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Author Archives: LilMissKaty

Christmas in Bohol – chocolate hills and tarsiers

It was Christmas Eve babe, in Alona, a German said to me, let’s rent a motorbike.

Well now doesn’t that sound fun!!

We spent the morning sorting out some life admin. Having travelled with hand luggage only it was time to do some laundry, which I set out to organise as Sven settled in with a coffee to do some research for the day ahead. I returned a few moments later to a very surprised face. It turns out when I was suggesting we do laundry on our travels Sven was envisioning half a day spent in a launderette! This is far from the case, as laundry shops are extremely common everywhere I’ve been so far in Asia. You simply drop off your bag, pay a price per kilo depending on how soon you want it back and return to freshly washed, ironed and folded clothes. Voila!

Our hotel offered the option of renting a motorbike for the day, however if they hadn’t we wouldn’t have struggled to find an alternative option as there seemed to be no end to rental shops everywhere we went, as well as the regular tricycles and jeepneys. Having had a bad experience in Croatia I’m not confident on a bike, however sitting on the back is no trouble at all, and after a quick test run to check his skills (straight up a slope dodging locals, tourists, traffic etc, in flip flops…impressive!!) we hit the open road. It was a dream journey really, minimal traffic and a sedate pace on wide open roads without many potholes. Horn use is frequent in the Philippines, however it’s a friendly tap to let you know a vehicle is behind you and usually about to overtake. This happened a lot as we sauntered along at 40mph enjoying the scenery and freedom of our new wheels.

Panglao island is one of 160+ islets off of Bohol, the tenth largest island in the Philippines. It’s situated on the south west corner, and Alona beach is around 45 minutes from the capital city. Panglao itself is home to a number of notable beaches well worth visiting should you have the time, but our goal for the day was the infamous chocolate hills of Bohol. The road took us past local beaches, fishing villages, schools and several nativity scenes handcrafted from coconuts, plastic bags and bottles and other ingenious methods. We could have doubled the length of the journey if we’d stopped to photograph them all! As it was I settled for a drive by…not my best work.

After an hour of open road the bike was beginning to make both driver and passenger a little hot and bothered, when suddenly we found ourselves in the shade of tall trees and surrounded by the smell of greenery. This, it turns out, was a manmade forest consisting mainly of mahogany trees and other desired woods. There was no uniformity like the pine and rubber plantations I’d seen in Australia and Thailand, instead it felt like a natural woodland, with trees and ferns stretching all around as the road snaked up and up a mountainous hillside.

Mopeds are really not that comfortable for an extended period of time, so we were more than relived to see the multitudes of minibuses, mopeds and restaurants which signalled our first stop of the morning; the tarsier sanctuary. Tarsiers are tiny primates, no bigger than the palm of your hand, with such huge eyes and long toes they look like something from the mind of J K Rowling. They’re a protected species on Bohol, and there are two sanctuaries aimed at promoting awareness and raising money for the charity with the 10peso entrance fee (about 20 pence). Having read about these quiet, shy and nocturnal animals and the work being done to protect them I was keen to see the place for myself. However, it was a complete tourist trap and ultimately very disheartening. I’d read that if disturbed or frightened by noise or camera flashes tarsiers have a tendency to commit suicide by banging their heads against a tree, however the many workers/volunteers along the path did nothing to encourage the silence asked for by the numerous signs around the park, or police people to respect the rules on no selfie sticks or reach poles. Large groups were calling back and forth to one another on the long, narrow pathways, children were talking in 10 decibel voices as small people tend to do, and in a bid to secure the perfect photo people were doing everything they could to gain a tarsiers attention and get as close as possible to them. Whilst Sven and I tried desperately to remain quiet and removed from the hoards the place felt like it was doing more harm than good to these palm sized primates. I was glad to leave.

We left the forest and entered a world of shining rice paddies, rich greens stretching out to the horizon punctuated by the occasional stilted structure or palm tree.

We saw bananas, mango and maaaaany coconut trees growing by the side of the road as we approached the centre of the island and the Chocolate Hills. Named for their colour in the dry season, there are thought to be more than 1500 of these gentle humps in the centre of Bohol. We were very much in green season, but this didn’t make them any less impressive! You purchase an entrance ticket of 50 pesos at the base of one of the hills, where convenience stores and ATV rentals cry out for attention, but the view is so stunning I barely noticed anything else. From the bike park at the top it’s a steep 200 step climb to the summit, where you’re rewarded with 360• views of hills as far as the eye can see in every direction.

We’d timed our arrival perfectly as the top was almost deserted for the first 20 minutes or so, but over the next hour we saw bus loads of every nationality come and go, most only stopping long enough to take a selfie. It really made me reflect on how society and travelling as changed beyond recognition even in the short time I have been exploring. People are always in a rush it seems, and the only reason to travel to a sight is to take the photo which proved you were there. I know I have been guilty of this in the past, however I’ve learned to take moments to appreciate the world around me for a little longer than it takes to snap a candid. Sven and I were the only people who stayed longer than 30 minutes, perhaps even longer than 15. Though there were two German guys there quite a while posing for the perfect ‘gazing out on to the horizon’ shot. I preferred to take mine sneakily when Sven was actually naturally gazing out over the hills.

Had we had a picnic we’d have probably stayed on that hilltop all afternoon, but rumbling stomachs dictated the day and so after an hour and a half or so we descended. A group of school kids dressed in red with fur Santa hats were singing Christmas carols by the moped, which is an increasing theme so far on this trip. Whilst it’s amazing that Christmas has spread so far and wide I do wonder if maybe Father Christmas doesn’t have a summer wardrobe which may be more suitable than felt and fur in 30•+ heat!!

There were no more stops along the route (after lunch of course!), but Sven’s handy google app took us along the back roads, through tiny villages filled with people waving and wishing a merry Christmas. The scenery was so stunning that we crawled along for the most part so that Sven could enjoy it as much as me, frequently pulling over on the side of the road just to take a moment to drink it in. I’m always struck when travelling that for some people this is every day, every day spent surrounded by majestic hills, towering palm trees, waterfalls and white sandy beaches. Puts Ealing into perspective!

The sun was drawing near the horizon as we headed back to Panglao through Tangbilaran city at rush hour, with Sven snaking through the traffic like a pro. It turns out this was very much the best day we could have done this as the following day a new traffic system was implemented in the city causing absolute havoc as they introduced a one-way system. Several large puddles suggested Panglao had seen some serious rain, and the sky was filled with impressive clouds turning indigo and violet at the sun set. A little too filled with clouds it turns out as the heavens opened soon after and within seconds we were caught in the mother of all downpours! Hastily parking the bike under a tree we ran for cover, discovering ourselves in a bar run by a small family, selling the most delectably smelling roast chicken out the front. 20 minutes and 200pesos later Sven and I were tucking into perfectly cooked fresh rice, vegetables and without a doubt the best chicken I have ever tasted in my life. What an unexpected treat! It’s moments like this which affirm my love of travel and being in charge of your own routes and schedule rather than taking organised tours.

Alona Beach welcomed Christmas Day with songs, silly hats and fireworks on the beach, whilst Sven and I found ourselves up early to welcome the sun. He took himself on a 10km run, I drank coffee and took a time lapse. Each to their own!!

Having expected the world to be on holiday the 25th December was a planned beach day, and for the first time the weather was on our side. Shade rented and towels placed under a near horizontal palm tree we whiled away the hours with books, the occasional swim, strolls along the beach and snacks of fresh mango and locally produced organic ice cream from the buzz cafe. There was even a visit from Father Christmas, who strolled up the beach waving to children and adults alike in his standard red costume. Seriously Mrs Claus, buy the man some shorts!!

Fingers crossed tomorrow we’ll be starting our PADI open water certification, as long as the annoying virus which arrived yesterday continues on its merry way clearing my sinuses enough for diving. Sven has never even so much as snorkelled, so it’s a bold plan for us both ❤


Island time – Legazpi, Cebu and Bohol

Our flight to Cebu was a perfect example of island time. Scheduled originally for 18.30, we received an email at 7am to say it would now leave at 15.30, but on arrival at the tiny airport an hour early as instructed and passing through the 5 minute security check during which we didn’t need to show anyone our liquids or provide any more information than ‘web check in’ we eventually boarded the plane some time after 16.30 and spent some time on the tarmac waiting for the game of overhead locker tetris to finish. It must have been gone 17.00 by the time we were in the air…Island time 😉

As we took off the cabin crew asked a series of Christmas quiz questions…Where was mum kissing Santa Claus? And on what day? What did my true love give me on the 5th day of Christmas? So far the attitude to Christmas here has been excellent! A trend continued when we reached Cebu, who had decked out arrivals in festive ukuleles, baubles and lights complete with carol singers!

Outside Cebu airport we had our first confusion…the white taxi line or the yellow. White taxi’s were cheapest, but there were so many people waiting it seemed we’d be spending Christmas at the airport, so we joined the far shorter yellow line and stood for almost an hour slowly watching those who had been just behind us in the white line edging ever closer and eventually securing a cab. Some 20 minutes after we’d have been in a white car the third yellow car arrived (that’s right, third!) and we were off. Tortoise: 1, Hare: 0.

London at rush hour has nothing on traffic out of Cebu airport on the Friday before Christmas. The airport is on an island, with two bridges on and off, both of which were at total grid lock. I was so envious of the mopeds zipping in and out of the lines of cars, jeepneys and tuk tuks. But at the same time it was nice to enjoy the aircon whilst watching the street vendors and general hustle and bustle as we crawled along. The first treat was definitely the number of Christmas lights, trees and general decorations on every corner. From Santa and running reindeer in white lights as you exit the airport to stars, snowmen and everything in between, the effort was set to rival regent street!

Our home for the night was The Tropical Hostel…that extra s is always a risk and alas on this occasion our horse did not come through as we were directed to a windowless room with rickety bunk beds…an apparent upgrade from the room we’d booked! At least it was only for 10 hours!! Before we set out from the UK Sven had discovered google travel, a seriously handy system which allows you to download a map of your location and save various points of interest to it for use on airplane mode later. This meant we could save the location of the hotel, and the various eateries etc our host had pointed out to us when we checked in. I’d previously stuck with TripAdvisor which offers all the same features but on a far more limited number of cities. Google had allowed us use even in tiny Legazpi and the surrounding towns, and was super useful in Cebu where we walked the 20 minutes in search of something to eat that wasn’t from a 7/11. Great Christmas decorations on the way…

The place we’d been sent was a mall, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like it in Asia before. Lights hung from every tree changing colour in sequence with songs played periodically around the complex. Outside the square were primarily eateries offering everything from sushi to Thai food and burgers to ice cream, but inside was every shop you can possibly imagine…including marks and spencer! What was going on?!

The following morning we were greeted by a very welcome sight as the sun flooded onto the balcony at the end of our corridor. Sven had woken up on the energetic side of the bed, and thought walking to the port was an excellent idea. Usually I’m all for walking to see a city, but not with an 8kilo backpack at 28degrees pre-breakfast. By the time we arrived at the ticket booth we were DRENCHED, and beyond glad to see a very air-conned coffee shop adjacent to the booth. The first boat was in an hour and a half, so we had a plan…get the tickets, get a coffee, get to the boat, done. Not so easy when a typhoon prevented all the boats yesterday from sailing. Our first option was the penultimate boat of the day, in 9 hours. But not to worry, there’s a luggage store at the boat! Fab! Plan b…have coffee, drop off luggage, explore Cebu city. Having not learned our lesson the first time we walked a further sweltering 20 minutes to terminal 3 and found chaos. Buses, jeepneys, tuk tuks and taxis were coming and going and hundreds of people either stood, sat or meandered around seemingly without purpose. What was the drill?! Perhaps there was ordinarily a luggage store (skeptical), but today the port was on a strict departure schedule, if your boat wasn’t leaving within the hour…sianara! Looks like our bags were joining the Cebu tour. Yay!

Luckily one of the main tourist attraction was a meer hop, skip and three minutes walk away. Fort San Pedro was built by the Spanish under the leadership of Miguel Legazpi (fitting!!), having served as a base camp, rebel stronghold, prison and city zoo the ruin is now open to the public offering history and much needed shade! There was also an photographic exhibition of historic Cebu, with both the original captions from any published photos and an actual definition of what the photo depicted. This was to show the power of cropping, editing and voice even back in the 1800’s! One example showed people waiting outside a large building, captioned that they were homeless and waiting for food. However in truth it was Sunday and they were waiting to enter church!

We spent the next few hours wondering around Cebu city, a crowded, noisy and eclectic city far removed from the mall we had visited yesterday. Street vendors lined every pavements selling clothing, watches, phone cases, shoes, fruits and vegetables and everything in between whilst the roads were filled with a diverse range of traffic…men sat atop trucks filled with rubble, rice sacks, coffee, rubbish and other cargos I couldn’t determine…mopeds weaved in and out of tricycles (they’re not the same as tuk tuks, I was calling them the wrong word!), taxis and jeepneys and in the midst of it all there were several horse and cart combos ferrying smaller goods and people. Knowing which way to look before crossing the road was a challenge!!

Cebu is the sort of city where everything seems to happen at once. Behind us in the picture above there was a bicycle shop, with workers lined up on the pavement outside fixing wheels, chains, frames and handlebars. Next to this was a general store selling packets of noodles, instant coffee and other treats, next again an Internet cafe of sorts and behind that a chicken shop. Chickens seemed to roam free or be tied by the foot on every corner, whilst dogs lounged in the sun or trotted along the paths quite at home.

Our next stop was Carbon market en route back to the port. Much the same as Camden really! Or Portobello Road, you can find everything and anything a chap can unload! From woks as big as an arm chair to all the daily stuff you could need. Here we acquired a shadow by the name Amelie who skipped along beside us for a few minutes chatting away in near perfect English and finding my attempts at Filipino hilarious. I always worry with little shadows that they follow us too long, far beyond the boundaries British children would be allowed to roam in a place this crowded. But perhaps that says more about our society than theirs, where communities still work together with far more harmony and neighbourlyness than I have ever seen at home. Or on the other hand perhaps they don’t have anyone to worry where the wander, but Amelie was well dressed with adorably bobbed hair and good shoes, something tells me she wasn’t a street kid.

Before long it was time to return to the port and join the craziness mascarading as organised chaos. Firstly you have to wait for check in to open for your particular boat, at that point the first security guards on the door will allow you entry into the building. From there you battle through the crowds to the desk relevant to your booking company…in our case Ocean Jet. Ticket stamped you then go through security, joining lines segregated by gender (though the first sign for this is after the point the line has split…that was fun!) where men are asked to pass bags through x ray machines and walk through scanners whilst women stroll through a gate with a smiling security guard. Foolproof. From there you high five Father Christmas and join the next queue to pay your 20peso port fee. From here the throng becomes single file. Imagine the chaos of the motorway going down to one lane, then times that by a few hundred people, many of whom are from cultures who do not value queuing. I have always travelled alone, and in these situations am happy to be carried along by the crowd at whatever pace is occurring around me, but here I learned that super-weapons can come in the form of tall Germans! It was like Moses parting the Red Sea, blooming marvellous!! Also impossible to lose him in the crowd, huzzah.

The sun was putting on a stunning final display of red and gold by the time we boarded, ahead of those still waiting for the 3.30 departure, poor sods. We’d opted to pay the extra £2 for airconned seats, and so found ourselves herded into the hull of the ship where there were no windows and a huge group of Chinese tourists. Thank goodness the trip was only due to last an hour. I did think it a bit odd that shortly into the trip a full length feature film started to play on the large television at the front, but didn’t think too much of it until the credits started rolling two hours later. We’ll call that an island hour then shall we?

Having been told several times to catch a tricycle from the airport at no more than 250pesos we exited the terminal and found ourselves in a 600peso mini bus. Ah well! The seats were comfy and drivers fun as we zoomed along roads lined with Christmas lights to our home for the next six nights; Alona Beach. After the craziness of Cebu this was pure paradise, and moments after checking in Sven and I were sat star gazing with our toes in the surf, astounded by the lack of people around us. The next week is going to be great!!

Two days in Legazpi

You may not be aware (I certainly wasn’t!) but December is in fact typhoon season in South East Asia, and of all the countries the Philippines is often the worst and most frequently hit. Our trip has so far coincided with not one but two typhoons, both skirting around the places we are visiting but leaving us with…let’s say refreshing weather!

We arrived in Legazpi at around 7am, after a swift and beautiful flight from Manila. The sky turned from inky blue to pinks and purples over the jungle filled landscape below, and we were awarded an amazing birds eye view of Mt Mayon as we circled Legazpi airport waiting permission to land. Mr Mayon is viewed as the most active and dangerous volcano in the area, but more primarily known as the most beautiful as its conical shape is thought to be almost perfectly symmetrical. Viewing it from the plane with the top shrouded in pink tinged cloud was a real treat.

The rest of the landscape consisted of palm jungle, shining rice paddies and black sandy beaches. Another world indeed!! After one false landing (a first for me!) and a few more circles we arrived in the airfield where time has stood still. Passengers disembark from the only plane on the tarmac and walk the few feet to the terminal, a building only a few metres square. Surrounded by tall jungle and in the shadow of the mountain with only locals around us this was the closest I’ve ever felt to real backpacking…or even explorers of decades past. However, their planes probably didn’t land playing Peter Kay’s Geraldine.

Keen to get the lay of the land Sven and I decided to walk 40 minutes to our hotel in the port area of this provincial capital, enjoying the cool morning air which we were sure would not last long. There were few cars on the road, and even fewer people, but those we did see all waved a cherry good morning, and more than a few wished us a Merry Christmas as we past. I was so happy to be surrounded once again by many sights, sounds and smells I associate with Asia, whilst Sven was doing his best owl impression trying to take it all in. Our walk took us through the heart of the city past soy dogs, cracked pavements, make shift homes and extremely unsafe looking electric hubs, through the beeps of tuk tuks, scooters and the local transport known as jeepneys all with wide eyes and even wider smiles. I have so much love for Asia.

After a stroll through the port past a mixture of small local boats and far larger shipping containers we reached our nautical themed home for the next two nights, the Embarcedero Hotel; the entrance to which is found through a partially open air shopping mall. With abandoned fairground rides, stationary escalators and a complete lack of shops it reminded me of something from I am Legend…but the hotel itself is modern and clean, with a cheery Christmas tree in the centre of the lobby. It is also just a short walk away from Legazpi boulevard which again offers a beautiful view of the mountain and bay area, as well as a number of bars and restaurants which come alive at night.

However the rest of the time everything was rather quiet! A great opportunity to find a coffee shop overlooking the mountain (seeing any themes?) and while away some hours watching people, dogs and general Legazpi life. We seemed to be the only tourists, and were amazed by the hospitality and friendliness of everyone we met.

Over the next day and a half we spent our time dodging biblical downpours which represented the tail end of the tropical depression which had past through the Philippines a few days previously. I’m used to travelling in Asia in the rainy season, however then you can usually set your watch by the weather and expect only an hour or two of showers each day. The rain here was more like a game, dashing about trying to time activities before the heavens opened once more. We became expert rain dodgers during our time here, and saw almost all there is to see of the city, travelling about on jeepneys which cost around 7pesos per 4km…that’s about 10p. You simply flag down the driver and hop in, and in our case mostly hope that it was going in the right general direction as we could make head nor tail of the system. There were no numbers or routes to be seen, though there were some very eye catching paint jobs and unique naming systems going on! From Geraldine to Billy Bob…maybe that was how you determined the route!

Our first Jeepney adventure took us to Caswaga Ruins, which is also apparently the ATV capital of the Philippines. From here the brave of heart can travel to lava trails from the previous few eruptions, and had we not been keeping one eye out for a passing arc I’m sure it would have been up for consideration. However as it was we spent time enjoying coffees and shakes inbetween showers, though I’m sorry to tell you neither of us were brave enough to try the famous Sili shake famous in these parts. You and I would spell it chilli…not for the faint hearted!!

From there we trekked through winding streets to Daraga Church, an impressive structure sitting high on a hill overlooking…you guessed it…the mountain! The church appeared more like a building left to the jungle than one in the middle of a city which is used multiple times per day. The sky darkened again so we began our descent uncertain of what to do next, but before reaching the bottom of the steps back to the main road the clouds opened, so we popped into the nearest bar, and made friends with Joey who worked there.

For me Joey personifies the word ‘plucky’, with a generous and sunny spirit, he was happy to sit and chat with us for hours telling stories of his life in Manila and recent move here to be closer to his 8 brothers and sisters. Before long we were joined by another couple who proceeded to enjoy one of Legazpis main leisure persuits…karaoke! It would seem there isn’t a spare room in town which has not been transformed into a room to rent by the hour to sing away the afternoon with friends. We enjoyed lunch, dinner, a good few beers, 5 games of darts and an afternoon of song in the Legazpi sports bar. What a way to spend a day!!

Before we knew it it was the final morning in Legazpi, and with an unexpected flight change we only had a few rainy hours to kill. After a very fishy breakfast by the bay, we dodged a shower into a jeepney in search of adventure, but hopped out after 10 disconcerting minutes where no one else joined our party and we seemed to be heading to the middle of nowhere! There was (of course) no need to have panicked, as the hustle and bustle was just around the corner, including a large local shopping mall filled with people cramming in some last minute Christmas shopping. There seemed to be nothing you couldn’t buy from this place, from rice cookers to bright blue leather sofas with yellow piping, clothes, accessories and the largest teddies known to man…

There was one Asian experience we had yet to try…the local tuk tuks! I am used to the Thai-Esque ones where you sit in a roomy two seater car behind a moped, but in Legazpi you sit beside the driver and conditions are far more cramped…especially when you’re 6ft 2!!

We took another of these back to the airport…because after being squashed in with just the two of us adding bags seemed like a great idea!!

My final first for Legazpi was at the airport, where smiling porters in yellow t shirts hand out bright yellow umbrellas to arriving and departing passengers in the rain!

It’s been so much fun visiting this little town, especially enjoying what I hope is a more authentic Philippines experience than the touristy island life we’re sure to see over the next few days. Our next stop is Cebu, and then onto Bohol for some white sandy beach time. Hopefully in the sun!!

Rowell of Oxford: A review

Rowell of Oxford: A review

In March my partner and I made a big life decision. In a lovely pub by the river in a town south of Oxford we spoke about the future and decided to get married. We’d been discussing it for a while, as jobs in the Middle East and further afield would have encouraged such behaviour, but eventually decided that this was something that felt right for us regardless of our address or careers.

The next day we set out with a pocket full of precious jewellery I had inherited from my mother and grandmother to speak with the team at Rowell of Oxford, a quaint little jewellers which has been tucked away on one of my favourite streets in Oxford since 1797. We were greeted by Stephen, who spent some time with us discussing options and designs which could work with the stones and metal I had. I wanted to use a solitaire diamond ring from my grandmother, and five-stone diamond ring given to my mother by my father on their engagement to create a new ring for Sven and myself. In addition I had a sapphire ring which I thought would work nicely as a pendant, so we asked for a quote for this. Finally there were three gold rings to be valued, then the value deducted from the final bill for the new ring. Design agreed Stephen assured us the ring would be ready in 2-3 weeks, allowing time for the Easter break.

The original rings

Nearly 4 weeks later I popped into Rowell of Oxford and spoke with Mary who, unfortunately, could find no reference of our visit; it was not in the official log book on or around the end of March, or on any notices or folders around the desk. I left my details, and the following day Mary called to say she had found our information, however could offer no update on the status of the order for the engagement ring at this stage. However she did have a quote for the redesign of the sapphire ring, which was unfortunately outside of our price range. After this Sven took over the reins of corresponding with Rowell planning to present the ring to me when it was ready.

In July we ventured back to Oxford, Sven had some errands to run (that was code for picking up the ring!) after which we bought ice-creams from G&D’s and enjoyed a sunny walk along the river to Iffley Lock. There a group of teenagers and a boat full of tourists witnessed a tall German get down on bended knee in front of a woman in a red dress. We both knew it was a yes, but it was a lovely moment on a beautifully sunny day in our happy place.

WhatsApp Image 2017-07-02 at 15.55.39

Shortly afterward at the Isis Farmhouse Sven presented me with another envelope which I assumed was the sapphire ring returned but turned out to be the five-stone diamond ring from mum, whose stones should have been on my finger. We were both very perplexed, and disappointed. After waiting 3 months rather than the promised 3 weeks the last thing either of us wanted was a further delay in sharing our news with friends and family. Unfortunately Mary could offer no explanation or apology when we called, but promised to speak with the designer and call us on Monday with more details.

Thus began a series of calls back and forth as we tried to rectify the issue. Firstly I had to return the incorrect ring to Rowell; as we had moved to London this meant entrusting the Royal Mail, however I was assured by Mary that any costs for postage or couriers would be returned to me. This refund was never received. Two weeks after we had collected the first ring Rowell expressed concern that the shoulders on the new ring would be too wide with mums diamonds, and so created a wax which I had to travel back to Oxford to approve. At no point had we seen any drawings, wax’s or similar prior to this, or at any point did we speak with the Birmingham business designing the jewellery. Whilst now I see that we were incredibly naive and should have done more research, at the time we were trusting that Rowell of Oxford was a well established and trusted business who ultimately would guide us through this process as first-timers. We placed ourselves wholly in their hands.

The original ring with the wax

I also asked Mary for an update on the sapphire, and was presented with a ring in pieces. The sapphire had been removed from its casing, and two of the smaller diamonds were also dislodged. We had only asked for a quote so I was very surprised to see the state of a much loved ring I had inherited from my grandmother. Mary explained again the options for turning it into a pendant, pointing out the worn prongs which would need replacing in order to secure the precious stones. However, in the interim period I had had discussions with Sven and friends about it, and explained to Mary and Stephen that in the interest of preserving heirlooms for future generations we would prefer to keep it as a ring for now, so please could they ensure it was put back as they had received it.

Finally a week later again our design was ready. Mary called on the Saturday morning, and as we were passing through the city en route to a party we agreed to collect it that day. Oxford was incredibly busy with tour groups and graduating students so there was no room to park, leaving me just enough time for me to run in to the shop whilst Sven drove around the block. I dashed in, retrieved the ring, hugged Mary in relief and left. It was so rushed I didn’t inspect it closely, nor did I ask about the sapphire, or for the receipt detailing all the work carried out and value of the gold we had left with them back in March. Needless to say the idea of a refund for the postage was most definitely at the bottom of the priority pile! I would later discover Sven had paid the full cost for the work, meaning Rowell had failed to account for the value of the gold we had given them, essentially over charging us by more than £500.

It wasn’t until the next day that I sat down to properly look at the new ring. Rather than the clean design of the first ring this new one had embellished lines cut into the metal at the top, there were also indents under the shoulders where the drill had been inserted to hold the diamonds above and (I assume) slipped through. After everything we had been through this pushed us over the edge, and we decided to speak with the Citizens Advice Bureau on the next steps. The team at CAB were wonderfully helpful, recommending letter templates, timeframes and managing expectations.

It took three letters and over two months to receive any form of response from Rowell. The eventual letter we received was incorrectly addressed to Kate, with typos and poor grammar, far less than I’d expect from such an establishment.

They refund offered came to around 50% of what we had paid, an amount which would sadly not come close to paying for the additional alterations required to fix the design flaws on what could be called one of the most significant pieces of jewellery I would ever own. I was also dismayed to discover my grandmothers sapphire had been redesigned into a pendant, despite no authorisation for the work to be carried out and the conversations we had had with Rowell communicating our change of heart on the matter.

I do not usually write reviews like this, but in this season renowned for engagements and happy times I feel I would like to send out this message of our experience with Rowell as a warning. Whilst at every stage Mary and Stephen were polite and friendly we feel utterly let down and ultimately cheated by the business we entrusted with such a significant event and precious heirlooms. Their poor attention to detail, communication, professionalism and record keeping turned what should have been a swift and stress free process into a 6 month headache, and left us with a ring I don’t much care to look at and an engagement story I do not like to tell. Any engagement should be a happy and stress-free time, so I sincerely hope putting this story out there saves others the same heartache we have had to endure.

How to spend a 7 hour+ layover in Beijing!

How to spend a 7 hour+ layover in Beijing!

Every now and again everything just goes right, do you ever have days like that? I’m not sure where the knowledge originated, but at some point during the planning of this festive tour I discovered that if you have more than a few hours to kill between flights in Beijing they offer a free tourist visa for up to 72 hours. Now if we’d discovered this prior to finalising the flights no doubt we’d have extended our stay, but as it was there were just over 7 hours between landing and take off, which with a bit of luck is just enough time to take a very special trip.

With a slightly anxious German in tow we trekked through the international terminal to E11 (signposted by a4 print outs with no arrows or directions on…helpful Asia!) and the blissfully short visa queue. We’d been warned this could take 2 hours on a bad day, so seeing only 20 people ahead of us was the first good sign. However even with a security guard sending people with too little time, or who just wanted a cigarette out of the line we still took almost an hour to receive our new Chinese stamps! Love a passport stamp!!

From here you join the regular immigration queue, which had been blissfully empty when we arrived but now took another hour of our time. And this was with short lines!! Phew! But within the two hour limit we had set ourselves to make this happen…we had made it, hellloooo China!

In typical travelling Katy fashion the next step was essentially winging it…Sven had tried booking ahead of time and been told our plan wasn’t possible within our time frame, so had resigned himself to a long stay at the airport. I am not so easily swayed, and also have more experience of the hoards of tour guides usually waiting at airports to make these kinds of moments happen. Sure enough as we turned away from the currency exchange booth there was a happy smiling face behind us holding a ticket with my goal on it…”we need to be back at the airport by 5″ we told him “is it possible?” “5?” He says “yes, we can be back by 5…” price negotiated Sven and I began racing through the airport after our new friend…it was happening, we were going to the Great Wall of China!!!!

There’s always a slight moment of panic when you’ve essentially followed a complete stranger holding a battered ticket out of the airport and got into his car…even when it’s a very nice car with swish seats and tinted windows. Or maybe the windows made it worse…it’s 50:50, but Jimmy soon put our minds at ease with his sunny temperament, easy laugh and stories of tourists past. He zipped through traffic talking us through points of interest like the new high speed bullet train being built alongside the highway. This seemed to consist of HUGE chunks of concrete ready to slot together like a giant child’s train set. The size is hard to describe, even with photos. It wouldn’t be our last master feat of engineering of the day!

The highway soon led to smaller roads and villages, where we saw locals walking across frozen rivers and huge rock faces covered with meter thick ice and jagged icicles like a waterfall had frozen over.

This was my first trip to China, and Sven’s first trip to Asia, so we were both glued to the windows with open eyes pointing out all the new and notable sights…art installations depicting gigantic fruit baskets (at least 10m tall) sprung out of the middle of fields, locals drove around in tiny bubble cars which made smart cars look like limousines, or mopeds with fur wind breakers at the front which also went over the handle bars to act like a pair of mittens! Genius!

I wasn’t fast enough to take a photo, so here’s one from someone else which sort of shows what I mean.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere we drove by the handily located Beijing Tourist Information centre…Then before you know it we were there, paying security an extra fee to let Jimmy drive us all the way to the gate rather than waiting for the tourist bus as we were on a tight schedule. I think his friendly disposition did us a lot of favours here, as they were happy to help him out and wave us through. Gotta love a system!

The wall sits atop the ridge of mountains towering way above the car parks and ticket booth. It hadn’t occurred to me that you may not be able to walk directly to it from a handily located car park, but Jimmy was way ahead of us, and after a quick stop at the entrance booth handed us our tickets for the ski lift ascent and toboggan decent…now doesn’t that sounds fun! Waving him goodbye we were on our own and soon sitting high above the trees watching the wall coming closer into view ahead, and snaking away behind.

It seemed never ending! What a majestic accomplishment in such barren and harsh conditions. It’s hard to accurately describe the remoteness of the place, let alone the true scale of the mountains which stretched as far as the eye can see; and to think this was only a tiny portion of this 6000km+ world wonder. An impressive architectural feat indeed!

The first iteration of the wall was built in 221BC, by the Qin dynasty, constructing the defence system using local materials. So here in the mountains we see stone and rock, but in more desert type surroundings huge mounds of earth and sand would have had to suffice. The wall is interspersed by garrisons, barracks and watch towers marking its primary use as a defence against invaders from the north (very game of thrones!) however it had many other functions too. Goods would be transported along its top linking the 5 major Chinese provinces in the north with Beijing, a major strategic city. This was also the original immigration office, with boarder control officials stationed along it as well as customs officers for the Silk Road. The barracks were hardly cosy though, with windows open to the elements I didn’t much envy those who had to defend it back in the day.

We were so lucky to have had this place almost entirely to ourselves for a time, and even when people arrived there were only two other small groups who were for the most part going in the other direction.

I could have stayed here for hours, and walked for miles. I now more than understand why most tours encourage you to leave at least 2.5 hours to explore and walk along the winding stones from watch tower to watch tower. I am very intrigued by the cycling tours which go along it though…how do they cope with these?!

Alas we only had just over an hour, and time was moving too quickly. We turned around to make our way to the next part of the adventure…our toboggan decent! Four minutes of high octane exhilaration, I didn’t even mind not having gloves!!

Beijing treated us to a magnificent orange sunset worthy of the Sahara as we returned to the airport through rush hour traffic reliving our a balmy adventure! What an amazing way to spend time between flights, airport layovers will never be the same again.

Planning a trip to Beijing? Or just have a few hours at the airport? I highly recommend contacting Jimmy for a fun and friendly tour guide who’ll help you work to whatever schedule you have. He also would have taken us to Tianannmen Square, the forbidden city, summer palace and silk markets etc if we’d have had time. Next time Jimmy!!

Melbourne to Adelaide in a Jucy Camper – day 5: The end is near

You’d think that falling asleep before 7pm would have seen the pair of us wide awake before the dawn, but the sun was struggling through thick white clouds by the time either of us stirred. Obviously nights of mosquitos and Blair Witch woodlands coupled with so much fun and excitement was taking its toll…either that or we’re getting old. Eek!!


Baby magpies making a racket!

Thursday was the last day with dear Cheapy as she had to returned to Jucy HQ by 5pm. The planned route included a tour of the Mclaren Vale wine region, remaining inland and approaching Adelaide from the East. As we packed up Rowdy came over to wish us good morning, and offer a few tips for the day, including a route which involved a free punt across the Wellington river…now doesn’t that sound fun! Breakfast complete and camper packed for the final time we hit the road, plowing through the mists towards Kingston in search of coffee and an opportunity shop…basically an Australian charity shop where we could buy cheap jumpers as it was bloody freezing.



We’ve seen many townships along the way in Victoria and South Australia which from the map appear to be rather sizeable, but on arrival turn out to be more like hamlets or small villages. Kingston was a classic example; a tiny beachside town with nothing much more than a cafe, supermarket and collection of houses. A quaint corner cafe drew us in with promises of fresh coffee and free wifi, not to mention the delectable smell of toasted raisin bread from a neighbouring table. Second breakfast? Why not.

The last day really was a case of hitting the road hard with minimal stops, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t still lots to see. Somewhere outside Kingston the roadside gifted us with several random sights, including artistic tractors on top of telegraph poles and a GIGANTIC lobster statue…seriously, you don’t see this everyday.


Pretty funky huh? It’s for sale, if you’re interested.

Most of the South Ocean Drive consisted of low lying brush scrubland with occasional glimpses of the waters of the Corong on the passenger side, and an overwhelming smell of stagnant salt water. Yum. With little to see other than flocks of pelicans overhead (not that I don’t love a pelican) we were left to devise our own entertainment…

On our search for somewhere sheltered from the wind to cook lunch we past through Meningie on the shores of Lake Albert, the largest town in the area with a whopping population of 940. Having so far seen kangaroos, wallabies, kookaburras, koalas and emu’s on our travels it seemed worth pausing to discover exactly why Meningie was home to a lakeside ostrich statue.


Legend has it the Coorong was once home to John Francis Peggoty, an Irishman who only grew to the size of a seven year old boy. Peggoty made use of his stature, making his living by climbing down the chimneys of wealthy Londoners robbing them of their gold and jewels. He is reported to have often enjoyed parading around his boarding house, with gold chains draped around his neck…now the mark of a good robber is laying low afterwards, and having failed to do this Peggoty had to keep moving, going onto spend some time in South Africa before migrating to Australia in 1890. Here he continued his scrupulous life of crime by robbing lonely travellers who passed through the Coorong, making daring escapes across the dunes on the back of an ostrich! Eventually of course he crossed the wrong person, and was last seen wounded and escaping into the dunes. His body was never found, leading many to believe it lies out there somewhere still covered in the gold chains he so often wore. An excellent legend, which has apparently done wonders for the Meningie tourist board who had been previously struggling to attract tourists to its lakeside shores.

Time was marching on, and as once again the sun wasn’t on our side we merely waved at the spectacular lake which turns pink due to a concentration of algae common in South Australia.


Had it been sunny I’m sure we’d have stopped…but just for you, here’s what it should look like on a good day!




Our next stop was Wellington, and the punt across the mighty Murray river that Rowdy had told us about. Unlike toll ferries these punts are operated by the government to provide 24 hour crossings over the River Murray; the friendly staff wave you on, then the whole kit and caboodle is punted across using a cable which runs from one side of the river to the other. You can just see it coming out of the water below. We waited for three punts before commencing our two minute journey across, but it made a nice change to get out of the car and stretch our legs for 10 minutes before the Fleurieu Peninsula.


A few more miles through scenery mimicking the lake district, save for the limestone wall rather than dry stone ones and we begun to see signs for several familiar wine regions, including Fleurieu and Mclaren Vale. Our trip to see Emma and Dan included a day of wine touring, so we weren’t too upset to not have the time at this point, especially considering the grey clouds and strong winds. The forecast promised sunny days and blue skies ahead, so we trundled on through the winding roads and hills of the wine country to the outskirts of Adelaide.


From here everything becomes decidedly administrative as we stopped at Woolworths (oddly more like a Sainsbury’s!) to pick up breakfast requests for our housemates in Adelaide and made plans for the Buck and Hen do’s we’d be attending that evening. Cheapy was topped up with fuel, given a good once over with the dustpan and brush and reluctantly handed back to her chums at the Adelaide depot. You can read more about our lovely camper in my Jucy review here, but if you’re ever planning a trip down the GOR I would highly recommend this little gem.

For the next five nights we’d be settling into a more fixed abode on the beachfront in Henly; enjoying the view of pink sunrises, orange sunsets and pods of dolphins swimming back and forth. It’s a tough life, but someone has to do it 🙂


Thanks to Maddy for the photo 🙂

Melbourne to Adelaide in a Jucy Camper: day 4 – Say G’day to Sheila, Bruce!

Melbourne to Adelaide in a Jucy Camper: day 4 – Say G’day to Sheila, Bruce!

I loved waking up surrounded by trees, bringing back memories of my time at Camp Blue Bay on Long Island. Sven was also more his merry self in the morning having survived the Blair Witch Project Down Under. We opened the camper door to a scene from an Australian Disney princesses world, with kangaroos, cockatoos and various other brightly coloured birds scampering about. Wonderful.


There’s a balance between seeing amazing things, and enjoying a restful adventure. This morning we invested some time in the latter, reading kindles and enjoying the peaceful surroundings, meaning it was later than usual by the time Cheapy’s tyres hit the road once more. The weather turned decidedly British as our trio skirted the outskirts of Portland resulting in a very soggy hour at Cape Bridgewater, home to The Petrified Forest and Blowhole Lookout, famed for blue whales and their calves. Unfortunately it was too wet to take the camera out, but here are some pictures from the wonderful world of google.

And one of the view from the car for comparison…


I had also read about seals here, but this turned out to be an 11km round walk from where we were, and as I was fast discovering my raincoat was showerproof rather than drench proof this did not seem to be the day for it. Soggily returning to the car we set off to the next destination…which was where? The Great Ocean Road was technically over and other than a vague aim to be in Adelaide sometime between 12 and 5 tomorrow we now had no fixed route or destination. How exciting!

Having been advised the next stretch of Coast stayed mainly between sand dunes without the spectacular views of the GOR we elected to follow the northern route through the farms and vineyards of South Australia. One of my favourite games on this drive so far has been “spot the mailbox”. The locals along this route will seemingly use almost anything for the task, from rusting gas canisters to giant milk cartons. There has been the occasional American looking one, or those decorated to look like cows with great dangly legs of rope, but my favourites look like this


Such a cluster is found at the end of an access road to multiple farms. The likelihood is each farm will be miles from the others, down its own individual lane, so to make the Postys life easier they keep all the boxes together on the main road. Just look at that collection! What do you think the second from the left started life as?

Continuing on down roads like this which seemed to stretch and wind through miles of nothingness, sometimes not seeing another car for 10-15 minutes at a stretch


These were the last few miles of Victoria, as we were inching our way towards South Australia, the next state on the coast. Approaching the boarder there are huge signs for quarantine bins, as importing fruit, vegetables, soil and grape vines from one state to the other is prohibited. The plan had been to stop for lunch somewhere idyllically beautiful, however quickly realising we had a van full of bananas, apples and juicy tomatoes we pulled up in the quarantine area and had a picnic.


Along the road so far the clock in the car had solidly been around 30 minutes out, however not long after crossing the boarder into SA it had righted itself. Assuming Sven had fixed it I didn’t think too much of it, but actually it turns out SA is in a different time zone, 30 minutes behind Victoria! Who knew?!

The landscapes on this road trip have been so varied, from rugged coast to miles of flat farmland and now huge forests darkened the road as giant pines stretched tall either side of us. Forestry is another industry here, so rather than the haphazard woodlands of home these trees stand in uniform lines stretching as far as you can see. It was mesmerising. At the next logger truck stop I pulled off the main road to get a closer look and some pictures of these tree alleys stretching into the distance. Following the log truck pathway however the lines seemed to disappear, as the diagonals were running parallel to the main road whereas the track I had chosen was perpendicularly. Chucking a uwe (ah Australia) then taking a left took us alongside the trees, but closer than the main road so we could stop and explore. After about 20 meters however I got a ‘bad feeling’ the road was a sort of mud/sand track, and I was worried our little camper did not have the wheels to cope with it. Slowly stopping I put Cheapy into reverse to get us back on the main road…but she didn’t move. Switching back into drive I tried forwards…nothing. We were stuck.

I’ve never been stuck before without an adult present, however having seen a fair few vehicles in a similar situation the basics of what to do were at least lodged in the far reaches of my brain. Step 1: dig the wheels out, step 2: put something under the wheels they can grip on to, step 3: create a ramp of sorts with wood or similar if the incline is too step, step 4: keep the wheels straight, step 5: accelerate slowly. We tried all these things, but after half an hour and several attempts to free her Cheapy was looking very sorry for itself, with the back left wheel buried so deep the underside of the car was close to touching the ground. Sven had realised we were on a tree root, causing the wheel to struggle to get a grip. Being the legend that he is he had a pen knife handy and was able to saw the root out from underneath us. It was all too hectic for detailed photography, but the rolling tyres had sanded a deep groove in the otherwise round root. Amazing.


The realisation that we were in over our heads sunk in, and leaving Sven to keep digging I headed back to the main road to flag help. The first car I waved at stopped, which I had not expected. Stuart, his wife and their teenage son Ben are South African, but they’ve lived all over the world exploring new countries. They were also road-tripping, and happy to help. Phew!

Stuart has a background off roading in 4×4’s and had seen cars in more dire straits than ours. ‘You’ve done a good job (getting stuck)’ he said, before whipping our team into shape, calmly giving directions and making us of items we hadn’t considered like the sturdy cardboard box we’d been transporting food in. With three sets of muscles pushing from the front and this expert advice we tried twice more, still nothing. Lots of scratching heads, some more digging, more advice. “Keep the wheel dead straight, light on the pedal until I give you the nod, then floor it. If you move try and right hand down all the way to avoid the front tire going in that canyon you’ve created and starting this all over again”…this all sounded easier said than done, but I tried to give my most confident nod.

Like runners on an Olympic track the guys locked their feet into the sand and braced their hands on the bonnet. “Try to go forward hard for a second, then quick shift and back” says the boss. Three…two…one… the engine roared “Reverse!! Reverse!!’…automatics are not meant for quick gear changes but we got there, I slammed my foot on the pedal, everyone heaved from the front and with a final lurch then a rumble we were moving. Oh the elation! Moments later Cheapy had reversed all the way back to the safety of the gravel path. Covered in mud, but free!


Drama over and with a serious appetite we were keen to get to Nelson, which appeared from the map to be quite a good sized town. Upon arrival though we were greeted by emus (that was fabulous!) kangaroos, car dealerships and not much in the way of sustenance.

Beachside Kanga

The first big town of SA was Mount Gambia which offered a multitude of prospective lunch spots, free parking and welcoming public facilities at which to wash the grime of our previous adventure from hands, arms and legs. Freshened and very ready for lunch we followed our noses to a local Mexican, where Sven was soon very interested by a 1kg burrito challenge.


In case you’re wondering what that would look like, here’s Sven’s burrito compared to my standard sized one.

That's a lot of burrito

The reigning champ completed this mammoth task in just 3.40, having elected for every possible filling and a spicy sauce. Sven was torn between the challenge and actually enjoying his well deserved lunch. I think he managed a very respectful time. Added bonus, for the first time this trip he declared himself full!


Mount Gambia is home to the lakes which turn from grey to spectacular blue every November. Something told me this ‘spectacular blue’ was rather reliant on the sky not doing an impression of an E.L.James book, but with burritos to burn and adventurous hearts we set off into the biting wind. All this weather would be FINE if I had packed any form of suitable clothing, but ho hum.


Having deviated from the plan to stick to the coast and spend tonight in Robe we needed a new destination. Heartened by his woodland adventures and other escapades of the day Sven suggested a secondary free campsite by a lake a few hours away. If last nights camp site was Blair Witch, this one was The Road as low cloud obscured the horizon giving the impression there was nothing for miles around.


Eventually we pulled in alongside three other campers by the lake. It was very basic, with a single toilet unit to one side and not much else. Even out here though there was a bottle of hand soap and toilet roll. Not too shabby! A guy from one of the other campers strolled over to introduce himself as Rowdy, a SA local here to fish for a type of lake lobster with his brother and brothers wife. After chatting to Rowdy for a few minutes the others came to join him and we were introduced to Bruce and Sheila. I kid you not!

Bruce and Sheila!

Has a more Australian thing ever happened?

With intentions of playing games and writing blogs by the Lake at sunset we made up the camper bed early and settled in for the night. However after the adventures of the day it turns out it was more than possible to fall asleep at 6.30 and wake up in the morning. Oops!

Let the last day with the camper begin…