There’s A Hole In My Bucket List

Day 27 on the blog post a day in May. mixing up travel and lists. Should feel right at home

“YEAH, that’s on the bucket list.”

It’s a standard response every time conversation drifts to travel and places which have never been to, but is it any more than a standard reply?

Largely not (sorry if you have been on the receiving end) as simply do not have a bucket list. Unless you count a mental list of pretty much any place, sight, experience, country, bar or whatever else is on offer, wherever it might be in the world.

Why limit yourself to what you can jot down on a list?

Have a love of lists. Find me a Top 100 this or Best Five that on something vaguely interesting and will gobble it up.

And no job, project or travelling is too small not to draw up a things to do list in preparation (the discovery of Google Docs has added a whole new dimension to this obsession – if only did not spend too much time drawing and redrawing to-do lists to actually work my way through them).

But never drawn up a bucket list for travel or anything else.

Any list of things to be done “before you die” drives me nuts – when else are you supposed to do it?

Anything “… Before 30” or any other age is just as bad. Why limit yourself? Do it when it suits you

Yeah, that’ll make the list

As someone who did not start traveling even half seriously until well into his 30s and was pushing 40 with a mortgage before my first major overland trip, would not have made the most of those experiences if they had been done before some arbitrary deadline – probably would not be planning another one either.

Don’t get me started on the phrase trip of a lifetime. What, we only get one?

Have tinkered with trying to get the mass of places on my mental want to see list onto paper (showing my age there – clearly would be tapped into a laptop) but it soon became obvious it would have been ridiculously long, endlessly growing and never fully achievable.

And besides, some of my greatest travel experiences would never have made it on there.

Africa certainly was not on my list. Sure, seeing wildlife up close would be on any list and always wanted to visit South Africa after it became a regular subject of my work life (ditto New Zealand – one day).

An overland trip from London to Sydney was always the likelier plan, but got diverted by a chance email to reading the itinerary of Oasis Overland’s Trans Africa adventure and was in.

Ask me to draw up a retrospective bucket list (if for no other reason then the thrill of crossing things off) and it would be full of places, extraordinary sights and unplanned moments from that trip.

Although not sure you can foresee a cheetah eating your flip-flop.

Flip flop not pictured

The same is true of the upcoming South America journey – was all ready to sign up to London to Singapore overland and then make my own way down to Australia and New Zealand.

And, surprisingly enough, got distracted. Read the itinerary on the website and, hey presto, South America was suddenly at the top of the list.

The prospect of trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – never really considered not that long ago – is exciting and terrifying me in equal measure.

Working through a bucket list also limits the chance to go back, revisit and savour favourite places. A lot of travellers are not so keen, but nothing wrong with mixing up old and new (if time and money was no issue, would happily do the whole Trans Africa again).

But amid that mass of things fighting for attention in my head with any other shiny things which grab my attention,

So here is a very brief bucket list. The elite level of travel wish list to be completed one day.

All 50 States

This one has been kicking around for a while and briefly considered a quest to finish all 50 before 50 – a plan complicated by a friend’s suggestion to try it in one trip, which sent me off on a bit of a diversion for a while.

Time is running out on that one – a year to go, of which about two thirds will be spent in South America – so will do it at my own leisure.

Had been stuck on 39 for a while until ticking off West Virginia last year (somehow managed to go all around it twice) so 10 to go.

For the record, they are Michigan (the only one missing east of the Mississippi), Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Hawaii.

Mt Rushmore
Route 66

Huge fan of the American road trip and this is the ultimate, as well as ticking off several of those missing states.

London to Sydney

Worked for a company which ran overland trips from the UK to Australia (its demise was not due to my stint selling the trips, he says confidently) and was due to make the trip myself. There are unused Indian and Nepalese visas in an old passport.

And twice been distracted from heading out on this route by other trips. One day.

Singapore/Malaysia

Never been there, but partly responsible for my wanderlust.

Where my father served on National Service and he always talked about going back with my mum when they retired. That they never had the chance is what spurs me on to go now, you never know what is round the corner.

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Borders and Visas

Day 26 of the bid to write a blog post a day in May and time to tackle two things which will get in the way of any long-distance travel plans.

Not the standard border – arriving in Whittier, Alaska

TWO things in life are certain, according to Benjamin Franklin, death and taxes.

And however you choose to do it, two things are certain for travellers – borders and visas.

They are (mainly) more of an inconvenience or necessary evil than any great hurdle, but they can delay you long enough to disrupt plans or force a quick rethink when somebody has changed the rules.

But no amount of complaining or arguing is going to change all that – chances are, it is merely going to extend your wait. That guy with the right to say yea or nay is going to be behind that desk all day, it makes no difference to him if you wait there with him or not.

The majority of borders you travel through will be fairly straightforward, your passport acting as the one piece of official documentation you need and it all comes down to whichever security

Some countries will require a little more while others will always come up with that extra piece of paper you never knew existed and which somebody crossing the same border days before had crossed without.

That’s borders (and chunks of travel in general), just accept it, sit back and wait for someone to let you through – sometimes they will eventually become as keen to send you on your way as you are to get moving again.

But to help you along, here is some totally not comprehensive advice on easing your way through the process of securing visas and crossing borders.

The world’s second biggest country, just in case you missed it

Visas

Visas come in three main types – online registration, physical pieces of paper in your passport (both of which you need in advance) and those you can pick up at the border. Most will cost you something so budget ahead.

Online registration such as an ESTA for the USA can be pretty quick and you will get an answer in hours or a couple of days (had an ESTA granted in minutes after filing it in a checkout queue at the airport after forgetting the old passport with my US visa in).

But if you need an actual visa or stamp in advance, chances are the form will be a bit more complicated and require either an appointment at the embassy, sending your passport off or both.

Some (Russia and China, for example) require a letter of invitation while the different picture requirements add extra variety – India and the USA require very definite sizes, other countries need specific background colours (which made for some interesting trips to photo shops in Ghana).

Visiting an embassy differs hugely.

For an American visa in the UK, it means a trip to London for an appointment and an interview. If granted, you should get your passport back in about a week and make sure you take note of what you can and can’t take in with you for security reasons (pretty much nothing goes in).

In the case of Mongolia, the bloke told us we could have it back the next day until we told him we were only in London for the day. For a small fee, we had it back in half an hour.

All this sending your passport off means you can only have one application going at a time, so plan ahead, starting with finding out how long the visa lasts – no point getting the visa before you go if it runs out before you are in (and, more importantly, out) of the country.

Which means for long trips, chances are you will be chasing visas on the road.

If going with a company, they will know the best places to pick up visas (often grabbing two or three while staying in major cities) but for solo travellers it means a fair amount of research before the off.

The process of securing the visas varies, ranging from a few hours to several days and it can be hard to predict.

Our Mauritanian visa in Rabat was pretty much the quickest in a few hours – having all queued up to basically pay and apply through a hole in the embassy wall – while others took much longer.

General rule of thumb is at least a few hours waiting around the embassy, filling in a form and a quick meeting with whoever is making the decision. It may take a while and a fair amount of paperwork so get comfortable.

Always a good idea to have something reasonably clean and smart (embassy shirts) stashed away rather than rolling up in shorts and flip flops. A good book is not a bad idea either.

Don’t get me started on single or double entry visas or officials who take a rather different view to what an expiry date might actually mean.

Eventually, you get those precious pieces of paper or stamps in your passport and it is time to head to the border…

Feeling at home on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

Border

Any self-respecting traveller will have tales to tell of bizarre or nightmare border crossings – 56 hours camping at a remote Nigerian-Cameroon crossing, the whole train carriage being lifted onto new wheels between Mongolia and China, the unexpected air conditioned cafe at the shiny new Sudan-Egypt border or the US border official at Niagara not believing my night would be spent on the floor of a bus en route to New York.

Modern technology is transforming many borders – that ESTA you applied for will pop up on the border guard’s screen when your passport is scanned and, increasingly, you can do all that yourself at self-service passport desks.

But it is not all time saving, as border crossings away from the tourist trail will quickly prove.

One of the joys of Africa is its ability to make things unnecessarily complicated, so every new piece of technology to deal with border arrivals merely adds a new level of bureaucracy.

Yes, they use computers to deal with the details, logging all the information. As well as entering them into the old-fashioned ledgers by hand which they have always done.

Remember, each crossing involves going through this process twice – into one country and out of another, sometimes yards apart, sometimes miles. They all like to be a bit different.

And there could well be the odd health check or extra paperwork to worry about – we headed through West Africa on the heels of the 2014 ebola outbreak so getting our temperature taken (via the ear) was pretty standard, as well as producing your yellow fever vaccination certificate.

The record for all this, for a group of up to 20-odd people, was inside two hours (they wanted to go home as much as we wanted a beer) but chances are you can box out much of the day for getting through the whole border process.

Simple rule of thumb, more tourists and travellers they get coming through, quicker it will be. They are just more tooled up to deal with it.

Again, it is best to accept it, settle back and await your fate – getting frustrated is not going to help anyone or make the guy who always seems to be waiting for that final clearance to do anything to get it sorted quicker.

Sit back, read a book, change some money (if anyone asks, didn’t tell you that), play cards, relax before you head off on the next leg of your journey. Best to leave the camera alone.

And that piece of paper in your passport is a pretty good memento of the trip.

The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The one that’s not a big waterfall
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Summer Song

Day 25 of the blog post a day in May challenge and we enter the final week with a touch of egg chasing.

“I put a note in my diary today. It simply says… ‘bugger’.

Captain Kevin Darling, Blackadder Goes Forth

THERE was a time on the way back from Gloucester’s Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens when today’s blog post was going to ape Captain Darling’s diary entry.

It wasn’t really the way the season was meant to end, going down 44-19 and, to be frank, not really being in the contest for much of the 80 minutes.

But ‘bugger’ does not really do the positive mood among Gloucester fans justice – and they are not normally too slow in having a good moan. Think we had enough time knowing the outcome was inevitable to come to terms with it.

It is perhaps a fitting epitaph to today’s game, but not to this season which has been studded with highlights and third place, our highest finish for… look, it’s late, it’s been a long day. Do you really want me to look it up? Trust me, it’s been a while.

We beat the top two (one of them twice), didn’t lose to our biggest rivals, returned to the play-offs and the top level of European competition without being embarrassed (safe to say that, the one heavy defeat was the only home game without me in The Shed all season).

And we have welcomed new stars from the Southern Hemisphere (Franco Mostert is on his way to a statue in the city centre which is likely to tackle passers-by, get up and keep on doing it) and just down the road – try of the season scorer Ollie Thorley, once of Cheltenham College.

Familiar faces like Ben Morgan have shown their true worth (even the bloke behind me in The Shed seems to have stopped complaining about him) while Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain have performed wonders as, for a long time, the only fit, experienced props.

And then there’s Danny Cipriani.

The player of the season – don’t take our word for it, pretty much every individual award has gone his way – announced himself with a real ‘I was there’ moment with a ridiculous scoring pass in the home opener and (bar brief injury and suspension breaks) has not really let up compiling his personal highlight reel.

If only Eddie Jones felt the same way we do ahead of the World Cup – although, given events in Jersey and Munster, maybe a good job if we don’t let him head off to play on another island.

Yep, it’s been a good season but let’s not kid ourselves – we were, by some distance, second best today.

Saracens are a formidable outfit who have hit top form at the right time, claiming a third European Champions Cup success two weeks ago and bringing that form into today’s clash.

Which serves as a reminder, if anyone needed it, that there’s a long way to go for Gloucester.

Johan Ackermann has just completed his second full season as head coach – his opposite number Mark McCall has been there a decade and has built an extraordinary machine crammed with top-notch players (Maro Itoje was remarkable today while if Ben Spencer is not in England’s World Cup squad, questions need to be asked).

That’s a lot of ground to make up on the pitch, that we travelled with a degree of hope shows how far we have come.

And we travelled in numbers – reckon at least half of the 9,500 crowd were clad in Cherry and White. Which is a remarkably low number for the champions of Europe in a semi-final of the top domestic competition.

Don’t want to knock Saracens or their fans, the vast majority of whom were welcoming, fun and enjoyed the occasion with us – every club has a few cocks, we certainly do, and the less said about the one by us who decided to celebrate tries in such confrontational fashion the better.

One question though. When cruising to a final place, do you really need to be urged to ‘make some noise’ over the tannoy throughout the final quarter? Kingsholm would have been rocking throughout.

Not the place then for the bloke sat next to me who got upset his conversation was interrupted by shouts of “Glawster, Glawster…”.

To the rest of the Saracens fans who were excellent, good luck in the final.

To the Gloucester fans licking their wounds, let’s end this in the finest possible style (if not the best quality)…

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About the Light to Hey Heartbreaker

Day 24 of the blog post a day in May (and the 200th post on Travel Marmot) with a bit of tidying up in the A-Z iPod Challenge – with a little bit of politics thrown in.

A FORMER editor once stared at the list of sports stories presented at Monday morning conference for that day’s paper, glared at me and shook his head.

That was not that unusual, but this was for different reasons to normal.

No, he was not interested in what was being put forward for the back page or what we had spent much of Sunday coaxing into the pullout. He had his own idea for the big story from the weekend.

As all eyes turned to me – my colleagues revelling in the complete state of confusion taking over my face – as he outlined what he had in mind.

The entire golf club, he explained, had been gripped by TV coverage of one our golfers fighting for victory in a leading US event. Appalled that nobody else seemed to be covering our local boy’s achievements, he wanted that all over the back page.

It was all anyone could talk about the night before, one of ours beating the best in the world, it would be what our readers wanted to see on a Monday.

Totally confused, returned to my desk to find out what was going on. My colleagues were not much use, so scanned the news wires… still nothing. Eventually, went in hunt of the TV listings to find out what had been on and discovered what had happened.

Armed with the listings magazine and a cutting from a past paper, returned to the editor’s office to explain what was going on. And why, as he had demanded to know, we had missed it.

As diplomatically as possible, pointed out he and his golf club friends had been watching a re-run of the previous year’s event after the live coverage had been washed out by rain – our local guy having missed the cut two days earlier this time around.

His success the previous year was reported in the cutting.

Have used this tale a few times over the years to illustrate the dangers of listening to a small group, special interest or section of readership, however vocal, when deciding what we should concentrate on as journalists.

And it seemed somehow apt listening to the reaction and fallout as Theresa May finally succumbed to the inevitable and announced the schedule for her departure as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister.

As those who have been messily plodding on with their prolonged political assassinations – a milk shake would appear to carry more cutting edge than any of their thrusts – came out of hiding to push themselves forward, the golf club could easily be substituted for the Conservative Party and various subsets within it.

Confined to listening to the people around them – largely there because they share the same views and ambitions – they are unable to contextualise anything and see the bigger picture. That what they are claiming is for the greater good is really for the greater good of their immediate peers.

Take one Steve Baker MP.

Sure confirmed politicos know exactly who Steve Baker is but for the uninitiated (had to check this), he is the Tory MP for Wycombe and deputy chairman of the European Research Group (basically the Brexit wing of the Conservatives).

That’s deputy to Jacob Rees-Mogg, having succeeded the odious Mark Francois.

And he filled the empty time on BBC News just before Mrs May emerged from Number 10 to announce her decision by explaining he could be in the running because “some colleagues” thought he should.

That’s some colleagues in a small – if powerful – part of a governing party which cannot command a majority in Parliament as a mandate for a run at the top job in the land.

And according to reports, around 15 other Conservatives think they have the same sort of backing to take the job.

Some of my colleagues have suggested my performances in the office quiz were enough to apply for Pointless. Other stupider ideas have been suggested by friends over a few pints.

They have as much weight as Steve Baker’s claim to the iron lady’s old throne (zeitgeist meets political gag there). But were soundly ignored (well, bar a few of them after a few pints)

Baker and his pals have summed up a lot of the problems gumming up any progress in British politics – not just Conservatives by the way, before someone accuses me of bias (they just happen to be the ones, supposedly, in power).

More than happy to lob a verbal milkshake in the path of other parties. Or anything whatsoever to do with Farage.

They are all so cloistered in their own clubs – golf or otherwise – watching their own interests, hearing what they want to hear on social media and disregarding (or discrediting) the rest, they cannot break out and see that for all the talk of compromise, it is destined to remain elusive if they see everything as binary and insist only the other side should be making any changes.

What do they know of Brexit, who only Brexit know?

(To quote Kipling – or more accurately steal a Billy Bragg line – for the second time in a week).

What they need to do, in a desperate attempt to get this away from politics to the matter at hand, is have a look around and see what else is going on.

Which is what the A-Z iPod Challenge has been doing (told you it was desperate) with a catch-up on the tracks from A-H which have dropped into the alphabetical list after that section was covered.

Been a while since we did this so there’s a lot which does not seem new – tracks from last year’s joined album of the year from Idles for starters

Same goes for the likes of Low, Mogwai, Jason Isbell’s live album and Five Eight among others.

Deafheaven soundtracked all 20 minutes on a gym bike – very loudly – with two tracks and there was promising new(ish) or largely unexplored stuff from Drema Wife, The Orielles and Better Oblivion Community Centre.

We also had some vintage Madder Rose, downloaded after a night sidetracked by the suggestions on You Tube.

And it was rounded off by two great white hopes from Ireland – Fontaines DC, who were raved about in the last post but make no apologies for banging on about, and The Murder Capital.

We certainly don’t want any sort of border keeping that sort of stuff out.

  • One last thing on the whole milkshake throwing debate. As much as the sight of Farage, Yaxley-Lennon and co being cut down to size is to be savoured, not a fan of them being thrown – however much they have brought it on themselves. Mind you, the prospect of large numbers of people merely holding them as they walk by…
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What’s your Favourite…?

Day 23 of the blog post a day in May and we are off on our travels with a list. Two of my favourite things.

GET home from any long trip and it will not be long before somebody asks a question that starts “what was your favourite…?”.

The most common end to that question is place or country and, to be honest, no matter how many times it has been asked, not sure have ever given a proper answer.

Always had to veer off on a tangent, explaining that favourite moments on overland trips are not so much based on places but memories or moments, where they were is not necessarily the key factor in why they were so great.

Often reel off Rwanda among my favourite African countries, but was only there for about 72 hours.

Those three days included an extraordinary hour with mountain gorillas, a harrowing if hugely worthwhile trip to the Kigali Genocide Museum (both of which are real must sees) and a bizarre afternoon at an eccentric bowling alley.

It is also a beautiful country, known as the land of a thousand hills, but can that really qualify it as one of my favourite places of all my travels?

The same applies to the remaining moments picked out as my five favourites from 10 months on the road in Africa – an afternoon with the children of Lake Bunyoni in Uganda, an evening camping the heart of an isolated village in Cote d’Ivoire, digging a truck out of a waterlogged hole in the Congo and a visit to an orphanage in Ghana.

Trans Africa – The Best and the Worst

All amazing, but enough to land on my favourite places list? Probably not. Even goats on trees is not a good enough reason to lift Morocco onto that list.

Equally, having a few gripes about a place is not necessarily enough to disqualify it – Zimbabwe made it on my best and worst countries in Africa list, such are the delights and frustrations of a remarkable nation.

So have finally tried to work on a definitive list of my favourite places, defined by the city, country or region itself being what earned that ranking rather than some fleeting moment or experience.

Also need to have spent a certain amount of time there – love loads of places having spent very little time there, often just passing through – and the one guarantee of this list is that am determined to go back there. But that’s a very long list.

Diving in to this without having settled on the definitive list – suggest will want to change it pretty much immediately and fairly certain it will include a fair amount of places in the States.

Kept it to 10 or we could be here all day – can rattle on about endless number of places absolutely love – and in no particular order.

Boston
No surprise on this one, have long had a bit of a love affair with the state capital of Massachusetts (not the one in Lincolnshire).

Feel instantly comfortable and relaxed there – my overseas destination of choice to just get away from it all and feel under no pressure to go sightseeing or charge around ticking off the must-sees.

Wandering around Boston, hanging out in a bar or catching a Red Sox game is my version of a beach holiday.

Boston for First Timers

New York
Could easily live in Boston, not sure that is the case with New York but a few days always an exciting prospect, but with the similar feeling of being on familiar – if more hectic – ground.

You cannot run out of things to do, places to see and have every intention of doing and seeing a lot more there.

Watching the Red Sox win in Yankee Stadium would be near the top of the list.

New York for First Timers

Deep South
Bit of a cheat this one, lumping together such a large and varied area but it contains a huge number of places which could easily have made it in their own right.

From the antebellum charm of Charleston – which will always have a special place in my heart – and Savannah to the music capitals of Memphis and Nashville (plus Austin, Texas, which strictly doesn’t qualify) via any number of stops in smalltown America.

And for each of those memorable major centres, there are countless smaller stops, all with the requisite southern charm and fantastic scenery – if you are going to take one road trip, try the Skyline Drive and Blue Ridge Parkway twisting through the Appalachians. Or the Great River Road down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Could go on and on.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Alaska
The largest state of the union is one of its least accessible, but one of its most rewarding.

It is huge (it is the most northerly, westerly and easterly state, courtesy of a geographical quirk) and that size strikes you at every turn. You will travel for hours between stops and, if the weather is good in the summer, there will rarely be a poor view.

Several American national parks could have made this list – Yosemite, Yellowstone, Badlands, even the Grand Tetons which gave this blog its name – but Alaska just does it all bigger and better.

Edinburgh
You do not have to travel across the globe to find memorable cities – Edinburgh has always provided a great stop and each visit (all far too short, often far too drunk or with too much time spent working, occasionally both) leaves me wanting to go back for more.

Cornwall
Slightly surprised that a place not visited for years makes the list, but could not find a reason to take it off. My Dad always used to say ‘if the weather is right, you can’t do better’ and he’s not too far from the truth.

Cape Town/Western Province
Definitely topped the list of places to go back to in Africa, largely because it is simply stunning and Cape Town provides a wonderful centrepiece.

The Beautiful South

Bamako
The capital of Mali was not on our original itinerary and events in the north of the country have not exactly helped it as a travel destination. But the chaos, friendliness and sheer fun introduced us to what was to come in sub-Saharan African.

Beijing
There are people who have trouble with China and, yes, there is a lot to question. But it is a remarkable place, a history and a culture which is totally new to anyone from the west. And the best place for street food.

Namibia
Had to include one African country. Nearly went for the whole west coast or some of the wildlife hotspots of the east. But Namibia combines the best of both – amazing wildlife experiences, the sense of wilderness of West Africa and its own extraordinary natural sights. It is also a mecca for thrillseekers and overlanders, who come together after weeks or months on the road.

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