Island Life

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

Welcome to a Caribbean untouched by the package holiday masses – islands inhabited instead by their own indigenous tribe, with their own rules and way of life. Where time has little relevance; the sun rises…and the sun sets.

I’m making my way through the San Blas islands, or to give them their proper name, the Kuna Yala Archipelago. They sit just off the northern coast of Panama, and for many travellers, passing through the 365 idyllic islands is one of the safest ways of crossing the border from Colombia.

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The Panama coastline is still visible, its jungle-covered mountains rising on the horizon, shrouded in haze and mist. But while it’s an area of natural beauty, it’s definitely not a place to visit – the land between the two countries is notorious for drug cultivation, smuggling, armed rebels and death.

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

Travellers who have tried to make their way across the border through the Darian Gap have simply disappeared in the past, possibly falling foul of those controlling drug traffic in the area, the deadly wildlife, or simply just getting lost in the wilderness. There are many reasons its known to be one of the most dangerous areas of the world.

So the safest way is to either fly across the lethal area, at a price, or turn the journey into an adventure with four days island hopping around some of the most beautiful islands on Earth. We’re talking stereotypical Caribbean perfection- lush green palm trees swaying in the breeze over powdery white sand, crystal clear water lapping onto the shore, every colour of blue reaching out towards the horizon as the warm Caribbean sea drops down to a coral reef teeming with brightly coloured fish. When you think of a desert island, this is probably the image that springs to mind.

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

This trip also comes with an added bonus. There is absolutely no phone connection, no internet or wifi, no Facebook, no Twitter or Instagram. None of the modern day vices that keep most people these days, myself included, strapped to a smart phone or tablet. For four days, I’m having a modern life detox. So much so, Ive had to warn parents and friends I’ll be off the radar for a few days while I’m bobbing around in a speedboat and enjoying life as a castaway.

Refuel stop on the road

Refuel stop on the road

It takes two days even to reach the starting point for the trip, from a delightful little cove called Sapzurro. From Cartagena, it involved nine hours in mini vans and two boats. The beauty of the journey for me, on a bit of a whistlestop tour of Colombia, is that it gave me a great opportunity to see the real country. And for the first time, it became clear that this is still a very poor developing nation, with straw hut communities lining the route to our first overnight stop of Necocli.

Necocli

Necocli

Necocli doesn’t even feature in the Lonely Planet guide that’s helped me along the way, and with few tourists venturing to the area, I stuck with four Australian girls who I’ve been making the journey with. Kelsey, Rhiannon, and two Sarahs have been  friends since school. Kelsey has been travelling for many months, her friends flying out from Sydney and Adelaide to all meet up and see the world together.

Fish soup. Not something i'd order...and the floating thing didn't do much to tempt me

Fish soup. Not something i’d order…and the floating thing didn’t do much to tempt me

We found a restaurant in what could be classed as the town’s main square, and along with the usual bit of Aussie and Brit banter, enjoyed chicken and rice. I passed on the fish soup starter that arrived beforehand, complete with its random blob of ‘something in the middle’.

 

The next morning, it was an early start for the 8am boat to Capurgana. Gradually, the beach beside the ticket sales hut filled with a mix of backpackers and locals eager to make the journey.

Hungry dogs

Hungry dogs

Street food sellers gathered to satisfy the breakfast hunger pangs of the blurry eyed seafarers to be. Two dogs followed us from the hotel to the beach, clearly with inside information we’d not had breakfast and would be bound to give in to temptation at some point. I opted for a traditional Colombian arepa, a slightly dry, fried maize pancake with an egg in the middle. It’s not the tastiest of foods, but it filled a gap. Our two doggy friends also got a reward for their patience.

Colombian arepa. A bit dry. Dogs didn't mind...

Colombian arepa. A bit dry. Dogs didn’t mind…

One of the warnings we’ve all been given about the trip is our bags can get wet, and to wrap everything in bin bags beforehand. Entrepreneurial stall holders were selling giant sacks for about 25p each, into which we eagerly placed all of our belongings.

Bags, bagged

Bags, bagged

Three giant engines on the back of the boat – the sort I’ve seen bolted onto the back of powerboats – indicated this wasn’t going to be a quiet, gentle meander over the deep blue sea. It was hold onto your hats fast, and soon had us heading towards lush green jungles and quaint cove settlements, dropping off locals and supplies to some of the most isolated people in the country.

 

 

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

Fast

Fast

One of the isolated coves we dropped off people and supplies. It was like a film set. Stunning

One of the isolated coves we dropped off people and supplies. It was like a film set. Stunning

Capurgana is one of those places, only accessible by boat, a beautiful setting full of local life.

A Colombian Coke smuggler. Good disguise. Might be a mule

A Colombian Coke smuggler. Good disguise. Might be a mule

The only way to get around is to walk, and to move goods its a mule or horse and cart. There are no roads and no vehicles in this secluded part of Colombia. But despite its picturesque, isolated location, there is a very stark reality that is facing so many countries and people these days. As we were waiting for the immigration office to open, I noticed groups of people and young children arriving off boats at the jetty. Many had Wellington boots or walking boots on, some were carrying machetes wrapped in newspaper. All had a backpack on their back, and lacking the care free spirit of locals and fellow travellers.

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

It was Kate, one of our San Blas Adventures guides, who told me what was happening.

“They’re refugees from Africa, they come here on boats and make their way into Panama through the jungle,” she says.

Kate tells me how she had been speaking to one of the migrants the day previously, who told her they had travelled from the Democratic Republic of Congo in search of safety and a better life. It seems as well as making their way to Europe through the Mediterranean, many are also crossing to Brazil and Ecuador to try to find a new life.

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“They come up through Brazil and other countries, and from Haiti and Cuba, and try to reach North America,” Kate continues, before telling me she fears for their safety after watching many of them simply walk through the village, up a hill and off into the jungle.

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

And it’s true. I watched as another boatload of migrants landed at the jetty, quickly having a sheet of paper checked by officials and then waiting as a group by the harbour. Whether there were people smugglers or organisers around, I wasn’t quite sure, but I opted to keep a low profile with my camera for my own safety. It was clear there was a leader somewhere, but I couldn’t quite work out who.

Considering the sweltering heat, many were dressed in warm clothes and hats, all clutching large bottles of water. Young children stuck by their mums. One mother carried a baby.

In search of a new life

In search of a new life

On their backs, many had backpacks that I and my fellow travellers are carrying. But its not swimming shorts, towels and sunscreen they’re lugging around inside. It’s their entire worldly possessions. As much of their former life they could possibly fit into a few cubic litres of space from their home land. The only things they’ll have to remind them of who they really are when they reach their new life. If they manage to reach a new life.

Boots of all sizes

Soon they began to walk off together, families walking side by side at a meaningful pace. I walked a short distance with them. There was no talking or discussion between those who were heading off through the village. Just a focus on following the heels in front.

Walking through the village

Walking through the village

I took a few photographs of the village, capturing the migrants as they passed through, and watched as they marched off into the dense green jungle which surrounds Capurgana, probably unaware of the dangers within. Yet, for all the armed gangs, drug smugglers and swamp conditions ahead, for some it’s safer than staying at home. Despite borders being closed in recent months, they head off towards Panama, the usual route taken passing up through Costa Rica, eventually through Mexico and then, for the lucky few, a slip under the radar into North America. For many of us who witnessed it, it was a moment that made us realise just how fortunate we all are to live in safe countries with freedom to travel – yet some estimate up to 300 migrants arrive daily in this tiny village to make the perilous journey.

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

For us, our passports were stamped and we were officially out of Colombia, with another boat journey to a remote village called Sapzurro serving as the final outpost in South America.

Meeting all the group for the first time. Next stop, Sapzurro

Meeting all the group for the first time. Next stop, Sapzurro

Situated in a calm, shallow bay, it’s a perfect place to go for a swim with the growing number of new friends who will be taking part in the trip. img_4606Local children, accustomed to regular stays by foreign backpackers, played games by swimming underwater and popping up in front of our faces. For the first time, we met all of our fellow San Blas adventurers – 21 in total for the trip, a great mix of Australians, Brits, a couple from the Netherlands, two girls from Germany, two brothers from Israel and CJ, whos originally from Fiji. Many have been travelling around South America for months.img_4608 I quickly became friends with Jack, who’s just completed a physiotherapy degree and had travelled out to Rio de Janeiro with friends from university to watch the Olympics, making their way around the continent ever since. Our leader for the journey is an Italian guy called Marco, who has been taking travellers around the San Blas islands for years and clearly enjoys the laid back island lifestyle.

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

The next morning, we walked along the jetty and joined our boats for the first time, two speedboats with glass fibre hulls and slightly hard seats. We were handed bright orange life jackets, and sped off out of the harbour, and out of Colombia. Just a few minutes after reaching the open water, we passed a cliff, complete with what appeared to be a huge crack down the middle.

The dividing line between South and Central America - the visible crack which forms the border between Colombia and Panama

The dividing line between South and Central America – the visible crack which forms the border between Colombia and Panama

That crack is the border between Colombia and Panama – the dividing line between Central and South America. And with a few bumps over the waves, we were officially heading north and along the Panama coast, still alongside the dangerous Darian Gap, and towards an army outpost where we would be stamped into the country after a lengthy check of bags and documents. It provided most of us with a chance to stock up on rum and mixers for the trip, the locals enjoying our custom.

Border police drugs checks

Border police drugs checks

For the next few hours we bumped, splashed and jumped over waves in the Caribbean Sea, which was great fun until one particularly hard landing knocked out one of our engines, not to mention giving a few of us sore backsides!

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

Thankfully, we were only bobbing around on the waves for a short time before the engine was restarted, and we made our way to our first stop, a beautiful island with calm waters where we all swam, soft white sand between our toes, and palm trees offering much needed shade from the blisteringly hot sunshine. After a few games of volleyball, it was on to a stay with the Kuna people who occupy the islands.

First stop

First stop

There are around 300,000 Kuna Indians, with about 50,000 dotted around on the 49 islands of San Blas that are large enough to live on. They all have their own community leader, with fishing, fruit and harvesting coconuts being the main sources of income and survival. Tourism also provides income, by charging people to visit or stay on their islands, and in return they cook, provide accommodation and sell drinks.

Kuna village

Kuna village

Kuna life

Kuna life

Staying with the Kuna people meant living like the Kuna people too – we were on their island, so we were to do things their way. Our accommodation was ‘rustic’ according to Marco. It was certainly that! The girls were given beds for the night, but for the lads, it was a night in a hammock, set up inside a number of wooden rooms with a hatch that opens up to let a bit of a breeze in.

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

The shower was also an experience – not a shower as such, but a barrel of water. A large plastic bottle, cut in half, was the ‘bucket’ which you used to pour the cold water over you.

The shower

The shower

Shower time!

Shower time!

As for the toilet facilities, well they resembled a Glastonbury long drop, except there was nothing at the bottom apart from clear blue water and colourful tropical fish.

img_1278“Its ok, you don’t need to worry about anything, the fish eat things that drop into it,” said Marco when we arrived. I’ll let you work out what he means.

A night of rum, laughter and group bonding followed, everyone getting on really well with banter and jokes all round. There were a few sore heads on the boats the following morning, which also turned out to be the bumpiest sea journey of the trip. Those onboard the other boat had a particularly eventful journey, with one of the outboard engines being a little problematic. For around 20 minutes they were left stationary in the water, the large waves rocking everyone onboard.

A few green faces...and big smiles too!

A few green faces…and big smiles too!

It got a bit much for some, with Stef and Niall, two friends from Hertfordshire, particularly feeling the effects. From our vantage point, as we slowly circled the stricken boat, we could see quite a few heads in hands. Not from Kelsey however, who every time I saw her was in fits of laughter at the state of her fellow sailors.

Bobbing around

Bobbing around

Engine fixed

Engine fixed

Thankfully, the engines were sorted out and the sickness onboard the lead boat disappeared once the next island home for the night was reached, with red wooden huts and the luxury of a double bed each being welcomed by all. A visit to a neighbouring island, with two rescued spider monkeys we could interact with and more swimming and ball games kept us entertained.

Monkeying around

Monkeying around

The monkeys were wonderful animals, and we were assured they roam the island freely unless our trip is visiting, tethered only for a couple of hours so that they could play with us, and vice versa.

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

They had a particular favouritism for the female members of the group, frequently walking up and asking for a cuddle from them. Jack and I persevered to get their attention, only succeeding to win them over just before we left.

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Say cheese!

Say cheese!

Like a child, one held its arms out to me and began swinging from my hands, climbing all over me and generally having a great time. He rewarded me by urinating on my foot.

A storm sets in

A storm sets in

Overnight, a storm set in, waking us at 6am by what sounded like a hurricane outside. The rain was torrential, the wind bending trees outside our wooden hut. It didn’t take long for water to start coming in through the thatched roof, dripping onto beds and forming a huge puddle near the bathroom door. There was nothing we could do but sit it out – it was too dangerous to go out in the boats while the storm was raging, and with bits of soggy roofing dropping around us, it was a very damp morning on the island as we awaited fairer weather and calmer waters.

img_4875But the storm clouds cleared enough to allow us to make our final island, where we spent our last night as a group together. It was quite fitting that a beautiful sunset came out of nowhere to provide a group photo opportunity, and the evening was rounded off with an incredible amount of lobster and marshmallows around a bonfire. I chatted for hours with Kate, one of our guides, about her travels and her hopes to run a hostel one day, then helped her prepare the milk for the morning after finding out the gas stove was no longer working on the island.

Huge lobster dinner

Huge lobster dinner

A great group

A great group

With a pot of water simmering on an open fire, good friends, a bit more rum and plenty of laughter, it was a fitting end to life on the islands. Tomorrow we head to my final stop: Panama City.

 

 

Back in the Bunks

Bogota to Cartagena

“Have you just got here?”

Five words that not only served as an ice breaker, but welcomed me back into the backpacking community.

They were from Gabriel, a tall German guy who had been travelling around South America since June after completing an engineering project.

I was sat on the top bunk of my dorm bed, contemplating how to interact with fellow travellers at the El Viajero hostel in Cartegena. I’d arrived a few hours before the conversation, but not heard many English-speakers staying at the place, so took myself for a quick walk around the block to get my bearings and found a nice pizza restaurant with some refreshing air conditioning for tea. It was upon my return that Gabriel took it upon himself to say hello, the moment he walked through the door and saw me sitting there.

What followed was the well-worn traveller conversation – where are you from, how long have you travelling, where have you been, where are you heading next, where’s your favourite place so far?

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

It’s a conversation you have hundreds of times on a big trip. It can become tiresome, but a necessary way of quickly getting to know someone. Before you know it, you’re friends and putting the world to rights.

I told Gab I was only on a two week trip, and that I’d done a big year-long round the world journey five years previous. We talked briefly about our lives back home, and how he was returning in just a couple of days.

“I’m going to the bar if you want to join me for a beer?” Gab said, reaching for the door.

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

I’d been welcomed back into the fold once again. Its part of why the backpacking community is so appealing. Within just a few minutes, you’re sharing a beer and travel tales with someone from another country who, a few minutes before, had been a complete stranger. It rarely happens back home in a normal setting, and suddenly I was being introduced to others at the hostel. I was quickly becoming a part of the crowd again.

El Viajero hostel

El Viajero hostel

It had come as a bit of a culture shock however. I had left the relative luxury of my four star hotel in Bogota, complete with complementary toiletries, fluffy dressing gowns and adjustable room temperature just a few hours earlier.

Home for a few days

Home for a few days

I had now checked into a 12-bed mixed sex dorm, and walked in to find the only bed remaining was a top bunk – the least favourite bed of choice. The room was a tip,

Shower...without a warm tap!

Shower…without a warm tap!

with half unpacked backpacks, shoes and bottles of water dotted around the floor.

One bed was occupied by someone sleeping, so I had to tiptoe around. The muggy, humid tropical weather didn’t help with the smell either. A combination of smelly feet and stale humans. It’s a smell you get used to when backpacking, but one that’s incredibly noticeable when you step back into that world after a four year absence. But then its just over £10 for a night, so I can’t complain!

img_0910I’d flown to Cartagena after deciding I didn’t have enough time to make a stop via Medellin, booking a domestic flight with Latam Airlines and arrived back at Bogota airport with plenty of time to spare. So the timing of a phonecall, just as I was about to board the flight, couldn’t have been any better.

“It’s about your fridge freezer – I left you a voicemail you didn’t get back to me. I can pick it up now”

It’s clear the man on the other end of the phone only has a basic grasp of English, but he seems angry that I’ve not returned his call. I tried apologising for being out of the country, but it fell on deaf ears. I’m in a line shuffling forward with bags, about to board a plane 6,000 miles away from home, and now having to quickly think on my feet to try and shift my old fridge freezer that’s been advertised on Gumtree for weeks without any interest.

img_0906Thankfully, with a quick bit of Whatsapping over the slow airport wifi, my housemate Joe was at home and able to help out the slightly impatient buyer. I boarded the flight and smiled at how modern technology really does mean you are never really far away from ‘real life’. Despite the distance and time difference, I’d managed to sell a fridge freezer on the other side of the world.

We touched down in Cartagena, and the heat hit me as soon as I stepped out of the aircraft door. Gone was the cool, fresh breeze of Bogota. The tropical heat and humidity made it feel like you could drink the air, there was that much moisture in it. But Cartagena is classed as a must see – a beautiful colonial city with a vibrant old town set within historic fortified walls. The taxi ride to the hostel gave me my first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea on this trip, and with the sun setting, children were helping the locals bring in fishing nets and boats.

Beautiful Cartagena

Colourful Cartagena

When the sun goes down, Cartagena comes alive. And it’s thanks to Gabriel I found myself wandering through the beautiful old buildings towards a rooftop bar and club called Eivissa. It offered a fantastic view of the city, its harbour and famous clock tower and square. img_0945It also offered many cold Coronas, pretty girls twirling balls of fire around their heads, and male dancers who knew how to pull far better moves than me on a dance floor. It was a great night, and our group stuck together throughout, laughing, joking and chatting about our individual adventures. Gab realised halfway through the evening he’d left his wallet in a supermarket. I bought him a beer and a hotdog. He was reluctant to take me up on the offer at first- all backpackers have an element of pride at stake when it comes to money, img_0947as so many are on a shoestring, or simply have very little left. But I insisted; I know I was in similar situations in the past and fellow travellers helped me out. What goes around comes around in this world. You look after each other, nomatter how long you’ve known each other.

On the way home, there was another reminder of why the backpacking community always sticks together. It was coming up to 3am, and our group was walking back to the hostel. We passed by two Colombian police officers who were talking to two men. Moments later, they drove past us on their motorbikes and stopped us all. Without any pleasantries, they cut to the chase. They wanted to see our identification.

Its law in Colombia to carry ID with you. Thankfully I had my driving licence in my wallet, and we were all lined up by the officers. It was very clear they were not in any mood for jokes or chat. The loaded pistol on the officer’s waist made me think again about taking any photographs to record the moment.

“You have coca?” came a question to all of us.

We were being stopped for a cocaine search. I’d been warned this might happen, but didn’t count on it on my first night out in the country. The drug is readily available on the streets, and while I’d never touch it, many backpackers try it. Some police officers are known to capitalise on this, by taking cash in return for not arresting those caught. Bribes, in other words.

More worryingly, some rogue police officers have been known to plant it on tourists in exactly these types of search. The advice I had read was to keep an eye on absolutely everything they do.

I was next up to be searched, my arms out and patted down by the officer. I’m told to empty all my pockets and show what I have. After revealing a bundle of change from three countries, a packet of chewing gum, my iPhone headphones and a load of fluff, he then asks for my wallet. I hand it over, and keep a close eye as he empties every compartment and inspects it, even having a good sniff inside. I knew there was nothing to be found, but you hear of horror stories of people being jailed who insist drugs were planted on them. The Coronas I’d enjoyed at the bar had quickly worn off as I made sure there was no slight of hand at play from the bad cop, bad cop routine being played out in the street.

Without exception, we all waited for each other to be searched. Nobody drifted off back to their dorms, or kept a distance. We were from countries including Britain, German, Brazil and America, and we’d only known each other for a few hours, but we were looking after each other and making sure we got back to the hostel safely, without falling foul of any corrupt policing.

It was clear the officers were frustrated as their search efforts drew a blank, but they let us go with a nod and a flick of an index finger to motion us off down the road.

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The rest of my time in Cartagena was less eventful – infact, a very pleasant few days of wandering around the pretty streets filled with colourful houses. Despite the police intervention on the first night, the city has a very relaxed, holiday feel about it. img_4489It was a contrast to the slightly edgy, gritty feel of Bogota. This is a city filled with Caribbean colour and the sound of salsa beats drifting through the hot humid air from bars and restaurants. Bright pink Bougainvillea flowers contrast with their rich green leaves, hanging from balconies of pink, green and orange homes, many of which have stood for hundreds of years.

img_4453It’s a place where you can walk for hours on end just taking in the explosion on the senses. The heat is stifling, but thankfully there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with parasols or air conditioning to shelter from the heat, catch your breath and enjoy a cooling drink or two.

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This is a city with some history too – it was founded in 1533 and was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. As a result, valuables and treasure acquired by the Spanish was stored here before being shipped across to Europe. This made it a target for pirates – and English pirates at that! The most famous siege here was in 1586 when Sir Francis Drake agreed not to level the town in return for a 10-million Peso ransom which he quickly sailed back to England with.

img_4386It’s because of those attacks that the magnificent fortified walls were built, taking some 200 years to build by the Spanish, yet completed just 25 years before they were expelled after Simon Bolivar’s troops liberated the country. Today, locals meet for a romantic rendezvous on the walls, while visitors walk around them for an elevated view of the historic city within.

In between taking in the Caribbean culture, I was also having to sort out the next stage of the journey. I booked myself onto the San Blas Adventures trip which leaves Cartagena in a couple of days, a combination of a speed boat journey and island hopping for four days, ending with a jeep ride to Panama City.

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The journey goes through some of the most remote places in south and central America, and we’ll go for four days without access to the outside world and cash machines. So I needed to change lots of cash into US dollars, the currency used in Panama, to pay the local transport and accommodation on the way.

Nine minute millionaire!

Nine minute millionaire!

With no exchanges letting me use a credit card and passport to make withdrawals, it came down to making numerous withdrawals in Colombian Pesos from cash machines. But with a 300,000 Peso (about £78) withdrawal limit in Colombia, a move to try to restrict money laundering, it required quite a few withdrawals to pay for the trip and the spending money. For a few minutes, I became a millionaire, before it was exchanged into a few hundred dollars.

Annoyingly, I also fell foul of the dreaded manflu – and we all know how serious that can be – probably picked up on a plane somewhere. Combined with the sweaty hot temperatures it was quite unpleasant at times. But the people in Cartagena are also so very friendly. A cheerful, happy place, it was hard to do anything but smile.

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

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After a few days soaking up the Cartagena vibe, tiptoeing in the dark around the hostel dorm, visiting late night bars and adjusting back to life as a backpacker, I felt I had definitely ticked the city off my list. It was time to focus on the next part of the journey, the perfect mix of practical ‘A to B’ travel along with adventure and fun with new people. As I laid in my top bunk bed contemplating the next step, my phone rang, with a vaguely familiar phone number. I answered it, as quietly as I could to avoid waking those sleeping around me.

“Its about that fridge. Its broken. Doesn’t go cold enough. I want money back,”

Wonderful. Get me to the beach.

A Miami Slice

Lifting off from Heathrow, Miami-bound

I’ve just watched a sunset on Miami beach, dined in the heart of one of the city’s hotspots, and spent the night with a bunch of cats – and all it cost me to get there was $5 on an airport bus.

Yep, five bucks. And I’ll have more on the cats later.

Its all down to a great little travel hack that I’ve put to the test – and if you play your cards right, and with a bit of luck, you get to tick off cities in far flung places around the world without paying any extra to stop off.

img_0713Its all down to connections and layovers between flights if you need to change planes. And after a week of searching for a good deal to Colombia, weighing up all the pros and cons of different airports and airlines, the untrained eye may pop out when you see on an itinerary ‘LONG WAIT AT AIRPORT – 16 HOURS’

But rather than avoid it like the plague, have a look at the flight times.

And then see it as a great opportunity.

Admittedly, I had to do some research, mainly to check whether you can actually leave an airport during transit. It turns out you can, and with my flight scheduled to land at 5pm in Miami, and with a few rough calculations, I worked out I had enough time for an evening in the city, maybe even catch the sun before it sets, and tick it off my ‘to visit’ list before an onward flight at 10am the following  morning. It all depended on flights being on time of course, to maximise the time in Miami, but it was doable.

Miami lends itself to this kind of stop – the airport is incredibly close to the city centre, and some websites even say you can go dip your toes in the sea with a little as five hours between flights. Enough time to catch the airport express bus or a cab, get yourself down to the famous South Beach, have a paddle, maybe even grab an ice cream, and then head back to the airport and rejoin your fellow passengers who are still trying to get comfortable on those awkward seats whilst reluctantly enjoying their fourth game of eye spy in the terminal.

A view that always raises a smile - transport to a new adventure

A view that always raises a smile – transport to a new adventure

I spent about a week agonising over flights – having finally decided I’d visit Colombia, I needed to get to Bogota. Question was, did I fly from Manchester with Virgin, which offered a good price and more local, with an airline that offers a ‘fun’ element, or for the same price, did I fly from ultra local Humberside with KLM, changing at Schipol but without an option to leave the airport and pay Amsterdam a visit.

Or did I go from Heathrow, with British Airways and American Airlines changing at various cities in the United States. I’m a fan of BA – they’re our national airline, I’ve got a frequent flyers account with them, and generally it’s a very pleasant experience. The down side for me was that most of the flights at reasonable prices required a journey with American Airlines…and that’s an airline I’ve never really liked after some bad experiences. When you’re stuck in a metal tube for hours on end, you at least want it to be enjoyable, with friendly staff on a modern aircraft. The few occasions I’ve flown American in the past have proved exactly the opposite – old, tired planes, ancient in flight entertainment (you know, those awful projectors showing one film that hark back to the 80s!) and staff who would clearly much rather be throwing daggers at passengers, rather than the tea and coffee. Or both.

It was enough to make me avoid the airline like the plague in recent years. But how things can change.

img_0680American has undergone something of an identity swap in recent years. Out go those shiny bare metal planes, in come brand new, crisp looking aircraft with the colours of their Star Spangled Banner proudly emblazoned on the tail. Having seen the adverts for the new onboard service, I thought it might be worth a try. Best of all, the cheapest option with the stop in Miami was onboard one of their brand new Boeing 777 aircraft, complete with their new entertainment and seating.

Well, I’ve got to admit, they’ve really upped their game. It helped that there were just 80 people in economy for my flight – which one of the stewards told me was highly uncommon, so we all effectively had an entire row of seats to ourselves.

Empty plane = cheapskate upgrade!

Empty plane = cheapskate upgrade!

Who needs to pay thousands of pounds for business class when you can line up the drinks, pile up all the pillows you can find, bulk it out with spare blankets and build yourself a bed for the nine hour flight!

Even if it was full, however, the new seating was comfortable, the entertainment choice on a large modern seat-back screen was first class, the food was great and the staff were cheerful and friendly.

Ooh, snazzy lighting. American colours, of course

Ooh, snazzy lighting. American colours, of course

Lovely mood lighting added a comfortable homely feel, and the aircraft was spotlessly clean. There was even wifi onboard so I could track our progress with an app on my phone! Overall, a huge contrast to my experiences with American of old, and definitely putting themselves back on my list of airlines I’d happily fly with.

img_0699Anyway, aircraft geekery aside, it did a fine job of getting me safely across the Atlantic Ocean and down the eastern seaboard of the United States, landing in a very hot and humid Miami half an hour early, at 4:30pm. The sun was still high in the sky, and so the race was on to clear immigration, find my way to South Beach, and locate another new experience for me. My first overnight accommodation booking through the Airbnb website and app.

For those unaware, it’s effectively a website where you can rent a room, or a full property, from a homeowner, and usually at a very good price. It markets itself on giving customers a ‘part of the community’ experience, living the lifestyle of a holiday destination, rather than heading straight to a clinical hotel with lots of other holidaymakers. A home away from home.

First glimpse of Miami and the famous beaches

First glimpse of Miami and the famous beaches

Knowing that I’d need to be near the beach to have any chance of getting there in time to watch the sunset, I priced up a few hotels beforehand – with most coming in at around £120 for the night. Well, it is one of the most famous beach neighbourhoods in the world, so it comes at a premium. Too much of a premium for me, even if I am getting there for free.

That’s where Airbnb came up trumps. I wasn’t too fussed about luxury. I just needed clean, comfortable, and somewhere to lay my jetlagged head for a few hours before the 10am flight to Bogota the next morning. Scanning through a range of rooms for rent, I came across one just a few blocks from the beach, easily accessed, and which looked tasteful and came with the added bonus of good reviews from past customers.

My Airbnb room in Miami

My Airbnb room in Miami

I sent ‘Miranda’ the renter a message, and a request to book the room, the day before my flight. We had a couple of messages back and forth, and with that the room was booked – just £50 including all fees for a prime spot in Miami. Result!

I did notice there was a caveat on the listing – ‘you must not mind cats’.

That’s ok I thought. I love any animals, and had just spent a weekend with friends Matt and Siobhan who have two cats, the lovely Dave and Ruby, so I can handle them.

Little did I know that Miami has more than 300,000 stray and wild cats roaming the beach and streets- with some estimates of up to half a million moggies on the loose. And Miranda is one of the people who helps care for them.

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Nearing the stop on the South Beach Express

I jumped onto the airport and South Beach express bus, followed my iPhone instructions for when to get off it, and a few minutes later I was at Miranda’s front door. I called her, and a tall, tattoed, smiling woman appeared, arm outstretched with a welcoming handshake and with a lovely welcome into her home.

Miranda had only just returned back to Miami after visiting her native Germany, and was struggling with jetlag.

“Are you sure you’re ok with cats,” she asked again. That’s when I noticed a rather large scratching post at the side of her living room, and a number of cats curiously looking at me, as if to ask why I was on their turf.

A cat refuge

A cat refuge

“Just remember to keep your room door closed. Even when you go to the bathroom – I don’t want them getting into the guest room. Its not fair on the guests,” she said. Its nice to know she’s so strict about it, and clearly takes her Airbnb role seriously.

Miranda and one of the cats shes helping

Miranda and one of the cats shes helping

She also takes her role with the cats seriously, offering her home as a refuge, helping to rehome them, and feeding colonies of cats in need that live near her apartment. She works with a number of other volunteers, all dedicated to helping the city with its feline frustrations.

“Its one of the biggest problems in Miami. It really needs looking into and highlighting,” she tells me, adding that she had fifteen cats in her care at her house at one point.

And having left her home for a mad dash to the beach, I can’t help but agree. There are an incredible number of cats roaming around, no doubt all looking for their own Miranda.

Rainbow over the lifeguard huts on Miami beach

Rainbow over the lifeguard huts on Miami beach

I made my way down to the beach, arriving just before 7pm to find a huge, almost vertical rainbow towering up into the sky off shore. The sky was black, with waves of rain falling in the distance, a far away storm putting on a colourful spectacle for the beach lovers to watch.

Dipping the toes in!

Dipping the toes in!

The beach is by no means soft – its one of those that feels like crushed up shells between your toes. And it wasn’t overly clean either, with an enormous amount of weed and quite a bit of litter on the waterline. A hurricane had blown through Florida a few days previously however, which no doubt churned up the sea, hence the unsavoury appearance of bottles, rope and bits of plastic which had washed up. I’m hoping they’ve just not got round to clearing it all up just yet.

I found a spot on the beach and watched as the sun set behind me, lighting up the stormy sky over the horizon a beautiful orange, which radiated down onto the blue-green sea as it lapped onto the shore. The sound of celebrating volleyball players in the distance was interspersed with the fake electronic clicks of shutters on iphones as selfies and panoramic photographs were being taken of nature’s spectacular side show which was unfolding in front of us. I joined them with the camera.

No idea who the girl is, but was taken in by the colours too

No idea who the girl is, but was taken in by the colours too

It was all over far too quickly, and I strolled through the warm waters for a few hundred metres towards the Lincoln Mall area, a recommendation from a friend who lives in the city. I ordered a steak, which was sadly very average, but the restaurant offered a good people watching spot which made up for it.

Lincoln Mall

Lincoln Mall

It wasn’t long before the extra five hours bolted onto my day thanks to the time difference began to catch up with me. I made my way back to Miranda’s, dodged the cats on the way in and fell into bed, listening to the commotion happening outside the room as two of the rescue cats did their finest Mo Farah impressions in circuits around the lounge.

I woke up at 6:15am. Miranda was already awake thanks to her jet lag, and apologised for any noise. She was pouring a huge tub full of cat food biscuits.

“I head out every morning at 7am. There’s a colony around the corner that needs help,” she said.

Miranda and one of the cats she looks after

Miranda and one of the cats she looks after

And with that, we both left her apartment and walked a couple of blocks together, before saying our goodbyes as she headed off to help her furry friends in need. There would be some, I’m sure, who question what the best way forward in dealing with the huge cat issue is. But you can’t fault people who feel so passionately about helping our fellow creatures, and it was admirable to see someone devoting her life to caring for them.

img_0731For me, it was back to the bus stop and to continue my journey, looking forward to stepping foot in South America for the first ever time. And I was making my way there with a smile on my face too – I had visited a travel agent in London a week before I left to price up how much extra an official overnight stop off in Miami would cost.

It turns out it would have set me back the not so small matter of £200 to make it an ‘official’ stop.

I think I’ll be looking for more extra long layovers in the future!

Hello Again!

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Well, it’s been a while – more than four years infact. So long, I’m struggling to remember how to even get this online. But a fish still has to get out of Grimsby from time to time – and after a bit of a turbulent year, there was no time like the present to set off into the big wide world on my own once more.

I’m currently on the East Coast main line, speeding along on one of Richard Branson’s bright red trains with its nose pointing towards London. Alongside me, a red and black backpack that almost mirrors the brightly coloured livery of the carriage it has been perched upright in.

img_0669It only seems like yesterday that I was making this exact same journey with it down towards Heathrow Airport. Except this time, it’s a little more worn and adorned with flags of Mongolia, Cambodia and Australia, to name but a few, that I hastily stitched on with an array of coloured threads in hostels around the world during the best year of my life. Reassuring proof that a trip I still find myself daydreaming about actually happened.

I find it hard to believe sometimes that I actually stuck it out for so long, living out of a bag, sleeping in 20-bed dorms with little privacy and heavy snorers, and barely having enough money for ‘luxuries’ like a coffee on the high street, a bus, or enjoy a meal out, all trying to save the travelling funds and make the experience go further.

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Backpack hasn’t been used since I returned home in 2012 – still got the luggage labels on!

It took a while for the bank balance to level out after a year of unpaid leave, but it didn’t take long to adjust back to life and start taking the home comforts for granted once again. Your own bathroom, a bubbly bath, clean clothes and your own pillow. Seeing your family, catching up with friends, realising how beautiful your home country is. Driving your car, listening to the radio, watching the shows from home you’ve missed for a year.

Then there’s the career. The long hair, which some people loved and others hated after vowing not to cut it for the duration of my trip, had to go! There’s not much calling for a surfer look on the BBC News outlets in Lincolnshire, so after a transition phase where I couldn’t bear to part with it, I went back to my usual short back and sides, albeit with a more grown up sweep to the side!

Once I’d tidied myself up, removed the traveller bracelets I’d picked up along the way, had a shave and prepared myself, it was a very strange feeling, after spending a year in shorts, t-shirts and Chang beer vests, to be getting all suited up for a day back in the office. Its one of my clearest memories of my return – sitting in my brothers old car I’d rented from him (didn’t have any money left to buy one of my own!) in my suit, just looking out of the windscreen for ten minutes and reflecting on what I was about to do. I was about to go back to work, return to normal life – the real world – and resume the rest of my life from where I’d left off eleven months previously.

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A few months after returning home, I was back in Australia and filming on helicopters

There had been a concern that I’d ‘stuff up’ my career with such a big trip, just when things were seemingly going in the right direction. I’m glad to say those fears were unfounded. If anything, its gone from strength to strength – and within months of returning, I was back in Australia working with a fantastic team of people filming the Helicopter Heroes programme. I landed (no pun) a dream job, flying around with the Yorkshire Air Ambulance in the UK, and New South Wales paramedics in Oz, as a camera director, a programme I p1000454was fortunate to be involved with on and off for 18 months. In addition, I’ve done quite well reporting nationally for the main BBC News, spending three months at Broadcasting House in London last year, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks to flying cats for a national and global audience. I’ve still got a hand in down there too, so pop up on the main news here and there away from the regular job being a newshound for

Serious face in the day job

Serious face in the day job

Look North and pounding the streets across East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Its the best of all worlds really – close to my family, reporting on my local patch, and enjoying a few snippets of London life here and there before being able to safely run away to the relative peace and quiet in Hull!

Oh, and there was one more thing that came about from that year-long trip.

I fell in love.

Yeah, that was probably my favourite bit about returning home. Having initially taken a career break after finding myself single, and with enough ‘everything happens for a reason’ words of comfort to last a lifetime, I really did think I’d hit the jackpot when I met a girl in Thailand on my trip who ticked all my boxes, and then some.

I wrote briefly about how I met Jen in a post here (link) and went on a random first date with her in Railay (link), after she shouted that ‘I’d been here ages’ in Koh Phangan, the Full Moon island in Thailand. Well we stayed in touch for the rest of my trip, and met up when I returned home, followed with a third date in Cyprus for a week together for a friend’s wedding…as you do!

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Jen and I in London, where we lived together for a few months in 2015

What followed was a bit of a whirlwind. Jen was in London, I was in Hull, but every weekend we’d travel the length of the country to be together. It was wonderful. I really did think the ‘everything happens for a reason’ cliché that everyone tells you at times of heartbreak had been proven right. It required leaving the country for a year, but I’d met someone who I believed I could happily spend the rest of my life with, on a journey to the other side of the world. I’d secretly hoped that after my final post ‘the end of a chapter’ the next thing I ever wrote on this blog was a bit of a ‘here’s what happened next’ fairytale ending of how I married the girl of my dreams that I met as part of the adventure.

Well, not quite, sadly.

Jen was amazing, and brought so much to my life, but we broke up in February. I wont go into too much detail – its not fair to do so – but in order to put this trip into context, lets just say its been a pretty rough year for me personally.

I’ve actually been itching to get away on some far flung trips over the past few years – and with Jen being a travel lover and blogger, I believed we were a perfect match who would go off and see the world together. It was one of my hopes when we began dating. But sadly, for one reason or another that I still struggle to understand, it didn’t quite work out that way. Jen would be seeing the world on free blog trips, I was at home with itchy feet. The fun and excitement of planning travel together disappeared as she focused on her independent trips – and it took its toll on our relationship.

That being said, recently we’ve been back in touch and are in the process of trying to smooth over some of the upset. We both know we mean a lot to each other, and have a special place in each others hearts. She’s doing really well for herself and has a lot to look forward to, and I’m really pleased for her. Who knows what the future holds, but we’re hopeful we can become friends again at the very least.

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With dad at the Coldplay concert in Glasgow, a fathers day treat

In recent months, my dad hasn’t been well either, so my family has been pulling together to support him and each other. Life can certainly be put into perspective very quickly sometimes, and a cold hard shock like we had in November last year makes you realise exactly what is important. Dad’s been amazing all the way through, a real fighter, and our family is closer and stronger as a result. The treatment has gone well, and we’re making lots of happy times and memories together, keeping positivity flowing and dad smiling. In many ways, its made us all appreciate each other so much more.

So while everything is settling a little on that front, and with demands to use some of my annual leave from work, you’ll have more of an idea now why I am setting off for another solo adventure.

It wasn’t quite how I’d planned it – I had always wanted to visit South America, my final continent in the world to set foot on, as a big trip with a special person in my life. But life is too short, as they say, so here I am, making my way to Colombia and Panama, via a brief stop in Miami, Florida…very little planned, just me, a guidebook and the bag on my back.

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Bags packed again!

Five years ago, I’d have never had the confidence to set off in this way. Indeed, I paid for an organised tour around South East Asia due to my fear of being unable to meet people or find my way around on my own. But one thing that year taught me, was that its fine to follow your nose. The internet, admittedly, makes things a million times easier. And even in the four years since I returned home, advances in technology and websites mean that travelling abroad just gets easier and easier. I have dug my trusty netbook out of retirement to type this, but I’m also equipped with an iPad and an iPhone for this journey, items which have evolved so much in the last few years with GPS and specialist apps that means its almost impossible to be lost these days.

I’ve had a few gasps from friends and colleagues, when just two days before departure, I’d still not booked flights. There have been a few eyebrows raised when I’ve explained I have just my first nights accommodation booked out of the whole two weeks.img_0648 I’ve not fully decided on an itinerary – I just know I’ve got to be in Panama City on September 24 for a flight home, or there will be a very unhappy editor in the office on the Monday morning.

Between now and then, I shall go wherever the wind takes me, and the flexibility and feeling of freedom that brings is immeasurable. If I hear of something interesting somewhere, I’ll go. But this is also a bit of a break, and I’m getting older these days, so I have pencilled in a few days to kick back on a beach or by a pool somewhere. Without the pressure of budgeting for a year, it will also be a little more ‘flashpacker’ than backpacker! I’ll still keep to the backpacker roots by staying in a hostel here and there, but when I’m longing for a private ensuite, I’ll be checking into the nearest hotel!

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Quick repair job!

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Finger blisters…painful!

Saying that, I have been strangely nervous – and I’ve had a typically chaotic day trying to get everything ready for the trip. Essentials such as toiletries, sun cream and a guide book all needed buying, errands needed running, a few things at home needed tidying, and the backpack needed repairing. Its main straps gradually came apart during that long trip previously, so armed with the strongest thread and sharpest needle I could find, I set about trying to re-attach them. I didn’t quite bank on how tough its internal weatherproofing was inside the fabric, and promptly acquired a huge blister on the end of my finger from trying to force the needle through, but I got there in the end and its as good as new again. Well, if you ignore my dodgy sewing.

I think it was getting my clothes and belongings ready for packing that brought back so many memories of 2011. It’s probably why I feel so nervous, as it feels just like how it did back then, the daunting feeling of heading into the unknown for a year. Its still the unknown I’m heading into, but for a much shorter time. My housemate Sarah did well at calming my nerves, and kindly took me to Hull station to see me off.

“You can always just come home again at any point,” she said with a smile. It’s the reassurance you need, the escape route you always know is open. But I won’t be taking it, hopefully!

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Five years between these waving pics…er, yeah, I’ve not aged at all :-/

So here I am. On my way again. I don’t know how many posts I’ll write over the next couple of weeks, maybe just a couple for old times sake – I’ll be honest, it was never really on my agenda to write anything. But what has been really nice is how many people in the past few days have asked me whether I would write something again as they enjoyed reading my posts so much last time around – and I don’t think everyone was saying it just to be polite either, so thankyou!

Who knows what people I will meet along the way, the stories they’ll tell, the places I’ll visit or the history I’ll discover. That’s part of the fun. There will probably be a few mishaps too – my infamous tea shop experience has been brought up by more than a few people recently when news of another trip was heard. But armed with my camera and a keyboard, I’ll try to bring it to all to life once more.

Almost five years on, the fish is back out of Grimsby. Back on the road and ready to make more memories, seeing a part of the world I’ve always wanted to experience. It might not be the way I’d hoped to visit, and I might not have someone to share it with in person by my side, but I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do something that I love once more.

After all, everything happens for a reason…

Is This The Way To Amarillo? (and St Louis?)

Is this the way?!

I might be getting further from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood on Route 66, but I have just met my first movie star.

Well, I say movie star – she was actually the inspiration for a movie star, in the form of Sally, the blue motor from the film Cars.

Dawn – a movie star. All will be revealed!

Her name is Dawn, the owner of the Rock Café, about an hour north of Oklahoma City, but her story of determination and achievement rivals that of any great movie happy ending. So much so, that John Lasseter, the movie great behind Pixar, Toy Story and Monsters Inc, was so moved by her tale, that he based a complete character in his film Cars on her.

New Mexico-bound

It was one of many stops during two long days of driving that have taken Ian and I from the outer edge of the Grand Canyon in the west, through the Indian Navajo regions and deserts of Arizona, across New Mexico and now more than halfway along the famous route 66 towards Chicago.

It has been a journey of contrasting landscapes, mixing between wide expanses of nothingness, interspersed with a few hills, to mountainous regions of forests, rivers and greenery that glide by the windows of our Ford Fusion as we make our way east.

Navajo land

One of the interesting stops was at a Navajo village, set beside a rocky outcrop which was adorned with old paintings and advertisements from the glory years of Route 66. Around a giant tepee and set in wooden shops and stalls, Navajo Indian families tempt tourists in with typical headdress and moccasin souvenirs. For the next couple of hours, we would see many typical Navajo homes and ranches dotted alongside the road, taking us on to Albuquerque and a lunch stop for some typically Mexican food.

New Mexico was an interesting state to pass through, and very much a place where, for the first time, it no longer felt like I was in the United States.

Cacti and little houses – New Mexico

The typical American wood-clad houses and neighbourhoods had changed into much smaller and low-rise homes with a far from typical American appearance. They reminded me of the small terracotta-coloured homes you would find in Mediterranean or Morocco, and I’m presuming what you would find in Mexico, although I have never been there to back up that assumption.

Either way, travelling through the state at times felt like we had been transported to another country somewhere, but with Texas on the horizon, it is only a matter of time before the big, brash normality of the USA is restored.

The continental divide – where rain drains to Atlantic or Pacific either side of the line

Life on the road is becoming increasingly normal as we eat up the miles. Ian and I are sharing the driving, doing anything up to five or six hour stints behind the wheel. It is not uncommon for us to fill up the tank, sit behind the wheel and drive until the gas has all been burnt, only stopping again to fill up once more or grab a bite to eat – or to top up on the caffeine levels thanks to copious amounts of cheap coffee you can buy at the service stations.

Not only that, you get a wide range of different flavoured creams to pour into it. So far, the ‘chocolate, Irish Cream, hazelnut and French Vanilla’ concoction I produced during one particular coffee chemistry routine at the pumps has been my favourite – and you get a bucket-sized cup of the stuff for less than a pound. Take that, Starbucks!

Thumbs up on the road!

Much of the driving in the early part of the roadtrip was done along the Interstate system to save a bit of time and keep to our tight schedule, but thanks to some long drives into the night, we’re now dipping on and off the old Route 66 much more.

Woaah, we’re halfway there….

One of those drives took us through Texas in complete darkness, including a point where we crossed the halfway point on the route at Adrian. With 1,139 miles either side of us, the Pacific to the left, Chicago and the lakes to the right, we knew that we were making good progress.

There were lighter moments too, including our arrival into Amarillo. Sadly, with it being so late at night, we couldn’t stop properly to have a look around at the town made so famous by ‘that’ song. We did, however, find a copy of the single hidden in my iTunes library on my laptop, and thanks to a double-ended headphone jack, played it on repeat a few times as we cruised through the centre of the town. Well, it would have been rude not too.

We found it!

With no sign of sweet Marie waiting for me, or Ian for that matter, we continued on to Oklahoma, a state where we use much more of the original Route 66 thanks to the tolls introduced on its turnpike and highway system. Besides, it gave us many more chances to see the beautiful old towns and villages that this famous road passes through, many of which were founded purely to service the traffic that once made its way through in such large numbers.

An old Route 66 gas station being restored

Originally known as the Will Rogers Highway, Route 66 was built to serve as a major path for those who migrated west at times of great hardship, looking for a new future and money away from the populous cities in the east.

People doing business along the route became prosperous thanks to the growing popularity of the highway, and up sprang huge numbers of service stations, cafes, restaurants, truck stops and diners. But, with the rise of the Interstate Highway System, traffic was gradually taken away from the 66, and with it the livelihoods of thousands of people who made a living and depended on the through trade.

Some originals still survive

Many of those former businesses now stand empty, disused and dilapidated along the roadside. Once busy villages and towns full of neon signs and life have become empty shells, a ghostly reminder of how the boom and bust lifestyle of those times still have an impact even now. It is a sad sight to pass by former gas stations and diners where the signs have faded, the roof has caved in and windows have long been smashed. It is impossible to pass by and not think of how it all must have been during the Route 66’s heyday.

But there is a growing band of people now fighting to keep the highway alive, and indeed, in many villages, those sites of historic interest – the former gas stations and eateries that once fuelled a migrating nation – are being restored and repaired as a lasting attraction and reminder of the road’s importance.

The Rock Cafe…and Sally!

Which brings me on to The Rock Café, which was established in 1939 at the dawn of the motor age and a time when Americans were starting to move around their country. The venue is even built with rock excavated during the building of the road.

Dawn Welch bought the struggling café in 1993 as visitor numbers dwindled when traffic on the 66 began to dry up. But where other small towns and villages along the famous road were being deserted, Dawn went against the flow of businesses heading back to the big city. She turned around the café’s fortunes, serving good food, a big welcome and plenty of nostalgia and memories for people making the long trip.

Just one of Dawn’s messages and gifts from John Lasseter and Pixar

Indeed, it was her passion and commitment that inspired John Lasseter and his team when they stopped by while researching for the film Cars. So taken by her personality and dedication, they would go on to visit many times, basing the character Sally Carrera, the blue car, upon Dawn.

“When you watch the film, there are so many little things that they picked up on from me and included in the plot, even right through to problems with my neon sign,” she says, smiling at me from an opposite table.

And so all was going well – the walls were full of momentos and nik naks from the glory years of the 66, celebrities would have their photos on display, and for anyone who was travelling from west to east, the venue became a ‘must visit’ before or after hitting Oklahoma City’s busy streets.

Heartbreak

But disaster struck in 2008. Her entire livelihood burned to the ground in just a few hours. All that was left standing was the original stone walls, a few charred remains and the trusty original grill, affectionately known as Betsy, which defiantly remained in situ in the kitchen where it has prepared more than five million burgers since being put in place in 1939.

Firefighter tributes and thanks on the wall

For most people, the nightmare of that night would end the dream, but not Dawn. When most experts were telling her to bulldoze the remains and start again, Dawn was defiant.

“It was just a fire, not the end of Rock Café,” she told one reporter at the time.

Tasty lunches being served again

A year later, she proved good to her promise of rebuilding the café within the original walls. A broom, almost worn to a stump during the clean-up, frames photographs of the damage and helmets worn by firefighters as they tackled the blaze on the wall of the new café. Some of the charred Route 66 books sit on shelves as a reminder of the inferno which once took hold on the spot where they now stand. Betsy the grill is once again cooking some of the finest food around, to the delight of diners from across the world.

Betsy the grill still churns out the tasty food

“Which t-shirt do you think we should sell?” Dawn asks me soon after I have taken my seat at the dining table, pushing her laptop under my nose.

There are two designs – a red shirt with a white motif depicting the grill, Route 66 logo and ‘Betsy’ draped across a grill. I told her to go for the one including the grill – with the advice that it is a major selling point of the café that she should embrace and make much more of a feature of.

“You’re right,” she beamed. “That t-shirt it is,”

With Dawn at the Rock Cafe

And so somehow, I had now decided which t-shirt one of the most famous cafes on Route 66 will be selling from now on. Dawns enthusiasm for her business, her customers and the famous road that passes by the window is infectious. It is easy to see why one of Hollywood’s most famous film producers wanted to include her in a movie, and Lasseter’s personal messages around the restaurant are proof of their close friendship.

Messages in the bathroom

After a very good cheeseburger and fries, prepared on Betsy of course, it was time to move on. As is tradition, and indeed encouraged by Dawn and her team, I signed my name on the wall of the bathroom, a lasting mark of my journey that joined the countless others who had passed through before me.

Leaving my mark…

From Oklahoma City, Route 66 turns north and up into Kansas, although not for long. Infact, we took more time taking photographs to document our arrival in yet another state than we did actually on the move through it – just 30 miles or so meant we left almost as quickly as we arrived.

Kansas…briefly

It was about an hour in the state, full of farms and rural fields evoking memories of the Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, there were no tornados, but sadly no yellow brick road either – just another long leg of driving through Missouri and up to St Louis.

McDonalds logos are a bit different in St Louis…

The skyline is dominated by the Gateway Arch, which at 630ft, is the tallest man made monument in the United States. Built on the west bank of the Mississippi River, it commemorates Thomas Jefferson and St. Louis’ role in the westward expansion of the United States.

Top of the arch

With just a couple of hours in the city, we decided it was the main attraction to see and bought a ticket for perhaps one of the strangest forms of transport on my trip. Thanks to the narrow design of the arch, you are transported to the top inside a peculiar monorail-type machine, where groups of four are ushered into pods that somehow stack up on top of each other as they cleverly move around the structure to the top.

St Louis from above

Every few moments, the pods are all mechanically moved to keep them upright, jolting and rocking as the four minute journey inches everyone to the top for spectacular views across two states. Below, paddle steamers that once filled the Mississippi sail around with a few tourists onboard, taking in the views from the brown-coloured river.

Long way down

The windows at the top were small and narrow, affording just enough room to look straight down below for a strange feeling of suspension, with nothing directly below us thanks to the clever design. Headroom was limited at times, but it was definitely a great half an hour of taking in the vista.

Mud pie, anyone?!

Heading back to the car, we stopped to touch the Mississippi, only to be surprised at finding a number of dead fish on the banks of the river. It turns out the waterway can be particularly polluted in places, and it was sad to see so much wildlife suffering the effects. We turned around and headed back to the car, looking back at the arch. From the bottom, it can look like some kind of futuristic space vehicle, something from a science fiction movie that has landed in the centre of the city.

Back at the car, the final leg of this long road journey to Chicago was upon us. We could almost hear a groan from beneath the Ford badge as we approached to wake our transport from its brief slumber. Either that, or Ian’s getting hungry again.

Christchurch: Rising from the Rubble

Christchurch Cathedral – a symbol of the city’s loss

“Ive just been watching my old offices being pulled down.”

“Weird isn’t it – I had to watch mine on video as we weren’t allowed nearby.”

Just a snippet of the conversation behind me in the corrugated steel shipping container-cum-coffee shop where I’m waiting for a cappuccino in the centre of earthquake-hit Christchurch.

A devastated city

Since February last year, this has become a normal conversation in this southern New Zealand city. A few blocks away, I’d just been watching yet another building being pulled down, as the long, ongoing process of flattening an entire city centre and rebuilding the whole lot from scratch continues.

Another building starts to come down

Almost every high-rise building in the CBD is set to be demolished – or deconstructed, to coin the phrase being used here – after the 6.3 magnitude quake wrecked foundations and left entire swathes of the city in ruins. Along with the devastation to the city and infrastructure, the February 22 disaster claimed the lives of 189 people, and daily life in this part of the south island shuddered to an abrupt halt.

A once bustling shopping area

It was the nightmare scenario many believed the area had avoided, after an even greater earthquake just a few months previous. Back in September 2010, the area was shaken by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, which caused damage but no deaths. The city lies right on top of previously unknown fault lines between two tectonic plates, a part of the infamous Pacific ring of fire. But people in New Zealand are familiar with their country’s unique geological make-up, and when the first major quake struck in 2010, causing relatively minor damage and injuries, there was a belief that the area and its people had dodged a bullet.

But there was a major difference in the type of earthquake that struck last year. In the first earthquake in 2010, the two plates largely slipped side by side, and in a much deeper location some six miles underground. In February last year, it was much shallower, at three miles deep, and there was a huge vertical shift – so much so, the hills around the city rose by an estimated 40cm in an instant. With the epicentre just 10 kilometres south-east of the centre of the country’s second largest city, there was only going to be one outcome.

Work ongoing at the city’s main theatre

Almost 18 months on, and parts of the city centre are still so unsafe, the public are kept away. Known as the red zone it covers most of the central area, and while some parts have recently reopened, there is still a long way to go with demolition work before the rest of the city is made safe.

One of the huge areas of space from cleared buildings

Yet this is a city, that despite its loss and devastation, is already looking forward. Speak to anyone on the streets, and it is more than likely you’ll get the strange response that the earthquake, aside from the loss of life, could actually be a good thing for the area.

The Red Zone

“It means we can start again. It’s quite exciting,” said one taxi driver as he drove me around the edge of the red zone.

And inside the city centre, there are already the green shoots of recovery thanks to one of the most surprising and novel ideas – the Re:Start Mall, an entire shopping precinct full of stores and cafes trading again from inside brightly-painted shipping containers.

At the Re:Start Mall

Container village

The bank

“I don’t know who thought about the containers, but it’s a great idea as we needed something to stimulate the city again,” says Bronwyn Jones, an assistant at Johnson’s Grocers.

Bronwyn with some Yorkshire Tea at the Grocers

“Christchurch is nothing like it was, and you need something positive to give people something to look forward to, to bring the community together again and be joyful.”

The owner, Colin Johnson, had been feared killed in the earthquake after the imported foods and produce he specialises in were shaken from the shelves, landing on top of him. At 72 years old, he was knocked unconscious.

Colin Johnson in his old shop

“He came out after a while, covered in red. It was tomato sauce, but everyone thought it was blood,” laughs Bronwyn, before revealing the store is doing better than it ever has done after relocating inside a number of black containers more commonly seen on the world’s largest ships.

“Colin’s busier now than he ever was before, and despite the earthquake, he’s still going,” she said.

“The shop has always been part of him – I can’t imagine him ever giving it up.”

Colin’s new shop…in shipping containers

But the costs for Colin, and every other home and business owner, can be crippling as insurance prices reach record levels.

“The excesses are so high now as a result of what happened. If anything breaks here now, it will have to cost thousands to replace or repair to even consider claiming on the insurance.”

The busy shop

Amid shelves full of Yorkshire Tea, Sherbet Fountains, HP Sauce and Tunnock’s Caramels, 82-year-old Christchurch resident Marianne is looking for a replacement for her beloved New Zealand Marmite.

There is currently a national shortage of the red-labelled yeast extract – a different flavour to the British version – after the Marmite factory in the city was badly damaged by the events of last year. So sought-after is the foodstuff by locals, it can sell for many dollars a jar online. Instead, I persuade Marianne to try the yellow-labelled variety from home.

Marianne, with my mate, Marmite

“If I don’t like it, I’ll come and find you,” she laughs, before revealing she’s only just plucked up the courage to return to the city centre.

“A lot of older people have been nervous about coming back into the city, but I have found it in me to return and I love it,” she said.

“I think the people who have stayed here and haven’t moved away from the city are handling it better than those who moved away. I think they have almost put a barrier up against a return now, so find it hard to do.”

But there is also a feeling that what happened in Christchurch has largely been forgotten by those overseas. While the death toll was limited, the cost will run into billions of dollars, with an estimated rebuild time of around 20 years. Most other cities around the world would have been obliterated by such an earthquake, but strong building regulations had helped minimise casualties. Yet few people know exactly what happened, largely because just over two weeks after the earthquake hit, Japan was devastated by a tsunami – directing news crews and the world’s attention to the far east.

The devastated main shopping street

“There has been 11,000 tremors since the earthquake – that’s one every four hours,” says Ross, a driver and tour guide of the London bus that now takes tourists around the ruined city.

“You don’t feel them all, particularly if you are out on the road or driving, but there are some 4,000 that have been strong enough to be felt.”

Ross heads back to his bus amid the ruins

On the bus are around 15 people who are all keen to have a look around the city and take in the damage. It follows a growing trend in people travelling to centres of natural disasters, either to pay their respects, volunteer or just to try to comprehend the events of the past year and a half. The tour is popular, running twice a day, and includes a stop at the once iconic cathedral, its famous façade now a gaping hole and mass of rubble.

Christchurch Cathedral

What will happen to the cathedral is perhaps the most controversial subject to have come out of the whole disaster here. There has been a huge argument between supporters of the church and the authorities who have deemed it unsafe, and more importantly, unsalvageable. While the cathedral still stands for now, the likelihood is it will be demolished, much to the anger of those who have been campaigning to save it.

But the tour isn’t the only indicator that tourists are once again beginning to return. Having scrapped Christchurch from its route map, Magic Bus, one of the three main backpacker buses that tour the islands, has recently put it back on the stop list, citing pressure from those who were using their services.

Magic Bus product manager Daryl Raven said: “The time was right to bring international tourists back to Christchurch. They were curious about what had happened and wanted to learn first-hand about the earthquakes and their impact on the Canterbury region.

“We want to give passengers the chance to say they were present during the rebuilding and rebirth of one of New Zealand’s most iconic cities, and to help the Christchurch economy get back on its feet.”

Christchurch YHA, a once popular spot for backpackers

One of the problems now is a lack of accommodation – most of the beds in the city centre, from backpacker dorms to five-star suites, were located in buildings which have now been condemned. Work is rapidly ongoing to refit, rebuild and repair some of the city’s main hotels, but in the meantime accommodation can be tight.

Christchurch railway station

As the bright red London bus passes the former railway station, the clocks are frozen in time. One is them is the time of the 2010 earthquake, a poignant reminder of how time has stood still for Christchurch.

4.35am, the time of the first earthquake

“We watched as it took just a week and a half to pull down a seven storey building,” says Hester Moore, who runs the Base Woodfired Pizza stall with Andy Thomson in the Re:Start Mall.

Hester and Andy at their pizza stall

“The whole façade was ripped away and people’s belongings were still there. It was like looking into people’s lives as they were a year ago,” she added.

But Hester agrees that as a city, the people of Christchurch are moving on with their lives.

“Generally, people are just happy to be here. You just have to accept the circumstances as they are and as they change,” she said.

“It is such a great opportunity now for business, and what they have done here with the containers is a unique and individual way to resurrect the CBD from the state it was in this time last year.”

In a ghost town area of Christchurch

While there are pockets of new beginnings springing up around the centre, there is still an eerie feel as you walk around the deserted city streets. The sound of clinking coffee cups and the hustle and bustle of business has been replaced with a permanent din of jackhammers and drills.

Familiar names like Starbucks and STA Travel sit boarded up and covered in dust and grime.

Markers left by search teams

In a newsagents, bars of chocolate lie scattered around on the counter in the places they came to rest after being thrown around by the force of the tremor. The walls and windows of buildings still show the spray-painted messages left by search and rescue teams from around the world in the immediate aftermath of the quake. Billboards in the red zone display posters for shows and concerts in March last year – a reminder how beyond the barriers, it is still February 22, 2011.

Search and rescue teams from around the world helped here

Vast areas of the city have already been made safe – empty spaces left behind on the footprints of huge office blocks have now been turned into carparks. All of the city’s multi-storey parking facilities remain closed, deemed unsafe for use. As a newcomer to the city, its easy to think that it just had an open-plan feel to the place, easy to forget that the streets here were once lined with shops, restaurants and places of work.

New initiatives have been started to help move the focus away from the city’s loss, to looking towards a brighter future. One of those is Gap Filler, filling the spaces left behind with anything from crazy golf to live music events. Others, like artist Mike Hewson, have created huge works of art that fill the gaping spaces left in many of the damaged buildings and walls.

185 Chairs.

But perhaps the most thought provoking is that of 185 chairs, a collection of white chairs arranged in a neat square on the site of the former Oxford Terrace Baptist Church. It’s a reminder of the loved ones the city lost on that awful day,

No words needed.

each chair being different to the next as a symbol of the individual people that lost their lives. On a railing to the east of the city centre, yellow ribbons still flutter in the wind with messages of love and hope for those who perished, and for the city as a whole.

As you follow the barriers that section off the ruined city, flowers and messages from loved ones catch the eye. Many are recent, having been left for birthdays or anniversaries.

Just one of many messages

By a huge empty space, once the home to the Canterbury Television Building, I find Tomo, a young Japanese man who is saying prayers and attaching a bunch of yellow flowers to the railings. More than 100 people died in the building, over half of the total fatalities in the city, after it collapsed within seconds of the earthquake. As well as being home to the local television station, an English languages school was situated inside.

Tomo tells me how 28 of his fellow countrymen died in the building, either killed by the collapse or who died in a subsequent fire. Visibly moved by being at the site, he struggled to contain his emotions.

“Those Japanese students came all of this way from home to study English, but died in the earthquake,” he tells me, eyes welling up.

Tomo remembers

“I have come here to learn English in their honour, to do it for them. They are no longer able to learn, but I am, and they inspired me to come here and study.

Looking back through the railings at the levelled-off rubble that remains, he sighs.

“I am doing it for them.”

There is no doubt that Christchurch will rise again from the ruins, but the human tragedy from one of New Zealand’s worst ever natural disasters will take a long time to heal. Now though, all thoughts are focussed on getting this city back on its feet as a fully functioning place to live and work.

New building regulations have been brought in – a seven-storey limit has been imposed on new structures, and strict earthquake proofing standards will have to be met. Early plans for the new city layout will make the picturesque river and parks a focal point, while an entirely new infrastructure, including potential for a light railway system, have now become a possibility.

It will, however, take time. It will be years even before the final damaged building has been made safe. The manpower alone to rebuild the city is phenomenal, aside from the incredible demand for building materials and supplies. Conservative estimates put the rebuild duration at between 15 and 20 years to complete, but that doesn’t bother Ross on the city tour bus.

“Our forefathers planted trees around the city, knowing they would never see them reach maturity, but instead they planted them to bring pleasure to others in the future,” he says.

“We’re rebuilding Christchurch. We are starting again and making it somewhere to be proud of again. But its not for us that live here now – it’s for our children, and our childrens’ children. And I’m happy with that.”

The End of a Magic Wander

Cold

Its fair to say the Magic Bus that left Queenstown was full of people desperate to get away from the place.

It wasn’t because they didn’t like the town – far from it – it was purely because everyone was exhausted from the rigors of one of the best places in the world for partying or pushing your body and senses to their limit.

To say the bus was a little subdued is an understatement. Blurry eyes, dazed expressions and an overwhelming desire to sleep were the telltale signs that everyone had done themselves proud. Queenstown had officially got every single one of us, and there were plenty of stories to catch up on from an eventful seven days.

Back on the bus, daft hat and all

As Jack, our new driver, navigated us away from our hostels, we said goodbye to Fergburger, the Remarkables and all the little watering holes that had become second nature to us over the past few days, watching as the scenery changed back into the open countryside. After a few minutes, we passed the Kawarau Bridge, the place where the first ever bungy jumps were made, and one final reminder of what this area is so famous for.

Having said goodbye to our driver Soap, who left Queenstown a couple of days after our epic night out with his new group, we had also said goodbye to his huge bus in which we would all sprawl around in absolute comfort thanks to it being largely empty because of the low season.

Full of energy on the (smaller) Magic Bus

Jack had a nice, small bus, but he claimed it felt like a rocket after downsizing for the low season. He’s only been doing the job for a few months, and has lots of enthusiasm for it. He admits he’s still learning about the route, what there is to see and the activities on offer in each place, but for that reason he also sees the fun side of it too – he’s discovering parts almost as much as we are.

For me, this is the last leg of the Magic Bus adventure. My final destination is earthquake hit Christchurch, from where I’ll be catching a flight back to Auckland and then on to Fiji. That’s in a couple of days time, but first we were making our way back through the mountains and making our first stop of the day.

Kate and the ‘real’ horse

“Is that horse real?” asked Kate, probably too loudly bearing in mind everyone else could clearly see it was a model horse and cart.

We were at a small village called Cromwell, and Kate’s alcohol intake of late had somehow affected her perception of reality. But that was something I could completely understand, with a lack of sleep thanks to a final night out to blame for my higher than normal clumsiness levels. I was also desperate for a coffee, so we headed to a lovely little café with a roaring log fire to while away the half hour break.

After much talk of events in Queenstown, we were back on our way, making a later stop at a salmon farm surrounded by snowy mountains. It came with free food to throw to the fish, and after much fun making them fly out of the water at the little brown pellets, Jack, our guide, had a great idea.

Feeding the fish

“See if you can launch them across the whole area from your pot,” he said, throwing his out in a nice arc across the whole pond.

I gave it a try, and somehow overestimated my strength, pretty much making all the bits of food clear the water and hit the path on the opposite side. It at least got a laugh from a few off the bus, in particular Becky, who continued giggling until we all got another bowl of food and had another go at said exercise.

“Right, everyone together, spread out around the water, and on the count of three,” he told us.

With cameras at the ready, we all launched our food together and ensured we made a lot of salmon very happy.

Salmon, doing a very good Piranha impression

The next bit of fun was a stop at a nearby lake, surrounded by rocks and huge boulders. Sometimes you have to make your own entertainment, and Liam and I decided to have a race down to the water by jumping from rock to rock.

A lake and a challenge…

Liam won it, although he’s a bit younger and a lot more nimble than me on his feet. I did, however, raise the stakes down at the bottom by challenging him to get the furthest out into the water.

He wasn’t quite expecting to see me quickly taking my shoes and socks off and rolling up my jeans, having spotted a protruding rock I thought I’d be able to wade out to.

Liam still beat me

The rocks were slimy and slippery underfoot, but I managed to make it to the rock without falling in, while Liam once again beat me by making it to another rock even further away from the edge of the water. It was simple, but gave us all a few laughs, and was followed by the usual manly stone skimming competition, that later turned into a full on ‘how far can you just chuck the thing’ competition. Jack, funnily enough, had a surprisingly good throw.

The rest of the Magic Bus group at the top

And that was about as exciting as it got for the day. Anything after Queenstown was always going to be a bit of an anticlimax, but in some respects it was exactly what we needed. There was some further excitement down the road, however, when we climbed up into the mountains high enough to reach the snow line.

Snow!

Arriving into Lake Tekapo, it was the first time we’d hit the ‘proper’ snow of New Zealand away from the artificial stuff that had been thrown around at Coronet Peak for the masses to slide down on skis. We checked into the Lakefront Hostel where there was a frosty reception. Not from the staff – they were quite nice – but it was by far one of the coldest hostels I had stayed in yet.

It had a log fire in the lounge, but the lounge was massive and probably not insulated a great deal judging by the fact I could see the condensation on my breath just sitting in it. I kept my hat and scarf on just to stay warm while moving all my belongings to the room I was to share with Becky and Liam.

Great view from the hostel, shame it was just as cold

After Becky finally managed to open the door following a 10 minute struggle with the lock (again, the after effects of Queenstown can be the excuse) we got into the icy cold room to find a cat had left muddy footprints all over the beds. The window was open (in the middle of winter) and one of the resident moggys had obviously found a sneaky little way of getting some kip on a bed.

One room change later, we had moved into another equally icy room and fathomed out how to use the cumbersome wall heater. Various buttons were pressed until finally we could feel some heat coming from the vents.

Brrr

We all headed out to have a walk by the lake (and a warm up!) where we took in the spectacular views across to yet more snowy mountains. There had been some recent snowfall, as the alpine trees were still covered in the white stuff, while a mist was drifting from the surface of the lake, catching the sun and giving a strange eerie effect.

With yet more stone skimming, we were joined by a golden retriever who decided it would be quite fun to try to chase the stones as we were throwing them. He’d wait for the splash, run for a while and then stop, before looking at you.

Here boy!

It didn’t take long for me to twig that he might like playing and chasing snow, so I scooped up a decent snowball and compacted it in my gloved hands. I launched it into the air, only for our new friend to jump up and catch it, covering himself in snow and then excitedly looking for more. It would have provided hours of fun, but the biting cold started getting to us all so we retreated back to the marginally warmer hostel, threw some logs onto the fire and admired the view through the window.

Fun in the snow

And that was about it for the day. It was very much a relaxing stopover. We could have gone to the hot baths or gone snow tubing, but to be honest, most of us were just happy to be relaxing around the fire, reading, writing, catching up with relatives back home on Skype and watching the television. It sounds boring, but after such a hectic week, on reflection it was perhaps just what we needed. What wasn’t needed was an extreme allergic reaction to the two resident cats at the hostel, but i’ve regained the use of my eyes now, and the redness has gone down, so i’ll let the hostel off for that minor down point.

I’ve always loved snow!

With an 8.30am start for the leg to Christchurch, we needed to be up relatively early, but there was an important game taking place on the other side of the world – the small matter of England versus Italy in the quarter final of the Euros. I woke up at 5am and made my way into the communal area of the hostel, turned on the television and tinkered with the digital receiver, only to find it had just six channels. Four of those were showing kids programmes, and not one had anything that resembled football. I checked my laptop to see if the internet bandwidth was any good – it could barely load up the BBC Sport home page. There was no way it could cope with video, and so I gave up, settling for just checking the score every 10 minutes.

By the time we got on the bus, it had gone to extra time and sounding every bit like it was heading to penalties. I feared the worst, and my fears were confirmed when Kate logged onto the free onboard wifi.

“England have gone out, they lost on penalties,” she said. Brilliant.

I can’t say I was surprised, bearing in mind how little time Roy Hodgson has had with the squad, but having seen little of the competition thanks to the time difference, it didn’t seem to matter too much.

Sombre arrival in Christchurch

It wasn’t too much of a drive to Christchurch, with only a couple of stops for coffee and some fuel, before we began to reach the outskirts of the city at around 1pm. Last year, the city was devastated by an earthquake that claimed 185 lives and shook most of the city centre from its foundations. The entire central business district will have to be knocked down and rebuilt, while with more than 11,000 tremors since the 6.3 magnitude quake that brought so much carnage to the city, this is still very much a city living on the edge.

Christchurch Cathedral

There will be a feature on Christchurch, what happened and how it is recovering, online here in the next day or so, which in part has been helped by a double decker tour of the city that we were supposed to be catching at 2pm.

Checking in at the Old Countryhouse hostel, I began to wonder if backpackers were still visiting the city judging by how quiet the place was. It also took a fairly long time for us to be checked in.

“Are you the bus driver,” I was asked out of the blue by the receptionist. It took me by surprise, and I wondered what I’d done to give that impression. Everyone found it amusing.

“Oh, its just you look like you have authority,” she smiled awkwardly. I laughed it off, joking that Jack, our driver, only looks about 12 anyway. Bang on cue he walked in, looking slightly concerned about time.

“Guys, we need to meet the bus in 10 minutes for the tour,” he said. We asked the receptionist how long it would take to walk to the meeting point at the museum for the tour.

“Oh, 25, 30 minutes,” she smiled.

We were in trouble.

“Right, get your stuff in your rooms as quickly as you can and I’ll drive the bus down there,” said Jack, putting in calls to the office to try and delay the tour.

On the way we managed to hit just about every red light that Christchurch had to offer, before eventually getting to where there were two tour buses waiting on a stand. There was nowhere to park, and Jack’s phone was ringing. It was someone asking where we were.

Running for a bus!

“We’ll be sixty seconds,” we overheard him say. He parked up in some parking bays, about 100 metres away from a double decker London bus, and we all ran back round to where we’d seen the tour buses. Jack and I made it first, to find a guide who didn’t seem to have been waiting at all.

He handed us a leaflet, and I pointed out the $79 price tag. Ours was supposed to be around the $25 mark. It was the wrong tour.

Wait for me!

We took to our heels again, and back around the block to where the double decker bus was parked. There we met Ross, the driver and tour guide, who mentioned how he’d been waiting for us and saw us all run off in the opposite direction. We were just grateful he’d waited around for us.

Our London bus tour of Christchurch

All aboard!

Again, there will be more on Christchurch in an upcoming post, but it was a thought provoking look around the city. Few of us have ever been to somewhere that has been obliterated by a natural disaster, where buildings even now are still being pulled down and an entire city has become ghostly eerie, sealed off to the public, frozen in time to the moment that the earth shook the area to its knees.

My Magic Bus group at the Cathedral

We looked at the Cathedral, its famous façade now just a gaping hole, its history laying in ruins. It’s a hugely controversial area in the city, as there is a campaign to have the Cathedral made safe and rebuilt. Sadly, the condition it is in means it is likely to be demolished.

We headed back to the hostel after a sobering hour-long tour. I was fascinated by the city and its people, and I wanted to learn more. My journalistic instinct had kicked in. I had a choice – to chance a mad dash up to Kaikora, at considerable expense, for a chance to watch whales off the coast, or to stay in Christchurch and find a way of meeting and talking to the people here about their experiences.

I think you probably know what my final decision wa

Sounds like fun? Find out more about the Magic Bus at www.magicbus.co.nz

 

 

Soap’s Stars Trip the Ice Fantastic

Playing it cool on the Franz Josef Glacier

“You can have the Love Shack”

It was an offer by the staff at the Chateau Franz hostel that got laughs all round, the biggest from Soap, my Magic Bus driver who had just driven us from the greyness of Greymouth to the blue skies and bright sunshine of Franz Josef, home to a huge glacier.

“Make the most of it Peter,” he jokes, still not quite grasping that he’s been calling me the wrong name all the way throughout the journey so far.

“It’s Phil,” I say back. He doesn’t hear me.

The Love Shack (That’s where its at…as well as the laundry)

I take my bags to my room and unlock the door to my love shack (even just writing this makes me smile!) to find a small cosy room full of red cushions, blacked out windows, the smell of sweet roses and, shall we say, pretty much anything you’d need for a night in with a loved one.

With no loved ones around, I was just grateful for the chance to sprawl out in a double bed for once. After months of single bunk beds in rooms with up to 20 people, tonight is one to look forward to purely for the fact I should get a good night’s sleep.

Inside the Love Shack at Chateau Franz Backpackers

Of course, the room was purely a chance to have a good laugh, and a few of the Magic Bus gang came in to check out my novel lodgings for the night. We had a tight schedule though, with a helicopter to catch up to the nearby glacier just an hour or so after arriving in the town.

Thankfully, Soap had driven us past the check-in offices not once, but twice, to make sure we all knew where we were going. I resisted the temptation to ask him where we needed to be once we’d arrived at the hostel for the night.

Instead, with the sun shining and a beautiful day ahead, we made our way to the offices of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides to embark on our icy adventure. Its something we had all been looking forward to, a highlight of the south island and one of the sights many people come to New Zealand to see. On the way, Soap had been telling us how lucky we were with the weather.

“The last six times its been raining and people haven’t been able to get up there,” he said.

“I’ve been told conditions are perfect. I don’t want to curse it, but it looks like you’ve got the conditions as good as they come.”

‘Famous last words’ springs to mind.

Checking in for the helicopter…

Having checked in, been given wristbands and everyone excitedly being ushered over to the clothing section, where we were to be issued with thermal jackets, trousers and crampons to navigate around the ice, we waited around for a few minutes. And then along came one of the staff.

“I’m really sorry guys, we’ve got some bad news. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to go today. The wind has really picked up on the mountain and the helicopters are having to bring everyone off.”

It didn’t quite seem real – outside the weather was glorious. It was calm, blue skies, and seemingly perfect conditions. We knew we were also to leave the town first thing in the morning. We had one afternoon to make the trip, and the plug had been pulled. Some of the group at first thought it was a cruel joke, but as another glum-looking group already dressed for the mountain traipsed back into the building, it was clear nobody was having a laugh.

There were a lot of sad faces, particularly from the girls. Kate, from Jersey, and Ailish and Christine from Ireland, were particularly downhearted. There were seven out of the nine of us on the Magic Bus who wanted to make the trip, and we gathered round in a circle to plan the next move.

“I wonder if we could go first thing in the morning, and delay the Magic Bus a little bit,” I put to everyone.

Sad faces all round

It was a thought that gathered a bit of momentum. We knew we had a long day of driving to Wanaka ahead of us the next day, with an early departure on the cards, but we found out what the options were from the glacier company.

There was an 8am departure, which would see us off the glacier by midday. It was something we could put to Soap, but we knew it would be out of his hands.

Back at the hostel, we sat around feeling sorry for ourselves. We managed to drag Soap from out of his room, who immediately got the blame for cursing the weather by speaking too soon about the conditions, and we talked it over as a group. There was an option to head to nearby Fox Glacier that afternoon, but nobody was too keen. We could also take a shuttle to the Franz Josef Glacier walk, which means we could at least see it, but not touch or experience it. Or, as we suggested to Soap, we could take the first helicopter and delay the Magic Bus departure.

“The Magic Bus never gets delayed for anyone, but we can give it a go,” Soap tells us, reaching for his mobile phone.

Land of the long, white (laughing) cloud

We didn’t hold out much hope, but it was worth a try. In the meantime, we were all taking it in turns to look up at the mountains and moan about how it seemed too calm to have any problems. We watched a cloud stay in the sky, motionless, and almost forming a face and mouth as if it was laughing at us – in Kate’s mind anyway!

With a call in to Magic HQ, Soap tried his best to keep our spirits up, sympathising with our disappointment and blaming himself for being the unlucky charm, having had a lot of similar bad luck in recent weeks. Time was ticking waiting for the news of a decision from the Magic bosses. It could all depend on how many people were to be picked up from Franz, in addition to those of us who arrived on the bus. With seven of our nine wanting to make the trip up the glacier, it made sense to delay departure. But if there were another 10 people due to get on the bus in Franz ready for a journey or with activities ahead in Wanaka, we’d probably be out of luck.

By now, the time had passed for the afternoon trip to Fox. Our eggs were all in one basket. The phonecall came through from head office. It was all or nothing. Soap answered. There are no smiles, and the tone of his conversation is subdued.

Its not sounding good. It looks like Franz Josef is off. Soap comes off the phone with the words “I’ll talk to them and see what we can do,” before hanging up with a sigh.

“Sorry guys.”

There were groans. That was it. We waited to see if it was one of Soap’s jokes, but it wasn’t. He started to walk away.

“Gotcha!” he shouted, turning back towards us with a huge grin on his face.

Happy faces!

For the first time, Magic Bus agreed to delay the departure to allow us one more chance at making the trip up to the glacier. It was a huge relief, and there were happy faces all around. In addition, it now gave us an afternoon free, and we decided to book the Franz Josef shuttle to the glacier walk.

And so we all headed off on the bus, taking in our first views of this famous attraction, ironically stopping off at Peter’s Pool, a name that is still being used for me, where there was a fantastic reflection of the glacier and mountains on the surface of the water.

Peter/Phil at Peter’s Pool

Next up was a long walk along the glacier bed to the head of the glacier.

The Franz Josef Glacier starts high up in the southern alps and descends deep into the lush rainforest of Westland’s National Park, from a height of 2700 metres above sea level, to just 240 metres, in as little as 11 km. It means it is the worlds steepest and fastest flowing commercially guided glacier and provides some of the most dramatic glacial scenery in the world.

The Franz Josef Glacier snaking down the valley

As huge as it is, some seven and a half miles long, its actually constantly moving, being in a cycle of advancing and retreating from its source.The glacier was advancing until mid 2010, but it is currently in a very rapid phase of retreat, shrinking heavily, in a way many people have put down to global warming.

It is also a dangerous place to visit, hence the need for specialist guides to actually venture onto the ice, but even visiting the face of the glacier can be potentially lethal, so much so it is strictly off limits, a fence keeping people away.

Danger…

We reached the yellow rope fence, about 500 metres from the actual ice, with strong warnings not to cross over the line. They are warnings that need to be taken seriously too – most years there is a story of a tourist who ignored it, only to be trapped by a rock or ice fall from the surrounding mountains. Newspaper stories of deaths and injuries are blown up and featured on warning signs, in attempt to put anyone off who was thinking of making a trip over the rope. Somehow, the prospect of thousands of tonnes of ice and rocks falling on top of you is enough of a warning for us, and we stayed well behind the rope.

Stop!

We spent the evening at the local hot baths, a trip that comes as part of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour. I met Soap as he was heading out to the baths, and who decided to take the bus because of the freezing cold temperatures, so I jumped onboard with him. The baths were deliciously warm, and a great way to spend a few hours relaxing with everyone else on the bus and getting to know everyone a bit more. I’ve been really lucky with the groups, having a lot in common with people onboard and sharing the same sense of humour.

Back at the hostel, I ended up having drinks with Thecla from the bus, and two Australian girls Clare and Louise, who were celebrating a birthday. Despite my best efforts, I was persuaded to go out for a beer with them, despite the early morning start the following day.

Our ride arrives

Thankfully, after keeping it to just a couple of beers, I was up in time to check out and made it to the helicopter check-in for 7.45am. This time we made it further than the clothing desk, being issued with full arctic attire, boots, crampons, gloves, the lot, ready for three hours of ice exploration.

We were taken to the helipad, taking in the beautiful dawn view as the sun began to rise over the mountains. The air was still with the sound of silence, until, in the distance, we heard the familiar sound of a helicopter’s rotor beating its way through the sky. It appeared a few moments later, swooping around to us and landing with expert precision just a few metres away.

Destination Glacier

The first half of the group climbed onboard, and within seconds they were far in the distance, making the short five minute journey up to the ice. It wasn’t long before the helicopter returned for us, and we were ushered over to the aircraft door before climbing into the back seat. The pilot didn’t hang around, and within seconds of the door closing we were lifting off and flying into the valley.

With Mel and Kevin in the helicopter

Up on the glacier, a gaggle of blue jackets from the first half of the group marked the landing site, and we all left our stomachs behind as the helicopter suddenly dropped from high above the ice to take its place on the landing site.

Onto the ice

Tom is our guide for the morning. Originally from Crewe, and so a fellow northern lad, he met us at the helicopter and waited as we fixed the cramp-ons to our boots. I’ve never had to wear them before, but the glacier was like no other surface I have ever walked on. It was pure ice – shiny, see through, glass-like ice – and a bit like a giant ice cube. I have skied on glaciers before, but they are normally covered in snow, so to see the huge mass of ice up close was something completely alien to us all.

“The best thing you can do is walk normally, feet straight, and put pressure on the spikes,” Tom tells us, advising not to walk sideways and to avoid falling down holes in the ice.

We followed Tom, who was armed with an ice pick to help clear the way, through a maze of icy valleys and around caverns formed by the constant movement of the huge mass.

Tom, our guide

“When I first got here three years or so ago, the ice was right up to the greenery on the side of the valley walls,” he tells us, showing a huge drop in the ice level in just the short time he has been guiding in the area.

The constant change in the structure of the glacier has actually caused a few problems in recent months with tourism on the glacier. Until April, a cheaper tour would take the public on a full day trek from the bottom of the glacier up to the point we were standing. The helicopters were part of a more expensive, more exclusive trip. But all that changed when a giant hole opened up in the ice lower down, forcing tours to pass around it by the sides of the valley.

Exploring the ice

However, the rock faces that surround the glacier are notoriously unstable, partly due to the constant process of freeze-thaw, where moisture and water freezes in the rocks, expands, and then thaws in the morning, letting go of whatever rocks it has broken away during the night.

“We actually had a pretty bad rockfall a while back that I saw, and I knew there were a few groups in the area,” he says, reflecting on a potentially disastrous moment.

“There was a few minutes when one of the guides couldn’t be reached on the radio which got us all worried, but then he came over to say he was ok.

“Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but that was the worst one I have actually seen.”

A tight squeeze

I surveyed around the glacier sides and piles of loose rock and dust can be seen all over the area, sites where substantial portions of the mountain have dropped away. For this reason, the guides now stay well clear of the rock face, and the only way of reaching the glacier, avoiding the potentially dangerous walk around the hole, is by helicopter.

We made our way down the glacier, dropping down into gaps in the ice, walking around deep holes that have formed, and edging our way up and over various ice formations created by the constant movement of the white mass.

I say white, but in many places the ice is a bright blue, a result of minerals in the ground being absorbed. In some places, it was a particularly deep blue, with millions of air bubbles and particles suspended in frozen time.

Hiding in the ice

We edged our way along a narrow gap, the tightness causing a few of us problems with our new walking boots and tricky conditions. The walls of the ice were as smooth as and had the appearance of polished glass. At one point, Tom fixed a rope to an ice wall, and threw it down to help us climb a particularly steep set of steps that had been chipped away into the ice.

Kate laughing in the narrow gap

It was a fantastic, if more than a little tiring, three hours of walking and climbing around on the glacier, and we were grateful of a helicopter lift back off it and down to the village. Had the original full day tour been running, we’d have had to walk all the way back down the glacier, and Tom admits that it would often leave even some of the hardiest walkers exhausted.

As we were waiting for our flight back down to ground level however, the glacier provided a reminder as to how potentially dangerous the area can be. In the middle of a conversation with Tom, suddenly we were all stopped by a deep rumble that sounded very much like thunder rolling away nearby. But the skies were clear, and there was no chance it was the weather causing the noise. I could feel a slight vibration under my feet. It carried on for a good few seconds, causing us as to stop and look around to where the noise was coming from.

“Rockfall,” said Tom, looking in the same direction we were. We’d fallen silent and waited for the noise to stop. A few minutes later, a huge cloud of dust rose up from the site of the rockfall. A stark warning by the mountains that the dangers are incredibly real.

Rockfall…

We flew back to the village, knowing there would be no hanging around in order for Soap to get off at a decent time so we could make the long drive to Wanaka. Besides, there was an important rugby match between his beloved All Blacks and Ireland in the evening.

“We will be there for kick off, even if we have to skip toilet stops and pass a bottle around the bus,” he joked.

Back in the chopper

He’d already loaded all the bags into the boot of his bus to save time when we returned from the glacier, and within 20 minutes of touching down in the helicopter, we were back on the Magic Bus and on our way further south.

“Did you all have a good morning Peter?” he asks me. I replied as normal – I think the name Peter is stuck in his head, despite me writing my name every day on his accommodation sheet, and his passenger log clearly showing my details.

Soap navigating another narrow single lane bridge

The delayed departure means a few of the regular stops during then long drive south may have to be missed out, but Lake Matheson, close to the nearby Fox Glacier, was one stop that Soap wasn’t going to cut from the itinerary. We were glad he didn’t, as it was stunning. Its another ‘mirror lake’, a perfect reflection formed by the incredibly still water – bar the odd duck or three – of the surroundings.

Lake Matheson. Stunning.

When those surroundings are alpine forests with the backdrop of picture postcard snow-capped mountains, it makes for a beautiful place to spend a few minutes, taking photographs and absorbing the view.

Back on the bus, Soap had been dealing with a few requests from a couple of passengers, who for sake of anonymity will be known as red jacket and yellow jacket. It’s fair to say they had caused one or two problems along the way, mainly with a language barrier, but most of us on the bus also queried a general lack of common sense and wondered how they had managed to travel so far without getting completely lost somewhere.

They weren’t huge problems, but just awkward ones like having completely different arrangements for accommodation than everyone else, at one point prompting a drive around a town centre in search of the drop-off point. And then one of them opened a tin of tuna – and when you’re on Soap’s bus (or any bus for that matter!) an open tin of tuna is a huge no-no for obvious smell-related issues. Despite his patience being tried on more than one occasion, Soap somehow still managed to keep a smile on his face and accommodate requests as well as he could. He might have secretly been twanging his rubber wristbands somewhere, his way of releasing stress, but he would still be the happy, cheery guy we had all grown to love as our tour guide.

Its the Magic Bus!

“I’ve got no plans or times for the rest of the day, as we’re in new waters for the Magic Bus, but we’ll try to fit in as much as possible,” he tells us over the speakers as we head off down the road yet again.

It gave us a sense of adventure. We had gone against the norm, and I think even Soap was enjoying being away from the routine timetable and exploring the route to Wanaka at a different time.

As one of New Zealand’s scheduled buses approaches from the opposite direction, Soap smiles.

All roads lead to the mountains

“He’s going to wonder where I’ve been,” he laughs. And with that, the coach driver approaching starts pointing at his watch and laughing. Most of the regular drivers on the island know each other, and it was funny to see the camaraderie as Soap gave a knowing wave back out of the windscreen.

Lunchtime on the Magic Bus!

Most of my group on the bus had managed to fall asleep, a mass of legs criss-crossing the aisles and nodding heads bumping on windows as everyone enjoyed a nap following the cold and hard work of the morning. I tucked into yet another Vegemite and cheese sandwich, and judging by the laughs and smiles I’m now getting everytime I pull out the ingredients to make my regular lunch, its becoming something of a running joke.

We headed further into the southern alps as the sun began to get ever lower in the sky, turning the white snow caps into beautiful shades of pink and orange.

Same old…same old!

“I never get to see this scenery at this time, its stunning. You’re in for some really special views,” says Soap, himself taking in the view as he continues the 300km drive.

We briefly stopped at a waterfall, which would have been our final scenic stop had we kept to the original departure time, and it was the final tick on the list. Somehow, despite leaving almost five hours later than we should have done, we had managed to fit absolutely everything into the day. In fact, taking into account the extra walk the day before to the glacier, we’d actually been able to do more than any of the other groups that have stayed at Franz Josef. In addition, the way we saw a beautiful sunset, and the fact the sun was in a perfect position at Lake Matheson for photographs during the afternoon, meant we had much better photographs and some brilliant memories from the time we made the Magic Bus late.

A new view for the Magic Bus!

We pulled into Lake Wanaka in darkness, and as the engine was turned off, Soap decided to address the coach and mentioned my name as ‘Peter’.

“Its Phil,” I shouted yet again.

Soap started laughing over the speaker system.

“I’ve been seeing if you’re just too polite to tell me and how long I could carry it on,” he chuckled.

The only thing is, half the bus still doesn’t know my real name, and instead know me as Peter. It all starts to get a bit complicated!

The Magic Bus in Wanaka

We had, however, arrived in time to watch the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka before coming far to close to losing the international game with Ireland. Soap was incredibly quiet for the second half, particularly with a couple of very hopeful Irish girls in Ailish and Christine on the bus. Sadly, their hearts were broken when a last minute drop goal settled the game in the All Blacks favour, but we all enjoyed an enthralling game and finished off with a few beers at the bar.

Soap and his stars…next stop, Queenstown

It was nothing too heavy though. We were up early in the morning – the destination is Queenstown, the party and adrenaline capital of the world.

Sounds like fun? Find out more or book the Magic Bus by visiting their website at www.magicbus.co.nz

Want to learn more about the Franz Josef Glacier Guides? Their website is at www.franzjosefglacier.com

And if you fancy a stay in the Love Shack, visit the hostel website at www.chateaufranz.co.nz

Swings, Slides and a Chair of Death

Status

Bye then!

Another day, another dose of adrenaline in the world’s adventure capital.

Whether its rafting down the white waters of the Shotover river, strapping yourself to a bungy rope, skiing down a black run or being blasted around in a jet boat, people in Queenstown are constantly working on finding the next big thrill.

Who would have thought that a simple children’s slide would provide it.

The prototype slide test-bed

Well, I say childrens slide – its actually a purpose-built job, but its about the same size as the ones you’d find at the side of the kids section in the local pool. There’s a slight difference here though, because Queenstown being Queenstown, there’s a company that’s pushed even a slide to the limit – by replacing the typical kids splish splash at the end with a 60ft freefall drop.

On The Slide! Take note of the raft you can see…

This is the world of the Shotover Canyon Swing, a team of people determined to find the scariest, most fun-filled, funny and imaginative ways to launch people from the world’s largest cliff jump and off on a 200 metre swing through the canyon below.

The Shotover Canyon Swing site

Its been up and running for 10 years here now, set up by two keen Kiwi climbers who set out to find the perfect place to build a rope swing. Its based on the same principal that would see many young lads throwing ropes up and around tree branches to build a swing out in the country, except this one reaches speeds of up to 150 kilometres an hour.

And now I’ve been invited along to try it, and its latest way of launching those thrill seekers/crazy people down a cliff face and towards a fast-flowing river at breakneck speeds.

A few days ago I managed to throw myself from one of the world’s highest bungys, and while the drop here isn’t quite as far, its still a daunting prospect to peer over the side of the platform and down to the river below. Nerves are far from helped when Doug, one of the crew members, decides to fall into the back of you and almost push you over the edge.

It’s the first part of what turns out to be a great double act between him and Andrew, the two men in charge of launching me from the safety of a cliff top in a variety of ways. There’s a staggering 70 different ways, and counting, that you can meet your potential demise from the cliff. With my confidence up from the bungy, and no doubt under instruction from the marketing team of Ana and Sarah to do their worst with me, the pair of them set about playing with my mind.

Andrew…thinking of ways to dispatch me

“This is the chair of death. Or the chair of life as we call it,” Andrew tells me, brandishing a plastic patio chair and a strap.

“Your task is to sit on it, lean back, and gently fall,”

Gently fall? I’m dropping off a cliff face, there’s nothing gentle about that. As in introduction to the Shotover Canyon Swing however, it at least means I’m not looking forwards to see the drop. Andrew and Doug had other ways of raising my fears though.

The cocktail glass can only mean one thing – a variety of ways down!

Strapped into the chair, I was instructed to lean back, and so pivoted on the back legs just like I’ve done a million times before at countless barbecues and picnic tables. Except the worst that can happen there is I can overdo it and fall on my back on the grass, to the amusement of whoever is sitting around the table. Here, it’s a sheer drop down a rockface.

“Just lean back Phil, head back, look at where you want to go,” I’m told.

I prepare myself for the inevitable and gently rock back, feeling the chair reaching the limit before gravity takes over. I feel it about to swing back and down into the valley.

Going…

“Whooooaaaaaa, hold on a minute,” says Andrew, pulling me back with the rope just as I thought I’d committed myself to the fall. My heart was pounding but I managed to laugh. I thought I’d gone, but now I’m back to square one again, the two crew members ‘checking’ my safety harness and generally milking the whole Chair of Death experience for me.

I pluck up more courage and lean back again – this time they will surely let me go. Afterall, they’ve played with my fears once on this chair.

“Am I going now?” I asked.

The look on Andrew’s face, still holding onto my straps, almost told me otherwise but I couldn’t quite read him. I looked down below me, which was a mistake – up until now I had managed to block out the fact I am overhanging a straight drop to the rocky bottom, a certain death without the various ropes and clips that connect me to the swing. Its like being at the top of the Flamborough cliffs back home, knowing you’re about to fall to the bottom.

…Going…

Leaning back again, I slowly pushed myself to tipping point yet again, only for Andrew to pull me back upright yet again. I could feel sweat on the palms of my hand and my grip on the plastic armrests to my side was getting tighter.

Again, I start tipping back on the chair, preparing myself for the fall. Andrew pulled me back, and I thought yet again he was playing with me, only to then let go. I felt the shock ripple across my face as the sky suddenly filled my vision, followed by cliff face, followed by river, and quickly followed by the sky again. It was a sequence that repeated itself a few times, faster and faster, as I made my rapid descent to the bottom of the canyon. It was as if I’d been put into a washing machine, the world becoming a blur until the rope took my weight and smoothly swung me out over the Shotover river at speeds of up to 150km/hr.

…Gone.

While the initial fall was a shock, the rest of the swing is hugely enjoyable – and now having got rid of the fear, I found myself laughing as I became a human pendulum in the valley.

Winched back up, Andrew and Doug were clearly pleased with their efforts, and determined to take it a step further. Out came the new slide, a stainless steel affair that is set up on the platform and angled out over the drop. I am positioned at the top.

A view you don’t normally get from the top of a slide

“What I need you to do is cross your legs, and then just scooch on down,” came the instructions from Andrew.

As we’re both laughing about the word ‘scooch’, and debating whether it would appear in a dictionary anywhere, or gain points in Scrabble for that matter, there was some noise coming from the river below. Two boat loads of white water rafters were drifting by, earning a yell from the team on top of the Shotover Canyon Swing. I could sense Andrew was keen for me to drop off above one of the boats as they pass. He removed the safety ‘string’ from the gap in the fence, and I was free to go.

Ready to slide with Andrew and Doug

“Just scooch on out then Phil,” he says, his eyes widening and beckoning me down this new frightful activity.

I felt myself starting to slide, and before I knew it, I picked up speed and launched myself over the edge. I shouted as I dropped – leaving my stomach behind, the full falling sensation was felt as I fell over the edge, seeing and experiencing the whole drop. I whizzed over the heads of the rafters, and slowed down as I reached the far end of the swing.

“You’re a legend bro!” came a shout from someone on the rafting boat. I cheered back and punched my fist in the air.

I watched as the cliff slowly moved past my face as I made the slow ascent back towards the drop zone. Andrew and Doug yet again pulled me back up onto the ledge, their final duty of the day ahead. To give me one last fright.

Having a laugh and preparing for the next drop!

I was elected to undergo the Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood procedure – strapped to a teddy bear, winched out into the open and turned upside down to face the bottom of the canyon.

“Just wrap your feet around this green rope,” smiled Andrew, clearly enjoying his role as chief drop executioner.

Getting into position

I could feel the blood rushing to my head as I faced the ground, some 109 metres below me. I knew that at any moment, I would be careering towards it at breakneck speed.

“Are you ready? Three, two, one, gooooo,” called Andrew, whacking something on the rope that was suspending me.

It felt like something wasn’t releasing properly, worrying me slightly. He hit the rope again, the shock rippling through the rope and my body. Still nothing.

Then a second later, I feel the acceleration as the pin is pulled on my fate. I make a perfect headfirst arc, swooping up the opposite side to the canyon like a bird.

By now, I’m loving the sensation, and all the kiwi humour. Every time I returned to the top full of smiles and laughter. And every time I reached the jump platform, there were a couple of familiar faces smiling back.

Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood…Shotover Canyon Swing style

Andrew has been doing the job for five years now, an enthusiast and advocate for the sport of jumping from a great height. He enjoys scaring people witless just as much as calming those down for whom his comedy/suspense/scare act can become too much.

Back on terra firma!

“I love getting people who are scared to go,” he says.

“Sometimes I can spend 20 minutes with someone, then they come back up and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

His words are almost drowned out by the shrieks and laughter of the latest ‘victim’. It was Ashleigh, from Brisbane, who emerged back on the jump platform having been the first of her group to make the leap.

Ashleigh from Brisbane

“I opened my eyes after a second when I thought ‘uh, I’m not dead’,” she laughs, trying to stay steady on her feet thanks to some swing-induced wobbly legs.

Next up was Marius from Norway, who is studying in New Zealand but who had decided to take some time out to experience some of its famous adrenalin hotspots. He’d chosen the slide, in part thanks to my recommendation having stated it was by far the scariest of the three jumps I’d just made.

“It was one of the best feelings I have ever had,” he beamed.

“It was out of this world – crazy – and I’m seriously considering doing it

Marius from Norway

again. The slide was great, it was like being at the playground but far more serious and a lot more fun.

“It’s like the two extremes for me here, studying and getting my head down, and then doing things like this,”

Amid the sound of harnesses being pulled tight, carabiners being clipped and the shrieks of those falling through the air, the laughter, stories and general humour injected into the Shotover Canyon Swing by those entrusted with your life brings a whole new dimension of fun to what can be a daunting, scary and yet thrilling experience.

I headed back to Queenstown with Sarah Norton from the company – no relation, but there were many jokes about us being long lost cousins – and I reflected on the experience. Sarah told me how they love to use the kiwi humour and come across as a bit wacky – but offering a much more personal experience. I have to agree, it was definitely very wacky, and most definitely a great afternoon where I didn’t feel like a number just being thrown over the edge for some cash. The jump crew look after you, talk to you, find out about where you’re from and what you do, before asking that all important question of “how would you like to fall?”

Back at the Base hostel in Queenstown that night, I recognise Murray, my first Magic driver on the south island who drove me from Picton to Nelson.

“What have you been up to today?” he asked me.

I told him about the Shotover Canyon Swing and how i’d jumped three times.

“You didn’t happen to see any rafters did you?” he asked.

Suddenly I thought back to the slide jump.

“I did mate, a couple of boats went under me on one of them,” I told him.

We compared times and they matched up.

Murray with one of my slide photos he managed to get himself in!

“I was the one that shouted ‘you’re a legend bro!” he laughed.

Incredible. You drop off a cliff around here, and there will be someone you know waiting for you at the bottom!

To find out more about the Shotover Canyon Swing, to book or keep an eye on the latest crazy ways to make the jump visit their website at www.canyonswing.co.nz/

Terminal Velocity

Freefalling

I love flying – the acceleration of the take off, watching the world disappear below you, a couple of drinks, a bit of lunch and the thrill of coming in to land at a new destination. But one thing Boeing and Airbus don’t usually offer airlines as an optional extra is to cut a whopping great hole in the side of the plane so people can throw themselves out of it.

Besides, who would want to? I mean, it’s a long way up, and falling from such a great height would be ridiculous, right?

Once again, Queenstown has got hold of me.

15,000ft departure…

It seems just about anyone on the backpacking and travelling circuit, be them the barely-20 gap year students, the 30-something career-break grafters or those who,somehow, have just found themselves on the other side of the world, have managed to get a photo of themselves plummeting towards earth from a plane.

It’s almost become a rite of passage for anyone spending a long period of time overseas, as if passport control at Heathrow won’t let anyone back into the UK unless their Facebook profile picture shows them attached to a parachute. I’m even beginning to wonder if British Airways will start introducing a warning not to jump out of the doors as part of the pre-flight safety briefing before long, such is the number of people who are members of the skydive club over here.

Its easy to see why, especially around Australia and New Zealand, with an almost endless number of companies set up to take the paying public up in the skies, only to throw them out of an aircraft.

I must admit, a skydive is one of those things that I had on my ‘to do’ list. Unlike the bungy jump, which I always said I would leave well alone- until this week anyway – dropping like a stone from an aeroplane did strangely appeal to me. And when you’re surrounded by snow capped mountains, a huge, beautifully dark blue lake, alpine forest and scenery to die for, the urge to see Queenstown from above – suspended below a sheet of space-age material – takes over.

A tandem skydiver landing at Nzone

And who better than one of the industry leaders, who have been in the skydiving business longer than any other in Queenstown, to be the ones to take you up to 15,000 feet before sending you on the express route back to the ground. Nzone boasts an impeccable safety record, going above and beyond all statutory industry regulations when it comes to those who take your pictures and strap themselves to you while you fall back to Earth. It was peace of mind for me.

The dropzone

Its natural to be afraid, and as I arrived at the drop zone, a short drive from the main town, I could feel the nerves starting to build. I’d had some time to get my head around the fact I was about to jump from an aircraft, but hearing one of the staff say ‘right, are you all ready to jump out of a plane,’ really does make you wake up and smell the coffee. And when you see the aircraft sitting there, waiting to whisk you up beyond the clouds, it suddenly all feels very real.

Speaking of clouds, they are a bit of a problem when it comes to this daredevil activity – I was actually booked to make my jump yesterday, but the whole area was plagued by low-level cloud and poor visibility. It’s one thing making a jump and landing on a target site, its another thing if you can’t actually see where you’re aiming for.

The weather was fine!

Thankfully, the clouds were breaking up and promising to clear for the latter part of the morning. I was met by Flip, real name Philippa Collins, who it turns out used to be the early breakfast presenter on Capital FM, as well as a continuity announcer for Sky One. We suddenly went into ‘media’ chat about who we might know in the industry, as it turns out Philippa has also worked for a large number of local stations. She told me how she moved here five years ago, fell in love with New Zealand and has now settled, even gaining citizenship.

“Sometimes I do a bit of voice work here and get behind the microphone and miss it, but then I know that I love the life I have here,” she says.

With Flip, former Capital FM presenter

And one of the things she loves, aside from the fresh air, stunning mountain backdrop and a fun-filled lifestyle, is seeing up to 200 people a day drop out of a plane high above the Nzone offices. With the first group up – and very quickly down – Flip ushers me into the parachute packing area, where I’m kitted up with the jump suit, gloves and hat.

Packing the ‘chutes

“Hey, I’m Mira, you’re jumping with me today.”

The outstretched hand from the tall, smiling and relaxed guy, dressed in his bright red jump suit and very much the calming influence I needed, helped to relax me. Mira – short for Miraslav – is from the Czech Republic, and has been jumping from planes for around nine years. Its enough to reassure me I’m in safe hands.

“Right, you need to make yourself into a banana,” is the advice from the pre-flight briefing.

“Keep your legs together, bend them up, arch your back and keep your head up all the way through the freefall. Just like a banana.”

I run through it in my head. I’m sure that when I’m dropping through the sky, it will all fall into place, but I practice just to be sure.

Ready to go!

By now, the cloud is clearing by the minute, and the sun is breaking through more and more. I’m glad – while it feels like I’m about to put my life on the line, at least the scenery will be good to look at.

With a final check of my harness, a group of us are walked to the aircraft. It’s a Cessna Grand Caravan, known as a Supervan 900, specially made for skydiving. It’s a turboprop capable of climbing really high, really quickly – around 4,000ft a minute to be precise – and you can get a fair few people in there. Among them, a few people who are to jump from 12,000 feet, before we continue the ascent to our 15,000ft altitude.

Our plane

With the aircraft engine running, there wasn’t much time to think about what I was about to do. I climbed onboard and followed Mira. The floor of the plane is padded, and there are no seats – you just shuffle along and sit in two lines, almost like you’re about to do that Superman song by Black Lace (you know, the ‘spray’, ‘comb your hair’ thing)

Comedy dance routines couldn’t be further from my mind as I watched the see-through door being rolled down over the opening in the fuselage. My one escape route to terra firma had been closed off – there was no going back. I could feel Mira adjusting the buckles and straps on my harness, double checking it was attached properly. I’m facing the back of the aircraft, but just behind me I could hear the pilot talking about the drop site.

“We’d like a one mile warning,” came a call from one of the tandem instructors. In front of me, my cameraman for the next half an hour was getting waves and smiles from me. I sense the engine noise increasing, and feel as the wheels begin rolling along the grass. This is it – the next time I have my feet on solid ground, I will have fallen to it from a plane.

Grab a parachute, we’re off!

I look outside the window and watch as a grassy bank starts passing faster and faster. The turboprop engine reaches a scream just a couple of metres away, powering us up into the air. My cameraman captures the moment. Mira pats me on the shoulder and shows me his altimetre, indicating how far we have already climbed into the sky. 2,000ft already, and we’ve only just left the ground.

I can feel my nerves building, and look around the aircraft. There are similar nervous smiles all around from the rest of my group booked onto the flight. The tandem instructors are clearly in their element, looking forward to what for them is the day job. Up towards the back of the plane, the first jumpers are putting on their hats and goggles in readiness. Outside, the wings have been surrounded by mountains, the brilliant white snow that has topped them in recent days and weeks gliding alongside us. I can’t help but smile at the most incredible scenery I am flying through.

“We’re just coming up to 12,000ft, so the first jumpers are about to go,” says Mira in my ear and showing me his altitude gadget on his wrist.

We level out and the throttle to the engine is cut. It feels like we’re floating compared to the high-powered, rapid ascent we’ve just made from the ground. The see-through door is pulled open, filling the cabin with noise and wind that blows across our faces. The first jumper shuffles her way to the door, and within seconds, she and her instructor have disappeared. The next one shuffles along the floor. Another girl begins to scream as it dawns on her that she’s about to move towards the door.

I watch as the next jumper has her head pulled back into her instructor’s shoulder, and in an instant, they’re gone. There’s a part of me that’s horrified at how quickly they disappear. It doesn’t quite feel right to watch two people vanish through an open door in an aircraft like that.

There’s more screams from the final 12k jumper as her feet dangle over the edge of the plane. I hear someone tell her to keep her head back. A few more nervous screams, and then silence. The door closes. The first jumpers have gone.

The throttle increases again and we begin climbing further. I’m told to put my hat and goggles on. I feel my teeth start chattering – I can’t make out whether its nerves or the cold that’s causing it. I can feel the effects of the thin air on my breathing, as the reduced oxygen levels this high up force me to take deeper breaths. Mira tries to calm me, sensing my nerves.

“Deep breaths will relax your body,” he says, before motioning me to move forward.

I look outside – it’s the sort of view you normally get high up on an airliner. We’re reaching 15,000ft, about half the cruising altitude of your holiday flight to Spain. And it looks like it. New Zealand’s south island sprawls out below, Lake Wakatipu dominating the view. The mountains that towered above me just a few minutes ago now look like ripples on the land, the town of Queenstown a small patch of grey buildings. Inside, the photographers and instructors are all high-fiving each other, wishing each other well for their dives. I’m encouraged to join in.

I can feel the butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I keep telling myself its safe, but for the second time in a week, my body is starting to fight against the human instinct of survival. Except this time I am not in control. When it came to the bungy, it was my decision when to leap. I was petrified. Today, my life is in someone else’s hands – they have a back-up parachute, years of experience and a calming personality, but this is still a daunting challenge. Why am I about to do this? I’m in a perfectly good plane, one with wings, an engine and wheels that in a few minutes will be safely back on the ground. There’s an element of risk, a danger, a slight chance that I could be that one freak statistic of when it all went wrong. And then I think back to some very wise words I spotted in the Nzone office.

“Why climb a great mountain that does not know you exist? Why run a marathon? Deep in the human consciousness is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic. We do these things. It is something deep within us, the need to feed our voracious appetite for danger and glory. It is the spirit of man.”

The door opens. The green light beside it can mean only one thing. The rest of the group disappears into the bright blue sky beyond. I’m the last one onboard the plane to go.

Life on the edge…of a plane!

“Legs out, tuck them up underneath the plane, don’t let go of your straps until I tap you on the shoulder, and remember to stay in the banana. And have fun.”

They were the last words from Mira as he shuffles me forwards. My cameraman has performed some kind of Spiderman act and stuck himself to the side of the aircraft, the cameras recording my once-in-a-lifetime moment sticking up from the top of his helmet. Being harnessed to Mira in front means I’m the one who has to stick my legs outside first. And then I get to look straight down.

It’s a long way up. A very long way up. And it’s a perspective that I have never seen before. Try as you might on an airliner, you can never look straight down at the ground, nomatter how hard you squash your head against the window. Mira moves forward and I’m positioned right on the edge. A quick photo, and then there’s a couple of pushes from behind. Its Mira leaning forward on his count.

And then we tumble out.

Tumble and fall

For a split second I feel a falling sensation before realising I’m out of the aircraft. My eyes are filled with the deep blues, greens and browns of the landscape below me, while the dazzling whites of the clouds and mountain tops are bright to look at. I lose my bearings and have no idea which way I’m pointing. The realisation that there is nothing below me is an odd one – it feels so unnatural. In a strange way, it almost feels as if I’m laying on a huge scenic canvas below. The wind howls around my body as our speed towards it continues to pick up. I feel it lifting my goggles slightly, blowing around my eyes. For a second or two, its hard to keep them open.

Heading back to Earth

Just 12 seconds after dropping like a stone from the aircraft, we’re travelling at 200km/hr – 125mph – yet it hardly feels like I’m moving. I know I am, the deafening noise and forces I’m feeling confirm it, yet we’ve reached the moment where the force of gravity is balanced out by the drag of our bodies falling through the air. Our acceleration has stopped. For the first time in my life, I’ve reached terminal velocity.

TV

We stabilise, and already the plane we’ve just left is well out of sight. My cameraman suddenly appears and I try to give a smile. Its pretty hard to focus with so much going on, so much to look at and so much to savour.

Over the dropzone

The cameraman holds out his hand, reaching out for mine. I grab it and link fingers for a few seconds, before he glides away again. Mira somehow turns us around and we try again, this time getting hold of each other. We start spinning around, and I start laughing. This is incredible.

Link up!

We loop around each other again, dancing around in the beautiful blue sky. We’re laughing in the face of gravity, every bit of fear and self-preservation urge in my body has been proved wrong so far.

Wham.

The brakes go on

Suddenly, it goes silent. I’m yanked hard upwards as Mira releases our parachute, quickly killing our speed. As quickly as the freefall started, it seemed to be over, yet somehow we’d been falling like a stone for 60 seconds through around 10,000ft. The Remarkables mountains are once again alongside me as we sail around in the air, looking around and enjoying the view. I’m laughing again at how fantastic the experience is.

“And so this is your office?” I ask Mira.

“Yes, yes it is,” he replies, clearly happy with the view from his window.

Below me, the colourful parachute canopies of those jumpers who left the plane moments before me drift around in circles. The brown-roofed buildings of the Nzone offices are growing ever nearer as I try to take in as much of the view as I can. I’m struggling to hear much though, aside from squeaks and clicks in my ears as they struggle to deal with the rapid change in pressure. It borders on painful, but the adrenalin coursing through my veins helps to keep it bearable.

“Keep your feet and legs up when we come into land,” Mira tells me, getting me to practice as we drift around the landing site.

“That’s it, just like that.”

Coming in to land

We turn right and make our final approach to the grassy area and watch as the fence disappears underneath me. I listen to the wind as it ripples through the canopy above us and hold my feet up as we head towards the ground, waiting for a bump that never arrives – it was a perfect landing.

Down to earth without a bump

Considering the incredible speeds of just a couple of minutes ago, the height we’ve dropped and the rate of descent, we touched down on the grass with about as much impact as a feather. Beautiful.

Mira unclips himself from me. I stand up knowing I’ve got a huge smile on my face. I shake his hand and give him a manly hug for getting me down safely and in one piece. He’s already gathering his parachute back up in readiness for his next jump. I’m already envious.

Back on terra firma with Mira

I looked up at the sky. The clouds had cleared and the day had turned into perfect conditions for skydiving. Another group of people were walking out to an aircraft, about to experience the same heady mix of excitement, fear, acceleration and serenity within the space of just a few minutes. A trip to terminal velocity, to the fine line that divides life from death, to the boundaries of the human mind and to the instinct that tells you ‘don’t do it’.

Amid all that is an unbelievable rush, an underlying urge to push mind over matter, a thrill that only a select few people will ever experience. Those who have skydived. As the company says here, there is no such word as try – there is only do, or did not do.

Embrace the fear, Nzone suggests. I’m glad I did.

For more information, pricing or to book, visit the Nzone website at www.nzone.biz or call 0800 376 796 in New Zealand