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In and out of Brunei 

Having booked ourselves in to Kota Kinabalu (KK for short), the capital of Sabah state in the Malaysian side of Borneo for a week, we quickly realised we have a spare few days before the trek and decided to tick another country off the list and go to Brunei. A country I didn’t know much about but research told me it was a country with one of the richest humans on earth, rich in oil and gas, nobody pays any tax, all services are free, sharia law was in effect and petrol is 30p a litre! I was intrigued and got the wheels in motion to get there.

We got a one-way ferry ticket from KK for around £11 which took about six hours and we left at 08:30 to arrive mid-afternoon in Brunei. On the same journey was someone we met at our hostel in KK called Naja from Australia who had booked the same ferry and hostel as us. After a stopover at Lebuan Island (which is a tax free and duty free Malaysian port) for nearly three hours we set off for the one-hour trip to Brunei. 

Having got on the bus to Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB) the capital of Brunei we reached the Burger King meet point arranged by our hostel host Bel in the centre of town. First impressions were that the capital was small but very clean, tidy and everyone drove nice cars. Bel had arranged to meet us around 5pm but was running late so having read that everything closes after last prayer at 6pm we were worried about getting some food after a long day. Bel reassured us that this wasn’t a problem and we got some Thai food near the apartment.

We stayed about 7km out of town and the road leading to the apartment entailed a hill steep enough to be respected. Luckily on the first day of exploring a local stopped by to give us a lift to the city after declaring that the public transport was hopeless in BSB. A very kind man who had lived in England and had studied at Liverpool University. He gave us a driving tour of the centre of town and picked out some landmarks for us before dropping us off to explore the water village.

The water village was a strange place, it was wooden huts connected by walkways above the water and you can access it by water taxi for 1BND from the mainland in the capital. Nothing was open and there was not a soul in sight and we couldn’t work it out. Self-proclaimed as the biggest water village in the world with around 37,000 people inhabited there, we saw only two. Maybe everyone was at work and school? Not to sound too disrespectful but clearly this was a place where people with less money lived, so I would assume people would be trying to sell something at their shop or restaurants for tourists. We just couldn’t work it out or maybe Thursday is a day off or prayer day, anyways we got a water taxi back to the mainland. 

Next on our list was the people’s mosque in the centre of town called the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque and this was an impressive building. Surrounded by a moat and covered in gold, this place was powerful. Daily prayers are called and visitors are not allowed to visit inside on a Thursday or Friday, shame as it was a Thursday we visited. As we walked around it the heat was beaming and starting to take a toll, I just wanted a swim in that moat. The white walls reflected the light on to you, so much so that sunglasses were essential. After encircling the mosque, we needed air con so went for a spot of lunch.

We realised that our list of sights and things to do were diminishing at an alarming rate and we had barely reached 12pm. The next two were the Regalla Museum and the History of Brunei Museum and these intrigued me. The Regalla Museum has every bit of item the Sultan has received over the years from monarchs, presidents, prime ministers and country officials. The impressive carts which are made of gold and are used for parades such as his birthday and anniversaries are stored there too. A very impressive display of memorabilia from all around the world.

Brunei was a mystery to me so the History of Brunei Museum was a must for me to learn about this country and it’s past. A timeline of history taught me the role of colonialism, religion and the royal family in this country as it battled with various nations to keep its sovereignty and freedom. An interesting fact about Brunei is that it was a state in Malaysia but refused to become independent from Britain in the 1980s instead remaining part of the UK. Much later they then became independent but as a new nation, a cunning plan by the Sultan. 

Brunei in a nutshell is a hub for expats and businesses working in oil and for tourists like ourselves to nip in for a day or two and see most of the country. A population that is very wealthy and looked after but who remain very courteous and welcoming to tourists. Not very much to see and do but what is available is worth seeing. Another place on the bucket list which has been ticked off and with my travel tips and budget pages on my website you are able to see how much money you will need and how to get there.

Monkeys, heat and a lost t-shirt

The rainforest is relentless in every way. Wildlife produce outstanding noises for 24 hours of the day that will keep you on your toes. We lived and breathed the rainforest lifestyle living with these incredible species for 3 days and 2 nights, I learnt a lot. No luxuries such as air con or fans as the heat beats down on you all over your body at every part of the day. It’s most tolerable at around 2am/3am when it cools down to a reasonable temperature. Our wooden huts with a metal roof ensured that when the rain down poured every night the noise would be deafening but it’s pure and real life. This is nature at its best and most rewarding.
We booked in with Uncle Tan’s Wildlife Tour who had their own patch along the Kinabatangan River and they had rave reviews at a very reasonable price. They don’t pull the wool over your eyes, they declare that you will be living in open huts with the wildlife who are able to join you for a kip or a chat. They pen in morning, evening and night safaris to scout for some familiar and unfamiliar wildlife. The dream of seeing Pygmy Elephants and Rhinos and thee consistently seen monkeys of varying types. Food is never short and the options available were incredible. This was a tour for anyone at any age and our group typified that.


As soon as we arrived we were straight to it, a night safari. As we entered the little boats with our guide Em, we quickly realised these guides absolutely love the rainforest and the wildlife. They were like the hawks of the river, staring at the bushes and trees either side of us. Suddenly they spot something which no can see as it is camouflaged amongst the shrubbery. As soon as you spot it they can write and read you an essay about what it is, where it lives, what it does, where it goes, how many of them etc. The knowledge is incredible and how they sight something so small or hidden is unbelievable. Earlier in the day the guide in our boat spotted an orangutan lazing in the tree as we got our boat to the camp, it took me about a minute to see it. On this night safari, little crocodiles were everywhere and are easily spotted as their eyes reflect with the flash light used by our guides. Monitor lizards were ever present but well hidden in the mud. If we could see this at night I wonder what the day would bring.

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There was darkening clouds above and bolts of lightning could be seen in the distance as the guides warned us the rain will come and as soon as stepped in to our huts to get some sleep, bang! Rain came smashing down on the roof of our hut, great timing. If anything, this drowns out the noises from the crickets, frogs or anything else which makes your ears bleed at night. After a surprisingly reasonable night’s sleep, we were up early doors for our sunrise cruise along the river. I was particularly looking forward to what we would see in terms of wildlife but also the morning sun on the ripples of the river. It was very successful as we saw proboscis monkeys, the standard long tail macques which are known as the ‘jungle mafia’ and varying kingfishers.


Afterwards I booked myself in for a 3 aside football match with a few Dutch lads against some of staff. We done well scoring lots of goals but the heat and a lack of fitness (for me especially) took its toll and we lost. The searing heat was causing havoc on my body as I was dripping wet in sweat all over, so to conquer this I took a ‘local’ shower. Water as you can imagine in the rainforest isn’t in shortage but this also meant it wasn’t filtered. A combination of rainwater and river water meant I had a totally refreshing cold shower, shame that I was sweating ten minutes later. Having placed my clothes on the ledges outside my hut, I left them to dry from the sweat as I chilled out playing guitar around the campsite.

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Next on the agenda for the day was a sunset safari on the river then a walk around camp at night, this was a last chance to see all the wildlife on our list. Fortunately, we saw some pygmy elephants at Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary the day before as they popped in for a feed, incredible moment. The chance of seeing them where we were was virtually zero but we could dream. The sunset safari produced some flying foxes, proboscis monkeys, storm storks, egrets and an eagle, but the photos of the sun and water were special. To be honest I was just relieved to get some wind in my face.

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After we smashed dinner we prepared to get ready for the night trek but as I went back to my hut my t-shirt was gone! Emma and I checked underneath the hut but it was nowhere to be seen. Confused by this scenario I went and spoke to Otto (the main guide at the camp who is an absolute hawk on the river) and told him my t-shirt had gone missing. He replied with ‘Yep, same here. All my clothes have gone, the jungle mafia have taken them all so I have had to borrow some.’ The cheeky gits! I loved that t-shirt but we were warned they can take stuff if they wanted. It is nice to know that somewhere in that rainforest, a monkey is wearing and enjoying his new t-shirt. All I want is a picture.


The morning after we said our goodbyes to our new friends and switched details to keep in touch, we all knew we saw some great wildlife over the three days. In total, our group saw 60 different wildlife. We had some good laughs, got to know about each other’s home countries and greatly appreciated the guides who were with us. It was a great tour but all we kept thinking about on our return to Sandakan was air con, a shower and some western food. A fantastic trip with Uncle Tans which was beaming full of wildlife, had real rainforest living conditions, great tasty food and a lovely atmosphere. I would highly recommend this if you are about in Sandakan or Sepilok.

 

Mount Kinabalu trek – reaching new heights

One afternoon in March whilst back in good ole Norwich, we asked ourselves “shall we climb Mount Kinabalu when in Borneo?”. We done some classic pre-travel research and after five minutes we said, “yeah, why not?”. Personally, I was thinking that the trek looked very doable (even reasonable compared to others I had done), not that high up in terms of altitude and a great thing to do. Fast forward to the second day of the trek approaching the ‘danger zone’ at roughly 3am in the cold with gusts of wind and head torches as our only guide. We were thinking “what the hell are we doing here?”, as we had to pull ourselves up a rock edge using only a rope. Safe to say this was no easy task, far from it and we were nowhere near to the summit at this point and well out of our comfort zone.
Rewinding to the start of the trip, we were collected from our hostel with fellow hikers from Australia, Malaysia, Holland and UK. We started chatting about the hike, is it going to be challenging, how long it will take, where each of us has come from and our hiking abilities. One of the hikers who was Malaysian and lived in Australia had done it previously about eight years ago and was telling us all the juicy details. He reassured us but at the same time scared both of us. Being relative novices at this sort of thing we knew that this could be a challenge and a half. We were transported to Kinabalu Park which was 1563m (5,128ft) in elevation. The plan was to acclimatise there before the trek began the next day. This little settlement amongst the UNESCO World Heritage site was in view of the stunning mountain which we were about to climb and it seemed monstrous. We both knew this was one hell of a task for two non-hikers.
Once arrived we saw some hikers who had finished the hike that morning and they looked exhausted. Another reminder that this wasn’t going to be easy. Our Amazing Borneo (the company we booked it with) representative informed us that we had a free upgrade from the hostel dorm we were staying in and they placed us in this luxury villa overlooking the mountain, glorious. We felt slightly bad for the father and daughter from Australia who had paid for this villa, but we quickly forgot about that when we settled in. This place had a super king size bed, en-suite bathroom, free tea/coffee, TV and super comfy pillows. What a place! Personally, I was still reeling from the sickness I had a few days earlier and was nervous that this could hinder my chances for the climb. I was able to muster myself for the buffet dinner provided and the plethora of options was stunning. Just pure veg and rice done the treat and an early night beckoned.


Luckily the full night’s sleep assisted my recovery and I felt ready to go. After some hash browns, eggs and beans for breakfast I was ready to hit the ground running. We met our group and the Amazing Borneo representative at 8am outside the reception and the place was heaving with fellow hikers and guides for the day. The area had a buzzing ambience but I was nervous. We met our guide Rose for the trek who was assigned just to us and she seemed nice and calm. Once the park admin including ID passes, meeting the guide, signing disclaimer forms and collecting some equipment was completed, we were transported to Timpohon Gate. It was 5.5km from the park headquarters at an altitude of 1,866 metres (6,122ft) and all treks begin there.


Standing at the gate we registered and thoughts such as ‘no going back now’, ‘oh no what have we got ourselves in to?’ and ‘surely it won’t be as hard as the Singalila Ridge Trek or the Inca Trail?’ were going through my mind. Emma and I both looked at each other with pure nervous tension and dread. These thoughts majorly increased due to the seeing how big this thing was from our room and the state of the hikers the previous day. They were mostly school/university students who were much younger and fitter than us. We both looked at Rose and said, ‘let’s do it’ and we set off in to unknown.
The first day was 6km of trekking, climbing up 1,404m (4,608ft) to Laban Rata base camp which stood in the mountain at 3,270m (10,730ft). All we knew at the start was how far we will trek and the approximate time it will take. We hoped to be done within six hours. The first 2km was a bit of a breeze and we were actively enjoying trekking. Rose informed us that there is a rest point at every kilometre and this settled the nerves. Before the 1km mark we saw a young school girl who was part of large school group attempting the trek, in absolute tears and seemed clear that she didn’t want to carry on. Emma and I both thought that there was much worse to come and that first bit was easy, even for us! The teachers and guides were trying to calm her down whilst her group at the 1km resting point were waiting but seemed in good spirits having a laugh and seemingly not caring that much about their friend. I found that amusing.
What was quickly establishing was the terrain which was becoming increasingly difficult with big wooden steps which require a leap and the stony incline which required you to pick out your stone and step on to the next one. This became tiring and annoying. 2km to 3km tiredness started to settle in, hard heavy breathing increased and the increase in altitude started to come in. We were relieved to see the rest point and took a well-deserved 10mins rest. My legs were starting to ache and hurt from the uphill battle on this terrain.

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We knew 3km to 4km was going to be tough and our guide was sensing that I was struggling with the inclines and lent me her hiking pole which in hindsight I knew I should had bought or borrowed before the trek. This enabled me to pick my spot and rely on my pole with my weight against these rocks and big wooden steps. The burn in my legs and the heavy blowing was starting to play on my mind especially about not being prepared enough. Yet again I am trying to ‘wing’ something which couldn’t and this was testing my mental strength. The constant steps were getting to both of us. The saving grace in this km was that lunch was at 4km and a longer rest period, we just about got there. Exhaustion was becoming apparent.
At this rest point, we saw a lot of trekkers in our daily group (only 135 people can hike per day in the park due to regulations) but also people who had been to the summit that day. They looked knackered and we spoke to an Indian couple who said the next 2km to base camp was tough as it is more of an incline, we were devastated but in reality, it confirmed our suspicions! To add more pressure, the guy pointed to his wife and said, ‘it is hard but if she could do it then anyone can’. I had to laugh at that and she agreed with him, a back handed compliment I must say!

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As we started to climb the next km it became clear the incline was more sustained and even harder. Also, there appeared to be more ‘proper’ steps where they are made horizontal and built within a staircase so you can hold on to the wooden railing. This was a slight relief but at this point we were both so tired it didn’t make a difference. What did make a difference this km was seeing the local people each carrying sewage poles and metal girders. We were in awe of these people who were carrying this on their shoulder! Not only did they have to watch their step on the terrain they had to make sure they balance it correctly on their shoulders if not it would tip and force them to drop it or fall over. Here is me with a little backpack and I am complaining about not being able to put one foot in front of another. For the last half of this km we were following one of these guys who was going at a nice steady pace and we felt better at the next rest point.
A bed, buffet dinner, a sit down, a can of coke, flip flops and a great view were the motivations for the next km which was going to be the biggest climb of the day and the one that hurts the most. We knew if just kept going we can lay down and rest. As much as real steps were a step up (excuse the pun) from the massive leaps from the previous kilometres they were starting to take its toll also. We were just getting fed up with steps! We eventually got to half way to a rest shelter which we didn’t know was there and met some fellow hikers and we were all encouraging each other that it is not long to go. There was a family of three with a mother and her young children who were maybe around 11-13 years old and the boy who was the youngest was keen to get up there.
As we finally set off I was starting to really feel it and couldn’t wait to stop, it was relentless. As we got closer, the pain kept getting stronger as we pushed ourselves to the camp. Finally, we saw that young boy from earlier who was in tears and wanted to stop but his mum was encouraging him that there was only a few more steps to go. After that we saw the camp generator and knew we had made it. Absolute relief. We made it at around 14:20 which was not bad going for us. We caught up with Blake who was an Australian guy who we got on well with straight away on the bus ride to the park and he got to this point at 12:00! Absolute machine! It was time to catch the view, get changed, have a rest, get some dinner and try to get some sleep for the 01:30 alarm call the next morning.


I struggled to consume some baked beans and bread at 02:00 as it was far too early and with hardly any sleep due to being nervous about the trek ahead, we set off with Rose. This was a 2.7km hike to the summit in the dark with headtorches for vision. There was a blustery wind and a cold chill so warm clothing was a must. This would take nearly the same amount of time as the day before despite it being shorter in length. The first 700m was lot of steps and with tired legs this was a struggle. We had to make the registration point by 05:00 which was 1km away but we set off at 02:30 to give us good time. We had been warned of the ‘danger zone’ coming up where everyone would be single file and overtaking was strictly forbidden. We got to the top of the steps and entered the ‘danger zone’ which was aptly sign posted quite a lot. This was an area where rocks could potentially fall and hit people hence the danger.
To describe this area with what we could see would be an area of smooth rock with a rope for guidance. There was a steep almost vertical rock to climb and you had to use the rope to pull yourself up. Just walking up there wasn’t possible. If you let go of the rope you would fall back in to the people behind you and serious injury if not death would be certain. We couldn’t see where we were going or where we had come from, this was seriously hard core. I had entered in to survival mode. Despite no overtaking I found a place half way up to take a breather. I said to Emma ‘I don’t think I can do this, it is too much’. We both were struggling but we had each other to rely on. Registration point was close and we were good for time. We somehow managed to pull ourselves up the rock with what little strength we had. I had never been so happy to reach a resting point. Relief was there but we knew there was hardship ahead to get to this summit. People were being sick in the toilets at this rest stop, people were sitting down and trying to collect themselves to go again. It was a sight of exhaustion and determination. We had to do this now.
The next 1km was to the bottom of the summit and this moon like surface continued with a rope as guidance. Although not as steep as the ‘danger zone’ this was a steady incline in the increasing altitude which Emma began to struggle with. The temperature got colder and the legs ached even more. Rose our guide was keen to get a move on but we kept at our pace and took regular stops. All we could see in the dark ahead was the rope and the light of torches which were at a higher altitude than us. We struggled along supporting each other to the bottom of the summit then saw what was ahead, a steep climb above rocks to the top. We stopped again and I began to realise Emma really was struggling to breath and speak, the altitude really was getting to her.
Adrenalin was pumping now as I could see the target. I muttered to Emma ‘come on, one last push to the top and we have done it, I can see the summit’. Somehow, we climbed the rocks dodging the people coming down who had already been up there and had started their descent. One rock at a time and a few breathers and I could see the sign and the little flat rock to stand on. I kept pushing Emma and she was starting to feel sick. The was a bit of light as sunrise began and with one hand I helped Emma up and gave her a hug, we had done it. Rose gave us a high five each and took some photos. Exhaustion and relief was rife. All this pain to get here was worth it. After a quick look around the foggy distance, a little hug and catching of breath, we began to descend.
The final climb became apparent as light took over dark and the fog began to disappear and we were a little in shock that we succeeded. What was playing on our minds was descending the ‘danger zone’. As we approached the dreaded zone we couldn’t really believe they let you hike up there with no safety equipment. On the way down our guide Rose was telling us about the earthquake a few years ago which killed numerous amounts of hikers and guides, horrendous. It is fair to say in the light more people would be hesitant. We safely negotiated our way down to base camp for a feed then 6k back to park HQ. What a hike!
If anyone is considering this hike, I would recommend some level of fitness/ training beforehand. We manged it with limited fitness but it might be more enjoyable if you’ve trained a bit beforehand!

Days 1-3 Kuala Lumpur, the sights and sounds

Kuala Lumpur is an eclectic mix of the chaos of Bangkok to the north and the order of Singapore to the south. Edginess, mischief and adventure can be found in Kuala Lumpur if you look hard enough but the chilled local vibe is never far away. It is safe to say we plumped for the latter. Malaysia is like a mix tape collecting all the different parts of South East Asia and mashing them all together. Every type of person here blends in to make Malaysia what it is, a multi-cultural hub of goodness.
You can enjoy sensational views from the top of the KL Tower at night and the Petronas Towers during the day which gets you a bird’s eye view of the city, one of the best views I have seen. Shopping malls are connected by walk ways above ground level. The Kuala Lumpur metro systems are above you, at street level and beneath you so you have a plethora of options to choose from. Street food is available around every corner with cheap eats easy to find. What a great start to our trip, here is a little more.
Our base at Reggae Mansion, on the edge of Chinatown, warns you as you go in that this is a party hostel and they were right. Pumping music until 3am, free drinks promotions and even free meal promotions plays right in to the backpacker’s hands to get the party started. Although I haven’t travelled for a while I have not forgotten what the backpacker unwritten codes are but I had forgotten that some people just don’t seem to abide by them. Having purposely booked a four-bed dorm, I instantly thought this would be a gentle start with not too many people to spoil our hostel experience but if so maybe enough time for them to leave. Less people, less things to go wrong or annoy us. How wrong we were.

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Having had an overnight flight with no sleep we were jet lagged and ready to see out the day as best as we could but getting to sleep early was inevitable. Of course, we are aware at this hostel people would be out till late and would come back most probably drunk, that’s fine but awareness seems to be rare. Not only on our first night were our two dorm friends turning the light on at 3am (A BIG NO NO), one of them decides to bring someone back to have sex with right next to us. Not only is this annoying with the sounds belting out from that pod, it meant we couldn’t recover from our flight. After a shaky start were quickly realise these young backpackers were here to party and were sleeping during the day and out at night. The second night the other one comes back with someone to have sex with, louder this time. These were young people first time travelling and they have a lot to learn but I do have sympathy (albeit little) with them but people not as tolerant as us will tell them how it is. I hope they are ready.
Enough about young backpackers in dorms! The city of Kuala Lumpur is easy to navigate around with your options of five types of metro systems, buses, taxis and walking. By far the best way to see it all is by walking. We walked miles around the centre of this city. Firstly, we checked out the Petronas Towers and booked our ticket for later in the day. We didn’t realise, but they quickly sell out but luckily, we got the last two tickets for that day. Even tickets for the following morning were sold out so my first tip would be to book in advance and don’t just turn up like we did and hope to get lucky. The area around the towers consists of a massive shopping mall, the lovely KLCC park and plenty of cafes to get stuck in to. On this lush hot day, we walked around the park taking photo snaps of the iconic towers and taking it all in. Once on the sky bridge of the Petronas Towers we could see even more of the city and how it is built and connected, it truly is a great sight. Even better is the sight at the top of these towers at 83 floors high, it amazes you how man can build such a thing. Not great if you don’t like heights but in my opinion, this is a must.

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Having decided that the day view was cracking we thought how about the night view? To conquer this, we booked ourselves in for a night time viewing at the observation deck at the top of the KL Tower. This was about a 15-minute walk from our hostel so was easy to get too. As good as the day view is, there is something spectacular about night time viewing from a big height. We could see the dazzling lights of the buildings and cars for miles, we were engrossed. For around £11 this is great value for part of an evening out. A tip for this little trip is to not pay for the open observatory right at the top as the observation deck is high enough.
We loved walking around the various markets such as Central Market, Flea Market and the food markets such as Jalan Alor to get a taste for that local vibe and get that great value street food. All the knocked off clothing is available to barter at if you are willing to take on the local market trader, one tip is stick to your very low price and walk away, they soon call you back. Having walked to the Botanical Gardens which was a trek in the hot conditions on our last day we realised that you must pay to go in but you can walk or ride around the middle of it. Not ideal but at least we got to see the National Mosque which was an impressive viewing from the outside as non-believers were not allowed in on that day.

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Unexpectedly, on our second night at the hostel, whilst on the rooftop bar we heard rumours of a fire. We leant over the edge and a building was properly on fire, all the services were called and it was dealt with very quickly. Never seen fire up close and angry like that before, scary!
Overall our stay in Kuala Lumpur was brilliant as we ticked off all the sights on our list, experienced hostels again and got stuck in to some local food. Kuala Lumpur is a melting pot of different religions, culture, food and way of life. You can really find anything you want. We felt on our third night we were ready to move on to Borneo but were in agreement that Kuala Lumpur has heaps to offer and is a must-see city in South East Asia and a great starting point for any future travels around this part of the world.

Judgement Day

So here it is, judgement day has finally come when I give in and declare to myself ‘well this is it, I have done all that I can’. I look at my travel savings and a sense of disappointment always dominates. Not to worry. I am now free of the shackles of modern life which is drenched in routine and set working hours, I am no longer temping! I am ready to roam the world on my set budget. Nervousness creeps in, I can imagine it’s a bit like Messi stepping up to score a penalty in front of 100,000 people or myself being asked to bowl the last over of a cricket game to win (not conceding more than 20 runs, easy, sort of). I know I could have saved more but life gets in the way. I quickly forget this and the excitement hits me when I realise I am travelling the world for 18 months, pretty good I must say.
The contrasting mentalities of preparing for a long trip are strange and opposite to one another. You save your hard-earned cash for weeks on end, saying no to things you want to buy, limited nights out, even weekends are committed to overtime. Then you switch to spending it all in a matter of months and the process starts over again. I must admit I am addicted to it. The planning started when we booked that first flight, I then proceed to look at the calendar and work out how many weeks I have left, how much money I can save and most of all how long I can travel for before finding my next temp job, in New Zealand.
Planning a trip of this magnitude requires a lot of admin but you can’t plan or book too much, as my website proclaims you must wing it sometimes. The key to any trip is requiring that little bit of bottle and pressing that button to pay for your flight, then you are committed like when you jump off that ledge for your bungee, no going back. Excitement settles in when we start looking at activities in each country we want to visit and analysing the hostels that fellow backpackers have recommended. Before you know it 5 flights, 7 hostels and 2 activities have been booked and you are knee deep in backpacking territory. Oh wait, we need to tell some people. Never easy.
The hardest and worst thing about backpacking for a substantial amount of time is the goodbyes. Explaining why you want to go for that long can be hard. Justifying can be difficult but the essential truth is that there is always a reason for not going and you can’t wait on people because this is the one and only life you have. Regretting not going would be hard to swallow later in life. Some people are genuinely not interested in travelling or the idea behind it, they are harder to reason with. ‘Oh, you don’t want a career, house, marriage, car or kids at 28??’ You quickly realise after a few days, people accept it and get back to normal life. A mentality which I will touch more on later down the line when I get back from this trip but let’s not think about that yet.
I can never work out why people wouldn’t want to go and see the world, visit as many countries as possible, speak to as many different types of people as possible and get those awesome experiences in the bag. I firmly believe there is a time and a place to travel and that is when you are young enough with no ties and responsibilities. You utilise that free spirit. Get the stories, experience the unknown, get out of the comfort zone and go and push yourself to the limit as much as possible. Nothing beats that anxious excitement the morning you get up to go the airport to begin your journey. It’s like the equivalent of an adrenalin rush you get when you skydive, score a goal or get aces in poker. It certainly is like a drug, and they say once you get that travel bug you are infested for the rest of your life.

New York on a budget

 

Approaching my last two weeks of my 85-week trip I hopped on a coach from Toronto to New York and was trying to plan an eight-night stay on a serious budget, safe to say I was worried. After searching online for days, I eventually punted for a hostel in Queens for around $20 a night. More researching suggested that if I didn’t indulge with plays on Broadway, sporting events, expensive nights out, fancy restaurants and avoiding the metro in Manhattan then budgeting is possible. I just had to accept that this means I will need to come back at least once again, what a shame.

 

The coach dropped me in central Manhattan and I was flabbergasted by the amount on concrete that surrounded me and the dizzying heights of the buildings. For someone who hasn’t been to a major American city before this experience was surreal. I just didn’t know where to look but to get my bearings I dropped myself in to an Irish bar to take stock. Having made my way to the hostel in a famous yellow taxi, it was time to get my timings, the hostel was a 20-minute walk through Astoria to the subway. This lovely little walk took me 20 minutes through leafy suburbia and pass independent local shops where I normally stopped off for a tuna sandwich deli style. With only 10 minutes on the subway to central Manhattan I had a result with the hostel.

 

Manhattan is a dazzling concrete jungle in which you immerse yourself into and I got my running trainers on and planned a day of walking around this famous island. The distance from the Central Park to Battery Park in the south is 10km but I was prepared to walk everywhere to walk off my American food but also to save money. Sights such as Central Park, The New York High Line, 5th Avenue, Times Square, Wall Street, The Freedom Tower and Battery Park are all free and easy to access by walking. There is enough there to keep yourself occupied for a few days.

 

Despite being on a budget you have to do certain activities and none more so than the Rockefeller Observation Deck and the Statue of Liberty. At a combined total of around $50, this is not bad for your tight purse strings. Lets face it, being on a budget makes you eek out every bit of sightseeing possible and brings out the best traveller from within you. The best tip I received for a thing to do in New York was the High Line and this 1.45 mile walk is a great way to spend a few hours weaving in and out of the New York buildings surrounded by trees and plant life. This little walk provided me with reflection time with a great view, you must do this.

 

Many fellow travellers will know that from time to time in hostels you do meet those characters which make the trip that even more interesting. This happened to me in my New York hostel, this French guy who had been living in Manchester. He came to New York to party and rent out a Mustang for the week, expensive.  He would come back with stories of his night and offer lifts in to Manhattan, I must admit he wasn’t the best driver but I just sat back and embraced the experience. In fact, he was decent enough to offer me a lift on my last day.

 

When I was on top of the Rockefeller building looking out to Manhattan at sunset it made me feel euphoric and very reflective about the previous 83 weeks of travelling which I had achieved. All of the sights I have seen, experiences I have experienced and people I had met made me feel very lucky about what I had gained in life. It was a poignant moment as I stood there thinking about seeing my family for the first time in about nearly two years. I felt I had topped off my travelling in style and with Iceland to come there was still more excitement. Despite the excitement there was fear and a worry about how I was going to explain all of this to my family and friends. What was for certain was that New York alone is a spectacle which should not be missed and it was a highlight of my trip.

Margaret River, WA.

Set in south west Australia this quaint little town has access to idyllic beaches, endless vineyards, stunning river locations, cute little seaside towns and great wildlife. Back in 2014 I decided to move here to work and live for three months initially to work the vineyard season. The early starts before dawn were tough especially with the danger of Kangaroos hopping across you in the road. As this part of Australia becomes extremely hot around 2pm most outside jobs are finished before then. I used to love getting up early, smelling the vines and their tasty grapes, driving large tractors and being in contact with the spiders. The town itself has a great hostel to stay in which is named Margaret River Backpackers and they help you with finding work, putting you in contact with local agencies and bringing you together with fellow backpackers who are there for the same reason. An awesome fish and chip shop ‘Squid Lips’ provides you with your weekly fix of fish and chips and it’s right next to a pub called Settlers for your local music, great alcohol and lively atmosphere.

Don’t get me wrong there are backpackers here for different reasons. I met this awesome American guy who was solely here to surf with a bit of work on the side, what a life. What is essential to this part of the world is arming yourself with a vehicle. This is the gateway to all the activities available to you and the regular road trips with your hostel buddies providing you with the best experiences and stories which will last you a life time. There are so many wineries in this region that you could pick a different one every day and they will have something different for you to try. One of my favourite wineries was House of Cards who made their own ice cream and chocolate, as well as the wine.

Spiders can cause people to have nightmares but I loved my little encounter with the Huntsman spider whilst netting on a vineyard. I was unrolling the net on the back of the tractor ready to place on the vines and all the sudden, whoosh! There goes a massive spider almost the size of my hand flying towards me, I dodged it and laughed. My friend who was working with me confirmed it was a Huntsman and was harmless as they can’t poison, relief.

The early starts can be a hazard when Kangaroos are hopping about. You can see them hanging around on the banks and grass either side of the road around dusk. As they are nocturnal they should be getting to bed but sometimes they might want to change location like they did with me in my car driving to a job. About 2 metres in front of me one casually hops across the road but make no mistake about it, if I hit the Kangaroo I could have injured it with the speed I was doing as well as my car being destroyed. That was a lucky escape.

The vineyard season can be sporadic with work not being as regular as you would like with the agencies in fierce competition with each other to get the work. There is a lot of people vying work every day but the key is to have a car, know the area by road, have good skills driving a tractor and being reliable. Personally, I was hoping to get my 90 days’ regional work done all in this season but looking back this was never achievable. Don’t rely on this season for all your days but it is good for maybe around 50 days’ regional work unless you can get a job selling wine at the vineyards. A job that pays by the hour, surrounded by wine, has a 9-5 routine and you get five days a week signed off, that is the dream job if you can get it, but stiff competition.

My most favoured part of this experience is the people I met and the solid group of backpackers which we had where we shared every day laughs and weekly experiences which will last a lifetime. Those lazy days of nipping to the beach for a cheeky game of football on the beach, a cold beer and dipping in to the sea are days I will remember for the rest of my days. Those casual conversations at dinner time, bonding sessions when picking grapes and early morning alarm calls brings you as a group very close together. These type of things will enable you to have a bond that cant be broken and one which you will always be able to relate too.

To sum up, this region was my favourite part of Australia and I had the best time here despite me not achieving my goal of getting 90 regional days signed off in time. I collected some great stories along with some awesome experiences which I will always share for as long as I live. An area where you can drink so much different wine that you will never have time to drink it all. A truly remarkable coastline where you barely see a human being and you can laze amongst the sand in true peaceful tranquillity. You meet fellow backpacking travellers like yourself who have probably been travelling around different parts of the globe and will have stories to share. The hostel is a booming atmosphere with people from all around the world and you can learn little bits of language you will never forget. All in all this region of Australia is a must for a truly awesome but unique experience of part of your working visa.

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A weekend in Copenhagen

 

Bring your trendy clothes, coffee taste buds, money and your walking shoes as a weekend in Copenhagen will bring an extra zest to your travel life. The efficient Danes make travelling around very easy, especially as they all speak English, bonus! Every day will you will plan to see a different part of Copenhagen which will entice you to grab a coffee a local café and look at the photos you have just taken. Of course you will need to do the standard check list of Nyhavn, Meat Packing District, street food market, Freetown and the Round Tower but there is plenty more to see if you venture to the not so touristy parts.

 

Fantastic clear skies and mild weather made our weekend there a dream to explore without worrying about if we got wet. You can book a hotel in central Copenhagen but I would advise getting an air bnb accommodation in a more upcoming area such as Norrebro. Get yourself down Jaegersborggade and check out the lovely little cafes either side of the road which ends with a serene walk through Assistens Cemetery. Look out for Soren Kierkegaard’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s tombstones. It’s that good that Vogue did a write up on it. Transport links are great to the centre of Copenhagen and include buses and trains. By night booming bars will provide you with a vibe which will make you want to drink there all night long.

 

Eating out is expensive and this cannot be denied even for a seasoned budget traveller like myself. A standard meal is going to cost around £10-£12 but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t find some great deals. Wander towards the Meatpacking District (Kodbyen) where you will find an endless supply of options for all different kinds of foods. We personally plumped for Tommi’s Burgers which boasted the best burger in town and veggie options too, safe to say for DKK100 (£12) we had a great burger, chips and a drink. The Copenhagen Street Food complex on the Paper Island across the water from Nyhavn has a plethora of options for food spanning from all countries across the world and yet again will cost DKK100. Sink your teeth in to some quality food, grab a beer and enjoy the party atmosphere. Get there early though as this place will get packed out as they night goes on.

 

Everyone wants the standard picture of the city from a height and the Rudetaarn (The Round Tower) in the centre of town will do the trick. You walk the steady climb to the top inside the tower and once the top, gaze over Copenhagen with your camera. We did queue for the Christiansborg Palace which has a free entry to the tower but the queue was long and we sacked it off as we valued our time more. Afterwards we stumbled in to a trendy little café by the name of Tak for Kaffe which is off the main shopping street of Valkendorfsgade for some delicious homemade cakes and coffee.

 

Café culture in Copenhagen is one of the best I have experienced for options and quality. There will be a list of places to test your coffee tasting and cake tasting skills on. You will see the Costa equivalent of Expresso House dotted around central Copenhagen and this will guarantee you good coffee and good wifi, but try to get out of this habit. Nyhavn has lots of little bars/cafes/restaurants along the river to get your teeth stuck in to for a coffee or beer. You will be paying premium price as this the area on the top ten lists on google but it must be done. A lovely little find for breakfast and good coffee was the Paludan café which is a library containing a trendy café/restaurant. A breakfast which in size is massive and in taste sensational is a must here. The atmosphere is stimulating with people studying and catching up keeping it hygge. The classic Scandanavian Laundromat Café is situated in central Copenhagen and is like its sister café in Reykjavik with loud décor and trendy drinks.

 

Overall Copenhagen is cheap to get there and back but expensive to stay in. You will need to the Krone in to enjoy the fruits of this trendy city with its excellent café culture, picturesque buildings and sensational options on food. To really fit in get yourself an air bnb and a bike and get stuck in to the local culture around the outside of the centre. If you are not on a budget the Noma café can be an activity to tick off the life CV. Just remember to keep it hygge.

 

Didn’t get the break

 

Crossing from Laos in to Thailand requires you to travel across the Mekong River, one side the very much-relaxed Laotian authorities and on the other the stricter sterner Thai border control. Well so I thought. The border is chaotic with hordes of tourists crossing the mighty Mekong on a typically hot day. On this occasion, I was travelling with a total of six others. I was in my England shirt, not a good idea, as you find out further into the blog. So, we make our way to the border control. 

 

As I approach the window to speak to the border control guard, he grabs my passport and starts flicking through aggressively. At this point I start to worry a little bit. In his broken English he shouts ‘Where is your stamp?’ so I proceed to the page with the visa which has a random girl’s passport photo where mine should be. Due to me not possessing my own passport photo, the Laos authorities used a girl’s photo from our bus as my visa photo. I seem to recall the guy joking and laughing about it when processing my visa. When you question it, they laugh and advise you any photo will do. Anyways, as I flick to the page of the visa I realise there is no stamp there to my horror and try to explain that there was no signs at the previous border for me to get am entry stamp. My friends were fine as they had a stamp but they had to wait for me by the boats as I then start to ponder what has gone wrong and what to do.

 

While I weigh things up quickly, the border guard continues to shout at me quite loudly for everyone to hear. Not understanding what is going on, I panic and shout at him to which I proceed to storm off to the boat across to Thailand, not my best move. My friends question what was going on but I told them ‘no idea he kept shouting at me’ and we crossed. I arrive at the Thai authorities’ window and he looks at me in disgust and simply tells me ‘no stamp no entry’. I try to explain to him it was fine to cross but he had no time for me and dismissed me across the river. I was in total confusion.

 

So, off I go again on another boat on my own this time back to the Laos border with a bundle of Thai Bhat in my pocket which my friends gave to me in case I needed it. As I arrive I see three-armed military personal waiting by the building looking my way. I try to sneak back to the same person but before I know it the military guy with the most stars plucks me out of the crowd and proceeds to lead me towards a room at the back of the building. I don’t think it would have been hard to spot me in my red England football shirt, I couldn’t exactly mix in with the crowd. ‘Here we go’ I thought, slightly thrilled but petrified at the same time. As I enter the room they were watching the UK Open in the snooker, I had to snigger to myself and try to make light of it by showing my interest, they were not interested in that!

 

The four of us sit down. It was like one of those tense negotiation scenes out of a gangster movie. There I was flicking my fingers on the table looking at the guard and there he was thinking about what to say. He broke first and said to me “Do you speak Laotian?” I replied with ‘no’ with an air of confusion as he asked in very good English and he knew from my top I was English and unlikely to speak Laotian. Then the bombshell hits. He tells me “You have no stamp in your passport therefore you must pay!” I reply “How much?” He then laughs and tells me $100. I disagree with this and he simply says” No money no stamp no Thailand” so what choice do I have?

 

To not give away my position and trying to act cool I decline and sit there to try and barter him down, a standard practice in Asia which travellers will get to know well as they spend more time there. I’m used to this at this point being seven weeks into my three months in Asia. I start to realise after all my chat and bartering we were not getting anywhere, well I wasn’t. As we sat in silence between negotiations we watched snooker together, for brief moments I felt there was peace and an appreciation of the art of snooker.

 

As we were all starting to get a bit bored I told him I don’t have dollars, which was the truth, he replied with that I could pay in Thai Baht. I asked how much that was and I got the figure of 3000 Baht. I quickly sat there and done some quick maths with the exchange rates in my head and figured I have chalked off about £15-£20 off the original price for the stamp in my passport. I agreed and proceeded to hand over the money. Once exchanged he then stamped my passport with a smirk on his face. I quickly got out of there and headed to the river again. I happened to get the same guy again on the Thai side and he started to have doubts over the stamp so I told him in no uncertain terms that I forked out for my mistake so please just let me in. He looked at me with no pity and stamped my Thai visa.

 

On reflection on the minibus to Chang Mai in Thailand, I was trying to figure how the hell this all happened. Simply it was my fault but not intentionally. On the Laos border from Vietnam there are no signs. Yes, I got my visa but I didn’t proceed to another window to get my stamp so in turn I collected my visa and headed to the coach, a grave mistake in hindsight. Being fresh to travelling I didn’t even question it or think that there was anything more to do or anything unusual or wrong. The advice I would give about land borders is to always check that you have seen someone for your visa and your entry stamp in to the country. I didn’t get the break I needed on that occasion and paid for it in the end with money but gained an experience I can now share and pass on.

 


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Queenstown

 

On my travels throughout New Zealand I had heard so much about Queenstown and what is to come that I couldn’t contain my excitement. The vibe straight away was electrifying. Snow drop mountains dominated the sky around us as we checked in to Nomads Hostel. Backpackers surrounded us with a skip in their step. As soon as we settled in they were describing local spots and encouraging us to visit these at all costs. Five minutes in we had been advised to go luging, take a walk around the lake, skydive, bungee jump, go for a jog, go to a list of bars and eat a Fergburger. Where do you start?

 

As we walked around the grid system that is central Queenstown the café culture hit us and we plot the four days we had there. We quickly realised that this might not be enough. The first on our hit list was the luging which is accessible by a cable cart to the top of the mini mountain. Once you arrive, you turn around and gaze at the mastery that is Queenstown from the balcony by the café, the great height gives you an even better view. A panoramic photo is a must for your travel diary. Luging was interesting, an activity where you are placed in a small go kart armed with only a brake, the downhill track gives you enough speed. I found it exhilarating as well as frustrating as I was constantly losing to my friends which caused me to clip the curb and flip myself over. Covered in cuts, bruises and grazes to my arms and body I head to the main office where they catch it on camera, me flipping mid-air. This caused absolute laughter to my friends and other tourists but unfortunately, we were not allowed to take the photo as it would be “bad publicity.”

 

The only way to deal with the luging debacle was to go for a night out in Queenstown and hit the bars and clubs. A must for any traveller is the Worlds End bar which supplies you with tea pots containing cocktails. The pumping music, party vibe and cheap drinks makes it a great night. We had a great time drinking and partying until the early hours before trudging back to the hostel.  The next day we went for lunch at Fergburger to deal with the hangover and my word there is some serious choice of burgers. A Fergburger is a large burger with sumptuous fillings in a massive bun which will not leave you hungry. Its quirky little restaurant with its risky food titles makes it a hit and a highlight of Queenstown.  It is also open all night should you want to drop in at the end of a night out.

 

For fitness freaks a trendy little jog around Queenstown would be spectacular with the views around you and also testing with the hills available to conquer. We had a rather large group of around twenty people accumulated at the hostel for a game of football at the local rugby field which was available for use to the public. At this point we had been travelling for four months and were buzzing to play some sport. Everyone was excited and we headed to the pitch which was a ten-minute walk away. I seem to recall my team losing but the energy around our new friends on this travelling adventure together was filled with positivity and so much zest for life. We headed on another famous Queenstown night, starting with Fergburger, heading to the ice bar, which was on our list of bars, and finishing in the Worlds End bar, as usual.

 

During this night out I believe I was at my most satisfied and happiest with travelling as I was having a cracking time with new friends on our Kiwi Experience. We had all bonded together and created a real positive atmosphere of enjoying activities and enjoying the moment. We were living for each day and something new. Despite Queenstown being so small there was endless amount of stuff to do. Queenstown is a special little concrete jungle surrounded by scenery which will take your breath away and will make you want to go back and enjoy it all again. This place is addictive and the dream would be to live there whilst working but I wouldn’t expect to save any money in doing so. I made a promise to go back and I will be doing so in the next coming years, I cannot wait.