Bucket List

Dragon Hunters (Bucket List #48)

Komodo Island, Labuan Bajo, Flores, Indonesia • March 2017 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes

“Do you want to go and hunt some dragons?” I asked Fraser, taking a sip of export beer. We had met in the bar area of Bali’s New Seminyak Capsule Hostel approximately only three minutes before, but it was one of those awesome rare occasions where you instantly click with someone; a complete stranger who you feel like you’ve known your whole life.

“The Komodo dragons?” queried my fellow Scot, a smile spreading across his face. “Absolutely, I’ve wanted to see them since I was a kid.” Fraser and I had quickly figured out that we only lived about twenty minutes away from each other back home in Glasgow, but surprisingly had no mutual friends. What we did have, however, were very similar personalities and dry senses of humour. The perfect combination.

“Awesome,” I replied, excited at his enthusiasm. “It says here in my guidebook that the small islands of Komodo and Rinca off the west coast of Flores are the only places in the world where these big giant monitor lizards can be seen. Although there is no accepted reason why the dragons are only found in this small area of Indonesia, it’s thought that their ancestors came from Australia four-million years ago. About 4000 of them live in the wild.”

“Let’s get those plane tickets booked then,” he smiled. “I’m all for spontaneous adventures and this is far too cool an opportunity to turn down.”

With our flight being labelled as 'delayed' on the screens in the domestic departures lounge, we got chatting to a couple of Swiss girls waiting for the same plane to land. The blonde was a rock climber and had been scaling faces and walls all around Asia for the previous two months. As she explained the rush she got every time she dusted her hands in chalk and stepped into that first foothold, I became mesmerised. I love it when people start talking about things that they are genuinely passionate about. A cosmic energy seems to flow out of them and transfix their listeners who, regardless of whether they have any initial interest in the subject, find themselves hanging onto every word. The light in her eyes made me want to ditch my current travel plans, buy a harness and hammock, and go live out my existence in the hills and valleys of Yosemite National Park.

We also met a thirty-five-year-old freelance journalist from the States who had been solo-travelling the world for the previous four years, and boarding the flight one-hour late alongside her I picked her brain for tidbits of knowledge as to how to sustain a life-work balance when on the road. Her answer: Avoid party hostels. My response: Not too lightly.

There were only about twenty people on board the plane, and plonking my arse down in seat 1A I was given a near-perfect view of the safety demonstration. Our air hostess was a beautiful Indonesian woman with enormous fake boobies. So big, in fact, that, when she showed us how to inflate the life vest in the event of an emergency landing at sea, I thought a better option would be to just grab a hold of her artificial delights and use them as a floatation device.

As we went wheels up on the runway, however, I re-focused my attention on the staggering archipelagos and reefs whizzing by below, the country of Indonesia being comprised of over 18,000 individual islands. In what seemed like no time at all we were landing on a solitary runway amongst towering lush green mountains, and as we were taxied into the lone hanger which served as the terminal building a sign welcomed us to Flores' western seaside port town of Labuan Bajo. I’d booked our accommodation on Flores based entirely on its name, so was delighted when I found out that it also offered a free airport pick-up and welcome drink in addition to fully air-conditioned rooms with cable television. Exiting the baggage claim, however, it became immediately apparent why. I started to laugh. At the other side of the carpark, directly across the road from the airport, a sign reading

I’d booked our accommodation on Flores based entirely on its name, so was delighted when I found out that it also offered a free airport pick-up and welcome drink in addition to fully air-conditioned rooms with cable television. Exiting the baggage claim, however, it became immediately apparent as to why. I started to laugh. At the other side of the carpark, directly across the road from the airport, a sign reading Exotic Komodo Hotel shone back at us. “I think we’ll be able to just walk this one,” I laughed.

“There’s a phone call for you, Crobs,” said the receptionist as I sat down for a cup of coffee in the restaurant area.

“For me?” I said, confused. “Who on earth would be calling me at a random hotel in the back-arse-of-nowhere Indonesia? Nobody even knows that I’m here.”

“Someone called Katherine,” she shrugged, handing me the phone. I was still none the wiser.

“Hello?” I cautiously said, putting it to my ear.

“Hi Crobs,” came a slightly familiar voice from the receiver. “Katherine here, the American woman you met on the plane. I was just wondering if you’ve managed to sort out a tour tomorrow to Komodo Island. I’ve been struggling to get on one at such short notice.”

“Ah, hi Katherine,” I said, feeling rather uneasy. I had absolutely no recollection of telling her where Fraser and I had booked to stay that evening. “Unfortunately we got the last two spaces on our boat, so I don’t think I can be of any help.” It's moments like this what little white lies were invented for.

“No worries,” she said, sounding deflated. “I just thought I’d check on the off chance. Have a good time."

“Well, that was fucking creepy,” I sighed, hanging up the phone.

Our alarm clock woke us up before the sound of the cockerels the following morning, and we sleepily shuffled down to the pier where our boat was docked. I felt like a fairy tale prince about to embark on a quest to slay a fire-breathing beast, saving the helpless princess in the process and having her fall in love with me. Happily ever after. The end. As the motors of the unseaworthy vessel coughed into life like an asthmatic chain smoker and revved like a chainsaw, however, I plugged in my earbuds, turned the volume up on my iPod, and came back down to reality. My stomach started to rumble. I really should have tried to squeeze in some breakfast. We had a long journey ahead.

As we chugged out into the vast, calm, ocean, a Spanish girl burst open a packet of chocolate biscuits and began to devour them faster than Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster, feeding the occasional one to her boyfriend who had decided to lock his attention into a handheld video games console. Everyone else on the boat then had to look on in disgust as she finished the packet and started nibbling on her man’s ear; clearly still hungry. This needy petting continued until she got the attention she so craved and the pair soon started necking off right there in the middle of the tiny wooden boat. I’m all for romance, but public displays of affection like that are completely uncalled for.

“That was like watching the introduction to an amateur porno,” I laughed when, five hours later, we eventually docked up at Komodo Island. Our ten-strong group had collectively ditched the Spanish couple at the ranger’s office and gone straight to one of the food stalls near the pier for a meal of breakfast; brunch; elevenses; and lunch, rolled into one.

“Thankfully they stopped halfway through the journey when he got seasick overboard,” laughed one of the four Dutchmen we’d shared the ride across with.

“He was an idiot on that journey,” laughed his mate. “I mean how else do you expect that your body will react if you stuff a packet of chocolate biscuits down your pie hole and then transfix your eyes on the bright lights and colours of a games console whilst being rocked around in a bathtub of a boat.”

After fattening ourselves up so that we would be more juicy and attractive pray for the omnivorous dragons, in hindsight maybe not the best idea, we met the park guides who were to lead us into the heart of the island in search of these near-mythical creatures. We were not guaranteed to see any, but the chances were high.

Gathering round, they gave us a spiel about the dangers involved and what we should do in the event of an attack. This was all well and good, but I couldn’t help notice that these guides who, let’s not forget, were being paid to protect us from the deadly 3m long, 100kg, tank-like animals, were holding nothing but a large wooden stick apiece. I would have felt a lot more secure if they been carrying automatic rifles than something that looked like it had been stolen from a Venetian gondolier, especially considering that there is no cure for a Komodo dragon bite. The bacteria in their mouth is so poisonous that one bite from them will lead to septic infections that will eventually kill their victim, but not before up to two weeks of miserable pain. A Gandalf staff the sticks may have been mistaken for, but I highly doubted that a shout of ‘you shall not pass’ would do anything to deter these creatures, especially considering how they treat their family members.

Komodo dragons enjoy eating their young, and juvenile dragons, therefore, have to spend their nursery years living in the trees to avoid becoming a meal for adults; only coming down when they are big enough to protect themselves. This piece of knowledge soon had me glancing upwards as well as into the undergrowth on either side of the path we walked along. Our guide was effectively telling us that they could not only get us from ground level but also by falling down from the sky. This did little to appease my nerves as the path then opened out into a clearing and we saw them for the first time. Two giant Komodo dragons lazing about in an open area where the sun shone through a hole in the jungle canopy.

“It will be safe to go close to this pair,” said our lead guide with remarkable confidence. He did, I suppose, know what he was talking about. “The dragons will feed on large animals up to 100kg in one sitting and then retire for up to one month to digest their massive meal. These two both appear to have eaten very recently so are very unlikely to strike out.

Heeding his warnings and subsequent advice, we slowly shuffled forwards closer and closer towards the dragons, each of us in sheer awe of them. To come within near touching distance of such an evolutionarily adept killing machine sent me into complete awe. And to see them out with the confines and cages of a zoo made it all the more special. Kneeling down behind one of them, I felt like I’d actually hunted down and tamed a proper dragon. All there was next was to find and rescue the princess, wherever she may be.

Surf's Up (Bucket List #3)

Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia  March 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

Sitting at a solitary table on the raised decking of a quasi-Mexican Restaurant on Kuta Main Street, I glanced out along the road and scowled at the carnage unfolding before my eyes. I’ve mentioned before as to why I regard Bali’s most popular resort as one of the biggest shitholes I’ve ever had the displeasure of visiting, and the view from my dinner table that evening encapsulated this in a perfect nutshell. Middle-aged, sunburnt, Australian couples stumbled along the pavement pissed out of their faces; the relentless honking of taxi driver horns directed towards people of ‘my kind’ competed for attention with the techno music pounding from every neon-signed watering hole along the tacky strip; and I choked on the intoxicating dust kicked up by the hundreds of daredevil scooter riders whizzing past, as sweat poured down my forehead. Deafened, and feeling like I’d just chain-smoked a packet of Marlboro Gold before stepping fully clothed into a leaky shower, I attempted to enjoy the chicken fajitas placed before me.

My flight from New Zealand to Indonesia had been delayed on its layover in Sydney, and it was near 11 pm when I’d eventually managed to haggle a lift from the airport, check into my basic hotel accommodation, and wander out into the hot and sultry Friday night in search of a bite to eat that wouldn’t leave my ass planted firmly on the toilet the following morning. It was St. Patrick’s Day, but the chance of getting a cold pint of Guinness in Kuta with some traditional folk music was seemingly as slim as being offered a threesome by identical twin sisters. As I pushed the food around my plate, two young Indonesia girls were accosted by a creepy old German dude on the pavement below. “You want to go dancing?” he asked them, shaking his hips in a manner that caused them recoil in disgust. “You want to fuck off?” I muttered inaudibly under my breath.

I’d been warned by everyone from my best friends back in Scotland to the Kiwi guy I passed my delay in Kingsford-Smith Airport with that Kuta was a disgusting place, but in order to cross off bucket list item number three I was going to have to stomach the seaside resort, and its food, for a couple of nights. Bali is internationally renowned amongst the surfing community for its waves, but for a beginner like myself looking to just stand up on a board the swell around Kuta was recommended as the only safe place to dip my toes in the water. The breaks around the rest of the island would be too powerful for a novice to handle. I headed back to my accommodation praying that, come daylight, the nocturnal demons would be safely out of harm’s way.

I met another Scottish guy at the surf school reception the next morning, still dripping wet from the sunrise lesson that he’d received. Giving me a tired thumbs up when I asked him whether or not the price was worth the tuition, I booked lesson for that afternoon. A few hours later I was pulling on a wetsuit top, lubricating my knees so as to avoid friction burns, shaking the hand of my instructor, and shuffling down to the beach with a longboard under my right arm. Alex was twenty-five, the same age as me, and had been teaching people to surf since his teenage years. He had that sparkle in his eyes which is seemingly ever-present in those who have managed to turn their passion into a career. Either that, or it was because he had begun telling me about the cute Japanese girl he’d managed to pick up the previous evening. If there’s anything that can connect straight males around the world, regardless of their background and beliefs, then it’s girls; girls; girls.

After drilling me on the basics and then letting me practice getting up on the board a few times on dry land, Alex led me into the ocean. He wore a snapback and didn’t take it off even when dipping his head underwater. It was as seemingly as much a part of him as the hair on his head, superglued in place. Perhaps it was a surfer style thing, or perhaps he had started balding at an early age. It felt rude to ask. Writing this bucket list post, I’ve now been in Asia for a number of months, and have been exposed to a disproportionately large number of hair-loss treatment ads on buses, trains, and in airports. It seems that it may be a real problem among Asians. Not the largest problem affecting this area of the word, mind you, but a problem nonetheless.

Now, you’ve probably heard that the beaches of Bali are among the most beautiful in the world, or have seen photos of golden sands and tranquil deep-blue seas that make you want to quit your job, book a one-way flight, and live out the rest of your existence on this island paradise. Well, I don’t want to burst your bubble, but this is a mirage; an Instagram-filtered fairy tale. If you want paradise, go to Fiji; go to the Philippines; go to the Maldives. As I pushed by the board over the whitewash hitting the Balinese shore, plastic carrier bags and sewage tickled my ankles; the ocean bed and my feet hidden from view by the murkiness of the water. Were it not for the excitement that courses through my body when crossing off another bucket list item, I would have been repulsed. Such is the importance of that 150-line list which I created back in 2008 to my continual development as a person, however, that even the yard-sale of a crash I experienced on my first attempt to stand-up couldn’t wipe the smile from my face.

It took another few attempts after this initial fail, Alex correcting my stance and tweaking my positioning on the board each time, but I was soon up. I was standing. I was conquering the ocean. I was tasting the freedom of riding a wave for the first time. I was hooked. Some find unhealthy addiction in drug use; in gambling; in drink; or in sex. I’m fortunate enough to find its healthy cousin in adrenaline. It’s what I live for, and as I rode into the shore time and time again over the next hour-and-a-half, my muscles aching, I felt more and more alive.

I so was present to the moment in fact, that it took me a while to realise that Alex had entirely stopped giving me any of the tuition that I’d paid him for and was instead staring and drooling over the gorgeous Singaporean girl stood on the shoreline, posing there in a tiny white bikini. I felt sorry for him that he’d probably never get to experience the surf off the coasts of Hawaii or the South African cape, the wages in Indonesia making it impossible for most of the world’s fourth most inhabited country to afford any form of trip abroad. He had genuine happiness, however, and what more do any of us chase after than love and happiness? Those trapped in the Western consumer cultures that sell us the great lie of materialistic happiness could learn a lot from people like Alex.

“Table for one, please,” I said to the waiter of the Indonesian restaurant that I’d selected to eat my dinner at that evening. It’s a common phrase you find yourself saying when travelling solo. The first few times it’s uttered you feel like a loser; a bit of a loner; that the other diners might be judging and mocking you. But that soon dissipates. You start to embrace your surroundings; to notice things that you otherwise might not - like the fact that most people in the world have a base emotion of boredom. My joint’s still ached from the afternoon spent on the board, but I was still riding the high of the waves. I sat watching badminton on the small wall-mounted television whilst my food was being cooked. It’s not a sport that I particularly enjoy, but I do have one fun fact to share with you. Everyone is well aware that the New Zealand rugby team is called the All Blacks, but did you know that the country’s international badminton team is collectively referred to as the Black Cocks, taken after the shuttlecock used to play the game? I’m not making that up. Google it.

My attention span wavering, I took a glance at the couple to my right. They had been eating in silence since I’d sat down, and the tension between them appeared to be harder to cut than the overcooked beef on the girl’s plate. She was smoking hot, with slicked-back blonde hair that made her unmistakeably of Scandinavian descent. The man opposite her was batting way out of his league, being overweight with an unkempt demeanour, a scowling face, and a receding hairline that made him look like he’d spent the last ten years in a wind tunnel. I thought of mentioning to him the large market of hair loss treatments available in Asia, but thought this stepping over the line of what could be classified as a social faux pas. I left them to stew in their invigorating silence, hoping that I never had a relationship that reached that monotonous stage. I’d take a table for one any day of the week over that.

The Cheapest Michelin Star Restaurant in the World

Singapore • April 2017 • Length of Read: 5 Minutes

Nestled in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown District are a frenzied array of hawker street stalls. A standard across the South East Asian peninsula, these street vendors serve up dirt cheap local cuisine at the blink of an eye; flash frying beef noodles in woks or mixing up large pots of hearty soups for the hordes of hungry locals. And with Singapore constantly being rated as one of the most expensive countries to live in, these hawkers also double as a lifesaver for even the most extreme flashpacker. Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean bad, however. In fact, culinary excellence knows no price tag. Among these otherwise indistinguishable stalls, each with the same plastic laminated menus; grubby garden furniture; pestering flies, and putrid smells, one sticks out like a sore thumb: Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle.

More easily and commonly referred to as Hawker Chan, this establishment is protected from the sun by a large blue awning; ropes that you would more expect to find in the ride queue of the nearby Universal Studios set up on the pavement to deal with the masses of visitors pouring to visit. Whilst other hawkers are housed within Chinatown’s shopping centres, car parks, or are simple mobile operations that pop-up on the sidewalk, Hawker Chan has the appearance of an actual restaurant. And even before it opens for business people can be seen loitering outside, wanting to be the first to sample the now world-famous food.

Inside, you feel like you’ve more entered a McDonalds than a Chinese street food stall. A self-service touch-screen computer allows you to place your order electronically, with card payment from international banks accepted. Enticing pictures of the compact menu help you navigate the Chinese symbols as you compile your order, awestruck at how it can still be so inexpensive: “$4.80 for a chicken and rice dish? It must be a starter-sized portion for that price. I better order two.”

A receipt is then printed and you join the second queue to wait for your number to be called. Standing there, you look around and see that the seating could also have been stolen from McDonald's. It’s almost as if they’ve franchised it and then decided to white-out the menu board, replacing Big Macs with soya sauce chicken noodle dishes; nuggets with hor fun.

From behind the service counter, protected by Perspex glass, you can watch the chefs busying about in the kitchen. Cooked cuts of meat hang from skewers on the wall and as you wait impatiently the smell wafts out to the floor. As your mouth starts salivating, it suddenly dawns on you where you are. That blue awning hanging over the entrance has large white lettering on it that can be read all the way from the main road overpass. Large white lettering that reads in block capitals, ‘The World’s First Hawker to be Awarded One Michelin Star’.

You may initially think that this is some rogue piece of guerrilla marketing that helps Hawker Chan stick out more than this pasty, ginger, travel writer wandering around in such an ethnically rich area of the country, and you wouldn’t be scoffed at for being wary. When we think of Michelin Star dining, we picture bow-tied waiters with slicked-back hair; cutlery we don’t know how to properly use; palate cleansing dishes where we are unsure what on the plate is even edible; and a bill that may trigger our bank to put an ‘unusual activity’ block on our credit card. Not here. As the second blue awning proclaims, Hawker Chan is in fact ‘The Cheapest Eatery being Awarded One Michelin Star’, receiving the accolade in 2016.

After a ten-minute wait, my number was called out. I’ve read online that people have been known to queue for up to three hours at this particular hawker, but I think that is probably bullshit. I was there at 12:30 pm on a Friday and there were only three people in front of me in the queue. Collecting my plastic tray containing a slap-dash dish of soya chicken and rice, I fetched some chopsticks from the cutlery section and popped myself down on a random seat at one of the dozen shared-tables. I’d last eaten a Michelin Star meal in Prague, and the bill had racked up to more than one-hundred Euro. For this culinary experience, I’d received change from a tenner, and that included buying a bottle of water and soft drink. Move over crisp and hearty pinot from the Napa Valley, I think I’ll have a Sprite instead.

Presentation of the meal aside, it was bloody tasty and definitely hit the large spot in my stomach that had been made from walking around the city all morning. Having eaten there now, though, part of me can’t help but suspect that it is all a bit of a guerrilla marketing stunt. The Michelin Guide promotes excellence in cuisine, and in that respect, yes, Hawker Chan does do exceptional street food.

With 51-year-old owner Chan Hong Meng having opened a second, fully air-conditioned, establishment inside a bustling shopping complex in the wake of this sharp rise to international fame, however, can Hawker Chan still actually be defined as a hawker? Hawker may be in the name, but there was nothing hawker-like about my dining experience. In all honesty, I left the restaurant feeling like I had just eaten in a Chinese version of McDonald's; rude staff members to boot. It may proudly boast a Michelin Star, but it cannot say that it’s stuck to its roots.

Get Drunk on a Vineyard Tour (Bucket List #146)

Waiheke Island, New Zealand • February 2017 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes

I awoke to find myself covered in itchy mosquito bites. Tara had warned me about how bad they were, with the scars on her skin to prove it, but in our drunken states, Nene, Possum, and I had stupidly forgotten to shut the windows of our dorm room at Hekerua Lodge before crashing out for the night. Whilst my two Dutch girls got changed I applied some cream to the bites and then gave Justin a call to see if we were still on for the vineyard tour that morning; intrigued as to whether he would remember the drunken promise that he’d made to us in the Sandbar the prior night. At the time it had seemed almost too good to be true.

“Crobs,” he answered in a high-pitched ring. “I’ve just picked up my second group and am on my way to get you. Are you still good to go?”

“Of course,” I said, laughing back down the phone. “I was just calling to see if you were actually going to show up or whether it was going to be like a typical date where I’m left twiddling my thumbs at the bar, alone.”

“I’ll be at the bus stop where we agreed to meet in about twenty minutes,” sang his voice through the speaker. “If you guys could be ready and waiting for then it would be much appreciated. There are two others from your accommodation also booked on the trip so look out for them as well.”

“Will do,” I said, before hanging up the phone. “Chop, chop, girls. We’ve got a lift to catch.”

In visiting Waiheke, I was filling an obligation and promise that I’d made to my friend Tara. In 2015, the island that is situated a forty-minute ferry journey north of Auckland was voted as the fifth best destination in the world to visit by Lonely Planet; primarily due to its extensive array of vineyards, golden beaches, and restaurants. Tara had lived on the island for four months at Hekerua Lodge and had worked at one of these vineyards. What better a place to tick off bucket list number 146 then? And on a sweltering New Zealand summer day.

We’d arrived on the island paradise the previous night, but wandering into town to find something to eat after checking in, we instead found ourselves ordering up a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc at the Sandbar, a lovely open-aired establishment that overlooked the marina bay and beach. Here, we got chatting to the bubbly fellow sitting at the table next to us, and in doing so became acquainted with the one and only Justin Moore.

He wore a flowery Hawaiian shirt which was fully unbuttoned to reveal a sweat-soaked grey t-shirt underneath. His short, receding, hairline had left his forehead a little sunburnt-red and his voice was a little camp. A namesake of the famous country music singer, Justin Moore was about forty-five years of age and had a zestful energy for life that was simply infectious. From behind his prescription designer sunglasses, he informed us that he was born on Waiheke, moved away for a number of years to pursue work opportunities in Japan and the United States, and had then returned to the island a few years previous to live a quieter life.

“I now operate a small business called Waiheke Tour running barbeque, vineyard, and beach tours of the island,” he said. From his slurred speech it was clear that Justin had also had his fair share of vino for the evening.

“Really?” said Possum, attempting to show a fistful of nachos into his mouth from across the table. Hunger had finally taken over and we’d ordered a plate to share between the three of us. “We were planning on doing a vineyard tour tomorrow but haven’t booked anything yet,” she continued, sounding more steaming than a James Watt designed engine. I’m not going to go as far as saying that Possum and Nene are alcoholics, but if they ever met Jesus then the first thing they’d ask was for him to turn all water supplies into wine taps.

“I just so happen to have three spare seats on my wine tour tomorrow, actually,” said Justin, munching down the chips and salsa that Possum had shoved into his pie hole. “We visit three different vineyards and then I cook up a massive barbeque of succulent steaks, juicy sausages, and grilled veggies for everyone. Are you interested?”

And that is how we found ourselves standing at the bus stop the following morning, Possum regaling the tale of how we came to be in such a position to the British couple that Justin had been referring to on the phone. Nathan was a London city boy and Jenny a Northern Irish girl from just outside of Belfast.

The honking of a horn diverted our attention down the road. Rounding the corner, the vehicle that had caused the commotion came into view. Behind the wheel of the beat-up minivan was the man himself, waving so furiously at us with a gaping smile that I was genuinely concerned he was about to lose control of his Anna; so named due to the personalised registration plate stapled to the front grill.

“All aboard,” yelled Justin gleefully, opening up the electric folding side-door.

“Morning,” we cried as we climbed up the steps and shuffled to the five empty seats at the rear, addressing him like a church congregation responding to their minister.

Already onboard was a middle-aged Scottish couple from Queens Park, three Canadians, and three Kiwis. It transpired that the twenty-something Kiwi guy and similarly aged Canadian girl were engaged to be married on Waiheke in one year’ time and that both sets of parents had come together for a holiday, to get to know their future extended family better, and to have talks with the venue where they’d be tying the knot; one of the twenty-five vineyards that littered the island at the time of writing.

If they were still together in twelve months’ time, that is. Even on the short journey to our first of three stops, Batch Winery, I could tell that the incessant questioning from the mother of the bride was pissing off the groom; her status as a control freak having clearly already been stamped on proceedings.

The bride herself was a very attractive girl in a bright white sundress; her jet-black hair falling down her back and coming to rest over the two giant angel wings tattooed across her shoulder blades and spine. I immediately wondered where her devil horns were hidden. This allure both tantalised and fascinated me in equal parts, taking over my thoughts as we rolled into the Batch car park. This term has a double-meaning in New Zealand, being used to describe a holiday home or beach house as well as the quantity of wine produced each time a harvesting and fermentation process is run.

The highest vineyard on the island, we were led by Batch’s Dutch sommelier to a lone tree atop the hill where the on-site restaurant was situated; a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree panorama opening up before us. There was not a cloud in the sky and although this meant I’d had to douse myself in sunscreen that morning, the clear weather meant that we could also make out the spire of Auckland’s Sky Tower as we took shade under the solitary pine. Beneath its branches were two casks, a selection of branded glasses organised neatly on top of one and four different bottles of wine perched on the other.

“This vineyard is the newest on the island,” said the Dutch guy, pouring the first bottle. “It’s owned by a Canadian family and opened for business two years’ ago. They are actually here holidaying at the moment, so be on your best behaviour,” he joked. “Our first batch of wines for retail are expected to be ready in about one year from now.”

“We’re Canadian,” announced the mother of the bride, “and it would be really nice to meet them.”

“I think they're a bit busy for that, unfortunately,” squinted the sommelier, shutting her down in the politest way possible. I’m sure the last thing that the savvy millionaire owners wished to do whilst enjoying some downtime in their own batch was to brush shoulders with overzealous guests; fellow countrymen and women, or not.

I took a sip of the drink that I’d been handed. Despite the large quantities of alcohol that I consume on a far-too-regular basis, I’m no wine expert. I couldn’t tell the difference between a Chilean Malbec and a Cabernet from Mendoza if they both bit me on the same arse cheek. What I will say, however, is that as my eyes took in the scenery from behind the prescription lenses of my sunglasses, I couldn’t help but feel that the views cast over the island were a lot more breath-taking than the wine swirling around my palate. I swallowed it anyway. Hair of the dog.

Peacock Sky was the name of our second stop, confusing considering that the logo for the vineyard stamped on the entrance gate was that of a butterfly; a farfalle. A small marquee had been erected in the garden, with the place settings indicating that we’d not only be getting a sample of five different wines, but also a posh nibble to go with each. Apparently, the couple that owned this particular establishment were wannabe-chefs as well as wine enthusiasts.

I took a space next to the Scottish couple and got chatting to them about life at home. I love meeting fellow Scots on the road, as you can immediately cut through all the wishy-washy bullshit conversations that are far-too-frequent between travellers and get straight to the good stuff. The man was the type of character who I imagined spent a large portion of each weekend sinking pints down his local pub whilst watching the footy, and it was apparent that his wife had brought him on this wine tour as a form of societal education as much as to have a relaxing drink.

“What flavours are you getting through?” asked the Frenchman running the session, directing his question towards my compatriot.

“Alcohol,” he bluntly responded, knocking it back in one large gulp like he was a goldfish swimming in a tank. The stare from his wife at that moment could have burnt a hole in the back of his head, but he was having too good a time to care. We were all beginning to get a little tipsy, especially myself who hadn’t had anything to eat since that shared plate of nachos the night before.

“Oh my God,” squealed the mother of the bride as she took a bite into the tiny square of chocolate brownie that had been placed in front of us. “Yummy.”

I took one look across the table, locked eyes with Nathan, and we both burst into sniggered laughter; the wine acting as a catalyst.

“It’s so creamy,” she then moaned as tears rolled down my face.

“I feel like I’ve just learned what that lady sounds like when she comes,” I whispered to Nathan as we strolled back to the bus, feeling rather jolly.

“Get that image out of my head right now,” he squirmed.

Our third and final stop was where Justin Moore had promised to cook us our barbeque lunch, and despite the hors d’oeuvres served at the previous venue, I was still absolutely ravenous. Whilst Justin fired up the gas, we were treated to a lesson in the art of making a good wine by the owner of Dellows Waiheke, Bill Dellows. A fascinating thing I learned is that in order to maintain balance in the wine, extracts of either eggs, fish, or clay need to be added at the clarification step of the process.

“Are you telling me that wine is not vegan-friendly then?” asked the mother of the bride, sounding appalled.

“You can’t usually tell from the ingredients on the label exactly what was used to clarify it, so it is advised if you are vegan to not drink wine at all, yes,” answered Bill in his softly-spoken accent. His white, Santa Claus, beard indicated that he was tipping retirement age and his demeanour was that of a person who had seen it all when it came to wine, whisky, and spirits.

“I know that some of the cheaper goon sacks, for example, contain up to forty percent fish oil,” I added; Nathan nodding his head in agreement.

“What’s a goon sack,” she asked, annoyed that she didn’t know.

“It’s the boxed wine that you get from liquor stores in Australia,” I informed her. Who knew that something I’d learnt from passing out drunk on a beach one night whilst on a 4x4 trip to Fraser Island would have come in handy at a wealthy vineyard. That’s what I call a tertiary style of education right there. “They make really useful pillows,” I smiled.

“Oh no,” she gasped. “I can’t wait to go home and tell all of my friends. This could be disastrous for some of them.”

“I feel sorry for the people that have to call her their friend,” I mouthed to Nene as the smell of Justin’s cooking drew us onto the patio outside; our awesome day-drinking session brought to a close with an absolute epic spread for lunch that got wolfed down. Justin Moore – what a legend.



Island Hopping around Fiji (Bucket List #93)

Yasawa Island Chain, Fiji • March 2017 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes

Type ‘Fiji Party Island’ into your search engine and Beachcomber will be the first result that pops up. Wrapped in a spotlessly clean golden beach, you can walk around the entire island in less than seven minutes, and it is the renowned hangout spot in the South Pacific where backpackers tend to get a little loose. Where better to kick off my Fijian island-hopping adventure?

I’d booked the trip through a sketchy guy at the hostel travel agents when in Queenstown, New Zealand, and the only thing I had to confirm my booking was a Facebook message received from the dude with a reservation number and the date of initial travel. I was pretty sceptical as to whether I’d actually booked anything, but the message said that I was scheduled to be on the boat leaving the mainland port at 8:30am. I awoke at 7am on my morning of travel and went to the hostel reception to inquire as to how much a taxi to the port would cost.

“You don’t need to worry about a taxi,” beamed the lady behind reception. She had been working the desk at least since I’d gone to bed the night before but was still full of energy. “The bus will pick you up in ten minutes.”

“Bus?” I frowned, “But I didn’t even tell the tour company where I was staying.”

“That’s no bother, the bus always comes past at 7:10am each morning to pick guests up. You better go and get your stuff.”

I sprinted back to my dorm, shoved the loose contents into my rucksack, and came back downstairs just in time to jump onboard. My Facebook confirmation number was enough to get me on both the bus and boat, and I took a seat in the downstairs area of the vessel next to two English lads who I recognised from the hostel bar the previous night. Dan was a big ginger farmer boy and Luke a short, fat, comic book nerd, but the two had struck an unlikely friendship. Both were also going to Beachcomber and had high expectations of the place.

“Have you heard of a thing called Cloud 9?” asked Dan, who would intermittently interrupt conversations with such absurd statements as ‘your nan’s called Jeff’, and ‘Jonathan Ross is my dad’. It was like a weird form of family Tourette syndrome.

“The phrase used to describe the feeling of floating on air because you are so happy?” I asked.

“No, the two level floating raft out in the middle of nowhere where you go to for the afternoon to get drunk and party along to music played by internationally-known DJs.”

“Sounds awesome,” I responded.

“Yeah, we were thinking of booking it for tomorrow once we’ve seen what the talent on the island looks like.”

Upon approaching the island we transferred from the large vessel to a smaller boat that could cut its way through the shallow water and sped towards the landing area. Lined up on the beach were four of the resort’s employees holding musical instruments, and as we approached they welcomed us in with traditional songs. I don’t know if this is statistically correct, but I would estimate that approximately 97% of all Fijians know how to play the guitar.

Dan, Luke, and I turned out to be the only three people that got off the boat, and as we checked-in to our dorm rooms it was clear that the island wasn’t at full capacity. That’s to say, it was fucking dead. Despite being down season for travellers, only twenty of the 600 beds on the island were occupied.

Unperturbed, we dumped out bags and went back down to the beach where two English girls and a pair of Italian brothers were chilling. As well as mentioning to them that all of their nans were called Jeff and that Jonathan Ross was his dad, Dan also asked whether they were planning on going to Cloud 9 at any point. Yes, yes they were.

Lunch was called at 12pm and I was thankful to get into the shade. Being a pasty, ginger, Scot, I’m not really built for beach life, and it was apparent that even though I’d only been out for a short time, some severe damage had already been done. I’d tried to sun-cream my own back and clearly missed an out-of-reach portion down my spine. The patch was sanguine red and already beginning to sting. Not as much as the mosquito bites that I’d somehow collected, however. They had attacked me like I was a sewing cushion and itchy red spots ran all the way up my legs. As the boys finished lunch and went back to tanning, I retired to my abode and lay there in a feverish sweat. I then lay there all afternoon, all night, and then all the next day, letting the others go to Cloud 9 without me. Welcome to paradise.

When they returned that afternoon I felt a lot better. Lathering myself in aloe vera lotion and antiseptic cream for twenty-four hours straight like I was preparing for an intense Thai massage had somewhat dimmed the redness, and I was keen to have a few beers with the team. Of the twenty guests on the island, six of them were socially inept eighteen-year-old Germans girls. Whilst we sat at the bar watching a live fire-juggling show being put on by a troupe of travelling pacific islanders, they sat in the opposite corner playing card games and refusing to make eye contact with one another. By the time the show ended, I’d had enough.

“You guys need to be more inclusive,” I said, marching up to their table and sitting down.

“What do you mean?” replied the alpha female of the group.

“Well, you make up 30% of all guests on this island and you’re being more unsociable than widowed spinster hermits. How about we all play a drinking game together?”

“Yeah, okay,” responded the same girl, realising that they should perhaps be making more of an effort. As it turned out, they were absolute booze hounds. We drank and partied for the rest of the evening, giving the DJ requests and then dancing in the summer rain that had started to fall until we were soaked through to the bone.

Brushing my teeth in the communal bathroom before bed, I glanced bleary-eyed at the Danish guy standing next to me. I’d seen him at lunch and dinner but he appeared to be a little odd so I hadn’t instigated a conversation with him. Perhaps that was a bit hypocritical of me considering the conversation I’d had with the German girls earlier that evening, but as he gazed soullessly into the mirror in front of him I felt like my decision was justified.

“Are you okay, mate?” I asked, slightly concerned. His face resembled a smudged oil painting.

“Ear infection,” he grimaced, getting out a cotton bud and poking it into his ear canal.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, before realising that was probably not the best statement to have made under the circumstances. Choosing to nip the conversation in the bud I turned round and staggered my way back to my dorm where I subsequently collapsed into my bed. Dan and Luke were already asleep.

The following morning I checked out of my room on Beachcomber and went down to the restaurant where they had a full English breakfast buffet on offer. Dan and Luke were heading to a different island from me that day, but there was another English couple on the island who were also planning on heading to Manta Ray Resort. Not knowing when I’d next be fed, I filled my plate high with sausage, potato scones, bacon, and pancakes before sitting down beside them. They turned out not to be a couple at all, but brother and sister.

“You guys sounded like you had fun last night,” said Robyn with a smirk.

“In what sense, I said?” genuinely perplexed. “Were we a little on the loud side? If so, I do apologise.”

“No, it was more one of the German girls who sounded like she was enjoying herself,” chuckled her brother, Oli.

“What a sly dog that Dan is,” I laughed as we were called for the arrival of the boat. “I knew that his dad was Jonathan Ross, but I had absolutely no idea that he got it in last night.”

The weather had closed in slightly, making the seas extremely choppy. As I sat on the boat with my eyes closed, music in and sunburn rubbing against the back of the seat, the vessel decided to deal with the rough waters by doing its best impression of an Alaskan fishing trawler. My large breakfast may have been a good idea at the time, but I was already regretting the decision to stuff my face. I could feel it resurfacing and when we hit a wave that acted more like a brick wall than water I projectile vomited right into the sick bag I’d grabbed from one of the passing stewards. From what came out, my body hadn’t even had time to properly process the meat.

By the time we arrived at Manta Ray two hours later I’d thrown up twice more, the final one just being water and grog. I was sweating like a paedophile in a nursery and had become severely dehydrated from the outing. The last thing I wanted to therefore hear was another traditional song. Sure enough, however, as we entered the bay to Manta Ray there they were. Those well-meaning Fijian employees and their bloody music. I gave them a weak hello upon disembarking, looking as pale as a corpse and head still spinning. What I needed now was a large bottle of water, a comfortable pillow, and some rest and relaxation. Unfortunately, though, I was also placed in a 32 person dorm for my sins, and you’ll never guess who had the pleasure of being in the bunk above me. The weird Danish guy with the ear infection.

I was lying on my bed at 6pm that afternoon when the whining noise started. I was reading my book and feeling a lot better. The sunburn and mosquito bites were ever-present, but my seasickness had subsided. Having tossed and turned all afternoon, the Danish guy had eventually managed to fall asleep, but as the sound of the hairdryer got louder and louder he awoke from his nap in a rage.

“Turn that thing off,” he yelled. “I’m trying to sleep here.”

“It sounds like your request has fallen on deaf ears,” I toyed with him as the noise continued. “Is now a bad time to tell you that I snore like a bear in hibernation, have a severe uncontrollable flatulence problem, and plan on having loud rough sex tonight right on this bed?”

“You better not,” he responded, legitimately concerned.

“Then you better stop complaining,” I said. “If you want to have complete peace and quiet at this time in the afternoon then book yourself into a private room.” His sulking face went as sheet white as mine had been on the boat crossing.

The culprit and owner of the hairdryer had been Lucy, a lovely Welsh girl who was travelling with her friend Megan. The pair had become friendly with Robyn and Oli, so the five of us had dinner together that night. I retired back to the room soon after, still not feeling very well, whilst the others headed down to the bar where jugs of sangria were on offer.

I awoke the next morning to see that the bunk above me had been vacated. ‘No way,’ I thought to myself. ‘We actually ripped into the Danish dude so hard that he checked out a day early.’ He was definitely meant to have stayed on Manta Ray for two nights. I walked to the restaurant for breakfast and found the four Brits slumped over one of the tables.

“Well, what happened last night?” I chuckled, assessing the pile of limp bodies in front of me. The weird Danish guy has already checked out this morning and left because he couldn’t hack out chat, by the way.”

“Ugh,” moaned Megan. “Things got a little silly last night. We ended up getting wasted, danced on the tables, and then went skinny dipping in the ocean once the bar closed.”

“Jesus,” I laughed, “sounds like I missed out. It must have been quite the party.”

“Not really,” laughed Robin. “It was actually only just the four of us. Megan almost fell asleep in her sandy dungarees, Oli fell into a ditch at the side of the wooden walkway when trying to get back to the room, and there is no way that I’m even going to try and stomach breakfast this morning.”

“Speaking from experience that seems like a wise decision” I giggled. The four of them were truly a class group of people.

I got the boat back to the mainland that afternoon, fed up of resorts. Tanning on beaches all day is some people’s idea of Heaven, but for my skin pigment, it is literally hotter than Hell. Perhaps I hadn’t made the most of my time on the Fijian islands, but considering the pain I had caused my body I couldn’t care less. I wasn’t walking on could nine but more hot coals. Thankfully, the seas were calm for my return trip, though, and the journey passed without the contents of my stomach deciding to make another unwanted appearance. I got the shuttle bus from the port back to the same hostel that I’d stayed at before departing for my trip and grabbed a free room.

Buzzing the key card against the door I entered into the air-conditioned bliss and froze in my footsteps. Standing in front of me was the weird Danish guy. I nodded towards him and he meekly shuffled past. We were only bloody sharing a bunk bed together again.