Now it’s Namibia!

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We said goodbye to our amazing hostel (Amber Tree Lodge) and Cape Town bright and early on Easter Sunday and headed on down to the Nomads office in town with two German guys, Benedict and Lenaurt who were staying in our hostel and were on the same trip. Before we even reached the office we could see the big Overland truck we would be spending a large part of the next 12 days in. As we pulled up we saw this beast was named Marvin so in true Gaye style, “Let’s get it on!”

Our first stop in Marvin was at Table View on the coast North of Cape Town. It was somewhere we’d wanted to go whilst family Eccles were here the previous week but we’d ran out of time. It was a really spectacular view across the Atlantic Ocean back to the city of Cape Town with Table mountain looming in the background.

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Our next stop on our trip was one of our least interesting as we spent two hours in a shopping mall whilst the guides purchased lots of the provisions for the next few days. We bought water, fruit and biltong (dried meat like Jerky just better!). Shopping done we set off to our campsite in the Cederberg Mountains.

We pulled up at a pretty decent looking campsite and there were lots of looks of confusion and terror from the families enjoying their Easter holidays. I assume they thought we were going to cause mayhem and keep them up all night. We then set about putting up our tents for the first time and luckily for us ours was all there and went up perfectly, whereas a few of the other pairs didn’t have enough poles or they didn’t match the tents so alternatives were called for and some poor guy had to bring them out from Cape Town. The tents that Nomads supplied were actually massive and pretty nice to be honest our only concern may have been our sleeping bags. We have excellent ones at home but didn’t want to carry them around the world for 10 months just for this moment, so heavily under the influence of ‘Thrifto’ Eccles I had had to buy the cheapest ones I could find a couple of days previously and had got some for just over a tenner which would allegedly keep us warm if it didn’t drop below 5 degrees Celsius! Only time would tell just how many extra layers we may have to sleep in as the Namib Desert can get cold.

When we did this kind of overland trip from Nairobi to Johannesburg in 2008 we’d had such an amazing time and a lot of that was to do with the incredible group of people we spent a month and a half with. We are still in touch with lots of them and will always have special memories of that trip. So it was always going to be a difficult first day trying to figure out if we were going to have another awesome group or not. To be fair the dynamic of the group couldn’t have been much more different as it was made up nearly entirely of Germans and Dutch. We were in fact the only English people in the group of 23! The good news is that we are so used to travelling and meeting new people that we can get on with anybody from anywhere, so it was great to have some new people to share our experience with.

In the afternoon we went on a little trek in the surrounding hills which was nice enough. The local guide, Skippe, was good although I was a little put off when I saw him pull out a turtle from his bag and hand it round the group. I just prefer to find my wildlife in the wild I guess. The most exciting part of the walk was when he caught a couple of Scorpions and held them on his hands without being stung.

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He also showed us some indigenous paintings on a wall which were approximately 1,500 years old. He explained what each of the three ‘chapters’ meant and it was basically saying how they were happy and were leading a good life here all those years ago. Later that evening we ate a pretty tasty beef stew and shared a few beers whilst getting to know people a bit better. We went to bed that night pretty tired and drifted off quickly using the pillows we’d stolen from the airplane the other week!

It had got a little chilly at night but not too bad, yet. So we were up, decamped, fed and packed by about 7:30 a.m. and prepared for a fairly dull day travelling on the bus heading up north to the Orange River.

The highlight of the journey was when we finally found an off licence that was open and everyone stocked up on beers and wines. When we reached the Orange River campsite we all decided it would a good time to cool off in the river as it had been a long hot ride in the truck. Whilst we were swimming one of our guides, Victor was busy cooking us up some Wors (South African sausage) on the Braai (SA BBQ!) along with veggies and pap (maize like mash potato). It was really good and Ecco and I decided to wash it down with a super strong caipirinha as we still had a bottle of cachaça with us from Brazil.

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The next morning was pretty chilled as some of the group went canoeing on the river. We decided to save a few quid for later in the trip and figured we’d already done some pretty awesome kayaking in Laos and New Zealand. We borded Marvin the truck and crossed the South Africa – Namibia border relatively stress free and carried on to our camp for the night at Fish River Canyon, which apparently is the 2nd largest canyon in the world after that Grand one in the States. We quickly set up our tents for the night, before heading off to the canyon to watch the sunset. It was an amazing place and was quite like the Grand Canyon but perhaps a little less orange. Having been spoilt with sunsets over the last 11 months this one only really fell into the OK category.

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Whilst we’d been doing that our guide, Victor, had been preparing a tasty Spag Bol. The only problem was we didn’t know we were eating here and it was getting a little nippy in shorts and flip flops. It was a quiet night around the campfire and everyone was in bed by 9 pm as we were up at 5 the next morning for another looooong 600 Km drive.

Fortunately we’d avoided the cold of the night by zipping our sleeping bags together and wearing as many clothes as possible. We spent the next 8 hours in the truck stopping only to stock up on the essentials (water, beer and biltong!!). When we got to camp we went for a short trek into a spectacular 60 meter deep canyon which apparently fills up with water when it rains.

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After our chicken curry that Victor had cooked up we all went to the campsite bar as they had a massive TV and we watched the Real v Bayern Munich match. The German guys were not too happy with loosing 1-0 but us and the Dutch didn’t mind Bayern loosing too much.

If the previous day had been early then this morning was ridiculously early. We woke up at 04:45 and were in the truck and away 15 minutes later. Our first stop was to the enormous sand dunes and we began climbing Dune 45 so we would be on its peak for sunrise. These are the biggest sand dunes in the world and walking uphill in fine sand is actually pretty hard as you just sink and slide all over the place and the cross-wind was pretty fierce. The struggle was worth it though as when we reached the top we only had to wait 10 minutes for the sun to poke its head over the distant mountains and dunes. It was really beautiful and worth the early start. When we made it back down we were greeted with a lovely scrambled egg and baked bean breakfast, a great reward!

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After the sand dunes we jumped in the truck and made our way to Dead Vlei, which looked spectacular in the photos I’d seen on the Internet, it looks like burnt trees in a river bed surrounded by sand dunes. Apparently they are formed when the rains fall in the desert and there is a flash flood in a river which runs all the way into a valley of the sand dunes. This water then gets trapped and vegetation begins to grow. In particular there are the camel thorn trees which are amazingly adapted to living in the desert and can grow roots 80 meters deep to find water. Eventually the water dries up and these trees are left to die and dry up in the middle of nowhere. The white flooring comes from the lime that gets washed down in the rain and eventually is left there when the water evaporates and hardens over time. To get there we had to get into a trailer that was pulled five bumpy kilometres through very deep sand by a tractor. When we pulled up our guide, William, said just wander around and when you’ve had enough come back. It was really pretty there and Caroline and I wandered around for an hour or so taking photos of the enormous dunes and tried to find a dead tree to take a picture similar to the ones I’d seen before. It was nice but I walked over to wait for the return tractor feeling pretty disappointed because it wasn’t anywhere as dramatic as I thought it should be. Whilst chatting to a few of the other guys from the group I heard them ask each other if they’d made it to the black trees in the valley. One of the Dutch lads, Tom (good name!), said yes and showed me his amazing photos. Shiiiiiiiiiiiit. Thanks to the lack of guidance from our guide and lack of any signage we’d missed perhaps one of the best photo opportunities on the planet. There was only one thing to do. We turned straight back round and headed over the two distant sand dunes to find this mystical place, it was time to be a little selfish as we weren’t missing out on this! It was a flipping hot power walk and we were out of water as I’d given our last bit to the little birds! As we climbed one last steep dune I saw exactly the place we were looking for and it was incredible. In the middle of the Namib Desert sat approximately fifty dead, dry and blackened trees in a white rock-like floor all surrounded by tangerine and orange ginormous sand dunes under the bluest of skies. It really was a photographer’s paradise and I was a little peed off at not having longer there but was so, so happy that we’d decided to turn back and find it. The photos are stunning and will be right up there with my favourites come the end of this phenomenal year. (Feel free to check out the extra photos in the link at the end of this blog!)

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After lunch we were back in Marvin the truck and headed to our next campsite via an Apple Pie Shop called Solitaire that used to be owned by a giant Scottsman called Moose McGregor. Poor Moose had passed away earlier this year!!! We were all excited about the sweet treat but unfortunately they had no apple pie ready. Our guides were not having a good day!

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Arriving at our campsite was pretty cool that day. We were literally in the middle of the Namib Desert and were camping on a farm. The dunes were a lot greener than you’d expect. Apparently the levels of rainfall have increased dramatically and this has caused the growth of lots of bushes and grasses.

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The guy who owned the farm was an awesome Namibian guy called Boes Man (Bushman). We spent the early evening on a desert drive where he taught us all about the land and the ways of the traditional Namibian bushmen who’d been hunted and killed to extinction by the 1930’s. He told us they were little yellow skinned people never bigger than 5 foot tall and amazing hunters. They used to hide in the undergrowth and could crawl to their prey so quietly that the could shoot a poisoned arrow as close as 5 foot away from a wild antelope without them knowing that they were there or what happened. He taught us about their hunting, food, history, lifestyle and amazing heritage. He even caught a little lizard and pretended to eat it, much to the horror of the females in the audience. He was completely captivating and everyone had a great time listening to his tales.

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On the advice of Bushman about 7 of us decided that tonight was the night to sleep under the stars and not in our tents. Although there was a watering hole which attracts a leopard, in the grasses apparently a few varieties of poisonous snakes and under the rocks there were scorpions he assured us that none of them would come anywhere near us, so seeing as it wasn’t that cold and there were no mosquitos we dragged our mats and sleeping bags out and drifted off to sleep whilst watching shooting stars fly through the most incredibly clear and bright starry sky you are ever likely to see. It was a cool feeling knowing that it doesn’t get much more basic than this and was amazing to wake up to the bluey orange sky just before sunrise.

Days 6 and 7 of our trip were to be spent in Swakopmund, which is the heavily German influenced adrenalin activity centre of Namibia. We decided that we were going to go Sand-boarding as it looked pretty awesome.

We checked into our lodge for the next two nights and were very surprised at quite how nice the rooms were. It was good to be able to sleep in a real bed after 5 nights sleeping on a PE mattress! That night we decided to all go out to a restaurant called Neopolitania. I had Orx (huge Antelope type creature!) steak for my dinner and it was superb. Like an amazingly tender piece of fillet steak. Eccles went for Kudu and was equally impressed. After that half of us headed out to the town’s nightclub and had a great laugh in a pretty strange place!

The Saturday was sand-boarding day and they came to pick us up at 09:30. We were glad the previous night’s Windhoek beers hadn’t caught up with us and we were hangover free. They drove us out to the sand dunes and explained what we’d be up to and kitted us out with helmets, boards and boots. Then we had the boring bit of having to walk up to the top of a massive dune. At the top we were separated into beginners and people who had snowboarded before. As I’ve been a good few times I strapped myself in and just went for it. To be fair it felt pretty similar and was a lot softer to fall over in! My first run was just a feeler and I went nice and slowly. It was nice and steep and probably about 300 meters long. Once at the bottom I had to begin the long task of climbing back to the top of the run again. Caroline had never been snowboarding so went in the beginners group. On my way up I watched her go on her first ever run. She seemed to be going pretty well until speed got the better of her and she had a pretty tasty wipeout. She had bashed her head a bit and was shaken up but being ‘Competitive Jane’ she gathered herself and we walked back up for run number 2. Next time round she was better and had begun to get the hang of how to turn a little bit. By my third time I felt confident enough I wasn’t going to hurt myself so took on the nice big jumping platform. In total I did 3 jumps and landed them all, only to come a cropper 5 seconds later each time because of the amount of speed if picked up! Still I landed the jumps and had a few cool photos to prove it! On Caroline’s last run for a bit she had got much better and was really beginning to enjoy herself. Thank god, she isn’t the best at learning things that require patience and wants to be amazing at everything instantly!! Confidence up and enjoyment levels high we switched to have a couple of goes on the lie down boards. These were sheets of waxed wood where you lie down and ride them like a magic carpet and extreme speeds for about 20 seconds! It was a great laugh and Caroline (Competitive Jane) was loving it and even managed to clock the second fastest speed of the day at 75 Kph. We knew this because a guy at the bottom had a speed gun! The other fun person there was Zac the terrier dog! He was a cool customer and very friendly. The best bit was when he chased his owner all the way down the dune when she went down on a snowboard. They even supplied a free DVD, lunch and beer. We’d had a great day and were really glad we’d chosen to do sand boarding.

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That night the four South Africans of our group had kindly volunteered to cook us all a Brai, which is basically a BBQ. It was a huge task for them as there were 25 of us eating but they did a great job and gave us tons of food including lamb chops, sausages, chicken skewers and lovely salads. Everyone was pretty tired after Friday night’s partying so we all got an earlyish night.

Spitzkoppe was our next destination. I think in German it means pointed mountain. The landscape was pretty dramatic as we approached our campsite for the night. It was a very flat grassy plain with huge orange coloured, bold, round granite mountains rising up out the ground at random points. We spent the afternoon exploring and went to look at some ancient bushman rock paintings. Just before sunset we climbed the huge Rocky Mountain behind our camp and were treated to a really spectacular African sunset as the huge orange fireball descended right between two of the tallest mountains around. After an excellent fish BBQ a few people spent another night sleeping outside their tents and under the stars.

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After Spitzkoppe we spent a bumpy 5 hours driving to spend the day with a local tribe called the Himbas. These are the tribes people you’ll probably think of when people talk about Namibia. The are one of the last traditional tribes left in Namibia. The ladies are painted with a red paint like substance which is a mixture of butter, ash and ochre to protect them from the desert sun. They are all topless, covered in jewelry made from copper and bones and their hair is tied in clay covered dreadlocks with excitingly designed head pieces. We were shown around their village by a lady called Marie and we first saw the local school which helped teach the kids of the village. Lots of us had brought exercise books, pens and rulers for them which they happily took from us. From there we were shown around their village and the kids had great fun hanging off us like human climbing frames and playing. We met a few of the ladies, saw some traditional dancing and looked inside one of their huts. They also showed us how they washed themselves and their clothes in smoke as they weren’t allowed to use water because of traditions and drought. They also had a Holy Fire that the chief had to keep lit constantly. We’ve been on a few of these types of tours so far this year and to be honest this one felt a little contrived and uncomfortable for us. We got a sense that we were just there so we could make donations and buy their crafts at the end. It was a shame really because they were fascinating people who still lived a very traditional way of life, it’s just I think they got the balance wrong between being a money making project and an interactive chance to see traditional ways of life.

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Up next was something we both were very excited about. A trip to Etosha National Park, which meant lots of game drives and wildlife spotting. Etosha means ‘Great White Place’ due to the enormous salty, clay pan that dominates the middle of the 22,000 square kilometre park. We did our game drives in Marvin (our giant truck) which gave us quite an advantage because we were that little bit higher than usual. We were going to stay in two different campsites with in the National Park which therefore gave us plenty of time to see the wildlife whilst driving to them. Not long after entering the park gates we saw our first giraffe and it was reasonably close. This was a few peoples first game drive so at first we stopped lots to take photos of Springboks, Impalas and Zebras. We however were seasoned game drivers nowadays and were holding out for the big cats and elephants!! Of all the trips we’ve done the one animal that has eluded us so far has been the famous solitary Leopard, so that was top of our list for the next two days. An hour or so into our first drive we made our way over to where there were three cars and a truck parked. To our delight there were three female lions just chilling out under a bush not far from the roadside. They’d obviously had a kill fairly recently as their faces were covered in blood. They are such beautiful animals that I could spend all day just watching them and nothing else. Unfortunately we had somewhere to be so after lots of photos we moved on. On the way to our ‘village’ for the night we saw hundreds more Springboks and Zebras and some giraffes.

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Our camp for the night was pretty good but the undoubted highlight was the floodlit waterhole. So after realising watching the Champions League was impossible we chose to spend our evening watching the Discovery Channel unfold right in front of our own eyes. At the waterhole we were really lucky because not long after we’d settled down a huge Rhinoceros came out of the bushes and spent about half an hour walking around and drinking from the hole. It felt so good just to see it doing what it does naturally. Later on we noticed there was a second one approaching and then a little third one came out the bushes close to the first. This however proved to be a mistake as the giant first one all of a sudden charged the little third one. The speed and the thundering noise of this amazing looking animal charging was a sight and sound to behold. That was a real spectacle and an unbelievable thing to witness. We stayed for another couple of hours but nothing came close to that.

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The following day we were up early to try and catch the animals in the first light of the day. The first thing we saw was a beautiful male lion just basking in the sunshine. Unfortunately the next male lion we saw didn’t look so well and was obviously quite old, frail and skinny. I guess that he wouldn’t last too long with the Hyenas around. Coincidentally that was exactly what we saw next. There were two Hyenas about 50 metres from the road and they had the head of an Impala or Hartebeest which they were feeding on. They are such odd creatures, with ugly faces, long front legs and short back ones. This leads to them having such a strange hunchback posture. Their food also meant that there were a couple of Jackals around trying to steal their breakfast. It was such compelling viewing watch the two tiny Jackals getting closer and closer to the Hyena with the food. It basically ended in a stand off with neither moving.

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After that we moved on and we found another three female lions shading themselves under a bush. As we approached one of them got up and crossed the road and started slowly crawling through the long grass. About 600 meters away there were loads of Zebras she had her eyes on. The Zebras came closer and I think spotted her in the undergrowth as after a while she just stood up and turned back to the other two. Even though we’d not see a chase or kill it was still great to see her in hunting mode. Perhaps she was just doing a recce for their dinner that night. We also went to see the expansive salt pan and our guides gave us a nice little talk about some of the animals we’d seen.

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The morning’s game drive was a monster and lasted nearly 6 hours in total. I chose to spend the afternoon just lazing by the nice swimming pool whilst Caroline went on another game drive. The reason I’d not gone in the afternoon was because we were off on a Night Game Drive. This was pretty cool as 7 of our group jumped in an open safari jeep and entered the park in the pitch black with our only light coming from the red headlights and lamp our guide Barnabus used to search out the reflection of animals out in the bush. Our first stop was for a fairly large pack of 6 or 7 Hyenas. Also there were a few Jackals meaning there must be food around somewhere nearby. Our guide turned his jeep to face the undergrowth and revved his engine. On the third attempt a female lion stood up about 100 meters away and dragged off some Zebra carcus deeper into the vegetation. Barnabus then showed us a nice big trail of blood from where the kill must’ve happened the previous night. It was so cool to be able to see all this. Later on in the drive we also got to see a huge pride of female lions and even better a large number of 6 month old cubs who’d been left on their own whilst mum was away hunting. Watching them in the red light of our truck was incredible. It was just like watching a bunch of giant kittens play fighting. They were leaping around, bitting each other’s tails and chasing each other. It felt special to be able to be so close to these wild little cubs. Eventually they began to get a bit inquisitive about our truck so it was time to move on. Unfortunately we didn’t manage to track down a Leopard and the closest we’d got to finding an elephant for Caroline was being able to smell them close by. Still it had been a really great experience and felt different to see the animals at nighttime.

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So that was that. We packed up our tents for the last time on our 12 day Namibia trip and headed out for the last 15 kilometres of the park. Suddenly one of the Dutch guys, Tom, shouted stop an uttered the immortal word, “ELEPHANT!”. There it was in the distance a big male wandering out of the trees and flapping his ears. Caroline had got her wish she must’ve made on one of the many shooting stars we’d seen over the last few days. Just to top it off, at the same time as finding an Elephant, a lion was walking straight down the road in front of us. It came very close before turning off and running into the bushes. What a perfect way to finish our time in Etosha. The Leopard may still be eluding us but we couldn’t have asked to see much more during our two days.

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The final day of the Namibia trip was going to be a fairly lengthy a dull 450 Km drive back down south to the capital, Windhoek.

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Upon reaching Windy it felt completely different to anywhere else we’d been to in the country. It was a really big city compared to all the small towns we’d been through. Our truck dropped us in the centre which confused us a bit as we thought they’d at least give us a lift. Nevertheless they helped get us a taxi and we said goodbye to some of the group but not our last goodbye to everyone as we were meeting up for our Last Supper that night. The Chameleon hostel we were staying at for a couple of nights was great and exactly what we needed after 10 days sleeping in a tent. It was really spacious with loads of areas to just relax and even had a small swimming pool. Before dinner I continued my domination of Eccles in our worldwide pool competition.

That night most of the group met up at a spectacularly massive restaurant called Joe’s Beer House. The menu was fantastic and we shared some Oryx carpaccio to start and for mains ‘Caroline the Brave’ had Zebra, medium rare obviously and I had some Ostrich, Springbok and Kudu. They were all absolutely gorgeous and it was really interesting eating these exotic game steaks. So after trying to split a bill 20 ways we said our final goodbyes to the group and although we had only spent 12 days together we felt quite close to some of them so it was a little sad. We sneaked in a final drink with a lovely South African couple from the group called Keith and Alison as they also we staying in a different hostel to the group. It was a very nice way to finish the evening, only tarnished by a wasted Japanese man who kept trying to steal our women away from us!!

It had been a fantastic 12 day tour with Nomads. Our only slight grievance was with our guides William and Victor. Perhaps we’d been really spoilt back in our 2008 Africa trip with our guides Sammy and Julius who were absolutely amazing, so, so friendly and couldn’t have done more for us. Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said about this year’s guys. Whilst they were really nice guys we just got the feeling they were there for the money and not too much else. William had really let people down with his lack of directions or guidance as to where to find the spectacular tree valley in Dead Vlai, which staggered us because it’s in the top three things to see in Namibia. It would be like going to London and not knowing where Big Ben was. He did apologise for that but I still don’t know how a guy whose been guiding for over 10 years didn’t know their location, leading to lots of our group missing out on one of the most dramatic places I’ve ever seen. We’d also had a disagreement with William about booking a night safari and when it was booked up he basically accused us of not asking the right questions and it was our fault. We didn’t stand for it and defended ourselves staunchly. Every night Victor cooked great and plentiful food for us but then would just sit in the truck or far away from us on his phone and wouldn’t really interact with the group which was a real shame as he was very funny and a nice young lad. William would always complain about being very tired after dinner and would try and get to bed very early on all but two nights. Which was fine but left us wanting a bit more from our guides. The biggest insult was that after the last night’s meal at Joe’s Beer House they just left without even saying goodbye to us. We felt pretty aggrieved and let down as we’d paid lots of money and even tipped them. But don’t get me wrong the 12 days had been beyond fantastic and an awful lot of that was because of William and Victor.

The last day in Namibia was spent just lounging at our fantastic Chameleon Hostel and getting our orange sand covered clothes washed before heading out for a great Indian meal at Garnish just around the corner.

So after missing out on Namibia 6 years ago we were so glad we’d fulfilled our promise to come back one day and see it. What a wonderfully diverse country with so much to see and do. The few minutes in the real Dead Vlai will stay with us for a long time and I adore the photos I got and can’t wait to make them into canvases. The safaris had been great and spying on the animals as they went about their business at night time was very special. We’d met some great people from all around the world on the trip and am sure they went on to have a great time in Botswana and Zambia.

That just leaves me to say a big thank you to Namibia and its people for not only living up to our expectations but exceeding them!

Next it’s time to say Jambo to Kenya.

There are an extra-ordinary amount of photos from one of the most photogenic countries we’ve been to. If you want to see more then please click here…….

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Tommy and Caroline ‘The Return!’ is getting scarily close. See you soon.

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Breathtaking Bolivia

After our sensible (ish) behaviour at the fiesta in Puno we headed off to La Paz, a City with an elevation of 3,640 m (11,942 ft) with only slight headaches. We’d booked our bus through the hostel and generally whichever bus company we’d booked with in Latin America, that was the bus we travelled on. (unlike in Asia when it was sheer luck) The lovely looking bus we’d booked was nowhere to be seen and instead our transport was a bit rough around the edges. Apart from my seat being broken and seat-belt not working everything was fine!!
We arrived at the Bolivian border and realised that we (Tom) had lost my exit card from Peru…oops. Thankfully for us the authorities were willing to overlook this in return for a payment of about £6 so all in all it could have been a lot worse. Borders are generally a pain, and apart from the big queues this one was relatively straightforward and within the hour we were back on the bus continuing on with our journey. We stopped at a place called Copacabana and all piled off the bus and were told to meet again at 1pm to continue on to La Paz. Luckily for us Tom overheard the bus worker telling someone else that the time had changed and Bolivia was an hour ahead of Peru. Probably quite a useful thing to tell all the passengers!! That only gave us half an our so we grabbed a quick bite to eat and headed back to the bus.

We’d been on our new bus for about 20 minutes when the heavens opened and a hail storm commenced. Unluckily for us this coincided with the exact moment we reached the Lake Titicaca crossing and had to get off the bus and on to a rickety passenger ferry, it was very much like being back in Asia! The only slight problem being that our waterproofs were under the bus in the hold, aaah. We all huddled under a shop awning, attempting (and failing) to stay dry. As usual there were no instructions from the driver on what we were meant to be doing so we just followed some locals away from our rain shelter and onto the boat for the 5 minute journey across the lake.

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As our bus continued on I read up on La Paz. As Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America I wasn’t sure what to expect from the big city but my lonely planet informed me that the initial views were breathtaking, and not just because of the altitude…the book didn’t lie!!

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For some reason rather than going into the actual bus station our bus dropped us off just outside on a busy roundabout…why? After grabbing our bags and successfully negotiating oncoming traffic we headed towards the centre. We hadn’t actually got round to booking a hostel but I’d read about one near to the bus station so we decided to try there. It had a pool table, it’s own micro brewery and a free beer each day, you can’t ask for more from your lodgings!!

The hostel was actually great and they even had their own travel company so we could book our tickets for the death road bike trip!! Loads of people we’d spoken to who had already been to La Paz said that death road was a must see and to be honest, I don’t need much persuasion when it comes to extreme activities. There were umpteen companies to choose from for the trip but we decided a bit of research wouldn’t go amiss. Saving a few bolivianos wasn’t really worth the risk as we’d be hurtling down a mountain road at more than 30mph with vertical drops of 600 metres to our left…so we could probably do with a bike with working brakes!!

We finally decided on a company called Barracuda, they weren’t the cheapest but weren’t the most expensive and had excellent reviews. After booking the trip for the next day we headed into La Paz for a look around and to find some food. There was a nice feel about the place and we both liked it immediately. It did feel like a poorer city than ones we’d been to previously in Latin America but at the same time we didn’t feel unsafe. We’d heard reports of it being a bit dangerous but we didn’t get that impression at all. Tom read about a local steak restaurant up a hill so decided to go there and see what all the fuss was about. The steak was amazing and made us even more excited about the food we were going to eat in Argentina, a country famous for its red meat.

The next day was Death Road day and we were both really excited. Death Road was built in the 1930’s and earned it’s notoriety in 1995 after a study revealed that there were between 200-300 deaths a year on the 64 kilometre mountain track. Although a new road opened in 2006 there are still a few lorries and cars to contend with on the sometimes single track road, although not as many as in the past, thankfully. 18 backpackers have need killed since cyclists started tackling its hairpin bends 12 years ago, so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted!! We drove through some incredible scenery to get to our starting point, which wasn’t actually death road. We were going to practise first on a very steep downhill road but without the scary drops at the side!!

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It was great fun hurtling down these wide roads but it did make you realise the speeds you could get…we probably didn’t want to go quite so fast when there was a 600 metre drop at the side of the road!!

After the practice section was complete we got back onto the bus and drove up to the start of death road passing a sign with an arrow pointing to “the road of death”, lovely. Our guide was brilliant and gave us information on what to expect from each section along with his golden rule, don’t be a f**king idiot! He told us a story about a couple who’d been taking pictures of each other whilst riding and the girl turned around to smile at her boyfriend and went straight over the edge and died…note to self, eyes on the road at all times!!

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The whole day was absolutely amazing and actually wasn’t as scary as I’d anticipated. In parts the road was only the width of a single vehicle and was gravelly with large stones and rocks rather than lovely smooth tarmac like on our practice road. At one point a huge lorry sounded it’s horn, which was deafening as it came hurtling around the corner at us, that was pretty scary. There isn’t as much traffic on the road now, thankfully, I can’t even imagine watching 2 cars try and overtake each other. (There was a Top Gear special where they did this) The views along the road were amazing, although I only glanced at them very briefly for fear of ending up like the aforementioned girl.

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All on all it was a brilliant day riding through waterfalls and streams along the most dangerous road in the he world. At the end we stopped for some food and a well deserved beer and celebrated surviving a bike trip down the world’s most dangerous road!!

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The next day we went for a wander around the city. I wanted to go and see the prison (more about that later) and the witches’ market. The Witches’ Market is run by local witch doctors and sells weird and wonderful potions and powders used in Bolivian rituals. The most bizarre thing they sell are dried up Llama foetus which when buried under foundations of Bolivian homes bring good luck, it was so interesting to see. After that we headed to the main plaza where the pink prison was located. I can understand why people may think it’s odd to want to see a prison in Bolivia, but this is no ordinary jail.

San Pedro prison is the largest prison in La Paz and is renowned for being a society within itself. Inmates at San Pedro have jobs inside the prison community, buy or rent their accommodation, and often live with their families. The prison is home to approximately 1,500 inmates (not including the women and children that live inside the walls with their convicted husbands), with additional guests staying in the prison hotel. Within the prison walls there are shops and restaurants and it looks more like a town square than a prison. If you are rich you can buy a room in the 5 star area which has incredible facilities including jacuzzis whilst the poorer people are in the 1 or no star areas where they share windowless cells. Up until 2013 tourists could have a tour of the prison led by an inmate but this was stopped by the government because it was being used as a way to sell cocaine to tourists. (although apparently they can still happen if you bribe a guard) The weird part about it all is the guards don’t enter the cells. The prisoners basically do as they wish cook their own food and have to pay for everything within the prison. I was ridiculously intrigued by this place so wanted to go and see it. From the outside it didn’t look like a prison (probably because it was pink and right in the middle of the city plaza) and as we looked through the main door into the courtyard we could see a mass of prisoners just wandering around, bizarre.

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Our next stop in Bolivia was a place called Uyuni which was about a 15 hour overnight bus ride away. We’d heard reports that the roads were pretty bad and the bus journey wasn’t at all comfortable. We decided to try and counteract his by paying a bit more for a comfier bus but to be honest I don’t think it made much difference. The road seemed pretty similar to the condition of death road, albeit without the sheer drops, and we both got little sleep.

We arrived in Uyuni at 8am and headed straight to the office to pay for our three day two night salt flats tour which I’d booked the day before. This was the main reason we’d wanted to come to Bolivia as the famous salt flats and surrounding lagoons are said to be one of the highlights of South America. The problem was because there were so many people wanting to do the trip, there were tons of different tour companies with varying degrees of safety and reliability. I’d read stories of drivers bring drunk and falling asleep at the wheel, inedible food and disinterested guides to name but a few complaints. After scouring reviews I settled with a family run company called Quechua Connections, and kept my fingers crossed that I’d made a good choice.
First impressions were good and after paying for the trip we headed off for breakfast and to investigate the public shower. Uyuni was a very basic looking town in the middle of the desert so I didn’t hold out much hope for a decent shower in the public toilets, but I was proved wrong. Our standards are so low now that having a wash in an outhouse with stone floors, no roof and insects everywhere was actually an enjoyable experience all because there was warm water!!

Our tour began with with a trip to see 700+ year old cacti and the train cemetery. It was really odd to see so many abandoned trains in the middle of the desert. They were used for transporting mined minerals up until the 1940s but once they were no longer needed they were all dumped in the desert.

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From there we headed to the world’s largest salt flats, Salar de Uyuni, 3,656 meters (11,995 ft) above sea level. The flats are 10,582 square kilometers (4,086 sq mi) and were absolutely beautiful. It felt and looked like we were driving on ice but obviously it was salt. As we were visiting in rainy season we were a bit concerned that we wouldn’t get the funny photos everyone had been showing us, we needed have worried. We started off at the wet ice and it was like looking at a giant mirror. The effect it had on the horizon was amazing and at times it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sky began, just beautiful.

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After sitting on the beautiful wet salt to eat some food we sat on top of the van and were taken to the dry flats. There, along with two people from our jeep (there were 6 of us in the jeep but a spanish couple didn’t want to take part!?) we spent an hour and a half having great fun playing with perspectives. Luckily for us our guide/driver Dion had brought tons of props and was brilliant at setting up the photos, we had so much fun.

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After we felt like we had enough photos we headed off to watch the sunset over the reflecting wet salt flats. Our driver took us away from the crowds and found us a quiet piece of salt with no-one else around and we just sat and watched the huge orange ball disappear beyond the horizon whist drinking coffee and eating biscuits. It was honestly one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen

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That night we stayed at a lodge run by more members of the family and we were thankful for an early night after an unforgettable day.

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After breakfast we headed off into the desert to see lagoons, flamingos and breathtaking scenery.

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The pictures honestly don’t do any of it justice and we were all constantly amazed at the vastness and prettiness of our surroundings. That night we stayed at a very basic but rustic stone lodge in the middle of the desert. There were a few other tour groups there and this was when we realised that we really had lucked out with our company choice. Whilst everyone else was eating pasta and sauce we say down and tucked into a 3 course meal with wine and then Dion and the other guide from our group Jose built us a bonfire and joined us outside to star gaze and drink red wine around the bonfire.

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The next morning We had to be up at 4.30 am so we could watch the sun rise up over the geysers. Wandering around the smelly geysers was a bit like something from a horror film and I felt like the ground would give way at any moment and I’d fall in to the stinky sulphuric cauldron. Luckily this didn’t happen and we couldn’t stay for more than 10 minutes due to the harmful gases.

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From here we headed to the natural hot springs. Our guide told us to go in straight away before all the crowds turned up, it was relatively quiet at this point. It was still only 6.30am and pretty chilly, the last thing I felt like doing was stripping off into my bikini in what felt like sub zero temperatures…but the steam coming from the hot pools was too enticing.

It was like getting into a bath when you’re really cold and the bath is a little bit too hot! Once we’d adjusted though it was amazing, although getting back out into the cold wasn’t enjoyable!

After breakfast and a quick visit to the green lagoon our whistle stop tour of Bolivia was over and we headed for the Chile border. I wish we’d had more time to explore this amazingly beautiful and diverse country but I’m really pleased we had chance to experience what we did. Bolivia may be one of the poorest countries in Latin America but it’s blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen.

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As usual we have lots more photos, please click here to have a look.

So much to do in Peru…

After our flight from Iquitos to Lima, we hopped in a taxi to the bus station as we’d read that it wasn’t in the nicest of areas. Most of the surrounding streets were gated and fenced off so we were pretty pleased we weren’t wandering the streets for once. We’d decided to get on one of the ‘nicer’ buses as it was a 21 hour overnight trip to Cuzco and once we arrived there the plan was to continue straight to the town near Machu Picchu. To sum up, we needed a comfy bus that we’d be able to sleep on. We hadn’t sorted out any of our onward travel so as usual we just thought we’d wing it!

The bus was pretty comfortable, we were even given a blanket and a pillow for our reclining seats and a waiter brought us food….fancy! We even had our own separate screen on the chair in front to watch films!!!! The only slightly annoying thing (I say slightly but at the time it was extremely irritating) was the man to the right of us who’s phone rang at least every 4 minutes for the first and last 5 hours of the journey. To make matters worse he was screening his calls so just let it ring and ring…thankfully it only happened in the daylight and not throughout the night or I may have thrown it (and him) out the window!

On arrival in Cuzco, which is 3,399 m (11,152 ft) above sea level we walked for ages to find a collectivo (local mini-bus) heading to Ollantaytambo, the town where the trains head to Machu Picchu. Normally, even with our big rucksacks, this wouldn’t have been a problem but the altitude had us properly huffing and puffing. After a bumpy ride in a van accompanied by a car-sick child we arrived in Ollantaytambo. As non-peruvian’s we weren’t allowed to travel on the local train (which costs £2) but had to buy tickets for the flashy tourist train (which cost £30!) The only way round this would have been to go the ‘back-door route’ which was another 3 collectivos and then a 3 hour walk (with our big bags) up a train track as we wouldn’t get there in time to get a train. This didn’t sound too appealing with our huge bags and also probably not very safe in the dark! So we reluctantly opted for the expensive route. We wanted to get to Aguas Calientes that night as it’s only 9km by road from Machu Picchu and we wanted to beat the crowds there in the morning. To be fair the train ride was impressive and the views out the window were spectacular.

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After securing lodgings for the night at a basic hostel we headed out to sort the tickets. In Ollantaytambo we’d tried to buy the Machu Picchu tickets online as we also wanted to climb Wayna Picchu and they only have a limited numbers of those. We had secured two but the internet decided to crash before we could pay for them and when we went back to try and buy them again it said there was only 1 left. Aaarrggghh. At the ticket office in Aguas Calientes the lady confirmed that Wayna Picchu was sold out. I was annoyed as I really wanted to go up there but there was an alternative, climb Machu Picchu mountain instead. I’d read this was just as good so we reluctantly bought tickets for that. Next stop was bus tickets and here the annoyances continued. After we’d bought and paid for the tickets the woman informed us that the first bus wasn’t leaving until 7am due to the landslides. Aaarrggghh. The whole point in getting to Aguas Calientes the night before was so we could beat the crowds to Machu Picchu before the trains turned up (the first train from Cuzco arrived at 7am). We were both a bit fed up by all this as we’d spent a fortune getting there and buying tickets and it looked as if we weren’t going to get the experience we wanted. I suggested walking but Tom wasn’t keen on the 8km hike at 5am and also quite rightly pointed out that I didn’t know how to walk there. However I got chatting with a couple of girls at our hostel who knew the way and suggested we walk with them. So the plan was set, we were walking.

After a few hours sleep we met our walking partners in reception and set off at 4.40am! We needn’t have worried about not knowing the way as there were quite a few people heading in that direction, I presume because of the landslides. As we didn’t know until the last minute that we were going to walk we were completely unprepared. All we had was water and two tiny biscuits to share. We had to climb over 1700 steps which isn’t that easy at high altitude.

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Finally at 6.15am we arrived and were amazed that the cafe wasn’t open. There was no one selling drinks or food (if this had been asia there we would have been inundated with snack options) nevertheless we’d made it and the entrance to Machu Picchu was just infront of us. Loads of people who’d also walked were sat recovering outside so we headed straight in, and everything seemed worth it. The ridiculous amount of money, the bottom lip out when Wayna Picchu was sold out, the faff of the bus, the ridiculously early morning and the steps were suddenly all forgotten as the view in front of us was truly out of this world. Plus as we were there so early there were only a handful of people in there.

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We had a little sit down, ate our 2 tiny biscuits and just stared at the view, it’s no wonder it’s one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. Our tickets for Machu Picchu mountain were for 7am-11am and Tom had already expressed reservations and was happy not to bother with it seeing as we’d ended up walking from the town. For those that don’t know me, I am one of these people that doesn’t like to miss out on things so even though I was pretty tired and knew it was an hour and a half hike up the mountain my stubbornness kicked in and I managed to persuade him to go. I promised him that the views from the top would be worth it (at that point we couldn’t even see the top of the mountain due to thick cloud, minor details!!)

We were only the 4th and 5th people to start the climb up the mountain and I don’t think we were fully prepared for what was in store. We’d been up since 4.15am and all we’d eaten in the time was a tiny biscuit each. (I know I keep going on about how small these biscuits were but think 10pence piece and you won’t be far off…) The walk was pretty gruelling. We battled over 2000 steps and climbed over 650 metres at altitude. There were hardly any nice views on the way up as we were surrounded by cloud and I was getting a bit concerned about my earlier promise to Tom!

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We arrived at the top exhausted and hungry but I was confident the clouds would clear. An hour and a half later and my confidence paid off, the views were out of this world.

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Going back down wasn’t that easy either as the steps were ridiculously steep but once at the bottom we headed to the now open cafe and treated ourselves to a ridiculously expensive but well deserved sandwich and cookie.
Back inside we wandered around the ruins and took pictures of a 3 day old llama, so sweet. All in all it was an absolutely fantastic day, even if we did get drenched just before we left.

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We decided to spend a couple of days in Cusco before continuing on to Lake Titikaka. We desperately needed to do some washing as our backpacks were beginning to stink due to three quarters of our clothes being damp and dirty.

Cusco was actually a really pretty city with tons of old buildings surrounded by hills.

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We didn’t do too much though, it had been a manic week and it was nice just to chill out for a few days. I decided to sample a local cuisine whilst in Peru, guinea pig! It didn’t actually look very nice, but I thought I’d give it a go. It tasted quite nice (even with Tom telling me it was actually a rat whist I was eating it) but there was so little meat on it that the effort to eat it didn’t outway the taste, but it was worth a try.

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We were heading to Puno, a town on the edge of Lake Titikaka the next day so went to the bus station early to sort out tickets. In general bus stations are a bit hit or miss, sometimes straightforward and easy to buy tickets and other times near impossible. Luckily it was all relatively simple and after securing tickets for a third of the price of the tourist bus we sat eating grapes and sharing them with some old Peruvian ladies who found it hilarious that I couldn’t understand Spanish!

The bus was meant to take 7 hours but after an unscheduled stop and a loud banging noise, caused by the driver and a spanner, we didn’t hold out much hope. I much prefer a local bus to a tourist bus, where else would you see a lady wearing leg warmers and a bowler hat knitting gloves! Our bus seemed to stop about a hundred times enroute and each time I was amused by the local ladies running out of their houses with food to sell, throwing it through the bus windows!! The views out the window were beautiful as we passed through tons of tiny traditional villages.

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We did finally arrive in Puno and were only an hour and a half behind schedule, not bad considering. We found our hostel which was up an unfinished road high above the city and headed out for food, which wasn’t as straightforward as it should have been due to the festival de la Virgen de la Candelarian. Over 200 groups of dancers from villages and towns in Peru had taken to the streets to entertain the crowd. We realised quite quickly that we weren’t going to be able to get around very easily!

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The next day we headed to Uros floating islands, a group of 75 islands in Lake Titikaka which are made of reeds. Even though they are now very touristy it was still a really interesting place to visit. Most things on the island are also made of reeds including boats and houses.

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It was a pretty amazing place to visit and once again shows how diverse our world really is.

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Back in Puno the festival was well underway, which was great to see. We watched for a little bit but the main festival was happening the following day so we decided to save ourselves for that.
We managed to find a little local eatery where the food was 5 soles (£1) for 2 courses. We couldn’t really decipher the menu so we just guessed what things were. I learnt a new word that day, it turns out that cau-cau is tripe stew…it was actually quite tasty!!

The main festival day arrived which just so happened to coincide with our 8 year anniversary. We’d originally planned to head off to Bolivia but instead we decided to stay and experience the traditional fiesta which was apparently the 2nd biggest in the world after the Rio carnival (that’s we were told by a local lady). With 3 other people from our hostel we took to the streets and we were so pleased we’d decided to stay for the festivities. It was absolutely incredible. The costumes were a mixture between brightly coloured outfits to some that were just weird!!

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After a bit of wandering up the street and being squirted with foam by some kids (they probably loved getting the gringos) we found some seats and had a few beers. It was only £2.40 for a 6 pack but we had to keep reminding ourselves that altitude and beer don’t mix plus we all had to be up early the following morning, we were on a bus to Le Paz at 7.30am. That didn’t stop us having an absolutely amazing day though and it’s definitely an anniversary we’ll remember forever.

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As usual we have tons of photos. Please click here to have a look

Amazonian Adventures

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The Beautiful Amazon

I, Tommy, have felt pressure at times writing this blog knowing that Caroline is much the better author, a qualified journalist no less and she is capable of conveying sentiment and feeling much better than me. However, if I can’t make our 5 days in The Amazon sound interesting I may as well stop writing now. It is beyond doubt the most fascinating and divers place I’ve ever had the fortune to visit and I’ve certainly seen some incredible places so far in the last 8 months and throughout my 34 years on this beautiful planet.

Caroline had done a magnificent job of researching just the right guides for us on this trip and had made sure we were going to get a real personalised tour and not be just part of a huge, safe, pampered, tourist group. Our guides, Gerson and Frank, met us at Iquitos airport and took us to our hostel in a little tuk-tuk, where they played us a video of the things we were going to see and do for the following 5 days and 4 nights in the Peruvian side of The Amazon, all set to some strange Elton John music!

It’s always been a dream of mine to go to this magical place and I’ve been fascinated with it for as long as I can remember. I have always watched every program possible on the Amazon, from nature programs by David Attenborough to survival programs by Bear Grylls and Ed Stafford. They’ve only ever fed my imagination and I’ve couldn’t believe we were on the verge of finally going there.

Back in Iquitos we spent the day trying to buy long sleeved tops and insect repellent. Apparently though this is almost impossible to do in a city where lots of people leave from for their Amazon tours. Bearing in mind the local people sell literally everything it seems somebody is missing a huge trick here. Iquitos is famous for being the biggest city in the world that cannot be reached by road, you’re only options are via the rivers or the air. It leads to it being quite a strange, isolated city.

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Tuk tuk to the port

It was a very early start as Gerson picked us up in a minibus at 5:30 am. There we met another lovely Kiwi couple called Heather and Dave who would be on the trip for 3 days with us. We drove to the port in Nauta from where we took our 2 hour long boat after demolishing a decent breakfast in town. There was an ominous sign when the sky turned very black and the lads started rolling down the blue plastic sheets that were to act as windows. Sure enough just as we set off the heavens opened. This is never a good thing when you are in a rainforest area and it absolutely threw it down for about an hour. We hadn’t quite had the amazing views of The Amazon we’d imagined to begin with but as the rain stopped we rolled up the blue sheet windows to see freshwater dolphins in the river just breaking the surface. That was more like it.

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Just after the rains stopped

We got to the village where we were staying and it was everything we’d hoped for. Very traditional, stilted, wooden huts with palm thatched roofs. Basic but just what we wanted, we didn’t wish to see The Amazon the easy way from a 5 star resort in a big boat. We wanted a small group with the best indigenous guide we could find and to be right amongst the real Rainforest. Gerson and his side-kick, Frank (The Jungle Clown), were absolutely amazing and it was fantastic to be with people who have spent all their lives in The Amazon.

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Our Bedroom for 4 nights

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Thankfuilly we had a mosquito net

Our first day was one we will struggle to ever forget. After a lovely lunch we headed out in our wooden long boat to go hunting for anacondas on foot! Unfortunately we didn’t find any that day but just walking around in the densest most beautiful rainforest in the world was unreal. It was like being on a movie set, only the dangerous animals were very, very real. Gerson and Frank pointed out lots of beautiful plants and birds and even convinced us all to eat a few very large larvae that were growing in a fruit. It was much like the big grubs you’ve seen them eat on ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!’ Gerson promised it didn’t taste that bad and to just think of coconut. To be honest the taste was a little bit like coconut, it was just the first initial crunch that was a bit off putting! Still we were up for pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones over the next few days and this was just the start. We also stuck our hands in a termites nest and ate them off out fingers. This time the taste was even more surprising, they tasted like chocolate orange!!

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Our Larvae breakfast

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Chocolate Orange flavoured termites

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Frank our Jungle Clown

After the trek we were back in our little 6 Seater long boat and just cruising along a river so thick with floating plants that you couldn’t see the water felt pretty special. As the sun began to drop and darkness took over, Gerson said we were no way near finished and proclaimed we were off to catch Caiman (crocodiles)!! So powering our way down the Amazon with only the power of head torches and flashlights we took a turn down a practically invisible tributary. About thirty seconds down this ridiculously dark and enclosed water way I spotted a small pair of orange eyes high up a tree reflecting my torchlight and alerted I the guides. Sure enough they were eyes and unfortunately for Caroline the belonged to a snake. At first it looked like a pretty small one but then as we got closer to it it was actually about 5 feet long. Not content with just looking at it from afar Gerson made some ninja type move and grabbed its head and brought it on board the boat for us all to have a closer look. As I’ve mentioned Caroline likes snakes about as much as I like Nottingham Forest so she was pretty on edge about it being less than a metre away from her. It was a beautiful light brown and black colour and had wrapped its powerful body all around Gerson’s arm whilst he kept hold of its head. We asked the two obvious questions, 1) what sort of snake was it? and 2) was it poisonous? To which Gerson calmly replied it was a Tree Viper and yes it was very poisonous and would we like to hold it? Knowing that Vipers are up there with the most dangerous of snakes we all politely declined the offer and instead took heaps of photos with the expert holding it. As Gerson put it back in the tree it gave one final warning of its danger as it coiled up in the famous S shape whilst dangling from a branch. Needless to say we left it alone and moved away. Next up the guides directed our boat into the floating plants and reeds so Gerson could catch a Caiman. Soon enough a small 2 year Croc was on our boat and being passed around for a few amazing photos of us all holding it. Carefully we put it back into the water and moved on. We tried once more to find another however, the only thing we succeeded in doing was getting the boat stuck in the reeds. As the boys struggled to untangle us we got bombarded with insects and 4 small tarantulas also decided to try and hitch a lift home. They were not the usual type of tarantula but were still big ass spiders all the same. Dave and Heather opted for the pretend they are not there approach until we got home. It had been a really phenomenal first day and after a good feed we all collapsed into our beds amongst the cacophony of noise you’d expect whilst sleeping in The Amazon. Fortunately we were all too knackerd to worry about what may or may not be crawling around our rooms whilst we slept, plus we had decent mosquito nets to keep the baddies away!!!

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Gerson with the first of many Tree Vipers

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Ecco and I with our Caimen catch

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You are free to go now!

The second day began with a fascinating jungle medicine trek where the boys showed us things like iodine trees, rubber trees and palm tree roots with such big barbs on them that they used to be used as nasty weapons by the tribes people as they were both sharp and toxic!! We also got to eat lots of weird wonderful jungle foods like fruits that tasted like figs, small coconuts full of water, palm hearts and small oranges! The many insects in there were all fascinating apart from the 1000’s of Mosquitos that were so strong they bit me through my clothes!! I must’ve ended up with about 200 bites on my elbows and back and had to try my best not scratch them.

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Leaf Cutter ants go about their business ignoring Gerson

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Gerson and his Jungle weapon

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Fresh water from the Cat Claw tree root

After a beautiful fish lunch we went off to Monkey islands loaded up with food to feed the apes. After a quick search with their amazing eyes the guides pulled us up next to the river’s edge and sure enough about 6 monkeys of all different shapes, sizes and species appeared to grab some banana and bread. They were incredible and were mostly Howler monkeys, not angry or aggressive like the other monkeys we’d met on our trip already. These little cuties were happy to climb aboard our boat and sit on your lap whilst they had their lunch. A little small one with a poorly eye took a special shine to Caroline and spent the entire time either sat on her lap eating its bread or on the back of her neck searching for nits!! It was awesome to get to see these amazing mammals up so close!

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Awesome Monkey Island

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Caroline and her new best friend

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Howler Monkey with his 16 year old boys haircut

Next we headed to a village where there was a house where a couple of sloths had decided to live in its rafters after the river burst its banks in 2012. One of them was down and we were allowed to cuddle it. It was so incredible. Even though you know they move slowly, having it wrap its arms and legs around you as it very slowly looked around and munched on was phenomenal and felt very special. After that I played a couple of games of footy with the villagers (all with money riding in them!!) Whilst I had a great time and sweated out some of the four tonnes of rice we’d recently eaten it wasn’t ideal to be playing in green wellies and I picked up a fairly gnarly blister.

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Two sloths, but which one is slower

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All smiles here

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Smith slots a killer through ball in his Nike Wellies

As the sun set we went on our night jungle trek to see what lurked in the shadows…..
We saw scorpions, a huge bull frog which pee’d all over me when I held it, poisonous frogs, scorpion spiders and tarantulas which we even put on our face under the promise they wouldn’t bite. At one point we turned all our headlamps off just to listen to the jungle noises in the pitch black. After the initial fear it was actually beautiful and kind of relaxing, but I wouldn’t have liked to do it without our guides being there. On the way home Gerson caught another viper and brought it on board again. This one was only a baby but was still highly toxic!!! He even released it back into the river so we could see it swim away, needless to say this didn’t help improve Caroline’s fear of snakes very much!

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A giant Bullfrog

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Poisonous Tree Frog

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Scorpion

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Caroline is now officially not scared of anything (except snakes)

On Day three heavens opened again in the morning so we had to wait a while before we set off on our piranha fishing expedition. When we did get in our little wooden boat we firstly went to see the giant Lilly pads and a after a brief history lesson from Gerson we made our way through a very dense tributary of the Amazon and set up our fishing rods. These were no ordinary rods though they were long sticks of bamboo with some fishing line attached and a little hook on the end, the kind of rod your Dad first made you! Our first bait was to be finely sliced beef. After a few near misses and a few snags on branches, Dave hoisted up a small catfish, quickly followed by Frank and Caroline catching the same. Our silent driver Bala decided this wasn’t good piranha territory so we moved round the corner to a slightly more open area. Sure enough within 5 minutes the little red bellied piranhas had turned up and were being caught by all of us (except me) pretty regularly. The switch to catfish as bait and the change of location had helped enormously. They were just like little versions of what you imagine them to be. They had horrendously sharp teeth and a nasty bite on them! Caroline was now flying and caught three more whilst I only managed to snag one. Caroline was happy to catch them but she was adamant that if they were going to be wasted we should put them back. However, this is The Amazon and nothing is wasted and everything we caught would be cooked for lunch!! Rightly so. The ladies of the kitchen fried the catfish, sardine and piranhas and it has to be said they were excellent. Piranha flesh was firmer than normal white fish but had a lovely gently flavour.
In the afternoon we had to say goodbye to our new Kiwi friends, Dave and Heather as they were taking a boat all the way to Columbia the next day. They were a really sweet couple who were up for doing as much in The Amazon as they could in their three days which was really important to us as if you don’t fancy it in the jungle it could be a pretty scary place!! They also took with them the other guide, Frank, who was a real character and provided a lot of the entertainment for us.

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The Giant Lilly Pads

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Fisher-woman Eccles

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Red Bellied Piranha for lunch

In the evening we went to a local village to see a butterfly conservation facility where they were increasing the population of endangered species such as the Owl Butterfly. It was pretty interesting and the nice man who owned it let us release about six into their butterfly house although most of them decided to land on my head instead. We then watched a simply stunning sunset whilst floating in the huge river before heading off for some night fishing. As if that wasn’t extreme enough it was also pitch black except for our head torches and was really raining hard as well! Undeterred and poncho’d up we cast our hand lines 20 meters away from our little wooden boat and sat patiently. After a few little bites each, Caroline squealed as her line was snatched from her hand and nearly into the great river! Bala (the silent assassin) grabbed the line and proclaimed it was “¡Mūy Grande!” This must have been ‘very big’ to get him to speak because we haven’t heard much from him in three days. As he struggled to get Caroline’s catch closer to the boat Gerson picked up a spear not dissimilar to Poseidon’s trident and thrust it into the beast beneath the water. As they lifted it into the boat the told us both to move to the other end of the boat as the catch was very dangerous!! Sure enough as they pulled the monster onto the boat (after killing it!) it became clear that it was a really large stingray that Caroline “old fisher woman” Eccles had caught. Gerson again assured us not to worry about waste as we will be having it for tea tomorrow! Bala pulled out its massive stinging barb and it was fairly easy to see how dangerous these creatures could be if you annoyed them like my poor hero Steve Irwin did. I had another go but failed to snag any of the bites so we set off home and had an excellent tea as always.

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The Owl Butterfly makes his home in Tommy´s hair

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There´s a storm a´coming

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Ecco´s haul

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The catcher (Ecco) and the killer (Bala)

The forth day started with a surprising breakfast of fried sting ray and plantain, the very stingray Caroline caught the previous night! This was definitely a first and it was actually really nice. It was like a nice firm white fish meat with no bones to worry about. It was the hearty feast we needed to power us for a three hour jungle trek. We went out for about 45 minutes in our wooden boat down one of the small rivers off the Amazon and then down a really tight and narrow estuary before we were dumped in the middle of dense rainforest with Gerson and Bala to guide us. It was real jungle exploring as we hacked our way through dense undergrowth with machetes stopping every now and then for some jungle survival tips about the plants and fruits you could eat and which plants you could get water from. It was fascinating. We ate palm hearts again (after chopping down the 20 foot tree with a machete), drank water from coconuts and also from the root of the cat claw tree. The dangers of animals and insects had kind of subsided now as things were much more dangerous at night time. We eventually made it back to another village and were rewarded with some bright Yellow Inca Cola in one of the villagers houses. We then went to another gentleman’s house who was a friend of Gerson’s. He was a really nice man and told us a really disturbing story about his eight year old daughter. He said a teacher in his village offered to help his daughter with her further education by letting her stay with a friend of his in the capital city, Lima, whilst attending secondary school. He said it had all been ok until one day he was speaking to her on the phone and it was snatched away from her and he hadn’t been able to speak to her since. It was really horrible to hear about and Gerson was very upset and angered by it saying it she was being exploited and promised to help using his friends in Lima and the police.

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The start of our Jungle trek

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In the middle of nowhere

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Caroline still finds mushrooms!

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Tough Mudder prep going well…

After a we’d finished our fish lunch we went out to find the river dolphins. We were meant to be swimming with them but they weren’t there in enough numbers to encourage us to jump in the murky brown Amazon. To be honest I wasn’t too disappointed bearing in mind we had caught Caimen, Sting Rays and Piranhas in there in the last 3 days; let alone the electric eels, anacondas or fish that can swim up your winkle (its true!!). To be fair Gerson does the swimming with his groups very regularly and insured us its not dangerous during the daytime. What was extra special about the dolphins was that we saw some of the Pink Dolphins which were an amazing bright pink colour and a slightly different body shape. We just sat for about an hour watching them playing and catching fish where two rivers joined as that is where there are vast amounts of fish swimming down from the flooded areas.

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Pink Dolphins just popping up!

The undoubted highlight of the day and probably the trip was the night fishing and jungle trekking trip we did that night. We stopped on one small area of land and got off the boat with Gerson telling us to watch where we stepped and put our hands as this place was full of scorpions!! Sure enough there were loads of them on the big trees and where they weren’t they were usually huge black furry tarantulas! However, they decided that this area was too flooded so we hopped back in our little wooden motorised canoe and cruised down the pitch black river again for about half an hour. Along the way Gerson spotted the reflection of his head torch in the orange eyes of a snake and ordered Bala to turn around. Sure enough it was another tree viper and with amazing skill and courage they grabbed the toxic serpent and brought it on board. Before I had time to say no, Gerson said I had to grab its head to show ‘my wife’ my courage by holding this poisonous beast! I grabbed its little V shapped head hard and half-smiled for a few photos whilst trying to not shake like a leaf! It was a beautiful reptile, measuring about four or five foot and it was felt strange having it wrap itself around my arm and squeezing. Holding it was perhaps the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done and that includes Great White Shark diving, bungee jumping and skydiving!! To be fair the whole Amazon trip had been pretty extreme but this evening was beyond everything else! We put the viper back in the river and watched it swim off and headed back on our way! In the middle of nowhere we turned down a hidden estuary and navigated our way under bushes and through trees in our canoe before getting out into the shallow waters. Here we went spear fishing and after an early miss by Gerson, Bala showed us how it was done by spearing a bass fish. Next up was my turn and I missed twice. We picked up the pace and tried to keep up with Bala in the very dark forest but he was moving way too quick so we were left a little behind. We were both surprised when Gerson shouted something from behind us and Bala turned around instantly. Turns out just off the ‘path/ mud trail’ we’d been treading there was a very poisonous Fer Der Lance viper coiled up and looking very angry. This is one of the horrible snakes I’d heard about in the 1000’s of Discovery Channel snake programs I’ve watched over the years and was obviously making Gerson uneasy. He said he had a duty to kill it as this one snake is responsible for 60-70 % of all Amazonian deaths, so if he didn’t kill it and someone got bitten he would feel very guilty. Sure enough he coxed it out of its dead log and bashed it on its head with the blunt side of his machete as he didn’t want to chop its head off and spray us with blood. We have seen scary stuff a few times now but knowing just how close we had walked to a real killer snake highlighted just how dangerous this jungle could be. Next up was more spear fishing. Caroline had another go and missed a couple of times and one of them was a biggun! Fortunately the big Wolf Fish she missed hadn’t gone too far and was nestled in the shallows of a nearby tree root. The honours fell to me and the guys gave me expert advice about how to spear it. “Boom’. I nailed it and it was actually a huge Wolf fish which we would be cooking for breakfast tomorrow. That was enough extreme night fun for now so we headed back and had yet another amazing fresh fish and yam chip tea served with rice and the mushrooms we had picked on the forest trek that morning.

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Tommy proving he is a real man by holding a deadly viper!

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Just a Fer de Lance Viper! One of the mostly toxic snakes in the world!

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Toxic but no match for a machete!

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Tommy´s Wolf Fish Catch

Today was to be our last day on The Amazon and we were going to really miss it as we’ve had such an amazing time. One thing we won’t miss though is the feeling of putting on damp clothes everyday. You see you have to wear long sleeves and trousers to protect you from the millions of Mosquitos that hammer you every second of every minute. The clothes end up getting pretty wet with rain, river and a lot of sweat and because of the humidity here nothing every really dries that well.

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Heron takes Caroline´s fishing spot!

We spent the last day watching the pink dolphins splash around the river and trying in vain to catch some catfish. The food at our accommodation had been great although not always the healthiest as everything was fried and served with lots of rice and the final lunch didn’t disappoint with some more beautiful catfish. After we’d finished our lunch our driver, Bala, who had been pretty silent throughout the tour walked in with a beer and brought over 3 glasses so we could all share it with him. In case that wasn’t enough Gerson did the same. It was a really nice gesture by them and the local beer was really nice. We also heard that Gerson had managed to get hold of the other villager’s daughter on the telephone and that she would be coming back to the village soon, which was a lovely bit of news to finish with. Beers downed, it was time to leave our jungle oasis, we said our goodbyes and headed back to Nauta on the bigger boat, we settled in and drifted off to sleep. We’d took a shortcut through a very narrow reed passage way and both of us got a nasty awakening when our boat smashed into a submerged tree stump. It sent the boat rocking and reeling and we thought we were going to capsize, but thankfully we didn’t, I’m not sure there’s ever a great time to fall into the Amazon. Gerson sorted us a car back to the city of Iquitos and a hotel for the night. Back at the hotel we said a huge thank you and good-bye to Gerson, he’s been a legend. The trip with him couldn’t have been much better to be honest and it was so great to do it with a real local guide as it felt we got to see places and villages you wouldn’t get to see with the large ‘comfortable’ organised tours.

Our flight out of the Amazon Basin was early in the morning and we took one of the cheap tuk-tuk’s to the airport, which was great until he pulled across the busy road to get petrol only to stop dead in the middle of the road! Oh crap, the traffic from the other direction was now heading straight towards us. The driver and I jumped out and pushed us out the way just in time to avoid the on rushing bus! His tuk-tuk never started again so we caught another one to the airport.

We’ve had amazing days in our eight months so far but without doubt these 5 days and 4 nights were right up there at the top and seeing deadly snakes and spiders in their natural habitat is something I’ll remember forever. We wanted to be pushed out of comfort zones, not just be pampered tourists and that is exactly what we got with Gerson’s company. It’s been amazing to achieve this ambition of a lifetime and it really didn’t disappoint. That only leaves me to say a huge thank you to Gerson and The Amazon.

As ever there are absolutely tonnes of extra photos for you to look at (more than usual as it was an epic trip) so if you want to see more of our Amazonian Adventure please click here!!!

If you’re reading this on a PC or Mac (not an IPad) you may be able to watch this fun little video I made of our trip on YouTube…. click here to watch it!

Hope everyone is surviving their own Amazons at home, I hear it’s been raining a bit.

Tommy and Caroline. xxx

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The Stunning Amazon

Viva México!

We both had such an amazing last 3 months in NZ and OZ but both agreed that we were looking forward to a challenge again. One of the fun things about travelling is trying to work out how to get somewhere when nobody understands you and meeting people from a completely different walk of life. Even though Tom speaks basic to intermediate Spanish the next 3 months in Mexico, Central and South America were definitely going to be challenging.

On arrival into Mexico City we found a taxi counter (as it was 1.30am and all public transport had stopped) and headed out to find our lift into the big city. Unfortunately we’d picked the busiest company to go with and even though there was no sign of any taxis, the queue of people was getting bigger and bigger. Sssooo, back in we went to change our ticket to another company that had umpteen taxis waiting….and finally we were on our way. Apparently there aren’t many road rules in Mexico apart from; drive as fast as physically possible, get as close as you can to the car in front and definitely don’t stop at any red lights….the journey was eventful to say the least. Just before arriving at the hostel the driver had to ask a policeman to move a road block from his way as all the old historic centre of town was blocked off. We stepped out of the taxi to the sight of policemen guarding our hostel entrance and riot police on every corner…welcome to Mexico!! (We later found out that the police were everywhere as a precautionary measure as there had been some political rioting weeks before we arrived)

By this point it was about 2am and we quietly scuttled into our dorm and attempted to make our beds without waking up our room mates, we failed!

After sleeping through breakfast, oops, we headed out for a wander around the city. We both felt there was a bit of a strange feel about the place, I think it was something to do with the amount of riot police everywhere. We headed to a little cafe that had been recommended to us and Tom put his a-level Spanish to good use. We immediately realised that travel around Mexico was going to be tricky. Very few people spoke anything other than Spanish, and as I knew little Spanish communication was hard. Through Tom and our Spanish phrase book we managed to decipher some of the menu and ordered a few things. The food was lovely and the portion sizes massive. Everything seems to come with tortillas regardless of what you order. To be honest we weren’t sure what we were eating but it tasted nice.

Whist we were in Australia we were meant to sort out our malaria tablets for S.America and Africa but we completely forgot! Then when in USA we found out it would cost an absolute fortune so we decided to wait for Mexico. I’d done a bit of research and found out that if we went to a pharmacy with an attached surgery we could, for M$30 (about £1.25) get a prescription to buy the tablets, so off we went. Tom’s Spanish is good, but unfortunately the doctor thought we had malaria and started to bring out needles to take a blood test, Tom quickly explained that this wasn’t the case!! After a few lost in translation moments he agreed to write the prescription for us and we headed next door to pick up our tablets. Unfortunately they didn’t have enough so the poor but helpful pharmacist had to run between 4 different pharmacies to collect all our medication!! All sorted in the end though and at a fraction of the price we’d have paid in either Oz or USA.

Next day we had a load of stuff we wanted to do so there was no time for a lie in. After a breakfast of tortillas scrambled egg, pineapple, refried beans and various spicy sauces we were off. The first stop was very near to where we were staying in the Zocalo (main square) and was Museo del Templo Mayor, which was a partial excavation of “the great temple” of Hispanic origin. Neither of us were that bothered about going in, so we took a few photos from the outside and headed off.

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Next we went to the National Palace, which has been the home for the ruling class of Mexico since the Aztec empire and is now a government building. There were swarms of armed guards and army men with guns all around but we’d gotten used to this by now. This was actually really good with an amazing mural by Diego Rivera depicting the history of Mexico from 1521 to 1930. We’re not really into things like this but both admitted that it was pretty impressive.

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Next we had to attempt the metro. After our experiences in Tokyo with the most confusing underground system in the world we didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully it was relatively straightforward, and cheap. 25p for a ticket, bargain. We were heading to the anthropology museum which was highly rated by everyone we’d spoken to. There was way too much to take in in one day but we were both pleased we went as it was really interesting. One thing that stands out was information about a game that the aztecs used to play. I can’t remember all the details but it was a ball game with a heavy ball where you had to somehow use your hips to make the ball mimic the movement of the sun…something like that anyway. Anyhow the part that stands out for me was if you were the losing coach, you were decapitated!!! And this was a game…..

After the museum we headed outside and in the distance we spotted some kind of maypole dancing. Eager to investigate we headed over and the scene was fantastic. We’d missed all the dancing on the floor and as we arrived a man was climbing up a huge pole whilst other people were sat at the top playing flutes. They seemed to be wrapping the ropes around the top of the pole then all of a sudden they just fell backwards and span around upside down until they were back on the ground. If this was in England health and safety would have had some kind of heart failure!!!

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Next we wandered around an area of Mexico City called Coyoacan which was almost like a little town within the city. Even though Mexico is renowned for making travellers sick we decided to stop at a random street stall to get a snack…you can’t pass up the chance of a Quesadilla for 90p! Let’s hope we don’t live to regret it!

By now it was getting late in the afternoon so we headed to Garilbaldi (not the biscuit) where mariachi bands can be found playing gigs for visitors to the plaza.
There wasn’t much going on when we arrived so we thought we’d risk having some more food from a little street food place. The local grub was really good, but there was enough for about 5 people!! It seems that fajitas aren’t the norm in Mexico (well not so far anyway) and I ordered what sounded like something similar…and it was. Amazing little wraps with fillings of chicken, beef and mushrooms piled high on each of them. That along with the 8 homemade sauces on the table (Tom was in heaven) I could barely finish my plate, which is very unlike me!

Once back outside there was a bit more going on but the place seemed relatively quiet so we headed off a bit disappointed.

This was our last night in Mexico City. Neither of us were that fussed about the place so we decided to move on. I think the police presence on every corner just gave the place an odd vibe. Before leaving the following day we went to visit Teotihuacan, a city thought to have been established around 100 BC. It’s also home to the third largest pyramid in the world, the pyramid of the sun. I’ve never been to Egypt to see the pyramids there but I was impressed with this site. Plus the views from 248 steps up were pretty impressive.

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We were eventually heading to a city called Oaxaca but enroute we decided to stop off at a place called Puebla for a couple of nights. We arrived at the hostel to news that there was free beer and food on the roof terrace, we immediately loved the place. After exhausting all free supplies we headed out for a wander around. For some reason Mexico doesn’t seem to want Christmas to end (a bit like me) and the Zocalo was still covered in decorations, it looked so pretty.

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Tom decided he was hungry so we found a little restaurant that was still open, and they sold fajitas!! We tried to order one portion to share but somehow it was lost in translation and we ended up with 2 plates! I didn’t care, they were the best fajitas I’ve ever had!

We didn’t do much the following day apart from wander around the city, it was absolutely beautiful and kind of how we’d though Mexico City would be. All the streets were cobbled and the buildings all different colours.
We’d read about a little cafe that was an institution in Puebla with the locals, so we headed off to find it. For less than 5 pounds we feasted on mixed meat in corn tortillas and a chicken taco. Plus Tom had this weird cactus drink which I thought was vile, but he seemed to like it.

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Next we headed to Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-kah) The state of Oaxaca is one of the poorest in Mexico and we were both keen on doing some voluntary work whilst we were there. After getting an extremely comfortable bus from Puebla (the buses are a far cry from the tin cans on wheels we travelled on in much of Asia) we arrived in our next city. It was Saturday night so we thought we’d head out. On our way towards the centre a couple who had just got married were being driven around in a car and were throwing sweets out to passers by, what a great tradition! Oaxaca is meant to be one of the culinary capitals of Mexico but we couldn’t really work out where to go. Because we arrived in the dark we couldn’t really get a feel for the place and we just aimlessly wandered around for ages, eventually finding a little brightly coloured restaurant to eat. As usual we weren’t 100% what any of the food was so we just ordered a few things and hoped for the best!! Afterwards we went to a few different bars, one of which had live music and gave you chilli oranges with every drink. I don’t really understand the obsession with putting chilli on everything. For me it totally ruined the oranges but all the locals seem to love it. After a stop off at a mezcal bar (a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant native to Mexico) where we sampled three different varieties, we stumbled across a salsa club. Not our music of choice, but we were intrigued so we headed in. It was amazing to watch everyone on the dance floor salsa dancing to all sorts of music. Such a different atmosphere to clubs in England but absolutely mesmerising. It was almost like we were going back in time and standing in a 1950’s club with people ballroom dancing. We both people watched for ages, it was great fun.

After a day of wandering around the town and the markets, Tom thought it would be a good idea to sample a local delicacy, fried crickets! As usual they were covered in chilli spices, which actually didn’t taste very nice. I nearly gagged when I ate the cricket, I don’t quite understand the obsession with eating bugs but the locals seemed to love them, each to their own!

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The following day we did something that I was really keen on doing whilst in Mexico, volunteering with local street kids. I’d read about a charity called Oaxaca street children grassroots, a charity where children from very poor backgrounds are sponsored and the money is used to pay for schooling, equipment and to give them a hot meal each day. The centre we went to work at was somewhere for them to do their homework/be in a safe environment/play before going to school in the afternoon. As I don’t speak much Spanish barring the odd word I didn’t know if I’d be much use but I managed to help a boy with his maths homework (and confiscated his calculator) The little boys who’d done all their work just wanted to play so Tom spent the morning being ‘horse’ and generally had 2 little boys hanging off him all morning. The place really was amazing and I chatted to the deputy manager quite a lot about the centre and all the good they were doing. He informed me that he didn’t want to stop the children from going out on to the street and selling things as their families needed that income to survive. The centre was there to help them see that they can do more with their lives and they can have a bright future. To keep on the program the kids know that they have to work hard at school and not waste the opportunity they are being given, otherwise it will be taken away. All in all it was an excellent charity and one that I hope we can help out again in the future. Please click here to view their website

We ate food at the centre and were planning on staying for the afternoon but one of the other volunteers told us about an orphanage she worked at in the afternoons and asked if we’d go along to help her. At the start of the trip I read so many negative things about going to volunteer at orphanages so at the start I wasn’t keen at all. But after hearing a bit more about it I felt the need to go and help out. The orphanage called children of the night (which I thought was a horrible name) was for orphans of prostitutes. The lady that ran it wasn’t very nice at all and barely spoke to the children, let alone played with them. The girl who asked us to go along said that she could do with extra pair of hands as the children were just left on their own all day. The conditions the children were living in was pretty shocking. When we arrived they were all outside playing and we helped them sit down and eat some food. The problem was that because they’d never been taught how to behave properly they were really naughty and it was hard work trying to get them to just sit and eat. The owner just sat inside and if it wasn’t for us trying to help some of the younger kids eat they’d probably have ended up eating off the floor. The inside of the orphanage was pretty grubby. There was one bathroom for all 20ish children and it was really dirty. All the kids lived in one bedroom and judging by how many beds there were I’m guessing it was 2 to 3 kids per bed. The conditions made me feel really sad. Outside there was broken glass on the floor and the metal swings were so dangerous. I wish we could have done more to help but just being there and playing with the kids helped in a small way. They just wanted and needed a bit of attention and we gave that to them. It was really hard to leave as it was obvious that as soon as we left the kids would just be left on their own until bedtime. It was a heartbreaking experience and one which will stay with us for a long time.

We spent another day at the streetchildren grassroots before heading off to our next destination. I taught them how to make snowflakes, something I loved to do when I was younger. The girls seemed to love it and spent hours decorating them, but the boys were more interested in kicking the beach ball around and riding on Tom’s back, oh well, at least I tried!!

We had two options on how to get down to the Oaxaca coastal town of Puerto Escondido. Either go to the bus station and get a big bus that took 10-12 hours and costs 360 pesos or, get a mini-van for 6-7 hours at a cost of 180 pesos. The difference being that the bus takes the long but main road around and it’s relatively comfortable and the mini-van takes the more direct route up and over the mountains!! So off to the mini-van we went! I don’t know why but we always have a story to tell when it comes to public transport, nothing is ever straightforward. Our driver who for the sake of this I’ll call Speedy drove our mini-van like a F1 car. I swear at one point he whizzed round a corner on a mountain road so quickly that the van was on 2 wheels!!! We drove through some really traditional mountain villages and it was great just to people watch as we sped by.
Eventually we stopped in a mountain town for some food just as it was going dark and I was thankful for a rest from the bumpy ride. Unfortunately once back in the van the engine wouldn’t start, typical. Speedy and the other driver found a spanner and hit something in the engine a few times, it seemed to do the trick! The other driver, who we’ll call Careful was now driving. I didn’t for a second expect speedy to slow down just because it was dark so i was pleased the other guy was behind the wheel. I thought I’d be able to get a bit of kip now but the van had other ideas. I was just drifting off when we suddenly stopped at the side of the road, and the engine started making some odd noises. We were in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain, not the place you particularly wanted to break down. Speedy, who’d been sleeping shouted a load of instructions to Careful and in the end they swapped seats and Speedy was back behind the wheel. After a bit of engine revving we sped off into the darkness…any chance I had of a quick 40 winks were now non-existent!!

Thankfully we arrived in Puerto in one piece and on arrival at our hostel the bumpy journey all seemed worthwhile. The place looked amazing, it was just a huge apartment with a lovely swimming pool and hammocks everywhere, a bed in a dorm was less than £5 a night, bargain.

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After a night in our palace we headed down to the beautiful beach for a spot of sunbathing. It was perfect…apart from being caught by a freak wave and my kobo (e-reader) ended up going for a swim…amazingly though it still works!

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Afterwards we walked into the town along the cliffs and sat watching the sunset on the beach, beautiful. (I wish we had pictures but unfortunately I was in charge of bringing the camera and I forgot to charge the battery!)

The next day was what we’d been waiting for, the boat trip to hopefully see turtles, dolphins and whales. We were down at the beach by 7am ready to head out. The boat we were on was just a basic 6 seater boat with an engine. Slightly different to the huge boat we’d been on in New Zealand when we went swimming with dolphins. Our guide, Roberto, kept saying that we would definitely see turtles and dolphins but whales were a bit more tricky to find but he’d try his best. Off we went and within about 5 minutes we’d found a huge turtle coming up for air. It was massive, but as you can see, it was pretty hard to photograph.

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We carried on and suddenly out of nowhere a huge pod of white bellied dolphins appeared. It was absolutely amazing to be out in the middle of the ocean, low down to the water watching dolphins leap about.

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There were tons of them but we couldn’t get too close as they just vanished under the water and would then pop up in a different location. We stayed there for ages just watching them, it was mesmerising. After a while Roberto declared that we were heading off to find a whale, so off we went. He explained that there were 7 different types of dolphin in these waters so we’d also look for those. By this point, there were no other boats around (earlier there were 2 small boats watching the dolphins with us) and in the distance we spotted dolphins doing amazing flips so we headed over. This time we’d discovered spotted dolphins and these were completely different to the earlier ones. They were very inquisitive and wanted to stay with the boat all the time. There were even babies, which were so cute. They put on an amazing display for us flipping and jumping out the water and it was absolutely breathtaking to watch. Because we were so low down in the water and it was so peacefully quiet all we could hear was them coming out of the water to breathe, it was amazing.

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We were enjoying watching these dolphins so much that we didn’t pay any attention to what was going on further afield and suddenly our guide shouted WHALE and the boat sped off in a random direction. None of us onboard had any idea how he spotted it but he’d seen a spout of water way off in the distance so that’s where we were heading. The dolphins came with us too which was amazing. Roberto explained that we had to wait until we heard or saw the water spout again so we knew which direction the whale was headed. This time we all heard it and off we went again. This happened a few times and then off of a sudden there is was next to our boat. A magnificent humpback whale. We stayed there for probably half an hour just watching and listening. The engine was turned off and the only noises we heard were the dolphins and whales (it turned out there were two of them) breathing. It really blew us away and was one of the most amazing experiences of our trip so far. At one point the whale ended up under the boat and the water was so clear that you could make out it’s huge frame. The captain quickly turned the engine on when it was under us though and manoeuvred the boat so it didn’t capsize us when coming up to the surface.
I still can’t quite believe how lucky we were to experience all that we did. We were just watching these amazing mammals in their natural environment and it really was a once in a lifetime experience.

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Still buzzing from our morning excursion we had a few hours at the beach in the afternoon and went snorkelling in the bay. We decided to have a few drinks in the evening and went to a bar where it was ladies night so ladies drank for free until 11pm, excellent news for our budget! The highlight of our evening was watching an old man, probably around 70 years old dancing with his cup of coffee. He kept challenging people to a dance off. It was highly amusing as he was by far and away the best dancer in the club!! We went to bed that night still on a massive high from our amazing day.

Our next destination was San Cristobal which I hadn’t really read much about but Tom was really keen to go so off we went. We got an overnight bus there so as not to waste a day and also save on accommodation. The 13 hour journey was one of the comfiest I’ve ever had on a bus and we both arrived fresh and ready to go. Unfortunately as we were now at slight altitude (7000ft) and as it was early in the morning it was freezing! We had to go delving in our big bags to find more clothes before heading out on to the streets. Even in the freezing temperatures we could see that the town was beautiful. Little cobbled streets and brightly coloured houses, exactly how I’d expect a mexican town to be.

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After grabbing some breakfast we headed to our hostel which was in fact a homestay. We decided to stay somewhere a bit different so we were staying in a family’s house for the next 4 nights. The family were lovely. Thankfully the Dad (Arturo) spoke English so I could communicate with him. They showed us up to our lovely little but very cold room and then chatted to us about what we wanted to do whilst in the town. Tom mentioned that there was a football match going on in a nearby town that we were keen to go to and Arturo gave us instructions on how to get there. The match was Jaguars v Cruz Azul and was to be played in a town an hour away called Tuxtla. Cruz Azul are one of the top 4 teams in the country so we thought we’d better try and buy tickets before heading there for fear of not getting in. We managed to reserve some online but only after buying them we got an e-mail saying we had to pick them up at one of four pharmacies in Tuxla…random! The match didn’t kick off until 9pm so we spent the afternoon wandering around the pretty town and investing in some knitted gloves. If the morning temperature was anything to go by we were in for a cold night at the footy.
Getting to Tuxtla for the match was easy, but I wish I could say the same for picking up the tickets. We traipsed around for ages and went into numerous pharmacies but none of them could give us our tickets. Eventually in pharmacy number 6 the guy behind the counter informed us that we could just pick them up from the ground, aaarrggghh. So tickets in hand and a newly bought Jaguars shirt (for £4.50) on Tom we headed in. The stadium was pretty big and apparently there was a crowd of over 25,000 there. Just before the match kicked off there was a firework display. I’m not sure if that was the norm but it certainly added to the excitement.

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It was just great to be watching football again. Plus you didn’t ever have to leave your seat as there were tons of people wandering round selling litres of beer and snacks. We were in the main stand at the side and the hardcore Jaguar fans were to our right and didn’t stop singing for the entire match. The atmosphere was electric, which made up for the standard of the match which we both decided was like watching a poor championship/good league one tie in the first half and league two in the second!! It started off ok but by the second half both teams were tired and I don’t think there was even a shot on target. As it was unallocated seating we just decided to stand in the second half to take in the atmosphere. Suddenly a couple of men came over to us and asked if they could have their photo taken with us. We laughed and said of course and then that was it, loads of people wanted a photo. One guy even pushed his child towards me and asked for a picture!! It was all very random, I think we were the only non-mexicans at the match which was why there was such a big hoo-hah!

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After the match we bid farewell to our new friends and headed to find our transport home. (the final score was Jaguars 0 Cruz Azul 1) On arrival at the makeshift bus station all was dark and there was no sign of a mini-van let alone one heading in our direction, aaahh. Luckily after a bit of wandering up the main road I spotted a van with San Cristobal on the front so we managed to head home without any more hitches. On arrival back at our homestay we noticed a little dog sat outside a house across the road. He got angry every time Tom tried to stroke him but we vowed to befriend him and named him Brian. (We ended up buying him doggy chews the following day and by the end of our time in San Cristobal he was happy to be stroked!)

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The following day I really wanted to visit some of the local villages. I’d been reading about them and they sounded really interesting. We decided to do a tour even though neither of us are keen on walking around in a group, the only way to understand the different cultures was to have a guide. The first village we went to was San Juan Chamula and was about half an hour drive from San Cristobal. On arrival we were advised by our guide that photos are only allowed to be taken in certain places and he’d let us know when we could and couldn’t take them. The leaders and any spiritual ceremonies must not be photographed. Honestly the whole place was intriguing and one of the most interesting towns I’ve ever been to. Our guide, Cesar, walked us around through the market and explained lots about the town and all about the rituals of the local inhabitants (Indigenous Tzotzil Maya people) They have their own police force, dressed in the traditional woolen outfits but with an added gun! Their own prison, where the maximum sentence is three days and even have capital punishment for serious crimes. (our guide told us a horrific recent story about this) As we were there on a Sunday the place was unbelievably busy and there was huge market spread out over most of the village.

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We visited a spiritual leader’s home before heading to the church and Cesar told us all about the different things we’d see in the church from chickens being killed, different coloured candles and the use of alcohol and fizzy drinks. I found it all so fascinating as it’s so different from anything else I’ve ever experienced. Once in the church (where photos are strictly forbidden) we saw everything he’d told us about including a live chicken in a bag which was being wafted over someone and would later be sacrificed (this is done because that person is thought to have lost their soul and sacrificing a chicken, amongst other things, is a way of retrieving their soul) The church inside was very smoky and dark and there were no pews, everyone was sat on the floor on pine needles. There were even Mariachis in there playing instruments. It was one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited and really proves how diverse our planet really is!

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After a wander around the market to sample some local food we headed to our next town of Zinacantan. Cesar explained that even though the same Indigenous Tzotzil Maya people lived here there were many differences between the two groups. The outfits they wore were different for a start and rather than the fluffy woolen clothes the people of Zinacnatan wore brightly coloured cotton clothing. Whilst we were there the festival of San Sebastián was going on and the whole town was out drinking and doing traditional practices. One of the most interesting being a tradition that every year a tree in the town was stripped off all it’s bark and someone dressed as a Jaguar climbed the tree whilst other people with blackened faces threw stuffed squirrels at him which he caught and threw back. We asked Cesar why they did this and he said he’d asked many different people but the answer was always “because it’s traditional”. Unfortunately we didn’t see this in action but we did see the tree and people in the appropriate outfits.

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After this we went to a local family’s home which also doubled as a weaving shop and sat in their kitchen eating tortillas. All in all it was a unique day and so amazing to experience such culturally different people from us just getting on with their everyday lives.

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The next day was my birthday. Originally we were going to head to Guatemala but Tom decided we shouldn’t spend my birthday travelling so we decided to stay an extra night. We planned to go to another town nearby called Chiapa de Corzo where there was meant to be a beautiful boat trip through a canyon and also the finale of the festival of San Sebastián. After a breakfast of 2 birthday cakes and a slightly complicated journey in 2 mini-vans we arrived on the outskirts of the town and walked along the pretty streets which were just setting up for the festival. We decided to head out to the canyon first which really was beautiful. We also saw 2 huge crocodiles by the water.

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Once back on land we wandered around the festival where all the men from the village were dressed up in incredible outfits and all the females in brightly coloured dresses.

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We were only going to stay for a few hours but we got sucked into the excitement of it all and ended up staying all afternoon. There was loads of beer on sale everywhere (1 litre for £1.50) and once again all the locals had chilli stuff all round their cups and a shot of some weird spicy stuff in their beer. Tom, not wanting to miss out decided to give it a try and instantly regretted it. Just sipping it made me gag and his face was a picture every time he drank it. This is one tradition I cannot understand..why ruin a nice beer!!

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After a few more hours people watching and playing fairground games we decided to call it a day. We’d had so much fun and to experience a traditional mexican fiesta was fantastic. We hardly saw any other tourists and it really felt like we’d immersed ourselves into a local tradition, it’s definitely a birthday I won’t forget for a long time.

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Then that was it for Mexico. After not being keen on Mexico City things just got better and better and we had an unbelievable couple of weeks. A usual we were sad to be leaving but looking forward to our next country, Guatemala.

As always we have tons of photos, please click here to have a look

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The Wonder of Down Under

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We set off from Brisbane heading for the famous Gold Coast and decided that the Tourist Park in Main Beach would be our home for a few days. You could tell we had moved closer to the big cities again as the prices of everything had dramatically increased. We spent the day just hanging out on the beautiful beach that was directly opposite our camp grounds and had a quite night in as we had a big Saturday planned.

One of the most famous beaches on the East Coast of Australia is Surfer’s Paradise so we made a 3 Km pilgrimage to the long beach below the famous skyscrapers. It was a pretty nice city, a little reminiscent of a European holiday resort and there also seemed to be plenty of money knocking around with some lovely places to live, fast cars and big boats. Perhaps one of the funniest moments on the trip was when unexpectedly Rel accused a sleeping Matt of throwing water on her back. Unfortunately for our dear Rel it wasn’t water but in fact one of the local seagull’s had decided to poop a thick green mess all down her back. Amongst the screams of panic and comments such as, “you’ll have to go and wash yourself in the sea!” and “have you got any tissues?” the Group of lads sat in front of us thought she had actually pooped herself, especially when the first thing she did was squat in the ocean when she got in there (only to be knocked over by a huge wave, much to Caroline and my amusement). The lads were so intrigued that one of them went and asked her if she had indeed followed through. Rel was happy to put them straight but still mightily embarrassed.

That night we went to The Fiddler’s Irish Pub and persuaded them to find Derby v Blackpool on Aussie Setanta. After a lot of faffing they turned it over and we were already 0-1 down. However, what unfolded after that was a performance from my team unrecognisable from the rabble I had left behind, cheers Steeeve. It ended with a thumping 5-1 win for us Rams which delighted me and also Caroline because of her hatred of the Donkey Lashes (Blackpool are Preston’s hated rivals). We watched Derby win and Man U loose to the Toon whilst the girls kept getting chatted up by random Aussie blokes even though we were sat right there. Much to Matt’s delight we then watched Liverpool demolish West Ham.

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We spent day lazing on the beach having extended our time on The Gold Coast by an extra day ensuring we could attend ‘Christmas Carols on the beach’ which Caroline and Rel had told us would be brilliant. Assuming they’d done all the research necessary to make our extra day worthwhile we headed down to the beach as the sun was going down looking forward to hearing Silent night in Surfer’s Paradise at sundown. When we got to the beach it was empty apart from a few hardy surfers. It turned out it was carols at Main Beach Plaza, a local shopping centre!! Undeterred and led by Caroline and her insatiable appetite for all things Christmas we went to the plaza and watched three hours of very weird singing and dancing designed for the children of the town, it was like sitting through an extended Christmas episode of Rainbow. It wasn’t quite what we had expected so Rel and I amused ourselves with by stroking all the dogs that were there, mostly in Christmas fancy dress!!

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We set off the next day to drive to Byron Bay to stay at a Nomads hostel called The Arts Factory. Which was a huge hostel, where we would be sleeping in their car park for three days. Byron Bay is a really nice little town that reminds me of Glastonbury without the mud and pear cider. A very relaxed atmosphere where the town is made up of rich Aussies, backpackers, hippies, musicians, religious folk and surfers! There are some really great bars and happy hours that we took advantage of and even a backpackers bar (Cheeky Monkeys) where we found our evening dinner for only $5 each which was sensational value in any country but amazing considering this was Australia. The food was surprisingly good and plentiful. So good (cheap) in fact we came back the next day just so the two Northern Girls could have sausage and mash.

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Unfortunately the weather took a turn for the worst so whilst Caz and Matt tried to improve their surfing skills further, I went to Crossfit Byron Bay and Rel went Secret Santa shopping and tried to keep warm. It is a lovely beach at Byron but with the cloud it was reminiscent of trying to sunbathe in Cornwall in April! We wandered around town and saw an amazing little band called Timberwolf playing a gig in the street. Earlier had watched a guy called Tom Francis do a great little bit of busking. It’s a very arty town where busking is encouraged and the standard is exceptionally high.

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Our next long driving day was a monster, 900km drive from Byron to Blue Mountains outside Sydney. It started with an attempted Sunrise at the Lighthouse which is Australia’s most Easterly point. It was a bit cloudy but still made for a great picture. The drive was long but kept interesting by animal spotting, we saw kangaroos and camels. We drove to a campsite at Emu Plains after a very long day and were told it was full, which was a bit of a blow but worked out well for us in the end as we went to a Town Club in Richmond and got to stay in an amazing Wanderest campsite for only $5. If only there has been more of these we could have saved hundreds of dollars. It was basically a huge crown green bowls club which had 3 bars, two restaurants, hairdressers and gym.

The Blue Mountains were a place we hadn’t really been that aware of until the recent bush fires which had dominated the news whilst we were in New Zealand, fortunately they had now been put out and were no longer a danger. Our first stop was Wentworth Falls for a view over the vast green canopy of Eucalyptus trees. It is these trees that turn the sky a blue colour with the vapour from their leaves, hence the name, Blue Mountains. Highlight of the day was undoubtably our walk from our campsite in Katoomba to the lookout over the Three Sisters, an iconic rock formation. It was so vast up there with some great colours, especially at sunset.

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The next stop on our road trip was to be Wagga Wagga (just pronounced Wogga apparently). Its been a bit of a pilgrimage to this place as it was a completely random town that Caroline saw on the map about 4 months ago and decided we had to go visit it!! The added bonus of Wagga was that it was a Saturday so we decided this was to be an evening out in this strange Aussie city. It turned out to be a lot bigger than we thought and we had a belting evening. After watching some really good live music until about 11, we were contemplating calling it a night, this however is never a possibility when you go out with chief of the ‘Never Enough Club’ (Caroline) so we headed off to a huge bar that was pumping out some terrible music (Scooter). Inside it was like a maze of different rooms and bars, scarily enough turns out it used to be Australia’s 4th most violent bar which explained the plastic glasses after 9pm! We managed to avoid any trouble and Matt and I kept an eye on the Man City v Arsenal match on the TV behind the bar. However this was enough to alert the local police and bouncer that we were either insane or very drunk. The police officers in the bar sent the bouncer over to see if Matt was intoxicated because he was watching the footy!! The bouncer was cool enough and knew we were just English, however the policeman wasn’t convinced and came to speak to a pretty sober Matt. When asked if he was drunk Matt looked at him with his eyes wide open and uttered the following words,”Shit, you’ve got a gun!” The officer wasn’t entertained but after a quick grilling he realised we weren’t the ones to be worried about and were just a group of football addicted English!

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About a week previous we had changed our route from going inland to what we realised would never be the true outback and instead decided to take on one of the most famous drives in the world, the Great Ocean Road. This was to begin in a great little surf town named Torquay, where Rip Curl’s headquarters were and loads of other surf shops. The owner of the backpackers hostel we stayed in was an ex-guide for the road so told us all the best places to stop and clued us up on some fascinating history behind the road. He told us that when the Australian servicemen from WWII returned at the end of the war there weren’t enough jobs for them as all the women and people who had not been to fight had filled them. So the Government came up with the idea to build this great costal road in order to give them something constructive to do. They had done a great job and it was a really beautiful drive of winding roads with spectacular coastlines. We stopped every now and then to take some photos including the actual lighthouse from the TV show Round the Twist that we all loved as kids. One secret little spot we’d been told about was absolutely incredible. It was a campsite in Kennett River. First up there were dozens of Lorikeets, Parrots and Rozellas (beautiful parrot type birds) which were so tame that they would eat out of your hand and amusingly they would also often land on your head or shoulders. Whilst I was entertaining myself with them the girls had disappeared and soon scurried back telling to leave the birds as there was something much better in the campsite. When we got there the was a little Koala only 10 feet up a eucalyptus tree munching on the leaves. It was amazing to see this iconic animal so close up and after about half an hour of taking photos we started feeding the birds again. The koala was obviously jealous that we weren’t paying it any attention anymore and clambered down the tree right in front of us. This little bear (actually marsupial) was now on the ground and began walking around searching for another tree to climb. It must be said when on the floor these animals are a lot less cute. It walked on all fours and looked like an old little dog riddled with arthritis, it was really weird looking at it on the floor!!

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After our koala experience we got back in the camper and were bombarded with amazing view after amazing view. None more amazing than the iconic Twelve Apostles rock formations. They are one of the famous landmarks of the world you always see in every travel book and it had to be said it was absolutely stunning and didn’t disappoint. We must’ve spent a good hour taking photos there. After that we stopped at even more places such as The Arch, London Bridge and The Grotto. We spent the night in a small town called Apollo Bay in the car park of a strange hostel which was a complex of old buildings and it felt like we were staying at your Grandma’s house!

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As this was to be our first Christmas away from England we wanted it to still be traditional even if it was about 30 degrees hotter and so after finishing off the Great Ocean Road we hunted out a campsite that had a oven so we could make a god old fashioned traditional Christmas dinner. When your starter is mulled wine you know you are onto a winner. Earlier that day Matt and I had raided a local butchers and had managed to get some huge turkey breasts, sausage and bacon whilst the ladies had been in the supermarket sourcing the veggies, potatoes (for roasting), gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing and not forgetting sprouts. The campsite we had chosen was perfect as we had a huge kitchen pretty much to ourselves and a great big table complete with decorations and crackers to eat it all off. We all cooked and made a really beautiful Christmas dinner on this our ‘unofficial Christmas Day’. After we were all stuffed we retired back to Fritzy (the campervan) and opened our Secret Santa pressies. Matt got a bottle of beer and a postcard, Caroline a toothbrush and a miniature surfboard, Rel a koala shaped pencil case and a bracelet and I was the very lucky recipient of a tub of mixed nuts and a bracelet. With a $5 limit on the pressies we had all done really well and like the saying goes “it’s the thought that counts”. We had managed to have a really lovely Unofficial Christmas Day and must’ve listened to Matt’s Xmas playlist approximately 78 times in the last 17 days to get us in the mood (apparently)! Before bed we even managed to squeeze in a special screening of Elf on Matt’s laptop.

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We drove on the dull highway back to Melbourne as it was much quicker and had a final night out in the Fitzroy area of the city. It was amazing and full of some of the coolest bars I’ve ever seen. The highlight was a bar called Naked for Satan with a roof terrace overlooking the whole city. We also finished our ferocious pool competition with Team Taz (Tom and Caz) beating Team Rat (Rel and Matt) convincingly in the end!! 13-10

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After a really incredible month together in our little campervan we said an emotional farewell to our mates Rel and Matt (Team Rat) and dropped them at the airport so they could go back to the UK in time for Christmas. It had been such an amazing month that none of us will forget in a hurry and I think it’s fair to say we certainly are a lot closer to each other now than when we started!! We had snorkelled in the Great Barrier Reef, seen wild crocodiles, driven a pink car around a crazy island, feed rock wallabies by hand, sailed The Whitsunday’s, learnt to surf, driven 6,000 kilometres, seen incredible places, nearly been arrested and had Christmas Day all whilst having a great laugh along the way. We were really sad that they had had to leave us and a little confused about it just being the two of us again.

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Caroline and I drove to a little suburb of Melbourne called St Kilda to stay with a close family friend, Glen and his girlfriend Rani. They were so unbelievably kind to us and offered a bed in their house for 3 nights which felt amazing after a month sleeping in the sweaty camper van (Fritzy) for the last 4 weeks. The treated us to a lovely BBQ and we spent a great evening eating and drinking outside in their lovely garden.

The next morning we went into Melbourne City centre and took in all the sights. It’s such a great city full of fascinating little alleyways all with amazing graffiti covered walls. Amongst them were some great shops, restaurants and cafés, with many of them so well hidden you may never find them. We spent a great hour in a free exhibition in the ACIM museum about the history of moving images. It had all the old computer games and tv programs and it even had one of the cars from Mad Max, which was special for me as it is one of the first films I can ever remember watching with my Dad. We could have spent a whole day there but moved on to see the rest of the city.

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Near to where we were staying was the funky Chapel Street area of St Kilda so on Saturday morning we went on our own eating tour and had paella, healthy grilled burgers and dumplings. In the evening Rani rustled up some sensational pizzas which she somehow cooked on the BBQ and we went to their local for a few Christmas beers. To catch up with Glen and get to know Rani was really lovely.

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Sadly we had to leave Melbourne for Sydney (although that is a pretty good reason) and we drove to a free campsite 4 hours away. That night was to be our last in our third campervan so far this trip and Fritzy had been great to us. Unfortunately the last night sleeping in him was to be a bad one as we got absolutely nailed by flies, there must’ve been 2,000 that got into our van through the fly-screens and gave us a really depressing last night’s sleep!! As soon as the sun was up we cleared up all the dead little midges and got on our way to the big city where we going to be spending Christmas (the Official one) and New Years Eve which we were incredibly excited about.

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As usual we have a tonne of other photos for you to check out if you fancy. Please click here!

Sending you all our love and thinking about all our friends and family over the Christmas period.

Tommy and Caz

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G’day mates!!

After flying up to Auckland from Queenstown we had a 12 hour lay over at the airport before flying to Cairns. We could technically have booked into a hostel near the airport for the night but in the interest of saving money we (I) decided that we’d spend the night at the airport. We had to check in at 4am anyway and we hadn’t slept at an airport for a while! We must have looked a right sight huddled up in our sleeping bag liners on the plane observation deck of the airport!

After about an hour’s sleep (it was pretty noisy) we decided to get up to watch England v New Zealand in the rugby and check in.

We arrived in Cairns at 9.30am, it was 28 degrees with 100% humidity! We’d decided to book a 2 bedroom apartment as Matt and Rel, 2 friends from home were coming out to travel with us for a month and we needed a base to plan our trip. We arrived at the apartment but unfortunately it wasn’t ready so we had to head off into town in the blistering heat. As Cairns is in the tropical north it was extremely humid, we hadn’t experienced that in a while.

The following day we headed to the lagoon next to the harbour and got ridiculously excited when we saw huge Pelicans! We just chilled out there for a while then headed back to the apartment to meet Matt and Rel, we were all so excited for our road trip to begin. We spent a few hours that evening in the Cock and Bull pub across the road travel planning and chatting about where to go first.

The following day we took Matt and Rel to the lagoon for a few hours and then headed out for a drink or two seeing as it was the last night before we headed off on our road-trip. We managed to find a nice backpacker bar that sold us a steak and a schooner of cider or beer for $12, (£7) bargain! A few more cheap beers later and we thought we’d better head home to get a good nights sleep before the real adventure began. Unfortunately the weather decided that it had had enough of being sunny and absolutely threw it down. None of this light drizzle that soaks you through, this was a torrential downpour. We arrived back at the apartment drenched, but at least it wasn’t cold. We’d had to share our journey home with the biggest bats I’ve ever seen swooping down at us as we crossed a field. Welcome to Australia!!

In the interest of saving money we decided to walk the half an hour journey to pick up Fritzy (yes we named our campervan!) Thankfully the rain had disappeared for a while but the blistering heat was back. After collection we headed to the supermarket and cheap shop to pick up a load of food and camping chairs. Then we were off, the adventure had begun and we were all ridiculously excited.

For our first night we’d decided to head to Port Douglas which was only an hour north of Cairns. This was the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef and we all all keen to head off on a snorkelling trip but also head further north to Cape Tribulation. Port Douglas was a lovely little town and the drive up there was along a beautiful coast road and through lush rainforest. We found a nice little campsite to stay in with a swimming pool and the owner even gave us free mangoes. After our campervan trips in New Zealand it was so nice to be back on the road again, albeit in a very different climate. We were all slightly concerned about going to bed that evening as it was so so hot. The bottom bunk, which Rel and Matt were staying on was roomy and pretty comfortable. The top bunk however was a little on the squashed side. There wasn’t a lot of room between the roof and the bed so it felt a little bit like we were lying in a coffin. That coupled with the humid conditions didn’t lead to the best night’s sleep!! At least we could open the windows as they had fly screens on them, but it didn’t help much…Plus the noises in an evening in Australia were deafening. One bird, which we christened road runner, made the most horrific noise during the night which sounded like a child screaming!

After awaking in our oven we all staggered to the swimming pool to cool off and decided that we would indeed head up to Cape Tribulation for the night. Rain was forecast so we didn’t want to go to the Great Barrier Reef until the sun came back. We stopped off en-route at a crocodile river cruise centre to see if we could go searching for crocs. Unfortunately for us it was high tide so finding the crocodiles proved difficult. Our guide was great though (and reminded us all of Crocodile Dundee) He educated us all about the difference between Aligators and Crocodiles plus loads of information about the wildlife we could see. When he spotted the first baby crocodile he was trying to point it out to us and both myself and Rel squawked is that it, and pointed in the direction of a stick. He replied with, ” no that’s a log-o-dile…” That really amused me! We did see a couple of big crocs but they were so low in the water that they were hard to see. It was a nice trip through the mangroves though, even if it was raining!

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The weather didn’t improve so after a quick stop off at a local pub for a beer and a game of pool we just headed straight to a campsite we’d been told was right on the beach. It was absolutely stunning and right in the middle of the rainforest next to the ocean. After an evening of more rain but steak on the barbecue we retired to our oven which wasn’t actually much cooler even though it was chucking it down! We had bought a fan that plugs into the cigarette lighter on the way to Cape Trib (Aussies love to shorten everything!) but unfortunately our leisure battery didn’t run the cigarette lighter so it useless!!

I was awoken the next morning at 6.30am to Tom shouting my name from outside the van and following it up with…”we’re locked out!!” For some reason when all the doors shut on the van it locks itself after 30 seconds (why!!???) They’d all gone to the toilet then realised that no-one had a key. Luckily I saved the day by still being fast asleep, well I was…
Once we were all up and had eaten breakfast we headed down to Myall beach next to our campsite as the sun was shining. It was absolutely beautiful. White sands, with rainforest all around, it didn’t feel like Australia but maybe Indonesia or Sri Lanka.

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After a quick game of Aerobie (frisbee) on the beach we headed off back towards Port Douglas. The forecast for the following day was good so we booked our snorkelling trip and kept our fingers crossed. So far the weather hadn’t quite been what we’d expected. We thought it would be hot and sunny every day, but it was rainy season in the north so I guess we couldn’t really complain.

Before heading back we went for a walk through the rainforest to a lookout point. I was keeping my eyes peeled for snakes (I hate them) but thankfully we didn’t see any. We did however see quite a few large spiders!

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We then headed back to Port Douglas via an ice-cream factory and a fruit stall where we managed to find limes for 30cents each (rather than the £1.25 they are in the supermarket…daylight robbery!) That evening we had a BBQ of mango lime and chilli chicken kebabs (with more free mangoes) and had an early night in preparation for our trip.

Snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef was absolutely fantastic. After a 90 minute boat ride to the outer reef we snorkelled three different sites and saw some amazing fish and coral. Due to it being stinger season (jellyfish) we had to wear special suits which were lovely skin tight lycra outfits!! We looked ridiculous!!

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Pretty much the first thing we saw after jumping in at the first site was a white tipped reef shark which was incredible to see. We didn’t see any nemo’s or turtles though which was a shame but we did follow a huge Wrasse fish around for a while. It was absolutely ginormous. The colour of the coral was out of this world and it really was like sticking your head into an aquarium. We’ve done a lot of snorkelling on our trip so far but this was definitely up there with the best.

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The boat we went on was really good and we had more food than we could ever eat. All in all it was a brilliant day and we returned back to Port Douglas really happy. That evening we went out to watch the football. It was only the second chance we’d had to watch 90 minutes of Premier League football so watching the Merseyside Derby was a massive treat (It finished 3-3) It was a bit of a palaver to watch it as the pub we started watching it in closed just after half time so we had to stand outside a closed door in another pub and watch it through the window! The lengths we go to….

After Port Douglas we headed to Townsville which is 300 miles south. The driving part of the journey wasn’t actually too bad. We stopped off at Mission Beach to make our sandwiches which was beautiful. We did however stumble across probably the worst toilets and rest stops in Oz! The first toilet we stopped at had a massive fly and ant infestation so all the windows were black with insects, horrid. Next we had to contend with the biggest stag beetle I’ve ever seen blocking our path. But the worst was definitely the last rest stop we went to. For some reason there were tons of dried out frogs attached to a barbed wire fence, all in a line….It was really weird! We didn’t hang around to find out who had done this, or why, we just scarpered before the four of us ended up attached to the barbed wire fence in a line!!

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In the end we stayed in Townsville for 3 nights. We felt we needed a day just to chill out after the long drive plus it was Matt’s birthday 2 days after we arrived so we decided we’d go to Magnetic island to celebrate that.

After finding a cheap deal on a ferry ticket and car rental (well if you can call it a car, it looked like a large golf buggy) we headed off early in the sunshine. After picking up our Barbie car (we thought we’d get a pink one to annoy the birthday boy) we started our tour of the island.

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The beaches were absolutely stunning. We went snorkelling at one of the bays and spotted a black tipped reef shark….it was swimming straight towards us until it got scared and swam away quickly. In the afternoon we decided to walk to one of the more secluded bays called Arthur’s bay. The walk there was meant to be 2 kilometres, which isn’t far but it was very hilly and very hot! Unfortunately it also turned into about a 3 kilometre walk as we got a bit lost…the signs weren’t clear! The slight detour however meant that we stumbled across a lookout point, and to be honest the view alone was worth the extra effort.

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After a spot of sunbathing on the beach we headed back to Barbie and went to feed the rock wallabies. We’d been told that if we bought food for the wild wallabies they’d come and eat out of our hands, and they did. They were so unbelievably cute.

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We stopped for a few drinks at Horseshoe Bay ( just soft drinks for me as I offered to drive the pink buggy) and decided that rather than staying on the island for food we’d head back to Townsville and go out there. True to form we all left it until the last minute to leave Horseshoe then had to rush back in the dark to get the ferry at 7.30 as the one after that wasn’t until 9.30pm! We hadn’t really done any driving at night in Australia as dusk and dawn are the times when you are more likely to come across Kangaroos. I didn’t rate our chances if we hit a kangaroo in the Barbie mob-eel! Thankfully we arrived back at the port unscathed and with 5 minutes to spare. We did see numerous dead kangaroo on the road on the way back but thankfully nothing fury hopped out in front of me, it was all a bit scary though!!

After a free beer on the ferry back we managed to find a place with an eat as much as you can chilli-con-carne for $10 (£6) That coupled with a few beers really was the perfect end to a great day.

The next place on our route was Airlie beach, a good base for exploring the Whitsunday islands. We arrived in horrible weather ( I thought the sun always shone in Australia?) and for the first time on the trip we were actually a bit cold! The temperature seemed to have dropped, especially in the evening. (which was great news for Matt and Rel as it was their turn to sleep on the top bunk!) We wanted to stay in the town centre in Airlie so decided to stay in the campground at the Nomads hostel. It was a bit run down but to be honest it didn’t really matter. The forecast for the following day looked really good so after reading every brochure we could find about the Whitsunday islands we finally settled on a huge purple catamaran…which just so happened to have free drinks included in the price!

I honestly don’t think the trip could have been any better. Even though we set off and it was cloudy that soon cleared and we had the most perfect weather. The boat was brilliant and much better than some of the others we saw. We just lay on the deck, dangled our legs over the edge and just generally didn’t stop smiling all day. We went snorkelling in the crystal clear waters, visited the famous Whitehaven beach and sailed around in idyllic surroundings. The beach was amazing, the whitest sand I’ve ever seen but weirdly it wasn’t hot, in fact it was quite cool. This was something to do with the silica in the sand and it squeaked under your feet. It almost felt like walking on snow!

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Once back on the boat the bar opened and we enjoyed a sail around the beautiful Whitsunday’s with a BBQ feast and a beer, heaven. We all agreed that it was the perfect day and even though we’d done some amazing things on the trip so far, this was the best day of the trip!

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Back on dry land and in the best mood ever we decided to head to a backpackers bar and indulge in some cheap jugs of cider. We also thought it would be a good idea to enter a pool tournament after an afternoon of drinking…..we didn’t do very well!!

The following day we just chilled out in Airlie beach by the lagoon, the place was quite touristy but had a nice feel about it. Also, we knew we had a long journey the following day so needed to do nothing for a day in preparation.

To be honest 99% of the 600 mile journey was uneventful. We set off ridiculously early as once again we didn’t want to be driving in the dark. Everything was going well until suddenly we noticed that the sky had gone a strange shade of purple and we knew what that meant…a storm was coming. Tom was driving along and suddenly we saw the sky flash followed instantly by a huge clap of thunder. Before we could think anything of it a massive lightning bolt struck a tree about 10 metres from us. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The fork of lightning went straight down the tree snapping off branches!!! Incredible.

Our destination for the night was Bundaberg, home of the Bundaberg Rum Factory, a place Matt and Tom were keen to visit that the following day. Whilst they went there myself and Rel went to visit a car boot sale and bought Christmas mugs for 20cents each, bargain! Once we’d collected the boys and eaten some pasta in the rum factory car park we headed off to Tin Can Bay where you can feed wild dolphins. What we didn’t realise was that the feeding was only in the morning so we had to stay overnight if we wanted to do that. There wasn’t much there apart from an odd bar with a betting shop attached (they have a lot of these in Oz) and everywhere else was closed! Nevertheless we decided to stay the night before heading to Noosa in the morning.

The story of the dolphins coming to Tin Can Bay is quite incredible. In the 1950’s they used to help the fisherman herd (?) the fish into the nets as they knew that in return the fisherman would let them have any leftover fish, quite incredible really. Since then they have been coming into the harbour for food pretty much every day, so the local cafe has set up a system where people can get into the water and actually feed the dolphins.

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There are a pod of 9 that are often seen but we only had 2 come along for food, Mystique and Patch….pretty cool though.

After a quick bowl of weetbix in the car park (it’s like weetabix but much nicer) we headed to Noosa, a place recommended to us by pretty much everyone we’d spoken to about Oz. We didn’t really know much about the place so just planned on staying for one night and then moving on.

On arrival we headed up to the National Park where we’d read there was a good chance of spotting a Koala in the wild. The coastal path we walked along had breathtaking views but we were all getting neck strain from scouring the trees for fluffy bears.

We noticed a load of people in front of us looking up and sure enough, right at the top of the tree was a little ball of fluff (we would have never spotted it ourselves) We stood there for ages taking photos and getting excited each time it moved, even though we could barely see it!! Most other people just stopped for about 2 minutes oohed and aared then moved on….we were there for about half an hour!

Once back at the car park we noticed a sign outside the tourist information saying that there was a Koala directly above our heads…..and it was much lower so we could actually see its face, amazing.

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We drove to the YHA after this to stay in their car park for the evening and headed to the beach. We all instantly fell in love with Noosa. The beach was stunning, the little town was pretty with loads of christmas decorations and there was a real laid back feel out the place. We decided that there was no way one night was enough so we decided to stay for an extra night.

One thing I really wanted to do whilst in Oz was have a surf lesson so the following day myself and Matt went for a two hour lesson. The flyer said that you were guaranteed to stand up after one lesson…I was dubious.

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It turns out the flyer didn’t lie! It was great fun, even though I did get a little bit frustrated when I couldn’t stand up every time. We both loved it, so much so that when we found out the hostel rented out surfboards for free we had to stay for another night! Noosa was fast becoming our favourite place on the east coast.

After a meal of nuclear chilli (made by Rel) we headed out into town for a few drinks. We’d managed to blag 4 free drinks vouchers for a hostel bar so we headed there, we love free stuff!!

The following day it was surf day again so we headed off to the beach with our boards and attempted to put our newly acquired skills into practice. The boards were smaller than the ones we’d had the previous day so took a bit of getting used to. Matt was better than me, which of course irritated me, but I did still manage to stand up so I was happy enough. Even Tom had a go after we showed him what we’d been taught. That evening we did our draw for Secret Santa. At some point later on in the trip we were going to have our very own Christmas Day so of course we needed presents. As I didn’t trust anyone not to cheat and discuss who they had we wrote out the rules and stuck them up on the side of the van…there would be no cheating on my watch!! All in all, another excellent day in Noosa.

Sadly the next day it was time to say bye. Even though we’d have loved to stay longer we were already behind schedule. From Noosa we headed to Brisbane for the day. We’d got in touch with our friend Trudy whom we’d met on our Africa trip in 2008. She kindly came to pick us up from our campsite and took us to a great pub called The Breakfast Creek Hotel and bought us all a beer, cheers Trudy! The Brekky Creek is famous for being one of the few pubs in Australia to still serve beer ‘off the wood’ or out of wooden casks rather than the more standard stainless steel kegs…so of course we had to sample it!

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Unfortunately she had to go back to work so she dropped us in town with a few pointers on what to do. There was a free ferry up the river so we hopped on that and went to kangaroo point which had nice views over the city. We then wandered up the South Bank which really reminded me of South Bank in London but with loads of outdoor swimming areas and BBQs. Brisbane wasn’t our favourite place ever but it was pleasant enough for a wander round. That evening whilst having a few drinks we found out that our good friends Clare and Darren had finally had their baby so we toasted baby Lowrie and went to bed happy!!

Our first two weeks in Oz had been amazing. We’d done so much in such a short time. Hiring a campervan to explore the east coast was definitely the way to do it and we were all unbelievably excited about what the next 2 weeks had in store….

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