Island Life

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

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

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

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

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

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

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

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

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

Refuel stop on the road

Refuel stop on the road

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

Necocli

Necocli

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hungry dogs

Hungry dogs

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

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

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

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

Bags, bagged

Bags, bagged

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

 

 

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

Fast

Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

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

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

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

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

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

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

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

In search of a new life

In search of a new life

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

Boots of all sizes

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

Walking through the village

Walking through the village

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

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

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

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

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

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

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

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

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

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

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

Border police drugs checks

Border police drugs checks

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

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

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

First stop

First stop

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

Kuna village

Kuna village

Kuna life

Kuna life

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

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

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

The shower

The shower

Shower time!

Shower time!

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

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

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

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

A few green faces…and big smiles too!

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

Bobbing around

Bobbing around

Engine fixed

Engine fixed

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

Monkeying around

Monkeying around

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

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

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

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Say cheese!

Say cheese!

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

A storm sets in

A storm sets in

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

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

Huge lobster dinner

Huge lobster dinner

A great group

A great group

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

 

 

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Back in the Bunks

Bogota to Cartagena

“Have you just got here?”

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

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

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

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

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

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

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

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

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

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

El Viajero hostel

El Viajero hostel

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

Home for a few days

Home for a few days

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

Shower...without a warm tap!

Shower…without a warm tap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Cartagena

Colourful Cartagena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine minute millionaire!

Nine minute millionaire!

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

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

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

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

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

Wonderful. Get me to the beach.

Up high in Bogota

 

Up high in Bogota

Up high in Bogota

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

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

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

First views of South America

First views of South America

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

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

Attentive taxi driver

Attentive taxi driver

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

Three across...ends in EZ?

Three across…ends in EZ?

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

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

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

img_0812

Bolivar Square, Bogota, Colombia

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

Dancing in the streets for all ages

Dancing in the streets for all ages

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

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

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

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

Strawberry, Chocolate or Butterscotch, anyone?!

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

Chocolate completo

Chocolate completo

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

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

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

Does my famous face look big in this?!

Does my famous face look big in this?!

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

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

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

Cerro de Monserrate

Cerro de Monserrate

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

Cable car to the top

Cable car to the top

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

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

Street art in Bogota

Street art in Bogota

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

Bogota from above

Bogota from above

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

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Bolivar square, an alternative angle!

Mountains behind Bogota

Mountains behind Bogota

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

Funicular railway station

Funicular railway station

Going down!

Going down!

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

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

BBC beer

BBC beer

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

 

The End of a Magic Wander

Cold

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

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

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

Back on the bus, daft hat and all

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

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

Full of energy on the (smaller) Magic Bus

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

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

Kate and the ‘real’ horse

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

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

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

Feeding the fish

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

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

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

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

Salmon, doing a very good Piranha impression

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

A lake and a challenge…

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

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

Liam still beat me

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

The rest of the Magic Bus group at the top

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

Snow!

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

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

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

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

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

Brrr

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

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

Here boy!

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

Fun in the snow

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

I’ve always loved snow!

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

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

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

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

Sombre arrival in Christchurch

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

Christchurch Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, 25, 30 minutes,” she smiled.

We were in trouble.

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

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

Running for a bus!

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

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

Wait for me!

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

Our London bus tour of Christchurch

All aboard!

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

My Magic Bus group at the Cathedral

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

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

I think you probably know what my final decision wa

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

 

 

Go Hard, or Go Home

Queenstown – a brilliant place!

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

Fergburger – feeding adrenaline-induced hunger since ages ago

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

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

Milford Sound – much needed calm!

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

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

I’ll do my best…

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

Soap in his new bus

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

On the Buses

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

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

First views of Queenstown

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

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

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

Any pair will do

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

VIPs

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

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

Erm…is there any alcohol in this?!

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

Soap’s ‘Kool Kats’

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

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

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

Big blokes with poorly arms

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

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

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

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

There’s a tap on my back.

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

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

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

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

A regular Soapy face

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

Creating the money shot

Still going strong – shades on!

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

Irish rugby player stole my shades…

…and then tried to steal my shot!

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

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

Ghostly mountains on the way to Milford Sound

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

Drinking again…this time from a river

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

Milford was sound

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

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

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

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

Catching up with another Nashopian

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

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

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

Its all about the Ferg!

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

The Fergburger menu

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

Open wide! Tucking into a Fergburger

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

Takes some doing!

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

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

Ski time!

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

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

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

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

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

Been a while since I had a trip down the M1

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mate, are you Barney?”

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

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

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

Bumping into Barney after 10 years

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

Catching up on the lift

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

Barney comes a cropper

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

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

Queenstown Winter Festival launch night

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

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

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

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

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

Clare’s attempt…

…My attempt

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

Oh dear.

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

A fast boat

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

Wet and windy!

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

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

Suddenly we’re facing the opposite direction

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

Luge

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

One day i’ll grow up

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

Shotover Street, Queenstown

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Vivid Memories of Australia

Goodbye Oz

Its been the best part of six months since I was last heading to Sydney, on a flight from Thailand, but now, having completed a huge circuit through and around this giant country, it was time to go full circle.

Leaving Byron Bay in the knowledge it was my final overnight Greyhound journey down the east coast, there was more than a tinge of sadness. The initial novelty of seeing the differences in Australia – the different road signs, the gum and eucalyptus trees that line the highways and byways, different retail names and brands, even the Aussie accent, had all long worn off.

It has, to all intents and purposes, become home.

To say “I’m just nipping out to Coles” rolls off the tongue as normally as “I’ve got to pop to Tesco,” back home. I long mastered the Australian currency, although I still think the $2 coin should be bigger than the $1 coin, and seeing incredible coastlines, crashing waves and beautiful beaches has become as much as part of life as driving along the Humber on the A63 back home.

It has crept up on me quickly, and I don’t think it has sunk in yet that within just a couple of days, my time in Australia will be no more, that I’ll have moved on to pastures new, and my friends here that I am so used to being in touch with via text message or Facebook in the same time zone will once again start living further and further away from me.

But I had a few friends to catch up with first before I finally said farewell to Australia, and the first involved a short 24 hour stay in Newcastle, a few hours north of Sydney. Leaving the surf behind in Byron Bay, I joined the Greyhound in the town centre and got comfortable for a night’s broken sleep on the road. Thankfully, two days of hard work on the waves had left me shattered, but its still hard to get a ‘proper’ sleep on a bus, nomatter how many ways you contort your body to try to get comfortable.

A recipe for no sleep

Sleeping on buses, I have learned in the last few weeks, is something of a fine art. For best results, take a pillow – my tiny British Airways issue pillow has been worth its weight in gold. An oversize hoodie provides a great way of keeping your body and head warm, and when pulled over your eyes, acts like a sleeping mask.

Most of all, night time coach travel requires you to be short, which I’m not. How I look in envy at some of the smaller people in life, quite happily curled up on two seats and enjoying the slumber. For me, when my legs aren’t trying to find available cavities under the seats in front of me to fill, they’re often flapping around trying to become horizontal. That’ll involve trying to get comfortable by resting on seats across the aisle, only to be knocked down shortly after by someone getting on or off the bus.

You might just nod off, only for a debilitating pain to strike up, usually in the buttock region, from being sat in a weird angle for too long. Or your arms have gone to sleep from resting on them. Or we’ve just flown around the last corner too quick and I’ve banged my head on the window again. Or the pillow has slipped and my skull is vibrating on the glass.

Early morning driver break. Feeling good.

You probably get the picture that sleeping on a bus isn’t necessarily for me, but when you’re backpacking, it does save the cost of a night’s accommodation. And for me, that’s the most important thing right now – I’ve got the rest of my life to sleep properly in a bed!

Somehow, the night passed and I woke up on the outskirts of Newcastle, a coastal town built up around a busy port, and where I get off the bus for a day. Its somewhere that, before this trip, I would have happily sailed through on the motorway and on to Sydney, but that part changed in Thailand.

Studious Liz at home in Newcastle

Newcastle is home to my friend Liz, who I met in Chiang Mai and spent over a week travelling around the north of Thailand with back in December. We rode and washed elephants together, enjoyed countless Chang beers and Sangsom whiskeys, toured waterfalls and beautiful scenery and had countless laughs in a group with our friends Bryce and Erin. Regular readers, however, will just remember her as the Australian girl I managed to throw off the back of a scooter on the motorbike ride back from Pai.

Liz and I about to get thrown off an elephant in Thailand in December

Thankfully, our friendship survived that little test and we’ve stayed in touch, and I promised to call by should my journey take me anywhere near Newcastle. After a few hours of much needed sleep at one of the town’s only backpacker hostels, Liz picked me up. It felt strangely normal to wave her down in the street and jump into her car, despite it already being six months since we were causing trouble in Thailand together.

Liz is studying to be a journalist, which probably explains why we get on so well together, but she had a bit of coursework due to be handed in that afternoon. We headed straight to a lovely bar and restaurant complex near the docks, where she treated me to lunch and refused to take any money.

“Don’t worry about it, you’re still travelling,” she said.

We had a great few hours catching up, laughing about our adventures together in southeast Asia, and finding out all about each others’ travels since. The last time I saw Liz, she was running out of the dorm room in Chiang Mai, late for her taxi (bad timekeeping is another thing we have in common) to the airport for a flight to Cambodia. She told me all about her new year celebrations in the country, as well as her onward travels to Vietnam and Laos, following a similar route that I took a month previous.

Taking in the sights of Newcastle!

I also read through one of her assignments for her, giving her a few pointers but mainly putting her mind at ease that it would get a good grade. She’s actually a really good writer, and I know she’ll go on to do well in the industry.

Like all good journalists, Liz also knows how to have a good time, and that night we met up with some of her friends as one of them was leaving, funnily enough, to go travelling. We’d promised to relive some of our party nights from Thailand, and we certainly did our best.

Liz and a laser

I woke up the following morning only having had a few hours sleep and with a sore head – a familiar feeling from our nights in Chiang Mai together – and managed to pack my belongings into my bag for the 9.40am departure to Sydney. Co-incidentally, Liz, her partner and her sister will follow me a few hours later with friends to see the Temper Trap gig at the Opera House, and we agreed to meet up for a few more beers afterwards.

In the meantime, I boarded my coach and watched as Newcastle passed by outside the window. When I’d mentioned to a few people I was stopping off in the city, I did get a few quizzical looks.

“Why on earth do you want to stop there?” people would say.

Newcastle seagulls. Mine?!

When I explained I had a friend there, all was understood, but actually, I really liked the place. For me, there were many similarities to home in Grimsby – by the coast, with a beach, a hugely important port and a rich history. Coal exports are a huge deal for Australia, and much of it passes through Newcastle. The port very much resembles that of Immingham, an industrial landscape with huge piles of coal ready to be loaded onto ships for markets overseas.

I didn’t see much more of the journey however, after I managed to fall asleep in a snore-inducing position with my head wedged backwards between the seat and the window. I twice woke myself up with particularly loud snorts, and judging by the looks I was getting from other passengers, they weren’t the only two I’d managed in the three hour journey south. The fact I woke up, on the outskirts of Sydney, with a dry mouth and slightly sore throat was all the evidence I needed that I had, indeed, snored my way from city to city. I kept my head down and avoided eye contact with other passengers until I was well away from the coach.

Approaching the Harbour Bridge

The way back into Sydney took me for my first crossing of the famous Harbour Bridge before we pulled into Central Station, my 3,000km journey down the east coast of Australia finally complete. While Sydney felt familiar, it seemed a world away from the Sydney I arrived in at the end of January. Back then, the height of summer, I had everything to look forward to in Australia – I had all my friends to meet, I was catching up with my friend Cat from home, and Jack, one of my best mates from university, was in the city for work.

Crossing the Harbour Bridge

Now I had arrived knowing the end was near, and that my trip is slowly but surely moving into the twilight stages before I finally head home. I walked along streets that I had walked along before my ‘Ballarat family’ was even known to me.

End of the road – arriving in Sydney on the Greyhound

That I walked along believing I was heading to Mount Gambier in South Australia to help out at a roadhouse. That I had walked along not knowing I would attend the Australian Grand Prix, break down in a mate’s car at Ayers Rock, get thrown out of a hostel in Darwin or learn to surf in Byron Bay. Back then, I had no idea how my stay in Australia would pan out – but I smiled as I walked back to my hostel in Sydney knowing I had made the most of every moment here.

As I pressed the button on the lift at the World Square Hostel in George Street once again, my mind flashed back to that day in January when I was doing the same, on my way up to room 403 where Cat was staying, my friend from Hull who was the main person who inspired this trip. I remember the nerves, and of wondering how long I could afford the expensive place that Australia has become. Its almost six months, yet it feels like just a few hours ago that I had last been in the building.

Back then, Cat was in the same position I now find myself in, having worked her way around Australia and arriving in Sydney with a couple of days to spare before flying out to New Zealand. I checked in with reception, before heading off to Darling Harbour and to my friend Katrina’s office.

With Liz, her partner Jim, her sister and friends on my first night back in Sydney

Having left my bank card in Alice Springs, I have been living on a credit card for the past month. Now, however, the funds on the credit card have dried up, and I couldn’t have timed it any better to pick up my card. It was initially sent to my hostel in Darwin, but I’d left before it arrived. It was down to my friends Dan and Laura, who I left in the north, to send it on to Katrina in Sydney, who in turn left it with security at her office for me to collect. It was a relief to get my hands on it, and I could go on to pay for my hostel as a result!

I met Katrina for lunch at the Hard Rock Café on the harbour for a catch up and a goodbye before I left. I’ll always be grateful to her for the help and support she gave me during my first few days here, and we had a great couple of hours laughing about some of my travel tales, talking about her Crossfit exertions and savouring our last meeting for a while.

Fireworks at Darling Harbour

There was one other goodbye that evening, to Brandon, who was in my dorm at the Gilligans hostel in Cairns. He’s also made his way down the east coast, but in his own car that he’d bought for his travels.

With Brandon at Vivid

We’d agreed to take in the Vivid light festival together, and met at Darling Harbour in time for the weekly fireworks show at 8.30pm. It’s a great little display, one that I watched with Katrina when I first arrived in the city earlier this year, and Brandon was impressed that it was a weekly event. It certainly brings in the crowds to the area, where, despite the rain, hundreds of people line the quaysides.

We walked on to Circular Quay, where you get the best views of the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and where the Vivid festival takes place.

Vivid light festival, Sydney

It’s a collection of illuminated art, the centrepiece being a special display on the sails of the iconic Opera House. I was lucky enough to visit the exhibition last year, co-incidentally on the same weekend as this one during my three week trip around the world. But whereas last year the famous sails were lit in bright colours, that would change and evolve into shapes, this year there was a projection of two figures onto the surface.

Sydney Opera House, disappointingly not as Vivid as last year

While they would move, roll around and appear to walk on the landmark, for me it wasn’t quite as effective as last year, which was a shame. The rest of the exhibition was as fantastic as always, including Customs House and the Museum of Modern Art being lit up with some incredibly clever 3D projections.

Customs House before the ‘show’

Customs House during the ‘day of city life’ show

We spent hours walking around in the rain, taking in all the smaller pieces dotted around the area, before heading back to my hostel for a final beer together. While I leave in a matter of hours, Brandon also heads back to his native Canada, and to Saskatchewan, in a few days. As he disappeared down the spiral stairs and back out onto the wet Sydney streets, I headed to my bunk.

One of the highlights of Vivid Sydney – they’re cycles!

Giving art a whirl!

Its hard to sum up my feelings. There’s sadness that I will probably never spend as long in Australia, meeting so many good friends, ever again, but gratitude that at least I’ve had the opportunity to make this trip. There’s a feeling that it’s passed by so quickly on one hand, yet when I think back to my arrival here, it can seem so long ago. Then there’s excitement at a new chapter in my travels about to unfold, a visit to a new country that I have never been to but heard so many good things about. And I also know it means my journey around the world is slowly coming to an end. In just over a month and a half, I will be back home – Sydney, its Opera House, my Australian friends and those uncomfortable Greyhound bus seats will seem so far away.

As I hauled my bags over my shoulders in Australia one last time, I said goodbye to the staff and took my final steps out of the hostel. It was raining, yet again, which seemed to suit my mood. I made my way to Town Hall station, but paused before disappearing down the steps and onto a train to the airport. I looked up and around, taking in one last view of the city, and smiled.

Looking forward

I came to this country knowing just a couple of good friends, who helped to look after me, support me and made me feel so welcome in their homes. I leave with a huge list of new friends, who I will stay in touch with, remember fondly and hopefully, at some point, meet again in the future, either back in this fantastic place Down Under, or back home on British soil.

I also came here with a few ticks outstanding on my bucket list – Uluru and the Whitsundays were high up there. Somehow, despite a few financial problems that cropped up along the way, I had visited all the places I set out to see, and more besides. The beautiful Great Ocean Road and stunning Grampians in Victoria with Siobhan and Matt from home; the sights and sounds of Ballarat with my ‘family’ of Nat, Jess, Liv, Jane and James, the Ghan train to the outback with Dan and Laura, Alice Springs and Ayers Rock with my friend Neil, complete with the fateful breakdown of his car. Diving the Great Barrier Reef, cruising along the beach on Fraser Island and learning to surf the Aussie way – so many highlights, and memories that will always be with me.

A last view of Sydney’s skyline from the airport

On the way to gate 36 for my Qantas flight to Auckland at Sydney’s international airport, I stopped off at a souvenir shop. I had just five Australian dollars left in my pocket. There was only one thing I could buy – an Australian flag patch for my backpack. Its quite fitting that its larger than any of the others from the rest of my trip, having spent the longest time here.

As we turned off the taxiway and onto the main runway, the engines screamed to full throttle. I was pushed back into my chair, and wedged my head into the window and watched as the terminal disappeared behind me. We lifted up into the air, a slight bump as the wheels left the ground, and I left Australian soil for the final time. The street lights of Sydney’s suburbs began to drift away below me, and I watched until the coastline disappeared from view.

I know I’m going to miss it, and I don’t know when I will be back in this far-flung part of the world. But I do know that this huge, beautiful country, and all those who have helped make my stay here so memorable, will always have a very special place in my heart.

Meeting the locals in Brisbane

Koalas – grey, furry, cute, most definitely not a bear but a much loved and treasured icon of Australia.

Altogether now…ahhhh!

A trip to this vast nation wouldn’t be complete without seeing a few of the fluffy bundles, and where better than a koala sanctuary, home to well over 100 of them and on the outskirts of Brisbane.

“I am not a bear”

Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary is only a small place – I was budgeting for just a few hours – but ended up spending my whole afternoon there watching the animals, playing with kangaroos, and even getting a hug from a koala.

It’s a great place to visit, and somewhere that I only discovered after I checked in at the Base hostel in Brisbane city centre. A few travellers had questioned why I was staying in Brisbane for a couple of nights. “There’s not much to do there” and “Its an awful place” were just two of the comments I’d helpfully had passed my way by people on tours or on the Greyhound as I have been making my way down Australia’s east coast.

The truth is, a former colleague of mine, Andy, now lives in the city, and it would be rude to just pass by without at least trying to meet up for a coffee. And besides, when you’re travelling, a stop-off is what you make of it. That’s why, when I saw a pamphlet in the hostel reception for the koala park – and someone holding one of the little animals – it shot right to the top of my ‘to do’ list in the area.

Greyhounding down the coast

Also near the top of my list was the task of spending as much time away from my dorm room as possible. Despite paying for a 10 bed dorm, someone somewhere thought they were doing me a favour by upgrading me to a four bed dorm. The only problem was that the three others in the room, two German guys and a Russian, quite liked their eastern European hardcore trance music. Their stereo, it seems, only has ‘loud’ or ‘loudest’ as settings.

Random giant kangaroo at the service station

Without so much as a hello, or even a glance up from whatever artist they were lining up next on the laptop, I walked in, dropped my bags, attempted to make a bed and then gave up, only to walk back out again. I took myself off for a wander around the city centre, taking in the atmosphere and meandering through the busy pedestrianised area full of people enjoying meals in bars and restaurants, sports fans watching the footy on big screens, and quite a few people heading out to nightclubs.

Back in the hostel, things had quietened down, and I worked out that I had been put in a room with three workers. They were carrying out cleaning duties in the hostel, working for their accommodation, a popular way of saving money while travelling when funds run dry. It meant that they were up at the crack of dawn, banging around and turning lights on, but I needed to be up early anyway to cram more sightseeing into my short stay.

Hello!

The journey to Lone Pine involved finding a public bus and taking a half hour ride out some 15km or so to the park, but it was well worth the effort. Set up in 1927 there were initially just two koalas being cared for here, called Jack and Jill. Now its an internationally acclaimed breeding centre, the world’s oldest and largest koala sanctuary, and the kindergarten enclosure was by far one of the best bits about the day.

Adult koalas, due to their low energy diet of eucalyptus leaves, don’t move around a great deal during the day, but the kids on the other hand are full of life. Leaping around from branch to branch, chasing after each other, trying to climb the fence to escape and general juvenile fun and games means they are very entertaining to watch. You could tell they were developing personalities, even at such a young age. One koala would happily climb to the top of the enclosure, standing proud as king of his castle for hours.

I watched a presentation about the animals, where it was revealed all 130 or so koalas at the park have a name – and the staff know each and every one of them. Now, one koala to the next looks pretty similar to me, give or take a bit of fluff around the ears, or perhaps a smaller nose here and there. However, there’s a way to tell each animal apart.

You have to look at its bum.

Yes, every koala has unique markings around its bottom, lighter shades of grey or white patches arranged in special patterns amid the dark grey fur. The staff revealed they have learnt to tell all of the koalas apart by working out pictures on each of the koalas to remember them by – one of the males sitting nearby was named thanks to his markings looking like a pair of eyes.

Next it was my turn to hold and cuddle one of the koalas. For $16 (£10) you get a photograph of the moment too, and with my hands held out, palms up and crossed together, Violet was placed in my arms.

At first she looked at me, putting her arms around my shoulder and clinging on to my shirt, before she was distracted by the camera. She was the weight of a small dog, but actually felt very stable and happy in the short time she was in my arms. Her fur was short, and slightly rough, and actually felt very similar to the koala cuddly toys that are available in all the tourist shops here. I gave her a rub on the back, before I had to hand her back to the koala keeper.

With a Skippy or three

The best thing about the park is how well cared for the koalas are – they are only ever held by the public for short periods of just a few minutes every few days, and all of the animals I saw seemed so happy.

“What have you got for me?”

That included the field full of kangaroos, jumping around all over the place as the sun began to set. It is their most active time of the day, and instead of spending money on food to feed them, I pulled up some grass and held it out. They loved it, and I got quite a few of them bounding over to me.

Somehow I had whiled away an entire afternoon at the park, spending much of the time taking photographs of the koalas. I took that many, my camera died – you just never know when you’re going to get the perfect shot. Besides, they are my mum’s favourite animals, so I had to get plenty of photos to keep her happy. The afternoon was a great way, towards the end of my stay in Australia, to spend some time with some of the country’s most famous animals.

Almost lost my bag…

There was another catch-up in store the following day, when I met Andy, a former colleague of mine from when I first started at BBC Look North. He’s the man who would operate the satellite truck out on location, transmitting live reports back to the studio, and in turn, out to televisions across the north east of England.

Another city, another mate to catch up with!

We only worked together for about a year before he left for Australia, eventually settling, having a family and making a life for himself Down Under.

We’d promised to try to meet up if our busy schedules allowed it, and thankfully he’d been called into Brisbane city centre to run an errand, and so took the opportunity to meet up for coffee.

We had a great time reminiscing about my early days in the Look North newsroom, and Andy appreciated the information I had about all the recent goings on that he’d not heard about. He told me all about the exciting life he’s had here, operating satellite trucks to broadcast sports events from across the Asia Pacific area, even beaming shows such as I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here to homes back home.

“Ant and Dec’s trailer was really close to ours. They’re really nice lads, would always give you a wave and a smile,” he told me.

Andy (eighth from right) and I (right of Pudsey) at Children in Need, Lincoln 2005

He told me how I join a huge list of former and current colleagues who have visited him, with around eight or nine mutual friends that have stopped by to say hello since he left Hull in 2006, who, like me, remember a good mate despite the miles between us these days.

“Its been amazing that I’m all this way from the UK, and I might not speak to someone for months, even years, yet they’ll drop by,” he said, smiling.

He admits it can be tough being away from family and friends in his native land, especially when it comes to bringing up a young family and the extra hands close friends can lend, but he’s really happy with his life here. And with near constant sunshine, beautiful scenery and a good job, its easy to see why he’s so happy, and I’m really pleased for him.

Saying goodbye again!

After a few hours of telling each other about our current lives, and remembering some of the television projects we worked on – including my first Children in Need outside broadcast in Lincoln in 2005, Andy had to get back to work. We had a few photos in the park near my hostel, before we said goodbye and promised to stay in touch.

With my Greyhound bus set to leave in a few hours time, I booked myself on an economy cruise through the centre of Brisbane to get some shots of the city. It was, of course, my usual trick of buying a regular passenger ferry ticket and just going for a ride. It was onboard a particularly fast ferry, a ‘fast cat’ catamaran to be precise, which afforded great views of the waterfront and exclusive yachts and millionaire riverfront villas that line stretches of the river.

Brisbane

It’s the equivalent of catching the number 16 bus in Grimsby and going for a ride to Asda and back, but it’s a great, cheap way of seeing a place, as well as it being quite fun.

Brisbane’s waterfront area

The fast cat was particularly nippy, and I stood on the front deck watching the world go by for two hours, before it turned around and delivered me back into the city centre with just enough time to collect my bags and head to the coach terminal.

Yet again, I was heading south on a Greyhound, this time to Byron Bay. I’m more than halfway back to Sydney, with Byron being my last full ‘east coast’ stop before hitting the city once again and preparing to fly out of the country.

Back on the road again

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.