‘You might feel a few bumps’

‘If you suffer from seasickness, you might want to move away from the front of the ship’ came the ominous call from a crew member as we pulled out of Wellington harbour.

It was soon clear why – and about 40 seconds into my video here explains all.

With some of the roughest seas I’ll probably ever see, the Cook Strait lived up to its reputation as being one of the most notorious stretches of water for mariners in the world.

And being from Grimsby, famous for its fishing and seafaring history, this Mariner was loving every second.

It was a bit choppy

While most of the ship was retching into sick bags, strategically placed around the decks, I was with a few hardier individuals at the front of the ship, watching through windows as we crashed into wave after wave.

Lapping it up like a rollercoaster, we stood and watched as we sailed up the face of huge waves, before rolling down the back and crashing into the next, throwing tonnes of water up and over the ship.

Come on England!

It’s been a late finish and very early start in the past few hours, having been up late seeing out blog duties, before waking up at 4am to watch the England versus France football match in the European Cup. Thanks to the time difference, which means I have to be up at the crack of dawn to watch any of the games, it was the first match I’d seen of the championship.

My hostel, Nomads, had put signs up around the accommodation advertising the match was being shown live in the bar below the rooms, and there was a good 20 or so England fans watching along with me. A good turnout, considering the time, and there was a nod to the few who managed to down a couple of pints before the sun had even thought about rising above the horizon. I stuck to a cup of tea and a bit of toast – after all, what else does an Englishman need when he’s watching his national team?

Decent turnout, considering the time!

It’s fair to say it wasn’t the most exciting game of football, but we all agreed we’d accept a 1-1 draw with France before the match. I gathered my bags, had a quick shower and jumped onboard the ferry shuttle bus that was waiting outside the hostel for me.

This is the only part of the journey that I am pretty much on my own for. Touring New Zealand with the Magic Bus makes everything really straightforward when it comes to going from town to town on the islands, but the buses and drivers tend to stay on their designated land masses.

A familiar ferry to some…

Therefore, I booked myself onto the 8.15am Interislander ferry, one of three huge ships that make the regular three hour, 58 mile crossings from Wellington to Picton, a small town on the tip of the south island.

I noticed that the bow of my ship, Kaitaki, had a more familiar name below it, and one that many will recognise. The paint barely hid the raised ‘Pride of Cherbourg’ that had once been emblazoned on the side – the ferry was one of the main P&O cruise ferries that would cross between Portsmouth and Cherbourg before the route was scrapped a few years ago. At some point, the ferry made the epic sailing from the south coast of England to the deep blue waters of New Zealand, and now makes a couple of sailings a day between both islands in the country. Its still registered to Portsmouth, the city name still painted on everything from the stern to the life belts and lifeboats.

Leaving Wellington…and relative calm

In need of a bit of sleep, I found my way to the reclining chairs, hoping for a good nap before arriving in Picton. The nap never happened. I’d noticed that even while we were at the berth in Wellington, the ship was noticeably pitching even though we were stationary. The waves were already crashing onto the sea defences along the shore, and this was the sheltered harbour area. I had a feeling the crossing might be eventful, confirmed when one of the crew warned us to move away from the front if any of us suffered from motion sickness. I decided to take the chance.

After a bit of fresh air on deck, I watched as Wellington disappeared behind me before the strong wind forced me inside. It was there, looking out of the front windows, that I saw what was ahead. Waves were breaking for as far as the eye could see, and already we were rising and falling on the few that had managed to maintain some height through the harbour wall.

Soon we hit the big ones – smashing down into one huge wave after another. The first time it launched gallons of water over our window, there were gasps and laughter. Hitting the waves at 90 degrees, it was perfect for wave bashing, and there were a fair few of us enjoying the ride.

“The upper and outer decks have been closed for safety reasons,” came one announcement as the swell began to throw all 22,365 tonnes of ship around like a toy in a bathtub.

“Due to the inclement conditions, please only move around the ship if absolutely necessary,” came another.

At one point, every wave we hit was jolting the ship, the bow throwing up a huge white wave and spray every time it smashed into the next wave. People had noticed the spectacle out in the front, and were arriving to take their own photos through the window. Suddenly I had forgotten I was so tired.

Calmer waters of the Marlborough Sounds

After about an hour, we entered the calm serenity of Marlborough Sounds, a beautiful, and thankfully sheltered stretch of water that leads to Picton. Rich in nature and wildlife, we passed the sad sight of conservationists and wildlife experts trying to rescue a whale that had been washed onto the shore. A pod of dolphins effortlessly leaped out of the water alongside the vessel, while beautiful forests, mountains and greenery surrounded the sailing into Picton, a picturesque harbour town.

Most of the passengers had recovered by now, thanks to the calm waters and a lack of wind, and many lined the outer decks to watch as the scenery glides by.

Finding out why the crossing is known as one of the most picturesque in the world

It was still bitingly cold, but enjoyable all the same. Shortly before entering Picton, the ferry is forced to make a sharp s-bend before the town comes into view.

S Bend for ships

I spent a night at the Sequoia backpackers, being warmed by the cosy log fire and looking forward to some free chocolate pudding, a bit of a perk supplied by the hostel. It would have been lovely had I actually got hold of some – I was eating what has almost now become a nightly bowl of pasta when it was served, but had some put aside for later. Unfortunately, a group of German backpackers decided they wanted seconds and helped themselves to mine. I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of saying anything, and settled for a couple of biscuits with a cup of tea instead.

After a couple of days of doing my own thing, it was time to rejoin the Magic Bus for my south island adventure. I met Murray, one of the drivers, at the ferry terminal for the short drive to Nelson. One of those also rejoining the bus was Mel, my German friend who travelled with us to Taupo on the north island. After a few days there, she’d made her way south and our paths had crossed again. It was good to see another friendly face, and we laughed about the ferry crossing.

“Oh, mine was lovely, very flat,” she said. Typical!

Marlborough wine region vineyards

The road to Nelson took us through the wine-growing region of Marlborough, and we drove past an almost endless line of wineries and vineyards, the browning leaves being the tell-tale sign that harvest season has just been and gone.

Arriving into Nelson late in the afternoon, Murray told us that a great spot to watch the sunset is from the centre of New Zealand, which finds itself on the top of a hill in one of the town’s parks.

“It’ll take you half an hour or two to get there, but it’s a nice walk and the views are worth it,” he said, just before I jumped off his bus.

I quickly learned that night, as I tried to reach the summit of the hill before the sun set behind mountains in the Abel Tasman national park, that if someone tells you a ‘half hour or two’ in New Zealand, it probably means about an hour. And a ‘nice walk’ can mean it’s a mighty steep hill to the top.

Understatements must be a part of school lessons here – and something the captain of the ferry must have mastered for his ‘a few bumps’ assessment.

The view from the centre of New Zealand

Murray was spot on about the view though – a panorama overlooking the town, with the flat calm sea bordered by mountains rising up from the national park on the horizon. Behind me, a valley through mountains being framed by a pink and purple sky. A plaque on the ground marks the centre of New Zealand, with a pin-like monument marking the spot.

Dead centre

My photo was taken by a couple who were also admiring the view. I recognised an English accent and asked if they were visiting. It turns out they are a couple of artists, originally from the south coast but who now live in Nelson, and contemplating a move to Byron Bay in Australia. It prompted much chat about how I had been there, our collective thoughts on the place, and discussion about the beauty of New Zealand. I’m pretty sure their names were Andrew and Stephanie, although thanks to yet more problems with my iPhone – its locked itself, complete with all my notes – their names are from memory. I know they said they would check out my site, so if I’m wrong, I apologise!

A name I’ll probably never forget though is that of Soap, our bus driver for the next few days. I’ve deliberately called him our bus driver, because on the first day’s journey with him from Nelson, he made a point of stating he’s a tour guide that happens to drive a bus. He soon changed from tour guide (or bus driver) to that of a good mate – from the moment he welcomed me onboard the Magic Bus, there was a great relationship between him and the dozen or so other people who he was about to tour the south island with.

Soap, who happens to drive a bus

Soap is someone who loves his job, and showing people from around the world his country. Born in Christchurch but brought up in London, he’s an avid Chelsea fan but supports all things New Zealand, his home. He’s around my age, but done some incredible things with his life, from working in security to driving rushes footage around from the Wolverine movie as it was being filmed. He likes a good laugh too, and as we passed a road sign, explained the story behind an orange teddy bear on his dashboard.

It’s the story of slumps – a cross between a possum and a wombat that only comes out at night, and two Dutch girls he once had on his bus, who he’d nicknamed Tango and Sprite because of their hair colour.

He’d explained to them that the large orange signs you occasionally see by the roadside, with the word ‘SLUMPS’ plastered across them, were a warning to drivers to be on the lookout for the rare animal. The two girls were taken in, and spent the next few days trying to research on the internet about this crazy New Zealand animal called a slump, and wanting to see what they look like.

Soap’s slump

Of course, they’d fallen for it hook, line and sinker, and Soap ran with it for a couple of days. Slump signs simply warn of dips in the road, but for a while Tango and Sprite believed there was a secret animal few people knew of. When they’d been put out of their misery, they gave Soap a bright orange bear. On his tummy are the words ‘I am a slump’. So now, Soap has his very own slump – and a lot of other momentos and bears – that make the circuits around the south island with him.

Early morning cloud lifting

We were on our way to Greymouth, and by now we’re really making tracks through the mountains towards the south end of New Zealand. The road winds its way along rivers and through the Lower Buller Gorge, and we’re able to watch from our seats as the beautiful vistas unfold in front of us.

One of Soap’s little games – a competition to see who can get a photo of them waving along with the Magic sign in the mirror. Win!

“Hey Peter, you should try to keep track of how many single track bridges there are on the way to Wanaka,” Soap calls to me from the drivers’ seat. I have no idea why he’s just called me Peter, but I let it go. Afterall, he’s got a lot of new people to get to know.

There were a couple of stops along the way, including one where Soap demonstrated how tight some of the roads were by letting us walk ahead and watch as he squeezed his bus along the narrow road at Hawks Crag. Here the road has been chiseled out from solid rock, leaving some overhanging the carriageway.

A tight squeeze for the Magic Bus!

“If you hear a loud noise, engine breaking, coming from around the corner, its probably a logging truck. Please get out of the way, because they don’t stop,” was his wise advice ringing in our ears as we made our way from the coach to the pickup point on the other side of the pass.

Rocks were the focus of the day, with a later stop at Punakaiki, home of the pancake rocks, an outcrop of stone which has left even geologists baffled as to how they were created. As the name suggests, they look like stacks of pancakes, thin layers of rock laying on top of one another with gaps between.

Pancake Rocks

Its believed the rocks have been formed in this extraordinary way thanks to layers of weaker rock and matter being eroded away by the ocean and battering of waves.

Pancakey

But while the rocks are strange to look at, there is also another aspect of the stop which demonstrated the full power of nature. Within the rocks, there are blowholes and caverns, shapes and crevices formed by the erosive forces of the ocean. And as the huge waves roll in, the sound of them pounding the air from those spaces below the land echoes around the area – a whole range of deep, loud booms that make the ground shudder, such is the force below.

Pancake toppings

We pulled into Greymouth just before sunset, and Soap called me Peter again. I guess he’ll see my name on the passenger sheet later and correct himself for tomorrow.

In the meantime, after braving the weather as it got colder the further we travelled south, it was time for some new additions to the backpack. We head to the Franz Josef glacier tomorrow, and while I might be able to grin and bear the cold at sea level, it will be a whole new ball game up a mountain on umpteen million tonnes of ice. A trip to local outdoor clothing superstore was in order…

Time to finally wrap up warm!

The endless days of hot sun and lazy days by the sea in Thailand seem like another lifetime ago.

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Gumboots and a Wellington Hoot

Skiing Kiwi – the weather turns cold

It’s definitely time for some thermals!

Teeth chattering, and wrapped up the best I can with contents of my backpack that was more tropical beach than winter wonderland, I sat with Mem on the Magic Bus waiting for the windows to defrost.

A night out in Taupo

Russ, our driver, and fellow tour mate Thibault, were still inside Taupo’s YHA hostel trying to bring round Taylor, who, after a fairly heavy night that had only ended a couple of hours ago, would probably rather have been anywhere else but trudging through the frost.

Zzzzzzzz

Thankfully for her – and the rest of us, if I’m honest – we were to spend much of the morning in the dark. With thick fog outside, there wasn’t much to see, so a few of us spread out well around the coach and checked our eyelids for gaps for a while, before arriving at the Waitomo Caves.

The caves here are famous for the glow worm, a tiny creature that produces, for its size, a big light. We were driven to a farm and walked along a track, surrounded by some of New Zealand’s famous silver ferns, to a set of stairs leading deep down into the ground.

A national symbol

“Wherever there’s water flowing underground, there will be caves,” said our guide, adding that the caves are a constant 14 degrees Celsius. A cooling relief in the summer, and strangely, some much needed warmth on this cold winter’s day.

As we ventured past a wooden door, we entered the cave, our guide lighting candles every few metres. It was enough to show us our way, but not too much that you couldn’t see the illuminous creatures. It was cold and damp, and as we walked further along in the murky cavern, suddenly we saw something above us.

With the appearance of tiny LED lights, there were dozen’s of them shimmering on the roof of the cave. They weren’t bright, but once our eyes had adjusted to the lack of light, you could see them clearly, clinging to crevices and hiding in gaps between rocks.

You might need to look hard, but they’re there!

Below them, lines of a sticky fluid the glow worms use to catch insects, dubbed a glow worm fishing line. Rather like a single thread of a spiders web hanging straight down from the worm, once a mosquito or fly lands on it, it’s reeled in by the worm and eaten.

“It’s a bit like an alien,” said one of the group.

Glow worms and their fishing lines

As we walked further, thousands of glow worms lit the roof, looking like stars in a dark night sky. It was hard to get photos of them, but thanks to a mini tripod and by turning the flash off, a few of us managed to get a couple of images.

Drink stop

By the time we left the cave, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, with heavy rain and wind spoiling much of the view. We managed to squeeze in a quick stop at a waterfall, offering crystal clear freshwater that is clean enough to drink, before the weather closed in completely, meaning there was very little for us to see in National Park.

As a group, we decided to cook a meal between us and spend the evening relaxing at the YHA hostel in the park. Gustavo and Michelle, a Brazilian couple with us, were nominated to be chefs for the night, after Gustavo made a brave shout a couple of days earlier that he prefers cooking for larger groups of people much more than just for himself and his partner. It didn’t take much for us to persuade him to cook, and we found ourselves drifting around a supermarket collecting ingredients for a chicken stroganoff.

Magic mealtime!

The couple did a brilliant job – lashings of tasty, creamy stroganoff, piles of rice, a few beers and some Jim Beam whisky, infused with honey, rounded off what turned out to be a brilliant, and funny, night.

After three days on the road, it was time for the Magic Bus to head to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, and where I will spend a few days before crossing over to the south island. It would be a journey that takes most of the day, but as usual, our driver Russ had a couple of stops up his sleeve.

The first was for a bit of wanging.

Now, while that may appear to be strange word for anyone outside of the north of England, welly wanging is infact a highly popular sport here in New Zealand. It goes by the name of gumboot throwing, and the small town of Taihape even has its own purpose-built gumboot throwing field. Russ was prepared with the welly boots (I’m going to stick with the English name for the footwear from now on!) and it was our turn at throwing the welly as far as we could.

What a wanger

Having covered a fair few stories on country shows and fetes over the years back home, I’ve done my fair share of wanging. I’ve quickly learn’t that underarm wanging is hopeless, and usually results in your welly either skimming along the grass and coming to a stop a few metres away, or being launched straight up in the air and putting your head, and everyone around it, at risk of a whack.

Russ had his own game plan – scrunching up the welly top, and throwing it with a strange technique that was a bit like a cross between the javelin and a discus. He did, however, get a fairly impressive bit of distance on the welly.

Next it was our turn.

“Just don’t get it over the fence and on the train line if you can help it. I nearly had one carried away on my last trip,” said Russ, telling us how a bizarre incident led to a flying welly clearing the railings at exactly the same time a goods train was passing by on the neighbouring track. We’ve all heard of ‘leaves on the line’ as an excuse for late trains back home, but ‘gumboots on the line’ would really take the biscuit, even by New Zealand standards.

Another lookout stop

Continuing south, we stopped for breakfast at a café with a small farm at the rear. There was also a small shop, selling crafts, winter hats and a few books. I spotted a relatively recent copy of the Lonely Planet for New Zealand for just $6.50, and decided it was too good a bargain to miss. I took it to the counter and paid.

A minute later, I had wandered outside to find the rest of the bus, only to see everyone petting a couple of goats through a fence. I walked over, and began stroking a lovely white goat before another, with one horn, came over for a bit of attention.

Suddenly, my newly purchased Lonely Planet was yanked from the bench I’d rested it on. I tried to grab it, but it was too late. The hungry one-horned goat had it firmly in his mouth. I somehow knocked it out, and it fell on the ground, only for said goat to grab it again, trying to pull it through the fence. There was a momentary tug-of-war, before both of us lost the fight.

The cover to my almost new Lonely Planet was ripped clean off by the goat, who stood happily munching the colourful glossy cardboard, while everyone else, who for a few seconds had watched the ridiculous escapade as it happened, fell about laughing.

There goes my front cover

“Awww, bro!” said Russ, eyes wide at what he’d just seen.

The guide is well read with lots of marks and notes inside – its clearly been around New Zealand a few times, and inside I found a receipt from somewhere in South America, so it’s probably fairly well travelled too. It’s been carefully looked after, a fellow travellers’ best friend and bible for years. Then I get my hands on it, and no more than five minutes later, without me even so much as having a flick through its pages, I’ve managed to get the front cover eaten by a goat.

When its on my bedroom shelf back home, it will certainly always have a story behind it as to why its so badly damaged!

He still wanted more!

Back on the bus, and by this stage of the trip with just four passengers on it, it had a feel almost like a good old fashioned road trip – except our transport was a big white coach. Russ had become more than just our guide and driver, he’d become a good mate too.

On the road again

Thibault, Taylor, Mem and I had been together as a group from the day we left Auckland, and were now totally comfortable having some banter and occasionally winding each other up. The journey to Wellington was an absolute pleasure, passing through green countryside and mountains while beach-hugging roads gave us great views of the coastline.

“The weather is stunning, I can’t wait to show you my home city of Wellington,” said Russ over the microphone as the distance signs by the highway show an ever decreasing number of kilometres until we reach the capital.

Wellington comes into view

With a few final sweeping turns on the motorway, the single lane carriageways long left behind, Wellington’s skyline came into view.

“And there’s my home,” said Russ, clearly excited to be driving us into his city.

Parliament buildings – known as the beehive

He told us that he used to drive the city’s yellow buses before getting his job with Magic – a move that he says means he’s showing his country to his type of people. Its clear he loves the job, and after showing us the main parliament buildings, he began winding his way up Mount Victoria and the city began to sprawl out below us.

At the top was one of the best views of my journey so far.

Wellington from above

Suddenly, I’m starting to see why people love this country so much for the scenery. With a 360-degree view, the whole area was surrounded by hills and mountains. The deep blue water in the harbour, complete with the famous Interislander ferry waiting for a berth at the docks below. Behind us, but below us, an Air New Zealand jet was landing at the city airport. To our left, the city was bustling, and despite the winds blowing across the lookout, we spent a good 20 minutes taking in the sights. Russ pointed out where he used to live, while also showing us where the main areas were to head to in the city.

With Thibault, Russ, Taylor and Mem overlooking Wellington

It included the national museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, which I have to say is one of the best museum’s I have ever been to. With a focus on New Zealand, its background, the cultures and its geographical and physical features, it’s a fascinating insight into the history of the country.

Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand

The best thing about Te Papa is the way it has such a brilliant mix of interactive exhibits that appeal to all ages. There are great areas dotted around the six floors that are aimed at young children, discovery areas where they can get hands-on with some of the topics. There’s also a great use of technology, in particular computers, video and imagery.

Perhaps the highlight for me was the colossal squid exhibition, with the world’s only example of this giant of the deep that has been caught and put on show for everyone to see. It’s the world’s largest invertebrate, has the largest eye of any known animal (it’s the size of a football) and this particular example, caught in 2007, weighs a hefty 1091lb.

Calamari, anyone?

But the weirdest thing about it is the way it traps and eats its prey – with a series of sharp, swivelling hooks and teeth on the ends of its tentacles. You wouldn’t want to be a fish caught in there either – they are designed to dig in and take a stronger hold the more the trapped creature tries to free itself before being eaten by the colossal squids strange beaked mouth. This was probably part of this creature’s undoing though, as it was caught by fisherman hauling in a toothfish that it had decided to have for lunch. Somehow it had clung on from the depths and ended up on the surface.

The exhibit here has been put on display in a huge metal cabinet, and it’s a strange creature to look at and learn about. Scientists know that the exhibit is a female, and believe there are much, much larger specimens out in the deep Antarctic waters. Some further food for thought – if the one on show here was prepared into calamari squid rings, they would be the size of truck tyres!

My squid on his birthday!

Before leaving the colossal squid behind, I created one of my own as part of the exhibit. He’s currently six days old, and apparently passed an underwater volcano the other day. He needs playing with to keep him happy though – click here and search for ‘afishoutofgrimsby’ and I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see you!

Te Papa

Aside from huge squids, there was a mock-up of a house that shakes to demonstrate what it feels like to be in an earthquake, there was a chance to go below ground and look at the rubber dampers that protect

Earthquake damper

Te Papa from earth tremors, a brilliant look at people of New Zealand with short videos detailing their favourite parts of the country, and even one of the cannons from Captain Cook’s ship that had to be thrown overboard near the country when he managed to run aground in shallow water. There were also a couple of simulator rides, cleverly synchronised with a video, letting you ‘experience’ more than a dozen activities New Zealand is famous for. It included a very tough game of rugby – the seats certainly jolt you around, but it was great fun.

One of Captain Cook’s shooters

I ended up spending the best part of two days in the museum, and as anyone who knows me will testify, that is a long time for me to spend anywhere cultural. But when you find somewhere so well laid out, interesting yet fun, and with some fascinating exhibits that can engross you for hours, it was hard to pull myself away.

A last shindig with my Magic tourmates

When I did, I was often with Thibault, Mem and Taylor, my fellow passengers from the Magic Bus. Our time together was coming to an end – it’s a hop on, hop off service, and for me it was time to hop off. Mem and Taylor head to the south island on the next bus, while Thibault heads back to Auckland. We went out for one final night out together, heading to the Base bar in the city. With such a great group of people, it was a shame we had to go our separate ways so quickly, and I think we were all a bit gutted to have to leave Russ’s bus as he continued his journey with new people back to the north.

Part of the beauty of this type of tour though is that you get to meet so many new people in such a short space of time. In a couple of days I’ll be heading to the south island too, with a whole new set of people to meet, but for now it was time to enjoy Wellington – and after some early starts on the bus, enjoy a couple of relaxing days in the city.

Days in Wellington

Sound like fun? Visit the Magic Bus website at www.magicbus.co.nz

All Aboard the Magic Bus

Hello New Zealand!

Touchdown in Auckland

I’ve found a new friend to travel with for the next few weeks. It’s white, got a load of wheels, some snazzy photos along the side and has a friendly driver called Russ.

That’s Russ – R, U, S, S – not Ross apparently, who is another driver on the country’s north island, and who, according to our driver as he meanders his way out of Auckland’s busy city centre, has a much bigger beard than him.

Our driver Russ. With a ‘U’.

I’m on the Magic Bus, which has nothing to do with Paul Daniels or fluffy white rabbits, but will have a lot to do with me making my way from Auckland, at the top of New Zealand’s north island, all the way down to the white wonderlands of Queenstown and across to earthquake-hit Christchurch in a three week tour of the world’s youngest country.

Now that’s Magic!

I’ve been looking forward to New Zealand. As a fan of the great outdoors, stunning scenery and all things mountainous, all the reports I’ve heard about the place would suggest it might go on to become one of my favourite places on the planet. Time will tell, but with so many people gushing to me while I’ve been travelling about how ‘I’ll love it’ and how ‘it is so much better than Australia’ then the bar has been set pretty high. Either way, it should be a great few weeks.

After a couple of days in Auckland, which followed on from a few days in Sydney, I was ready to leave the big city behind again and head back out into the countryside. I’ve already started to like New Zealand just from the chilled out vibe to its largest city. Incredibly, a third of the country’s population lives here, with its main shopping area, Queen Street, running right through the centre of the place.

Great rooftop kitchen and terrace at my Auckland hostel

I had earmarked my time in Auckland as an opportunity to plan out exactly what to do for the best part of a month. It was ‘admin’ time, as far as my trip goes, and although there are a few things to see in and around the city, sightseeing, for a few days, went out of the window. Yet again, I had deliberately turned up in a country without a plan, to see what happens. I’m winging it again, but it’s a great feeling as an independent traveller.

This was time to sort myself out with a new phone number, do a ‘big shop’ at the supermarket, get some well-overdue laundry in a washing machine, write and upload a blog or two, reorganise my backpack (for a few weeks of winter, the shorts go back towards the bottom!) and even find time for a beer, a free one at that, thanks to an invite to a bar from a few guys I got talking to in the Nomads hostel kitchen.

In the midst of all that, I had a meeting with Mike and Bobby at the Magic Bus headquarters in the city, following on from an email I’d sent them a few days previous. Faced with quite an array of choices when it comes to getting around NZ, I had already spent a bit of time sifting through all the tour bus websites. Did I want to go for KiwiExperience, with their bright green buses and young 18-25 party lifestyle, with the smaller, more cosy orange bus of Stray, or with the slightly broader mix of people onboard Magic, that will still know how to enjoy a beer, but probably not force me into drunken games of ‘I have never’ the moment we leave the hostel.

Having heard good reports from my friends Dan and Laura, who I travelled with through the centre of Australia, and who had toured New Zealand with Magic, I was already edging towards the company. It also happened to be offering the best price, with a deal of $400 for both islands, saving almost $500 on the full price ticket. And then I saw an advert on the side of the website.

“Photographers and bloggers go free,” it screamed at me.

So from the comfort of my Sydney hostel, I sent off an email including links to afishoutofgrimsby, a bit of background about me, what I am hoping to see in the country, and attached a scanned copy of my column in the Grimsby Telegraph back home, based on my blog, that dad helpfully keeps sending me. It was short notice, especially over the Queen’s bank holiday weekend, but I figured it would be worth a try.

A few days later, I found myself in a meeting with the company in Auckland. Mike, the company web marketing manager, had been impressed by my blog and is a huge believer in people writing about their travels and experiences. I chatted through with them about how the blog began, my background in journalism, my experiences in some of the countries I have visited, even discussing the type of camera I am using. There was huge emphasis on social media, something I’m also a big believer in, and we looked at the map of New Zealand together.

I was offered a north and south island pass in exchange for writing about and documenting my journey with Magic, something I would be doing anyway. It’s a perfect example of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ and as I’m nearing the end of my trip, any help I can get to continue the journey is gratefully received!

Devonport…looking a bit like Bournemouth in the British summer!

I left the offices with a spring in my step – I suddenly had direction and a plan of how I was going to see this faraway land. Better still, the rain that had been lashing down all day had stopped for a while, so I jumped on a ferry and made my way to Devonport, mainly so I could get a shot of Auckland’s waterfront, but also because I fancied relaxing for a while. It’s a good little traveller tip for coastal or port towns and cities. Instead of the pricey sightseeing harbour cruises that are on offer (the one in Auckland is around $45) just find the cheapest public ferry and take a seat on the deck. It was just $9 (£4.50) for the 20 minute ride across to the village, but it gave me plenty of time to get a few shots of the city skyline.

New Zealand’s outback!

So that’s how I find myself writing this in my seat on the Magic Bus, cruising through lush green countryside somewhere between Auckland and Rotorua. It’s a very similar landscape to back home, infact, sometimes I find myself comparing this part of New Zealand to Lincolnshire. It’s a grey, blustery day, with orange and yellow leaves still blowing off the trees as this part of the world heads into the depths of winter, and there are gently sloping hills to my left. It’s a very similar road to that between Caistor and Horncastle, maybe without the Belmont transmitter halfway along, but aside from that, the trees, fields, and even the cows and sheep remind me of leisurely drives through the Wolds.

Our first sightseeing short stop was in Paeroa on the way, home of a world famous New Zealand drink called L&P…

Precisely, I’d never heard of it either until I arrived on these shores, and that’s exactly why their tongue-in-cheek advertising slogan is particularly funny.

Great bit of advertising, and sums up the humour here!

The story goes that the town of Paeroa was founded during the gold rush, but then the gold ran out. It left so many people in the town, and so many houses to fill, that the townspeople needed to find some way of making people return. Someone found a natural spring of pure water, and would give it away to people in the hope they would return.

Stocking up on L&P

It worked, and not only did they return for more, people were happy to buy it too. Then another bright spark, as it says on their cans, decided to add a twist of lemon to it, making it even better. It went on to become a famous drink, and, according to Russ the driver, a self-confessed addict to the stuff.

Bizarrely, I don’t think it tastes that lemony, its more of a sugary, flavoured drink that you can’t really put your finger on the exact flavour. A bit like Coke, which is funny seeing as its actually made by Coca Cola these days, it is really nice and I can see how refreshing it can be.

Driver Russ’s attempt at being creative!

After a photo with the world’s largest L&P bottle, well, in New Zealand anyway, we were back on our way. By now, a few of us are beginning to chat and have a laugh on the bus. Its only a small group, mainly due to the season that we are visiting. It promises to get cold and wintry the further south we go, and with the summer starting in Europe and North America, this is the low season for tourism in these parts. But there was a good group – fellow Brit Mem, from London, who has recently completed his university, American Taylor, from Austin, Texas, Thibault from Belgium, a couple from Brazil, Gustavo and Michelle, and couple of girls from Germany, Elizabeth and Mel.

Group games at Hobbiton

We were brought closer by stopping off at Hobbiton, one of many filming locations for the Lord of the Rings movies in the country. Divided into groups of three for a team challenge, we were given some pieces of rope and a rubber tyre inner tube and the task of lifting three beers out from the centre of some metal rings without touching them. I was with Mem and Thibault, and as a group we worked out straight away how to complete the puzzle, but we couldn’t manage to get a good enough grip with the rubber tyre around the beers to lift it. It was neighbouring group that took the glory, and the three beers.

SobeRing Thoughts

They weren’t just any old beers however – they were bottles of SobeRing Thought, a brew of just 1% alcohol that was made especially for the actors in the films, to be consumed on set, to prevent them from becoming drunk. Having to drink it all day while filming scenes could cause a few problems at full strength, and with the winning team passing their prizes around the group, we all got to have a taste. It was a deep, dark colour, with only a strangely mild taste of beer.

With Mem, and a beer good for lightweights

A couple of hours down the road, we arrived in Rotorua, our stop for the night. It’s a smelly place shrouded in steam, but for all the right reasons – it’s full of geothermal activity.

Eggy steamers

The town is built on the banks of Lake Rotorua, where bubbling pools of mud, boiling hot water and crystallised sulphur surround the edge, and eggy-smelling steam belches out from the earth’s bowels below.

Hubble bubble, boil and trouble

I’m not going to deny it, the place does absolutely stink, but it was fun hopping around and over all the little pools that are bubbling away, all thanks to the thin crust of the Earth and the close proximity of molten magma just below the surface.

Sulphur

The lake is a strange blend of two colours, where the cooler, deep blue waters meet the shallower murky grey of the sulphur-rich edges. Even where the water laps onto the shore, the sand bubbles as water boils around it.

That evening we went as a group to learn a bit about the New Zealand, and in particular, Maori culture, at the Tamaki village, a half hour drive from Rotorua. Billed as the country’s most awarded cultural experience, it promised fun, humour, a slap-up feed and an insight into how the original Maoris travelled from the Pacific islands of Tahiti to discover the land.

Maori night

Even the journey to the village was an experience, with Mark, our guide for the night, saying hello and welcoming everyone in an incredible number of languages that he knew. From Thai to Taiwanese, German to Greek and even a bit of Aussie thrown in for good measure, it was a hilarious start to the evening as he made his way through the languages, complete with the different accents, and throwing open the doors of the bus to anyone that dared disagree with him.

On arrival there was a full Maori welcome, complete with big tongues, wide eyes and nimble feet, as the family danced around and greeted us as if we were the European invaders who landed on the shores here a couple of centuries ago. Making our way through a Maori village, we were told of the origins of the Haka, made famous by the All Blacks rugby team, of how tribespeople would become nimble on their feet by running and jumping over logs, and how they would pass the time with games.

Getting far to competitive (Photo stolen from Taylor’s Facebook!)

Somehow I ended up being volunteered to take part in one of them, a group game where everyone holds a large stick on the ground. At the correct call in Maori, I was to move left or right, and catch the next stick along before it fell to the ground after being let go by the next person along. The group of us was soon whittled down, and my competitive spirit started to shine through. Down to the last two, it was a showdown between me, England, and a tall Italian man. The advantage I had was that the Italian bloke not only had to work out what the Maori was for ‘left’ and ‘right’, but then had to work out in English which way both words meant.

It was a decisive hesitation. The call was made to go left. I probably sprinted a little to quickly for what was, in the end, a bit of fun, but I made it to his stick opposite me almost before he’d let go.

Winner!

I was crowned the evening’s champion, much to the delight of my fellow Magic Bus companions, and was awarded a photo with the game referee as a prize!

Dinner comes out of the ground

There was an hour long show full of Maori history, dance, singing and the occasional bit of humour too, before the hangi – the Maori meal – was served. Cooked by hot rocks underground, the chicken, beef and potatoes had a delicious soft, smoked flavour. Having been living on noodles and pasta for the past few weeks, and the fact that at about £44 for the night’s entertainment, most of the backpacker contingent set about demolishing the all-you-can-eat buffet to get our moneys-worth.

A Maori cooker…hangi meal and hot rocks

Two servings of main course later, followed by two very healthy doses of pavlova and ginger cake, I was tempted by another helping of the delicious meringue.

Chicken and spuds, cooked the hangi way

“I know we’ve only just met, but don’t judge me if I go back for more,” I joked with Taylor, the blonde American girl who is laughing and encouraging me to go back for more.

Then a whole new pavlova appeared. I would no longer be the one who took the last slice that was remaining of the old cake. My decision was made.

After a third slice of meringue, I pretty much had to be rolled out of the place and back to the bus. The journey home was equally as hilarious, and somehow the whole bus got singing Round and Round the Mulberry Bush as Mark the driver notched up around 10 circuits of a Rotorua roundabout. Apparently, although unknown to me at the time, it’s a bit of a regular joke that the drivers do, and with a few motorists beeping their horn, we made our way back to the Base hostel I was staying at.

Part of the Magic Bus gang. I’ve cleverly hidden my meringue bowl behind a plant…

It was a brilliantly funny, yet completely informative evening that for anyone newly arrived into New Zealand, helps paint a picture of its heritage.

There was more comedy the next day, although not from a comedian or performer as such. Somehow, driver Russ, Thibault and I managed to fall about laughing at boiling mud. Strange, I know, but it was something to do with the way it was bubbling, and quite possibly the noises it was making too.

Bubbling mud pool

We were at a hot mud pool near Wai-O-Tapu, the geothermal hot springs on the way to Taupo, and it really was something that I have never seen before.

Its one thing seeing pools of water bubbling away – as clever as it is that its all done by the power of deep Earth, you can still get the same effect by boiling a pan of water on a cooker – to see a lake of mud, so hot that it’s a liquid, bubbling away like a giant cauldron of molten chocolate, is quite something.

Blub!

With the ‘blub….blub….blub’ being interspersed with the occasional ‘sploosh’ as the mud suddenly gets angry somewhere, it was a great stop off. It was Thibault who first got the giggles, before Russ caught them, and everyone else followed suit. We walked back to the bus as if we’d been on the laughing gas that can be produced from some of these sulphury pools.

Funny mud

Have a watch of the short video I made – you never know, it might make you smile like we did!

With a stop at the powerful Huka falls, where there’s enough water flowing through a 10 metre gulley to fill five Olympic swimming pools every minute, we made our way through the lush greenery and headed south.

Huka Falls

It’s a peculiar view from the window at times – I’ve dubbed it the ‘lumpy landscape’ to the amusement of a few of the others on the bus. It seems to be the only word to use at times. While there are definite similarities between the countryside here to that back in the Lake District or Scotland back home, some of it is, well, a bit odd.

In places, everywhere you look are small rounded mounds. There are hardly any rocks on show, just smooth, rounded tops covered with bright green grass. It can look like Teletubbieland in places, definitely scenery that I have not seen before, and somehow the word ‘lumpy’ seems to fit.

New Zealand: Lumpy

Perhaps the highlight of my first few days in New Zealand came that afternoon, when Russ told us about Hot Water Stream in Taupo.

“Who wants to go? It’s free, and its pretty cool,” he asked us over the coach microphone.

Bath time for the Magic Bus travellers

We’d already been sold on the fact it was free, so with a quick drop-off of our bags at the hostel, we were on our way. Admittedly, few of us had got changed into swimming attire, mainly because its freezing cold and we wanted to judge it first before committing to swimshorts and bikinis. Afterall, if its more of a luke warm stream, its going to be an uncomfortable afternoon with temperatures already dropping fast.

With Mem in Hot Water Stream (again, stolen from Taylor’s Facebook!)

Russ was good to his word, and we found a steaming stream full of pools and waterfalls. The water was almost too hot to bear – getting in was like trying to lower yourself into a bath that you’ve run too hot. Almost painful, but done slowly, you knew you could get in. It was a great setting, almost like finding yourself in the River Freshney in Grimsby, surrounded by woodland and nature, but instead of an icy river, it was a steaming hot flow that was hard to climb out of.

Enjoying some waterfall warmth

It was beautiful, and with a few beers supplied by Thibault, we had our own natural and private outdoor hot tub. We took it in turns to drench ourselves under the hot waterfall, occasionally having to take some respite from the constant steam and heat by having a seat on the outer edge of the pool. Suddenly the freezing cold air temperature was a relief, rather than an annoyance.

Heading downstream! (Erm, also stolen from Taylor’s Facebook…well, she did have the only waterproof camera!)

We moved into a pool lower down, where the water flows out into the icy cold and fast-flowing Waikato River. Where the hot water and cold water meet, a strange sensation of having hot and cold currents running over our bodies at the same time kept many of us near the final hot waterfall. Further out, it was almost too cold to stand for any length of time, unless, like me, you’re trying out a bit of a practical joke.

Magic Bus group hangout

I think the afternoon was proof that we had truly bonded together as a group, and with it came some banter and jokes. I swam out to a particularly icy part of the river, and told everyone I’d found a really hot current. Elizabeth, from Germany, took the bait, and swam into the water that became colder and colder the more you moved away from the shore.

“Are you sure its warm over there,” she panted, fighting for breath against the cold.

“Positive, its lovely, so, so warm,” I shouted back, before secretly braving the cold and laying back in it.

“See, lovely,” I chipped in.

By now, Elizabeth was getting close.

“Its just getting colder,” she squealed. “Are you sure it’s hot?”

I couldn’t keep a straight face – nor stand the cold – any longer.

“Nope, only joking,” I laughed!

I got called something in both English and German that I wont repeat here, before she turned back sharpish and headed back to the warmth flowing from the stream, both of us laughing as we warmed up again.

Dusk in Taupo

We spent a good few hours at the stream, leaving only when the sun was setting and temperatures fell even further. We’re back on the bus tomorrow, heading out for more fun and adventures with our driver Russ, who rather than just being our guide and driver, has become a mate too. It’s like being on a road trip, but instead of a car, we’ve got a great big coach to chill out in as we watch New Zealand glide by outside. I think I’m going to enjoy these few weeks of winter.

Sounds good? Check out the Magic Bus website at www.magicbus.co.nz

Vivid Memories of Australia

Goodbye Oz

Its been the best part of six months since I was last heading to Sydney, on a flight from Thailand, but now, having completed a huge circuit through and around this giant country, it was time to go full circle.

Leaving Byron Bay in the knowledge it was my final overnight Greyhound journey down the east coast, there was more than a tinge of sadness. The initial novelty of seeing the differences in Australia – the different road signs, the gum and eucalyptus trees that line the highways and byways, different retail names and brands, even the Aussie accent, had all long worn off.

It has, to all intents and purposes, become home.

To say “I’m just nipping out to Coles” rolls off the tongue as normally as “I’ve got to pop to Tesco,” back home. I long mastered the Australian currency, although I still think the $2 coin should be bigger than the $1 coin, and seeing incredible coastlines, crashing waves and beautiful beaches has become as much as part of life as driving along the Humber on the A63 back home.

It has crept up on me quickly, and I don’t think it has sunk in yet that within just a couple of days, my time in Australia will be no more, that I’ll have moved on to pastures new, and my friends here that I am so used to being in touch with via text message or Facebook in the same time zone will once again start living further and further away from me.

But I had a few friends to catch up with first before I finally said farewell to Australia, and the first involved a short 24 hour stay in Newcastle, a few hours north of Sydney. Leaving the surf behind in Byron Bay, I joined the Greyhound in the town centre and got comfortable for a night’s broken sleep on the road. Thankfully, two days of hard work on the waves had left me shattered, but its still hard to get a ‘proper’ sleep on a bus, nomatter how many ways you contort your body to try to get comfortable.

A recipe for no sleep

Sleeping on buses, I have learned in the last few weeks, is something of a fine art. For best results, take a pillow – my tiny British Airways issue pillow has been worth its weight in gold. An oversize hoodie provides a great way of keeping your body and head warm, and when pulled over your eyes, acts like a sleeping mask.

Most of all, night time coach travel requires you to be short, which I’m not. How I look in envy at some of the smaller people in life, quite happily curled up on two seats and enjoying the slumber. For me, when my legs aren’t trying to find available cavities under the seats in front of me to fill, they’re often flapping around trying to become horizontal. That’ll involve trying to get comfortable by resting on seats across the aisle, only to be knocked down shortly after by someone getting on or off the bus.

You might just nod off, only for a debilitating pain to strike up, usually in the buttock region, from being sat in a weird angle for too long. Or your arms have gone to sleep from resting on them. Or we’ve just flown around the last corner too quick and I’ve banged my head on the window again. Or the pillow has slipped and my skull is vibrating on the glass.

Early morning driver break. Feeling good.

You probably get the picture that sleeping on a bus isn’t necessarily for me, but when you’re backpacking, it does save the cost of a night’s accommodation. And for me, that’s the most important thing right now – I’ve got the rest of my life to sleep properly in a bed!

Somehow, the night passed and I woke up on the outskirts of Newcastle, a coastal town built up around a busy port, and where I get off the bus for a day. Its somewhere that, before this trip, I would have happily sailed through on the motorway and on to Sydney, but that part changed in Thailand.

Studious Liz at home in Newcastle

Newcastle is home to my friend Liz, who I met in Chiang Mai and spent over a week travelling around the north of Thailand with back in December. We rode and washed elephants together, enjoyed countless Chang beers and Sangsom whiskeys, toured waterfalls and beautiful scenery and had countless laughs in a group with our friends Bryce and Erin. Regular readers, however, will just remember her as the Australian girl I managed to throw off the back of a scooter on the motorbike ride back from Pai.

Liz and I about to get thrown off an elephant in Thailand in December

Thankfully, our friendship survived that little test and we’ve stayed in touch, and I promised to call by should my journey take me anywhere near Newcastle. After a few hours of much needed sleep at one of the town’s only backpacker hostels, Liz picked me up. It felt strangely normal to wave her down in the street and jump into her car, despite it already being six months since we were causing trouble in Thailand together.

Liz is studying to be a journalist, which probably explains why we get on so well together, but she had a bit of coursework due to be handed in that afternoon. We headed straight to a lovely bar and restaurant complex near the docks, where she treated me to lunch and refused to take any money.

“Don’t worry about it, you’re still travelling,” she said.

We had a great few hours catching up, laughing about our adventures together in southeast Asia, and finding out all about each others’ travels since. The last time I saw Liz, she was running out of the dorm room in Chiang Mai, late for her taxi (bad timekeeping is another thing we have in common) to the airport for a flight to Cambodia. She told me all about her new year celebrations in the country, as well as her onward travels to Vietnam and Laos, following a similar route that I took a month previous.

Taking in the sights of Newcastle!

I also read through one of her assignments for her, giving her a few pointers but mainly putting her mind at ease that it would get a good grade. She’s actually a really good writer, and I know she’ll go on to do well in the industry.

Like all good journalists, Liz also knows how to have a good time, and that night we met up with some of her friends as one of them was leaving, funnily enough, to go travelling. We’d promised to relive some of our party nights from Thailand, and we certainly did our best.

Liz and a laser

I woke up the following morning only having had a few hours sleep and with a sore head – a familiar feeling from our nights in Chiang Mai together – and managed to pack my belongings into my bag for the 9.40am departure to Sydney. Co-incidentally, Liz, her partner and her sister will follow me a few hours later with friends to see the Temper Trap gig at the Opera House, and we agreed to meet up for a few more beers afterwards.

In the meantime, I boarded my coach and watched as Newcastle passed by outside the window. When I’d mentioned to a few people I was stopping off in the city, I did get a few quizzical looks.

“Why on earth do you want to stop there?” people would say.

Newcastle seagulls. Mine?!

When I explained I had a friend there, all was understood, but actually, I really liked the place. For me, there were many similarities to home in Grimsby – by the coast, with a beach, a hugely important port and a rich history. Coal exports are a huge deal for Australia, and much of it passes through Newcastle. The port very much resembles that of Immingham, an industrial landscape with huge piles of coal ready to be loaded onto ships for markets overseas.

I didn’t see much more of the journey however, after I managed to fall asleep in a snore-inducing position with my head wedged backwards between the seat and the window. I twice woke myself up with particularly loud snorts, and judging by the looks I was getting from other passengers, they weren’t the only two I’d managed in the three hour journey south. The fact I woke up, on the outskirts of Sydney, with a dry mouth and slightly sore throat was all the evidence I needed that I had, indeed, snored my way from city to city. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with other passengers until I was well away from the coach.

Approaching the Harbour Bridge

The way back into Sydney took me for my first crossing of the famous Harbour Bridge before we pulled into Central Station, my 3,000km journey down the east coast of Australia finally complete. While Sydney felt familiar, it seemed a world away from the Sydney I arrived in at the end of January. Back then, the height of summer, I had everything to look forward to in Australia – I had all my friends to meet, I was catching up with my friend Cat from home, and Jack, one of my best mates from university, was in the city for work.

Crossing the Harbour Bridge

Now I had arrived knowing the end was near, and that my trip is slowly but surely moving into the twilight stages before I finally head home. I walked along streets that I had walked along before my ‘Ballarat family’ was even known to me.

End of the road – arriving in Sydney on the Greyhound

That I walked along believing I was heading to Mount Gambier in South Australia to help out at a roadhouse. That I had walked along not knowing I would attend the Australian Grand Prix, break down in a mate’s car at Ayers Rock, get thrown out of a hostel in Darwin or learn to surf in Byron Bay. Back then, I had no idea how my stay in Australia would pan out – but I smiled as I walked back to my hostel in Sydney knowing I had made the most of every moment here.

As I pressed the button on the lift at the World Square Hostel in George Street once again, my mind flashed back to that day in January when I was doing the same, on my way up to room 403 where Cat was staying, my friend from Hull who was the main person who inspired this trip. I remember the nerves, and of wondering how long I could afford the expensive place that Australia has become. Its almost six months, yet it feels like just a few hours ago that I had last been in the building.

Back then, Cat was in the same position I now find myself in, having worked her way around Australia and arriving in Sydney with a couple of days to spare before flying out to New Zealand. I checked in with reception, before heading off to Darling Harbour and to my friend Katrina’s office.

With Liz, her partner Jim, her sister and friends on my first night back in Sydney

Having left my bank card in Alice Springs, I have been living on a credit card for the past month. Now, however, the funds on the credit card have dried up, and I couldn’t have timed it any better to pick up my card. It was initially sent to my hostel in Darwin, but I’d left before it arrived. It was down to my friends Dan and Laura, who I left in the north, to send it on to Katrina in Sydney, who in turn left it with security at her office for me to collect. It was a relief to get my hands on it, and I could go on to pay for my hostel as a result!

I met Katrina for lunch at the Hard Rock Café on the harbour for a catch up and a goodbye before I left. I’ll always be grateful to her for the help and support she gave me during my first few days here, and we had a great couple of hours laughing about some of my travel tales, talking about her Crossfit exertions and savouring our last meeting for a while.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour

There was one other goodbye that evening, to Brandon, who was in my dorm at the Gilligans hostel in Cairns. He’s also made his way down the east coast, but in his own car that he’d bought for his travels.

With Brandon at Vivid

We’d agreed to take in the Vivid light festival together, and met at Darling Harbour in time for the weekly fireworks show at 8.30pm. It’s a great little display, one that I watched with Katrina when I first arrived in the city earlier this year, and Brandon was impressed that it was a weekly event. It certainly brings in the crowds to the area, where, despite the rain, hundreds of people line the quaysides.

We walked on to Circular Quay, where you get the best views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and where the Vivid festival takes place.

Vivid light festival, Sydney

It’s a collection of illuminated art, the centrepiece being a special display on the sails of the iconic Opera House. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition last year, co-incidentally on the same weekend as this one during my three week trip around the world. But whereas last year the famous sails were lit in bright colours, that would change and evolve into shapes, this year there was a projection of two figures onto the surface.

Sydney Opera House, disappointingly not as Vivid as last year

While they would move, roll around and appear to walk on the landmark, for me it wasn’t quite as effective as last year, which was a shame. The rest of the exhibition was as fantastic as always, including Customs House and the Museum of Modern Art being lit up with some incredibly clever 3D projections.

Customs House before the ‘show’

Customs House during the ‘day of city life’ show

We spent hours walking around in the rain, taking in all the smaller pieces dotted around the area, before heading back to my hostel for a final beer together. While I leave in a matter of hours, Brandon also heads back to his native Canada, and to Saskatchewan, in a few days. As he disappeared down the spiral stairs and back out onto the wet Sydney streets, I headed to my bunk.

One of the highlights of Vivid Sydney – they’re cycles!

Giving art a whirl!

Its hard to sum up my feelings. There’s sadness that I will probably never spend as long in Australia, meeting so many good friends, ever again, but gratitude that at least I’ve had the opportunity to make this trip. There’s a feeling that it’s passed by so quickly on one hand, yet when I think back to my arrival here, it can seem so long ago. Then there’s excitement at a new chapter in my travels about to unfold, a visit to a new country that I have never been to but heard so many good things about. And I also know it means my journey around the world is slowly coming to an end. In just over a month and a half, I will be back home – Sydney, its Opera House, my Australian friends and those uncomfortable Greyhound bus seats will seem so far away.

As I hauled my bags over my shoulders in Australia one last time, I said goodbye to the staff and took my final steps out of the hostel. It was raining, yet again, which seemed to suit my mood. I made my way to Town Hall station, but paused before disappearing down the steps and onto a train to the airport. I looked up and around, taking in one last view of the city, and smiled.

Looking forward

I came to this country knowing just a couple of good friends, who helped to look after me, support me and made me feel so welcome in their homes. I leave with a huge list of new friends, who I will stay in touch with, remember fondly and hopefully, at some point, meet again in the future, either back in this fantastic place Down Under, or back home on British soil.

I also came here with a few ticks outstanding on my bucket list – Uluru and the Whitsundays were high up there. Somehow, despite a few financial problems that cropped up along the way, I had visited all the places I set out to see, and more besides. The beautiful Great Ocean Road and stunning Grampians in Victoria with Siobhan and Matt from home; the sights and sounds of Ballarat with my ‘family’ of Nat, Jess, Liv, Jane and James, the Ghan train to the outback with Dan and Laura, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock with my friend Neil, complete with the fateful breakdown of his car. Diving the Great Barrier Reef, cruising along the beach on Fraser Island and learning to surf the Aussie way – so many highlights, and memories that will always be with me.

A last view of Sydney’s skyline from the airport

On the way to gate 36 for my Qantas flight to Auckland at Sydney’s international airport, I stopped off at a souvenir shop. I had just five Australian dollars left in my pocket. There was only one thing I could buy – an Australian flag patch for my backpack. Its quite fitting that its larger than any of the others from the rest of my trip, having spent the longest time here.

As we turned off the taxiway and onto the main runway, the engines screamed to full throttle. I was pushed back into my chair, and wedged my head into the window and watched as the terminal disappeared behind me. We lifted up into the air, a slight bump as the wheels left the ground, and I left Australian soil for the final time. The street lights of Sydney’s suburbs began to drift away below me, and I watched until the coastline disappeared from view.

I know I’m going to miss it, and I don’t know when I will be back in this far-flung part of the world. But I do know that this huge, beautiful country, and all those who have helped make my stay here so memorable, will always have a very special place in my heart.

Surf’s Up!

Catching my first waves in Byron Bay

I’m writing this on an overnight Greyhound bus. Every limb feels fifty times heavier than it should. Muscles I never even knew existed are aching in every corner of my body. My chest and ribs hurt, and my right foot is bruised and throbbing. And despite the cramped conditions I currently find myself in, none of these aches and pains are because the person in front has fully reclined their chair into my personal space.

My body is seriously hurting as a result of surfing, but boy, was it worth it.

I’ve always seen surfing on the television and wondered what its like, catching a huge rolling wave and effortlessly using it to speed along, pull off tricks and generally have a good time thanks to nature. It looks like you need perfect balance, a ripped upper body and bags of coolness, none of which I possess, and largely why I’ve stayed clear of the sport. Plus, back home, there’s a significantly high chance of a turd finding its way into your mouth somehow.

And its cold.

I never thought I’d give it a proper go though, but all that changed when I reached Byron Bay, three hours south of Brisbane. Having spent hours on a bus passing by some amazing beaches, spotting ant-like surfers bobbing up and down over the swell, even passing through Surfers Paradise, a town named after one of Australia’s favourite pastimes, I think it dawned on me that I should at least give it a try.

Those balmy days in Cairns already seem so long ago

I almost needed a surfboard to get to my hostel when I arrived off the relatively short four hour journey from Brisbane. If I needed any further proof that I have gone south enough for winter, then my welcome into Byron was definitely the required evidence. A huge rainstorm raged, leaving me camped out and sheltering by a rack of public phones until it eased off. It’s the first time I’ve actually had to wear my rain jacket in anger here, and is definitely the first time I have had to find a hostel, fully laden with bags, in the pouring rain. It knocks your spirit somewhat, especially when the address and iPhone map lead you in completely the wrong direction.

After trudging through puddles and looking lost for a while, a kind man with a multicoloured umbrella came over and pointed me in the right direction.

“And don’t worry about the weather – it does this in Byron. It’ll be blue skies tomorrow, you’ll see,” he shouted as I disappeared towards the Nomads hostel.

He was almost right. After a grey start, the sun began to break through. I walked to the beach, where there were already people catching waves. My decision was made, and I went in search of a deal. Most lessons are priced at $49 for two hours, but I walked into one backpacker travel shop where in return for ‘liking’ their Facebook page, I could get two $69 lessons for the price of one at Mojosurf.

“You’ll have to hurry up, it leaves at 12,” the travel agent said.

My surf board awaits…

I looked at my watch – I had 10 minutes to get back to the hostel, pack a bag of stuff for the beach and change into my swimshorts. I somehow made it with time to spare.

“Too easy mate,” said Jimmy as I walked in (they really do say that over here)

He was wearing a cap, his long hair poking out of the bottom and his tan spoke volumes for the amount of time he clearly spends in the ocean under the sun.

“Ahhh, you’re all going to have a grrrreat tiiiime. Yuuuueeeeeeep,” he said, his cool surfery accent putting a smile on everyone’s face.

My instructor was Adam, or Adsy as he likes to be called, and I jumped into the bus to be taken to a nearby beach that is less crowded and better for learning.

Ready to surf

There was only a few of us, a good sized group for learning. Among them was a guy from Western Australia who I was on Fraser Island with, and who I shared a dorm with in Rainbow Beach. Then there was Jag, from Manchester, who has been travelling for 17 months, doing everything from the usual sightseeing and partying to working at an orphanage in southeast Asia. We already had banter going on the bus, and we could feel it was going to be a good day.

After a short 20 minute ride, I found myself being handed a large green surf board. Its quite cumbersome to carry, as its larger than normal to give better balance in the water. There was a small handle in the middle, enough to give you a decent hold of the board, but with a strong wind, it was easy to get caught by a gust and find yourself being swung around.

Me and my board

Down on the beach, and after a few warm-ups, it was time to learn the basics –what to look for in the waves, how to spot a potentially dangerous rip tide, the impact the wind has and how to push through the waves with the surf board.

You do it just like this…Adsy showing us what to do

Adsy briefed us on the correct stance and how to paddle with our arms for a while, before we were grabbing our boards and heading out into the waves.

The first thing I can say is that surfing is a lot harder than it looks. The first thing you have to master, aside from getting up on the board, is making your way through the huge waves that Australia, and the Pacific Ocean, are famous for. Strangely, wave size is measured from the back of the wave – today, they were around four to five feet, but when you look at them from the front, they seem twice as high. Some of them tower above you, forcing you to jump and hold onto your surf board to allow you to keep on the surface. It’s a tiring cycle in itself.

Jag practicing the stance

Then, when you’ve waded out a fare distance, its time to spot a wave. We were in a good training ground, with waves and white water rolling all the way to the shore from breaking point around 60 to 70 metres out. It means you have plenty of time to ‘snap up’ onto the board. The ‘snap’ is a one move jump up from laying down, using your arms to push up from underneath your chest and then quickly bringing your feet from the back end of the board to a stance about halfway along it.

Out into the ocean

Despite plenty of practice on the beach, it’s a move that takes some doing, and relies on some strong upper arms. My first attempt ended with me toppling off the side, while my second attempt saw the board fly out from underneath me and whack me straight on the head.

And that was the general pattern for the next two hours, a constant wave (pardon the pun) of false push ups, falling off the side, the board flying from underneath me and finding myself somewhere under water with my hands on my head, taking yet another bump somewhere on my body from either the bottom of the sea below or my escapee surf board from above.

Kneel up, topple off, swallow salt water, crack my toes on the sandy bottom, back to the surface, drag board back to waves, repeat. It was frustrating, but strangely addictive.

Then, shortly before a break, and with a bit of help from Adsy, I finally did it.

“Get on…start paddling…this wave’s yours,” he shouted, holding onto my board.

I looked back, and a foaming white mass of water was getting ever closer.

“Big paddles now,” came the call from Adsy.

I took some huge, deep paddles on either side of the board. Suddenly I felt the acceleration as it caught the wave and began being pushed along.

“Snap up NOW,” Adsy shouted from behind.

I pushed hard with my arms, jumped up and brought my feet underneath, staying in a low crouch as the board wobbled below me. And then it stabilised – I’d found my balance, and stood up straighter. I remember thinking how high up it seemed to be standing on the board, and how strangely quick the wave moves you forward.

There was a cheer from behind – it might have only been for a few seconds, but I was officially surfing.

Off I go!

After a break, I was back in the water and gradually finding my feet on the surfboard. Eventually, I was able to pick out each wave I wanted to ride, paddle fast enough to catch it, and in a fashion, stand up on the board and ride it all the way to shore. It was a great feeling, and there was a strange addiction to getting back into the ocean and trying it again, but wanting to get on the board that bit faster, that bit smoother, or perhaps just swallowing less of the salty water.

It was a similar feeling to when I learned how to ski four or five years ago. It was difficult at first, but there was something that kept making me go back for more. There might have been the odd fall that twisted a knee slightly, gave you a coccyx-bruising knock and left you shattered come the end of the day, but the adrenaline and fun outweighs the risk. The same can be said for surfing – its hard work, you get pounded by the sea, sand and board, and you can consume enough salt to keep Saxo in business for a year, but it’s a brilliant way to spend some time at the beach.

Adsy and my surf group

Four hours passed by really quickly, and we headed back to Byron Bay happy with our efforts. I promptly passed out in my dorm, despite organising to meet some of my fellow surfers for a beer that night. I did, however, wake up in time to use my free beer voucher at the Woody’s Surf Shack bar in the town,

With Marit and Anna from my dorm at Woodys

meeting up with some of the girls in my room before moving on to Cheeky Monkey’s, a bar-come-nightclub where, by all accounts, pretty much anything goes.

Anything goes, apart from me, however, who got refused entry in the most bizarre circumstances. Having consumed a little leftover goon from the Fraser Island trip, as well as having my one lone free beer at the pub, I led the group to the door. I was asked for ID (which, at almost 31, is a joke anyway) and pulled out some business cards from people I have met, rather than my driving licence. Trying to get some light from a streetlamp, I leaned back to move the shadow of my head out of the way of my wallet. Somehow, shifting my weight like that meant I took a step back and I slightly stumbled on my ankle.

“Woaah, someone’s had enough tonight haven’t they?” said the bouncer, patronisingly.

“Erm, no, I’ve only had one beer,” I put back.

“They all say that mate. You’re not coming in. The police are over there, and they’ve seen I’ve refused you, so you’d better go home,” he replied.

In front of quite a few people who I have just met, the whole episode was more than slightly embarrassing. It was a public humiliation, but everyone knew I’d only been out for half an hour, and that I was just being picked on for some reason. I tried to explain, but just got the usual patronising drivel from the doorman, which ended with one of his colleagues coming over and telling me ‘my night was over’.

Sadly, when faced with that type of ridiculous security, which, quite frankly, borders on bullying, there will only ever be one winner. It was barely midnight, but I went back to the hostel and opted for an early night. I was fuming, as I’d not even had chance to meet up with my surf class inside, but at least I’d wake up fresh for my second surf lesson the next day.

Back to the surf

“Where did you get to last night,” Jag asked as I wandered into the MojoSurf shop with just a couple of minutes to go before the bus left. I explained, and he remembered how I’d sent him a text explaining when I’d got back to my room.

We spent another four hours trying to perfect how to get on the surf board, but strangely, both Jag and I found it much more difficult. The currents were stronger in the water, the waves were breaking and moving towards the shore much closer together, and many were not making it all the way to the beach without re-forming. It was frustration, but still enjoyable. The only problem was my tired and aching arms and legs – by the end of the session, and after hours of being smashed by wave after wave, I was barely able to lift myself up, let alone ‘snap up’, and instead found enjoyment cruising around on the board like a stranded dog.

Surfing is definitely something I will try again, whether its in the warmer waters abroad somewhere, or in slightly chillier waters back home. It’s a great adrenaline rush, and when you’re not leaning too far forward and faceplanting into the ocean, it’s an addictive way of spending time in the sea.

With an evening Greyhound booked, I got back to the surf shop with about an hours-worth of daylight remaining. There was still one place I wanted to reach, Byron lighthouse, which is officially Australia’s easternmost point.

Stormy scenes at Cape Byron

Jimmy, who had been one of my instructors for the day, gave me a rental bike for the change in my pocket, and, despite aching legs and a storm raging around me, I made it to the top of the nearby peninsula with time to  spare. It was a steep climb, but the views, even despite the storm clouds and rough seas, were well worth it.

Byron Bay’s famous lighthouse

An interesting fact is that the Cape Byron lighthouse, which for the past few nights I have seen blinking away from the comfort of my hostel kitchen, houses the most powerful light in Australia, visible for some 50km. Its blinking light, every 15 seconds, warns the busy shipping lanes off the coast of the dangerous coastline, and has been in place since it was built in 1901.

I wonder if they’re still together?!

It was exposed and windswept on the top of the rugged outcrop that the lighthouse sits atop of, and I watched the waves crashing onto the rocks below me. A mile or so out in the ocean, a container ship was pitching and falling on the swell, being whipped up by the offshore storm. One can only imagine what it must be like when Mother Nature puts her full force behind the weather here.

Capturing the powerful light

With darkness falling, a lack of cycle lights and another stormy shower about to blow in from the ocean, it was time to head back downhill to return the bike, collect my belongings and pack my bag back at the hostel. I had yet another free beer with Jag at Woodys Surf Shack, before heading to the bus stop for my final overnight Greyhound journey in Australia.

A final free beer with Jag in Byron

I was glad to have three days in Byron Bay, but part of me wishes I could have spent longer in the town. Its got a brilliant atmosphere about it – apart from the odd doorman here and there – and is a beautiful coastal town. In the height of summer, I can imagine it being a perfect place to spend a few lazy weeks. Everyone I met was friendly, helpful and seemed to just be happy to be living in what feels to be a very happy, cheerful town. Surfing plays a huge part in life here, and who knows, maybe one day i’ll return to ride the waves here once again.

Another overnight Greyhound about to leave Byron Bay

For now though, I’m heading to Sydney, and ultimately, my flight out of Australia. But there is one last quick stop I need to make on the way – and it’s my first visit to someone who I have met on this journey, thousands of miles away in Thailand. A familiar face awaits.

Meeting the locals in Brisbane

Koalas – grey, furry, cute, most definitely not a bear but a much loved and treasured icon of Australia.

Altogether now…ahhhh!

A trip to this vast nation wouldn’t be complete without seeing a few of the fluffy bundles, and where better than a koala sanctuary, home to well over 100 of them and on the outskirts of Brisbane.

“I am not a bear”

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is only a small place – I was budgeting for just a few hours – but ended up spending my whole afternoon there watching the animals, playing with kangaroos, and even getting a hug from a koala.

It’s a great place to visit, and somewhere that I only discovered after I checked in at the Base hostel in Brisbane city centre. A few travellers had questioned why I was staying in Brisbane for a couple of nights. “There’s not much to do there” and “Its an awful place” were just two of the comments I’d helpfully had passed my way by people on tours or on the Greyhound as I have been making my way down Australia’s east coast.

The truth is, a former colleague of mine, Andy, now lives in the city, and it would be rude to just pass by without at least trying to meet up for a coffee. And besides, when you’re travelling, a stop-off is what you make of it. That’s why, when I saw a pamphlet in the hostel reception for the koala park – and someone holding one of the little animals – it shot right to the top of my ‘to do’ list in the area.

Greyhounding down the coast

Also near the top of my list was the task of spending as much time away from my dorm room as possible. Despite paying for a 10 bed dorm, someone somewhere thought they were doing me a favour by upgrading me to a four bed dorm. The only problem was that the three others in the room, two German guys and a Russian, quite liked their eastern European hardcore trance music. Their stereo, it seems, only has ‘loud’ or ‘loudest’ as settings.

Random giant kangaroo at the service station

Without so much as a hello, or even a glance up from whatever artist they were lining up next on the laptop, I walked in, dropped my bags, attempted to make a bed and then gave up, only to walk back out again. I took myself off for a wander around the city centre, taking in the atmosphere and meandering through the busy pedestrianised area full of people enjoying meals in bars and restaurants, sports fans watching the footy on big screens, and quite a few people heading out to nightclubs.

Back in the hostel, things had quietened down, and I worked out that I had been put in a room with three workers. They were carrying out cleaning duties in the hostel, working for their accommodation, a popular way of saving money while travelling when funds run dry. It meant that they were up at the crack of dawn, banging around and turning lights on, but I needed to be up early anyway to cram more sightseeing into my short stay.

Hello!

The journey to Lone Pine involved finding a public bus and taking a half hour ride out some 15km or so to the park, but it was well worth the effort. Set up in 1927 there were initially just two koalas being cared for here, called Jack and Jill. Now its an internationally acclaimed breeding centre, the world’s oldest and largest koala sanctuary, and the kindergarten enclosure was by far one of the best bits about the day.

Adult koalas, due to their low energy diet of eucalyptus leaves, don’t move around a great deal during the day, but the kids on the other hand are full of life. Leaping around from branch to branch, chasing after each other, trying to climb the fence to escape and general juvenile fun and games means they are very entertaining to watch. You could tell they were developing personalities, even at such a young age. One koala would happily climb to the top of the enclosure, standing proud as king of his castle for hours.

I watched a presentation about the animals, where it was revealed all 130 or so koalas at the park have a name – and the staff know each and every one of them. Now, one koala to the next looks pretty similar to me, give or take a bit of fluff around the ears, or perhaps a smaller nose here and there. However, there’s a way to tell each animal apart.

You have to look at its bum.

Yes, every koala has unique markings around its bottom, lighter shades of grey or white patches arranged in special patterns amid the dark grey fur. The staff revealed they have learnt to tell all of the koalas apart by working out pictures on each of the koalas to remember them by – one of the males sitting nearby was named thanks to his markings looking like a pair of eyes.

Next it was my turn to hold and cuddle one of the koalas. For $16 (£10) you get a photograph of the moment too, and with my hands held out, palms up and crossed together, Violet was placed in my arms.

At first she looked at me, putting her arms around my shoulder and clinging on to my shirt, before she was distracted by the camera. She was the weight of a small dog, but actually felt very stable and happy in the short time she was in my arms. Her fur was short, and slightly rough, and actually felt very similar to the koala cuddly toys that are available in all the tourist shops here. I gave her a rub on the back, before I had to hand her back to the koala keeper.

With a Skippy or three

The best thing about the park is how well cared for the koalas are – they are only ever held by the public for short periods of just a few minutes every few days, and all of the animals I saw seemed so happy.

“What have you got for me?”

That included the field full of kangaroos, jumping around all over the place as the sun began to set. It is their most active time of the day, and instead of spending money on food to feed them, I pulled up some grass and held it out. They loved it, and I got quite a few of them bounding over to me.

Somehow I had whiled away an entire afternoon at the park, spending much of the time taking photographs of the koalas. I took that many, my camera died – you just never know when you’re going to get the perfect shot. Besides, they are my mum’s favourite animals, so I had to get plenty of photos to keep her happy. The afternoon was a great way, towards the end of my stay in Australia, to spend some time with some of the country’s most famous animals.

Almost lost my bag…

There was another catch-up in store the following day, when I met Andy, a former colleague of mine from when I first started at BBC Look North. He’s the man who would operate the satellite truck out on location, transmitting live reports back to the studio, and in turn, out to televisions across the north east of England.

Another city, another mate to catch up with!

We only worked together for about a year before he left for Australia, eventually settling, having a family and making a life for himself Down Under.

We’d promised to try to meet up if our busy schedules allowed it, and thankfully he’d been called into Brisbane city centre to run an errand, and so took the opportunity to meet up for coffee.

We had a great time reminiscing about my early days in the Look North newsroom, and Andy appreciated the information I had about all the recent goings on that he’d not heard about. He told me all about the exciting life he’s had here, operating satellite trucks to broadcast sports events from across the Asia Pacific area, even beaming shows such as I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here to homes back home.

“Ant and Dec’s trailer was really close to ours. They’re really nice lads, would always give you a wave and a smile,” he told me.

Andy (eighth from right) and I (right of Pudsey) at Children in Need, Lincoln 2005

He told me how I join a huge list of former and current colleagues who have visited him, with around eight or nine mutual friends that have stopped by to say hello since he left Hull in 2006, who, like me, remember a good mate despite the miles between us these days.

“Its been amazing that I’m all this way from the UK, and I might not speak to someone for months, even years, yet they’ll drop by,” he said, smiling.

He admits it can be tough being away from family and friends in his native land, especially when it comes to bringing up a young family and the extra hands close friends can lend, but he’s really happy with his life here. And with near constant sunshine, beautiful scenery and a good job, its easy to see why he’s so happy, and I’m really pleased for him.

Saying goodbye again!

After a few hours of telling each other about our current lives, and remembering some of the television projects we worked on – including my first Children in Need outside broadcast in Lincoln in 2005, Andy had to get back to work. We had a few photos in the park near my hostel, before we said goodbye and promised to stay in touch.

With my Greyhound bus set to leave in a few hours time, I booked myself on an economy cruise through the centre of Brisbane to get some shots of the city. It was, of course, my usual trick of buying a regular passenger ferry ticket and just going for a ride. It was onboard a particularly fast ferry, a ‘fast cat’ catamaran to be precise, which afforded great views of the waterfront and exclusive yachts and millionaire riverfront villas that line stretches of the river.

Brisbane

It’s the equivalent of catching the number 16 bus in Grimsby and going for a ride to Asda and back, but it’s a great, cheap way of seeing a place, as well as it being quite fun.

Brisbane’s waterfront area

The fast cat was particularly nippy, and I stood on the front deck watching the world go by for two hours, before it turned around and delivered me back into the city centre with just enough time to collect my bags and head to the coach terminal.

Yet again, I was heading south on a Greyhound, this time to Byron Bay. I’m more than halfway back to Sydney, with Byron being my last full ‘east coast’ stop before hitting the city once again and preparing to fly out of the country.

Back on the road again

Fraser Island, Yeah?

Touring Fraser Island

‘They’re my cars, yeah. Cars are not boats – they don’t float, yeah?”

The words of Al, the man tasked with telling 30-odd twenty-somethings (and some a bit older!) that a 4×4 car can’t be driven into the sea on Fraser Island.

“And don’t go swimming, yeah. I’ve seen it, you get all fuelled up on goonie juice and head off for a swim in the ocean. Get caught in a rip, yeah, and two minutes later you’re two kilometres offshore, yeah.

“You’ll be shark food, yeah,”

The ‘yeah’ thing has already been noticed by a few of us, giggling away like schoolkids every time he launches into another crescendo of his end-of-sentence punctuation.

Al, on the right, with Graham (saying ‘yeah’) and Kelly

“Show my cars a bit of respect, yeah,” goes another one in the background.

By the end of the half hour talking to – sorry, welcome – to the Fraser Island tour, we were left wondering if we’d actually be allowed to breathe without someone barking a rule – followed by a ‘yeah’ – at us.

“And don’t go feeding or petting the dingoes, yeah,” Al continues, reminding us that the island we are about to spend a couple of days on is actually overrun with wild dogs. So much so, controls are strictly enforced to prevent the dogs becoming aggressive towards humans.

So if we fail to sink the car in the ocean, get eaten by a shark, mauled by a dingo or pass out due to too much ‘goonie juice’ we should have a good time.

More goon…or ‘goonie juice’ as it shall now be known!

Its dark and raining outside at the Dingoes hostel in Rainbow Beach, where I’d arrived on the Greyhound from Airlie Beach just a few hours before. Yet again, I’m about to be put into a group of complete strangers who I will live, breathe, sightsee, cook, laugh and party with for the next 72 hours.

Fraser Island is a sightseeing tour with a difference, being on a 120km long sand island in the sea. There are no main roads, and so the only way to see the place is by jumping in a 4×4 and roaming around the place behind a tour leader in a vehicle in front. It promises to be a lot of fun, and is one the ‘must do’ attractions of the east coast.

“Phil, you’re in the A Team,” came the call, along with the obligatory theme tune from a few.

I took my seat on a table with four blokes and four girls, who were also in the A Team. They were Ryan, Alan and couple Graham and Kelly, all from Ireland, and fellow English companians Melissa, Georgia and Kate.

“I’m gutted you all want to drive – I want to be at the wheel as long as possible,” says Ryan

Everyone else basically tells him its tough, and we’re all taking it in turns.

Fraser Island by 4×4

Meanwhile, there’s confusion. There are two Phils in the room, and the other Phil is up with the leader trying to work out where he is supposed to be. They look at second names, and it turns out he’s supposed to be in the A Team rather than me, but he gives me a nod seeing that we’ve already done introductions and makes his way to the B Team. It was a similar situation with ‘our’ Alan.

“We meet at 7.30am, yeah. Don’t be late, yeah,” comes yet another order from Al.

And with that, everyone gets on with the task of getting to know everyone. Kate seems young and loud, quite fancying a bit of attention. Ryan has one of those personalities that at first can seem quite ‘in your face’ but I know I’ll warm to him. Graham and Kelly seem like a great couple, while Melissa and Georgia take a role a bit like me, quietly watching and joining in a bit of the banter. Ryan and Kelly are joking that they could be cousins.

A few of us walked to the shop to buy some snacks for the next few days, when inadvertently I put the missing part of a jigsaw in place for them. Graham asked me what I do back home, and as soon as I told him, he called out to Kelly.

“Phil’s a journalist for the BBC,” he says.

“No way, do you know my aunt, Donna Traynor? She works for the BBC in Belfast,” Kelly asks.

And with that, Ryan pipes up about how he’s also related to the BBC Newsline presenter.

“So, we’re cousins,” he excitedly shouts in his broad Irish accent!

Incredibly, on the other side of the world, two people had been put with each other and worked out that somewhere along the line they are related.

With supplies of Doritos, biscuits and drinks, we headed back, with Ryan telling anyone and everyone that he’s found his cousin. We were already laughing and joking, enjoying banter between us. I think we’ll get on just fine!

Al giving the early morning briefing

After another early morning briefing, we got on with the task of loading up our vehicles and preparing for the trip. We were introduced to Shane, our guide, a typically shade-clad, cap-wearing, chisel-chinned Aussie who seems up for a good time with us all.

Al stepped in to give us a briefing on how to steer, followed by instructions on how not to lock the doors and keep the keys in the ignition at all times.

“Drop the key in the sand, yeah, and it’ll be gone. Then you’ll be stuck for a day before I get a new car to you, yeah.” We all nodded.

And we’re off!

Before long we were on our way, with Melissa taking the controls for the first leg to the island, involving a short 15 minute ferry crossing. Sadly, Kate took control of DJ duty and put Justin Bieber on, but thankfully we arrived at the sea crossing to spare us any more.

On the boat to Fraser

The first sight of the island included the ominous view of a Jeep that had become stuck fast in the sand, with around 50 people trying to shift the thing. Maybe all of Al’s orders and driving tips were needed after all. (Yeah..)

Hitting the beach…with wheels

But we were on Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island measuring in at around 75 miles long, 15 miles wide and made up of rainforests, woodland, mangroves, swamps and heaths. Its sand has been accumulating on a base of volcanic bedrock for some three quarters of a million years, and some of that volcanic rock juts out at impressive lookouts like Indian Head.

Lake McKenzie

Most of the hills on the island have simply been formed by sand dunes growing and growing as wind blows more and more sand onto them, while there is also some incredibly pure fresh water from springs, and our first stop took us to one such place, Lake McKenzie, said to be one of the cleanest lakes in the world. Like the Whitsundays, the sand is almost brilliant white, a result of it being almost pure silica.

Braving the chilly water in Lake McKenzie

The lake is also impressively cold, but most of us braved the water, opting to run and dive to get the icy blast over with as soon as possible.

My A Team family enjoying the water

It was very refreshing, and nice that for once it wasn’t saltwater – there was no taste when it went into your mouth, and you actually feel clean when you can’t take the chill anymore and finally climb out.

After a few hours of getting to know everyone in the rest of the group – or should I say, getting to know who would annoy everyone – on the beach beside the lake, it was time to move on. We got back into the car, with the windows down, only for one young lad in a neighbouring vehicle called Adam, really push himself to the top of the annoying list by spraying a whole load of goon (cheap wine) through our open window and all over Ryan and I.

Now, while I went for the ‘stare’ technique of showing how little I was amused, Ryan – who has bigger muscles, and who looks a little fiercer than me when he needs to – ripped a shred off him by telling Adam exactly how he felt. His card had been marked with a firm but fair warning to behave!

Beautiful lakes on Fraser Island

Back out to the beach, and to Fraser’s informal highways. There are 80km/h speed limits on the beach, with normal ‘keep left’ rules of the road applying. It’s a great way to travel, and I could spend hours just gazing out of the window as we cruised along the shore, waves lapping just a few metres away from the wheels below us.

Dingo dos and don’ts

All along, we were on the lookout for dingoes, the wild dogs that have a reputation, perhaps unfairly gained, for being aggressive and dangerous towards humans. Unique to Australia, the island is famous for having some of the only remaining ‘pure’ dingoes in the continent, and while there have been a handful of cases where the animals have attacked humans – including a couple of deaths as a result – on the whole they tend to stay away.

“I’m starting to think it’s a bit of a myth,” said a couple of the girls in the car as we were driving along.

Having seen a few near Uluru a few weeks ago on the drive back to Alice Springs, I know they are far from a myth, and I’m confident we’ll see some before we return.

An electrified dingo trap, keeping campsites safe

Back at base camp, it was dinner time, and the A Team is quickly becoming a family. We made a trip to the shops together, buying a few snacks for the evening, while also investing in some plastic cups due to the lack of drinking vessels available at the camp site.

Its Phil’s cup!

With a permanent pen, we marked them with our names. The fact I’d written ‘Phil’s cup’ around the outside of mine caused a few giggles, and we’d protect them for all they were worth over the next couple of days to prevent any cup theft from ruining our much loved cuppas.

When it came to mealtimes, we would all find our jobs to do – some would prepare, some would cook, while Graham and I opted to help out with cleaning duties on the first night. After just a small sandwich for lunch, itself eaten at 11.30am, we were ready for the steaks that Alan had managed to cook perfectly considering the facilities, and we sat around a table together to eat, laughing and joking about the day’s events, and with more than a few ‘yeahs’ thrown in for good measure.

Mealtime fun. ‘Who likes tomatoes?’ Silence.

In the room next door, the younger contingent on the trip had already begun passing out from too much ‘goonie juice,’ to coin Al’s phrase, and it was barely past 6pm. A few of us joined in the drinking games, but most of the time was passed playing pool with some of the worst cues I’ve ever had the misfortune to play with. I never knew they could fray so much at one end, with one having a tip about the size of a 50p with all the wood that had folded back on itself. It was certainly a challenge.

At the wheel!

After a short stay at a creek in the morning, it was my turn to take the wheel and drive ‘the family’ around for a bit. Despite my love of driving – and I like to think I’m fairly good at it – I got off to one of the worst starts of the lot of us by getting us stuck and then stalling the engine in the deep sand.

Ryan: “Phil, remember, cars are not boats, yeah?”

Thankfully, I got it going again fairly promptly and, giving it beans, powered out with some revs and down to the wet shore where I ignored Al’s advice to keep it out of fifth gear (‘Forget about fifth, yeah, you won’t be needing that. Yeah?)

Approaching the wreck of the Maheno

The drive also happened to be one of the shortest of the trip, to the wreck of the Maheno, a Scottish-built Edwardian liner that was washed up onto the beach in 1935. With the weather closing in, the outline of the shipwreck appeared as a dark outline through the sea spray and the rain on the horizon, its full size and scale only becoming clear once I’d pulled over and parked up near the site.

The Maheno being launched (Copyright http://www.clydebuiltships.co.uk)

The SS Maheno was built in 1905 as a luxury liner for crossings of the Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia. She was used as a hospital ship during the First World War,

The Maheno as a hospital ship

serving in the Mediterranean, Gallipoli and the English Channel, before returning to work as a luxury liner in peacetime.

In 1935, the ship was declared outdated, and on June 25, 1935, the ship was being towed from Melbourne to Japan for scrap metal when it was caught in a strong cyclone. A few days later she drifted ashore and was beached on the eastern shores of Fraser Island.

The Maheno in her final resting place

It wasn’t the end of her military service, however, even being stranded on the island. During the Second World War, the wreck served as target bombing practice for the Royal Australian Air Force.

The A Team family and the Maheno – Alan, Graham, Kelly, Me, Ryan, Kate, Georgia and Melissa

Since then, she’s become a tourist attraction, with most people who have visited the island having a photograph of themselves by the wreck. It was a fascinating place to get atmospheric and creative shots, and to gaze and wonder at the journeys the rusting hulk in front of me had made. It was hard to believe there was another three storeys of the ship hidden, buried below the sand.

With dark clouds getting thicker above, we made our way further along the beach, to Indian Head, offering spectacular views of the ocean, and to the champagne pools, which were not very ‘champagne-like’ thanks to a low tide.

View from Indian Head

The prayers of the dingo hunters were answered at a shop stop on the way back to the camp, with one of the wild dogs showing up to please the group. From a distance, all was well, the dog even yawning and almost posing for photographs from the intrigued group milling around.

Dingo dangers!

That was until he got up, walked meaningfully towards the group and sent everyone scattering to their cars. While I didn’t dive into a car like most, I must admit it was slightly unnerving to come face to face with a famously unpredictable animal as it came to within a metre or two of my legs. It seemed to be showing everyone who was boss, and then seemed quite chuffed with itself for managing to send an entire tour group back into their cars. He soon wandered off down the road, having given us all the chance to take some photos and prove once and for all that dingoes call the shots on the island.

Bingo! A dingo

That evening it was my turn to cook, knocking up a stir fry with the remaining ingredients from our food rations,

Dinnertime!

before having a few drinks and heading down to the beach for an impromptu beach party. With 4×4 headlamps as the lighting, goonie juice as the drink of choice and a car battery-powered stereo system providing the music, it was a great way to round off the day. I spent much of the night with Ryan, who has become a really good mate in such a short space of time, and Susie, a German girl who was in my dorm before we left Rainbow Beach, but who has spent the last few days with a carload of blokes!

With Ryan and Susie at the beach party

The fun you can have with a beach and car headlamps

With the end of the trip upon us, and a slightly fuzzy head from too much cheap wine, we packed away our belongings into the cars and prepared to head off for more sightseeing before an early ferry back to the mainland. Suddenly there was a voice directed at me.

“There’s no point getting in there. There’s a blue cushion missing from the sofa thanks to your lot. Go and help them look for it.”

It was the owner of the campsite, and he didn’t look happy. And because he wasn’t happy, he clearly forgot to talk to us like adults.

“You’re not going anywhere until it’s found,” he chipped in, before herding me out towards the back of the building.

I resisted the temptation to ask him to put my flights back a bit, just incase the blue cushion doesn’t turn up.

After much walking around, searching everywhere from the campfire site to the kitchen, from the sand dunes to the dingo traps, even underneath the building, the much missed blue cushion didn’t turn up. Better still, despite most of the group having had a fairly rowdy last night, I don’t think anyone had anything to do with its disappearance.

Family outing!

Neither did Shane, our tour guide, who decided that enough was enough after wasting half an hour looking for the foam-filled fixture that we were heading off whether the camp owners liked it or not. It’s a move that, apparently, sealed him a ban from the campsite with any future tour groups, but we headed off towards Lake Wabby and leaving the slightly patronising volunteers and manager to look for their beloved cushion. It turns out the other group who left before us possibly took it.

Sand dunes on Fraser

A long walk through a rainforest and over a breathtaking expanse of sand led us to Lake Wabby, where we’d been advised against running down the steep dune into the water. In the words of Al: “You’ll break your neck, yeah,”

Lake Wabby

Instead, some of the group rolled down on their sides, while our A Team family relaxed near the top with a view overlooking the lake, making various shapes with the sand over our feet.

Ryan and his, erm, creative talents

The rain, however, brought any further relaxation to an abrupt halt, and instead sent us running for the walkway back to the vehicles. Drenched, tired and done with sightseeing, we caught the ferry back to Rainbow Beach and enjoyed a couple of jugs of free beer with dinner.

It was time for us all to say goodbye. In just a couple of days, we had become a close-knit group. We’ll definitely be staying in touch, and with a few heading over to New Zealand, there’s a chance we could meet again in the next few weeks. We’ve agreed there are reunions planned for both Hull and Ireland, where I’m sure we’ll relive our memories of dodging dingoes, glugging goon and searching for a stupid cushion.

Farewell family beers

It was a shame the weather wasn’t kinder to us, but it was a brilliantly enjoyable three days of driving around what is a beautiful island, among some great new friends and with a lot of fun banter.

Had we had a great time? Yeah!

A wave goodbye from Ryan as he, and the rest of our group, head off in different directions

Finding Nemo

It’s all good on the Great Barrier Reef

There are not many natural wonders of the world that require an oxygen tank and flippers to go see them, but for the Great Barrier Reef, it’s a good idea.

Dawn breaks in Brisbane as I change planes for Cairns

I have arrived in Cairns, right up in the tropics on Australia’s north eastern coast, and for the first time in months I am heading east again – meaning my homeward journey is officially underway.

With just a couple of weeks left before I fly out to New Zealand, I’m up against a bit of a tight schedule to fit everything in that I have wanted to see and do on the east coast before arriving back into Sydney for my flight out of the country. Every unnecessary day spent dawdling or wasted somehow on this 3,000km trip to the land of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, is a day less seeing the many sights of NZ.

Thankfully, my first visit to Oz seven years ago brought me to Cairns, so I have a fairly good knowledge of the town, and I decided to stay at the same hostel that I walked into back then too, a bit of a party spot, but one of the best around, by the name of Gilligans.

Gilligans – one of the best hostels you’ll find

Its funny how memories come flooding back after so long away from somewhere – and my arrival at Cairns airport after two overnight flights from Darwin and Brisbane was one of those moments. Back in 2005, I had arrived at the same airport on an internal flight from Melbourne, and was waiting by the same luggage carousel I found myself at again on this visit. Only back then, minding my own business and waiting for my bags, there was a tap on my shoulder.

“Is your name Phil and are you from Grimsby,” asked a tall, blonde girl with a smile on her face.

Slightly surprised, I think I replied something along the lines of ‘er, yes, why?’ before turning round to the right slightly and seeing my friend Kirsty, who worked in the Grimsby Town Football Club ticket office and clubshop. She was there with her friend Michelle, from Louth, and were spending a few weeks travelling together

Arriving back into Cairns after seven years

It was an incredible coincidence – not only had I bumped into someone from home that I knew on the other side of the world, but they had been on the same internal Qantas flight as me.

“You walked past us and we called your name on the plane but you didn’t respond, so we didn’t know if it was you,” I remember them saying.

As it happens, I do vaguely remember someone saying my name on that flight, but being thousands of miles from home, I didn’t respond as there was no way anyone would know me on that particular flight. Right?!

We ended up spending a lot of time together in Cairns back then, and I remain good friends with them both, so tagged them in a post on Facebook to let them know I was remembering the good times we had before making my way to the town centre bus transfer point.

Another day, another place

Walking back into Gilligans felt very familiar. Its got more of a hotel feel about the place, rather than a backpacker hostel, and indeed, it does have a number of hotel style rooms for couples. I opted for one of the dorms, but had to wait until the afternoon before I could check in, so made my way to the fantastic swimming pool at the complex.

Gilligans reception. Hard to believe its a backpackers

With the sun shining, and a much fresher feel to the weather thanks to lower humidity levels than Darwin, I pulled up a sun lounger and laid back, memories of my previous stay still coming back. Despite two overnight flights, I felt awake and ready for a chilled out day, meeting new people and working out what to do with my time in Cairns. It was also time to work out how to get back to Sydney, and in the hot sun I flicked through the handfuls of visitor leaflets and brochures I had picked up in the on-site travel agency.

Despite dwindling funds, I decided that my main aims for the east coast trip south were to dive on the Great Barrier Reef, visit the stunning Whitsunday islands, make my way to Fraser Island before moving on to visit friends in Brisbane and Newcastle before arriving into Sydney for my onward flight at the beginning of June. Looking at the calendar on my phone, and bearing in mind the 3,000km distance to travel overland, I realised I was cutting it a bit fine. I decided I needed an itinerary drawing up, some proper help with my plans, and so I would go to the Peter Pans backpacker travel agency in the town that afternoon.

Or so I thought.

That’s when I fell asleep – one of those sudden, unannounced, unplanned deep sleeps that creep up on you from nowhere. One minute it was 1pm, the next minute it was 3.30pm and I was on my back, mouth open and with a whole load of new people crowded around me. And then I felt my shoulders and chest – sore would be an understatement.

Ooops. Too comfy

My cheapo Thailand-bought factor 15 suncream, that I had barely covered myself in when I was in the shade early on, was no match against Australia’s finest midday sun. I went for some respite in the shade of the bar, and caught sight of a couple of blokes sipping beer that I am sure sniggered as the bright red  Pommy lobster made its way past them. I checked in a mirror, and it was a bit of a state.

Despite seven months of travelling, it was the first time I had been ‘properly’ burnt, and it was my own stupid fault for falling asleep in the sun. I have actually been really careful, knowing how much time I’d be spending in the sun during the trip. The damage had been done, however, so I gathered my belongings, grabbed my bag from the luggage store and checked into my room for a cold shower. The next few days will be stingy – but I think it’s got rid of my t-shirt tan once and for all!

The pool at Gilligans

Time out of the sun did give me the opportunity to have a proper look into how I’ll make my way south, taking the chance to have a wander around some of the travel shops that night and get an idea of some of the package deals that were around.

Planning my trip at Peter Pans in Cairns

The following day I made the visit to Peter Pan’s backpacker specialists where Aimee, one of the consultants, cheerfully pulled out a calendar and planned out the next few weeks for me. It starts with two dives on the Great Barrier Reef in less than 24 hours time, followed by tours down the east coast, joining the dots and getting back to Sydney thanks to the Greyhound bus network. Aimee planned me a couple of overnight bus journeys to save on accommodation costs – it’ll mean an uncomfortable night’s sleep, but at this stage of my trip, the equivalent of £20 saved here and there on accommodation goes a long way. All in, it was just over $1,000 for the whole lot, a good price with some fairly hefty discounts.

Speaking of which, it was time for a ‘big’ shop for supplies. My favourite Aussie supermarket Coles – complete with its catchy ‘down, down, prices are down,’ and ‘there’s no freshness like Coles’ catchphrases that get stuck in your head for hours on end – was too far away, so it was the Woolworths supermarket (yes, the name is still going strong here!) near the esplanade that was to provide my latest stash of carb-packed goodies.

Having spent months surrounded by Australian brands, I came across a great little aisle that brought out the Peter Kay ‘Brit abroad’ in me. A shelf stacked with groceries from home. PG Tips, Penguin biscuits and even Marmite were there, competing with their Oz counterparts of Lipton, Tim Tam and Vegemite. Perhaps the highlight was the imported Weetabix, albeit with a new, rather unimaginative name of ‘Whole Wheat Biscuits’ which I presume is to distance them from the Australian brekky Weet-Bix. But at the equivalent price of £5.30 for a box of 24, my pangs for a taste of home will go on for another few months!

I won’t spoil the fun by naming everything – see what you can spot!

After gazing at all the familiar products from home, I got on with the task of stocking up my portable larder, also known as my pretty trendy coolbag. When I arrived in Australia, I saw all the backpackers had one, be it slung under the rucksack, swinging from an arm or clutched in front. They come in bright pink, royal blue, sky blue or dazzling green, and are seen everywhere from luggage rooms to railway stations, botanical parks to famous landmarks.

My cool bag and backpack after their trip on The Ghan

Everyone seems to have one on the move, a commonplace belonging as much as a sleeping bag or a pair of flip flops. Some have special messages written on in permanent pen by their owners. You’d be forgiven for thinking they were the latest fashion accessory.

I was actually quite surprised to see so many of them, but it all comes down to the cost of living in Australia – with sandwiches costing anything from $6 upwards (£4-5 and up) a bowl of chips being around £8 and a basic main course meal setting you back an average of £15, travellers simply can’t afford to eat out. The supermarkets and their special offers become your best friend.

My backpackers essentials. And yes, the cheese really does go by that name here.

Most backpacker larders contain the same sort of things as mine – cheap essentials, but essentials that will keep the hunger away. A loaf of bread, pasta and sauce, two minute noodles, a block of cheese, a jar of Vegemite, a carton of longlife milk, teabags and a box of Weet-Bix. It’ll never win any awards for a balanced diet, and I can’t remember the last time I got anywhere near my five a day, but for around $20 (£16) there’s enough to keep me going for the next week. Occasionally I’ll splash out on some sausages to throw in with my pasta, but be it Vegemite on toast, noodles and bread, a late-night bowl of Weet-Bix or a cheese sarnie to keep me going, there is enough in the bag for a meal of sorts.

Eeenie meenie minee mo…

Communal kitchens in the hostels are always good fun, especially with scores of identical bags like mine stuffed inside the fridges. But when you’re on the move, its great to open up the coolbag and have a picnic wherever you fancy. It becomes part of your luggage, and saves you a fortune on eating out. Even a McDonalds, at $9 (£6) for an average meal, seems expensive in contrast to the sausage special pasta with cheese that I have now perfected – and can knock up for around $1.20 a meal!

Why am I writing about this? Because it’s a part of backpacking people might not think about –when I was dining out every night in Thailand on sumptuous three-course Massaman currys and starters for the equivalent of £2.50, there was no need to think about cooking – it was cheaper to eat out. But I’ve actually learned to embrace the portable larder, gradually adding cutlery and plates to it that are on a ‘long term loan’ from hostels along the way. I’ll be self-sufficient by the time I get back to Sydney, minus a cooking ring!

Back in the dorm, I got talking to two guys who were in my room, a Dutchman called Alex, and Brandon, from Canada. We’d said hello a few times, but got talking about diving and how we had to be up early in the morning – my boat leaves E Finger of the marina at 7am, and with theirs just fifteen minutes later, we agreed to wake each other up at 6am.

Early morning in Cairns

Sure enough, it was still getting light when the alarms, almost in synchronisation, went off around the bunkbeds in the room. One by one we climbed out of our beds and gathered towels and dive log books for the blurry-eyed walk out into the early morning Queensland sunshine.

I’d been looking forward to the diving trip. Its my first dive since becoming a qualified Padi diver in Thailand, and it was time to put all my learning into use. I’d hired an underwater camera for the trip to record the moment. I was introduced to Chris, the divemaster onboard with Cairns Diving Centre, who asked about my diving experience. Strangely, one of the other newly qualified divers came over and said I seemed to know what I was on about. I’ve clearly mastered the art of blagging.

It was a rough journey out to the reef, a three hour trip from Cairns. As soon as we left the harbour and began hitting the big swell of the ocean, I made the trip to the coffee bar to take on some seasickness tablets. Its not something I normally suffer from, but decided I’d rather be safe than sorry. I didn’t want to be feeling rough on such a big day – its not everyday you get to dive on one of the world’s natural wonders.

Arriving at the Great Barrier Reef

Half an hour later, people were dropping like flies around me, the catamaran marauding through the huge waves, slamming down and rising up and making around half of the passengers a little green around the gills. I felt great, however, and went up to the deck on the bow and joined a few others who were embracing the rollercoaster ride to the first dive site.

Ready to go!

We arrived at Moore Reef shortly before 11am, the water turning a bright turquoise blue around the reef area. As I was a qualified diver, I was asked to kit up first. It felt reassuringly familiar when I pulled my BCD over my body, strapping myself in and running through my checks – weight belt, fastenings, regulator, air supply, backup air supply, mask and fins. All was good, and I was buddied up with a German guy.

Stepping off the back of the boat

As I stepped down to the platform at the back of the boat, the water lapped around my feet. It was surprisingly warm considering how far offshore we were, but there was a strong current that quickly swept you away from the boat. With my BCG fully inflated, I kicked hard to get myself to the front of the boat and to the anchor line that we used to guide ourselves down to about 10 metres.

Going down…

Its always a strange feeling when you make the descent – for a while, you wonder whether there is anything down there as you make your way into a light blue abyss. Then suddenly, a dark outline comes into view in front of you, and suddenly the reef is next to you.

It was full of life, the suns rays lighting up the colours and shapes of the coral everywhere you look, with dozens of brightly coloured parrot fish, angelfish, butterfly fish and even a unicorn fish swimming by as we made our way around the reef. There was also the obligatory clownfish, aka Nemo.

Colourful coral

But the highlight was yet to come – motioned by Chris to swim over to him, he pointed around a corner. As we kicked our feet faster to get a look, just a few metres below us a turtle came into view, swimming towards a gap in the reef. It was a fleeting moment, but it immediately put a huge smile on my face, so much so I broke the seal on my mask and let in a load of water. As did Chris.

In the words of Nemo’s mate: ‘Duuuuuuude!’

“I knew that turtle would be around somewhere,” he beamed as we climbed back out of the ocean.

Back to the boat

“He wasn’t in his usual spot and I got a bit worried. Then he just turned up – nomatter how many times I see them, turtles just make me smile,” he laughed, joking about how he has to clear his mask every time he sees them because he’ll either start laughing or smiling.

The snorkellers from the snorkel trip had another 20 minutes left on the reef, so I took Chris up on the offer of going for a snorkel too, swimming against the strong current in the deep water yet again to reach the reef.

Nemo land

It gave me a whole new perspective, and if I’m honest, the colours on the reef looked even more impressive because they were being hit by more sunlight. It really is like the scene from the film Finding Nemo, with colours glowing and the whole underwater world going about its daily business, despite their human visitors floating above them.

After some lunch and a cup of tea, we moved to another dive site, and the day was about to get even better. I’d always wanted to see a turtle on a dive, but just minutes after getting back into the water again, Chris swam ahead – yet another turtle. He motioned me to come closer and began scratching the turtle’s back as he swam. Apparently, turtles love having their shells scratched with a fingernail, as it removes the annoying algae for them. Then Chris moved out of the way, and for a few moments I swam alongside the creature, watching as his head moved from side to side as he kept an eye on me, his new underwater swimming partner for a while.

Blowing bubbles on my dive as I search for another turtle

The turtle descended, slowing down and stopping on the reef just below me. It was my one chance to go and touch his shell, so I let out more of my breath and began to sink a few metres lower. As I got nearer, I breathed in more of my air to level off, handed my camera to another diver, and captured the moment as I reached out and gave the turtle a good scratch on his shell.

Going in for the turtle back rub

Giving turtle a nice scratch

It was a slimy texture, and I could see as the algae that was covering his shell began to come away. The turtle didn’t move, simply resting on the coral and apparently enjoying his time with new friends. I looked around, still scratching his shell, and smiled for the camera. Yet again, water filled my mask, but I didn’t care. Until now, I’d never even seen a turtle in the wild, let alone swim and play with one!

Underwater smiles for the camera

We dived to a depth of 12 metres, and the 35 minute dive felt like it was over in seconds. It was a great experience, and brilliant to put all my training in Thailand to use. It wasn’t cheap – the cost of two dives and camera hire was almost as much as my four day diving course in southeast Asia, but it was well worth doing.

Off I go to explore the reef

Having had my first ever scuba experience, that of a short trial dive with a guide on the barrier reef back in 2005, it felt like I had gone full circle. I had always been able to say my first ever dive was on the world’s most famous reef, but now my first fully qualified dive was also on the Great Barrier Reef, and this time I had the photographs to treasure and prove it.

Dive over…water trapped in ear pose up the stairs with Chris

A farewell from the Cairns Diving Centre crew back at the marina

That night I celebrated by meeting up with Alex and Brandon, themselves also buzzing with excitement after their trip out to the reef. We stayed at the Gilligans bar, playing Bogan Bingo, which was half comedy show, half gameshow, with a tongue-in-cheek laugh at the ‘redneck’ side to Australian society.

With Brandon (left) and Alex

It came complete with baseball caps, vest tops, 80s rock music and a lot of laughs, and put us in the perfect mood for a trip to the legendary Woolshed pub where we had drinks and joined in with the party, before ending the night back at the hostel where there is an on-site nightclub.

Legendary backpacker haunt The Woolshed. Messy!

I had been in Cairns for four days, but I wished it was longer. It’s a great town, with a great atmosphere and good people. It’s got a really relaxed, easy-going vibe – you can spend hours lounging around the pool on the esplanade, party the night away, trek through jungles and rainforests to the north or dive in some of the best underwater spots on the planet.

Cairns lagoon

With time against me, I had to start making my way south and I was booked onto my first Greyhound bus from Cairns at 12.20am. I was on my way to Airlie Beach, and to the Whitsundays, but there was just enough time for one last pint with Alex and Brandon. They are both heading south too, but with no guarantee of bumping into them, it is always best to say farewell when you can.

Laden down yet again with my life in bags, complete with a cheese and Vegemite sandwich for the morning in my coolbag, I made my way through the city to the bus terminal near the marina. The Greyhound was already there, waiting, and I gave my name to the bus driver.

“Seat 4D buddy,” he said, slinging my rucksack into the underbelly of the coach.

The Greyhound awaits for Airlie Beach

And with that, I climbed aboard, stuffed my trusty British Airways pillow I’d stolen from my flight to Sydney against the window, and settled down for a night of vertical sleep on the main road down to Airlie Beach.

If only sunburn didn’t hurt so much when you try to get some kip.

Get me out of Here!

Darwin – the capital of the Northern Territory, home to more than 120,000 people, named after that famous Charles bloke and with a bad habit of being flattened and rebuilt.

Its also a place full of people with one intention – getting as drunk, and as noisy, as possible.

Laughing…but not for long!

While I understand that is a bit of a sweeping generalisation, and probably makes me sound really old, it isn’t without justification. In just two nights outside the hostel I was staying in, there were at least four fights. The police were called to one of them.

For Darwin seems to attract the type of person I, and Dan and Laura for that matter, just cant stand. The type that will quite happily waltz around a town centre back home with no shirt on at the first sign of sunshine. The type who would be seen clutching a can of Stella as if his life depended on it. The type who would quite happily start a fight for no apparent reason.

First night in Darwin…before we noticed the problems!

While I’m not going to start labelling anyone here, the vast majority seemed to be Irish labourers who have been working in the building and farming sectors around Darwin, who head to the town to get as smashed as possible in the little time they have before the next pineapple needs picking.

Alpha males, Dan called them, among other choice words. And unfortunately, the vast majority of them were staying at our hostel, the Melaleuca on Mitchell, which didn’t do itself any favours with us either.

On the face of it, its not a bad hostel – there’s a pool, a rooftop bar, hot tub, large kitchen and the rooms were not a bad size. But there were a few things that went on that spoiled the whole experience, and the main one was a biggie. I was kicked out onto the streets!

Darwin: full of troublemakers!

I’ll get onto that in a moment, but first let me tell you about Darwin. It might be full of annoying tourists giving backpackers a bad name, but then there isn’t much else to do apart from drink. Its small, has a city centre about the size of Great Coates (a small village near my house back home) and has been rebuilt twice thanks to Japanese bombings in the war, and a massive Cyclone that undid all the good work during peacetime by flattening the place again in the Seventies. The redeeming features include the fact that it is at least by the coast. Except, there’s no sand, and you can’t go swimming in the water because you’ll get eaten by a crocodile.

Instead, they’ve built a paddling pool for the restless population to swim in, without the threat of a salty croc having you for lunch. Its not a bad spot either, despite the fact it costs money to use, and there were plenty of people sat around, sunbathing and probably plotting which bar they were going to get wrecked in that evening.

Darwin does have a nicer side!

As you can probably tell, I didn’t really get a good vibe from the place the moment I arrived. I did, however, get to meet two lovely people, Ciaran and Lisa, friends of Dan and Laura’s from Melbourne. They all met when they worked together in the south, with the Darwin based couple having moved up to the north about seven weeks ago. They are both originally from Ireland and are in the process of travelling around the world, having spent most of the past year in Australia. We met on the first night in Darwin, but having not slept too well on the Ghan from Alice the night previous, I had to go to bed early.

Ciaran, Lisa and Dan at Kakadu National Park

Instead, I got to know them better when I was invited to dinner with Dan and Laura, a chance to escape the noise and frivolities at the hostel and relax in the couple’s lovely courtyard at the rear of their flat. The couple cooked a chicken curry, probably the best I have had on my travels so far, along with starters and nibbles, while we provided wine and beers.

We chatted late into the night, all getting on so well and its clear how well the two couples had got on together in Melbourne. We chatted about how long we were staying in Darwin, and discussed a visit to the Kakadu national park a few hours down the road.

Darwin’s beaches. Not the best place for sunbathing!

Back at the hostel, I had a broken night’s sleep. The doors to the rooms were made with an automatic catch which, quite possibly, were the loudest door mechanisms known to mankind. It didn’t help that the one to my room was right next to my head, as I was sleeping nearest the door, and the fact the door was a bit ‘sticky’ so you had to give it a good shove to open it. Brilliantly, most of my room were out until all hours the first few nights, which meant a steady stream of bangs and clunks until everyone was home at about 7am.

Then at 8am, the guy below me in the bottom bunk – who I later found out was a squatter and shouldn’t have been there – decided to have a full blown conversation with someone on the phone. It was all a bit trying. Ive mastered the art of being able to sleep anywhere during this trip, but it was hard to ignore everything going on.

There was also a Russian couple at one end of the room, who, worryingly, had a huge stockpile of prescription drugs by their side the whole time I was there. I think one of them was ill, and the other was playing doctor and nurse with the amount of bedside manner time being paid out, but for some reason that eliminated them from any answering the door duties.

So, trying to find out what to do about my lost cash card situation on the phone to the bank back home, you can imagine my frustration, aside from having to deal with an overseas call centre that couldn’t understand my problem and the fact I was in Australia (I was told ‘we can get the card in the post to your registered address’ at least seven times before it registered I was overseas) I was simply being stared at when there was several knocks at the door.

After a bit of a contortion act, I managed to lean from the top bunk, reach a door handle, keep up a conversation on the phone, stop my netbook from crashing to the floor, open a door and let the person on the other side know his drunken friend had already left without him.

Phone still to my ear, the door closed and I flashed a ‘thanks for your help’ look at the couple, neither of whom spoke a single word to anyone else in the room during the three days I was in there.

Roasting

Mealtimes were fun at the Melaleuca too – while there is a good-sized kitchen, the scores of hot plate cooking rings running down the centre, combined with tropical heat and humidity, meant it was like stepping into a furnace every time you wanted to make some two minute noodles. It’s a good job they make the noodles cook so quickly. Any longer and you’d end up cremating yourself in the process.

Then, when you’ve cooked your two minute noodles, you have to go and hire some cutlery and plates from reception to eat the flipping things. $10 gets you a green plastic plate, bowl, camping cup and some cutlery. I never actually got to use my plate, because someone nicked it from my bed within minutes of me picking it up from downstairs reception. It was probably the squatter.

So, with hired plastic camping plates, two minute noodles, quite literally made with blood, sweat and tears, you’re free to sit down in the communal eating area, which is actually the bar where everyone is getting trolleyed, and watch the antics unfold before your eyes. You have to remember to step over a steady stream of water that ran over the floor from the direction of the toilets, however, otherwise you’d slip, noodles will be everywhere and you’ll be back to square one.

Speaking of toilets, or the bathroom in general, that was another part of the hostel that needed looking at. The gents on the first floor get hammered, mainly because when it turns into a bar at night, the toilets are the main conveniences for everyone who is drinking. We all know what sort of a state bar toilets can be in towards the end of a night – and unfortunately, that is what most of us were having to use and get showered in the following morning.

The whole place felt more like Kavos, Ibiza or Malia rather than the ‘real’ Australia I was so used to experiencing. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for those types of stays, and ive done my fair share of them in the past, but on top of the party atmosphere, it was like having to get clean in one of those party resort bar toilets, day in, day out.

Another nice bit of Darwin – the esplanade

As you’ve probably gathered, I wasn’t a fan of the place, and it did little to endear itself to me when it rendered me homeless. Having originally planned to stay in Darwin for at least a week, my lost cash card meant I was living day by day. I decided to stay for two more days, and went to see reception. Unfortunately, they told me, while there were beds available for the Saturday, they were saved for extensions in the morning and I’d have to go back then. Fine.

Except, when I went back down in the morning, there were none left.

“So, you couldn’t sell me the bed last night, and now they’ve gone, I’m effectively being kicked out,” I said.

“Yes, I’m sorry, it’s the system we use,” was the reply, looking at a computer screen. “You can try again tomorrow, when we’ve got a few more available in the morning for extensions, but I can’t sell them now.”

I immediately spotted the flaw in the fake helpfulness.

“But I won’t be a guest, and so how will it be an extension,” I put back to them.

“Ah, no, you won’t be entitled to them then,” I was told back, with that weird scrunched up fake ‘I’m sorry’ face.

I set off across the road, to Chillis backpackers. It too was full, as was every other hostel in the town I tried. It began to get desperate. I told my hostel reception it was a ridiculous system, who simply told me I should have checked out five minutes ago. Unhelpful, to say the least.

I dragged my feet upstairs and made sure I had the longest shower possible. Dan and Laura were on hand yet again to help me out. I was able to store my bags in their room, getting to know their room mate Jay in the process, and Laura told their friend Lisa about my predicament. I checked out, but then immediately went straight upstairs to the bar area and logged onto the Skyscanner website and booked flights to Cairns in a couple of days. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back – i’d had enough. And so had Dan – he wanted out too, to head to the west coast and Broome, but Laura had just landed a waitressing job at a Greek restaurant in the city.

World War storage tunnels in Darwin

Thankfully, Lisa and Ciaran offered me the spare room at their flat for a couple of nights, a welcome relief after a good few hours fretting about where I would be sleeping that night. Again, its one of the beautiful things about the backpacking community – everyone helps each other out when its needed. It could just be looking out for jobs or flats on noticeboards for each other, buying someone a beer when the funds have dried up, making an extra dose of pasta for a hungry roomie or sticking a load of someones clothes in with your wash, or it could be offering someone a bed for a night or two. Generally, the theory is, what goes around, comes around. I’d only known Ciaran and Lisa for a couple of days, yet they were willing to put me up in their home until I left Darwin, a gesture I was extremely grateful of.

Roadtrip time!

It gave us a chance to club together and hire a car for the day, taking in a trip to the Kakadu National Park, one of Australia’s largest parks at 7,646 square miles – about the size of the country of Slovenia.

Long, straight roads!

We set off early, and soon came across huge mounds by the side of the road. They were termite mounds, huge ones at that, so big they are known as cathedral mounds, and hard to believe they are built by such tiny insects from the soil around them.

Termite mounds. Impressive!

And giant termite homes were not the only gigantic things around – we were on a main road train route, with dozens of the mammoth lorries thundering past, slightly snaking from side to side at the rear as they make their way down the long straight roads.

Mammoth road trains!

Kakadu was a good three hours drive away from Darwin, and was a mixture of wetlands, swamps and billabongs, along with mountainous ridges.

Relaxing in Kakadu

There’s no denying it’s a beautiful part of Australia to visit, although it is very flat. As a result, when you are driving the many kilometres through it, there is little to see apart from the first few rows of trees at the side of the road. Thankfully, Lisa was driving and able to stay awake, something the three blokes in the car were unable to do. Whether it was the monotonous sound of the road, the heat and humidity, the lack of exciting scenery or just general exhaustion, the three of us just could not stay awake. It was almost instant sleep the moment we first got back in the car, and as a result, we saw some beautiful areas, and also had a cracking kip!

Croc warnings…if seen, get out and make it snappy

There was something that managed to keep us awake, however – the duty of croc-watch near the edges of water. Due to the rainfall in recent months, many of the tracks are closed as they are infested with saltwater crocodiles that have moved around to new areas.

Snap snap

It was quite unnerving to walk past signs warning there was a very real risk you could be gobbled up at any moment, but thankfully we didn’t see any. Even more thankfully, they didn’t see us either.

We headed back to Darwin, where I would spend my remaining few hours reorganising my bags before heading off to the airport and my flights to the east coast.

Looking out for Crocs near the water!

Try saying this after a few!

It did, however, mean my last few moments with Dan and Laura, who by now had decided to head to the west coast in search of work. From being complete strangers just a couple of weeks ago, we had become close friends and travelled through the centre of this huge continent together. There had been many laughs and dramas along the way, most notably how we all got stranded in the outback together thanks to the infamous dodgy fuel pump incident.

My Darwin gang – from left, Ciaran, Lisa, Dan, Laura and Jay

But all the drama just served to make us become closer friends, helping each other out and relaxing together. For two weeks, I had two good mates I could hang around with, chat with, ask for advice and travel around with. Laura and I agreed it was a good job she’d dropped her chicken schnitzel in the oven at the Backpack Oz hostel in Adelaide – thanks to that, and me dashing to the rescue with a pair of tongs, we had a friendship that I know will continue long after we have all returned home.

Heading off for pastures new

It was yet another sad set of goodbyes, as everyone joined me for a few beers in the bar to see me off. Lisa, Ciaran, Dan, Laura and their roommate Jay all turned out for a few photos, and with backpacks on I headed out of the Melaleuca hostel and towards the bus stop for Darwin Airport.

Trouble for Man City before my flight!

The sadness soon subsided, when, thanks to the wonders of the internet, I could watch as Manchester City played for the Premier League title. I saw as QPR took the lead, before I was then called for my flight. I was gutted – I knew I was about to miss something special, with Manchester United on the verge of snatching the title back from under the Blues noses.

My first flight for three months – strangely, the longest i’ve not been on a plane for three years!

Then, on the Virgin Australia flight to Brisbane, I noticed there was a great live television system onboard, complete with Fox Sports and coverage of the game. Sadly, as we took off, the system was stopped, but came back on just as Man City scored the winning goal. What an incredible end to the season!

I watched the celebrations unfold, 35,000ft in the air, thousands of miles away from where the action was taking place. What a brilliant system, and what a brilliant result!

Managed not to miss any of the action!

I didn’t get much sleep, thanks to a connection in the middle of the night in Brisbane, but arrived in Cairns where I immediately felt happier. I have been here before, and there was huge part of me glad to be away from the chaos of Darwin. Sadly, for me, my memories of what can actually be a really nice city were tarnished by the age-old problem for backpackers – the wrong crowd, and at the wrong hostel.

A Train to the Tropics

Back on The Ghan through the red -and green- desert (Image © Great Southern Rail)

I’ll let you into a little secret – the so called Red Centre of Australia isn’t actually that red.

The sand, soil and rocks are red, for sure, but the days of the deep red desert stretching to the horizon have gone, at least for now.

Its all because of the weather Australia has had over recent years, and in particular, the higher rainfall in the Northern Territory. As a result, its actually surprisingly green, with trees, shrubs and grasses thriving on the damper conditions. Its still incredibly dry, but then these desert plants know how to make the most of what little water they do get.

The Ghan making its way through the Red Centre (Image © Great Southern Rail)

It means the view from The Ghan is predominantly a mesmerising conveyor belt of different plant life, but the journey north from Alice Springs promised to bring changes aside from those you could see outside of the window.

It was an evening departure from the Alice, but I made sure I was in the town centre to see the huge train arrive into the town after its 24 hour journey from Adelaide in the south. It was mainly to get a photograph from the front of the train – its actually so long, its impossible to get to the front when it stops at a station before I knew it was scheduled to arrive at around 1.45pm, but having arrived on the same train last week slightly earlier, I knew it would be worth getting to the station earlier than its due time.

The Ghan pulling into Alice Springs a few hours before I board

I rode along the Stuart Highway and waited at the level crossing, and just five minutes later, there was a tell-tale sound of a horn in the distance. Suddenly, photographers descended on the crossing from cars that were parked around the area, and then down the tracks there was a dazzling bright light as the train curved around beside the highway.

The powerful Ghan loco passes by

It seemed to take an eternity as one by one, the carriages trundled past, making the earth rumble underneath my feet. In the windows, excited passengers, all having their own adventures, waved as they arrived in this desert town. There was another blast of the horn, and the Ghan came to a halt.

I spent the afternoon buying provisions for the journey, the usual stuff to go in my backpacker fridge – a coolbag – like bread, biscuits and a fine selection of nuts and dried fruit reduced from $8 a pot to just 50 cents! My friend Laura was impressed. “What a bargain,” she smiled, looking forward to a night of chomping away on pawpaw, chocolate covered liquorice and cheap chocolate balls. A strange mixture, but it was cheap all the same.

A wave from a passenger

There was a very familiar feel about getting back onboard the Ghan. In a way, the excitement had been lost a little. When we left Adelaide, we were heading off into the unknown – what would the train be like? What will the people be like? What will the red centre look like?

Dan, Laura and I, pillows at the ready, for The Ghan at Alice Springs

We now knew all the answers to these, but we were instead looking forward to the relaxing comfort of the train. Bang on 6pm, the scheduled departure time, we began slowly inching forward before quickly gathering speed, and before we knew it we were pacing out of Alice and back into the outback.

Dan and Laura’s ‘cheap seats’ carriage – actually pretty swish!

I spent most of my time with Dan and Laura, who were again in the ‘cheap seats’ as they called them a few carriages back from me. Of course, cheap seats was an in-joke – infact, with almost full recline, a shower, more legroom than you would ever need and a nice peaceful cabin, it was about the same conditions as first class on a plane.

With most of the journey in darkness, we spent the evening playing cards and laughing and joking about our escapades over the past week.

Overnight train journey – always means the cards come out!

The route we were taking on the Ghan is actually relatively new – the railway from Alice Springs to Darwin was only opened in 2004, and in the darkness outside we were passing the famous rounded granite boulders known as the Devils Marbles, and passing through gold rush towns like Tennants Creek.

Getting nearer to Darwin (Image © Great Southern Rail)

Everyone onboard the train was awoken early in the morning by a brilliant story of Tennants Creek, dating back to the days when there were more than 600 men in the town, and just 40 women. According to the story, there was a lot of fighting for the affections of the few females around, and in the meantime, the men would mine, go to the pub and generally not look after themselves. That’s when one had a brilliant idea to attract more girls to the town, and advertised a free holiday in the outback for any women wanting to visit. Apparently, a young woman took him up on the offer, and arrived in Tennants Creek to find hundreds of men clean shaven, immaculately dressed and on their best behaviour to impress the new pretty thing in town.

The idea caught on, and in the end, busloads of women were signed up to visit the town on a freebie stay in the outback. The only problem was the wives of the few men who did initially set up homes as couples in the town grew increasingly frustrated with the new competition, and pulled the plug on the scheme. It was a great story to wake up to, and I’m sure it put a smile on many travellers’ faces.

Early morning arrival into Katherine

One of the reasons the story was played was to wake everyone up onboard, as we were about to pull into Katherine, a town some 300km south of Darwin. The Ghan stops in Katherine for about three hours, during which time we were encouraged to get off and have a look around the town. It was $15 for the shuttle to the town centre, so we bought a ticket and got driven to the town. Apart from shops, there wasn’t much else to see, apart from a visitor centre which showed how devastating the frequent floods can be in the area.

Enforced stop-off at the Katherine River

It’s a chance for people on the train to take up the rail company’s tours – splashing out on anything from helicopter tours of Katherine Gorge to a few holes on the local golf course. They come at a price, but there was no shortage of takers. Dan and I laughed a lot about how we’d have rather had a sleep-in on the train, being rocked away by the sway of the carriages.

“Its like being on the East Coast mainline back home, being kicked off at Grantham and told to have a tour of the place whether you like it or not,” I joked.

Katherine River – when it floods, it covers the bridge…

We walked to the Katherine River, which runs far below the bridge we were walking across. Then we saw some metre markings on another bridge a short distance away, showing how high the river flows at times of flood. A frightening prospect.

Road Train. Long. Fun fact – it can take 2km to overtake one at 80km/hr!

We sat and had a picnic breakfast, sheltering under a tree and watching the dozens of long road trains making their way up and down the Stuart Highway, from one end of the country to the other.

We walked back to the pick up point, only to have to wait for the third return trip due to the number of people trying to get back to the train on the small minibus that was being used. Back at the terminal though, the two powerful locomotives were being inched back towards the main train, ready for the final section of its mammoth journey north.

Watching it turn greener again outside

By now, it was noticeably warmer. The joining sections between the carriages, which are the only parts of the train where you can feel the outside temperature, had changed from the slight fresh chill in the south, to a warm and warm and humid place to stand and take photos. Outside, the red desert and shrubs were turning into lush greenery, jungles and palm trees dominating the landscape as we passed through Adelaide River and the Litchfield National Park, arriving into Darwin just before nightfall.

Darwin comes into view on the horizon

It had been a brilliant journey in comfortable surroundings and with some very friendly staff, who clearly love their jobs. This train, while being a vital link between the coasts and the centre of this massive country, is far more than just a way of getting around. People I spoke to had been saving for years for a chance to ride the tracks in one of the gold or platinum classes, complete with all the lavish luxury and gourmet food. But those of us in the standard Red class were also made to feel special, with the train having an overall feeling of an interesting tour, rather than the straightforward, faceless point-to-point transport we’re normally accustomed to.

Backpack and the backpacker’s fridge – a coolbag – reunited by the Ghan

Yes, I could have caught a plane and flown the distance in about five hours, but it wouldn’t have been the adventure it seemed to be onboard the Ghan. It was 2,979 kilometres of meeting new people, having a laugh, enjoying a coffee, relaxing in a lounge and watching a fantastic landscape glide by your window. I left the train with the feeling that I had actually ‘seen’ Australia, a feeling you definitely don’t get when you walk off a plane.

Welcome to Darwin, the end of the line!

As we waited for a taxi, we noticed how hot it was. We’d definitely arrived in the tropics, with high humidity and that ‘holiday smell’ of somewhere far away that spends its time baking in the sun. It was strange to think how different the weather could be, just from one train ride.

The taxi took a while, so I rang the HSBC bank back home to find out why my card wasn’t working anymore, having tried to use it online in Alice Springs. It turns out my details had been stolen by fraudsters and so they’d had to stop my card, leaving me without any way of getting money out.

Except, I’d also found a way of stopping myself getting money out. I looked in my wallet for my card, as a result of the fraud problem, and couldn’t find it. Cleverly, I’d left it in Alice Springs, down the side of my mate Neil’s sofa. Thankfully, Dan and Laura were on hand to pay for my hostel until I sorted something out. Another little problem to find a solution to – the joys of travelling…and of misplacing bank cards!

*This journey was made as a guest of Great Southern Rail, www.greatsouthernrail.com.au