The Giant Catch Up | Part 3

At long last, we’ve made it to the finale of The Giant Catch Up trilogy. With a miniscule 2,500 kilometers left to cover, it should be easy, right? From rainy Cairns where our East coast adventure began, all the way down to bustling Sydney, Part 3 includes some of the most popular Australian destinations that entice people from all over the world to visit, work and live amongst its beautiful beaches and laid back locals. I am now one of them, having settled in Melbourne for a little over a month, but we’ll get to that eventually (I swear). Until then, here are my highlights from two crazy weeks where we saw more of Australia than most Australians and slept less than I did as a nurse on the night shift… I’ll warn you, It’s not a short one, but there are plenty of pictures! 

Cairns (sigh). It rained, it rained, and it rained some more. Our plans to snorkel and scuba dive were shot on arrival due to poor ocean visibility and dangerous conditions, which was quite the gut punch considering Cairns borders the Great Barrier Reef. It did however spur me on to have a “sod it” moment and book bungee jumping instead. There I stood on the horrendously high platform whilst a man bound my feet in record speed, all the while thinking please slow the f*** down / I can’t possibly do this / I am surely going to die. Luckily, James provided some much needed reassurance before my jump and when the time came, I rejected all my hesitations and did just that. Until I felt the resistance in the bungee chord, I was still convinced I’d come to the end of the road, but came away understanding what all the fuss was about. It’s a pretty awesome feeling, ignoring all of your instincts and throwing yourself off a 50m platform. I even came away with a free t-shirt; a double win for an out of pocket traveller who had been wearing the same clothes for three months. There in Cairns, the remaining members of our outback group joined others just starting their journey, and so began the challenge to merge the two. It unfortunately never quite did happen despite everyone’s best efforts, but instead solidified the bonds we had already made. The original nine of us were a charming but dysfunctional family who stuck it out from start to finish.

My bungee jump at A J Hackett, Cairns

It’s fair to say we were happy to move on from Cairns given the weather, and with New Year 2019 on the horizon we journeyed further south and set sail for the Whitsunday Islands. By this I mean we spent 3 days on a real sailing boat once used for competitive racing, glamorously complete with basic beds, a toilet and a distinct lack of showers. My hair had never been so full of sand and my skin so saturated with sun cream, but we were all in the same boat (pun intended) and the things we saw during those 3 days and 2 nights are among the most incredible I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. On New Year’s Eve we did what most of the adult population do – we drank, we celebrated and we played games. We just happened to be watching the sun set in one of the most beautiful parts of the world on a boat manned by the world’s most handsome crew. Day 2 was certainly a struggle, as I greeted the hot sun with a delightful combination of hangover mixed with a hint of sea sickness. After sticking my head down the toilet following a failed mission to retrieve some breakfast from the cabin, we sailed on to Whitehaven Beach. I am not exaggerating when I compare the sand on that beach to baby powder, or say the ocean is more blue than you even think blue can be. As we walked through the trees that mask the paradise sitting behind the greenery, almost all of us let out a gasp of some description. Jenny spent her time there chasing down stingrays and baby sharks for a sneaky picture (queue the baby shark song entering your head for the rest of eternity) whilst the other girls soaked up the sun. Levi laid in the ocean and told me this was his first trip to a beach, having come from the deep dark depths of Canada where he said it was presently -40 degrees celcius. It’s safe to say it was the best New Year’s day most of us will have in our lifetimes. The sailing trip was made complete by snorkelling in the Great Barrier Reef, very much making up for what we had missed out on in Cairns. If there’s one part of Australia I’d say is a must, it’s this one.

Whitehaven Beach

New Year’s Eve

Snorkelling with Jenny & Abby

Smelly, sandy but happy, we regrouped on the coach and headed to a farm stay for the night, stopping at an exotic fruit winery along the way in the comically named town of Gin Gin. Armed with a bottle of lychee wine, we arrived at the farm and therein pursued a race to the showers. Ice cold and time pressured with a line of girls standing behind the curtain, it still felt satisfyingly like I was washing away a second layer of skin. We were then taken on a tour of the grounds where we fed cows as big as houses and tried not to think about how we would probably be tucking into them later during a homemade roast dinner. 

Sausage (the cow)

Onto Noosa. A very popular destination for Aussies seeking a relaxing getaway, Noosa is a beach side town with quaint, quirky shops and acts as the gateway to the famous Fraser Island. We weren’t quite able to join the glitz and glam of the wealthy visitors staying inside the town, so instead were put up on a glorified campsite with kangeroos for neighbours. With the risk of running into one on our doorstep a very real possibility, we would tag team our midnight trips to the bathroom complete with mobile phone torch lights in our hands. We even spent one fine evening roasting marshmallows on sticks over a campfire and drinking lychee wine from sophisticated plastic cups. Our mode of transport out to Fraser was two army four by fours, which proceeded to drive us out onto the gorgeous sand and all the way across the island. Off we trecked through the bush barefoot (leaving me convinced at one point I had stepped on a poisonous animal) and after a swim in crystal clear Lake McKenzie, it wasn’t long before it was time to get back on the road and head for Surfer’s Paradise via Brisbane. But first, we paid a visit to Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, where many of the group’s Aussie dreams came true in the form of a Koala. Granted, I held said koala for all of ten seconds, but I can tell you they are surprisingly heavy and just as cute up close.

Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island

My furry friend

We weren’t in Brissy (as the Aussies call Brisbane) for all that long, four hours tops, but it was enough to explore and get my bellyfull of exceptional Japanese food. It was the first big city we hit on our way down the coast, so some of us filled the time shopping, some swimming in the lagoon, and one member of the group even got a tattoo. Surfer’s Paradise – otherwise known as the gold coast – awaited us, and so did the nicest hotel we had stayed in thus far. With huge rooms that held enough space to swing a cat in, finally we could unpack the exceedingly creased contents of our bags and had time to ourselves to explore the area. The clue to the city is in the name. The Gold Coast is extremely wealthy, with the average property price almost $700,000, and is famed for its glorious sandy beaches, ideal surfing spots and elaborate canal system.  Whilst some had to be up at 4am to go skydiving, the rest of us dressed up and sampled the night life. One thing’s for sure, the drinks aren’t cheap, and I missed my £3 pint at the local back in Sheffield.

Surfer’s Paradise from the observation deck

A stand out location for me was Byron Bay, Australia’s hippy hotspot. The chilled out vibe there emanates from the people and seeps into the town. Everywhere you look there are incredible places to sip your coffee, dine alfresco and ogle at crazy street performers dancing around with hula-hoops attached to every limb. Our hostel was buzzing with interesting people, blasting out music and complete with ping pong tables. Whilst James rented a surf board and tried to ignore my taunts about how he would more than likely end up face down in the sand, I enjoyed a beer on the beach in my bikini with the girls and thought about what people back home would be doing on their cold January days. Had they already begrudgingly dug up their hats and scarves? How cold was it? I reminisced about how exactly a year previously I was struggling to find my way to the hospital to work a night shift through the snow, faced with the even bigger worry of how I would get home the following morning. But instead, there I was in Byron, sipping a bevvy and soaking up the rays. I ticked off another first that night by going to a silent disco with the group, my favourite part being removing the headphones and experiencing the terribly out of tune, diva worthy singing coming from an array of mouths across the dance floor. 

Our last point of call before before finally reaching Sydney was surf camp. I wish I could claim to be a seasoned pro having taken lessons in Bali only three weeks before, but disappointingly, I most definitely still suck at surfing. The same sequence of events played out as before: I loved it, I invested all my efforts for the first 20 minutes, failed repetitively, swallowed the entire ocean and then prayed for the lesson to be over. A few members of the group nailed it on every wave, but I contest that I am merely a retired athlete, with ailments comparable to that of a sixty year old and someone who never quite developed my sea legs.

Sipping a beer at Byron

Surf camp

So, I know it took me a long time to get here, but if you think that was lengthy I wish you could have joined us on the coach for the entire 2,500 kilometers. As we edged over Sydney Harbour Bridge and the beauty of the city revealed itself, it felt like we had made it. From Darwin where our outback adventure began, all the way down to Uluru, up to Cairns and down to Sydney, we had witnessed the weird and the wonderful, deathly creatures vs the cute and furry, vast nothingness and absolute paradise. Soon the group would go their separate ways and I would be left to my own devices once again, but this time with the added challenge of finding work and a more permanent place to live. Scary, but spoiler alert: I did it, and I’m still standing in the magnificent country of Australia.

My next entry will be all about Sydney. But first, I’ll leave you with our triumphant group picture – the nine of us who made it from the very start to the very finish.

My travel family 



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The Giant Catch Up | Part 2

I promised you giant crocodiles and poisnous insects in Part 2, and without even the slightest of exaggerations, that is exactly what you’re going to get. It would be impossible to describe the Australian outback without forewarning that almost everything there can and will kill you given half the chance, and that doesn’t just go for the native critters, but the sun too. From Darwin in the central North, down 1,200 miles of desert and bush land, we laid our eyes upon endless termite mounds and endured encounters with at least a million flies until we came face to face with the sacred Ayers Rock  (Uluru). This post is all about how I spent my Christmas 2018 with strangers in the middle of nowhere, and many, many hours on a bus.

I arrived in Australia on the 18th December to hot and humid temperatures and in a state of complete disorientation. Returning to the western world after spending two months in chaotic but charming Asia felt extremely odd, and the only thing slightly familiar was having Jenny and Abby by my side. We discovered on the first day we met that we had booked our trips through the same travel agent (Lewis), and had not only been booked onto the same tour of Bali, but the same flight to Darwin and monthlong tour of Australia. Our most important discovery however, was that we shared the same hairdresser back home, and it was from that moment on they had no choice but to accept their fate and adopt me as their third South Yorkshire sister. James (refer back to my post Life as a Nomad, where he is introduced) decided to ditch work for the second time and secured the last place on the tour. He rocked up to Australia, three flights and two days later, as though 9,000 miles of travel isn’t just a little bit too far to embark on an adventure with somebody you met on an impromptu night out in Bangkok. It was an almost comedy-sketch scenario, and it amused the rest of the group we would therein join when they found out we had in fact been acquaintances of a mere two days.

Me, Jenny and Abby boarding a flight from Bali to Australia

I won’t dwell on Darwin for too long. I still maintain that it is an odd place to choose to live, but I did meet a girl in my hostel who had “Darwin” tattooed on her wrist, so perhaps I’m wrong (I’m not). It’s a male dominated city due to its navy base, is around 50 degrees celcius with over 90% humidity in Aussie summer, and has some lovely views out to the ocean. But as James and I found out when we naively wandered down to the lifeguard to ask how to gain access to the sea for a swim… ‘you can’t swim in the ocean’ he laughed, ‘not unless you wanna be eaten by crocs!’ So instead, we settled for the man made lagoon with a temperature akin to bath water. It was in Darwin we met our contiki tour group, which like all my tours consisted of mainly women, and was led by tour manager Cassie. Without Cassie, many aspects of this epic journey through the desert could have shaped up to be a disaster. Instead, she became our big sister, our creator of fun and our friend. She rocked our Christmas and started parties when we were ready to drown in our own sweat. 

Kakadu national park was our first stop. I make it sound like a definitive place, but it stretches over 20,000 square kilometers and is home to some of the most annoying flies on the planet. Forget the snakes, lizards, exotic birds and crocodiles – if the flies can’t kill you, you’ll want to kill yourself due to endless swatting. The views are spectacular nonetheless. We hiked up Nourlangie rock and were introduced to our first taste of authentic aboriginal artwork, spread out across rocks that depict tales of Gods and monsters. We swam in Florence falls, which conveniently wasn’t infested with crocodiles, and I begrudgingly joined James and the sisters on another tough hike up to Baruwei Lookout. The only thing separating all of these places were hundreds and hundreds of kilometers. So that meant we spent a great deal of our sweet time together on a coach, watching the termite mounds go by, but most of all – sleeping. 

A sweaty hike up to Baruwei Lookout

On the days leading up to Christmas, our destinations became more remote and our accommodation increasingly sketchy. We did a booze stock up in Katherine (the murder capital of Australia) in preparation for the big day and made some very peculiar stop offs at service stations with hundreds of miles to civilisation at either side; one I remember in particular involved a very Australian employee who came around unannounced with packets of outdated condoms to give to the group. All were curiously unimpressed. But all the way out in the middle of nowhere, nature prevailed and we saw what it was really made of. We made a stop at Mataranka Hot Springs, a naturally occurring lagoon with beautiful bright blue water where we gratefully escaped the coach, jumped into our bathers (the Aussie word for swimwear) and got to know other members of the group a little better – because for once, we weren’t asleep. Some were not so thrilled that above our heads sat a gigantic spiders web, with its gatekeeper as big as my hand, or that signs lay around that said DO NOT ENTER – CROCODILES but it was becoming closer to the norm day by day. None of that phased Canadian born group member Levi, who spent most nights chasing snakes and opening up his hands to show others less keen the latest toad or insect he caught. He did become the first point of call from the girls when they needed rescuing from a potentially poisonous spider in their dorm though. Next up, a swing by Devil’s Marbles to see some huge rocks in the shape of…well…marbles. Strangely fascinating, the rocks appear almost alien-like in the midst of the bare desert. More weird and wonderful to add to the mystery that is the Australian outback.

Mataranka Hot Springs

A long way to civilisation

Devil’s Marbles

Have you ever spent Christmas day camping in swags with deadly snakes? It was never on my agenda, but it turns out with alcohol, cheese and good company, fun can be found even in potential near death experiences. We arrived at Kings Creek Station in time for Christmas dinner – not traditional Christmas dinner as you and I know it, but as I said, there was cheese – and Cassie had really gone the extra mile to ensure we felt festive. After all, she was missing her family too and being in the middle of the desert meant no phone reception to call loved ones. We shed a tear or two and carried on in Christmas spirit. James lightened the mood when he told me he had a gift for me, only to reveal it was a full Mrs Claus outfit which I was then I obliged to wear for the rest of the night, although drunk me didn’t mind too much. I was more than happy to play up to the role by handing out the group’s secret Santa presents. He matched me (or should I say, clashed) with a garish pink suit courtesy of his friend’s stag do back in Vietnam. As night fell it was as though the entire milky way revealed itself for the first time to the naked eye. Suddenly I was glad to be in the middle of nowhere, without polluted skies or road noise, just the sound of our laughter and a chorus of insects. I may have even slept well in my swag, which is essentially a glorified sleeping bag, if the alarm hadn’t gone off at 3am to wake us for a 10kilometer hike in Kings Canyon. A very hungover Kirsten valued the sunrise, but not as much as she would have valued a bed and pillow…

James and I in questionable Christmas outfits

Christmas 2018 with contiki 

Sunrise at Kings Canyon

An unthinkable amount of hours or days later, we eventually made it to Uluru. Most foreigners know it as a giant rock, but it holds great significance for the aboriginal people who once dominated the challenging landscape. It is sacred and the general public will soon be banned from climbing it for this very reason. The group opted to walk around the base of Ayers Rock instead, some even segwayed, and were suitably wowed by its grandeur. As we waved goodbye to the desert, the flies that had plagued us along the way, and some of the group who were not continuing onto the east coast, we enjoyed a final sunset together with champagne and more cheese (win). 

Uluru

My favourites. Left to right. Back row: Levi, Danniella, Tamina, Cassie, Sophie, Roo, James. Front row: Jenny, Stella, Abby, me.

Less Steve Erwin and more Bondi Beach Search and Rescue, The Giant Catch Up | Part 3 will follow my journey down the East Coast of Aus and past all the dreamy places you see on postcards. I’ll cover sailing the Whitsundays over New Years, swimming with stingrays, holding a cute koala and my attempts to steal the Bondi lifeguards for a quick picture. Stay tuned.



The Giant Catch Up | Part 1

Time has ran away from me, and despite solemnly promising before departing UK soil three months ago that my blog would be updated on a weekly basis, I have left myself with a month’s worth of crazy tales, hellos and goodbyes to cover. That is not an easy feat, considering on occasion it is difficult for me to remember the time, day, and even the year. I am now writing from Sydney, having travelled 7,500 kilometers through the Australian outback (swelteringly hot, full of animals that can kill you, lots of interesting shaped rocks) and down the East Coast (awesome beaches, laid back locals, extortionate prices). But given how difficult I find it to be succinct – and I don’t think I should be, I’ve seen some pretty amazing places and have a lot to talk about – I suppose I should break this past 44 days down and turn back time to Bali; a place that certainly deserves a little showcasing. 

I left off in Canggu, where I spent my first four days hobbling around the beach with my dodgey knee (throwback to the boat party incident where I fell through a trap door), watching some insanely good surfing and some entertainingly not so great beginners. I had accumulated more freckles than ever before, some might even call it a tan at a stretch, and was raring to meet my new group. To my surprise, my good friend Mitch from my first tour decided to ditch work and join me on short notice, providing a much welcomed friendly face. I needn’t have been apprehensive, however, as the rest of our six-strong crew consisted of two Rotherham sisters Abby and Jenny (who have since become like family and travelled with me all the way to Sydney) and South African fire cracker Dayna, who made me howl daily with her Africaans colloqialisms. We were lead by English tour guide Phoebe. Younger than all of us in age, she had bags of energy, walked everywhere barefoot and appeared to be adored by the Balinese locals. All in all, the intimacy of a smaller group meant the six of us had no choice but to like each other, so it’s a good job we did (most of the time).

Our first day in Canggu consisted of a visit to the Taman Ayun Temple, where we were enlightened by a local about the culture and traditions of the Balinese people. The most important message delivered to us that day was to avoid standing on blessings – beautifully intricate flower arrangements in tiny squares of bamboo left outside homes, buildings and scattered on the streets to represent a link between the people and their Gods. Afterwards we were blessed with rice (yes, rice) at the Temple by the Sea and ate a lot of ice cream. Mitch conveniently decided to sample each and every ice cream flavour before settling on just one, which then became the running joke of the trip (you can tell he’s Australian and not an over-polite Brit). The following day we tried our hand at surfing with a beginners lesson. Although we all successfully stood on the board and rode a wave, some of us were better than others. I may have competed in sport to an international level, but I don’t think pro surfing will ever make it onto my CV. An hour of swallowing salt water later and getting sand in places it should never be seen (or felt) we called it a day, but it was a fun day indeed.

The group, post rice blessings

First surf lesson 

Onto Ubud, a forest filled tropical paradise where native monkeys patrol the streets and the food options are out of this world. We explored the famous rice terraces in Tegalalang, where we stumbled across Mr Wayan in his bamboo hut playing his bamboo recorder. Acres of gorgeous green rice paddies unfold up and down stepped hills to create some of the most amazing views I have ever seen. I paid for a ride on a giant swing (it was more hardcore than it sounds) to make the most of the scenery – a big shout out goes to the tiny man who had the tough job of pushing the swing whilst I was on it. The group then matched our cultural activities with a pretty heavy night out of drinking, where the number of shots we consumed filled an entire table with empty glasses… The following day I dragged my extremely hungover self out of bed to attend a traditional Balinese cooking class at 8am which included a testing walk around the local market saturated with aromas of raw fish and unidentifiable vegetables. Under the instruction of our chef, we prepared a variety of dishes including pork satay, corn fritters, Balinese salad, soup and green pancakes, which went down very well as comfort food for me despite almost collapsing in the process of creating it. Our Ubud experience was topped off with a visit to the monkey forest, where we spent a great deal of time attempting selfies with the monkeys, other than Abby, who seemed to attract them without even trying and ended up with a monkey friend attached to her hair.

Balinese cooking class

After many selfie attempts…

Our final stay was located outside of Bali, on a beautiful island called Gily Trawangan (Gily T for short). Phoebe seemed to be a local celebrity here, greeted with hugs and kisses everywhere we went. She confessed she considers Gily T her home and it is her favourite destination of the tour. The tiny island itself is incredibly easy to navigate, particularly by bike, with crystal clear blue ocean and friendly inhabitants. There are no cars or motorbikes, only horse and carriage (which is a debatable mode of transport) but this adds to the charm of the island. I found myself amazed at how quickly the locals were working to rebuild what had recently been torn down by the earthquake which devastated the nearby island of Lombok and much of Gily T in August. It would be impossible to tell these people had experienced the loss of loved ones and such hardship judging by their smiley, happy faces. We spent a day on a boat heading out to a gorgeous snorkelling destination where we spotted turtles and an abundance of sea life. Our nights there were party oriented, mostly spent in a bar called ‘Jiggys’ where I failed at beer pong but revelled in the all-you-can-drink deal. I was thrilled that my German friend Daniela came to join us all the way from Malaysia for a couple of days (finally I had company that liked drinking beer again) and we enjoyed relaxing hours by the pool chatting away.

Beautiful Gily T

If you like beautiful sunsets, good food, big waves and friendly locals then the likelihood is you will love Bali as much as I did. It combines Asian culture with a laid back vibe that you cannot find so easily in other parts of Asia where the hustle and bustle never rests. First thing’s first, you’re less likely to be knocked down by a plague of motorbikes in Bali and more likely to be laid on a beach passing the time by gazing at some local eye candy on a surfboard. What I had only considered a place to stop on the way to Australia became a pretty great ten days with an awesome group of people. 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of The Giant Catch Up for tales of enormous crocs from down under, camping among deadly snakes, spending Christmas under the stars and some really, really big rocks.

Life as a Nomad

Since going it alone just over a week ago, I have already made my way around 6 locations and 3 different countries. It is a foreign concept, to wake up each morning and greet the question, “where shall I go next?” with complete freedom and oppertunity. At times it can be daunting, but mostly, empowering. It has now been almost 2 months since I worked my final twelve hour hospital shift, and whilst I admittedly miss my colleagues and patients, I do not miss spending my days and nights indoors or the continual stress and exhaustion that accompanies the job. It is fair to say I am more relaxed than I have ever been before.

After ending the South East Asia tour in Bangkok, I was not overly thrilled by returning to the stifingly busy city when all I wanted to do was hibernate following 30 days of non stop travelling and partying. Conveniently, I found a lovely hostel with a pool (Here Hostel, which I would highly recommend to anyone) and spent the afternoon lazing in the sun. That is, until I met a bunch of very interesting individuals. I got chatting to a few Dutch people who were relatively reserved, until in swooped the English, and it was all over. There was Ze, a Londoner with a big personality and glamorous looks to match. Not long after, fellow Yorkshireman, James, ungracefully entered the pool. We quickly determined he is just as unorganised, spontaneous and wild as I am, and was making a quick stop off in Bangkok before joining friends on a stag do in Vietnam. I knew then that my plans for a quiet night had collapsed, but despite having booked my 7am flight to Pukhet the following day, joined the pool gang on one final night out in Bangkok. We ate one of the best meals of my life in Chinatown, and at the recommendation of an awesome couple we sat beside at dinner, went to some really cool local bars. One reminded me of Sheffield so much, with its graffitied walls and familiar grungey music. James and I were in our element.

Great food in Chinatown (James pictured to the left in green, Ze opposite)

 I made my flight the next morning, despite my sore head, but found Pukhet to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s beautiful beaches are crowded, the food and drink is overpriced due to the sheer number of tourists in the area, and moving around the town is expensive. I stayed for two nights before taking the advice of the couple from Bangkok and catching a ferry to the much untouched island of Koh Yao Noi. I sought complete retreat from noise, people and alcohol and booked myself a beautiful bungalow overlooking the ocean. I felt lucky to have even discovered the island, as it sits completely off the radar of the well known party islands such as Phi Phi and is populated largely by jungle. I found myself with what was effectively my own private beach, and spent my days there recuperating in a hammock, sunbathing on the white sand and sleeping for as long as I desired. Eventually, I did begin to miss human contact and decided to move on, but it is probably the closest to paradise I have ever been.

Unforgettable Koh Yao Noi

My last stop in Thailand was Ao Nang, Krabi. It is a delightful combination of mountainous surrounding landscape, gorgeous beaches, bustling nightlife and is well known as an ideal backpacker destination. I enjoyed my stay there so much that I extended it by 2 nights. I met a great girl from Cyprus called Anastasia who quickly became my travel buddy in the area, in addition to French-Canadian Jonathan who is probably the quirkiest guy I’ve ever met. He described himself as “fiercely independent”, which rang true as one moment we would be walking down the street side by side, until we’d shout “where the hell is Jonathan?” and he would be running off in the opposite direction to talk to a local. Together, we blagged our way onto a free boat party off the coast of Railay Beach. The boat was owned by some crazy (but harmless) South Africans who paid for all our drinks and provided endless laughter. I did, however, manage to fall through a trap door on the boat and injure my knee, which is now a lovely shade of deep blue (I told you I was clumsy). I spent almost every night at a Reggae bar with Anastasia, where an incredible band played live music. By the end of my time in Krabi the band were practically friends, especially the guitarist Nicky – I would walk through the door and he would shout, “Kirsteeennnn!!” through the microphone….

Free boat party, with Jonathan and Anastasia.

Eventually I had to catch a flight to Singapore, where I spent only a day and a half. It was almost as I had expected – extremely orderly, extremely clean and extremely unlike Thailand in every aspect. I didn’t realise quite how much I had fallen in love with Thailand until I left. With my poorly knee, I hobbled around the city and saw the famous ‘Gardens by the Bay’, which are spectacular, but on my traveller’s budget had to opt out of paying to see the city’s best views (you have to pay to do most things in Singapore). A room mate told me about a street food restaurant that sold Michelin star chicken and rice for the equivalent of £3, so, naturally I took the metro straight to Chinatown, queued for 30 minutes, fought for a place at a table and sampled it myself. The restaurant is called ‘Liao Van Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice Noodle’ (short and sweet…) and for the taste and price, I would say it’s worth the trouble.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

My next tour begins tonight here in Bali, where the vibe is chilled and the food is colourful. Surfers come from all over the world to ride the waves, and I have enjoyed a couple of days alone smiling whilst watching a few of the surfing newbies take their first lessons. Hypocritically, this will be me in a few days, and I’m sure I will inspire a few laughs too. I have an 8pm date with my new group, and if they are half as fun as the last, I know I’m in for a good time. 


Bittersweet Goodbyes to Peace & Paradise

Day 38. I write this entry as I overlook the beautiful island shore of Ko Yao Noi, Thailand. My time in South East Asia nears its end, with my final destination here being Singapore before I move onto Indonesia. After an incredible month in the constant company of my tour group family, it feels bittersweet and slightly alien to be back in my own company again. Tears were shed on their departure with most having now returned home and the odd few continuing their trips in other parts of the world. Together, we have travelled over 6,000 kilometers, 4 countries and experienced people and places my writing could never entirely do justice.

Our last days together saw us through lovely Laos and back to Thailand where it all began – which now feels like a lifetime ago… weren’t we always friends? After sharing a wonderful Birthday with Nicole, we progressed on to Luang Prabang to visit the breathtaking Kuang Si Falls. Other than being freezing cold and populated by some devilish fish that really like to bite, the crystal blue waters set beneath pouring natural waterfalls are refreshing and mesmerizingly beautiful. They offered us all some great photo shoot opportunities, but for once I decided to be sensible and opt out of clambering onto the slippery rocks for the benefit of my Instagram account. Instead, a friend made me laugh and took this gem:

Kuang Si Falls

Ten hours on a long boat later, we made it to one of the most memorable destinations of the trip. In the countryside of Laos, we stayed with a hill tribe. Despite having little to no technology, electricity or hot water, the little village located on the hillside of the Mekong river, inhabited by only 50 families, is full to the brim with smiling, happy faces. We were greeted as soon as we stepped off the boat by adorable barefoot children and lead to the top of the steep mountainside where their tiny primary school sits. We handed out work books and pens and played with the children until dark (and when I say dark, I mean pitch black) when we retreated to our respective homes and mosquito nets for the night. The whole experience hammered home how unimportant mod cons are when it comes to the art of being happy.

One night with a Hill Tribe 

Another extremely long boat journey awaited us to take us across the border to Thailand. On the way, we saw elephants bathing in the river. A brief stay in Chang Rai provided a night of fun, karaoke and drinking; I embarrassingly managed to tear my dress in a not-so-convenient area (I won’t grace you with a picture, but it was bad). Mitch and I were still the last ones standing after the barmaid kindly lent me her jumper to tie around my waist…and at the end of the night even took us back to the hotel on her motorbike (sorry Mum). Our final substantial stop before the trip came to a close was the very popular city of Chang Mai. Here, Mitch, Hayley and I braved the “Flight of the Gibbon” zip line which is known to be amongst the longest in the world. The sky rangers were funny, messing with the lines to make them bounce and swinging us from side to side. It was here we said goodbye to one of the girls, Georgia, who decided to stay behind in Chang Mai for the city’s lantern festival.

Back in Bangkok after boarding our ultimate night train, we had our final evening as a team marking the end of an unforgettable 30 days. I am pretty terrible at goodbyes, and following an emotional speech delivered by our brilliant tour guide, Chen, it is fair to say my eyes were a little watery. It is hard to believe the 20 group members I have met throughout the tour were once strangers at all. I am however very excited that in January I will be able to see Mitch again, as he lives in Sydney, closely followed in February by German Daniela whose travels take her there too.

Last night of the Indochina tour 

Currently, I am seeking solace – a holiday away from my holiday – on a small, unpopulated island nearby Phuket called Ko Yao Noi. Already, I have more stories to tell about my time between the tour’s completion and now, but I will keep those for next time. For now, I’ll simply leave you with a picture of my current view…

Paradise

Turning Twenty Five

This week I successfully made it to a quarter of a century mark. for those of you reading who know my exceedingly high level of clumsiness, this could be considered somewhat of an achievment, or maybe even a miracle. I have celebrated my Birthday away many times before whilst travelling with the bobsleigh team, but this time, swapped my woolley hat and scarf out for something a little more summery – and the most strenuous exercise I endured was lifting a few pints.

I’ll resume where I left off, in Vietnam. From the craziness of Ho Chi Minh we ventured onto a beach town called Nha Trang, where Tim and I both managed to lose our sunglasses in the towering waves of the ocean. Tim was slightly more gutted than I was, with his being as thick as a magnifying glass and requiring them to see further than his nose. Regardless, we all benefited from a rest with some much welcomed sunbathing. From there, we visited the beautiful city of Hoi An, which was a highlight for me, flooded with pretty lanterns that transform the streets by night into something almost magical.

Hoi An lanterns

 We took a noodle making class ran by an organisation (oodles of noodles)  that supports the locals by training them as chefs, waiters/waitresses and leaders of classes such as the one we took. It was a laugh, and we got to scoff the noodles at the end which were, like everything we have eaten, bloody delicious. My favourite activity, however, was a bike ride through the rice paddies to a coconut boat. Rowed by some hilarious locals with three of us to a tiny circular boat, we journied down the river where we came across a group of Chinese tourists and a man stood in the middle of one, spinning and dancing to ‘Gangnam Style’ blasting through a speaker.

Dancing to Gangnam Style

Before I arrived in Vietnam, the only place I really knew anything about was the famous Ha Long Bay. Even so, no online picture could do its beauty justice. We moved through the thousands of gorgeous islands from the comfort of a boat and then onto a not-so-comfortable kayak, which I must boast that Mitch and I made a pretty good team at navigating – A.K.A.going FAST. A very animated guide showed us into a cave which he claimed to be full of animals formed in the rocks, stalagmites and stalagtites. Even with a stretched imagination I found this to be very amusing, especially his repetitive reference to the rocks looking like ‘beautiful ladies’. It was a great day overall, but marked the end of the trip for some of the group who had not booked onto the full 30 day tour. The awesome foursome has now tragically been sliced in half, as Tim has returned to Canada and Daniela has moved on to her next destination of Malaysia. We said a teary goodbye to the New Zealand girls too, but gained a new Kiwi in our current destination: Laos.

Me at Ha Long Bay

The 12th November was my Birthday, and it was spent in peaceful, picturesque Vang Viang. Its landscape differs greatly from what we saw in Vietnam, with untouched greenery, bigger mountains and a lot less traffic (hallelujah). Oddly enough, Nicole from Ireland was born on the 13th, and so we had joint celebrations. Mitch and I teamed up once again to kayak along the river – this time, with rapids – went tubing in the caves and then swam in a freezing blue lagoon. It was one of the best Birthdays I have ever had. Later, we ate our weight in food at an Irish pub (yes, they really are everywhere) and drank enough to sink a ship. Chen even organised Birthday cakes for us both with our names on, which we all found incredibly sweet. I miss family and friends of course, but seeing my little sister’s face on a video call the night before my Birthday was enough to keep me smiling. Plus, when you can buy an entire bottle of vodka for less than £2, you can’t complain.

Joint Birthday celebrations With Nicole

With only 3 days left of this tour, I will soon be back on my own with free reign over where I go and what I do. I have grown quite attached to my adopted family of travellers and it will be sad to say goodbye, but already I am much more confident. Funnily enough, I am kind of looking forward lying on an island somewhere, book in hand, and giving my liver a well deserved rest.

Good Morning Vietnam

My time in South East Asia verges on three weeks now and the past 7 days especially have flown, which is admittedly why this blog entry is a tad late (woops). I had heard great things about Vietnam, mainly from my parents, who have visited on multiple occasions and always returned home with glowing reviews. But, as mentioned previously, my complete lack of research and embrace of spontaneity has led me here with very little expectations, and I’m glad.

Before I leap into how great Vietnam is, I should mention that we didn’t get here without a few mishaps. Sadly, Will (the group’s youngest member at age 18), ended up spending a few nights in a Cambodian hospital after becoming severely dehydrated and requiring IV fluids. We felt pretty terrible abandoning him in the very peculiar town of Sikhanoukville, but after a scare with dengue fever (which convinced most members of the group they might have it too) he has now returned to his normal 6″ 5 gentle giant self, but sadly decided to return home to the UK. Our journey to Vietnam was also eventful, which began with a battle between our minibus and a rock that had fallen from another vehicle. Unfortunately, the rock won, leaving the entire drivers side of our bus smashed to pieces. If that was not frightening enough, our driver proceeded to jump into another van and chase after the perpetrator, leaving us to wonder whether he would ever return. There was also another crash between our bus and a car who’s driver refused to reverse, but it’s safe to say we were the bigger player in that game. Although the transport may not have made it to Vietnam in one piece, the humans made it unscathed, just.

Our first night was spent in Cán Tho with a generous Vietnamese family at their home. The facilities at best could be described as basic, with beds as hard as boards covered with mosquito nets, but most of us seemed to embrace the experience. The host’s aunty and wife cooked us traditional Vietnamese pancakes, pumpkin soup, spring rolls and a bunch of other delicious dishes that could have fed an entire village. We didn’t get too much sleep and our backs may have been a bit stiff in the morning, but seeing how the locals live was humbling and fun too.

Next up, Saigon – otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City. We got caught in the crazy crossfire of the city’s Halloween celebrations, the likes of which I have never seen before. We followed thousands of others on foot at a snale’s pace, weaving in and out of motorbikes (and their hot engines which burnt the legs of a few of us along the way) to our very important destination – the bar.

Ho Chi Minh City on Halloween

Located nearby are the tunnels of Cù Chi, used during the Vietnamese war. Cleverly concealed underground are minute villages complete with a kitchen, dining room and even a hospital. A few of us jumped at the opportunity to fire a gun. Naturally, I was among them.

Shooting an AK47

There have been so many highlights since our arrival here in Vietnam, but by far my favourite goes to Daniela and Tim, who I introduced in the previous entry. The sleeper trains, besides being cramped and generally uncomfortable, are not an easy place to lay your head for 10 hours. Daniela, Tim, Mitch and I (aptly self-named the awesome foursome as we spend most of our time together) shared a cabin and instead of enduring the perilous journey sober, we decided to do so drunk. Quite a few units down, Tim and Daniela disappeared for over an hour and so ensued a hunt for them up and down the carriage. After failing to find them ourselves they eventually returned, armed with beer and a tub of spicy chicken skin (a common snack here). When asked where the hell they had been, they explained they had ventured all the way to third class where they had met a group of Vietnamese guys and, despite them speaking practically no English, had partied with them in their own little cabin. The pictures they came back with were priceless.

Daniela and Tim making friends with the locals

Vietnam has been extremely varied thus far, with a refreshing mix of traditional culture, busy cities and beautiful landscape. It is easy to see why so many fall in love with the country and visit time and time again. I have plenty more stories to tell but they will have to wait until next time… as now, there is a 14 hour sleeper train waiting with our name on it.