Monthly Archives: March 2016

THAILAND – Snorkelling in The Surin Islands

Welcome to Paradise…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick & some downloads)

We thought we were done with islands. We had done beaches, and we had even done a bit of snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, but when the workers in the jungle bungalows told us we had to go to the Surin Islands, we were convinced. They were guys that really knew Thailand, in particular the great snorkelling spots, and we knew we’d probably regret not going. The speedboats there were going to be expensive, and we had to pay a national park entrance fee, but once there, we were told we could camp on the beach. As Cheryl Fernández Versini would say, it sounded “Reet oop mai streeet.”

Looking on the map we realised that the Surin islands, although within Thai territory, were right next to the Myiek archipelago that we had passed on the boat to get to the south of Myanmar. The ones that we had really wanted to visit but were off limits. This nailed it for us. We were going.
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We arrived to water that didn’t even look real. I want to say it looked like water from a swimming pool, but it was even more turquoise than that, if that’s even possible. After we got off the speedboat on one side of the island, we got a longtail boat to the other side, where we had been told there would be less “day trippers.” With only a couple of bungalows and lots of tents, staying here wasn’t ideal for everyone. Luckily Nick and I love camping.

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Our humble abode
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The view from our tent!
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Mangroves

Our first afternoon would be one of the craziest. A couple of hours after arriving and choosing our tent (the tents for rent were so spacious and breezy, we still didn’t use the one we had carried around for 3 months!) we headed out on a boat to go snorkelling. The area here is vast, so each trip takes you to several different spots. The spot this first day was Sakut. According to a Korean guy on the trip, he had seen sharks here many times before. Nothing like starting big.

Mask fixed, I lowered myself carefully into the water. I took a deep intake of breath, closed my eyes (force of habit) and tentatively lowered my mask under the water, face towards the sea bed. Head submerged, I opened my eyes and immediately took in a sharp intake of breath. The sea was deeper here than in Phi Phi, but you could see literally to the bottom of the ocean. It was like being on the set of The Little Mermaid, but less safe and certainly somewhat overwhelming. There was an entire world down there, carrying on, oblivious to us humans. Calming myself and taking a few deep, slow mouth-breaths, Nick and I, curious more than brave, headed towards the bay where the Korean had said he’d seen sharks. I had always maintained that the things I was afraid most of in the world were crocodiles and sharks. But hey-ho, here I was heading straight towards their territory.

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The Water Monitor Lizard - a harmless land resident of the island

I’m not a strong swimmer. In fact, I should fess up, I’m actually really shocking. My 8 year old niece could leave me in the dust spray. Those water baby classes didn’t reach my household and my first memory of swimming was my parents sending me to classes at around the age of 11. I was fast, but got puffed out after a width or two. Here I was in the big bad ocean – no life jacket, no flippers and completely out of my depth.  I should have been petrified, but I took Nick’s tips of using a slow breast stroke, and much to my delight, head down and my hips up, I discovered the science of salt water and buoyancy.

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I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’m not sure what exactly I expected. It should have been thinner, more friendly looking, more like the ones in the aquarium…less…shark like. Just up ahead of me was a black-tipped shark and it was FAT.  Maybe it had had its fill of human for the day.
I had been so distracted with the swimming, that when I saw it, I was completely taken off guard. I quickly looked around, but I had out-swum Nick. I had to share the news. Lifting my head out of the water,  I called to him in a mix of panic and pure exhilaration.

“Nick! Nick!”

I did the pointy signal that means little on land, but on a snorkel site means, “Get your head under water – you are not going to believe this!” I quickly resubmerged my head, but it had gone. Looking in every direction, it was a strange feeling to know it was somewhere still near us, but we had no clue as to where.

From then on, I became intent on seeing more sharks, and I did, although no other shark was a match for that first one. We loved that snorkel so much, that what we had intended on being a one or two night stop over turned into 5 days, where each day was a new snorkel site with treasures untold to discover.

Our time in the sea was an eye-opener each and every time. Sometimes full of joy at finding Nemo, for example; or full of amazement at the octopus that Nick spotted, following its transendent appearance from plastic bag to rock, skin morphing into its surroundings like something from The XFiles; or the fear I felt when spotting what I thought were barracuda and realising I was one very strong current away from anybody. It’s really lucky we didn’t know just how dangerous some of the animals we encountered were until we left the island. With no internet, we were left to imagine what might be unfriendly, with absolutely no warning from any of the staff, or our boat captain, who didn’t seem that bothered. He, we guessed correctly, was a sea gypsy, from a group called The Moken. We were obviously amateurs in his eyes. I legged it paddled it away from needle fish, thinking they looked aggressive, only to find out that they only harm humans “by accident”. They do this by diving out of the water at 30mph without looking, having speared the odd unsuspecting human at various points in the past: the aquatic version of the Indian driver.

Later a German girl was telling us all about “trigger fish” and how vicious they can be.  Imagine my horror when she showed us a video of one of these beasts attacking a diver and I realised I had swam over that very fish! Luckily I had been late heading back to the boat and only gave it a cursory glance as I paddled furiously overhead.

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The Black-tipped Reef Shark. Meaty but harmless...apparently! (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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The Clown Triggerfish (NOT OUR IMAGE)
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Accidental impaler, the Needlefish (NOT OUR IMAGE)

But we also had so many magical moments. At one point Nick and I swam quite far away from the boat, where built-up coral full of big colourful fish gave way to deep mid-blue ocean. These parts tended to be full of schools of tiny fish, whirling around cylinders of themselves the depth of the ocean. Suddenly we happened upon another school of fish, only these were bright yellow and about 30cm long – bigger than all the other schools. There were hundreds of them, moving around like a synchronised swimming team. We spent half of that dive just swimming amongst them, watching them part as we went between them, or swimming directly above them as though we were part of their gang. Somehow I don’t think we made the grade, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much. 

Maybe because they seemed to be being “bullied” by a couple of enormous metallic blue fish and they assumed we were some kind of protection. I still haven’t found out what fish these were, but Nick and I agreed this was definitely one of our highlights.

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Our serious looking captain

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They say size isn’t important, but in the sea it is. Had we not been the size of sharks (we aren’t quite as fat, but with all the beer we’ve been drinking, we certainly aren’t far off) we never would have had my favourite deep sea encounter.

“Over here!!!!”

Our korean friend, Subin, new to swimming and waving her arms around, spluttering and panting was calling to me. It took me a few seconds to realise that, no, despite the fact that she had taken her life jacket off, she wasn’t drowning. Good. I had left my red swim suit at home.

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Some awesome friends we made on the island, including Subin, at the front in blue

I swam over to her quickly, hoping that whatever she had seen hadn’t floated away with the tidal wave from her frantically treading water. There, under her life jacket, were two of the tiniest fish I have ever seen. Black and yellow striped, they measured about a centimetre each in length. I put my head under the water and they immediately swam to my mask. They disappeared. I turned my head, they were right there, by my ear. Then in front of my mask. I had fun for a few minutes before swimming off to explore something new. But these guys were in it for the long haul. I swam on only to realise that these guys were swimming alongside my head. Whenever I stopped, they swam in front of my mask.

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We found Nemo! (NOT OUR IMAGE)

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Long fin Bannerfish a-plenty (NOT OUR IMAGE)

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Regal Angelfish (NOT OUR IMAGE)

“Are you looking at me?”

I would like to think that these little guys just really valued the friendship we had made and were trying to do their bit for land/sea relations. Alas, no.  These were the same ones an American guy we had been hanging out with had told us about. They had followed him in the same way, too. On googling back on the mainland, I found out these are called “Golden Trevally fish” and they normally display “piloting behaviour” accompanying sharks. They eat the bacteria off the sharks, and in return, the sharks act like some kind of protection. So, really we were just dirty bodyguards. I had to keep my mouth clamped round the mouth piece for fear of swallowing the sea water, and possibly the fish, but inside I was grinning from ear to ear.

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HOW TO GET THERE:

– The speedboat goes from aThai town called Kuraburi – small town, dress conservative. Nice food markets daily. Bus goes there from Surathani to Phuket or Krabi (or vise versa).
– Tom & Am tours were just where the bus dropped us on the main road. They can book your boat and will even take you to the port and pick you up. Great English and super nice couple.
– If you want somewhere cheap to stay, they also have some very basic bungalows for 290THB (about £6 or 9 USD) per night. Take mozzie lotion as these are quite open to the elements! They do have nets for night time, though.

COSTS:

– 1700 THB for the return speed boat (about £36 or 54 USD)
– 500THB for the national park entrance fee (about £10 or 15 USD). This lasts for 5 days. If you wanted to stay longer, on the 6th day, you would have to pay this again.
– 300THB to use one of their 3 man tents (about £6 or 9USD). Mats are about 40p a night, pillows, 20p and sleeping bags something similar.
Note – if you take your own tent, it is only 80THB a night, but I don’t know if this is per tent or a per person charge.
– 150THB for a long tail boat to take you to various snorkelling sites. These go at 9am and 2pm everyday, and work on a two day rotation. If you want to see sharks, the afternoon trip to Koh Samut is the place. There are two locations on this trip and this is the first of the two. Head towards the sandy cove. This is where they hang out!
– Rent masks and flippers for around 40p each for a half day.

OTHER THINGS TO DO ON THE ISLAND:

– Take a hammock!
– Read a book
– Get up early and go monkey spotting on the beach 200m walk from the quiet camping beach (this is the one the longtail boat will drop you off at when you first arrive).
 – Do the trail that goes from this beach to one of the other beaches. I think it’s a couple of kilometres (we only did the first part and then went off piste to monkey spot).
– Spot the water monitor lizards! There are a few of them just by the campsite, especially near the little bridge.
– Swim! There are also some good things to spot further out on the camping beach if you are a strong swimmer. Mantarays and turtles were cited to us by other tourists, but we didn’t actually see these ourselves.
– Visit The Moken (sea gypsy) people on the neighbouring island.

THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:

– Food works in a voucher system, so you buy vouchers from the reception and hand these in in the restaurant.
– Food is only served at certain times, 3 times a day.
– There is only one restaurant and the food is so-so. Also, there is no bar, although you can buy cans of beer.
– Maybe go prepared and take some food and drink with you, although beware the monkeys that can not only smell food, they can also unzip your tent!!
– Thailand is home to over 200 different types of poisonous snakes – be careful in the jungle and near mangroves.
– Do not feed the monkeys! It’s not good for them to become reliant on humans, especially just so you can take a close up picture. For that matter, don’t feed any of the animals. 🙂
– Before you go snorkelling, look up some of the fish so you know what to be aware of. Barracuda, needle fish, trigger fish, stone fish, octopus etc. The sharks are all fine. 

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THAILAND – Khao Sok National Park: Trekking & Floating

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the I.F.s sleep tonight…

(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)

“You HAVE to go there.”

In Groundhog Day fashion almost everybody we met backpacking had a ” You HAVE to go there” story. Quite often, “there” referred to some full moon party bursting with 20-somethings eager to find themselves and then puke their guts up on the beach. Um, maybe next time…This time, however, the place in question was a national park called Khao Sok. A national park? Our attention was grabbed. We had no idea that amongst all the beaches of the south lay a jungle ready to explore. It seemed, as rarely happened, we should trust in the keen recommendation of these nature-loving Aussies we had known for all of 5 minutes.

In our usual style, we spent way too long googling reviews on trip advisor of where to stay. After being taken to what seemed to be bungalows in a palm plantation (a leading cause of jungle deforestation), we hastily moved on – we had come here to be in the jungle, not to support its demise. We eventually found some amazing bungalows almost next door. They were more pricey, but they were in amongst the trees and next to a river. This was the real deal. Once settled in, we set about making a plan.

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Our Jungle Hut refuge where we ended up staying 3 nights we loved it so much

“No food. Pahahaha.”

We were asking about a survival trek, where you go into the jungle for a couple of days and forage. Apparently now wasn’t the season, so if you needed to survive in winter, you were a bit screwed. The rainy season over, the river was also too low for tubing, so we opted for a two day trek through the jungle with an overnight stay in the “floating houses” upon the enormous man-made lake that we had heard so much about. We decided that the trek should be fun to do in a group and crossed our fingers we would be in good company.

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Spot the difference…

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“Bonjour”

The good company came in the shape of a French girl called Charlene and her boyfriend, Anis. Maybe it was my fondness for Kylie in her Neighbours days, or the fact that Charlene thought everything I said in French was “tros minion” (so cute), but we hit it off right away. I’m pretty sure my rendition of a french gangster rap song had never been described as “cute” before.

It had been a while since I had bonded with a girl over shoes. Generally I had left the shoes and handbags phase of my life behind, but this was different – these shoes were “special.” And, dare I say a word that should never be uttered in the same sentence, “functional.” Yes indeed. Beckham would have been proud of these rubber beasts complete with footballer-esque studding. I was one proud owner; the other was Charlene. We might have received a bit of flak for our choice of footwear, but they were to stand us in good stead (boom boom) in addition to proving a great talking point.

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Modelling the envy of everyone’s eye – my rubber trekking shoes, which cost all of around 70p

First we just had to get to the floating houses. After a mini bus journey to the edge of the enormous man-made lake that capped the park, we transferred to our favourite mode of transport – a longtail boat. It was only now that the jokes about the shoes temporarily subsided, as each of us sat, jaws dropped, marvelling at the scenery. Steep forest-covered limestone carst mountains jutted high out of the lake. Combined with the overcast sky, this made for quite the dramatic setting. Jurassic Park would have done well to find a better set than this.

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Dramatic weather, dramatic scenery

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Having checked out our boingy floating houses and dumping our bags, we headed out on trek number one.  At this early stage we had already lost a few members of the team – apparently trekking was optional on this two day trekking tour. To be fair, staying at the lake seemed pretty enticing with the option of kayaking or swimming, but I had bought my special shoes for this trek, and there was no way I was going to miss out on wearing them.

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Floating restaurant
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Floating houses – our home for the night

We had read a blog on this exact trek in preparation, and as the words “exhausting”, “struggle” and “huge climb” popped up, I felt a sinking sense of deja vu. Here we go again, I thought. What can I say? That blogger obviously didn’t have a husband that constantly hiked her up to the highest possible view point – after all those previous uphill hikes, I was more than just a little relieved to find this trek was actually a doddle.

After about an hour or so of walking through a path in the jungle, we got to the bit we were looking forward to – the cave. Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking that we had become a little cave obsessed on this honeymoon, but not all caves are created equal. We would be following a river through this one for over a kilometre.

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A beard too huge not to be included, even if the photo isn’t the greatest (guess who is behind the camera)

We strode inside, confident from the brightness of the collective head torches. Heads circling, we examined the cave, careful to know where we were putting our hands. Our guide took great delight in pointing out the hundreds of bats, enormous spiders and a snake coiled up on a ledge inside. Still, we laughed and joked as we got a closer examination.

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“Take a picture, Nick.”

This involved a whole palarva of carefully removing the camera from the drybag, being additionally careful not to drop the lens cap in the stream. This on top of the usual faff of changing lenses (no zoom for Nicholas). Needless to say, by the time we were ready to take a photo, suddenly the cave seemed a whole lot blacker than before. All those other people in our group, along with their lovely bright head torches, had disappeared ahead. Scrambling to get the camera away and seal the drybag again, we pussyfooted our way along, now noticing just how scary the cave really was when you couldn’t see more than a metre in front of your face!

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Always slightly disconcerting when a spider is almost the size of your hand

The shallow river running through the middle of the cave added another element to the adventure. However, it wasn’t until we got near the end of the cave that we got the full “river-in-a-cave” experience. Squeezing through a skinny passage only big enough for the river and perhaps a Hollywood celeb, we found ourselves inching downwards.  At this point the river was up to our waists, then our necks, and as we emerged from the passage, brrrrrr! Plop – straight into a pool of freezing water. Now the ground was nowhere to be felt and swimming the last few metres was the only option. That was fun!  I was just sad the cave was coming to an end.

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The beginning of the passage and the end of taking photos! 

“You won’t see many animals.”

Delighted at the refreshing honesty of our guide, after our delicious dinner of fish, Nick and I decided to skip the night boat trip in favour of staying in our floating house for a nice relaxing evening. Everyone else was on the boats…or so we thought. As it turned out, the staff working in the kitchens took this opportunity to run up and down the boardwalk of metal panelling that seemed to hold the string of houses together. Suddenly our house was bobbing manicly. The noise, which I can only describe as “thunderous” added the finishing touch, but it was enough to leave us in fits of giggles.

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Beautiful dawn

After a beautiful sunrise cruise on the lake, we landed further down the lake for another trek. My favourite part of this was crossing a log which floated on the lake, dividing the restaurant we were at and the nearby jungle. Pretending to be Baby in Dirty Dancing was a bad move, as the log went rolling and my dignity went with it. I narrowly avoided plunging into the water and ploughed on, enjoying every moment of the jungle, the scenery…and my new favourite shoes.

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Enjoying the most delicious banana daquiri ever once we were back in our Jungle Hut digs
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Cheeky monkeys

THAILAND – Krabi

The only way is up, baby…

(Written by Steph, photos by Steph and Nick)

 “Beginner okaaaaay,” I was assured. I wasn’t convinced. All the people I had seen so far looked pretty pro to me, but hey, what was the worst that could happen? We signed up.

Krabi province in Thailand is famous for many things. The Railay peninsular is much like an island in that it is only accessed by boat, and huge limestone cast rocks frame the outline. We had been recommended this place by a friend back home for the hippyish vibe off Tonsai beach, but a quick wade around some rocks and you find yoirself on a white sandy beach, known as West Railay beach, home of fancy resorts.

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After a couple of nights enjoying the relaxed vibe of the reggae bars over Tonsai, we thought we might be able to stretch to a fancy hotel over there, purely for the convenience, so we asked in a few resorts about prices. Several heart attacks later, we had discovered a more reasonable place on East Railay beach. The East beach was not really for swimming in, but everything was easily accessed from there.

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It was our last night on the Tonsai side, and we suddenly realised that we wouldn’t get these kinds of reggae bars on the East Railay beach, where we had managed to find a posher place for a reasonable price. We should go out and celebrate. It would be rude not to, right?

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We awoke with that feeling that you can only get from a drinking session the night before you have to do something that definitely can’t be done with a hangover.

How did this happen? Did we really drink that much? If I pretend it didn’t happen, can I magic this away? Pleeeease can I go back to bed?

The answer to the first question was probably something to do with Nick buying bucket after bucket of Sangsom and lemonade. The answer to the last question was probably yes. But, we had already paid for it and it was what we had come to Railay to do, or certainly Nick. I had to suck it up. I was sure to feel better later…

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One banana and a litre of water later, we were hooked up at the bottom of a huge cliff lined with other game tourists. In our group, there were only three of us.

“Have you done much climbing?” I asked the third guy, hoping for some kind of reassurance I wasn’t completely out of my league. “Normally level 8” was the reply. The fact I had no clue what he was talking about summed up how much I knew about climbing. The fact the number was near 10, I guessed, meant that I had better forget the reassurance.

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Steve was first up as I stood and gawped at those around me, scaling the cliff side, pinching here for one hold, little toe pressed on a ledge for another. Steve was up and down before I knew it. Nick practically walked up that first one. I, on the other hand, cried. I could blame it on my shaky hangover legs, but really, I’m just afraid of heights. And climbing. And yes, I do know what you are all thinking.

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The next two climbs in two different places came, and I sat out, but I was in awe of Nick. Steve had been climbing for years and found some of it really tough, but Nick had only been climbing once in Wales, a trip I bought him in a bid to convince him I was the adventurous type (who am I kidding?) and a couple of times on a climbing wall in Southampton. To see him manoeuvre himself to the very top of the cliff was both terrifying and incredible. Shame he didn’t take his phone up like the gutsie 10 year old we saw stopping half way up to take a selfie! Apparently it was a great view up there!  😉

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It was at this point our guide said to me, 

“C’mon. Your turn.”

“Whaaat? Up there?”
 
I said pointing at the route the guys had just done. He found this extremely amusing.

“No!” He could barely contain his laughter at the prospect of me attempting what the guys just done. He pointed to a small climb I had just seen a similarly pathetic girl fail. In her defence, she was French and her guide was shouting instructions up to her in English with her friend attempting to translate. It wasn’t a great start. I for one, had a very attentive guide, who instructed me where to put every hand and every foot, and in my mother tongue. That was pretty spoiled I reckon.

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It was absolutely astounding how well these guides knew the rocks. Even when Nick was half way up the cliff face and we couldn’t see any way to move further, he would tell him about some tiny hand hold hidden and secret to all but him. I took a deep breath. One leg up at a time.

He made me do that climb twice, just to give me confidence that I could do it. The first time he told me where to put my hands and feet. The second time he was chatting to some guy on the ground. Right, this is him throwing me out of the nest, I thought. I’d better just do it. And I did. It’s not the most natural thing in the world to me, but the guides were amazing, and if you are going to rock climb anywhere, I can’t think of a more beautiful setting. My only advice to would-be beginner climbers – leave the buckets of Sangsom for after your climb!

A few days later. What goes up, must come down…

Not content with scaling giant walls attached to a rope, Nick decided to sign up for an activity called, deep water solo. This involved free climbing (no ropes!) up the cliffs of a nearby island, and then plunging into the sea from ridiculous heights. I was going nowhere near it. Except there weren’t enough people going (too sensible if you ask me) so muggins here got roped in… ‘scuse inappropriate pun.

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I spent most of the time relaxing in the boat and enjoying the beautifully clear waters, while Nick did this…

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