2016 – a year in review

I saw in 2016 absolutely smashed, in a bar in Taiwan, chatting with a group of guys from a Kazakh circus troupe and impressing them with my limited Russian and my (apparently) humorous use of Russian swear words. That particular night ended in a hearty discussion with a guy named Steve – an awesome Kiwi bloke who was just full of knowledge on a mass array of topics, from rugby to the legend that was David Bowie.

The irony of speaking to Steve rang true just a month later when Emilija and I landed in New Zealand where we spent three months putting our degrees into practice by each completing an internship. But before reaching the land of the All Blacks, there were a few things to iron out ahead of our next journey – chiefly our Taiwanese visas which we’d overstayed on by over a month – that mistake resulted in quite a hefty fine for the pair of us. There were also some exams to contend with whilst finishing off our semester of study at the Southern Taiwan University of Science and Technology.

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Squinting in the Kaohsiung sun

Once we successfully departed Taiwan we first headed to Malaysia where we spent a mad 17 hours exploring the capital of Kuala Lumpur – all on the back of just 2 hours sleep that we’d managed to grab on the floor of KL International Airport’s arrival hall floor. After a whistle-stop tour of KL, Emilija and I hopped on another flight and made our way to Australia – all of the above took place before January was even over!

We landed in the Gold Coast and in true keeping with our regular travel form we then had to organise practically everything thereafter; on the spot! We elected to head to Brisbane by train, and from there – three days later – we connected to Sydney where we met up with our friend Eugene. We spent an incredible nine days with Eugene who treat us like royalty and made sure our every beck and call was answered to. To this date, Eugene is definitely the most hospitable person we’ve ever stayed with!

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Eugene and I at Darling Harbour, Sydney. 

One of the coolest moments of our time in Sydney, was when we got to meet up with our friends Ellie and Max. We knew these guys the same way we knew Eugene – through studying at Fontys – so it was really awesome to reconnect on the other side of the globe, especially considering their just thoroughly lovely people!

After a great time spent playing tourist, Emilija and I then departed and finally completed the last leg of our journey to New Zealand. We landed in Auckland, and after a very tense hour-long grilling at immigration (questions were raised over our possible 12 month ban from Taiwan) we were eventually granted permission to leave the airport. We then spent two nights in a rather underwhelming Auckland before the party really started and we travelled by bus overnight to Wellington where we’d be based for the majority of our time.

Crazy fact: the guy sat next to us had to forgo any opportunity to sleep as he was tasked with talking to the bus driver, constantly, as she’d dozed off a couple of times whilst driving only to be woken with a bolt as we scarily veered off the road.

Once we got to Wellington, we stayed with a chap named Michael who we’d chatted with via the couchsurfing website. Michael was kind enough to host us for several nights whilst we desperately tried to find a place to live more long-term. Michael also was trusting enough to allow us to stay at his place unattended, after he left on the second day to attend a canoe-polo competition which he was officiating.

Whilst at Michael’s beautiful home in Upper Hutt, we were also joined by a lovely couple named Jim and Dorothy – who we very quickly became firm friends with over wine, food and quality talks – even if Dorothy did freak us out with tales of murderous Australian’s!

The entirety of our time spent in Wellington was largely dedicated to completing our internships. I was working for WWF-New Zealand and I had an absolutely fantastic opportunity to spearhead an online fundraising campaign in aid of raising money for endangered Maui Dolphins.

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My ‘Goodbye Gathering’ after three wonderful months at WWF-New Zealand

Our living situation changed a couple of times, but our second host Charika was simply amazing. Not only did Charika have a gorgeous home with stunning views of Wellington Harbour, but she was also incredibly kind and gracious and really helped us out of a sticky situation by taking us in for almost two months. It was simply a pleasure to get to know Charika and her amazing family, and I know that both I and Emilija are eager to return to Wellington sometime soon and visit all the friends we made there.

During the final three weeks that we spent completing our internships we actually ended up moving in with my boss at WWF, who had kindly offered to house us free of charge. Once again, we were super fortunate to be welcomed in by yet another warm and loving family. Greg, Gina, Frankie, Aroha and their adorable little dog Benny are a huge miss for both of us!

In our final week or so in New Zealand, we decided to take a trip around the South Island – starting by taking a ferry from Wellington to Picton and then catching a bus down to Christchurch where we picked up an adapted rental car from Freedom Mobility. We had a breath-taking time driving from Christchurch to Dunedin – where we stayed at Dorothy’s (the lady from earlier) home, as she’d kindly left us the keys despite her absence – which was incredibly kind of her and we’re both indebted as a result. From Dunedin we headed west over to Arrowhead, and then from there we pressed onward to Milford Sound, Queenstown and Glenorchy. We even had time to stop off in a little place known as ‘Paradise’ which is where a lot of Lord of the Rings was filmed.

Bonus fact: whilst in Wellington I appeared in the local newspaper on two separate occasions and we MAY have also been featured in the production of a movie whilst happened to be being filmed as we walked with Wellington Station.

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‘Storm Trooper Emilija’ standing with our friend Kristine – owner of the best cafe/cake shop/all round goodness factory in Wellington; Sweet Release. 

New Zealand is on another level when it comes to travelling – it’s just simply sublime and every couple of hundred metres there’s a new opportunity to take that picture of a lifetime. Both Emilija and I rate New Zealand as the best country we’ve ever been to, and as we boarded a flight from Christchurch to Auckland, we were sad that our time there was almost up. From Auckland we flew back to the Gold Coast where we spent the night in the grottiest hostel we’d ever set foot in. We then flew down to Melbourne and spent a couple of nights there before catching another flight to Phuket in Thailand.

We were eager to check out what Phuket had to offer as the last time we were in Thailand back in August 2016, we’d wanted to head down south but never made it further than Bangkok and Pattaya (the latter being a bit of a grave mistake, hastily made after we were caught up in a terrorist attack in Bangkok). Whenever we visit Thailand we always seem to end up in the ‘wrong’ areas. I mean, don’t get me wrong… it’s still super enjoyable, but we somehow manage to miss out on all the cool picturesque spots that you generally associate with Thailand. Nevertheless, this only inspires us to travel to Thailand for the third time, and hopefully this time we’ll strike gold.

We spent two nights in Phuket and generally just soaked up the sunny vibes and ate plenty of amazing food. We then boarded a Thai Air flight to Bangkok and spent a night in the city where we met up with our University buddy Lilianna which was super awesome. Our evening together included a meal at a local restaurant followed by Lilianna exiting the building screaming as she noticed several mice scurrying around next to us!

From Bangkok we flew with Oman Air and stopped over in Muscat for 18 hours. It was a really fascinating time for us as we managed to bag ourselves visas for the day and we were able to explore some of Muscat’s old town which was just stunning beautiful. I’ll never forget how awe inspiring it was to sit beside the harbour, eating falafel and hummus, as the call the prayer rung out around us – bouncing and echoing off the many ancient buildings – some of which looked like either real life sandcastles or majestic palaces. Even the HSBC building that we spotted on our way from the airport to the city looked like it was fit to house a prince. It was the first time either of us had been in the Middle East and it certainly will not be the last. We both definitely felt like a part of us was longing to remain there and I can’t wait to return and discover more of the incredible architecture, the winding narrow streets and the generously hospitable people.

Once out of Oman, it was a non-stop flight to London – and to our surprise the flight was almost completely empty and we each got an entire row to ourselves where we able to sprawl out and relax. When we landed in the UK, I then took a train up to Newcastle to be with my family for a while.

I wasn’t at home long before it was time to head back to The Netherlands where a couple of exams awaited both Emilija and myself. We still needed to finish and submit our work placement reports from back when we were in New Zealand and we had to tie up some loose ends from the previous year’s study, too. We spent best part of a month in The Netherlands, with intermittent visits to Germany thrown in there for good measure.

After exams had passed we returned to the UK and I spent another couple of weeks with my family before me and my brother headed off on a road trip across Europe at the back end of June/the beginning of July. Before heading to the continent though, our first port of call was Brighton – as neither of us had ever been and we’d agreed to meet with Emilija and head there for the day. I was thoroughly impressed with what the seaside town had to offer and we spent a good amount of time walking around – and we even wasted some coppers playing in the arcades that can be found on Brighton Pier.

From Brighton we then headed through to Dover and caught the ferry to France where we then drove to Hagen in Germany and spent a couple of hours with my friend Olivia who fed my brother and I and let us sleep in her bed which was very much needed. Once we’d replenished, however, it was on towards the Czech Republic where my friend Peter was waiting for us at his home which is just an hour outside of Prague.

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Peter – one of my closest friends – contemplating life, deep in the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s mountainous countryside. 

It was then that the road-trip REALLY began, and we headed from there down to Austria where we spent a night before picking up a fellow nomad who I’d spoken to over Facebook, on the Slovenian border. Once in Slovenia we camped for a night quite close to Italy and were able to have dinner Trieste which was my first taste of Italy – both figuratively and literally.

The trip then continued at almost lightening pace as we crossed through into Croatia, and then onto Bosnia and Herzegovina and then through to Montenegro. We spent the night in Montenegro and found our base in Podgorica, which despite being the countries capital, is rather unimpressive. Nevertheless, it was fine for a night and the next day we drove over the board and into Albania – where we decided to take things easy and spend two nights in a lovely airbnb apartment and just take stock of all the travelling we’d done up to that point. Before getting into Albania, however, we had to bribe an official at the border to let us cross without green card for vehicle insurance. This turned out to be quite nerve-wrecking as once we crossed the border and were in Albania, there seemed to be police checks every two kilometres or so. Thankfully we were never stopped and we never had to deal with the probable fine.

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Playing in the streets of Albania

From the Albanian capital of Tirana, we then drove in Macedonia and spent a night in Skopje – then we headed to Bulgaria where we stayed with a friend in Sofia, who gave us a brilliant tour of the city and generally made us feel extremely welcome. Viktoria, you’re the best!

After Bulgaria we crossed over into Serbia and drove north, stopping only for one night in the city of Nis where Alex, Peter and I got terribly drunk in celebration of Alex’s 21s birthday. I don’t remember much from that night, other than my brother apologising to a bunch of Serbians over the Karaoke machine, for the Brexit referendum result. I then vaguely remember that there was a mass exodus from the bar where we were all sat and we went down by the river where we congregated on these giant coliseum style steps and drank until the small hours.

We were all pretty hung over when we got in the car and headed north towards Belgrade and then finally onto Hungary where our next stop off was Budapest. From there it was then onto Slovakia, before stopping off once again in the Czech Republic.

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It was really excellent to finally be able to take a trip with my brother – here’s to many more in the future, Alex.

Our trip wasn’t over there, however, as we darted across Europe and made our way to Amsterdam where Eugene was scheduled to be arriving the following, from Australia, and joining us on our travels. Together we then headed down to Luxembourg for a night and then on to Strasberg in France before stopping again on the outskirts of Geneva, Switzerland.

We then had to re-mortgage my mother’s house to be able to afford the toll charge through the Mont Blanc tunnel and then once through, we descended upon northern Italy and into Milano.

Cool fact: the owners of the hostel we were staying at in Milan gave us all free Corona’s because we came back late and they’d decided to paint the floor in the hallway so we had to wait outside until it had all dried. Yay, free beer!

My own personal final stop on this particular trip was Venice, where I spent a little while trying to get around, but ultimately drawing a premature close to my part of the journey (for reasons that do not need to be mentioned on my blog) and so I elected to drive home to the UK through the night – stopping only once in France to catch a few hours rest which was much needed.

Once back in the UK, I generally just killed some time until September when I was due to return to Venlo and complete the final phase of my study. Emilija and I did take a couple of mini trips, however, including a weekend in Bristol and five nights in Glasgow which were both insanely enjoyable!

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One of the best things about being at home is getting the chance to play with this little one – meet Millie the Jack Russell! 

The last major trip I took in 2016 was a 16 day adventure in both the USA and Canada. I flew to New York City on my own and then a week later, after collecting a rental car from JFK Airport, I drove to Ohio to collect Emilija who was there attending her friend’s wedding. I won’t go too far into detail about the trip as I’m currently in the middle of writing blog posts about that particular adventure – but I will say that the drive from Niagara Falls to Montreal was a particular highlight.

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Whilst in Ottawa for the night, we stayed with our friend Liz and Nate, who also showed us around town. These two are amazing people and fellow travel addicts (but you’ll hear more about them soon on the blog!)

Yes, overall 2016 was a pretty insane year for me – a year which included 28 countries across 4 different continents, 3 epic road-trips, countless flights, trains, buses and ferries, and a whole bunch of utterly amazing people along the way. My blog has been going from strength to strength, and many more opportunities have been coming my way – a few of which you’ll see the fruits of during 2017.

I guess all that’s left for me to say is this – for those who were staunch enough to read this far – I wish you all the very best and toast to your health, wealth and happiness in the forthcoming year and beyond! Happy New Year!

 

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One of the final pictures I took in 2016, of two of my favourite people – Storm and Emilija. This was taken at one of Dusseldorf’s fabulous Christmas Markets.
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4 thoughts on “2016 – a year in review

  1. What a post. Wow! You mentioned New Zealand offers multiple opportunities for outstanding photos. I agree there. Reads like you hit some awesome spots and had some wonderful experiences last year.

    Like

    1. New Zealand is by far and away the most stunning country I have been to, and I’m fortune enough to have had the chance to visit a fair few nations up until now!

      Like

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