Uncategorized 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!

:)

Roo Takes Over! WARNING: Expect Rainbows…

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 on snowy log

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! :)

Tony on Xian city walls at night

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!

Borneo Orangutan

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…

Traveling Pants beach

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!

Saigon Cart in Rain

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 :)

Icy lagoon

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

Girl with machete

Great photo to end on – possibly the craziest thing we saw in Asia. I never let Tony play with knives this big!

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!

The Naked Truth – Skinny Dipping in Perth

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:

Get Naked BannerThe 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!

Naked SwimmersAs 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 Beach

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.

Dark SkyAs 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:

Roos Jumper“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.”

“Fair enough.”

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.

Empty EscalatorsEmpty Train TunnelI 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.

Skinny Dip Crowds

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…”

Skinny Dip Swanbourne PerthWe 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.

Sea Full of Nudies

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.

Spinal Injury

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…”

“Only what?”

“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.

Beach Afterwards

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 going. How about you?

That Feeling Of Release…

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.

Kamikaze Kangaroos Cover

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!

Gill with dogs

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…

Bra Strap Diaries

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’s Jar

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.”

Gill's JarShe 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.

:0)

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!)

Stepping Up: The Climbing of Hua Shan!

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…

Hua Shan Crazy StairsAnd 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.

Huashan from below

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!

Brown 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…

Empty shuttle busEmpty Hua Shan Shuttle BusNow, 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!

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…

Hua Shan endless stepsOur 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:

Roo messing aroundTony messing around

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hua Shan Quidditch

Quidditch!

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 step

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.

Log effect bench on huashan

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?

Anyway.

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…

Hua Shan crazy stepsHuashan crazy steps

 

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?

Huashan Crazy Steps

Halfway up…

Huashan Crazy Stairs

Little bit higher…

Hua Shan Crazy Stairs

Squeezing under the barrier…

Hua Shan Crazy Steps

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!

Huashan Broken Steps

Ancient steps underneath the new concrete landing.

Hua Shan Broken Stairs

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:

Hua Shan crooked stairs

MORE Huashan Stairs

Hua Shan Secret Steps

Yet More Hua Shan Steps

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!

North Peak, Huashan

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.

Well:

Dragon Back Ridge Hua Shan Mountain

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…

Dragonback Ridge Huashan

See! People!

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.

:0)

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)