And now the end has come

‘We travel the world over in search of what we need and return home to find it.’ George Moore

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It all began just over a year ago with one seemingly innocuous decision to take a sabbatical and go travelling. It seems so simple when you see it written down like that, but the hours of debate and anxiety that went into that one decision were priority and life changing. I truly had no idea how it would soften my character in some ways, but make me much stronger in other ways.

I discovered how quickly things I’ve always taken for granted- a warm bed, a wardrobe full of clothes, a stable job- become a luxury when you’re travelling on a shoestring. Never did I think that sleeping in a bed, sleeping in a room by myself or with a proper pillow would constitute luxuries.

It’s been a pleasure sampling different cuisines from the different countries: Gulab Jamun in India, the Pad Thai Challenge in Thailand, anything from Wock Bar in Sydney, Australia, Fergburgers in New Zealand, lemon pepper fish on Mantaray Island, Fiji and pretzels in America, but if I ever see another Trek America tortilla wrap, it will be too soon.

Four bus tours, six different countries, two hundred and eighty two days, thousands of miles travelled, one lost passport, numerous new friends and experiences and I wouldn’t change a second of it.

Cost of round the world trip: a little more than I would have liked!
Cost of new experiences, learning about myself and growing in faith: priceless

If anyone reading this is contemplating going travelling, and has even an inkling of a doubt in their mind about whether to go or not, my advice would be: DO IT! As someone said to me, no one ever died wishing they’d worked more and lived less! Spending nine months ‘expecting the unexpected’ has been such a learning curve for me, and so much more than just a physical journey. Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

The question now is: how do you come back to earth without a bump? For me, coming home has been a double-edged sword; it’s been lovely to see friends and family, but there’s a part of me that misses the freedom and the new experiences that I’ve become accustomed to having, and, I won’t lie, it’s hard fitting back into a life where everything’s shifted slightly while I’ve been away. The real test is going to be how well I can adapt to this new challenge and use the lessons I’ve learned along the way, in the coming weeks and months. Eighteen months ago, I would never have imagined that I’d have been able to undertake such an awesome experience. Yes, I’ve travelled the world and sought to find what I need, but am I about to learn ‘there’s no place like home’? Why did it take me going around the world in 282 days? To quote Glinda the Good Witch, ‘Because you wouldn’t have believed me. You had to learn it for yourself.’

‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.’

‘Nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.’

 

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On the road again

When I think of the fun I had during the first part of my American road trip, I couldn’t imagine how it could be topped, but somehow the second half was even more of an enjoyable adventure, full of culture, history and cuisine. The Alamo in San Antonio was a prime example of this. Known as the ‘shrine of Texas liberty’, the Alamo is an amazing structure steeped in history. The city also boasts a beautiful river walk, which takes pedestrians wanting to while away an hour, past boutique shops, bars and restaurants.

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The only bad thing about southern America is the fact that they love their meat. Eating at a barbecue house or a steakhouse is not ideal for a vegetarian, but one thing I’ve learned about travelling is that sometimes you have to be flexible. There were also some food heaven moments in New Orleans, which more than made up for it. If you ever find yourself in ‘The Big Easy’, you need to make a trip to Cafe du Monde. There’s something to be said for sitting outside a cafe in the French Quarter eating beignets in the sunshine, followed by an afternoon listening to jazz.

For me, New Orleans was a contradiction. When we arrived in the city, we were warned about the high crimes rates and areas to avoid, but by the time we’d left, I’d discovered that although that may be one side of the city, New Orleans, in particular the French Quarter, is a vibrant hub of live music, extraordinary people and good food. It’s so devastating that the bad side of the city is what appears to be a prominent legacy of Hurricane Katrina. I only hope, like Christchurch, New Orleans can undergo some sort of rejuvenation.

On our free day, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant called Mother’s. Having never tried any ‘soul’ food, I decided to sample crawfish étouffée, a traditional stew, served with eggy mashed potato. (It’s sounds vile, but it was surprisingly nice!) I’m so glad we were able to experience a slice of Southern comfort food.

Another big plus in the food department was the number of Wholefoods supermarkets that we found ourselves in. It’s amazing how inviting a deli counter and a salad bar can be when you’ve spent the previous weeks eating endless cereal bars and your body weight in tortilla wraps. (Following the amount of time and money I’ve recently spent there, I’m now considering buying shares in the company!)

Life on the road can get tiresome, so like any seasoned travellers, we looked for ways to while away journey time and down time. We started by playing the usual car games- ‘The Alphabet Game’, ‘The Celebrity Game’, ‘The Film Game’ and several variations on these topics. Like a group of travel weary children, we soon grew bored of these and looked for other ways to entertain ourselves. Our leader came up trumps when he introduced us to the fun that is Farkle. Never have six dice and a pad of paper caused so much excitement, or unleashed such competitiveness! (It was almost on a par with the rounders game- but the less said about that, the better!)

The highlight of the Deep South, for me, was Louisiana and the swamp tour that we took. I’ll admit that at first I was a little dubious about being so close to the alligators, but the swamp tour leader clearly had a rapport with them, so my mind was put at ease, and the visions I had had of us being eaten alive proved unfounded. I was intrigued, however, by the foods that the leader used to lure the ‘gators towards the boat so that we could take pictures. (I would never have imagined that alligators would be interested in marshmallows and wieners – I still keep having visions of there being several obese alligators with tooth decay in the that swamp!) For me, it was a bonus to also see wild pigs (incredibly smelly and large), turtles in the trees, a couple of snakes (thankfully from afar!), a bullfrog, and some herons.

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It’s widely known that America has a long, and at times torrid, history, so it was with interest that I went to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama. It was poignant standing in a location that was at the centre of milestone accomplishments in black history, knowing that several of these occurred less than one hundred years ago. It’s scary and saddening to think that practises such as segregation were going on so recently, but I felt proud that a group of people in the city of Birmingham had built the museum to mark the end of an oppression, and I suppose, to signify changes that have occurred.

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Moving north again, we then arrived in Washington DC, and I’ll admit it, I was hoping to spot Barak Obama wandering around the city, or going about his daily routine in The White House. I knew that coming to the capital would be an experience, but I honestly wasn’t expecting a place steeped in so much history. The nighttime illumination tour that we took certainly highlighted the different memorials to us; I truly had no idea that there were so many in one place. From the Abraham Lincoln memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. also delivered his ‘I have a dream speech’, to the Korean War memorial; the Vietnam War memorial to the World War 2 memorial and the Washington Monument; it was useful to take a moment to consider just some of the events that America has been through, or been a part of. It was definitely a goosebump moment when our tour leader played a recording of the ‘I have a dream’ speech as we sat on the steps at the base of the Abraham Lincoln memorial (although I’m not sure some of the other tourists who were out and about quite knew what to make of the fourteen adults sitting on the steps listening to a loudspeaker.

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Travelling has truly done a lot for me. Not only do I feel more cultured, but it’s also had an effect on my vocabulary. Now I’m mixing my capsicum with my peppers, my eggplant with my aubergine, my tramping with my hiking and learning about being ‘hangry’ (hungry angry- ingenious!) I have become more aware of my accent though, after being teased by my campmates for sounding ‘posh’, and being told by a friendly security guard in the Museum of African Art that I sounded like I should be on the BBC! I’ll certainly never be able to look at an aubergine, or hear the word again, without being haunted by cries of ‘AUBERGINE!!’ (I’m now considering changing my accent for something a little less ‘Surrey’. If you happen to meet or call me in the next few weeks and I’ve adopted a faux accent, please don’t ask what’s happened, just go with it!)

Spending three weeks with the same thirteen people, and experiencing so much together, will undeniably bond you together (whether you like it or not!). On our last official night of the tour, our leader arranged for us to go to a baseball game together, so we decided to get into the spirit of things and decorate ourselves. It was certainly a first to be standing in a carpark having my face painted to co-ordinate with the Washington Nationals team colours. Sitting in the huge stadium, even though we didn’t, for the most part, have a clue what was going on, you could see that there were some diehard fans at the game. You can safely say that we got into the true spirit of baseball when we had ‘stadium food’ for dinner. I certainly will miss pretzels, and I’m sure the others enjoyed their one dollar hotdogs.

For all the mockery of netball, at least you can be sure that after an hour the match is over, leaving everyone to go off and carry on with their lives. I certainly never expected the baseball game to still be going on after four and a half hours! That being said though, it was great fun, and we even got to sit in the pitch-side seats for a while, after our tour leader told a stadium usher that we were lifelong fans!

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Most people wouldn’t consider it normal to travel through three cities in a day. Having averaged approximately 300 miles of road every day, waking up in Washington, driving to Philadelphia to see the Rocky statue and steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Liberty Bell, and ending the day in Newark seemed perfectly normal to us.

As if we hadn’t done enough driving over the three week period, we accidentally sent our tour leader on a wild goose chase while looking for our hotel. After nearly an hour on the same highway stretch, and driving through the same toll booths four times, we eventually reached our destination, which was, according to sat nav, ten minutes from our start point!

It wasn’t until the following day that I reached my final destination: New York. After the relative quiet of the campsites, I found the city to be bustling, busy and loud; it certainly took a little getting used to! For most of the time, as I went sightseeing around Grand Central Station, the Public Library, the Empire State Building, Times Square, The Plaza Hotel and several other iconic New York buildings, I felt as though I were walking in one big movie set. There’s something to be said for ‘doing the tourist thing’ and taking tours, such as of The Statue of Liberty and on an open top bus. I’d definitely consider doing it in London and revisiting all the sights, a lot of which I’ve never seen, or haven’t seen since I was a child.

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New York, like Washington, has a lot to offer the tourist. Seeing Federal Hall was a highlight, if not just for the National Parks Service stamp! Having visited New York as a child and seen The Twin Towers, I wanted to visit the new 9/11 memorial which had just been completed on the site. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the memorial fountain is a beautiful tribute to those who lost their lives. It was such a shame the interior of Freedom Tower is not yet complete, but the exterior looms large over the New York skyline, seemingly in defiance to the events of 9/11. It truly is an amazing building.

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We were lucky enough to get tickets to see The Lion King on the final night of my trip. The show was amazing, but the icing on the cake was being invited backstage for a behind-the-scenes tour. A phenomenal end to a phenomenal trip!

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Land of Opportunity

America has earned the moniker the ‘Land of Opportunity’, but when I arrived in downtown Los Angeles, it was not the ‘celebville’ that I expected. As far as first impressions go, I found LA to be full of vagrants and people that appeared to be very down on their luck. It was such a contrast to the glitz and the glamour of celebrity lifestyle that Beverly Hills is known for. I was hoping to spot a celebrity or two, particularly when we drove down Rodeo Drive and around Hollywood, but alas, it was not meant to be. My only claim to fame (if you could call it that) was that Kim Kardashian apparently landed at LAX airport on the same day that I did. Sadly, I didn’t see her, so my ‘celebrity’ spotting count still lies at zero. (Having been in New Zealand at the same time as the Royals recently, I was sure our paths would cross, but alas I also missed the Royal visit to Auckland by 2 days!)

Whilst walking down the street in LA, I was subject to some dodgy chat up lines from a rather forthcoming individual. (Just for the record, ‘Hey, where are we going for lunch?’ won’t work.) I’m just glad the guy didn’t pull out the old ‘classic’, ‘Do you believe in love at first sight, or should I walk by again?’ or I would have had to have berated him, despite the fact a (female) friend of mine recently admitted that she’d used it on a guy before.

Downtown Los Angeles did have its plus points though, and one such gem was the Grand Central Market. This was an indoor food market with stalls selling cuisine from around the world, from Italian to Chinese to sushi, there was something for everyone. It was such a quirky landmark and almost seemed out of place in its surroundings, but it was definitely worth a visit.

I began my tour of America by becoming acquainted with the thirteen other people that I’d be sharing the tour bus with for the next 3 weeks (and the Los Angeles highway police, but that’s a whole other story for when I get back!) We spent our first day on the Hollywood ‘Walk of Fame’ and taking selfies in front of the ‘Hollywood sign’. The most surreal part was walking down the road with Sylvester Cat and Tweety Bird, three Spidermen, Elmo and the Cookie Monster.

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Day one was rounded off by a trip to Venice Beach. Previously, my only knowledge of Venice Beach was of muscle men wearing speedos and people riding bikes in their swimwear. It did surpass my expectations, in that, Venice Beach was home to a melting pot of souvenir shops and different cultures, and not just an iconic name.

Las Vegas, on the other hand, was what I expected, and more. Arriving into the city at night and seeing all the lights was a unique experience. It’s hard to believe that such a place exists in what is essentially the middle of the desert. All I can say is, the city must have a huge electricity bill!

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The fountain show at the Bellagio...Spritz!

The fountain show at the Bellagio…Spritz!

From hotels that have shopping malls inside them, to hotels with huge casinos in their midst, Las Vegas is definitely a city that prides itself on ‘the bigger, the better’. The entertainment doesn’t appear to be reserved for inside the hotels and casinos, Las Vegans also claim the streets at night, with nightly light shows, fountain shows, volcano shows and re-enactments- there appears to be a show for everyone. One of more unexpected sights I experienced was walking down ‘The Strip’ at night and seeing showgirls, dressed in their full regalia, posing for pictures with tourists.

A great way to see the main city sights is by ‘party bus’, so on our first night in Las Vegas, we boarded a stretch hummer, complete with sound system and disco lights, and cruised around ‘The Strip’. It was certainly an excitement-inducing occasion to see the Las Vegas sign, The Mirage, Trump Tower, The Bellagio and other iconic Las Vegas landmarks.

As fun as Las Vegas was, it was with relief that I left behind the bright lights of the city, in order to return to some semblance of reality. In my opinion, there is no better way to do so, that by ‘getting back to nature’. As a result, a major highlight of the trip has been visiting the Grand Canyon and seeing the sunrise and the sunset from the rim. We were also privileged enough to join what is apparently only 3% of people who don’t simply visit the Grand Canyon, but who also hike inside the national park as well. It was an amazing experience in hindsight, but, it being 6am and freezing cold, I wasn’t quite able to fully appreciate it at the time!

 

Sunrise at the Grand Canyon

Sunrise at the Grand Canyon

I'm on top of the world!

I’m on top of the world!

As the trip continued, we stopped at Monument Valley to learn about the Navajo people, or the ‘Na’, as they call themselves. It was interesting to learn a little about their culture, through the jeep tour we took in the valley, which culminated in having dinner in the desert and sleeping in a hogan- a wooden hut, covered in mud with its own furnace and chimney in the centre. It was the cosiest sleep I’ve had all trip and seeing the sunrise behind the sandstone monuments was worth the early morning wake up call and braving the cold.

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There have been several highlights during this trip, but one place I would recommend visiting is ‘Four Corners’. Prior to the trip, I hadn’t heard of it, but as they say, you learn something new every day. Four Corners is famed for being a point in America where the corners of the four states of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona are said to meet. It’s definitely the first, and perhaps the only time, that I can say I’ve been in four states all at once!

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Taking an American road trip obviously involves several hours of driving every day, and we’ve found ways to help pass the time. From the usual car games, to taking naps, to chomping our way through novel American snacks, to taking pictures of our fellow passengers asleep, by far my favourite past time has been searching out strangely named places. My favourite so far has to be the little town in New Mexico called Mexican Hat.

The prize for the quaintest town we visited until now has to be Sante Fe. This gem of a place is supposedly home to the oldest house and church and rivals Canberra for it’s planned out structure. It’s believed that all of the houses have been built in a similar fashion to be a tourist attraction. The focal point of the town is the plaza and The Cathedral Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, which houses some beautifully ornate stained glass windows.

Our most bizarre stop has to be in Roswell, where we visited the UFO museum. From the displays about alien landings and letters from the general public reporting experiences to evidence to dispel and prove apparent sightings, it’s hard to believe that a whole museum has been dedicated to UFOs. I probably left more sceptical than when I arrived; the budget ‘alien landing’ display, complete with smoke machine and spinning flying saucer probably didn’t help!

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Carlsbad Caverns was an interesting place to visit, just outside Texas. Walking down into the cave, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was truly blown away by the stalactite and stalagmite structures that made up the caverns. There were rocks which looked like garden gnomes and monsters and aptly named popcorn rocks. If nothing else, it was impressive to be able to say you’d travelled 750m below the ground. Before I entered the caverns, I thought the rules about not taking food and drinks inside were a little overkill, but as soon as I was underground, you could see why they wanted to do their best to preserve them.

It’s been an amazing trip up until now. It sounds like a cliche, but I’d never imagined that I would enjoy each country a little more than the last, and that even as my trip comes to an end, there would still be so much to see, do and learn.

Little ray of sunshine

The night before I flew to Fiji, I have to admit, I was very tempted to sleep with my passport handcuffed to me, so there could be no last minute ‘hitches’. Thankfully, though, I landed in Nadi with none of the drama of my Sydney departure. It wasn’t until I’d navigated customs and survived my interview with a very serious looking official who wanted to know exactly what my plans were, where I’d been and how I’d lost my original passport, that I finally relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief that they hadn’t refused me entry. (It could have been worse, I could have been one of the passengers they’d asked to unpack their bags. I can only hazard a guess that the official took one look at the size of my bag and realised it would take her around half an hour to unpack and check it, and me around another half an hour to repack it and close it! Perhaps she just wasn’t in the mood to see the old ‘sit-on-the-bag-to-zip-it’ trick!) I did have one comedy moment when I followed my guide into the airport car park and saw the car that would be transporting me to my hostel. The lady had arrived in a tiny Toyota, whose boot was the same size as, if not smaller than, my bag. How I managed to squeeze it in, I have no idea. At the time, I just expected a hidden camera to suddenly be revealed, and my guide to explain that it was all a practical joke and that the real car we would be travelling in was around the corner.

Despite this, the Fijians are known for their friendly and laid back nature, which I definitely experienced on my arrival to the islands. From the airport ‘Welcome Committee’ wearing flowery shirts, playing guitars and singing ‘bula’, which means ‘welcome’, to the warm welcome I received from Bamboo Backpackers staff, it’s definitely easy to feel at home in the islands. (If I had a Fijian dollar for every time I heard ‘Bula!’ or ‘It’s Fiji time!’, I’d still probably be a very poor traveller due to the fact a Fijian dollar is only worth approximately 30p!)

Apparently, one such welcome activity is drinking Kava. When the staff member first mentioned it, I had visions of myself, sipping bubbles from a champagne flute, reclining on a sun lounger being fanned by the Fijian rugby team, with the sunset in the background, while the waves lapped the shore. In reality, drinking Fijian Kava is like drinking mud (not that I ever have!) Kava is made from the root of a plant which is dried and powdered, then placed in a muslin bag and reconstituted with water in a special Kava bowl, until it resembles dirty dishwater. It is then served using a kalabash-style cup. Apparently, it has a numbing effect if drunk in sufficient quantities; although I can’t imagine that you’d be able to drink that much of it, it was so vile! (I had flashbacks of the drink that my sister and I were served by our host at a paladar (restaurant in a home) in Cuba years ago. After taking one sip, I refused to drink anymore of the brown, slimy drink, but my sister gallantly drank on, feigning her enjoyment, in a bid that we didn’t appear to be refusing the host’s hospitality. What a sis- talk about taking one for the team!)

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One thing that did strike me, was how creative Fijians are. At almost all of the accommodation we stayed at, we were treated to a basket or bracelet weaving workshop, or Polynesian or Fijian dancing and singing. Fijians are incredibly keen on dancing which involves audience participation; a particular favourite seems to be ‘The Snake’ dance, where a room full of unsuspecting tourists form a Conga- style line and dance around, copying the actions of the ‘snake head’. It’s amazing what passes for entertainment these days! It seems most Fijians also play an instrument and on many occasions, we were treated to the hotel staff singing, while being accompanied on a guitar and a yukelele. Highlights of the trip also included seeing a guide make a coconut ring- a bracelet sized hoop made from a leaf, then place a coconut on it and open it by karate chopping said coconut; the ‘Goodbye Song’ from Mantaray Island and listening to reggae whilst driving in the sunshine from beach to beach during the Feejee Experience tour- it’s a hard life!

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The best parts of my time on the main island were the 3 hour trek we completed, fashioning fig leaves out of leaves which stuck to our clothes, crossing the six river points and seeing stunning waterfalls. It was as I was climbing onto one of the riverbanks that I stood on a block of wet mud to pull myself up. Little did I know that this was not the solid ground that I thought it was, but no sooner than my other foot was suspended in mid air to take my next step, did the mud give way, and I ended up calf deep in wet mud. No matter, as I was soon wading through rivers again and getting scratched by the long grass we were walking through!

If you ever find yourself in Fiji with some time to spare, I would highly recommend visiting the hot water and mud pools. There is definitely no better way to while away an afternoon than by slathering yourself in wet mud, drying it by standing in the sun then washing it off in the warm water pool. One place to avoid was the hot water source, where the temperature was recorded at 72C. It doesn’t sound that hot, but I couldn’t even put my foot in!

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During our visit to Nadi, we had the opportunity to visit an orphanage. The children were beautiful, and it was lovely to spend time with them, but it struck me how sad it was that circumstances meant that they had to be there, rather than at home.

After five days on the mainland, I took a trip to Beachcomber Island, part of the Yasawas group of islands. This turned out to be the smallest island that I’ve been on; so small in fact that you could walk around the whole island within 10 minutes. These group of islands are known for their coral and tropical fish, so one afternoon, I decided to head out for the snorkelling trip. Apart from seeing electric blue fish and striped ‘zebra’ fish, I held a starfish. As my Australian friend would say, far out! Just as we were about to return to shore, a couple came back to the boat reporting that they’d seen a shark. They were completely unfazed by it, but I can safely say I was glad that I was already out of the water!

Later that week, we left for another of the islands, Mantaray Island. As the larger ferries are unable to get to shore, due to the coral, and shallower waters, a smaller boat has to transport the passengers and their luggage to the island. As we made this journey, one of the resort guides who was travelling with us, recounted a story about a boat that had capsized when completing a similar journey to a resort, dumping all of the passengers and their luggage into the sea. Let’s just say, we all held onto the seats a little tighter!

Mantaray Island is so named for its proximity to a channel in which manta rays swim. At certain times of the day, a lali (drum) would be played to alert everyone in the resort that the manta rays had been sighted. You then had to rush to sign up and collected a snorkel before boarding a boat out to the channel. The boat would then drop you at one end of the channel, and the current would take you along to the other end. It was scary to be in the open water, especially as I knew there was a strong possibility that there sharks in the vicinity, but I was able to put that aside and appreciate what graceful creatures the manta rays are. I feel privileged to have seen them.

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Whilst on Mantaray Island, the guests are subject to paying for a compulsory meal plan (and with one resort per island, there are no alternative restaurants). We were pleasantly surprised to be treated to four course dinners, twelve option lunches and buffet breakfasts. Thankfully we were only staying for three nights, or I could see this holiday having the same end result that a holiday to Cuba and Jamaica had a few years ago. (Let’s just say, it involved an airport changing room and some very tight jeans!) It was nice to be treated though, especially after living on the same pasta backpacker meals in Australia and New Zealand for days on end.

 

It beggars belief!

It was with trepidation that I anticipated our visit to Franz Josef. Having been spoilt by the weather, and with no sign of the cold South Island New Zealand climate that I’d been warned about, I arrived in Franz Josef expecting weather worthy of an English winter. How wrong I was! Despite being at the foot of a glacier, Franz Josef itself is a small village with surprisingly warm weather. We were all looking forward to our stay at the ski-lodge-style hostel- until the owner told us that the day before a man had been arrested in Franz Josef for kidnapping two German hitch hiking backpackers. When the police had searched his car, following a car chase, they found the body of another girl in his boot. This definitely terrified those who had considered it, into never hitch hiking!

Franz Josef glacier

Franz Josef glacier

The next morning, the fun began as we prepared for our hike. By 10am we were all trussed up in walking boots and waterproof coats, and with our hats and gloves, we made our way to the helicopter landing area for our Heli Hike. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the helicopter afforded us some spectacular views of the glacier. It was slightly scary standing on something so fragile, especially as our guide informed us that the company had started to fly everyone to the base of the glacier, as there was a large hole from its recession phase, where people could once hike up onto it. Once I’d become accustomed to walking in crampons ( I had no idea either!), I began to enjoy the experience and felt less fearful that I was going to end up on the floor. Walking through ice ‘corridors’ and up ice steps was definitely one of my holiday highlights, as was my first trip in a helicopter. I definitely felt vulnerable in such a light vessel, particularly when our pilot decided to ‘nosedive’ the helicopter. I wasn’t the only one, as one of the girls in our group went to grab hold of something to steady herself, and ended up grabbing hold of the pilot! (Never a good idea, but I’m sure he didn’t mind too much!)

My first helicopter ride!

My first helicopter ride!

The prize for the most beautiful place I’ve visited in New Zealand has to go to Wanaka. The country has such beautiful landscapes, but I was truly blown away with the lake at Wanaka. I must confess that I fell a little bit in love with the town; you could really imagine it in the Winter, covered in snow and full of skiers traipsing along the boutique-lined roads.

Wanaka at sunset

Wanaka at sunset

On the recommendation of a friend, whilst we were there, we headed to Paradiso Cinema. Quirky doesn’t cover it! The cinemas in England could definitely take a leaf out of this cinemas book! We treated ourselves to hot chocolate at the start of the film, and just couldn’t resist the smell of the freshly baked cookies, which was piped into the screening room just before the interval. The most fun part was that instead of the usual cinema seats, they had sofas and armchairs for us to relax in whilst we watched the film. It was just like sitting in your own living room, (minus the convertible car you could sit in, and the number of strangers that surrounded us!) I know what you’re thinking, sis, but I was awake for the whole film!

Easily one of the most frustrating places that I’ve been to is Puzzling World. (There truly is a ‘world’ or theme park for everything, if New Zealand’s ‘Agrodome’ and the headlining ‘Sheep Show’ is anything to go by!) It annoyed me that I couldn’t complete the puzzles (clearly my brain isn’t wired in that way), but I loved the illusion rooms, in particular Ames Room, where you were invited to look through some bars at people entering two different doors. When you entered the first door, you appeared as a giant, and when you entered another door in the same room, you appeared as a pint- sized version of yourself! We all agreed that the Tilted House, where everything was on a slope and water ran uphill, made us feel seasick. Having failed abysmally at the puzzles on a small scale, I thought I might be more successful on a larger scale, when I attempted the maze (attempt being the operative word, I even struggled to find the entrance!) Within 2 minutes I was completely lost, however, I did manage to find some other lost people from my bus, so we spent more time together getting even more lost! (Sadly, I didn’t make it to the end either- I cheated and left through an emergency exit!)

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Queenstown, for me, was a time to chill; I wasn’t tempted to do something adventurous, despite being in the ‘Adventure Capital’ of New Zealand. The nearest I got to adventure was when we went to the AJ Hackett bungy site at Kawarau bridge. It was definitely enough for me just to watch; fair play to those that partook. I certainly wasn’t going to take part in a ‘Bin Laden’, which was apparently when the guides tie a bin on your head and shoulders before you jump. (Who thinks of these things?!) I did hear one story of a man that saw something black flash across his face as he did his bungy jump. It wasn’t until he got back on solid ground that he realised that he’d left his wallet in his pocket when he’d jumped, and it was now lying at the bottom of a very deep gorge.

After two days in Queenstown, I headed out to Milford Sound on a day trip. Despite around 8 hours of driving, it was a really enjoyable trip, which included drinking fresh water from Monkey Creek ( I was convinced I was going to catch some sort of water borne disease), going through an avalanche danger zone and through the Homer tunnel, which was a 1km long tunnel which goes through a rock.

Our driver for the day was a man called Bob, who must have been in his 50s and told terrible jokes. For some reason, every time he finished speaking to us on the microphone, he ended with ‘Bob out, choo choo!’ I still have no idea why he did so, but it left us chuckling. I’m starting to feel like I need a gimmick, so I may adopt it for myself!

Cruising around Milford Sound, we were lucky enough to see a seal colony and a dolphin pod, which decided to put on a show for us, coming right up to the boat and performing flips.

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On the drive back to Queenstown, we were driving along happily, when Bob suddenly started shaking the gear stick, and the bus began to slow down. After pulling over and making some phone calls, Bob announced that the bus was losing power and that he’d have to call someone out. A few minutes later, another tour us pulled up in front of us to offer us a lift. According to Bob, there is an unwritten code among tour drivers to help each other out. It must have been our lucky day (or God sent) as Bruce, our new driver, had just enough spare seats to carry us all. Once we arrived back in Queenstown, we decided we had to have a Fergburger to get over the ‘trauma’. For those of you not in the know, Fergburger is a burger bar that specialises in producing burgers that ‘are as big as your head’, according to one guy we met! They aren’t, but the ‘Bun Laden’ that I ate may well be the nicest thing that I consumed during my New Zealand bus trip (Hmm, Fergburger!)

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New Zealand is best known for it’s talented rugby stars, but they also have talented musicians, two of which we had the privilege of listening to at ‘The Find’, a bar near our hostel in Queenstown. It just served to remind me how good acoustic music can be.

Leaving Queenstown and heading north again signalled the end of our good luck with the weather. As we approached Christchurch, I had mixed feelings about visiting this city, but I wanted to see for myself what it was like, rather than relying on others’ recounts. It was poignant being in a city that had suffered such destruction, especially in a country that has such national pride. Christchurch is in essence still a ghost town, with many buildings still being pulled down, following the 2011 earthquake. Several buildings, however, are still standing and have simply been abandoned, leaving a sense that they are just closed for the night and will reopen in the morning. Christchurch has to be commended for the rejuvenation project that it is undergoing. I was amazed by the creative use of shipping containers to make a shopping centre; there is a real sense of using what they have. This was further illustrated by the Cardboard Cathedral that has been erected in the city centre as a replacement for the cathedral which was badly damaged in the earthquake. The only sad thing is, according to our bus driver, that it will take forty years to completely rebuild the city.

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Leaving Christchurch, we also found Kaikoura raining and cold; it was like being back in England! There was the option to go whale watching or dolphin swimming, but I was feeling sorry for myself because I had a cold so decided not to go. (I’d also heard one too many urban myths about dolphins becoming violent and dragging people under the sea and drowning them! Again, who thinks of these things?!)

At the end of my bus trip, I returned to Auckland, in order to catch my flight and spent a few days reflecting, regrouping and meeting some family who happened to live close to Auckland. I was saddened to see so many people begging on the streets of Auckland. It did make me ponder how it was possible that so many people were in need, especially as it seemed to be on a larger scale than in some of the ‘poorer’ countries that I’ve visited.

Araba out. Choo Choo!

Doom by name, doom by nature

My Kiwi experience began in earnest when we left Auckland and arrived at Cathedral Cove for a coastal walk. It was at this point that I first glimpsed just how stunning New Zealand is. People had warned me that I’d be impressed by the landscapes, but it was as I walked through the cove onto the main beach that it truly hit me.

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Cathedral Cove Coastal Walk view

 

Our next stop on the bus was the imaginatively named Hot Water Beach. (It does what it says on the tin as there is a natural geothermal spot under the beach.) At low tide we were instructed to dig a pool in the sand and allow the hot water to rise up; being so hot in some parts that it is impossible to stand in the water barefoot. It was just like sitting in your own hot tub (along with the tens of other people doing the same thing!) It wasn’t quite so fun though when the tide started to come in and our lovely hot pool was flooded with chilly sea water! I was, however, impressed by the ingenious person who was boiling two eggs in a ladle in one of the hot water pits.

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Following that, we made our way to Karangahake Gorge for another walk. This is an old mine, which opens up into a beautiful gorge, complete with waterfalls. It was surreal walking along a disused train track into pitch black caves, but we were rewarded with the spectacular views once it opened up.

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One of my favourite activities so far has been visiting the Waitomo caves, where we went black water rafting. From the pictures in the glossy leaflets that were passed around the bus, of people gliding serenely down the river inside a cave, my group decided this would be an enjoyable and relaxing way to spend the afternoon. It wasn’t until we’d paid and were standing in the foyer wearing some rather smelly, cold, wet and unflattering wetsuits and a head torch, that I began to suspect that perhaps this wasn’t going to be the ‘walk in the park’ that I’d first thought it would be. When one of our group asked a lady who had just completed the ‘Black Labyrinth’ tour how relaxing she’d found it, she gave us a look that said, ‘Relaxing, it was not!’ This did nothing to alleviate my fears.

We were then taken to a site by the river where we collected our rubber rings which would be our vessels for our ‘adventure’. Our guides then instructed us to practise jumping off a ledge backwards into the water as that would be what we would doing in the cave. Let’s just say, all of a sudden I was well out of my comfort zone! Despite swallowing copious amounts of river water and watching others nearly drown, we all made it out of the river in one piece, if not slightly shell shocked, with all thoughts of relaxation now far from our minds. Despite the fear factor, black water rafting was an experience I’ll never forget, made unforgettable by the glow worms we saw and the 12ft jump we had to complete inside the cave in the dark.

Next on our itinerary was Rotorua, a town famous for its pungent sulphur smell and being situated on a volcanic plateau. Of all the sights I’ve witnessed since I’ve been away, one of the most intriguing has to be the steam rising from the ground, like something out of a bad 1960s horror movie. The town itself has some amazing sights, such as the Government Gardens, but my number one activity has to be our visit to the Tamaki Cultural Village. Our driver promised that we’d leave the cultural show well-fed and enlightened about the Maori culture, and he wasn’t wrong. From the moment we entered the cultural village and witnessed the traditional greeting ceremony between tribes, saw the carousel of workshops, ranging from learning a haka to learning about the significance of woodwork and face art in Maori culture, we were educated and entertained. Definitely one of my favourite evening in New Zealand!

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Taking food out of the hangi

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I’ve been lucky enough to see some amazing sights on my travels, but one that stands out for its beauty is Huka Falls, a waterfall known for its frothy, blue water, and apparently the perfect place for jet boating. (Having just about recovered from black water rafting, I decided to sit that one out!)

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I’ve always known the British have some funny ideas about what constitutes fun (welly wanging, pancake tossing, cheese rolling), and it seems they brought more than themselves when they settled in New Zealand. This became evident when our bus driver invited us to take part in a Gumboot throwing challenge in what is known as the Gumboot Capital. If nothing else, it provided amusement as we watched person after person attempt (and mostly fail) to hurl a welly in a straight line.

Before visiting New Zealand I was proud of the fact I was in what seemed to be a minority of people who hadn’t watched any of The Lord of the Rings films, and had no interest in reading the books. Bar an enforced reading of The Hobbit when I was at school, this traveller was adamant her hands weren’t going to touch the pages of a J.R.R Tolkien book, and her eyes would not behold a Lord of the Rings film. Being in New Zealand has been like being on a LOTR film set (from what my fellow travellers have told me!) I’ve been astounded by the beauty of the islands; from rolling green hills to gorges, to mountains to lakes, rivers and sea, New Zealand really does seem to have it all. I’m not sure if it was spending time with Lord of the Rings ‘geeks’ (one of whom told me he’d based his trip around going to Hobbiton), or after the Tongariro Crossing, but somewhere along this bus tour my interest has been piqued and I’m now considering reading the books and watching the films. (I draw the line at going to Hobbiton though, that really is a step too far!) Sorry to any LOTR fans!

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As close as I got to Hobbiton!

One LOTR inspired trip I did take was to Weta Cave, just outside Wellington city centre (or CBD if you’re from the Southern Hemisphere). Weta is the company that designed the props for The Lord of the Rings films, but has also worked on the animation and digital technology side of films like ‘Avatar’ and ‘District 9’. It was so interesting to gain an insight into the film industry and to look round the mini museum at the film memorabilia that was for sale. ($500 replica ‘The One’ gold ring, anyone?)

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Whilst in Wellington, I also took the opportunity to go to the Embassy Theatre, where the world premieres for ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ were held. (This is now my claim to fame for New Zealand!)

By far the most intense experience of my trip was near Taupo, where we completed the Tongariro Crossing, aka LOTR territory, and conquered Mount Ngauruhoe, aka Mount Doom. I started to feel like I’d bitten off more than I could chew after I’d paid for the transport to the start of the crossing, when I was informed that the bus would arrive at
5.30 a.m the following morning to collect us from the hostel, before a 2 hour bus trip to the National Park. This feeling deepened during the morning briefing when we were told that as there were some active volcanic areas along the crossing, we were to walk quickly through these danger zones and not to stop there for lunch. For some reason, I hadn’t really envisaged what walking 19.4km would be like, but merrily set off with the group. After around 2 hours, we reached the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe and it was time to decide whether we would climb it or not. I was happily in the ‘not’ category, but bowed to peer pressure when one girl cheerily pointed out, ‘When are you next going to be in New Zealand and have this opportunity?’ Thus, we began the ascent. The first ten minutes were fine, but before long, we were scrambling on our hands and feet over rocks and boulders. This turned out to be the easy part. As we ascended further, the boulders gave way to soft sand and loose rocks, which would give way under our feet, meaning for every step we took, we were in danger of sliding back down again. Finally, after nearly 2 hours of this, we arrived at the summit and I felt a huge sense of achievement and relief that the worst was over. How wrong could I be!

They do say that, ‘What comes up, must come down’, but as I falteringly began the journey back, I had a distinct feeling that I might be staying on Mt Doom, as it seemed impossible to climb down without breaking a limb. It was only after I saw a lady sail effortlessly down the mountain, that I realised the key to getting down was to ‘mud surf’/run/fall down the rocks. I’m glad to say although laborious, this technique worked. About an hour into the descent, I finally realised that the moral of this story was, ‘In future, ignore peer pressure.’ I couldn’t stop thinking that if I had done so, I could have been merrily sipping on a hot chocolate watching the world go by at a lovely cafe in a comfortable chair, not trying to keep myself from falling, dodging falling rocks, or emptying stones and soil from my boots!

When I finally got back to the base of Mount Ngauruhoe, I was so relieved, but my relief was short lived as I then remembered that rather than walk the 6km back to the start of the trail, I had another 13km to walk to the end point. I have to say, I did nearly start bawling at this point. To make matters worse, we had been warned that the last bus left at 4.30 pm and we would have to make our own way back if we missed it. As a result, having lost the rest of my group on Mt. Doom, I was forced to speed walk/jog the whole way to ensure I wasn’t left behind. Suffice to say, after nearly 9 hours of walking, I made it to the end, and was proud of what I’d achieved. None of us could walk the next day, however, and there was nearly an uprising on the bus when the driver suggested stopping for a leisurely walk down to a waterfall. Never again!

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The view from the summit of Mt Doom!

The view from the summit of Mt Doom!

This is a lesson learned

I’ve met some interesting people on my journey so far. Some, like me, have given it all up to go travelling for a period; some are fresh out of education, not yet battle weary, and are excited to see what the world holds for them. Some have made travel a career, not really putting down roots anywhere, and some I’ve met could easily argue the case for taking your children out of school and giving them a ‘life education’ instead. (I’m still undecided on whether the formal education that I’ve been a part of my whole life, or the more informal approach of ‘learn by seeing the world’ is the right way, or if indeed, there is a right way.)

I’ve said it before, but this trip has been an unexpected time for me to learn some lessons. First and foremost, I have learned to trust God, that everything will work out, to have faith, that there is such a thing as being too independent, and to persevere, especially when things seem hard. For example, when I recently went paddle boarding, I couldn’t for the life of me get my board to go as fast as the others, or in as straight a line. Anyone watching must have wondered if I was competing in some bizarre obstacle course as I zigzagged across the river, desperately trying to manoeuvre my erstwhile board. I since come to the conclusion that water sports may not be my thing, but I’ve continued to push myself to try new things. As much as I’ve enjoyed the challenge of trying new sports, I don’t think you’ll see me on Sky Sports competing in any form of water sport any time soon!

Another lesson that I’m in the process of learning is how to be patient. In the last month alone, I’ve been waiting on God for direction, waiting on Greyhound buses (endlessly it feels like!) and waiting for Colour Conference (that was definitely worth the wait!) As I’ve known that I would be travelling on to a new place every few weeks, I’ve found myself waiting for the next country, to see what that would bring. As a result, I’ve been reminded by God to live in the here and now. There’s a danger that in always looking forward, you miss out on the enjoyment of what’s going on right under your nose.

When I was in Mission Beach, I wandered into a shop and spotted a little card with the inscription ‘We travel the world seeking, but return home to find.’ This got me thinking about how many thousands of people pack up everything each year and leave their home or country in search of something to complete their lives. I wonder what percentage of people ever find that elusive something away from home.

I’ve also been learning to be more adventurous and just give things a go; after all I could be missing out on amazing things just by playing it safe. This has already paid off as I’ve had some amazing (and for me, some are once in a lifetime) experiences, that I may never have had if I hadn’t been open to trying them. Highlights of my trip so far have been snorkelling, black water rafting, ocean rafting and sandboarding. (Who knows whether I’ll suddenly get the urge to try bungy jumping or skydiving?)

In giving things up to take this trip and in having to make choices about which towns and cities to stop in, especially during my east coast trip, there was a fear that I was making a big mistake, or that I would miss out on some fabulous opportunity, simply because I wasn’t in the right place at the right time. Hand on heart, I have no regrets and as there has always been a lesson to learn in each of the places that I stopped so far, I truly believe that I’m exactly where I need to be right now.

In the last week, I’ve also had a tough lesson to learn in ‘Be careful what you wish for!’ Having spent so much time in Australia, I had been feeling like it was my second home. I’d found it hard to say goodbye to Sydney when I began my east coast trip and knew it would be doubly hard to say goodbye to the friends I’d made when the time came to leave permanently. The madness started the night before I was due to depart Australia when a friend I was saying goodbye to left me with the words, ‘We’ve been contemplating stealing your passport so you can’t leave!’ Like some sort of celestial revelation, I then suddenly thought ‘I don’t remember seeing my passport in a few days’. Thus began a hunt that would have made a private detective proud. When it became apparent that my passport was nowhere to be found, I then began the marathon phone calls trying to make arrangements. I’m mightily impressed with the number of organisations that answered the phone at 1am Australia time. From airlines to the police to travel companies, their phone lines were all manned; some organisations were more helpful than others though!)

By 8am, I still wasn’t sure if I could catch my flight, so in a last ditch attempt to make it out of Australia, I packed up my belongings and headed for the airport. After about an hour, it became apparent that I wasn’t going to be able to fly that day, so I had to trudge back to my hostel and continue making phone calls trying to sort my travel plans. (This was made all the more difficult by the fact that that it was the weekend and places, such as the British Consulate were closed, so I was unable to be issued with an emergency passport immediately, and time differences meant it was difficult to liaise with the British company I’d booked my trip with. To make matters worse, the company I’d booked with had outsourced the booking to a travel agent, who had then outsourced to an airline to book all of the flights. Unfortunately this wasn’t the same airline I was flying to New Zealand with!) This prompted a cat and mouse game of trying to find out who I needed to rebook my flight with. Eventually it was all sorted and I was able to fly two days behind schedule. (Needless to say, I was at the airport 4 hours early- there was no way I was risking missing the flight!) Despite a ‘minor’ hitch, where the airline was unable to find my new booking at the check in desk, a few phone calls later, I was in the departure lounge, and made it to New Zealand safe and sound. (By the end of the whole debacle, I was more than happy to see the back of Australia, so I guess my delay had some effect!)