In through the bathroom window

Houei Xai, Lao Peoples Dem Rep


The final chapter should capture the essence of all that’s gone before. This one is no different.

We worked our way north through the bustle of Vietnam until hecticness gave way to localness and we were in the hill tribe communities which border China. Local costumes of bright patterns and colours surrounded us, and we filled a few days with the exotic markets trading in produce and crafts.

A last affectionate embrace with Vietnam (a place you have to love even though it is exhausting) – we rode a long Honda Om (remember a ‘hug’ is a motorbike taxi) through the mountains to the Laos border. We had opted to tackle a route we knew little about, with only the assurances of the Laos embassy that we would get through. The reward was to topple in to Laos in a place which sees very few tourists. The border is new (so new that the Vietnamese have only a couple of bamboo huts to complete immigration formalities) and only a few hundred travellers had passed this way ahead of us. It’s a far cry from the more usual airport-capital city introduction to a country.

So we slid over the abyss into the nothingness of Laos. Where a 50km journey takes at least 2 hours. Where it is polite to stop and chat to everyone you pass. Where nothing happens quickly.

Laos is an enigma. Even its name is mysterious. It’s easier to understand if you consider Laos rhymes with Cow, not Chaos.

We opted to skip many of the ‘sights’ (what few there are) and simply drift westwards for 2 weeks through tiny villages and past subsistence farms. There is no transport system to speak of. For a day we hitched with a Chinese medicine trader, buying produce from local people. Fascinating, but very, very slow.

Someone asks for a lift. ‘Sure’ says the driver. ‘I’ll just go pack my bag’ says the local, and disappears for 15 minutes, leaving us (as ever) waiting.

Our nearest brush with the real world was Luang Prabang. Its Lao’s second biggest city but it has a peculiar charm. Even the main street is hard to make out as you are surrounded by trees. There’s little traffic – not even many motorbikes, but the occasional tractor. And by 11pm everyone – including the backpackers – is heading for bed. I’ve never experienced anywhere as intrinsically un-urban as Laos.

What could be a better end to such a long journey as ours?

Everywhere there’s lots of piggies living piggy lives

Our final adventure was a 3 day trek in a protected area of NW Laos called Nam Ha. It was great to finish with something so special and so well managed. The aim is to dissipate the damaging impact so often associated with tourism.

We stayed in ‘guesthouses’ in local villages. The local people take it in turns to earn money cooking our meals. They even take it in turns to have an opportunity to sell us handcrafts. None of the all too usual cries of ‘mister mister, buy one please’. All tourism should be like this.

We ended off in an Akha community village, where a totem Spirit Gate still guards the entrance, and a ceremonial swing, used only 3 days a year, has pride of place in the village centre. The women wear headdresses decorated with old coins. Pigs, chickens and puppies eat from the same trough. Even the livestock here seems to manage a unique calm and harmony! Kids pull ‘sledges’ made of old oil containers down the steep hillside.

Bizarrely, we got an Akha massage – consisting of 6 tourists being pummelled by 12 Akha girls – every one of our 120 fingers and toes were thoroughly cracked. Then, once we were submissive, they took the opportunity to sell us bracelets!

And the very cold evenings were warmed by ‘lao lao’ rice wine.

I don’t feel in the mood today for my usual rant about war (its hard to find the energy to rant in Laos). But I have to say it seems ridiculous that this sleepy country was once defined to be the single greatest threat to ‘civilisation’. Over a 7 year interval from 1968 received over 3 million bombing missions with more ordinance dropped on one country than was dropped on the entire planet during the Second World War. Whatever these people deserve, it wasn’t that.

Live through this

With all that is human in me I promise

– When you let me wander your wildernesses I will cherish their purity and leave no trace of my presence to spoil it for others. Even when you do not, or cannot, respect your own environment I will try to set an example.

– When you show me your holy places I will treat them with the respect I would show my own grandparents’ house. I will try to ensure my conduct does nothing to diminish their sanctity to you.

– In my negotiations with you I will always try to be fair, considering what is right and honest for both of us. Neither of us should be exploited.

– When you welcome me into your community I will appreciate the intimacy you are sharing with me. I will not abuse your hospitality. I will try to behave to the highest standards of both your culture and my own.

(Inspired by everyone I’ve ever met, especially the Amazonian people of Peru, and the Mountain people of Vietnam and Laos).

Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space

So we are now in the twilight between this world and the world at home – waiting to return to Bangkok to catch a flight. Re-entry will be strange. But as the moment approaches our thoughts turn home.

We land in London on Sunday 19th, and will return to our flat, briefly, before Christmas. We look forward to catching up with many of you soon.

Our address book is buried deep in packed boxes – and may never surface. Please could you email us your address and phone number so we can get in touch. When we have a phone number of our own, we’ll let you know.

Motorcycle emptiness

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam


Another month passes. They definitely get shorter as the flight home gets nearer. We’ve made a brief stop in Bangkok – more for the convenience of flights than anything else; spent 2 weeks in Cambodia, and now a week in Vietnam.

Yesterday I got one of life’s rare privileges (for me anyway) to return to somewhere I know. Or rather thought I knew, since Saigon seems to have totally rebuilt itself in the last 9 years and I find I can recognise nearly nothing. But it’s a familiar sort of misplacement – the 2-cylinder thrum of the city is unchanged, and its lust for life is addictive. I like it here.

In an octopus’s garden

This region suffers strange geography. For the main part it’s so flat that, at this time of year, when the rains are coming to a close, it resembles nothing more than a big muddy puddle. The whole region – especially the Mekong River Delta is criss-crossed by waterways; it’s impossible to identify the rivers from the canals; and people live their lives along the banks, much as they do along the roadsides. They hang their washing to dry over the water, and lay out their rice and fish to dry on the roads.

We’ve taken a few boat trips – little reminders of things past on the Amazon. We crossed Tonle Sap, a hug lake in Cambodia that swells dramatically each year when the rising Mekong forces its outlet river to flow upstream for 6 months. There are floating villages on the lakeshore, and Chinese fishing nets everywhere.

The end of the rains merits a major festival – where all across these countries people make small boats from lotus flowers, light candles on them and float them out into the river at dusk. We caught the action in Battambang, a small town in northern Cambodia. The oldies floated their boats while the youngies made out to a very very load karaoke concert in the town square.

And the streets were inches deep in plastic wrappers from food, which all ended off, I’m sure, in the Mekong too.

Kung Fu Fighting

I remember the 1970s: the music, the flares. And my Dad’s team winning the tug of war at the street party on our estate to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (when the world was young and we celebrated such things). And I remember the stories the older generations tell, of the bread strike and the three day week. Look around you and you can still see the 1970s in constant reminders – the graceless architecture, or Camden Market.

Oh the 1970s.

In Cambodia you can still see the 1970s. Every small town seems to have a big metal cage full of skulls. And you can’t fail to hear the stories – every moto driver can tell you which of his relatives died, and how, at the hands of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and their Maoist Agrarian lunacy. It is chilling.

I’m no ghoulish tourist – I haven’t whipped out my camera to capture the jumbled remnants of other people’s lives, any more than I would visit the websites that show Middle East hostage murders. But in Cambodia you can’t really get that far away from it. And somehow it would be an act of bourgeois westernism to pretend I could buy the Cambodia tourist package ‘cleansed’ of its past.

It could make you very depressed – except Cambodian people are the more positive and friendly you could ever meet, and seem to be grasping the world with both hands and shaking it. I get the sense they are both the happiest people in the world, and some of the saddest. The horror of their history tempered by the fact that it’s finally over.

The smiling children on the roadsides revive hope you lost to the blank expressions of the missing (some of them only tiny children too) displayed in endless rows of photos at the torture museum in Phnom Penh. Humanity’s ability to recover is truly more remarkable even than our ability to inflict pain.

Orange crush

There are two major schools of Buddhism, ‘Theraveda’ Buddhism – the teaching of the elders, and Mahayana Buddhism ‘The Greater Vehicle’

Thailand follows Theraveda Buddhism, so everywhere you go in Thailand, you see monks, wrapped in their saffron robes. Especially in Bangkok, where buses and river ferries have seats with ‘reserved for monks’ written on them. Monk spotting is quite good fun.

Its even more amusing in Cambodia where the youthfulness of the entire monkly profession (Monk’s were not Pol Pot’s favourite people, which rather limited their life expectancy in the 1970s) means you get different visions. Monks on motorbikes, monks on mobile phones, monks smoking cigarettes.

And monks practising their English on foreigners – we had small talk with a few. What do you say to a monk?

There aren’t so many monks here in Vietnam, I suspect because their lifestyle of living off donations of food and money from other are a bit at odds with the Communist work ethic, and anyway, Vietnam is by tradition Mahayana, meaning people are expected to work things out a bit more for themselves. A few fellows in dark brown robes are to be found at the temples, and you see them on the occasional bus. But they keep a fairly low profile.

The only Om you are likely to find here is not the Beatific OM of India, but the ubiquitous Honda Om. ‘Om’ in Vietnamese means ‘hug’ and a ‘Honda Om’ is a simple form of taxi service involving you, a crazed cyclist, and a small motorbike.

You could say the motorbike is Vietnam’s Greater Vehicle – they are everywhere, in droves.

And crossing the street is, in itself, a form of transcendental meditation, as you focus only on the route ahead, stepping slowly but continuously forward and letting the bikes simply swarm round you – to stop would be fatal, you have to act predictably! Getting to the other side of the road is a small, but tangible, act of rebirth.

(Note to author – must read ‘Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance’ – is this what its all about?)

Big In Japan

I am, to put it mildly, a bit taller than any of the people here. It is a fact they, with their endless lack of tact, like to point out to me – along with their observation that I have a big nose.

They seem to forget that we, with our strange hair colour and odd habits, are human, and thus decide we can be pushed, prodded, heckled, ridiculed etc. It can be, for a moment, rather annoying – until you realise that you are simply so foreign here that you can return the compliment, push, prod laugh back and we all end off, no offence taken, best of friends.

Marisa, (whose father is Thai) suffers a lot less than me. In fact, in Thailand and Cambodia they regularly ask her if she’s one of them (before going on to wonder, aloud, what on earth she’s doing hanging out with the gangly alien with the giant honk).

But no matter how big I might be here, I’m simply not a patch on David Beckham – who (we all know) is secretly God in shorts. When I tell people I’m English, they usually reply ‘Ah Beckham’, though since it often comes out ‘Ah Beg-haa’ it took me a while to work out what they were on about.

McDonalds, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut

They can rustle up a bowl of ‘pho’ noodle soup, or a plate of rice and vegetables here quicker than you can say ‘would you like fries with that’. And it is, every time, delicious. For those of us who’ve been in South America – the land of the endless chicken and rice dinner, where choice is expressed simply as ‘beef or chicken?’ this is rather exciting. We simply have to stop regularly for a bowl of something. It’s gastrotourist heaven.

And on that note, dinner awaits.

A family affair

Christchurch, New Zealand


Another month passes. To most of you we continue to be an electronic presence – felt only over the web. Nothing has changed. But down here life is very different. Our existence feels a lot less like travelling, and the trip seems to slip rapidly into memory. Its terrifying how quickly the human mind moves on.

We’re at the end of a month in New Zealand. The purpose of coming here is primarily to visit Marisa’s family. Though for me it is also an opportunity to visit the parts I haven’t seen before, and there is nowhere on the earth I am happier to return to. Its hard to believe its been 5 years since we were last here, but its hard to express how far from London this is. Where day is night, summer is winter, up is down.

When I was a kid New Zealand meant lamb and Anchor butter. A garden of England in the south. But the world has changed a lot since then. Since the UK joined the EU it is no longer the default buyer of NZ produce. No longer an admirable paternal friend. The UK is now clearly merely a part of Europe. And out of the shade, New Zealand has grown.

The old world hasn’t gone away. There are still reflections of England in the smallest things. Do you want Marmite on toast for breakfast or would you prefer Weetbix? And the ‘World Famous in New Zealand’ array of kitsch Kiwiana is still here – gumboots, jandals (aka flip-flops), pavlova (hotly contested with Australia), Buzzy-Bees (every child should have one) etc.

But feel the tapestry of a more sophisticated land.

We couldn’t resist popping in to a few wineries on our trip north to south. New Zealand produces fine wine (world beating Sauvignon Blanc and cracking Riesling and Merlot), and mostly in a delightfully understated way. Marlborough and Montana are only the start, the boutique vineyards stretch from the top of Northland right to the south.

And New Zealand has spawned the ‘World of Wearable Art’ which deserves to be globally famous, and probably will be. Your life will not be quite complete until you have seen it. This annual catwalk show features everything from tributes to artists (an earshaped headpiece for VanGogh, or body warping outfits in homage to Picasso or Dali) to truly beautiful inventions reflecting the world around us, nature, optimism, and humour. It features a number of categories, and because this is New Zealand, one of the most avidly contested is ‘Bizarre Bras’.

NZ has created the world’s wildest tourist industry. Bungy jumping is so passé darling. Instead we went ‘Blackwater Tubing’ – where you abseil 100ft into a cave, surf the rapids in its underground river by the light of the glowworms, then rock climb out. Choice eh?

Oh, and did you hear, this is the land of (yawn) Lord of the Rings.

It is exciting to be somewhere that is so busy creating its identity.

But for me, most exciting of all, is the emergence of New Zealand’s many cultural identities. Maori culture is really vibrant, and it’s a lot more than the Haka you’ve probably seen at rugby. We spent 2 weeks in the North Island – where I’ve never been before, and were lucky to experience communities where life revolves around the Marae (traditional meeting house) and receive Maori hospitality.

New Zealand is grappling with history. This is not easy. In a country that has always thrived on ‘equality’ it is hard to understand the wrongs of the past, and to accept the discomfort of righting them. There is a tribunal here to address historic land claims etc (for more information you should read about the Treaty of Waitangi). Its rulings are certainly contentious. And listening to both sides of the argument, you can have sympathy with both.

But the blend of cultures here, between Pakeha (white European descent), Maori and Islanders (a mesmerising patchwork of peoples, primarily Samoans and Tongans but including numerous smaller communities) is a beacon to the rest of the Anglophile world of what could be, and despite all the issues, New Zealand feels, to me, hugely optimistic.

While visiting friends Jason, Sophie And Max in Wellington we called in at the national museum Te Papa (our place). A view of everything New Zealand from the junk shop to the waka, and embracing – as I’ve never seen anywhere before – the sheer diversity of New Zealand’s ancestors, from displays on many Pacific cultural groups, to the stories of Polish orphans.

There’s a cartoon on TV here called Bro’town. Its NZ’s answer to the Simpsons and pastiches the interaction of Pakeha, Maori and Islander. It’s wonderful and has fantastic depth. It would be difficult to understand it outside NZ, but hey, they have shown ‘The Kumars at No42’ on NZ TV.

In modern Maori slang your looser family and friends are your ‘cousie-bros’. And I have had the pleasure of meeting some of mine – while visiting Leeanne (Marisa’s cousin), Dale and Leada. It was such a privilege to go to a party there (a 40th – yikes, I’m getting old) and be the only foreigner present. They showed us such friendship – it was inspirational to be with them.

We spent a week in Ashburton, with Marisa’s Mum Alice, her husband Winston and the wider family. It’s great to be so welcome. And when the sun shines and the Southern Alps light up the western horizon, there’s nowhere else you could possibly want to be.

And finally, to the pub to watch rugby with Shirley in Christchurch. (The NZ national anthem is half in Maori – cool eh?). Despite the fact that several people attempted to explain the rules of the game to me, I think I convinced them after a while that I knew what was going on. It’s easy to find a bond with Kiwis if you accuse the opposition fullback of ‘kicking like an Aussie’.

So I’m glad to be here – it’s a place we could all learn a lot from. The tolerance, the recognition that everyone deserves a ‘Fair Go’ is wonderful. And you know, NZ was the first country in the world to give women the vote; it has managed to convert its British based political system to proportional representation so minorities are heard (the Green movement is thriving); it has scrapped its appointed house of parliament without hitch; and there are no NZ troops in Iraq. We could learn a lot.

This much I know

We hired a car again for a few weeks. Me and Annie needed some space – she was in danger of becoming a thorn in my backside! A trip to the Op Shop again produced some real classics. We cruised to ABC (remember Smokey?) and Spandau Ballet. We’ve become a 2 man 80s revival!

In New Zealand they’re quite into rock at the moment. But then, even a stopped clock keeps the right time twice a day.

All change

Arrived in Bangkok last night. It’s hot here. More in a few weeks.

Feeling complicated

Hobart, Australia


A quick update, so you don’t forget who we are!

Just at the end of three weeks in Australia. For Marisa it has been an opportunity to fill in some gaps – having lived here for 6 years, but never been to Sydney. For me it is an odd introduction to such a huge place, and popular tourist destination. This certainly isn’t ‘THE’ Australia trip. I haven’t ‘done’ the place. We haven’t been within a thousand miles of the white sand beaches of Queensland, or visited Ayers Rock or anything.

We came here, primarily, to visit friends – and its been lovely to have the warmth of their company over the last few weeks – no to mention the warmth of Dean’s car through Sydney thunderstorms, and Karen & Paddy’s house in the Melbourne rain.

The whole sensation of being in Australia is a strange transition between American ‘anglo’ culture, and something a whole lot more familiar. Partly it’s the road signs. America has its fair share of UK derived place names, but its nothing compared to the experience of Sydney, where you can shop on Oxford Street, and where the rough stuff happens in Kings Cross (though in a dodgy-district showdown, I think London’s finest would knock Australia’s effort for six. There’s simply nothing dodgier that the lanes by the Kings Cross Goods Yard at 4am on a Sunday morning.)

In Melbourne we saw roadsigns to ‘Croydon, Ringwood, Mitcham’ like some navigationally twisted dream.

They drive on the left (freaks) and put the Queen’s head on their coins (fools).

But it’s much deeper than that. I didn’t expect to feel this much at home.

In part, I think I’d expected Australians to make me the outsider – being after all a Pom. As Karen explained it to me, ‘we are a nation of baggers’ and I’d expected some snidery about, at the very least, cricket. But there’s been beautiful, blissful silence.

I’ll put that down to Aussie friendliness, but you can, if you like, put it down to the deep national scars inflicted last year by Wilkinson and Company.

Either way, its very welcoming, and in return I’ve been taking a great interest in Australian Rules Football – a fantastic game – and shouting, ultimately in vain, for St Kilda, which is, bizarrely, a suburb of Melbourne and not a distant cluster of uninhabited hebridean islands.

Thorn in my side

We hired a van to drive round Tasmania, and it had a tape player, but we had no tapes. So we stopped at an ‘Op’ (charity) shop and picked up a copy of the soundtrack to Crocodile Dundee – in a bid for cliché heaven. The sounds of the didgeridoo have haunted us round the island. The only other tape we could find (except for Walt Disney’s Black Beauty, which I vetoed) was a Eurythmics concert.

Annie Lennox and whatshernamefromCrocodileDundee. A strange twosome with little in common – except for 80s hairdos, a taste in bushmen, and a penchant for g-strings. What does this mean?

The first time I saw you, you were standing in the rain

Small steps to reintegration with English living. Chapter 1. Rain. (where else could it begin?)

Melbourne has performed a valuable service. Grey, rainy, cold, windy. Ah, I remember it well. After such predictable, and glorious, climates, the maritime unpredictability of Victoria, and subsequently of Tasmania, is a wake up call indeed.

But as we sauntered downtown in Melbourne’s downtown, from clothes store to coffee shop to record store, it was remarkably easy to turn up your collar, and not notice. A lifetime of practice, I guess.

When tomorrow comes

We leave at 10am for New Zealand. Having decided to stay a while we’ve been able to push our flights out to the last minute. As we touch down in Auckland it will be a year since we left London, and our return coupons will promptly expire – leaving us to find our own way home.

We’ve been in Tasmania for the last 10 days. Its Australia’s very own New Zealand. Indeed, some Tasmanians would prefer you refer to the rest of the country as ‘The North Island’. As someone explained it to me, whenever anyone goes from Tasmania to the rest of Australia, the average IQ of both islands increases. This may not be true.

But Tassie is a beautiful windswept distant feeling kind of place. With white sandy beaches, snow capped mountains, quaint mining town and almost unlimited miles of nothing.

You can tell you are approaching New Zealand. Everyone in America has a mailbox at the end of their drive, but no one in America would ever, in a million years, use a milk churn, or an old barrel, or a plastic bucket as a substitute box.

The final countdown

Vancouver, Canada


When you approach the end of a big experience, the last few days seem to slip from your fingers. Suddenly, without any apparent warning, I was stood on Vancouver harbour in the dawn light, staring out at my last American morning. The cruising cruise ships, hovering helicopters and passing float planes of the harbour all seemed to talk of very different worlds. There was no one to talk to. I wanted to shout ‘WE DID IT!’, but my voice was drowned by the sound of the sea.

Momma take these guns from me

I commented a few weeks ago on the profusion of wildlife in North America. There’s been much more – we’ve seen Caribou, bears, porpoise, sea otters and spawning salmon in the last few days.

Alaskans’ response to all this life is to go out shooting it. Everyone spends the summer hunting moose, or bagging Caribou, it seems. Though for some it is clearly an excuse for a lifestyle rather than anything much more vicious.

We met a pair of ‘hunters’ in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere who have undertaken an annual hunting trip for the last 15 years, yet bagged only 5 sheep in all that time. One of them flies up from Texas every year especially. The guns are just part of the wilderness experience. Alaska seems to attract people to come back again and again for a fix of the wild.

But it isn’t all that way. It’s more than a game. Not just the Inuit teenagers, for whom the first kill is a right of passage, but also the settlers, gateposts festooned with antlers as a proud display of the homesteader’s virility.

As a soft European vegetarian, it seems weird to be somewhere where you are asked frequently ‘do you hunt?’. To me it’s like someone saying ‘do you rob banks?’ Not only do I take not doing it for granted, I even find the question difficult to see as anything other than an accusation. Here, it’s as natural as drinking beer.

In a bar in Whitehorse we were laughed at for not knowing the difference between the skins on the wall – which is a wolf, or a coyote, or a wolverine? We explained we don’t have stuff like that in England. ‘We used to’ says Stuart, pointing at the skins, ‘but we did that to it all’. You could see the penny didn’t drop with our audience.

Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.

After 2 months living in bear country, it was a joy to finally see one – and a relief to do so through the safety of a vehicle window, rather than a chance encounter in the bush.

We have had to learn the process for hiking in bear country. Bears are inquisitive and omnivorous. So we have learnt to hang our food in a bear hang up a tree. But the biggest risk is accidentally surprising a bear while walking along.

The human voice is the best way to warn a bear of your presence, so you are encouraged to walk or sing as you move around in bear country. Our playlist has included such dubious classics as ‘Bears, bears, bears. We’re looking for a good time’ and ‘Hey bears, hey girls, superstar DJs. Here we go’.

You might think this is all unnecessary, but we found bearprints on several occasions – once as we returned to our camp they were right over the top of our own prints from when we’d left… And then there’s the tell tale signs of a bear’s digestive system processing its abundant summer diet. ‘Red berry bear poo’ we’d sing out when we saw it, reminded to keep making a noise.

The aim is to ensure the bear knows that we are people not bear food. Simply put ‘I’m human, and I need to be loved’.

Are the only people in North America whose Bear Essential Selection includes not only Sonya, The Chemical Brothers and Prince, but also The Smiths?

Time becomes a loop

We decided to go for one last back country hike in Denali National Park, central Alaska. Its a beautiful, if unforgiving place, and we saw plenty of wildlife and some stunning views from the backcountry bus that drove us in to our ‘trailhead’ – though there aren’t even any real trails here, and you have to make your own route. We set off at the foot of North America’s largest mountain, though it was too shy to reveal its face to us.

The last hike managed to have many elements reminiscent of hikes through the year. It was steep. It was foggy. It was wet. We even had to wade across a river.

Strange things to get fond of, but after so long, in so many places, it was the ultimate fitting way to say goodbye to so much.

You’ve done too much

As we set off to leave the America’s its difficult to put it all together in my head. So many places, people and experiences. We’ve been so lucky that it’s all worked so easily. We set with nothing more than an idea. But a bit of time and determination goes a long way.

I could give you a summary. A year in a paragraph. In my head I’m running through it right now. But the list of accomplishments is hardly the point. Its the longer term perspective that will give the whole thing meaning, and that will only come with time.

So rather than repeat myself right now, tempted as I am, I’m going to take some time to sit back and digest. I’ll get back to you.

Misinformation is a weapon of mass destruc’

I’ll miss a lot about the Americas – both the people and the landscapes. But what I won’t miss is the war paranoia. Station-hopping in a hotel room would really lead you to believe that Armageddon is upon us. Lets hope it isn’t.

I should be so lucky

Reached Sydney today – a holiday (we need one!) It’s the end of this journal, though I’ll drop a line occasionally, let you know where we are as we crawl homewards.

See you all soon

Up where the air is clear

Tok, AK


A long gap again. Trees should be fitted with internet connections. Then my life would be a lot more straightforward.

We’re spent a lot of time playing I Spy recently. But it gets dull. ‘I spy with my little eye, something beginning with T’.

As an act of remittance for all the sitting in our car viewing sights that we’d managed over the previous few weeks (we were just trying to get into character as true American tourists), we decided our last stop Montana should be a back country hike. We spent three beautiful, if gruelling, days in Glacier National Park. The world is round, and sure enough, it feels like we’re back in Argentina when we get up among the icefields.

I loved Argentina, so no surprise I loved Montana. I think I could live in Montana. It is a slightly loopy, but wonderful, place.

Here are a couple of places I really couldn’t live:

Banff, Alberta. Surrounded by truly gorgeous scenery, but dressed up like a Swiss chocolate shop window. So we went backcountry again and slept below a huge glacier. Just like old times. It took us a while to get it together hanging our food 10 foot in the air to deter bears (maybe we should have done in while it was light, and before drinking a bottle of wine, but you live and learn!).

Pink Mountain British Columbia. We set off up the Alaska Highway. 1500miles from Dawson Creek (not the one on TV) to Fairbanks. Dawson Creek is crazy enough – it’s already a frontier town, a good days drive from populated Canada. Then you go north. After the last two towns of any significance, you start to reach the small stuff. Pink Mountain has a population of about 30 and consists of two cafes and a store. Its several hours drive from anywhere, and surrounded by nothing. An elusive pink mountain, some gas wells and er, trees. What is anyone doing there?

So we were a bit unsure what to expect ahead. The answer was 4 days driving through unpopulated nothing. But boy was it beautiful, and the sensation of being really, truly in the wilderness, is incredible.

And amongst it are a few places I could definitely live, such as Atlin, a small old mining town on a beautiful lake, with mountains and warms springs, an interesting mining history, some cool cafes, an artsy community and a line of flat planes on the waterfront.

From where I sit, in Alaska, it’s strange to think all these places lie between me and ‘civilisation’. Last night we stopped in a bar in Chicken. (The story goes the miners wanted a name for their town and opted for Ptarmigan, a local chickenlike bird, but they couldn’t spell it, so everyone calls it Chicken.) In Chicken there’s a store and a bar, and the locals hang out. Their idea of a good time is to persuade tourists to donate their underwear, then they blow the up with a stick of dynamite and hang the remains from the roof of the bar. But, when you’re a thousand miles from nowhere, you make your own rules.

And people have had worse ideas than that, believe me – such as a sourtoe cocktail. You don’t want to know.

Everyone raves about Canada, and for good reason. It’s extremely beautiful and the people are friendly. Maybe its because they have no one else to talk to. It would be easy to write this journal about how Canada differs from the USA. But that would be to fall into the trap, as its obvious everyone, including Canadians, is liable to define Canada by its big neighbour. When Canadians spend a lot of time describing very ordinary things as being ‘very Canadian’ as they do, and when they seem to have a national culture about the fact that they say ‘eh’ a lot, as though its their signature tune, its as though they protest too much. ‘Eh’ is sung louder in Australia and New Zealand than here.

Indeed there are even TV adverts there about being Canadian!

So I’ll do Canada the benefit of leaving that comparison to all our imaginations.

They do have the biggest stretch of wilderness on earth, and its very beautiful, and they’re very friendly and quite funny, and you can’t help loving all of that.

Are you experienced?

Life is made up of experiences. Here’s one of ours.
270 miles up a dirt road
50 miles from the nearest building and
30 miles north of the Arctic Circle with
2 flat tyres and only
1 spare

You can guess the rest. It involved hitchhiking with tyres under our arms. Fortunately, with Stuart and Neil travelling with us at the moment, we had a lot of hands.

And its only what you should expect if you decide to go up the Dempster Highway, the road that has the meanest reputation in Canada.

When you say to someone ‘We did the Dempster’ they say ‘How many flats did you get?’ and we say ‘Five’. In 24 hours.

Ever tried superglueing a tyre or sticking a cardboard patch over it? Neil and I did. In the end I ended off learning how to operated tyre repair machinery in a Canadian government road maintenance camp. A new career maybe?

But we did the Dempster. We saw the tundra and the northern lights. We slept in the Arctic and met Inuit hunters. It was what this trip is all about.

And now, the end is near

In 10 days we will no longer be in the Americas. We’ve already reached two of our final destinations – the Arctic and Alaska. In a few days we will be in Anchorage, with our tickets in our hands, trying to work out how to get everything back in our rucksacks.

The greatest journey I could ever imagine will be over. We have covered 130 degrees south to north. 13 countries. About 50,000 miles by bus and a further 10,000 in our car. Our poor dilapidated tent has been erected nearly 90 times. Maybe its time we hung it up for a while.

Then again I’m sorely tempted to take a boat out to the Aleutian Islands and hitch a ride with an Aleutian to Kamchatka.

But in reality, we’re going to Australia for 3 weeks – visiting friends and a bit of tourism, and then back to New Zealand for a few weeks. Those of you there, see you soon! Everyone else, see you before Christmas?

Love me, hold me, cos I’m free

Flathead Lake State Park, MT


Colorado. Wyoming. Montana.

That’s a lot of open space. A lot of national parks. But the wheels keep turning – we’re already alarmingly close to Canada.

It seems America is the Land of Campers – you can’t help noticing that everywhere you want to stop there’s always a campsite. Its like the whole place was designed for it. Remarkably convenient for us. Our poor little tent is taking quite a hammering, but it gets us to some really gorgeous places, and saves a lot of money. After a couple of recent day hikes – one of which ended off on the peak of the highest mountain in the Rockies (not quite sure how that happened) we’re getting homesick for our trekking days. Tomorrow we reach Glacier National Park, and we might go backcountry there for a day or two – you can get permits to wander off into the bush.

The National Parks here are amazing – we’ve been to 12, which may seem a little excessive, but they’re all worth it, from the canyons in the south to the stunning mountains up here. Yellowstone totally lived up to its reputation – the geysers and hot springs there were quite something else.

And each park seems to suit everyone. Those who don’t want to stray too far from the car have a couple of highlights with nice paved trails, past nice informative signs, to nice viewpoints. Those of us who want a strenuous dayhike can get 20miles away and feel like we’re exploring, and those who want to really hike can go backcountry and have the whole place to themselves.

We took a break from the parks the last few days. First we went to the Land of Cowboys, ‘Frontier Days’ in Wyoming – the worlds biggest rodeo – where you could really believe that every good ole boy is there and that we’re all Wild West – from Kentucky to California. The crowd was a sea of big white hats. The women really wear the cleavage up high and the blond highlights go for that Dolly Parton look. It was quite a wet day and the rink was a mud bath. Those cowboys sure had a hard time catching steers, riding steers etc.

Yesterday, while in Butte (pronounced Beaut), Montana (What? You haven’t heard of it?) we stumbled across ‘Evil Knievel Days’, a kind of stunt man cross Harley Davidson rally. Thousands of bikers parading through town, and though we didn’t stay around to check it out, the promise of death defying stunts and women wrestling in hot cream later on.

The biker thing intrigues me – every time I come to this great country – from Florida to the West, I encounter a bike convention, with Harley branded merchandise simply falling off the shelves. If you wanted to, you could tour round America forever, simply attending biker events. It’s the Land of Bikes.

Today we stumbled across ‘Flint Creek Valley Days’ – a rather weak effort by small mining communities to revive economies that haven’t been so good since the depression. Trying to reinvent themselves or, seeing how many antique stalls were there, maybe to just recycle themselves. Everywhere you go something’s happening, however quietly. If you were a Golden Oldie on tour bus, this could be the Land of Days.

Which got me wondering – there are a lot of Americas out there, you just get to pick the one that suits you. How amazing is that.

You can even have your own hybrid world – such as Livingston, Montana (don’t tell me – you haven’t heard of it?) which crosses, rather beautifully, the worlds of cowboy and boho. It’s totally out of place in Montana, but no more so than it would be if the Northern Line ran Clapham Common – Livingston Montana – Balham.

Here you can really be free. You can pick your lifestyle, and live it your way. Don’t like the way it is round where you’re from? Move someplace else! Want to find a group of likeminded people who wanna do what you wanna do. No problem, they’re all here. Just join the club and away you go. I’m beginning to understand The American Dream.

Choose your own pastime – and to it to extreme. Choose your look, your media, your world.

I met a guy from Illinois who explained the election to me. As far as he’s concerned ‘anyone who doesn’t talk, especially now, about defending Western Civilisation doesn’t deserve anyone’s vote’. I guess his chosen media is probably something like CNN, which chunters on permanently as though the whole Free World is in imminent danger of destruction. In his world, that’s reality. And he doesn’t have to visit anyone else’s world if he doesn’t want to.

While I’ve grown to love the perennial flag flying – which I see now is more a statement of freedom than mindless nationalism – I still find the ability not to (and not to have to) see the other guys point of view, quite scary really.

Is that the ultimate price of freedom – to be free from responsibility? But after a month here I’m proud to say I Love America. The dream is good. It’s good to be free.

You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone

Since we’ve been here we’ve seen a whole heap of wildlife. Moose, Elk, Bison, Deer, Roadrunners, Coyotes, Marmots (two species), numerous types of squirrel and chipmunk, even a rattlesnake. You hardly have to look twice before something runs across your path (and if it’s a chipmunk, steals your lunch as it passes). Makes you realise what we haven’t got in England. When was the last time you saw a badger?

A few of my favourite things

Travelling good for breaking your link with possessions. It dematerialises you. Not only do you not have much, but what you’ve got has a tendency to disappear or break. Here are just a sample of what I no longer have.

My Kuros Aftershave (broke in transit from London to Rio).
My travel cutlery (left in a beach hut in Belize).
My longsuffering headtorch (couldn’t take the pace hiking in Argentina).
My Bolivian felt hat (on a bus in Mexico).
My Mexican cowboy hat (blew out of the car at the Golden Gate Bridge).
My parrot design Indian t-shirt, bought from an Indian woman in Peru. (On a fan in a hotel room in Brazil)
My very useful padlock and chain (chained to hotel furniture in Ecuador – probably more annoying for them than me as I still have the key).
Even our camping equipment is showing signs of advanced age.
But they’re only things. And I find it enormously liberating to know that!

You say Potato

I understand America better, but some things still bemuse me

Why do you have to get the oil changed on your car here every 3000m miles? They even have drive in oil shops for you to do this.

Why do you have to pay for petrol before you put it in your car?

Why can you turn right on a red light, even though you must stop at a Stop sign even when its in the middle of nowhere?

Why don’t Wal-Mart sell vegetables?

Why don’t campsites have showers? (We’ve had to resort to washing in rivers!)

There’s a cunning type of motor home caravan here. It’s huge and it fits onto the back of your pickup like it’s an articulated lorry. It can have up to three axles, and your pickup may have to be supersized to 6 wheels to pull it. So why is it called a ‘5th wheel’

Answers on a postcard please…