the real Camino

Looking for something else completely, a tiny red notebook fell out of a pile of papers. I opened it and discovered my Camino journal, from July 2012. It was only a few pages long — but I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading it. So I decided to “re-blog” it here, with a typed out, deciphered edition.

Monday 16 July —> Really First Day.

The night in Pamp(lona) was awful, 7-yr-old epileptic above me kept me awake till I moved to bench at 4am. Then got up at 7:20 (a grand ~2 hours of sleep) and walked 5km to the supermarket & back. Bus uneventful. Arrive RV (Roncesvalles) & decided to jump straight into walking as it was already 11am – 7.5h of walking to get to SJPP (St Jean Pied-de-Port). But got lost following an unmarked trail… +3km. Then decided to go back, get my sellio (stamp) at RV, try again. 2 more false starts (+1km!) then finally on my way. I had no idea how hideously steep the RV-Lepoeder section was – over 500m from 950m to 1450m, then back down to 850m at Orisson refuge where I am now – today’s kms:

5km + 7.75 + 8.09 + 4.87 + 1.09 = 26km

1:30 + 2:05 + 1:52 + 1:06 + 15min = 6:45h

I was so upset at the beginning about getting lost & adding an hour &4km to my already “tight” schedule. There may have been a couple of tears shed. But then I got my groove on and powered up that BITCH of a hill, as Camino’s slipped and slid down past me. one guy even called out “Bon Courage! C’est haut!” but fortunately I didn’t know just how high and steep it would be… Then once at the top, it was easy, had a light lunch (totes worth the 5km walk this AM, right?) and kept walking and walking… then just as the pain was getting too much to bear, around 25km, I found this refuge. No reservations no problem. So far only other people are 2 koreans, a lovely girl who has been so nice to talk to despite my predicition that I would speak to no-one. And 3 stamps today!

Tuesday 17 July

I slept a blissful 10+ hours — 9pm, out like a happy light. Must have been lots of people around but I snoozed blissfully. Woke up at 8 and didn’t start till 9am. Joyful happy jaunt to SJPP, paused for Orange/Carrefour/Sportshop/food then off again. Best feelings of being in countryside in July! Just like the Creuse when I was a kid on summer holidays. Wicked sunburn despite sunscreen and “tent” – love my Oxfam super-scarf so much! Need to apply screen every hour at least, twice in a 6-hour midday walk is pure stupidity really! Am in an “Expensive” 33 Euro hotel as no gîtes locally and my feet are very blistered. Everyone is nice. I’m so happy and tired and happy!

7.33 + 12.8 + 6.8 = 26.9km

01:45 + 2:46 + 1:38 = 6.09 h

It’s taken hours to work out the next two days of travel due to 2 different variations (4 possible routes). But I have decided to stick to my pace of 26km/day, if my legs hold out. Eating “Type A” has been ok (and economical too, helping me avoid temptation!) thus far. Supermarkets provide my staples: apples, carrots, babybel, crisps, “salades” (carrottes rapees, nicoise…), cereal bars, and a big tube of mayonnaise + any lingering veg/fruit I can find. Not sure how I am managing goodwise really, as 6h walk burns 1300 kcal (my normal daily intake!) and I’m not eating much more. Oh yes! Nuts and raisins help. Must get more tomorrow! Blister status: 1 on each little toe and 1 on the front sole of each foot. Yay. Also: Love my water bladder. I get my 2L/day easily. Thanks James.

view from my window = inspiration for his video game! [James used to play an iphone game where he would glide over rolling hills…]+ 3 stamps 🙂

Wed 18 July. The tough day…

Oh well it wasn’t ALL tough. But definitely the toughest. Started at 8:40, and had to stop a couple of times to deal with the blisters on my blisters, but covered 11km by 12pm (not great but not AWFUL). Then at Stele of Gibraltar met a lovely couple and ate lunch with them, felt really positive — I’d not taken the shortcut at Larribar and was rewarded by the view and their company. They told me to take the shortcut from Olaïby to Arone as the “LR” (long route) was wicked. Sadly I got lost due to lack of signage, and then ended up taking the long way. Tried to do a short cut, met scary dogs… no phone… had several crying huffy panicky moments – blisters were agony but had to pull my shit together and just fucking WALK. So I did for hours… got to the gîte just in time, last bed, and also cos I shamelessly hitch-hiked the last km, in time for food-shopping. Yay! The lady at the gîte was SO lovely and I gave her my Taiwanese coin, she seemed really pleased with it (best 1NT I ever spent!). Talked to some nice (if very french) people. Not sure how I want to play tomorrow, easy 20km to Navaneux or push 25km to Abbeye? I think Abbeye. Wanna push forward but also torn that am not “enjoying” where I am because of worrying where I should be… à suivre…

11.2km + 11km + 7? 8? = 29km

3:20 + 3:14 + 1:30 = 8h

Late night notes. When I was walking I thought of how this was like caring for a recalcitrant toddler — my mind is the adult and knows that this must be done, but then has to coax, push, ignore the complaints, the “but it hurts I’m tired NOOOOO” of my body. Taking care of blisters is like working with an animal — a stupid, wounded one at that. I’m TRYING to help! But the stupid things keep slipping and pinchng and biting and refusing to cooperate or even stay still. Gah. Blisters SUCK. I need a pharmacy. All of the above reminds me of the conversation we had re: Nalia [my friends’ infant daughter] crying in the car, with Juan. It’s against nature to do these things, at least my softy body thinks so, and I can’t talk to it to explain, so sadly it just has to suffer till it understands.

Thursday 18 July [actually 19] HURTY DAY

Today was easy walking but SO painful all pleasure was impossible. Just staring at the road and wincing as my feet popped and crackled. Like walking on 2 lumps of ice shitty nails. ANYWAY. Got to Nav. by 12:20 and went straight to bed, lovely 3h nap in comfy clean sheets and duvet. Showers were “rain” but I went to supermarket and cooked pasta + sauce with grilled courgette, hummous with carrots, tomatoes and a big mushroom. SO happy to have a nice big vegetarian meal with so many colours and textures! Sharing a room with a German-Kurdish dad and his sons, discovering I actually speak decent Deutsch still — I think being in Spain has unlocked my linguistic skills. 19.6km in 5h. Total so far: 101.5. Lost my Opinel [penknife], boo, so got a nice blue one to replace it. Yay!

Friday 19 July [20th July actually… I love how it doesn’t even matter] Redemption?

So today was hard work. The pain has moved from my blisters (soles are ok but toes still fucking burn) to my heel, ankle, and long-time trouble-maker, my right knee + tibia. Shin splints? So yes, the 15km from Navaneux to Sauvelade were limping, miserable hours. It rained a little, just enough to justify the dreaded poncho, for the first hour. Then I called mama and felt a bit better, but also even more stressed as I’m basically falling apart physically and she is (unintentionally) putting a lot of pressure on me. Then I called Madaca to discover there were no beds available – hence my current location in Sauvelade. It turned out to be a blessing of course, as all unexpected decisions along the Way. Firstly, I more than needed to STOP WALKING. Second, it’s peaceful and fairly comfy. Third, the people (oh so very clicheed, but the support people provide along the Way is truly touching), the people I met and spoke with gently encouraged me (by the rigourous french standards) to do as the couple a few nights ago suggested and skip the next couple of etapes. In fact, to leave with the bag carriers and go straight up to Nagaro. A few calls later and I was set up with a ride tomorrow morning, and a bed in Nagaro tomorrow night. I will rest up, then walk two short etapes on Sunday and Monday, then meet Mummy and do Montreal and Condom with her – either 15km a day, or more if we feel like it! Perfect. I only wish I could call her to tell her the news. Today I listened to my ipod for the first time, and “Just a Ride” came on and of course made me cry but also reminded me of my own fundamental beliefs. I am not a catholic pilgrim but I am having my own “Way”,

you can’t help it, so many hours of daily introspection, it’s almost like a retreat, I guess that’s the point after all… I also have had to tell my story so many times, it forces me to generalise, simplify, find a truth that can be summed up in a few lines. Something I usually hate doing but that does need to be done, at the end of the day. So I’m learning myself that I do this kind of work, live that kind of life, have these kind of hopes, dreams, plans and beliefs. That James and I are together and apart. That I am a drifter. Continental drifter…

Today’s walk…

15.04km in 3:30 hours. Total 116.5km.

Reading Dickens’ biography… la vie est belle, finalement.

Sunday 21… yes there’s a day missing…

Yesterday I went up to Aire sur l’Adour (now it’s too late you finally learn how to say it) by taxi with 2 Belgians who then gave me a lift to Nagaro. Michel and Raymond were older guys, who had been walking for a week. I had a nice convo with Michel in the taxi, but it was a 20-30min conversation with Raymond which I found really compelling and moving. He told me to be proud of being “selfish” because “Il est plus facile de se sacrifier que de se realiser” and with the added reminder that “certains se realisent dans le sacrifice”. We hugged and swapped email addresses, I really felt a strong connection with him. It’s funny how the people I meet can all bring encouragement, love and support to each other… well not all of them, but I feel like when humans are left to themselves in safe, mutually respectful space, they do genuinely care and help each other…

Anyway, after a night in Nagarro (well first an afternoon, heavy with the mistake of eating a HUGE plate of steak and fries and apple pie and ice cream and coke (WTF) that left me heavy and sleepy) where I shared a room with Martine (who talked wisely about trust and long distance relationships)… I walked 6km to Haget. It’s a bit dull, and the weather is so perfect, but I need my feet to heal so I can enjoy walking with Mummy. The people here are less mindful but nobody can be everything to everyone.

Today: 7.45km, not sure of the time, maybe 2:20? good speed thanks to my healing blisters.

Mon 23 July – total 138km,

GPS refused to start today, but it took me 3h to walk from le Haget to Eauze, which is about 15km. I got to the gîte at 11am, showered, went shopping, ate lunch and napped, all perfect. Then visited the Eauze archaeological museum which has a fantastic treasure trove on display. At the gîte a woman expressed surprise (which I am used to for a variety of reasons) because… I was wearing a dress, and she assumed I wasn’t a walker. WTF? She is def one of the retarded type [ROSIE, NOT COOL!]. I bet she snorers. But otherwise the gite and Eauze are very nice… Sadly it’s Monday, so nearly everything is shut. Am debating another Monaco [beer and grenadine and lemonade] as it’s going to be at least 2 more hours till Mummy gets here and we get dinner. Just realised time was CRAZY good compared to yesterday. Twice the distance in only 40 min more!

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After this my maman joined me on the walk so I didn’t have any introspective writing to re-discover.

Loved re-reading this. One day… I’ll be back.

a week in Yirrkala

I’m pretty thrilled with my new blogging app. I foresee lots of blog posts!

Ok, so first of all I’m inspired to finally put up the pictures of my week in the Northern Territory, when I was fortunate enough to get to spend time in the Yirrkala Buku Arts Centre as part of my degree in cultural heritage conservation.

First night, driving to the township where we were staying. This is a blurry shot out the back of the van, where 7 of us were bouncing around (2 more up front).

First morning, inspecting a selection of sculptures that have just been sold and need to be shipped… not easy when you live far in the outback!

Learning how to pack them…

I love them, they look so sad! I wish I could find my notes on what they are and their meaning, I will have to come back and add in more details.

Break for lunch. I was staying with three other girls in government-provided shipping containers. It was very luxurious, we all had our own bathrooms and a/c units.

In-filling cracks using sawdust and glue.

(I have stolen some of my classmates’ pictures when I feature in them; this probably shows due to the sudden leap in size and quality. I haven’t asked for permission as I am loathe to raise awareness of this blog, but humbly beg your forgiveness if you are reading this now and spot your stolen pictures!).

Sanding down larger cracks so they are easier to in-fill.

Manini, one of the artists, taught us how to make the ochre-based paint, as well as the fine paint-brushes used for the delicate hatchings in Aboriginal art.

The brushes are made from human hair, and fine, strong, straight hair is very much a prized resource in the artist community.

After sharpening a skewer, the hair is wrapped around with fine thread. I pointed out it was like hair wraps from the 90s, but just about all the other students were born in the 90s, so they didn’t get the reference.

Here is my finished brush. I’m really proud of it (in this picture I hadn’t yet trimmed the skewer-end of the hair, it looks much neater afterwards).

Manini showed me how to practice hatching on my own forearm, to get a feel for the brush. I think this small aside, when she was helping me, was one of my favourite moments of the entire trip. I won’t make it cheesy and lame by waxing lyrical, but I don’t want to forget this either.

After our day of doing our conservator thang, moving and packing and mending…

…we got to go to the beach. We couldn’t actually go in the water because of the crocodiles and stingrays, but it was excessively beautiful. I’ll try to limit the number of pictures, but I took so many, I just couldn’t capture the magic in the light and the air.

The surface of the water truly was opalescent, shimmering like mother-of-pearl – so many greens and blues and yellows and colours I can’t describe.

Driving back to our digs… blurry snap, but I wanted something to remember how the red roads always look so intense against the green of the bush and the blue of the sky.

Sunset at what was later to be named by us as Optus Rock, the only part of Yirrkala where there was a signal for those of us on the Optus network.

The next day when I look at my picture folder, I almost exclusively have many, many photos of a series of artworks by the artist Wukun Wanambi. I fell in love with it at first sight — a series done on foil-laminated insulation foam, teaming with small fish. I don’t feel comfortable putting photos up as my studies have taught me that Aboriginal art and sacred patterns shouldn’t just be put up whenever you feel like it, wherever you want, without permission from the artist. But one of the series was nominated for a Telstra Aboriginal Art Award this year, so you can go look at a sample and read a little about it here. Anyway, I spent a lot of time assessing the condition of this series and photographing it, with a view to making it a research subject, but in the end it took me in another direction — Aboriginal art on Found materials, which I became slightly obsessed with and ended up writing two different papers on (hit me up if you want to read them!).

Back to more traditional materials in Aboriginal art, we were able to go bark-cutting. Driving out into the forest, looking for suitable trees, I naively hadn’t realised the tree dies after the bark is removed. Here is a barkless one from a previous expedition.

Target identified:

Removing the first strip:

Cutting around the bottom and top with an axe:

[the removing of the bark was documented by video, so I could capture the sound it makes as the bark comes away from the tree… but videos are even more of a challenge than pictures, sorry… ]

Inspecting the bark after removal.

Naked tree.

We had a few more barks to collect. I got to participate this time… I remembered being quite adept at swinging an axe back in 1994, when I used to amuse myself by cracking kindling (and mostly making a mess) in the woodbarn at home. It was NOT the case 20 years later.

Making an inelegant fool of myself.

Whilst the bark-cutting was happening, the grandson of one of the artists who had come with us, Charles, spotted signs of something interesting beneath the ground (he’d already spotted croc tracks on the road, I have to say that made me just a wee bit nervous).

He dug carefully…

Bush nuts!

We gathered a few more barks and a few more bush nuts, and then headed down to the beach to set up a fire. The wind blows in fiercely off the ocean and this helps get the fire roaring!

The barks are placed over the fire, with the outer rough bark down on the flame and as they heat up, the moisture evaporates and they slowly relax and flatten out.

Then you rip away the smouldering stringybark in strands. This is also great fun (that is me below with the white hat and the terrible posture and the iPhone tucked into my bra strap, mucho eleganto).

To my dismay I don’t have any pictures of the bush nuts Charles and his grandmother cooked in the embers of the fire… they tasted somewhat like hazelnuts.

The next day came one of my favourite moments as a budding conservator — we got to clean mold off a huge crocodile carcass that hangs in the Art Centre. I’ll try and keep the number of photos down; you’ll have to forgive me, it’s not every day you get to clean crocodiles and I personally just love seeing these photos.

Close-up of croc-in-my-face.

Same croc, different day:

Okay, last one.

The first “crocodile day”, I also met and fell in love with my first serious art purchase. It means so much to me, for a number of reasons, not least because I came to Yirrkala with a very limited understanding of Aboriginal art. I certainly did not expect to leave with a bark painting of my very own. As an aside, it took me several days to settle down after buying it; I lived in constant anxiety due to its inherent frailty. Bark paintings are notoriously ephemeral and I knew before I even purchased it that it has a limited lifespan. But I love it so much, that I hate to think of anything happening to it. And yet it had to fly back first to Cairns and then to Melbourne, in the hold of the planes as neither Air North or Jetstar would let me take it as carry-on. I was so scared it would get damaged, cracked, dropped, hurt somehow. Then once I got home, I inspected it twice daily in case my living-room’s fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity were making its existing cracks grow. Two months in and I’m much more relaxed (and the cracks haven’t shifted, I don’t think!). I am looking at it on my living-room wall now, and just as it did the first time I set eye on it, it brings me immense joy. It’s a crying shame I do not have a better picture of it yet, sorry…

All too soon our week was almost up. More walks on the beach on our penultimate night in town. I’ll spare you the multiple beach pictures, this post is already so long!

On the last day, I made this little basket whilst waiting around for things to get started. I learnt how to make random-weave baskets in Cairns (new post coming up soon on that, I promise, now I have all this photo-blogging under control!), and consequently I was keen on learning more about traditional basketry skills, still very much part of the Art Centre’s offerings.

One of the Yolgnu ladies (I think her name is Eunice, this is the frustrating thing about leaving it months before writing things up) was generous enough to come along to give us some insight. First she showed us how to gather fresh pandanus leaves, using this hooked stick.

You use the stick to drag down the topmost freshest leaves from the top of the tree. Then you give them a tug and gather up the ones you want. When I did this I ended up with little thorns in my hands and legs, but Eunice didn’t seem to notice them herself. There are no photos of me trying to do this gathering process, fortunately, as I sucked at it.

The others went for a dip in a water-hole certified “probably croc-free”. I am not a coward, I genuinely wanted to sit with Eunice and learn how to prepare pandanus leaves, but knowing I was thereby less likely to get attacked by a crocodile did make it more enjoyable.

Dear reader, it was really freaking hard. Eunice made it seem really easy, when she split the upper layer from the bottom layer of each leaf.

When she handed me one so I could try, I discovered there was no “top and bottom layer”, as far as I could ascertain. I started out happy and graceful…

Rapidly becoming frustrated… Eunice kindly said that these were not very good pandanus and that’s why they were so hard to peel, but really… I don’t think it was the pandanus.

There’s a trick whereby you grip and fold and press super hard… my wishy-washy hands (already offended by thorns) found this very difficult. I laughed at my uselessness as I shredded stem after steam. My classmate was also struggling, and we rapidly realised that there wasn’t going to be much weaving of pandanus today.

I offered my little basket to Eunice as a thank-you, and we laughingly compared it to one she was working on at home… ah well there’s always next time.

I think that brings me to the end of my Yirrkala trip. We flew out the next morning, and I came back to Melbourne with exactly 3 weeks to write my assignments before starting my new job!

Once again, the stark absence of Aboriginal artwork in this post is mainly due to the fact that I prefer not to post anything rather than risk posting something I shouldn’t without permission. I also am very grateful to the artists and their families who are glimpsed throughout this blog post, and have tried to limit pictures to preserve their privacy. It’s such an insane privilege to get to spend up in Yirrkala, to get to meet and spend time with these incredibly kind and generous people, who are so patient with us when we say and do foolish things. I mentioned above how much I love my bark painting, and among the many emotions I feel when I come home to it each evening, is that of gratitude for being allowed to learn about it and understand it, and appreciate it, and meet the artist, and carry it off home to Melbourne.

the perks of a job you love

I have a zillion photo posts to write, and I purchased an app that lets me drop and drag photos directly into blog posts so I’m hoping that resolves everything. It’s a bit messy and not quite what I’d hoped, so please forgive the disjointed nature of this post, hopefully it will improve once I get the hang of it.

This post is from a recent work trip, but I am unclear on confidentiality so I am just going to say it is in China and leave it at that.

Driving to the site on the first day, I’d been awake for most of the past 48 hours and was stinky and sticky, because our luggage got separated from us and I hadn’t expected to be on the go for 48 hours. But there’s nothing like steep mountains and winding roads to get me excited, and fortunately, you can’t smell me in this picture.

Many of the roads are very narrow and in order to prepare for the site opening (and a million coaches a day), they are widening the roads by literally just drilling away at the mountain.

Rather them than me…

 

This site has everything I love. Intense mountains…

Weird insects

And beautiful buildings.

But this was just on the first quick trip to the base of the mountain. Time to go back to the hotel and try and remember what it’s like not to stink.

We made a trip to the local shopping mall after dinner to find non-stinky clothes to wear until our luggage reappeared. I encountered this smooth operator:

It was actually operated by his dad, by what looked like a playstation controller, which I thought was pretty cool. I really wanted a photo with the two of them together, but his parents didn’t understand when I asked them and kept moving *out* of the picture.

Everything was happening at the mall that night. A “rock gig” was blasting on a stage in the middle of the mall. View from inside the lift:

I guess the mall is really the place to be. The music was really terrible, but I think people came for the novelty as they were Westerners playing/singing. I was more entertained by this sign on the lift (yup, 14 years of Chinese and I’m still amused by Chinglish.

Which is the perfect segue back to the site:

 

Even though I find even little mountains like this one fun (opposite our clients’ office)…

 

It’s these kind of scenes that get me really excited.

It’s a steep climb up, but the medieval “site planners” made it even harder, by thoughtfully providing steps… what’s not to like about steps, you may ask?

Well, these steps are about 50cm high, and on a slant, which means you pretty much have to crawl up them. Very clever for a medieval fortress, strategically speaking.

With a Rosie-The-Rambling-Hiker for scale:

I had thought I would give it a try, when I first heard about these steps. But once I stood in front of them, apart from striking a pose, I didn’t even entertain the thought. I actually clambered up just one step and it was embarrassing enough, as I struggled whilst my workmates watched and laughed at me. It is exactly like being in the giants’ abandoned city in The Silver Chair (from the Narnia books).

Luckily, there’s a sneaky secret passage that leads around the back up to the top.

View from the top of the steps (taken whilst shakily gripping the side of the wall with one hand — photos do not do this steepness of this scenario justice).

At the top of the steps is a pass, and in the pass is a guard whose job is to stand there from 8am to 6pm and call down to people telling them not to climb up the steps. He also told us we weren’t allowed to go up through the pass as the steps weren’t ready, but we had to, as it’s our job to get to the top, so he had to anxiously stand aside and watch us head off up the hill.

At first it seemed ok, nothing to fret about.

A little slippery without the wooden walkway, but as long as you hold onto the rails it’s ok.

Large amounts of water were pouring down the side of the mountain, making the 500-year-old steps somewhat difficult to navigate.

After a while, the Ming-dynasty steps dissolve into Song (possibly older, Tang has been hinted at) pathways hacked into the mountainside. The walkways aren’t complete by any means, but they’re our best bet for actually progressing up the extremely steep path.

More terrifying scaffolding…

Finally we emerged onto walkable steps again, where we could admire more ruins from the late 16th century (and earlier).

Here we had work to do, so there aren’t as many fun pictures, until later, when we paused for a tea break at the archaeologists’ hut (incidentally probably some of the best tea I’ve ever drunk).

There’s a chicken coop up here, presumably for eggs and dinner… it’s hard work getting provisions up that mountain and the archaeologists live here most of the time, so I imagine some livestock is worth keeping.

There’s also some adorable dogs, which my workmates told me were just wee puppies last time they came in June, and now are rollicking teens. I don’t know if they’ll be allowed to stay once the site is open to the public… I hope so, they were just so fun and sweet.

We raced down the mountain as night fell. It was very atmospheric; I love this photo so much.

That’s it for beautiful site visit pictures. I snapped one last mountain out the window on the plane… I’m really looking forward to heading back next week, even though the project itself is quite stressful. I’m so lucky to get to work in such a gorgeous environment!! And in the last couple of weeks I’ve been getting to do lots of research and writing on Chinese archaeology and history, proving for the first time ever that my 2006 BA in Chinese art and archaeology was not a complete waste of time! Only took 9 years to come to fruition…

Kinmen

The first stop after Taipei was Kinmen, an island (two islands, in fact, and also known as Quemoy) barely a kilometre from Mainland China. I hadn’t realised it isn’t actually part of “Taiwan” itself; it is part of the Republic of China but the people living there are neither Taiwanese (although they speak Hokkien) nor Mainlanders; they are Kinmenese, really (jinmenren, 金門人), and have no wish to be absorbed into the PRC either. The layers of cultural identity in Taiwan never cease to intrigue me.

We stayed in an absolutely gorgeous traditional “two hall house” guesthouse that was recommended to me by my friend Matt. I can’t describe how beautiful and enchanting the building and surrounding village are; in fact, when I originally began writing this post it turned into the basis of a potential thesis subject for next year (more on this later). So I have shelved all my obsessive architecture/cultural identity observations so I can develop a more academic version of them, and come back to write more of a “This is what I did on holidays” post. However it is SUPER LONG with ALL THE PHOTOS. Consider yourselves warned.

Day one in Kinmen, we arrived at the airport and took a taxi to Zhushan where Guesthouse No.17 awaited our arrival. We were a little early so we wandered around the surrounding buildings, stunned by the scenery of Ming Dynasty homes and small gardens.

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Our host Ms Zhang was wonderful, and when I explained that I wanted to hire bikes but James wanted to hire a scooter, she diplomatically suggested we hire a scooter and then make the most of the free bike services dotted around the island to explore different locations. She drove us to the scooter hire place, where the lovely Jerry set us up with a scooter for a very reasonable NT$900 including two day’s hire, a tank full of petrol (no need to refill before we return), and a free ride to the airport on our last morning (which costs around NT$300 by taxi).

We scootered to the National Park in Guningtou first, which has a number of military sites, with the idea of trying to find a bike hire station. At Lake Ci, we came across a military fort, complete with tanks:

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View out to China

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James looking like a Japanese soldier inside the fort:

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The view from inside the machine-gunner’s room:

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The more time we spent on the scooter, the more it became apparent that cycling was the real way to go when visiting Kinmen. There is a huge network of bike trails clearly signposted all over the island, and even though many of them were on shared roads which we could follow on the scooter, they were much more enjoyable on a slower, biking scale. We sat down in Jincheng and stared at the map, whilst I tried (with much frustration) to work out the location of the dozen or so bike hire stations. I googled exhaustively (note to self: create a page with the information in English and a google map!) and eventually we gave up and decided to just ride over to Shamei and hope we would find one there. And we did! By this point it was 3pm and the station closed at 5pm — you get to use a bike in exchange for your passport, so I was pretty keen for us to get back in time. I was a little worried we wouldn’t have time to do much in 2 hours, especially with the clunky hire bikes which are the type I associate more with city bike schemes than “cycling”. But in the end we had a lot of fun!

Trying to hide my disappointment at these silly bicycles (I was in the middle of taking directions from the hire lady here, and struggling to remember which of zuo and you is right and left, which is of little help to me since I don’t know them in English either):

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I cheered up once we hit the road, the sun and the blue sky and the ocean breeze all made me happy!

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Speed wasn’t really something worth thinking about…

Love the timer function on my iphone, although between me setting the phone up on the beach, running back to strike a pose, running to get my phone and running back to James, the tide had come right in past our bikes!

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We covered a respectable 12.5km and then returned back to the station well before 5, quite worn out (those bikes are hard to work compared to Bon Scott).

Then we scootered home again to the guesthouse, before James coaxed me back out to catch the sunset. We drove to a lookout point but the sun was not quite in the right direction. Still, we had a very pretty view out to China.

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James breaking all the rules as usual:

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As the sun was hidden behind a hill, we watched it set on the iphone instead:

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We then headed over to Jincheng for dinner. Jincheng is a very pretty city, with some very fetching traditional buildings and brick archways.

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We were planning to eat at a place called Jessica’s Communist Cafe, however we couldn’t find it and ended up getting hotpot. Then we scootered home again in the dark, pausing to grab some Taiwan Beer and wasabi snacks at the 7-Eleven.

The next morning, Ms Zhang had prepared a wonderful traditional breakfast for us:

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Most of the food was heavy on the fructans, which I have to stay away from in the daytime if I’m going to have an active and enjoyable day, but I couldn’t help binging on the youtiao (oil sticks — giant fresh churros) and the fresh mulberries. James had to take them away from me, and I tried to console myself with the meatball porridge and a banana but it was not the same.

I was really, really sore from the cycling and the scootering the day before so we chose to explore close to home within walking distance.

Inspecting the map:

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First we meandered through the village and the eponymous “Zhushan” (meaning Pearl Mountain, but really just a hillock).

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A ceremony was being held at the local temple, with music, singing and dancing, whilst onlookers threw ghost money over the performers.

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I particularly liked seeing the singer/drummer follow along the words with one finger — he was very dextrous at turning the pages single-handedly.

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We then walked to Oucuo, which was settled by the Ouyang family during the Ming Dynasty in the late 17th Century. Oucuo was a wonderful place to visit because of the abundance of houses still in their original layout, carefully maintained and modernised. I get very excited about “living heritage” — buildings that have carried traditions and meanings over the centuries and that are not kept as museums of how they once were, but as a continuation of their first and foremost purpose: homes to the living.

Kitty cat on a doorway:

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Nesting doorways:

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Loved this one in particular with the bright flowers, scooters, paste-ups and laundry all artfully building a mosaic of pinks and reds around the red brick frontage… sigh!

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Not all houses were inhabited or in a good state. We came across one abandoned rundown building, which we were able to access as the doorways were clear and easy to get into. It was full of abandoned broken furniture and was incredibly moving.

From behind:

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Check out this ancient TV! (and the rude hentai comics… obviously still a popular destination for locals… living heritage?)

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A group of cyclists came through the empty streets, a little incongruous in their lycra kit, but obviously quite a habitual scene for Kinmen.

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We headed in the same direction, and finally reached the beach. I always love being by the ocean (who doesn’t?) and got quite excited about the seashells.

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I packed up James’ and my shoes in my bag — a bag I made myself, with my own fair hands, a few years ago — and we progressed, barefoot in the sand. The water was very cold so we just splashed a little.

Showing off my bag:

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Cold-feet selfie, the last picture before….:

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Then we began walking along the shore, and James picked up a seashell for me (I was looking for the perfect one). It was all sandy so I dashed to the water to rinse it off… bent over… and *ploof!* my iPhone landed in the water (hitting me on the head and the shoulder on its way out of my bag). I quickly picked it up, mopped it off, and James and I put it out to dry as I pouted about having ruined my only recently paid-off smartphone. I’ve previously dropped James’ iPhone in a Taiwanese waterfall, but there’s no way the chlorides in the seawater aren’t going to cause corrosion (I’ve studied enough metal chemistry to know!).

However it does seem to be fine for now — who knows how long it will last for.

Anyway we continued along the beach, coming to a tank which James had apparently spied from a long way off but I stumbled upon with complete surprise (more metal corrosion!).

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James did what he has done for the last 32 years and climbed onto it.

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I scolded him because one does not climb on History!

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Then we walked towards a military fort, which looked exciting and foreboding.

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It turned out of course that it was impregnable by foot (well obviously, otherwise it would be a rubbish fort) and James led us through a charming landfill instead. It was a shock to see so much rubbish everywhere — the beaches had been pristine up to this point, and it makes you realise how much effort goes into keeping Kinmen beautiful.

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There but for the grace of god go I — my brand new Mizunos realise that they too, one day, could be an abandoned thong.

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We found the entrance to the fort, however it was locked.

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We headed onwards towards Zhushan, stopping at the Zhaishan tunnel to appreciate the three years it took to blast a passageway into gneiss granite.

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We were extremely fortunate to time our visit between two coach loads of tourists, as the tunnels were dreadfully echoey when filled with chattering Taiwanese. It was interesting to imagine how it must have been full of soldiers and ships.

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We had an ice-cream and discussed a potential venture for creating tours for older grumpy people, who like me don’t want to talk to other people and don’t want any noise or chatter, but would like to get out and about and see a few new places. I think this is a great potential business venture!

Then another couple of kilometres and we were back at our guesthouse. I wanted to nap, but James only allowed me to rest my weary feet a little before we went off for afternoon adventures!

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We decided to go hike up Wuhu Mountain (pronounced woo-hoo!) which is apparently the second-highest peak in Kinmen (this means very little, however). I got us lost a few times on the scooter, as I have to navigate from the back seat, one hand around James’ waist and the other clutching my precious iPhone as I indicate left or right — sometimes I overestimate how long it will take to reach the next turn and we have to reset the route. Also… I don’t know left and right, which can be challenging when giving directions. A few zig-zags around the island and we got there in the end!

We debated whether to bring water with us, as there was no indication of distance or elevation, or of how long the climb would take. The answer was: not very far, not very high, not very long!

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We were extremely impressed with the view once at the top however so it was definitely worth it.

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At the top I also finally captured a picture of one of the giant butterflies I had seen everywhere:

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We then descended to the other side of Wuhu to the village of Shanhou.

Ducks holding sentry at the entrance to the village.

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James professed this to be “his favourite duck”:

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Shanhou was built by a rich merchant family, the Wangs, late in the 19th and early in the 20th century. It was very different from Zhushan and Oucuo, as they are laid out in a highly regimented and orderly fashion, according to the rules of fengshui.

Model of the village:

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We weren’t terribly enamoured of this rigid style, and did not stay long, although we were both quite hungry so we enjoyed an icy cold Taiwan beer and a cong you bing, fried spring onion pancake, mine with an egg and some veggies and James’ with sausage as well. I love bing!

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Here is a pile of turtles, trying to clamber on top of each other and up to possibly eat me. Poor things, they are trapped in a small kind of well, no wonder they wanted to escape.

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On the way back James disappeared to explore a tunnel, whilst I powered on up the hill as I was feeling quite tired and wanted to get it all over! He found a cave with some sort of abandoned military function.

We then rode back to Jincheng, pausing at a night market where we saw the seashells from earlier that day, now ready to be consumed:

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We were determined to find Jessica’s Café. I quizzed locals until it was revealed that we had eaten there the night before — Jessica’s Cafe is no more, and has been converted to the hotpot restaurant.

Jincheng by night is so pretty though:

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We wandered around Jincheng some more, and eventually landed in a quite crappy Taiwanese restaurant whose sole merit was that they kindly provided us with a hand-translated menu. Chinese menus are my nemesis, as even if I could read every character, the names of dishes are generally pretty obscure.

Bellies full, if not delighted, we clambered back on the scooter for what I swore would be the last time — my back and bottom were both aching and sore from sitting on it.

However the next morning we had a couple of hours to kill, so James coerced me back onto the stupid scooter and we lazily roamed the nearby countryside, almost getting attacked by dogs a couple of times, and taking photographs of old and modern houses for my new obsession with Taiwanese architecture.

We posed with a Wind Spirit, iconic lions who dot the countryside of Kinmen (squinting attractively as it was so bright without sunglasses!):

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We also found ourselves at the foot of a random tower/hill, so we decided to climb that whilst we were there. It was just a 10-minute walk up, and really nothing special, but it was nice to have done one more Kinmen “thing” before we headed home for the airport pick-up!

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One last thing that made me laugh was when Jerry picked us up another driver was navigating their way past our car as we loaded in our luggage. They wound down their window, presumably to check there was enough space, and Jerry called out “Plenty of room!” The driver revealed herself to be a woman, and laughed, calling out “I know, I know, I just wanted to get a better look at such a handsome man, in such a fancy car!” Jokes that are funny AND that I understand in Chinese will always make me laugh twice as hard.

a trip to Wangaratta

I haven’t spent much time in regional Victoria, so it was lovely to escape to Wang (as it is affectionately known) to see my dear friend Bonnie for a couple of days. At Bonnie’s we made friends with a foal at the end of the garden:
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“Excuse me, I’ll take care of that”
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We also befriended two darling little dogs, Neddy (seen here in Polly’s lap) and Puppy.
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Sorry for the badly exposed picture, however it captures Neddy and Puppy’s personalities so well!
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Bonnie had to work, but kindly dropped us at the Milawa (which I kept accidentally calling Malawi, not quite the same thing) Cheese Company, where Polly and I devoured this platter of local produce and some Cabernet Sauvigon.
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Then we walked back to Milawa, enjoying the Australian landscape and bright skies. I was wearing SPF30 as always, but unfortunately I was a bad sister and didn’t check if Polly put sunscreen on… so here she is, pre-sunburn.
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We stopped to walk around the cemetery, which drew us in with its cheerful signage.
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Can you spot the mini-ponies?
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I was fascinated by these “tennis-ball trees” — the fruit are the exact same size and colour as tennis balls. I looked them up — they are Osage oranges, apparently.
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By this time Polly was really burnt — I feel terrible for her!
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We had a couple of drinks whilst waiting for Bonnie to come back from work…
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…and then another drink at a different pub, with Bonnie. Because that’s what one does in Australia!
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The pub Bonnie took us to had a little museum in its cellars.
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There’s a tunnel which Ned Kelly allegedly used:
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And a useful illustrated tale of Ned Kelly (yes, Wang is Ned Kelly Country!)
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This picture was my favourite: The North Wangaratta Picnic Committee, c.1910. A highly important organisation, I’m sure.
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I’m so grateful to Bonnie and her mum for having us stay — it was well worth the 3.5-hour train journey; it’s so weird to reflect on how vast Australia is, as 3.5 hours by train could take you to another country in Europe, and we didn’t even leave Victoria.

Christmas at the Zoo

Because people are lovely, everyone asked what Polly and I would be doing for Christmas and many invited us for Orphans’ Xmas or to join their family for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day.

I’m a bit of a grinch, personally, and have spent the majority of my last decade of Christmases in non-traditional places (last year was Kathmandu), but whether I’m in Melbourne or Taipei, I really just don’t feel like Christmas is really a thing anymore. Maybe it will be different when I have children… but for now, I’m happy to skip the traditions.

However we did enjoy going to Melbourne Zoo today — especially from 9am to 11am when there were relatively few people around. It was a gorgeous sunny day and we agreed that it was really very satisfying to have spent the early morning out and about, thus leaving the rest of the day free to laze around at home eating ALL THE THINGS.

Anyway, for our family! Pictures of our Christmas Zoo.

A snow leopard enjoying a chicken.
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A brown bear snuffling its breakfast.
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These froglets are tiny!
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Polly got attacked by a croc.
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Chubby lemurs
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A koala waving hi!
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Polly meets some lorikeets in the aviary.
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Up closer
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Mobile Australian coat of arms
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Just on the left, a kangaroo butt
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Christmas Giraffe
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Tigrrrrr
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This was my favourite bit — a mummy and baby elephant were having a bath and were just adorable.
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Then we went to the butterfly house, where butterflies tried to eat Polly’s tattoo-flowers
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Pause for Christmas noodles and beers
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And last stop at the orangutang sanctuary
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Then we headed home as the zoo was by now full of screaming children and we had a lot of chocolate and ice cream waiting for us. End!

dandenongs sunday

This weekend I couldn’t coerce any of my friends into driving us to a mountain so I took the train out to Upper Ferntree Gully again. I had my route planned out, and I went low-tech as I was trying to preserve my phone’s battery:
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There’s seemingly always hoards of people out there on the weekend, but hardly anyone off the main trails. Nothing makes me happier than being seemingly alone in the wilderness, and the weather was just perfect — sunny, breezy, around 20 degrees the entire afternoon. I caught a glimpse of the big city on the horizon between trees:
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It was a fairly steep climb but the tracks were very well maintained, all the way to Stoney Rise Walking Track. I found the track all right…
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Then turned the corner and it looked like this track was perhaps not as well maintained as the others.
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But I am made of sterner stuff, and luckily for me, it had rained just enough recently for there to be some mud. I hunted around until I found a footprint indicated other people had been this way too, and that was enough for me to keep going. The other advantage of it being slightly damp and muddy is that I didn’t have to worry about snakes.
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Stoney Rise was obviously named because it is steep and stony. There are a number of pictures of my stony ascent.
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I know they aren’t that fascinating, but I was amused because it just went on and on and on…

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At one point I crossed paths with a young man (which reassured me that it was a real path) and we smiled encouragingly at each other. A couple of minutes later I then met a young woman who did NOT look happy as she picked her way down. I half laughed (as best I could being so out of breath) and said “It’s a fun one this one, isn’t it?” and she answered with such sarcasm “Oh yeah I’m just LOVING it”. I know exactly how she felt — pretty sure she was with the guy who was doing a James up ahead…

Breathing hard… proper cardio workout here.
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FINALLY I reached the end… after Stoney Rise, the other paths seemed pretty easy in comparison. I made my way to One Tree Hill but couldn’t identify any particular tree as being The Tree. Then I braced myself to head back down the trails — my knees really hate downhills but they are going to have to get better at them. The physio explained to me yesterday that I’ve basically been using my quads to go down hills and stairs, when really I should be engaging my glutes. This is why my IT band is sore as hell, and why I have to do so many deep glute strengthening exercises. So I was careful to clench my glutes all the way down…

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The Thousand Steps were closed off! I wasn’t planning to go down them anyway, but it meant there were a lot more people on the Lyrebird Trail… so I decided to get back onto Bellview, then out down Lantern and the Boulevard. I was feeling quite smug as I didn’t see another soul (other than an echidna! echidnas are so gorgeous…).

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Another view of Melbourne:
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However things went a little wrong after that, as the Boulevard ended abruptly in suburbia and it took a bit of wandering around before I could find another trail. Fortunately for me, a mysterious gentleman in a red cap suddenly appeared in the middle of the trail in front of me, bursting from behind a fence. He must have been taking some kind of shortcut, as he went off in the undergrowth and I followed behind, discovering that you could slip between two locked gates that didn’t look big enough for a child… Anyway. I got to the station in the end: exactly 12km.

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I am going to sleep well tonight… So far in November I have tracked 20.5 hours of hiking, walking and cycling, climbing 2,947 metres and covering 152km. Just 34 days to go before Kathmandu!