Friday, December 28, 2007

wheelchairs, religion and the gospel according to eagle creek ...

The wheelchair access policy (above) at Morelia Cathedral more than hinted at a strong local belief in the healing powers of worship.

At this time of year many people turn their thoughts to matters of religious contemplation, but about the closest I get to evangelism is singing the praises of my Eagle Creek Pack Cubes to anyone who'll listen - over the past eight months they have proved themselves the single most useful item of my travel kit.

Anyone who's lived out of a rucksack will be familiar with the hassle of unpacking every time fresh clothes are needed, keeping laundry separate in plastic bags and of course the potential chaos of a bag search at the airport. Using the cubes with their clever floating panel which separates clean clothes and laundry, your clothes stay flat and folded at all times. It all makes for the easiest and quickest packing and unpacking imaginable

After carrying my rather large 65 litre pack around all year one of my objectives in LA was to reduce the size of my luggage - by swapping a couple of items for more packable alternatives I'd hoped to take my pack size down by 10 litres or so. So, you can only imagine than my delight at discovering the Eagle Creek ORV Gear Bag - a work of unparalleled genius, specifically designed around the Pack Cube system.

Not only have I been able to reduce my pack size by almost a third to a mere 47 litres, but my new bag is so well designed that I also added a super-warm down jacket in anticipation of some cold Andean nights over the coming months. Here it is all packed up alongside with a bottle of Sam Adams (purely for scale of course).

After testing it out on the road for the past three weeks, my enthusiasm for the Eagle Creek pack system has galvanised into a near religious fervour. As we head into the New Year and the final months of our journey I have ambitious plans spread the gospel far and wide ...

And no, I'm not on commission.

At least not yet anyway.

Our last few days in Mexico uncovered another strong contender for the Beer League - Noche Buena.

Only available at Christmas it is the final batch of the year before the brewery closes down for it's annual cleaning of the tanks. At 5.9% the translation of it's name into English couldn't be more appropriate - simply, Good Night

Finally I've decided the New Year deserves a new colour scheme - do let me know what you think ...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

lingo for gringos ...

We arrived in the beautiful city of Morelia late on Sunday evening fully expecting the worst from the student apartment we'd arranged for the week.

Our expectations of a cramped single room studio, furnished with little more than a stained mattress on the floor couldn't have been further from the truth. Instead we unexpectedly found ourselves with a recently renovated apartment in a beautiful historic building, complete with a stylish fitted kitchen, flat screen TV, queen sized bed, and even our own private courtyard. A definite candidate for nicest lodgings of the trip, and a total bargain at a tenner a night.

In order to maximise our time at the Baden Powell Institute (above) we've opted for separate one-on-one tuition for the week, with Mel taking the academic approach (conjugating verbs, lots of homework) whilst I'm taking the conversational learning, no homework approach. Some things never change. Our days now consist of back to back 50 minute lessons with a conveyor belt of frustrated tutors as we flail around with various aspects of the Spanish language.

It seems I spoke far too soon on the merits of Mexican food. Just a couple of hours after publishing my last post I found myself "talking on the great white telephone" in our bathroom with great enthusiasm - an act I would repeat with alarming regularity over the next few hours.

An expression they use in Mexico when foreigners get food poisoning is "la venganza de Montezuma" which translates to "Montezumas Revenge", or in other words payback for invading their lands. Descendants of European colonial types take note, I have settled your ancestral debt in full.

The timing was pretty lousy as not only did I have to skip school the following day (again, some things never change) but we were also expecting our first house guests, Ed & Fi, who are travelling around the world without flying (read Ed's blog here). While my amigos enjoyed chilled bottles of Tecate served with fresh lime, I found myself reduced to the pitiful state of sipping the otherwise excellent Fresca (a little like lemonade) as my stomach accompanied their conversation by simulating the sounds of a distant thunderstorm.

In the run up to Christmas we've been subjected to everything from Hawaiian versions of all the traditional carols (on Ukelele and slack key guitar) to the rampant consumerism of Rodeo Drive in Beverley Hills. But as far as taking things seriously go, our amigos the Mexicans just can't be beaten - as this life-size nativity scene outside Guadalajara Cathedral should confirm.

I'll be taking a brief break from the blog over the Christmas period, but I'll be back in the New Year to let you know what we got up to. For those of you not already pickled to the eyeballs in festive mirth may I take this opportunity to wish you all a Feliz Navidad!

Or Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 14, 2007

swimming with lions and dining with donkeys ...

It seems like we've been so busy over the last week - three new cities explore, as well as trying (spectacularly unsuccessfully) to form some sort of plan for our next few months in Latin America.

Crossing the border into Mexico was a rather unusual experience. One that involved us watching a hispanic soap opera at maximum volume, on a portable TV with the cleaning lady, while we waited for the immigation official to return from the sandwich shop.

As the worlds most visited border town, Tijuana is the place where Americans come for cheap drugs (prescription and otherwise), while the Mexicans line up by the riverbank at night to play their own version of British Bulldogs with the US border patrols.

I didn't feel the need to take any photos in Tijuana. The only spectacle truly of note was the opportunity to have your photo taken with a Zebra for a couple of US dollars. Closer inspection revealed that some enterprising local had taken a few tins of spray paint to a regular a Donkey to create this tourist attraction. Not exactly RSPCA approved.

Not really having a plan didn't stop us jumping on a plane the very next morning to the laid back city of La Paz (we'd heard it is nice - so why not?) in Southern Baja California.

At the risk of appearing a little obsessed after my last post, beside an inexplicable statue on the Malecon (above) the absolute highlight of La Paz was a boat trip to a Sea Lion colony where we had the opportunity to swim alongside them - a much more authentic experience than the zoo, and one I´ll always remember. As much for the palpable sense of relief at not being bitten by one as anything else.

After La Paz we took a flight to Mexico's second city Guadalajara for the weekend. Incredible old stone colonial era architecture sits alongside some genuinely gritty neighbourhoods providing the starkest of contrasts. Most notably the town of Tequila lies just outside Guadalajara and while we didn't have time to make it out that far, it would have been incredibly rude to pass up the opportunity to sample a few glasses on home territory.

Let's just say I now recall all too well why I don't drink Tequila at home anymore.

I have to say that our first week in Mexico has been hard work covering so much ground, but absolutely brilliant. After spending the last couple of months in the English speaking world it's great to immerse ourselves in a completely different culture again. The food here is quite different to Mexcian food at home, offering a greater diversity of flavours and at prices that are very complimentary to our ever diminishing budget. Even the restaurant signs are a continual source of amusement as they play on the dual meaning of the word Burro (Donkey/Burrito).

One week into struggling along with my very rudimentary grasp of some basic Spanish phrases and we've decided it's time to go "back to school" as we catch the bus to our next destination, the city of Morelia for some intensive tuition.

Somehow my Tequila hangover isn't filling me with enthusiasm for our entry examination for the Baden-Powell Institute at 8.30am tomorrow morning ...

The other notable thing about Mexico is the remarkable ease with which they seem to have stormed my beer league, including
a brand new No.1!

After a long reign at the top, Japan's Yebisu has finally yielded to Modelo Especial, and there are several other very respectably placed Mexican beers.

Of course it still remains to be seen what we´ll be drinking this Christmas so keep posted ...

Sunday, December 09, 2007

santa's secret ...

After LA we began our journey south with a weekend in San Diego.

We couldn't really pass up the chance to see their world famous zoo, which provided the opportunity to see gorillas and lots of other unusual animals close up. While the hairy apes are definitely the most impressive exhibit, the prize for most entertaining must surely go to the Sea Lion show. Here's a brief video from the performance.

Being our fifth animal park of the trip we found ourselves in the position of having recently seen most of the animals - so I think we'll probably skip the next one. It is possible to have too much of a good thing.

In the evening we turned to entertainment of a different kind as we said farewell to our host and chauffeur for the week Sean with a great Saturday night out in San Diego's party central, the gaslamp district.

There's plenty to keep the tourist entertained here, but you won't find our most enduring memory listed in your guidebook.

Usually when a hotel advertises itself as unique I take it with a pinch of salt, but somehow our B&B in San Diego managed to live up to the hype with a toilet seat of true distinction.

I'm almost ashamed I ever doubted.

Santa really is watching you kids. Wherever you are this Christmas.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

getting to grips with cockney rhyming beer slang ...

The moment we walked through the door of Sean's apartment in LA he swung his refrigerator door open to reveal his preparation for our visit. On view was an extensive selection of American beers, and with a grin he said "Right then, let's get some of these on that beer league of yours ..."

There are almost as many varieties of beer here as there are choices of fast food outlet. The tricky part is finding the good ones in a sea of mediocrity. Although, with a bar down the road boasting an incredible 133 beers on tap I feel I will be happy conducting my research here for a while.

Of course just because there are lots of beers available, doesn't necessarily make them easy to get hold of. Not only do you regularly have to present ID in bars (even if you're an octogenarian), but somehow an English accent can be very difficult for bar staff to understand.

First, when asking for a pen (to log the different beers - I learnt early on how easy it can be to forget most of a solid evening's research) we managed to recieve a pint of Old Speckled Hen. In another bar a straightforward request for a beer called Great White led to a suspiciously long delay before our waiter returned with cocktails called a Greyhound (vodka and grapefruit juice apparently).

We have decided to name this phenomenon cockney ryhming beer slang.

We've been spending our days in LA checking out sights like the Getty, Venice Beach and the Hollywood sign - all things you'll have seen a hundred times before on TV (so don't need to hear about here).

Sitting down to our first beer of the evening after a long day marching around the Getty Centre (above) we noticed the piano. Yet strangely none of us felt inclined to risk asking for the pianist ...

The moustache has finally gone - and thankfully no tell-tale white patch (due in no small part to 3 days of constant rain before we left Kaua'i). Last minute sponsors please see the post below this for details of how to add your support for the Prostate Cancer Charity.

Friday, November 30, 2007

this is the sound of island radio ...

Over the past months we've been regularly seeking recommendations from Americans we've met of places to go and stay for our week in Hawaii. In all our conversations, one piece of advice has been universal. Leave Honolulu immediately.

So it was that within two hours of landing we found ourselves on a small plane bound for the least touristed of all the major Hawaiian islands, Kaua'i.

Despite it's diminutive size, we found plenty to do in our eight days here, from the soft sandy beaches perfect for surfing and snorkeling to the rugged interior with it's spectacular scenery and hiking around Waimea Canyon - dubbed the grand canyon of the Pacific.

Kaua'i is a superbly laid-back island with a genuinely unique character. Since the decline of the sugar cane plantations and their regular burning of the fields, the islands feral chicken population has been steadily increasing. Then in 1992 when the island was flattened by a hurricane the prized fighting cocks of the local Phillipino community were released into the wild - having testosterone charged roosters (or at least the avian equivalent) rampaging over the island numbers has sent numbers spiraling out of control.

When they're not dashing out into the road bringing the local vehicle of choice, the monster truck, to a screeching halt, they seem to delight in crowing at all hours of the day and night. It gets even more confusing when this is also the ring tone on your cellphone, our joke of the week is simply "can you get that ...". Repeat several times daily.

One aspect of island life you won't read about in the guide books is the local radio station, Island Radio, playing a mix of reggae and local pop. The lyrics of the local pop songs are so literal that I've often found myself listening to songs assuming them to be adverts before realising they are in fact genuine tracks by local artists. A local version of the 12 days of Christmas is easily confused with a supermarket advert (8 tins of tuna, 7 pounds of pork) until it reaches items like 5 hunting dogs, 4 remote controls and of course an Irie Island Reggae CD.

After our initial chuckles we've grown rather fond of it - it's so refreshing for music to provide such an honest reflection of everyday life.

One track though stands apart in it's continued ability ability to have us laughing like lunatics as we drive around the island, we call it the toilet paper song and I think you'll enjoy it too.

After the first verse (imagine a reggae pop style) which describes stocking up on essentials in readiness for an approaching hurricane, the chorus kicks in as the singer reflects;

Your love, is like a good toilet paper ...
It never falls apart when the going gets tough ...

This is only surpassed by the "rap" in the middle of the song;

If you ever why that I say what i say,
The good toilet paper keep me clean every day.

It stay by my side, it never go away,

It never running out, that I hope and I pray.

Your lovin' is so fresh and so clean and so strong,

And like a roll of Charmin your lovin' lasts long.

Absolute genius.

Finally today is the last day of Movember and my new moustache is complete. A big thanks to all my sponsors who have raised a total of 125 pounds so far.

The Prostate Cancer Charity is a great cause and there's still time for those who'd like to donate - just click here and use my unique reference of 160527.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

time travel and the longest friday ...

It could have been the scene from Superman where he flies around the world to turn back time, or perhaps it was tuning in to the latest episode of Dr. Who every Saturday teatime with an almost religious fervour - but I had developed an interest in the possibility of time travel from a very early age.

As we prepared to leave New Zealand the time had finally come to realise my long-held ambitions, at around midnight that evening we would be flying across the international date line right back into Friday morning. To further confuse matters we would also be crossing the equator and swapping spring for winter, plus it was going to be warmer.

I'll give you a few moments to digest that lot.

Our schedule would first take us to Nadi in Fiji where we would change planes for our final destination of Hawaii. Changing planes isn't a great recipe for a relaxing overnight flight, but just after boarding we realised it could be very good news indeed for the beer league.

The surly attitude of the airport staff at Nadi airport hardly filled us with entusiasm for a return visit, but a quick visit to the restaurant confirmed the precence of 3 local beers which I would have the opportunity to sample before our flight left just before midnight. It yielded the very reasonable Fiji Bitter and Fiji Gold, plus the absolutely horrible Fiji Export Bitter which tasted like a cross between old socks and Ouzo. I couldn't help thinking that between the airport staff and brewing industry something is going very wrong with attempts to develop promote Fiji to a world audience as a tourist destination.

After being singled out for an additional security search as we boarded the plane which included the farce of being waved over by an obviously faulty metal detector wand (I know this as my belt buckle always sets the ones that work off), we took off on time and just 30 minutes into the flight were informed over the tannoy to adjust our watches. One hour forward, one day backwards.

We arrived in Honalulu airport at 7am. It was a full 10 hours before our departure that evening from New Zealand ... and not a Dalek in sight.

In just five more days my moustache will be fully matured, so I'll post a more extensive photo gallery at the end of the month.

Despite my altered appearance I made it through US immigration with no more difficulty than being required recite the ingredients of the bag of bombay mix I had declared on the customs form, having had my request to be allowed retreive it from my luggage and actually refer to the packaging refused.

Given the various recipes for bombay mix we quickly reached an impasse after I vaguely admitted that I didn't actually know the precise ingredients of the packet in question. Matters only became more confused by my repeated reference to the only ingredient I could be sure of - in the confusion of time travel I had completely forgotten that chickpeas are called garbanzo beans here in the US. Thankfully the immigration official seemed to tire of the game pretty quickly and I was allowed to proceed after giving solemn assurances it didn't contain any pork or beef. Or chickens.

My most immediate concern now is whether or not I will find a tell-tale white patch when I finally shave off the mo' next weekend ...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

the full monty ...

As we rolled into Auckland we unleashed an exercise in vehicle selling of military precision.

With only four days to sell our van we decided to hit the market hard with a keen price and set out with the objective of placing a copy of our advert to the noticeboard of every backpacker lodge in the city.

We took our first call 30 minutes after pinning the first advert to a noticeboard and just 30 minutes after that the sale was all but agreed. It just remained for Super Casual to pass a nailbiting independent inspection the next morning, and the transaction was completed.

For those of you with an interest in figures, here's the running cost data for our trip of 5347km.

insurance -$180
camping gear -$344
maintenance -$ 10
fuel -$645
profit on sale +$100
total -$1079

It all works out at an incredible $0.20/km or just 11.9 pence per mile in UK terms - surely these must qualify as world class running costs for a camper van?

The early sale of our van left us with time on our hands to relax and enjoy our last few days in New Zealand updating our wardrobes and hanging out in the cafe's and bars (but mainly bars) of Auckland's fashionable Ponsonby district.

We've discovered lots of uniquely Kiwi expressions to describe a great result like this, from the slightly over-used awesome, to sweet as and even occasionally the rather unusual monty.

After delivering six weeks of trouble-free motoring for less than the cost of a single round NZ bus ticket and saving us an estimated $500 in accommodation, we think SC is quite simply - the full monty

As well as seeing SC drive off into the sunset we also say goodbye to New Zealand today, as once again the time has come for us to move on. It's been an amazing time, and even after 6 weeks we leave behind plenty of things for next time ...

Before we depart there's time for one last moustache update - here I am this morning on day 23

I've added the last couple of beers to the league and all the photos are now online for those of you who wish to look them over (don't worry, we're saving some for a slide show when we return).

The next update will be from somewhere completely different ...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

earth, wind (water) and fire ...

Approaching the city limits of Rotorua we began to look at each other suspiciously.

As the smell of rotten eggs intensified it didn't take too long to realise that it had more to do with the hydrogen sulphide emitted by thermal activity than our breakfast that morning. It may have been the thermal activity and associated Spa's that first attracted tourists to this part of the North Island, but we found more to detain us here than anywhere else in New Zealand.

It's interesting that what terrifies one person another can take quite in their stride. As Mel decided to fulfil her ambition for jumping out of an aeroplane (something I would require sedation to even consider) I took to the Wairoa River for some full on white-water rafting, the very thought of which terrifies Mel to an equal extent.

When the local hydro-electric company dammed the river a number of years ago the rafting operators managed to secure an agreement that sees water released for a few short hours only twenty-six times a year. I could see why they battled so hard to keep rafting here, as we spent 2 hours tackling the Grade 4-5 rapids every hundred metres or so along our route.

It was only after we had recovered from partially capsizing in the toughest rapid of the day that our raft guide informed us about the 8 people had previously died in the same spot. I guess that should have provided a sober moment, but we we're having so much fun it just seemed to add to the general euphoria.

While the white water definitely rules for adrenaline, by far the most amusing activity in Rotorua (if not the planet) is Zorbing.

Imagine rolling down a hill along a zig-zag course in an enormous beach ball along with half a gallon of lukewarm water - the video below of the straight course should provide you with a good idea.

It may be completely pointless and ridiculous, but I'd challenge anyone not to laugh all the way down. Simply hilarious fun.

Of course as I left the finish area having had my photo taken, the photographer only had one thing to say to me ...

"Hey, nice 'tashe mate".

This is getting more embarassing by the day.

Here's a photo of me on Day 18 of Movember posing with a bottle of MAC Spring Tide, new in at No. 2 in the beer league.

I'm delighted to say that thanks to your support the sponsorship amount is now well into 3 figures and rising almost as fast as my embarassment. If you haven't sponsored me yet and would like to, you can find all the details a couple of posts below.

I'd also like to take this opportunity to state absolutely categorically that my moustache is NOT GINGER. You know who you are.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

the grape escape ...

With only a couple of weeks to make our way up to Auckland, we moved sharply up the east coast to the Art Deco city of Napier.

In contrast to the overcast weather we had in Wellington, here we were treated to two days of glorious sunshine. Perfect for wine growing, and even better for taking a chaufeurred tour of some of the areas vineyards to sample over thirty varieties of locally produced wine.

Hawkes Bay seems to produce a far better white wine than my preferred tipple of red - certainly they were not a patch on the Pinot Noirs of the South Island. But quite honestly after the equivalent of a couple of bottles apiece, who cares anymore? It was a great day out, which we topped off with some excellent Thai food in one of Napiers many fine restaurants.

Of course all good things come to an end, and after a couple of days wining and dining in comparative style it was time to make our grape escape and pack up our backpacks for a couple of days of going bush in the wilderness of Waikaremoana Lake in Te Urawera National Park.

Just to get to the start of our trek we had to negotiate 25km of dirt track in the van, before chartering a boat to drop us at the other side of the lake. It all contributed to a genuine feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, which is exactly where we still were after walking for eight hours laden with 15kg packs when we stopped to spend the evening in one of the huts provided by the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Our trek alternated between the side of the lake, and inland routes through pristine forests dripping with vines. The area is one of the few left on the North Island where the original native bush has been left completely untouched, and it still provides suitable habitat for the highly endangered Kiwi, whose numbers are being restored thanks to extensive pest control programmes for introduced predators such as stoats.

As our pre-arranged boat collected us the next day for the 40 minute ride back accross the lake to collect our van, we could easily imagine how it had been a great place for New Zealands latest suspected domestic terrorists to hang out. Thankfully the only thing criminal we encountered was the price of our water taxi ...

Thanks for all your fantastic support sponsoring my new moustache - the sponsorship total is almost into three figures. I've even had people I don't know complimenting me on it. If you still haven't donated you can find details below in the previous posts (just scroll down).

Things at the top end of the beer league have been looking a little crowded of late, so I've taken the opportunity to review and "recalibrate" to give a more accurate representation of merit. Basically you should find anything in the top 15 or so highly drinkable.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

pimp my face up ...

It probably goes without saying, but I feel a bit of a plonker walking around like this.

I suppose at least I should be grateful I'm in a country where outlandish facial hair is regarded as the height of good taste. Almost as much as in Belgium.

All the cities we've visited in New Zealand seem to have their own unique character and the capital Wellington is no exception. Life here really does revolve around the numerous bars and cafe's, so much so that the city actually gets busier at 6pm and parking spaces far more difficult to come by.

It's been really nice just to relax for a couple of days and we didn't do much other than paying a visit to the impressive "Te Papa " National Museum which covers all aspects of the nations natural and cultural history. One of the more interesting exhibits is a room in which you can experience a simulated earthquake.

Of course my new facial hair has not gone unnoticed by the local females.

Mind you, I don't think Mel has too much to fear from the shop assistant who attempted to flirt with me as I was buying a new pair of shorts. After asking where I was from, she said "Oh nice! .. we have UK shoe sizes here". Eventually she broke my stunned silence that followed by saying "Hmm, that's not very interesting is it?". I didn't like to say.

Full credit to her though, she carried on trying with insightful followup questions like "So what does UK stand for then?" and of course the ubiquitous "So, is Leeds near London then?". After I'd put her straight she attempted to explain her ignorance by giggling and saying "Well, I was never any good at history".

Confused, I ventured "Do you mean geography?", to which she replied "Geography? God no, I was terrible at that ...".

I still don't think she had the slightest idea what I was talking about.

Monday, November 12, 2007

conquering the worlds steepest ...

After a spot of jet-boating in Glenorchy (the main location for Lord of the Rings filming) we headed back to the Southeast coast and New Zealand's fourth largest city*, Dunedin.

Originally founded by Scottish presbyterian settlers its name is the Gaelic word for its twin town of Edinburgh. There's plenty of evidence of it's Scots roots, from the architecture and street names to the wide range of shops selling tartan and kilts. It even snowed for 10 minutes to prove it's credentials.

In Dunedin, our little van Super Casual proved his worth on Baldwin Street - the worlds steepest according to the Guinness Book of records (1998 edition). And just in case there are any doubters out there, here's the video.

I'm still not sure if the people in the background are laughing at us, but it must have been impressive because we received a certificate signed by the Mayor of Dunedin to honour the achievement.

Despite this I wasn't convinced the locals were taking it nearly seriously enough. In fact the staff in the corner shop seemed rather more interested in our $2 than they were in validating our video evidence ...

* population c.115,000

Saturday, November 10, 2007

pimp or magnum - vote now !

There's still time to vote for your favourite mo' - just add a comment below to state your preference ...

Voting closes midnight on Monday 12th GMT, and don't forget if you donate using my unique code of 160527 then your vote will count for double.

I'll be posting a photo of the winning style "shaved in" soon after, so don't forget to come back and see it in all it's glory.

New Zealand has yielded an embarrasment of riches for the beer league and I've just completed a major update. The only NZ beer I'd heard of beforehand is Steinlager who kindly sponsored a sheep shearing competition I won a few years back, but that's a whole other story ...

Friday, November 09, 2007

how many Americans does it take to light a gas ring ...?

Our trip to Fiordland was adventurous from the outset, starting with the drive there.

We reached the gateway town of Te Anau only to find that the only road into Milford Sound was closed. We had to hang around until 11am the next morning for the avalanche risk to be downgraded to moderate and the pass reopened. It was all very reassuring.

As we came out the other side of the lengthy tunnel that marked the summit of the pass the rain was absolutely torrential and we could only just see the mountains towering hundreds of meters above us through the mist. When they did come into view they were covered in streams of white water cascade down the rock faces, as though someone had poured an enormous bottle of milk over the top of them.

Fortunately we saw Milford's brighter side the next day as we set out on our kayak trip on a glorious sunny day. The high rainfall here (as much as 200mm in a day is not uncommon) means you can actually drink directly from the sea; the fresh water can't mix quickly enough with saltwater, so it sits on top in a murky tea-coloured layer up to 12 meters thick. Kayaking was a great way to see the spectacular scenery of the fiord, although the increasingly windy conditions after lunch meant the return journey was quite exciting as we battled to paddle through meter high waves.

I didn't hold out high hopes of seeing much on my scuba diving trip the next day, but I needn't have worried - it was fantastic. After descending through the top layer with almost zero visibility, we reached a thin layer where the fresh and salt water is still in the process of mixing together (from inside my mask it looked a little like a computer generated special effect), and once through that, the visibility magically improved to 10-15 meters. It was my first cold water dive, and so everything was different - fields of kelp swaying in the current, black coral (actually white), enormous lobsters and a huge octopus.

Back at the lodge in the evening I entered the communal kitchen to cook dinner to discover the faint aroma of gas, and a middle aged American lady turning one of the gas rings on and off repeatedly. As she turned to me and asked how it worked, I had to try my very hardest not to sound patronising as I replied "I think you need to light it ..." and pointed to the cigarette lighter on the counter top.

Returning from the van with some more food I was amazed to see she had been joined by another lady and they were taking it in turns to switch the gas on and off while the other tried to light the gas ring using the lighter. As a strategy it reminded me of operation troop surge in Iraq. And it was equally successful. After a couple of minutes it all got too painful to watch and I had to go and help them out, unsurprisingly it lit first time.

Perhaps this is just another example of people to beginning to lose their traditional skills in our technologically advanced society. It made me glad I'd read Bushcraft:an Inspirational Guide to Survival in the Wilderness before leaving the UK.

Something told me Ray Mears would have been proud of me that evening ...

End the seven day itch ... VOTE NOW !!

It's all getting horribly scratchy in the neck area, and I must say I'm now really looking forward to getting the razor out once you guy's have voted. Thanks for all your sponsorship so far - and for those of you who haven't yet you can do so by visiting the donations page. Don't forget to use my unique code of 160527 when making your donation. You can find out more about Movember and their charitable work by clicking here.

I've now received a number of suggestions and I've whittled it down to a shortlist of two, the Magnum or the Pimp. I'll be taking votes until midnight UK time on Monday, just add a comment below. As an extra incentive to make a donation, votes from readers who have sponsored me will count double.

Apologies to my readers in the US for the content of this post, in particular Cathy and Sean. I just couldn't resist capitalising on the gilt-edged opportunity, although something tells me I could get my just reward in a couple of weeks time as I try and clear US immigration sporting my new 'tache. Although I suppose I should be grateful no-one suggested a Bin-Laden ...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

the ice-man cometh ...

After 2 days driving down the deserted west coast we arrived at the town of Franz Josef, jumping off point for New Zealands most famous glacier. With Mel still feigning a sore knee in order to liberate the funds from our trip budget for a scenic helicopter trip (I'm in big trouble now), it was left to me to spend the day walking up it.

After spending the first hour of the day getting kitted out with boots, crampons, and full waterproofs our group finally took to the ice. From the bottom the glacier had looked quite small, but with no man-made points of reference to give a true sense of scale we quickly discovered that looks can be deceiving. Two hours of treacherously slippy clambering up and down ice-steps later and we reached the first plateau. Despite having climbed several hundred feet we could see we were merely a fraction of the way up.

We spent the afternoon exploring this area of the glacier on a route that had us ascending and descending vertigo-inducing crevasses using safety ropes, and squeezing between impossibly tight gaps. It was a truly mindblowing day, to spend time on and actually inside the glacier is to really begin to understand it. Although due to a set of leaky boots I must say that a notable downside was my feet spending most of the day in danger of succumbing to frostbite.

Despite Mel assuring me it's not in the slightest bit funny, I had been entertaining vague notions of some sort of spoof post involving the nearby Fox Glacier and a non-existent "Glacier Mint" factory. But as always the truth is more interesting than fiction. As we sat down to fuel up on our packed lunches a Kea stopped by - unique to New Zealand it is the worlds only alpine parrot.

At about a foot tall it is reputed to be the worlds most intelligent bird, with the brain of a 3 year old child (or a 25 year old Australian as our guide helpfully pointed out ... I'm saying nothing). For a moment it seemed to be homing in on my cheese and pickle sandwiches, but recent experiences had left me wary and I made sure of keeping a good distance. Better luck next time my feathered friend ...

All this talk of alpine parrots has left me "pining for the fiords", so our next stop will be Milford Sound. Before that though some even more exciting news ...

I have decided to take part in Movember an annual moustache growing competion in aid of The Prostate Cancer Charity.

If you truly value seeing me make a plonker of myself (and I'm sure you do) then please take the time to visit the donations page and sponsor me for any small amount, my unique code is 160527.

Ever fancied yourself as a moustache designer? Well now is your big chance - as you can see from my photograph taken on Day 4 - I have yet to commit to a design. So consider my face your blank canvas and suggest which style you like to see by adding a comment (and preferably a link to a picture). I'll post a shortlist for you all to vote upon before I take my first shave and I promise to go with whichever gets the most votes.

There will of course be regular moustache updates as the drama unfolds ...

Sunday, November 04, 2007

a clever kiwi kayak trip ...

It was time to give our legs a rest and exercise our upper limbs with a sea kayak trip along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park.

Unlike the "I'm going to die in a freak boating accident" experience of kayaking at Halong Bay in Vietnam, this was actually a fairly relaxed affair as we paddled gently up the coast on a gloriously sunny day. Along the way we saw all sorts of wildlife, most notably a fur seal swimming alongside us.

In New Zealand they really do have this sort of trip perfected. Rather than paddle back for 6 hours against a strong headwind, they send a water taxi (basically a 12 seater speedboat) to pick you up from the beach. On our way back we stopped briefly to observe a little blue penguin splashing around in the sea, before making our way back to port.

To our surprise it wasn't a jetty that awaited us, but a partially submerged tractor. We sailed right onto it's attached trailer before being hauled onto dry land.

Rather than getting us to disembark for a more conventional form of transport back to the kayak centre, the tractor just carried on 2km along the seafront with us still sat in our boat gazing out at the bemused pedestrians.

It all made for quite a memorable day. And not a rogue seagull in sight.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Twice Bitten ...

For our next tramping mission we decided on the rather more ambitious Queen Charlotte Track, one of New Zealand's Great Walks.

The unique lure of the QCT is the availability of water-taxi bag transfers, quality lodgings and gourmet food along the route; all factors which were crucial in my ability to sell the idea to Mel. Even so, the prospect of walking 71km over the coming days left us more than a little apprehensive.

The initial 71km commitment had seemed within the bounds of our capabilities, however once we'd chosen our accommodation and factored in detours the distance had soared to a whopping 85km. A couple of kilometers off the trail didn't sound so far when we were making the bookings, but you can just imagine how it felt after having already put in 20km that day ...

As we set off from Picton by water taxi to Ship Cove the rain was pouring down, and I'll confess we were a little daunted by the prospect of what the next five days might have in store for us. The beginning of the trail was a steep 2 hour climb, and as we finished the first (and shortest) day of just 10km in a state of exhaustion our doubts started to build.

Fortunately the weather improved considerably after the first day, and the continual presence of stunning views over the turquoise blue inlets did much to keep us going. Our morale was of course assisted greatly by the opportunities to soak away our aches and pains each evening - firstly in the hot-tub, then afterwards in the bar.

Once we had conquered the killer third day (24km of gradient over 8 hours) we had the smell of victory in our nostrils, and despite increasingly painful limbs we eventually made it to the finish line on day five thoroughly exhausted, but still smiling (just).

One of my enduring memories from the trail will be the ever present Weka's - a close relative of the rather more endangered and nocturnal Kiwi. These inquisitive birds could often be seen wandering along the side of the track, usually making an appearance near the benches used by walkers for rest-stops, no doubt lured by the possibility of food scraps.

As I crouched to take a photo of one on the first day, the little blighter shot forward and bit me on my shutter finger. If you look closely at the resulting photo I think you'll agree that you can see the look of intent in it's eyes. Remarkably on that very same morning I'd also been attacked by a duck at our campsite in Picton, taking a vicious pecking to the back of my legs as I unloaded our backpacks from the rear door of the van.

Over a few chilled beverages on the second evening chatting with the owners of our guest house I recounted the story of my Weka bite to their knowing smiles, apparently just two weeks previously at the same spot another tourist had their mobile phone stolen by one.

Suddenly it all clicked into place as I came to the realisation that this could only be the work of one man, my arch-nemesis Pigeon.

Clearly he's directing systematic poultry attacks against me using his favoured method of communication, the mobile phone. Something tells me we haven't heard the last of our feathered friend ...

Mel is now sporting a rather fetching compression bandage on her right knee and is walking in the style of Herr Flick from 'Allo 'Allo. It could be a few days until our next trek ...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

having a whale of a time ...

It was back to the coast for a quick visit to New Zealand's whale watching capital, Kaikoura.

We decided on a 30-minute flight around the bay in a light aircraft, although not being too keen on heights I'm not entirely sure why. We only managed to sight a solitary whale, but thanks to the gusty conditions the flight itself was quite exciting enough for me.

I have now decided that bungee jumping and sky-diving are most definitely off my agenda for the trip.

In Maori "kai koura" means "eats crayfish", the seafood speciality of the area. We found huge freshly cooked crayfish far easier to find than whales - sitting right in a cool box at a roadside fish sellers, just waiting to be liberated for our evening meal ...

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Heaven and Hell in Hanmer ...

When Mel suggested we try some tramping I was simply elated.

Not only did the thought of sitting on a park bench shouting abuse at random strangers sound really exciting, but cheap sherry is one of my favourite drinks of all time.

It seems that I was getting confused. In New Zealand tramping is what most other people refer to as hiking, walking or trekking. Call it what you will, now the painful memories of Mt. Fuji are behind us, we picked the 1324m Mt. Isobel for our first mission in the Southern Hemisphere.

It was also our first chance to test out Super-Casual in both a driving and a sleeping capacity. Aside from a general slowing down whenever a slight gradient is encountered in 5th gear, I think the little van will get us around quite nicely. As for the sleeping, the night before our trek it belted it down with rain and we nearly froze to death, by 3am we were both wearing woolly hats.

As we reached the trailhead we could see that during the previous night the weather had added little white hats to the mountain range - we hoped it wouldn't be another of those days. The GPS cheerfully informed me our elevation was 532m, and a quick spot of maths revealed we'd be climbing 800m up and then down again over the next 5 hours. I'm so glad we didn't pick a difficult trek.

The uphill was relentless and I abandoned a very tired Melanie just below 1000m for a solo attempt on the summit. The two hikers we met coming down earlier had warned us it was a but windy up on the ridge - as understatements go, this was like saying Robert Mugabe is a bit bonkers. The windspeed was well in excess of 60mph and increasing as I approached the summit, but at least I'd made it this time.

Thankfully after enduring hell, there was time for a little bit of heaven. Hanmer is famous for it's hot thermal springs and we took full advantage, soaking our aching limbs as we gazed up at the snow-capped mountains.

It just remained for us to remember to fill our new hot water bottle before we left for another night in the van ...

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Getting Super-Casual in Christchurch ...

As we walked out of the aiport to our shuttle bus it was a cold, wet and windy night - and as we drove into the city we were immediately struck by how the shops and houses had an ever so slightly English air to them.

We'd arrived on New Zealand's South Island with very little plan for the coming weeks - in fact after spending so long living in a campervan we weren't looking beyond the immediate luxury of sleeping in a proper bed.

After weighing up the transport options for touring the country we decided to buy our own vehicle. There's a thriving backpacker market for vehicles that can double up as a bed for the night - from station wagons (estate cars) through to van's with makeshift beds in the back. We set to work trawling the small ads for something that would suit our needs, as well as providing a good resale opportunity - and who knows, we might even be able to turn a small profit ...

Introducing our new wheels - a 1989 Toyota Lite-Ace purchased for the princely sum of $2,700NZ (about 1000 English). Four good tyres, a sweet running engine, converted for a variety of seating and sleeping configurations plus a long WOF (MOT) mean this should be a sound choice for resale up in Auckland in 6 weeks time - but in the end it was the Super-Casual badging that reminded us so much of Malaysian bus names that really sold it.

We didn't see too much of the tourist sights in Christchurch, but dealing with the practicalities of vehicle ownership and kitting ourselves out for the road gave us a different insight into everyday life in New Zealand.

One of the continuing features of the roads in Australia and New Zealand is the presence of customised campervans (see example below), and we've seen some real classics over the last few weeks.

If anyone has any suggestions for customising Super-Casual then just add your comment below ...

We hoping a few factors will help us in our quest for succesful van trading - firstly prices are higher on the North Island, secondly we'll be selling in a rising market as we approach high season. In much the same way as the prices of convertibles rise come early summer in the UK so do clapped-out vans over here ...

Friday, October 19, 2007

Melbourne or bust ...

The final 2 nights of our journey took us through the forests and lakes of New South Wales and Victoria, staying at firstly one of the nicest and then one of the wierdest caravan parks of the roadtrip.

Durras was jam-packed with Kangaroo's who made themsleves right at home lazing around our campsite. We had one final wood fired BBQ here (no chopping reuired this time) before moving on the next morning to what was described on the roadside signage as an adventure caravan park. The campsite was almost deserted and looked like the place time forgot, but after a 4km drive up an unsealed road and being rather low on fuel we decided to go for it.

The woman who checked us in drew our attention to the small print on the back of the form, informing us that all the water on the site was drawn from an underground spring. That being the case she said "most people drink bottled - although I don't know why, I ain't never been sick off it". Something in her manner suggested some illnesses exist only in the mind.

As I returned to the van from a late evening visit to the toliet block I heard the thunder of paws rapidly closing in on me through the pitch black darkness. I ran as fast as I could back to the van, just closing the door before the guard dog arrived barking and foaming at the mouth. I must admit, it wasn't exactly the kind of adventure I'd had in mind ...

4,983 kilometers and 20 nights since leaving Cairns we arrived in Melbourne where we had just enough time left to register suprise at the relocation of my hometown of Doncaster nearby.

Still, I suppose everbody needs good Neighbours.

All the photos from our roadtrip are now live on flickr (click through on the right) - and the beer league now looks like the swimming entry list for next years Olympics.
If you're still reading after the very bad joke at the end of this post, our next news should be from New Zealand.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

G'day Possums ...

We took a much needed break from the tarmac and took a leisurely three days in Sydney catching up with old friends from back home.

The beer league never had it so good. In just one afternoon I managed to sample an additional eight beers - they all had odd names such as Leather Jacket (below) which is apparently named after a fish(?)

Sleeping in a van not being terribly compatible with downtown Sydney - we found ourselves staying in Lane Cove National Park in the northern suburbs. As we returned to camp on our first evening we found ourselves face to face with one of these on the approach road. I'm not sure who was more surprised, Mel or the Possum.

Over the next few days we got to know the local population quite well - being rather tame from feeding on the scraps of campers over the years they make predictable appearances every dinner time.

We saw a few more Possums too ...

The book I'm reading at the moment is absolutely hilarious - but it's causing me a few embarassing moments in public places when I suddenly snort with laughter. I'd still recommend it. Starting my own cult could be an interesting career change when I finally return home ... anyone interested?

Monday, October 15, 2007

spit or swallow?

Our final drive to Sydney took us through the Hunter Valley wine region and the chance to stop at a local winery to sample their wares.

Having been designated (by Mel) as the driver on this leg of the journey - I was faced with the dilemma of whether to spit or swallow?

In the end, to avoid any potentially serious misunderstandings I decided that the best strategy for keeping under the limit would be to simply sip & tip ...

Friday, October 12, 2007

surf school and spunk rats ...

After Nimbin we headed back to the coast for something slightly more normal - the surfing mecca of Byron Bay.

While Mel went off to a Yoga class for a good stretch, I took my first surfing lesson. Let's just say I won't be entering competitions anytime soon (or probably ever), but it was great fun and suprisingly intense exercise. I ached all over the following morning.

From all the messages I received after my Cairns post, I know how much you'll all be dying to see photos of me in a wetsuit. Unfortunately Mel wasn't on hand for photos on this occassion ...

The following evening we overnighted at a little place called Seal Rocks - not only did they have Pelicans on the beach, but probably one of the most unusual signposts we've seen so far.

Signposts in Australia tend to be pretty direct. One of the best (sadly un-photographed) was a roadsign on the subject of drink driving, the text read quite simply;

Only just over the limit?

You bloody idiot.

Given the number of bookstores in Australia you'd think they'd make rather more of the English language. Or perhaps it's just a reflection of all the time they spend on the dunny given the portion sizes here?

Now if anyone can tell me exactly what a spunk rat is - just add a comment ...

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Nuts of Nimbin ...

As we reached the edge of Nimbin we encountered our first local resident.

He had a great big bushy beard and appeared to be shouting at himself while standing on a bridge. This is a completely normal event in Nimbin, and it's probably no coincidence that it's only town in Australia where marajuana use is openly tolerated.

A walk along Nimbin's high street shows just what a peculiar place it is. Just 200 yards from the police station the local cafes seem to exist in a permanent haze of curiously sweet smelling smoke.

The town seems to exist largely on the revenue generated by day-trippers from Byron Bay. As we sat in a cafe drinking coffee before recommencing our journey we witnessed the first of the day trippers arrive, and the highly organised drug peddling operation swung into action. I lost count of the number of deals I saw in progress down alleys - subtle it was not.

The notices in local shops revealed much about the local culture, from secondhand refrigerators for sale because they are too powerful for solar panels, peotry recitals and presentations on the dangers of flouride. Nimbin has it all.

It was this notice in the window of the general store that brought the greatest chuckle though - there are lots of nuts in Nimbin - after spending the night here we didn't need to see any more ...

Friday, October 05, 2007

Pigeon's revenge ...

"Who the hell is that !?!" was our immediate response when we saw this unfamiliar face staring back at us from our mobile phone as we checked out some photo's last week.

It took a few minutes of head-scratching before we were able to place him - it was Pigeon from the hostel at Xian, China. We hadn't taken a photo of him, so we worked out he must have got one of his pals to take it on the day we left our phone behind. The little tinker.

It just goes to show what can happen when you make fun of people on the internet. As the sign in the bathroom at HQ Hostel said; "Project positive vibes and they will come back to you".

I wonder what he'll do this time?

After a shoddy performance in Malaysia on the Beer League, you'll be pleased to hear I've been working extra hard for you in Australia. I've added 5 new beers today - the pick of the crop (or should that be hop) being Toohey's New.
The "all day beers" as we like to call them (e.g. VB Gold) are nestling toward the bottom of the table - at a mere 3.5% ABV. You lose serious points for that in a league like this.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

a chip off the old block ...

Heading inland from the Bruce we decided to make an overnight stop at the former gold mining settlement of Mount Morgan, just South of Rockport.

Climbing switchback roads to reach the pine-clad plateau at the summit, we found a town of traditional wooden buildings and eerily deserted streets. After driving around for some time, we finally found an equally empty looking caravan site so we parked up in for the night and I went to check in at reception.

"Oh yeaah!" said the busy-bearded woodsman type on reception as I enquired whether they had a BBQ. After I'd payed our camp fees, he looked at me doubtfully and asked "Have you got an axe?", confused I replied "Um, no ..." but he told me not to worry, I could borrow his.

I stared blankly for few seconds before the penny finally dropped; I would be on wood chopping detail if we wanted to eat that night.

Chopping firewood is most definitely about technique rather than brute strength, as I found when my first few swings of the axe missed the wood entirely and buried the axe-head deep in the chopping block. You get the hang of it after a while though.

We had a great (if ever so slightly sinister) evening in Mount Morgan, but I'll never forget what he said when he brough the axe over "Make sure you bring it back to the office when you're done - we don't want anyone getting hold of it and going crazy" with a wild gleam in his eye.

My thoughts entirely.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

headin' south ...

After the rather inauspicious start to our Australasian leg of our trip we started the long trip South. By heading North.

Our logic being that you haven't really done the East Coast unless you start where the tarmac runs out - so we made the 150km trip north to Cape Tribulation* where we had a pleasant afternoon exploring the beaches and rainforest of Daintree National Park.

We awoke early next morning in our beachfront caravan park gently poaching in the morning sun as we listened to the waves lapping against the shore. The soaring temperature in the van helped us make an early start and we returned to Cairns in time to make the day trip to the outer barrier reef.

While I had an excellent dive, including a close encounter with a shark, let's just say it may take a couple more attempts for Mel to earn her scuba flippers ...

Over the next few days we took in Mission Beach, Airlie Beach, The Whitsunday Islands and Eungella National Park where we were lucky enough to catch (not literally) a Duck-Billed Platypus in the wild.

But most of all we spent lots of time getting to know our new friend Bruce. Or Bruce Highway to give him his full title, the East Coast route that will take on our 4500km trip South.

Already living in a campervan seems to be having a strange effect on us. Perhaps it's the heat, but we've started noticing other caravans and campers with a worryingly heightened level of interest. Finding ourselves discussing the relative merits of features like overhead sleeping areas and chemical toilets can only be a worrying development ...

I've added a few photos from Singapore to flickr - just click here

* Cape Tribulation was where Captain James Cook (the famous Yorkshire-born explorer) ran aground on the barrier reef, hence the name.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Naked in Cairns ...

I've always laughed heartily when hearing stories of people getting locked out of hotel rooms naked. Not so funny now I can tell you.

I don't know which I'll remember most, the sinking feeling hearing the door click lock shut behind me to the sight of no porcelain, or my increasingly frantic knocking on the door as I tried to get Mel to wake up and rescue me from the public corridor.

Personally, I blame Quantas for the most uncomfortable flight imaginable from Singapore, it's sole purpose seemed to be denial of sleep. On the upside, my naked adventure seemed to have passed unnoticed by the other residents. It's an experience I'll be making very sure I don't repeat in the future (if I can ever get a good nights sleep in a hotel again).

After luxuriating in Asia (well sort of), our budget now dictates we live in the back of a van. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

We'll be spending the next 3 weeks on the ultimate roadtrip - driving a camper from Cairns to Melbourne. I look forward to telling you all about how we get on ...

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

beware of the swing flapper ...

When you arrive at immigration in most countries you get a nice welcome sign, and often it let's you know something about the place you're about to enter. For example, when entering Thailand it's "Welcome to the Land of Smile".

As we crossed the causeway linking Johor Bahru in Malaysia to Singapore, we were greeted with "Beware of the Swing Flapper". It was the only sign in sight, but very prominently referred to a piece of glass that swings back and forth to ensure only 1 person at a time can approach the immigration officer. You get the idea.

It's the only place in all our travels I've seen anything quite like it, so being uniquely Singaporean they obviously had to invent their own name for it. Sadly I can't provide a photo for this unique innovation as apparently customs get a bit touchy about that sort of thing these days.

We spent a very pleasant 2 days in Singapore, our final destination in Asia. Thanks to facebook I got chance to catch up with Jacqui, an old friend from school who lives out there - it was great to catch up - at least until all the alcohol caught up with us the next morning.

We spent the rest of our time in Singapore taking in the excellent Night Safari, before signing out of Asia after four and a half months with a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel.

Now at least they made a better job of naming their cocktails ...

If you're on facebook and I'm not linked to you already then look me up! - for now at least I'm the only Mark Fretwell with a furry hood.

Finally I can add Tiger to the beer league ... we've been drinking it in just about every country since Mongolia and now I've drunk it in it's country of origin it finally qualifies for the league - 3rd place - well done!!