Not All Doom and Gloom
At the start of this year, I hadn’t exactly set myself especially lofty goals.
Despite these modest goals and the general shit show that was 2016 for most of the world, I somehow find myself looking back on the year as one of the best of my life.
I got to travel to ten countries, including three new countries.
I returned to my home away from home in Nanjing, China and made a bunch of new friends.
Highlights of my year in travel included trekking with gorillas in Uganda, living the life in The Maldives, an unforgettable farm stay in Malaysia, safaris in Kenya, falling in love with Taiwan, wandering an isolated stretch of the Great Wall with a pretty girl, and a five week US road trip that will forever remain one of my most cherished travel memories.
So while 2016 might have been doom and gloom for politics and most of the world’s celebrities, it will go down as one of the best years I’ve ever had.
It's family vacation time! My parents, three of my siblings, three nephews, niece, two in-laws, and two foster siblings have come to Green Valley Farm for a bit of family time. While we'll explore the hand-built amusement park tomorrow, this evening was all drinks, BBQ, and a little Trivial Pursuit. Now it's time to curl up in bed with a good book and some tunes. Where did you go the last time you went on a family vacation?
The Great US Road Trip
It’s almost hard to believe that my five week San Francisco to New York road trip is how I started my year.
With the top down on a bright red Mustang, my mate James and I made our way through San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Los Angeles, San Diego, Las Vegas, The Grand Canyon, Austin, New Orleans, Atlanta, Nashville, Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York in one of the most fun, exhausting, and boozy experiences of my life.
I went full tourist yesterday, paying a visit to some of New York's most popular tourist attractions. After staring the day with a snowy visit to the Statue of Liberty and following it up with a somber few hours at the 9-11 Memorial, we ascended to the Top of the Rock for a stunning view of the Manhattan Skyline. To the north lies the verdant oasis that is Central Park, while to the south (pictured) is arguably the most recognisable skyscraper in the world: the venerable Empire State Building. After taking in the view and enjoying a boozy dinner, it was off to see The Phantom of the Opera, Broadway's longest running production. New York has been an absolute blast. A big thank you to @hinewyork for hosting me while I was in town and @nycgo for arranging the CityPass that made the day possible.
Some of the highlights of the trip were hiking in Muir Woods, falling in love with San Luis Obispo, a drunken Super Bowl house party in San Diego, exploring Austin’s bars with Nick’s Travel Bug, taking a New Orleans bike tour, drinking our way through Nashville, visiting Atlanta’s oldest strip club, and exploring New York with a local guide.
Five years ago, I visited the Grand Canyon and confess to being underwhelmed by it. This time around, accompanied by two good friends, I gave it another chance and came away suitably impressed by its scale and humbled by its beauty. This photo, which I hope my mother never sees, catches me in a moment of quiet contemplation. While I'm posing for the photo (and worrying about the ever-increasing circumference of that bald spot), I'm also thinking: I am here. This is happening. It is amazing. It's so easy to get caught up in taking photos and dealing with jostling crowds and to forget the opportunities that travel affords us. I never want to take that for granted. The day the world ceases to amaze me is the day I breathe my last breath.
Along the lengthy drive we drank a lot of coffee, listened to a lot of Stone Cold Steve Austin podcasts, sang along with a lot of David Bowie and Queen, and had a hell of a lot of fun.
I’ve still yet to complete writing about some of the zany, fun experiences we had along the way – so keep your eyes peeled for future updates on the Great US Road Trip.
The first stop on the Great US Road Trip was one of my favourites cities in the US: San Francisco. The City by the Bay is a vibrant, colourful, and quirky city blessed with natural beauty and an exciting music, food, and cultural scene. Headed there yourself? I've put together a fifteen item San Francisco Bucket List (link in bio). What would be on your SF bucket list?
A Singapore Return
I’d barely put my feet back on Aussie soil before I was being whisked off again for another adventure.
After being underwhelmed by Singapore during my 2015 visit, I was invited by Far East Hospitality to return to Singapore and give it another chance. Accompanied by a motley collection of journalists from all walks of life, I’d spend three nights at two properties to get a better feel for Singapore.
Over the course of a delectable Singapore food tour, a Peranakan cultural tour, and entirely too many bottles of wine, I came to better appreciate the charms of the city-state. While it’s pricier than my usual haunts, there’s certainly a lot more to Singapore than the Marina Bay Sands and shopping.
So far my second trip to Singapore has been an immense improvement on my first. Accompanied by some fun journalists from Australia and hosted by the lovely people at @fareasthospitality and @villageinsg, I spent the morning learning more about the country's Peranakan culture with a walking tour. A mixture of Chinese and 'straits born' cultures, the Peranakan culture is one of bright colours and flavourful food. Wandering these neighbourhoods with their vibrantly coloured houses and cute cafes & bars showed me a side of Singapore I completely missed last time.
Exploring the New England
The autumn months found me back in the sleepy little New England village I grew up in, and I made the most of my remaining time with my family. With my return to China imminent, it was time to do all of the New England things I’d always put off.
Accompanied by Jacky from The Colourful Movement, I made the scenic walk from Ben Lomond to Glencoe and paid a visit to the beautiful Dorrigo National Park to take in the rainforest and the waterfalls.
One of my favourite Ben Lomond memories was undoubtedly taking the 15km walk from my village to Glencoe, the next village over. Accompanied by Jacky from @colourful_movement, I made the meandering three hour walk earlier this year. Following a dusty dirt road as it wound its way through hills and valleys, our reward at the end was a delicious lunch at the quaint Red Lion Inn. It's a walk I'd like to make again before I return to China in a few weeks. I wonder if I can convince @ourtravellingcircus_ to tag along?
I also attended the Australian Celtic Festival for the second year in a row.
These mightn’t seem like the most exciting activities, but I really appreciated some time to get to better know my nephews and niece – whom I seldom see when I’m on the road.
Returning to China
May saw me making my long-awaited return to China after almost two years away from my home away from home.
When I first moved to Nanjing back in 2012, I wrote about the reasons I loved expat life in Nanjing, and many of those still held true upon my return.
I spent today on a SnapChat takeover for @2020adventures, exploring yet more of Nanjing's sprawling Xuanwu Lake Park. At nearly 500 hectares, the park is divided into a number of islands displaying different botanical themes such as willow trees, chrysanthemum, cherry blossoms etc. I snapped a whole bunch of pictures of the park in the process, but really dug this shot of the Nanjing city skyline and the spindle that is Zifeng Tower looming large over the lake.
Sure, I was no longer at the mercy of a Chinese school for my income or my hours, but I still had a fun circle of friends, I still had access to a lot of western conveniences, and I still enjoyed having the chance to immerse myself more thoroughly in Chinese culture.
Accompanied by friends such as Doreen, Ting Ting, and Corinne – I explored neighbourhoods I’d never seen during my first visit. I took Chinese lessons. I joined a trivia team. I threw myself back into Nanking Nation.
I also (gasp) tried my hand at dating local girls with limited success. Wonders will never cease!
My life here in China isn't all House marathons and days spent wandering through parks – the expat scene here is one of the main reasons I keep on coming back. In the six weeks I've been back, I've gone to cross dressing parties, cricket tournaments, pub crawls, pub quizzes, and much more. This pic was snapped at my friend's recent fundraiser for her cheerleading group. The local cricket and American football teams both benefit from their routines, and they add another fun dimension to social sport here in town.
Falling in Love with Taiwan
My one year tourism visa requires me to leave China every 60 days, so I decided to make my first ‘visa run’ one I’d remember by finally checking Taiwan off the bucket list.
After being told by friends like Lauren from Neverending Footsteps and Richelle from Adventures Around Asia what a fantastic country it is, I planned myself a thirteen day Taiwan itinerary that included Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung, and Taroko Gorge on the east coast.
I wasn't able to make it down to Kenting National Park during this trip, but that doesn't mean I couldn't eke out some beach time. Kaohsiung is Taiwan's second largest city, and nearby Cijin boasts a pretty nice beach vibe with its dark sand, warm waters, inventive sand sculptures, and bustling seafood markets. I snuck out today for a quick dip, and it'll have to tide me over until I make it down to Vietnam later this year. Taiwanese beaches > Chinese beaches.
I immediately fell head over heels in love with Taiwan. It has the cultural elements I love about mainland China without the pollution, rudeness, or general headaches that I’ve come to accept as a frustrating and unavoidable part of life behind the Great Firewall.
I spent a fantastic day in Taipei, went on a mouth-watering Taipei food tour, took a dip at Cijin Beach, explored the historic sites in Tainan, visited Jiufen of Spirited Away fame, and got just a taste of what makes Taroko Gorge so popular.
My thirteen days weren’t nearly enough time to do Taiwan justice, but I left with the distinct feeling that not only will I be back – but I might just need to call Taiwan home someday.
It might have been bright and sunny when I woke up, but Taipei's weather took a less welcoming turn as the day wore on. After getting drenched on my way to Taipei 101 for a view of the tops of clouds, it cleared a little in time for my visit to 228 Peace Park. Commemorating the February 28 Incident of 1947, the park stands as memorial to the 10,000 – 30,000 Taiwanese citizens who lost their lives in the uprising against and resulting massacre at the hands of the ruling Chinese. A powerful symbol of Taiwan's continued independence from the mainland, the park itself is a place of beauty and serenity.
My next ‘visa run’ was of an entirely different variety, as I took part in the Sabah Tourism Board’s #HelloSabah promotion as one of five bloggers invited to explore the Borneo portion of Malaysia.
The campaign was something very unique as far as press trips go, as each of us was sent on our own custom built itinerary. As an adventure and culture blogger, I got to do things such as white water rafting the Padas River, overnighting in a traditional longhouse without power or WiFi (gasp!), and taking a day tour through Kota Kinabalu.
Such a fun day of cultural discovery at Mari Mari Cultural Village here in Sabah! Exploring the park is a journey of tastes, music, dance, architecture, craft, and history. What a blast! I drank local wine, tried my hand with a blowgun, leapt for prizes on a traditional trampoline, and even participated in the famous bamboo dance!
By far the highlight of my trip was a Sabah farm stay with Kiulu Farm Stay. I went into the experience dreading it, but came away with a newfound appreciation of Sabahan culture and hospitality. Over the course of two days we hiked through the jungle, plucked fresh fruit from the trees to munch on, cooked our own food, drank rice wine, and I even found myself with a marriage proposal!
Malaysia now joins a growing list of countries I need a lot more time in. I don’t even feel like I did Sabah province justice!
I'm (mostly) off the grid out here at the serene Kiulu Farmstay. Out in the jungle amidst a number of local villages, I'm in the land of bamboo houses, swaying rope bridges, glittering rice paddies, and headhunter legends. Last night was a blur of delicious local food, tall tales, and rice wine – and today promises to be every bit as adventurous as I tour the local jungle, learn how to cook local food, help out on the form, and take a dip in the local river. There's a 300m circle of 3G here that I'm posting from, so I'll bid you good day as I head out to see what the area had to offer!
A Maldives Escape
As if my year hadn’t already featured enough amazing experiences, I somehow found myself whisked off to The Maldives for an eight day work trip.
With Shadows of Africa now selling The Maldives, I joined a foursome of Russian travel agents for a whirlwind tour of four amazing resorts: Conrad Maldives, W Maldives, Park Hyatt Maldives, and Outrigger Maldives.
The sun has finally made a long overdue appearance here in the Maldives! @outriggerMaldives has been an absolute pleasure so far. I've spent my first morning here enjoying a massage, soaking in their amazing hydrotherapy pool, taking in a delicious breakfast on my deck, and swimming in my private plunge pool. This afternoon promises to be fun as we head into the water for a snorkelling adventure. Can't wait!
I’ve yet to get around to writing about my experience as a single guy in one of the world’s most romantic countries, but I enjoyed my time sleeping in over-water villas, scuba diving beautiful house reefs, drinking free cocktails, and generally experiencing a life I’ll likely never be able to afford for myself.
Lunch with a view! @conrad_maldives ' Ithaa restaurant offers delicious food with a view to die for. And no, this fellow isn't the waiter! He's cleaning the glass so that you can have a clear view of Nemo, Dory, sharks, sea turtles, and more. While I wasn't lucky enough to dine at Ithaa, I had a blast at the Conrad Maldives.
Solo Travel in The Philippines
October saw me returning to one of my absolute favourite countries in the world: The Philippines. I’ve written before about why I love the Philippines, and when I learned that TBEX Asia would be hosted in Manila – I was super excited!
The conference itself was a lot of fun, as I got to reunite with old friends and make new ones across the weekend of talks, after parties, and hungover lunch breaks.
Once the chaos had died down, I went on to have an underwhelming week on Boracay before following a good friend’s advice and visiting Moalboal to scuba dive the sardine run and go canyoning, before finishing off with a relaxing week on Siquijor.
Boracay saved its best sunset for last. Sipping a few ice cold San Miguel Pilsners at the end of my last day on Boracay, I got to witness this scintillating sunset while sailboats skimmed across the crystal clear waters like water bugs. While my feelings towards Boracay are a little less charitable as a solo traveler and as somebody who has studied tourism, it remains an undeniably beautiful island.
The beach here by JJ's Backpackers in Siquijor might not be much for swimming, but it's certainly photogenic. I had an entire 2km stretch of beach to myself this afternoon, and in the bristling heat it was easy to imagine I'd stumbled into some bizarre post-apocalyptic future in which the moon has surrendered its primal control over the tides. Mirror still and clear as glass, the water moves no more than the sand. Littered with debris and bleached coral, walking its length is like walking on shattered bones. All along its length, marooned boats peel in the sun. Of course, it's not completely lifeless. Stilt-legged water birds tread elegantly through the still water, while the occasional splash in my peripherally reminds me that life goes on beneath the water's surface.
It wasn’t quite as much fun as my previous visit to the Philippines with my siblings in 2014, and it was perhaps exacerbated by the fact I was busy with work and didn’t have the best time traveling on my own – but I came away from it with some fun memories.
A Month on Safari
From the Philippines, it was straight to Africa!
Shadows of Africa’s yearly trips to Africa have become one of the absolute highlights of my life, and this year was no different. A three week fam trip with my co-workers Jake and Marjeta saw me on safari in both Uganda and Kenya, gorilla trekking in Uganda, overnighting on the shores of the mighty Nile, re-visiting the heart-wrenching Kigali Genocide Memorial, and finally settling down in my former home, Arusha for a few weeks of training.
It's a sweaty, muddy, steep, exhausting hike through the aptly named Bwindi-Impenetrable Forest to get there, but the goal is worth it. Yesterday I checked off one of my bucket list goals when I got to spend one unforgettable hour with the mountain gorillas who so inspired Dian Fossey. This big silverback didn't seem at all phased by our presence, although one of his girlfriends was a little less friendly – I copped a whack with a tree branch for my troubles!
I've seen a lot of unforgettable sunsets in my life, but this one from Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park is right up there. Our afternoon game drive hadn't turned up much of interest until we came upon this handsome male lion lounging after a big meal. With the sun setting behind him, it just about screams 'Africa', don't you think?
My role as a salesman, content writer, and social media guru for Shadows of Africa has become not only my primary source of income, but also my passion. I’m loving my role with the company, and I can’t wait to see what new adventures 2017 holds for me.
A New Romance
Speaking of new adventures, 2017 also saw me finally re-enter the world of relationships!
After reading her post on How Travel is Ruining My Love Life, I got to talking to her about life on the road and our travel dreams.
Two whirlwind visits to Beijing, a few days in the Philippines, and a hell of a lot of conversations on WeChat later – we’re Facebook official and preparing to head on an adventure to Sumatra together in less than a month’s time.
After three years of being single and countless years of dating people who didn’t really want the same life of travel, location independence, and creativity as I did, it’s been refreshing dating somebody who is on the same page as me.
I got an early Christmas present from @adventuresaroundasia yesterday, as she treated me to a mystery tour of Beijing. After a delicious brunch at Cafe Zarah, we set out for a relaxing wander along the somewhat chilly shores of Houhai Lake, made friends in a cat cafe, explored the Fengjia Christmas Market with warm glasses of mulled wine, at a fiery Sichuan dinner at Zhang Mama, indulged ourselves with decadent pieshakes from Rager Pie, and then finished the day with a wee bit of Westworld. Presents are fun when there's thought put into them, don't you think? Have you ever given an experience as a gift?
Topping off a wonderful year of travel, I’ve been able to make it home just in time for Christmas with my family. Christmas in Australia is something I’m always eager to make happen if I can, and these holidays are only getting to be more special as we all grow up and have lives (and families) of our own.
We also managed to make a family holiday to Green Valley Farm happen, with fourteen of our fifteen member brood (my youngest brother had work) making the trip over to the unorthodox amusement park for two days of waterslides, board games, BBQs, and good times.
My time at home also comes with an exciting announcement, as my brother and his young family will be joining me in China when they relocate to Beijing later this year! They’ve even started Our Travelling Circus to document their adventures as young parents on the road!
What About 2017?
2017 is already shaping up to be an exciting year. In addition to a new romance and the adventure of having my brother and his family with me in China again, I’ve got some exciting plans.
The new flame and I are off to Sumatra over Chinese New Year for ten days of orangutan trekking and scuba diving, and I’m really excited to see a different side of Indonesia to the waterfalls of Lombok and the komodo dragons that I tackled in 2015.
Beyond that, I’m aiming to continue building my brand, continue my growth as a salesman for Shadows of Africa, and do plenty of travel!
It has been such a fun week in Beijing. It's hard to believe it's almost over! After seven weeks of anticipation and planning, I'm down to my last 48 hours of my visit. Where has the time gone? It's one of the sad realities of travel that your time spent anticipating a trip is often considerably more than the time you actually have to appreciate it, but the excitement and the inevitably bittersweet goodbyes are all part and parcel of why I love this lifestyle. I've still got some fun stuff to fill my last two days here in Beijing, and then I'm off home for a month of Christmas festivities, board game nights, Guyra runs, family vacations, video games, grocery stores, gym & squash sessions, and the excitement of planning the next trip. Thanks to @adventuresaroundasia for snapping this wonderfully pensive shot of me at Houhai Lake.
What are your plans for 2017?
What were your highlights from 2016?