Monthly Archives: January 2009

Video: Howler Monkeys in Tikal

I’ve posted before about how Tikal in Guatemala is my favourite place I’ve been to so far, a fact that I was reminded of by this great post about the fantastic wildlife of the Tikal National Park.

A rather shy Coatimundi in Tikal National Park

A rather shy Coatimundi in Tikal National Park

Their wildlife photos are waaaaay better than mine, although I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who failed to capture a howler monkey. The little blighters are in fact bloody difficult to photograph, hiding as they do at the tops of trees, well out of sight.

Lucky they make such a racket then, meaning I was able to capture their extraordinary roar on video:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Howler Monkeys in Tikal on Vimeo“, posted with vodpod

There’s not much to much to see here (although there’s a bit of movement if you look closely) – just marvel at that sound. It’s more of a deathly roar to my ears than a howl, but I have to say it’s the strangest sound I’ve ever heard. Just one more reason why Tikal is such an incredible place.

Sunrise over Tikal. The tranquillity is shattered soon after as soon as the monkeys wake up.

Sunrise over Tikal. The tranquillity is shattered soon after as soon as the monkeys wake up.

Travelling with friends

When I made the decision to take a year off, my decision to travel solo was not just because none of my friends wanted to do the same thing, but because I actively wanted to.

Far from being a lonely experience, travelling solo is actually more sociable, as rather than spending your time with your companion, you’re constantly forced to talk to other travellers for company, making new friends every place you stop. There’s also more incentive to talk to locals (and locals are more likely to approach you if you’re on your own), meaning you get a chance to get to know a country a little better. One of my favourite moments in my last solo trip was spending a couple of hours chatting to a novice monk in Luang Prabang, helping him practice his English, telling him about life in the UK and him sharing his experience of Lao life.

Me, mingling with the locals in Tokyo

Me, mingling with the locals in Tokyo

I also love travelling alone for purely selfish reasons – I can go where I want, when I want, not having to compromise by doing things someone else to do (or possibly more to the point, them having to compromise to do the things I want to). In fact I don’t think I could travel a whole year with one person, even most of my closest friends would probably drive me mad after not too long (and vice versa).

Despite all that, over the last few weeks I’ve been very pleased to find out my trip won’t entirely be a solo one – I’ve now had confirmation that at various points along the way I’ll get the chance to catch up with friends from back home.

First up, I’ll get to spend my first couple of days in Mexico City with Chris, who coincidentally will be there celebrating his birthday before heading home to London. A month or so later, he’ll be joining me on his return to Mexico, probably for a bit of relaxation time somewhere on the Oaxacan coast. Soon after, I should get to catch up with Matt somewhere in Central America, part way through his (slightly quicker) trip from London to Australia.

After that, I get a couple of months of solo travel again before being joined by Adrian for a few weeks culminating in the trek to Machu Picchu. I’m very pleased that I’ll get to share such a cool experience with a friend.

Once I’ve left the Americas, I’ll hopefully get to meet my Lao travel buddy Chris in his new home of Auckland, before heading on to join up with Matt for a second time, as he’ll be back home in Melbourne.

So all in all, I’m quite pleased I’ve got a nice balance between mostly solo travel and travel with mates. Luckily I’ve been away with all of them before, so I know we won’t drive each other too mad.

Choosing the right backpack for Round the World travel (updated March 2015)

UPDATE (and short answer): The Travel Trekker II ND60 is the perfect backpack for long-term round the world travelling.

Travelling solo for a year means there will be very few constants in my life. The most important of which will be my backpack. Choose the right one and it will make my journey easier…choose the wrong one and I’ll be cursing it for being like a ball and chain that I can’t escape from.

I thought finding my perfect travelling companion would be easy, I figured it was largely a matter of deciding what size I wanted and then just choosing one. How wrong I was. What I thought would be a quick decision has taken ages…so I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt along the way, just in case you’re thinking of doing something similar.

I learnt one key thing during my trip to Laos (the dry run for my big trip) – the most important thing for me was to get a pack that opens from the front than from the top. My toploading rucksack drove me mad – while there was supposedly some access from the front, it was pretty useless, and it felt like I spent about half the trip packing & re-packing to get to stuff at the bottom of the bag. My friend Chris, who I was travelling with, had one that opened all the way round like a suitcase when laid flat, giving access to the whole bag. This was my first experience of pack-envy. These type of packs are typically called ‘travel packs’, and give vastly superior access to classic toploading backpacks (that are designed for hiking, not extended travel)

Rule one: get one that loads from the front

The second thing I learnt was to check the bag is properly lockable. While it was possible to loop a padlock through the two main zips, there was still a gap between them that could easily be opened up for people to root around in, which is not ideal when your bag is going to be accessible by other people on buses, in hostels, and when being checked in for flights. Not being lockable may be OK for people on hiking trips, but it’s not acceptable for a long trip like mine.

Rule two: make sure it’s lockable

With my Lao experience in mind, I started looking for packs, and quickly discovered that the vast majority of rucksacks on sale are really designed for hikers rather than travellers – and in fact what I was looking for (particularly with my obsession with getting a front loader) was not a “rucksack” but a “travel pack”

Rule three: look for the words “travel pack”

Searching online quickly taught me one thing about travel packs: they nearly all come with a detachable daypack. “How useful!” I thought, and quickly narrowed my search down further to these. It wasn’t until I went into a shop to try one on (my early favourites, the Osprey Waypoint 60 and the North Face Backtrack), that I realised that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea – the Waypoint’s daypack is badly designed and miniscule; the North Face one really poorly attached to the main pack. Further reading online suggested that having the detachable pack attached moves the centre of gravity backwards, making your more unstable on your feet, with the solution being to wear it on your front for better balance. I figured if the daypacks were poorly designed and not ideal for wearing attached anyway, I may as well buy a proper daypack separately. Oh, and most importantly they all look really ugly. And who wants to be stuck with an ugly backpack for a year and face the mockery of your fellow travellers?

Rule four: avoid the ones with a detachable daypack

The trickiest decision is what size to go for. On previous backpacking trips to Laos & Guatemala I reckon most travellers look like they have 80L or more packs; meanwhile hardened travellers in places like the Thorn Tree and the BootsnAll forums seem to compete to see who can travel with the smallest pack, with 40L or less being advocated. I travelled Guatemala with 40 and Laos with 60, and I found the Lao experience better, despite the extra weight, as I felt like there was nothing I was missing. I’ll do a dummy packing run with my existing (but evil top-loading) pack just to check I can get everything I plan to take into a pack that size, before I make my final purchase

Rule five: Too small and you’ll have to leave stuff out. Too big and you’ll do your back in. 60-65 litres (that’s 3,500-4,000 cubic inches for my American visitors) feels about right, although a more sensible packer than me could get away with 50 quite easily

This last two requirements really narrowed my choice down further – essentially to just two:The Lowe Alpine Travel Trekker ND60 & the Osprey Porter 65. (nb – see the update at the bottom of the post for the newer version of the Lowe Alpine bag)

Making a decision

One final factor came into play in terms of deciding which to go for: I want to be able to try the pack on to see how comfortable it is – after all, it will be on my back weighing me down for the next 12 months. I’ve been unable to find a stockist for the Porter in London (and anyway, it’s the uglier of the two), so my current favourite is the Lowe Alpine.

It ticks all the above boxes, but as well it has the following features that are helping convince me:
– Adjustable back means it can be fitted to suit my size, making it more comfortable
– Its own raincover which tucks away
– The main straps zip away into a compartment at the back, making it look more like a suitcase and meaning there is less dangling to get caught up in baggage reclaim systems
– Well padded hip-belt
– Various internal pockets for better organisation
– It also has better padded straps and back support than most travel packs, making this closer to a hiking backpack, and therefore hopefully more comfortable to wear for longer periods.

Now the eagle-eyed among you may spot that this is technically a women’s pack (the male equivalent is the Travel Trekker 70L – but that is bigger than I want and is a less comfortable fit for me, especially as I’m a bit of a hobbit) but I’ve been assured that there is very little design-wise that makes them different other than slightly narrower straps.

I’m planning to buy in the next week or so – unless any more experienced travellers can point me to anything obvious I’ve missed?

Hopefully that’ll be useful for anyone planning a similar purchase – of course this is a purely personal view that you may disagree with, here are some links to other articles that I found helpful, even if I didn’t come to the same conclusions:

The ever helpful Nomadic Matt gives his guide to choosing the right pack, including links to various brands
Brave New Traveller has an interesting article on one man’s obsessive hunt for the perfect backpack
Australian site bakpakka goes into quite a lot of detail on types of pack including useful stiff on the right materials and zips has some useful stuff on the kind of features to look out for.
Cotswold Outdoor have some useful tips on how to pack

UPDATE I have now bought my backpack. After an hour or so trying the two bags on, having them properly fitted by the everso helpful staff at Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden, and filled with weight to simulate what it would be like with a full load, it turned out that the Lowe Alpine back was also the most comfortable, so I’ve gone with that.

The bag I went for (the Travel Trekker ND60) has now been replaced with the Travel Trekker II ND60. Haven’t tried them out but if there’s as good as their predecessor (which has been the perfect choice for me – 6 years on it’s proved to be the perfect travel pack – comfortable, well-made, and super-easy to load and unload) then it should still be great choices. It also comes in ‘men’s’ 70L versions but I reckon that’s too big for most RTW backpackers’ needs.

Meanwhile for those looking for a slightly smaller, carry-on size back, at 40L, should try the TT Carry-on 40.

The Last Days of the Incas

Machu Picchu seems to be at the top of every traveller’s list when putting together a South American itinerary. With it being such a highlight, I’ve read quite a few posts about it among the travel blogs I follow – and all seem to agree that it lives up to the hype.

In preparation for my visit, I thought it’s be nice to read up a bit on the history of the Incas before my visit, to get a feel for the context. To that end, I’ve been reading this fantastic book:

The Last Days of the Incas

The Last Days of the Incas

which I really would recommend to anyone planning a trip to Peru. Far from being a dry, academic text, ‘The Last Days of the Incas’ reads more like a gripping thriller.

The story of how a small group of Spaniards (just 167 at first) manage to conquer an empire that covered a huge chunk of South America is quite incredible. Unwittingly arriving just as the empire was engulfed in civil war and weakened by smallpox (that had been brought to the Americas by Europeans, and which had travelled down from the Caribbean coast), they were able to triumph despite being overwhelmingly outnumbered, thanks to a combination of horsepower, guns, deft politicking (playing different native factions off against each other), shameful brutality (often in the name of Catholic church, at other times just senseless violence) towards the Incas and even a dose of sheer good luck. Later on, the conquistadors risked the success of the conquest by fighting amongst each other, and the book does a great job of bringing to life the personalities of all the key players.

As well as the historic context, Macquarrie brings the story up to date by describing how Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in the quest to find Vilcabamba, the last hold out of the Inca kings.

I’m really glad I’ve read this before my trip, as I think I’ll get even more out of my visit now – and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone thinking of doing the same.

2008 Travel round up part 3: My Year in Photos

The final bit of my ’08 round-up is a quick photographic journey through the most memorable travel moments of the year. (In case you’re interested, you can see all my 2008 photos over at Flickr)

Wat Phou

January: Wat Phou

Wat Phou is an Angkor-era temple in southern Laos. It’s much less well-known than Laos’s other World Heritage Site, Luang Prabang, and hence gets much fewer tourists. It can’t compete in terms of size with Angkor Wat, but its beautiful hillside setting overlooking the Mekong and lack of crowds make it worth a detour.
Coffee beans drying

February: Coffee beans drying

Another Lao highlight was a visit to the Bolaven Plateau, home to most of the country’s coffee production. Everywhere we went we saw piles of coffee beans drying in the sun.
Crispy Frog

January: Crispy Frog

Moments later, I ate this crispy, deep-fried Mekong Frog, which is not something I ever expected to do. Surprisingly lovely. And no, it didn’t taste of chicken.
Stowe House

February: Stowe House

A beautiful, crisp, cold winter day walking through the grounds of Stowe House, some of the finest landscaped grounds in England.
Alpine view

March: Alpine view

I’d resisted skiing for years. Why did no-one tell me one of the best bits of the experience would be the breathtaking beauty of the mountains?

March: Bobsleigh!

1500 metres downhill on the 1994 Olympic track. Over 100kph, inches from the ice. The best 72 seconds of my life.

April: Bounce

You don’t need to spend a fortune on a bobsleigh run to have fun though: an afternoon bouncing on the trampoline at my sister’s house in Essex was nearly as fun.
Wet & windy Snowdon

June: Wet & windy Snowdon

Freezing rain and winds so strong you could barely stand up – but making it to the top of Wales’s highest mountain was worth it.
Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

June: Completing the Yorkshire 3 Peaks

Before I did it, I thought 26 miles of hiking up and down three hills would be a bit tough. I ended up running the last few miles. And I even got a certificate to prove I’d done it too (I’m like a child when it comes to external validation).
My new favourite building

June: My new favourite building

The restored De La Warr pavilion is absolutely stunning, and utterly incongruous to find in town like Bexhill.
View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

June: View over Glastonbury (madness not pictured)

Even more fun than usual, thanks to the absence of mud and flooding. I’ll miss the madness in 2009.
the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

July: the Blue Mosque & Hagia Sofia

Recovering from festivals by going on holiday straight after is totally the way ahead.
24 hours in Ibiza

August: 24 hours in Ibiza

…except it wasn’t even that. We spent nearly as long in Madrid airport as we did on the island.
Boat envy in Formentera

September: Boat envy in Formentera

Still, I made up for it by having a fantastic four days there the following month, seeing how the other half live. Although it did give me boat envy.
Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

October: Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos

Cool abandoned hotel in Lagos, one of my favourite photos of the year. The town is pretty great too.
Faro - ghost town

October: Faro - ghost town

Unlike Faro, which was just plain weird. Also: I assumed Pigeon-racing was one of those weird eccentric English things. Turns out the Portuguese do it too.
Krakow market square

November: Krakow market square

We kept being told it was the largest square of its kind in Europe. We never did find out what that meant exactly. Lovely place to spend my birthday (although I think Uluru in 2009 may just top it). Just don’t mention the borscht.
View over Windermere

December: View over Windermere

If there’s been one thing that’s really stood out from my travels this year, it’s been falling in love with the mountains, and it’s certainly something I’ll be doing a lot more of in 2009.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented in 2008. It’s been a bit of a dry run while I get the hang of writing (the only writing I’ve done for the last decade has been on Powerpoint slides, which is really quite different) and posting pictures. Hopefully 2009 and the start of my long-term travels will make this an even better read going forward!

2008 Travel Round-up Part 2: Summary

Countries visited: 8, 1 of which was new. This beats the record I set last year, when I visited 7 (although 4 of those were new). I have a feeling I’ll beat that again in 2009.

National Parks visited: 4 – Vanoise (France), Snowdonia (Wales), Yorkshire Dales (England), Lake District (England)

Outdoor activities: Hiking (England, Wales, Laos), Mountain Biking (Portugal), Rock Climbing (Portugal), Skiing (France)

World Heritage sites visited: 8 – What Phou, Champasak (Laos), Belem Tower (Portugal), Sintra (Portugal), Historical Areas of Constantinople (Turkey), Ibiza (Spain), Maritime Greenwich (UK), Krakow (Poland), Wieliczka Salt Mine (Poland)

Cathedrals, Temples, Mosques: 4 – Blue Mosque (Istanbul, Turkey), Suleymaniye (Istanbul, Turkey), Wawel Cathedral (Krakow, Poland), Se Cathedral (Faro, Portugal).

Palaces & Castles: 6 – Wawel Castle (Krakow, Poland), Pena Palace (Sintra, Portugal), Moorish Castle (Sintra, Portugal), Castle of São Jorge (Lisbon, Portugal), Topkapı Palace (Istanbul, Turkey), Yoros Castle (Istanbul, Turkey)

Museums & Galleries: 8 – Tate Britain (London, UK), Tate Modern (London, UK), National Gallery (London, UK), V&A (London, UK), Natural History Museum (London, UK), Museum of Turkish & Islamic Art (Istanbul, Turkey), Museum of Modern Art (Istanbul, Turkey), Haghia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey)

Islands visited: 4 – Don Det (Laos), Ibiza (Spain), Formentera (Spain), Kınalıada (Turkey)

Beaches visited: 11 – Salinas (Ibiza, Spain), Cala Jondal (Ibiza, Spain), Cala Conta (Ibiza, Spain), Es Cavallet (Ibiza, Spain), Cala Vedella (Ibiza, Spain), Levant (Formentera, Spain), Illetas (Formentera, Spain), Brighton (England), Bexhill (England), Kınalıada (Turkey), Dona Ana (Lagos, Portugal).

All in all, not a bad year for travel, although not quite as good as 2007 (Mexico, Guatemala & Laos) or 1999 (Thailand, Australia & the USA). Roll on 2009.

My 2008 Travel Round-up Part 1: Month by Month


The start of 2008 saw the final few days of my first trip to Laos, before heading on to Bangkok for a brief stop (my third visit to the city, and my fourth to Thailand in total. The plane home gave me my second brief stop in the UAE but I don’t think that really counts as a visit.

February was a pretty quiet month, travel-wise. All I managed was a weekend with my parents in Buckinghamshire.

This month so my first ever ski trip, in France (my ninth visit there), and I wondered why I’d put it off for so long. Later on saw my second trip to Portugal, staying in Lisbon again, which further confirmed for me that the city is definitely one of Europe’s most underrated.

Not much travelling here (don’t think Essex really counts), but I did start up this blog. Go me.

The Spring bank holiday was the first of my four camping trips in 2008 (a record!), taking me to Wales for the fifth time. The year nearly ended there for me as I was almost blown off the top of Snowdon by the strength of the wind.

More camping this month, this time in Yorkshire (for hiking) and Somerset (for partying and the novelty of seeing Jay-Z perform in a cow field).

I’m never going straight back to work after a festival again: a recovery holiday is the way to go, and a week in Istanbul, my second visit to Turkey was the perfect way to do it.

My thirteenth visit to Spain was also my ninth visit to Ibiza. My life and my travel interests have changed enormously since my first trip in 1997, but if anything I love the place even more than ever…

…which is why I was more than happy to accept the invitation for a tenth visit (and therefore fourteenth to Spain). This was probably the best yet. I also found time to pop over to neighbouring Formentera.

Back to Portugal for my third visit, this time for rock climbing and mountain-biking in Lagos in the Algarve.

This year my birthday was a dumpling-fuelled trip to Krakow, my first ever trip to Poland. It was my first new country of the year, and I’m really keen to go back.

No foreign trips this month – just hiking in the beautiful Lake District. What a way to remind me that even if I am heading off round the world for a year, when I get back in 2010 I will be returning to a beautiful country that I really haven’t explored enough yet.