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 176-182: Mt Kinabalu

S: A daredevil couple we met in Fiji, Darren & Gemma, told us about a mountain climb they were attempting in Borneo before chilling out in Thailand and then returning home. How hard can it be thought Richard and I? So we signed ourselves up for the mountain climb. After all, this trip isn’t all about watching tennis matches and wine tours.

Mount Kinabalu is Southeast Asia’s highest mountain at a literally breathtaking 4095 meters above sea level. It is located in Sabah, Borneo near the town of Kota Kinabalu (KK). From Singapore we flew into KK and spent two days getting our kit together and psyching ourselves up for the climb. Our third day was spent at the base of the mountain, allowing us to soak up the atmosphere of Kinabalu Park and rest before our early start the next day.

The following morning we were introduced to our guide Robbi, who would be our very own Sherpa Tenzing for the next two days. Six kilometres were covered on our climb on Day One. Now this may sound like a short distance – less than four miles in fact. But imagine 6km at a steep incline and in 30C heat. A different proposition altogether.

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A glorious view of Mt Kinabalu from the base of the mountain

It took us a gruelling five hours to ascend to our target of 3273m. Robbi allowed us the occasionally rest, but only for 2-3 minutes so our legs wouldn’t become stiff. Very kind. At this height we were to spend the night in dormitory accommodation before an early start and our final ascent to the top of the mountain.

It was here that worry, panic and danger began to set in for me. Robbi gave us a briefing on what we were to expect the next day. He warned of potential altitude sickness – headaches, sickness, upset stomachs and shortness of breath. Unfortunately I was already experiencing all these symptoms, accompanied by a feeling of panic brought on by the realisation that there was no way down to civilisation or safety other than by the route we had come up.

We were due to start our ascent at 3am. However, just before then we were introduced to the dark side of Mt Kinabalu. Rain came lashing down and temperatures dropped below 0C. Still not feeling well and not wanting to risk my health I was advised by Robbi to stay in bed and rest. It was game over for me. However for Richard It was an entirely different story…

R: at 2.30am the situation looked gloomy. Not only was Sophia out of the running but the night’s rain looked as if it had put pay to any attack on the summit. Word spread around our dorm that people were being advised to delay ascent until the morning when conditions might have improved. But then the rain suddenly stopped, a guide returned from a reconnaissance mission and the red light flickered to green.

As I waited for Tenzing -sorry, Robbi – to arrive a group of twenty or so Chinese people gathered in the porch. Dressed in the latest hats, gloves, head torches and a vast array of brightly covered plastic ponchos, it was quite a bewildering sight to behold. They were briefed by a guide partly in Mandarin, partly in English and then all clumped and clattered their way out the side door. Eventually Robbi appeared, confirmed that Sophia should remain in bed, gave me a firm and reassuring handshake, and at 3:10am we were on our way.

I’m not sure if Robbi was set on testing my lung capacity or mental strength, or he simply didn’t like crowds, but as we hit the slopes he was like a man on a mission. Like two mountain goats we gambolled, danced and occasionally pushed our way up the line and ahead of the hordes of chattering cyclopses that cluttered our path. Within the space of twenty minutes we had gone from being one of the last groups to one of the first.

The terrain was pretty treacherous. I couldn’t decide if it was a good or a bad thing that my head torch illuminated only a small patch at the feet. As we climbed higher and higher this pool of light before me cast its ghostly glow over sodden wooden planks then hand hewn stone steps and then large gleaming granite slabs, which had been formed millions of years ago. Some sections were relatively straightforward, some so tricky that a thick rope hugged the hillside to offer support to ailing limbs and reeling minds.

After some forty minutes Robbi and I reached a large granite plain. Amidst the gloom several crooked spires could be discerned in the near distance. Typically, we were headed for the furthest and highest point, comically coined Low’s Peak – a tribute not to the Malaysian sense of humour but to Hugh Low, the British colonial pen pusher who was the first recorded conqueror of Mount Kinabalu.

From there the incline levelled out and it was an easy march to the base of the final climb. By this stage we were pushing nearly 4,000m and the steep climb up Low’s Peak was an admitted struggle but a mercifully short one. We reached the summit a little after 5am and in a very respectable second place. The freezing temperatures and the biting wins permitted only a few minutes to take the mandatory photographs and then it was back down on to the granite plain to catch the marmalade rays of the rising sun. We took our time on the way back to base camp and returned to dorm to check on Sophia just after 7am.

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S: I was surprised to hear a knock at the dorm door so soon and to be greeted by Richard with a tired a sweaty smile.

My head was still thumping and all I could think of was getting down to a lower altitude. After a brisk breakfast we commenced on our downward descent. Although the way down is not so exhausting as the way up, we soon lost control of our legs and a jelly sensation tookover. Some bright spark thought it would be helpful to build a path of large steps, as helpful as it is on the incline the descent is a whole different ball game. If you have low bone density you can say goodbye to your knees.

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After four hours of hobbling down the mountain the pressure in my head began to ease. Normal service was shortly resumed as we tucked into our continental lunch at the bottom and soon arrived back at our hotel to make use of the joyous hot water and soap.

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Our guiding light – Robbi

After undertaking such a mammoth mountain we feel we have earned ourselves some backpacker bling…Today we fly to Kuala Lumpur.

Days 114-117: A Fijian Ode to Paul Newman

After 10 nights at Octopus we felt we had pushed our luck enough, refilled and refuelled sufficiently, and reached the stage where lazy days on the beach had returned wanderlust to our hearts and itches to our feet.

We returned, therefore, to the mainland with the aim of travelling south and east along the Queen’s Road to Suva, Fiji’s capital. En route we checked into The Pearl hotel at Pacific Harbour, where our stay passed off without incident and the only blogworthy pic was an original take on a classic Fijian sign.

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From there we had a day trip to Suva. Fiji is a small but diverse collection of islands: the difference in climate between the Yasawas and Suva can be stark. The former has on average 300 days a year of unbroken sunshine; while the latter has rain on 300 days of each year – more akin to Glasgow than palm-treed paradise. Our main focus was checking out the Fiji Museum and taking advantage of Suva’s bargain priced shops.

The Fiji Museum is a rather modest affair, but charming nonetheless. It offers visitors a potted history of the archipelago, with the highlight being the ravaged remains of the rudder from Captain Bligh’s The Bounty – worth the trip to Suva alone.

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One other incident is worth recording here. On our bus trip back along the Queen’s Road to Nadi we witnessed a woman in the seat in front of us devouring not one, not two, not three, but at least four boiled eggs in quick succession. We say ‘at least’ because we boarded the bus at Pacific Harbour. She would have been on the bus for a good hour before that, having embarked at Suva. Therefore the egg count could have been conceivably a lot higher. Clearly a professional, she peeled and pecked each egg in approximately two minutes, so we could be looking at well over 30 boiled eggs.

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An egg, probably boiled.

She may have been a massive fan of Cool Hand Luke or was perhaps in training for some illustrious Fiji egg-off. She may simply like boiled eggs. We may never know the real reason. But whatever her motives, one has to sympathise with her husband – those hot and humid Fijian nights, where the air hangs heavy enough, must be long ones for him.

So that wraps up our Fijian adventure. It will undoubtedly occupy a greater proportion of our ‘Reflections on the South Pacific’ than we had reckoned on, but that is all to the good. Next stop Melbourne and the start of a five-week trip up Australia’s east coast. Moce!

Day 91: Nadi, Fiji

We write this from a very hot but very wet Fiji mainland.

In the interests of good blog-keeping Christmas was spent in Raglan, a small surf town on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Far too much food and drink was consumed and even two walks along the beach failed to stem the ill-effects. Still, it was a memorable day and a Christmas barbecue has much to recommend it.

On Boxing Day (Day 90) we travelled back up north to the outskirts of Auckland, just near the airport, where we were to spend our final night.

Geographically-minded readers might at this point realise that we haven’t ventured to New Zealand’s South Island. Some may throw their hands up in disgust, some may scream ‘tragedy’, ‘criminal’ or sit mute with shock. But hear us out.

We had a difficult decision to make. Do we spend most of our time behind the wheel and in petrol stations? Do we merely scratch the surface of the two islands? Or do we instead explore the North Island with at least a medium-sized toothcomb? In the end we decided we had too much respect for New Zealand to subject it to a wham-bam-thank-you-mam two-island tour. Besides, it gives us an excuse to come back!

And New Zealand being New Zealand, even our final night, in a campsite only a couple of miles from the airport, provided us with one last taste of the country’s natural beauty – a beautiful honey and blood-orange sunset.

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Today’s flight to Fiji was supposed to be with Air Pacific but New Zealand Airways had to step-in – seamlessly, one must add – at the last minute. It was our gain. Check out the safety information video that was provided. And play it loud. It received a deserved round of applause at the end. A classic!

NZ Airlines Safety Journey

From tomorrow morning and for the next two weeks we will be island-hopping across the Yasawa Islands. They are north-west of Fiji’s two major land masses and should hopefully be drier and sunnier than elsewhere in the region at this time of year. Here’s hoping anyway.

We’ve been told not to expect any banks, shops or Internet access, so the blog may well lie dormant for a while (I’m sure bloggers and blogees alike could do with a little rest).

So if you don’t hear from us we hope you all have a great Hogmanay. We’ll leave it to Barney and his friend to wish you a Happy New Year. Here’s to a fun-filled, healthy and prosperous 2012.

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