Prisoners on the motu

His eyes widened as he threw one hand across his mouth in horror. The lights flickered and thunder rumbled in the background as he gasped the prophetic warning;

“Then you will be prisoners on the motu!”

Okay, maybe the lights didn’t flicker and if there was thunder we didn’t hear it. But it might as well have (complete with thematic music to underscore the drama of this pivotal plot point), for all the shock and horror displayed by the Papeete Visitor Centre officer when we told him we didn’t have a full meal plan for our upcoming visit to Bora Bora.

“How will you eat!? You know Tahiti is expensive one time. Moorea two time. Bora Bora three time,” he admonished us. (I wonder if Tourism Tahiti knows about this subversive element in their midst).

“You must get cereal bars and Tupperware and then at breakfast you know,” he mimes slipping food from the breakfast table into the imaginary Tupperware container on his lap. “You must!” he declares with an emphatic nod and another dramatic wide-eyed stare.

Enjoying a pre-prison breakfast in only "1x expensive" Tahiti.

Enjoying a pre-prison breakfast in only “1x expensive” Tahiti.

We had just popped into the tourism office to find out if they had any advice or a good map for our self-drive trip down to Teahupoo the next day. It turned out the visitor centre officer, who transformed from portly bored desk worker to flamboyant best-friend in a matter of seconds, did have some advice for us; quite a lot to be precise.

The unsolicited, but highly entertaining, feedback claiming that we had pretty much made the wrong decision at every step of the way also included a scolding over the choice of car rental.

“You did choose Eco-car didn’t you!?”

Umm, no we chose Avis. Because we’ve heard of them and they have a website that comes up when you google ‘car rental Tahiti.’ Unlike Eco-car.

Once we advised him that no, we were not rich, his focus shifted to the doom and gloom we could expect as prisoners of a five star resort. We left the visitor centre with the assurance that we would definitely be coming home short a kidney each… because we would either need to sell them or eat them due to not being able to afford lunch and dinner (I gather he was not confident about our breakfast stealing abilities).

With the exception of the roulottes, this highly entertaining stop was probably the highlight of our time in Papeete itself. As a lot of tourist information will tell you, there is not much to see in the city of Papeete. It made for a nice half day look-around but you don’t need to put a lot of time aside to explore the town area.

We did enjoy a lovely picnic breakfast on the waterfront in Papeete. One of our favourite things to do while traveling is to pick up a French stick, cheese and other picnic bits and have a relaxed meal somewhere awesome. And in all seriousness, it is often a nice alternative to a $60+ breakfast or lunch.

Papeete also offered an enjoyable walk around its lively public markets. Set just back from the waterfront, the markets offer everything from souvenirs to fresh produce and flowers. The town itself is bustling without being overwhelming and can easily be walked in a couple of hours.

Papeete Public Market

Papeete Public Market

Although the French Polynesian capital  doesn’t offer days and days of excitement, it is worth considering spending a couple of days in a resort or pension in that part of the island. There are stunning views across to the island of Moorea, and in our case a lovely pool to enjoy them from. There are also lots of options for day tours from the area including 4×4, snorkeling, island circle tours as well as boating, fishing and more.

Plenty of ways to relax once you have exhausted all Papeete has to offer.

Plenty of ways to relax once you have exhausted all Papeete has to offer.

Will Bec pawn her newly acquired wedding ring to survive? Will Ryan become embroiled in the black market organ trade in return for a chip sandwich? How will they survive as prisoners on the motu? Stay tuned to find out.

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Not all about Brando

I have a long held belief that while travelling you should ‘get it over and done with.’ The practical application of this means frontloading your initial day/s in a particular place with as many of the activities, excursions or things you want to see and do as early as possible. This gives you enough time to offset any unforeseen hiccups along the way that might see you miss out on that ‘must see’ thing that you saved till the very last day, (it is also practiced with much more enthusiasm that ‘get it over and done with’ might suggest).

A midnight arrival at the Manava Suite Resort in Tahiti, saw us sleep in until 10.00 am on the first morning and decide to break with tradition and relaxing day first. We tried to book a 4×4 tour of  Papenoo Valley for the final day but the travel Gods decreed that would should not break with tradition… the only availability was that afternoon. Get out there and get it done.

A quick swim in the divine infinity pool (stunning views across to the island of Moorea) and a resort lunch (where I discovered that French Polynesia has a fetish for goat’s cheese of which I highly approve) and we were off to explore. It was just the two of us in the open back jeep as we cruised through the capital of Papeete and along the coast road. It was such a nice atmosphere to be sitting the open air, soaking in the stunning aquamarine lagoon that rings most of the island and the black sand beaches that line the north coast of the island.

Papenoo Valley

Papenoo Valley


We turned inland at Papenoo to explore the volcanic crater that forms Papenoo Valley. In addition to boasting more than 1000 waterfalls, the valley has the dubious distinction of being home to a tradition akin to a real life Hunger Games or The Running Man. The entire valley once belonged to the king who would use it to put a twist on the traditional human sacrifice. The sacrifice would be released into the valley followed shortly after by the hunter. If the sacrifice could stay alive until sunset, the hunter would become the sacrifice instead.

Not only did we learn about human sacrifice, we were also presented with a ginger flower that produce a natural hair shampoo and  got to eat guava straight from the tree. From there it was back to the resort pool for a sunset swim. It was in the swim up pool bar that I made the pleasant discovery that I am a Jack Daniels fan… provided it is mixed with a bucket load of frozen strawberries and lime.

Strawberry Jack Sour

Strawberry Jack Sour

We taxied back into Papeete to try out the famous roulottes or rolling food trucks. Every evening twenty plus food trucks pull into Vaiete Place on the water front and set up plastic tables and chairs for diners and cook up a storm. The food here is much cheaper than eating in the resort restaurants (meals for under $20) and arguably much nicer. The many choices include Chinese, pizza, crepes, burgers, ribs, poisson cru, and steak and chips.

And the winner is….. [extended drum roll to reflect how long it took to choose between all of the scrumptious delights on offer]. Gourmet burgers with uru (breadfruit ) fries from Burger Machine!! The only disappointing thing about it was that I couldn’t fit in a second dinner despite my willing taste buds and eyes that are, as always, too big for my stomach.


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Assisted bathing

Not an official Turkish bath

Not an official Turkish bath

The Turkish bath or Hamam is, according to many, a must for a visit to Turkey. I investigated a couple in the Old City area while we were staying in Istanbul but most of the reviews I found about them online suggested that they were fairly touristy in the worst kind of way – ie. instead of being tourist friendly and easy to use, the price was relatively high and the service perfunctory with a big focus on hassling for tips.

I was still quite keen to try the Turkish bath so I had two; the first at a hotel in Cannakale and the second at our hotel when we returned to Istanbul. Both were similar in style and are a variant on the traditional bath experience.

The bath begins by spending a few minutes in the sauna or steam room in order to open up your pores. You then enter the main bath room. Marble benches run around the outside of the circular room with marble sinks or bathing stations spaced around the edges. In the centre of the room there is a large, heated marble slab.

The first bath I went to was mixed. There was a man in there washing himself (no problem) and another man who seemed to be there in more of a spectator capacity (pretend he’s not there – no problem). You have the option of wearing a small towel or a bikini into the bath – I wore my bikini as they suggested that this is less awkward to manoeuvre around.

After laying down on the slab, the attendant pours tepid water over you from a bowl filled from the marble sinks. From there they proceed to massage and exfoliate you from head to toe, front and back with a rough mit.

Relaxation is the name of the game, but the next bit is mostly fun. The attendant dips a pillow case style towel into a soapy mixture and then swings it around several times till it is filled with foam. They then squeeze the foam over you, refill and repeat until you are a foamy mountain atop the marble slab. The attendant then lathers and massages the foam all over you before rinsing you off till you are squeaky clean and super soft.

At the first bath I followed this up with a one hour traditional massage – absolutely divine.

The second bath followed the same format but there were a few differences. The first was that the laid a couple of towels onto the slab for comfort, the second immediate difference was that there were no hairy observers sitting in the corner.

No tepid water and T.L.C at the second bath however – all of the rinses were with icy cold water. Refreshing and invigorating once the initial shock had worn off.

The second attendant was also nothing if not thorough. She scrubbed me down from head to toe with vigour – the same pressure and enthusiasm was applied to my face, décolletage and all the other soft and sensitive bits as was given to my feet and elbows. I had to check my back when I returned to the room to make sure I hadn’t lost skin along my vertebrae – scratch marks yes, but no significant grazes!

The first attendant thoughtfully started the exfoliation with my face, the second started from the toes up – I tried not to dwell on the fact that the mit that was now removing the bulk of my epidermis had already paid the same attention to my three-month travel-worn feet! (Hopefully the majority of the stank had been removed at the first bath!)

Where the first attendant had work around my bikini, moving the straps to one side where needed, the second unceremoniously turned by bikini bottoms into a g-string in order to maximise exfoliatable surface area.

She had just plunged her hand under the bikini while exfoliating my front but indicated that I should take the top off altogether while she was doing my back. This was tossed into a corner and remained there throughout the foam treatment resulting in the first time the girls have ever been massaged in a professional capacity.

With due credit to my firm handed and not remotely shy friend, she did spend a great deal more time of the foam treatment not only rubbing the foam into my skin but also massaging out the squillions of knots and ropey areas through my back and shoulders.

Another icy rinse off and we were done. Although the second left me a little more bruised and battered, both treatments were incredible. I have never felt so soft and smooth in my entire life… I think the only way you could replicate the same effect at home would be to fill your bath with cocoa butter and sleep in it.

A firm convert to the Turkish bath, whether it be super friendly or of the tough love variety, you can add me to the list of those selling it as a must-do for visitors to Turkey!

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New year, new place, old friends


I subscribe to a couple of blogs. One of these sent me a New Year—New Beginnings themed blog a couple of days ago and invited to reflect on how I had used the first few days of the new year and if my actions were setting me up for a good 2013.

The first week of 2013 was spent in Greece and I think it was a great place for to spend the first few days for a couple of reasons.

The first and most obvious is that I can’t really think of a better way to spend New Year than on a dream holiday (note: not “trip of a lifetime”, because I intend to have many more!!) On 31st December we spent the day exploring the Roman Agora and the Acropolis.

We stayed in Athens with an old friend, Gregory, (whom I met on a Japanese youth program Ship for World Youth or SWY in 2010). For New Year’s Eve, his family kindly hosted us at their home for a big family dinner – starting at the way-too-trendy time of 10:00pm. So as the New Year ticked over, we were; overseas, catching up with old friends, and on the receiving end of some incredibly generous hospitality which included gorgeous food and beautiful wines – big tick for doing New Year right I think!

From there we returned to Gregory’s to continue the evening (or morning) with cards, cheese, and much more wine!

The second reason, that I think Greece was an apt place to spend the New Year, and a slightly more philosophical one is to do with new beginnings. When the topic of the crisis came up, almost all of my Greek friends talked about moving forward, the need to keep moving forward with positive energy where possible and saw 2013 as a time for new beginnings.

As far as signs of the crisis goes – it is hard to say whether you only notice things because you are looking for them or if you would have noticed something askance if you didn’t know how the country is suffering. There was certainly a noticeable amount of graffiti (particularly politically motivated) around Athens, and more homeless people and beggars than I have seen in a major city. I think the most telling thing is that almost all of my Greek friends, who are incredibly dynamic, well educated, and community minded young people are either unable to find work or have moved overseas for short or long term to find work.

From Athens, we caught the bus up to Kalambaka. This area is better known under the umbrella of Meteora. Meteora is very impressive with sheer rock towers looming over the villages of Kalambaka and Kastraki. The Meteora are currently home to half a dozen monasteries but once housed 27, with a monastery perched atop each of the cliff tops in the area. (If you are not familiar with Meteora, I strongly recommend a google or quick visit to Wikipedia – it is very hard to describe how magnificent this area is!).

We avoided minor disasters here (not of the climbing variety) on a couple of occasions. In the first instance we arrived at the Hotel Meteora (which we had booked online) – a clean but fairly daggy little B&B that was, when we arrived staffed only by a grandma of about 80 and two small children.

After heading out for some dinner we returned to the hotel to find a fairly irate lady who was adamant that we didn’t have a booking (and didn’t seem interested in charming us to stay despite the very quiet tourist season) and was very confused as to how we had obtained a key.

We eventually established that there was another Hotel Meteora in the much smaller village of Kastraki and her, much friendlier, husband kindly offered to take us there. Our stress levels were pretty high at this stage, and I had no small amount of nerves about staying at a similar establishment in a place that might not even have eateries or similar in the area.

This brings us to the second near-fail – upon visiting the tourist office before dinner we had been advised that the only way to visit the Meteora and the monasteries was to catch a taxi up. They also advised that we probably wouldn’t be able to find taxis up there so that we should arrange, with our nonexistent Greek, to have the taxi wait for us ie. hire them for the day.

Our arrival in Kastraki quickly put aside the fear that our best laid plans were going to pot. The Hotel Meteora in Kastraki was a far cry from its Kalambaka name sake. It was a beautiful 5 star hotel with incredible views of the Meteora and gorgeous big balconied rooms.



While we were waiting to check in our lovely driver also informed us that ‘yes, you can climb the Meteora,’ ‘No problem at all’ and proceeded to direct us as to the best walking paths on our map.

The next day was the highlight of our time in Greece, we spent an amazing six hours walking around the Meteora, admiring its incredible views and marvelling at the beautiful monasteries. Having a very nice hotel room to return to, we decided to spend the evening at home relaxing with another wine & cheese picnic while we watched For Your Eyes Only (in order to see the places we had just visited!).

From here we travelled to Thessaloniki to catch up with more SWY friends – Maria & Konstantinos. Maria’s family graciously hosted us in their home. Ryan felt the full extent of Greek hospitality when we attended a family lunch. Nothing makes a Greek mother happier than having a young man to feed, they told us as one of the four mothers at the table piled his plate up for the third time. By the end of the meal Ryan was hunched forward with his arms crossed over his plate and refused to turn sideways to talk to anyone for fear that another monster serving would be slipped onto his plate while his attention was diverted.

Apart from the enjoyment of being able to catch up with old friends, Thessaloniki was also very special for me as my great-grandfather, is buried in the Allied Military Cemetery, having died in Salonika in 1917 while serving with the British Army. I was very, very touched to have the opportunity to visit.

I will certainly be heading back to Greece in warmer weather to experience their famous island culture and more of their beautiful food & lovely people!

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Romanus eunt domus

My first impression of Rome was perhaps not the most favourable. We caught a shuttle to the Termini main station and walked, from there, to our accommodation off of Piazza Vittorio. Within five minutes of disembarking, I had seen three rats, a lot of rubbish and there was a pervasive smell of urinal – and not a terribly clean one. The area that our accommodation was in was also not a typically Italian area. The accommodation itself however, was fine, booked through Airbnb and exactly as expected. It also had the advantage of being only a 10 minute walk from the Colosseum.

After dropping our bags we took advantage of this and wandered down toward the Colosseum to find some food. A lot of wise travel oracles will tell you to avoid eating around the Colosseum because it is too touristy. They seem to ignore the fact that 1) Huge tracts of Rome are pretty touristy and 2) That even if the food standard is not 5-star, 3-hat, 7.5-whisk or whatever – it is pretty freakin’ amazing to be sitting outside, smack-bang next to the Colosseum with your pizza and glass of red.

These sandals were made for walking My first impression was quickly replaced by general awe and wonderment the next day as we explored the city by foot. Rome is an amazing place where you see something incredible around almost every corner… and that is on the dull streets. In most cases the incredible thing is nestled amongst a plethora of beautiful, amazing, and stunning things… gorgeous statues, beautiful piazzas, old churches, magnificent ruins and so on.

First stop… the Fontana di Trevi. It was about 9:00am by the time we got there but being winter, there were fortunately still only a handful of people there- this was not the case back when we went back later in the evening! From there we visited one of my favourite places- the Pantheon. This  majestic domed building is nestled at the end of a fairly small piazza and, for me, was the best example of how the tiny, twisting cobbled streets seem to belie the possibility of the treasures hidden around every corner.


We were so impressed with the Pantheon that we decided to have a coffee on the piazza. We do not drink coffee so it was really just a chance to exercise the adage ‘When in Rome’- in Rome! (This phrase was tossed about a bit over the three days in Burgundy-esque style). The experience was lovely, the coffee was meh, but ordering a green tea and a coke didn’t seem fitting for our first piazza experience.

From there we saw the Piazza di Navona, Campa di Fiori, and walked through the impressive Hadrian fortress, the Castel Sant’angelo. Lunch stop for a four-cheese gnocchi and pepperoni pizza, and we were off to Gladiator School!

The Gladiator School was about six kilometres away from our accommodation so we had taken some careful google map screen shots (too pov to pay for data overseas!) while we had wi-fi  and followed these toward our destination. Just around the corner from our destination and with half an hour up our sleeves, and disaster struck. We arrived at un un-walkable section of motorway (part of the Appian way)- blind corners, no shoulder, very fast cars and a tunnel.

We had no choice but to leg it a kilometre back up the hill from whence we’d come and to try and flag down a taxi. As is always the case when you are pressed for time, the very few taxis we did manage to flag down refused to take us; they didn’t know the place, it was too close, not worth the effort- who knows! One guy wasted several minutes of our time while he worked out where it was and then told us he was finished for the day.

Fortunately, with only minutes to spare – and not before Ryan had chucked a small tantrum – we found a saintly taxi driver who delivered us safely to our destination. We were, however, frustrated to realise that had only been a stone throw away, when the motorway and the voice that says ’Would your mum approve of you doing this?’ stopped us from walking the last few metres.

Gladiator School was as super-awesome as it sounds. The school is run by an ancient Roman re-enactment society and the first hour was spent learning about the Roman army and the gladiators in a museum which includes weapons and armour that the re-enactment society have made.

The second hour was spent out in the training yard learning basic offensive and defensive moves with wooden swords- lots of fun. Once we had mastered these, our wooden swords were replaced with a newspaper/gaffa tape creation less likely to cause damage, and we were ready to fight!


Despite the fact that Ryan is over a foot taller than me and has the reach of a giant squid, I held my own quite well! We had lots of fun getting to bash each other with swords (a lifelong dream of Ryan’s I think)… the other couple fighting didn’t seem to embrace the chance to stab and slice each other with the same level of enthusiasm. I did, however, have to yell at Ryan when he started punching me with his shield – not something we were taught in training!

Tired from all the fighting and with a good 20 kilometres of walking already under our belts, we caught a taxi back into the city centre to explore the Roman Forum and Piazza Venezia area by night before tucking into a well earned pizza/pasta by the Fontana di Trevi.

Blessed are the cheesemakers On the second day we visited the Vatican Museum/ St Peter’s Basilica on a Dark Rome tour. The tour was a great option for two reasons  1) We avoided the mammoth queues (literally around the block) 2) The guide offered a lot of really interesting facts and anecdotes about the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica – much more entertaining than an audio guide.

This was the busiest place we’ve visited and most of the three hours was spent shoulder to shoulder. Without sparking a huge theological debate, I didn’t really love the Vatican. The art was beautiful but I feel quite uncomfortable with the Catholic Church from an institutional point of view and I certainly felt this while I was there. I do not think you will find a place on earth that better evidences material wealth, or houses more icons and idols than the Vatican. Much more Pope than God and much more temporal than spiritual – for me.

I was glad to have visited but if I had my time over I would probably spend the time on a day trip to Pompeii instead.

We lunched near the Spanish Steps and then (lesson learned about walking) took a taxi out to the San Callisto Catacombs. The catacombs were very impressive but unlike the Parisian catacombs, do not house any actual bones.

The day was topped off with an Eggplant Parmigiana and another Pepperoni pizza.

Colosseo We saved the best for last and visited the Colosseum on our final day. The actual reason we waited was because it was the only day we could get onto one of the tours that allows you to visited the underground section of the Colosseum as well as the third tier. Only 250 people a day are allowed into these sections (spread over 10 tours).

It was absolutely magnificent. There is a small section on the ground level where they have created a small section of arena floor, and stepping out onto this was a truly breathtaking experience, especially as you are one of only 25 people so there is lots of  space to walk around and enjoy the majesty of the Colosseum rising above you. From there we visited the underground section and got to see the where all of the animals and people waited before entering the arena as well as the remains of infrastructure; such as winches used to hoist cages up and down, or sets in and out of the arena.

As they unlock the gates to let you up to the third tier, dozens of people gather at the bottom of the stairs with a ‘how did they get up there?’ look on their faces. The guide suggested that this is the best part of the tour for many but I am quite soft so I felt a little bit bad… I know I’d be jealous if I was at the bottom of the stairs.

And jealous with good reason. The view from the third section is beautiful. It overlooks the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill but also gives you a near bird’s eye look into the foundations of the Colosseum.

Third tier of the Colosseum

Third tier of the Colosseum

Once the tour had concluded, in the Roman Forum, we explored Palatine Hill before heading off to a restaurant that had been recommended by an old school friend (on hear say).

The culinary standout of our visit, it did not disappoint at all! Sora Lella is located on the Isola Tiberina and is a proper restaurant, as opposed the cafe style restaurants that are around all of the major attractions. We enjoyed a beautiful late lunch here and followed the Italian tradition of ordering pasta as a first course… my tummy and waistline could not handle this every day.

I enjoyed a beautiful main course of Eggplant Parmigiana with ricotta, walnuts and honey. Ryan had a spectacular looking serve of lamb and potato, and waved a sparkling clean bone in my face as evidence of the lamb’s perfection.

Add a couple of bottles of wine and this was the perfect way to finish our first (certainly not the last) visit to Rome.

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It’s pronounced ‘How-da’


With not even a full day booked in Amsterdam, I thought our visit would consist of a visit to the Anne Frank Museum, a general admire of the canals and a little bit of vague, unguided sightseeing ie. we would wander around the city for a few hours and not really know what we were looking at.

Fortunately however, the super tourist powers we had acquired in London were still in full force across the channel. Within an hour of arriving at our hotel, and thanks to an armful of brochures we had procured in the lobby, we hooked up with a free three hour walking tour of the city.

The tour arrangement was quite interesting. The company, Sandeman’s New Europe, work with freelance tour guides in major cities. They run free city tours and the guides are paid by tips. At the beginning of the tour the guide explains how this works, confirms that tipping is not obligatory but asks that if you have enjoyed the tour, you consider tipping at the end.

I was quite happy to tip the guide at the end of the tour but I had been a little bit nervous but there might be a sense of pushiness or awkwardness. This wasn’t the case at all. It wasn’t mentioned again for the rest of the tour and all of the group were farewelled courteously regardless of the size of the tip- in fact, the guide made a point of not looking at the tip as he received and pocketed it from each person. He also made himself available at a local cafe to assist people looking for recommendations for restaurants, coffee houses or bars etc

David, the tour guide, suggested that the liberal attitude of Amsterdam can be summed up as follows; You can basically do whatever you like so long as 1) You’re not hurting anyone 2)It’s good for business.

After a quick shower at the hotel, we joined the same guide for a paid walking tour of the Red Light District. I guess a description of this and the politics etc around the Red Light District could fill an entire blog entry or two at least. I won’t say very much on this but it was certainly worth going to see for yourself and the tour added some interesting commentary about the politics, practices and procedures of the area as such!

The next day, with our super tourist knickers hitched firmly over our tights of exploration (metaphorically speaking of course), we set off to explore the rest of Amsterdam. After dropping our bags in storage at the station, we caught the tram across town to the Anne Frank Museum.

The House is a very engaging display. I had read the Diaries when I was a kid but I think even without this, the Museum tells the story of Anne and her family very well. It is both an empty shell and yet very personable as the videos and items on display give an insight into the plight of Jewish people forced into hiding during Nazi occupation, through the experiences of these two families and more specifically from the point of view of one young girl.

We stopped for lunch at a pancake house before jumping on a canal cruise. The commentary was interesting, the canals were beautiful but I won’t lie… I did fall asleep for about 20 minutes of the hour. This is no reflection on Amsterdam, the lull of the water was just too much for me.

From here, freshly rested and on the recommendation of our invaluable tour guide, David, we trammed out to the western side of the city to check out a micro-brewery. The brewery is shaped like a windmill, which appealed to our somewhat kitschy tastes, and offers, one of our all time favourite alcoholic pastimes, a beer tasting menu. This was well worth the visit and I could quite happily have nested in there for the afternoon but five beers, one plate of cheese and a salami later, it was time to beat the rain back to the city and jump on a train to Eindhoven.


The next six days were spent with Ryan’s extended family in the Netherlands. First in Eindhoven with his Mum’s cousin, Lieneke and her husband Ger, and then in Maarssen with another cousin, Greet and her husband Bert. This was incredibly nice and both sides of the family were amazingly warm and welcoming.

Our time in Eindhoven was highlighted by a big family dinner, a trip to Belgium for the day, and a picturesque, if a little damp, bicycle trip around the local area. Highlights of our time in Maarssen, where we spent Christmas, included several lovely dinners most spectacular of which was cheese fondue (heaven!), climbing the Dom tower in Utrecht, a trip out to the Hague, and a Christmas day bike ride out to a local castle.

As far as having Christmas away goes, wintery countries certainly have the advantage for cosy Christmas markets, ice skating and the excitement of actually being able to sing Sleigh Bells in the snow, but nothing really gives me the proper Christmas feeling like a hot summer evening and the anticipation that it will be warm enough to go down to the beach for a swim.

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Alice, Jack and rotten grapes

Snail Porridge

So this is a blasphemy of sorts for me, but I may have been more excited about lunch at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck than I was about meeting  the real Father Christmas in the Arctic Circle. It was a tie at least.

I want to acknowledge two things to start with;

1) This is not a very well written entry- it is really just to sum up the dishes we ate at Heston’s for those that are interested as promised in the London blog. Apologies.

2) I have now written more words on this travel blog than I have on my thesis.

As described in the last entry, the restaurant was simple and lovely, and the staff were also lovely (but not simple).

In order to get a booking at The Fat Duck, you need to book online as reservations open 90 days in advance. We tried a few experimental bookings and could see that you needed to be sat waiting as the bookings opened (about 8:30pm Australian time) if you wanted to be successful.

We booked in for 12:00pm. The menu asks that you allow 3 ½ hours for your meal however we rolled out of there at about 4:30 in the afternoon.

The Fat Duck offers a tasting menu only. There is also the option (for another couple of hundred pounds) to pair this with a wine tasting menu. Needless to say, our budget did not allow for this!! I think most people would also be perfectly satisfied concentrating on the incredible sensory feast laid out before them without adding boutique wines into the mix.

We started with a glass of Moet each and then picked a McLaren Vale red, Yangarra Estate mouvedre, from the wine list that required two hands to hold and is the size of a medieval bible.

Serving a vegetarian option of the menu was no problem, and the restaurant makes a point of noting that they can cater to most dietary requests with advance notice. The other thing that was quite nice, is that they make special note of the fact that there is no dress code. None the less, we did try and dig the nicest bits out of our backpacks.

There was certainly a sense of fun at the restaurant and we didn’t feel out of place taking a couple of subtle and not so subtle pics of our food… even the people who looked like they could afford to eat there were doing it. I think the focus is on the whole ‘experience’ and one of the particularly nice touches was that in addition to the variety of souvenirs you acquire throughout the meal, you are presented with a wax sealed copy of the menu to take home, (I was also lucky enough to get a signed birthday card).

You can take it as a given that all the descriptions of the dishes below should be followed with ‘Yummy,’ ‘Amazing,’ and/or ‘Incredible.’

AERATED BEETROOT WITH HORSERADISH CREAM This was not listed on the menu but was served as a pre-aperitif (if there is such a thing). This was a little bit like a globe shaped holey beetroot macaroon filled with horseradish cream. It was very tasty but also gave you the satisfactory indulgence of having really tiny food served on huge crockery.

NITRO POACHED APERITIFS Vodka and Lime Sour The set up for this dish comes out by trolley to your table. The waiter dips a spoonful of what I imagine is an egg white type mixture into a steaming pot of nitrogen and removes it as a delectable white puff. This is then powdered with a cocktail flavouring of your mixture as a scented spritzer is sprayed into the air over the table for general ambience!

RED CABBAGE GAZPACHO Pommery Grain Mustard Ice Cream Visually striking, this purple soup  is served in another oversized bowl with a sculpted dollop of mustard ice cream. This tasted very good but was probably my least favourite of all of the dishes.

JELLY OF QUAIL, CRAYFISH CREAM Chicken Liver Parfait, Oak Moss and Truffle Toast/ JELLY OF SMOKED MUSHROOM, TRUFFLE CREAM & PEA Oak Moss and Truffle Toast This was the first of the spectacle dishes. The waiter informed us that it was designed to showcase the  taste of the earth. The centre of the table was set with a bed of moss from which spilled dry ice steam all over the table.

The  jelly dishes were served in little bowls that looked like sixties swinging egg chairs and were delicious, but the standout was the finger of oak moss and truffle toast!  This was by far the tastiest item of the day. Unfortunately I’m not sure if I will be able to afford truffle toast for breakfast everyday when I get home.

SNAIL PORRIDGE Iberico Bellota Ham, Shaved Fennel/ PARSLEY PORRIDGE  Shaved Fennel This was one of two dishes that Ryan had expressed a little bit of concern about but he loved it. He raved about it and is now looking forward to another opportunity to try snail!

ROAST FOIE GRAS Barberry, Braised Kombu and Crab Biscuit/ ROASTED AUBERGINE Aubergine Puree & Braised Kombu The centre piece of the veggie version of this dish was a small, firm jelly like rectangle and was not discernible as aubergine in any way, shape or form but was delicious.

MAD HATTER’S TEA PARTY (c.1850) Mock Turtle Soup, Pocket Watch and Toast Sandwich Another spectacular performance dish, this course started with a bookmark (not edible) with the mock turtle from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The toast sandwiches were served on a Mad Hatter’s hat but the pocket watch and soup are the exciting part of this dish.

You are presented with a gold pocket watch which is then dissolved in the top layer of a glass tea pot. You then pour your pocket watch infused broth into the bottom section of the tea pot which houses a faux egg yolk sprouting teeny tiny mushrooms.

“SOUND OF THE SEA” This probably doesn’t need much description for Heston fans. For this course you are served your very own slice of the beach- sand, foam, seaweed and various fish/shell debris (all edible and none of it fish for the veggie option). The sea is also delivered to you audibly as you listen to sounds of the sea from an ipod sequestered in your own shell.

The foam/sand combination is a little disconcerting at first… I don’t really know how to describe it except to say that you really do feel as though someone has just waived a magic wand at a section of beach and turned it into food!

SALMON POACHED IN A LIQUORICE GEL Artichokes, Vanilla Mayonnaise and Golden Trout Roe/ BEETROOT RISOTTO Sour Cream Sorbet This was the second dish that Ryan was a little bit nervous about but, again, it was a favourite and in close competition with the Snail Porridge for first place apparently! The Beetroot risotto was not a mind bender but it was a far cry from gluggy or heavy rice based risotto and the presentation was very cute with the beetroot pieces cut into five cent piece sized rounds and laid by hand across the entire top of the dish.

SADDLE OF VENISON Beetroot Soubise, Risotto of Spelt and Umbles/ VEGETARIAN BONE MARROW Marmite broth and Sauce Gribiche Both dishes were delicious. The vegetarian bones appeared to be carved out of fennel and were filled with a hearty vegetable marrow and the standout element of this dish was the sauce gribiche which appeared to be balls of deep fried Hestonised aioli type sauce!

Vegetarian Bone Marrow in Marmite Broth

HOT AND ICED TEA As you drink this delicious, sweet tea, the right side of your mouth enjoys a toasty warm drink whilst the left side of your mouth gets an icy cold version of the same drink. No divider in the glass, just a Heston miracle.

BOTRYTIS CINEREA I am not usually a big dessert fan but this was outstanding…particularly for a dessert that is named after grape rot! It was a plate full of dessert ‘grapes’, each one different… from ice cream to chocolate, fruit, gels and jellies. This was also decorated with vine leaves made from something I can only call ‘delicious, sweet crunchy’ and vine stems that will be known as ‘shiny, delicious, sweet crunchy.’

Of the dishes not involving any pantomime or props, this was probably my favourite combination of wow factor plus taste.

THE “BFG” Black Forest Gateau As described but more amazing than any gateaux or black forest cake you’ve ever eaten.

WHISK(E)Y WINE GUMS These are really cute wine gums that come affixed to a map that indicates the origin of the whiskey they have been infused with from Glenlivet to Jack Daniels. They tasted incredibly good and almost made me want to start drinking whiskey… and then I remembered that for the most part, whiskey is gross.

“LIKE A KID IN A SWEET SHOP” The finale to this spectacular lunch was a sweet shop bag full of goodies; aerated chocolate mandarin jelly, apple pie caramel with an edible wrapper, a Queen of Hearts card filled with tart jelly and finally a pouch of ‘Coconut Baccy’- coconut infused with an aroma of black Cavendish tobacco.

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All my spelt and umbles



In my humble opinion, London is one of the most underrated cities. I think people like to criticise it because it is easy to sound like a discerning world traveller if you are of the opinion that London is ‘so passé’, and I think that cities like Paris still hold a more clichéd, romanticised appeal as ‘it’ places.

So, certainly not knocking Paris, but I love London. It is easy to get around, there is so much to do from shows & markets to amazing food and easy day trips, and so many sights that are culturally and historically iconic. London has an extensive amount of museums that are dynamic and interesting (and mostly free) and an incredible atmosphere.

So, now that you are forewarned of my enthusiasm for London, here is a relatively brief overview of our  week and a half in London.

Day 1 Ryan had never been to London so we started with the big ones.  We caught the underground to Charing Cross, so his first view of the city proper was Trafalgar Square. A stroll down to Buckingham Palace to wave at the Queen (Ryan actually did this), back through St James’s Park (past some scary Bec-sized swans), the Horse Guard Parade, past Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament and across the river to Southbank- complete with Christmas market.

From there we followed the river all the way to London Bridge and ogled all of the nice pubs and eateries that we wouldn’t find time to visit and finished up at the London Dungeon. This was exactly what you’d expect, quite tacky but a lot of fun, somewhat reminiscent of Dracula’s on the Gold Coast sans singing & dancing.

In the evening we headed back to Shepherd’s Bush to see Skyfall. I ran out of time to blog about Moscow but it included an epic fail event as we tried to locate an ex-pat English cinema of which we’d heard rumour so that we could see the latest Bond. Glad to say it was worth the wait!

Day 2 Lunch at Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant The Fat Duck!!!! I will post separately about the lunch but in short this was something I would definitely be happy to apply the much overused phrase ‘once in a lifetime experience’ to!

The restaurant was situated in the picturesque village of Bray which is about 45 minutes from the centre of London. We stopped in at Heston’s pub the Hind’s Head for a drink beforehand whilst I tried to contain my excitement. The bartender talked me into trying a still cider… I will not be making that mistake again. Apart from the general disconcerting feeling that it would have been much nicer with bubbles and a tad colder, there was also an odd pre, mid and after taste as though a blue cheese might have been matured in the keg at some stage.

We strolled the 20 metres to The Fat Duck at the not-too-eager time of 11:55am for a midday booking. The restaurant was lovely. I guess most people have seen it on tv but it is a simply decorated old English cottage. The staff were very professional and welcoming without being pretentious or making you feel uncomfortable.

We started with a glass of Moet each and ordered a bottle of Yangarra Estate (the only McLaren Vale red we could vaguely afford). As they say, ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ or in this case ‘In for a week’s pay , in for a week and a half.’

Lunch at Heston's

Lunch at Heston’s

14 courses and 4 ½ hours later we were very, very content & happy with our decision to visit The Fat Duck. The vegetarian alternative was no less impressive than the standard menu and for most dishes was fairly similar. I did end up with one different dish that was sensational that included deep fried aioli balls – I happily offered Ryan one to try but did point out that giving one up for him was a huge gesture of love because they were so delicious. Not to be out done, he quickly returned the sentiment by offering me by saying that, although amazing, he would happily give up all of his spelt and umbles for me.

Day 3 Awesome day. Started with a visit to the Tower of London (including a Yeoman tour which I highly recommend) and finished with Cabaret at the Savoy Theatre.

Day 4 We started today with a very chilly visit to the Camden Markets. I was however quickly warmed up by the best quesadilla I have ever had in my life! When street food is good it’s gooood!

In the afternoon we paid a visit to the Natural History Museum & Science Museum. Whilst in the creepy jars section of the Natural History Museum, formally known as the Darwin Centre, we were offered the chance to participate in one of the museum’s free tours. This gave us the opportunity to visit the behind the scenes section of the Museum & view all of their really big creepy jars of pickled specimens. The highlight of this is the chance to see the giant squid they have on display in a glass tank that is longer than a double decker bus!

Hobbit-ed it up in the evening… and loved every second of it.

Day 5 We saw some proper London rain this morning & chose to take refuge at Sealife Aquarium. No cuttlefish (which is my personal benchmark for a stellar aquarium) but very nice. The rain did have the advantage of keeping the Winter Wonderland crowds at bay for our visit in the afternoon.  I’m not sure where the connection is but at Winter Wonderland, Christmas is synonymous with Bavarian beer hall… but I’m not complaining all that much.

Day 6 Day trip to Stonehenge. We took a tour with Premium tours that gets you to Stonehenge just after sunrise & allows you a semi-private (ie. with the twenty other people on the tour)viewing including the chance to walk amongst the stones. This is something else that I know a lot of people don’t rate very highly but I really enjoyed it.

The tour then took us to the tiny village of Lacock which boasts a general quaint English village atmosphere as well as Dumbledore’s house. The afternoon was spent in Bath before heading back to London to enjoy some sensational Asian tapas at Penang.

Day 7 Birthday!! Birthday, birthday, birthday… champagne & bruschetta breakfast, ice skating at Canary Wharf, lunch at the O2 and dinner at The Real Greek.

Day 8 Bit of a lazy start to the day followed by a quick trip to Spitalfield Markets, lunch at Brick Lane (amazing lime pickle), Greenwich, Picadilly Circus & then drinks with an old friend, Jason, at a 42 story champagne bar, an outstanding Craft Beer bar and a cheeky stout at the Gunmakers Arms… and if we’re being honest, this was topped up by a greasy McDonald’s beefless burger with fries back at Shepherd’s Bush!

Day 9 Last full day in London but not too late to squeeze in a quick trip to Westminster Abbey. We had been well soaked in sites of religious significance by this stage in the trip but I was very pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and how worth the visit Westminster Abbey was. It is absolutely mind boggling how many people have been buried at the Abbey, including a section called Poet’s Corner which is dedicated to significant British writers.

Believe it or not we managed to follow that up with lunch with a friend in Soho, a visit to the National Portrait Gallery to see a Marilyn Monroe exhibition, watching the National English Ballet’s The Nutcracker, a very average Italian dinner at Leicester Square, a return to Winter Wonderland for some last minute Christmas ornaments and then, finally, watching stand up comedian, Bill Bailey, at the Hammersmith Apollo.

So, in a nutshell, that was a week or so very well spent in London, not sure what there is not to love about it!

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Father Christmas & CrossFit

So this blog includes two of my favourite things; Father Christmas and CrossFit.

Santa, I know him! You may not know it but you can visit the real Father Christmas. He lives in Santa Claus Village, a couple of kilometres outside of Rovaniemi.

His village is located on the edge of the Arctic Circle and that is as good as the North Pole as far as I’m concerned. His workshop is a little more Gothic than you might expect, and, Adeladians, Nipper and Nimble were not there.

At 29, this was probably my most exciting visit to Father Christmas. He asked us where we were from etc and he was gracious enough not to mention the time he caught me having a tantrum in the shopping centre (although I’m sure he remembers).

Although nothing compared to getting to meet the man himself, the other exciting attraction at Santa Claus Village is his official post office where you can send postcards from within the Arctic Circle.

The only downside to the visit was when my definition of sadness was redefined again- it is now having to wait for a public bus home for an hour in -23 degrees (we gave up and taxi pooled back to town with a Spanish couple who had been waiting for 2 hours and had had the Christmas spirit firmly frozen out of them).

Move over Rudolph What better way to finish off a visit to Father Christmas than with a night time reindeer sleigh ride through the forest. Ryan made sure to brush his teeth before we left for the ride to make sure that the reindeer couldn’t tell that he’d tactlessly eaten Smoked Reindeer Pasta for dinner.

The sleigh ride was very cool. We were tucked into a two person sleigh complete with blanket to keep toasty and our reindeer, Betany was very cool. He was very gung ho and did his best to overtake the other reindeer but did not exhibit any of the indecent behaviour seen on our husky ride!

The ride finished with a campfire, warm juice and bun. The guide asked everyone where they were from, and ‘Australia’ elicited a chorus of oohs and ahs. The general reaction from people throughout Russia and Finland has been one of pleasant surprise that Australians would travel so far followed by the intimation that we must not be very bright to do it in such cold weather.

We were lucky enough to top off our visit to Rovaniemi with a half day of snowmobiling.  Despite the fact that half of the group could barely struggle their way into a pair of mittens and that one of the families included a child old enough to speak in full sentences who was still sporting a dummy (super creepy), this was another great snow adventure.

It included the obligatory snow onesie and a campfire, although this time we got to roast sausages, or in my case, enjoy a delicious bread roll.

Sorry Mum Our plans for Helsinki included exactly zero tourist time and involved 1) CrossFit 2) Catching up with my lovely friend from Greece, Krista.

We were very excited about our visit to CrossFit Central Helsinki and allowed ourselves plenty of time to get there from the airport. Like many boxes, CF Helsinki is in a semi industrial area.  We managed to get the tram to the general vicinity but then became a little bit undone as we found ourselves amongst commercial port facilities and blocks and blocks of construction with no street signs.

We were standing on a snow, deserted street corner when a lovely stranger in a big black van pulled up and asked if we needed help. I should point out here that he had really nice eyes (although he didn’t have any candy) so when he said that he knew where CrossFit was and offered to give us a lift in the back of his van I happily accepted and climbed in.

A short bumpy ride sitting on a wheel arch, and a nagging feeling that my mum wouldn’t approve, and we were there. The factory building itself was not well sign posted but there were a group of blokes hanging around outside the door. I began to get the impression that they were not CrossFitters because apart from smoking, one of them pulled a can of rum out of his bag.

Fortunately we were rescued again (from a paintballing bucks party it turned out) and led inside by a lady who turned up and could tell that we were obviously lost as we tried to ask the confused party if they knew what CrossFit was and where we could find it.


1. Heavy front squats 3-3-3 (“Ha”, said my quads)

2. Five sets of 10 wall ball to be performed while ‘resting’ between squat sets (“You have got to be kidding” my glutes chimed in)

3. 5 minute AMRAP -10 broad jumps, 15 hollow tucks (“It’s your decision but you’ll regret it later” warned everything from the abs down).

It was awesome to visit another box. The owner, Ben is an Australian bloke from Melbourne who runs the box with his girlfriend Hannah. They were very welcoming and fortunately despite six weeks off, Ryan & I managed not to embarrass ourselves or CrossFit Broadbeach.

We have been nothing but embarrassing since however as we groan and moan our way along the street, on & off of seats, and up & down stairs. CrossFit in London may be a day or two away yet.

After a lovely night and day with the amazing Sister Krista in Helsinki, we are finally on our way to London and the exciting prospect of spending 10 nights in one place! Blogging courtesy of Norwegian Air offering free wi-fi on their flights!

Next: The Tower of London, The Fat Duck and general awesomeness

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Sleigh bells and naughty puppies

To the Home of Christmas After three weeks, seven towns and hundreds of  hours on a train, it was time to leave Russia. Despite our excitement about the next leg of our journey, this was a day we had been dreading- also known as ‘the day of three flights.’

Sense of dread aside, it turned out to be a piece of cake. St Petersburg public transport to the airport- conquered. Plate of deep fried mozzarella sticks for morning tea at the airport to use up the last of the roubles- don’t mind if I do. Easy 50 minute flight to Estonia on a pocket sized plane- no problems.

I would stop here and point out that the Tallin airport officially markets itself as the cosiest airport in the world- and it is. It is so cosy that it makes you want to change your plans and go out and explore Estonia with the expectation that it will be just as cute and cosy.

Our second flight began with the announcement that the expected flight time to Helsinki would be 20 minutes. This was an unexpected surprise as we’d failed to notice the miniscule flying time due to the time differences.

Arrival in Helsinki and the onward flight to Rovaniemi were a breeze. It was exciting to be somewhere where customer service involves making eye contact and smiling!

The best word to describe Rovaniemi is adorable… if we were going to two, I would preface that with absolutely.

Our accommodation, Santa’s Hotel Santa Clause is in the middle of the Rovaniemi (the 15th largest city in Europe officially but this is based on technical geographical size not population or infrastructure!). The hotel is the home of Christmas within the home of Christmas and if you can believe it, there has been a surprising lack of tackiness.

Puppies!! We arranged to spend our first full day in Rovaniemi dogsledding.

After a trip to the tour office to be kitted out in a quilted snow proof onesie, serious boots, face warmers and hats, we were driven out to a husky farm in the forest (about an hour and a half out of the city). Our sled guide was Natalie, accompanied by her husband Stefan for support on a snowmobile.

Dogsledding is not for the unfit or feint hearted. At the beginning of the trip, Stefan advised that you could help the dogs by scooting skateboard style occasionally. It turns out, that for my team, this was a requirement if you wanted to get up any kind of incline; otherwise they would just stop, turn and look at you. There was one hill where I almost pushed the sled past the dogs.

I had a team of four dogs; the first two were near identical and were paired across and will, for now, be called the Twins, followed by Nervy, and Anton (his actual name).

The Twins slowed down for a bit of a kiss every now and then and Nervy had the unhelpful habit of laying down mid run every time the snowmobile went past.

Team quirks aside, this was a magnificent experience. The trail was through snow covered birch, pine and spruce trees and had a magical ‘Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ feel about it. In Rovaniemi it doesn’t get light until about 10:00am and is dark by 3:30pm. As such, the entire day has a sunrise/sunset quality about it which casts and incredible pearlescent sheen over the entire landscape. For about half an hour in the middle of the day the peach and pink disappears from the edge of the sky as the sun reaches its peak but it soon returns.


After riding for a couple of hours, we arrived at a huge frozen lake. It was 4 kilometres long and deserted. Riding over this was an incredible spectacle. Apart from our sled tracks, the ice was smooth white velvet stretching out in all directions.

We took a break at a campfire site for lunch. The fire felt cosy and warm but I think it may have been more of a mental comfort as the snow inside the fire pit had still not melted around the edges when we left an hour later.

Lunch was roasted in alfoil on the fire- fish and capsicum; a spiced juice drink called Gloggi and sliced cheese. Stefan placed several bananas on sticks into the fire. I thought this was to roast them but when they came of half an hour later it turned out that the purpose was merely to defrost them and return them to ‘room temperature’!

You get quite warm on the sleds however to give you an idea of how cold -22 is;

1) My eyelashes were freezing together. I had to stretch my eyes open as wide as possible regularly to stop them freezing shut and I arrived at lunch with a thick dusting of ice on them

2) I yawned at one point and as my eyes teared up I could feel the tears turn cold against my eyeballs… cold eyeballs!!

3) We poured some water into paper cups when we arrived at the camp fire and forgot about one. Despite sitting in the ‘warm’ fire shelter, it had frozen solid by the time we found it 45 minutes later.


Team gone bad The dogs spent the break resting, recovering from the morning and in preparation of the small mountain we were going to tackle after lunch- all of the dogs except for my fourth dog, Anton, who despite being tethered, spent the hour trying to pull the sleigh by himself and razz up the other dogs. Stop wasting your energy Anton!

This was a sign of the ‘haywire’ to come. After lunch the Twins’ friendly nuzzling stepped up a notch. They will henceforth be known as Humpy and the Tramp.

In delicate summary, Humpy thought it was appropriate to break mid run and embark upon intimate relations with the Tramp… this was obviously counterproductive to pulling the sled. After several such ‘interruptions’, Stefan reordered the dogs and put Humpy back in paired second position with Nervy and left the Tramp to set the pace.

I thought this might prove motivational for Humpy and result in some extra speed but it was pretty short lived. I spent the next hour doing a lot of sled pushing while four dogs strolled in front of me.

With undoubtedly the laziest team, the guides decided to give me one of the dogs from the lead team to try and speed things up. Enter Rusty the Rocket. It was incredible after that… speedy sailing.

We stopped briefly to put head torches on as 2:30 saw the sun begin to set quite seriously, otherwise, the trip home was spectacular and mostly without interruption. My team did have a couple of small tangles as Nervy did his stop-drop and roll away from the snowmobile- on one occasion Rusty thought this was an excellent opportunity to warm his face in Nervy’s crotch until Stefan came and detangled them all again.

We finished up at 3:30 in the pitch black, frozen, very happy and with time for a quick Finnish beer before we headed back to town.

Next: Father Christmas & Helsinki

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