The Catlins – New Zealand’s Best Kept Secret

We have a very special introduction to make to make. It is time for you to meet Bear, our beautiful beast of a campervan!

Bear was born in South Korea in 2004, destined to be a well-respected, hardworking Mercedes minibus (that’s right – we actually own a Mercedes!). His early days are murky – there are few surviving records from this time – but it seems that later in life he was brought to New Zealand. Here, he probably transported some of the 4 million tourists that visit this paradise each year, we don’t know. What we do know is that a lovely young couple from the Czech Republic rescued him from a life of hard labour, kitted him out with a wood kitchen, a double gas hob and grill and the comfiest double bed in the world. They loved him for a year, but all working holiday visas must come to an end, and so we took over as his owners.

We picked him up in Blenheim and drove him down State Highway 1 to Christchurch, where we spent two weeks volunteering in a castle. What a place! Our super friendly, kind and generous hosts Dale and Leeanne have cultivated a thriving community of backpackers and expats, all bursting with enthusiasm for the wonders of New Zealand. There could have been no better place for us to find our feet on the South Island. When we weren’t helping out with the redecoration of their house on the hill, we spent hours in front of the map of New Zealand, in pride of place on the kitchen wall, learning about where we should go and why. When our time came to leave, we had our first big road trip in Bear pretty well planned.

Now, we should probably tell you all about Christchurch, a blooming city full of secret spots, the best botanical gardens in the world and a cafe that serves burgers in pneumatic tubes, but we haven’t got time for that. We could also go on and on about our first night freedom camping by Lake Pukaki, waking up with coffee and toast on the lake shore, but we haven’t got time for that either. And then of course there’s Queenstown, but everyone knows about Queenstown. No, what we want to tell you about are the Catlins, because we’re willing to bet you’ve never heard of them.

Deep down in the Southlands, along the Southern coast of the South Island, lie the Catlins. We have never been anywhere quite like it – native rainforests full of waterfalls nestled alongside pristine, virtually empty beaches, stunning ridge lines hiding ever present agriculture, giving way to discreet bays teeming with wildlife. We reached this surreal coastal strip by heading down to Invercargill – check out the Invercargill Brewery if you must pass through – and then South East to Fortrose, our first stop for a night of freedom camping by the estuary. You can also drive South from Dunedin, along the coast road to Nugget Point. Either way, we recommend taking your time as you explore from West to East or vice versa. Oh, and forget about taking the bus, because there is no public transport in this oft-overlooked paradise. Before you go, be sure to pick up or download the handy treasure map of the area, detailing the best tracks, natural wonders and even where to spot the local wildlife.

Here’s how we spent 4 delightful days in the Catlins:

Day 1

Waking up in sleepy Fortrose is a fine way to begin your Catlins adventure. We cooked pancakes and ate forkfuls of them smothered in peanut butter, banana and golden syrup as we watched the estuary inhabitants carry out their morning routine. Oyster catchers sussing out where to find breakfast and grey shags off on quests we could only guess at.

After breakfast we headed over to Waipapa Point for a gentle stroll up to the timber framed lighthouse for our first real view of the nothingness of the Southern Ocean, and down the dunes to the desolate beach. Well, we thought it was desolate, until the big grey boulders turned out to be fur seals taking a post-brekkie snooze.

Thoroughly refreshed by the Southerly breeze, we spent the rest of the morning working our way slowly along the gravel road that roughly hugs the coastline. Much of the way we passed agricultural pasture, but then just as we began to feel boredom settling in, we’d round a corner to be stunned by a fantastic coastal view or a miraculously hidden rainforest. It was this continuing sense of wonder that distracted us from our map, so we ended up missing a vital turning to Slope Point. But no worries, because we ended up at Niagara Falls instead.

That’s right – New Zealand has its very own Niagara Falls. But don’t get too excited because this is just one of the early settlers having a joke at our expense. The ‘falls’ are little more than an aggravated stream, and the handy information board explains the humour behind the name. Perhaps they anticipated the rise in global tourism and wanted to leave a wry comment for the future. We must admit that the joke fell a little flat, but at least you only have to drive about 100m off the main road to be, we’ll be honest, disappointed.

We decided to turn back here and head on back to Slope Point via Curio Bay. We’re glad we did, because Curio Bay turned out to be one of the highlights of the Catlins. As you head down from the high road toward the coast, Porpoise Bay opens up with its vast golden beach and the rocky headland comes into view. Just beyond, Curio Bay is tucked away, hiding a fossilised forest, a strip of native rainforest and even its own colony of penguins.

Looking back, we’d recommend spending a whole day at Curio. The petrified forest, while rather unassuming when viewed from the cliff edge, is nothing short of incredible up close. Due to a unique combination of settling volcanic ash and a rising sea level, the remnants of a rainforest lie preserved in rock. Look down at your feet and you’ll find rows of fallen tree trunks and tiny stumps so perfectly fossilised you can count the rings in each trunk. Come back at dawn or dusk, and it’s likely you’ll see the colony of yellow-eyed penguins, also known as hoioho, waddling out to sea, hopping over this geological masterpiece. We spotted one lone penguin heading out to sea, but as this was around lunchtime, he or she had probably just woken up late!

When you’ve had enough of looking at a long gone rainforest, head back up to the cliffs and explore a living rainforest. The short, easily accessible track, takes you through a diverse forest dotted with information boards so you know what native plants and trees you’re looking at. Curio Bay can hardly be considered busy compared to other parts of New Zealand, but we did encounter more people here than at other spots in the Catlins. In the living forest, however, it was just us and the birds.

We decided we ought to leave Curio Bay and find somewhere to spend the night. There is a campsite there, but it was a bit pricey and windswept for our liking. We headed back to Slope Point first though, and took a windblown walk out over the wild headland to New Zealand’s Southernmost point. There’s not much there, just a rather understated sign marking the spot, but a sizeable car park, a well-maintained track and a great view out to sea mean you might as well visit. It’s also good to know that, wherever you go in life from now on, it’s all North (unless you decide to go to Antartica).

We left Slope Point and settled down for the night at the Weirs Beach Reserve freedom camping area, just a few kilometres to the North (obviously). This secluded spot, right on the beach but for a strip of native bush, is a great place to chill out after a day spent exploring. There’s a clean long drop and even an outside sink so you can wash your dishes with a sea view!

Day 2

Starting your day in the heart of the Catlins is an experience like no other. We found ourselves filed with a beguiling mix of excitement at what might come and a serene sense of peace from being in such a tranquil place. To be in the Catlins is to get back to the heart of what it means to travel – to see the new, to learn with childlike wonder but also to go back to the old, to let time stretch out, to take a break from the frantic pace of life. And so it was that we found ourselves, almost unspokenly, heading back to Curio Bay. We’d already seen ‘the sights’ but we wanted to take it all in again. To listen to the sea, search the horizon for dolphins, have a go at fishing, unsuccessfully, off the headland that separates Curio Bay and Porpoise Bay. We had hoped to hire out some surf equipment from the Curio Bay Surf School, but high winds kept us on dry land and the porpoise out of view.

After lunch – spicy noodles cooked up on the cliffs – we set off along the main road, through the Catlins Coastal Rainforest Park, all tree ferns and untouched podocarp forest, to McLean Falls. A steepish, 40 minute return walk under a podocarp canopy and blooming fuchsia trees takes you to a stunning set of lower and upper falls on a stretch of the Tautuku. This trek was first popularised by Doug McLean, an eccentric early settler who used to lead groups to the falls.

Lake Wilkie, further East along the main road, is also worth a stop. Whilst incomparable to New Zealand’s more well known lakes – it would be unfair to mention Pukaki or Wakatipu here – this forested pond has a distinctly peaceful vibe. The short, circular walk is punctuated with information boards too, so you can learn about the life cycle of a dragonfly whilst stretching your legs.

That evening, we spent the night at our first DOC (Department of Conservation) campsite at the quiet village of Papatowai. A quiet campsite with well placed hedges for privacy, clean flushing toilets, a sheltered kitchen area and only a 2 minute walk to a massive, empty beach – what more could you want for $8 per person, per night?

Day 3

Having checked the tide times the day before, we ambled slowly back Westward, hoping to reach the Cathedral Caves by mid-morning. A quick stop-off at the Tautuku Board Walk for a stroll out over the marshy estuary, and we were right on time for the Catlin’s coasal cave curiosity.

The Catherdral Caves, accessible only at low tide, are a rare geological feature formed by years of tidal erosion. The single cave, like a U-bend laid flat, can be reached from a private car park and down a sheltered track that descends to a gorgeous, golden beach. As the cave is on private land, there is a small entry fee to pay but we say it’s worth it. The cavern towers above you, and the sound of the sea reverberating in its vastness is like some ancient song for the soul. Just be careful of lingering too long near the entrance, as even when the tide is far out, it is prone to unexpected surges. Indeed, we ended up hiking back to the van with wet socks and gum boots full of water…

For lunch – tuna mayo sandwiches – we parked up at Florence Hill Lookout for unsurpassed views across Tautuku Bay. But, feeling in need of iced coffee, we stopped off at The Lost Gypsy Gallery in Papatowai. Take some time to explore the handmade curiosities by local artist Blair Somerville. A bit like the contraptions at the beginning of The Goonies but without the shouting children. Delightful.

We arrived at our second DOC campsite, Purakanui Bay, late afternoon. The place was already beginning to fill up and it’s easy to understand why. This awesome campsite, only $8 per person, per night consists of a neat toilet block and a grassy strip along the low cliffs that form the beautiful bay. We managed to grab a brilliant spot, our back window facing right out to sea.

After dinner, while drinking mint tea in the sea breeze, we were treated to a display by a local sea lion slinking out to sea for a sunset swim. Without doubt the best place we’ve camped in New Zealand.

Day 4

The amazing thing about the Catlins is that you always think you’ve seen the most impressive thing on your trip, only to have it outdone a short while later. ‘How do you top a sea lion at sunset?’ we thought as we ate fried tomatoes, mushrooms and egg on toast on the shore the next day. The answer, it seems, is to visit Purakanui Falls. Apparently, these are New Zealand’s most photographed waterfalls, so we wouldn’t dare to stoop so low as to photograph them ourselves. But then we actually went there and realised they were pretty spectacular, so here’s a photograph we took:

‘Onwards to Jack’s Blow Hole!’ isn’t something you can say every day but that’s the Catlins for you. Jack’s Blow Hole is another one of those unique geological features that this place seems to have in abundance. Originally your bog standard sea cave, the gradual erosion of supporting walls has led to the collapse of the ceiling, which means that, about a kilometre in land, you can look down into Jack’s Blow Hole and see the sea roaring through the cavern a hundred or so metres below. If the conditions are just right, it’s said that the water will erupt from the cavern like an exhaling whale. We waited a while, but saw no spurting that day. Even so, it’s definitely worth a visit. To get there, park in Jack’s Bay and follow the marked track to the West. Afterwards, why not have lunch in Jack’s Bay and look out for seals and sea lions too?

From there, as you head North, everything starts to go back to normal, bit by bit. After seeing no real shops for four days, we were somewhat shaken up to find a Four Square in civilised Okawa so we stocked up on crisps and hummus to get over it. We stopped by Nugget Point, often billed as the beauty spot on the cheek of the Catlins, but were rather put off by the hordes of tourists and nowhere to park. We’d had our magical moments, our serendipitous surprises, and we remembered them all as we headed for Dunedin…

Not just bagpipes and Irn Bru – why we love Scotland and wish we were Scottish

We can’t stand the drone of bagpipes and, frankly, Irn Bru tastes like sweetened spew. But we do love Scotland. After WWOOFing there for a couple of months, we fell head over heels for Britain’s most Scottish country. It turns out that the rest of the world has too, since a recent Rough Guide poll placed it at the top of a list of the world’s most beautiful countries.

We might be a bit late to the party, but we’re going to throw back a couple of glasses of Scotch and get stuck in with our very own list of why this cold, drizzly land, long ago fought over by the Picts, the Celts, the Romans, and sometimes just angry Scottish clans, has stolen our hearts.

Scotland Wants to be Explored – We grew up in England, where everyone keeps very quiet about how wonderful Scotland is. One fact that no one ever talks about is a little piece of Scottish legislation known as the right to roam. In England, if you want to explore the countryside on foot, you need to stick to the public footpaths and bridleways. Failure to do so will result in an aggressive farmer hurling abuse at you and ruining your day. To top this off, most local authorities appear to neglect the footpaths, so unless you have an OS map, a compass and mad map reading skills, it’s pretty much impossible to work out where they are.

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Nick on a typically well maintained footpath in Shropshire

In Scotland, however, since the 2003 Land Reform Act, citizens and visitors alike have had the right to roam the countryside enshrined in law. Not only does this mean that you can explore the wilds of Scotland with a clear conscience, it also obliges land owners to positively enable passage through their land. As a hiker in Scotland, you can expect to find well maintained stiles, easy to climb fences and unlocked gates. If you see a beautiful river and want a closer look, just stroll on down to it. Fancy wandering through an enchanted looking woodland? Go ahead and wander.

We’ve heard that a lot of international visitors simply don’t believe that this right to roam exists. This is understandable given that many countries have strict property laws and disproportionate measures in place to stop trespassing, such as the possibility of being shot at. But it’s true, and all the details can be found on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website.

All that roaming can be tiring, and the thought of finding nowhere to sleep out in the wilderness can be a daunting prospect. Not in Scotland though, because you’re free to pitch your tent up wherever you please so long as you leave the land as you found it. If you’re lucky you might find a bothie, a basic mountain lodge, free and open to all for shelter. We’re told that most don’t have running water and you need to find your own fuel if it gets chilly, but it’s comforting to know that the option is out there should you need it. We’ve found that Scottish folk seem far more eager to explore the wild and have a deep understanding of their land. Is it any surprise when it’s so accessible?

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Tunskeen bothy. Photo credit to Geoff Allan @bothiesonabike.com

Lochs, Glens and Bens – We spent a month WWOOFing at Tombreck, helping out on a farm in this friendly community, tucked away between Killin and Aberfeldy in Perthshire, at the foot of Ben Lawers as it sweeps down to Loch Tay. Each morning, as we ate our breakfast of pinhead oat porridge and homemade sourdough toast, we felt the great Ben looming over us, daring us to climb its craggy peak. Most often the mountain would be shrouded in mist, keeping us novice mountaineers at bay, working out in the wet fields instead. Finally a cloudless day arrived, our hosts forbade us to work and sent us up the mountain with a packed lunch and a pair of binoculars.

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The climb was tough, but thankfully National Trust for Scotland keep a well maintained ‘tourist trail’ for those of us who don’t have goat’s legs. As an aside – National Trust  for Scotland do a fine job of managing the land, and we’re always happy to see the iconic NTS road signs pointing out the local landmarks. Anyway, we scrambled up the mountain, taking a good 2 hours to reach the cairn. Standing atop the munro, The Highlands stretched out before us, we were astounded by the wild beauty. Mountains merged with more mountains, each with their own distinct character. Beneath us, roughly to the North, Glen Lyon, known as Scotland’s bonniest glen, lay like an ornate entrance hall to a giant’s palace. To the South, Loch Tay glistened in the sun, its deep waters hiding mysteries never to be solved. We were enrapt, enthralled by the majesty of the mountains. We would have stayed to look upon those views forever, but it was extraordinarily windy to the point that it was unbearable. So we headed back down, windswept and wowed by the sights we’d seen.

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Also worth a mention is Glen Coe, probably the most famous glen. It’s out to the West of Scotland, not quite as far as Fort William and Ben Nevis. The road cuts through the bottom of the valley and makes for a stunning drive. There’s also plenty of easy to reach (and free) parking spots along the route so you can stop off to admire the views and exercise your right to roam wherever you wish.

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Glasgow and Edinburgh: The UK’s Best Cities – It’s not all just wild mountains and lonely lochs in Scotland. It also boasts two of the the UK’s finest cities. Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, comes alive in August for the infamous Fringe, a month long romp of comedy, drama and general lunacy. There’s also an International Festival that takes place at the same time, but sadly for the organisers, this doesn’t seem to have caught on quite as well. We saw 6-7 shows each day for a whole week. That’s a lot of (mostly free) comedy. Out of all that, our 2017 Fringe highlights included Trevor Lock’s Community Circle, a show with no jokes but plenty of audience interaction; Betty Grumble’s in your face feminist, naked cabaret with free lady parts print and Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable, a bonkers sketch show written by two comedy geniuses, thankfully still going strong since we first saw them back in 2012. We saw some dreadful stuff too, but that’s the price you pay for free comedy.

The joy of the Fringe comes not just from the magic of live performance and the sense of community that comes from being part of a challenged, chuckling audience, but from dashing from show to show around the hilly, cobbled streets of old Edinburgh. We watched people make jokes in damp caves, in dark nightclubs at midday and sometimes just in a quiet corner of a pub. By the end of the festival, we knew those streets like the back of our hand.

There is, as most Scottish people like to say, much more to Edinburgh than the Fringe. We’ve been fortunate to see the city post-festival, and with its quiet charm, lamplit streets and laid back nightlife, we have to agree. Even so, for us it is a festival city and all the better for it.

Scotland’s largest city (population 600,000 or a whopping 2,000,000 if you include the suburbs) and the UK’s third largest, is Glasgow. Renowned in England for bad food and bad people, us Southerners have got it all wrong. What we found is a city full of some of the friendliest people in the world. And if there’s anything we’ve learned on our travels, it’s that where there’s community, there’s always good food and drink to be had. Glasgow has a cosmopolitan selection of eateries, organic grocers and watering holes selling a whole lot more than the city’s very own ubiquitous Tennents lager. However, with our budget in mind, we had a coffee in the thriving Botanic Gardens and a picnic of sandwiches and crisps under the trees in the vibrant Kelvingrove Park.

The city also hosts a fine selection of galleries and museums, most of which are free to enter. Our highlight was the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, worthy of a visit for the building’s architecture alone. Beyond that, there were superbly laid out exhibitions focusing on Scottish art movements, as well as collections of art from around the world. The overall tone of the curation, particularly in the exhibition about the emotions and feelings conjured by art, was playful yet sincere, much like Glasgow itself.

Highland Games – No summer trip to Scotland would be complete without attending one of the many Highland Games. Held in towns and villages across Scotland, these festivals are a unique celebration of strength, folklore and food. We visited the Killin International Highland Games, where the action takes place in the wake of several looming mountains, accompanied by the constant hum of bagpipes, often with 4 or 5 pipers piping different tunes, just close enough to each other so that they can all be heard at once. With competitors from far flung lands like Iceland and Hungary squaring up to the Scots, this might as well have been the World’s Strongest Man competition. Hammers were thrown, shots were putted and cabers were tossed, interspersed with folk music dance offs and a ridiculously tough race up and down a hill.

Standing in the drizzle, picking at a delicious Arbroath Smokie (haddock smoked in a big barrel with hessian sacks), watching a bearded highlander tossing a caber, it occurred to us that it couldn’t get much more Scottish than this. But then drizzle turned to rain, the rain became a storm and we bumped into a friendly neighbour who offered us a lift home. Yes, that’s about as Scottish as it gets.

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A Year on the Road – What we’ve Learned from 365 Days of Travel

The 29th August will always be a special day for us. It marks the anniversary of the day we gave up our ordinary lives, packed our essentials, and some not-so-essentials (two person travel hammock anyone?), into our backpacks and headed for the unknown. As the Airbus A380 left the damp tarmac at Heathrow, we had no idea how much our lives would change. Since then, we’ve roamed through Oceania and Southeast Asia and returned to the UK as WWOOFers, learning how to live from the land and exploring our homeland with fresh eyes. If you’d told us this time last year that we’d still be wandering along the weary wild road, living in a little cabin in Scotland working on an organic farm, we’d have said you were crazy. With life turned upside down, and no sign of righting itself anytime soon, it seems appropriate to reflect on what we’ve learnt on our travels so far.

Slow travel is the best travel – Tourists travel quickly. It’s all about seeing the sights, ticking the boxes, exiting through the gift shop. In Fiji, we met folks visiting as many islands as possible, spending just one night at each place before heading to the next beach. Often friends we made had visited 4 different countries before we’d even left the hostel where those friendships were struck up. For us, travel is about taking time to absorb the culture of a place, getting to know the locals and sampling as much of the food as possible. It’s about making a strange land feel normal, forming routines and almost becoming bored with the exotic. Wherever we took our time, whether volunteering in jungle of Koh Lanta, immersing ourselves in the bustle of Penang or farming in the highlands of Scotland, we formed deep connections with the land and the people we met there. These places will remain long in our memories, far longer than the guided tours and coach window photo opportunities.

Coffee is very important – It was all very well saying goodbye to our middle class lifestyle, but we couldn’t leave it all behind. We realised early on that we can’t live without fresh coffee. For the most part, this hasn’t been a problem. Singapore has its typically complex kopi scene, Vietnamese coffee has the power of petrol and the thickness of crude oil and most towns in the UK have at least one cafe that serves a decent flat white (but let’s not get on to the tricky subject of gentrification here). But can you imagine that in some places, people just don’t care about coffee? In Malaysia, cafes don’t serve proper coffee and even have the cheek to charge you extra for a cup of upmarket Nescafe. So it was here that we procured a french press to brew our own coffee, only to find it nigh on impossible to score any fresh beans. Instant coffee is all the rage, with supermarkets dedicating a whole two aisles to the dreadful stuff whilst stocking no real coffee at all. Disheartened, we gave our press away to the Tipsy Tiger Hostel in the hope that it might be of use to some caffeine craving travellers, before heading to the Thai island of Koh Lanta. Lo and behold, here we found the famous Lanta Mart, which sold coffee grown and roasted in Chiang Mai. However, we were living in a bamboo hut in the jungle with no brewing equipment. Lesson learned, we now take our Aeropress everywhere with us. It’s light, robust and makes delicious coffee even with the cheapest beans. Waking up has never been so easy!

Don’t skimp on experiences – Travelling on a budget can make you tighter than a Conservative chancellor reviewing Local Authority funding. That’s ok when it comes to food because we all know that street food is superior to the fancy restaurants, and you find the most interesting people in the cheapest hostels. But when it comes to experiences, like white water rafting in the Upper Navua River in Fiji, diving in the crystal clear waters of Koh Lipe or trekking the mountains from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar, you have to loosen the purse strings. You may never visit these places again, so put aside financial fears and worries of being a tourist for a few days – it may well be the highlight of your trip.

Don’t always trust your guidebook – It’s cliché for travel bloggers to bash the guidebooks. We have to, given that we’re the underdog in the industry that they rule. But we don’t want to be too harsh here. Our hefty Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide was often invaluable when we had absolutely no idea where we were or what we ought to be doing there. Nick also delights in planning adventures, and the guidebook, along with the superb Travelfish website, can be be a rich resource here. But sometimes the guidebooks give places a little too much credit. They over egg the pudding leaving you in a scrambled egg scenario. Take Myanmar, an undiscovered land, according to Lonely Planet. Unblemished by the acne of tourism and cheap to boot. That’s not what we found, as we stumped up huge sums for flea ridden hotel rooms and navigated crowds pouring from their luxury air conditioned coaches wherever they went. What should have been a well planned month of intrepid travel became 4 weeks of overpriced disappointment.

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Always listen to advice – Whether it’s advice from fellow travellers or helpful locals, it always pays to heed their words of wisdom. Many times our plans have changed thanks to insider tips, and our travels have been all the better for it. It’s also become a rule for us to always try food if it’s recommended, and every time this has worked out to be a winner. It gives you the excuse to treat yourself, which is how we ended up buying a dozen slices of gingerbread from the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop and gorging on fried bread with condensed milk in Thailand. Similarly, if a local tells you not to try a dish on the menu because it’s not for tourists, don’t try to be clever and order it regardless. We did this with fermented crab papaya salad in Thailand. With the inedible crab shells and slimy sewage innards, it was the most disgusting thing we’ve ever eaten.

Stockpile Ear Plugs – Ear plugs don’t weigh anything. It’s true. We just tried to weigh a pair on some old scales we’ve found in the kitchen on the farm we’re staying at and they didn’t even register. This means you can stockpile as many as you like, deep down in your backpack and it won’t affect the weight of your luggage at all. Then, whenever you share a dorm with someone that snores like a drunken gorilla with long term sinus issues, you’ll be fine.

Long journeys are usually worth it – How many times we’ve told people we’re heading to the next place and it’ll be a 12 hour bus ride and they reply “That’s a long journey…”, as if to say, it’s probably not worth it, you should just stay at home. But so many times we have found this not to be the case. Take the 11 hour slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi, where the journey truly is the destination, as we passed through astounding mountain passes in rickety old carriages full of friendly faces. Or the 7 hour drive from Shropshire to the Lake District, admittedly mostly on dull-as-ditchwater motorways, but when we arrived in that land of mountains, wow! What a surprise to have lived in England all our lives and to have never known such awesome landscapes and wild expanses. Never overlook the long road.

Sitting on the beach does get boring – Now, don’t get us wrong, we love sitting on the beach. It’s just that sometimes it really does get boring. Of course, take time to sit on the beach and chill out with a beer and a book, but if you plan to do only that you may end up regretting it. Especially with the sunburn, the sand flies and the drunk lads from Leeds. Instead, break up the trips to the beach with a bit of culture or a foodie day, then you’ll really appreciate taking some time out to relax. A holiday isn’t a holiday if you’re always on holiday – that’s what we always say.

Always wear a watch – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had it right with the advice to always bring a towel. We use those neat little travel towels that dry off quickly but feel distinctly unsatisfying on the skin. However, what good old Douglas Adams didn’t mention is that the seasoned traveller should always wear a watch. Most obviously, it’s handy to know the time when you have a plane/boat/horse and cart to catch, and you’d be surprised how many hostels and hotels forget the necessity of a clock on the wall. What’s more, when you get on the plane/boat/horse and cart, you’d be surprised how often the pilot/captain/horse driver (?) doesn’t know the time. Having a watch means that you and your fellow passengers will be more likely, but by no means guaranteed, to leave on time. We also recommend getting a watch that tells you the date and the day of the week because travelling can become something of a dateless existence, what with the absence of a real job and any significant commitments.

The worst moments make the best stories – Despite popular opinion, travelling isn’t all wondrous experiences, lazy days and forever friends. No. Frequently it’s overwhelming confusion, frustrating delays and terrible, terrible people. Yet these moments, hellish as they feel at the time, often make the best stories. Oh, how we laugh at the time we volunteered to clean a beach on an island near Langkawi, only to be forced to do hard labour with nothing but cheap noodles and a bumper size tin of peaches to sustain us for a month. Oh, how we chuckle at the time we had to take a night bus from Surat Thani to Bangkok because the devastating flooding meant the night train was cancelled, and our backpacks were completely soaked because the water was so high it flooded the baggage compartment. Oh, how we look back fondly at the time Nick got a crippling UTI in Malaysia, could barely walk out of the hospital, and later proposed to Flic from his sickbed in a haze of drugs and fever (this was actually quite a tender moment, but you get the drift). Do we ever wish we were back home on our reclining sofa, cat by our side, Netflix on the telly? Of course we do, but we’ve fallen hard for the road and we’ll sticking with it for a few years yet…


 

Kalaw to Inle Lake – What to Expect When You’re Trekking

Kalaw, the starting point for Myanmar’s finest treks, was one of our favourite places in the country. We stopped by the alpine town for a couple of days to refresh our souls in the crisp highland air. Tucked away in the mountains that join the vast Himalayan range, it’s a surprisingly lively place. There’re plenty of restaurants to replenish your energy before heading out for a few days on the hoof, some of them cheap – try one of the Shan tea houses – some of them pricey – check out the Everest Nepali Food Centre for curries bursting with flavour, but only if your wallet’s full of Kyat and you can bear the company of rich Westerners on luxury tours. There was more than enough to keep us entertained for a few days, between the large market, speakeasy style bars and the wonderful Sprouting Seeds cafe, which not only has a cracking selection of board games and serves the best guacamole in Myanmar, also helps young children learn catering and hospitality skills.

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Our main reason for heading to Kalaw was to take a trek to Inle Lake, about 70km West of the town. Having checked a few travel guides, we wandered around to price up the different treks offered by the many tour companies in town. At our first stop, the Golden Lily Guest House, we were welcomed in by Robin, a 70 year old Sikh with a gentle smile. He talked us through his 3 day trek, walking about 20-25km each day, with two overnight stays in mountain villages along the way. All together, including 3 meals a day (but not water) and a boat trip at the end, the trek cost about £65 for both of us, with an extra $10 fee each for our entry to the Inle Lake region, payed at the border. With prices this good and a seemingly unsurpassable knowledge of the area – Robin’s been doing this trek since the 90’s and has walked the equivalent distance of circumnavigating the world 3 times – we signed up without bothering to schlep around town and haggle with anyone else.

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The first thing you should know if you’re considering trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake is that this part of Myanmar (sort of North East-ish) is astoundingly cold in the cool season (November – February). This took us by surprise when we stepped off of our night bus from the burning hot, sweat patch South at 8:00am, wearing only flip flops, shorts and T-shirts in the 3 degree chill. If you do head out to these silent mountains, take some warm clothes and be prepared to shiver, especially at night. It’s not always cold, though. By about 11am when the searing sun takes its place in the tropical sky, the temperature rises to 30 degrees and higher, a change in temperature totally bewildering to the body. During the hot season (March – May), Robin told us that it gets unbearably hot and the air thick with insects. This doesn’t put him off though – he does the treks all year round, unless the monsoon season (June – October) makes the paths impassable. Crazy.

With cheap coats, gloves and hats purchased at the market, we set out on our trek. Our backpacks would be sent on to Inle Lake by truck, leaving us with our daypacks full of changes of clothes, sugary snacks for energy and our passports. Take as little with you as you possibly can. One hiker we met along the way had packed his laptop for fear of it being nabbed on route, by day 2 he was regretting carrying the extra weight.

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We walked straight out of town with our gang of hikers, just us, a honeymooning couple from Chile and three chatty Australian bro’s prepping for a trek to Everest basecamp. Strolling down country lanes, past avocado trees, old colonial houses and soon-to-be hotels, we were struck by a false optimism that the trek wouldn’t be too hard. Robin seemed pretty relaxed, certainly a lot more aged than all of us, and there was a distinct lack of hurry about the whole thing.

The first day took us through an area of conservation forest, out to stunning mountain passes, ridged with tea plantations and citrus orchards. Cunning Burmese farmers have perfected companion planting, and these cash crops are often grown side by side, benefiting each other with their pest resistance. This helps to keep their agriculture about 90% organic. Not bad for a country under intense pressure from neighbours like China to buy in to the agrochemical market.

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Thanks to the British, ahem, influence of Burmese agriculture, we gazed at patches of celery, strawberries, broccoli and cauliflower, as well as the expected rice paddies that keep the farmers fed. The hike was hilly in places, but Robin would pause while we caught our breath to show us a root of ginger, or a sprig of herb that can cure diarrhoea. We had a luxury lunch of curry and chapati in a remote village, all washed down with cupfuls of organic tea, grown and dried in the very same village. The afternoon was spent mostly walking along the train line that runs from Thazi to Inle Lake, with no fear of being run down by the trains with a top speed of 15kph. As an aside, the slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi is a spectacular journey and the best 11 hour train ride we’ve ever taken.

By the time we reached our first homestay, we were tired but not exhausted, aching but not in agony, and things were going well. We sat down to a Burmese banquet, joined by a few other people trekking the same route. We feasted on delicately stewed vegetables, lightly spiced meat  and plates of rice. We slept under the light of the moon that leaked through the farmhouse window, wrapped in several blankets to keep the cold at bay.

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The morning was misty and we drank our instant coffee overlooking the distant mountain ranges, hoping we wouldn’t be climbing them later. After a hearty breakfast of fresh fruit, omelettes and weary conversation, Robin explained our route and it seemed we would be scaling the mountains after all. A collective groan greeted this proposal and it became clear that we were all a little more fatigued than expected.

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Day 2 was full of yet more gorgeous valleys, friendly villagers greeting us and, in one case, a group of lads showing off a squirrel they’d knocked out with a well aimed sling shot. The hills were much harder, our legs becoming rods of pain. We had blisters on our heels, on our soles, on our toes, between our toes, pretty much everywhere. By midday we were far too hot, and every step was a whole new world of pain.

A break for a roadside bowl of creamy Shan noodles, accompanied by samosas and tea, did little to soothe our woes. We still had a long way to go, and it felt like our bodies were giving up on us. Strangely, everyone else in our group still seemed rather alive, laughing and joking whilst managing to keep up with Robin, who had inexplicably doubled the speed of the previous day’s pace, still without breaking a sweat.

By 4pm, things were looking bleak. We had forgotten why we thought it would be a good idea to go on a 3 day trek when we could have just taken a bus and looked out of the window. The Australian lad banter was wearing thin. Robin’s promises of ‘just one more hill’ were repeatedly broken, just like our resolve. If we had access to WiFi we would have hailed an Uber. But we didn’t. In fact, the village we stayed at that night had no electricity (except for a couple of DC solar panels) and no running water. This made showering by bucket a risky business, not only because of the icy chill of the water in the blistering heat, but because when the bucket became empty, it meant a 2km walk to the nearest well.

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That night, around 20 other travellers stopped by the village to rest their weary bones. There were folks from all over the world, a curious crowd of backpackers searching for the real Myanmar. In these highland valleys, with warm hearted locals, steaming tea and unbreakable language barriers, the general consensus was that we’d found it.

Myanmar is still a reasonably tricky country to travel around, with areas in the North closed off because this is where they grow lots of naughty crops, or as in the case of the Rakhine State to the West, because the UN believe there’s an ongoing genocide taking place (which is probably true). It’s illegal to host tourists without a hard to obtain licence, so you can’t just turn up at a village and hope to find a cheap hostel. Your movements are constantly tracked by the tourist police, making the whole notion of backpacking like a free spirit near impossible.

Even so, the villagers in the Shan mountains that are allowed to open their doors to foreigners do so with great pride, and passing through these villages gives you a true picture of life for many Burmese people. We saw children harvesting chillis with their mothers, hands burning from too much capsaicin. We stood around fires made from the discarded cores of corn on the cob to keep warm. We literally watched the cows come home at sunset, hundreds of bovine beasts tramping back from a hard day’s work in the fields, followed by hardy shepherds. Spending just a few days amongst these people, who live from the land and beam from ear to ear with the joy of self sufficiency, away from the coach parties who’ve paid far too much for a 2 week excursion, it was easy to forget that the luxury tourist industry was taking over the rest of accessible Myanmar.

Arriving at the national park checkpoint was a stark reminder that Myanmar is changing at a rapid pace. Having seen only 20 other tourists for 3 days, all of them backpackers, we naively expected to find an unspoiled lake with few foreign visitors. But things were different as soon as we reached the national park border. Suddenly we were joined on the road by several other trekking groups, our paths converging at this main point of entry. It became apparent that Robin’s promise that he had his own route, far from the tourist trail, was quite true. Now it was time for us to take that trail again.

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For the last 10 kilometres or so, Robin had us taking the slopes down towards the lake at the speed of an intermediate inner city jogger. We leapt across dusty crags of burnt orange rocks, raced down rural roads at the risk of being run down by loggers and eventually made it to Indein village, famous for its ruined pagodas. We sat down to lunch at a lakeside restaurant, overjoyed to have reached our destination. We began to feel distinctly out of place, covered in dust, dripping with sweat and crying with relief that our huge hike was finally over. We were surrounded by wealthy Europeans in crisply ironed shirts, and bored Russians with nervous private guides, most of them on day trips from their nearby hotels.

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We took a boat from this Southern village to Nyaungshwe at the North of the lake, where cheap but decent accommodation can be found. Passing boat loads of folks on luxury tours, snapping away at the sights of this fast changing country, it was clear that the best of Myanmar was behind us, shrouded in the blue mist of morning, with Robin one of the last true keepers of its keys.  

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The Journey to Kyaiktiyo – Why Drive Up the Mountain When You Can Walk?

The weary traveller is often presented with a choice on the road – whether to take the easy route, which may not be as rewarding, or take the tougher option which will most likely be more exciting, more interesting, more real. Mount Kyaiktiyo, situated in the South East of Myanmar, is a perfect example of this dilemma.

One of Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist sights, travellers, tourists and pilgrims visit the mountain to bear witness to the giant golden rock that has balanced, seemingly impossibly, on the very edge of another rock for centuries. The secret to its astounding clinginess, in spite of numerous earthquakes that have rumbled this mountainous region, is that it is glued to the rock with a few strands of Buddha’s hair. Whether or not you believe in this holy adhesive, the gold leaf covered boulder steadfastly defying the laws of physics is a sight to behold.

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So, should you pay a few thousand kyats and take a crammed pick up straight to the summit from Kinpun (the welcoming base camp where wise visitors stay the night before ascending), or join the holy wanderers and hike the steep and dusty pilgrim’s path?

We decided to join the pilgrims on their path, and our 5 hour climb up the mountain was one of the highlights of our zippy trip around Myanmar. We set off just before 8am, an unexpected chill still lingering in the highland air, stocked up with 100 Plus (a miraculous Malaysian isotonic drink), dried mango and big sticks of sugared coconut for energy. Walking along the main road of Kinpun, which becomes the path up the mountain, we did our best to avoid the hustle and bustle of the market stalls, the coach parties and baffled tour groups. But no sooner than we’d walked 100 paces out of town, the atmosphere changed completely and we were greeted with the stillness of the morning, the only sounds a whistling kettle, a hungry cat, a cheering cockerel.

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As the mountain path began, we felt confident that we could reach the summit without too much hardship. The weather was cool, the path mostly shaded by tropical foliage and bamboo shacks, whose entrepreneurial owners also offer drinks and snacks, and it wasn’t too steep. For the first couple of hours, we had a hoot meeting the locals, mostly descending the mountain, posing for group selfies and pretending that we knew about the premier league. We lost count of how many selfies we were asked to pose for, but it’s safe to say that many Facebook feeds of Myanmar featured our sweaty mugs that day.

Everyone, without exception, that we met along the path was welcoming and friendly. Tea shop owners would insist that we take tea with them, free of charge, just to have a chat with us. Joking families on pilgrimage would tell us we’d taken the wrong path, that the pick ups were back down the mountain, so rare is it to see a foreigner on the trail.

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By midday, our legs were growing achy and the heat was picking up. Whilst most of the trail had been shaded so far, the shacks began to be further and further apart. We found ourselves climbing steep, thigh-busting steps in the full glare of the sun, crunching up dusty trails in the searing heat. By this point, we’d grown weary of the selfies, our smiles more strained with each new request. We couldn’t take any more tea due to the lack of toilet facilities. Nick had run out of betel nut to chew. Things were getting tough.

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The 7 and a half mile path felt interminable. It grew increasingly steeper, winding around the mountain so that often we were walking away from our destination. But we kept on, and eventually reached the sacred summit.

What a shock it was for us, having seen no other tourists on the path, to be met by a crowd of thousands of people, some local, some just wealthy foreigners on a coach trip from Yangon for the day, swarming around the holy site. There were restaurants, hotels, tourist tat stands, some of them even within the ‘sacred’ area where you have to take off your shoes to enter. There was a feeling of a crowded beach to the place, with families camped out in makeshift tents to avoid the midday sun and confused tourists trying to work out what they should be photographing.

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We were even more shocked when, dripping with sweat, caked in dust and filled with relief at having finally made it to the top, we were stopped in our tracks by an official and asked to pay a foreigner entry fee of 6000 Kyats each. “But…” we tried to argue, “we’ve just hiked all the way up the mountain. It took us all day. These people have just come up in a pick up!” Indifferent to our argument, or perhaps not fluent in any English other than,  “Foreigner must pay entry fee. 6000 Kyats,” we had no real choice other than to cough up the cash.

It must be said that this supposedly spiritual space left us feeling baffled, even a little bit disappointed. Yet, stumbling across rowdy monks taking a cooling dip in a damned stream, insisting that a 60 year old man’s English is pretty good considering he lives halfway up a mountain, stopping to take in the view of the mountain ranges stretching out to the horizon in a low hanging mist, these are the rewards of the hard path. If you visit Kyaiktiyo, do take the pilgrim’s path, don’t take a pick up. We assure you that in this case, the journey is the destination.

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Note: Whilst we strongly recommend not taking a pick up to the summit, we don’t advise hiking down in the dying light of the day. Instead, take a pick up back to Kinpun with the locals just before sunset and brace yourself for a terrifyingly thrilling 30 minute ride down the twisting mountain road at an absolutely ridiculous speed, partly in the reassuring orangey glow of sunset, partly in the dark. Once the adrenaline wears off, you can get a reasonably priced meal at the top notch Sea Sar Restaurant and then head to bed for a well earned rest.


Koh Phi Phi – Don’t Go There

Ugh. Where to begin with Koh Phi Phi? Maybe 20 years ago: a curious man from Finland arrives on Phi Phi Don with his friend, finding just one restaurant that doubles up as a bar. He stays in a tree house, high up in a huge tree, with ants making trails across his room and only a candle for light after sunset. During the day, he swims naked on the beach because there is absolutely no one around to be offended by the sight of his bare flesh.

Our new year’s eve arrival at this National Park site was somewhat different. We hopped off a long-tail from one of the most calm, peaceful and beautiful Thai islands (which will not be named in relation to Phi Phi for safety reasons) and joined a crowd of a thousand tourists, all desperate to consume, to flog this dead community some more, to take selfies with their buckets of SangSom and their new ill judged tattoos.

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Once you become part of this sweaty, braying mob, there is little you can do to escape it. The restaurants, bars and shops are so crammed in that finding a quiet spot is a futile quest. Even hiding out in our shabby, bed bug infested bungalow offered no relief because we could still hear the tourist torrent rushing past.

One option is to head to the beach, but this is not so easy on this tiny island. Ton Sai beach is lined with longtails and serves mostly as a ferry port, so swimming from its golden sands is pretty perilous. On the other side of the thin strip of human habitation, there’s Lo Dallam beach. Aside from the name sounding like one of those floodlit sports shops from the 90’s, this beach serves as the main party scene and is therefore awful. During the day you’ll find some peace here, but the sand is full of glass from the night before, making swimming and a stroll on the sand too dangerous. By early evening, the various bars pumping out house music, and only house music because apparently there are no other genres of music suitable for parties, make this an awful place to watch the light fade over the beautiful limestone cliffs that frame the island. By night, the party goers eschew the pay-to-pee toilets and use the sea instead, so think twice before taking a midnight amble along the shore.

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We took a lengthy walk over to long beach and found this to be a reasonably nice spot to spend the afternoon. It’s still over crowded but this is a different crowd. Think well groomed Scandinavian families on holiday instead of lads in vests from Manchester on the pull, and you get the idea. Even so, there are far too many long-tails lining the shore and not enough shady spots. By Thai standards, it is not a great beach.

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We recommend hiking up to the various viewpoints from Long Beach, rather than from Ton Sai. You’ll avoid walking up hundreds of steps, teeming with hungover tourists, taking a free gentle hike up to the island’s ridge instead. On this mostly solitary amble, you’ll pass surprisingly friendly locals living in Tsunami Village, hastily erected after the 2004 disaster that struck the island, and become immersed in the lush rainforest that covers the highland. The actual viewpoints themselves are disappointing, offering views of an island that has been utterly destroyed by tourism, from spots that are themselves packed with lager swilling, selfie snapping tourists, but the hike was a high point for us.

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From the viewpoints, it’s obvious that Phi Phi has grown far too fast for its own good. Although much of the island’s infrastructure was destroyed by the tsunami, the money that flooded in its wake has evidently been used to build massive new hotels and resorts, alongside row upon row of bars, restaurants and tourist tat shops, instead of proper sewage facilities and safely habitable spaces. Whilst the central garden, irrigated purely by sewage runoff, is a step in the direction of sustainability, it stinks and we saw no one, apart from ourselves, wandering through it. More must be done to solve the sanitation crisis that everyone is just turning their noses from.

The result of all of this is an artificial town that smells worse than anywhere we’ve visited, and a constant risk of death by fire or cholera. If one of the shops were to catch fire, this would quickly spread throughout the whole town. We have no idea how the hordes of visitors, most of them drunk, would find their way to safety in the panic of the crowd. You’re probably not meant to think about this and just drink more cheap rum, but the reality of the situation is fairly alarming.

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It may be that the whole point of Phi Phi is to put yourself in danger and even in pain before you leave. We’re not just talking about hitting the jaeger bombs and battling a hangover later. Nope, we’re referring to Reggae Bar, a pub that boasts a full size muay Thai ring at its centre so that drunk tourists (mostly Brits, of course) can fight each other for a free bucket of booze. Fighting without any proper training is stupid and dangerous, but doing it drunk is really stupid and really dangerous. We saw 4 fights in the bleak half hour that we were in the bar, and while the bloodthirsty audience had a great time, we left feeling depressed, especially as they didn’t even play any reggae there.

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Sadly, the constant throb of greedy tourists has drained the island’s soul, creating an atmosphere of contempt from shopkeepers, hoteliers and restaurant staff. The massively inflated prices of everything, from food to accommodation, also suggest that the visitors are only tolerated because of their economic benefit. We felt unwelcome everywhere we went in town, and it’s easy to understand why when really we’re not any different from any one else visiting the island.

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Spending new year’s eve on Phi Phi was not one of our better ideas, in fact it may have be our worst decision on this trip. It made us question the reasons that we chose to travel in the first place, and whether this is such an honourable thing to be doing when the environmental consequences can be so obscene. These are questions we still haven’t answered, but we’re taking a much more measured approach to our journeying from now on. If it wasn’t for our excellent diving trip with Blue View Divers to Phi Phi Lae on our third day, we’d have nothing good to say about the whole trip. But swimming through an underwater cavern teeming with fish just about made up for the horrors we’d witnessed on the shore. When we inevitably return to Thailand, just like our friend from Finland, we will certainly not be heading back to Koh Phi Phi.