Soap’s Stars Trip the Ice Fantastic

Playing it cool on the Franz Josef Glacier

“You can have the Love Shack”

It was an offer by the staff at the Chateau Franz hostel that got laughs all round, the biggest from Soap, my Magic Bus driver who had just driven us from the greyness of Greymouth to the blue skies and bright sunshine of Franz Josef, home to a huge glacier.

“Make the most of it Peter,” he jokes, still not quite grasping that he’s been calling me the wrong name all the way throughout the journey so far.

“It’s Phil,” I say back. He doesn’t hear me.

The Love Shack (That’s where its at…as well as the laundry)

I take my bags to my room and unlock the door to my love shack (even just writing this makes me smile!) to find a small cosy room full of red cushions, blacked out windows, the smell of sweet roses and, shall we say, pretty much anything you’d need for a night in with a loved one.

With no loved ones around, I was just grateful for the chance to sprawl out in a double bed for once. After months of single bunk beds in rooms with up to 20 people, tonight is one to look forward to purely for the fact I should get a good night’s sleep.

Inside the Love Shack at Chateau Franz Backpackers

Of course, the room was purely a chance to have a good laugh, and a few of the Magic Bus gang came in to check out my novel lodgings for the night. We had a tight schedule though, with a helicopter to catch up to the nearby glacier just an hour or so after arriving in the town.

Thankfully, Soap had driven us past the check-in offices not once, but twice, to make sure we all knew where we were going. I resisted the temptation to ask him where we needed to be once we’d arrived at the hostel for the night.

Instead, with the sun shining and a beautiful day ahead, we made our way to the offices of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides to embark on our icy adventure. Its something we had all been looking forward to, a highlight of the south island and one of the sights many people come to New Zealand to see. On the way, Soap had been telling us how lucky we were with the weather.

“The last six times its been raining and people haven’t been able to get up there,” he said.

“I’ve been told conditions are perfect. I don’t want to curse it, but it looks like you’ve got the conditions as good as they come.”

‘Famous last words’ springs to mind.

Checking in for the helicopter…

Having checked in, been given wristbands and everyone excitedly being ushered over to the clothing section, where we were to be issued with thermal jackets, trousers and crampons to navigate around the ice, we waited around for a few minutes. And then along came one of the staff.

“I’m really sorry guys, we’ve got some bad news. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to go today. The wind has really picked up on the mountain and the helicopters are having to bring everyone off.”

It didn’t quite seem real – outside the weather was glorious. It was calm, blue skies, and seemingly perfect conditions. We knew we were also to leave the town first thing in the morning. We had one afternoon to make the trip, and the plug had been pulled. Some of the group at first thought it was a cruel joke, but as another glum-looking group already dressed for the mountain traipsed back into the building, it was clear nobody was having a laugh.

There were a lot of sad faces, particularly from the girls. Kate, from Jersey, and Ailish and Christine from Ireland, were particularly downhearted. There were seven out of the nine of us on the Magic Bus who wanted to make the trip, and we gathered round in a circle to plan the next move.

“I wonder if we could go first thing in the morning, and delay the Magic Bus a little bit,” I put to everyone.

Sad faces all round

It was a thought that gathered a bit of momentum. We knew we had a long day of driving to Wanaka ahead of us the next day, with an early departure on the cards, but we found out what the options were from the glacier company.

There was an 8am departure, which would see us off the glacier by midday. It was something we could put to Soap, but we knew it would be out of his hands.

Back at the hostel, we sat around feeling sorry for ourselves. We managed to drag Soap from out of his room, who immediately got the blame for cursing the weather by speaking too soon about the conditions, and we talked it over as a group. There was an option to head to nearby Fox Glacier that afternoon, but nobody was too keen. We could also take a shuttle to the Franz Josef Glacier walk, which means we could at least see it, but not touch or experience it. Or, as we suggested to Soap, we could take the first helicopter and delay the Magic Bus departure.

“The Magic Bus never gets delayed for anyone, but we can give it a go,” Soap tells us, reaching for his mobile phone.

Land of the long, white (laughing) cloud

We didn’t hold out much hope, but it was worth a try. In the meantime, we were all taking it in turns to look up at the mountains and moan about how it seemed too calm to have any problems. We watched a cloud stay in the sky, motionless, and almost forming a face and mouth as if it was laughing at us – in Kate’s mind anyway!

With a call in to Magic HQ, Soap tried his best to keep our spirits up, sympathising with our disappointment and blaming himself for being the unlucky charm, having had a lot of similar bad luck in recent weeks. Time was ticking waiting for the news of a decision from the Magic bosses. It could all depend on how many people were to be picked up from Franz, in addition to those of us who arrived on the bus. With seven of our nine wanting to make the trip up the glacier, it made sense to delay departure. But if there were another 10 people due to get on the bus in Franz ready for a journey or with activities ahead in Wanaka, we’d probably be out of luck.

By now, the time had passed for the afternoon trip to Fox. Our eggs were all in one basket. The phonecall came through from head office. It was all or nothing. Soap answered. There are no smiles, and the tone of his conversation is subdued.

Its not sounding good. It looks like Franz Josef is off. Soap comes off the phone with the words “I’ll talk to them and see what we can do,” before hanging up with a sigh.

“Sorry guys.”

There were groans. That was it. We waited to see if it was one of Soap’s jokes, but it wasn’t. He started to walk away.

“Gotcha!” he shouted, turning back towards us with a huge grin on his face.

Happy faces!

For the first time, Magic Bus agreed to delay the departure to allow us one more chance at making the trip up to the glacier. It was a huge relief, and there were happy faces all around. In addition, it now gave us an afternoon free, and we decided to book the Franz Josef shuttle to the glacier walk.

And so we all headed off on the bus, taking in our first views of this famous attraction, ironically stopping off at Peter’s Pool, a name that is still being used for me, where there was a fantastic reflection of the glacier and mountains on the surface of the water.

Peter/Phil at Peter’s Pool

Next up was a long walk along the glacier bed to the head of the glacier.

The Franz Josef Glacier starts high up in the southern alps and descends deep into the lush rainforest of Westland’s National Park, from a height of 2700 metres above sea level, to just 240 metres, in as little as 11 km. It means it is the worlds steepest and fastest flowing commercially guided glacier and provides some of the most dramatic glacial scenery in the world.

The Franz Josef Glacier snaking down the valley

As huge as it is, some seven and a half miles long, its actually constantly moving, being in a cycle of advancing and retreating from its source.The glacier was advancing until mid 2010, but it is currently in a very rapid phase of retreat, shrinking heavily, in a way many people have put down to global warming.

It is also a dangerous place to visit, hence the need for specialist guides to actually venture onto the ice, but even visiting the face of the glacier can be potentially lethal, so much so it is strictly off limits, a fence keeping people away.

Danger…

We reached the yellow rope fence, about 500 metres from the actual ice, with strong warnings not to cross over the line. They are warnings that need to be taken seriously too – most years there is a story of a tourist who ignored it, only to be trapped by a rock or ice fall from the surrounding mountains. Newspaper stories of deaths and injuries are blown up and featured on warning signs, in attempt to put anyone off who was thinking of making a trip over the rope. Somehow, the prospect of thousands of tonnes of ice and rocks falling on top of you is enough of a warning for us, and we stayed well behind the rope.

Stop!

We spent the evening at the local hot baths, a trip that comes as part of the Franz Josef Glacier Guides tour. I met Soap as he was heading out to the baths, and who decided to take the bus because of the freezing cold temperatures, so I jumped onboard with him. The baths were deliciously warm, and a great way to spend a few hours relaxing with everyone else on the bus and getting to know everyone a bit more. I’ve been really lucky with the groups, having a lot in common with people onboard and sharing the same sense of humour.

Back at the hostel, I ended up having drinks with Thecla from the bus, and two Australian girls Clare and Louise, who were celebrating a birthday. Despite my best efforts, I was persuaded to go out for a beer with them, despite the early morning start the following day.

Our ride arrives

Thankfully, after keeping it to just a couple of beers, I was up in time to check out and made it to the helicopter check-in for 7.45am. This time we made it further than the clothing desk, being issued with full arctic attire, boots, crampons, gloves, the lot, ready for three hours of ice exploration.

We were taken to the helipad, taking in the beautiful dawn view as the sun began to rise over the mountains. The air was still with the sound of silence, until, in the distance, we heard the familiar sound of a helicopter’s rotor beating its way through the sky. It appeared a few moments later, swooping around to us and landing with expert precision just a few metres away.

Destination Glacier

The first half of the group climbed onboard, and within seconds they were far in the distance, making the short five minute journey up to the ice. It wasn’t long before the helicopter returned for us, and we were ushered over to the aircraft door before climbing into the back seat. The pilot didn’t hang around, and within seconds of the door closing we were lifting off and flying into the valley.

With Mel and Kevin in the helicopter

Up on the glacier, a gaggle of blue jackets from the first half of the group marked the landing site, and we all left our stomachs behind as the helicopter suddenly dropped from high above the ice to take its place on the landing site.

Onto the ice

Tom is our guide for the morning. Originally from Crewe, and so a fellow northern lad, he met us at the helicopter and waited as we fixed the cramp-ons to our boots. I’ve never had to wear them before, but the glacier was like no other surface I have ever walked on. It was pure ice – shiny, see through, glass-like ice – and a bit like a giant ice cube. I have skied on glaciers before, but they are normally covered in snow, so to see the huge mass of ice up close was something completely alien to us all.

“The best thing you can do is walk normally, feet straight, and put pressure on the spikes,” Tom tells us, advising not to walk sideways and to avoid falling down holes in the ice.

We followed Tom, who was armed with an ice pick to help clear the way, through a maze of icy valleys and around caverns formed by the constant movement of the huge mass.

Tom, our guide

“When I first got here three years or so ago, the ice was right up to the greenery on the side of the valley walls,” he tells us, showing a huge drop in the ice level in just the short time he has been guiding in the area.

The constant change in the structure of the glacier has actually caused a few problems in recent months with tourism on the glacier. Until April, a cheaper tour would take the public on a full day trek from the bottom of the glacier up to the point we were standing. The helicopters were part of a more expensive, more exclusive trip. But all that changed when a giant hole opened up in the ice lower down, forcing tours to pass around it by the sides of the valley.

Exploring the ice

However, the rock faces that surround the glacier are notoriously unstable, partly due to the constant process of freeze-thaw, where moisture and water freezes in the rocks, expands, and then thaws in the morning, letting go of whatever rocks it has broken away during the night.

“We actually had a pretty bad rockfall a while back that I saw, and I knew there were a few groups in the area,” he says, reflecting on a potentially disastrous moment.

“There was a few minutes when one of the guides couldn’t be reached on the radio which got us all worried, but then he came over to say he was ok.

“Thankfully, nobody was hurt, but that was the worst one I have actually seen.”

A tight squeeze

I surveyed around the glacier sides and piles of loose rock and dust can be seen all over the area, sites where substantial portions of the mountain have dropped away. For this reason, the guides now stay well clear of the rock face, and the only way of reaching the glacier, avoiding the potentially dangerous walk around the hole, is by helicopter.

We made our way down the glacier, dropping down into gaps in the ice, walking around deep holes that have formed, and edging our way up and over various ice formations created by the constant movement of the white mass.

I say white, but in many places the ice is a bright blue, a result of minerals in the ground being absorbed. In some places, it was a particularly deep blue, with millions of air bubbles and particles suspended in frozen time.

Hiding in the ice

We edged our way along a narrow gap, the tightness causing a few of us problems with our new walking boots and tricky conditions. The walls of the ice were as smooth as and had the appearance of polished glass. At one point, Tom fixed a rope to an ice wall, and threw it down to help us climb a particularly steep set of steps that had been chipped away into the ice.

Kate laughing in the narrow gap

It was a fantastic, if more than a little tiring, three hours of walking and climbing around on the glacier, and we were grateful of a helicopter lift back off it and down to the village. Had the original full day tour been running, we’d have had to walk all the way back down the glacier, and Tom admits that it would often leave even some of the hardiest walkers exhausted.

As we were waiting for our flight back down to ground level however, the glacier provided a reminder as to how potentially dangerous the area can be. In the middle of a conversation with Tom, suddenly we were all stopped by a deep rumble that sounded very much like thunder rolling away nearby. But the skies were clear, and there was no chance it was the weather causing the noise. I could feel a slight vibration under my feet. It carried on for a good few seconds, causing us as to stop and look around to where the noise was coming from.

“Rockfall,” said Tom, looking in the same direction we were. We’d fallen silent and waited for the noise to stop. A few minutes later, a huge cloud of dust rose up from the site of the rockfall. A stark warning by the mountains that the dangers are incredibly real.

Rockfall…

We flew back to the village, knowing there would be no hanging around in order for Soap to get off at a decent time so we could make the long drive to Wanaka. Besides, there was an important rugby match between his beloved All Blacks and Ireland in the evening.

“We will be there for kick off, even if we have to skip toilet stops and pass a bottle around the bus,” he joked.

Back in the chopper

He’d already loaded all the bags into the boot of his bus to save time when we returned from the glacier, and within 20 minutes of touching down in the helicopter, we were back on the Magic Bus and on our way further south.

“Did you all have a good morning Peter?” he asks me. I replied as normal – I think the name Peter is stuck in his head, despite me writing my name every day on his accommodation sheet, and his passenger log clearly showing my details.

Soap navigating another narrow single lane bridge

The delayed departure means a few of the regular stops during then long drive south may have to be missed out, but Lake Matheson, close to the nearby Fox Glacier, was one stop that Soap wasn’t going to cut from the itinerary. We were glad he didn’t, as it was stunning. Its another ‘mirror lake’, a perfect reflection formed by the incredibly still water – bar the odd duck or three – of the surroundings.

Lake Matheson. Stunning.

When those surroundings are alpine forests with the backdrop of picture postcard snow-capped mountains, it makes for a beautiful place to spend a few minutes, taking photographs and absorbing the view.

Back on the bus, Soap had been dealing with a few requests from a couple of passengers, who for sake of anonymity will be known as red jacket and yellow jacket. It’s fair to say they had caused one or two problems along the way, mainly with a language barrier, but most of us on the bus also queried a general lack of common sense and wondered how they had managed to travel so far without getting completely lost somewhere.

They weren’t huge problems, but just awkward ones like having completely different arrangements for accommodation than everyone else, at one point prompting a drive around a town centre in search of the drop-off point. And then one of them opened a tin of tuna – and when you’re on Soap’s bus (or any bus for that matter!) an open tin of tuna is a huge no-no for obvious smell-related issues. Despite his patience being tried on more than one occasion, Soap somehow still managed to keep a smile on his face and accommodate requests as well as he could. He might have secretly been twanging his rubber wristbands somewhere, his way of releasing stress, but he would still be the happy, cheery guy we had all grown to love as our tour guide.

Its the Magic Bus!

“I’ve got no plans or times for the rest of the day, as we’re in new waters for the Magic Bus, but we’ll try to fit in as much as possible,” he tells us over the speakers as we head off down the road yet again.

It gave us a sense of adventure. We had gone against the norm, and I think even Soap was enjoying being away from the routine timetable and exploring the route to Wanaka at a different time.

As one of New Zealand’s scheduled buses approaches from the opposite direction, Soap smiles.

All roads lead to the mountains

“He’s going to wonder where I’ve been,” he laughs. And with that, the coach driver approaching starts pointing at his watch and laughing. Most of the regular drivers on the island know each other, and it was funny to see the camaraderie as Soap gave a knowing wave back out of the windscreen.

Lunchtime on the Magic Bus!

Most of my group on the bus had managed to fall asleep, a mass of legs criss-crossing the aisles and nodding heads bumping on windows as everyone enjoyed a nap following the cold and hard work of the morning. I tucked into yet another Vegemite and cheese sandwich, and judging by the laughs and smiles I’m now getting everytime I pull out the ingredients to make my regular lunch, its becoming something of a running joke.

We headed further into the southern alps as the sun began to get ever lower in the sky, turning the white snow caps into beautiful shades of pink and orange.

Same old…same old!

“I never get to see this scenery at this time, its stunning. You’re in for some really special views,” says Soap, himself taking in the view as he continues the 300km drive.

We briefly stopped at a waterfall, which would have been our final scenic stop had we kept to the original departure time, and it was the final tick on the list. Somehow, despite leaving almost five hours later than we should have done, we had managed to fit absolutely everything into the day. In fact, taking into account the extra walk the day before to the glacier, we’d actually been able to do more than any of the other groups that have stayed at Franz Josef. In addition, the way we saw a beautiful sunset, and the fact the sun was in a perfect position at Lake Matheson for photographs during the afternoon, meant we had much better photographs and some brilliant memories from the time we made the Magic Bus late.

A new view for the Magic Bus!

We pulled into Lake Wanaka in darkness, and as the engine was turned off, Soap decided to address the coach and mentioned my name as ‘Peter’.

“Its Phil,” I shouted yet again.

Soap started laughing over the speaker system.

“I’ve been seeing if you’re just too polite to tell me and how long I could carry it on,” he chuckled.

The only thing is, half the bus still doesn’t know my real name, and instead know me as Peter. It all starts to get a bit complicated!

The Magic Bus in Wanaka

We had, however, arrived in time to watch the New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka before coming far to close to losing the international game with Ireland. Soap was incredibly quiet for the second half, particularly with a couple of very hopeful Irish girls in Ailish and Christine on the bus. Sadly, their hearts were broken when a last minute drop goal settled the game in the All Blacks favour, but we all enjoyed an enthralling game and finished off with a few beers at the bar.

Soap and his stars…next stop, Queenstown

It was nothing too heavy though. We were up early in the morning – the destination is Queenstown, the party and adrenaline capital of the world.

Sounds like fun? Find out more or book the Magic Bus by visiting their website at www.magicbus.co.nz

Want to learn more about the Franz Josef Glacier Guides? Their website is at www.franzjosefglacier.com

And if you fancy a stay in the Love Shack, visit the hostel website at www.chateaufranz.co.nz

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Swings, Slides and a Chair of Death

Status

Bye then!

Another day, another dose of adrenaline in the world’s adventure capital.

Whether its rafting down the white waters of the Shotover river, strapping yourself to a bungy rope, skiing down a black run or being blasted around in a jet boat, people in Queenstown are constantly working on finding the next big thrill.

Who would have thought that a simple children’s slide would provide it.

The prototype slide test-bed

Well, I say childrens slide – its actually a purpose-built job, but its about the same size as the ones you’d find at the side of the kids section in the local pool. There’s a slight difference here though, because Queenstown being Queenstown, there’s a company that’s pushed even a slide to the limit – by replacing the typical kids splish splash at the end with a 60ft freefall drop.

On The Slide! Take note of the raft you can see…

This is the world of the Shotover Canyon Swing, a team of people determined to find the scariest, most fun-filled, funny and imaginative ways to launch people from the world’s largest cliff jump and off on a 200 metre swing through the canyon below.

The Shotover Canyon Swing site

Its been up and running for 10 years here now, set up by two keen Kiwi climbers who set out to find the perfect place to build a rope swing. Its based on the same principal that would see many young lads throwing ropes up and around tree branches to build a swing out in the country, except this one reaches speeds of up to 150 kilometres an hour.

And now I’ve been invited along to try it, and its latest way of launching those thrill seekers/crazy people down a cliff face and towards a fast-flowing river at breakneck speeds.

A few days ago I managed to throw myself from one of the world’s highest bungys, and while the drop here isn’t quite as far, its still a daunting prospect to peer over the side of the platform and down to the river below. Nerves are far from helped when Doug, one of the crew members, decides to fall into the back of you and almost push you over the edge.

It’s the first part of what turns out to be a great double act between him and Andrew, the two men in charge of launching me from the safety of a cliff top in a variety of ways. There’s a staggering 70 different ways, and counting, that you can meet your potential demise from the cliff. With my confidence up from the bungy, and no doubt under instruction from the marketing team of Ana and Sarah to do their worst with me, the pair of them set about playing with my mind.

Andrew…thinking of ways to dispatch me

“This is the chair of death. Or the chair of life as we call it,” Andrew tells me, brandishing a plastic patio chair and a strap.

“Your task is to sit on it, lean back, and gently fall,”

Gently fall? I’m dropping off a cliff face, there’s nothing gentle about that. As in introduction to the Shotover Canyon Swing however, it at least means I’m not looking forwards to see the drop. Andrew and Doug had other ways of raising my fears though.

The cocktail glass can only mean one thing – a variety of ways down!

Strapped into the chair, I was instructed to lean back, and so pivoted on the back legs just like I’ve done a million times before at countless barbecues and picnic tables. Except the worst that can happen there is I can overdo it and fall on my back on the grass, to the amusement of whoever is sitting around the table. Here, it’s a sheer drop down a rockface.

“Just lean back Phil, head back, look at where you want to go,” I’m told.

I prepare myself for the inevitable and gently rock back, feeling the chair reaching the limit before gravity takes over. I feel it about to swing back and down into the valley.

Going…

“Whooooaaaaaa, hold on a minute,” says Andrew, pulling me back with the rope just as I thought I’d committed myself to the fall. My heart was pounding but I managed to laugh. I thought I’d gone, but now I’m back to square one again, the two crew members ‘checking’ my safety harness and generally milking the whole Chair of Death experience for me.

I pluck up more courage and lean back again – this time they will surely let me go. Afterall, they’ve played with my fears once on this chair.

“Am I going now?” I asked.

The look on Andrew’s face, still holding onto my straps, almost told me otherwise but I couldn’t quite read him. I looked down below me, which was a mistake – up until now I had managed to block out the fact I am overhanging a straight drop to the rocky bottom, a certain death without the various ropes and clips that connect me to the swing. Its like being at the top of the Flamborough cliffs back home, knowing you’re about to fall to the bottom.

…Going…

Leaning back again, I slowly pushed myself to tipping point yet again, only for Andrew to pull me back upright yet again. I could feel sweat on the palms of my hand and my grip on the plastic armrests to my side was getting tighter.

Again, I start tipping back on the chair, preparing myself for the fall. Andrew pulled me back, and I thought yet again he was playing with me, only to then let go. I felt the shock ripple across my face as the sky suddenly filled my vision, followed by cliff face, followed by river, and quickly followed by the sky again. It was a sequence that repeated itself a few times, faster and faster, as I made my rapid descent to the bottom of the canyon. It was as if I’d been put into a washing machine, the world becoming a blur until the rope took my weight and smoothly swung me out over the Shotover river at speeds of up to 150km/hr.

…Gone.

While the initial fall was a shock, the rest of the swing is hugely enjoyable – and now having got rid of the fear, I found myself laughing as I became a human pendulum in the valley.

Winched back up, Andrew and Doug were clearly pleased with their efforts, and determined to take it a step further. Out came the new slide, a stainless steel affair that is set up on the platform and angled out over the drop. I am positioned at the top.

A view you don’t normally get from the top of a slide

“What I need you to do is cross your legs, and then just scooch on down,” came the instructions from Andrew.

As we’re both laughing about the word ‘scooch’, and debating whether it would appear in a dictionary anywhere, or gain points in Scrabble for that matter, there was some noise coming from the river below. Two boat loads of white water rafters were drifting by, earning a yell from the team on top of the Shotover Canyon Swing. I could sense Andrew was keen for me to drop off above one of the boats as they pass. He removed the safety ‘string’ from the gap in the fence, and I was free to go.

Ready to slide with Andrew and Doug

“Just scooch on out then Phil,” he says, his eyes widening and beckoning me down this new frightful activity.

I felt myself starting to slide, and before I knew it, I picked up speed and launched myself over the edge. I shouted as I dropped – leaving my stomach behind, the full falling sensation was felt as I fell over the edge, seeing and experiencing the whole drop. I whizzed over the heads of the rafters, and slowed down as I reached the far end of the swing.

“You’re a legend bro!” came a shout from someone on the rafting boat. I cheered back and punched my fist in the air.

I watched as the cliff slowly moved past my face as I made the slow ascent back towards the drop zone. Andrew and Doug yet again pulled me back up onto the ledge, their final duty of the day ahead. To give me one last fright.

Having a laugh and preparing for the next drop!

I was elected to undergo the Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood procedure – strapped to a teddy bear, winched out into the open and turned upside down to face the bottom of the canyon.

“Just wrap your feet around this green rope,” smiled Andrew, clearly enjoying his role as chief drop executioner.

Getting into position

I could feel the blood rushing to my head as I faced the ground, some 109 metres below me. I knew that at any moment, I would be careering towards it at breakneck speed.

“Are you ready? Three, two, one, gooooo,” called Andrew, whacking something on the rope that was suspending me.

It felt like something wasn’t releasing properly, worrying me slightly. He hit the rope again, the shock rippling through the rope and my body. Still nothing.

Then a second later, I feel the acceleration as the pin is pulled on my fate. I make a perfect headfirst arc, swooping up the opposite side to the canyon like a bird.

By now, I’m loving the sensation, and all the kiwi humour. Every time I returned to the top full of smiles and laughter. And every time I reached the jump platform, there were a couple of familiar faces smiling back.

Gimp Boy Goes to Hollywood…Shotover Canyon Swing style

Andrew has been doing the job for five years now, an enthusiast and advocate for the sport of jumping from a great height. He enjoys scaring people witless just as much as calming those down for whom his comedy/suspense/scare act can become too much.

Back on terra firma!

“I love getting people who are scared to go,” he says.

“Sometimes I can spend 20 minutes with someone, then they come back up and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

His words are almost drowned out by the shrieks and laughter of the latest ‘victim’. It was Ashleigh, from Brisbane, who emerged back on the jump platform having been the first of her group to make the leap.

Ashleigh from Brisbane

“I opened my eyes after a second when I thought ‘uh, I’m not dead’,” she laughs, trying to stay steady on her feet thanks to some swing-induced wobbly legs.

Next up was Marius from Norway, who is studying in New Zealand but who had decided to take some time out to experience some of its famous adrenalin hotspots. He’d chosen the slide, in part thanks to my recommendation having stated it was by far the scariest of the three jumps I’d just made.

“It was one of the best feelings I have ever had,” he beamed.

“It was out of this world – crazy – and I’m seriously considering doing it

Marius from Norway

again. The slide was great, it was like being at the playground but far more serious and a lot more fun.

“It’s like the two extremes for me here, studying and getting my head down, and then doing things like this,”

Amid the sound of harnesses being pulled tight, carabiners being clipped and the shrieks of those falling through the air, the laughter, stories and general humour injected into the Shotover Canyon Swing by those entrusted with your life brings a whole new dimension of fun to what can be a daunting, scary and yet thrilling experience.

I headed back to Queenstown with Sarah Norton from the company – no relation, but there were many jokes about us being long lost cousins – and I reflected on the experience. Sarah told me how they love to use the kiwi humour and come across as a bit wacky – but offering a much more personal experience. I have to agree, it was definitely very wacky, and most definitely a great afternoon where I didn’t feel like a number just being thrown over the edge for some cash. The jump crew look after you, talk to you, find out about where you’re from and what you do, before asking that all important question of “how would you like to fall?”

Back at the Base hostel in Queenstown that night, I recognise Murray, my first Magic driver on the south island who drove me from Picton to Nelson.

“What have you been up to today?” he asked me.

I told him about the Shotover Canyon Swing and how i’d jumped three times.

“You didn’t happen to see any rafters did you?” he asked.

Suddenly I thought back to the slide jump.

“I did mate, a couple of boats went under me on one of them,” I told him.

We compared times and they matched up.

Murray with one of my slide photos he managed to get himself in!

“I was the one that shouted ‘you’re a legend bro!” he laughed.

Incredible. You drop off a cliff around here, and there will be someone you know waiting for you at the bottom!

To find out more about the Shotover Canyon Swing, to book or keep an eye on the latest crazy ways to make the jump visit their website at www.canyonswing.co.nz/

‘You might feel a few bumps’

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

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

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

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

It was a bit choppy

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

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

Come on England!

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

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

Decent turnout, considering the time!

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

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

A familiar ferry to some…

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

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

Leaving Wellington…and relative calm

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

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

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

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

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

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

Calmer waters of the Marlborough Sounds

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

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

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

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

S Bend for ships

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

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

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

Marlborough wine region vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the centre of New Zealand

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

Dead centre

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

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

Soap, who happens to drive a bus

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

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

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

Soap’s slump

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

Early morning cloud lifting

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

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

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

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

A tight squeeze for the Magic Bus!

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

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

Pancake Rocks

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

Pancakey

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

Pancake toppings

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

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

Time to finally wrap up warm!

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

Facing Fear – Bungy Style

I’ve just done something that I have always said I would never, ever do.

Its something that I always dismissed as being for people made of tougher stuff than me – those with nerves of steel and guts to match. Adrenalin junkies, extreme sportsmen, mad people, call them whatever. But certainly not me.

For me, it’s a seemingly death-defying act that appears to push the boundaries between life and mortality to a limit that I’m just not prepared to take. I like being in control of my own fate and my own destiny too much to put my life, my future and my beating heart in the hands of a glorified elastic band.

Eeek

And then along came Queenstown, the adrenaline capital of the world. A place where fun, excitement and exhilaration is the order of the day. A place where, for reasons I am yet to understand, I thought it would be perfectly normal to throw myself from a suspended gondola and dive head first into a canyon.

I introduce the AJ Hackett Nevis Bungy.

Yep, that little blob is me!

At this stage, I need to supply a few facts as this isn’t your average jump from a crane in a backstreet pub carpark. This is the real deal – the birthplace of the bungy, the home of the pioneers of the sport, and a 134 metre drop over the Nevis River that flows below a purpose built bungy pod.

134 metres. The highest bungy jump inAustralasia, and for that matter, one of the highest in the world.

Add another half on top…

It’s a figure I have been torturing myself with over the past day or so. Grimsby Dock Tower, visible for miles around Lincolnshire, is only 94 metres tall. Add almost half again and its about the same distance that you drop. The Humber Bridge towers reach a height of 155 metres – I have been up them, and can’t imagine the thought of throwing myself from something that height.

Yet somehow, I am.

I spent most of this morning with my stomach churning with nerves. On top, my head was pounding from a night out with my Magic Bus group. Our driver Soap had given us a Queenstown party to remember. Even the Irish rugby team turned up to join in the fun after their dramatic last minute loss against the All Blacks 24 hours ago.

Cian Healy, one of the Irish rugby team who joined us for a night out

It was, most definitely, a night to remember. There will be more about that in a future post, however – with a lot planned this week, I’m taking a break from the chronological norm and hoping to document my time in the adventure centre of New Zealand day by day.

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

So how, after being so resolutely against doing any kind of bungy jump in my lifetime, have I ended up on my way to the mountains so I can throw myself towards a river from a ridiculous height?

It all started when my bus tour visited the Kawarau Bridge Bungy, the place where bungy jumping all began. Its home to the original 43 metre bungy jump that was to become the first commercial jump in the world, thanks to two Kiwis who met while skiing in a nearby resort. Their names were Alan John (AJ) Hackett and Henry van Ash.

The original bungy bridge where it all began

Inspired by watching ‘land diving’ by people on the islands of Vanuatu, they developed the stretchy latex rubber chord that was named the Bungy, after the stretchy bands that were often used to strap items to the roof of a car. After some high profile leaps from landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, they demonstrated that their newfound sport, and chords, were safe.

Their leap of faith spawned an activity that is now going from strength to strength, and watching the video of jumps over the years, and hearing how safe and enjoyable the leap towards ground can be, my mind started to wander. Perhaps it would be quite good to do one. After all, Queenstown is the home of the bungy. I might only ever be here once – I might leave having had an opportunity to do a jump with the company that invented it, right at the sport’s birthplace, and regret it when I’m back home.

And I hate that nagging ‘I wish I had’ thought.

Checking into the Base hostel in the town, there was a sign on a wall. It says you’re not allowed to leave Queenstown without having done something crazy to write home about. My decision was made.

AJ Hackett Bungy offices in Queenstown

And so I made my way to check in at the offices in the town centre, butterflies in my stomach and already feeling nauseous. In the back of my mind, that awful thought of ‘what if’. What if the chord snaps? What if there’s a problem with the harness? What if I’m that one statistic for whom it all went wrong. The prospect of a terrifying few seconds of realising my time is up before gravity and a rocky riverbed colluded to do their worst.

Its all part of the fear, facing up to your own mortality and wondering, as I prepared to leave my hostel, whether it could be the last time I’ll experience the warm spray of a shower or the minty freshness of brushing my teeth.  I guess these thoughts are part of the reason why the human species puts itself through such incredible extremes for a thrill. There’s always a chance something can go wrong, and yes its frightening, but the sense of achievement and the rush of adrenaline will always outstrip those nervewracking concerns.

I’d not eaten, and I didn’t feel hungry, but knew I should get something. Afterall, it might be the last time I experience it. It might possibly be my last supper. So what did I go for? Why, the McDonalds loose change menu of course, but for once I struggled to eat the double cheeseburger. My nerves were definitely getting the better of me.

Check-in at the Bungy

I arrived at the AJ Hackett check-in centre, where the friendly and reassuring staff told me it was completely normal to feel exactly how I quite clearly looked. I was finding it difficult to speak properly, my mind racing away in my head, as I signed the disclaimer. I was weighed, my 85kg bulk being an important factor in the choice of bungy chord. My hand was covered in permanent marker with numbers and codes for the jump and photos. I have also been put forward for a bungy swing, taking the sport to another level by introducing the largest swing in the world to the area.

Snazzy 4×4 Bungy bus!

Before long, I’m being called to the special 4×4 bus that will take me to the jump site. There’s a Dutch guy called Dennis, also heading to the Nevis Bungy. He’s equally as nervous as me. There was little conversation as we both watched the mountains gliding by the window, before we turned off the main road and headed up a dusty, rocky track. Above it, my first glimpse of the high wire and pod. My fears reach another level.

“First jump bro?” asks one of the assistants at the reception building on top of the mountain.

‘Yes’ I nervously nod back, sucking air between my teeth as I look through the windows and see the suspended jump pod swaying slightly in the breeze.

“You’ll be fine mate,” came the reply as he pulled out a harness and asked me to pull it up and around my legs.

‘Make sure it won’t come off’

I look at the mass of buckles, clips and straps and know that my life, in a few minutes time, will depend on them.

We walk outside and I get my first proper look at the jump – and of the horrifying height we’re at over the fast flowing Nevis River below. The third highest jumping platform in the world, built at a cost of some $1.5-million, is suspended by high tension cables in front of me. I’m given a briefing about how to jump and how to prepare for recovery. At this point, the thought of coming back up couldn’t be further from my mind – the prospect of stepping out into the emptiness below me is still the big one that occupies my brain. It is joined by a fleeting, morbid thought that this could be where I meet my end. After all, I’ve seen those videos where the bungy chord snaps. I try to channel those thoughts and images out.

Give over!

I’m ushered towards the basket transporter to the platform. It starts out slow, leaving the cliff and mountain behind, the land quickly falling away below me. The adverts around town say ‘don’t look down’. I can’t do anything but. It still hasn’t sunk in that this is all real.

Nearly there – the point of no return

The door opens as we arrive at the platform. The jump crew unclip my safety line and connect it to the pod, before I’m welcomed inside. A glass floor provides yet another reminder of just how far I’m about to plummet. Somehow I’m selected as the first one to go. I know there’s no way back. Chicken out now, and I’d never live it down. I had made a point of not broadcasting the fact I was signed up for a bungy, so that I didn’t have to put my hands up if I bailed. The only people i’d told, a couple of hours before, were my parents.

“Don’t die,” my dad had reassuringly told me.

Aside from the embarrassment, I would always be disappointed in myself. I’ve done a few fairly brave things through my work – flying with an aerobatics team, jumping from a lifeboat into the Humber, being winched up by a helicopter, that kind of thing – but this was a whole new ball game.

Uh oh

“Just take a seat for me buddy,” I’m asked, before getting into a wobbly chair. My feet are raised and placed into holders, while two padded straps are placed around my ankles. My harness and clips are checked and double checked, which is reassuring. Then my feet are fastened together and attached to the bungy chord, that from now on is quite literally my lifeline.

Slightly worse than the dentist chair!

“Smile for the camera,” I’m told, before a flash above me.

“You’re all set buddy, up you get,” I’m told.

I can feel my heart pounding in my chest as I get to my feet. They’re buckled together, but I can still shuffle forward.

“Keep going mate, keep moving,” I’m told by the crew, clearly keeping the motivation going to prevent any chance of me backing out.

I shuffle onto the patterned steel pad that juts out from the pod. Its small, about the size of a small bath mat, and the bungy chord was moving around near my shin as I inched closer to the drop. There was a black line on the edge, and beyond, a straight fall to the bottom of the valley.

Keep moving…deep breaths

I stood there, looking down against all the advice i’d been given, staring out and taking in the enormity of what I had to do. I was yet again asked to smile for the camera. Somehow, I mustered the most nervous smile you’ll probably ever see.

By now, the palms of my hands were sweaty, despite the icy cold wind blowing through the mountains. My heart was pounding, with a strange sensation that I could feel it beating in my throat. I entered that weird tunnel vision sensation, where everything in the background is silenced.

Below me, I can see the river winding around the valley. It’s some 30 metres wide down there, but from where I’m standing, it appears like a babbling stream. I look at the trees and rocks way down there. They look so small. There are no cars or people to give me any kind of perspective, but in a way that helps. I ask myself a question that has troubled me all morning. What am I doing?

Somehow I have to jump from this, and its not just a little step. I’ve been told to leap out as if it was a dive into a swimming pool. I don’t even like doing that, and at most it’s a couple of metres. Somehow I’ve got to also keep my arms out stretched.

From now on it was me, my thoughts, my search for courage and a fight against every human instinct I’ve been born with to somehow find it in me to jump.

Cheese!

“Ok man, a big dive on one,” came a voice from behind me.

I didn’t feel ready. It’s too early to go yet.

“Two”

Not yet. I can’t do it just now. Its too quick. I need to think. I hesitated.

“Wait, wait,” I muttered.

“Don’t wait around man, use my countdown,” I’m told.

He’s right. The more I stand here, the more I’m going to think about it. I shuffled from side to side. Hesitate again, and there’s a chance I’ll back out. But it’s a leap into the unknown. Will the rebound throw me around? What does the acceleration feel like? Will I know if it goes wrong?

“Three,” starts the count again behind me.

This is it. Now or never.

“Two”

Deep breath. Focus. Look ahead. Arms out.

“One”

I looked out at the horizon, gritted my teeth, and somehow found enough inside me to crouch down and launch myself away from the pod. Instantly the falling sensation takes hold. My ears are filled with the increasing sound of howling wind as I accelerate towards the ground. I feel my eyes bulge and my face contort with fear. Genuine fear. And it was all captured on video:


From deep inside me, I let out a scream – a completely unintentional yell. A loud, fright-filled shout that filled and echoed around the valley. A noise I cannot recall ever making before. It was my body’s release. They say bungy jumping is all from the neck up. Right now, my brain thinks its all about to end.

Look out below!

I feel the wind rushing around my body, my hair flapping around my head. I can feel the arc I have made through the air. I’m in freefall – a full eight seconds of freefall – as I hurtle towards the river that’s growing ever bigger in front of me. By now I’ve hit around 128km/hr and there’s no sign of slowing down.

Unreal

And then something clicked inside me. This wasn’t frightening anymore. It was an incredible feeling, one that suddenly I could enjoy. The adrenaline had kicked in, and this high speed, freefalling rush had hold of me.

Into the abyss

The valley sides were whizzing past by my head and I’m still looking straight down before I felt the gradual pull as the bungy chord trailing behind me starts to do its job. This was another part I’d been dreading – it can look so abrupt when the chord twangs you back up.

Yet this was a gradual, enjoyable deceleration. The wind grew quieter, the speed and falling sensation slowed right down. And I’m going back up.

“Yeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh” I remember screaming out.

I’d done it. I had faced my fear. And it felt incredible.

Gone…

I reached the top of the bounce, and once again I was on the way back down to earth. The speed and falling sensation picked up again. This time I could enjoy it. I knew I’d be fine. The second phase of the jump, surprisingly, has a greater fall than the first ever bungy from up at Kawarau Bridge. Its another bungy jump of its own. And it did feel like I was on the end of a giant elastic band. It’s a sensational feeling.

Somehow I remembered that I had to release my legs at the top of the next bounce, by curling up and pulling a red chord from near my left calf. I saw it release the clips holding me upside down, itself a daunting prospect, and the jolt made it feel like I could fall free. Thankfully its all down to a brilliant design which means I could be winched back to the pod upright. I stayed still and soaked up what I had just done, taking in the scenery around me, laughing to myself with relief and with a giant smile on my face.

I had pushed myself beyond a limit that I never thought I could do, yet somehow I achieved it.

Back at the pod, it was nice to feel my feet safely back on the platform.

“That was a real nice dive you did there mate. Was that your first time?” asked one of the team, handing me back my camera after getting a great shot of me jumping. I looked at the screen and couldn’t believe the person on it was me.

I watched Dennis make his jump, marvelling at how he turned into a tiny dot 134 metres below me.

On a rope, on a rope, Dennis hanging on a rope…

On an adrenaline-fuelled high, there was one more task I had ahead of me. The Nevis Swing – the world’s largest swing. It launches you from one side of the Nevis Canyon to the other in a matter of seconds. There was a crew of people eager to take me over to it, and I was led by Donal, from Kilkenny in Ireland.

“My dad used to work in Grimsby, sorting peas,” he tells me. It really does seem you can go to any corner of the globe, and there will always be someone with a link to my home town!

A big swing…

I was introduced to the swing operators, and asked how I wanted to go.

“You’ve done forwards on the bungy, you may as well do something different. Upside down?!” I’m asked.

I might still be pumped up and have adrenaline blasting through my veins, but I wasn’t quite ready to go that far.

“How about backwards, you’ll love it,” I’m asked.

“Why not?” I laughed. Well, its something a bit different.

The guys who spend their lives putting people through hell, all in the name of fun, love their jobs.

“We see it all up here, laughs, tears, terror,” they joke.

Here we go again!

Strapped in, I’m winched over to the drop and told to let go of the ropes otherwise I could hurt my hands.

“You need to put your arms out and keep them out,” says Jesse, who’s operating the swing.

He engages me in conversation before secretly launching me mid-flow. I felt my face contort and heard laughter from the launch team which disappeared into the distance as I was sent tumbling through the air and in an arc across the canyon.

The face says it all!

It was a different type of adrenaline rush, one that I could enjoy much more, but without the same level of personal achievement that you get from forcing yourself to jump from a ledge high above New Zealand’s southern alps.


For that, there is only one thing to do – the Nevis bungy, but the faint hearted, while finding it daunting, I am sure would love the sensation of gliding through the air on the Nevis Swing. Its like the best tree swing you’ve ever been on, a playground swing built for adults. But both of them have one thing in common – the beauty of gravity.

Today I learned that gravity can be fun to play with. I learned that falling from a great height can be strangely enjoyable.

And I learned that had I not visited Queenstown, I would have lived my life without experiencing the awesome feeling of a Bungy.

My life, from today, feels a little bit more complete.

The Nevis Swing team. Cheers guys!

With special thanks to my friends at AJ Hackett Bungy. For more information, latest offers or to book, visit their website at www.bungy.co.nz

Gumboots and a Wellington Hoot

Skiing Kiwi – the weather turns cold

It’s definitely time for some thermals!

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

A night out in Taupo

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

Zzzzzzzz

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

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

A national symbol

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

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

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

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

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

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

Glow worms and their fishing lines

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

Drink stop

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

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

Magic mealtime!

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

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

The first was for a bit of wanging.

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

What a wanger

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

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

Next it was our turn.

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

Another lookout stop

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

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

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

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

There goes my front cover

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

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

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

He still wanted more!

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

On the road again

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

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

Wellington comes into view

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

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

Parliament buildings – known as the beehive

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

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

Wellington from above

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

With Thibault, Russ, Taylor and Mem overlooking Wellington

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

Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand

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

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

Calamari, anyone?

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

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

My squid on his birthday!

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

Te Papa

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

Earthquake damper

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

One of Captain Cook’s shooters

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

A last shindig with my Magic tourmates

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

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

Days in Wellington

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

All Aboard the Magic Bus

Hello New Zealand!

Touchdown in Auckland

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

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

Our driver Russ. With a ‘U’.

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

Now that’s Magic!

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

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

Great rooftop kitchen and terrace at my Auckland hostel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Zealand’s outback!

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

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

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

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

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

Stocking up on L&P

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

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

Driver Russ’s attempt at being creative!

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

Group games at Hobbiton

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

SobeRing Thoughts

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

With Mem, and a beer good for lightweights

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

Eggy steamers

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

Hubble bubble, boil and trouble

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

Sulphur

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

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

Maori night

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

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

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

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

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

Winner!

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

Dinner comes out of the ground

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

A Maori cooker…hangi meal and hot rocks

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

Chicken and spuds, cooked the hangi way

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bubbling mud pool

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

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

Blub!

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

Funny mud

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

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

Huka Falls

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

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

New Zealand: Lumpy

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

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

Bath time for the Magic Bus travellers

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

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

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

Enjoying some waterfall warmth

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

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

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

Magic Bus group hangout

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

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

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

“See, lovely,” I chipped in.

By now, Elizabeth was getting close.

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

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

“Nope, only joking,” I laughed!

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

Dusk in Taupo

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

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

Surf’s Up!

Catching my first waves in Byron Bay

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

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

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

And its cold.

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

Those balmy days in Cairns already seem so long ago

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

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

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

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

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

My surf board awaits…

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

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

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

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

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

Ready to surf

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

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

Me and my board

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

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

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

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

Jag practicing the stance

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

Out into the ocean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Snap up NOW,” Adsy shouted from behind.

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

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

Off I go!

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

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

Adsy and my surf group

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

With Marit and Anna from my dorm at Woodys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the surf

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

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

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

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

Stormy scenes at Cape Byron

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

Byron Bay’s famous lighthouse

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

I wonder if they’re still together?!

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

Capturing the powerful light

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

A final free beer with Jag in Byron

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

Another overnight Greyhound about to leave Byron Bay

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

Fraser Island, Yeah?

Touring Fraser Island

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

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

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

“You’ll be shark food, yeah,”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fraser Island by 4×4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al giving the early morning briefing

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

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

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

And we’re off!

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

On the boat to Fraser

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

Hitting the beach…with wheels

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

Lake McKenzie

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

Braving the chilly water in Lake McKenzie

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

My A Team family enjoying the water

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

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

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

Beautiful lakes on Fraser Island

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

Dingo dos and don’ts

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

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

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

An electrified dingo trap, keeping campsites safe

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

Its Phil’s cup!

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

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

Mealtime fun. ‘Who likes tomatoes?’ Silence.

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

At the wheel!

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

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

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

Approaching the wreck of the Maheno

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

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

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

The Maheno as a hospital ship

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

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

The Maheno in her final resting place

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

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

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

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

View from Indian Head

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

Dingo dangers!

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

Bingo! A dingo

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

Dinnertime!

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

With Ryan and Susie at the beach party

The fun you can have with a beach and car headlamps

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family outing!

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

Sand dunes on Fraser

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

Lake Wabby

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

Ryan and his, erm, creative talents

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

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

Farewell family beers

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

Had we had a great time? Yeah!

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

Finding Nemo

It’s all good on the Great Barrier Reef

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

Dawn breaks in Brisbane as I change planes for Cairns

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

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

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

Gilligans – one of the best hostels you’ll find

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

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

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

Arriving back into Cairns after seven years

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

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

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

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

Another day, another place

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

Gilligans reception. Hard to believe its a backpackers

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

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

Or so I thought.

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

Ooops. Too comfy

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

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

The pool at Gilligans

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

Planning my trip at Peter Pans in Cairns

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

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

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

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

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

My cool bag and backpack after their trip on The Ghan

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

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

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

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

Eeenie meenie minee mo…

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

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

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

Early morning in Cairns

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

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

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

Arriving at the Great Barrier Reef

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

Ready to go!

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

Stepping off the back of the boat

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

Going down…

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

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

Colourful coral

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

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

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

Back to the boat

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

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

Nemo land

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

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

Blowing bubbles on my dive as I search for another turtle

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

Going in for the turtle back rub

Giving turtle a nice scratch

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

Underwater smiles for the camera

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

Off I go to explore the reef

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

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

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

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

With Brandon (left) and Alex

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

Legendary backpacker haunt The Woolshed. Messy!

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

Cairns lagoon

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

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

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

The Greyhound awaits for Airlie Beach

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

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

Get me out of Here!

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

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

Laughing…but not for long!

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

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

First night in Darwin…before we noticed the problems!

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

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

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

Darwin: full of troublemakers!

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

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

Darwin does have a nicer side!

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

Ciaran, Lisa and Dan at Kakadu National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roasting

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

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

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

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

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

Another nice bit of Darwin – the esplanade

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

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

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

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

I immediately spotted the flaw in the fake helpfulness.

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

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

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

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

World War storage tunnels in Darwin

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

Roadtrip time!

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

Long, straight roads!

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

Termite mounds. Impressive!

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

Mammoth road trains!

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

Relaxing in Kakadu

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

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

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

Snap snap

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

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

Looking out for Crocs near the water!

Try saying this after a few!

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

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

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

Heading off for pastures new

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

Trouble for Man City before my flight!

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

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

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

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

Managed not to miss any of the action!

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