Up high in Bogota

 

Up high in Bogota

Up high in Bogota

The Colombian capital has always raised a wry smile between my family and I. It all dates back to an afternoon spent at the old viewing area at Heathrow Airport when I was younger, watching a huge jet take off and checking where it was heading to. It was my pronunciation of Bo-GO-ta that amused the parents, and for some reason it became one of those memories that still get mentioned every time the city name comes up (its Bogo-TA, though I still say it wrong almost every time in my head!).

img_0787But I also remember my parents telling me it was in Colombia, and as a youngster I remember watching that plane take off, wondering about this far away land in South America that it was heading to, seemingly on the far side of the planet.

Well quite a few years on, I was landing at that very airport, looking down on the city that had given my family a few smiles over the years. For me, it was my first ever view of South America too.

First views of South America

First views of South America

You might be wondering why I chose to make a random trip to Colombia. The truth is, with my passport expiring in June next year – and having a stamp in it from every continent in the world apart from South America (ok, and the poles before the smart ones point it out!) I thought it was as good a reason as any to set foot on the continent and go exploring for the very first time.

I’d initially looked at Peru and Ecuador, but with those countries just coming out of winter, and quite mountainous in the areas I wanted to visit, the weather would have been much cooler than back home. Plus I wanted a mix of nice beaches and a city experience. I could see Colombia would fit the criteria, although I had concerns over its reputation. For years it was gripped by drug cartels under the influence of Pablo Escobar. The country was one of the most deadly on Earth with sky high murder rates and regular gun battles related to the control of cocaine. Then there was its own civil problems- particularly its conflict with FARC rebels, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. All in all, I admit, I had almost discounted the idea of travelling there – until I had some specialist advice from a travel agent in London, who insisted it was much safer these days. Researching on the internet and the Foreign Office website confirmed that, while you’ve still got to be careful, large swathes of the country are indeed ok to visit.

Attentive taxi driver

Attentive taxi driver

So I planned my own itinerary, which began in Bogota before visiting the pretty colonial town of Cartagena on the northern Caribbean coast, from where I’d get a boat to Panama. A perfect combination of new cities to explore with relaxing beach time. But my first impressions of Bogota were a long way from the picture perfect coastline I was heading for.

Three across...ends in EZ?

Three across…ends in EZ?

It didn’t help that I was being driven around by a taxi driver who seemed more intent on completing a giant newspaper word puzzle than actually get me to my hotel in one piece. Every time we stopped, even if it was just slow moving traffic, out it would come. Even while he was driving he was thinking of answers, at one point clearly working out one particular solution in his head and celebrating by momentarily waving his finger in the air while trying to weave through three lanes of traffic.

It was all getting a bit worrying. If the puzzle hadn’t been in Spanish, I’d have tried to help him complete it quicker so he could focus on the road a bit more. But 40 minutes after pulling out of the airport, he got me to the hotel safely and I made use of my newly withdrawn Colombian Pesos to pay him.

After two days of travelling from Hull, I opted for a bit of comfort at the Bogota Plaza Summit Hotel, in the north of the city, and spent the first night relaxing. With most advice being to avoid going out onto the streets in the city after dark, it was also the safest option. Street crime and muggings are rife in parts of Bogota, especially around the main areas frequented by tourists – with some cases of foreigners being stabbed – so it was definitely the safest place to be, and an early night set me up well for seeing the city the following day.

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Bolivar Square, Bogota, Colombia

I took another taxi, thankfully minus the newspaper puzzle, to the La Candelaria part of the city, the main colonial old town and birthplace of Bogota. First stop was the main Bolivar square, named after the saviour of the city Simon Bolivar. He and his armies liberated the country by defeating the Spanish occupiers in 1819. He’s widely celebrated, and his statue takes centre stage in the square.

Dancing in the streets for all ages

Dancing in the streets for all ages

Nearby, what sounds like a concert is pounding out a mix of reggae and salsa beats, entertaining a crowd of a few hundred people at an event put on by the local council. I couldn’t quite work out what was happening, but it added to my first impressions that this was a city full of colour, sound and life. There was, however, certainly a bit of a nervous ‘edge’ about the place.

img_4234The layout of the old town lends itself to lots of quiet, secluded streets which you can quickly find yourself wandering around – and with few other tourists around, I hardly mingled in. I had taken usual precautions like keeping my camera in my rucksack and not taking my phone out to avoid displaying valuables. I even had a bundle of US and Colombian notes kept separate in an easy to reach pocket incase I encountered one of the thieves which are keeping Bogota’s crime figures so high – the advice from Lonely Planet is to hand them something quick and let them make an escape, rather than make them impatient and then stealing or snatching more from you. Or worse.

It’s quite sobering, but then this is still a very poor country despite the fact its on the economic rise. Like anywhere new, I had to keep my wits about me, as I wandered along through street stalls selling everything from corn on the cob to big huge vats of a creamy substance resembling strawberry Angel Delight, frequently being whipped around and stirred from side to side by two colourfully-dressed women near the main square.

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

I stopped to try a Colombian traditional dish ‘chocolate completo’ at Bogota’s most famous snack shop La Puerta Falsa. It’s a delightful little café, set over two tiny floors, slightly cramped and rustic but with a great mix of locals and tourists all squashing in together at the wooden benches and tables to sample the home made delights.

Chocolate completo

Chocolate completo

Mine was effectively a bread bun and some cheese, which you make into a cheese sandwich, some form of dried, floury, slightly hard cake, and a hot chocolate. Though this was a particularly special hot choc – it had to be coming from one of the finest chocolate producing areas in the world – a watery consistency, but with a rich, bitter chocolate taste, rather like plain chocolate. At 6,500 Pesos, it was just £1.50 for a quick pick me up and I was off into the streets again.

After all those calories, where better to visit than an art gallery which celebrates everything ‘plump’, shall we say. Colombia’s most famous artist Fernando Botero painted everything, from trees to landscapes, all with one peculiar quality. Everything was chubby.

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Yep, Museo Botero has some of his finest work, including paintings of chubby pears; chubby people; chubby horses; even a chubby Mona Lisa.

Does my famous face look big in this?!

Does my famous face look big in this?!

I still don’t quite know how or why his fascination with the chubby artform came about, but it was a very peculiar walk through. I’m not a big fan of art galleries at the best of times, but I could admire the quality of the painting and the methods he’s used to make them so colourful and pleasing to the eye. But they did all look a bit odd.

Back out on the streets, it was time for another of my favourite past times when I’m visiting new places. I needed to get high – and not the kind that gets you 10 years in a Colombian prison here.

Readers of my musings from my big trip five years ago may remember I have a particular fondness for getting to the tallest or highest point in a city, to enjoy the perspective from above. And Bogota has a trick up its sleeve – it sits in a plain, known as the Bogota savannah, a lofty 2,640 metres above sea level, surrounded by mountains. It’s the third highest capital city in South America, and there’s a chance to get even higher thanks to a neighbouring mountain. Monserrate peak is topped by a very famous church in the city, Cerro de Monserrate, visible from across the capital, and its classed as a ‘must not miss’ by all the research I made into the trip.

Cerro de Monserrate

Cerro de Monserrate

There are two ways up and down – three including an arduous walk up a pathway notorious for pickpockets and muggers – so I opted for the cable car and funicular railway. But it’s a bit of a mission even to reach those, and I was quickly finding out Bogota is a giant city. The lack of a metro or railway system means taxis are the only quick and reliable (and cheap, it has to be said) way of getting around – though even they come with a genuine tourist health warning of ‘try not to get abducted’.

Cable car to the top

Cable car to the top

I was in two minds whether to walk it, as once again my guide book told me to advance with caution, particularly near the university area the route to the cable car would take me through.

But I was also walking through some areas which were being regenerated, and there was some quite spectacular street art along the way, so I kept going on foot. Eventually, after keeping my head down as I marched up the quite steep foothills, I arrived safely at the cable car office, puffing and panting.

Street art in Bogota

Street art in Bogota

It cost about £4 for a return trip to the top of the 3,150m peak – as high as some of the tallest ski resort peaks in France- and for the first time, the true scale of Bogota stretched out for as far as the eye could see. It covers an incredible 1,700 square kilometres, spreading out far more than Greater London – so huge, that it was easy to see half of the city was currently being battered by a torrential thunderstorm. The other half, including the La Candelaria area I had just walked from, was basking in bright sunshine.

Bogota from above

Bogota from above

It really was one of the best cityscape vantage points I’ve been lucky enough to see. What made it different is that, unlike many other cities, Bogota has very few skyscrapers. The city appears flat. It’s easy to see the main highways where they wind their way through neighbourhoods. The airport in the distance is a hive of activity. 6.7 million people living their lives between where I’m standing and the horizon. The parks below are full of people enjoying the weekend sunshine, or further away, running away from the impending storm. Thankfully, though only a thin breeze, it was moving gently away from the mountain I was perched on top of.

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Mountains behind Bogota

Mountains behind Bogota

As well as the church, there’s a random market and a few restaurants at the top. I stopped for a snack and a much needed drink, took in the views of the mountains as the stretched away from the city, and headed back down in the funicular railway, plunging through a steep tunnel carved out of the rock.

Funicular railway station

Funicular railway station

Going down!

Going down!

After a walk back through to the main La Candelaria area once again, I was thirsty, so went to the BBC – though not a distant outpost belonging to my employer. img_4366The main brewery in the Colombian capital turns out to be the Bogota Beer Company, which also happens to like plastering those three famous initials all over everything. Naturally, I found this quite amusing, and took a few photos. Getting a few puzzled looks from the bar staff, I explained that I worked for the BBC back home, and suddenly acquired a few friends!

I enjoyed a pint of their Monserrate ruby ale, to celebrate reaching the top of the peak safely and without encountering any of the local criminals, whilst chatting in my finest Spanglish to the bar staff about what I do, and why their beer is so good. I left a short time later with a BBC t-shirt, a bottle opener, a handful of BBC beer mats, and a slightly fuzzy head.

BBC beer

BBC beer

Darkness had fallen, and so it was time to retreat back to the safety of my hotel and plan the next step of the journey. Once notorious Medellin, former home to drugs boss Pablo Escobar and responsible for much of Colombia’s turmoil in recent history, or the colourful colonial port of Cartagena. A lot depended on time available. A busy night with a calendar and flight websites was in store.

 

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The end…of a chapter

Back home – reunited at Heathrow with Mum and Dad after nine months around the world

I don’t quite know how to start this. I might have had nine months in some of the most incredible parts of the world to give me inspiration, but this is probably the toughest post – if not one of the hardest pieces of writing – I’ll ever have to tap out on the screen in front of me.

Homeward bound

I’m sitting in a very comfortable World Traveller Plus seat, looking down as New York disappears below me. Even British Airways must have detected my sombre mood at check-in. Despite expecting to pay anything up to a £250 charge for missing my flight from LA to New York, to enable me to drive from coast to coast, I instead got a complimentary upgrade.

Perhaps our flag carrier sensed from my itinerary it had been something of an epic journey, and that it needed something special to soften the impending hammer blow of returning back to reality

Boarding for home

Yet even the extra legroom, wide, extra-padded seats, the three little buttons to control everything from lumber support to the extra recline, and the sumptuous upgraded menu is struggling to put me in a frame of mind where I can accurately put into words how I am feeling right now.

Going home was always going to be a difficult part of my journey, but the strange mixture of emotions flowing through me is different to what I had expected. One minute I am incredibly sad that the adventure I had looked forward to, a once-in-a-lifetime journey, that has brought so many positives, friends and fun to my life, is now over.

Nice comfy upgrade!

Yet there is also a sense that I am now looking ahead, a feeling that I am returning home to a fresh start, a new future, a clean slate to get my life at home back on track, concentrate on my career and plan more adventures in the future with the countless new friends and favourite places I have come across and discovered.

And of course, there is the excitement at seeing my family and friends again, who I left amid tears and beers in October, not knowing really how long it would be before I would be back. Sure, the intended return was May, but deep down I think I always knew it would be longer.

Amid all of this, somehow I need to write a post that sums up how I am feeling knowing I am just hours away from touching down at Heathrow and seeing my parents once again. After all, every good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. A jaunt across Russia on the trans-Siberian railway provided something extraordinary to write about back then, and in doing so became a perfect starting point for my ongoing journal.

The middle wrote itself, with the Chinese tea scam catching me out and resulting in a ride in a police car; falls off motorbikes and cycles leaving me with lasting scars and memories of this eventful trip; learning to dive, learning to make coffee and learning that Australia is a very, very expensive place to visit.

Flying over New York

It was helped along with a good dose of problems – Thailand trains being delayed by six hours, leaving me to sleep rough on a platform for the night; a pain in the backside lodger back home that did a runner on me, leaving

Breakdowns in the Outback

my finances in ruins and putting my whole trip in jeopardy, a couple of Germans who managed to alienate an entire tour group I was on, being kicked out of a hostel in Darwin thanks to a ridiculous stay extension system, and who could forget about the time when I laughed at the spirits of Uluru…resulting in a broken down car and a sky-high outback garage repair bill for a good friend of mine. Who would have thought a fuel pump could cause so many problems?

My trans-Siberian railway group I met

There have been plenty of highlights too that have given me plenty to write home about – bungy jumps, skydives and icy adventures in New Zealand, some of the best friends I could ever wish for in my ‘Ballarat family’ in Australia, learning to surf on the waves of the Pacific, managing to drive all the way along Route 66 in a week, New Year on Thailand’s beautiful islands, climbing the Great Wall of China, the magnificent insight into history at the Terracotta Warriors and travelling on the fastest public transport in the world in Shanghai. The bone shaking 433km/hr we reached on that Maglev will live long in the memory.

Starting out in Moscow – with very short hair!

As I look in the British Airways Highlife magazine, I flick through to the map of the world, complete with all the BA destinations, and think back to that dull day in October when I did a similar thing and marvelled at how far I was about to travel. I looked at the maps of Asia, Australia and America and thought about how far away everything seemed. Returning home at the end of it all seemed just a distant thought, yet now on this flight I look at that same map and spot all of the places I have been. Suddenly the world looks and seems very small.

It has certainly been an experience getting around this great planet of ours, and here are a few of the figures involved.

  • 304 days
  • 26,000 miles (and probably a bit more!)
  • 14 flights
  • 13 long distance trains
  • 7 tuk tuks
  • 6 motorbikes
  • 6 hired or borrowed cars
  • 4 cycles
  • 1 helicopter
  • 1 campervan (courtesy Matt and Siobhan)
  • 1 police car (Chinese tea scam)
  • 2 trips to hospital (to visit Dirk)
  • 2 crashes (one motorbike, one cycle)
  • 1 bout of serious food poisoning (Malaysia, Christmas, great!)
  • 300,000 words (and counting) on my blog
  • Around 35 packs of two minute noodles
  • 3 boxes of souvenirs sent home

So what have I learnt on this journey? After all, so many people were telling me how I will return as a changed person. Its difficult to say whether I am or not – that will perhaps be down to close friends and family to be the judge of that.

On the trans-Siberian in the Gobi Desert

What I can say is that I return to British soil a much happier, relaxed, enlightened and clear-thinking person than I was before. I return with a whole load of new mates, too. Whether they are living on the other side of the globe in Australia or New Zealand, or close to home in Nottingham or London, I know I am lucky to have met some fantastic people who I am proud to call friends. Be they Colin and Sarah, who I had so much fun and banter with in southeast Asia, Dan and Laura, who I got to know thanks to an unfortunate chicken-dropping incident in Adelaide, only to go on and spend the next two weeks travelling north together, Russ, Soap and the Magic Bus team in New Zealand, Santi and Galli, my Spanish friends I met on the trans-Siberian railway, Jen from London, but with links to Lincolnshire, who I met in Thailand after she shouted abuse at me for staying too long on Koh Phangan, or Liz, a fellow journalist I met in Chiang Mai who I stopped by to visit at her home in Newcastle, Australia.

With Santi and Galli who I met on the trans-Siberian railway, pictured shortly after arriving in Beijing

There are countless other people too, who nine months ago were complete strangers, yet fate and our paths of travel led us to meet at some of the most interesting parts of the world. As I celebrated my birthday just yesterday, I had one of those moments when I realised just how many new people have become part of my life in such a short space of time. Humbled by some 130+ thoughtful messages and birthday wishes on my Facebook wall, I looked through the list of names. Among them, around a third were from people around the world who, during the last few months, got to know me as I did them, shared memories, travelled together and became part of each others’ lives.

Tickling tigers in Thailand

When travelling, background, nationality, gender, sexuality and race do not matter. When you walk into a hostel, step onto a plane or spend four days and four nights on one train, you are simply a traveller, a backpacker, and part of a brilliant community of people all making their way in one direction or another around planet Earth.

Learning to dive in Koh Tao, Thailand

And then there are the scores of renewed friendships that this journey has allowed me to refresh. The time spent with Hannah in Thailand, another journalist I once met on a plane returning from New York, but strangely had never met back home. Yet we were both travelling at the same time, met up in Thailand, who introduced me to her friend Laura and who we went on to spend a few brilliant weeks laughing, travelling, learning to dive, drinking far too many beers and buckets together and inventing the whole new game of the 7-Eleven bar crawl.

There was Neil, my old friend from Pizza Hut in Grimsby who I had last seen some 13 years ago and who now lives in Alice Springs, slap bang in the centre of Australia. A great guy who took a leap of faith by lending me his car for a trip to the outback,

With Neil in Alice Springs

only for it to break down on me and land him with a bill for more than $1,000. Yet despite that, not once did he grumble about what had happened. Our conversations continued from where they left off in the Pizza Hut staffroom in the late Nineties, our friendship was renewed, and I know that after losing touch, once again we are good mates again despite the distance.

There is Katrina in Sydney, another close friend who has helped me with accommodation on more than one occasion in her beautiful city since we met in upstate New York while working on the summer camp in 2002.

And of course one of the best renewed friendships was that with Nat, another close friend from Camp Nashopa in 2002 who, without a thought, offered me a place to stay in Ballarat, where I could stay for free, sort out my finances, plan the next part of my trip, and in the process, meet more new friends. Jess and her daughter Liv, who also invited me into their home (along with their pet dog Cleo, whose hairs I am still finding in my luggage and between the keys of my notepad), along with friends James and Jane who welcomed me into their circle of family and friends for three brilliant months.

With Nat, left, and Koa on my arrival into Ballarat…as Batman!

My time in Ballarat was easily one of the highlights of my nine months away. For a few weeks, I had a bit of routine and a place I could call home. Helping out at the Lake View Hotel, days out on the coast, pizza nights in and so many laughs that my cheeks are still recovering from all the aches.

With my ‘Ballarat family’

The term ‘Ballarat family’ I have already mentioned in this post, but it’s a term that quite describes how we became. For those few weeks, those special people in that part of Victoria could not do enough for me, and for that I will forever be indebted. For a few weeks in particular, times grew very hard and difficult, when a lodger in my house back home ran away owing more than £1,000 in rent.

Yet, despite only knowing Jess and James for a few weeks, they were there for me throughout with endless help with internet supply, generous supplies of meals, far too many beers and coffees shouted for me and the brilliant ability to put a smile on my face and give me a much needed hug when things got on top of me.

Nat not only offered me a place to stay, but introduced me to a new band of friends that I am lucky to know, and who, thanks to their love and support, stopped me from returning home when times got particularly hard. With just a couple of hundred pounds in my account back home, and finding it so tempting to just fly back to sort the problems out with my house in person, it was Jess who gave me some all important advice.

“Things will work themselves out. They always do.”

And they did, through some of the most remarkable ways. Not only did I end up tracking my elusive housemate down, claiming some money back from her (and there will be more chased up through court on my return) but I began making contacts within the travel industry

When my friends Siobhan and Matt visited from home, at the Round the Twist Lighthouse, Great Ocean Road, Australia

Which brings me on to this very blog, my website, afishoutofgrimsby. I don’t quite know where to start with this, mainly because it snowballed from something that I thought would be a good personal record, and something to keep the parents and friends up to date with what I have been up to, into something that in the end, helped me out with my travels in a way I never thought possible.

Blogging on the Mekong, Laos

I bought the domain name through WordPress after having a laugh with colleagues about how I, one of the most accident prone and clumsy people in the Look North newsroom, would probably struggle to make it around the world on my own. I’d be like a fish out of water, came the call – a man out of his depth.

“It worries me how you’ll ever make it round the world,” said one producer to me after I’d once again lost my car and house keys in some obscure place in the office.

And that was my inspiration for the website name, what with Grimsby being famous for its fishing heritage and all that. My friends laughed and agreed when I came up with it, all promising that they would check in on it from time to time.

A familiar view during my travels!

It was a steep learning curve to begin with. I’ve never set up a website before, and it was tricky to get my head around the layout and photo placement tools at first. Gradually, however, I got the hang of it, devising my own style and layout that was the most time efficient to upload yet easy to read and follow. It was my personal diary, written in a news story form at times, but for what I thought would be a few dozen close friends.

Now, more than 18,000 hits later, and being picked up and running as a weekly column in the Grimsby Telegraph back home, afishoutofgrimsby became something I just had to keep up. Its been difficult at times – spending so much time on the road, action packed days, nights out and early starts, combined with the pressure to be as sociable as possible, meant that I often spent any spare time I had tapping on a keyboard to keep the blog posts flowing. But poor internet, especially in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, meant it was hard to keep up to date. Uploading the photos for one post alone would take up to three hours due to the file sizes, while the layout of each post easily takes another two hours, on top of the time it takes to write each one.

My birthday card for mum that I sent from Koh Lanta, Thailand!

Yet I knew that it would be worth it. I already look back at my posts from the first half of my travels and there are reminders of people and events that have already slipped my mind. And then, in Australia, with daily reader number growing, the website helped me down another avenue. I got in touch with Great Southern Rail, who enjoyed my website so much, they offered me travel on the famous Overland and Ghan trains from Melbourne to Darwin – the regular price of which would set me back some $2,500.

I had to put the work in, of course, but that was something I was already doing. In return, I found a way of subsidising my travel, and I know the posts were very well received by the railway company.

Freefalling in Queenstown, New Zealand

Following on from that success, Tourism New Zealand, which promotes the country, along with the Magic Bus, who tours the country, got me onboard with a hefty discount and free-of-charge media scheme when I arrived after my stay in Australia. It was a breakthrough that enabled me to experience New Zealand and all of the exciting activities in a way I never thought possible. My budget would never have stretched to even a quarter of the days out and adrenalin attractions that I actually experienced, yet this once little website that I hoped would prevent me from explaining the same stories over and over again back home had now started helping me with more exciting things to write about.

Bungy! Jumping the third highest bungy in the world, in Queenstown, New Zealand

To that extent, I’ll miss being attached to my netbook and its now polished-smooth keys from my fingertips. I’ll miss looking out for interesting little tit-bits that I come across to tell people about back home. When something goes wrong, it will once again just be something that goes wrong. There will be no more “ah well, its something for the blog” excuses. I’ll miss taking far more photographs than normal, just because the website might need it to explain a story. And I’ll miss all of the kind comments and support from those regular readers back home who have been with me for the ride.

Contrasts…snow and Skiing in New Zealand…

Because that is how it has felt at times. I may have been thousands of miles away from home, off the beaten track, sometimes fed up, hungry or tired in the middle of nowhere, yet it was always so comforting knowing that in some way, everyone was with me. I’d look forward to mum and dad talking to me about something I had written, or the odd email dropping into my inbox from a friend or work contact who I had made laugh, cry or smile with some of my writing. Or a note from a complete stranger, somewhere on Earth, who had somehow stumbled across my website and been inspired to get in touch after reading about my journey.

…paradise and sun in Fiji

Every day I would get a breakdown of where my website is being read, and the number of different countries and flags around the world that pop up still continues to stagger me. It was never part of my plan, yet I’m pleased it became part of my travelling experience. The knowledge that people were actually enjoying it – and still enjoying it nine months on, judging by the ever increasing views – was what kept me going, often until two or three o clock in the morning, to make sure that everything was kept up to date as possible.

Tubing fun in Laos

So where does afishoutofgrimsby go from here? To be honest, I still don’t know. My day to day job and career can limit my personal thoughts going out into the public domain somewhat, but perhaps there can be a way of continuing it through future travels or adventures. There is also a plan to turn it into a book, something mentioned to me by more than a few fellow travellers and friends along the way. Again, that is something I never imagined I would ever accomplish, yet I owe it to myself to at least explore the idea. And there will probably be a couple more updates as I make the transition back from a backpacking traveller into a clean-cut television reporter.

Ferry in Fiji

Yes, it will mean the longer hair will probably have to go, the travelling wristbands and cotton bracelets from tubing in Laos will have to be removed, and the shaver will definitely be brought back into daily action. But it has been great to throw myself into ‘traveller mode’ for a few months. It might have been a bit of a bet with a few friends from home not to get my hair cut for the entire duration of my trip, but now I’ve got used to it, I’m not sure it will be an easy day under the scissors. It might be providing Dad with plenty of ‘get your hair cut’ comments, but on the whole, the positive words of support for the longer locks far outweigh the negatives.

Even my closest friend Dan, who uttered ‘you and that horrible hair’ to me on the phone a few days before I arrived at his house in Connecticut, was forced to admit that he actually quite liked it. “I think it actually suits you,” he said. I’m still not too sure whether he meant it.

Laying on the International Date Line, Taveuni, Fiji

Aside from getting my barnet cut, there is also a family holiday to look forward to just a matter of hours after I step foot back in the country. Its dads 60th, and his wish is for us all to be together as a family for it, so we’re travelling to Cape Verde to be with my sister who is working out there. It will be the first time in two years that we have all spent quality time together, and its fair to say we’re all looking forward to it.

Getting closer to home

I’m now halfway over the Atlantic, cruising along at 613mph according to the little screen in front of me, and I’ve realised I have been rattling on for some time. Its probably time I get round to some thankyous.

I have been fortunate enough to meet so many incredible people on this journey, both friends and acquaintances who have made me laugh, shared a pint, offered a bed, cooked me a meal, given advice, lent a hand, loaned me a car, picked me up, taken photos, driven me around and generally been there for me when I have needed it. I have met countless others who have simply been part of the journey, on tours, day trips, on flights or on boats, or who I have just bumped into in a street and enjoyed a conversation with. There are far too many people to name, but for all those I have had the pleasure of meeting, chatting to, passing the time with, travelling with, sharing  and helping to make some wonderful memories with, I thank you with all my heart.

On the Great Wall of China

I must thank the companies and organisations in Australia and New Zealand, who, thanks to their free of charge offers and schemes, enabled me to do more than I ever dreamed of doing on this trip.

A huge thankyou to my managers and colleagues at the BBC, who have been fully behind my travels and gave my career break and website their full backing, including a lot of behind the scenes work with clearance regarding the Grimsby Telegraph newspaper column and some hastily rearranged return dates, knowing the knock-on effect it can have on contracts and extensions for other staff.

The biggest thankyou has to go to those of you who are reading this, who inspired me to keep going, to keep writing and to keep staying up until all hours, timing uploads and new posts to coincide with the working day in the UK, and who have encouraged me to share my experiences. I really have felt your support as I have made my way around the globe.

Saying goodbye to mum and dad in Hull, UK, October 2011

And finally, to my family, in particular my dad, Graham, and mum Lynda, who despite questioning my reasons for travelling in those early days when it was just an idea and queried whether I was putting my career at risk, got fully behind me and gave me their full support. When times got hard, it was my parents I turned to despite the miles, who have helped with visits to my house in Hull and subbed me a loan to help me finish my journey when I needed it.

I will miss watching my dad make his Treasure Hunt-esque visits to the huge map of the world they bought and placed behind them so I could see it in our Skype chats. He ran out of pins to stick in it the other day, after I clearly visited far more places than he originally thought. It was mums fault apparently. I’ll also miss watching how the postcards I sent from around the world would, one-by-one, appear on the frame of the map. An ongoing progress chart, but a gesture in itself that showed me how much my parents were behind me. At times, I’d like to think they got almost as much fun out of it all as me, plotting my journey, following my flights and reading my updates from the latest far-flung land.

Their support meant the world to me, and while it was hard missing Christmas and birthdays with them this year, I know I will treasure our family time from now on.

With Dan and Laura, Ayers Rock, Australia

You see, if there is one thing this trip has taught me, it is how I take everything in my life back home for granted. The best friends I could ever wish for, good health and a loving family. Sure, a nice house, car and a bit of disposable income are great, but in the grand scheme of things, and having lived on a tight budget for the last nine months, if there is one thing I have learnt it is indeed the old cliché that money isn’t everything.

I have travelled through some of the poorest areas in the world, where people live on just $1 a day, who just a generation ago lived in fear of their lives under brutal regimes, and who call a tin shed their home.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Yet, however poor, however destitute and however hungry or thirsty they may be, they would always have a smile. A welcoming hand, a thankyou, a look in their eyes that says ‘you’re welcome here’. And that was a huge lesson for me.

Dawn over London…and my first sight of home

And so I get back to my initial train of thought. While I may have had a beginning, and plenty of stories in the middle, this tale of a certain ‘fish out of Grimsby’ needs an end.

Even Hull got on the map approaching Heathrow. Nearly home

For that, I refer to some scribbled words on a hostel wall in my first few days of travelling in China. It was dark, I was on my own, and I was sipping a beer. My eyes wandered through the hutong lanes and upon the messages that had been scrawled by hundreds of travellers before me. My eyes became fixed on one of them, a message that seemed to resonate, and one that helped me sum up my reasons for making such an epic journey in the first place. I will never know the anonymous person who wrote it, but it was a few simple words that I hope inspire others thinking of putting their day to day life on hold for a while, taking a leap of faith from the rat race, and discovering the big beautiful world of ours that we are lucky enough to call home.

“Life is like a book – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. The story that fills the pages in the middle is entirely down to you.

“But without travel, you can struggle to get past the first page.”

I realise I have been so fortunate to have this incredible opportunity, and its been a pleasure sharing part of my story with you. And who knows – maybe one day, there will be a second chapter.

My bag arrives at Heathrow. The end of an amazing adventure

Virtual Reality

Touching the Atlantic – coast-to-coast drive complete!

After almost nine months of continuous travelling, slowly making my way around the world, I felt incredibly close to home as I approached the east coast of the United States and the Atlantic Ocean.

Afterall, I’m now closer to my family and friends in Grimsby and the UK than I have been since around the end of October last year, when the trans-Siberian train took me to the far east. I could almost smell the Humber bank, almost see the HumberBridge – and I was about to see one of my closest friends.

But I didn’t need to get on a plane to see him. For Dan moved to Connecticut, a couple of hours north of New York City, almost two years ago now, spotted by the sports channel ESPN and given his own show at their American headquarters and studios.

I couldn’t think of a better place to end this epic journey than at his home in West Hartford with his wife Denise and son Nathaniel, my godson. For much of my adult life, Dan has been one of those who I have trusted, who has advised, encouraged, celebrated, listened to and supported me through many decisions I have made, including discussions when I was unsure about making this very trip. It felt right that I would end it with him and his family.

Heading towards New York City

But first there was another major milestone that Ian and I had to reach. We may have driven for thousands of miles, but for this to be a true coast-to-coast drive across America, we had to find a suitable place on the coast to touch the ocean. Afterall, I have a photograph of me touching the Pacific Ocean, I need another of me touching the Atlantic as proof of the achievement.

We left the Catskill Mountains behind and followed a familiar route towards New York – familiar as it was a drive we completed many times during our days as counselors at CampNashopa. The I87 took us around the northern outskirts of the Big Apple, the skyscrapers dominating the skyline out of the right hand side of the car, their peak being the unmistakable shape of the EmpireStateBuilding.

I looked at a map and decided that the town of Bridgeport would be the ideal place to mark the end of our coast to coast adventure. It was almost on the way to West Hartford from NYC, minus a short detour off the Interstate. It was a slightly rough looking town, but from the raised highway we could see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.

Beautiful, umm, Bridgeport!

I think that is when the sense of achievement took over – a little over a week ago, I was driving the car around California, dashing along Santa Monica Pier in LA for those all important shots of the Pacific side beach. And now, with a whole lot of America behind us, we’d reached as far as we could go, pulling up in a parking bay beside a white sandy beach full of local people playing volleyball. Ian and I grabbed our cameras and walked towards the blue ocean that was lapping onto the shore.

We made it!

We’d just reached the gentle waves when we heard a commotion behind us.

“Guys guys, guys,” everyone was shouting, looking in my direction. My eyes darted across from the volleyball players who were getting my attention, to a police officer who was giving our car some attention. He’d pulled up on a quad bike, and attempting to issue a ticket. I sprinted across the beach.

“Is there a problem officer?” I asked, wondering what I could possibly have done wrong.

“This is not a parking bay,” he told me, despite it looking very much like one. Apparently there was a sign telling me so, not that we’d managed to spot one.

Well, it looked like a parking bay officer!

Cue lots of “sorry I’m a tourist, just driven across from Los Angeles, only grabbing a quick photo” spiel, which thankfully did the trick.

“Park it across the road, but we’re closing the park soon so be quick,” he told me, before speeding off on his quad.

Re-parked…surely it’ll be fine here!

I parked up and rejoined Ian, and had just got the camera out while having a paddle in the Atlantic when there was yet another commotion from behind us. This time it was the policeman shouting, who was also waving his arms around and looking quite angry.

I made another sprint across the sand.

“Just WHAT the hell would they say to you if you parked like THAT in Hollywood sir,” he barked at me.

I looked at the car. Its wheels were in the bay, I’d parked it close to the fence, it wasn’t blocking any traffic and I thought it was a neat bit of parking. But something told me that it wasn’t a good time to say “nice parking?”

“You’re lucky I’m not issuing you a second ticket, let alone a first. Get it turned around.”

Ah. And suddenly it became clear. I’d momentarily forgotten that the UK is just about the only country in the world that allows you to park a car facing oncoming traffic. Here in the States, it’s a parking offence. I looked around at Ian, who seemed to be just as embarrassed by my second parking offence in as many minutes as I was.

Touching the Atlantic, just over a week since the Pacific…and no planes in between!

I turned the car around, locked up again and rejoined Ian on the beach, sheepishly walking past the locals who, by now, had stopped playing volleyball and turned their attention to the idiotic tourist who keeps getting shouted at by the neighbourhood cop.

“Ironic, isn’t it,” I said to Ian as the water lapped around my feet.

“You drive thousands of miles across America, one of the most famous routes in the world, stop off at some of the most famous sights in the world, and almost complete the journey with a parking ticket at the final stop.”

We laughed. Reality was definitely getting nearer.

With the photographs taken, and an angry quad-biking cop on patrol, it was time to take our bug-spattered, California-registered motor away from its Atlantic viewpoint and back inland towards West Hartford. Who knows if it will ever see this side of the States again – at least it had a few stories to tell!

You don’t see many of these plates in New York

By now the sun was setting, and after three previous visits to the town, I could turn the sat-nav off and made my own way to Dan’s house. It was a strange feeling, driving back into a town that feels so familiar. I had a sensation that I was going back to what I know – stepping back into my ‘real life’ if you like, having spent so long on the road in unfamiliar places and countries.

I turned into his street, looking out for the large tree that stands in his garden, and pulled up onto his driveway. Something I have done a few times before, but never at the end of a 20,000+ mile journey around the globe. I could see through the glass front door as Denise turned around and a huge smile lit up her face, and Dan rushed outside. They had followed my journey through my blog, and now it was very much ending on their doorstep.

A welcome from Dan

“Mate, so good to see you,” said Dan as he gave me a manly hug on the drive. I introduced him to Ian, before we were both invited inside. It had just been Nate’s first birthday, so there was plenty of cake to welcome us, along with a celebratory beer.

“You’ve done well to put up with his stories all that way,” joked Dan, referring to his long-held perception that my anecdotes have a tendency to bore people. Ian laughed it off. I don’t think I’d bored him too much along the way!

A lot of miles added to the clock for this trip!

We chatted for about half an hour before Ian had to leave – while my drive against a deadline was over, Ian had a motor race meeting to be at north of Boston for the weekend, and had to make further progress north. Ian and Dan had never met each other before – one being a friend from Camp America, the other being a long term friend and coursework buddy at university – but they got on really well, and after  few photographs together in the living room to mark the occasion, Ian had to get back on the road.

Introductions all round!

It had been a brilliant leg of my journey, and to share it with a great mate who I originally met 10 years ago through travelling, enabling us to share memories, costs and driving duties with, had made it all the more special. I was gutted to say goodbye, knowing its likely to be a couple of years before we meet up again, but we had made a dream become a reality. Something we’d talked about 10 years ago at Camp Nashopa, and then speculated on in Melbourne earlier in the year, had become a reality. For me, it was something I had not initially planned as part of my trip, but I’m so pleased we managed to make it happen – even if it does mean I could face up to a £250 penalty for missing my flight to New York from LA.

Bye mate

I shook Ian’s hand and patted him on the back as he got back into our Ford Fusion and backed it off the drive. It had been our trusty carriage across the States, clocking up 3,809 miles since I drove it off the parking lot at Los Angeles Airport. It had taken in the Las Vegas strip, the Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon and the deserts. It had crossed the mighty Mississippi River, completed Route 66, seen the skyscrapers of New York and almost had a parking ticket beside the Atlantic Ocean, but its journey was far from over.

Ian’s journey continues

As the headlights disappeared into the distance, Ian and the car were only halfway through their journey – to save a staggering £1,000 one-way charge, Ian will be at the wheel all the way back across America to the very same car rental place in Los Angeles that I picked it up from. Now that will be a sight on the rental agents face when they notice the clock. And don’t worry – we double checked it was on an ‘unlimited mileage’ basis!

After a good sleep, I was woken early in the morning by Dan, and a gorgeous little man called Nate. He was clearly confused as to who this strange person was that had mysteriously appeared on the sofa overnight. When I last saw Nate, it was a last minute trip across to America a few weeks before my travels, a journey I made to see him as a tiny baby, knowing it would be another year before I had the opportunity to visit my godson again. As soon as I saw how much bigger he’s got, I was glad I made the trip – he’s grown up so much since I was last here, and he’s almost at the walking stage.

With my Godson Nate

There is so much of his cheeky, happy personality coming out in him now, and he was a pleasure to be around. Dan and Denise have been blessed with such a well behaved little boy, and despite a few tears when he was first placed in my arms while his dad prepared his breakfast, I soon found a few ways to make him smile. It mainly involved his little green cuddly snake, or by feeding him. But, as is often the case, the more childish I became in trying to make him smile and keep him entertained, the better the result tended to be. And, of course, there were a few godfather duties to undertake too – there was a nappy change (well, I was in the same room at least) helping out at bathtime and trips to the park.

Dinnertime!

Infact, my time in West Hartford also fell on my birthday, which had been slightly planned if I’m honest. With July 16 being my 31st, and having spent a fairly miserable Christmas away from family and friends with food poisoning in Malaysia, I wanted to be around someone I knew to celebrate getting another year older. My flight back home was booked for the 17th, and so there was a second celebration with my family a couple of days later to look forward to. I’d celebrate my birthday in the States, and then two days later I’d be back home. It really was becoming very real that this journey was all but over.

A birthday trip to the park…for me!

To celebrate my birthday, I played on diggers, slides and climbing frames in the local park. I did, of course, have Nate as a convenient excuse, but it was a great morning of relaxing in the sun, watching as Nate made his way around various park play equipment, and tried his best to steal another kids truck and bucket in the sandpit. And, with his help, I got to dig a really deep hole in the sand!

Sandpit fun

Slidey fun

But perhaps the best part of the day was trying to encourage Nate to walk. He was so close to taking his first few steps, but was still settling for his half crawl, half drag leg technique when it came to transporting himself around the house.

“He’s so close Phil, any day now and he’ll do it,” Denise laughed as she tried to persuade her son to take his own weight on his little legs for the first time.

And he was.

With Dan at work for a few hours, Denise was playing with Nate in the living room. I could sense he was trying to walk, and was playing with a roll of kitchen paper.

“Phil, take this,” Denise said, passing me the kitchen roll.

Nate followed it with his eyes as it was passed to me, arm outstretched and a huge smile on his face. I passed it back to Denise, who encouraged Nate to get hold of it. She then passed it back, and as I held it up for him to get, for a few short steps, he walked over to me.

Denise and I both jumped up and cheered, delighted with his achievement. Sadly, our excitement wasn’t quite understood by Nate, clearly frightened by the sudden loud celebration, and who promptly began to cry. There followed many hugs and cuddles, and he was soon smiling again, as was his mum.

“Dan’s going to be so annoyed he missed his first steps,” she laughed.

Cake from Denise!

There were even presents, too, that Nate helped me open – my favourite American Peanut Butter-filled M&Ms, some Buffalo wing sauce, a block of spicy cheese and even a cake.

A great birthday!

It was a perfect few days of fun, relaxation and catching up with my closest friends. It was also a great way to re-acquaint myself back with real life. For three days, although there was talk of my travels, there was also much talk of life back home across the pond – of my job, a return to my family, plans for my house, new housemates to meet and what I will do about a car. For the best part of a year, issues which have been far from my mind, but within hours will become my life again.

A birthday Skype with the parents back home!

In a way, staying with Dan was a good stopgap, a nice go-between from my care-free travelling life to the serious, everyday real life back home – bills, bank balances, career and all.

Unwrapping the pressies!

But first, there was another deadline to meet, and, incredibly, another friend. I had to make my way to Newark airport, which, as many will know, involves a jaunt through New York City and on across the Hudson River to New Jersey. It can be a bit of a hassle, but there was a plan- and it involved the world famous Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan. More on that in a minute.

Fun and laughter

As usual, Dan and I set off a little too late to make it a comfortable journey to the airport. There was a train from New Haven, but we were cutting it fine to make it, some 45 minutes away. There was a look of slight concern on Dan’s face.

“You know, in all of this trip, I’ve not missed a boat, train or plane that I was booked onto?!” I wryly said to Dan.

“And it wont happen on my watch,” he quickly quipped back, putting his foot down a little firmer on the accelerator.

Goodbye to Dan, Denise and Nate

He was right- we made it to New Haven station with time to spare. We said goodbye, although we both know it will only be a few weeks before we see each other again back in the UK, and besides, we’re pretty good at staying in touch these days thanks to the wonders of Skype and the internet. He waved me off, and I turned my attention to my cheap $20 US mobile phone I’d bought on Route 66. I was awaiting a text from my friend Nina, the public relations manager for the former Conoco, but now Phillips 66 Humber Refinery near Grimsby –and, it has to be said, someone who had been an avid reader of my blog during my time away.

During my stay with Dan, I had noticed Facebook updates from her indicating she was in New York. I dropped her a line, only to find out, coincidentally, that we would both be leaving the city on the same night – and from the same airport, just an hour apart.

At Grand Central Station in NYC: Anyone know where the Waldorf is?!

Sadly, my phone decided it wouldn’t work. Instead, it was the wonders of Twitter, and the occasional blast of free wifi that I would gain as we passed through stations on the train, that enabled us to coordinate a meet up.

Nina had treated her mum to a luxury visit to the Big Apple, informing me that I was to meet her at the famous Waldorf hotel. Now, this is beyond my standard of living even at the best of times, let alone at the end of a bank balance draining round the world trip. It was near to Grand Central Station, where I arrived, but I had no idea where.

Imagine, therefore, the looks I was getting as I made my way around some of the other well-to-do hotels around the central Manhattan area, with my long hair, traveller backpack, sweat pouring off me in the mid-summer heat and a general scruffy appearance, asking for directions to one of the most exclusive, luxurious and upmarket hotels in the world.

Exactly.

At one point, I swear I was pretty much laughed at, not even daring to look behind me as a tophat-wearing concierge of a nearby hotel scoffed at me. He did, however, point me in the direction.

I gingerly walked into the back entrance of the even more exclusive WaldorfTowers, to be met with an opulent gold and marble reception area, a place that exudes exclusivity. It’s the sort of place that you really wouldn’t expect a scruffy, smelly backpacker to suddenly rock up in.

Spot the one who doesnt quite fit in at the Waldorf!

“Hi Phil” said Nina, coming to meet me before my embarrassment at being in such a state at such a beautiful hotel got the better of me and I made excuses to walk back out.

With Nina at the Waldorf

We had a good laugh about the situation, and Nina introduced me to the bellboy and concierge, one of whom was from Thailand and immediately took interest in my stories of where I had been there and what I thought of his home country. They were incredibly friendly, and despite my appearance, had a lot of time for me.

“Would sir like to take a shower. We can arrange sir a room,” came an offer, meant in the politest terms.

Sadly, I was already holding up Nina and her mum from getting to the airport, so I had to turn down the chance of having a posh shower in the poshest facilities of my trip. I did, however, get a souvenir room card from the hotel thanks to Nina, and we shared a ride in a yellow taxi to Newark Airport.

Times Square from the yellow taxi… and on the way home

We passed through Times Square and the bustling streets that I have got to know so well over the years, telling Nina and her mum in the back about some of my traveller tales, and talking about how sometimes, the world can be a very small place.

While Nina was flying to Manchester, I was flying back to London where the adventure began nine months ago. I said goodbye to the pair of them as they were driven off to another terminal, and I prepared myself for a £250 charge for missing my flight from LA the moment I approached a check-in desk.

See you on the other side – of the Atlantic!

Reality was beginning to bite, meeting up with friends, preparing to see my family, little reminders of home coming thick and fast. But I’d just ended my shoestring trip around the world with a visit to the WaldorfTower hotel. Now that’s something I wouldn’t have written in the script when I left for Moscow in October last year.

For now though, it was time to go home.

Only at Nashopa

Back at Camp Nashopa – 10 years after meeting there

The sun was shining, the birds were singing and there was a distant sound of children playing. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the trees that tower above me, offering shade from the afternoon sun. Summer was in full flow in New York’s beautiful Catskill Mountains.

It was definitely a shorts and t-shirt day.

After six days of driving and sightseeing along America’s famous Route 66, the end of this mammoth road trip was in sight. My Australian mate Ian and I had driven more than 2,500 miles through 12 states, mostly until the early hours every night, stopping off and seeing some of the most magnificent scenery that the USA has to offer.

But there was one place we both had to visit, a place close to both of our hearts. Without this place, Ian and I would never have met, and indeed, much of my life, my circle of friends, and this particular trip, would have been shaped very differently.

Looking up ‘the hill’ at Camp Nashopa

This place is Camp Nashopa, a children’s summer camp in Upstate New York, two hours west of New York City, and where, back in 2002 at the end of my studies at university, I took a huge leap of faith and applied for something called Camp America.

For anyone unfamiliar with this, it’s a programme that enables young people to head across the Atlantic Ocean and work as staff members and counselors looking after and running activities for children at summer camps across America. It was something I had heard good things about during my studies, but with a long-term girlfriend at the time, it was a huge decision to make with the prospect of spending three months overseas.

But there was also a craving for travel and adventure bubbling away inside me. After all, my degree was complete, and a lifetime of work beckoned. With many of my friends making use of long summer and Christmas breaks to travel, while I worked at getting my foot in the door at the Grimsby Telegraph, there was a part of me that felt like I had missed out on some of the other opportunities that university can offer.

“It’s always best in life to regret the things you do, rather than the things you don’t do,” said Jack, one of my closest mates, and at the time, my housemate during the final year of my journalism degree in Southampton. They were words that rang true, words that made my mind up, and words that I continue to try and live by.

And so I headed off to a Camp America recruitment fair at Earls Court in London, armed with a CV and half expecting to walk away without any placement but with the thought that ‘at least I tried’.

“Do you know how to fix a lawnmower?” asked a silver-haired chap at one of the stands shortly after I made it into the large exhibition hall.

Thinking about dads electric mower at home, where the worst thing that can happen is the blade might catch a protruding rock and need adjusting, I said yes.

“Excellent, you can be our go-carts specialist,” came the reply.

And that was that. A couple of months later, I found myself on a jumbo jet and heading to New York for my first ever glimpse of the Big Apple, a whole load of new friends, and a summertime of fun and memories. The fact I had no idea how to maintain or repair a petrol driven go-cart played on my mind a little, but thankfully there would be a few others who knew what to do when it comes to stripping down an engine or two.

Ian and I at Camp Nashopa in 2002! Picture Copyright Glenn Kroll

Arriving early in June, it was my job initially just to teach the hundreds of kids how to control the steel-framed go carts and quad bikes, living, eating and breathing in the same space as up to 15 youngsters from 7am until 1am, six days a week. It was hard work, but a fantastic experience. Every morning there would be the sound of reveille, a bugle call that would echo around the camp, followed by a familiar call from Jerry, the boys head counselor.

“Counselors, get your kids up. Kids, get your counselors up. The sun is out, it’s a shorts and t-shirt day.”

It was a phrase that would live on, alongside the all-encompassing “only at Nashopa” catchphrase that would sum up some of the extraordinary events that would take place in the name of entertaining kids from across the New York area. They are phrases that, at many camp reunions since, get wheeled out amid memories and reminiscence about the summer of 2002.

Yep, thats me! Leading kids on the ATVs in 2002 (Copyright Glenn Kroll)

It was during a welcome meeting in the very first days of my time at camp that we were told “the Nashopa family will live with you” and that we would make friends for life, the bonds lasting forever. I admit that at first, I was among the many who thought it was a bit of the usual American cheesy, over-the-top but friendly welcome, being swept along with the initial happy-clappy feel of the place. But it was true, and 10 years on, that summer is still talked about regularly, people travel across countries, and even continents, to visit friends and keep up friendships that were built during June, July and August of that year.

As well as being a life experience, my time at Camp Nashopa allowed me to travel in the States and introduced me to scores of new people, many of whom became close friends who I am still very much in touch with. Among them are Nat and Katrina, whom I stayed with in Australia, and of course Ian, who was a counselor in the adjoining bunk to me. Back in 2002, Ian was among the friends who I had planned to travel across America with. But back home, towards the end of my stay in the States, my girlfriend at the time sent me an email informing me that she had met someone else. It prompted an early return home to try to save things, which ultimately were unsuccessful, and had the unfortunate downside of missing out on much of the travels and sightseeing I had planned.

For that reason, it felt like I was laying a ghost to rest by making this epic coast to coast journey across the States with Ian. It might have been 10 years on, and we’ve both aged and matured a little bit, but we were finally making the trip that we had both imagined and talked about during those days of teaching kids how to press stop and go on a go-cart. We might live on opposite sides of the world now, and we might only see each other every few years, but that ‘Nashopa bond’ has stayed with us, and so it was important that our route to the Atlantic Ocean passed by the town of Bloomingburg, enabling us to visit the place where our friendship began. A place that helped shape so many of our friends futures, and helped inspire so many of our future travels.

A familiar turn-off

Driving along the Interstate 84, we turned off at the town of Middletown, a place so familiar to us both with the Galleria Mall and Walmart being places where we spent so much spare time during camp buying supplies, relaxing and using the internet café to stay in touch with family and friends back home. We turned onto Highway 17 north, arriving at the Bloomingburg turn off a few minutes later. It was lunchtime, and we were both hungry. There was only one place we could stop. The Quickway Diner.

The Quickway Diner!

Quickway was famed among camp counselors, mainly because of its ability to supply artery-clogging – but tasty – food and drinks. When we’d tired of eggplant parmagiana for tea by the second week, we were in need of supplies to tantalise our tastebuds. And so Tanos pizza place – which, unbeknown to us at the time, was run by someone who would go on to get shot by the police during a bank robbery – supplied pizza, while Quickway supplied cheese, fries and gravy.

A familiar parking spot!

Now, when I have told friends back home of the delights of how chips, cheese and gravy go so well together, the usual reaction is to have a nose turned up and the outrageous idea of mixing the three foods together thrown out in disgust. Trust me, particularly at Quickway, it is a taste sensation!

Quickway’s famous Cheese Fries and Gravy!

And so we rolled into the car park of Quickway ready for lunch, and it immediately felt oh so familiar. The signage was the same, the general layout of the gas station and diner was the same, but Quickway has also had a bit of a makeover. It now looked much smarter from the outside, but thankfully retained its typical American diner interior. Infact, it was exactly how it was 10 years ago, reassuringly familiar, and thankfully, the famous cheese fries and gravy were still on the menu. And, they tasted just how we remembered.

Loving the Quickway experience once again!

Quickway was also the place where I first discovered Buffalo chicken, a spicy, tangy, bright orange coating that makes your lips zing. It was only right that I had the Buffalo chicken burger, a favourite of mine when I called these parts of the US home for the summer. Again, a tasty reminder of good times past.

Quickway Diner

We said farewell to Quickway and headed off to the town, swinging by the Last Chance Saloon, a pub where Ian and I spent so many nights in 2002, including the night of my 21st birthday. Drinking illegally for the first few weeks of my Camp America experience, thanks to the raised drinking age in the States, it was the place where I had the second ‘first legal drink’ of my life. It was closely followed by a second, a third, and many more, resulting in me having to ‘sign in’ at the main camp office at 1am with the help of three people holding me up, and collapsing on the soccer pitch.

The old Last Chance Saloon

Its not called the Last Chance anymore, but still has a familiar look about it, and we continued on the short distance to Camp Nashopa, pulling up outside the old Alderbrook girls bunk and parking up close to where the laundry once was. Straight away, 10 years melted away, a familiar place with so many fond memories that felt so normal to just park up by and wander to the main gate. Except, it’s no longer a regular summer camp. It was closed down a few years ago, and from what I understand is now used as a smaller Jewish camp. After a few photos by the main gate, Ian and I continued round to the main area where we have both spent a lot of time in the past – the go-cart track.

Nashopa Go-Cart track

Ian was a go-cart specialist counselor the year before me, so he too was keen to have a look around. It was only a short walk along the quiet rural road before a gap in the trees opens out onto the track. Its not used for go-carts anymore, and the surface is breaking up in parts, but the tyre walls that Ian once built were still in place. It was a surreal feeling to step onto the tarmac again after so long, but yet it only felt like yesterday that we were both last here. We could almost hear the sounds of the engines as the excited children would race around, us keeping an eye on them and ready to run the moment one of them would stick their front end into the tyres (it happened quite a lot!)

My old rules board!

We walked over to the main shed, where once I would spend hours at a time sat outside, watching over the track and talking to Nat, my go-cart companion who had equally as little knowledge about running the activity. Nevertheless, we ran it well, thanks to Mark and Igor who knew about the mechanical side of things, choosing to leave the educational side to ‘Go-Cart Phil’ and ‘Go-Cart Nat’ as we were nicknamed over the camp tannoy.

Perhaps the most moving part of the day was walking into the shed, that had been left open. The go-carts had been replaced by canoes, no doubt being used on the nearby lake, but there was a lasting reminder of those of us who once worked on the track.

We left our marks!

On the wooden walls of the shed, it was customary, as it was in bunks and rooms around the camp, to leave a dated signature behind, a potted history of all who had been before. And there they were, on the back wall – the spray painted signatures that Mark, Igor, Nat and I had left behind on our final day at the track.

That’s mine!

Still as clear as day, as if they had just been written, lasting the test of time and telling all who had been in the shed since about the special group of people who had once spent the summer manning the activity.

Mariners in the States!

I had even written a tribute to my football club, Grimsby Town, who back in 2002 were in a much better place than their non-league position these days. It brought back memories of how fellow counselor and good mate Steve Rose would tell me all about how Yeovil would rise from non-league obscurity and be playing the mighty Mariners one day. How little did I imagine that they would eventually rise through the leagues, occupying a league spot divisions above my beloved team 10 years later. And above, someone had declared me ‘sunbather of the year’ a title that I probably deserved thanks to the amount of time I skived away under the suns rays working on the tan.

Nat, from Ballarat – and her map of Oz that always reminded me of a cat!

As I looked around the shed, there were remnants left behind from the go-cart days, including the old sign board we used to have next to us with the rules for kids to follow.

Ian’s message

Even Ian’s old message from the year before my stay at Nashopa was still visible, something I remember reading back in 2002 – mainly because of the mangled steering wheel that was placed above it as a reminder of what can happen when things go badly wrong (it was one of the counselors who crashed!)

Stepping outside, I took a seat on one of the benches that I once asked children to sit on while waiting for their turn. I looked out on the track from the position I used to sit and watch from, picturing the go-carts and the excited faces that used to come hurtling around the final bend and down the straight before me. A time before I knew what I would be doing with my life, before any job offers at newspapers and the BBC, and before I knew for sure what direction any career would go once I was back home. At that point, I didn’t even know if I would be staying in the Southampton area where I studied, or returning back to my parents in Grimsby. Little did I know how exciting the 10 years between visits would prove to be.

Memories

Before long, a group of children appeared, walking down the hill opposite, and looked slightly concerned at the presence of Ian and I. We both decided not to outstay our welcome, or get into any trouble, so walked back out to the road and made our way towards the car. But before heading back to the Interstate, we decided to walk ‘up the hill’ to the main camp to see if anyone was around, just to see if there was a chance of having one last walk around Nashopa.

The front office

We couldn’t get far, thanks to a barrier being across the road, but we got up far enough to see the dining hall and kitchen area, as well as the main front office. We were hoping to see someone to let them know who we were, but there was nobody around, besides a few children playing. But we had seen what we wanted to see, and I think quietly we’d said the quiet ‘thankyou’ that we both wanted to say for the opportunities that this great little camp had opened up for us in the years to come.

It was a strangely emotional visit, a time to reflect on those good times in the past – our days in the sun, of barbecue cook-outs, carnival weekend, Tribal and Colour Wars, of drunken nights at the Last Chance and of nights being sat on a wooden porch until 2am waiting for the kids in your charge to go to sleep. They were days of sport, singing, dancing and laughter that not only enriched the lives of the children we were looking after, but of the young adults from around the world who travelled thousands of miles to help run the camp.

Time to go..again

With the wonders of social media these days, those 12 year old kids who Ian and I looked after have now grown into 21 and 22 year old adults that we ourselves were back then. Many have dropped us notes over the years to say how they’d always remembered the time we all spent together in this small corner of New York. And now we’d been back to keep our own memories alive, to keep our affinity with the camp burning, and to see it all for one last time.

Except, there’s something inside Ian and I that knows there will probably be another similar visit in years to come. There is something about it that pulls you back, to take you back to those fond memories and happy times. To remember the part we all played in so many people’s lives. And I guess that’s something you only find at Nashopa.

A special place – where every day is a shorts and t-shirt day.

A Giant Drive to the Windy City

Reflecting on a long drive in Chicago

Driving into Illinois, the final state for us on Route 66, it soon became clear that this was a part of America that is very proud of its links with the famous road. Much of the original route is still intact, providing the opportunity to drive along much of it while the masses of cars and lorries speed along the Interstate 55 which runs parallel just a few metres away.

Route 66 – and its replacement alongside

After lunch in yet another historic venue, the Ariston in Litchfield, believed to be the oldest café on Route 66, we were heading north on the final leg of this particular part of the journey, aiming for Chicago and the shores of Lake Michigan, the historic end of the road.

The Ariston, one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66

It was a drive that gave us many opportunities to stop and take in the some of the historic locations along what was, many years ago, the start of the route for people heading to better times in the west.

Stepping back in time

Its for that reason, perhaps, that the state of Illinois celebrates Route 66 with such vigour. All along the route, signposts, information boards and points of interest are clearly marked, a huge contrast to some areas we had passed through where at times it was difficult to even work out if we were on the right road due to a lack of signage.

We arrived in the town of Atlanta shortly before nightfall, the quiet streets bathed in the soft yellow and orange hues of the setting sun. A town of just over 1,600 people, the town is very much preserved as it was in the good times gone by, when thousands of people would pass through every year on the road.

Atlanta’s old Greyhound stop

As Ian and I wandered through the small gardens in the town, looking at the relics and paintings that adorn the walls, we were approached by a young woman who was also taking photographs.

Her name was Stacy, and she told us how she works for the Illinois Route 66 Scenic Byway organisation, dedicated to preserving, restoring and promoting the famous American road. The fact that there is such a group is perhaps why the journey was noticeably more enjoyable through the state. We chatted about where we had already been, the places where we had stopped, and Stacy gave us tips on where to stop off.

Big man and a big sausage

We said farewell, and Stacy continued taking photographs while the two of us went to see the giant. That’s right – a giant. Its known as Bunyon’s Statue, a 30ft tall man holding a giant hotdog. He once stood for 42 years in front of Bunyon’s Hot Dog stand in nearby Cicero, but moved to his current site a while back. He now stands tall, if you pardon the pun, in the middle of the town, close to the old Greyhound bus stop.

Bunyon’s Statue is one of the old ‘Muffler Men’, fibreglass statues designed to be used as advertising around the United States in the 60s. The original design was of a man holding an axe, but that got changed over the years so he could be appearing as anything from a Viking to a chef and holding anything from tyres and exhausts, to, well, hotdogs, depending on the business.

As we made our way back to the car, Stacy came back over to us. She could tell we were so genuinely interested in all that Route 66 had to offer, that she had been back to her car and brought us both a gift – a Route 66 registration plate. There was also a chance for a few photos with a genuine Rt 66 sign, before we said a final goodbye and headed back out onto the road, complete with our special mementos.

With Stacy, my gift and a famous sign!

By now, Chicago is firmly on all the roadsigns, the hundreds of miles slowly ticking down and the end of this long drive is in sight. We stopped for coffee at the Dixie Trucker’s Home in McLean,

Mixing it with the truckers in McLean

another famous stop along Route 66 which has featured in many guides, books and historic accounts. Its still very much a popular stop for trucks, with the colourful cabs all lined up perfectly as the long distance drivers took some refreshments onboard. They seemed to be a friendly bunch, peering out of their cabs and waving at me as I snapped away, clearly proud of their mammoth machines that they call home. Its one thing to be doing this journey for fun, but a whole new ball game to be doing it for a living. I could tell there was a great camaraderie between them.

Mean machines at Dixies

But we still had some serious distance to travel if we were to have a decent amount of time in Chicago the following day, and we drove on into the night. At Wilmington, just a couple of hours away from the end of the 66, there was one more sight to see – yet another giant. This one, another ‘Muffler Man’, is the famous Gemini Giant, named after the space programme and standing outside the Launching Pad restaurant. His space helmet may look more like a welding mask, but that is all part of the appeal.

Gemini Giant

After a stop at an old motel in Joliet for the night, it was just over an hour before we began hitting the outskirts of Chicago, and soon we spotted the famous SearsTower.

At the wheel into Chicago

Except, its not called the Sears Tower anymore – it was renamed the Willis Tower in 2009. For me, it was the most recognisable structure in the city, having seen it on so many films and television programmes over the years. We knew the Route 66 ended somewhere near it, so we used the towering structure as a point of reference to guide us into the city centre.

The Sears Tower guiding us in

It was strange pulling into the multi-storey car park we found, close to one of the city’s elevated railways with the noisy trains clattering by. We pulled into a space, and turned the engine off. For us, and the car, Route 66, bar finding the final sign, was over. A huge drive across the United States, from the southwest corner to the north east, had clocked up 2,789 miles on the car since I reset the trip computer as I pulled out of the hire car centre at LAX.

Some serious miles are clocking up!

We let the car have a well-earned rest as we set off to see the sights of the Windy City for the day, starting off with a search for the end of the 66. It was a walk that was to take us to the edge of Lake Michigan – as that’s where I had been told there would be some form of sign or plaque – but to get there we had to walk through the main gardens where there was a huge food festival taking place. Amid the smells and sounds of cultures from around the world, Ian and I set about trying to find both the official end to the road, but also to find the silver ‘bean’, a nickname given to Cloud Gate, a sculpture by British artist Anish Kapoor.

We made it to Chicago!

Both were difficult to find, and we both found ourselves walking around for a while, asking police officers and marina officials for directions. There were conflicting views on where the official end to Route 66 was located, but firm directions to the ‘bean’ structure.

A dip (of the toe!) in Lake Michigan

After dipping our toes into Lake Michigan, marking the furthest point we could go from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the end of the road in Chicago, we followed the crowds to Millennium Park and easily spotted the shiny silver structure.

The Bean

It really is quite a spectacular structure. Its far bigger than I imagined, the backdrop of skyscrapers seeming to dwarf if, but up close it towers above the hundreds of tourists who gather below. Its impressive for more than just its size and appearance, which raises questions as to how such a shape could be built, seemingly without joins and construction marks, but also because of the unique views of the city reflected on the surface. As a result, from some angles the sculpture appears to blend in to the background, the edges blurred as the reflection blends into the horizon.

Weird reflections

Underneath, you can walk through and take in the way the polished surfaces distort the reflections, sometimes making it hard to actually work out where you are when it comes to spotting yourself on the structure. It also provides for some peculiar photographs.

Big bean

Said to have been inspired by liquid mercury, to me it resembled something that had landed in Chicago from outer space, something more fitting to a huge prop from a sci-fi movie blockbuster, but I loved it. It was welcomed by people in the city from the moment it was unveiled, and overall its loved by tourists. And that’s one of the reasons why it has to be cleaned down and polished twice a day – trying to find a nice spot for a fingerprint-less photo was easier said than done. But we’ll let Anish Kapoor off for that – he had other things to get on with, including a design for the huge red tower at the Olympic Park in London.

A storm brews over the Windy City

As we took the walkway towards the Art Institute of Chicago, we noticed the sky was rapidly turning a deep, dark shade of grey. A view down one of the long streets stretching into the distance revealed a bright haze at the end of it. It was a sheet of rain, accompanied by a loud clap of thunder. We knew it was time to move, and quick. We headed back to Grant Park and towards the huge water fountains, the wind picking up rapidly and ensuring Chicago lived up to its nickname. Suddenly, another loud succession of thunderclaps, flashes of lightning, and huge blobs of rain began to fall.

Thunderbolts and lightning…very, very frightning!

It was a storm that came from nowhere, but drenched anyone without cover. The busy park quickly emptied of food festival-goers, all of whom had no dived for cover under marquees and tents set up around the site. Ian and I joined them, watching as wave after wave of heavy rain lashed down, and forked lightning lit up the sky. It was a storm that seemed to hover over Chicago, swirling around the skyline for around half an hour before slowly drifting away.

Grub up, under a shelter!

It was time that Ian and I didn’t really have to waste, but we made the most of the predicament by buying a couple of burgers from one of the park stalls and doing the best we could to shelter out of the storm by cowering under the small shelter provided by the stall’s roof and guttering.

As the rain slowed, our search for the end of Route 66 continued, again with various people struggling to show us the right way. After crossing the busy Lake Shore Drive for a second time, and with no sign of the elusive sign, we gave up and decided to head back towards the Willis Tower. We walked back up the road where we’d walked along a couple of hours before after leaving the car, and we paused to use some free wifi outside a coffee shop to do one last search to see where the road officially ended. After all, we probably won’t be completing the drive again anytime soon.

“It says its down here, in this street,” I said to Ian, trying to juggle a laptop, a phone and bag in the middle of a path full of business people and tourists.

And then we saw it. Up on a lamppost, about 12ft above the path, and what we’d managed to walk underneath completely oblivious just a few hours before.

“END – Historic Route” it said, the familiar brown sign we have been following from the Pacific Ocean.

We’d done it, we’d completed one of the most famous drives in the world, and we marked it with a photograph below the famous roadsign as proof. Our destination was reached, and we celebrated with a trip to the top of the Willis Tower.

Officially at the other end of Route 66!

It was yet another tall building to add to my list of tall buildings visited during this trip around the world, but this one is among the most impressive. At 1,730ft tall, it’s the tallest building in the United States, and with it being just a bit taller than the World Financial Center in Shanghai, it’s the tallest building I will have the pleasure of visiting during this trip around the world.

View from the former Sears Tower

Particularly enjoyable as part of the visit is the history of the building, being fed to visitors from the moment you first walk through the doors. There are a number of incredibly high speed lifts that whiz you to the top, to an observation deck 103 floors above the city. The view is understandably spectacular, offering views across Illinois and Lake Michigan to Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin on a clear day. Amazingly, people at this height can even feel the building sway on a windy day, but thankfully the earlier storm had well passed by the time we reached to top of this iconic building.

Now, I’ve previously mentioned how the novelty of going to the top of tall buildings can wear off after a while. Well, the Willis Tower has done something to interest even the most hardened observation deck visitors – they’ve installed retractable glass cubicles that jut out over the ground some 412 metres below.

Sitting on top of the city!

And, even better, it costs no extra to step out onto the glass, watching as the edge of the building disappears below you, leaving just a thin surface of transparent molten sand between you and certain death. It is quite a feeling to actually step out, mainly as, with a fully transparent glass canopy around you, it genuinely feels like you are stepping out of the building and into thin air.

Vertigo, anyone?!

It provoked some humorous, staggered, nervous walks from others as they gingerly walked out over the drop. I looked down as the edge of this famous building stretched down to the ground below me. Ian managed to overcome his apprehensions about it too, and we got some great photos of us both in opposing pods. Stepping out of the side of the third tallest building in the world was certainly a memorable experience.

Ian on the Ledge

But we had to get back down to Earth. Our journey along the Route 66 was complete, but our roadtrip across America was far from complete. The Atlantic Ocean beckons – and there is plenty of driving to do if we are to make it on time.

We got back into the car and set out through the Chicago rush hour to meet the Interstate, and a long drive into the early hours across Indiana and Ohio. But on the way to the East Coast, there’s a special place that’s close to our hearts we need to visit…

Viva Las Vegas

Meeting my mate Ian in Las Vegas

I hit the jackpot in Nevada, and it wasn’t because I’d run into some luck on the roulette wheel.

It was where I met my travel buddy Ian, a good mate of mine known as Laingy, who had arrived on the Las Vegas strip in style – in a convertible Mustang.

It had been some journey for him too. While I had been driving through the night to this bright light city, Ian had been flying through the night to Los Angeles from his native Australia before hiring a car and making the same journey through the desert.

It all followed on from a conversation we had on my last night in Melbourne, where I’d been talking about my onward journey and how I’d quite like to complete the trip with an overland stretch going from coast to coast in America. One of the only problems back then was finance and the fact it would mean spending a long time on my own.

“I might be up for a bit of that – its something I have always wanted to do,” Ian said over a pint.

Meeting Ian – Mustang Laingy – in Las Vegas

And from there, the idea snowballed. Fast forward a few months, and in the searing Nevada heat, I’m walking across a dusty car park just off the Las Vegas strip to once again shake Laingy’s hand.

“Welcome to Las Vegas,” I said, laughing.

“Bloody hell, 24 hours ago I was scraping ice off my car, and now its 45 degree heat,” he laughed back in his usual Aussie accent.

It was a slightly surreal meet-up, orchestrated through free wifi spots and Facebook messages thanks to the lack of a mobile phone, but we’d managed it. I’m well on the way home now, but to have a good mate with me with similar interests will make this leg all the more memorable.

The end of Santa Monica Boulevard – and the ‘official’ end of Route 66

While Ian had to travel to Vegas the quickest way possible, I had begun my Route 66 adventure from Los Angeles by starting at the end. Officially, Route 66 was the way the population migrated west from the Chicago and eastern states following the war and great depression. Known as the ‘mother road’ it was built to help people make their way towards the Pacific in search of work and riches.

Santa Monica Pier

As a result, California is often seen as the end of the road, with Santa Monica pier the finishing point for this great American journey. And so it was only natural, making the first leg of Route 66 solo, that I took our car to the far end of the road, to Santa Monica Boulevard and to Santa Monica Pier, complete with its markers that this was, indeed, as far as you can go on the 66. Any further, and you’d end up wet, which is precisely what I did.

Touching the Pacific for the final time – next ocean, the Atlantic

Having spent six months with the Pacific being the ocean I have looked at off the coasts of Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, it was time to finally say goodbye to it. I had learned to surf its waves, been washed up onto its shores at Bells Beach in Oz, spent countless hours gazing at the horizon over its glinting waters and bobbed around on boats upon it, and now it was time for a final paddle and a photo. After all, you cant make the coast to coast trip over the States without the obligatory proof shots  touching the opposing oceans of the Pacific and Atlantic.

I’ll become familiar with signs like this over coming days

I walked to the end of the pier, taking in the street entertainers, music and atmosphere along the way. The mist and smog which had shrouded LA during my three day stay began to lift, revealing the beaches of Santa Monica to be just as stunning as they appear on the big and small screen in movies and television programmes back home. They were full of people enjoying an extended holiday period, families from across the States who have made their own epic journeys to the coast. Now it was my turn to head east, and ultimately, back home – from now on, every mile I make in the car is a mile closer to home, and the end of an unforgettable nine months.

Tribute to Route 66 at the end of Santa Monica pier

The 66 starts at the junction with Ocean Boulevard, and after one last photo of the Route 66 marker tribute to Will Rogers, one of the world’s greatest celebrities back in the Twenties and Thirties, I got back in the car, took a last look at the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, and set my horizons to the Atlantic, more than 3,000 miles away.

Have map, have badge, and at the official end. Just 3,000 miles to go

It felt completely normal to be setting off, pulling away from a parking bay, knowing that there was such an epic drive ahead. It was slightly surreal if anything, getting into a car and turning the radio on as if I was just popping down to the shops. Yet for me, this was a one-way journey east.

‘Turn left at the traffic lights…and just keep going’

The drive through LA took me all the way through Beverly Hills and past the Hollywood Sign, where I stopped for one final look at the nine famous letters, before heading out to the Interstate 210 north.

Santa Monica Boulevard

Its not quite following the exact route of the 66, but then its impossible to follow it all of the way these days anyway, as much of the route has been repaved, re-routed and re-classified. Besides, passing so close to Las Vegas, it would be rude not to pass by and spend a while amid the bright lights and high rollers.

First, there was another minor detour. There was an interesting place I wanted to visit on the way, a place that I had seen on a Discovery Channel programme a few years back, and was amazed by the scale of it. All I will say is have you ever wondered what happens to aeroplanes when the airlines either go bust, cut routes or simply retire some of their aircraft?

Aeroplane boneyard in the Mojave

Well, they get sent to California and to the Mojave Desert, a place that I have to drive through in order to reach Las Vegas. Because the air is so dry, and days of rainfall are so few and far between, metal doesn’t rust. And a Boeing 747 is made up of a lot of metal, which if left sitting in the elements for too long without maintenance, will corrode and render hundreds of millions of pounds worth of plane useless.

Scores of planes doing nothing

So they get flown to the aircraft graveyards and boneyards of the Mojave Desert, where attempts are made to remove or disguise logos and distinctive paintwork before the planes are left to sit in the sun on an extended holiday of their own.

Mojave Airport

They are easy to find, with the bright metal fuselages and tails sticking out for miles in the flat desert plains. During the airline slump post September 11, hundreds of aircraft were once stored here as people stopped flying and airlines cut costs. While the numbers are nowhere near as high now, it was still quite a spectacle to see so many perfectly good aircraft simply sitting on the sand instead of cruising through the skies filled with hundreds of people.

The famous Rotary Rocket on display at Mojave

After being spotted by a security van taking photos, it was time to disappear, so I took off down the road towards the famous Edwards Air Force Base, a giant development that takes up a significant proportion of land, around half the size of LA, alongside the dual lane route 58 to Barstow, one of the first major towns on Route 66 outside of Los Angeles.

Cruising through the desert

From here, I picked up the interstate 15, a motorway that shoots straight up to the Nevada border and on to Las Vegas. While Vegas was never on Route 66, most people who make the journey divert themselves to the gambling and entertainment mecca for a few days, if anything just to experience it. It only adds a couple of hours onto the journey, to and from the city, but it was a definite huge tick on the bucket list to visit the place.

Watching the sun go down in the West, behind me

I had timed my journey to arrive in Las Vegas at night, driving for some five hours through the pitch black desert with a couple of coffees and a bar of Hershey chocolate for company. I watched the mile markers tick down to just 100 to go, while hundreds of Californian registered cars would fly past me, no doubt full of LA residents and workers desperate to get to the fun-filled spot in the desert for a weekend of excitement.

I was still 60 miles out when I first noticed the sky ahead changing. There was a distinct glow up ahead, while the blinking lights of aircraft began to appear around me as they circled before landing their Vegas-hungry payload at the purpose built airport by the main strip.

Driving into Vegas

With two long drags up some incredibly long hills, complete with warnings to turn off air conditioning to prevent engines overheating in the scorching desert heat, the glow started to get brighter, and with a final push over the hilltop, suddenly my windscreen was filled with the millions of dazzling lamps from the desert oasis known as Las Vegas.

It was incredible how the city seemed to appear from nowhere, and seemingly stretching for as far as the eye could see. It was a moment that I wished I had someone with me to share it – an almost magical time at getting my first view of one of the world’s most famous playgrounds, and a sense of achievement in the fact I had managed to somehow navigate there without the help of a satnav (paper maps – how retro!)

New York, New York – my first glimpse of the main strip

I continued driving, arriving on the outskirts of the city knowing that somewhere amid the neon glow was my hostel, which according to its website was near the famous Stratosphere tower on the main strip. I saw a sign for Las Vegas Boulevard, and knowing that was the main strip, made a left turn and headed straight onto it.

It was hard to concentrate on the road ahead. As I passed the huge, mock,  New York skyline that marked the New York New York casino on one side, the famous MGM Grand on the other, I slowly made the stop-start drive along the main street. It was a Friday night, and I found myself caught up with scores of other Californian-registered cars that had clogged up the road as people made a similar getaway for the weekend.

Joining the jam with a view

For once, though, I was glad to be in a snarled-up traffic jam. It was the perfect way to take in my first Vegas experience, a place that was alien to me having never visited before, yet felt so familiar having seen it so many times in films or on television.

The names of the casinos alone roll off the tongue, mentally ticking them off as I made my way from intersection to intersection. The Mirage, Monte Carlo, Paris, The Venetian…and then on my left, the huge dancing fountains and music of the Bellagio, followed by the gigantic area taken up by Caesars Palace.

Everywhere I looked, there was something going on. From street performers to musicians, magicians and tourists all jockeying for position on the sidewalks, to fellow wide-eyed motorists driving along, taking photographs and smiling as this adult wonderland we’d suddenly found ourselves in.

It was quite a spectacle outside!

And still the familiar names passed by the window – Treasure Island, with its pirate ship frontage, Circus Circus with the huge clowns and big top, or the sleek-looking Wynn complex. In fact, while I was expecting a substantial amount of neon, flashing lights and huge, money-no-object structures and hotels, the overall size of the place was the main surprise for me. It took well over an hour to make my way in the car from the south end of the strip to the north, finally spotting the familiar mast-like Stratosphere structure, and eventually, after a couple of stops outside McDonalds to use their free wifi, pulling up at the Hostel Cat. My $19 bed couldn’t have come soon enough.

Friday night, my first night in Las Vegas, and I was in bed by 2am!

I’ve arrived!

The earlyish night, by Vegas standards, paid dividends the following day however. For one, the heat in the Nevada desert can sap the energy out of you – the thermometer hit 47 degrees, and just walking outside the air conditioned comfort of the hostel was enough to send you running for immediate shade. Door handles become red hot, the metal panels on the car could quite easily double as a griddle plate, and a day of sight seeing was out of the question.

“We’re going to the pool at the Monte Carlo,” came a cry from reception, raising a cheer from the fed-up looking hostel guests who were clearly sick of the heatwave gripping this part of the States.

It sounded like a good idea, and besides, it meant I would see some of the Vegas strip during the day, even if it was from the window of the hostel transport.

Erm, this could be a squeeze

Except, what the guys from the hostel failed to explain was that we’d be sneaking-in to the Monte Carlo casino, to use their pool, and that the transport was a beaten up minivan without any seats. And when they said it would be a hostel outing, it really was, as 26 hot and sweaty backpackers began the difficult job of packing into a van the size of a small Transit.

“Let me just close the anti-police device,” said Chandler, from the hostel, as he pulled a cloth curtain across the windows to stop authority eyes from seeing just how many people had been crammed into the back.

They’ll be my hands then…and i’m probably gasping for air

And still more people were climbing in through the door. I’d wedged myself into a back corner, where gradually the air began to thin and sweat began to drip from the mass of packed in bodies amid the heat and the greenhouse effect that the van had without a breeze. Thankfully, and with a record of 29 people once stuffed into the van, someone was prepared and brought along a water spray to cool us down as we made our way to the far end of Vegas.

And out everyone gets!

“Right, we can’t all go in as one group,” said Chandler as a steady stream of people clambered, fell and dragged themselves out from the back of the van, resembling something from a game of Twister that had gone badly wrong.

“They won’t let us in, so we have to pretend we’re going to the bar. Look at the menu, then just drift through the door to the left, grab a towel from the guy at the towel stall and meet back over to the right,” he continued.

Having sneaked into a fair few VIP areas over the years, I can honestly say this was the most blatant blag I have ever been a part of. Standing outside the glass windows of the bar, a group of 26 was whittled down into a few separated groups of threes and fours. Within a couple of minutes, we’d more or less tripled the patronage of the bar, yet nobody had ordered a drink. The barstaff looked confused at this mass of new customers, yet had very little to do. And as quickly as we’d all appeared, we’d all disappeared through a door and into a pool, amid a variety of excuses. I opted for the ‘I fancy a hotdog outside on the terrace,” excuse, before exiting stage left.

We’re in! Vegas pool party!

Somehow, we’d managed it. We had access to a huge pool, posh deckchairs, a river rapids area and even a DJ putting out some of the latest tunes for us all to listen to. It was a great pool party that we’d crashed, and all for the price of a dollar towards the hostel van’s gas account. I guess this was all part of the Vegas vibe.

Bright light city gonna get my soul…

After a few hours of doing everything I could to avoid the attractive, bikini-clad waitresses who were offering to fetch me a very expensive drink, I made my way to one of the casino halls to use yet more free wifi. Ian had arrived, according to Facebook, so I caught one of the Vegas buses and managed to spot where to jump off. As if by magic, and standing by his jet black Mustang that he’d hired for the same price as a flight from LA, was Ian. We headed straight to the airport, so he could return his car, get him signed up as a driver on ‘our’ car and headed back for more free wifi to book some accommodation.

Following Mustang Laingy down the Vegas freeway

Here came another surprise. I knew hotel rooms could be cheap in the city, but I had no idea just how cheap. For just £5 in the week, you can secure a double room near the strip. It was cheaper than my hostel, and I’d had no idea. It was partly down to this that we made a snap decision.

“I think we’re going to need longer in Vegas,” I said, knowing there was far too much for us to see in just the few hours we had initially put aside after Laingy’s arrival.

Brilliant rooms for peanuts

The fact that we could book a double queen bed room at the Stratosphere for just $35 was another factor. It would mean that we’d now just have just five days to drive the entire length of Route 66 and make the 12 hour trip from the end of it in Chicago to the east coast, but we’d calculated it was just about achievable.

Ignition on, aircon cooling the car – was a tad warm!

There had been a few people in recent weeks who acted with surprise when I told them about the short time frame we had to complete the journey. “You’ll never get to see anything, or stop anywhere,” was the usual word of warning.

But Ian and I were in agreement that driving the Route 66, and making a coast to coast journey and seeing all the changes in scenery along the way, was the experience and what we were both in the States to do.

Beautiful Bellagio gardens. Impressive, considering its next to the lobby!

It gave us a couple of days and nights to explore this magnificent place. From wandering around the incredible malls and hidden cities that lay at the base of all the casino resorts, to taking in some of the free shows on the street, to losing the obligatory few bucks on the casino tables and putting a couple of dollar bills in the penny slots, we pretty much managed to ‘do’ Vegas.

The Strip

It is a place that I am finding difficult to describe in words, which for a wordsmith, I know, is a pretty poor show. But Las Vegas is simply one of those places that it is very difficult to comprehend unless you experience it with your own eyes, ears and senses. We spent our sightseeing day visiting as many of the casinos as possible, and when I say ‘casino’ I don’t necessarily mean the gambling halls.

Film-set feel to malls in Caesar’s Palace

For Vegas is more than just Blackjack, Poker and Roulette, or placing bets of up to $15,000 on the roll of a dice (and that was just the top maximum bet we’d managed to spot) Deep in the bowels of the towering hotels and casino complexes, I was surprised by how much there was to do aside from feed money into machines. There are, of course, the glitzy big money shows featuring anyone from Celine Dion to David Copperfield, a whole range of restaurants and dining facilities, exciting white knuckle rides and experiences, but for Ian and I, the fun was in just being in Las Vegas itself.

Vegas -it even has curly escalators!

It was about walking around the streets and through the blissful air conditioned malls, complete with clever sky effects on the ceiling to make it feel like you’re outside, and the famous canals of the Venetian. It was wandering around and suddenly stumbling across statues that move and breathe fire as part of an hourly show. Or looking closely at the incredibly intricate detail on the walls, decorations, ceilings and décor that, at times, makes it feel like you are sightseeing on a big budget film set, rather than browsing through a shopping centre. Even the security people in each casino wear different outfits to match the surroundings.

And they sing on the gondolas too!

For people watching, soaking up the atmosphere, smiling at the power of the Bellagio’s water fountains as they thunder into the sky, watching the free shows such as the Sirens pirates at Treasure Island or marvelling at the fire and water show at the Mirage Volcano, there really was plenty to do – and on the whole, it doesn’t have to cost a penny. And, another surprise for me, was just how many families were in town on holiday to enjoy the experience with young children, even toddlers.

You don’t get this in Grimsby’s Freshney Place Shopping Centre

Infact, after hours – and miles – of walking around the desert delight, I think Ian hit the nail on the head when it came to describing what Vegas feels like.

“It’s like being part of a huge theatrical production,” he smiled as we dived for another blast of air conditioning in one of the malls.

The Stratosphere, my home for the final night in Vegas

He was right. It was so easy to lose all sense of reality here. There are very few clocks around, so time is no issue – as Elvis said in his song about the place, ‘turning day into nighttime, turning night into daytime’ – is a Vegas speciality. And the casinos have a very clever way of making sure everything is on hand, should you need it. The fact that most resorts have a McDonalds, Starbucks, Burger King or Subway incorporated somewhere within them is, of course, great for convenience, but the simple fact is that it’s a deliberate ploy to keep you in their four (or many more) walls for as long as possible. The longer you are, the more you spend, the happier the casino boss is and the bigger the next construction project for the brand will no doubt be.

Bellagio by night

You see, Vegas is a city built on gambling. It is only as stunningly impressive as it is, thanks to countless millions before me making a journey to the desert, and leaving with pockets and bank balances empty. It is a strange thought to look around and wonder at all the fortunes lost – and being lost at any one moment – which in turn will be put back into building bigger and even better resorts for future generations to enjoy. For this small part of Nevada, the recession is merely a word under ‘R’ in a dictionary.

Famous fountain fun

I could write for hours in depth about all that there is to see – in just a couple of days, we barely scratched the surface. My top tips will always be to make use of the free parking underneath each casino, and not to be afraid of driving half a mile down the road to the next complex. It really is a deceptively huge place, with the scale and size of the hotels proving deceptive when it comes to walking around.

And I could write all about the free shows too, such as the fountains set to music outside the Bellagio every 15 minutes. But I did very little research about attractions like these, and to be honest, it came as more of an enjoyable surprise when I watched them. I wasn’t expecting the fountains to be powered so high by some of the most sophisticated water jet systems in the world – the ‘boom’ that comes out of the fountain as air powers gallons of water into the sky is impressive, echoing around the strip and rattling through your body.

The Volcano erupts

The impressive jets of fire from the volcano, which erupts every hour outside the Mirage at night, combined with atmospheric music and lighting, attracted hundreds of people even late at night, while the Sirens pirate show at TI, complete with cast, fireworks, cannons and a sinking ship, brought the feel of a West End show to the street – and for free, four times a night.

Driving along the Vegas strip

Visiting Vegas on a backpacker budget was always going to be tricky, but with careful planning in the time we had, we set a schedule of all the free shows and made our way along the strip seeing all that there was on offer. It was proof that you don’t necessarily need buckets of cash to visit the place, and infact, there were many people using the cheap accommodation to relax by the pool by day, and just take in the atmosphere at night.

Backpacking…Vegas style!

I did, of course, have a flutter, setting myself a tight limit of $50 to play with during my three nights in the city. With $40 still burning a hole in my wallet on the final night, it was time to hit the blackjack table in the Stratosphere before bed. Well, you can’t come to Vegas without at least having a little bit of a gamble, right?

Half an hour in, I was holding my own. My piles of $5 had actually grown, and I’d hit blackjack a couple of times. I sensed I was having a run of luck, and started adding more chips to my stake. For a while, it went well, almost doubling my initial playing fund.

One of the casinos

And then I began to listen to the croupier, a lovely Chinese woman who I think enjoyed the experience as much as Ian and I, laughing along as we made jovial remarks about the way the hands were falling. But then, as quickly as the good run began, the bad luck came in, probably helped by her not so good advice. The dealer began hitting 21 on almost every hand, beating my 19s and 20s even when pulling up to five or six cards from the stack. By 3am, I was down to my last few chips. I put all of them on the table, apart from one.

I promptly lost, but put my final remaining, white, $1 chip in my camera case.

It’s true, the casino, in the end, will always win, especially here. But my last chip from Las Vegas wasn’t going back into the Stratosphere bank. It was joining us on the Route 66 adventure, and coming home with me.

I will…when I’ve saved up some more pennies!

Bula! It’s Fiji Time!

Sunsets in the South Pacific ahead

Somehow almost a month has passed me by in New Zealand.

I arrived in Auckland as the Queen was sailing down the Thames on that soggy boat back home, watching online while trying to work out exactly how and what I was going to do in order to see the best of one of her Commonwealth countries.

Yet again, without firm plans, I was ‘winging it’, but like most times I have approached a new land with that sometimes scary theory, things worked out pretty well.

It was largely down to the great bunch at the Magic Bus headquarters in the city, namely Mike, Bobby and Daryl, who, after a tentative email from a prospective blogger with a strange website involving a fish, asked me to pop in for a meeting.

It was their offer of a north and south island pass, in return for documenting the journey, taking photographs and telling the world about the brilliant time I was having onboard their coaches, that opened up a whole world of adventure, adrenalin, new friends, nights out and memories that will live long.

My first Magic group, and driver Russ, in Wellington

I was lucky in that I had some excellent drivers and some great groups of people on my sections of the journey around New Zealand, and while it can be difficult to keep up to date with the website, particularly with the internet here often being slower than a snail working its way through treacle, it was good fun turning events by day into an online story by night.

Hard at work on the Magic Bus (and yes, that is the BBC Sport homepage…the free wifi helped me stay in touch with England in the Euros!)

While the offer helped me massively with my travel budget, little did I know that even more opportunities were just around the corner. I was put in touch with Julia, head of UK marketing for Tourism New Zealand, the people responsible for telling the world about what there is to do in this great country. After a couple of emails detailing my journey, my website and my day job back home, I was informed about a programme for members of the media and travel agents, and offered a pass. In a nutshell, it gives special discounts to enable those who spread the word about New Zealand to experience as much as possible during their time here.

If it wasn’t for Julia’s help, and the rest of the Tourism New Zealand team – including the Wellington office who at short notice helped issue my pass – I wouldn’t have been able to do half of what I have in the past few weeks. The blogs wouldn’t have been half as exciting, my bank balance would make even scarier reading than it does now, and I’d still be telling those close to me back home that I will never, ever do a bungy jump.

Still can’t believe I did that!

And so, for these reasons and to say thankyou, the least I could do was make some time to call back in to see everyone in Auckland, before catching a 1pm flight out of the city and to the Fiji Islands. I have a plan to spend a week on a beach in an attempt to bring my heart rate down and catch up on sleep after an exhausting but exhilarating few weeks.

But first I had to say goodbye to a bunch of people who had become good friends – my south island Magic Bus family. We’d spent the last couple of weeks falling about laughing, falling out of planes and falling over drunk together, but with the bus schedule to keep, they were heading up to Kaikora. It meant they had to leave me in Christchurch, so I woke up with everyone else in the dorm and made my way outside with them to say goodbye.

Goodbye to the Magic Bus, and some good friends

I was sad to see the bus disappear down the road. While most of my trip has been made independently, it was great to have a large chunk of stress, worry and organisation of the New Zealand leg taken care of. While the Magic Bus does function as a ‘hop on, hop off’ bus service around both islands, I, and many others, use it as a basic tour. It gives you the camaraderie and banter that you get on a full tour with the people you are with, the social time and the sightseeing, and of course you all end up staying in the same kind of hostels together. But you are not tied to that chain that sometimes comes with a tour – if you like it somewhere more than you were expecting, simply stay a bit longer and catch the next bus that comes along. Or the one after that, if you really like the place. And if you fall in love with the place, well there’s nothing to stop you continuing your journey in a month, in six months or even up to a year, thanks to the way the ticket works.

But I think the beauty of the Magic Bus way of travelling around the islands was that it never felt like a tour. It was more like one of the best road trips you’ve ever been on with mates, except your mates are new friends you’ve just met, and the driver happens to be in control of a huge bus. As they say in these parts, it’s ‘sweet as’!

Bye Magic Bus 😦

With just a day before I fly out of Auckland, some 1,000km to the north,  it meant I was on a tight schedule – I had deliberately left my Air New Zealand flight from Christchurch until late in the day, giving me enough time to gather material for a feature on an earthquake-hit city that captured my admiration and imagination.

The bus drivers helped further grow my love of the Christchurch too. With my supply of New Zealand dollars dwindling in my pocket, trying to hold off withdrawing any more with my departure so close, I happened to find two incredibly helpful drivers who saved me a few quid on getting to the airport. The first, picking me up from outside the hostel I had been staying, simply saw the bags I was carrying, gave me a wink and said ‘sit down mate’ after I asked if I could get a through ticket to the airport.

“Its just easier to sort it out at the bus station,” he said with a smile.

At said bus station, I was pointed in the direction of the Number 3, which takes me up to the airport. Seeing that I only had a large note, the driver asked if I had any change on me. I did, all $3.50 of it, quite a way off the $7 needed for the fare.

“You’ve just asked me for a ticket to this little neighbourhood. Lovely place, here’s your ticket,” he said with a wink. I handed over my $3.50. It’s little things like this that just don’t happen back home, where rules are rules and the customer very rarely comes first. Two gestures that I think typify the Kiwi spirit that I have already grown to love, the laid back, friendly and helpful way of life that I could quite happily get used to.

Those drivers probably don’t remember me, and I hope I don’t get them into trouble by revealing the little favour they did for me, even if it was in the long run saving them a bit of hassle, but it meant a lot and it didn’t go unnoticed. Worthy of a nice note on here anyway.

My ride back to Auckland

A couple of hours later, I was back in the noticeably warmer, but far wetter, north island again and arriving back into Auckland. Having stayed at the Nomads hostel on my arrival, I opted for the Base hostel for my final night, having been looked after at the sister establishment in Queenstown so well. I’d been offered a discount on my room and checked in.

“Oh, Phil, there’s something here for you too, it was left a little earlier,” said the fellow Brit working on reception.

It was an envelope with my name on it. I was intrigued, and waited until I could drop my bags off my back in my room before I opened it.

“Please have 5x free drinks in Globe bar on your last night in NZ, courtesy of Base.”

Nice touch!

It was from Amy, another fellow Brit who has also made the move to the country and with few plans to return anytime soon. Part of the Base marketing team, I’d spoken to her on the phone earlier in the day while I was walking around the ruins of Christchurch. It was another gesture that put a smile on my face, and I made my way down to the bar to take up the kind offer while trying to plan the next phase of my journey.

Four pints later, little had been done in the way of planning but I had managed to read a Fiji leaflet in between watching a game of killer pool taking place on the tables in front of me. That counts towards research I guess, and besides, winging it is the way forward.

I was quite well behaved and managed to get to bed relatively early ahead of a hectic morning of meetings and dashing across Auckland to the airport. The first appointment was with Julia at Tourism New Zealand, whose office was a short walk away from the city’s iconic Skytower. Having only been in touch with Julia by phone or email, it was great to put a face to her name. We went for coffee nearby and could have talked for hours about the adventures I’d had in New Zealand, her advice on what else there is to do in the country, stories of other journalists who have spent time here from London and about how well the media scheme had worked for me.

With Julia at Tourism New Zealand HQ

Apparently, there had been some really good feedback, and I returned to Julia’s office to be introduced to a few people who had helped out with my last minute application, and who, according to Julia, had become fans of my blog and wanted to meet me! It was a real surprise – rather like when I’m writing for a newspaper or filming for television, where it becomes ‘just’ a job and you often forget that an audience will read or watch your work, it’s easy for me to forget that what I am writing for fun is actually being read by people. It was funny to hear them talking about some of the topics I had been blogging about, and I was glad to hear they had enjoyed them.

I was then told, as a thankyou for my work, that there was a small gift for me – and after being led through the open plan office, was presented with a fantastic Pure New Zealand outdoor jacket, and a warm Merino Wool thermal top. It was a lovely gesture, one I had not expected, and I will wear them with pride back in the northern hemisphere, remembering the brilliant three weeks I had spent in a stunningly spectacular country.

With time running out, and goodbyes all round, it was a quick dash down the road to the Magic Bus offices where I met Daryl, the manager of the company and a fellow travel enthusiast. It was more of a debrief and a mutual thankyou – I was glad to hear they had loved reading about my tour with them, and the company is sharing the blog through its social media outlets, meaning my hits are rising and they can spread the word about the product they offer. Win, win!

For me, the past few weeks and months have taught me something else about the creative art of blogging. Before this trip, I admit I’d never contemplated a blog before, thinking it was something that people do for a bit of fun, or, like me, to help keep a personal record of day to day life or a journey abroad. For the first time, however, I realised how much of a powerful tool a good blog can be, and that is being recognised by businesses as a useful marketing device. From a company perspective, giving up a spare seat or making time for an extra bungy jumper costs next to nothing. Yet the reach and publicity that a well written blog can offer, right down to a specific audience, can be invaluable. And, above all, I have realised it is a great way of keeping a note of everything i’ve done. Eight months in, and i’m already looking back at my first entries, surprising myself at what I have already forgotten.

Now time was really getting tight, and my plans to catch the regular airport bus had to be ditched. With less than two hours before my flight, I had to splash out on a taxi, a whopping £30, which for any backpacker, is a large chunk of cash. But it was either that, or miss the flight by catching a bus and paying out an even larger chunk of cash to Air Pacific for the next available seat to Fiji.

Auckland, and New Zealand, disappears from view

Thankfully, I made the flight. I was lighter in the pocket, but I even had time to spare. With no accommodation booked, it surprised the older couple I was sat next to on the three hour flight.

“Aren’t you worried about what to do when you get there?” they asked me.

Landing in Fiji – greener than I was expecting

I told them that whenever I ‘wing it’ something usually works itself out. And the theory was proved right in front of them when I turned my phone back on upon landing in Nadi. It immediately sprung into action – a text from Graham and Kelly, my friends from Australia who I’d met up with in Queenstown. They had also flown to Fiji on the same day as me, and had set themselves up in a backpackers hotel on the nearby beach.

“I’m going to meet my friends – looks like my accommodation situation has been decided,” I joked with the couple, who seemed glad that I at least had someone to go and meet.

There was one major problem I had to overcome before then, however, thanks to my lovely bank HSBC. I’ve not really touched on this in the past, but since Darwin I have been unable to use my Visa card as a debit card in shops, hostels or anywhere else with the swipe card system we are so used to paying for goods with. It is all because my details were apparently recovered by the police in some sort of raid, somewhere, and there is a risk my card may have been cloned. So, for the past two months, I have been forced to take out large sums of cash from ATMs everywhere I go, at considerable expense thanks to the overseas bank withdrawal charges (imagine how much the banks are making thanks to this convenient ‘security measure’) and pay for absolutely everything with cash.

Bula Fiji! Touch down in country number 12.

Arriving in Nadi, with no Fiji money – or any other currency, for that matter – I headed to the cash machine at the airport.

“Transaction declined by issuer” are not words you need to see on the screen in that situation.

So, I needed to ring my bank. Except the time difference means it’s the middle of the night back home. And besides, my New Zealand sim card, nor my calling card, work in Fiji. And I have no cash to buy another phone card, or to make a call. And that was the vicious circle I found myself in. No cash, no way of calling my bank to get more cash, which means, I have no cash.

After about half an hour of scratching my head, searching for any leftover money in my bag that I could perhaps change, and trying not to scream at the woman who kept coming over and asking me ‘Do you have a problem sir. We have lovely hotel,” I came up with a plan – Skype.

I haven’t used it to make proper phone calls to anyone before, mainly because I just use the free webcam chat to speak to family and friends, but now it was about to help me out in a massive way. The only problem was I needed the internet.

I made my way to departures to use the airport wifi – which I had to pay for. Thankfully, my card still works online (strange, because if I was to clone a card, I would probably use it online?!) so I bought wifi access, to then buy Skype credit, to then have an infuriatingly difficult conversation with an overseas call centre who couldn’t quite get her head around the fact the call quality wasn’t great because I was using a poor internet connection for a call due to the situation the bank had left me in.

Anyway, it was yet another frustration with my bank (I won’t get started on that stupid calculator thing…I’ll be ranting for some time) but I was glad to finally get hold of some cash, jump in another taxi (only £5 here, for about the same distance as in Auckland!) and I was glad to see Graham and Kelly smiling as I reached the reception. I was definitely in need of a beer – and to ditch some of my layers from the cold of New Zealand. It was nice to be digging around in my bag for the shorts rather than a scarf again!

With Kelly and Graham again, after arriving in Fiji

We walked along the beach and had dinner at a nearby restaurant, being entertained by Fijian dance and watching one of the best fire shows I have seen on my travels. They were a great bunch of performers, and we all ended up taking part in the show towards the end, complete with some wacky dancing from Graham.

Kava time…

Graham and I went for a couple of beers at a nearby backpackers, where we were handed a special drink. Its called Kava, a Fijian speciality, drunk from a hollowed out coconut shell in a social setting with everyone sitting around a big bowl of the stuff.

About as appealing as a glass of water from the Humber

Its is actually made from the ground up roots of a plant on the islands. It looks like pond water, smells like pond water, and strangely enough, actually tastes like pond water. So why does everyone drink it here?

Down in one

A few seconds after being cajoled into downing an entire shell full in one, I began to find out why. My tongue and lips began to feel tingly, before getting that weird numbed feeling, rather like when the anaesthetic is wearing off after having a filling at the dentist. Consumed in large amounts – as the Fijians do – it has the same effect on much of the body.

Struggling to control the gag reflex!

I stuck with just two shellfulls, the second time coming close to vomiting the entire lot over the people kneeling and sitting in front of me, which probably wouldn’t have been the best way to make new friends. Graham, too, had a try of the brown Fiji wonder water. He wasn’t a fan either. And come 5pm the following day, when I still had a peculiar headache, I was becoming even less of a fan.

Graham tries the local loopy juice

There was one benefit of being at the Bamboo Backpackers drinking muddy water though – I got talking to one of the staff, who told me about some of my options for the islands. Graham was tempting me to join him at 7am for a trip with Kelly to Beachcomber Island, a place that is apparently like paradise, although from what I have heard, is also home to all-night partying. For now, i’m done with partying, and there’s a big part of me, now I am here, looking for a bit of an adventure. With the beaches around Nadi being just ok, the one bit of advice everyone gives you and agrees on is to get away from the airport area as soon as you can. So I have to go somewhere.

The beach at Nadi

While beaches are blissful and relaxing, they don’t give you much to write home about. But then to go island hopping, and see the country, costs a fortune, and funds are low. There is one place I know of though that might just solve all of my problems. The only problem is, its off the beaten track and will take a mammoth journey to get to – but then, I will probably only ever have one chance in my life to reach it.

I’ve got a night to sleep on the decision, but its a decision that really could  take me to the far side of the world.

Like what you’ve seen and read about New Zealand? Visit the official website at www.newzealand.com

And if you’ve loved the Magic Bus journey, find out more at www.magicbus.co.nz

Go Hard, or Go Home

Queenstown – a brilliant place!

Queenstown – the self-proclaimed adrenaline capital of the world. A place that gave humankind the bungy, made jetboats to navigate ankle-deep water and taught England rugby player Mike Tindall to think twice about where he rests his head.

Fergburger – feeding adrenaline-induced hunger since ages ago

Its one of the planets biggest party spots, a place where you can dance until dawn before taking a gondola to the top of a mountain for one of the most incredible views in the southern hemisphere. You can jump out of a plane in the morning, jump from a bridge in the afternoon and fall into one of the best burgers on the planet at Fergburger in the evening.

And when you’re fed up with adrenaline pumping through your veins, within a few hours you can find yourself serenely sailing through the fjords and valleys of Milford Sound, taking in snow-capped mountains, dolphins that leap from the depths, gushing waterfalls and bright rainbows created by the pure water spray that hangs as a mist

Milford Sound – much needed calm!

The whole town bubbles with excitement, the ski-resort feel of the place filled with people looking to push themselves, their fears and their wallets to the absolute limit.

I had seven days in Queenstown, and arriving at the town’s Base hostel I noticed a poster on the wall. It seemed quite apt for me – having spent eight months making my way around the world, writing about everything from the effects of war and genocide through to China’s love of spicy tripe, Queenstown was not the place for me to come and wimp out.

I’ll do my best…

Do something worth writing home about. Go hard or go home. Phrases that people live by in this cold, southern New Zealand town set on the shores of the beautiful Lake Wakatipu. It’s almost as if the town won’t let you leave unless you’ve done at least something to get the nerves going. I had seven days to fill – I’ll have no excuses.

Soap in his new bus

My introduction to Queenstown came courtesy of Soap, my Magic Bus tour guide, who had promised us a night of all nights when we arrive. After the late arrival into Wanaka, and watching his beloved All Blacks just scrape a victory against Ireland, he was probably in need of a glass of wine, but first there was something else to put a smile on his face.

On the Buses

We’d stopped off at Arrowtown, not far from Queenstown, where we were supposed to go and take in the sights of the old Chinese settlement. It was bitterly cold though, and instead of walking around to look at the tin shacks, we headed straight to a pie shop for some late breakfast. In the meantime, a bright red London bus had pulled up near our Magic Bus, providing Soap with the opportunity to take the wheel, if only for a momentary photograph.

We took in our first views of Queenstown through the windows of our bus, a perfectly clear, sunny day with blue skies providing the perfect way to catch our first glimpse of the Remarkables mountain range and the lake that forms the backdrop for the town.

First views of Queenstown

Our instructions for Soap’s big night out were to meet in Altitude bar wearing something black (again, his love of the All Blacks) at 8.30pm. Aside from the fact the bar gained notoriety as the place where Mssrs Tindall and co enjoyed their night a little too much during the Rugby World Cup last year, promptly hitting all the national papers back home, it is also the bar that comes as part of my hostel complex so it was easy enough for me to find.

My home for a week – and a bar that became famous!

There was one condition attached to joining Soap on his Magic night out however – everyone had to wear some ‘krazy kat’ sunglasses. So we’d all spent time raiding the dollar shops in the main Shotover Street, trying to find the daftest we could find. Sadly, I missed the fancy dress section and settled for some thick rimmed, colourful affair for $5 (£2.50). They were good, but no match for Becky’s alien-inspired attire, or Kate’s oversized love heart shades which were about twice the size of her head.

Any pair will do

It was great to meet up in the bar, with everyone gradually turning up with all manner of weird and wonderful sunglasses on, ready for the night. It started well, with Soap securing a VIP area in the bar – yes, that’s right, a VIP area in a backpacker bar – where

VIPs

we’d down various shots, ask Soap if there was any alcohol in them, and then down a few more, the only rule being you had to be wearing your sunglasses while drinking.

With rivals from the other tour buses arriving by the minute, we made sure we lorded it up in our private, sectioned-off section. The busload of Kiwi Experience guys and girls, all dressed up as geeks for the night, could only look on in envy as we even secured the services of our own bouncer to keep us safe from the crowds.

Erm…is there any alcohol in this?!

The DJ would put a shout out for Kiwi, then rival tour group Stray, only to get a subdued ‘whoop’ from the dancefloor. Spurred on by Soap, when the call came for Magic to give the bar a cheer, we managed to drown out the rest by cheering at the tops of our voices.

Soap’s ‘Kool Kats’

There might only have been nine of us, but we made it sound like there was 99.. The drinks continued to flow, in part thanks to a great two for one offer, and everyone was having a brilliant night. And then the Irish rugby team turned up.

Cian Healy, one of the Irish rugby team who joined us

Now, with two Irish girls in our group, and with the rest of us having watched them play the All Blacks on television only a couple of nights ago, it was quite something to have their company in the bar. After obligatory photographs with them all round, everyone let them get on with their night out – but then the players began hanging around with us.

Big blokes with poorly arms

Not being the greatest rugby fan, I didn’t know any of them, but I recognised a few from watching them play on the television. I got talking to one, a tall, fair-haired guy, who asked me who I was in Queenstown with. I told him we were all on the Magic Bus and had been travelling around both islands for the past few weeks, before explaining about the three main different tour buses.

“You lot sound like a great group,” he laughed, before introducing himself as Chris and shaking my hand.

Some of our Magic Bus gang with Irish back rower Chris Henry

It was Chris Henry, an Irish back rower, and a really nice bloke. We continued talking for a while, just like meeting anyone else in the bar. And the same could be said for everyone else in the Magic group – we began having a good laugh and spending time with the Irish lads as if they were old mates.

There’s a tap on my back.

“Mate, can you give me a hand with this drink,”

It was one of the other players, wearing a bright red hoody and struggling to get hold of a pint glass on the bar thanks to a pretty badly messed up arm that had been strapped and bandaged.

“Just wedge it under my arm mate, that’ll be grand,”

I took the glass and stuck it up under his armpit, and he shuffled off to meet the others.

A regular Soapy face

The night continued well into the early hours, and included a stop off at a bar that served quite possibly the nicest drink I have ever tasted. Called the Money Shot, it’s a secret mix of four ingredients that produces something more akin to a Banoffee Pie dessert than an alcoholic drink.

Creating the money shot

Still going strong – shades on!

With stops at Winnies bar and World Bar, there was more fun and games with the Irish rugby team later in the night at Buffalo bar before somehow we all managed to make our way home, via a detour to the famous Fergburger where I shared my attempt to ward-off a hangover with Mel and Kate, the latter almost managing to bite off my finger while taking a giant bite of the bun.

Irish rugby player stole my shades…

…and then tried to steal my shot!

Unsurprisingly, half of the group managed to miss the bus to Milford Sound the following morning, while the other half managed to catch it in various states. I, however, had a phonecall offering me the chance to do a bungy jump from one of the highest leap platforms in the world. You can read about that here.

The beauty of Queenstown is that there is so much stunning scenery and landscape to see, and the Milford Sound trip is a favourite among visitors. It’s a long drive – a 10 hour round trip on a bus for a two hour cruise in the fjords – but it is worth it.

Ghostly mountains on the way to Milford Sound

It provides a welcome relief from the full-on activities that take up so much time in QT, and even the bus ride is part of the sightseeing. Here, the journeys don’t just get you from A to B, they show you everything else in between too, with stops to check out magnificent mountains, and even a glacial stream with water that flows so pure, you can drink it straight from the river.

Drinking again…this time from a river

Again, we were blessed with the weather, although some argue that Milford Sound is actually better when visited in heavy rain because of how dramatic the waterfalls can be. Either way, the sight of mountains rising straight up from deep under the dark blue icy water of the fjords is quite special, the dusting of snow at the top forming the picture perfect views shown on all the advertising leaflets and photos.

Milford was sound

There’s gold at the end of that. No really, there is – its in the rock!

I was on the trip with Becky and Liam, two of my group from the Magic Bus who managed to sleep through their alarm the day previous thanks to the small matter of Soap’s night out, and we had a great day together sailing around the sound. It was a welcome relaxing day out, with lashings of free coffee and tea thrown in for good measure.

“Jack”…”Rose”…Becky and Liam looking for icebergs

Back in Queenstown, it was time to meet up with a good mate who I’ve not seen for 10 years since we met during my time working at Camp Na Sho Pa with Camp America in 2002. His name is Matt, although he’s always been known as Titty, and he moved to New Zealand shortly after finishing his time in the States. He’s now settled here and calls it home, and part of me can see why he fell for the place when he first set eyes on it.

Catching up with another Nashopian

Titty is in charge of stock for Outside Sports, one of the main outdoor clothing stores and ski and board rental outlets in Queenstown, so it was easy for us to meet up for a beer and catch up on old times, filling each other in with stories from the past 10 years and talking about people we know back home, what they are up to and sharing memories of camp. There was also a bit of chat about our respective teams – Rushden and Diamonds and Grimsby Town – both of whom have had some pretty spectacular falls since the last time we chatted about football together.

It was great to see each other again, and I joined a growing list of people who had passed through Queenstown on their travels since working together in upstate New York all those years ago. One of them, Barney, is apparently working in the area. More on that in a bit.

My week continued with a skydive, a heart-stopping jump out of a plane at 15,000ft above the mountains. I’ll never forget the feeling of leaving the aircraft and falling through the icy cold upper atmosphere, reaching terminal velocity and admiring the view of the Remarkables as we floated back down to the ground. And after all the nerves and adrenaline built up a raging hunger, where else to celebrate my achievement than with a Fergburger.

Its all about the Ferg!

Now, Fergburger is something of an institution in Queenstown. Even before I arrived, three separate people back home had told me that I just *had* to have a Fergburger while in the area. I began to wonder what all the fuss was about. And then I tried one.

The Fergburger menu

The fuss isn’t about nothing. Even the smallest burgers on the menus are veritable giants, but as a celebration, and with the blog in mind, I decided to step it up a gear. I went for Mr Big Stuff.

Open wide! Tucking into a Fergburger

Two huge burgers, bacon, cheese, barbecue sauce, lashings of salad – it is one whopper of a mouthful, and a mouthful that people flock to this little outlet for. They might just be burgers, but they are done incredibly well. Don’t even think of ordering a side of chips, you’ll never have the room. And yet, despite the name, Mr Big Stuff has got an even bigger brother on the menu – the Big Al.

Takes some doing!

That comes with a load of beetroot and eggs on top of the half-pound of meat, bacon, cheese and everything else. Amid all the photographs on the walls of celebrities who have called in for their taste of the Ferg is a lone photo of a Big Al, complete with the world record time for consuming it. Somehow, someone has managed to put one away in just two minutes and 14 seconds. If an overdose of adrenaline doesn’t put you in an ambulance here, trying to stuff one of the Big Als inside you within two and a quarter minutes almost certainly would!

The fact is that nothing comes close to Fergburger for both the friendly, fun atmosphere inside – orders are called out by your first name, often with some chirpy remarks from those behind the counter – and for the quality of the food. And with hundreds of hungry skiers and boarders to contend with every day, its Queenstown’s hang out for a quick, meaty feed and a catch up over the days activities.

Ski time!

Speaking of which, with snow on the mountains, it was an opportunity to get another fix away from burgers – skiing. My journey over the European winter has seen me miss out on a couple of annual ski trips, for which I know I will get no sympathy. Skiers and boarders will know how it feels not to get your ‘fix’ of winter sport in the season though, and despite all the places I have been to, it was still quite hard to see my dad and brother go for their fun on the French pistes without me.

Still, here in New Zealand, while the British Summer is doing its worst back home, the snow has been falling and the ski resorts are open. Thanks to a bit of a discount on some skis and boots, courtesy of Titty and Outside Sports, I bought a day lift pass for Coronet Peak and headed to the slopes.

The first difference I noticed between southern hemisphere and northern hemisphere skiing is that the runs are called ‘trails’ instead of pistes, although the term ‘apres-ski’ is still alive and well in these parts. There’s also a huge difference in the number of lifts and ski runs – Coronet Peak has just three main lifts, compared to the gazillion you can find in the Three Valleys of France. Yet, incredibly, NZSki, who run the ski fields around Queenstown, charge more for a day pass than I would pay in France. $95 (around £48) for the day seemed a bit steep, but I had no option.

After a year and a half away from snow, it was good to be clipping my boots into the bindings of a pair of skis again, although I was slightly concerned I might have forgotten all my technique. I contemplated a visit to the beginner area, full of two green runs and a lot of unsteady-looking learners, before deciding to just head straight up to the top of the mountain.

It always amazes me how quickly skiing comes back to you, and peeling away from the chairlift, I stopped myself and tried to decide which way to go. It turns out, with some of the resort still closed due to a lack of snow, there’s only one main run from the top. And being a northerner back home, it did put a smile on my face that its called the M1.

Been a while since I had a trip down the M1

The first run was a slow one, a chance to get my ski legs back on, work out the trail, get a feel for the skis and the snow, and work out if I could still stop properly. Thankfully, the M1 is a long, sweeping run with lots of wide areas for motorway skiing (although unlike back home, there was a distinct lack of bottlenecks, annoying BMWs up my rear end and no signs directing me anywhere near the M18 to Grimsby)

After a few good runs, gradually picking up speed and confidence, I was back in the skiing zone. It felt good. Combined with the spectacular views across to the lake and the Remarkables, it was a great place to ski despite the comparative lack of runs. But then something even more incredible happened.

I was making my way towards the gentler slopes when someone on a board clattered through a railing near the entry gate to the lift. I heard a laugh – a familiar laugh that sounded like Barney – yet I couldn’t quite put my finger on who it was for sure as they picked themselves up from the tangle of fence, board and legs.

I got on the lift and pondered about who it was. It sounded like Barney, who I last knew as an 18 year old at the same summer camp I worked at as Titty, but with a bobble hat, ski mask and winter clothes, it was hard to see what he looked like. Like a stalker, I hung around at the top of the lift waiting for whoever it was to come back up.

The boarder appeared, and I stared at him through my sunglasses in an attempt to work out if it was Barney. He looked back, saw me looking, and quickly looked away and sat down on the snow nearby. Maybe it wasn’t him.

Yet more stalker moves saw me shuffle nearby to hear his voice. He was definitely English, and it was a familiar voice from back in America, having not changed since 2002. I decided to ask him.

“Mate, are you Barney?”

He looked at me. “It is bro. Who’s that?”

I didn’t say anything, but just removed my hat and sunglasses and smiled as he realised it was a long-lost friend from years back.

“Phillip Norton, what on earth are you doing here?” he laughed, before getting up, shaking my hand and giving me a manly hug.

Bumping into Barney after 10 years

We both laughed about the chances of bumping into each other like we had. It is one of those moments when the world feels very small, yet it was a brilliant coincidence – Barney is actually working for NZSki in the rental department for a season, but had the day off and so was with friends and fellow ski staff trying to improve his snowboarding skills.

Catching up on the lift

We went on to spend the entire afternoon together on the slopes, catching up between runs while taking the lift back to the top of the mountain, and reflecting on the chances of bumping into each other like we had. Until starting work on the mountain, Barney had never done any skiing or boarding, and like me, he’s fallen in love with it from the moment he first tried it.

Barney comes a cropper

He admits he’s got a long way to go with his technique, but he wasn’t doing too badly – aside from the moment where he managed to jam the front edge of his board into a hole in the snow, spectacularly launching his feet over his head and sending him face-first into the white stuff. This, just minutes after hurting his thumb after clattering off the top of the lift, can damage confidence, but in the best way while on the mountain, he laughed it off and was ready for another run.

Barney is in New Zealand for the winter season, and I dare say he’ll be here for some time yet if he can get his visa extended. He’s always had a love of travel, and one of those people who thrives on being in far flung places, a little like me, and I’m quite envious of his ability to float around the world, finding work and making small parts of it home for a while.

Queenstown Winter Festival launch night

There were more friends to meet in the evening, the start of the annual Winter Festival in Queenstown. With fireworks, live music and entertainment promised, I met up with Kelly and Graham, two of my Irish friends who I was on Fraser Island with in Australia. It was great to see them again, catching up over a pint and meeting two of their friends they have been travelling around parts of New Zealand with.

Hello again! With Kelly and Graham (left) from my Fraser Island family

The only problem was the weather – with thousands of people gathered around the lake for the opening night of the festival, there was a great atmosphere as the fireworks lit up the sky, only for the heavens to open the moment the fireworks ended. It sent most people home early, and we dived back to Altitude bar where I supplied everyone with vouchers for a $5 pizza and beer deal, which if I’m honest, I’d been practically living on for a week with it being cheaper than cooking for yourself.

With Clare and Louise…I think…somebody nicked my glasses

The night somehow turned into another classic Queenstown night out. I ended up meeting with Clare and Louise, the two girls from Franz Josef that I’d met in a hostel while they were celebrating Louise’s birthday. With a group of us on the dancefloor, it turned into a great night – after somehow talking me into climbing on a pole following Clare’s demonstration of how to perform on it upside down, we braved the rain to move to Buffalo bar once again where it got slightly messy.

Clare’s attempt…

…My attempt

With tequila being poured from the bar into everyone’s mouths below, a surfboard being given away, and free t-shirts being launched into the crowd every half an hour, I had moved towards the end of my time in Queenstown in pretty much the way I started it.

Oh dear.

Due to ski the Cardrona resort the following day, my two hours sleep didn’t leave me feeling great. Yet despite packing my bags at 6.30am – in doing so waking my dorm – and checking out ahead of a room change at the hostel in the afternoon, I was given the news that the mountain had been closed because of the weather. I went straight back to bed.

A fast boat

And so on my last day, I carried on the tradition of having at least one activity under my belt, and it was the turn of the jet boat. The bright yellow Kawarau Jet is a familiar sight as it makes its way to and from the jetty in the town centre.

Wet and windy!

It was a high speed affair, reaching some 50km/hr along water that you would assume to be too shallow for anything that floats other than a duck.

Somehow, thanks to the water inlet technology that sucks water in through the bottom of the boat and spits it out at high speed from directional jets at the back, it scoots along on the surface in much the same way as a jet ski. And the driver really knows how to get the best from it, dodging around obstacles in the water, almost scraping along the sides of canyons and performing shriek-inducing 360-degree turns on the surface of the river.

Suddenly we’re facing the opposite direction

The only thing he couldn’t do was stop the oncoming weather front from dumping a load of rain on us as we made our way back to the jetty – and at the speed we were travelling and no windscreen, it felt like a sheet of needles hitting us all in the face.

Luge

Its not all high speed, high adrenaline in Queenstown, but it certainly helps if that’s your thing. The Skyline gondola was full of families enjoying the views from high up above the town, as well as the popular luge that runs along a purpose built mountainside track. Mind you, even that can get a bit hairy at times, particularly on the ‘advanced’ track.

One day i’ll grow up

There are quaint boat trips on the lake, as well as the high-octane version, and the town itself is a great place to just wander around, have a coffee and soak up the atmosphere.

Shotover Street, Queenstown

A week in the QT passed me by so quickly, but left me drained. I had certainly taken the ‘go hard or go home’ message onboard, and with home just a few weeks away now, I certainly had to go hard here instead. A couple of weeks ago, I had a vow that I would never, ever make a bungy jump, a skydive was just something people back home do in the guise of raising money for charity, a Fergburger sounded like it was made of some weird animal, and the Irish rugby team were just a load of blokes who wear green and play rugby on the telly.

Oh Queenstown, you certainly gave me something worth writing home about.

Wouldn’t mind your own Magic Bus adventure? Visit their website at www.magicbus.co.nz

Like the look of Milford Sound? Kiwi Discovery run a day trip from Queenstown – www.kiwidiscovery.com

And you too can fly around the Queenstown lake and rivers with the Kawarau Jet – www.kjet.co.nz

 

A New Horizon

Rain. Annoying isn’t it. This is what the Whitsundays, and in particular, Whitehaven Beach and Hill Inlet, is supposed to look like.

Stunning (Image ©Australian Geographic)

And this is my lasting memory of one of the most beautiful places in the world….

Wet and bleak – more Skeggy than paradise!

Yes, after weeks of unbroken sunshine, the clouds came and dumped a load of rain on us at precisely the moment we were supposed to be taking in one of the best beaches in the world. It didn’t stop us from having fun and making the most of it though, taking part in a UK and Ireland (wet) beach football match against a mostly German opponent. Sadly, they won.

Pass us a brolly!

Thankfully the weather didn’t spoil a brilliant few days, where I took to the seas and sailed around a particularly beautiful area of Australia with some great people. It involved a stop in Airlie Beach, where despite its name, there isn’t actually much sand to go and relax on. Instead, like many places where there’s a risk of crocs and stinger jellyfish on the coast, there’s a huge swimming lagoon where people hang out.

The New Horizon

I didn’t have much time for that, arriving the day before I set sail on the New Horizon, a 30-year-old sailing boat that spends its time taking backpackers and tourists around this islands for snorkelling, partying and sightseeing. I was under strict instructions not to take any bags with zips, mainly because its how bedbugs travel around apparently, and so with a beachbag of clothes and a box of wine (more on that later), I made my way to the marina.

I arrived to find a huge group of girls standing around.

“Hurray, another boy,” I overheard one of them say.

I asked if it was the waiting area for the New Horizon. There were nods and smiles.

“There’s only four boys coming,” said a blonde German girl to my right.

Now, you might think this a bit odd, about to spend three days at sea with a boatload of girls, but I was more than a little worried. With 31 people on the trip, that’s a ratio of almost eight girls to each bloke. I began to have visions of dinnertime chats being dominated by lipstick and makeup tips, which boys they fancy, and shoes.

Welcome aboard!

Thankfully, the girl’s sources were wrong, and slowly but surely another few lads turned up, mostly German, but lads all the same. There were still twice as many females as there were males, but we weren’t complaining, and neither was Brett, the slightly cheeky chappy who would be our host onboard and who turned up with a huge smile.

“They sell seasickness tablets in the shop behind you, and it will get a little bit bumpy out there with this wind,” were some of the key words I picked out in his welcome speech. I invested in a pack.

As we all climbed onboard, handing over our footwear for the next couple of days (‘this is a naked from the ankle down boat’) we were welcomed to the New Horizon on the bow, 31 of us from all around Europe. There was a large group from Germany, some from Switzerland, Holland, a good group from Ireland and one other guy from England.

Andy the captain

The New Horizon is skippered by Andy, a cheery, smiling bloke who looked every bit the salty seadog when he’d hang out of the wheelhouse, looking out to sea and sailing his vessel with pride.

Alex is the cook/anchor attendant/washer upper, a great guy to have a laugh and a chat with around in the kitchen. He’s originally from back home, but has been living and working on boats for years. He clearly loves life at sea.

Then there was Brett, our host come entertainer come alarm clock, who would be the one telling us what we could do, what we couldn’t do and when we need to do them for the duration of the three day trip.

Alex and his sausage

It was Brett who told us where the goon box was onboard. Now, goon, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a huge thing for backpackers in Australia. With a pint of beer costing anything up to $12.50 (just under £8) it leaves young, skint travellers with a problem when it comes to having a bevvy. Thankfully, a box of wine saves the day – known as cask wine, it comes in either ‘fruity’ or ‘dry’.

Its fairly similar to the boxes of wine you get back home, except probably not as nice. It definitely won’t win any international quality wine awards, but it does get you a little tipsy. And when you can pick up 4.4litres of the stuff for $12, thanks to the proximity of Australia’s wine growing regions, it becomes the drink of choice!

Goon it up!

The only problem was, with everyone taking their goon out of the cardboard boxes for the ice box – known as an ‘esky’ down under – it would be a confusing array of silver foil bags without any kind of marking system. Thankfully, it’s a problem the crew of the New Horizon have found a solution to, in the form of multicoloured elastic bands. For the next two nights, my grog was the one with a green and red bands twisted around the nozzle.

The sun goes down

With the sun shining, the calm, crystal clear blue water near the marina slowly gave way to the choppy ocean as we made our way over to the anchorage for the night, waving goodbye to Airlie Beach and mainland Australia. We got to know each other a little better when we hit calmer waters, and watched the sun set over the ocean.

Sunset at sea

The rest of the night was spent playing cards, drinking games, finding out about each others travels and watching sharks circle the boat. Yes, you did read that right. Sharks.

You can imagine the commotion, spotlight shining on the waves in the darkness, when someone shouts ‘shark’ amid a boatload of young people. Suddenly, we were all at the handrails along the side of the boat, watching and waiting.

Shark attack!

Sure enough, appearing like a ghost from the deep, an outline appeared, swooping around in a definite shark-like manner. Its long pointy tail, top fin and rounded head confirmed it. I strained my eyes, trying to spot any markings, and could just about see some dark markings on its fin.

“It’s a black tip reef shark,” said Alex, adding that it wasn’t often the trip would be blessed by the appearance of such a fish.

We watched as the shark circled other fish that had made the mistake of being attracted to the light and noise onboard the vessel. A short time late, another shark appeared, and I’d spend much of the night watching the two of them swooping around together, diving beneath the boat and getting dinner for themselves.

Cloudy arrival in the Whitsundays

The next morning, with a thick head thanks to the goon, there was a rude awakening that, being in the forward-most berth onboard, I’d been warned about. It was just after 5am – the noise was the anchor chain being hauled in and clanging away just centimetres from my head.

My lower bunk at the front of the boat

Just about the last thing anyone needs after a heavy night of goon, but thankfully it didn’t go on for long and we were told to carry on sleeping to avoid a rough bit of sea before arriving at Whitehaven.

The New Horizon can’t get close to the shore – shes’s a pretty big boat – and with no jetty at the Whitsundays National Park, it was a case of jumping in the small boat we’d been towing along and making a few shuttles to the shore. We headed up to the lookout, passing huge webs full of evil-looking spiders, before there was a clearing and a wooden platform. Stretching out for miles in front was the famous view I had seen on television travel programmes and in almost every Australian tourism brochure I have ever looked in.

There’s no doubt Whitehaven is one of the most stunningly beautiful places on Earth, but I was gutted there was no sunshine. For me, this was one of the places I had come to Australia to see, right up there with Ayers Rock. Without the sun shining, however, the brilliant white sand and turquoise blue waters just didn’t glow.

Still beautiful

The sand is famously white because of its high silica content, caused by years of washing by the ocean before being dumped on the sandbanks here. At low tide, you get an amazing view of the sand bars amid the bright blue water, a result of the incredible white sand below. I waited until the sun managed to poke between the clouds for a few seconds before grabbing a photo, but it’s a long way off those picture perfect postcards. Worse still, out to sea, there was a storm brewing.

We made our way down to the soft white sands of the beach, where most people donned stinger suits to protect themselves from jellyfish in the water. Alex told me there was a good chance of seeing some stingrays near the mangroves, so I went with him in search of them. It wasn’t long before a familiar dark outline appeared in front of us, along with a few others. We’d waded out to a family of them, who gradually lifted themselves off from their sandy beds and swam away.

I headed back towards a group from our boat that had set up camp on the beach, and was in the process of setting up some cricket stumps when I heard my name being called. It was Alex and Brandon from my dorm at Gilligans in Cairns!

With Alex and Brandon, mates from Cairns

“How are you buddy,” they said as I threw everything away I was doing to go and meet them.

It turned out they were onboard the Atlantic Clipper, the sister boat to New Horizon, and who were anchored just a short distance from us the previous night. We had just started talking about our respective boats when I caught sight of what was happening a few hundred metres away out on the sandbank.

Dozens of people were running. Fast. And towards us. Behind, a menacing cloud and a sheet of white from the ocean waves to the sky. It was rain – very heavy rain – and it was heading right for us.

The heavens opened

Alex and Brandon scarpered for shelter under a tree with the rest of their boat. Someone handed me a giant blue plastic bag. But it was too late. In an instant, the heavens opened with some of the heaviest rain I’ve known, not only on this trip, but ever before. It absolutely threw it down, and everyone, whether they had been in the water or not, was instantly soaked. I made a hole in the bag so I could see through (and breathe!) and braved my camera to get a few shots of the monsoon-like conditions that had suddenly swallowed us.

With everyone soaked to the bone, there was no point in heading back to the New Horizon. Instead, we carried on regardless – the cricket continued in the storm, people swam in the sea, we found a football and had a kickabout. Paradise might have changed to a winter’s day in Skeggy in an instant, but we were making the most of it. We’d only be here once, and if you can’t remember it for all the right reasons, then you may as well remember it for smashing a six into the sea. Or in our case, hitting the tennis ball so hard, it smashed the end off the plastic cricket bat. Whichever way you look at it, we turned a negative into a positive, and we’ll always remember our visit!

Fun and games jumping off the boat

Strangely, just as we were leaving Whitehaven, the clouds broke and the sun came out. We finished off the day with some snorkelling around the coast, diving off the boat and entertaining some batfish that had come to us for a feed. We sailed past the world-famous celebrity hangout Hayman Island, anchoring not far from its shores, and the goon was out again in the evening, along with yet more drinking games.

Our host Brett explaining where we had been

There was also an outing for my iPhone, after the German contingent alienated most music lovers by hijacking the sound system onboard at about 7pm in the evening to engulf us with a selection of weird European hardcore trance that absolutely nobody out of Germany had any interest in. I, along with a few of the others with better taste in music, agreed something had to be done. My family and friends back home will no doubt have a facepalm moment when

Our map and journey around the islands

I say it was my iPhone selected to make a playlist for the night, and after a few minutes selecting classics such as Scatman John, the Grease megamix and a bit of Aqua (there was a fair share of Oasis, Muse and Florence too!) the boat was rocking along to my DJ’ing for the rest of the night. Thankfully, the German contingent was dancing along too – its fair to say my music taste appeals to all!

Having fun on deck at night!

Despite being away for a few days, the trip was over quicker than you could say ‘landlubber’. After an early morning snorkel and breakfast, we headed back to the mainland with full sail, bouncing our way across the waves. Andy, the skipper, smiled at me when he saw how many people were on the bow as we made our way to the open water.

Early morning snorkelling

“They probably think this is as bad as its going to get…they’re going to get soaked in a few minutes,” he laughed, with a knowing wink.

It was a bit choppy…

Sure enough, as we hit the swell, the New Horizon lurched from one side to the other, throwing water up over the sides and drenching everyone in the process.

Water everywhere!

Even sheltering in the doorways you weren’t safe, with water gushing up over the top of the boat, landing on the roof and cascading down on anyone in the vicinity. Most people found a spot and stayed in it, hanging onto anything they could. Some where just trying to hold onto their stomachs. Thankfully,  I found my spot – it was in the sun, on the deck, and horizontal – catching 40 winks!

My spot on deck!

A couple of hours later, we were sailing into the calmer waters near the harbour, posing for group photos and looking forward to losing our sea legs. I was working out what to do for the afternoon, with another overnight Greyhound booked for the evening. I decided to head back to the hostel where I had stayed before the trip, knock on a few doors and blag a shower in someone’s room before collecting my bags and heading to a café somewhere.

The motley crew onboard the New Horizon!

We gave all the crew members a round of applause and a few cheers as we got back to the mainland. They had done a brilliant job – Brett had kept us all safe and entertained, Andy had steered us on the trip of a lifetime, and Alex had kept us fed with some great meals considering the tiny amount of space he has to work in. The spaghetti bolognaise on the last night was one of the best I’ve had.

I said goodbye to the crew and headed off up the pontoon, where I could see Alex and Brandon who had just left their boat.

“Phil! Where are you heading?” they asked.

I told them I was off to blag a shower in a hostel. They told me they were heading to a luxury apartment in the mountains overlooking the bay.

“How in the world did you manage to afford that?” I asked, slightly envious.

One hell of a luxury apartment!

They told me a friend that Brandon had worked with had managed to get them a good deal for a few nights, and said I should go with them for the afternoon. It was an offer I would have been stupid to turn down, and walked with them up some of the steepest hills Airlie Beach has to offer until we reached a fantastic set of apartments. These were the best of the best in the area – $300 a night jobs, complete with a pool high in the mountains overlooking the stunning scenery.

Living the life!

The boys had landed on their feet. They knew it, I knew it, and in return, I too had shared in their luck. I spent the afternoon chilling by a pool in a setting that millionaires would be happy with, dumped some washing in their utility room, had an amazing shower in one of the best bathrooms I have ever seen and caught up with two good mates on a balcony with one of the most brilliant views in the area.

Alex, a self photo, with Brandon and I in the pool!

Yet again, it was another example of the beauty of travelling. Within the space of an hour, I had gone from trying to scout out a shower in a grotty dorm, to spending an afternoon at one of the most luxurious apartment complexes I have ever seen. It was all thanks to two guys, who a week before I had never met. Now, after meeting in our dorm in Cairns, they had invited me to share the afternoon with them, and dropped me off back at my hostel late in the afternoon to collect my bags. They are both heading south towards Sydney, the same as me, and we hope to meet up again further along the way. But whether we manage that or not, they are already two more people to add to my ever growing friend list from this trip.

Strangers to mates in an instant – and photographs and memories that will last a lifetime.

Flying Docs and Festivals

Taking in the spirit of the Outback

After the adventures in the outback, it was great to have a few days in Alice Springs to have a look around the town before heading further north.

Staying at Neil’s home, my friend from Grimsby, it was easy to get around the town. Neil had to help friends at a music festival they had organised out in the McDonnell ranges for a few days, but before I went out there to meet him, I had the use of his mountain bike to explore the area.

Royal Flying Doctors base in Alice Springs

Thankfully, despite my record with all things bike-like, the wheels and pedals stayed on long enough for me to make it to the home of the Royal Flying Doctor Service in the Alice, a service I only really knew of because of a slightly old programme I used to watch as a kid. I say watch, I remember turning it over a lot of the time.

Mock up of intensive care in the sky

The visitor centre is based in the town, the centre of Australia and hundreds of miles away from any other city – the exact reason why the flying doctors are needed in this country. Having now experienced how vast the outback is, and how frighteningly alone you can feel when stranded somewhere within it, I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone in the remote communities dotted all over the bush to have an accident or fall ill.

That’s where this service comes in, providing aircraft, doctors and medical boxes to those who need it. Covering an area of 7.1million square kilometres, the aircraft land on special runway strips dotted all over the back country, and in emergencies, can even land on the roads. It helps out more than 250,000 patients every year, including a number of tourists. It cost $12 to go into the centre, which is in the middle of being refurbished and, if I’m honest, wasn’t really worth the money. Instead, I thought of it as a donation for a brilliant service. As it says, the inland area contains many lonely graves of people from the days before the flying doctors, who would have lived had they received medical care quickly enough.

Aboriginals sheltering on the Todd River in Alice

I then set off in search of the telegraph station, the site of the first European settlement in the outback. I thought it would be on a hill somewhere, and instead found Anzac Hill, a lookout point where you can see across the city. It was a struggle to bike up the steep incline, but the view was worth it at the top.

Alice Springs from Anzac Hill

From there, you can see how the Alice sprawls out within a valley, the famous Stuart Highway running through it from left to right as it joins the north and south coasts of the continent.

Looking over the Alice towards the Gap

Its named after John Stuart, who led an expedition through Australia in 1861, and ten years later the settlement here started when a repeater station for the overland telegraph line which linked Adelaide, and indeed the country, with Darwin and the rest of the world.

The line opened up the centre of Australia for settlement, and that settlement was now a sprawling city, a place where the indigenous and European populations live side by side. There are undoubtedly divides between both, and its sad to say, but the many Aboriginals that I saw seemed to spend their days endlessly wandering around the streets or sitting under trees in the shade. There is a huge problem with high unemployment, crime and alcohol abuse among the Aboriginal people, and despite vast sums of money from the Australian government being put into projects to help, it doesn’t quite seem to be enough of the right sort of help.

Some people here argue that the indigenous population is not doing enough to help itself, and while there are many that work and earn a living, the general opinion from people I spoke to was that more support was needed. That being said, being shouted at by a group of them while wandering home one night was slightly unnerving, but I laughed it off and made my way past without any problems.

Alice Springs telegraph station

After taking some time to take in the view, I sped back down the hill and on to the telegraph station, some of the oldest houses in the area. Located by the Todd River, which is mostly a dry riverbed, it is next to a permanent waterhole – the Alice Spring.

Alice Spring – the water is visible top left

The settlement was optimistically named Alice Springs after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd, from whom the Todd River takes its name. Strangely, the water sits around thanks to a base of granite that it can’t seep through, meaning that despite all the heat and dry conditions, there is always life-giving water here.

The point where the overland telegraph line entered the buildings

That’s why it was picked as a main repeater site for the Australian Overland Telegraph Line, the first communications link from the south of the continent, linking through to Java, Singapore and on to Europe. Teams of workers, led by Todd, took more than 30,000 wrought iron poles, insulators, batteries, wire and other equipment, shipped in from England, and linked the northern and southern coasts. The poles were placed 80 metres apart for the entire 3,200km link, and in some of the worst conditions, but it allowed the development of the nation.

Supermoon from Anzac Hill memorial site

As I was cycling back to Neil’s house, I noticed the moon appeared brighter and larger than normal. It turns out it was a so called ‘supermoon’, a phenomenon where it appears 30 per cent larger and brighter when the point it is closest to Earth coincides with a full moon. I took the opportunity to further practise with the manual settings on my camera, getting some fairly decent results considering it’s a simple compact job. A decent tripod would have helped matters further!

Supermoon over Alice Springs

My last day in Alice wasn’t actually spent in the city, but about an hour and a half away in the MacDonnell ranges, at a music festival called Wide Open Space. Its an annual outback festival, celebrating music, the arts and desert culture, and my friend Neil’s housemate was one of the organisers.

Music in the outback

It was one of Neil’s friends, Emma, who gave me a lift out to the bush and to the dusty bowl that was home to stages, funky festival goers, bands and beer. Emma is a cross-media reporter for the ABC in Alice Springs, a very similar job to mine back home, and the journey soon passed as we swapped tales and stories from journalism on opposite sides of the globe. We were so engrossed in talk about each others jobs, that Emma briefly ended up missing a turn, much to our amusement.

Festival spirit

My mate Neil enjoying the festival

The long dusty roads led us to some incredible scenery, and there was a great atmosphere at the site. It was very much a small-scale Glastonbury, with a very friendly and relaxed feel about the place. There was an underlying beat from the stage, everyone was chilled out, and the sun was beating down through clouds of dust being kicked up by dozens of dancing feet in the main arena.

The festival and campsite – in a Wide Open Space

As the festival was ongoing, I decided to climb up to the top of one of the ridges overlooking the campsite.

A tricky climb!

I knew the sun would be setting shortly, and it was my last chance to see one of the stunning sunsets in the outback, where the sky passes through such a vivid rainbow of colours before darkness falls.

It was a tough hike, clambering up the deep red rocks which would often slip under your feet, and pulling myself up through a gulley. There were plenty of other festival-goers around with the same idea, and we were helping each other with the tough bits. At one point, someone from the top started shouting for us to bring up some wood. Most of us had our hands full making sure we didn’t have a painful fall to the bottom, and so politely laughed off the request.

View and campfire from the top

At the top, however, we could see why – a few people had set up camp, complete with a camp fire, right on the top of the mountain. And what a spectacular view they had – the ranges stretching as far as the eye could see, people dancing below, music still heard as clear as if you were down by the stage. The beauty of being in the middle of nowhere – in a wide open space, to steal the name of the festival – is the complete silence and isolation. Somehow it seems to help the acoustics.

Soon the sun began to sink from the sky, turning a deep yellow, then orange and red, casting a glow and the red centre desert and mountains around me. The flicker of the campfire to my right grew ever more noticeable as the 30 or so people that were alongside me found a rocky seat and watched the natural spectacle.

Spotted this shot as the sun went down.

Many sat in silence and watched, others meditated, others cheered and hugged friends. As the sun disappeared over distant mountains, it was one of those moments when you realise just how quickly it sets. With the last sliver of light gone, everyone turned around into the opposite direction, watched, and waited.

The moon rises over the ranges

Within minutes of the sun disappearing in the west, over in the east, a giant moon began to slowly rise above the mountains. It prompted cheers and wolf howls from many of those stood alongside me.

“It looks like a giant baby’s head,” shouted one bloke, clearly having had a few too many Coopers ales.

As the moon rose higher in the sky, another set of cheers came from a larger crowd of people stood on the top of a smaller hill near the stage, as it became visible from their vantage point. Then, 20 minutes later, another set of cheers from everyone else down on ground level. It was a great couple of hours, taking in the atmosphere, admiring the view and trying to savour the experience.

The next problem was how I’d left it far to late to return back to the ground, and like a few others, had the tricky task of making my way down a mountainside in darkness. Thankfully, the moon was bright and my iPhone torch app once again paid dividends, lighting the way just enough so I knew where to put my feet.

Darkness falls

I was going to stay the night at the festival, but with it winding down and the bar shut, Emma offered me a lift back to Alice Springs. I was also thinking of making the train I was booked on north to Darwin the following day when I said goodbye to Neil, knowing it might be the last time I see him for a while. There was no guarantee he could make it back in time before my train leaves, as he was helping his housemate with packing away everything the following day. But we had met up again, and that’s what mattered – a friendship rekindled, and one I know we’ll keep up. He’s hoping to be back home in the UK for a few weeks in the next year or so, and so I hereby keep my promise to him of dinner and a night out on me when he returns.

After a week of staying at his house, borrowing his car, getting it stranded and repaired in one of the most remote parts of the world, a cracking bacon bun and coffee when I returned and fantastic memories of the outback, it’s the least I could do. We’d had a great time catching up, and it was brilliant to find him so happy with his life in the Alice. I’m sure it won’t be another 12 or 13 years before we meet again, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll find myself in the red centre once again.

For now, its back on the rails north and to Darwin, courtesy of The Ghan.

*To see more on the Wide Open Space festival, visit the website at www.wideopenspace.net.au