at bath time. After his sole foray we then both went in on a female and were thrown around until I had to ask the mahut if we could just sit on her, shattered. We were half drowned, but any negative thoughts had gone away. They are exceptionally gentle for such big creatures, having to be so careful not to roll over onto us and letting us climb all over them. It was a really good way to end our time at the park. We did also see our elephant from the day before enjoying a bath with her mahut, who was now sporting a very swollen black eye (we didn’t like to ask), and having tourists making a fuss of her.

We spent the rest of the day with our new friend Norris. He took us to his other brother’s guesthouse for a tour of the grounds and to see a project that his wife has started with 2 Dutch ladies. Ashmita organises local women to make crafts which they then export to Holland. The profits go back to the ladies and towards building a better workplace for them and a new school. It was a really touching idea. I came away with a stuffed elephant and placemats to help advertise their cause in the UK. Gary wants to go back and help build the school.

For dinner we went to Norris’ mother-in-law’s house with him and his friend Razu, and ate Nepalese curries with our fingers whilst sat cross-legged on the concrete floor. His mother-in-law served up way too much sloppy food and then proceeded to stand in the doorway and watch as I dropped most of it down me or back onto the plate. It tasted great, but eating with the fingers of one hand is not easy (the idea being that you eat with your right and wipe your bum with your left). Confident in my hygiene, I averted to using both hands and still made an almighty mess.

We went back to the fire at Norris’ restaurant after lots of bowing, smiling, and Namaste’s to our cook, according to Razu the first tourists to ever be in her house. Sat round the fire with the 2 of them, we were soon swamped by a group of young Nepalese on holiday. I was lucky enough to find myself next to Riban, who had been drinking vodka all day and wanted to discuss politics, and whether all Americans were in the KKK. Happily, I was at least able to set his mind at rest on that front. As far as politics of his own country goes, from what he, Norris and Razu say, it’s not getting better anytime soon. Corruption is everywhere, remember what Norris told us about the army leader suspected to be in cahoots with the poachers. It’s an uphill struggle for them to simply try to protect the animals in the national park, their only source of income being the tourism it brings. But sitting with them till the fire died out, we got a real sense of how much they are trying. These are good guys, trying to set up projects and unions that protect the elephants, the rhinos and tigers, and the wellbeing of the local people with no help from their own government. If anything, being hindered by their government. Gary is now hell bent on returning to help build something, and I don’t doubt we may well see Norris again in the future.

Meeting Norris and spending time with his friends showed us a totally different side to life around Chitwan. I feel so sorry for them, they are trying to hard to make life better, but some things are just too big to control. Like the fact that a tiger skin is worth 2 year’s wages for a poacher (who probably has a family of his own to support) and that if you don’t make your own money you don‘t get any money. No benefits system here. So it’s difficult to criticize the hunter, though at the same time our love of animals makes us do exactly that. But the locals rely on tourism, and if the wild animals disappear, they will have nothing left. It is in their best interests to protect what they have, but to put extra patrols out costs money that they are stuggling to find. One thing Norris said to me that sticks in my mind. When asking about the wild dogs that roam the streets with pretty awful injuries after being hit by cars, he said “how can we have animal rights when we don’t have human rights?” It’s difficult to accept, but priorities have to be different here.

Chitwan was a great place to go to escape hectic Kathmandu. But we did eventually have to leave and the next morning, after Gary got up early to go and play ‘badders’ with Razu at the military camp, we had one last coffee with Norris and left the peace behind. The journey back was ok, but I’m still over the moon that there will be no more buses for the foreseeable future.


Cremations at Pashupatinath Temple

2009-11-21 to 2009-11-23

Gary: After celebrating what would be Trish's last 'developing world' bus journey for the forseeable future (for me a time of mourning), we settled back into the Tibetan guesthouse in Kathmandu. We had one last temple to explore, so after another day of trekking around Thamel's restaurants and shops (using the word trekking makes me feel better) we took a small white taxi out to Pashupatinath.

Sitting on the banks of the holy Bagmati river, this sprawling temple is the biggest Hindu Temple of the Lord Shiva in the world. It is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and although non-Hindus are not allowed inside the main temple, the outer complex alone is a fascinating place to visit. Founded some time in the 5th century, the temple has an ancient feel. .We wandered through the main gate past a group of old women, garbed head to foot in bright yellow robes, peering at us from ancient wrinkled faces. Behind them, a cow searched for food in a pile of rubbish, and wild dogs roamed the cobbles. Peering into the Hindu-only main temple we could see the huge rear end of a giant golden bull statue

There is an old folks shelter in the grounds, and we caught glimpses of elderly and crippled Nepalese pottering around. This home exists purely on the generosity of the temple and local donations and is quite a unique place as the government gives no support to the elderly, or any other age group. The folks inside are apparently very lucky.

The holy Bagmati river runs through the centre of the complex. We stopped at the tourist entrance gate to the river area, but found that the entrance fee had more than doubled in the 2 years since our LP had been published. After checking the map we noticed a potential alternative entrance and set off down a muddy track, emerging right on the river bank, on the opposite side of the river to small groups of tourists pointing cameras towards us. And so we found ourselves right next to the cremation ghats.

In Hindu religion fire is considered a sacred gateway to the spiritual world. Cremations take place on a daily basis along the Bagmati, and two were being prepared as we arrived. We took a seat a discreet distance from the ghats (stone plateaus right on the river bank), and watched the enthralling ceremonies unfold. Holy men dressed in white carefully built up wooden pyres, coating the wood in butter. Next, 2 bodies, carefully wrapped in robes, were carried out and placed on the pyres. The holy men circled them numerous times, before covering them in more wood and straw, and setting them alight.

It seems such an alien concept to us to have such a private ceremony in public, even more so to have foreigners with cameras present. Not so here, and mourners sat along the river chatting pleasantly with each other and us. Soon waves of heat were making the whole scene shimmer, with just the feet still visible in the flames, a powerful and extraordinary scene. The holy men tended the flames with long bamboo poles, occasionally adding more wet straw, soaked in the holy waters of the river. It takes several hours for the bodies to cremate. The remains of the fire are then pushed into the river.

This otherworldly scene is made more surreal by activities on the opposite bank. As we watched, an old holy man squatted by the brown, grim looking water and brushed his teeth. Next a group of ladies arrived, carefully removed their robes, and began bathing topless in the river. Further down a game of football is underway, with play being randomly interrupted by a wandering cow. In the river itself young street kids search for coins and jewellery that they hope have fallen off the bodies, sometimes fishing for them with a magnet on a rope.

We spend our final morning in Nepal sat up on Helena’s roof top terrace. As we sit in the sun eating muesli a large protest march passes by in the streets below. Apparently thousands of people working in the hotel/restaurant industry are protesting against poor workers rights and reduced pay.

And so we leave Nepal full of conflicting thoughts and emotions….how can one of the most beautiful nations in the world remain so poor and so corrupt, and how demoralising it must feel like to know that those in power are only interested in lining their own pockets. And on a more selfish note, dealing with the reality that we are entering the very last few weeks of our trip.


Bangkok - the end of Asia

2009-11-24 to 2009-11-26

Trish: Bangkok had seemed so exotic the first time round, back in March. So noisy, chaotic and exciting, full of interesting sights, delicious smells and a whole new culture for us, as our first port of call in Asia. But as we sat sipping coke and beer on the Khao San Road in the early hours after our late flight in, it suddenly struck us how much our mindsets and expectations have changed in the last 8 months. Suddenly the smells weren’t that great, the noise of competing bars was a bit irritating, and the constant stream of stereotypical English tourists going by was just, well, awful. We put it down to jetlag and went to bed.

The next few days went past pleasantly enough, though the excitement of the Khao San area for us has definitely worn off. We went a bit upmarket, deciding to pay £5 instead of £3 for our daily massages, opting for an actual spa rather than a hairdresser’s with a massage parlour above, and enjoyed the soothing sounds of traditional Thai music as we were pummelled into ‘relaxation’. We started our days with croissants instead of the fried coconut balls sold on the street (which had seemed such a wonderful breakfast in March), and I gradually covered the entire selection of shops and stalls which run down the sides of every nearby street, adding to Gary’s frustration levels as he tried to calculate how much of it wouldn’t fit in my pack and would therefore have to go in his. 

It’s peak season here now, supposedly cooler and less rainfall. But it is still pretty hot and humid, and the majority of every day was spent, between browsing, either sat in a spa or a café watching the world go by. The one thing we are still enamoured with about Bangkok is that it covers all of our Thai food needs. Pad Thai’s on the street for lunch at 50p a plate, and great curries for dinner for a pound or so. Yes, Thailand has the best food in the whole of Asia, it’s official (possibly tying with a good Peking duck and pancakes, but since that is the only thing worth eating in China and you can only get it in Beijing I’m not counting it). We spent a lot of our days looking forward to dinnertime. 

After dinner, by which time we had usually lost our voices after having to shout to be heard over the resident Thai musicians and their tremendous renditions of classic western tunes – all r’s and l’s replaced by w’s and if you don’t know the actual words just make up your own – we’d sit and fend off salesmen and women with traditional hats, fake wallets, giant lighters, croaking wooden frogs, lasers and jewellery etc and talk about how much we missed the laid back Thai and Indonesian islander life where the biggest worry was whether to get up and get on the dive boat or not. I feel like we will be returning for a second bite at that life, just a little bit at least.

We had a tremendous night out with our friend Fabien, at the same time the coolest and most French French person we have met. We last saw Fabien when we were on Pulau Weh back in July/August, he was doing his divemaster at Lumba Lumba while we spent a month of complete chilling exploring the house reef and hanging around the diveshop. Filmmaker and photographer, he has just got his first job as an underwater videographer on India’s Andaman Islands and we spent a very jealous evening listening to him tell us how amazing it is going to be. His lovely Japanese girlfriend, Marico, is going with him to relax and further her dive qualifications. Now that sounds like a proper relationship… he’s working while she goes diving. I need to speak to Gary.

It was of no great surprise to me when we packed up our bags and I got everything in. Well, ok, we now have 2 enormous backpacks, 2 large Northface duffelbag-style handluggages and Gary’s small rucksack, and they are all rammed and we might have to pay excess baggage, but everything purchased was absolutely necessary and those sequined elephant cushion covers will be a talking point for years.

Very sad to be leaving Asia, but it’s not forever. We have to keep telling ourselves that because we are both now pretty sad. It’s ridiculous, but I can’t stop crying about leaving the continent where I have faced the most terrible toilet facilities and personal space invasions of my life!


Back in the USA

2009-11-27 to 2009-12-01

Trish: It was a long journey from Bangkok to San Francisco via Japan and, thanks to the international dateline, after 17 hours of travel we arrived in the USA at 10am on the same morning we had taken off from Thailand, giving us another whole day to try to stay awake. Our friend and old Enterprise colleague Dave was waiting for us at the airport, nearly a year and a half since we last saw him sailing off into the sunset on a catamaran from Utila to catch a plane home to the UK from the neighbouring island of Roatan. Since then he’s been promoted over to San Francisco giving us another reason to re-route through the city on our way home.

That day was written off halfway through lunch in a bayside pub when we were served enormous tequilas by the barman as a welcome to the US. Even more so when Gary ordered another round. He slept all afternoon and night on the sofa while the Dave and I watched boxset after boxset of tv shows we’ve missed out on.

The next day Dave bravely drove us out to the Napa Valley in the holiday traffic (day after Thanksgiving) where we looked at enormous houses set in beautiful vineyards and wondered if Dave could buy one and we could be lodgers. Lunch on the bay was followed swiftly by Gary passing out again on the sofa for the rest of the day and night, and me and Dave getting into a new session of films and sitcoms. That night we were introduced to ‘Gavin and Stacey’ for the first time. Brilliant. 

The days in San Francisco passed quickly, as they always do, but we had a bit of normality as we pottered around Dave’s pad overlooking the city, unpacked our enormous bags, did laundry and went to nearby coffee shops where we ate smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels and watched the well to-do locals walking their dogs and their children in the park. Dave took some more time off and we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to see the otters and sharks –they had just released their 3rd Great White Shark, the only aquarium in the world to have and keep alive one of these awesome predators. Sadly for us, but not the shark, we missed him by a month. And now Gary was able to stay awake, we managed some restaurants in the city for great Mexican and Italian dinners.

We caught up with our friends Sara and Mona and their daughter Elena, who we had stayed with about this time last year and then catsat for while they went to Mexico. Elena was only about 6 months back then and a year on we were surprised to find a proper walking and talking (well, sort of throwing words out there, anyway) pretty little girl. They have moved out of their flat in the city to a really lovely house in the suburbs with a garden for Elena, and it was great to see them and to think how much we have all done in a year. The cats were around but showed complete indifference to us after we looked after them so well last year.

One last day in San Francisco before we head to Vegas, and I wanted to sit watching the sealions on Pier 39 whilst eating clam chowder, the typical tourist thing that all the locals take the mickey out of. I didn’t care. There were Christmas decorations up along the promenade as we walked along the bay, and the sun was shining. Clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl was purchased and we headed for the sealions’ hangout, only to find it empty. Last year there were over 1000 sealions fighting for space on the floating docks, this year we counted 19. We couldn’t find anyone to tell us why, but to dispell my fears that they have been poisoned by pollution, affected by global warming or culled, Gary said there was probably a big school of sardines out in the bay and they were all out there having the feed of their lives. I prefer his story, but it was very weird. 

One last night with Dave in his bachelor pad throwing around awful, but we thought hilarious, quotes from our new favourite tv shows ‘Gavin and Stacey’ and ‘The inbetweeners’ and I found myself yet again conducting the precise military operation of packing my bags. Tomorrow we leave for Las Vegas to see Mum and Dad who have been living it up there for a week already. Last time they went to Vegas me and Gary enjoyed free meals for days after they left thanks to their comps earned from excessive gambling so we’re hoping to have some more of that in our first few days in town before the raucous Wickendens arrive.


Vegas, one step from home

2009-12-03 to 2009-12-09

Gary: It was a very short flight from San Fran down to Vegas, with superb views of the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains and the surreal nothingness of Death Valley. It certainly didn’t feel like a year since we last chugged out of Vegas and through the desert in Steve French during our US road trip.

Flying home via a week's holiday in Vegas was definitely not the obvious choice, a far from budget destination to end our 2 years of travels in. But Trish’s nephew Greg is coming out for his 21st with some of the rest of the family, and it seemed only right that we swing by. We felt a little odd ambling through the vast foyer at Caesars Palace with our old and now very used packs on our backs, but our hippie charm/luck held true and we were soon unpacking in an upgraded suite with 2 bathrooms.

The next day we hit the cheap casinos with Bridget and Patrick, feeling a little more comfortable with 3 dollar minimum bets. A few hours later Trish and I trooped out with heads bowed, we had blown about a week’s travel budget, and it felt bad. We kept a low profile for the rest of the day, hiding from the dangerously seductive bright lights of the strip and waiting for Greg, Tony, Ann and Charlie to arrive.

Saturday was Greg’s big day, or it would be by 12pm midnight. In the evening Caesars was rammed and impressive, the ‘Pussycat Dolls’ section full of skimpily clad cage dancers and fine croupiers with enormous false boobs. Greg skulked around the tables, fed up with been waved away by strict staff, but keenly eyeing his watch. Just before midnight we approached a roulette table, and the fine young lady began a countdown…and at exactly 12am Greg began his assault on the world of gambling. Well financed with some pre-birthday funds he charged around Caesars like a man possessed, even seen popping up in the high rollers section throwing $25 chips around with abandon. Astonishingly, a few hours later, the young whipper-snapper was well up and loving it. Perturbed I had one last stab on roulette, and after a miraculous first half hour was over $400 up!! I stumbled off to bed about 3am, laughing as I watched Greg drunkenly heading off towards the Bellagio….living the Vegas dream.

After my win we were in love with Vegas once more. Keeping hold of our win all day, inspite of the family over-exciting Trish into losing a big pile of chips on Blackjack (Trish: "Let it ride" they all shouted, then watched in subdued silence as I lost the lot!), we then had a fantastic dinner at the revolving Stratosphere restaurant, courtesy of Tony & Ann. Wine and bubbly flowed and at least half of our party were more than merry….Greg sadly lamenting that it was his 21st and his Nan was drunker than he was. Trish and Greg tried to do all 3 of the crazy rides at the top, but gale force winds limited them to 2. 

The next day was Charlie’s turn to win big….almost 500 bucks on roulette. Incredibly my run of luck continued, and I even amassed an unprecedented few hundred dollars on the slot machines while Trish got happily lost in the maze of boutiques lining Ceasar’s Palace Forum mall. Patrick very kindly treat us all to the new Cirque De Soleil show at the Wynn....followed by outrageous comedy food at Serendipity’s. We tucked in to hilarious foot long hot dogs, giant bowls of nachos and watched slices of cake you could sit on go past as Trish and Greg formed a mastermind plot for 'How to guarantee a win every time on roulette'. (Needless to say several hours later they were both looking rather more sullen-faced as their plan fell apart.) Trish and I shrewdly chose this as our treat, a healthy distance down the strip from the Wynn!!

Bizarrely it snowed during our last 2 days. Not actually in Vegas but the surrounding desert peaks looked magnificent covered in snow. Tony, Ann and Greg were lucky enough to do a helicopter flight and see the Grand Canyon topped with snow. The week was over quickly, a great success….I must have broken even which is unheard of.

Trish and I headed off to the airport feeling a little unsettled. The last time we left Vegas we had more than a year of travel ahead of us. Now we were 2 flights from London, and very apprehensive….so many incredible memories, and yet it had passed so quickly. Having palmed lots of luggage and souvenirs onto Patrick & Bridget we headed for our connecting flight in LA light of luggage but heavy of heart.


Back in Blighty

2009-12-10 to 2010-01-14

Gary:  It was an emotional ceremony, completely emptying our packs back at Stonehouse, Trish’s parents house and our new hostel. Bridget declared our bags smelled earthy, a compliment really after 23 months and several days on the road. Two large boxes posted by us from Bali had against all odds made it to England via cargo boat in less than 3 months …and despite a damaged plate everything else had survived, producing lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from Trish and her mum as they realised the wealth of goods inside.

Before going away planning a trip for a year and a half had been a daunting task, it was difficult to imagine being away for such a long time. 2 years and 26 countries later, however, and I think we found ourselves in shock that it was all over. In fact, I ‘m sure we were both unable to label it ‘the end’. Instead we adopted a temporary mindset, more in keeping with our hobo lifestyle. Trish said it felt like we were “just visiting” England for Christmas rather than returning for good.

Adjusting to the unusual feelings of being home thus became easier then we had feared. It took several days to reach things at the bottom of the huge pile of our belongings stored for 2 years in Trish’s old bedroom, and Stonehouse was a hubbub of activity as we settled in. It was exciting just to have constant hot water, a cooker and a fridge, and cupboards that miraculously kept re-stocking themselves with tasty food. Trish’s parents appeared delighted to have us back, well certainly their daughter at least…although Patrick seemed a little perturbed by the rate at which his supplies of speciality coffee and cheeses began to decline!

A week flew by, and we decided that we were due a mini break!! With huge smiles on our faces we packed overnight bags and walking boots into Trish’s Mums Jag (much to the surprise of Trish’s brothers) and took off west to the Cotswolds. Our friends Richard and Clare, who themselves had spent 5 months travelling Asia earlier in the year, had booked a rather charming looking cottage for a romantic weekend, and strangely had insisted that we make use of the spare room. The Jag was no Steve French, but we certainly arrived in style.

We had a perfect weekend really, staying in a rustic 17th century cottage in a village oozing charm in the heart of the Cotswolds. We tramped along part of the Cotswolds way, and ate parsnip curry soup in a country pub by a roaring fire as it snowed outside. It was so romantic we almost formed a swingers group! Well, actually no but it was great fun.
The light flurry of snow turned out to be the start of some serious winter weather, and the whole of the UK was soon under a blanket of snow. As usual Blighty ground to a halt, councils ran out of grit, and commuters faced travel chaos. We, however, loved it, walking Poppy (Trish’s mums nice but dim and disobedient Shitzu) in the woods and eating lots of hearty comfort food.

I took a train up to Leeds a few days before Christmas and caught up with a bunch of friends I had not seen for two and a half years. For the first time I really felt we had been away for a long time… everyone was married, buying bigger houses with gardens, and even having babies. Some of the lads who used to practically live in the pub spent the night making funny noises at someone’s toddler!

 Over to Hull next, where it was great to see the folks, my sister and more old friends. My Dad is now proudly retired and seemed to have settled into his new role smoothly; Sky HD was installed, along with new flat screen TV, and even a new cooker. It was soon apparent however that his cooking repertoire had remained unchanged… a steady beans on toast. Christmas day was all about food, rustling up a big old turkey, with the online help of Jamie Oliver and Delia Smith, neither of whom could have foreseen the near disaster caused by the new oven having a faulty thermostat. After a much larger (and probably drunken) festive family gathering down in London, Trish waved her folks off to Tenerife a few days later then reluctantly drove up North, still in the Jag. Adverse weather conditions meant it took her over 3 hours just to get round the M25, and seven hours later she rumbled up my parents drive, confirming her distaste for the North.

Back down south we had Stonehouse to ourselves. Despite very obviously ‘not working’, the days flew by, mainly running, visiting the gym, walking Poppy in the snow, and going to the dentist after 2 years away. I survived with nothing more than a build up of plaque and a lecture, Trish unfortunately was paying the price for her global coke-athon. We caught up with London friends and had dinner at Trish’s brothers. We even roasted another huge turkey, and force-fed anyone who came near Stonehouse with turkey soup, curry, even chilli con turkey!

Before we could say, “where next then?” a month had gone by. The snow began to melt, and the winter wonderland turned into a cold slushy traffic jam. This was definitely our signal, we packed more bags, something we are now definitely very good at, and legged it to Gatwick airport. It was like getting back from an unusual holiday to something familiar….we grinned foolishly at each other as we boarded the plane, shades on ready for winter 4 hours south in Tenerife.

It feels a little self indulgent continuing our blog, but when our site approached it’s expiry date in January we actually began to panic. Also, and to our great surprise, some of our new, and old, friends across the globe seemed to want us to continue. And so we have, a great way to keep in touch, and keep those big softies ‘down under’, happy!

We still don’t know what we’re going to do next. For the moment we are busy decorating the apartment in Los Cristianos and having a massive catch-up of DVD series we’ve missed over the last 2 years. And of course, trying to decide… “where next?”…


The perfect renovation project

2010-01-15 to 2010-02-24

Trish: It seems odd that I am sitting here writing a blog entry from Tenerife. It’s hardly some far flung, off-the-beaten-track destination full of undiscovered wonders. It doesn’t have roaming wildlife, and we are by no means the only tourists in town. It is a far cry from our blogs of the past. But here we are, and here to stay for another month or so by the looks of it. So we are making our most of the rent-free apartment by the sea in the winter sunshine. Waking up to sunshine and the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach below. It’s tough.

The reason for this entry is purely to say hello as we ponder the possibility of another flight out of England to a more remote land sometime soon. No plans are made, though many, many, many have been discussed, a few discarded, and a few underlined. As friends across the globe update us with their adventures our list is getting longer and at this rate we’ll never be able to decide. The main problem is that all of our ideas seem awesome (to us) and we don’t want to give any of them up, which means we’ll be living out of our backpacks for the next 7 years. We are living out here planning adventures like 2 little Peter Pans, not wanting to grow up, but as one friend put it, ‘feeling social pressure’ to be sensible. 

For the first week we were in Tenerife, Mum and Dad were still here so we had a bit of a holiday…sunbathing, swimming, going out to nice restaurants etc. Our primary function of being here for the next few months is to oversee kitchen installation and conduct general repairs after water damage last year (our primary reason for being here is that getting a proper job in England straight away sounded like a terrible idea), and so a new kitchen was ordered, and other reparations were discussed.

As soon as Mum and Dad left, we got straight to work, turning the flat into a building site. Alan, our Tenerife ‘man who can’, knocked out one of the bathrooms and transformed it into something a little more modern while we repaired walls, painted bedrooms, fitted new lights, spent Dad’s money in Tenerife Ikea, and started lots of jobs we couldn’t finish without Alan’s help. Much the same sort of thing as we used to do in our own flat in Blackheath to test my brother Terry’s patience.

The weather seriously deteriorated towards the end of January, culminating in a big storm and a night of hurricane-force winds. We could hear the thunder and see the lightening out at sea, the windows were shaking in and out, but we slept soundly enough. We woke up the next morning to see boats upturned halfway up the beach, the little sailing club on the beach in front of us was all smashed up, their boats picked up by the waves and thrown down on top of each other, sand everywhere, beach chairs everywhere. Gary took the camera with him on his morning run and it seems the devastation was widespread across all the southern beaches. In the north of the island they had severe flooding and landslides as rainwater surged down the ‘barrancos’ (storm gullys) from the mountains. We even made BBC world news.

By the time our first visitor arrived, early February, about 1/3 of the flat was done. After confirming that we fitted his student’s criteria of ‘would he be able to come for 5 nights with only 100 Euros?’, my nephew Greg strode off the plane with a small bag and big drinking intentions. The sun had come back by now so we used his visit as an excuse for a break from our 9-5 working days. After a day’s solid sunbathing, we hit the new water park, frustrating Gary ‘I only want to go on each ride once’ Peart by relentlessly throwing ourselves down the slides and riding the wave lagoon surf for 6 hours. We played a bit of golf, ate a lot of fish’n’chips at Brian’s English café downstairs (it’s cheap and good!), and got Greg hooked on House dvds. The Nintendo Wii came into it’s own by night as a surprising tool for Greg to use to get us drunk on various ancient liqueurs he found in the back of Mum and Dad’s booze cabinet. Not surprisingly, when we played ‘loser has to drink the biggest shot of Freslich or Absynthe’ and I lost, I wasn’t any better on my next go, or the one after that. Greg and I were very sick that night.

So, after 5 nights of being treated like his student housemates, we put the Grigstah back on a flight to England and our bodies heaved a big sigh of relief. We put the Freslich (a strawberry liqueur from the 70’s I think) back in the cupboard and started our morning jogs and healthy eating once again. Fish’n’chips is out, pasta with broccoli and chillies is in.

Kitchen fittings started to arrive and Alan came back to knock out the old cabinets and prepare to fit the new ones. We re-started our redecorating campaign by finishing off the bathroom and getting more rooms painted. I am getting to know the guys at the electrics shop pretty well as I try to update the plugs and switches from the ones that came attached to the apartment 25 years ago, I can tell their hearts sink when I walk in at the thought of having to explain something to me again when we don’t speak each other’s language and I know nothing about plugs and switches.

By the end of February the kitchen was all but done, with just the granite top to go in. And, being Spain, that may or may not happen in the next 2 weeks. Another storm set in for a week, and we had more rain and high winds, but it seems that in comparison to Madeira we are getting off light. We had our second visitor arrive in the form of Mr Richard Stokoe, friend and political spin-doctor, landing on an island without power. We searched Cristianos for a restaurant with gas power and ended up eating fresh sardines and garlic prawns down a little back street. This led to a running theme of his time with us. The power came back on late that night and by the morning the storm had passed.

We had already applied for permits to climb Teide with Rich, it being a National Park now you have to give a week’s notice, and had a window of 2 hours on the Friday to reach the summit. We drove up towards the start of the 5 hour trek (yes, can you tell that this was not my idea) only to find that the 2 storms of the previous 3 weeks had brought snow and ice to the highlands. The road was closed even before we reached the plateau that Teide looms over, and so we walked along the icy path for 5km or so until we at least got to see her. I have never, in 29 years, seen this much snow around Teide. It was really weird, because we could see the sun-bathed beaches of Cristianos and Americas below and we were in a foot of snow. So we ate our sandwiches in the snow, surrounded by Canarian families pushing their children around on home-made sleds, in the same picnic spot where we would usually be soaking up the rays after a trip up to the volcano.

Rich very quickly settled into a routine of reading on the balcony, swimming in the pool, and, of course, playing on the Wii. He also introduced a new element to our island living by purchasing a batch of fresh sardines and langostines one afternoon to fry up with garlic and chillies. Mmm. Once again I found myself being shooed away from the kitchen while the boys set their creative minds to a gourmet Canarian lunch. And as usual, not only was it delicious but they seemed to enjoy doing it so it was repeated a couple of days later. As far as cooking goes, I seem to have found myself in the rare and envied position of it ‘not being my job’ (‘my job’ currently being electrician and wall-filler, both of which I am considerably better at than cooking).

Rich left, having fulfilled his desire to eat sardines everyday and get a tan, to go back to work in cold and dreary London, feeling very sorry for us and our current lifestyle. And we are back to the 9-5 Grand Designs project. It’s getting there. We have a week before Gary’s mum and dad arrive to get things a little more finished. Our routine is, once again, running, swimming, filling holes and painting walls, installing appliances, fixing things, playing golf with mum and dad’s friends Sylvie and Keith, eating pasta and broccoli, and watching dvds. And trying to decide between diving with swimming elephants in the Andaman Islands, whale sharks in Thailand, wrecks in Indonesia and Palau, climbing mountains in Nepal (Gary’s choice – I have already put a line through, not under, that one), searching for bears in Newfoundland, or any of another 20 possibilities on our To-do list.

We still don’t know, but the Peter Pan syndrome is definitely winning over the social pressures!


It's a dogs life

2010-02-25 to 2010-03-28

Gary: With our second guest packed up and pleasantly dispatched to the airport we put our working hats back on. This phrase makes us feel better and socially slightly more accepted. We no doubt made another visit to Ikea, where we probably ambled slowly round the entire shop looking at remarkably familiar items as though for the first time. Trish fails to understand my frustration as we wander slowly passed rows of candles and desks, and are welcomed back by the ladies in the photo frame section. We are also regular visitors to every ferreteria (hardware shop) in southern Tenerife, where we continue to ask for obscure items in a bizarre mix of Spanish, English and sign language.

As a treat we took ourselves off on a walk. Roque del Conde, or flat top mountain, looms 1000m above Cristianos and Americas. We parked the car early in a little village called Vento, stealthily waking every village dog in the process. Having triggered the dawn chorus, we headed quickly away and upwards. It turned out to be a great walk, crossing large barrancos (storm gullies from Teide) and passing abandoned farm houses, through a landscape of cactus and rock. It was a steep switchback climb up to the surprisingly large summit. Way back when, hardy farmers had actually terraced the summit, and these huge steps remain today. We enjoyed great views of southern Tenerife and Teide, ate our disappointing packed lunch of a banana each, and headed down. 

We have continued to play golf once a week with Sylvie and Keith, and I even managed to win a few rounds, an event unheard of before my lesson with Nacho, the obviously very gifted local pro.

The apartment is actually coming along nicely. Trish has successfully replaced every switch and plug and is still alive. As the day of my parents arrival approached we finished all the bedrooms, and in a miracle of timing sold a bunch of stuff to the second hand man, who removed them literally minutes before the guys arrived to fit the granite worktops in the kitchen, who finished this dusty job literally minutes after I got back from the airport with mum and dad.

After struggling through 2 months of particularly wintery UK winter weather my folks embraced the balcony, reclining with audible sighs of relief and proceeding to burn their faces joyfully. My Dad was still recovering from a knee operation several weeks before, and being stuck in one position on the 4 hour flight certainly hadn’t helped. Trish and I offered little sympathy other than a choice of restaurants ‘close’ to the apartment that they could take us to.

After weeks of very varied weather (by Tenerife standards), it was a relief to get a week of sun. Dad set about testing his knee by walking round town and swimming in the pool, which certainly seemed to make it worse! Any hopes he had that this, and the recently finished kitchen, would result in us cooking, were soon dashed. We ventured out most evenings, sampling a range of our favourite restaurants in Cristianos.

Peace and quiet, and the TV remote, soon returned as my folks headed home, and had to scrape ice off their car at Manchester airport. Trish and I finished off more odds and ends, and suddenly began to feel a bit restless. Bored is too spoilt a description, but suddenly without purpose or an imminent next destination we began to mildly panic. There is only so much running, swimming and sun bathing you can do in a day.

Help came from an unlikely source. Trish took us off one morning with a car full of bric-a-brac to the K9 animal rescue centre, up in the hills behind the airport. Here a team of selfless volunteers have set up kennels for abandoned and mistreated dogs and cats. Relying totally on donations and very limited help from the Spanish authorities they have become a victim of their own success…they now provide a home for some 70-80 dogs and a bunch of cats. As you can imagine, it takes all their efforts just to keep them cleaned and fed. They desperately needed volunteers to walk dogs, and made the particularly good move of telling Trish this. And so for the past few weeks we have spent 2-3 hours every other morning walking a batch of very happy and sometimes terrified dogs.

We have become fond of several of these dogs, and it keeps us out of trouble, mostly. On our second morning I turned around to see one of the dogs, a lean whippet shaped beast, sprinting loose across the rocky valley with Trish running helplessly behind it waving a biscuit. Luckily it made its way straight back to the kennels. Keen to help her save face, on the next visit we bravely started to take out 2 dogs at a time each, and I immediately lost a spaniel, who only returned after 20 minutes of exhausting lizard chasing freedom. Not only does it keep us fit, but we get great satisfaction from how excited the dogs are to get out and about! The only danger is stopping Trish taking them back home….watch out Patrick is all I can say (Trish: Aah, I do love Punchy but I think he might eat my cats).

The apartment is now almost finished, and our life here is very fine indeed. On Sunday we opened up the sliding doors next to the TV, and sprawled in the sun watching the Grand Prix. We have been on another walk, this time to the rather precarious summit of Roque del Imonde, where we sat and ate lunch on a narrow ledge several hundred feet above the valley below, gazing out across the Atlantic. We have a week to ‘finish things off’, mainly Trish re-framing photos and me training for an imaginary triathlon, before the real owners arrive to assess our efforts…and maybe take us out for dinner!


The problem with volcanoes is not just that we always have to climb them...

2010-03-29 to 2010-04-27

Trish: We are currently sat on Monarch flight 287 to London Gatwick, a return home delayed by exactly one week due to the clouds of volcanic ash pumped into the skies over much of Europe by Eyjafjallajoekull, one of Iceland’s not-quite-so-dormant-as-we-thought volcanoes. This brings our total time in Tenerife to 3 and a half months, the longest we have spent in one country for nearly 2 and a half years.

My parents arrived to inspect the apartment just over 3 weeks ago and gave it the thumbs up. Their arrival marked the end of any last-minute changes or additions, and I can happily say that the renovation project is finished. They now have 3 days before their own flight home in which to move furniture around, nail old mis-matched photoframes back onto our lovely almost-bare walls, and generally re-clutter. They have been warned.
Lucky for me, Gary’s second hopeful application for a permit to climb Mt Teide coincided with a beautiful clear day and we were able to attempt, on foot, a bid for the summit of the highest mountain in Spain and one of the highest volcanoes in the world. Unprepared for actually doing, rather than just talking about, such a task, I found myself suffering two-fold. One: the pain. Two: the indignity of having to wear my mothers 90’s purple and white Gucci shell suit for warmth at the start and again at the summit. Gary was equally shocked that I agreed to do the climb with him, and that I did it dressed as an Italian skier.
From where we left the car on the plateau that the main cone of Teide rises up from, the path meandered uphill for a mile or so before becoming a series of scree slopes of igneous rocks. Here we passed the ‘eggs of Teide’ – huge boulders thrown out by the last eruption which sit at gravity-defying angles embedded in the side of the mountain. After an hour we reached the start of the huge steep cone, a dusty path zigzagging up towards the top through cactus and boulders. A hard climb, especially in the blazing sunshine, the top of this proved over and over again to be an optical illusion. For every ‘final ridge’ we conquered, another appeared 100 metres higher up. The higher we got, the less plant life there was, the cactus-strewn dusty track becoming huge bare lava flows, which in turn became snowfields. It was just starting to feel like this hadn’t been such a great idea after all when Gary spotted the cable car station (which we had chosen not to use because apparently it wouldn’t have been the same challenge to add to our repertoire of terrible mountains conquered).

It took just under 4 hours of hard work to reach the top of the cable-car, and then another half hour to reach the top of the volcano, mainly because either the altitude (3700m) or the gross amount of nuts and raisins I’d eaten for the previous 2 hours didn’t agree with me. But we made it up in our allotted time and ate our lunch on the top of the summit cone while looking out over a 360 degree view of 5 of the 7 islands in the Canaries (Tenerife, La Gomera, Las Palmas, El Hierro and Gran Canaria – Lanzarote and Fuertaventura being just that little bit too far away to see). We couldn’t have picked a better day, and returned to the apartment that evening bronzed and shattered, to a heroes welcome secretly happy that we (I) will never have to ever do it again.

Our dog-walking continued up until just yesterday when we finally had to say goodbye to our new canine buddies of whom we have become very fond. For the last 7 or 8 weeks we have been up at K9 rescue kennels 2 or 3 times a week walking Julie, Gary (the dog), Sonny, Punchy, Honey, Jasmine, Pooch, Kerry, Jose and whoever else is waiting by their empty food bowl when we get back with the previous pair. It’s started as a great way to fill our time when the decorating was done, and became something to really look forward to each week. As we have got to know the dogs better, and vice-versa, we have been able to let a lot of them off their leads during our walks, meaning we are less tired and they are more tired. I am still covered in a multitude of scratches and bruises, only yesterday I was knocked backwards rather embarrassingly into a thorn bush by a big black Labrador-cross called Gary who wanted the biscuit I was stupidly wielding whilst looking the other way. Gary my fiance, incidentally, walks Gary the dog and this proves rather odd at times as he trudges along shouting his own name.

All the puppies that had just come in (been dumped) when we started have been re-homed, as well as a few of the bigger dogs. Several have been sent to animal rescue centres in Germany which are apparently half empty as the Germans are much nicer to their pets than the English and Spanish, and several have gone straight to homes in England. One of our favourites, Sonny, was taken by a Spanish family a couple of weeks ago, and another, Oscar - a huge dog the size of a small horse – went to a home on the island at the weekend after living at K9 for 4 years. So even though there are always new dogs being brought to the kennels, or simply left in empty apartments when their owners decide they want to move back to the UK without them, K9 isn’t a sad place. The full-time volunteers love them, they get regular meals, regular walks, and are healthy. It’s not ideal, but it’s a good place for them to wait for, hopefully, a new and more permanent home.
We have our favourite dogs, of course, and who knows… if we find ourselves living somewhere with a garden in a year or 2 we may well be sharing that garden with a large and extremely strong Alsatian called Julie, a gorgeous cross-breed called Punchy and a Podenco (Canarian hunting dog) called Honey.

Mum and Dad have been here for 3 weeks, also delayed in going home a week by the volcanic ash clouds. We have enjoyed good food out and good food in with our new kitchen to use. We’ve played more golf, being finally elevated to a real 18-hole course and not just the 9-hole par 3. Gary won that, too, which was both surprising and a little annoying to both me and my Dad. We went to a charity race-night in honour of K9, and Mum came out for a walk with the dogs with us just the once, spending more time pushing biscuits through the cage doors than actual walking. We’ve Scrabbled harder than ever before, me coming out the overall victor, of course. Gary has worked on his reputation in the apartment block as ‘The Swimmer’ by doing up to 300 lengths a day, venturing a few times into the ocean but preferring the pool where he suffers under the admiring gazes of the female over-50’s residents. And now we are going home.
But if anybody apart from us is still reading our blog, don’t worry, we haven’t let social pressures of being sensible hold us back. We’ve decided to return to Indonesia mid-May for a final travel campaign. Well, that’s what we keep telling ourselves.


Back to Indonesia... the adventure continues

2010-05-19 to 2010-06-06

Trish: 3 weeks in England gave us just enough time to catch up with friends and family, win the village pub quiz, turn Stonehouse garden into a bird-feeding frenzy, and get new visas for Indonesia, then before I knew it we were back on a plane headed for Pulau Weh. 2 days worth of travel - plane to Dubai, plane to KL, overnight there, plane to Banda Aceh, bus, ferry, bus - was so worth it as we pulled up at Lumba Lumba diveshop on sleepy Gapang beach.

It's an easy place to settle into. There's a couple of familiar faces in a new crowd, but the laid-back atmosphere remains as diving dominates the conversation. The budget rooms are finished, so instead of last year's precarious drop outside our balcony door we have a small terrace with chairs, and proper neighbours as opposed to random workmen. We even have an ensuite with a western toilet and large sink area for me to really turn into a girly bathroom with my Lush soaps, moisturisers, facepacks and hair conditioners. Gary is appalled by the amount of these things that I produced from my pack.

The first couple of weeks on the beach have flown by. We are now running the desk in the shop, handling admin, accomodation and new divers, and guiding when needed. It's an easy job for 2 people to share and we both get out diving at least once a day, whether on the boat or the housereef. The downside of this is that we don't get to dive together, as one of us always has to be in the shop, but the upside is that the majority of the staff are guys so I always have a posse of young men to discover underwater wonders with. The diving's fabulous, just as we remembered from last year. The housereef alone, 20m from our desk, is worth diving every day. We have octopus, turtles, frogfish, stingrays, morays, hoards of lionfish, and all the usual fishy suspects. Some eagle rays were seen last week, and we also have a rare purple lacey scorpionfish making it's home at 13m. One of the instructors, Sunny, is making artificial reefs out on the sand in 14m depth and someone is always heading out each day to add more bottles, chairs, palm leaves, and whatever else can be recycled as useful reef materials. To any non-divers it is impossible to explain the excitement produced by a school of glassfish, a puffer, and a pipefish moving in to one of Sunny's reefs, and the hopeful chatterings on the balcony at night about how we could make the positioning of chairs more attractive to fish looking for a new home. One thing that is guaranteed here is that if you build it, lionfish will come.

The boat dives are tremendous underwater landscapes of boulders, walls, and huge fan corals. We often see sharks out at the further sites, sometimes manta rays. And if not, then you can at least be sure of a great dive joining myriads of other fish battling the ripping currents. 2 days ago when we surfaced we had a pod of over 100 spinner dolphins a hundred metres away that we then followed in the boat, but as soon as we jumped back in with snorkel gear on they scarpered. They used to be hunted here for shark bait, so they're naturally quite skittish.

We've taken loads of photos already, a selection of our favourites are attached to our blog, the other hundreds are filed away in the depths of our 500gb hard drive.

Up until 2 days ago it was unbelievably hot and humid, sleeping was a chore even under a fan going at full whack. Gary's been running every day regardless, I joined him once and thought I was going to spontaneously combust. The nights sat on the diveshop balcony were still and sticky, and the water temperature was rising to 31 degrees causing all manner of coral bleaching. We desperately needed rain to cool things down. And then, 2 days ago, the heavens opened and it has been an almost non-stop torrential deluge ever since. This is tropical rain, a wall of water that gets under your mac, into buildings, and prevents anything drying. But we're not complaining. The water temperature is cooling a little and sleeping well at night is possible again. With the rain comes the power cuts, and with the internet down it's back to backgammon while we wait for dinner to be delivered from the cafe next door. No-one really leaves the shop except to dive and sleep.

Thursday nights and Friday mornings are now strictly dive-free as we have to stay out of the water in the local tradition of respect for the sea. So Thursday's are party night, if you can call our gatherings on the same balcony that we always sit on every other night of the week that. Last week we got a big red snapper from one of the fishermen and had a bbq with all the staff and strangely only the hot young female guests. In typical Indonesian preparation style, the snapper lay in a bucket in the toilet all day waiting to be bbq'd. The cleaning ladies cooked us some local side dishes, we laid out 2 long tables, and it was just like being back at school dinners, till the home-brewed banana brandy took over. On a small beach where nothing really happens, the people around you become your best friends very quickly, it's a happy atmosphere.

Diving continues regardless of the weather. The boat went out fully loaded with guests this morning in the torrential rain. As I write this Gary is out adding more bottles to the chair-reef, and there's a half-drowned bird found on the beach warming up in the compressor room wrapped in one of the crew's t-shirts. I'm going out later to spend a dive cutting fishing lines from the corals around the pier, and for all this time we are 'at work'. Oh, I've just been to check on the bird and it is dead, I can't be sure but I think one of the locals just told me he smashed it's head on the ground to put in out of it's misery. There's a bittersweet taste in the air.


Working hard: Mantis-feeds, bbqs, and too much banana brandy

2010-06-07 to 2010-07-07

Gary: The last time I wrote a blog entry was sometime in March, probably sat on the balcony in Los Cristianos, Tenerife. After we finished 'modernising' the apartment there I can remember wishing away the days until we got back to London so we could start preparing for another visit to Asia. And now I'm sat on the balcony of our bungalow on Gapang beach, Pulau Weh, Sumatra, and it's August already and we have just extended our Indonesian visa to 90 days! Time here slips by deceptively fast, days drift into weeks very quickly, and June is already a blur of diving, farewell bbq's, and a constant stream of weird and wonderful customers passing through the Lumba Lumba dive shop.

Adjusting to 'working life' again has been easier than expected, though I'm sure anyone reading this at home will laugh at the very suggestion. On the one hand we are probably putting in far longer hours here than when we worked in London. After a morning run I generally open the dive shop at around 7.45, while Trish potters in an hour later. I'm normally accompanied down to the shop by Mama the dog and occasionally Henry her toy boy. Breakfast is marmite on toast and a fruit salad, sat at the desk a few yards from the ocean. The local dive guides and cleaning ladies appear, smiling patiently at my poor attempts at Indonesian, and the hustle and bustle of a day at Lumba Lumba begins.

Fortunately for us, though not so for Ton and Marjan the Dutch owners, the shop is quieter than usual through June. This results in a tremendous amount of fun diving for me, Trish and the rest of the western dive staff. Despite arriving not long before the morning dive boat heads out, Trish has often already planned a 'beyond PADI limits' deep dive and grabs her dive gear leaving me to hold the fort. After lunch I head out onto the house reef, camera in hand and spend a 2 hour dive taking pictures of frog fish, ghost pipe fish, and a host of other weird critters. One of our favourite house reef activities is filming each other feeding the resident Spearing Mantis Shrimps. These alien looking shrimp, about a foot long, live in a vertical burrow in the sand, and are armed with a fearsome arsenal of claws and hooks, and a deadly spear that moves too quick for the naked eye. We find dead fish discarded by fishermen under the pier and wiggle them alluringly above the mantis shrimp hole with fantastic results.

The late afternoons are our busiest time at the desk. The afternoon ferries arrive from Banda Aceh bringing new guests, and customers leaving early the next morning pay their bills. We usually manage to get everything done by 6pm, when we can hand over the reigns to whoever's on night duty until the shop closes at 8. So we are indeed working, I have even started earning cash, doing Discover Scuba Diving courses and Refreshers on the house reef, which is just about paying my Bintang bill.

The world cup was a sorry affair on Gapang beach. Thanks to the time difference, most of the England games were on at 1.30am. Me, Rich and Mike, 2 English instructors, bravely got up at 1am for 2 games, trudging up the hill in the dark to a local cafe. We watched the games in a humid room on a small and very old TV. Incredibly, though one of the games was shown only on a Chinese channel with no sound, England's performances were even worse than the venue. Things improved a lot for the England/Germany encounter. In the next village an enterprising local had purchased a big flat screen TV and erected it under a roof in his garden. Several rows of benches provided seating for a bunch of us English, one German, and around 50 enthusiastic locals laughing and puffing on very strong cigarettes. Despite the result it's a fun night, with 50 Indonesians wildly cheering every German move and jeering at Wayne Rooney!

As time passed we said farewell to several of the dive staff. First Jim, who left for a much needed dose of western food and some European weddings. Sunny, the Japanese instructor, also left, after an industrious month building artificial reefs and telling us tales of the Tsunami, Malaria and monsoon season. Mike also moved on….though it seemed he did at least 4 final 'deep' dives, accompanied each time by Patricia of course. And finally Jesse, one of our divemaster trainees, gave in to the lure of steak and red wine back in the States, much to Trish's distress as that removed all of her deep-diving buddies from the island. Each departure demanded a bbq and numerous bottles of banana brandy (in Jesse's case also a final monster Mantis Shrimp feed with fresh fish bought from the market on his morning run), and some very shady friday mornings. We have the local fisherman to thank for us not being allowed in the water on friday mornings, and thursday's are definitely the new fridays on Gapang beach.

Diving guests at Lumba Lumba come from all over the world. Many are just on diving holidays, others end up hanging around for weeks. It's fascinating sat at the desk watching different nationalities living up to their stereotypes. Everyone has a hundred questions to ask, and some of those that hang around become firm friends. Diane from Reunion island, on her way to Vietnam to further her knowledge of acupuncture, was keen to practice the art on me Trish and Rich. Darius, our course director last year on Ko Tao also came over with his wife, for the deep diving and macro photography. Titus, a young Dutch lad, has been trying to leave, without success, for over 3 weeks, despite us constantly ribbing him for being almost 7 feet tall, weighing about 70 kilos, and eating 8 meals a day. Pulau Weh is a difficult place to leave.

The diving continues to be fantastic. Much of the world's fun diving is now very much institutionalised by PADI, with very conservative restrictions due to liability issues back in the US. Thankfully Ton and Marjan have a different view. Their vision for Lumba Lumba was a dive shop for divers, where you dive to your own limits with a far greater freedom to explore and challenge yourself. The result is a unique diving atmosphere. Dive professionals come here from all over the world, to dive how they want to dive,and on great dive sites. We've done some terrific diving so far, in ripping currents, and with some unusually great visibility, as much as 40m on occasion. The combination of great dive sites, the house reef, the deep wreck of the Sophie Rickmers (deck at 46m, bottom at 70m), and the laid back attitude at Lumba Lumba, make it almost perfect for me and Trish. It seems that once again we have landed on our feet, it will be a challenge to drag ourselves away, and we have already committed ourselves through to September; the rest of the world can wait a little longer!


Life on Weh: wrecks and turtles and things

2010-07-08 to 2010-08-08

Trish: Another month on the island has flown by. There have been several improvements to our day-to-day life: we have moved to one of Lumba Lumba's large bungalows and are now the proud owners of a kettle and fridge (and supposedly hot water, though so far this has only worked once and I suspect this is nothing but a ruse by Gary and Marjan, a teaser to make me happy on the off-chance it might one day work again). One of the beach restaurants has started making pizzas after Marjan located a recipe book in Indonesian, and although beansprouts and cauliflower are not ingredients I would normally expect to find under my half-melted cheese, after months of noodles and rice they are a welcome treat. Between myself and Tim, we have finally mastered the bread making machine in the shop kitchen, and though a few initial attempts had to be fed to the fishes, the outcome now resembles a crumpetty loaf. Peanut butter, jam, and chocolate spread has been located and purchased from Sabang, the island's main town, and a man selling honey from the back of a motorbike had a field day as we all filled plastic water bottles with the stuff, floating bees and all.

The diving continues to be fantastic, and is becoming more challenging as the currents for the last month have been completely unpredictable. Sites that we could normally have taken inexperienced divers to as a nice re-introduction to the sport have become rampant with down-currents and up-currents as well as the usual side-to-sides. This is crazy fun with the right customers or fundiving with other staff, but not so exciting when it's someone's 10th open water dive and they can't understand why they're being dragged from 3m to 10m when trying to surface. Chaos and panic ensue, and it's a tired set of guides sat at dinner on the beach after a day of this. And it's not just beginner divers that wear us out, customers arrive here with 100+ dives, but have never dived in strong, changeable currents. They think they have, and will insist on going straight out for a boat dive, but once there they ignore all of our briefings about sticking close to the bottom, or to the rocky walls, and even grabbing on if they need to, then before you know it they're overtaking you in the water because they've got themselves too far from the wall and are caught in a stream, and you're chasing after them as they are blown off the pinnacle into the blue. It's a pain in the arse actually, and spoils the dive for everyone. So now we insist on a shore dive first to let people check their buoyancy and weighting is 100% correct. After all, the housereef is beautiful, and it also gives us a chance to see if they're a mess in the water before we let them loose on our big sites.

And of course just as the crazy strong currents have appeared, and we would have been loving the fundiving, we have become so busy! Just when you think you are surely way too far away from anywhere to attract crowds, organised groups from Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur start appearing on the bookings list. When these groups arrive, our serene little office turns to heaving chaos as equipment has to be assigned, a delicate balance between giving everyone the sizes they need, or near enough, and the fact that we only have a limited amount. This usually leads to staff going out in an array of mix and match booties and fins, in bcds that are either a little on the tight side or extremely massive and with regulators begged, borrowed or stolen from people who aren't in today. During these busy times our 3 boats are going out 3 times a day, and we still have waiting lists of walk-in customers hopeful that sickness might strike down a few names from the list. And it does happen. Nearly everybody who comes here has at least a day of stomach upset, some more. It's all part of adjusting to beach life. You come here, you get sick, you feel awful for a day, you think you'll never eat again, then the next day it's back to the same old fried noodles and fish bbq that was probably the culprit the first time around. Since we've been here we've not only been through it, but heard the story so many times that it's received with a shrug and an 'it happens'. It's like a rite of passage to the beach.

Both myself and Gary have been out diving the Sophie Rickmer, our deep wreck. Gary went out with the boss, Ton, to replace some broken lines at the bow, middle and stern of this enormous, 134m, metal cargo boat sat in between 60 and 70m of water, then I had a spell of dives on it with 2 English guys, Mickey and Shakey. We did 4 dives in a row on her in total, with Aris (one of Lumba Lumba's main guides, and the only one who does the Sophie). He's dived her over 650 times, and knows every inch. Sadly, we don't, so on the fourth and final dive when we did a full-on penetration to the kitchen and store-rooms, and ended up kicking up so much silt in a corridor that visibility dropped to zero (we expect it to be dark, that's why we take torches and backup torches. But with the silt up, the torches were useless - even though I was holding Shakey's fin at one point, with my torch pointed straight at where I knew he was, i couldn't see him), we got separated into 2 buddy teams. Aris and Shakey exited the ship by the planned route, me and Mickey squeezed out of a hole in the ceiling. At 56m depth, with only 18mins maximum bottom time on the wreck before we won't have enough air to perform our decompression stops on the way up to the surface (if you dive too deep or too long, or a mixture of both, you have to stop several times on the way up to let the nitrogen bubbles eke out of your bloodstream slowly so you don't get the Bends - we make these dives with rigid decompression plans and know our ascent will take between 45 and 55 minutes), that wasn't quite as fun and exciting as it may sound. But since everything worked out ok, I can look back and say it was a dive to remember. At one point, 3 of us crowded into the small, murky, silty kitchen, I felt a bowl buried in the silt and pulled it up only to find a lobster sat in it staring back at me. As me and Aris laughed in surprise, it scurried away into the darkness again. I don't know who was more shocked, me or the lobster! I forgot I had it with all the drama that unfolded as we became separated, and only realised I was still clinging to it as we started our 50 minute decompression ascent together. It's sat in my room now, a reminder of a very scary dive.

Jim returned from his spell of weddings in Europe on the day we all decided to, shock horror, leave our beach for a night out at the next one along for Mickey and Shakey's last night. Hard to believe, when the island is so small, but this was the first time we had all been off Gapang beach for a night out together in over a month. We tend to stick to our own 100m of sand.

Then our friend Nick arrived for a few days en-route to doing his Padi Instructor course on Bali. We had some cool dives with him, introduced him to our world of decompression diving, and got back to our old card-playing evenings, much missed since he left us in Bali last October after our month of travelling together. After introducing him to diving in Utila 2 years ago, he is about to surpass us in the qualifications stakes, but not in experience, as I am quick to remind him! We had one mad thursday night while Nick was with us. 2 snorkel tests for newly qualified Divemasters Jon and Deb, too much banana brandy, and the discovery and trial of some strange hallucinogenic seeds of a plant growing in front of the Lumba Lumba bungalows. All of us tried them, and having no idea how many to eat and what the effects would be we all ate too many and became immediately dumbstruck and unable to move let alone put a sentence together. After a night of severe dry mouth, sickness and no sleep, we were a sorry, quiet bunch the following morning, vowing never again to touch these seeds of woe.

And in between all of that, we've been out diving nearly every day. When it's busy then we have to help with the guiding, but sometimes we get to do our own thing, just staff. Gary and I get a day off each week, so we try to dive together then, normally hitting the house-reef outside our door cameras in hand for a 2 hour submersion. The red frogfish is still hanging out at 8m, and we have some seahorses which come and go. I saw an Eagle ray last week just off the beach, and with a bit of rain recently and these strong currents the water temperature is staying at a cooler 29 degrees, allowing recovery from coral bleaching to start. Gary's still earning his beer money by running Intro dive courses every now and then, his best one so far being with an Indonesian man who spoke no english at all. I prefer to cover the desk rather have to dig out my inner patience, which I suspect may not exist.

Gary also took on the role of underwater creature hero last week when he came back from a dive with a small turtle under his arm. It had swum up to him on the housereef sporting a nasty hook through it's mouth - we like to think it was looking for help. Back at the beach our local man-who-can Bobby came out with pliers and bolt cutters, then eased it out with his bare hands while a hoard of not-so-useful westerners looked on. The baby turtle was swam back out to sea by Gary and released, and it has been seen since, looking much happier now it is able to eat again. We're pretty sure it is a full time resident of our beach, so hopefully it will keep itself away from the fishing lines at the pier from now on and be around to make many a diver happy for years and years.

As always, we have no definite onward plans. We'd like to go to the Philippines, but life here is easy, the diving suits us, and I think we have firmly planted some roots here for the meantime. Especially if I can get that damned hot water tap to work.


Current affairs on Pulau Weh

2010-08-09 to 2010-09-07

Trish: The shop continues to be super-busy, and the currents continue to be super-strong. It is now not unusual to see customers removing their names from the afternoon dive list after spending the morning dive taking part in an aggressive ocean workout. We love it. As we approach the sites and mini rapids topped with white horses surrounding rivers of glassy-still patches advertise strong down and up currents and ripping sideways movement, glances of excitement are exchanged between guides, followed by shared glances of horror as those with inexperienced guests to look after realise this may be a 10 minute sheer chaos dive on the pinnacle followed by a low on air situation and a long drift into the blue. Staff-only fun-dives are rare, but awesome.

Tokong has turned into a blacktip reef shark fest. Every dive we are seeing 4 or 5. We’ve also had a Manta ray on the housereef, which is unheard of since the tsunami in 2005 (no-one really knows why – could be a change in bottom composition or the damaged mangroves, either way neither Mantas or Whalesharks are a common occurrence anymore). We spotted it on the way out to a dive, when we returned it was still there so we grabbed our fins and masks, jumped off of the boat and snorkelled with it for 5 minutes. It obviously wasn’t that impressed with us. We never saw it again. The seahorses also seem to have finally up and left, but the red frogfish remains, a fantastic permanent resident of our beach.

Diving continues on the deep wreck of the Sophie Rickmer. And just for fun we have now added an extra dimension to our trips out to her: a competition to see who can be the first to touch the Sophie on a freedive? That would be the top of the wheelhouse at approx 41m. Personally, I much prefer to have a tank on my back, but we’ve all had a go. So far Remy, our French instructor, has got the closest. He was within 1 metre of touching the wreck but his ears had stopped equalising metres above and he had to stop and turn back, in danger of rupturing his eardrum. Air, apparently, was not a problem. Crazy Frenchman.

After Nick left to go and become a diving instructor in Bali, we had a few weeks of normal beachlife, doing our deskjob and guiding wide-eyed divers around our fantastic and challenging sites. I am thrilled to report that I have hot water in my shower. Ramadan started mid August, so we all have to eat and drink in secret during the day, hiding behind wooden blinds so as to not offend the locals. The restaurants are mostly closed during daylight hours during this period, so the shop kitchen now resembles a small minimart and is a hub of activity as staff and customers cook up their own pot-noodle style lunches. If you’re lazy, you go hungry. Mama Donut has pounced on this with a new marketing ploy, dropping off a big container of donuts at 6am in the middle of the chillout area of the shop with a little IOU book attached. The donuts get magically replenished during the day and before you know it you’ve had 5 and it’s not even 11am yet.

At some point in early August I received an email from my big brother Tony showing vague interest in visiting our little island home. Against all odds, with his usual penchant for procrastinating I was expecting to see him next when we went home at Christmas, by the end of the month he was here, divebag in hand. Four years since his last dive, we threw him in at Tokong on his second day. “No current” the locals told me, just before we dropped into a maelstrom. As Gary and I fought the upcurrent to get down to 20m, I looked up and saw my brother being swept up and away, over the top of the pinnacle towards the blue. He reached out and held on, not usually the wrong thing to do, except that he was unfortunately in the exact centre of a torrent of water literally pouring between the 2 pinnacles of the divesite. The position he was in can be likened to trying to swim up a waterfall. As I reached him, and flew past him, shouting “leeetttt gooooo!!!!” through my regs, the top of the pinnacle actually snapped off, that’s how strong the current was. We surfaced, washed his lacerated fingers in bottled water, apologised to the boat boys for all the bloodspill, and re-dropped. Hardcore divers.

And for the 8 days that Tony was here, we got well and truly pummelled by every current out there. Day after day we went out on the boat, and day after day I made him dive our sites the way we fun-dive them, not necessarily the way we guide customers. No easy rides for him. Yes, he saw sharks and turtles, napoleon wrasse, morays and pretty fish, but most importantly he saw his own bubbles fly out of his regulator and get pulled straight down to the depths, or whirling up and around him like a cyclone on the way to the surface. He’s hung on to a wall at 40m while the water tries to rip his mask off, and he’s conducted a synchronised somersault with me during the final 3m of ascent in a bizarre washing-machine current. He may never play the guitar again, but his scarred fingers can tell a tale. And it turns out he looks great in my hot-pink gloves.

Our beach dives were a little more sedate. We introduced him to the red frogfish, our resident octopus, squid and cuttlefish, and of course conducted a mantis-shrimp feed. He’s not so sure that nudibranchs are that great, but hey, everyone has their faults. There were nightdives galore with some really weird critters, followed by spicy curries and bbq fish family dinners at Barracudas. This is a far cry from our all-inclusive Sheraton dive holidays of the past, but I can safely say his memories from Pulau Weh will last far longer. Cows on the beach, goats and ducks walking through the restaurant, the chef returning from a shower next door clad only in a towel, the after-dinner cabaret consisting of 2 beach dogs having sex and getting stuck together. Watching us pour litres of alcohol into poor Tim’s mouth whilst wearing a blacked-out mask for his snorkel-test as he completed his Divemaster training. And best of all for Tony, an environment where for a whole 8 days he could talk about diving non-stop without anybody trying to change the subject.

Since it took him nearly 2 days to get here, we thought we should give Tony at least a brief island tour. So we borrowed Ton and Marjan's car, reluctant as they were to lend it to us after the last time Gary drove it and got stuck in a ditch, and headed off down paths unknown (as I have mentioned in previous blogs, we never usually leave the beach). First stop Iboih, the only other tourist beach on the island and site of Gary's drunken "I don't want to worry you, ya, but one of your instructors has fallen off the path" incident last month. Second, Kilometre Zero: most northerly point in Indonesia and a truly remarkable place for sitting and wondering just how stoned the architect was when he designed a viewpoint from where you can't see the view. But spend too long thinking about it and the angry monkeys will get you. Third, and best, was our road trip through town to Freddies, home of the Cajun Beefburger. Gary had 2. Tony paid. It was a wonderful, rewarding trip.

And then, before you could say “don’t worry, there’s never any current here”, it was time for him to return to England. It went too quickly. After a sad farewell, he may be gone but there are, at least, reminders of him everywhere… from the toiletries, sweets and books scattered around our room that he brought out for me and that Gary enjoys scowling at, to the bare, broken pieces of rock on top of Tokong pinnacle.

And now we are preparing for a little holiday. It just so happens that my 30th birthday coincides exactly with the time of the year that Manta rays congregate in their hundreds in a small bay in the northern atolls of the Maldives, so we’re off on a liveaboard for 10 days as a birthday treat. If I can’t be at home with family and friends then I at least want to be surrounded by some spectacular show of mother nature. We’ve got cover for the desk, our bags are packed (I have had to leave some toiletries behind for our return), and we are pretty damn excited.


The Mantas of Hanifaru

2010-09-08 to 2010-09-20

Gary: Trish had decided long ago that we would do something special for her 30th birthday. I understand that leaving a small tropical paradise for a holiday must be quite difficult for folks back home to stomach (my dad’s reaction still leaves me chuckling), but we have in fact being working pretty hard, as Trish’s brother Tony can now vouch for.

Our chosen destination was the Maldives for a 10 day liveaboard to Baa Atoll in search of whale sharks and manta rays. Only recently revealed to the world, a tiny bay called Hanifaru traps vast quantities of plankton, making a big bowl of soup for, hopefully, hundreds of feeding mantas during September and October only. We had managed to grab the last cabin on an Ocean Geographic trip, with some globally renowned underwater photographers in search of this unique wildlife phenomenon.

We took the fast ferry to the mainland, and a lunchtime flight out of Banda Aceh to Kuala Lumpur. Already delayed, we leapt in a cab and headed for an underwater camera shop in KL centre so I could buy a lens adapter to attach Trish’s wide-angle and fisheye lenses to my camera ready for our encounters with the biggest fish and rays in the ocean. It was raining hard, and we were soon stuck in some major holiday traffic, as our taxi driver casually reminded us it was the eve of Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan celebration. Suddenly the 5 hours in between flights looked less generous, as did Trish’s expression. Finally we reached the mall, I ran inside and spent 15 valuable minutes being wrongly directed by over-helpful locals, while Trish sat cursing in the cab, which had parked right outside McDonalds leaving her tantalisingly close to ending her cheese-burger famine, but unfortunately I had all the cash. Thankfully Allah was with us, and we made it back to KL International with both the lens adapter and plenty of time to demolish Burger King Double Whoppers before jetting out of Malaysia.

We landed in Male, capital of the Maldives, at around midnight, and took a short water taxi straight to our home for the next 10 nights, the Ark Royal, where Trish allowed herself a small smile of delight at our spacious cabin.

Midmorning the next day, after an early reef dive and a hearty breakfast, our second dive was at a manta ray cleaning station. The dhoni, a smaller diving platform boat that accompanies the Ark Royal everywhere, dropped us off, and within seconds of descending we saw our first manta. The cleaning station was a big bouldery home to dozens of small cleaner wrasse, and a beautiful manta ghosted right past us and hung motionless whilst the little fish got busy. Excited tank-banging ensued as 3 more huge mantas cruised in. We spent the whole dive watching the 4 rays doing slow arcs out into the blue then back to the rocks for a clean. We have never seen more than one manta on any dive before, and here were 4 on the first morning. Everyone else surfaced leaving me and Trish perched right by the top of the cleaning station, with each manta coming within touching distance and peering at us as they glided by. What a start. We boarded the Ark Royal a little smug at our air consumption, if not the size of our cameras!

Our fellow liveaboarders were an eclectic mix of photography professionals and enthusiasts, in particular Michael AW, founder of Ocean Geographic, and Doug Perrine, both celebrated underwater wildlife photographers and ocean conservationists. Every other guest had a huge digital SLR underwater housing set-up (some had 2, “just in case”), huge rigs costing up to £15000!! Everyone laughed at our compacts in their little Canon housings, perched on the edge of a table that looked like it belonged in a ‘raising the Titanic’ documentary.

We spent the afternoon chugging north, threading our way between postcard-perfect coral atolls dotted with palm trees and luxury resorts. The Maldives is made up of over 1000 tiny islands, none of them more than a few meters above sea level. No wonder the current president insisted on holding a cabinet meeting underwater, with every official made to scuba dive and attend, raising awareness of global warming and rising sea levels.

The next morning we dived a big underwater pinnacle, and as we descended down the side of it, half a dozen mantas hove into view, then spent the whole dive circling us. We had a big whaler shark for company, and even a pod of dolphins above us, a really awful dive! That afternoon we arrived at Hanifaru, a tiny uninhabited sand island, with very shallow sandy banks running out towards a fringing coral reef that drops away to deeper water and surrounded by a handful of other desert islands. Turquoise-blue ocean, white sand, palm trees: a tough base for the next few days. The actual bay is just 200m long, all sandy bottom, max depth 20m, sloping up on all sides to 3m shallows. We descended to the only rocky outcrop, also a cleaning station, and looked about. Nothing, not a whiff of mantas or whale sharks. We despondently pottered around for 45 minutes then returned to the Ark Royal feeling deflated and more than a little worried.

After breakfast we clambered back on the dhoni, checked cameras and nitrox mixes, and headed back to the bay. “MANTAS”, shouted one of the local guides, and there they were…black wing tips and white mouths breaking the surface. We were the only dive boat there, and only a few snorkelers on the surface. We plunged in to find 30 mantas feeding on small black copepods in the plankton soup. They filled the whole water column, some forming trains several mantas long, gliding past with mouths gaping, others performing graceful backwards rolls feeding right at the surface. It was hectic and magnificent, surrounded by creatures up to 5m across. It was difficult to know which way to turn, but somehow these graceful giants would always patiently evade the pesky divers with flashing strobes and carry on feeding. We spent 4 hours diving and snorkelling with the mantas, an amazing experience. That evening we had just enough energy to eat, relive the day, and grab some photography tips before passing out. (After a month of Ramadan, the food on board was heaven. We ate embarrassingly large portions of baked beans, chicken, steak and chocolate mousse telling our fellow liveaboarders about Lumba Lumba, and the hardships of our noodle-only Ramadan diet.)

The following day was not quite as dramatic, maybe a dozen mantas, and more dive boats, 6 or 7 crowding into the shallow bay and very few of them following the poorly enforced regulations. But as any diver will testify, 12 mantas in one day is practically unheard of anywhere else in the world, and we weren’t complaining.

The next day was disappointing. No plankton, just dozens of other divers, and an awful display of how quickly humans can ruin wildlife spectacles. As we waited on the bottom near the cleaning station watching the odd manta come in for exfoliation, a whole team of divers literally fell from the surface right onto it, crashing into coral and each other, then chasing the only manta foolish enough to still be around. Their boat had chugged right across the bay, further scattering the few remaining mantas. We gave them some friendly underwater hand signals as we left in disgust and went off to do some reef dives elsewhere.

We ended the day in some style though, a beach bbq on an uninhabited atoll. The beach was covered in bizarre bioluminescence, tiny glowing algae washed up in the waves, it was so bright that at first we though the crew had strewn it around to embellish our romantic evening.

The 14th of September was to be an extraordinary day at Hanifaru. Trish and I went out snorkelling first, as only a few mantas could be seen scattered around the bay. Suddenly we heard a cry of “whale shark”, and a 6m long shark cruised right under us. We snorkelled like crazy after it, as it barely flicked it’s tail and perused the bay for food. Finding none, it went on it’s way, thankfully we were amongst the lucky ones to see it. After lunch we went back out, scuba gear on. Incredible. Easily 50, maybe 70 mantas, black and white shapes everywhere, forming a giant slow moving circle as others glided in from all angles. This was our first manta vortex…a unique feeding spectacle seen nowhere else. As more mantas came in, the ‘manta cyclone’ picked up speed, their mouths wide open in a feeding frenzy. We hung mid-water in a line of divers watching in awe as 20-30 open mouths flew around and in between us. This time we were often nudged out of the way, or even whacked as mantas looped and swirled after the thick plankton soup. What a day.

We headed back into the bay at dawn the next morning eager for more manta action. I snorkelled out across the bay with Josh, one of our boat-mates, and soon we found a few mantas feeding at the surface. Trish had donned her beloved scuba gear and was 10m down, using me as a surface spotter. Everyone else from the boat had headed to the cleaning station. I dived down, and gulped a mouthful of seawater in shock…there were mantas everywhere, dozens of them, in a feeding frenzy, already vortexing in huge numbers. Michael Aw appeared next to Trish, right in the thick of the action, and for the next hour the four of us enjoyed a private show, easily a hundred mantas feeding around us, me freediving and Trish on her tank, sometimes unable to see each other for all the mantas in the way! Back on the Ark Royal later, as it turned out that our comrades had spent their time with 6 mantas at the cleaning station, I couldn’t resist showing everyone else one of Trish’s pictures with almost 50 mantas in one frame, because of course we all knew that that meant there were another 50 behind her!

Our final day at Hanifaru was less spectacular but great fun. The mantas were spread right across the bay, and beyond. We kept dropping in at different places and literally chasing small groups of 20 around. However, their food was less concentrated, and they appeared to be having fun circling around us then cruising away leaving us out in the blue desperately peering in all directions.

The 17th was Trish’s 30th birthday. She opened a surprising number of cards as the boat left Hanifaru on a 4 hour, rough crossing to Ari Atoll in search of whale sharks. 2 had been sighted that morning in a lagoon, but sadly when we arrived it was overcast and choppy, making spotting them from the surface impossible. We dived anyway – lots of baby whitetip sharks – and later enjoyed a fine chocolate birthday cake.

The weather remained grim as we headed back to Male. We had a day of leisure on the main island, which is functional at best, before heading back to KL. We ambled around the few dive shops and the fish market, but soon retreated back to the hotel, avoiding a city tour of local mosques (Trish politely but forcefully told our young guide that we were currently residing on a small muslim island and had mosques coming out of our ears, before requesting he point us somewhere we could buy a burger). Male itself was pretty depressing: few smiles, dirty streets and buildings, lots of cargo boats (absolutely nothing but coconuts is grown in the Maldives, so everything has to be shipped in), and virtually no woman to be seen.

We leave the Maldives with some extraordinary memories and photos to treasure for a lifetime. It would be impossible on land to have such a close encounter with so many massive animals. Even though at times it really felt like we were invading their banquet, they remained gentle and curious, doing everything they could to avoid us as we bobbed around like fools blowing bubbles in the middle of their dinner. There is a real concern that as news of this incredible phenomenon spreads, more and more boats will visit, bringing more and more divers and snorkelers. If regulations are not enforced, and quickly, we can be sure that the mantas will find it too stressful, and dangerous, and simply feed in smaller numbers elsewhere. It could be that we made our trip just in time.

Oh well, it’s over now, back to the dreary old…oh , wait, back to a tropical island, with great diving, palm trees, a gorgeous beach… back to Pulau Weh!


Leaving Pulau Weh

2010-09-21 to 2010-10-20

Trish: We decided that this would be our final month (this year) on Pulau Weh, not really because we wanted to leave – life is so easy here - but so that we could at least see a couple of other places before we head home for Christmas. So after one dry day spent in the office regaling tales of manta encounters to anyone who would listen, we started a final campaign on the divesites. 

We are now approaching monsoon season and the water is filling up with plankton, reducing visibility but bringing in the bigger fish. In the 2 weeks we were away, dolphins, devil rays, eagle rays and whitetip sharks were all spotted on the housereef alone. Nick has been out there nearly every day exploring farther out and deeper than usual, and has discovered some real gems including an area of patchy coral in the middle of a massive sand patch: home to 5 seahorses, a tiny, tiny octopus, all sorts of cool crabs and shrimp, some really funky nudis, and a tsunami tank swept out to sea in 2005 (we can’t move it in case it explodes after 5 years of corrosion…one day someone will be curious and turn the valve on, it will blow, and the shop will be showered with seahorses). ‘Nick’s Paradise’ is now our chosen housereef destination, even after a disastrous first dive out there with Jim and Jakob nearly saw it re-named ‘Instructor’s Woe’ as we provided a useful ‘how not to dive’ instructional tool, starting with ‘not keeping track of your deco’ followed by ‘can we find our way back in bad visibility with no compass?’ and ending with ‘is it possible to complete 40mins of decompression with less than 50bar?’ Answer: Yes it is but we wouldn’t recommend it. Never has a sorrier sight been seen than the four of us hanging on the boat line at 3m with 2 safety sausages up (the signal for “drop tank, please” – no-one saw, and so a drop tank never appeared), staring towards the shallows hoping someone would appear on a beach dive so we could steal their fresh tanks, then sharing around the 20 bar that 3 of us had while the 4th was out of air. Of course it was all laughs that night, but not many underwater at the time! Complacency can be a dangerous thing.

The currents were ripping in September, then died out, and then picked up again to full force by mid October. I had my regs ripped off one day by the power of the water, leaving me with just a mouthpiece in. I took a nice big lungful of seawater before I realised what had happened. We spent a lot of our staff fun dives hanging off our reef hooks watching other divers come whipping around the corner of the Tokong pinnacles in complete disarray, legs and arms everywhere. The family of blacktips became almost a guaranteed sighting if you could actually get your customers around the pinnacle without being swept to the neighbouring site. Devil rays became a frequent sighting, and I finally saw a leopard shark at Peunateung, my first on Pulau Weh, and a decent size at 2.5m head to tail.
We lost some much-loved residents of the beach as Tim and Marie left in late September, Jim and Warty the red frogfish following mid-October. In spite of our dwindling numbers, Thursday night party tradition continued, with the sign written on the whiteboard in reception saying ‘CLOSED UNTIL 11AM ON FRIDAY!’ getting bigger each week. And by the time we reached our final Thursday on the island, also Gary’s birthday party, by means of donations from kind customers and bounty from visa-runs to Malaysia, there was not a banana brandy to be seen. Just a table full of Absolut, Captain Morgans, Bombay Sapphire and even proper sweeties brought in by friends of Remy (while the others hammered into the booze, I quietly decimated the candy). 

By October we were sharing the desk job with Elli, giving us loads of free time to dive Nick’s Paradise together and go running in the evenings. We hit the tarmac regularly, causing the usual confusion and interest as we ran through the local village and past the Mosque. Dinner was at Barracudas almost every night, either with the Nat Geo channel playing in the background or staging our own ‘undersea film nights’. 

And then all of a sudden we were booking our onward flights. After months of umming and erring over where to go next we finally had to make a decision, and after considering the Philippines, Vietnam, Borneo, Nepal and even Japan, we finally chose to stay in Indonesia! We’re going to head to the eastern side of this enormous country, starting with another tiny island and top dive spot, Ambon, then moving on to Papua, then who knows…
With flights booked, we started to plan our final dives. The general consensus from everyone was that we should all go to the Sophie for a massive fundive. Remy rallied up interest in 3 customers to give us an official reason to go, and then we filled the boat with staff (and Oli – honorary staff member) under the guise of safety divers. Well, we had back-up divers for our back-up divers, outnumbering our customers more than two to one, appearing to be the most safety conscious wreck diving team in the world. Once at the wreck, Remy attempted one more freedive to the deck, coming frustratingly close but not quite touching. Then we descended en masse. It was another great Sophie dive, more exploration of the outer walkways at 50m followed by antics at the deco stops.

The next day, 5 months since first arriving on Pulau Weh for ‘2 months max’, we left, headed for Kuala Lumpur with Oli for 3 nights of home comforts. We wandered around the shopping malls of Malaysia’s capital shovelling in McDonalds, Nandos and steak dinners, going to the cinema and replacing flip flops and clothes that had fallen apart on the island.
Our next port of call will be Ambon, in the Maluku Islands, eastern Indonesia, home of muck diving and hopefully many cool underwater critters. From one small Indonesian island to another, with a short break for burgers in between... life in the fast lane continues.


Muck Diving in Ambon

2010-10-21 to 2010-11-03

 
Gary: With us both feeling well fed, and Trish well shopped, we flew east to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta. Unfortunately we had forgotten our previous experience at Jakarta airport, and arrived 5 hours before our connecting flight to Ambon. The airport is spread out over 5 very dour terminals. We ended up spending most of our time on the free inter-terminal shuttle bus as it was about the only place with air con! At 1.30 am, we were the only white faces boarding the Lion Air flight east to Ambon.


Ambon is the most prominent island in the Malukas (Land of many Kings), a scattering of islands in eastern Indonesia, the original Spice Islands region with a fascinating history. Ancient kingdoms here drew incredible wealth from spices such as nutmeg, cloves and mace, until they eventually became inescapable targets of the great colonial powers. Indeed, they were the reason Holland, England and the Portuguese forged into SE Asia. The Dutch controlled much of the ensuing spice trade, often wiping out entire island populations if they didn’t cooperate.
After WW2, the predominantly Christian region tried to claim independence from the newly formed Muslim Indonesian Republic, to no avail. Many Ambonese were offered refuge in Holland, and the bold promise of their own lands within the Netherlands. This actually turned out to be old military camps, but still today some 40,000 Ambonese reside in Holland.In 1999 grim violence broke out in Ambon, which by this time was evenly split between Muslims and Christians. Squabbles turned into massacres, entire villages were torched. The last riots took place in 2004.

Arriving on Ambon however, this incredibly recent turmoil feels like ancient history. It’s a lush, jungle clad mountainous island almost split in half by a huge bay. We are met at the airport by Maluku Divers and whisked off to their brand new resort. The local villages are sleepy, almost charming, Muslim and Christian side by side. Numerous cries of “hey mister” accompany us on our way. We arrived right at the start of the dry season, to a pleasantly quiet resort with huge bungalows and fantastic sea views. The Dutch manager Marcel and his girlfriend Lily made us feel right at home, as did the friendly local crew.


Maluku Divers sits on the north side of the bay, and is renowned for it’s muck diving, so the next day we threw ourselves in. The majority of sites are right along the bay from the shop, a mixture of sand, coral, rubble and garbage, the perfect home for a host of weird and wonderful critters. On our first few dives we saw frogfish, seahorses, flamboyant cuttlefish, a magnificent wunderpus and hordes of nudibranchs, much to Trish’s delight! Along with guided boat dives we were soon doing 2 hour dives on our own on the excellent house reef.

After a few days of intense ‘muck’ diving, Marcel’s wreck diving friend Andreas arrived to install a new nitrox sytem. A larger than life GUE wreck diver he regaled us with tales of lifting artifacts from shipwrecks and diving cave systems in Mexico…safe to say we have a great new contact and watch this space for cave diving trips in the future! (Andreas also introduced us to the niche world of traditional Dutch hunting, using a bird of prey, a hound and a ferret. Trish now has wild plans of roaming Kent with a falcon on her arm and a ferret in her pants…

Soon Trish and I were helping the two of them ID a big cargo wreck in Ambon harbour. Through various contacts they had established that 3 ships were sunk in 1958 and had a list of dimensions. They had already discovered a plaque in the engine room with a boiler ID number and a reference to Hartlepool. We plunged in with them, measured the wreck and Trish found an Italian machine tag also in the crumpled boiler room. The result, it was indeed the British built Duke of Sparta, a 134m long cargo ship very similar to the Sophie Rickmers on Pulau Weh, which had had some kind of a re-fit in Naples before being sunk by a B52 bomber in the bay on a CIA black ops mission.

The resort was inclusive of 3 meals a day, a bizarre mix of western and local food, fantastic soups, and obscure deserts. We spent 2 weeks diving on a relaxed schedule, taking hundreds of pictures. Every other day we would borrow a motorbike and head into the local village to use a basic warnet (internet café). Everyone from children to Grandmas hailed me with cries of “hey Mister”, it’s one of the few places where I’ve been more popular than Trish. The best diving in Ambon is under the big jetties used by local fishing boats. They look like the last place you would contemplate diving. Dirty old diesel engines pump out oil and gunk into the water. Decaying fish is dumped over the side, along with rubbish and junk. It is aptly referred to as the twilight zone. The diving is right under the boats, a shadowy world of thumping engine racket and waste. It is home to hundreds of moray eels, and a myriad of scavenging crabs, shrimps, nudis and obscure critters. Our last dive there, an eerie night dive, was probably the most memorable of the trip. 

But soon we were packing again. This time we had to leave stuff at the dive shop as our next flight had a limit of 15kg. Limiting ourselves to this weight, including full sets of dive equipment, was a challenge. We already have 2 bags at a guesthouse in Kuala Lumpur.
We are heading to Papua, Indonesia’s last frontier and least developed island. We have planned to meet up with Michael Aw, director of Ocean Geographic, and visit some local fisherman, who, if rumours and a few rare photos suggest, are on very good terms with some resident whale sharks!


Whale sharks of Cenderawasih Bay

2010-11-04 to 2010-11-07

Trish: As with most of Indonesia‘s gems, we found ourselves heading to Papua more by luck than forward planning. Gary had been, as always, perusing various ‘save the oceans’ and natural world websites and found some awesome photos of a group of 6 or 7 whale sharks under a traditional fishing platform. We did some research, asked some friends in the know, and before we knew it we were joining our photographer friend Michael Aw (organiser of our September Maldives trip to see the manta rays in Hanifaru bay) on an Ocean Geographic recce to see it for ourselves.

We met up with Michael and some friends of his at Ambon airport and travelled together to Nabire, Papua, where we taxied down the small airstrip past washing lines and simple shacks, with dogs running out to chase our plane. Thanks to one of our company being good friends with the chief of police for the region, we were picked up from the airport by a police escort, who remained with us the entire trip to make sure everything ran smoothly. Nabire itself is a smallish town not yet on the tourist trail, with dirty streets and ugly concrete buildings. We stayed in one of the only hotels, basic and overpriced but with hot water and air conditioning. The hotel was surprisingly full, though we saw maybe only 3 other ‘out of towners’, the rest of our neighbours being Papuan and presumably not paying the same rate as us! We purchased supplies, had a team dinner, then an early night in anticipation of the what we hoped would be a day to remember.

At 6am the next day we were boarding a little yellow boat for the 2 hour ride out to the bagans (fishing platforms) in Cenderawasih Bay. Again we had a police escort, this time in the form of a second boat which accompanied us all day carrying our dive equipment. Nabire is situated on the south shore of this huge u-shaped bay. More like a sea, you cannot see one side from the other. The bagans are floating wooden platforms holding little shacks on which fishermen from Sulawesi live permanently, catching small fish in the big nets suspended below. The fish are then dried out and sold in bulk on the mainland. It has only become known in the last year or so that whale sharks have become resident in the area, seemingly purely because of the existence of the bagans. The sharks are attracted by the smell of the small fish in the nets and have learnt that by sucking on the bottom of them they are able to extract bits of fish and goo. The fishermen are not particularly bothered by this. Whale sharks have no teeth, the risk of a broken net is low, and the amount of fish ’stolen’ by the sharks through the nets insubstantial. They are, however, still scared of the sharks, on the whole not understanding that this is just a gentle giant.

As we approached the first bagan the fishermen told us there was a shark below. We threw on our snorkelling gear and jumped in the water to find our first whale shark of the day, a baby one only 3-4 metres long. It was cruising around looking at the nets and at us, and with 7 of us in the water and only one of him, he left within 10 minutes for quieter waters.

We hopped back in the boat and headed to the next bagan. There, we were told, there were many ‘big fish’. We jumped back in the water and found 7 whale sharks. They were swimming around under the platform, occasionally going up to the bottom of the nets filled with small fish, and sucking on them in the hope of a tasty morsel. They hung vertical in the water as they sucked, completely oblivious to our presence, moving on only when the buffet dried up or another shark came along and bumped them out of the way. At the first bagan there had been just one baby shark, but here, there were also adults. Several 10-12m in length, big powerful creatures, bigger than we had ever seen before. Within half an hour we had over 10 sharks with us. With them outnumbering us, and the fishing nets brimming with juicy titbits, they remained, completely at ease with our company, even curious. Not being predatory creatures, they have tiny eyes for the size of their body, with soft surrounding skin which wrinkled up and closed over the eye as they prepared to feed. They would swim past us so close, turning just before contact (although sometimes a gentle push away by us was required), ever aware of their enormous tails and apart from the odd accidental sideswipe nearly always managing to keep it out of our way! With over 10 of them in the water with us, I can’t count the number of times I would be taking a photo of one shark only to be nudged out of the way by the one I hadn’t seen approach from behind, or returning to the surface from a freedive to be confronted by a ceiling of white flesh as one cruised above.

Having also secured the interest of the bagan fishermen and our police escort, at first thinking us crazy for getting in the water, they too began to grow in confidence. By the end of the day we had the fishermen throwing fish into the water to feed the whale sharks, and the police in the water with us, no longer afraid of the ‘monsters’. The sharks spent a lot of time at the surface around and under the wooden struts of the bagan, and the fishermen could throw the fish directly into their mouths. Hopefully, we changed their previous opinions of the sharks by showing them how friendly they are.

We spent 6 hours in the water under that one bagan, most of our time spent snorkelling, with a couple of hours on scuba tanks. Gary and I hitched a ride with the police boat on the way back, arriving back in Nabire exhausted and thoroughly grateful for the hot shower. Dinner was an excited affair as everyone swapped interaction stories and planned setting changes for their big camera rigs the next day. Myself and Gary at least do not have these decisions to make. As on the manta trip we are the only ones in the water with small compacts in plastic canon housings!

The next day was an amazing repetition. Returning to the same bagan, we found 7 sharks already there, with several more joining as the day went on. It was another indescribably wonderful day, with so many of these beautiful creatures. We left the bagan that afternoon with an intense feeling of sadness that 1) we wouldn’t be returning tomorrow to spend more time with them as this may have been the best wildlife experience we have ever, and will ever have, and 2) nothing is set in place to protect these beautiful animals. With the shark finning industry ever present, we just have to hope that the government and the fishermen see the value in preserving the bay and it’s inhabitants.

We flew out of Nabire the next morning, back to Ambon for a few days to try to procure a visa extension and sort through our photos before deciding where to head next. Whale sharks and conservation dominate our thoughts, and though we feel extremely lucky to have had this fantastic experience, our trip with Ocean Geographic has charged interest around the diving community and we hope we have not opened the floodgates to unregulated tourism in the area. The sharks enjoy a peaceful life in the bay as it stands, I’d like to think it could stay that way.


The Lease Islands

2010-11-08 to 2010-11-18


Trish: Our much dreaded visa-extension application went surprisingly smoothly. You never really know how these things will go or how much it will cost once all ‘gifts’ to the immigration officers are covered. But in 3 days and with no bribes to be paid we had our visas stamped by the uber-efficient staff in Ambon. We spent our 3 waiting days hanging around Ambon city making good use of the hotel wifi and the KFC down the road. There is, it must be said, absolutely nothing to do in town.

But once passports were back in our possession, we jumped on a ferry and headed to the neighbouring island of Saparua to chill out in a quiet beachside bungalow and see some more fish. We were met at the harbour by Paul, the Saparuan owner and manager of Mahu Lodge. We were his only guests for our stay there, a sad fact quite typical of the islands since the trouble in Ambon in the late 1990’s. A cheerful guy in his 50’s, he has high hopes for a return to tourist numbers of the past, and spent every day pottering around his dilapidated resort making renovations and excitedly telling us his plans for installing a dive compressor. With 27 rooms and large lush grounds to keep, he needs his expectations to be met sooner rather than later.

Mahu Lodge was our very own private, if a little crumbly, resort for 4 days, and we made the most of it. We went out on their boat 3 days running for snorkelling trips around Saparua and some of the smaller islands around it, in particular the very picturesque Nusa Laut. The reefs were spectacular: huge gardens of hard corals, big schools of fish, turtles, and blacktip sharks. And deserted. We had entire stretches of reef miles long to ourselves. At lunchtime we stopped at equally deserted beautiful beaches on different parts of the islands and in those settings even cold rice and noodles tasted great. On the way back to the lodge, our boat drivers would drop us at Paul’s ‘experimental’ snorkelling spots, places he wanted to research for future dive spots. All were beautiful, and some showed the only positive impacts that the troubles in Ambon had - rogue Sulawesi fishermen who had previously moved into the area and had been using dynamite to literally bomb fish off the reefs fled, and now even reefs that were completely destroyed are beginning to recover, soft corals blooming in beautiful pastel colours. Nights were spent eating in their enormous restaurant just the 2 of us, watching Al Jazeera news on Paul’s ancient tv then our new favourite drama, ‘Spartacus’, on the laptop.

These islands, the ‘Leases’ are still incredibly sleepy, the large island neighbouring Saparua, Pulau Haruku, still has no accommodation options. We saw one other western woman in 5 days. The villager’s main income is still from fishing and cloves, which we found spread out drying on mats on every village road, and life revolves around the village church or mosque. Walking around Mahu village we were a constant source of amazement to the local kids who didn’t remember the westerners from pre-trouble times.

We took the ferry back to Ambon a little too early really, overexcited about our upcoming diving liveaboard. I guess we were well and truly snorkelled-out (holding your breath is tiring – give me a tank any day), and the thought of a couple of days of air-conditioning and contact with civilisation was too tempting. 2 days of internetting later we were packed up again and ready to get board our home for the next 11 nights, the Sea Safari III. Destination: Raja Ampat, supposedly the richest marine environment on the planet.


Raja Ampat

2010-11-19 to 2010-11-30

Gary: After 3 more nights in Kota Ambon, we were picked up by Erwin and Nora, cruise directors of the Archipelago liveaboard, and driven down to the docks. The Archipelago however, was not waiting for us, having sunk after hitting a reef in northern Raja Ampat a few weeks before. Instead, its replacement, the older but still grand looking Sea Safari III sat there.

After checking in to our cosy cabin we joined the crew on deck as we sailed across the bay to Laha harbour near Maluku Divers. While we waited for the 9 other guests (all American) to arrive from the airport we sneaked in a bonus dive under the fishing boats at Laha, where our guides found the 3 splendid hairy frogfish, discovered by Maluku Divers since we left them a few weeks before. By late afternoon everyone was on board, and we chugged north towards Seram, leaving Ambon behind.

Raja Ampat has become something of a ‘holy grail’ in the diving world. Meaning 4 Kings, it is an archipelago consisting of well over 1000 islands, lying to the north and west of the birds-head peninsula, the most westerly tip of Papua (New Guinea island). It lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle, linking the Philippines, New Guinea and Indonesia, already recognised as the heart of the world’s coral reef biodiversity. Conservation International began studying the area in the early 1990s, their results suggest that the marine life diversity in Raja Ampat is also the greatest of anywhere on earth.

The main reason for this is that Raja Ampat lies between the Pacific and Indian oceans, allowing a mixing of fish and coral species. The figures are staggering: over 1300 types of fish and 500 types of coral discovered so far, including numerous unique varieties. It is believed that Raja Ampat is a species factory, helping to distribute marine species throughout the world’s oceans.

So, with the help of Andy (owner of Maluku Divers), we found ourselves on an 11 day trip through this incredible area. After a couple of warm up dives around Seram, Ambon’s larger neighbour, we sailed through the night arriving in Misool the following morning. The only large island in the south, Misool is surrounded by hundreds of tiny islands, most uninhabited and still considered remote, many still unexplored with huge diving potential.

We spent 6 days in the south, 4 dives each day around tiny island chains. The reefs were extraordinary, with soft and hard corals like nothing we have ever seen, magnificent gorgonian sea fans 3m wide and huge sponge tubes big enough to take a bath in. I spent each dive desperately trying to capture these awesome reef scenes on camera, whilst Trish joined the guides trying to find tiny pygmy seahorses. (They are still identifying new species of pygmys, with several newly discovered in the last few years.) The only slight disappointment: the lack of predatory fish and sharks in the south. Despite this, these unique island chains provided diving like nowhere else we have been.

The only real problem on the boat was water. Firstly, we lost a third of the fresh water on board on the second night following a burst pipe. It did however provide great amusement watching the crew sprinting outside during tropical downpours to capture rainwater, which they did very well, completely re-stocking the 9 tons already lost. Secondly, the hot water system failed. No problem to me, but Trish and the other female guests were none too pleased! Cold showers after a night dive are good for the soul right?

Leaving the south, we then sailed to the more populated islands of northern Raja. Here the topography changed: larger, flatter islands, more recognisable than the unique rocky outcrops of the south. Instantly we saw signs of a local population, more fishermen in tiny outrigger canoes, even small villages. There are now 5 dive resorts in northern Raja, and far more liveaboards cover this region direct from Sorong. In 6 days in the south we had seen only one other dive boat.

The diving was equally spectacular, perhaps the reefs had a more familiar feel, but the fish numbers were incredible, and there were sharks (even a hammerhead which I spotted whilst Trish had her head in the sand looking for nudis). Diving around Kri we encountered vast schools of trevally and barracuda, plenty of reef sharks, and even a few manta rays. Also here we hit some big currents. The other guests began to complain about currents and tides, asking the guides for slack conditions, evidently not realising that big currents bring BIG fish numbers. A few raised their eyebrows as me and Trish boarded the tender boats before each dive enthusiastically brandishing our reef hooks.

Our final dive on Kri reef was awesome. We hooked in on top of the reef as a ripping current swept over the top, big schools of trevally and barracuda amassed around us. Our bubbles streamed horizontally behind us as the water tried its hardest to rip us off of the reef, but our lines held tight and we sat back and enjoyed the show as sharks, turtles and a myriad of other fish navigated the rushing water. When we surfaced everyone else from our boat had been swept over a km around the corner.

After 37 dives we finally chugged our way into Sorong, a busy commercial port in west Papua. For me the trip had lived up to all expectations. The south was totally unique, blessedly remote, and almost devoid of human activity. Hundreds of beautiful tiny islands surrounded by incredible coral reefs. It encouraged a real sense of adventure; me and Erwin the Kiwi cruise director did our best to annoy Trish by waxing lyrical about every new island chain, and our desire to come back and explore with our own boat and no time limit.

Dive tourism is far more prominent in the north. Soon 50 boats will have a license to dive the region and new land-based resorts are planned. However, the area, some 40,000 sq km, is managed by several international conservation groups and the Raja Ampat regency, and the future looks promising. The numbers of larger schooling and predatory fish here were huge, and very recently the whole area was made a no-take zone for shark finning and other large marine life fishing. As always the problem will be enforcing and policing these protected areas.

We left Papua for the second time with mixed thoughts. Incredible memories of a unique diving around beautiful islands, and the sad knowledge that it would be our last diving in Indonesia for this year! Oh well, next stop Bali, so things could be worse…


Jordan

2011-04-28 to 2011-05-03

Trish: We returned to London mid December, just in time to see the last of the snow disappear. After a busy Christmas and New Year catching up with family and friends, and a spell in Tenerife, we started a rather large renovation project on a house we thought might become home, for a while at least. A few months flew by, and the chance came up for a trip to Syria and Jordan with my brother, Pat, and his wife, Julie. Not too sad at the prospect of leaving the building site for a few weeks, we got our visas and booked our flights.

One month later, the Arab Spring spread to Syria. It looked ok at first, small protests with little or no violence. We kept our cool and decided we'd still go unless the Foreign Office issued a formal 'no travel unless absolutely essential' warning. A week before we were due to fly, they issued it for Syria. Our flights were booked into Amman, Jordan, the plan being to hire a car and drive across the border. The plan had to change. We decided to do a week in Jordan and see what happened. I have to say, Syria was still on the cards, a little.

As it turned out, Jordan was a very pleasant place to visit. We still hired the car, but instead of driving north into Syria we headed south to Wadi Rum and the deserts where T.E. Lawrence helped the Arabs revolt against the Ottoman Turks during the first world war. We slept in a very civilised Bedouin camp, went on the obligatory camel and jeep safaris, and had a rather jolly time, our only 2 gripes being the lack of ice for the beers Pat had procured, and the absence of Coca Cola.

Back on tarmac roads again we headed north to Petra, the ancient trading city of the Nabataeans and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World (our fifth, leaving us just the Taj Mahal in India and Chichen Itza in Mexico to complete the set). I loved it. It was amazing, and I couldn't spend enough time there, even with our 3 day passes. Petra is a whole city carved into sheer rock faces. To enter the city, you must first pass through the Siq, a natural geological fault produced by tectonic forces and worn smooth by water erosion. It's approximately a mile long, sometimes less than 3 meters wide, the sides towering up to 182 meters above you. It's also all downhill on the way in, leaving a slight worry in your mind that all this has to be repeated uphill after a tiring day in the hot city. It is, however, awesome. At the end of the Siq, the walls feel like they are about to touch, then suddenly you see a sliver of the Treasury through the gap. It's like being in Indiana Jones.

The Treasury is actually a tomb, but who cares, even if it never contained a secret stash of jewels and the cup of eternal life it's still incredible. It's pock-marked with bullet holes where treasure hunters have tried to break open the facade to reveal hidden chambers, and you can't go inside, but standing in front of it at 7am with no one but Gary, Pat, and a man with 2 camels it's the most beautiful piece of carved rock I have ever seen.

The rest of Petra is on a par. The effort and skill involved in creating the sandstone city is awe inspiring. By 9am you're sharing it with several thousand people, but heading to the highest points eradicates that problem substantially. As does ignoring locals warnings and trying to take a shortcut through a flooded passageway. That gets you pretty muddy, too. Pat, Gary and I spent 3 days in Petra (Julie took a day out to sunbathe around the pool of the hotel next door and offend the conservative local Muslims with her outrageously exposed legs). It actually wasn't enough. It was the sort of place you could spend days just sitting in the shade of the entrance to a small royal tomb reading a good book and watching people go by. People chased by men with camels and donkeys, of both the souvenir and breathing kind.

But we had to move on. Julie's swimsuit was causing hormone overdrive and we had made the rash decision to head to Israel after a brief encounter with a French girl who was studying in Jerusalem. Armed with boxes of local pastries we drove back to Madaba, just outside of Amman, stopping to explore the hidden passage of some old fort along the way. While Gary, Pat and I descended hundreds of meters down a very narrow, very slippery, very steep tunnel in the pitch black, Julie nearly reversed our car over a cliff.

The next day, Pat and Julie dropped us at the Jordanian side of the King Hussein/Allanby bridge and went off to the Dead Sea for some pampering before heading back to England. We, on the other hand, spent most of our day waiting in one queue or another on the Israeli side of the bridge being frowned at by men and women with big guns who didn't want to let us in their country.


Palestine: Bethlehem and Hebron

2011-05-04 to 2011-05-06

Trish: Israel was a different beast to Jordan, that's for sure. We'd grown accustomed to being stopped by the Jordanian police at checkpoints only to have them ask where we were from, smile and wish us a pleasant day. Now Israel didn't even want to let us in their country! We waited on the Israeli side of the King Hussein/Allenby bridge for 5 hours in one queue or another to be scanned, searched or questioned, all under the watchful eye of armed soldiers. Immigration wanted to know where we were going and why, and any mention of a visit to, connection with or sympathy for the Palestinian Territories was a sure fire way of getting yourself turned away. We saw it happen and made a mental note. When our turn came, we smiled and said all we wanted to see was Jerusalem and Tel Aviv (neither one in the West Bank). I've never felt so unwelcome arriving at a new country.

Once in, we did get a bus to Jerusalem, and then another straight on to Bethlehem. Except you can't get straight to Bethlehem from Jerusalem. There's a big wall in the way. The one the Israeli government is building to protect it's citizens from the army of terrorists harboured in Palestine. So off the bus we got, and walked through yet another security check before finally emerging the other side of the wall. It had been a really long, stressful and frustrating day, but Bethlehem was lovely. We checked into a comfy Lutheran guesthouse (they never asked us what religion we were, and we never found out what being Lutheran meant), had shawarma from a street vendor, and sat in a cafe in Manger Square smoking shishas with John, a local shopkeeper. We tried to avoid the subject of the conflict, but it was hard to ignore the bullet holes in the buildings around Manger Square and the air of sadness on John's face when he talked about his childhood before the wall was built and life now that the Palestinians have become like prisoners, unable to leave their ever diminishing city. Israeli settlements and the wall have divided Palestinian land and grossly encroached on it, leaving very little left for Palestinian homes, let alone agriculture. Relations between Israel and the Palestinian Territories are not good. The bullet holes are from the 2002 Israeli invasion of the city in response to a spate of suicide bombings in Israel. Both sides have done some horrific things, but it's hard not to sympathise with the Palestinians who are living under the oppressive control of the Israeli soldiers patrolling not just the wall, but the entire country beyond.

We spent a few days in and around Bethlehem visiting the famous sites in the Bible (Church of the Nativity, Shepherds Fields etc), and the various Banksy stencils around the wall. The wall, incidentally, is covered in graffiti. From simple drawings to larger than life landscapes, anti-wall slogans to 10m high restaurant menus, the idea being to make it less of an eyesore and more of a work of art. After all, no one wants to stare at a 10m high concrete wall outside their house.

One day we hired a taxi and drove out to Hebron to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Muslims and Jews in Hebron's city centre. Hebron, well within the Palestinian Territories, has a population of approximately 160,000 Arabs, and 600 Jewish settlers. These illegal (according to the 1967 border agreement) Jewish settlers within the city are protected by several thousand heavily armed Israeli soldiers. Palestinian businesses in the vicinity of the Jews have been ordered to close, and so much of what we saw were rows of empty Palestinian shops and houses boarded up with steel shutters, many daubed with Stars of David. We were introduced to one woman who has refused to leave her home - she has no money to buy a new one (neither did the ones who are already gone, they now live in refugee camps in the city) - two of her children were killed when a molotov cocktail was thrown into their bedroom through the roof. The water tanks on the roofs of the Palestinians homes are riddled with bullet holes, and the streets below the settlements are littered with trash thrown out of the windows above.

Though it is important to remember that there has been violence on both sides, and that many innocent Israelis have also died in the conflict across the country, there has certainly been violation of the human rights of the Palestinians who live – or increasingly no longer live – in what was once the teeming Arab city centre. Our young Palestinian driver was hassled at every checkpoint, confronted and barked at by soldiers in every site he took us to. He told us to walk on, smile at the soldiers and tell them we did not know him apart from hiring his taxi. Sadly, he was used to this.

Leaving Bethlehem proved to be harder than we'd hoped. Back at the wall, this time on a Friday (Muslim day of prayer), and this time on the Palestinian side trying to get out, we were lined up in metal cages before finally being herded into a concrete hall. As more and more Palestinians filed into the room, Israeli soldiers strolled along the metal walkways above, automatic weapons slung across their chests. The only exit from the room was a 7ft tall metal turnstile, which was locked. After an hour with the turnstiles still locked, the room was filling up and people were shouting to the soldiers, pleading to be let through. For the next hour, the gates were unlocked then locked again in quick succession, leading to a surging, crushing crowd of irate Palestinians. The soldiers looked on, occasionally shouting down something we couldn't understand in angry voices. Gary and I stood out of the way, not wanting to even get in the queue. It was, I think, the only time during our travels that I have felt that we were stuck in a situation completely out of our control, that things could turns nasty really quickly. Because of this, after more than 2 hours in that room, we finally waved our UK passports. A soldier eventually took notice and begrudgingly let us out a side door, slamming it in the faces of the Palestinian couple and their child who came with us to plead that they were late for the baby's hospital appointment in Jerusalem. The whole situation was disgusting, scary and inhumane.

Shocked by what we had seen, we headed to Jerusalem.


Israel: Jerusalem and Galilee

2011-05-07 to 2011-05-12

Trish: The city of Jerusalem was old and interesting, cobbled streets full of nooks and crannies and alleyways that seemed to lead to a different place every time. In such a small city, we got lost a lot! Its history is complicated and intriguing, and 2 days were easily spent wandering. Again, we visited all of the religious and historical sites and found ourselves surrounded by a mix of package tourists and pilgrims, or package tours of pilgrims. We stayed at another Lutheran guesthouse, and it was just as nice as its Bethlehem counterpart. Visiting the wailing wall each day was a must, to see who was there and what was going on, mostly all sorts of Orthodox Jews milling around in big hats chanting at the wall.

We chose not to take the option of hiring a real wooden cross, and doing your own pilgrimage around the Stations of the Cross (Via Dolorosa). But we did stop at Station No 5 for falafels.

Finally, we hired a car and drove up to the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights. The Sea of Galilee is just a big lake, really, and not much to write home about. The Golan Heights are the much-fought over area of highlands between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. There were some interesting forts up there, but really what makes the area well known is the fighting that has taken place over it, which doesn't make for much of a tourist attraction, it's just very sad. Nazareth was a nice stop for a night. We stayed in a surprisingly comfy convent, visited the spot where Mary was said to have been told by the Angel Gabriel that she was to have a baby (now housed in the Basilica of the Annunciation), and ate well.

A quick detour on our return to Jerusalem took us to Jericho, another part of the Palestinian Territories completely surrounded by army checkpoints with travel in and out restricted. We drove in, to see some of the oldest man made steps in the world, something like ten thousand years old, the first proof of early civilisation. We didn't stay long. Though it looks like an oasis in the desert, Jericho is dusty and poor, and the hugely important archaeological find is by the side of a busy road, cordoned off by a few ropes.

Heading for the Allenby bridge/King Hussein border crossing back to Jordan, we were so happy to be leaving Israel. In our hire car we had been constantly stopped at checkpoints, all luggage had to be out and x-rayed while we handed over passports and had to explain where we were headed and why we were in Israel. It was so frustrating, tiring, and unfriendly. No one ever smiled, just pointed guns and ordered us around. After having been to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, I don't know why we stayed. I think we were hoping to see a more relaxed side of the country, but we didn't find it.


A happy return to Jordan

2011-05-13 to 2011-05-15

Trish: Back in Jordan we spent a day at Jaresh, considered one of the most important and best preserved Roman cities in the Near East. Thought to have been already inhabited during the Bronze Age (3200 BC - 1200 BC), it was absorbed into the Roman province of Arabia after Roman conquest in 63 BC. The Romans ensured security and peace in this area, which enabled its people to devote their efforts and time to economic development and encouraged civic building activity. Roads were constructed and, as more trade came to Jaresh, so it became more prosperous. At its peak, the city finally reached a size of about 800,000 square metres within its walls.

Then, in AD 749, a major earthquake destroyed much of Jerash and its surroundings, and it was never rebuilt. So what is left is a scattering of pretty amazing buildings in various states of decay, including the Hippodrome with its daily re-enactments of chariot races. It is indeed one of the most interesting Roman ruins we’ve been to, and they’ve kept the hawkers out so it’s a peaceful stroll around.

Before flying home we had to do the obligatory ‘cover yourself in mud and float in the Dead Sea’ thing, so we checked into a hotel on the shore and luxuriated for the night. After our constant travel through dusty towns for the last 2 and a bit weeks, we enjoyed the solitude of the pool more than the stinging of the Dead Sea, but Gary did get to ogle lots of overweight European women slathering mud onto their white bodies.

We flew home to England and started a complete paint job on our house, feeling a little more tired than when we’d left.


Pakistan Part 1

2011-06-30 to 2011-07-05

Trish: The house project was taking longer than expected, and though there will be a time in the future when we will choose to stay in England, get a dog or two and settle down, now was not that time. We were restless, and idle chitchat over painting turned once again to places we hadn’t been to yet. I fancied somewhere a little less travelled than usual, suggesting Pakistan as a ridiculous example. Within a week, Gary had booked us onto a 3 and a half week trekking extravaganza to K2 base camp and the Gondogoro-la mountain pass.

For the next 6 weeks we hit the gym or pounded the streets almost daily. We bought minus 15 degree sleeping bags, thermal clothing, sweat wicking clothing, waterproof clothing, medicine for everything we could think of, even solar powered charging devices for our cameras and Kindles. We hooked in our friend, Jim, who when he’s not living on some beach teaching people to dive loves a good walk, and as part of his own training he trekked across England from the east coast to the west coast. We were about as prepared as we could have been.

On the 30th June we landed in Islamabad. The temperature was into the 40s and the city itself didn’t look like it had much character, but we had a decent guesthouse and got chauffeured around by our contact there, Syed, so we had little to think about except the oncoming trek. We met the rest of our group: Manfred from Austria, Natxo and Peru from Spain, ate good curry, and chilled.

The first hiccup arose when we found out that the daily 1 hour flight into the mountains had not taken off for 4 days due to bad weather conditions. The backlog alone meant that we were never going to get on that flight, so Syed organised a minibus for us. A 2 day journey by car would get us to the same town. Gary and Jim were even semi-excited as we would be apparently driving one of the great road journeys of all time...The Karakoram Highway, straight into Baltistan (once an independent country, currently part of Pakistan). 8 hours a day, I thought, worst case scenario. It couldn't be too bad.

3 hours into the first day, we were reasonably chirpy. It was amusing to see cannabis everywhere, like a weed, or a hedgerow (We would eventually pass hundreds of kilometers of it, 4 or 5 ft high, next to the roads and, in Islamabad, even next to children's playgrounds), and we stopped for lunch in Abbattobad, the town where only the month before Osama Bin Laden had been shot dead by US special forces. I was quite chuffed... we were well and truly off the tourist route.

14 hours into the second day, with another 6 hours to go, not quite so chirpy. It seemed we were stopped every hour by some security checkpoint. Police, then army, then police again, then army again. Always the same questions, always the same staring at the clearance papers in Syed's hand and then taking all our passports away for inspection anyway. There was no communication between checkpoints, and by the end of the second day, woe betide any soldier who stuck his head into the van to peer at us. The air conditioning had never really kicked in, and what little puffs of cool air there were died on any uphill stretches as the engine put all of its power into just keeping on moving. The whole of the 22 hour second day was uphill, in a hot van, on unpaved roads along the edges of ravines and over rope bridges, where they had withstood the winter's floodings. By the time we reached Skardu, we had been driving for 36 hours of the last 40 and were a sorry-looking bunch of tired, sweaty and very grumpy travellers. Syed remained cheerful...a small, compact man, he had mostly curled up and slept through our 2 day drive from hell.

But waking up that morning after a good sleep, and opening the curtains to reveal a lush green valley surrounded by big mountains, did a lot to improve our moods. We got ourselves fitted for crampons, bought more medical supplies, chose our sleeping mats and dining chairs (a bit random), met our cook and guide, and picked out any specific foods we wanted taken (cream cheese, baked beans and powdered hot chocolate). We also noted with interest that I was literally the only female out and about on the streets of Skardu, a fact that at the time felt strange, but grew to be the norm.

After one more night in a proper bed, we got into a jeep for a short transfer to the village further up in the mountains where we would start the actual trek. 8 hours later, we arrived there, reasonably jolly considering the heat, the state of the roads (pretty much just not roads at all), the crowdedness of the jeep (Syed had decided to join us, for fun), and the difference between implied travel time and actual travel time. We met our 36 porters (yes, just for us 6), and settled in for our first night in a tent.


Pakistan Part 2: Reaching K2

2011-07-06 to 2011-07-13

Trish: Then followed 12 nights camping and trekking, with bucket-showers on only the first 2 days of the trek, and non-existent toilet facilities. 6-8 hours a day trekking over some very hard landscapes, sometimes in extreme heat, sometimes in knee-deep snow.

Turns out (once again) I really should have read the trek description in depth rather than just let Gary wax lyrical about how amazing it would be. I took a copy of the itinerary on the trek and studied it scrupulously each night thinking that the next day would surely be an easy one. It never was. By day 6 it was getting tough beyond imagination, mentally and physically. The lack of a toilet and shower does things to your mind as well as your body. Anyway, I suddenly thought I'd read ahead a bit and couldn't believe it actually said that we were going to be walking the entire length of the Baltoro Glacier, 63km of rock and ice, ravines and crevasses. I announced this fact to the other 5, who all nodded and said 'yes, of course, that's why we're here'. Hardened trekkers really get on my nerves.

So on we went, nothing ever straightforward or easy. It was always uphill, it was always unstable ground, so you couldn't zone out and just plod (I tried my best though). But while my maladies were mainly of the aching muscles and mental distress variety, both Gary and I were lucky enough to not be hit with full-blown altitude sickness or food poisoning of some sort. We got up each morning from our tent on the ice after a full nights sleep, aided by a hot water bottle (the chef’s assistant had never seen anything like it and kept filling it up to bursting point like a heart-shaped helium balloon) and handfuls of sleeping tablets, only to hear over breakfast how many times in the night one of the others had had to get up to vomit or try to make it somewhere private to empty their bowels. We all lost our appetites as the days passed and we climbed higher and higher, we all looked more and more gaunt, and we all felt a bit broken at times, but there was never the option to turn around and go back. Once we got a few days in, we were in it for the duration, it wasn’t a there-and-back-again, but an up-and-over-and-out-the-other-side trip. I counted the nights spent, and the nights left, and repeated it to myself like a mantra whenever I thought I couldn’t keep going.

We reached Concordia on about day 8, the only place in the world from where you can see 4 of the world's 14 highest mountains, one of them being K2, at 8611m the second highest after Everest. This is also the site where 5 glaciers meet and form the enormous Baltoro glacier that we had been hauling our asses up and over for the last 5 days. We spent an excited day staring up at K2 and Broad Peak (8047m), watching the clouds being sucked in and blown away from the summits and wondering if anyone was up there. We were all reading K2 disaster books, and our guides knew a lot of the climbers mentioned as they or some of our 36 porters had been part of the teams. We knew that one in four people who attempt the summit of K2 don't come back down. It was pretty amazing to be sat at the base of this beautiful monster.


Pakistan 3: Crossing the Gondogoro La

2011-07-14 to 2011-07-15

Trish: We had been exceptionally lucky with the weather so far, only on our one rest day had it been dreary. So after one night at Concordia we took our guide’s advice and kept moving. In spite of this being a trek to see K2, and we were there, the hardest part was still to come. Hurrah for the ability of mountains to really kick you when you’re down.

That was my worst day of low morale. 8 or more hours over more sodding glacier with K2 now at our backs, trudging through slush and over rocks, trying to avoid crevasses and snow bridges and the possibilities they brought of imminent death. Gary’s will never broke, he marched along, camera in hand, encouraging me with statements of awe about our surroundings, spurting lies about how well I was doing, and singing amusing ditties. He can be so bloody annoying, loving a physical challenge. But he did wait for me, and by the time we reached camp Jim had been passed out over some very uncomfortable-looking rocks for over an hour.

That night we set off at midnight to climb up and over the Gondogoro-La pass. It was brutal. After over an hour of crossing a field of knee-deep or higher snow in bitter conditions, we started up the 50 degree slope. There was no sweat (too cold), but there were tears, and shouting, and lots of grunting from Jim. There was a ‘route’, with fixed ropes in places to hold on to when the slope was too steep to step up unaided. But one careless slip and too light a grasp and it was more than likely you’d not be seen again as the downhill slide delivered you into some nasty crevass. Letting go of the rope to let porters by (because even with their 25kg loads they were unstoppable) was frightening, but not stopping to take deep breaths every 18, then 15, then 12, 8, 5, then finally every 3 steps was asphyxiating.

By 4.30am the top was in sight. As we stepped up onto flat snow, Natxo and Peru were there to excitedly greet us, Jim less than a minute behind. Before we knew it, Manfred’s blue jacket appeared and we all celebrated with whoops and laughs and high fives and emotional bear hugs. Then we all had to take a minute to gasp and recover from said excitement. This is no place for jumping around. The sun rose over K2 and the Karakoram range as we stood there, at 5940m, the highest point we had ever been, and it was beautiful.

With frozen hands and punished bodies, we then started the 4 hour descent over the other side of the pass to camp. This was probably more dangerous than the climb up, encorporating over 1km of sometimes vertical fixed ropes over ice and unstable icy rocks. We were not attached to the ropes, so we gripped as tightly as our hands would allow, and somehow all made it down safely, though bruised and battered and slightly angry at just how dangerous that portion had been.

In camp that day we barely found the energy to eat pizza and walk to the bathrooms, however luxurious actually having a room with a hole in it was compared to my normal find-a-big-rock-to-hide-behind visits. There was a shower, someone told us, and the thought of washing roused me, until Manfred came back clean but with the bad news that it was actually an open air, open walled shower overlooking the camp. He’d given the locals a good show of white flesh, I wasn’t so brave.

The next morning we woke up to sad news, a porter from a group behind us had been killed on the descent side, his skull smashed during a rockfall. The whole camp was emotional and subdued, the porters all coming from the surrounding villages and knowing each other well. He was 18, the only son in a local family. Wrapped in a tent, his friends carried his body down the mountain on a makeshift stretcher. Porter pay is low, there's no concept of 'danger money', and it is so hard to understand why anybody would risk their life for several dollars a day, but it is often the only work available to young (and old) men up in these mountains. It was a sobering thought that just by being there as tourists, we are expecting other people to risk everything to keep us comfortable.


Pakistan: The final chapter

2011-07-16 to 2011-07-25

Trish: With only 2 more nights in a tent left (I was still desperately counting), we headed back down towards civilization, sort of. On the 3rd day of descent we trudged into the small village where our jeeps would be waiting to take us back to a warm shower and a proper hotel room. Also waiting was a very freshly dismembered buffalo, parts of which our guide quickly snapped up.

I can’t even remember how many hours it took us to get back to Skardu in another hot and sweaty van, now containing nearly all of us unwashed for over a week. We stopped for a lovely lunch at Ibram’s house, then tea at Abbas’ family home, then really hit the non-existent road for quite some distance.

On reaching the hotel we suffered a final blow. The flight back to Islamabad hadn’t taken off for over a week. We would have to drive back. Too tired to take on that information properly, I stumbled to our room where I suffered a minor breakdown when I found out we faced directly onto a building site full of men, and after shouting at the shocked fellows in reception, burst into uncontrollable sobs on my bed as my body and mind ‘gave up’. Gary went to try and alleviate the problem, only to find Jim now storming around reception raging about the lack of hot water. We were so far past exhausted we couldn’t cope with anything else. The next day there were apologies on both sides and Gary and I were moved to a suite with a fantastic view of the valley and reliable hot water. But we really did have to drive back to Islamabad.

2 more days of travel, 36 hours actually ‘on the road’, got us to Islamabad, where we spent a very boring 5 days in the city that never has fun. We said goodbye to Natxo and Peru at the only place in town that serves alcohol, a hidden, underground bar in the Marriott, and celebrated our Gondogoro La achievement over beer, burgers, pool and table-football.

We then killed time as best we could. Manfred was still around, so we let Syed take us all on a tour of Rawalpindi (the not-so-nice side of town) and a truck-painting yard, followed by dinner in the biggest meat barbeque restaurant in Islamabad, in true ‘anything goes’ Pakistani style picked out especially for vegetarian Manfred by Syed. Islamabad made us lethargic with the total lack of anything to do except visit a mosque or walk to the one coffee shop we found that had ac. Once Manfred had also left, Jim, Gary and I spent the next 3 days eating Nandos and watching tv in our guesthouse. We were over the moon when we eventually boarded the Emirates flight home.

Of course, with hindsight the trek was amazing, but I wouldn't do it again. I couldn't do it again. On how strenuous it was, Gary and I both lost about half a stone even though we ate loads of great curries. If you speak to Gary or Jim or Manfred, they'll tell you they had the time of their lives and would do it again tomorrow, but my muscles took about 3 weeks to recover and I think my body would roll over and die if I tried it again.

If I could go back there tomorrow and spend the day staring at K2, I would. But the thing is, you can't see K2 from anywhere vaguely normal because it's nestled in between all the other 8000+m mountains which shield it from view from civilisation. Anyone who actually climbs it has to walk in, the way we did. Crazy fools.


Delhi

2011-10-03 to 2011-10-06

Gary: It was reassuring to see a small Indian chap holding up a board with our names on as we wandered sleepily into Delhi airport arrivals lounge. We had read a lot about Delhi, not much of it encouraging. Thankfully our base for 3 days here, Charlottes BnB, was a real home from home affair. Just two guest rooms in her own house, 10 minutes walk from Delhi’s new metro.

Delhi is a huge and sprawling city, formerly the British capital and now home to the leaders of the world’s largest democracy. It’s congested in a way not comparable with the west. The incredible levels of poverty and pollution, the sheer numbers of people, and a complete lack of rules, make it chaotic at quiet times and a complete madhouse at rush hour.

First we explored some of New Delhi, the fancy new Connaught Place full of shops and restaurants. But down each dark side street were people shifting through garbage, or simply sleeping by the curb. We ate great curry on our first night in an old school musty kind of restaurant full of old Indian men drinking tea.

The following day we went north to Old Delhi. It was hot, crowded, and smelly, that unmistakable urban tropical street smell, best described as decaying. The bazaars were frenetic, and the heat meant we didn’t last long. We went around Delhi’s Red Fort, which was a bit of a disappointment, though it hinted at lost ancient grandeur.

Next we took a rickshaw, (generally a very skinny man on a bicycle with 2 seats behind) to Raj Ghat, the remarkably serene cremation site of Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, a simple and moving place. A madcap tuk tuk ride (a three wheeled motorized pollution machine unless fitted with a new CNG engine) took us to the south of the city to Emperor Humayun’s tomb. The original basis for the Taj, it is a hugely impressive structure which probably deserved more time and energy than we could muster.

Maybe we are just a bit jaded when it comes to temples, tombs and forts. It’s possible that the chaotic madcap developing world city is no longer fascinating, just aggravating and hard work. The rickshaws and tuk tuks were fun and insanely cheap, and the new air-conditioned metro was a life saver. But the rest of Delhi was a real effort. The poverty, pollution and congestion was beyond fascinating, it’s really a disgrace. For a country with numerous billionaires and rich resources something has gone badly wrong. There are small worlds hidden under bridges where naked children trawl through immense garbage heaps alongside cows, pigs and dogs. The air quality is horrific. And the roads, wow. We have seen some pretty crazy roads but nothing like in Delhi and later Agra. There are no rules, none. Well, possibly two, blast the horn constantly and don’t stop unless it’s impossible to keep going.

We headed for Delhi train station with some relief after 3 trying and un-rewarding days. At the station a little smiling man in bright white suit pointed us in the direction of our train. Another man, his colleague then explained that unfortunately our train was delayed by 8 hours, but we could accompany him to buy a ticket for a different train. Trish smelled a rat instantly and we stomped off in the opposite direction while he chased behind. Our train was standing on its platform, ready to leave on time. What a dirty rotten scam, one of many in Delhi. The touts and tuk tuk drivers can be ruthless, or just bloody annoying.

Fortunately we had a lovely old train compartment all to ourselves. We reclined in relative air-conditioned luxury, books out, and watched garbage strewn India drift by. Next stop Agra, though I think deep down we knew it was going to be more of the same, if not worse….


Agra

2011-10-07 to 2011-10-09

Trish: The Lonely Planet starts it's Agra chapter with, "The magical allure of the Taj Mahal draws tourists like moths to a wondrous flame". And just like 90% of those who visit India, we headed excitedly for Agra to see our 6th 'Wonder'.

Our excitement dissipated somewhat on arrival. On approach to the city we passed mile after mile of garbage strewn land, people and animals sifting through, and apparently living on, absolute lakes of rubbish foraging for anything of use. Villages filled the gaps between the refuse, or maybe the villages had been there first and the crap filled the spaces between them. Hundreds of people jumped off the train as it slowed, a mile or so before the station, running into these wastelands to greet loved ones with parcels from Delhi, those with jobs in the city coming home to visit those with nothing in the country. This is the India you read about and wonder if it's true. Humans literally living in garbage dumps.

Off the train, fumes hugged the streets, billowing between a heaving mass of tuk tuks, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, donkeys, camels, cows, pigs and people. The stench was appalling, not a great surprise given the extent of rotting garbage and excrement on the ground. The concept of bins seems to have escaped Agra, much easier to throw everything onto the road. Toilets, also, are a phenomenon yet to hit the city (tourist areas thankfully excepted). Much better to squat next to the road and chat to a friend whilst you both empty your bowels in full view.

There's no denying that the Taj Mahal is impressive. Built by Shah Jahan in the 17th century as a memorial to his second wife who died giving birth to their 14th child, it took 20,000 people to build over two decades. We were at the gates before they opened, in before 6.15am to try to beat the crowds. It's a beautiful building, all white marble and precious stone inlays. But that's all it is, a building, so after a couple of hours of photography and people-watching we headed back into the bustle and grimness of Agra.

Fighting off tuk tuk, rickshaw, pony and camel drivers, and trying to avoid inhaling the stench that every now and then hit us like a tangible wall of filth in the air, we walked to Agra fort. Built in 1565 by Emperor Akbar, it was transformed into a palace by Shah Jahan (that lover of white marble). In a cruel twist of fate, he spent the final 8 years of his life there, imprisoned by his own son, only able to see his greatest creation, the Taj, through a small window. Interesting history, and the fort was architecturally great, but you can only stroll around so many great buildings in this heat before you lose the will to live.

The best thing we did in Agra, after the Taj, was get out of the city for a day. Our second stop was Fatehpur Sikri, an ancient fortified city inhabited for only 40 years back in the 1500's. Old carved stone palaces, beautiful courtyards, big mosque, lots of hassle in the bustling and dirty town outside the fort from wannabe guides, ... same old, same old.

But our morning had been more serenely spent at the Wildlife SOS Agra Bear Rescue Sanctuary. Though illegal since 1972, up until very recently performing, or dancing, bears were apparently a common site around Agra. Poached from the forests as cubs, their sensitive nose pierced with a red hot iron rod so that a rope or nose ring can be attached, and their canine teeth knocked out, they were then beaten into submission and forced to perform. But Wildlife SOS persevered in their quest to free all the dancing bears, paying rewards for bears handed in and providing new jobs and education for the Qalanders, the tribe who traditionally have made their living from this inhumane practice. Although it is believed that some bears are still enslaved, since 2002 the facility has provided refuge, rehabilitation, and veterinary care for more than 300 ex-dancing sloth bears. Although in the wild they are solitary creatures, there is not much of the wild left in them anymore, and to help them cope better with the trauma they have suffered all the bears are socialised and now live in group habitats where we saw many of them curled up together or playing. It was nice to see something good being done in what seems so far to be a country of neglect and indifference.

I struggled in Agra. The dust and the smells got in my clothes, the touts drove me crazy, the constant lies tired me out. Even in our hotel you couldn't escape the intense 'sell at all costs, lie if necessary' attitude. The creepy manager told us everywhere we wanted to go on our own was closed due to some reason or another, or that it was unsafe to organise anything through anybody but himself (money up-front of course) and, ridiculous as it sounds, the hotel tuk tuk driver never took us where we wanted to go. After 3 nights of stopping outside a different restaurant than we had requested it was hard to not want to punch him in the face. But drivers are paid commission by certain restaurants for bringing in tourists, and it's infuriating, but you have to take a breath and remember what you have compared to what they have, smile and be nice. It's draining.

I have never been so eager to leave a hotel, and so happy to be out of a city. Agra makes me cringe just thinking about it. I'll never go back, which is a shame because the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri and the Bear Sanctuary were all worth seeing. The only way I can see it being an enjoyable experience is if you stay in a 5 star hotel and never leave the complex except on a hotel-organised tour. And that's something I never thought I'd really say about anywhere.


Ranthembore

2011-10-10 to 2011-10-14

Trish: Taking trains around India is supposedly the best way to see the country, travelling through the endless expanse of farmland, villages and choked cities in the comfort of a 1st or 2nd class air-conditioned cabin. 1st class is of course relative, it’s not the Orient Express that’s for sure, but standing on the platform having seen the overcrowded 3rd class non-a/c carriages go past looking like the stuff of nightmares, I’m at once filled with sheer relief that Gary has sense enough not to put us in there, and sheer horror at the thought that he might think it’s an experience we should have before we leave.

We shared our journey from Agra to Sawai Madhopur with a real old Indian gent. 70 years old, an ex chief engineer on the railways, laid out along one side of the cabin with a still-healing broken hip, he happily put the world, well mostly India, to rights for 3 hours. It was somewhat reassuring to hear him say he hated Delhi and Agra and that we had indeed visited the worst of the country first.

Sawai Madhopur is the gateway to Ranthembhore National Park, our first shot at spotting a tiger in the wild. It’s a somewhat dusty, odorous town, the obligatory piles of refuse and excrement in the roads, but our hotel, the Ranthembhore Regency, was a gem. After being adorned with flowers and facepaint we entered our own little oasis of colonialism. Walls with paint still attached, a pristine swimming pool, and staff with kind smiles who looked happy to see us. My first words, after being left in our room, through somewhat watery eyes, were along the lines of “Thank God for that”.

The reason for being in Ranthembhore was to try to see some big cats, and try we did. Two full days of a private jeep with Nafees, a guide recommended by a photographer friend, took a massive chunk out of our budget, and although we had a great time in the quite spectacular park tracking pug marks (tiger paw prints) and warning calls of deer and monkeys, we could not find an actual tiger. We saw plenty of deer, monkeys, some crocodiles, cobras and leopard and cub pug marks, even chatted with David Gower, but no big cats.

We’d only booked 2 days with Nafees, thinking that there was no way we wouldn’t have seen something by then, but as we watched sunset over the park on the 2nd day, we bit the bullet and booked ourselves into one of the massive 20 seater Canter jeeps for the following morning. Feeling very downgraded from our private jeep, we spent the next day stopping for photos of peacocks, deer, birds, monkeys and large trees in the Canter, sullenly realising that there was no way we would sneak up on a tiger on this monstrosity. Nafees and our drivers had had us zipping all over our allocated zones of the park, in the Canters we were restricted to chugging along the larger pathways relying on sheer luck (and having none).

So we cut our losses, gave up hope of a tiger, and became objects of pity for the lovely waiters at the Regency who asked us every night if we had surely seen one that day. We had known it was the worst time of the year to come looking for tigers – just after monsoon season the park was so lush and densely packed with undergrowth that a tiger could be 5 yards away and you might not see it – but we’d hoped for something amazing, and we couldn't help feeling disheartened.

Our last day at Ranthembhore was to be spent chilling before an overnight train journey that Gary had rather over-zealously booked back in England. But after a morning around the pool, an excited Nafees was on the phone – his customers that afternoon had cancelled and there was a jeep spare. We ummed and erred over the cost, both financial and of further disappointment, but in the end you’ve got to be in it to win it so off we went.

After a couple of hours of driving further and further into the park, we got stuck in a bog. We got out, there we were in flip flops standing on mud and bramble bushes in the forest wondering about those cobras we’d seen and joking about tigers, while our driver tried in earnest to move the jeep. Eventually the boys collected enough foliage to put under the wheels, and pushed us back out the way we’d come. Heading back down the path, 100 yards later something was clunking under the car so we stopped again, the driver got out, fixed it and off we went. Immediately, Nafees spots a tiger. The only time in 4 days we were out of the jeep, and there’s a tiger 200 yards away. Ridiculous timing.

She was beautiful, T41, a 7 year old born in the park. We watched her have a wash (just like a domestic cat licking her paws then rubbing her ears), rolling around swatting flies with her massive paws and flicking her tail, and then finally she just slumped down and went to sleep.

So we left Ranthembhore triumphant, feeling a little more vindicated for all the time and money spent, but wishing that we could have had a closer encounter, thoughts of other national parks in the region already reeling around in our plans.

We boarded our train to Udaipur at midnight, just us, some cows and a handful of other travellers waiting on the platform as the train chugged in. Gary had high hopes for this overnight experience, dread had dulled any hopes I may have harboured. Ipod headphones in, off we went.


Udaipur

2011-10-15 to 2011-10-17

Gary: I was reasonably excited about our first night sleeper train, Trish was definitely not. The station was quiet at 11:30pm, fewer begging kids, and pleasantly cool. Our a/c 2nd class sleeper car was busy, lots of drawn curtains and snoring noises. It was a bit rocky, but kind of pleasant, and I slept surprisingly well, certainly better than Trish, until about 6am when our curtain shot back and some Indian dude began shaking the body asleep above us, which turned out to be his son. Next he flicked the shockingly bright lights on, and started to drag a variety of bags out from under our beds. Finally, he tapped me, said please, and sat down on my bed, resting against my legs, and asked me enthusiastically where I was from. For several seconds I thought about throwing him out the window, but instead I sat up, smiled, and chatted with him and his son, thinking we must be approaching their stop. Trish glared out from under her blanket in fury. I should have guessed, and it sums things up in India quite well, that we were well over an hour away from their station! An unusual way to start my birthday for sure.

Udaipur was more than worth the journey. Gazing out from our hotel’s roof top restaurant it was easy to see why Udaipur is known as India’s most romantic city. Indeed, from up high in early morning light we could almost have been in Italy. Closer inspection revealed garbage and hints of poverty but thankfully nothing like Agra, a really pleasant place at last. There were literally hundreds of roof top cafes, decent restaurants, and some very cool old houses (haveli’s) surrounding lake Pichola, including some grand old palaces on islands now mainly luxury hotels.

We spent 3 days exploring the city, wandering around Jain temples, watching sunsets over the lake, and exploring the relatively sedate but fascinating old bazaars. The spice market was particularly interesting, a maze of narrow streets with colourful stalls selling every spice you can imagine. Huge bowls full of chilli, saffron, cumin, every spice imaginable and plenty we had never heard of. Colour plays a significant role in Rajasthan, and the myriad of brightly coloured saris, turbans and spice stalls make an exotic contrast to the arid landscape and garbage heaps.

In search of something different we headed down to see the Maharaja’s classic car collection. The Rajput Maharajas were nothing if not indulgent. In fact, having made alliances with the British many of them embarked upon extravagant world trips with scores of retainers, an indulgence that did little for the welfare of Rajasthan. The 22 vintage cars are in excellent condition, especially the 1930s Cadillacs and Rolls Royce Phantoms. One of the Rolls’ was used in the 007 movie Octopussy, and weirdly most guesthouse and cafés still play the film every evening.

Our 3 days in Udaipur were interesting and relaxing, restoring the laid back travelling feeling that was missing in Delhi and Agra. With our batteries recharged and peace of mind restored we headed north, up into the Aravalli hills towards Ranakpur.


Ranakpur, and Religion 101

2011-10-18

Trish: Our first stop after leaving Udaipur was Kumbalgarh Fort high up in the Aravelli hills. Built in the 15th century, it is another example of Rajput grandeur, and superb defensive architecture. It’s 36km long wall surrounds 360 temples, as well as royal palaces and gardens, and is the 2nd longest continuous wall in the world. Rulers of Mewar (Udaipur kingdom) would retreat here in times of danger, and during its long history of sieges so impregnable was the fort that it was taken only once, under the combined assault of 4 armies, and for only 2 days.

Next stop was the Jain temple at Ranakpur (see below for my basic guide to Indian religions). Built in 1439, it is one of the most important Jain temples in India, its intricate carvings an incredible feat of Jain devotion. Milky white marble, the temple consists of 26 halls supported by 1444 pillars, no 2 alike, which is absolutely mindblowing when you’re there and can put this into perspective. Every nook and cranny is filled with individual hand carvings, and it’s immense.

We spent the night in Ranakpur after a hot day on the road with no ac, then finished the 270km journey to Jodhpur the next morning. 270km takes a lot longer in India with bad roads and half the population and their cows conducting their business along them.

Trish’s Indian Religions 101 Class:

Religion influences almost every aspect of daily life in India. And with quite a few different ones, seemingly all living harmoniously, it can get confusing for a visitor. The major religion in India is Hinduism, with its followers making up 82% of the population. The largest minority religion is Islam, with 12% of the population being Muslim. Christians make up 2.3%, mostly in the south. 1.9% are Sikh, most of these living in the northern state of Punjab. 0.76% are Buddhist, 0.4% Jain, then Parsis (followers of Zoroastrianism) and Jews contribute a tiny percentage. The older tribal religions have mostly mixed with Hinduism.

And now for those of you also not that up to scratch with world religions, here’s the breakdown (apologies if I have misunderstood any major points)…

Hinduism. Hindus believe in one God, Brahman, who is eternal, uncreated and infinite. Everything that exists eminates from Brahman and will ultimately return to it. The multitude of gods and goddesses worshipped (Shiva, Ganesh, Vishnu etc) are merely manifestations, or knowable aspects of this formless phenomenon. Hindus believe that earthly life is cyclical: you are born again and again (a process known as Samsara), the quality of these rebirths being dependent upon your karma (conduct or action) in previous lives. The Hindu ‘book of authority’ is called The Vedas, and is thought to have its foundations around 1000BC.

Islam. Muslims believe that Mohammed, in the 7th century AD, was the last prophet of Allah (God). The Arabic term Islam means to surrender, and therefore Muslims surrender to the will of Allah, which is revealed in his scriptures, The Quran. Following Mohammed’s death, a succession dispute split the movement, and the legacy today is the Sunnis and the Shiites (most Indian Muslims are Sunnis). However, all Muslims share a belief in the Five Pillars of Islam: the shahabda (decaration of faith: ‘There is no god but Allah; Mohammed is his prophet’), prayer, ideally 5 times a day; the zakat (tax) in the form of charitable donation; fasting (during Ramadan); and the haj (pilgrimage) to Mecca, which every Muslim aspires to do at least once in their life. Islam is believed to have been introduced to northern India by invading armies in the 16th and 17th centuries, and to the south by Arab traders.

Sikhism was founded in Punjab by Guru Nanak in the 15th century. Sikhs believe in one God. The Sikh Holy Book, the Guru Granth Sahib, contains the teachings of the 10 Sikh gurus, among others. Like Hindus and Buddhists, Sikhs believe in rebirth and karma. A belief in the equality of all beings lies at the heart of Sikhism, and is expressed in various practices including langar, whereby people from all walks of life, regardless of caste and creed, sit side by side to share a complimentary meal prepared by volunteers in the communal kitchens of the gurdwara (Sikh temple).

Buddhism arose in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the strictures of Hinduism. Aged 29, Buddha (the Awakened One), formerly a prince, is believed to have embarked on a quest for emancipation from the world of suffering. He achieved nirvana (the state of full awareness) at Bihar (a state in eastern India) aged 35. Critical of the caste system and the unthinking worship of gods, the Buddha urged his disciples to seek truth within their own experiences. His teaching are that existence is based on Four Noble Truths – that life is rooted in suffering, that suffering is caused by craving, that one can find release from suffering by eliminating craving, and that the way to eliminate craving is by following the Noble Eightfold path of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right awareness and right concentration. This way, one can achieve nirvana.

Jainism was also founded in the 6th century BC as a reaction against the caste restraints and rituals of Hinduism by Mahavira, a contemporary of the Buddha. Jains believe that liberation can be attained by achieving complete purity of the soul with the help of fasting and meditation. Right conduct is essential, as is nonviolence in thought and deed towards any living thing. The bare minimum of possessions will include a broom, with which to sweep the path before them to avoid stepping on any living creature, and a piece of cloth that is tied over their mouth to prevent the accidental inhalation of insects.

Christianity. Although there is a theory that Jesus spent his ‘lost years’ (between his youth and the start of his ministry aged 30) in India, where he was inspired by Buddhism, Christianity is thought to have first arrived in India in the 4th century with a Syrian merchant. Catholicism established a strong presence in South India in the wake of Vasco de Gama’s visit in 1498, and Protestant missionaries are believed to have started arriving around the 18th century.

Zoroastrianism was founded in the 6th century BC in Persia, based on the concept of dualism, whereby good and evil are locked in continuous battle. Good and evil entities coexist, therefore Humanity has a choice, although believers are urged to honour only the good. Humanity, although mortal, has components such as the soul, which are timeless, and a pleasant afterlife depends on ones deeds, words and thoughts during earthly existence.

So, all clear now?!


Jodhpur, the Blue City

2011-10-19 to 2011-10-20

Gary: As we arrived in Jodhpur our first reaction was that it didn’t look blue, secondly no one was wearing tight fitting riding pants (this area of Rajasthan is in fact the birth place of riding jodhpurs), and thirdly, it was bloody busy. Fortunately we were rescued from a dusty tuk tuk park by Rishi, our host for our short stay in the Blue City. The new Hem guesthouse was in fact his family home, an old Haveli tucked away down a rabbit warren of winding back streets in the old town. Our room, which was very nice, was right by the family kitchen, where his mum, wife and baby daughter were all sat. Trish and I exchanged worried glances as the baby started crying, but we couldn’t have been more wrong.

The charming house had a great roof terrace, almost in the shadow of the towering walls of the mighty Mehrangarh fort. And from here a patchwork of blue houses spread away in all directions. Soon his mum was whipping up some great home cooked Indian food, and we quickly settled in to what would be a great place to stay.

On that first evening we ventured out to the old Sardar market. The place was completely nuts, an endless tide of hawkers, market stalls, beggers, sadhus (Holy men) and flustered tourists. The poverty was pretty intense, but somehow the colour and craziness of it all won out, and we found ourselves just stood in the middle of the square taking pictures, trying to avoiding cows, begging kids, horse drawn carts, and tuk tuks that screeched to a halt as a dozen locals spilled out from inside.

The next day we went to explore the huge fort. Even I’m getting a bit ‘forted out’, and Trish looked less than enthusiastic as we popped on our audio tour head phones and followed a surge of school kids inside. It was interesting, mainly because of the great views out over the city, though we’ve come to realize that these great old Rajasthan forts are most impressive from the outside. At night the epic walls were lit up and it did look magnificent.

We tucked into some great street food in Jodhpur. Rishi bought us some green chilli pakoras, and really spicy samosas, and we had some fantastic makhani (saffron) lassi in the market.

Glad to say that I really enjoyed Jodhpur. Yes it was congested and polluted, and at times very sad. Each time we went to the old market we would see guys with badly deformed legs, wrapped in rags, rolling along the road from stall to stall pushing cups along. Or entire families, grubby and painfully skinny, just sat by the roadside waiting for some miracle or handout. But there was a bustling, vibrant atmosphere that somehow made it ok. The market was boisterous and addictive. The blue-washed houses and winding old streets were full of character, and the people curious, sometimes annoying, but generally friendly and never threatening.

After a final home cooked dinner on Rishi’s roof terrace, we headed out the next morning for our train to the desert town of Bikaner.


Bikaner for a camel safari

2011-10-21 to 2011-10-25

Gary: Our train from Jodhpur arrived late and on a different platform, an incredibly confusing event in Indian stations. I asked various people on the platform but no one seemed to know, and we very nearly ended up on a no a/c sleeper train to God knows where, with me becoming a single man soon after. We had better luck when the right train arrived and a man in a safari suit seemed to legitimately know what he was doing in ushering us on. Pretty much the entire A/C 2 coach emptied at Jodhpur leaving us to a peaceful journey north. The train rumbled through 5 hours of scrubland and arid-looking farmland, stopping at a few dusty stations along the way before arriving at Bikaner.

Bikaner is an outpost kind of town, and there is not a great deal north of it except desert until the Pakistan border. We spent our first couple of nights in a decent hotel outside of the old town, and during the day went to see Vijay the Camel Man. I had been slowly selling the idea of a camel safari to Trish, and Vijay did the rest. A jovial and dignified man, he put Trish’s mind at ease about the tents, bedding etc, and booked us in the next day for a 3 day safari.

Along with a couple from New Zealand, Frankie and Danny, we took off in jeeps the next morning to a village outside of town and met our camels. We were pretty relieved to discover that they had long and well padded saddles and stirrups, and as a result were a good deal more comfortable than the Bedouin camels in Jordan.

And so began a surprisingly relaxing, and very enjoyable amble around the Thar desert. Our guide called it a living desert, and after the monsoon it was indeed remarkably green. Most of it is actually worked as farmland, dry dusty fields but with decent looking crops of peanuts, maize and camel fodder. We strolled along peering down at dusty villagers who peered back up at us. Kids ran out of huts and stood in lines laughing and shouting the same word over and over again, “dada”, which I think roughly translates as “Hey you, Mr strange white man, give us a pen”. I flicked peanut shells at my camel’s head, Trish at the kids.

The tents were better than Vijay had described, big and clean with comfortable mattresses and thick blankets. Soon there was a fire going, and we ate good veg curry under the stars, serenaded by the sounds of camels farting and the occasional waft of strong cabbage.

Our camels were huge, and generally disagreeable. (Anyone who has read Terry Pratchett will understand why the names we gave them all contained the word bastard). Trish was on the youngest, and naughtiest, which grumbled and mumbled constantly. Sadly, Dirty Bastard also had an unpleasant habit of suckling urine from whichever camel she followed, then raising her head whilst grinning and apparently gargling with the stuff. My camel, Big Bastard was enormous, and didn’t like me at all. Occasionally, and for no reason, he would slowly lunge over in an attempt to take a slow deliberate bite out of my knee. I took my revenge with peanut shells. Despite this they plodded along nicely, and it was a great way to get in amongst local villages and out into the scrub and desert.

We arrived back at Vijay’s in time for Dewali. Vijay has turned his home into a very comfortable guesthouse, and along with a few other travellers, we were lucky to be there for the big Indian celebration.


The Rat Temple

2011-10-26 to 2011-10-27

Trish: We stayed at Vijay's for Diwali, India's most widely celebrated Hindu event. The house was cleaned top to bottom, fresh veg and spices were mixed up in the garden, and we made candles out of small clay pots of cooking oil to spread all around the grounds. Everybody was in a festive mood, even those of us who didn't really know what was going on. Diwali night we sat on the floor in front of flower and ribbon-draped idols, lit more candles, and performed some sort of ritual of thanks with Vijay, his wife and children. Mrs Vijay sang prayers whilst her daughter marked everybody in the house with red paste and rice on their forehead, and her son wrapped red cotton bands around our wrists. Like I said, we had very little clue as to what was actually going on, but we were well and truly made to feel involved and it was a really homely atmosphere.

After prayers, we went outside and had a manic firework session, along with every other Hindu household in India. The skies were a torrent of different colours and it sounded like we were in a war zone. Dinner was served in the candle-lit garden, with rum proudly produced by Vijay, and the fireworks from the town continued well into the early hours.

The next day we said a fond farewell to Mr and Mrs Vijay, and headed for Pushkar. En-route we stopped off at the Karni Mata Temple, better known as the Rat Temple. The thousands of rats that live here, and are fed offerings by worshippers, are, apparently, reincarnated storytellers transformed into rats to deprive Death of human souls. People come to the temple to make their wishes, hoping that a rat will run over their foot (an auspicious occasion), or that they will see a white rate which indicates certain wish fulfillment. An interesting place, if a little on the unhygienic side. The rats, sadly, are not too healthy. Years of being fed sweets, fatty treats and rich milk, together with in-breeding, have left them with hair loss, skin sores, and deformations. They are not the cute, silky animals you see in pet shops. But they are, nonetheless, holy beings, and the temple is an important pilgrimage site. It was by no means the strangest thing we have seen in India.


The Pushkar Camel Fair

2011-10-28 to 2011-11-04

Gary: Supposedly created when Brahma dropped a lotus flower to earth, Pushkar is a pilgrimage town curled around a holy lake in central Rajasthan. Green hills surround the lake, their tops dotted with temples and shrines, and after a week in the desert it looked positively lush. One of the world’s only Brahma temples sits by the lake, along with hundreds of other temples, shrines, and bathing ghats. The waters are considered extremely sacred and as a result pilgrims visit in their thousands to bathe.

The town is also famous for it’s annual camel fair, when up to 200,000 people converge on Pushkar: traders bringing camels, horses and cattle, and tourists by the bus load. The fair just happens to coincide with a holy week in the eighth lunar month of the Hindu calendar, which culminates in full moon and some serious bathing. As we were in Rajasthan it seemed a shame not to hang around to see some of this bizarre-sounding gathering, even though it meant hanging around in Pushkar for nearly a week waiting for it to start.

Fortunately we found a great hotel just outside the hustle and bustle of town, down a dusty lane that Trish didn’t think smelled of wee, unlike most other place we walked in Pushkar. The Green Park hotel had a clean outdoor pool, nice rooms with a/c and wifi, all for a tenner a night. It also had 2 tortoises, one of which bit me.

Each morning we wandered around town, then sunbathed by the pool, then went back into town for dinner. Perhaps Trish was even enjoying India at last? It was a fascinating place, a bizarre mix of local and global tourists, hippies, traders, and Sadus (holy men).

Each day the town got busier and weirder. Locals herded cows out of the main street, and droves of Indians began trooping down to the ghats to bathe. Snake-charmers shoved cobras in people’s faces, and Sadus, not all legit, wandered around smoking chillums and asking for money. It was eclectic and fascinating stuff.

By the time the fair started a week later the town was a seething mass of activity. The fair was bizarre, a big dusty sprawl of tents, horses, and the odd camel, rickety looking fair rides, stalls and hundreds of pesky trinket sellers. Most of the action took place in a big concrete arena and was organised in true Indian style, so not at all. Random guys galloped around bareback on horses, others performed dressage-style dancing, some walked their horses around on only their 2 back legs. The riding and handling was impressive, though we weren’t sure how happy the horses looked. It was more stick than carrot, that’s for sure.

Young kids walked on tightropes, girls danced in bright costumes, young men stuck matchsticks in their eyes, and old boys bought horses. Tourists came and went, the bus loads of middle aged tour groups being aggressively mobbed by street sellers immediately they stepped into the dust. We had adopted a no-nonsense, almost angry, strategy which despite seeming a little harsh worked a treat. We hoped that our over-use of the word “dude” would smooth over the “go aways”.

Two days of the fair was enough. It was worth hanging around for, though the treatment of some of the animals looked a bit dodgy, and it was just weird. We had a great time in Pushkar, but even I was now done with Rajasthan. We needed to escape, and where better than up into the Himalayas.


Darjeeling

2011-11-05 to 2011-11-11

Trish: Darjeeling had been the light at the end of a long dark tunnel for me ever since my patience, morale, and optimism had started taking a beating in Rajasthan. The Promised Land, where folk might just be laid back, friendly and genuine. It’s a mountain thing. Tibet, Nepal, Pakistan… head to the hills where life is slow and simple, and hard, and find the nicest people. People who appreciate your business, but don’t see you as a walking pound sign. I knew that things would be easier there, and Gary thought he’d get me out trekking. I had no intention of completing anything more physical than a stroll to a local café for a hot chocolate.

We’d had to spend 2 nights in Delhi before flying up to Bagdogra. A little more city-savvy than last time, we opted to save some cash and stay in the backpackers area of town which, surprise surprise, was a total hole. Still, our hotel didn’t seem to rent rooms by the hour, and we were well practiced in the art of telling scammers to bugger off. Delhi is an awful place, this opinion was compounded when I found out that even the McDonalds there doesn’t sell beef. All I wanted was a freaking BigMac, all I got was a scrawny Chicken McSpicy.

After flying east, Darjeeling was only a 3 hour drive from Bagdogra airport, winding steeply up into the mountains through a never-ending landscape of tea plantations, Nepal to our left, Bhutan to our right. We stopped for chai halfway up and rejoiced at the chill in the air, then smiled at the rain on the windscreen as we approached Darjeeling, and finally cursed ourselves for not bringing enough warm clothes as we checked into our room at Revolver guesthouse in the freezing cold. The room was lovely, but as far as they were concerned it wasn’t winter yet so we had no heater, just an electric blanket. We watched our breath penetrate the room as we searched in earnest for fleecy layers and woolly socks we may have forgotten packing.

The next morning we woke up to blue skies and one of the best views in India. Mt Kangchendzonga, 3rd highest mountain in the world at 8586m, was across the valley, surrounded by a multitude of other jagged snow-capped peaks. There was excited speculation by Gary about week (or more) long treks to basecamp or into nearby Sikkim, renting sleeping bags and jackets, and wild suggestions that I would ‘love’ sleeping in traditional teahouses. My stern demeanour and dismayed responses did nothing to perturb this madness, but in the end I was saved by a poor weather forecast.

Our days in the hill station of Darjeeling were quite civilised, even pleasant. Lots of tea, lots of homemade cakes, lots of aimless wanders around town, and CSI Miami on tv in the guesthouse. We ate chana masala (chickpea curry) for a 15p lunch in locals’ shacks, and Tibetan momos (stuffed dumplings) for dinner. The sun shone all day long for the 5 days we stayed, though the nights were still pretty chilly. Gary got up at 3.30am one morning to go and watch sunrise from Tiger Hill, from where you can also see Everest in the distance. I enjoyed his pictures over a scrambled egg breakfast at 10.

Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who made the first ascent of Mt Everest along with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, lived in Darjeeling for most of his life, training both himself and other climbers at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We couldn’t go into the actual training centre, but there is an Everest Museum in the grounds, which traces the history of attempts on the world’s highest peak. Lots of Tenzing’s actual equipment from the 1953 expedition, plus a myriad from other attempts, newspaper clippings and photos, made a really interesting and humbling visit. How mountaineers even survived the attempts, let alone succeeded, with the old-fashioned equipment we saw, boggles the mind.

Having not a lot else to do but eat and drink and stare at Kangchendzonga, we treated ourselves to a somewhat touristy ‘joyride’ on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway steamtrain to a town called Ghoom, pronounced Ghoooooooooom. The railway is the highest in India, built back in 1881 when it caused a sensation with its use of loops to combat the steep climbs. It’s a cute little railway now, forgetting the environmental concerns of the choking black smoke constantly billowing out of the engine chimney, winding its way through markets and along steep precipices on 2ft wide tracks. We had tea at Ghoooooooooom and then headed back to Darjeeling for more tea.

The people in Darjeeling had not disappointed. We could have been in a different country for the contrast between where we had just come from. In fact, Darjeeling practically is another country. Invaded in the 1780’s by Gurkhas from Nepal, it was then ‘given back’ to India by the British East India Company (in exchange for British control) in the early 1800’s. Forest gave way to colonial houses and tea plantations, and by 1857 the population of Darjeeling was mainly Gurkha labourers from Nepal. Even now, very few faces are Indian. Lots of Nepalese, lots of Tibetans. There have been ongoing calls for a separate state, Gorkhaland, since the 1980’s, and the region is somewhat autonomous, though under the watchful eye of the Indian government. Full succession is wished for, though with the tourist money that the area brings in, it will probably never be attained.

With bad weather approaching, we left Darjeeling and headed back to crazy hectic India. The peacefulness of the hill station had given us a taste for relaxation so we our next destination was the Andaman Islands, but we had to overnight in Kolkata. We slept in an airport hotel next to a landfill site and got out as quick as possible, hoping we wouldn’t ever have to return. Boo hiss smelly, filthy Kolkata, Andamans here we come!


The Andaman Islands

2011-11-12 to 2011-11-21

Gary: After reluctantly being dragged around Rajasthan, Trish was now leading us on a more laid-back track. Leaving the pleasantly civilized fresh air of Darjeeling we flew east from Kolkata to the Andaman Islands.

These tropical islands are probably nearer Pulau Weh in Indonesia than they are mainland India, situated just south of Burma and surprisingly close to the west coast of Thailand. The two-hour flight was pleasant. Strangely it seems that Indian fliers would rather not sit in the exit seats which provide more leg room, much sort after by longer westerners, and more often than not you find yourself in them without even asking.

As we flew in over lush tropical islands it looked like we had discovered pristine India at last. First stop was Port Blair, capital city of the islands and their only airport. Although much more chilled than mainland cities, Port Blair was undoubtedly Indian. Traffic noise, congestion and garbage heaps were at a determinedly juvenile stage of development. We opted to head straight for the ferry to Havelock, the main backpacker/tourist island. The new tourist ferry was a modern catamaran that sped us across to Havelock in 90 minutes.

Havelock looked great. Lush green forests, palm trees, golden beaches, all surrounded by turquoise ocean. We hopped in a tuk-tuk at the sleepy little jetty and found some decent new bungalows along the main beach road. Despite being the Andamans main tourist island Havelock was delightfully sleepy, with travellers and locals pottering around on bicycles. After a day of sussing the place out we moved to a rustic bamboo hut right on the beach for £5 a night, hired two bikes, and settled in to island life.

Havelock’s infrastructure is basically one long road running alongside the beach down one side of the island, with a scattering of guesthouses, dive shops and restaurants dotted along it. Inland is a mix of pristine looking jungle and rolling farmland with a timeless feel, locals ploughing with oxen and farming by hand, living in rustic thatched bungalows made from bamboo that floats down from Burma.

We discovered that just a few km south of the main tourist clusters the beaches were deserted, and spent many of our days peddling through forest to chill out and read. We made one trip to the other side of the island to a beach described by Time magazine as one of the worlds most beautiful, to find it besieged with Indian tourists, so despite the arduous cycle to get there, we had tea and then fled.

Our beach bungalow was next to the main dive shop on Havelock, and after a few days we headed out to try some of their deeper sites. The diving was pretty good, but certainly not spectacular, and despite being mainly run by westerners it was a disjointed affair - it took us 8 hours to do 2 boat dives. The following day we took Nitrox, essential to get the most out of the small but deep submerged reefs. We encountered plenty of reef sharks on our last 2 dives, and good fish numbers, but decided financially 4 dives was enough. I bought a pair of running shorts and became that odd western guy running through villages at sunset, Trish peddling along beside me providing her usual unique encouragement.

We really enjoyed Havelock. We ate breakfast in a little shack in the main village each morning, fresh fruit juices and scrambled eggs, then spicy samosas for lunch. We even bought lilos for a pound each to sunbathe on the beach. We had the usual resident beach dogs trying to sleep on our balcony each night, and beer was available at a couple of bars. Nights were generally a quiet affair, normally dinner and cards. The Andamans are on normal India time so it’s dark by 5pm and light at the same time in the morning.

Some of the Andaman Islands are still off limits to tourists and even Indian mainlanders, and indigenous tribes still repel contact with the outside world as much as possible. We have a French friend who worked as a videographer here a few years ago, and when their dive boat broke down close to an isolated reef naked tribesmen appeared from the forests gesturing in a rather unfriendly manner! Sadly, viruses and diseases rife in the civilised world have all but wiped out these rare indigenous tribes, though some remain further south on the Nicobar Islands which are still closed to tourists.

It was with some reluctance that we decided to move on. I kind of felt that we could have chilled out for another 2 weeks, but a whole lot of India still beckoned. Trish felt that a whole lot of India could go stuff itself, so as a compromise I suggested we jump west to Goa. I would recommend the Andamans to anyone already in India, and if we had had any dive/snorkelling equipment with us we might have tried a few more islands, but as it was we were just hanging around for the sake of hiding out.

We spent one night back on Port Blair, which was actually a decent town. We booked flight tickets to Chennai and onward to Goa, ate curry for lunch, then went out for a tandoori chicken dinner before jetting back west early the following morning.


Goa

2011-11-22 to 2011-12-06

Trish: We flew to Goa on our 50th day in India, a bit of a milestone considering I wanted to go home on day 7. Three flights on the bounce took us from the Andamans to Chennai, Chennai to Bangalore, and Bangalore to Goa. It all went surprisingly smoothly and by early afternoon we were sat in a bar on Candolim beach. Unfortunately, half the population of Moscow were also there, and they were big and scary. Though maybe not quite as big and scary as the scattering of bucket-and-spade-brigade Geordies. After 2 nights we followed friends advice and went north to Anjuna.

We planned to spend 2 nights in Anjuna then continue on a bit of a tour of Goa for a couple of weeks. A few days here, a few days there… but in the end we never left. The beaches were nice, totally incomparable to the Andamans but nice enough in their own way. Beach vendors trawled up and down, very touchy-touchy in their sales of everything from sarongs to massages, trance cds to fresh fruit. Cows ploughed through cafes and between sun loungers, and dogs ran amok. But it doesn’t bother anyone because of Anjuna’s biggest attraction, the fact that half the town at any given time are in a calm, stoned, stuper.

Anjuna is hippie-central, tourists and locals alike. More dreads than Glastonbury and a consistent aroma of weed in the air, it’s so laid back it’s practically asleep. Our arty friend Monique spent some time here last year working on her paintings, and she quickly put us in touch with a friend, Stuart, who lives here for 6 months of the year in a house on the beach. Between Monique sending daily itineraries of where we should be having breakfast (the German Bakery or Orange Boom, dahling), what beach we should be visiting on which day, and in-crowd dinner spots (Sri and Sublime), and Stuart becoming our in-town social co-ordinator, we hit the right markets, ate in all the best places, and lived a bit of the local life.

Stuart had a friend, Lynda, out visiting for a week, and with her he drove us around to such civilised events as drinks at the Marriott, lunch at a French restaurant on a northern beach, sushi and steak dinners, and all the best local eateries. We spent many a sunset on his balcony watching the cows come home with him and Lynda, and one crazy night with a crowd of 8 friends from Dubai of whom he knew 1. He truly was the host with the most.

Having been in such a market-stall-ridden town for nearly 2 weeks, we needed our usual visit to the post office, another dubious-looking affair where we packed up hammocks and blankets into a box that wasn’t big enough and watched a small man work wonders with duct tape. Able to fit everything in our packs once more, we then upgraded our lodgings for the last 4 nights from the rustic but perfectly adequate Paradise guesthouse where Janet and her family had been ever keen to meet our needs, to the brand new Cochichos resort. It had no atmosphere, but it did have a pool, ac, and a sparkling clean shower. We slapped on some suntan lotion and had 4 days of a ‘proper holiday’ by the pool.

The morning we left Goa, Stuart took us out for ‘upma’, a local dish that looked like a couscous baseball and tasted like onions. A fitting end to our trip to Goa, which had been full of surprises - good food, good company, cheap booze and lots of shopping.

Then we flew back to Delhi to start ‘Trish’s week of woe’, a dip into 2 of the most holy, and densely touristed places in India – Amritzar and Varanasi.


The Golden Temple at Amritsar

2011-12-07 to 2011-12-09

Gary: We’d had a fantastic time in Goa, and in hindsight it would have been the perfect relaxing finale to our trip around India. However, Trish insisted that we spend our last week or so hitting some hardcore religious locations, apparently to ensure we left the subcontinent with emotions running high, our minds full of the harsh realities of this crazy country rather then the unique pleasures of Goa. It was somehow ironic that the only place one of us would pick up a much feared stomach bug was as we left Goa, where we had eaten all the westernised cuisine we could get our hands on, but thankfully it wasn’t me that succumbed.

First we flew up to Delhi. As winter was approaching, the sprawling capital was mercifully cooler than a month before. It made getting around in the ridiculous traffic far less of a horror. Yet the city still failed to appeal, especially as we once more grabbed a cheap room in the dubious area around the train station. The next morning we were once again wandering Delhi train station, which I have to admit was becoming less crazy with every visit. We boarded the relatively luxurious Amritsar Shatabdi Express, one of us now suffering from fever and the shakes, settled in to some curried breakfast and enjoyed the 6 hour journey North West to Amritsar in Punjab.

Amritsar is the main city of the state of Punjab and the home of the Sikh Religion. We checked in to a nice little guesthouse in the heart of the chaotic old city, around the corner from Amritsar’s main attraction, the magnificent Golden Temple. Also known as the Harmandir Sahib, it was originally built around 1600ad and is the home of the Sikh gurus. It is one of the most beautiful temple complexes we have seen. After depositing shoes and washing our feet we wandered into a vast courtyard built around an artificial lake. The temple sits in the middle of this holy lake, and thousands of pilgrims walk round the white marble walkways before waiting in long lines to enter the temple itself. The whole place has a calm and dignified feel, clean, organised and quite breathtaking.

Almost as extraordinary as the temple is the enormous kitchen and dining halls within the complex. Manned by dozens of volunteers, this feeds up to 80,000 people, free, every day! We wandered around taking pictures before being ushered upstairs into a giant hall where we were fed surprisingly good dal, veg curry, and chapatis. Afterwards we nosed around the kitchen, where the biggest cooking pots you can imagine bubbled away above roaring fires. Trish had perked up just long enough to devour the free food, but now was in another downwards spiral, and we made a quick retreat. I remember commenting that I had found it odd that after 4 days of fasting she had chosen to eat her first meal at the world’s largest soup kitchen.

You can’t visit Amritsar and not visit the very moving Jallianwala Bagh. During the Indian passive rebellion under Gandhi in the early 20th century a large group of Sikhs met in this walled park, peacefully, but in a gathering deemed illegal under British rule. General Dyer, then in charge of the area’s security, deemed this the perfect opportunity to send a message to the whole of India, and had his troops line up and open fire on men women and children, without even a warning. There were no exits but the one the soldiers were firing from, and around 400 were killed, over a thousand wounded. The park is a sombre shrine to this massacre, with dozens of bullet holes outlined in the park walls. There is a well in the centre, now preserved as a shrine, into which quite a few jumped, in some vague hope of escaping the bullets and surviving the fall. Not many did. We were the only westerners in the park, and it felt very strange and humbling to be wandering around such a monument to the wrongs of the British with dozens of Indian families.

The next afternoon we headed out to organise a car to get to the border with Pakistan. Battling through the minefield of minibus drivers promising a spacious private car but then admitting there would be 10 of us in a 6 seater van, we eventually sorted a ride for the 30km journey. Anyone who has read about our trip to K2 in July will be shocked to discover that Trish was willingly heading back in an Islamabad direction. The border was as expected, hundreds of colourful trucks lined up bumper to bumper, dust and garbage, and plenty of dubious looking characters milling about. We joined hundreds of Indians and went through a few security checks before getting to the main border gates. Here we were asked for our passports, which brilliantly we had left back at the hotel, along with any other id we may have had. Thankfully, it seems that a decent bit of English politeness gets you into any sensitive place in India, and despite Trish having to empty her handbag, including an embarrassingly large toilet roll, into our pockets, we were led to the crossing.

Surrounding the road to the gates is a large concrete grandstand, and we took our spot in the VIP tourist section, in front of thousands of partying locals. The official closing of the border each evening has become something of a global phenomenon, with both sides border guards trying to out perform each other, and the crowds likewise. Soon cries of “Hindustan”, and “Pakistan” echoed across the border. The highlight of the ceremony was the aggressive and outrageous ‘goose-stepping’ performed by the soldiers of each side, snarling faces a must. It was all very bizarre but good fun. Indian women danced along the street with Japanese tourists, Pakistani men danced in formation in their male-only section while the women sat a little more demurely in their own area, and both crowds did their utmost to out-shout the other. The whole thing felt very good-natured and we laughed a lot. What a shame both countries’ politicians don’t share the same feeling.

We took the Shatabdi Express back to Delhi….Trish counting down the last few days before she could escape India. Only one more stop, infamous Varanasi, a place I was confident would leave Trish with perfect memories of the country.


Varanasi, the last stop

2011-12-10 to 2011-12-13

Trish: According to legend the city of Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges was founded by the Hindu deity Lord Shiva several thousand years ago, making it one of the most important pilgrimage destinations in India. The river here is lined with Ghats, impressive towering buildings fronted by a series of steps used by Hindus who come here to bathe in the (rather dirty) sacred river, pay homage to Shiva, and to cremate their dead.

From a boat on the river the city is quite stunning, the Ghats and the chaotic mix of houses, shops and temples slotted in around and on top of them look like a movie set. But by the time we got to Varanasi I was finished with India. Sick, tired, and generally fed up. Amritzar had been quite nice, and I really just wanted to go home now.

Because of this complete lack of enthusiasm on my behalf, Gary walked the streets of Varanasi mainly alone. He loved the colours and the faces, and the different walks of life who converged there to pray, die, or burn loved ones. I couldn’t see past the poverty, filth and sadness. It was much more peaceful for him to wander on his own than have me there battling between wanting to cry and wanting to punch someone, all whilst trying not to slip over in cow dung.

So as I don’t have the heart to do the city justice, I will leave his photos to speak for themselves. If we had gone to Varanasi at the start of our trip it could have been a different story, but by now I was just done with it all. We finally flew back to England a few days later.


Back to Weh

2012-02-19 to 2012-05-02

Trish: It seems hard to believe that it is over a year since we were last on Weh. Some things are different – there’s a new gearing up area and the grounds have been spruced up with lots more plants and new benches – but most are the same, and we slid back into island life as if we had never left.

We arrived with a new toy, thanks to a small detour from KL to Singapore to pick up an underwater housing for our Nikon. And hence all of our time not working in the shop was taken up preparing it, using it, cleaning it, taking it apart, cleaning it again, and desperately trying not to flood it.

Days went by quickly, one of us working while the other dived, most evenings spent at Iwan and Mila’s, with a few at Lesley’s now that she has opened up a guesthouse of her own on another beach. We had a few interesting visitors to the housereef: Seahorses and frogfish came and went, but a Rhinopeia (very special rare scorpionfish) hung around for the duration of our stay, providing a nice practice subject for our new camera setup. Sunny, our Japanese instructor friend was here with his wife Lisa, and continued to build artificial reefs everywhere it felt too ‘sandy’. It was quite usual to see him hauling half a dead palm tree out onto the housereef to tempt in some more life.

The local crew, some new western staff, a few long-stay customers and divemaster trainees, and a nice reunion with Franck and Remy who were both here in 2010 made for a great few months. Remy freedived the Sophie Rickmer, our deep wreck, reaching 50m on one breath (not even close to his pb by the way) and still having time to exchange a few hand signals with me then swim through some of the broken structures on the deck before heading back to the surface. It was very eerie down in the depths with a sling tank as a buddy, waiting camera at the ready for him to appear out of the murk. And then he just looked so relaxed it was surreal. He and his girlfriend Chloe did a few days freediving training with us during which my 18m attempts were rather put in the shade by Gary’s annoyingly easy 36m.

We dived the Sophie a lot, usually a pleasure but this time it started as a bit of a horror story. Sunny and I found the wreck one day draped in a huge fishing net along the whole of the port side (130m long), hanging from the pieces of masts still rising from the deck all the way down to more than 55m - an expensive error for the fishermen who got it snagged, and an eco-nightmare. The net was fresh, and there were just so many fish caught in it, struggling and dying a useless death. Our bottom time on the wreck is 18 minutes, not enough to free more than a couple of entwined fish. It was awful to see. Ton gave us the go ahead to keep going back (with Marjan’s bread knives) until it was clear, and for the next week whenever we had enough staff we went out to cut it into manageable sections and lift it one piece at a time. It was such a relief when we sent the final bit up to the surface (although on a later dive I did find a large section still on the bow which Gary and Sunny were adamant they’d cleared… we’ll put that down to nitrogen narcosis. Once algae starts growing on the net then the fish can see it and don’t get caught up, and it was well past that stage by then). After that we could enjoy the Sophie with customers again, and no more new nets appeared.

The diving in general was, as always, extremely good. Strong currents out at the boat-dive sites brought in reef sharks and big rays, and the housereef became more densely populated as each of Sunny’s creations became home to whole new communities. The shop was extremely busy, but plenty of staff meant it usually felt quite laid back. The only potentially stressful day turned out to a very funny one when 50 Indonesians on a team-building trip from Jakarta booked up to do a day of intro-dives. I was team photographer and spent about 3 hours hovering around one bommie on the housereef waiting for Gary and the other instructors and dm’s to guide those who made it to the swimming-in-6m-stage past for pictures with a very floaty banner they had brought along.

And last but not least, a few weeks before we left the island there was quite a large earthquake, 8.7-9.1 depending on who you ask. Gary was sick in bed, I was diving the housereef with the camera. By the I realised that I wasn’t having a panic attack and the reef was really shaking and decided the best course of action was to return to the shop rather than wait underwater for any potential wave to come, everybody was already evacuated up the hill. Apparently it felt very, very strong on the land. We waited up there for a few hours, with enough sporadic internet signal to know that our friends on islands in Thailand were ok and also hiding on hills, with beers and quite happy. We found out afterwards that this was a horizontal quake movement as opposed to the vertical quake in 2004, which caused the death of over two hundred thousand in Banda Aceh alone. But nobody knew this at the time and the locals especially, those who experienced the last big one, were understandably scared. On the mainland in Aceh panic broke out as everybody thought history was going to repeat itself. The water did some weird stuff, but luckily no tsunami came.

For the next few days the shop phone rang quite frequently with reporters asking for interviews. Gary made it onto ABC news online in America, and I was quoted in a