Outback Australia: Making charcoal and the scrapes

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When it comes to backpacker jobs call me Bertie Bassett because I’ve done all sorts.
Of all of the jobs that I’ve had however, nothing quite compares to what I do now.
For the past few months I have been making charcoal in the Australian outback. The days are long, the work is horrible, physical and dusty and the weather is crazy. Basically wood is cut up, we gather it onto trucks, tip it into pits, cook the wood in the pits for about a fortnight and then dig out the resulting charcoal, sort it into bags, sew the bags, stack them and then wrap them in plastic ready for delivery. It sounds simple but each element is hard, dangerous and has its own meticulously regimented method of being done. Everyone has constant injuries, there is no health and safety and yeah, it’s not particularly pleasant.

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Digging

The location:
821 Kms west of Brisbane (a seven day non-stop hike according to google maps) is a settlement called Wyandra, look it up, it’s a tiny little place with only 116 residents (116 according to Wikipedia, my boss said in reality there are only about 40 people that live there permanently). Another 25km into the wilderness outside of Wyandra is where we live.
There is a small group of us that live out here (so far the minimum has been 5, the maximum was 9) the couple that run the business stay in the house and the rest of us that work here stay in “dongers” or campervans on the grounds.

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Water:

To get clean water we need to go on ‘water runs’. A water run consists of driving for about 20 minutes in a rickety old truck to a hole in the ground with pumps and tubes sticking out of it. On the back of the truck is a massive tank that is filled directly with the water, hot enough to cook in, pumped straight from the boar. When you pull up to the pump, one of you will then climb up on top of the truck and then up onto the tank. The hose is guided up to you with ropes then you put the nozzle into the top of the tank, tie the hose to a strap, let rip and then you wait on top until the tank is full enough. The whole process of driving out, filling the tank, returning and then plumbing it all in takes (on a good day) about an hour; however often there are problems or if it is too dark then we won’t go.

It’s a ballache but better than the alternative. If there is no clean water in the tank we switch to using river water. This wouldn’t be too bad if the river wasn’t slow moving, shallow and didn’t have water with the look and feel of a poorly prepared cup-a-soup (one day we had neither option so I washed myself in my boss’s bathroom with water from a saucepan).

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A ‘water run’ at sunset.

Food and supplies:
The nearest supermarket is a two hour drive away, actually if you need pretty much anything (clothes, a toothbrush… medical attention) it’s a two hour drive to Charleville, the nearest place that is big enough to call itself a town. If shit gets really serious there is an airstrip nearby that we can use but I’m yet to see it get any action.

Stress:

Like every job there is inevitable politics and any grievances do become heightened because we are such a small group and you are all working long hard hours. Often the person you least want to see is the person that you spend your entire day with. For the most part though I’ve managed to keep out of the politics, but of course some days the job is nothing to do with charcoal, it’s about putting up with all the gossip and the ballache around you.

Chargrilled fingertips and a lost fingernail.

So, why put up with all of this bullshit?:

Aside from the finances (realistically I don’t have time to look for another job before my VISA expires) the main things that are keeping me here are the people (cliché but very true), the fact that I can feel myself getting healthier by the day and the general sense of adventure and camaraderie. It feels like what I always imagined Australia to be. I open my door in the morning and some days I see kangaroos hopping away, or emus, it’s amazing. Before I came into the outback I was firmly trying to enter the tedium of Melbourne city life (working for a smarmy solar panel sales company run by a guy with a popular haircut) and yeah, I didn’t realise how shit it was until I actually left.

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Picture taken by Ben Chandler

Another good thing about working here is that it’s actually legit’. I’ve read and heard so many stories of backpackers being swindled by farmers, often for thousands of dollars. It’s not uncommon and it’s all over Australia. The farmers know that the backpackers need to work for a certain amount of days to earn their second year so they treat them like shit and often pay them nothing (or close enough to it) for their hard work. Scum. Luckily I was only scammed once (3 days of pay) out in WA but I’m really happy to be somewhere with long term consistent work (the pay cheques are sporadic but at least they are actually right when they do come).

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Picture taken by Ben Chandler

Every day is a new challenge, a new adventure. If something could possibly go wrong it will but that just makes everything that much more interesting. The work is shit but yeah, that’s why they pay you to do it, right? I love a story as well and this job is certainly a rich source.

Here are a few of my stories and photo’s that I’ve gathered so far:


The explosion:

It was an afternoon just like any other, the plan was to load ten big bags of charcoal (each weighing about a tonne) onto a big flatbed truck ready to be taken to a different site for crushing. The only issue was that we didn’t have a forklift on site, instead we were using a huge digger with forklift bars attached to its front (it looked like one of the shitter Robot Wars contestants, just on a massive scale). After a sketchy start the digger seemed to be working fine, it’d turn on, go for a bit and then it’d mysteriously stop and the engine would grumble to silence. But each time, first try, it would turn on again with no issue.
Despite working for a few short bursts the engine of the digger dramatically sputtered, choked, and it was clearly dead for the final time; like the last moments of a villain in a film when they spring back to life wielding a gun before getting shot in the head and we know that this time they definitely won’t be coming back. The battery was going to need a jump.
We got all of the stuff ready and I stood there holding the jump leads in my right hand, poised and ready to pass them over when the time was right. My boss, Ian, was teaching me how to do a jump start. I lent over the battery and stared at the connections with vacant intent as if to say “I’m listening, you’re a great teacher”, I was giving loads of open mouthed feedback as well, “Oh yeah… ahh okay… gotcha…right on… yep… of course… yeah that makes sense”, I think it’s called “active listening” although I think it just distracted me from actually listening.

The lesson continued, “Okay, brown to the positive, this clip goes here…”
BANG!!
All at once it sounded like Velcro ripping, a pop of a champagne cork and the loud cracking thud of a large tree branch falling onto concrete. The sound pulsed into my head, recoiled around in my skull and then left all in a fraction of a second. My eyes stung as I opened them, my skin crawled with a scratchy heat, my ears were ringing and I had a weird gritty taste in my mouth. I kept getting that strange sensation that happens whilst swimming when you come up for air and the water leaves your ears, like somebody opening a pressurised submarine door in the centre of your head.
“Ian!? Ian! What the fuck!? Are you alright?” My language went a bit Hollywood in the confusion.
“Are you alright?” He calmly mumbled in reply.
“Are YOU alright Ian?”
We asked each other if we were alright another five times or so in rapid succession without replying.
He got up and we stumbled over to a tap, ears still ringing, on the floor was a dirty old jacket that we wet and used the muddy sleeves to wash the battery fallout from our skin. I looked down at my T-shirt and it looked like i’d been shot with blacky-green paint from a novelty shotgun.
“Now, what did we just learn?” Ian said in a calm voice.
“I don’t know Ian, what the fuck was that!?”
“Those leads must have touched together, the ones you were holding, they touched together and the battery’s exploded…”
“Oh fuck”
“… You’ve got to keep them apart”.
We returned to the scene. The top of the battery had blown clean off, revealing it’s sci-fi interior, lots of coiled metal marinating in a thick shiny black soup.
“I always wondered what the inside of one of those was like” Ian said with a smile as he patted me on the shoulder. “We’re lucky lucky boys”.
Then we just continued on; Ian pulled a battery out of one of the other machines, plumbed it in, jump started  the digger and we were back in business. All with the zen focus as if nothing had happened. It was amazing. Just another day at the office.

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Baby-toothed Joe takes a tumble:

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This is Baby-toothed Joe. He is a local cattle musterer whose adult teeth never came through; leaving him with a frightening gum:tooth ratio. He has three stock phrases:

“Ahzit gowan!?” (Hello, how are you?)

“Year” (Yes)

“Muzz’rin” (Mustering cattle)

Every time I see him he sidles up silently beside me whilst I’m working, settles himself so he is facing my direction and then he blankly stares into the abyss with quiet melancholic eyes.

A typical conversation will be as follows:

“Alright Joe, how’s your day treating you?”

“… Ahzit gowan!? …”

“All good thanks mate, are you having a nice day?”

“… Year …”

“Cool man, what have you been up to?”

“… Muzz’rin …”

“Ahh mustered cattle eh, I bet that will taste nice ha ha ha… … mustard…”

“… Year …”

“It’s really hot today, why are you wearing a big coat and Ugg boots?”

“ … “

“I suppose it feels cold for you ha ha, the climate where I am from is colder than here so this feels hot for me ha ha weather.”

“… Year …”

 

Anyway, as hard as I try and capture this moment I can never quite get across just how funny it actually was. Basically, Baby-toothed Joe fell over, that’s the story. I was busy putting some plastic wrap around a stacked pallet of charcoal bags when he settled in the area in front of me.

“Alright Joe?”

“… Ahzit gowan!?”

He stared as I shuffled backwards around and around the pallet uncoiling the plastic and stretching it around the bags to hold them in place. When it was wrapped I nealt down to tie up the loose end.

“I’m a bit dizzy now ha ha, being a world class rapper isn’t as glamorous as they make it out to be in the music videos ha ha ha”

“… Year …”

Then he tried to turn to walk away but the heal of his Ugg boot caught one of the unstacked bags of charcoal at the side of the next pallet. His face locked into a look of strained panic as he scampered awkwardly backward. One step. Two steps. His feet slapped loudly against the floor to try and right himself but he was already angled well past his centre of gravity. Three steps. Four steps. Five. I don’t know how he had generated so much momentum from a stationary position but I swear he took about ten steps backward before his arms flailed up over his head and knocked his cowboy hat off as he clattered down hard on his backside.

“Ooooff!!!”

He was now quite a distance away but I heard all of the air leave his body (whistling through his little teeth) as he thudded to the ground.

With an expert poker face I called out, trying really hard not to burst out laughing.

“Oh fuck!? Joe are you alright mate!?!”

There was a longer pause than usual as he reached for his hat.

“… Year …”.

 

‘The pit’:

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This is the Call of Duty map that we come to everyday to make charcoal.

The crash:

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This is the aftermath of what happened on my first day. My boss, Ian, was driving back after a hard day and hit a cow. The car was a write off and they had to return later that evening with a gun to “finish it off”. Brutal.

‘Mr Blue’:

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Picture taken by Sarah Smith

Innocent looking fellow isn’t he?  He has a constant smile although behind that face there is nothing but fire and rage. I like the guy, don’t get me wrong, he rides nicely in the cab with me when I drive the trucks, he sometimes has a little game with me when I’m putting my shoes on but yeah, I’m fully aware that if he had the opportunity he would relish in killing me without a moment’s hesitation.

Bugs:

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If you sit or lie down anywhere outside ants will crawl all over you like disgruntled Lilliputians. This is a picture of a mug of tea that was left out between breaks.

 

Innuendos:

In-your-endo! My bosses are Australians. Australians from a different generation. This, combined with the nature of the work we are doing, makes them a rich fountain of unintentional gold dust. My favourite so far is:

“Ahh it’s warm, I’d love to teabag in the sea right now… how about you Ian? Wanna teabag in the sea?”

25 seconds after it happened:

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This picture was taken moments after a very important machine had been dropped from a forklift.

 

The end:

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Thanks for sticking this out until the end; and to all you barbeque lovers out there (Australians), next time you are having a lovely outdoor cook up with all of your friends, spare a thought for the time and effort that has gone into making the charcoal under your grill (and that there is a chance that your meat was once mustered by Baby-toothed Joe himself).

Safe travels!

Jack Tidball

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The Philippines: A few of my pictures

I will start with an apology. After a really long day fighting through the bustle of Manila, then a long hot wait in the chaos of the airport, followed by four hours on a restless plane to Singapore my day finally had some punctuation. I was shattered. I plodded my booty down on the plush carpet outside of the connecting gate and began to write. In the following four hours I poured my little heart into a huge piece of writing, not leaving a single ounce of memory on the cutting room floor. My error however was that I was just typing, glazed eyed at the screen with no thought of backup I just tip-tapped away. The call for the plane to board came so I pressed the “hibernate” gizmo and closed the lid on my computer with the intention of going back to writing as soon as I was sat on the plane. The second leg of the journey was longer and I had lucked into a really nice seat (very rare on Jetstar, they are usually crap) so I decided to have a quick snooze. By the time the plane had taken off and we had the all-clear to stand up I was fully passed out. Dead to the world and didn’t wake up until we were about to land!

It wasn’t until I arrived back to where I was staying in Perth that I decided to finish off the writing. When I opened up my laptop however the page was blank. I’d left it for so long the hibernate had become a fully fledged shutdown (much like I had done myself on the flight) and all of my scribblings were gone. “Bollocks”.

Instead of writing it all out again I have decided to write the electric “sorry Miss I forgot to save my homework” story (that you have patiently just read) and then load up a few pictures that I took while I was there. So yeah, sorry you don’t get to read my stream of consciousness written on the floor of an airport*, instead however here are a selection of bloody lovely pictures from my trip to The Philippines. I hope you like them.

A beautiful wedding on the beach.

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Reunited with family after 2 years.

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Starting off the day with some “Gasoline”.

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A beach front hostel for 400PHP (about six quid).

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Safety first.

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A huge parade for Good Friday.

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Magellan’s cross.

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Traffic.

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Manny Pacquiao’s signed gloves.

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Dusk on the beach.

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Trekking in the hills.

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Rush hour.

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Blue ice cream!

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“We’re going to need a bigger boat”.

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Fresh from the catwalks of Milan.

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One of the cheapest meals that I’ve ever had. “Eat all you can” noodles for 10PHP (16 pence).

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Nips.

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Exploring an old unused hotel reclaimed by the jungle.

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Thriller in Manila.

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Morning at the markets.

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Folded towels and a nice bed (I lived for 3 weeks out of that little bag).

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The end of the beach.

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“Darling. Fetch my king outfit and umbrella, we’re going for a regal ride in the rain”.

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JT phone home.

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“Tom”. Blatantly taking the Mickey.

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Arriving into Cebu’s port after an episode of seasickness on the ferry.

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A Taoist temple in Cebu.

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Worth it?

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Sassy Jesus.

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The hills of Boljo-on.

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The pre-Latin Filipino alphabet (Why does “da de/di do/du” have the same symbols as “ra re/ri ro/ru”?).

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Home for a few days.

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The wedding resort.

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Japanese tourists.

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Potato flavoured crisps.

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Feeding the fish.

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Very happy with the new nails.

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Trees growing out of the rocks.

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Tagbilaran trike.

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The end of the jungle.

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I love a photo opportunity.

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The last sunset.

17952561_10155100253225132_3286738111410198112_nDiving with whale sharks in Oslob.

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Thanks for getting this far! A note about the whale shark diving. Although the animals are phenomenal, the way that they are treated ruins the whole experience. Please read this before you consider going, I wish I did – https://www.bloglovin.com/blogs/eat-yourself-green-14874229/why-you-shouldnt-dive-with-whale-sharks-in-5502178293

Safe Travels!

 

*A post written whilst sat on the floor of Auckland airport about my time Tonga – Memories from Tonga: A diary

Bribery and paranoia: My first brush with airport security

After a phenomenal few weeks I was coming to the end of the garden route (South Africa) and had no plan. Being the plucky modern man that I am I decided to consult my favourite internet search engine for some ideas. “The Pyramids of Giza and the Sphynx”, too far away, “Table mountain”, I’d just been there, “Victoria falls”, perfect. Before I had checked any of the logistics my mind was already made up. Half an hour or so of messing about, moving money, checking prices and so on and it was done, flights to Livingstone were booked, one way.

At the time I preferred an early morning flight, favouring the “stay up all night and pass out on the plane” approach (I used to get anxious on planes so the faster that I could get to sleep the better). Early morning flights are often the cheaper as well so everyone’s a winner!

Cut to the morning of the journey, I’d misjudged it, I woke up panicked and disorientated in a chair after an unintentional two hour sleep in a spitefully comfortable hot windowless room. “Oh crap, have I missed my flight?”. I hadn’t but time was short. I quickly bundled together my things and shot out of the door. I had intended to have a nice shower before I left but now my plans were out of the non-existent window. Thankfully the taxi driver that I  had organised the previous evening had hung around for me and although sweaty, smelly and flustered things were back on track.

We arrived at the airport with just about enough time to spare. At this stage I was smelly, tired but ultimately relieved. The check in and security went well and soon enough I was sat on the plane for the first leg of the journey. I sat in my seat by the window and got settled, the middle seat to my right was empty as well so I was really nice and spread. “Ahh, time for a nice bit of sleep”. No such luck. Behind me there was a bit of commotion, “probably just a domestic” I thought. Soon after the ruckus a generous portion of a man grumbled his way into the aisle, brandishing the stub of his boarding pass, and started scanning back and forth open mouthed with confusion as he made his way down the plane. Of course he was coming my way, I could sense it, of all of the empty seats I knew that this guy was destined to be my own personal nuisancemonger. Sure enough, down he parked into the seat next to me. After a moment of stress trying to find comfort he became passive, oozing his clammy arms over the rests that pressed into his flanks on either side. The noise of him grazing throughout the flight wasn’t my issue,  I remember this man so well because of the series of biological attacks that he released sporadically throughout the journey. Hot soupy farts so vivid and offensive to the pallet that I could see people flinching on impact at least six rows ahead of us and looking around accusingly at one another. It was barbaric, unforgettable and unforgivable.

I didn’t sleep on the first flight. I was tired, hungry and now in addition to my body odour I could also boast a smell of “eau de anus” infused into the fibres of my clothes thanks to my flatulent travel companion. Like a zombie (in look, smell and temperament) I waited in Johannesburg for the next leg of the journey.

The next flight was fine, everything was perfect barring one moment where a bit of turbulence made me drop a saucy bit of food right down my front and into my lap. I went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. What a state. I did my best to have a little clean up in the sink but my efforts were futile, all I managed to achieve was a large unsightly water stain and additional moisture in my fringe (which was already starting to adhere itself to my forehead).

We landed, I was an absolute mess. I remembered that in my carry on luggage I had a bit of after sun lotion. “Maybe that will mask the scent, it smells a bit like plants surely that’s an upgrade from the effluvia that I’ve drawn together”. Whilst the plane taxied I rubbed the after sun into my face, neck, arms and legs. I know that for a fact someone else has me as the antagonist in the story of their journey, “and then he started rubbing himself with herby lotion, what was wrong with that guy?!” – whoever you are, I’m sorry.

Finally the journey was over, I stayed in my seat for a little bit so that everyone else could get off first (why rush at this point, two more minutes won’t kill you) I gathered my stuff together and stepped out of the plane. The sun was bright, hot and upsetting. “I can’t wait to get to my hostel, have a nice shower and then a well earned sleep” I thought as I made my way down the stairs and across the tarmac into the terminal. A long line formed at the doorway. We queued for a while, I remember the relief when I saw my bag on the luggage trolley heading to the terminal from the plane. fifteen minutes or so later the line reached a point where I was stood in the shade, “not long now”. I had built up a fresh sheen of sweat from the blazing sun and I remember feeling really unwieldy in my own body. I was swaying a bit and had a bit of an irregularity to my walk.

Soon it was just me left in the line, ahead of me the customs official was talking to a guy that looked a bit like a hybrid of a policeman and a military general. I took my passport out of my bag and approached. Things didn’t feel right. I looked the dude in the eye and tried to replicate the blank serial killer stare that I have on my documentation. “What is your name?” he said in a low voice. “Jack Tidball … ” there was a long pause. He didn’t look happy with my answer. “Jack Elliott Tidball … ” again he didn’t look convinced. A large gent’ loomed up to me, it was at this point that I knew I was in for some drama.

Moments later I was sat in a little brightly lit room. All that was inside was a wooden table, a couple of chairs and I could see that my bag had been bought into the corner of the room. On the wall opposite was an ominous looking cabinet, I didn’t even want to consider what was inside. It reminded me a bit of the interrogation room in The Matrix when Keanu Reeves gets the metal squid thing put into his bellybutton. I was suddenly hugely aware of my appearance, stumbling about, squinting from the light, dirty, greasy and I not only smelt like a refuse site but I had also helpfully covered myself in a lotion that smelt like a nondescript selection of potentially incriminating herbs, not an ideal situation.

All that was running through my mind at this point was “I’m going to get the rubber glove, I’m going to get the rubber glove … if I did get the rubber glove, would they even use a rubber glove? … that guy’s hands were massive … what’s inside the cabinet? … probably rubber gloves”. Just to clarify, when I say “get the rubber glove” I mean a full exploratory cavity procedure, every cavity, use your imagination*.

The door opened and the army general police guy entered. Without a word he went to the corner and purposefully unzipped a pocket of my bag. He reached in with a confidence as if it was his own and pulled out a red pouch. It was my first aid kit. Before traveling around Africa I had been advised to take a first aid kit that was a bit more comprehensive than a bit of antibacterial cream, plasters and some diarrhea pills. Part of the kit was a sterile set of needles “just in case you go to a hospital in the middle of nowhere and you don’t trust that the equipment is clean”.

“What is this?” he asked with calm authority, still standing.

“It’s my first aid kit, just in case I get ill, I bought most of it in Boots” I replied like a schoolboy bitch.

“Boots? What do you mean Boots?”  his expression told me that he wasn’t as familiar with the UK high street pharmacy as I had hoped that he’d be.

“It’s a shop… and it sells first aid kits and stuff” (Don’t get the rubber glove, don’t get the rubber glove, don’t get the rubber glove).

He was quiet for what seemed like an eternity while he thought. Usually at this stage in the story I will try and be cool and blasé about what went down. I’ll say something like “and then I pulled some money out of my pocket and bribed the guy to let me go on my way”, imagine that! If I just pulled out money and tried to bribe him he’d just laugh, take the money, rubber glove me for fun, and then set about putting me in a Zambian jail. Instead it went a little something like this.

He finally sat in the chair that was across the table from me and spoke clearly and quietly. “If you give me some money then you can go, English money”.

“I’ve got US dollars” (People like US dollars, it makes them feel like they are in “the movies”).

He didn’t say anything at this point but I could see in his face that US dollars were right up his street. The question now was how much to go for, too little and he’d “laugh, rob, glove and jail” me, too much and I’m throwing money down the drain. Lucky for me all of the US notes look really similar and I had a mix of denominations and the bigger ones were really well hidden. Again my mind was racing “How much did the bottle of water that I bought in the queue cost? Is that what a local would pay for a bottle of water? Surely not. I’m going to give fifty bottles worth. Maybe I could make some kind of commotion and get the police involved to help me. Nah, this clearly happens all of the time because he seems very well rehearsed. $50 isn’t enough, go for $60 ish. You’ve got two twenties, two tens and some ones they’ll look like loads all fanned out on the table… I’m definitely getting gloved”.

He broke the silence. “Give me $50”

“Okay”.

That was it. I’m sorry for the anti climax but that was it. I never found out what was in the cupboard (I think I was one of the lucky ones), after our chat he returned the first aid kit to my bag and helped me put it on my back as I slid a fifty dollar note neatly into his hand. I walked out, he had a quick word with the customs guy, stamped my passport and then I was on my smelly way; (I just want to add a disclaimer at this point. I’m sure this doesn’t happen all of the time but after my journey I think I was just hyper-susceptible to any scams. Maybe the whole thing was a legit procedure and I just had my thumb up my arse to it all – gloved of course) ready for the rest of my African adventure and what became one of the most beautiful experiences of my life, Victoria Falls.

Instead of giving you a step by step account, here are some pictures that I took at the falls. I can’t stress the beauty of this place enough, please go and experience it for yourself, no picture will ever do it justice.

Happy travels!

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Sunrise (Tilt your screen and it’ll look better).

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“My name is Grave, like the ditch!”

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Always time for a photo’ opportunity.

 

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Right: Zambia. Left: Zimbabwe. The sound and power of the falls at this point is phenomenal.

Footnote: *The bumhole.

Memories from Tonga: A diary

It’s about one in the morning. After a disastrous series of events I find myself on the floor of Auckland airport and it looks like I am going to be here for a while. The good news is I have some time to tell you about my most recent little adventure, a week in the friendly isles of Tonga!

This is a bit of a change of tone from my previous posts because everything actually went really well; for the most part…

I arrived into Nuku’alofa fresh as a daisy because I’d managed to bag myself some exit row seats on the plane. I didn’t really know what to expect, my plan was to do some diving but apart from that it was just going to be generic happy beach times.

We pulled up at the hostel, the gates opened and two lovely lazy dogs craned their necks and wagged their tales to greet us.

“Hello lads!” – I waved at them like a nan would wave at a ferry… anyway, the point of this bit is that basically as soon as we arrived, before we’d finished checking in, we were given a plate full of Tongan goodies: Octopus, fish, taro, kumala, bread fruit and lots of other stuff that I can’t remember the names of (helpful). I hadn’t tried any of it before, even the fish had a flavour like I’d never experienced before. After everything a part of me was waiting for a charge or some sort of social pressure; it never came. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer welcome.

On the second day we went into town to explore. It was the perfect day, just the right temperature to amble around with no agenda (the Tongans call walking like this “effa”) without fear of getting heat stroke or becoming a sweaty mess. Everything throughout the day fell into place, we needed SIM cards and then what do you know, by the side of the road there were some friendly people selling SIM cards. It was the same with food, shortly after saying “I fancy something made fresh, almost as if we are guests in a local house for dinner” we stumbled across a house with a blackboard outside it and an old guy in an apron. “Do you make food mate?” I asked hopefully. “Yeah, but it’s not ready, we make it here just for you” – perfect. We sat down in the little courtyard at the front of his house under the keen gaze of a stray panting dog.

The food came and again it was absolutely lovely; a large plate of fish, chips and a salad all for 7 pa’angas (about £2.50). The place had a real community spirit about it. A couple of gents came and sat with us in the courtyard, then out came the chef in his apron, and we just chatted for a while about Mormons (I had no idea that Tonga had so many Mormons, the guy said it was about 60% of the island but don’t quote me on that) and the correct number of wives to have.

Later that day we organised to go and try kava. Kava is a local drink that is made from straining water through some kind of pepper routes (again don’t quote me); if you drink enough of it then it’s supposed to give you a calming numbness and it’s also supposed to be good for bringing a sense of clarity to your thoughts. As well as the drink there was going to be music and stuff so it sounded perfect.

Outside the front of the house we arranged ourselves into a circle, all sat on cushions, wooden blocks and  plastic chairs (like the ones you had in school) that had the legs removed. The place itself felt like it was in the middle of the jungle, loads of bush and trees around but also lots of unfinished buildings among the trees. Whilst the kava was being prepared an increasing number of dudes appeared from the darkness to join the fun, each with their own nickname and a musical instrument or talent. Before long there was about fifteen or twenty of us in the circle at the front of the house, all ready for kava. It was ready. One of the guys emerged from the side of the house with a sloshing bucket, a large plastic washing up bowl and another few smaller bowls. The rest sang songs and played guitar, it was like being in a cult!

The kava itself looked like dirty river water, once mixed it was poured into the little bowls and passed around. The idea was that each time that you are handed a bowl (containing about a pint of kava) you down it in one, no messing around. It tasted pretty much how it looked (dirty dishwater) and it was passed around every time that the guys finished a song. We sat there for hours and hours, listening to them sing, chatting and drinking stupid amounts of the kava (every time that a big bowl was finished the same guy would come from the darkness with a huge bucket and refill it). By the end I’m pretty confident that we’d at least had 50 litres of the stuff between us, it was madness. Gradually the circle became more sedate. I didn’t really feel anything apart from a numb tongue and the feeling of being way too full. Apparently the more you have and the more regularly you do it the more affective it is, but it wasn’t for me, once was enough to try. I loved the vibe and the songs and stuff but personally I wouldn’t recommend the kava.

The next time that I left the guest house (a full day later, perhaps the kava did have some affect after all) was to go to the north west of the island to go and snorkel the reef (there wasn’t enough interest in the SCUBA to justify a boat going, if I’d wanted to do it I’d have had to pay a silly amount as it would have been me alone). The beach was really nice, the sand was big and grainy (almost the size of those little polystyrene balls that you get in packaging) until you got very close to the sea. The first part of the water was very shallow and you could see the reef by just standing at the water’s edge, beyond that was the deeper water so the waves were breaking way out in the mid ground, beyond that, deep blue sea (on DVD…).

We had fun snorkelling for a while and saw a perfect blue starfish and loads of other crazy little colourful fish, I never used to like the sea but now I’m all over it.

We came out of the water and lay in the sun for a bit. At this juncture I’ll stress the importance of sunscreen (Baz Luhrmann eat your heart out) because within minutes I heard “Jacque! You arrrre pink!!” (french accent) I had really bad sunburn.

More or less as we were leaving one of the girls spotted something out to sea, a spray of water, it was whales! What luck! They were absolutely beautiful, just slowly drifting by without a care in the world. Another thing that made it special was that we were right at the end of the season so even out on a boat with an expert you were not guaranteed to see whales, and then there we were, just standing on the beach watching them drift by. It was magic.

That night we went to a big Tongan feast. It was at a large family run resort on the south of the island (Tongatapu – The big one) in the most picturesque location, the kind of place that makes you want to paint, I wish had gone back there in the day to take it all in: caves, beautiful white sand, trees, like a bounty advert.

At the feast there was a load of different traditional Tongan dishes including raw fish stew and a full roasted pig. The place was amazing, right on the beach (I made the mistake of wearing shoes so I got sand everywhere…some is still in my shoes now!), it had rows of benches, all with banana leaf table cloths and a view of the band.

After the dinner the guy that ran the place (Tonga ran through this guy like words in a stick of rock) beckoned three dignified frail old ladies to come to the stage. They oozed importance, one of them was Lady Tu’imala “The nightingale of Tonga” Kaho (I just looked her up) and she had a jewelled necklace on her that would make a pharaoh jealous… a little Faberge egg of a woman.

After a long introduction (making multiple references to his “beautiful wife”) the old ladies proceeded to rock out; one with a ukulele, the other two were singing, swaying side to side and patting gently on their laps (like they were trying to secretly call a dog across the room without the owner noticing). The whole thing was really sweet. My favourite part though was the tipping system. To show appreciation, instead of just handing some money people would march up, grab one of the nanas by the shirt and proceed to stuff notes into their collar. It was mad! They kept singing although they were (at least it looked like they were) being manhandled, it was so strange. After they had finished, the ladies hung around for a few pictures and then left, probably to go and get another shirt full of cash elsewhere, what legends!

After the nightingale had left we all made our way down into the cave. This was the best part of the night, it was really dark in there, only lit with candles and a few coloured lights. When we were all inside the cave our voices reverberated around the walls, you could feel the excitement. Then silence. The head of the family (the same guy as before) gave a bit of a preamble about his family (“beautiful wife”), Tonga and a little flavour of what we were about to see; then it started. The drums and other instruments sounded amazing in the cave, so loud and intimidating. Then there were some traditional dancers and a few guys in all of the Tongan warrior gear which was cool. The highlight was the end when three lads (one of which was only five years old) did a display with flaming sticks. Drums, fire, food, what more do you want!? The whole night was really good fun.

The next day we went back and explored downtown Nuku’alofa and some more of the markets. The agenda was to pick up some nice colourful clothes ready for our trip to the king’s church the following day. I ended up in full fledged tat mode. Picking up and almost buying every little thing that I laid my hands on. I really like the ornaments (old age setting in) and crafts and stuff, the main reason I think I was so keen was because they weren’t forcing anything on me. I’d pick something up, we’d have a nice chat and then before I knew it I was buying the thing. Sales genius!

The next day was Sunday. Everything closes on a Sunday so the only options were to go to church or go and see another island close by. We decided to do both.

In hope of seeing royalty we got into our Tongan finery and headed for the king’s church in town. I was expecting a really fun, happy clappy sort of vibe, instead however it was a really quiet somber affair. The choir and the band started playing, it was really powerful, instead of joy I got a sense of awe, and fear! The music was really beautiful but it felt ominous. Then the preacher at the front started barking out in Tongan and I immediately felt like I was sat in trouble in front of a head teacher. Thinking back however, royalty was in the building, he was probably just giving it the extra gusto to try and impress them.

We left the church a bit early and head for the wharf. Waiting there was a tiny little boat with “Pangaimotu island” painted on the side. We got in and sat on the edge. Immediately I thought, “ahh here we go, you haven’t taken sea sickness pills so now you are going to be sick in front of all of these people like every other unprepped boatride”. To my very pleasant surprise however the water was as smooth as glass, we glided over to the island with no problem whatsoever.

Close to the shore there was a huge shipwreck, it was rusted and sticking out of the water almost upright like a gammy old wafer in an ice cream. It made me think what it must have been like for people when they were first discovering these islands, this was a relatively new boat and it’d crashed, the old ones probably didn’t stand a chance (what do I know).

The island itself was very beautiful, and small you can do a lap in under an hour (apart from one rocky bit on the back of the island that we couldn’t be bothered with). We were in the middle of our little exploration when in the distance, out toward the international date line (the imaginary line where days begin and end… not a sketchy multinational telephone matchmaking service), there was a huge storm – it looked amazing, and because of where it was, over the date line, it technically lasted over 24 hours… the time zones around this area really confuse me so I’m going to abandon this train of thought.

We enjoyed the rest of our time on the island and then head back, watching some local lads doing backflips and dives from the shipwreck into the sea as we left (back to our place on Tongatapu).

The next day was my last full day, I decided to take a bus from Nuku’alofa to the south of the island to see the blowholes that are just outside of Houma (a small village). This should have been a really straight forward task however I got talking to the old dude next to me and before I knew it I’d missed my stop and the bus had looped all of the way back to more or less where it started.

Second time was a charm, I mentioned what had happened on my previous attempt to the girl next to me and she made a real point to make sure that I made it off at the right place, she also made sure that I was going in the right direction and gave me some “if-you-end-up-in-a-pig-pen-you’ve-gone-too-far” style directions. Above and beyond friendly, I never got to properly thank her because it all happened so quickly, maybe she’all read this some day… Thanks lady.

A short walk later a sporadic noise kept happening in the distance. It sounded like a thousand people blowing jets of air from their nose (we all know what that sounds like), or the sound effect for a dragon breathing fire. I kept going a little further and soon I could see the water spraying up through the blowholes from the sea. Sometimes the fountains of water were absolutely  massive, like a fire-hose being shot vertically. Also, I was expecting just one or two but there were jets all along the coastline, as far as the eye could see in both directions. It was phenomenal and to make it even better there was not a single other person there. I stood for a little while trying to take some pictures with my telephone but nothing will ever capture just how amazing the place was (go!).

The next day it was time to leave and I got a bit down, it was raining as well so I felt really sorry for myself! I still feel sad now, I’ve got the post holiday blues even though I’m sat in Auckland waiting for the next trip to start! It must be because I’ve sat here writing like a madman for hours now… I better go and eat!

To conclude, Tonga really is one of the friendliest and most special places that I have ever been to; everyone that I met was just so nice and I cannot recommend it enough (whether you are a lone traveller, a couple or in a group you’ll have a wonderful time). If you take anything away from this ramble it should be yourself… to Tonga! Go and get amongst the beautiful scenery, the welcoming culture, the smiles and the infectious laughs of what are very aptly named “the friendly isles”.

Happy travels!

43 pictures: New Zealand so far

Buskers on Queen Street, Auckland

Queen street auckland

Glenorchy

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“Fishing” on Lake Taupo

Lake taupo

A frosty morning in Omaka

Ice blenheim

Keeping warm in Queenstown

Winter queenstown

Christchurch art gallery

Christchurch art gallery

Panning for gold in Arrowtown

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Auckland sky tower

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Street art, Christchurch

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Eden park

Eden park

The Shotover river

edith cavell bridge shotover river

On stage at Auckland Holi Festival

holi fest

Horse riders at Glenorchy

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Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu

Hobbiton

hobbiton

Toilet/shed in the kitchen, Blenheim

Kitchen toilet blenheim

Christchurch Re:START

Christchurch restart

Traditional crafts, Hamilton

Hamilton gardens art

Fush ‘n’ Chups

Fish and chips

There is always a guy with a guitar…

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Messing about in Grafton

Grafton hospital

Lake Taupo

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185 Empty white chairs memorial, Christchurch

185 empty charis memorial christchurch

The Frankton trail

Frankton trail2

Auckland harbour

Auckland harbour

Selling out in Paeroa

L&P paeroa

Tubing the Waitomo caves

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Arrowtown autumn festival

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Dolphins at Milford Sound

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Sheep in Blenheim

Blenheim sheep

Monks at Mission Bay, Auckland

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Beer Pong in Palmerston north

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A night on Mt Eden

A night on Mt Eden.jpg

Tamaki Village, Rotorua

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Huka Falls, Taupo

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Mount Ruapehu (Mt Doom)

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River Valley

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Flying into Queenstown

Flying into Queenstown2

Britomart, Auckland

Britomart

Working hard in Frankton

Frankton work

Mirror lakes, Fiordland national park

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Lake Tekapo

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Emerald lakes, Tongariro alpine crossing

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Zanzibar: Vomit, a Condom and Dolphins

 

Swimming with dolphins is one of those activities that tops many a bucket list. Coming face to face with some of the most beautiful, intelligent and dignified creatures that planet earth possesses. This post is to encapsulate my first encounter with them and to make sure that as I continue to tell this story in the future I don’t lose the actual events amongst exaggeration and hyperbole.

Zanzibar team

When I mention “we” in this story, these are the beautiful bunch to whom I refer (I’m the one in the melons T-shirt).

After a long and eventful journey we made it to Zanzibar. What a place. Every single view that it presented to us was like a reward for putting up with all of the delays and an infuriating bulbous woman at the airport (some of us put up with her better than others). I loved it, we had what seemed like our own little undisturbed portion of paradise. This is all extremely high praise because I’m not really a beachy kind of guy.

The full narrative of whilst we were there escapes me; I remember we arrived just in time to watch England lose to Italy on penalties (Euro 2012) then it all merges into a lovely blur of barbecued food in Stone Town, lots of exploring, fresh fruit, volleyball , sunshine and… Konyagi.

Zanzibar konyagi

Konyagi is the local firewater. I’d describe the taste as the sweet spot between gin and vodka. It sounds foul but trust me, this stuff is great! It comes in pouches (as above) and what you can do is either decant it nicely from the pouch into some fruit juice or just do what we did and shoot from the bag.

Anyway, let me tell you about the dolphin boat trip. I don’t know exactly how the opportunity came along but one morning I was swept up from my lazy slumber and into the frenzy of “let’s go swimming with dolphins!! It’s less than £20”. Why not?

Skip to the beach. After what seemed like a short van journey we walked from the road, passed a little building, down through some trees and into the sand. Sat near the edge of the water was the boat. Up to this point I had imagined that the whole situation was going to be very easy, perhaps we’d be in one of those big glass bottomed boats that you see in cruise adverts, sailing elegantly through mirror calm water. Instead, the boat was just what looked to my eyes like a series of gammy planks all nailed and lashed together like a rushed art project made on the bus on the way to school. Above the sketchy base there was a spindly frame that I remember looking like the beginnings of a chicken hutch or a washing line.

“Can I have a life jacket please?”.

I ran back to the little building, picked up a life jacket and then whilst we waited to board I stood staring out to sea like “how the hell did this even happen?”. I remember thinking “if this thing sinks, this is it, there’s no life brigade, this thing probably is the life brigade”. Everyone else was absolutely fine, to the point where there was actual smiles and chatter. It was way too late to turn back now.

We got on the boat and I remember clocking that the driver (pilot? captain?…admiral?) of the craft had a really weird looking pendant hanging from a necklace around his neck. I thought nothing much of it at this point and sat down.

The sea was rough, it looked okay before we were on the boat however, once we had gone out a bit it really started to lurch around in the water. I was trying to use my car journey technique to avoid sea sickness, facing as best as I could in the direction of travel and looking to the horizon. This might have helped a bit but the battle was futile, the sickness was winning. We swayed in all directions, up, down, left right all whilst pushing on forwards.

After a short while the skipper’s pendant began to make noises and vibrate. He pulled it from his chest and up to his ear. It wasn’t just a wacky trinket, it was his phone, concealed inside a condom! Tied around his neck with string! What a champ!! I hadn’t seen that much ingenuity with a condom since the balloon animal incident of 2010.

He pulled the condom away from his ear (sorry for those that have just tuned in) and pointed with a full stretched arm. “Dolphins this way!”

The boat rocked more than ever, my stomach was not in a good way whatsoever. All I could hear clearly was the thrashing of the little motor, the sea crashing all around and the excited yelps of everyone else on the boat. It was a false alarm. There were no dolphins. Again, the condom phone raised to the ear of the captain and we started making waves for a new spot.

After trying a few places to no avail things were not looking good. The constant motion and sporadic seesaws in all directions had pushed me to the edge. I couldn’t hold on anymore, my face had turned a mixture of white and green, we all knew what was coming. I turned around so that my head was facing into the water and I just waited. It was dreadful, truly dreadful, and there was nothing I could do about it.

 

Zanzibar matt bailey

“How many minutes until we’re back on land Bailey?”, of course he didn’t know, how would he? All we knew at this point was that dolphins were potentially close and that there was absolutely no way that we were going to return without having seen them.

It’s at this point in the story that I usually get carried away, it’s the good bit that involves actual puke and dolphins all at the same time. One time I even went as far as to say that a dolphin rose from the water just as I was being sick and there was a slow motion vomit to face moment resulting in the dolphin staring solemnly at me with judging eyes. The real story is that I was sick into the water, a lot, to the point where I felt like I was inside out, my eyes bulged red and tears spilled down my dopey face. Then, whilst the sick was still fresh in the water a dolphin swam through it. Not as cool a story but still catastrophic for human-dolphin relations.

I maneuvered myself back to face into the boat. Instead of being strong and sitting for the journey back I opted to lie fetal on the floor (poop deck?) in all of the gunk; I imagine that to everyone around me I looked like one of those alien toys that people used to try and breed… or a silly hot mess that was quite literally way out of his depth.

We made it back to land, what a feeling! I paced off down the beach a little, vomited again, scooped some sand over the mess and then passed out. After a couple of minutes everything was okay, my stomach felt better and the fact that I’d just seen dolphins in the wild just started to sink in.

Zanzibar back on land

Despite the sea sickness and being apprehensive at first I look back on this moment really fondly and would recommend it in a heartbeat. Although I didn’t swim with the dolphins (I’ll save that story for another time), just to see such beautiful animals in the wild is an experience that will stay with me forever. Take my advice however, when you go, take sea sickness pills (I didn’t know that they existed at this point) and no matter how bad it gets, don’t let pictures like this one below (me at my finest) leak out on the internet…

Zanzibar vomit moment

 

Zimbabwe: An unofficial visit

This is to document my time with one of the dodgiest men that I have ever met.

It all started on a really clammy afternoon in a hostel in Livingstone, Zambia. I had been to watch the sunrise at Victoria falls that morning and was playing pool against a kid that was annoyingly good (to all watching I was graciously letting him win every time). After about 20 minutes I noticed a guy enter into the pool playing arena, baggy shirt, jeans and of course some very shiny buckle up loafers.

Zambia 2

(Words, or indeed pictures, can never capture how beautiful the Victoria falls are.)

“Alright mate” I said whilst rising from another missed easy pot. Nothing. I passed the cue to the kid and backed away from the table to make room. “You from around here?”, again nothing but I took that his silence was due to him being very clearly from around there. Then, for no occasion, he expertly downed one of the awful soupy local beers and was filled with a sense of urgency. “I have a car, do you have money?” he spoke out from the diaphragm in a deep African voice. Such a question doesn’t give you much time to think; before I really had time to assess the situation I caught myself saying “Yeah man, where are we going?”.

On the way out to the car he became a bit more chatty. “My name is “Say”, like talking” he said whilst cracking open a warm bottle of beer using another that he was carrying. “You like talking then?” I joked, then to my surprise he actually smiled (it was at this point I was a lot more confident that he wasn’t going to murder me). He handed me the open beer and then used his teeth to open the second for himself. I got in to the passenger side of the terribly parked Nissan, one of those lowered sports types, said hello to a large lady that was sitting in the back seat (I assumed it was his wife, she had an amazing spherical afro and perfect white teeth but didn’t say much) and off we went.

Over the next few hours we just drove around taking in as much of the scenery and wildlife that we possibly could, it was great! We hadn’t talked it through but it became clear that he was going to take me around the town and get me “local prices” for all of the sites; in exchange I would pay for everything, including entry for him and his wife to everywhere that we went. This sounds like a bad deal but it actually worked out really well, the tourist rates for everything are astronomical compared to what locals pay. Say explained that they call it “Mzungu tax”.

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(Elephants blocking the entrance to one of the parks)

Another hour passed, we dropped off his “wife” at one of the police checkpoints and then started to head back to the hostel. A little further along and it was the first punctuation point in our encounter. Do you remember those books that have breaks in the story and they gave you options for the next stage of the adventure? We were parked up at the hostel having yet another disgusting beverage and I had hit one of these decision moments, either call it a day or go with Say and his “wife” for a night out. I opted for the second option.

Later on that evening, the sun had set quickly and the air was a lot more bearable. Say pulled up in the Nissan, there were neat dusty mud streaks along the side of the car and across the windows where he had tried to give it a clean. I opened the door, said hello to the beautiful woman that was sitting in the back seat (probably his daughter, she had perfect straight black hair and was clad in more beads than the teen section of a jewelry catalogue; she didn’t say much).

We started heading away from town and soon the Nissan’s dim headlights illuminated some large metal gates, in front of which were two skinny lads in beige with machine guns and flip flops (picture the “I’m the captain now” guy from Captain Phillips). Say sounded the horn and one of the men walked over to the driver side window. They spoke briefly (almost argumentatively) in the local language, then after we handed the guy a fistful of money he turned to his chum and walked back to his position. They both set about removing the armour of locks and chains that adorned the gate and then slowly opened it. We drove past them slowly, through the gates and on into the darkness, no words, just the Nissan’s crappy engine and a barrage of wildlife noises, it felt a bit like entering through the gates of Skull Island or Jurassic park.

Say explained that he had “convinced” the guy that I was his sick albino brother and that we had been granted the special privilege of exploring the safari park as one of my final wishes. A crap story but obviously the money had helped things along. We proceeded to drive around the park, with only the headlights of the car and a couple of torches to help us see. The Nissan wasn’t meant for the sort of terrain that we were covering (usually frequented by large open topped jeeps and such) so it kept struggling on the track that was made of primarily loose stones. We passed loads of zebras, elephants and antelope in the darkness (it was amazing and terrifying at the same time) and then the inevitable happened. We were stuck.

“I’m going to slash on this tree and then I’ll push us out, shine the torch this way” I said over my shoulder whilst pacing out into the darkness. I did my thing and then turned back to walk toward the rear of the car. I could see inside that Say and the girl were laughing. “Mzungus are crazy” he said catching his breath. I was confused. He told me that I had gone right next to (and potentially urinated on) two crocodiles and that I was lucky that they hadn’t eaten me. I didn’t believe him (and still don’t) but I was never completely sure of anything that he said so I took it as a life lesson. I wedged a stick under the back wheels for some traction and luckily the car was unstuck pretty easily. We drove around a bit more, ate some meat and bread that the girl had in her bag and then went back. The whole night was insane.

We met again the next morning, very early, all Say had said to me was to bring a spare pair of clothes because we were going to get wet. We picked up yet another lady (a “girlfriend” – it was clear at this point that all of the women had been prostitutes and I hadn’t realised) at a small town and then made our way to the Zambezi. We got there after about an hour, there were no signs, gates or anything like that, just open river and a really sketchy looking boat. I hate boats at the best of times but this one was ridiculous. It just looked like a child’s drawing of a raft, about 9 long planks lashed, screwed and nailed together in an ad hoc fashion and what looked like an old tennis racket for a paddle.  Still, the water was very calm and it looked like you could see the bottom of the river so I thought “why not”. The raft worked, we paddled over pretty smoothly and the river was so slow that we had barely drifted down stream. We went up the bank on the other side and because the Zambezi actually acts as a border between Zambia and Zimbabwe we had technically gone into a new country. We were in Zimbabwe!

Say did a little dance, then I started dancing as well, he was euphoric and swearing a lot, it was a really weird moment. After about two minutes the mania stopped and we got back on the raft and drifted back over.  On our way back to the car he explained that we were very lucky, first that there were no border controllers (they go up and down the river in speedboats with machine guns) and more importantly that there were no hippos there. He said that he knew a guy that was killed by a hippo and that they were the animals that scared him the most. As with most of the dodgy stuff that we did, the potential danger that we were in only really settled in after we had done the thing – we had illegally entered Zimbabwe, avoided being shot at by police or killed by a hippo and returned to the hostel all before breakfast.

The next morning we arranged to meet really early as Say was heading to Lusaka.

It was four in the morning, I stood at the roadside with all of my stuff and waited. Say didn’t arrive until nearly five. He pulled up and formally got out of the Nissan (which at this point was shinier than a new penny) and put my bags in the boot, he was wearing a wrinkled full suit and tie and the loafers were looking particularly buffed. I clocked that in the back of the car this time there wasn’t a beautiful woman, there was a little old man that looked like a black version of Hans Moleman from The Simpsons. The vibe was completely different; silent, professional. About an hour into the journey it became clear that the Nissan wasn’t Say’s, it was the old guy’s (an air conditioning salesman who clearly makes very good money due to where he is). Say wasn’t supposed to have been using the car at all. I got dropped at the side of the road near to Lusaka and never heard from either of them again, thus ending one of the strangest encounters that I have ever had.

I only have one photograph with Say, taken by one of his “girlfriends” before we paddled over to Zimbabwe. I think the forced attempt at a smile pretty much sums up our brief but eventful relationship. Just think, he’s probably still out there, drink driving, soliciting prostitutes and hustling mzungus and local businesses for every Kwacha that he can possibly make. Thanks for the good times you dodgy son of a gun.

Say

My first Christmas away from home and how it was ruined.

And so, as I lay there, it was safe to say that Christmas was ruined. But let’s start at the beginning.

It was mid December and I found myself in a hot little village just outside of Alexandria, Egypt. It dawned on me that Christmas was fast approaching and I was yet to see anything remotely festive. Now, although I’m not Christian, I thought letting it pass by without some kind of involvement would be a real shame.

After an hour or so of research into the nearest place that would give a crap about Christmas, and the cheapest way to get there out of Northern Egypt, I managed to find decent direct flights into Athens. Greece for Christmas it was then!

I landed into Athens and head straight to Monastiraki where I’d organised a pretty decent hostel as a gift to myself. Around the city the vibe was just what I was craving, a chill in the air, markets, Christmas pop songs spilling out of every shop front and more tacky souvenirs than you could shake a novelty candy cane at. I filled up on mulled wine and fruit cake and called it a day.

I spent the next few days exploring as much of Athens as I possibly could. I love the balance of old and new. They have managed to build a modern metropolitan city on the foundation of beautiful ancient ruins without compromising either aspect. A few of the highlights for me were the Acropolis, the Temple of Zeus, the National Gallery and the Panathenaic Stadium (where if you play your cards right you can hold an Olympic torch!). I loved it all.

Christmas day arrived, I had been out in Gazi square for a massive Christmas eve party so getting up was a real struggle. I looked around my hostel room, the whole place was empty and everyone’s bags had gone. Nice and quiet, result! I forced down a bit of food (which pretty much consisted of the remains of a bag of oranges that I’d bought for a Euro  the day before) and immediately felt better.

For dinner I had arranged to visit a family at their home out nearer the coast. This isn’t an odd thing to do, loads of hostels put adverts up around Christmas time so that lone travellers don’t end up missing out.  The whole day was great, we had traditional food, played games, it was exactly what you want from a Christmas day. I left in the early evening feeling extremely happy and was already thinking about the New Year and future plans.

Still a little fragile from the night before and with an extremely full stomach I made my way up to my room to end the perfect day. The plan had come together, this is exactly what I’d wanted. The hostel room was still empty, but for two suitcases propped against the bunk bed across the room, so I made a call home and then contently drifted off to sleep.

About midnight. I hear the familiar scraping of metal and the gentle thuds of a drunk person trying to manoeuvre a key in a lock. “Here we go” I thought. After about 30 seconds I decided to get up and open the door from the inside.

“Alright mate? How’s it going?” I said, before the door was fully open. The words fell flat, met with absolutely nothing. Stood in the doorway was the most cliched German couple that I have ever seen, probably mid forties, overweight, the whole shabang. I knew immediately that it wasn’t because of rudeness that they were blankly staring, I just hadn’t been understood. They weren’t drunk but had clearly been trying to use their tiny locker key to open the door. The silence still lingered for about ten seconds as I turned and walked back towards by bed in the corner.

“I am here?!” The guy (let’s call him Fred) said, I looked over my shoulder and he was pointing at an empty bottom bunk. “Wherever man, these are all free”. He made a nod like gesture and slopped down onto the bunk. He then pointed at the bed above him and spoke in brief efficient German to his wife.

She (let’s call her Wendy) strained with her shoes and finally her mighty cankles burst out like water from a split paddling pool. She kicked the shoes aside and arched her head up to assess the peak that she was about to attempt to summit. CREEEEAAAKKK!!! The ladder took the force of her weight as she lurched up to the top bunk with surprising competence. Then, as if she had been shot with a tranquiliser, she slammed down onto the mattress and writhed around in her pillows and blankets for a moment. A few more straining metal sounds and the battle was over, she was down for the night.

Quiet again. Perfect. I got up and flicked off the light but it didn’t make too much difference to the room because there was still a glare coming through the curtains from a streetlamp just outside the window. I settled back into my nest, put my headphones in and started to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” on my computer.

SCREEEECH!!! From the semi darkness, over the sound of my film, I heard the stress of the bed across the room. Wendy was on the move. She heaved herself to the end of the bed, down the ladder and to the floor with all the grace of a dazed hippo trapped inside a duvet cover. The bed sounded like it was about to break as she rolled into the bunk below. For about a minute there was a lot of commotion, she had woken Fred from his slumber and he didn’t sound best pleased.

The creaks and grumbles became slower and more rhythmic, “Oh no” I thought to myself, “are they!?”… they were. I closed the lid of my computer, grabbed my wash bag and towel and shimmied out of the room. “I’ll have a shower, give them half hour, it’s Christmas”. Half hour went by. “Maybe give them another ten minutes, I don’t want to walk in on them”.

After what was close to an hour I slowly walked back in and was greeted by an image that I still can’t fully erase from my brain. They were both naked in the middle of the room, Fred was behind Wendy doing his thing whilst she was bent over heavily clutching onto the lower frame of the empty bunk bed in front of them, together forming what looked like an “h”. Wendy looked up and somehow I was locked in a stare with both of them at the same time. I panicked, they didn’t stop what they were doing, my entry (to the room) had just appeared to spur them on. In my shock however I didn’t leave. Instead I just scooched around them and back into my bed, justifying the decision to myself by thinking “if I turn around and leave now it’ll look weird”.

The session continued until what must have been three in the morning or beyond (I was too scared to check the time). And so, as I lay there, it was safe to say that Christmas was ruined.