An encounter with Jaws

Chapter 34

So I had turned two years older since leaving home. My 29th had been celebrated with a giant penis cake and ten hours of chipping shell, out on the West Coast of Australia. Turning 30 had been a similar affair, but this time with more presents and ten hours of not chipping, but opening shell, a far more physical endeavour.

But turning 30 is a far grander occasion than turning 29. It marks the beginning of a new decade, it marks the end to the twenties and a hello to the 30s. So surly it should be remembered, celebrated and rejoiced, because after all, who doesn’t like to make a fuss about turning yet another year older?

So since there would be no party, no displays of outrageous, drunken behaviour along Gravesend high street, and no grand, plentiful 30th gifts, the responsibility therefore fell upon Harry’s shoulders, to make this day, a special one. And what could a boy deliver to a girl, absent of her friends and family on her 30th? Drop her in a cage, off the back of a boat, and dangle her within a school of Great Whites #JAWS. And whilst you might be thinking Harry was planning to savagely feed me to a school of man eating sharks, what I had actually wished for, whilst blowing all 30 candles out, was something quite different.

If you didn’t already know, South Australia, is famous for cage diving with Great White Sharks. It is a hot spot for shark sightings and many people every year, visit the small town of Port Lincoln, to try their luck at catching a glimpse of these spectacular animals. The trouble is, that after a $495 price tag, a thirteen hour drive from Adelaide and a brutal three hour boat ride to Neptune island, still does not guarantee a sighting of Jaws.

So it felt like a chance in a million, like finding a needle in a haystack, could Bruce be bothered to turn up to my 30th celebrations, or not?

After a gruelling three hours steam to Neptune island, we finally achorched. The journey had been just about enough for a lot of tourists, some had spent most their time on the back deck, spewing into a paper bag. Harry and I were not feeling our best ether, but a year out at sea had given us a better chance than most.

We were put into groups, four groups to be precise, and each would go down and get around 45minutes in the water. We were in luck and were placed in group one. On went the seven mill wetsuit, with scuba mask, and then we waited, waited for a shark that might never arrive.

Calypso, the chartered company that we had chosen to go with, operates by the rule that once a shark is sighted, the first group will enter the water, but only once the first shark has been seen. So of course we all waited nervously, group four, most likely more anxious than the rest, their chance of seeing a shark, was a further reach than ours. We continued to wait and the clock ticked by slowly, my patience was fading, our time dwindling, and when Harry had just about had enough of my wining, one of the crew screamed, ‘shark, shark!

It was action stations, ‘group one get into the water, now! So we moved quickly, each person entered the cage from the top and were passed a regulator, which would be your oxygen supply whilst in the water. It was at that moment, that a spike of adrenaline surged through my body. It wasn’t fear as such, but an explosion of excitement, the stepping into the unknown, the stepping into a metal cage, which was being circled by a Great White Shark. But there wasn’t time to ponder about ones anxieties, and before I knew it, I was in the water, regulator in, gasping for air that I thought would never come.

Nothing, can prepare you for how cold that water is. It’s coldness I have never felt and I really wasn’t expecting it. Harry and I have dived throughout Asia and even the East Coast of Oz, being exposed to some cold temperatures, but never have I felt water that cold. And why would I ? This was South Australia, the great Southern Ocean, or otherwise known as the Great Australian Bite, the cold waters is exactly why these sharks are here, so I had to man up, calm down and ignore the feeling of 100 knives jabbing into my skull.

We settled in our metal box, although the aggressive banging of the cage against the back deck, was a little unnerving. We held onto the bar that ran along the inside of the cage, below us nothing but blue, in front of us nothing but blue, everywhere was a thick blanket of blue. On any usual dive, we would pay particular interest to the schools of fish that now clustered around us, fairly large in size and curious of us, but we wasn’t here to spot different marine species, we wanted to see the big guy himself, where was Bruce ?

Visibility was poor under the surface of the ocean, bubbles and the smog of burley (tuna guts), made it difficult to see. We bobbed along in the cage, holding on to the bar infront, conscious not to let a hand or foot slip outside the safety of the metal perimeter. But where was he ? It was incredibly hard to catch a visual, only having two eyes made it impossible to get a panoramic view. Left, right, up, down but nothing. It seemed that the people on the other side of the cage had seen something but we hadn’t !!! We kept frantically looking in all directions and then, literally out of the blue appeared a gigantic shark.

It was as if all sound, movement and time stood still, at that split moment, it was just me and that shark. And whilst it was a glimpsing moment, it felt that he stared at me forever. He charged in face first, eyeing us from a distance and when it seemed as if he would crash head first into the cage, he sharply changed direction and gracefully swam past. At the point we were able to appreciate the sheer size of this shark and his size was overwhelming.

He was close enough to admire his unique physique, he was so close you could have reached out your hand and touched him. You could see every little detail, his teeth a glimmering white, set into pink fleshy gums. The trunk of his body scattered with signs of war wounds, and his signature, black, beady eyes, were chilling.

The force of his stroke caused a ripple in the cage and I had to tighten my grip around the railing but still, I remained fixated on his dark silhouette against a backdrop of blue. He disappeared and the adrenaline that was surging through my body caused an excited splutter through my regulator. Harry and I gripped each other, totally forgetting the icy temperatures that were wrapped around us. And there he was again, circulating the cage, watching us, watching him.

I wondered then that the purpose of the metal bars, separating us from our friend Bruce, were so necessary after all. Of course these animals have been stereotyped as man eating machines, advertised in films and media, as hunters of human blood. But the reality is something quite different. Calypso pride themselves on the care and appreciation of these animals, and at the forefront of every charter they run, they endeavour to educate their customers about the reality of the Great White Shark. Not to be fooled, this animal is still an apex predator and yes of course, the metal bars are completely necessary. But what is prevalent, is that we are imposters in their natural habitat and on the very rare occasion of a Great White Shark attack, it’s probably because you were in its way, it mistook you for prey, or you had just stroke a serious case of bad, bloody luck.

We relished in our time in the vast ocean, next to these fascinating predators and when the time came to exit the cage, it felt like it was over all too quick.

Out of the water and onto the deck, the next group were quickly entered into the cage. For us the display from above the water was almost as thrilling. Now there were two sharks circling the boat, and a birds eye view was a lot clearer than one from under the ocean. The sharks curiosity had grew and was far more playful in his approach, this time he even bit the side of the cage, completely exposing his teeth.

By luck, glancing the right way at the right time, a shark suddenly breached from the water, his body fully emmersed. At first we wasn’t sure what he had breached for but a, too little, too late, reaction from the crew, allowed the shark to claim the tuna head. It was a spectacle, we had captured the shark at its very best, both in and out of the water, a show rarely caught by humans.

These guys have been stars of movies, made headlines and are at the centre of the money making machine that is tourism, for them it is an unfortunate, fortune of fame.

But despite what people read, watch and see, the smile of a Great White is a scary thing, and even though Jaws is simply a make believe tale that Spielberg has created purely for ones entertainment, you still wouldn’t liken them to a cute, cuddly bear.

It was an amazing day observing these impressive predators and even though we were there to observe, Calypso make it their prerogative to teach us about the reality of these misconceived creatures. You cannot deny a Great Whites sheer power, it’s size and it’s intelligence, yes they are misconceived, people have even been known to free dive with them, but what is for certain and what I don’t largely doubt, is that entering the water with no cage, would be like serving yourself up with an unnecessary encounter with death. After all they are apex hunters, their prerogative, to hunt, and in an unlikely event to face one without the safety of a few metal bars, your best chance is prey to God for a nice afterlife, or better still, condemn him, for leading you into such a series of misfortunate events!

Thank you Calypso for an unforgettable experience, it was the perfect 30th birthday dream, come true.

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Life on the Cattle Station

Chapter 33

It had never really occurred to me where meat came from. How a cow becomes a fillet of steak, how a pig becomes a rasher of bacon or how a chicken becomes a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Why bother yourself with such minor inconveniences, because after all it tastes good, looks good and most likely you picked the cheapest option, so all in all it was a satisfactory buy. Or, you may well have researched where your meat came from, bought from the local Butcher , was encouraged by the organic stamp, or paid the little extra because it said the chicken roamed free. And until I met Pete and Fiona in Darwin, Australia, I was one of those people that bought dependent on price, secondary was taste, thirdly where the animal came from and how it spent its last few moments before ending up on my plate.

So when Harry and I found ourselves volunteering on a cattle station for free food and accomodation, we didn’t anticipate quite how much it would affect our lives. For starters Harry and I were meat eaters, not massively into red meat or any of your poultry options but self confessed meat eat eaters none the less.

Arriving at Eva Valley Meats, a farm situated in the Northern Territory, Darwin, we realised that it was going to be another one of those jobs that we had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. For starters we were voluntarily living with complete strangers, which in Australia is not considered an unusual thing to do. A friend of ours had suggested that we should work on the farm during our time off in between work with Paspaley. At the time it was an offer we couldn’t refuse, so we made our way out of the city and into the outback where we would begin our work. The cattle station was situated beautifully, their home sitting upon a hill top over looking their ranch, with plentiful cows, dogs and the odd goat. Fiona was expecting and her huge bump, with her tiny stature, made it seem she could topple over at any minute. The woman was much like I imagine superwoman to be, no job too big, no job too small, scudding around the ranch on her quad bike, the only thing she was missing, was her superwoman suit.

We stayed in the basement bedroom overlooking the fields, it was basic but pleasant and at night we could here the Northern Territory come alive.

Our first day did not have much to do with the animals, we helped tidy up the vegetable patch, which turned out to be pretty arduous work in 35 degree heat. Fiona would call us in for Smoko, a kind of belated breakfast, although you always still had breakfast and then we would resume work. Work wasn’t too difficult compared to the demands of the pearling world, but it was incredibly hot and once the days labour was over we were exhausted.

In the evenings we would dine with Pete and Fiona, dinner was always beef or buffalo meat and in this case you knew exactly where your meat had come from. Fresh from the field, straight to the plate, in a curry, sausage, burger or stew, every night we had the pleasure of eating locally farmed meat and it didn’t get much more local than your backyard. We continued with our veggie patch work and the final product was a grand result, we were pleased with our efforts, our work was done. So onto bigger projects.

Our next job was to work in the meat house, assisting the Butcher. This meant packaging and in some cases cutting the meat into the required cuts, also mincing the meat and the most technical of jobs, making the sausages. This was the first time I’d really handled any meat, apart from your general meal preparation. It was tolerable, I didn’t squirm or make a desperate dash out the meat house, screaming ‘god make me a vegetarian,’ because after all it was just a slab of meat and far from the four legged, walking animal it was moments before. But the smell of raw meat however, was off putting, if you’ve ever walked into your local butchers, the smell is something you won’t forget, the rawness and sharpness of uncooked meat lingers and after a hard days work at the meat house, the smell followed you out. But it was nothing we couldn’t handle and in actual fact I surprised myself with my ability to play it cool, after all we were working on a cattle station, what did we expect?

As the days went on we became part of the family, feeling more and more at home. We settled into farm life, rising early to catch the sunrises and in the evening indulged in the most magnificent sunsets. Our hill top home was a haven of beauty and we fell in love with it. As the days went on it was inevitable that we would experience the slaughter of one of their cows.

To begin with the animal was separated from the others, a task far difficult than I had imagined, of course the animals natural instinct is to stay within the herd, circulating around and around, until eventually Pete could find the safest moment to separate it. It was then left for a few moments to calm and when Pete was ready he slowly approached the animal, waited for the precise moment and ‘BANG! The shot echoed throughout the Northern Territory, sounding a 1000 times over and over in my head and yet in the same second the animal fell to the floor, gone, unconscious, fallen, dead. It was a sharp bite of a bitter reality, just a moment ago the cow was grazing happily, in a blink of an eye he had fallen.

But there was no time to dwell in ones guilt, there was work to do and in seconds, the tractor was moved in, the cow’s throat cut and then hung by its rear legs to bleed out. The tractor reversed with the animal still hanging and backed up to the entrance of the meat house, eventually lowering the animal onto its back across a mobile rack. Once in position it’s legs were spread, Harry was instructed to hold the hind legs apart and once everything was in place, the Butcher set about his business. It was quite a craftsmanship watching the man go about his work, the animal was halved, quartered, skinned and sawed again and again, till it was in manageable pieces of meat that could be carved into its retail cuts. The process was quick and efficient, in around 45 minutes, most of the work was done.

So that was that, we spent the rest of the day carving and packaging meat and in between we snacked on smoked crocodile, a donated snack from the Butcher himself.

Once the days work was complete, we were all exhausted, most of all Gary the craftsman, the perfectionist, the Butcher. We dined much the same way we always did, Pete, Fiona plus bump, Harry and I, they were always the perfect dinner dates.

Eva Valley Meats are renowned for their high class, quality reared meat and I believe it.

This is no mass production, there is no huge abattoir where animal after animal is conveyored in to face its final frontier, nether is it a farm where cattle are reared in crowded conditions, have little to graze on and are killed young. Pete and Fiona’s land extends far beyond what the eye can see and it’s hard to determine how many cattle they actually have.

Occasionally we would drive out into the fields with Pete in his Ute, looking for wild dogs. Pete would bring his shot gun of course in case of an unlikely sighting, but what we didn’t expect to see, was one of his bulls in the next farmers field. Outraged, it was mission, ‘recapture the bull,’ an endeavour that Harry and I had not planned to be involved in. To add further dismay, the bull was in Petes terms ‘servicing his bloody cows,’ by he, he meant the farmer next door and of course this was further insult to injury.

When capturing a bull there are some safety measures that should be adhered to, firstly make sure you are never too close to the animal, a charging bull will almost certainly kill you if you are in it’s way. Secondly, work as a team, listen to the farmer, in this case Pete and follow his lead. Thirdly, make sure you trust the man holding the shot gun, just in case things get messy, you don’t want that gun accidentally pointing your way and lastly, evacuate to the vehicle if all else fails!

Of course we had Pete and he is somewhat of a ‘cow whisperer,’ and whilst we were a little on edge throughout the whole process, Pete mostly, had it under control. Harry manourvered the Ute in accordance to Petes calls, he would yell out a long winded ‘commmmmmmmme oooooooooonnn,’ which tickled us and we would move to encourage the bull one way or another, whilst Pete nervously, moved closer and closer by foot. Mission, ‘recapture the bull,’ roughly took about 30 minutes and in the end it was a job well done. Pete was valiant in his efforts and the bull was now rightly back in his place, servicing his cows, just how Pete had intended.

We said a sad goodbye to Pete, Fiona and ever growing bump, along with the dogs and lastly our favourite, Flea the new jack Russell puppy.

We felt content working at the farm, life was good, peaceful and beautiful, but all good things must come to an end and the call of the Pearling world had sounded. However, our time at the farm educated us and opened our eyes to the meat farming world. Whilst this farm produces very small amounts of meat for local consumption, there are plenty that operate on a far larger scale. As we left Eva Valley Meats our thoughts dwelled on what we had experienced, the cow and its final moments, the meat house, Gary the Butcher and us, his merry men, the existence of a cow, it’s life, it’s final destination and the meaning of it all. It’s hard to relate to such things unless of course you have experienced first-hand what we have. And despite what many claim, that they shop around for their meat, take notice of the stamp of promise on the packaging, the reality is something quite different.

If there is vegans or vegetarians reading this now, most likely they are squirming in their seat, preying that somehow this blog will evoke empathy in people’s hearts, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. My advice to people and more so a recommendation is, know where your meat came from, if you’re an animal lover, acknowledge your beliefs and principles and do your research because after all, we’ve all, from time to time, turned a blind eye, ignorant to the bitter reality that can be meat farming.

Hostel life

Chapter 32

It’s a strange concept 4, or 10 or even 16 strangers sharing a room. It’s not something I had really experienced before I started my around the world trip. There had been the occasional sleepovers, but mostly these were with people I knew, not a night spent next to someone who you have barely even said hello to. So if sharing a room with up to possibly 23 strangers does not appeal to you, then traveling, possibly, isn’t for you.

It’s unlikely that these strangers you choose to sleepover with are the axe murdering type, the stalker type, or the type that is likely to be caught sniffing your underwear, or secretly filming you at night. They are more often than not, accept for the guys that have alterior motives, mostly, decent people, with decent manners, decent appearances and of course share a common interest with you, they love to travel. So it wouldn’t be a total surprise that after a short meet and great, over one’s bunk bed, it’s likely you could be indulging in dinner and beers with them, that night.

This is really me painting the most idealic picture of hostel life. The reality however, can be something quite different. And as I near the end of my extended, extended a bit more, and extended again, around the world trip, I have come to the realisation that I am just about done with hostel life.

It’s not like Im a teenager anymore, when the amount of human hair blocking the plug hole, was merely a minor inconvenience, or the left over residue of ones doing in the toilet, became just a casual occurrence. No I’m afraid and I’m sure most can relate to, that maturity and age brings a kind pompousness, an intolerance to ones sloppy higene values, but really it’s less about age, more about education, about how ones parents taught them to leave a bathroom after you have done your business!

It is quite beyond me, the state in which some leave the throne. Knowing that a person you have probably shared dinner with, made eye contact with, or even shared midnight chats with, could possibly follow you into that toilet and greet the atrocity that you have left. Oh the shame ! But no, no embarrassment, no shame, merely an attempt to clean up and disguise what you have left behind.

In all honesty I think my ‘toilet fear,’ has extended beyond what Harry might say is , ‘an absolute joke.’ But am I just not a respectable human being? Or just an anal one?

And then there’s kitchen politics, a showdown of ‘survival of the fittest.’ There could be up to 40 people staying in your hostel and perhaps one,two, maximum three kitchens, to cater for all. So you can imagine around feeding times, that the kitchen rush is more than the average, placid traveler can handle.

Its ether shy away, starve till around 9ish, once the frenzied animals have had their feed, or be bold, triumphant and embrace the the chaos that is hostel, kitchen politics. Your first hurdle to jump, is the dilemma of hob space. Normally, in a smaller hostel, there are only four gas hobs to go around, which means patiently waiting your turn, or get there a little earlier and claim all four. Normally one-to-two hobs is suffice, but that’s hardly possible when there are around 10-15 people cooking. So it becomes a spaghetti junction of arms across arms, and the occasional awkward lean across a fellow traveler, whilst boiling their potatoes. It’s a case of ‘patience is a virtue,’ and never has it been more profound, than at feeding time at the hostel. Second hurdle, the anemic supply of cutlery and utensils. As if it’s not bad enough, waiting 45minutes for the next available hob, but now there is no tools to cook with! You may as well stand and watch your pasta congeal and burn at the bottom of the pan, because there is no god dam spatula to stir it with and to top it off, there is absolutely no table top space to cut your onions on. There you have it, defeat, defeated by the inability to be able to cook a dinner in peace, so it’s to over to Plan B, instant noodles for the fourth day running.

Another of ones own private luxuries that is rudely invaded during hostel life, is personal space, crucial in survival when living with copious amount of strangers. This means respecting ones area, and the overspill of ones belongings onto the bedroom floor and further, is nether acceptable or well mannered. It’s a tad awkward and unpleasant, when you have to wade through peoples dirty boxers, crusty knickers or left over midnight binges. But it is of little concern to the sloppy traveler, if some guy or girl sees their four day old underwear, because it’s likely they’re never see them again. And I guess they have a point, it’s likely they’re never see that person again, unless of course you are following the same gringo trail, that every other traveler is! And to add further insult to the dirty boxers you just accidentally stepped on with your bare feet, your nosy neighbour who luckily got first pick on bottom bunk, has hung their damp smelling towel on the end of your bed. The audacity! How very kind of them, but unfortunately in the unwritten rule book of traveling, the answer to that is, ‘chill out dude, it’s only a towel.’

When arriving into a hostel, all the TripAdvisor reviews cannot truly prepare you for the reality that is about to unfold. For starters what ones ideal hostel may be, can be another’s worst nightmare. So you put your faith in such review sights, and hope they guide you on the right path to finding the perfect pick of hostels. In my experience some reviews are a little misleading, in fact a little misleading is an under statement. A particular example of this was our chosen hostel in Medellin, Colombia. The online reviews were more than complimentary, great wifi, very clean, superb hosts and perfect location. Some even quoted, ‘I wish I never had to leave! That’s bold, and paints a picture of a hostel where dreams are made. So we were sold. On arrival, the hosts were nice enough but it quickly became apparent that there were no lockers and no locks on doors. So despite for the CCTV cameras, which really meant little value after your belongings were robbed, there was minimal security. Nevertheless this wasn’t completely unusual, but the presentation of the owners machete was, and he claimed, ‘I want to let these locals know, that I’m no pussy, ass Gringo! Hmmmm, a crazy Dutch guy keeping the local Colombians away with a giant machete, a little unsettling to say the least. To add to further affairs, the ceiling was leaking throughout the hostel, creating a type of ever flowing stream, that ran through the centre of the hallway. It was barely a place of peace and harmony, in fact the occasional cockroach and police raids made it more like a prison, accept you were free to go as long as you paid your bill and remember travellers, don’t forget the hidden taxes! We checked out on bad terms but reminded ourselves that at least good friends had been the outcome of the very misleading, Kings and Queens hostel.

In other situations, it’s simply a case of, you get what you pay for, and this couldn’t have been more true of Drifter Backpackers in Hanoi, Vietnam. The price tag was a tasty €1.50 a night, including free beer and breakfast. I hear alarm bells ringing, free beer, you’re already packing your bags right? Unfortunately I never made it up for breakfast, late night drinking in the city and the absence of any windows in our room, tricked us into sleeping well into the afternoon. But we did sleep in the prison style bunks, a wafer thin mattress, with wire frame and a bathroom, suitable enough to shower your dog in. But how can you complain when you are paying just over a quid to sleep over for the night. What we hadn’t expected to pay for however, was the too close for comfort encounter with bed bugs that had been rapidly breeding in the bedroom next door. The whole room was being fumigated, whilst we slept at our own peril, oblivious to the infestation that was slowly conquering the hostel. Come to think of it, the Portugese guy who had greeted at us at the entrance said something like, ‘free beer and free bed bugs,’ of course we only heard ‘free beer,’ and were sold.

Once you’ve settled into your new home for the next few nights, then comes the acclimatisation to your new found room mates. It’s likely you’re get lucky and be blessed with clean, respectable and well mannered guests. Or find yourselves in a room with a choir of snorers! In my two years of globe trotting, I have become a pretty good judge of a snorer, it’s like I can smell them as soon as they walk in, they have a snoring type oder that screams, ‘hello new roommates, prepare to never sleep again! And that’s exactly what they accomplish, victorious in their efforts to make you a wild, crazed, exhausted backpacker. So, seeing as dripping tap would wake me up, I eventually invested in some modernised ear plugs, silicon little balls that completely drown out any agonising snores. So that’s the snorers dealt with, but the smelly backpackers is an altogether more complicated issue. How do you tell someone, ‘mate , sorry but you smell and you’re altogether ruining my whole hostel vibe.’ You cant, well not in a polite way, and I’m certainly not the sort of person who can break that sort of news to someone. Even if I did, would they even care? It’s likely not. So the smelly backpackers, continue to smell, oblivious of their choking aromas that deaden the crisp, clean air. Harry says that I have the nose of a hound, that I could sniff out the slightest of smells, so what! What’s it take for a human to keep regular checks on the stench that is radiating from their armpits, nothing, a shower a day keeps the smelly’s away!

And then there’s the Paul Macartney wannabes, idly playing ‘hey Jude,’ or ‘Hotel California’ or even worse, ‘Halle bloody lujah,’ on their famously, vintage and well traveled guitar. Not only are they totally destroying the classics that these musical legends have bestowed on us, but they are also raping my ears with flat, pitch, mono sound, that simply has no musical grace to it.

Okay, so why on earth would you stay in a hostel ? I’ll take a breadth from venting two years of pent up aggression, and be frank with you. The truth is, after all the bad night sleeps, hard beds, over populated kitchens, late night boozers and the occasional ear rape, hostel life is the way, the only way to travel in true style. Whilst some days I want to hang up my backpack, scream into a pillow and punch the guy who just left a floater in the loo, the social butterfly within me, still, is drawn to the controlled chaos that is hostel life. I have lost count of the friendly faces, breakfast dates, Facebook requests and even, long term travel buddies that we have gained through hostel hopping. And that’s what it’s all about, the purpose of traveling, the inner backpacking glow that keeps you sane amongst all the insanity, meeting people is the highlight of it all. But not just the English speakers, but the foreigners, the Germans, the Spaniards, the Italians, the Israelis, the Colombians, the list goes on. It’s not like you’d strike up a conversation in your local coffee house with the foreigner across the table, no more likely than not, you put your head down, enjoy the scroll,scroll,scroll of your social media, or better still get the coffee to go. Nope, in hostels, theres not much need for a life on the go, it’s slow paced, most of the time, a luxury in which us backpackers like to indulge in. So there’s plenty of time for one, or two, or even three coffees over breakfast, whilst relishing in stories of others adventures. However, you can’t always be readily available, the churn of everyday backpacker life, this consistent demand to be approachable, sociable and delightful can grind you down, nobody is happy all the time! So when the time comes, when Harry and I are just about over the same monotonous conversation of, ‘hi, where you from, how long you been traveling, where are you going next,’ gets too much, well, we pay the extra dollar and cosy up in the sanctity of a private room.

And there you have it, the most likely and valuable outcome of hostel life is the discovery of new friends and with new friends comes the opportunity of free places to stay, in just about every country of the world. The other, more rare outcomes could include, bed bugs, possibly an STD, loss or stolen property, a punch up, fleas, a filthy hangover or even perhaps a volunteering position at ones beloved hostel and new found home.

But one things for sure, you will forever remember the bad hostels, forever treasure the good ones and most importantly, you will thank God everyday for your beautiful mum, for it was she who kept the plughole clear, the throne sparkling clean and embedded into you the morals, of a proud, clean, respectable, human being!

Always and forever, thank you mum.

RIP Skippy

Chapter 31

Sky diving, considered by some as a thrilling, monumental adrenalin serge, served fresh when free falling with a complete stranger on your back, 14,000 feet above sea level. Others consider it to be an act of insanity, an unjustifiable act of toying with death, or some are just living in the moment, slowly working through their bucket list, until finally a sky dive is next, finally you can scribble it off the list. And that was me, a typical backpacker with a typical yearning to jump out of a plane and feel the spike of endorphins rushing through my body, and where better to do it then Mission Beach, East Coast, Australia.

Harry, Tui, a good friend from home, who was our next visitor,and I, slowly but surely began our journey up the remaining part of the East Coast, starting in Brisbane. We swapped our passion wagon for a 4X4 and traded our damp, yet cosy tent for more comfortable Air BnB’s. We of course were heading to Mission Beach, the home of Sky Diving, promising to blow your mind with exceptional areil views, highlighting it as one of the most memorable moments of your life.

The journey was long, as we moved from destination to destination along the coast. We shared the driving, swapping every three hours or so. We drove only by day, advised not to drive by night because of the wandering kangaroos and wallabies, you certainly did not want to hit one of them. In the day sightings were rare but the roadside, where several wallaby corpses lay, suggested otherwise. It was no bother of corse, the congested Bruce Highway was surly enough to discourage any wandering Skippies from crossing the way.

We chatted and enjoyed the heavenly chill of the Air Con, hours passed and soon we would be arriving at Mission Beach. I took my turn in the drivers seat and drove comfortably for an hour or so, following the line of vehicles making their way up the highway. Something suddenly caught my eye, perhaps an animal or a person, fumbling at the opposite side of the highway. And there it was again, a curious but hesitant creature, with a long, giant rat like tale, with two large hind legs and two small arms at the front of its body. It was ether a wallaby or a kangaroo, I wasn’t sure, it was too far away. The animal started to move across the road, as if embarking on a suicide mission, he dodged the first car, then the second, sirens sounded from all around, but it did not bother the bouncing Roo, he just kept progressing forward and somehow he made it across the first lane of oncoming traffic.

My first sighting of the Roo happened from about 50 metres and travelling around 70kph, the metres quickly evaporated. I remember the background chat of Harry and Tui, I remember the squill of ‘kangaroo, kangaroo! I remember the slight pressure I applied on the break and then I remember, ‘bang,’ the sound of wallaby against bumper and then, I remember guilt.

Why didn’t you swerve I hear you say? Why didn’t you do an emergency stop? Well on the Bruce Highway in the middle of the day, there is no place to swerve, unless into a charge of oncoming traffic, and there is no chance to slam on your breaks in case of a domino of cars, colliding into the back of you. Yes I’m afraid , it was ether the wallaby or the three pommes that stared death in the face, and in this situation the wallaby lost.

We pulled over, shocked and speechless, the impact of the Ozi resident had been much like what I imagine hitting a small child would be. The whole car shook and shook us with it. We checked on the Roo and I’m afraid, it wasn’t good, We stood for a moment, Tui, Harry and I, the wallaby murderer, just staring at the fury corpse that lay infront of us. On the plus side the car seemed okay, apart from the obvious splatters of blood and scattering of fur, so what was next ? We wouldn’t survive long standing in 40 degree heat, we retreated back to the coolness of the car and it was decided, perhaps I shouldn’t go back behind the wheel just yet.

We arrived at Mission Beach a few hours later, we were quiet, the arduous journey had been tiring yet gripping. So we got our heads down and nervously awaited the next morning, where we would disembark out of a plane at 14,000 feet.

I was feeling pretty confident until my dive partner manoeuvred us to the edge of the plane and I looked down at my feet, dangling over a blanket of cloud. Tui had made her jump and I was next, for a second I thought twice about the whole sky diving thing. Life was pretty sweet, I was traveling with my love and one of my best friends, I was healthy, living the backpacking dream and exploring some of Australia’s wonders, so why oh why take an unnecessary risk, that could ruin ones blissful exsistence. Before I could come to a solution, I suddenly found myself falling, falling terribly fast, my top lip turned inside out, my eye sockets pulled back and my insides, about to resurrect much like the alien did, straight out of John Hurt’s stomach! It was around one minute of insanity, some would describe it as the best moment of their life, I would address it as one of the moments in life, like having a baby, getting married, passing your driving test or experiencing your first illegal high, it might not be the best, but you’re never forget it.

After the free fall was over, Kev who I had entrusted my life with, pulled the shoot and the pull of gravity was slowed. It was if we had completely stopped in mid air, and that was the first time I was able to take a breath, the first time I actually managed to create enough saliva to lick my lips, and the first time I was able to absorb my surroundings, for much of the time before that, my eyes had been closed. It was beautiful, white sandy beaches against a never ending ocean of blue, it was like the whole world had been wrapped in a blanket of sea, spotted with the occasional green cluster, an island or two and lined with a white sandy hem.

Kev gave me a running commentary of all that was to see, and it was as impressive as they sold it to be. He would pull on each pulley hard, donut us around and around, to give us a 360 degrees view. That was my least favourite moment of the activity, the swirling motion and the surge of adrenaline through my body spiked a sudden surge of sickness and I had to ask him to stop. We edged further and further to land until the call came to lift my legs and finally my bum made contact with land and we were back, two feet on the ground, just how God had intended.

It seemed the feeling of sickness only grew after that and I had to make a quick dash for the loo, where I spent the next ten minutes showing the toilet what I had had for breakfast.

It had been some of my ‘finest hours,’ in just 24 hours, I had managed to kill a wallaby, jump out of a plane at 14,000 feet and to top it off, I had afterall, done some serious wallaby damage to the car. The radiator was leaking, a lot, so now we were stuck at Mission Beach, no car and in searing 40 degree heat. It seemed that Skippy had got he’s revenge after all.

A reminder from home

Chapter 30

We said another sad goodbye to a good friend. But we knew that Jason would forever be in our hearts.

Tanned and tubby, we finally were reunited with Rachel and Doyle and so we continued on our East Coast adventure.

When travelling the East Coast there are some essentials not to be missed. Sydney, Spring Gully Stays Campground, Crescents Head (Delicate Nobby Campground), Nin Binh, Byron Bay, Noosa, North Stradbroke Island, Brisbane, Fraser Island, Arlie Beach and the Whitsundays.

Of corse some of these are overrun with tourists, like anywhere in the world, beautiful places are booming with plentiful visitors. And don’t forget, whilst you may spend your time wining about the inconvenience of long ques, congested ticket stations and a rather long wait to see the top attraction, remember, you are one off those annoying tourists too.

So our foursome headed to the unmissable, Fraser Island. I’ll be honest it’s not by any means in my top ten, around the world attractions, but nevertheless, it is worth a visit. Of course this largest sand island in the world, is situated in one of the most expensive tourist hubs in the world, so be prepared to pay the bitter price tag. I however think, that nearly every dollar was worth it. The 495 Australian dollar bill, for what they advertise as three days two nights, is actually two and a bit days. But those nearly three days are action packed, non stop attraction after attraction, and every dollar you reluctantly put into the booking agency’s hand, begins to have meaning.

Ragging a 4X4 across crystal white sands, can only be likened to a heroic scene of a classic car getaway, the setting an unbelievable backdrop of blue against blue, not knowing where ocean ends and sky starts. The drivers, two young Thelma and Louise’s, fleeing their troubles and making a break for it, across the Fraser Island sand highway. Their mission , to escape England forever and find refuge with the Fraser Island wild dogs and….. well, just wild dogs, nearly the only inhabitants of this one-of-kind island.

Well unfortunately, the reality was something a little different, the horizon was hard to distinguish, but Thelma and Louise were actually Rachel and I, and we wasnt really escaping anything, we were just casually following the line of other Land Cruisers, barely breaking a mph over the Fraser speed limit.

Not quite as thrilling as a typical 90s car chase, it was however still fulfilling to glide that cruiser over fluffy white sands, trying to make the backseat passengers jump out of their seats, with every bump or turn.

Fraser Island is in every way, beautiful. It’s consistent white sands, secluded ‘champagne pools’ and fresh water lagoons, mark it unique in the sense that it sits in the middle of the ocean. Furthermore, its small population of wild dogs (Dingos) gives an eary sense of walking into unmarked territory, we of course are trespassers in a land that was once only inhabited by indigenous people. Don’t walk out alone, don’t run alone and certainly don’t venture in the dark alone, or face the consequences of bumping into a starved and ravenous Dingo.

We enjoyed our time on Fraser, it was like many tours, professionally operated, with fine attention to detail and if ever the opportunity comes along, I highly recommend the Drop Bear Tours.

Mostly though, I enjoyed my time with Rachel, a beloved friend but more like a sister. Our time together travelling the East Coast was an everyday reminder what was waiting for me at home. Friends, family, routine, comfort, security, predictability and happiness. It was a realisation then, that this ever growing trip, that had no end date, no scheduled return, would eventually take me back to where the heart is, and that was home.

I had not yet felt homesick, I had not felt the overwhelming urge to return home, that so many backpackers struggle with every day. But after my short time with Rachel, I began to reminisce of special friendships that were growing cold at home, suddenly I was saturated with a feeling of homesickness.

Travelling is a funny thing, it can evoke a sense of freedom and wellbeing. It can also feel your heart with dread and anxiety, so why travel? But to my experience all these feelings are sometimes their strongest when living at home. Everyday life is not so simple, in fact its far less simple than backpacking the world. So in my opinion travelling is good, travelling is opening your mind to a life outside the only one you have ever known. Suddenly you become aware of different cultures, different cuisines, different landscape, different upbringings and a completely different way of surviving, an exsistence that all the GCSE’s, A-Levels and University Degrees in the world, could not teach you.

It’s hard to establish what backpacking the world does to your life and I mean proper backpacking, I mean living like a local, eating like a local, immersing yourself every day into that country and its way of life. It certainly leaves a mark on you, it opens your mind to a world bigger than the cosmopolitan one, a more simple and beautiful one, and all of a sudden, the people who fuss over what set of wheels their driving and what handbag their carrying, become the people at the expense of your jokes.

Despite this, home leaves for me, an even stronger impression than the mark of a traveller. And when it came time to say goodbye to Rachel I realised then, that whilst some have the heart and spirit of a traveler, I still have the heart of a Gravesend girl and a life away from Rachel, my friends and family suddenly became alien, this journey when it would finish I wasn’t sure, where it would finish, was for certain, home.

North Stradbroke Island and Ozi friends

Chapter 29

After we said our farewells to Lynsey and Rob, we picked up a hired car and made plans to head to North Stradbroke Island, an island just off the coast of Brisbane.

We had not heard of Stradbroke, until an Australian family who we met on the East Coast, recommended it. She described it as a place that should not and could not be missed, an island of perfection, sun, sea and silky, white sands. Of course we had seen our fair share of dreamy islands, so we were not entirely convinced that this wasn’t something we had already seen before. But we had nothing to lose and if anything, plenty to gain, so Harry, I and our little wagon headed over by ferry to see what all the fuss about.

When we arrived in Stradbroke, all the hostels and campsites were ether closed or full. We tried again and again, but there was no room at the inn for the two homeless backpackers. We searched for a spot to pitch our tent but of course that is illegal in Australia, no campsite no pitch and if you’re caught, face the penalty of a hefty fine.

In the end all we could do was park up and get comfortable for the night, which meant absolutely zero comfort, zero air con, so, zero sleep. But it was for one night, so we sucked it up and got as cosy as we could in our little passion wagon, under the stars.

In the morning we drank tea and snacked on bread with our wallaby neighbours, although tired we were content.

We eventually checked into a campsite and yet again wrestled with our very insignificant two man, pop up tent and arranged our very basic amenities amongst an Ozi jungle of campers.

The Ozis know how to camp, I mean they win both bronze, silver and gold at camping. It’s like they move their whole house and it’s entire contents, fold it up into the car, then pop it right back out, Mary Poppins style. For the less experienced campers such as Harry and myself, we have to search these Ozi camping estates, in hope that we might find a spot of green to pitch our little home. In the meantime be sure to give your neighbours plenty of room, otherwise you might get into a kind of ‘Bad Neighbours,’ situation, a fight you probably wanted to avoid.

So we found our spot of tiny green, next to an array of Ozi plots and went out to explore our little island. It was, as promised, a taste of paradise and there was plenty to do and see. We walked the tourist trail around some part of the island’s circumference and from there you could spot schools of dolphins, turtles and stingrays. This called for one thing, let’s get our scuba gear back on.

We did a two tank dive with Manta Dive and as always, you are promised big things. The reality of course is something quite different. The ocean is vast and many elements can affect the outcome of your dive. Visibility, weather conditions, safety and of course the crew. And when you are paying Ozi prices you expect them, even against Mother Nature herself, to make sure everything is perfect. In fact all was pretty much perfect, other than Harry turning a rather strange shade of green, evacuating the boat and floating in the water, to shake the throbbing feeling of sea sickness. And besides that, the annoying Kiwi student with her claim to be studying Manta Rays, busy punching holes in them with her sphere like apparatus and scaring them all away! She was my least favourite thing about that dive and of course I couldn’t resist a good moan about it, I’m sure the girl took biopsy’s from the same Mantas over and over!

The dive however was pretty spectacular, we were spoilt for marine life and it was money, a lot of money, well spent. We retried back to our little home exhausted. On arrival back we were greeted by our neighbours, a friendly bunch of Ozis, all celebrating their friends 50th birthday. They invited us to drink with them and how could we refuse an ice cold one at the expense of our Ozi pals. We dined and drank with them, soon becoming part of the crowd. Of course they were operating in true Ozi style, generous and welcoming and before we knew it, we had a place to stay in just about every state of Australia.

The following day, Harry and I grabbed a coffee in our favourite Stradbroke coffee house and while we enjoyed the views over the ocean, we got chatting to another holiday maker. She advised us that at one of the more secluded beaches you could find dolphins and if lucky enough, feed them. It was one of the best tip offs we had had since being away. Yes there were wild dolphins and yes we did feed them, and if you were silly enough you could swim with them, but the local schools of tiger sharks prompted us not to. I went in waist deep, much to Harry’s objection and the dolphins nervously took the pilchards from my hands. It was surreal and they were as beautiful, as you always imagine them to be.

We spent many lazy days at Stradbroke, enjoying the beaches, the coffee, the wildlife, the snorkelling and our new found friends. In particular Jason, in fact Jason became one of our best finds in Australia.

Celebrating turning 50, he had the true heart of an Ozi. Generous, kind, caring and welcoming. So welcoming infact that an invitation to stay with him in Noosa was taken quite literally and in less than a week, we found ourselves sharing his three bedroom bungalow, us, Jason, Spike and Molly. To elaborate further Spike is a dog and Molly a cat, incase you mistook them for catchy Ozi nicknames.

We stayed with Jason in between waiting for our friends Rachel and Doyle to return. And in that time we fell in love with Jason, Spike, Noosa but Molly, not so much. We can’t all be cat lovers. In return for Jason’s kind hearted nature, we would walk Spike, do a little house keeping and always keep the fridge topped up with a few cold ones. It was a home away from home and Jason, our new best friend.

Harry invested in a surf board and spent his days riding, or attempting to ride the congested Noosa waves. I spent most my time sunbathing, reading, training and pretty much all other activities that a beach bum would do. It was bliss, Noosa was bliss and it was a nice break from bed hopping and backpack lugging.

In the end a bed that was made for two, became a bed for three and Spike would cosy up with us every night, a dog wedge in between two lazy backpackers.

One night, a restless night in an uncomfortable heat I was awoken suddenly. At first I wasn’t sure why, maybe the heat, maybe Harry fidgeting or maybe a dog barking outside. I dozed off and suddenly I was awoken again, this time however, I knew why. Something rustled against my leg and I jumped, and there it was again! I brushed my hand along my leg and touched something rather large scurrying across my skin. I screamed and it was as if my whole body reached for the ceiling, as I jumped, a cockroach, a rather large cockroach, flew across the room, hurtling into the wall and bounced back to the floor. The shock of the cockroach woke Harry and Spike and to add theatrical quality to the whole cockroach incident, I jumped onto the Hoover, turning the Hoover on and sending Spike wild. It was a midnight fiasco, somehow though we did not wake sleeping Prince Charming, Jason, he slept through the whole event.

The next day, tired and traumatised, I cockroach proofed the room. I never found the culprit in question and I never slept easy after that, dare the devil cockroach return and I would be waiting.

Australia

Chapter 28

Australia, the home of the kangaroo, the koala bear, the great white shark, several deadly spiders and several deadly snakes. Australia, where people just wear their bikini or board shorts, surf for a living and have abs of steel. Australia, the land where it never rains and everybody is blessed with olive skin. Australia, where they only drink Fosters, because any other lager is considered contraband and in their opinion is just not good ‘Piss.’ Australia, where life is simple, there’s no such thing as the rat race, people make time to say ‘gooday’ to each other and even after a hard days work, there’s plenty of time to ‘throw another shrimp on the Barbie.’

Well, not all of these facts are true and if you are a tourist heading to Australia, I will offer you some help deciphering the facts from the fiction. For starters, very few Ozis drink Fosters and are quite insulted that we even associate Fosters with our Ozi friends, infact it’s not even brewed in Australia, so keep the Foster drinking at home, or in your local boozer with your mates. Two, not all Ozi’s are a picture of beauty, so don’t panic about fitting in a gruelling workout regime prior to your Ozi trip because the likelihood is, your blend into the background just fine. Don’t get me wrong, there are some visions of beauty, but no more than anywhere else. Thirdly, whilst Australia has an excessive amount of species that can infact kill you, the likelihood is you will never see them. They are not waiting at the Australia arrivals for you, ready to slap a great, poisonous Ozi welcome bite on you, they are hiding and mostly living a quiet life in the outback somewhere, or in the depths of the oceans, where very few people go. However, what is almost a certainty about Australians is a lot of them do say ‘good day’ and whilst its most uncommon for us English to great each other when passing in the morning, don’t be surprised if every Ozi you see on your morning stroll, makes the point of making eye contact with you and wishes you well on your day. And in fact our Ozi friends are actually, mostly fair skinned and spend most of their time out of the sun, or slapping on factor 50 to protect them from the searing UV rays.

Yes it is fair to say that the Ozi way of life is a little more relaxed then most, why, I’m not entirely sure. I suppose the weather evokes a sense of inner warmth, comfort and somehow releases them all good endorphins, because how can you not be happy when the sun is warming your back. And with the sun comes opportunity to surf and opportunity to drink, both of which the Australians are very good at. So after a tiresome four months working for Paspayley Pearls, Harry and I decided to see what all the fuss was about.

We started where most tourists start their East Coast journey and that is Sydney, a city misconceived as the countries capital, when infact its actually Canberra. There’s no denying it, Sydney is beautiful, its plentiful monumental attractions make it a tourist hub attracting millions of tourists every year and they are not to be missed, the Royal Opera House, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Botanical Gardens, Manly, just to mention a few. For Harry and I it was a step back into a western world, where you can actually buy Cadburys chocolate, shop the high street, drink prosecco and not have to barter for every item you buy. But it comes with a hefty price tag, farewell Asia and your tasty price’s, hello Australia meet my ever declining bank balance!

So we enjoyed what Sydney had to offer and it wasn’t just sights we were there to see. Fortunately for us, we were surrounded by friends, starting with the Hoads.

It turns out we spent a very English themed Christmas in a very alternative climate, indulging in a traditional English Christmas dinner and to embrace our fellow Ozi countryman, we headed down to Manly beach and enjoyed several glasses of prosecco whilst cooling off in the sea. It was, as much as we could make it to be, an English Christmas with an Australian twist and most certainly the first ever Christmas Day where I have been sunburnt. It turned out that we became backpacking lodgers at the Hoad residence, hanging with the Hoad sisters, and their parents who were visiting from home. We spent our days cruising around Manly, a must see for anyone visiting Australia. We woke up early, trained amongst the many fitness fanatics on Manly beach and to conclude our exhausting session, we would sit in the square, drinking coffee and watch the world go by.

It was bliss for a few days, home comforts, precious friends, plentiful laughs and a place that felt like home, we didn’t want to leave. But all good things must come to an end and Sydney is just a fraction of what Australia has to offer, so when all the coffee and cruisy mornings dried up, we packed our bags again, said a sad farewell to our new found family and began our journey up the East Coast.

We also had visitors from home ourselves, my friend Rachel, her excellent companion Doyle and two new travel enthusiasts Lynsey and Rob. We were to hitch a ride in Lynsey and Rob’s campervan whilst Rachel and Doyle would fly north and make their way south, we would finally meet them half way at Fraser Island.

The East Coast in areas, can be considered by many as a party strip, a coastline of bustling bars and rowdy backpackers and to some extent this is true. But backpackers, you make your own way and it’s easy enough in a western world, to detour from the tourist trail and make your own way up or down the coast. In my opinion some of the best spots are hidden away from the bustling coast line and whilst the beaches are pristine, there’s more to see behind the everlasting stretch of sand and sky rise buildings.

So Harry and I would jump a ride with our new travel buddies Lynsey and Rob. Often this meant Lynsey and I laying in the back of our two-man campervan whilst the boys shared the driving and navigation. We came across some gems, including Delicate Nobby Campground, a campsite with its very own secluded beach, complete with squeaky sand, crystal blue waters and sensual sunsets. It was paradise and the best part, we had it all to ourselves.

Life was good with our new travel friends , we collaborated well as a foursome of Ozi travellers. At every pitstop Lynsey and Rob would settle into their camper, whilst Harry and I would wrestle time and time again with our two man pop-up tent. We slept every night under the stars, cosy and at one with nature, it was our new home for the next few months.

We moved between campsites, each more unique then the last, until we finally arrived at Ninh Binh, a quiet yet quirky little town. It appeared to me at first, to be much like a film set, its colourful shop fronts and hippy type residences gave it a surreal feel. But what Ninh Binh is most famous for is its large population of stoners, pot-heads, or whatever other term you might refer to them as. And they are everywhere, nearly everyone of them is high, sitting in their local coffee shop, of which there are plenty, just smoking the reefa, chatting with their friends. I had been to Amsterdam so the sight of people smoking weed in coffee houses was not alien to me but it was the sight of others, who are more so induced in a chemical coma, dribbling and mumbling, that was a little more foreign.

We were however, here as buyers, not for my own consumption I might add, no my weed smoking days long ended in my university years and now even the smell was more than I could stomach, but we were here to buy weed and weed we must buy. So we did what buyers do and hunted the local coffee shops for the best deal. We weren’t the most discrete shoppers, Harry was a walking advertisement for Nike and I in my army jacket and Doctor Martens, so we waited whilst our friends went inside to make a purchase. We observed the local smoky joes, a spliff in one hand and a coffee in another, there was no uneasiness, it was causal and not unusual to sit in a coffee house chugging on a pipe. What was unusual however, was the man sitting alone, mumbling to himself, infatuated by his umbrella. He twirled it around and around, he even tried to converse with it, before placing it under his arm for a cuddle, a warming embrace and whilst all this was going on, he never once remembered to wipe the dribble that was hanging from his chin.

It was a show for us all, the guy has even caught the attention of the regulars. We tried to continue with our cappuccinos, but the guy edged closer and as if by magic another mushroom, munted guy appeared. He too in a world of his own, he too dribbling from each corner of his mouth, it was an interesting display of chemical verses man, my cappuccino had become cold and the sight of too much human saliva had ruined it anyway.

Our friends made a successful purchase and blazed a little whilst we wandered the high street. There was plenty more to see other than local stoners, so Harry and I enjoyed the local food and local crafts. It was a day well spent and an interesting insight into the uniqueness of Ninh Binh. After, there’s no recollection of quirky coffee shops and if any evidence of people enjoying a smoke, well it’s not on display in the public high street.

So my backpackers, if your travelling the East Coast, enjoy a blaze and are a little alternative, then Ninh Binh is not to be missed and if you like culture, enjoy unusual displays of human behaviour and appreciate good coffee, then Ninh Binh is definitely, not to be missed.

Working on the biggest Pearling Ship in the world, part 2

Chapter 27

Ladies there are just some jobs and some industries that are and always will be governed by men. The only way to overcome this, is to prove you are just as valuable as a guy.

Surrounded by nothing but ocean, there is no governing body out at sea to read you your rights, pat you on the back for speaking up, or get an encore for getting all bravado about women’s rights and equality. It really is a case of get busy working or get busy packing. And that’s exactly what I and everybody else has to do in the Paspaley fleet.

The job comes with a set of credentials and if you haven’t already ticked all the boxes, then you surly will by the end of it. Swollen hands, chipped fingernails, greasy skin, grazed forearms and the constant stench of shell on your skin. You may be asking, why oh why would you do such a job and I similarly asked myself the same thing over and over. But whilst a life as a Pearl Farmer is a challenging existence, it does offer some of its own treasures and I’m not just talking pearls.

For starters, words cannot describe the sight of your first Hump Back Whale and mine was one I’ll never forget. In the chaos of an afternoon at work, amidst a chipping and sorting shell frenzy, the heat a blistering 30+ degrees and the humidity, well even your eyelids are sweating, something suddenly caught my eye. To my disbelief the hump of an enormous whale had surfaced from the water and was hovering around the back deck of the boat. Was I seeing things? Nobody else had cared to look up, and there it was again. I screamed out, ‘whale, whale! People briefly turned and some even laughed, this was not their first sighting of course, in fact this was not even their second or third, this was not by any means unusual, we were floating in the middle of a whale migration route. My overwhelming excitement could have been mistaken for a child who had been given their first bite of chocolate, so just for a few moments I was excused from work to relish in my first whale encounter. The whale sightings became more frequent and I, always as excited as the first time I saw one. How could an animal like that ever get boring? We were the unlikely backpackers getting a first class seat, to an unlikely sighting of spectacular marine life and the best part, it was all for free.

Whales, turtles, sharks and dolphins were all frequent visitors to the boat. At night you could often catch a school of dolphins feeding at the back deck, dancing in and out of the current, putting on a fantastic display for us. Sharks for me were even more fascinating, circling the boat over and over, the boys would tease them with tuna heads and left over meat, bringing them closer to the ship, close enough to see them smile.

Of course it’s not just breathtaking nature that marks this job as completely unique but its the lifestyle, the people and of course the exclusiveness of our floating home. As I mentioned before there are some typical seaman characters and if you were to write a comedy sketch, they would certainly make a feature. Tomo, how can I not mention Tomo? Imagine your typical Ozi guy and times it by 100. Tomo loves his country and is a proud Northern Territory kinda guy, branded by his Australian tattoos, stamped across his arms, a constant reminder that not only is he Ozi, but Ozi and proud. There are plenty of amusing tales I could share with you about Tomo, one involving a lighter, a crate of beers and the stench of burnt hair but unfortunately for you readers, well you had to be there to see it, some things just can’t be shared. It was however, a Tomo spectacle and they don’t come more spectacular than Tomo. Working with Tomo was mostly a pleasure, as long as Tomo liked you, you were safe and if he didn’t, keep your head down and hope for the best. In the early days Tomo was mostly chilled and content, originally a member of the Montoro Fleet but unfortunately for him in the season of 2017, he was moved to the Pas 4, branded to outsiders as the ‘slave ship.’ It was a tough season, way harder than that of our first and it got the better of some people. During an eight hour depaneling and chipping session, I’m almost certain I caught him talking to himself, dazed and consumed by an altogether separate world to ours, well after all, who can blame the guy? I’d rather have imagined myself anywhere else in the world, other than that processing table.

And then there’s Jonny and Joey, the double act, the two amigos, the smokey Joes and the annoyingly likeable guys. Always chuffing on a rolly and as soon as the call came, ‘knock off guys,’ well they sparked a rolly and cracked a cold one.

Then there’s Rick, our other Skipper, a Paspaley veteran and our tour guide. You can count on Rick to cease an opportunity and if you’re loyal, work hard and get your head down, you can guarantee you’ve made a friend. There’s plenty of fond memories with Rick, in particular my birthday tour of Jar Island, in the Kimberly region. It was the perfect birthday present, exploring the surrounding area with the best of friends, visiting a World War Two plane wreck, not to mention the three bars of Cadbury chocolate he left in my room on my 30th birthday, its moments like that, that make it all worthwhile.

And of course I must mention, Mikey, Grigor, Grige, or whatever you like to call him. It took me the best part of my first season to work out how to say ‘Grige’ properly and when the season came to the end , well he was ranked comfortably in my top five favourites of the Paspaley crew. Second in command on the ship and although you knew he was in charge, you could breathe easy around him. What became apparent is Mikey had a taste for the finer things, fine dining, smart clothes, flash shades and when he would pull up next to the ship after his two weeks of RTO, wearing his Tom Fords and a crisp white T, it occurred to me that although Mikey was a seaman at heart, he was a city boy by taste.

Then there’s the girls, your skin and blister, your agony aunts, your gossip queens. In my first season there were plenty of girls and there was never a dull moment, we chatted, gossiped, chatted some more, laughed and even managed to fit in some gym sessions together.

Life became so bizarre on the Pas 4, that it was normal to behave eccentric, barking like a dog, eating sunscreen for money, wagering for dinner duty and various other bizarre and imaginative forms of entertainment.

In 2017 there were less girls, but we were still a team of girl power, essential cogs in the Paspaley fleet. When turning 30 on the ship the girls braced me for the initial farewell to my dear and wonderful twenties, spoiling me and gently humouring me, ’30s is where the magic happens’ they said, thank you Becky, Sarah and Kailah, I’ll forever remember you for that.

This was much the routine on the Pas 4, work, eat, fish, drink, repeat. The laughs and banter between the crew was plentiful and you could always rely on some to brighten the day. Imagine this, four people in a tank full of 5000 shell, waiting to be opened. No proper air flow and no windows, suffocating heat, where dehydration can get hold of you quickly. Wearing not much more than a sports bra, leggings and wellies, well, it’s like the hottest rave you’ve ever been to, but hotter. Sweat crawls down your back, down between your boobs, between all the wrong cracks, it’s a sweatbox full of half naked bodies, minus the heavy beats and the chemical treats. Yet not all is lost in the hull of the ship, because opening shell for nine hours a day comes with its benefits. Trent, Sarah, the Greek, Jack and me, were, in our finest hours a team of opening mechanics, working against the clock in adjacent to our rival fellows in the opposite tank, to get shell, after shell, after shell, after shell, opened. To break up the longevity of the day we would listen to the Greeks music, a collaboration of Abba, S-Club 7, hard EDM and on occasions a classic Wham track. Whenever a spare moment, we would take opportunity to head bang, cut a tune or even master a band, the Greek stealing the show with his theatrical ways. The Greek was an unusual character for a ship full of inflated egos, his eccentric ways set him apart from the regular crew and whilst he didn’t quite fit the part, he nevertheless prided himself on his originality.

Above us, the sound of Abba was drowned out by the sound of crew killing shell for hours upon hours, a conveyor of shell transported into a high maintenance cleaner and the meat that was once inside, now carefully carved, ready to be packaged and sold. This process continues until every shell is ether opened or killed and every day there is 10,000 of them, the hours and work is relentless and if there’s an implication, then the hours seem to never end. All this is preparation for the afternoons work, when like every other day in Harvest, another 10,000 shell will arrive and we all muscle in, for yet another afternoon at the depanel parade. The shell is then loaded into wiries, an open top, ten pocket type of cage, securing each shell upright, ready for the openers to begin their work the following day.

Before this however, the shell must be loaded into the tanks and it’s a job no one really wants. The burden is rotated between the openers and there’s always one who is an exception, the excuse maker and considered the special one. Alex, the kinda guy who can crush you in a single sentence, has the manners of a school kid and the work ethic of….. well let’s just say he cuts the mustard when he has to. Alex and I had our fair share of squabbles and mostly they were work related, mostly. Enemies in my first season but 2017 bought prosperity between us until it came to tank loading. Tank loading is not for the weak, its heavy, it’s hot and it’s fast and the Canadian new how to dodge a bullet. He appointed himself, most days, to send the wiries down to the loader in the depths of the tanks, one of the easier jobs on the boat. The loader controls the pace of the loading and when the demand is high, Alex loads them down like rockets. Bang! Bang! Bang! if you don’t move fast you’re miss the catapults firing down the slide and if you miss it, the sound of shell against metal echoes throughout the boat. It took Alex nearly a whole season to get his small bum down the tank to load and there he loaded four whole tanks, just as the naughty kid should.

I suppose you can’t be friends with everybody and I certainly, am not always at the top of people’s Christmas card list. But what becomes apparent is minor squabbles on deck, are surely forgotten once the ‘knock off call’ comes. Viktor, my good Swedish friend, a diamond to hang out with but a Hitler to work with. The guy claims to be 29 but really is 30 plus. His unique ways brand him as the ‘grandad’ of the ship, getting up an hour earlier than everyone else to indulge in some quiet time, whilst revelling in the first coffee of the day in his very own Viktor, coffee cup. However, don’t underestimate the power of the cup, you must be ready to sacrifice your life, bowel down in shame and prey to the gods for forgiveness if you ever, mistakenly or knowingly drink from that cup! And don’t get me started on his drinks canister! Viktor is a guy very much set in his ways, a man of few words and concealed by his Terminator style shades, you’re never quite sure what he’s conspiring and if you’re caught slacking, chatting or taking a casual minute, watch you don’t face the wrath of Viktor, he may just send a few shells hurtling your way! Despite his unpredictable mood swings, Viktor and his one of a kind girlfriend Nobu, a Japanese workaholic, are the very best companions and whilst work is work, friends will always be friends and I wasn’t about to give up my favourite sparring partner on the boat!

I also must mention Takenobu, our beloved technician leader and pearl enthusiast. He’s the head technician of the fleet, supervising his extensive crew of merry Japanese men. Operating on shell is a competitive game, the Pearling masters are, it seems, in competition with each other, each looking for a top ranking place on the daily ‘operated shell’ leaderboard. Unfortunately it is prohibited to take pictures in the Operations Room, a blinding white room, very much like a science lab, where the technicians where white lab coats and sit at a an operating station, complete with dentist light, running fresh water and the necessary utensils. It’s quite something when you see it for the first time and like any operation theatres, there is no chance for fun and games. It takes a while for the technicians to warm to you, it’s not a instant bond and it’s a relationship built on time and hard work. After a few rounds in the Ops room, your reputation can proceed you and sooner or later you find yourself cracking jokes and even humouring them. My favourite of course was Taky, we often enjoyed a glass of red on a Sunday evening, watching the sun set and even during work there was time to have a quick gossip and shot a few smiles and private jokes. It’s an unlikely collaboration of nationalities in such close living quarters but it works, creating a family type aura amongst the ship. I found a good friend in Taky, my Japanese Pearling master and an even better date for dinner.

As promised, I couldn’t finish this piece without mentioning Tommy, the Darth Vader of the Pas 4.

People actually move out the way of Tommy, change jobs, be excused to the toilet and even eat outside at mealtimes, just to escape a standoff with the Irish. Of course how could I escape a run in with the boat’s biggest villain and unlucky for me my time came, after a few too many cold ones and a discussion about internet dating. Turns out the guy is sexually frustrated and on a floating prison with little time for such after hours activities, frustration can boil up, I can’t be blamed for such problems! Despite our petty squabbles, a peace treaty was called and I, after swearing to never work with the Irish again, managed to survive a whole season without any further squabbles. Whether you feared, loved or despised Tommy, you could guarantee things got done quicker when he was around, it was like people sniffed a line of cocaine, his presence evoked a sense of urgency and people literally catapulted into military mode, chipping, sorting, cleaning and moving 100miles an hour quicker. So I guess the answer is, work hard and the Irish will leave you alone, slack off, appear weak, gossip too much and you may just want to sleep with one eye open.

Our time on the Pas 4 in 2016 was fairly kind to us. Apart from beginners bad luck, we settled in well, making new pals. We enjoyed our new found friends, a concoction of Ozis and English with a drop of Estonian, a splash of Japanese, twisted with a touch of Swedish, a bite of Canadian, a warmth of a Kiwi, the heart of an Italian and a sharpness of the Irish. We hung out after work and on our days off, we made the most of our freedom together.

On the boat, such a close nit environment played out much the same way as university life does, a calaboration of people bought together by our common interest in Pearl Farming but of course there was plenty other interests within the crew, ones that evoked more drama than that of pearls. I would have to start an altogether new blog, headed ‘romances and bromances,’ to elaborate further on the Paspaley after hours gossip, unfortunately there just isn’t the time.

In 2017 there was less time, or effort for such after hours activities. Days were longer, work was harder and the main gossip of the boat circulated around what time we would knock off that day.

But there were moments, days, people and sights that I will forever remember. My very first sight of the Kimberly’s, my first pick up, my first sunset, sunrise and moonrise. My first argument, my first day of opening shell, my first night watch, Harry’s first catch, he’s second, his third and the fourth.

And of course, not forgetting the VIP trip. The VIP trip is an extreme contrast to our daily routine, for starters there is no 4:30am wake ups and the sight of a shell is rare. In fact the boat is turned into a cruise like vessel, accomodating some of Paspaley’s biggest spenders. They are invited on board for a luxurious cruise around the Kimberly region and us, the selected lucky few, are their waitresses and waiters, tour guides and helpers, cleaners and cocktail makers. Whilst we pander to the VIP guests, admiring their pearls and riches, we also reap the benefits of some breathtaking views. The Kimberly’s, in my opinion, is one of Australia’s gems, it’s a secret hideaway of breathtaking views, caverns, waterfalls and coral reefs and unless you’ve come to Australia with a fat budget, then you may as well just view it’s marvels on google images. Or, alternatively just look at mine.

In contrast to that is a far less glamorous, more frequent endeavour and that is Pick Up. A task operated daily by a selected few of the crew. Those few are rotated, accept for for the Skipper and the First Mate. Every year there’s a lot of discussion about who will be First Mate of the Vansittart vessel and in 2017 it was Harry’s time. The Ringo was chuffed to bits, a backpacker with a promotion and it was one of the best, a break from the Pas 4, gets to bark orders at a group of deckhands and the best bit, he was ranked higher than me. So when the time came, Harry would take charge of us peasant deckhands whilst we ran an operational Pick-up. The task is to set off in the morning on a far smaller vessel, the Vansittart, steam for an hour or so, to where the shell farms are and collect around 10,000 shell. The collection of the shell is a process of winching, plucking, cleaning, sorting, stacking, tying and untying ropes, craning and to help you imagine some of these better, I’ll elaborate further….Harry operates a winch, which halls the line up and attached to it are panels of shell. As the line comes closer to the boat, a deckhand will pluck the panel from the line and advance it under their arm to the next deckhand, who will cut any fishery tags and push the panel through a high powered cleaner.

On the other side two further deckhands will wait, one will cut any remaining cable ties and will then pass two panels at a time to the remaining deckhand, who will, in their best efforts, stack the panels upright across the breadth of the boat. The system is fast and relentless and in order to process 1200 panels, there’s no time to be waisted. Again this process is far more technical than the ‘step-by-step,’ more simplistic procedure that I have explained for your benefit. It’s furthermore heavy and physical and often endured against extreme heat, ripping currents and rough oceans and you spend most of the process covered in sludge that came from the bottom of the ocean. It’s not your finest hour!

Pick- up happens during the Operations period, during Harvest our fellow Farmies deliver the goods. It’s like most other procedures on the boat, a team effort and every individual plays an important role, one man down and the system breaks down. My first pickup of 2017 was a memorable one, it was rough, it was hectic and the crew were new, so the job was slow. Lucky for us we had Chris Read that day, the biggest of all deckhands, standing around six foot four and a competent member of the crew. But on a rough sea it doesn’t matter how much you lift or how big you are, the elements can get the better of you. Chris began to slack off, rolling a little and stumbling. Patience we reminded ourselves, but there is little time for such virtues on such a demanding job as this, the weakest of the pack ultimately holds the rest back and so we were wasting time. At first we thought he was being melodramatic, putting on a display of, ‘oh woah is me,’ but then it started, the groaning and the moaning, the stuttering and slurring, his panel stacking was a abysmal and he just got louder and louder until…… He threw his head over the side of the boat and there it unfolded, a scene from the exorcist, a unique display of projectile vomiting, getting more theatrical and more violent with every episode. We half laughed half cringed, the guys once sturdy legs were now Bambi like and his complexion, a pale green. He fought on, vomiting in between every few panels and when we thought he couldn’t possibly bring up anything else, he continued to vomit some more. When we pulled back alongside the Pas 4, Chris got off a broken man but nevertheless, valiant in his efforts to persevere and complete his very first pick-up.

So like I said being a Pearl Farmer is quite a unique job. Despite all the moans and groans, it is, overall an experience I shall never forget, a highlight in my backpacking years, that for other people who mostly still think Harry and I are diving looking for pearls, the reality is something quite different. We have made some amazing friends and to try and narrow twelve months, two seasons, several drunken nights out, four hostels, two different vessels, countless pick-ups, a few petty squabbles, a promotion, a knock-out involving a 20kg plate, over 100 muffins, 1000 strong coffees, one lost fingernail, 2000 plucked panels, some where in the thousands of opened shell, a few cold ones on the back deck and some amazing memories, well it means this blog might never end.

Thank you Paspaley for an unforgettable adventure.

Working on the biggest Pearling Ship in the world

Chapter 26

The plan was always to find work in Australia, but what we didn’t plan was to land ourselves a job, on the biggest pearling vessel in the world.

Pearl farming, if you didn’t already know is the process of the cultivation of pearls. Pearls to me, until now, was a precious stone found at the bottom of the ocean, made by an oyster. A rare but expensive stone, most famously worn by wealthy people but the misconception is where and how it is found.

The process of cultivating a pearl is a process that for anyone who hasn’t seen it with the human eye, is hard to fathom. So when Harry and I stepped onto the Vansittart, a far smaller vessel than the Paspaley 4, we had literally no idea where or what we were doing. That feeling that you get on your first day at a new job, times that by 100 and that’s the place Harry and I were at. Dumb and dumbfounded, we sat in the wheelhouse on our four hour commute to our future home.

So this is how it works; the cultivation of a pearl is the process of tricking the animal into making a pearl. Paspaley cracked this by realising that if they inserted a nuclei (plastic looking bead), into the pearl sack, an intricate operation performed by exclusively trained Japanese technicians. These guys in the pearling world, are considered gods, the masters of ‘top secret,’ ingenious work that only they and the generations after them will ever know the secret to. Once the operation is completed the shell is sent back out to the ocean and if successful, a pearl will begin to develop. Throughout this two year process the shell will be cared for, cleaned, chipped and turned to ensure the best level of development. And like many other processes of evolution, the quality of the pearl will depend largely on its environmental influences and quality of care. During the Harvest period, another procedure is performed by our technician friends and sees the extraction of the pearl, if the shell is healthy, another nuclei will be planted and the whole pearling cycle begins again. Not to be fooled, of course there is the rare find of a completely natural pearl but you may spend a lifetime looking for it.

Like I said, it’s hard to fathom. In fact my brief explanation still does not even scratch the surface of the mechanics behind the pearling world. So Harry and I, pearling virgins, were thrown, quite literally into the deep end.

Day 1, Harry was to endure the chaos of the Process Deck. To simplify things, this is an area on deck that is operated by usually three people, a circuit of total havoc, where one guy once said, ‘You don’t even have time to wipe your arse! Trays, panels, wedges and shells are hurled out of the Operations Room to be processed. Everything is cleaned and organised for its next venture and Harry, with colleague Billy, a young Ozi boy, were to keep things running smoothly. Billy, famous for his laidback ways, mostly left the more arduous tasks to the new kid and when Harry was almost fully submerged by the ever growing stack of trays, Mikey the First Mate grabbed one and told him to clean the whole lot again. It was a brutal reality, that even a fit able bodied roofer could not keep up with the pace of the Pas 4.

I on the other hand had a less physical job and spent my morning In the Operations Room assisting the technicians, by placing each operated shell into a hanging eight pocket panel. Too easy! Or so I thought. Once the panel is completed you are to press a clicker to register the panel, as well as clicking yet another clicker when you load a new tray of shell at the technicians desk. But, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, I clicked at the wrong time and after four hours of clicking wrong, the whole Operations Room was in a frenzy. The technicians, who were a tough crowd but mostly pleasant, were out of their chairs liaising with each other about the new girl, who had possibly just ended the world with the flick of the wrong switch! It was awkward, embarrassing and not how I hoped my first day would go. But whilst I was kicking myself about the whole clicking senario, I couldn’t help but think, calm down Ria it’s not that bad, the world will somehow go on. Viktor, my Ops Room Supervisor was less than impressed by the new dumb, blonde chick and had stern but few words to say to me. Tanaka, the oldest of the technicians and the top ranking of them, demanded that I was banned from the Ops Room and should never return, because after all the girl with the wrong click had quite nearly ended the world.

Harry and I assembled that evening in the privacy of our room. I tearful and ready to throw in the towel but Harry confident and defiant, ‘we mustn’t give up Ree.’ And we didn’t and whilst this was no military service, our time spent on the Paspaley 4 was some of the hardest physical labour I had ever endured.

After my little misfortune in the Ops Room my luck changed for the better and I suddenly found myself as ‘part of the crew.’ Hanging with the girls after work brought some comfort after a hard days labour on deck, finding time to even go to the gym and even star gazing at night. Life wasn’t all that bad and whilst a life at sea is largely associated with rough oceans, the stench of fish and the lack of personal hygiene, well in this case it couldn’t be further from the truth. The Pas 4 is nothing but luxurious, hot showers, small dorm like rooms, a lounge area with Foxtel TV, a comfortable Mess Area (dining area) with ocean views and if you’re a higher ranking member of staff, well you reap the benefits of an ensuite, desk and chair and in some cases even a lounge area and TV. Yes life on the Pas 4 was far more comfortable than any hostel but of course you have to take into account the gruelling 12-14 hours of labour everyday, and that is the price you pay for good hospitality.

Whilst the living conditions didn’t quite fit that of the typical seaman ideology, most other aspects did. For example your stereotypical seaman characters starting with the Skipper, our good friend Michael. Your best hope for survival when around Michael, is to be a girl and if you’re a girl capable of handling physical labour and can humour him, well you’re in poll position. If however you are a guy, well you have some work to do. If you’re a guy who is weak, come from a private education or have any female tendencies, well mate, you’re done for! However, whatever your sexuality, whatever your physical capabilities and wherever you came from, it’s likely that at least once, you will face the wrath of Michael, the crazy ass Ozi Skipper.

My first unfortunate encounter with Michael, was deliberately set up by Tommy, of whom I shall mention more later. He ordered me, at 5:30am, our starting time, to collect sky hooks, which he so desperately needed. An order is an order and if Tommy ordered it, you obey. So off I went on a mission, begging people to advise where I would find these sky hooks and what the hell they were.Things were getting desperate, time was ticking by and Tommy was by no means a patient man. Jonny and a few others colleagues suggested I head to find Michael, he knew exactly where to find them. I hunted everywhere for the man who had all the answers and the last place he cold be was his room and the only thing he could have been doing at that moment in time, was sitting on the thrown, relieving his bowls. It was game over, the joke was on me. Never disturb a man on his thrown, especially your Skipper, I may as well have tied the noose around my neck then and there.

Tommy never got his sky hooks, Michael never finished doing his business and I would never live it down.

Goodbye Asia, hello Australia

Chapter 25

After our strenuous climb we thought it only right to enjoy some well earned rest. We headed to Gili Air for beach days, pancakes and cocktails. Shortly after we had a visit from Harry’s parents and the wining and dining continued in a lavish style. Harry’s parents were the perfect travel buddy’s, chilled, hip and up for just about anything, well nearly everything.

One of the highlights of our time together was our visit to the Monkey Forest, situated in Ubud, Indonesia. It is unfortunately a tourist hub, where hundreds of travellers and holiday makers are out to catch the perfect ‘monkey and me’ selfie. But despite the crowds and very small price tag, it is worth the visit and much to Jeanette’s objection, we couldn’t resist the monkey playground.

Before you even enter the Monkey Forest they are everywhere, on the roofs of parked cars, hanging off shop fronts and rustling through bins. Jeanette, now adopting Chris as a type of monkey barrier, kept a generous distance from the hairy pests, where as I was playing the part of a typical tourist and the closer I got, well I only wanted to get even closer than that.

Deeper into the jungle we went and we soon began to understand why ‘STRICTLY NO MONKEY CONTACT,’ was nessecary. These monkeys operated in gangs, gangs of pickpockets, looking for human treasures, specialising in, car keys , wallets and their personal favourite, the iPhone.

We hid our belongings as best we could and Jeannette with her trusty bodyguard, was successful in avoiding any monkey contact. I was not so and managed to attract a monkey right to my hand. He crawled around my body until taking a perch on my shoulder and when nothing of great value could be found, he got bored and jumped off. Harry was not impressed and unlike his dad, was clearly not worthy of defending his woman of any monkey thieves. There was not even time for a photo with me and my friend, or more so, Harry was too far away to take one!

The rest of our time there was spent searching the jungle and watching the monkeys frolic around.When they are not committing felonies, they are reproducing and so the Monkey Forest forever prospers.

We shared many memorable moments with Harry’s parents most of all, Harry’s 30th birthday. How to make turning 30 an unforgettable day without your fellow ravers? Get his mum and dad to fly over from the UK and go on the search for Manta Rays, that’s how. This was not our first attempt at seeing Manta Rays, our first hope for sighting them had ended bitterly. We had headed to Nusa Lembongan, an Island off of Bali, famous for Manta Ray encounters. Well we didn’t see any, we didn’t even make it to Manta Ray point, the weather was too rough apparently. It was however, perfect conditions for other dive groups who sighted fifteen Mantas that day, I was devastated and the devastation sparked a row between us both. We returned that day with broken hearts and we were not to talk again till the following morning.

This time would be different, we would dive with a different dive group and head out from the mainland and not the island itself. Harry’s parents would move onto Ubud and we would meet them there later. Expectations were high and although it was Harry’s big day, we were both filled with anxiety. To see Manta Rays or not to see Manta Rays, that was the dreaded unknown that hung over our heads. It wasn’t however, what everyone else was hoping on, a sighting of a Mola Mola fish, or otherwise known as a Sun Fish, was what our fellow divers were counting on seeing and whilst that would be most spectacular and rare, we still had our hopes on a Manta.

Manta point was the last dive of the day and it was the coldest. We descended down into the blue a mere eight metres and there almost immediately was a dark silhouette of a Manta and that was just the beginning. They fluttered past gracefully, at times you could almost reach out and touch them, we were in complete ore of this one -of-a-kind fish. Their fins were bat like, but far more enchanting, their stroke effortless, wading back the water majestically and we just hovered, hovered and stared hoping to catch the perfect snapshot of our fish friends , who we had searched so long for. Soon enough a Manta, the largest of the group, changed its course and headed my way. By luck I had the Go Pro in my hand and I’m sure not even the BBC could have got better footage if they tried. His fin fluttered over my head and his body completely exposed itself, a glimmering white, speckled with splashes of black. He was beautiful and not at all camera shy, he didn’t stop for long and continued on his route, eventually disappearing into the darkness of the ocean. We had got lucky and the excitement bubbled up inside us. Under the water there are limited ways to communicate but the erratic hand gestures and spluttered sounds from our Regulators suggested an overwhelming manner of satisfaction. It turned out we never saw the Mola Mola but Harry and I didn’t care, we had finally found our Manta Ray.

We said an emotional goodbye to Harry’s parents, it had been an unforgettable three weeks and we are eternally grateful for the memories we made with them.

Now however the fun was over, our bank balances were uneasy on the eye and it was time to get a job. Not all travelers work whilst away, most spend the money they saved and head home when finances run short but we were not ready to head home and we had dreams of exploring Australia, so to make this possible it was time to get back into the real world and find a job.

It’s a short flight from Denpasar to Darwin, Australia. Our flight into Oz was that of a memorable one and sure enough, before even landing in Australian territory, we made our first friend. His name was Zack and his occupation, a Detective, specialising in the investigation of backpackers. I was surprised by his forthcoming attitude, wondering whether all Australians were as forward as this? Almost before I’d managed to put my bag in the overhead locker, we settled into conversation. The usual jargon was thrown around, ‘where are you from? ‘How old are you? ‘Did you have a nice holiday? It was however getting late and ideally Harry and I were looking to catch up on some beauty sleep. But sandwiched between Harry and a backpacker enthusiast, there was little chance of a catnap. The coversation spiralled, Zack now moved matters onto finances, curious of how we had supported ourselves for so long unemployed, ‘how much money do you have in your pocket right now? Harry and I were speechless, was this the Ozi way? Was everyone as invasive as this? Of course I didn’t want to share my financial stature with a complete stranger, could he be the tax man undercover? Before we could even reply he was offering us money. Money! Was this the Ozi way? My instant reaction was to accept the generous offer from the Australian stranger but to accept money from a seven year old boy would be shameful of me, especially when it seemed he was loaning it from his mum, who was sitting the next row along.

The offers kept rolling in, initially money had be thrown on the table, but now a sleep over was up for discussion and even an invite to Zack’s bday party. His mum tried to calm him down, explaining that the acquaintance of new friends was the reason for his hyperactivity. Harry soon tired of conversing with Zack, talk of the newest Power Ranger game, had of little interest to him. I on the other hand felt it refreshing and native to Darwin, Zack had plenty of tourist tips for us. ‘Visit the Crocodilla centre and see real crocs! Did you know there is three Crocs to every one person in Darwin? Oh and be sure to wear sun cream, you will surly burn in the Darwin heat.’ When the food cart came through Zack begged his mum to supply his new broke friends with a snack, all as embarrassed as each other, we kindly declined and assured Zack that we were not homeless, just travelling.

Soon enough we were descending into Australia for the first time and honestly we were nervous, this was not another holiday and no longer were we traveling in a world where dinner could be bought for 50 pence and accomodation could cost as cheap as £2.00. Reality was about to bite hard, we were entering a Western world and none come more expensive than Australia.

We said our goodbyes to Zack and his tired family and hoped for a swift check through immigration. We waited our turn in the que and finally when we were at the gate, the lady held up her hand and stopped us. ‘Is this your child ? Child, we have no child I thought, she asked again and this time she was more abrupt. Looking down I realised the problem and there standing next to us was Zack staring right back at us, innocent and oblivious that he was about to get us in some serious trouble for charges of kidnap.

We quickly ushered him away and directed him back to his family who were busy in the Duty Free section. Then we were up again, a second attempt at passing through immigration. It was not our day and Harry was to be questioned, as well as having his bag pulled open and searched. Eventually we made it through, escaping charges of immigration and drug smuggling, welcome to Australia!

Darwin is a humid place, consisting mainly of two seasons, the wet and the dry. The heat is somewhat overwhelming and the extreme humid temperatures take some getting used to. We had by now acclimatised to warmer temperatures, long forgetting what the bite of a crisp, cold, winter felt like, but we had never quite experienced a climate such as this. Anyhow, we were here to get a job and not to busy ourselves with catching a tan and the job we were after was to work on a Pearl Farming vessel.

I myself had never heard of such a thing before my friend Phil had suggested it. After traveling Australia himself, he had competed his regional days, a requirement by the Australian government, as a Pearl Farmer and highly recommended it.

As soon as possible we headed for the Recruitment Office of Paspaley Pearls, one of the most famous pearling companies in the world. What we wasn’t aware of was that Pearling is seasonal work and typically we had come at the wrong end of it. But not to despair, we managed to get a face to face meeting with one of their recruitment officers, who seemed fairly fond of Harry but not so much of me, ‘Personal Trainer you say, have you not got a real job? We set off on the wrong foot and I thought then and there, we could kiss our Pearling dream goodbye.

So it was back to the drawing board and we searched desperately for local work. Mango picking, labouring, gardening, cafe work, anything that would help us survive in quite simply the most expensive city I’ve ever visited. We did a couple of days work, clearing people’s gardens and just as we were beginning to give up hope, the phone rang and the Personal Trainer hater, offered us a job.

We couldn’t believe our luck and with only two weeks work promised, we were in no position to turn it down. We were sent for a drugs and fitness test and the next day would be flown to Broome, nearly 2000 kilometres down the West Coast. The excitement was bubbling inside us, we had stroke gold, within a week of being in Oz we had bagged our first job. But we were going into the unknown and has no idea what was about to come. Next stop the Paspaley 4, the biggest Pearling vessel in the world.