Bye Bye Ballarat

Saying goodbye

A few people have asked me what is the hardest thing about travelling. Is it the language barriers perhaps? The constant moving around and lack of routine? Naff hostels and a lack of sleep? Or how about being away from family and friends back home?

My farewell to Ballarat was by far the hardest one of the trip so far, and if I’m honest, is likely to keep that dubious honour until I return home.

Plainly speaking, it became a home away from home, thanks to some fantastically brilliant people, without whom I would probably be back at my real home in Hull right now.

Sturt Street, Ballarat, in the rain

I had initially planned to spend a weekend in Ballarat, the city in Victoria that was home to the gold rush of the 1800s, and the location of the Eureka Stockade, which still holds the accolade of being Australia’s only civil conflict. I came to visit my friend Nat, who many moons ago I worked with on the go-kart activity at a children’s summer camp in New York. We would spend hours talking about our little towns back home, myself about Grimsby and its fishing history, while Nat would talk of a similar sounding small town a few hours from Melbourne.

The old mining exchange, Ballarat

I remember at the time thinking of the far-off land, hearing all about her friends back home and building a picture in my head of a Wild West setting from a bygone era. How little did I know that 10 years on, that little town of Ballarat would take a special place in my own heart, a place that I would learn to navigate my way around, make my own lifelong friends, have so much fun and laughter, and, albeit for a short time, I would become a part of the community.

My weekend visit might have lasted almost three months, but it was time to say goodbye.

My extended stay meant I got to know Nat’s circle of friends, including Jess, who for the past few weeks I have also been staying with, along with her daughter Liv and playful little dog Cleo. It was Jess who introduced me to Nathan, the owner of the Lake View hotel, where I would earn some pocket money to help out with my financial strife thanks to a missing lodger back home. It was also Jess who would give me lifts, lend me her car, feed me, provide internet access and generally pick me up when things got a little tough over the past few weeks.

Together, Nat, Jess, Liv and their mutual friend James made sure I kept to my original travel plans, amid thoughts at one point of packing my backpack and returning home to sort out the problems in person. Thankfully, my parents have also been helping out back in the UK, and I’m pleased to say that gradually the issue is being rectified.

But the support meant we had all grown really close, and despite knowing that one day I would have to start moving on again, I don’t think we’d realised just how hard it would be.

Raising a glass

It ended up being a week of goodbyes with others too. I had made a lot of friends at the Lake View bar and restaurant, and as it happened, Mitch, one of the supervisors who guided me through my first few days there, was also leaving, heading off to run a bar on the Greek island of Eos for the European summer. It meant there were farewell drinks to be had all round, especially as he is close to Jess’s mum Rosie and the family.

There was no better place for it than the Lake View after Mitch’s final shift, especially thanks to a ridiculous number of coffee loyalty cards, offering a free glass of wine, that Rosie had saved for a special occasion. It produced some of the finest bartering I have ever seen between Rosie and Glen and Lachie from the bar, who settled for four cards in payment for a bottle of wine.

With Rosie, Jess and Liv (far right) family and Lachie

I volunteered myself as the designated driver for the night, and after vast numbers of coffee cards had traded hands for equally vast glasses of wine, Mitch made his way to his official leaving bash at the Seymours pub in the town. Glen and Lachie used the increasingly sozzled ladies as guinea pigs for some of their new cocktails and punch, before I drove them home at around 9pm.

With Jess heading to bed early, I decided to say goodbye to Mitch and the Lake View staff at his leaving drinks, and set out to allow myself one beer before driving back and having an early one myself. I had a lot to do in the short time I had left in Ballarat, and was planning to allow myself at least one day in Melbourne before making my way north.

Lachie welcomes me to the pub!

I arrived at Seymours to a cry of ‘Pom Pom’ from Lachie, who has become a good mate during my time in the city. It was closely followed by “you’re coming out for beers with us,” and I didn’t need much persuading. I drove the car back to Jess’s house, hailed a taxi and made my way back to the bar where the party was in full swing. Mitch was still somehow able to string sentences together, despite the copious amounts of alcohol that had been passed his way, while one of his mates, Chris, the owner of Seymours, came over to me to say hello.

Mitch (the one leaving!), other Mitch, and Chris

I’d got to know Chris from some of my first few days in Ballarat, when I discovered that his pub had some of the best free wifi I had managed to find in the area. I spent many an afternoon in there, lasting out a coffee for hours and sometimes stretching to a lemon lime and bitters as a treat. I would sit in the same seat in a corner of the bar area, where I was initially told there was the best wifi signal. A couple of weeks later, looking for something to occupy my time, I ended up doing a trial shift in there, and laughed as it was referred to as ‘my corner’.

Sending Mitch off to Greece

After a detour to the Bridge, another pub nearby, when I mistakenly thought everyone had left, Seymours officially closed for the night. Except, we were all still in it – and the doors had been locked! Chris opened up the bar as a treat, and from around midnight until 4am, Lachie made it his mission to pour as many alcoholic drinks down my throat as possible.

Oh dear...

The cider and shots were interspersed with goodbyes, as people dropped by the wayside and disappeared into the night. There was the lovely Miranda, who until I arrived in Ballarat had never spoken to an English person.

Miranda with an Englishman!

“Your accent is so funny,” she’d giggle, normally as Mitch would purposely get me to talk to her.

Then there was Kelli, who bounded over to give me a huge hug when I saw her in the Bridge, and who promptly fell about laughing as I tried to perform the Inbetweeners dance. Badly.

Back at Seymours, there was a guy called Tungy who I spent a large chunk of the night talking to, while his girlfriend Rose, who used to serve me those long drawn out coffees back when I was fleecing the wifi, was a lot of fun and great to party with.

The Lake View and Seymours staff bash for Mitch

With round after round of multicoloured shots, glasses raised to Mitch and I for our travels, and Lachie filling up my glass with cider every time there was room for a drop more, the night flew by.

Yet another round of shots

And that’s where it all gets sketchy. What I do know is that Lachie and everyone else succeeded in giving me one heck of a send off – and the worst hangover since my university days.

Pouring our own drinks at the bar

I have little memory of anything from between 2am until 2pm the following day, when I awoke from a coma to be sick once again. Jess took great delight in telling me all the details of how my 4am dash to the bathroom woke the house. Sick as a dog, calling for help and passing out on the toilet floor with my legs wrapped around the bowl wasn’t the lasting memory I had set out to leave my Ballarat family with, but, thankfully, Jess and Liv found it hilarious.

Tempting me again. It was all Lachie's fault!

Its not my style to get into such a state, and at this point I have to stress i’m not proud of it, but it has been a long, long time since I have been anywhere close to as ill as I was. Part of me still thinks it might be something i’d eaten, but then I would say that. At least I’d managed to apologise in the midst of it all – “I’m so sorry, its all Lachie’s fault,” was apparently my repetitive whimper, closely followed by “I don’t want to be sick anymore.” Classy!

I paid the price in more ways than the mother of all hangovers too – I was unable to move from my bed until 6.30pm the following day, which meant I’d lost my extra day in Melbourne, and already word had spread around town about my antics. On the upside, James had awarded me 100 of his citizenship points towards becoming an honorary Australian for having a typically Aussie night out.

Thankfully, I was fully recovered for my send-off dinner the following day, which, I’m glad to say, was a much more dignified affair. Nat, Jess, Liv, James and our friend Jane, mum to the adorable 18-month-old Lucy that we had many hours of laughs with, all dressed up for dinner at The Boatshed restaurant on Lake Wendouree.

Presents all round!

I was armed with gifts for Nat, Jess and Liv, just small tokens of my appreciation for all they had done for me. I’d got Nat some flowers and the My Kitchen Rules cookbook, the official book of the television series we had both got into a routine of watching when I first arrived. For Jess, who is a huge fan of music, I chose an Ipod FM transmitter, so that she can listen to her Iphone playlists, that she would often belt out from the bathroom, in the car.

A card and gift for Jess

Liv was an easy one – she’s a fan of all things sweet, and after tempting me with gobstoppers and Nerds (remember them!) over the last few weeks, I bought a couple of the biggest boxes I could find, along with a giant box of Lindt chocolates. I also put in something special for her relating to my job back home. Having watched some of my stories online, taken the mickey out of some of my on-screen hand gestures, asked countless questions about the BBC and my work, there was only one thing I could give her – my BBC lanyard.

I make a habit of taking my journalist identification everywhere with me, and this trip was no exception. Afterall, you just never know when or where the big story of a lifetime could fall into your lap, and when you might just need that bit of proof that you are who you say you are when you need access to a story. It was still attached to my lanyard that I wear around my neck off screen, and I knew she’d love it.

Liv, my hoody and her non-edible present!

I was right, she proudly wore it for the rest of the night. Sometimes, it’s the smallest gestures that mean the most – and if my bosses are reading this, I’ll pay for a new one!

Speaking of great gestures, I had a lovely surprise bag of gifts myself from Nat, complete with an Australian flag, a stubby holder, a pen and lanyard, and best of all, a selection of Aussie foods and snacks to keep me going through my long days of travelling ahead.

A funny note and drawings from Nat

There was a moving letter and card, complete with drawings of all of us and some of the sayings that have become commonplace between us, cause of a lot of laughter in the time I have been here.

It was a brilliant night, I had a delicious porterhouse steak, some beautiful wine and had a thoroughly memorable final evening with everyone, rounded off with drinks at the Lake View.

My Ballarat family - Jane, James, Jess, Me, Nat and Liv

It was already getting hard, knowing the inevitable departure was growing ever closer, but finally packing my bags again after almost three months of routine made it sink in a little more that I was on my way again.

Liv getting a taste for backpacking...once she'd managed to lift the bags!

After lunch in the city centre, we headed back to Jess’s to pick up my bags and to say goodbye to another part of ‘our family’ of recent weeks, in the form of Cleo the dog.

A last cuddle for Cleo

She’d clearly picked up on something in the last day or so, and had become very clingy around me, following me around the house and jumping up for cuddles at every opportunity. She was sniffing around my bags and looking at me with sad eyes for much of my departure day, and with one last tummy tickle I said farewell, with a promise that I’d give her a wave and a whistle on Skype.

And so I found myself on the platform at Ballarat station once again, only this time I had a one-way ticket to Melbourne in my hand. It didn’t seem real that I wouldn’t be coming back, and I was gutted to be saying goodbye to three people that have become so close to me.

Moving on...much to Liv's delight!!

Farewell Nat

There wasn’t a dry eye around as we all had one last group hug. I kissed each on the head, thanked them one last time, and then the doors of the 4:11pm train to Melbourne closed. The engine revved, the brakes let go, and we slowly drifted out of the station with Nat, Liv and Jess running alongside, waving. And then they disappeared out of sight.

As the Ballarat suburbs turned into the bush outside, I thought back to my early days in Australia back in February. I was supposed to head to Mount Gambier to help out at a roadhouse in return for board and lodge, but got let down at the last minute. I was only told the day before I was due to fly, but I decided to go to Melbourne as planned. I fell back on the whole theory that everything happens for a reason…and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Without that last minute change, there would have been no visit to the Australian Grand Prix, no music festival, no incredible body surfing on Bells Beach, and the guys at the Lake View would have merely been staff who brought me a coffee.

Instead, I leave Ballarat with a whole new set of close friends, some of whom I’m sure I will stay in touch with for life. I hope to see many of them again, perhaps welcoming them to my home and returning many of the favours that have been offered to me during the past few months.

Finally, i’m dedicating this post to Nat. Ten years ago, like me, she took a leap of faith and travelled to a childrens’ summer camp, Camp Nashopa, in upstate New York. Neither of us had any idea how to run the go-kart activity, nor how to fix an engine, but somehow, by chance or otherwise, we travelled from our respective sides of the globe and ended up sharing a brilliant few months together. At the end we said our goodbyes knowing the likelihood was we wouldn’t see each other again.

While it was sad back then, it’s also the beauty of being a traveller – a promise to stay in touch can be broken or kept. To keep it means there will always be a door open for you somewhere in the world. Ten years on, our friendship was as strong as ever. We might only message each other once in a blue moon, and last saw each other seven years ago, but Nat helped to save me from returning home early by offering me a place to stay.

Her support and encouragement to stay in Ballarat led to some fantastic experiences, some brilliant days out, laughter like there was no tomorrow and the discovery of lemon-lime and bitters, peanut butter with honey on toast, and the most delicious chicken parma.

But much more than any of that, she introduced me to some of the most generous, kind-hearted and amazing people I could ever wish to meet. People who looked after me, supported me, took me under their wing and gave me a place I could call home. To Nat, Jess, Liv and James for all you’ve done for me, to all at the Lake View for the fun and laughs, and to everyone in Ballarat who made me feel so welcome, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and I will miss you dearly.

The hardest thing about travelling? Saying goodbye.

Bye for now xxx

A ‘latte’ good times

Enjoying the last days of summer in Ballarat

After months of life on the road and living from a backpack, my time in Ballarat has almost been like a holiday away from the travelling circuit.

It has given me some time to develop a sense of normality and routine, a town I can call home for a while, and new friends I can develop lasting bonds with.

A few people have asked me why I seem to have got stuck in one place in Australia. While it was always my intention to stay around the Melbourne area for when Matt and Siobhan arrived, the simple fact is I had to seriously sort out my financial situation thanks to an errant lodger back home. I was owed months of rent, and it had left a huge hole in my finances. I came within a whisker of returning home.

Earning my keep

However, that side of travelling is hopefully sorting itself out, and in the meantime I was lucky to have friends in Ballarat who were happy for me to stay for free. Besides, I had fitted in really well with Nat’s group of friends, especially with Jess, her daughter Liv and friend James, who all know each other through their paramedic course at the university in the city. From the moment we all first met, we’ve been bantering and laughing together – its like I have known them for years.

Paramedic practice: "Er, Phil, you've got to lay off the Tim Tams"

So, what else have I been up to? Well, Ive been getting to know the locals, learning how to make ‘proper’ coffee, washed an ambulance, pulled a few pints and even squeezed in a game of squash.

Washing an ambulance, something I wasn't expecting on my travel 'done' list

Its certainly been a busy few months, a huge chunk of it I spent at one of the leading bar and restaurants in the town, The Lake View. Overlooking the huge lake Wendouree, it’s a great location and seen as a cool place to hang out by students from the nearby university, workers from the city and many of the locals who take leisurely walks or jogs around the lake.

The Lake View hotel

I ended up helping out at the Lake View, and got to know the owner Nathan really well, as well as a great bunch of staff who became friends. I was soon affectionately christened as Pom Pom by Nathan and Lachy, one of the supervisors, and the name stuck. Another supervisor, Mitch, showed me the ropes and where everything was in the restaurant, as well as taking me through my first coffee using the proper espresso coffee machine.

With boss Nathan (left) and Glen behind the bar at the 'Lakey'

Coffee is a huge deal in Australia these days, probably on a par with America, but there isn’t much of a reliance on the huge chains like the Starbucks and the Costas like over there. Instead, there is much more of a café culture, with many private and independent coffee shops, where the quality is excellent. And its taken seriously too – those who serve coffee, or baristas as they’re known, have often completed special courses to learn the trade.

It’s a far cry from back in my own hospitality days, working at Pizza Hut and catering agencies to fund myself through college and university, where people were happy with button-pressed, machine-made coffee and cappuccino. Nowadays, standards are so high, coffee shops have to make sure their drinks are the best around. Its for that reason I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the coffee machine when it comes to making drinks for customers. It also gave me a newfound appreciation of the art of coffee making. Trust me, its not as easy as they make it look.

With Mitch and my first ever latte!

And so, during a quiet afternoon, Mitch showed me the ropes, starting with perhaps the hardest part of coffee making – frothing the milk. This is the bit that makes all the noise in the coffee shops, the distinctive bubbly, hissing, whooshing noise as a powerful jet of steam stretches out a jug of common, everyday milk. To an onlooker, it looks really easy to do – just stick the steam wand in, turn it on and let it do its stuff.

Wrong.

Four jugs of wasted milk later, and with a hand from Mitch, I managed to get something that resembled properly frothed milk. It’s a fine art, using your hands to judge the temperature of the milk, while simultaneously getting the milk to rotate in the jug, and at the same time lowering the milk so that the steam works its way through, ‘stretching’ it out and giving it a lovely silky texture. It only takes a few seconds, but it can quite easily result in a milk explosion as it whizzes around inside the jug, up the sides, goes all out of control and rockets out of the top. It makes for a fair bit of cleaning up.

Next up was the actual coffee part – getting the ground beans into the group handle. There’s a lot to be done right here, from making sure the handle part is clean and dry before you put the coffee in, to making sure the outer part of the head is free from grounds, and of course making sure you put the right amount into it in the first place. Two to three pulls on the grinder handle deposits enough to fill it, and with a tap and a press down with a tamper, it’s good to go onto the espresso machine.

I won't be putting Starbucks out of business anytime soon! My first latte!

It’s a process that takes just seconds for the pros, but with so much technique to try to remember, it takes me substantially longer. It doesn’t always go quite right either – too little in the way of coffee, and it’ll be too weak coming out of the machine. Pack in too much, and the machine will struggle to push the water through, burning the coffee. If there are any grounds around the connector, it will also impair the flavour.

With it all connected up, speed is crucial to avoid ruining the coffee. With a latte glass positioned under the spout, I press the one cup button and the dark brown liquid begins to pour out. While its doing its stuff, there’s enough time to tap the jug a little, to get rid of some of the bigger bubbles, before removing the freshly brewed coffee from the machine.

Its then a simple case of pouring the milk into the coffee.

Wrong again.

Trying to make a latte proved to be tricky. I found it hard to give the coffee a good head (behave yourselves), but in my mind it still tasted ok. In the end, I was shown a number of different ways to do it, all of which involved various tricks of keeping the milk pouring, hitting the side of the glass with the pour, shaking it as I poured, using a spoon to hold froth back or just going a bit more gung ho and dumping the milk in, somehow leaving it perfect. I usually ended up pouring it in two parts and hoping for the best.

I made that!

I did, however, start to knock out  a few decent cappuccinos having got my head around the milk-making technique, even getting a “Not bad Pom Pom” from Mitch. I was never going to start threatening Starbucks with my skills, but it was enough to make myself a cuppa from time to time!

It was Nathan, one of the owners, that perhaps gave me the greatest piece of advice however.

“Pom Pom, never forget to wipe your wand. Always remember to wipe your wand when you’ve used it,” he smiled while making yet more milk, putting a few cheeky smiles on everyone else’s face who was stood nearby. A priceless bit of advice – it stops milk burning and sticking itself onto the metal rod!

Lachy at the Lakey

Its been a brilliant few months getting to know everyone at the Lake View, both the staff and its many regular customers. One of them, Margie, would be waiting at the doors for us to open at 7am some mornings, but without fail she would put a smile on mine and everyone else’s face. She’s retired, always smartly dressed, loves a latte (but not too hot!) and does a mean crossword. She would always be asking me about my travels, my life back home and where I was heading next, and she had a wicked Aussie sense of humour too.

I’ve got to know many of the locals, often intrigued by what brought an Englishman so far off the beaten backpacker track to Ballarat, and I’d spend a lot of time explaining my overland journey to Australia to ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the wide-eyed customers, who would often give me invaluable travel tips for their country. The staff too would be intrigued about my situation, especially when word started getting out that I was ‘on the telly’ back home.

“So, the rumour is that you’re a television reporter back home, and now you’re here doing our dishes. How did that happen?” was one particularly great line from Danny, one of the chefs, as I was running countless plates and pans through the potwash one day.

It made me laugh. I’d not really talked about my career back home, mainly as it seems so far away right now, but I could totally see his point. As I was scraping yet more nachos from a bowl, I thought about what Danny had said. This time last year I was covering top stories on the BBC news, and now I’m scraping food scraps off plates and getting covered in baked bean juice. But perhaps contrary to what some must have thought, I didn’t feel the work was ‘beneath me’. Infact, it was quite the opposite – I was happy, its something completely different, and it reminded me of my times through college and uni when I’d spend hours pushing plates through a Pizza Hut dishwasher and serving customers.

A cheeky wave from a regular at the Lake View!

The fact is, while I have got a fantastic job back home that I’ve worked so hard for, I was just so happy to be meeting an entirely different set of people and serving the public. It was great, just for a while, to be having a laugh and some banter with customers again, just like what I used to do before my journalism days, without a tight deadline hanging over me. It’s a lot of fun, and exactly what this trip was all about, meeting new people, new environments and finding new ways to spend my time.

When I wasn’t serving in the bar or restaurant, I’d often be in there with Jess and James, who have become very close friends during my time in the city.

Taken just before Cleo deleted a whol

I’m currently staying at Jess’s house with her and her 12-year-old daughter Liv, and their little Taco Terrier Cleo, who is an adorable three year old Chihuahua cross. She’s an affectionate little thing, always bounding up to me as I walk into the house and following everyone around. She’ll usually sleep on (or in!) your bed at night, with a particularly good technique for hogging the mattress, and is constantly looking for hugs and cuddles. As I’m writing this post, she’s snoozing on my lap, only waking for an occasional glance up at me or my netbook screen.

Out for a walk. Cleo came too

Nat, Liv and I all went for a walk around Lake Wendouree on one particularly sunny Sunday, a good 6km meander around the water. We took Cleo for the walk, who particularly enjoyed a quick jog alongside me. It also gave me the opportunity to take some photos of the beautiful setting that I have been fortunate to look out over most days that I have been in the city.

Black swans on Lake Wendouree

There was also a chance to have a look at the Olympics commemorative area, close to the rowing finishing line on the lake. It had been used in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for the rowing events, and as such a little garden has been set up, complete with a statue of the Olympic flame.

Olympics finish line

There was also a great feature that had been set in place during a visit by many of the medal winners from the games, which included hand and feet imprints in stone left by the Olympians. It gave us a few laughs putting all of our hands into the huge imprints left by some, obviously big hands help out with the oars!

Olympics? Woof.

I also had a day trip into Melbourne to keep me busy, thanks to the saga of Matt and Siobhans clothes that got left in the campervan before they flew out to New Zealand. It involved a train ride into the suburbs from Ballarat, changing at the delightfully named town of Sunshine. It’s a shame that particularly high levels of crime in the area have earned it the nickname of Scumshine, but every time I pass through I can’t help but smile at the thought of giving people your address as living in Sunshine.

Clothes recovery exercise for Matt and Siobhan. Mission Accomplished!

Having recovered the clothes, I decided to catch up with a few friends in the city, both of whom I had met during my travels. First was Rosie, a graphic designer who was my dive buddy during my Padi diving course in Thailand. I made my way to Balaclava, another smile-provoking named area of the city, where I grabbed a coffee and sat in the sun before Rosie arrived, bounding down the street with a hug and laughs.

We caught up over drinks, reminiscing about our time on Koh Tao as we learned how to dive in January. She laughed about how it was strange for her to be meeting up with me in her home city, her own travelling days over for now. She took me to the beautifully manicured botanical gardens, and we laid in the sun chatting, laughing and talking about our respective travels and experiences since we’d said goodbye on a dusty Thai street a few months ago.

Chilling with Rosie

“Its funny being with someone who is still backpacking in my own city,” she remarked as we made our way through the lovely streets of St Kilda towards the beach, stopping off at a bottleshop for a six pack of cider. They were crucial ingredients for the next activity.

Bryce on St Kilda beach

We were on our way to meet another friend of mine, Bryce, the Canadian guy who I spend a lot of time with in Thailand. We first met in Chiang Mai, spending time together on a trip to the zoo, and ended up hiring motorbikes and making the ill-fated scooter road trip to Pai together. We also met up again over the New Year period, and having thought we’d parted ways for good on Koh Phangan, now he had just arrived in Melbourne for his own Australian adventure.

Introducing Rosie to Beersbie

As usual, there was a game of Beersbie on offer, the self-styled game that Bryce has invented and promotes on his website beersbie.com. I wrote about it here from when we played it in Koh Phangan on New Years Eve, and while the teams were somewhat smaller here, it was just as much fun.

I taught Rosie the rules, and we played as the sun began to set. Considering Rosie and Bryce had never met before, everyone hit it off, fuelled by a few errant Frisbee throws and catches that results in the inevitable punishment of a swig from the cider bottle. It’s a cracking drinking game with friends, all taking it in turns to knock the opposite team’s can off its post.

Taking aim

We were also blessed with a fantastic sunset over the water, by far the best sunset I had seen since leaving Thailand. The sky changed through almost every colour of pink, red and purple before the huge orange sun disappeared over the horizon. All along the beach, people could be seen armed with cameras and mobile phones, capturing the moment. It was obviously one to remember, even for the locals.

The sun goes down on the game

Wow!

Rosie and I said goodbye to Bryce as we made our way back into the city, feeling the effects of three stubbies of cider each. Rosie had been invited to the opening night of an art exhibition at the University of Melbourne. We went along, partly for the offer of free food and wine.

If I’m honest, I didn’t think much to the art. Its probably because I just don’t ‘get it’. I appreciate a nice painting, and the masters such as Van Gogh and Picasso admittedly knocked out a couple of nice pieces, but I’m not one of those who can stare at pictures and ‘see’ the meanings of it all. Especially when one of the ‘pieces of art’ was a picnic that had been laid out on the floor. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs of the masterpiece, and somehow I resisted the temptation just to tidy it all away.

There was some particularly good cheese on offer that I gorged on, along with a glass of red, and while everyone was smartly dressed with the odd suit here and there, I flip-flopped around in my shorts and beach t-shirt looking every bit the freeloader that I was. But I didn’t care – I wasn’t the one marvelling at a picnic as if it had life-changing significance.

Thankfully, Rosie and I both had the same thoughts about the exhibition, and we both had a few giggles at having to behave and talk to others in the gallery as if I knew exactly what I was on about. I didn’t have a clue, of course, but then art is down to individual taste. Unfortunately, the only taste I developed during our half hour stay was that for a good Danish Blue.

After another beer at a nearby pub, I left Rosie with some of her friends and came within a whisker of missing the last train back to Ballarat, but it had been an excellent day out. With Matt and Siobhan’s clothes safely in hand, I snoozed my way back to the ‘Rat’ and looked forward to more times in Melbourne.

I’ll be back again soon enough – it wont be long now before I hit the road again and make my way around Australia.

St Kilda, and the end of a great day

Everybody needs good Neighbours

Rack off Bouncer!

Ramsay Street has seen some dramas in its time – and somehow I became involved in one.

While Kylie and Jason, Mrs Mangle and Bouncer the dog have lived out their lives on the famous street, within moments of arriving there, Matt, Siobhan and I found ourselves helping out the locals.

“Lads, I don’t suppose you could help out and give us a push could you?” came a cry from an Irish sounding Aussie wearing a grey Neighbours t-shirt.

Drama on Ramsay Street - i'm in the jeans pushing uphill with Matt!

It turned out the security mans car has broken down, the security man employed to keep pesky tourists away from the street which many of us have grown up watching on our television screens.

Unbeknown to the Neighbours tour guy as Matt and I began pushing the car up Australia’s most famous street, we were having our own dramas too. The campervan needed returning imminently, but against our better judgement, we just had to fit in a visit to the television set.

The day started out in the Grampians at Halls Gap, where we’d spent a couple of days touring around the mountains and beauty spots, while keeping an eye on the local wildlife. Speaking of which, One Leg, the one-legged duck, had yet again come up to us over breakfast, making his weird broken quack noise and looking at us with as much of a ‘I need feeding’ face as a disabled duck could muster. It worked, and yet again I was reaching for the loaf of bread.

Our setup at Halls Gap in the Grampians

With tent packed up, our maps checked and route planned, we set off at around 10am in the direction of Melbourne. The camper was to be handed in at 3pm, and by our rough estimation it allowed us an hour’s stop for lunch and to clean out the camper in Ballarat, where I’d drop off my belongings. My friend Jess has sorted us out some tickets for an Aussie Rules football match at the MCG in Melbourne in the evening, and so I’ll be getting a lift back with her.

I had a problem to sort out on the way, however. With no mobile phone signal in Halls Gap, I had been unable to sort out where to stay. Nat had needed to move her mum into her house, so was unable to accommodate me at hers, and so while we were on the move, and when I finally got phone signal back, I rang Jess and explained the situation. In an instant, she agreed I could stay at hers. I was and still am grateful, and felt lucky to have met such a great group of people in Ballarat.

However, with Jess out for the day, we ended up stopping at James’s house in the city to drop off kit and use his brush to clean out the van. We arrived by midday, and knowing the ride to Melbourne takes a little over an hour, we knew we were ahead of schedule. Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way again and counting down the clock, as well as the kilometres.

Hitting the suburbs of Melbourne, we made a decision. We had all originally wanted to go on the Neighbours tour together, but after finding out it would set us back a staggering $68 each (£40) we decided against it. However, I had been doing some research, and it turns out that Ramsay Street is infact a normal residential street, going by the name of Pin Oak Court. We put it into the satnav – and it told us we’d be there a little after 2pm.

“We’ve got time, we can do it,” Matt said, optimistically.

“It will literally be a get out, get a photo and get back in job,” mused Siobhan.

“I’m easy, I can go another time if you like, but you won’t get another chance to go for a while,” I helpfully threw into the discussion.

The only problem is the Neighbours street is on the complete opposite side of Melbourne to the rental place for the van. With less than an hour to go before it was due back, the decision was made – we were on our way.

As the city skyline loomed large, Siobhan was at the wheel and we were on our way towards a toll tunnel. It was a long tunnel, taking us deep under…. And we emerged back into the sunshine.

“Where’s the toll, how do we pay,” worried Siobhan, as we passed under a set of automatic toll cameras and a sign that said ‘No cash payments’.

It wasn’t the only worry, as by now every set of traffic lights seemed to have colluded with the last to keep us as stationary as possible as we made our way through the city. It was hot, and I could feel the stress levels building between everyone in the van. Nobody wanted it to go back late, especially as there was a hefty fine if it was, and the fact that the office closed early. With Matt and Siobhan flying to New Zealand early the following morning, missing the hand-in was unthinkable.

Yet still we were trapped in more and more traffic. Both lanes were jammed for what seemed like miles, but slowly and surely we were making our way through the intersections. Surely we should be able to hear Lou Carpenters infectious laugh by now?!

Ramsay Street and the official tour bus we didn't catch!

I think it was about 2.25pm on the clock when we finally turned into a quiet suburban sidestreet and caught sight of the Neighbours tour bus, complete with its colourful portraits of characters and the famous soap’s logo.

“Right, get out quick, no hanging about, a quick photo and then back in Knocker,” said Siobhan. She’s not one to mess with when she means it!

And so, with my camera primed, Matt and Siobhan were striding ahead, with barely half an hour to get the photos of a lifetime, back to the van, drive it across Melbourne through afternoon traffic AND get it handed in.

That’s when the cry for help came.

When you can see someone struggling with a broken down vehicle, who has probably been waiting for two fully grown blokes to arrive to lend a hand, the last thing they would have wanted to hear from them when they finally arrive was ‘sorry mate, we’re in a rush,” as they stride off to get some photos. Well, they didn’t, because Matt and I went over. It was just about the last thing we needed to be doing, slowly pushing a van up a hill, but it was only right that we did. It was eating into our already miniscule timeframe in Ramsay Street, but we had no option.

One of the houses

Thankfully, someone who lives in one of the houses turned up in his car and offered to help with some jump leads. Matt and I made a discreet but sharp escape and joined Siobhan, who was already snapping away up the road near a bin with some cricket wickets painted on it. (Toadie’s, apparently)

Now, while the official tour was undoubtedly expensive, what it does offer is the chance to pose with the ‘Ramsay Street’ sign.

Siobhan. Chuffed!

Its pretty much what you pay the money for,  a photo of you on the set, with the sign. This is where we had a stroke of luck – with everyone distracted by the broken down car at the bottom of the street, Siobhan had found the two signs used by the tour under a tree outside one of the houses. Wasting no time, she posed for a couple of photos before swapping with Matt. And then the Neighbours tour man came over and took them away before I had chance to get one.

Then he walked back over again.

“Here you are guys, you’re not actually supposed to be up this end of the street, even the tour doesn’t come up here, but seeing as you helped us out, you can have this,”

One for the scrapbook!

He handed me one of the signs, and we all snapped away again. Two minutes later, we wandered back down the street, I handed the Ramsey Street sign back to him, thanked him and headed back to the campervan. In the meantime, a family of Scottish tourists were quite clearly wondering why they had spent hundreds of dollars on a trip that we had done in just a few minutes for free, and got exactly the same photos. A tip for anyone visiting Melbourne!

Back in the camper, and time was running out to get it back to the other side of the city. As Siobhan crunched through the gears, I was dropped off at a bus stop to find my way to their hotel – afterall, it was a hire on the basis of two people riding in it, so I had to make myself scarce!

I jumped on a tram and made my way through the city to St Kilda Road and to Matt and Siobhan’s plush hotel, which funnily enough was next door to the centre where I did my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate. I settled down for a coffee in the lobby, only to get a desperate series of texts and phonecalls from them both. The gist of it was whether I had moved the jackets and shirts from the inside of the campervan, and that Matt was an idiot…

I hadn’t moved said jackets and shirts – they were still hanging inside the campervan, which in turn was now locked up inside a compound. It didn’t open up again until 8am the following day, one whole hour after Matt and Siobhan’s flight leaves Melbourne for New Zealand. It was fair to say Matt was in the doghouse.

Thankfully, I was still going to be a train ride away from the offending rack of clothes, and while I couldn’t get them over to New Zealand, I would at least be able to send them back to the UK in the post.

Jacketless, but on the way to the MCG

In the meantime, we had one last bit of entertainment ahead, a match of Aussie Rules footy between Collingwood and Hawthorn at Melbourne Cricket Ground, affectionately known as the MCG, or just the ‘G’ by the locals.

The MCG is as imposing as it is spectacular, a huge, modern bowl standing proud right on the edge of chilled-out Melbourne’s central business district. The trams were packed with fans and good-natured banter, and as we walked along the riverside path among them to the stadium, there was a familiar feeling. With the G getting closer, it felt very similar to that walk up Wembley Way, with fans of both teams walking side by side and the tension building among them.

Getting closer to the G

The other side of it that also felt familiar was the colours of the shirts – the walkway was full of black and white stripes belonging to Collingwood, and of the dark brown and amber of Hawthorn. It was as if I was in the middle of a crowd of people on the way to watch Grimsby Town versus Hull City, and naturally, I was supporting the team that resembled the Mariners. Collingwood are also known as the Magpies, or the ‘Pies in short, which kept Siobhan happy.

Members entrance

It was all helped by the fact we were meeting Jess and her daughter Liv from Ballarat, who had managed to secure some tickets for us through a friend who is a member of Collingwood Supporters Group. The match is a huge fixture on the calendar, and the equivalent to one of the big name opening day fixtures in the Premier League. This was the Chelsea vs Man Utd of Australia, eagerly looked forward to by fans around Australia. According to those you speak to here, soccer (as they call our game) is for wimps and pansies. Apparently, this is a mans’ game, and when we got into the stadium you could begin to understand why.

Kick off, bounce off, whatever it was...

Its basically a cross between rugby and football (our football) played on a cricket pitch. There’s a ridiculous number of players, its far from a game of two halves as there’s four quarters, and its played with an egg, sorry, a small rugby ball. The aim is to kick or punch the ball between two big sticks at the end of the pitch – through the middle, taller sticks for six points, and through the smaller side posts for one point.

Huge playing area

There’s no denying it’s a fast-paced, full-blooded game. I had no idea what was happening at first, but thankfully with Jess and Liv by my side, I was able to relay the rules across to Siobhan and Matt at the other side. It was an exciting game to watch, and the atmosphere inside the MCG was electric. There was a lot of goals scored, each one welcomed by fans with huge pom-poms behind the posts.

Liv and Jess getting into the game

I've had an idea for the Pontoon at Blundell Park next season...

There were more than 70,000 fans inside the G, showing just how popular this sport is. The first quarter, of around 25 minutes, was over in a flash, and it was close between the two teams. After a five minute break, the action started again, with Hawthorn piling on the pressure, much to the delight of quite a few fans around us. Collingwood managed to keep the scores down before going in at half time at 51-66.

Familiar colours around my neck during a game...

With a black and white scarf around my neck, there was a familiar story of poor defending costing the black and white army the game – and with 10 minutes left of the fourth quarter, and with Collingwood trailing, Matt and Siobhan had to leave.

A last pic with Matt, Siobhan and Liv before we went our seperate ways

There were hugs all round before I watched them make their way down the dozens of steps to the exit, knowing I wont see them again for months. But we’d had a brilliant week together, a week that was a fantastic reminder of my life at home, the fun and laughs that you have with such close friends, the stories of everyone back in Hull and life in the Look North newsroom.

It had been an exciting week full of beautiful scenery, fresh air, wildlife and walks. It had also been a week of being cramped up in the front of a van made for just two adults and a small child, of living in the bush with just a thin layer of tent material separating me from all that Australia’s insects could throw at me, and of drinking wine out of plastic cups. But saying that, it was also a week that surprised me, in that all the campsites we stayed at offered great facilities, all had hot showers and clean toilet blocks, and it was remarkably easy to roll up, drive in and have dinner on the go within minutes at the often well-equipped and hygienic camp kitchens. It was a week that we’ll all remember, and I smiled as I watched my friends from home disappear through the exit tunnel.

In the end, Hawthorn ran away with the match, finishing with the scoreline of 137-115, but for me, the scoreline was almost irrelevant. It had been a great experience to witness this great Australian spectacle in one of the world’s most impressive sports grounds.

Final score

Jess and Liv after the game, still smiling despite the result

I spent a good 15 minutes with Jess and Liv at the end of the game soaking up the atmosphere and walking further around inside the ground to fully appreciate the size of the place. It is a great stadium, and there was nothing better than seeing and hearing it in all its glory, full of sports-mad footy fans.

With my friend Jess at the almost empty MCG

Despite the result, Jess was still smiling even though her beloved Collingwood lost thanks to a special mention of the Pies on the radio thousands of miles away from Melbourne. My friend and colleague Simon Clark had picked up on my Tweets from the game, given Siobhan and I a mention, and used it as a topic for a phone-in on BBC Radio Humberside’s Sportstalk programme he was presenting. It was all about ‘the most extraordinary sports event you’ve been to’.

As Jess drove me back to Ballarat, I reflected on how my night at the MCG was definitely up there on my list. What a special night, and indeed a special week, the past seven days had been.

Hikes, Hops and Mountain Tops

Heading to the mountains...

We left the coast and the incredible Great Ocean Road behind us to move inland and on to the Grampians, a national park and huge area full of mountains and waterfalls known for its outstanding natural beauty.

The drive itself was an experience, with long straight roads scything through open expanses of farmland as we left Point Fairy behind us and made our way towards Halls Gap, a small town right in the middle of the mountain range.

The Grampians loom on the horizon

For mile after mile, cattle farms and gum trees dominated the flat landscape, but a few hours later, mountains began to appear on the horizon. For much of the journey, the three of us have been listening to an Australian singer called Matt Corby thanks to a couple of CDs that we’d bought Siobhan for her birthday. While it wasn’t for a few days yet, we decided we’d let her open a couple of presents along the way.

As we began to rise above the surrounding countryside, we passed through areas that had been clearly affected by bushfires at some point in the past. But as we pulled into our first tourist point in the Grampians, it was another natural disaster which surprised us.

Eek!

We found ourselves at Silverband Falls after being tempted by the brown tourist signs advertising a waterfall. There was a slightly worrying warning of falling limbs as you enter, but despite Siobhan’s fears she may end up legless (a not uncommon problem when we’re together) we presume it meant from the trees.

As we worked our way down to a slow meandering stream in the valley, some stepping stones had been put in place to cross to the water and rejoin the pathway on the opposite side. It was there that we came across a sign and some remarkable photographs – part of the path was closed, the stepping stones were in place of what was once a permanent bridge, and the dead trees, branches and debris that was scattered around was all thanks to a huge storm that hit the area last year.

Dead trees and driftwood piled high

We walked along the path at the side of the stream, struggling to comprehend the damage and destruction that had been caused by the storm and floodwater that had gushed through the valley just over a year ago. Great gulleys had been formed down the hill side, with broken trees and branches littering the ground. Huge piles of driftwood were gathered around anything strong enough to withstand the force of the water. Huge rocks had been washed down like pebbles, yet the waterfall at the end of the walk was almost a trickle falling over the side of the cliff face. How different it must have been when Mother Nature was showing her true force.

Just a trickle of a waterfall

Just a few minutes up the road, we went on to find a lake set in a bowl between the mountains, a lake that just opened up before us as we made our way into the car park. There was hardly anyone around, and the place was silent. The water level had clearly receded in recent weeks and months thanks to a drought, but it provided ample opportunities for photographs.

Siobhan at the lake

Chilling at the lake

From the lake it was a relatively short drive to Halls Gap, but we were on the lookout for somewhere to eat. We came across an adventure golf place, and I was sent in to scout it out. Not only did it look like a great place to bring out the competitive spirit in us all on the brilliantly laid out crazy golf, but it had a lovely little place to stop and have some lunch, and at good prices too.

Out comes the competitiveness between us!

After a chicken and avocado toasty, some potato wedges and salad, it was time to grab a putter and take to the greens. True to form, I’d already promised Matt I would beat him, but we both knew Siobhan could be a dark horse when it comes to sport. Especially when much of it is down to luck – and there was no shortage of it needed on the 18 holes at the course. After the first couple of holes, where apart from some devilish gradients to trap the ball, it was a simple putt, the course changed into one of the most difficult I have ever seen.

Concentration...and pot luck

With steep runs down past water, jumps, rickety wooden tubes, nasty traps and some almost impossible accuracy needed in places, it proved to be a great laugh. After I got the first hole down in two, I took an early lead that I managed to hold on to for much of the game, while Matt simply had a shocker.

Fore!

Siobhan, on the other hand, kept the pressure on me, and when it comes to sport, as many friends know, I tend to bottle it when the pressure gets going. And bottle it I did, throwing away a healthy lead on a stupid hole where you had to guide the ball through a tiny gap. It meant Siobhan emerged from the last hole victorious, but at least I wasn’t last. That was Matt’s job.

Victorious Siobhan...

Matt and his big L, for 'Loser'

The owner of the golf course also pointed us in the direction of the best place to stay in the town, at a camping site slap bang in the middle of the area, surrounded by hills, trees and wildlife.

We pulled up in the camper and jumped out. The sun was beating down, with some late afternoon warmth. We got chairs out of the van, pitched the tent, and relaxed for the rest of the afternoon. Matt and I pulled out yet another gift for Siobhan, this time a bottle of bubbles that I had cunningly disguised by wrapping it inside my backpack daypack. It went straight into the fridge for later.

Birthday bubbles

One of the first things we all noticed at Halls Gap was the amount of wildlife. There were many famously Australian kookaburras hanging around, while cockatoos and magpies, with their strange garbled songs, were everywhere.

Kookaburras

About an hour after we arrived, and as the sun began to set behind the mountain, suddenly there was a cry of ‘kangaroos’ from Siobhan.

Sure enough, a family of kangaroos hopped into view in front of us, making their way across the grass and stopping to eat along the way. A few of us went over to take photographs, while still keeping a safe distance, while one daring couple went over to try to give them some food, despite all the advice, warnings and signs around the place telling us not to.

Kangas in the campsite

It was great to see the kangaroos in the wild, and suddenly it felt like I was properly in Australia again. The animal is a national icon, and I spent a while just looking at them and watching as they happily hopped around, stopping to eat grass, all under the watchful eye of who I presume was dad, laying on the ground and giving me an occasional glance nearby.

There was another interesting character we met too – a one-legged duck that we gave the original name of ‘One Leg’. We first spotted him when he came flying towards us and made a perculiar crash landing near the tent. When we saw him hopping back towards us from his crash site, we soon realised why. Somehow he’d lost a limb – we don’t think it was related to the falling limb signs in the woods earlier in the day – but he had clearly been surviving quite well. All his duck mates did seem to have turned their back on him though, so, always a sucker for poorly animals, we pulled out a loaf of bread and gave him some of the end.

'One Leg'

It was quite something to watch as he hopped over to the bread, flung it around in his beak, ate a bit, and then hopped off to wherever it had landed again, repeating the process over and over until it had all gone. But little One Leg would quietly hang around, waiting for more scraps, looking at us forlornly as if it knew we would take pity yet again and cave in to giving him more of the Coles wholemeal loaf. I know we would have done, had the neighbouring camper not sparked up a barbecue and tempting the disabled duck off for a burger.

We were tempted across the road for pizzas that night, spending the evening out on the decking with dinner, wildlife, and planning for the following day.

Another bit of Australian wildlife we found

With a strenuous day of walking and climbing ahead, we made the pledge that night to get up early the following day. It was, as usual, a pledge we failed to keep, and instead we found ourselves making the ascent up to the Pinnacle, one of the highest points in the Grampians, in the middle of the day. It was a bit of a scorcher too – after the disappointment of the weather in Melbourne when Matt and Siobhan arrived, along with the cloud, wind and rain for part of our time on the Great Ocean Road, I was glad that we were now getting some nice warm weather.

On the way up to the Pinnacle

The ascent up to the Pinnacle wasn’t difficult, but it was a good old fashioned scramble in some places. Rocky outcrops, a stream, great little bits to climb, overhangs to duck under – it was a fun climb up. At one point, Matt and I clambered on top of a rocky shelf, grabbing some great photographs with the landscape behind us. It was amazingly quiet too, just the noise of a gentle breeze and the occasional bird on its way through the valley. You had to look where you were walking too – there were scores of lizards baking out in the sun, most of which would quickly dive under rocks the moment my size 10s went anywhere near them.

Cooling down in the cool cavern

On the way up we came across around a dozen people on the way back down, all of whom said it was worth the effort. We took a breather and a drink in the originally named Cool Cavern, which, as the name suggested, was refreshingly cool and it was nice to get out of the hot midday sun for a while.

Matt and Siobhan at the top

Back on the walking trail, there were a few bits that would leave us puffing and panting, but then when we got to the top, all the energy and exercise was forgotten. As the name suggests, the Pinnacle was a fantastic rocky overhang, leaning out high over the rock face. You could see for miles, a fantastic view of the lake stretching out below, mountains opposite, Halls Gap nestled among trees in the valley, and a horizon stretching out for miles across the flat Victoria countryside beyond.

We made it!

After our workout to get up to the top, we spent a while up there taking photographs and enjoying the view. Thankfully there were metal railings to hold on to at the top of the Pinnacle, and they were needed too – it was easy to feel a bit giddy thanks to the height and lack of anything around you. There were also some giant flying ants that had a habit of dive bombing you, and efforts to bat them away usually failed.

I can see the pub from here...

Looking out over the range

Thankfully, the walk back down to the car park only took half as long as the long hike up to the top. It might have been something to do with the reward of a drink and a bit of leftover pizza we’d kept in the fridge from the night before, but once we got there we savoured the treat.

Beautiful Grampians

Next up was another viewpoint, a place marked up as Boroka lookout. It was around half an hours drive through beautiful woodland from the Pinnacle, and there was nobody there when we arrived. Yet again, the view left us speechless. For the sake of driving just a few kilometres, it gave us a whole new perspective on the lake and the mountains that we had just been standing over. Now, they were in the distance to our right, and looked even more spectacular.

At the viewpoint

By now, ice creams were calling, but first there was another waterfall to see. As Siobhan quite rightly pointed out, we were fairly ‘waterfalled out’ but I was assured McKenzie falls was particularly impressive. Unfortunately, it also had a particularly impressive steep descent down to the bottom of the falls, but going by the sound of water crashing at the base, along with the river that snakes its way over boulders and rocks at the top, we knew it would be the best of the lot.

McKenzie Falls in the Grampians

With the sun glinting from the white foamy water as it tumbles down the rockface, the tip offs about it being the most spectacular waterfall around proved right. Like most places in the area, there was evidence of the huge storm that hit last year – a mass of twisted trees, branches and metal from a collapsed bridge were cordoned off to the left of the waterfall, a trail that follows the river simply washed away. With driftwood littered all over the hillside and down the face of the waterfall, it must have been quite something to stand where we were, looking up at the torrent that surely would have been streaming over the top.

The trek back up to the top was probably the hardest of the day, and all of our legs were aching and tired by now. It wasn’t helped by the steep steps and long stretches of uphill pathways back to the car park, but there was however an ice cream shop where we all enjoyed a breather and a refreshing ice lolly. It was there we decided to head back to the campsite to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, with a barbecue to look forward to.

Campsite cooking!

I say barbecue – it was actually more of a fry up if I’m honest. The campsites all have public barbecues, either free or for a small contribution of a dollar or so for the gas.They are completely different to what you’d imagine though, and are pretty much just a hot plate for cooking on. Its outside, so I guess that makes it a barbie, and rather than throwing shrimps on it (that’s one for my Aussie readers, mainly because I know how much the saying is both a) wrong and b) a great way of winding you up) we slapped a couple of burgers and some eggs on it. I was chef, Siobhan was on salad and bread duty, Matt was photographer for a while.

Yes, we'd both agreed not to shave for the week...

It wasn’t long before we had some familiar faces by our side – good old One Leg showed up for a bit of bread, while a kookaburra kept a close eye on any scraps that were going spare.

Laugh, Kookaburra laugh...

Despite our best efforts to find a pub that was open in the town, Matt and I ended up going for a quick beer at one of the nearby restaurants, while Siobhan got an early night. All the fresh air and exercise had taken it out of us all, although we had a sneaky suspicion that the combination of Matt Corby and the motion of the campervan was to blame for much of our lethargy over the last few days. We all ended up in bed early though, and tried to get to sleep.

With a few of my friends that kept me awake...

Only in the pitch darkness, just as my eyes were closing, there was a strange noise outside.

“Padump, bop. Padump, bop. Padump, bop.”

It was accompanied by a munching sound, similar to that of a horse or a cow. I slowly opened the zip to my tent, only to see a huge kangaroo just a few metres away. I looked around further to see a whole family of eight were dotted around me – a fantastic sight, and in the moonlight I sat with my head out of the tent, watching kangaroos and trying to savour the moment. I know in a few months time, it will be times like this that I’ll struggle to believe.

­­

Great days, Great Ocean Road

Going 'Round the Twist' on the Great Ocean Road?!

I had a vitally important job to do before the arrival of Matt and Siobhan into Ballarat – a large chunk of birthday shopping.

Matt had messaged me on Twitter a week or so ago that he was relying on me to go out and buy a selection of pressies for Siobhan, who celebrates her 30th birthday while she’s away. He was unable to sneak away to buy some surprise gifts, so I was more than happy to help him out.

On top of the list? A cuddly wombat. Apparently, Siobhan had her heart set on seeing wombats in Oz, and after a planned visit to an animal centre in Sydney failed to deliver the goods of a cuddle with one, Matt was needing anything wombat-related.

Thankfully, my friend Jess knew exactly where to take me, and after a short ride I was at a Ballarat nature centre, complete with a shop selling all manner of wombat related goods.

Wrapping (innit!)

Back home, it was time for a bit of frantic wrapping before the pair of them arrived at about 3.30pm. It was strange to see them pulling up outside Nat’s house, which until now had seemed so far away from my life back home. Now, as I welcomed them inside, it was almost as if they had just popped round the corner to see me. I put the kettle on, got some chairs set up outside and made toasted sandwiches all round, which went down well in the autumnal sun.

Matt and Siobhan arrive to pick me up in Ballarat

It still doesn’t feel real to have Matt and Siobhan here with me, although at the same time, it almost feels normal. For almost six months, my life back home has been on hold, and feels so distant from the exciting life I’ve been leading on the road and from the almost mini life I’ve made for myself in Ballarat, with my own group of friends and way of life here. Yet suddenly I was talking about everything that was so familiar to me – everyday life in Hull, the latest goings on at Look North, the latest with the job cutbacks at the BBC, the mini baby boom that has suddenly happened in the office since I left… it was great to hear about everyone back home, and a reminder that in the not too distant future, I too will be back in the office and making the daily trips around Yorkshire and Lincolnshire.

In the meantime, we had a road trip to enjoy. With my belongings loaded into the campervan that Matt and Siobhan had hired, I jumped into the front and Siobhan drove under my directions to a nearby Coles supermarket so we could stock up for a week of camping on the Great Ocean Road.

We piled in a whole load of things to barbecue – chicken fillets, burgers and sausages, while Siobhan made sure we had a few greens too. I threw in some cheese-filled meatballs that I have discovered go really well with pasta and sauce, and after a stop by the milk aisle, it was on to the bottle shop where the real essentials were brought onboard…the beer and wine.

Matt does the cooking, while Siobhan judges the cooking on the telly!

We were soon on the road and heading to Torquay, the starting point of the Great Ocean Road and our first night stop. We pulled in at the Torquay Holiday Park, where it cost us $43 for a powered pitch for the night. We hooked up the camper, had a brew and pondered what to do for the night. It turned out that Siobhan, despite only being in Australia for a week, had become hooked on the My Kitchen Rules television programme, a kind of cross between Masterchef and Come Dine With Me.

Bangers for tea!

I must admit, it has become a habit for me to watch too, and Nat and I would often spend an hour catching up on it and laughing at some of the strange meals the contestants would attempt to cook. There was a television in the barbecue area, so with bangers on the go and MKR on the television, the entertainment was sorted.

With a busy day ahead, it was an early night as I settled into my tent and got tucked into my sleeping bag. Except it wasn’t my sleeping bag. Confession time – a few weeks ago, as Siobhan was clearly preparing for her trip, I got a message from her on Skype:

“Hey, weird question…my sleeping bag in a grey carrier was accidentally left at your house – do you happen to know of its still there? Did you put it in your room before you left? Last place I saw it was on the landing outside Matt’s room 😥 ”

Now, for those who haven’t been reading my blog from the beginning, the day when I left Hull was slightly hectic, and as I hurriedly packed seven months-worth of belongings into a bag, I had trouble finding my own red sleeping bag. What I did find, however, was a red sleeping bag in a grey carrier. With just a few hours before my train, I presumed somehow my sleeping bag had been taken by Matt by mistake – and so the only option was to take the remaining sleeping bag. Besides, it was far better than mine anyway, its bulkyness stood my big bag up perfectly, and surely someone would have said if it was theirs by now?

This was my reply: “Hello you…good news and bad news. Good news is…I know where your sleeping bag is. Bad news is….it’s on the other side of the world, attached to my backpack!”

Siobhan did give me points for honesty, but I’d have been a bit annoyed, and I admit I felt a little guilty. However, it was now keeping me warm as I laid in the tent, listening to all manner of wildlife on the outside. And, with a thin cushion bed, I listened to the wildlife for hours. When I did finally get to sleep, it was just a few hours before all manner of birds decided it was already time to wake up. My lack of sleep provided Matt and Siobhan with some humour in the morning as I greeted them with this sight.

Matt claims I look like a wombat...

There was some other drama aside from my scrunched up face too. Having spent the night outside in the Australian countryside, a place full of some of the worlds most delightful insects and creepy crawlies that can kill a human within minutes of the merest prod of their fangs, there was a bit of a shock as I delved into my rucksack. As I reached down for a pair of boxers, I noticed the glint of a shiny black spider as it wandered across the back of my hand. Needless to say, my hand didn’t stay in the bag for long.

I told Matt. “What? In the bag that’s been in the camper all night? Whatever you do, don’t tell Siobhan.”

There was then a secret mission between us as I moved to the barbecue area with a solid and clean floor to empty the entire contents of my backpack bit-by-bit onto the ground in search of the eight-legged invader.

Looking for Incy Wincey biter

Eventually, he was located. He didn’t look too poisonous, but then again I was surprised by how normal the bad ones look when I saw my first venomous spider here so far, a white tail.

Running for cover...

With said spider on his way for cover under a barbecue, and after a bowl of Aussie Weet-Bix all round, we turned out of the caravan park and onto the main road towards Bells Beach.

I’ve been looking forward to taking them both to this stretch of the coastline after my hugely enjoyable visit with my Ballarat friends a few weeks ago, where I’d tried my hand at body surfing in the huge waves. Sadly, the waves were not quite as impressive as they were back then, but still incredible to watch as scores of surfers hit the swell in preparation for the Ripcurl Surf Championships in a weeks time.

Hitting the surfing mecca of Bells Beach

With Siobhan overlooking Bells Beach

Infact, many of the grandstands and commentary positions are already in place, with teams of workers busily erecting stands and office blocks on the car park while the guys with the boards perfected catching the waves out in the ocean.

Surfer at Bells

We spent a good hour up on the cliffs and down on the beach, watching as wave after wave crashed onto the shore. It was nowhere near as hot as last time I was here, but thankfully the sun was out. It was windy, but that just added to the atmosphere as we took in the vast horizon of the Southern Ocean, knowing that the next landmass is Antarctica.

Waiting for the surf

We headed off along the coast to Lorne, but stopping off at a particularly famous lighthouse at Aireys Inlet – the one that starred in the Aussie kids television show Round the Twist. It provided a comedy photo moment, while Matt managed to fall over while trying to get a snap of Siobhan. She gave me a knowing look and a roll of the eyes.

Split Point Lighthouse at Aireys Inlet

Next stop was Lorne, where we had originally planned to spend the night, but the weather had turned and the wind had blown in plenty of clouds. In need of some lunch, I texted my mate James back in Ballarat with an SOS for a decent feed, and he more than delivered the goods.

“The bakery does a really good lamb and rosemary pie,” he texted back.

Now, when it comes to pies, Siobhan and I are huge fans, and it didn’t take much in the way of a decision before we found ourselves heading down the road and sniffing out a pie. It was true, they were particularly good pies, and my beef and burgundy more than hit the spot.

Welcome to the Great Ocean Road

Over lunch, with no sign of the cloud clearing and with little to do in Lorne apart from look at waves crashing onto a beach, we decided to head to Apollo Bay, a route which took us on one of the most spectacular drives in the world.

Plaque at one of the viewpoints

The Great Ocean Road is actually classed as the world’s largest war memorial. Surprisingly, it was built by soldiers who had returned from conflict in the First World War. They needed employment, and they also wanted to build a memorial to those who had fallen. Along the southern coast of Victoria, just a hard, rocky and almost impassable track joined the few communities hardy enough to survive in what was then a dangerous and inaccessible coastline. It wasn’t just the locals who struggled either – offshore reefs, rocky outcrops and rough seas earned the whole area the affectionate nickname of Shipwreck Coast, thanks to the high number of vessels lost to the ocean here.

Waves crash just metres from the famous road

So as well as a huge memorial, the road would become a vital link between the isolated communities, bringing benefits to the timber and forestry industries as well as bringing tourism to the south coast of Australia. Work on the road began in 1919, with around 3,000 returning servicemen finding work on the construction project. Conditions were still tough though, with dense bush to work through, cliffs to navigate and steep coastal mountains to work through or around. The construction was mostly down to hard graft- picks and shovels, explosives and small machinery. Many died due to falls or construction injury.

Matt and the camper on the Great Ocean Road

Infact, as I researched the road and its origins, I couldn’t help but think back to my time in Thailand on the Death Railway, the route constructed by Australian and Allied prisoners of war during the Second World War, just a few years after the Great Ocean Road was finished. With much of the road set on clifftops and mountains, the rock was largely chiselled and blown away by hand and explosives, much the same way as Hells Pass was made near Burma. Admittedly, that was through forced labour, and there were no Japanese soldiers waiting to beat the Aussie war vets as they made their memorial on the Victoria coast, but tough all the same.

The Great Ocean Road

A lighter story I picked up though happened in 1924, when the steamboat Casino managed to get stranded near Cape Patton after hitting a reef. In order to free itself, it was forced to make itself lighter by throwing items overboard. Those items included 500 barrels of beer and 120 cases of spirits, most of which ended up coming ashore right near where the workers were busily building the road. It apparently resulted in an unscheduled two-week-long drinking break – now that would have been one hell of a hangover when the dynamite started blowing again!
After 13 years of work, the Great Ocean Road was completed, and when you drive along the work of all those soldiers, you can see just why they thought it a fitting tribute to those who never returned to Australian shores. It offers almost everything that is good about the country – rainforests, huge expansive views of the Ocean, a formidable horizon, huge open skies, dense bush, an incredible amount of wildlife. Beautiful scenery as far as the eye can see, with each twist and turn of the road prompting another deep intake of breath. For once it wasn’t Matt’s driving – just fabulous vistas that are simply stunning.

A great drive

We made a few stops off the road along the way, with the dark looming skies providing drama in the photos of waves as they crash onto rocks. Galahs and cockatoos were flying around, squawking and making a noise. Road signs warned of countless different animals, and we passed smiling couples walking on the road, looking up into the eucalyptus trees for koalas.

Up to our usual tricks!

One of many coves on the Great Ocean Road

With dark clouds gathering, we spent the night at Apollo Bay, catching up over cups of tea and glasses of Aussie wine.

Cosy!

The following morning the weather had changed. The sun was out, the temperature was rising and it promised to be an excellent day for visiting perhaps the most famous part of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles.

Matt, Siobhan and a great spot for brekky!

First, however, we decided to track back along the road we’d come along in search of koalas. They are incredibly hard to spot, but we’d found out there was a huge area we’d driven through where they are easy to find at Kennett River. We were keen for breakfast with a view too – the beauty of having a campervan means you can have the perfect scenic spot for something to eat or drink, and at a beach near the river, we ate boiled eggs on toast whilst watching surfers of all ages trying their luck on the waves.

Egg-celent views over breakfast

Siobhan went in search of koalas at a nearby campsite, and came back with a huge smile on her face after seeing two. Matt and I went for our own look, and soon came across one chilling out in the sun amid the branches

'Can't. Eat. One. More. Leaf....' Zzzzzzz

after a hearty meal of leaves. We walked further to come across a whole range of colourful birds that would land on our heads and arms in search of food. Next to our hungry feathered friends, another koala was climbing around on a tree. It was fantastic to see a koala in the wild after keeping my eyes peeled for so long out in the bush – I’d started to think koalas were just a huge hoax by the Aussies to get you to visit, sticking a few in zoos around the world, in the hope people would come to the country in the hope of seeing the cute furrballs. I’ve been warned they are far from cuddly though, so I kept my distance!

Ahhhh!

I made a friend...

...and so did Matt!

Aussie birds. Pretty.

Back on the road, our main destination was the Twelve Apostles, and we headed straight there, stopping only after hawkeye Siobhan spotted an echidna – a huge hedgehog-type thing – waddling around by the roadside. It prompted an immediate u-turn, but despite our best efforts to add him to our animal photo gallery, he took refuge in a drainage pipe. I quite liked the silhouette effect anyway…

A spiky character

We arrived at the famous coastline in the mid afternoon, the sun beating down on us although the strong breeze from the magnificent Southern Ocean kept everyone cooled down. Sadly, the sun was also in the wrong place for us to get really clear photographs of the limestone stacks, but we spent an hour wandering around the walkways and taking in the spectacular views. There were scores of people there from all around the world, many of whom had also parked up their campervan in the car park to tick this must-see formation off the list. Overhead, helicopters were buzzing around giving the richer punters a sight to remember.

The Twelve Apostles. Only, there aren't 12 anymore

It’s a strong reminder of how powerful nature can be – the stacks have been formed over the years by the powerful waves eroding the coastline. They would have all started out as caves, then into arches before the ocean took a further toll by causing the arch to collapse.

I guess that spells it out pretty clearly!

It’s left a series of stacks, some of which have recently collapsed into the sea, but its still an impressive sight to see them jutting out into the water. When you seen how hard some of the waves hit them – bearing in mind the ocean was relatively calm – it can leave you wondering how they have stood for as long as they have anyway. But then you realise that where the sea crashes onto the shore now was once land that has long been eroded away.

Taking a pounding from the ocean

One for the scrapbook

After Siobhan made cheese sandwiches all round back at the campervan, we headed further along the road that hugs the shipwreck coast, stopping for icecreams and coffee in Port Campbell before pulling off the end of the Great Ocean Road and into Port Fairy, where we were to spend the night.

Spotted on a sign at a viewpoint - and how to state the obvious

It was my turn to cook. And it was also the grand final of My Kitchen Rules. With the night’s entertainment sorted (the television programme, not watching my attempts at cooking) Siobhan lit the woodburning stove and we sat well into the night drinking wine and watching the television in the camp kitchen.

Matt and I having a shocker with the tent!

The wind picked up in the evening, and Matt returned from a visit to the camper to let me know my tent had been blown to bits. After a bit of shuffling it around, I spent a large part of the night listening to the gale and watching as it threatened to rip the cover off my tent once again. It was pretty chilly too, and I tried, largely unsuccessfully, to get to sleep wrapped in a sleeping bag, fully clothed, wearing a hoody and my outdoor jacket.

I awoke in the morning to hear Coldplay’s ‘Paradise’ playing in the neighbouring camper. Oh, the irony.

Fancy seeing you here!

Friends from home - celebrating the arrival of Siobhan and Matt in Melbourne

It was always going to be a special moment when two of my closest friends from home came out to join me, but seeing their smiling faces waving at me from a bus on the other side of the world will always stay with me.

I was at Southern Cross coach terminal in Melbourne, having caught an early morning train from Ballarat. Also up and about early that morning were Matt and Siobhan, my friends and colleagues from home who were flying in from Sydney as part of their four week holiday together.

We’ve been good friends for years – Siobhan and I first met when she worked as a reporter and news presenter on Viking FM, who, during a series of police drugs raids in Grimsby, decided to take refuge in my car as she felt she was unable to keep up with the cops as they ran red lights and broke speed limits across North East Lincolnshire. I had been at Look North for almost a year at this point, and still in the process of getting to know people in the world of broadcasting after my time in newspapers. Siobhan was a good laugh, knew her stuff and was good fun to be around. We hit it off straight away, staying in touch through email, and I’d often drop her a cheeky line having listened to her make some sort of cock up on the radio while I drove into work. A particular highlight was when she was asked in a radio quiz to name something with eight legs: Her hasty answer of ‘a dog’ still makes me laugh.

Back in the day with Peter - taken before Siobhan joined the Look North team!

It was rumoured in those days she was Peter Levy’s number one fan – which I may or may not have let slip to our main presenter on a couple of occasions – but the fact she now works as a fellow presenter on Look North is actually nothing to do with her apparent love of the Levy. Matt, on the other hand, is my former housemate and producer, thanks in part to Siobhan who collared me one night and told me to take him in.

As it happens, Matt and I became such close mates, he’s almost seen as a big brother to me – although a lot of the time, I ended up having to look after him!

In Dublin on my 30th last year with Matt (right) and our mate Rich

The fact that we’re clumsy, forgetful and untidy made our housemate arrangement as lodger and landlord a match made in heaven. While he might have driven me mad on some days as he bossed me around the patch for his programmes, back home we’d spend hours playing Fifa on the Xbox, he’d cook countless meals for me, and I’d spend many hours cleaning the hairy bloke’s mane from the bathroom plugs. For three years, it was non-stop laughter that at times mirrored Clunes and Morrisey in Men Behaving Badly – and thanks to his relationship with Siobhan, the three of us would often spend much of our spare time together at each others homes.

Another one from my birthday Dublin trip - this photo was Matt's idea!

They had been there for me through some of the toughest times I’ve known, becoming soulmates and people I knew I could trust as I found myself single once again. They were a shoulder to cry on far too many times than was good for them, and they never failed to make me see a brighter future ahead. They were two influential voices in my decision to travel, but were also two people I loved being around, be it beers on ‘The Ave’, dinner at Siobhan’s or trying to tame her beloved cat Dave.

We did so much together that it was perhaps part of the script that as my decision to take a career break was taken, Matt moved out to live with Siobhan, and just a month or so later gained a dream job at Sky News. It meant he was leaving Look North at the same time as me – we even shared the same leaving date and had a joint leaving do that night.

Back then, they had already booked their holiday for the following year of four weeks in Australia and New Zealand.

“Imagine if I’m still around then, we could meet up and do something together,” I remember saying to him in my living room as he priced up flights.

And so, as the bus from Melbourne’s Avalon Airport pulled in, you probably now have more of an idea as to just how much I had been looking forward to the pair of them arriving after an eventful five months strapped to a backpack.

They've arrived!

Siobhan’s beaming smile was the first one I could see, waving to me from the coach as I walked over to the railings it had pulled into. As the lights went on inside the vehicle, I could see Matt laughing, smiling and waving. Once again, suddenly the world felt like a very small place, and there were big hugs all round as we were reunited once again.

“You’ve lost loads of weight,” was their first observation, followed by groans as I lined them up for a photo with their bags.

“You know me, its for the blog,” I laughed back with them.

It was strange welcoming them to Melbourne, a city I’m now feeling very familiar with. For them, it’s their first visit to Australia, let alone the city of Melbourne, and so I took them outside to the trams and taxis. We headed to their hotel in South Yarra to drop their bags off, before making our way into the city by tram for some breakfast.

We found ourselves in a pancake place with the slogan of Lovely Pancakes. Their slogan was branded on everything, and Siobhan put her lovely cups on display, as did Matt.

Matt and his Lovely cups...

Already, we had picked up where we left off on that autumnal day in October when I said goodbye to them, and there was plenty of catching up to do – news from work, who’s doing what, who’s working where, news from Hull and nationally, things I’ve missed, gossip, personal news, stories from my travels. The list went on, and somehow, although we’ve got a week together, I don’t think we’ll even be able to catch up on everything in that time.

After downing three refills of coffee (I’m still in backpacker mode!) we made our way out into the shopping centre we’d found ourselves in, stopped by a few shops to find some canvas shoes for them both, and then made our way to the river for drinks and a bit of lunch.

Impressive shopping centre roof over an old mill

We ended up at a nice spot enjoying a beer and some chicken and lamb kebabs when a particularly surreal thing happened. Suddenly, a guy who works in the restaurant came up to Matt and I and asked if I worked on television.

“Erm, well, yes, and so does Siobhan,” I said, slightly surprised.

“I knew it,” he said back.

“I recognised your face from somewhere. What programme is it you work for?”

I told him, explaining that there was no way he’d have seen Look North while being on the other side of the world, but that he may have seen me on some of the outtake programmes that have been made.

“That must be it, I’ve definitely seen you on tv,” he said back.

On the way out, he even told me how he’d remembered it was on the SBS channel, which does show a lot of British television programmes. Incredibly, and probably down to the fact I once dropped an ice cream in Hull’s Queen Victoria Square, much to the amusement and ridicule of Anne Robinson on Outtake TV, I have now been recognised in Australia. Someone somewhere has made some money out of that particular mishap…and it wasn’t me!

Matt and Siobhan, a map and Melbourne

From there we made our way to Melbourne’s tallest building, but decided against making the trip to the viewing platform, instead heading back towards the city centre in search of a rooftop bar I had been told about in Ballarat.

Things were looking up

Sure enough, six floors up above Melbourne in Swanston Street, there was a rooftop full of people enjoying the views and a frothy beer. We joined them, catching up over pints of James Boag beer and a burger. It was well priced for the centre of the city, with a pint costing $9 (about £5) which for Australia is a decent price.

After a few hours chinwagging and getting slightly tipsy in the process, we made our way back towards St Kilda on the tram and to their hotel. I left clutching a bag of their washing to clean overnight in Ballarat, and looking forward to an exciting week ahead together. Tomorrow they will pick up a campervan and drive to Ballarat to pick me up, before we head down to the famous Great Ocean Road.

Fingers,Thumbs and a Festival for Free

Rocking out and keeping the punters happy at Soundwave Australia

I learnt something today – opening hundreds of drinks cans really messes up your thumb and forefinger!

I have blood underneath my thumb nail, which has been bleeding on and off since around can 200 of the day. My index finger did have a blister on the knuckle bit near its nail, but then that was rubbed off.  Its now just a pink mess. And I have countless little cuts and nicks all over my hands.

Naturally, I’m going to man up at this point and say it doesn’t hurt – and besides, its been a great day which takes my mind off it.

For today, I have just worked at the Soundwave Music Festival in Melbourne, one of the largest summer festivals in Australia, and featuring top name acts from around the world. It’s a little on the heavy side for my liking – Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, System of a Down and Limp Bizkit don’t feature too much on my iPod – but I was offered the chance of free entry in return for working on a bar, with some pocket money thrown in for good measure.

Spotted from the train on the way to Melbourne - Aussies take their scarecrow festivals seriously!!

The opportunity came thanks to completing my RSA course in Melbourne, something anyone who works in any role in hospitality in Oz has to complete before they can serve alcohol. After the course I got talking to a girl called Esther, who mentioned about how she was working the festival. I thought it sounded fun, she took my details and suddenly I found myself in contact with some of the organisers. They were still looking for qualified bar staff…so I threw my name into the hat.

I admit, my bar work experience probably extends to a few shifts covering quiet bars at functions while working for a catering agency in Surrey with my then girlfriend ten years ago. This was a whole new ball game – helping to keep beer flowing for tens of thousands of rock music fans might just be a little more than I can chew, but what the hell. It’s a new experience, and exactly what this trip is all about.

Arriving in Melbourne's main Southern Cross station

I caught an early morning train from Ballarat to Melbourne, arriving at the city’s Southern Cross station three hours before my 1pm start time. I made full use of some decent internet at a coffee shop for a while, catching up with the parents on Skype and getting a blog post online. Before long, I was on the local train to the city Showground and making my way to the staff sign-in. After three days of non-stop rain out in the sticks, the bright sunshine was welcome, although it made me look drastically overdressed in my hoodie and raincoat as I made my way through the shorts and t-shirt-wearing masses.

The Hard Bar area

I was allocated the Hard Bar, a name which instantly filled me with dread. It’ll either be right next to the headbangiest of headbanging music, or its just so renowned for being so busy, its known as the hard bar for staff. Either way, myself and another guy called Sam joked about the prospect.

I was issued with a Jim Beam staff t-shirt and led through the crowds, past the huge stages and into one of the drinks enclosures, where a bloke wearing dark glasses and with his hair slicked back introduced himself as the bar supervisor.

“No more than four drinks per person until 6pm, when it’ll come down to two. Rip the drinks tickets in half first before issuing the cans, and go out and have fun,” he said.

And that was it – I walked into the bar and was met with a crowd of people looking in my direction and waving shiny red tickets around.

“Two JB and drys please,” came one cry.

“A Vic B and CC and Coke please,” came another.

“Can I get a Jimmy please mate,” asks another tattoed guy with huge long dreadlocks.

Now, when you work on a bar, you’re pretty much expected to know the lingo for the local bevvies. While I’ve been in Oz a month now, an expert on the drinks here I’m not. It took most of the first hour not only to get my head around what on earth everyone was asking for, but also how much each drink cost in the pre-bought tokens.

(If you’re wondering, JB and Jimmy is a Jim Beam whiskey mixed drink with ginger, a Vic B is Victoria Bitter, while CC is Canadian Club whiskey and coke or ginger!)

The Hard Bar...and hundreds of punters wanting a drink!

Perhaps the highlight of my Australian drinks knowledge – or lack thereof – came after about half an hour, when a fairly well built guy came up to the bar and ordered two Jim Beams and a Solo.

I had no idea what a Solo was, so I bought myself some time by grabbing the Jim Beam cans and desperately thinking what a Solo could be. It sounds like some sort of cocktail or a long drink, yet it wasn’t listed on the drinks boards behind me. There was nothing for it, I might have misheard him, so i’ll ask again.

“Two Jim Beams and what else was it mate?” I asked

“A Solo,” came the short reply.

I clearly had a confused look on my face now. I looked back at the rows of tubs containing all the different cans, then back at the guy making mixed drinks at the back.

“A Solo?” I muttered back to the punter, hoping he’d give me an idea on how to make it.

“Yeah, a Solo,” came the reply, clearly getting a bit annoyed.

“What’s in it?” I asked back.

“Errrr. Lemons.” came the sarcastic reply.

At this point, I started to dig myself a hole by stating that I didn’t think we had any.

“Yes you have. I can see them. They’re over there in the yellow cans with the Pepsi.”

And so we did. It turns out that Solo is one of the most popular and common canned soft drinks in Australia. To give you an idea of just how dumb I must have looked, its about the equivalent of saying to someone “What’s in a Coca Cola.”

No wonder there were a few rolled eyes as I sheepishly traipsed back to the bar with said can of Solo in my hand.

I also quickly learnt about another quirk with music festivals in Oz. Whereas at the Leeds Festival back home, that I’ve been lucky to work at in a far different capacity over the years, all the drinks are draught, here it comes in cans. Thousands of them. And someone has to open them.

That duty falls down to the bar staff, and after a few with my fingers, I soon twigged those using spoons had the right idea. It was definitely the way forward, and I was soon totting up tokens, grabbing icey cold cans and popping open the ring pulls in no time at all.

Then I broke a nail…and yes, I do realise how that sounds.

Problem was, I’d caught it on one of the ring pulls and it pulled right down to that really sore bit beyond the white nail. There was nothing for it but to grit my teeth, pull it off and hope it didn’t hurt too much. Thankfully, I got away with it, but a few minutes later I noticed some blood. This time it was my thumb – the constant pressing down on the drink hole ‘flap’ bit of the can to fully open it had worn away at the side of the digit.

I battled on.

Grabbing yet more cans of Jim Beam. Pass me a spoon!

It was actually a lot of fun – everyone was in a great mood, there was some banter with many of the punters, some of whom noticed my English accent (including one bloke who asked for his Jagerbomb shaken and not stirred, just how ‘my pal Mr Bond would like it’) and once I’d got into full swing, it was actually really straightforward, if a little tough on the hands.

Two stages side-by-side, reducing the turnaround between bands

Soon I was sent on a break, so took the opportunity to have a wander around and see some of the festival. Its spread over a huge area, but one huge difference to the UK festivals is the tight control on alcohol. I’d not realised, but all the alcohol is contained within a few set areas, quite a way from the stages. It means you can’t take beers with you to watch the bands, which seems a little odd when I’m so used to having a pint with me while watching live music.

Swedish band In Flames entertaining the crowds

Marilyn Manson on stage at Soundwave

Marilyn Manson wrecking some stuff on stage!

I opened a few hundred more cans in the evening. I’d probably estimate that during the course of the day, I opened well over 1,000, but it was just great to be part of such a huge event. I think my enthusiasm was noticed too – a tall guy with long blonde hair, who I’d served twice earlier in the day, was back for another couple of Jim Beams. He’d heard me helping two others decide what to have, along with a laugh and a joke here and there, and when I turned round to get the drinks, I heard him the tall guy speak to the others.

“This guy has been cheerful and happy all day, even now he’s still smiling. Fair play to you buddy.”

It meant a lot – but then I was just happy to be at somewhere with such a great atmosphere and in the sun!

Sticking out like a sore thumb...although the picture doesn't do it justice!

I got signed off at 9.15pm, my thumb and index finger now red raw, but off I went to see a couple of bands.

Whats better than being at a gig? Being at a gig for free!

I managed to see most of the Angels and Airwaves set, a band which I’d heard of and recognised a few of their tracks. Where our stages back home are often held in huge circus style tents, at the Melbourne Showground there’s a few purpose built buildings that resemble sheds. Its not great for the acoustics if I’m honest, but it was a good atmosphere inside, even without the alcohol in everyones hands.

Angels and Airwaves during their set

The headliners on the main stage were System of a Down, which I knew I’d probably not like. I was right, and its not because I’m just getting old. It was just screaming and shouting on the track I heard, so made my way back to Angels and Airwaves to watch the rest of their gig.

System of a Down..cool stage, but music didn't go 'down' well with me

I signed off in the staff area and was told to grab a beer from a bucket, which I gulped down. It was nice to finally relax, and so I got a Southern Comfort and Coke mixed can from the bucket too. I said goodbye to the great bunch of people I’d been working on the bar with, finished off the drink, took another ‘for the road’ and headed to the adjacent railway station.

There was a huge crowd of people still waiting. I had to be at Southern Cross station to catch the last train to Ballarat at 11.24pm, but by my reckoning there were about 5,000 people in front of me waiting for the same trains. I did a bit of nifty manouvering along the inside of the crowd by a railing, which probably got me a few trains ahead of where I would have been, but time was ticking. If I missed the last train, I’d be stuck in Melbourne for the night, and would have to go find a hostel somewhere, an expense I could really do without.

Thankfully, I was squeezed onto the 11pm train, and 10 minutes later I was at Southern Cross with time to spare. I got onto the train ‘home’ and watched as the city disappeared behind me once again.

Heading home, along with thousands of festival goers

My legs are killing me, my hands are sore and I’m shattered, but its been a fantastic day out, a day I know I wont forget. I arrived back into Ballarat just before 1am, stepped off the train and began the walk home. But after seeing off thousands of ringpulls in the past 12 hours, there was one more can I had left to open. I had a friend to accompany me on the walk back to Nat’s house in Ballarat.

His name was Jim Beam.

The last can of the day...and it was mine!

Bridging the River Kwai

Bridge on the River Kwai

With just 49 hours to go before my flight out of Thailand, I find myself at one of the most famous bridges in the world.

While the Humber Bridge might just be the closest bridge to my heart, with us sharing the same birthday give or take a couple of hours, it isn’t a patch on the Bridge over the River Kwai in terms of historical significance.

I’m in Kanchanaburi, about 150km northwest of Bangkok and close to the border with Burma. It’s the proximity to the secretive country which saw the area become a vital supply line for the Japanese army during the Second World War.

Having endured a tiring 25-hour journey from the south, the overnight delays and sleeping rough on a bench had taken its toll, but there was no time for a snooze in the little floating room I’d found on the river.

With just two hours to see the main sights before sunset there was only one thing I could do to squeeze them all in, so I hired a motorbike and at 4pm set off around the town taking in as many sights as I could, starting with the famous bridge.

It was built to carry the Thailand – Burma railway as a way for the Japanese empire to get supplies into the north, and to help keep pressure off the sea routes, which until the railway’s construction were the only way of getting supplies through. It followed on from the occupation of Singapore and Malaysia, and the consequent surrender of thousands of British and allied troops that were unable to keep the enemy troops at bay.

As a result, thousands of allied soldiers were taken as prisoners of war by Japan, and forced to work on construction projects that would help their own war effort. Years of hard labour, under nourishment, disease, torture and beatings by the Japanese took their toll, especially in the construction of the railway. It had been dismissed years earlier by British experts as an impossible task, mainly because of the dense jungle which covered much of the route, mountains, marshes and countless rivers which would have to be crossed. But they wouldn’t have had the manpower that Japan now had control of, and set upon the huge project. More than 16,000 allied troops lost their lives in the process, mainly British and Australian – and as a result, it became known as the Death Railway.

A map of the Burma-Thailand railway

In total, about 180,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the 415km railway. Of these, around 90,000 Asian labourers died, along with 6,318 British personnel, 2,815 Australians, 2,490 Dutch, about 356 Americans and a smaller number of Canadians and New Zealanders.

They are staggering numbers, and mainly due to the forced labour conditions – brutal treatment by the Japanese, malnourishment, injuries and falls in construction and disease, which was rife throughout the POW camps, made worse by a lack of medicine and treatment.

The famous bridge

As a bridge, its fairly unremarkable but instantly recognisable, its curved black steel spans joining two angular stretches across the river. Of course, the bridge was made famous by Pierre Boulle in his book and the film based on it, The Bridge on the River Kwai, but it’s a long time since I’d seen it. Besides, there are many people who say its completely unrealistic, and infact fails to portray the true horrific treatment of the prisoners by their captors during the construction period.

Between the rails

Arriving on my scooter, I found a bridge swarming with tourists, mainly European and Japanese tour groups who had arrived on a fleet of coaches from Bangkok. Surprisingly, despite it still being an operational railway bridge, you are free to walk across and spend time on the tracks. While it has got a solid appearance, it still feels rickety, with huge gaps between the wooden planks holding up the rails, the scores of bright t-shirt-wearing tour groups and their umbrella touting guides, me, and the occasional train.

On the Bridge on the River Kwai

I spent time looking at its construction, thinking of the prisoners who had tightened up the thousands of bolts and the conditions they must have been working under. I know the bridge was also bombed by the US and RAF air forces during and after its construction, which also led to the deaths of many POWs. It was a long way down to the fast flowing river below, and records show many fell to their deaths while trying to build the bridge. The fact it still stands now, and in full use, is probably the best tribute to their horrendous work.

Dodging trains

I walked to the far side of the bridge and was looking at a guard post when suddenly I heard a familiar horn in the distance. It was a train – and I was slap-bang in the middle of the track. Thankfully, I knew the trains slow to a crawl to pass over the bridge, but sure enough the locomotive appeared behind me. I ran down the track back to the main spans of the bridge so I could get some photos, and dived into a refuge area.

The safe area still left you dangerously close to hundreds of tonnes of train as it slowly made its way over the river on its way to Bangkok, complete with yet more tourists hanging out of the windows, pointing cameras and smiling as they pass. I’m hoping to make the journey myself the following day, but even now I’m still unsure whether I will have time.

I followed the train back off the bridge and made my way towards a nearby museum, right next to the bridge and at the site of the first wooden bridge that was built across the river before the main metal construction was finished. It was called the World War II and Jeath War Museum, for which I paid 40 Baht to enter (80p). It was possibly the most surreal museum I have ever been into, and when it comes to first impressions, an exhibit of televisions through the years just didn’t seem to fit somehow.

Odd

It wasn’t the only quirky addition to the exhibits. The models of people were bizarre, most of the displays were covered in layers and layers of dust, there was no particular link or explanation for most of the things you could look at, and a set of ‘life size’ main characters from the war were actually laughable…

Madame Tussauds is worried

If it wasn’t such an awful subject to be trying to educate myself about, most of the museum was laughable.

A bit weird

There was a scene depicting one of the bombings of the bridge, complete with cartoon-style paintings of aircraft, and possibly one of the best Thai-English ‘Tinglish’ translations I’ll ever see. ‘Bodies were laying higgledy piggledy’ apparently. I guess it helps to paint a picture of the scene.

Needless to say, I didn’t stay for long – not just because it was slightly disappointing, but mainly because the sun was beginning to set.

The sun goes down

I still had one more place to visit, the cemetery where some 6,000 British and Australian troops were buried after succumbing to their treatment in the construction of the Death Railway. Row upon row of headstones with familiar names – Smiths, Hills, McCalls, Norths – complete with their regiment badges and ages, mainly in their 20s or early 30s, who had once been in southeast Asia but were never to return home.

War graves in Kanchanaburi

The grounds are well manicured and clearly looked after and regarded highly by the Thai community around here. Infact, my cyclo rider who had found me accommodation on the river just a few hours earlier even gave the cemetery a nod as he cycled past earlier. He didn’t know much English, but he did say “Brave men” as we passed. Brave men indeed.

With night falling, I headed back to my accommodation on the river and watched as the sky went the most amazing red as the sun set behind the distant mountains. My room was an experience in itself – its actually a floating bedroom, with the river Kwai flowing underneath. Every now and then, a boat will go past causing the whole place to gently sway as it bobs over its wake. Its actually quite relaxing, if slightly strange – and feels like you’re on a boat rather than in a hotel room.

Sunset on the Kwai

Back in the restaurant, and being near Burma, I decided to sample a Burmese chicken curry that I found on the menu. The owner, and cook, it has to be said, did warn me its quite hot, but it was too late. Most of the people around me had heard me order it, so I couldn’t chicken out now (no pun intended) and then spent approximately half an hour trying to consume what was by far one of the hottest curries I’ve ever had to tackle. I managed it – just –  but at least the time between mouthfuls of iced Coke and curry gave me time to think about my next move.

The bridge by night

I know I have to be in Bangkok in 24 hours time, as I really want to spend one last night taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the Khao San Road. I also want to make it to Hellfire Pass, another famous part of the Death Railway. I also want to travel across the Kwai bridge on a train, adding to my railway themed trip so far. It seemed an impossible task. I spoke to the owner and cook, who had a bit of a smirk on her face after making me a chilli fest for tea, and asked if it was possible.

“You’ll need to be up early,” she said

“You can get to Hellfire Pass in time for an hour there before the last direct train back to Bangkok leaves,” she explained.

My first thought was ‘how early’.

“There’s a group leaving here at 5.45am on a taxi to the bus station. Then theres a bus around 6.30am that goes north to the Burma border. It passes Hellfire Pass. It’s the only way.”

Its early, but a necessity. With a basic calculation of two hours for the journey, it should get me to the Hellfire memorial centre for about 9am, giving me a few hours to take it in before somehow making my way  back to Nam Tok and catching the 1.15pm train. It would, however, mean taking all my rucksack, backpack and belongings with me.

Trying desperately not to press snooze, I dragged myself out of my floating bed and into the floating shower at about 5.30am. Outside, dawn was breaking and a tuk tuk was waiting. I was joined by three women heading back to Bangkok for their flights home, but we were all too tired to talk properly. At the main bus station, I was ushered onto one of the local buses – it’s a no frills affair, but at least I’ll be moving soon.

Wrong.

After 20 minutes of waiting on an empty bus, I leaned on my bag and fell asleep. I woke up again at 8am – and we still hadn’t moved. There were a few more people onboard, but there were no signs of us heading anywhere. Back to sleep again, having now mastered the art of grabbing sleep wherever and whenever you can, and another hour later the engine started.

The bus was packed – it had been waiting for a full load, as is often the case in Thailand, rendering my early start pointless. After three hours of being asleep on the bus in a station, it was finally on the move, but my time at Hellfire Pass had been drastically cut short.

The other slight problem was the language barrier on the bus. It might have only cost me the equivalent of 50p, but the conductor had no idea what I had asked for. I also had no idea where I was heading or what to look for. I was the only foreigner on the bus, packed with families and kids heading to various parts of north west Thailand. Completely off the beaten track, I was on my own and battled to keep my eyes open on the swelteringly hot bus as it rocked its way along the mountainous roads north. I noticed that when people want to get off, they simply shout out and they get dropped at the side of the road. A conductor then bellows a weird noise to the driver when he’s clear to get going again, before he does a little run alongside the bus and jumps on the steps at the back.

I passed through Nam Tok, a town where I need to be later to catch my train, so I knew I was near. We were cruising along and I was taking in the scenery when we passed a military post with some flags flying. Then I saw a small sign with something written in English on it. I quickly looked back – was that the Hellfire Pass centre?

I suddenly woke up from my half dozing trance and called back to the conductor.

“Hellfire pass?” I asked, quizzically, knowing he wouldn’t understand. He just made his weird noise, and suddenly the packed bus came to a halt. If it wasn’t my final destination, all this was about to become very embarrassing, but it was too late. My bag had already been thrown into the dirt at the side of the road, and whether I was right or wrong, I was getting off the bus!

Hellfire Pass Memorial Centre

Thankfully, it was the right place, albeit with a sweaty bag-laden hike around some military outpost to the memorial behind. Its actually run and part funded by the Australian government in memory of all the allied soldiers who lost their lives here. I stumbled in to the blissfully airconditioned reception amid strange looks from tour visitors who wondered whether I had somehow walked all the way here with my bags.

Into the cutting

The lady at reception was nice enough to look after all my belongings for me, but warned me I only had an hour, or an hour and a half tops, if I wanted to make the 1.15pm train.

The museum was brilliantly laid out. A video on entry shows some of the horrendous work that went on during the war in the Asia Pacific region, including footage of the railway being laid by emaciated prisoners. Gradually, with the help of a great audio guide featuring some of the soldiers who were forced to work in the area, the story about the Death Railway, and in particular, Hellfire Pass, is explained.

Amid the details of how earth and rock were broken by shovels and picks, of how embankments of stone and soil were heaped up by human hands, and how bridges were formed using wood from the surrounding jungles, there is one site that stands out – and I am at it.

Konyu Cutting was the hardest, most difficult part of the railway to construct. It was effectively a solid rock mountainside – a mountain the railway somehow had to negotiate. Of course, trains can’t go up or down steep gradients, and so they had to go through the mountain. In peacetime, a tunnel would be dug – but the Japanese realised that there would only be two points of construction at either end if that was the method of negotiating the mountain. Instead, they realised they could force prisoners to chisel their way down through the rock, making a passageway for the trains to pass through.

Hellfire Pass

The brutal conditions, the backbreaking work, the lack of any form of power tools meant that this point of construction was quickly feared by prisoners. But it got even worse, as from April 1943, and with a summer deadline looming, the Japanese needed to step up the pace. They introduced the ‘Speedo’ period – forcing prisoners to work 16 hour shifts, even at night, with the whole area lit by flickering bonfires and under the watching gaze of Japanese soldiers.

In Hellfire Pass

It was widely regarded by POWs as a living hell, and therefore acquiring the name Hellfire Pass.

Copyright Hellfire Pass Memorial

The Speedo period at Hellfire Pass coincided with the wet season, meaning disease was at its worst and outbreaks of Cholera claimed thousands of lives. Some 70-90,000 civilian labourers are also thought to have died on the railway, many at Konyu Cutting.

In Remembrance

After the war, Hellfire Pass was largely forgotten about, although not by those who witnessed the horror during its construction. Largely consumed by jungle, it was rediscovered in 1984 by Tom Morris, one of the thousands of POWs who had helped to construct it.

Today, it is a tasteful and thought provoking memorial. The sides to the deep cutting clearly show the manual work that took place to remove the thousands of tonnes of rock. Close to the bottom at one part, a broken drill bit remains stuck fast in the rock. Scrapes and drill marks in the rock face are a permanent reminder to future generations of days of unimaginable horror and suffering by those who had inflicted them on the mountain.

Broken drill bit, stuck fast

Its hard to picture just what those prisoners and labourers had to go through in order to construct what is actually an incredible engineering feat, the cutting completed in just a matter of months. It enabled around 220,000 tonnes of supplies to be carried along the railway by the Japanese before the end of the war.

In need of a lift!

It was time for me to head to the nearest town and catch a train to Bangkok, and complete my own journey along the Death Railway. Somehow I had to get there though, a distance of 20km, and so I headed to the main road in the hope of flagging down a bus or taxi heading in the direction of Nam Tok.

After 20 minutes, there was nothing. With my bags at the side of the road, hitchhiking was pretty much the only option left, when a silver minibus pulled over.

“Where are you heading,” shouted a man from inside.

“Nam Tok,” I shouted back.

“Jump in buddy, unless you’re British,” he seemingly half joked.

I put my bags in the boot and climbed in.

“Hello, we’re from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, we’re Mormons, and delighted to help you,” said a fair-haired lady I sat myself next to.

Being dropped off in Nam Tok by my new friends

There was another half joke about converting me along the way before we began chatting about our reasons for being in this part of Thailand. Her name was Sister Katherine Noorda, a humanitarian worker. It turns out they had travelled from America and have been helping with the flood relief operation, delivering goods and supplies to those in need. They had been in Thailand for many months, and we enjoyed chatting about our love of the country. At one point, home made cookies were handed out which we all enjoyed.

It took around 20 minutes to reach Nam Tok, where I offered a donation for fuel and for the church, in gratitude for their help in getting me to the end of the railway line in plenty of time for my afternoon train.

“No, there’s no need for that, just promise us that if you ever see anyone in need, you’ll do as we do and give them some help,” Sister Noorda said. Of course, I agreed, and we had some photos taken outside together.

With my new friends after they picked me up

The train to Bangkok was late, as usual, but at 2pm we pulled out of Nam Tok and followed the route of the Death Railway, as was laid out and constructed during the Second World War.

Bangkok bound

It includes some breathtaking bridges and viaducts, including the wooden Wampo Viaduct that runs alongside a mountain and beside the river Kwai.

Crossing the Wampo Viaduct

Hold on tight!

Through another cutting

The beauty of Thailand’s railways, especially on a third class carriage like this one, is that all the windows open for some fantastic photograph opportunities. I went one step further, and clinging onto a handle on the side of the train, stood on the steps to the carriage for some great photos of the route.

About to cross the famous bridge

It included the moment we reached the Bridge over the River Kwai, which just 24 hours before I had been scampering along to take photos of the same train making the crossing. Now it was me that was hanging out of the train and smiling at those who were in the safe spots on the bridge.

Crossing the Bridge over the River Kwai

Originally scheduled to arrive into Bangkok at about 5.30pm, we were already horrendously late when suddenly one of the train guards ran through the carriage shouting.

No windows and trackside fires = covered in dirt. The beauty of third class rail travel!

The train shuddered to a halt. Incredibly, the Death Railway nearly lived up to its name, as somehow a teenage girl had been thrown out of one of the carriages. Somehow, she escaped with some cuts and a bang to the head, and was retrieved from the tracks by the train crew and sat back down with her friends.

My last sunset in Thailand

As she continued her journey, and we pulled in to Bangkok some three hours late, it was yet another moment that makes travelling in this brilliant country so fun. You really never know what is going to happen next.

Arriving back in Bangkok

I hailed a cab with two Dutch tourists and we headed to the Khao San Road. Against all the odds in my head, I’d managed to see everything I wanted to see, and probably in record time. A thought provoking pilgrimage to remember those who helped fight for us, but a fascinating look at some of the most historical parts of the country.

Under the Sea

Going under...

I love fish. I don’t know if its something to do with where I’m from (If you’ve stumbled across this site, there’s a clue in the name) but there’s definitely an affection for the scale-covered swimmers in my family.

I’m not on about eating them, as I can’t stand the stuff. Its too, well, ‘fishy’ for me. I’m on about watching them and admiring them, having spent hours over the years being put into a trance watching various Koi, goldfish and tench happily drifting around the pond in dad’s back garden.

Then there’s been snorkelling in the Red Sea, in what’s effectively a real-life aquarium, and I dabbled once in scuba diving by taking a trial dive with an instructor on the Great Barrier Reef.

I feel ready for the next step – I want to go exploring the incredible undersea world that lies beneath the waves of the world’s oceans and seas. I want to see the dazzling array of colours and life on the coral reefs around the world. I want to go and see Nemo and all his friends – and his lucky fin.

It was time to learn how to dive – properly, no messing, classroom and study time, exams, the whole works. Hopefully, at the end, I’ll get a Padi certificate that will let me dive without an instructor anywhere in the world.

My first view of Sunshine Divers Resort!

I’d enrolled at the Sunshine Divers resort in the lovely area of Chalok Bay, on the southern tip of Koh Tao, widely touted as one of God’s gifts to divers. Koh Tao is a beautiful little island – its tiny, at just 21sq km, there’s one main road, large swathes of the east coast are reachable only by boat, and just over 20 years ago there was nothing living here but coconut trees and the odd fisherman sheltering from a storm.

Some of the original coconut plantations on Koh Tao

The diving school was recommended by Hannah and Laura, my two friends I’d spent time with in Ao Nang a week ago. Sam, a Swedish guy Hannah’s dating used to be an instructor there before moving further south, and couldn’t recommend the centre highly enough. There are some huge diving schools on Koh Tao, and some have equally as huge class sizes. They are reputed to be more of a Padi diver factory, churning out hundreds of certified divers, whereas mine promises a class size of no more than four at a time. Perfect.

After such a tiring overnight journey, and an early arrival into the resort, I spent much of the first day dozing in a hammock, looking out over the crystal clear water in the bay and being hypnotised by the sound of the constant waves lapping on the shore just a few metres away. I was in the middle of one of those slumbers when suddenly I heard a familiar giggle by my ear. It was Hannah, and a few metres away was Laura. They’d been chuckling away and taking photos of me while I was asleep. Already the fun had begun!

Back with Hannah and Laura for more fun and laughter. And tea.

After a quick lunch it was down to business. Hours of DVD video had to be watched in the school classroom, which was a far cry from some of my old classrooms at Healing Comprehensive all those years ago. Distant views of ships on the Humber don’t really compare to watching the sun slowly disappear over the diving and fishing boats bobbing around on the beautifully blue Gulf of Thailand.

Not bad for a classroom view!

I was with just two other people on my course, under the expert guidance of my instructor Sarah, who has been at the centre for three years after leaving her native Virginia in America behind for a life in the tropics. My fellow students were Michael and Kristina, originally from Poland but who now live in London and who were now travelling for a few weeks.

DVD and textbook lesson, helped by gallons of banana and coconut shakes

After a few quick quizzes, dive school was over for the day, with a warning that the following day is tough.

And tough it was – I don’t have a particularly good record when it comes to being assessed in the water, but the first request when we arrived at the deep dive training pool at a nearby resort was to complete eight lengths, the equivalent of 200 metres. Now, normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, but after three months of eating coconut curries and drinking copious amounts of Chang, I wasn’t in the best shape for a seemingly marathon swim. Michael agreed, and somehow duped Sarah into thinking he’d done all of his lengths before giving me a ‘don’t you say a thing’ look and a cheeky smile. (Sarah, if you read this – he cheated!)

Suited up and ready for a swim!

I wheezed my way along my final length, before then being told to tread water in the deep end for 10 minutes. The whole episode brought back memories of my most significant water failure so far when I was at junior school, on one of my forays into Whitgift’s big pool, when I was under the instruction of teachers to retrieve a rubber brick from the bottom. I managed to swim down and grab it okay, but in my excitement swallowed approximately a quarter of the pool’s contents, choked, spluttered my way up to the surface, swam the wrong way, dropped the brick and then promptly got whistled out.

It was a cock-up that condemned me to a life of ‘baby pool’ activities and verrucas for the rest of my junior school swimming career, with the sole achievement of a ‘one width’ badge sewn to my trunks.

School mishaps firmly behind me, I passed the swim test with flying colours and so it was time to strap on the scuba gear. By now I’ve learned how to strip it apart and put it all together a number of times, got used to having the regulator in my mouth, checking that everything’s working and with an understanding of roughly how to go up and down underwater (all to do with how much air is in your lungs – trickier than you imagine)

Starting the scuba training

We spent the whole afternoon underwater, practising emergency procedures, sharing air from each others’ tanks, learning how to use the buoyancy jacket, how to equalise your ears as you descend, and – the one I was dreading – how to clear a mask full of water while underwater.

I don’t know why, but the whole ‘removing mask, replacing mask, blowing water out of mask’ drill seems to fill a lot of people with dread. Actually, I do know why – I did it the first time I tried it in Australia, and I saw it in both Michael and Kristina. If you don’t get all the water out by blowing through your nose and tilting your head back, you get left with, surprise surprise, water in your mask. But with your eyes closed, and the rest of your head wet, its sometimes quite hard to tell if the mask is empty. So for some unknown reason, your brain (well, mine anyway) tells your head to try to breathe in through your nose to regain the seal on the mask. Except you then inhale a lung full of water, panic that somehow your drowning, forget that you’ve got a fresh air supply in your mouth and have a full on freak out beneath the surface. Its not nice, and most people do it at least once. Michael and Kristina did it a couple of times, and I really felt for them. Its awful to see panicking humans under the water, but Sarah was an expert at restoring calm without the students shooting up to the surface for air.They both then dreaded the whole procedure for the rest of the course.

By the end of the day, we were merrily diving and swimming around the bottom of the pool, ready for the next day swimming with the fishes.

Sarah my instructor (left) with Kristina and Michael getting kitted up

It was an early start to catch the diving boat, which left the main pier at 8am. We sailed to the Shark Island diving site, setting up our tanks, connecting our regulators, checking air pressure and flow and growing slightly apprehensive about the dive. Its one thing being in a pool, its another jumping off a boat into the ocean and spending the next 40 or 50 minutes under the waves.

My dive buddy was Sarah-J, originally from the UK, but who has been brought up and now lives and works in Germany as a graphic designer. She’d done exactly the same course as me, the Padi Open Water, around a year or so ago at the dive school. Now she was back to complete her Dive Master certificate, with the hope of potentially spending a few months a year instructing in the sun, and then returning to Germany to earn money graphic designing over the European summer. Not a bad plan!

With Sarah-J, my first dive buddy

We completed our buddy checks, where step by step you go through each other’s kit and basically checking that when you throw yourself in, you can a) float if you want to; b) sink if you want to; and c) breathe, although not necessarily in that order. Its got the acronym BWRAF – Begin With Review and Friend – and its the way the guide tells you to remember the sequence of checks for the Bouyancy control suit, Weights, Releases, Air, and Final Check. There are a few other ways to remember though, and I  particularly like the ones put forward by Sarah to help us: ‘Bruce Willis Ruins All Films’, or another, ‘Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas’. Made us all chuckle!

Heading to the dive site

As the boat settled into position, one by one we all stood up on the side of the boat, held out masks and weights in position, and took a giant stride out into the deep blue sea. Gradually, we let the air out of our BCD and descended down under the gentle waves. Immediately, there were fish to look at – and in particular, a slightly annoying Striped Remora, one of the shark sucking fish – that took a liking to Sarah J and I the moment we showed our faces in his little world.

Normally they hitch a lift on sharks, sucking on and nibbling away at dead skin. Unfortunately for Sarah J, the same principle applies for humans, and she told me of her never healing cuts and grazes on her legs which keep getting eaten. Today was no exception, and after watching the long thin fish take off yet another scab from her leg, he switched his attentions to me and sucked onto the top of my leg. When you’re getting used to breathing underwater complete with tank and all your kit for the first time, having a pesky fish not leave me alone was slightly annoying. His free ride soon came to an end after I batted him away for the third or fourth time.

Gone diving...

It wasn’t the only bit of sealife to have a go at me on my first dive either. As we were kneeling down on the seabed, we’d noticed a number of fish hanging around and waiting for us to kick some sort of tasty morsel up from under the sand. Having done some more skills, such as clearing yet more water from my mask, one of them, a bright blue wrasse, decided he was impatient and tried to attack my knee while I wasn’t looking. It was a sudden, sharp shock – and naturally, thinking it was something with huge teeth and poison, I jolted around and crashed into Michael, who was currently trying to retrieve his regulator from behind him. His wife and Sarah J, both who saw what happened, were clearly amused judging by the amount of bubbles drifting up from their mouths.

We went down to a depth of 12 metres, and after our skills practise emerged back on the surface 28 minutes for a tank swap and a cuppa.

The next dive was more of the same, including the strange sensation of learning how to control your height by nothing more than the amount of air in your lungs. Its fairly simple –the more air you breathe in, the more buoyant you become and so begin to rise. If you can imagine filling your lungs, and then keeping some of that air in there while breathing normally, a bit like puffing your chest out, then that’s how you rise. To descend, breathe it all out and breathe normally again. It’s a great feeling, a bit like flying through the water as its completely effortless once you get the hang of it.

The afternoon was spent completing the final exam, which I aced with a respectable 92%. It would have been 94% had I not coloured in the wrong box and seemingly decided that one of the most important hand signals in diving – a hand out, sweeping and rocking from side to side – actually meant ‘which way do we go’ rather than its usual meaning of ‘I’ve got a problem’. Buddy’s probably wouldn’t stay buddy’s for long if I actually thought that to be the answer!

Hannah and Laura buddy-checking before our dives

The following day was our deep dive down to 18metres, the deepest you can go with my certificate. Our instructor Sarah was ill, and so Tamara, an Australian instructor, took over and made me a buddy with Michael. Also on the dive boat were Hannah and Laura, providing a few opportunities for wind-ups and laughs, usually at my expense…

Looking a tad nervous before the deep dive!

We practised a quite impressive forward flip into the water, and then started to descend. Well, having had some brilliant visibility the day before, it was like trying to drift down into an abyss. You could only see your hand in front of your face at some points, and then my ears decided they didn’t want to equalize, forcing a ‘squeeze’ and becoming painful as I tried to go down. I slowed my descent and wiggled my head around, blowing on my nose.

‘Eeeeeeeeeeeerrrrk…pop’

Ears cleared, down I went a bit more! Visibility still bad, it was the first time I could fully see how easy it would be to become badly disorientated. When I first heard that sometimes you have to watch which way the bubbles go, I wondered just how bad it could get. Now I knew – I could have been upside down, going up, going down…if it wasn’t for the rope and my bubbles giving me some idea, it could get very confusing.

And then I lost my buddy.

Michael, also struggling with his buoyancy, drifted up above me. I tried to grab him to pull him down, but it sent me out of control and I didn’t want to lose the rest of the group. I looked back up through my bubbles – Michael had gone.

Cue one of those ‘Jaws movie, panicked looking around and nothing but blue’ moments as I realise I’m briefly on my own, before another instructor suddenly appears in front of me and gives me a sign to descend. He’d obviously thought I was drifting up and away from the group – and not realised my buddy was also missing.

Back with the rest of the group, Louise, another instructor, went back up to the surface to find the lost Pole, and thankfully he had done the right thing and waited at the top. A few minutes later, we were back on track, taking our masks off at the bottom of the sea (still unnerving, especially with a slightly snotty nose (!)) and having our air supplies shut off – again, unnerving, mainly as its not right to be at the bottom of the sea without anything to breathe, unless you’ve got gills, which I haven’t.

It’s the only way to simulate an ‘out of air’ scenario though, and learning how to take a back-up air supply from a buddy. Thankfully, its easier than it sounds. Skills over it was back to looking at beautiful coral, watching a Crown of Thorns starfish making its damaging way across the bottom, and taking great delight in making hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms instantly disappear into their little holes with a quick wave of a hand nearby. That alone could provide hours of fun – YouTube it here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sNl2w_xH4xs

Clambering out of the boat for a reverse roll into the water

The final dive of the course was probably my most enjoyable – Tamara said she could tell I had done some diving before and was confident in the water, and buddied me up with her friend Rosie, who was visiting from home in Australia. It was a move I was quietly pleased about – it meant Michael could pair up again with his partner, and if I’m honest, it meant I wouldn’t have to be so worried about where he was and whether he was drifting away. They’d be the first to admit they were not the most confident at their new pastime, and sometimes I couldn’t help but feel I was being held back.

Safely in and joking with Tamara

Tamara made sure we had a great dive – the three of us were relaxed, freely diving around wherever we wanted to go, Rosie was somersaulting in the water – and dropping like a stone at one point, making both Tamara and I laugh our heads off underwater, again, another funny experience (usually a lot of bubbles and very smiley eyes are the giveaway!)

We watched parrot fish, clown fish, swam near swaying anemones, sent countless hundreds of Christmas Tree Worms back into their coral homes and watched bright blue clams close up as we swam near. All around, fish of every colour swim by, going about their daily business. It’s a cliché, but it really is another world under the sea, and it’s a great feeling when you’re a visitor.

Thanks to some calm and controlled diving, we made our tanks last just over 50 minutes – and even then, Rosie had still managed to keep 100bar of air in her tank, half of what she started with, and prompting me to shout the question “Do you breathe or are you a fish?” when we reached the surface.

Chilling on the boat

Climbing out, the diving was over. There were some well-earned cups of tea and biscuits all round – how English indeed – and we all relaxed as the boat took us back round to Sairee Beach, which was looking beautiful as the sun broke through the clouds.

Another cuppa with Hannah and Laura after our dives!

Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

Back at base, I filled in my log book, got myself yet another banana and coconut milkshake and took in the reality that I was now a fully qualified diver. And even better, I’d manage not to drown, I’d consumed very little seawater, I’d not been seriously attacked by any marine life – and I’d loved every second of it.

Passed!

I had to check out the day after completing the course, which was a shame as I’d have liked to have stayed for a few days to relax in the stunning bay, but instead I’d set myself yet another sightseeing challenge. Kanchanaburi, home of the Bridge over the River Kwai, is close enough to Bangkok for a whistlestop rail visit. It’ll mean another tricky journey, but one I told myself was worth completing.

Officially a certified diver!

I picked up my Padi certificate and dive tables on the way out, said goodbye to Hannah and Laura, as well as the brilliant instructors and people I’d met at Sunshine Divers, strapped my backpack on yet again and headed out of the gates.

There’s a nagging thought inside me that it won’t be too long before I’m back. The next step up is the Advanced Diving qualification…and it sounds like a lot of fun!

Time out

Relaxing on Koh Lanta

I’ve got two lists when it comes to looking for accommodation while travelling: ‘basic comfort’ and ‘cheap essentials”.

My dorm room...in a barn by the road!

The checklist in use for the next few days is the ‘cheap’ list, as I try to preserve a rapidly depleting bank balance. A bed is an essential, naturally, as is a roof over my head. As for flushing toilets, hot water and – the ultimate backpacker luxury – aircon, well, I can do without.

Sonya's guesthouse

And so I introduce Sonya’s guesthouse on the island of Koh Lanta. My home for almost a week, a place where I can relax, switch off and have some ‘me time’. A holiday within a holiday almost. Complete with a hosepipe for a shower!

The bathroom

I’d found it on the Agoda website, coming in at a budget saving £3 a night. I was shown to my bed in what can only be compared to a fan cooled barn- except the fan doesn’t cool it that much.

“The bathroom is outside, and there’s another through the restaurant,” I’m told.

My bedroom for a week

It was what’s known as a bucket shower, in that there’s a tank of water and a bucket. Its how the locals do it, and I know because you see plenty of them at it along the railway lines when you pass by on the train. There’s a hosepipe that fills the tank, and a mirror. And that’s it.

Brushing my teeth in the great outdoors!

I’m what’s officially known as ‘roughing it’, a week I’d set aside to live cheaply, eat less and drink water to help save the budget a little. I’d managed to set my record of 60 Baht (£1.20) for a day’s living when I travelled here, mainly by living on 7-Eleven sandwiches and bottled water for the day. I admit, when I saw how basic the dorm was, I contemplated a move the following day to more comfortable digs, but chose to stick it out for a while.

I was so glad I did – I grew to absolutely love it. The main reason for this was the food, admittedly – it was quite possibly the best I’ve had in Thailand – but also the friendliness of the family that runs the place. By the second day, I almost felt part of their family, welcomed every time I arrived back, asked how I’d slept every morning, it even got to the point where I was writing my own food orders on their order pads and helping myself to drinks from the fridge.

My spot on the beach...complete with blog and Chang!

On top of all this, I found a little bit of a beach which had my name on it. It was empty, apart from a few other lucky travellers who had discovered it, it was lovely white sand, blue water and was in a great position for many fantastic sunsets. On my first day when I arrived, I stopped at a couple of places to sit down and take it in, only to be quickly chased up for food and drink orders. Then I found a hammock near a place called Fisherman’s Cottage, a bungalow resort on the beachfront. I laid in the hammock, gently swaying and watching the sun set, for a good couple of hours, and not once was I pestered to order anything. Best of all, it had wifi, a clincher – I’d found my spot and called it home.

Lovely!

The week for me was all about relaxing and catching up on my blog. The following day I went back to Fisherman’s Cottage and ordered some food, a Coke and opened up my laptop.

I loved that hammock!

In between uploading I’d be writing, and when I wasn’t writing I was trying to catch up on a mountain of messages from friends asking how I am and what I’m up to. And that was the general pattern for the next few days – writing during the day, uploading and laying new posts out during the night, but always making sure I was at my favourite spot at Fisherman’s Cottage for about 5pm, in time to watch the sun go down over the Andaman Sea with a nice cold Chang in my hand.

Out in search of paradise!

But I couldn’t come all this way without actually checking out the island, so for £6 I hired a pretty cool looking scooter for a couple of days and took myself off for a tour. I’d set myself a personal challenge of finding some deserted beaches, and it didn’t take me long to complete it. The island is lucky enough to have some beautiful beaches dotted all the way along its western coastline, and just 10 minutes ride from where I was staying brought me to a stretch of white sand with nobody on it.

Another empty beach in the south

I rode further, and again, another beach with nobody on it. I continued further, with an aim to reach the southernmost point, part of a national park, and what a fellow guest at Sonya’s had told me was a must see.

Koh Lanta National Park

He was right – a fantastic part of the island where a rocky outcrop divides a beautiful beach from a rocky beach, with stunning blue waters, thick jungle all around and wild monkeys. Oh, and there were about three people on the beach!

I rolled out my t-shirt, kicked off my flip flops and laid back. I’d found a bit of paradise, and it was great. The monkeys kept dropping by with a cheeky look at my day bag, blatantly thinking of making a raid on it, but I kept my eye on them. Infact, they were great fun to watch, running around with their babies, playing, swimming and looking for food.

Monkey on the beach

Every now and then I’d also have a hermit crab scuttling nearby, and if they weren’t running back to their hole in the sand, they were busy throwing little balls of it out. Beaches aren’t normally my thing unless there’s a frisbee or a volleyball doing the rounds, not to mention a beer, but I’m growing to love being able to switch off and just be amused by the wildlife around.

Baby monkeys

I also kept myself amused by making myself a nice new blog header (see above!) which took me a bit of time, but then what else have I got to rush back for? Apart from the sunset in a few hours, absolutely nothing. And it feels great!

Back on my scooter!

After a good few hours, where in the end I became the only one left on the beach, I got back on my scooter and rode back north looking forward to another amazingly good yellow curry at Sonya’s. I came across a sign pointing to some waterfalls, and decided to squeeze in a quick visit while there was still some daylight. I rode along a dusty and rutted dirt track, overtaking a few elephants heading back to their camp, and came to a place where motorbikes are supposed to be parked. But my quick visit quickly hit the buffers.

“You can’t get down there to see the waterfall mate,” said two fellow bikers.

“Why not, am I too late?” I asked back.

“Nope. Too many King Cobras according to the guides.”

Good enough reason I thought, and quickly rode back along the dirt track to the safety of the road!

It was by the junction I came across one of my favourite moments on the island. Happily riding along, I saw an elephant being washed at the side of the road – except there wasn’t anyone washing him. After a double take, and trying not to stick my motobike into a ditch with my surprise, I saw exactly what was happening – the elephant was washing himself with a hosepipe!

Rub a dub dub!

It was brilliant to watch, and soon a large crowd had gathered to take similar photos and videos. A memorable sight!

It wasn’t long before once again I was thumbing my way through the delightful menu at the guesthouse. The food at Sonya’s is all freshly prepared by the family. When I’m in the indoor shower, next to the kitchen, I can hear them pounding the spices in the pestle and mortar just a few inches away on the other side of the wall. The whole place fills with the most amazing smells when it hits the pan. Its no surprise that the guestbook is filled with comments praising the culinary magic that goes on in there, thanks to Luke and his family. Infact, it got to the point where I was actually looking forward to dinner every night, browsing through the menu and choosing yet another different dish to delight the tastebuds – quite an achievement for the restaurant considering I’ve lived on curry, rice and noodles for almost three months now!

Cooking, Thai style

It actually inspired me to enrol on a cooking course, something that I’d not really considered, but now having expanded my Thai palatte considerably further than just  a green curry, I realised time was running out if I did want to properly learn how to make the stuff.

“Go to this place. Gordon Ramsay uses it,” says Luke as I look through the bright yellow pamphlet.

I don’t quite believe the Gordon Ramsay sales pitch, but it didn’t matter as I found that in the morning session you learn how to make Tom Yum soup. If you haven’t tried it anywhere, you must – I hadn’t until Alissa on the tour had it nearly every night and made me have some. I’m so pleased I did, as it quickly became one of my favourite dishes if I was in a ‘spicy’ mood.

Kaffir lime leaves...chop chop

It’s a hot and sour, clear soup full of lemongrass, galangal (its like ginger) chilli and lime. It comes with chicken or prawns, and while it doesn’t sound that spectacular, I can assure you its fantastic. I had no idea how to get such incredible flavours out of it, so I laid down my £20 and pulled on an apron for a morning of cooking.

Our teacher is Chien, who is also the owner of the Black Pearl restaurant on the island, and who it turns out, actually did teach Gordon Ramsay some of his Thai cooking skills.

“He came over here and I went to Krabi to teach him,” he tells me, skilfully chopping away at his lemongrass.

“Now he sends his staff to me too, they come over here and learn how to cook and pick up some of my recipes.”

I was impressed, and naturally the journalist came out from inside me.

“What’s he like,” I ask, trying not to take off a digit with the ridiculously sharp knife.

“Ah, I like him. He’s a bit grumpy sometimes. And he swears a lot,” Chien says, before going into his own expletive riddled impression of him. It made us all laugh.

My yummy Tom Yum soup in progress

And so I cracked on with my soup – and as a little Brucie bonus, here’s my recipe, written in my terms of understanding.

Half a stalk of lemongrass, sliced into inch-long lengths.

A thumb-sized lump of galangal (fresh ginger will do)

3 Kaffir lime leaves, ripped up and stem removed

1 Shallot, skinned and crushed (don’t chop it up!)

1,2 or 3 small chillis, depending on how hot you want it (I went for two, and it was hot enough!)

A few mushrooms of choice

A few scrapes of grated carrot (optional)

Half a tomato, quartered.

A spring onion, chopped up

Some fresh coriander

1 Chicken stock cube

1tbs fish sauce (not my favourite, so I only put half in)

1 tsp of brown sugar

1tbs lime juice

300ml water

Basically, you boil the water, add the stock, throw in the lemongrass, chilli, galangal and shallot and boil together for a minute, mixing it round.

Then, throw in your thinly sliced chicken or prawns, add the fish sauce and sugar. Let it bubble for 30 seconds. Then put the mushrooms in and wait another 30 seconds. Chuck in the tomatos, carrot and lime juice, give it another 10 seconds on the heat and its done – easy as that.

Here's something I prepared earlier

Incredibly, mine tasted just like it does in the restaurants here too. A lot of that is down to the fresh ingredients that Thailand is lucky enough to have growing out of its ears, but when I get back to the UK, I’m searching out a place that does this sort of food to make my own. Its delicious!

Chicken with cashews...made by me

We went on to make three more dishes – chicken with cashew nuts, pad Thai and a Penang curry, all of which were stunningly good and a credit to Chien who admits he’s tweaked his recipes over the years to get them as good as they clearly are. I can see why Mr Ramsey trusts him.

My Pad Thai

Full of a four course dinner before midday, it was yet another day on the beach to snooze it off. I did have one vital job to do though, as it’s mums birthday back home. I got a bit creative and logged onto Moonpig to make sure she at least had a card. Hope she likes it!

A birthday message for mum!

After six wonderful days of relaxing, eating, swinging on hammocks and watching the tide and sunsets, it was time for me to go. I had a diving course to get to, and it involved a trek across Thailand and north to the island of Koh Tao.

Luke at work in the guesthouse kitchen

I said goodbye to Luke and his family, wishing them well for the future. Sonyas isn’t well publicised and its not in the Lonely Planet (Though its probably only a matter of time before it finds itself in there) and that’s why it was such a fantastic discovery. It’s a little gem, a home away from home, and it was a pleasure to spend some memorable days there on what was a beautiful and relaxing island.

I'll miss it!