Category Archives: Travelling

The Africa coast to coast adventure so far…

It seems like a lifetime ago, yet was actually only 4 weeks ago, that I rocked up in Yeovil to Tri UK to collect the Focus bicycle that we were kindly donated by Tri UK for the Africa coast to coast trip.

Shiny, very bright red and complete with upgraded tyres, the bike was quickly dismantled and packed up like precious jewels, ready for the long trip out to South Africa and then Namibia. Upon unpacking it in Windhoek, howver, I was horrified to find the rear derailleur hanger looking somewhat less splendid than it should have been:

These parts are made to break easily in the event of a fall, to protect your whole gear mechanism from being broken. Sadly, though, they are often riveted onto the bike, so cannot be removed for transit. Cue Awesome Joe, the magical mechanic at Mannie’s Bike Mecca in Windhoek, who saved the day and possibly trip, by custom making me a new hanger. Several hours of hanging out waiting for the mechanical hero to do his thing was far preferable to the other option we’d been suggested by other bike shops – getting a part sent out from Europe and waiting 5 – 7 days for it to arrive. And so it seemed only fair that Awesome Joe be the name of the bike. A fine name and a fine tale.

With Awesome Joe all good as new, Steve and I made our way over to the skeleton coast to join Brendan and the others who had all met in Malawi and driven over together. One short ride / run to loosen up the legs, and then we were off into the unknown…

Our morning run and cycle sessions have started anywhere between 5am and 7.30am, depending on how many wild animals might be out hunting locally at that hour! (I have been known to cycle clutching the pepper spray pretty tightly, although in reality if we were being actually attacked by a leopard or lion, I think pepper spray might only anger a determined predator!) Morning temperatures have plummeted to as low as 2 degrees C and have been a challenge when trying to prise oneself from a toasty sleeping bag into the saddle.

We have mostly wild camped on the sides of the road where we stop running and cycling and we have been lucky enough to see stunning sunsets, sunrises and starry nights nearly every day.

One night we were treated to staying at a mission orphanage school, complete with a dinner date with Brother Gabriel, who was a very kind host and a delightful addition to the team, if only for a night.

Our food has, somewhat predictably, been very carb-heavy with some protein and vegetables interpersed; consisting of huge bowls of porridge at the end of our morning 20 mile / 30km session and huge bowls of pasta, xima or rice and vegetables for a late lunch and dinner, after an evening run of 5 – 8 miles / 8 – 14km.

Brendan seems strong and determined every day, although his blisters and my sore seatbones tell a slightly different story (I will spare you any photos). The sometimes very deep sand and rutted, bumpy roads take a toll on both our legs, my bottom and occasionally our spirits…

We have also been treated to some amazing animal sightings. Most of these I have not managed to capture, as I have been concentrating on not falling off the bike on the bumpy roads.

We even saw a rogue hippo and a black rhino:

OK, OK, those two photos aren’t real. The ‘black rhino’ is actually a brown donkey grazing, but I did manage to convince some of the team that I’d seen a black rhino using that photo!

We have seen, amongst other animals, numerous warthogs, giraffes, regal oryx antelopes, jackals and even Africa’s most venomous snake, the puff adder. It was a tiny one curled up at one of our campsite spots. Needless to say, everyone stayed away from that corner and took great care to zip up the tent properly that night.

And so, after a few days of resting due to Brendan being sick, we are ready to get back to the wilderness. Batteries, both actual and human, have been recharged and we are ready to get back to the matter in hand.

Next time I will introduce you to the team, but for now, I wish you a splendid morning / afternoon / evening and hope you will stay tuned for more as we cross Africa coast to coast on foot and wheels, raising money to build a new boys’ hostel at a wonderful orphanage in Malawi.

Please, pretty please, do donate; help us achieve something flipping amazing!

Tips for avoiding single-use plastic

How did we get into this single-use plastic mess? In 1955, LIFE magazine published an article titled ‘Throwaway Living’.

It started a pandemic of disposable plastic use, particularly with food and beverage consumption. No washing up required. You just use it and then throw it away. What a brilliant invention… All it requires is finding, pumping, transporting and refining oil, making it into plastic, transporting it again, selling it, then you can use it for a few seconds and throw it away, never considering its fate. Mostly, the fate of that plastic is to end up in landfill, where it gives off harmful gases as it breaks up into tiny pieces that won’t disappear for centuries, if ever. Hands up if that you think that sounds like a smart idea… yeah, I didn’t think so…

I have been asked by lots of people to give a list of tips for avoiding plastic, particularly single-use plastic. It’s everywhere and is quite overwhelming when you think about it.

I have done discussed the issue of single-use plastic with world experts ranging from Her Deepness Dr Sylvia Earle, South African freediving champion Hanli Prinsloo, A Plastic Oceans producer Jo Ruxton, plastics expert Professor Ed Kosior, ocean advocate Emily Penn, 5 gyres founders Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, Algalita South Pacific founder Raquelle de Vine and Times columnist Alice Thomson, to name but a few. So, in short, I feel confident that the ensuing list of tips is a well-researched one.

This is not an exhaustive list. Feel free to add comments and suggestions. If these suggestions are thought-provoking and you make a few changes having read this, then that is fabulous (and once you’re on a roll, I bet you’ll make more changes than you thought you’d manage).

If this is a totally new concept to you, my first basic suggestions would be:

1. Get, carry and use a refillable drinks bottle.
2. If you are a café regular, get, carry and use a refillable coffee cup.
3. Get, carry and use a reusable shopping bag.
4. When ordering drinks, add ‘no straw please’ onto your order. Most of us are lucky and talented enough to be able to drink without using a straw. If not, then get, carry and use your own metal, glass or bamboo straw.

Yes, some habit changes may be required – you’ll notice the repeated phrase ‘get, carry and use’ – you might need to get into the habit of carrying a few extra things with you. But hey, you’re not a dog and you can learn new tricks; I believe in you!

Once you’ve mastered those bottle, coffee cup, bag and straw tips, you’re on a roll, why not take a look around the different facets of your life and see where else you can eliminate plastics:

Out and about, food on the move:

• Get, carry and use a reusable lunchbox. I love my stainless steel box with a seal to stop spillages for camping meals, packed lunches and collecting takeaways.
A cheap / free option – why not just use empty jars?

• Get, carry and use reusable cutlery or a spork. I have a tiny pouch with my steel cutlery. It takes up hardly any space in my bag and means I am always prepared.

• Get, carry and use beeswax wraps.

At home, in the kitchen:

• Ditch the cling film (when you’ve finished the roll!) and switch to beeswax wraps, reusable containers, greaseproof paper or tin foil (tin foil, if disposed of properly, can be recycled much more effectively and for longer than plastic).

• Use a milkman. Tetrapaks and plastic milk containers are largely unrecycleable. Modern ‘milkman’ deliveries include dairy free options, as well as juices, fresh produce and even bakery products.

• Buy condiments in glass jars – not only are glass jars much more efficiently recycleable, but you can also get the last bits out of them, unlike plastic squeezy bottles. Then you can use them for food storage, too.

• Use loose tea. Teabags have plastic in them. You don’t want to drink microplastics, trust me.

• Ditch the plastic-wrapped snacks – reach for fresh fruit and veg instead, or make your own snack bars (they taste great and you know you’re not filling your body with nasty preservatives).

In the cleaning cupboard:

• Buy laundry powder in a cardboard box, rather than liquid in a plastic bottle.

• Use bars of soap around the house, rather than liquid soap in plastic bottles.

• If the thought of making your own cleaning products using vinegar, baking powder and lemon is in the ‘too hard basket’, there are other great options… Splosh in the UK is one I recently found. Hop on the internet and discover what’s out there…

• Many natural / organic / bulk food shops sell cleaning products / laundry liquid / shampoo / conditioner / shower gel, so you can refill your cleaning bottles from a bulk container and pay for the amount you refill.

In the bathroom:

Bamboo toothbrushes can be composted after use (depending on what the bristles are made from, you may need to snap the head of the toothbrush before composting the handle).

• Bring back the bars… use bars of soap instead of shower gel, shampoo and conditioner bars instead of bottles of the stuff!

• Use Metal razors with easily replaceable metal razorblades. Why not make the change next time you need to buy new blades?

Menstrual cups are easy to use (watch some YouTube videos, see for yourself) and will save you a fortune on pads and tampons.

Responsibly packaged toilet paper, like ‘Who gives a crap?’. Plastic-free wrapping, money saving and good comedy packaging, what’s not to like? Order online.

Supermarket shopping:

• Buy unpackaged fruit and vegetables, try a local greengrocer. If you are in the supermarket and don’t have your own produce bags, use the paper mushroom bags instead of the plastic bags provided.

Use your own reusable produce bags and dispeners / bulk bins wherever possible. Again, if you don’t have your own produce bags, use the paper mushroom bags.

• Buy boxed or paper bagged items rather than plastic wrapped food; bread, rice, cous cous, pasta and lots of other staples are available in boxes or bags or bulk bins and dispensers.

Use a cardboard box if you forget your reusable shopping bags or don’t bring enough.

For the children:

Wooden toys last longer than their plastic counterparts and hold their value, in case you want to resell them.

Wooden colouring pencils, not plastic felt tips (they dry out when left uncapped anyway!).

Most of all, don’t berate yourself too much if you don’t manage all of these, all the time. Congratulate yourself for what you are doing and continue to strive to do more. If you are still reading this, chances are you are already a pretty fantastic human, so give yourself a big old superhero pat on the back and keep spreading the love (please do feel free to share this blog post and include a credit link to www.treadlighter.org too!).

I have not included lists of specific items to buy and where to buy them, because you might be reading from any corner of Earth. You might like to buy or make yourself brilliant tools to help you avoid single-use plastic. Remember, online shopping is brilliant – see if you can request plastic-free postage and packaging!

Post trip blues come and go

I’ve had post trip blues before. Not recently, I admit, because usually I am so excited to be back, see family and friends, I am making plans for the next chapter, trying to find work, or I am simply amazed by having full time electricity, access to a fridge and the ability to drink clean, fresh water directly from the tap. Those things all distract me from sadness that the sun has set on that particular chapter. I can process it all without sobbing like a self-pitying, weeping mess.

This time turned out to be different and, rather embarassingly, I did indeed end up a self-pitying, weeping mess in a public place. With every high comes a low and it was inevitable, I suppose, that after 5 months of extreme high, the low might strike with force.

I received a wordless welcome home in the form of a mechanically opening gate at the sterile Immigration e-passport machine. By the time I arrived in the baggage area my bike box was waiting for me, totally unscathed (relief that possibly only a bike-toting, or maybe a surfboard-toting traveller can truly appreciate). I bought a SIM card (yes, yet another new phone number, sorry friends, just save this one as 2018a, there will be another one later in the year when I get back from Africa). Logistically everything was going to plan.

And then it hit me like some sort of flying ninja kick to the soul. I melted into a row of seats next to the tourist information booth and dribbly tears appeared from nowhere. Before I’d even left the airport terminal. Grey clouds and determined rain, outside and inside. Nobody to meet me at the airport. I felt cold and exhausted. I couldn’t think straight. I can rarely think straight at the end of a 38 hour journey, but usually I don’t have to; I just throw my bag on my back and hop on the undergroud.

I had desperately itchy, bloodshot, aching eyes. I didn’t want to pay any of my precious few remaining Great British Pounds for a taxi, but it wasn’t an option to drag my 30kg bike box and overweight hand luggage on several underground trains or coaches or buses… I juggled ideas. I tried to think through finding a quiet corner of the terminal to put my bike together in the airport and then cycle home. But it was 4pm already; pouring rain, a 15 degree drop in temperature and the difficulty of cycling out of Heathrow made this an unappealing option. I had my faithful friend; my allen key multi-tool that I would need to reassemble my bike, but remembered I had left my bike pump back in New Zealand (damn you, checked luggage allowance!). I wondered if I could wheel my luggage trolley the 0.8 miles that Google Maps informed me it was to the nearest petrol station. Then I could use their air machine to blow up my tyres? Could I even push a trolley from the terminal to the petrol station? Would there be a pavement? Would the box dissolve in the way in the rain? Or would I have been better to make the bike up first? But pushing my fully loaded bike on deflated tyres would not be good for the bike. And it would take at least hour or two to get it all set up. In fact, would I even be allowed to dismantle a huge box and build a bike in the terminal? And if I was stopped part way through such a mission, how would I put it all back together and transport it onwards? If I wasn’t stopped, where would I dispose of the box and how would I manage that with a fully loaded bike? Ideas swirled around my very grey matter and confused me even further.

‘What should I do? What should I do? What should I do?’ Problem solving in New Zealand had seemed easier. Rethinking had become my secret weapon to see problems from a different angle; whereupon a favourable solution usually presented itself. The problem here was that a). I was too tired to make any sense in my head and b). I didn’t like the obvious solution that seemed to solve the problem most effectively.

After an indeterminate amount of time of sitting, wiping away tears, shivering and generally behaving like a pathetic mess, I reluctantly downloaded the Uber app, set myself up with an account and requested a car, with my head hanging low in defeat and my wallet wincing as I agreed to spend a week’s worth of cycle touring food budget on a 1 hour ride home.

I am not recalling this for sympathy. On the contrary; I feel like a self-absorbed, white, privileged, self-pitying moron who I would probably want to slap if I was a stranger reading this. But this is the mostly unmentioned side of adventure that sometimes lies behind the facade of Insta-perfect blue sky travel photos. There are lows to go with the highs and it’s how you deal with those that sort the wheat from the chaff. It’s not the low itself (they are inevitable), it’s how you respond. As an almost eternally positive powerhouse, the lows are unexpected and sometimes blindside me. It takes me a little while of introspective pondering and tough self-love to process my emotions before I can click back into happy mode. Sometimes, I am finding out, that means a few minutes of crying, sometimes it might take a few hours of quietly sitting and thinking, sometimes a few days. My point is that it is good to build in time and activities to be gentle and kind to yourself when it happens to you. I find a long think and soak in a hot bath and a good sleep work wonders.

I don’t know if anyone really even reads this. I started this blog to keep friends and family up to date while I was away, but suspect that very few of my friends or family actually read any of my posts. I picked up so much love and support whilst on the road in New Zealand, but I don’t know if that translates into anyone reading this, especially now I am back in the UK, planning my next adventure. I feel like people are more active on Instagram and that is the quick hitting platform that people prefer. Reading takes time and energy. I guess my biggest hope for this blog post would be that it is read by (and is helpful to) someone who finds the lows of travels, or adventures, or even life, sometimes a little overwhelming. And takes some comfort from knowing they are not alone, it is normal and it too shall pass.

Other than that, it is just cathartic rambling as I slip back into the scenery I left behind.

I have been lucky enough to make new wonderful adventure-hungry friends since arriving back in the UK who totally understand and share the feeling that they don’t fit into the regular 9 to 5 society and mentality. That gives me great comfort and hope. Which is a nice note to end on.

Post Script:

A friend asked me to write about what I took with me and how I packed it, which I will write about next. If anyone does read this and wants to know anything else or want me to write about other aspects of anything my journey so far has included, please do leave comments and I will be happy to be as open as possible and share the little snippets I have learned along the way. I am no expert, but am happy to share and point to the experts, from whom I draw knowledge and inspiration.

One reunion to rule them all

I have been lucky enough to have many reunions with dear friends during this visit to New Zealand. But one stood out in my heart more than the others. When I lived in Queenstown I had made friends with a little boy and we met up weekly to hang out and do fun stuff. I was really missing the meaningful relationships and effect that I had previously had with pupils, so when the opportunity arose to befriend this little fella I jumped at the chance.

We became buddies when he was 5 years old and one of our first missions was to teach him how to ride a bicycle without training wheels.

He is now 14 years old and visiting him was one of my last stops before getting back to Queenstown. I had saved this reunion until near the end, a little bit like you might save your favourite food on your plate until the end of your meal.

I visited him 3 years ago and he has been quite shy, which surprised me. He was always like a little ball of energy and we instantly got on well with each other.

This time there was no such warming up and we were straight into reminiscing and joking. It is something pretty special to know a small child and wonder how they will turn out when they grow up. He is everything I hoped he would be and more; funny, caring, excitable and contented. We spent an evening with his family, having brilliant banter and laughs and then the next day we spent the day taking Invercargill by storm on our bikes.

From ‘the olden days’ circa 2010
2018… and yes, I still have the same puffa jacket!

It was amazing to see him flying about confidently on his bike, much of the time with no hands, and hear his stories of mountain biking missions. What a joy, to still share a love of bikes, so many years later.

We made friends with animals in his local park, span on the roundabout and giant hamster wheel until we were both dizzy, took countless selfies, tried (unsuccessfully) to cycle through a MacDonalds’ drive-thru and ate amazing burgers at Devil Burger. As with so many friends, the distance and interim time melted into insignificance and we slotted right back into a great friendship.

I had to leave all too soon, as has become a normal feeling on this trip. But I do know we will be friends forever and I am excited for future updates and catch ups. BFFs for sure.

The Land of Quakes

I lived in New Zealand for 4 years and have felt enough earthquakes to last me a lifetime. I have noticed the mild tremors that only a few people in a room feel, and we’ve exchanged knowing glances whilst the vast majority continue unaware. They are fine, but the bigger ones scare the living daylights out of me. The ones where you hear a loud rumble, accompanied by everything in the house (and the house itself) rattling. The ones where everything falls off library and supermarket shelves and you receive new cracks in your walls at home. The trouble is, you never know if it’s going to turn into ‘the big one’ that everyone is led to believe will be on its way soon (give or take X thousand years). And you never know if it’s a little earthquake that might be followed up by a whopper. It’s a complete unknown which makes you feel insignificant and powerless.

Christchurch Cathedral still stands spireless some 7 years after their last big earthquake

Spending time in Kaikoura and Christchurch recently has been such an eye-opener for me; from travelling the new coastal road and seeing where the old coastal road was, to seeing abandoned buildings with dereliction notices taped to the windows and hearing the stories of residents who still have no sewage provisions and are still using porta-potties in their homes 17 months later.

Whilst staying in Kaikoura with a dear friend’s Mum, I was allowed the dubious but fascinating opportunity of having a look in a house untouched since the earthquake. It has stood like a time capsule since 2016 and like so many others has been marked as unsafe for use as a dwelling or even entry. The whole house has peeled away from the house it’s joined onto, my host’s house.

That half of the house sits on an unnerving and noticeable slant. But an engineer had been in that day to complete a demolition assessment, so clearly it was stable enough for a careful look… we hoped.

The elderly lady who lived there was luckily not in her bed at the time of the earthquake, which dropped the bedroom plasterboard wall onto the bed with quite a force.

In the bathroom a huge crack tore the room in two and all the bottles lay on the floor where they’d been thrown to. Even the bathtub had a huge crack ripping it in half.

As we inched our way into the kitchen and living area, we saw more destruction – this whole section of the building was resting on a considerable angle that this photo of the kitchen looks like I took it totally wonkily, but it was actually taken at a straight angle, which should have been parallel to the ground, had it not ended up on a considerable slant.

It’s amazing how it affects your sense of balance, being in a building that has started sliding on an angle into the nearby creek. It is really quite disorientating and debilitating.

Everything in the kitchen and living room had fallen out of the cupboards and a large crack was visible in the floor next to the dining table. This is where the old lady had been sitting when the earthquake struck, and she was left with her leg trapped in the crack, unable to move until a rescue team helped her out with a large crowbar. What a terrifying wait that must have been, unsure if there was more quaking to come.

Out at the back of the building you can see how much the wall has bowed outwards and how much the steps have come away from the side of the building, where they used to meet the wall.

It was a little bit like looking around a museum and certainly filled me with gratitude for not having been there to witness it at the time. I can’t imagine how disorientating it must have been for Kaikoura’s residents trying to even get across their rooms to safety.

It’s not every day that you have that kind of opportunity, to see first hand the unsalvageable destruction done to peoples’ homes and lives. Talking to the staff at the 3 schools in Kaikoura, it was clear that the issues were far from over for the vast majority of residents.

How very lucky most of us are to wake up in countries were these kinds of natural disasters aren’t commonplace. This is a majestic, magnificent country, but I am reminded that when I left in 2011, I took more than one moment to thank my lucky stars that my experiences here hadn’t included one of these havoc-wreaking quakes.

A whale of a time in Kaikoura

When I was younger I sent off lots of competition entry forms from the back of wildlife magazines. One day, out of the blue, I was gobsmacked to actually receive a prize in the post; people do actually win those things, who knew! It was a copy of Mark Carwardine’s book On the Trail of the Whale. If I remember correctly, the opening chapter is about Mark’s experience as a first time visitor falling in love with Kaikoura, a magical sounding whale mecca in a far off land named New Zealand. One day, I daydreamed, I would visit that mystical place.

Indeed, Kaikoura was the first place I visited in New Zealand back in 2001, after landing in Christchurch. I couldn’t get there fast enough and spent hours sitting on top of perhaps the same hilly clifftop that Mark Carwardine had written about years before.

Ever since then Kaikoura has occupied rather a big space in my heart. So, to go back there, this time talking to its young ocean guardians about how to protect the sea, has made my heart feel full and happy.

I made the most of having a whole weekend of fun time in Kaikoura and spent as much time as possible with a wonderful variety of sea creatures; sperm whales, dusky dolphins, hector’s dolphins, blue penguins, albatross species and a plethora of other seabirds too.

Sperm whales are one of the fascinating year-round residents of Kaikoura’s coastline. They are the largest Odontocete (toothed) whale, reaching 15 – 20m in length, can weigh in at 40 – 60 tons and live up to 70 years.

They make dives of 40 to 60 minutes to around 1,000m deep in the nearby underwater canyon, but are capable of diving for over 2 hours to 3,000m deep. They have the largest brain of any animal on earth (around 7 times the size of a human brain) and are thought to be one of the loudest animals, having been recorded at 230 decibels. They amplify sounds waves, or clicks, using the spermaceti oil in their heads to locate and even stun or kill their prey. They are remarkable creatures.

Being in the presence of one of these majestic creatures when it surfaces between dives creates an awed silence as the Whalewatch boat slowly approaches, keeping a respectful distance. Only a small fraction of their body sits above the water; just enough to show their proportionally small dorsal fin and a slither of head so their blowhole has access to fresh air.

Here the blowhole is visible on the left and the dorsal fin on the right side of the photo. Other than that, it looks a bit like a floating log, doesn’t it?!

During their 7 or 8 minute surface interval, the oil in their heads cools and solidifies into a dense wax, which helps the whale dive down deep below the surface. Once they’ve replenished their oxygen store and are ready to make their dive, they make one brief dip below the surface before diving head down, arching their backs and eventually heading vertically downwards, tails up in the air and then propelling themselves down into the dark watery depths of the Kaikoura Canyon. They spend 80% of their lives in darkness of the depths of sea, so we really were lucky to see 3 of these leviathons on our trip.

When they disappear from sight, you’re left gazing at their ‘footprint’, the flat patch of water created by the mighty flick of their tail as they head dowards the canyon depths. And we’re all left grinning at one another; the lucky few to share this experience.

‘It’s like nothing else in the world exists when you’re watching those animals’ one lady said. ‘All your worldly problems melt away, none of that stuff matters and you’re just caught up in the moment, soaking up the wonder of nature’. Yup. That pretty much sums up how I feel about the ocean every time I’m in it.

Try it and sea…

Presenting underwater with my real life heroes

It’s been a whirlwind of a few weeks. I keep thinking this trip can’t get any more wonderful. And then along comes the next adventure to prove me wrong.

Continue reading Presenting underwater with my real life heroes