Travel Tales #8: Dolphins & Premieres

 I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Bay of Islands and Auckland, New Zealand, March 2006

Whilst in the Bay of Islands, I decided to use my leaving present from my job in London, which was an experience voucher, and I chose to book a dolphin watching trip.  I am certainly not a natural on the water, but the prospect of seeing wild dolphins was too big an opportunity to miss, so armed with my trusty travel sickness tablets I joined a small boat one afternoon with about 12 others and we set out to find a pod.

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Beautiful Bay of Islands scenery

For the first couple of hours we didn’t see anything apart from the stunning scenery, but then we heard news from another boat that a pod had been spotted, so we sped off to find them.  When we did, I was surprised to see so many – there were about 30 dolphins bobbing up and down in the waves, swimming back and forth under the boat as we hung over the rails on deck, and sometimes jumping right out of the water.  There were some babies in the pod so we weren’t allowed to get in the water with them, since they have to suckle frequently and people getting in can upset this rhythm.  I thought I would be disappointed that we couldn’t swim with them, but they were so much bigger than I anticipated, and there were so many of them, that the prospect was rather daunting.  We spent a good hour hanging out with our new dolphin pals, taking photos and watching them play.  It was an incredible experience, and as the boat buzzed back to the shore, I reflected on how lucky I was to have had the experience.

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About as close as you can get to dolphins without getting in the water

Later that night, my last one in Paihia, a few of us from the hostel found a beach café and sat outside chatting and watching the reflection of the moon bouncing off the waves.  It was so peaceful and serene, and I felt very grateful for my brilliant trip to the north of the North Island.

I arrived back in Auckland to warm and humid weather where I stayed with Coley and AD for a few days (again).  They were such superstars for putting me up/putting up with me so much in that early part of my NZ trip.  It felt like a proper home from home, experiencing day-to-day Kiwi life, meeting their lovely friends, watching the Home & Away Sunday omnibus, and having plenty of late-summer barbies.  Whilst in Auckland, I booked a hop on/off ticket on the Magic Travellers bus that covered the whole of New Zealand.  Considering most of the travellers I had got friendly with in Paihia were travelling on the Magic bus, I figured it was the right choice for me.

I did experience a few homesickness ‘wobbles’ during my time in Paihia where I really realised I was on my own, especially when feeling shy about approaching new people.  But home was only ever a text message away, and the family and friends that I contacted were a great comfort, plus they told me it was grey and miserable back home so there was really no point in returning!

On my last night in Auckland, Coley, Carolyn and I went to a film premiere that Coley had won tickets to, which was a comedy centring around four Samoan men in inner-city Auckland called ‘Sione’s Wedding’ (marketed outside New Zealand as ‘Samoan Wedding’), which was great fun, and there was a Q&A with one of the main actors before the film, which was an unexpected bonus.

For all the fun I had had, it was now finally time to leave the comfort and security of my friends in Auckland for the last time, and head off to explore the rest of New Zealand on my own.
Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels
#6: Fun & feijoa flavoured vodka
#7: Bays, bravery & the meeting of oceans

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Travel tales #7: Bays, bravery and the meeting of oceans

I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Paihia, New Zealand, March 2006

The Kiwi Experience bus picked me and some others up from the hostel at 7.15am for our trip to the Bay of Islands and our driver (‘Gibbo’), kept us very entertained on the long journey there. I had my doubts about using Kiwi Experience as it had a bit of a reputation for being a ‘party bus’ full of teenagers who, let’s just say, weren’t looking for quite the same cultural experience as I was.  I probably was one of the older travellers at the ripe old age of 26, but I didn’t really notice.  Although the drive was long, the scenery was so amazing that I was happily distracted for the journey…we passed through beautiful Doubtless Bay, past fields and fields of farmland, green terraced hills, volcanoes and along windy roads with sheer drops on one side and fantastic lush, green landscapes on the other.

The bus finally arrived in Paihia, the main town in the Bay of Islands, and dropped us all off at our hostels.  I stayed at ‘Pipi Patch’ for four nights, which I found to be very modern with dorms that were more like little holiday chalets, with only four bunks in each, a bathroom and small kitchen (such luxury!).  There was a nice holiday atmosphere about the place, a bar and a spa pool. They also did a barbie every night for $10 which included plenty of food and a beer, so I was sold!

On my first afternoon in Paihia, I walked along to Waitangi to have a look around the treaty grounds that I had read about in my trusty Lonely Planet.  This was the place that in 1840 that a treaty had been signed with the Maori chiefs on behalf of the British government, an agreement between two peoples to live and work together in one nation. It is still as relevant today as it guarantees the rights of both Maori and non-Maori citizens in Aoetaroa (the Maori name for NZ) – as you can tell, I was paying attention at the visitors centre!  It was interesting to walk around the traditionally decorated Maori meeting house (Te Whare Runanga), with the flagpole marking the spot at which the treaty was signed.

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Treaty house at Waitangi

Arriving back to the hostel, I felt a bit unsettled as I was sharing a dorm with three guys and couldn’t seem to get a conversation going with them.  So I decided to be very brave and took myself off to the bar.  It took all my confidence to ask two girls if I could sit with them…but on joining them I discovered that they didn’t speak English, so I found myself feeling pretty hopeless.  But just when I was about to give up and return despondently to my dorm, a bunch of English-speaking people who had buddied up noticed me and invited me to join them (the relief!).  They turned out to be absolutely lovely and included a couple called Tim and Anne from Canada, who really took me under their wing and made feel at ease, and an English girl called Georgina.  They helpfully told me about the other bus companies that traverse NZ, Magic and Stray, which were geared towards travellers of all ages, rather than the younger travellers of Kiwi Experience.  After a few drinks we were firm friends, swapped email addresses and promised to keep in touch.  I am so grateful to them for asking me to join them that night.

The following day was another early start as I was booked on a day trip to Cape Reinga – the northernmost point of New Zealand.  I went with ‘Awesome Adventures NZ’, and our bus driver (‘Orto’) was quite the character…his cackling laugh stayed with me for weeks afterwards!  He kept making jokes about his medication wearing off and drove the huge, yellow bus like he was a rally driver, which was pretty hairy at times, but it at least got us passengers talking as we exchanged worried looks with each other!  Orto treated the bus to many tales throughout the course of the day, and also plenty of traditional Maori music mixed in with some Fat Freddy’s Drop (a popular Kiwi band), played at the highest volume!

It’s a four hour journey up to the Cape so there were stops along the way to break it up.  One of which was a quick walk around the Puketi Kauri forest where we saw enormous kauri trees, some of them 1,000 years old and big enough that you can fit 13 people around them holding hands.

Arriving in Cape Reina mid-morning, we walked down to see a sight that I was really looking forward to …it is one of only a few places in the world where you can see two oceans meeting – the Tasman and the Pacific – and I wasn’t disappointed.  After a walk down to the lighthouse that marks the end of the land, just beyond you can clearly see two tides racing towards each other and the waves meeting and crashing and rolling each other.  I felt so privileged to see it, it really was breathtaking. Cape Reinga is a spiritual and sacred place – according to the Maoris it is where those who have departed life on earth enter the ‘under world’, and their spirits travel up through the Cape and out into the ocean.

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Cape Reinga

After the Cape, we stopped off at a lovely deserted beach for some lunch and a paddle and then moved on to the sand dunes for a go at sandboarding…I was expecting little dunes with people gliding down on a boogie board – but no, these dunes were enormous monsters, and people seemed to be whizzing down them on these little boards on their fronts at about 100mph!  I almost backed out but had a word with myself, and after a steep and precarious half an hour climb I was soon whizzing down the side of a golden sand dune on my front with only my feet for brakes and a mouthful of sand!  It turned out to be great fun and was over with far too quickly.

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Sandboarding

We then went on to 90 Mile Beach which, as the name suggests, is an exceedingly long beach (actually ‘only’ about 60 miles) that was completely deserted apart from a couple of other bus tours. It was stunning, with huge rolling waves and nothing but sand and sea as far as the eye could see. Orto stopped the bus at the top so we could go digging for shellfish, which were sitting there just under the surface of the sand so were pretty easy to find.  Some people cracked the shells open and ate them raw, but I had been brave enough for one day with the sandboarding, so I politely declined!  We hopped back onto the bus and Orto took us thundering down the length of the beach, sometimes going in and out of the waves that splashed up the sides. He assured us that he hadn’t sunk a bus…yet!  We finished off the trip with fish and chips (‘fush and chups’ as the Kiwis say) looking out over the water, and on my return to the hostel I finished up the night with my newfound friends at The Lighthouse, the only nightclub in Paihia, until 3.30am! You could say that I fully embraced the backpacker lifestyle on this trip!
Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels
#6: Fun & feijoa flavoured vodka

Travel Tales #6: Fun & Feijoa Flavoured Vodka

I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Auckland, New Zealand, March 2006

My last weekend in Auckland was A LOT of fun! Nicole and I decided to hit the town on the Friday evening, starting off in Soul Bar which was situated right on the harbour, and we had a lovely time drinking some amazing NZ sauvignon blanc and eating fresh salt and pepper calamari whilst looking out on the boats and the water glistening in the sun. We were joined there by Nicole’s friend Carolyn and her husband Guy, and with them ventured on to ‘Minus 5’, an ice bar where we donned big, fur lined coats, gloves and fluffy boots to keep warm whilst we drank out of glasses made of ice, served from a bar made of ice, as we admired the ice sculptures (you get the idea!).  When we came out we were a bit giggly, and the woman who took our coats back said it was because the oxygen levels were so low in there, but we figured it might have been down to the amount of alcohol we had consumed!

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Nicole and I enjoying cocktails in our ice glasses in ‘Minus 5’

Guy left us after the ice bar and the three of us decided to go on to a club, so we managed to hail a Jafa Cab – were red rickshaws that took you all over the city for free…we ended up at a club called ‘Boogie Wonderland’ which, as the name suggests, played retro music.  The dancefloor was made up of squares that lit up in different colours, and plenty of people were dressed up in flares and afros to team with the retro theme…very groovy!  Nicole introduced me to feijoa flavoured vodka (which when she described it sounds much like a gooseberry) that we drank with apple juice.  It was a great night spent on the dancefloor, and we all felt a little worse for wear the following morning!

On the Sunday we went to see the rugby – NZ Warriors vs. Melbourne Storm – at the Ericsson Stadium.  As Nicole worked for Vodafone who sponsored the Warriors we got free tickets. Unfortunately, they lost 22-16, but it was a great atmosphere and I really enjoyed the experience of going to a game.

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A sunny game of NZ rugby

After my fun-filled weekend in Auckland I commenced my next trip up to the very north of the North Island, to the beautiful Bay of Islands. I booked a ‘3 Day Adventure’ trip through a travel agency in the city but wanted to stay in the area a bit longer so added on a couple of extra nights’ accommodation.  As the bus was picking me up very early the next morning I decided to stay in the city the night before rather than at Nicole’s.  As she dropped me off at the hostel it felt very much like leaving home again and I felt rather wobbly on my own, but I didn’t have much choice other than to get on with it.  I stayed in the Auckland Central Backpackers, which was a nice enough place with a great looking bar called and restaurant.  I wasn’t feeling quite brave enough to go in on my own so I retired to my bunk and tried to relax and get an early night, which proved rather difficult in a room full of strangers who were coming and going.  However, I figured this was something I was just going to have to get used to over the coming year!
Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets
#5: Sunshine & hostels

Travel Tales #5: Sunshine and hostels

I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Auckland, New Zealand, March 2006

I couldn’t quite believe that I had made it to the other side of the world on my own when I touched down at Auckland Airport on Saturday afternoon. My friend Nicole, a beautiful Kiwi girl I worked with in London during her own overseas experience, met me at the airport and it was so lovely to see a familiar face. She lived with her boyfriend, AD, in Pakuranga, and when we returned to theirs we opened some wine and made the most of a late summer’s evening, drinking and chatting on their deck whilst he cooked up a storm on the barbie. Having not slept on the long flight from Hong Kong, it was an early night followed by a lazy Sunday doing a bit of shopping and recovering from my jetlag, and that evening we watched a Maori film called ‘Once Were Warriors’ which was rather gritty…At the end my reaction was ‘blimey!’ which Nicole and AD found highly amusing…I think my English-isms were a constant source of entertainment to them.

The following day I braved the bus and went into the city to meet Nicole on her lunch break at work. On the way, I received a text message letting me know that a close friend back home had given birth to her first baby…realising that if I lasted the year he would be one by the time I met him suddenly made me feel very far from home and quite emotional.

I hung out for the next couple of days exploring the city and Pakuranga, and spent time with Nicole, AD and their friends in the evenings. By mid-week I had regained some energy, and set off on my first solo trip (and first stay in a hostel) to Waiheke Island.  Waiheke is a 35 minute ferry ride from the city and had it’s own subtropical micro-climate according to my Lonely Planet guide.  On the way there the ferry passed by Rangitoto, a seemingly innocent looking low mountain, which is actually a volcano – one of many active and inactive ones area, which I tried not to think about too much!  Once off the ferry, I hopped on a bus to my hostel, Hekerua Lodge, but unfortunately the bus driver forgot to shout out when I needed to get off so I ended up getting a bit lost finding my way back…Hekerua Lodge is described as a retreat set in the middle of the bush, so it isn’t visible from the road (making it quite hard to find when you’re lost!), but when I eventually located it I found it to be a nice place, clean and had the added bonus of a spa and pool.  However, the people staying there at the time weren’t overly friendly.  A lot of them were long-termers who were working there so it was hard to get talking to anyone.  I was sharing a four-bed dorm with two other girls, one of whom was Kirsteen from Germany who had just completed a four-week language school to improve her English and was travelling for a couple of months before returning home. Back then, I wasn’t one to naturally or easily strike up a conversation with strangers, so it was a good chance for me to work on this skill!

Whilst in Waiheke I explored the nearest beach to the hostel, Little Oneroa, and sat soaking up the sun which, having not long left the English winter behind, was a welcome tonic. I had a walk around the town of Oneroa in the afternoon, and returned to the hostel for my first dinner as a backpacker – a tin of spaghetti and meatballs!  Dinner was neither tasty nor nutritious, so I resolved to get better at shopping whilst on the move.  Feeling a little braver, I got talking to some people at the hostel in the evening, an older gentleman who was a keen hiker and had done some of the ‘big walks’ in New Zealand, some taking nearly a week, and a widowed lady who had decided to backpack on her week away.  They both gave me their tips on what to see and do in New Zealand, which I was appreciative of. It was really strange staying in a hostel for the first time.  I had shared a flat with a friend, as well as done a house share with three others in London, but I hadn’t shared a room with strangers before.  There were many times on that first trip that I was tempted to just get the ferry back to Nicole’s where I felt comfortable and safe, but I was proud of myself for sticking it out, even if it was just the one night!  I also found it strange being out and about on my own during the day.  I enjoyed making my own decisions about what I wanted to do, but I missed having someone to chat to or just get excited about where we were and what we were doing.  I later decided to make notes of what I had done each day so that I could at least share my experiences after they had happened with friends and family via my travel blog.  And I’m glad that I did as they later became what you are reading now, which is wonderful to look back on.

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Oneroa, Waiheke Island

On the way back to Auckland the following day I stopped off on the ferry at a place called Devonport which provided great panoramic views across the water to the city. Devonport was a lovely small town with Victorian-style buildings, a wide main road and lots of lovely cafes.  I sampled my first piece of Kiwi-style quiche in Devonport, a delightfully tasty and large chunk deep-filled with feta and spinach. The Kiwis know how to quiche!

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View of Auckland from Devonport

When I arrived back in Auckland I had some spare time before meeting Nicole after she finished work, so I took myself off to the Auckland City Art Gallery, which was fantastic (and free), and spent a lovely hour exploring paintings of Maori leaders and culture. I have always felt at home in art galleries, so it really helped to calm my mind. Back at Nicole’s before I started to plan my next trip to the Bay of Islands, but as it had now rolled around to the weekend again, Nicole was determined to show me a good time in Auckland before I left…!
Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas
#4: Islands, animals & markets

Travel Tales #4: Islands, Animals and Markets

 I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Hong Kong, February 2006

On my third day I visited Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outlying islands that is an old pirate and fishing village. There I gained a sense of an older, traditional style of living with narrow winding streets and a harbour full of fishing boats quietly bobbing on the water.  There were shops along the harbour front selling live produce outside, including lobsters, cuttlefish and crabs, the idea being that you choose what you want and they cook it up for you in the restaurant next door.

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Cheung Chau

I walked past the Pak Tai Temple which so colourful, decorative and detailed. I also visited the ‘Venerable Banyan Tree’ which is thought to be the source of Cheung Chau’s good fortune, and is so revered by islanders that in recent years a restaurant opposite had been knocked down instead of the tree to make way for a road extension.

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Pak Tai Temple

The ferry crossing back to Hong Kong Island was quite rough as the wind had picked up by the afternoon. I am pretty prone to feeling seasick, but being a short trip I managed to cope!  Once back on dry land I hopped on the MTR (the underground train network) to an area called Prince Edward.  My first stop was the Bird Garden that I had read about in one of the guide books – it’s where local folk (particularly the elderly) take their avian friends in their cages to sing, get fresh air and be in the company of other birds.  They also sell birds there (every kind you can think of) as well as bird cages and accessories.  The cacophony of birdsong was beautiful and I noticed that the pet birds were very well looked after – they even had little decorated china pots in their cages for their food and water. The ones that weren’t pets didn’t seem to fare quite so well, they were kept piled up in their hundreds in tiny little box-like cages, and I wanted to buy them all just so I could set them free!

After the Bird Garden I walked through the beautiful flower market, and then wandered down Nathan Road, also known as the Golden Mile due to the number of neon signs that are all the way up and down and hanging across the road. Nathan Road led me to Mong Kok, an area famous for roads and roads (and roads) of markets.  There were so many to choose from, but I settled on ‘Ladies Market’ (why, of course) which was packed full of jewellery, bags, shoes, clothes and stall holders shouting “Hey Miss, look, look, I do you special deal!”. I have never seen anything like it, the road was just crammed with stalls and, in places, the gap down the middle seemed only just big enough to squeeze through. After the market I came across a pet shop which consisted of what I can only describe as plastic tanks containing puppies for sale. There were all sorts – chihuahuas, pomeranians, chow chows, beagles, and even a golden retriever which, sadly, was getting a little big for its tank so looked sadly cramped. Most of the dogs were asleep and, as with the birds, I just wanted to buy them all to save them from their existence in those conditions.

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Mong Kok Markets

After Mong Kok, I made my way down to the harbour and got the Star Ferry from Kowloon back over to Hong Kong Island, which is only a five minute-trip and provides sparkling views of the both harbours as the lights come on of an evening. It was late afternoon and the stunning sunset provided the perfect backdrop to the end of my busy, varied and wonderful stay in Hong Kong.

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Sunset from Star Ferry

 

Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure
#3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas

Positive body image film ‘Embrace’ is coming to Kent!

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Some of you may have heard of the ‘Body Image Movement’, a global initiative launched by Australian Taryn Brumfitt who is on a quest to end the global body-hating epidemic.  Her incredible work is helping women to accept and feel better about themselves, as well as challenges the idea perpetuated by the media that external beauty = everything.

As a newly appointed Global Ambassador for the BIM, I have been enabled to host a one off screening of ‘Embrace’, the powerful documentary that Taryn made whilst traversing the globe to talk to women about body image issues.  This independent film has already launched in Australia and the US since the summer and is now finally coming to the UK and Ireland in early 2017.  You can watch the powerful trailer here.

My screening is the only one taking place in Kent and is scheduled for 18 January 2017 at 6.30pm at Odeon Chatham.  It won’t go on general release and is instead being crowd-funded, meaning that as long as a certain number of tickets are reserved then the screening can take place.  As it stands, there are 43 tickets that need to be taken up/reserved by 7 January 2017 in order for the screening to go ahead.

Tickets can be purchased through this link: https://tickets.demand.film/event/1316

It would be brilliant if this is something that you wanted to book a ticket for…and it would also be greatly appreciated if you were able to help me spread the word to your friends/family (including children, it’s suitable for age 11+)/work colleagues/students/networks/community members via email, social media, carrier pigeon, etc.!  It is open to everybody to attend.

If you are on Facebook there is new a BIM Kent page here and a Facebook event that you can share/invite friends to.

If you are not in Kent, or can’t easily got here, here is a list of venues where the screening is also taking place.  If there isn’t one taking place near you, you can put your hand up to volunteer to host one!

I look forward to seeing those of you who are interested at the Kent screening!

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Travel Tales #3: Tug boats, peaks & pandas

I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

Hong Kong, February 2006

After landing in Hong Kong, I managed to navigate the airport shuttle to the correct stop and received a very warm welcome at the other end from my host for my five day stay – Susan, who was a friend of a friend I had met just a couple of times. As we journeyed by taxi to Susan’s apartment in Pok Fu Lam, I took in my surroundings.  The area was full of majestic tree covered mountains, a stunning backdrop to the busy urban landscape of white, cream and grey high rises dotted with tiny windows.  Susan’s apartment was high up on the 26th floor of one of these buildings, with a stunning view of Victoria Peak from the window of her spare room in which I was staying in.

Susan kindly supplied me with leaflets, books, and tips about what to see and do during my stay, and the following morning I took myself into Central on the bus to orientate myself and do a bit of exploring. I had put aside a bit of money to treat myself to a new camera, knowing that I could probably get it cheaper in Hong Kong than at home, and before too long I had found myself a lovely little Nikon that would see me through the year.  The city was bustling with people and traffic and, being a fair skinned and freckled Westerner, I seemed to attract a few stares.  I decided to get a bus up Victoria Peak to look down on the views of the city and Kowloon across the harbour.  It was pretty windy day, and by the time I got to the top the mist had descended and it was teeming with rain, so the views weren’t as good as I was hoping but I got the idea of the grandeur and scale of the city and its surroundings.

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Misty view from Victoria Peak

That night, expecting to sleep well after a busy day, I experienced my first bout of jetlag and was awake from the small hours. When I got up in the morning I felt completely disorientated, but there was no time to waste with plenty of places to visit, so I took myself off on the bus to Stanley Market.  Mooching around a market is one of my favourite pastimes, but I was mindful as I weaved round the narrow course of the market sheltered from the rain by tarpaulins, that I was now on a traveller’s budget.  The weather had brightened up a bit by lunchtime and I took a walk down to Stanley Beach.  The yellow sand looked very inviting and peaceful with not a soul on it.

On the journey to Stanley and back the bus trundled past Deep Water Bay and Repulse Bay, providing breath-taking views as we rounded sharp corners. It also passed through Aberdeen and I noticed a harbour dotted with boats and surrounded by high rise buildings.  It was such a sensory experience and I was fascinated – the sight of washing dangling out of high rise apartment windows, the constant buzz of traffic, boats and planes, the smell of mingling foreign foods.  It was a completely different culture to behold and I loved taking it all in. On the way back from Stanley I stopped off at Ocean Park, a theme/safari park. It was very commercial and not really an experience of ‘real Hong Kong’ but I did really enjoy some aspects of it.  A cable car takes visitors from the lower level to the top of a mountain where there are more attractions, and it was the steepest and highest one I’d ever been on.  Being on my own in a cable car I felt a little precarious and wondered briefly about how safe it was as I rattled and swung my way along, but by then it was too late, and soon I was distracted by the stunning views of the surrounding bays all around as I climbed higher and higher into the air.

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View from the Ocean Park cable car

One of the highlights of Ocean Park for me was the goldfish pagoda which was set in a pretty and tranquil Chinese garden. Another highlight was the two pandas who I was very excited to meet.  There was just a moat between them and the public, no bars or wire so they felt less caged in than captive animals in most zoos. They sat slowly munching their bamboo and gazing at their visitors as we looked back in awe at them.  There was also a “Dolphin University” –  a series of pools housing the park’s dolphins.  I spent quite a bit of time in there, just a few metres away from the edge.  I had never been that close to a dolphin so it was a lovely experience for me, but I don’t suppose it was as lovely for them to be kept in captivity. The days adventures saw to a better night’s sleep for me, and so I was ready for more intrepid exploring in my remaining two days in Hong Kong.

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Ocean Park Panda

 

 

Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves
#2: Departure

Travel tales #2: Departure

 I am writing up my gap year travels from 2006-2007 so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews. I hope they will read about my adventures and be inspired to explore themselves…and I hope you enjoy my travel tales.

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United Kingdom, February 2006

As my plane descended into Hong Kong International Airport, circling over a vast expanse of water dotted with criss-crossing tug boats, I reflected on one of the hardest and most surreal days of my life.

After three months of excitement and anticipation since I booked my ticket, I woke up on 25th February crying, and I didn’t stop until I fell into an exhausted sleep on the plane that night.  I just couldn’t stop the tears flowing.  I had said my goodbyes to friends at the local pub the previous evening, and spent my last night in Kent in my Dad’s spare room; my worldly belongings now stored between his and my Mum’s.  Even when I said goodbye to my friends it didn’t seem real.  I don’t think anyone, including me, really believed that I was leaving for a year.

All day I wiped away tears as my parents and sister looked on, probably wondering if I should be going and no doubt masking their own fears about my year ahead.  After my Mum and sister left the airport, my sister having had a bit of an emotional meltdown when it was time to say goodbye, which set me off again, my Dad marched me to Café Rouge, one of my favourite restaurants.  It felt like it was some kind of ‘last supper’ and I felt uneasy I struggled to eat my food.  I can only imagine what the other customers were thinking…I didn’t look like a person about to embark on the trip of a lifetime, that’s for sure!  And my Dad, sitting opposite me looking pained, must have felt wretched.  I remember him saying to look at it like a long holiday – pretend that I was going for a few weeks, and if I was really homesick or hated it then I could just come back, nobody would think any less of me.  To this day I believe that those words were the only thing that got me on that plane.

My Dad waved me off through departures, being very brave and stoic in contrast to my blubbering and, by now, puffy-faced mess, and it took all my strength to not just run back through customs and say I had changed my mind and was going home with him. Even as I sat in departures surrounded by people, the tears were streaming down my face, but by that point I was past caring about what others thought.  It was such an emotional wrench to be leaving all that was familiar behind and step into the unknown.  I literally had to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other in order to get myself through it.

As soon as the plane took off and the first drinks were served I ordered myself a glass of red wine! The couple sitting next to me paid me no attention, and at the time this made me feel even more alone, but looking back it was probably for the best that they didn’t try to engage me in conversation as I would have ended up drowning them in my tears!  I ordered another glass of wine, took a couple of herbal sleeping tablets and, for the first and only time on a plane, managed to fall into a deep sleep.

As I looked out of the plane window at those tiny tug boats I felt emotionally spent, but also a tiny pang of excitement flared in my gut at the though of exploring this new place, and a culture completely different to my own.  Maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea after all…!

Links to previous Travel Tales
#1: Nerves

Travel tales #1: Nerves

I have decided to write up my gap year travels so that I can self-publish a book to pass on to my niece and nephews.  I hope they enjoy reading about my adventures and are encouraged to explore the world themselves, or just know what their Aunty got up to when she was an intrepid explorer 🙂  I decided I would also publish my travel tales in sections on this here blog to get me back into the habit of my creative passion – writing.  I hope you enjoy my story.

 

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[image: fotolia]

London, November 2005

I was 26 when I booked my gap year ticket…encouraged by family who knew how long I had been thinking about it, yet not believing in myself that I could or would do it. However, following a romantic rejection and feeling the need to make a big life change, I had been spontaneous, made some enquiries and was now booked to leave the UK in February.  Which gave me three months.  Enough time to hand in my notice on my job and my house share in London, move myself and my belongings back to the homes of my parents in Kent, and get organising.  I was so busy doing all of this that it gave me little time to question what I was doing.  Which is a good thing for a master procrastinator.  It felt absolutely surreal.

I had known people who took gap years to travel – work colleagues, friends of friends – but no-one in my family or close circle of friends had done so, which is why it seemed like such a momentous thing to me. But a seed of thought had been sown by hearing stories of the travel adventures of others – discovering new places, experiencing different cultures and meeting new people was so appealing to me.  I had been in my job in Human Resources for a large accountancy firm for nearly eight years, and things were starting to feel stale.  Friends were settling down, getting married and popping out adorable children, whilst I was just not in that place at all after a bad break up in my early 20s.  And what with the aforementioned romantic rejection (are you sensing a heartbreak theme here?), it seemed now was the time to, literally, take flight.

I remember the exact moment I decided. It was a Saturday morning and I was lying in bed in my pretty room with whitewashed floorboards in a rather crazy house-share in Brockley, south east London – thoughts of work blues and frustration over my failing love life consuming me.  I remember crying and thinking, ‘you know what, there must be more to life than this…there’s a big world out there to discover, what on earth am I waiting for?’.  That was the moment that I made one of the best decisions of my life.

Although I didn’t have too long between booking the trip and leaving to worry too much about the details, I did have one main concern and that was being homesick. The thought of being all on my own on the other side of the world was sometimes overwhelming.  I had done a ‘test the water’ four-week round the world trip a year previously which I had loved, but a year just seemed like an unfeasibly long time to be away.  Still, I didn’t much time to dwell…I had a ‘gap year on a shoestring’ book to read, a rucksack, sleeping bag, pegless washing line, universal sink plug and long list of other ‘essential items’ to buy, and Lonely Planet travel guides to familiarise myself with.  There was much to be done!

 

Good Causes

Time to Talk

It’s time…to talk

I decided to write a blog post as my ‘Take 5 Minutes’ for this year’s ‘Time to Talk Day’, which is part of the Time to Change campaign to raise awareness and reduce stigma about mental health issues.

It appears that it’s been 18 months since my last post…I thought the April A-Z Challenge in 2013 would get me into the habit of regular blogging, but it seems it only served to put me off!

Although about 18 months ago is when I rediscovered my passion for art, so that’s probably more to do with it…since then I’ve got back into painting, drawing and making, which I am getting so much joy from.  I’ve taught myself face painting, developed my own ‘faceless illustration’ style, made bits and pieces for my first two stalls at craft and vintage fairs, baked a lot of cakes, helped paint murals, been involved in collaborative and community projects and connected and with loads of lovely artists in my local area, some of whom have become good friends.  I often tell people that art is a form of therapy for me – it’s a very mindful activity and takes me away from things that might be on my mind or distracts me from how I feel like nothing else does.  If you’re interested in seeing any of my work you can find me at ‘Artmanship’ on Facebook or @artmanship on Twitter 🙂

Also, in the last 18 months I have discovered new things related to mental health which I thought were worth sharing on this Time to Talk Day:

1) The Live It Well website is part of a Kent and Medway initiative to encourage people to enhance their own wellbeing, incorporating the ‘Six Ways to Wellbeing’ – small changes you can make to your life which can make a big difference.  I personally find them really easy to remember and translate into everyday examples (more ideas can be found on the website).  The Six Ways are:

– Be active
– Keep learning
– Give
– Connect
– Take notice
– Care for the planet

Depressed Cake Shop
2) I discovered ‘The Depressed Cake Shop’ – an initiative that sees volunteer bakers produce and sell grey cakes with the purpose of raising awareness about mental health issues.  I was so inspired that I set up a local branch (as many others have done in their own areas) which can be found on Facebook at ‘The Depressed Cake Shop – Medway’.  I’ve run four events so far with some lovely volunteers, made some new friends, had some very interesting chats, helped to signpost people to services and groups that can help them, and made a bit of money for mental health charities along the way.  I am planning to organise another event, I just have the small matter of a dissertation to write first!  There are lots of branches across the UK (and indeed the world now) which can be found on Facebook…if there isn’t one in your area perhaps you might consider setting one up yourself?  I’m more than happy to share tips from my own experiences if it helps anyone.

3) As part of last year’s ‘Time to Talk Day’ a friend of mine, Nikki, set up a get together at a café in Rochester for those who wanted to talk about mental health.  It was so successful and well received that it has run every month since!  If you’re interested, look up the Facebook page ‘Time to Talk Rochester’ for details and feel free to join us for a chat.  And tea.  And cake!  Our next meet up is Saturday 14th February from 12.00-2.00pm at the Dot Café.  Newcomers are always very welcome and people often find it beneficial to talk to others who understand, share ideas, or just generally pass the time of day with and get to know each other.

4) In relation to my own issues with mental health, which have been on a bit of a downward trajectory in recent months, I decided last week to ask my GP for blood tests to see if there were any underlying causes of my symptoms.  He was very understanding and happy to refer me.  To be honest I didn’t expect anything to come back, it was more to rule things out, but it turns out that my Vitamin D levels are very low (hardly surprising at this time of year I guess), so I’m now on tablets to hopefully help with that, and it will be interesting to see if it alleviates any of my mood, sleep-related or other symptoms over time, along with some dietary and lifestyle adjustments that I have made.  If not, then it’s clear that I need at least a month away in the sun 😉  But, joking aside, I would personally recommend if you haven’t done so already to ask your GP for some blood tests…when I looked into it further there are many nutritional deficiencies that may cause depression.

Until next time, love and happy talk, sm (aka Sharon, aka Artmanship) x