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(Not quite) on the other side of the third rock from the sun

Most Australians were horrified to hear that I would only be giving their country a fortnight, and utterly flabbergasted when they heard of my plans to spend more time in neighbouring New Zealand than in the fair land Down Under.

Needs must, however, and I made plans to skim across the surface of the Eastern Australian seaboard, using unsuspecting friends in the major cities as reference points and refuge stops.

Blossoming Brisbane, Sassy Sydney, Mellow Melbourne

It was my Melbourne host, Howard who summed up the Australian dilemma most succinctly, responding to my inquisitive probing with a straightforward explanation as we sat in one of the city‘s many trendy coffee bars.

“Mate. You have to understand – the real economy here is based on a couple of things. One, we dig some bloody big holes which make us money by keeping our Asian cousins happy, and Two, we’ve realised that actual building work – labouring – is about the only thing that can’t get outsourced to China…”

It was a typically laconic Australian analysis, and backed up some of what I had been seeing over the past fortnight as I worked my way down the coast.

First stop, Brisbane. Unwittingly, I timed my arrival with the blossoming of the beautiful lavender blue jacaranda trees along the tree-lined cul-de-sacs of this emerging city. Over a wonderful family dinner in the city’s Highgate Hill area, I started to understand that Brisbane is a city (and Australia is a country) still very much in formation as power shifts East. Brisbane itself is attracting migrants from within and without Australia by the bucket-load, an estimated 1800 a week, as the city adjusts to the opportunities that the Chinese economic juggernaut presents. I suspect that, hand-in-hand with this economic gold (coal) mine there will also be political challenges over the next couple of decades as cultures rub up against each other, but all that can wait. Today, the money is flowing.

It is one of the beauties of travelling that brief encounters on the road can lead to life-long friendships. In Sydney, I spent three days catching up with someone I met 15 years ago in Northern Pakistan. Despite four children in the interim, we slipped into easy conversation as if we were still sipping chai by the river in Gilgit.

I arrived late, and took a bus up to the Northern beaches, an area known as the “Insular Peninsula”. This meant that I had the privilege to approach Sydney proper in the best possible manner – by boat, on the ferry from Manly. As we rounded the headland into the magnificent natural harbour, the Opera-house and the Bridge swung into view. Sydney it is a city with a swagger – a see-and-be-seen city still basking in the reflected glory of the 2000 Olympics. Despite the never-ending traffic problems, it wasn’t hard to see why this is a city consistently in the lists of those with the highest standards of living. The relaxed atmosphere of the Northern beaches so close to the city give it a unique feel.

And so to Melbourne. With the heritage of free settlers and the Victorian Gold Rush in the 19th century, Melbourne feels more international than either Brisbane or Sydney. 20th century migrants from Europe – Greeks and Italians in particular – have retained many elements of their national identities, lending a cosmopolitan feel to the streets. Add to this a proliferation of achingly cool hipsters hanging out in cafés and you have a mellow, earthy city glorying in its distinction from Sassy Sydney.

2 weeks was never going to be enough time for the Australian continent. But it was fascinating to get a glimpse of what’s going on here. I’ll be back.

“You poor bastard…”

A flight across the Tasman sea, and I was in Christchurch New Zealand.

I arrived after midnight, so it wasn’t until breakfast at the Globe Café on the following morning that I managed a coherent conversation with a Kiwi for the first time. I told the café owner proudly that this was my first meal in New Zealand, and that I was here for three weeks.

“You poor bastard”, the café owner responded.

You have to have a fair amount of confidence in your country to be that self-deprecating.

Within a few hours, I was driving through fresh snow and slate-grey skies on my way into the mountains. A few more hours and I was sitting in a hot spring watching the clouds roll in for the evening over the mountains. Within another day I had been running up a 1000m peak and kayaking on a placid, incredibly beautiful Lake Tekapo. The view from my kayak will remain with me a long time. It’s like Scotland on steroids here.

I’m now in Dunedin on the (not quite diametrically) opposite side of the planet from its namesake, my birthplace. With my hosts here, the intergalactically named Mars and Clouds who I met in India, I’ve been busy aggravating sea-lions on the Otago peninsula, visiting Farmers’ markets in town, and watching dolphins off New Zealand’s John O’Groats (Slope Point). With George Street, Princes Street, Dundas Street, Hanover Street and even Royal Terrace, I could be on the (not quite) other side of the world. My slow transition out of Asia and back into Western life continues.

I head back into the mountains tonight and will do the world-famous Milford Track hut-to-hut for four days, before travelling up the West Coast and on to the North Island in my NZ $1-a-day hire car (20 days for the equivalent of 8 quid). What’s not to love about the Global Financial Crisis?


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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, Australia and NZ '09

Note to self: remember to breathe…

It sometimes feels like this journey’s been all about learning to breathe again – from yoga in India to Tai Chi in China via the mind-focusing thin air of Everest Base Camp, and on to free- and scuba-diving and of course Vipassana meditation.

After a flight from Singapore to Bali, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take the free-diving a little further. A short hop to the Gili Islands, and I was in the only other place in Asia that holds a free-diving school.

When I first tried free-diving in Thailand, my wonderful instructor Rodrigo had told me mysteriously that my free-diving would improve immeasurably after Vipassana (he had done the 10-day course a number of times), and I was eager to find out what he meant.

Bizarrely, free-diving is much closer to yoga and meditation than it is to diving of the Scuba variety, in that the heart of the sport is breath- and mind-control under water. In that sense, the benefits of ten days of meditation quickly became clear. I was able to focus quicker, deal with problems in a balanced way, and recognise the power of the harnessed and focused mind. Over 4 days, my instructor (an eminently practical Brit with a superb manner) gave me the opportunity to push myself to deeper depths and (more importantly) get comfortable diving regularly to 20 metres. I reached 24 metres with ease on the last day.

As Australian author Tim Winton wrote in his uber-cool 2008 surfing novel Breath: “It’s funny, but you never think much about breathing. Until it’s all you ever think about.”

With Australia and the Great Barrier Reef looming, I also completed my aquatic preparation by getting the advanced Scuba qualification and squeezing in a few days acquainting myself with that most quintessential of Aussie activities, surfing, with a wonderful Balinese instructor, Wayan.

In a final reminder of the openness that characterises Bali, Wayan took me home to his family before driving me to the airport for my flight to Australia. I was about to thank him, but he got in there first. “Andy, thank you for helping me and my family…”, he said. I hadn’t exactly looked at it that way. It was a fittingly humbling moment to end 11 months in Asia.

Going deep down under

My arrival in the land Down Under heralded a new phase in my journey. With a request to be Best man at a wedding in January, I have a wonderful reason to return to the UK in time for the end of the year.

Australia therefore defines not only a return to western values, but also (somewhat aptly) a transition from the free roaming nature of my travels thus far, to a more planned, but no less enjoyable, itinerary through Australia and New Zealand, before a final flurry driving across the USA from LA to New York.

With a limited amount of time for Australia, and the lure of a series of friends down the East coast, it became clear that proper exploration of this particular continent would have to wait. Australia might have a reputation for straightforwardness and simple honesty, but 2 weeks into 3 million square miles just doesn’t go.

The one thing I did want to do though was dive the Great Barrier Reef. 24 hours after arriving in the country, I stood, wet suited and booted, on the edge of the MV Taka, a diving boat which would be my home for the next three days. As I stepped off into the Deep Blue, I had to remind myself to breathe… one of the minor challenges of swapping between free-diving (breathing categorically not advised) and scuba-diving (don’t stop breathing under any circumstances).

I’d had some wonderful diving in Asia, but nothing compared to the Great Barrier Reef. Within 30 seconds of entering the ocean, a shadow passed over my left shoulder, as three huge manta rays slowly flapped their way past. During ten dives in the next three days, I saw a diversity of marine life that provided an alternative way of quieting the mind. Bumphead parrotfish, cuttlefish, octopuses, sharks, incrredible corals and 30 metre visibility – the whole shebang. I loved it.

I’m now shuffling down the East coast through Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne for the next flight to Christchurch and New Zealand.

Toodle pip!

P.S. A video of some of my diving experiences will follow.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09

A triple whammy! And a final journey

A tale of triple jeopardy

It’s 3.45am, and I’m standing outside a 7-11 store in Kota Bharu, Northern Malaysia. I’m about to embark on the final train of a looping 11-month overland journey from Mumbai to Singapore. There’s one problem. No taxi driver.

Fresh from a 10-day meditation, I try to put what I’d learnt to use. “Calm and balanced mind, Andy, stay equanimous…” But inside I‘m a knot of anxiety. My 32,000km journey from Mumbai has been spookily trouble-free. Surely I am not going to be tripped up at the final hurdle?

3.55am. A dilapidated taxi rounds the corner on two wheels and screeches to a halt in front of me, five minutes after my panicked call to the driver’s mobile. An impossibly scrawny Malay man, procured the night before to get me to the station, takes my bag and slings it in the boot with half-open bloodshot eyes. We set off at high speed.

“How long?” I ask. “Twenty” he replies, with a gold-toothed grin, momentarily removing both hands from the steering wheel to signal twenty and nearly giving me a heart attack in the process. This is going to be tight – the train leaves at 4.18. I breathe deeply and try to remember that there’s nothing I can do to change the situation.

“Sorry… three people…” he grins again. I look over. He is making that unmistakeable hip-and-fist-pumping action that indicates carnal activity. I raise an eyebrow. “Three people?”

“Three people… very good…” There is no mistaking that grin. I ponder the unsolicited addition of this information, wondering what the correct response is. He is suddenly apologetic. “Sorry… English…” he adds. Given the potential for sordid details, I am rather relieved at his lack of communication skills.

4.11am As the station looms out of the darkness, I realise I’m going to make the train. The driver makes one final conversational gambit.

“Where from… US? Bush NO! Obama OK…” I tell him I‘m from the UK.

“Ah… good language , good people, good economy…” he replies with a tinge of envy, as if to remind me that the UK’s not that bad after all.

We draw up to the station. I hurriedly get my bags out of the boot. Suddenly I am enveloped in a warm hug. Clearly Mr Taxi feels we’ve connected. I disengage carefully, trying not to betray that I can’t get the thought of “three people” out of my head.

I buy a ticket and board the crowded 4.18 from Kota Bharu to Gua Musang, the first stage of my final journey to Singapore.

Newcastle to London – via Wick

Actually getting to KotaBharu in the first place had been something of a challenge.

As an analogy (and with apologies the international reader(s) unfamiliar with British geography), most of you will agree that going from Newcastle to London via Wick is both mentally and geographically loopy in the extreme. But 11 months ago I left Mumbai by train, and I was determined to arrive in Singapore by train.

The problem: Kuantan (Newcastle) had no train station let alone trains to Singapore (London). So getting to the start-line for this final train journey involved an 8- hour bus ride from Kuantan (Newcastle) north to Kota Bharu (Wick) in order to take a 17-hour train ride to Singapore (London). Nice. (I suspect it’s the kind of thing that only appeals when you travel without deadlines).

Once I’d figured out that the three different trains that I had been told I had to catch were in fact one train (you just had to get off and buy another ticket for each section, rather bizarrely), I settled back to enjoy my final 17 hours of railtrack on this overland journey through Asia

And boy was it worth it. The first stage of the line from Kota Bharu on the Thai/Malay border to Singapore (off the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia) is aptly named the “Jungle Line”, cutting a swathe through the virgin jungle and plantations that cover the interior of the Northern part of this country. 

I was reminded of everything that I love about train travel in Asia – the relentless movement towards a destination, however slowly; the wonderful rural stations, the changing faces as passengers board and alight. And the stations themselves – always deeply pragmatic buildings, the guards proud in sparkling uniforms, the tired plastic waiting seats firmly affixed to the walls, the signs in varying fonts for sub-master this and assistant-platform-manager that. They are a place of practical expectation – a place to wait – comfortably and without concern – for the future to arrive.

My reverie was broken as we arrived at the Singapore border, the quasi-military efficiency of customs and immigration a reminder that this is a city that feeds off a mix of pride and paranoia, and one that keeps a foot in both the East and the West.

315 days and 32,000 kilometres of overland travel were finally over.

Singapore – sterile? Self-consciously superficial? Or just Singapore?

Two days is hardly enough to start to understand a city, but there is something wonderfully honest and self-consciously  superficial about Singapore, so I think it‘s OK to try. There is no pretence here – they’re just trying to build a city that works, financially and commercially, and one that provides the cleanest and highest standards of living 

In that sense, the accusation that it’s “sterile” is both true and false. It’s true that there’s little room for anything the government and the residents don’t consider “hygienic”, but the people that live there do so happily, and in peace, which is hard to argue with.

I explored the city on foot, walking through the Arab area, the bits of the colonial era that still stand, and along the river which for so long was the beating heart of trade in the area. The roads (at least those that weren’t blocked off for the Grand Prix last weekend) are so clean that it was almost disquieting to see a rhododendron blossom ( they are in season) on the immaculate pavement.

Personally, I’d take the messy chaos of India every day, but each to their own.

I am now in Indonesia, enjoying more free-diving and scuba on pristine islands (the Gili islands, off Lombok).

Next stop – by air – Australia.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, South East Asia '09