Above Us Only Skies

Now that I’ve decided to start with this travel blogging in earnest I’ve been working on developing a self-hosted site which I am pleased to say is now ‘live’ and is called Above Us Only Skies. The name is inspired by the John Lennon lyrics from “Imagine” and it kind of sums our approach to the forthcoming Big Trip.

So I will be posting from there rather than here from now on. If you are following me from this site and would like to do so again from the new site then that would be just great!!

 

A unique experience in Matera

I hadn’t heard of Matera and its incredible history until I chanced upon a review of it while looking for somewhere to stay on our recent trip to southern Italy. The ancient town and its caves were for many years inhabited by people who often shared their living space with their livestock in quite appalling conditions – until the 1950′s, when in what became known as “the shame of Italy”, the government forcefully relocated most of the population to the newer developing city. The area left behind, known as the “Sassi”, remained uninhabited until the late 1980′s, since when it has been the subject of some considerable re-generation, not least with the help of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage site and its location providing the backdrop for Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ”.

2013-09-20 11.46.56

Nowadays, around 3,000 people have returned to live and work in the Sassi (compared to the 17,000 people who were previously crammed in), along with shops, restaurants and hotels. Indeed, the government has provided inhabitants  with rent-free 30 year leases in return for their commitment to undertake renovations on their properties.

Of course, tourism now plays its part in helping the city to re-generate itself – and as a destination it is both beautiful and fascinating. We took a 2 hour private tour with Antonio, who runs  Matera Tourist Guide with his girlfriend, and he really helped to bring the story of Matera and its people alive – from describing and showing us how the cave-dwellers managed such everyday challenges as water drainage, heating and living with their livestock to how a church built from a cave was converted to produce and store wine!

2013-09-20 17.41.21

2013-09-20 12.45.37

But the memories that will linger the longest are those of our overnight stay in the fabulous Sextantio le Grotte della Civita hotel, which consists of 18 rooms , or to be more precise luxuriously renovated caves. Running alongside the cliff face, it’s an architectural triumph – indeed it would be quite easy to miss it altogether, so seamlessly does it blend in with its natural surroundings.  Having booked one of their “superior” rooms we received a free upgrade upon arrival to a “cave suite” (room number 14). Opening the door to the suite was one of those “wow” moments that almost took our breath away. We entered a room which was quite simply stunning, with its centrepiece – a gorgeous king sized bed furnished with hand made linens – illuminated by a wealth of candles dotted throughout the rest of the cave. Antonio told us that, before he became a tour guide, he and his dad produced a lot of the reclaimed furniture for the hotel, including those in our room.

2013-09-20 15.48.55

Our one night at the hotel was more of an “experience” than an overnight stay – the natural smells of the bare limestone combined with the scented candles, the general ambience of the place (our suite had no windows but the room was so spacious that it didn’t matter at all) and its overall setting overlooking the beautiful “Gravina” (ravine). Incredibly, the room also had underfloor heating and wi-fi!

GROTTA14

Inside our “cave suite” – photo courtesy of Sextantio.it

Certainly this is an excellent example of how the regeneration of Matera is attracting tourists in increasing numbers. At the moment, the amount of development appears to be well controlled and can only benefit the local community. However, our guide Antonio, who is a native of the town, expressed his worry about where the development will ultimately stop – having arrived in Matera from Puglia and witnessed what has happened to the re-develeopment of another UNESCO World heritage site, Alberobello, I understand where he is coming from.

But for now, if you get the opportunity I urge you to go and immerse yourself in a truly unique place.

2013-09-20 15.50.43

Steps down to Reception – Le Grotte della Civita

View across the ravine from outside our room

View across the ravine from outside our room

The "Sassi di Matera"

The “Sassi di Matera”

DSC_0389

About this blog

Call it a mid-life crisis, call it excitement getting the better of me (in fact, call it what-you-will) but I’ve taken to blogging about my round-the-world travel plans so that I can share them with anyone who wants to listen, and hopefully generate some inspiring ideas along the way.

You see, I’ve come to the conclusion that working in the corporate world just doesn’t float my boat any more (not that it ever did) and it’s time to save up (or sell up), buy a rather large back pack and realise the burning desire I’ve always had to travel the world….slowly. I have to admit that the inspiration came from my wife, Nicky, who in a moment of rare clarity (and after more than one glass of Sauvignon Blanc) piped up with the visionary “Tell you what, why don’t we just sack the rat race and ‘trot’ off around the round the world for a few years”. Not surprisingly then, we’ll be doing the trip together.

Until then I’ll try to post regularly on how the plans are going and share some of my favourite destinations to date.

DSC_0214

Glamping on the Great Barrier Reef

Sometimes, when you are heading onwards to a destination that you are truly excited about, the journey to actually get there can be arduous, to say the least – taking 40 hours between entering Manchester Airport and finally arriving at a hotel in Port Douglas, Queensland is not my idea of a great start to a trip.

However, the prospect of a private helicopter flight across the Great Barrier Reef, followed by a speedboat drop off to a tiny coral cay island was actually just as exciting as the 3 day stay we had planned on the island.

Now let me say, before I share with you the glories of that tiny oasis of brilliant white and green set amongst a turquoise and azure sea, as a destination its not cheap. So having booked the wallet-emptying $500 per night accommodation, it seemed a little churlish to then scrimp on the travel arrangements.

To get there you need to catch a boat or helicopter from Gladstone, Queensland to Heron Island, where you then pick up an onward 45 minute speed boat to Wilson Island itself. That leg of the journey was exhilirating enough, but presented with the opportunity to start it all off with a 30 minute helicopter flight was just too much to let pass (the option of a 2 hour ferry boat ride just didn’t fill us with excitement).

So, having waited patiently at Gladstone’s HeliReef terminal  we were given our safety instructions (something about ducking as you board the helicopter to prevent your head and the rotary blades getting themselves aquainted) and then attached our radio head gear so that we could chat to the pilot en route. Within no time we were off, and as we looked down, the grey of Gladstone faded away to be replaced by the the flat, inky blue of the sea.

DSC_0700

Surveying the landscape over Gladstone

Without doubt the next 30 minutes were magical – flying conditions were perfect for our pilot to fly low so that we could look out for passing whales or sharks. And as we approached Heron Island we passed over the amazing Wistari Reef, where the picture postcard turquoise sea was broken by a patchwork of coral and the grey silhouettes of gliding turtles.

DSC_0543

And then, all too quickly, we were touching down at Heron Island. We would catch the return flight back to Gladstone on our way back – something we were grateful for as the weather by then had turned nasty and we had heard that the ferry journey is awful in such conditions. Had the weather been poor on our way out too we might have been a bit upset at having to pay close on $500 each for the return trip!

After a couple of hours on Heron Island we caught our speed boat transfer and arrived at Wilson Island late afternoon. We stepped off the boat to be greeted by our host, Paul and his wife, who would do all the cooking and cleaning for us over the next three days.

The island is situated at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and, as a “cay”, effectively consists of the skeletal remains of animals and plants, in this case coral. As a result the sand is brilliant white, and combines a microscopic powdery texture with larger pieces of sharp coral in certain places – not too comfortable to step on without footwear.

reef-782

Wilson Island, Great Barrier Reef (photo courtesy of Wilson Island Resort)

Accommodation on the island consists of just 6 safari-style stents, which means that there are never more than 12 guests at any one time.

We managed to obtain the tent at the top of the “strip” which meant that none of the other guests would walk past our way en route to the shower area or “The Longhouse” for meals. My previous experiences of camping had been restricted to family sites in France, Italy and Britain but this was on another level altogether. Sure, we were paying premium prices and, as a luxury resort, it’s not exactly an authentic “Robinson Crusoe” experience, despite the marketing. But having slept in an open tent, in a king sized bed, overlooking a pristine beach, it is the sort of memory that is fuelling my current desire to explore the rest of the world, albeit on a vastly reduced budget!

DSC_0654

Now, as a self-confessed arachnophobe, camping on a tropical island with the door to your tent open to the elements sounds like a recipe for a hell-on-earth experience. However, the island is fairly bug free due to the presence of thousands of birds, which congregate year round for breeding. While we were there black noddy terns and shearwaters were in large numbers, and we were “treated” to their mating calls throughout the night….oh and what a noise they  made! (Tip No.1 – bring earplugs).

DSC_0666

As part of the all-inclusive package the island resort offers, all meals are serviced in The Longhouse, a structure in the centre of the island, with a sandy floor and an unlimited supply of wines, beers and soft drinks, for which you just go and help yourself. All meals are prepared and served by your two hosts who, during our stay were a husband and wife team from England. It would have been nice to think that the food served was freshly caught from the surrounding ocean that morning, but to be honest the quality was consistently excellent anyway. And meal times were very much a communal event which helped to strike a good balance between enjoying the island paradise for ourselves and having some laughs with, what turned out to be like-minded people (apart from one guy on our last night who thought that breaking wind at the dinner table was a good way of making new friends).

In between the food and drink, there was always the beach and reef to explore – from the beach you can walk right around the island in less than 10 minutes. In fact, the first time we did this I commented on how gorgeous one particular part of the beach was when I realised it was the same stretch of beach we had started our walk off from a few minutes earlier! Nowhere else have I experienced such a sense of remoteness – even though I realise we were staying at a 5-star resort that could hardly be described as “roughing it”.

DSC_0645

DSC_0622

DSC_0606

DSC_0621

DSC_0643

Best of all though was the ability to just swim straight off the beach and immediately be amongst some of the most beautiful coral I’ve seen – I had read a description somewhere of it resembling an English rose garden, and so it turned out. We were fortunate enough to be able to get up close and swim with a number of huge turtles – although at times it seemed like we were intruding on some of their more….ahem….intimate moments.

DSC_0560

DSC_0636

So this is what a sunset on the Great Barrier Reef looks like

DSC_0658

The walk from our tent to the beach

Pros and Cons

Pros – What’s not to like?! I can’t think of a better way of relaxing for 3 days and nights than on this tiny slice of paradise. It’s not quite a Robinson Crusoe experience as you are obviously provided with quality accommodation, food and drink – in fact I reckon the unfortunate Mr Crusoe definitely ended up on the wrong island!

Cons – It’s expensive (although it is fully inclusive so no additional costs). If the weather is bad (which it was on the way back) the crossing to/from Heron Island by boat can be a bit nausea-inducing! Oh, and if you’re a light sleeper be prepared for the nightly cacophony of noise from the resident birds.

DSC_0605

Putting the wheels in motion

Well it’s been a few months since my maiden post so I thought it was about time I committed my thoughts to this blog on how the planning is going for the Big Trip and where my head currently is at….

Suffice to say, as always there are a million and one things going around in that attic space I sometimes refer to as my mind – some positive and some negative – with the resultant broken sleep patterns and mood swings between unfettered optimism and glass half-empty doom mongering.

So I reckon if I just set it all out on this blog (I nearly said “paper” there)……. just unload what’s on my mind for all to see (not that anyone out there is listening as yet) I can at least deal with everything one piece at a time. You see I’m not very good at dealing with uncertainty, although this is one of the fears I’m going to have to overcome if I’m to get the most out of travelling the world – there’s no point in expecting everything to be pre-determined and planned with military precision.

What have I been doing since my last post?

When I posted in June I was half-way through a 6 month contract, which was ultimately extended to 7 months and completed mid-September. Nicky and I then went off on a 2-week holiday to Italy and now I’m searching for another contract or job which will take me through till October/November 2014. Nicky has a full time job, which she will continue with until we leave (the owner of the company she works for is fully aware of this and the arrangement very much works for both parties over the next 12 months).

How are the travel plans going?

For a number of reasons we have decided that we will travel around Asia from December 2014 for 18 months, taking in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, The Phillipines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, China, India and Nepal (probably in that order). We’ve already spent some time in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Maldives and really want to experience what this continent has to offer in terms of its people, food, culture, history, landscape….and its beaches! It’s also likely to be the cheapest part of the world to travel so it ticks all the right boxes as a starting point. I’ve worked on the itinerary so that we can take advantage of the dry seasons wherever we can, although I accept that this will inevitably result in higher prices and lots more tourists.

Depending on the financial situation (see below) , we might actually do some travelling before then – either around Europe by car (France, Spain, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, Belgium) or Africa (Seychelles, South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Kenya). Our thought process is that a European trip might be a way to ease ourselves into a back-packing culture, albeit with the use of our car.

What are the financial implications?

This is the issue that gives me most sleepless nights. As it stands we have a number of choices…..

1. Save up enough money to at least cover us for the 18  months in Asia (I reckon we would need £35,000 for this), which would allow us to rent out our house fully furnished

2. Sell our house, place our possessions into storage and use the equity released from the sale to fund our travels

3. Sell our house and all our possessions and take the leap into the unknown!

4. Fund our travels while working abroad.

Option 1 is definitely the preferred choice, but is absolutely subject to my finding employment fairly soon and saving over the next 12 months (at this point, for whatever reason, we don’t have any cash savings to our names).

Options 2 or 3 will have to kick in if there is no movement on the employment front come January 2014….and then we are reliant on completing a sale within 9/10 months. Anything longer than that would undoubtedly mean delaying the trip….unless we go for option 4. However, while this might be an option to help extend the travelling I wouldn’t want it to be our main activity.

Of course if we do decide to sell, and the sale completes quicker than expected then we may opt for the European or African trip before we head to Thailand in December.

What we currently call "home"

What we currently call “home”

What other barriers are there?

For me, the main one is not being around for my dad – he’ll be 80 in July and lives by himself about 50 miles from where we live. As Everton Football Club season ticket holders, we generally see each other once a fortnight to go and see the game, which sometimes coincides with him coming to stay over for part or all of the weekend. His general health is good for his age but I’m acutely aware of the fact that anything could happen over the next 12 months, and indeed the 18 months beyond that when we will be away. My brother lives closer to him so he will be able to keep an eye on him but it is a worry for me. Of course we will be staying regularly in touch, but he relies heavily on a mobile phone which he doesn’t find particularly easy to use. So any ideas about connecting up via Skype or something similar are out of the question unless I can arrange something with my brother.

What about after the trip to Asia?

Again, this is where we have a number of ideas floating around. We certainly want to continue travelling the world, but at some point the money will run out unless we are actually earning a living. The question then becomes do we attempt to earn a living “on the road” and travel open-ended, or identify a way to settle somewhere either in the UK or abroad and plan/fund our travels from there. We probably won’t find the answer to this question until we’ve actually been travelling for a while – however it won’t harm for us to think about “skilling up” over the next 12 months to try and take advantage of any opportunities that might come along. I’ll cover these thoughts in more detail in another post. However, one thing we absolutely agree on is that we won’t be returning to a lifestyle driven by being part of the “rat race”.

So, apart from finding employment, what else needs to be done before it’s time to travel?

I would really like to be publishing a blog of our travels which has a large and dedicated following. I say this mainly from an enjoyment and satisfaction point of view, although it would be nice to think that I could generate some income from it as well. However, I accept that this is a very competitive market, with hundreds of thousands of bloggers out there. I have been reviewing lots of other travel blogs to get a feel for how they work and I’ve decided to sign up to Travel Blog Success to improve my skills and take advantage of the online support/community. I’m also considering taking a travel writing course (for example, the Matador U Writing Course as recommended by Y Travel).

I’m still trying to determine a name for the blog – ‘Time to travel” is a work-in-progress moniker, although it does sum up our approach in that we want to make and use our time as best we can….and the fact that we’ve decided the time to do it is now (or at least 12 months from now if you see what I mean!).

One of the things I’ve noticed is that the online travel community seem to be very supportive of each other and it would be foolish not to take advantage of this, particularly in understanding how to travel safely and efficiently. So I’ll be starting to network with the community and brushing up on my social media skills – I have a Twitter, Facebook and Flickr account but they are as good as dormant so I’ll be starting from scratch here (Nicky, however is a Facebook die-hard!). My Pinterest account is a bit more mature in terms of content and followers and I’m also on Linked In.

And, although I’ve had an interest in it for quite some time I want to improve my photography skills and also understand more about post-production techniques.

In the meantime, I will continue to build up a picture of what we might want to see, do and experience in each of the countries we intend to visit – not to the point where everything is pre-planned, but to at least establish what it is we want to get out of each part of our journey.

So there you have it, and I have to say I already feel better for sharing these thoughts with you, my imaginary reader! I’ll be building up some content on this blog over the next few weeks, including some posts on our recent trips. No doubt there will be plenty of changes to the appearance of the blog as I learn more about how to develop it…..but if you’re interested in staying with me on this journey then please bear with me and perhaps say hello.

 

It’s time to travel!

I’m not sure what it was that triggered my desire to travel the world – to be honest it’s probably always been there – but it seems I’ve been restrained by the need to conform for far too long. Well, the penny has finally dropped that what I have been choosing to do and what I actually want to do, have been polar opposites for more years than I would care to remember.

So, here I am, writing the first post on my blog, thinking about where in the world I should explore first – jump off at the deep end and venture afar or enjoy what’s nearer my own doorstep in mainland Europe…? And how long will this epic journey last – a year or two? Three? Four? Oh sod it, what about making it open-ended and see what happens…? Or do I need to think about earning a living after it’s all over and/or the money has run out…?

The thing is you see, we’re selling the house to finance the trip – and when I say “we’re selling the house” I include Nicky, my wife of nearly 5 years, who has decided that she’s just about had enough of the rat race too and would rather support me (primarily morale and transport) on this big adventure.

Of course that means that my career in Internal Communications will have to “head north” permanently – but that’s ok – I’ll soon be ordering my new business cards that read….. “Ian Mackenzie, Beach Bum and proud of it”.

Image

Water bungalow, Filitheyo, The Maldives