New Zealand; we love you.

We have been back from our round the world jaunt for just over two months now, so it’s about time I filled you in on the last leg of our journey. It feels very strange to be writing about camper vanning in New Zealand from my dining table in Brighton but that’s a whole other post.

We got our first taste of the quirky Kiwi sense of humour on our Air New Zealand flight from Sydney. The safety briefing video was performed to ‘Men in Black’ by members of the All Blacks (the national rugby team); giving me and Nick a good laugh. We picked up our Jucy camper van rental at Christchurch airport and were ready to hit the road for intrepid adventure. Our first stop was my friend’s driveway just outside of Christchurch (ahem). Where we enjoyed her hospitality for a couple of days while we got to grips with the van, filled it with food and formulated a plan for our month in New Zealand.

 
Christchurch is still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2011. The town centre was flattened and our walk around was extremely sobering, not least when we visited a poignant memorial near the temporary cathedral. An installation of 185 chairs, each painted white and donated by a family that lost someone in the earthquake, the baby car seat in particular brought a lump to my throat. We also perused the pop-up shipping container shopping precinct which is helping to fill the void and enjoyed a romp around the Botanical Gardens.

 

Our first true taste of life on the open road was through the gorgeous countryside of Banks Peninsular. Every bend in the road brought a new ‘wow’ from my lips and we had to pull over often to drink in the views. We moseyed around Akaroa, enjoying our first hokey pokey ice-cream and then went in search of our first campsite. We didn’t find it but a helpful local told us we could free-camp anyway. I played on the beach with the boys while Nick made dinner. I felt happy to my very bones.

The following days and weeks passed in an eat, drive, sleep, repeat cycle. We used a fab app to find our campsites, varying from free camping to holiday parks when we felt the need for wifi and a shower. It was great to be travelling under our own steam for the first time in nearly a year and we absolutely loved the freedom that having the van gave us.

We covered many miles on the South Island, ticking off some of New Zealand’s finest tourist attractions. We pondered the improbable geology of Muraki  and Punakaki. We hid from wild

weather at Mount Cook, then were awed by the views when the storm cleared in the morning and we were able to hike. Dunedin kept us all happy with a chocolate factory for the kids and a brewery for the adults. Nick and I were bowled over by the beauty and scale of Milford Sound where the boys were more interested in what was in the cruise’s packed lunch.

New Zealand’s wildlife did not disappoint. We had amazing experiences seeing albatross, seals and penguins. Driving one day we saw an eagle soaring away with a rabbit in its claws, but the highlight was our encounter with a majestic sperm whale. Our time on the South Island was running out so we did a silly long drive to get to Kaikoura. Nick woke early and called the whale watch place and was informed they had a boat going in ten mins but there were no guarantees for later trips as the weather was due to change. This therefore could be our only chance. We hot footed it over, getting the boys dressed when we arrived and took food to breakfast on the boat. The sea was very rough and I was glad the boys were seasoned travellers. As our fellow passengers sought seasickness bags, they tucked into peanut butter sarnies. It was all worth it for the 10 minutes we got to spend watching this amazing creature spout from it’s blowhole, fill it’s lungs and dive back below the choppy sea with a flick of its tail.

 
I would also like to mention that the Kiwis certainly know how to do playgrounds right in New Zealand. We wiled away many happy hours as the boys clambered, swung and slid on whales, dinosaurs and a steam punk elephant. All with beautiful backdrops of lakes, mountains or coast. There was even a play area on the inter-island ferry which kept the boys entertained for the entirety of the 3 hour crossing from South to North.

I would have enjoyed Wellington more, had in not been from the excruciating pain of an infected sandfly bite. Nevertheless, we visited the awesome Te Papa museum and the only Lord of the Rings-related attraction of our time in New Zealand. The Weta Cave is the studio of the special effects company behind the movies and location of Nick’s best ever selfie.

 

As we left Wellington we didn’t have much of a plan other than heading North. And after a brief stop to visit New Zealand’s museum of rugby we ended up at our favourite freedom camp of the duration. A gorgeous deserted spot by a stunning beach where we had heaps of fun building a den and splashing in the chilly sea. While we were there a school of fish flung themselves out of the water and onto shore. Nick and George went all hunter gatherer and had them for lunch.

 
Next stop was with some friends we’d made in Cambodia. Trevor and Kat happen to run a winery in Hawkes Bay and by happy co-incidence (OK, meticulous planning) they invited us to stay the weekend of my birthday. We had lots of fun, eating, drinking and being merry with them. It was really interesting to get the winery tour and taste the wine direct from the barrels to see how that differs from the finished product. They also took me to their local doctor’s so I could get some antibiotics. The doc had a chuckle with me about the irony of getting ill in New Zealand and not India.

 

We continued North stopping to enjoy the geothermal activity in Rotorua and then onto Coromandel. Where we ate “fush ‘n’ chups” on the beach like real Kiwis. We toured round the peninsular taking in the gorgeous coastline and empty beaches. Our next stop was with some friends of friends who live on their land in a yurt. I’d been following Lucy’s blog for some time and am incredibly inspired by what they are doing; unschooling and simple living. We had a lovely evening round the camp fire and the kids became thick as thieves. Actual thieves. The little monkeys managed to pinch a wedge of cash that nearly ended up in the river when they went for a swim.

Photo credit Lucy AitkenRead

The time had come to return the van. We tried at the last minute to extend the rental but as it was a bank holiday we were politely informed that we had no chance. Navigating round Auckland’s one-way system resulted in mine and Nick’s biggest ever row. Tempers were frayed as we had to return the tank full of petrol and somehow ended up back on the motorway heading out of town. It was the only time I wished we had hired a sat nav.

Our last week was spent with some lovely friends and their three boys who moved to Auckland from Brighton. I was apprehensive of how it would go with 5 boys, aged 6 and under all under one roof but they got on like a dream and we were very grateful of Aoife and Steve’s hospitality. Their place was a great base for exploring the city and on the weekend we all got out into the Waitakere area together. A creeping sense of dread came over me in the last couple of days. I had fallen head over heals for New Zealand and really, really didn’t want to leave.

 

We were lucky enough to spend time with lots of friends; old and new. Including the super siblings of a Brighton friend. And we treasure happy memories from those times. Be they frolicking in streams, bouncing on trampolines, having fun on a vineyard or sharing a meal around the dinner table. The people certainly helped make our time in New Zealand really special. We loved the wide open spaces. We ate kiwi fruit by the bucket load. Affected a Kiwi twang with our speech. And pondered a future in the Land of the Long White Cloud. If it weren’t so bloody far away.

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From New Zealand there was just one stop left… start spreading the news… New York blog coming soon.

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Money, sex and diarrhoea: our 10 most frequently asked questions

We have met a lot of people during our year of travelling and had lots of conversations. There are some questions that seem to crop up over and over. Here are the 10 questions we are asked most frequently…

1  How can you afford to travel for a whole year?

People often assume that we must be loaded to take on a round the world trip. In truth we have spent less this year than we would have done at home. We were able to remortgage our house and rent it out to fund our adventure. We try to stick to a backpacker type budget and we have spent most of our time in countries with low living costs. We are heading home with a hefty credit card bill.

2  Isn’t it hard to travel with children?

I have said before that life on the road with kids is still life with kids. They get hungry, tired and they fight. But the actual travel part I think is easier with children than without. People go out of their way to help, they make room on the bus, let you jump queues and give you food. The children are great at breaking the ice and we have visited some really cool places that we wouldn’t have done without them in tow.

3  What about school?

This has been asked with every different tone of voice you could imagine. From mild curiosity to outright shock. Our boys are still young, nearly 4 and 5 and a half, there is plenty of time for school. They have learned far more this year than they possibly could in a classroom.

4  Don’t you get on each others nerves being together all the time?

Yes. Sometimes. We are human after all. But we have developed coping strategies like going for a walk, taking turns with the kids or just not talking to each other.

5  Has you sex life suffered?

Lots of people wonder about this but as my Mum is reading I’ll just say that as a co-sleeping family this is a familiar question. When you’re all sharing one bed that is the place for sleep and you find other places to have a bit of a kiss and cuddle. This is also true for travelling.

6  What has your favourite country been?

Up until a month ago my answer was India. We loved the vibrancy and chaos. How every day felt like an adventure. The people, the food and how each state was so different from the last. Now I would say New Zealand. You couldn’t get anywhere less like India.

7  Wow, you took your kids to India! Didn’t you get sick?

Everyone wants to hear about the shits. There were some but only for the odd half a day and never accompanied by anything more sinister. One of us wrecked a pair of trousers with a fart that wasn’t a fart but on the whole we’ve been pretty healthy. In fact the most ill we’ve been this year is in the last week where 3 out of 4 of us have ended up with infections from a hot spring.

8  Have there been times you thought you made a big mistake?

Of course! Nearly going up in smoke on a night bus in Vietnam led me to question what the hell we were doing. We had put ourselves in danger and I had many sleepless nights dwelling on the ‘what ifs?’

9  You must have a lot of luggage?

Nah. We’ve got 30kg all together. And that felt like way too much around South East Asia when we didn’t need our warm jackets and waterproofs!

10  Do the children enjoy travelling?

The children enjoy doing the things that children enjoy doing. They love beaches and swimming pools. They love making new friends, playing lego and hanging out in playgrounds. They love seeing wildlife and visiting museums. They are not so keen on temples.

Vietnam part II

We’d heard many good things about Hoi An and, happily, it lived up to expectations. Beautiful architecture, in particular the lanes of the Old Town and its riverside setting; the vibrant paddy fields; and a gorgeous stretch of beach (An Bang). To boot, Hoi An boasts some of the best eateries and best food we’d had in Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, therefore, our stay of initially a few nights was extended by a further week so we could enjoy exploring the many delights of this fine city.  We were also reunited with our Kiwi friends who had, coincidentally, rented a house on the edge of town and invited us to stay for a while. Happy days.

Of the many highlights from that week, though, Sam and my ‘afternoon date’ enjoying a wonderful walking street food tour was the best.  As our friends kindly minded the children, we gorged our way around the city, stuffing ourselves silly on some nine courses of local foods, including White rose, Waterfern cake, Cao Lau and supposedly the best banh mi in Vietnam. I should point out too that despite our adventurousness, we politely declined the fertilised egg containing a duck embryo (Balut) on grounds that it sounded disgusting.  As we walked around between courses, Sam was also afforded plenty of time to window-shop and indeed coveted many dresses and shoes en route. Not so silently, she vowed to return to Hoi An one day with an empty suitcase and her credit card. She did manage to have a couple of dresses made in the time we were there, citing an upcoming family wedding as reasonable justification!

We eventually dragged ourselves away from Hoi An and commenced the Northern leg of our Vietnam tour. Next stop, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park – home to the oldest karst mountains in Asia and some of the largest and deepest cave systems in the World.

After a day of relaxing (well, I say relaxing, but I had us cycle 20 ish km round the old village of Phong Nha in 35+ degree heat), we headed off on motorbikes in pursuit of The Dark Cave and afterwards Paradise Cave. Whilst the latter provided the classic cathedral-like splendour of a giant cave (all 31 kilometres of it) set in stunning forrest clad karsts, it was the former cave that provided us with the fun and laughter. The Dark Cave and the complex surrounding it was packed with enough surprises to keep us amused for several hours, including zip wire rides into the river (George showed his Mother how to do it!), river kayaking and, the best of all, a cave room with a mud bath so thick, even I was able to float! Once everyone was semi-submerged, we held the childrens’ hands as the head torches were switched off and absolute darkness was enjoyed. The sensation was incredible and brought out the child in everyone!

The following evening, with mud still soaked into our swimmers, we boarded another sleeper bus, this one bound for Hanoi. The inglorious details of this trip have already been provided, so I shall spare them here. Suffice to say, however, we were very pleased and relieved to eventually arrive at our next hostel in the capital. Our arrival was made even more pleasurable by not one but two warm welcomes. The first by Alice, the very friendly manager of our new home, and the second by The Brooks family, who we’d met through an online forum and had arranged to put faces to names and have a fun evening together before they departed the following morning.

Having been on the road for many months now, the childrens’ current appetite and enthusiasm for all things cultural – museums, temples and the like – is not exactly at an all-time high. So, when I suggested we visit Hanoi’s Museum of Ethnology, a large collection of tribal art and artefacts, my expectations were that we’d be in and out within an hour, with the children wholly unimpressed. Fortunately, I was wrong. In fact, we were so enthralled by the exhibits (George included), we managed to lose Tomas momentarily. Once his screams were answered by some helpful Indian tourists on the floor beneath us, we were reunited and learned that he was playing hide and seek – albeit on his own, poor boy!

With a week left in Vietnam, we decided to visit Cat Ba Island & Cat Ba National Park. It was from there we would also be able to explore the famous limestone islands of Halong Bay.


Like other places we’ve visited in Vietnam, Phong Nha, Mui Ne to name but two, Cat Ba is a boom town, which has unapologetically and unsympathetically developed in order to cater for the recent influx of tourists. That said, the surrounding countryside, including the national park, and the several hundred islands peppering the gulf remain the star attractions and rightly so. So whilst the food and the hotels weren’t the finest Vietnam had to offer, the scenery certainly was and we enjoyed several days venturing round the island and exploring the bays.  Unfortunately, our stay was accompanied by the arrival of Typoon Kujira, which aside from shutting the island down for day, reeked only minimal damage and relative normality was restored the following day. The highlight of our time on Cat Ba was the day long boat trip where we swam, kayaked and I hurled myself off a cliff into the bay.


Lastly, it was back to Hanoi for a few days before our departure for Thailand.  It has become customary for us, when we’re preparing to leave a country, to spend this time decluttering our backpacks, replenishing the missing stationery and Lego, completing some much overdue “home” admin and sending a postcard to my nieces in Sydney.  Hanoi was no exception.  Naturally, too, we do retrospective of our last few weeks and, in truth, whilst we enjoyed the last two months in Vietnam, we were definitely ready to leave. It was easy to get around logistically, but I would be lying if I said it was the friendliest place we’ve visited. The occasional touching by locals of young children’s private parts (in order to determine their sex, apparently) was a particularly unpleasant cultural trait of which any travelling parent should be wary. Nevertheless, resounding memories of Vietnam are George and I bouncing down the zip wire together before plunging into the river, a mud bath with the family and Tomas and George showing the Hipsters how to tear up a dance floor in a club in Hanoi!

Good evening, Vietnam. Thailand, we’re on our way back.

Vietnam Part I

The geography of Vietnam lends itself to one of two routes for exploring. You either go from North to South or from South to North. The flights worked out cheaper to Ho Chi Minh City so that’s where our Vietnamese adventure began.

The heat and noise hit us as we left the arrivals hall. It felt strangely familiar, despite never having been there before. We couldn’t get a price we were happy with for a taxi into town so climbed aboard a local bus and whilst the children were free we had to buy a ticket for our large backpack. We trundled through the swarms of motorbikes and were set down somewhere near our hotel. The welcome in HCMC couldn’t have been more different than in Tokyo. “The room you have booked is too small for you and your children.” Oh, here we go again we thought. “I’ll put you in a bigger room for the same price. Your kids are so cute!” I knew then that I’d like Vietnam.

We spent a happy few days in HCMC. My faithful flip flops from Western Nepal gave up on me so we wandered round the market looking for replacements. Everything is fake branded so I am now the proud owner of a pair of Aberconnbies [sic]. There are some cool playgrounds which the boys enjoyed no end. Not least because a random encounter with a lovely family from New Zealand provided them with a playmate for a large portion of our time in Vietnam.

We weren’t sure about visiting the War Remnants Museum with children but it worked out really well. They enjoyed seeing the planes and tanks outside and there is a playroom on the top floor. Nick and I meanwhile took it in turns to play with the children whilst the other visited the museum. I walked through the exhibition with tears streaming down my face. I learnt more about the American/Vietnam war and the far reaching implications of Agent Orange. There are some truly horrific photos of the brutality of war, in particular of children, which made me despair for humanity and stayed with me for a long time.

After zipping round the Far East we were in need of a rest. The plan had been to settle for a month in the beach town of Mui Ne to recuperate. We had a not-so-little house that I’d found on Air BnB and we were happy to fall into the routine of domesticity after so many hotels. We were excited to cook our own food and do our own laundry. We loved having mango trees in the garden and having time to think about where we’re going (literally and figuratively).’

 

Mui Ne is a big draw for Russian tourists so between self catering and all the Cyrillic signs we didn’t really feel as though we were in Vietnam. We enjoyed the company of our Kiwi friends who joined us for a few days and all had fun in the nearby sand dunes. The beach was a let down however, as the water was dirty and I was savaged by sand flies. We took to using the pool at Joe’s (a local cafe/resort) where the boys perfected their swimming. After a couple of weeks, feeling rested, we cut our losses and were back on the road.

We headed up to the Central highlands and the hill town of Dalat. Enjoying the cooler climes whilst we saw the sites including Hang Nga Crazy House, Elephant falls and the beautiful Xuan Huong lake. Dalat is well know for growing vegetables and the surrounding countryside is covered in poly tunnels.

We had planned an overnight trek with camping at nearby Mount Langbian. The start of the trek was rather disappointing with lots of rubbish and noise from jeeps. However after a steep climb we were soon away from the busy tourist area and horses painted to look like zebras. The next part of the walk was really enjoyable as we ambled through lush pine forest, even Tom managed the whole thing without complaint. As we got to the top the clouds had rolled in and we seemed to be right inside the peals of thunder. The heavens opened and we got soaked to the skin on our way down the mountain. Slip sliding on mud and trying to avoid the torrents that cascaded down the path next to us. At one point I had a couple of kilos of extra weight in clay stuck to my feet. We decided we didn’t have anything to prove by staying in the tent and beat a retreat to the warm shower in our hotel.

From there we hit big brash seaside town of Nha Trang. The beach was lovely, if crowded and the boys loved jumping off the diving board at the Central Park pool. We attempted the ‘Total Wipeout’ style bouncy stuff in the sea, but didn’t really get the hang of it. It was a good place to break up the journey northwards but boy were we happy to reach Hoi An.

 To be continued…

Wheels on fire

Trip Advisor is full of people moaning about the sleeper buses in Vietnam. But when you’ve been thrown about on a broken seat in the Himalayas or taken the nightbus to Pokhara they are the height of luxury.

Our bus was late last night. Two others came and we watched people board with envy as the boys got more and more tired. When it finally arrived we piled on and bagged our place at the back where there are five seat/beds in a row. They were asleep before we had pulled out of Son Trach village and Nick and I settled down for the ride.

Sometime around 1am we were jolted awake by the bus pulling over. There was lots of Vietnamese shouting and frantic activity. Suddenly we could see a fire next to the bus with acrid smoke billowing out. I thought at first the bus had hit something. Some of our fellow passengers piled off the bus and the news filtered back that a motorbike that had been stored in the hold had caught fire.

The boys were still asleep so I stayed with them whilst Nick went to see what was happening. He reported that our backpacks were covered in soot but unscathed. Others hadn’t been as lucky with all their belongings up in smoke.

Another bus from the same company had stopped in front of ours and everyone was told to get off our bus. The staff weren’t communicating but we grabbed our chance and got on the other bus. 2 minutes later it set off. Leaving everyone else at the side of the road. It felt like getting on a lifeboat. We were relieved not to be stranded with two exhausted children. I’d love to know what happened to everyone else.

Our saviour bus had some engine trouble and limped through the night to Hanoi without AC but we were just happy to be alive. The full horror of what may have happened to us without the quick actions of the bus staff do not bare thinking about.

Our six month travelversary

About this time last year we made a decision that led us to where we are today. There’s no way we could have predicted on that bright and breezy day in Brighton that a year hence we’d be in South Korea but here we are exactly six months since we landed in Delhi and what a ride we’ve had! 

  

We are often asked whether it is difficult to travel with young children. Usually the question is posed by young travellers who don’t have kids. My stock answer is that life with children is life with children. We have the same issues on the road that we’d have at home: disagreements over screen time (George), drama over getting dressed (Tomas), refusal to get a haircut (both) and I still often impale my foot on lego when I go to the loo at 3am.

  

We’ve mediated sibling squabbles at the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China. Their clothes always need washing and they need to eat all the bloody time. But that’s life with children! Now they have six months travel under their belts the boys are seasoned travellers. They can sleep anywhere, greet the locals in their lingo and ‘Home’ is wherever we drop our backpacks. 

  

We have continued with our nightly ritual of sharing a highlight (or highlike as T calls them). As we approached the half way point  of our adventure we reflected on all we have done so far. Trying to nail down a highlight from each of us for the past six months was tricky but here they are:

  

Nick has really enjoyed having time together as a family and we both agree that trekking in the Himalayas was the high point of our journey so far. 

  

I have also loved making new friends, spending time with old ones and eating all the food!

  

For George it was the camel trek we did in Jaisalmer and eating scorpion in Beijing of course!

  

Tomas has enjoyed seeing rabbits in all the countries we’ve visited and the pony trek he did on his birthday in Nepal.

  

Together we have experienced more of the world (and each other) in six months than we’d have managed in 10 years of family holidays and for that we feel truly blessed. Here’s to the next six months there’s no knowing where they may lead!

  

 

 

Trains, planes and auto rickshaws

The plan was simple. Travel by bus from Wayanad in Northern Kerala to Kochi on the coast, changing in Calicut. But you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men.

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The first leg passed smoothly enough. We’d gotten an auto from our farm stay to the bus stand in Sultan Bathery and boarded the Kerala State Transport Corporation bus. The scenery was beautiful as we passed through plantations of rubber, coffee, banana and tea. And even the 9 hairpin bends coming downhill didn’t phase us (it was nothing compared to a certain bus journey in Nepal).

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We arrived in Calicut and, after having brought some provisions for the journey, sought the next bus. We were shepherded onboard by a conductor assuring us his was heading for Kochi.

We got comfortable (well as comfortable as we could squeezed into two seats) and settled in for the ride. I promptly fell asleep. Sometime later I woke to the sound of the boys bickering and my frazzled husband trying to mediate. Nick saw I was awake and casually mentioned that he didn’t think we were going the right way.

I dug out our now well-thumbed Lonely Planet and checked the map. We had indeed been going the wrong way. For two hours. We made our enquiries with the conductor who found our situation most amusing. Nick and I did not. Let’s just say we are not proud of our behaviour in the ensuing minutes as the bus stopped and we rather unceremoniously disembarked.

We found ourselves at the side of a dusty road in a small town somewhere. As we gathered ourselves (and apologised to the children for setting a bad example) we checked our belongings. Bugger. George’s backpack was still on the bus hurtling away from us at high speed.

Nick quickly persuaded a nearby motorcyclist to give chase. George and Tomas were upset about the loss of said backpack it’s contents being their books, toys and headphones. I tried to comfort them as I worked out where we were.

Meanwhile the motorbike was speeding down the road weaving in and out of traffic in hot pursuit of the bus. Nick didn’t hold much hope of catching up given the bus driver’s need for speed. Luckily the rider that Nick was clinging onto for dear life recognised our bus at a petrol station about 30km from where we had jumped off.

The boys were hot, bothered and fighting as I tried to work out how we were going to continue our journey. My stress levels were rising and just as I was beginning to fret about Nick’s whereabouts he returned, triumphant, with George’s backpack. What a hero! We tried to give the guy some money to show our appreciation but he was just happy to have helped.

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We made our way to the nearest train station, Mahe, which by happy coincidence was about 5 minutes away. There was a train in half an hour that would take us to Kochi. On the platform we chatted to Ansar, a book salesman from Calicut and he let the boys look at his wares whilst we waited. And I had a random conversation in French with a teacher from a nearby Alliance Française.

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We had naively thought getting the train would be straightforward. We anticipated it being busy and prepped the kids. However, when the train pulled into the station it was longer than everyone had expected and we were therefore stood in the wrong place. By the time we had rushed down the platform the train was pulling out and I had my second sense of humour breakdown of the day. We said goodbye to Ansar who had also failed to get on the train and headed back to the bus stop.

We fought our way onto a packed bus and headed back to Calicut. Where we blew the budget by checking into a nice hotel and chalked the eventful day up to experience as we went in search of a much needed beer.

On being Intrepid

For me being intrepid meant being active, adventurous, outdoors and seeking the next thrill. Indeed, one of the main reasons for leaving the nine-to-five (more like seven-to-eight) was to take my family on an adventure around the world and broaden their, and my horizons. We wanted to leave the fish bowl and explore what’s outside. And, as is clear from our previous blog posts, we’ve clocked up many miles (and spent many pounds) actively being intrepid.

So, I must confess, sitting still on a beach in Goa and just being present in the moment was not really on my agenda. Sitting still does not come naturally to me, as some of you know.

Having been here for a few weeks, however, I’ve realised that being intrepid doesn’t always have to be huge, tiring strides up mountains or hours spent on expeditions. My two sons have shown me repeatedly that being intrepid can be as simple as learning to jump off rocks into the sea and swim back to shore again. Or taking off your armbands for the first time and wading into the sea alone and free.

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Or having the confidence to walk up to other children on the beach and then build such a bond that we enjoy their company for a few fun-filled precious days. They flourish and continue to stretch themselves in ways that I hadn’t anticipated before we arrived in Goa – and stood still – and it’s been beautiful to watch.

But as I watched my sons being themselves, being intrepid, I realised that something still wasn’t right. What was wrong, I wondered. Then, within a few days of our arrival, it struck me. It was Christmas Day, the sun was setting and I was watching my boys mess around in the waves. That was it; I was only watching them and not being and playing with them. It’s very difficult to admit, but sometimes being a dad is bloody hard and I don’t know what to do for the best. “Leave them be, they’re playing well on their own”, although sometimes that’s perfectly true and appropriate, it can easily become a default setting, a comfortable place with limited risk but filled with missed opportunities. There was only one thing for it. I dived in, joined the boys and I enjoyed the best Christmas Day of my life. The sunset wasn’t bad either!

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So as the boys are relishing being intrepid still, I’m enjoying learning from them and just being still. As one of my best friends said recently before we left; somethings are just more important than others. So perhaps putting less emphasis on being intrepid and more on being with the Johnsons is more important.

Happy New Year!

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North India

The final leg of our adventures in India was, for me, the most enjoyable. Whilst Rajasthan, with its well documented Golden Triangle route, was a feast for the senses (not necessarily a good thing, at times) we headed North, to the mountains, for the cleaner air, fewer crowds and Tibetan food.

This part of the trip had us awestruck at not just one, but two, spiritual homes; watch a grown man mummify himself in toilet paper before setting himself alight; gatecrash lunchtime at a school; take a night bus with a blow-up T-Rex; enjoy a full(ish) English breakfast in Kipling’s favourite resort, Shimla; and take a toy train (literally) to a rock garden (literally, also).

The first of the spiritual encounters came in Amritsar, the Punjabi capital and, more specifically, home of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple.

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With heads covered and secured by knots (as well as with bribes of chocolate for keeping said heads covered throughout our visit) we respectfully bathed our feet and entered one of India’s most serene and humbling sights. Despite the many hundreds making pilgrimages, there were times you could almost hear a pin drop. We walked barefoot on the white marble walkway around the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), from which Amritsar takes its name. The boys enjoying carp spotting en route.

The Golden Temple itself, floating at the end of a long causeway, adorned with flowers and animal motifs was a true highlight of our trip thus far. The whole complex had an air of spirituality and even the boys were calm.

Our second spiritual encounter came some days later with our chance meeting with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Tsuglagkhang Complex, McLeod Ganj.

The more organised and prepared visitors – worshippers and tourists alike – had in advance researched HH dates in residence, arranged their security passes, made adequate arrangements for sitting on the cold, polished concrete floor for many hours and tuned in to FM92 for live translations of HH’s public teachings. This teaching was a three-day event hosted at the request of Korean Buddhists, who are otherwise unable for various reasons to see their spiritual leader in their home country.

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For us, however, it was an absolute fluke. Being, to put it simply, in the right place at the right time. Suffice to say, both Sam and I were highly excited at the prospect of hearing him teach and, ultimately, were not disappointed.

McLeod Ganj, provided three further treats during our short stay there. One evening we decided to see what was billed as a ‘cultural event, of dance and music’. In fairness, it was all three of those things; and more. His stage name was Lionman (derived, one might imagine, from his long mane) and when he wasn’t throwing himself bare-chested at the walls, electrocuting himself and jumping out of the windows, he was crawling all over the bemused crowd and, as mentioned above, demonstrating the flammable properties of tissue paper. Please don’t try this at home, kids!

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The next day, we thought it would be good for the children to see, well, other children. It was respite for us also. So we made a few subtle enquiries and were told of a local infants school, which coincidently was Lionman’s chosen venue the previous night.

Happily however the charred remains of Lionman’s hair and the tissue paper had been removed and, alas, little people were sitting on the floor enjoying noodles for lunch in the sunshine. We were then invited, by a teacher, to join them and for the proceeding two hours or more we played with the children and shared ‘Children’s Day’ with them – a day where the teachers did very little, whilst students were allowed a free rein to play! It was a win-win!

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Lastly, we headed to Bhagsunag Waterfall. A short trek, not surprisingly, upwards from our guest house and a welcome change from the thoroughfare of McLeod Ganj. We all enjoyed a cold paddle in the falls, whilst the Indian tourists looked on in horror as two fair skinned Brightonian boys stripped off to their pants and made the most of the cooling water.

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Our next destination was the hill town, Shimla, former capital of the British Raj during the hot summer months, now capital city of Eastern Himachal Pradesh and a seven-hour night bus ride south from Dharamsala.

Our journey was made all the less enjoyable by the addition of a blow-up T-Rex, which a fellow passenger (with the best will in the world) had kindly given to Tomas as a ‘cuddlie’ for the night. He eventually tired of it, as well as the days events, and fell asleep. The next morning, after a brief nap in our hotel, we enjoyed a stroll along the Mall, a horse ride for the boys, and a hearty English breakfast near Scandal Point (we never did find out what precisely was the scandal from which the place derived its name?).

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We had intended staying in Shimla for two days. Somewhere along the way however we miscalculated our time available – specifically we had managed to lose a day. Accordingly, we hotfooted it the next morning to the station to board a Toy train to Kalka, with a connection to Chandigarh. The train was, as the name suggests, a jolly experience with a scenic, winding decent from the mountains, passing 103 tunnels On the way (the boys lost count, or rather got bored counting them, after 7).

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The next day, we visited Chandigarh’s Nek Chand Rock Garden. A surreal sculpture garden, which is like something from Alice in Wonderland. A weird and wonderful place created by Nek Chang out of concrete and recycled junk, including broken bathroom sinks and bicycle frames! It was superb.

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In the afternoon, we boarded a dragon-shaped pedaloe and floated for an hour on another of Nek Chang’s creations, Suhna Lake. In short, we had a wonderful day in Chandigarh, playing in the garden and lake and thanks Steve Barnes for the recommendation! We loved it.

Lastly, it was back to the mayhem of Delhi to catch our flight to Nepal.

In sum, through luck rather than design, we saved the best of India until last and left the subcontinent (albeit, temporarily) on a high note.

Rajasthan Part 2 – Jodphur to Bikener (AKA The one about the camel safari)

The next leg of our Rajasthani tour took us from Udaipur to Jodphur. The winding mountain roads led us first to the oldest Jain temple in India at Ranakpur.

The buildings were beautiful and it was a good opportunity for the boys to run around looking for wildlife including a sunbathing lizard and the resident monkeys. Unfortunately our timing was poor and our visit coincided with prayer time so we were unable to see inside the temples.

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Later in the day we got caught up in a diversion as the main road to Jodphur was closed for a festival. A comedy of errors ensued that saw a tractor crash into a Rickshaw, and the car in front get stuck in the sand until the driver turfed all his passengers out to lighten the load.

Jodphur’s Mehrangarh fort was the definite highlight of our time in the blue city. The boys were tired and cranky but they soon got into the swing of things climbing over cannons and checking out the impressive weaponry on display. The fort also afforded us with stunning views over the city’s skyline.

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On the road to Jaisalmer we passed through sparse scrubland along the edge of the desert. As we sped through the rural landscape the boys pointed out the occasional herd of sheep or cattle and working camels pulling carts. Whilst N and I marvelled at women in beautiful coloured sarees and tractors all bearing improbably heavy loads.

Jaisalmer was welcomingly quiet after the noise and bustle of Jodphur. We visited the impressive sandstone fort and several beautiful Havelis but really we were just going through the motions to pass the time to our much anticipated camel safari.

As we headed to the meeting point we met charismatic Rhoza Khan, owner of our camel trek company. With his pukka Ray Bans and perfect teeth it was like he’d ridden his Royal Enfield motorbike off a movie set. Having admired his bike Rhoza invited N for a spin and they sped off down the road. We caught them up in the car and the boys took it in turns to go for a ride (whilst I had my heart in my mouth!).

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We eventually pulled up to the meeting point and were met by Amil, our camel man. After ensuring we had sufficient water we got onto our camels (named by the boys as Andy and Twinkle) and headed off towards the dunes.

As we made our way into the dunes we paused at a small village to procure a chicken for dinner. Much amusement ensued as several men and children chased the chicken around before it’s capture.

We plodded along taking in the scenery and as the movement of the camel took its toll on my undercarriage I hoped we weren’t going far.

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Happily we soon stopped to set up camp. And as the sun set the boys played together, sliding down sand dunes, finding sand beetles, and writing in the sand. Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the happiness of our offspring.

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The moon rose and we sat around the campfire, drinking chai. Amil made a delicious dinner from said chicken which the boys witnessed being dispatched to the giant coop in the sky.

Rhoza brought his children out to the desert to meet us in his large swanky 4×4. Bearing biscuits and juice for the boys to fuel their sand dune adventures. With happy hearts we eventually drifted off to sleep under the stars.

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We woke early and watched sunrise over the Thar Desert. G made us all laugh by saying “We’re real explorers now, aren’t we Dad?!”. Amil made more chai and we packed up camp before Andy and Twinkle took us back to the roadside meeting point.

We spent the next day chilling at the hotel pool getting some much needed downtime. Then it was back on the road for quick overnight stop in Bikener and after yet another Rajasthani fort we hit the road for the long drive to Amritsar.