I’ve been thinking for a while about how to do justice to this blog, when a) I’m incredibly busy writing the next book, and b) I’m incredibly lazy. Then an idea struck me – actually, it was Roo that struck me (though I still maintain that it didn’t hurt. It was the surprise that made me scream).
“Let ME do something!” she said. Which didn’t sound like a bad idea. And so, quicker than I could drop my trousers upload a photo, here we have it – our new, combined, shared blog! I know, I know. It looks exactly like the other one. But the point is, nothing has changed – Roo has been supplying me with the best photos for this blog for years, so now I’m making it official: Roo is my co-contributor, co-conspirator, and partner in (occasional) crime. She will now fill the gaps in my busy schedule by posting some of the best pictures from our travels around the world. I’ll continue to post overly-long, pointless rants about the random things that happen to us – and somewhere in the middle we’ll have… well. You. You poor sod! Here – have a biscuit.
So! She’s fabulous, she’s multi-talented – hell, she’s multi-coloured! A genius behind the lens, and not ‘arf bad in front of one; she’s the love of my life, and the only person I’ve ever known who can sing an entire song and not get a single lyric right. Without further ado, I give you my wife! (But you can’t keep her. So stop asking.)
ROO: Well, we all know Tony is busy on his fifth book so I thought I’d sneak over here and have some input on the blog! Some of you may know me from my husband’s books ‘Kamikaze Kangaroos!’ and ‘Can I Kiss Her Yet?’. For the rest of you, I’ll introduce myself – and throw in a couple of my favourite traveling photos along the way
My real name is Krista but everyone knows me by my nickname of Roo, it makes sense since I am from Australia…
I started out as a shy 19 year-old travelling from my home in Western Australia allllllllll the way to Connecticut USA to be a riding instructor at an American Summer Camp. I was too scared to go actually, but my Mum pushed me to get out there and do something different. I will be eternally grateful to her for starting my love of travelling. I had a pretty tough time at camp… wild horses, sleeping in a tent for 3 months, coping with American teens… and the odd case of E-Coli poisoning! Luckily, I met my best friend Gillian there, as well as some other lifelong friends from all over the world. Gill and I travelled around the USA, Europe and Australia, and eventually we convinced her older brother to join us in Australia. And that, as they say, was the beginning of the end (just kidding!).
But yes, I may have fallen in love with my best friend’s older brother, sorry Gill!
Here’s Tony – on Xi’an City Walls, in one of my first attempts at night-time photography! Kind of pleased with how it turned out :)
I can’t believe Tony and I have been travelling now for so long, these past 8 years of adventures have certainly tested us in so many ways. Luckily, we are scarily alike in some ways, and despite the stresses of travelling, getting lost and sick in strange countries and living in each other’s pockets, we are still happily married.
I’m not going to lie, travelling with someone as accident prone as Tony can be pretty nerve wracking! He seems oblivious to the fact that he is clumsy and instead believes himself to be a stealthy ninja – and that climbing up that pillar would be so very easy… I like to think that I am now the voice of reason and can (hopefully) rein in his most dangerous impulses!
Tony actually tried to hand-feed this guy with a mashed up banana he found on the floor! Does that count as dangerous?
I am a pretty colourful person. I have a hoarding instinct for brightly coloured or sparkly things, which is why my wardrobe almost entirely consists of an Australian brand of clothing called Black Milk. The crazy colourful clothes may at times clash with my rainbow hair, but I love it! I always try to be myself, which is great fun but can sometimes result in strange looks…
These leggings are Black Milk’s infamous Travelling pants – they’ve been around the world, passed on from person to person. I have them now, in Nova Scotia, Canada – who knows where they’ll end up next!
I have always loved photography. I saved for years to buy my first film camera, (with a TEN TIMES zoom lens – pretty good for the ‘90s!) Before we set off on our six-month trip around Asia I did loads of research and invested in a Nikon D5100, with a second-hand Tamron 18 – 270mm lens off eBay. I would love to say it was a good choice… but the lens came with a few issues and was so stiff it took a lot of elbow grease just to zoom in and out. I didn’t mind because I knew we would be hiking in the Borneo rainforests, and backpacking is rough on camera gear. But it was a great starter lens!
This shot of a street vendor pushing her cart through the rain in Saigon, Vietnam, is my first action panning shot – and my favourite picture with this lens!
After a little accident on Cat Ba Island in Vietnam, where Tony dumped me off the back of a motorbike and squished my lens, I was forced to upgrade to a NEW Tamron 18-270. Or rather, he was forced to
This shot of the Icebergs in Jokulsarlon Lagoon, Iceland proves the new lens was worth every penny!
I hope you’ve enjoyed these photos – they are some of my favourites from the last few years. I hope to sneak onto the blog every now and then to break up Tony’s written ramblings with some cool pictures. As I am still learning the art of photography, please feel free to discuss my pictures and give me any tips you may have; like traveling, this is a hobby I intend to carry on forever! You can get in touch with me via the comments below, or on the Contact Page. Thanks for having me xxx
Great photo to end on – possibly the craziest thing we saw in Asia. I never let Tony play with knives this big!
So, by now one or two of you might have heard me mention my SECRET PLAN on Facebook. In fact, a few of you have already weaseled the details out of me! Let’s face it – I’m crap at keeping secrets, and I can’t keep this one any longer.
So here it is:
I’m coming to America!
To write a book.
But that’s not it. Not really. You see, from time to time, I get emails from my readers, saying nice things about my books. Well, some of them. I also get the occasional death-threat, but that’s been happening since way before I was an author, so I try not to take them too seriously.
The idea grew from my last visit to the US – which the hardened readers amongst you might remember from ‘Don’t need The Whole Dog!’ It was a pretty successful trip for me; I met the love of my life there (not that either of us knew it at the time), and I even managed to avoid falling into the Grand Canyon.
But I was flat broke back then, and this ten-day holiday was paid for by my Mum, as a reward for coming home from Ecuador with all my limbs still attached. I always felt that I’d missed out on seeing the real America; rumour has it that it’s quite a big place, and I’d been there – but only just.
Flash forward to the present day, and not a lot has changed. Well, I’m married now, and I write books for a living, and I found a frikkin’ GREY HAIR yesterday, for gawd’s sake – okay, so quite a few things have changed.
But I’m basically still broke.
However! As I said, I’ve been getting emails from readers. Loads of emails. I get like, one, maybe two, practically every other week! Well, what did you expect? I’m not exactly Stephen king, am I?
Now, amongst those emails, people often say things like, “If you’re ever in Ponca City, Oklahoma, you’re welcome to come and stay with me!” They say these things because they feel safe in the knowledge that I am never actually going to be in Ponca City, Oklahoma…
Until now. Because my Secret Plan is threefold;
1) I AM coming to America;
2) I AM going to write a book about it, and
3) I AM coming to visit you all!
Blame Roo. It was her idea, after all. Honestly, I think she was just bored of sitting on the sofa, watching me type.
“We should do you a book tour, like the real authors do,” she said. “We could go to New York and LA.”
“I’d love to, but we can’t afford to travel in first-world countries. Not for long.”
“Why don’t we stay with some of your readers? They’re always asking… that’d make it cheaper. And that way we’d get to see the ‘real’ America.”
Hm… Not a bad idea, I thought. “The only problem is, I don’t think any of those people actually wanted me to come and stay with them. I think they were just being nice.”
“Well,” she said, “hard luck.”
And that was that!
So, anyone who has a place for us to stay – be it outhouse, tree-house, dog-house or bouncy-castle – and anyone who thinks they have a genuine cultural experience* to offer us (or who just wants to try something crazy) – let me know! You might not think it, but I’m always up for an adventure.
Right then, here’s the nitty gritty:
I can’t come to visit everyone. I wish I could, but the Powers That Be will only let Roo and I into the country for three months. We’ll get as far as we can, but that’s a big-assed country you’ve got there. Ain’t no way we’re going to see it all in one trip. Sorry!
We’ll need a place to stay, but we’re not fussy – having lived for months in a tent, and slept on floors, benches, beaches and the world’s most uncomfortable van, we’re not expecting luxury! But we will need somewhere to sleep while we visit you, as the motels part of our budget will be spent on the nights in-between visiting people.
Food is good! We’d appreciate it if you could feed us at least a little bit while we’re there. This is the perfect time to break out Grandma’s famous recipe for meatloaf, and we’re happy to help with the cooking – well, Roo is. I’d probably burn down your kitchen. And probably your neighbour’s kitchen too. But I’m a mean washer-up J
SHOW ME AMERICA! I’m keen to do as much crazy, fun stuff as is humanly possibly on this trip. If there’s anything cool you can show me (or weird, unusual, exciting, traditional, different etc.) – please let me know! I can’t give you an example, as I’ve no idea what’s out there, but I’m less inclined to go to expensive, well-known touristy things like Disneyland, and more inclined to find interesting stuff to write about – secret places, experiences that not everyone gets to have… anything we can have fun doing, without breaking the bank!
Media Is Also Very Good! Mostly this trip is about me meeting all my awesome readers, but the cold-hearted money-making machine inside of me hates to miss an opportunity. We might not be able to afford to eat by the end of this trip, unless I manage to get some books sold, and the best way to do that is to attract a bit of media attention. I know not everyone has a girlfriend/uncle/friend from yoga class who runs a multinational publishing empire, but if you’ve got a tiny local rag, and it’s a sufficiently slow news week, the story of one of your favourite authors** coming out to meet you might be worth a mention. I’d really appreciate it if you could do a bit of leg work and find out if there’s any interest before I visit, as it’s notoriously difficult to set these things up after I’ve gone 😉
Books are GREAT! I love books. And I love book shops. I also love libraries, and book groups, and all those kinds of places. I’m happy to do talks (or just have tea!) at any of these places if they’re interested. Again, if you think there’s a local place or group that might like to hear me waffle about the topic of their choice, I’d love to include that in my itinerary. I’ve got to get a bit of practice at that kind of stuff before I end up on Oprah! (Hang on – didn’t she get fired?)
Having said all that, please don’t be put off! I really DO want to see you all, and I’m flexible (you should see me do the splits! It’ll bring tears to your eyes.) I just had to put this stuff here to save me writing the same bunch of questions in every email. I won’t automatically choose not to visit you just because you can’t afford to feed me! There’s always room to wiggle. And I LOVE a good wiggle.
And that’s it. As of now, I’m accepting suggestions! If you’d like me to come and visit, please drop me a line, by Facebook, email, or a comment on here. (I was going to allow carrier pigeons too, but that always ends badly.)
Please let me know if you have any ideas for things to do near you, and whether or not you’ll be able to help us out with them.
I do have a Wish List of stuff Roo and I would dearly love to do while we’re over there, which I’ll be posting at some point, but for now I’m open to every suggestion under the sun. And even ones that aren’t.
So! Thank-you to those of you who’ve made it this far. Sorry for the gigantic blog post, and rest assured that service will return to normal after this. Which means nothing for a whole year short, witty blog posts, and lots of Roo’s pretty pictures. I promise!
Meanwhile… stay happy! I’ll look forward to hearing from you J
* Watching Star Wars totally counts as a cultural experience.
** And while you’re waiting for one of your favourite authors to come and meet you, you could have a visit from me!
In my eternal quest to find exciting things to do things that make me look stupid, I stumbled across a whopper – no, not a Burger King meal, but an event taking place in my home town of Perth that I couldn’t possibly resist:
The World’s Biggest Skinny Dip!
Well, an attempt at least; there would be Guinness World Record people in attendance, official sarongs as prizes and the chance to contribute to a worthy cause about positive body image… blah blah blah.
Hell, it was a chance to get NAKED IN PUBLIC! Without BEING ARRESTED!
As some of you may know, I like being naked. I’m naked right now if fact, which is why I’m using a lap-desk so my Macbook doesn’t burn my willy. Besides, I quite fancy the idea of setting a World Record. I’m never going to achieve one on my own (unless they count Star Wars Trivial Pursuit), so joining in with a group effort was the only way forward.
A few years back I joined in an attempt to set the world record for ‘Most People Twisting On The Beach’. It was an effort doomed to failure, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was held in my parent’s home town of Burnham-on-Sea; a retirement hotspot, where the population has an average age of 70. Burnham was actually featured in the book ’50 Worst Places To Live In The UK’ – but not until no.47. Possibly the biggest mistake though, was holding the event in the middle of winter.
The existing record holder was a tourist town in southern Spain, famed for its golden sand and party atmosphere. Whereas Burham-on-Sea is famed for its extensive mud flats and having the shortest pier in the UK. I’ve been on it; it’s crap.
Burnham-on-Sea Beach. Complete with pier. Told you it was crap!
The local radio station parked a bus on the beach, and my parents and I showed up ready to twist.
It rained. Unsurprisingly.
We twisted anyway, but with less than fifty people on the beach, most of them well over retirement age, there was real danger that if we kept it up much longer someone was going to break a hip. Or die of hypothermia. So the attempt was officially abandoned, and we slunk away in shame.
But this would be different – if for no other reason than it was being held in Perth, city of infinite sunshine and home to over one-and-a-half-million fun-loving souls.
The day dawned cold and grey, which was a bit of a shock. I stood in my back garden and held my hand out – it was raining! Absolute BASTARDS! It hasn’t rained in Perth since November – five completely dry months – and then this.
As Roo dropped me off at the station, the sky looked dark and threatening.
“Won’t you be cold?” she asked.
“Nah. I’m from England! This is midsummer as far as I’m concerned.”
(In Northern England a man is not allowed to admit to being cold unless his testicles have actually frozen solid to something. This happens more often that you’d think.)
“Okay…” Roo didn’t sound convinced. “Would you like to borrow my jumper?”
I looked at her. She was wearing this:
“No thanks,” I said, “because your jumper is bright yellow and made of string. I’d be better insulated if I stapled a paper napkin to my chest.”
So she left me to it. Alone on the platform.
Travelling through Perth at 7am on a Sunday was a relaxing affair; I think I saw about fifteen people in almost two hours of train and bus travel.
I found my way to the event and queued up to check in. Three cute chicks joined the line immediately behind me, one of them wondering aloud if we’d be going in all at once, or in groups.
“If we do it by group by group, I’d pity the bugger that went in first,” I said.
They laughed. With the ice broken I thought about asking if I could hang out (no pun intended) with them; being on my own was going to be the toughest part of this gig. But then my brain went into paranoia overdrive: “Are they too pretty? Will they think I’m trying to hit on them? Will they look at me with disgust? Will it destroy my confidence, so I’ll spent the rest of the day alone, lurking on the fringes, naked and friendless…”
No. Much easier to find someone ugly, and try to make friends with them.
Plenty to choose from!
It didn’t happen that way, of course. The girls ended up getting changed next to me, as none of us could be bothered waiting for the tiny cubicle-tents to become available. And then another bloke joined them, and suddenly it all seemed very above-board again. I wandered over.
“Do you mind me hanging out with you guys? My wife didn’t want to come with me, and I don’t have any friends here.” I probably could have phrased that better, but I was desperately trying not to sound desperate. And I was still failing.
Luckily, Aussie women are a strong, yet friendly breed. They gave me the typical Aussie answer to everything, from borrowing a sausage to (apparently) getting naked together: “Yeah, no worries!”
“So, you’re new to Perth?” one of the girls asked. “How long have you been here?”
“Ah… on and off… about six years…”
We were called to the beach in our pre-assigned groups – I was a ‘Sweet Strawberry’, and my new friends were ‘Precious Plums’.
We milled around on the beach a bit, trying to keep warm, and eyed up the gigantic waves crashing against the shore.
“Looks really rough,” someone commented, and they were right; the iron-grey sea was foaming in anger. A call went out for the more confident swimmers to move to the front. That was me!
And then the sarongs came off, and everyone was sprinting into the surf.
Possibly it looked something like this! (Taken on an earlier attempt in New Zealand.)
Bare ass and boobies bounced before me as I raced headlong into the water. I dived, came up swimming strongly, and made my way out to the furthest edge of the area, where lifeguards were patrolling in canoes. The ball-shrivelling cold faded quickly, as my body adjusted to the temperature. Then my legs went numb.
The waves were gigantic, battering the participants and slamming us into each other. I was loving it – the sea reared up, throwing me around like a rollercoaster, and each new wave was greeted with shrieks of awe and fear from the surrounding swimmers. It was extreme-nude-swimming, a sport which, if it doesn’t already exist, certainly should. Hell, I might go and found it right now!
I was enjoying myself immensely. But then I noticed two of the girls I’d met being brought in on the lifeguard’s surfboard. A glance at shore showed that a good hundred or so naked people were still on the beach, too intimidated by the waves to risk entering the water.
Then a horn went off, and the event marshals began beckoning us back to shore. The attempt was over.
As I reached the shallows and put my feet down, a cry went out from the beach. I turned just as the mother of all waves crashed down on me, tumbling me head over heels and depositing me on the sand a good way up the beach.
I opened my eyes to see a crowd of people looking down at me with concern in their eyes. Naked people.
Was this heaven?
Probably not, I thought, as I vomited up a lung full of sea water.
Later, fully clothed once more, I called Roo to give her the news. On the upside, I’d had an amazing time, met some really cool people, and got to run around with my cock out like… well, like me at every party I’ve ever attended.
On the downside, no records had been broken; 671 people had shown up and stripped off, just 73 short of the previous record. Damn it!
They’d called off the attempt halfway through due to the dangerous conditions, and at least one bloke had been brought in by the lifeguards, strapped to a board with a suspected spinal injury. So, it hadn’t all been fun and games.
It could always be worse… for this bloke, it was.
Roo answered the phone. She’d taken advantage of my absence to go shopping with her sister.
“I won’t be able to pick you up from the train station for a while, I’m afraid,” she explained.
“No worries! I’ll go into the city and celebrate with a pint.”
“Oh, that’s good then. Only…”
“Well, will you be okay? You won’t be embarrassed, you know, going for a drink on your own?”
I had to smile at that.
“Honestly, after what I’ve just done… I think I’ll manage.”
So, the word flying around on the internet is that we were SO close – and that the weather is to blame. Who’d have thought it? Especially seeing as the sun came out mere minutes after we left the beach, and I got so sunburnt walking through town to get my pint that I now have a permanent t-shirt tan.
Ten minutes later, it cleared right up!
Maybe God really does hate naked people?
Ah well. The naked citizens of Perth are unbowed. Hell, they’re trying again next year…
I’m sure it hasn’t escaped your attention that this is my first blog post in some time. How much time is some time? Well, about six months in this case… oops!
But I do have an excuse. Some of you might have noticed that I’VE GOT A NEW BOOK OUT! I’ve been crazy busy since October, putting the finishing touches to ‘Kamikaze Kangaroos!’ – and I finally stopped obsessing over every sentence, cutting them out, re-writing them, deleting them, and adding the original bit back in again – and released the damn thing on Valentine’s Day.
Click above to see Kamikaze Kangaroos on Amazon!
It’s done pretty well, selling 500 copies in the first two weeks, and should break the first-thousand barrier any day now. As you can imagine, I’m doing the jellyfish dance. (This is my happy dance – also, my only dance. Its name originates from a comment that I apparently ‘just stand in one spot wiggling my whole body like there’s no bones left in it’.)
By way of celebration, I thought I’d say a big thank-you to someone who the book literally couldn’t have been written without: my baby sister Gillian!
Check out THOSE puppies!
Not only did Gill participate in all the adventures in Kamikaze Kangaroos (well okay, not ALL of them :0) – she also made the supreme sacrifice, and actually lent me her own journals to help me write the thing! Imagine letting your big brother or sister read your private diary – and then letting them include its juiciest contents in a comedy book for all the world to see! Pretty terrifying, eh? Luckily for Gill, I only expect to sell about 20,000 copies of Kamikaze Kangaroos, so it won’t be the entire world that learns her secrets…
Gill called them her ‘Bra Strap Diaries’!
Anyway, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank her for being such a good sport.
She hasn’t complained once about what I’ve written in the book. Of course, she hasn’t read it yet, but I feel I know her well enough to know she’ll be understanding.
And if not, I now live five thousand miles away from her, so I reckon I’m safe in saying, “Unlucky, dude!
So, by way of… celebrating her uniqueness, here’s a tiny snippet that never made it into Kamikaze Kangaroos. Enjoy!
Gill lost three drinking mugs in the first two weeks of our travels with Rusty. She kept leaving them behind in campsite kitchens, and every time she had to buy a new one. Finally, she bought one she didn’t lose – but only because she drove Rusty over it. It’s fair to say she was a bit pissed off about that.
Her fifth mug was a really nice one – so when she returned from the kitchen stomping and swearing, I already feared the worst.
“Bollocks! Some arsehole’s robbed my brand new mug!”
She pulled open our plastic rubbish bag rummaged through it furiously.
“It won’t be in there,” I told her. “You left it on the sink again, didn’t you?”
She didn’t bother denying it. Instead she pulled something from the bin bag and brandished it in my face.
“Screw it. I’m going to drink out of this jar.”
“Gill, that’s a curry jar.”
“I know. At least no bugger will steal it.”
“Yes, because no-one in their right mind would drink out of it.”
“Well, I’m going to. And sod the lot of them.”
“Fair enough. Are you at least going to wash it out first?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
She drank tea and coffee out of it every day (and burned her fingers on it every day too, because it didn’t have a handle). In the evenings, she mostly drank goon out of it.
Fruity Lexia, the sweet white wine we’d been drinking since we first discovered you could get four litres of it in a cardboard box for $10, was a delicate, pale yellow in colour. Poured into a wine glass, it was indistinguishable from something far more expensive. But when Gill poured into a clear glass curry jar with the label washed off, it looked… well, it looked like she was on her way to the hospital with a urine sample. She never noticed the disgusted looks she was getting from people, eyeing her jar as she carried it down the street. Why would she? She was too busy drinking from it.
Being a particularly generous individual, Gill often asked people around the campsite if they’d like a sip of her drink.
Not a single person ever took one.
They were more than happy to take the piss, of course, but they seemed to draw the line at actually drinking the stuff…
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to play Sod’s Law at its own game, but this is what happens: that frigging jar lasted Gill for nearly two years.
Oh, that’s right. We’d arrived at the top. Except, it wasn’t the top. It was the beginning of an immense, circuitous route which visited each of the five peaks of the sacred mountain; from the North Peak, where we were now, over the much-higher Central Peak, to the West Peak, where our hostel was, and to the notorious East Peak, where we wanted to go tomorrow. I forget what the other peak was called.
Now, where exactly was that hostel again?
Owing to the slight delay in our starting time, it was 7pm, and the light was already beginning to fail. It made for some gorgeous pictures of the valley below, and the lights of nearby Xi’an City were very nearly visible through the smog. But not quite. We gazed up at the ridiculous ribbon of the Dragonback Ridge payed out above us, and resigned ourselves to another epic stair-climbing session – but not before a brief comedy interlude:
Oh, yes! The bloke behind the desk clearly didn’t appreciate the irony, and I wasn’t about to tell him as he was armed to the teeth. Like all good Tourist Information officers.
And so to the stairs! Forgotten those, hadn’t you? Or blocked them out… Sadly, we didn’t have that luxury. Dragonback ridge followed the barest knife-edge of the rock, a path at times less than a meter wide, with sheer cliffs plunging down on either side. Not a great place to be drunk, I thought, or to meet anyone coming the other way… At first I thought we were lucky with this, our lateness meaning most visitors had already left the area; but later on we discovered it’s a strictly enforced one-way system, as it is simply too dangerous to allow people to try to pass each other on the ridge.
Looking back down the Ridge was even more dramatic!
Beyond the ridge we came to an unexpected guesthouse, that wasn’t listed on any of our maps (Ha! Maps? We had a 2-inch line drawing on the back of our ticket. Labelled in Chinese.) The manager offered us a discount, but Roo and I had been in China long enough by this point to expect a scam of some kind. We pressed on, hauling ourselves up the ragged stone steps, until a gap in the foliage allowed us a glimpse of our destination.
“Bugger that,” I said to Roo. She agreed. The West Peak shone in the distance, the last rays of sun picking out a tiny building clinging to the slope facing us. It was bloody miles away.
So, steps retraced, we booked into the cheapest dorm, and spent the night with eighteen other people, packed in so tight I could feel tremors in my bunk whenever the guy at the far side of the room scratched his arse. We’d scored some free hot water from the manager to make our noodles; in China boiling water is always freely available, in hotels, on trains, in libraries… cold water, though, was an issue. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t convince the manager that it was safe to give me any. I had a bag full of water purification pills and a state-of-the-art UV steriliser in my bag, but still I spent two hours decanting boiling water from cup to cup until it was cool enough to pour into our plastic drink bottles!
Gateway to the central peak… where a dorm-bed for $20 is a ‘discount’!
Then we settled in for some sleep. We didn’t get any of course, but what were we expecting, really?
It’s one of the eternal mysteries of the universe: how do people who snore like a drunken sumo-wrestler, always get to sleep before everyone else? Within minutes of the lights going out, a fat bloke two beds over started moaning like a water-buffalo with its balls caught in a barbwire fence. His vocal range was impressive; from squeaks to ecstatic sighs, he covered every noise the human body is capable of making – all with the volume knob set to 11. None of it sounded healthy. Every so often, he would lapse into silence for up to a minute, and I would have the happy thought, “At last! He’s died!”
But no. After an hour, I got up and shook him awake. He jabbered at me in Chinese, and I gave him my best pissed-off look, and went back to bed. He sat up, hacked and coughed for a few seconds, then spat a massive gob-full of phlegm onto the floor. And went back to sleep.
Close Quarters; the 20 bed dorm maximizes the breathing-space-to-profit ratio…
I don’t think anyone else in that dorm slept. Three other people got up and woke him throughout the night, and each time he was snoring again before they climbed back into their bunks. One girl on the opposite side kept throwing her pillow at him. I spent at least an hour contemplating tipping him out of bed, and making some kind of scene so that the whole dorm could tell him what he was doing to them – but then, the faintest stirrings of light in the room made me realise than dawn was on the way. My alarm was set for 5:00am anyway, so it hardly seemed worth bothering.
At 4:00am the room came alive. All these people were eager to see the dawn, but they still had an hour and a half for that. I think they all just wanted to get the hell out of there, and a few stern words were directed at the snorer as the room emptied. This ended rather abruptly, when he stood up and pulled on a police uniform! It made me quite glad I hadn’t physically assaulted him in the night.
So, dawn it was – we ate our last instant noodles on the darkened deck, and slowly, feeling every step in leg muscles still burning from the previous day’s climb – we headed upwards.
As we went, we passed hundreds of people waiting to see the dawn; they thronged the path, making it more of a shoving match than a hike. There was no sign of dawn, as we moved up past them; nor would there be, as a dense curtain of vegetation shadowed most of the route. But hell, they were the ones who’d invested all this effort in seeing the sunrise. Let them stand wherever the hell they wanted! I was far more concerned with something else just up ahead…
Dawn is a rare sight in China!
As it happened, we did see the dawn. By not waiting for it, we’d already climbed higher than most by the time it arrived, and emerged onto the crest of a bare ridge. It wasn’t as impressive as the crowds suggested; even this high up a sacred mountain, we were still only an hour from the city. As a result, it was more of a smog-rise than anything else.
The sun rises above the… well, let’s call them clouds, shall we?
But there were other benefits to being up early. After following a series of very helpful signs (WARNING: sarcasm), we managed to find our way to the East Peak… and THIS:
The plank-walk, notorious around the internet as ‘The Most Dangerous Hike In The World’ ™ – is not actually part of the trail. It’s an optional extra that, sadly, now requires the wearing of a harness. I know! How rude. But Roo was having a few last-minute nerves, especially after seeing the metal rungs we had to climb down just to get there…
So, maybe the harness was for the best! It certainly gave us the freedom to have a little fun (more of which later…) And because we were the first there, we had the entire Plank Walk to ourselves! We spent about 20 minutes traversing slowly around the cliff face, alone with the spectacular view, and each other. We took so long that other people started to arrive; on the way back we had to pass several tourists, a particularly scary experience involving one party unclipping their safety straps while the other squeezes around them…
Ever felt like you were flying?
And then, the excitement was done. There were of course a vast number of stairs still to climb, as we hiked the circuit between the peaks – another 8km in total, that took us over four hours. Some of it was crazy-steep, some utterly-ridiculously steep. And then there were some…
Unsurprisingly, I climbed this last one a few times too! I just can’t help myself. There’s a video of it HERE, if you’re interested (it’s the one that’s been floating around on Facebook). It wasn’t too difficult; a tiny old Chinese woman did it just after I’d finished. But, um, let’s pretend I didn’t say that. Yes, hero-type-stuff, this climb was… :0)
We were on the way down now, and I couldn’t help noticing the ongoing Disneyfication of the place that had bothered me on the way up. We watched a gang of workmen with hammers chipping the ancient stone steps into gravel – while another gang set the formwork to pour concrete replacements! I think the plan is, by 2015, to turn the entire mountain into a multi-storey car park…
“Hey, if we smash these crappy old steps into gravel, we can use it in the concrete for the new ones!”
Far more interesting – and amazing – was the labour they were using to facilitate their ‘repairs’. We passed porters on the way up – carrying everything from huge granite blocks, to vast lengths of metal reinforcing bars – on their shoulders! Having climbed the Soldiers Path yesterday, I could hardly believe these guys were doing it for a living – presumably several times a day – with at least thirty kilos of stone on their backs! Incredible.
Finally… at long, long last… we were done. Utterly spent! We’d never planned to hike all the way back down, as it would only be torturing ourselves to cover the same ground; instead we shelled out $15 each, to enjoy the view from the cable cars.
As we follow the other cars down, you can just see some of the Soldier’s Path below us!
And of course, the bus ride back to Xi’an was fraught with the usual problems. Such as when the driver kicked us out at a random bus stop on the edge of the city, leaving us lost yet again…
But I won’t bore you with details. Instead, here it is – the video from the dreaded Plank Walk… with a twist! Enjoy!
(And please, let me know what you think in the comments!)
Since I first saw a picture of Hua Shan (Hua means ‘Mount’), I was determined to go there. Because the picture I saw had to be seen to be believed…
And try as I might, I could find very little online about the place. Only THIS weird website (which people still send me links to), which babbles on about how dangerous the place is, and even has in-depth descriptions of accidents that have happened – or might have happened. On other mountains. In America. Oh yes; highly relevant stuff.
So I figure that, having actually BEEN to Huashan now, I owe the world a slightly more accurate description. Because forget all that ‘World’s Most Dangerous Hike’ crap – Hua Shan is great fun to climb, a fascinating example of ancient engineering, and absolutely, utterly, stunning.
So. Hua Shan is one of five sacred peaks of blah blah blah. Yeah, I know – I can’t be arsed with that crap either! But here’s Wikipedia, for those that do care. I know what you really want… it’s pictures of those crazy-assed stairs! They will come, I promise. But I had to wait for them… and so will you. :0)
We had to wait rather longer than anticipated, as it happened. We caught the bus from outside the Xi’an train station as planned, but just before we arrived, the conductor gave a long and angry-sounding lecture in Chinese. Roo and I just looked at each other, and hoped it wasn’t important.
Then we pulled up at a café – presumably the driver’s brother-in-law’s – and the rest of the passengers bolted inside and started chowing down on noodles.
Which was a bit of a bugger, as we were on a tight schedule to climb this mountain. We had a long way to go to, and the place we were staying in for the night – the only place we could afford – was on the top of it. So with absolutely no advice forthcoming, and zero English spoken in the immediate vicinity, we did what we usually do; we got lost. We passed a huge brown tourist sign (written entirely in Chinese) and headed through a big temple-style entrance into… a temple. I won’t bore you with the details, but we wandered on our own for over an hour, paid an entrance fee, and managed to climb a fair way up the mountain – before realising it was the wrong mountain.
Eventually we found ourselves (slightly more pissed off), beneath the same brown sign. So we wandered beneath it, and into the car park beyond, in desperation.
Luckily, this car park turned out to be the depot for the bus to the Hua Shan Visitors Centre. If only we’d read the sign!
Don’t know HOW we missed this!
Much frantic questioning and repeated pantomiming of cable cars finally conveyed the right impression (though why it was so difficult is beyond me. The staff there have exactly one job: ferrying customers to the cable cars. I think they just liked watching me wave my arms over my head like an idiot whilst making ‘whooosh’ing noises).
The ferry bus to the Visitors Centre was empty, because by this time no-one in their right minds was starting the climb. The rather expensive (but compulsory) shuttle bus from the Visitors Centre to the cable car terminal was similarly empty. Well, at least we wouldn’t be climbing in a crowd…
Now, there are three ways up Hua Shan. The vast majority of people take the cable cars – even though a round-trip costs $32 per person, in addition to the $20 Scenic Area entrance fee.
Not a bad option, really!
The second most popular route is the ‘long’ path – a steep, 6km hike, ascending the mountain via paved walkways. The third is the damn hard path, which is climbed only by the very dedicated, and the very stupid, because… well, did I mention it was damn hard? It starts right under the cable cars, and pretty much follows their line – except that in place of giant winches hauling six-man gondolas up the mountain in six minutes, there are just stairs. Lots, and lots, of stairs. Oh, and it’s compellingly titled ‘The Route Intelligent Take-Over Of Hua Shan’. Which is probably why they signpost it ‘Soldiers Path’.
Tell you what though – they weren’t kidding about the ‘damn hard’ bit. We’d been going for less than ten minutes when we had to stop, panting and wheezing.
“Thought we were fitter than that,” gasped Roo.
“Maybe we are – and it’s knackering us anyway…”
Few hundred steps down. Few thousand still to go.
We had to stop to catch our breath at every landing.
And trust me when I say, there are a lot of those…
Our timing was perfect. Despite everything that had happened that day (or perhaps because of it), circumstances had conspired to send us up this mountain at 4.30pm – entirely alone. The whole climb, we only saw three people – and they were right at the beginning, on their way down. I’d read that taking the more popular route could be like queuing up the mountain, especially at the weekends. Instead Roo and I had the place to ourselves, which gave us plenty of opportunity to muck about:
I had to marvel at the effort involved in creating this path. It’s one of the most inaccessible patches of mountainside in China, so ridiculously steep that only a staircase of stupendous proportions could get people up there – but then, how do you make that staircase? Well, with stone, of course. Massive great blocks of granite, which looked about as heavy as small cars. I had the same feeling I’d experienced standing in front of the Pyramids at Giza; that sense that, without modern technology, what I was seeing was just not possible. How do you haul stone up a mountain? With a donkey? What if the stone is heavier than the donkey…?
Discarded stone block – with foot to scale!
Aliens. Got to be. :0)
We also saw evidence of a much more depressing aspect of Chinese culture – specifically, their desire to destroy it. Since Chairman Mao told his followers that the Great Wall was basically just a big pile of free bricks, the Chinese have been happily pulling apart their heritage whenever it suits them. Only this strange phenomenon called Tourism – where crazy people from far-off lands pay vast amounts of money to come and goggle at all their old shit – has saved it. Suddenly, with a whiff of profit in the air, the Powers That Be have mobilized The People, galvanizing a nationwide work-force with one aim in mind: to rinse the maximum possible dollar-value from every attraction they still have left. And so, entrance fees skyrocket (for none-Chinese), and gangs of workers are tasked with taking all that naff old crap and making it look shiny and new for the tourists…
Yes, exactly. FAIL! I even shouted it at this guy – who was deadly serious as he transformed this stone bench into a cartoon-log version of itself.
And yes – it’s depressing. Perhaps the third most depressing thing about China, after 1) the horrendously disfigured beggars, and 2) their blocking of Facebook.
What? Okay, so maybe I overreacted to the Facebook thing. But seriously – they also block Twitter, YouTube, and every major blogging platform. And there’s over 500 million internet users in China! What the hell do they do all day?
About halfway up, WE SAW THEM!!! This was it – this was the bit that had attracted me, first to find out about, then to climb, Hua Shan. This was the scene of that most infamous of internet pictures – the stairs that scared Roo so much it had taken me three months to convince her to come here! And so, feast your eyes on… oh, what the hell am I waffling on about? No-one’s still reading this are they? Go on then – have a look at the pictures…
Unbelievincredimazing! To coin a phrase. They were vertical. They were insane! They were… chained off? It seems some anal-retentive, bureaucratic individual with health-and-safety on his mind, has just decided to close the most famous staircase in all of China. What a douche canoe! Of course, I climbed it anyway. But then, you already knew that, didn’t you?
Little bit higher…
Squeezing under the barrier…
And the view back down!
Well, I have to admit, I went a little crazy. There’d been some discussion online about whether I’d end up using the video camera, or leaving it with Roo to film me, or… somewhat predictably, I took the third option and did both. I climbed all the staircases several times, running mostly on adrenaline, until Roo asked me to stop. I’m so glad I have her! Otherwise I’d probably still be there. Or, bits of me would be.
Climbing them was actually much easier than it looked. Each step was like a tiny, narrow shelf cut into the rock; space for the toes to rest, no more, but that was all that was needed. Because the steps were so tiny, each one only raised me a handful of inches, and the chains on either side could easily hold my weight. A couple of meters up, the steps were caked in dust, suggesting that it was a long time since anyone had bothered to climb this far. I dunno – maybe everyone else took the ‘CLOSED’ signs seriously? Ha! More fool them then. I made several ascents, to the top on the biggest staircase but only halfway on the other one, as the top section had been obliterated by a landing for a new set of Disneyfied concrete stairs. With faux-log handrails! Oh, China. For shame!
Ancient steps underneath the new concrete landing.
I couldn’t climb to the top – some cheesy ‘log-effect’ concrete supports destroyed the top of the original staircase, with ‘bark’ made from painted cement. Ugh!
And then, right when the novelty had almost worn off… there were stairs. And there were more stairs. And there were STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS STAIRS!
Don’t believe me? ‘Course you do. But here’s some proof anyway:
And, just when you think you’re there – when you can almost dare to believe that you’ll never have to look at a single stair picture again…
There was video. Noooooo……….!!!
Let’s just say, we made it. In little over three hours of relentless, leg-busting, lung-bursting, Oero-consuming (what? Try climbing a mountain on ‘healthy’ food. I dare you!) fatigue-inducing, crazy-making, carved stone steps – Wow. We both felt the urge to sit down for a bit.
And this is the view from the top!
At least, we thought it was, at the time. Because until then, we hadn’t seen a single sign in English. Now though, we could read an interesting plaque noting the relative heights of the different peaks – and we couldn’t help but notice that the north peak, where we’d just arrived, was the lowest. By some 600 meters… oh, yes! This might have looked like the top – hell, it might even have a cable car station and a swanky hotel and a pair of ‘This is the top!’ style posing pillars… but this wasn’t the top. This was the North Peak, at 1,614 meters… and we were a little over halfway up.
Next we had to ascend the infamous Dragon Back Ridge…
“But why is it called that?” you ask.
Yes – those are people over there. Those are stairs – and they go ALL. THE. WAY.
Let’s take a closer look, and you’ll see what I mean…
And THAT is where we were headed next.
Sooo… to be continued! I’ll post Part Two in less than a week, and put a link to it right here.
Now go back and watch that video. Seriously – you owe it to yourself.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have finally received… my first ever death-threat!
I know, I know. I’m surprised it took so long, too. But the amazing thing was, this didn’t come from some disgruntled reader or an enraged literary critic (though I’m sure a few of the latter are hunting me down for crimes against the English Language) – oh, no.
This threat – to “fuck me up” – came from one of the least-expected places; it was from the owner of a tour company, whose boat tour I was currently on. I wasn’t particularly happy with it, so I complained – and the result was a phone call from the boss, which was a torrent of abuse from start to finish. Oh, but the threat to fuck me up was apparently not a threat; it was “a guarantee”.
Presumably he didn’t know at the time that I was a travel writer.
What makes me laugh a little – now that I’m safely tucked away in my Hanoi hotel, and the immediate fear of enforced hospitalization has passed – is that, he’s probably threatened dozens of people, just like this, when they tried to complain to him. And I bet quite a few of them tried to convince him they were travel writers, or lawyers, just to assuage that horrible feeling of powerlessness you get when someone far higher up the food chain takes a dump on you.
But luckily for me, I am a travel writer. And luckier still, he didn’t believe me – or else he probably would have made good on his threat. Sorry, I mean his ‘guarantee’.
So! Mr Max Hart, of The ‘Real’ Kangaroo Café in Hanoi, Vietnam – stand up and be counted! You are now two things to me: 1): the first person ever to directly threaten to fuck me up (or, a little later in the same conversation, to have your friends wait at the docks to fuck me up); and 2) the best example of the worst customer service I have EVER experienced. Ever!
Oh, and am I allowed 3? An absolute, complete-and-utter wanker.
Photo courtesy of A. Wanker. AKA Mr. Max Hart
The thing is, I’m laughing about it now – or trying to. I don’t want to let one incident sour my experience of Vietnam, although my sister-in-law – who is new to traveling – is already starting to wish she’d never left Perth. Because, less than 24 hours ago, this situation was deadly-serious. There were nine of us on that boat; six young ladies and three fellas. I was the oldest person present (though admittedly not the most mature… :0) Now, I don’t know if any of you have formed an opinion of me after reading my books, but if you have I’m sure you’ll know that I’m a towering inferno of incandescent rage and violence… Or, um… not? Yeah, well. I think of nearly nine-billion people living on this planet at the moment, I am less intimidating than at least eight-and-a-half-billion of them. Hell, Mother Teresa could take me in a fight – and she’s dead! So to be threatened, verbally, very aggressively, and repeatedly, is not something I’m great at dealing with. But because my wife and her younger sister were amongst the passengers on the boat, I tried to laugh it off as the empty posturing of a man with a very small dick.
I was, however, a bit scared. Because we were totally at the mercy of this man. Floating in a quiet lagoon, at night, miles from anywhere. Outnumbered by the ship’s Vietnamese crew, our only neighbours a handful of other boats belonging to the same company… We had no allies, no language skills, and none of our mobile phones worked in the lagoon. Not that there was anyone we could have called. The guides, at their insistence, had kept all our ‘spare’ money, so that there was no chance the boat crew could steal it – which didn’t make us feel a whole lot better about the boat crew. Or the guides. It was slowly dawning on us just how precarious our position was, what with the mega-rich boss of the whole tour company personally threatening to have his associates attack us. ‘What if they came now?’ we thought. By tender (small transfer boat), from one of the other boats? What if he called a dodgy mate and asked him to send some guys to raid our boat? My traitorous mind kept imagining the conversation: “Yeah, only nine of ‘em. Six are chicks. No, the boat crew won’t stop you, I’ve told ‘em to let you in. Yeah, just fuck them over, take all their shit and give ‘em a bloody good kicking, then bugger off. I’ll get the crew to report a random robbery by no-one they recognised…”
When our own tender fired up its engine left our boat for no immediately apparent reason around 11pm, and was gone for an hour, some of us were close to tears. I *may* have been amongst them – but internally, of course. Had to be a man in front of the ladies…
When dawn came, and we were still un-fucked-up, I have to say I was over-joyed. Maybe it had been the empty posturing of a man with a very small dick. But the tension aboard was still so strong that only two people dared stay aboard for the remaining day and night of the cruise they’d booked. The rest of us demanded to be taken back to Hanoi as soon as we made landfall for lunch.
I was rather pleased to be back on dry land.
I hadn’t realised until then just how tense I’d been. Suddenly, back on land, where escape was as simple as walking across the road and jumping on a bus, I felt much safer. I felt lighter, looser, like I could relax. Our guides took us back in their bus, and for the first time I thought there might actually NOT be a gang of Vietnamese gangsters waiting for us when we got there…
But enough of such ranting! Let me dig out a few photos to illustrate the rather disappointing experience that was the (apparently famous) Kangaroo Café’s overnight boat trip to Ha Long Bay.
Taking advantage of the three unbroken sun-loungers
The boat! She’s a beauty, ain’t she? Pity it wasn’t the boat we paid to be on. All the Kangaroo Café’s brochures tout their amazing boat, and go to great lengths to explain that having their own boat guarantees top quality. Other tour operators offering the same trip for far less money have been known to dump tourists in whatever boat is available, often a far crappier one than was advertised. Not so this Café! They only ever use their own boat. Except for us, who they dumped in whatever boat was available. And it was crap.
The Amazing Cave! If ‘lacklustre’ was short of a dictionary definition, we could quite easily substitute this rather uninspiring cave.
Yes, it’s ‘amazing’ – a stone willy. Hilarious! Honest.
I mean, I LOVE the natural world, and I adore adventure caving. I’ll be blogging about it next week, in fact. But the Amazing Cave was shit. I should have known, with a name like ‘Amazing’ that it would be an anticlimax, but I honestly think the bloke who named it was taking the piss. Unless he called it ‘Shit Cave’ until the PR boys put their spin on it.
The other feature of the Amazing Cave was, predictably, A Hole. And no, Max wasn’t there. Guess what this is supposed to be?
I will admit though, that it was amazing how fast we got through the place. Up the steps to it, around the cave, back down and back on the boat in a little over 20 minutes. I don’t know how we’d have managed it without our guide shouting at us constantly to keep moving, and not to keep stopping for photographs. I wasn’t crushed though, as I’ve got plenty of photos of caves that weren’t shit, and I was in need of a good sprint. And anyway, this cave wasn’t the tour’s main selling point. The selling point was a different cave we were supposed to be kayaking around – and the fantastic beach we were going to be visiting afterwards…
The Amazing Cave had Amazing Bins. Shaped like penguins, for no reason we could fathom.
Kayaking was set to be the highlight of the day, especially for my sister-in-law Vicky, who has never been in a kayak before. Luckily my wife has, and she was able to give her a bit of instruction, as our guide didn’t bother – he just pointed towards an area behind the tour boat and said, “go to the island with the temple on top.” What was funny, was he put me on my own in the front of a two-man canoe, and I spent the next ten minutes canoeing around and around in circles! Then Roo pointed out that kayaks are impossible to steer from the front, and held the thing steady while I climbed into the back. And then I could start going forwards at last!
Ten minutes after that, the kayaking was done. Our whole group had arrived at the island, and were waiting just off the beach, as instructed. The next ten minutes were spent being sworn at violently in Vietnamese by the drivers of dozens of tender boats that were criss-crossing that stretch of water, ferrying happy beach-goers back to their tour boats. I was nearly hit by a few of them, as they didn’t seem all that keen to avoid me. “Fuck off!” I yelled at the captain of yet another boat, as he screamed “MOVE, MOVE!” and ploughed his tender straight towards me.
Another twenty minutes passed. I was a bit pissed off now, as I’d paid extra for an hour’s kayaking. In a cave. So far it had consisted mostly of dragging myself out of the path of belligerent tender-boat pilots, whilst waiting to be picked up. By the time our guide arrived, the whole group was scared – a bit panicked even – and mightily pissed off.
“The rules change!” our guide told us. “Can’t get out here. Now you have to go back where you come from!”
“There’s too many boats,” I told him. “Too dangerous!”
“No, must go back!”
This is my ‘Are you f*cking KIDDING ME?!?’ face
No-one seemed keen. In the least. And it was starting to get quite late. So, one by one we paddled up to the docks, helped each other out of our kayaks, and left them with our guide. I narrowly avoided leaving a few four-letter words with him, too, but I managed to remain civil. And then we headed towards the second-most important venue of the day: the beach!
The Beach! There was a bloody great big sign, which said that the beach shuts at 5:30pm. Can anyone guess what time we arrived?
“This must be a new rule!” our guide declared, when I told him we’d been refused entry. So I showed him the sign, which had been pointed out to me by the beach’s security guards. “Ah,” he said. “Sorry. My fault.”
Yes, quite. But never mind, it only cost us a hundred bucks each to come here.
Still, you’ve gotta have what fun you can, eh? Tim here is showing me the true meaning of power…
Power of The Force!
Although, the boat crew came up and gave us a bollocking for this afterwards. Something about not jumping any more because the deck was breaking…
And, finally… I know it’s a bit small-minded and petty, but it’s amazing how someone threatening to ‘fuck me up’ can put me in a petty mood. So here’s a link to the Kangaroo Café’s website. I invite you to visit it, and marvel – because it truly does look like it was designed as a school project. By an eight-year-old. With ADD. In 1987. What’s not to love? :0)
Oh, and if you’re ever in Hanoi – or anyone you’ve ever known is heading that way – PLEASE tell them not to go near the Kangaroo Cafe, their dubious tours, or their psychotically deranged manager. They’re listed in Lonely Planet – which is why we paid extra to book with them – but I’m getting in touch with the LP staff now, so that should be sorted out soon enough… :0)
Look at this! Another blog, in less than… well, less time than usual. So less than six months. In fact I’ve decided to transition the blog to be more like it should be – shorter posts, more often, and more heavily decorated with Roo’s gorgeous photos (and my rather crappy weird ones).
So, the good news? Less to read. More prettiness. And the bad? Well, you’ll be swamped with updates from me, detailing every miniscule facet of my life abroad. I might even post once a week!
Did I say swamped? Inundated, then. Positively deluged! So, sorry about that. But apparently I’m supposed to be taking this thing more seriously than I am. I’m not going to of course, but if I did it wouldn’t really be me, would it?
So, what’s on my mind today?
It’s fate. Because I think a lot about the road that has led me to be here, blogging from beside the pool in a hotel far too posh for me to afford in the western world. There is unlimited coffee refills with my free breakfast, and I’m planning on abusing that service until they cut me off.
Across the road, I’m watching Vietnamese workers in conical straw hats use medieval building techniques to construct what I assume will become another luxurious hotel. My laptop says it’s 39 degrees Celsius out there, and those guys are working hard. They’re displaying the kind of tenacity and ingenuity that makes me very glad to have been born in the UK – as I have neither.
According to those state-of-the-world type reports, I’m in the top 5% of the world’s super-wealthy – even though I own nothing more expensive than my rucksack full of stinky hiking gear and a laptop the size of a napkin. (Given to me by someone who is, by those same standards, definitely in the top 3%!).
Literally MILLIONS of Vietnamese Dong. And yes, there have been jokes – because that’s just how mature we are… :0)
I also feel lucky – and somewhat guilty – to have been born at this exact juncture in human history. Because with the level of technology we’ve developed thus far, I can do exactly what I want – which is travel cheaply, and still write via the internet. The world, with all her delights, is open and available to me – just before it falls apart at the seams. I can’t help but think: I may be the last generation to enjoy the planet in this form. With deforestation, over population, resource-depletion and global warming, it’s anyone’s guess as to what will be left for my children to travel around. So I do feel guilty. Not that that’s going to help overly much. But I try to do what I can, when I can, and to appreciate what we’ve all got while we’ve still got it.
Like $2 cocktails… ;0)
Sorry, I just realized that this post was taking rather a down-note. And I’d planned on writing about all the adventurous activities I’ve been doing, like caving, climbing and canyoning. But you know what? That stuff can wait for the next one – in less than a week, I promise – and I’ll leave you now with a ridiculously trite message, and some photos:
An idiot once tried to explain to me the concept of ‘the more you do, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you want to do.’ Only she couldn’t quite grasp the idea, and just kept repeating “the more you see, the more you see, and the more you see, the more you see. You see? The more you see…” (No prize for guessing who came up with this nugget of wisdom. Let’s just say I was stuck in a boat with her at the time, and leave it at that…)
I think what I’ll try and share is part of my own personal philosophy – though I am, of course, the biggest idiot of them all, and hence no more reliable than she was.
“Do everything you can. Experience it all. Take full advantage of what you’ve got, while you’ve got it, because, well, why not? And then – if you can – give something back. To the environment that supports you, and to those less fortunate than you. Because you might not make an obvious difference right now – but you set a good example. And if everyone lived this way, sure as hell it would change a few things!”
Well, I did say it would be trite. I’m new to this whole ‘thinking’ thing. And I’m still not sure if I like it…
I’ve been told I haven’t written enough about Borneo. Probably because I haven’t written anything about Borneo. So, here it is folks – the true story of what happened when we went looking for orange monkeys…
We found them, of course.
They were down the back of the sofa. I ALWAYS said we should look there first…
No. These guys were swinging happily around the most amazing animal enclosure I’ve ever seen – over 100 hectares of primary rainforest, trackless and unsullied by human-kind. On the edge of the preserve is a series of feeding platforms, and that’s where we waited to see the orangutans.
Orangutans are over ten feet tall, live for hundreds of years and eat anything smaller than themselves – including humans. Or maybe that’s dinoasuars? To be honest I had a fit of laziness (something to do with me writing this on the beach, no doubt) – so feel free to insert your own orangutan facts here via the magic of Wikipedia.
One thing I will say is that Orang-utan means ‘Man of the Woods’, and the word ‘Orang’ – meaning ‘man’ – is one of the most commonly used words in the Malay language. Seriously – it crops up in every conversation I hear around me, leading me to believe it’s used like ‘bloke’ or ‘fella’ – as in, “So I was playing pool with these three orangs in the pub…”
The apes, when they showed themselves, moved slowly and effortlessly, not scampering like monkeys but sort of draping themselves across the trees and letting them bend down and deposit them where they wanted to go. Seriously, if they were any more laid back, they’d have been horizontal. Peace-loving vegetarians with brown, soulful eyes, they definitely qualify as the hippies of the animal kingdom. I think I saw one wearing a Bob Marley t-shirt.
We were lucky enough to be there before the feeding, when a younger orangutan was strolling along the boardwalk fence, beckoning us to follow him, and to stay until the bitter end, by which point we’d seen about ten of the scruffy beasts.
And a little while later, we met their closest human relative.
For three incredible days and nights we cruised on, and hiked around, a massive jungle river called the
Kinabatinanangananagana… ananagan… agan agan… a nanna again? …an anagram game? Anyway, the point is, it’s a river. With a ridiculous name. And while we were there, we found evidence that not only was there a Missing Link between apes and humans in the distant past, but that the Link is alive and well today (and, apparently, lives in Maui). Oh yes – short, dumpy and slow-moving, our strawberry-blonde cruising companion Annabel was a dead ringer for an orangutan. She had the kind of intelligence level where, if she were caught waving a stick in the air, you’d be tempted to say, “Aw, look! She’s learning to use tools!”
But don’t worry! I’m not going to be needlessly mean to a defenceless woman. I’m going to tell you what she said, and let you decide…
A good example came on our first dusk cruise. We’d been lucky enough to see several orangutans in the wild, nesting in trees just back from the riverbank, and several troops of macaque monkeys, who swarmed around us as though we were invisible on their way down for an evening drink.
But when our guide pointed out a crocodile gliding silently on the surface of the water, Annabel asked him for his binoculars. “Wow,” she said, after a few seconds studying the creature, “it almost looks like a little reptile…”
I couldn’t help myself. “That’s because it IS a little reptile,” I told her.
“Yeah…” came her reply – not only blithely unaware of my sarcasm, but clearly not appreciating she’d said anything stupid in the first place.
Annabel – getting stuck in on the jungle hike
Her ignorance was matched only by her ability to be so annoying it made my hands twitch with the desire to choke her.
Next morning, on the dawn cruise, we were all staring at a bird our guide had spotted. Roo (my wife) was checking it out in the bird identification book.
“Hey, can I see that?” Anabel asked. But rather than leaving it there, she did her trademark trick of asking again – and again – without pausing for breath. “Hey, can I see that one from yesterday? You know, the one we looked at in the evening? That little bird? Is it in there? Can I see it? The one from yesterday? Remember? Can I see that one? From yesterday? I want to look at that one. The little bird, from yesterday? Can I see it? Can I—“
At which point Roo just shoved the book at her and said “Take the damn thing.”
Quite unaware that she’d done anything out of the ordinary, she started flipping through the pages. “Oh, there are lots of little pictures in here! Lots of little birdies!”
She flipped a few more pages. “Wow, there’s more pictures! That’s amazing! The whole thing is pictures! And they’re all birds!”
She closed the book to study the cover in wonder.
It was called ‘The Borneo Book Of Birds’.
Now, in case I didn’t make it clear, this was not some eleven-year-old child; this woman was clearly in her late forties. On the one hand I feel I should applaud her spirit, to be traveling at that age, and all alone. Well done her! On the other hand, I think it’s quite likely that she was alone because in all her forty-odd years on the planet, she’d never found anyone who could stand to be in the same room as her for more than an hour.
She was at her worst on our last morning, when, just as the sun was rising, we spotted a big male orangutan, sitting with his back to us in a tree about thirty metres from the boat.
“Oh my goodness!” Annabel exclaimed. And then it began. With her eyes glues to the screen of her camera, her whining voice ratcheted up several notches in volume; “Oh, you beautiful creature! Please turn around! Pretty please! Say hello to us! Say goodbye to us! Hello there! Oh please turn around! Please? Turn around! Say hello! Say goodbye! Give us your blessing! Please say hello! Say goodbye! Say hello! Please turn around! Please say hello! Please turn around! Say goodbye to us…” And on – and ON – for the next five minutes.
I had to do something then which I’ve never done in my life (other than, occasionally, to my long-suffering sister). I put my hand on Annabel’s shoulder and said rather firmly, “Shut up.”
But I was sorely tempted to push her into the river.
When it came time to leave, Roo and I were gutted. We’d had an amazing experience, staying in a little wooden hut, seeing giant monitor lizards, endangered hornbills and monkeys a-plenty, trekking the jungle day and night, feeding our fingers to fish (some kind of perverse justice there) – and we didn’t want to leave. As we sat enjoying our last breakfast in the rainforest, Annabel stood up to go.
“Well everybody,” she announced, “I’m Oh-Eff-Eff!” She glanced around smugly, quite pleased with her joke – but she couldn’t resist letting us in on it. “Off!” she explained, beaming with her own cleverness. And then, thank God, she was off – leaving us all to bask in the warm glow of her wit.
People wonder if I make these characters up, and I’m both shocked and ashamed of the answer: no. Not a word of it. Sad to say, these individuals really are out there – and are at least partially derived from the same genetic material as the rest of us.
And now, here’s a couple of Roo’s fascinating pictures to further illustrate our adventures!
So, on leg one of our journey, we have arrived in Koto Kinabula, the capital ‘city’ of Malaysian Borneo. I use the word city in inverted commas because, whilst it sure looks like an Asian city – grimy concrete high-rises everywhere you look, crumbling pavements and constant gridlock – you can walk across it in about five minutes.
This isn’t exactly a bad thing though, as a miniature city like this is a great way to prepare us for the more dramatic capitals later on in our trip – like Beijing, which I have to admit to being a bit scared of.
We’d booked to stay at the ‘Summer Lodge’ – or at least, we thought we had. When they never showed up to collect us at the airport, I convinced the Tourist Info guy to give them a call. Yup, they’d never heard of us. So we jumped in a taxi and edged our way through 40 minutes of standing traffic to get there.
The first room we were offered was so dingy I half expected to find Terry Waite in there chained to a radiator. We went back to the desk and asked if they had anything less squalid. So, for only a few dollars extra, we got to climb an extra two flights of stairs, to a room that, allegedly, had ‘a window’. Oh yes! Make no mistake, we were upgrading!
The second room – complete with window – also was not the Hilton. But we took it anyway, because we were dripping with sweat, knackered, and hadn’t slept in two days. So we paid cash, braved the stairs once more, and collapsed onto the hideously stained mattress.
The rest of the evening was one of discovery. First we discovered that the window didn’t work (it was covered with a blind which ripped out of the wall when Roo tried to raise it to look out). Then we discovered that the toilet leaked. Then, around midnight, we discovered that, had we been able to look out of our window, it would have offered us a view of the open-air karaoke bar directly below. That place seemed to heat up around 1am, but didn’t really kick off until 3. Murdering the hits of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry at 500 decibels turns out to be a popular pass-time here… It was in this way that we discovered the vibrating walls of our room – including the exterior one, housing our foot-square inoperable window – were made of thin plywood. Now, you kind of expect this with internal walls. Sure, it means you can hear every burp, scratch and fart for ten rooms in every direction, but that’s pretty much par for the course. But external walls? This was an eight-storey building, and we were on the sixth floor. I was kind of hoping it was built of concrete, or something similarly sturdy. Closer inspection (of the cracks in our walls, through several of which we could see daylight) revealed the truth. The frame of the building was concrete – great beams and columns in a grid pattern. But the walls in-between were filled in – not with bricks, or more concrete, or high-spec glass – but with plywood. If a shabbier high-rise exists anywhere in the world – well, I don’t want to stay there.
Think I’ve found our window!
Nevertheless, stay we did. After a brief jaunt around the night (fish) markets, where scores of locals were eating (fish), we returned to the room to wash the (fish) stench off our weary bodies. This was when we discovered the drains also didn’t work, so that showering created an ever-rising pool of water in the bathroom that quickly became ankle-deep. It stayed there for as long as we did – which, to our shame, was three whole days. Not because Kota Kinabalu (or ‘KK’) was so enticing, but because we couldn’t seem to get out of bed. I know what you’re thinking – inappropriate! But no – we were just dead tired, both of us – and we spent more than half our time in KK fast asleep.
Being the terribly organised types we are, neither of us had given much thought to where to go once we actually got here. But in our bizarre state of exhaustion, we bravely made the decision to head for the beach…
And now, here we are! As different an experience as it’s possible to have, from the cramped, depressing room in the filthy, claustrophobic city, to where we are now… which is paradise!
A jungle lodge built out of sticks, in the traditional style of the native Rumpus people, and, a mile away – the kind of postcard-perfect beach that everyone dreams of one day discovering. Oh, and it’s EMPTY! Yes, this is the undiscovered bit of Borneo, right at its northern tip – and the only tour operator here is a bloke called Howard. We’re staying in his lodge, and eating in his beachfront restaurant right now – all built himself, staffed by locals to whom he pays a fair wage – and never have I found a more secret, tranquil slice of paradise on the planet. Believe me – you really wish you were here! As of course, do I. :0)
The only fly in the ointment – apart from the flies, and the lack of any kind of ointment – is that we’re both more sunburnt than we’ve ever been! At this point we put two and two together, and figured out our malaria meds were to blame. ‘Increased sensitivity to sunlight’ and ‘lethargy’ being two of the potential side effects… but holy shit! Both of us were wiped out for 12 to 14 hours a day, and we got so burnt from walking to the bus station we can hardly lie down! So, out went the malaria pills, damn them. And out went any chance of kayaking, sunbathing, taking long, leisurely swims or strolls on the beach…
The upside of this, is that a six-month supply of doxycycline just about fits into a shoe box, giving us a bit of space in our rucksacks to play with. Consequently, Roo has started shopping for shoes…
I’m not sure if that qualifies as good news, or bad.
But anyway. Here’s a few more photos, to whet your appetites…
Tony and Roo are an unusual pair. You can never lose them in a crowd; Roo, because her hair is a multi-hued rainbow wonder, and her Black Milk leggings match it; and Tony, because his testicles are usually hanging out of the holes in his trousers. Which sometimes causes people to avoid him. Tony is a travel writer and Roo is a photographer; together, they have been traveling the world for over eight years. They have been to many strange places, and done strange things in them. This blog is mostly about that; occasionally it features other stuff too. BE WARNED! Herein lies foolishness…