California Dreamin’

We hadn’t initially planned on spending any time in Los Angeles at all; it was merely to be a transit stop en route to Central America. However, being within striking distance of Disneyland and not visiting it was considered a mortal sin by Helena, so we decided to stop over for a few days. And then things spiralled: ‘But if we’re there anyway, maybe we should try to visit San Francisco too. Oh, and Vegas.’

In the end, we opted for a ten day stay in L.A. Buoyed by our experience of the camper van in Australia, we hired transport once again. This time we were presented with a big, white Cheverolet Astro, which screamed America to us! It was helpfully already named ‘Big T’, and I had to hold back from repeated outbursts of ‘Pity the fool!’ and ‘I ain’t gettin’ on no god damn plane!’ as I was driving along the Californian freeways.

Disneyland
So – first stop: Disneyland. Anaheim is the original home of Walt Disney’s magical dream land and Helena managed to find an RV park within walking distance of the Disneyland’s entrance so it was pretty perfect really. Having arrived, however, we almost weren’t allowed to stay.
‘You booked a space for an RV,’ said the girl behind the desk.
‘Yes, that’s right. For two nights,’ Helena replied.
‘Hmmm,’ said the girl, eyeing Big T with suspicion, ‘We don’t normally let people sleep in their car.’

Look at the size of our van. Unfortunately, it's being dwarfed somewhat by the huge RV's you can see behind it.
Look at the size of our van! ¬†Unfortunately, it’s being dwarfed somewhat by the huge RV’s you can see behind it.

Big T’s not a car, I was thinking, it’s a bloody massive van. But this is where America’s ‘utterly disproportionate approach to the size of all things’ started to become apparent. After convincing the girl that the van was indeed some sort of recreational vehicle (an argument seemingly swung by the presence of a sink), we began to notice the size of everything around us.

America does BIG really well: the freeways, the food, the signs, the volume, the houses, the vehicles, the supermarkets. It’s like every single time they design something, they just press a x200% button and go with that. The RVs in the park, for example, were the size of articulated lorries in the UK; you’d need a special licence to be able to drive one. Not here. Here, you just get yourself a huge trailer (they call it a fifth wheel) and an equally enormous van with which to pull it, and off you go. As if the trailers aren’t already large enough, you also get ‘pull-outs’, entire sections on the side of the trailer that extend out sideways to further increase the space inside. These things were jaw-droppingly huge, and our awe-struck looks were met with equally bemused gazes as we climbed into the back of our van to go to sleep. ‘Hey honey, would you look at that. I reckon’ those two crazy English guys are gonna sleep in their car!’

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In front of the original and iconic Sleeping Beauty’s castle.

Later that night, after sorting our tickets for Disney the following day, we popped into Ihop for some pancakes. We opted for the stack of four with white chocolate and raspberry sauce and, once again, were met with a look of bewilderment when we said we were going to ‘share’ them. ‘Are you sure you’re going to have enough?’ asked the waiter seeming genuinely concerned that we may somehow suffer malnourishment from such a measly order. ‘Oh, I’m sure we’ll be fine,’ I said, and was vindicated when he returned with a calorie bomb on a plate. He was still confused when we finished though, ‘You sure you don’t need anything else?’ We declined and left as the mildly nauseating effects of the excessive sugar intake were kicking in.

We spent the next day in Disneyland and it was awesome – you should go! It’s every bit as magical as Walt wanted it to be, and the fireworks especially were fantastic.

On the Toy Story ride - I know it's blurry but I just think that adds to the fun!
On the Toy Story ride – I know it’s blurry but I just think that adds to the fun!

Disneyland doesn’t have the biggest rides we’ve ever been on, nor is it the best value for money of all of the theme parks in California, but Disney does ‘being Disneyland’ so very well. Mainly, I think it comes down to the staff – every single one seems delighted to be there, no matter what job they’re doing. The girl running the rather innocuous spinny-roundy-spaceship ride, for example – more of a fairground attraction than a theme park one – was adding little sound effects to her announcements, and making Disney-esque jokes with a little glint in her eye, changing the announcements for each ride (whilst keeping the core information intact of course). It’s the combination of the little things that make visiting Disney an experience rather than just a day out.

I absolutely love this shot of Helena after a spine-crushingly bumpy experience on the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
I absolutely love this shot of Helena after a spine-crushingly bumpy experience on the Matterhorn Bobsleds.

Oh, and the inexplicable presence of Mickey Mouse ears on grown adults everywhere will have you giggling all day long.

Pure magic.
Pure magic.

So, what’s next?

San Francisco, right? Well, we looked at it for a while and ended up having to make the difficult decision to postpone a visit to San Fran for another time – it was just going to be too far away. We’d already spent two nights in Anaheim, and only had four left with the van. A drive to San Fran would have cost us about twenty hours just to get there and back – far from an ideal use of time, not to mention the fuel cost.

So then, what was next?

Mojave National Preserve
Well, not for the first time on our trip, we were faced with too many options and not many pointers showing us the best way to go. Southern California has national parks, vineyards, beaches, deserts, Hollywood … all sorts! It’s at these points that you have to go with your instincts and go for the option that just feels right. So we set our sights on the Mojave National Preserve, not really knowing what we were going to find, and got moving.

Half way there, driving along a freeway with desert either side of us, a town appeared out of nowhere in the distance. Not stopping for too long to question the existence of this urban sprawl in the arid wasteland, we stopped off to check out the information centre that had been signposted from the freeway.

It was a handy pause in our journey as we got to check our plans with a very helpful information lady, We told her where we were headed, pointing at the large green area on the map. She looked at us dubiously and said,
‘You know there’s not much out there, right? It’s all desert. Like, there’s not any, well, you know, it’s really hot and well there’s no, no… it’s not green.’
‘Oh, yeah. Of course,’ was my nonchalant reply, although the more honest answer would have been, ‘What the…? Desert?!’

With our ‘what’s the worst that can happen’ attitude and an entirely misplaced sense of optimism, we continued on.

Toasty!
Toasty!

At Baker, we found the world’s largest thermometer. It was reading 109 Fahrenheit; that’s a breezy 42 degrees Celsius. We’d tuned into the Mojave National Preserve radio channel as we approached the park and were treated to a looping broadcast from a presenter with a very monotone, matter of fact voice, that was essentially a series of warnings: It is important to be prepared. Take enough water, there are no shops. The same goes for food. Take enough fuel, there are no petrol stations. Make sure you’re contactable. Make sure somebody knows where you are going. Don’t build fires. Don’t leave the roads or marked tracks, you may get stuck, or lost. Make sure your vehicle has been fully maintained. Oh dear, I think we may actually die out here…

Refuelled, and fully stocked with water (and ice in our cool box incidentally, an entirely pointless venture!) we turned off the freeway at Baker and headed into the desert. We immediately found ourselves on a single lane, single carriageway road. This is not insignificant because, as I mentioned before, America’s default setting when it comes to road building is three lane dual carriageway. Anything smaller is hardly worth building, surely?

Ominously quiet on the road into the desert.
Ominously quiet on the road into the desert.

And then we were all alone.

The road was empty, completely empty; and the desolation around us was tangible: no buildings, no wildlife, no trees, nothing. We were filled with a strange mix of feeling adventurous and a desire to run back to civilisation. I’m pleased we didn’t give in though, because although there is very little to see in Mojave, that strangely becomes part of the fascination. We live our lives so often surrounded by other people, the senses bombarded incessantly with signals from the external world, that it was almost mesmerising to stop the van, get out, look around at the stillness and listen to the silence.

Sometimes I t's good to just stop and take it all in.
Sometimes it’s good to just stop and take it all in.

We stopped off in Kelso, an old mining hub which comprises a few small buildings including the old railway station and original jail cells. It too was deserted when we arrived so we had a short look around and moved on. We did see some of the American freight trains on our travels though, slithering their way almost imperceptibly slowly across the barren landscape. They too are vast in proportion, often comprising four or more engines and well over a hundred carriages, which combine to create a vehicle which is more than a mile in length.

Helena: not a fan of imprisonment.
Helena: not a fan of imprisonment.

Although we had thought we may stay somewhere in or near Mojave, a location for camping was neither immediately apparent nor appealing. So we decided to keep moving. (I absolutely love that about road trips: Don’t like where you are? Keep driving!) Reaching the far side of Mojave almost cost us a radiator and a clutch – Big T didn’t much like climbing hills in the heat – but we got there in one piece and found ourselves on the historic Route 66. I’ve always wanted to drive Route 66 – I don’t really know why, I know hardly anything about it – and so I was really happy to get the chance.

Wild camping
We were heading for another national park – the Joshua Tree National Park – this one has ‘tree’ in the title, there must be something green there, right..?

By the time we got close, it was getting dark and we had to find somewhere to stay. We popped into the visitor centre and spotted a map to a ‘free campground’ outside the park. Enticed by the offer of a free night’s accommodation, we followed the directions which for some unknown reason involved going beyond the campsite and three sides round a square to get to it. Looking at the map, there was a much more direct route off the highway so, in my wisdom, I decided to take it. Which was a mistake – almost!

In the now complete darkness, we turned off onto a sandy but sort of solid track – not a road at all – and were heading straight for the camp site. ‘Are you sure this is going to be alright?’ asked Helena, an entirely legitimate question. ‘I think so,’ I said, as I gently urged Big T onwards, already beginning to feel the wheels squirming as the surface beneath us got progressively more sandy.

Two minutes later: ‘I think I may have made a mistake.’

Now driving entirely on sand, we were faced with an agonising dilemma. Do we stop and try to turn around, risking getting stuck in the sand; or do we push on, hoping and praying that we weren’t just driving ourselves deeper into the problem.

What would you have done?

Well, as the moments ticked by, an immediate decision not forthcoming, we effectively decided on the second option by default. Luckily, we eventually came onto what looked like a more well-used track, only to then be faced with puddles and large gloopy muddy sections. Since when do you get muddy puddles in the desert?! Incredulous at this addition to the scenario, I parked up at the first possible opportunity in what we guessed must have been the camp site.

There was nobody else there.

With the voice of the man from the radio ringing through my head, ‘…make sure somebody knows where you are going…’ I turned to Helena and said, ‘You know, nobody else on the planet knows where we are right now,’ which could have been exciting and romantic. At that moment, it was scary.

It was a bit ropey in the darkness, but a morning cup of tea makes everything better!
It was a bit ropey in the darkness, but a morning cup of tea makes everything better!

But there was nothing to fear. After a restless night, constantly worrying, checking the window, reaching for and concealing weapons to use in case of an attack, we woke and were once more impressed by the immense peace and calm of the desert.

Feeling the love for the wilderness.
Feeling the love for the wilderness.

Joshua Tree National Park
After a cup of tea and a photo on the roof of the van, we made our way back to the visitor centre and were treated to an educational talk by one of the park guides which focussed mainly on Joshua Tree’s diverse lizard population. I know it may not sound that interesting but it actually began to open our eyes a little to the amount of life present in what we had thought to be a lifeless desert.

Can you spot the lizard?
Can you spot the lizard?

Joshua Tree is a huge national park, with many camp sites and different ecosystems to explore. It actually spans the borders of two deserts: the Mojave Desert and the Colorado Desert. We spent a good few hours cruising around, stopping to check out the Joshua trees, pausing at the many information points, taking pictures of various cacti, and lizard spotting (with our newly acquired lizard knowledge!). You could easily spend a week there and have plenty to do – in fact your $20 entrance ticket is valid for seven days – so it was such a shame that we were so tight on time.

Just one of many Joshua Trees after which the park is named.
Just one of many Joshua Trees after which the park is named.
This thing is called an Ocotillo.
This thing is called an Ocotillo.

Wine Country
Within striking distance of Joshua Tree is the Temecula Wine Region. We hadn’t really heard of it before, but we did know California was a big wine producing state and, once again, were keen to sample some of the wines on offer. Heading south west towards Palm Springs, we were making decisions on the go. Our choice of Cougar Vineyard, out of all of the vineyards, was mainly driven by its longer opening hours; we were only likely to get there by 4pm, and Cougar stayed open until 6, which would give us just enough time to taste a few of their wines.

The setting was lovely. Gone was the sandy brush, the isolated plants, struggling for life; we now entered along a gravel driveway winding through lush vines, hanging heavy with grapes. It was good to see vines in full growth as at the Hunter Valley, in Australia, it had been winter and all the vines had been pruned. The evening sun then, the views over the hills from the reclined wooden chairs on the veranda, the pop and gurgle of wine being poured, the clink of glasses, quiet chatter, muffled ‘mmm’ and ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’, all pointed to another couple of hours of wine-based delight.

It’s such a shame that the wine was so terrible!

Ok, maybe it was just not to our taste, maybe we’d been spoiled at the Hunter Valley. Whatever it was, we left contented but not in any rush to buy anything.

That evening was spent in the smaller Dripping Springs camp ground. Unlike our experience from the night before, this was a well set up site with hard pitches; each with picnic bench and fire ring. I quickly set about making a fire, which was easy in the tinder dry conditions, and we spent a wonderful evening eating pasta, drinking red wine (from the supermarket, not Cougar!) and enjoying the firelight.

Heading back to L.A.
Already nearing the end of our van hire, we had to head back towards L.A. We drove to the west coast and joined California Highway One, which runs alongside the Pacific Ocean. Some of the views on this drive were spectacular, but then so was some of the traffic! We popped into Venice Beach but I shied away from pumping iron at the famous Muscle Beach Gym (wouldn’t want to embarrass any of the regulars with my superior show of gun strength now, would I? Ahem!) and were soon heading for Hollywood.

Highway 1
Highway 1

The drive became a little surreal at this point, turning into a list of iconic road names and landmarks: one minute I was driving down Santa Monica Boulevard, then it was through Beverly Hills, onto Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard, with the stars of the Walk of Fame in the pavement all around and the Hollywood sign in the hills above.

We didn’t stop long at any of these locations though, realising that we yet again needed to find somewhere to stay. Theme-park lovers that we are, we’d booked tickets to visit Universal Studios, Hollywood the following day and were keen to find somewhere close by to leave the van. This proved to be an absolute mission; one that involves us driving for many hours, cooking and eating dinner on the side of the road, and ultimately stopping in a motel.

Had we failed? On the camping front, sort of. But Hollywood, and L.A. in general, is not teeming with campsites and RV parks – unsurprising, I know, what with it being a massive urban area – but we still thought we’d find something. On the positive side, stopping off in a motel is on the list of ‘classic American experiences’ in our heads, so at least now we can say we’ve tried one!

Universal Studios, Hollywood
I was really looking forward to spending our final road trip day at Universal. Helena and I went to Universal in Florida some years ago with her family and it was probably my favourite park. It doesn’t have the Disney magic, as such, but it rocks the thrill factor much better. You can empathise with my dismay then, when we got our hands on the map of the Hollywood park and began scouring for the biggest thrills. ‘Where are all the rollercoasters?’ I said, turning the map over and over, sure that I had missed something. ‘I have no idea,’ came Helena’s reply with an equally bemused tone.

What ensued was a morning of rides and experiences, many of which involved the same kind of 3D or video animation as each other, and none of which had us wanting to go back for more. Whereas at Disney, we were clinging on by our fingernails at 11:59 and 59 seconds pm, at Universal we got to 2pm, were sat tucking into a
Lard Lad donut and a coffee, looking at the map and at each other and saying, ‘I think we’re done.’ (To be fair to Universal, I should say that that Studio Tour and the Waterworld Show were both excellent.)

So, for the first time ever, we left a theme park before its closing time. Maybe we’re getting old… It was only later that we found out about Six Flags Magic Mountain, a park close to Anaheim that houses some nineteen rollercoasters. Nineteen!! We could have wept.

An Unexpected Highlight
Anyway, what’s that phrase about doors closing and windows opening? Our now free afternoon and evening began once more with a search for a camp site in the area. Just when we thought all was in vain (again!) Helena discovered the Balboa RV park, an innercity site frustratingly close (less than ten miles) to both Universal and Hollywood. We made a quick phone call and were encouraged to come down.

On arrival, we met the charismatic Steve who went out of his way to welcome us and help us out. It became apparent, almost immediately, that the park was actually full to overflowing. As pretty much the only RV site in the region, Steve had many long term residents, often actors working in Hollywood or at the studios right next to the park. I was mildly worried that our arrival had caused problems as he discussed options for where we could park with the lady behind the desk. ‘We don’t need anything, really,’ I ventured, ‘We’re happy parking anywhere.’ ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get you in,’ came the response as the discussion continued.

In the end, Steve directed us to park just next to their communal building. ‘If you park here, you get to open into this little bit of grass here,’ he said, ‘And the wifi connection is good next to the building, the showers are just inside, there are sofas, a TV…’ It was more than we could have asked for, and more than we needed. Back in the office, the question came from the lady, ‘So what will we charge?’ to which Steve looked at us and replied, ‘Would it be ok if we offered you half price?’

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Only in America would a 1/2 lb burger be referred to as ‘little’.
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Now that is a tasty burger!

Once we’d settled in, we took Steve’s recommendation of a visit to Outlaws Cafe for dinner. We were after a classic American meal and Outlaws fulfilled our desires perfectly. Welcomed in by the waitress, we chose two large, comfy leather chairs and were offered the menus. ‘We’re mostly well known for our burgers,’ she said, ‘so you might want to start there.’ We were sorely tempted by the namesake ‘Outlaws Burger’, but were stopped dead in our tracks by the opening line of description, which read: 1 Lb of spiced beef grilled to perfection… One pound? An entire pound of meat? Who could even consider ordering it, let alone eating it?! That’s that American issue with ‘size’ again.

Instead, we went for the half pound version – the Bandito – and the Hawaiian Burger, which was not a burger at all, but a spiral of sausage. Both of these turned out to be excellent choices, and we tucked in heartily. I even ordered a ‘refill’ of fries, (not that I needed them) because in America, free fries refill is a thing, apparently.

And so that was it for Big T. Eight hundred miles of road tripping around Southern California and what did we find? A lot of desert, a interest in lizards, and an emphatic confirmation of our love for camper vans. We fell in love with everything Disney all over again, had a rocky affair with Californian wine, and ignited a special relationship with a state to which we will undoubtedly return.

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This needs no introduction!
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Disneyland comes into its own once the sun goes down.
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Ok, so maybe some rides at Disney are more magical than others.
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California Screamin’ – what a great ride!
'I only hope that we don't lose sight of one thing - that it was all started by a mouse.' - Walt Disney
‘I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.’ – Walt Disney

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It’s the Fiji Island way!

On first impression, it would seem that every Fijian is born playing the guitar and singing in harmony; it’s an instinct as natural as breathing for them. As you enter the arrivals lounge at the airport, you are serenaded by a small group of large Fijians, wearing brightly coloured and patterned shirts and the traditional sulu, a kind of sarong (the guys in Fiji were all doing it way before Beckham!) who are harmonising a Fijian welcome song effortlessly into four parts.

You certainly do feel welcomed in Fiji – you will hear ‘Bula!’ being shouted countless times, which is the Fijian word for both ‘hello’ and ‘cheers’ (when drinking). Our taxi driver warned us not to be worried if people shout it at us in the streets, they’re just trying to be friendly, so we got into the habit of replying with a mutually excitable ‘Bula!’ almost instantly.

We were dropped off at our hostel in Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu, on which it is usually recommended to spend as little time as possible. Everybody pretty much has to go to Nadi, because that’s where the international airport is, but beyond that, there are not many other redeeming features; you just have to get in and out as quickly as you can, which was our plan…

But some things don’t go to plan.

Now, here comes the paragraph about the stuff that nobody tells you about Fiji: the country is a real pain in the backside to get around, and if you want to go to the Yasawa Islands – which is what Helena and I went for in the end – the options for accommodation are so limited that the prices are exorbitantly expensive. You are ushered towards ‘package’ style travel which locks you down, and you apparently have to know exactly what you want to do and where you want to go for the entire time you want to spend on the islands before you leave Viti Levu. In addition, we were introduced to the concept of a ‘meal pass’, which is a compulsory addition to the cost of the accommodation which then provides you with your food. There are no other options for eating on most of the islands, so you would have to eat at the resort anyway. It’s just that, once again, you are left no choice and it puts another huge hole in your budget.

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We got there eventually, but for a while it seemed like it may never happen!

Urgh! I thought Fiji was all about being super laid back and relaxing on white sandy beaches for days on end with no worries…

Well, in a way, it is, but you have to get your head around the logistical set-up first, which took Hels and I about six hours on our first day there. Major itinerary planning a go-go! My comment of, ‘I thought we’d just be able to jump on a boat to an island, see if we liked it, and take it from there,’ was met with disapproval bordering on disgust from the lady who’d offered to help us at the hostel’s travel desk. I think she was annoyed with me anyway, though, because I could not see how buying a huge travel package through them (clearly with a sizeable commission attached) could be the only way to get around. ‘You just need to pick where you want to go and book it,’ she said, after we’d been deliberating for most of the afternoon. ‘I get that,’ I said, ‘but how can I know where I want to go if I’ve never been there?’ She didn’t like that comment much either.

Hels and I oscillated between planning to visit the Yasawa group of islands, the Mamanuca group, or going over to an island called Taveuni on the east side of Fiji – the main attraction of the latter being that you could stand with one foot either side of the international date line. ‘Look, look, my left foot is in today and my right foot is in yesterday,’ – or tomorrow, depending on your perspective on time travel. The problem with Taveuni however – as explained by our helpful assistant – was that it would take us a day to get there and a day to get back, and boats only left on Mondays and Fridays and returned on Tuesdays and Saturdays unless they were delayed or cancelled due to poor weather or any unforeseen circumstances notwithstanding mechanical failure, acts of God, an alien invasion, an attack of giant sea monsters or the end of the world… Or something like that – my head was about ready to explode.

And breathe…

Our choice to visit the Yasawas, then, was one borne out of a huge session of wrangling with ourselves and the internet. Booking through the travel desk just seemed far too obviously like pouring money away – and lots of it too – so when we found that we could book directly with some of the accommodation, rather than through a package, we got busy. We opted for two islands at first: Tavewa and Naviti. The philosophy here being that since Tavewa is the furthest island away from Viti Levu that we could reach, it would be better to get all the way there in one go, and then work our way back. Ultimately we stayed four days at Coral View Resort on Tavewa, four days at White Sandy Beach Resort on Naviti, and three days at Bounty Island Resort on Bounty Island (surprisingly enough!).

Soooooooooo – enough about that!

Once we got out there, Fiji turned out to be every bit as relaxing, friendly and beautiful as we were expecting.

The traditional lovo is a meal cooked in an underground pit.
The traditional lovo is a meal cooked in an underground pit.

The bonus of the whole resort/meal pass thing, is that everybody at the resort eats together, so it’s really conducive to getting chatting to other guests (often striking up conversations with, ‘It’s lovely but so bloody expensive!’) Sorry, I know I said enough.

So, Coral View was our first stop. After a mammoth eight hour trip on the big catamaran that runs the island route each day, we were greeted by the staff with a song onto the beach. With welcome drinks in hand, we were introduced to the various activities on offer and shown to our room, a ‘bure’ – which is essentially a small Fijian hut. The best thing about Coral View was the amount of snorkelling on offer. Not only could you snorkel directly in front of the resort, they also ran free trips each day at 10am, to various different sites around the island.

In addition to this awesome Lionfish, we saw reef sharks and some fabulous coral.
In addition to this awesome Lionfish, we saw reef sharks and some fabulous coral.

After dinner on our first evening, we were told that there was a local rugby tournament happening the following day, and that we could take a trip to watch part of it if we liked. Now, I didn’t know much about Fiji, but I did know that they are mad about their rugby, so we jumped at the chance to go and experience it first hand.

The following morning, we hopped into a small boat with the activities leader, Toki, and a few others and headed off. The tournament was in a village called Somo Somo which you can only reach by boat. There are no roads or vehicles there, and only a smattering of small ramshackle huts, but behind it all there is a full size rugby pitch; an indication of the importance placed on this sport in the Fiji culture. And this was not a small tournament; there were 32 teams competing, playing 7-a-side, but each with squads of 10-20 players.

We were so pleased we took the opportunity to go because we instantly felt like we were getting to see a bit of the real Fiji. I think most of my/our frustration at the planning stage was that it all seemed a bit ‘package’, a bit ‘tourist’, a bit fake even? This certainly wasn’t. The pitch was fabulous. Although it was full size, the ground was extremely uneven, with bumps and ruts all over it, including two huge sand bunkers that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a golf course.

Another two points!
Another two points!

For poles, you can forget the metal structures you might have been expecting, here we had straight-ish lengths of green bamboo, lashed together with twine. The finishing touch to this beautiful spectacle was the lines, which rather than being painted on, had been accurately burnt into the grass.

These guys didn’t let any of this phrase them though. With 32 teams to get through, we were treated to non-stop games of 7 mins each way, with rolling substitutions. This meant that the pace was frenetic, the tackles were huge, and the whole thing had a sense of chaotic relentlessness about it that was almost as exhausting to watch as it must have been to play. The teams were made up of serious players; most of them held together by various amounts of bandage and tape over hands, heads, thighs, knees, elbows, thumbs – you name it, someone had it taped up.

Sitting on the sidelines meant we were pretty close to the action.
Sitting on the sidelines meant we were pretty close to the action.

And they were fast, so fast! Rugby sevens is a fast game anyway, but with only a few minutes to play at a time, they went at it very, very hard.

So we sat and tried to take it all in. We were greeted with an enthusiastic ‘Bula!’ by everybody we spoke to, and were made to feel very welcome.

The remainder of our time at Coral View was spent relaxing, reading, snorkelling, trekking up the hill, walking down the beach, chatting to the various people we met, and eating. We did a lot of eating! The food at Coral View was both good quality and vast in portion size – well, I guess the classic Fijian physique isn’t achieved by accident!

A hike up the hill offers superb views.
A hike up the hill offers superb views.

My favourite thing about meal times though, was that Jack, the main guitarist and singer at the resort, would sit and play songs from his massive repertoire. He was a huge guy and every part of him was rounded, his face, his eyes, his afro hair. His great height and gigantic hands made him look kind of like a Fijian Hagrid. His voice was superb; a sumptuous baritone with gooey vibrato and a huge range. I can’t really describe it – he is just the kind of singer you could sit and listen to for hours and hours. His version of Layla by Sting was my particular favourite – just perfect.

Soon it was time to move on. We got back onto the large catamaran and headed south to White Sandy Beach, where we were greeted by another guitar led ensemble. This time, however, the guitarist was a young guy of 20 called Ted. We got to know Ted pretty well over the next four days, and he was awesome. He fulfilled loads of different roles at the resort, not least being main guitar player, but I have to say, although I loved Ted’s enthusiasm on the guitar, he didn’t come close to Jack. Sorry Ted!

Ted - what a legend!
Ted – what a legend!

White Sandy Beach was quite different in feel to Coral View; much smaller, quieter, but in a way a bit more authentic I guess. It felt more like a family atmosphere rather than a business, which we liked a lot. The facilities were pretty basic though; cold water showers, electricity only for certain hours in the morning and evening, no internet access, and yet for everything it ‘lacked’, as such, it was enriched with simple pleasures. We lay in hammocks and read books undisturbed for hours, we snorkelled the reef just off the beach, we raced hermit crabs, watched Ted and Abu smash coconuts with their fists, had basic Fiji lessons and played volleyball with the staff.

Volleyball is Fiji’s second biggest sport apparently. When I spotted a game going on at the rear of the resort one evening, I wandered over and sat by the side and watched, in a kind of a school boy-esque, ‘I really want to play but I’m embarrassed to ask so I’ll just stand here and hope somebody invites me’ kind of way. Which, of course, they did. I didn’t realise at the time, but one of the guys stepped out of the game to make space for me – very kind!

Staff and guests all playing together.
Staff and guests all playing together.

This was the beginning of my Fijian love affair with volleyball. From this point on, I searched out games at every given opportunity, to the point of instigating games back at the hostel on the mainland, dragging in unsuspecting individuals to play as they sat happily enjoying the evening sun. Sunset volleyball became an institution of the rest of our stay on Fiji.

But playing volleyball had a secondary, entirely unintended effect – it allowed us to spend time with the resort staff in their leisure time, rather than as a scheduled ‘activity’, which was, again, kind of what we wanted to do.

Our other favourite White Sandy Beach activity was the nightly beach bonfire and singalong with Ted and Abu. Now, as I said before, Ted’s repertoire was nowhere near as developed as Jack’s, and his knowledge of the lyrics of the songs he was playing was often minimal and sometimes non-existent. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm and excitement were unbounding and we found ourselves singing along happily to harmonically dubious versions of Wonderwall and Someone Like You along with rhythmically unstable renditions of No Woman No Cry and Redemption Song. Where Ted really came alive was when he was playing his favourite hits such as, Reggae in the Bathroom, Please Don’t Touch My Papaya and The Fiji Animal Song.

Hels and Esther - friends for life!
Hels and Esther – friends for life!
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Our leaving meal ūüôā

Without realising it, we became quite attached to everyone we met at White Sandy, and so it was a really special moment for us when Manu – the chef and chief volleyball coordinator – came over on our last day and said he had a gift for us. ‘We just wanted to say thank you for staying with us for four nights,’ he said, ‘so the boys went and dived for a lobster and we have cooked it for you.’ We were really touched by the sincerity of the gesture and sat down to eat this final meal, offering the warmest of thanks for their hospitality. Strangely enough, we had also been preparing a parting gift for Ted. He’d been desperate to know the actual lyrics to some of the songs we’d been singing, so we wrote out what we could on a piece of paper and gave it to him. It wasn’t much but he seemed pretty happy!

On to Bounty Island then, which we reached in the dark. It was a little unnerving to be stepping off a large catamaran and onto a small aluminium boat in the pitch black. Before we knew it, we were speeding over the inky waves towards … nothing. There was literally nothing ahead of us. The simple reason for this was because the resort was on the far side of the island, but still! Trying to remain calm in this bizarre scenario was made easier by the presence of Simmi, one of the staff from the resort, who introduced himself and asked everyone their names; everyone except me however. ‘I know you!’ he said gleefully when he got to me, ‘You’re Jesus!’ His grin revealed several missing teeth as he continued, ‘Ginger Jesus!’ I guess I have no defence against that sort of banter.

This is actually South Sea island but Bounty is pretty much identical.
This is actually South Sea island but Bounty is pretty much identical.
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Cleaning the turtles at Bounty’s sanctuary.

Unlike the larger islands, Bounty is a tiny coral formation; you can walk around it in about 30 minutes. Fringed with white sand and coral reef, there’s not much else to do but relax and let your mind and body slip into Fiji time. Books were read, naps were had and their sun beds and pool were put to good use. ¬† We were productive at times though; with Ephy, the activities guy, we made souvenir jewellery from coconut shells, spent a fun few hours cleaning baby turtles, and played yet more volleyball, both on the beach with people we met, and at the back of the resort in the staff game (which I once again just approached and was invited to play). It was an excellent few days.

And that’s almost it for this blog, but no Fiji experience would be complete without drinking a little ‘kava’. ‘What’s kava?’ I hear you ask.

This is kava - yummy!
This is kava – yummy!

Well, it’s a good question. Kava is a traditional Fijian drink that’s made from the kava root. It is dried then crushed until it becomes a powder, then mixed with water in the kava bowl to make kava – a cold, watery, brown liquid that tastes of dirt. It supposedly has a mild narcotic effect but you’d have to drink about 20 bowls for it to kick in.

Hels and I drank kava a few times, but the most memorable for me was being invited to drink with the staff on Bounty (once again, the invite came after playing volleyball). I wandered up to the big bure behind the resort after dinner, was welcomed in and ushered to take a seat around the bowl, which is a large ceremonial wooden bowl that has been carved from a single piece of wood. Everyone sits around crosslegged on the floor on thin mats as the kava is mixed then handed around in small bowls made from halved coconut shells. Each time you are offered a bowl you have to clap once, take the bowl and down it in one go, the hand it back and clap three times. A lot of clapping is involved in kava drinking! There was a lot of laughter, discussions on various topics, and even some solemn prayers – most of which I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t in English, but it didn’t really matter. People were reading the paper, eating various little snacks to go with the kava and generally enjoying each other’s company. Simmi was sitting next to me and at one point he turned to me and said, ‘Hey Jesus, how do you like the kava?’
‘I’m not going to lie to you, Simmi,’ I replied, ‘It’s not the best tasting drink I’ve ever had.’
He laughed his open-mouthed, missing-toothed laugh and said, ‘Ha! We don’t like it much either. We just like sitting and spending time together.’

And that was the essence of our time in Fiji really. Despite the headache at the start, spending time on the islands turned out to be an enjoyable, exciting and enriching experience. With fewer distractions, you find yourself learning to enjoy spending time with the people around you, eating, singing, joking, laughing, playing or even doing very little, simply having a bit of ‘Fiji time’.

The view from our bure on Bounty.
The view from our bure on Bounty.
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Volleyball at sunset – a pretty perfect metaphor for our time on Fiji.

Australia Part III – Return of the BRAT (vest)

There are many good trilogies out there, often standing as icons of the world of film: Back to the Future, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, to name but a few. So there’s a lot of pressure on Australia Part III … Here we go!

In a galaxy, far, far away…ha! Only kidding! Part II ended in Nimbin, and it did feel like an episode from Back to the Future in a way. We managed to extricate ourselves from the herbal haze of the Sunday morning market, and headed north towards Hervey Bay taking in my favourite named route, the Bruce Highway. Could there be a more Australian Road?!

Our main reason for visiting Hervey Bay was to explore the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island. Measuring 75 miles long and 15 miles wide, Fraser is made up of sand that has been accumulating for approximately 750,000 years on volcanic bedrock. We popped into the Information Centre on the outskirts of the town and were helped out immensely by the ex-pat, Liz. She pointed us in the direction of the cheapest camp-site in town (a place called Scarness; fully equipped and right on the beach for $15 a night), and explained our options for Fraser Island tours.

As excited as I was about the opportunity to drive a 4×4 on the beach and through the sandy inland trails (and that was pretty damn excited, I’m sure you’ll understand), we eventually opted to go on a one-day tour with a company called Unique Fraser. Not the cheapest option out there, but we were so happy with the choice. So we found our way to Scarness, barbecued some steak for dinner and popped the cork on our Capercaillie Merlot. Splendid!

We were picked up the following morning by our guide and driver, Kris in his Toyota Land Cruiser. We then collected Steve and Jenny who were celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary (poor blighters had to put up with us all day) and brothers Anton and Mark. Packing ourselves neatly into the jeep, we headed off to the port where we met up with a second jeep, driven by another Chris, but this one was short for Christine.

Fraser is only a short ferry ride away from the mainland but it was an amusing one. The captain was making a pretty standard set of safety announcements and happened to mention that the bar wasn’t open yet, which he followed up with, ‘…not that I know why you’d want a beer at 8:30 in the morning anyway. And don’t go pretending you’re innocent, I saw you lot looking at your watches…’ ¬†It was only 8:27 actually.

Shortly, we were back in the jeep and heading inland. Kris began to explain the incredible biodiversity on the island. In the short drive it would take for us to cross to the other side, we were going to drive through numerous distinct and different ecosystems, including: rainforest, eucalyptus woodland, mangrove forests, sand dunes and swamps.

As he was talking, however, it became apparent that he was getting frustrated with the couple of 4×4’s ahead of us on the single track road. ‘They must be tourists; don’t know the tracks and don’t know the rules either.’ By ‘rules’, he was referring to the driving etiquette in the centre of the island which dictates that you let faster vehicles past at the first opportunity, especially if they are driving with their lights on, which is the signal for wanting to pass.

‘You’re gonna have to put your ugly face on,’ came a voice over the radio. It was Chris, who was following in the jeep behind. Kris picked up the radio receiver, ‘What do you think I’ve been doing so far?’ he replied. The two slower vehicles didn’t get the hint though, so a few minutes later, Kris grabbed hold of the radio again, ‘Stay close to me Christine, we’ll see if we can get around them at the cut up here…’

Moments later, a second track appeared in the dense forest off to the right of the main track. Kris pulled the wheel right and floored it. The engine emitted a throaty growl and we sank deep into our seats as the jeep thrust forwards and down into the track with sand spinning off the huge soft tyres. I took a glance out of the rear window and saw Chris a couple of feet behind us, her jeep squirming around on the sandy track as the four wheels sought out some traction.

The cut was only very short though, and seconds later we could see the other cars reappearing through the trees to our left. It was going to be a close shave, and an even closer one for our second jeep, but Kris kept his foot firmly planted and we leapt back onto the main trail leaving just enough space for Christine to squeeze in on our bumper. ‘That’s better,’ said Kris casually, and we were off…!

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Standing in the middle of the road!

It wasn’t a kamikaze attitude or a penchant for recklessness being displayed however, the Unique tour goes a lot further up the main beach than most other tours; Kris was just trying to keep us on schedule. Plus, he’s been driving on Fraser Island for 16 years; he knew what he was doing.

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Helena spotted this Dingo, a native animal on Fraser, and quite an attractive one – but better to keep your distance as they can be pretty dangerous.

And it was a fabulous day! Once we hit the main beach on the eastern side of the island, we were on the highway – literally. Fraser’s main beach is a classified road in Australia, governed by the same highway rules as any regular road. It also serves as Fraser’s airport runway. It’s 75 miles long and varies in width depending on how high the tide is. Driving it is a bit of an art, as you always have to be aware of shifting soft sands, wash outs, pedestrians, fishermen, wildlife, holiday makers, sand castles, that sort of thing. ¬†We swam in the Champagne Pools, spotted whales from Indian Head, lazed our way down Eli Creek, got wet again in the pristine waters of Lake McKenzie, had a superb lunch with beer and bubbles, and explored the wreck of the Maheno, all the while learning stories of aboriginal history and culture from Kris.

The 'perched' Lake McKenzie is entirely made up of rainwater; completely clear and good enough to drink. I'm standing in it here, although you may not have spotted it at first.
The ‘perched’ Lake McKenzie is entirely made up of rainwater; completely clear and good enough to drink. I’m standing in it here, although you may not have spotted it at first.
Watching for whales.
Watching for whales.
A rather poor photo of a beautiful wild Kookaburra.
A rather poor photo of a beautiful wild Kookaburra.

A couple of things he mentioned which were really interesting were the originations of the words Kangaroo and Koala. Apparently, when the British settlers arrived in Australia, they pointed at a kangaroo and said, ‘What’s that?’ The aboriginal man said, ‘kangaroo’, which means, ‘I don’t understand you!’ And when they spotted a koala, the British once again asked what it was. This time the aboriginal man said, ‘koala’, which means, ‘bad food, don’t eat.’ Now, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of these stories, they may well be more myth than fact, but we enjoyed hearing them nonetheless.

So, we were happy. It was just one of those days where you get to the end and feel like you really made the most of your time. The tour was worth the extra money for the personal touch, for the fact that we were in smaller groups as opposed to being on buses, and for the professionalism of Kris’ guiding and driving. We rounded it off with a quiet night out comprising a pint of Guinness, a few glasses of red wine, a few bottles of Peroni and a curry (our first since leaving India). How very Australian!

The wreck of the SS Maheno - washed ashore during a cyclone in 1935.
The wreck of the SS Maheno – washed ashore during a cyclone in 1935.

Returning from Fraser, we considered just hanging around in Hervey Bay for a few days before heading down to Brisbane, but chatting with Steve, Jenny and Kris, we formed a plan to get a glimpse of the Great Barrier Reef. We were so close, it would seem wrong not to try to get to see it. So we continued up the Bruce Highway to the ‘Town of 1770’ – that’s literally what it’s called – Captain Cook’s first landing place in Queensland, where you can get a tour out to Lady Musgrave Island, which is the second most southerly point of the reef. We almost had an accommodation issue actually because by then it was the school holidays. The free camp site they we’d read about in the guide book was full to bursting, as were most others, but we managed to grab the last spot in a decent site where we ate fish and chips outside while watching a movie and drinking both the last Moscato and Worthington’s delicious dessert wine.

In contrast to the Fraser Tour, our trip to Lady Musgrave was a packed venture (of about 140 people), all split up into groups and rotated around various ‘activities’. I’m not going to say it was disappointing, because the island itself and the coral of the reef was superb, and we saw a whole load of turtles… it’s just that it didn’t have the super special touch that we’d got from Unique Fraser. ¬†The only thing I will say is that if you are considering going on this trip, believe everything they say about the boat ride to the reef…

Lady Musgrave is a beautiful little island on the Great Barrier Reef.
Lady Musgrave is a beautiful little island on the Great Barrier Reef.

Once back on the mainland, we made a bee-line south, this time heading for Brisbane. We stopped off overnight at a free rest stop on the Bruce Highway though because we had one day left before needing to give the van back, and one final unfulfilled item on the Australia wish list – Koalas!

We would have loved to have seen a Koala in the wild – we thought we had done in Sofala but on reflection it was definitely a wombat – but having not managed it, we opted for a visit to the highly acclaimed Australia Zoo which is located on the Steve Irwin highway.

The zoo has a particular focus on crocodiles and reptiles, reflecting the passion of Australia’s most famous zoologist, conservationist and herpetologist, but it also has a large variety of other native Australian wildlife. It’s a great zoo to be honest, with a huge focus on education and preservation, and they allow you to get as upclose and personal as is possible with most of their animals, which is a great thing for Helena because she was desperate to stroke a Koala – well, who isn’t!

What's the only thing cuter than a Koala...?
What’s the only thing cuter than a Koala…?

In the Koala sanctuary, there are a number of Koalas chilling out in various trees, but there is a section where you can indeed stroke one of the big bundles of fur. While we were there, the handler swapped from one Koala to a different one to give it a rest. (It’s a hard life sleeping and being stroked all day, I know!). Helena lined up patiently (with the other little boys and girls who wanted to stroke the Koala) and even managed to contain her rage when a small child nonchalantly pushed into the line in front of her. When her turn eventually came, she took great delight in stroking the winner of Australia’s cutest animal contest since the beginning of time.

...a BABY Koala, of course!
…a BABY Koala, of course!

So that was pretty much the end of our Australian experience, apart from the small matter of the 2015 Gold Coast Marathon. Who runs a marathon on holiday? I can hear the incredulous shouts already, and to a certain extent, in hindsight, it may not have been the best idea we’ve ever had. We decided to enter it on a bit of a whim when we were in Borneo. We were in that dangerous post-race time when the euphoria of completion lingers just enough to make you click on that button that says ‘Enter Now!’ rather than close the page you had inexplicably opened in the first place and head to the bar.

So we dropped the van off and made our way to the Gold Coast. Ever since entering the race, we had been trying to stay on top of some regular running and gradually build up the miles, using Helena’s gps Garmin running watch to keep a track of mileage and pace. This was proving tough in the heat and humidity of Asia, but we ran pretty much everywhere we stayed: six miles in Sandakan, eight in Manila, ten in El Nido, intervals in Boracay, twelve in Singapore, nine on Gili Air, another twelve on Gili Trawangan (three laps of the island) and then 15 and 18 back in Kuta either side of our bike trip. Intersperse these longer runs with various 30-60 minute efforts, and we’d done as much as we possibly could to prepare.

Make what you will of this photo...
Make what you will of this photo…

Reaching Australia and finding ourselves fifteen degrees cooler with less humidity was definitely a bonus as far as the running was concerned. We’d been struggling to get close to a ten minutes per mile average in Asia, but now we were running much more comfortably sub-10 mins/mile. (I know there will be many of our BRAT friends thinking, ‘explain to me how you can actually run that slowly and still call it running…’ But give us a break, we’re on holiday!)

Anyway, race day came around. We were standing on the start line, excited but nervous, with a few basic targets: 1 – finish, 2 – finish under 5 hours, 3 – try to get close to 4hrs 20 (a ten minute mile average).

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All smiles pre-race.

Proudly sporting our BRAT vests, we crossed the start line and were hanging around pretty comfortably with the 4:30 pace runner. Helena’s Garmin was giving us pace feedback which was both helpful and unnerving – we were running too fast. Mile one – 9:59, mile two – 9:29, mile three – 9:36.¬†Before we knew it we were at 5k, we’d left the pacer behind, but we were desperately trying to take it easy; there was still a long way to go. We were also both suddenly desperate for a pee (!) so we dived off the course into one of the many toilets. Although this cost us 90 seconds, it was well worth it!

Onwards! The pacer was now back in front of us, but within our sights so we went off to make up some of our lost time. Although we were doing our best to be conservative on our first half pace, we actually hit halfway in 2:08 – which is a half marathon pb for Helena – and gave us a 9:45 min/mile average so far! By now, though, she was beginning to struggle slightly. We knew we could run for three hours – as that had been our longest training run – so we just tried to stay on course until then. Plus, when we made it to the 30km mark, we’d be able to pick up our single complimentary race gel… Not a particularly effective nutrition strategy, and about the only factor of the race organisation that was below par. Luckily, we’d invested in a few gels at the expo and brought them with us.

We hit three hours bang on 18 miles – ten minutes per mile average – it was way better than we’d imagined we’d be able to do prior to the race. If we could hold on to this pace for 8 more miles, we’d get our 4:20 top level target…

But it was not to be! Beyond three hours, the running just got progressively more difficult. People talk about ‘hitting the wall’ – I’m not sure Hels and I found a specific wall as such, we more slipped into the abyss! The last 8 miles were a brutal war of attrition, just trying to drag ourselves to the finishing line. We had to resort to a bit of a walk/run strategy which murdered our average speed, but meant that we could keep moving forwards. But, weirdly, it was this point in the race that we started chatting to other runners, getting loads of support from spectators and generally enjoying the atmosphere despite the deepening pain in our legs.

Proudly sporting our medals - still smiling!
Proudly sporting our medals – still smiling!

In the end, the last eight miles took us over an hour and a half, giving us a finish time of 4:37. But we ran across the line with our hands held aloft, pleased to have finished our first marathon. And now, of course, we have a benchmark, which means a target time for 2016…

We concluded our Australian experience with a celebratory meal out in Brisbane with our friend from home, Tom Hoyle. He suggested a fabulous little Japanese restaurant called Harijuku Gyoza, which was full of hilarious Japanese waitresses and delicious little dishes which went someway towards soothing the ache in our legs. This was to be only the beginning of our down-time, however, as the following morning, we were flying to Fiji.

So, we had landed in drizzly Sydney, but 3000km later, we were flying out of Brisbane with nothing but love for Australia, and a burning desire to return.

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Juicy Lucy made it all the way without a hitch.
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Even Fraser has a bin lorry.
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Eli Creek
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The trusty Toyota.
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3000km and thankfully we didn’t encounter any wildlife on the road.
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Quirky little restaurant!
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Always great to meet up with people from home ūüôā

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A poem

The bus is full.
Mothers cradle daughters on laps
to make more space,
yet still people stand.
Warm air filters in through the open windows,
not stifling, not yet.

It’s early, the first bus of the day.
Another stop, another two passengers
clamber optimistically aboard.

Bounded by water, this thin peninsula
has only one road, stretching out before us,
with no option to retreat.

The conductor dances his way down the aisle,
for everyone must pay,
no matter how long they stay.

But what does it matter? For
tomorrow, we begin once more,
and soon this bus
will have to
take us
home.

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Half way through, so what’s new?

So the old cliche goes that the reason you go travelling is to ‘find yourself’ or ‘discover meaning’ or some such other variety on the theme. I’m not sure Hels and I ever had a particular notion as to why we decided to travel, we certainly haven’t been searching for anything as such, but that’s not to say that we haven’t learned a few things along the way.

In no particular order then, here’s a short summary of stuff we’ve found out, noticed, or discovered thus far.

1 – Helena’s a secret birdwatcher. Whenever we’re in the jungle, or by the sea, or anywhere were there are trees and sky, you can often hear the refrain of, ‘Oh, wow. Look, look! It’s so pretty!’ Ok, so I may be being a little facetious in my description, but she (and yes, admittedly, I too) have realised that birds are amazing and great to spot, particularly in the wild.

The stunning colours of the Rainbow Lorikeet - photographed in Byron Bay.
The stunning colours of the Rainbow Lorikeet – photographed in Byron Bay.

2 – We love the ocean. Further to the point above about bird life, ocean life is also incredible, especially in the tropics of course. Turtles are our absolute favourite but we’ve also recently got into sharks, rays and other various large mammals. We’re still yet to find dolphins or whale sharks, but we’d love to swim with them. Also, the wide variety of corals and fish in the big blue will keep us coming back to the ocean over and over again in years to come.

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This is a species of Lionfish that we saw in Fiji, but I’m not sure of the name. They don’t usually have the fans that you can see either side.

3 – Bus rides in developing countries can be more fun than roller coasters. All stemming from a breathtaking 4am blast through Southern India on a ‘super fast’ bus that left our knuckles white for days, we have subsequently experienced numerous journeys that provide that unique blend of an old bus, bumpy roads, and pure speed; leaving you shaking, stunned to be alive, and with adrenaline seeping out of your pores.

Now, I know these buses may not look fast, but don't be fooled...
Now, I know these buses may not look fast, but don’t be fooled…
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We just love getting out onto the open road and seeing what we can find!

4 – We may have to purchase a camper van. And maybe even a scooter. Some of our best experiences have been those where we have our own wheels: Bali, Australia, America. It doesn’t even have to be fancy – probably better if it isn’t. Just enough space to sleep, some handy little places to store luggage, and a little stove. Simple pleasures. Oh, I want an orange one though … image

5 – People are pretty friendly. This is a bit of a generalisation, I know, but we have found that the more you open up to people, cultures and the experiences that present themselves to you, the more likely you are to understand what is going on around you. No matter who you are meeting, or where you are meeting them, most people want to chat, want to learn a little bit of your story, maybe want to tell you a little bit of theirs. Quite often, people just want to know what you think of their country!

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These girls we met near Munduk just wanted to take pictures!

6 – It’s better to say ‘yes’. Not all of the time, obviously. In fact, when you know you’re getting hustled for a taxi when a bus will be along in two minutes, it would be foolhardy to say yes. When you are invited to get involved, though, or do something that seems a little out of the ordinary, you will gain much more by having a go than shying away. A couple of times in Fiji, I ended up in a volleyball game with locals because I walked over and they said, ‘Do you want to play?’ ‘Yes’. I was invited to drink kava with the staff at a resort, ‘yes’. We were given a chance to visit a rugby tournament that happened to be on while we were there, ‘yes’. These are the experiences that we value the most.

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The Fijians take their rugby pretty seriously…

7 – India is still the most challenging but rewarding country we have visited. People often ask about India with a kind of, ‘Oooohhh, India… How was it?’ Each time we try to answer, we struggle. It’s a place that divides opinion, that takes a certain energy and enthusiasm to travel around. But it’s one place that will affect you, one way or another. Love it or hate it, one emotion you will not experience in India is apathy.

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Taking a stroll through Varanasi, one of India’s most holy cities.

That’s it for now. It’s just a thought I’ve rattled off on a bumpy bus ride in Belize! I’m sure more will present themselves as we make our way through Central and South America, so this post may well have a part II…

East Coast Part II – Wining, dining … and a town called Nimbin

The mists were lying heavily in the valleys as we started our journey across the Wollemi National Park. Mark had recommended we follow the Bylong Valley Way, and it was a beautiful sweeping drive that took us over the hills of Wollemi and down into the Hunter Valley beyond Рthe oldest wine region in Australia. Now, for those of you that may not know, Helena and I enjoy the occasional glass of wine; especially red wine; especially good red wine.  This probably stems from wine tastings we used to do while both working in the same restaurant during our holidays from university.  We developed our flavour further in South Africa a few years ago, visiting the famous Stellenbosch wine region with a few of our fabulous BRAT mates.  The Hunter Valley then, was high up on our list of places to visit on the East Coast.

Misty and mysterious - coming across views like this is why road trips are awesome.
Misty and mysterious – coming across views like this is why road trips are awesome.

Here comes the next huge bonus for having your own transport – you can stock it up with a load of your chosen wine! Had we visited the Hunter on a tour, or as a stop off on a journey north on public transport, there’s no way we’d have been able to buy more than a bottle or two of wine for the simple fact that we wouldn’t have been able to carry it around with us.

It's wine time!
It’s wine time!

Descending into the valley then we got a really good feeling – there were vineyards everywhere! We may have been at a loss as to where to start, (the Hunter is a very large region) but we had received a few tips from a helpful chap in a wine shop in Manly a few days before. ‘Would you like to taste some wine?’ he asked as we were walking back through the drizzle to get the ferry back to Sydney. Hels and I looked at each other for a split second before I said, ‘Why, yes. Yes, I do believe we would!’ As we bluffed our way through discussions about tannins, blackberry notes, and the merits of ageing in French as opposed to American oak, we gleaned a few vineyard tips and consequently when we arrived, headed straight for a small boutique winery called Capercaillie. (Incidentally, we had no idea where we were going to stay yet either, but… wine first! Priorities, right?!)

Pulling into the car park, Helena was worried she wasn’t dressed nicely enough, so as she scrambled around in the back of the car practising her contortionist skills to get herself into a dress, I popped in to see whether we could get a tasting. In Stellenbosch, we had visited four or five vineyards. In each one, we paid a small nominal fee and were given a selection of wines to taste.

The wine just kept on coming at Caercaillie...
The wine just kept on coming at Caercaillie…notice the change of attire from the previous picture!

Going into Capercaillie, I was greeted by a very helpful lady called Tina. ‘Hi there. Are you here for a tasting?’ she asked. ‘Er, yes please, if that’s ok?’ I replied. ‘Of course, of course,’ she said enthusiastically, ‘Just for yourself?’ I explained that Hels was in the car trying to make herself presentable so it would be for the two of us, but I also wanted to check the price before we got ourselves locked into something too expensive. ‘I was just wondering,’ I said, ‘How much is it for a tasting?’

‘It’s free,’ came the reply.

As I choked down my shock, Tina went on, ‘Pretty much everywhere in the Hunter does free tastings.’ Oh my word – it seemed we had just landed in wine heaven!

It turns out that she was absolutely correct on the free tastings front – we visited ten or so vineyards over the next couple of days (I lost count, unsurprisingly!) and were only asked to pay for tasting at one – and even then, the cost was waived if you bought wine from them – which we did, clearly.

So we started our Hunter Valley experience with the ever enthusiastic Tina, who spoke so quickly that I lost quite a bit of the detail, but the genuine energy and passion she showed for the wine was intoxicating. She made sure we were tasting it properly: give it a good swill around in the large globe glasses before going in with the nose, get a couple of good nosefuls before trying it on the palate, making sure you suck in air with the wine, making a sort of slurping noise that would be considered rude in any other scenario, to open up the flavour in your mouth. ‘For most wines, you’d need three sips to get the full flavour,’ she said, and we happily obliged, taking deep inhalations of aroma and sipping contentedly. She even went as far as to get smaller glasses out to show us the difference in flavour you get when you give wine room to breath – the contrast was extreme. And she offered small bites of cheese and crackers to demonstrate the effect of proteins on the wine in the mouth, and therefore the importance of combining specific wines with certain foods. Oh man, wine and food – this was going to be good!

The only problem for me at this point was that we still had the van with us! We came very close to asking if we could park it in their car park, but managing to hold back from this cheeky request, I went with option two which was to use the spittoon. It was heartbreaking! Never before have I wasted good wine – and it is such a waste, isn’t it – by pouring it away while tasting! Helena put a spin on it though, ‘Just think,’ she said, ‘You’ll know which wine to buy – it’ll be the one you can’t bear to pour away.’

In the end, there were two in this category, one Merlot and one Shiraz, so rather than decide between them, we bought a bottle of each. Happily, despite the tasting being free, we never felt under any pressure to buy, which is the beauty of the Hunter. Apparently, there are some who come and abuse the free tastings – which is unfortunate but to be expected I suppose – but for the most part, it works well for both the vineyards and the customers. Before we left, we picked up a map from Tina with a load more hints for the best small wineries to visit.

Helena had a rosy glow when we got back into the van. ‘I love it!’ she exclaimed as we drove away and then, browsing the map, ‘Right, where next…’ ‘Next, my dear, we need to find somewhere to stay,’ I said, not enjoying being the harbinger of bad news.

After a short search, we found a well equipped camp site and set about deciding which of the two Capercaillie reds we were going to drink that night and, importantly, what meal we were going to cook to team it with (we went for burritos, a decent enough choice) and so began a routine which pretty much carried us through until we dropped the van off in Brisbane ten days later!

Wine, blue skies AND cycling!!   Could this day be any better?!
Wine, blue skies AND cycling!! Could this day be any better?!

The other thing we found in the camp site office was a leaflet for bicycle tours of the Hunter. Perfect! With a bike, we can cover miles, go to a load of different vineyards, and stock the van properly! We called and booked the tour and were picked up by another fast talking Australian, Glen, who greeted us with a huge grin and a firm handshake. Glen ran his own vineyard, Pokolbin Brothers Wines, but this was originally only really as a second venture to his bike tours. ¬†He picked up a few other customers and drove us up to his ‘cellar door’.

Each vineyard in the Hunter has a cellar door, which isn’t the door to the cellar at all, but the term used to refer to the shop – or any other place – from which the vineyard sells its wine. Glen’s cellar door was in stark contrast to the one at Capercaillie. Where Tina had welcomed us into a rustic chic environment – flagstone floors, big fireplace, woven baskets about the place holding wine, bare wooden tables, leather sofas – Glen’s place looked like my garage. There were bikes everywhere, it was cluttered, dusty and chaotic; not really what you’d expect from a boutique vineyard.

Glen was such a character though that it didn’t matter a bit. ¬†He dived behind his counter and grabbed a bottle of his sparkling Moscato. Popping the cork extravagantly, he sloshed it into the glasses and offered them to us, ‘Here, drink this,’ he said. It was about ten am, perfect time to start on the wine! And what a wine it was – light, fruity, bubbly – liquid perfection having a little party on our tastebuds. Glen was looking at us intensely, ‘It’s good, isn’t it,’ he said, with a knowing glint in his eye.

As he was getting the bikes sorted, he continued to talk non-stop, rolling story into story, re-telling a little of his history. ¬†He told us how he’d been planning to bulldoze the vines on his land because he didn’t really want to make wine, but the local people had protested, saying it would be a travesty to do so. So Glen had relented and started working the vines properly. The only thing is that in order to make wine, you need a vintner, somebody skilled in the art of oenology – or winemaking to you and me! Rather than employing someone to make wine on his behalf, Glen just decided to have a bash himself, which apparently infuriated the locals more than bulldozing his vines would have done. ¬†I got the impression that he basically googled ‘how to make wine’, watched a few videos on YouTube and just went for it. The results are pretty spectacular and he now has a number of award winning wines including a Merlot/Shiraz blend that he accidentally made by throwing both types of grape into the same barrel. ¬†Some would say reckless. ¬†Some now say genius.

Soon enough, we were equipped with helmets, a hand-drawn map of a suggested route and our tandem – ahhhh, how romantic! A quick photo in front of the vines, and we were off.

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Our first stop was at the fabulous Worthington’s.

Glen’s route was very short – about 12km – which he thought would take us all day. Pah! Doesn’t he know we’re athletes…?! We had Glen’s map, but we also had the map of the whole region, which as I said, is huge. We had grand plans of visiting loads of different vineyards in far flung corners of the region – piece of cake, we thought. As it turns out, we barely made it around Glen’s route to get back in time for the sunset. There were two main problems, you see. Firstly, this tandem was as heavy as a tank, maybe even heavier. Despite our best efforts, we never travelled at any great speed on this thing, unless we were going downhill. Secondly though, the vineyards were sooooooooo good, and offered so many wines up for tasting (usually at least eight!) that we spent ages at each one.

Our favourite turned out to be our first stop, which I suppose is both fortunate and unfortunate in equal measure. It was called Worthington’s and was run by Mike and his wife Julie. ¬†Their cellar door was a medium sized barn type structure very beautifully laid out nestling in between their two fields of vines – Semillon on the right, and Shiraz on the left. We were offered seats on the patio at the rear, offering views out over the vineyard, and moments later were sipping a fabulous, crisp Semillon in the winter sun.

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The Flying Circus label, depicting hot air balloons carrying elephants, was inspired by Michael’s job as an airline pilot. (Jumbo jets….)

We stayed at Worthington’s for well over an hour, chatting and tasting, admiring their beautiful balloon design labels, and marvelling at our luck with the blue sky day. In the end, we settled on buying their dessert wine – an unconventional choice for us seeng as we’re normally more into red, but we were on a mission to extend our experience and not fall into the trap of limiting ourselves to trying what we knew we liked.

We made a friend over our lunch stop at Calais.
We made a friend over our lunch stop at Calais.

This turned out to be a good strategy. ¬†At the other vineyards, we bought a wine called Verdelho, which we’d never heard of, a Port called ‘Swagman’s’, a Barbera, a Semillon/ Chardonnay/ Gewurtztraminer blend – the list goes on. It was such a treat for us to be able to buy something and take it with us, that we bought a bottle from every vineyard – well, we had to stock the van! Returning to Glen’s at the end of the day, he offered us more sparkling Moscato and it was so good that we bought two bottles to add to our collection there and then. That evening, we took our Verdelho to the local Thai restaurant and ate and drank like kings.

So, for all you wine lovers out there who are reading this and screaming, ‘Where can I buy these wines…?’ ¬†Well, that’s the thing. ¬†For the most part, these are boutique wineries whose wine gets no further than their own cellar door. ¬†So if you want it, you have to go to the Hunter Valley and get it. ¬†And go you must!

The wine haul.
The wine haul.

The following morning we dragged ourselves away (squeezing in another two tastings on our way out of the valley) and headed for the coast. We had the distinct impression that if we didn’t leave then, we may not leave at all!

We were aiming for Port Stephens, one of Janelle’s recommended points on the coast, and after a few hours in the car we made it fairy comfortably and checked into a friendly hostel that had a few van parking spaces. These kinds of places were awesome really, because you got to use all the facilities but as you were sleeping in your camper, it was really cheap. We decided on the Barbera from First Creek and cooked spicy chorizo, chicken and tomato sauce with pasta. (You’re going to have to excuse me this indulgence of re-living our wine and dinner choices over the next few days!)

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Whale watching at Port Stephens.

At the hostel, the guy tI’m here gave us a map of a few places to go and see around Port Stephens but he also introduced us to our next favourite activity for the week after drinking wine, spotting migrating Humpback and Southern Right whales. Port Stephens has a headland that is one of the most easterly points in Australia. Consequently, the whales come very close to the shoreline here, taking the racing line as they head up to their breeding grounds in the Great Barrier Reef. Happily, as a result of protection, in the past few years whale numbers have swelled and this year they were expecting 20,000 whales to make the journey.

The other thing about the hostel at Port Stephens was that they had a tame kangaroo called Josephine living there.
The other thing about the hostel at Port Stephens was that they had a tame kangaroo called Josephine living there.

Slightly skeptical of our chances of seeing anything, we visited the headland the following day and as we crested the hill, a whale breached the surface in the ocean ahead of us. It was a wonderful sight and led to our staying there, perched on the rocks for the next few hours, spotting the spray from their blowholes and occasional breaches. ¬†I’m happy to say that there were indeed lots of them, travelling in pods of varying size, ranging from pairs to large groups of twelve or more. We didn’t really get any pictures worth posting, as spotting where and when a whale is going to jump out of the ocean can be the tiniest bit tricky!

After climbing the headland at Shoal Bay and finding the huge sand dunes of the Woremi Conservation Lands , we got back on the Pacific Highway and headed north. You see, apart from our beautiful day in the Hunter, it was a still a tad chilly in New South Wales!

We got as far as South West Rocks and found another little camp site in Arakoon National Park. Now though, it wasn’t just cold, it was raining; really, really raining! Not to be disheartened, we grabbed our raincoats and found a covered area where we could cook some dinner. ¬†I whipped up a pasta carbonara and we popped the cork on one of Glen’s sparkling Moscato.

More whale watching ensued in the morning before going north. Again. Ballina, just south of Byron Bay is supposedly a chilled out version of Byron, so we headed there, only to find ourselves in a deluge heavy enough to cause flash floods in our chosen campsite.

The hotplates are great; you just chuck everything on and cook it all up together.
The hotplates are great; you just chuck everything on and cook it all up together.

Not to be deterred, and with dreams of warm summer evenings, we selected an unwooded Chardonnay from Ernest Hill and cooked barbecued Salmon, with lemon, herbs, veg and new potatoes on their handy hotplate style barbecues.

Over dinner, we discussed our options. We were still south of Brisbane, and so still ultimately planning on going north, thinking optimistic thoughts like, ‘There must be sun up there somewhere’ and incredulous ones like, ‘It never used to rain on Neighbours!’ However, rather than another drive straight up the coast, we ventured inland to a town called Nimbin.

Nimbin – a funny name for a very strange place. It’s a traveller’s favourite though mainly for its attitude to, well, how shall I put this – herbal medicine? You see, it was back in 1973 when Nimbin hosted the ten day Aquarius music festival, a veritable orgy of love, peace, harmony, and near enough every narcotic substance you can imagine. As the famous saying goes, ‘If you can remember the Aquarius festival, you weren’t really there!’

Apparently, a load of hippie students turned up from Sydney, and basically enjoyed Nimbin so much that many of them never left. We only stayed one day and managed to avoid the call of the herbal remedies, despite there being bags of it being sold openly in the Sunday market – only a couple of hundred yards down the road from the police station. It was a very interesting place though, the land where time stood still, and a must see stop on any East Coast road trip.

One last story for this post – the guy in the Nimbin YHA recommended the local Thai restaurant, which is inexplicably called ‘Spangled Drongo’. Where they got that name from, I have no idea, but we ordered Pad Thai and green Thai curry. The lady behind the counter brought them over and presented us with two massive meals – enough food to feed six or seven people at least. I looked at them, and then at her and said, ‘Wow, it’s like Thai food but with Australian portions.’ ¬†Without flinching she replied, ‘Oh yes, we’re fusion here.’ ¬†We had a real giggle at that as we tucked in. ¬†It was indeed a good recommendation.

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This is the view from the headland at Shoal Bay, but this sort of coastline runs all the way up the East Coast.
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Say what you like about Nimbin, but their street code speaks simple sense.
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Another sign referring to the code of the Aboriginal Elders in the Nimbin region.