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House Sitting in the UK

It was tough leaving the USA and even tougher selling the RV, our home for six months while we traveled around the southern states. But now we were back in England looking forward to house sitting in Reading.

I had grown up close by, so it was interesting to see how Reading had developed from my memory of a dingy, soulless town into a vibrant, modern city.

We were looking after an apartment that overlooked a park and the River Thames, just a short walk across the bridge to the city center. We had no car but we really didn’t need one here as the we could almost see the train station from our balcony!

This is one of those house sits that nearly didn’t happen. We were scheduled to look after Karen’s country home and her dogs for three weeks while she traveled. But a personal issue meant that she had to cancel and so no longer needed a sitter. However, she knew that we were flying in from the US and that it was too short notice for us to easily secure another assignment, and so she offered up her second property that was in the process of being sold.

Our house sitting home in Reading

Our house sitting home in Reading

This is what’s so lovely about the house sitting community. On the whole, and I believe because no money changes hands, everything is handled on the basis of trust and respect. People don’t want to let each other down, and Karen was amazing in this respect. When we arrived at the apartment, she’d even stocked up the fridge for us and put the heating on. What great hospitality.

So what exactly is house sitting?

House Sitting is a trend that’s become extremely popular over the last few years. It’s now a recognized alternative to a regular vacation and a great accommodation option for longer term travel.

Some people (and we’re almost in this category), house sit as a way of life. It’s an inexpensive way to visit and live temporarily in different countries and cultures round the world.

Sunny morning on the River Thames

Sunny morning on the River Thames

Instead of leaving a house vacant, home owners use house sitters to care for their property, possessions and pets. This can be anything from a few days to a few months, or even longer. By registering on international house sitting websites such as Trusted House Sitters, you can choose properties all over the world to stay in free of charge!

A mutual agreement is put in place where in almost all cases the house sitter is given rent free accommodation in exchange for looking after the property and pets. Over the agreed period of time, house sitters will make sure things run just as smoothly as if the owner were at home.

Ian and I have used house sitters to look after our own properties and we now frequently take assignments as house sitters ourselves.

We live a lifestyle where we travel the world full-time – we’re part of a new group of people described as “Location Independent” or “Global Nomads”.

We have no fixed abode and house sitting allows us to live in many wonderful locations.

River Thames at Caversham, Reading

River Thames at Caversham, Reading

We spent a three great weeks in Reading, enjoying the last of the autumn sunshine. We took advantage of the hourly bicycle hire, close to the apartment and explored the trails along the side of the River Thames. We also took this time to study for our 150 hour TEFL course, in preparation for our teaching posts in China.

Before leaving we managed to meet up with Karen and her partner and spent a welcome evening drinking beer in a cosy village pub.

Pet Sitting in Birmingham

It was soon time to move on and after a whirlwind visit to family and friends we settled in to our second house sit in Birmingham. We were booked on a TEFL classroom course to compliment our online study and needed somewhere with easy access to the city centre.

The kittens in our care

The kittens in our care

Once again we found a great house sit. This time we were in a well equipped, renovated Victorian house in Sutton Coldfield, where we spent a week pet sitting for two beautiful kittens. We’d arranged this pet sit from Houston, where we conducted an interview with the home owners over Skype. This is a great way to “meet” the home owners and reassure them of your credibility.

How did we get our house sitting assignments?

We found both of our UK house sits with very little difficulty through www.housesittersuk.co.uk (Use code HSMAG15 for a special 15% discount we’ve negotiated through our magazine).

They have a great website and a very good contact management system. Their charge is only £ 29.00 for an annual subscription (updated 2020) – well worth it when you consider we saved four weeks of hotel and rental charges amounting to well over a thousand pounds!

House Sitters UK Website

House Sitters UK Website

And, we saved even more by being able to buy and cook our own food. We also benefited from free WiFi and free utility bills. But the biggest advantage was to be able to live in a homely environment for our stay back in the UK. Having our own space to study and prepare for our TEFL examinations was invaluable. Much as we wanted to spend all our time with family and friends, we knew that we’d never focus on our studying!

House sitting is a wonderful opportunity to get free accommodation while providing a valuable service to pet owners. It’s a mutual exchange and one that we will continue to promote and use over the next few years as we continue our amazing world travel adventure!

You can see our house sitting profile page by clicking here.

  • November 30, 2014

Hiking across the Grand Canyon

Whenever the Grand Canyon is shown in the UK, as a tourist destination, it is promoted alongside Las Vegas, suggesting that the two American locations sit side by side on the Nevada/Arizona border. I was so sure that a visit to the Grand Canyon would be just a short coach trip from the gambling capital of the world that it came as quite a shock to discover the south rim of the Grand Canyon was actually a 270 mile drive away!

It was even more of a surprise to find that a trip from the south rim to the north rim was a five hour trip and a further 220 miles! Traveling in a 34ft RV that managed only 5-8 miles a gallon, meant that some serious planning was necessary to ensure we didn’t blow our entire fuel budget visiting just one National Park!

As we headed through the massive Indian Reservations to the eastern end of the canyon, we considered our options. We really wanted to visit both south and north rims, but I’d also hoped to fit in a visit to “Sin City”, to gamble some cash at the poker tables! Still for now, we needed to concentrate on keeping our large oversized motor-home safe as we negotiated the steep windy roads up through the stunning Kaibab National Forest.

When we finally drove into the entrance of park, I expected to see the canyon ahead of me. But it was soon apparent that there were still a good few miles of driving before we would reach the Desert View area of the canyon at the eastern edge of the canyon. However, it was well worth a preamble.

After parking the RV we found ourselves just a short walk from the unprotected edge of what was one of the most awe inspiring views I have ever encountered. A vast wilderness encompassing 277 river miles (446km), extending up to 18 miles across to the north rim, and a mile deep to the Colorado River. This view really does take your breath away, plunging you into a deep, silent meditation as you try to comprehend the two billion years of geological history that stretches before you.

As the second most visited National Park in America, around five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, many of whom do no more than take a brief tour of the Mather Point Visitor Centre. They head in droves to the protected edges, pose for their “selfie”, or share cameras with other visitors as they try to capture their silhouettes against this famous backdrop. But there is so much more to do here and we were in no rush to leave this park. It was an easy decision to bypass Las Vegas and save this city for another visit.

We checked in easily at the Desert View campsite (7438ft), which is run on a first come, first served basis and provides 50 sites. If you arrive early in the morning you have a better chance of securing a good spot, and we were soon settled into a secluded site that would be home for the next few days.

Unlike Mather, there is no shuttle bus service at this end of the park. This means a car or bicycles are a necessity if you want to explore all the viewpoints. However, there are not nearly as many people, and you are much more likely to find a quiet spot on the edge of the canyon where you can watch the spectacular sunsets. We made this even more romantic by buying a bottle of wine, and some snacks from the well-stocked store to enjoy the hour spent gazing into and across the canyon.

If you are lucky, as we were, you may see an electric storm way off in the distance, and be able to watch lightning zigzagging across the night sky. Of course, lightning close by results in a dramatic evacuation – electric storms at this height and exposure are the main cause of death in America’s National Parks. Just look for the scarred trees that litter the rim to see the power that is unleashed!

We spent the next morning exploring the Desert View visitor area and the prominent Desert View Water Tower. Built in 1932 and designed by architect Mary Colter, it was constructed in the style of the ancestral Puebloan people of the Colorado Plateau. Along with the Kolb brothers, Mary Colter is a notable contributor to the park’s history and we found the easiest way to find out more about her legacy was to attend a ranger talk.

Every evening the park rangers take turns to bring life to the history, culture and geology of the park. Sat in a small ampitheatre overlooking the rim, we spent the pre-sunset hour listening to tales of adventure, daring, struggle, toil, survival and death. The rangers really do work hard to passionately share their own love of the Grand Canyon and I was soon experiencing the strength of emotion that this wilderness bestows on its visitors.

We spent one of our days cycling to both Navajo Point and Lipan Point. Again there were relatively few people along the route and we were able to clamber across the rocks for more accessible views of the Colorado River. This end of the park offers more unprotected access, but extreme care should be taken if you venture beyond the safe areas. A steep uphill climb took us on to the Tusayan Museum where we were given a glimpse into Pueblo Indian life in the Grand Canyon some 800 years ago. A self-guided trail leads through the adjacent Tusayan Ruins which gives some insight into what was once a thriving Puebloan community.

After a few days exploring all that we could at Desert View, we traveled west 25 miles to the Grand Canyon Village at Mather Point. We hoped to get a last minute camping slot in what is by contrast, one of the most difficult campsites to find space in. People book months ahead and unless you can be flexible, it is a risk to just turn up without a booking. We were prepared to travel out of the park if necessary, but were fortunate that a cancellation had just been registered and our next RV campsite was secured.

How different it is at Mather Point, the central hub of the Grand Canyon. Here you will find all the lodgings, restaurants, administrative offices, and any number of safe rim trails, museums and other cultural, historical, and geological sites. After the relative peace of Desert View, Mather was quite a shock. We were stunned by the sheer number of people visiting from all over the world. But, it was reassuring to see that the “village” was well spaced out over a large area with trees and green areas masking the “tourist” nature of this site. In fact, it is situated over such a large area that a free shuttle bus service is in operation to ensure that you can get to all the different viewpoints and trails, easily and quickly.

Another option is to hire a mountain bike, but be warned – some of the roads are a little steep! There is a new cycle route down to Tusayan which we explored, arriving just in time to watch the stunning IMAX film that shows many of the inaccessible views of the canyon and Colorado River. It was a downhill ride for about 8 miles so we opted for the shuttle bus back to avoid the long uphill return cycle! If you can’t find accommodation in the park, Tusayan provides further options. However, the shuttle does close at the end of summer, so check dates and times before booking.

It is from the central village that the famous Kaibab and Bright Angel Trails meander down steeply to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon. These trails are not for the fainthearted or ill-equipped hiker. In fact, you are advised to only tackle a short 3 mile out and back trek, as the steep descent and subsequent ascent is more than a lot of people can comfortably manage. It is quite fun to see the excited, relaxed faces on the way down, replaced by exhausted, pain filled expressions as they return in the 90 degree heat! I have to admit that, as fit as I was at this point of our travels, I found the steep uphill climb from Indian Garden a considerable challenge!

We packed in as many of the view points as we could during our three days, walking and cycling along the rim and making full use of the shuttle service. Our original plan had been to stay at Phantom, the famous ranch hidden deep at the bottom of the canyon, and close to the equally famous Colorado River. However, we discovered that this also required advance booking, up to a year ahead, and so it seemed extremely unlikely we would get a last minute cancellation on the dates that we wanted.

The more research we did, the more the idea of back-backing into the canyon began to appeal to us both. We had the time and we could be flexible. We would have to apply for last minute cancellation permits, and that might mean waiting a few days. The more we studied the trails, the more adventurous we became. Until finally, we decided that we would travel around to the North Rim after first visiting Bryce and Zion National Parks.

This would allow us to build up our fitness while hiking trails in these mountain parks, before tackling the 45 mile hike from North to South Rim and then after a couple of nights rest, back from the South Rim to the North. Only 1% of visitors venture across the canyon and even less attempt the return trip. But we wanted to stretch our capabilities and spend as much time as we could deep within this wilderness landscape.

Our plan took shape. The summer weather meant we could travel lightly. Just a lightweight tent, some cooking gear, food, and a sleeping bag – all provided inexpensively through a visit to Walmart. In fact all our equipment cost less than one night at in a shared dormitory at Phantom Ranch.

We left Grand Canyon excited, knowing that within just three weeks we would be parked up at the North Rim contemplating a once in a lifetime adventure. The north rim is much quieter because of its remote location. It was a long drive from Zion National Park to the north entrance. It was also a lot cooler due to its height at 8500ft. We were assured by the campsite hosts that the temperature at the bottom of the canyon would still be close to a challenging 100 degrees Fahrenheit!

We arrived early at the permit office and collected our queue number. It wasn’t long before we were sat discussing our route with a qualified ranger. She had a cancellation the next day but only had space at Phantom campsite for 2 nights, not for Indian Garden where we had planned to spend our second night. However, she convinced us that a two night stop after the long 14 mile trek down would give us plenty of recovery time. It would also give us time to explore the riverbanks and the shorter trails along the Colorado River.

We set off in the early morning shade, on a trail that was almost deserted once we had passed the three mile marker. The track hugged the side of the canyon walls, and required steady footing as the fall off the narrow path was far and long. The landscape changed constantly as we descended deeper, and the canyon revealed a beautiful sequence of rock layers which provide a unique window on time. We stopped for a break at the Cottonwood campsite and picked out a great site for our return trip. The sun was hot by this stage and the final eight miles to Phantom seemed endless as we followed a stream down towards the riverbed.

When we finally saw the sign for Phantom, after a long 14 mile hike we were pretty exhausted. We were longing to set down our backpacks and rest our weary feet and aching backs in the ranch restaurant before setting up camp. Tiredness made the rest of the day a blur and I don’t think I have ever been so keen to get into a tent and fall asleep!

The Ranger was right – a day of rest was very welcome after the strenuous hike and we enjoyed sitting on the banks of the Colorado River soaking up the sun before rising early the next day to start the 8 mile ascent back up the Bright Angel Trail to Mather Point. By the time we reached the south rim we felt like seasoned Grand Canyoners and were proud of our achievement. We spent two days resting before descending back down the Kaibab Trail, again to camp at Phantom. We then took two days to walk back out to the north rim spending a stormy night at Cottonwood camp.

It is hard to explain the sublime delight of spending time in the Grand Canyon, and we have already started exploring more adventurous hikes along some of the less used trails. This is a special place that promotes a special sense of belonging and I would urge everyone who is thinking of visiting to put this high on their priority list. It was one of the most awe inspiring experiences of my life and one that I would happily revisit at any time.

For more information about park opening times, campsites, hotels and hiking permits, visit: http://www.nps.gov/grca/index.htm

  • September 20, 2014

Heading West to Del Rio

Our road trip begins as we head west across Texas to the Mexican Border towns.

Pedernales Falls State Park  (28-7-14)

We had a difficult re-entry to the US following our “holiday” to Mexico. After the initial threat of deportation, a less vehement immigration officer agreed a further three month visa but on the understanding that we would then leave for a “substantial” period of time. If we were to visit all the National Parks on our initial list, we would have to leave Austin and get on the road pretty quickly. So after celebrating Ian’s birthday, we spent the weekend saying goodbye to friends, packed up the RV and set off on Highway 290 towards Fredericksburg.

Pedernales Upper Falls

Pedernales Upper Falls

On the way we stopped for the night at Pedernales Falls State Park. A clear, spring-fed river flows gently down sloping limestone to create the twin falls which we cycled and hiked to on the first afternoon. Sadly the first three miles of river (the best bit), including the falls area are closed to wading and swimming. The lower river was shallow and pretty uninteresting, but we had a relaxing float at the end of the day.

Ian at Jones' Spring

Ian at Jones’ Spring

Next morning we were up early to mountain bike the 6 miles of the Wolf Mountain Trail, so called because it is still home to the “prairie wolf” or coyote. We really enjoyed this track which was a little more technical than we had so far experienced and included a visit to Jones’ Springs at the boundary of the park.

Fredericksburg  (29-07-14)

We’d heard a lot of favourable reports about Fredericksburg and the surrounding area. Around 40% of all of the Texan peaches are grown here and in Gillespie County, and it is also in a grape growing and wine producing area. We passed many wineries on the road into the town – most of them are sited along the 290 – but resisted the temptation to stop, pressing on instead to Fredericksburg.

Main Street - Fredericksburg

Main Street – Fredericksburg

Fredericksburg was settled in 1846 by immigrant families from Germany and many older buildings retain traditional German and frontier styles. German is still spoken occasionally and many old customs are observed, including Oktoberfest. It does have a “touristy” feel about it, but we enjoyed wandering down Main Street and around the historic district, looking at the more European style shops. I finally found myself a Texan style hat which would provide welcome shade from the strong summer sun. We completed our self guided tour at the large library which supplied free WiFi access and provided a cool, quiet place to catch up on our email.

Wearing a hat - Texan style!

Wearing a hat – Texan style!

I’d spotted “What-A-Burger” on the way in to town and suggested this as our dinner choice. We eat very little “fast food” but I have wanted to dine at each of the American burger outlets and this was one that was still outstanding on my list. Like many others, this chain started as a family business in the 1950’s with modern designed, A-frame buildings and drive in meal collection. It was quite shocking to see photos of the modernity that existed at a time when England was only just recovering from the devastation of World War II. I think this was the tastiest burger I have had so far and I liked the personal touch of an employee presenting a tray of relishes and sauces at the table. To read their story go to http://whataburger.com/company

Hunger satisfied, we parked that evening in the car park behind the visitor information centre and wandered down to a micro brewery on Main Street to sample a few beers. On the walk back into town we were surprised to see the remnants of a large submarine outside a modern museum. It was the National Museum of the Pacific War. Fredericksburg is also the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester W Minitz, who was Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet during World War II and the museum was built in his honour.

Enchanted Rock  (30-07-14)
The view from Enchanted Rock

The view from Enchanted Rock

Next morning we were up early to start the steady, uphill drive to Enchanted Rock, north of Fredericksburg. This massive dome of solid granite is famed in North American legend and was said to be the site of human sacrifices. Some tribes feared to set foot on it, others used its height as a meeting point, but all held it in awe and reverence.

Heading up the Enchanted Rock batholith

Heading up the Enchanted Rock batholith

This is one of the largest batholiths in the United States, a unique pink dome that rises 425 feet above the surrounding countryside, 1825 feet above sea level. The rock is actually more than 100 miles across, but much of it is buried below ground.

Ian approaches the top

Ian approaches the top

It was an amazing site, like a mini Uluru and we were keen to climb to its summit before the heat of the day set in. We arrived when the park opened at 9.00am and began our walk straight up climbing 425 feet in 0.6 mile. The top was home to small, unique eco-systems, little areas of plant and cactus growth in small oval indents in the rock. It really was quite spectacular – one of my highlights so far.

Unique eco-systems growing on the rock

Unique eco-systems growing on the rock

Michelle had told us there was a cave at the top and you could make your way down the back of the dome. We found the marked entrance quite easily. However, from here we had to look for hand painted arrows to mark the unofficial route into the rocks. We had taken a torch and head light, but I was surprised at how restrictive and dark the route seemed, and a little alarmed at the initial drop down into the rocks. I opted to remain at the top while Ian investigated further and waited with some trepidation for him to return safely. I climbed a little higher onto the rocks to watch a Rock Squirrel who seemed undeterred by my presence, and within about 15 minutes I heard Ian calling from below. He had made it through and was now trying to get back to the top.

Spot the cave entrance !!

Spot the cave entrance !!

He had found his way down, and apart from a slightly committing exit up a small rock face had not had any problems. It seemed that the slightly difficult entrance was the hardest part and Ian was keen that I followed him back into and through the cave. I have to admit I was a little scared but it turned out to be an exhilarating experience, as I levered my body down and through the rock system in the dim torchlight and tried not to pay any attention to the spiders along the way. There was only one point where it was a tight fit to get though, but I was so focused on the task in hand I didn’t experience any of the claustrophobia I was concerned about. Ian found an alternative exit that avoided the haul up the rock he had tackled and after around 150 yards of semi darkness, we were back in the bright sunlight.

More enchanded flora

More enchanded flora

We then decided to take an unofficial route down the back of the dome to the trail below, which again tested my limits as we carefully made our way down the very steep granite and scree, sometime on our backsides. However, Ian makes a great guide and is easy to trust as he picked a great line down a difficult descent. Back on the lower track, we continued to enjoy the trail around the base of the giant rock, taking time to climb a few smaller outcrops along the way.

Ian confidently stands atop a smaller rock

Ian confidently stands atop a smaller rock

Me looking a little shaky on the edge !

Me looking a little shaky on the edge !

The afternoon was spent in the car park before summiting the peak once more at sunset, this time with a lot more people! Unfortunately the sky clouded as we sat atop the rock and it wasn’t nearly as spectacular as it might have been on a clear night.

Texas Vanessa

Texas Vanessa

We left the park at twilight and started our journey back down to Fredericksburg. Not far from Enchanted Rock we spotted a small, unusual looking bar on the side of the road that also offered camping, and we decided to stop and see if we could park overnight. John, the owner had created a great bar and music venue and was happy for us to park outside for $10. We sat chatting for while and he told us that he originated from Dallas, where he had gone to school with the kids of the owners of South Fork Ranch – the home later sold to the production company for use in the popular TV program “Dallas”.

The Frontier

The Frontier

John left us with a couple of beers each as he closed up the bar, but told us we were welcome to relax on the bar’s back balcony for the rest of the evening.

Chatting with John

Chatting with John

He even left the country music channel on the radio! As we sipped our beers, watching the stars in the dark unpolluted skies, we mused on how moments like this only happen when you make spontaneous decisions.

Who else indeed!

Who else indeed!

These are the times I best enjoy about travelling, and this was the perfect end to what had already been a great day.

Walmart, Kerville  (31-07-14)

The next morning we had a wander around John’s ranch, before travelling back down into Fredericksburg. We hung around for the day waiting for the Farmer’s Market, which unusually started at 4.00pm in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it was a bit of a disappointment. Much of the produce was being sold at highly inflated prices, that not even I could justify paying.

We packed up and headed out to the municipal park, four miles outside the town on Texas 16, where we’d read that there was a large public pool. We arrived with enough time to spend an hour swimming before it closed, after which we parked up by the river for dinner. This was a lovely park, by the airfield, which also had RV hook-ups at $30, but we had already decided to stop at a roadside picnic area for the night as we continued on to the South Llano River.

As we approached the picnic stop, we realised that it wasn’t really large enough to accommodate our RV – it was just a small area of tarmac at the side of the road. The van would have shuddered horribly each time a car passed it throughout the night. We decided quickly that we would simply make our way down to Kerville and park at Walmart , which is exactly what we did.

South Llano River State Park  (1-08-14 to 2-08-14)

We cut short our visit to Kerville on finding out that there had been a weekend cancellation at South Llano River State Park, and headed up Interstate 10 to Junction before turning down to the riverside camp site. We were really heading away from civilisation now, and Junction felt particularly remote. For the first time we felt like we had finally left Austin for good, not just a quick jaunt out before returning to the city that had become home for the last couple of months.

Countryside view - South Llano

Countryside view – South Llano

We drove across the river to the park HQ and booked our space for a couple of nights. This park is located on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau and the river is said to be one of the “most pristine water bodies in the state”. It didn’t take us long to settle and cycle down to the river with our floats, where we spent the afternoon alternating between floating and river running until we reached the park boundary.

The next two days we spent cycling extensively around the 18 miles of park trails, which criss-crossed the total area of this large park. We both really enjoyed this park and fully utilised all that it had to offer. All of the routes were good for cycling with the added thrill of providing the occasional more challenging downhill sections that tested our $100 mountain bikes to their limit! Ian also managed to climb a windmill at a remote waterhole!

Ian on the windmill

Ian on the windmill

I can see my bike from here...

“I can see my bike from here…”

Rocksprings & The Devil’s Sinkhole  (3-8-14)

We left South Llano River and meandered 40 miles down route 377 to Rocksprings where we were booked to go on a bat tour at Devil’s Sinkhole. The countryside levelled off to barren plains before we arrived at the equally barren town. It was Sunday afternoon and the streets were deserted. It was like a forgotten ghost town with faded signs, shabby shops full of junk and little to entice the casual traveller.

Deserted Rocksprings

Deserted Rocksprings

On a corner of Main Street we found the tourist information centre and meeting point for the tour where we were to gather at 7.00pm for our trip out to the sinkhole. In the window and alongside the opening times, a poster dating from 1996 gave the chilling details of the violent murder of Patricia Torrez Paz. We assumed the murderer was still at large.

Murderer still at large ?

Murderer still at large ?

It was easy to find a spot to park across the road and after a short wander around town we retreated to the RV for an afternoon of internet access. Having stumbled across the torn and half eaten leg of a dog, lying on the pavement, we were starting to get a feeling that Rocksprings had long since lost its spirit as well as half of its small population. Even the main hotel was deserted, requesting that any visitors telephone for assistance. The only activity to be found was that of large trucks that rumbled loudly through Main Street on their way to Del Rio.

Evening soon arrived and we started the tour with an informative video about the sinkhole and the colony of bats that lived there. Once on private land, the sinkhole had become the seasonal home for around 3 million Mexican Freetail Bats and we were hoping to see them ascend out of the hole at sunset.

The Devil's Sink Hole

The Devil’s Sink Hole

The sinkhole itself is quite unique – it is the largest one-chamber cave in Texas with a 50ft opening dropping vertically to 140 feet. Down below it opens out into a cavern 350 feet across and a mountain of rock towers up the middle with freshwater lakes on either side supporting a couple of rare crustaceans. Devil’s Sinkhole is the only cave in the world completely mapped using state-of-the-art laser technology.

Looking into the hole

Looking into the hole

We took a lift out to the controlled State Park with Andrew, the tour leader and former Spanish teacher in Rocksprings. He gave a fascinating talk about the history of the sinkhole and the bats. We arrived to find a viewing platform above the hole and watched intently as the skies darkened, waiting in avid anticipation of some sort of stirring in the hole below.

It wasn’t long before great swirls of swallows ascended from their cave side nests, one mass after another – I estimated between 700 and 1000 birds left the hole. Shortly after, we started to hear a low buzzing noise. Andrew confirmed that the bats were starting their ascent, but first flying round and round the mountain tip, faster and faster, in the dark of the cave below. Every so often a bat would fly fast and fearlessly out of the sinkhole. Over the next hour the stream of bats became denser as they emerged into the night sky, flying in a constant stream to the East. These bats would consume over the course of the night, many tons of moths and other insects. They play an important role in keeping down the insect population!

3.5 million bats emerge !

3.5 million bats emerge !

We watched for the next hour, and were fortunate to also see Long Eared Owls hunting around the rim of the cave as they feasted on easy pickings in the massive opening. At this point Andrew told us that the bats would ascend for many more hours – 3 million bats took a long time to leave even in the density we were seeing. He suggested it was time to return to Rocksprings, but mentioned that he would be returning at 6.00am to see the bats fly back into the sinkhole, and that we were welcome to accompany him if we wanted to. We both answered an easy “Yes please”, and despite the early start found the descent of the bats almost more amazing as they zipped close to our heads and back to the depths of the cavern below.

Typical shop interior - junk, junk and more junk!

Typical shop interior – junk, junk and more junk!

Back in Rocksprings, on Andrew’s recommendation, we went to view the display of arrowheads in the old dance hall, which now doubled as hardware store. We were amazed to see a large guarded and locked display of literally thousands of flint and obsidian arrow heads which were all part of the owner’s private collection. The dance hall was a treasure trove of ancient relics, useful tools and a large proportion of hoarded junk! It kept us occupied for an hour or so as we listened to the proprietor’s stories and checked out the eclectic collection which included pictures of old Indian Chiefs, large deer trophy heads, and even boats hanging decoratively from the roof!

Del Rio & Amistad Recreational Area  (4-8-14)

After a quick breakfast taco, we were back on the 377 toward Del Rio where we needed to stock up with food before heading out to the Amistad Recreational Area and Reservoir. I had to admit some nervousness about staying in the border National Park areas, as I had read previously about occasional gun battles in these remote locations between warring drug cartels. As we approached our first choice, down a long winding gravel track, the small shelters looked remote and uninviting, and there was no sign of the lake. Like Travis near Austin, the area was experiencing a drought and Amistad Lake had receded a long way.

We drove on into the outskirts of Del Rio and along the main road that seemed to support every single fast food outlet you could ever think of. After a quick stop at Walmart and a bike shop for new pedals, we’d seen as much as we felt necessary and were keen to get back out to nature, even if we were to be part of a gun war later that night! In all seriousness, and now having travelled most of the length of the Texan border with Mexico, I think the press have made it sound much more dangerous than it really is. There are so many border police and checkpoints that it feels safer than most inner cities of England!

Parked at Amistad Recreational Lake

Parked at Amistad Recreational Lake

We found a great camp for the night at San Pedro National Park Area for just $4, again no lake water, but splendid isolation with not another soul in sight. Ian produced a superb BBQ – he has now become quite the expert, cooking us up a whole load of chunky veggies for the next day’s lunch, marinated in virgin oil and lemon pepper – very tasty!

BBQ on the go ...

BBQ on the go …

We sat outside in the dark skies, drinking beer and reflecting on our trip so far. We had reached the border and would now be heading west toward the state of New Mexico. But there were many places still to visit along the way. We were armed with a list of towns and recommendations from people we have met along the way, and were excited to see what this part of Texas had to offer. It was going to take longer to leave Texas than we had imagined!

  • September 12, 2014

Leaving Austin

After our close call with immigration, we needed to reassess our overall journey. We now had just three more months until we would have to leave the USA for England.  We needed to get a move on, or we would not see all the National Parks that we had originally planned to visit.

It was Ian’s birthday when we arrived back in Austin from Mexico, and he chose to spend the evening at “C Hunts Ice House”. This was a small bar we had found in North Austin, whilst cycling to the thrift store one day. We had enjoyed a few early evening beers while listening to good old country music! It was just how I had imagined an authentic Texan bar to be.

C Hunts Ice Bar in Austin

C Hunts Ice Bar in Austin

Michelle came with us to join in the celebrations, and no sooner had we entered the bar, we were engaging with a couple of locals who on hearing it was Ian’s birthday, bought us all a beer. We sat with them as they told us a bit of history about the bar which was owned by Chester Hunt. They pointed out Chester, an 88 year old, sat quietly at his domino table on the far side of the bar. “Go and talk to him, he won’t mind”, suggested our new friends.

Ian with Chester

Ian with Chester

We all went over to say hello to Chester, and before we knew it Ian and I were sat, enthralled as he told us the history of the bar.

Chester’s wife (now passed), had bought the property over 50 years ago for $12,000 and they had made a business, first as butchers and then as a traditional “Ice House”. More recently it had become a bar and Chester still lived above it whilst he ran his “posy” of women, all university graduates, who looked after his customers with extreme professionalism. It was an all “cash” bar and we quickly discovered how astute Chester was and what he thought about America, its current difficulties and the future of money as we know it!

Chester was fascinating and we kept him talking for hours until he had to retire to his oxygen machine! What a great experience and one of the most interesting older men I have ever listened to. We promised to return to his 90th birthday party in a couple of years!

The next day we attended our last “Friends of Peter” meeting at Panera Bread, and had a lovely Mexican lunch after with Jerald and Venus. That night, on Laurie’s recommendation, we went to watch the swarming of Purple Martins above a car lot in central Austin – see separate blog entry for more on this.

Then we were off – Michelle was away on a weekend course, but we managed a last afternoon with Laurie and Damon. It was good to see their new house before leaving, which had a ready made RV slot beside it and was home for our last night in Austin. It was beside a railway line, and it made for an interesting night as the goods trains hurtled past at regular intervals, causing me to hold my breath as it sounded as if they were heading straight for the van!

And so our time in Austin had finally come to an end.

Thanks to everyone that made our stay in Austin special – Laurie, Damon, Michelle, all our new friends from “Friends of Peter” and all the other more casual acquaintances we made along the way. Austin felt like home and I’m sure we will return there again one day!

  • September 9, 2014