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…

Lights Camera Backpack are back on the road!

To the East, to the East, the road beneath my feet,
To the West, to the West, I haven’t got there yet,
And to the North, to the North, never to be caught,
To the South, to the South, my time is running out.

From ‘The Road’ by Frank Turner

 

When do you know you’ve finally settled somewhere? Is it when everything in life starts to fall into place? Your favourite mug at breakfast, every morning; effortless evenings in with friends; the easy familiarity of the once daunting workplace; the satisfaction of routine jobs, taking out the bins, keeping the firewood stocked up, feeding the rabbits; the joy of watching the same garden bloom from tiny seeds to abundant food? Yes, that was when we knew we’d settled down.

For those that don’t know, we took some time out from travelling and spent the last year in Cumbria, out in the wild North West of England. We wintered in Ennerdale Bridge, chilled by the harsh weather but warmed by the people, safe among the mountains, and spent summer out on the coast, living in a castle, of all places. This land became our home, the people our family. Finally we had put down roots and found our place. But all this would come to pass because, in the bleak midwinter last year, we booked one-way tickets to New Zealand for November 2018. There was no way we were going to put up with another winter like that for some time. A trip to the Southern Hemisphere seemed like a brilliant idea.

So here we are, in New Zealand, back on the road. We’ve only been here for about a month we’ve already fallen in love with this beautiful country. Friendly people, awesome scenery and abundant wildlife. What more could you want? That’s right, a burgeoning craft beer scene and top notch coffee culture. Well, it turns out they have that sorted too.

After a four day stopover in Singapore – all familiar streets, hawker centres for mala hotpot to melt our faces all over again, the super-trees all lit up at night, hawker centres for the best laksa we’ve ever tasted, the superbly curated National Gallery and more hawker centres for insanely delicious barbeque pork rice – we arrived in Wellington, its bay stretched out before us, its mountains cloaked in lush greenery hiding mysteries beneath and its short runway causing our Boeing 777 to hit the ground with rather more force than we’d have liked.

Jet-lagged and haggard, Hollie, a friend from way back, met us at the airport. Just for clarity, it was us that were jet-lagged and haggard, not Hollie. And so we spent a week in absolute luxury, hosted by Hollie and Tom, her fiance, enjoying the spectacular views from their hillside home, whiling away the evenings playing board games, reminiscing about the old days in the West Country and looking forward to the new days to come.

Unlike us, Hollie and Tom are respectable(ish) people with respectable jobs, which meant that during the day we were free to explore windy Wellington. Why ‘windy’ you ask? Not because it doesn’t have straight streets – the city is laid out quite sensibly – but because of the incessant wind that batters the place. Sometimes it’s a warm, welcome kind of wind and sometimes it’s a bitter wind from the South, straight from Antarctica, but it’s always there. Fortunately, the best bits of Wellington aren’t on the outside, but in its bars, cafes and museums, so we ducked out of the gales and checked them all out. More on this in our next post.

Stay tuned.


 

Phantassie: Five Weeks of Friends, Food and Fun on the Farm

The hare stops in its tracks, suddenly aware of Nick’s presence. It’s 6:24am on a Friday, and it’s not expecting to see him sitting on the veranda of our shepherd’s hut, waiting for the sunrise. They make eye contact and share a moment of stillness before the hare carries on along the gravel track, past the polytunnels and through the hedge to the wheat field. This moment alone was worth our stay at Phantassie. But a magical moment with a hare isn’t the only reason we’d recommend WWOOFing at this organic veg farm just outside of Edinburgh. In fact, we’d go further than recommend it – if you’re planning on WWOOFing in Scotland at all, it is an essential stop on your journey.

The owners of the farm, Ralph and Patricia, take a stonkingly fair approach to work life balance for a commercial operation. WWOOFers at Phantassie are expected to work 4 days a week in return for accommodation and some of the finest fresh food available in the UK. Work began at 8, a little early compared to other WWOOF places, but a half hour tea break at 10:00am meant this wasn’t a problem. Lunch was from 12 until 1:00pm, plenty of time to devour the daily feasts, and we worked through the afternoon until 4:30pm, usually with a quick cup of tea around 3:00pm to keep us going. Not bad, eh?

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Guy, the ever cheery head gardener and one of the most passionate people we’ve met on our travels, led his band of WWOOFers with pride. He worked insanely hard, but he was never too busy to take time to teach us about organic growing, always willing to share his worldly wisdom and have a good laugh over a cup of strong coffee.

The farm work was varied, always wholesome and with friends. Think the opposite of working in an office and you’ll have a good idea of the working conditions. Sometimes we’d be outside in the big field, planting hundreds of herbs in great rows or hoeing weeds away from long lines of beetroot. Other times we’d work in the gorgeous walled garden, protected, like the plants, from the harsh coastal wind as we hand-weeded rows of fragrant coriander or picked apples from a huge variety of trees, one of which was actually called a Bonzo Dog Doo Da. On one occasion, we had to pick the sweetest little mirabelle plums you’ve ever tasted. This involved Flic climbing the tree and shaking its branches to relieve them of the out of reach fruits. We’d cry “Plum on!” to get her shaking, then “Plum off!” once the bombardment of gages became unbearable and we scrambled around to collect them all. Incredibly, this was considered an afternoon’s good work.

Being Scotland, you’d expect it to rain fairly frequently, but the East coast is blessed with warm weather and clear skies. When that Scottish rain did descend on us, we’d retreat to the polytunnels to sow rows of salad leaves, tend to the out of control courgettes or plant lines of delicate shimonitas, punchy Japanese spring onions.

Our accommodation was a beautifully handcrafted shepherd’s hut, nicknamed ‘The Dascha’ by the joiner who built it due to its Russian architectural influences. Essentially a stripped-back tiny-home furnished with a bed and a desk, we learned the joy of living simply, with just enough room for our meagre belongings stowed away in their right places, and space for one of us to get dressed whilst the other had a bonus 5 minutes’ extra sleep. The sun would rise up to fill the cabin with light each morning and at night we’d sit on our veranda, wondering at the sheer number of stars above us – we often had to remind ourselves that we were in Scotland, not Thailand.

If we weren’t out and about exploring East Lothian’s dramatic coastline, working or sleeping, it’s safe to say we were eating. One of the first things we were told at Phantassie was that we could help ourselves to any of the produce being grown on the farm. “Really?” we asked, “Anything? Even the cavolo nero or the giant crown prince squash?” Guy nodded and smiled, used to these queries. We really were allowed to help ourselves to the abundant crops, whether it was the plump tomatillos ripening in the polytunnel or the plums hanging from the trees. It was all fair game. Obviously, if you knew that cucumbers were in high demand that week and there were only a few on the vines, you wouldn’t take them all, but that’s just common sense.

Our supply of dry goods, bread and jam was kept well stocked by Phil, a long-term volunteer nicknamed the “WWOOF Mum”, denoting his responsibilities at the WWOOF camp which also included preparing accommodation for new WWOOFers, welcoming them to the team and generally keeping the place ship-shape. The rest of our fruit and veg came from the stable, a red whinstone barn where all the wholesale produce was packed. Each day we would stroll up with an empty crate, and fill it with fruit and veg that would otherwise have been destined for veg box schemes, organic grocery stores and some of the swankiest restaurants in Edinburgh. The quality of the produce was astounding. It has left us utterly disappointed, now that we have returned to reality, by the tasteless array of vegetables on offer in most supermarkets. We now seek out organic grocers like pigs hunting truffles, poring over their produce with embarrassing enthusiasm, all thanks to the generosity of Ralph and Patricia.

Perhaps the best part of being a volunteer at Phantassie was the Green Goddess. The Green Goddess is where the magic happens. It’s where friendships are formed, stories are shared and, most importantly, food is eaten. Formerly a mobile breast screening unit, the big metal hut had been kitted out with a just about functional gas cooker, stainless steel sink and handmade wooden banquet table. Worker’s canteen by day, hippy hangout by night, the Green Goddess can be whatever you want it to be.

the green goddess

It might have been a bit grubby from all the muddy wellies and damp from the rain leaking in through the roof, but with shelves stocked full of herbs and spices, saucepans of every size hanging from the ceiling and cupboards full of top quality organic dry-goods, it was a delight to cook up a feast in there. This was lucky, because most days one of the WWOOFers would take on lunch duty, serving a buffet lunch for a working community of anything from 5 to 25 people. We loved lunch duty, even if there were a myriad of dietary requirements to navigate. It gave us a chance to try out new dishes on the ever grateful staff and gain invaluable experience in mass catering. With all the hazards and quirks of the Goddess, like the dodgy oven door and the unpredictable gas burners, we used to joke that a round of MasterChef was nothing compared to cooking in our kitchen. At evenings and weekends, we’d spend ages preparing feasts for our fellow volunteers, baking cakes full of raspberries freshly picked from the garden, devouring it all whilst cracking open a cold can of Tennents.

There was a neat little gang of us at Phantassie, and firm friendships were formed out in those fields. There was Jess, a kind and generous local lass, now a close pal, always up for road trips to nearby seaside towns and French jazz nights in the city; Tim, a swaggering, snickering, extremely talented chef with a thirst for gin, far from his home in New Zealand, finding his feet in Edinburgh; laid back Louis, so laid back that he missed his own leaving party, which went ahead without him, and others, like Phil, Gerda and Ian that were a delight to live and work with. There were local folk too, like Sam, a Scottish nomad with a woolly jumper and his friend, a big souled bearded Mexican whose name we won’t attempt to spell, who would swing by unannounced and stay for dinner. Needless to say, when we all got together, things could get out of hand. The Goddess could handle it though, and the great wooden table seemed incapable of overflowing with beer cans, wine bottles and board games no matter how hard we tried. And, because the standard of cleanliness was already a little dubious, it made the after party clean up even easier!

All things must come to an end, and so it was that in the midst of autumn, we found ourselves saying goodbye to our Phantassie family. Our parting was sad, but it was what WWOOFing was always meant to be: a place where we learnt something new every day, doing good, honest work, eating fine food, all held together with a deep sense of community.

 


 

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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How Koh Lanta Changed Our Lives

We left in the back of a truck, distraught that this moment had finally arrived. With tears threatening to run down our cheeks, we waved goodbye to our family in the jungle. Anke, lean, strong, light as a feather, called after us with her broad Dutch smile that promised we would return. Her husband Aoi held up his hand in a gesture of peace, sending us much needed Zen blessings for the road. Their daughter Asa, just over one and a half years old, called out our names as she always did when we departed, unaware of the finality of the situation. And Bob, curious adventurer, natural builder and broker from The Netherlands, bid us farewell with his customary wink before heading back up to the community kitchen for breakfast. Life would go on as usual at ASA Lanta, but our bamboo hut would stand empty until the next visitors arrived, filled only with our memories and a bamboo table that we’d made ourselves.

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We stayed with our friends Anke and Aoi for 5 weeks, from mid-November until late December, yet the experience was so profound, so life changing for us, that it is only now that we feel able to write about it. We did not expect that living in the rainforest on Koh Lanta, an island off the West coast of Thailand, surrounded by nature and truly amazing people, would change the course of our lives. But that’s why we gave it all up in the first place, for the unexpected moments and the unforeseen conclusions.

We arrived there with the aim of starting off an English language club for local children. However, when we arrived it became apparent that Anke and Aoi were not in a position to launch this project, but they hoped that we’d stay anyway. When we made it clear that we’re happy to do anything to fill our days and broaden our knowledge, their faces flooded with relief and we knew that this was going to be the start of something special.

We helped out wherever we were needed 5 days a week, taking Tuesdays and Wednesdays as the weekend with everyone else in the small jungle community. We were never short of things to do, from entertaining Asa whilst Anke ran the Organic Tea House and Aoi kept up with the maintenance of the education park, helping write copy for the new website and keeping the ever growing jungle at bay. In every task we did we were able to improve skills we already had, or learn something completely new, all the while having a good laugh and the occasional mojito to keep us cool.

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We shared our jungle home with a group of natural builders who were staying for three months, learning how to build a house using only the resources that the Earth provides. Led by American architect Amanda, whose passion for natural building was infectious and inspiring, we would join Bob, Rob (Irish wise man), James (North Carolina’s finest permaculture enthusiast) and Jenny (taking a well timed winter break from her London co-housing community) for Muddy Mondays. We’d get stuck in with whatever building they were doing, making mud bricks, building walls using cob and clay instead of cement, all the while having plenty of fun. Mixing clay, sand and sawdust with our bare feet, the fresh mud squishing satisfyingly between our city-soft toes, we realised that we are happiest when we’re stuck in the mud, down in the dirt.

Coming from our western lifestyles, with comfortable office jobs and all the spoils of civilization, we thought we had a pretty good idea about what we needed to feel satisfied. Spending time in the jungle showed us different. Most days we’d end up plastered in monsoon mud, worn out by the tropical heat and covered in insect bites. All we had to soothe our aching bodies was a cold, open air shower amongst the spiders, snakes and friendly frogs. We drank water from the freshwater lake on the hill, ate food foraged from the jungle and shopped at the local market. We had intermittent electricity and infrequent internet access. During the day, we sat cross legged on cushions, amongst the trees, on the bamboo veranda of the adobe community house, speaking from our hearts about the world around us. At night, we slept on the floor of our bamboo hut, perfectly at peace in the simple wooden shack. It’s corny to say it, but living closer to nature, with a stronger connection to the land, outweighed the pleasures of modernity that we’d come to take for granted.

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Anke and Aoi’s aim with ASA Lanta is to move ever more towards sustainable living, becoming more self sufficient in cooperation with the jungle. Of course, there are aways more ways to develop this, but living in buildings built from the resources that surround them, composting food (and human) waste, seed saving and cultivating numerous species of bamboo for both building and fuel, this is a much more sustainable way to live than we could ever have imagined.

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Yet, without wishing to be rude, there is nothing special about Anke and Aoi. They are ‘normal’ people, no different from you or I. It is just that they have dared to step off of the path that most of us follow, valuing long term fulfilment over short term pleasure. By making sacrifices to comfort, putting in hard work, inspiring others to help them along the way, they find themselves living in a beautiful safehaven, a community that will continue to grow organically just like the lush jungle that surrounds it. Spending time here, amongst people who are brave enough to live their dreams, made us realise that we could do this too, although we still have much to learn.

Over communal lunches of banana flower salads, spicy som tam and steaming whole grain rice, we learned of new places, like Pun Pun and Panya in Chiang Mai, where permaculture and natural building are taught to volunteers willing to make the trip. Distanced from global politics, social unrest and the incomprehensible challenges facing humanity, we learned to appreciate what was immediately around us. Suddenly everything felt possible. The world didn’t feel like such a mess after all.

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As we left ASA Lanta in the back of a truck, we knew we’d be back soon. But even on that short ride to the ferry port, we spoke quietly of plans for the future, of new ways of living. Now we find ourselves unexpectedly back on English soil, in the cold drizzle of Brexit Britain, we see the land in a new light. Thanks to the inspirational experience of ASA Lanta, we are planning a trip around these fair isles, from the South all the way up to Scotland, visiting organic farms, permaculture projects and natural building communities, getting stuck in wherever we can.

We might be far from the tropical sunshine, but our travels are far from over.