Farewell, Cod Flop

I’m in mourning. I’ve lost an old, dear friend of mine.

It’s a friend I have known for ten years, a friend who has been everywhere with me, that has walked with me on every continent (apart from South America!). A friend that brought comfort and support, one that I could rely on and trust never to let me down. A friend I just could not bare to replace.

I have lost a beloved Cod Flop.

MISSING: Last seen near Ayers Rock – the other one of these!

Now, most will read this and wonder what on earth I am gibbering on about. There are some who will roll their eyes and think ‘about time’. There are a few who will no doubt share a little bit of sadness with me at the passing of such a special friend. There are one or two who will read this with a knowing nod at my loss.

Those one or two will be the people I met at Camp America, in the Catskill Mountains of New York back in the summer of 2002, the likes of Steve Rose, Steve Reynolds, Lynne, Katrina, Peter, Mike and Chris, who, lovingly, christened me Cod Head thanks to my Grimsby roots.

I celebrated my 21st birthday at Camp Nashopa, and in July that year a few of them clubbed together to buy me something special for my landmark birthday. Aside from vast quantities of alcohol when I became a legal drinker for the second time in my life (its 21 in the States!) I was handed a present. They had splashed out on me, and handed over a pair of blue flip flops. All $1.50-worth of Walmart flip flops.

These, however, were not just any old flip flops. These had a picture on them – a picture of a fish.

Well, it was the skeleton of a fish to be precise, but it was a fish all the same. And from that day forward, we were all in agreement that they shall be named the Cod Flops.

And that was the start of a beautiful relationship, a relationship I am sure even some of those who helped buy me that beloved gift are unaware of, and that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing this!

Back then, I promised I would wear them for the summer, partly as they were a bit of a novelty joke gift, but partly because they were so incredibly comfortable. We went to the American countryside with the kids together, ran the go-cart activity together, had a special trip to New York City together. We even went as far as Boston and Atlantic City together, with my new friends not even as much as nipping my feet, let alone give me any blisters.

It was the start of something special, and I couldn’t just leave them behind. I packed them into my bag, and they came home with me, as something to show the parents of ‘what the lads got me for my birthday’ before being thrown away or forgotten about.

Except, it didn’t stop there.

With no other flip flops so comfy, I began to wear them at home. Then they were packed into my bag when I made a return trip to the States the following year, returning to the summer camp to see friends for a few days, and enabling my Cod Flops to feel at home for a while.

Cod flops in Spain, taken by my ex Leanne as a joke about my big feet

Then there were holidays – to Turkey, to a week with the lads in Greece, to Spain and the Canary Islands. We began to venture further afield, travelling to the Gulf with the Grimsby Telegraph and spending a week onboard HMS Grimsby as we sailed from Abu Dhabi in the UAE to Muscat in Oman in 2003.

With my cod flops in Sierra Leone, on a work trip with Comic Relief in 2007

We were together on my first trip to Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore a few years later. I changed jobs, and the Cod Flops continued with me to Africa, visiting Sierra Leone when I was sent to film the work of Comic Relief projects in the war-torn country, even coming with me and flying with the RAF to Cyprus when we filmed the Tornado fighter jets returning home from Iraq.

My Cod-Flops met people in my life, spending time with best friends and travel friends, a couple of ex-girlfriends who would roll their eyes as they see the tatty, ill-fitting footwear going on yet another journey. We had more holidays – to the Caribbean, to Egypt, to Prague and countless trips to Madrid to see best mate Dan and wife Denise. I learned to ski, and the cod-flops made their first adventures up mountains with me – just to wear around the hotel of course, but they went out in the snow from time to time too.

Cod flops protected my feet from the salty bottom of the Dead Sea in 2009

We were inseparable while I was away, and last year they made it to Thailand, Australia and Connecticut in America on my three-week trip around the world, a trip that helped me decide to make this very journey. They had circumnavigated the globe with me once, and with wear and tear beginning to take its toll, I had decided this would be their swansong, a chance to go out with a bang, a trip that I could show them the world and say ‘thankyou for being there’.

And I looked after them well – when all their flip flop friends were being washed ashore, abandoned or lost by their owners in a drunken haze at Thailand’s Full Moon parties, my trusty Cod Flops were still firmly held on my feet. When the little rubber toe holder pulled through from the bottom of the blue foam base on a walk in Cambodia, it wasn’t a snap, just a temporary, repairable blow-out, as always. They kept my feet dry and away from nasties on the dirty trans-Siberian train conveniences, and in the countless squat toilets across Asia.

But this trip did begin to take its toll on my weary friends. I began to feel sharp stones underfoot as the fish-painted base began to wear thin. In Thailand, a bit of broken glass stuck right through and cut the big toe on my right foot, leaving a half-inch gash in Coddy. The edges began to bend up and around my feet, and they still, even to this day, made my feet blue every time I wore them as some sort of paint or dye rubbed off. Yet I always forgave them.

I did, however, almost buy a new pair of flip-flops in Thailand, as the Havianas were just £2 a pair in Bangkok. I told myself that if I had to retire the Cod Flops early, I would write a post about them, to give them a send off and let the world know how much they meant to me, and how much I would miss them. An obituary like no other.

But their time wasn’t up – as long as I could walk in them, they would be my companions. They would make it to the end of my journey, and I would take them home, back to Grimsby and Hull, where they would have eternal rest in a wardrobe or a loft, a treasured momento of times past rather than being thrown out and forgotten.

And so, in our latest adventure together, we set off for Uluru, Ayers Rock, one of the most famous sights in the world. A walk around in the Red Centre of Australia, the sacred deep red sands being a first for me and my Cod Flops. I set off from Alice Springs, trying to drive my friend Neil’s 4×4 in them. It wasn’t working, so I swapped them for my North Face walkers and threw them into the back of the car.

And that, my friends, was the last time I ever wore my Cod Flops.

Arriving back into Alice at 1am, it was dark and cool. I unpacked the car as best as I could, and grabbed my Cod Flops. Except, there was only one- my right one. I looked under the seats, in the back, around the front. Nothing. The other one must be in my bag. I’ll have a better look in the morning.

Morning came. Everything came out of the car. Still no left Cod Flop. I searched my bag, frantically looking through every compartment. I even checked my cool bag. I texted my friends to see if it had been put in their bag by mistake. Nothing.

I removed the back seat from Neil’s car once again, to check my lost friend hadn’t somehow been wedged underneath. It hadn’t.

The Cod Flop has gone. Lost. Misplaced. Run away. Departed.

I was struck by a strange mild panic over an inanimate object. I feel like I have betrayed them, telling myself how I should have looked after them better on the journey. How I should have placed them nicely in my bag, rather than slinging them over my shoulder into a rear passenger footwell. It was my fault. All my fault.

I thought of how Tom Hanks must have felt when he saw his beloved Wilson, his volleyball friend, drifting away from him in Castaway. Friends for so long, a part of his life, yet a relationship that when he lost him from his raft and drifted away on the tide, resulted in tears and that famous cry of Wiiiiilllllllllssssoooooooooonnnn.

And they were only together for four years.

Wilson.

Ten years together, bought for me by good mates in great times gone by. We’ve shared laughs, been out for beers, met a few girls, stubbed toes and hit a few rocks during our relationship, but we’ve seen the world and walked thousands of miles together. But now our time, and our journey together, has come to an end.

My left Cod Flop must have known the end was night. It wasn’t bothered about New Zealand or Fiji, or returning back to the streets of Hull. It didn’t care for the accolade of travelling all the way around the world. Pah – it had already done that last year.

No, for my left Cod Flop, the red centre of Australia, the middle of one of the most vast, inhospitable desert areas on Earth, home to the majestic Uluru and Olgas, and just about as far away as you can get from Grimsby or their birthplace in New York, was the place where my long-term close friend decided to continue its adventure.

Holding cod flops in Lanzarote, 2009

It’s the place that Coddy decided was so stunningly beautiful, it wanted to stay. A place where it hopped from the car to see out its days, its travels never ending, and living for eternity in a place so far away from my home, but a place that will now forever be its. A place where I can think back to in a few months time, while I’m out at the crack of dawn filming on Grimsby Fish Market, safe in the knowledge that Cod Flop is still out there, in the middle of Australia, still having the journey of a lifetime. A place that I was just the middleman, the person chosen to deliver Coddy to its final destination, where it will see incredible sunsets and sunrises, watch as the deep red sands blow across the plains, and wave to countless thousands of people like me, from all over the world, driving by to look at one of the planet’s greatest sights.

I don’t know where my left Cod Flop fell out of the car in the outback, but it must have been somewhere near Ayers Rock when we stopped. While I am sad it has gone, and that I won’t ever have the pair of them to look at or wear ever again, in a way its only brought more romance to the tail of its remaining flippy.

I will keep my right Cod Flop, and take it onward and home with me, every day and every mile getting further and further from them being the pair of friends I have grown to love. I promise to look after it, to treasure it, and for it to have a special place in my house when I return. A place where I can see it, look at it and feel it, every gouge and mark, bend and scrape being part of the story together, and every time I will remember the good times we shared around the globe.

One of my last photos with cod flops, on the Great Ocean Road, February 2012

Who would have known that a pair of cheap flip flops, bought as a joke for a 21st birthday years back, would have such an amazing story of travel and adventure behind them. And for that reason, it’s quite fitting that it chose such an incredible part of the world to leave me, a place I may never visit again, but somewhere that I will always look at on a map and remember the special part of me that remains there.

Walk in Peace, Cod Flops. My feet will miss you. I will miss you. You’ll Never Walk Alone.

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Ready to Roll

Finding a path to Ayers Rock

“Its all sorted, the fuels going back in and it starts every time”

They were the words we’d wanted to hear, albeit not too loudly with our slightly fuzzy heads.

It was 11am, the time we were supposed to be getting the car back to my mate Neil almost 500km away in Alice Springs. Instead, we were finishing up breakfast at the Ayers Rock Resort backpackers lodge near Uluru having been stranded overnight thanks to a worn out fuel pump on the Mitsubishi Pajero Neil had lent me.

We’d actually managed to make the most of a bad situation, although it cost a fair bit in beer. Having checked in at the lodge, we headed straight to the bar to drown our sorrows after a day in the outback we were better off forgetting. We are still pretty sure it was laughing at the Sorry book, letters from people plagued with bad luck after stealing rocks and sand from the sacred Uluru, that saw us copping our own major dose of bad luck by conking out right next to Ayers Rock.

A little reminder of our big problem…

Helping us drown our sorrows was Kurt, the mechanic who came to rescue us, and whose garage is the only one for some 500km or so. He came along to the pub with another mechanic from his garage, and spent some time talking and joking with us. It was a busy night – there were a number of tours staying at the place, so it was lively too. Kurt told us how his daughter was a supermodel, even appearing in issues of Vogue, and that his dad was someone who invented the famous road trains, the two or three trailer-long lorries that run up and down the country on the Stuart Highway. He also told us how breaking down in the outback could have been a lot worse – on a rough track some 300km away, he could still be the man called to fetch the stranded tourists, at a cost of more than $4 a kilometre! That’s the equivalent of around £750 before there’s any work done. Painful – and quite a bit more than a tow from the M1!

We actually did pretty well at turning a negative into a positive, with a great night all round. Dan and Laura treated me to drinks in return for stumping up the cash for the tow, and there were a fair number of tours staying at the resort, so it turned into a lively and entertaining evening.

It was a rude awakening the following morning, however, when despite being in a male dorm, someone, clearly on a dawn tour to Ayers Rock, decided it would be a great idea to start drying his hair with a hairdryer. Now, there are certain protocols to follow when it comes to backpacker dorm etiquette – mainly centred around not waking other people up. Both Dan and I woke up with the same reaction, firstly one of thinking it was a mixed sex dorm and wondering ‘what on earth do you think you’re doing at this ungodly hour making all that noise, go to the bathroom’, quickly followed by ‘you’re a bloke, what on earth do you think you’re doing with a hairdryer in a backpack’.

Kurt the mechanic, and our repaired rocket, as he called it

It was just before midday before Kurt picked us up and handed over the key to Neils car. Thankfully, it started like a dream, its V6 engine purring away, a sound we had been longing to hear just 24 hours before. It had come at a cost though – in the form of a bill for over $1,000 for the repairs. Neil had given me his credit card details, which was promptly dented. I still feel bad, although as Kurt said, the fuel pump had been on its way out and would have still happened even if Neil had come along on the trip with us.

Really sorry Neil…

For me, however, it felt like taking the school pet home for a weekend – it was always a nice thing to do, and great to have a little hammy running around for a few days, but there was always that risk that it would die on you, leaving you with the prospect of having to go back to lessons with a dead hamster carcass in a margarine tub. Never a good thing.

Thankfully, our loaned pet had been brought back to life by Kurt and his team, and before we left he proudly showed us a copy of Vogue magazine, complete with pages of full-page spreads showing his beautiful daughter modelling thousands of pounds worth of dresses. We all shook hands with him and he wished us well for our journey. He might have just made a pretty penny out of our bad luck, but he was a thoroughly nice bloke.

Dan and Laura on the walk around the base

Back on the road, we headed back to Uluru to finish off the day we had started before our bad luck hit. We went up to The Rock for the first time to see it close up, its surface a mass of layered sandstone with an incredible colour. It almost has the same colour and appearance of rusting metal, with millions of patches of rock peeling away in the scorching desert heat.

One of the sandblasted caves

Around the base are some amazing curved caves, blasted away by the forces of wind and sand being shot against the rock for thousands of years. Inside many of them, Aboriginal artworks still remain from the historical owners of the site, who to this day still regard the rock as one of their most sacred sites.

We found a watering hole at the base of Uluru – the rock becomes a mass of cascading waterfalls during the occasional rainstorm that passes through – and for many years, animals and humans have relied on it to survive. Below the surface, tadpoles thrive, a fantastic example of how life can begin despite the harsh, hot conditions this area is permanently subjected to.

The one thing I will say is that there is no shortage of flies in the area. The whole of the red centre is plagued by the things, but whereas normally you can bat them away, they are particularly persistent in this part of the world. Everywhere you see people, you see hands and arms being wafted around near a face. Its jokingly known as the Aussie Wave, and I was particularly good at it by the end of the morning. You do get used to the little blighters going into your nose, mouth and ears a little after a while, but its still a bit grim.

Flies. Buzz off.

With one last look at Ayers Rock from a viewing area, we climbed back in the car and made our way towards the Stuart Highway, where we’d find a turnoff north to Kings Canyon, another site of incredible beauty that is a must-see while in the area.

A last photo of us at Ayers Rock

The Rock disappears into the distance in the wing mirror

Before we reached the turnoff, we passed the man we’d seen walking and pulling a cart on the way to Uluru. We looked at each other in the car – even since we saw him two days ago, he’d walked miles. I was intrigued, and my journalist head went into action.

“I’m turning round to speak to him,” I told Dan and Laura, who were both as interested to find out his story.

Making a large turn in the middle of the desert highway, I doubled back and slowed down beside him.

“How far are you walking?” I shouted out of the lowered window.

At first he looked a little unsure of us, but in broken English I was sure I heard ‘to Europe’.

A combination of flies trying to attack me, trying to keep a lookout for cars and my general interest in this walking man meant it was much safer to pull off the road, so I went ahead of him and pulled onto the dusty run-off.

With Masahito Yoshida , who is walking around the world

I could see that the man was smiling, well tanned and sporting a hat. His bright green t-shirt was teeming with flies as he lifted his metal handlebar above his head and freed himself from his interesting life on wheels.

“I’m walking around the world, around our planet,” he said.

Masahito’s life in a cart

Suddenly, I knew this man wasn’t messing around. I looked at the wheels of his cart – they were bald. Stickers from across Europe and Canada were plastered all over it, beneath a tent and basic food supplies. I looked at his shoes, but they were surprisingly new.

“I’m from Japan,” he tells us.

“I have been walking for three years, through Europe, Canada and now through Australia. I want to see Ayers Rock,” he continues, with remarkable frankness.

We’re captivated. Before us is a real-life Forrest Gump, a man who turned his back on life at home and went for a walk. And just kept walking.

He handed me a card with his website blog address. His name is Masahito Yoshida, 30 years old, the same as me, but on an incredible journey of human endurance and achievement. He then asks if he can take our picture- our picture. Somehow, it felt strange meeting someone doing something so incredible, yet he was so happy to meet us.

He pulled out an expensive-looking digital SLR camera and says he’s taking photographs of the amazing people he meets on the journey, the people he says he would never had met had he not taken up his epic walk.

Masahito left his home in Japan in 2008 with the hope of changing his life. More than 22,400km and four continents later, we found him in the middle of his 4,200km walk to Darwin from Melbourne.

He has already walked from Shanghai in China, through through Asia and Europe, ending in Lisbon. In Bulgaria, while travelling through the mountains, he suffered frostbite that left him in hospital for eight days. In Russia he was punched in the face, in the Ukraine his rickshaw was stolen before being recovered by police, and in Canada he had to escape the advances of a hungry grizzly bear that sniffed out a sausage in his tent.

From Australia he will fly to Singapore and walk back to Shanghai, hoping to be back home by the end of the year. It really is an incredible story. One man, one planet, and his own thoughts while he walks around it for four years. A man who set out to cross the paths of other travellers, and while my journey will never come anywhere close to his feat, for just a few minutes I felt privileged that our paths had crossed.

I feel that more people should know about Masahito’s story – he hopes to release a book when he completes it, including photographs of all the people and places he’s come across. How on earth he manages to pluck up the willpower to wake up every morning and set off on yet another mammoth walk really is beyond me.

We asked if he needed any food or water, but he politely declined.

“Is there a supermarket at Ayers Rock,” he simply asked us.

Continuing his trek into the horizon

We told him there was, exchanged all of our details for his records, shook hands and he smiled as once again he lifted his cart handlebar over his head and walked off towards the horizon. I watched and admired him – its not everyday you meet someone who is walking around the world, and now we had been part of his story, just as much as he is part of ours. You can follow him and his journey at http://alkinist2.blog135.fc2.com/

Back in the car, Masahito’s story had reinvigorated our love of the journey. Alice Springs may have been more than 500km away still, but we were loving life on the road in the outback. The only problem now was that of time – it was late afternoon before we arrived at Kings Canyon, and we watched as the sun set over the deep red ridges.

The moon rises over Kings Canyon

We carried on to the Kings Canyon resort to get some fuel for the homeward leg of the trip. At $2.23+ a litre, its not cheap, so we filled the tank to three quarters and brushed off the advice from the attendant that we shouldn’t be driving through the outback after dark.

Kings Canyon

It was a fact that had been drilled into me in advice throughout backpacking guides and books, but I knew Neil needed the car in the morning. I rang him for advice.

“The only thing to be careful of is the wildlife. Kangaroos tend to get confused, and instead of jumping out of the way, they jump at you,” he said.

“Go steady and be on the lookout for all the creatures and you’ll be fine.”

What he didn’t realise was that I was taking a 200km dirt track back to Alice, a common road in the outback, but one that needed a lot of care during the day, let alone at night. In the pitch black night, with nothing around for miles, I turned the spotlights and full beam on and kept to a steady 80km/hr. It wasn’t long before we saw the first bit of wildlife on the road – dingoes. Then there was a camel. Then a family of kangaroos, all jumping around the road in no particular order, and not making much of an effort to get out of the way. Further along there were wild horses and cattle.

Emergency noodles for tea – sneaking into a campsite to use facilities!

Looking out for random Australian wildlife was only part of the task. Badly corrugated dust roads, potholes, sudden dips and sharp bends through mountains meant my driving ability was put to the test. Having never driven a 4×4 properly before, I quickly became accustomed to it.

After four more hours on the road, I noticed a problem. The fuel gauge had dropped to a quarter, and we were still some 120km away from Alice Springs. The map said there was a petrol station on the way. There was – but it was closed.

Noodle and leftovers time!

With 90km left to go, the petrol gauge was dropping ever lower. I dropped the car into two wheel drive mode, with a theory it would use less fuel, turned off all the air conditioning, and drove with my foot as light as a feather on the accelerator. I decided not to worry Dan and Laura too much about it, but then I had to break my silence.

“Guys, I’m a bit worried we’re not going to make it back,” I said.

“We really can’t have any more bad luck,” said Laura, telling us to think positive.

Thankfully we spotted this little Roo and his friends in time!

We continued past kilometre markers – 80km, 70km, 60km…by now the needle was about to hit the bottom. Any downhill stretch of road I coasted down, knowing it was taking us that little bit further to the Alice. We still had no phone coverage, no way of ringing for help if we became stranded, and we’d only passed six cars in the entire night of driving. And worst of all, I’d have to tell Neil of yet another calamity if the worst came to the worst.

50km, 40km, 30km…the distance markers continue passing at nervewrackingly slow intervals, made worse by how I was keeping speed down to conserve fuel.

“I’ve done a few 10k runs,” said Dan.

“I could run it from here if I had to,” he said, mentally preparing himself for a midnight jog for a Jerry can.

Suddenly, a red light appeared on the horizon – a radio mast in Alice Springs. We knew we were nearly back. Street lights began to appear, and then houses and other cars. We were running on vapours, but somehow, and against the odds if I’m honest, I’d managed to limp the gas-guzzling machine and its occupants back to safety, and a welcome drink at the fuel pump.

After three days, 1,414 kilometres of hard driving, a dodgy fuel pump and numerous bits of bad luck, we had made it back. The red centre and Ayers Rock were among the sights I was most looking forward to seeing, and they did not disappoint. A brilliant few days that we will all remember, not just for the magnificent views, but for the experiences we had all shared together. It might have been daunting to break down in the outback, stranding us hundreds of kilometres from base, or worried us that we’d run out of fuel, but we had got through it. And, on top of all that,  we met a man who was walking around the world.

Now, you don’t get that on the tour

Neil and his car…

All uphill in Adelaide

Reaching for the top...

After a couple of two-wheeled calamities during my trip so far, both of which involved removing considerable amounts of skin from my right elbow, when I saw a sign offering free cycle hire in Adelaide, I did hesitate.

But on the Overland train from Melbourne, I read an article about the wine valleys and vineyards that surround the city I was now in, mainly set high in the Adelaide hills.

Wine country - vineyards in the Adelaide Hills

It’s a whos who of wine around here. Venture up into the Barossa valley and you come across so many of the great names – Jacobs Creek, Wolf Blass, Penfolds to name but a few – all with their grapes proudly growing on the south-facing hillsides.

Penfolds vineyard in Adelaide

But nestled in among all these familiar names was a place I knew I just had to get to. Norton Summit. Yes, the top of a mountain, a whole village, named after a Norton. A Robert Norton to be precise, who clearly went travelling a few years before me and staked a claim on the dramatic viewpoint he’d clambered up.

The only problem is precisely why its named after him – it’s at the top of a mountain, hard to get to, and there’s no public transport. Its 15km out of Adelaide to the east. It gave me something to think about as the Overland train made its way ever closer to the state of South Australia.

I was impressed that I was managing to see straight, let alone read anything on the train if I’m honest. Having left Ballarat later than planned, I arrived into Melbourne and checked into the Nomad Backpackers hostel in Spencer Street, almost across the road from the main Southern Cross station. There was a reason for that – I have to be up early in the morning for the train, and I knew I’d be out for a few drinks in the evening.

After living in a house for the last few months, it came as a bit of a shock to be arriving at a backpackers once again. It was early February when I last spent the night in one, and I’d almost forgotten how hectic and noisy it can be. I was booked into a 16 bed dorm, and I felt distinctly out of practice at the whole thing. I’d forgotten how it feels to leave all your possessions in a room of strangers, of how frustrating it can be trying to make a bed in a top bunk without waking the dozing occupant of the bed underneath, and how tricky it can be trying to keep your clothes dry in a shower that seems to be aimed at precisely the area where your clothes are supposed to go.

I seemed a bit lost if I’m honest, still saddened by having to leave everyone in Ballarat, bemused by the chaos and laughter all around in the communal kitchen, and wondering if I was ready for another few months of living out of a bag. I was on my own again, with the whole pressure to talk to people and make new friends. I just didn’t feel like it. Just an hour away, I had a whole group of people I could quite easily stay with for longer, but I knew I had to continue my trip. Besides, I was booked onto The Ghan to Alice Springs in a few days time.

I tried to snap myself out of it and texted Bryce, the mate I met in Thailand.

“We’ve just got a jug of beer in, how long will you be,” came the welcoming reply.

I had already messaged a few people around Melbourne to let them know I’d be out for a beer as it was my last night in the area, and inviting them for drinks as a send off. I used the London Tavern in Richmond as my meeting point, and jumped onto a tram to meet Bryce.

Farewell drinks in Melbourne

I arrived to find him with some of his other traveller friends, was told to sit down, and immediately beer was poured from everyone’s glass into a separate one for me. Before I knew it, we were all laughing, talking about our journeys and catching up. If I was feeling down about being back on the road, this was the reminder I needed of how brilliant it can be. How often back home can you turn up at a random pub, be introduced to new people, drink their beer and become instant friends as if you’ve known each other for years? The one thing we all have in common, our travels, is the instant bond.

Soon after, Ian arrived, aka Laingy who I met during my time on a summer camp for Camp America in 2002. We’ve always stayed in touch thanks to him working in London for six years afterwards, and it has been brilliant to meet up with him over the past few weeks in Melbourne. I’ll never forget my day out at the Australian Grand Prix with him, and it was great to catch up one last time over a frothy before I left.

Finally, there was Rosie, one of my dive buddies from my Padi diving course in Koh Tao, who managed to make it to say goodbye towards the end of the night. She pulled up a seat beside me and we chatted about the last few weeks since we met, and what my travel plans were. The best thing was, even though I now had three friends from different parts of my life sat around the same table with me in a Melbourne pub, everyone got on incredibly well, as if we all went way back. I made sure I got a photograph of us all together before Rosie had to leave, and we made our way out to another bar.

With my Melbourne friends including Laingy next to me, Bryce fourth from me, and Rosie on the end

A few beers and vodkas later, the music suddenly ended and we all had to leave. It was raining outside – that really fine rain that soaks you through – and we took refuge in a pizza shop. Despite the rain, a group of talented guys began playing percussion on the street furniture outside, getting a beat going that was so catchy, everyone was dancing around. Everyone apart from the misery of a pizza shop owner, who thought he was doing the world a favour by constantly asking them to stop. The fact is, they were talented at what they were doing and it was great to watch and listen to – think the musical Stomp, but using tables, chairs, a street bollard and an electricity board street cabinet.

I said farewell to Laingy, but we both know we’ll see each other relatively soon – he’s often popping back to London to visit friends, and besides, we may even end up spending time together later in my trip. Bryce and I decided to walk to the city centre – a cab would cost a fortune – and an hour later, soaking wet through, we made it to Flinders Street and said goodbye. I’ve said goodbye to Bryce a few times now, but we always seem to find each other somewhere in the world again. I fear this time it was a final goodbye though, and he disappeared into the night with a cheery wave from his taxi.

Southern Cross station for the final time

I climbed into my bed at 3.30am, and set my alarm to go off in three and a half hours time. Just over an hour later, the trams started running again, shaking the foundations of the hostel, as well as my bed, every few minutes. I knew my decision to stay close to Southern Cross would pay dividends, and I soon found myself making a blurry-eyed walk up Spencer Street and onto the station’s impressive concourse for the final time.

I was booked onto the Overland, one of Australia’s most notable train services that runs to Adelaide three times a week. It’s a ten hour, 828km run through to the state of South Australia, and as I arrived at the station half an hour ahead of departure, the train was already ready for passengers.

Once onboard, a friendly carriage steward, David, grabbed a microphone and introduced himself to everyone. For a second, I thought I was in the wrong seat, especially when a glass of orange juice was given to me. There was a running commentary of what we would see and when – had I found myself in some sort of rail tour?

Adelaide bound

As it happens, it wasn’t, its just the brilliant way they look after passengers on the train. We pulled out of Melbourne just after 8am, and I watched as the now familiar skyline disappeared beyond the horizon for the final time.

Melbourne slips into the distance

The city had been good to me, and left me with so many fond memories. I’ll never forget meeting Matt and Siobhan from home there, walking along the river with them, taking in a footy game with Jess and Liv at the MCG and keeping music fans lubricated with plenty of beer at a music festival there. Great memories, and great times, but I was back on the road, or should I say rails, again, with more memories to make.

On our way

As darkness fell, and slightly behind schedule, we pulled into the city of Adelaide at about 6.30pm, and the Backpack Oz hostel where I will stay for the next few days arrived to collect me. It felt much more relaxed there, with a bar, pool table and free wifi. I had a shower, ventured to Coles to buy some groceries, knocked up some pasta and sat down with some leaflets and maps to plot my few days in the city.

That’s where I saw Norton Summit wasn’t too far away – and made it my challenge to reach it the following day.

“It’ll be hard on those bikes, they’ve only got three gears and its basically a mountain,” were the words of the reception guy as he handed me a key to the bicycle.

A familiar shadow for the day

He was right, it was basically a shopper bike, complete with a basket on the front, but as I set off down the road it was actually very easy to ride. I cycled for about three quarters of an hour before reaching the steeper parts of the Adelaide hills, and that’s when it got tough. With sweat pouring off me after one particularly steep climb, I stopped for a breather. I could already see I was making good progress up the mountain, and behind me the city skyline was already below me and far in the distance.

It was hard work, but I was determined to make it. I set off again, up another steep climb, working my legs hard on the pedals. And then, yet again, disaster struck.

A puncture.

I noticed my back wheel go all wobbly, and knowing something was wrong, I got off to have a look, only to hear a hissing sound coming from the tyre. My heart sank.

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

I had no number to call the hostel, I was miles away from the city, and the bike wasn’t exactly small. There was a glimmer of hope though, as I spotted a bus stop a few metres back.

There was no timetable, so I called the number on the bus stop. The next service stopped by in just under an hour. I asked if it would be ok to get a broken bike onboard.

“I’m sure if you asked the bus driver nicely, he’ll let you on,” came the hope-inspiring reply.

Waiting for a bus rescue

In the meantime, I looked on my phone – I was 11.5km away from the hostel. I hoped the bus driver would be understanding.

He wasn’t.

When he finally arrived, I asked nicely as instructed, only to be told it was against company policy. I explained how it left me with a very long walk. He shrugged his shoulders. I watched as he disappeared down the road.

Bye then - the bus drives off without me. Or the bike.

There was nothing else for it. At 12.45pm, I began my walk back to the city, stopping by at a couple of garages on the way to see if they could help. As cheerful as they were, they couldn’t.

It was almost 4pm by the time I trudged back into the hostel.

“So, did you win Phil? Did you get to the top?” came the cheery welcome back from reception.

“Not exactly. Have you got a puncture repair kit?” I replied.

I sat with a cup of tea and some Tim Tam biscuits for a while, picking myself up a bit and deciding I wouldn’t be beaten. There must be some way of making it to Norton Summit.

Demolition at the Oval

I went back to reception, asked to borrow another bike, and set off to have a look around Adelaide. I only had an hour of daylight left, and made my way to the Adelaide Oval, where over the years I have seen so many cricket matches between England and Australia played out on the television screen back home. Its currently being part-demolished and rebuilt, being fully refurbished in time for the Ashes tests next year.

Adelaide Oval

I made my way around the cricket ground, its lighting pylons both a familiar sight and a good navigational aid in the city. I cycled back along the river, through some beautiful parkland, as the sun began to get ever lower in the sky.

Me and my (trustier) bike

I made it back to the hostel without any dramas, for once, and decided that I would give it another go at making it to Norton Summit the following day. I told Adam, a Swedish guy in my dorm, about the events of the day. He laughed.

A beautiful evening in Adelaide

“You’re crazy man,” he laughed when I told him the following day I was going to have another go.

I didn’t think of it as being crazy, more just a determination to reach the place I had set out make it to.

There were no bikes left to hire at the hostel, which turned out to be a blessing as down the road there was a bigger cycle shop with a mountain bike hybrid I could take for free. I picked a blue one, there were plenty of gears, the tyres had tread and well pumped up. I handed over my passport as a deposit and set off down the road.

Mountain roads

At the second set of traffic lights, there was a crunch, and I stopped moving forwards. The chain had come off. I fished it out from between the pedals and the frame, and set off again.

Crunch.

Yet again, the moment I tried moving away from the lights, the chain came off. Something was determined to stop me reaching my intended destination. That, or my luck with bikes and all things with two wheels has definitely run out.

Adelaide at the foot of the hills

I turned the bike over, got my hands covered in black oil, fixed the chain again and headed to the hostel to get cleaned up.

Adam was in the kitchen.

“What now?!” he laughed. “Did you make it?”.

I’d already been gone over an hour and a half, and I could see why he was amused to see I’d had yet more problems, but I think I’d sorted it. I found out that if you went gently on the pedals in the top gear, the chain wouldn’t catapult off. I was confident that somehow I could make it.

“Third time lucky,” I laughed as I left the hostel kitchen, amid cheers of good luck.

Made it!

And it was – after an exhausting three hour climb up some of the steepest roads I have ever cycled along, in the sticky mid afternoon sun, I finally reached the summit – Norton’s Summit.

Nortons everywhere!

It had been an adventure, it had been trying, but I got there, and along with it there was a great sense of achievement. Beyond the welcome signs was a quaint little village with an English feel, perched at the top of the mountain amid vineyards growing grapes for the world wine market. I found a spot on a hillside, laid down my bike, took my cycle helmet off and took out my lunch.

Lunch with a view

It might have been a bit squashed, but it was the best tasting cheese and Vegemite sandwich of my trip so far, overlooking the valley and taking in the sights and sounds of the mountains.

The village of Norton Summit - and the pub

I noticed a pub on the way in, and as I’ve not sampled the local brew around here, I decided to treat myself to a beer, a kind of mini celebration at finally beating the mountain.

A treat!

Needless to say, the ride back to the city was much more fun, whizzing down through the valleys, and I arrived back to huge smiles from some of the backpackers at the hostel, including Swedish Adam, who I am sure would have been expecting another story of failure.

Raising a glass (complete with hat head!) to Norton Summit!

I relaxed for the evening with Dan and Laura, a couple of former teachers from home. They’d just arrived in Adelaide after an early morning flight, and they are both catching the Ghan train to Alice Springs. I began talking to Laura on one of my first nights, when she managed to drop some chicken schnitzels in the hostel oven. There’s already been talk of us visiting Ayers Rock together- you just never know when you’ll bump into your next travel partners!

Hikes, Hops and Mountain Tops

Heading to the mountains...

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

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

The Grampians loom on the horizon

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

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

Eek!

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

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

Dead trees and driftwood piled high

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

Just a trickle of a waterfall

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

Siobhan at the lake

Chilling at the lake

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

Out comes the competitiveness between us!

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

Concentration...and pot luck

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

Fore!

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

Victorious Siobhan...

Matt and his big L, for 'Loser'

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

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

Birthday bubbles

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

Kookaburras

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

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

Kangas in the campsite

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

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

'One Leg'

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

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

Another bit of Australian wildlife we found

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

On the way up to the Pinnacle

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

Cooling down in the cool cavern

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

Matt and Siobhan at the top

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

We made it!

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

I can see the pub from here...

Looking out over the range

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

Beautiful Grampians

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

At the viewpoint

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

McKenzie Falls in the Grampians

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

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

Campsite cooking!

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

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

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

Laugh, Kookaburra laugh...

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

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

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

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

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

­­

Fancy seeing you here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They've arrived!

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

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

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

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

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

Matt and his Lovely cups...

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

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

Impressive shopping centre roof over an old mill

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

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

“I knew it,” he said back.

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

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

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

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

Matt and Siobhan, a map and Melbourne

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

Things were looking up

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

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

Grand Prix and Gravel Rash

Got myself a few championship points in Melbourne - and another skinned elbow!

About a month ago, when I first arrived in Melbourne, I had a sudden realisation during dinner one night.

I was with my mate Ian and his parents, talking about how I could be about to spend a few months in the area, when it popped into my head about the Australian Grand Prix.

“When is that held here?” I asked Ian.

“In just over a month,” came the reply.

The deal was almost done there and then – wherever I was, if I was within a few hours of Melbourne, then I’d be by the side of the track when the world’s finest drivers come to town.

With my Aussie mate Ian on the start/finish straight in Melbourne

Fast forward a few weeks, and it was Grand Prix day. Thanks to a mainly European audience, the start isn’t until 5pm Australian time, which works out quite well when it comes to getting to Albert Park, the picturesque home of the Formula One circuit.

However, the trains from Ballarat to the city are messed up for the weekend thanks to engineering work, meaning it’s a bus from the delightfully named town of Sunshine and into Melbourne city centre. I’d agreed to meet Ian at about midday, and so allowing extra time, I decided to catch the 9.17am service from ‘the Rat’.

Up early, England shirt on to support our boys, and a cheese and Vegemite sandwich made and packed into my backpack, I got Nat’s bike out of her shed and powered my way down her drive for the short 10 minute ride to the railway station.

And that’s where the day went wrong, more or less before it had even started.

Standing up on the pedals, and trying to get as much speed as I could before a hill at the end of Nat’s street, I felt a sudden crack beneath my foot. Simultaneously, my foot flew off, struck the floor, my whole body lurched downwards, got swung over to one side by my rucksack, and then the front wheel turned on itself.

I was flung off onto the gravel track, sliding along the surface with the bike. I came to a halt. My arm was already starting to hurt, and then there was a warm trickle starting to make its way to my hand….

On the ground, a bike on top of me, blood pouring from my right elbow…I’ve been here before!

I picked myself up and looked around to see if anyone had seen. Not a sausage. It’s a shame, because as two-wheeled catastrophes go, I’m sure it was quite spectacular. To make matters worse, I was also locked out, having secured the door behind me because Nat was still in bed.

“Naaaaaaaaaat,” I called outside her room.

“What…where are you?” came the confused reply.

“I’m outside. Ive fallen off your bike.”

Her blinds opened, and as she squinted, she saw I was doubled over in pain – and then she saw the blood streaming down my limb.

Deja Vu

It was dripping all over the floor, and it made me wonder if I’d done some serious damage. I knew nothing was broken, but the amount of blood was perculiar. Nat disappeared inside to get some tissue, while I had a look at the bike.

A pedal had snapped. Something I’ve never experienced before.

Inside, I was stripping off to get the dust-covered clothes off me and to examine the rest of the gravel rash that had covered my right thigh and leg. Thankfully, my bag took the brunt of the force, but I’d managed to rip a small hole in my England top. It was also covered in dirt.

By now, the pain was building in my elbow. Unlike when I came off the motorbike in Thailand before Christmas, the pain seemed so intense inside my arm. I’d obviously given it a hefty whack, and right on the funny bone. It was far from funny, and there was no way I could catch the train.

Instead, I spent the next hour laying down, drinking tea (cure for everything?!) putting my England top through the wash and mopping up my weaping wounds with bits of tissue. I’ve ripped off all the nicely healed scars from my Thailand mishap, and no doubt this lot will leave my elbow in a right mess now! Ironic, considering there was no engine involved!

Taken a couple of days later, minus the back scrapes!

Anyway, an hour later and I was ready to give getting to the station another go, but this time stayed on four wheels thanks to Nat giving me a lift. With a dust-covered bag, a nasty-looking arm and a soggy footy shirt, I took my seat on the train and headed south.

After an hour, we arrived in Sunshine and swapped onto a replacement bus. I don’t know if its anything to do with the name of the town, but the clouds had started to thin and the temperature was rising.

I met Ian at Southern Cross Station, where stalls of Formula One merchandise had been set up eager to get the early dollars off racegoers.

McLaren stall at Southern Cross Station

The whole city had been focussed on the race, with huge streets and stations closed off to enable trams to operate a direct service to the track. I have to say, the organisation was superb – despite thousands of people arriving for the event, we didn’t have to wait for transport thanks to a huge line of trams ready and waiting along the street, each rumbling forward to fill up and quickly moving away with passengers.

We arrived just a short ride later, and went through Gate 2 to find thousands of people watching a V8 support race that was already well underway. Its been a few years since I last went to a Grand Prix at Silverstone, and its always easy to forget the incredible speeds even the support cars can reach before Jenson, Hamilton and co take to the track.

You'd better ring the Royal...

The first huge difference I noticed in Melbourne, compared to Silverstone, is just how close you can get to the track. With just a flimsy cord fence keeping you a few feet back from the steel protective mesh, you’re just a few metres away from the action. It is very much ‘trackside’. Ian told me the part of the track we were at was where Martin Brundle famously flew into the air and flipped over a few years back, and as I looked down the track, it all suddenly seemed very familiar.

Great spot at the front on the main straight!

We wandered further towards the main start and finish straight, through the crowds and up to the fence at the end of the straight, right beside a huge bridge plastered with Qantas, the Australian airline sponsor of the race. As I watched the action on a big screen behind me, I realised just how familiar the camera shot was as the current support race flew around the final corner and down the long finish straight in front of me.

It’s a shot I’ve seen so many times on the television back home, with so many vital points won or lost at the Australian Grand Prix. It’s the largest single annual sporting event in the country, and its usually on in the middle of the night in Europe thanks to the time difference. Nevertheless, once I saw the Qantas bridge in the foreground, memories of watching the world’s most famous drivers get the chequered flag at the famous circuit from the comfort of my sofa back home came flooding back. And I had a front row position, just metres from the Porsche support cars flying past and slamming on the brakes as they darted into the first corner.

Others had their own great views!

Another thing that felt all too familiar from watching the Australian Grand Prix on television was the weather. The early morning clouds had given way to glorious sunshine, and it wasn’t too hot either. We’re at the back end of the Aussie summer now, and temperatures have definitely cooled off in recent weeks, but it was still warm. It was the usual weather that you see back home, normally while huddled around a warm fireplace and wishing to be in the sun by the track.

A brilliant setting

Everyone was there for the Formula One, but before the big race of the day, there was plenty of other entertainment. In one video shown on the screens it was explained how the latest F1 cars produce so much downforce to keep them on the road, that if they ran at full speed on a ceiling, it would easily stick to it. Three tonnes of downforce – enough even to attach another car to it and still remain in contact with the ceiling. Quite how they would get it up to full speed upside down is clearly a problem, but a fascinating example of some of the forces produced in the high speed sport.

The speed comparison teams

To demonstrate the power of an F1 car further, a great support race was held. A fast Mercedes road car was lined up against a V8 sports car and last years’ Mclaren Formula One model, but instead of being set off at the same time, they were given a staggered start. As the roadgoing Mercedes sped past, it was another 40 seconds before the Mclaren was given the green light. Amazingly, all of the cars hit the final straight at the same time, with the Mclaren making a cheeky overtake just before the finishing line to take the win. Despite a 40 second handicap, it had caught up on both of the other cars and easily won. It was a brilliant demonstration of how the F1 cars, and their drivers, really are in a league of their own.

Ian and I went for a walk around the track, stopping by at the St John Ambulance first aid station for a plaster thanks to my cycle-related injury that for some reason will not stop bleeding. It was interesting to see just how much paperwork I had to fill in for one single Band Aid, and even more interesting to wonder just what would have happened if I’d let the cadets have their own way with me. It was clearly one of the most exciting things to happen during the day for them, and I think I was one step away from being sent for an MRI scan of the head and X-Rays at the hospital, such was the seriousness they dealt with me. I jest of course, but it did all seem a bit over the top!

On the lake at Albert Park, with the Melbourne skyline

Thankfully it didn’t take too long, and we walked over to the lake, making our way across a clever little floating bridge and to the opposite side of the track. It took us to the long, high-speed, gently curved section by the lake, another part of the circuit which leaves you feeling incredibly close to the action.

Felipe Massa on the driver parade lap

We continued walking all around the lake, and by the time we reached the start of the pit lane, the drivers’ parade lap was underway. I managed to get a photo of Jenson Button, but was too busy loudly shouting “Come on Lewis” as he passed in a classic convertible to get another photo. I think he heard me too – there were not too many British fans around me, it was all a bit quiet on the corner I was at, and he quickly waved back at us!

Jenson Button giving the crowd a wave

With time ticking on, and just an hour to go before the start, we started walking back to the first corner. Overhead, Australias equivalent to the Red Arrows were performing their display – not a patch on our Reds of course, mainly due to slow propeller engines and the fact there aren’t as many of them – and I managed to peer over the fence of the international television compound.

Beaming around the world

There were rows and rows of impressively large satellites, beaming all the action to countries around the world and to millions of viewers. For someone who works in television, the geeky side always comes out, and its always fascinated me how they bring such huge events to an even bigger audience so well. Even new boys Sky Sports had a scaffold tower studio, although by all accounts, their coverage wasn’t a patch on the BBCs…but then I would say that.

One day...

Back at the start and finish straight, and with 40 minutes to go, we managed to grab the same great spot to watch the start, right by the famous Qantas bridge and with enough sight of the first corner to see any drama unfold. There was yet another aerial display before the start, this time by the Grand Prix sponsor Qantas who threw one of their Boeing 747-400 jumbo jets, complete with F1 markings, into the sky for a bit of an air display.

Qantas slinging a jumbo around the sky for fun

Its fair to say it was a bit of a show stopper – most people can relate to the aircraft as long-distance routes from Australia almost always use a huge airliner like the 747, but to see one being flown so low, so slow and being turned around on a sixpence was just so different. I’ve never seen such a display by a passenger aircraft, and it was great to watch as it did about four circuits, each time performing another new manoeuvre to please the crowds. Finally it made one last flight over before the pilot threw it into full throttle and accelerated high into the sky and away, no doubt back to the nearby airport.

And they're off! The start of the 2012 Australian Grand Prix, hard to see through the fence, but that's Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton battling for first place from the start as they fly past us

And then another sound filled the air, as the unmistakeable scream of an F1 engine approached from the pits. And then another. And another. Before long, they were all out on the track and heading around to their start position on the grid.

The tension mounted as the parade lap got underway, each of the cars filing past us and lining up back on the grid. I watched as the last cars got into position and the lights went red. The feed was the same shot the viewers back home, wherever home may be in the world, were watching. Just a couple of hundred metres to my left, the unmistakeable sound of more than 20 multi-million pound cars screaming through the revs grew into a crescendo, and then they were off. Within two seconds, they were right in front of me, the deafening noise filling my ears as Jenson Button led the pack into the first corner.

Watching the action on the big screens

There was drama straight away, as a number of cars clattered into each other on the first turn, prompting one to make an early pit stop. As they disappeared from view, the sound quickly disappeared into the distance as they made their way around the back end of the track. Just a minute later, they’ve covered the 3.3-mile circuit and the sound grows yet again before the unmistakeable howling, screaming engines fly past in the blink of an eye. The noise truly is deafening – an ear-ringing-inducing level that is impossible to describe without having actually experienced it in person.

Jenson Button on his way to the podium

Its also hard to explain just how fast the cars pass. You barely have time for your brain to process who the driver is before they’ve passed on yet another of the 58 laps. Taking photos is almost impossible, especially from behind the steel safety fence which prevents my camera from focusing on the track behind, let alone an object moving along at 180mph.

Undeterred, I did manage to get a couple of photos around the circuit which I feel summed up the day, including a few from the other side of the lake where we stayed for the final stages of the race, cheering Jenson Button on to victory, much to the disdain of my Aussie companion and the rest of his countrymen around me cheering on their man, Mark Webber.

Come on Lewis!

Heading to the chequered flag

In the end, Webber finished fourth, but up on the podium were Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton. Jenson led from start to finish, and who knows, perhaps it’s the first win of many this season. It would be great to look back on the season if he won the championship and know that I was there, trackside in Australia, to see his first win of the year.

On the track!

As the British national anthem sounded around the track, we made our way towards the pit lane as thousands of people spilled onto the circuit. I joined them, climbing over a metal marshalling railing and walking along the main straight to the lights.

Jenson, Lewis and second place Sebastian Vettel giving the press conference

It was a great feeling, walking along the famous straight that just a few moments ago, the likes of Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso, reigning champion Vettel, Jenson and Lewis had been guiding their mega machines along. The skid marks were still fresh, the smell of burning rubber was still in the air, and as the sun began to set, I watched as the F1 teams in their garages began packing away their travelling circus.

The busy pit lane

The McLaren team packing away

The Podium

Further along, scrutineers were still picking over the cars, analysing them to check they fall within racing guidelines. Jenson’s Mclaren was still in one of the garages, fresh from its winning race, while on the other side of the fence, just two metres away from me, Alonso’s bright red Ferrari was still making a range of clicking noises as it cooled down.

Alonso's car awaiting scrutineers

Soon it too was put onto a trolley and rolled into the bay where it was weighed and measured. It’s the sort of stuff you would never see on the television, and interestingly, it was something you would hardly ever see at Silverstone.

Away it goes!

Jenson Button's car being checked

Busy doing checks

Because the race is at the end of the day in Australia, people are almost encouraged onto the track at the end, something that you definitely can’t do back home. It provided a whole range of photo opportunities, and I joined the scores of others capturing great shots on the track – including in the pole position spot where just a couple of hours ago, Jenson Button had lit up his tyres and headed off towards my vantage point, and ultimately, the first win of the season.

Pole Position!

As darkness fell, I picked up a souvenir to take home – quite literally. If you watch F1 on the television, you often hear commentators talking about ‘the marbles’ at the side of the track, the small pieces of rubber that fly off the huge tyres as they wear down. Before I left the track, I bent down to peel a few bits off the tarmac, and gathered a few loose bits at the side of the straight.

Gathering some free souvenirs...F1 tyre rubber!

They had a similar consistency and feel to Blu-Tac, and I put a small handful into my pocket. It’s yet another unique souvenir that for me, money can’t buy. It’ll go home with me, and take up a place with other bits I’ve picked up around the world, like my bullet casing from HMS Grimsby when I sailed onboard in the Gulf, volcanic rock from the Canaries, sand from the Normandy beaches and various other keepsakes. Some might call it tat, but for me, every item has a story behind it.

A bit of rubber to take home!

Ian and I walked to the tram stop, still catching up on what we’re both up to and talking about the days events. Next week, the Grand Prix will happen all over again in Malaysia, with yet another audience of millions around the world. Its one thing watching on the television, being lulled by the constant hypnotic sound of the engines as the whiz around the track, but it’s an exhilarating, exciting and thrilling day to see the world’s best drivers fly past your eyes, almost within touching distance.

The start lights coming down

The sun sets, and the track empties. Grand Prix over

Next year, and for years to come, I’ll be watching the sun-drenched spectacle from the opposite side of the world, probably huddled in front of a fire away from the cold outside, and no doubt remembering the time ‘I was there’.

Ocean’s heaven

Running from the waves!

Sometimes Mother Nature reminds you who is boss. And more often than not, she wins.

And so, seemingly running for my life away from a giant wall of water that was bearing down on me, I suddenly felt very small. As I’m running, my friends on the beach are laughing and pointing. I glance behind me, and the backwash is swirling upon itself, building into a huge blue and white frothing mountain, getting ever closer to my heels.

To my right, a French guy has already been consumed by the watery mass charging at the shore, his feet disappearing into the froth. By now, a huge wave has formed, about twice my height, and there’s nothing I can do to get out of the way.

Dumped down!

Whooosh. I’m dumped down to the hard, gritty beach and within seconds, I’m washed up like a ragdoll at the feet of my friend Jess. We all laugh, I get up, dust myself off and run back down towards the sea. The process repeats itself all over again, and I love it.

We’re at Bells Beach, part of the famous Great Ocean Road area and home to the Ripcurl Pro Surfing Championship, such is the quality of waves that pound the beach here. It was the end of a brilliant day of getting out of Ballarat and seeing a bit more of Victoria.

Contemplating the sea

I’ve been in Ballarat for a couple of weeks now, settling into a routine of waking up, doing some housework for Nat, having lunch together when she returns home for her break and then being dropped off in town for the afternoon as I go in search of places with decent internet. Not that there are any – if there’s one thing I have now realised, it is that this country’s internet seems light years behind every other country I have been to so far.

Very few places have free Wifi, apparently due to few companies offering unlimited data deals to businesses, and when you do find one of those that do offer some form of internet, the quality is usually slow and poor. Take McDonalds, where in return for a dollar cheeseburger, I can sit and use the internet. Except its painfully slow and only offers a 50 megabyte limit – no good for trying to upload countless photos and blogs over the next few months.

Investigating why Australia's internet is so bad...flimsy rubbish wires laying in the streets could be the answer!

Thankfully I found a bar called Seymours, which not only provided some of the least temperamental wifi I’ve found here so far, but also serves a mean lemon lime and bitters (the addiction is still going strong) and it’s a relaxed place to hang out and work my way through a blog backlog.

While Nat has been at work, I’ve also been spending a lot of time with her best friend Jess, her 12-year-old daughter Liv and friend James. It was on one of our trips out together that I found another way to occupy my time in Ballarat. Jess was treating me to coffee at a great little restaurant and bar called The Lake View, which, funnily enough, has a great location overlooking Lake Wendouree.

While we were enjoying a latte, Jess began speaking to the owner and manager, Nathan, who she knows. Suddenly she asked if he needed any help around the place, and then pointed straight at me. That’s when he asked what experience I had and asked if I could come in the following week for a shift. I agreed – it would be great to do a bit of hospitality work again, even if it is just for a few hours.

There was a catch though – in order to lift a finger in the restaurant, I had to complete a compulsory course. Whether I was volunteering or working full time, anyone in Australia who serves alcohol has to complete an RSA, the Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate. It meant a trip back to Melbourne where I had found the course for $40, and so caught an early morning train to the city.

I made my way on the tram to a training centre to the east of the city, and took my place in a lecture room. In a nutshell, the course taught me all about how to spot if someone has had too much to drink, how to deal with intoxicated customers, how to avoid conflict and the Australian laws and regulations when it comes to legally serving the amber nectar.

A new qualification!

As a result, I learnt how the state of Victoria is currently home to 13,000 people seeking treatment for alcoholism, how more than 3,000 people died of alcohol-related injuries between 2009-2010, and how the drink-drive limit is surprisingly lenient compared to the UK. A basic rule of thumb is you’re allowed one alcoholic drink an hour before getting into a car. Far from scientific.

After being awarded my certificate, I got talking to a girl called Esther. We spoke about our travels and the work she was doing, when she told me there was an upcoming music festival that desperately needed more workers. In return, you got into the festival, but also got a bit of pocket money too. It sounded like a great thing to do, so I put my contact details into her phone, and that night I got an email from her, along with contact details for the staffing manager at the festival.

A quick email later, and I had myself a place working on a bar at the Soundwave Festival in a few days time. It was in Melbourne, with acts such as Slipknot and Queens of the Stone Age topping the bill. It’s a bit heavy for my liking, but after working at and reporting on quite a few Leeds Festivals over the years, I know it will have a great atmosphere either way. It will be yet another experience to take home with me, and already I’m looking forward to it.

Putting the Thai cooking skills to the test!

Back in Ballarat, it was pancake day, and I took the opportunity to cook for Nat. I put my newly acquired Thai cooking skills to the test, with a delicious meal of Chicken with Cashews that seemed to go down a storm. Surprisingly, it tasted exactly the same as the one I made at the Thai cooking school in Koh Lanta a few weeks back, and Nat wants me to make it again sometime. It was followed by some pancake fun in the kitchen, and introducing Nat to the all time favourite topping of lemon and sugar. Its not a big combo in Australia, but I think she liked it!

Tossing

And so, with a weekend of scorching hot sun upon us, we agreed to go see a bit of Victoria. We jumped into Jess’s car and headed to the beach, stopping first at Torquay.

Heading to the Victoria coast

Jess’s mum has a house there, so we parked up and headed to the sea. With temperatures reaching above 40-degrees, the sand was red hot. It made the walk to the sea more of a sprint, and even though the ocean was freezing cold, it was very welcome to cool off by the time we reached it. Perhaps the highlight was making a 12-year-old believe she was being chased by a shark, which sounds a little cruel. Infact, it was very cruel, but it was incredibly funny too. James had simply shouted “Liv, is that a dolphin fin,” which then produced one of the most blood-curdling screams of terror I’ve ever heard, followed by some speed swimming that any Olympian would be proud of.

Thankfully, she saw the funny side – eventually – after a comforting hug from mum, and there were more smiles when the chip shop nearby failed to charge us for half of the food we ordered for lunch.

There's no such thing as a free lunch...unless the shop forgets to charge you. Free food Saturday!

After lashings of chips, cheese and gravy, followed by chicken baguettes all round, we headed to Split Point Lighthouse and officially began driving along the famous Great Ocean Road. Its actually a fairly famous lighthouse, immaculately looked after and maintained, standing out like a bright white beacon against the deep blue cloudless sky.

Have you ever, ever felt like this?!

For anyone who remembers the childrens show Round the Twist from years back, it’s the lighthouse that was used in the show. Its also appeared in other films and series, mainly due to the beautifully picturesque setting it finds itself in.

Nat, Liv, Jess and James near the 'Round the Twist' lighthouse

Enjoying the sun and the scenery

Start of the Great Ocean Road

Located high above rocks and cliffs, the waves below crash all around, while there are stunning beaches everywhere you look on the horizon. We spent a good half an hour taking in the views together, and I made a mental note to return here with my friends in a few weeks time.

Bells Beach

The next stop was Bells Beach, a place where James had been raving about and was getting him slightly excited as we got nearer. We soon found out why.

Nat and James on Bells Beach

From a viewpoint high above the beach, we watched as huge waves rolled in from the ocean and crashed onto the sand. In the midst of the white surf below, small figures were leaping over the waves and being washed up onto the sand. Surfers were bobbing around on the swell, waiting for another roller ride to shore on, while others were simply watching in awe at the sheer power of nature.

Jess shouting at James as he battles a wave

James and Nat walked down to the beach and before long, James couldn’t resist the urge of jumping into the foaming mass himself. The rest of us walked down the remaining steps and watched for a while. I must admit, while slightly dangerous thanks to numerous rip tides bubbling away, it did look like a lot of fun. James had already got a few grazes from being rolled along the gritty sand by a few waves, and soon a huge wave crashed to shore, sending water far, far up the beach.

Feeling the power of the ocean

As it swirled around my feet, I could feel the power of the wave pushing against me, swiftly followed by the strong pull of the water as it rushed back down the steep beach and back into the sea. It wasn’t long before the t-shirt was off and I was nervously bounding down towards the water with James.

Its probably one of the most exhilarating things I’ve done on my trip, launching myself into the biggest waves I have ever seen and not knowing exactly when I would see the surface again. I admit, it was pretty daunting to see each wave rapidly growing behind me, and there were a few times when I wondered whether I’d pushed it too far, but there were a few others doing the same, and everyone else had huge smiles on their faces.

Finally catching a wave!

Running back to Liv and Jess

Another sprint with Liv!

It did feel a bit like being slid along the roughest side of a cheese grater when the wave washed you along the sand and dumped you onto the shore, but there was something slightly addictive about it. The gravel rash would heal, but the memories would stay with us all.

Heading for a bit more gravel rash!

After a brief stop in Torquay for ice creams, we headed off back to Ballarat. Our shorts – and various parts of our bodies – were full of sand, the ice creams had dripped everywhere in the heat and there were varying degrees of dehydration, but it had been a fantastic introduction to the Great Ocean Road, and a sign of yet more great times to come in Australia.

There's always one in the background!

Ice creams all round before heading back to the 'Rat

Batman and Ballarat

Its my first night out in Ballarat. I’m with a friend who I have known for years. I could be about to spend a month or so in the city, and i’m meeting her friends for the first time. I’m conscious of first impressions. And I’m dressed as Batman.

With Nat (left) and her friend Koa before heading out for some superhero antics!

I’ve arrived in Ballarat, a city around 110km northwest of Melbourne, site of a huge gold rush in the 1800s, famous for the Eureka stockade, the only armed civilian uprising in Australia’s history, and for being the home of Steve Moneghetti, the nation’s most famous Olympic marathon runner. It’s also where Nat lives, a friend who I worked with for a summer on a childrens’ camp in the States back in 2002.

I actually visited Nat in 2005 on my first visit to Oz, but since then we’ve only had sporadic messages on Facebook, much like many other friends who live overseas. Nevertheless, she was still looking forward to meeting up, as was I, and my visit had suddenly come earlier than planned after being let down by the roadhouse.

“Great,” she’d written.

“There’s a friend’s 30th birthday party I’m heading to on Saturday night, and you’re invited. Its fancy dress – creatures of the night – I can get you an outfit,” she added.

“Do your worst,” I wrote back, basically giving the all clear to make me look as daft as possible.

Sure enough, it was kept as a surprise until I reached Ballarat. Nat met me in the Bean Barn, a coffee shop I’d taken refuge in next to the town hall after arriving on the train. She walked in, smartly dressed and straight from work, but she hadn’t changed a bit. It might be seven years since we last saw each other, but we immediately began chatting and laughing as if I’d been away for just a few days.

Up to our old tricks despite the years

We had a lot of catching up to do, mainly as we knew very little about each others’ lives over the last few years. Nat laughed about how she suddenly noticed my blogs from places like Russia and wondered what on Earth I was up to. I had no idea Nat had bought her own house, a gorgeous one at that, had changed jobs, and had also recently had a break up from a long relationship. It’s the kind of stuff that close friends know all about each other, yet we had no idea, but somehow we remain the close friends we had become as we watched kids race around a go-cart track 10 years ago.

With Nat and 'Go-cart Mark' in upstate New York, 2002

To explain, we both ended up as specialist counsellors at Camp Na Sho Pa, a summer camp in upstate New York, in 2002. I was taking part in something called Camp America, straight after finishing my journalism degree in Southampton. I bagged a place after being interviewed at a recruitment fair in London, where I was asked if I could fix a lawnmower. Thinking of my dad’s electric mower back home, where the biggest problem is a lump of mud getting stuck in the blades, I said yes, and somehow got offered a place running the go-cart and quads activity.

Fine, I thought, but it all got a bit sketchy on the bus when I arrived and the boss of the camp asked me if I was any good with the Honda something or other engine. I nodded, hoping it wouldn’t see me heading straight back home across the Atlantic before I’d even arrived properly. It didn’t, thankfully, and I found myself teaching kids how to ride go-carts safely around a track, and taking groups on quad trails through some fantastic woodland in the Catskill mountains. I was also expected to strip down and repair the machines when things went wrong…but thankfully there was another guy called Mark who actually knew what he was doing with a spanner.

With Nat (far left) Katrina (third from left) and other counsellors on my 21st birthday night in the Last Chance bar, New York, 2002

And then there was Nat, someone who I spent a full eight weeks with laughing, joking, teasing and getting to know so well, you’d have thought we’d known each other for years rather than living on opposite sides of the world. Nat also had no idea how to repair go-carts, for she’s clearly as good at blagging as me, but we made a great team together. It might have meant us dragging Nat out of bed on a few occasions, but then she also turned a blind eye to my ‘sunbathing’ sessions on grass in the middle of the track. They were actually naps.

With Katrina, B and Nat in New York City, 2002

Moving on 10 years, and here I am meeting all her friends dressed up as Gotham City’s finest crime fighter. It was a joint celebration for her friends Jess and Merran, who both turn 30 within a few weeks of each other, and it promised to be a great night. Nat’s friend Koa was also staying over, and before we actually got out the ice had been firmly shattered thanks to a few beers and whisky.

Nat and Batman

We ordered a taxi to the venue, and within just a few minutes of arriving, one of the birthday girls approaches with a question.

“Does anyone round here know how to use a mixing desk?”

There were a few blank faces, but back home I use a mixing desk every day. It might only be to push a couple of faders up and down while editing a story, but I guess it counts. I offered to have a look.

It was a loose connection. After a few minutes of twiddling everything, moving faders around and rebooting the computer, we worked out a bright green wire was playing up. A bit of sellotape later, and it was working perfectly. I might make a BBC engineer yet. Merran and Jess hugged me – it meant they could play their own carefully crafted playlist on a USB stick, and I was christened ‘Lucky Phil’.

The birthday girls, Merran and Jess

I was introduced to a few more of Nat’s friends – there’s Paul who lives around the corner,

Paul as Freddy, Jess and Nat

who for the night was Freddy Kruger and took a lot of pleasure from sticking his pointy fingers up people’s noses and across their faces, and there was Jess’s friend James, originally from Northampton back home but who has been in Australia for four years and is now training to be a paramedic at the university in Ballarat. Tonight, he’s Beetlejuice.

James Beetlejuice, towards the end of the night...

Then there’s Jane, a police officer, who was Wonderwoman for the night, there was a Catwoman, various vampires and even an evil fairy. But that was Nat, so we all knew she wasn’t too evil – at least until she decided to drop kick a mini pie across the dance floor.

Infact, the night got quite messy, and we moved on to the Karova Lounge, one of Ballarat’s busiest nightspots. Paul, who by day is a builder and labourer, decided it would be great fun to lift each and every one of us onto his shoulder and spin us round for a while, which not only left you dizzy, but also fearing a broken neck as we got dangerously close to being dropped on our heads. Nat managed to find drinks from somewhere despite running out of money, her fairy wings getting more and more featherless as the night went on. Paul tried to pull my PVC ears off. Countless strangers tried their hand at the Batman theme tune, usually accompanied by someone shouting ‘Batman’ and shaking my gloved hand.

Spot my face...

The whole ‘Batman’ thing actually provided one of the funniest moments of my trip so far, when outside the Gravy Spot, the local late night drunken food shop, yet another stranger staggered up to me and proceeded with the ‘dinner dinner dinner dinner, dinner dinner dinner…’ theme tune, complete with a few bits of half chewed chips spat in my direction for good measure. Suddenly, Nat appeared from nowhere, scrunched up her face and launched probably one of the strangest, funniest noises towards the guy that I and everyone around has ever heard. It was a cross between Tarzan’s call and a whale’s mating cry. Weird, but memorable.

Nat making a speech for Merran and Jess...before her Tarzan cry later in the night

It was a brilliant night, and a great way of meeting Nat’s friends. And by the end of it, as we headed back at 4am, very few of them still actually knew what I properly looked like thanks to the costume, while for the next few weeks, I had an easy way of knowing who was who.

“We’re just popping round to Jane’s house,” I’d be told.

Cue my blank expression. Who’s Jane?

“You know, Wonderwoman.”

Ah, it all made sense, I know exactly who Jane is.

Linton music festival

Over the next few days, I spent a lot of time with Nat, Jess, James and Jess’s daughter Liv. We all hit it off straight away, and it was as if we had all known each other for years. We’d meet for coffee, have dinner together at each others’ houses and laugh at the same things.

I'm well overdue a haircut

The following weekend, we were invited to the Funky February music festival in Linton, where I was able to meet most people again without my big pointy ears and yellow belt. I’d suddenly made a great group of new friends, and one where I felt at home. At the same time, Nat was enjoying my company, and said I could stay as long as I wanted as it meant she wouldn’t be at home on her own.

“I’m sure you could find things to do to or a bit of work here and there to pass the time,” she said.

It was a brilliant offer, and one that would mean I could stay in this part of Australia at least until my friends Matt and Siobhan arrive in Melbourne at the end of March. In the meantime, and in full appreciation of Nat’s generosity, it was my duty to earn my keep around the house – and so I got my domesticated head on for the first time in quite few months.

Nat has got a lovely house, with three bedrooms, a large garden, views across to a creek at the front and a nature reserve full of hills and trees at the back. Its also decorated in the same way as my house back home, with the same colour schemes, same furniture, similar sofas and chairs, even the same beds. Its probably an example of just why we get on so well – we’re similar in so many ways that we find it quite strange. Even down to how we both leave absolutely everything to the last minute, and are usually running late…

Yorkie puds...introducing Aussies to some proper food!

With that in mind, I introduced Nat to a few things from home, namely Peter Kay, The Inbetweeners, Yorkshire pudding and a couple of my desserts I’ve now perfected. They have all gone down well, especially the Yorkshire pudding and strawberry and vanilla pana cotta. I’m yet to make a cheesecake, to go along with a certain comedian’s catchphrase I have now managed to get caught on Down Under.

In return, I was introduced to a few Aussie staples – Nat’s homemade chicken parmagiana is incredible, being a whole chicken breast, beaten flat, crumbed and then covered in a special tomato, bacon and onion sauce, and finished off with a good helping of cheese. I’m not a salad fan either, but I could eat hers, scattered with snow peas, roasted pumpkin and beetroot, until the cows come home.

One of many Lemon Lime and Bitters so far.

Then there’s lemon, lime and bitters – a drink that has suddenly knocked the usual Coke off my favourites top spot. I’ve never had it before, and infact, never heard of it before back home. Over here, its almost a way of life, with a bit of lime cordial, filled with cloudy lemonade and then a few dashes of Angostura Bitters. As a certain Peter Kay would say, it’s a taste sensation, and one that I found myself hooked on. Refreshing, summery, almost alcoholic tasting, its definitely a drink I’ll be stocking up on back home. I’m assured it’s not even a girly drink. Time will tell.

Then there’s a couple of combinations I was introduced to – aside from sweet chilli and sour cream together, a big Australian dip combo (at the same time – try it!) I was given a piece of toast with both peanut butter and honey on. At first, the whole idea of both on a piece of toast just seemed a bit odd, but then I tasted it. It shouldn’t, but it actually works!

There was also the usual Vegemite / Marmite argument, as to which was better. Naturally, Marmite wins hands down for me. Aussies claim not and defend Vegemite every time. It might taste similar, but the consistency is all wrong for my British tastebuds. These Aussies just don’t know how good yeast extract really can be! In any case, it’s the nearest thing I can get to it, so there’s been plenty of Vegemite and cheese sarnies to keep me going.

And I’ve needed them to keep me going – I have been doing plenty around Nat’s house in return for the roof above my head. Mountains of washing up have been disappearing for her, there’s been a fair bit of cleaning up around the house, and on one hot sunny day, I got busy with a pick axe and shovel in the back garden to dig out a flower bed and vegetable patch that she’s been wanting to get sorted out.

Earning my keep!

It was hard work, thanks to a similar clay soil we have at home, but I was fuelled by a few lemon lime and bitters (of course, a proper working man’s drink!) and a day of ferrying barrowload after barrowload of heavy soil to the nearby creek left a huge hole in the ground.

With sweat pouring off my brow as I hacked my way through the clay, I found myself with a puzzling question. Back home, some smart alec would probably have said at some point “Are you digging to Australia,” with it being on the opposite side of the world.

But where on earth would I dig to if I carried on going?

Sometimes I worry about how my mind works. Or maybe its a Bitters overdose?

Winging it

Making waves in Sydney

I could be about to find a solution to paying my way in Australia for the next few months.

I had to reply to an email from Chris, a guy who runs a roadhouse down in Mount Gambier. I’d replied to an ad on the Gumtree website asking for a hand around the place, in return for free accommodation and food. It sounded like an ideal solution to the problem of my quickly depleting finances in what is now an expensive country to visit, while at the same time giving me a flavour of life in the outback.

He’d asked for me to ring or text him, so I sent a quick text with a few details about myself, my experience in hospitality (always knew five years at Pizza Hut through college and university would come in handy again!) and awaited a response. It soon came – he was interested in what I could offer, and said he’d be in touch again soon.

Darling Harbour, Sydney

In the meantime, I had some time to enjoy Sydney, and after a great few days catching up with friends from home, I was about to go and meet yet another great friend in the city – and she lives here.

I first met Katrina 10 years ago now, working on a childrens’ summer camp in upstate New York. We immediately became great friends in America, and would often spend time together, even travelling around with others on visits to places like New York, Atlantic City and Philadelphia during our time off.

With Katrina and drinks at Darling Harbour on a sunny day!

We stayed in touch, with Katrina staying with me at my parents house in Grimsby soon after the summer of 2002, as she was making her way around the world on her own travels. I had visited for New Year a few years later, and then stayed for a weekend on my way through to America from Thailand last year, thanks to a cheap round the world ticket I’d got my hands on.

Now I was back, and on my way to the office where she works, not far from Darling Harbour, to meet her.

Yet again, the weather had turned. It was absolutely throwing it down, and Sydneysiders were not happy. Everywhere you turn, people were complaining about their ‘abysmal summer’. I overheard so many conversations of people on phones while waiting for pedestrian crossings, and it seemed like everyone was ranting about it.

Sydney is one of the world’s most beautiful cities – in the sun –  but something has gone badly wrong with the weather this year. Across the news and weather, reports of how it was one of the wettest summers on record were dominating headlines, and apparently the worst was yet to come. The forecast for the next month was almost straight rain, thanks to a weather system stuck over the east coast. Apparently it was all down to El Nino – remember that?!

I arrived at Katrinas’ office, and soon the door opened behind me and her radiant smile beamed through.

“I told you I’d be back,” I said as we hugged on the steps to her building yet again.

We walked down to her car and another marathon catch-up session got underway. We went to a bar and Katrina bought dinner, while we chatted about my journey to Oz, our lives back home, how work was going and what my hopes were for the rest of the trip.

Suddenly Katrina said: “Isn’t that your best mate on the tv?”

Sure enough, it was. My friend Dan, who I was on the way to visit in the States last time I was with Katrina, was on the huge plasma screen in the corner, presenting his show on ESPN. Its funny, I can be on the other side of the world, but somehow it still feels a like a small place thanks to the wonders of technology.

With Katrina's aunt Ronnie

For the next few days I stayed with Katrina’s aunt, Ronnie, who lives above her, and we’d spend lots of time chatting about what was going on in the world. Ronnie is a bit of a news fan, and would often have the latest news on the television in the background, or have the latest papers on the kitchen table. We’d talk about stories I have worked on, and I’d give a bit of an insight into the stories in the newspapers in Australia, perhaps how they had been covered or how they were presented on the page.

Dragon Boat Racing for Chinese New Year in Sydney

I would often catch the train from the nearby Hurlstone Park station into the city centre to use some of the free wifi I had found, to upload blogs and to keep an eye on my email incase I heard anything back from the roadhouse. After a few days with Katrina, and having not heard anything from the roadhouse, I decided to bite the bullet and just text back. Straight away, Chris in Mount Gambier replied and asked how long I would want to stay. I told him a couple of months, before he then asked if I had worked in a roadhouse before. I said no, but I’d heard all about it and it sounded right up my street. I then had another text.

“Me and my partner are gay, you’re not homophobic are you?”

It came out of the blue and took me by surprise – I seemed to be having an interview by text, but it just wasn’t the sort of question I had been expecting. I replied that I have many friends who are gay and that it wasn’t a problem at all. There was a brief pause in the text conversation before this one arrived:

“You can fly from Sydney to Melbourne, and then with Regional Express airlines from Melbourne to Mount Gambier. Cheers Phil, let me know when you are booked and you can stay with us. Come as soon as you are ready, the job is yours.”

Brilliant!

It was a huge weight off my mind, and the perfect way to spend a few months while waiting for my friends Matt and Siobhan to arrive in Melbourne – it was near enough to Melbourne to go meet them, it meant my finances would be ok, and by the sound of it, it would be fun to involve myself in local life and see the real Australia along the way.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour

Buoyed by the news, I met Katrina in Darling Harbour and we went for drinks at one of the bars, before going for dinner overlooking the harbour. We spent hours people watching, laughing together at boat loads of hen party girls heading out for a harbour cruise and meal, joking about how a guy in a very flash and expensive speedboat would parade himself around the harbour at least once every half hour, and watching as darkness fell. That night, there was a great fireworks display in the harbour, and we had a brilliant view from the balcony where we had spent a brilliant few hours.

The next day, we met Katrina’s friend Ged for breakfast, another Aussie way of life that I love. Breakfast is a huge thing here, and people go to great lengths to make sure they are up and out, ready to meet up for some of the biggest breakfasts around. Back home after a heavy night, you might struggle to make it out for a late lunch. In Oz, a next day meet up for ‘brekkie’ is ‘as common as’ as they say over here. It was good to see Ged again – last time I saw him i’d just stepped off a sleepless overnight flight from Thailand last year, and was entering a strange hallucination stage of jetlag!

With Katrina and Ged before the beach

Full of bacon and eggs, Katrina and I headed to the famous Coogee beach, which was absolutely packed. We found a good spot though, lathered up in suncream and relaxed. I was taken back by the size of the waves, something I could tell Katrina was secretly laughing about.

Coogee Beach, Sydney

“They’re just waves,” she’d say, but like most Aussies, she takes them and their sheer power for granted. If a roller like some of those crashing on the shore hit Cleethorpes, there would be some who would think a small Tsunami just struck the prom!

Powerful!

After burning slightly in the sun, we headed round to the rocks where huge plumes of foamy white sea spray was flying into the sky as the waves pounded the coastline. Incredibly, there were scores of people having fun, clinging onto rocks and being hit by the powerful wash. Some were being washed over the rocks and into the bubbling rockpools below. Most had big smiles on their faces. Some had painful-looking cuts, but it didn’t seem to put them off. Out to sea, the huge swell meant I could time some great photos of the powerful waves hitting the rocks.

Huge waves, and lots of kids dodging them!

Clinging on!

I dragged myself away from the photography and went with Katrina back home. That night I was playing ‘dad’ for Katrina who had to meet a friend in the city centre. We drove into the city and to the Rocks district, and armed with some notes about how to find my way back to her house, dropped off Katrina and swapped seats. The directions worked a treat, and thanks to the fact Aussies drive on the same side as us, making my way around the streets and driving back to Hurlstone Park was a doddle. Picking her up at the end of the night, I did smile slightly as I drove under the beautifully lit Harbour Bridge and past the Opera House.

Clouds and cruise ships in Sydney

While Katrina was out, I’d been researching how to get to Mount Gambier, and found there was an added bonus. The flights from Melbourne to South Australia were expensive, but there was an alternative – the train. As an extra bonus, it passes through the town of Ballarat, where I’d need to swap onto a long distance bus. It also happens to be where my friend Natalie lives, a girl who I also met on the summer camp in America and who was part of my group of friends with Katrina. I messaged Nat and told her I could be coming to stay for a couple of days a lot sooner than I first thought, on the way through to Mount Gambier. She was delighted.

Cruise ships and clouds arrive in Sydney

I earmarked a cheap flight, and the day before I was to fly to Mount Gambier and the roadhouse, my phone bleeped. It was a text from Chris.

“Hi Phil, we have a major problem, my second in command has put three people on unknowns to me, so I’m really sorry to inform you all the positions are taken. Sorry mate, Chris.”

The fact I was in a mobile phone shop, finding out if the mobile broadband network coverage was any good in Mount Gambier, seemed to add salt to the wound. It was a huge blow, and I walked out into the street. I was gutted.

I’d actually been really looking forward to the experience, and to the journey over there. Suddenly I felt like it had all been taken away from me, and in a poor way too. Quite why it was done by text I’ll never know. I’d done some research on the internet about the roadhouse, and picked up that it was under new management. Perhaps Chris was new to the game and new to management. Perhaps he didn’t realise how much of a blow it could be to someone who had just planned the next few months around the promise of a placement. Either way, I had some quick thinking to do.

Being filmed by the cruise passengers

I decided to stick with my plan – I booked the flight to Melbourne as planned, and decided to see Nat for a few days. After a short stop at Sydney’s Apple Store, where they thankfully replaced yet another duff iPhone 3GS, I headed to the airport.

A Tiger tail

I had booked a cheap flight with Tiger Airways, the company I had flown with from Singapore to Thailand before New Year, and which still made me think of home. With Tigers being synonymous with Hull City football club back home, I cant help but think of it when I see the paint scheme on the plane. There’s an EYMS bus painted up like it that I often see around the streets of Hull, but this takes it to a whole new level!

A plane for Tigers

Not quite knowing what my next move was once I was in Melbourne, I was delighted to make contact with Ian, yet another friend from Camp Na Sho Pa in America, who was one of my fellow bunk counsellors for the summer in 2002.

Winging it to Melbourne

He lived in London for many years, so we’d remained good friends, but now he’s moved back to his homeland and moved to Melbourne a couple of years ago. He offered to meet me at the airport, and it was great to see him waiting by his BMW that he bought in the UK and had shipped Down Under. After checking into my hostel, we had a great night catching up over a few ‘frothies’ as he called them.

With Ian (Laingy) in Melbourne

He’s in charge of some bars in the city and was able to give me some good tips on things to do. He invited me to meet his parents the following day, and we had a great night at one of Ian’s pubs talking over dinner.

With Ian and his parents in Melbourne

The next day, it was time to head west, and to Ballarat. I caught a train from Melbourne’s Southern Cross station and settled into the seat, watching the cityscape disappear as I headed into the outback. I have no idea how long i’ll be in Ballarat for, but as Nat said in a message to me, “I love the way you’re winging it, how exciting.”

I’m certainly winging it, taking each day at a time, and I must admit, it is quite fun.

G’day Australia

Smiles in Sydney

Normally when I arrive in a new country, I’m on my own and heading to a hostel, where hopefully I’ll find my bearings and meet new people to pass the time with

Not so in Sydney.

Thanks to two previous visits, I already knew my way around the city somewhat, but even better than that, I had a week of catching up with close friends.

My flight from Bangkok was one of the first to touch down at Sydney’s international airport just after 6am. Two hours later and I’d already bagged an Australian mobile sim card for my phone, caught a train and was walking along the city’s George Street in search of the World Square Hostel.

Staying there was Cat, the girl who helped inspire my whole trip by inviting me to spend some time in Thailand with her last May. Back then, her year-long backpacking trip around the world was in its early stages, and while I had been back to the UK, worked, planned a trip and then made my way on my own trip for almost four months, Cat had been working on a ranch and was now preparing to leave Australia.

We’d stayed in touch, with the original plan being to possibly meet up and spend some time travelling together, but having changed my New Year plans and deciding to spend more time in southeast Asia, there was no time to do that. Instead, she sent me a message on Skype telling me she was flying out to New Zealand at the end of January.

We cross-checked our tickets – I arrived at 6am on January 30, and Cat left on an afternoon flight on January 31st. Our paths would cross for just a little more than 24 hours, which was barely enough time to catch up, but I was grateful – our flights could quite easily have been different, meaning we’d have missed each other completely by a matter of hours.

The World Square Hostel in Sydney

And so with instructions of where she was staying, I got into the lift at the hostel and made my way to the fourth floor, knocked quietly on the door, and as if by magic, there she was. It was a hushed reunion – the whole dorm was still sleeping, but we spent a good couple of hours talking about our journeys barely above a whisper.

With the sun shining, we headed outside and towards Darling Harbour. I suggested we catch one of the famous ferries around to Circular Quay, the main transport interchange near the Opera House and Harbour Bridge. I also knew from my previous visits that the journey from Darling Harbour offers some of the best views of both famous landmarks, with the bridge framing the Opera House perfectly underneath.

With Cat, just hours after arriving in Australia

It soon began to dawn on me how expensive Australia will prove to be. On my journey so far, anyone I have met who was from the country, or fellow backpackers on their way back to Europe in the opposite direction from Australia, would often talk about how even simple things seem to cost a fortune. Its all to do with the powerful Australian Dollar, largely thanks to the huge exports of raw materials the country can offer developing nations. It means that Australia has largely escaped the global recession, and that anyone travelling from overseas gets drastically hit in the pocket.

After months of paying anything from a few pence to a couple of pounds for public transport in Asia, it comes as a shock when the short boat journey we’d taken cost almost $5 (about £3) My 15 minute train ride from the airport to the city centre in the morning cost over $16 (£10). The same amount of money in Thailand could almost get you down the entire length of the country on a third class overnight train!

It was just a small part of the culture shock that hit me, and in a surprising way. I hadn’t realised just how much I had become used to the organised chaos way of life in Thailand, Vietnam, China et al. Here in Sydney, people were waiting patiently for the green man at pedestrian crossings, rather than just wandering through traffic. Businessmen in smart suits were strolling meaningfully through the streets, everyone seemed to have their eyes fixed on smart phones while walking, so many people were listening to iPods and music.

It even seemed strange to see scores of people jogging around parks and harbours, many on their lunch breaks. Of course, this is normal life, a way of life that back in Hull or London, I wouldn’t think twice about. But suddenly, after months of not seeing any of this orderly, sensible normality, it was incredibly noticeable. I can only wonder what it must feel like to be someone from a developing country who steps into the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s greatest cities for the first time if after just a few months it can begin to feel alien to me. It was a strange sensation, and one Cat had noticed in me. I felt a little spaced out at times, although the jet lag that was creeping up on me may have played a part. Others would just say it was normal for me!

Heading to Circular Quay

We bobbed our way around and under the famous bridge before arriving at Circular Quay and making our way to the Botanical Gardens. Cat spotted some flying foxes hanging from the trees, one of which decided to have a fly around, only to be promptly chased around by some Chinese tourists. After a brief stop for a sit down on some grass in the centre of the gardens, we headed to Mrs Macquarie’s point, an area of the gardens that juts out into the water and offers great views of the harbour.

A Flying Fox, having a kip, obviously

The water was deep blue and crystal clear, and the waves were bouncing off the rocks that lay around the area. We found a spot on one of the larger ones and spent what could well have been hours on it relaxing in the sun, watching the boats and ferries making their way to the beaches, talking about our travel experiences since we last met up and basically pinching ourselves that we’d managed to meet up.

A great spot in Sydney

I’d spent some of my nine hour flight working out the dates of when Cat and I first met in the Zest bar on Hull’s Newland Avenue. It was on a Saturday night after the BBC pantomime – I’d spent the day as Baron Hardup in Cinderella, and probably still had far too much eye liner on than was good for me. Back home, my colleagues were once again treading the boards for this year’s panto which made me check the calendar.

Incredibly, working out dates and time differences, it was about a year to the exact moment that we’d first began chatting, when Cat told me of her travel plans, and how I mentioned that it was something I was considering.

We laughed about what we’d have said if someone had interrupted us that night in Zest to say that in a years’ time we’d both be sitting on rocks on the other side of the world, laughing and joking together with a view of Sydney’s Opera House and Harbour Bridge!

A great place to catch up!

Back in Thailand last year, I’d told Cat about a great little pie place called Harry’s Café De Wheels, somewhere that I’d been to with another friend in my last big visit to Australia seven years ago. I’d actually seen it on a television holiday programme, and it was someone like Ainsley Harriot that had said it was one of the best places they had eaten in the southern hemisphere. Well, Asia isn’t a big lover of pies, and Cat hadn’t been yet, so we decided that was the place to head to for tea.

A pie at Harrys!

It started out as a cart on wheels, feeding the Navy sailors from the nearby Woolloomooloo naval yard, but established itself both in the local neighbourhood and in local folklore. Over the years, countless famous people and celebrities have stopped by for a pie, as proven by the photos plastered on the walls of the small shack. This place was doing amazing pies well before the whole ‘pie’ craze caught on – right through to the careful positioning of mashed potato on the top of the pie, before a little well is formed for the rich, tasty gravy. For anyone reading this who is heading to Sydney, it’s a little out of the way from the main city centre, but its well worth the visit.

Having caught countless hungry eyes from fitness conscious runners who passed by as we were tucking in on the quayside, we headed back towards the city centre and the hostel, where I was introduced to goon, the local cheap wine. It comes in a box, which is removed, and countless silvery foil bags of the stuff can be found in hostel fridges across Australia.

With a beer in the pub costing anything up to around $9 (£5+) going out for a drink is expensive business – too expensive for most European backpackers who are struggling with exchange rates. Instead, for around $10, you can buy a big box of cheap wine. Countless bad headaches are clearly included in the price, and while its never going to rival the best glasses of red or white you’ve ever had, it was, almost, drinkable.

Teresa, Cat and I enjoying lunch in Darling Harbour

The following day was largely spent searching for a pair of the famous Australian Ugg boots for Cat with her friend Teresa, which she then sent home to Hull, before we went for a relaxing lunch in Darling Harbour. While most main courses on menus here hover around the $20-25 mark (£14-18) there are some great lunchtime deals on offer in some places. We opted for a $10 steak and chips deal, which for the equivalent of £6 was actually a fantastic meal. A huge bit of steak that melted in the mouth and perfectly cooked – this could be something to look out for in the future!

That afternoon I went with Cat back to the airport and helped her with her bags. She was heading off to Christchurch, and in just a month’s time, she’ll be heading back home. We’d had a great day together, and we were glad our flights allowed us to at least catch up for a few hours. I’ll always be grateful to Cat for inspiring me to make this trip – if it wasn’t for her, I probably wouldn’t be in Australia right now, and I thanked her for being the kick up the backside I needed to stop me thinking about doing it and to actually book the trip. We gave each other a hug before she walked away waving, and disappeared behind the departure gate screen.

Back at the hostel, it was time to start planning exactly how I’m going to spend my time in Australia. Finances are being squeezed, especially by the living costs. My hostel is setting me back £20 a night for a dorm bed, in stark contrast to the £5 or £6 I was paying just a few days ago. Cat told me about how she worked at a roadhouse in the outback, which provided free accommodation and meals in return for doing some work around the place. It sounded like a solution to my problems, and spent hours scouring the Gumtree website for a place to stay.

Bingo. I found a place in Mount Gambier, South Australia, which was looking for help around the place. I sent off a letter and a few details about me and awaited the response. I then set off to meet Alyssa, one of my tour mates from Asia, who was also in  the city. We chatted over dinner and laughed about all the good times we had on our tour. Its already seems a long time ago!

A catch up with Alyssa in Oz

I went on to have a brilliant couple of days in Sydney, largely down to the fact one of my closest friends from home happened to be working in the city for the week. I’ve known Jack since my university days, even living together for the last year of our studies in Southampton. He’s a brilliant, brilliant guy – he works like an absolute trooper for his own photography business, but its all paying off. He’s winning awards, getting countless magazine and journal spreads and covers and setting the world of hair photography on fire with his style and composition of images.

In the pouring rain with Jack -the smiles say it all!

He was in Sydney to carry out a shoot and meet representatives from one of the world’s largest upmarket hair companies, as well as meeting former editors of some of the world’s leading magazines. Exciting times indeed for him, and a brilliant coincidence that meant we could catch up over lunch.

He made the mistake of saying he’d meet me by Pie Face – a chain of hundreds of pie shops which appear as frequently along the streets as 7-Elevens do in Thailand. Eventually we worked out a meeting point that’s easier to find, at a hotel and bar, and sure enough, the moment I walk around the corner, there he was, arm held aloft from his 6ft 6in frame and walking across the street, complete with big cheesy grin.

We had a manly hug, and laughed. It seemed a bit surreal – Jack was one of the last friends I’d had a proper conversation with on my final night in London, and we had no idea fate would bring the opportunity to meet up halfway through my trip, and on the other side of the world.

For a few hours, we forgot where we were. It was as if he was at my house, or I was in a bar near his north London home. We talked about everything – the travelling, the people I’ve met, how his business was going, life back home. After months of not properly speaking to or seeing any of my close mates, it was brilliant pick-me-up. While there’s no doubt the last few months have been incredible, there are still moments where you think of and miss everyone back home. And when its one of your closest mates, complete with all the banter and laughter we bring out in each other, it really does lift spirits.

Jack was struggling too, mainly because he was still operating on British time thanks to having just six days in the city. For those who haven’t met him, he’s by far the tallest person I know, so naturally I asked how he found the 26-hour flight.

“Brutal,” was his summary, in one word.

He told me how he’d paid for extra legroom, only to be stuck in a seat next to toilets and the galley on the flight, therefore ensuring he got next to no sleep for the entire duration of the flight with him being knocked and bashed by all and sundry in the aisle next to him. Naturally, I cracked up as his exasperated face told more of the story than any words could ever do justice.

Jack bought me lunch – yet another steak special – and we agreed to meet again for a few hours the following day in between his meetings.

The weather had well and truly turned. Infact, in the five days since I arrived in Sydney, only my first day had been dry and sunny.

“I take great pleasure in the fact that you chose this year, the wettest on record for Sydney, to spend summer in Australia,” Jack laughed in typical fashion when I meet him in pouring rain the following day.

I laughed back, and told him it was all about to change in time for me to enjoy some sun at the end of the Aussie summer.

We spent some time buying gifts for the family he had been staying with, while he also came back with me to have a look inside the hostel. Jack did a lot of travelling in his younger years (quite a while ago now!) and his stories of times around the world would fascinate me while at university. He also encouraged me to travel to America to work on a summer camp for the summer after my studies, something that would turn out to be one of the best things I’d ever done as far as opening eyes and doors on the world.

We stopped for coffee and cake before we had to say goodbye. In a few hours, Jack would be back on another 26-hour flight home via Hong Kong, hopefully being nudged, bashed and bumped into for the entire duration yet again. I took a lot of pleasure in reminding him of the “brutal” journey he yet again has to endure, but I was also sad to see him go.

Most people when they set off on round the world trips wave goodbye to close friends on home soil. Yet, by chance, I’d been able to catch up with Cat and spend some quality time with Jack in the middle of my trip. It had perked me up, and made me feel much more at home in Sydney than I could have imagined. I walked back to the hostel, a broad smile across my face, and feeling ready for Australia.

I got back to the hostel and checked my email – the roadhouse had got back to me and asked me to give them a call. Could I be outback bound?