My new novel! Confluence

I started writing this book on my honeymoon in Thailand, a rare occasion in which the days stretched forward with leisurely poolside hours to fill. 

There, an image of a little boy fishing with his dad arrived, unbidden, in my imagination. I started writing and couldn’t stop. 

Later that year, I often lost track of time and forgot to eat or drink whilst writing from our attic lodgings in Devon, England – enjoying the opportunity to mentally transport myself home to Australia’s balmy east coast while looking out my rain-speckled window.

I wrote the second draft on a solo stay in an airbnb cabin at the bottom of someone’s backyard in the Blue Mountains, five months pregnant.

That baby is now four years old and a big brother, and the manuscript has sat in the digital equivalent of my top drawer since then. 

I’ve had several readers who’ve kept me encouraged with their feedback, critiques and – to my delight – praise. Alas I haven’t had success taking the traditional publishing route, so I’ve decided to be brave (or vain, depending on your perspective!) and self-publish. It’s time to give this book wings and move onto my next creative project (stay tuned).

You can visit the official book page here.

Otherwise, continue below for a summary and more information on where to buy a copy.

There’s his boat. Upside down on the sand. Like something ancient, something returned to nature long ago.”

Liam is living an unhappy life in the city, having an affair with the married woman upstairs, haunted by the ghosts of his childhood.

When he discovers his mother is sick, Liam decides to return to his hometown where, 20 years earlier, his father went fishing and never came home.

But Liam’s not the first person in his family to have made that journey to the coast in search of the truth.

Moving between generations, Confluence is a contemporary mystery novel about time, memory, love and loss, through the lens of one family’s tragedy.

Confluence is available to purchase as an ebook from these retailers:

If you do download and read the book, please do leave your honest review on Goodreads – I’d love to hear what you think, and without the marketing or apparatus of a legacy publisher behind me, reviews and ratings really help us humble self-publishers!

Life Counter, a short story

I recently entered the following short story in the New Philosopher magazine writing competition for the ‘life’-themed issue. Alas I didn’t make the list of finalists (such is life!), however this morning the uncanny familiarity of a headline about Google AI “depicting life expectancy with 95% accuracy” prompted me to publish the story here.

The idea of a tool like this, I felt when writing the story, raised so many philosophical questions that I could barely touch upon within the 1500 word limit – and now (so soon!) those questions are a reality. It also seems so fitting of our time that my attempt at a sci fi concept had such a short lifespan, although that is why I didn’t bother setting this in the distant future.

Anyway, here it is – the first piece of fiction published on my blog. I hope you find it thought provoking.


Life Counter

by Gemma Chilton

access adult blur business

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I STILL REMEMBER THE day I met Jamie. I smelt him before I saw him. The aroma was instantly recognisable, although I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been exposed to it. In my busy mind’s eye, attempting to meditate in vain, it draped over me like a diaphanous grey cloak. My eyes snapped open and found the culprit – a man sitting a few metres away, leaning against the trunk of a giant fig tree shading us both. He was already looking back at me.

“Sorry,” he said, stubbing out the offending cigarette in the grass. “I don’t usually smoke, it’s been one of those days.”

I stood to leave, hand held over my mouth protectively. “Can you even still buy those things?” I scoffed. “You lose a week just thinking about them.”

He laughed. “Everything in moderation, right?”

“Everything except that, surely.”

“Guess you’ve got me there,” he said and winked, which sent a little frisson through me. Then he added: “If there was ever a time for a smoke it’s when your mother’s died, surely.”

I stopped short. “Sorry,” I said, although I was no less perplexed. “How long had she known?”

“Three months. One day she refreshed and, well, she went to the doctor to confirm and there it was, cancer. Family history had already stunted her lifespan, but suddenly she wasn’t playing averages anymore.”

The smoke lingered and passers-by were giving us a wide berth. I should have been itching to get away – surely no one was worth the second-hand smoke – but instead I stayed, as if waiting for something.

I truly hoped the cigarette was an aberration as I accepted his offer for coffee.

Sitting across from him in a nearby cafe I was amazed to learn I was speaking to a rare breed – a Life Counter abstainer.

“What’s the point?” he said, turning his cup around in its saucer. I noticed his eyes were the same hue as the black coffee he’d eccentrically ordered. “It doesn’t use any information I couldn’t already access through my doctor, without this morbid countdown function built in.”

“But it prolongs lives!” I almost shouted across the table, catching my smoothie before I could knock it over with my gesticulating hand. “I’ve never been healthier!”

Healthy? Awareness of our mortality has been hard enough on our species without this advertising-backed oracle making it an all-out obsession,” he said. Then his voice changed slightly, became soft but strident, in a way with which I would eventually become familiar. “The fear of death is only an instance of thinking oneself wise when one is not,” he said.

I hesitated, trying to understand, then cottoned on. “Who said that?”

“Me,” he smiled, and there was that wink again. “Ok, Plato.”

“You smoke cigarettes, drink black coffee and quote Plato? Have I walked into a film noir?”

“You know reading adds years, right?” He teased.

“Unless you die of boredom!” I wish I could have winked back at him. What a thing to be flirting about!

“I like to read philosophy,” he went on. “Maybe if more people did, there’d be more like me.”

“What, abstainers? Or smokers?”

He laughed. “Probably both! But I told you, I don’t usually smoke.”

“So, what then, you’re saying we’re silly to do what we can to delay death?”

“I just think we need to… think more before we let a date generated by an algorithm no one really understands rule our lives.”

“But we’ve always known we’re going to die. That’s always been a part of life. Now we have more… information.”

“Death is not an event of life. Death is not lived through.”

“Plato again?”

“A guy called Wittgenstein. He basically said because we don’t experience death we shouldn’t worry about it so much. He also said we already have access to eternity, in a sense, by living in the present. I like that idea. It’s not that we can live forever, but we can try and live without the intrusion of time. Tell me this, how much have you even spent on updated deathdays?”

“It’s 99 cents a Count, hardly a big expense for information like that.”

“So, how much? How often do you refresh?”

I suddenly felt like I was being accused. So what if I’d spent money? What would he have paid for more time with his mother? But of course I couldn’t say that, so I told him the truth.

“Everyday, before bed.”

He groaned. Inexplicably embarrassed, I rushed to add, “I’m not the only one! It’s recommended in the app!”

“Of course it is. A dollar a day? Since the app was launched? That’s almost a thousand dollars. Spent billions of times over! And how much have you spent on potions supposed to buy more time? Advertised to you through Life Counter directly?”

“But I’ve gained four years already! How can you put a price on that?”

“More time to tag onto the end of a life in which the last thing you think about every night is your own impending death. That’s not wellbeing. Do they factor that into their stupid algorithm?”

“‘Stupid algorithm?’ That last bit’s Plato again, right?” I was trying to lighten the tone but also cover my growing unease. Because he was right – I couldn’t remember the last time I’d fallen asleep thinking about anything else. And if the date had changed for the worse sleep could elude me for hours.

“You sound as obsessed as the rest of us,” I said, deflecting again. “How many hours have you spent reading what your philosophers have said about death? Long before Life Counter was even a reality.”

“Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language,” he said. I raised an eyebrow. “Sorry – Wittgenstein again. So maybe he should have said ‘by means of algorithms’, but the ideas of people like him are hardly irrelevant – you said it yourself we’ve always known we’ll die. But ok, Life Counter is here and we can’t undo it. The apple has been offered and I refuse to bite. We give too much power to that app. It might buy time, but you pay for it not only with money, but with any possibility of discovering eternity can in fact exist in an hour.”

“William Blake,” I said a little too eagerly, then: “Do all your thoughts come from the minds of others, or do you have some original ideas too?”

“Now there’s an excellent question,” he said, and laughed.

“I suppose I can’t accuse an Abstainer of not being original.”

Outside on the street we bumped phones and Jamie made me promise that for one night only, I wouldn’t refresh the Count.

In bed, I put my phone in a drawer, and lay there thinking about the things he’d said. They were just romantic ideas. None had the same power over me as the terrifying finality of death.

When I drifted off I was still thinking of him and what I’d say when we met again. I slept a few hours but woke in the middle of the night.

I pulled my phone from the drawer and held it in my palm, persistently flashing with a reminder from Life Counter. I was surprised to find my hand shaking. This was the first time I’d resisted, so I’d never realised just how much I’d come to rely on this daily ritual.

I found Jamie’s contact and sent him a message.

“This is hard.”

He replied almost immediately. “Have you done it yet?”

“No, I’m messaging you instead. Tell me something comforting. Will I live forever?”

“How about just living right now?”

My blue-lit face smiled at the screen. He sent another message before I could reply. “Meet me for sunrise, in two hours, at the beach,” and he pinged me a location.

When I made it to the beach I found Jamie perched on a bench, silhouetted by the fiery sky. I arrived at his side and we exchanged smiles but said nothing.

Eventually, the glowing lip of the sun peeked out from the horizon and Jamie broke the silence. “Here she comes,” he said, then added: “The first day of the rest of my life without mum.” My heart sank, disappointed – this wasn’t exactly the romance I was expecting – but then guilty. I’d forgotten what he was going through, too wrapped up in my own demons and these dizzy feeling I had around him.

“Well, it’s also the first day since you’ve known me,” I blurted before I could stop myself. He turned, his expression amused.

“God, sorry,” I said, mortified. “Bad timing.”

But he smiled. “No, you’re right. This is the first day of the rest of my life. That’s something, isn’t it? That’s enough.”

“I like that idea,” I said, and looked back out towards the sun, already a complete orb hovering above the horizon. “Yes. That’s enough.”

THE END

Lunch in France? Oui

DSC_1105

“Shall we have lunch in France today, darling?”

It’s the type of phrase we antipodeans fantasise is entirely commonplace here in Old Blighty. And while I do realise that such country-hopping isn’t exactly practical or economical – even when the distance to cover is less than that from Sydney to Bathurst – it is certainly possible. At least so I discovered on a recent assignment for my current employer, which had my husband Paul and me taking an overnight ferry from Plymouth (in Devon, UK) for a pre-booked three course lunch the next day in Roscoff, a small seaside village in Brittany, in northwest France.

The only catch, I should add, is the experience might be less of the envisioned jetsetting glamour and more running around in a tiny, rocking cabin in your underwear at an ungodly hour hoping that that disgruntled French crew member won’t pop his head through the apparently-not-locked door again and tell you to please ‘urry up!

Anyway, to go back to the beginning, I want to point out that I’m rather getting the hang of this job – that is, visiting stately manor house hotels and restaurants most months to write up small content marketing pieces for Food, a free magazine that promotes food and tourism in the South West of England. When it comes to food, a country backwater the South West is not; rather it is home to renowned chefs such as Rick Stein, Nathan Outlaw and Michael Caines. In other words, my tastes have become rather elevated lately, perhaps unusually so for half of a modest single-income couple of expats renting the loft space in the home of Bideford’s answer to Uncle Fester.

This background leads me to an explanation for my lack of preparation on this recent trip to France. You see, I’m more accustomed to these work trip involving hotel stays that come with bottles of complementary champagne than glorified domestic flights. I mean, did I really need to read the fine print about disembarkation and set my watch to French time, or would a pipe-smoking tweed-clad hotelier not arrive at my door with a coffee and the paper to inform me that “yes of course the passengers will wait for you to wake at your own pace, for the French are a patient, tolerant people, particularly when it comes to non-French-speaking, disorganised tourists who failed to read the clearly-stated-in-English fine print”.

And then I woke up.

Of course, the boat trip was lovely. We didn’t get seasick and its onboard restaurant was more than pleasant and involved mountains of fresh langoustine. But even without that, the trip was well and truly worth it. Oh dear sweet French mother of God was it worth it. I would have almost swam the English channel had I known the lunch that awaited us the next day.

DSC_1043

Transport those harried boat passengers a few hours ahead, and you’ll find us sitting in the dining room of L’Ecume des Jours (which according to Google Translate could mean the ‘scum of days’, but is more likely the ‘seafoam of days’ and is in fact named after a classic 1947 French novel written by Boris Vian). This is the restaurant on the waterfront at Roscoff, in a tiny, ancient looking building, with sandstone-walled interiors and polished timber floorboards, all clean lines and nautical chic meets French colonial oil paintings and really heavy cutlery. The interior was muted, perhaps a little too much so – you could hear the clink of cutlery and the conversation levels lowered to match, until you had to be brave to be the first one to break the silence. However, eventually the room warmed up and it felt a little like we’d been invited to our super cool French friend’s seaside house for lunch on a rainy Sunday. Hey, that could happen.

Having navigated our way through that awkward part of the meal where I try to maintain a thin veneer of class to suit the surrounds, whilst also trying to ascertain just what has been agreed to be included in advance, we could commence onto the good part… (#foodporn)

To start, an aperitif of champagne was served with an amuse bouche of white asparagus mousse and tuna tartare with seaweed. We shared two starters – one, a platter of ten natural oysters served with red wine vinaigrette and a surprisingly perfect parsley sorbet, and the other a plate of crab in a sauce of local artichokes and piquillos peppers, with crispy rice and seaweed. For mains we both ordered roast monkfish with sweet potato and cumin, white asparagus (it’s in season), and lobster juice. Literally a little tub of lobster goodness. For dessert I had a mango concoction that involved some sort of basil cake base, basil cream, mango ice cream, fresh mango and a crisp toffee shard and fresh basil garnish (basil in desserts is a trend that I’m totally on board with). Paul had a dark chocolate ball with an orange ice cream centre.

It was the type of food you close your eyes to savour, and perhaps release a single tear of joy in doing so.

DSC_1077

DSC_1079

DSC_1081

DSC_1083

(Yes I photographed every course.)

After lunch we ventured onto the right hand side of the road and drove a little further afield for a walk on the beach, before boarding the ferry again in the afternoon, scheduled to return to Plymouth at 9:30pm. We had another ensuite cabin booked, which meant a well earned siesta on the way home (oh wait, that’s Spanish. Ok, food coma.)

And in the name transparency, you can now mentally transport those wined and dined travellers to around 10pm that night, and you’ll find them sitting in rusty old Land Rover Discovery in a back street of Plymouth, downing a quick KFC Zinger burger before checking into our AirBnB accommodation… Like magic, back to the real world. Voila!

Post script: This post is dedicated to my niece Margaret Janice Wotherspoon Black who was busy arriving in the world far away in Australia while all this silliness was going on. Welcome Maggie! xxxx

Easter weekend in Romania

A long weekend in Romania left me pondering the nature of time and history, and our place in it.

Damaged  old photo of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu on the wall of the revolution museum in Timisoara.

I should start by saying that I’m fully aware a long weekend in any country could barely provide a rough sketch – let alone a full picture – of a nation’s culture, history, environment and people. And yet the feeling I took away from five days in Romania was a glimpse not only of that country’s history, but of the nature of history and of the transience of time itself.

That might sound over the top, but what’s the point of travel if not to build on your ideas about the world, and to shift the foundations beneath your feet just a bit?

We started our Easter long weekend sojourn with Paul’s family in the city of Timișoara in western Romania – one of Romania’s largest cities, and the place where the revolution started on 16 December 1989 (it finished with the execution of Ceausescu and his wife a little over a week later, after 42 years of communist rule).

A piece of the Berlin Wall outside a museum of the Romanian revolution in Timisoara

In Timișoara, we visited a museum of the revolution in an old building, which showcases a piece of the Berlin wall at its entrance. One of the first things that caught my attention entering the building was the concrete staircase, eroded and polished from a century of use – including, among other things, as a military barracks before becoming a museum. (When we asked a staff member about the building’s history, he said drolly that its function might yet change again if the situation in Ukraine accelerates.)

We sat quietly through a documentary about the revolution, in a room wallpapered with posters and propaganda from the communist era – throughout which I couldn’t help imagine the stairs outside trodden with 1940s soldiers’ boots, then the adrenaline-fuelled feet of panicked or angry (or both) civilians from that infamous week in 1989, and now replaced with made-in-China sneakers of a lone group of Australian tourists on a quiet, unseasonably cold spring day in 2015.

DSC_0542

 

DSC_0534

Before the museum, we’d visited Timișoara’s orthodox cathedral with its magnificent gilded chandeliers that look more like floating castles.

However it was only after watching the revolution documentary that I learned of the cathedral’s role as the site of the beginning of the revolution, as well as a place where people sheltered during the fighting, and outside of which thousands eventually knelt and lit candles for the dead. And so, only in hindsight could I wonder what memories or faces must have been in the minds of the people who gathered there during our visit.

Chandeliers like floating castles in the Timisoara Orthodox Cathedral

LIghting candles in the Timisoara Orthodox Cathedral

Later on, we visited Roman ruins in Sarmizegetusa (we were tested on pronunciation by our patient guide, generous host and brother-in-law, Radu). By now I’ve visited several sites of Roman ruins around Europe, and yet these crumbling ornate stone structures with ancient Latin insignia of a long-lost civilisation buried beneath our feet never lose their power.

Roman ruins in Sarmizegetusa, Romania

DSC_0592

However, if the sight of those ruins emerging out of the grassy hills might have given me the impression that history is anything but continuous, I only needed to visit our next stop – a small medieval Catholic church, built perhaps a thousand years after the Romans, using pilfered pylons and stonework from the same ruins we’d just wandered through.

This centuries-old church was not only built with the materials of an even more ancient history, it also held evidence of its future. Rather creepily (no matter your religious or cultural affiliation) the eyes of all of the wall art – mostly murals of various saints and Jesus and Mary – had been scratched out of the stone in some sort of historic persecution of Catholics. Later my sister-in-law Angie also spotted a scratching in the wall (a kind of ‘X was here’) from the late 1800s – made when the church was already ancient, and yet old enough itself to join the ranks of historic interest, which is a fascinating idea in itself.

DSC_0595

DSC_0602

We would spend the next couple of days in the countryside with Radu’s kind and generous family, managing through translation and body language to communicate fairly comfortably, and to laugh a lot. The home-made ţuică (a knock-your-socks-off home distilled spirit made from apples) no doubt helped to that end.

DSC_0651

To add more context to my meandering thoughts on the nature of time and history, we visited a local breeding program that is trying to save the critically endangered European bison.

These beasts roamed the wilderness throughout Europe long before we came along with our cathedrals and revolutions and travel blogs, but have since (along with much of their habitat) been pushed to the brink of extinction. Scientists and conservationists have had some success in growing their numbers in recent years and hope to reintroduce a population into the wild in Romania, but the species remains rarer than the Black Rhino.

European bison breeding program

Another day, despite the unexpected spring snow, we managed to steal a couple of hours wandering through a beautiful beech forest in the southern Carpathian Mountains – where grumbling water pipes and airplane engines had us baulking at bear-shadows.

The bison experience and the rare opportunity to spend time in real wilderness on the European continent was a good reminder that history does not belong to humans – like the Romans, and the person who scratched their name into the wall of that Catholic church 100 years ago and the communist dictators of the twentieth century – we are all only passing through.

DSC_0759

DSC_0784

DSC_0805

Before our flight back to London, we toured the centuries-old Corvin Castle in Hunedoara, where we competed with hordes of young smartphone-wielding, brightly dressed school children as we wandered the halls beneath soaring stone ceilings, read stories of torture chambers and bloody battles – and gazed out through crumbling stone windows onto crumbling communist structures and out to the snow-covered Carpathians in the distance.

We joked about scratching our very un-Romanian names onto the wall to confuse some future historian, but settled with being observers this time – although no less a part of the story of Romania’s history now, even if just a footnote.

Corvin Castle in Hunedoara

 

DSC_0816

 

 

My Passport and Plate entry

Passport and plate entryClearly where I went wrong was in failing to kiss the fish. Always kiss the fish.

For the past month or so I’ve been carefully avoiding making plans for the week of June 5-13, in the hope that a recent day spent cooking, photographing and writing up the below recipe might pay off with a food blogging trip to Sri Lanka, courtesy of Intrepid Travel and World Nomads.

Alas, as of today, I became all too free on those dates, as the winners of the ‘Passport & Plate’ competition were announced and my name wasn’t one of the chosen three. As I only later noticed, however, I did make the shortlist, which was enough to give me a little glow of pleasure and the impetus to try again next year.

And besides, time spent cooking, writing and eating is never time wasted and so here is my competition entry reposted below – a recipe of steamed turbot with green papaya salad, along with a story behind the recipe and ‘why I should be chosen’ (the section that is left off the published online entry).

Steamed turbot with green papaya salad (som tam)

16673157661_c1f886b2bc_b

Ingredients
FOR THE FISH
1 fresh whole (1-1.5kg) firm white-fleshed fish (seabass, bream, turbot etc.), gutted, scaled, finned and cleaned
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 bunch of coriander, roughly chopped
6-8 spring onions, skin and ends removed, cut until the beginning of the green part, then chopped in half again
1 lime – half juiced, half sliced
2cm chunk of ginger, finely chopped
2 red chillies, finely chopped
2 tbsp peanut oil
1 tsp sesame oil
4 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp salt
16486967488_3dee745a57_b
FOR THE GREEN PAPAYA SALAD (SOM TAM)
1 large green papaya, thinly shredded (if you can’t find green papaya, 1-2 green mangoes prepared in the same way will work as an alternative)
Juice of 2 limes
2 red chillies, finely chopped or minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
2cm chunk of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar, grated (or use brown sugar as an alternative)
Handful of green beans
1 large ripe tomato, pulp removed, sliced

How to prepare this recipe
FOR THE SALAD
In a large bowl (or use a mortar and pestle if you have one), add all of som tam ingredients (bar the beans and tomato) and ‘pound’ to mix with the pestle, or a wooden spoon. 16673524192_652c72ac44_b
Blanch the beans in lightly salted boiling water for about 2 minutes, or until tender, then refresh under running cold water. Slice them lengthways.
Add the beans and the sliced tomato to the papaya mix, move to desired serving dish. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to eat.

FOR THE FISH
(Note: Exactly how you prepare the fish depends on your catch!)

  1. Pat the prepared fish dry with paper towel and rub it all over with salt.
  2. Place the fish in a bamboo steamer, on a bed of foil (to catch the juices!). If the fish is too big, you can cut it in half (or thirds, as I did with this big-mama turbot).
  3. Mix the garlic, chilli, ginger, oyster sauce, soy sauce, the juice of half the lime and the sesame oil in a small bowl.
  4. Stuff the fish cavity (where the fish was gutted, or otherwise – as in the case of the turbot! – create a cavity using a sharp knife) with most of the contents of the bowl, all of the coriander and a few of the spring onions.
  5. Baste the fish with the rest of the mix, then scatter the rest of the spring onions around it on the foil and place a few slices of lime on the fish.
  6. Place the bamboo steamer over a wok or saucepan filled with about 5cm of boiling water. Tightly fit the lid and reduce the heat slightly.
  7. Cook for about 20 minutes, or until the flesh is white and flakes apart easily.
  8. Before serving, heat the peanut oil in a small saucepan until you see smoke, then pour the sizzling oil over the fish skin to make it crispy.
  9. Put the fish and the salad in the middle of the table along with fluffy steamed rice to soak up the juices. Then dig in!

16486975058_3e2a4fe0a5_b

The story behind the recipe

It’s low tide on the River Torridge; boats lean over on the exposed mudflats, rain has cleared and sunshine peeks through the clouds.

If I close my eyes, lift my face to the sun and breathe in the briny air, I could almost be home – 15,000km away on Australia’s east coast. When I open them, I might find myself crouched by a running tap, scaling freshly caught yellowfin bream or a glistening red morwong – speared by my husband or my brother in the ocean that day. Waves crashing within earshot, the hot sun on my bare shoulders…

I open my eyes and greet the little English town I currently call home. It’s not a bad alternative – it’s unfamiliar and exciting; an adventure. I’m at the farmers’ markets to meet Dan the Fisherman and pick up the catch of the day, turbot. It’s not a fish I grew up eating, but it’ll work with my recipe, Dan assures me with a whiskery grin.

Dan the Fisherman BidefordThe seafood I ate growing up was fresh and simple – pan fried whiting fillets, thin sliced abalone, oysters flipped open and eaten standing knee-deep in an estuary. Over time, my own cooking took on influences from around the world and Sydney’s vibrant multiculturalism – particularly from South East Asia, our exotic neighbour.

In Australia, I often cooked fresh-caught fish as I have in this recipe – in a bamboo steamer bought at a local Thai supermarket, using Asian-inspired ingredients. I’ve served it with a newer discovery, green papaya salad or som tam, from my honeymoon in Thailand last year. For those three weeks I ate it whenever I could – usually under a whirring ceiling fan, sticky with sweat, and blissfully happy. Som tam is fresh and spicy, and like most Thai food it’s about finding the perfect balance between sweet, salty and sour.

This recipe represents things I miss from home – the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, Asia at my doorstep – but it’s also a reminder that food can be the vehicle in which I travel back every now and again, while exploring all the rest of the world has to offer.

‘Why I should be chosen’ (…aka Pick me! Pick me! or shameless self promotion in 2000 characters)

When, last summer, my husband and I took a five-week, 1200km bike tour around Iceland, a lot of friends couldn’t understand how I managed to “fit in” the travel blog I kept to document our adventure. The answer, of course, is simple: sharing the story was as rewarding as the adventure itself.

That’s why I became a journalist – it was the only job that would cater to my insatiable curiosity about the world and its people, and the desire to tell their stories. Since then, I’ve never stopped telling stories – from travel and adventure, to science and engineering, and most recently as writer and editor at a food and tourism publisher.

I’m also an adventurer, and my sense of adventure extends beyond the physical to the culinary. In the past few years alone I have snacked on silkworm larvae at the North/South Korean border; slept under the stars in outback Australia; eaten Pad Thai served wrapped in wax paper on a long, hot train ride from Chiang Mai to Bangkok; ridden to the top of an Icelandic glacier; tasted hákarl, Iceland’s infamous rotten shark delicacy; plucked, gutted and roasted a pheasant on a farm in England; and gorged on cheesy tartiflette and local wines in southern France.

Hearing about this opportunity made my heart flutter – it represents all of my passions: travel, adventure, food and writing.

*****

Ah well, you win some you lose some and there’s always next year! In the meantime, I’m super excited to be heading off to Romania next week for the Easter long weekend, so stay tuned for the next travel post soon.

A Cornish Christmas getaway

DSC_0098

In hindsight, when ordering a meal to be eaten at a table for one in a large swanky dining room, I should probably have gone for a less messy option than the mussels… Padstow Christmas Festival

As I’d chosen to eat early that evening on my overnight stay at the St Moritz Hotel in Rock, north Cornwall, the restaurant was mostly empty and I couldn’t help but feel the waiters’ eyes on me as I wrestled with the tasty but stubborn mussels in their fragrant coconut and coriander broth… My previous confidence that yes I’m sure you’re supposed to eat these with your hands and use the first shell to extract the rest of the little suckers was fast waning, but I was in too deep by then to reach for the fork, so my only option was to look confident, whilst occasionally smiling reassuringly over at the attentive row of waiters as I attempted to proceed to the next page of my touch-screen e-book using the knuckle of my pinkie finger.

Mussels at St Moritz

The situation brought a scene in Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar to mind –when her character Esther Greenwood mistakenly consumes the entire finger bowl at a luncheon “including the crisp little blossoms”. Esther came to learn that when you think you’re doing something incorrect in a dining situation, just do it with “a certain arrogance […] and nobody will think you are bad mannered or poorly brought up. They will think you are original and very witty.” So, in short, that’s the effect I was going for – and after a glass of South African sauv blanc and finished off with a warm, spicy mulled wine, I was starting to feel pretty merry and confident again anyway.

The reason I was down in Cornwall was for a two-day work trip to attend the first half of the annual, four-day Padstow Christmas Festival. My employer was invited by one of their clients, Sharp’s Brewery, who was putting staff up at the St Moritz Hotel – which happens to be another client and one who I work with directly, so I was lucky enough to be sent along.

IMG_0201

It’s a two-hour drive down the coast from North Devon through winding, narrow country lanes (saying that, even the A-roads here feel like narrow lanes to me…), and I arrived at around 11am to check in at the hotel then make my way down to the little ferry that crosses the Camel Estuary between the towns of Rock and Padstow – it will drop you off at different points along the beach or harbour depending on the tide.

Black Tor Ferry

The centrepoint of the festival was a big marquee set up with food stalls and craft and Christmas gifts, and of course beer – Sharp’s Brewery was the main sponsor of the event. Highlights were the Chefs Demonstration Theatre, where some of Padstow’s best chefs – including Rick Stein who many joke more or less owns Padstow (he certainly put it on the map) – cooked meals on stage for the audience to watch and learn. Among my personal favourites was the eccentric moustachioed Hugo Woolley who restored my faith in my own prospects as a home-baker when he’d been given the wrong flour and his granola cookies turned into a buttery mess in the oven – it happens to the best of us!

BBQ oysters

The next day I was lucky enough to sit down for coffee at Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant to interview former Michelin-starred chef Paul Ripley (Paul was head chef at The Seafood Restaurant after Rick and now works at The Mariners Rock pub), as well as his sous-chef Zack Hawke and Sharp’s Brewery’s beer sommelier Ed Hughes – Ed is passionately trying to elevate beer to the world of fine dining, which is a noble cause, I say.

Sharp’s Brewery also had a clever marketing trick up their sleeve with something called The Secret Bar that took place inside a closed shipping container at the festival… I can’t say too much about what went on inside, except that it involved beer and food and as a visiting journalist I was fortunate enough to have my ‘secret bar’ experience with a group of VIP chefs…

If anything was going to get me into the spirit for my first ‘cold’ Christmas in the northern hemisphere, then this little getaway to Cornwall’s foodie capital was it. Thanks Padstow and now bring on the home-made minced pies and mulled wine, I’m in a festive mood!

Merry Christmas xx

DSC_0078

Expat update: from Bideford, Devon

So I’ve been slack with blogging, I know, I know. You can put that down to the trials and tribulations (and joys!) of setting up life in a new country.

A room with a view, in Bideford, North Devon

After adjusting to the leisurely pace of life on Paul’s family’s farmhouse in the UK’s idyllic west midlands, we ended up spending our first night in our ‘new’ home of North Devon in a tent in the beer garden of a country pub…

Yes, less than a fortnight after finishing our bike tour around Iceland, we were back to our old ways again, pitching tents in unexpected places.

Paul’s furniture making course had been scheduled to start in about a week’s time, and we still had to solve the minor detail of finding somewhere to live for the year. On that weekend ‘reccy’ to North Devon – timed smack-bang in the middle of school holidays – we couldn’t even find accommodation for a night. Thankfully, the pub owner at the Devil’s Stone Inn in Shebbear overheard our quandary and offered a grassy patch out the back, which we gratefully accepted.

A sign on the wall behind the bar proclaimed the pub to be ‘officially haunted’ (as decided by some sort of independent auditor of those kinds of things, apparently). However the only haunting we experienced was from the Rottweiler with which we shared the beer garden, and which left several landmines for us to dodge. There was also the Wifi that didn’t work when the jukebox was plugged in, and vice versa (those ghosts can be oddballs, sometimes). Boat at Instow beach

Eventually, houseshare.co.uk led us to a terrace just outside the town centre of Bideford, in which we now rent a, let’s say… cosy bedroom. That is to say, we’ve had to customise a double futon to make it fit, still leaving really only standing room for one.

Our new home is, however, just a cobble stone’s throw from the high street and the River Torridge, to which we have found ourselves gravitating on these balmy summer evenings to watch the local rowing teams, as well as carefree kids in wetsuits jumping off the ‘old bridge’ at high tide. (At low tide, the boats lean over on their keels on the exposed mudflats.) Our room also has a window looking out on all this, which makes up for the lack of space. We leave the curtains open overnight and are awoken every morning with the walls painted pink from the rising sun.

Accommodation, tick. Next up was to find a job. Paul started his course on the 1st of September, and since then drives the 10 miles there through country lanes in our ‘new’ 1995 Land Rover Discovery. The hedged lanes are so narrow (and the Disco so wide) that he has to fold in the side mirrors.

That left me with the place to myself during the day as I continued the process of becoming established in Bideford and in the UK in general (even grocery shopping was a learning curve – aubergines not eggplants, courgettes not zucchinis, gammon shank not bacon hock, and I made a spinach pie out of something called ‘spring greens’…). I had a couple of freelance jobs to tide me over – including working on a feature article for Australian Geographic Outdoor magazine about our Iceland bike tour – but otherwise I was emailing and phoning anyone and everyone I could to look for work opportunities.Boat on the River Torridge

With several irons in media/publishing-related fires, I still became impatient. It turns out I don’t ‘do’ idle well, so after about a week I responded to an ad in a local cafe, called Cafe Collective, and found myself making coffees and waiting tables for the locals (the Australian accent always made for a great ice-breaker with customers). As a Sydney-sider, I was a little aghast when the cafe owners let me operate the espresso machine without a PhD in latte art, but I got the hang of it and even learnt what the hell an ‘Americano’ is. (If you’re interested, it was invented in Europe during WWII to resemble the filter coffee that American soldiers were used to. It is also what you give someone when they ask for simply a ‘coffee’ and you can tell very clearly that they do not want to be hassled with any further options.)

Alas, however, my days in hospitality were numbered. I am pleased to say instead that I’ve started in a permanent role at a very groovy little boutique publisher and marketing agency called Salt Media, which specialises in gorgeous food publications. I take a double decker bus to work, and always nab the front, top-level seats to enjoy the view. (As these are always empty, and I share the bus with mostly high school kids, I gather this isn’t a particularly cool place to sit – which works out perfectly.)Blackberries

Bideford is starting to feel like home (or home-away-from-home, at least) and Paul and I are diligently conducting our own local research – that is, gradually working our way around all of the local pubs for our Friday night ales. Most of them were built in the 15th/16th centuries, and for a town with a population of about 10,000, there’s plenty to choose from. Most recently, it was the Joiners’ Arms, with old woodworking tools hung on the walls, which felt extremely fitting given the circumstances of our relocation here. It might just become our regular haunt (although we have a few to work through yet).

Another highlight has been taking weekend walks along the Tarka Trail, which covers a total distance of 180 miles through North Devon. We’ve walked about 14 of those miles (~22km) over various weekends – passing under old stone bridges, by unused canal locks and rail lines, and picking blackberries from hedges that are fat with them this time of year. The Tarka Trail might just have to become a future blog post of its own, once we’ve explored a bit more.

It’s all just a bit ridiculously quaint, really. I thought England was supposed to be grey and dreary? We’ve even been swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Without wetsuits. Twice.

Now, I’ll leave you with a few shots from the Bideford Carnival, which took us by surprise when the carnies started rolling in with their amusement rides and fast food vans, and when for one entire evening the town came to life to the soundtrack of the local pipes ‘n’ drums bands. It was a perfect welcoming. Thanks Bideford!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The romance of challenge

We’ve spent the past three days riding along the southern coast of Iceland, where Vatnajokull – the country’s biggest glacier – reaches down to the sea.

1 Gemma on the road from Hofn

Day 29-32
Hofn > Kalfafellsstadir > Hofskirkja > Kirkjubaejarklaustur > Vik
Distance 230km (including 20km backtracking, and excluding 70km on the bus to Vik)

There is an old Icelandic proverb: “Kemst þó hægt fari”. It translates, roughly, to “you will reach your destination, even though you travel slowly”. The saying – shared with us by one of Paul’s former colleagues – has provided mental comfort on many occasions as we’ve pushed through headwinds, our destination still seeming impossibly far away. We will get their eventually, I tell myself. And we always have.

Not only is the proverb apt for our own experience over the past month travelling through Iceland (at an overall average speed of about 15km/h), it also speaks to Iceland’s rich tradition and culture of long, arduous journeys through this sparse and often unforgiving landscape. At one museum we learned that Icelandic people once measured distances in ‘boots’ – as in the number of pairs worn out on a journey. Along a similar vein, we’ve heard of an ongoing debate here around farmers allowing access to their roads for travellers. Apparently, traditional Icelandic law prioritises the right of the traveller to pass through farmland over the right of the landowner to restrict access. However, increasingly (we heard) wealthy landowners are building impassable fences with stern signs barring entry – not in  keeping with that old tradition aimed at protecting weary travellers.

I’ve thought a lot on this bike tour about just why we, across cultures, romanticise the challenge and struggle of long journeys. Why do I feel a warm glowing empathy, say, for someone travelling for days on a bike or on foot through difficult conditions, but struggle not to be a bit cynical about the air-conditioned buses that eject hordes of dry, over-fed tourists at guide-book points of interests, before whisking them away again before the weather turns?

Both methods of travel are perfectly legitimate, and rationally speaking there is nothing inherently better or worse about either option. We on our bikes are busy-body tourists contributing to the crowds as much as anyone else, and while one method of travel is safer and more comfortable, we’re not exactly pioneers or soldiers either. Far from it. It’s more like we’re simply dipping into the struggle and endurance that is such an integral part of human history, and which we romanticise so much.

But again, why do we? The conclusion I think I’ve come to is that discomfort and challenge bring out positive qualities in us – tolerance, courage, empathy, gratitude; whereas too much comfort and convenience can sometimes bring out the worst in us – laziness, pettiness, intolerance, greed.

Of course, I write this having penned the last post on a long, sleepy 7.5-hour bus ride down the country’s east coast. In fact, the contrast of that experience with our previous days on the bike probably helped set off this particular train of thought (pardon the pun).

Anyway, enough philosophising: here’s some context.

We’ve spent the past three days riding a little over 200km along southern edge of Iceland’s (and one of Europe’s) biggest glacier, the magnificent Vatnajokull. At 8100 square kilometres, she makes up eight percent of the entire country’s land area.

3 Vatnajokull glacier outlet

We set off from Hofn after our day on the bus at around 9am. It was raining, so we donned our full set of wet weather gear – waterproof pants (over padded bike shorts), rain jacket and warm (water resistant-ish) gloves, then hit the Ring Road. We had a comfortable tail wind, and the terrain down here is mostly flat, so we were managing, comfortably, average speeds of about 20-25km/h.

Very soon, Vatnajokull came into sight – her outlets reaching down to sea level in ‘tongues’, looking a bit like torrents of rushing whitewater frozen in suspended animation, which I suppose in some ways they are. I kept expecting someone to press ‘play’ and the scenery to turn from peaceful countryside to Hollywood disaster movie. The rain eased off after a couple of hours, leaving clean, clear fresh air, and the tail wind was marvellous – we were making great time. We found a road sign showing local villages and picked a place called Gerdi, which featured a tent symbol and was about 70km from where we’d started that morning – and another 80km from our next night’s destination. With this tail wind expected to remain, that would be easy, we thought.

It was about 1pm by the time we turned off the Ring Road, both our stomachs grumbling for lunch, ready to set up camp for the afternoon. We rode through the little ‘village’ (two farms, a couple of associated guesthouses and a restaurant/museum) to the place called ‘Gerdi’ which was in fact a guesthouse on a farm. There was a caravan on the grass, which looked promising. We dismounted, removed our gloves, helmets and sunglasses, and went inside to be greeted by a small crowd milling in the middle of a big dining room, with seats upside down on the tables. In what is becoming a common occurance, we all stared at each other for a beat of uncomfortable silence, until someone emerged from an adjacent room wearing an official-looking polo shirt.

“Hello, we’ve just arrived and we’d like to camp here, please.”

“Sorry, we don’t have any facilities for camping.” (I refrained from gesturing outside to the fields of grass.)

“Nothing?”

“No.”

“Is there anywhere to camp in this area?”

“Sure, there is a campsite 10km east of here.” In other words, back in the direction we’d come, but this time facing straight into the strong wind that had carried us here so helpfully. We’d ridden 70km that day and had another 70km ahead of us the next day, so going back 10km on ourselves into a headwind felt too unfair, surely.

Having ascertained that all of the silent-starers crowding the dining room were in fact staff with terrible customer service skills, we managed to gain permission to have our home-packed lunch in the empty dining room while we looked over the map and worked out our options.

Just 13km further west, the direction in which we would rather use up our energy heading, was the famous glacial lagoon Jokulsarlon, where icebergs drift out to sea. It’s a must-do, apparently, and we’d looked forward to getting their early the following morning en-route to our next stop. Continuing in that direction also meant we would be passing through the kind of terrain least suited to ‘free’ camping (if we resorted to that) – desert lava fields, icebergs, not to mention zero protection from the growing winds and incoming rain.

We finished our lunch and rode back up to the restaurant/museum to see if they could help. No camping, the girl at the counter told us, and all of the accommodation was booked out anyway (not that we could quite justify forking out on a room rate in place of a 10km ride – we knew that much). We even asked if she thought we’d have luck knocking on the farmers’ doors and asking to camp on their property, but as they own the adjacent guesthouses she said certainly not (and she had good insight, as she lived on one of the farms with her grandmother, she told us).

And so, to soften the blow a little, we had coffee in the restaurant then got back on our bikes to retrace our steps back 10km, which would ‘only’ take about 45 minutes in this wind. (It took about 15 minutes in the other direction). Not much, in the scheme of things. Just a little learning curve.

The campsite, on another farm, was indeed worth it. There was an enormous, rambling building which provided communal facilities and dorm accommodation, with camping on the grounds. The showers were buried in a basement, but were more than adequate. The dorm room layout, which I snooped around and explored as we sheltered from the rain, was like a rabbit warren – leading down hallways, through a storage room with boxes and an old piano, into the bunk rooms with double-height rain-slashed windows.

The next morning we were heading for Skaftafell, a kind of national park at another one of Vatnajokull’s outlets. The tail wind had reached unprecedented speeds, so we covered the 23km to the glacier lagoon in about 45 minutes. We could tell the direction of the wind by the rainwater lifting off the road in sheets, then writhing and twisting ahead of us as we sped along at up to 35km/h, often freewheeling in top gear.

The glacier lagoon was as impressive as we’d predicted and as its popularity would suggest (there was at least a dozen tour buses parked at the entrance). We were soaked through from the rain so first gravitated towards the cafe, which, as it turned out, lacked even standing room. We pulled out the camera whilst sheltering under a narrow eave then wandered down to the lagoon’s edge.

This was the first time either of us have seen anything like this – jagged, transparent blue icebergs, some flowing down the lagoon towards the Ring Road bridge, at which point they pick up speed and rush towards the beach and out to sea. We also saw our first seals here – about three or four of them ducking in and out of the water playfully.

We had to keep warm, so after about half an hour checking out the lagoon (the cafe entrance still impenetrable), we got back on our bikes to continue on our way. There was a gas station 30km from there, where we thought we might shelter and have lunch before the final 23km to our destination.

The wind was so strong by now that it was difficult to ride out of the lagoon driveway with it blowing at our side (perhaps this should have been a warning of things to come?). It pushed us diagonally across the gravel until we could finally face our bikes west at the main road and then fly off at astounding speeds. One strong gust had us speed-peddling in top gear up to 55km/h (according to Paul’s bike computer – and I was right behind him).

We reached the gas station, which was actually just a fuel pump on the side of the road and an empty building. Still, we pulled in to check it out and met another couple of French bike tourers also sheltering under the empty building’s inadequate eaves. When they told us they were heading in the opposite direction, against this wind rather than with it, I think Paul and I both simply cried, simultaneously, “No!”

They were only three days into their tour, they explained with sad, resigned faces. (Hadn’t they read the same blog we had that suggested travelling clockwise?) That morning they’d ridden the 23km from Skaftafell (our planned destination), but they couldn’t face much more – they’d been blown all over the road, they said. We guiltily told them we’d travelled 60km in less than two hours already. We could barely believe it ourselves.

Having found no shelter or respite at the gas station, we wished them heartfelt good luck, then skidded sideways across the gas station lay-by until we faced our bikes west again and let the wind carry us up a slight incline at our average speed of about 35km/h. I can only imagine how they must have felt watching our frames shrink into the distance in minutes.

8 Glacier

With this wind, we imagined we’d be in Skaftafell in less than an hour. However, the road after the gas station changed direction slightly as we rounded the base of Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur (2110m). This was a terrible combination. Looking at the radar later, we realised that we’d turned into flukey windstorm with minimum 70km/h gusts crashing down from the mountain and hitting us in unpredictable savage bursts. We didn’t know the exact windspeed then, but we knew it was scary. I had to keep slamming my brakes as the bike veered wildly of its own accord across the road, towards the other side and potentially on-coming traffic. All I could do was shout over the roaring wind to Paul “I don’t like this!” He didn’t like it either, as he was trying to ride double abreast with me in a gallant attempt to act as a block between my possessed bike and the centre road marking.

Thankfully, after about three kilometres of this, we spotted a turn-off to a hotel and restaurant. We turned off initially with the aim to have lunch and decide on a plan of action, but that plan almost immediately turned into staying at the hotel itself – the wind by now rushing down the mountain with such force we could hear it barrelling towards us before it hit. We could barely walk through it, let alone ride, and the rain was still ‘falling’ in solid, sideways sheets. We’d discussed the kind of conditions in which we might spend a night in four-wall accommodation. Yesterday’s experience in Gerdi didn’t cut it, but this did.

We had to adjust our demeanour as we entered the muted, sophisticated interior of the hotel lobby. We must have looked a sight in our dripping-wet, hi-vis bike gear and pink wind-burned faces. Also, having spent the past couple of hours shouting at each other over the elements, it  was difficult to find an appropriate indoor volume.

“HI CAN WE PLEASE HAVE A ROOM HERE!”

Apparently, they were completely booked out and suggested another guesthouse a couple of hundred metres down the road. We warned/informed her we’d be back for lunch, and wrestled our bikes through the weather to the other guesthouse. We entered to find an old lady knitting on an armchair in a homely olive-green living room. She said something in Icelandic and another woman emerged. All booked out, she told us. “Nothing at all?” I asked, trying to sound as desperate as possible, and to make clear that we would not be getting back on that road, almost adding – “a laundry floor, basement, anything?” She told us there was another guesthouse, the last one in the same village, another couple of hundred metres away – “a little white house with blue windows”.

Paul got there before I did and emerged shaking his head. Booked out. No, that wouldn’t do. I barged in after him and (surely in vain) asked again. “Are you sure? Nothing at all?”

Finally, my brain switched into gear and I asked if we could please at least pitch our tent in their yard, and make use of the communal facilities (this place looked less hotel, more hostel). Fully expecting a ‘no’, as we’d experienced in Gerdi, the lady (who happened, like some cruel joke, to be baking cookies at the time) looked at me as if she’d only just then noticed what a drowned, windswept mess I was. She then smiled with pity, and nodded. I could have hugged her. Instead, inexplicably, I put my hands together and bowed like we’d once learned on a holiday in Thailand. “Thank you! Thank you!” I said, bowing low as I reversed out of the kitchen like a crazy person to inform Paul of the good news – which included the fact that she had also refused to charge us anything for the night’s stay, camped among her children’s toys in the tiny front garden. Perfect!

We left our bikes in the rain leaning up against the white wall and below the blue windows, and walked to the hotel – re-adjusting to “posh hotel lobby” mode as best we could, whilst forming a small pool of rainwater on the tiles around our table. One of the first things I noticed was that the other groups of patrons in the restaurant – in their dry, warm, clean clothes – looked positively miserable. All dead silent, every last individual staring at his or her smartphone with slightly slack jaw and lifeless eyes. And there we were, trying not to burst into bouts of hysterical laughter.

After lunch, we set up our tent in the wind and rain with renewed vigour, toweling down the tent interior before ejecting into it the contents of our dry duffel bag – sleeping bag, wool thermals, down-stuffed pillows, bed socks, beanies and scarves and sleeping mats.

12 Kirk campsite
Before we set off to Iceland, we had a few people cringe at the idea of sleeping in a tent every night for 38 days, predicting that we’d soon become utterly tired of it. Yet, in this moment, that attitude – or the notion that this was the hard part – seemed ridiculous. We had shelter! And a warm, comfortable place to sleep! What a luxury and a joy!

Paul used some extra rope we’d packed to help secure the tent in the strong winds. Even in the lee of the little white house, the tent poles warped and buckled disconcertingly. That night, the wind sounded as if we’d pitched our tent on a shoreline next to crashing waves.

After a slightly fitful sleep, we woke up to calm conditions and blue-sky gaps in the cloud cover. We wandered through the calm village (toward the hotel buffet breakfast – our grocery supplies by now dwindled), startled at the effect of the changed weather on our perception of the place. Well wasn’t this a lovely little quaint place! And the road down there, long and winding and flat through green fields. Not intimidating at all! Just near us was a refurbished 18th-century turf chapel surrounded by a lumpy, ancient graveyard, which we wandered through in fascination, before packing up camp and getting back on our bikes by about 10am.

We later learned that the weather in this particular region at the edge of the glacier can be so localised that a storm can tear off roofs and smash windows at one farm, while mild conditions reign at the neighbouring property. We’d ridden straight into a windstorm, but at Skaftafell, in a more protected position, was likely calm and pleasant (if we could have just made it there).

We did make it there eventually, by midday that day. There was a slight headwind, which was a bit of an effort, but at least we retained control of our bikes! We spent two hours at Skaftafell, firstly hiking to the base of the glacier outlet there, and then up to the waterfall. We ate a packed lunch and were back on our bikes at 2pm – with 70km still ahead of us.

10 Skaftafell svinafoss

The road was long and straight through lava fields and vast gravel glacial floodplain. The headwind was relatively gentle, but enough to gnaw away at you over time. Eventually I made Paul inform me every time we covered another 10km, but in return I was forbidden from asking “are you sure we haven’t done another 10km yet?” “Are we at 30km yet?” “How many kilometres?”

Our destination was our first fully-fledged town in a couple of days, called (wait for it): Kirkjubaejarklaustur. We made it there (as we always do – the proverb rings true!). We showered and used the hot tubs at the local pool, then went straight to the restaurant/pub for a feast before setting up camp. We’d ridden over 90km and spent two hours walking around Skaftafell – all personal records smashed. Next day was to be a rest day, obviously.

I am now writing this from a town called Vik, 70km west of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. We woke up this morning, after our pleasant rest day (which included another trip to the pool, and a stroll up a sheep trail to a plateau that overlooked the area and the glacier in the distance), to the sound of more wind and rain. We’d expected this from the radar forecast, and it hadn’t looked quite as bad as what we’d faced previously – in numerical terms, at least. However, then and there, in our sleeping bags listening to the familiar rhythm of rain on tent fabric, we were having second thoughts.

13 Paul flat bum waterfall
Tomorrow is supposed to be sunny and calm, so usually we’d have simply waited until then to ride the 70km to Vik. However, we are running out of days and our generous cookie-baking hostess who let us camp in her garden (in true old-Icelandic style) suggested we ride to a place called Thakgill. It’s a 20km ride (mostly up hill, on loose gravel with a couple of water crossings) out of Vik – but it’s the style of touring we prefer to long days on the Ring Road, and it’s supposed to be beautiful. So we’ve prioritised it. We spent an hour on a public bus to get here, feeling fully vindicated as we watched the angry weather pass by outside.

Perhaps we had had enough of the romance of challenging journeys for that one day? Either way, its back on the bikes tomorrow, and we’re looking forward to it.

Until then, from another old proverb – may the road rise up to meet you and the wind be at your back!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Chasing rainbows and waterfalls

We’ve been bike touring around Iceland for four weeks now – and, after some terrific days riding along the north coast, we’ve had to bite the bullet and take the bus to the south-east for a headstart on the final leg of our trip.

3 Morning ride out of Akureyri

Day 24-28
Akureyri > Laugar > Myvatn >>>>>> Hofn
Distance: ~110km (plus 7.5 hours on a bus…)

The camp warden had warned us, so we had no one to blame but ourselves, of course. But it still felt better to blame the under-dressed, chavvy Icelandic teenagers who kept us awake until 4am with their drunken, inane conversations slurred less than a metre from our (should’ve-been) sleeping heads. (We could tell the conversation was inane, even though it was in Icelandic. There’s a certain cross-lingual rhythm to an annoying, superficial drunken conversation.)

This was still in Akureyri – “the capital of the north” (population 18,000) – where we left off last post. We’d arrived at the campsite in the afternoon ready to settle in for a rest day, when the boy behind the desk told us we’d really be better off camping at the next site, about 8km out of town. There was a festival on that weekend, and “the teenagers were coming” he warned us – more or less in those exact, ominous words. We looked around at the few modest tents and campervans – it was already about 4pm on a Friday, and it didn’t look that bad, we thought. A festival also sounded potentially pretty good, and at that moment the idea of riding an extra 8km then and there – and then a 16km round-trip every time we wanted to go into the town the following day – sounded pretty unattractive. This campsite was also adjacent to the local pool/spa… So we stayed. “How bad can it be?” we thought.

That night, it was fine. We refreshed ourselves at the impressive local pool, doing a few laps to stretch out our aching backs and legs and broiling ourselves in the several different-temperature hot tubs. We even plunged into the icy cold tub and giggled down the water slide a few times. We ate enormous burgers and fries for dinner at the local hostel and slept like babies. So far so good. We booked in for a second night.

Bad idea. Even after having a Chinese food buffet for lunch and beer and chips and a few rounds of our entertainment of choice – the card game Gin Rummy – before bed, we barely slept a wink. The ominous signs had started at about 9pm: car after car rocked up, enormous, cheap tents were haphazardly erected, plastic chairs placed out in circles and cases of beer stacked high. I felt like an old prude, shuffling around in my crocs-‘n’-socks and sensible hiking pants, grimacing at all the girls in their sheer stockings and mini skirts. “It’s six degrees girls! Put some pants on!” I wanted to say, shaking a crooked finger at them.

So, as we lay our heads down, we made the decision that we wouldn’t stew and fester in our tent getting more and more annoyed until a reasonable ‘waking’ hour. If by early morning we hadn’t had much sleep, we’d pack up and hit the road – one of the benefits of 24-hour daylight. And so it was. We ate a no-cook breakfast of granola and skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) before 5am, then packed up our tent to the soundtrack of some guy vomitting on a nearby fence and the by-now familiar, intermittent shouts of laughter from another guy who seemed to have heard a new joke at the same regular interval for the past seven hours.

8 On the road to Akureyri

The sky was wide and blue and clear, but that also meant it was cold. (“Girls! Some pants!”) That northerly wind that had assisted us on our ride into town had also dropped the temperature somewhat, and my gloved hands were so numb they felt detached on the handlebars, like they belonged to someone else. I had to keep clapping them together to try and regain feeling – then we rode past a sign that told us the temperature was one degree Celcius. That explained it.

Luckily, the early hour (about 6am by the time we were on our bikes) meant the Ring Road was very quiet, so we skipped the steep mountain pass we were going to take as our first planned diversion from traffic. By the time we had rounded the first (more gradual) Ring Road climb in its place, our sleep-deprived grumpiness had waned, the sun was warming up and the endorphins had started to trickle in. We crested the first hill and saw before us wide-open lowland country – rolling green fields, a rushing royal-blue river, sky-high mountains and a long empty downhill road. This was the stuff. “Let’s open her up!” we cried and switched into top gear and sped down, leaving seedy, hung-over Akureyri in our wake and ready for the next stop on our adventure.

Water crossings and waterfalls

As the Ring Road picked up traffic that morning, we took our second planned diversion onto a dotted (on the map) ‘country road’ that ran parallel to the main road. The gravel was loose and there were several gates to open and close behind us as we climbed away from the tarmac and up on to a parallel plateau. If we wanted to avoid the traffic, then we’d done a great job – it didn’t look like this road had been used in a long time. The grass either side of the tyre tracks was higher than our knees. We also encountered our first water-crossing, or ford. Then another one, and another one.

5 Riding through long grass back roads

On the first one, Paul rode his bike through the 10cm-deep icy water, a little wobbly over the loose rocks but otherwise successful and dry. I envisioned myself losing balance and plunging (at least my shoes) into the water, so decided instead to take my shoes and socks off, roll up my pants and walk across. Freezing cold, but easy enough. I dried off my feet and put my shoes back on (“Hey! Now we can say we’ve done a water crossing!”), then rode on a little more – to where the stream crossed the track once again. This time, we managed to keep our feet dry by boulder hopping across, while wheeling our bikes through the water.

The final water crossing offered no such dry boulders, and it was a little too deep and fast-flowing to ride across. There was only one option, to take our shoes off again (which sounded a little annoying) and roll up our pants and brave the icy water. Or…

Feet cozy and dry, I nuzzled my face into the back of Paul’s warm neck, as we made our way across the final ford… together. Yes. A piggy back ride. Thanks Paul. It reminded me of riding a horse – I could feel through his hips as he balanced and progressed through the water over slippery boulders. I knew I’d brought along a husband on this trip for a reason.
6 Gemma water crossing
We emerged from our rural sidetrip to cross the Ring Road for a short stint before our next diversion – 10km around the back of a pretty lake, which was also where we ate our packed lunch. More smoked herring on rye bread with cream cheese and red onion, followed by half a block of chocolate shared between us and a very specific rationing of wine gum lollies.

Our next stop was a place called Godafoss, which translates more or less to “the waterfall of the Gods”. Here, in around the year 1000 after a pagan ‘lawspeaker’ made Christianity the official religion of Iceland, he threw his statues of the Norse gods over the falls.

We had considered staying the night at Godafoss, but there was a slightly bigger village (with a pool!) – about 10km over a long hill into a headwind – and there was still enough time in the day, thanks to having set off at the crack of dawn. Anyway, we reasoned, we’d still have to ride over that hill first thing in the morning if we didn’t do it now.

We regained energy with coffee and carrot cake at the cafe near the falls, then joined the other tourists wandering down the pathway to the cliff edge. It’s easy to see why the falls have been afforded spiritual significance – they are awesome in the truest sense of the word; incalculable torrents of water gushing over an almost semi-circular cliff-face into the river, sending up boiling clouds of mist and fleeting rainbows.

9 Paul on the edge at Godafoss
The final climb to the little town of Laugar, despite the headwind, was worth it. The campsite there was tiny and quiet, and the swimming pool perfect – which was just what we needed after Akureyri to properly recharge for the following day’s 40km ride to Myvatn. Myvatn is a tourist hotspot (literally…) in Iceland’s north, where we would spend a full day after arriving in order to do the place justice.

The ride around lake Myvatn itself that led us to our destination – the area’s main town, Reykahild – was long, flat and very pretty. Except, that is, for the bugs (midges) that hit your face in swarms, like rain, as well as occasionally the back of your throat, or worse – your eyeball, managing to infiltrate the space between your sunglasses and eyes, where you would inevitably blink at the wrong time, trapping them horrifically between eyelids. We were forced to pull over and retract from our panniers our best investment ever – our full-face bug nets – for the last leg of the ride. We later learned that these midges fertilise the volcanic plains when they die, helping the spectacular bright green flora to thrive. But they’re still annoying – it seems fitting that they’re most useful dead.

Myvatn is best known for its geological activity, centred around its version of the ‘Blue Lagoon’ hot springs, like the ones we’d visited earlier on in our trip, just outside Reykjavik. At about A$35 entry, they’re pricey but still less than half the price of entry to the Reykjavik version. We decided to save our visit until the following day, and instead made our usual way to the local pool and hot tub for a shower and swim, then a rest before dinner (lamb green curry and quinoa on the communal stove tops!).

Our tourist day in Myvatn started with a rare sleep in, porridge and coffee for breakfast, more coffee at the local cafe over a wifi-fix, then a bus ride out to Dettifoss. We had considered riding to Dettifoss, but it was more than 50km distant, one-way, in the middle of sparse, rocky nowhere. We had also already planned that from Myvatn, we would have to take a long bus trip to the south-east of the country, to finish off our last week of riding along the south coast. This means missing out on riding through the entire east of the country, unfortunately, but many of the places we still really want to see are down south, so we have had to reach a compromise. Somehow, already, we’re running out of time! It could have something to do with the fact that instead of following the conventional Ring Road, our route looks a bit more like a schizophrenic dog hell-bent on chasing new scents around a park. Or something.

15 Dettifoss rainbow

It might have been the weather and the sparse surroundings, but Dettifoss had a far less light, spiritual feel to Godafoss and more of a dramatic, even menacing air – it is reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The dark grey water rushed over the cliff-edge in a noisy, broiling mess, and the wind blew black volcanic dust and grit onto everything, including our hastily arranged sandwiches. Dettifoss actually featured in the film ‘Promethius’, in which an alien ‘engineer’ seeds life on Earth by tossing DNA over the falls. We watched on nervously as some other tourists on the other side of the falls seemed to risk throwing their own DNA in too, as they moved insanely close to the sheer cliff edge, climbing down onto rocks to get better photos – all the while ignoring signs that warned the rocks were unstable and often fell, and seemingly unfazed by the fierce wind and Dettifoss’s warning roar.

After a hot dog fix back in Reykahild and a rest that afternoon, we rode our bikes the 4km to the Myvatn ‘nature baths’, but first took a 6km round-trip walk from the site of the baths up to the edge of the crater of a nearby volcano called Hverfell. The track over bleak, charred landscape to the volcano looked almost like walking through a coal mine – but this place hasn’t been dug up. This is nascent Earth: volcanic rocks laying where they must have landed during the last eruption just 2500 years ago. Holes in the ground still spilled out scalding steam from the hot rocks below.
16 Hike up to Hverfell volcano
Returning to the baths after our hike, we found them just as we’d remembered in Reykjavik – a big, warm, pale blue, fairly shallow, mineral-rich lagoon. Unlike the public pool hot tubs we’ve been frequenting (which draw on the same geothermal sources for heat), the lagoons are less controlled (and, I’ll add, more expensive and crowded) – this means that rather than a consistent 42 degree heat, the water is often more like in the early-to-mid 30s, with the odd almost disconcerting ‘hot spot’. One of these in Myvatn welled up and seemed to form an impenetrable wall between bathers, who had circled around it like a campfire. We watched as unwitting swimmers drifted past peacefully, only to seem to seize up and start to twitch in pain as they retreated back, suddenly becoming aware of the invisible space everyone else was avoiding. I suddenly wished I’d never seen that movie ‘Dante’s Peak’.

We packed up the next morning for a 10am bus that would take us, in 7.5 hours, to a town called Hofn, on the south-east corner of the country and to the edge of Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajokull. I’m writing this from the bus, watching the incredible scenery of the east fjords fly by – still stunning out the window, but so fleeting, which is a foreign sensation to us now. No fresh wind in our face or sounds of birds or sheep to say hello to, or sense of anticipation with each new town that we skip through at high speed.

But all that begins again tomorrow – as does a new, incoming wave of heavy rain, according to the radar…

Thanks for reading! Don’t forget to sign up with your email address in the column on the right to receive updates for any future blog posts.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The north country

Hunting for crocs in northern Iceland, and the light at the end of the tunnel.

DSC_1021

Day 15-23
Saudarkrokur (aka sauerkraut) > Hofsos (aka hot sauce) > Siglufjordur (aka Sigmund Freud) > Dalvik (aka Croc country) > Akureyri (aka The Capital of the North)
Distance: approx. 180km

It’s raining that intermittent mist that fills the spaces between downpours and blinding sunshine. We’re running down the main street of a town called Saudarkrokur in northern Iceland, at the base of a peninsular we’re about to spend the next few days riding around.It’s about 3:45pm and we arrived in the town by bus about an hour earlier, having spent our last night in Reykholar at ‘pub trivia’ held in the local museum-cafe-information centre, generously translated into English (sometimes with difficulty, much to the locals’ amusement).

So, having covered a couple of hundred kilometres without breaking a sweat, we set up camp in Saudarkrokur and hit the main street on foot. Paul and his long legs are jogging about 100m ahead, and I am struggling behind with a developing stitch, trying to keep up. We only have 15 minutes. Reykholar pub trivia

The large, grey building and carpark described to us in the tourist information centre comes into view. I run through the sliding doors to find a row of checkouts acting as a gateway to a large general kind of department store. There are clothes, fishing gear, groceries, camping equipment – it looks promising. Red faced and glistening with sweat, I see Paul waiting for me at the checkouts and we enter the store together. I catch my breath and find the nearest shop assistant, who is getting ready for closing time at 4pm (or, as they’d say here, 1600).

“Excuse me…” I pant, looking at her through the haze of fog growing on my glasses. “Do you… sell… crocs?” I take another  breath. “You know, the shoes?” I point a little lamely at Paul’s navy blue pair, which I’d once teased him about. Not anymore.

The shop assistant looks at me, then the shoes, and shakes her head slowly. This could mean “No, we don’t sell those glorious, lightweight slip-on rubber shoes that look stylish on exactly no one,” or it could mean “I have no idea what you’re asking me, strange foreigner”.

There were no crocs. Deflated by the bad news, we retreat to a local pub, me dragging and cursing my heavy stiff bike shoes all the way.

Let me explain. As part of the enormous amount of gear planning and purchasing we undertook ahead of this 38-day bike tour around Iceland, we both included two pairs of shoes each. First and foremost, our cycling shoes (Paul’s a pair of clipless commuting shoes he already owned; mine a new pair of FiveTen mountain bike shoes, which have been great – on the bike).

Secondly, we would both have a pair of around-town/campsite shoes. Crucially, these had to be lightweight, as well as easy to slip on for moving in and out of the tent, etc. Paul packed his existing pair of crocs, while I had a pair of these strange black and pink rubber-soled neoprene/wetsuit booty things I’d once bought from Big W or K-Mart for water crossings on a multi-day hike that never eventuated, and which had therefore sat unused in my wardrobe for about a year. “These will do,” I had thought. Oh no, they wouldn’t. Within days they had fallen to pieces, the inner sole losing all form and function, to reveal a sticky mass of glue that managed to get everywhere and on everything. They were also constantly wet and developed a pretty foul stench before long. I looked forward to putting them on when we arrived at camp after a long day’s ride about as much as I would have looked forward to donning a full-length and damp wetsuit to wear around the streets of Iceland’s quaint villages.

And so, in a fit of disgust and despair, I disposed of the useless booties and resorted to wearing my stiff, heavy bike shoes all day everyday – but I knew that simply would not do for wandering around town on rest days, wearing to communal showers or on 4am dashes from the tent through mud and rain to communal toilets. It might not sound like a big deal, but after three weeks in a tent, the small things you take for granted at home become disproportionate in their potential for discomfort, like a speck of grit caught in your eye.
Crocs and socks
Alas, SaudarKROKur failed to deliver on the croc front (despite the name, which we re-dubbed as sauerkraut anyway). However, I do have some good (or bad?) news: I am now, finally, the proud owner and wearer of a pair of crocs (not the same brand, but the same thing, more or less). Even worse: make that crocs with socks, most of the time. The upside is that I fit right in in most parts of Iceland, as they truly do make a lot of sense here, and they also only cost about A$10. It took another four days, three towns and about 135km riding to find them… but luckily there was plenty to see and do along the way!

We left Sauerkraut at about midday the following day, having slept in that morning after a fitful, broken sleep, thanks to some very drunk and loud campers celebrating a local rally car event that had apparently recently wrapped up. The 35km ride to the next town, Hofsos, was quick and pleasant with clear weather, and the town hosted possibly our favourite swimming pool to date (if a little more crowded than usual, thanks to it being a particularly sunny Sunday). The pool was almost ‘infinity’-style, seeming to spill directly into the adjacent fjord, itself surrounded by misty, snow-covered mountains. We also enjoyed that evening wandering down to the fishing port and along the rocky beach.

Hofsos pool

Oh, and Hofsos also gave us our first experience of the famous Icelandic upside-down icecream. I don’t actually think this is a traditional or even common local dish, to be honest, but maybe it will become one. To be specific, when we ordered two chocolate-dipped soft-serve icecreams – to enjoy after a pannier-packed lunch of egg and remoulade sandwiches – the whole clump of icecream slipped from the waffle cone into the vat of that ‘magic’-style, instant-hardening  (i.e. certainly very unhealthy) chocolate sauce. I watched on in awe as she scooped the whole deformed chocolatey mass out with a spoon, plonked it in a paper cup and stuck the cone upside-down on top, then placed it on the counter next to the correctly formed version and said, straight-faced, “have a nice day”. We did.

Ritually watching the weather radar, we saw a day of rain on its way, and so packed up and set off from Hot sauce by 6.30am the next morning for our next stop, Siglufjorder. This was a 65km ride, and we arrived by midday – something of a personal record. You know you’re in rural Iceland when the biggest risks you face on a long day of riding are nervous sheep darting, inexplicably, in front of your bike during a fast downhill run, and when an Icelandic horse trots along the road beside you for 20-odd metres, with (honestly) an air of guilt and giddy excitement about having somehow escaped its enclosure (evident by the way it whinnied and shook its mane).

Hofsos

Arriving at Siglufjordur (if you can’t pronounce it, try Sigmund Freud, which is what we went with) typified the feeling we get whenever arriving at a new village or town after a long haul through the remote countryside. Suddenly, the immense soaring mountains, ice caps, steaming streams and lava fields narrow into a cozy valley lined by a smattering of colourful houses, a church steeple, an often respectably hipster ‘kaffihus’ and, of course, a swimming pool and hot tub. Each physically challenging journey between towns truly accentuates that sense of arrival, and of promise, offered by these villages. It’s not exactly wild, remote camping, but it’s the perfect way to balance the trip, and discovering the unique idiosincracies of each town is a highlight.
Herring buffet lunch
Sigmund Freud, for example, was once the ‘herring capital’ of Iceland, we learnt the following day, with most of the then-massive hauls of fish processed into oil and dried meal (the latter for livestock fodder, which seems a bit of a roundabout way for us humans to get protein). So, with our rest day aligned with the forecast period of rain, we spent the morning sheltering in a cafe with refill-coffee and wifi, then had a herring buffet lunch – an assortment of marinated herring (mustard sauce, garlic sauce, curry sauce, etc.), as well as boiled eggs and potatoes, Icelandic brown bread and hashed fish. We ate (more than) our ‘all you can eat’ fill, then wandered into the three adjacent museums dedicated to the town’s ‘herring era’ (which I imagine was a little like the ‘gold rush’ back in Australia). The boom, we learned guiltily as we daintily stifled herring-flavoured indigestion burps behind our hands, ended when herring stocks crashed in 1968, and from which numbers have never fully recovered.
Herring Era Museum Siglufjordur
The museums were genuinely fascinating, like stepping into a different world or era – complete with the Icelandic “she’ll be right” flair that, for an Aussie phrase, is far more fitting here. The dimly lit boathouse, for example, was a massive warehouse filled with actual Icelandic fishing boats fitted out as they would have been at sea. We could wander through them, up jittery ladders, down below decks, into the mess and up to the helm, exploring like kids anywhere and any way we liked, with no warning signs or safety barriers or officials watching over us. We next visited a multi-storey building that had once housed both male and female workers during the herring season, fit out with original bunk beds, original retro kitchen, low ceilings, larder and storage attic, etc. These are the best types of museums – the voyeuristic kind, and the perfect way to spend a rainy day in Iceland.

The rain let up for the next day’s ride out of Siglufjordur to Dalvik, which we’d looked at as simply a kind of half-way stop on the way to Akureyri, the latter the biggest town outside the Reykjavik area, sometimes called ‘the capital of the north’. I had been looking forward to Akureyri’s size and scope for two things: finding crocs (obviously), and eating something colourful and spicy and Asian, food we’ve sorely missed. As it turned out, Dalvik delivered on both fronts. I (joyfully) found and bought a pair of crocs in the supermarket, and – thanks to a communal camp kitchen that took us away from our camp stove for the first time in three weeks – cooked up a stir-fry storm.

The ride to Dalvik was an easy 35 or so kilometres – shortened significantly because, instead of gradually climbing over the mountain as we usually would have, we cut straight through it with 15km of tunnels. I’ll take the hill climb and its wide open spaces over those tunnels any day, please. These tunnels were less like urban traffic tunnels and more like mining tunnels, with unrendered, lumpy walls dripping with groundwater, dim flickering orange lights and shoulderless lanes (or, for the last 4km, a single lane for two-way 70km/h traffic). We donned all our high-vis gear, switched on our previously unused bike lights and let the mountain swallow us hole, hoping for the best.

Into the tunnel, Siglufjordur

Keeping up a high average speed (about 20km/h) and making full use of the regular lay-bys, we made it through the first 11km easily, physically at least. Mentally, we were a little drained, so – thinking the first 11km represented the only ones we’d face – we stopped at a gas station in the adjacent town, called Olafsfjurder, for coffee. We then put our helmets back on, got back on the bikes, panted up a hill and rounded a corner – to be faced by yet another ominous hole-in-a-mountain. This was the 4km single-lane tunnel. Again in typical Icelandic style, there was no real signage explaining just how cars and trucks were supposed to negotiate the narrow tunnel when they inevitably met, although it was long and straight enough that you could usually see lights coming in either direction with enough notice to pull into the nearest lay-by and wait. The trucks in particular were intimidating, roaring past in the dark sounding like earthquakes or thunderstorms, spraying our fluoro jackets with black road-grit.

We exited the final tunnel into the open fresh air and icy northerly wind with a sigh of relief. That icy northerly – blowing down from the Arctic Circle, which is less than 100km from here – would stay put for the following day’s 45km ride to the Capital of the North, Akureyri, which meant we covered the distance in just a little over two hours. We stopped off along the way for smoked herring and cream cheese on rye bread for lunch, eaten in the grounds of a 19th-century church and graveyard, sheltering from the wind.

Lunch

There’s a festival on here in Akureyri, with nightly open-air concerts and amusement rides and fairy floss (candy floss, if you’re not Australian), so we’re hanging around for a full day of wandering and eating and touristing. Next stop, the north’s Blue Lagoon, Lake Myvatn – but that’s another post.

Until then, as always, takk fyrir!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.