Friday, 27 April 2012

The Majesty of the Iguazu Falls

No matter how much we all love to get off the beaten track, there are certain places in life that are so incredible you just have to go there – no matter how many other tourists you’ll be battling it out with. Iguazu Falls is definitely one of those places and while it may at times feel like you’re on a tourist conveyor belt, with a little planning it’s easy to organise your day around the mass tours and even possible to have some moments just to yourself.

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Thursday, 26 April 2012

#17 Get soaked at the Songkran Festival in Thailand

The Songkran Festival announced itself to us with an 8am commotion. Car horns beeping, music blaring and people screaming is exactly the wake up call you want the morning after a wedding. But, as the saying goes, if you can't beat them, join them. So we got changed into our oldest clothes and headed out, prepared to be soaked.
In terms of Songkrans I think we must have set some kind of record because we managed to leave our bungalow, catch a cab to the next village, walk to a restaurant and eat lunch, all without having a single drop of water thrown at us. Our lunch spot was the perfect place to people watch as the locals welcomed in their New Year by throwing water at one another. Crowds lined the pavements, throwing buckets of water on passersby from huge butts which were repeatedly filled by massive tankers - I guess water shortages go out of the window for the day - and pickup trucks rammed with people drove by soaking those on the streets. As with many traditions in Asia, I'm not quite sure how much health and safety played a part in the proceedings as no one was safe from a soaking - drivers on mopeds, people heading to work in shirt and tie and even old grannies were showered with water as the Thais washed away the old year and welcomed in the new one.

Drive-by showers.

If you're going to go out during Songkran, prepare to be soaked.

All ages get involved in the celebrations.
After lunch we set off down the road, feeling slightly conspicuous as we were the only people in dry clothes. It didn't last long though as one guy spotted us and ran over the road, dodging two lanes of traffic, in order to be the person to chuck the first bucket of water over us. It was quickly followed by a soaking from a hose pipe and by then we were fully inducted into the Songkran Festival.

First soaking completed.
The thing I loved most about the day was how good natured it all was. Every time someone threw water at us it was followed by a smile and a shake of the hand or a pat on the back and "Happy New Year", "Happy New Year". I also loved that despite the fact that we were essentially doing the same thing over and over again, it never got old. The Thai people, knowing that this is just a once a year celebration, kept up a level of enthusiasm which was exhausting just to watch. Their laughing, singing, dancing and screaming never stopped. We felt very lucky top share their special day.

#17 done, with a little help from my new friends.

Sunday, 22 April 2012

#16 Watch one of my best friends get married in Thailand

It's funny because one of the things that people always say to you when you go away on a long trip is: "Don't worry, nothing will have changed when you get home". But I think as you get older this becomes less and less true. When I went away on my first trip, sure it felt a bit like that. When I got back six months later some friends were still finishing their final year at university, while others were just starting out in their careers. So I didn't really feel like I'd missed anything too major. However this time around it's different because, don't ask me how, but suddenly we've all become grown-ups and my friends are back at home doing serious grown-up stuff. So this time around I'm not just missing the odd birthday party or someone's leaving do. I'm missing friends having babies and people getting engaged. I'm also missing another friend's wedding. Life is going on without me while I'm away and by the time I get back things will be different. The babies will have turned into proper little people for a start and will probably already be too cool to talk to me.

So it felt really special to be able to celebrate at least one friend's special day during my trip. Kate and I met at university in our first year, where she helped me write my English essays and tried to make me love Hardy. After uni she became my travelling buddy and we had many adventures together, ranging from trekking through the Amazon jungle in Brazil to being taken to every single jewellers in Bangkok by a rogue taxi driver. Although our lives have gone in quite different directions over the past few years, with Kate now mum to two gorgeous little girls, we've always stayed in touch and attempting to navigate the snow and get to her house on my drive home for Christmas has now become an annual tradition.

Eight years ago, just after the big tsunami, Kate and I spent a month together in Thailand, so it felt so nice to return to Koh Samui to be her bridesmaid. My sister had also flown out to spend three weeks with me, so it was a fun way to start our adventure together. 

On the morning of the wedding we arrived at the hotel to meet the bride who had had a rather stressful start to the day. Alessandra, her youngest daughter, had chicken pox and a high fever which had seen them in hospital at 5am. Fortunately she was given the all-clear and the usual wedding preparations could begin. The ceremony was due to take place at 4.30pm and, as I'm sure is often the way we started off feeling like we had all the time in the world and ended up panicking with a million things to do at the last minute.  

Let the preparations begin.

Hair and makeup have arrived.

But it was all too much for some.

In amongst the preparations I nipped off to the hairdressers, where the woman the night before had assured me she could do something with my hair which, let's face it, after five months on the road is badly in need of a cut and colour. However when I got there she spent most of the time lamenting the fact that I have "small hair". "You have no hair" she told me, as she emptied an entire can of hairspray into it. My poor sister than had to go running about in the heat looking for some flowers to add to it.

The offending "small hair".
Eventually with my small hair in place I was allowed to go back to the room where Kate's hair had been effortlessly curled and her makeup beautifully done and she was in the process of changing into her gorgeous big dress. It was so exciting to be helping with the last minute preparations while simultaneously trying not to fall over the Thai photographers, who were big fans of the candid shot, which always make me look like I'm having a go at someone.

A quick practise of my reading. 
In no time at all it was time to go down to the lily garden, where the ceremony was taking place. Kate looked absolutely beautiful as she was accompanied by her dad and her daughter Isabelle was also a little bridesmaid. I think Matt was definitely welling up when he saw her walk down the aisle.

Exchanging the vows.
Staying out of the heat.

Everything was so beautiful, from the white and yellow colour scheme to the parasols the guests had been given to shade themselves from the heat and, wow, was it hot. The poor guys were melting in their suits. The ceremony was lovely and the readings and vows really reflected Kate and Matt's relationship. It was so nice to share their special day with them.
The happy couple - Mr and Mrs Daly.
The happy family.
Did I mention it was hot?!

After more photographs we retreated to the luxury of the air conditioning and the party began....                                           
A foodies' heaven.

Cutting the cake.
Hanging out with my sis.
Let the dancing begin...

A brilliant #16.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

#15 Dive in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia

Having overcome my fear of diving back in New Zealand, I was really looking forward to diving in Australia. Ever since I took my PADI course in Honduras eight years ago, I've heard so many great things about the Great Barrier Reef and it has always been a dream to dive there. This time I was feeling a lot more confident as we headed out on a perfectly blue day (the sun having finally decided to make an appearance for my last week in Oz.)

The first thing I noticed straight away is that when you're diving in Australia you're definitely much more spoilt than in other places I've been to. There's a constant supply of warm drinks; you don't have to struggle to change your own oxygen tanks over at the end of each dive and someone even puts on and takes off your fins for you. Diving at its most luxurious.

Before my first dive I'd wondered whether the Great Barrier Reef would live up to the hype or if we'd secretly be disappointed. Like when you fall in love with a dress you see in a magazine and you go to every single Topshop to find it, before discovering it doesn't suit you anyway. But fortunately for me - and my pessimistic nature - it totally lived up to all my expectations.

The thing I love about diving is that it's like entering a secret world, which no one looking from the surface can see. And when it comes to the Great Barrier Reef, it's a pretty big secret world. As soon as we started to descend we were greeted by a huge fish, nicknamed Walter by the crew, who was about a metre long and half a metre high. He's used to the boats now and instantly dispelled my belief that fish only have a three-second memory. As he swam up to investigate us, with his one bottom tooth stuck out over his top lip, I have never seen a fish with so much personality.

Our dive guide, Jack, had grown up on the reef and was spoilt for choice for things to show us. Camouflaged rays lurking on the seabed; shy clown fish hiding in anemones and tiny eggs which were barely visible to the eye. But the trophy spot, which everyone was hoping to see, was the sea turtle and we were so lucky on our first dive that we came across one. I'm sure nothing must look as funny as five people under water who can't actually speak to one another doing crazy hand cheers in the air - the universal language for 'this is so cool!' The turtle had all the mannerisms of an old man - albeit a very chilled old man. He moved slowly, eyed us with disinterest and munched away on the seaweed around him. We, however, were absolutely spell-bound. We couldn't take out eyes off him and we watched as he swam up to the surface to take his next breath before returning to eat near us. Jack gave us each some seaweed and we stayed totally still, trying not to hold our breath. Mr Turtle, clearly unimpressed by the excitement he was causing, then swam up to me and snapped the food from my hand, nipping my thumb with his little beak as he did so. Best first dive ever.

Under water excitement.

When we got back to the boat everyone was buzzing. It was such a great way to start the day and dive two definitely had a lot to live up to. But as soon as we descended again we were instantly lost in landscapes of coloured coral, which sparkled in the sun and surrounded by schools of thousands of fish, ranging from huge trigger fish to tiny ones which were no bigger than the nail on my baby finger (and we all know how pathetically small that is.) We also saw one of the reef's most venomous creatures, the beautiful red and white lion fish.

Then came the highlight of dive two, as a white-tipped reef shark glided past us. Although he was oblivious to us it still felt pretty spooky as all other fish quickly disappeared from sight, so it was just him and us. I could hear the Jaws music playing in my head (you've got to love the melodrama).

Our third and final dive of the day involved lots of swimming through arches and under bridges of coral. Ironically, on his very last dive in the Great Barrier Reef, before moving to teach in Thailand, Jack's hose which linked to his oxygen tank burst and he has to use the emergency hose on someone else's tank. Although it's something we've all trained for I think we were very grateful that it didn't happen to us. Jack was very chilled about it though, after a life-time of diving I got the feeling it would take a lot to send him into a panic.

The most chilled out guide ever.
 The whole day was absolutely brilliant. After each dive everyone was on a total high as we compared notes on what we'd seen. The only downside was that it was all over too soon.

#15 was a brilliant end to Oz.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Half-way worries

It's official. I have passed the mid-way point of my trip. It all happened so suddenly. One moment I was moseying along with months and months stretched out before me and the next the days started slipping through my fingers. I guess it's because I only had a month in Australia, which means I have been moving pretty quickly. But it was still a surprise when April arrived.

Passing the half-way mark has also brought with it a new set of worries (and as anyone who knows me is aware, there's nothing I love more than a good worry). Although it's something I've been trying to work on during this trip - and to be fair, I jumped out of a plane so I musty have embraced the 'go with the flow' lifestyle a bit - I still find it hard not to be concerned about any numbers of things at any given time. My biggest preoccupation at the moment, alongside deciding where I'm going to sleep tonight and whether I've remembered my passport, is what I'm going to do when I get home. Before beginning this trip I'd vaguely mumbled something about figuring it out on the way and I think I'd hoped that at some point a shiny new career would just pop out in front of me. Like suddenly I'd realise that, contrary to what I've always thought, I'm actually a super organised person and I'd be a brilliant PA to the stars. Or, when I was asked to step in and help resolve an argument between my Argentinian bus conductor and an angry American passenger, that a job in the UN awaited me. But, alas, it seems it's not to be and I still have no idea what I'm going to do.

I think the problem is all I know how to do is write. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to be a journalist and so far my career progression has been pretty straight forward. But now that I'm taking a break, it's hard to decide whether I should go back to what I know. On one hand there were so many things about my job that I loved: working to deadlines; the buzz of a good story; my lovely colleagues and as many cups of tea as I wanted. But obviously there were the usual drawbacks of long hours, high stress levels and - let's face it - not great pay. Just before I left my last job one of my colleagues said: "I don't think the Em who came here three years ago would recognise the person you are today" and that really made me question whether being a journalist turns me into a horrible person?

Since being away I've also been trying to do some freelance work and while I've had some pieces published on websites, I haven't had any luck with newspapers back at home. I knew it was going to be difficult but I don't think I'd realised just how difficult it would be. It's been so disheartening spending time writing up proposals, emailing editors and making middle-of-the-night calls to the UK to chase them up, only to hear nothing back. And when you're not surrounded by people who know you and can offer encouragement, you really start to question yourself. Suddenly I'm asking myself if I can even write? And, if I can't, what am I going to do?

What I really need is an old-school careers adviser to give me some guidance. Although when I was at school the only two careers they suggested were journalism or a librarian and I'm pretty sure that would involve being quiet for large parts of the day, which probably rules it out. So I've now got approximately four months to figure out a career where the skills of arguing with South American taxi drivers when they're trying to rip you off; bartering for a pair of flip flops and packing a backpack in under three minutes are going to come in handy. Better start doing some blue-sky thinking.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

#14 Visit Fraser Island in Australia

I'm sure most of the people who recommended Fraser Island to me probably experienced it in a very different way. But anyone who read my last post will have noticed that I was very much in need of a 'holiday' from my holiday so I was very happy when I managed to organise a press trip to the island and the lovely people at Kingfisher Bay Resort offered me a night's accommodation and a tour. Before I even arrived on the island I was almost beside myself with excitement at the thought of my own room and the possibility that it may have a bath. (Obviously a sign that I've been away for too long...)

Fraser Island is the world's largest sand island so I was hoping for blue skies and palm trees. But of course when I arrived it was raining, which seems to be the standard for my time here in Australia. Honestly the next time I meet an Aussie who complains to me about the weather in the UK, I'm going to have something to say about it...

Anyway, I was too excited to care about the weather and when I arrived in my room with its double bed, bath and enormous TV, I seriously contemplated just spending two days in bed eating chocolate and watching rubbish daytime TV (ANTM how I miss you.) But I decided it might be a bit tricky to write a travel piece about that, so I probably should explore a bit.

All of this for me? I'm in heaven.

Complete with bath tub. Woohoo! (It's the small things when you're travelling.)
My first stop was a tour with Ranger Amelia who showed us some of the different bush plants which can be found on the island and told us about their various uses. It is amazing that what is essentially a giant sandpit can support an eco-system of subtropical rainforests, coastal heath and wallum scrub. But what really confused me - and totally contradicted the highly scientific experiments my sister and I used to carry out on the beach when we were kids and we tried to fill holes we'd dug with buckets of sea water - was that there are more than 100 freshwater lakes on the island. Seriously, how doesn't the water just drain away?

Turns out you can actually cook with paperbark. Who knew?
After lunch, despite the drizzle, I decided I'd go on a bit of a walk. As I left the hotel complex there were signs everywhere warning visitors about the dangers of dingoes which roam the island. They recommended not going anywhere by yourself (which is kind of tricky when you're travelling alone) and told parents to keep their children close to them - even small teenagers. As I continued on my way the warnings started to freak me out a bit as I started to wonder how big they were considering a 'small teenager' to be. At 5ft tall did I fit into the category? It also didn't help that the advice they gave for if you did happen to come face to face with a dingo was to make yourself look big and aggressive....hmm. Deciding that it probably wouldn't be great PR if a journalist got mauled on a press trip, I was just getting ready to turn back when I saw a huge snake which sped up the decision-making process considerably.

So how big is a "small teenager"?

Who cares? Looks like it's time to head back anyway.
 Before dinner I'd been invited along to a Bush Tucker Taste session. I went along slightly concerned that I may be required to eat some fairly horrific things a la I'm A Celeb, but luckily it was far tamer than that. Ranger Nick went through some of the various berries, leaves, nuts and herbs found in the bush, while a chef from the hotel's Seabelle Restaurant showed us how to cook with them. I also tried kangaroo for the first time, which has a steak-like texture and crocodile, which weirdly tasted of chicken (although apparently crocodiles are one of the few animals which take on the flavour of what they eat so, as this one had been chicken-fed, it kind of makes sense.)

I then went to the Seabelle Restaurant and had what is probably one of the best meals of my entire trip. 
My starter was paperback smoked duck breast with beetroot, orange and rocket salad and an orange and wattleseed glaze. This was followed by a main course of seared kangaroo loin with pumpkin puree, onion rosella jam, lilly pillies, wilted greens and red wine jus. For dessert I opted for the trio of handcrafted bush tucker ice creams, which perfectly captured the three distinctive bush flavours of wattleseed, rosella and aniseed myrtle. While the rosella was a sweet, fruity ice cream, the wattleseed had a drier, more coffee-like taste and the myrtle provided the faintest flavour of aniseed. After years of eating mostly European seasonings it was so interesting to taste some new flavours and to see how traditional recipes can be given a bush tucker twist. I ate so much they practically had to roll me out of the restaurant afterwards.

Bridesmaid dress?
What bridesmaid dress?
Dessert as well? Oh, go on then.
After dinner there was just time to squeeze in a guided night walk, where we saw bats, toads and spiders, as well as one unfortunate frog becoming a snake's evening meal. But for me the highlight was looking up into the sky and seeing the millions of stars unaffected by light pollution. Then it was back to my lovely room, where I settled into bed to watch a film with a cup of tea. Bliss.

The next day was an early start for a tour of the island and after saying a sad goodbye to my double bed, I boarded a 4x4 coach which looked like it belonged on a Jurassic Park film set. We set off along the bumpy terrain and our first stop was Lake Mckenzie, a perfectly clear freshwater lake. The water is supposed to be very good for your skin so I jumped in, hoping to save myself a bit of cash on all the lotions and potions I normally use. It was so nice to be swimming in the sun (which had finally decided to make an appearance) in water which was surrounded by white sand and forest.

Let the age-defying process begin.
Then we headed on to Wanggoolba Creek, where we walked through the tropical rainforest, looking at trees which were hundreds of years old. After lunch we drove along 75-Mile Beach, a long sandy highway, to the Maheno Shipwreck - cue everyone trying to take lots of arty photos of the sea through the rusting hulk of the boat.

Yes, I did take some shots in sepia...
Next it was on to The Pinnacles, towering heights of coloured sands of red, orange and yellow, formed from dust blown from the central desert of Australia 800,000 years ago. Our final stop was Eli Creek, where fresh water joins the sea at a rate of 4.2 million litres an hour.

The Pinnacles.

Eli Creek.
 The day flew by in a blur of blue skies, white beaches and green rainforests and all too soon it was time to go home. After a much-needed night by myself my travel Zen had been restored and I was ready to face a dorm when I returned to my hostel. In fact, I was so chilled out that I even managed to turn a blind eye to the pile of dirty dishes in the sink.

A perfect way to end the day.

And #14 is complete.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Too old to backpack it?

At home among some of my friends I'm affectionately (at least I like to think so) known as Granny Annie on account of my love of afternoon tea and cakes and hanging out at old lady book clubs and yoga classes. I was therefore slightly anxious about going back to staying in hostels when I went on my first backpacking trip in a while to Colombia last year. Was I going to be too old to hack it? Fortunately during my three weeks there I met plenty of people my own age and fell back in love with the ease of moving from place to place and the pros of staying in cheap accommodation in a central location.

So I had no reservations about doing it again on this trip, albeit for nine months. And so far it has all gone really well. I haven't had to endure many of the horror stories I've heard about dorms over the years. A lot of the hostels I booked into in South America were actually amazing and in New Zealand people of all ages bunk down for the night in a cheap spot. But suddenly I got to Australia and I feel old.

Maybe it's because I'm only doing the East Coast route, which is popular with Gap Year students from just about every European country, or maybe I've just been unlucky with the hostels I've stayed in. But in the last couple of weeks I've found myself queueing up to use the only frying pan supplied by a hostel or stepping over people who have passed out outside my room and thinking: "I'm too old to do this". When I see girls in the kitchen eating instant noodles with a slice of processed cheese melted on top of it I literally want to sit them down and give them a proper meal. In Sydney I stayed in one of the notorious party hostels and the girls in my room could barely contain their giggles when I told them I was going to the opera as they slipped into their short skirts and high heels.

It doesn't help that in many hostels in Australia you have to pay to rent your sheets and leave a deposit for a cutlery set, which means you have to walk about clutching your bowl and mug so that it doesn't go walkies. Honestly, at one place I almost got into a fight with a guy who stole my knife until I thought 'what am I doing?'

But the best one so far was a hostel I stayed in in Brisbane. Fortunately I'd met two other girls round about my age who were also feeling the same as me and we'd started to travel up the coast together. When we were booking into our next hostel we chose one which described itself as a "flashpackers" (for flashy backpackers - yes, a bit pretentious I know, but at least they usually give you sheets!) We'd decided to treat ourselves by paying a little extra for a triple room rather than a dorm and had already got ourselves excited by saying we'd put on our fanciest dresses (a little bit pushed when your whole life is in a backpack) and go out for a nice meal. So we were so disappointed when we opened the door to a room which was so tiny we could barely fit our three backpackers in it, let alone get ready for a night out. It also smelt so bad I had to check whether there was a body under the bed and when we opened the sheets they were covered in stains. I honestly nearly cried. In the end I marched downstairs to complain, slipped into conversation that I was a journalist and eventually got us moved to a slightly bigger, although still very basic room.

The thing is I've stayed in some pretty basic places in my time - the 50p a night shed in Vietnam which had a hose pipe as a shower springs to mind - and even on this trip in South America some of the places have been pretty rustic. But on the whole they've been quite clean and I think I've realised that's what I've grown out of. I don't like dirt. Now I can't turn a blind eye to piles of dirty dishes, I notice when a shower is blocked full of other people's hair and I find it difficult not to roll my eyes when a hostel receptionist hands me some filthy cutlery that I've just had to pay a $10 deposit for and says "obviously you'll need to wash it".

And I know I sound like an old lady and I am rapidly fulfilling the Aussie stereotype of a whinging Pom but suddenly I know exactly how my mum used to feel when she came to visit me in my student house at uni.