New Moving To Tasmania Guidebook – out now!

We’ve published a guidebook – with everything you need to know about moving to Tasmania

Last year, I wrote a blog post marking our first year in Tasmania – reflecting on the challenges of relocating at the height of the pandemic, heavily pregnant and without a rental lined up. We’ve now been here for more than two years and are still learning the ins and outs of what it means to build a life in a new state, and in this state in particular.

We’ve learnt so much since then not just from our own move to Tasmania, but from helping my mum and stepdad take the same leap – with their own unique considerations and challenges – and from speaking to other Tasmanians, old, new and aspiring.

Those lessons and experiences inspired us to write this guidebook, which compiles our top tips and advice on moving to Tassie.

The book covers:

  • Lifestyle and community
  • Weather and climate
  • Schools and education
  • Hospitals and healthcare
  • Property and housing
  • Logistics of relocating to Tasmania
  • Your car in Tasmania
  • Gardening and growing your own food
  • Getting a job

It’s not meant to be an advertisement for moving to Tasmania, nor a general guide for moving, nor is it aimed at property flippers or investors. This is a guide with advice and insights unique to moving to and living in Tasmania. The goal is to get aspiring Tasmanians asking the right questions and to hopefully save them time, stress and money.

We’re exceedingly grateful to our friends and family who shared their stories to help bring this together, who read and commented on drafts, and to Ashwood Publishing for editing and formatting, and Kat Power for the cover design.

So if you’ve ever thought about moving to Tasmania, or if you know someone who is thinking of taking the leap – please share this with them!

All the retail links are available on the main book page here or you can head straight to Amazon and pre-order a Kindle copy.

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5 things I learnt self-publishing my first novel

In February this year I self-published a mystery novel called Confluence. It’s been a fun, daunting and enlightening journey. Here are 5 key lessons I learnt along the way

1. Don’t use the first result on Google as the service to help you self-publish

I really should have known better. I work in the (magazine) publishing industry for God’s sake! But when, in Christmas 2021, my husband forwarded me this compelling Tweet and said, “why don’t you just self-publish that novel you wrote?” I decided the only way it was going to happen (between work and kids and a penchant for procrastination) was to make it as low-input for me as possible.

So… I had a manuscript… in a word doc… that I wanted to publish on Kindle, so what service did I go with? Word-2-Kindle, naturally! 

SEO: 1, me: 0.

I was very happy with the cover design… eventually!

Well, not 0 exactly. I did have my novel published by February 2022. The Word-2-Kindle service had some positives – they were competitively priced, responsive, friendly to deal with, and they seemed to have their processes down-pat. And I still use them when I have to make edits, but that’s also because I don’t have access the editable design files, which is also a negative. More negatives incoming:

The quality of the work I’m afraid was poor. 

I filled in the cover design briefing form and the result I received was a bit like what you get when you feed a prompt to those AI art tools (you know, ‘a banana eating a frog sitting on a windmill’ kind of thing). They had picked up keywords but completely missed the point. 

In the end I specified the exact image, fonts, provided screenshots of a comparable cover I wanted them to emulate and spelt out exactly where I wanted all elements of the copy to go. I was happy with the result, but I didn’t feel I had benefited from any graphic design creative prowess on their part, rather provided detailed instructions to someone with access to InDesign (which I also have access to).

I was similarly disappointed with the editing, unfortunately. I hate to say this as the editor herself provided a lovely review of the novel in her comments – so maybe, having read that, I was blinded by my ego when her track-changed document had so little red. Well of course, unsurprising, I’m amazing! The manuscript is clean and perfect and ready to publish.

Alas, as countless readers have helpfully let me know since (usually the only downside in otherwise pretty consistently positive reviews): typos and errors are still lurking. That fact is embarrassing and disheartening, and costing me money every time I find more and have to ask my ‘Project Manager’ at Word-2-Kindle to weed them out.

Next time I’ll seek out and engage an individual graphic designer for the cover and contents (or maybe do it myself on Canva), and the same for a book editor. Using a middle man was a quick, efficient bult ultimately poor idea.

2. Put in the leg work getting reviews and reviewers, early on

After publishing, I knew that part of my marketing would be getting reader reviewers. I hoped between my blog followers, friends and family and the small handful of book reviewers I contacted, followed by the power the word-of-mouth, I would have this covered off. And reviews did trickle in, but they quickly tapered off. This is frustrating when you realise what a powerful potential marketing tool they are. And the reviews I did get were consistently positive enough that I wanted more readers to find and review it. What I found was that finding new readers for a small, new, self-published author can genuinely be like getting blood from a stone.

So recently, I got my hands on a copy of the Book Blogger Directory and worked my way through A to Z (of course only contacting the relevant blogs who stated they were accepting review requests, etc.). I emailed off cover JPGs, synopses, free ebook copies for review, URLs social handles etc, trying to make the process as easy as possible for them. Mainly because these bloggers are Under. The. Pump with reading promises already into the hundreds. But the process is starting to result in real, honest reviews from strangers (the best kind), and reading them is so rewarding.

Other review avenues I tried with this book: Book Sirens. You sign up for an account ($10 from memory) then pay $2 for every review of your book (this covers the cost of the service and doesn’t go to the reviewer). I received I think three reviews this way. It’s a nice idea, and a pretty simple, affordable way to connect reviewers and publishers.

I also splashed out and purchased a Kirkus ReviewKirkus Reviews is a literary magazine which is mainly aimed at and used by the publishing industry. This New Yorker article does a good job of explaining what they’re all about. As an Indie author you pay a lot of money for a pretty formulaic (but honest) review, but the selling point is that they are respected in the industry, and can be good to add to your cover art. And I was pleased that my review appeared in the September 15 edition of the magazine – which isn’t a given and apparently relatively rare for Indie authors.

3. Put yourself out there – including with a launch event!

Selling Confluence at the Tassie Indie Author Book Fair

It took some convincing to self publish, and then it took some more convincing to self-promote. After all, most people don’t get into writing fiction (which involves hours and hours hanging out with your imagination, alone in a room forgetting to stay hydrated) to have to put themselves ‘out there’ in front of others. But even if your book is published by a traditional publisher, if you are a new or unknown author, you will be expected to do a lot of the leg work in your marketing. In fact, publishing contracts are easier to come up with if you already have a big existing online audience or network – as a completely separate variable to the quality of the book itself. 

In reality, when people ask me about my book or want to discuss the story, I want to shrink away. How do you discuss or explain the product of a process that is so intuitive, so driven by the subsconscious? It always feels like post-rationalising to me. 

But – just as I was convinced to self publish, I was convinced to self-market, and this included a launch. 

First, I guess you could say I had a ‘soft-launch’ at the Tassie Indie Author Book Fair which took place in May this year at Brook Street Pier in Hobart. I set up my table with a pile of books and my A3 poster (designed myself this time!). I’d been instructed to bring 10 to 20 copies and told to expect to sell 5-10 of those. I arrived with my 20 copies and a serious case of imposter syndrome looking at all the other set ups. 

But then… I sold out! Every last copy! 

It was at that fair that I also met the owner of The Hobart Bookshop, the lovely Bronwyn, and in follow-up was able to organise to hold my ‘real’ launch there. In the lead up, I posted flyers around town, advertised it on my own social media as well as the bookshop’s website and social media. And… a very small handful of mostly friends and family showed up..! (As one of those friends pointed out, holding it soon after Dark Mofo, when everyone was evented-out, was perhaps a mistake). Still, it was a lovely evening, and somewhat out of character I really enjoyed the chance to discuss my book (in an interview/Q&A format), and in hindsight the marketing of the event in the lead up was the real value. (Cafes and libraries won’t let you put a picture of your book cover up on their wall just because you published it – but they may well be happy to do so if it’s to promote a local event.) 

4. You’ll find an amazing community (at least I did)

One of the best things about stepping out of your comfort zone is that you soon find there are so many people willing to help and support you. To start, I originally heard about the Tassie Indie Author Book Fair through a good friend in the industry who knew I’d self-published (His name is Meng and he’s a Tassie-based freelance graphic designer – check him out here). At the Fair I met not only the owner of the Hobart Bookshop which spawned my launch event, but also several other local independent authors.

One author I met was Rauiri Murphy, who wrote Two Sets of Books, a series of short stories all set in Hobart public library, recently long-listed for the Tasmanian Premier’s Literary Award. We exchanged books (and reviews), and then I more or less cold-called on him after the event, when the bookshop suggested I find someone to interview me at my launch, and he not only agreed to help but truly went above and beyond for a more-or-less stranger. I was amazed and so grateful!

Other people in the community have been equally generous and supportive. I was invited onto local radio for an interview, which included an opportunity to give away copies to local readers. 

I feel if I hadn’t self-published, I wouldn’t have met or become a part of most of these supportive and generous individuals and communities.

5. Keep writing your next novel!

There was a period of time when focussing on publishing and marketing Confluence provided a nice distraction from working on any other project… but you can’t be an author, whether self- or traditionally published, without being a writer first. So it’s important to return back to that fundamental place of being a creator – and that’s regardless of how your first effort goes.

I have learnt a lot from this process, it’s been difficult, enjoyable, scary, fun. There are many things I’d do differently were I to self publish again, but thinking about that now feels like putting the cart before the horse.

I’m working on two separate pieces – one I’ve put on the backburner as another idea came into being and is exciting me a lot more. So… watch this space!

Oh, and please buy a copy of Confluence and leave your review online!

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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

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“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.

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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.

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(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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

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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)

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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
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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!

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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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!

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