Tag Archives: travel

The journey’s the thing

The Ffestiniog kid
As Robert Louis Stevenson said in 1881:

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive..”

The journey can be its own reward – unless you’ve ever endured an overnight bus journey in Asia – and I admit, I was very much looking forward to today’s 11-hour multi-rail trip. Here was the route:

Bournville-Birmingham New Street-London Euston-St Pancras International-Paris Gard du Nord-Paris Bercy-Clermont-Ferrand.

I didn’t go by rail for any amazing views, though there were some to be had, but I badly needed the chance to watch the world go by for a few hours and just catch up on ‘stuff’. There is also something of the romance of travel in the variety of rail stations you pass through – something you don’t get with modern airports.

The other thing that fascinates about ground travel is that everything is looked at afresh, eagerly and vividly – from the continuous line of graffiti on the approach to Paris to patterns in the paving stones in historic Clermont. I didn’t manage to snap the unexpected tropical garden, complete with palm trees, beside the No 14 line from Gare de Lyon (update: got it on the return journey) but I snapped all else that caught my eye today.

Below is the story of the journey in pictures and there are more in the full set of lo-fi phone pics is on Flickr. Continue reading


Some ideas for travel videos

I’ve just been checking out a selection of best 2010 travel videos over on Matador – and it’s got my mouth watering for adventure and better video editing skills.

Check them out – there’s everything in there from tilt shift cities to adrenaline sports, lone backpacker reportage to breaking out of the rat race.

Here’s one of my favourites – a very well edited piece about street food.

I’m a travel writer with a fear of flying. WTF.


Three weeks ago I was on an overnight, long-haul Emirates flight that hit turbulence somewhere over the Indian Ocean. Even the crew were told to strap in.

After repeating my usual mantra of “cobbled street, cobbled street” for a bit, I realised that this was going to go on a while. I was shivering uncontrollably and feeling a rising anxiety. It didn’t help that I was in a seat on my own, away from the family.

Then I remembered how tired the captain had sounded when he made his pre-take off announcements. This wasn’t good.

Time to go to Defcon 3 – Meditation. I’ve often found a good tactic is to take long, very slow breaths and count them in rounds of ten. I counted four lots of ten, and another five, before the worst of it was over. About 20-30 minutes in total. (The counting is a distraction from thinking about either the imminent crash dive or the sharks circling in the water below.)

After the turbulence started to ease off, I looked around me to share the relief only to find everyone around me fast asleep.

This is what is so utterly annoying about fear of flying. It’s a private hell.

Still, there and then, I decided I’d never fly again.


It’s three weeks later. I’m at Gate 52 at Manchester Airport. It’s 6.20am and I’m about to board the flight I promised myself I would never get on.

Because although during that seemingly endless half an hour of turbulence, I was ready to cough up for a Eurostar ticket and a TGV down to the south of France to visit family, once my feet were on firm ground, my irrational fears seemed ridiculous and laughable.

Besides, how cowardly would I be to back out now? For the rest of my days, I would be forced to look back at this moment and see it as a yellow-bellied turning point in my life when I finally gave in to my fears. Worse than that, I could pretty much say goodbye to my travel adventures and writing work.

There was another factor. Bmibaby were offering to fly us anywhere on their network for free. How churlish would it be to turn that down? Especially when all they were asking was that we went and had a great time and blogged a bit about the trip.


It’s hard to explain fear of flying to anyone who doesn’t have it.

The anticipation of flying can be crippling, wiping out all enjoyment until you land. There are crash dreams ahead of time and imaginary or media images of crash sites that pop into your head mid-flight.

But that’s just the start of it. I personally check the plane’s exterior for cracks in the fuselage before boarding. I also run-through all members of my family as the plane powers up down the runway to the point of no return – just in case.

Uncalled for, I remember Concorde, Lockerbie, 9-11, last month’s plane crash in Nepal.

I cross my fingers, fidget and say a prayer to the Catholic god of my childhood.

After take-off, I count 22 minutes until I feel safe – the time of a crash I once heard about on the news.

I uncross my fingers, and have to sit straight up in my seat, while simultaneously craning my neck out of the window to see that we are actually moving forward. My ears are on animal alert for changes in engine noise.

Talking with other passengers or even my own co-travellers is an annoying distraction as it breaks my concentration. But books and magazines aren’t engaging enough for my crash-focused brain. I remember Red Dwarf’s emergency procedures of taking out airline magazines and intently reading features on, for example, Turkey’s blossoming wine industry.

Since 2001 and a bereavement, I’ve also taken Valium to get me on the plane.

It’s horrible the emotional wringer flying puts me through. And it’s exhausting.

Fortunately, there is a ‘but’…


I think it is important to keep facing this phobia and not to let it shut me down. So despite everything I still get on the plane.

I do this knowing the fear will be gone once I’m there. And the nausea will be forgotten – at least until next time. I’ve probably failed in explaining how debilitating it can be, but it is what it is, and I have to deal with it.

So here I go again. A travel journalist with a phobia of flying.

Ironic, isn’t it.


Kiss the captain! A big, big thankyou to Captain Mark Dixon of BMIbaby, who navigated high cross winds on takeoff to cruise us smoothly onward to Toulouse, landing the plane safely an hour and 35 minutes later. Now at last I can enjoy the holiday.

As if there was anything to be worried about really. 🙂

And thankyou to also to Bmibaby.com, who have sponsored this trip. Trip info and prices to come in a future post.

Meanwhile here are some photos I took of the transfer from Birmingham to Manchester Airport at 3am today (now shifted to a separate post ‘Every journey starts with an airport transfer‘) – it’s time to feature all the bits that a travel writer rarely covers.

How nice is Toulouse Airport, for example!

Ok, so exactly what is a tourist and what is a traveller?

It had to be done. People are searching for the answer to this question and finding this blog, naturally enough. So feel free to post your definitions. Because I’m not sure I know what the difference is. Budget, attitude, destination, length of holiday, courage, individuality, all of the above, none of the above?

Answers on a postcard… or even below. As you wish.

Oh yes, and here’s explorer Benedict Allen’s take on it when I asked him at a talk recently – it’s all about the note-taking and recording it for others.

Egypt tourist

A great pic from David Evers/Flickr

Tourist vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

How important is it to record your travels? This is the question I put to the explorer and Unbreakable tough guy Benedict Allen at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London this Saturday. I’m also interested in other people’s takes on this, and why they keep personal travel diaries?

Firstly, though, here’s Benedict Allen’s response:

It is crucial to record. The difference between a traveller and a tourist is that a traveller simulates that experience (for others) and records it.

Explorers like travellers are in the business of reporting back and, increasingly, this is a justification for going. We can no longer see the world simply as a playground (I was pretty self-indulgent when I started out). I feel better looking back that I recorded my expeditions: through writing, filming and photography.

You have to remember that is it s privilege to travel – many can’t do it (for financial and other reasons) – but by sharing it you give others a chance to get out there.

Of course, Benedict Allen has been on some pretty unique and far-flung trips. He added that the Niowra tribe he stayed with knew that their way of life was disintegrating and wanted him to record their Crocodile Initiation Ceremony for posterity.

But is there much value in the rest of us contributing our travel writing to others, especially if we aren’t adventurers but say backpackers following a well-trodden trail – or playground as Allen calls it? Is there anything for the world to learn from us?

Are we breaking down prejudices through our travel writing or are we just underscoring them?

And why are we so driven to record our experiences beyond the tourist holiday snap? Why, for example, do I have around 40-50 travel diaries locked up in a trunk in my house!?

(Aside: I did it so that I would have my best memories in writing for if I ever lost my memory. But also there were ideas of having published books, being the new Anais Nin, and let’s not underestimate the sheer habit of it.)

Finally, is ‘recording the experience’ really a difference between tourists and travellers? Or is it just that travelling types are often on long journeys with hours to kill so out comes the diary/blogging platform – or do you think you can you still be a ‘traveller’ on a weekend in the Lake District?

Of course, the irony of staying up late to blog my weekend of travel writing isn’t escaping me. I’m also reminded of Jack Kerouac who recorded the beat years while Neal Cassidy was the person who fully lived them.

So my finally question I’m pondering is how would my travels have been if I hadn’t stopped to record them – would I have live more fully in the moment, or is it worth saving some back to relive them later on?

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: See the list that keeps Benedict Allen alive

Girl with diary

A (wannabe) travel writer takes notes in a leather-bound diary at the Travellers' Tales festival, London (Feb 2010)

The list that keeps explorer Benedict Allen alive

Benedict Allen is a pretty experimental traveller – known for heading off into the remoteness with not much more than basic kit, some porkscratchings and a handheld camera.

Over the years, he’s had run-ins with everything from venomous snakes to blood-letting head-hunters.

But sometimes it gets really, really bad…


Eating with the Mentawai tribe in Indonesia /cc Wikipedia

He’s written many books about his adventures and posted his list of kit and survival tips on his website, but I was fascinated to see his list of last resort at the Travellers’ Tales festival in London at the weekend [20 Feb 2009].

It turns out that Benedict Allen carries a piece of paper in his kit that keeps him alive as much as anything in his survival or first aid kit. The scrawled list contains several bolds, underlines and scribbled asides – you imagine done in desperation at some treacherous point in his journey – and reads something like this:

  • A way out. Exit.
  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened.
  • Clear goal.
  • Morale.
  • Break down impossible objectives.
  • Adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Play to your strengths.
  • Work with forces bigger than you.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless /unpopular.

(Bulletpoints are mine.)

Royal Geographical Society theatre

Benedict Allen at the Royal Geographical Society theatre for the Travellers' Tales festival

At least that’s as much as I could note down as speed before the slide on the big screen shifted to something else and Allen, solo explorer, survival expert and ‘pioneer of adventure television, started to elaborate on how, especially in the worst of times, he still shaves and maintains discipline, to keep up morale.

Of course, the extreme nature of his Boy’s Own adventures, has led to a number of times when the shaving routine has been dropped. And that’s when the list comes into its own.

For example…

The Amazon Basin can kill you in myriad ways.

Allen used his piece of paper several times on the last 300 miles of an Amazon Basin expedition from a bit of Ecuador and Columbia (‘the boring bits’) across the widest and most dangerous expanse of the basin and into Brazil.

This is a region of earth that can kill you in myriad ways, says Allen, and after experiencing three near-death experiences on this trip alone, he knows what it is like to see hope fade and die.

The worst was when, after being rescued by illegal loggers after stumbling across their camp, he was later betrayed by them when they ostensibly escorted him on his way, only to rob him and leave him to die in the middle of nowhere with no route out.

‘Self-pity flooded me.’

‘It is rather bad when you are going to die,’ adds Allen, drily.

  • Assessment – face up to what’s happened – tick.

‘The reason I did survive was the people back home waiting for me. But also there was this incredible sense of liberation. If I was going to die anyway, I had nothing to lose. So I decided to steal one of my bags back.

  • Adapt to changing circumstances – tick.
  • Not being afraid to being ruthless – tick.

‘I used tracking skills taught to me by Lucy [an eight-year-old girl he’d met earlier on the trip who had saved him from her five-year-old assassin brother], and tracked the two men. Then under cover of darkness I stole one of my bags.’

  • Play to your strengths – tick.

‘But I still had 100 miles to go – through dense rainforest. I had a survival kit and compass but no map. I thought, I can’t do it. I can’t do 100 miles.

‘Then I thought I could do 100 paces. So I got a stick and walked 100 paces. I notched it on the stick and it wasn’t long before I needed a new stick.

  • Break down impossible objectives – tick.
  • A way out. Exit – tick.

‘I began to believe in myself again.’

‘I wasn’t alone as there were all these people in my head – the Niowra tribe from New Guinea, the little girl, all those I had learnt from.’

  • Morale – tick.

Finally, he shows a slide of him walking barefoot and ragged out of the Amazon, wearing trousers that have rotted away into shorts and his girlfriends t-shirt. ‘Her t-shirt just kept looking better and better.

‘Never underestimate the power of women’s clothing.’

Benedict Allen shows the ladies his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea

Benedict Allen shows his scars from the Crocodile Initiation Ceremony in New Guinea - he survived that but will he survive the circling pack of lady travel writers?

Once again he had survived.

A fan once called him a cat who has used up six of his nine lives but Keyboard Cat isn’t playing him off just yet. Yet what keeps him (and people in general) going is what he is talking about at the Travellers’ Tales festival.

In fact, he makes sure to announce that he’s not just talking about survival instinct but that moment when your dreams disappear, things seem hopeless or death itself seem inevitable.

He also mentions depression: ‘Did you know 1 in 10 men suffer from depression? In fact, I can see some pretty miserable people in the audience right now.’

And, what is really good about Benedict Allen’s speech at Travellers’ Tales, is that here is someone who has faced the absolute worst of times and not someone who is there to brag about having been there and done that.

And when you look at his list, it seems a pretty wise and useful one, not just for extreme survival, but for life in general. My advice? Nick it!

More from Travellers’ Tales festival: Tourist Vs Traveller – the difference according to Benedict Allen

Views from the plane: the equator

I came across Keith from Velvet Escape’s blog after he wrote up his recent TwiTrip to my hometown of Birmingham. On there he has a running series of plane views, where he and guest bloggers post pictures from their flights and give tips of where to sit.

Well, I’m not sure I can do that but I did remember I had some shots of some equatorial islands from my Singapore to Jakarta (or was it Melbourne?) flight in 1999. Oh and I was sitting on the right side of the plane.

Not sure where these islands are exactly, possibly they’re Indonesian islands just south of Singapore, but the pictures are pretty so I thought I’d share them, direct from the old-skool photo album. I think the rainbow effect is from the position of the sun over the water. I think.

There’s a number of groups on Flickr that publish more of these photos, btw, for example:

Equator from plane, SE Asia

Equator from plane, SE Asia

Equator from plane, SE Asia