Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Christmas in Sydney

Looking a bit goofy after swimming the surf on Christmas morning.

How to describe Christmas in Sydney… I had about ten days off from the 21st of December until the 2nd of January. I spent almost all of that time socialising and swimming. Sydney has a Christmas party season like no other. After nine nights out in a row (nine in a row!) I at last had a night in on the 29th.

It’s been a great time to meet people. The two top events were Ed’s Christmas Day Bonanza (truly it was a great day!) and the Boxing Day races at Randwick Racecourse.
Ok, Evita definitely looks better in this outfit than I do.

Christmas Day started with a trip to Bondi for a swim with my German friend Babette. After struggling out of bed, I borrowed Dreadlock Dave’s car (about which, more later) and drove over to Bondi. It was cloudy in the morning and the beach was half-full at 11am. Babette and I braved the waters for about 20 minutes with a bunch of other people. It was a great wake-up call for Christmas Day.

Christmas at Ed and Dace’s was a superb day and evening. We had a real multinational mix, with a few Latvians, a Thai girl, an Iranian, a Peruvian, a couple of Aussies and Keith and I representing Scotland. Keith did a fantastic job making top-quality cocktails (mojitos and cubraroscas) but the piece-de-la-resistance was Ed’s turkey which was perfect. Brilliant meal – almost as good as mum makes it. We had some good party games and a bit of a singalong. Since my karaoke appearance at the work Christmas do, people seem to have been encouraging me to sing all the time (about which, less later).

Pretty hungover on Boxing Day, but couldn’t resist an invitation to Randwick Races International Day. Another crazy aussie idea where anyone with a foreign passport gets in free. Guess who forgot his passport.

What a brilliant way to spend Boxing Day. I went with my flatmates, the two Daves and met a huge number of other Irish peeps. There were an outstanding number of well-presented ladies there. And I think there was some horse-racing going on somewhere as well.

As well as the partying, I have done some more wholesome stuff over the break. In preparation for the competition next Sunday, I’ve been swimming about 2km each day in the Olympic size pools near my flat and in the Botanic Gardens. The weather has been awesome since Christmas and it’s a great way to exercise. Slowly building up the stamina I’ll need for the long-distance events.

The absolute best even off the holiday has been going out sailing with Chris. But that deserves a website entry of its own and will have to wait until the new year…
Dave larking about after I forget my passport and have to pay to get into the races.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Zimbabwe Ruined

The Zimbabwe Ruins, as visited by the author back in July.

There are two articles in the press today about Zimbabwe. The first is in the Economist magazine, where they have unveiled their country growth forecasts for 2008. Modest or strong growth is predicted for the majority of sub-saharan African countries. The exception is Zimbabwe where the economy is expected to shrink drastically in 2008.

Contrast that with Zimbabwe's own forecast of 4% growth for 2008, announced last month by Zimbabwe's Finance Minister.

I know which forecast I'm putting my money on.

I may even bet my 1,000 Zimbabwe Dollar note that I kept when I left the country in July. And the other story today was that Zimbabwe is to issue new banknotes with values of 250,000, 500,000 and 750,000 dollars. The 200,000 dollar note (which was introduced when I was there) will be phased out...

...and if you wonder what you could buy with a 250,000 dollar note?

How about a Big Mac.

Central Bank Governor and Finance Minister - two of the hardest jobs imaginable.

But I'm sure - like Mugabe's other cronies - they'll be living in luxury as their forecasts and the fortunes of millions of their impoverished countrymen go down the toilet.

Monday, December 17, 2007


Another gratuitous shark pic.

Check out this article which was on the front page of the BBC news website yesterday!!

The article reports that:

A swimmer has been attacked by a shark at Australia's Bondi Beach, a favourite with tourists from around the world. The shark reportedly grabbed the man by the arm but he escaped after punching it on the nose.

Its common knowledge among Australians and tourists alike that punching a shark on the nose is the conventional defence if attacked. Less conventional is what the guy did next...

The man reached the Sydney shore before collapsing in a cave in which he was said to be living temporarily. He was later found by his girlfriend.

Eh??? The guy is 'living in a cave'...? What's that all about? This immediately suggests to me that there's something fishy (so to speak) about this. And sure enough...

A lifeguard spokesman said the man had gone swimming in the dark on Friday, which was strongly discouraged.

Channel Ten reported it was believed to be the first shark attack at Bondi Beach for 70 years.

So there we go, not much to worry about for another 70 years. And only then if you're crazy enough to go swimming in the dark. Though probably as well that I didn't know about this incident when I went into the exact same waters less than twelve hours later!!!!!!!!!!!

Finally, I also have to point out that he was later found by his 'girlfriend'. Isn't Sydney an awesome place when even a guy who lives in a cave can get a girlfriend...

A cave, yesterday.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Big Swim in the Big Surf

Mel holding the board that he paddles out into the bay with, surrounded by Bondi Fit Club members.

Last Friday some of my work colleagues were kind enough to take me out for drinks to welcome me back to Opportunity. We had a great night in Cruise Bar in Circular Quay, overlooking the opera house across the inner-harbour waters of Sydney cove. At the back of my mind though, I had a nagging suspicion that each additional beer would be regretted the next morning...

And so it proved when I dragged myself out of bed and headed down to Bondi beach for the first of three ocean swimming lessons. This short course is intended to teach you techniques for swimming in surf, which will in turn give you the confidence to compete in Sydney's ocean swimming races which are spread throughout the Australian summer.

There were four of us on the course, including myself and my German friend Babette. We were thrown (not literally) straight into the water by Mel, our very aussie coach, and told to swim 200m out into the Bondi surf. This was pretty 'exciting', not least because my hangover was playing havoc with my swimming stroke. After struggling back to shore Mel pointed out things we were doing wrong (drowning/sinking were only the least of them) before throwing us (literally this time) back in the water again.

Mel is a great coach, and like many great aussie sportsmen, unfailingly enthusiastic. He taught us skills for spotting where the rip current is pulling the water out to sea - good place to swim out - and where the waves are crashing over the sandbanks - good place to swim in... if you can avoid/survive being bundled by a monster wave.

Other techniques include using your arms as a board to 'surf in' on the top of large waves, entering the water with jumping, wading and porpoising techniques (which impresses people watching on the beach!) and breathing in such a way as to be able to look behind you and spot when you're about to be hammered by a huge wave.

This was all great advice and really interesting stuff, though I was a bit bemused when he got us to run along the beach and back to keep warm - ok, it was cloudy and the aussie guys were shivering but I was more likely to collapse from exhaustion than catch cold.

After the hour and a half long session had finished I felt absolutely on top of the world. This is surf swimming at one of the best locations in the world, with some of the wildest surf! The regular swim club joined us for the last hour and it was a great feeling 'competing' with these guys and girls. On top of which, to feel so pumped at 1130 on Saturday morning is something I'm not used to. and very welcome!

I'm really going to stick with this and join the regular club when my courses finish. My hope is to do the Bondi classic competition on the 6th of January. A bit ambitious, but I'll see how I'm going over the next few weeks, and it would be a good one to start with as you don't have to swim past rocks/cliffs as you do in the beach to beach swims.

When I was a youngster...

...I was a huge lego fan (fan-boy I guess you'd say these days). Like computer games, lego has come on leaps and bounds since then. I was just amazed to read in the paper at the weekend that lego now have a website where you can download 'lego-design software'. This lets you design your own lego models online! Not only that, but once you've designed a hotrod or spaceship or whatever else, you can upload the design to this website and order all the bricks you need to make the model.

How freakin' cool is that??? If I have a bit of free time over Christmas, I may have to design a giant santa's sleigh or something. Will post the results here.

And finally... thanks to my sister, Kirsty, for the following. Very amusing... and seasonal...


1. Schizophrenia --- Do You Hear What I Hear?

2. Multiple Personality Disorder --- We Three Kings Disoriented Are

3. Dementia --- I Think I'll be Home for Christmas

4. Narcissistic --- Hark the Herald Angels Sing About Me

5. Manic --- Deck the Halls and Walls and House and Lawn and Streets and Stores and Office and Town and Cars and Buses and Trucks and Treesand.....

6. Paranoid --- Santa Claus is Coming to Town to Get Me

7. Borderline Personality Disorder --- Thoughts of Roasting on an Open Fire

8. Personality Disorder --- You Better Watch Out, I'm Gonna Cry, I'm GonnaPout, Maybe I'll Tell You Why

9. Attention Deficit Disorder --- Silent night, Holy oooh look at the Froggy- can I have a chocolate, why is France so far away?

10. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder --- Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, JingleBells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells,Jingle,Bells, Jingle Bells,

11. Oppositional Defiant Disorder-- You better not cry - Oh yes I willYou better not Shout - I can if I want to You better not pout - Can if I want toI'm telling you why - Not listeningSanta Claus is coming to townNo he's not!!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Over the Hill and Under the Waves

Sydney CBD


As I start a second week at work I recall that, one of the things that attracted me to living and working in Sydney, was the atmosphere in the CBD (Central Business District). There’s a liveliness in the city-centre at all times of the day and night. Back near the start of the year I mentioned on this website how I thought that this great atmosphere was in part due to how young the general population appeared when you wandered around the city at lunchtime.

And now statistics have been published which back this up.
The Sydney Morning Herald this week included an article on plans to make the city-centre more accessible to children and old people. Surveys were done, which showed that these groups were very poorly represented in the city centre:

“In a survey of people and activities taken on a summer weekday at Circular Quay, Pitt Street Mall and George Street, 57 per cent of people in the city were found to be aged from 15 to 30…

The middle-aged made up 37 per cent, and the elderly and the very young both registered slim minorities at 3 per cent each.”

Now, I take two things from this. Firstly, almost 3 in 5 people are between 15 and 30. No wonder Sydney’s business district has such a young and lively feel to it.

Secondly, who the hell are they calling middle-aged???

Alive on the Ocean Waves

Last weekend I found myself with a few spare hours and decided to head down to the Eastern Beaches. This would be the first time I'd been back there since getting back to Sydney. The main stretch of beaches runs from Bondi in the north, down to Coogee in the south. A little further south from there, is Maroubra beach, and having seen it featured in the national newspaper in the past week I thought I'd pay a visit.

A favourite topic of conversation in the Eastern Beaches, aside from surfer fashion (this isn't the most culturally aware part of Sydney), is shark spottings. And any concentration of sightings also greatly interests the national newspapers. Here's an excerpt from Monday's Sydney Morning Herald (one of the best selling papers in Australia):

Swimmers were evacuated from beaches in southern Sydney and on the South Coast yesterday after 17 sightings of sharks close to shore. A lone hammerhead was observed off Wanda Beach at Cronulla. An Australian Aerial Patrol crew sounded the alert and a dinghy was dispatched to coax the shark into deeper water. Meanwhile, two large sharks seen at Cudmirrah Beach near Sussex Inlet on the South Coast were thought to have been either white pointer [aka great white] or tiger sharks, authorities said.

So it was with some interest that I made my way down to Maroubra beach. I wasn't surprised to find aussies and tourists getting on with it, with a large number of people in the surf. I had a pretty uneventful swim myself. However, about half-an-hour later the shark-patrol were out with a dinghy out in the water and a chopper making a few passes overhead. Not sure if they'd spotted anything but either way, it wasn't discouraging people from getting in the water. That's the aussie spirit!

Which brings me nicely on to my latest hobby - ocean swimming. Ocean swimming has become increasingly popular in Australia over the last few years (though this doesn't appear to have dampened enthusiasm at Sydney Council for building yet more Olympic sized swimming pools - Surry Hills is the latest area cited for a new pool). This popularity will only be stoked by the recent announcement that a 10km open swim will be an event in Beijing for the first time in Olympic history.
I've been a bit slack on the photography front recently, so all the shots in this update are nabbed from the web. Here's an awesome pic of a surfer at Maroubra beach.

In Sydney, there are frequent 'big event' swims such as Manly beach to Shelley beach and Bondi to Bronte, which typically measure more than two kilometres. I really like the idea of competing in one of these events. I'm attracted by the challenge and social-ness. Factors that enticed me into doing a couple of triathlons a few years ago.

Bondi fitclub runs Saturday morning courses for people to learn to swim with confidence in the sea. This Saturday is the first day of the course and I'm very much looking forward to it. Lets hope the shark patrol are on top form!

Wine-ing Pommes

The Hunter Valley got a brief mention on this website when I went up there for the Lovedale long lunch in May. Being a truly beautiful stretch of countryside, with rolling vineyards and hills, I was keen to go back asap. On Saturday I went back up on a day-trip, which - somewhat bizarrely - started with liquers and then moved on to three different authentic Aussie wineries.

Though the trip was well organised and the winery visits were interesting, I didn't go a whole bundle on the wines. They were not bad, but I don't think we were sampling at the higher-end of the wine range. Fair enough - I don't usually shop at the finer end of the wine range, but when on a wine tour I do like to sample some of the more luxury wines. There were a couple of cheeky reds that I liked though, so I took the opportunity to stock-up a bit for Christmas.

So I wasn't actually that impressed with the wine on the day. And I'm not the only one with reservations about Australian wine. The Sunday Herald reported at the weekend that the head of Tesco's wine-buying division - Dan Jago - has criticised Australian wine-makers for their lack of innovation, warning that Tesco will be forced towards fast-changing and refreshing Chilean wines.

I just love the response of "Hunter Valley winemaker" Bruce (yep, Bruce) Tyrrell:

"He's a wanker."

Bruce goes on to fulminate thoughtfully on Mr Jago's challenge to the Australian wine industry:

"He should go back to selling dog food.

For years the Australian wine industry has been supplying the British with technically correct wines that have good colour and are full of flavour, compared with the Europeans, who have been supplying them with technically poor wines with no colour and taste like cat's piss"

Though not reported in the paper, I'd like to think that Bruce went on to question Mr Jago's parentage and sexuality before challenging him to a game of cricket and stomping off to shoot a kangaroo, or perhaps throw another prawn on the barbie.
I couldn't find a picture of Mr Jago, but I'm sure Bruce would feel similarly about this substitute. (And you can't see this picture too often...)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

(Politically speaking) Things Can Only Get Better

John Howard (left), and a ridiculous looking baffoon in a suit (right).

Anyone being honest would admit that Australia is years behind the rest of the world on most things. And the political 'lag' seems to longest than any other - especially if the embarrassing voxpops about muslims that I saw on tv last night could be thought to be at all representative of wider opinions.

Think back to the UK General Election of 1997. A tired and unpopular right of centre government, who had been in power for longer than anyone cared to remember got thumped by a younger, fresher opposition determined to prove that they not only held the moral high-ground on the key political issues of the day, but could be trusted to be both competent and reinvigorating for the country.

Well something similar has just happened here in Australia.

After 11 years as PM, Johnny (laughing-boy) Howard has finally been thrown out by the Labour party's new leader Kevin Rudd. Howard even lost his seat. I find it hard to feel any sympathy. As with Tony Blair, the Liberal Party (of which JH is leader) issues that I had most problems with were the big foreign policy ones.

Johnny was even further out of touch with people than TB. Not only did he whole-heartedly and faithfully (what's smaller and more timid than a poodle?) follow George W, but he also refused to sign the Kyoto protocol. Yes, until yesterday, there were only two countries in the world that continued to refuse to ratify that treaty - the US and Australia. (Kevin Rudd gave notice that he would ratify the treaty on his first day as leader.)

Just as bad in my eyes, though seemingly not quite as objectionable to many Aussie voters was his policy on asylum seekers. Before the last election, the Liberals promoted a story that asylum seekers trying to enter Australia by boat had been throwing their children overboard. After the election it turned out to be untrue. It's quite amazing to listen to some of the Liberal party's policies and statements on asylum and immigration. I'd like to hope that this was part of the reason he was voted out. But in fact, Labour's policies aren't too far different. I guess this is an area where Australia really does have a lot of catching up to do with the rest of the world.

Having hardly spent any time in Australia in the last ten years, its probably rather bold of me to make the following assertion but I have to say that, in my opinion, John Howard has been an unfortunate albatross around the necks of the Australia people, dragging down the country’s international reputation and weakening its previously proud national psyche. This is, of course, to say nothing of domestic policies, though I've read nothing in the press here to persuade me that he's done anything particularly laudable there either. But don’t take my word for it. This Guardian article is a better written - and probably more balanced - assessment of Australia’s recent political history:,,2217015,00.html

So what next? As with ‘97, there is some concern that the incoming government – with a set of largely indistinguishable policies – will struggle to improve on the previous government’s record. But then, Tony Blair’s government were fresh, effective and a force for good reinvigorating politics… until Iraq.
Kevin Rudd: Do you think he's trying to get a subtle message across in this picture?

As with Blair in 97, I think most people will be wishing Rudd all the best. He's looking to get off to a flyer and I hope he can really turn the country and its reputation around.

So why the sudden obsession with politics? Well aside from the pageantry around Beckham's visit there has been little else in the news here last week.

Personally the big news is - drum roll - that I've started work. After 15 months out of paid employment (yes, really, who'd have thought it!), this travelling slacker is once again working 9 to 5.

So far I'm very excited about the job. I'll be working mainly on an impact assessment methodology for Opportunity International and there's plenty to get stuck into. It's been very easy to get started as everyone has been so welcoming and most people are familiar from my voluntary stint earlier in the year. I'm sure I'll have plenty to say about work in future months, particularly visits to our partners in India. The first trip should be in January and I can't wait.

I'm not looking for sympathy (before the house-bricks start flying!) but adjusting to working every day has been tough. Concentrating eight or more hours a day has been very tiring. I even had to have an early night last Thursday. Hahaha! And on that note...

Friday, November 23, 2007

Back in Sydney

I'll only mention it once, but the weather has been rather fantastic most of the time since I've been back. See. Mentioned it. Now its out the way. Will try not to mention it again.

Right, so. Well then. As promised I have continued to try to update the website weekly... ...have tried. But failed!

It has been a busy old couple of weeks though. After arriving on the 13th - and not yet having a place of my own to live in - I enjoyed the excellent hospitality of my good mate Ed and his lovely girlfriend Dace at their bijou residence in sunny (and quite posh) Edgecliff. The views of the harbour from my bedroom window reminded me of being back in my Cremorne flat on the north shore of the harbour when I was here earlier in the year. It brought on a fair amount of nostalgia. Equally, thoughts of that lovely flat made me determined to find somewhere homely to live for the next year too. And perhaps somewhere a bit handier for the pubs and city centre this time.

Ahhhhh. Chris and I are reunited... in fact it looks as if we've actually glued ourselves together.

I won't bore you with the details of the accommodation market in Sydney but suffice to say that I saw a lot of shoddy apartments. In fact, if I can be so bold, I saw a lot of shoddy potential flatmates as well. It was a blessing that I had nearly a full fortnight of free-time before starting my new job, as I spent a fair amount of time traipsing across the city with little to show for it. In fact, even more worryingly, flat-hunting was starting to intrude on my busy social life.

Perhaps it was fitting then that, when I did at last find somewhere, it was within crawling distance of our regular Thursday Night Lads (or Grumpy Old Men's) drinking parlour, The Shakespeare. For those of you who've seen Shaun of the Dead, think The Winchester, but without the jukebox.

I will be sharing with two Irish guys, David and David - which keeps things simple - and have my own en-suite room. The flat is a nice 40 minute meander through Hyde Park to my work in the city-centre and disturbingly close to Surry Hills bar and cafe facilities.

Oi Lennon! That bottle's not plugged in!

In some ways it feels like a long time since I was last in Sydney and at first I was surprised at how unfamiliar the city felt. But a few things are happily just as good and as welcoming as they've ever been. Firstly, Sydney is just as sociable as ever I remembered. Not least Ed and Dace putting up with me for the first couple of weeks. Their cooking skills and finely stocked liquor cabinet were things of awe for me and I'm already looking forward to having them round for dinner in my new place.
Will aka Bono aka Elvis Costello sings Brown Eyed Girl (or something like that).

Its also been great to get back into the Thursday night routines. The first of which was a real Thursday-night special with teapots long into the night, as you can see below...

The first week was topped off by a rather enjoyable fancy-dress karaoke party for a friend's 30th birthday, at which i managed to avoid dressing up, but didn't avoid the karaoke. Apologies to Keith - i really did think a Sean Paul duet would be a good idea -never mind that he doesn't even sing in English...

Best outfit of the night was the home-made Bjork tribute. Superb.

Violently Happy.

In the first two weeks I also managed to squeeze in a great scuba diving day with Roslyn and some peeps from the Beverly Hills scuba dive club (less glamorous but definitely more friendly than the name implies), a visit to my favourite (Shelley) beach with Chris, Caroline, young James and not-quite-so-young Keith (when I got thoroughly sunburnt), catching up with some other friends and even a visit to a 'soccer' game.

David Beckham came to Australia for the first time last week with his team, the LA Galaxy. They played an exhibition match against Sydney United midweek in front of 80,000 super-hyped fans. In fact, the reception DB got in Australia was just astonishing - even for a Brit like myself, hardened by years of golden balls' over-exposure back in the UK. His photo took up two-thirds of the front page of one of the national newspapers, and his visit to play a friendly club game, sell his new perfume, sign some autographs (ie do nothing!) took up an even bigger proportion of the tv news for the whole week.

I was kindly offered free tickets to the game on Wednesday by someone at work but couldn't go. In any case, I wasn't toooo excited about what I thought would be an uncompetitive and unexiciting knock-about between two exotic but unrated sides. How wrong I was! In a complete shock, Sydney beat LA 5-3 in an end-to-end match, which featured a trade-mark Beckham free-kick special and a sending off for stamping!! And I sat through a 0-0 on Sunday night when the most exciting things were going on in the crowd (Brazilian drumming, female linesmen and beautiful female fans were a perplexing novelty for a footy fan used to Tannadice in January).
Time to get the magnifying glass out. This is halftime in the game between Sydney United and Queensland Roar (bad name, I know). Somewhere in this photo is David Beckham.

With such a busy couple of weeks already under my belt, and with summer, and Christmas (how weird is that?) only just coming around, I couldn't have wished for a better start here in Oz.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hong Kong

Two International Financial Centre. This prosaically named building was being built when i was last in Hong Kong in 2002. It became the third highest building in the world, but has since been overtaken by several others, not least the Burj Dubai which, incredibly, will (when completed) be twice as tall.

It's been 5 years since I first visited Hong Kong, and I wondered how much this stellar city would have changed in that time, and whether my high expectations from that first visit would be met.

I had three days in the former British colony and as well as testing my previous experience, I planned to see some of the sights I’d missed, first time around.

Sculpture in downtown Hong Kong.

Hong Kong may be the fastest changing city on earth. When I was last there it had been 5 years since Britain’s 99 year lease had expired and the general consensus was that Hong Kong’s economic and social transformation had been unchecked by Chinese stewardship. A further 5 years down the line and I can personally confirm that Hong Kong is still a whirlwind of development.

For example, when I was last there, they were busy building the third highest building in the world. That building was finished a few months after I left. But, impressive as it is, its already in danger of being forgotten, as already a taller building is under construction in Kowloon and several still-taller buildings are in the planning stages.

The largest seated Buddha in the world on Lantau Island, HK.

The transport system is also something that never stands still. The new airport is the product of one of the largest land-reclamation schemes ever. Having been to the even-newer Bangkok International airport, I feel that Hong Kong’s is no longer the world’s most impressive (in my limited experience). However, HK’s public transport system is something Bangkok can only dream of. The MTR seems to operate perfectly and effortlessly with stacks of spare capacity whenever I used it. And officials in Hong Kong have a greater appetite for public works even than those in Japan. The latest plan is for an extension to the train system to link Kowloon with Macau. At present Macau is an hour’s journey away by speedboat. This would be the largest bridge of its type in the world.

This development comes at a cost though. China’s environmental record has come under considerable scrutiny in the last 18 months as record growth has resulted in record levels of pollution and a move towards some unenviable records. In particular, climate-change sceptics in the US point to China’s progress towards the title of greatest contributor to global warming as an excuse for foot-dragging on reducing domestic carbon emissions (China will still be well behind the US on emissions per head).

Despite its low levels of industrial activity, Hong Kong is a significant contributor to China’s environmental footprint. In addition, the colony also has a significant environmental impact at the local level. This was something I would see myself on my second day in Hong Kong.

The Chinese White Dolphin is one of the most endangered dolphin species in the world. I took a trip out into the harbour on a dolphin spotting tour to try to see these beautiful animals, which - in spite of the name - are actually tinged pink. You can see from the pics that we got very close to the dolphins and it was a really exciting trip, although we had to wait an eye-straining 90 minutes before we spotted the first one. The dolphins played around the boat, usually at distance but sometimes swimming close. Given the huge volume of ferry, freight and sight-seeing craft in the harbour, its amazing that the animals survive at all, and that they will come so close to boats.

The other highlight of Hong Kong for me was the horse-racing. HK is famous for Happy Valley racecourse, a track squeezed into the built-up area of Hong Kong island. However, while I was in HK there were no meetings at that track. But such is the popularity of horse-racing in a place where it is the only legal form of gambling, that there is another venue for horse racing just a few miles away on the Kowloon peninsula. Sha Tin racecourse is an amazing stadium with capacity for 85000 people and over 1000 horses! Even the parade ring has seating for several hundred people and its own stadium-style all-weather roof.

Liking the odd small gamble, I loved the place and had a great afternoon there. In the first race, I backed a rank outsider at about 35-1. It led right the way round the course and was still in the lead coming down the final stretch! Of course, it was seventh by the end, but it did get me excited.

This fella would have had about as much chance as my pick in the second race of the day.

After two races, my small petty cash fund had run out, so I make a withdrawal from the ATM and put a slightly less modest bet on the third race. The picture below is off the closing stages of that race. And what a cracker it was! I backed a one-two-three and raked in over HK$1000!!! This paid for my accommodation for my whole stay in Hong Kong... which was nice!

Come on Dover - Move yer bloomin' arse!!!

So my second day in HK was a cracker. Unfortunately I spent the whole of the third day in bed with food poisoning! I guess I'd used up all my luck at the racecourse. Even so, it was great to go back to Hong Kong. The dolphin spotting, horseracing and the island hopping I did on the first day made for a great few days. And quite different to my first visit into the bargain. Next stop Sydney.

Attractive sandy swimming beach on Cheung Chau island, 30 minutes from HK by ferry. HK's mass of people and activity has an impact on the environment for some distance around.

Coincidentally, I watched the Al Gore film "An Inconvenient Truth" on the flight to Hong Kong. If you haven't seen it, I'd implore you to make every effort to watch it. Though it has come in for some criticism for a few of the things it claims, it is an incredibly compelling film and hopefully one that will have a significant impact on the way politicians in particular view the environment and their moral responsibilities. It just so happens that, as I write this, there are only 24 hours before Australians go to the polls in the national elections. Surveys suggest that the former global warming sceptic and enivronmentalists nightmare John Howard will be defeated by the more left-leaning (but still quite right wing compared to UK politics) Kevin Rudd. But more on that in another update.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Leaving Scotland

(Stuart in party mode at the Arches.)

I’ve been on the move again.

After two and a half months back home in Scotland, I’m back out in Australia, ready to start my new job. The original intention of this blog – in addition to being a diary to entertain me in my old age (well it has to entertain someone) – was to keep distant friends and rellies up to date with how I was getting on in exotic lands on my year out.

(Right: Sombrero Craig)

So it seems appropriate now that I’m living and working down under that I should start up the blog again. But no more books, I promise…

Before I mention Australia (and the gorgeous weather here!) maybe I should start by filling in the details since the last update.

As mentioned before, I got back to Scotland around the end of August. It was an odd feeling being back, and I especially remember being on the British Airways flight from Heathrow, looking out of the window over the Firth of Forth and seeing the buildings of Edinburgh and then the Forth Bridges.

(Left: Sheena, Nic and I)

I wondered what had changed as I stepped off the plane. It seems there were two big stories in Scotland in the year I’d been away and both were evident before I’d even ventured out of the airport.

The SNP’s victory back in the Spring had – whatever its long-term merits – promoted a new sense of pride in Scotland and I felt I could discern this optimism and hopeful nationalism in the adverts at the airport.

The other big event was, of course, the terrorist attack on Glasgow airport in June. A certain John “Smeato” Smeaton is now a part of Scottish folklore – and a hero to rival James McFadden – but while Smeato and friends’ actions are also a source of pride for Scotland, the re-envigorated security measures at Edinburgh airport were more a signal of the negative indirect impact terrorism can have, whether their direct actions are successful or not.

(Right: Kate and Tony)

But anyway, I never felt that my time back in Scotland would be about Scotland per se. It would be all about catching up with friends and family. It was great to meet up with Stuart and Lorna for lunch that afternoon, just a couple of hours after getting back. After that I headed down to Ayr where I surprised my mum by knocking on the front door unannounced. As I’d only secured a place on my flight at the very last minute, I hadn’t had the chance to let my folks know I’d be home a week early. I thought I’d rather leave it as a surprise than phone from Heathrow.

So the first week was spent catching up with family and friends in Scotland. One person had certainly changed a lot. My niece had gone from 3 months to 15, from burbling and not doing much, to walking and (kind of!) talking. Some cute photos attached. After missing my own homecoming party it was good to catch up with Kirsty and Gordon. And Rowan and I had a good laugh at the Simpsons movie.

(Left: Colette looking a little nervous about the camera in her jim-jams)

I only really had one major task to sort out in Scotland – my new job. With my work sabbatical extended for a year and having met my old colleagues in Edinburgh, those ends were easily tied-up. Sorting out the job was far less easy. Time differences and a busy workload for my new boss meant that I didn’t get my application in until two months after I got back to Scotland. Though this involved a lot of testing late-night calls and extensive emails, it didn’t leave me with a lot to do during the day.

And so it seemed obvious to write the book, about which I’ve send enough below. Aside from this and catching up with people, it was a fairly relaxing couple of months in many ways, though the tension of waiting and hoping for my visa to be approved was tiring in itself. But at last the visa was approved on the last day in October.

I booked flights a couple of days later and arranged a last run around to catch up with people. Most of the photos here are from those nights out, including a couple of really enjoyable visits to London. It was great to meet up with old friends, and new friends from my travels.

So I flew out to Hong Kong on the 8th of November, for a few days of (more!) travelling before getting to Australia and my new job.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

One Big Trip Ends, Another Begins... ...and the Blog becomes a Book

Front page from the book

One Big Trip Ends, Another Begins

On Monday the 27th of August I arrived back in Scotland from Capetown, after 360 days on the road. It's been great to spend time with family and friends in the last three weeks after so long away. It was also good to have some time to think over the trip, the places visited and the people met.

As well as looking back over the year, I've also been making plans. In my last week in Sydney, back in June, Opportunity International Australia offered me a full-time paid and sponsored contract for a year, based in their Sydney, Australia office.

(Left and Right: front and back flaps from the hardback version.)

The position involves working to relieve poverty in India, Nepal, Cambodia and other countries - some of the places I've visited on the Big Trip. The work will build on the voluntary work I did for OIA between February and May.

It's an opportunity I couldn't turn down and so I'm now once again looking out my rucksack and wondering what I can fit in it. I expect to fly out in mid-end October. The key obstacle to overcome is arranging a sponsorship visa with the Australian government. As I discovered back in April, this isn't always an easy process...

Blog becomes a Book

As well as travelling about the country catching up with people and planning for my move back to Australia, I've been busy with one other thing too. I've now converted this blog into a book and had it published.

The book is a 200-page hard-back, coffee table style book - ie with plenty (500+) of pictures. It covers almost the whole blog, from the start of the 500 mile walk up to departing Capetown. Rather than repeating myself, here's the blurb from the back of the book:

Back page from the book

Want to know how to mix a 'panty-ripper', where the best nightclub is on Easter Island or how to survive the civil war in Zimbabwe?

Then read Big Trip, one over-excitable Scotsman's rollocking twelve-month journey through 25 countries and 5 continents . Whether 10,000 feet up over Everest, or 100 feet below the Carribean waters of Belize, Calum's Big Trip was packed with adventure and now you can relive it all in 200 chewable pages. You'll cry with Calum at the birth of his friend's baby, you'll scream with him as he jumps off a bridge, you'll laugh at him as he gets wee-d on by a lion.

You'll meet a whole host of interesting characters, from Prime Ministers' wives to filmstars, from Chilean womens' basketball champs to Bolivian TV reporters. With travel advice from Australia to Zambia you'll find out... where to get a carry-out at five in the morning in Santiago, how to catch endangered tropical fish in Belize and what it means to get 'calumed'.

Packed with poetry, political commentary and an annoying tendency to list things in threes, Big Trip is the perfect travel companion for anyone who can't spend a day in the African jungle without wondering whether there'll be internet and a comfy bed in the evening. So don't be a numpty. Buy it and pack it in your rucksack today and it will get you through many a cold bushcamping evening (each page is coated in a special slow-burning chemical mixture which will keep your campfire blazing gaily for days).

"This book will be an award-winning multinational bestseller"
Calum's gran

"I was surprised to learn he could read, let alone write"
Ewan McGregor

"We won't be letting him back in our country"
The Bolivian Tourist Board

"He fell on my tent!"
Big Momma

"Like, whatever..."
Brock Randy Eston Hoback

Introduction from the book

The book is available to order online (as if, lol!) and is available in softback (£20.95) and hardback versions (£24.95). You can also see a preview of the first 15 pages there. I can't really see it being a best seller, but just in case you're interesed, here's the link:

Thursday, August 23, 2007

South Africa - the final furlong

(Largest dune in the world)

The last week of the tour was a run from the Namibian border to Capetown where the truck would spend 3 days before moving on (minus 16 of us!, including me) to Jo'burg. This was always going to be emotional with so many people leaving the truck after such a long time (two months or more for most of us).

In between the border and capetown, we had a quick visit to the town of Springbok, which is most notable for its erm... lack of diversity in the local gene pool. Quite amusing really, though I was too shy to take photos!

Instead, here's some photos of the giant sand dunes at Sossuslevi and Fish River Canyon, both of which are just shy of the South African border. The giant dunes were very photogenic, but for some reason they didn't seem as 'big' as I'd expected. Must be getting tourist attraction fatigue or something. Fish River Canyone was spectacular, though if you've seen the Grand Canyon, it's a bit like a miniature version.

After that we visited the lovely town of Stellenbosch, where all the beautiful people live (ie polar opposite to Springbok). Its also famous for its vineyards... and wine tours.

Loved the wine tour. Haven't laughed so much before lunchtime in many many years. Though, for comedy value, nothing could top the moment when Debbie, Nikki and I leaned against a cabinet while having our photo taken and knocked bottles of wine everywhere. There was a comedy 'CRASH' and everyone looked round open-mouthed. And we were fairly sober (ish) at that point.

After the wine tour I now have the nickname 'special' (Kes is 'magic', Nikki is 'gorgeous'), perhaps because I couldn't remember more than 4 of the 7 dwarves (and i thought 'forgetful' was one of those). Along with having the word 'Calumed' invented on the trip, it's been quite a constructive experience really.

(Right: me and my dinner-buddy Sheena at the start of the wine tour.)
(Meant to try to make the 100th update on this website 'special' but instead managed to forget and this is the 102nd. The 100th update had a picture of me patting a Cheetah though, which is still pretty special.)

And then Capetown. (hankies ready)

On the first day a group of us took the cable-car up on to Table Mountain. Really spectacular up there and kinda peaceful as well, despite reports in the newspaper everyday of muggings on the mountain. (There was a constant background hint of danger in Capetown).

(Nikki, Cal, Debbie and Nikki near the end of the wine tour.)

The next two days I spent diving. After missing out on the Advanced Diving course in both Zanzibar and Malawi I was really made up when I found out that it wasn't any more expensive in Capetown. I had five great dives over two days with a great outfit called Scuba Shack. Three of the dives were fairly straightforward, but the other two were absolutely fantastic.

The first was a wreck dive on an 80m long minesweeper famous for having led out the fleet at Normandy on D-Day (ie pretty darned famous!). This was my first wreck dive and it was absolutely sweet. Did some great swim-throughs and had plenty of time to explore almost the entire wreck. spooky.

(Right: Cal gets it on to another one of those block-rockin beats on the emotion-packed last night of the trip.)

Emma joined me for the last dive, which was diving with seals. I'd been swimming with seals before and loved it, but this was even better. We were surrounded by seals and they were incredibly playful. I tried doing rolls and somersaults in the water and the seals were really excited by this and copied what I was doing. Beautiful animals. And amazing swimmers. Unlike me! We both loved the dive. Really lucky that I could do two such amazing dives and get my advanced PADI at the same time. Really looking forward to more wreck diving in Australia now...

Have to also mention that the second day of diving was after the last big night out. I really wasn't diving 'at my best'. Managed to bang my head really hard on the bottom of the boat and smashed an egg to smithereens when I was supposed to peel it slowly (exercise to test pressure at depth).

Otherwise, Capetown was all about saying goodbye. It was honestly and truly tearful and gutting to say goodbye to most people. I will miss so many of those guys so much - you were all so 'special' too! And also hope and expect to meet up with some of them again.

And that was the BigTrip. Time to go home now. Waaaaaaaaaahhhh...

(The very last photo of the bigtrip. 10 minutes later I was in a taxi on the way to the airport! Me, Brock, Ed, Clodagh, Lou, Cal, Nikki, Nick, Emma and Jane. I LOVE YOU GUYS!!!)