DIY weekend road trip around Scotland


So going back in time and revisiting where I left off in the travel posts – in February 2014, after a ‘exciting’ week in beautiful Edinburgh, Kev and I realised that we had to figure out a way to Aberdeen to visit our friends-from-home, Siska and Robin.

DIY Road Trip around Scotland in a long weekend. Can do!
DIY Road Trip around Scotland in a long weekend? Can do!

Now, we didn’t want to fly. So we explored different options from taking a bus to hopping onto a train, to joining a tour group. We ultimately decided to DIY and drive ourselves to Aberdeen to make the most of exploring the Highlands.

The next decision was to figure out where we were to stop, as there are just so many things to see in Scotland. Kev and I had an in-joke about ‘The Mull of Kintyre’ so we both were keen on going there for the sake of saying that we’ve been there (if you look at the map, The Mull of Kintyre is at the tip of the phallic-looking landmass right where the ‘G’ of Google is so fortunately placed) – what a surprise Google!

The expectations from the road trip

After getting a little overwhelmed as to how many must-see natural wonders in Scotland, Kev and I had to sit down and knuckle out what were our essential and personal expectations from this road trip. We both wanted to go hiking and skiing in the Cairngorms, see Lochs, try out the seafood from Oban as highly recommended to us by Jenna and Brett, and we also wanted to visit the Isle of Skye as that was an absolute must as recommended by tour brochures and TripAdvisor, not to mention all the breweries and distilleries too; and we only had the weekend.

We ended up streamlining our road trip to the following – Edinburgh; Perth; Fort William; Torrin; Inverness and then to Aberdeen (no Mull of Kintyre sadly). We had forego skiing in the Caringorms and keep the itinerary lean so that we still got to spend quality time in the highlands, try seafood and see the Isle of Skye too.

So we packed our rental car 

…and said goodbye to Jenna and Brett. They were such wonderful hosts and unfortunately I don’t have a photo of both of Jenna and Brett, but here’s a photo of Kev and Brett with their own little Northern lights in the living room (thanks Gareth and Elina for recommending the Lapland application).

Kev and Brett having some bro time under the 'northern lights'
Kev and Brett having some bro time under the ‘northern lights’

We were happy to find out that we could rent a car from Edinburgh at Europecar and return it in Aberdeen at Alamo. One of the first stops on our road trip was to a little town called… Perth! Brett and Jenna advised us that there wasn’t really anything to see there and they were 100% right.

With streets named Hay, William and Barrack, Perth UK amused us with the luxury of calling out street names that we had not needed to use for 5 months.

We had a chat with the tourist information attendant who laughed when we told her we were from Perth, Western Australia. She told us that a few months back someone walked into the tourist office looking for a hotel on Hay Street, only to be horrified to find out that they had booked for the wrong Perth!

Perth in the UK
Perth in the UK

From Perth we navigated around the narrow with sharp bends of the unlit A85 and A82. The scenery disappeared with the sun and so we were pretty happy once we arrived at our overnight stay.

Finding accommodation on Airbnb in places other than the main cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen was hard as there wasn’t a lot of listings. However, we rang some of the local bed and breakfast places and booked a night at Myrtle Bank Guest House over the telephone for a great rate. Don’t be worried if the B&B’s don’t ask for a last name or credit card details when you book. They seem to be based on a honour system and when we arrived at the Myrtle Bank Guest House, ‘Kevin‘ was enough to confirm the booking and a smooth check in.

Saturday

Our drive around Scotland just kept surprising us around each and every tight corner.

The reveals were amazing.

I’m going to let the photos do the talking for the leg from Fort William to the Isle of Skye.

Overnight stay, breakfast
Our view during breakfast at Myrtle Bank Guest House.

 

A beautiful shot that I made Kev pull over for.
A beautiful shot that I made Kev pull over for.
The road before us.
The road before us.
Beautiful little streams found sporadically trickling down mountains as we drive by.
Beautiful little streams found sporadically trickling down mountains as we drive by.
It is only us and the road!
It is only us and the road!
Snow on one side, green on the other.
Snow on one side, green on the other.
Eilean Donan Castle! A wonderful surprise pit stop just before entering the Isle of Skye.
Eilean Donan Castle! A wonderful surprise pit stop just before entering the Isle of Skye.

 

Sunday

We stayed overnight at an Airbnb place in Torrin, near Portree and the Isle of Skye. Torrin is a very small town, and the house itself was located off the main road.

It was windy, it was narrow.

Drivers would politely pull over to one side of the road to let an on coming car pass by. There’s no real ‘system’ to follow. I would describe it as a civilised, polite game of chicken. Kev enjoyed this and would beam the biggest goofy smile at the guaranteed friendly wave that you would receive after pulling over, or after driving past. It did make us both feel very community minded.

Torrin - our driveway
Torrin – our driveway

We decided to spend this day hiking, and the place that captured our imagination was The Old Man of Storr. There’s just something about that name that made me want to visit it. It sounded like a place out of A Song of Ice and Fire series or from The Lord of the Rings. Reviews stated that it was a wonderful hike and that it can be a little dangerous during icey/wet conditions. Ha ha! That didn’t deter us.

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Skye Bridge. Breathtaking views all round.

The drive to The Old man of Storr was just as varied and as grandiose as the previous drives. The weather kept changing with pockets of glorious sun, followed by heavy clouds.

Old man of Storr.
The Old Man of Storr.

I just love the above photo.

This view of the famous rock formation was like a trophy being dangled before us. As we drove with that view ahead, anticipation of what we were going to achieve grew – we were going to get up that mountain and visit The Old Man of Storr.

The hike took a few hours as the trails had been covered snow. It was quite exciting and thrilling looking up at the rocks and figuring out how to get up there. At the beginning it was sunny and calm. This was the most enjoyable part of the hike for me as everything seemed to twinkle.

Slightly frosty stream.
Slightly frosty stream.

However, that soon changed. When we started ascending the steepest part of the hike, large dark clouds rolled over The Old Man of Storr, strong winds started billowing against us with shards of icy sleet. I kept looking up at the top and I could feel myself get all… whats the word? – Terrified.

Just think about those movies where someone freaks out and wants to turn back when the right decision is to keep on going. That’s who I was at that moment, while Kev was happily bounding up with not a care in the world.

I started to freak myself out, reverse vertigo, that feeling of being blown over, the fear that I’m going to die. Everything just seemed to make me spiral into this out of control fear. Though Kev was fine.

I attempted to rationalise my fear for a good period of time, taking photos and videos and anything to distract me from the huge freak out party that was happening inside. I think I did pretty well to hide too.

But eventually fear got to me and I just stopped. I stopped right in the middle of a ledge. I couldn’t move forward or backwards. I was just so scared. Poor Kev, he had no idea what was happening and asked me if I was ok.

I just ended up failing at trying to politely and calmly tell him that I couldn’t do it.

I could tell Kev did not want to stop, and I didn’t want hold him back so I said ‘just go without me’. I had that mental block. Kev told me that he would go ahead and then come back to show me the way, but as soon as he turned around, I regretted my decision to stay put. I couldn’t believe I was tapping out. This just wasn’t like me. I got extremely frustrated and angry at myself.

I ended up slowly getting up, and just focused on Kev’s back as he continued onwards to the top. So long as I ignored the wind, the sleet and my crazy thoughts about being blown off, I was able to put one foot in front of the other. Kev kept turning around to see me, and he smiled when he saw that I was cautiously following him.

I am proud to say we made it. It wasn’t the highest or toughest hike we’ve done, but it was definitely the scariest experience for me. I don’t know why. So when we got to the top, it was sweeter and it was a glorious view! The clouds passed, the winds softened and the sun came out.

I don’t doubt that I would have turned around if I were there alone, so I am forever grateful that Kev was there to keep me going and to make us get to the top.

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Kev at the top and in his element.
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…and we did.
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Kev took this magnificent panoramic shot, capturing my first sight of the view.
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Kev chilling on a rock.

The way down was a lot easier psychologically. Haha! While we were both just casually strolling along around the mid point of the hike I asked Kev

Do you want to build a snow man?

 

Kev’s eyes lit up, and he looked around at all the nice ‘damp’ snow that we had around us. We were unable to build one in Finland as the snow was dry like powder and wouldn’t stick. He then eagerly said

Yes!

And that’s how Mr McHaggis of Storr was created.

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One happy family.

It was such a fun, relaxing activity for the both of us. We were sheltered from the harsh winds and sleet that passed over, so nothing interrupted us and time flew by without us really noticing.

After playing around with Mr McHaggis of Storr, we made our way back to the car to continue on with exploring the area.

Shocking deforestation. We were told by a local that this used to be all forest and it was all cut down.
Shocking deforestation. We were told by a local that this used to be all forest and it was all cut down.

 

We decided to drive to one more spot before heading back as it was getting dark, and we drove 15 minutes more north to stop at Kilt Rock.

Kilt rock
Kilt rock

This is a nice pit stop if you are around The Old Man of Storr or if you are driving up to Quiraing or to visit the fairy pools.

So our Sunday ended on a high note and we drove back to Torrin for one more night. The next day, we gunned it through Inverness and stopped by to see if we could see the Loch Ness Monster (we were unlucky) and soon the mountains and lochs disappeared and the horizon was filled with flat green meadows. We arrived in Aberdeen on the Monday at 2pm, nice and early and in time to pick up the keys from a friend of Siska and Rob at Starbucks on Union Street.

What a weekend! 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Edinburgh, hauntingly beautiful. Who wants to go ghost hunting?


Moving out of the Schengen zone, Kev and I started our United Kingdom part of our trip in Edinburgh, Scotland.

We arrived around 8pm by plane and I was amused to hear our native tongue being spoken around us. It was welcoming not having to worry about communicating with others. We quickly hopped on to the bus to head into the city centre where we had booked our accommodation.

Driving through Edinburgh at night on the bus didn’t really show us much of the city. But once we stepped off the double decker at Waverley train station, it was as if I had stepped into some eerie, gothic mystery. The buildings were dark, damp, almost black in colour. They had the dim, yellow glow of lights, which Kev pointed out, did not illuminate the city, but shone upwards and into the buildings themselves, creating shadows in the dark corners of the streets. It was by far one of the most intriguing, thrilling and spine tingling feeling I’ve ever experienced from just walking down a street. I couldn’t help but be both confused and excited about my reaction.

Beautiful, but eerie Golden Mile
Beautiful, but eerie golden mile

 

Victoria Street at twilight
Victoria Street at twilight

Our apartment was in the city centre, and like the rest of the buildings in Edinburgh, it was a beautiful, old building with the ‘original’ fixtures, walls, ceilings etc. Our hosts, Brett and Jenna had set up the apartment so it was fresh, clean and modern but it maintained that wonderful ‘old soul’ feeling. We were greeted and welcomed by Jenna as Brett was away at a Lacrosse competition for the first few days of our stay.

I don't have a photo of our exact apartment, but it is in the building complex behind Mr Sherlock Holmes here.
I don’t have a photo of our exact apartment, but it is in the building complex behind Mr Sherlock Holmes here. Our bedroom was on the third row of windows looking out to Mr Holmes’ statute (we didn’t realise he was there until a good 4 days into our stay!).

So we got ourselves settled in and soon we were both exhausted and ready for sleep. We turned off the lights and snuggled into the bed. As I got comfortable and started to dose off, I was surprised to feel a gentle sensation brush across the left side of my forehead and face. I opened my eyes in the dark and felt Kev’s arm move to touch his face.

Did you feel that?‘ I asked.

Kev said ‘yes’ and rolled off to sleep. I asked myself, ‘Was that a spider? No. My hair? No.’ No, it didn’t feel like any of that. I started to feel panic rise up in my stomach. I told myself to sleep and stop creeping myself out. I had a hard time convincing myself to do so.

At breakfast, I was joking with Kev about the ‘paranormal’ experience we had. We were laughing and I was playfully trying to convince him that it wasn’t my hair has Kev had thought. Jenna walked into the kitchen and asked us what was up, and I said we were laughing about our ‘experience’ that night. Jenna looked amused and curious at the same time and asked me to explain what happened. Once I had finished with my story, she didn’t laugh. Jenna then went on to explain that we were not the first guests to have had an experience like that in her apartment. I stopped laughing. So, I wasn’t just being paranoid and silly as I had told myself?

Apparently, two other guests had experienced the ‘friendly spirits’ in the apartment as Brett so casually called them when we eventually met him. The first instance was when a guest woke up to go to the toilet in the early hours of the morning and saw a dark figure (and assumed it was Jenna) standing at the bookshelf. When she returned to her room, she looked across to the bookshelf and saw that ‘Jenna’ was no longer there. When she asked Jenna the next morning, Jenna was baffled because she and Brett were definitely not up looking at books in the dark that morning. *Shudder!*

Second experience was when another guest was playing a guitar in the living room. She heard and saw someone walk down the hallway and called out to them, but there was no answer. A few hours later she saw Jenna and said ‘Oh! I called out to you earlier on.’ Jenna had no clue what she was talking about as she had just arrived home and Brett was still at work. *Gasp!*

Jenna concluded ‘Well that’s what you get when you live in the most haunted city in the world.’

Jaw dropped. Eyes bulging out. I must have been the silliest goldfish in pjs. I was mystified that I had not heard or at least stumbled across Edinburgh’s haunted reputation, but it made a lot of sense why it was labelled that. Jenna informed us that it is so haunted, that a lot of the tours in Edinburgh are ghost and haunted tours. Gah! On hearing that, I felt the heebee-geebees crawl up my spine. These stories made the fresh and lively apartment that we were staying in a lot more spookier and to be honest, made the rest of my week there very difficult for me to sleep.

Despite being freaked out for most of the week, we ended up taking a Sandemans’ The Dark Side night tour which was a lot of fun. Brett gave us two large bottles of beer from his Brewery to enjoy while on tour. Not a bad idea Brett. Not a bad idea at all – it was cold, but that was great so the beer never got warm; as an Australian, I would never pass up the opportunity for legal street drinking; and the alcohol helped settle my nerves and enjoy the tour instead of getting too spooked out.

A night stroll in Old Calton Burial Ground with the Sandeman's Night walking tour.
A night stroll in Old Calton Burial Ground with the Sandeman’s Night walking tour.
Despite it being dark and spooky, the stars were magnificent that night.
Despite it being dark and spooky, the stars were magnificent that night.
Kev and the apparently haunted castle/observatory on Cartlon Hill.
Kev and the apparently haunted castle/observatory on Carlton Hill.

The tour was a lot of fun and I won’t give away the things we saw, but the stories were all about old myths, stories of murders, body thieves and executions that happened in and around the city. I definitely recommend this tour for those who want a different kind of tour at night with some thrilling stories.

Sandemans wasn’t a real ‘ghost tour’ which I was grateful for. There were other ghost tours as listed on this site but given that we were spending a week in our own little haunted apartment, I was very, very, very happy with Sandemans tour.

Kev maintains that there were no friendly spirits in our apartment, even though he too was wired and freaked out that week. He remains adamant that the feeling of something grazing our faces on the first night was my hair (which I still don’t believe because my hair was cut so ridiculously short at that time that it couldn’t even reach his face at the same time that I felt it) and he continues to tell himself that the reason the kitchen door opened by itself when he was walking down the hallway one night, was due to ‘a change in air pressure‘ or ‘the floor boards pushed it open‘. Yea keep telling yourself that buddy, I’d like to know if ‘air pressure’ or the ‘floor boards’ also turned the door knob.

In meantime, here are some more spooky photos for your pleasure.

A nice stroll through Greyfriar's kirkyard. Because that's just what people in Edinburgh do ;)
A nice stroll through Greyfriar’s kirkyard. Because that’s just what people in Edinburgh do 😉
An eerie sunset in Greyfriar's kirkyard.
An eerie sunset in Greyfriar’s kirkyard.
Nice... wall facade. Very cheerful. Must have been in all the rage during that time.
Nice… wall facade. Very cheerful. Must have been in all the rage during that time.

 

Our footprints: http://spiked.it/SBagtB9

Zooming through Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris


Helloooo!

Now settled in London for the past month with our friends Anne and Jian, we have been able to slow down and think about the month of February and to appreciate that we have now been away from Perth for 6 months! (Amazing how time flies!). As such, this post will fly over our stops in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris and my next post will be of our unforgettable time in Scotland!

For me, February was one of the more gloomier and harder parts of our trip. The European winter below the Scandinavian countries were warmer on the thermometer, but I felt the cold even more so because of the dampness. The cold, wet air weighs you down and the dampness seeps through your jackets and under your skin making it clamy. Also, it could be because by February, we had been traveling full time for 5 months straight. Though I shouldn’t complain about my life at this moment, I’ve realised that the constant running after trains, planes and new destinations does wear you out physically and mentally. That backpack which I had been streamlined to a slim 15kgs started to feel heavier than when it was 18kgs back in October 2013. Things started to look the same and lose their ‘magic’. I am put at ease with this ‘state of being’ as Chris, our roomie from the Maldives, shares the similar ‘saturation of the senses’ feeling from the prolonged state of ‘doing something new all the time’ which comes with extended travel. It is so nice to be able to compare notes with someone else who is going through the same thing, same time, but different path.

For me, the light in all this gloominess has been the wonderful old friends and new that we have met this month. These people have allowed me to stay in touch with something constant, something that hasn’t changed during this vagabond period in my life.

Since we did so much in the month of February, and I know there is a time limit to one’s attention span, I will keep this post to the highlights of each place.

Berlin, Germany

In Berlin, we did not see our Airbnb host as much, however, he was nice and friendly and helpful when he showed us into our apartment. It was in Berlin where Kev and I were so over audio guides and so I googled up ‘walking tours’ and stumbled across Sandemans free walking tours. This is one of the best tours I’ve ever been on. If you haven’t heard about Sandemans, have a look here: https://www.neweuropetours.eu

Sandemans provide walking tours in and around Europe which are approximately 3 hours long. They also provide a ‘free’ walking tour that is also around 3 hours. These tours are led by extremely fun, approachable and easy going tour-guides who absolutely love their adopted city and their job.  The free walking tour allows you to orientate yourself with the city,  and are extremely informative about the culture and history of the place. The ‘free’ part is that there is no set fee to go on the tour, but at the end of the tour, you can give the tour guide an amount that you can afford and that feel is the right value of the tour. So in a sense, if you can’t afford it, or you did not like the tour at all, you don’t need to pay them. However, since discovering Sandemans and now having attended these tours in Berlin Paris, Edinburgh and London, Kev and I have never been on a Sandemans free walking tour not worth paying. It just doesn’t do the tour guide justice for spending 3 hours our with us, keeping us entertained and being so much fun. My only regret is that we did not find out about these guys sooner and used them at the beginning of our travels!

So here are some snaps from in and around Berlin.

Australia Day in Berlin. We got to have out beloved meat pie!
Australia Day in Berlin. We got to have our beloved meat pie!
Met up with an old high school friend, Simmone. Someone who I have not seen since... well.. high school! :) We also made some friends with Margaret and ...
Australia Day celebrations at Belushi’s Bar in Berlin. With old friends and new. From left to right we have ‘Flo’, Simmone, Margaret and Ricky (a couple who offered to share their booth with us). Simmone went to the same high school as me but was in the year above. We have not met up or spoken since… well.. high school. It was only when I took a stab in the dark on Facebook and asked if there was anyone out there in Berlin, did Simmone reconnect with me! Thank you!!! It was really amazing meeting up with someone that I’ve not seen for about 13 years for Australia Day in Berlin. Funny how life turns out.
Brandenburg Gate with some tea as it was very cold on the walking tour.
Brandenburg Gate with some peppermint tea as it was very cold on the walking tour.
Beautiful Gendarmenmarkt.
Beautiful Gendarmenmarkt.
A winter's day at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
A winter’s day at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
The memorial is open for interpretation. Guess what is Kev's interpretation is?
The memorial is open for interpretation. Guess what is Kev’s interpretation is?
Feeling all connected with the world. Leaving Australia's mark here!
Feeling all connected with the world. Leaving Australia’s mark here! Oh yes, and I randomly injured my right wrist. Was not pleasant when carrying my backpack the next day.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

On the way to Paris, we stopped by in Amsterdam for 3 days. We had a happy time. 🙂

Meet Niels and Diesel. They   welcomed us to their home and showed us what the dutch do in Amsterdam. We were unable to meet Vin who I had arranged the accommodation with, but he checked in on us all the time!
Meet Niels and Diesel. They welcomed us to their home and showed us what the dutch do in Amsterdam. We were unable to meet Vin who I had arranged the accommodation with, but he checked in on us over Airbnb all the time!
Hello windmill!
Hello windmill!
Seren canals.
Serene canals.

Paris, France

The Cathedral of Notre Dame. It's been a long time since 2005 old friend. Good to see you haven't changed.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame. It’s been a long time since 2005 old friend. Good to see you haven’t changed.

Paris led us to old friends!

Firstly, Kev and I stayed with Sarah and Stephane and again took another Sandemans free walking tour to hear about how Paris remained beautiful throughout the years of war. Sarah showed us her lovely apartment and showed us how the French eat. That is, cheese and baguette… and more cheese and baguette. I was not complaining. Not complaining at all! I fell in love with the fact that around Sarah and Stephane’s place there was a boulangrie (selling baked goods), there was a fromagrie (selling all the wonderful kinds of cheeses you can think of), and a cavast (wine seller) all less than a 5 minute walk. This is apparently how it is in France. Each neighbourhood has their local boulangrie, fromagrie and cavast.  No wonder the food was amazing. I compare this concept to the Italians who also source most of their food from within a 10km radius. This truly must be the secret to good tasting food and wine that does not make you bloated and does not make you sick.

Hiii Sarah! We spent hours catching up over cheese and baguette. Sadly, I don't have a photo of Stephane but he is an amazing guy who makes Sarah laugh! :)
Hiii Sarah! We spent hours catching up over cheese and baguette.
Unfortuntely, the only photo we have of Stephane is of his back while he played his piano magnificently. He would let us play 'guess what movie soundtrack I'm playing' every night till late. It was soooo much fun!
Unfortuntely, the only photo we have of Stephane is of his back while he played his piano magnificently. He would let us play ‘guess what movie soundtrack I’m playing’ every night till late. It was soooo much fun!

Also, in Paris I was able to catch up with old, old, old friends that I met in China in 2007 when I went there to learn Mandarin. Ah…Quentin and Qiao! It was amazing seeing these two again 7 years later! These guys took us around Paris by night showing us Mont Marte, the old Moulin Rouge area and treated us to charcuterie (cold meats, cheese, pickles and bread).

Me and the boys at Moulin Rouge. Just like China days and visiting Ktv++
An awesome selfie of me and the boys at Moulin Rouge. Just like China days and visiting Ktv++

Lastly, one of the happiest and most colourful times of our trip, we made it to Euro Disney!

It's MICKEY O'CLOCK!
What time is it? It’s MICKEY O’CLOCK!
My heart burst into a million smiles when I walked up the pathway with my Frozen minnie ears towards Sleeping Beauty's castle!!!!
My heart burst into a million smiles when I walked up the pathway with my Frozen minnie ears towards Sleeping Beauty’s castle!!!!
Kev's always wanted to be a wizard.
Kev’s always wanted to be a wizard.
Kev with Wall.E and Eve!
Kev with Wall.E and Eve!
OH my goooddd it's the Frozen float!!
OH my goooddd it’s the Frozen float!!
This was the best part of our day! The music and the lights and the fireworks! WOW!
This was the best part of our day! The music and the lights and the fireworks! WOW!
A hat that I loved, but had to leave behind!
A hat that I loved, but had to leave behind!

This wraps up a quick post on our stops to Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam! My next post will be of our road trip around Scotland! Stay tuned!

Our footprints: http://spiked.it/LfUdtoPhttp://spiked.it/tESwY4o ,

Masquerading at Carnevale di Venezia 2014


This past month has been a whirlwind.

Up, up up and go, go, go.

It is a rare thing to have a day of rest to recoup and reflect on what we had seen and learnt. However, now  that we are having a little breather, I get the chance to back track on the exciting things that have happened in the past month. Kev and I met up with Anne and Jian and we all have just returned from Carnevale in Venice! As I am still buzzing from the excitement of this unforgettable festival of beauty and outrageous fashion, I plan to post about Venice and then afterwards, the next few posts will be about our stops in Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and last but not least our road trip around Scotland!

Venice

Last year around July, I spoke to Justine, my captain from my superleague indoor beach volleyball team, and her mother at one of the games. When telling them of my plans to go to Europe, they both said that Kev and I had go to Venice and see Carnevale. They were adamant that I would love it. When I got home that night, I googled it and saw that it was very much something I would adore! Fast forward to a few days ago, and I found myself with Kev, Anne and Jian walking through the numerous alleyways this romantic water city!

Carnevale. What is it? It’s an annual festival in Venice, Italy held just before lent, where people wear elaborate masks and costumes and parade them around San Marco Square. It runs for 12 days and this year it started on 22 February and it ends on 4 March. We were there from the 26th of February to the 1 March.

Eating the famous Venician Frittelle... Anne's pretty  excited.
Eating the famous Venician Frittelle… Anne’s pretty excited.

The mask

When you walk around the island of Venice during Carnevale, there are three things that you see. You see pastries, you see murano glass and you see masks. All kinds of masks. Masks ranging in prices as cheap as 2 euros up to in the 100s. On our first night in Venice, we all walked around Venice trying on all kinds of masks to find the right one for us. I didn’t expect that finding a mask would be hard work, but it is. Finding the mask to represent you and what you want people to see is very, very difficult. Do you want a full face or a half face? If you want a full face, what expression do you want? What colour do you prefer? What design appeals to you? What look do you choose to wear to mask your inner self? There were so many beautifully coloured masks made of metal, plastic, leather and paper mache that admittedly, all of us were a little overwhelmed, masked out and by the end of the night we all walked back to our accommodation empty handed. However, that night Kev and I did find a mask each that kept lingering in our minds the next day when we tried looking at other masks, and as such we resorted to try and find the store that we had seen them in and luckily, we were able to back track our steps find it through the busy labyrinth.

Jian's tragic face. Anne and Jian wanted to go back and buy this mask but ran out of time to do so.
Jian’s tragic face. Anne and Jian wanted to go back and buy this mask but ran out of time to do so.
A close contender for my choice of mask.
A close contender for my choice of mask.
Our chosen masks. Mine is one the left and Kev's on the right.
Our chosen masks. Mine is one the left and Kev’s on the right.

Our masks were hand made paper mache and were 40 euros each. I also really wanted to ‘participate’ in the spirit of Carnevale and since the quotes for costumes that I had been given were between 300 – 450 Euros per person for a day, I had lost hope. Until, when we walked past a costume on a mannequin outside the Hotel Principe with a sign saying ‘From 50 Euros’. I grabbed Kev and said that we had to go in to check this out. Was it too good to be true????

Hotel Principe. A deal too good to be true?
Hotel Principe. A deal too good to be true?

The costume

So we walked into the Hotel and we could see a corner in the lobby that had been cordoned off with coat racks which held beautiful dresses in gold, red, blues, greens, frills, lace and all things nice.  The atelier enthusiastically showed us which costumes were 50 – 70 Euros and which ones were 80-100+. I couldn’t believe my ears and eyes when he pulled out the 50 Euro ones, as they were so elegant and more than what I had expected… the dream was going to be realised. So for a good hour Kev and I tried on different costumes. Admittedly, majority of that time was spent on me… but a lady has so many things to worry about with her costume. I had to tie on pannier or side hoops, which are these cotton like bags lined with plastic to keep their round shape, on both sides of my hips. Hard work but we found the perfect costume for us.

Which dress? What hair?
Which dress? What hair?

The next day, Anne and Jian met us at the Hotel where we were to pick up our costumes, and I secretly hoped that they too would be persuaded to hire costumes! Anne, in a blink started looking at the dresses and was soon trying out different outfits. Jian too tried a few, and only after Anne’s commitment to her dress did Jian then decide that he would hire one. Our elegant lady and gentlemen group was complete!

Group photo just outside Anne and Jian's hotel on a bridge looking over a canal.
Group photo just outside Anne and Jian’s hotel on a bridge looking over a canal.
Our first selfie for the day.
Our first selfie for the day.

A day in the life of those people in costumes

Being in costume was so much fun. We ran through the tiny alleyways and through piazzas enjoying the view behind the mask. I enjoyed imagining that I was one of those beautiful wealthy women back in the days of Casanova. Besides playing with the costumes and having the time of our lives, we did not expect that we ourselves, were to become features of Venice! The second that we stepped out of the Hotel Principe, heads were turning and cameras and phones were pulled out wanting photos of us. I’ll admit, the inner diva and divo in all of us came out. There’s definitely an instant confidence that grows when you are behind a mask!

We kept bumping into this family all day!!! They were a lot of fun.
We kept bumping into this family all day! On the canal, at San Marco Square, in the artistic quarter. They were a lot of fun! But this is an example of what the day was like posing with other tourists.

So the next photos are snaps taken throughout the day.

Chilling outside Alfred's
Chilling outside Alfred’s
Eating pasta in Alfred's Pasta to Go
Eating pasta in Alfred’s Pasta to Go
Eating squid ink pasta all gentlemanly like.
Eating squid ink pasta all gentlemanly like.
This cheeky waiter wanted a photo with us.
This cheeky waiter wanted a photo with us.
On the gondola with Realto Bridge behind us.
On the gondola with Rialto Bridge behind us.
Schaweeet couple on their honeymoon!
Schaweeet couple on their honeymoon!
Anne and I having a lovely conversation on the gondola.
Anne and I having a lovely conversation on the gondola.
The boys having a chat.
The boys having a chat.
This couple nodded 'OK' when we asked to take a photo. I must have read that nod somewhat wrong.
This couple nodded ‘OK’ when we asked to take a photo. I must have read that nod somewhat wrong.
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Another example of a man painting his face white and blushing himself for the part. He was really sweet.
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Couples, his and hers costumes were very popular.
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These ladies wanted a photo of us too! They were so nice!
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Curtseying to each other, as one would do.
For some reason, Anne and I just wanted to twirl around in our dresses all day. This is just one of 20 photos of us twirling in San Marco Square.
For some reason, Anne and I just wanted to twirl around in our dresses all day. This is just one of 20 photos of us twirling in San Marco Square.
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This woman had really kind eyes behind that full face mask. She was graceful and very gracious.
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Our picture perfect shot!
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We had to fight our way through the cameras to get a shot with this guy.
Eating gelato in a piazza in Venice. The thing to do when dressed all gentlemanly and lady like.
After a day of being beautiful, we rested by eating gelato in a piazza in Venice. It’s the thing to do when dressed all gentlemanly and lady like.
An example of us running around the alleyways in Venice. It was a lot of fun!
An example of us running around the alleyways in Venice. It was a lot of fun!
I love this pic because it looks like I'm flying and Anne looks somewhat scary.
I love this pic because it looks like I’m flying and Anne looks somewhat scary.
Staying classy.
Staying classy.

Photos of other costumes from the day

Here are some other photos of the wonderful, unique to quite weird costumes in San Marco Square.

Elegant in black
Elegant in black
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She reminded me of a babushka doll
Yes, that's a female Loki and Sabertooth. I do not know what that medusa, boobie thing is. But these three stayed together the whole day. The Medusa Boobie got way more attention.
Yes, that’s a female Loki and Sabretooth. I do not know what that medusa, boobie thing is. But these three stayed together the whole day. The Medusa Boobie got way more attention.
Beautiful.
Beautiful.
This guy was just cool.
This guy was just cool.
I liked the guy in blue. :)
I liked the guy in blue. 🙂
These two were very pretty. A lot of people painted themselves white and drew moles on themselves like these guys.
These two were very pretty. A lot of people painted themselves white and drew moles on themselves like these guys.
Cute pond couple!
Cute pond couple!
She was made out of origami!
She was made out of origami!
Little red ridding hood and her bad ass wolf.
Little red ridding hood and her bad ass wolf.
These girls were also a pond!
These girls were also a pond!
A beautiful shot by Kev.
One of Kev’s favourite shots of all the beautiful ones he’s taken.

I know that this post is just a lot of photos, but it is really the only way I can describe how Carnevale is like. Overall it was just a great thing to do. A once in a life time chance! We didn’t end up going to a ball as balls cost from 280 Euros for after dinner attendance to 500-1500 Euros for full attendance (attending the whole night). I was ecstatic that we were able to participate in the festival for a reasonable price and the photos of the day were well worth it.

Our footprint: http://spiked.it/ugYzXHg

ABBA in Sweden, dog sledding in Northern Finland and sneaky trip to Norway


Hej hej everyone!

We have just arrived in Berlin and will be here until 29 January. We have had an epic few weeks exploring more of Scandinavia and where the vikings lived. After Iceland, I really wanted to find more winter and to be honest, I really wanted to do dog sledding. We were told by the Icelanders that dog sledding is a Finnish thing to do in Lapland. So even though it was quite a trek to get to Finland, we decided to make our way there.

Stockholm, Sweden

We made a pit stop in Stockholm, Sweden for two days and one of those days was spent at the ABBA Museum! Oh yea!  Mom was a big fan of theirs, and so I was exposed to ABBA from a young age and had their tunes etched in memory. The museum only opened in 2013 and let me tell you, it is a lot of fun for ABBA fans and non ABBA fans! The museum is more than just reading about the band, it is like a mini game centre. There are all these interactive stations, which with you ticket, your results are recorded and posted on the ABBA museum website (accessible only to you with your ticket number).

Wooooo ABBA Museum!
Wooooo ABBA Museum!
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Kev boogying with ABBA
Dancing with ABBA
Dancing with ABBA
'Mamma Mia!'
‘Mamma Mia!’
Singing with ABBA
Singing with ABBA
Sexy no?
Sexy no?

I had a blast, and I fell in love with all of the ABBA songs. As soon as we left the museum I got all their albums synced up on my Spotify playlist and geez, these guys wrote some really good songs!

Leppäjärvi and Enontekiö, Finland and sneaky drive to Kautokeino, Norway

Kev and I flew up to Kittilä, Finland to pick up our rental car and to drive two hours north to our Airbnb accommodation in the middle of nowhere. Their listing title was ‘Experience the Arctic Circle’. I know that I just wanted to get as north as possible because when are we ever going to get the chance to do this again? Kev was also very keen because it meant that we were going to have a better chance to see more northern lights! The drive was beautiful! It was snow, snow, snow everywhere! Blankets of white icing all over pine trees and large fells. It was quite a daunting drive for two Aussies who have only driven in Australia’s dry and warm conditions. Snow and ice was a new challenge.

Our hosts Elina and Gareth gave us the following tips:

1. Drive calmly and slowly (max speed 80km); and

2. If you see reindeer on the road, do not honk them, just slow down calmly and they will walk off.

Due to point one, Kev and I unanimously agreed that he should perhaps drive first.

Our beautiful introduction to Lapland, Finland
Our beautiful introduction to Lapland, Finland
Elina and Gareth's front yard.
Elina and Gareth’s front yard.

When we arrived to our Airbnb accommodation our hosts, Elina and Gareth were so open and welcoming. Kev and I were a bit wired from the travel, two hours of cautious driving and overwhelmed by the beauty around us. It was about 3.30pm and it was already looking like 7pm so luckily for us, Gareth had started preparing dinner for us. Reindeer! As always, I was a little worried about eating such a cute animal, especially since we did encounter a few on our drive down, but Gareth put my mind at ease explaining that all the locals eat reindeer and from what I could tell, they are the equivalent of cow/beef in Australia (as in people own herds of them).

We were also greeted by all three of Elina and Gareth’s dogs! They were all so adorable and I could not contain my happiness having a furry friend near by again.

Kev with Rolly and Saku, looking longingly for Elina to return home.
Kev with Rolly and Saku, looking longingly for Elina to return home.

Our week in Lapland was truly a unique experience. On our first day out to the town to get some food it was a chilly -36 degrees celsius. This was quite an unusual and exciting experience for me. It was like very trip out of the house was an adventure! We had to wear so many layers to keep warm, and when you opened the door to go outside, a gush of frost or mist would enter the house. It was as if you were walking out into a huge freezer, except that outside was a lot colder than the usual freezer! One time when Kev ducked in to the toilet, I waited outside and just jumped up and down to keep myself warm. When Kev walked out he asked me ‘Did you roll around in snow?‘ I was confused and told him that I was just standing there for the few minutes he was inside. He then took a photo to show me what amused him.

Within seconds, frost had started to form on my hair from my breath.
Within seconds, frost had started to form on my hair from my breath.

This extreme cold continued to amuse and surprise us. I could not help but giggle every time I walked out to feel the moisture on my nostrils freeze instantly. My nose would all of a sudden go ‘crusty’. Haha!

Husky Sledding

On our second day, we secured a spot on a 20km husky sledding tour of Lapland! I was so, so, so very excited. There was only Kev and myself and two Frenchmen who were on the tour. We all were able to have a go at driving the sled and man, was it an adventure! Elina and Gareth gave us extra layers of socks, leg warmers and gave us two mittens (woollen ones and leather ones). Kev was given a heavy wool sweater to wear under his down jacket. We also hired boots as the awesome Gore-Tex ones that we had were not warm enough. The day started at -36 but when we arrived at the Husky farm we were told that it was -38 degrees. When we stepped out of the car, I saw a puppy and gasped in excitement, however, that gasp was my first breath in, and I ended up coughing as the dry, icy air tightened my chest and throat. (This sensation amused me too).

Me and the husky puppy that made me lose my breath!
Me and the husky puppy that made me lose my breath!

Sledding was just dazzling! We were able to catch a little bit of sun when we were out there. Our tour guides were loving it, saying that only a week ago there was absolutely no sun for months!

Sunrise at midday while Husky sledding
Sunrise at midday while Husky sledding
View from the passenger.
View from the passenger.
Our beards getting frosty.
Our beards getting frosty.

Here’s a video of our husky experience bravely taken by Kev!

My scary moment in the extreme cold

When we switched over, and I was in the passenger seat, I wanted to take some quick photos. I remember the tour guide saying at the beginning of the tour ‘Do not take off your gloves during the ride.‘ Usually I listen to such instructions, but this was once in a lifetime, and I wasn’t going to have my hands out for long. So I took some photos and a short video on my camera. But within a minute my hand got so cold I didn’t realise it turned completely numb. Like real numb. Dead numb. I started to really freak out. I couldn’t feel the camera in my hand, couldn’t even feel where my hand was located. I tried to put the camera in my pocket, but felt nothing. I then just tucked the phone in my lap and tried putting my mitten on. No luck. I was jabbing my hand in and out of whatever was tucked under the blanket. If my finger had gotten caught on something while jabbing it, I wouldn’t have felt it. It was gone. With the wind in your face and in your ears while in a moving vehicle, I had to focus on looking at my lap under the covers to find the mitten. When I did, I just shoved my hand in there and started shaking my shoulders, arms, legs… everything and anything to try and get the blood moving in my hand. For a good 10 minutes I went quiet. I just prayed that my hand was ok and I was regretting not listening to the guide’s instructions. After a while, I started feeling ‘ice’ in my mitten. I was a really mystified. How did I get ice in my mitten? It made no sense? I kept pumping my hand and then I realised that the ‘ice’ in my mitten were in fact the tips of my fingers rubbing agains my palms. Soon after that, my whole hand started to burn as if it was on fire. It was so hot that I tried not to squirm in my sled. After that, my hand was swollen and sore for the rest of the day and for the day after. Lesson learnt.

Experiencing the arctic 

Sauna the Finnish way

We were 68 degrees North, 4 degrees higher than when we were in Reykjavik in Iceland!  After our Husky ride Gareth and Elina prepared their indoor sauna for us to use to defrost. OH MY GOD! I never understood the power of the sauna until that day.  We were warm enough throughout the day so that we could enjoy ourselves, but only when we sat in the heavy, heat of the sauna did we realise how cold we actually were. Everything felt so relaxed and we warmed up quickly. Once we were hot, we then made a quick dash through the laundry out to the backyard stark naked giggling and shrieking out swear words as our feet hit the snow and rolled around in the powdery stuff! When we returned back from the cold into the sauna, we had this cool tingle where all the snow made contact with our skin. It was a really invigorating sensation, and yes. It’s addictive. It is the Finnish way, and those Finnish are CRAZY! I can’t back down on a challenge, and doing an insane thing like rolling around in snow stark naked in -36 degrees, I can proudly say, I’ve done it!

Life is connected to nature

Seasons – The Finnish life style in the Lapland area is very closely connected to the seasons. This is something I quite liked about it. During the summer they pick wild berries, fish in the lakes and hunt the reindeer and freeze all of them for the winter. For the Finnish, these sub zero temperatures which are an adventure for me, is a walk in the park for them. It is normal to have layers upon layers. It is normal to have those cute knitted mittens, leg warmers and hats for men and women (in fact, they are the best kind of warm). A part of Finnish life is that in the winter, you must warm up your car by a cable a good 10 minutes before leaving. This small detail was something Kev and I never had to experience in Australia. Our rental car was pretty good for most days (not needing a cable to warm up like Elina and Gareth’s and most of the locals) but after the second day of -40 something, all three of our cars refused to turn on.

The sun –  this becomes very important to those guys who live in the arctic circle. When we were there, the sun would rise at 10.00am and then set at around 3.00pm. This made everyone more tired due to less sun, and it affected me heaps… however, Kev surprisingly was more awake than usual. Hrmm?

The quiet – I’ve never been to a place where I hear nothing but my breath or my insane voice in my head speak. It is so quiet that at times it is a little confronting. There’s no wind, breeze or any movement in the air. There are no birds, there are no rustling as everything is covered in a heavy coat of snow. It’s really something. The closest thing I can think of is going diving, but even then, you can still hear clicking and scratching from the crustaceans.

Relying on neighbours – because you’re in the middle of nowhere, with only 80 people in the village, who else can you turn to when you run out of food and your car is frozen? That’s the lifestyle for those who live in the arctic circle. Houses have enough distance to offer complete privacy, but everyone knows everyone and are happy to check in on you to make sure you’re ok. Here are some snaps of our arctic life:

It's so cold and dry up here, that the snow falls like glitter.
It’s so cold and dry up here, that the snow falls and twinkles like diamonds or glitter, and when you have a closer look, they really look like stars!
While Kev sits inside keeping warm, I'm out with Elina collecting wood for the fire.
While Kev sits inside keeping warm, I’m out with Elina collecting wood for the fire that keeps the house and water warm.
Experiencing the 'Blue moment' in Finland -  where everything is blue.
Experiencing the ‘Blue moment’ in Finland. During this moment everything is just blue.
Falling in love with Moomin. A popular Finnish cartoon.
Falling in love with Moomin. A popular Finnish cartoon. Kev bought me this mug because I kept on umming and ahhing about whether I should get one. Elina and Gareth had tons of these mugs at their place and I wanted to be able to experience the joy of drinking out of a Moomin mug.

Driving to Kautokeino, Norway

When Gareth and Elina were able to get our car to start again, we decided to take a drive down the road. There was a Norwegian town that was a little over two hours down the street called Kautokeino. It was a small town, but it had a silversmith there which had an interesting studio. So with Kev’s encouragement (I had been too nervous to drive beforehand) I took the steering wheel and drove us across international borders! The driving wasn’t too bad once I got the hang of the left hand drive with changing gears with the right hand. The thing that was difficult was trying to keep on the right side of the street without going over the centre line as it was covered by snow, and in the afternoon on the way back, there was heavy fog making everything even more whiter. But it was ok. I completed the return trip! And while driving we came across heaps of reindeers! 

Driving a manual on the left hand side of the car and on the right hand side of the road is weird.
Driving a manual on the left hand side of the car and on the right hand side of the road is weird.
Reindeer!
Reindeer!
More reindeer!
More reindeer!
They saw me coming!
They saw us coming.
On the way home from Norway.
On the way home from Norway these guys just chilled on the road with us behind them.

Having a complete conversation in Finnish with…

Elina and Gareth’s dogs! Can you believe it? This was by far the coolest experience for me! Haha! By the 4th night at our Airbnb place, I was able to pick up a few cool Finnish words from hearing Elina and Gareth speak to their dogs Saku, Rolly and Myrsky.

One night when Myrsky (a beautiful Siberian Laikan x Bear Dog puppy, who is a reindeer killer… oh yes he is!) was inside, I surprised myself with this:

Me: Myrsky! Toole tan-ne!

Myrsky looks at me from the other side of the room, gets up and comes to me.

Me: Myrsky, Eestu!

Myrsky looks at me, processes what I’ve said and then sits.

Me: Hoover! Key-toss!!!! OH my god, the dog is teaching me Finnish!

praise him with pats, rubs, hugs and excited vibes as I can’t believe that I am talking Finnish to a dog and he understands me! It’s a friggin miracle! Myrsky just laps up my well deserved affection.

I learnt other ‘useful’ doggy words:

Toole tun-ne = Come here

Eestu = sit

Hoover = good

Key-toss = Thank you

Eh-men = Go

Eh-men, eh-men, eh-men = Go Go Go! (This sounds really cute saying out loud)

Oo-loss – Out

Damn, there were two other words, but after two days of leaving Finland, I’ve already forgotten them. However, I was pleased to have picked up something of this very foreign language. Even if it is doggy language. I am sure I can use them practically one day…

Before we left, Elina and Gareth treated Kev and I to a movie night with popcorn and the oldie Top Gun! It was such a wonderful last night, and we were able to take a ‘family photo’ to remember our time there!

Family photo! Rolly, Myrsky, Elina, Gareth, Saku, Kev and I all enjoying the popcorn!
Family photo! Rolly, Myrsky, Elina, Gareth, Saku, Kev and I all enjoying the popcorn!

We had such a wonderful experience in Finland because of Elina and Gareth, and if anyone wants to give living in the middle of nowhere in the arctic circle a go, please visit these guys! You can see their Airbnb listing here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2060177

Scandinavia

So Finland completes our Scandinavian trip. We have visited very country in Scandinavia which was a complete surprise because initially Kev and I had not even looked at any websites about Scandinavia. Looking back at what we have achieved amazes me and I am so happy that our travels have turned out the way they have. People may comment that our travel path is a little unusual jumping from Austria then up to Scandinavia, however, I like it like that. I like it that I have the freedom to choose where I want to go and when I want to go, even if it is a little unconventional, no one can take the experiences away from us.

On a final note, I have been inspired and I’ve written a bitter sweet song called Scandinavia. Have a look below!

P.S I had to sneak this photo in:

My own little reindeer to remind me of Finland. I've named him Myrski in memory of my favourite Reindeer-Killer-Pup.
My own little reindeer to remind me of Finland. I’ve named him Myrski (spelt with an ‘i’ instead of a ‘y’ because it’s smaller than the real Myrsky, in memory of my favourite Reindeer-Killer-Pup.

Our footprints: http://spiked.it/T4roueB , http://spiked.it/ykqMw89 , http://spiked.it/JmGKWL4 , http://spiked.it/W8i9ayc , http://spiked.it/pDtmy1g

Hopping to Iceland


Right now we’re taking a short stop in Stockholm before heading into the cold north in Finland and with a little extra time it’s time for a catch up post.

Back on the 26th of December we headed to the Innsbruk hbf at the early time of 7am, ready for a 15hour train trip to Copenhagen. The pain of the long transits are softened by three things. Firstly having a eurail pass it feels like you’re getting a bargain the more you travel by train (even if you are shattered from travel at least you felt like you made some money out of the trip). Secondly wifi access just makes passing time so easy. Thirdly seeing the countryside roll past and change.

One of the most impressive rail lines to see is supposed to be between Innsbruck and Munich. I say ‘supposed to be’ because when we left Innsbruck it was still very dark. And as we approached Munich a fog had descended. So we didn’t see much of this famous view at all. We travelled on, a little disheartened, but transit excitement was returned to us when we left Hamburg to Copenhagen. We hopped on a diesel train at Hamburg and started watching the King’s Speech just to pass the time on our last leg. About an hour in an announcement came on “In half an hour all passengers must disembark the carriage when the ferry crosses the channel”. We were tired, engrossed in the movie and just didn’t want to pay the notice any mind. So after 15 mins we heard a heavy *THUD*. We threw our eyes outside and saw that our train was getting on a BOAT! I don’t know why it was so exciting then, or now even, maybe it’s just having your ideas challenged of how trains stay on rails and do NOT board boats. I think if I was in a car getting on a Hercules aircraft or getting airlifted by a Chinook I’d have a seizure.  

Anna heading back to the train inside of the ferry

The boat ride was a short 40 minutes and we arrived soon after in Copenhagen. In our three days of Copenhagen the best thing was meeting the people. Not to say that people aren’t friendly in other countries but the Danes take it one step further. We were approached multiple times for strangers making sure we weren’t lost or just wanting to share a bit of Danish history with us.

One time we were just staring at a small building in the middle of a plaza and a store keeper started walking towards us. I thought he was going to start trying to sell us something we didn’t need and wanted to get away but he opened up by asking “Do you know what that building is?” while pointing to the small building we were looking at. “No” we replied. After hearing that he started explaining that it was an old telephone booth setup by a King in the past so the people had access to communication. Then after that brief history lesson he wished us a good day and for us to enjoy our stay in Copenhagen. We were left surprised but pleased by the encounter and I could see how this was the happiest country on earth if everyone was so nice to each other.

We left Copenhagen happy and full from the delicious food (the Danish pasty comes from here for a reason).

Prettiest graveyard you’ll ever see. Also home to Hans Christian Anderson.
Anna waves goodbye to Ariel.
Its alright big guy. I know everyone goes to see the mermaid but that doesn’t mean you’re not special.
Nothin’ like some brain couches for the living room.
Groed. Porridge so good we went there…thrice.

After Copenhagen we hopped onto an afternoon flight to London for a whirlwind of being tourists, festivities, and a jam session with our host. We spent new years eve with a mass of people from Perth which for me was strangely comforting. I’ve never met these people before in my life but after a while it was nice to listen to a familiar accent and having a break in conversation about differences in culture. 

NYE Orphans From Perth on the way from dinner to the countdown.
We had to see a show!
Anna and our Airbnb host Kelvin jamming under a bridge in Camden. The less musically talented stand around and take pictures.

We stepped through London and Copenhagen quickly as our main goal was the get to Iceland and see the Aurora Borealis or the Northern lights. cue *oooooooo* noises. I first heard about Aurora Borealis as an eight year old when we visited relatives in America. My uncle explained to me that it was a group of lights that show up in the sky when sun flares collide with the magnetic field.I don’t remember how I responded but I remembered those words and the eagerness of wanting to see them then. Fast forward 20 years and now I have the opportunity to see them for myself 🙂

We scheduled arriving in Iceland around new year because that’s during the new moon, during the peak of the 27 day solar activity cycle and it was forecast for clear skies. When these 3 conditions occur you should have a good opportunity to see the lights. So when we arrived we immediately booked a tour for the following night. We would ride a four wheeler which would take us out of the light pollution of the city and into the dark cold and clear skies of the countryside.

The following night we were picked up from our hotel and met our guide Mike who took us and our fellow aurora hunters out of the city. On our drive out Mike enlightened us on some Icelandic landmarks, culture (they actually have 12 days of Christmas here! They start on Christmas day and then go crazy with fireworks on the 12th day) and some background on the auroras (from what I understand fast moving particles ejected out of the sun that get caught in Earth’s magnetic field and the slow down of these particles creates the soft glowy lights we know as auroras). Then he tasked us with our job for the next four hours. Sit and stare out the window and shout out if you see green stuff. I looked back at Anna and told her ‘This is just like spotting sharks again’ and memories of how fun that was made the anticipation of lights all the more greater.

We were going to spend the night travelling ahead of the clouds going from dark spot to dark spot to hope to see some lights. At our first stop we saw no lights but I did get some nice pictures of the night sky.

Nothing like snow capped mountains and night skies.

After 15 minutes of watching and waiting in the cold wind the group grew tired of this location and we hopped back into the car to warm up. Then after a 20 minute drive we caught up with another group and our guide decided to go off road to where they were. Unfortunately after getting 2 meters off the road we got bogged. Then our guide tried to accelerate out of the ditch which just dug us further in.

Anna demonstrating how under we are

We spent the next 15 minutes waiting around as our driver and the other car discussed how to get us  . The plan ended up being the other car dragging us back onto the road while two “volunteers” stand in the middle of the dark highway with small flashing lights to warn on coming traffic. And for the large part this worked. Unfortunately in the process of getting us out the other car went down the other side of the road embankment which was then too steep to drive up. There was a lot of face palming. Normally I wouldn’t been as calm about the wasted time but it was an amusing sort of calamity and also we had a guarantee that if we didn’t see it on our tour out we could book another tour again for free.

The other car trying to accelerate up the snowy slope to get back on the road. In the end the car had to be emptied to get out.

The misfortune turned out to be the highlight of the night because we didn’t see any auroras that night. We spent the rest of the time driving to several spots and just shots of the night sky. Which I had a lot of fun doing despite the numbing cold.

A ghostly me and the car
Black volcanic sand beach with chunks of ice debris

Although I was a little sad that we didn’t get to see the lights I still enjoyed the eventful night. After getting back we rebooked our free tour and two days later we were out again. We followed the same routine and we were out on the road. Although I was still enjoying it I could see myself getting tired of the hunt should we fail again.

But it was a different night and we had a different guide, Gilly. After leaving the city, it wasn’t long till he excitedly shouted “Hey I think I see a lttle green over there” he pulled over into a brightly lit carpark and pulled out a tripod and camera for a long exposure shot over the mountains. The rest of us muttered quietly wondering why were taken to a bright car park when we could drive further out. But in just 20 seconds a shot was taken and our concerns were dashed. There faintly in the image of gilly’s camera was the faint green haze of an aurora! The first time I saw an aurora since my uncle mentioned it to me 20 years ago. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. Gilly said that it was a 0.2 on a scale of 0-9 so it was very weak. Then he ushered us into the car and drove off determinedly. We drove on roads for half an hour and then spent another half and hour off road. On the way he told us we were going to his “favourite viewing spot because nobody else will be there, getting in the way of your shot and having pointless flashes going off”.

So when we stopped Anna pulled out her camera and took a shot. There it was. Excited I set my own camera and took my own shots. We were at that site for maybe over an hour braving the cold but for such a rare experience on the other side of the world we were going to make the most of it. So that’s it for the aurora hunt for now. I’m ecstatic that I finally got to see one and now I’m hoping I can get a few more glimpses of them before I return home. I’ll leave you with picture and a time lapse I put together.

Double aurorabow!
Double aurorabow!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b2Qj0UE9ow

Delving into the playground of Vikings – Reykjavik, Iceland


One of Kev’s dreams was to see the northern lights. He looked into when was the best time to see them, and with the new moon after New Year’s eve, we decided to head up to Reykjavik in Iceland, the cheaper alternative to Tromso, Norway.

My first impressions

My limited knowledge of Iceland stemmed from years of re-watching the Mighty Ducks – D2. In the Disney classic, I remember first hearing about Iceland when someone said ‘Iceland is actually green, and Greenland is full of ice.’ Since then, it has just stuck. So this was the ample opportunity to put that statement to the test!

When we arrived, both Kev and I didn’t have a clue what to expect. So when we walked out of the airport and were hit with strong, icy winds bellowing across a vast and untouched volcanic black and snow white land spanning across the horizon with peaks jutting out and very little trees, I was very wide-eyed, awed and curious. This was nothing like any other place I’ve seen in my life. I’ve seen the dry, dusty, red Australian dirt in the outback, seen the humid, luscious greens in the tropics, the magical winter wonderland of the Austrian Alps. But this, this was completely foreign. Similarly to visiting Exmouth in Western Australia, there was a feeling that we were out in the wild, with only the small town-like-capital-city of Reykjavik as ‘civilisation’.

We intended to stay for 7 days. We ended up staying for 11. Iceland is just amazing. It also helped that we have been lucky to find cheap accommodation on Airbnb.

Within the first day, it was clear that Kev and I needed more appropriate clothes. A local mentioned to me that ‘in Iceland, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.’ I really liked that piece of intimate Icelandic thinking. When I looked around, I saw that everyone had top quality wool beanies, scarves, sweaters, gloves, top quality snow jackets, pants and shoes, and the men had stunning, healthy, full beards which looked both wild and refined at the same time.

Nothing like a good beard to keep you warm and looking worldly.
Nothing like a good beard to keep you warm and looking worldly.

So our new purchases included a ‘snood’ as Kev calls it. This is worth a mention as it has been one of the most useful purchases we have made. It’s a merino wool tube which can be made into a scarf, beanie, headband, balaclava, hood, mask and other awesome head-face-warming-wear.

Our snoods. Me donning a balaclava and Kev, a beanie.
Our snoods. Me donning a balaclava and Kev, a beanie.

The things that Vikings do

Being in Iceland, Kev and I wanted to take advantage of all the things that the Icelanders do here that we could not possibly do back home. After reading through all the pamphlets and websites we decided on doing a northern lights tour, glacier hike with ice climbing, the golden circle tour (this the most popular tour in Iceland) with snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure, visit the Blue Lagoon and then a tour around the lava fields on the Icelandic horse!

Seeing the northern lights

Kev is drafting a detailed post on our northern lights experience so I’ll keep this one really short.

We went out on a super jeep, and our tour guide, ‘Gilly’ pulled over and took his camera out. I followed suit and took a 15 second shot in the same direction that he pointed his camera to see what my little Canon s95 could do, and to my surprise, my first shot was this:

First shot of the night!
First shot of the night!

was so surprised and squirmed in excitement! I didn’t care that it was blurry, I was just so ecstatic that there was a real aurora there, and that my camera could capture it! Kev who was busy setting up his tripod and camera next to me, grabbed my camera to have a look got instantly excited, and then went back to setting up his beastly camera (but a lot faster) to take the beautiful photos and time lapse that he will include in his post later!

Glacier hiking on Sólheimajöku and ice climbing

One of the incredible highlights of our trip was to go hiking on a glacier and go ice climbing on the glacier wall! It sounded so ‘cool’ and it was something I know I needed as a physical challenge!

The glacier hiking experience was so much fun! We learnt how to walk up an incline and down an incline, and transverse parallel on an incline too. From what I could see, I just had to stomp my feet a little harder than how I usually would when walking so that the crampons could cut into the ice and grip. After that, hiking was a breeze. I enjoyed hearing the crunch of the ice with each step while watching the ice change from a milky, to misty, to glass coloured. The formations of this frozen body reminded me of rolling waves that were frozen in action.

Our gear for the hike and for climbing - harness, helmet, pick and crampons.
Our gear for the hike and for climbing – harness, helmet, pick and crampons.
On the tongue of Sólheimajökull.
On the tongue of Sólheimajökull.
Kev in his hiking gear on Sólheimajökull
Kev in his hiking gear on Sólheimajökull

When we reached the ice wall that we were to climb up, both Kev and I were eager to give it a try. An American couple volunteered first, and so Kev and I watched in excitement to see them go. As you can imagine, as soon as they were near the bottom of the wall, Kev and I prepared ourselves to jump on right after them! As the day progressed, it appeared that the climbing wasn’t for everyone who took the tour, but luckily for us, both Kev and I enjoyed the challenge and the thrill of the height as we trusted our ice picks, harness and crampons to be free enough to climb to the top without fear. I say that if you have done rock climbing, bouldering or abseiling before and enjoyed it, it is very similar to that!

I quickly learnt from watching the American couple that the trick to climbing up the wall was to ‘abuse the ice’ as I whispered to Kev. What I meant was, you needed to assertively hack into the ice to create your holding point deep enough. If you were too gentle, you wouldn’t even make a mark into the wall.

Kev climbing up the ice wall
Kev climbing up the ice wall
Near the top of the glacier wall
Near the top of the glacier wall
Boo yea! Ladies represent!
Boo yea! Ladies represent!

After we finished our climb, Kev and I had a while to wait for the other tourists to do their climb. So we played around with Kev’s new mobile phone which has this cool animated photo setting.

Teee hee heee heeeeeeee!
Teee hee heee heeeeeeee!
Kev training up for his ice climb!
Kev training up for his ice climb!

Once everyone had their turn to climb, we started the last part of our hike. This allowed us to appreciate the beautiful sun which only shines from 10.30am till 3:50pm and to see more formations on the glacier.

On the glacier looking out to the ocean.
On the glacier looking out to the ocean.
Kev going through an ice tunnel!
Kev going through an ice tunnel!
Frozen ripples. It just reminded me of the ocean.
Frozen ripples. It just reminded me of the ocean.

Bathing outdoors in the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon was the one thing that we heard about Iceland before we arrived. It was everywhere on the internet and everywhere in the airports. So we made a trip to this natural spa telling ourselves that it was for the purposes of ‘experiencing what the locals do’, but knowing that we both craved a bit of pampering after the hike and climb on the previous day.

We decided to try night time so just in case the northern lights decided to make an appearance. Unfortunately, they did not, but that did not spoil the night. Bathing in the 30 degree waters at 0 to – 3 degrees celsius in Iceland at night was magical! It felt so surreal and relaxing at the same time.

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Kev relaxing in the 30 degree blue waters of the Blue Lagoon.
Warming up after jumping in with a bikini from a 0 degree (but felt like -2 degrees) Iceland.
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Enjoying a fruity drink at the bar while waiting for our geo thermal masks to dry.

Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure and the Golden Circle

I’ve been lugging around my underwater housing for my Canon for this moment. For the snorkel in glacier waters between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates in the National Park of Thingvellir. This was an experience that both Kev and I were keen to give a go, but also we were unsure how this would work. We never experienced extreme cold diving (2 degrees celsius), and never had worn a try suit before. Luckily for us, the tour that we went on and Ian, our snorkel guide, had everything prepared for us.

Ian told us that the waters were from the glacier, and that they have spent over 30 years trickling through the underground volcanic soil system to reach this silfra fissure. This process has created the purest water that we would ever swim in and taste! Let me tell you, it was such a refreshing sensation when I pulled out my snorkel to taste the lightest, cleanest water ever! Because the water is so pure, visibility is up to 100 metres. I kid you not, there were numerous of times when I put my face under the water, and I almost forgot to put my snorkel back in. Ian mentioned that those who go scuba diving sometimes experience vertigo when looking down below them!

Silfra fissure in Iceland
Silfra fissure in Iceland
Kev with his full teddy suit on.
Kev getting comfortable with his full teddy suit on.
Kev with his teddy, dry suit, wet suit hood and snorkel gear.
Kev with his teddy, dry suit, wet suit hood and snorkel gear.
Ian, our guide, fixing up my mask so that it's tucked into my hood.
Ian, our guide, fixing up my mask so that it’s tucked into my hood.
Incredible visability!!!!
Incredible visability!!!!
Sunrise over the mountains.
Sunrise over the mountains.
This is glacier waters, the purest waters we would ever swim in and taste! Up to 100m visibility!
This is glacier waters, the purest waters we would ever swim in and taste! Up to 100m visibility.
IMG_3717
Kev exploring.
Our faces were so numb that we lost the feeling of how to smile for the camera. Kev's doing a great job though!
Our faces were so numb that we lost the feeling of how to smile for the camera. Kev’s doing a great job though!
Swim in 2 degree glacier waters - MISSION accomplished!
Swim in 2 degree glacier waters – MISSION accomplished!

Snorkeling in the teddy and dry suit made us extremely buoyant. We all clumsily bobbed like apples in a bucket of water. I tried to dive down to Ian’s amusement, only to find myself bouncing up back to the surface. The gear given to use kept us really warm but our faces, fingers and toes suffered a bit.

After our snorkel, I embarked on being like my childhood hero, James Bond. Have a look see in the video below.

Ok, so perhaps I need more practice.

After snorkeling we visited the geysers and the Gullfoss Waterfall. These were all part of the golden circle tour, and were very beautiful and interesting to see.

Getting ready to burst!
Getting ready to burst!
Whoosh!
Whoosh!
At Gullfoss Waterfall
At Gullfoss Waterfall

Surprise Snowfall!

On Friday night (10 January 2014), Kev and I finally experienced our first snow fall! I was soooooo excited! It was so beautiful to see the snow flakes float in the wind and whirl around the light poles. After cooking dinner, I asked Kev if he would mind to come on an after dinner stroll. He didn’t hesitate. We ended up walking the streets for hours enjoying the moment, and playing in the dark unashamedly.

Snowfall!!!
Snowfall!!!
Snowball fights! I accidentally got Kev in the groin and in the face a few times. He snuck up on me as pay back.
Snowball fights! I accidentally got Kev in the groin and in the face a few times. He snuck up on me as pay back.
The snowball fight eventuated into giving life to Little Mr Snowman and his little snow dog.
The snowball fight eventuated into giving life to Little Mr Snowman and his little snow dog.

Riding Icelandic horses

You can’t get any more Icelandic than riding the Icelandic horse. The Icelandic horse, which you can see, smell, touch and experience, is a unique specimen of the horses that the Vikings brought over from Ireland and Scotland and used during their reign. Apparently, these horses have changed very little since then!

When I was younger I always loved horses, so horse riding was always a must for me. Kev however, had (and I emphasise the had) a preconception that horses were, and I quote ‘death traps’. His opinion changed as soon as he walked up to the cute and cuddly Icelandic horse. We met Blondie and Fakyir, our two horses for the tour. Blondie was so sweet natured and had these large loving eyes that connected with you when you approached, and she met you half way. She was gentle and I loved her! She definitely warmed Kev’s feelings too! Fakyir was a character. He was licking my hand and nibbling at my fingers immediately. He was a little stocky and pudgy looking, but I liked him. We were told that out of the two, Blondie was the easy going one. So eventually Kev took Blondie who was very nice to Kev, and I took the mischievous Fakyir who I had to pull back into line a few times.

Due to the snowfall from the previous night, our ride on Blondie and Fakyir at sunrise was exquisite. No words can describe it. Just these photos taken by our guide Andreas.

We were the first in Reykjavik to walk through this trail after a night of snow fall!
We were the first in Reykjavik to walk through this trail after a night of snow fall!
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Snow porn!
The Iceland that we hoped to see.
The Iceland that we hoped to see.
The Christmas I wished for!
The Christmas I wished for!
Kev and Blondie enjoying the morning rays
Kev and Blondie enjoying the morning rays
Winter wonderland at sunrise
Winter wonderland at sunrise
Cheeky Fakyir!
Cheeky Fakyir!

Andreas was amazed at our luck. He could not believe how beautiful the trail was. He kept saying ‘This is amazing,’ ‘you guys are so lucky,’ and ‘this is the best, and I mean the best tour this in the past year!’ As we explored on horseback, I could not help but grin the whole time. We were doing what the Vikings did!

The Icelandic horses were happier and more playful than the horses I have ridden back home. When we finished the trail, as soon as the saddles were taken off them, Blondie and Fakyir could not wait to roll around in the snow! They neighed and grunted in happiness while doing so. Kev and I just stood there amused at such large animals enjoying the pleasures of what my little dog Coco would do on my lawn in the backyard.

Last impressions

Iceland has been an adventure.

Iceland does have some green on it (Disney is correct on that point). However, Iceland is more than that. It is that magical place where fire meets ice. Where wild wilderness is less than a 10 minute drive outside of the city.

Iceland is expensive. We have spent a lot of money here on tours, clothing and food, but we have not regretted one thing.

I’ve gotten used to the egg smell in the hot water (from the sulphur), and I’ve become accustomed to expect glacier water from my tap from now on (big expectations now!).

I’ve given up on trying to speak Icelandic. To be honest, I didn’t really start as the sounds are too foreign for our tongues. The command of English here is outstanding.

I have become intrigued by some of the locals’ strong belief in elves and the hidden folk who live in rocks and caves around the area. I kid you not. It is a thing here. Check out this link : http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/12/22/22009310-icelands-hidden-elves-delay-road-projects?lite

The seafood here is excellent. They love their hotdogs here (What?) Yup, they do. Hotdogs too, are a thing here.

We had a hotdog almost once a day.
We had a hotdog almost once a day.

After being here for 11 days and doing the things that Vikings do, it is hard to avoid becoming just like the locals. As such, I sign off with our last photo taken in Reykjavik before leaving Iceland.

Complete Viking transformation guaranteed after 12 days in Iceland.
Complete Viking transformation guaranteed after 11 days in Iceland.

 

Our footprints: http://spiked.it/aziM6AW , http://spiked.it/RbLj9pJ , http://spiked.it/NSoEV5V , http://spiked.it/HJtuCn1 , http://spiked.it/S5QBPFM