Caption Competition Winners

R: It’s the moment everyone’s been waiting for – the announcement of the caption competition winners.

It’s been an agonising process for the judges, sifting through thousands upon thousands of entries, and trying to agree on the winners. Sometimes it has been wit, sometimes intelligence, sometimes lateral thinking which has won through. But whatever the reason, the stamp of genius has been the common factor. Mostly.

Due to issues surrounding security, and following advice by Royal Mail, we are unable to announce details concerning the actual prizes. We would, however, advise against making any rash career decisions or large impulsive purchases until you have received your prize. Please allow up to 28 days for delivery.

Thank you all for your entries, and a special congratulation to all the winners.

Brazil

‘Richard prayed that his bushtucker trial did not include rats bottoms, cobras bowels or monkeys weeners.’

– Barry Peebles

Peru

‘I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in, to stop my mind from wandering… where it will go.’

– Peter Restall

Bolivia

‘The food was so bad that I lost 8 stone…’

– Alison Jones

Argentina

‘We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind, cause if your friends don’t, and if they don’t dance, then there no friends of mine.’

– Daniel England

Chile

‘You get a good view of your house from here!’

– Campbell Scott

New Zealand

‘Gary Glitter’s new disguise wasn’t fooling anyone, especially the children…’

– Mike Stewart

Fiji

‘Richard makes an early return to Shandwick Place.’

– George England

Australia

‘Strictly Come Dancing kicks-off new season on board the QE2.’

– Kevin Rooney

Indonesia

‘Does my bum look big in this.’

– John Shields

Malaysia

‘Bear England.’

– Shona Galletly

Thailand

‘Richie longs for a Mr Whippy back in the UK.’

– Darran Flowers

Laos

‘The annual oxen prostate exam’s a two-man job…’

– Tom Muir

Cambodia

‘Has the bell gone?’

– Linda Livingstone

Vietnam

‘Spot the dummy.’

– Linda Livingstone

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Reflections On The South Pacific

The South Pacific. The phrase often evokes blissful images for cold souls in the Northern Hemisphere. Limitless vistas of azure skies, verdant vegetation and bone-white beaches dominate the mind. Tales of shipwrecks, mutinies and cannibalism excite the imagination and only add to pull of the place.

Our three months in the region, like our time in South America, was not spent mapping every inch, traversing every mountain range nor combing every beach. It consisted, in the end, of four weeks on New Zealand’s North Island, three and a half weeks in Fiji, and four and a half weeks heading north from Melbourne up Australia’s east coast. But our time there was long enough and varied enough to forge strong impressions of the area, an area which for many in colder climes has become something of a modern day Promised Land.

We will start with what made the greatest impact upon us: New Zealand. In its favour was certainly the fact that South America had preceded it, that what had been a tough and challenging adventure dissolved quickly into an easy-going English-speaking home from home. But even if we had gone straight from London to Auckland the overall effect would have been the same. Quite simply, New Zealand was amazing.

That New Zealand was amazing came as a surprise to us. So much is spoken about Australia that New Zealand is invariably and unfairly overlooked. To us, it seems to be a land constructed by a Deity who, upon scrutinising the Earth cradled in the palm of his hand, has plucked from its crust his favourite parts, fusing them together to form New Zealand’s unrivalled topography. The effect is incaptivating: massy mountains soar, glassy rivers roar and beaches and coastlines glitter with the incandescent light of the southern sun.

It is also a land which appears to have been created solely as a playground for backpacking, camper vanning adventurers. Its size – not as small as you perhaps would first surmise – is perfectly suited to the rhythms and syncopated beats of the nomadic spirit; and its towns and cities are of such a size that they neither overwhelm nor dull the greedy senses of the traveller. Its people, too, seem to exhibit just the right balance of character: an air of relaxed openness, easy approachability and steady guidance. Never before had we met a friendlier bunch.

Aside from New Zealand stealing the show, one theme which dominated our time in the Pacific has to be that of internet access. This may strike the reader as a mere trifle. But free and easy access to the World Wide Web is quickly become something of an inalienable right in the 21st century. And it is a right which is defended with passion by the travelling masses. Fiji can be excused at this point from any further scrutiny. Even on some of the most remote islands the internet was made available – via satellite – for a small nominal fee. In the Yasawas, where mains electricity and a fresh water supply still remains an ambition, the Fijians should even be applauded. But in Australia and New Zealand the situation is no less than scandalous.

In both these countries the situation was very often the same. Access to the internet came at a price, and even then surfing was slow, patchy, unreliable, and often limited in terms of time or data. It is rather embarrassing that only an oversized clown with orange hair and yellow dungarees had the wherewithal to provide ‘free Wi-Fi’ to much of the antipodean population. We are ashamed to admit that never before had we dined on so many Fish Fillets, Chicken Burgers and Cheese Quarter Pounders. These were the sacrifices that were made in order to keep the blog running.

To put Australia and New Zealand’s crime into perspective, we had free Wi-Fi access in the middle of San Pedro de Atacama. Yes, that’s the small town in Chile situated in the driest desert in the world. We have also had free and easy internet usage in Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Bali, Java, Singapore, Borneo, Malaysia and Thailand. What’s going on? This is surely a case for the investigative powers of John Pilger.

Once again, food was a theme which left a big impression on us. Fiji was a touch disappointing, proffering rather bland root vegetables and tasteless fish and meats; even the home-cooking of the more rustic retreats failed to provide in freshness what they lacked in variety. It was strange that, on islands which had fruit literally falling from the trees, life-affirming juices were in scant supply. Still, between us there was only a single episode of food poisoning. Happy days.

Australia had promised much with its legendary fusion of Western and Asian flavours, but it was probably undone by the crushing relationship between the British pound and the Aussie dollar. Although we gave ourselves double the budget of South America and triple the budget of Southeast Asia, many of the more salubrious eateries were simply out of our reach. And even when we could have invoked our Emergency Treats Fund (ETF), we simply refused to pay 25GBP for fish and chips. We may not have jobs, but we’ve still got principles.

But perhaps most tellingly, Australia was undone by New Zealand. In almost every conceivable example of gastronomy New Zealand excelled. It wasn’t just in the fabulous Michelen-starred style meal we had in Martinborough, accompanied by fabulous wine and surrounded by sun-soaked vineyards; it wasn’t just in twice or thrice weekly restaurant treats where we experienced the best-ever nachos, the greatest gourmet burgers, the most fabulous calamari and the world’s finest example of apple pie and ice cream; and it wasn’t just in the frankly phenomenal cafes – particularly in Wellington – where we devoured unparalleled pumpkin pie, sublime chocolate and cherry cake, marvellous muffins and first-rate flat whites. What brought home to us the glory of New Zealand’s larder was in the everyday sweets and snacks that punctuated our travel. Take a bow Pam’s Burger Hoops, soak up the applause Whittaker’s 72% Dark Ghana Chocolate, and start your lap of honour RJ’s Chocolate & Raspberry Licorice Bullets.

On a more serious note the South Pacific, like South America, is a region where the echoes of indigenous cultures still reverberate. We are no experts on this subject, and visitors can often be blind to what is clearly visible to residents; but we can only comment on what we witnessed. And we can only apologise if other people’s experiences are different and our remarks unwittingly cause offence.

Of the three countries Fiji has the largest proportion of indigenous people, especially in the Yasawa Islands where a great deal is being done to preserve Fijian traditions and culture. On the mainland there is a greater presence of Indo-Fijians, which is a legacy of Britain’s policy at the end of the nineteenth century of sending indentured labourers from India. There has been and there still exists tensions between these two groups but some sort of fragile harmony seems to have been established.

New Zealand’s attitude to the Maori people, its culture and its traditions, is without doubt the most progressive and enlightened that we’ve experienced on our travels. Everywhere we went in New Zealand we were exposed to the Maori way of life, its history, its people, its traditions and its culture. Whether of European or Maori descent, the vast majority of people seemed to take great pride in this vital element of the country’s history. The Te Papa Museum is probably the greatest example of this. A massive building covering four huge floors, Te Papa is the most modern and most interactive museum we’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. It houses exhibits on New Zealand’s wildlife and natural habitat, recounts the migration of Europeans to its shores, and showcases Western art and Old World artefacts. But its main purpose is to preserve and promote the rich cultural history of the Maori people. And this is a history of which all New Zealanders seem to feel part. Granted, all is not perfect between Maori communities and other parts of the population; some feel that this minority is unfairly disenfranchised while others believe they have more rights than the majority. But if ever there was an encouraging example that historical enmity can be overcome then New Zealand is surely it.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Australia. We saw very few aborigines during our time there, and virtually none in any meaningful jobs or positions within society; what little exposure we had to aboriginal museums, galleries or any other forms of cultural representation, we had to work hard to discover; and the Australians we met spoke fleetingly of the past and seemed embarrassed or awkward when discussing the subject. Australia’s was certainly a much more brutal history than that of New Zealand’s, and perhaps the latter has had an opportunity to learn from the former’s mistakes. Whatever the reasons, the difference between the two countries in this regard is glaring.

As way of an example, let us compare New Zealand’s Te Papa with Australia’s Museum of Sydney. On the day we visited the MoS, there hung in different parts of the first floor two paintings by indigenous artist Gordon Syron. Below each were comments by the artist which included stinging criticisms of what he described as the ‘British Invasion’ and the ‘denial’ and delusion’ that has followed ever since. On the very same floor, and occupying considerably more square metres than Syron’s work, was a large exhibition on the history of surfing. This stark and jarring juxtaposition perhaps told us more about Australia than a hundred documentaries ever could.

You may be thinking that we didn’t take to Australia. You are partly right. It had a lot to live up to after we had enjoyed New Zealand so much, and perhaps it would have fared better if we had gone straight from the rollercoaster that was South America. That said, Melbourne was something of a revelation – helped in no small part by the tennis – and without doubt it is a city that would be a joy to live in, especially if that life was in South Yarra. Sydney was sabotaged somewhat by the weather; but again, inhabiting a penthouse overlooking Manly Harbour would be a wonderful way to spend one’s evenings, and the ferry a delightful means of getting to and from the office. Brisbane, too, was of a sufficient size and – dare we say – sophistication to make it more than adequate spot to set up home.

And so we will remember the South Pacific with much fondness. Fiji will always be recollected for the dark times but warm hearts of the undeveloped islands; it will also be remembered as a place where we eventually reached paradise and fell helpless but happy into the ten days that followed. Australia will always be associated with Marvellous Melbourne and nearly-marvellous Murray, as well as a Sydney which eventually yielded and offered up some of its delights; we will also never be able separate the Land of Oz from memories of our road trip up its rough and tough northeast coast, a journey made in a haze of tarmac-melting and hothouse-humid temperatures.

But our hearts will forever remain in New Zealand. And it is a beautiful twist that one of our biggest regrets may well turn out to be one of our greatest joys. For now we have a great excuse to go back and visit the South Island.

Days 140-149: From Crikey To Cairns

With Barney Mk II stocked up with an appropriate balance of provisions – one bottle of wine to every pack of noodles – we turned the key, selected drive, released the handbrake and tore north out of Brisbane (if you can tear out of anywhere in a pregnant roller-skate weighed down with enough tins to survive a nuclear winter).

Quick geography lesson: Australia’s big. Travelling up from even the midpoint of the east coast meant we were clocking up around 400km per day. En route we stayed overnight at Noosa, Rockhampton, Airlie Beach, Townsville, Cairns, Port Douglas and back to Cairns.

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Noosa: playground for the rich; great stop-off for the flashpackers among us

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A stone, next to a bench, at Airlie ‘No Beach’ Beach

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Cooling off in Townsville’s beachfront lagoon

From Noosa we visited Australia Zoo. Made famous by its owner, Steve ‘the Crocodile Hunter’ Irwin, it’s an impressive place. Spanning nearly 100 hectares it showcases the best of Australia’s wildlife, and all in fantastic surroundings.

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Getting up close and personal with a ‘roo

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Crocoseum: Steve Irwin’s impressive snapper arena

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A cute and cuddly koala

Steve – no longer with us following a stingray attack in 2006 – was viewed in the UK largely as a figure of fun; a crocodile-wrestling loon more famous for his indecently-sized shorts than his work with animals. In his native Queensland, however, he was revered. And his memory is kept alive each year with an official ‘Steve Irwin Day’, when everyone is encouraged to walk about in khaki saying ‘crikey!’ a lot.

And perhaps rightly so. Once you learn a little more about him, you discover a man who spent his whole life championing conservation and trying to educate people in his own inimitable style. Australia Zoo is a powerful reminder of what he achieved and well worth a visit – even if, on the day we visited, undersized khaki shorts were not available in the gift shop.

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With the Khaki-coloured one and his family

Our nights at Rockhampton, Airlie Beach and Townsville were largely uneventful bar one phenomenon – the heat. Even in Noosa we began to notice that the nighttime temperature was a touch oppressive; but the farther we drove north the worse it became.

It reached its apogee in Townsville, a place so dull they named it twice, but in different languages in the hope we wouldn’t notice. Here the problem was not just the heat; it was the mosquitoes too.

Imagine the scenario: it’s 26C, it’s midnight, there’s not a breath of wind, the air is thick with bugs, and you’ve taken the decision to sleep overnight in a family-sized biscuit tin. Any chink in the skylight or gap in the window invites a squadron of buzzing infidels. But an airtight seal means even higher temperatures, restricted breathing and clandestine claustrophobia. Japanese POW camps had nothing on this. Suffice to say, it was a long night.

During the nights that followed we either managed to acclimatise to the conditions or taping a scrap of netting over the skylight made all the difference. Whatever the reason, nights in Cairns and Port Douglas were merely awful rather than unbearable.

Our time in Port Douglas was dominated by our trip to the Great Barrier Reef (separate blog to follow), while our stay in Cairns was a rather sedate affair where heart rates were only quickened during a visit to Coffee Works, the world’s largest coffee museum. Not only was it surprisingly informative – did you know, for example, that Balzac used to jitter and judder his way through 40 cups a day? – but there was all-you-can-consume coffee, chocolate and liqueurs.

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Wired for grounds

And it is amidst this caffeine-fuelled high that we come to the end of our time in Australia; and for that matter the South Pacific. Today we fly off to Bali to begin our Southeast Asia adventure. We still have a couple of packs of noodles left over, but apparently they’re readily available where we’re headed.

Days 134-139: Byron Bay, Brisbane & Barney’s Back

After Sydney we headed further up the east coast on an overnight bus to Byron Bay. It was 12 hours in length and the seats were as upright as the Mel-Syd train, but it passed pretty quickly; low expectations tend not to keep you up at night.

Byron Bay is your quintessential Australian small hippy-surfer town. It’s managed to keep at arm’s length the grasping tentacles of the big hotels, and in doing so retained much of its authenticity and charm. It is said that you used to be able to get high just by strolling down its main street, but nowadays it’s the smell of cinnamon bagels and Italian coffee which dominates.

We stayed in the elaborately titled Arts Factory Lodge, just ten minutes walk out of town. It was basic and expensive – a common theme among Australian hostels – but fine for a couple of nights.

The beaches in and around Byron Bay are terrific and boasts Captain Cook’s Lookout and the easternmost tip of Australia. The fish and chips are rather fantastic too.

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More of a set from a lost Saturday morning kids show than a hostel

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On the lookout for Captain Cook

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That’s it. You can’t get any more eastern Australian than this.

Travelling further north makes you appreciate Byron Bay even more. As we Greyhounded our way to Brisbane we passed Surfer’s Paradise, a city that’s built more out of the sky than the surf. From the main highway we couldn’t see the beach for a massive wall of towering hotels and entertainment complexes. You couldn’t imagine two more different places in which to go looking for that perfect surf break.

Now, Brisbane: a travel editor recently wrote of two colleagues who each have a rule by which they live their itinerant lives. The first always maintains that he will never leave a city until he has experienced some form of cultural enrichment; the second that he will stay put in a particular town until he’s had some fun. Both friends, the editor observed, are currently stuck in Brisbane.

From the perspective of our four nights in Brisbane we think this is a little unfair. Yes, admittedly, the city may not smack of the highest cultural sophistication, but what it lacks in refinement it makes up through enthusiasm: there are not many cities which can boast half a dozen top art galleries and museums, and all free to the public.

And we had fun in Brisbane too – dining at Lady Lamington’s on Valentine’s Day night being just one example. The chilli burgers were rather fine, as was the South Australian Riesling.

While we were there one diner exemplified the Brisbane commitment to F-U-N. She was barracked and abused by a random passerby who, clearly feeling that he hadn’t given great enough vent to his feelings, came back and finished off his mean-mouthed monologue, this time from inside the restaurant. After he was forcibly removed from the establishment she brushed the incident off with great aplomb and went back to having a good time with her friends. More power to her.

So perhaps Brisbane gets an unfair reputation.

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It could be the Thames on a sunny day

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Brisbane getting all artistic

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The city’s approach to history and modernity

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This is what can happen when a boat crashes into a bridge

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Brisbane’s touching ANZAC memorial

Oh, and guess what? Barney’s back!

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Well, one of his relatives, anyway. We can’t decide if B2 is younger or older than his New Zealand cousin. Interestingly, B1 had quite a rough exterior but was beautiful on the inside; whereas B2 is shiny and polished on the outside but a bit shabby when it comes to the interior. This may be a specific example of a wider New Zealand-Australian phenomenon, but we will leave it to the reader to speculate.

Anyway, B2 or not B2, that wasn’t the question. We felt that after part train-ing, part bus-ing our way up the east coast it would be fun to drive the rest of the route to Cairns. Well, we proved partly to be right.

Days 127-134: Sydney Drizzles While Mel Burns*

Poor old Sydney! Perhaps he had got wind of the marvellous time we had in Melbourne and felt under pressure; perhaps he was feeling a little under the weather; or perhaps he was just a touch complacent after years of lording it over Mel. Whatever the reason Syd got off to a slow start.

He wasn’t helped by the overnight train from Melbourne. As Mel waved us goodbye at the station we sat back and relaxed, fully expecting the long-haul buses of South America to be easily surpassed by the Aussie train experience. How wrong we were: the twelve hour trip was dominated by our curious inability to rack up even a few zeds before we met Syd. As a result, we arrived in the morning rather crabby, cranky and cantankerous.

Then Syd was let down by the weather. It was dark and drizzly, and pulling into the station smacked off arriving in Glasgow, Newcastle or Manchester in the midst of October.

But it was our accommodation that was arguably most injurious to Syd’s plans to wow and dazzle us. Slap bang in the centre of King’s Cross and entitled ‘The Asylum’, it far surpassed any South American hostel in levels of dirt, dishevelment and disrepair. You didn’t have to be mad to stay there but… sorry, yes, you did have to be mad to stay there.

Well, we believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt, and we had heard lots of lovely things about Sydney. So shaking off our train-lag, dismissing the bed sheets of Bedlam and brushing off the unseasonal rain drops of New South Wales, we headed to the harbour to revive our spirits.

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t let up during all the time we were with Sydney. At best it was overcast, at worst it was heavy rain, so much of our time was concentrated indoors – the Gallery of New South Wales, the Museum of Sydney, the Harbour Acquarium, etc.

What upset Syd the most was that anytime we parted company we had a ball, and experienced glorious weather. He wailed in frustration as we chilled out in Manly, toured the Hunter Valley (First Creek, Tempus Two, Lambloch and Blueberry Hill wineries), explored the Blue Mountains and checked out Bondi Beach:

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Municipal swimming, Manly-style

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A surfer on world-famous Manly Beach

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Watching the sunset at Manly Wharf

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Australia’s Hunter Valley

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No grapes of wrath here

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What’s that? Pinot Noir in Australia?

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The Blue Mountains of New South Wales

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Longer than Iguazu Falls (160m) but a little gentler

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Us at the end of the Grand Canyon walk (we’re in there somewhere)

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Bondi Beach. When the sun’s out, strangely reminiscent of an English seaside town

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The famous Iceberg Surf Life Saving Club

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The rugged coastline near Bondi

In the end Syd had to get a little help from his friends. Gordon
and Margaret Galletly, distant cousins of Mr England, brushed off the poor weather and showed us around central Sydney. Such was their knowledge of the area that they saved old Sydney from greater ignominy and meeting up with them was the highlight of our stay.

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Since our trip started in the September of last year we’ve been lucky with the weather. It’s only reasonable to expect that we would have a blip somewhere along the line. We’re just sorry for Syd that it happened here. It reduced much of his celebrated scenery to cityscapes not wholly different from those big urban centres back home.

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We are sure, though, that while Sydney Harbour may be in the rain reminiscent of, say, Newcastle, under blue skies it no doubt dazzles and delights like no other. And, given that Syd has had the upper hand over Mel recently – their differing successes in attracting the Olympics being a good example – we’re pretty confident that he’ll bounce back soon enough.

*This was too contrived a title even for us, but we couldn’t think of anything better