Back in the Bunks

Bogota to Cartagena

“Have you just got here?”

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

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

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

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

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

Back with the backpackers in a dorm

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

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

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

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

Out with Gabriel just a few hours after arriving

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

El Viajero hostel

El Viajero hostel

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

Home for a few days

Home for a few days

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

Shower...without a warm tap!

Shower…without a warm tap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beautiful Cartagena

Colourful Cartagena

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine minute millionaire!

Nine minute millionaire!

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

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

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

Street dancers holding up traffic in Cartagena

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

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

Wonderful. Get me to the beach.

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.

This might sting a little…

Heading back from Pai

My new-found love affair with motorbikes was about to come to an abrupt end.

We left Pai around lunchtime, with the aim of making the 155km journey back to Chiang Mai as much a day out as it was a trip back to our belongings at the Spicy Thai hostel. With waterfalls, hot springs, geysers and mountains to explore, it promised to be an exciting ride.

Half of Chiang Mai's scooter rental stock outside the Spicy Pai hostel!

What we didn’t factor in was a speeding minibus driver who shot around a hairpin bend, running both Krys and I off the road.

Having skin on your elbows is overrated anyway…

The day had started well, although Liz tempted fate by asking to ride as my passenger as I looked to be a good driver, and it would give Krys a chance to ride on his own. I agreed, and we loaded up with our two bags and set off in convoy.

Up in the mountains

The weather was perfect- glorious sunshine, a gentle warm breeze and some of the most picturesque roads in the country made for a lovely day to be out on a bike. There were places where it struggled, purely with the weight of two people and all our belongings up some very steep stretches of roads in the mountains. We didn’t quite struggle as much as some of the lorries we got stuck behind, belching fumes and grit into our faces, but we forgot about that when we stopped at some of the sights.

Liz, Erin, Bryce and Krys take in the view

Lush, green, jungle-clad mountains contrast so well with beautifully clear blue skies, and some of the viewpoints and lookouts provided memorable views. We were on our way to tick off the geysers from our ‘to see’ list when disaster struck.

Jungles and mountains

The road to the geysers was more of a track off the main road. We’d just stopped off for a few minutes break at a small shop, and Bryce entrusted me with a bottle of locally made strawberry wine, which I put in my scooter’s drink holder. Then we tackled the road, and I immediately took it steady – patches of slippery sand, gravel and potholes meant it was a tricky road to navigate on two wheels. I was taking it relatively slowly – which is more than can be said for the driver of a silver minibus that suddenly just appeared right in front of us and on our side of the road.

He’d shot straight round a hairpin bend we were turning into, but veered out into our side of the road. Krys took evasive action in front of me, diving to the left out of the way of the minibus, but then stopping right in front of me. I took even more evasive action, pulled hard on both brakes, steered to the left, and that’s when I knew we were in trouble.

Not only had I run out of road, I’d gone straight into a sandy part of it at the edge. Everything then seemed to happen in slow motion – the front wheel locked and skidded, I saw it turn underneath the bike, there was a bit of a lurch through the steering, the bike went one way, I went another, and then I remember heading down towards the ground.

There was a thud. I hit it pretty hard. In the slow motionness that was still going on, I looked round to see Liz heading down towards the tarmac too. The scooter was resting on my leg, half sticking out of the undergrowth at the side of the road, engine still running. I checked if Liz was ok  – there were no tears, and more importantly, no blood from her. The strawberry wine was still intact too.

In my head my thoughts started to go around checking all my limbs. I could still feel everything, and I wasn’t in a great deal of pain. I stood up, and glared at the driver and his passenger. He looked sheepish. His passenger looked concerned.

My next concern was the bike – any damage and i’d be in trouble. Repairs are known to cost foreigners a lot in this country, mainly as it’s a good way for rental places to boost their coffers. Thankfully, nothing seemed broken. There were a few scratches on one of the plastic panels, and a bit on the footplate, but that was it.

Then I looked at my elbow – it was bleeding, and there was sand and grit stuck all over it where I’d momentarily slid on the tarmac. The same could be said for my knee.

We carried on and caught up with Bryce and Erin, who had started to wonder what had happened. They looked surprised when I showed them my arm, which by now had a trickle of blood running down it. We headed to a visitor centre at the geysers, and I ran my arm under a tap for a good 10 minutes to try to clean the wounds.

There were three deep cuts on my elbow, one of which was particularly deep, and was close to needing a stitch. Erin and Liz raided my cheap Tesco first aid kit I’d taken along with me (just incase!) and rubbed antiseptic cream and wipes all over it. I turned away and gritted my teeth. I think Liz offered me some sort of cloth to bite on.

The fuss over my arm meant I’d not realIy checked anything else, and then I found a bit of road rash on my chest from yet more gravel on the road. The girls used a whole roll of Band Aid tape to hold some antiseptic wipes in place as a makeshift bandage. Having alcohol permanently in contact with the cuts wasn’t the slightest bit comfortable, but with hours to go yet on the journey, it was the only thing we could do.

Scuffed up arm, taken the next day when I could laugh about it! (and it was much worse in the flesh, stupid camera!)

We went on to see the geysers, even though I was feeling a bit sorry for myself, and a bit guilty for injuring Liz too. She had a graze on her upper leg, but kept assuring me she was ok.

Hubble bubble...toil and scooter trouble to see this

The geysers bubbled and steamed away thanks to the red hot rocks below us. Thankfully the warm breeze was blowing the sulphury, eggy steam away from us, and we stayed for a good half an hour, being mesmorised by the constant noise and energy being emitted from deep within the earth. Bryce threw a rock into one, but sadly it wasn’t catapulted back out. They were by no means on a par with those i’ve seen in Iceland, but impressive to just come across as part of a national park in Thailand.

Geysers

Then it was time to get back on the scooter. My confidence had taken a massive knock, which was a shame because I’d absolutely loved the experience and felt totally in control. Sadly, as good a driver or rider you may be, you can’t do anything about the bad driving of others. I was just grateful I was driving slowly and carefully, otherwise things could have been much worse.

Waterfall on the way to Chiang Mai...i'm still covered in dust from my close examination of a road surface.

We took in another waterfall on the way back before arriving back into Chiang Mai that night. After a much needed shower to wash the rest of the dust and dirt off me, I felt a bit better, but knew I’d be sore for a while as it heals. And I knew I’d get a massive bruise on my leg too from where I landed, mainly as it had started to stiffen up and given me a limp.

Over a few drinks that night, I’d decided I wasn’t going to let the mishap put me off. The following day we agreed to go in search of Thailand’s highest point, Mount Doi Inthanon, a good 70km to the south of Chiang Mai but thankfully along good straight roads and hopefully away from speeding minibus drivers! When you fall off the horse, you’ve got to get straight back on and all that…

Our bikes knew where the good street food lived!

As usual, we started out late – too late in all honesty – but we were determined to at least make it to the national park the mountain is in. On the outskirts of Chiang Mai, we had to stop for something to eat as we knew it would be a good couple of hours riding in each direction. Bryce spotted some smoke, and we dived off to the left and up at muddy ramp towards some wooden shacks. There was a barbecue on, and some particularly good looking sausages and mystery meat.

Bryce, Erin and some of the best street food we've had

I asked for a sausage and wanted to know how much.

“One kilo, 30 Baht,” the man said.

That was the equivalent of 60p. Surely not. Bryce looked in amazement at the price. It meant we could buy the whole barbecue for about £2, though I have no idea what we’d do with that amount of meat. Then the man’s assistant came over. Turns out it was 300 Baht for a kilo – about £6. Sometimes things get lost in translation. I’m just pleased I ordered one sausage!

Plastic bottles are so last year!

That’s when we tasted it – it was some of the best barbecued meat I’ve had. Erin got a portion of pork, and while a lot of it was fat, it was edible and very tasty fat! Between us we had the entire tray, I ordered another sausage to go, and with a bag full of Pepsi (they keep the glass bottles – interesting way to drink pop, but it works!) we were back on the road.

We found some really impressive waterfalls – the sheer noise and power of the water from a river falling over the edge of a cliff never fails to impress. The spray was drifting all over, and had made a walkway down the bottom really muddy, which in turn made Erin really muddy. With my stupid limp and not wanting to risk another fall in as many days, I stuck to the safer path.

Erin braving the mud

We then rode for 20 minutes to another waterfall, before deciding that we just about had enough time and daylight to head further into the park and towards the main mountain. After all, it’s Thailand’s highest point – we’d got this far, and if it meant riding home in the dark, then so be it.

More great views

The roads began to get steeper, and the engine on my scooter began to sound more and more like it was about to cut out. The higher we got, and with less oxygen in the air I’m presuming, the worse my scooter got. I had the throttle fully open, but could manage a measly 20km/hr in many places, meaning Bryce and Erin were constantly ahead of me. And then I noticed the fuel gauge. It was almost showing empty, and we were miles away from any kind of petrol station.

Still we climbed, and by now the air was getting cold. Thankfully my oversized hoody came in handy again – the extra long sleeves double up as gloves, and were much needed as the cold air blasted against my hands.

High up

After about an hour of climbing, we suddenly hit a bend in the road with an incredible view. With trees all around, we’d not quite realised just how much we’d been climbing, but suddenly the whole world was below us.

We carried on further, finding a viewing area with car parking space and a shop. It had a great view of the neighbouring mountains, and after a few quick photos, I had a more pressing need in the form of fuel for my scooter. A guy with a barbecued chicken stall came to the rescue, magically producing a container of yellowy liquid from behind the toilet block. I was hoping it was petrol.

Sun begins to set

He looked into my tank, swished it round and said I had enough to get back down the mountain. The only problem was, despite the sun beginning to set, we wanted to go further up the mountain, so with £1 handed over, he gave me a litre.

Hurrah!

After 15 arduous minutes for my struggling scooter, we made it to the very top, the highest peak in Thailand. There was a military installation with huge signs saying ‘No Photographs’, a sign marking the achievement of reaching the top, and a lot of trees blocking most of the view. We walked through them hoping to get a clear view of the sunset, but there wasn’t one. We took the decision to head back down to the initial bend we came across with a clear vista across the whole range.

Not a bad scenic road!

We arrived just in time. The sun was setting, the sky was a bright orange and pink colour, and it was perfect for a few memorable photographs. It was a great sense of achievement making it all the way to the top, and there was a similar buzz of excitement from the many other tourists who’d stopped alongside us to take in the view of yet another day coming to a close.

Erin and Bryce

Beautiful sunset from the top of Thailand's highest mountain

Except for us, there was still more to come. The ride back was thankfully trouble free, and waiting for us was Liz with our bags of washing she’d kindly retrieved from the laundry.

Last night with Liz, Bryce and Erin

It meant that it was our last night together. Downstairs in the hostel, everyone was already in good spirits after a good few hours playing drinking games around the table while we were out. We decided to do some serious catching up thanks to supplies of strawberry wine (!) vodka, Red Bull and Coke, and headed out to a nearby bar where we once again made friends with Mr Sang Som, the local whisky.

Sang Som...everyone's favourite Thai friend!

We had a brilliant night together, full of banter, laughs and chats about all the things we’d done together. Erin still maintained she hated Canada. Bryce still maintained Canada was better than America. Liz was Australian and so gave me lots of Pom abuse. I returned the favour. It was great fun.

This had to go in the blog!

Towards the end of the night, Sang Som clearly kicked in!

Early the next morning, we waved goodbye to Liz as she left at 8am to get her flight to Cambodia, where she’s spending the next few weeks. Bryce, Erin and I managed to give some newcomers a bright and cheery welcome as they tiptoed into the room, not long after Liz left, as they were trying not to wake anyone. Somehow, we were all wide awake and in really funny moods and had a good laugh between us and with them. Then we crashed out again, waking up at 11am with agonising hangovers. The Sang Som was obviously still in our systems early on. It’s a funny tipple that stuff!

I too needed to head off south. I’d spent far longer than I intended in Chiang Mai, and with only a few days left on my 14 day visa from the Laos land border, I needed to come up with a plan. In Pai, I’d made a huge decision to spend New Year in Thailand with Bryce and Erin at the New Year Full Moon party. It meant that I wouldn’t be in Sydney for new year, as was my original plan. I figured that I’d already experienced the fireworks around Sydney Opera House a few years ago, and that I felt there was still a lot I wanted to do in and around Thailand.

It was a sacrifice – the earliest flight I could get to Sydney from Thailand on my particular ticket wasn’t until January 29th. It means another month and a half in this amazing country, but plans to meet friends and celebrate with them in Australia would have to be put on hold.

The other problem is that I’d need to make a visa run to another country to renew my tourist visa. If you cross  by land, you get 14 days stamped in your passport, but if you fly into Thailand you get 30 days. It’s a bit of a pain, but means I need to leave the country, go somewhere and then fly back in. There are companies that will do visa runs for you, but it costs a lot of money and involves a trip to a Thai consulate somewhere and paying for a visa – about £60.

I figured that I needed to head south towards Malaysia, where there’s a border crossing, and the possibility of a visit to Kuala Lumpur. Its somewhere ive never been before, and if you have to leave the country, you may as well go and explore somewhere. I made my mind up, that’s where I was heading, and so rode my scooter to the railway station and booked an overnight train to Bangkok that night.

Newly coloured-in scooter said goodbye to the hostel!

On the way back I stopped off at a shopping centre. I needed some blue and black permanent marker pens – a little DIY patch up job was required on the scratches on my scooter in the hope I could make them less noticeable. If they had a Halfords over here, I’d have probably got a proper touch up paint kit, but as it happens, marker pens are equally as effective!

With my scooter coloured in, I donned my fleece and jeans in the mid afternoon heat to cover up my road rash scars (apparently they are giveaways to check the bike closely!) and sweltered my way back to the hire shop. As soon as my driving licence was back in my hand, I got out of there while the bike was still being given a once-over. I’d got away with it, minus a bit of skin here and there, but on the whole I was very relieved. I’m probably going to put my motorbike days behind me for a while and quit while i’m relatively ahead!

Back at the Spicy Thai I said goodbye to everyone and headed out to catch a taxi to the railway station. With an hour to spare before the train, I had plenty of time – or so I thought. Aside from the fact I managed to put my foot straight into a red biting ant nest while waiting to cross a road,  resulting in a very amusing funky chicken dance from yours truly for the scores of drivers waiting for a green light, there was not a taxi or tuk tuk in sight. When one did turn up, there was just 35 minutes before my train left. But the driver decided to pick up and drop off lots of locals first, before dropping the bag laden foreigner off for his train.

With just seconds to spare, a train guard ushered me in through a back carriage door, and a few moments later we began to move. It was far too close for my liking  -and I still had crushed ants all over my feet. But the stress was over, I was on my way to Bangkok. A week and a bit after the rest of my tour mates left me in the north, I too was heading back, and settled down for supper in the dining car.