35. Blue Cruise // Turkey

Desperate to relive our amazing week on Sail Croatia, we booked the Blue Cruise. They say this is a must do if visiting Turkey and involves three nights sleeping up on deck under the stars and sailing by the South West beaches. Sleeping, swimming and sailing are three of our favourite S’s. We started off pretty relaxed, resting on our Turkish lounge at Saban Tree Houses until the pick-up bus (just 20 metres down the road) decided to come and collect us so that we didn’t have to strain ourselves too much. A two hour bus ride later, we arrived in Demre, a small town 5 minutes from the port where we could switch with the group before us and who were on their way to Olympos. What do you know? Alex and Sal whom we had met in Cappadocia were getting off that very bus! They gave us a few quick pointers, such as smuggle water on there if you can and to tally one wine on the board whenever you have two. Clearly they were travelling a little tighter than us but shame on me to say it didn’t take long before I too was employing this tactic.

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The Blue Cruise was a lot smaller than our Sail Croatia experience, a lot quieter and a lot more relaxed. The clientele was more level-headed and there to chill and not so much to party. So that worked quite well for us. Apart from the Captain, the chef and his deck hand, we spent the next three nights travelling with our new group of friends. So let’s meet the gang:

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Dean and Ruth are from Darwin and are possibly two of the nicest people we have ever met. Dean seemed to have previously done a H&M shop prior to the trip as well and so it was often difficult to tell us apart in our matching singlets. Their travel route was also not too different from ours and if you go through their photos, they’ll probably look almost identical to ours. You’ll also probably be accused of being a creep if you go through their photos because that’s just weird if you don’t know someone.

Dan and Fiona are two top notch Kiwis and are now living in London. So it’s imperative I speak highly of them here to win brownie points. Like me, Dan gets to experience the joys of working for an insurance company. But unlike me, he gets to use his university qualification as he does so, using his expertise on geography to conduct risk analysis. He also has one of the worst playlists I’ve ever heard and savaged us with this one tranquil (formerly) afternoon on the boat. Fiona is a practicing journalist. As someone who has completed their degree but done nothing with it, I always love meeting people who are actually pursuing the vicious world of media and hearing what life could have been.

We had the luxury of experiencing the trip with three lovable Irish girls who had literally travelled everywhere in the world and could not be understood when they got stuck in their million-words-a-minute leprachaun style conversation amongst themselves. They had crazy names like Collette (not so weird), Breed and Eafer. Except they spelt them in even crazier fashions like Collette (still not so weird) Brid and Aoife. Spin out. They reminded us again of the meaning of the phrase “Good Craic.”

We had a few Turks on there too, which was great. Olly and his mum (whom I’ve unfortunately forgetten the name of) were priceless value. Both live in Istanbul. She works in medicine from memory and was fantastic to discuss Turkish lifestyle with. Olly is the most charming 21 year old you’ve ever met. With a long ponytail and a Justin-Bieber like body, we’d often not be able to un-anchor in the morning until he returned from a 2 hour swim. When someone spotted him on the horizon, we’d patiently wait while he swam with fatigue towards us, often getting off course because he failed to look up, until his flailing arms eventually dragged him back to the boat.

Whereas they both spoke English, the other couple of Turks didn’t. There was a guy (who we got to know as Baba) and his son (who we got to know as the kid who was always saying Baba) who seemed to be on there for a father-son fishing trip. This was always amusing as they’d kind of just throw some hooks and line over the side of the boat with no bait and, surprisingly, never caught anything. I felt a bit sorry for them. To speak Turkish in your own country, to catch a Turkish boat in your own country and then to be ostracised as the odd one out because you speak Turkish just seems fundamentally wrong. But he was good value and seemed particularly excited when I had a Raki with him and he shared a plate of melon with me (as was the custom) on the last evening.

Lastly, we were joined by Celia and her daughter Tabitha. Celia was from Brisbane but owned property out near Dalby and was telling us how after 3 years she had finally won a settlement through the Ombudsman for a claim back during the floods. Tabitha was currently living in Istanbul but had previously lived in Paris and we got to hear of her experiences living in both.

The captain was the only member of the crew who spoke English and there was no hiding the fact he was having a fair crack (different sort of craic) at Collette on the last night after quite a few wines. The chef was a remarkable cook and clearly took a lot of pride with his dishes. He was also a vastly superior fisherman to the other two on board, albeit via questionable methods. His tactic seemed to be to drop a line through a school of fish and then aggressively rip it back up through the water to latch a fish that way. Baba’s son seemed to be particularly enthralled by this though – I guess as a result that his Baba hadn’t caught anything at all up until then.

So it was with these people our trip began. Sometimes on these tours, chefs sell out and serve a poor example of western cuisine to keep people happy. However, these guys were Turkish through and through and served some of the best food we had eaten in the country. Albeit, I will say the Turks love to drown everything in oil which contributes to both the amazing flavour and the “Oh I feel so sick” feelings. After an amazing lunch to begin the tour, we commenced the stitches by going for a swim way to early, and followed this up with a cruise past and OVER a sunken city, known as Kekova. This had once stretched across the mile or two width of the channel but now, all that remained was the jagged remnants on the coastline. We also spotted a few turtles swimming by around these parts (think Crush from Finding Nemo size) but, despite Dean and Dan’s eager swimming, they could not get themselves to catch and ride one.

Another chilled afternoon followed, and then another amazing meal before we pulled up and anchored in a still and quiet harbour. Some genius has set up a bar near here to capitalise on all the boats and so we spent that night dancing in this dusty wooden hut to some of the worst tunes I’ve ever heard. The drinks were beautifully marked up to welcome the dollars in our wallets and it was the DJ who looked as though he was having the most fun. The best part was the water taxi which came to collect us from our boat. As we all piled on, we then drifted off into pitch black waters with no light and no sound, slowly going around from boat to boat to pick up other Bar-goers. The bar was dead quiet as we pulled up and it wasn’t until the moment they realised a taxi had pulled up that all these lights and music suddenly turned on. I suspect the moment we all left at once several hours later that the complete opposite happened. My absolute favourite moment was when Olly was at the bar. There was a South African girl serving drinks that night and as she was grabbing Olly’s, I told him that “Footsak” means “Thank You” in Africance (except that it doesn’t – it means “Eff Off” and is quite offensive) and he should say it to her when she returned. So full of confidence and with these big, brown puppy dog eyes, he looks at her with an infectious smile and says “Footsak” when she hands him his drinks. It was no surprise when she looked at him horridly and he was completely speechless as I watched on and pissed myself laughing. From then on, I called him Footsak.

The allocated rooms below deck were insanely hot and too uncomfortable to sleep in. Although Dean and Ruth tried, the rest of us seeked solace above deck and slept beneath the stars that first night. I know. It sounds a little bit like a giant orgy when I say that but it was nothing of the sort. And apart from Baba snoring all through the night, it wasn’t so bad. That was, until the sun came up in the morning and everyone was trying to find shelter from the heat on limited sleep.

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Our Sultan’s Curse had not yet left us and I don’t think the big oily meals were helping. Whilst Elisha and I generally played tag team with the bathroom so as not to dirty the waters, the rest of the group spent the morning swimming the hangovers off. Elisha failed to mention in the last blog that I had, for the very first time in my life, managed to learn how to float in Olympos! There is so much salt in the Mediteranean that even a hopeless swimmer like me was able to find child-like success in the water. And for hours on end (but probably more likely minutes – afterall I was still an amateur and was probably still sinking a little) I would float around on my back and whisper to myself “How’s the serenity?” Needless to say that in front of all these people I was eager to show off my new talents. So whilst Dan repeatedly did backflips off the side of the boat, I tried my best to ingratiate myself with everyone by floating around in the sea on my back (and sinking just a little.)

Our cruise took us to the town of Kas later that day where we were free to walk around for several hours and explore the township. We’d already stocked up on Shit Stopper tablets but we needed some Panadol and sea sickness pils for the rest of the trip so we mumbled some English to another guy mumbling some English who was able to point us to a pharmacist. Apart from that, we stopped at several bars and cafes so as to destroy as many toilets as we could in Kas. I believe that town has now also become a sunken city. We had a pretty quiet night that night and played some cards before calling it a night.

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I couldn’t help but laugh the next morning when, at breakfast, Elisha came up to me to say “I think I might be getting a little better. Yeah, I’ve only had to go to the bathroom 7 times so far this morning.” Such was the severity of Sultan’s Curse. We were glad we had bought the sea sickness tablets for the next several hours we bounced up and down through rough seas towards Butterfly Valley. You can just imagine how much fun this must have been for Elisha in the cramped confines of a toilet on a violently rocking boat. We were all pretty relieved to finally pull up in the calm waters of Butterfly Valley. Whilst most of us were content to just be sitting on land again, a couple of the group made the treck to the valley. You’ll need to ask them for the photos but, again, that will probably imply you’re a creep for looking at a stranger’s photos. There was still some more rocky waters ahead though and we then set sail for the Blue Lagoon. No. No. This is not the location for the movie of the same name that was released in 1980 with a 14 year old Brooke Shields and of which my parents told me to watch when I asked where babies came from. This was just a lagoon. That was blue. Hence the name – Blue Lagoon. Our boat docked a fair way from the lagoon due to traffic. I was still only just coming to grips with my newly acquired floating skills and so, when the majority of the group left for the mammoth swim and took all the remaining pool noodles, I felt pretty helpless and was abandoned back on deck. Again, you’ll need to do the creep thing and ask them for photos. However, I doubt there’d be too many of them for who would swim with a camera . . . especially when your arms are full with pool noodles.

Our final destination that evening was St Nicholas Island. An old ruined town sat high up on the hill here and we were able to trek up to the top for some amazing views of the area and the sunset. We ran into several Busabout groups up here too which was a nice reminder of just how chilled and relaxed our group was. A bit disgusting to see fellow Australians leave empty beer cans up on a beautiful spot like that. However, when that rowdy lot had moved on (how quickly I change teams) our small group was able to sit peacefully with our beer tins and admire the setting sun that would also act as a timely metaphor for our tour.

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We had one final night on the boat and so Dean and I attempted to teach everyone the card game Arseholes. This was all going well but takes a few hands to get the hang off. After finally getting everyone to understand the rules an hour or two later, we were ready to play properly. And to my utter frustration, that seemed to be when everyone felt it was time to go to bed!!

There was little to be done on the very last day but slowly make our way to Fethiye where we would disembark. However, it would be foolish not to stop one last time for another swim (this time I did snare a pool noodle) and one last helping to the amazing lunches provided by the chef. But with our bellies full and our arms tired from all the glorious swimming in the pristine waters of the Mediterranean Sea, we eventually docked and parted ways with everyone aboard. We hope to keep in touch with those we can – the Irish girls in less than a week and Dan and Fi several weeks after that in the foreseeable future. The one thing for certain is oceans can no longer keep us apart. For I can now float my away around the world . . . provided a pool noodle is nearby.

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34. Antalya // Olympos // Turkey

Jeez…it’s been a while since i’ve written a blog. I’m curently sitting in a train station in Siena, Italy and Turkey seems like ages ago….So I will try my best to recall exactly what we did on the next part of our travels through Turkey.

After our experience of the last night bus, we decided it was no longer an option for us and that we would just take the day bus departing Goreme and arrive in Antalya at night and ready for a sleep. Although the distance is a mere 540 km’s the journey would take in excess of 9 hours because of all the frequent stopping. Anyway, we left the Goreme 40 million degree heat and began our journey to Antalya. The bus pulled up for a 20 minute stop whilst loading new passengers in Konya. Now I had read about Konya in our guide book and I was well aware that this was in fact the most conservative town in Western Turkey. All women were covered up from head to toe, and I had heard from a conversation in Kusadasai that particularly during Ramazan it was impossible to buy a beer here. My dilemma was, that I needed to go to the bathroom as there were no facilities on our bus. This ordinarily wouldn’t be a problem, however as I peeked out my window and then looked back at my singlet and short attire, I realised that I was completely under dressed for such an event. However my bladder was persistant and we still had about 6 hours of our journey left. I looked at Clinton, said “fuck it” and off the bus I went, into the swarming sea of eyes of Konyans. I made a beeline for the WC sign within the train station and got half way down the stairs when an old woman looked me up and down and started yelling at me. I apologised in English which I knew in no way would help the situation and just kept running. Thankfully, there was at least a western toilet! The run back to the bus was much the same, I’ve never felt so many leering eyes on me, however I made it back on the bus unscathed, just in time as the bus pulled away.

We arrived into Antayla late that night, so late that no further mini buses into town were running and we had to catch our first taxi. Our room was in the old centre and luckily I had booked something with a pool, as it was extremely humid. Actually this wasn’t just luck. Since Pamukkale I had decided that a room with a pool and air conditioning was actually essential…call me a flash packer all you want but after 7 months of travel and a month in the middle of summer in Turkey, I think I had earnt a pool!  That night we went for a walk around the old town and was impressed by all the young Turks out. This felt more of an authentic Turkish modern town, with great food around and not the usual tourist traps. Here, the young ones were out late, eating and drinking bottles of raki with their friends, it was a really cool vibe and such a huge contrast to some more touristy areas we had recently been. We sat down to what was one of our favourite meals in all our time in Turkey. Simple Turkish flavours done well, and dirt cheap!!! After a big travel day we called it a night pleasantly surprised by what Antalya had to offer.

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Now….without going into much detail, Clinton had started to feel some stomach pains at some point in our turkish trail. We thought perhaps, him being a ceoliac and all the beer and durum had finally taken it’s toll, as throughout the first night he awoke to excrusiating pain, and vomited…unfortunately, I woke up the same way but not vomiting. It had appeared our excellent meal the night before, had in fact resulted in the dreaded Sultan’s Curse. We had been quite lucky in regards to food, trying anything and everything from on the streets in Malaysia and Vietnam, to eating in dodgy establishments in Turkey and never had a problem. We were generally careful with water, but not overly so, and we’d always been fine. Until now. All I will say is 2 people sharing one toilet whilst both sick is not ideal. We tried a bit more turkish food and it was amazing. Stuffed peppers, beans, eggplants, dips chicken dishes, it was amazing. I loved it. It was the Turkey I was after. Unfortunately though, Sultans Curse struck again and in fact got worse. Our next couple of days were spent in an apartment and eating dry crackers, and it still didn’t improve. We were due to leave Antalya but were scared to spend 5 hours on public transport. So we dosed ourselves up on drugs and made our way to Olympos.

Now I had heard about Olympos from our great friends Jess and Jamie who had been here on their Turkey adventure, and it sounded excellent. Olympos was once an important Lycian city, however in the 70’s it became a “hippie community” whereby travellers would come to hang out in tree houses amongst the ruins of the old city by the beach. It sounded fantastic and an amazing way to spend a few days chilling. We had booked a bungalow in Saban treehouses which were a 5 to 10 minute walk through ruins to a pebble beach. Upon arriving at Olympos, we both immediately wished we had more time here. Set deep withing the bush was an amazing sanctuary of bungalows, and tree houses. In the main eating area were hammocks and turkish lounges, all set up to lounge around throughout the day, escape the heat, sip cool beers, listen to tunes and catch up on blogs. (well that was the intention, but it didnt really seem to happen.) I’d never seen Clinton so happy and relaxed. In fact, it was really hard work to get him off that Turkish lounge. The best part about this place as well, was the food!! Breakfast and Dinner were included in the price of the accomodation and the owner Merryl really cared about what she was feeding her guests. She became a good friend of ours whilst we were there, and would sit on our lounge and chat throughout the day. The subject of food was constantly brought up, and by the end I was able to discuss with her what I wanted on the menu for dinner…It also helped that for once we didnt really have to worry about food, we’d basically just turn up and breakfast and dinner and it would be waiting! What didn’t help is that at this stage, Clinton and I were both still suffering from Sultan’s Curse. So as great as these meals were, we’d both be running to the toilet during and after our meals.

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So anyway, our first day in Olympos we went for a swim at the beach and then laid on a couch all day listening to Tunes. Our second day, we basically did the same thing. Though we met a guy called Kent who was an Australian teacher working in Bangladesh, who sat on the couch with us basically all day exchanging stories. It was mid afternoon when we saw our friend Emma trundle off the bus from Fethiye and had booked herself in at Saban for a relax as well, so she joined us on the couch, and finally a British guy called John who had hitchhiked his way from Georgia also struck up a conversation and spent the rest of the day with us on the couch, and boy did he have some funny stories. We laughed and laughed as he told us about his experience with a Turkish Bath in an Eastern Turkish city. Apparently all had been going well with his salt scrub, despite him being naked and being rubbed down from a big fat guy. This hadn’t worried him at all, until the big fat guy reached and grabbed his penis and proceeded to give it a salt rub as well whilst looking him straight in the eye. Apparently John was outta there as quickly as an Italian man leaves an espresso shop. After dinner, (yes we’d spent the whole day on the couch) and a few drinks, we all decided to head out to one of the various drinking spots along the road. This again had a very chilled out vibe so much so, that Clint and I walked in with our roadie beers. We sat outside sharing a few beers and giving John some advice on how to pull the ladies. We witnessed a couple of Turkish guys playing fooseball who at one point simultaneously took there shirts off as the game got serious. (or perhaps it could have had something to do with the group of ladies that had just walked in.) We stepped inside to watch some spanish dancing, but quickly were overcome with the stench of undeodrised Turkish men and clouds of Cigerette smoke. It was at this time we called it a night and headed back to the air conditioned comfort our a tree bungalow. It had been an excellent and relaxing few days, and tomorrow we were off on another sailing cruise through the Mediterranean Turkish seas!

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33. Pamukkale // Cappadocia // Turkey

To get to Pamukkale, we had to catch a bus from Kusadasi to Denizli and then change to a local Dolmus (mini bus) to take us the remaining 60kms. As we were quickly learning with Turkey, you never needed to plan ahead and we grabbed a bus around 9am from Kusadasi. Five hours later, we were in the Denizli Otogar, roaming its’ basement with our backpacks looking for the correct mini bus to take us to our eventual destination. Some helpful finger pointing later from various bus drivers and we had managed to find the right bus to make our way to Pamukkale, arriving mid-afternoon.

Pumakkale is known for its gleaming white travertines, which are calcite shelves with pools cascading down the plateau edge, and its natural hot springs. In the middle of the hot Denizli region, the travertines stand out like a group of giant polar bears and could easily be confused for snow capped mountains if it weren’t for the 40 degree heat reminding you otherwise.

During the Byzantine era, the ancient city of Heirapolis was built at the top of this attraction and used as a “natural resort” even back then. However, during modern times, hotels were built right on top of these ruins and it wasn’t until the area was deemed a World Heritage Site that this was all demolished and replaced with artificial pools. As such, I’m not sure how legit you can still call it. Regardless, it’s an incredible site to see and makes for some great backdrops for the Big Fat Dirty White Russians who were of course there posing at every angle they could.

As we climbed up from the bottom, I didn’t really know what to expect. To preserve the natural calcification, you are not allowed to wear shoes once you enter. You sort of feel like you might slip over as you step onto the wet rocks but instead your feet seem to grip on with ease, despite an inch of warm water continually cascading across your toes. As I said before, there are heaps of pools set up for the visitors to sit in. They are about two-three feet deep and the floor is covered in calcium-like mud.

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You don’t need much time in Pamukkale and so the next day we arranged for an overnight bus to take us to Cappadocia. Cappadocia is an absolute must if you go to Turkey. The only downside that we and pretty much anyone else we spoke to will say is the bloody 12-14 hour overnight bus you need to catch to get you there. We’ve caught overnight buses before in Vietnam and overnight trains in Poland and everytime we have always said the next morning “Never Again!” But you’ve always got to way up the pros and cons. So foolishly you convince yourself that you are saving a night’s accomodation by making the trip at night and you are bound to get some sleep throughout the night – just take a valium you say. And then, 12 hours later, red and bleary eyed and looking like you’ve just been run over by a stampede of bulls, you emerge from the bus into the next morning’s sunlight and say “Never Again!”

After finding a place that was actually open to grab some much needed breakfast from, we thanked our lucky stars that reception at our accommodation was open and that our room was even ready! Needless to say, our bags had hardly hit the floor before we were both passed out on the bed to catch a couple of hours of shut eye before we began our expedition.

Cappadocia is a very special place. And I don’t know how to describe it. Goreme (a central town in the district where we stayed) stands in the middle of countless surrounding caves where people once lived. As you pull into the town, tiny little fairy chimneys (rock formations in the shape of chimneys) protrude from the ground, but are big enough to live in. They look not too dissimilar to the Smurf Village actually. The landscape feels, at times, a little like the Wild West and across the 200 square kilometres, many former underground cities and churches can be found.

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Although it’s a novelty, the coolest part about Cappadocia is that you can stay in these chimney houses. It really does sound fun to think of yourself as Papa Smurf and enter inside one of these stone huts but, truthfully, once you’re inside, you’re basically just surrounded by stone walls and little ventilation. Which might be ok if you’re visiting in winter (when I think it does surprisingly snow) but not when you’re staying in the middle of summer.

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When we did eventually wake up later that day, we were surprised to see the temperature had only risen about 2 degrees since when we had arrived – so instead of it being 40 billion degrees as it was at 6am, it was now 40 billion and 2 degrees. There’s so much to see and do in the region. You can hire quad bikes and go racing through the dunes, explore underground cities, ride horses like a cowboy, enter ancient tombs and, of course, drink beer. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do too much of the latter.) Still fairly exhausted, we didn’t get up to too much the first day … oh wait, yes we did. We booked tickets for our Hot Air Balloon ride the next morning! But seriously, apart from that we strolled around Goreme a little, pointing out all the phallacentrical chimneys we could and getting a feel for the place. Realising how hot it was going to be in our room, and realising one night just wasn’t going to cut it in this really cool region of the world, we booked another two nights at a place advertising air con and a swimming pool for the next day.

But let’s not mess around. The real excitement for us was the Hot Air Balloon. And, without a doubt, it has been the best thing we have done so far. It was not cheap though and will probably go down as the most expensive hour of my life. Let’s be honest. 240 Euro for a 4.00am alarm clock was essentially what it was. We were told we’d be picked up at 4.15am. At that time of the morning, every minute someone is late is another chance to yell “I could have had one more minutes sleep!” When they did pick us up, we found we were just going around the corner anyway. And that was just to eat breakfast for the next half hour. Who is hungry at 4.30am?? I managed to laugh at that but I think I still would have preferred another half hours sleep and walked myself there when it was in fact time to be driven to the balloons. (It’s also really easy to find reasons to whinge when it’s that early. Trip Advisor has Cappadocia as one of the top 3 places in the world to Hot Air Balloon. And considering it was still cheaper than what you’d pay to do it in Melbourne, where 6 out of 7 times of getting out there it is cancelled due to weather, it was hard to argue the logic that it had to be done. Anyway, a picture tells a thousand words and this was our greatest travelling moment to date:

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For those who have ever been to Dreamworld with me, you’ll know I adamently refuse to go on the Giant Drop due to a fear of heights. And if you ask Elisha, she’ll happily tell you that every one of the 20 passengers and the Pilot were quite aware that I was struggling a bit as we got airborne. There may have been a few mouse-like whimpers from me and yes I was leaning as far as I possibly could away from the edge. I may have also peed myself a little when the bottom of the basket collided with the top of one of the chimneys and the entire cage shuddered as we bounced over it. I’ve never really thought too much about how a Hot Air Balloon lands but it was very different to whatever it was I was thinking. The Pilot really has little control over the balloon. They can take it up and down and that’s it. So to change directions they have to find pockets of air going in the direction they want. When you come down to land, it’s very much like the scene in Twister. There’s a group of four guys in a 4WD with the balloon’s trailer, racing around dirt roads trying to predict where the balloon will come down. The pilot radios them with a rough location. They pull up, jump out and throw some dirt in the air so the pilot can again recalculate his trajectory. He radios again. They race off again and pull up somewhere else. The pilot teaches us all a brace position and then, with our backs to the fast approaching ground, we hit the grass hard, then bounce up, race along for a bit longer, bounce again, slide, bounce, slide, grind. Suddenly, all four of the guys jump on to the sides of the basket to try and catch it, adding much needed weight. We slide for a bit longer, now ripping through the long grass in a vast paddock before, eventually, we come to a stop. Popping some bubbly is customary when landing because, hey, you haven’t died. And, even though it was just sparkling juice (which is probably a good thing at 6am) we all saluted our Pilot for a memorable experience.

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Back at our fairy chimney, the day was still early – so early that our free Turkish breakfast was not even ready yet. We could either go back to bed or wait for an hour and marvel at our medallions (the first I’d received since winning the “Thanks for Participating” award at Junior cricket) until breakfast was served. Always one to admire my accomplishments, we went for the latter.

After breakfast, the day was heating up again to its traditional 40 billion and 2 degrees and so, we checked out and marched our bags across town to Nirvana where air conditioning and one of the comfiest mattresses I’ve laid upon in a long time awaited us. After a quick rest up, we decided to catch some local buses to Derinkuyu’s Underground City. Not the easiest place to get to without a tour bus, but spending easily a third of what we would if we joined a tour, we got ourselves there . . . where literally just one building stood. But that’s right. It was underground. After climbing down a set of stairs, you enter a world that blows your mind. This underground city is the largest excavated in the area but there are heaps around. Even as early as 2009 a guy found another one to the size of 2500 square kilometres below his house. This particular underground city is fascinating as it extends to depths of approximately 60 metres, 5 levels and is large enough to shelter up to 20,000 people (that’s two Dalby’s where I grew up in!) with their livestock and food stores. Believed to be from the 8th Century BC, the city included wine and oil presses, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, chapels and even a cruciform church. It was very difficult to photograph so we largely gave up on that but it was truly a fascinating thing to see.

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The next day was another scorcher and so we elected to spend the majority of the morning beside the pool reading and then, about a minute into doing that, decided to spend the rest of the morning in the pool. We soon got chatting to Emma from Albury and Chris from Canada who were also trying to escape the heat. They’d just arrived from Istanbul. However, their expected 12 hour bus had in fact taken a grueling 18 hours and they’d missed all their previously booked morning tours. I really don’t know what holds these buses up. The distances are only about 600kms but they seem to just stop for no reason, repeatedly. After four hours of getting our skin as shrivelled as we could in the pool, we then joined them for dinner where we also met their two other friends, Alex and Sal, who had been sleeping all afternoon after that horrible bus ride. It was crazy to learn that Alex lived only a few blocks away from us back in South Yarra and was also on his way to London so hopefully, I should have one person to down a London Pride with.

We had one more half day in Goreme after that and so we thought we’d walk up to the nearby open museum. This is sort of like another underground city but, its above ground. So I guess you could say like a normal city. This too was from around the 8th Century BC (I think, or maybe it was 13th Century AD – somewhere inbetween those few years) and comprised of heaps of churches. In fact, Cappadocia is mentioned in the bible in Acts 2:5. During the 4th Century, the Cappadocian Fathers were integral to much of early Christian philosophy and this is evident in some of the paintings in the caves. It was all really cool stuff to see. The caves in the paid-entry museum are quite spectacular but truthfully, you can probably climb up into any cave around the area and it probably used to be someone’s house.

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After three nights, we wanted to make our way back across to the West Coast and decided on Antalya where we had been told a Metropolitan city awaited us. We were now pretty experienced with the skies and how to navigate the winds so we pooled our coins together and bought ourselves our very own hot air balloon, got ourselves into the air with some very deliberate turns of the gas control and pointed ourselves West.

Nah, not really. We caught a bus.

32. Canakkale// Izmir// Kusadasi// Turkey

We arrived in Canakkale after a quite pleasant bus ride from Instanbul, the highlight of which, was when the bus boarded the ferry to take us across to this coastal town. Totally weird!! We were using Canakkale as a base to see Gallipoli and only intented to stay 2 nights, however after the tourist mecca that is Istanbul we really enjoyed the tranquility of Canakkale and ended up staying 3. Canakkale is also used as a base to see the ruins of Troy, and although we didnt make the trek to see these (we were a bit “ruin” fatigued) we did appreciate seeing the huge Troy wooden statue that stood on the boardwalk of the town and had been a gift from the movie. Although Canakkale is not entirely rural (it still sees thousands of tourists each year for Gallipoli and Troy) we really started to see a few glimpses of the Turkey that we expected to see in Istanbul. During one evening stroll we came across a restaurant that only seemed to really sell cay. This restaurant or cay bar, was filled to the brim of men of all ages playing backgammon. This is a game that is prelevant all over Turkey and is a favourite past time, however we had never seen full restaurants dedicated to the “sport”. It was interesting to see a culture that can have so much fun without drinking…perhaps Australia could learn a thing or two.

Another major draw card of Canakkale was the food. After poor versions of chicken durum in Istanbul I finally found an authentic place that had the most tender chicken, spice and herb driven durum I’ve had so far through my travels in Turkey. Best part was, the menu was only in Turkish, and I managed to actually order what I wanted and for the bargain price of 3 Lira. The town also had a bit of a uni vibe to it, and we had been told to go to a bar called the Hangover Bar. Being skeptical as this establishment was serving western food, and a little optomistic as we really wanted a decent burger, we were not disappointed. This place was teeming with young turkish listening to the latest tunes (think top 40 3 years ago) and pretty decent food. The best part though was that the unfiltered beer made an appearance yet again, so we went back to this place each night for some pub grub and a few unfiltered Efes. One thing I will make mention without being too descriptive is this is the time in Turkey where Clinton started to develop sever stomach pains. At this point nothing really happened, and we just gave him panadol, but he was sometimes in a lot of pain.

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From Canakkale we left and arrived by bus in Izmir approx 5 hours later. We had been told by our host in Istanbul that there really wasnt much in Izmir, however we decided to go and find out for ourselves, and I’m so glad that we did. Izmir is the thirld largest city in Turkey with a population of just over 4 million. It sits out on the Western Coast so has a beautiful boardwalk that lines the whole of the city. We stayed in the old town, in a hotel that I was quite nervous about as it had only made the “just passable” rating on bookings.com. however, either our standards have dropped immensely while travelling or this hotel had made some pretty decent changes, because we were pleasantly surprised. The one thing I did notice about our location, is there really were no females about. We would walk out onto the street from our hotel and I would be the only female I could see on a very busy road. So maybe it was a bit unsafe…I had my lovely friendly giant to protect me the whole time anyway 🙂

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As far as sights go, I guess the host in Istanbul was right, there’s really not much to see. However thats not really why Clint and I are travelling anyway, so it didn’t really bother us. What was amazing to see was the Bazaar. Unlike the bazaar in Istanbul that was full of tourists and bad salesman, the Bazaar in Izmir was full of Turks going about their shopping. Sure there were still the fake watches and handbags, but the general feel of the place was much more local. We spent ages walking the streets of the bazaar, being lost, looking at trinkets and drinking cay without being hassled by anyone. We then spent some time walking along the boardwalk and feasting on a breadroll filled with Tomato, white cheese and chilli. Simple Ingredients, fresh produce, great price!!! It was super hot as well, so we stuck our feet in a fountain with a bunch of local children and watched as they splashed about. That night we feasted on a spicy Adana kebap that was simple, but fresh with lots of spice and grilled peppers. A very different Adana kebap to the one drowned in tomato sauce that we had experienced in Istanbul.

Another highlight in Izmir was walking down a random street one afternoon, trying to find our way back to the Bazaar. Having tried Backlava in Istanbul a number of times, I just was not convinced on this honey drowned dessert. However I came across a bakery on this strange street and seeing the Baklava in the window decided to give it another shot. I walked in and tried to communicate to the Turkish lady that I only wanted 1 piece and not 1kg. (Imagine a lot of hand movements) When she finally understood that I indeed only wanted 1 piece (shock) she proceeded to give this to me without accepting money. When she finally accepted the 1 lira I handed her (50 cents Aus) she then proceeded to try and give me 75 Turkish cents back as change. I could not believe the kindness and honesty of this woman. Back in Istanbul I had also tried the Baklava at the Spice Market and even struggled to be able to buy 1 piece as I was always told that it was a 2 piece minimum, and to purchase 2 pieces was 4 – 5 lira. Anyway, after having one bite of that Baklava in Izmir I wish I had bought a kilo as it was so different to any other Baklava I have had. Not overly sweet and full of nuts, this Baklava was fresh and the perfect balance of savoury and sweet. I still have dreams about it. You may ask yourself why had Clinton not tried this beautiful piece of Baklava. Well his stomach pains had turned into a severe case of “Sultan’s Curse, Bali Belly” whatever you would like to call it. We had not experienced any travel sickness in any of the countries that we had visited, and had been careful with water in Turkey so it came as a bit of a surprise. We still really don’t know what it’s from, we are guessing just the difference in spices and the poor quality oil that is used in cooking here. Needless to say wherever we ate, we had to be in a close point of call to a western toilet and alas at the bakery there was none. At this point in Izmir I had no problems at all and so was parading around with what I thought was a stomach made of steel.

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So Izmir is basically our blog full of amazing food experiences. Clinton found a local gozleme shop that blew our socks off. For those of you who don’t know, Gozleme is basically a pancake that has either savoury or a sweet filling inside. Usually these are made by Turkish women who roll the dough out with a thin rolling pin and then fill the pancake with items such as spinach and cheese or potato or nutella and banana. You can experience these at South Melbourne market for about $10 a pop but over here they are much cheaper. We got chatting to the owner at this Gozleme shop who was apparently quite famous in the area for his Gozleme. He had not stuck to tradition and realised that you could basically put anything in a pancake as long as the produce was fresh. Here we tried a savoury gozleme that was filled with lamb, eggplant, mushooms and cheese and an unbelievably good sweet pancake filled with walnuts, figs, nougat and topped with pisatchio’s. Although a little more expensive than the gozleme on the side of the road, I was so impressed firsly by the quality of produce in these gozleme’s and the business plan of this friendly turkish man. He has converted me to gozleme for life

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Our last night in Izmir came quickly and we walked along the boardwalk eating mussels from a side vendor that are cooked and filled with rice, spices and sometimes nuts and currants. They make for a delicious snack, however we have been warned to only eat them in sea side towns, as otherwise the mussels are sometimes collected from the sewers….gross. We watched the sunset over the water and then headed to our local dinner spot and shared an Iskender kebab and Ayran. (Ayran is a salty yoghurt drink that the turks tend to drink with their evening meal, I’m not a fan)

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The next morning we said goodbye to Izmir and its gozleme and headed towards Kusadasi. Our friend Sonia had raved about this place from her travels in Turkey and so we decided to use this town as our base for exploring Ephesus and to chill out a bit. This is where I have a bit of a confession to make. It’s the middle of summer in Turkey and it’s bloody hot. So when looking for accomodation in Kusadasi, I filtered my search by those that had air conditioning, and an outdoor pool. I know, not very backpacky of me but after 6 months on the road surely I deserve a little comfort. Anyway, although a little old, our apartment in Kusadasai certainly delivered. It was right in the middle of the old town and despite being a hotel complex, had more of a relaxed hostel kinda vibe. To get out of the hotel you had to pass through the outside bar, and needless to say sometimes we didnt get further than that bar. What made this place so great for us though was the people. The owner spoke excellent English and over a few efes told us about the Kurdish people in Turkey and a bit about the economic climate over the last 100 years. Known as a bit of a hot spot for the Dutch and the Irish, we spent our days talking to a Dutch couple from Utrecht. Mike was a pro water polo player who was living in Izmir and was training for the next olympics. On a break at the moment, Mike and his girlfriend Catja were working the bar in Kusadasi to earn a bit of extra money as Turkish wages are quite low. And of course there was Edward. A 69 year old Irish man who had lost his wife a few years ago. He was nearing the end of his, had cancer and had retired at the apartment complex. He spent his days smoking and drinking red wine and although endearing, towards the end got a bit repetitive with his interruptions of Trivia from Australia back in the day. Quite intellectual he had a vibrant life publishing two books in his time and lived with one regret, not following a girl to Australia. It served as a timely reminder for us, that you will always regret the things that you did not do.

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In Kusadasi, we basically alternated between Gozleme from next door for 3 Lira and Chicken Durum from the other side of the complex that came with an amazing spicy sauce that inevitably started Sultan’s Curse for me as well. Kusadasi as a town is a big port for package holidayers so has a bazaar filled with all the latest gadgets bags and watches. One day, haggling the price of a watch I got cornered by a man who did not know the meaning of personal space. Lucky my big friendly giant was there to protect me and quite loudly and urgently told the man to let me leave. Needless to say my heart was pumping as I exited the store, and I promised myself never to find myself in that situation again. Things can escalate very quickly.

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So our main reason for being in Kusadasi was to see the ruins at Ephesus. We had debated over whether we should do a tour here, however when enquired with one of the travel agents was not sold on the hour to pick everyone up, two hour lunch, see the ruins type thing. Instead with some travel directions from Erican our hotel manager and armed with some water, we decided to explore these on our own, and are so glad that we did. All we did was catch a local bus to the side of the highway and walked a kilometre to the ruins. Paid our entry ticket and then we were free to walk around and look in our own time. Everything was pretty well signed, and if we got the opportunity we kinda just hung back on an english tour and learnt a little extra. I don’t really know how to put Ephesus into words. Its the biggest collection of ruins that Clint and I have seen in our travels. Its enormous. The town was founded in 10th Century BC and was abandoned in the 15th Century AD. I’ve never seen anything that old before. It is believed the Gospel of John may have been written here. It gives you a great interpretation on what the town would have been like, and they are still excavating more. The sheer size of it is probably what blew me away the most. Standing in the amphitheatre imagining what life would have been like sooo many years ago. Simply Stunning. I don’t know whether it was luck or the fact that we went in the middle of the day (poor planning) but there wasn’t the crowds of people there like I expected. It was also extremely hot with the sun bouncing off all those white stones. After a few hours we had depleted our supply of water and decided to head back to our hotel…even though we’d spent more on an apartment with a pool we both rejoiced that day!!!

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This basically ended our 4 nights in Kusadasai, and I loved every moment of it. Turkey was unravelling its layers to us, there was good food here, the people were friendly, and like we had hoped it was easy to meet fellow travellers. It wasn’t in your face like Vietnam you had to delve a little deeper, and as we delved we liked it a little more each day.

31. Gallipoli // Turkey

We’ve all seen the film “Gallipoli,” starring Mel Gibson, which portrays the story of thousands of young Australian men running helplessly into gunfire. We as Australians still remember this day on the 25th of April each year with Anzac Day.
There’s not a whole lot to see at the actual sight of Gallipoli – part of me was hoping for a wall of photos or a rifle museum – but by simply standing on that very ground where thousands of young Australians lost their lives evokes reflection, emotion and discussion that will stay with Elisha and I forever. I’m sure those who have visited there will agree.

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With little more than the dramatised movie to go on, I arrived rather ignorantly. So instead of blogging about what we did and saw, I might rather detail what I learnt, the context and the events of the war, and impart a little of our experience so that you’re not as naive as I was.

A few days prior to going, I asked myself “What exactly were the Australians doing there?” Miles from home, in a foreign country, Australians in Turkey seemed so removed from my preconception of a war that I thought occurred in Europe. So I dedicated some time to reading up on this. You’re probably better finding an appropriate source to read from which will describe it correctly but here goes my attempt, a lazy attempt to summarise Wikipedia that is:

The Ottomans (the Turkish empire that inhabited Turkey at the time) weren’t too different to us. They were brought into the war because of their affiliation with major players and, like us, lost a lot of men. Even though they had been an empire since 1299, but the time we entered the 20th century, they were considered the sick man of Europe. Political instability, military defeat and civil strife had weakened them for the past century.

There were two main agendas that led to the development of the Middle East Theatre. Firstly, Britain and France (forming the allies) sought to secure the Dardanelles straight, with the eventual aim to secure Constantinople (present day Istanbul.) By capturing the Dardenelles straight, they would then also create a sea route to the Russian Empire, another allied power.

Whilst this was happening, Germany (axis) formed the second development by bringing the Ottomans into the war. Britain had been building two ships for the Ottomans. However, when the Ottomans formed a secret alliance with Germany against the threat of Russia, the Britains requisitioned the battleships. Germany capitalised on this opportunity and provided two replacement ships to the Ottomans, gaining important influence. So whilst Britain and France were trying to create a link with Russia, the Ottomans opened the Dardenelles to allow the two German ships access to Constantinople. A German commander then ordered the passage closed. These two now Ottoman ships were then used to battle Russia. However, my understanding was Germany were using these ships even though they were carrying Ottoman flags, essentially forcing Russia to declare war on Turkey as a result.

I’m sure to have missed a lot of crucial information but hopefully that gives a general background to Gallipoli.

So back to the Anzacs. In Britain and France’s attempt to capture the Dardenelles, they needed to get battleships in. However, as the Ottomans were prepared to defend, the ships could not get in without a barrage from the Ottoman batteries and strategically placed mines. So the Naval campaign turned to a Land campaign so as to remove this threat and allow the naval battleships entry. Enter the Anzacs being trained in Cairo for France.

Sir Ian Hamilton was handed the task to command a 78,000 strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force and eliminate the Ottoman mobile artillery. British and French contingents joined the Anzacs in Egypt whilst Hamilton finalised his plans to concentrate the force on the southern part of the Gallipoli peninsula at Cape Helles and Sedd el Bahr. The Allies initially discounted the fighting ability of the Ottoman soldiers. They were viewed as weak, perceptions galvanised by the recent Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913. In some cases, information about them was gained from Egyptian travel guides.

However, the five weeks it took to establish this plan, in conjunction with bad weather that may have otherwise delayed the deployment, the Ottomans were given sufficient time to strengthen their position. Although the Ottomans were unsure where a landing might occur, they agreed holding the high ground was their best bet. The delay also allowed the Ottomans time to construct roads, assemble small boats for transportation between the narrows, wire beaches, construct improvised mines and to dig trenches. Of great importance, their leader, Mustafa Kemal, observed the beaches from his post in Boghali. This meant his commands would be based on realtime information.

There has been much said about the landing for the Anzacs. They had been trained for and planned to land on a flat beach with easy access to the peninsula where they could advance across and cut off the Ottomans. This was whilst the British and France landed further west at Helles. But either because of strong currents or strategical diversion, they instead landed a kilometre further north where the land was rugged and vertical and would require an arduous climb.

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A common theme amongst the Allies attempts is the lack of communication. One story I found very interesting was above Y beach. Some of the divisions landed unopposed and were able to advance inland to a village defended by only a small number. But lacking direction, they abandoned the position and retreated back to the beach. Once the Ottomans were able to recover numbers to the position, the Allies never again made it to that spot. Hamilton was positioned back on a ship which meant he had to firstly receive information before he could send back instructions as to what to do. Kemal certainly had him covered in this regard.

Although the stakes were high for the British landing, the Anzacs were able to land where the Ottoman defenders were too few to defeat them, despite still sustaining many casualties. However, the Ottomans were out of ammunition not long afterwards and were left with nothing but bayonets and began to retreat. Sadly for the 57th regiment, Kemal ordered them to hold their positions and die so as to delay the Anzacs advancement so other soldiers could accumulate in numbers behind them. Every single member of that regiment died and, as a sign of respect, the Turkish Army no longer holds a 57th Regiment.

The beach landings were worse for some. Of 1,012 Dubliners, only one officer and 11 soldiers survived the campaign unscathed.

Even though the landing at Helles was going ok, the landing at Anzac was not and at one point Lieutenant Birdwood considered reembarkation of the Anzac troops. However, it was the Australian submarine AE2 which instigated his reconsideration. On the night before the landings, AE2, under the command of Stoker, succeeded in getting through the Straights. By 6am, as the landings were taking place, AE2 reached Chanak and torpedoed a Turkish gunboat whilst evading a destroyer. It then ran aground beneath a Turkish fort but the fort’s guns could not reach it and AE2 manoeuvred free. After refloating, it’s periscope was sighted by a Turkish battleship, which was firing over the peninsula at Allied landing sites. Realising the threat from the submarine, the battleship ceased fire and withdrew. AE2 advanced toward the Sea of Marmara and rested on the seabed for the next 13 hours. At 9pm, she resurfaced and sent a wireless report to the fleet. This gave Birdwood hope and the story was told amongst the Anzacs to build morale. Stoker was then ordered to run amok in the Sea of Marmara. However, with no enemies in sight, the AE2 simply cruised around giving the illusion that there were greater Allied numbers. 5 days later, she was fired at and the crew abandoned the ship and were captured. However, its success confirmed the straight could be penetrated and shortly afterwards, E14 entered and inflicted more casualties to the Ottoman Navy.

Lots of fighting ensued. Depleted numbers were replenished by reserves in Egypt for the Allies and from Constantinople for the Turks. I’m going to skip forward about 8 months here. Like most wars, this was a complex arena and its difficult to articulate simply. However, learning the background of the war is the thing I think I took away the most and had not previously understood.

In the end, it was deemed an Ottoman victory, their greatest during the war and a major Allied failure. The most successful operation of the campaign was the evacuation of the troops on 19-20 December under cover of a comprehensive deception operation. The operation cost 26,111 Australian casualties, including 8,141 deaths. Despite this, it has been said that Gallipoli had no influence on the course of the war.

There were some stories that really stood out to me on that day. We should all known John Simpson. But I didn’t. Amidst constant firing and sniper shots, he would walk back and forth with his donkey collecting the wounded and bringing them back until he was sadly killed during the third attack. Hundreds of wounded soldiers were returned to the beach because of him.

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We were also told that the casualties were so high that a truce was called one day. Both armies were allowed to arise from their trenches and collect their wounded. This war has been referred to as the last Gentlemens War as both forces were able to meet their opponents. Imagine that. Meeting this foreign man who fired during the day at you, shaking his hand, sharing a smoke with him, carrying a dead body back together and then to say farewell, before returning back to your trench to again collect your rifle and resume the war. We heard a story of a wounded Ally who lay in the middle screaming for help. No one dared to stand up for fear of being shot. However, a Turkish soldier rose from the trenches, walked over to him and picked him up, carried him to the allies and then walked back to rejoin the Ottomans on his side.

It was truly alarming to see just how close some of the trenches were to one another. In some places, only metres. You would think this was a detriment to each. However, it was more strategical than anything. By being so close, it eliminated the threat of grenades. You just wouldn’t throw a grenade for fear it would either land in your own camp or because it allowed the opposition time to throw it back.

 

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I think what I struggled to get my head around were the conditions. Trying to picture fighting in 40 degree weather, with dead bodies rotting all around you, repugnant odours filling your nose, constant flies badgering your face, dehydration, little food, no toilets, no sewage system, unrelenting gunfire, I wouldn’t last an hour. A lot of soldiers cut away at their clothes so that their pants became shorts to find reprieve in the heat. They only thought they’d be there for a few weeks. 6 months later though it was the middle of winter and the war was still going. A tough season when you are dressed in tiny shorts.

I also could not believe how small the area was where the Anzacs were ordered to attack. It was so funnelled that only 150 could run in a straight line. Contrary to the movie, I don’t believe there was a machine gun greeting them. The Ottoman rifles were not automatic and could only fire one bullet at a time. They did not have magazines and were single-shot. However, the Anzacs were easy pickings as they tried to cover this small section wave after wave after wave.

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A pine tree stands in Lone Pine and there is a story behind this. An Australian soldier’s brother was shot dead here. As a memento to his mother, the surviving brother sent home a pine cone from a nearby tree. His mother planted this and now a pine tree stands in her yard. From this tree, a pine cone was returned to Lone Pine and now stands a third generation tree from the seed of a tree standing during the conflict.

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I sympathise with the Turks as much as I do for the Anzacs. I feel they were caught in a war that was not theirs and lost men they shouldn’t have lost. But there is a beautiful quote that stands on a giant plaque on the peninsula. It reads:

“Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.” Ataturk, 1934.

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I’m not sure if I’d say I found the day emotional. There were a few people in our group who had relations lost in the war. One lady even found the plaque of her grandfather and burst into tears. But for me it was about context. Whenever we now hear “Lone Pine” or “Anzac Cove” referred to, we will know exactly what they are talking about. Seeing the terrain with our own eyes is something books and movies can’t portray. Looking through a gully and understanding how easy it would have been to be shot at whilst the soldiers crossed makes the campaign vivid.

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The last surprise of the day was seeing just how small the area is where the Anzac service is held every year. It is tiny! I have no idea how 10,000 people can squeeze onto that tiny patch of grass.

So anyway, that’s it. I now know so much more about the campaign than I did one or two months ago. And I don’t think I would have been able to grasp it without physically being there. Unfortunately, I’ve been completely unable to articulate our experiences in any form of cohesive text here. But for those who have been, I’m sure they’ll nod in approval. For those who haven’t, please don’t read this indecipherable mess but just make sure you get yourself there.

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And from now on, just maybe, I’ll get myself out of bed at 5am on Anzac Day and remember this moment that really helped to cement our nation’s identity.

30. Istanbul // Turkey

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Istanbul sucked. There – I said it. So you can throw your stones and crucify me. But we thought it sucked. Perhaps we arrived with expectations the size of the glacier that sunk the Titanic or maybe we thought it would open us to a new exotic culture when instead we got a soulless city ambushed by tourists. Whatever it was, it sucked.

I am of course being a little harsh. At times, it blew us away and the deep history would keep you glued if in book-form for days. However, it seemed lost and sold-out. We thought the food would be incredible but often it was in contrast to what we’d had before. Despite the streets selling spices by the truckload, the food was oily, stale and lacklustre. Everything seemed to be geared towards the millions of tourists who plum-filled the streets. Every Turk you encountered was able to rattle off “Hello, where are you from?” in English, Spanish, German, Russian, French etc until you eventually responded to something. And then, once you’d snapped at their bait, they’d follow it with “Come into my store.” The place was rank with tourism. This has been nothing new. But usually, you can be smart and walk a kilometre or two to a neighbouring suburb to escape it, to eat far cheaper and greater food and to immerse yourself into local culture. However, as Istanbul is home to 14 million people (unofficially 22 million,) you almost needed to travel for a whole hour to get out of the hub. Those we have spoken to since have told us they had done this and raved of the things they found. And this was clearly our mistake. (Thankfully, Turkey has delivered in every city/place we have visited since.) I think as we flew in we dreamed of feelings reminiscent to those arriving in Saigon. A landscape bursting with buildings and activity, a hub where you could strike up conversations with those sitting beside you and a place you wished not to leave. But, and this is just our experience, it lacked the authenticity we craved and numbed us with its tedious interrogation to buy useless crap and tours we had no desire to buy.

Now that that rant is over, I can tell you what we did enjoy in Istanbul and what we did get out of it. Just keep the above paragraph in the back of your mind as to what was usually happening every other second of the day.

Istanbul (which sounds like a social networking application for basketball players to post pictures) is huge, predominately Muslim and incredibly historic. It’s been known by three different names in its history, Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. It is where the continents of Europe and Asia meet, divided only by the Bosphorus. It’s location has been strategic for the majority of wars that have been fought in its vicinity, providing the only water access between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

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As we flew in on Peragus Airlines, we were mesmerised by the sheer expanse of the city, the congested buildings stretching as far as the eye could see on both the left and right of the plane. Mosques pockmarked the neighbourhoods, their domed rooves protruding from the flat skyline like bubblewrap. I think one of our favourite parts about Turkey was the journey from the airport to the city itself. The airport is about 60kms from the city and, usually, you’d just jump on a direct bus or a train to take you there. In Istanbul however, we had to first catch a bus, then catch a ferry, then catch a tram. The ferry was really cool and was a great way to be welcomed into the city, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia standing proudly as we cruised into the harbour. After docking in Eminonu, we bailed on the tram and decided to walk with our packs the last 2 kilometres, to get an initial feel of the place and to save a penny.

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We stayed the six nights at a place on the south side of Sultanahmet, which meant a little bit of walking everytime we wanted to go anywhere. We’d been recommended this side as it was near the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and a few other things. In hindsight, however, I think we personally would have preferred the Beyoglu side where it seemed more was happening on a cultural level, and left this side as a single-day activity. Anyway, hindsight is useless unless you believe in reincarnation, are then able to reincarnate yourself into yourself and are also able to time travel back in time a month to do it all over again. Not possible. Perhaps if you had two days in Istanbul, Sultanahmet is better. But for a week as we had, we think Beyoglu would have been more appropriate.

Even though we knew beer would be near impossible to find in Turkey especially during Ramazan, we were still eager to down a sneaky Efes after our day of travelling. After all, I was outraged by the authorities in Albania earlier that day having confiscated my bullet shaped keyring Ken & Karen had bought me as a gift when they were in Turkey. Go figure yeah? I was simply returning into a country the bloody keyring had come from and these over-officiating squirts thought it was too dangerous to take it back in. It’s a keyring you clowns. Good luck with your floundering economy.

Our insatiable desire to quench our thirt meant we ended up in an absolute scrub of a restaurant that again existed for tourists who were happy to pay twice the price for a meal no Turk would find acceptable. But tired and thirsty, we could not be arsed to research somewhere better to eat. This was probably our first sign that Istanbul wasn’t going to be as incredible as Saigon had been, where you could stumble into any establishment without the risk of being screwed with the bill and always guaranteed a pho bo.

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Upon walking home, we kept our eyes open for a bar playing the Brazil v Germany qualifier. We skipped one place near home eager to get us in and instead went to a flashier bar with a big screen. But after one round of beers, we realised this too seemed to exist to capitalise on Western wallets after charging us 32 Lira for two beers. We abandoned and went back to the other place, Stone House, who were happy to see us return. Apparently, we weren’t the first to do this and we met a family of Welsh who had been charged $20 for a wine at the previous bar. Stone House became bit of a regular for us and was one of the few places to live up to our expectation of finding easy chats in this mammoth city. When we weren’t amazed as the scoreline ticked all its way over to 7-1 to Germany, we were either chatting to the Turkish staff or to the Welsh family. They had backpacked Australia 25 years ago, when things were very different they said, and had to finance themselves by travelling in a convoy with an artist who had basically made photocopies of oil paintings and they had to go doorknocking in places like Mount Isa and Alice Springs to sell them as “genuine paintings.”

Our hotel, as I think all of them do in Turkey, provided breakfast in the morning. The staple Turkish breakfast is tomato, cucumber, olives, feta cheese, sometimes watermelon and about 14 loaves of bread. Once we were stuffed to the brim, we made our way to an Irish bar called the Port Shield who had advertised the previous day they were playing the State of Origin – game three. Prior to the game, the Euro Sports channel was working fine and I grabbed myself a couple of pints of Guinness. However, just as we were nearing kick-off, the channel froze. They switched to an alternate channel which improved things very little and, apart from one or two sets around the 10 minute mark, they just couldn’t get the coverage. Resigned, we instead struck up a conversation with a couple from Newcastle (although he had previously lived in Toowoomba) as a contingent of Australians emptied the bar. Once we had shared stories, they went on their way and we decided to finalise our bill and head to the Grand Bazaar. What the hell? Two Guinness had been 28 smackeroos! Oh great, Istanbul had again proven itself to rip westerners. It would have hurt less had we at least been able to watch the game (of which Queensland was able to regain some pride) but as that had been a non-event, needless to say they received a scathing review from me on Trip Advisor.

After the previous night’s farcical meal, Elisha had done a little research and we stopped by a small doner stand where a doner was only 5 Lira ($2.50) and oh, what’s that amazing flavour on here? Spice you call this? Istanbul redeemed itself slightly and the the line took a small upward turn on our “Is Istanbul as good as Saigon” graph.

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We made a quick walk through the Grand Bazaar. Historically, this place is incredible. It has been the central market for Turks since the mid 1700’s and is just whopping huge – with currently between 2000-3000 stores. Oh, if you were like me before getting there and don’t know, it’s basically a big market. Grand Bazaar literally translates to “Big Market.” (Probably not true.) If I could have seen this place 100 years ago (again, that would probably require some more of that reincarnating or time travelling skill I don’t seem to possess) THAT would have been amazing. Back then, only cheap clothes would hang in front of small stalls to attract attention. A potential client would sit and have cay or Turkish coffee in a relaxed atmosphere with the owner and a sale would be discussed. That is where the culture emerged of the Turks ALWAYS drinking cay. The Turkish coffee is another story. I don’t think I see anyone drinking it. For a civilisation that has incorporated coffee since the 16th century, they sure do make a blotched effort of it now. Their interpretation of it is to serve a shot sized cup with the bottom half of it holding sticky, compact black filter coffee and filling the top half with hot water. After the first mouthful, you’re then left with literal sludge. So I understand how amazing the Grand Bazaar must have been in its former glory. However, now it is an endless passage of tourists (up to 250,000 per day!) and salesman constantly badgering you with an unrelenting pitch to enter their store. I’m sure there was some truely amazing stores and family businesses in there still manufacturing jewellery and items by hand but good luck trying to find it amid the cheap and tacky tourist paraphernalia.

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Upon seeing it for what it is now, we hurried out of there and found a small bar not too far away to try our first Turkish coffee and the much acclaimed apple tea. A friendly little chap called Mehmut served us our drinks and told us they also did beer. I quickly learnt the Turkish coffee was dreadful and Elisha found the apple tea to be overly sweet and in essence just hot cordial. (On a side note – if they can make apple tea, where the hell is all the cider?) So we weren’t a fan of either but after trying something cultural, we switched back to the beers. Which strangely led to one of the most culturally-rich afternoons we were to have. Mehmut took a liking to us (probably as we kept the bill ticking over) and, over the course of the afternoon, filled an A4 sheet of paper with helpful Turkish phrases which would prove invaluable for the rest of our stay. Following this, he brought us some Raki to try for free (an aniseed flavoured spirit served with ice) and then got me up to learn some Turkish dancing with him. This was all great and as I got further into my beers, I’d yell out at passing Turks “Tea, coffee? Yes? Please” in Turkish as they passed and, other times “I love you” which returned some interesting looks but mostly smiles.

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I was always in the back of my mind a little cautious of his friendliness however, especially when he winked at me as I went to the toilet and he rushed out for some alone time with Elisha and then, later, when he tried to add us to Facebook. He also took 10% off our bill and wanted to show us around Istanbul himself, showing us the mosques, his own house and a few other places. We made plans to come back the next night at 7 to do this. He also invited us to leave the bill for the next night if we wished but we insisted to pay right there and then. He was massively friendly and we got heaps out of the interaction. However, I just couldn’t be sure where the line was between friendliness and hold us at knife point down a side alley. We eventually left with plans to return the next night and went to find some dinner.

We thought we had found a cool food street similar to Jalan Alor in Malaysia and sat down. We quickly learnt this street specialised in seafood and so we grabbed some meze and a shrimp based casserole. The meze was impressive in flavour but we still thought the food overpriced and thought Istanbul had to be hiding something better than this. The other problem was it was Ramazan, where the Muslims eat nothing between sunrise and sunset. And the fact they don’t eat pork anytime. I know – insane. Pig provides my five favourite food groups – honey-glazed ham, crispy bacon, fatty pork knuckle, roast pork and juicy slow-cooked pork belly. They miss out on it all! And that’s even when Ramazan isn’t on. Anyway, it meant most of the time there were very few people out eating until the sun set and then the parks would flood with families with their portable barbeques and turkish pides and hot cay and steaming soups and home cooked meals. Actually, I really admired this part of their culture. For one month each year, the family basically spends each night supping together for hours on end. We would come back to our hotel at 2 in the morning and find the family still sitting outside sharing cay. It’s very different to most western homes that chug down microwave dinners in a non-social atmosphere in front of the tv.

(I’m only getting back to this blog now because bloody Kent and Emma wanted to have a bloody chat with us in the treehouse in Olympos. And then we had to go on another cruise and its only now, almost a week later, that we are back in a treehouse in Olympos where I can write in tranquility. Oh hang on, now the owner wants to come over for a chat and she’s brought us a beer. Oh, and some guy from Kentucky called Dan has now also joined us. Hang on. Hang on.)

Day three saw us venture into the very heart of Istanbul where Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque summon tourists like Khal Drogo might his Dothraki tribe. Despite the sweltering heat, we joined the seemingly endless line and entered in. What intrigued me most about Hagia Sofia is that it has been used by both Christians AND Muslims during its enduring 1600 year existence, essentially epitomising Istanbul’s contrasting history. Between 537 and 1453, it served as an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, except between 1204 and 1261 when it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral. As we know, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and, it was at this time that the building became a mosque. It remained in this use until 1935 when it was opened to the public as a museum. When Asians weren’t rudely pushing in front of us or big fat dirty white Russians weren’t ruining our photos with slutty poses, we were able to stroll through this expansive complex, looking up in wonder at all the celestial paintings and markings on the ceilings (but mostly being pissed off by the tourists.)

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We thought we would follow the Hagia Sofia with a visit to the Blue Mosque, a mosque renowned for it’s (and I’ll let you have one guess . . . that’s right) blue interior. But the hords of people lining up out the front, the tour guides vying for our business and the overwhelming heat posed us with this one question. “Should we grab a beer instead?” We traded an unwanted experience for a cold beer and instead thumbed through some images of the mosque’s interior on the free wifi we found at the bar. Whilst on the wifi, Elisha found Mehmut had tried to contact her via Facebook and so we took that opportunity to say “Thanks for the offer but we’re just not entirely sure that you’re not going to lead us down a side alley and hold us at knife point so no thanks.” I’m still not sure if he was just incredibly friendly and wanted to show us around but you’ve got to keep your discretion. We will never know.

Instead of getting stabbed for our wallets, we found a market that seemed to be open for the Ramazan festival. This place was alive with Turkish families and merchants. We tried a drink I guess you could call it that was yellow in colour and thick like custard, and tasted like a lemon meringue pie. And Elisha ate a horse-shoe shaped pastry-like donut that was drowned in honey.

We ventured across to the Beyoglu side the next day to see what we were missing. After immediately crossing the bridge, you could feel tourism leave you. The street changed to stores selling musical instruments, the people began appearing with tattoos and long hair and food seemed to drop in price as quickly as the stock market did during the GFC. Further along was a long strip of bars and cafes, with sidestreets running off these with even more bars. We spent the afternoon seeking out kebabs, found a graffiti-laden coffee house and exploring the streets.

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Our best find that day was back near our apartment when we were looking for somewhere to eat dinner. Up until now, Istanbul had failed us miserably with its food, with one or two exceptions. It was initially the Malaysians we saw going into Ziya Baba that caught our eye. This tiny little unpretentious family restaurant had a simple menu but showcased food that was packed with flavour. Their menemen (sort of like scrambled eggs with green peppers, chilli and tomatoes) was so good we decided to bail on our free breakfast every morning and come and eat here instead, an easy choice considering it was only $3. Their chicken doner outshone any others we had tried and their kebab plate was so fresh and flavourful. They just did the little things right. The red onion was sprinkled with sumac, the lettuce was crisp and they included herbs. Oh herbs! Satisfied with finally finding a worthwhile place to eat, we agreed we didn’t need to try anywhere else for food.

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Afterwards, we again stopped by Stone House for a quick night cap and found ourselves chatting to a Mexican girl, who currently lived in Melbourne, and a couple of guys from Bangkok, until about 1.30 in the morning. Slowly, Istanbul was beginning to meet our insanely high expectations and we were enjoying the opportunity to find easy conversations wherever we went (which is probably the silver lining in a tourist mecca.)

We returned to Ziya Baba the next morning for some more of their insanely tasty menemen, as well as a bowl of their lentil soup (my new love!) Their breakfast menu was just that I think – really simple but just done oh so well. We took a quick walk back into the city and entertained the idea of checking out the basilica but the crowds again deterred us from that – sorry, we’re just not into that stuff enough to tolerate crowds. We thought we might head back across to the Beyoglu side where Elisha had found a few places she wanted to check out. But first, a quick stop at the boats in the harbour selling their fish sandwiches (probably another top tourist thing to do in the world.) These were ok for about $3 but I seemed to see a lot of white people around me and only about 3 Turks. Those Turks were also carrying garbage bags and cleaning tables. The place did also sell lemonade for one lira which we grabbed about 7 of in the heat. Slurp.

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Once across the other side, Elisha guided us to a rooftop bar where we were able to watch the sun set over the two main mosques and enjoy a beer. It was as we were almost to the next bar afterwards that I realised I had left my $7 sunnies behind. We thought we’d come back afterwards to claim them, since I’d only had them for a couple of weeks. We next stopped by a small bar that spilled out onto the street as it filled up. This was really cool because it showed a Brunswick kind of vibe amongst the university aged Turkish people. After initially thinking all of Turkey would be conservative and burqa wearing, we found our ignorance being challenged by a clear group of people who were far more liberal. Two beers down and we went back to claim my sunnies, past the bouncer, up the shonky elevator and up the stairs. “Sorry, we have not seen those. No sunnies. No sunnies.” I hope they enjoy them, and do learn one day that they aren’t a genuine $300 pair and they snap in the middle and the broken plastic splinters their eye socket and they go blind for life.

An upper Turkish restaurant was on the cards for dinner and we found ourselves enjoying a wonderful share-plate of kebab meat, salad and turkish bread. My one irk with these places is they always try and leave a bottle of water on your table which they obviously charge you for later. As good as the meal was, I just can’t stand the constant money-grabbing and wankerdom (a term coined by myself to mean making things wanky so that you pay more money for them even though, in essence, it is still kebab meat, salad and turkish bread – that’s right, the exact same thing you had at lunch but you only paid one third of the price for it.) Minus one pair of sunnies and short an extra few lira for unwanted water, we made our way back across the bridge and made the 4 kilometre walk back home around 2 in the morning. Surprisingly, this was probably the busiest we had actually seen the Beyoglu side of Istanbul.

I have no idea what we did on day six. So instead, I’ll insert this story: One of the nights previous (and I’m not sure which one) we tried to take out around $500 AUD from an ATM that stood amid 4 or 5 others. Before finalising, it advised a 3% fee would be charged which, on $500, worked out to be about $15. We hit cancel on that and moved onto the next one. Several days later, we were alarmed to find the full amount still appeared on our statement, despite the money never being dispensed from the machine. We’ve since lodged this with NAB and now have to wait 45 days for them to correspond with the Turkish bank and query it. Seperate to this, I also had to skype 28 Degrees after realising one of the cards was no longer working. They informed me they’d sent me a letter a month ago and some suspicious transactions had been attempted in America. So despite sounding like we had still managed to remain drunk the entire time, I just wanted to include this to show we had at some point been of clear mind to sort some stuff out (albeit my skype to 28 degrees was quite slurry.) What I do remember from our last night was watching the World Cup grand final between Germany and Argentina. We again chose Stone House as our drinking quarters and watched the game while the Syrian guy continued to serenade us with his flamenco playing. Lionel Messi just couldn’t find a clean strike though and so the few Germans behind us finished the night quite happily after that sly goal in overtime.

We had to make our way to Canakkale the next day so as to do the Gallipoli tour. This allowed us to continue down south once we were done and to get some good rest instead of trying to fit the tour into a 12 hour day as we had heard some other people do. The thing in Turkey is you can’t really do a great deal of planning ahead. You can’t book most things online and you sort of just rock up and hope there’s a seat. This had Elisha pulling her hair out but it works quite well. Transport is in abundance and we were to learn this once we got to the Otogar. This was a mission in itself. We had to catch a tram several stops from the centre of Istanbul, then walk across to a Metro station and catch a train 8 more stops to the Otogar. The Otogar is a large bus terminal usually several kilometres out of the city. From here, a ring of over 100 companies advertised buses to pretty much anywhere in Turkey. You basically picked anyone you liked, walked through the doors, purchased a ticket and within half an hour found yourself on a bus headed for your destination. So stop stressing Elisha.

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We left Istanbul still far from in love with it but knowing we’d only scratched the surface. I’m not sure if I’d ever go back but thankfully, the rest of Turkey has since bridged that gap. As I posted of Facebook, you can visit Istanbul or Turkey, but they sure as hell aren’t the same place.

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29. Ulcinj // Montenegro // Tirane // Albania

We left Budva on a local bus a little weary, sore from our rafting and still chasing a relaxed summer holiday vibe that Budva unfortunately did not provide. I’d heard from both Battye and Nicky and Jess and Jamie that ulcinj would meet this criteria, and so off we went, on the short 1 and a half hour journey. We arrived in Ulcinj and walked to our guest house with no problems. After the hill we had lived on in Budva, the slight incline of the hill in Ulcinj was no problem, even carrying our 20kg packs with us.

Our little home for the next 8 nights was paradise. What a find. A self contained studio with a lovely balcony overlooking the beach and the old town, and for the amazing price of $33 AUD a night. We had struck gold! What was even more amazing, was while we were at the beach every morning the lovely lady would come and clean our apartment for us each day. AMAZING!!!!

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After enough Pizza and giros in Budva to feed the local football team, Ulcinj was a time that we decided we would give our bodies a bit of a break, eat healthy and try and do a week without any beers or alcohol. I was determined to find a market and eat some salad. I don’t think I’ve ever craved salad so much in my life, and we were both increasingly concerned about the amount of gluten poor Clint was consuming. So after a broken english conversation with our host (Who seemed to just repeat the same words and never actually told us anything) it was off to find a market or at least a supermarket. I didn’t actually think it would be that hard, but it was. We found kind of a supermarket that had some limp peppers and maybe a half rotten red onion. There seemed to be quite a supply of cabbage, and I ran a list of all the things I could do with cabbage, and concluded it didnt really make for an enjoyable week. Off we went walking again, Clinton checking his phone for anything that resembled a market. We found the remainders of something that could have been a market 10 years ago, but was demolished. In the end I was getting pretty frustrated and going to give up and suggest pizza again, but alas we stumbled on heaven. Hidden behind a clothing market was a local food market with chickens and roosters walking aimlessly around the place. You could not wipe the grin off my face. We stocked up on local eggs, salad ingredients, an assortment of fruit including a whole watermelon and the most amazing peaches and apricots, home grown olives and then came across a stall selling homemade salami and fetta cheese. Of course we couldnt say no, and I almost laughed at the price it was just so cheap. So off we went back to our amazing apartment with our amazing food and had our first salad, sitting on the balcony admiring the view.

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I won’t bore you with too much of what we did in Ulcinj as it was basically, sleep, market eat, beach, eat, sleep, beach, eat, repeat. The only other interesting thing was that Ulcinj has quite a large Muslim population and so the call to prayer was blasted across the beach each day numerous times. This was a unique culture shock that I hadn’t heard since our days in Malaysia (which feel like a lifetime ago). Whilst in Ulcinj I also got to have a Skype date with the girls (and Bed and Tim) from book club. Book Club is something I truely miss from my days in Melbourne so it was so great to catch up with everyone and look at the mountains of food they were eating and copious amounts of wine they were drinking…certainly nothing has changed there!!!

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All too soon our time in Ulcinj was due to come to an end. After a week of laying off the booze Clinton suprised me by coming home with a few beers as I cooked our last meal. We sat on the balcony, watched the sunset and chowed down on a grilled vegetable salad and a Niksicko beer. We had planned an early night as we had to walk to the bus station at 6am to catch the bus to Albania. So when we received a strange knock on the door about 10pm we were already in our pyjamas and getting ready for bed. Imagine my surprise when I answered the door and it was our host who just wanted to wish us well on our journey. We said our good byes and again got ready for bed. So when there was another knock on the door at 11.30pm we were quite puzzled. I answered the door in my PJ’s and was slightly embarrassed when two strange girls and our hosts husband Tino were at the door. One of the girls who happened to be Polish explained that her and her friend were also going to Albania tomorrow and rather then catching the bus in 6 hours, did we want to share a private transfer with Tino to the border, and then his friend would pick us up on the other side and take us to our hotel in Tirane. I was a little skeptical at first, but wasnt very keen on such an early wake up call. In the back of my head I remembered a conversation with my dear friend Cat when she had given me her one tip of travel advice, and that was to say yes to life. So without consulting Clinton, I said yes, and negotiated a time of 7.30am to meet the girls at the front of our apartment and we would go together…perfect, an extra 1.5 hours sleep.

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7.30am came around too quickly and before I knew it we were standing outside waiting for Tino. Montenegrins are not exactly known for being puctual so when 7.45 came no one was worried. Tino eventually emerged and said that he wouldnt be taking us, his friend would, I dont know how plans can change throughout the night but apparently they can. This of course was no problem. However by 8am the friend had still not shown up and Tino was on the phone, and by the hand gestures he was using, you could tell he was a little on the angry side. Finally one car showed up which reminded me of the 1985 Toyota Corona my parents used to own. 2 skinny men got out and didnt really do much actually, kinda just hung around. Finally another guy turned up in a newer model of a car (air conditioning, yay!) and Tino told us this was the car. So the other 2 guys helped us with our bags (I seriously have no idea why these 2 guys were there) and Clint, myself and the 2 polish girls jumped in to the car. But then the car wouldnt start…excellent. Everyone just kept saying no worries. The driver thought it was a good idea to try and go down the hill backwards and try and start the car. With us all in it.
Although this was quite humourous we finally got to a point where we didnt think it was going to work, so we all got out and he kept trying. He just couldn’t get this car to start and he was so frustrated. Tino our host was frustrated, Clinton and I thought it was hilarious and couldnt stop laughing…perhaps the bus would have been a better option.

Eventually Tino had enough got our bags and put them in his van, waved the other 3 guys off and took us to the border in Shkoder. We then proceeded to walk through the borders here with no problems except a few Albanian guys who had to go in front of us as they were late for their Uni exam. Now I did not know what to expect from Albania. We were only here one night as the flight from Tirane to Istanbul was considerably cheaper than to leave from Montenegro. We had spoken to Battye the night before regarding our private transfer situation and he had mentioned something to do with a mercedes and I didnt give it much thought. Until we got to the Albanian side of the border and there were Mercedes everywhere, and of course our driver was driving a mercedes. Clinton and I researched this and apparently Mercedes are the most common car in Albania. Some reports say that this is because they are stolen from the West EU countries and then sold cheaply in Albania and the police can’t really be bothered chasing them down. We also learnt that due to Communism up until 1991 there was only about 700 cars on Albanian roads and these were all driven by government officials. When the comminism regime fell, there was an influx of new cars and new drivers, however the roads were never really upgraded, leaving now a country with terrible roads and terrible drivers. Anyway this was delightful information to know as we approached our (possibly stolen) car. The trip from the border to Tirane is about another 2 hours and we spent this with a guy who knew not a drop of english and was a pretty terrible driver. He constantly changed CD’s (yes they still exist) and our ears were treated to the delights of artists from Katy Perry to Blur while our noses were treated to the constant smell of cigerette smoke. I followed google maps the whole way and we eventually made it towards the city. We had been told by Tino that we would be dropped at our hotel and the polish girls at the bus stop, so imagine my surprise when we were dropped on the outskirts of town. We all got out of the car confused and unaware of what was going on. We tried to communicate. From what we could gather he wanted the polish girls to get into another car with another driver, and we were to walk the distance to the hotel. One of the girls was uncomfortable and didn’t want to get into a car with someone she didn’t know (rightly so) and Clint and I werent comfortable leaving the girls on their own. (the bus was looking like such a better option right now) After many phone calls and interpretations, we were able to point the girls in the direction of a bus station and Clint and I trudged on in the heat to our hotel. It had been an adventure, but we had made it!

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After checking in Clint and I both realised how little water we had consumed and how hugely dehydrated we were. We spent the next few hours trying to hydrate and eventually made it out of our hotel for a late Albanian lunch. I had picked a place that apparently had great Albanian food at reasonable prices. Only problem was, we couldnt really read the menu. We picked out something that we thought resembled the word for eggplant and something else that kind of looked like some kind of casserole. Well it was a win with the eggplant, it was stuffed with some beef and was really quite delicious. However the lamb “casserole” could actually be one of the worst things i’ve eaten in the last 6 months. I think it was a lamb shank but it kinda resembled the texture of a lamb heart. (I don’t want to think about it) it was in a casserole sauce that reminded me of a savoury curdled egg custard. It was just plain gross. Ewww! Lucky the beer was good!!! We then had a quick look around, got 2 scoops of gelato for 90 cents Australian, and decided to do a little research on Turkey.

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We finished our night in Albania with dinner at an Albanian hot spot called Shakesbeer. The food was pretty good though I thought I ordered beef and got pork. Oh well! We caught the local pink bus from the city to the airport the next morning with no problems. Our one night in Albania was over and I honestly left intrigued. This was a city that had basically only had freedom from Comminism for a little over 20 years and was largely left on it’s own, and this was very evident. Although run down, I found it to be quite cosmopolitan with what seemed to be an emerging food and beer scene. The people seemed very friendly and very proud of their city. As of June 2014 Albania is a candidate to enter the EU. It will be interesting to watch the developments on this sometimes forgotten country.

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28. Kotor // Budva // Montenegro

Montenegro (which sounds like something you might find in Monaco) welcomed us in with majestic vistas of the Bay of Kotor. Our bus weaved along tight, serpentine roads that circumnavigated the bay, hiding us from the world behind brooding mountains. We were dropped off not too far from the old town.

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However, our apartment was a couple of kilometres back up the road so we thought we would dump our bags off there before coming back to check out this little ancient pocket that Nicky & Battye seemed to wet their pants over every time Kotor is mentioned. Despite having Google Maps in our hands, the lack of street names and house numbering proved to be an initial problem. It was only after a Montenegrin, who had been monitoring our suspicious movements through his neighbour’s backyards from his balcony, that we received some help. He spoke some English and was able to tell us he was part of the Montenegro Navy, had been to Australia and was proud to call himself a “Seaman.” He generously phoned our apartment for directions and then walked us up the road to where it was. One of the nicest “seamen” I have ever met.

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Once the bags were dumped, we headed back into the old town for bit of a gander of the eyes. As Montenegro is so small (in fact, I hadn’t even heard of it 12 months prior and the entire size of the country is only one sixth of the size of Tasmania) our Lonely Planet only allocates about 2 and a half pages to it so information is scarce. But it was able to tell us that this old town was from around the 12th Century which always leaves you gob-smacked when you are standing in something that old. We only had two nights here and thought we would take that day slow, being a travel day (which always means a beer is the end of the day’s reward) and save the massive climb up to the fort for the following day. Instead, we found a bar that was playing the Australia v Netherlands game and saw Tim Cahill’s goal of the millennium! And, after that ridiculous yellow card, possibly his last ever game in the green and gold as well. I still can’t believe Holland were actually giving us a chance in that game.

The next day we ventured back into the old town to embark on our walk. Unless you’ve been, it’s hard to understand the sheer vertical slant of these mountains. An ancient stone wall climbs and climbs its way up the side of the mountain that protects the town and ascends to a defensive fort probably not even half way up. Foolishly, we had again done a series of leg squats the day before and found ourselves moving at a very slow pace as we made the trek. However, the views of course were amazing once we finally reached the fort and, upon seeing some stranded wine bottles, briefly considered making the walk again at sunset for a romantic vino guzzle. But our weary legs screamed in protest and put an end to that thought.

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The other thing which really caught our attention upon arriving in Montenegro were all the cats! Hundreds of them. Mostly stray, some pets. But just everywhere. It was after this observation that we from then on referred to it as Kator instead.

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After five weeks of sun in Croatia however, we just couldn’t convince ourselves that castles and forts were worth seeing over a chance to lay on the beach and do nothing but lie in the sun. So we followed two nights in Kator with 12 nights in Budva, giving us a chance to completely wind down, rest up and re-invigorate ourselves for Turkey in 3 weeks time. The thing with Budva is its a Russian hotspot and, from our experiences in Nha Trang and Mui Ne, we knew that was never a good thing. So we were back to Russian menus and big fat white Russian ladies prancing around in far too skimpy bathers, big fat white Russian men rudely pushing in your way and big fat white Russian everything else just doing “piss me off” stuff.

The other thing which did not particularly work in our favour was the fact our hotel was perched way up on a hill. Now their website advertised they were about 900 metres from the beach and yes, that might be true if you were a blue jay. But for us human kind, it meant a 40 minute walk down steep and winding roads in 40 degree weather just for a swim. In fact, (and this is one of very few times during our travels we have elected not to walk) our taxi that brought us to our hotel had almost stalled twice trying to get up and had embarrassingly had to roll back in some parts to get a better run up. Yes, it was that steep. So needless to say, as bad as the walk was to get down to the beach, it was the walk back up that really left us doubled over.

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With those two negatives aside, we were of course at the beach for 12 days and so I don’t need to tell you in detail that there was lots of sun, surf and sand. I won’t bore you with events that took place every single day. But I think there are maybe two stories that are worth telling and so I’ll try to wrap up 12 days in Budva with just these:

It was in Budva that the changes a life as a backpacker might have upon you became very evident. And by that I mean we had become complete tight-arses who would take absolutely anything we could that might be free.

We had stumbled on what appeared to be a big hotel swimming pool one evening, drawn to it because the World Cup was being broadcast on a giant projector. The pool was at that time closed. Elisha had gone to the bar to grab two beers and when she asked how much they were to the lady pouring, the lady looked at her dumbfounded and confused, before eventually saying they were 2 Euro. Weird. When Elisha got back, she told me how weird the interaction had been and then also said that she might have thought it was a free-pour bar. We took turns to “go to the toilet” so we could try and observe how the bar was working, peering out like two secret CIA agents from the scrubs.  And yes, there were clearly some people going up and just pouring their own beers.

But not just beers, but wines and spirits as well. Interesting. So after a bit of Dutch courage, we thought we’d see if we could benefit at all from this. Elisha went first and, a minute or so later, casually came back with 2 vodka and apple juices.

“How’d you do that?” I enquired, expecting the beer would surely have been the easiest thing to snare.

“Oh, I just went up and poured them,” she said. I just didn’t think I could muster enough confidence to do that so, once we were finished, off she went again and this time came back with 2 vodka and orange juices. What the hell! This was too easy.

To keep things interesting, she then went a third time and came back with 2 vodka and peach iced teas! This was insane. We were saving a bucketload!

But it did finally catch up with us and, on the fourth visit to the bar, the original lady asked Elisha “where is your red armband?”

“Armband? Right, yeah armband. Of course. That’s with my boyfriend.” She left the two half-poured vodkas, scrambled back to where I was and said “I think it’s probably time we left.”

But there it was. At least it finally made sense. We understood that the big fat white Russians must have paid a certain fee each day to wear a red armband that permits them to drink as much as they want throughout the day.

Despite this, we were to learn the next day that, for some reason, the pool is just open for all. (Well, I think so anyway.) We gave the beach a miss and instead sat by the pool here and had a few dips. After we had consumed a few beers later on in town afterwards, oh dear, the Dutch courage was back!

“I think we can do it again,” I said. “We’ll just act like we are full of confidence and see what happens.” In all honesty, I first went to the bar again expecting to pay for 2 beers, more interested in watching the World Cup than I was in stealing drinks. But when the guy handed me the two beers and didn’t immediately ask for payment, I stole the opportunity, grabbed them and quickly went back to our seats. Elisha had done the hard yards the night before so I thought this was a great opportunity for character building and challenged myself to see how far I could get. There were two big kegs of wine to the left of the bar so I found by walking quickly up to them with my “armband-hand” in my pocket, I was easily able to pour two reds and take them back. This was repeated four times before the World Cup actually finished for the night and we just decided to go home undisturbed. This was getting out of hand.

However, we thought we still had some dignity and thought we’d just go watch the game on the third night and remain sober. But alas, as it was still daylight they didn’t have the projector set up – we were too early. So we abandoned that idea and found a quiet bar not too far away playing the game. After a few pints, the game came to an end and we asked where the bathroom was. It was just out through the door and back into their restaurant which joined to the side. As I walked my way in, I realised it wasn’t a restaurant, but a giant buffet. I was way too full of confidence by this stage so I stood at one of the stations with all the other big fat white Russians and grabbed myself a chicken wing when it was my turn. I walked back out past reception with it in my mouth and arrived outside where Elisha was waiting for me.

“Where’d you get that?”

“Inside.”

“But I want something.” So I threw my bones away, turned around and we both went back in. I couldn’t find Elisha anywhere near the chicken wings when I went to get my second and thought maybe she wasn’t really all that hungry. But when I got outside again, Elisha had smuggled out a piece of bread and some pork belly to make a little sandwich! Oh well, we had started now. So we went back to the pool and finished the night with perhaps another 3-4 rounds of wine before calling it quits. This could have gone on forever if it were not for the fact we woke up each day with the most awful headaches from the wine. By the fourth day we firmly said the rubbish wine was just not worth the effort, even if it was free. And from then on, we went back to using human money to purchase goods.

The second story is this:

We’re always conscious of needing more stories that don’t involve us drinking our way around the world. What better way to do that we thought than to book ourselves a day of precarious white water rafting with a bunch of big fat white Russians who don’t speak a lick of English and clear communication is critical to avoid giant, jagged boulders racing toward you.

We got speaking to a tourism agency one afternoon after accidentally stopping to look at their map of Montenegro, mainly to see where Niksic was located – the home of their national brewery. The guy was able to speak 10 languages (although we failed to test him on that) and quoted us a reasonable price based on the fact sales were down. Due to the conflict with Ukraine, there was a noticeable absence of big fat white Russians that season. Spending an entire day with Russians sounded like a stupid thing to do at the best of times, let alone when you’re stuck in a raft with them. Regardless, we smashed some Niksicko’s to help with the decision process and parted ways with our 110 Euros.

I think the only English we heard that next morning was when the bus driver picked us up and said hello. After that, it was russian, russian, russian. After a 4 hour bus drive all the way back up to the Bosnian & Hercegovina border, we stopped for breakfast somewhere between the two countries. I think the river actually acts as the divider between them so I can’t say with absolute certainty that we did step into Bosnia but I am pretty sure that at one point or another our raft must have veered across onto their side. We were promised an English/Russian speaking guide before purchasing our tickets and thankfully, we did get that. Unfortunately for me, he assumed I was the strongest and expected me to steer us out of danger all afternoon, screaming insults and commands that bruised my ego like a fallen mango.

For the currents in this particular river, the strongest person sits on the front left. The next strongest on the front right and so on. Elisha sat behind me, followed by another lady who paddled against our rhythm all day, often clunking her paddle with Elisha’s, and then lastly a small boy who was as useless as a marshmallow in a car crash. We had 9 in total, including the guide who sat at the back as the rudder.

After pushing off, we initially floated down stream whilst our guide ran through all the simple manoeuvres, giving Elisha and I a crash course in the Russian words for left, right and go. If I’m honest, I think I was up for a pretty relaxed day and assumed it was going to be like floating around at Calypso Beach at Wet n Wild for the afternoon. After our first practice row, however, I knew I was in for a lot more.

We approached our first rapid, just a little baby one to start with and, knowing I had to be the hero, paddled as hard as I could to ensure we avoided danger. We got through unscathed and emerged the other side all in one piece.

“Good work, Clintowski,” I thought to myself. It was just as I was finishing this sentiment that the guide started yelling at me, screaming that if I was to continue with such wimpy little paddles, we’d careen into a boulder for sure.

“You have to paddle harder!” he screamed. “You are the strongest!” Crikey. So we tried again and this time I tried as hard as I could which seemed to be on par with my previous efforts. Again, he yelled out my name and pointed to a passing rock that stood out from the water.

“We will hit that if you don’t row!” What more could I do? I was rowing as hard as I could, Elisha trying to help me out as much as she could whilst the bitch behind her just lazily patted the water with her paddle. The worst part was, the rapids we had been through were just the basics. Oh, I also haven’t told you that the water was 13 degrees which is far from a tropical oasis. It was here I started freaking out.

We had been paddling for about a kilometre. We were about to hit the actual white water where anything could happen and, if I didn’t paddle hard enough, the guide made it sound as though all 9 of us would die. To exacerbate matters, my entire left hand side was already hurting like hell from paddling on only one side and I still couldn’t work out if he was saying “Left” or “Right” whenever he commanded something in Russian. We were all paddling like mad to ensure we were travelling faster than the current was to avoid being pushed to the sides and imminent danger.

“Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” he barked. Paddle. Paddle. Paddle. Suddenly, we hit our first wave! An ocean of freezing cold water crashed over me, striking all the way to the bone. I shook my head to clear the water from my eyes, surged my paddle down to thrust us forward and found nothing but air. I tried again, this time collecting water but water that was returning back and working in the opposite direction. I couldn’t get the paddle to budge.

“Let’s go!” he screamed. Try again. More paddling. Another wave of arctic-like water drenched our clothes. But we could see the end. Which was great except for the fact some more monstrous rapids stood between us and the calm water in the distance. We went left, we went right. The water raced us past and over some more rocks. The guide yelled out some more commands in Russian. I just kept paddling, the lactic acid now forming all over my body. Oh no, another wave was approaching. We hit this one hard. I felt my bum leave the seat and dug my feet in beneath the ropes to hold on. The water ripped across the entire lot of us. I plunged back down and crashed onto the rubber raft, launching Elisha behind me like she was on a trampoline. I paddled and paddled. The guide continued to scream “Let’s go!” Paddle. Paddle. More spray. And finally, drenched, cold and fatigued, the end came.

I turned around, exhausted, and found that Elisha was clumsily laying in the middle of the raft, disorientated from when I’d launched her out of her seat.  A bump the other way and she most likely would have ended up in the slop just like her sister Jess had done in South America. I counted everyone. I think I’d saved everyone. At least that should keep the bloody guide quiet for a moment, instead of singling me out all the time. It was after I’d made sure Elisha was back in her seat that I realised the guide was sitting comfortably at the back with a smoke in his mouth. Bloody arsehole. It couldn’t have been that dangerous if he had time to light a cigarette.

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Over the remaining 13 kilometres, I think this version of the story was repeated about six times but you get the gist. When we were all safely back on land, we got seated down for lunch which, surprisingly, was one of the best meals I have ever had on a tour. Normally they feed you some rubbish soup and western tasteless crap but we were stuffed chockers with slow cooked beef that I just couldn’t get enough of. I think maybe now I realise where the “fat” comes from when they say big fat white Russian, even if I am the only one who uses that term.

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27. Dubrovnik // Croatia

Although you probably only need a day in Dubrovnik, we booked ourselves three nights to wind down after our boozy 7 nights on the cruise. In addition, Stu had made plans to make his way to meet us here during a rare 10 day break he had in between tours. Dubrovnik is one of those tourist hotspots so everything seems to be inflated by a dubious percentage and we were a little surprised to read an 8 bed hostel would set you back $50 per person. But as if that was to stop thrifty Elisha. Yet again, she was able to find us a 3 bed self-contained apartment right in the very heart of the old town for just $100 a night. That’s right! We could either suffer in an 8 bed dorm with 6 strangers or sleep peacefully in our own space for the exact same price. Upon checking in, we were to learn that we had in fact struck gold. The owner had been informed by Bookings.com to mark his apartment down from $300 a night to $100 a night for just one week to attract interest. He told us he massively regretted it and thought it a complete mistake but admitted we had been very lucky to get it so cheap. Win for us. Being around 60, he also volunteered some insight into the war, sharing information such as that very building we were standing in had been bombed three times, that the Yugoslavian Army had stood all around the hills, and he refused to go into Montenegro after having lost some very close friends in the battle. I think that was probably the only time in Croatia we heard someone speak so openly about the events with us.

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Anyway, Stu wasn’t due to arrive until the next day and, once our host left us with the key, we again felt an incredible emptiness decend upon us as we realised we were no longer on the boat and surrounded by 25 amazing people. The withdrawals were cataclysmic and not since I’ve seen a 10-packet-a-day smoker attempt to quit have I experienced anything like it. Luckily, we had made prior plans to catch up with a few from the boat who were staying in Dubrovnik later that night. So although the tears were streaming into a handful of Kleenex, we knew they would not have to fall for long. We passed the next few hours trying to remove the horrible week-long stench from our clothes in a laundromat, had numerous naps in the airconditioned room and, considering I was still to see any of the old city, went for bit of an aimless meander.

Six of the Brits and Jim & Amber joined us that evening for one last hurrah (albeit a rather tamed down version.) We got to relive all the moments from the boat, listen to one last story from Jon and chug down one last beer (rather gingerly.) The English were to play Italy at midnight which meant frantic-football-fanatic Frank was rushing us around like wild gazelle, screaming at waitresses to ascertain if the game was to be televised. With only moments to spare before the tip, the bounce, the kick-off (whatever you call it) he had all 10 of seated in front of a giant tv and, from then on, we never heard a peep from him again. Jim & Amber had an early flight to Athens the next morning so I think they said their goodbyes sometime around then and, after realising by halftime that nothing really ever does happen in soccer, I think we also said goodnight in unison with Chloe and Amber who were ready to call it quits. It was around now that the wind seemed to be picking up and the early signs of a storm began brewing nearby. Throughout the night, we woke up numerous times to some of the loudest claps of thunder I can recall.

From here, the weather didn’t change too much. And so, after a month of blissful sunshine and on the day Stu was to arrive, we had clouds, rain, drizzle, clouds, rain and drizzle. This sucked. Mostly because I still had not walked around the old town walls. There was no way you’d manage a good photo up there in this weather so regretfully, the walls and I never became a thing.

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Later that day, I saw a scraggly-haired nomad standing with a leather briefcase in the rain-drenched square below. So I ran down and let the scruff up. I’d last seen Stu in Frankfurt and it was good to have a couple days together again where music wasn’t the agenda and we could just chill and chat and exist like we did back in Debra Street. Only problem of course was that Elisha was there. God. The three of us grabbed some beers and we sat overlooking the ocean and Stu chatted about life and we chatted about the boat and he chatted about music and we chatted about the boat and he chatted about relationships and we chatted about the boat. Below our apartment was a restaurant, always packed, that our host had recommended and our British friends had also endorsed for us. That night we feasted on a plate of mussels in garlic, an octopus salad and some calamari. I think it may have been a sea food restaurant. As rain continued to fall and drench the area, we found another bar and spent the last few hours of the night watching some more of the World Cup, applauding the skill of some players and screaming profanities everytime a multi-million dollar player seemed to roll on the ground in seemless pain whenever a blade of grass scratched his knee.

There’s a photo museum in Dubrovnik which showcases both the Yugoslavian War from the 1990’s and the current Syrian War. We spent an hour in there the next morning and realised just how little we know about the current developments. I do need to read up on it some more. And also look at a map to see where Syria is. There were some graphic images in there, and plenty of pictures of both boys and men fighting in just everyday run of the mill clothes. We were then trying to make our way to a Sushi restaurant I had spotted a couple of days earlier (oh how we have missed sushi) when a deluge fell heavily from the sky. We sought refuge in an undercover bar and, what do you know, found our mouths moving in such a way that three beers soon formed before us. When we did make it to sushi, Stu generously paid for our lunch (which wasn’t cheap in tourist Dubrovnik) and the waiter gave us some rakija to finish – which you can never say no to.

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As Stu is on the road a lot and eating crap, Elisha always likes to cook him a roast when he visits. So that night she put on a roast chicken for us and we ate ourselves silly. This was followed by some more world cup. I can’t remember who played but I think the result went something like this: Nothing happened for 90 minutes. Then someone tripped over a blade of grass, rolled around in agony before the ref blew his whistle and waved a yellow card. Previously agonised player then mysteriously stands up in no pain at all to line up for a free shot and goal and oh, what do you know, scores and wins the game.

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Stu left us early the next morning for Trieste to meet some other people. We had a bus to catch shortly after for Kotor which would for the first time in about five weeks take us out of Croatia. We’d really come to like Croatia and were going to miss it. But, as we weren’t Croatian who can be as slow moving as a stubborn mule sometimes, it was time to keep moving.

“Hvala” Croatia (Although this means thank you – I don’t actually know how to say good bye.”

26. Croatia Sailing // Croatia

After five months of having virtually no one else to talk to, minus a few conversations in broken English, and after a week of finally giving the beers a break, we were a little hesitant to clamber aboard the boat where a week of boozy annihilation was surely awaiting us. Although check-in was at 11am, we extended our check-out at our current accommodation to delay the inevitable. However, despite our feeble attempts, the boat was to leave at 1pm and we did not want to miss that. So we slowly made our way to the harbour with our backpacks.

After some initial conversation with some Busabout staff, we navigated our way to our designated boat, Plomin. Our boat was four boats deep, meaning we had to waddle with our backpacks through four different boats, which were anchored side-by-side, in order to locate ours. A few wobbles and some precarious hopping between boats later, we were greeted by our tour-guide, Remy, and apparently the entire rest of the boat (as we were one of the last ones to arrive.)

Not to look the fools, and abolishing any crazy ideas we had formerly constructed that we were now sober, we grabbed a couple beers from the bar and joined everyone above deck. Now, I don’t think I’ll ever get onto it, nor would I be very entertaining if I did, but the experience had a very entering-the-Big-Brother-house-for-the-first-time feel. I immediately began deducing who I’d allocate my first votes to and who might be worth spending the next seven days with. The group was predominantly Australian (even the tour guide), partly British and contained 4 Croatian crew members. The Australian contingent comprised 8 Victorians, 2 West Australians, 3 New South Welsh, and 1 South Australian. There were 8 Brits. Oh and an Indian couple who I keep forgetting about. They were 46 and no one had any idea what they were doing on here. In fact, this will probably be the only mention they get as the boat hardly ever saw them as they were always off doing their own thing and trying to avoid the crazy partying.

Once we’d all found our rooms and dumped our bags, the boat pushed off from the port and we found ourselves in the dining area for lunch where Remy was giving us the rundown for the week ahead, using words like “annihilated” and “destroyed,” and following them with “liver.” He also warned us that later that afternoon, we would set off on the most strenuous hill-climb of the trip.

But first off was a swim and a dive from the “Busabout does not recommend you jump from the” top of the boat. So after an hour of cruising through crystal blue waters, we eventually anchored in a secluded bay and performed human canon balls from the “Busabout does not recommend you jump from the” top. This was good practice on who to allocate votes to for you could give a ranking on how graceful someone was as they entered the water. Once we were all back on board, we set sail for Omis, a place known for its rich pirate history. And Remy wasn’t lying. As we neared the docks, a small fortress could be seen way up high on the hill.

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“Yep, that’s where we’ll be walking to,” he said. Boardies off. Running gear on. The walk took about 45 minutes and was pretty much at a right angle to the earth. But when we finally got to the top, we were greated with fantastic views overlooking the ocean on one side and the Dalmatian hills on the other. We paid a small fee to a dubious looking man to enter the fortress perched up here. The fortress had been formerly used by the pirates to help control and defend Dalmatia for years against the threat of the Venetians.

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Normally, the first night is a Pirate Party. However, Remy reserved this for later in the week for when the World Cup commenced. But this was not to mean there would be no party this first night. We followed up the Captain’s Dinner (the captain was a 23 year old named Luka who challenged me for height) with a solid Happy Hour, smashing down beers like there was only one keg on board amid various drinking games on the back of the boat. A small bar operated somewhere in the town and we headed there once Happy Hour concluded. Well, some of us did. Apparently, a few others got lost and somehow found themselves mixed up in another bar with some of the other boats. For those that did make it, we were able to mingle a little with those from some of the other Busabout boats (I think there were 3 in the fleet from memory) and drink some more beers and some Rakija (a Croation whisky made from literally anything lying around and that could be fermented. There were up to 160 different flavours and could range from honey, grape, plum etc.) I think we stumbled back on board at around maybe 2am that first night.

The next day started a little slowly, as some hadn’t arrived back on board til well after us, and we made our way to a little town called Pucisca (after a morning swim of course) where some of the world’s best marble can be found. Interestingly, the US used the marble from here to build the White House. I think we were supposed to play a game of soccer here too but we were unable to as the grounds weren’t opened on a Sunday. After a decent rest up, we set sail for Makarska, known for (and as anyone who has been there will be familiar with) its Rave in the Cave! Another solid happy hour followed an early dinner (so again we played all my least favourite games, such as “Let’s make up completely made up stories to impress those around us with I have never” and “Let’s drink a cup full of everyone else’s dregs in Kings.”) We went for some pre-drinks at another bar where all the boats had gathered prior to the Rave in the Cave. Things got really funny for me here (and continued to throughout the night as I seemed to be the only one to remember anything.) First up, our British friend Jon. He later developed a reputation for his story telling that left us in stitches of laughter. But at this time, he left us in stitches of laughter when we found him passed out in his own vomit down a side street. I’d been quietly having a beer on the side and had seen him walk (quite stumbly-like, I’d call it Penguining) off around the corner and assumed the British must have just had this thing where they refused to pee in sensible places like the toilet provided by the bar and had to find some obscure location like the turned-over wheelbarrow behind Mrs Smith’s garden gnome. It wasn’t until an hour later when we were readying to leave that his 5 English friends began asking where he was. “Oh he walked off that way like an hour ago,” I said. Frantically, one of them ran off to search for him and I, intrigued, followed behind. And, yep, there he was, just one street away sitting on some nice Croatian family’s stairwell asleep with a puddle of vomit lapping at his feet. Nice surprise the owners would have had when they left for the bakery the next morning. Later on when he was retelling the story, he claimed he had ordered an “Ol’ fashioned” which is some sort of cocktail which occupies the bartender for 10 minutes as he painfully tries to make it. This bartender was a little more clued on and instead said “Nup, I’m not making you that. Here, try this instead,” and handed him an enticingly bright blue drink which mesmerised Jon like a fluorescent lure might a deep ocean fish. Five minutes later, Jon was gone. He never made it to the cave, nor made it past 9.30pm.

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Second story. Two of his other British friends had had me in hysterics earlier on too. Again, whilst I’d been sitting quietly enjoying my beer on my own, I’d noticed that number one British friend Martin had secured himself a catch of the female kind and sat her on the ledge not too far from me. He then next began making out with her in an old fashioned snogathon. Not my normal thing to look at for too long so I went back to my beer. The next moment I looked up, Martin had been replaced! Instead, number two British friend Olly was now performing in the royal tongue wrestle with random girl. The story I was told later was Martin had gotten up to get another drink. His friend Olly, never one to miss an opportunity, jumped right in! Wyly British. And that brings me to story three. Why was I sitting with a beer watching all this on my own? Well, normally I’d be hanging up with my buddy Jim from the boat. However, earlier he had given me a shot upon leaving the boat and I’d been planning to repay him back ever since. Remy had passed me and mentioned something called Stro. Actually, what had really caught my attention was “it’s 80% alcohol.” Fantastic. I went to the bar and considered maybe ordering a shot of that and a second shot of something that looked similar for myself. But drunk Elisha saw me go to the bar and said she wanted to try it too. So I ordered two shots of this 80% alcohol-black dredge and carried them back to Jim. He was already too drunk to notice my evil eyes and sinister smile when I placed one in front of him. However, still a little cautious, he needed some prodding and so I took a small sip from mine. I hardly had much. And, at first, it almost tasted all right. Until you counted to 5 and then bam, it hit. Everywhere. The other thing to know about Jim is that his palate is rather light. He won’t eat olives (although he has since sent a pic to me of him trying olive dip.) He won’t eat most vegetables. He won’t eat fish. He won’t eat chilli. He won’t eat mushrooms. Nothing. He’s a boy from a dairy farm and he drinks milk. Lots of it. Litres and litres of milk each day. So when I was struggling to down just a sip of this stuff I just knew he was going to struggle. My sinister smile turned into a Xerxes-like grin as he put the glass to his lips . . . and he didn’t even make it to three seconds. Saliva began forming. Drool spilled from his dangling tongue and then it happened. Convulses of bile. Hurls of spew. I was in hysterics. I couldn’t have planned it better. The best part was his girlfriend Amber was there. Now, normally a lover would stand beside you and pull your hair back. But no. She didn’t do that. She just whipped out her camera, held it in his face and put it on flash fire!!! So needless to say, he remembered this all night and didn’t want to speak to me again at all. All that was left for me was to sit on my own, with a beer, and watch the rest unfold.

All this happened before we even got to the Rave in the Cave. I was feeling a little sorry for flooring Jim, as well as incredible guilt everytime he glared at me. So I did the noble thing and bought him a bottle of over-priced water from across the road. He initially appreciated it. However, now that he was completely drunk on 80% spirits, he seemed to quickly forget and it was like he looked down, saw a bottle of throwing water in his hand and proceeded to pour it all over me. Last time I buy water for someone. I’ll just continue to be a dick I think. But I still got another laugh out of him. It’s probably best to start from Amber’s perspective. As she was walking to the Rave in the Cave, she suddenly felt Jim run into her from behind. In a complete haze, he was staring at her and asking “What the hell just happened?” She looked at him and said “How did you get that massive graze on your face?” Now, from my perspective. As I was walking to Rave in the Cave behind Jim, we had to walk up three small cement steps. Before he could even surmount the first, he took a massive stack and rolled his way onto the ground, clambered back up and fell into the back of Amber. That’s right. In the matter of 0.3 seconds between falling over and asking her “What the hell just happened?” he couldn’t remember the stack he just had.

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From here, the night gets a bit hazy but I heard Justin decided to walk out of the club and go for a swim (the cave steps out onto a beach,) we saw Luka and so Zac decided to shout a round of four Jaeger Bombs, however we were too drunk to notice the barman never added the Jaeger, all the tour guides revealed why they loved their job by hitting on all the new girls in the group, 22 year old skinny arse Ryan picked up and turned 100kilo me over on his shoulder for a whole minute, some crazy mash dancing, some more shots and I think we found a kebab somewhere on the way home. To Plomin’s credit, our crew was surely one of the last standing. Day two over and out.

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Day three began very differently for Elisha and I. Whilst I was able to prove to everyone that partying doesn’t stop at age 30 by having a beer at 12 o’clock, Elisha was still tucked up in bed feeling sorry for herself and depositing little pieces of the previous night’s kebab into our cramped toilet bowl. It was confirmed the night was crazy for all when I heard Remy say at breakfast “I’ve got to head out for 10 minutes to buy a new phone.” The morning was extremely slow, with slow swims, slow showers, slow breakfast and slow sunbaking. Elisha did manage to make lunch but after spending 15 minutes staring at her risotto and not being able to will her arm to lift her fork, she trudged back to her room to, she claims, “brush her hair.” But that’s fine because it was important she sobered up. That afternoon we were going to Stari Grad where we would visit a winery and drink wine into the sunset. The winery was probably one of the highlights for Elisha and I. The owners had basically transformed the area into a self-sustaining farm, where everything was organic, fresh, grown on site – basically what we would call a dream, a place where you could have full control over what you ate and drank. Everyone who has ever had a wine with me from back home knows just how much of a wanky cork-dork I can be. But whereas you have all had many years to look past this lame part of me and instead see the cuddly bear that lives beneath, if I was to swirl and sniff and sip the wine here, I was sure to have no one speak to me again. A lot of restraint was required. We tried four wines, two whites, a red and a rose. None of the wines were too serious. The first white was a seasonal summer wine, the second a little fuller with some acidity, the red was pretty surprising as most Croatian Pravac are – with good legs, dry tannin and the rose was a good dry style. (And now I’ve just lost any other last readers I may have had.) But the real highlight was the Peke. We had seen this around Croatia but you could only ever order it if you had more than 4 people. I guess you could say Peke is the Croatian’s version of a Sunday Roast – but just a gazillion times better. Pieces of lamb and veal (still on the bone) are cooked in a round-bottomed bell-shaped cast-iron oven. The burning wood is laid all over it so heat is applied from all sides. Oh and amidst the meat are vegetables (all handpicked just minutes before from the garden) which cook and simmer in the hot juices that leak from the meat. Mouth watering. I didn’t even try to be polite when it came out. I just dived in and grabbed every big hunk of meat I could find, every juicy potato I could dig out and every tasty garlic, onion and carrot I could scrape from the bottom. Then I took a sip from my red wine and quietly discussed the food-matching capabilities of the wine to myself under my breath. Not very social but I was definitely in my element.

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Everyone was pretty boozed and exhausted when we got back and probably still recovering from the night before. Whilst Elisha went for a quiet stroll with Amber and Renee through Stari Grad, I joined 6 or 7 of the boys and headed to a tiny waterfront bar for a couple of beers and some Foosball. But after three nights of beer-drinking games and “I have never,” I was finding all the guys discussion topics of “Drinking” and “Sex” a little tedious and two dimensional. After listening to Jon tell some of the funniest stories I had ever heard at lunch, I decided it was time for some change.

We were headed for Hvar on day four, a small celebrity hotspot that had recently hosted Jay-Z and Beyonce and soon, myself. We arrived very late in the day which probably meant we had spent the rest of the day swimming in crystal blue waters and sailing in crystal blue waters and just looking out over crystal blue waters. Smug? Yes. Another walk to a fortress was on the cards. However, as we’d already seen one on this trip and an even better one back in Sibenik, we gave it a miss and hung back with a few others who’d decided not to go (you can call us the lazy group.) What was interesting in Hvar (and most of Croatia) were the number of sea urchins in the water. Elisha explained to me that these are gourmet delicacies in a lot of places around the world and she just couldn’t understand why these weren’t being farmed or why they didn’t feature on any menus. We had dinner at a seafood restaurant and Elisha and I shared a seafood platter. This place was actually owned by the people who owned the farm where we had eaten the Peke the day before. The attraction that night was the Kiva bar where you can order Tequila Booms. What’s a Tequila Boom? Great question. A Tequila Boom is a great idea a barman had once to hit customers over the head after taking their money. Let me elaborate. You ask for a Tequila Boom. That will be x amount of money, they say. Here’s my money, you say. You hand them your money. They hand you a helmet. You put the helmet on your head. They make a quick tequila concoction in front of you. They pick up the cocktail shaker and tell you to lean forward. Then they smack the shaker against your head repeatedly as hard as they can until the cocktail is “shaken, not stiiiirrred.” I got off easily as I was first of four in line. But poor Elisha, down the other end. The guy unleashed on her. She stills claims that she can’t even remember doing one.

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It was another huge night that got pretty messy. She thought she had done ok when she thought she had only done 8 shots. But, after some further checking-off-stories with Amber later, they both recalled they had done 19 each!!! I somehow found myself dancing on the bar with Renee and Amelia/Chloe (I don’t remember which.) But as the bar was pretty small, I was crunched over like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. Remy tried passing us some fire twirlers but I, being drunk, grabbed them by the fire end firstly. Ouch. More shots. More drunk. And then home time. Some time. I don’t think I even remember getting home that night.

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Everyone was happy for some down time on Day five. But of course, that didn’t happen. My guts were feeling pretty destroyed at this point. And I could hear some rumblings that I weren’t sure belonged to the ship or to me. We headed to Korcula, the home of Marco Polo. This was one of the most beautiful Croatian towns we visited. All the old historic turrets had been transformed into cocktail bars, the laneways reminded me of a really tight and quaint Venice and the sunset was amazing. Anyway, I would have liked to have enjoyed any of that if I didn’t have to run off in the restaurant to the toilet or, when everyone was having a cocktail, I had to run off to the boat to find the toilet. Probably a sign I needed a day of the beer. So as everyone came back I did the smart thing and grabbed a beer. It was a pretty chilled night and most people said no to heading out again. So whilst the conversation of drinking and sex moved off the boat, I was able to chat to a few of the British guys and receive a two hour education on “FOOTBALL.” They went right through the politics, the salaries, the relegations, the players, the system, the capitalism and by the end of it, I’d forgotten it all and was still calling it soccer. But god, was it refreshing to talk about anything other than being drunk and sex. So after learning all there is to know about soccer, and after another 3 beers, I excused myself and ran back downstairs to use the toilet.

The next day we went to Mijet for a national park. Elisha and I had already been to one in Skradin and found it overpriced so we weren’t too keen to do it again. We were the only two not to go but upon people arriving back, they didn’t say we had missed all too much. What was important was that it was Thursday and that meant the first night of the World Cup – between Brazil and CROATIA. Our captain took us to the smallest town he could find where the arrival of our fleet basically doubled the population of the town. Tonight was also the captain’s dinner and the Pirate Party. All dressed in our cheap costumes and armed with plastic swords and weapons, we all looked completely out of place as we drank in the port of this peacefully quiet little town. Luka addressed us for dinner and thanked us all for joining him aboard and hoped we’d had fun. Supposedly, our boat had consumed 3 kegs of beer in the time it had taken the previous tour to finish just one. That of course filled us with pride and then we rushed to try and finish another. A small bar had set up some small tv’s for us to sit around and watch the opening game. Dressed in pirate gear and some Croatian colours, we did our best to get in the way of the locals who were actually there to see the game. Croatia of course lost 3-1 so that meant our captain and our chef and our barman and boathand were unhappy. I have a suspicion Tito the boathand actually stole my sunnies from up on deck that night. They weren’t there the next day and Renee, who was doing the return trip, alleges she saw him wearing them.

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The next day was to bring us into the port of Dubrovnik where we would party one last night, get one more night’s sleep in an uninsulated room and have one more chance for a swim. Now this was my time to be bed ridden. After the previous night’s Pirate Party, I’d apparently had too many double rum and cokes and I just wasn’t getting out of bed that morning. Elisha failed to get me up for breakfast. I failed to get myself up for a swim. I failed to get up once the boat’s engines started. And I failed to get up when they stopped. I did, however, manage to get up for lunch. Elisha saw me walk in, sit at a table and then looked again and saw that I was gone. Yep, down stairs for about my 3rd spew. She again failed to get me up when we arrived in Dubrovnik or when everyone caught the bus into the town centre to climb the walls. It wasn’t until about 4pm that I finally managed to get up without spewing. I said hello to the barman and had a quick chat about the game and how bad the reffing was, then I walked aimlessly up and down the harbour trying to find a familiar face – which proved hard to do when they were all 6kms away in the town. Eventually, people returned and we planned to head into the city again for dinner (breakfast for me) and one last club. Whilst everyone else was able to get on and use the bus with ease having learnt from before, I fumbled with the doors and tickets and just really with anything that was happening that day. I showed some maturity at dinner and ordered a salad with no drink. We grabbed one last group photo and then headed to some bar that had a name, I don’t remember. I do remember feeling perturbed that it had a “no guns” warning on the wall. It was monstrous. We headed upstairs and grabbed some beers to watch Australia get pummelled by Chile. I sat on my beer for a long long time. The game ended. We went downstairs where more party party club blah blah was going on. I do not like clubs. Loud. Noisy. So many drunk people. Blah blah. I think we pulled the plug pretty early. Renee, Jim & Amber and Elisha & I shared a couple of cabs and went back to the port, ate some weird ham and tomato like sandwiches (apparently Jim will in fact eat that but not peas) and went to bed.

I was feeling a little better in the morning, even more so as I watched people enter breakfast like they had been smacked in the face with a potato sack. It was time to check out and say goodbye to everyone. Elisha and I grabbed a coffee across the road to get some internet and work out where our next hotel was and so I could radio stream the Suns game. Funnily, I think we also saw almost everyone from the boat walk back and forth for the next two hours as we sat there like they refused to let go. Oh I also found our key in my pocket so had to run that back before the boat took off with its new group which made me feel as easily replaced as Splinter’s Foot Soldiers. Anyways, I’m about as tired writing this blog as you probably are reading it. But hopefully that exhaustion gives you a little sense of what the week was like. Bloody epic and bloody exhausting.

 

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