Island Life

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

Giving the Mariners an outing in paradise

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

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

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

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

The mountains and jungles of the Darien Gap

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

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

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

Castaway desert islands in San Blas

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

Refuel stop on the road

Refuel stop on the road

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

Necocli

Necocli

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

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

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

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

 

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

Hungry dogs

Hungry dogs

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

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

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

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

Bags, bagged

Bags, bagged

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

 

 

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

With Kelsey and Rhiannon on the boat to Capurgana

Fast

Fast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

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

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

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

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

Migrants in Capurgana

Migrants in Capurgana

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

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

In search of a new life

In search of a new life

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

Boots of all sizes

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

Walking through the village

Walking through the village

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

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

Migrants heading off into the Darien Gap jungle

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

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

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

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

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

Marco arriving in Sapzurro with all our bags!

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

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

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

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

Border police drugs checks

Border police drugs checks

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

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

Onboard the San Blas Adventure speedboat

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

First stop

First stop

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

Kuna village

Kuna village

Kuna life

Kuna life

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

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

With Niall and Stef in the hammocks dorm!

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

The shower

The shower

Shower time!

Shower time!

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

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

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

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

A few green faces…and big smiles too!

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

Bobbing around

Bobbing around

Engine fixed

Engine fixed

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

Monkeying around

Monkeying around

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

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

Tour guide Kate was a favourite with her spider monkey friends

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

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Jack finally wins the heart of a monkey

Say cheese!

Say cheese!

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

A storm sets in

A storm sets in

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

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

Huge lobster dinner

Huge lobster dinner

A great group

A great group

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

 

 

Hello Again!

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Well, it’s been a while – more than four years infact. So long, I’m struggling to remember how to even get this online. But a fish still has to get out of Grimsby from time to time – and after a bit of a turbulent year, there was no time like the present to set off into the big wide world on my own once more.

I’m currently on the East Coast main line, speeding along on one of Richard Branson’s bright red trains with its nose pointing towards London. Alongside me, a red and black backpack that almost mirrors the brightly coloured livery of the carriage it has been perched upright in.

img_0669It only seems like yesterday that I was making this exact same journey with it down towards Heathrow Airport. Except this time, it’s a little more worn and adorned with flags of Mongolia, Cambodia and Australia, to name but a few, that I hastily stitched on with an array of coloured threads in hostels around the world during the best year of my life. Reassuring proof that a trip I still find myself daydreaming about actually happened.

I find it hard to believe sometimes that I actually stuck it out for so long, living out of a bag, sleeping in 20-bed dorms with little privacy and heavy snorers, and barely having enough money for ‘luxuries’ like a coffee on the high street, a bus, or enjoy a meal out, all trying to save the travelling funds and make the experience go further.

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Backpack hasn’t been used since I returned home in 2012 – still got the luggage labels on!

It took a while for the bank balance to level out after a year of unpaid leave, but it didn’t take long to adjust back to life and start taking the home comforts for granted once again. Your own bathroom, a bubbly bath, clean clothes and your own pillow. Seeing your family, catching up with friends, realising how beautiful your home country is. Driving your car, listening to the radio, watching the shows from home you’ve missed for a year.

Then there’s the career. The long hair, which some people loved and others hated after vowing not to cut it for the duration of my trip, had to go! There’s not much calling for a surfer look on the BBC News outlets in Lincolnshire, so after a transition phase where I couldn’t bear to part with it, I went back to my usual short back and sides, albeit with a more grown up sweep to the side!

Once I’d tidied myself up, removed the traveller bracelets I’d picked up along the way, had a shave and prepared myself, it was a very strange feeling, after spending a year in shorts, t-shirts and Chang beer vests, to be getting all suited up for a day back in the office. Its one of my clearest memories of my return – sitting in my brothers old car I’d rented from him (didn’t have any money left to buy one of my own!) in my suit, just looking out of the windscreen for ten minutes and reflecting on what I was about to do. I was about to go back to work, return to normal life – the real world – and resume the rest of my life from where I’d left off eleven months previously.

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A few months after returning home, I was back in Australia and filming on helicopters

There had been a concern that I’d ‘stuff up’ my career with such a big trip, just when things were seemingly going in the right direction. I’m glad to say those fears were unfounded. If anything, its gone from strength to strength – and within months of returning, I was back in Australia working with a fantastic team of people filming the Helicopter Heroes programme. I landed (no pun) a dream job, flying around with the Yorkshire Air Ambulance in the UK, and New South Wales paramedics in Oz, as a camera director, a programme I p1000454was fortunate to be involved with on and off for 18 months. In addition, I’ve done quite well reporting nationally for the main BBC News, spending three months at Broadcasting House in London last year, reporting on everything from terrorist attacks to flying cats for a national and global audience. I’ve still got a hand in down there too, so pop up on the main news here and there away from the regular job being a newshound for

Serious face in the day job

Serious face in the day job

Look North and pounding the streets across East Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. Its the best of all worlds really – close to my family, reporting on my local patch, and enjoying a few snippets of London life here and there before being able to safely run away to the relative peace and quiet in Hull!

Oh, and there was one more thing that came about from that year-long trip.

I fell in love.

Yeah, that was probably my favourite bit about returning home. Having initially taken a career break after finding myself single, and with enough ‘everything happens for a reason’ words of comfort to last a lifetime, I really did think I’d hit the jackpot when I met a girl in Thailand on my trip who ticked all my boxes, and then some.

I wrote briefly about how I met Jen in a post here (link) and went on a random first date with her in Railay (link), after she shouted that ‘I’d been here ages’ in Koh Phangan, the Full Moon island in Thailand. Well we stayed in touch for the rest of my trip, and met up when I returned home, followed with a third date in Cyprus for a week together for a friend’s wedding…as you do!

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Jen and I in London, where we lived together for a few months in 2015

What followed was a bit of a whirlwind. Jen was in London, I was in Hull, but every weekend we’d travel the length of the country to be together. It was wonderful. I really did think the ‘everything happens for a reason’ cliché that everyone tells you at times of heartbreak had been proven right. It required leaving the country for a year, but I’d met someone who I believed I could happily spend the rest of my life with, on a journey to the other side of the world. I’d secretly hoped that after my final post ‘the end of a chapter’ the next thing I ever wrote on this blog was a bit of a ‘here’s what happened next’ fairytale ending of how I married the girl of my dreams that I met as part of the adventure.

Well, not quite, sadly.

Jen was amazing, and brought so much to my life, but we broke up in February. I wont go into too much detail – its not fair to do so – but in order to put this trip into context, lets just say its been a pretty rough year for me personally.

I’ve actually been itching to get away on some far flung trips over the past few years – and with Jen being a travel lover and blogger, I believed we were a perfect match who would go off and see the world together. It was one of my hopes when we began dating. But sadly, for one reason or another that I still struggle to understand, it didn’t quite work out that way. Jen would be seeing the world on free blog trips, I was at home with itchy feet. The fun and excitement of planning travel together disappeared as she focused on her independent trips – and it took its toll on our relationship.

That being said, recently we’ve been back in touch and are in the process of trying to smooth over some of the upset. We both know we mean a lot to each other, and have a special place in each others hearts. She’s doing really well for herself and has a lot to look forward to, and I’m really pleased for her. Who knows what the future holds, but we’re hopeful we can become friends again at the very least.

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With dad at the Coldplay concert in Glasgow, a fathers day treat

In recent months, my dad hasn’t been well either, so my family has been pulling together to support him and each other. Life can certainly be put into perspective very quickly sometimes, and a cold hard shock like we had in November last year makes you realise exactly what is important. Dad’s been amazing all the way through, a real fighter, and our family is closer and stronger as a result. The treatment has gone well, and we’re making lots of happy times and memories together, keeping positivity flowing and dad smiling. In many ways, its made us all appreciate each other so much more.

So while everything is settling a little on that front, and with demands to use some of my annual leave from work, you’ll have more of an idea now why I am setting off for another solo adventure.

It wasn’t quite how I’d planned it – I had always wanted to visit South America, my final continent in the world to set foot on, as a big trip with a special person in my life. But life is too short, as they say, so here I am, making my way to Colombia and Panama, via a brief stop in Miami, Florida…very little planned, just me, a guidebook and the bag on my back.

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Bags packed again!

Five years ago, I’d have never had the confidence to set off in this way. Indeed, I paid for an organised tour around South East Asia due to my fear of being unable to meet people or find my way around on my own. But one thing that year taught me, was that its fine to follow your nose. The internet, admittedly, makes things a million times easier. And even in the four years since I returned home, advances in technology and websites mean that travelling abroad just gets easier and easier. I have dug my trusty netbook out of retirement to type this, but I’m also equipped with an iPad and an iPhone for this journey, items which have evolved so much in the last few years with GPS and specialist apps that means its almost impossible to be lost these days.

I’ve had a few gasps from friends and colleagues, when just two days before departure, I’d still not booked flights. There have been a few eyebrows raised when I’ve explained I have just my first nights accommodation booked out of the whole two weeks.img_0648 I’ve not fully decided on an itinerary – I just know I’ve got to be in Panama City on September 24 for a flight home, or there will be a very unhappy editor in the office on the Monday morning.

Between now and then, I shall go wherever the wind takes me, and the flexibility and feeling of freedom that brings is immeasurable. If I hear of something interesting somewhere, I’ll go. But this is also a bit of a break, and I’m getting older these days, so I have pencilled in a few days to kick back on a beach or by a pool somewhere. Without the pressure of budgeting for a year, it will also be a little more ‘flashpacker’ than backpacker! I’ll still keep to the backpacker roots by staying in a hostel here and there, but when I’m longing for a private ensuite, I’ll be checking into the nearest hotel!

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Quick repair job!

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Finger blisters…painful!

Saying that, I have been strangely nervous – and I’ve had a typically chaotic day trying to get everything ready for the trip. Essentials such as toiletries, sun cream and a guide book all needed buying, errands needed running, a few things at home needed tidying, and the backpack needed repairing. Its main straps gradually came apart during that long trip previously, so armed with the strongest thread and sharpest needle I could find, I set about trying to re-attach them. I didn’t quite bank on how tough its internal weatherproofing was inside the fabric, and promptly acquired a huge blister on the end of my finger from trying to force the needle through, but I got there in the end and its as good as new again. Well, if you ignore my dodgy sewing.

I think it was getting my clothes and belongings ready for packing that brought back so many memories of 2011. It’s probably why I feel so nervous, as it feels just like how it did back then, the daunting feeling of heading into the unknown for a year. Its still the unknown I’m heading into, but for a much shorter time. My housemate Sarah did well at calming my nerves, and kindly took me to Hull station to see me off.

“You can always just come home again at any point,” she said with a smile. It’s the reassurance you need, the escape route you always know is open. But I won’t be taking it, hopefully!

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Five years between these waving pics…er, yeah, I’ve not aged at all :-/

So here I am. On my way again. I don’t know how many posts I’ll write over the next couple of weeks, maybe just a couple for old times sake – I’ll be honest, it was never really on my agenda to write anything. But what has been really nice is how many people in the past few days have asked me whether I would write something again as they enjoyed reading my posts so much last time around – and I don’t think everyone was saying it just to be polite either, so thankyou!

Who knows what people I will meet along the way, the stories they’ll tell, the places I’ll visit or the history I’ll discover. That’s part of the fun. There will probably be a few mishaps too – my infamous tea shop experience has been brought up by more than a few people recently when news of another trip was heard. But armed with my camera and a keyboard, I’ll try to bring it to all to life once more.

Almost five years on, the fish is back out of Grimsby. Back on the road and ready to make more memories, seeing a part of the world I’ve always wanted to experience. It might not be the way I’d hoped to visit, and I might not have someone to share it with in person by my side, but I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do something that I love once more.

After all, everything happens for a reason…