Travel Archives

An Unexpected Journey

Roo and I have been back in England for a couple of weeks now, and I still haven’t managed to write anything about our month in Wanaka. I guess because the memory is still so sharp; our time there was, to misquote a popular novel, the best of times and the worst of times.

Well, mostly the worst.

As many of you may know, the reason that Roo and I changed our plans at the last minute and flew to New Zealand was because Chris, my sister Gill’s husband, was starting to lose the battle against pancreatic cancer.

Chris Ice CreamIt’s hard to believe that less than six months ago I was writing a book about his wedding; he wore blue, insisted that I wore blue too, and looked like the happiest man alive as he stood next to Gill in the gardens of Polquhorn Fort in Cornwall, and said “I do.”

Gills Wedding

Gill and Chris – as happy as I’ve ever seen either of them.

And now… well, six weeks ago we laid him to rest in a wickerwork casket, in a narrow plot in Wanaka cemetery. Chris passed away on the 29th of May, aged just 38 – leaving behind not just my sister, but their two beautiful daughters, Hazel and Holly, aged 18 months and two months.

Even now, as I sit here writing this, tears are falling freely onto my keyboard. That’s been happening a lot lately; I might have to invest in some kind of rain cover for my laptop…

Anyway, it’s not like me to be so doom-and-gloom, and I’ve always prided myself on finding the positive in every situation. And here in Wanaka, the positive is impossible to ignore – it’s all around me, everywhere I look.

Because Wanaka is, beyond shadow of a doubt, one of the most beautiful places on the planet.

Wanaka Beauty

It’s beautiful alright – this is the view from our hostel. Which is in the centre of town.

Even Chris has a spectacular view. If I had to spend eternity contemplating one particular vista, well, I could do a lot worse.

Graveyard View

We laid Chris to rest overlooking the town where his girls live, and the mountains he spent his life on.

We’ve visited Wanaka before, of course. Back then Hazel was just a baby, and Wanaka was in the grip of a deadly epidemic – of drive-by knitting?!?!!? It’s still the town’s biggest mystery – no-one knows who is responsible, or when they will strike.

Knitted Tree

Random bits of the town are regularly discovered wrapped in colourful knitting. Truth!

That kind of says it all about Wanaka. It’s a placid place, like something out of a fairy-tale; stupendous mountains, incredible scenery, friendly folk, healthy and wholesome almost to a fault. People here don’t lock their doors. Even when they go on holiday. It would be a thieves’ paradise… except, there aren’t any thieves. Which is ironic, really, as it’s one of the most expensive places on Earth to live!

And the only downside? Well, other than a loaf of bread costing $5? The town is the central hub for three of New Zealand’s most popular ski resorts. So every winter, scores of penniless ski bums just like Gill and Chris show up, taking jobs on the mountains and living anywhere they can – three to a room, sleeping on floors, in vans, in garden sheds… and the town becomes party central for the next six months solid.

So, you know, major bummer  🙂 

Wanaka Dawn

They get plenty of snow here – this is the view we woke up to on our second morning in Wanaka.

Yes, it’s fair to say, I like it here. As for Roo, well… if you’ve read anything about our time in Canada, you’ll know that anything even remotely involving snow turns Roo into an eight-year-old.

Roo Kissing Snowman

Obviously I wanted to make a giant sculpture of a penis, and leave it in the middle of the park – but Roo demanded we make something she could kiss.

Gill and Chris had just bought a new house when we arrived, so we moved into it on their behalf. Predictably, I broke at least one thing per day, so that by the time Gill set foot in the place there was already a lengthy maintenance list…

Broken Shower

Welcome to your new house Gill! Here’s your shower door handle…

Broken Knife

I have no idea how I broke this knife. Just don’t know my own strength, I guess…

Broken Table

And I’m sure this table isn’t supposed to look like that… I also broke a shelf in the fridge 🙁

I try to take something, some message or life-lesson, from everyone I know who passes on. From Chris, I have taken a timely reminder of something which is all too easy to forget, especially for a struggling, self-published author.

Chris wasn’t about money, not in the least. He was happiest fixing skis, barely scraping by, and many times stated that life was not about abstract concepts like success, or the accumulation of wealth.

It was about fun. That was why he left a promising career in genetics to spend his life ski-bumming around the world, earning sub-minimum wage, and loving his life in the snow, and his growing family.

So the next time I find myself obsessively checking my sales, or carefully weighing out the financial cost of an adventure, I’ll remember this: life is too damn short to be stingy.

You never know, ladies and gentlemen, whether or not you’ll live to spend it, so take a piece of advice from me, and – posthumously – from one of the cleverest people I’ve ever known: enjoy what you’ve got, while you’ve got it. Money is only as good as the enjoyment you can get out of it, so squeeze every last drop of fun from those pennies! Because you never know when it’ll be too late.

Mum Sky Dive

Grab life by the balls! This is my Mum, doing her first sky-dive – at 62 years old. Apparently, it’s never too late!

Anyway, to conclude the tale, we all retreated to England to spend some time together as a family, helping Gill with the girls and hopefully giving her a safe space to grieve. It was a fairly daunting prospect – taking one baby and one toddler on a series of long-haul flights totalling over 24 hours in the air – but amazingly, we came through it all unscathed. It wasn’t until after we’d landed in Heathrow Airport that Hazel decided to projectile-vomit, Exorcist style, emptying her stomach of everything she’d eaten since we left Singapore. Made a fair mess of the landing gate, I can tell you.

Happy Holly

Baby Holly, on the other hand, rather enjoyed the flight!

But we did it! And now here we are, in England! Facing the same journey back again in just over six weeks’ time… Like I said – life’s all about the fun  🙂

And while we’re on the subject of fun, I’d like to take this chance to invite everyone else who is in England to a ski-event we’re holding in Chris’s memory. It will be at Hemel Hempstead Snow Centre on the 29th August, from 8-10pm, and we’ll be raising money for pancreatic cancer research. The plan is to try and make 1977 runs down the ski slope (Chris’s birth year), so we’ll need all the help we can get. Entrance costs £40, including 2 hours on the slopes, ski/snowboard gear hire and a meal at the restaurant. Non-skiers are welcome, and there’ll be a sledging slope set up for a bit of fun. Let me know if you fancy coming along! And for anyone who’d like to contribute without getting their asses cold and wet*, Gill has set up a Just Giving page – all proceeds go directly to Pancreatic Cancer UK:

https://www.justgiving.com/robinsonskichallenge

Hope to see you there!

*Snowboarders have to sit down at the top to fasten their boards on. This is why my ass gets wet, NOT because I’m so afraid that I pee myself – no matter what you may have heard.

Leaving Nova Scotia

So, the time has come to leave our little bolt-hole in Nova Scotia, Canada. We’re flying out to New Zealand, postponing our US trip slightly for personal reasons. We’ve really enjoyed our time here in the Bay of Fundy – home of the world’s highest tides, and… um… ah…

No, sorry, that’s it.

But man, is it ever beautiful!

Nova Scotia Cabin

When we arrived, the whole place was still buried under a thick blanket of snow – much to Roo’s delight. She set about building a snowman, then hollowing out a snow cave… you know, the kind of stuff that non-Australians generally get out of their system by age 10.

Roo Snowman

Meanwhile, I settled in to write about Asia. It was a little odd, filling my head with scenes of steaming jungles and sprawling concrete metropolises – only to look out of the window at the pristine snow every time a car drove past our cabin. Which happened roughly three times per day…

Nova Scotia Deer

We had plenty of other visitors though!

Most days, we took a stroll down to the beach – a rugged and dramatic location, the sand black beneath the white snow, and strewn with boulders and great chunks of ice. An awesome place for photographs; sunbathing, not so much.

Icy Beach

Overlooking the beach was (and still is) my favourite house in the area – a delightful little cottage with a bay window and panoramic views over the bay. Snow ramped up, covering the front door, and we could tell that no-one had visited the cottage in months. It was obviously a holiday home, and one I was rather jealous of.

Port Greville Cottage View

In a tantalising twist, we happened to be walking past it again a few days ago – just in time to spot a real estate agent, taking photos of the place. The owner had taken ill, and put it on the market; “Needs a bit of redecorating,” he admitted, “but it’s in great shape!”

Port Greville Cottage

The price? $98,000. That’s Canadian dollars, by the way – putting the UK market value at a tad under £50,000. (It’s HERE if you’re interested!)

“It’s the view,” the lady who runs the local shop told me. “Any house with a view like that shoots right up in price.”

She was right – a quick check of the estate agent’s website revealed a house on 7.5 acres for sale nearby – for $30,000 (£15k). That’s the price of a decent car in Australia…

And speaking of the shop, there is just the one; a tiny place that sells bread, milk, eggs… and not much else. Not much of those either, to be honest – in the last two months we’ve bought three cartons of eggs from them, all from the same batch. They expired shortly before we bought the first lot, and by the time I bought the last pack I had to point out to the owner that I was now paying full price for eggs that were two entire months out of date. She apologised, and nipped out the back – returning with a pack that was only one month out of date. Score!

The shop also has one of those Kuerig coffee machines that posh people have in their kitchens. This has become a bit of an addiction, and I make an excuse to go there every couple of days to buy one. But, other than that, we haven’t been to a single shop – groceries or otherwise – in eighteen days.

I think that’s a personal record.

So, yesterday we borrowed our landlord’s car, for the third time since we got here. It’s a knackered old wreck, squeaking and shuddering the 20km to the nearest town – but it’s still a lot better than walking.

Buried Camper

Nova Scotia winters are seldom kind to vehicles…

Roo and I flipped a coin for the driving privileges, and I lost, which meant it was my turn. My first, actually, and as Roo pointed out, I was badly in need of the practice. Roo and I will be sharing the driving on our US trip – so far that’s in the order of 10,253 miles, split evenly between the two of us! But so far, I’ve never actually driven in this part of the world. Or in an automatic.

It took me a while, getting used to that auto transmission – bunny-hopping down the road with one foot on each pedal, while Roo gently reminded me that I was still on the wrong side of the road. I suffer left-right confusion issues, which to be honest doesn’t stand me in the best stead to be a driver. Or a navigator. In fact, it begs the question, “What the hell good I am going to be on a three-month road-trip around America?!” I frequently find myself driving on the wrong side in England, and I’ve never had any continental experience to confuse me… just my crazy old brain, up to its usual tricks.

Left Right Hands

I used to do that thing where you make an ‘L’ with your left hand – until I noticed this…

So we made the first turn (there are only two turns on this 20 minute journey), and Roo convinced me to move over to the opposite side of the carriageway. I started to speed up, and amidst the myriad clangs and squeals of tortured suspension, I was sure I could hear the regular thud thud thud of a flat tyre.

Roo was also listening to it. “Might just be a stone in the tyre,” she said.

So we carried on.

Then we came around a bend in the road and saw, in front of us, a police blockade. One cop car, lights flashing, on either side of the road, and a handful of vehicles queuing through the gap in between them.

Roo and I exchanged a look of horror.

“Thank God you’re driving!” she said. Because her license had expired a month ago. The new one was still en route from Australia, and hadn’t arrived yet. This hadn’t stopped her driving on our last trip to town, but thankfully this was the first time we’d seen a police car in Nova Scotia.

“We still have a bit of a problem,” I pointed out. “This isn’t our car. We’re not insured to drive it. I don’t know if it’s even registered. Hell, I don’t know if it’s even roadworthy…”

It was a long, dead-straight road down the hill to the cops. No way out. I fumbled on the back seat for my jacket, groped in the pocket for my wallet, and gave it to Roo while I slid my licence out of it. Then my hand twitched; the license fell from my nervous fingers, clattering down the narrow gap between the passenger seat and the centre console – the single hardest-to-reach place in the entire car.

“CRAP!” said Roo, “You’ve got to be f’ckn’ kidding me!”

I pulled up behind the driver who was currently talking to the cop.

The voice inside my head was going, “SHIT-SHIT-SHIT-SHIT-SHIT!”

When it was my turn, I inched towards the cop, leaving an almost suspiciously large gap between myself and the car in front.

Just don’t hit the wrong pedal, I told myself. Don’t kangaroo the damn car right past the guy. That almost always looks bad.

The policeman was inspecting the tyres of the car opposite me, which didn’t bode well.

“Morning sir,” I said, as cheerfully as I could manage. Roo dug my license out just in time and I held it out before he could ask for it. This was because I was terrified he would ask – like every traffic cop in every move I’ve ever seen – for my “license AND registration.”

I had no idea where the registration was, or what it looked like, or if there even was any – and if there was, it sure as hell wasn’t in my name.

The officer was frowning at my UK driving license. “You don’t have a Canadian license?” he asked.

“Ah, no, we’re just on holiday,” I explained, “staying back there in Port Greville.”

The officer winced in sympathy.

Port Greville Beauty

Don’t know why he wasn’t keen – Port Greville may be boring, but it’s absolutely stunning!

Then he walked around the back of the car, studying something. He bent down for a closer look, then reached for his radio…

I was braced for a shout of “Step out of the VE-hicle!”

But it didn’t come. He just handed back my license, wished us a pleasant day, and let us go.

I don’t think I’ve moved off as carefully as that since the day of my driving test.

But we made it.

My fears of being stranded beside the road, several hours’ walk from our landlord’s house, with no phone to call him – and him with no car other than the one we’d just had impounded…

I was suddenly reminded of this moment:

Droids meme

“I can’t understand how we got past that trooper,” I told Roo, “I thought we were dead!”

Roo got the reference straight away, because Roo is awesome like that.

“The Force is strong with us,” she explained. “I just hope they’re not still there on the way back…”

* * *

Right well, that’s enough waffle from me! Next time I promise we’ll have Roo back, and you can look at some of her stunning images instead of reading my rubbish. 🙂

USA Trip Update!

Well, it looks like this USA trip is a go!

First off, I’d like to say a massive THANK-YOU!!! to everyone who replied, with offers of food, accommodation, adventures, and advice. Every one of you is fantastically awesome, as well as super-generous with your time, your food, and your bedding/garden/sandpit/daughter’s tree-house.

So, like they say on TV: APPLICATIONS ARE NOW CLOSED! (which doesn’t mean you can’t send me any. But if you do, I might cry.)

Couch Surfing

I also got sent some natty graphics! 🙂

To be honest, I was a bit worried I’d only get three responses, one of which wanted to put me in a dungeon and one of which was only interested in Roo staying over…

So it was quite a relief, as well as a bit of a shock, to receive almost 170 replies. WOOHOO! Again, thank-you SO MUCH, everyone!

It’s taken me quite a while to transfer all this information from emails, Facebook messages and blog comments, and to put it in some kind of shape that I can understand. By which I mean, a zonking great list which is currently covering the dining table. So if you haven’t heard from me yet… don’t worry! No bugger has. 🙂

Planning

BEWARE my pencil case!

Anyway, I’ve been struggling with the problem of how to organise the trip so that we can see the maximum number of people, and do as much stuff as possible. (NOTE: ‘Stuff’ is a technical term for the wide variety of activities we could potential be involved in – which so far includes an all-day wine festival, a police ride-along, urban caving and some SAS-style manhunt training…)

Now, several kind folks sent me a link to this map, which has been doing the rounds on Facebook:

USA trip map

It gave me a pretty good idea about how I should start, so I dug a bit deeper, to discover the original article it was based on. And that’s when I discovered why planning this trip is giving me a headache.

Apparently, finding the best (or most efficient) route between several different places, is a popular logic problem known as ‘The Travelling Salesman’ or ‘TSP’. It is classified as one of the hardest puzzles to solve, because of [some crazy-assed science stuff that I didn’t understand], and of course the exponentialismness (or something similar).

Here’s a quote from the article’s original author, Randy Olson:

“With 50 landmarks to put in order, we would have to exhaustively evaluate 3 x 1064 possible routes to find the shortest one. To provide some context: If you started computing this problem on your home computer right now, you’d find the optimal route in about 9.64 x 1052 years — long after the Sun has entered its red giant phase and devoured the Earth.”

Now, he’s a PhD Computer Science candidate who specialises in ‘biologically-inspired artificial intelligence and evolutionary processes’. So we can probably trust him.

What this means for me is, I’m still stuck in the planning phase – which, as anyone who’s read my books will know, is normally the non-existent phase. There’s a reason for this: I suck at planning. It was the same before my trip around Asia – I maxed out my library card, hiring at least two books for every country we were hoping to visit. And I never opened one of them.

Asia Planning Books

Okay, so ONE of these books DID get read from cover to cover. Anyone who can guess which one wins a lollipop!

I appreciate that so far this has been an update that hasn’t actually updated anyone on anything. Yeah, um… sorry about that.

To make you feel slightly less cheated, here’s a comedy sign Roo snapped on the way into Perth:

Amusing Sign

A few seconds later is said ‘…PRAWNS $14.99 PER KILO’, but for a while there we were seriously considering calling the WWF.

Now, there are a few things I can tell you:

1) I’m sorry to say that, unfortunately we won’t be able to see everyone on this trip. Even if we had six months instead of three, I doubt we’d get round them all. Of course, as with all good books, there’s always the possibility of a sequel…

2) If you are unlucky enough to have us show up at your door, we’ll probably be imposing for two nights. By my calculations (and by the Power of Grayskull) we’ll be spending a day driving between places, spending the night we arrive, and getting to spend one full day boring the life out of our hosts with stories they’ve already read about, before toddling along the following morning.

3) We’ve both always wanted to go to one of those crazy college parties we see in the movies – you know, where everyone drinks beer from those red plastic cups and dances on tables and stuff. It’s, like, the iconic pinnacle of American culture for us. Honest! So if anyone has any suggestions about how to make this happen, we’re eager to hear ‘em!

4) Talks n’ stuff: I’m really keen to talk (just ask Roo – she can’t shut me up!) – so book clubs, libraries, etc – anywhere who might be interested in having me over for an hour, please get in touch with them and find out if they’re interested! Obviously I don’t charge anything, and I’m not trying to sell books (though I’ll keep a box in the car in case anyone wants one). I’m less about actual ‘book signings’ than I am about giving talks, as very few people will have heard of me – a signing at a proper book store is likely to be graveyard quiet, and, well, that would be pretty awkward…

Paul Carter

This is Paul Carter, author of the funniest book I’ve ever read: ‘Don’t Tell Mum I Work On The Rigs (She thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whore House)’. I met him at a book signing in Perth. His books have sold squintllions of copies, and a major Hollywood movie is currently being made of them. Number of people at the book signing? 6.

So, thanks for letting me ramble on again, folks! I’ll try to convince Roo to share some more of her stunning photos next time, to give you all a bit of a break. And by the time she’s done with that, I might actually have some real news to report…

Imagine that!

🙂

My Secret Plan™

Top SecretSo, 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!

In June.

This year.

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.

Walking on beach

Right then, here’s the nitty gritty:

  1. 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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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!
  5. 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 😉
  6. 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

Tony@TonyJamesSlater.com

 

* 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!

So, where were we?

Huashan SunsetOh, 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.

Mountain view

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:

Propergander DeskOh, 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 down Dragonback 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!

Huashan Hostel

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.

Huashan Hostel Dorm

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…

Crowds on Huashan

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.

Huashan Dawn

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:

Huashan Plank Walk at dawnThe 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…

Rungs down to huashan plank walkSo, 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…

Huashan Plank WalkRoo on plank walk rocks

Hua shan plank walk

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…

Hua Shan Steep Stairs

Climbing Hua ShanSteep Steps on Hua ShanUnsurprisingly, 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…

Huashan repairs

“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.

Huashan PorterHuashan PorterFinally… 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.

Cable Car view Huashan

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!)

Kanga-rooted!

We interrupt this blog for a newsflash!

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.

Max Hart of Kangaroo Cafe

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…”

Shit.

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.

Me kissing the groundI 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.

Crappy Boat

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.

Stone cock formation

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.

A hole

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…

Penguin Bin

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.

KayakingAnother 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!”

Unhappy in Kayak

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!

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…

Vadering on the boat

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)

http://www.kangaroocafe.com/

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)

Crazy Orange Monkeys

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…

Happy OrangutanNo. 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.

Mellow OrangutanWe 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

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’.

“Wooowww…”

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.

orangutan back“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.

River

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.

Be afraid.

And now, here’s a couple of Roo’s fascinating pictures to further illustrate our adventures!

Feeding Fish 1fEEDING Fish 2

Big camera lens

Roo was seriously out-lensed on the river!

SerenDIPity

I’ve entered a contest run by Cherie and Chris of Technomadia, where they’ve asked travellers (like me!) to write about how serendipity has influenced our lives. If you want to know why I’ve written SerenDIPity like that, check out this post about the contest. If you’re already here via Technomadia, welcome!

And if you’re not? Well, we can’t all be perfect. Welcome anyway :0)

This is my story.

 

Paradise Lost?

I left England for Thailand, intending to spend three months volunteering in an animal clinic. I had visions of a tiny paradise island – and I was dead right! Koh Phangan had everything I could have asked for – postcard-perfect beaches, dense tropical jungle and a party scene so wild I very nearly didn’t survive it.

It was so good, I couldn’t even think about going home.

Actually I missed my flight.

It was accidentally-on-purpose. I’d sort of seen it coming; I hadn’t bothered to check my ticket for a long time, and I wasn’t exactly devastated to find the flight had left without me. I just climbed back into my hammock and appreciated one more fiery sunset over the ocean.

I ended up staying for nearly a year.

I had no desire to go back to England at all – I was taking people Scuba-diving for a living, still working at the animal clinic in-between times and still loving life on that tiny tropical island.

Every day was different; whether guiding customers through shoals of brightly coloured fish, nursing stray dogs back to health at the clinic, or rescuing irate monkeys from places they really shouldn’t be (like restaurants); as far as I was concerned, my life there was perfect.

Palm Tree ClimbingThai BeachEventually though, I began to run out of money; I’d spent everything I could, then borrowed more and spent that too. My diving wages had all gone on dive gear and I was fighting the realisation that my trip was nearly over.  The final blow was when a thief broke into my bungalow and stole the last of my cash. I was getting desperate. Being suddenly penniless 6,000 miles from home, in a country where no-one in authority speaks your language, is pretty scary. Home would be boring – it would certainly mean the end of my adventures – but it would be safe.

Then I got a phone call from my sister. She was on holiday in Australia, staying with a friend she’d met whilst traveling, and the two of them were planning a grand trip around the country. She’d called to see if she could convince me to leave Thailand, fly to Australia, and come with them!

I said I’d have loved to, if only I could afford it.

“No worries!” she said. Her friend Krista had a place I could stay while I looked for work.

It all seemed likely to end in tears – my sister and I have had a volatile relationship in the past, and being dependant entirely on her friend’s charity would be the total opposite of the freedom I’d become accustomed to.

Plus there was paperwork, and visas, and… that ever-present fear of the unknown.

But sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.

Trust to fate, I thought.

I went for it.

I flew into Perth on a maxed out credit card, arriving with nothing but the clothes on my back – the animals had destroyed the rest! My entire luggage allowance was taken up by one huge bag of diving gear.

I couldn’t even afford a cup of coffee in the airport.

But then, who can these days?

Gill and Krista came to pick me up in a crumbling van they’d bought and decorated with multi-coloured hand prints! Appropriately enough, they’d called it ‘Rusty’.

Krista had set up an interview for me with a local job agency for the following day.

I started work the day after that.

She drove me in to work herself, and picked me up afterwards, every day for the couple of weeks it took me to get back on my feet. Sometimes she’d even bring me cookies or cake! I had so much fun hanging out with her, I decided to risk joining the grand adventure after all; as soon as I had a bit of cash saved up we all piled into ‘Rusty’ and set off for parts unknown.

Six years later, Krista and I are still travelling.

In that time we’ve hardly been apart, despite being residents of two countries on opposite sides of the world. We’ve had a lot of adventures and done a lot of crazy things – and we always trust to fate, or to Serendipity, to get us where we’re meant to be.

We were married last year in an English castle, with guests from seven different countries helping us celebrate.

I was a bit scared of marriage, at first.

But like with anything else, sometimes you’ve just got to go for it.

Wedding photo

The Great Perth Storm of 2012…

We heard it first on the news.

A storm was coming for Perth. One of epic proportions.

WA StormAfter a week of wild weather, winds bringing down trees and power lines alike, this was set to be IT. The Big One.

Batten down the hatches – we were in for a rough ride.

Word spread from TV and radio, from person to person – it was a storm – no, it was a tornado! Category 2, whatever that means, or worse – is there worse than a Category 2? I don’t know!

People panicked.

Facebook lit up with concerns about power outages and house damage.

“I have to park my car underneath a huge tree,” one friend explained. “I can’t do anything to stop it getting crushed!”

There was talk of flooding.

There was talk of snow.

Surely we weren’t in for a blizzard? I mean, I know it’s winter, but this is Perth! Right?

People hurried home from work.

We could hardly believe it – the traffic at 4pm was like rush hour. Businesses and shops closed early, sending staff home as soon as they could to avoid them being caught on the road when The Storm hit.

By nightfall the roads were empty. It was eerie, as we drove home from the gym, speeding unopposed down streets we normally had to queue down.

Empty StreetsThe cafes and restaurants of the popular Vic Park district were all empty; occasionally a terrified pedestrian darted across the street, desperately seeking shelter, cursing the cruel fate that had left them stranded outside in the face of the advancing storm.

At just after 8pm, Western Standard Time, it hit.

The noise of the wind was intense – well, probably. We didn’t hear it as we were inside eating schnitzels.

The storm surged around the house, making us occasionally remember it was there. Plans were abandoned: “We’ll have to put the bins out tomorrow,” I said gravely.

“We’ll have to close the bedroom window!” my wife informed me.

But we didn’t. We’re just that fearless.

Outside, the storm raged unabated.

Perth resisted with all it’s strength – but how could it possibly survive the night?

For minutes at a time we were battered by the rain, sheeting from the sky with enough force to make you really, really wet.

Then there would be a brief lull – then rain would pour down once again, flooding into our drains like… well, like it’s supposed to do.

The aftermath was one of subtle devastation.

Branches were down.

Leaves were down.

Hell, leaves were everywhere. It looked like Perth had been caught in the grip of a… big storm. Well, big-ish.

Across the region, fences were slightly damaged.

A garden gnome was seen to be unmoved in the hilltop vicinity of Roleystone, having narrowly survived the same terrifying ordeal that his friends had also narrowly survived.

Slowly, life returned to normal. People came out of hiding, glancing fearfully at the sky and counting the signs of destruction all around them.

Some of them needed more than one finger.

But long after the boards had been removed from our windows, long after the children had been rescued from beneath tables and under beds, long after 10am, when the sun had dried all remaining traces of the deadly rainstorm – Perth was still there.

Thankfully no-one lost their lives to the deadly downpour, though it is believed that a few weather forecasters lost their jobs.

Our thoughts and prayers are with their families, and with the idiots themselves.

United in their defiance of the storm, Perth residents have vowed: ‘We shall rebuild!’

Picture by The Brow Horn Orchestra

Unfortunately, nothing was destroyed, but the sentiment remains important. Never again will this brave city feel as threatened by Mother Nature.

Never before, in the field of human-weather activity, has so little been done to so many by such a vast load of bullshit.

So now, wear this badge with pride:

I survived banner

 

Back For Good… (or possibly bad)

Hi, everybody!

Now, you might have noticed that I haven’t written a blog for quite a while.

In fact, some people have even been complaining about my lack of posts.

To them, I must now offer a most heart-felt: “Screw you! What the hell am I, your bitch?”

In the nicest possible way, of course  :0)

Alas, t’is true though. I have been even slacker than my trousers, and those puppies’ll slide right off just by looking at them. Honestly. It happens all the time.

Most of my excuse is that I’ve had an extended sojourn, almost two months in England, saying good-bye to my Granddad; I’ll doubtless write about it at some point, but I’m not quite ready yet.

The rest of the excuse is that, for an incredibly lazy person, I’ve been surprisingly busy lately! I’d like to say I’ve achieved a lot, but that would be a lie.

Instead, it’s been a weird time.

It’s been a month of ‘almosts’.

As in, I almost wrote a blog post…!

I almost missed my flight back to Australia (whilst looking at an iPad).

And I almost bought an iPad (whilst almost missing my flight to Australia).

I almost bought an iPad again, when my poor Macbook unexpectedly almost needed $800 of repairs… twice!

Repair Bill

Oh, and I almost bought a house.

Perhaps it’s truer to say, I flirted with the idea of buying a house – or more accurately, buying land, building a house – and then selling it on for a whopping great profit. The scheme was simple enough (because I thought of it, and I have a reputation for being a bit simple); there were some blocks of land on sale near us for just $70,000! (That’s about £45k for you pommies!).

This wouldn’t have excited me, were it not for companies like Aussie Living that advertise all the time over here – and guarantee to build a complete house – 4 bedroom, with home cinema, games room, bloody everything you could ever want – for $160k. Amazing. Unbelievable! And you can’t buy a house in our area for less than $350k. So…

It was so simple, I could even do the maths in my head:

$70,000 (land) + $160,000 (house) + $that contingency think they always go on about in Grand Designs = Bloody great big piles of loot for me!!

Perth Land Auction

+

 

House Exterior

including:

House interior

=

Money

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, I could end up deeply in debt, and homeless – but then I’ve been in debt and homeless for most of the last seven years, and I’ve managed to stay cheerful.

I called my parents to ask if I was completely insane. They agreed that I was, in fact, completely insane. Just as I’d thought! This plan was a goer.

But when I  checked with a local bank to see if I could get a three-hundred-grand mortgage, and mentioned that I was a writer, the response went something like this:

“Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha! (Draws breath) Hahahahahahahaha! (Sobbing), “Ah, for a minute there I thought you said… said… writer! BWAAhh, ha ha hahahahaha…”

I thought about protesting, and pointing out that in addition to me having the earnings from the book, my wife is also a part-time cleaner… but I got the feeling this wouldn’t help very much.

So. That was the end of that.

Never mind, I told myself. A house wouldn’t really fit into my backpack anyway, and if I did want to pay a mortgage I might have to do something a bit more serious than write daft stories about my adventures. Like, you know, get a job!

Oh Em Gee! Shock! Horror!

Realizing what a close brush I’d had with the world of gainful employment scared me a little; I had to take the rest of the day off and start drinking wine straight away (instead of waiting ‘till after lunch).

The life of a writer is notoriously difficult, but it does allow me certain little luxuries; like the ability to do sod all and get hammered, when the occasion demands it. Or, you know, just whenever.

 

Just My Luck…

So, after almost getting a job – or almost starting looking for one, at any rate – I rounded out the month by almost winning the Lottery.

It was the second Lotto ticket I’ve ever bought. The last one was back in 2008, and I didn’t win then, either, which discouraged me a bit.

This time though, with the jackpot at seventy-million dollars, there was a kind of fevered atmosphere gripping the country. It’s like being in London for the Olympics: I couldn’t not take part.

(Please note: The London Olympic Commission has seen fit to ban me from attending for this reason.)

Roo (my wife) bought the ticket and we dreamt of all the stuff you can buy with seventy million bucks. Pretty much the same stuff you’d buy with one million really, there’d just be a lot more change.

As the numbers came out, we got the first one. And the second one. And the third. When the forth came out, and was on our ticket in line with the others, I shit the bed. Just a little.

And then it was all over; no more numbers, and we’d won some poxy amount which we couldn’t check because the Lotto website was utterly overwhelmed and crashed. Still, four numbers out of six. We’d come SO close…

But no banana.

So on the upside, I am still writing another book. Because although it won’t help me to get a mortgage, it will at least keep me from having to get a real job.

Like, say, being a part-time cleaner.

Life is SO hard these days, eh?

I promise to work a bit harder from now on. At least when it comes to blogging… And possibly drinking. I’ll experiment with that too.  :0)

Oh, and one other thing’s been keeping me busy: since the last time I posted a blog, I’ve almost sold 5,ooo books.

So life, whilst occasionally hard, is also quite good.