Island Life

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

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

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

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

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

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

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

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

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

Refuel stop on the road

Refuel stop on the road

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

Necocli

Necocli

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hungry dogs

Hungry dogs

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

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

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

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

Bags, bagged

Bags, bagged

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

 

 

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

Fast

Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

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

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

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

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

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

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

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

In search of a new life

In search of a new life

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

Boots of all sizes

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

Walking through the village

Walking through the village

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

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

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

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

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

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

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

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

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

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

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

Border police drugs checks

Border police drugs checks

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

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

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

First stop

First stop

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

Kuna village

Kuna village

Kuna life

Kuna life

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

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

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

The shower

The shower

Shower time!

Shower time!

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

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

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

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

A few green faces…and big smiles too!

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

Bobbing around

Bobbing around

Engine fixed

Engine fixed

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

Monkeying around

Monkeying around

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

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

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

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Say cheese!

Say cheese!

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

A storm sets in

A storm sets in

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

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

Huge lobster dinner

Huge lobster dinner

A great group

A great group

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

 

 

Back in the Bunks

Bogota to Cartagena

“Have you just got here?”

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

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

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

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

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

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

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

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

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

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

El Viajero hostel

El Viajero hostel

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

Home for a few days

Home for a few days

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

Shower...without a warm tap!

Shower…without a warm tap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Cartagena

Colourful Cartagena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine minute millionaire!

Nine minute millionaire!

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

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

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

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

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

Wonderful. Get me to the beach.

Up high in Bogota

 

Up high in Bogota

Up high in Bogota

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

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

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

First views of South America

First views of South America

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

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

Attentive taxi driver

Attentive taxi driver

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

Three across...ends in EZ?

Three across…ends in EZ?

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

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

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

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Bolivar Square, Bogota, Colombia

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

Dancing in the streets for all ages

Dancing in the streets for all ages

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

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

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

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

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

Chocolate completo

Chocolate completo

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

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

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

Does my famous face look big in this?!

Does my famous face look big in this?!

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

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

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

Cerro de Monserrate

Cerro de Monserrate

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

Cable car to the top

Cable car to the top

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

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

Street art in Bogota

Street art in Bogota

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

Bogota from above

Bogota from above

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

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Mountains behind Bogota

Mountains behind Bogota

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

Funicular railway station

Funicular railway station

Going down!

Going down!

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

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

BBC beer

BBC beer

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

 

A Miami Slice

Lifting off from Heathrow, Miami-bound

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

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

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

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

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

And then see it as a great opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty plane = cheapskate upgrade!

Empty plane = cheapskate upgrade!

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

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

Ooh, snazzy lighting. American colours, of course

Ooh, snazzy lighting. American colours, of course

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

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

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

First glimpse of Miami and the famous beaches

First glimpse of Miami and the famous beaches

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

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

My Airbnb room in Miami

My Airbnb room in Miami

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

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

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

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

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Nearing the stop on the South Beach Express

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

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

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

A cat refuge

A cat refuge

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

Miranda and one of the cats shes helping

Miranda and one of the cats shes helping

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

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

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

Rainbow over the lifeguard huts on Miami beach

Rainbow over the lifeguard huts on Miami beach

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

Dipping the toes in!

Dipping the toes in!

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

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

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

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

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

Lincoln Mall

Lincoln Mall

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

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

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

Miranda and one of the cats she looks after

Miranda and one of the cats she looks after

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

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

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

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

A Giant Drive to the Windy City

Reflecting on a long drive in Chicago

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

Route 66 – and its replacement alongside

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

The Ariston, one of the oldest restaurants on Route 66

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

Stepping back in time

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

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

Atlanta’s old Greyhound stop

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

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

Big man and a big sausage

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

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

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

With Stacy, my gift and a famous sign!

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

Mixing it with the truckers in McLean

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

Mean machines at Dixies

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

Gemini Giant

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

At the wheel into Chicago

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

The Sears Tower guiding us in

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

Some serious miles are clocking up!

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

We made it to Chicago!

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

A dip (of the toe!) in Lake Michigan

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

The Bean

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

Weird reflections

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

Big bean

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

A storm brews over the Windy City

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

Thunderbolts and lightning…very, very frightning!

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

Grub up, under a shelter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Officially at the other end of Route 66!

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

View from the former Sears Tower

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

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

Sitting on top of the city!

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

Vertigo, anyone?!

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

Ian on the Ledge

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

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

Getting Our Kicks On Route 66

The start of the Grand Canyon

Five hundred miles into the world’s greatest road trip, and already the landscape that surrounds the western end of America’s Route 66 has provided plenty to smile about.

From the swaying palm trees of LA, the baron plains of the Nevada desert and the bright lights of Las Vegas, its been an exciting few days – and today gave us perhaps one of the most spectacular natural features on Earth to look at.

The Grand Canyon was a must-do for us, despite time being against us if we are to reach our goal of the East Coast within six days. Its one of the planet’s most powerful and inspiring landscapes, created completely by Mother Nature, and somewhere I have always wanted to visit. There was no way it was going to be missed off the trip for the sake of the extra five hours it would take to make the detour.

Lake Mead comes into view

But first there was a wonder of another kind to visit, and this time its one of a manmade variety. The Hoover Dam is just 30 miles south of Vegas, and is one of the world’s greatest engineering feats. It pauses the Colorado River in its tracks, provides irrigation, helps prevent flooding and enables a huge swathe of the western United States to draw power from the phenomenal power of water.

The magnificent Hoover Dam

Built between 1931 and 1936, 21,000 workers helped construct the huge dam. It came at a huge cost, both financially and in human life – more than 100 people died during the building phase. Its sweeping, arched wall rises 726.4 feet from the base, topped off with what was once the main road between Las Vegas and Phoenix. Now, a new bypass goes over a breathtaking bridge which links both sides of the deep canyon. Its known as the Colorado River Bridge, and takes traffic across with both sides blanked off to prevent motorists becoming distracted by the impressive dam that dominates the view from whichever angle you look at it.

Passing under the huge new bypass bridge

And as we passed underneath the mammoth bridge to our right, the huge dam came into view on the left. At first it didn’t seem as huge as I remember from looking at photos or watching it take a starring role in the Transformers movie, but then I could only see a tiny part of it from the passenger seat of our Ford Fusion.

First glimpse of the dam

After parking up the car and stepping into the searing desert heat, we walked down to the road and along the top of the dam. It was surprising how low the wall was which separates the walkway from the sheer drop down the entire side of the structure to the pumping and generator stations at the bottom. Around them, the water visibly swirls as millions of gallons of H2O makes its way through the pipes and turbines at up to 85mph, generating up to 2,080 megawatts in the process, before reforming into the Colorado River and ultimately making its way towards the coast. There are 17 huge turbines, providing an annual power output of around 4 billion Kilowatt-hours to cities as far away as Los Angeles.

A long way down

The dam is also where two states meet, with clocks on the main inlet towers showing the local time for both Nevada and the neighbouring Arizona. At the centre of the dam, a plaque marking how it is officially classed as a modern wonder of the United States. The point offers perhaps the best view of Lake Mead, America’s largest reservoir created as a result of the dam being built. It was clear how the drought in the area had taken hold, with a white deposit on the rock faces, a bit like a bathtub mark left behind by minerals, showing the usual level of the water.

Lake Mead. Dam it.

It led me to think about what would happen if there was a sustained period of heavy rainfall, and the water level was to rise above the watermark to the height of the dam. Apparently, an overflow system, known as spillways, have been built into the design, a bit like the little overflow hole you find in sinks to stop you flooding the bathroom. Obviously, its on a slightly bigger scale, with millions of gallons of water being allowed to flow through special channels to bypass the dam. The system has only been used twice apparently, and that’s probably a good thing – the force of water gushing through the world’s biggest overflow pipe apparently wrecks the concrete and rock linings inside, leading to a fairly hefty patch up job afterwards.

It took five years to build the colossal structure, and when finished, the Hoover Dam stood as the largest electric-power generating site in the world, as well as the largest structure made out of concrete. Its an amazing thought when looking from above that what we were standing on contained enough concrete to build a road from San Francisco to New York, a fairly hefty six and a half million tonnes of the stuff.

Behind the dam

After an hour of wandering around the top of the dam, marvelling at the work that had clearly gone on many years ago to design and build it within the rock formations around it, it was time to move on. We left the car park and drove along the road across the top of the structure, thinking it would lead us out and away, only to come to a dead end.

The Colorado River continues on its way…as do we

“Oh well, I can say I drove across it as well as walked it,” joked Ian, looking for a place to turn around. We’d momentarily crossed into Arizona, but were soon saying hello to Nevada again as we searched for the road to take us across the new bridge and on towards the Grand Canyon.

To make up a bit of time, we cheated a little. Of course, the old Route 66 isn’t recognised anymore, with the road being declassified, but the giant Interstate system which took over does closely follow the old route. Infact, parts of it were built over the old 66, and for the hundreds of miles in the West until we reach Oklahoma, the Interstate 40 follows the old roadway, frequently crossing or going under the motorway of yesteryear. It means we can make up time by nipping on and off the Interstate to visit places of interest along the way, such as the countless small towns and villages that came into existence purely because of the through trade given to them by the 66.

Former Route 66 town

One of them was the town of Seligman, halfway between Vegas and the Grand Canyon, and so a great little place for us to break our journey, stretch our legs and take in a bit of nostalgia. It has the feel of a town whose heyday was a long time ago, yet is still dining out on its Route 66 past. There is an abnormally high number of shops and stores, still plying for the trade afforded to them by people like Ian and I, who have stopped off to have a look at what the R66 towns used to be like.

Its as if many of the store owners set out to have theirs as the quirkiest, most photographed outlet in the town, with anything from wacky signs to half an aircraft fastened to the wooden cladding and beams. On one building, a mileage chart showing how there was still 1,737 miles to go before we reach Chicago in a few days time. Right now, in the intense heat and dust of the Arizona desert, the Windy City seems a long way off.

Seligman

We stopped for a couple of drinks and snacks at one of the shops, opting to give them some of the trade they seem to so desperately need, as opposed to the countless multinational petrol stations dotted along the Interstates.

A quick breather!

It was another two hours of driving along endless straight roads through deserts and very flat scrubland before we reached the south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park, pulling up at a window with a very cheery park ranger and handing over the $25 admission fee. The road carried on to a car park, full of campervans and other motorists from across the States and as far afield as Argentina.

Heading to the Grand Canyon

We followed signs to Mather Point, which apparently gave a view of the canyon. I say apparently, because up to now there has been no sign at all that we were anywhere but a flat part of the Arizona countryside. With mountains, you get to see the land changing, gradually getting more and more mountainous. When you approach a major river, more often than not you’ll get a glimpse of it somewhere as you get nearby. A volcano usually has a conical appearance that you can see miles away – you get the picture. Here, there was nothing.

Breathtaking

Nothing, that is, until you reach a railing and some trees. That’s where the ground, terra firma, the rock I am standing on, just falls down to a mile below me. A huge expanse of the Earth’s crust appears to be missing, instead creating a strange, sub-ground level mountain range. As holes in the ground go, this one is certainly something to behold. I was in awe. Most people I had spoken to who have visited this huge crack in the ground had all told me the same, that is something hard to understand. It was certainly the case.

The Grand Canyon

My head was struggling to work out exactly what was going on in front of me. It was telling me I was at the top of some sort of mountain, looking out over a range below me, yet I had not climbed any mountains nor noticeably gained any altitude. Instead, far, far below and in the distance, the sun was glinting off the surface of a river, the Colorado River, and the creator of this incredible natural wonder.

Ian and I taking in the view

It’s the mind blowing scale of the Grand Canyon that has the effect on anyone who visits. Walking to a pinnacle that juts out just enough to enable you to look straight down into the bowels of the earth, I looked out ahead of me. Across the other side of the canyon, the north rim, some 10 miles away as the crow flies, but what would require a drive of more than 200 miles to reach by road.

The giant scale is pretty hard to show…

I couldn’t stop looking out, trying to comprehend the scale of what sprawled out in front of me. It was one of those moments when, as a mere human being and as a guest on the planet, you can feel very, very small and insignificant. A bit like when you try to get your head around how many stars and potential for other planets there are in the Universe, this was something that can almost mess with your mind.

Colorado River flows far, far below

Thankfully, there was plenty of information on hand to explain how a giant crack can seemingly appear in the surface of the earth the way it has. In a nutshell, its all down to the way the plates that form the Earth moved together, creating the layers of different rock, which were then cut away by the eroding force of the river over millions of years.

Shadowlands

But the information can just baffle your mind even more, like the fact that the rock you can see in the lower layers can be up to 1,840 million years old. Hard to get your head around the time involved.

Driving further along the south rim afforded us more spectacular views of the Grand Canyon, and as we progressed a few miles east, the valley widened slightly to give more expansive views of the river which over the millions of years before has cut its way through the rock.

A bit close to the edge!

With the sun beginning to get lower in the sky, we knew time was getting on and we still had the most substantial part of the drive ahead of us.

The sun begins to set over the Canyon

We thought we’d be on our way by the mid afternoon, but as we’re finding along the way, sometimes the journey can take a lot longer than planned. There was a growing concern we might struggle to make it across to the east coast in the timeframe we’d set, and so we knew we had some long stretches of driving ahead to make up time. But we said farewell to the Grand Canyon and watched through the window as the Arizona landscape showed us the start of the fantastic feature, with the canyon stretching out like veins across the surface. Memorable.

A good view of the Colorado River on the way out

We set off towards the Interstate, aiming to reach a point of interest marked on our map as ‘Meteor Crater’. Now, its not everyday you get to see a meteor crater, and with two blokes on a road trip, of course we had to go and see it. We were determined to get to see it before darkness fell completely, but by the time we reached Flagstaff, still some 40 miles away from said crater, the sun was rapidly disappearing over the horizon. But still we pressed on, arriving at the turn off with just about enough light to see over the surrounding fields. Unfortunately, it was also a quiet country road at about the right time of the evening for the local rabbits to be out and about looking for dinner.

Never tired of views like this

Sadly, one of them, a young looking little thing, went looking for food far too close to the front of my oncoming car. I could see there was a brief moment of confusion from the animal, a fleeting thought of ‘left or right’ before making the fatal mistake of trying to run back to where it had come from. Bad move.

With a thud, it disappeared underneath me. I immediately put my head in my hands on the steering wheel, trying to see in my wing mirror if by some miracle the rabbit had made it out of the back without being squashed by a wheel. I couldn’t see. I felt awful.

I know that from time to time, these things happen – after all, I never set out to be a rabbit killer. But I love animals, and its always hard knowing something has just met its end thanks to me. Unless it’s a wasp or a mosquito, because they don’t count.

We continued following the signs to the meteor crater, with Ian telling me not to worry about the rabbit. By now, its getting properly dark, and arriving at the gates to the crater, the place had closed an hour earlier anyway. We did, however, get to see the outline of the mound of earth created by the impact. Whether the view was worth the life of a poor baby rabbit was debateable. We turned around and headed back to the Interstate.

“Now just go careful, we don’t want any more casualties,” Ian joked as we set off back in the opposite direction along the single lane road, knowing we’d probably have to pass a horrible mess in the road that I had created.

“Knowing my luck, I’ll wipe out mum as she’s out investigating where her little Johnny has got himself to,” I joked.

It was a joke I was I hadn’t made. Approaching around the same point that I had wiped out baby bunny, suddenly a large grey figure jumped out of the bushes to the right of the road, about five metres in front of me. There was no time to react.

Thud.

“Woah, there goes another one,” laughed Laingy in his brilliant Aussie accent.

I have to admit, I laughed with him, mainly out of surprise at the chances of such a coincidence happening. I felt, and still feel, dreadful about what happened, but there was genuinely nothing I could have done. And now, according to Laingy, I’m a rabbit serial killer.

We stopped at a Dennys a few miles down the road, mainly to eat but to also inspect the car for any damage. Thankfully there wasn’t any, and we tucked into a huge meal. We’d originally planned to reach New Mexico by the end of the day, staying around Albuquerque, but progress was slow thanks to our sightseeing. Time was getting on, and we’d eaten far too much, yet again underestimating American portions. Ian came up with a great idea.

“Shall we just stay somewhere around here, have an early night and get away early in the morning?”

I agreed, and we found ourselves a motel in Winslow, Arizona. Tomorrow will be a very long day of driving.

Viva Las Vegas

Meeting my mate Ian in Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Ian – Mustang Laingy – in Las Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Monica Pier

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

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

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

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

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

Tribute to Route 66 at the end of Santa Monica pier

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Monica Boulevard

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

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

Aeroplane boneyard in the Mojave

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

Scores of planes doing nothing

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

Mojave Airport

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

The famous Rotary Rocket on display at Mojave

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

Cruising through the desert

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

Watching the sun go down in the West, behind me

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

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

Driving into Vegas

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

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

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

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

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

Joining the jam with a view

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

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

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

It was quite a spectacle outside!

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

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

I’ve arrived!

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

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

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

Erm, this could be a squeeze

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

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

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

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

And out everyone gets!

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

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

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

We’re in! Vegas pool party!

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

Bright light city gonna get my soul…

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

Following Mustang Laingy down the Vegas freeway

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

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

Brilliant rooms for peanuts

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Strip

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

Film-set feel to malls in Caesar’s Palace

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

Vegas -it even has curly escalators!

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

And they sing on the gondolas too!

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

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

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

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

The Stratosphere, my home for the final night in Vegas

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

Bellagio by night

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

Famous fountain fun

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

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

The Volcano erupts

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

Driving along the Vegas strip

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

Backpacking…Vegas style!

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

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

One of the casinos

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

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

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

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

California Dreaming

Hello Hollywood

Los Angeles – home to Hollywood, the most famous people in the world, playground of the rich and the birthplace of American cinema.

It’s the showbiz and glamour capital of the world, so it was only right that I spent my final night in Fiji with an acclaimed surfer, bikini model and filmmaker.

It wasn’t quite how you are thinking – she had kindly let me jump into her private taxi to the airport at Nadi after I, as usual, left things too late to get there in public transport.

For once, I had a decent excuse, having spent around half an hour searching for my camera that had managed to go missing from the resort reception, where staff were supposed to be keeping an eye on it while the battery charged. I was quickly sent into a mild panic when I returned from a shower to find just the charger beside the sofa where I had left it.

After much searching, hunting through my bags, shrugged shoulders from the security bloke who had been sat in the reception area the entire time, and almost a resignation that someone had helped themselves to my camera so close to the end of my trip, it mysteriously appeared again behind the reception counter.

Quite what was going on I don’t know, but with the time approaching 6.30pm, a two hour drive to the airport, and a flight to America leaving at 10pm, complete with a recommended three hour check in, it didn’t take much for me to work out I was suddenly cutting it far too fine. That’s when I met Alison, who for much of the afternoon I had seen draping herself over the hammocks on the beach while her friend took photos. I’d presumed they were making some kind of publicity shots for the Beachouse, but it turned out they were working for the man who makes the hammocks.

With Alison and Sarah at Nadi airport

With just $24 remaining in my wallet, after barely eating anything aside from free provisions in an attempt to save myself from taking any more cash out from a machine, I knew $15 would be needed for a public minibus back to the airport. But with barely enough time to catch one, I was pointed in the direction of the two girls who were busy loading tonnes of stuff into a taxi.

“I don’t suppose I can get a lift to the airport with you guys could I? How much is it?” I asked.

I was told it had set them back $120, so explained my situation and offered all I had in my wallet.

“Oh sure, just jump in its no problem,” she said cheerily.

It turned out they are both working on a freelance basis, as a model and photographer, specialising in some incredible surfing and underwater photography. It included promotional shots for Mojo Surf in Byron Bay, Australia, where I learnt to surf, and we talked about Adsy and the guys there I got to know in the couple of days I spent with them in the water. The girls dabble in journalism too, and both have websites that are well worth checking out here and here.

We spent the entire journey talking about our travels and line of work, looking at photos they had taken and finding out how they were managing to travel around from job to job, keeping costs and living expenses to a minimum. It was an exciting lifestyle, and one I could have talked about for hours, but sadly they were catching a flight back to their homes in Hawaii.

“Look, don’t worry about the fare, we’d have had to pay it anyway. Keep the money in your pocket and get yourself something to eat in departures,” Alison said as we arrived at Nadi’s international terminal. I tried my best to at least give her a few dollars, but she wouldn’t accept it. It was a lovely gesture, and yet again another example of the kindness you can find from complete strangers when you’re in a tricky situation far from home.

We had photos together before saying goodbye, promising to check out each others blogs when we find time. I left them as they made their way to the Air Pacific check in desk with the hope of avoiding another bill of more than $1,000 in excess baggage that they had been stung with on the outbound flight.

The next leg

And so I made my way to the Los Angeles check-in desk for the longest flight of my entire trip, a 10 hour journey across the Pacific Ocean and the date line to the west coast of America. My original plan was to tour the west coast, going as far north as San Francisco, before flying from LA to New York to see friends and then back home at the end of July. But then I had the brainwave of ending my travels with something special, eyeing up how much of the globe I had travelled overland, and thinking about how great it would be to drive from coast to coast across America.

Route 66, the Pacific to the Atlantic, more than 2,400 miles along America’s ‘mother road’ to Chicago and then over to the east coast. Its the stuff of dreams for any petrolhead, and I grew to think of it as a fitting finale to an epic adventure. I even had my friend Ian, from Melbourne, and who I met 10 years ago while working on a children’s summer camp in New York, interested in the idea. With just about enough funds, it was a goer.

Stupidly, however, I managed to forget it was my dad’s 60th birthday on July 21, and had an awkward conversation a couple of months back where I had a slightly upset father who believed I’d snubbed him for an extra week on my trip. I had to explain myself and how I’d thought he was only 59 this year – well, he does look good for his age (I know he reads this!)  – and being out of the loop on the other side of the world, events back home had passed me by.

With my sister Amy working for travel company Thomson in Cape Verde, dad told me how he wanted us all to be together for a week over his birthday. His idea was for us all to fly out to the island on July 19 for a week of sun, fun and relaxation together. It would be the first time in around two years we will have all been together, and a fitting way for us all to spend his birthday together.

The upshot of all this was that I had to shave some time off the end of my travels to get home earlier. I had to juggle around my plans to get back to the UK in time for the flight, meaning I am now flying out of New York on July 17. To do this, Fiji was cut from two weeks to six days, my time in the States was reduced by a week, and it would mean less time with my best mate Dan, wife Denise and my godson Nathanial in Connecticut before my flight back to London.

I was determined to still do everything I had planned, however, even if it did mean keeping to yet another tight schedule. I worked out the road trip of a lifetime was still possible, and my overland adventures that have become a bit of a theme of my journey would continue.

Big bird

I boarded the Air Pacific jumbo jet at Nadi knowing that as well as flying substantially closer to home, I was about to become a time traveller. The quirk about going fully around the world is that you gain time when you cross the International Date Line in the Pacific Ocean. It means you don’t lose any travel time, and even stranger, you arrive in America before you have even set off for the airport.

Touchdown in LA – before i’d even left my Fiji beach!

My 10pm flight from Fiji on the Tuesday landed at Los Angeles International Airport at 2pm on the same Tuesday afternoon. It would mean a single day lasting a staggering 42 hours, and with only a little sleep on the flight, I arrived in America with that horrible zombie feeling.

Nice wheels

Worse still, arriving at the Budget car hire centre at LAX, I had yet more problems with my bank thanks to the ongoing restrictions HSBC have put on my account after assessing I was potentially a victim of card cloning. With a £200 limit on transactions in any 24 hour period, the £400 hold that the hire company needed to take from my account wouldn’t go through. Neither would they let me ring the bank from the office to get them to authorise the transaction. Instead, it was a search for some free wifi at the hotel across the road, where yet again Skype got me out of a sticky situation.

“We’ve given you a complimentary upgrade,” said the assistant behind the counter before directing me to a parking spot outside.

And there it was. Gleaming white, sparkling in the California sun, and a lot bigger than the budget economy car I had booked for the trans-America drive. It’s a Ford Fusion, and for the next two weeks, it will become home for Ian and I as we make our way east.

Finally got wheels!

Ian doesn’t fly in from Melbourne for a couple of days, and we’d agreed to meet in Las Vegas, so for the first few days I was on my own. One of the advantages of having a car is that I’ll be able to get around so much easier for the next few days, but more than that, it means the days of lugging all my belongings around on my back are finally over. Most of my bags will be able to stay in the boot of the car, meaning after more than eight months of wandering streets with my entire belongings strapped to me, my back can finally get a rest

California plates

I stepped inside the car, put the air conditioning on full blast, and tentatively slipped the automatic gearbox into drive, inching my way out of the car park and onto the streets of LA. Being a fairly regular visitor to the States, I quickly got the hang of driving on the roads again, and headed to a McDonalds (where else?!) for some free wifi, booking myself into a backpacker motel near the airport.

It was a slightly strange place, with its fair share of odd people, but with a pool, free breakfast and dinner, unlimited coffee and wifi, all for just £12 a night, it was too good to turn down. I booked in for three nights, dumped some belongings and set off to explore the city.

My hostel/motel…and a plane going to nearby LAX.

And what a city it was. My first night I spent getting my bearings, working out the Interstate system and how to get around to the various famous parts of LA. I headed to the beaches, to find hundreds of people preparing for Independence Day with bonfires and beers. The famous Venice and Santa Monica beaches and resorts were thriving with people enjoying the start of the holiday period. There was very much a relaxed atmosphere about the city.

Beach bonfires for July 4

It left me with my own problem about what to do for Independence Day, a day when America can celebrate all that is good about being, well, American. I searched the internet and narrowed it down to a couple of options to experience the day. It was either a night at the LA Bowl for some kind of America-fest, with what was described as the most patriotic night and the most spectacular fireworks in California. Or there was a baseball game between the LA Dodgers and Cincinnati Reds. I could get a cheap ticket online, and was just about to book, when another sporting fixture flashed up on my screen. It was for LA Galaxy, home to David Beckham.

Now, I’ve not had much luck when it comes to watching one of England’s greatest ever players in action in the flesh. I missed opportunities when he was playing back home, and so thought I would get the chance to see him play when I watched Real Madrid take on Espanyol at the Bernabeu a few years back. Unfortunately, he managed to get injured again just before the game, and while it will always go down as one of the most exciting games of football I have ever seen – a dramatic last minute 4-3 win that saw Real go top and win the La Liga as a result – I resigned myself to the fact I would probably never get to see Becks play in person.

So, thanks to a $70 ticket being offered for just $19 online, and free Independence Day fireworks afterwards, my mind was made up. I would spend the night celebrating US independence from British rule by watching the most American of sports. Soccer, or football to give it the proper name.

Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Before that however I had my sights set on seeing possibly the most famous sign in the world, in perhaps one of the most famous neighbourhoods in the world. The Hollywood sign in, erm, Hollywood.

While picking up the car keys from my room, I said a quick hello to a tall lad with glasses, who asked if I was going to the beach. I told him I wasn’t, but was off to explore LA.

“I’m on my way to Hollywood, for a look around. You’re welcome to come along if you fancy the ride out,” I said, expecting him to say no.

Instead, he said he’d love to. His name was Tommy, who it turned out was quite a quiet bloke and who was slightly awkward to keep conversation flowing with, but he was nice enough and it was company for a few hours. He was from Washington state, and in LA searching for work in IT. Yet he had lived in LA for years, and had never been to visit the famous sign in the Hollywood Hills.

The streets of Hollywood

“I can’t help but laugh at the irony of an English bloke, on Independence Day, taking an American bloke to go and see one of his country’s most famous sights,” I laughed as we climbed the dusty pathway towards the huge white letters.

The sign was one of the sights I had been most looking forward to seeing in this part of America. It is something we have all been brought up with, and a sign we see thousands of times, usually without realising in cinema and television. Interestingly, it was erected in 1923 and originally said “Hollywoodland”, the main purpose to advertise the name of a new housing development in the Santa Monica hills. But for whatever reason, the sign was left up and became something of a novelty.

Hullywod

The sign isn’t the original, however. By the 1970s, that had fallen into a state of disrepair, and while various pranks have been played over the year where letters have been rearranged or covered up, the sign, having bits of letters broken or missing, once actually read “Hullywod”.

We came across a steep side track, where two guys were scrambling up to another path. We followed, eventually catching them up. I got talking to one, wearing a red shirt, who was called Justin. They were visiting the city from another part of America, and were excited about getting so close to the sign.

The track ended up on a former road that winds its way up the hillside, towards a communications mast at the top. At this point we still couldn’t see the sign, despite approaching the peak of the hill. We did, however, come across yet another dusty track to our right. We followed it, climbing up another rocky pathway and discovering a plaque dedicated to Hugh Hefner, clearly his favourite lookout over Los Angeles which sprawled out to the horizon in front of us.

Amazing views of downtown LA

To our left, we could see a fence, and just a few metres below us, the giant ‘H’ that starts what is probably the most famous sign in the world.

“Lets go down there and touch it, I’ve always wanted to do that,” said Justin, who we’ve only just met.

I wasn’t too sure what the legal situation was when it comes to approaching the sign, but there seemed to be a worn track down the hillside towards the six-storey high letters so presumed it must be ok to get a closer look. But then my conscience got the better of me, after all, there was a fairly hefty steel fence along the side of the road that I had somehow found myself on the wrong side of.

So close to the sign

In the distance I could see some form of warning sign, and a security camera that was pointing in our direction. Call me a chicken, but I decided the risk of arrest wasn’t quite worth touching the huge white metal letters.

Hmmm

Besides, I quite like America, and a ban on visiting the country after a spell of bird for touching one of their icons would be really annoying.

So I turned around and headed back for the relative safety behind the fence, watching Justin and his friend make their way down to the sign and touching it, making a metallic sound that echoed around the hilltop. They made their way up, laughing and joking about their achievement, and leaving me regretting not making the descent with them.

Back on the right side of the fence!

Then we all saw a police or ranger van pull up at a bridge far below, blocking one of the return tracks to the car park. Justin and his mate decided that they had better leave on a separate route, and took a trail through the bush back down to the bottom. Tommy and I made our way around the normal way – after all, we had done nothing wrong.

I will never know if the other two got arrested, as the last time I saw them they were stumbling down a rocky path, but I do know more about security at the sign having looked it up on the internet. As well as banks of CCTV cameras that I could see at the top, the sign is also equipped with motion sensors and infra red devices. Once they are triggered, the LAPD helicopter is automatically dispatched, and people are usually yelled at from a loudspeaker onboard and promptly arrested at the bottom of the hill. I’m just glad I didn’t take the risk!

Looking out for rattlers on the way!

After spending most of the afternoon looking out over LA and at nine huge white letters, I headed back to the hostel to drop Tommy off with a long drive down the Sunset Strip and along Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard to the main interstate. It doesn’t quite feel real to be driving along such famous streets, but the plush gated houses along both sides of the road in these incredible neighbourhoods are a reminder that the world’s rich and famous call these streets their home.

Driving along some familiar roads

Speaking of rich and famous, it was time to travel to the Home Depot Center Stadium to watch David Beckham in action for LA Galaxy. The stadium was smaller than I imagined, and it was festooned with Beckham memorabilia and photos, while almost everyone wearing a Galaxy shirt had his named emblazoned on their backs.

With Robbie Keane at the Home Depot Center Stadium

He really has become something of a cult hero over here, as well as back home. I arrived just in time to see the teams come out onto the pitch, amid much American fanfare and waving of flags. Fireworks were launched from the pitch, and everyone stood for the national anthem. A Saturday afternoon game at Blundell Park for Grimsby Town versus Fleetwood this was not.

After scouring websites for team news, checking out injury pages, even looking at the David Beckham fan sites to check he hadn’t been dropped or injured before the game, I looked for the familiar figure on the pitch. Except he wasn’t there. I checked the bench. No Beckham either. Others around me were asking the same question, including the family next to me who had turned up especially to see him.

Beckham no-show

“The same thing happened to me in Madrid a couple of years back,” I told them, before being accused of being the bad omen for the night.

And I was – despite my checks and research, Beckham had been banned after picking up a yellow card in the previous match. Instead, I sat through one of the most boring games of football I have ever witnessed (quite a statement from a Grimsby fan!) where even the likes of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan failed to impress.

Robbie Keane taking the kick-off

In addition, sitting with American fans while watching the sport is a completely different experience to anything back home. It seems the actual action on the pitch is just a side show – the main reason for people attending the game is to try and eat and drink as much as possible within the 90 minutes of play. I swear some people see it as a challenge. A couple in front of me brought an entire coolbag full of pre-prepared meats, salads, bread and pasta. A full evening meal, to eat while watching football from the stands.

Candy Floss…can see that going down well in the Pontoon

And you can forget a meat pie and a pint here – it was all about candy floss, churros, nachos and hot dogs. Basically, baseball meets football, America meets England and everyone leaves the ground three stone heavier than when they went in.

Their keeper was a bit of a dinosaur

On top of all that, and not content with the action on the pitch, the crowd tries to entertain themselves too. At half time, a dinosaur came onto the pitch (I know Beckham is getting old, but that’s not me being funny – it really was a dinosaur) and families had to shoot the ball past the dinosaur to win tickets to some theme park. Kiss cam came on the big screen, forcing some of California’s most hideous couples to smooch in front of thousands, and in the process making far too many people gag on their nachos.

Blurgh

Then someone came out and launched t-shirts into the crowd. There was some kind of ‘lucky seat’ game that meant everyone had to search under their chair for a golden ticket. Then a row of people in front of me started jumping around after being chosen as the ‘lucky row’ to appear on screen and win something free (probably food related).

In addition to all of that, while the game was going on, one section behind the goal was constantly making noise thanks to being orchestrated by a man in a pit with a loud speaker, along with much arm swinging, chanting and the odd rhythmic ‘dee-fense cha cha cha’, the sound of which just makes me baulk at the abuse of our national sport.

Loudspeaker man. An idea for Blundell Park?!

I did, however, see the reasoning behind the loudspeaker man – without him, the atmosphere would have been deathly. Even the family next to me admit that Americans simply don’t know how to behave at the ‘soccer’. They don’t know whether to just stay quiet and eat (which on the whole they do) or let their inhibitions go a bit and cheer for their team.

Instead, they have many failed attempts at a Mexican wave, that old chestnut that was once common in the Eighties but probably hasn’t been seen at a football ground back home since, well, about the Eighties.

Glittery confetti for scoring a goal

Eventually they got it going, and I admit, I joined in. It wasn’t because I wanted to, or because there was peer pressure to join in with the Americans around me, who, by now, had embraced their English visitor who could explain all the rules and give stories of football across the pond. It was simply because it was something to do, and it took my mind off the banal game in front of me. It was either that, or buy something else to eat and drink. Perhaps we see part of the problem here.

The Beckhamless Galaxy went behind in the first half thanks to a weak goal by their Philadelphia counterparts, before levelling in the second half with a goal that sent everyone wild in the stands. There was even blue and silver confetti launched from the top of the stand that fluttered down on everyone to mark the momentous occasion.

Independence Day fireworks

They went on to lose by conceding a stupid and sloppy injury time goal, which left everyone heading to the nearest burger stand for a final feed before taking their seats again to sing ‘God bless America’ and ‘Born in the USA’ en masse while thousands of dollars worth of fireworks went up in smoke above one of the stands.

The smoke starts to take a starring role

It would have been a great display if someone had worked out which way the wind – and therefore the smoke-  was blowing and planned accordingly. Instead, after half an hour of obscured flashes and flames, everyone headed out to the car park and joined a queue for the interstate.

I, meanwhile, headed back to the car with the knowledge it probably was, now, the last chance I will have to see Mr Beckham bend it on a pitch in person. I did see Frank Lampard and his missus in the ground, apparently meeting Becks to watch the game, but that was as close as I got to seeing a free kick expert in action on the night.

Back out in the famous neighbourhoods

I had a couple of visits to Hollywood Boulevard during my time in this famous part of America, enjoying a couple of strolls along the Walk of Fame. It was no other than Journey’s star that was the first one I actually recognised along the strip amid all the past movie, music, radio and television personalities who have their fame recorded in the most permanent way with a red marble star in the sidewalk.

Don’t Stop Believin’!

The walk of fame is surprisingly long, a good 20 minute walk in each direction, and it can be good fun spotting the names you know, from Elton John to Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera to Arnold Schwarzenegger. There were special stones for people like the crew of Apollo 11, including Neil Armstrong, who set foot on the moon for their special achievement, while the LA Dodgers and various industry partners get special mentions in the path for their help with promoting the area and the Oscars.

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

After spotting Journey’s star, I didn’t stop believing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where I marvelled at how small some of the world’s most famous hands and feet are in the cement stones that make up the famous forecourt.

Had to be done!

Grauman’s is known as one of the most famous movie theatres in the world, built by famous showman Sid Grauman who is seen as one of the key figures behind cinema. To have a hand and footprint taken here is often seen as a career highlight, even by the most famous of celebrities. Apparently, there are two stories about how the tradition began: one has Mary Pickford as the actress who stepped in wet cement on her way to see the magnificent new building shortly after it had been finished, and the other credits Norma Talmadge with the misstep. Grauman decided it was a wonderful way to have a permanent record of the stars, and began inviting selected film personalities to put their hand and footprints in concrete.

He might have saved Private Ryan, but he’s got skinny feet and tiny hands

To this day, the world’s most famous people get on their hands and knees here to leave a lasting impression – and their films are often premiered in the theatre within. It was fascinating to wander around, braving the throngs of tourists and spotting the many famous names and messages.

Parked up in Beverly Hills

Amid more driving through Beverly Hills, I called in at the Apple store in Hollywood to finally sort out the long-running saga of my iPhone, which has not been right ever since it was unlocked by O2 back home and upgraded to iOS5 through iTunes. Regular visitors to my ramblings would no doubt have picked up my frustrations at carting my iPhone around the world with me, only for it to sit in my bag redundant most of the way after it either breaks down or locks up on me. Since inserting a New Zealand sim card in it, once again it had been rendered useless, somehow locking itself to Vodafone Australia despite being supplied with an unlocked device in Sydney.

Having spent $40 on Skype credit with four separate calls to Apple support, who in turn pass me on to Vodafone, who in return send me an email three days later telling me it was an issue with Apple, who then send me back into this vicious circle by sending me back to Vodafone, I had grown sick of being passed from pillar to post.

Sorting out my phone in the posh districts around Rodeo Drive

I walked in and for once their sickly smiles and warm welcoming style couldn’t cut through my frustration. I went straight for the top, asking to speak to a manager, which resulted in me getting an appointment straight away at the ‘Genius bar’. Where I was told they wouldn’t unlock it, there was nothing they could do, and it was an issue with my carrier.

There was no way I was leaving until it was sorted out, and so I sat myself down and told them as much, fed up with Apple and the phone networks around the world constantly passing the buck. I dug my heals in. After being asked to explain the who sorry tale three times to three different people, eventually the manager was sent to speak to me.

“I have explained the story so many times, I have a case number, can you not call Apple support and get the rundown of what has happened before finding me a solution to all these problems,” I asked.

“I’m sorry sir, I cant call Apple support, they are nothing to do with us.”

So not only can they not communicate with the networks they sell their phones to, they can’t even talk to sections of their own company.

“This was a phone issued in Australia, we can only change phones issued in the States,” came another little gem, that only served to raise my frustrations.

“So, effectively, you can’t travel anywhere with an iPhone because if you get problems, you can’t get help, and the networks around the world lock your phone even it its unlocked,” I said.

“That is the case I’m afraid, yes.”

It was a ridiculous situation, and an area that really needs highlighting. Iphones, as great as they are – simply the best bit of kit around if I’m honest for ease of use and capability – have one major flaw. Once you put another sim card in, it will lock to that network. You then have to faff around getting it unlocked again, only for it to lock to the next network you put a sim in from. And when you need help from Apple, because it is officially a carrier issue, it can be like getting blood from a stone, constantly being batted away back to whoever supplied the sim card.

Not a bad area to be stuck in an Apple store!

This time, however, I wasn’t going anywhere, and they knew it. I was eventually given a phone to call customer support on, while sat inside an Apple story, because the different members of staff couldn’t possibly talk to one another. And there I sat, for the next hour and a half, to some engineer somewhere in America who looked into all of my accounts, replacements and problems over the past few years.

“As well as Vodafone Australia, your handset is locked to a network in Korea,” I was told.

The plot thickened.

“The serial number on your account is for a handset from Korea. Have you had one from there?” I was asked.

While I had visited Seoul for an hour between flights in November, there wasn’t enough time to have a drink, let alone buy a new phone. I repeated my serial number three times to make sure.

“I have spotted what it is – someone has written a digit down wrong on one of your replacements.”

Somehow, in Meadowhall, one digit went down wrong. Instead of my phone, it registered as a complete stranger’s handset in Korea. And since that day, their phone has been unlocked on numerous occasions by networks on my behalf, while being accused by me of not carrying out the procedure. It turns out they were, but not on my handset.

“I’m really sorry sir, it does seem to have been a mistake by one of our staff that has caused all of these problems.”

I relayed this to the staff around the Genius bar, who a couple of hours ago had adopted the ‘its your fault, your problem, deal with it,’ mentality in trying to get me out of the shop. Suddenly they had all changed their tune, and to be fair to the manager, he couldn’t apologise enough, even giving me a new pair of headphones for free.

So now, with one solitary digit being amended on my records, hopefully that will be the end of this long running saga that has driven me mad. Its just a shame that for the majority of this trip, I have been without my music, maps, phone, emails on the go, Facebook and Twitter in my hand, and everything else that helps while on the move thanks to the clever little touches incorporated into the handset. And Apple will be getting a strongly worded letter, complete with a claim for international phone calls and three new (cheapo) handsets I have had to buy in various countries just so I can make calls.

Woody loved getting in my shots

Relieved that I seemed to have finally got a result, I went for a pootle along Rodeo Drive, the shopping district of the stars, along Hollywood Boulevard to take in one last dose of the Tinseltown atmosphere, and smiling at how normal it felt to be cruising around one of the most incredibly rich and famous areas in the world.

Dolby Theatre…home to the Oscars

But it was time to move on – I have the road trip of all road trips to begin, and it was time to get my kicks on Route 66.

The End of a Magic Wander

Cold

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

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

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

Back on the bus, daft hat and all

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

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

Full of energy on the (smaller) Magic Bus

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

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

Kate and the ‘real’ horse

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

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

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

Feeding the fish

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

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

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

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

Salmon, doing a very good Piranha impression

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

A lake and a challenge…

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

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

Liam still beat me

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

The rest of the Magic Bus group at the top

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

Snow!

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

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

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

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

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

Brrr

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

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

Here boy!

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

Fun in the snow

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

I’ve always loved snow!

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

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

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

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

Sombre arrival in Christchurch

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

Christchurch Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, 25, 30 minutes,” she smiled.

We were in trouble.

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

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

Running for a bus!

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

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

Wait for me!

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

Our London bus tour of Christchurch

All aboard!

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

My Magic Bus group at the Cathedral

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

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

I think you probably know what my final decision wa

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