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

Stop the world…i’m getting on!

So here we are then, I’m on a  plane to Moscow after probably the most hectic, stressful, and emotional weekend I think I’ve ever had.

How did this happen?!

 

Only a few days ago, I was filming Star Trek fanatics as they try to teach the world to speak Klingon. Backpacks and mosquito nets were a million miles out of my mind – partly because somebody was trying to teach me how to say hello in a made-up Trekkie language.

 

It was soon Friday, and it didn’t feel real saying goodbye to colleagues and good friends in the Look North newsroom. My day-to day life, the normality that I love, the routine of pottering along Spring Bank to the BBC and arriving late for the morning meeting. Of publishing a story far too close to its slot, driving producers and directors crazy. Of stopping by at Tesco to pick up something for tea. Watching the series-linked Coronation Street (yes, im sure this blog will turn out to be revealing!) Everything I have known for my six years in Hull was about to come to a clattering halt. Life on hold…for now.

 

So I set my out of office on the emails – felt weird writing that I wouldn’t be back until next summer. I wheeled my camera kit into the outside broadcast store and said farewell to it –any video journalist will tell you how attached you can become to the kit. After all, it’s been everywhere with me – Africa, Iceland, Antons Gout (Google it, its near Boston – the Lincolnshire one!)

 

Today was a sad day too – my best mate, former housemate and all round good badger Matt was also leaving the BBC, but unlike me, he wasn’t returning anytime soon. Bagged himself a well-deserved gig at Sky News didn’t he, and quite strange –but quite fitting – how it worked out our last day would also be together.

 

With formalities over, it was across to the Rugby Tavern for a drink with those who couldn’t make our leaving meal, and then on to the Bengal Lounge on Princes Avenue for curry and beer. There were 23 people who thought we were worthy enough of a send-off – either that, or to make sure we actually went, one of the two. Oh, and I know the exact figure as I had to work out the bill at the end.

 

Saying goodbye

The plan had been to go to Pave and then on to Sugar Mill. That plan changed when my mate Rich Mcelvanney helpfully declared my house as a venue for drinks – as if I didn’t have enough to do, let alone clearing up after a party!! However, it was a great night, good to chill, have a laugh with some good friends and ponder as to how I was going to wake up at 6.30am to complete one of the first major parts of bringing life to a stop – taking my car back to the finance company.

Matt next to me ordered a 'special'

 

I love my car. I bought it three years ago – an Audi A3 S-Line. It was always a bit of a tip inside, but show me a reporters’ car that isn’t! I prefer to think of it as a working car- that the waders in the rear passenger footwell was an essential bit of kit. Almost as much as the scrunched up McDonalds wrappers, coffee cups and empty bottles of Coke which would roll around. It was sporty red, went like stink and looked the business on the odd occasion I got round to washing it. I’d almost lost it on my last day at work – some homeless guys found my keys in Queens Gardens and held it to ransom demanding a reward. I ended up paying them a tenner to get my keys back – partly as I was relieved they’d been found, partly because, as they rightly said ‘we could have just nicked it’

 

I found myself talking to it as I drove along the M62 to Leeds at 8.30am, reminiscing about our journeys together as if it was an old friend. The highlight for me – and im sure the car – was a tour around Europe and France last year, a trip taking in Paris, the Alps and the Normandy beaches. Yet today, stripped bare of all my belongings and rubbish which made it my car, I was abandoning it at a car auction site off the M1. In a sea of cars, mostly heading back to financing companies for what I imagine are whole variety of reasons (and im sure many wont be happy stories) there was mine. It needed a whole load of work doing to it if I’m honest, but it had looked after me and kept me safe. The only tell-tale sign of its past, getting me from story to story?  A BBC Radio Humberside car sticker in the back window!

 

Now things had changed. Without a car, and on a train back to Hull, life had started to change. The house needed sorting out so my new housemates had somewhere to live, packing needed to be started, insurance needed finalising. And then I was hit with  what’s likely to prove a major issue for me – my iPhone died.

 

I decided to upgrade to the new i0S 5 operating system through iTunes, except it wiped out all my phone coverage. I had been trying for weeks to get o2 to unlock the handset so I could use foreign sim cards inside it, but for one reason or another, they couldn’t do it. Apple were being most unhelpful too, saying I had to pay as it was out of warranty. To cut a long story short, I was advised by o2 to ‘jailbreak’ the handset online, and unlock it from the network that way, especially now it was unusable anyway on their own network.

 

With time already against me, I spent the entire Saturday night, the day before departure, frantically learning how to hack my phone in a desperate attempt to make it work. Getting to bed at 1am, then back up at 6am to have another go, there was a glimmer of hope. It detected a network, and it was unlocked – except I’d lost wifi capability. So I tried the process again, following instructions on the web, and promptly lost the entire contents of the phone. It overwrote my contacts in the iTunes backup file, all my texts, notes, apps, music – the whole lot.

 

By mid morning, and with a train at 4.40pm that afternoon, I still had little in the way of packing done, and my only means of communication with my parents was through Skype. An hour later, after sensing and seeing my panic, they were at my house to help out. I had to abandon the idea of fixing my iPhone, and face up to the fact I’ll have no music, no maps, no ability to call, no emails on the go, until I can get something sorted somewhere. Instead, Mum and Dad went out to the phone shop to get me a cheap handset, so I can at least make calls, and then in what was a mad four hours, helped blitz the house in one of the biggest clear-outs/tidy ups its ever had!

 

A hug for mum after all the help!

Cut off from friends, it was really nice to have a visit from Matt Richards and Andrew Billington who popped round to see how I was getting on. It was ten minutes before the taxi was due to arrive, and they were met with cardboard boxes and allsorts being thrown out of the front door and into an army of bins, one of which I’d had to borrow from my friends house down the road. If im honest, it was chaos at the time, but it was really thoughtful of them both to come and see how I was getting on, and I really appreciated it.

 

Setting my house alarm and locking the door to my house was one of those moments when I felt the nerves kick in again. It was another point of realisation that I’m stepping out of my routine and throwing myself into something completely different. I put the bins out –its bin day on Monday – which was probably one of my last chores for a while, then it was to the station. Mum and Dad’s TT can’t fit three people in, let alone all my backpack and luggage I’d manage to somehow gather together in time, so there was a taxi involved. When I got to the station, it began to dawn on my how much I needed the iPhone – I couldn’t get the ticket booking reference for my train, as it was on an email…on the phone. Thankfully, the lovely Samsung netbook im writing this on that the folks bought me began to prove its worth – although it involved a dash to the Royal Hotel to steal a wifi code!

 

Saying farewell to Mum and Dad

Saying goodbye to mum and dad was sad. We’d had such a hectic day, I really wanted to spend a bit of time with them, but hadn’t. We had five minutes to wait before the train arrived to take me to Doncaster, and then London, and that’s when it started hitting home. I know they’re worried sick – and will be worried sick – until I arrive back home next year. However much I tell them I’ll be fine, I know it does little to help. We had a few photos together, to mark the official start of my travels, and that’s when I had to get on the train. It’s a weird feeling knowing you wont see each other for so long…and I’m not ashamed to say there were a couple of tears.

 

Bye for now!

And that was it – I was on my way. The first leg around the world on a busy two-carriage Northern Rail service to Doncaster. A journey I have made so many times, but not always with such a distant destination. It was a beautiful early evening, the sun was setting and glinting off the water as we passed under the Humber Bridge. I looked up at the north tower, knowing it will be at least seven months before the sight of it welcomes me home again. The East Coast segment to Kings Cross was helped by my bargain £25 First Class ticket, and made full use of its free wifi thanks to Dad Skypeing me. He enjoyed his look out of the window at Stevenage, so much so as the train stopped and went quiet, he jokingly shouted ‘hello Stevenage’. I had some funny looks from the other passengers, who’d obviously paid substantially more to try and avoid that type of behaviour, as it boomed out of my laptop!

 

I was able to switch off a little in London, thanks to a trip to a restaurant in Chinatown and a few drinks watching a fantastic band in O’Neills in Leicester Square with my friend Robyn. They did loads of covers, but they were good covers – Franz Ferdinand, Oasis, Greenday, even a rock version of an Abba song. I great night, and good Guinness!

 

The next morning was when the iPhone loss delivered another problem – the cheap handset alarm didn’t go off at 8.45am like I asked it to. Instead, it was almost 10am, leaving less than three hours before my flight left Heathrow. I had planned to take the cheaper Piccadilly Line option to get there, but time meant the only way I had a chance was the £18 Heathrow Express from Paddington – and even then it was cutting it fine. The Tube was painfully slow, but somehow made the 11.50am train. Bearing in mind the flight was at 12.55am – and they usually start boarding half an hour before –  I knew it was cutting it fine even by my standards.

 

I ran through Terminal 5, and a check in agent sent my backpack through. I sprinted to the queues of people waiting to get through security, waited my turn, and that’s when panic mode kicked in. Lots of red flashing lights, and asked to see the airline. So I did – and my bags were being unloaded.

 

I went back to the check in man, and he was brilliant. I’ve seen this sort of thing happen on the Airline or Airport programmes, and sat at home muttering how they should have got to the airport earlier etc.. A couple of phonecalls from his desk, and he punched his fist in the air. I presume it was a celebration, and not a bad aim at my chin, as quickly I was being rushed through security and to the gate. I was actually there in plenty of time in the end – but I was probably the biggest, sweatiest mess of a passenger on the flight!

 

And so there we are, I’m writing this on the British Airways flight to Moscow, wondering what on earth I’ve let myself in for. The question ‘what have I done’ has floated around in my head a few times now  – leaving the Autumnal looking London and UK behind, I’m left wondering just what lies ahead before I hit the tarmac once again on home soill