Category Archives: Travel

Australia & New Zealand – Days 13 and 14

Electronic Wonderland

I was in Sydney three years ago and always felt it was grander and bigger than Brisbane. The taxi drive in from the airport confirmed this. At night it really looks wonderful.

The taxi ride was complimentary from the hotel we’d booked. The taxi driver, thanks to the hotel or details had the wrong address for the hotel and this luxurious ride ended, we discovered, 300 metres from the door. Oh how we laughed about this error with our three heavy bags and two rucksacks. We were smack in the middle of the CBD (Central Business District). In fact Anna and I were confused as to the hotel we’d booked and had no idea it was so expensive at about £220 per night without breakfast. (I do appreciate people reading this in the south of England will observe that a Premier Inn on the outskirts of Hounslow at Easter costs about the same amount.)


The hotel is well furnished, quite classy but has made some considerable missteps. Every corridor is in darkness, a bit like a nightclub without Lionel Richie’s ‘Dancing On The Ceiling’ at volume 10.

A 12 year old must have been asked to propose the electronics. You had to present your key card to the lift call button and it would bring the lift, whence you can only ascend to the floor activated by your card. There were folk who’d just checked in bewildered by this weird arrangement as they searched for floor buttons in the lift. The gym had one static bike. However is was a ‘Peloton’ bike and you had to join or log in to the software to get any performance data. All building doors were activated by cards or mysterious hand waves over wall sensors etc. Needless to say our coffee machine wouldn’t work/pierce the pods to make a drink. There was near panic as a Yorkshireman barrelled his way to the Reception Desk with the offending article under his arm. ‘Next time Sir, please just call and we’ll swap it’…. what and miss the alarmed look on your face, in front of other guests, about defective appliances? Oh yes and only two of the three lifts were working; this meant wearying queues at peak times. On our last night a tannoy went off in the room advising a fire alarm, somewhere on the 30 floors, had gone off and we were to await further instructions. Having seen Towering Inferno Anna and I immediately dressed and descended to the ground floor. Here we witnessed firemen leaving the building. It was a false alarm. Someone on the11th floor had burnt something whilst cooking. Never a dull moment. I’m looking forward to the request for feedback from could be an essay.

The Harbour Bridge and the Opera House are magnificent monuments. I’d done a walking tour in 2020 but did it again with ‘Business Class’ and I have to say Kieren was outstanding. Funny, in control and interesting with a mix of history, art, animal life, ethnic explanation and architecture. A top man, not all guides are this exceptional. He told the agonising story of the building of the Opera House that was over budget and continued to be designed well after the construction had started. The concern was enough to have the brilliant Danish architect (who won the design brief competition in 1957) eventually marginalised as the overspend and delays mounted. Ultimately he was replaced and offered a junior role, that he rejected, so that he resigned and went home to Denmark. In fairness his replacements didn’t address the delays and created appalling acoustics (since rectified.) When the Queen opened it in 1973 the architect Jørn Utzon wasn’t even invited. Relations were later patched up between the government and the Dane but it wasn’t a ‘good look’ given the unmatched iconic status of the building globally. Literally a wonder of the world.

In comparing my walking tours then the 2023 one had more recognition of the indigenous people. It’s a new theme. The Aborigines have been in Australia for 65,000 years and all of a sudden, in three years, the Australian (whites) are talking about them and pointing out the fact that they now fly their indigenous flags! Kieren also apologised for those who entered the old Custom House at Circular Quay about the swastikas inlaid in the marble floor. This apology was due to their Nazi connotations. I reckon that unless you’re over 60 and European then you’ve got little idea or sensitivity about their appropriation by the German National Socialists. You had to seek them out on the floor as you entered the building. The building was built and used in the 19th Century long before Hitler and Australia had no fascist sympathies. The swastika has been around since 500 BC in Eurasian art and I’ve seen them proudly displayed in Malaysia. It seems that you can never apologise enough nowadays.

The mighty Kieren
There were originally 50 species of bird in Sydney these cages represent them and contain sounds of the bird. On the pavement, beneath, the bird is identified.

Culturally there were other crimes that still persisted. I speak of the male mullet and moustache. Like the eradication of rickets and leprosy I thought such a look was long gone, it’s last recording was, I thought, in the 80s. Sadly not. Much to my distress whilst watching Aussie Rules ‘’Footy’ on the hotel TV I came across Bailey Smith. Surely as a child his parents should have opted to have him inoculated? Unspeakable? I agree.

I expect his mother still loves him…

We walked around the city and took a ferry across to Manly. Here we watched the surfers in overcast conditions show their skills before enjoying the views on the way back to Circular Quay.

Captain Ives

As I discovered last time, when I cycled out of the city, the suburbs are smart, often exclusive and interesting. Sydney has a population of over 5 million, about a fifth of the whole nation. If I had to live in an Australian city then it’s my pick.

Nice spot for a wedding?
Apparently the two animals on the National shield are incapable of walking backwards. Forward Australia!
Australian roadworks (or idiots with coloured spray paints employed by the council)
Underneath the Harbour Bridge this wonderful grand piano sat awaiting a pianist. No evident vandalism and a great spot to tinkle the ivories. (Yes, I know that phrase is probably now politically incorrect. Relax, the keys have been nowhere near Jumbo.)
I’ve cycled over that.

My first wife relaxed her grip on the purse as regards dining and some of the food was terrific.

Kingfish with potato, feta, avocado, tomato and onion
Protein restoration

Australia & New Zealand 2023 – Days 11 and 12

Meeting old Friends

Brisbane is Australia’s third largest city and the capital of Queensland. I’d been here before and stayed in a hostel about a mile out of town. This time I was located in an apartment, with kitchen, in the Central Business District with my ‘Business Class’ buddy who never ‘slums’ it.

It was handy being so centrally located as everything we wanted to do and see was nearby. The next morning itinerary priorities were set and Anna marched off to have her nails done! This released me to find a record shop and I happily flicked through the second hand LP’s looking for treasure. I intend to write a separate blog about visiting record stores abroad. I have something to say, elsewhere. Central Brisbane is ordinarily busy with tourists and many young folk, in fact there are 100,000 students in the city at three universities. Many of the students live and study in the centre of the city. It inevitably gives it a vibe and late night buzz.

I wanted to cross the Brisbane river and visit the South Bank Parklands, it was a highlight last time I came. This is a curated area with animals, swimming pools, rainforest, restaurants and children’s play areas. It’s delightful.

You needed to have swimming pools in this area to prevent anybody going into the river. Bull sharks lurk within and are flesh eaters. The good news is that as humans are not their usual lunch they will probably break off after tasting the menu. Clearly not a game you’d want to play however. There are 3,000 up and down the river.

There was much to admire and see. The scale is big and modern. However despite the restoration of 19th Century buildings it seemed, to me, a nonsense to then bury the artefacts in the midst of glass and steel skyscrapers. Was it ‘lip service’ to the planners and conservationists whilst the developers and money makers got their way? Sadly much of this development seems similar to the Far East where there seems to be no sentimentality about architectural history and an appetite for mixing concrete in every increasing quantities. One could argue this happens everywhere, including central London, but it seems very aggressive in Brisbane.

A little buried?

After visiting the far river bank we got one of the free ferries back to our side and disembarked at ‘Riverside’. It was here later we met Katie and Matt for drinks and a meal. Matt is an Aussie but Katie is not! She’s a close friend of our Favourite Youngest. Katie’s been known to our family for about 25 years. She started and finished school with Sophie (and Katrina). The inevitable happened that after a year out Down Under she found someone and has decided to stay. In order to secure her visa she’s had to spend into four figures and submit endless documents and links to social media to demonstrate the veracity of her relationship and intention to stay with it. She awaiting the result about a long term residency.

Moi, Katie, Matt & ‘Business Class’

One of the beauties of this climate are the evenings. Sitting outside in the warm balmy evening is a true pleasure.

We often take a city walking tour on our holidays and Anna arranged one with the ‘Brisbane Greeters’: a group of volunteers who give up their time, for free, to show tourists around. John was our guide, a mere sprog at 83 years old, and a font of all knowledge. He’d been born in England but arrived in Australia in 1948; he knew his way around. The website said no tipping was expected? This seemed hard given the four hours he led us.

What is obvious is the dramatic growth of Brisbane in terms of population and development over the last couple of decades. The ambition of the city holds no bounds and they’ve secured the 2032 Olympic Games. Quite why you’d want to host it isn’t something I can understand but I’m sure it’ll go well and be a success. Melbourne held the games in 1956, Sydney in 2000 and maybe Brisbane felt it should have a turn?

In the evening our cultural journey continued with attendance at the rugby league derby between the Dolphins and the Broncos.

The Dolphins are a newly formed team and Karl, our man in the city and much mentioned throughout my blogs organised the tickets. It was a wonderful occasion in the balmy evening in a world class stadium.

Dolphins 12 Broncos 18

We were amongst 51,000 fans who irrespective of their allegiance sat together and roared their men on loudly. We were Dolphin fans as Karl’s daughter’s partner plays for the Dolphins (but was absent on the night with injury.) The NRL is the most competitive and highest quality league in the world and it was quite something to enjoy the aggressive rugby and match day experience with light shows, flares, dancing and trumpet solos!

It was super to meet up with Karl and he’ll be back in the UK next month before a trip to the onward flight to the USA to go down Route 66.

Don’t spill your beer!
Phins Up!

The next morning we got an early bus to the airport for the last of our Australian destinations, Sydney. A big shout out to the quality of public transportation in the city, easy and cheap.

Australia & New Zealand 2023 – Days 9 and 10

A Trip Down Memory Lane

Day 9 saw the driving catch up with us: we were weary. So we mooched about Hervey Bay and generally chilled. Hervey Bay generally has older residents and I was pleased to bring down the average age for the time we stayed there. It looks like a retirement spot. It’s a big place with large stores, dealerships and a two lane highway through it. However, the end of the town we stayed at was residential and close to the beach. We enjoyed our first Australian stroll on the sand and along the pier. The layout at the front with showers, toilet blocks, walkways was fantastic along with outdoor gym equipment.

The drive

We’re conscious that with New Zealand coming up we’ll be eating out every night. So we used the B&B’s excellent kitchen and had some omelettes that evening. Sometimes something very plain is a welcome change. We have a cold bag and have been carrying vegetables, cheese, butter, milk etc from place to place. It also provides a useful place to stow the white wine and beer.

Young Anna striding out

Refreshed we rose the next morning to find a rainy day and drove up to nearby Maryborough. This has a sad place in my heart as it is where I was told to abandon my 2020 bike ride from Melbourne to Cairns as Covid was shutting down the UK and I best get back whilst I could. I found the campsite where Trailfinders delivered the fatal blow on a late night call. At the time I had to find my way back to Brisbane to get a flight home. Not a piece of cake given that I had to quickly get back south with a bike. I couldn’t ride it and there was no rail link. One of the buses that runs up the coast came to my rescue. It was a fraught and stressful time. The problem came with packing the bike for shipment on an aeroplane. With shops shutting as part of the Lockdown and it also being the weekend I was struggling to get a box. You may find my blog at the time interesting (there again, you may not!).

So we looked around the campsite. Three years later the REO Speed Wagon is still there. A veritable trucking classic. (You may know the name from the 70s American rock band who nicked the name.) I also took a photo of the very spot my ride was ended in a phone call.

I was stood here using the charging points for my phone

The drive to Brisbane was in the rain and the temperature plummeted to 24°C! The traffic started to build and the inevitable road works slowed our progress. We initially thought we’d swing by Noosa Heads, then Gympie but as time was lost in the traffic we only had just enough time to visit Kin Kin. I’d stopped here, sleeping on the boundary of a cricket ground in 2020. The nearby cafe/restaurant left a very favourable impression on me and so returned.

‘Black Ant Gourmet’, Kin Kin
Oh look, another pie!

We continued and hit traffic jams on the outskirts of Brisbane. We dropped the wonderful X3 at the airport and caught a train link into the centre of Brisbane. In the early evening a rush of people came at you on the streets. It was also quite arduous wheeling and lugging our baggage in this busy place but we eventually found our apartment and settled in. I set off to find a ‘bottle shop’ or off licence for some wine. It was tomorrow we’d explore the city.

I’d read somewhere that we’d taken the ‘Easter’ off our eggs to protect some members of our society from offence. Clearly not troubling them here.

Australia & New Zealand 2023

Beetroot and Hot Cross Buns – Days 7 & 8

The simple reality was that there were a lot of miles to drive before Brisbane and we needed to eat up the road. Mackay won’t live long in the memory but my early morning wander will. I dared to turn on my mobile to get the Leeds score. We won, good old Wolves saw fit to lay down and die in supporting our survival plan. This temporary agony relief should see me through to New Zealand and the resumption after the international fixtures break.

However the Sabrina Sugar Shed will live longer in the memory. It was about an hour south drive. We’d driven for hundreds of miles past sugar cane fields and Anna had found a place where it was all explained. We gave up an hour and a half to have the cultivation and sugar extraction process explained.

It all starts with an acknowledgement to the indigenous Elders before the tour begins. This is common on any public event. It seems appropriate in some instances but odd in others ie. before our flight from Melbourne to Cairns it was read out? The parallel with the USA and the native Americans seems complete. That is, the Europeans came and swept them to the margins whilst abusing or killing them. Especially in Australia there was an energetic and active campaign to have many indigenous children abandon their culture and become ‘western’ in the mid 20th Century. Despite all the kind words/acknowledgement today these people are marginalised in the economy or societal structure. It seems irretrievable and many here and in the USA are in a desperate place.

After harvesting the cane it needs to be quickly processed before it goes off and the raw cane is brought by rail to the mill on an agreed schedule with the farmer. Here it’s cut, crushed; the juice squeezed out. Then the juice is filtered to extract the bugs, bits of toads, extraneous weeds and all sorts of stuff that should ensure you now forever reduce your sugar intake. The refining continues until crystallisation and it’s then one step away from human use. That’s achieved in a controlled environment away from the mill. The vast majority is exported in bulk. This little operation made some samples up in chutneys, liqueurs, candy floss etc. using the product for us to drink or eat. The farming doesn’t involve a lot a labour and it’s not uncommon for the farmer to have another form of income. Typical of a lot of Australia the large mill behind our tour is Singaporean owned.

Ready for the Outback

Soon back on the road we were headed for Rockhampton, or as our colonial cousins call it….. Rocky. As we left the Shed we innocently enquired as to a good place to take a break and have a coffee on our drive. ‘Nah, that’s one long boring drive I dread’ she encouragingly replied. Excellent news.

What again?

The drive down The Bruce Highway was tedious but had to be done. We did pull into Marlborough where the local general store was doing great business in sandwiches and drinks. A steely elderly lady was running the show and here in the middle of literally nowhere she didn’t roll her eyes when the present Mrs Ives requested oat milk in her coffee. This reprieve was followed by that other Australian idiosyncrasy of putting sliced pickled beetroot into sandwiches. Strange but very common down the coast. Positively weird in a burger and bun but I have adapted with good grace.

The only other excitement came by being pulled over by a traffic cop to blow into a breathalyser. Obviously I was clear but the roads are full of signs urging people to rest up and seldom does the speed limit exceed 100kph (60mph). I think road crashes and high death rates and drinking must have historically been high on these long dull roads.

Rocky came into view and we found our hotel. Being Sunday night the dining choice was limited but a pizza and halloumi salad was found and then a long walk along the Fitzroy River to settle it before lights out.

Imagine a complete cacophony of birds in the trees

Back into the car I’d persuaded the Tour Guide to abandon the A1 to take the A3 south. This less direct route offered more of ‘Australia’. Our first stop was Mount Gordon and it’s historic railway.

Just a facade. The line shut in 1987

Whilst now an attractive but small town it had been important for much of the 20th Century as a town at the bottom of a railway route to the top of a mountain. The mountain contained gold, silver and a lot of copper. The railway excitement came via the need for it to ascend a 20% gradient. There was a video and exhibits explaining how it was done. That is a rack and pinion addition to the steam engine and railway line. I could explain more but I’m sure it would have you all slumped across your mobile/PC or tablet by the end of several paragraphs. I found it very interesting!

So back in the car we got to Bileola or as they say in Queensland ‘Bilo’. (I bet you never saw that coming.) Or ‘Bilewaya’ to use it’s Sunday name. Here we found a brilliant bakery and coffee shop. Given it’s location amongst tractor dealerships, farming supplies outlets, petrol stations and veterinary practices it was a delightful find. After coffee and hot cross buns it was time for more culture and we visited a heritage museum.

Skippy runs away from me

The exhibits were a little tired but the grounds contained kangaroos. Yippee my first ‘Roos in the wild. Entrance was AS$5 each (£2.80). Anna took pity and bought some coasters with aboriginal art on them. Predictably they were made in the People’s Republic of China. The lady manning this centre helped us find a route to our next night stop that didn’t involve driving on a gravel road. I didn’t fancy getting stone chips on the Beamer. The car had been a terrific boon and I stepped out of it in Hervey Bay after 351 miles fairly fresh.

On the latter stages of the country road drive we saw one car in a hour. This wasn’t early morning it was mid afternoon! The whole day had been driving in rolling wooded countryside. The trees were different to Europe but it could have been France.

Back on the A1 roadworks were regular features including wild kangaroos to our left and right grazing at dusk. After a long day driving and a desire to get the drive complete lots of restricted speed limits and traffic lights were not welcome. At about 6.30pm we pulled up at our B&B in the rain.

Australia & New Zealand 2023

Southbound – Days 5 and 6

With a ceiling and standing fan we survived the night and emerged sort of refreshed the next day. The jet lag is finally receding.

The accommodation in daylight was commendable and alongside our room were guests from Germany and French speaking Canada. The latter were impressed with my language skills after all you never know when ‘le stylo de ma tante’ can come in useful. Breakfast was superb up on the verandah and we talked with the landlady, Dawn, originally from County Durham. With all that travel she was very interesting and helpful and we were sorry to say goodbye and head south.

Ours is the room on the right

The night before we’d seen some wallabies or small kangaroos in the wild on the grass at dusk. This morning there was one in the undergrowth. Sadly it didn’t photograph well as Mother Nature had enabled the small animal to merge into the trees it was sat amongst.

We set off south for Townsville stopping at Ingham for a coffee. Here we strolled along the parade of shops to stretch our legs.

Peering in the windows and ambling slowly we must have appeared lost as a chap asked us if we needed directions. In the brief exchange I told him we were from England. ‘Oh, where abouts?’ I duly told him and enquired if he had relatives over there or had visited? ‘Nope, I’m 67 years old and I’ve been abroad to Tasmania and New Zealand!’ Clearly not nomadic. We found a cafe, had a coffee and then set sail again.

Over the next few days we have to drive long distances every day. This means less notable attractions but lots of The Bruce Highway. This is a single carriageway with light traffic but a large number of roadworks. It’s an easy if not interesting drive unless you turn off. I cruise at just over 60mph. I spent some time changing all the units of measure on the car to imperial instead of metric. This should cheer the car rental company when they get it back. As we drive we listen to podcasts, my music, the BBC or my moaning about other drivers.

Port Douglas to Mackay

Townsville is Queensland’s second largest town after Brisbane. We got there in 33°C and after checking in I departed to find some trainers. I’d brought a pair from Blighty but found that they were strangling my instep. I needed to be able to walk! Given the adidas discount I can obtain from the Favourite Youngest Daughter the thought of buying any trainers away from England (and the discount) indicated how much discomfort I was in. I ended up in Athlete’s Foot where I was measured, assessed and found some shoes from the Sale! They fitted like Cinderella’s slipper. It was memorably great service. I skipped home a free man.

I’m ready for a Strictly after 5 minutes on here

That night Mrs Ives fancied a curry and across the road we sat outside on the street at a restaurant in the delicious heat consuming a tasty meal before a long stroll to jostle the bhajis, rice and, in my case, Rogan Josh to the bottom of my stomach.

Readers of my previous Australian adventure will recollect that I temporarily lost my passport for a night. This time it remained in my pocket. Unfortunately it was not extracted prior to going into the wash. It is now a sorry sight. If I don’t return or get out of Australia it’ll be down to a non too ‘delicate’ wash.

Tissues between the pages to mop up the damp 😩😬🫣

The next town to reach was Mackay. This we achieved after detours into Bowen, a one horse town without the horse, and Airlie Beach, a grim resort with much residential housing a bustling marina. Bowen was founded in 1861 by the British after they landed, threatened and dispersed the aborigines (who had probably been in this area for centuries.) The town has a mixed economy but I suggest it houses many workers operating a deep water port for the export of coal about 19 miles north of the town. On a sleepy and fiercely hot Saturday afternoon there was little life on the streets. I did however love the murals and my first pie on this trip.

Minced beef or ‘standard’ with mushy peas beneath the crust.

Airlie Beach is further south and is a more bustling prosperous place. It’s a jumping off point for Great Barrier Reef cruises and looks a lively, noisy place with bars and restaurants. There’s a lot of nice houses further out and tourism seems the ticket. Whilst there a bus pulled in and bedraggled millennials staggered off with rucksacks so large and heavy that I couldn’t lift them let alone carry them. One had a Canada patch on his luggage: he’d come a long way.

Airlie Beach marina

Eventually Mackay was reached and we checked into another hotel. Again it had a gym and I donned my cycling shorts to spin, and listen to Radio Four on my Air Pods, and Anna took a swim. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

Australia & New Zealand 2023

In the Mountains and Down The Coast – Day 4

It was goodbye to the serene and manicured Port Douglas as the sun was starting to heat up the day at 7.30am. As is the way in these parts the trades were all hard at work trying to get a head start on their jobs before the real heat kicked in. The ‘council’ workers were trimming, mowing and cutting: their work looked terrific.

The drive was slow as we hugged the coast line on a treacherously windy road. The sea was mill pond flat and the sun was glinting off the surface looking alluring and exquisite. The destination was Freshwater Station, on the outskirts of Cairns. We were catching a ‘scenic’ train that ascended 327 metres up to Kuranda. This town was historically important at the top of the mountain for bringing supplies to the many gold mines there. Latterly it was important for the Australian Armed Forces during WW2. The construction of this epic climb started in 1877 and it was initiated because there was starvation in these communities due to being cut off with harsh weather. The access to these settlements otherwise was tortuous. The railway was a solution. The epic feat of engineering came at a price. It resulted in 32 deaths from the construction and many more from disease. The length was 33 kilometres; involved 15 tunnels and 55 bridges.

The start

The workers were mainly Irish or Italian and the days terribly hard. I can’t imagine working in such perilous sheer conditions in over 30°C heat with mosquitos draining you. In fact, despite it being the wrong era and country, it all seemed redolent of ‘Bridge Over The River Kwai’. We wended our way up slowly, and later, down the climb. We were hauled by two diesels from the 1970s.

There were some dramatic sights on the journey.

At the top there were no gold mines but something much better: koalas. I’d long wanted to see these sleepy fellows. There was a sanctuary.

Thrown into this cornucopia of native wildlife were crocodiles, a cassowary, geckos, birds, frogs and some wallabies. A parrot befriended Mrs Ives.

He is helping Anna identify which one he is
And make it snappy….
A cassowary

There were lots of arts and crafts on displays and some of it was very pleasing not least the aboriginal art.

The return train ride was a little painful as the open windows of the early 20th Century carriages invited the mosquitos in and they dined royally on my legs. On arrival back at the station we turned the BMW south and hit the Cairns rush hour. We worked our way through that and were soon turning off the Bruce Highway for our B&B at Mission Beach.

The accommodation was fine and run by some Brits who seemed peripatetic judging by their time living in various parts of Oz, Texas and the Middle East. The room was delightful, as were the other facilities, but without air conditioning it was a hot little oven.

After checking in we did a quick turn round and went out to find some food. The B&B recommended a few spots and in the dark they were hard to find. However, we decided by default to go to the Mission Bay Tavern. We had no idea what it was like but from the road it was brightly lit and seemed a bit ordinary. However inside we truly fell on our feet. It was the classic Australian pub. By this time the temperature had plummeted to 27°C.

Beyond the pub were many diners at the back including us!

We had standard pub fayre along with some Castlemaine XXXX. It was grand! Any way after this it was back to sweat off the drink and food at the B&B room (sauna).

Australia & New Zealand 2023

Rain Forests and Coral Reefs – Days 2 & 3

Australia has a fearsome reputation as regards customs. Television programmes on British TV have ‘fly on the wall’ coverage of passengers opening their bags to divulge a pig’s head in aspic or snake testicle powder being confiscated as a health risk. With some excitement we were advised about a camera crew from Channel Seven filming another episode on landing at Melbourne. We did actually see the cameraman shooting and a customs officer wading through the suitcases of a traveller. He was probably in the process of giving up various body parts of pickled goat for the bin and receiving a large fine.

The journey continued as we had a further flight up to Cairns. This was a c1,500 mile domestic shuttle with Australian holiday makers heading north. At Cairns was the collection of the hire car. Previous experience has taught me not to select the smallest, cheapest car. It took a few missteps to learn this. I’d plumped for a Nissan Duke or equivalent. Imagine unalloyed joy when the key fob bore the BMW logo. Due to a shortage of motors I got an upgrade to an X3. Anna was less excited by my good fortune as I kept minimal attention on the road as I paired the iPhone with the car’s Bluetooth and looked for Car Play. This latter facility immediately enables the phone’s Sat Nav, music, UK radio and telephone. The first stop was to buy a SIM card for our stay. For $30 (£17) I got 40GB of data and free calls back to the UK. From here it was a drive of about an hour up to Port Douglas.

Our lodgings for three nights

We let ourselves into the flat and attempted to stave off going to bed until, in my case, 7pm! The next morning started at some time after 4am and shortly thereafter Anna revealed the day’s itinerary. It was heading north to the Daintree National Park. To get to there we had to take a ferry for 150 metres crossing of an estuary. For this we paid $45 (£25) for a return ticket! Clearly there must have been an error as I never meant to buy a share of the ferry company.

My latest investment

At the Daintree Discovery Centre we had a long conversation with a native (disappointingly not wearing a wide brimmed hat with corks on strings hanging down) about his move from Melbourne, his fireman grandfather from Hackney and his inexplicable enthusiasm for Arsenal. We ascended to walk a steel platform in the rain forest canopy. The graphics and accompanying audio explained the plants and animals that grew or lived here. It was very educational and thought provoking. The threat to cut down these forests globally is heartbreaking. (Australia would never contemplate such a thing.) The forests helpfully absorb CO2, have unknown, as of yet, medicinal properties in the plants and many unique species of animal. If the alternative is logging back to bare ground for cereal farming and cattle ranching it’s a terrible, irreversible, waste.

The canopy
They even care about mosquitos. (Yes, the little ba#*ards bit my leg! So much for playing nice.)
As with all notable Australian wildlife there were many signs and details upon this giant bird but no sighting, other than the stuffed one. I’m on the left.

However, as with all these natural world plights there are people involved. The average life span of an indigenous native in a rain forest is probably 20 or 30 years short of those in ‘civilisation’ and in those years they receive poor health care, little education and live in difficult environments of flooding, cyclones and diminishing stocks of food and space. The possibly patronising misty eyed view of their being ‘one with nature’ and ‘living the dream’ doesn’t wash. Imagine living in the 13th Century in your current location knowing what the 21st offers despite it’s tribulations? Clutching my hurting head with such profound thoughts we visited the beaches nearby and they looked like film sets for ‘Castaway’.

(Tom Hanks was just out of shot)

The next day saw us take to the water. We set sail for an hour and a half from Port Douglas to see the coral off the beach of Low Isles, so named by Captain James Cook. The catamaran had over 50 tourists on board. It was a brilliant day. The boat was luxurious and the crew fabulous. It appeared nothing was too much trouble and customer service was the name of the game. When we got there we were fitted out with snorkel, flippers, lycra suit, mask and in my case a life jacket. (Tony’s a poor swimmer and the crew decided in the sea I’d be best to have some buoyancy! By comparison Anna is part fish.) The lycra suit was mandatory to avoid jellyfish stings: ‘tis the season apparently.

Eat your heart out Roman Abramovich

The coral was beautiful as we hovered above it. I drank probably as much sea water as the fish as I took some time to work out the top of the snorkel pipe should not be put in the water. There were many different types of coral and lots of tropical fish of many varied colours and sizes. I have to say it was just like the many documentaries I’m sure you’ve seen. Wonderful.

Outbound to the beach.
Low Isles

When we got back to boat we had a splendid buffet lunch and then went out again on the sea in a glass bottomed boat to see more coral and fish. Amongst the party were Americans and the question was asked ‘what species was Nemo?’ Other questions included ‘could you hunt any of the turtles?’ At this point I felt I could have made a living selling tickets for this dialogue.

‘Looking for Nemo’

Anyway to the accompaniment of live music we returned to shore. That’s another ambition ticked off.

Australia & New Zealand 2023

Getting there…

So as I’m sat here in Emirates Economy I thought I’d start to scribe. This is a 12 hour and 40 minute flight from Dubai to Melbourne and I’ve reckoned, in my jet lagged fog, that I should have enough time to pull together a few words. I’m sat in ‘stowage’ and the present Mrs Ives is sat about 8 yards above me in Business Class, no doubt quaffing champagne and perusing her sumptuous menu whilst luxuriating in enough space to park a double decker bus. Strange our estrangement, n’est pas?

Mine is the one to Dubai

By way of a stark contrast the bearded, tattooed millennial in shorts in the seat in front me shoved his seat into recline when the Fasten Seat belt light went out. As a consequence I’m about a foot away from the back of his seat. Clubbing him to death crossed my mind and I did recollect that historically entry into Australia for an Englishman necessitated a criminal record. I say club as we weren’t allowed to take on board anything sharp. However, as we’ve planned to be away for 5 weeks it’d likely make a mess of my availability for the duration.

Here I come

The trip involves flying to near the top of Queensland (Port Douglas) and driving down to Brisbane. From here we fly to Sydney. After a few days here we join a G Adventures tour in New Zealand where we’ll discover both islands. Overall a total of nine flights: Greta please forgive me. Quite an adventure. I was in Australia in 2020 when in a difficult conversation in the washroom at a campsite in Maryborough I was told by the travel agent to get back to Brisbane to fly out immediately. Delay might have led to my being in difficulty escaping during the Covid pandemic. It was not an easy project to return 150 miles south to catch a flight and organise a cardboard box for my bike whilst all the shops were shutting down and it was a weekend.

Yes, I know we need to address the elephant in the room or 8 yards above me downing Veuve Clicqout. I was scheduled to come out three weeks earlier and cycle from Brisbane to Cairns. Anna would join me after this 1,000 mile spin. A leg injury put paid to that and so I abandoned and rescheduled to fly out with Anna. As I was initially flying Economy and it also cost several nearly £700 to rebook the flights I stayed with Economy. Anna’s living the dream and spending some of her father’s inheritance to reach the colonies in comfort and indulging in that elusive blessing of sleep. When we meet at various airports I urge her not to worry and go into the executive lounges to enjoy the comfort, hot food and drinks. Frankly folks we can all agree that this magnanimous attitude makes me one helluva guy doesn’t it. (She never reads my blogs and so I can type what I like!)

Loading and still alone

(The leg injury has much improved although a hospital appointment is ahead. I want to be fit for some cycling in France in July and also to have the facility to burn some calories so that I can eat biscuits and sweets without feeling naughty.)

I’ve lost track of time on the flights through different time zones. I think it’s about 9am in York and early afternoon wherever I am! My night’s sleep the night before the flight was on the floor of a very cold room in Whitby. Copious revelry with pals, lots of beer and red wine the night before around the harbour’s hostelries wasn’t the best preparation for a gazillion hour set of three flights. However, I’m told I’ll get more sensible as I get older and grow up.

I think I’ve now had three meals. I won’t forget the last one, it brought on an unwelcome bout of nostalgia. The chicken and rice came in a thick sauce that had the pungency and taste of the spent gun powder you got on a strip from a cap gun. I appreciate that for younger readers this may mean little as they probably stopped selling cap guns in 1967. (Google will help.) If you’re none the wiser I think the clue lies in the words ‘gun powder’. Despite my 1960s and 70s boarding school mentality to finish up any food that gets put in front of you I had to admit Guy Fawkes would have been enormously disappointed at my abandonment.

Explosive and inedible chicken lurks beneath

The millennial girl next to me is a stone mason from Frankfurt. (Oh be fair no one could make this up). Her English is limited and my German non-existent. Had I known the German for chisel I’m sure the conversation would have flourished. She’s quietly impressive in that for the whole duration of the flight she hasn’t needed to visit the toilet once. On the other side of the aisle is a South African woman who is the regional manager for Massey Ferguson tractors in Africa. She’s heading to Melbourne for a conference. Some of you may know I once worked for Ford Tractors. So from here we gaily chatted about Power Take Off drives, the merits of four wheel drive and the regional peculiarities for homologation. I suspect disembarkation can’t come soon enough for her. The other passenger of note was a Brummie living in Adelaide who was returning back after having seen two home games for ‘the Villa’. We bonded over the frailties of our respective football teams.

I think I’ve got the measure of the Aussies and so future blogs may be salty. Then there’s the Kiwis to pick on. Fasten your seat belts….

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 4 (Final)

In my last blog (about being a tour guide this year) I write about some guest foibles and the highlights and that all tour should finish with tips!

Guest Foibles

One of my opening questions at the briefing is “what are you especially looking forward to during the week?” The men have no particular idea having scanned the itinerary months ago and probably having forgotten it by now. This can be true for the females but less so and there are always a couple of activities that excite. One was the Pilgrim’s Walk across from the mainland to Holy Island. This can only happen when the tide is out. I had one lady say that she’d gone into remission with breast cancer and this had been an ambition before and after her treatment. I was happy to help although the magic of the walk always escapes me. On both walks I’ve had two women fall over on their faces in the mud half way across. As a guide you’re horrified but they both saw it as hilarious and are probably still dining out on the story.

Nearly smiling. Two and half miles of waterlogged sand…

One guest advised that she needed to find a hairdresser to wash her hair. I half understood this. Obviously I have little fleece but having three females in my life I am always staggered by what they put on their hair let alone what they pay at the hairdressers. This was difficult to resolve as we were deep in the Dales and finding a sheep shearer might have been easier. One guest wanted details on what professional women’s football games were on in London at the weekend. Of course you can look at Google but where are the grounds, how do you best get there and how much?

The Highlights

I mentioned that a well curated tour is the most vital thing for success., followed by some decent weather. To think my ‘office’ was Hadrian’s Wall, the Northumberland coastline, Alnwick Castle, Malham Tarn, the Black Sheep Brewery or Fountains Abbey then you can appreciate that there was pleasure in introducing the guests, mostly southerners, to the magnificent landscapes. I never tired of that despite repeat visits. I have a sketchy knowledge of the history but that is improving and I enjoyed learning more, in fact I could have a dart at Mary, Queen of Scots, as my specialist subject on Mastermind. I did tell the other guides on our shared WhatsApp group that excitingly she stayed at one of the attractions I was taking the guests to. Quickly one wiser sage came back and said ‘Tony, she stayed every where!’ True, was in exile in England for 18 years and rolled from one stately pile to another with her entourage of over 50 people. She could fund this number as she was a widow of a former King of France on a very good stipend…enough now Tony.

There is considerable pleasure to gain command of the tour. You start hesitant but eventually you not only know where to go and what to say but you also get sufficient knowledge to deal with changes and variations without due concern. Another thing is that if the tour goes well for a couple of days the guests build up confidence in you and then if things go wrong they’re more forgiving and tolerant.

The ruins of Bolton Abbey, the Yorkshire Dales

Some guests are hilarious and or interesting. One American guest took it in her stride a night when the party took on itself to go for a pizza in Settle. The Italian owner was cook, wine waiter and maitre ‘d. He was also a wind bag who took ages to do any of these jobs. This led to delays in the food arriving. It was my night off and so the next morning they all told me about this frustrating night. Were they unhappy? My American guest described this as ‘dinner and a show’ in terms of entertainment!

The amazing Gordale Scar, in the Yorkshire Dales

Often the news headlines would be discussed at breakfast. I kept quiet as my politics were usually not theirs but there was one sad story about an aggressive dog being put down for some terrible attack. The consensus was that the owner should have been destroyed instead! Another guest produced a video on his phone of his dog. I was encouraged to have a look, not an obvious delight for Tony. To my amazement his dog was walking on a tread mill! This is how it often took its exercise. He also recounted a story where his wife popped out for an hour and a half forgetting that the dog was on the tread mill. When she returned Rover was still plodding along!

One driver who was with us for a few days was seemingly relaxed and experienced. However one incident was very tense where he met an oncoming car as he finished crossing a single lane bridge. The woman in the car was gesticulating suggesting he was wrong to not give way. This was a strange point of view given the size of the bus and the fact he was already on the bridge. Anyway, cringingly he stopped beside the grumpy driver, wound down his window and started to debate the merits of her analysis. Fortunately it was relatively brief and the guests thought it was hilarious. I can smile now but surely keep your emotions under control with drivers you’ll never see again and you’re with a bus full of customers? 

Warkworth Castle on the Northumbrian coast

There’s only a certain amount you want to learn about guests and certainly only a limited amount you want to tell them. However, conversations start and you can end up down a proverbial rabbit hole. One British resident male guest had a career in IT and ended up a US national. As ‘I peeled the onion’ of his life it had started with a period of time as an ice cream salesman in Kansas. If this wasn’t a very baffling progression then he had chosen to remain a dual national. From here a detailed expose on the tax realities of such a status were revealed. The gist being that Uncle Sam got first dibs before HMRC swept up the balance of the due levy. From here another conversation of why retain both citizenships ensued. It never came with an answer I thought was compelling but there again stuff like Brexit or Scottish Independence never hinge on the logic of monetary arithmetic do they.

As a guide then most of the other professionals you deal with whilst out and about are usually on your side and one meeting that touched me was at Hardraw Force Waterfall in the Yorkshire Dales. Leading the party I turned up at the counter to pay for the guests to walk up to the waterfall. The lady behind the counter was a little terse and sought our help on using the technology to pay for the visit. I also needed a receipt and this was another challenge for her. Anyway we did the transaction and the guests went up to see the attraction whilst I stayed behind. It transpired that she was nearly blind and that using the technology was a bordering on impossible. She told me she had terminal ‘blood cancer’ and that the treatment had led to her blindness. She owned this attraction with her family but she’d had to manage the admissions for the day.

Within Alnwick Castle on a private tour

As I helped her she was so grateful and I was offered chocolate bars and coffee for free. Frankly I was so glad I’d helped let alone needed to receive any gratuity. As they say ‘be slow to judge people’.

I must mention the camaraderie of the guides. This wasn’t just when working together but before, after or during a tour you’ve always got someone to ask about lunch solutions, train pick ups, walking short cuts, rescheduling and the like. If you have the experience then you’re happy to share and you know the pressure the guide is under time wise so that everyone responds with alacrity.


I worked for two tour operators on the four tours. Each operator’s brochure mentions tipping the guide/s on the holiday. Personally whatever I might receive then it was never going to be used to pay a bill or change my life. However, it does provide a fillip and boost for feeling you’ve done a good job. Everyone likes a ‘pat on the back’. 

The amazing Vindolanda

Before I started there were folklore stories about Americans being very generous and I knew what Anna and I had tipped on our holidays. Surely it’d be a pleasant surprise when they personally sought me out to press cash into my hand before they left? No, frankly it was miserable and I mainly came away thinking that the British were simply mean. The older the guest the lower the tip (or non existent) and as you’ve read then those are the guests who you help most, ask the most questions (sometimes repetitively) , re-arrange dining arrangements for and you have to listen to most to as they regale you with endless anecdotes. The simple fact is that many are lonely and this is a social event as much as a, say, sightseeing or walking holiday.

On average I received less per guest than they spent on cheese, as gifts for family and friends, when we visited the Wensleydale Creamery. For the hours spent, and the care given, this is awful. On my last tour I received no tips. In fact that’s not quite true as one guest organised a cash transfer for me. However, I needed a bank account in the country they originated from to access the dosh. I didn’t and so it remained uncashed. On this last tour I helped and accommodated one guest whose infirmity made their attendance very risky given the unavoidably difficult terrain we visited. If they had taken me to one side, at the end, and simply given me a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for my care it would have been lovely. If there’s one ‘take away’ from guiding then I shall have little or no expectation of gratuities on the next tour!

So next year? Well, I’m up for it and I’ve ‘learned’ my territory so that it should be less time consuming pre-tour and generally less stressful. During the winter I’m taking the necessary steps to get a Private Hire licence. (This is expensive and onerous but the land agent is helping financially.) In the uncertain world of recession and global headwinds who knows how the opportunities will work out but I’m hopeful it continues.

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 3

This is Part 3 of my experiences of being a tour guide in 2022. In this blog I’ve attempted to tell you about the detail that goes on in running the tour that maybe the guest doesn’t see. Also the problems!

Guide Challenges

On my first tour I was supporting a lead guide. A nice easy introduction to this tour guide malarky? Not exactly, I was on the train between York and the start in Newcastle when later that morning I got a text. The lead guide had a puncture, he was 20 miles away from the Station and may be late. Don’t panic! Each tour has an itinerary and whilst there is some spare time it is quite tight with distances to drive. What would I do with the guests as our bus and lead guide were absent?  Anyway, the puncture, early on a Sunday morning, got fixed and by the skin of his teeth he turned up with the bus. The guests never knew about the issue. As this was all happening I was investigating taxis to transfer the guests to a pub 40 miles up the road where the bus might catch up with us.

As a guide you have an itinerary. It appears simple just to follow it when you turn up? However, it doesn’t run without a lot of intervention before and throughout the week. On Day 2 of this first tour we came under pressure as the guests worked out that the promised private guides, in the brochure, at the attractions weren’t in place. On this tour the guests, especially the females, knew exactly what they were entitled to. As a consequence one guest went ballistic and rang the tour operator to complain. Overnight the problem was sorted but the guides were left looking hopeless and that the decisions lay elsewhere. Needless to say the complainant was a generally disagreeable lady who took great delight informing the group that she had resolved the matter and that through her intervention it was all sorted. Strictly this was true but in reality she enjoyed being the battle axe that put things right and basking in the glow of her heroism. Separately I had caught her privately and apologised for this embarrassment. She knew the guides had no involvement in this omission but she didn’t have the grace to acknowledge our discomfort. (Overnight the guides without knowing her complaint had raised the matter with our management as well.) Your next thought is why did this happen in the first place? The land agent had failed to do this; maybe as a cost saving?

A view from Dunstanburgh Castle near Coaster

Our management (land agent) similarly were graceless. Whilst the next private guide at a castle was organised for us the lead guide was left to sort out a private guide at a further attraction. Where do you start when you’re driving the bus, handling guests and frankly very busy? To his credit he sorted it and that was another thing learned.

The guide tour information, prior to a tour, involve some details on the guests. However, some detail is missing including their health. Frankly as far as the tour operator is concerned then providing you’ve signed the disclaimer about your health, and have travel insurance, you can paraglide with one arm and a fear of heights as far as they’re concerned. I discovered on one dangerous section of a very wet and rainy part of Hadrian’s Wall that my 80 year old guest had a replacement hip and shoulder. I spent two and half hours as I helped her and waited with eternal patience for her to complete various sections privately calculating how long it would take the air ambulance to reach us from Newcastle.

Barter Books in Alnwick. A terrific second hand book shop (and great scones)

On two of the four tours I was sharing the same hotel as the guests. This was terrific for convenience but on two other tours I was located over 10 miles away. In one Airbnb I shared with a guide he got the proper bedroom and I got the spare box room with a child’s bunk bed solution. This wasn’t ensuite and required my going down the stairs through the lounge and then the kitchen to reach the loo. Being of a certain vintage this was necessary during the night. Clearly whoever booked the accommodation just did a crap job and I had three days (and nights) of this nonsense.

After a 12 hour day welcome back to my sleeping hutch with obstacles

However this was ‘topped’ by my turning up at a hotel specified in my joining instructions on another tour that was not only wrong but in the wrong town! I had checked in early and had just enough time to get to the correct hotel with the guests none the wiser. My last land agent problem is that those who book things in detail have no idea of the geography or distances. We took a train at a time decided by the land agent from Settle to Garsdale. I was suspicious this was the wrong train time but as a bus was hired to meet us at the other end I went with it. The bus collected and dropped us off as requested and we walked into Hawes. Sadly there was too little time for a Wensleydale Creamery tour and a sit down lunch. Knowing what I know now I’d have shortened the walk but sometimes you’re in the thick of a cock up when Plan B is impossible to deliver. (In fairness the guests were all on my side by then and I received forgiveness.)

Studley Royal views

Some things are also just sent to try you. The Queen’s Funeral fell on the Monday of a tour. This shut a number of attractions on the day. Worse was that it shut the cafes for lunch. This meant some itinerary juggling and the creation of a picnic. Where to get sandwiches? And, oh yes, one guest was on a gluten free diet! Knowing this was falling on this date I came armed to the tour with fruit, crisps, thermos flasks, a gluten free loaf and chocolate biscuits. The hotel kindly made the sandwiches and filled my thermos flasks with coffee and fresh milk. However this illustrates the tour ‘starts’ for the guide some days in advance.

All aboard

Obviously many things got easier on subsequent tours including remembering names of the guests. I had one tour with two Jennys and a Jane. I’m sure that the Jennys got called Jane and Jane Jenny. On the final night I commented that we should have been together for another week, not least, because by the end of week two I would know everyone’s name.

Walking down the rocky path from Malham Tarn I got a call from the ‘office’ asking in a reasonable way about the high hotel bills I was incurring with the guests? I didn’t understand. It turned out that two of the guests, albeit, strangers to each other, should be sharing. You’ll know that there is a premium for a single room supplement. Two guests had simply kept quiet when checking in and the hotel had given them single rooms. I should have known there were sharing guests but my information wasn’t clear and I never thought to ask/check as it’s unusual. I was all for turfing them out of their single rooms immediately but the hotel didn’t have accommodation with two single beds. In this situation the wider good of the party, its bonhomie and atmosphere comes into play and I was told to leave it be. Frankly I was enormously upset at the deception.

The castle on Holy Island, Northumberland

I mentioned that the females have a detailed knowledge of what the tour has included and what they pay for. At one castle I entered the ticket office to advise the person behind the counter that the guests would pay for themselves. ‘Ah’, she replied to me, ‘We have written down that we should invoice the land agent’. I thought that was wrong but didn’t have the operator’s brochure to hand to confirm it was wrong. Rather than have an embarrassing stand off with the guests and castle staff I waived them through. Of course checking later I was right and they should have paid and they probably all knew.

Inside Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland

I only point out these two issues to highlight that an assumption that the guest is kind and honest could be over exaggerated for the naive and trusting. You’re by yourself as regards the policing of all this when you’re out there leading a tour.

In my last blog I write about the highlights and some of the things the guests might ask you and gratuities (or not).

Confessions of a Tour Guide Part 2

Following from Part 1 I’ve continued to write about other aspects and experiences of my inaugural year of being a tour guide.


I was ‘selected’ and went through to training because I came across as having an outgoing personality (who could engage with guests), was demonstrably organised, physically fit, appeared trustworthy, had an attention to detail, was customer focussed and displayed some energy/enthusiasm for the tours. This is my conclusion at least! Whilst it reads well then I feel most folk have these attributes. However, you do need some agility and emotional intelligence to ‘read the room’ with a tour party and prevent or resolve challenges.

Kissing dummies for CPR training. Hope for a quick death beforehand should I ever need to get near you….

It started in February with a reconnaissance trip, with other newly hired guides, around Northumberland and very briefly in Yorkshire. We visited the walks, towns and attractions (albeit usually just to the outside of these great buildings.) The days were chilly, wet and bleak and we ended up with a curtailed programme as Storm Dudley blew in and we spent (too) little time in the Dales. The other guides were experienced, with other operators ,and I was the complete newbie. From here there was the plan for me to obtain a Private Hire licence so that I could drive the guests around in a small minibus. This was aborted after starting out to complete the process in Newcastle. You needed detailed street by street knowledge of the Toon to get qualified, I was never going to achieve that. Each council have their own specific requirements and other councils don’t necessarily stipulate this. This meant, this season, I’d be relying on other guides to drive or we’d have to use taxi minibuses.

Llama walking is on one of the tours and Anna took me along to get the experience. Okay, it was her birthday! (My boy was called Dec. Yes, I know, Ant and Dec)

Two other sets of training were mandated. First was obtaining an Outdoor First Aid Certificate. This was 16 hours of kissing dummies (or cardiopulmonary resuscitation – CPR) in the Peak District. It was a long two days and involved pretending to be half alive rolling in the grass whilst another course member had to establish your cause of injury as you lay ‘comatose’ (avoiding the nettles.) Anyway, I got the Certificate and if problems arise then I’m ‘off Go’ but apart from the responsibility of giving First Aid I’ve come to learn that the paperwork is horrendous if a guest has an episode or accident (on behalf of the tour operators.) I now request all guests mind their feet and take no risks just to protect me from endless form filling (rather then their health.) Some laugh at this but I’m being serious! I learned many things I never knew and in many ways I think all folk should do some First Aid training.

….and here’s a doggy on a kennel near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales

Lastly, I had to complete a five hour online course for one operator. Most of it was about adopting their ethos and procedures. I suppose the issue is that the guest has bought one of their holidays and the operator wants consistency and maintenance of the brand equity. However this was a global operator and so much seemed irrelevant. Having been on similar tours overseas many issues and processes are different and it all seemed ‘box ticking’ as it wasn’t appropriate in the UK. For example the guides were meant to check the accommodation prior to arrival. In a shack in Nepal this seems a good idea but is it relevant with the equivalent of a Premier Inn in Northumberland?

On a walk near Rothbury, Northumberland

So that was the formal training but separately I must have visited the Dales on four separate occasions to familiarise myself with the sights or experiences eg. Fountains Abbey, Bolton Abbey, Aysgarth Falls, llama walking, location of hotels etc. This is time consuming and personally expensive in terms of car miles (round trip of 120 miles) but it was vital to give that, attempted, seamless experience and to be able to field those inevitable questions.

Guide Guidelines

It was important to develop a good relationship with all the guests and have a decent daily conversation with each one. However, there are inevitably places ‘not to go’ such as politics. Innocently you can be drawn into conversations on Boris Johnson or economic policy! If all that merits a swerve then you also may need to be discreet on your own life. I’m not sure if I was stalked or I let it slip about the blog but one lady kept coming up with cryptic comments about my writing. You have to remember that you spend around 12 hours a day with these folk and keeping mum on everything isn’t easy if they’re inquisitive.

Craster kippers

Our old friend GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) was high on the list of the operator. We were instructed not to share information between guests. So we always sought consent prior to any data sharing. Frankly, the guests had no concern about giving their telephone numbers not only so that we could have a link in case problems arose but also to set up a WhatsApp group. On WhatsApp, which it seemed 90% of the guests already had, we all shared, during the week, photos, restaurant options, menus and occasionally advance notice of coming weather especially if it was wet! Some women start the holiday with the usual ‘I don’t want my photo taken’, ‘bad hair day’, ‘wrong clothes for a photo shoot’, ‘I always look terrible’ etc. So, of course, I respected their wishes but after a couple of days they’re scouring WhatsApp for all the photos and asking to be included. They’ve now worked out it’s a great way of quickly passing the best images on to family and friends and they’ve relaxed to be a bit more confident in the group. Needless to say I quickly deleted all this information post tour.

Sheep dog handling demonstration just outside Hawes. A little wet but wonderful to behold.

I always was kept in mind of playing the role of Mr Carson, the butler from Downton Abbey. That is, you’re not part of the group but you are ever present literally opening doors for them as they walk serenely along, answering all sorts of questions with supposed authority, operate as the very personification of discretion, be able to communicate on their level but never let it turn into a conversation where you let slip your wealth or superior travel experiences, be prepared to resolve anything no matter whether it is large or small, attempt to be invisible and whilst you’re ultimately in charge you’re never as important as the guests. Again I know, Tony ‘Humble’ Ives does seem like a long week for me but it wasn’t. You’re working, and as we all do, you adopt different behaviours in a work place.

In my next blog I write about the challenges. There are quite a few!

Confessions of a Tour Guide – Part 1

A good friend, Peter, asked if I was interested in becoming a tour guide? He was recruiting for the ‘land Agent’ he was working for. Land agent? If you were to pick a holiday that included a tour guide then that guide probably won’t work for the company you bought the holiday from but for their contractor or land agent. (The guide is often assumed, by the guest, to be a tour operator employee. Nope.) Peter seemed to have had a good time, got to ride a bike for a week and earned some money. I thought what’s not to like if you had the spare time? I signed up (but I ended up on walking tours!) 

Bamburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast

So I thought I might write up a blog after a season of four separate tours in Northumberland and Yorkshire. Friends are always interested (and think they might like the idea of guiding.) There have been a lot of things to learn including the sights/attractions to swot up on, walking routes to know the stiles, streams and hazards and the location of every toilet on a day out! I never had a concern about dealing with the guests. I had been, with Anna, on similar types of holiday in Sri Lanka and South Africa, I knew the type who took these holidays and in many ways they were like me in interests, age, income and fitness. However, the statistics show, it seems that many are single and female. They are between 50 and 70 years old and 61% of my guests were. Of course all the guests were strangers to me to start with and expected a seamless experience from Sunday to Friday. Is that what happened? I thought I’d break down, in a couple of posts, the tours and my journey to competence.

On the Bolton Abbey Estate path to the ruined Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales

Before we do this then it does beg the question how many guides are my age? Err… not many I expect, the mould seems to chuck out 25 to 40 year olds who are outdoor types and actually live on the money they make. This is difficult I can tell you. This isn’t lucrative but if you want a part time, outdoor job with beautiful scenery and attractions it ticks many boxes. They typically work across many land agents and try and have a full diary during the season. I was happy to have a few weeks work: after all I had my own holidays to fit in!

Cragside House, Rothbury

You need to be fit, able to cope with five or six hours sleep per night, be highly organised, prepared ‘to go the extra mile’, sociable and able to talk with all sorts and not least able to lead and to be agreeably compliant, in the background, but often at critical points confident to be strict. I had been on this type of holiday, had several degrees from the University of Life, knew the parts of England I was working in, I was always eager to learn a new skill and very happy to be outdoors.

The Tours

Black Sheep Brewery Tour in Masham, North Yorkshire

I had three walking tours that were between five to eight miles worth of walking usually toward or around coastlines, castles, abbeys, waterfalls or in one case, happily, a brewery. The other tour was not as energetic and was focussed on the sights and had better dining and lodgings. The tours were curated between two operators and the guests had paid starting at £1,500 each for the pleasure. It was five nights each time and the size of the parties were four, twelve, eight and five, the low numbers are not lucrative for the land agent but their contractual commitment means they must proceed. (For the guide it was easier to organise a smaller group.) The accommodation was hotels and the day started at around 9am. Nothing on the itinerary started at the hotel and we had to drive to the start of a walk or sightseeing opportunity. Lunch was usually taken at a cafe, always reserved in advance and we’d be back at the hotel around 5pm. Restaurants were pre booked and the guide attended dinner although the rules were that we could have a night off. I didn’t always take mine. 

Dunstanburgh Castle on the Northumberland coast near Coaster

It was tiring as you’re always thinking ahead, stopping older guests walking out in front of traffic (!), dealing with changes or closures, trying to motivate the stragglers on a walk whilst not delaying the fit walkers who wanted to push on, dealing with hospitality issues such as tables, ordering and organising the bus to drop off or pick up in busy places, sorting out various tickets to the attractions when you arrived. All the time you’re working on creating a happy holiday. On one long walk, without a cafe break, I produced cream cakes much to everyone’s delight or attempted to add something extra to a tour that they call a ‘twist’ and didn’t expect. For example, Barter Books in Alnwick is always such a solution. Frankly despite all your hard work then dry and sunny weather and a well curated tour are the major ingredients for success. After the tour finishes the operator contacts the guests separately and requests the guide is ‘marked/rated’. The land agents pore across the feedback with interest. You’re always having your performance monitored.

In my next blog I’ll highlight some of the training and guidelines to operate by….

My Letters From America – Holiday Notes

Holiday Notes

Just a quick tidy up of some of the mundane, but maybe interesting, aspects of our time in the USA.

Anna struggles with me carrying a kettle and a stove to boil water. (Once a camper always a camper.) It came in useful. We ate out a lot but the food is very similar around the States and weariness set in or we couldn’t cope with two full meals a day. Anna has some food intolerances and some restaurant menus didn’t offer anything. In the room we made sandwiches or added hot water to stuff such as porridge. It worked well. Hotel breakfasts were entertaining as we watched Americans put eggs, bacon, melon/fruits and pastries on the same plate. Is it to avoid the need to revisit the buffet again or destroyed taste buds?

Brought my own tea bags as well

The distances between towns in the USA does mean that food tends toward being processed and I think, despite the supposed love of fishing, that I hear of in Country music, I could win a quiz, with a selection on Americans, asking what a tuna, salmon, trout, shrimp etc looked like before being filleted or frozen such is the rare sighting for most who live a long way from the coast.

Even I was knocked out by the convenience of Apple Play in the rented car. We switched on the phone in the car and the system wanted to pair. After this we were able to have in-car music, satellite navigation and could pick up either the BBC or Talksport. Listening live to Leeds United vs. Barnsley in the Carabao Cup driving through Wyoming was genuinely surreal. Some times you could receive live BBC football coverage but not the cricket. Somebody somewhere understands these exclusions?

We were here in 2016 and the exchange rate was a lot more favourable. Our trip coincided with the pound being at record lows against the dollar (£1 = $1.13) We found the USA expensive. However, even compensating for the dollar then prices appear to have risen dramatically. Salaries have risen as well but with these prices you need to earn a lot! Obviously we were often travelling in tourist areas and some prices were criminal. I bought six peaches in Colorado and the vendor is probably still telling his friends how much he charged…. and they paid!! Over and above Colorado then nothing was cheap. I used to have a shopping list when I came to the States but much of what I desired was cheaper back in Blighty. Beware.

We stayed a night in Lusk, WY. If described as a ‘one horse town’ then the animal only had three legs.

It seems there is a shortage of workers all over the western world. In the USA trucks that passed us advised us of ‘hiring’. At any retailer, food or clothing, interviews could be done on the spot for new recruits and on occasion the service was slow because of ‘staff shortages’. The reason is that Covid took a large number of people out of the workforce and the shortage is evident. The UK has this plus Brexit. I imagine all the EU workers who went home no longer needed to come back to the UK because geographically closer countries like Germany, Poland etc had to fill their Covid departed.

So much of our commentary in the media is about diversity and equality. You would expect America with its wider diversity to be more self evident. Not a piece of it. We saw few African Americans on our road trip around Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and South Dakota. In Salt Lake City we saw a few Latinos and Indians (South Asians). If there was any ethnic group in profusion it was folk who lived or originated in the Far East, especially in the National Parks. I think most of these were tourists from out of State or country. You can see how different ethnic groups easily maintain their separation as they never mingle outside of the large cities in the USA.

The wonderful histories beautifully told

The message in Europe about reducing packaging and waste has been received. Not here really. Parking up leaving the engine running, with the windows open but the A/C on is one of my favourite crimes. In Walmart you still walk out with a lot of plastic carrier bags, in Europe having a bag to carry away your purchases is your problem. Buy sliced cheese and you get each slice separated by pieces of paper. Plastic cutlery at hotel breakfasts and disposable plates, bowls and cups made of polystyrene should be banned. Wake up! Don’t waste stuff we don’t really need. None of this is a good reason to process crude oil or chop down a tree.

We stopped in Spearfish, WY and Anna looked for free wi-fi and who knew the Americans had a sense of humour!

However for all my curmudgeonly xenophobic comments I love the USA. Being in these States where ‘woke’ never gets the time of day I was very comfortable, whether I am a dinosaur or not. I adore the space: wide roads, big rooms, enormous skies and landscapes that you can’t fully absorb due to their size. Surprisingly the Americans are very disciplined. If the sign says drive at 25mph, they do. If the road sign says ‘Stop’ even though there is no traffic, they stop. They don’t jump queues, they let you go first if you both meet at the same point and avoidance of aggravation is paramount. Through the centre of Cheyenne, the State capitol of Wyoming, the speed limit is 20mph. Often I was ready to cross swords but eventually I got the message and chilled (a little!)

On the Main Street in Sheridan, WY

In Britain parking is a pain. You never can. You have to drive some distance from where you want to be, pay a lot of money to do so and then, often, have to sandwich your car into a tight spot. In the States, we passed through, there were no challenges. To accumulate steps we voluntarily parked a distance from the intended destination but there was always easy parking wherever. Bliss. In parts of Yellowstone we came across poor road surfaces. That was an exception. Most roads were smooth and well maintained. Heaven help the US visitor who drives in Britain!

Oh, they love him in Wyoming!

Passing through Manchester and London Heathrow Airport the old, battered and dirty nature of the facilities is there for all to see. In any public building here if you visit the toilet/washrooms the quality of the facilities and the cleanliness is superb and puts us to shame.

Sensational street sculptures in Grand Junction, CO

Some of the Americans we met were quick to decry the depth of their history compared to Europe. True, we have castles, monarchy and it’s older but there is lots to see here. Native Americans, the War of Independence, a Civil War, the opening up of the West, Civil Rights, Vietnam and the importance on all our lives of the USA during the 20th Century. That’s before we get to the art culture of Hollywood, Elvis and Tamla Motown. Chill, there’s a lot to see and learn. I am engrossed by it all.

Lastly, as much I admire and feel attached to my Antipodean friends I am not Australian. I can think of three separate occasions, on this and other trips, when an American has ‘guessed’ my nationality and plumped for Crocodile Dundee. Stop it, it’s not funny any more.

My Letters From America – “Oh, about six miles to the gallon”

John and Peggy hailed from North Carolina (NC) and they were sat behind us at the Cody Rodeo in Wyoming. The rodeo was great fun consisting of various competitions including trying to ride young angry bulls for at least 8 seconds. For the record none of the young men who embarked on this potentially bone shattering project succeeded.


They were away for 85 days. John, a burly former engineer, at least 75 years old had planned a schedule of stops all the way up north; this wasn’t their first visit to Cody or its rodeo. They had perfected their retirement plans by spending time in their Recreational Vehicle (RV) many weeks of the year. After this jaunt it’d be hauled out again to join the ‘snowbirds’, as the migrating pensioners are called, in Florida. Anna talked to Peggy and I to John. Surprisingly for his age John was adeptly flicking screens on his mobile phone to show me spreadsheets, Google Maps and a selection of photos of his RV and luxurious home back in NC. For his years he was active and organised. I felt that the ‘down time’ in North Carolina was spent poring over maps, checking out camp sites across the country and working out new routes.

I admire the spirit of older Americans who take to the road. It seems that they probably pack their medicine cabinets with their pills, stuff the RV with every convenience to cope with failing joints and then head for the sun or, maybe, somewhere cooler. The only time I had less admiration was in 2014 as I cycled through Colorado and had large RV’s nearly graze my hip as they put these large vehicles onto cruise control at 70mph. Their eyesight or concentration was never good enough to spot a miniature obstacle such as a cyclist grinding along up a slope on the side of the road.

Not John’s but very similar

Whilst who wants to be old it’s pleasing that there are ‘Senior’ discounts at a lot of attractions and even with some parking. Like the military this is a privilege extended to these large groups. We made sure we declared our decrepitude every time money was involved. Sadly no one felt it necessary to check that we were being honest! The American winter is brutal but the summer is long and sublimely warm. I think this liberates older folk to spend more time outdoors and be adventurous.

So who looked after the house in their absence? John said his daughter was in residence with the instruction to keep the grass cut. Anna found Peggy less discrete and in fact the daughter was in residence with their three grand children after a marital separation from the son-in-law. As the daughter was a psychologist you hoped she was coping better than most.

On our 2,500 mile drive (so far) we’ve seen these bus length RV’s on the Interstates. There was little that they lacked as regard home comforts and on the wide fast US roads they were easy to pilot. I think John was financially very well off but these vehicles, second hand, can cost $200,000 depending on the year and mileage. I imagine some campers literally sell up their homes and live in these pantechnicons forever.

They’d never visited Europe and I’d be the first to agree that the USA has much to offer for variety but I worried that you do become tied to these types of holiday. Inevitably Anna had to ask what was the fuel consumption? This was a question we’d asked each other as these things rumbled by. “Oh, about six miles to the gallon”, in fairness that’s a US gallon and if converted to an imperial gallon it climbs to 7.5mpg! Petrol not diesel. And if John chose not to hitch up a small Jeep car to the tow bracket I expect he might even break into double figures.

For all that unforgivable climate damage I’d still love to look around one and maybe even drive it a mile or two. Like all Americans we struck up a conversation with they were endlessly civil, courteous and engaged. I always find the dialogue starts easily if you just wade in.

My Letters From America – “We keep ourselves clean”

Salt Lake City had been a stopover on our drive north. It’s a big diverse city, in complete contrast to the rest of Utah; here we’d stocked up at Walmart, visited Costco and stayed in a central hotel with a gazillion South Korean women (in town for a convention.) We felt we should spend a little time investigating the sights and being located in Downtown we were ideally placed. The city’s history owes everything to the Church of The Latter-day Saints. (I was slightly shocked to come to this important religious centre to find Downtown revealing a sad carpet of homeless drug addicts, many sprawled out under park trees, no doubt sleeping off their latest fix.)

Anna devised a walk and off we went. Eventually you arrive at the Salt Lake Utah Temple. This is a massive skyscraper of a building, which is currently a construction site as it’s being underpinned due to concern that it’ll topple if there’s an earthquake. Next to it is the Assembly Hall, a church, and then another large building called the Tabernacle. This was the Mormon HQ.

We knew of tours and Sister Hague and Sister Thomas appeared and introduced themselves. ‘Sister’ is the name that Mormon female missionaries use. The men are called Elders, these are the resilient but probably downhearted young men who knock on your door in the UK. Our Sisters were respectively from California and Minnesota, early 20’s and primly dressed with no flesh showing in clothes you might called conservative. Sister Thomas seemed detailed to take the lead with the party, which now included two devoted Christians from South America. She was open, friendly and worryingly enthusiastic yet I denoted some steel. After we responded to requests to tell her our names we start our brief walk around the buildings. What did we love? Anna of course got that right by advising family, I got it wrong when I suggested travel and music! All this seemed a strategy, albeit gentle, to open us up. Our relationship with Jesus was asked? I was honest. Whilst not overly convinced about wizards in the sky I did volunteer there’s a lot to be admired about the spirituality and community that those of faith create and foster.

Our young ladies had been educated in mainstream schools and Sister Thomas had been the only Mormon in her high school. They had probably experienced cynicism or negativity about their faith but had come through it. It seemed they believed every word of the Book of Mormon. This is their bible not, say, the King James. They carried the bible with them as if an answer might easily be close to hand should a difficult question arise. They talked of a life of helping, I believed them.

Assembly Hall

All life’s positive moments were down to the ‘miracles of God’. She asked what bad situation had miraculously been answered by a piece of good news? One of the South Americans, a dentist, had found during a routine appointment a growth in a patient’s mouth. This discovery led to prompt treatment and possibly saved their life. Expectant eyes turned to Anna and myself? Nope, we had no stories. Sister Thomas now threw in her miracle. She was recently assembling flat pack furniture and it was an important installation for a Ukrainian Mormon they were housing. She didn’t have the tools for the job. However, miraculously a stranger appeared with a toolbox! It’s easy to see that if you attribute every positive event to the intervention of your god you’re going to be happy. She was.

We were invited to ask questions. I asked what was the biggest misconception? Polygamy came the answer. This arose as a solution when during the faith’s migration from persecution in Missouri in the 19th Century many of the men died necessitating, apparently, this rule change for procreation purposes. This isn’t happening now. The Sisters were adamant that their lives wouldn’t be reduced to being housewives; they could pursue careers or whatever. The only other female Mormon I knew was Marie Osmond who has had a stellar career, eight children and has been married three times, albeit twice to the same man. I chose not to ask if either of them could sing. It’s not mandatory that you have to marry another Mormon, however, I think it probably helps given the strictures of the faith and lifestyle.

Sister Thomas said that she and her other missionaries kept themselves ‘clean’. I had to stop and ask her to explain. “We don’t drink, take drugs or have sex before marriage.” All that’s fine as a set of decisions but calling it ‘clean’?

Their missions last 18 months, two years for the men. There are 17 million members: it’s a large worldwide community. I envy these believers and their faith but in a world where science can explain virtually everything I can’t comprehend how they remain so convinced and committed.