Living the Dream… Bye For Now :)

Well, it’s time for my final post – we’ve come a long way (literally and figuratively) together! Sam and I are both starting our new jobs tomorrow morning, so it feels like an apt moment to warble on for a few paragraphs on what our little jaunt to the other side of the globe has meant to us.

We’ve learnt a lot – about ourselves, about other cultures and geographies, about methods of soothing sandfly bites, and about how to live quite comfortably on £8 a day.

We’ve had moments when we’ve wanted to kill each other, and a Qantas booking agent; we’ve laughed until our sides ached, and shed tears of pure joy; we’ve missed people dreadfully, and thanked God we’ve been far away from the confines of a 9-5; we’ve challenged ourselves physically and mentally, and put up with the consequences (we couldn’t actually walk down a kerb, or a flight of stairs, for 3 days after completing the Mount Kinabalu climb!).

Along the way, we’ve picked up a few tips that we’re planning to make use of now we’re back in the UK, and perhaps these might come in handy for you, too. Here are our favourites:

A smile can get you a long way. It’s provided us with free rides, new friends, and unmissable opportunities, so smile – you never know what might happen!

All smiles!

England’s actually a pretty nice place. There are no animals trying to kill you at every turn, people actually have a sense of humour, and there’s some bona fide culture to speak of.

Venomous Black Spider - eek!!

It’s a good thing to just sit and think. Peace and quiet, time and an open mind will set you free.

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We are incredibly lucky to have grown up with the amazing families, backgrounds and opportunities that we have had. There are thousands of people around the world who would quite literally kill to have what we have, and that’s through no fault of their own – it just so happens that they were born there instead of here!

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We really don’t need all the stuff we surround ourselves with at home. We returned with the same 2 backpacks we went out with and no more. We’ve travelled through 4 seasons, climbed mountains and glaciers, swum in lakes, rivers and the sea, gone diving, trekking through deserts and rainforests, eaten at Raffles, and shopped in KL malls. We had 3 outfits. Seriously, DECLUTTER people!!

Baguettes, mopeds and cane sugar drinks...

The world is a beautiful, beautiful place, and it’s worth saving. Switch off that light you’re not using. Turn off your TV. Go outside and breathe the air. It’s all there, waiting for you.

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Being outside your comfort zone is a good thing. Decrepit toilets, perilous ice hikes, no medical or police services and widespread poverty all forced us to confront what we’ve always taken for granted. Every day makes you a bit braver, until you feel like you can cope with anything life throws at you.

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But perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learnt is if you want something, make it happen. There are people who will help you to achieve your goals, but ultimately, it’s down to you. Don’t look back when you’re 86 and bedbound, wishing you had done this or that. Do it now. Make it happen. And live every day like you mean it.

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Much love to you all and Happy Travels,
Chelley.x

Check out my new photography site here.

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Our Top 10 Must Do’s

Well, we’ve had a week to catch our breath, and finally audit 32GB of photos from around the globe!

That means it’s time for a sum up, so here are our Top 10 Experiences from the trip – if you ever get the chance to do one of these or something similar, DO IT! You will not be disappointed!

So, with no further delay, at No. 10, we have:

Bangkok, Thailand
Watching New Year’s Eve fireworks explode all over the city from our 16th floor hotel room, groaningly full and tipsy after a beautiful Thai meal and lots of champagne, and knowing that 5 months of adventure stretched out before us.

Cruising in at No. 9:

Rotorua, NZ
Enjoying the incredible ambience and variety Rotorua has to offer, including our trip to Hobbiton (truly a lesson in labours of love, as we learnt about trees which had had 10,000 leaves hand-stapled on), the beautiful and terrifying Maori haka ceremony, and the savage beauty of geysers spouting hundreds of feet in the air amidst bubbling pools of mud.

Not to be missed at No. 8:

Uluru, Australia
Standing on red hot dust, watching the sun rise over Uluru’s serene West face, and waiting for the sudden blaze of red against the rock as the sun scorched high into the desert sky.

And don’t forget No. 7:

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Slipping through the crystal clear water between a thousand rocky islands, exploring ancient caves and hidden island lagoons, with only the echo of our kayak paddles for company.

Getting closer at No. 6:

Ta Phrom Temple, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Arriving before the crowds (and the endless souvenir sellers) at the most beautiful and atmospheric of the Angkor Wat temples. Every rock, every tree and every breath felt like living history, filled with a strange sense of anticipation.

A Birthday to remember at No. 5:

Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand
Walking through the long, parched grass gazing at these noble beasts playing with each other and trumpeting, safe in the knowledge that their lives of pain and suffering are far behind them. And then tucking into a surprise elephant birthday cake, alongside 50 other ele-fans!

Cold but Fabulous at No. 4:

Franz Josef Glacier, NZ
Sipping icy glacier water as it trickled over the endless blue ridges of glacial ice, after clambering over sheer rock walls and edging along 100ft deep crevasses. Franz Josef was astounding, challenging, and one of the most exhilerating things I’ve ever done.

More exhausting than the marathon, but worth every step, at No. 3:

Mt Kinabalu, Borneo
Slithering down the mossy slopes of the mountain, grinning victoriously and taking in the stunning vista of the surrounding mountain range and national park. Our 2am summit walk in the wind, rain and blackness was an experience to remember!

Profound and privileged at No. 2:

Kaikoura, NZ
Maintaining 30 seconds of eye contact with a wild dolphin as it surged around me, then watching him and his friends skim through the bow waves of our boat in beautiful Kaikoura, the prettiest town in the world.

And of course, last but definitely not least, at No. 1:

6.17am, 27th May 2011, Heathrow T5, Arrivals doors
Glimpsing the beaming faces of our families and their freshly made ‘Sam & Michelle tour tshirts’ as we made our re-entry to reality. Nothing beats that first massive hug, and the knowledge that you’re finally Home.

We have seen and experienced some incredibly beautiful, uplifting, wondrous things… but we have also been amongst abject poverty, animal cruelty and cultures and societies very different from our own. It has been our priviledge to share this blog with you, and in many ways, it has felt like you were all somehow in our backpacks with us, experiencing things alongside us and laughing and crying with us. Thank you so much for reading and commenting; there were many times when the knowledge that literally hundreds of people were checking our blog each week really kept us going. I hope that you have enjoyed our writing and photos, and that you will continue to follow each of us on our respective websites now that we have ‘returned to reality’! We are very much looking forward to catching up with you all, and after a day when I got a new job and we signed on a new flat in one go, things are definitely not as gloomy as they might be!

Final post to follow!
Chelley.x

Sum Dim Sum, And We’re Back

We’ve travelled 55,000 miles, and we’re back.

 

That’s two twelve kilogram backpacks. Five dog-eared guidebooks. Seventeen flights. Dozens of hostels. One hundred and fifty days, and thousands of miles on the road. Being home suddenly seems more unreal than being away.

Right now it’s five in the morning, UK time, and my woeful jet lag is only being fought off by a second – and soon to be third – cup of disgustingly strong coffee. My head says it’s noon in Hong Kong, my body is convinced it’s 4pm in New Zealand. I am not leaving England, or having anything to do with any object remotely resembling an aircraft, for at least twelve months.

Five days ago, we’d found ourselves slap bang in the middle of a city where the East truly meets the West. A fitting end to our globe trot between steamy sub-tropical Asian villages and the organised chaos of cities like Sydney, Auckland and Perth. Welcome, intrepid reader, to Hong Kong.

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Bewildered, in a jungle of skyscrapers, shopping malls, peculiar Chinese curio stores and stinky open air markets, we were rescued from paralysing culture shock by a familiar face. A lady for whom international travel used to be a day job. Who knows this striking, super-modern post-colonial city like the back of her hand. She who laughs in the face of Gucci and Mulberry as she purchases her second 100% genuine knock-off handbag. Here, at the very end of our travel, our duo was about to become a trio – as my Mum joined the last leg of our expedition to celebrate her 60th birthday.

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In a whirl of questionable Dim Sum, ear-splitting Chinese Karaoke, and aggressive knock-off watch salesmen, we dashed around the suburbs of Hong Kong on a final mind bending shopping spree, buying up all sorts of oddities and trinkets from the Far East.

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Antique jars on Hollywood Road, sold to us by a 22-year old cat; fish-flavoured sweets (or sweet-flavoured fish, I’m still not sure), from the bustling district of Causeway Bay; Hand painted Chinese caligraphy from the dizzy heights of the Hong Kong peak; and exotic flavoured tea, sold alongside the most confusing teapot in the world ever.

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But above all, what overwhelmed me most was the people – or should I say, the number of people. Piled high around the edges of tiny islands, some seven million had crammed together to call this megatropolis home. When the sun went down, the city lit up – and in every direction, as far as the eye could see, a veil of distant lights painted the city bright.

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Unlike say, London, which stretches outwards, this city stretched upwards – endlessly. From our hotel window, we could have reached out and touched the birdcage hanging seventeen stories high in an apartment block opposite. In the streets, thousands of people – day or night – marched together to the tune of prosperity. Smart suits, expensive watches, million dollar gadgets gathered together as if essential accessories, the uniform of China’s blindingly successful future. London, New York, Paris – they’ve got nothing on the scale, immensity and ambition of this city.

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If we hadn’t already felt baffled at the prospect of going home, this was a jack-in-the-box waiting to give us one last shock. Unlike Thailand, utterly dissimilar to Laos, Malaysia, or Cambodia – but with a faint ring of Vietnam, who share much in the way of culture, Hong Kong truly felt like a gateway between our home and the strange but seductive allure of the East. It’s a place where you can go shopping for pigs’ tongues and Prada in the same street, or watch a state-of-the-art light and laser show from a skyscraper that’s being repaired using bamboo poles.

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Thrilling, confusing, familiar and altogether obsessed with the false dream that is Consumerism, it felt to me as if someone had shaken the experiences of our last five months into an intoxicating mixture and rammed it down our throats as hard as possible.

And then, as suddenly as it had started, the last chapter was finished. We were Heathrow bound, just twelve hours away from the real world.

And we’re back.

Hearty welcomes were shared at Terminal Five with our loved ones. Tears were shed by the girls, bear-hugs exchanged by the men. To our absolute delight, the family had donned matching t-shirts with our grinning faces emblazoned across them. Nice touch. After power naps, wine, and a long awaited buffet of all-english cuisine (read jacket potatoes, sausages and beans), we were done for the day.

Okay, before I wrap up – and I know Chelley has a few words to add on the subject of our post-trip epilogue – I wanted to say a few quick thank-yous to some of the people who made our trip into the adventure it became. Some names have been changed, or exchanged for hilarious nicknames (for my own amusement), but any similarity to persons living or dead is entirely intentional. If they’re reading this – and I hope they are – thanks for the memories.

To Lasagne, for sharing the secrets of Chiang Mai with us, and for the warmest welcome we recieved anywhere in the world,
To Uncle Chet, our best guide ever, for the banana whisky and the walking sticks,
To Mario, the fat annoying plumber-cum-government official who broke my sunglasses,
To Mr. Lum, of the Mayfair Hotel, for telling me exactly what the Chinese word on my t-shirt meant,
To Kevin, our German buddy, for keeping me sane on the near-death-experience drive from Luang Prabang to Phonsavan,
To Sunnika, our alcoholic dealer, for supplying us with a constant source of entertainment in Ko Lanta,
To Hugo, the Maltese Gangster, who I overheard on the phone telling someone to “make it look like an accident“,
To the Brits; Claire, Nick, Rebecca and Kate, who made me laugh a lot, and prevented me from very nearly killing a certain German tourist,
To Lockie, our skipper, for everything, but mostly the bioluminescent algae,
To Tommy, a cook, and a handsome devil, for making sure I didn’t burn my noodles and giving me sexy lips,
To Judy and Peter, and the rest of the family in Oz, who put up with our stinky laundry and kept us fed and watered,
.. And of course to Chelley’s family, and my family, back home, for not disowning us when we said we were quitting our respectable jobs to go on a bit of a jolly.

And that brings me to the end. It’s difficult to sum up. Nothing I’ve written about before in previous posts can be said again in the same way. I’ve no new objectiveness on our story, or sudden, earth-shattering realisation now that I’m home, but I expect everything I’ve absorbed over the last five months will glean some fresh insight in time. So instead of waxing lyrical about how great it all was, and boring you to death, I’ll just say this – every moment will stay with me, forever, and I’m the luckiest man alive to have shared it all with my very own partner-in-crime.

This is absolutely in-no-way an ending, but the beginning of a new part of our lives – namely, the one where we try and clear our debt as quickly as humanly possible to start saving for the next trip, this time to South America.

¡hasta luego!

PS – I will in fact continue to exist elsewhere – you can follow me here, http://sam-shepherd.co.uk/

Heathrow, Here We Come…!

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Less than 24 hours…

Whale Tales and Yoga Bunnies

Picture the scene – you’ve just escaped the clutches of a rather too friendly Lurchalike coach driver into the drizzle and darkness of a NZ night. Through the gloom, amidst woods on the crest of the hill above you, you glance your accommodation for the next 3 nights – an isolated mansion house with the eerie glow of chandeliers emanating from the windows.

As you climb up the poorly lit driveway and creep inside the 10 foot doors into the oak panelled spiral staircase hallway, you sense Yvette Fielding and the Most Haunted crew might pop their heads around the corner at any moment. With a deserted reception, we headed up to Room 2 which was frankly palatial – flocked crimson wallpaper, chandeliers, coal fire and velvet full length curtains… albeit with a seemingly backless inky closet which looked like another entrance to Narnia.

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Exploring the cavernous mansion further, we found not a trace of anyone in the marble bathrooms or chaise-longue filled tv room, so we crept back to our room marvelling at the fact we appeared to have got ourselves a bed at the Palais de Versailles for the less than princely sum of £42 a night.

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However, our illusions were shattered a little while later when we made our way to the kitchen to knock up some local salmon… only to be confronted by 6 of the most incongruous fellow guests imaginable – pale but rowdy Europeans who were spending a month at the house on a yoga retreat. As they practiced their downward facing dogs and sun prayers in the middle of the kitchen floor, I hid a rather large snigger as one of the more beardy of them tried to forcefeed Sam a bowlful of plain chickpeas with spinach – I don’t think I’ve seen him look more disgusted with a potential foodstuff ever before… even taking into account *that* Thai bug incident.

Naturally, Fellwood House lost a little of its spooky allure after our discovery; we couldn’t have found an odder partnership if we tried. Still, it made for an interesting base for our adventures in Nelson, and a spectacular day’s hiking in the Abel Tasman National Park.

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After an early start and hastily prepared sarnies, we took a water taxi deep into the heart of the park, to a secluded bay where apparently Bill Gates and Tom Cruise spent last Christmas floating about inconspicuously on their million dollar yachts. After climbing to the top of the nearby ridge, we visited several stunning bays, dodging the prolific sandflies which had already made my lower legs resemble a pepperoni pizza a week previously, and took a million, gorgeous photos.

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The stunning scenery continued on our short trip to Kaikoura – probably the world’s best situated city. Perched on a perfect dusky arc of smooth pebbles, the town sits in the shadow of an awesome snow-speckled mountain range which plunges down to the crystal blue ocean below.

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A pretty cacophany of crayfish restaurants, second hand bookshops and paua shell jewellers, Kaikoura oozes a quiet charm and unpretentious wholesomeness. For us, it spelled the perfect end to our time in NZ before we began the long journey back home – made all the better for the stunning weather we experienced whilst there.

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On our first day, we knocked back several seasickness pills and braved the plunging waves, plucked up from last night’s cold front, to hunt for whales (not the harpooning way, obviously). As we clung to the back of our boat, we marvelled at the sheer size and magnificence of the many albatrosses that followed us, wheeling overhead. With wingspans up to 2.5m across, they hurtled along, touching the tops of the water with their wingtips, all the while keeping their huge beady eyes open for any tasty morsels we might care to throw aside.

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An hour of scouring the ocean for the distinctive blow patterns later, we finally came across our whale – a 20m Sperm Whale specimin, who was busy topping up his oxygen reserves on the surface, before plunging down again into the inverted Grand Canyon below us, diving as far as 1500m under the surface, before snacking on some giant squid for a spot of lunch.

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Known to the crew as ‘one of the locals’, we watched in awe as he calmly ignored us for a few minutes before upending and returning back to the depths.

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Our encounters with nature were taken to a whole new level the next morning when, donned in 5cm thick wetsuits and waterproof camera in hand, we were driven out to the middle of the said 3500m deep underwater canyon and unceremoniously dumped in the middle of a 200-strong pod of dusky dolphins enjoying a Wednesday morning swim.

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Initially enjoying mild euphoria from hyperventilating from the freezing water temperature (remember, it’s Winter in NZ!), my attention soon turned to the dozens of slippery grey bodies surging around us as the dolphins peered curiously at their strange visitors. We had been told by our guide to be ‘as weird in the water as possible to attract the dolphin’s attention, so we set about singing through our snorkels, twirling around and diving in an effort to say hello.

As I looked down through the endless murk, glimpsing dark shapes moving so fast below me, the old Shark Attack phobia resurfaced, but quickly faded as one after another of the dolphins began to come in close and check me out. It was like being in a kind of ethereal dreamworld, with the rushing of the dolphins’ wakes punctuated only by hesitant strains of ‘What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor?’ which seemed to be a particular favourite. The experience was topped off by spending a couple of minutes with one dolphin, who approached me and swam around me in circles as I spun around in the water, looking me fully in the eye before finally dashing off. It was a deeply moving, utterly thrilling experience which I shall never forget. Understanding that they are completely wild animals, and are never fed or encouraged into the area for the purposes of the swims, made it even more special – I felt incredibly privileged to be amongst these truly intelligent and beautiful creatures.

After a quick cup of hot chocolate to warm up onboard, we were treated to the awesome sight of the hundreds of dolphins frolicking in and around the bow waves of our boat, performing acrobatic jumps and speeding ahead of us, even at 30kph.

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SeaWorld will never be the same again – and the thought of those beautiful wild creatures caged in tiny pools makes my heart hurt, when I have seen them so free and happy.

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We spent our last day in NZ taking in a stunning clifftop walk around the Kaikoura peninsula, visiting the ridiculously cute but rather stinky fur seals who merely opened an eye to glare balefully at us as we disturbed their sunbathing.

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Half a crayfish and a bus ride later, we edged through the still devastated streets of outer Christchurch on our way to the airport for our 3am flight out to Hong Kong.

New Zealand’s tourism board have got their slogan exactly right – ‘100% pure’. It surely is – a country which combines all the best elements of a destination to ensure every day is better than the last – truly awesome scenery and wildlife, real culture and history which is celebrated, and people who genuinely want you to have a fantastic time. I’ve only been gone a few days and I’m missing it like crazy already – enough said.

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But from one extreme to the other – we’ve swapped the ethereal beauty of the South Island for the hustle of stunning Hong Kong – as I type now, Sam is attempting to eat a box of instant rice noodles from our Hong Kong hotel minibar with a pair of ice tongs… rather unsuccessfully I might add. More from him later.

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But, it’s finally arrived… our last day. Last night, we looked out across the magnificent Victoria Harbour at the brilliant vista of a thousand blinking skyscrapers, champagne in hand, and realised it’s finally time to go home.

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In one way, five months seem to have passed in the blink of an eye; a blur of colours and moments that now seem almost intangible. But in another, they feel like an endless expanse of experiences that have changed our lives… experiences that many people dream of one day having and that we’ve lived to see… experiences that will stay with us always.

My emotions are mixed. The thought of seeing my wonderful family, home and friends again is overwhelmingly ecstatic. The thought of putting in place all the changes and lessons we’ve learned along the way makes me pleasantly impatient. And the thought of finally seeing money come into our bank accounts rather than just out is an unfortunate, but necessary, addition. We’ve come a long long way and I feel rather jumbled up inside about it all; it’s overwhelming with so much to think about. But we’re determined to enjoy our last few moments here in this stunning city which forms the perfect bridge between the now-familiar and well-loved East, and our soon to be returning to West.

Can’t wait to see you all!
Chelley.x

Sauvignon, Chilled

I have a theory. And it’s that all wine tastes exactly the same.

Call me a philistine. As far as I’ve always been concerned, wine comes in just three flavours – red, white, rose – and either cheap or expensive. Secretly, I’ve always suspected that people who talk of mellow aromas, rich palettes of gooseberry and crisp finishes were charlatans and toffs, all desperate to ‘out-vino’ each other and to not appear class-less. I mean, it’s just fermented grape juice, right? It has to be a con.

Turns out, my theory was stinking nonsense.

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Marlborough changed my life. Supping on a chilled glass of Hunter’s Kaho Roa, an oak-aged, mellowed out Sauvignon – which I squirreled away from our day trip in the Marlborough Wine Region – I reflect that perhaps I was a teeny bit off the mark in my previous assumptions.

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We passed through a soup of fog and cloud that had hung low for the previous few days, and abruptly found ourselves in a sun-drenched golden valley, stretching as far as the eye could see. Welcome to Blenheim – wine country. Vineyards spread out in every direction, dotted with tiny hamlets and farms, all coloured in the tones of autumn. In the careful hands of our benevolent driver, Andy, we were being taken on a whistlestop tour of the best wineries the region had to offer. With free tastings at every cellar door.

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Now, some simple maths is required here to appreciate how much we were about to drink. Our tour lasted six hours. We visited eight wineries. In each winery, we were offered up to seven ‘tastings’ (read, considerably large volumes of wine). It all had the potential to equal a very, very messy adventure. You couldn’t have wiped the grins off our faces if you’d tried.

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In our defence, we began seriously enough. Comparing grapes types with our fellow travellers – an Irish couple and a woman who seemed to pack parachutes for a living – we knocked back Pinot Gris, Sparking Sauvignons, Rieslings, Gewurztraminers (which we affectionately nicknamed ‘Gee Whizz’), and even dabbled in Merlot and Pinot Noir. Then, as we passed through the cellar doors of Hunter’s, Alan Scott and Cloudy Bay, we learned a little about the history of the region and it’s techniques for producing wine. It’s staple grape, the Sauvignon, for instance, is a hardy little number – you can bash it, smash it, grind it through machines and stamp it all over, and it’ll still produce a wonderful white. Pinot Gris, on the other hand, is a wine-maker’s nightmare – obstinate, impetuous and often downright deviant – the vine needs a lot of love and can unexpectantly spoil even once it’s supposedly safe in the barrel, or worse still, decide to sprout an entirely different type of grape like some kind of feral animal. See? And you just thought we were getting drunk – we learned things too!

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Thankfully, as giddyness began to set in, we were rescued by lunch. Er, and another bottle of Pinot Gris, which we lapped up like maddened dogs. Next, we descended upon Wither Hills, Wairau Valley and Villa Maria, and began to feel increasingly beleaguered by the quantities of wine being thrown down our necks. Putting on a special effort to stand up straight, and holding a glass of wine in each hand, we were even ushered behind the scenes to glimpse the factory floor – where vast metallic barrels soared to the ceiling, old oak barrels littered the floor and heavy duty machinery gathered dust in the corner as it awaited the next harvest. Personally, I was thunderstruck at the scale of the operation – the Marlborough region uses 7 million vines to create 40,000 tonnes of grapes and 23.3 million litres of wine each year. Yum yum.

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Of course, straight faces and sensible enquiries inevitably descended into fits of giggles – at one point Chelley almost fell off her seat when one of our group mentioned he thought a Sauvignon was ‘punching above it’s weight’. Consequently, our intake of useful information was almost directly proportionate to our consumption of wine… and I’ve sort of forgotten everything else that happened, because, er, we were drunk.

But of course, it was fantastic, it was marvelous, it was stupendous, and we drank ’til we couldn’t drink another drop. Also, I managed to prove my theory partly true: wine really does taste the same, especially when you’ve necked two bottles of the stuff.

And then, we sobered up. And went to THE GLACIER. I’m using capitals here to denote how utterly powerful and absolutely terrifying it was. See?

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Picture this: a constantly shifting, creaking, cracking ice-age monstrosity, rising two thousand metres above the valley floor and slowly, deliberately carving its way through a mountain of solid rock. The Franz Josef Glacier beckoned us. Time to ‘fess up here – I was absolutely bricking it.

In the nearby town – also called Franz Josef, to add confusion – we strained our necks to look up at the thunderous giant, squinting to see it’s snowy peak shining in the sun. I was sure that I could hear the rumbling shift and fall of the ice flow, even here, some five kilometres away. And I was also pretty convinced that it would kill me.

The following morning, we would be climbing it.

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Armed to the teeth with waterproofs, hiking boots, crampons, gloves, hats and sandwiches, we began our treacherous ascent. A sea of cloud hung low over the summit, obscuring our view as we trudged through rainforest, valley and up a mountain of silt and broken rock towards the glacier. Our chirpy and loveable guide, Jess, enticed us past ominous warning signs with promises of hot chocolate. With tales of sudden, catastrophic rock falls and hidden crevasses that could swallow a man whole, we marched on upwards.

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The first steps out onto the ice were a completely surreal experience. It’s something of a surprise to discover that you have near perfect grip on a surface that would normally send you sprawling. That was also about the time for my first dread realisation. From far away, the glacier’s surface had appeared smooth, almost flat. Up close, it revealed itself as a beautiful but nightmarish cold labyrinth of craters, sudden slopes and deep, bottomless pits. The glacier was thought to shift some eight metres a day, suddenly opening up entire networks of caves and holes in the ground to swallow up misplaced phones, cameras – and, I had no doubt, people too – only to deposit them, encased in ice on the valley floor, days later.

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I was beginning to feel rather ill.

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Although she assures me now that she experienced similar moments of paralyzing panic, Chelley seemed completely at home on the ice – and I was very happy to follow her lead. Blue skies soon broke over the valley, and we were treated to some stupendous views of shining blue ice and twisted, frozen cliffs winding up high around us. And then, we started cutting a path through. Literally.

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There’s no straight route up a glacier – its a cavernous, towering run through solid frozen falls and impassable ten metre high walls. Wielding a pick axe, our guide hammered out ledges and steps for us to climb on to – I often found myself caught halfway up a ledge as she busied herself cutting out the path ahead. Together, we snuck across teetering edges, leapt over gorges and edged through narrow chasms, forever reaching upwards towards a promised plateau far in the distance. Heart in my throat, I clung to the ice like a salivating maniac, wondering whether I’d get my full refund if I begged to be helicoptered out. Apparently I crack bad jokes when I’m nervous. I don’t think anyone else was laughing.

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Sunshine finally lit up the valley as we rested for lunch, and took the opportunity to lap up cool glacial water running off the mountain. Feeling revitalized, and with the most stunning views of our journey yet spread out before us, the party descended through a system of natural caves and valleys that had formed in the glacier. In an effort to look less terrified, I donned a pair of sunglasses and played it cool – Ha Ha, that’s an ice joke for you – and finally found myself getting into the swing of things.

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Then, after four hours, exhilarated, exhausted, our climb was complete – and we found ourselves summiting an open flat. Very pleased with ourselves at this point – no icey death so far! – we took a few brief moments to appreciate our accomplishment from on high, before we plunged back down the glacier at a run – flitting along a conveniently pre-dug staircase.

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With the sun sinking over the mountains, and as we left the frozen giant in the distance, I began to appreciate the rare and unique opportunity we’d been given. In little under a hundred years, the glacier had retreated some two kilometres back up the valley – literally melting away into history. In just eighty years, we were told, nothing would be left. We were amongst just a handful of people, relatively speaking, that would ever even glimpse a natural phenomenon like this – let alone climb it.

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Which made me feel quite, well, gutted for the world, really. While we’ve been travelling, we’ve seen and experienced so many places that are momentary and fragile, and completely at the mercy of our own crappy attitudes towards nature. In my lifetime, reefs that we’ve swam in will disappear, rainforests will be cut away, and a lot of those cute animals we both cooed at will kiss their arses goodbye. I’d hate to look back in sixty years and realise that the places I’d fell in love with had just vanished off the face of the earth.

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We’ve just got two weeks left. Better keep cramming as much of the world in as possible, while it’s still here.

Waitomo, Wargs and Wellywood

From Waitomo to Wellywood we’ve travelled… And climbed Mount Doom in the middle. It’s been a pretty ‘sweet as’ experience, as the locals would say.

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Having boarded our Kiwi Experience bus and silently died at the plethora of 18 year old chavs stinking of booze and yelling Man United chants at 7am, we made our way to our first stop of the day from charming Rotorua.

Shamelessly bribed by the ridiculously low prices of the ‘activites’ on offer, we handed over £20 and proceeded to get blown around in a torrent of air from a ginormous fan, simulating freefall experienced whilst skydiving. Predictably, I spent most of my 10 minutes in knicker-wetting hysterics as I trundled about in mid-air, and then the next 10 laughing at the effect air currents had on Sam’s facial features as he attempted to float off into the ether like something out of Charlie’s Great Glass Elevator.

After calming ourselves, and ruing my lack of hairband (the force of 10,000 hairdryers all blowing your hair in different directions is definitely not a good look), we boarded the bus again and hunkered down with headphones and books, studiously ignoring the ‘games’ (aka organised fun for 12 year olds) that our guide tried to involve the bus in.

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Rocking up several hours later to gorgeously isolated Waitomo, we embarked on a 4 hour blackwater rafting expedition, which basically consists of white water rafting in an inner tube. In underground caves. And over waterfalls. In the dark. After yanking on an inch-thick and still damp wet suit in the drifting NZ drizzle, we selected our steeds and proceeded to descend through a tiny hole in a rock wall down into the subterranean wilderness. My initial fears of claustrophobia quickly dissipated as we began the serious and undeniably fun process of clambering over and under caverns, rock walls and pools, throwing ourselves bum-first over waterfalls and generally behaving like big kids in a pitch-black water park.

Definitely the biggest surprise came when our intrepid guide ‘Turtle’, (straight faces, please), entreated us to turn off our headlights and look upwards as she pulled us through the black water. Above our heads, smattered all over the walls and ceiling of the caves where thousands of glow-worms, each emitting their own tiny spark of bioluminescence, and looking from our position below very much like constellations of stars. It was pretty breathtaking and a little otherworldly, knowing we were deep underground but inside caverns as big as cathedrals.

Several games of pool and 6 pints of ill-advised local cider later, we collapsed into bed, blocking out the cow-like whoops of our dearly beloved fellow travellers who had earlier proclaimed they’d ‘rather drink than fanny about in caves’, and slept off our hangovers.

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The next morning, we escaped off our bus as early as we could to pretty Taupo, nestled into the Southern edge of the Lake of the same name, which purportedly is the size as Singapore.

Here, we stocked up on trail mix and chocolate and booked our bus transfers to the start of the Tongariro Alpine Pass, one of the world’s Top 10 day hikes, and site of the infamous Mount Doom.

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At ridiculous o’clock the next morning, we clambered into a mini bus half filled with similarly deranged day trippers, and made our way towards the mountain. Signs were ominous as we attempted to outrun a gloaming and impenetrable layer of rainy cloud a hundred feet above us, and smile through the gale-force wind gusts of up to 90km per hour. The bus company’s literature was peppered with references to ‘points of no return’ and ‘extreme weather procedures’, which turned out to be sadly rather useful.

The first 2 hours of our planned 18km trek passed smoothly, the only downside being that the magnificent mountain ranges around us were nearly entirely obscured from view by the low-lying cloud. Presently, we reached Mt Ngauruhoe, aka Mt Doom, which was covered in huge, spookily shaped lava rocks, spewed down from the last eruption of the volcano above several hundred years ago. It was a very strange landscape, like finding yourself inside a giant coal pit – and of course we took full advantage by dolling up for the requisite Frodo&Sam crawling pic:

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An hour later, as we were nearing the ‘point of no return’, the wind had picked up to the promised 90kph, and walkers around us were clinging to boulders to stay upright. As group after group ahead of us started to turn back from the ridge climb above, we got a tad worried – by the time we reached the ridge, it was clear only proceeding on hands and knees would get you across the 100m narrow ridge without being whisked to your doom.

Fancying a nice pot of tea and a spot of second breakfast rather than instant death, we decided to turn back, and joined a pack of merry wanderers for the descent down the mountain.

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It turned out to be a decision not in the least regrettable, as we were afforded some truly magnificent views over the mountains behind the Pass, even if our intended summit was still suffering storm conditions. There was even a definite contender for the world’s most scenic loo in the lower carpark:

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We spent most of the next day glued to the picture windows of our new tour bus, gawking out at the frankly breathtaking scenery which unfolds itself in literally every direction you look in NZ. With decidedly numb bums, we arrived to drizzle and sophisticated nightlife in Wellington, the country’s capital and much-vaunted home of ‘Wellywood’, Hollywood’s smaller and more hairy-toed compadre.

There, we embarked on an epic full-day tour of the filming locations of all 3 LotR locations: we got bitten by sandflies on the River Anduin,

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Smoked pipes in the ‘Get off the Roooad!’ Forest

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Popped into Rivendell

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Pretended to be Saruman and Gandalf at Isengard

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Fell off the side of a ravine into a river like Aragorn after battling with Wargs

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And managed to capture on film something I’ve suspected for a long time – that Sam is in fact a Hobbit…

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Our LotR walking encyclopedia, Jack, kept us chuckling with tales from the set and recent sightings of various famous Elves turning up in town for the start of filming for The Hobbit, which is now taking place under cloak and dagger in Wellywood. Avoiding a rather weary-looking security guard who had clearly told more than his fair share of Tolkien geeks to shove off, we loitered outside the warehouses and filmstar trailers of the set, glimpsing the ginormous green screen which was no doubt at that very moment creating amazing special effects and scenery.

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Somewhat still hungers after a miniscule lunch at the Scorchio cafe, which often shelters actors and actresses during their lunch breaks and scene resets, we topped off our day with a visit to the WETA cave, learning about all the awesome special effects, make-up, costumes and set design of the company that has made LotR, Narnia, Tin Tin, King Kong, I Robot and scores of other blockbusters look so amazing.

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Buoyed up by promises of the need for ‘a cast of thousands’ for the Battle of 5 Armies scene in the Hobbit, and that we’d both easily make the height requirement to be considered to be an Elf, we spent dinner discussing the possibility of postponing our return to the UK for a hastily-begotten Working Holiday Visa and a cafe job as we waited for Mr Jackson’s casting agent to call. Watch this space…

Currently emerging from our hangovers after a couple of days ensconced deep in winery territory on the South Island, we are now utterly besotted with Kiwidom and are rather sad that we hadn’t allocated ourselves more time in this bewitching isle.

Welcome to Middle Earth

First things first – let’s be absolutely clear on this – New Zealand is beautiful. The scenery drips with character, colour and atmosphere. Everywhere we turn, jaws hit the floor. It’s as if someone went around nicking the best views from every old English village, every panoramic American vista – the most remote and unique scenery from the corners of the world – and reassembled them into a picture-perfect mashup of the greatest landscapes on earth.

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We are very much blown away.

If there was a competition to have the most ridiculously pretty places on one island, New Zealand would take home gold. Sweeping mountain ranges dusted with snow, rolling hillsides and cutesy hedge rows, sprawling freshwater lakes, bubbling geothermic pools, and slippery, secret caves tucked away between the hillside. Oh, and hobbits. Lots and lots of hobbits.

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Unfortunately, discussion of the word Hobbit has effectively been banned from this blog. We’ve been sworn to absolute secrecy when it comes to disseminating any information about The Lord of the Rings. No, really. Just a few days ago, bounding with enthusiasm and salivating with excitement, we bundled onto the back of a tour bus to visit the legendary Hobbiton film set, as used in The Lord of the Rings, and just recently refurbished for the upcoming The Hobbit prequels. Immediately, we were slapped on the faces with a hefty non-disclosure form – photographs were an absolute no-no, and furthermore anything we learned on set about the upcoming film was a really big, scary secret. We’ve been officially embargoed. Until the new films are released. In 2013.

Failure to comply with this would incur ‘The Wrath Of Sauron’, which was a colourful way of telling us that we would be hit by a $5 million US dollar fine. And they’d send Ringwraiths after us. Or a Balrog, which is presumably quite a close approximation of New Line Cinema’s lawyers.

So, for the record: we definitely didn’t visit the set of the Hobbit to see Bag End, it definitely wasn’t like walking into a scene from the Lord of the Rings, and we most certainly did not have an absolutely stonking good time. Right? Good.

Anyway – enough about Hobbits. Down from our arrival in Auckland, we stayed a few days in scenic Rotorua. Set amidst a vast, sheep-populated landscape of lush green fields and hills, the town lies on a minefield of geothermic geysers and bubbling, boiling mud pools. What’s more, it’s a something of a sacred place to the locals – these thermal, sulfur-rich springs are revered by the Maori people – semi-indigeneous Pacific Islanders who arrived in New Zealand some thousand years ago, long before European settlers arrived.

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Where better place, then, to whet our cultural appetites with a Maori concert and traditional Hangi meal (that’s a platter of meat, potato and vegetables steamed underground inside a thermal vent). And when I say concert, what I actually mean is a sort of full-frontal assault on the senses, incorporating music, fighting, singing and intimidating war dance.

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We were even offered the chance to learn the moves – Chelley learned to spin a Poi (sort of), and I mastered the art of the Haka (sort of). Our evening was rounded off by an impromptu performance – the talents of our faithful guide and a monstrous erupting geyser combining to set a scene of swirling mist and haunting singing. It was frankly breathtaking, and would have been completely serene if not for a little old Texan lady squeaking every time water erupted from the geyser.

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We’re back on the road again now – headed south towards Mordor to climb Mount Doom (that’s Lake Taupo, for the uninitiated), and then off to see the Elves at Rivendell (er, Wellington). We may even buy fake beards. Bye!

Proof that we’ve finally reached the Shire…

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Even the showers are Hobbit-sized!

Rednecks, Beach Bums and Tim Tam Milkshakes

Two and a half thousand kilometres later, and we’re just a shot away from Sydney – the final destination on what has been a tremendous, tyre-screeching, torrential rainstorm of a trip from the (now very distant) city of Cairns. Settling back into the eerily English retreat of Katoomba nestled up high in the Blue Mountains, at last we’re given a chance to breathe and recollect on everything that’s happened over the last month.

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We’ve frolicked about in the sea like twelve year olds. We’ve been caught in flash floods. We’ve even made friends with an entire menagerie of Cockatoos, Koalas and Wallabies. It’s been epic, exhausting, exhilarating and an altogether extremely eye-opening experience.

But rather than bore you with a long winded, blow-by-blow account of our adventures, instead I’ll keep things short, sweet and flippant. So then! Prepare yourself for the abridged short stories of the Aussie East Coast – punctuated with as many silly photos as I could possibly fit in. Here’s just a few of the bizarre, wonderful and inevitably hilarious adventures we’ve been having!

-Soaring downriver in a sail-powered kayak before watching kite surfers perform dazzling tricks as the sun sets over distant dunes.

-Guzzling several litres of the popular national beverage known as GOON (read: hangover wine).

-Soaking up the super laid back atmosphere at Byron Bay, and kicking back after a strenuous day at the beach by grabbing a beer (or a hot chocolate, in Chelley’s case) and listening to some impromptu street music by some of Australia’s greatest undiscovered musicians.

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-Entering a town in the middle of arse-end-of-nowhere-ville and promptly receiving a welcoming one finger salute and several unpublishable expletives from a country bumpkin who was presumably the by-product of a special inter-family breeding program.

-Developing an unhealthy addiction to crunchy style peanut butter and mastering the ancient art of sucking tea up through a Tim Tam.

-Celebrating our 4th anniversary together (hoorah!) in the bastion of civilisation that is Brisbane. After weeks in the relative outback, discoveries in our hotel like AN ACTUAL KETTLE and A WORKING TELEVISION felt like ridiculous novelties.

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-Giggling like idiots at one of our guide’s impressions of “Redneck Aussies” – you know, the sort of people who wear those silly dangly cork hats, keep ten foot crocodiles as pets and use phrases like “fair dinkum” in casual conversation. Yes. They really exist.

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-Discovering the place we want to retire, in the form of the heavenly town of Noosa, where we finally caught some sunshine (AT LAST) and ate our own weight in seafood on more than one occasion.

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-Realising everyone who drives a big truck in Australia is a MASSIVE ARSE and conjuring up imaginative insults for them whilst also trying to swerve manically out of the way as they try and overtake you ON A BEND and at ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY KILOMETRES AN HOUR while it’s RAINING.

-And a personal favourite: swimming beneath the swirl and mist of a thundering waterfall and wondering if life really can get any better than this single, electrifying moment.

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Next stop, the big city. Worryingly, I’ve decided to try a surfing lesson, which could have disastrous results, so stay tuned for that. We’ve only got one week left in Oz before saying Kia Ora to Aeotearoa (that’s Hello to New Zealand in Maori), and about time too. I’ve been continually humming the theme tune from The Lord Of The Rings for the last four months in slobbering anticipation, and I suspect Chelley is getting a little bit sick of hearing it.

Little does she realise that I intend on purchasing a fake beard, some Mithril and a pet dwarf and re-enacting every single scene and piece of dialogue from the movies at the first opportunity. Can’t. Wait.

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