When dreams become a reality – climbing the Sydney Harbour Bridge

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During my time as a travel agent I would book the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb for fellow travel enthusiasts every single day. I dreamt that one day it would be me climbing to the top. With every booking my desire grew stronger. Well, it may have taken me years to get there, but finally I arrived in Sydney for my turn.

As I looked up at the bridge from Circular Quay the reality of what I was about to do hit me. Up close the bridge is much higher than one can imagine. However, it wasn’t the height that concerned me, in fact I love heights. No, it was the amount of steps I would have to climb to reach the top that worried me. I was afraid my dodgy left knee would force me to quit half way. A large amount of steps, I have learnt from my travels, turns me into an eighty year old lady riddled with arthritis. But, despite the potential difficulty I would face, I was determined to fight the pain and fulfil my dream of making it to the top.

Our guide for the climb was a friendly and extremely knowledgeable Australian named Jasmine (and if you are reading this, Jasmine, thanks again for a great day!). I donned my suit, soaked up all the information from the briefing and was mentally prepared for the challenge ahead. My fellow climbers and I now looked like we were going to step foot inside a rocket to venture to Mars rather than climb a bridge. I attached myself to the steel wire and marched forwards, purposefully staying at the back of the line so I could savour the views.

The day had started with a grey sky and tiny droplets of rain, however as I climbed higher the sun managed to fight its way through the clouds and its rays greeted us, casting a feathery light across the harbour.

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With each step, as I looked out to the orange dusted sails of the ever present Opera House and looked down at the boats ebbing their way through the water, the smile on my face just didn’t want to leave. My cheeks were getting higher with every step. There I was standing on one of the worlds most famous bridges, looking out at Australia’s most famous city, feeling like the most grateful human on the planet.

It turned out that the climb was a lot easier than anticipated, and I made it to the very top of the iconic arch with no troubles, only happiness.

It may have taken me years to get there, and a small fortune too, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was worth every penny, and worth every second I had to wait.

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Ubud – When reality doesn’t live up to expectations.

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Like a lot of people, I presume, I first heard about the Balinese town of Ubud after reading Elizabeth Gilberts book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Of course I then watched the movie. And as Julia Roberts cycled around the brilliantly green rice paddies, befriended an old medicine man and meditated her time away in blissful peace, Ubud shot straight to the top of my travel wish list. Because of course nature and meditation are two of my favourite things, it therefore seemed like an ideal place to sit and ponder life’s existence.

So, I went to Ubud, my last port of call in Bali and in Asia.

My journey originated from Amed, hours of driving through lush, lime green landscape soon transformed into traffic jammed streets, my driver fighting his way through a blockade of cars and motorcycle’s. After silently wondering what this crowded and smoggy town that we had landed ourselves in was called I noticed a street sign that read UBUD. Horrified, I asked the driver ‘Are we in Ubud now?’

‘Yes, this is Ubud.’ He replied.

Hearing these words caused the excitement I had felt to shrivel away to the bottom of my stomach and die. For, this was not the Ubud that they portray in the movie. I sat in the traffic jam silently cursing Julia Roberts for the false representation, making a mental note to myself, never, ever trust Hollywood again!

Congestion, whether it’s on the streets or in the mind, makes me feel discernibly miserable. I need clarity, to think, to breath, to walk. I had intended to put myself in a personal, silent, writing retreat here in the creative and cultural centre of Bali. But how could the creative juices flow when my vision was the never-ending throngs of traffic and my air was contaminated with toxic exhaust fumes?

Not one to quit I persevered, and I decided I would stick around and try and love Ubud; surely it couldn’t really be that bad, right?

I meandered through the backstreets and found the famous rice paddies. I set up home in a little guesthouse down a quiet lane that gave me some peace. And after four months in Asia with little food options that didn’t contain meat, the many vegan and organic cafés in this little town were very welcome.

But, despite my best efforts, and despite the variety of food available for a vegetarian, I did not grow to love Ubud. If you like shopping, lots of people rammed into tight spaces and dirty streets, then Ubud is the place to be in Bali. However, Bali has a lot more to offer than these overpopulated lanes. Ubud is renowned as being a place for healing, but I can’t help feeling that because of the hordes of tourists that now pound the pavements of this town, Ubud now feels a little wounding.

 

Swimming with turtles in Indonesia

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After having such an insanely wonderful experience in the ocean depths, off the coast of Bali, I was eager to jump back into the water and recreate that happiness. However, before donning the tank and BCD again I decided to try some snorkelling in the Gili Islands, in the hope that I would be able to come face to face with a turtle. Seeing a turtle under water when diving had been incredible, but this time I wanted to be able to look into its eyes.

The reef surrounding Gili Air was my first port of call. Shortly after entering the water I was witnessing shoals of fish going about their daily business. Box fish, mantis shrimp and clownfish all came to say hello to their human observer, but no turtles. After five hours it was time to call off the search and head back to land.

The following day, fuelled with determination once again, I ventured over to Gili Meno. Maybe I would find turtles there?

A local on the island advised me to swim out to an area called Secret Reef.

‘Turtles are always there.’ He assured me.

So, I followed his advice and propelled myself through the current until I was once again in the midst of Indonesia’s marine life. As I was floating around on the surface of the water a boat overflowing with snorkelers arrived. Now, if I was a turtle and I spotted a group of humans bobbing up and down on the surface in bright orange life jackets, kicking furiously, I certainly wouldn’t come out of my hiding place. So I swam away from my fellow species, out to the insular shelf, where the shallow waters of the reef meets the deep, blue depths of the ocean.

And, low and behold, my human dodging plan worked. A circular shape, like an ocean UFO, appeared in front of me…turtle!

Elated, I swam alongside the beautiful reptile as it glided through the water. Up and down it went, unsure of whether to break the surface. I wasn’t very close, but that didn’t matter. I was swimming in the Lombok Strait opposite a turtle, the very thing I had been looking for, for two days.

With my mission accomplished I started to make my way back to shore, the current gently pushing me in the right direction this time. I had stopped looking for turtles and was marvelling at three giant fish, a species I had never seen before with what appeared to be unicorn horns on their heads. When, out of the corner of my right eye, I spotted yet another large, dark shape gliding along close to the surface of the seabed. It was another turtle, only this time it was much closer. So close, in fact, that I recognised it as a hawksbill turtle, a species which is critically endangered. I left the weird and wonderful unicorn fish to swim with my second turtle companion of the day, ensuring I left enough space between us so that he wouldn’t feel threatened.

It appeared that this turtle was quite happy for this excited human to join him on his little journey. We swam along together until he decided he wanted to have a little break and a snack from the coral. So, I hung back watching him in absolute awe until he looked up at me, staring into my eyes giving me a silent message that my time with him was up. He then turned around and swam away.

With a little nod of my head and a wave I said a thank you for letting me hang out with him for a while and watched him disappear into the blue void.

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The most playful creatures in the ocean.

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As the boat edged its way closer to a small island off the coast of South Australia, pairs of big, brown, puppy dog eyes started to appear on the white as chalk sand. We were being watched.

I gently slid off the boat into the turquoise waters, all thoughts of potentially coming face to face with Jaws wiped from my mind as it was overtaken with excitement. I was told not to approach them, I was on their turf and therefore would have to abide by their terms. If they wanted to come and play then they would make it known.

As soon as my shoulders were under the surface they rose, one by one, from their midday slumber and waddled into the ocean, vanishing from sight. With my mask and snorkel on I dipped my head under the water to look for my new playmates, hoping they hadn’t decided to avoid the strange new human in their midst by swimming around me into the deep, dark depths of the ocean.

And then I felt it, the presence of something large breathing on my neck. I turned, slowly. Nerves and excitement bubbling away in the pit of my stomach. And there they were, those huge, adorable, big brown eyes staring into my own. A sea lion.

I am pretty sure he gave me a cheeky wink and I am positively certain he was smiling.

I understood that smile. He wanted to have some fun, and so did I.

He swam around me, lapping me into a frenzy. Pretty soon his friends joined in and they jumped in and out of the ocean, splashing and gliding through the water like rockets so I would follow them. I was soon racing with the sea lions, playing hide and seek and seeing who could spin around the fastest.

We were having a swimming contest to see who had the better tools. Human arms or sea lion flippers? Of course the sea lions won and they knew it, those little show offs.

As we swam further away from the beach a strong current started to build.

‘Be careful,’ I had been warned by the captain. ‘They’ll try and lure you out as far as they can to see if you can handle it.’

And that’s exactly what that mischievous gang of sea lions tried to do, swimming further out to the open water to see if their new human playmate could keep up with the tempo. I couldn’t of course; I could have drifted uncontrollably to Tasmania any minute, so I headed back to the beach to see if the others had finished napping.

Splashing around on the surface I shouted ‘Hey sea lions, do you want to come and play?’

A little baby popped up his head, hiding over his mother’s body. He watched as the rest of his companions shuffled their way into the water, his eyes telling me that he wanted to come and play too, but mum wouldn’t let him.

Again we frolicked in the ocean, my new sea lion buddies and I, like a bunch of toddlers high on too much sugar. It was without a doubt the most fun I have ever had, evident in the fact that my voice had uncontrollably transformed into a high pitched squeak that resembled a speaking mouse. It was worth the long and arduous fifteen hour round trip to get to this remote part of the world. But, even if I had to drive around the whole coast of Australia to play with my sea lion friends, I would do it in a heartbeat.

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Fear vs Adventure – Exploring Liberty Wreck

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Ever since I had become a certified scuba diver I had been itching to get back into the water. The main reason being was to feel as comfortable down in the depths of the ocean as a shark. I don’t know why scuba diving has such a nerve-wracking effect on me. To be down there, below the surface, swimming along the ocean floor with creatures that those Earth dwelling humans above don’t get to see is remarkable, there really is nothing like it. But, there is a black ball of fear that sits in the bottom of my stomach and slowly, slowly the content of the ball starts to seep out and spread through my veins.

Maybe it’s the thought of all the things that could go wrong? Nitrogen narcosis being one of them. Maybe it’s the fear of my mask filling with water and the worry that I won’t be able to clear the water out, even though I know how, and I would be blind at the bottom of the ocean. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the fear of getting lost from my buddy and being alone under the sea. Whatever it is I am determined to fight the nerves and obliterate that ball of fear to nothing but specks of dust. Because being able to discover a part of the planet that is so untouched, and so vast and mind-blowing, is truly incredible. And I will, no matter what, become as natural underwater as Jacques Cousteau. With that in mind I signed up for my next dive, and my first real fun dive in Amed, Bali.

I’ll admit that I knew nothing about Amed. Normally I research each destination I travel to but I had decided that in Bali I would be more spontaneous and just go with the flow and see where I ended up. So when I found out that near Amed, the area of Bali I had never even heard of, there was a shipwreck diving spot, this was of course the place I wanted to explore. Scuba diving a shipwreck is on my ever growing bucket list but I had never expected to be able to do it so soon, as such a novice. The Liberty Wreck, however, is very close to shore and perfectly accessible, even for snorkelling. The USAT Liberty was a US army cargo ship that was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine during World War II, off the coast of Lombok. It was then intentionally beached at Tulamben where, when the ever present Mount Agung erupted in 1963, it was pushed back into the ocean by the lava flow from the volcano. For a history lover, such as myself, this was just too good of an opportunity to miss. So I pulled on the wetsuit, and my BCD, and wobbled down to the shore with a heavy tank of oxygen on my back.

I had never done a shore dive before. Luckily, the water was calm and I was able to shuffle myself back into the ocean without any issues. Fins on, regulator in, I descended into the unknown. It was strange to be back underwater; however any nerves were soon washed away when a blue spotted stingray welcomed me to his world as I reached the ocean floor. And so I started swimming, dive master at my side guiding my way. There was nothing but an empty aqua void in front of us until, out of nowhere, a massive, dark shape towered in front me. And this was the moment, the real WOW moment underwater that I had been waiting for. It was, without a doubt, one of the most incredible things I have ever seen, and I have seen some pretty incredible things! It blew my mind more than coming face to face with Mount Everest, and the highest mountain on the planet is some tough competition. If I had been able to talk, which is unfortunately not possible underwater, I would have been speechless. Truly, speechless. The lack of verbal communication is the only drawback when scuba diving, you can’t shout to get the attention of your dive buddies when you see something wondrous, or share in the ecstasy when you are in the moment, until you get back on to dry land. Under the sea communication is through sign language and wide, excited eyes. So, internally screaming with joy, I ventured further, swimming around the hull to inspect the coral that has made this ship their home and the marine life that has migrated there.

It wasn’t long before another dark shape appeared, this time above me. A round, black disc, not as grand as the ship but still as fabulous. It was a turtle, my first sighting of these modern day dinosaurs underwater. Again the excitement consumed me and I almost spat my regulator out, which is not really something one should do underwater considering the fact that without it I am cut off from my oxygen supply. I managed to compose myself and keep the very tool that was keeping me alive in my mouth as I floated underneath the real life Crush, watching him glide so elegantly, silently calling out to him ‘Dude, this is totally awesome, dude.’

Crush swam off into the void, I presume to find Nemo and Dory and go off on a little adventure of their own, while I approached the part of the dive my dive master had warned me about on dry land. ‘Just stay calm and follow my lead,’ she said. It was time to go inside the ship, yes that’s right, to swim inside it. A ship that had been underwater for fifty three years, a ship that was part of one of the biggest wars in history. Surprisingly I was calm, totally calm, as I swam through metal that held a thousand untold tales, through gaps and holes that were once rooms that people lived, breathed, laughed and possibly cried in. In fact, since the moment I had first laid eyes on USAT Liberty I had been as comfortable underwater as an Orca. Mission accomplished.

Back on terra firma I was as giddy as a school girl who had just met her favourite boy band. The only word that I could repeat was wow. Wow, wow, wow! Because there is really no other word in the English dictionary that can describe the indescribable magical adventure that I had just experienced.

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Falling into Thaipusam at the Batu Caves

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‘Look, tourists have come,’ said a small, skinny Indian boy as I stepped foot from the train and made my way into the crowds.

I looked around, he was right. Surrounding me were hundreds of people, all dressed up in bright yellow garments like the sun had exploded and released balls of fiery light across the landscape. There wasn’t another tourist in sight.

My visit to the Batu Caves had coincided with the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. Thaipusam is a festival that pays particular homage to the Hindu God Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva (the destroyer) and his wife Parvati. It celebrates the giving of a spear (Vel) from Parvati to her son, enabling him to defeat the evil demon Soorapadman. Arriving at this time was an unexpected, but very welcome, coincidence.

The walkway from the train to the iconic gold statue of the worshipped deity, Lord Murugan, was aligned with stalls selling everything from Indian sweets, to multi coloured bangles, saris and masala chai. Bangra music was booming out of the speakers. The sky was a blended swirl of grey and purple, the sun slowly climbing on the horizon. The Batu Caves had come alive with a rainbow of colour and festivities.

I approached the 272 steps and started the climb with pilgrims, old and young, the continuous mantra of ‘Vel, Vel’ drifting through the warm air. My steps subconsciously fell into the rhythm of the chants. The heat was intense, despite the fact that we were still in the limbo of dawn, not yet day, but no longer night.

I made it to the top where a man standing there with a smile on his face informed me that I looked tired, yet I had climbed the steps with only a small backpack. Behind me were Hindu devotees making the same journey carrying very heavy looking, and very large, structures containing images of Hindu God’s known as Kavadi on their shoulders. They, on the other hand, did not look tired. They looked fiercely determined, marching up the steps with adrenaline pumping through their veins. If they were feeling any pain or exhaustion their faces did not show it, they were masked in sheer strength. Thaipusam, you see, is a time for paying penance to Lord Murugan, a time of thanksgiving and some people even pierce their skin and tongues with vel skewers, although nothing as dramatic was visible during my time there.

Inside the cave was full to bursting, as the pilgrims who had made it to the top amalgamated together forming what looked like a lemon spotted sea. One by one they reached the temple to be blessed by the awaiting Brahmin priests. The Hindu followers had ignited a flame and now the blaze was soaring, the heats, chants, the colours, intoxicated the mind, transporting me into a devotional trance.

I stood in awe, feeling incredibly lucky that I was able to observe such a spectacular display of faith. I have never witnessed such an intense, and large, display of devotion. The colours and the emotion that engulfed this famous pilgrimage site will never leave me.

But I wonder if it was a coincidence that I had stumbled into the cave the very moment Lord Murugan’s soul had returned. Or was this spiritual pilgrim, who is fascinated by Hinduism and its many God’s, directed there by a higher power? I may never know the answer to these questions, but whether it was by destiny or chance, I do know one thing, I am glad that I got to be a spectator to something so profoundly magical.

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Tea as far as the eye can see. Exploring the tea plantations of the Cameron Highlands.

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Ok, so I suppose I am a typical British girl. There is nothing I love more than a good brew. It’s the first thing I do in a morning and the last thing I do at night. Somehow sitting down with a mug of tea always makes dark skies seem a little brighter and heavy hearts a little lighter.

So of course, while travelling through Malaysia, there was one place I absolutely had to visit. The Cameron Highlands, the countries very own tea producing utopia.

It seemed to appear out of nowhere. One minute I was surrounded by trees and then, like magic, the green ripples through the mountains came into view, the morning misty light creating an atmosphere that shimmered, like glitter was falling from the sky. The beauty of the landscape dazzled me, and made my heart skip a beat. I meandered through the patchwork quilt of tea leaves, a bright luminous yellow butterfly fluttering along by my side. In the distance a white speck amongst the green bobbed up and down, collecting nature’s bounty.

‘Hello!’

‘Welcome to Malaysia!’

The greetings came thick and fast as the locals arrived in their cars for their Sunday morning tea break. My hand was raised in a permanent wave as I headed in the same direction they were going; only I was on foot. Driving through the plantation doesn’t have the same intoxicating effect on you like walking does. On foot you can delve deep into the seams, on foot you are shrouded in that smell. That pure, heavenly smell of thousands of pure, untouched tea leaves. I stood with my eyes closed, breathing in the tea perfumed air, feeling it move through my nostrils, down to the tips of my toes. Wishing that I could capture the aroma of magic and put it in a bottle to carry with me always.

‘Snake,’ someone shouted, followed by an enormous round of laughter.

You’re trying to scare the wrong person, buddy, I thought to myself. Seeing a snake slithering past me would only enhance the blissful experience I was having.

I eventually arrived at the factory. I was given a tour of the old machines that looked like they had been in use since the days when the industrial revolution began. And then, finally, we got to the main event, the tasting. And oh what a wonderful taste it was! It was the best mug of milky, sweet tea I had tasted since I left home, and after months drinking black tea, it was a warm and comforting experience that was received with enormous gratitude.

After hiking miles through the plantations in the highlands, and replenishing my thirst with copious amounts of tea, it was time to leave and return to urban, city life. As I sat on the bus, looking out of the window at the hills that looked like they were covered in broccoli, a little yellow butterfly approached the glass. She had been my companion as I had walked through the Highlands and now it appeared she had come to say her goodbyes, and ensure my safe departure.

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