Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Easy Way Home - Melbourne, Bangkok, Plumpton

Whilst we were very excited to see everyone, we were in no huge hurry to return back home. Despite the stress at the time, one of our happiest periods of the trip was the three weeks we spent in Bangkok. With this in mind we were keen to return, and managed to engineer a combination of flights that was not only cheaper than booking with one airline, but allowed us to spend a cheeky few days in one of our favourite cities.

Bizarrely, the cheapest flight from Australia to South East Asia was from Melbourne to Bangkok. We decided to build in an extra night to give us a chance to see Melbourne on the way, then were unsure if we would regret it once we realised how cold it might be. We also hadn’t quite considered how poor we were. Luckily for us though, the Sands family came to our rescue, kindly booking a hotel for us. They had already done so much for us, and this was hugely appreciated and really touched us both.

After emotional goodbyes and a two hour flight, we found ourselves touching down in Melbourne. A short bus ride took us to the centre, and after dropping our bags off we went out in search of food. There is always a certain element of fun to trying to find somewhere decent to eat when arriving in the dark in a strange city. For us the fun was compounded by having no internet device to assist us. We wandered around for a while, eventually lighting on a delightfully cosy bar / restaurant and stuffing our faces with tasty food.

We only had one day to enjoy Melbourne, but it was a good one. The weather was (relatively) cold, but the sun was shining. We pottered around the free exhibitions at the state library, even seeing the famous Ned Kelly’s rudimentary armour. From there we wandered down to Fitzroy, a hipster’s paradise full of inviting cafes, cool bars, and eye-wateringly expensive boutiques. The latter were well out of our budget, but we had an awesome lunch at Jimmy Grant’s, then washed it down with coffees and a brownie at the Little CafĂ© of Awesome. Both places were excellent and surprisingly cheap, getting a huge recommend from Oli and I.


We ended up in Chinatown for dinner, stumbling on one of the many restaurants specialising in dumplings. I wish I could remember the name of the place we ate, but for just over £5 we had enough dumplings and soup to leave us just shy of uncomfortably full. The food was delicious, and almost made us wish we were staying an extra day in Melbourne.

Still, leaving wasn’t so hard when we were off to Bangkok. We went for a short morning potter before making our way to the airport. Oli was dreading the flight as it would be his first ever long haul. However, nine hours on a budget airline was surprisingly okay in the end, even if the person sat in front of me whacked their seat right back thirty minutes in. I consoled myself by (perhaps unfairly) judging them as a terrible person, and the flight went much faster than we thought it would.


Arriving back in Bangkok was just as awesome as we had imagined. We were pretty shattered, so crashed out on arriving. We slept surprisingly well, and woke up the next day looking forward to getting on board with the street food. Happily, most of our favourite vendors were still occupying the same posts, so we didn’t do much else other than wander around our old haunts and eat a lot.

Much like our first visit, we didn’t do much sightseeing. A planned visit to a museum fell through when it turned out to be closed, but in all honesty we weren’t too bothered. We just love Bangkok as a place. To be fair we’ve never gone in search of the seedy or backpacker sides of it, preferring to stick around the Silom / Siam areas, but it really is a great city. We could spend insane amounts of time just exploring the backstreets, and enjoying the contrast of these against glittering malls. It is a hectic city with a surprisingly relaxed undercurrent, and it has undoubtedly earned a special place in our memories of travelling.


Our five days in Bangkok went all too fast, and we would have been gutted to leave were it not for the excitement of going home for the first time in almost a year and a half. Only a twelve hour flight stood between us and seeing the Allen family again, and we couldn’t wait. Arriving in Heathrow was surreal and wonderful, and seeing my lovely Mum and Dad again felt amazing.

Whilst we were super excited to be back, we did realise on the way back that we needed to re-adjust. I had drunk rather a lot of water on the plane (wanting to avoid dehydration of course), and this combined with heavy M25 traffic resulted in me needing to pee. Typically, we happened to be as far away from any services as possible. Dad tried to make the situation better by asking what I would do if we were on the bike, expecting me to say I’d just deal with it and hold on. My response to this was honestly that I’d just get Oli to pull over so I could go in the bushes, which was not what Dad had anticipated. Unfortunately such actions are frowned upon in Europe, but fortunately I did make it to a bathroom. Phew.

We have now been back in England for around ten days. In a way it feels like we never left, but we are also aware of how our outlooks may have changed. Although we have come back without a penny the trip has been completely worth it. They say that travelling is truly the only thing that makes you richer, cheesy but true.

Over the past year our concepts of luxury have been completely redefined, and we are hugely aware of how lucky we are to have had the means and the options that allowed us to make such a journey. We are returning quite a lot wiser and just a little bit tougher. We have also been deeply touched by the kindness and generosity of people in every single country we have visited. As humans we imagine that the world is a scary place, but on the whole it isn’t. We can’t recommend getting out there strongly enough. After doing this trip we both feel like almost anything is possible, and that, is really quite a wonderful lesson to take away.

The Trip in Numbers:

Time abroad: 16 months
Countries: 27
Crashes: 4
Crashes involving other vehicles: 2
Stationary Bike drops due to short legs: Too numerous to count
Traffic fines threatened by police: 2
Traffic fines paid: 0
Customs searches (half-arsed): 3
Customs searches (full): 0
Bribes paid: 0
Tyre changes: 3 (two new fronts, one new rear)
Punctures: 0
Oil changes: 4
Major mechanical issues: 0
Minor mechanical issues: 2
Days spent cleaning bike before Australian quarantine: 8
Length of quarantine inspection (minutes): 10
Countries experiencing major political protests at time of visit: 4
Items stolen: 0
High-fives given to police officers whilst moving: 1


Friday, 19 September 2014

One Last Road Trip - Brisbane to Sydney, then Back Again.

This final post has been a long time coming. The delay has been mostly due to technical difficulties, or to be more specific, the fact that we smashed our laptop when we ate dirt on the Savannah Way. We are now back in the U.K., and are determined to write up the final stages of our trip before we end up settled back in to "normal" life.

After our extended beach trip down the East Coast, we found ourselves relaxing at the Sands' family home in Brisbane. We started our time there meaning to get out and see a lot of the surrounding area, but to be honest were just so enjoying being in one place for a while that we ended up mostly relaxing. Although it was the Queensland winter, we still had plenty of sunny days and did a lot of pleasant wandering around the local area.


One of our days however, we made the effort to get up to Mount Tamborine, roughly an hour's drive away. Interestingly the name has nothing to do with the musical instrument, and Tamborine was actually the Aboriginal name for the place. We spent the first half of the day biking between various parts of the mountain, wandering through quiet woodland and enjoying the lush, green surroundings. Apparently one of the places was a good place to spot the elusive platypus, but alas they were feeling shy for the duration of our visit.

After a while, we decided to call it a day walking wise, then headed to the main street for a well deserved coffee and a cake. As well as being a beautiful natural location, the place is also known for its handicrafts. Despite our woeful financial status we decided to check out a couple of the shops, but unfortunately concluded that most visitors there must have wildly differing tastes to us. Many of the items for sale went way beyond ironic kitsch, but the shops seemed to be doing well enough. Not having found anything to tempt us, we decided to head back home, stopping on the way to admire the rather fabulous views in the soft evening light.


We did have one final trip planned. Although psychologically we felt like we had finished the trip, we still wanted to get to Sydney, which we were taking as our official end point. At a distance of over 900km, we planned to spend two days getting down there, and were aiming to get as far as possible on the first day. We made it as far as Macksville, and spent the night in a random campsite on the water's edge.

The view was a plus point, but the place had a rather strange atmosphere. Most of the other residents seemed to be permanently living there, and the tent area was situated right in front of some of the cabins. The families occupying them seemed nice enough, but watched us intently whenever they thought we weren't looking, which was a little disconcerting. On top of this, the weather was far too cold for this camping lark, and the noise of the road ensured that our sleep was light and disjointed. Still, at least it got us up and on our way early the next morning.

After all this time on the road we had speculated that arriving in to the iconic Sydney might be somewhat of an anti-climax. We hit the outskirts of the city just as rush hour was starting to build, and were already feeling rather excited at having made it there. We were hoping to get a photo of the bike with the iconic Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, but had no idea as to where might be the best place to achieve this. We decided to wing it and hope for the best.

It was in this spirit that we found ourselves driving over the Harbour Bridge itself. Technically this is a toll road, but we had already confirmed with the Aussie equivalent of the Highways Agency that there was no way to register ourselves for the fees (due to the foreign plate), so any toll roads were effectively free for us. It really is an amazing structure, and we enjoyed our epic entrance into Sydney all the more seeing as it was free of charge.

With the aid of the GPS and more than a little good luck, we took a random succession of side streets and found ourselves with a golden view of both the bridge and the famous Opera House. Although we were now in Australia where rules now mattered, we took the risk and drove the bike onto the pavement. We figured that if we got told off we would just plead exceptional circumstances. We stopped a gang of elderly ladies and asked them to take a picture of us. They actually turned out to be English, and were a little shocked when we explained how we had ended up there. Far from being an anti-climax, it was a fabulous moment. Although we have had plenty of time to reflect on it, looking at the photos I still can't quite believe we literally drove from Manchester to Sydney.


Photo-shoot complete, we then had to make our way back out of the centre to Dulwich Hill. By this time the traffic had built up rather spectacularly, and we found ourselves battling through the thick of the rush hour. Unfortunately our bike decided now would be the perfect time to remind us of the ignition wire issue, and promptly cut out. I lacked the strength to push it up onto the pavement, but managed to collar a bemused looking local to help us. Once out of the way, we quickly re-soldered the connection, then continued. We were pretty good at the ignition fix by this stage, so weren't delayed too badly. We were staying with Jan (one of the German backpackers from Darwin) and his girlfriend Anni. Although we were tired from the journey it was awesome to catch up.

Oli and I spent our first day wandering around Sydney in the fresh sunshine. We popped by the Art Gallery of New South Wales and ambled our way through some of the city's exceedingly pleasant parks. Having passed a few lovely hours this way, we decided to walk the 5km to where we were meeting our friend Abbey rather than getting the train. We were pretty skint by this stage, and walking would save us almost enough money for a drink each. We hadn't had a chance to see Abbey since our wedding, so it was great to be together again.


In one of those wonderful serendipitous moments, our visit to Sydney also coincided with our good friends Andrew and Joe's time down under. We moved to their Air BnB apartment for a few nights, and spent the next few days hanging out with them and Abbey. It was honestly the most busy our social life had been for the entire trip, and we loved every moment of it. Our wonderful friends ensured we were well entertained and amply fed, which was hugely appreciated by Oli and I.


As well as a lot of eating and drinking, we did have one other major item on our Sydney agenda. At the time of our wedding, the Sands family had given us a rather unusual gift, to be cashed in once we were in Australia. The gift itself was to climb the Harbour Bridge, an exciting yet daunting proposition. I was looking forward to it, but also nervous. I am fine with heights as long as there is no reasonable chance I might fall, but I was unsure of how I might feel when precariously standing on a narrow platform, hundreds of feet in the air.

In the event the climb was a well managed affair. Before getting out on the bridge there was around an hour of preparation, including a mini practise climb. I did notice on the terms and conditions that we were forbidden from making any jokes about safety, which of course made us both immediately want to poke fun at things.

Finally geared up and ready, it was time to get out on the bridge. The weather was not kind to us, with howling wind and heavy rain putting on a good performance. However, we were well prepared with wet weather gear, so were unfazed. Even with the trying conditions, the climb was incredible. The rain didn't stop us from getting some amazing views, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

We had enjoyed a fabulous break in Sydney, even if we did spend a significant portion of it in disbelief that we had actually made it that far. We would have loved to stay longer, but needed to get back to Brisbane to get a few life and bike admin jobs sorted before heading back to England. As with the drive down we broke it in to two days, making it to a similar point on the map.

This time however, we chose our stopping off point far more wisely (more by luck than judgement, it must be said). We ended up camping at a cliff-side park, with awe inspiring views over a violent sea. We only had a little daylight left, so hurriedly pitched the tent and then got down to the beach. Whilst there was a sign that made swimming seem a distinctly unappealing prospect, the beach itself was gorgeous. The soft sand squeaked as we walked along, and all the while the shore was pounded by impressively large waves. We stayed until there was almost no light left in the sky, then wandered back to camp to eat dinner before our last night under the canvas.


The rest of the journey back to Brisbane passed without incident, although we did get absolutely soaked by the rain. It was a fairly uneventful drive along good roads. It has been a treat in Australia knowing we can almost always rely on sensible driving and good asphalt, but sometimes we missed the challenge and excitement of the roads in other countries. Still, just to remind us that we were in Australia, when we stopped at a rest point on the way back, a sign warned us to be careful of snakes in the toilets. I guess Australia is quite exciting after all, but it does sometimes lull you into a false sense of security.

Our last week or so in Brisbane was mainly spent eating good food, arranging bike shipping back to the U.K., and wandering around in the sunshine. After so long on the road it felt odd to be making preparations for going back home, but we were also incredibly excited to see everyone again. We consoled ourselves by booking a rather inefficient route back, popping down to Melbourne, then flying back via Bangkok. After all, we spent over a year getting to Oz, it would be a shame to go back in less than 24 hours.