Round the World

New Zealand North Island

Caught up with my mate Paul, who I met in Samoa. Paul only has a week before heading off to Oz (he plans to cycle from Perth to Sydney) so we hired a car and have raced round some of North Islands key sights. On Monday we went cave tubing through the Waitomo caves. A select few got to see the distressing sight of me in a wetsuit, but it was good fun doing some caving, seeing glow worms (weird lifecycle) and swimming underground.

We then drove to Rotorua and arrived late but in time to see England scrape through against Wales. Up next day to see the mud pools, hot springs (boiling hot) and geysers before heading south to National Park taking a quick look at the Huka Falls on the way there.

Cooking Pot, Rotorua, New Zealand
Boiling mud, Rotorua, New Zealand
Geyser, Rotorua, New Zealand

Up early next day to catch the bus to the start of the Tongariro crossing, a 17km walk through some volcanoes with an 800m climb at the start and a 1200m descent at the end. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t kind with low cloud making visibility very poor and with strong, cold winds. It meant we didn’t really get to see the key features at the top, but the weather cleared on the way down. It was almost surreal to be tramping through a snow field in one of the craters so soon after being on a tropical island.

Paul & I had cooked double portions of food last night so all we had to do was heat up some soup & bolognaise sauce for dinner and uncap a couple of beers. The next day we were fairly slow to get going so headed back up to Rotorua to soak sore muscles in the hot springs and to be ready for Thursdays activities.

Paul was determined to go Zorbing, which is basically being closed into a giant inflatable hamster ball with a few buckets of water and then rolled down a hill.

Paul in his Zorb, New Zealand
Paul in his Zorb

We then did an off road experience where you drive a little Suzuki 4×4 over a course, swapping between 2 drivers. There is one point where you come down a waterfall and have to take your foot off the brake for the 6 foot final plunge and another area where you skid down a 5 meter drop with you wheels sliding in metal channels. Adds a bit of adrenalin to the mix. I then went and raced a 1500cc buggy round a circuit in the pouring rain for a few laps setting the fastest time of the day so far.

We then headed back up to Auckland so that Paul could catch his flight early next day. We decided to stay in Parnell, a district to the east of the centre for a change. There are worse places to stay as a backpacker but I’ve yet to come across them. The problem is there is only one pub that isn’t a Bar / Restaurant and even that is prefab Irish place. In addition the only place that is suitable for eating alone, as I had to the next night, was a burger place (however Burger Fuel is an excellent burger joint) and the hostel was the dullest yet. A hint to all hostel owners, do not put a TV in the only common area with comfy seats as it means lot of guests sitting with the lights out and not talking to each other.

Click here to get Paul’s version of events. Paul’s webpage isn’t there any more. If I get an update I’ll relink.

On Saturday night I caught up with Marcel & Cam from the Green Tortoise trip. We headed back to their place with a few drinks to watch the New Zealand vs Australia semi final, which unfortunately the All Blacks lost without looking particularly threatening. Sunday I joined them at a Big Boys toys exhibition full of modified cars and electronic gadgets. It was good to be reminded that the Aussies continued the tradition of making good, basic, V8 engined, rear wheel drive cars of the type that the US used to excel in before they forgot how to make cars in the 70s.

Round the World



I originally landed in Samoa at 3am local time and about 6am by my body clock. It meant it was dark as my taxi took me from the airport into town, but the ride was an experience in itself. The car itself was a very old Japanese model, with every wheel bearing singing along and the driver never going above around 25 MPH, even slipping the auto box into neutral any time we came to a slight downhill gradient. We were getting passed by every other vehicle on the road, but even our slow progress didn’t seem to stop the driver struggling to spot where the centre line was as he drifted across the road.

Later that morning was a shock to the body as it felt the heat and humidity. Just strolling around had me breaking out in a sweat and I was becoming worried how I’d cope with a few weeks of this. Its not always safe to drink the tap water, but bottled water was readily available; handy when you’re getting through 3 – 4 litres of the stuff a day.

I was spending my first few days in Apia, the capital of independent Samoa, on the island of Upolu. My hotel was near the main market and bus station, just across a little stream and about 5 – 10 minutes walk from the sea front. My first stroll made it clear I was no longer in the 1st world. The little stream was opaque, dark grey and stank, yet in the rest of my time in Samoa it appeared to be the only one polluted. The market was fairly basic with stalls laid out on low benches and a series of food stalls selling fried foods at one end. Around the main covered market space were a series of “shack” shops selling manufactured essentials such as toiletries, coke, corned beef and beer. Of the produce on sale in the market I didn’t recognise a thing.

On continuing into town it appeared the Samoan’s also didn’t believe in street signs for road names or the direction of destinations, however as there were few main streets you could navigate around using the map in the Lonely Planet. The town itself is fairly spread out with virtually no buildings over two stories high and most of the commercial buildings being on a couple of blocks parallel on Beach Road. I needed brunch so headed to a place used by the locals called Pinati’s. The aversion to signs continued here with no name on the outside of the building and no menu on the inside. There wasn’t a lot of selection, either chicken curry or chicken chow mein, but the chicken curry and a 1 litre bottle of Sprite only cost me $5 Tala (£1). Only then did I discover that they didn’t bother removing the skin & bones from the chicken.

A walk further round Beach Road showed a town with an appealing worn in look, lacking the neon, plastic facade common in the west. The main government building was the biggest in town (donated by the Chinese) but the most dramatic was the Catholic Cathedral.

Apia across the bay, Samoa

Just south of town is Robert Louis Stevenson’s last house, Vailima, built in 1890 and where he died in Dec 1894 from stroke probably caused by the TB he suffered from. RLS was a activist for Samoan rights and self government, which made him very popular amongst the local chiefs, less so amongst the Europeans. The house itself is beautifully set in tropic gardens, with Mt Vaea rising behind and it is at the top of this mountain that RLS is buried.

Vailima, Samoa

My motel also happened to be near JT’s Sport Bar, run by the family of Junior Tonu’u who played for Western Samoa and for the All Blacks, so I’d found the ideal place to watch the rugby world cup. It was here I met Paul & Willem; Paul from the east end of London and heading round the world and Willem from Amsterdam doing the Pacific Islands. We’d meet up most evenings to catch the rugby and with the Samoa vs England game coming up that was important, however on the big night things went wrong. The atmosphere leading up to the game was electric and only got better as Samoa took the lead, however I’d had a minor stomach complaint for the past couple of days which decided to get much worse. I had to head to my room part way through the 1st half and missed the rest of the game. Still, it got me away from people telling me how badly Scotland had done against France and away from one of Willem’s brighter outfits (he must have been colour blind).

I decided to head out to what was said to be the best of Samoa’s beaches on the south east coast and as they would be moving on said goodbye to Paul & Willem. There was a bus service to where I wanted to go, however I couldn’t get hold of a bus schedule as the local tourist office had run out and despite repeated attempts never had any in. Conversation with other travellers made it clear that the place was a much use as a chocolate teapot. Hanging out at the bus station showed that any bus schedule should only be taken as a very rough guide at best with the driver deciding when to go based on whether he has enough passengers. If numbers are a bit low he will shuttle between Apia’s two markets until he is sure there is no one else interested. The bus itself tends to be a Japanese truck with a wooden seating area built over the chassis and simple wooden benches inside. Peoples shopping will be distributed all over the inside, underneath the front seats if room, but in the case of a load of cement as a raised floor. The driver will know everyone along the route making small diversions all over the place and in one case stopping to pick up a parcel of fish and dropping them off at a house further up the road. A Samoan bus ride is definitely a must for any traveller to Samoa.

Samoan bus

Lalomanu Beach

The ride down to Lalomanu was gorgeous with the road initially following the north coast. Here we were passing through lots of small villages, many decorated with brightly coloured plants and rocks lining the road. In between was road with lush vegetation on one side and a tropical lagoon on the other. The road then turns in land and I got first sight of how lush this tropical island is; everything is green, absolutely everything. Where are other places I had been, the hills get bare towards the top, not here.

North Coast Road, Samoa

The beach was almost the perfect tropic beach, with a shelter lagoon out to around 50 m where there was a coral reef surrounded by fish. The beach itself was lined by palm trees and as it was now past the main season there were very few people there. By the second day I had the place to myself and was enjoying a bit of piece and quiet with some swimming and snorkelling, however two things slightly spoilt the calm. First of all I managed to sunburn myself whilst snorkelling and secondly the night before a 4 piece band had played through dinner and tonight I was eating alone. I really did not want to be the sole diner with live entertainment and fortunately they thought the same way. It was quite an experience to have somewhere that beautiful to yourself with so little to distract you and the only sound at night being the roar of the waves breaking on the reef.

With time on my hands I double checked my flight out of Samoa and realised some bad news; whilst I thought I had 3 weeks here, in shuffling dates to book available flights I actually had 2 weeks 2 days, 5 days less. It meant I had to get a move on if I was to get to Savai’i, the largest island of Samoa.

Whilst I sorted out my arrangements I stayed at a family run hotel in Apia called Aniva’s Place. The father of the operation, Bob Slater, is Scottish but moved over this way a couple of decades ago. Also staying there were Lysa & Karen, who I had met at Lalomanu and had recommended it to me, and a couple of Kiwi businessmen who travelled regularly to Samoa. Always a good sign to see people returning to a place and so it proved, with drinks out front and Bob’s Sashimi to snack on. The only quirk was being told that I couldn’t bring back any girls (or boys) I pulled on a night out!! Apparently all to often the (un)lucky guy wakes up to find the partner gone, along with his wallet and anything else not nailed down. The hot showers more than made up for any unexpected rules that my history said I was unlikely to break anyway.


You can either fly or go by boat to Samoa and I originally planned to take the cheaper sea route, however people said the view was spectacular from the air and the return ticket was only 100 Tala (£20). The flight to Savai’i goes from a tiny local airport near Apia and the plane itself is a little twin engined one, taking only 8 passengers. You know the plane is small when they weigh you as well as your luggage.

Once there I headed for a family run hotel that also ran tours that had been recommended to me. The hotel was basic, but good with my own enclosed, ensuite Fale in the gardens and a central area where meals were eaten together with some of the family. The head of the family, Moelagi Jackson, is the holder of several chiefly titles, was one of the first to recognise the potential of tourism on Savai’i and is a very forceful and interesting lady. Her son, Chris, was doing much of the running of the hotel whilst I was there and got married on the Sat night with the guests invited to the reception.

During the days I would be out on tour with Warren Jopling, a retired geologist that has spent the last 25 years on Samoa and knows Savai’i like the back of his hand. You couldn’t hope for a better guide to a volcanic island that geologically is very young and still erupts every 150 years or so. We toured over places where the sea has undercut fragmented rocks creating bridges & blow holes, saw sections of the coast as it was thousands of years ago and a huge area of the latest lava flow that looked like something from another planet.

We also got to see some of the local sights. The Pulemelei mound is a large flat topped pyramid 60m by 50 m at its base and rising in two tiers to 12m high. It has recently been archaeologically surveyed and appears to come from the time of the Tongan occupation, however its use is still unknown though various theories have been proposed. There is a smaller mound just to the north connected by a causeway, but the causeway does not lead to an access point on the mound which sit in the middle of the east & west sides. My own personal feeling is that this was for defence as it gives a big advantage to those who occupy it and it has a commanding view down to the sea.

Pulemelei mound, Savai’i. Samoa

The nearby Olemoe Falls were gorgeous with a fantastic swimming pool at the bottom reachable only by a rickety ladder. As we had a wedding to attend we didn’t get a chance for a swim but this was a hint of paradise. At the very tip of the south east is the Tafua volcanic crater. We climbed up to this to see the crater now filled by jungle and populated by flying foxes. The sight was spectacular but there was no way to take a decent photo

Olemoe Falls, Savai’i. Samoa

We also got to see some of the local culture & crafts. Siapo is a local material made from tree bark, where the bark is peeled off the wood, the outer course layer peeled off, the living layer scraped off before pounding it out with a mallet. The dried sheet is then patched and stuck to a 2nd layer before being decorated. Its a very labour intensive process that has almost died out since the introduction of cheap cotton materials.

We also stopped by a fale where the family were roasting their own cocoa, which when ground they add to water and sugar to make a drink. It was clear the family lived in a very basic set of circumstances but the kids loved being able to see themselves on the camera after this photo was taken.

Cocoa Roasting, Savai’i. Samoa

On Sunday I was able to help (or hinder) the preparation of Sunday dinner in an Umu. The Samoa Umu is an above ground hot rock oven where a fire is prepared to heat a set of rocks. When this has burnt out the rocks are spread into a disk and food is then piled on top. Coconut leaves are then placed over the top to seal the heat in and let the food cook. All the food is from local produce: taro a root vegetable roasted, pork (the hotel has a farm), fish, taro leaves cooked in coconut cream… Even the coconut cream is produced fresh by scraping out the coconut flesh then wringing it out in long fibres from the coconut husk. Everything is done using basic tools and nothing much appears to have changed in decades.

I had one trip to Salelologa, the largest town and ferry port on Savai’i, and found a small market place, a small mall with about 8 shops, a taxi rank with a BBQ and little else. It clearly demonstrated how undeveloped this island is which is a large part of its appeal to visitors. How it copes with the cyclones (generic name for hurricanes) that hit the islands every so often (the last two being in 1991 and 1992) wiping out villages and roads I don’t know. Attempts have been made to bolster the coastline with rocks but as Warren observed these will just add projectiles to the mix when the waves come crashing over. In addition Savai’i can expect a volcanic eruption sometime in the middle of this centuary but exactly where and when it is impossible to say. The last few wiped out land and villages but didn’t kill anyone as they weren’t explosive and people could evacuate areas in the path of the lava.

Samoan life

What did surprise me about Samoa was how little fish appeared to be eaten. More was still eaten than in the UK, but I had expected it to dominate the diet and it didn’t. What was common was lots of fried foods such as chicken, chips, donuts, etc. In addition dishes with a chinese influence were common such as chop suey and curry. Supermarket shelves seem to be dominated by corned beef and spagetti in tomato sauce. Fruit was always served as desert with papaya dominating, however despite being told that citrus fruit was common and available year round I was never offered any nor saw it in any of the markets. You can maintain a healthy diet here but it is a challenge.

For beer fans its worth noting that Samoa’s local brew, Vailima, is pretty good. The brewery used to be owned by a German firm and it shows but its recently been bought by the company that brews Fosters and early signs are not encouraging. Vailima is still its distinctive self but whilst I was there the brewery release Vailima Gold which was much blander. Hopefully it won’t succeed too much.

Vailima brand bar, Samoa

Religion is also something that stands out as being particuarly important here with many different christian churches established. Every village has a church with the next biggest building being the minister’s house and there is a certain irony in that it was British missionaries who brought christianity here in 1830 and since then the British church has declined in influence at home. At lease one of the churches reads out the donations made by the congregations at the end of the service, putting great pressure on people to donate more than they can afford. At least one of the villages hit hard by the cyclone is building a huge new church that will leave the village in debt for decades and another used money donated by Sweden for rain forest protection and local facilities (schools, medical establishments) to build a grand new house for the minister. The wealth and status of the churches here stands in sharp contrast to the basic living conditions of the majority of the people and reminded me of the period of history in Europe when the cathedrals were being built.

I headed back to Apia a day and a half before my flight to New Zealand to make sure no problems could make me miss it and it was lucky I did. My last day in Apia saw torrential rain which grounded the inter island flights and winds that stopped the ferries. It was a day to settle back and read a good book, but a shame I couldn’t do more with my last day there. There was still much to see in Samoa, I had the place to myself and the 3 weeks I had originally planned would have been perfect. Its a place I’d like to come back to but its a long and expensive haul from the UK.

Round the World

San Francisco / Bay Area

Golden Gate Bridge, San Franciso, USA

I’ve come to the end of my time in North America having spent two weeks in San Francisco and the bay area. There isn’t a lot to tell really as I spent time exploring SF’s diverse neighbourhoods, chilling out and catching up with old uni mates.

On SF itself, its a town I really like with an easy going nature and spectacular views. I knew what to expect as my brother and I visited the area about 6 years ago. I did get to Alcatraz this time and it was well worth the visit, despite the hangover I had at the time; handy hint, do pay the extra for the audio tour of the cell block as it well done and you’ll miss a lot of info without it.

Alcatraz, San Francisco, USA

Touring Central Park Al & I became frustrated at the number of roads through it and the inability of getting to somewhere park like. One great place was the Japanese Tea Gardens which normally charge entry but are free for the last hour of the day (5 -6) in summer. My first visit there was disturbed by the Blue Angels practising manoeuvres for the Fleet Day that weekend; spectacular flying guys but its ruining the peace of the park. The only jarring note about San Francisco is the number of beggars it has, more than any other city I have yet been to (I’ve only really travelled in the 1st world so far).

Japanese Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, USA

I spent much of the time in the Green Tortoise hostel and its still one of the best I’ve been to both in terms of location and its nature. OK its right in the adult theatre district but that lies nicely at the border of Little Italy/North Beach and Chinatown with lots of restaurants and bars. In addition the hostel has taken to putting on several free dinners during the week that are good and make a worthwhile cost saving.

Both weekends I have travelled out to Palo Alto to stay at my mate Seth’s where I have had a free bed, eaten his food, drank his beer and made use of his Internet service. It seems a little one sided when you realise that in return I can only offer the tourist hotspot of Birmingham, England. A big night out was had on the second Friday when Al Murray had jetted in from Texas to join Seth, Derek Gladding and myself at the Edinburgh Castle pub in SF. Considering less than 30 graduated from my degree course it was a some feat to have 4 of us meet up for a drink several thousand miles from home.

Al Murray in the Japanese Gardens, Golden Gate Park

Last night (my last in the USA) Seth and I had tickets to the Monday night football game when the Kansas Chiefs came to the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders home ground is a fairly spectacular place called the Oakland Coliseum and an intimidating place for the away team as I only saw one of their fans all night. Unfortunately a strong home advantage didn’t help the Raiders when they had a lousy 1st quarter, dropping to 10-0 behind by the end of the 1st half. Only really in the final quarter did they start really playing, pulling back to 10-3 before running out of time on the Chief’s 1 yard line. 20 seconds more on the clock and there would have been a good chance of pulling the game back and going into extra time. It was great to see my first American Football game live and a shame that we came so close to pulling back but just missed out. One point I did note was the incredible influence of the TV companies; whenever they want to put on adverts, and its often, the clock stops and the teams hang around until the ad break is over. Its unreal for someone used to football as played by the rest of the world.

Today I travel to Samoa, travelling through the night and arriving at 3am their time. It’s the longest flight of my trip, around 10 hours, and taking me across the equator for the 1st time ever. I’m looking forward to this part of the trip as its the first country with a distinctly different culture. North American was a culture I already knew and held no surprises but was a great first stop on my travels to get me used to some aspects of backpacking. Now I get to stay on a Pacific Island for 3 weeks where the pace of life is said to be slow.

Round the World

The Green Tortoise : The Journey

The bus starts in Boston but I was due to join it, along with most others, on its first evening in New York. Although we were asked to be there at 7pm, because the drive that night was so short we were not setting off until 10:30. When we finally did set off we were introduced to the name of our bus, Pawnee, but it was a subdued affair and most people bedded down for an early night. I have to confess to having been fairly concerned by this having hoped for a livelier crowd.

Washington DC – 25th Sept

I woke up as we visited every gas station in the Washington area looking for the tyre centre that had a new spare for the bus. Eventually find the place just before 6am, when the guy is due to turn up to serve us. He must have had a shock when 22 passengers from all over the world climb off to use his toilet and brush their teeth. Having sorted out a new spare we head into Washington’s Central Station. The Air & Space museum has a fantastic collection but the Holocaust Museum that is most memorable, being superbly done and extremely haunting. It almost needs tackling over a couple of visits because it is so intense and its worth planning something lighter to do after to raise your spirits. Also saw White House, Congress, etc but town itself boring with few people on the streets and little other sign of life.

The White House, Washington, USA

Food today is bought from the outlets in the station, in particular the enormous food court running under the station. As we have a long drive down south we set off at 8:30 pm.

Savannah Beach, Georgia- 26th Sept

Passing through one of the squares in Savannah I notice that the bus is not getting a lot of friendly looks from the group of locals hanging round its centre. My paranoia is heightened when I notice the local sheriff is following the bus through several corners so when the bus is asked whether we want to stop and see the town the reply is almost unanimously “no”. We drove out of town to a nearby beach, setting up the bus kitchen for the first time to make breakfast.

1st kitchen cook up, Green Tortoise, Savannah Beach, Georgia, USA

After clearing up we headed for the Atlantic Ocean. Leslie asked for help in getting a photograph of her on a beach on the west coast, so she could have an equivalent in the west. As I’m lining up the shot I get shat on by a seagull, so take the picture before heading to the shower to clean up. Wash most of it off but then rip the t-shirt pulling it over my head. Chuck it in the nearest bin and add one item to my shopping list. Back to the ocean for a swim and then my 1st chance at a shower since joining the bus. After lunch we headed off to the Okefenoke swamps, unfortunately arriving after the tours had ended so we move on to a campground in a nearby national park to make dinner and build a campfire. JT plays his didgeridoo which is both impressive and a useful guide back to the bus from the toilets in the dark. We set off around 10ish to drive west.

Pensicola Beach, Florida – 27th Sept

We arrive early at Navarra Beach, around 18 miles from Pensicola at the western tip of Florida’s panhandle. The weather is great, we have fantastic white sands, fish swimming round our ankles and the waters of the gulf of Mexico to play in. The location we had was close to perfect, but around 14 people hired bikes to ride into Pensicola. Once a few others had hired kayaks our group was very friendly with the owner of the hire place, Mike, who supplied us with some free kit and use of his internet setup. Spent the day chilling out on the beach, staying sheltered through the hottest part of the day. This wasn’t an option for those on the bikes with several coming back a little red, Cam in particular glowing lobster red.

After dinner we headed of to a nearby beach bar for a few drinks. It had a live band, but before long most of us were on the volleyball courts undoing all the benefit of the days showers and change of clothes. Although we had license to stay out until 2am, all of the bus apart from Kylie, Jenna, Katia and I were crashed out by 11. At this point I was becoming really concerned by the groups willingness to party.

New Orleans – 28th Sept

Arriving in the morning we parked up near the French quarter of town and with the whole day to ourselves. There was a great local cafe, Zotts, for breakfast and a laundry next door so took the opportunity to do both at once. Zotts quickly establishes itself as the bus hangout for the day. Janna and I explored the French market before hooking up with Verena, Olaf and Thomas at the paddle steamer terminal. The plan was to pick up lunch at a recommended deli in the French Quarter and then catch the tram out to see the more expensive areas of town. The deli was marvellous, being busy, cramped and doling out amazing food (my lunch was Creole Chicken with broccoli in cheese sauce and jambalaya). With what we had it was going to be impossible to eat on the tram so we sat down on the kerbside on a street full of buskers and enjoyed the music with lunch.

We finally caught the tram out through the richer areas of town and back again. Strangely we all found the tram ride incredibly soporific, almost unable to stay awake and it was a relief to get off and start walking again. The World Trade Centre in town has a revolving bar at the top so a couple of expensive drinks were in order to get the view. In the early evening we got back together again to head out as a group in Bourbon St, where there is a string of bars and clubs. A fun time was had despite the crappy nature of the clubs which reminded me of Magaluf. I am sure if we had spent a few days in town we could have tracked down a few decent places. In order to get everyone into the bars various forms of ID were shared around the younger members of the trip which nearly ended awkwardly when Kylie dropped here wallet on the way back to the bus with Janna’s ID in it. Luckily the next group along was also from the bus. The contrast with the night before couldn’t have been stronger, the group did party.

I like New Orleans and could happily have spent a couple of days there but we had to push on and get through Texas, a section of the trip the drivers were not looking forward to. It was also here that we picked up Parun, the 23rd traveller on the bus.

Austin, Texas – 29th Sept

We arrived this morning at Barton Springs in Austin, Texas. My last trip to the US was to this town to visit my mate Al Murray. Unfortunately Al was out of town this morning so couldn’t join us. After a quick breakfast in the car park we headed for the fresh spring waters. Despite being at a constant 70 deg F or so, after the Gulf of Mexico and in the warm air of Texas they felt cool. Still it was good to get refreshed and a long shower afterwards was welcome. Less welcome was the way my razor kept getting clogged on my 4 day old stubble so I should look for something else as regular shaves won’t always be easy on my journey.

Feeling cleaner and better we set off south towards San Antonio but after driving for almost an hour I realise that Marie is missing. We double check, but unfortunately I right and we have to turn around and head back to the springs. We find her immediately but it costs us a couple of hours on a day when we were already running late.

San Antonio, Texas

We arrive just after the Alamo has closed for tours so there is only time for a quick drink on the Riverwalk. The Riverwalk is the most amazing setting for a vibrant nightlife I have come across, however as Al & I discovered a year ago, this doesn’t mean the locals know it. Despite all the bars and restaurants only one was busy by 10pm on a Friday night, in the UK it would have been mobbed.

To save time dinner was grabbed at a rest stop but it had been a tiring day with nerves starting to fray a little.

Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico – 30 Sept

Woke up just as we crossed the border from Texas to New Mexico and saw a stunning sunrise across the desert. Unfortunately the photo didn’t come out. The Carlsbad Caverns are the largest natural caverns in the Western Hemisphere and are set in some stunning desert landscape. There are two options for entering the caverns, an elevator down to the main room or a descent through the natural entrance on a winding trail that had been built. Having descended the trail I understood the need for the elevator; that was the way out. The caverns themselves are vast, with a stunning variety of features and a pleasant cool atmosphere. The parks service had built an excellent series of trails through the caverns along with lighting. Walking the trails at a fair pace it still took 1.5 hours to complete the tour and by the end people had largely split up into individuals to enjoy the caves alone. At the end of the trail, by the elevator there is a largish underground cafe, but it had no atmosphere so we headed back to the surface. Amazingly the cafe is featured prominently in a collection of photos of the caves available in the gift shop! The packed lunches made with breakfast were had outside in the desert sunshine.

Roswell, New Mexico

A quick stop at the UFO museum in Roswell for a laugh and a toilet break. The museum itself is a nicely laid out low budget affair detailing in particular the events supposed to have happened nearby. It was interesting & frustrating in equal measure in that it is clear the military changed its story several times but investigations such as an archaeological survey remain uncompleted with the last report over a year old. Bought some cards in the gift shop as both packs on the bus had at least one card missing.

Bottomless Lake, New Mexico

We stopped here for dinner and a swim but after the strains of Texas the decision was made to camp out by the lake for the night instead. The mats were hauled off the bus to where ever you fancied sleeping under the stars. It was great to sleep on something not moving and alone, but a few raindrops early in the night had me worried I might have to head back on the bus. It quickly cleared and wasn’t a problem.

1st Oct

On waking up next morning I was glad I had used the DEET when I saw a small cloud of mozzies orbiting my face. Only one or two small bites, but not too comforting when the toilet doors carried prominent notices about the West Nile Virus. No one reports seeing any aliens in the night.

Its a grey day which stops us heading for an early morning swim, but Ted has bought a treat for breakfast : Bacon. I’m quickly assigned head bacon chef cooking up enough for around 25 people. After breakfast is cleared we have a bus toss where everything on the bus is thrown off onto a couple of tarps. You then pick up you assorted bits of kit and repack them properly before heading back to the bus. Its needed to keep order in a small space where 25 people are living.

We are half way though the journey and finding this hard to believe; time seems to have flown by and it doesn’t seem real that in a week we will be heading in our separate directions.

It should be noted that from this point I got lax in updating my written notes. The rest of this trip is being written up from Brook’s notes and my fuzzy memory.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

We only have a couple of hours in this very picturesque town. The architecture is very distinctive in the colours used and the shapes of the roofs and gutters. Most of us tour the Museum of Indian American art which is interesting, though some exhibits show a very downbeat side to life. Its a very pleasant place to stroll around aimlessly which I do until its time to go.

Jemez Springs, New Mexico

After dark we pull up into a little lay-by at the side of the road in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. Apparently its the start of a trail that leads up to a series of clothing optional hot springs. Fortunately a couple of locals who were heading there anyway offer to guide us as we have one torch between 3 of us and no idea what we are doing. Its quite an adventure hiking down and up the sides of a valley, across log bridges and through the trees in the dark. Just as I am starting to wonder where on earth we are being lead to we come to a series of smallish pools. The water is beautifully hot, to the extent it is difficult to stay fully immersed for any great length of time. It makes a wonderful place to receive a neck massage from Carmen, years of piano playing giving her a strong pair of hands. Just as we are getting relaxed we can see a set of flashing red and white lights in the direction of the lay-by. Its then we hear the tannoy announcing the springs are shut for the day and if we don’t move our vehicles in 35 minutes they are going to be towed. Good luck finding a tow truck for Pawnee at short notice pal…… Its chaotic as we all find our clothes from amongst the rocks and get dressed in the dark as there is no real moon to help light things up, before heading back on our exciting trek through the hills to the bus. We cook up dinner somewhere late (I can’t remember where, anyone care to fill me in) before driving through the night.

Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona – 2nd Oct

The plan today is for some hiking and horse riding. Most of the group will hike down into the canyon and then ride out along it or vice versa. The group hiking into the valley have a little time before we need to start so head for a scenic overlook nearby. As you can see it was stunning.

Canyon de Chelly, Navajo Nation, Arizona, USA

It was then a fairly easy descent into the canyon where we met up with the group who rode in and had lunch. This was beside a series of ruins that were built by the Anasazi, a Navajo word meaning the Ancient Ones. They are called the “White House Ruins” because of the remains of whitewash that can bee seen on some of the walls but there was little other information available. There were also several American Indian jewellery makers selling their goods here, customising them to suit people if needed.

Picture from Wikimedia Commons

We then got on our horses for the ride out along the canyon. My horse, called “Blackie” or “Coco” depending on what guide you asked, seemed awfully hungry and spent the time before we set off munching the bushes. Once we got going things were fine until the 3rd time we broke into a canter, I found my saddle slipping round the horse. As quickly as possible I brought my horse to a halt, but by then there was little hope of staying on and I landed in an undignified heap. The good news was it had rained recently so the ground was soft, the bad news being that that meant muddy. Having sorted out the saddle we headed off but the fact it had shifted again whilst mounting did my confidence no good. It wasn’t long before the heavens opened and whilst most people sheltered under a rocky outcrop I battled with a horse that would rather be wet and eating rather than dry and hungry. As the rain stopped we headed off again only to stop when we heard some cries from the cliff above. Fearing someone needed help we dismounted with some of us running forward to talk to them whilst the rest of us looked to flag down the next vehicle passing by. It turned out the women we had heard was drunk, wondering if her husband was with us and in no immediate danger. Remounting the horses ended up with me in a muddy heap again and by this point the gloss was starting to come off the day. We finished the ride with me in one piece and got onto the bus. Before we could set off one of the locals climbed on board selling dream catchers. The group bought his entire stock and with them hung up around the bus gave the place a subtle new look.

The rain continued as we drove through the desert and it would be several days before we had clear skies again.

Miele Point, Arizona

I am not sure of the spelling of this place, any corrections welcome.

We pulled up with it already being dark, the plan being to make dinner and then camp out for the night. It lends a place a certain wild atmosphere when you told that a short distance off to the left of the bus is and 800 foot drop and that the toilet is a spade with a couple of rolls of paper placed over the shaft. With a campfire lit a small group of us stayed up until 3 – 4 am having a great night telling stories, swapping jokes and singing songs. At around 2am went to look over the edge of the cliff; a focused Maglight can see a long way but over the edge the beam didn’t reflect off anything. I thought about sleeping outside but a few spots of rain convinced me otherwise.

3rd Oct

Woke up to the most amazing views, the pictures speak for themselves :

I wondered if I could make it to a proper rest stop that morning but decided that things had to be done the way of the wild. I grabbed the spade and headed off up the hill to find somewhere out of sight of the bus. Having found a suitable spot I dug my pit only realising too late, a couple of minutes later that I was within easy sight of the main track leading up from the bus. Fortunately (for both parties) no one came up the path to disturb my privacy.

As we pack up to leave we find the bus won’t start because we had the lights on for so long the night before. Fortunately there is a petrol generator and a couple of 12V car battery chargers in one of the cargo bays. Once they are wired up correctly we just need to wait for half an hour or so for the batteries to get enough charge to get us going.

Jump starting Pawnee

It was then a drive to a quick stop at Lake Powell, Arizona which is mainly a toilet break. There isn’t a lot of water in the lake, mainly silt and the local piers and buoys have been pulled up. We then drive onto Capital Reef National park in Utah, with evidence of recent flooding all along the road. When we get to the visitor centre we find the flooding has cut off the water supply and its time to looking for a handy bush again. Its a short hike to reach the and natural stone formation the “Hickman bridge” but Kylie and I manage to extend it a little by missing a point where the trail curves back on itself.

Picture from Wikipedia Commons

It has been a long day of driving and for entertainment JT has been teaching the bus to tie balloon sculptures. Some of our creations are OK but JT’s are truly amazing.

Balloon sculptures making by JT, Green Tortoise, Utah, USA

Kodachrome Basin State Park, Utah

Eventually at 11pm we reach Kodachrome Basin State Park where we are camping for the night. The camp sight warden warns us not to make any noise and that its past curfew. As we had spent the last part of the journey playing stupid card games and drinking it is a sobering welcome. A quick meal is made up from leftovers and we crash out for the night. I’m woken by rain landing on my sleeping bag and move back on the bus whilst those with a spare tarp pull it over themselves.

4th Oct

Make use of the campsites excellent showers and have breakfast before setting off.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

It isn’t far to where we set off on a 6 to 8 mile hike through Bryce Canton. The scenery is stunning with a huge number of colours to the earth. Around half way we read Tower Bridge where we have lunch. The sun is mainly shielded by some cloud cover that stops it being stupidly hot, nonetheless I get through a couple of litres of water.

Its a pleasant hike through dramatic country but isn’t too tough. Its another night of camping out nearby and this night the rain holds off.

5th Oct

The facilities at this campsite are basic so there was no chance of a shower after the hike.

Zion National Park, Utah

Its only a short drive to Zion and we are dropped off at the east entrance. From here it’s an 11 mile hike along the east rim trail to Weeping Rock. At first the trail is a long gentle climb before levelling out and it looks as if we can hold our height to make an attempt at Observation Point, however we drop steeply before the trail splits and its clear that the climb is now too much. What is amazing is how different the geology here is, such a short distance from Bryce Canyon.

Zion National Park, Utah, USA

Its hotter today as the sky is clear and I get through most of the 3 litres of water I bring with me. The final part of the hike is a dramatic drop through a long series of switchbacks down into the canyon. From there we catch a shuttle bus to the main visitors centre where our bus is now parked. By the time we get there, there isn’t time to head off for a shower before we have to leave so we do the best we can with the sinks in the restrooms. Tonight we head to Las Vegas and as our family of 3 will be leaving us there it is the last chance for a group photo.

Green Tortoise group picture, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

To pass the journey we start another of our card games that involve a lot of stupidity and a series of forfeits, this time things getting even sillier. It was almost a disappointment when we reach Las Vegas.

Card game forfeit

Las Vegas, Nevada

As you approach this town over the desert you can see the glow in the sky all its lights make. Nowhere else is there such a brightly lit series of buildings. We park up just off the strip and head into town. Several of us look for something to eat but most of the buffets are shut so we head to the Harley Davidson Cafe. After that everyone meets up by the Bellajio to see its amazing fountain run in sync with music. We retire inside to a bar with a live band but just as everyone gets dancing the band finishes and the bar closes. Its not long before we have to be back on the bus so we start heading off.

The thing is amongst all the glitz there is a very tacky side to Vegas : the streets are filled with rubbish, huge numbers of people handout the business cards for hookers, the newspaper stands are filled with ad papers for hookers and everything else is trying to get you to blow money through gambling. Its not a nice place to be but its also clear that a huge number of people must come here and spend a vast amount of money.

Its a drive through the night to California.

Deep Creek Hot Springs, California – 6th Oct

We arrive in the morning at the Bowen Ranch, a couple of miles from the springs. Apparently the ranch offers the best access to the springs for a small fee. After a late breakfast we set off down to the springs which are meant to be an easy 45 min hike away. Our lead scouts head off the wrong way taking us dune hopping though the sparse vegetation instead of down a nice easy track. After an hour and a half of hiking we still appear to be some distance away and both my little toes have been turned into full surface blisters by trapped sand in my Tevas. Leslie is also struggling and doesn’t think she would easily make it back up from the creek so we head back to the bus. Its now really hot and extremely tiring. Having got to the bus I change my trousers and put on my hiking boots for the second attempt. I head back down with Ted and using the correct trail at the start and keeping up a good pace in the right shoes it takes around 45 mins as promised. The springs are excellent, though climbing around the slippery rocks in my bare feet took some care.

We set off late back to the bus for dinner and for most of the way Parun, Verena & I are navigating my moonlight. It’s quite a trek and the lighting adds a lot to the atmosphere. Dinner is good and we have a campfire, however I’m so tired I can hardly think straight and crash out as soon as possible.

Santa Cruz – 7th Oct

We decide to skip breakfast and keep driving to Santa Cruz, where one of it residents Devin, has booked a table for us all for brunch at Zacharys. Friendly service and excellent food. After this there is only a little time to wander down to the boardwalk and photocopy the address lists. The boardwalk appears to have changed little since my brother and I visited 6 years ago. We set off without Devin, Faye and Kayte who would drive up in Devin’s car later.

We then drive a little further up the coast to a beach for our final bus toss and a swim. The coastline is amazing but the apparent undertow stops anyone from actually having a swim. Its nice to mess around on the beach after driving for so long and also realise we have made it by land from the Atlantic in New York to the Pacific in California.

The Pacific, California, USA

It was then time to take the final drive into San Francisco, the bus now feeling amazingly empty with 6 less people and the realisation we were coming to the end of a fantastic trip. Particularly poignant was when we dropped Marie off. She was the only person on the bus not staying at the Green Tortoise and it was sad waving goodbye to this solo figure at the side of the road. She promised to come to the party later, which she did.

We arrived at the hostel an hour or so later than intended so it was a rush to check in, get showered and down to the party laid on for us and the rest of the hostels residents. There was free food & beer and a madcap band all laid on. Everyone apart from those we dropped off in Vegas made it and we danced till the band quit and the beer ran out. There was a huge cheer when Ted & JT made it from dropping off the bus and MC Devin lead the presentation of cards and tips to them. A few of us headed to a bar across the street but most then decided they were tired and headed back. It was a good gig.

Party at the Green Tortoise Hostel, San Francisco, USA

Thanks very much to Ted & JT for being such wonderful drivers, thanks to the Green Tortoise hostel for the wonderful party and thanks to everyone on the bus for being such an amazing group of friends.

Round the World

The Green Tortoise : How you live

Living on the Green Tortoise is a unique experience in itself and is as much a part of the trip as the places you visit. The people you are with and how you eat, sleep, clean and pass the time are all part of it.

The people

There were 23 of us on the journey plus our 2 drivers. Our drivers were a great couple of guys who guided us well. The rest if us were widely varied bunch dominated by people in the early 20’s but including a couple of parents and their 17 year old son and a 55 year old New York lady. The group came from all over the world with Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, Germans, Japanese, 2 Americans, a Canadian, a Chinese and a South African.

Green Tortoise group picture, Zion National Park, Utah, USA

The food

Most of the food was cooked in the kitchen stored on the bus. On arriving anywhere we were to eat, it was a practiced drill to set up the 4 tables, the hand washing station, the dish washing station, pull out the coolers and get a large pan of water onto boil. At almost all meals there would be a team chopping up fruit or vegetables, whilst another team would set up stoves. One of JT or Ted would lead the group through the preparation of the relevant dishes according to their own recipes. The menu was mainly vegetarian and the meals were unfailingly good. For some reason Ted & JT have got the idea that Brits don’t like spice!!!

After a meal everything gets cleaned and packed up again. For his dedication to the dish wash station Marcel quickly became labelled Kitchen-Bitch, a term that would stick when Cam bought him an apron with that name across it. The kitchen seemed to work well with everyone pitching in and no one getting ill or going hungry.

The kitchen on The Green Tortoise

Personal Hygiene

The bus has no toilets or washing facilities so we depended on what we came to at the roadside. Pee stops were mainly taken at garages with rest rooms when available, however in the mornings these tended to stretch as people took to brushing teeth and washing hair despite the need to get going. I have no idea what the owners of the facilities thought when 23 people of varying nationalities invaded their toilets.

Showers were used whenever available, normally being open air ones beside beaches, or stalls at National Park campsites. Only really at Bryce Canyon & Zion did we not have the opportunity to shower when we really wanted/needed to.

On a couple of occasions, most memorably at Miele point, the toilet was a spade plus a couple of toilet rolls. You just had to go and dig yourself a pit somewhere quiet and fill it in afterwards.


Most nights were spent sleeping on the bus. It appears somewhat of a miracle to get everyone bedded down with 23, how it is with a full compliment of 36 I can’t imagine. The whole back area of the bus is one big sleeping platform, with the tables either side midway forming another series or beds top and bottom. In addition the front area can become another platform but was never needed on our trip. Finally 6 bunks hung down from the ceiling on a set of chains so they could be raised out the way during the day.

You could sleep surprisingly well with the main disturbances being the bus coming to a halt and extremely bright garage forecourt lights.

Other night we would sleep out in the open in mats pulled off the bus, the only problem with this being when you are aware a raindrops landing on you. The other surprising thing about many of the camp outs in the west was how cold it got at night, close to freezing and well below the dew point. I remember waking up one morning and noticing the dew has formed streams on Kylie’s sleeping bag.

Passing the time

There were several occasions when it was necessary to travel for long distances during the day. There were various ways of passing it aside from the obvious sleeping and chatting.

Cards : started off with sensible games like hearts and rummy 500 before degenerating into far more fun games such as Arsehole with a series of made up rules and forfeits. These included administered spankings, the feeding of chocolate covered strawberries without using any hands to drinking shots from someone else’s navel. Probably the funniest was getting Cam spanked by his mum.

Balloon sculptures : It turns out that JT has made a living making balloon sculptures and held a workshop one long afternoon. His stuff was amazing, everyone else was lucky that it didn’t burst.

The Bitches

With Marcel being designated Kitchen-Bitch it wasn’t long before others had similar handles :

Kylie – Spank-Bitch – for her dedication to those forfeits in the card games.

Carmen – 2nd-Bitch – for attaining this post almost continually in the card school

Katia – Spider-Bitch

Kayte – Princess-Bitch

Ken – Beer-Bitch

Thomas – Danger-Bitch

Julie – Mother-Bitch

Brooke – Tall-Bitch

Marie – Missing-Bitch

Cam – Burnt-Bitch

Round the World

Last night at the Jazz in the Park

The Jazz in the Park hostel I am staying in has a basement venue that is hardly used. As the hostel doesn’t have a bar and no music is generally played down the the room stays deserted whilst the cafe upstairs is full of people with drink from the local off-licence and the TV on in the background. We decided to change that and wired my CD Walkman up to the PA system down there. Finally on the last night there the venue was full of people having a drink and listening to some quality tunes whilst the cafe sat mostly deserted. The night only ended when the hostel closed the downstairs area at the normal time. I’m now all set to catch the bus across the US this evening.

Last night at the Jazz in the Park, New York, USA
Round the World

Long Island & NYC

Visited some relatives of mine on the Friday night and Saturday morning. It was great to meet Mark, Maryann and their young daughter Katherine. A trip like this is a great opportunity to meet up with people you would otherwise wouldn’t see often and unfortunately I did miss one such opportunity in Toronto. Sorry Dorethy and Alan.

We went to a fundraising fair organised by Katherines school. It was nice to see this side of the US that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Most of the money was raised by selling second hand goods that had been donated. More valuable items were sold in a silent auction including a sailing boat with cabin, outboard and tailer. The reserve price was $500 so Mark put in a bid just above. As I left the fair and with only about half an hour to go Mark’s was the only bid on the boat and it looked like he had got himself a total bargain.

The Beaumonts, Long Island, USA

Returned to NYC and spent the evening in a great dive bar; drinks were reasonably priced, the 4th was free, so were the hotdogs and the jukebox was brilliant playing superb range of music including Jesus Jones amd Madness (no I didn’t put them on). Many of the people were regulars and the place had a nice friendly if run down atmosphere.

Rudy’s Bar, New York, USA

Over the next few days I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge which offers superb views back at Manhatten, though there appears to be little to see or do on the other side.

Brooklyn Bridge, New York, USA

The Staten Island ferry is another free opportunity to get great views of the harbour. Handy hint, head for the lower decks as they are less crowded and it is great standing only around 4 feet above the water at the very bow or stern of the ship.

Also at the south end of Manhatten is the site of the former World Trade Centre and a short visit was worthwhile. It is interesting to note that most postcards on sale in NYC still feature the twin towers.

What I did miss this day was the Dalai Lama speaking in Central Park. It was advertised on posters but I didn’t see one until the day after. However on returning to the hostel I found they had sealed of the road to set up a stage for a Jazz band to play. Excellent music which was watched by hostellers and residents alike. Nice to see the Jazz in the Park hostel living up to its name.

Jazz in the street outside the Jazz in the Park hostel, New York, USA

NYC has many distinct areas with their own flavour, Chinatown being a mad hussle of markets and restaurants, Greenwich Village being much more laid back, the financial district dominated by skyscrapers and banks, midtown with its grand stations, post offices and libraries and the upper west side much quieter, residential and cheaper. Shocked to find that almost all the sleaze has been driven from the Times Square area and its been Disneyfied.

As it was raining heavily this morning I intended to visit the Museum of Natural History, but it was closed because George W was visiting. Wouldn’t have minded if I thought he would have half a clue at what he was seeing. Still at least with the rain NYC may smell a bit better. For those that have not been it is worth noting that New York has an array of strong odours, especially arounds bins that the summer heat doesn’t help.

Its now my last full day in NYC before catching the bus to San Francisco tomorrow. I have only scratched the surface of the city and am sorry to be leaving; its a dramatic and fun place. Sorry for the lack of pictures again but I am suffering from poor internet cafes with staff that struggle to understand english and don’t have a clue technically.

Round the World

New York

Have checked into a hostel in the upper west side, at the north west corner of Central Park. The weather was OK, just a little bit windy and no real sign of rain. Found an amazing New York diner for lunch, all cramped inside, busy and with a huge menu. Never had a buffalo burger before and mighty tasty it was too. Didn’t do much else than explore the local neighbourhoor around the hostel; seems OK, but a little quiet.

Big Nick’s, New York, USA

The hostel itself was having a beer and wings night in the evening. It was a little low key and much less energetic than the evening spent in the Toronto hostel. The bed isn’t great either so I may go searching for somewhere better for the rest of my stay in NYC.

After breakfast I headed to the aircraft carrier Intrepid, which is moored on the Hudson river as a museum, along with a destroyer and a submarine. The carrier itself has an extensive plane collection on it from WWII planes to an F16, including an A71 Blackbird. Full marks to it for those collections, but the whole museum lets itself down by concentrating on the bridges and chartrooms, but not letting you see where the crew ate, slept and worked.

Round the World

Toronto Airport

Have got through to the departure gates of Toronto Airport on the way to New York. Changed my flight to an early one to make sure I beat Hurricane Isabel to NYC. Will add further details of Toronto later but have to thank Jim & Cari for being wonderful & tolerant hosts.

Round the World

A night in Toronto

Instead of heading to Montreal I checked into a hostel in Toronto that I had passed a few days before. It seemed a good idea to give Jim & Cari a break whilst getting a reminder of how I would be living for much of the rest of the trip. The hostel had a bar which opened at 7 so I headed down for a drink with my book. Very quickly people were chatting to me discussing trips so far and the journeys planned. Ironically several were catching the bus to Montreal tomorrow, but at a journey time of 7 hours each way I would have had to turn around almost immediately at the other end. The bar stayed open till the small hours and so did many of us still talking and occasionally dancing. A great night and I hope Danni & co enjoyed their time in Montreal.