Day #164 12.06.16

Day 2 and we did a lot more advanced navigation, this time using compasses, bearings, dog legs and all sorts. Handily, the fog came down when were at the top of one mountain so we actually had to navigate using compass bearings and pacing because we couldn’t see a thing. Luckily it also skipped off shortly after so pretty much all weekend we had glorious views and not much rain, a total bonus.

I really did have a great weekend, learnt loads and can’t wait to go and try and get lost in the wilderness somewhere now ūüėČ

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Day #163 11.06.16

Day 1 of my mountain navigation skills course at Plas Y Brenin, the National Mountain Sports Centre. Map reading and stuff. Today we did lots of map reading, distance measuring, pacing etc. And walking up mountains. Falling in love with Snowdonia <3.

Also drank beer and met new people. Always a nice by-product of these kinds of things.

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Surf’s Up.

It¬†started like any good weekend away; with a ROAD TRIP! I get ridiculously excited about road trips for some reason. To me, it’s not just a pain in the arse to get out the way before something exciting, it’s the start of the excitement. All you need is other people in the car (solo road trips are¬†fun, just not as fun), some tunes (taste optional) and snacks (mandatory, always mandatory). Good weather and shades also help make a road trip go from great to awesome, but, given that we live in England, we are realistic that this will not happen in the majority of UK road trips, so we can live without. In order for a road trip to go smoothly, some kind of navigation aid is crucial. In this day and age, normally a postcode is punched into an electronic device and tech does the rest. NOT THIS TIME PEOPLE! We had the old fashioned sat nav; a.k.a an actual map. After confirming that yes, Nigel actually didn’t have google maps (I didn’t realise that could happen) I had to read a¬†road atlas. In a trip¬†down memory lane, I soon realised why google maps are SO AWESOME (please don’t ever take them away from me) and¬†was reminded of learning to drive and not realising how maps and road signs actually worked together.

Surprisingly, after no wrong turns at all, some questionable music, cucumber and carrot stick snacks (it’s what Sian does you know) we arrived in glorious technicolor sunshine at Surf Snowdonia, our home for the next couple of days. While we¬†laid out in the sun, basking in this Welsh phenonemon, the others arrived. We decided to visit the pub go for a walk while we waiting for the rest. Soon, we were introduced to Rich’s¬†incredible short-cutting skills, “a must for any trip away”, Bev explained, fond memories being recounted of ‘those times when…’. Losing track of time due to an extremely intellectual debate on the EU referendum, we realised that although¬†Adam had decided to try out the new ‘congested route’ option on google maps (and had great success), they had actually arrived. Bev and I decided to start our activity weekend with a gentle jog to go meet them, which, after quite a few beers and no sporting wear (i.e. sports bra), went better than expected.

Giddy with excitement (or it could have been the¬†fair few drinks and no food) we all skipped¬†off to the¬†restaurant, only to be met with panic and confusion from the restaurant who thought we had booked/hadn’t booked/should have booked/had 15 vegans. A few conversations with Stewart later,¬†all was smoothed out when it seemed the main issue was just that they had to sit us in a slightly different area of the bar/restaurant. Which actually was completely irrelevant as it all had a hotel-lobby feel anyway and all we wanted to do was eat and drink, not admire the table dressings.

A good nights sleep later (actually it was, those pods had pretty comfy mattresses – OK they were plastic pee-proof, but still, they were thick enough that you didn’t feel your spine digging into a bit of wood, plus the snoring-stick did not have to be used),¬†it was time to prep up for our Snowdon HIKE. Hike is in capitals here to make the point it is NOT A STROLL. Poor Emma had been told by Adam that we were just off on a little walk, so they win the Most Unprepared award for not realising this was proper walking boots-water-snacks & lunch walking territory. I later asked Adam if he had not read all the details on the Facebook page but apparently he only reads “the first bit then I don’t bother”. Luckily for him Emma takes it all in good spirits, Elena brought enough food to feed 3 (Lucian’s share) and we revel in the fact we have more piss-taking material on¬†Adam to add to the pot.

Talking of food and awards, Maya wins the Most Food Ever award. I have never seen so much food brought (and made/sliced/diced/prepared) for a couple of nights. And I swear the box was still full when we took it back out the other end. But not shit food though, good, proper food, green stuff and all sorts, it was like having our own healthy chef with us!    

And talking of awards, Elena wins the Most Style award. From her silk kimono for camping to her colour co-ordinated mountain wear fashion range and perfectly big-curl hair, big sunglasses and even bigger smile, this is one stylish laydee.

In typical group-organisation style, we all jump into separate cars with only a vague idea of where we’re going. Nigel, confident even without google maps, decides to follow Elena (who does have tech) ‘just in case’. We head off in¬†Ben’s car, stopping by the shop for essential supplies, adding a time delay dimension into the race-to-Pen-Y-Pass Car Park. Sat nav (not google maps, I hasten to add) takes us a¬†beautiful (but bouncy) scenic way and we rock up at the car park, only to be met by a ‘Car Park FULL’ sign. Logical thing to do was for me to hang out the window and ask where we can park. Cue the cones being moved and¬†blokey pointing to a space in the upper level. WIN. As it happened, there were actually 3 spaces up there, so we raced back down to the¬†entrance to see if we could see the others (because of course, this being in the mountains there was no phone signal –¬†this is important). After what felt like a statistically significant time period, we soon realised they must have passed by and¬†headed to the park and ride car park a few miles down the road. As we were at the¬†start point for the track we wanted to do, we decided to stay put. What we didn’t realise is that the others were doing pretty much the same thing, only they had some phone signal so had sent text messages and voicemails saying where we were and for us to meet them there. Of course, we never got these, and it also didn’t occur to us that they would think we hadn’t got into the main car park. Still, we had a lovely hour or so in the sun chatting to the wardens and watching the 24hr 3 peak challengers arrive. Only when Elena drove up did we all realise what had happened. Ha-ha-ha.

Bev wins the award for Most Alcohol Drunk But Least Effects Seen, based on previous events but also having been asked if she was running up the mountain by a young chap, clearly impressed by her form.

So reunited,¬†but feeling like we were a lot later starting that we had hoped (we weren’t really), we all started marching up the Pyg Track at some pace and soon realised it was pretty steep and pretty muggy to be doing too much of¬†that. Claire was having some trouble with her ankle and unfortunately (but sensibly) decided to drop out fairly early on. I personally think it was a possible ploy to go¬†and flirt chat¬†with¬†first aiders all day.

Injury count = 1

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We trekked on, up and down with some cracking views. Last time I did this track it was gale force winds and driving rain, and I never saw a thing. This time was much more pleasant (and sweaty). Unbeknown to us, while we were walking along Linda was devising a cunning plan to make Adam carry¬†some weight, given his unprepared-no-backpack status, and threw herself onto some rocks, bashing her shin pretty bad and requiring the freeze gel. Don’t forget a first aid kit when hiking folks!

Injury count = 2

There’s a few things you should always carry when hiking, especially up mountains. Weather can be changeable, so always carry layers and things like hats, gloves etc. Water and food for energy. Maps, camera. And maybe a carabiner and rope?¬†Yes, according to Ben. What he thinks he can do with this bit of¬†string rope I don’t know, but Inga explained ropes and carabiner are to Ben what¬†a blanket is to a child and it keeps him happy.

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A scenic lunch later (with Sian nearly taking out walkers with apple cores and Linda delighting everyone with proper nice cookies), more going uphill and a stretch of walking with Sherbert, the miniature Schnauzer we made it to [nearly] the top. We decided to have a group photo just below the summit because there were still [some] views and the top was covered in cloud. Good job we did, the summit was like Picadilly circus and there was an actual queue to get to the top trig point (needless to say, we didn’t bother and just had fights with midges instead).

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Toilet done, midges fought,¬†selfies taken, we headed back down. Bev’s dodgy ankle was playing up and the cars were in different locations so we split into two groups for the descent. Alex, Ben, Inga and myself went back down the Pyg Track to join the Miners Track with the rest doing the Llanberis Path. Rich regained the Most Likely To Get Lost¬†award for suggesting another short cut which, I heard, wasn’t actually that short.

Injury count = 2 1/2 (technically not a new injury)

Our¬†fantastic four group had a lovely stroll down. No short cuts here but a quick paddle in the lake for Ben, and Alex got to gossip to her hearts content. You can’t quiet that one up at all when she gets going ūüėČ

Back at the ranch the mood was jovial as we’d got the hard bit out the way, it didn’t rain and of course we’d all earned that beer/prosecco/cider/any alcohol. Nigel was impressing everyone with his Big Job before we’d had enough of that and headed back over to the restaurant, with Stewart and the team slightly calmer this time as 1) we’d booked in and 2) we’d become friends and he loved us. Food eaten, back to¬†pod life for a bit of a guitar sing song around¬†the [metaphorical] campfire while we waited for Lucian who was on an epic late night drive. He was in for a treat when Elena headed to the gate in just her dry robe and not a lot else, but suspect that it wasn’t quite the treat he was hoping for when he ended up being in a sauna with 5¬†of us at 2am.¬†Or maybe it was (although it wasn’t that kind of sauna action). When we finally¬†figured out how to make the bubbles bubble in the hot tub, we enjoyed some relaxation until a ghostly apparition¬†appeared at the fence, scaring us all. The¬†Welsh ghost of Father Christmas, we were a bit worried he was going to tell us off for being in the hot tub but no, he just fancied a bit of a chat as I’d guess he was a bit bored and lonely wandering around at 3am by himself.

Sunday blasted into life with a massive blue sky and a huge hot yellow thing in the middle of it. This pleased everyone. Today was surfing and water activity day! So better to be hot while plunging into cold water,yes?

Some of the guys went surfing. Yes, surfing in the middle of Snowdonia, no where near the coast. A mechanical wave runs up and down this lagoon. The surfers tell me it’s nothing like being on the sea but fun nonetheless. Alex enjoyed it as she got chatted up by an attractive man in a wetsuit (although got spectacularly cock blocked by Ben. Fail).¬†Ben mangled his already-mangled toes on the seam of the bottom of the lagoon. The rest just appeared to be having a massive laugh with some up time on the boards. To be honest, I¬†was too busy talking perfect¬†portfolio careers¬†with Inga and sunbathing with Bev to watch properly.

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Injury count = 3 1/2

Surfing over, next up was Crash and Splash. Like a wipeout water obstacle course and <dramatic pause> The Blob (an inflatable thing where one person sits at the end and others jump off a platform onto the other end making them rocket into the air). This is one of those things that looks less scary/more fun than it actually is. Not only do you have to jump off a platform and land a certain way (this is HARD, well it was for me) you then sit at the end and wait with baited breath until you’re flung for [what seems like] miles in the air and have no control on how you land. Although it is much fun watching everyone’s less-than-graceful (except Emma, she was uber-graceful) landing. Inga must have had significantly more weight ‘blobbing’ her as she went pretty damn high, and managed to land in a way that winded her. However, this has¬†earned her the¬†Most Impressive¬†Blob¬†award. She also totally rocked¬†at the monkey bars (while taking most of the skin off her hand pad bits near the bottom of your fingers – no idea what that bit of your hand is called).

Injury count = 5 1/2

The final activity of ‘get out of your wetsuit’ was slightly less energetic and¬†once¬†completed, a weary set of BMFers headed back out into the sunshine, ready to eat/drink/drive home/sleep/collapse*. Lots of hugs later, the group dispersed, all to go our separate ways. Some straight home, some stayed and had lunch, some of us stayed and had a nap in the sun before heading home.¬†*delete as appropriate

And heading home now means another ROAD TRIP! Only when heading home, it’s just a plain old road trip. No capitals. Everyone’s weary, everyone’s tired, sad it’s over. There’s probably no snacks, no singing, no chatting. Definitely sleeping. This had not gone unnoticed by Nigel. Nigel decided to go to extreme efforts to get out of driving once he realised all his passengers were asleep by¬†having a twisted ankle, not mentioned previously but clearly causing pain now. This did mean though that a shop stop was called for, and snacks were purchased. This perked everyone up, and after a while at the side of the road with Nigel getting his leg up in full view of the queue of traffic, we swapped drivers, made sure Nigel’s ankle was the comfiest in the car with a little pillow to rest on and the road trip turned into a Road Trip! Not quite full capitals, but enough to lift the car energy to at least – BOOM – keep us all awake.

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Final injury count = 6 1/2

That’s not too bad – less than half of us. There might have been some that I have forgotten. Because, it¬†wouldn’t be a BMF weekend without any injuries and both identified and unidentified bruising. Lesson: always pack the freeze and ibuprofen gel. ALWAYS HANDY.

All in all, a top weekend, made top predominately by the people who were there. Often it’s not¬†what you do but who you do it with. And this crew are the best. You all rock, THANK YOU¬†ALL for a brilliant weekend.

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What’s next?

New Zealand road trip: part four.

Queenstown back to Christchurch, via the West Coast and North.

Another couple of nights in Christchurch where I had a “welcome back and cheer up” Thursday night with Marsha and a few Friday night drinks with Steffi. Leaving¬†Queenstown for the very last time, I set off on the last leg of my road trip. I was sad to leave; it’s a beautiful place and I have many happy memories¬†there (yes, the ones I can remember when alcohol wasn’t involved)¬†and made a brilliant friend in Marsha. The last morning I was there she sat up in bed and said “don’t go, stay here and we’ll get a house and live in Queenstown”. Haha. I suspect she was still drunk from the night before but well, if I could have, I’d have been tempted. She’s a good friend and I miss her already ūüė¶

I set off to drive up the West Coast, the first real stop to be the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. The drive¬†through¬†the Haast Pass was stunning, again all windy roads with mountains and lakes as the backdrop. This one was a little bit different though, and gave an idea how the landscape was going to be changing as I moved north. Lots of trees and green (and a bit of cloud and drizzle). The road was also full of Ferraris coming the other way, but I suspect this wasn’t an every day occurrence though. Looked like¬†some kind of weekend cruise for an owners club. Reminded me of when¬†I was part of the Lincs Mini Owners Club and we’d go out in convoy. A bunch of minis pootling along Lincolnshire country roads isn’t quite the same as a bunch of red (and the odd yellow) Ferraris racing (this is not an inaccurate description) around the winding roads of New Zealand, but, well, I¬†know which car¬†I’d rather be in (and it doesn’t begin with F).

After a day of stopping at waterfalls, beaches (with the most amazing driftwood), swamps and lagoons along the way I ended up at a DOC campsite somewhere on the West Coast (they all started to merge into one after a while, and just became somewhere to stop). Daylight savings had kicked in so it started getting dark at about 6:30pm. When you’re on your own in a tent with a torch that I don’t know how much battery was left, there’s not a lot to do at night so night’s were pretty uneventful after the previous week’s camping. I’d set my tent up, eat something then read for an hour or two before falling asleep. I’m pretty sure I was asleep by 8pm one night. Not a problem per se, until I kept waking up at about 10:30/11pm and thinking I’d had a full nights sleep. It was quite¬†confusing. At least I wasn’t also waking up wondering where the hell I was, it’s quite clear when you’re in a tent.

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One slightly rainy night with loads of sand-flies later, I hit the road again to get to the glaciers. Just a word on sand-flies, in case I’ve not mentioned them before (can’t remember whether I have or not). I thought I didn’t like mosquitoes until I got here. Sand-flies are the only bad thing about New Zealand. They’re relentless and EVIL. Well, the female ones are, because they’re the ones that bite. If only they were different colours, you’d know which ones to swat away when a MILLION land on you and start chomping. The tiger balm I got in SE Asia that’s amazing for insect bites came out again. Because sand-fly bites itch. LIKE HELL. Camping is tricky, because they get into your tent and it’s hard to stop them. At least it gave me something to do that night after dark; find and get rid¬†of the little bastards. I didn’t fancy¬†them thinking they’d got a all-you-can-eat buffet for the next 8 hours or so I was in there.

The glaciers are pretty. They’re not quite as I pictured though. I expected nice shiny blue/white ice, all glistening and pretty. In reality, they’re covered in soil and rocks that have fallen on it from all the movement of the ice and mountains and you can’t get too close because they’re pretty darn dangerous. You can go ice climbing and walking on there and stuff, but it’s mega expensive and relies on the weather. The day I got there started well when I walked to Fox glacier but gradually turned¬†cloudy and rainy. I walked to the Franz Josef glacier in pouring rain and got soaked, but there was no way that I wasn’t going to walk all the way to see it. Was it worth it? Yes, because I would have regretted it if I didn’t, but I did think that Fox was better. Both beautiful walks though, through the valleys where the glaciers used to be (not sure valleys is the right word but not sure what they’re actually called) with different coloured rock, waterfalls and a bit of a barren, stark beauty.

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Glaciers down and a cheeky drizzly walk around Lake Matheson. Then, another night, another pretty DOC campsite.

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The next morning I drove the short distance to a small town on the coast called Hokitika, where I spent the morning¬†carving my own bone and shell pendant with¬†Don King. Well, not actually Don King, but Steve, the shop owner, sure did look like him. A great way to spend a rainy morning, much fun and I’m pretty stoked with my piece of jewellery, which is actually supposed to be two bird wings in the shape of a heart. Whether you think that’s what it is is up for debate, but that’s what it started out as from a sketch by the lovely Dan.

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Unfortunately the rain didn’t really stop much, so I had a drizzly cloudy drive through Arthurs Pass, but it was still pretty amazing, even in the mist. The only thing not amazing was the crisps I bought in Arthurs Pass village for $5.50. Daylight robbery, they are $1.50 in the shops anywhere else! That’s what you get from a shop in the middle of a mountain pass I guess. And, I could have just not bought them, but I had a serious craving for salt and vinegar crisps and I just HAD¬†to have them.

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Another night, another DOC site and a drive through Springfield (complete with pink doughnut) and I got to the seaside, whoop whoop! This time on the east coast in Kaikoura where I had an hour or two strolling along the top of the cliffs watching the sea, marvelling at the sky and the flocks of birds flying in the shape of a dolphin (yes, REALLY). Incredible. Followed by watching seal pups play in a waterfall and stream. Mum, again, you would have LOVED this.

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Another night, at a beachside DOC site this time. After a beautiful sunrise and being given breakfast¬†from¬†a lovely couple from the North Island in their campervan (which doesn’t sound like a lot but when your normal breakfast is a banana, or sometimes a banana and a cereal bar, a bowl of cereal and bit of warm toast with jaaaaaaam is like a veritable banquet fit for a king), I drove up to Picton and across along Queen Charlotte Drive towards Nelson¬†through the Marlborough Sounds.

A beautiful drive but, like Arthurs Pass, a bit obscured by low cloud and drizzle. Still, it’s fun to drive round incredibly twisty blind roads in the mountains near the water (hmm, no wonder my injured arm is hurting).¬†I was also kept amused by all the post boxes. As they’re all little boxes on the side of the road rather than letter boxes in doors, some people decide to go to town and have all¬†sorts of stuff. Little houses,¬†animals, stick men on horses, vehicles, fish, you name it, they had it. My favourite was the mini campervan. An exact replica,¬†in mini size. Wasn’t able to stop and get a picture though unfortunately, you’ll just have to trust me on that one.

I stayed in Nelson for two nights, but didn’t really see anything. Two reasons. One, I had a load of admin to do, having not had internet for¬†ages and two, it got stormy. Proper gale force winds, heavy rain and flooding. Luckily, I wasn’t camping, I’d treated myself to a hostel for a couple of nights. I¬†couldn’t have timed it better, although looking back, I should have stayed another night, but I was getting cabin fever and needed to get back out on the road. It carried on raining and flooding on Good Friday and my plan was to drive up to Golden Bay and Farewell Spit (and Abel Tasman National Park), right at the north west corner of the North Island, but I didn’t manage it. It was raining and flooding so bad the roads were being washed away. And yes I had a ute, but I’m pretty sure Mike wouldn’t have appreciated me trying to go all Indiana Jones in his car. So, after about an hour and a half of driving and it getting worse and worse, I turned round and headed back, and ended up in a DOC campsite in Nelson Lakes National Park. It was still raining when I pitched up, so I spent the night in the back of the truck. There was no way I was pitching a tent in that.¬†When I went to sleep I was the only vehicle in¬†the whole campsite, but when I woke up there was a campervan right next to me. Like, about 2 feet away. The rest of the site was empty. Why? Strange people. That’s like blokes taking the next urinal when there’s other empty ones, or someone sitting right next to you on a bench when the other end is free. We Brits just don’t do that.

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The weather got better the next day. The rivers were still high but the rain had stopped and rainbows were out. The clouds started to lift and by the time I got to Hanmer Springs the sun was out and it was a beautiful Autumn day, perfect for scrunching all the leaves and climbing to the top of Conical Hill.

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And then, just as quick as it started, I was back in Christchurch and my road trip was over. Safely back in one piece, nearly 4000km later, I’d had the most amazing 6 weeks.

Incredible scenery and time out to spend by myself. To be at one with nature and the outdoors. Yes, I know it sounds wanky but it’s true. When I was at the top of Mount John or the Sealy Tarns¬†with no one else around, it was so peaceful and so good for the soul. You should try it sometime. I’ve always liked and needed my own space, and loved the outdoors, but this was just something else. I’ve decided mountains are good for me, it’s just a shame we don’t have that many in the UK.

I met some truly brilliant people along the way, and had so much fun. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in a¬†while, and I’ve learnt so many things (mainly¬†being that I just can’t drink on consecutive nights, or that if I’m going to drink shots I need to prepare myself for a hangover the next day,¬†REGARDLESS of how much water I¬†drink and how many burgers I¬†eat at 3am).

I’ve experienced that kindness and generosity of strangers yet again, and been surrounded by people who are open, friendly, positive and enthusiastic. Whether I’m in a travellers bubble, or that’s just New Zealand, I’m not sure. Maybe a bit of both, Either way, I’m not complaining.

I can’t end of course without saying one last thank you to Mike, for the loan of his truck and Jennie, for her amazing hospitality. They’ve been the backbone and launching pad for my adventure and I’ll not forget it.

South Island, it’s been a total pleasure.

New Zealand road trip: part three.

Queenstown to Milford Sound (and back again). Via Glenorchy.

After another night in Queenstown, recovering from the night before after a couple of beers turned into a Big Night Out, I finally headed out towards¬†Glenorchy for the next bit of my roadtrip, this time with a bit of company with Johnny, the Irish guy I’d met in Wanaka and then again in Queenstown. Him in his campervan, me in the ute.

Driving¬†to Glenorchy is pretty special. A road that hugs the side of the mountains along Lake Wakatipu, snaking in and out and round and round. You can’t go particularly fast, but you wouldn’t want to, because you’d miss it all. There was a bit of low cloud when we were¬†driving up so we didn’t get the full in-your-face-blue of the lake, but I quite like it when the cloud hangs around the top of the mountains. It’s pretty and reminds me of my Dad telling me to make sure I take lots of pictures of the land of the long white cloud¬†for him.

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Glenorchy itself is a tiny little village with not a lot there. People go there for¬†all the walks around and nearby (it’s the start of the Routeburn track). We¬†did¬†the Glenorchy walkway to see the black swans (they seem so much more exotic than white swans), then spent a few hours just sat on a jetty in the sunshine staring out at the lake and the mountains.¬†Just doing nothing but talking about everything and anything; like you do when you are getting to know someone. It was a most wonderful few hours and one of those moments where there was nowhere else I would have rather been.

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We headed up to a DOC campsite at Lake Sylvan. I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned the DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites before. If I have, then sorry. Great little places, cheap as chips (About $6 a night) and always in some of the most¬†beautiful scenery going. Not a lot of facilities, but that kind of¬†enhances the experience. Makes it more authentic. And really makes you appreciate the small things.

Like a shower.

This campsite was pretty cute, some great walks on the doorstep and of course, this being New Zealand, mountains in the background (forget land of the long white cloud, it should be called land of the many mountains).

After a little walk to the lake (renamed Dead Dog Lake due to a piece of wood that looked spookily like a, erm, dead dog) and making friends with a bird called Ray, we had the first night of cooking on the little stove that Johnny got in his campervan.¬†Well, when I say cooking, I mean Johnny heating up a tin of beans and making a cup of tea for us. But, as it was more than either of us had done so far when on the road, I’d say it counts as cooking (pretty much like the time Marsha ‘cooked’ tea for me in Queenstown – definitely counts).

This was probably my favourite night of camping. I’m not sure why, but as I sat there eating my bowl of beans and¬†drinking tea with no milk, it just felt¬†like¬†a pretty perfect evening.

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A lot of the area around¬†Glenorchy was filmed for Lord of the Rings, and the area on the right as you drive up to Lake Sylvan is actually Isengard, not that I’d be able to recognise it mind you. But still, nice to know I’ve actually been there. After a sunset over the mountains, it was back¬†for a night and a beer or two in Glenorchy then onwards to Te Anau to start the drive to Milford Sound.

It takes a couple of hours to drive along¬†Milford Road from Te Anau to Milford Sound but it’s recommended to take your time as there’s loads of places to stop, and DOC campsites galore. We had another perfect night at Henry’s Creek campsite where we played our¬†made up game¬†(sticks and stones) on the edge of the lake until the sun went down then laid and star gazed at the amazing New Zealand¬†night sky for hours. Anyone that’s been to NZ will know about the stars. You can stare at them forever yes? One of life’s simple pleasures. This whole week was about enjoying the moment and the simple things in life. No wifi, no TV, not many other people. Wonderful.

Mirror Lakes, Mistletoe Lake, Lake Gunn nature walk, the three-tiered Humbolt Falls, the Homer Tunnel and The Chasm were all stop offs on Milford Road. Marvels of nature; more massive mountains, waterfalls, forests, weird rocks, and wildlife. The drive was just incredible, my favourite driving day for sure. It was just spectacular.

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The end of a days driving was Milford Sound, and the heart of Fiordland. The best way to see it is from the water, cruising through in between all the amazing mountains and sheer cliff faces, waterfalls metres high tumbling out of the rock to get out into the Tasman Sea and back again. We saw seal colonies sunning themselves on the rocks, and dolphins gave us a show a few times, even swimming along with us in front of the boat for a while, just 10 feet below us. A rare treat and it felt really special to have experienced it. Beautiful, beautiful creatures, I was close enough to be able to see all the different markings and how they glided along in the water, jumping out every now and then. Mum, you would have absolutely loved this.

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Another stop at the Totara DOC campsite on Milford Road (purely because it had my name in it) where we saw the most amazing sunset over the river that ran through it.

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A fitting end for the last night of our roadtrip together before Johnny went onto Wanaka and I went back to Queenstown for a few days before the last part of my roadtrip.

A bit of a ‘this is what we did,¬†where we went and what we saw’ blog post but, well, this week has a lot¬†of¬†personal memories that I guess I don’t really want to write down and share. It was one of the best weeks on my road trip with a fab person to spend it¬†with and I have a whole host of wonderful memories that I’ll cherish forever.

 

New Zealand road trip: part two.

Queenstown and Wanaka. Two¬†similar but wildly different places. Like they’d say in SE Asia, same same but different.

Legendary Queenstown. Home of everything adrenaline. Home to everything big. Big burgers, big mountains, big shots and big hangovers. In your face, busy and bustling.

Wanaka. Laid back, chilled and understated. A place to relax and enjoy and eat fresh cookies at the cinema.

In Queenstown I met up with Marsha again, who I’d first met in Christchurch through a mutual friend. What followed was a fuzzy week of friendship forming, non-stop alcohol, shots, hangovers, lots of laughter, hill climbing, grass sitting, food eating, film watching, sandwich cooking, men watching, life-sorting-out stuff. We met the delightful V from California too, who made us crack up laughing almost every minute with her crazy stories and theories.

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We made the rather fantastic¬†bar Cowboys our local. It’s like the Wild West. The bar stools are saddles, there’s other table stools that have sides (perfect for me), the pumps are guns, there’s a good supply of¬†cowboy hats to wear,¬†a full size grizzly bear to meet you at the door and even a mechanical bull. Yep, a mechanical bull. I didn’t ride it because of my rib, but I spent many a time watching all the other drunkards have a go (when I say have a go, I mean spend ages trying to get ON the thing, only to be promptly bucked off in half a second. Especially if the guys controlling it were feeling mischievous – that happened a lot to cocky blokes who thought they’d be the one to give a good show. Fail.). It also played the same music all the time, although I only clocked onto¬†this after a good few visits, when I realised there was only so many times I could watch Jessica Simpson strut around singing about boots made for walking and wondering what the relevance of her washing a car in a bikini was to the song.

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We drank a lot of shots and met a lot of people. Nearly every night in our¬†hostel someone was drinking, pre-drinking or going out. Most of the nights just started innocently with a drink or two. None of our nights out were planned. The best way. An average bedtime was around 3am, after a legendary Fergburger, which, after a night out, is the BEST THING EVER. I’m sure it’s good sober too, but I never really experienced that. My hangover food of choice was Noodle Canteen. ¬†They did wicked chicken fried rice in a little cardboard noodle takeaway box, great when eaten in the sun on the¬†grass near the lake, chatting about life, the world and the size of men’s appendages.

I rediscovered jager bombs and tequila slammers, mainly thanks to Damien who would always buy a round of shots quite early on. And well, from then on, you’re committed.*

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It was in Queenstown (well firstly in Wanaka but again in QT) where I also met Johnny, an¬†Irish guy I went on to travel with for a week. We all went out for a ‘few drinks’. Ended in a Big Night Out, lots of shots and not a lot of sleep. We all slept in hammocks in the garden in the sun the next day. He did the Nevis¬†bungy jump. Poor bloke.

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But Queenstown wasn’t all about the drinking or nightlife (although, that’s a huge part of it for all travellers, and it sucks you in). I couldn’t do any of the adrenaline stuff (and you can do pretty much anything here. Bungy jumping, jet boats, paragliding, skydives, etc, etc) but I could appreciate the natural¬†beauty of the place. It’s often described as one of the prettiest places to visit, and they’d be right. It’s in a great setting, on the edge of Lake Wakatipu with The Remarkables and other mountain ranges surrounding it and the Queenstown Gardens jut out in the middle, full of trees. In autumn, they are all a glorious mix of red, yellows and greens and well, my eyes had a treat every day I was here. As anywhere in New Zealand, there’s a few walks dotted about, and the views from the top of Queenstown Hill and Bob’s Peak are pretty special, and worth the walk/climb (also helps sweat out the alcohol and burger from the previous night).

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Queenstown was also the place where I used a hairdryer for the first time in months. This might not sound a lot but, oh my, this was a Big Deal. Such a treat! Smooth straight hair for once. It’s the little things in life you know.

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Marsha and I also hopped across to Wanaka for a few days (pretty nice drive in/over the Crown Ranges) to have a bit of¬†a chill out from the madness. Wanaka is like Queenstown’s more laid back cousin (and apparently is what QT was like 20 or so years ago). Just as pretty, just as many hills and mountains to climb but much less busy, less frenetic and much less drinking.

We both loved Wanaka. It was really nice and chilled and we spent a great few days walking, trundling around, eating, drinking $12 cider (Marsha), shopping (Marsha), being propositioned in the supermarket (Marsha) watching very random open mic/karaoke nights (Swedish/english rap anyone?) and visiting what is possibly the best cinema in the world (but possibly not the best film in the world – Pompeii). Cinema Paradiso is a small independent cinema, that has all kinds of seats. Couches, cinema seats, cars (yes, you can sit in a car), bus seats etc. They also sell homemade ice cream and bake cookies in the first half of the film, so at the intermission you can buy warm cookies (whose smell wafts into the cinema near to half time. Mmm freshly baked cookie smell.)¬†for that cookie-induced sugar coma for the second half of the film. Oh, and they’re also licensed so you can buy wine and beer to take in with you, although at nearly $10 a glass it;s not cheap. Lincolnshire people, it’s like the Kinema in the Woods¬†on steroids.

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If you’re visiting Wanaka and only do one walk, do Roy’s Peak. It’s 1578m, so just over 200m higher than Ben Nevis (1344m), the highest mountain in the British Isles. It’s a hard climb, very steep and tough, but, well, well worth it for the view. It’s just incredible. I did gasp when I saw THIS¬†in front of me:

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Definitely a “f**k me” moment.¬†It didn’t look real. The colours, the texture, the view. It was like a painting, stretched out in¬†a¬†technicolour 360 degree view.¬†It’s the¬†middle peak in this picture, by the way:

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We also walked to the Rob Roy Glacier (after a near miss with a cow on the way) and Mount Iron, as well as around the lake. Pretty active yet chilled out few days.

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Then of course we went back to Queenstown and hit it hard that night.

 

 

 

*Disclaimer/note to the parents, I was quite sensible and never got completely rip roaring drunk or put myself in dodgy situations. My rib is still intact and I didn’t fall over once. I think.

 

New Zealand road trip: part one.

I’m writing this in Christchurch, having finished my little drive around the South Island. I didn’t blog at all along the way, mainly due to either a) no electricity/internet b) being hungover c) didn’t have time d) no motivation. So it’s all in my head now, waiting to be written. I’ll get there. Handily, my trip naturally split itself into¬†different parts:

  • Part one: Christchurch¬†to Queenstown
  • Part two: Queenstown and Wanaka
  • Part three: Queenstown to Milford Sound (and back again)
  • Part four: West coast to Christchurch, via the north

A total of nearly 4000 km (just over 3000 miles) in 5 weeks.

But before I start on¬†part one, I’ll tell you about how it came about.¬†I met a guy called Mike in Hong Kong last September. We first met when I¬†insulted him by asking where in Australia he came from. Back then I couldn’t tell the difference in accent. Now I can. Luckily, he’s a laid back guy and didn’t get offended, and we hung out for a couple of days before I¬†flew to Thailand and he moved on to China. I happened to mention to him that I was¬†going to New Zealand in 2014 and he offered to lend me his ute to drive around in. At the time I thought what an awesome offer but it was a long time to go until I would be in NZ so lets see how things go. Fast forward and we kept in touch, and lo and behold, Mike was a star and not only lent me his truck but also¬†camping stuff AND arranged for me to stay with his mum while in Christchurch. Amazeballs. Just one more example of how great and kind strangers, especially in the travelling world, can be.¬†Restores your faith in¬†humanity somewhat, especially because there is no agenda, no reason for it other that just be be bloody nice. Sometimes you can never pay these acts of kindness back, all you can do is pass it on. And pass it on I will.

So, after a few days of sorting the car out (getting it re-registered, warrant of fitness etc) and picking stuff up from Mike’s house (and scaring his¬†cousin’s partner¬†half to death by appearing to be, on the face of it, a burglar), I was ready to rock and roll.

I hadn’t driven in over a year. ¬†For a fleeting moment I wondered whether I’d remember how to do it, but then reminded myself not to be so stupid, I’ve nearly been driving as long¬†as I’ve not been driving so forgetting how to drive would be similar to forgetting how to speak or dress myself (although you’d maybe question these two things if you’ve seen me at 3am after a night of tequila).¬†I did get confused with the handbrake in the ute though. It’s a pull out lever thing, not a stick. Luckily, I got shown where it was. Pretty sure I’d still be trying to figure it out now if I hadn’t.

So, one Monday morning, 5 weeks¬†ago, I set out from Christchurch with the sun shining, music on the stereo, a map and the open road. Just me, the ute and a tent in the back. There’s something pretty special and liberating about¬†travelling alone, but even more so for me when I was driving myself around. I could stop anywhere I wanted, whenever I wanted. I made my own route with no time scales, no dates to¬†be anywhere, no pressure.

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The first bit of the drive was through countryside that looked fairly familiar to¬†Lincolnshire. Yep, if I shut my eyes I could have pretended I was back at home.¬†Obviously didn’t do this, what with¬†driving and all. But it didn’t last long, we don’t have mountains in Lincolnshire, and it¬†soon started to get a bit hilly, and the scenery started to look like what I’d imagined the South Island to look like. I still remember the first photo stop I did. I don’t know exactly where it was, but it was a river that was stunningly¬†blue, flanked¬†by hills and trees. I thought it was beautiful. I soon learnt I hadn’t seen anything yet.

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My first proper stop was Lake Tekapo, where¬†I camped for a couple of nights. Lake Tekapo is beautiful. Hang on, before I go on, let me say this: the whole of the South Island is beautiful. It’s more than beautiful. It’s stunning, amazing, incredible, inspirational, breathtaking, varied, different, outstanding, welcoming, magnificent, awe-inspiring, exquisite and fascinating. I, and all of the people I met along the way, regularly ran out of words to describe it. On more than one occasion I was speechless (yep, it does happen occasionally). So, I’m just putting them all out there right now, in an attempt to not repeat myself in the rest of these posts. It’s safe to assume that all the places I’m going to write about are covered in one of the words above.

Lake Tekapo: a turquoise lake surrounded by mountains, with lots of walks. Which is pretty much how I¬†spent a couple of days here. It was the first outing for my new tent, which I put up in the rain. Amazing how quick you learn what goes where for an unfamiliar tent¬†when it’s raining and your bed for the night is in danger of being waterlogged (maybe a slight exaggeration, it was only drizzling).

I climbed to the top of Mount John, where the world famous observatory is (Lake Tekapo is said to be the clearest place in the world to see the stars. I didn’t go up there at night, but on my second night the sky did indeed put on a pretty good show), sitting at the top for over an hour just admiring the views. My first time being almost overwhelmed with what nature had laid out before me (and well worth the bloody hard slog up the hill as my rib was still pretty painful at that point, making breathing a little bit difficult). I saw the Church of the Good Shepherd (maybe the church with the most picturesque view in the world) and walked around the lake in the morning eerie mist, with clouds shrouding the whole mountains and lake, making me feel like the only person around for miles.

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On the morning I left, I chatted to an older chap¬†called Anthony, an extremely well spoken older gentleman in the wine trade, who had just been for a chilly dip in the lake. It was a most pleasant conversation, only made slightly odd when he proceeded to change out of his swimming trunks¬†into his shorts and t-shirt under a very small towel, all the while holding a conversation with me. Not forgetting the part where he’d got out of his trunks and said he’d ‘drip dry’ for a bit. Awkward? Not really, I’m starting to see it all while travelling. Literally.

I headed onward to Mount Cook National Park. A pretty spectacular drive along blue Lake Pukaki, snow capped mountains in the distance. This is what I imagined it to be like. This is what took my breath away.

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Another couple of days here, just walking this time. There’s not a lot here; a very basic DOC (Dept of Conservation) campsite and that’s about it, but it’s all about the walking. I did the Hooker Valley glacier walk (so very pretty), and the Sealy Tarns walk, 2200 steps up the side of a mountain. Amazingly hard work as I was still suffering breathing issues due to my broken rib but totally worth it for the view and the chat with Tim from Shropshire. Lovely chap who had come to NZ on his own, his first solo trip and was loving it. One of those people that you can just chat with for ages, about all kinds of things, and I had a lovely dinner with him and Oliver from Germany that night. It beat the night before where I ended up packing my tent up at 2am in the rain and howling gale force winds because if I hadn’t, my tent wouldn’t have lasted much longer. I abandoned sleeping outside and slept in the back of the ute, which was swaying about in the wind all¬†night. Not the best night’s sleep I’ve had, but,¬†while travelling, I’ve not had a proper good nights sleep in over a year now. I can’t remember the last time I¬†slept the whole way through since I’ve been away. Well, apart from any night where¬†tequila’s been involved anyway. See,¬†tequila has it’s uses. Good tequila.

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Mount Cook to Arrowtown. Probably two of the most different places I’ve been to. Mount Cook: remote national park with huge mountains and snow and stuff.¬†Arrowtown: small historic mining town that’s straight out of a country and western movie. Honestly. It’s like a film set. I actually loved it here, and ended up staying 3 nights. Spent the days walking, eating and just lounging about. Lovely little place to do it, especially as the sun was out (although, bizarrely, I had my coldest nights in the tent here).¬†I also nearly ate myself into a sugar-induced coma due to the creme brulee fudge they sold in the sweet shop.¬†Also, anyone thinking of coming here, get a pie from the bakery. Del-ici-ous. Just¬†maybe don’t follow it with a huge block of fudge. Although really, as I’m on holiday, there’s no calories right? No wonder I have a nice little layer of travelling fat. I did try and make up for it by going on a little jog.

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Arrowtown is only just down the road from Queenstown, home to all things adrenaline; all those things I couldn’t do thanks to that drinking session in Sydney. Queenstown deserves it’s own post as my time there was certainly adventurous, although not in the adrenaline sense. That’s part two.

I’m still here.

Just in case you were wondering. Yep, still here, just not had much internet. I’ve been in New¬†Zealand about 5 and a half weeks now, and most of that has been on a road trip around the South¬†Island. I’ve been spending a few weeks camping in remote spots, climbing mountains, getting drunk, eating Ferburgers, walking in the rainforest, being hungover, watching stars, driving a ute¬†with my favourite tunes blasting out, making friends, making jewellery, enjoying a cuddle or two, playing sticks and stones, getting sprayed by waterfalls, cruising with dolphins, watching seal pups play in the river, sitting on the beach, seeing a glacier up close and getting soaked in the rain.

It’s been a blast, but there’s still a few days left of my road trip. I’ll blog in more detail when I get a bit of downtime, but in the meantime, here’s a few¬†photos. I have many, many more where they come from. Seriously. I have about 3 million photos of mountains, lakes and streams.

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Runs around the world #18

Wanaka, New Zealand

Wanaka is a beautiful¬†little¬†place¬†on the edge of Lake Wanaka, not far from Queenstown on the South Island. Surrounded by mountains, there’s a really nice feel here. I’ve heard it referred to as Queenstown’s laid back¬†cousin. It’s true. It’s a lovely place to kick back and relax for a few days, do some walks and have a stroll around the town. There’s a great path around the lake so I decided to go for a little jog.

The lake is massive and it’s miles around it so I just did 2 miles out and turned round and came back. It’s flat and I didn’t want to push myself so it was fairly uninteresting as runs go, but the scenery more than makes up for it.¬†Beautiful New Zealand mountains every way you look, including seeing them¬†reflecting in the lake.

It was a good run, and it felt good to be back out there.¬†Decent temperature, clear skies and no rain. Pretty perfect running conditions. Running at the moment seems less important.¬†I’m doing lots of hikes and walks so I’m keeping active and getting out and about. I know when I get back home and in one place I’ll pick up the running¬†again, and do it bigger, better and stronger.¬†But until now, a few little jogs here and there will do me nicely.

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Lights, leeches and lolloping in Laos.

Laos. Pronounced Lao. Unless you’re French, then it’s got an S on the end. I’m not sure which one is right. In my head it’s Lao, so we’ll go with that.

This is a country that’s sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam to the West and East, And China and Cambodia to the North and South. A small, unassuming country, as much as I’d heard. One that was bombed relentlessly throughout the Vietnam-America war, unfortunately getting stuck in the middle of something that was nothing to do with them.

Before visiting, I heard nothing but good things about Lao. People I’ve spoken to that have visited have loved it. Loved it’s chilled out vibe and it’s welcoming and friendly people. I’ve heard many times it’s a place that people wished they had spent more time in. A place where time seems to stand still, and an aura so laid back you feel positively horizontal. A country so breathtakingly beautiful you’d wonder where you were and whether it was real.

So it kind of had a lot to live up to, although I’d purposely kept an open mind. I’d not known really what to expect, and deliberately not done much reading too far in advance. I really try not to have too many expectations of places, I don’t want to build something up, or have unrealistic expectations, or want to end up being disappointed. Things are all different to everyone. The same experience for two people even at the same time can be, and usually is, completely different. So, and I think I’ve said this before, you can’t predict travel, and you wouldn’t want to.

I wasn’t disappointed. All those people were right. Laos IS amazing. It’s scenery is some of the most beautifully stunning I’ve ever seen, it feels unique, the pace of life is so laid back I’ve never felt so relaxed, and each place we visited was filled with lovely, smiley happy people. We were here for just over 2 weeks, in 6 different places, and each place just kept getting better and better. Was it long enough? Yes and no. Yes, in that no place felt rushed and I’ve felt I’ve seen and experienced what I wanted to, without feeling like I’ve missed anything. No, in that I’m sure I could spend longer here, visiting more amazing places and continuing to be wowed after every turn in the road or bend in the river. Next time maybe.

I guess we started as we meant to go on. Crossing the river (and the border) from Northern Thailand we landed in a small border town called Houayxai¬†to spend a night before getting on a slowboat for two days to meander down the Mekong River to Laos‚Äô second city, Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site. We‚Äôd decided in Thailand to skip booking on a convenient package deal that got us to and across the border, as well as on the slow boat, in favour for making it across ourselves. This wasn‚Äôt really as difficult as it might sound, and means that for that first night we stayed in Laos rather than in a small border town called Chiang Khong in Thailand. As towns go, Houayxai is pretty uninspiring; there‚Äôs not a lot there apart from some guesthouses, restaurants and a few small shops because it‚Äôs mainly used as a stopover. Nevertheless, we decided it‚Äôs all about what you make of it. After finding a place to stay, we dumped our bags and went in search of local facilities*. A sparky young couple had a shop near to the ferry landing where they kept holding a sign up exclaiming they ‚Äúhave everything you want‚ÄĚ, so feeling the need to challenge this, I asked them if they had an elephant. They didn‚Äôt. Which was disappointing. However, somewhat more reasonably, we did tell them that they actually probably didn‚Äôt have what we really wanted, which was somewhere to sit and have a cheap cold beer. Within seconds, we had two little chairs out on the pavement in front of the shop (blue for Nick, pink for me), a beer crate on it‚Äôs side as a table and two cold BeerLao plonked in our hands. OK, we had to hand it to them, they were pretty good. Within the hour, we‚Äôd been given bar snacks (some kind of fruit/vegetable thing called Magdelen – no idea on spelling) and had attracted a little group of Westerners to join us. Our little pavement bar had increased ten fold, and we managed to triple their sandwich orders for the next day‚Äôs slowboat. We made some new friends, enjoyed some cheap beers and got to know King Kong, Tom and their little daughter Manny, our new shopkeeper buddies. For what could have been an unremarkable stopover in a border town it turned out to be an unforgettable evening, and the most unexpected yet perfect introduction to Laos.

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Ever been on a slowboat? I hadn‚Äôt. So I‚Äôm not sure what I expected, but perhaps what we got wasn‚Äôt quite it. A small, narrow boat filled with seats, some of which were wooden, some which looked like they had just-been-lifted-from-a-1970‚Äôs-bus. There were numbers, but they were on scraps of paper. Originally our seats were the wooden ones, but after sitting down for a few seconds we realised that two days of that would not be A Good Thing. So, in the true sense of ‚Äúyou snooze, you lose‚ÄĚ we swapped around like some others and bagged a 1970‚Äôs bus seat. I‚Äôm not proud of myself, but, it‚Äôs a dog-eat-dog world out there. First rule of travelling: get there early.

So, what followed were two days of [relative] comfort, stunning (I‚Äôll use that word a lot about Lao, so I‚Äôll apologise now; sorry) scenery, a jovial, party atmosphere and new friends, interspersed with a night‚Äôs stay in a very small town called Pakbeng, which, if it were in England it would probably be described as a very small hamlet. Two days on a boat, gliding down the Mekong River, watching Lao life go by was just serene. Nowhere else to be and nothing else to do but to just sit and watch, to wonder and daydream. You might be thinking all those empty hours, a bit boring, not filled with anything. But they are, every second is really. It just depends on your perception. They’re filled to the brim with smells, sounds, conversations, food, and things to look at. Waterfalls, goats, cows, trees, houses, boats, mountains, people, fishing nets, rocks, speedboats, water buffalos, whirlpools. You name it, we saw it. Including a man who looked¬†just¬†like the dad in Modern Family. I might have stared at him quite a bit. Then it reminded me of being in Zambia, so I spent a bit of time remembering my time there. Peanut butter, modern family, stars, cocktails, pictionary and awesome, awesome people. Seems so long ago now. A wonderful, wonderful month. ¬†Oh, and another thing I learnt on this trip.¬†Do not¬†eat Ice Cream flavour Oreo’s. They sound nice, but they really, really bloody well aren’t. Trust me on this one.

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Pakbeng was a bit non descript. It really is just a stopover place, filled with guesthouses and restaurants, but on the banks of the Mekong with lovely views. The most exciting thing that happened here was a huge spider (and I mean huge, the size of a hand) that was in the room opposite us. We were sat out on the balcony at night putting the world to rights when the two girls from the room shot out into the corridor. They pointed to inside the room, and there it was, Spidey stuck on one of the walls. The guys in another room came to join in and have a look, and then ran to get a biologist who was in another room. So, about 8 of us were standing there watching Biologist Man arm himself with a carrier bag to take down the offending creature. He succeeded, but not before Spidey made a mad, very fast, dash for freedom (and some squealing from the girls). Luckily, he was no match for Biologist Man’s almost superhuman reactions and soon Spidey was let loose, free to live another day.

The next morning in Pakbeng was an early start because we’d been told the elephants in a conservation park across the river are brought down to the Mekong at about 6:30am, so, alarms set, up we got and were rewarded with a small herd of elephants playing in the river for about 20 minutes. Priceless. So many people on the boat missed this, as they were gone by the time a lot of people started to arrive. It also meant we got good comfy seats again. Bonus. Although, this was kind of negated when, with about 4 hours left to go on the second day, I gave my seat up to a Lao lady who I’m sure was about 109 years who got on half way. I just couldn’t let her sit on the floor.

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Arriving in Luang Prabang at tea time, the usual ritual was carried out. Find guest house, negotiate cheap price, dump stuff, go out and find cheap beers, sit, toast new location and relax. Found somewhere ran by a lovely old chap, which was the cheapest place yet (around ¬£1.66 each a night), and had an excellent Indian with cheap beers two doors down which was handy seeing as though about 15 minutes after we got there the heavens opened to some of the heaviest monsoon rain I’ve seen for a while.

Luang Prabang is one of the prettiest places I’ve been to. It’s a UNESCO world heritage site because of it’s well-preserved fusion of traditional Lao and European colonial architecture. It’s¬†very¬†laid back. Not sure why, couldn’t give you an exact reason. But, it’s the kind of place for wandering around at a slow pace, sitting in a cafe or restaurant for long breakfasts, brunches, lunches and dinners and generally not doing a lot else. Most people stay here longer than they intended. It’s quite a small place too, and was a bit strange bumping into lots of people we ‘knew’ and recognised from the slowboat.

We were really lucky that the annual full moon festival of lights (Lai Heua Fai) was happening¬†the day after we arrived. This is where all the neighbourhoods build large floats, covered in lights, to be paraded down the main street to be then set sail down the Mekong. The whole town was covered in lanterns and lights, with music and drum beats sounding out. The atmosphere was just magical, the sky lit up with thousands of sky lanterns and the Mekong full of floating flower decorations with flickering candles. We walked with float number one all the way down the street and to the temple at the end, then found a spot down by the river to watch them all sail past. It was an amazing, unforgettable night, and I’m hugely chuffed that we were lucky enough to be a part of it.

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We hired bikes and did a fair bit of walking, but we also took a bit of time to have a good old rest too, staying here six days in the end before tearing ourselves away to take the bumpiest minibus journey In The World to a place called Nong Khiaw. You might have read about Nong Khiaw in my 13th Runs around the world post. Hugely, hugely scenic place. Scenery to blow you away. A very pleasant few days were spent here, with lots of walking, cave visits, sandwiches, interactions with local families, especially the cute little kids in the villages. We stayed in a noisy guest house and got a bit ill for a day but it didn’t really dampen any spirits, and we still managed to do at least something every day. The last day we got up really early to climb to the top of the viewpoint which is normally a 1.5 hour climb. We did it in 45 minutes, which I’m going to claim as a bloody good achievement, seeing as though I was still ill, it was early, hot and sweaty. Worth every step for the beautiful views from the top; of the morning clouds wrapped around the top of the mountains where it really did feel like I was on top of the world.

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Soon after clambering down the mountain, we left Nong Khiaw to go to a place called Muang Ngoi, a small town on the banks of the Nam Ou river, only accessible by boat. Jammed in a tiny narrowboat with over 20 other people and their backpacks, sacks of rice, boxes of crisps and other food stuffs, we set off over an hour after we were supposed to. This could be said we left on time. Over here you see, there’s no real rules. Sometimes you leave on time, sometimes you go early, sometimes you go late. It all depends on what you’re in, and whether there’s enough people. That’s just the way it is. A good way to learn more patience. Like the time we waited 5 hours on the side of the road since 5:15am for the bus to Vietnam. But that’s another story.

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Muang Ngoi I think is classed as a town. But it’s tiny. Teeny tiny. Like Pakbeng, you’d probably class it as a hamlet. One main road, filled with guest houses, restaurants and local houses. Lots of chickens. Lots of tractor contraptions moving things about. A few scooters but not many. Children running and playing. Usual ritual was followed. Cheapest place yet, I think about ¬£1.20 each a night, a bungalow in a set of 5 ran by a guy called Saylon, the cheeriest, funniest and cheekiest chap in town. We had great banter with him for the few days we were there. While enjoying our new location beer, I got jumped on by a gecko. T’was a bit startling, but there’s a first time for everything. I just¬†had¬†to have another beer to get over the shock.

Muang Ngoi is surrounded by even better scenery that Nong Khiaw. Which I didn’t think was possible, but the whole area is so damn stunning I can’t say I’m that surprised. We spent a morning climbing up to another cave and viewpoint and then decided that was far too much exertion for one day, and so spent the afternoon in a lovely cafe lounging on their very comfy seats drinking beer, listening to jazz, watching the sun set over the mountains and eating lovely food. We talked about the real world. What is the real world? The real world to us that day, that Wednesday afternoon, was right there, right then. And what a perfect real world that is too.

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The next day we decided to get out and about and do a trek to one of the outlying villages. We took a route that involved lots of butterflies, fields, sunshine, more absolutely stunning scenery, crops, mosquitos and leeches. To carry on at one bit meant crossing a small river with no bridge. Shoes off, wade through. Then inspect feet and legs for leeches. Pull leeches off that have latched on. Or, in my case, don’t inspect feet, put socks and shoes back on and find leech later on once it’s had a bit of a fill of my blood.

The village we ended up in was amazing. A proper rural village, not a tourist place. Real Lao life. Wooden bamboo houses on stilts. No roads. Chickens and cockerels everywhere. People bathing and washing clothes in the river. I did feel very much like an intruder, though, in their obvious close community and I do wonder what the Lao people think of people like us coming to visit. It was very humbling, something I will remember forever, and an experience that I feel blessed to have had.

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Leaving Muang Ngoi was a mixed bag. It signalled the end of our time in Laos; our next place to stay was Muang Khua but this was only a stopover to get the bus to Vietnam the next day (after that 5 hour wait). But I was excited to move on, to know that a new country was just around the corner. But not before another blissful 4 hour narrowboat journey through more stunning scenery. This one had however had the added excitement of a stop off by our drivers to gut a dead deer and sling it in the back with our backpacks. Just a usual thing out here. And that’s a weird thing. Is that it¬†didn’t seem weird. Because that kind of thing happens. We go past a chap in a boat who shouts something, our drivers shout something back, we stop, take innards out of a deer, chuck it back in the boat, off we go. Stuff like seeing chickens on the back of mopeds. Or boxes of frogs at markets. Or dead dogs hung up. Travel, it broadens the mind. Because all this stuff is real life. Just not quite the same as real life back in the UK.

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We spent just over two weeks in Laos, but it seemed more. It was a special two weeks, and Laos is the kind of country that I feel thankful to have been a visitor. Thankful that the Lao people allowed me to have a glimpse at their beautiful, laid back country.

*somewhere to get cheap beer