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Swimming the Thames: Henley to Marlow

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On Sunday 7th August 2016 I took part in the Thames Marathon – a 14km swim from Henley to Marlow – to raise money for Alzheimer’s Research.

As they say on TV, this is my story. (Spoiler alert: it’s long.)

Introducing the Thames Marathon

The Thames Marathon is the proverbial jewel in the crown when it comes to open water Thames viewswimming events in this part of the world. About 500 people enter this spectacular summer event every year, from elite athletes who use it as a warm up for even more extreme feats, to wildly optimistic yet not-very-fit people who can’t even swim that well to start with. (Second spoiler alert: I’m in the latter category).

This difference is reflected in the structure of the event, with swimmers divided into 3 separate waves with different start times:

Pink Wave – 7.30am start, aiming to finish in under 4 hours

Blue Wave – 8am start, aiming to finish under 5 hours

Green Wave – 8.30am start, aiming to finish in under 6 hours*

(*In this context, substitute ‘must’ for ‘aiming to’ – 6 hours is in fact the cut-off, at which point the safety crew take you out of the water and your time reads 0:00 next to your name and ‘Did Not Finish’.)

The swim is split into 4 legs, with feeding stations at 4km, 10km and 11.8km, and a large safety crew in kayaks accompany all of the swimmers to negotiate river traffic on their behalf and save them from assorted hazards.

Leg 1: Henley to Hambledon (4km)

Green WaveIt’s fair to say my swim started badly. Ironically, the first leg was the only part that I hadn’t worried about beforehand, as I had exceeded the 4km distance in training and unlike later sections I wouldn’t have to worry about compounded exhaustion. What I would have to worry about, it seemed, was nerves. More precisely, a debilitating panic attack within seconds of the starting gun being fired (OK, I don’t actually know if it was a gun. I was too busy hyperventilating).

I’ve experienced sporadic panic attacks on numerous occasions in the last few years, but never while treading water at the same time. Unsurprisingly, they tend to appear at times of stress, and in fairness having 200 people swim over your drowning body because you started at the front of your wave instead of the back as planned is reasonably stressful. Trying to swim was quickly downgraded to trying to breathe, and although I forgot all of my rationalisation techniques, I did eventually succeed in diverting my blurred vision away from the imaginary giant writing that spelled out FOURTEEN KILOMETRES, and towards my sister and husband, standing on the riverbank, who coached and calmed me into breathing steadily again (thanks Char and Ady!). A few faltering strokes later and I was off.

It didn’t take too long to catch up with the back end of the green wave, and I was pleased to step out at Hambledon Lock at exactly 10am, which was my predicted time for the first leg sans-panic. Chatting to the other swimmers at the lock (over an amazing cup of isotonic hot chocolate!) I began to think maybe I could do this after all.

Leg 2: Hambledon to Hurley (6km)

Just as Leg 1 was the exact opposite of what I expected, so was Leg 2. This was the biggie: in Warning signprevious years, this 6km stretch had been split into 2 shorter sections of roughly 3km each, with a food station in the middle but for the first time, it was to be swum continuously. This was literally the stuff of nightmares, as I never gained enough speed in training to exceed 5.5km in a lake, and that was without a preceding 4km swim.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find that I enjoyed this section immensely. The carnage of the starting line at Henley was replaced by the relaxed camaraderie of a 6-person swimming ‘pod’ (a group of swimmers of roughly the same ability), and together with our two kayakers we made our way as a group along one of the most beautiful and peaceful stretches of the Thames. Only the last kilometre started to drag, and the kayakers were kind enough to a) provide chocolate, and b) lie to us that the next lock was “just around the corner” (trust me, this was for our own good). I was certainly ready for a feed and a sit down when I reached Hurley Lock, although the time seemed to fly by – it wasn’t long before it was time to cross the lock for the “easy” short swim to Temple.

Leg 3: Hurley to Temple (1.8km)

First lockBy this time, the pod had fragmented, as some of my fellow swimmers were tough enough to carry on without much of break at Hurley.

When I set off for the swim to Temple, I had just two other swimmers for company, and together with yet more trusty kayakers we made our way along what seemed to be the world’s largest boat park for wealthy people.

During training, I had discovered that my left stroke was noticeably more flawed than my right, and this weakness really came to the fore during this section. This was the only part of the swim that took place on the left hand side of the river, which was lined with the aforementioned luxurious boats. I stopped counting how many of them I crashed into but suffice to say that this leg, although short, was far from my favourite. The faint taste of petrol in the water was certainly not pleasant and I was relieved to arrive at Temple Lock within the hour.

Leg 4: Temple to Marlow (2.2km)

All boating troubles faded away when I approached the lock at Temple, and raised my headSupporters from the water to see my Mum smiling and waving at me, and when I got out she insisted on giving me a hug despite my being (obviously) rather wet. To my delight, my whole group of supporters had managed to find each other and congregate at the lock. Several more hugs and high fives later and I was ready to tackle the final section.

I was back on the right hand side of the river for this part, but had to be redirected several times by my kayaker. By this point in the event, I was too tired to exercise much control over my stroke, and my errant left side was tugging me back to what was now the wrong side of the river (it’s important to stick to the correct path, as the kayakers can only do so much to stop the yachts and steam boats running over you.)

At 13km, my kayaker told me “just one kilometre to go!” I intend to enter this kilometre in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest of all time.

The finish line

At finish lineEventually, a large orange buoy appeared within sight: it marked the end point. Hooray! I swam around it and started making my way over to the left side of the river to exit the water. The faint sound of cheering from the remaining crowd at the finish line grew stronger and louder, and I found one last burst of energy to race (in as much as that was possible) to the ladder where more friendly support crew offered me their hands, and helped me out of the river and into Higginson Park at Marlow. I had done it! What had seemed impossible that morning had become a reality.

Within a matter of seconds, a timer chip was removed from my ankle (5hrs 49mins – 11 minutes before the cut-off time, yippee!), a fizzy drink was placed in my hand, my tow float was unbuckled from my waist and a long-awaited pizza was placed in front of me. Best of all, however, were the kind words and congratulations from my family and friends, as well as the fantastic support crew and other swimmers and spectators.

I don’t have any real experience of sporting events, but it’s obvious even to me that the Thames Marathon is truly special. It is certainly not easy, and not something that should be attempted without months of training, but to spend a day swimming such a gorgeous stretch of the Thames in a supportive and friendly environment is an experience I would recommend to anyone.

The credits

Completing the Thames Marathon is a lot like winning an Oscar: it feels incredible, and Ady and Char.jpgthere are so many people to thank.

I could not have completed this event without:

  • Kim at Swim Solutions, who patiently coached me in the Total Immersion swimming style. Without her, there’s no way I’d have finished within the 6hr timeframe, or swum that sort of distance injury-free.
  • Alzheimer’s Research UK for their support, encouragement and the big box filled with brightly coloured tshirts and cheer sticks.
  • My cheerleading team on the day: Mum, Dad, Lindi, Char, Ady, Will, Sophie, Becca and Wayne. Thank you all for coming!
  • The support team and safety crew at Henley Swim – you were fab 🙂

Finally, and most importantly, I have to thank everyone who contributed to my JustGiving page. There are so many sponsors I can’t even list them all here, but I remain grateful and overwhelmed at how generous people have been in supporting vital research into Alzheimer’s Disease: a condition that is terminal in 100% of cases because we still know too little about it, and we have underfunded its investigation for generations. The world is one step closer to destroying this disease because of you. Thank you.

Written by Emily

August 17, 2016 at 11:08 am

Rant re: tourists on the Tube

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London UndergroundFact: London is the greatest city in the world. That’s why so many people want to come here on holiday, which is fantastic, but a very ungenerous part of me does rather wish that tourists would simply steer clear of the Tube – or at least only use it on specially designated open days (come to think of it, I may pitch that idea to Boris!)

Here’s the thing: The London Underground is not just a transport system. It’s actually the closest thing we sad, repressed Londoners have to a community. Not the kind of community where people do crazy extroverted things like talk to each other, you understand (see Crime No. 2), but the kind with a collective understanding of where stuff is and how it all works.

Those of us who live and work in London are used to the rituals of the Tube: we’ve learned the cadences of the station announcements, we know how to position ourselves on a crowded platform to get onto a packed train, we clock the latest ad campaign for Match.com, and we chuckle (inwardly) at the ‘Thought of the Day’ messages scrawled on the station update boards. We tut if someone is faster than us at diving for the spare seat, we roll our eyes if the next train isn’t due within 5 minutes, and we sigh loudly if the train is held on the tracks for more than a few seconds without an apologetic driver announcement.

There’s a certain comfort in the shared familiarity of it all: the unspoken etiquette that guides our conduct in this bizarre underground ecosystem. And then the tourists show up, complete with their jazzy t-shirts, backpacks, giant cameras and Cheshire Cat grins – and they unwittingly unbalance the fragile equilibrium.

Here are some of their worst offences. Tourists, read and learn!

1.    They take photos of Tube signs. And Tube carriages. And maybe even me, “A local, riding the Tube – LOL”.

2.    They keep trying to make conversation beyond the socially acceptable limits of “Have you finished with that paper?” and “Move down please”.

3.    They make eye contact. (What’s THAT about?)

4.    They walk down the stairs towards the platform, put their luggage down and stand in front of the map at the entrance, seemingly completely unaware that they’re causing the rest of us to delay our entry to the platform by at least 2 crucial seconds.

5.    They have no idea how to use the ticket machines. No idea at all.

6.    They stare at an information board that lists Earls Court as the destination – then when the train comes they check with at least 3 independent parties that the train will in fact take them to Earls Court.

7.    And finally, their worst crime of all: THEY DON’T STAND TO THE RIGHT! (See below photo for a demonstration of how this works)

Stand to the right

Now that I’ve got the rant out of my system, I should conclude with the admission that I am a complete hypocrite. I am guilty of far worse crudities when attempting to navigate foreign underground systems. Possibly my most shameful moment was during my recent trip to New York, when I became so bewildered by the Subway system that I abandoned it mid-journey in favour of a cab … and then gave the wrong directions to the cab driver. To be fair to the London tourists, it’s not likely many of them will have been quite that inept.

Written by Emily

April 17, 2013 at 5:44 pm

Posted in UK

Tagged with , ,

48 hours in New York City

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Some choices in life are easy – such as deciding whether to fly back on Friday or Sunday after a week-long business programme in New York. The opportunity for 48 hours of fun in the world’s most exciting city was one I wanted to seize, so after an intense week of learning all about how to do business stateside, it was time for some enjoyment.

SATURDAY 23rd FEB

5am: A walk through Chinatown

They call New York “the city that never sleeps” but I think it’s a misnomer: it’s you that doesn’t sleep, rather than the city itself. By Saturday, I’d grown accustomed to the 5am wake-ups, so I’d adopted the habit of taking early morning walks to explore the Chinatown district where I was staying. This is my favourite photo: people doing early morning Tai Chi in Columbus Park.

TaiChi

11am: Times Square and tea

Fortunately, I had company for Saturday’s activities. I first met Mark and Ting in London when they were both postgrad students at Imperial. They now live an hour outside of NYC, and I had the honour of meeting them in the diamond district near Times Square just in time to see their choice of ring for their forthcoming wedding! Being a newlywed myself, this of course sparked a lot of questions, so the first couple of hours were spent having a good old fashioned natter over that most English of things: a tea. [You have to go to Starbucks, but they DO have proper tea in America these days!]

1pm: A nameless restaurant

To be an exclusive venue in New York is to have either no name or a hard-to-find location. Our lunch spot qualified on both counts. Rumoured to serve the best burgers in NYC, this restaurant is branded only with a neon burger logo and is accessed not from the street, but by walking through the lobby of a posh hotel. The burgers were indeed rather yummy, and the strategy of increasing appeal by withholding easy access certainly seemed to be working, judging by the size of the queue to get in.

2.30pm: MoMA

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has a self-descriptive name, and like everything in America it’s BIG! Six floors of contemporary art gave us the opportunity to view and discuss works from Monet’s water lilies to Jackson Pollock’s “stream of consciousness” abstract art. My favourite showcase was a temporary exhibition of 1950s Japanese paintings: a collection of nihilistic pieces expressing the horror of the nuclear attack and subsequent American military occupation. N.B. This photo is not from that collection!

lips

7pm: Dim Sum with many Kwans

Chinatown was the obvious choice for dinner, so we headed for a Dim Sum restaurant, which followed the emerging theme of gigantic-ness: In order to reach our table, the waiter led us past a party of perhaps 150 people who had all gathered to celebrate sharing the surname Kwan! A partition separated the Kwans from the non-Kwans, and we took our place in the latter section to enjoy a range of Dim Sum delicacies including shrimp dumplings, chicken in sticky rice and deep fried duck’s tongue, the last of these proving a little too adventurous for my palette.

9pm – 3am: Barcade

Brooklyn is the Shoreditch of New York, but it’s got something its London counterpart is sorely lacking: Barcade! Quite simply, it’s a bar that is lined wall-to-wall with retro arcade games. Mark had been there before coming to London, when it was still the new place in town and not many people knew about it. Word had obviously spread in the intervening couple of years, because this place was packed out all night long. Ting proved to be a master at the game of ‘Tapper’, where you have to pull virtual pints of beer, while I proved that my boss at the Welsh pub where I’d worked in 2001 had been perfectly justified in firing me after two weeks. A similarly poor performance at just about every other game followed, but it was great fun nevertheless.

The other distinguishing factor between Brooklyn and Shoreditch is a drink called the Long Island Iced Tea. Despite its innocent-sounding name, this cocktail packs a powerful punch. No wonder, seeing as it contains vodka, gin, rum AND tequila!

3.30am-ish: A Philly Cheese Steak

No night out is complete without a junk food hit, and this is true on both sides of the Atlantic. Barcade is happily situated across the road from a classic American diner, complete with neon lights, padded booths and a humongous menu of every kind of fattening food imaginable. I was ever-so-slightly too tipsy to remember to take a photo of my food choice – a Philly Cheese Steak – but it seemed to comprise cheese-smothered doner kebab-type meat in a subway roll, accompanied by a mountain of fries. Sober, it was probably revolting, but after a couple of Long Island Iced Teas, it tasted pretty good!

As Mark and Ting had missed their last train home, we all headed back to my hotel for a few hours’ rest – thanks to the 24 hour Subway system, another thing London would do well to emulate.

SUNDAY 24th FEB

9am and for some time afterwards: A hangover

Sunday was the only day I managed to sleep past 5am – going to bed within an hour of that time probably had something to do with it. It was also the day that I realised why Adrian always insisted I drink a pint of water before bed any time I’ve had something to drink: it staves off the hangover! Unfortunately, with him some 3000 miles away, this detail had slipped my mind and I woke up with the distinct feeling that my head was trapped in-between a pair of pincers. It was a feeling that was to remain with me for most of the day. Mark and Ting headed home, and I wandered out in search of something not too strenuous to do on my last day in New York.

12pm: Meatballs

There was a place near where I was staying called The Meatball Shop that people had been recommending all week, and it seemed like a good hangover cure. Unfortunately the combination of pork, chilli, pesto, cheese and too much oil was threatening to do more harm than good in my weakened state and I ended up leaving most of it on the plate, uneaten.

I walked past this place on the way to The Meatball Shop: I wasn’t tempted by the suggestion, but I did chuckle when I overheard two Americans trying to make sense of the name.

hairofthedog

2pm: Tenement Museum

Moderately more successful was my tour of the Tenement Museum, a preserved site from the 1860s which is only accessible by guided tour. We were shown the old structure, with the original wallpaper still hanging loosely to the walls, and then led to a restored apartment designed to look as it might have done when a particular family of Irish immigrants lived there. It’s not one of New York’s most talked about attractions, but for anyone interested in the history of the city, it’s a worthwhile outing.

5pm: Top of the Rock

In contrast to the Tenement Museum, the Rockerfeller Center is one of New York’s most iconic landmarks. It has several interesting art features, such as the golden Prometheus above the ice skating rink, as well as a large shopping and dining concourse. You can also pay to see various parts of the Center and the best of these options in my opinion is ‘Top of Rock’: you take a lift to the 70th floor, where there is a 3-level viewing platform giving you 360 degree views of Manhattan.  This is memorable enough in its own right, but if you time it so you’re there at sunset, it’s an experience you will never forget. I only wish my phone’s camera did the view justice …

sunset1

9pm – no idea: A long journey home

It’s been quite a while since I had to sleep on an airport floor, so United Airlines, if you’re reading, thanks for that. Delay after delay made it seem like I was destined never to leave New York but at some small hour in the morning, my scheduled 9.55pm flight finally departed and I arrived back at my flat in London to discover that Adrian had tidied, cleaned and shopped in preparation for my return – rendering him fully deserving of the excellent souvenir gifts I had sourced for him from Nintendo World …

Adrian gifts Nintendo

Written by Emily

February 26, 2013 at 4:53 pm

12 reasons to send Emily to Japan!

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EDIT: This piece was written as a competition entry to win a trip to Japan. I did not win (boo!) but I enjoyed writing the piece!

Dear kind/intelligent/funny/dashingly handsome* blogging competition judges,

*Select preferred adjective(s)

Please send me to Japan …

1) To learn more about Manga
As a wedding gift for my husband, I commissioned Elena Vitagliano, winner of the Manga Jiman Competition 2011, to create a unique Manga-style comic to tell the story of the night Adrian proposed to me. The process of course involved a lot of discussion about the Manga style of art, so I’d relish the opportunity to learn more about it – and to show the comic to people we meet in Japan to see what they make of it!

2) To help my husband forgive me for saying “no” to Japan as a honeymoon destination
Given my choice of wedding gift, and my husband’s keen enthusiasm for a Japanese honeymoon, you can imagine how difficult it was to decide against it. The ONLY reason it wasn’t possible was money: even with a honeymoon gift list we couldn’t afford the cost of flights, accommodation, transport and activities (sob). It would be beyond amazing if we were given the opportunity to go together now, in the first year of our marriage, to see Japan together and blog about it every day.

3) To show my Dad that it doesn’t take 15 years to string a sentence together in Japanese
My Dad is a seriously clever guy. As in, a degree from Cambridge, a perfect IQ score, and an annoying habit of being right about everything. Yet in 15 years of working for a Japanese company, visiting Japan, taking Japanese lessons, talking to Japanese people, and attending business meetings conducted entirely in Japanese, he still can’t say much more than “hello, nice to meet you” in the language. Can it really be that difficult? I think not, and I’m confident two and a half weeks will be enough time to pick up some conversational basics.*I will of course be careful to learn the correct array of honourific suffixes to avoid any faux pas when conversing with my new Japanese friends.

*Possibly with the aid of some surreptitious pre-trip study …

4) To give me some work away from work
I run a blogging company (Write My Site). I blog every day, but always for other people. I’m hugely excited by the prospect of blogging about interesting stuff that I’m actually seeing and doing for myself. Not that I don’t enjoy writing blogs for accountants, mind you.

5) To demonstrate that there’s more to karaoke than Lady Gaga
According to ‘Joysound Official Information Website’ (a reputable source if ever I saw one), 5 of the Top 20 Western karaoke songs in Japan are by Lady Gaga. Now I’m all for a bit of “P-P-P-Pokerface”, but I truly believe it would be a disservice not to bring my own brand of rap-style karaoke to my unsuspecting Japanese friends. Let’s just say they’ll never listen to Run DMC in quite the same way again.

Image

“It’s tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that’s right on time, it’s tricky, t-t-t-tricky!”

6) To eat something that isn’t a deep-fried pork cutlet
At the risk of jeopardising my chances as the winner of this competition, I’ve never been massively sold on Japanese cuisine. I have a fairly substantial aversion to raw fish, I’m ambivalent at best about cooked fish, and it takes me quite a while to adjust to new textures and flavours. The result, so far, is that my exposure to Japanese food has been mostly limited to deep-fried pork cutlets and the occasional beef bowl – but it’s time for this to change.

Several years of extensive travelling have helped me to become more adventurous in my food choices: in particular a recent visit to South Korea, which posed significant gastronomic challenges (raw squid, anyone?). I’ve been trying hard to cultivate my palette as I firmly believe there are few travel crimes more heinous than refusing to eat the local food – just bring me somebody who says they eat exclusively in McDonalds when they visit other countries and see how I react. Choose me as your blogger and I PROMISE I’ll eat everything that’s put in front of me! As long as the fugu chefs are properly trained, that is …

7) To go to the theatre
Having previously run a theatre company that staged shows around the world (*dusts off trumpet*), I’m fascinated by theatre in other countries – it gives you a perspective on a culture that isn’t available anywhere else, in my opinion. I’m intrigued both by the traditional and modern forms of Japanese theatre – I’ll even take the hard core option of several hours of Noh* if it’s available.

*A form of theatre once described by a friend as “intolerable even to the Japanese”.

8) To conquer my claustrophobia in a capsule
I.Don’t.Like.Confined.Spaces. However, travel is about facing challenges, and what better way to overcome this particular anxiety than entering a capsule hotel?

Photos of Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside, Taito
This photo of Capsule Hotel Asakusa Riverside is courtesy of TripAdvisor

9) To give me the chance to write scathing reviews of tour guides who look at me and see a giant dollar (or, in this case, yen) sign
There are few people in life more amusing than the local tour guide trying to rip off the gullible tourist. The best example I have of this is from my trip to China last year when I took a “tour” of the Great Wall. Allow me to share with you an excerpt from the piece I wrote about the experience:

Great Wall, Poor Tour

Before I start complaining about the crapness of my tour I would like to make the point that a day spent at the Great Wall of China is a day you will never forget, or regret. It’s absolutely incredible, and worth just about any amount of grief to get there. However, whinging about tourist rip-offs is always fun, so here goes:

Essentially, the tour description and itinerary bore no resemblance to the actual experience. I paid £30 for a ‘Great Wall hike from Jinshanling’ to include entry fee, lunch and private bus. The allotted time was 6.30am (ouch!) to 6.30pm, with 6 hours’ travel time built in – so I figured we’d start the hike at 9.30am, stop for lunch on the way, and be picked up by the bus around 3.30pm. I wish. In fact, the travel time was closer to 8 hours, with plenty of faff on both sides.

We had less than two hours on the wall, which in no way represents a hike as you simply potter along one stretch of it, then turn round and go back – and you’ve got to allow well over an hour to get the cable car up and down the mountain, due to the enormous queues. “Lunch” was in a canteen next to the car park, and consisted of some cold noodles and egg. The “guide” simply pointed the way to the cable car (the £5 cost of which was not included in the “tour”) and advised us not to get lost because “foreigner’s face all look same to Chinese.”

Summary: If you want to see the wall at Jinshanling (and I recommend that you do), take a public bus for less than £1, stay overnight in a hostel, and take your time hiking along this magnificent stretch of the Great Wall.

Full blog piece here.

I look forward to locating similar tour operators in Japan.

10) To see weird stuff like this
Image
This could only happen in Japan, and it’s my goal to get a photo of something even more insane.

11) To encounter another group of excitable Japanese teenagers
When I was a cash-strapped student I had a Saturday job as a tour guide of Cambridge for an exchange programme involving a school in Japan. My most memorable experience was the day spent with a group of teenage girls who were so excited by the sighting of Pizza Hut that they ran right out into the road to get to it, oblivious to the dangers of city traffic in full flow.

I took them to a party that night, where they mobbed my friend who bore an unfortunate resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe. If you ever want to terrify a teenage boy, set a pack of 15-year-old Japanese girls on him who are screaming “Harry Potter! Harry! I love you Harry!” at the top of their voices.

12) To see if all businessmen drink “very much sake”
My aforementioned Dad spends quite a bit of time on business trips with his Japanese colleagues. When he’s with them I’m always amazed at his transformation from a straight-laced, responsible guy, into a sake-swilling party animal. He was on one of these trips on his most recent birthday and it was a drunken mess of a man who answered the phone when I called to wish him a happy birthday. I was informed by his colleague (who grabbed the phone as Dad was half-way through his slurred insistence that he was not in the least bit drunk) that he had consumed “very much sake”. The following morning, Dad actually missed the business meeting he’d flown over to attend as a completely co-incidental “stomach bug” hit him with a vengeance at 6am, causing him to undergo projectile vomiting and miss his connecting flight. Does Japan have this astonishing effect on all otherwise sensible men? Send me there and I’ll let you know!

Well, competition judges, that brings us to the end of this enthralling/enchanting/unforgettable* list of 12 reasons why I should be your travel blogger in Japan. I hope I’ve persuaded you that I should be your winner, but if not I can offer a bribe in the form of a lifetime supply of chocolate (I have a mate who works at Mars).

*Again, please select the adjective(s) of your choice

Thanks for reading!

Written by Emily

August 27, 2012 at 9:10 pm

Posted in Japan

Tupiza: A town in pictures

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Tupiza was our first stop in Bolivia, after crossing the border from Northern Argentina. It was such a lovely town we ended up staying for 6 days rather than the 2 days we had planned. Giving a flavour of the town via photos seemed most appropriate, so here goes …

Street in Tupiza

Local shop in Tupiza

Church in Tupiza

Train track

Bolivian Mercado

Fresh orange juice

Central Plaza, Tupiza

Lightning storm in Bolivia

Horse riding

Bolivians in a jeep

Written by Emily

December 24, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Bolivia

Tagged with ,

You know you’re in Argentina when …

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It costs more to die than to live.

A fascinating ‘city of the dead’, the Recoleta Cemetary in Buenos Aires is possibly the world’s most elaborate graveyard. You have to be extremely wealthy to get a plot in Recoleta: even the city’s most famous resident, Eva Peron (Evita) wasn’t considered classy enough to be buried here and her body had to be snuck in 30-odd years later by her adoring fans under the cover of night.

Recoleta: city of the dead

Recoleta: city of the dead

All you can find to eat is faux Italian food.

Argentina has a sizeable Italian population but even this doesn’t explain the almost complete homogony of its restaurant scene. Want to eat anything other than Italian? Good luck.

Italy-crazy

Italy-crazy

You never have enough small change.

If you think you can pay for a 6 peso item with a 20 peso note, forget it – you’ll be asked for a 10 and made to feel pretty bad if you don’t have it. Many a cold stare came our way in the supermarket when the poor cashier had to leave her desk to hunt down change for our 100 peso note. Coins are even more rare: in fact, they are often melted down by the bus companies (which only accept coins) for their higher value in metal and not re-circulated.

You want to live on the buses.

Really, Argentina’s buses put National Express to shame. Your own personal TV, full meal service with alcohol, and a fully reclining seat are all standard features on the luxurious ‘cama suite’ long-distance buses. Better than many hostels and a great way to travel overnight.

Cama-suite bus with all mod cons

Cama-suite bus with all mod cons

Last year’s Lonely Planet is woefully outdated.

If Lonely Planet tells you that something costs x in Argentina, assume it’s at least 3x. We were not the only shocked travellers to be caught out by the rampant inflation of this country; nor were we the first to hurry on up to much-cheaper Bolivia … new blog piece coming soon!

Written by Emily

December 24, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Emily and Adrian’s Day at the Beach

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Going to the beach is no big deal, right? Wrong! Dear blog readers, in 7 years of holidays with Adrian, I have until now failed to get him anywhere near sand. He has always refused to spend holiday time undertaking such an “unproductive and futile” endeavour. However, I managed to persuade him that it would be a cultural offence to visit the Australian East Coast without going to the beach at least once and arriving in beach paradise Noosa gave us the perfect opportunity to experiment with sand-based enjoyment. This is the result …

Hey, sand is fun!

Hey, sand is fun!

Nap time

Nap time

Paddling is nice ...

Paddling is nice ...

... but watch out for jellyfish!

... but watch out for jellyfish!

Shadowy figures

Shadowy figures

Scary face in the sky

Scary face in the sky

Written by Emily

December 5, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Australian Road Trip: Part Two

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Missed Part One? Read it here!

Day 6: Finch Hatton Gorge – Rockhampton

After two glorious days of rainforest relaxation, we were feeling pretty upbeat about the remaining section of our road trip. Our optimism was, however, to be short-lived. Given that the Platypus Bushcamp was unpowered there was no possibility of booking any ongoing accommodation online. Wazza kindly rang around a few places in our intended destination (the town of 1770, where Captain Cook first alighted Down Under) but no-one had availability. We therefore drove into nearby Finch Hatton, which had a small local museum with a couple of internet-connected PCs. 1770 is a popular destination and there was very little available at short notice, so we settled on Captain Cook’s Holiday Village, which we booked through lastminute.com.au, paying in full for two nights.

Half-way there, just outside the Australian beef capital, Rockhampton, we pulled over to make a phone call to the hotel, as we’d experienced quite a few delays due to roadworks and thought we had better arrange for a key to be left for us, as we now did not expect to arrive within the reception’s desk hours. What happened next was truly astonishing: a confused woman answered the phone, and told us she did not really know how to use the computers, her boss was away, and she had never heard of lastminute.com.au. Furthermore, she said, she could not “let us stay” without a booking. Our protestations that we definitely did have a booking and had paid in full fell on deaf ears and the exchange ended with an abrupt hanging-up of the phone (her not us).

Night driving

Night driving

Unwilling to drive a further 200 kms through the night to a tiny town which may or may not have alternative places to stay, we instead decided to look for a hotel room in Rockhampton. The first listing in Lonely Planet was for an old period hotel just a few kms down the road called The Criterion, so we headed there and were pleased to be met by a friendly and helpful receptionist who was glad to accommodate us and even loaned us a DVD player free of charge. We concluded our day with a well-deserved steak dinner.

Day 7: Rockhampton

Rockhampton is a curious place. The reason we’d intended to drive through it rather than stay there was because Lonely Planet and everyone we met in Australia said there was nothing to see or do. However, when we stepped outside of our lovely hotel onto a street of gorgeous Victorian buildings lining an attractive quayside, it occurred to us they might be missing a trick. The staff at The Criterion were so friendly, and the room so comfortable we were keen to stay another night if we could find something to do. There just happened to be a tourist information office a few doors down from the hotel, which is where we learned about the Dreamtime Cultural Centre just outside of town: a museum dedicated to Aboriginal history and culture, including digeridoo demonstrations and lessons in throwing a boomerang. Far too good an opportunity to pass up!

Adrian throwing a boomerang (it didn't come back)

Adrian throwing a boomerang (it didn't come back)

After a fascinating couple of hours at Dreamtime, we headed for the local zoo to check out the crocodiles, kangaroos and koalas, and then had dinner at a local pub. Conclusion: if anyone tells you not to bother with Rockhampton don’t believe them!

Koala bear - so cute!

Koala bear - so cute!

Day 8: Rockhampton to Noosa

Having secured our refund from lastminute.com.au for the failed attempt to secure a room at Captain Cook’s Holiday Village, we checked out of the Criterion Hotel and headed for the local library where free internet and cheap food – both rarities in Australia – awaited us. Our next destination was Noosa, where we managed to book an online special for a holiday apartment near the beach. After calling to make sure they’d definitely received the booking, we headed off for some traditional Aussie beach fun!

Day 9: Noosa

We have to admit, Noosa is gorgeous. It’s the kind of picture-postcard beach resort paradise most of us dream of throughout the drizzle and cold of the UK winter. Definitely a rich-kids’ playground, Noosa is packed to the brim with plush resorts, holiday homes and marinas for yachts and sailboats. That said, it makes reasonable provision for the budget traveller, and our apartment was of a surprisingly high standard considering we didn’t pay much above hostel prices for it.

Our day in Noosa began with a swim in our complex’s pool and a soak in the hot tub before heading down to the beach. Those of you who know Adrian will be aware that he’s not really the sit-around-on-a-beach type (Emily is much more amenable to this concept!) but on this occasion he was persuaded to spend a full 10 minutes lying in the sun and enjoying doing nothing! This is such a rare occurrence that we decided to create a special picture blog all about our day at the beach.

Day 10: Noosa to Brisbane

Brisbane is only 1.5 hrs estimated drive from Noosa. Based on our experience of driving on Australian roads, we decided to allow 3 hours – which still gave us most of the day in Noosa. Unwilling to spend large amounts of money on expensive watersports, we were pleasantly surprised to discover that it was actually fairly cheap to rent a small motorised boat to self-drive along the Noosa Sound. Thus was our morning spent – and with glorious sunshine, incredible views and a clean, bright white boat, it’s hard to imagine having made better use of our time.

Boat people

Boat people

Arriving in Brisbane in the early evening, we were struck by its hills and busy streets, which seemed oddly reminiscent of San Francisco. Our hotel for the night was the delightful Annie’s Shandon Bed and Breakfast: a Victorian inn that is still owned by the grand-daughter of its founder Annie. The couple managing the inn were Jan and Murray, from New Zealand, who made us feel extremely welcome and even invited us to have tea and cake with them: a very satisfactory end to a wonderful road trip.

Australian Road Trip: Part One

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We are halfway through our ten day drive from Cairns to Brisbane, and we already have so many stories from the road that we’re going to struggle to fit them into a single blog piece. So without further delay, this is where the first five days on the road have taken us:

Day One: Cairns

A man and his motor

A man and his motor

We collected our car in Cairns: a bright red Toyota Camry which Adrian had managed to secure for us as a free upgrade from the Corolla originally booked. Car hire in Cairns is actually very competitive, presumably because the Australian East Coast is a popular road trip route. Having spent the previous day snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef (a must-do for anyone visiting this part of the world!), we were ready to hit the road.

Day Two: Cairns – Townsville

Our first proper drive was to Townsville, 345km south of Cairns, for no other reason than it was the first town on our route of sufficient size for us to be able to book a hostel online before we left Cairns. In all honesty, our road trip was a rather last-minute idea, born out of a realisation that buying Greyhound bus passes to reach Brisbane within 10 days was going to be just as expensive and a lot less flexible than renting a car, so all we really had time to plan on that first day was where to spend the night. As soon as the sun rose, we got up, got in the car, and headed for the infamous Australian Outback …

Day Three: Townsville – Charters Towers

Situated 135 kms south-west of Townsville, Charters Towers is an historic Gold Rush town. A 9-year-old Aboriginal boy called Jupiter discovered gold in the tors (hills) of Charters Towers in 1872 and before long thousands of people had flocked to the town to seek their fortunes in gold mining. The town became one of Australia’s most important gold industry centres, and was so well regarded that it was nicknamed ‘The World’. To this day, the residents of Charters Towers are extremely proud of their town’s history.

We of course wanted to learn more about the town’s gold mining history so we signed up for a tour of the fascinating Venus Gold Battery, which is best described as a outsourcing centre for gold miners. Established by the entrepreneur Edmund Plant shortly after gold had been discovered, the battery offered a service to independent miners and small mining companies where they could bring their mined quartz containing the gold fragments, and hand it over for the pure gold to be extracted, thus saving them the expense of having to construct their own processing centres. The battery remained in operation until 1972.

Peter showing us the gold battery

Peter showing us the gold battery

Our tour guide was a gentleman called Peter Bagley, who had returned to Charters Towers to be closer to his elderly parents after 37 years away. Upon his return, Peter discovered that the battery was falling into disrepair due to nobody being willing to take it on, and was in danger of being sold off or even demolished. Not wanting to see a key part of his town’s history disappear, he leased it from the state of Queensland and is now actively pursuing his goal of restoring the battery to its former glory. We were Peter’s only customers that day, and he explained that he is currently in the process of building a website and raising more funds for up-keeping and marketing the battery to attract more visitors.

That evening, we drove up to the top of Towers Hill, where Jupiter had discovered gold all those years ago, for an open air screening of the film ‘Ghosts of Gold’, which was also presented by Peter. We thanked him for giving us such a memorable day, and wished him all the best in bringing more visitors to Charters Towers to learn about the Gold Rush. It has certainly been one of our Australian highlights thus far and we would recommend it to any blog readers who are planning to visit this part of the world.

Day Four: Charters Towers – Finch Hatton Gorge

A rainforest retreat

A rainforest retreat

Our experience in Charters Towers had taught us that exploring places away from the beaten backpacker trail (i.e. the coastline) could be very rewarding. As we awoke in our lovely period room in the Royal Private Hotel in the town centre, we decided our next stop would be at Finch Hatton Gorge. Our Australian friend and travel blogger Dave Robertson had suggested we visit Eungella National Park as this was a good place to spot a platypus. Having checked the map it looked like a reasonable distance from Charters Towers, and we were further persuaded to visit by the discovery of a place to stay called the Platypus Bushcamp, where you sleep in a treehouse and shower in the rainforest. Irresistable!

This day’s drive was to teach us two valuable lessons about Australian road trips: first, just because something looks like a reasonable distance on a map doesn’t mean you’re going to get there in anything like the timeframe you imagine; and second, a GPS system is only as a good as the highway it’s used on. The minute you turn off the main road, it’s as lost as you are. After several hours of twisting, turning, and attempting to locate roads that didn’t exist, we admitted defeat, followed signs to the nearest town, and pulled over to ask a helpful local lady for directions.

Arriving in the dead of night to an unpowered bush camp can be something of a challenge, but we were spotted by a friendly fellow camper, who guided us with his flashlight through the forest path to the camp HQ. Amazingly, this fellow camper was a chap called Owen who came from a suburb in Cardiff called Llanishen – just two miles from where my parents live!

Day Five: Finch Hatton Gorge and Eungella National Park

There’s nothing quite like waking up in a rainforest tree house. Although very basic, our hut was wonderfully comfortable, and we had one of the best night’s sleep on our travels thus far. With the benefit of sunlight, we were able to explore the Platypus Bushcamp a lot more effectively than the night before, and we were intruiged by the kitchen, cookhouse, huts and rainforest showers, all hand-built by Wazza, the eccentric but charming 60-year-old proprieter, and all operating without electricity. The best part by far was the creek behind our hut, and we started our day with a refreshing swim.

A great day for a swim ...

A great day for a swim ...

... and a float!

... and a float!

The remainder of the day was spent lazing around the camp, sipping beer on the big swinging couch and pulling faces at Wazza’s two parrots, followed by a walk to Araluen Falls in Eungella National Park.

A visit to the Platypus Bushcamp would have been incomplete without at least trying to spot a platypus in the nearby waters. They come out for a swim at dawn and dusk, and despite Wazza’s strong urging to get up at 4.30am for the dawn showing, we opted to try our luck in the afternoon. After about 30 minutes of waiting still and silent at the waterfront, we succeeded in glimpsing a platypus, although unfortunately it managed to hide almost completely from our camera’s view.

Spot the platypus!

Spot the platypus!

We were joined for the evening by a New Zealand couple called Laurie and Kirsten or, to quote Wazza: “It’s bad enough we’ve got the Poms here without the bloody Kiwis turning up as well”. It was Laurie’s birthday, which worked out well for us as he kindly shared his chocolate cake and champagne with us. Our relaxing and enjoyable day in the Australian bush was rounded off with another restful night’s sleep, and considering what awaited us as we made our way further south the next day, this was fortunate indeed … stay tuned for Part Two!

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