Get me out of Here!

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

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

Laughing…but not for long!

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

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

First night in Darwin…before we noticed the problems!

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

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

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

Darwin: full of troublemakers!

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

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

Darwin does have a nicer side!

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

Ciaran, Lisa and Dan at Kakadu National Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roasting

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

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

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

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

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

Another nice bit of Darwin – the esplanade

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

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

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

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

I immediately spotted the flaw in the fake helpfulness.

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

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

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

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

World War storage tunnels in Darwin

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

Roadtrip time!

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

Long, straight roads!

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

Termite mounds. Impressive!

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

Mammoth road trains!

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

Relaxing in Kakadu

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

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

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

Snap snap

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

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

Looking out for Crocs near the water!

Try saying this after a few!

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

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

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

Heading off for pastures new

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

Trouble for Man City before my flight!

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

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

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

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

Managed not to miss any of the action!

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

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A Rock and a Hard Place

Beautiful Ayers Rock – Uluru – can cast a spell over you…

“You don’t get this on the tour,”

The immortal words of my mate Dan as he dusts down his hands after pushing a 4×4 around a car park. Our 4×4.

Its never good when you break down. Infact, its horrendous when you break down. I remember once hauling a load of stuff down to Southampton for Uni when my Ford Escort conked out in the fast lane near junction 13 of the M1. Nobody would let my dying car onto the hard shoulder. Terrifying.

But thanks to the UK being highly populated, you’re never really that far from help. Unless you’re in the Shetlands or somewhere – I could imagine that being a bit of a pain – on the whole there’s usually a mechanic around.

Fuel up when you can…

The Australian outback, on the other hand, is a completely different kettle of fish. Break down here, and it could be hours before anyone drives past to even notice that you’ve got a problem. Even then, they might just drive by and leave you as a tasty snack for the circling vultures above.

In a nutshell, the outback is really not somewhere that you want to be breaking down. Especially when it’s not your car.

You can probably guess what’s coming next?

That’s right, my bad luck on two wheels this trip has suddenly made the move to four wheeled transport – and it left us stranded in the red centre, hundreds of kilometres from anywhere resembling a city.

This isn’t good.

My stay in Alice Springs began with a long overdue catch up with Neil, a good mate from years back during my days at Pizza Hut in Grimsby. Back then, I was at college studying my A-levels, had just learned how to drive, was living with my parents and somehow working out what to do with my life. Neil was pretty much in the same position, and we first met serving stuffed crusts and Super Supremes to the paying public.

Neil, a good mate, and all round legend!

We had a brilliant team at the Victoria Street restaurant back then, a team that didn’t really change much over the two years most of us worked there before heading off to university. For many of us, it was our first job, and we had a ball. We worked hard – the restaurant was consistently among the best in the country, and we won awards for our customer service – but we also played hard too. Finishing late, we’d often head over to the nearby Gullivers nightclub for a beer, no doubt ending the night with the familiar beat of the Cranberries ‘Zombie’ ringing through our ears.

When I first started, I was told it was a team that laughs together, cries together and falls over together, and I was soon a part of it. By day we were running the restaurant, by night and at weekends we were all out together and enjoying each others company.

But as everyone headed off to university, slowly the team was split up. Gradually, some of us lost touch, and one of those was Neil, someone who I always looked forward to working with as he was one of the funniest, helpful, and most kind-hearted members of the crew, who was always making me laugh.

Time went by, and while a few of us kept in touch, whatever happened to Neil remained a bit of a mystery. I knew he headed off to Europe somewhere, but he’d hardly been seen or heard from since. Until Facebook came about that is, when suddenly, a couple of years ago, his familiar face popped up.

Somehow, Neil found his way to Alice Springs, slap bang in the middle of Australia, and a town that he has grown to love, and made it his home. It’s a far cry from his Cleethorpes upbringing.

Having started my travels, I got the following message from Neil last November.

“Hey Phyllis (his name for me from years gone by) I’m probably not the only one hating you for your extravagant work trip right now! I see you are well and living your dreams these days, good for you mate.”

What followed, aside from me reassuring him the BBC licence payer wasn’t funding my travels for work, was an exchange where we were finally back in touch. It ended with Neil saying if I made it to his part of the world, to get in touch.

As I stepped of the Ghan train into the hot Alice Springs sun, I was certainly in his part of the world, and he’d offered me a place to stay. After around 13 years, in the carpark of a hostel that I’d been hanging around at with some friends, we met once again, his tall frame and familiar smile and laugh taking me back to the times we’d be larking around in the kitchen or staffroom of the restaurant back home.

Reunited!

“Mate, its so good to see you again,” we both said, laughing at how the circumstances led to us meeting on the opposite side of the world, and quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.

We spent the night reliving old times and laughing about all our memories together, reminding each other of funny stories and the people we worked with. We laughed at how we would get the kitchen to make a ‘mistake’ pizza, so that we could deliberately stick it in an area near the freezer, out of sight from customers, and quickly munch away.

“We almost had to inhale it so that it was gone by the time you got to the next customer’s table,” we joked, remembering how Neil would down countless espressos and coffees from the machine to keep him awake, and how his jeans were once wet by a prankster and placed in the walk-in freezer.

“They were good times, man,” he smiled, taking another drag from his cigarette.

Neil hasn’t changed, and is still the kind-hearted, generous bloke that I knew in the late 1990s. I had planned to take a tour to Uluru – Ayers Rock – at a cost of $355, along with my friends Dan and Laura who I met in Adelaide. But Neil offered me the use of his car, a Mitsubishi Pajero 4×4, for the trip, an offer that was too good to refuse.

Neil lends me his car…

And so, early the next morning, I loaded his car with sleeping bags and clothes, and set off to pick up my friends from Toddy’s hostel in the town and off we went down the Stuart Highway, passing huge road trains, desert and bush, on our way to perhaps the most famous rock in the world.

Picking up Dan and Laura…roadtrip!

It was a long drive, some 440km just to the national park, but with good company and an exciting few days ahead, it passed quickly. After about four hours, we began to notice a huge rock on the horizon.

Ayers Rock…

“There it is, Ayers Rock,” we all said in unison. It was huge, dominating the horizon, but in the back of my mind I knew we were still more than 150km away. Perhaps the road loops around the back? Perhaps the size of the thing means you can see it from so far away?

In any case, I waited for a bit of road so that we could pull over with a good view and turned off at the side onto the deep red dust and sand.

On the road and with Uluru behind me. Sort of.

There then followed around 20 minutes of photos and smiles, looking at what the three of us had been wanting to tick off the list in Australia. We got back in the car and drove on, only for us to pass a sign about 100 metres over the crest of a hill.

“Mt Connor lookout, 300m on left”

It wasn’t Ayers Rock. We all felt a bit stupid, but at the same time, found it hilarious.

“You wouldn’t get that on the tour,”  said Dan. He was right.

We motored on, driving along seemingly endless straight roads, with little in the way of scenery aside from the occasional mountain range, trees and bushes. At one point we passed a man, in the middle of the outback, walking along pulling a trailer. A bit odd, but we left him to it.

“There, through the trees,” I said to Dan. “I think I can see it”

This time we knew it was the right rock. The familiar curved edges and rounded tops of Ayers Rock – or Uluru, to use its Aboriginal name – were a dark outline on the horizon, still many kilometres away, but after hours of driving it was a great sight to see.

As we got closer, it seemed to just grow and grow. I didn’t know what to expect really – I knew it would just be a big lump in the ground, but when you approach, it’s the overall size that takes your breath away – its something that just doesn’t come across nomatter how many times you see it on photographs or on the tv.

Huge!

There is also the wonder as to how, when all around is flat for many, many miles, this huge rock came to be in the middle of the desert. For me, that was difficult to get my head around – it doesn’t seem to conform to any of the geological norms that we have come to expect, the sides are smooth and rounded, there are few signs of any layering and there’s no evidence of other mountains around it.

Infact, once upon a time, Uluru was part of a range, but the composition of its sandstone led to its survival, while all other rocks and mountains around eroded away.

The Olgas loom ahead

We drove another 30km or so to another rock formation known as the Olgas, which are visible from Uluru. These were perculiar, and if I’m honest, almost more interesting than the famous Ayers Rock because of the strange shapes and domes which stand so tall. As we walked around, the wind funnelled between the gulleys that separated the domes and the sound filled the desert around us.

Valley of the Winds

The Olgas

The sun began to set, so we dashed back to Uluru to watch as the terracotta red sandstone changed through a whole range of colours as the sun sank down from the sky behind us.

Watching as the sun sets on Uluru

First a deep browny red, through to a range of orange colours, before changing into a deep red as the daylight slipped away. We watched until it got dark, Uluru turning into a shade of purple as the stars and moon began to shine.

Glowing

Enjoying the experience together

We made our way to a nearby campsite, had a barbecue and went to bed relatively early, getting up at 6am and making our way back to the site for sunrise.

The sun rises above the horizon

Again, the colours in the sky and on Uluru were spectacular, a whole variety of blues, pinks, purples and reds. In the distance, the Olgas seemed to get sunlight first, before our star rose above the horizon again behind us and beamed light upon the rock and the miles and miles of outback wilderness.

With nothing in the way of human settlements around, its easy to see how this whole process of sunrise and sunset, the glow of the rock and the arid, occasionally windswept desert plains have been on this repetitive cycle for millions of years. It would have looked just the same back then as it does now.

Daybreak over Uluru and the Olgas

After showers and breakfast back at the campsite, we had a whole day ahead – Uluru, a walk around the base, perhaps another visit to the Olgas and then onward to Kings Canyon and back to Alice Springs in the evening.

We visited the cultural centre in the Uluru National Park, a place where you can learn about the Aboriginal people who own the land this huge solo mountain sits in. Inside, there was a register to sign to say that you haven’t climbed the rock – it is seen as a sacred site by the indigenous people, and encourage against walking on it. There was also a ‘Sorry’ book, which intrigued me.

Inside were pages and pages of letters from people all over the world with almost unbelievable lists of bad luck. The common factor – they had all taken rocks or sand from the site as a souvenir. Now, this is something that I would be likely to do, thanks to my collection of bits and bobs from around the world back home. However, even I know the significance of Uluru to the people here, so my pockets would remain empty.

For those a little less thoughtful, rocks and sand made their way to all corners of the globe as their little bit of Uluru. But reading stories of how friends, relatives and pets suddenly died when they returned, or how they themselves were struck down by illness or misfortune, was an eye opener. Coincidence, maybe? The reason why their letters were on show is because they were so convinced that Uluru had cursed them, they had sent the rocks and sand back for the park wardens to return.

Indeed, underneath this book of confession was a huge pile of rocks and sand that had once been taken away, but now returned to its rightful place.

Dan and I spent a long time reading through the letters, even laughing at some of the tales – it includes stories from people noticing weird things happening at home, noises, movements, that kind of thing. We walked away from the book and back to the car, looking forward to a walk around part of Uluru’s base. I turned the ignition. Nothing happened.

I looked at Dan.

“Ah, could you imagine,” we laughed together.

I turned the key again. The started motor fired. The engine didn’t.

By the third attempt, the laughter had stopped. It was now beyond a temporary mis-start. This was a major problem.

Houston, we have a problem.

I got out and spent about half an hour with my head under the bonnet, removing spark plug connectors, rubbing them down, checking oil, pressing fuses, even rocking the car while trying to start it to see if that would help. It didn’t. We were stuck.

We began to worry. There was no mobile phone coverage, I had no details for any breakdown cover, no way of finding out a garage number, and nobody else who was passing by seemed to care. And we were losing time to see the rest of the area. Thankfully the cultural centre had a payphone. I rang Neil to tell him we had a bit of a problem. I described the symptoms.

“You know, it did this a few months back with me. I left it 10 minutes and it started again,” he said.

It filled me with a bit of hope. I’d tried most things I could think of, so we left it and looked at the huge rock dominating the view through the window.

I tried again. Nothing.

A French couple came over and said they had a number for a local mechanic – local being about 30km away – but we might need it. In the meantime, we tried push-starting the vehicle with their help. Its an automatic, and I didn’t really know how to, but I put it in neutral and tried starting the engine as I slowly trundled around the car park thanks to Dan and the French guy pushing at the back. Still nothing.

“You don’t get this on the tour,” said Dan, ruefully.

Kurt the mechanic arrives… Dan ponders!

By now, we knew we needed help. I rang Neil again to tell him the bad news. Thankfully, he thinks he has a two year breakdown policy, so he gives me the details and I rang the company.

“Sorry sir, the policy expired on April 19,” came the not so helpful response. I asked if there was anything they could do, afterall, it was less than two weeks ago. In a nutshell, she said no. The bad luck continued. Could this be payback from the Rock for laughing at the Sorry book?!

There was nothing for it, I had to ring the garage based near the resort, a good 20 minutes away. I spoke to Kurt, a mechanic, who told me it was a $99 callout and just over $100 for the tow. I had no option, and he told me he’d be with in just over an hour.

By now it was early afternoon, and I was gutted. Gutted for Neil, as I knew there was probably an over-inflated outback repair bill heading his way, gutted for Dan and Laura as I’d managed to get them stranded in the desert, and gutted for myself as I knew this was in danger of ruining my visit to somewhere I had been so looking forward to seeing.

Sad face from Laura!

We cheered ourselves up by getting something to eat, having spotted some public barbecues. Except they wouldn’t work either. Yet more bad luck. I remembered Neil said there was a portable stove in the boot of the car, so we got that out and made some burgers while we waited for the mechanic.

Food always cheers me up!

Kurt turned up a while later, tall, fair haired and with a big smile and arm outstretched, he shook my hand and I showed him to the car. He did a lot of the same checks as me, before crawling under the back of the car and kicking it. He asked me to try starting the engine at the same time. Still nothing.

“I think your fuel pump’s gone,” he said. “It’ll have to come back on the trailer.”

And so, with yet more pushing, we manoeuvred the car to Kurts truck, and with a powerful winch attached, I steered it onto the back.

Groan

This wasn’t the off-roading I had in mind behind the wheel

It was a sad sight to see all of our belongings in the back of the car, now helplessly strapped onto the back of a lorry as it awaits its diagnosis quite a few miles down the road. The next problem was that Kurt could only take two of us to the garage with him in the cab, and so Laura volunteered to stay and get a lift back with someone. She argued that it might be easier for a girl to get help.

Pants.

As Dan and I chatted to Kurt in the truck on the way to the garage, talking about our lives back home, how we met in Adelaide and how we were thinking of doing a bus trip to Uluru, I muttered that we wouldn’t have had this experience on a tour. Dan laughed.

At the garage, Laura turned up at the same time as us, a couple had seen the predicament we were in and offered to help, following us all the way to the village. The car was checked over, and soon the fuel pump theory was proven.

Poorly car…outback garage

“With labour, you’re looking at about $900 plus tax,” said Kurt, telling me that it could have been a lot worse after fitting a two-grand part on a Landrover Discovery that afternoon.

“But we need to get onto it soon – its half four now and the freight leaves Alice Springs at 5pm.”

I agreed and rang Neil to break the news. He took it amazingly well – there was a sharp intake of breath at first, but I don’t blame him. We were stuck overnight while the part arrived from the shop more than 400km away.

“Stranded in the outback. You don’t get that on a tour,” we joked.

Kurt drove us to a nearby backpacker lodge where we would stay for the night. We might be stuck in the outback, but we decided to make the most of it. We went straight to the bar and ordered a beer. We needed one!

Stuck in the bush. We had to smile somehow!

Bye Bye Ballarat

Saying goodbye

A few people have asked me what is the hardest thing about travelling. Is it the language barriers perhaps? The constant moving around and lack of routine? Naff hostels and a lack of sleep? Or how about being away from family and friends back home?

My farewell to Ballarat was by far the hardest one of the trip so far, and if I’m honest, is likely to keep that dubious honour until I return home.

Plainly speaking, it became a home away from home, thanks to some fantastically brilliant people, without whom I would probably be back at my real home in Hull right now.

Sturt Street, Ballarat, in the rain

I had initially planned to spend a weekend in Ballarat, the city in Victoria that was home to the gold rush of the 1800s, and the location of the Eureka Stockade, which still holds the accolade of being Australia’s only civil conflict. I came to visit my friend Nat, who many moons ago I worked with on the go-kart activity at a children’s summer camp in New York. We would spend hours talking about our little towns back home, myself about Grimsby and its fishing history, while Nat would talk of a similar sounding small town a few hours from Melbourne.

The old mining exchange, Ballarat

I remember at the time thinking of the far-off land, hearing all about her friends back home and building a picture in my head of a Wild West setting from a bygone era. How little did I know that 10 years on, that little town of Ballarat would take a special place in my own heart, a place that I would learn to navigate my way around, make my own lifelong friends, have so much fun and laughter, and, albeit for a short time, I would become a part of the community.

My weekend visit might have lasted almost three months, but it was time to say goodbye.

My extended stay meant I got to know Nat’s circle of friends, including Jess, who for the past few weeks I have also been staying with, along with her daughter Liv and playful little dog Cleo. It was Jess who introduced me to Nathan, the owner of the Lake View hotel, where I would earn some pocket money to help out with my financial strife thanks to a missing lodger back home. It was also Jess who would give me lifts, lend me her car, feed me, provide internet access and generally pick me up when things got a little tough over the past few weeks.

Together, Nat, Jess, Liv and their mutual friend James made sure I kept to my original travel plans, amid thoughts at one point of packing my backpack and returning home to sort out the problems in person. Thankfully, my parents have also been helping out back in the UK, and I’m pleased to say that gradually the issue is being rectified.

But the support meant we had all grown really close, and despite knowing that one day I would have to start moving on again, I don’t think we’d realised just how hard it would be.

Raising a glass

It ended up being a week of goodbyes with others too. I had made a lot of friends at the Lake View bar and restaurant, and as it happened, Mitch, one of the supervisors who guided me through my first few days there, was also leaving, heading off to run a bar on the Greek island of Eos for the European summer. It meant there were farewell drinks to be had all round, especially as he is close to Jess’s mum Rosie and the family.

There was no better place for it than the Lake View after Mitch’s final shift, especially thanks to a ridiculous number of coffee loyalty cards, offering a free glass of wine, that Rosie had saved for a special occasion. It produced some of the finest bartering I have ever seen between Rosie and Glen and Lachie from the bar, who settled for four cards in payment for a bottle of wine.

With Rosie, Jess and Liv (far right) family and Lachie

I volunteered myself as the designated driver for the night, and after vast numbers of coffee cards had traded hands for equally vast glasses of wine, Mitch made his way to his official leaving bash at the Seymours pub in the town. Glen and Lachie used the increasingly sozzled ladies as guinea pigs for some of their new cocktails and punch, before I drove them home at around 9pm.

With Jess heading to bed early, I decided to say goodbye to Mitch and the Lake View staff at his leaving drinks, and set out to allow myself one beer before driving back and having an early one myself. I had a lot to do in the short time I had left in Ballarat, and was planning to allow myself at least one day in Melbourne before making my way north.

Lachie welcomes me to the pub!

I arrived at Seymours to a cry of ‘Pom Pom’ from Lachie, who has become a good mate during my time in the city. It was closely followed by “you’re coming out for beers with us,” and I didn’t need much persuading. I drove the car back to Jess’s house, hailed a taxi and made my way back to the bar where the party was in full swing. Mitch was still somehow able to string sentences together, despite the copious amounts of alcohol that had been passed his way, while one of his mates, Chris, the owner of Seymours, came over to me to say hello.

Mitch (the one leaving!), other Mitch, and Chris

I’d got to know Chris from some of my first few days in Ballarat, when I discovered that his pub had some of the best free wifi I had managed to find in the area. I spent many an afternoon in there, lasting out a coffee for hours and sometimes stretching to a lemon lime and bitters as a treat. I would sit in the same seat in a corner of the bar area, where I was initially told there was the best wifi signal. A couple of weeks later, looking for something to occupy my time, I ended up doing a trial shift in there, and laughed as it was referred to as ‘my corner’.

Sending Mitch off to Greece

After a detour to the Bridge, another pub nearby, when I mistakenly thought everyone had left, Seymours officially closed for the night. Except, we were all still in it – and the doors had been locked! Chris opened up the bar as a treat, and from around midnight until 4am, Lachie made it his mission to pour as many alcoholic drinks down my throat as possible.

Oh dear...

The cider and shots were interspersed with goodbyes, as people dropped by the wayside and disappeared into the night. There was the lovely Miranda, who until I arrived in Ballarat had never spoken to an English person.

Miranda with an Englishman!

“Your accent is so funny,” she’d giggle, normally as Mitch would purposely get me to talk to her.

Then there was Kelli, who bounded over to give me a huge hug when I saw her in the Bridge, and who promptly fell about laughing as I tried to perform the Inbetweeners dance. Badly.

Back at Seymours, there was a guy called Tungy who I spent a large chunk of the night talking to, while his girlfriend Rose, who used to serve me those long drawn out coffees back when I was fleecing the wifi, was a lot of fun and great to party with.

The Lake View and Seymours staff bash for Mitch

With round after round of multicoloured shots, glasses raised to Mitch and I for our travels, and Lachie filling up my glass with cider every time there was room for a drop more, the night flew by.

Yet another round of shots

And that’s where it all gets sketchy. What I do know is that Lachie and everyone else succeeded in giving me one heck of a send off – and the worst hangover since my university days.

Pouring our own drinks at the bar

I have little memory of anything from between 2am until 2pm the following day, when I awoke from a coma to be sick once again. Jess took great delight in telling me all the details of how my 4am dash to the bathroom woke the house. Sick as a dog, calling for help and passing out on the toilet floor with my legs wrapped around the bowl wasn’t the lasting memory I had set out to leave my Ballarat family with, but, thankfully, Jess and Liv found it hilarious.

Tempting me again. It was all Lachie's fault!

Its not my style to get into such a state, and at this point I have to stress i’m not proud of it, but it has been a long, long time since I have been anywhere close to as ill as I was. Part of me still thinks it might be something i’d eaten, but then I would say that. At least I’d managed to apologise in the midst of it all – “I’m so sorry, its all Lachie’s fault,” was apparently my repetitive whimper, closely followed by “I don’t want to be sick anymore.” Classy!

I paid the price in more ways than the mother of all hangovers too – I was unable to move from my bed until 6.30pm the following day, which meant I’d lost my extra day in Melbourne, and already word had spread around town about my antics. On the upside, James had awarded me 100 of his citizenship points towards becoming an honorary Australian for having a typically Aussie night out.

Thankfully, I was fully recovered for my send-off dinner the following day, which, I’m glad to say, was a much more dignified affair. Nat, Jess, Liv, James and our friend Jane, mum to the adorable 18-month-old Lucy that we had many hours of laughs with, all dressed up for dinner at The Boatshed restaurant on Lake Wendouree.

Presents all round!

I was armed with gifts for Nat, Jess and Liv, just small tokens of my appreciation for all they had done for me. I’d got Nat some flowers and the My Kitchen Rules cookbook, the official book of the television series we had both got into a routine of watching when I first arrived. For Jess, who is a huge fan of music, I chose an Ipod FM transmitter, so that she can listen to her Iphone playlists, that she would often belt out from the bathroom, in the car.

A card and gift for Jess

Liv was an easy one – she’s a fan of all things sweet, and after tempting me with gobstoppers and Nerds (remember them!) over the last few weeks, I bought a couple of the biggest boxes I could find, along with a giant box of Lindt chocolates. I also put in something special for her relating to my job back home. Having watched some of my stories online, taken the mickey out of some of my on-screen hand gestures, asked countless questions about the BBC and my work, there was only one thing I could give her – my BBC lanyard.

I make a habit of taking my journalist identification everywhere with me, and this trip was no exception. Afterall, you just never know when or where the big story of a lifetime could fall into your lap, and when you might just need that bit of proof that you are who you say you are when you need access to a story. It was still attached to my lanyard that I wear around my neck off screen, and I knew she’d love it.

Liv, my hoody and her non-edible present!

I was right, she proudly wore it for the rest of the night. Sometimes, it’s the smallest gestures that mean the most – and if my bosses are reading this, I’ll pay for a new one!

Speaking of great gestures, I had a lovely surprise bag of gifts myself from Nat, complete with an Australian flag, a stubby holder, a pen and lanyard, and best of all, a selection of Aussie foods and snacks to keep me going through my long days of travelling ahead.

A funny note and drawings from Nat

There was a moving letter and card, complete with drawings of all of us and some of the sayings that have become commonplace between us, cause of a lot of laughter in the time I have been here.

It was a brilliant night, I had a delicious porterhouse steak, some beautiful wine and had a thoroughly memorable final evening with everyone, rounded off with drinks at the Lake View.

My Ballarat family - Jane, James, Jess, Me, Nat and Liv

It was already getting hard, knowing the inevitable departure was growing ever closer, but finally packing my bags again after almost three months of routine made it sink in a little more that I was on my way again.

Liv getting a taste for backpacking...once she'd managed to lift the bags!

After lunch in the city centre, we headed back to Jess’s to pick up my bags and to say goodbye to another part of ‘our family’ of recent weeks, in the form of Cleo the dog.

A last cuddle for Cleo

She’d clearly picked up on something in the last day or so, and had become very clingy around me, following me around the house and jumping up for cuddles at every opportunity. She was sniffing around my bags and looking at me with sad eyes for much of my departure day, and with one last tummy tickle I said farewell, with a promise that I’d give her a wave and a whistle on Skype.

And so I found myself on the platform at Ballarat station once again, only this time I had a one-way ticket to Melbourne in my hand. It didn’t seem real that I wouldn’t be coming back, and I was gutted to be saying goodbye to three people that have become so close to me.

Moving on...much to Liv's delight!!

Farewell Nat

There wasn’t a dry eye around as we all had one last group hug. I kissed each on the head, thanked them one last time, and then the doors of the 4:11pm train to Melbourne closed. The engine revved, the brakes let go, and we slowly drifted out of the station with Nat, Liv and Jess running alongside, waving. And then they disappeared out of sight.

As the Ballarat suburbs turned into the bush outside, I thought back to my early days in Australia back in February. I was supposed to head to Mount Gambier to help out at a roadhouse in return for board and lodge, but got let down at the last minute. I was only told the day before I was due to fly, but I decided to go to Melbourne as planned. I fell back on the whole theory that everything happens for a reason…and it was absolutely the right thing to do.

Without that last minute change, there would have been no visit to the Australian Grand Prix, no music festival, no incredible body surfing on Bells Beach, and the guys at the Lake View would have merely been staff who brought me a coffee.

Instead, I leave Ballarat with a whole new set of close friends, some of whom I’m sure I will stay in touch with for life. I hope to see many of them again, perhaps welcoming them to my home and returning many of the favours that have been offered to me during the past few months.

Finally, i’m dedicating this post to Nat. Ten years ago, like me, she took a leap of faith and travelled to a childrens’ summer camp, Camp Nashopa, in upstate New York. Neither of us had any idea how to run the go-kart activity, nor how to fix an engine, but somehow, by chance or otherwise, we travelled from our respective sides of the globe and ended up sharing a brilliant few months together. At the end we said our goodbyes knowing the likelihood was we wouldn’t see each other again.

While it was sad back then, it’s also the beauty of being a traveller – a promise to stay in touch can be broken or kept. To keep it means there will always be a door open for you somewhere in the world. Ten years on, our friendship was as strong as ever. We might only message each other once in a blue moon, and last saw each other seven years ago, but Nat helped to save me from returning home early by offering me a place to stay.

Her support and encouragement to stay in Ballarat led to some fantastic experiences, some brilliant days out, laughter like there was no tomorrow and the discovery of lemon-lime and bitters, peanut butter with honey on toast, and the most delicious chicken parma.

But much more than any of that, she introduced me to some of the most generous, kind-hearted and amazing people I could ever wish to meet. People who looked after me, supported me, took me under their wing and gave me a place I could call home. To Nat, Jess, Liv and James for all you’ve done for me, to all at the Lake View for the fun and laughs, and to everyone in Ballarat who made me feel so welcome, I thank you from the bottom of my heart and I will miss you dearly.

The hardest thing about travelling? Saying goodbye.

Bye for now xxx

A ‘latte’ good times

Enjoying the last days of summer in Ballarat

After months of life on the road and living from a backpack, my time in Ballarat has almost been like a holiday away from the travelling circuit.

It has given me some time to develop a sense of normality and routine, a town I can call home for a while, and new friends I can develop lasting bonds with.

A few people have asked me why I seem to have got stuck in one place in Australia. While it was always my intention to stay around the Melbourne area for when Matt and Siobhan arrived, the simple fact is I had to seriously sort out my financial situation thanks to an errant lodger back home. I was owed months of rent, and it had left a huge hole in my finances. I came within a whisker of returning home.

Earning my keep

However, that side of travelling is hopefully sorting itself out, and in the meantime I was lucky to have friends in Ballarat who were happy for me to stay for free. Besides, I had fitted in really well with Nat’s group of friends, especially with Jess, her daughter Liv and friend James, who all know each other through their paramedic course at the university in the city. From the moment we all first met, we’ve been bantering and laughing together – its like I have known them for years.

Paramedic practice: "Er, Phil, you've got to lay off the Tim Tams"

So, what else have I been up to? Well, Ive been getting to know the locals, learning how to make ‘proper’ coffee, washed an ambulance, pulled a few pints and even squeezed in a game of squash.

Washing an ambulance, something I wasn't expecting on my travel 'done' list

Its certainly been a busy few months, a huge chunk of it I spent at one of the leading bar and restaurants in the town, The Lake View. Overlooking the huge lake Wendouree, it’s a great location and seen as a cool place to hang out by students from the nearby university, workers from the city and many of the locals who take leisurely walks or jogs around the lake.

The Lake View hotel

I ended up helping out at the Lake View, and got to know the owner Nathan really well, as well as a great bunch of staff who became friends. I was soon affectionately christened as Pom Pom by Nathan and Lachy, one of the supervisors, and the name stuck. Another supervisor, Mitch, showed me the ropes and where everything was in the restaurant, as well as taking me through my first coffee using the proper espresso coffee machine.

With boss Nathan (left) and Glen behind the bar at the 'Lakey'

Coffee is a huge deal in Australia these days, probably on a par with America, but there isn’t much of a reliance on the huge chains like the Starbucks and the Costas like over there. Instead, there is much more of a café culture, with many private and independent coffee shops, where the quality is excellent. And its taken seriously too – those who serve coffee, or baristas as they’re known, have often completed special courses to learn the trade.

It’s a far cry from back in my own hospitality days, working at Pizza Hut and catering agencies to fund myself through college and university, where people were happy with button-pressed, machine-made coffee and cappuccino. Nowadays, standards are so high, coffee shops have to make sure their drinks are the best around. Its for that reason I wasn’t allowed anywhere near the coffee machine when it comes to making drinks for customers. It also gave me a newfound appreciation of the art of coffee making. Trust me, its not as easy as they make it look.

With Mitch and my first ever latte!

And so, during a quiet afternoon, Mitch showed me the ropes, starting with perhaps the hardest part of coffee making – frothing the milk. This is the bit that makes all the noise in the coffee shops, the distinctive bubbly, hissing, whooshing noise as a powerful jet of steam stretches out a jug of common, everyday milk. To an onlooker, it looks really easy to do – just stick the steam wand in, turn it on and let it do its stuff.

Wrong.

Four jugs of wasted milk later, and with a hand from Mitch, I managed to get something that resembled properly frothed milk. It’s a fine art, using your hands to judge the temperature of the milk, while simultaneously getting the milk to rotate in the jug, and at the same time lowering the milk so that the steam works its way through, ‘stretching’ it out and giving it a lovely silky texture. It only takes a few seconds, but it can quite easily result in a milk explosion as it whizzes around inside the jug, up the sides, goes all out of control and rockets out of the top. It makes for a fair bit of cleaning up.

Next up was the actual coffee part – getting the ground beans into the group handle. There’s a lot to be done right here, from making sure the handle part is clean and dry before you put the coffee in, to making sure the outer part of the head is free from grounds, and of course making sure you put the right amount into it in the first place. Two to three pulls on the grinder handle deposits enough to fill it, and with a tap and a press down with a tamper, it’s good to go onto the espresso machine.

I won't be putting Starbucks out of business anytime soon! My first latte!

It’s a process that takes just seconds for the pros, but with so much technique to try to remember, it takes me substantially longer. It doesn’t always go quite right either – too little in the way of coffee, and it’ll be too weak coming out of the machine. Pack in too much, and the machine will struggle to push the water through, burning the coffee. If there are any grounds around the connector, it will also impair the flavour.

With it all connected up, speed is crucial to avoid ruining the coffee. With a latte glass positioned under the spout, I press the one cup button and the dark brown liquid begins to pour out. While its doing its stuff, there’s enough time to tap the jug a little, to get rid of some of the bigger bubbles, before removing the freshly brewed coffee from the machine.

Its then a simple case of pouring the milk into the coffee.

Wrong again.

Trying to make a latte proved to be tricky. I found it hard to give the coffee a good head (behave yourselves), but in my mind it still tasted ok. In the end, I was shown a number of different ways to do it, all of which involved various tricks of keeping the milk pouring, hitting the side of the glass with the pour, shaking it as I poured, using a spoon to hold froth back or just going a bit more gung ho and dumping the milk in, somehow leaving it perfect. I usually ended up pouring it in two parts and hoping for the best.

I made that!

I did, however, start to knock out  a few decent cappuccinos having got my head around the milk-making technique, even getting a “Not bad Pom Pom” from Mitch. I was never going to start threatening Starbucks with my skills, but it was enough to make myself a cuppa from time to time!

It was Nathan, one of the owners, that perhaps gave me the greatest piece of advice however.

“Pom Pom, never forget to wipe your wand. Always remember to wipe your wand when you’ve used it,” he smiled while making yet more milk, putting a few cheeky smiles on everyone else’s face who was stood nearby. A priceless bit of advice – it stops milk burning and sticking itself onto the metal rod!

Lachy at the Lakey

Its been a brilliant few months getting to know everyone at the Lake View, both the staff and its many regular customers. One of them, Margie, would be waiting at the doors for us to open at 7am some mornings, but without fail she would put a smile on mine and everyone else’s face. She’s retired, always smartly dressed, loves a latte (but not too hot!) and does a mean crossword. She would always be asking me about my travels, my life back home and where I was heading next, and she had a wicked Aussie sense of humour too.

I’ve got to know many of the locals, often intrigued by what brought an Englishman so far off the beaten backpacker track to Ballarat, and I’d spend a lot of time explaining my overland journey to Australia to ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the wide-eyed customers, who would often give me invaluable travel tips for their country. The staff too would be intrigued about my situation, especially when word started getting out that I was ‘on the telly’ back home.

“So, the rumour is that you’re a television reporter back home, and now you’re here doing our dishes. How did that happen?” was one particularly great line from Danny, one of the chefs, as I was running countless plates and pans through the potwash one day.

It made me laugh. I’d not really talked about my career back home, mainly as it seems so far away right now, but I could totally see his point. As I was scraping yet more nachos from a bowl, I thought about what Danny had said. This time last year I was covering top stories on the BBC news, and now I’m scraping food scraps off plates and getting covered in baked bean juice. But perhaps contrary to what some must have thought, I didn’t feel the work was ‘beneath me’. Infact, it was quite the opposite – I was happy, its something completely different, and it reminded me of my times through college and uni when I’d spend hours pushing plates through a Pizza Hut dishwasher and serving customers.

A cheeky wave from a regular at the Lake View!

The fact is, while I have got a fantastic job back home that I’ve worked so hard for, I was just so happy to be meeting an entirely different set of people and serving the public. It was great, just for a while, to be having a laugh and some banter with customers again, just like what I used to do before my journalism days, without a tight deadline hanging over me. It’s a lot of fun, and exactly what this trip was all about, meeting new people, new environments and finding new ways to spend my time.

When I wasn’t serving in the bar or restaurant, I’d often be in there with Jess and James, who have become very close friends during my time in the city.

Taken just before Cleo deleted a whol

I’m currently staying at Jess’s house with her and her 12-year-old daughter Liv, and their little Taco Terrier Cleo, who is an adorable three year old Chihuahua cross. She’s an affectionate little thing, always bounding up to me as I walk into the house and following everyone around. She’ll usually sleep on (or in!) your bed at night, with a particularly good technique for hogging the mattress, and is constantly looking for hugs and cuddles. As I’m writing this post, she’s snoozing on my lap, only waking for an occasional glance up at me or my netbook screen.

Out for a walk. Cleo came too

Nat, Liv and I all went for a walk around Lake Wendouree on one particularly sunny Sunday, a good 6km meander around the water. We took Cleo for the walk, who particularly enjoyed a quick jog alongside me. It also gave me the opportunity to take some photos of the beautiful setting that I have been fortunate to look out over most days that I have been in the city.

Black swans on Lake Wendouree

There was also a chance to have a look at the Olympics commemorative area, close to the rowing finishing line on the lake. It had been used in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for the rowing events, and as such a little garden has been set up, complete with a statue of the Olympic flame.

Olympics finish line

There was also a great feature that had been set in place during a visit by many of the medal winners from the games, which included hand and feet imprints in stone left by the Olympians. It gave us a few laughs putting all of our hands into the huge imprints left by some, obviously big hands help out with the oars!

Olympics? Woof.

I also had a day trip into Melbourne to keep me busy, thanks to the saga of Matt and Siobhans clothes that got left in the campervan before they flew out to New Zealand. It involved a train ride into the suburbs from Ballarat, changing at the delightfully named town of Sunshine. It’s a shame that particularly high levels of crime in the area have earned it the nickname of Scumshine, but every time I pass through I can’t help but smile at the thought of giving people your address as living in Sunshine.

Clothes recovery exercise for Matt and Siobhan. Mission Accomplished!

Having recovered the clothes, I decided to catch up with a few friends in the city, both of whom I had met during my travels. First was Rosie, a graphic designer who was my dive buddy during my Padi diving course in Thailand. I made my way to Balaclava, another smile-provoking named area of the city, where I grabbed a coffee and sat in the sun before Rosie arrived, bounding down the street with a hug and laughs.

We caught up over drinks, reminiscing about our time on Koh Tao as we learned how to dive in January. She laughed about how it was strange for her to be meeting up with me in her home city, her own travelling days over for now. She took me to the beautifully manicured botanical gardens, and we laid in the sun chatting, laughing and talking about our respective travels and experiences since we’d said goodbye on a dusty Thai street a few months ago.

Chilling with Rosie

“Its funny being with someone who is still backpacking in my own city,” she remarked as we made our way through the lovely streets of St Kilda towards the beach, stopping off at a bottleshop for a six pack of cider. They were crucial ingredients for the next activity.

Bryce on St Kilda beach

We were on our way to meet another friend of mine, Bryce, the Canadian guy who I spend a lot of time with in Thailand. We first met in Chiang Mai, spending time together on a trip to the zoo, and ended up hiring motorbikes and making the ill-fated scooter road trip to Pai together. We also met up again over the New Year period, and having thought we’d parted ways for good on Koh Phangan, now he had just arrived in Melbourne for his own Australian adventure.

Introducing Rosie to Beersbie

As usual, there was a game of Beersbie on offer, the self-styled game that Bryce has invented and promotes on his website beersbie.com. I wrote about it here from when we played it in Koh Phangan on New Years Eve, and while the teams were somewhat smaller here, it was just as much fun.

I taught Rosie the rules, and we played as the sun began to set. Considering Rosie and Bryce had never met before, everyone hit it off, fuelled by a few errant Frisbee throws and catches that results in the inevitable punishment of a swig from the cider bottle. It’s a cracking drinking game with friends, all taking it in turns to knock the opposite team’s can off its post.

Taking aim

We were also blessed with a fantastic sunset over the water, by far the best sunset I had seen since leaving Thailand. The sky changed through almost every colour of pink, red and purple before the huge orange sun disappeared over the horizon. All along the beach, people could be seen armed with cameras and mobile phones, capturing the moment. It was obviously one to remember, even for the locals.

The sun goes down on the game

Wow!

Rosie and I said goodbye to Bryce as we made our way back into the city, feeling the effects of three stubbies of cider each. Rosie had been invited to the opening night of an art exhibition at the University of Melbourne. We went along, partly for the offer of free food and wine.

If I’m honest, I didn’t think much to the art. Its probably because I just don’t ‘get it’. I appreciate a nice painting, and the masters such as Van Gogh and Picasso admittedly knocked out a couple of nice pieces, but I’m not one of those who can stare at pictures and ‘see’ the meanings of it all. Especially when one of the ‘pieces of art’ was a picnic that had been laid out on the floor. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs of the masterpiece, and somehow I resisted the temptation just to tidy it all away.

There was some particularly good cheese on offer that I gorged on, along with a glass of red, and while everyone was smartly dressed with the odd suit here and there, I flip-flopped around in my shorts and beach t-shirt looking every bit the freeloader that I was. But I didn’t care – I wasn’t the one marvelling at a picnic as if it had life-changing significance.

Thankfully, Rosie and I both had the same thoughts about the exhibition, and we both had a few giggles at having to behave and talk to others in the gallery as if I knew exactly what I was on about. I didn’t have a clue, of course, but then art is down to individual taste. Unfortunately, the only taste I developed during our half hour stay was that for a good Danish Blue.

After another beer at a nearby pub, I left Rosie with some of her friends and came within a whisker of missing the last train back to Ballarat, but it had been an excellent day out. With Matt and Siobhan’s clothes safely in hand, I snoozed my way back to the ‘Rat’ and looked forward to more times in Melbourne.

I’ll be back again soon enough – it wont be long now before I hit the road again and make my way around Australia.

St Kilda, and the end of a great day

Hikes, Hops and Mountain Tops

Heading to the mountains...

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

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

The Grampians loom on the horizon

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

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

Eek!

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

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

Dead trees and driftwood piled high

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

Just a trickle of a waterfall

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

Siobhan at the lake

Chilling at the lake

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

Out comes the competitiveness between us!

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

Concentration...and pot luck

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

Fore!

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

Victorious Siobhan...

Matt and his big L, for 'Loser'

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

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

Birthday bubbles

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

Kookaburras

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

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

Kangas in the campsite

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

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

'One Leg'

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

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

Another bit of Australian wildlife we found

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

On the way up to the Pinnacle

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

Cooling down in the cool cavern

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

Matt and Siobhan at the top

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

We made it!

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

I can see the pub from here...

Looking out over the range

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

Beautiful Grampians

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

At the viewpoint

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

McKenzie Falls in the Grampians

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

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

Campsite cooking!

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

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

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

Laugh, Kookaburra laugh...

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

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

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

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

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

­­

Fancy seeing you here!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They've arrived!

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

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

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

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

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

Matt and his Lovely cups...

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

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

Impressive shopping centre roof over an old mill

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

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

“I knew it,” he said back.

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

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

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

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

Matt and Siobhan, a map and Melbourne

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

Things were looking up

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

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

Five-minute friends

Sunset and beautiful skies at Railay

Sometimes in life, you’re destined to meet particular people. They go on to become friends, soulmates, someone to have a beer with, partners, or in some cases – eventually – you meet someone who will become a lifelong partner.

You meet through work, through friends, through school or university or perhaps by complete chance. Sometimes it can be engineered, but I’m a firm believer that if your paths are meant to cross, then at some point, your paths will cross.

I’m lucky to have some brilliant friends around me, but when I think back to how we met, there are reasons for it. Going to university on the south coast, mainly because of a relationship and applying late for a journalism course, I knew nobody. I remember walking around Southampton on my first day there with the strange feeling that I was completely alone. Three years later, I left with a group of lifelong friends, and a couple of them who have become absolute soulmates, people you trust, people you look forward to spending time with. And I knew in most cases, straight away from the moment we first met, that they were ‘my type’ of people, that I’d like to be friends with them and enjoy spending time around them.

Travelling provides so many of these opportunities. Every new place you get to, there’s a chance you could meet that new person to add to your friend list. The ‘five minute friend’ check usually makes up your mind – join them for a Chang and share a room, or leave them struggling with their rucksacks and boring stories on the pier

Where am I going with this? Let me explain – five years ago I was on an overnight flight back to London from New York with my family. It was our ‘last’ family holiday together, and we’d had a brilliant time. For the flight back, we changed all our pre-booked seats and chose some towards the back of the plane.

About two hours before we landed, I began talking to a cheerful blonde girl sat next to me. She’d been asleep most of the way, but she was around my age, had similar interests and, co-incidentally, was a journalist based in the City. After lots of chat about our jobs – a favourite hack pastime – a bit about our travels and how we got our careers, the tick box in the ‘five minute friend’ test had been well and truly checked. Her name was Hannah.

We swapped business cards, promised to add each other on Facebook, that we’d meet for coffee sometime and said goodbye at the baggage carousel.

Of course, time went on, we had a few messages every now and again, perhaps one of us would ‘like’ a status or a photo every so often, but as our lives went along separate paths, there was little chance of us bumping into each other again.

Fast forward five years, and to my last day in the Look North office before setting off on my travels, when a message drops into my inbox. Its from Hannah, the girl on the plane, who had seen my status about how I was leaving for a few months to travel the world. She too had gone through a break-up, packed up her career for a while, stuffed some clothes into a backpack and set off for a round the world trip of a lifetime. She was already in Thailand and loving every second.

“We should meet for a beer on the beach,” we agreed.

Of course, Thailand at that point seemed a million miles away. I was still to turn on my ‘out of office’, bring everything in my daily life to a halt, find my passport and work out how to get myself across Russia. Maybe we’d meet, maybe we wouldn’t, but it was nice to know I wasn’t the only one taking the plunge in such a spectacular way and wished her well for her journey.

Three months on and Hannah and I, along with her friend Laura, have just been out on one of the best nights out of my trip so far in Ao Nang, Krabi. Our paths crossed, and the five minute friend test was right. We had an absolute blast, and we’ve gone on to become really good mates.

Coffee in London...or Mai Tai in Thailand?!

It rounded off a great week of meeting new people. Having gone to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon party with the daunting prospect of not knowing anyone on the island, I ended up sharing a brilliant few days with Sarah, Emily and Brad, while yet another five minute friend, Jenny, had abused me in the street for seemingly outstaying my welcome in Haad Rin.

My ferry that finally gets me off Koh Phangan!

But alas, my time on the island did eventually come to an end and I got the overnight ferry to Surat Thani in the south, a huge transport hub that sees hundreds of backpackers pass through every day.

Sleeping arrangements on the ferry! Cosy!

I was heading to Railay, a place that had been recommended to me and where I had found bungalows just before Christmas going for around 400 Baht, or £8. It was affordable, just, and pencilled myself in for a few days.

My bags enjoying the ride to Railay

After an exhausting journey, I arrived on the beach by longtail, the only way you can get there thanks to a complete lack of roads, and a way that always evokes images of a Robinson Crusoe-esque arrival nomatter how many times you wade ashore with your bags. I made a sweaty, bag-laden trek up the steep hills to the back of Railay East and  the cheap bungalows I had found.

They were full – and had almost doubled in price.

It prompted a search high and low for something affordable, but thanks to peak season and a lot of package tourists being in the area, it was impossible. In the end, I settled for a jungle bungalow after bartering them down from £22 a night to £14. I also made a mental note to leave the place as soon as possible.

Eventually found a home in the jungle!

Then I had a message from Jenny, the girl I met in Koh Phangan who ‘kept seeing me everywhere’. She was making her way back north to Chiang Mai from Koh Phi Phi, a short ride away from Railay. Her journey meant a stopover in Krabi, a place where she’d been before, so she asked if I fancied meeting for a beer in Railay as she’d like to see it.

Being in a bungalow, it was already hard to meet other people so I told her it was a great idea, and the following day she arrived on the peninsula. We had fruit shakes on the beachfront, chatted about life back home, our families, our travels. She told me of stories about her trips through India and to the Everest base camp, and how she was gutted to be leaving Thailand in a week’s time.

We joked about the small world that finds her family running the Hill Holt Wood project in Lincolnshire, a place where a few years ago I did a bit of filming. A fellow blogger, we talked about futures, careers and aspirations. Basically, we completely hit it off and had a brilliant laugh along the way, mainly about the way we met and her abuse of me. It also turned out she had been in the same taxi as me when I arrived on Koh Phangan – she told me how she’d jumped out after realising she could walk the distance to where she was staying. Immediately I remembered the moment – I’d even shouted out ‘good luck’ as she set off on a seemingly futile trek. Perhaps our paths were supposed to cross.

Indoor fire shows in a wooden bar...safety first, as usual

In the end we had a brilliant night, watching Thai Boxing that was laid on at one of the beach bars, laughing about the lack of complete health and safety regulations as a fire dancer performed a full routine – indoors – and sipping buckets until the early hours, tapping our feet to the current Thailand anthems.

Jenny meets her match

Jenny left the following day as she continued her journey north, and ultimately on her way home back to Derbyshire, but I know we’ll stay in touch. After such a fleeting meeting in a busy street, suddenly a new friendship is formed, one that will continue, and it’s a great feeling. Its one of the best bits about travelling.

Continuing her journey home

I too was moving on, to meet up with Hannah, the girl from the New York flight five years ago. I was to share a room with her friend Laura, a complete stanger. But then it was easy to forget that Hannah was still a complete stranger to me herself. The next few days could be brilliant if we get on, but could be a disaster if it turns out we don’t!

With Laura and Hannah...after visiting 7-Elevens (keep reading!)

As it happens, they’d clearly had similar discussions as it was revealed I’d been referred to as ‘Psycho Phil’ prior to my arrival, a joke between them about how little they knew about me, yet we were to share accommodation. Infact, there was nothing to fear – the next few days were a blur of beach time, dancing in bars and making regular stops at the 7-Elevens for a new game dubbed the ‘7-Eleven bar crawl’.

Spy wine coolers...girly but deadly!

It’s a great way of saving money when you’re on a budget, where to save the £3 cost of bottled drinks in the touristy bars around Ao Nang, you simply raid the 7-Eleven ‘bars’ at the back of the shop. For just 60p, you can get bottles of Spy, a sparkling fruity wine drink, that while being incredibly girly, packed a 7% alcoholic punch!

Loving the 7-Eleven Bar Crawl!!

The rules are simple – on the way to the pub, you have to stop at every 7-Eleven you come across, pop in to the chiller at the back, pick up a drink and finish it before you reach the next 7-Eleven. Sounds easy, but there were five on the way to the main bars from where we were staying, and its fair to say we were well on the way to a morning ‘Changover’ by the time we reached them.

Flaming B52s all round!

It resulted in a couple of fairly heavy nights out, but there was plenty of banter between us, we all laughed at the same things –

He was awesome...

mainly a guy wearing a ‘I Am Awesome’ t-shirt, and they helped to sober me up after one too many buckets by force-feeding me a Burger King before going to bed. That’s when you know you’ve found some good friends…and they found it highly amusing!

After three days of hitting Ao Nang’s nightlife, raiding the 7-Eleven girly drinks cabinets and some much needed hungover breakfasts, I was ready to relax. I booked a ticket to Koh Lanta, an island a little off the tourist trail and one where hopefully I can enjoy some cheap living for a week.

I doubt whatever it was happened to be that funny!

Another 7-Eleven purchase!

New buckets please!

Saying goodbye to Hannah and Laura was more of a farewell – in a week’s time, I’m heading to Koh Tao to do a diving course, and at the same time, Hannah and Laura will be there too. We’ve agreed to meet up for more fun and games together, but in the space of just a couple of days, we had become great friends. So much so, it was easy to forget we had been strangers before – you know when you’re in tune with people when it feels like you’ve known each other for years.

Laura, Hannah and their awesome friend!

When I think back to when we first met, of how Hannah was trying out my noise cancelling headphones (not that she remembers) and telling me how she hates flying, who would have thought that the next time we’d meet wouldn’t be in a coffee shop in London, but infact on a beach on the opposite side of the globe. That if we hadn’t changed our seats on that flight, the chances are we wouldn’t have spoken at all. And if Facebook wasn’t invented, well, it would have just gone down as a chat with a random passenger on a plane.

Same could be said for Jenny. What would otherwise have been a boring couple of days without knowing anyone in Railay, and probably having to go on yet another solo night out in the hope I’ll get chatting to someone (it gets tiring after a while!) turned out to be a memorable few days. Again, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, we were able to meet, have a laugh and become friends.

The importance of staying in touch with five minute friends – you just never know when they might be in the right place at the right time for a beer and a good knees-up. Even if it is in some far flung land!