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Tian Hou Temple Shenzhen China

Tian Hou Temple, Shenzhen

Since living in Shenzhen, I’ve often wondered if there’s any culture or history that hasn’t been miniaturized or replicated  and become the subject of a city theme park. So, we were very excited to discover the existence of an “ancient palace museum”, just two metro stops from our home at Sea World in Nanshan District.

We found the location on Google Maps (using a VPN) and hopped onto the local bus which stopped right outside our intended destination.

The bus drove on past Shekou Port and into new territory. Towering docks bordered an industrial landscape which left us wondering if the palace still existed.  However, our spirits rose when the bus stopped outside an old building decorated in traditional Chinese style and guarded by two menacing stone lions.

Lions guard the entrance

Lions guard the entrance

As we approached the gate we realized happily that this was not in fact a palace – it was a temple! For the first time since arriving in Shenzhen seven months earlier, we were finally getting a fix of Chinese history and culture! We eagerly handed over our 15 Yuan entry fees and entered, keen to explore our new discovery.

This isn’t a Buddhist temple – it’s dedicated to Tian Hou, goddess of the sea, and was built originally during the Song Dynasty in 1410. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt several times since and even now is undergoing another revival. The museum areas are being renovated and many of the exhibits had been removed for safe keeping.

The decorative interior of the temple buildings

The decorative interior of the temple buildings

The temple overlooks the massive docks and ship yard at Chiwan Port and you can instantly appreciate its importance, offering the promise of protection to sailors venturing out on long journeys across the South China Sea.

The benefactor of the Tian Hou Temple

It is said that a famous Ming admiral, Zheng He, was commissioned by emperor Zhu Di to sail west. When he approached the Pearl River Delta near to Chiwan, the fleet was halted in the wake of a ferocious storm. Goddess Tian Hou appeared to the emperor, saying that she had saved his fleet and that he should build a temple close by as an expression of his thanks. It seems Zheng He was in agreement and so he and his men built the temple, and he personally planted the original “wish giving tree” in the courtyard.

The legend of the Goddess Tian Hou

Tian Hou (or Matsu as she is commonly known to the coastal people of South Asia),  protects fishermen, sailors and others whose lives are dependent on the ocean. She’s worshiped in Guangdong, Fujian, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

The goddess Tian Hou

The goddess Tian Hou

In the main hall at the back of the inner courtyard, you’ll find the goddess herself. A large, golden, ornately decorated statue that dominates the (presumably) lesser deities of Caishen (Chinese god of wealth), and Guanyin (bodhisattva of compassion). In the corner is Tian Hou’s bed and furniture, used in the annual celebration of her birthday.

She was apparently born in 960AD on an island off the coast of China, into a family of fishermen. She gained her “goddess” status in part after saving her brother from drowning in a typhoon. An excellent swimmer, she lifted him effortlessly from the sea.

Legend has it that she either died while then searching for her father, who died in the same storm, or that she flew from a mountain top to be with the gods. In any case her fame spread and you can now visit more than 1500 temples dedicated to her in 26 different countries.

The temple is still a popular place of worship. During the two weeks before Tian Hou’s birthday (23rd day of the 3rd month of Chinese Lunar calendar), the temple celebrates, and visitors get a chance to witness tradition and history in action.

Standing guard

Standing guard

The temple courtyards

To the right of the temple, Zheng Hi’s “Celestial Tree” (possibly its second or third reincarnation), is weighed down with lucky red cards and ribbons, requiring the support of modern day scaffolding.

Red prayer cards and ribbons

Red prayer cards and ribbons

You can ease your troubled mind by inscribing your prayers and wishes, before tying them to the branches of this ancient tree.

In front of the main hall, incense burns in huge containers and walkways lead to further courtyard areas.

Incense burning at the front of the main hall

Incense burning at the front of the main hall

A decorative portal is guarded by two loyal generals, Chien Li Yen and Shun Feng Er. Their postures demonstrate protective abilities – they can “see” and “hear” from a distance anyone that might prove troublesome for their goddess, Tian Hou.

Between the main temple hall and the courtyard areas

Between the main temple hall and the courtyard areas

In the main courtyard you are able to explore the two story drum tower, but the bell tower is closed, as are the museums until the renovations are complete.

Ian resists the temptation to bang the drum!

Ian resists the temptation to bang the drum!

The bell tower

The bell tower

There’s been some remodeling here too of the original moon and sun, yin and yang shaped pools. They’ve sadly been replaced by a single, more modern carp fish pond. Similarly, the original statue of Tian Hou is also missing – hopefully not lost at sea!

The original sun and moon pools

The original sun and moon pools

The newly remodeled carp pond

The newly remodeled carp pond

Behind this pool the original sea wall towered, protecting the temple from the backlash of the ocean. Now a newer wall simply blocks the view of the shipyard. Alongside the pool you’ll find a small well, allegedly home to the spirit of a young boy who drowned in it.

Remnants of the old museum

Remnants of the old museum

Chiwan is still an important port on the Pearl River Delta. Close to Tian Hou temple you can also visit two other historically significant sites, the Left Fort and the tomb of the last emperor of the Southern Song Dynasty. All three sites can easily be visited in a morning or afternoon. We really enjoyed our visit and will return when the museum renovation is completed.

Places of worship throughout the temple grounds

Places of worship throughout the temple grounds

Getting there

Address: 9 Chiwan 6th Road, Nanshan District. Chiwan 6th Road runs along the north side and back of the temple.  The bus stops outside this entrance where you’ll find the ticket office.

Take the orange metro line to Chiwan and walk right along the road until you reach the temple. Alternatively you can take bus numbers 226, 355 or B819. A taxi from Sea World should cost you no more than 15 Yuan.

The temple is open from 8:00am to 17:30pm each day.

Paintings adorn the walls around the temple

Paintings adorn the walls around the temple

  • July 19, 2015
2 Dameisha Beach Shenzhen China

Dameisha Beach, Shenzhen

We lived for a year in Shenzhen, southern China, and from our home we could gaze across Sea World in Shekou, towards Hong Kong. There are no beaches to be found here, just paved walkways and modern promenades.

However, to the east of Shenzhen, just 12km from central Futian, you’ll find yourself in the Yantian district. Here the coastline stretches for 19km with beaches, mountains, islands and reefs. This is also the closest weekend getaway for locals and visiting tourists.

Yantian was established in 1998 and it is connected to the urban area of Shenzhen by highways and expressways that offer a quick connection by car. For tourists it’s possible to take the J1 bus all the way from Sea World on a route that meanders through Nanshan, Futian, Luohu and on into Dameisha, where you disembark at the central bus station. It takes around one and a half hours, probably much longer in rush hour and at holidays, but it’s a cheap option for tourists and locals alike.

Colourful shops on the way to the beach

Colourful shops on the way to the beach


“Soft sand and limpid sea water”

I was sceptical about visiting Dameisha, but we were keen to see for ourselves whether the beach lived up to the Shenzhen tourist brochure’s claim of having the “longest beech (sic), soft sands and limpid (?) sea water”.

We’d seen the news reports of 160,000 people crammed onto this beach during Spring Festival, and heard locals talk of an alarm that sounds when more than 50,000 people frequent the beach on busy spring and summer weekends. So we opted to visit on a quieter Monday morning.

It was an overcast day, a little stormy with dark skies but the sun was warm enough to attract a steady stream of visitors, and we followed the small procession down through the town to the sea front.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but as usual in China I was surprised. I felt as if I had been transported back to 1970s England as we passed by shop fronts full of beach paraphernalia including a mix of large floats, buckets and spades, bikinis and summer hats.

A walk around town

A walk around town

Dameisha is not a small coastal village, but a large sprawling town. It has an older, more typically Chinese area that leads to a modern mall alongside an equally modern marina with large hotels, including a Sheraton resort style property.


The Sheraton, Dameisha

The Sheraton, Dameisha

We ventured into a couple of smaller hotels to check out the overnight rates but were told they couldn’t accommodate tourists. This is not because they don’t want foreigners staying in their hotels. For anyone staying overnight in China you have to be registered by the hotel at a local police station. Some hotels simply haven’t got the license to enable them to do this.

Don’t ever take it personally. There are plenty of hotels where you will be able to make a reservation, but don’t leave it to the last minute at busy times!


The coastal road is lined with trees and you cannot see directly to the seafront, but we found our way to the beach entrance at the more western end of town.

The entrance is masked with barriers and for a moment we thought we would need to pay as is common at some other beaches. By watching other visitors we realised these are the “people counters” used to monitor the number of people entering, and that no payment is in fact required at Dameisha.


If you are used to five star luxury and deserted beaches, then you will be disappointed. But by English standards, it really isn’t that bad. The sand is beautifully soft, and despite warnings from locals, the sea looked clean. At least there wasn’t a flotilla of rubbish as I thought there might be. In fact, there were waste bins at regular intervals and everything looked extremely organized.

Dotted along the beach were lifeguards overseeing their own small areas of netted sea for safe swimming. There are activities including diving, (off a small island that can be seen from the beach), jet skis and even paragliding.

Beach angel sculptures

Far in the distance we could make out some unusual sculptures rising off the beach and we made our way along to investigate. Large angel-like figures rose out of the sand providing an interesting photo opportunity.

According to TravelChinaGuide.com – “these sculptures “depict the aspirations for a better life for the “drifting generation” – the young people who had unstable jobs and insecure living conditions during the 1940s to 1980s. Now the sculptures have become a symbol of happiness.”


We ourselves “drifted” to the back of the beach and were surprised to see rows of lockers. What a great idea – it’s always a problem on a busy beach as to what to do with your possessions. This solves the problem in a safe and practical way. There were also changing rooms and toilets, although I can’t vouch for their cleanliness when there are more than 50,000 people on the beach!

The clouds were gathering and the sky darkened ominously, so we wandered back to the local restaurants, most offering a varied selection of fish and seafood.


Seafood restaurants at the west end of town

Seafood restaurants at the west end of town

Here you can select live fish from the stacked aquariums and eat a freshly cooked meal.

Live seafood and fish on display

Live seafood and fish on display

We made it into a busy restaurant just before the heavens opened and sat undercover watching the street scenes as we ate our lunch. As we were due to fly out to Abu Dhabi the next day, we steered clear of the seafood and opted for a tasty tofu and vegetable lunch – just to be on the safe side!

Lunch at Dameisha

Lunch at Dameisha

There’s enough to do here for a day – a few activities, sunbathing, shopping and a walk around the town, but if you want to venture into a less crowded area I would suggest going a little further along the coastline to Xiaomeisha beach. It’s smaller and less busy, with an entrance fee of 30 Yuan. Camping is a popular activity here and you can rent a tent or take your own.

If you have children you can also visit Xiaomeisha Sea World  to provide some variety. You could also visit Wutong Mountain, a popular hiking spot, before arriving at Dameisha.

Dapeng Penninsula

Map of the Dapeng Penninsula (courtesy of Shenzhen Party)

Map of the Dapeng Penninsula (courtesy of Shenzhen Party)

However, I have higher hopes for the Dapeng Penninsula, further to the east, which as yet we haven’t visited. Here I am told you can hike, visit smaller coves and even the historic Dapeng Fortress, built in 1394.

This is a relatively undeveloped area, by Chinese standards and you will find seafood restaurants in Nanao, as well as small bed and breakfast type establishments at Jiaochangwei. These small inns were formerly homes of fishermen and local families. They are much more characterful and many have been updated along the lines of small western boutique hotels.

Dapeng Ancient Fortress

Dapeng Ancient Fortress

As with most places in China you will no doubt hear both good and bad reports about this stretch of coastline, but we found it a pleasant escape from city life and look forward to exploring it further.

For more information take a look at some of these links:

Beaches in Shenzhen

Sheraton Hotel Resort – Dameisha Beach

Xichong Surfing Beach, Dapeng – Secret Spot Café and B&B

Unrealistic Living

Dapeng Fortress

Getting around Shenzhen

  • June 30, 2015

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

Goodbye to America and goodbye to our RV

Our US road trip is sadly at an end!

We’ll soon be the previous owners of this wonderful 1998 Fleetwood Pace Arrow motorhome. It has just passed 81,000 miles – a low average of around 5,000 miles per year. We bought this vehicle at PPL in Houston six months ago and have just enjoyed an amazing trip of a lifetime. We’ve driven over 5,000 miles and have lived full time in the RV for the whole six months.

Our journey is just coming to an end, but if you are considering buying an RV, this article contains some information that might help you with your buying decision. Whatever type of RV you decide to buy, we hope you too get to experience life on the road in the same fine style we did.

Original Specification and add-ons

Our vehicle came with all the original paperwork and maintenance records going right back to the day it was bought as a brand new vehicle. The original owners paid for all of the optional extra add ons, which made it a very high specification model.

•    Awning made by Coleman Faulkner
•    Power roof vents
•    Extra TV in the bedroom
•    Dual air conditioning system
•    Powered hydraulic leveling jacks
•    Remote electric mirrors
•    Rear vision camera system
•    Higher quality interior trim

On comparing this model with some of the other vehicles of a similar age and type, we found everything to be a very high quality and finish. The value of the extras alone totaled $12,000 in 1998. The original price paid for this vehicle with all the add-ons was over $77,000!

Ian’s favorites

“With previous experience of driving big trucks (in the mines in the outback of Australia), I have tended to do most of the driving on any narrower or trickier roads. I am also the one who usually parks the vehicle wherever we stay for the night. However, Vanessa, after very little practice, has learned to drive the RV with ease and confidence.

The back-up camera is a great assistance. You can set it to just come on when you select reverse gear, or you can have it on all the time, so the image doesn’t go off when you come out of reverse gear – this is often a big help when positioning the vehicle at a fuel pump.

But above all, my favorite feature is the leveling jacks system. Once parked in place, from the driver’s seat you can simply set the vehicle level using the power jacks and the spirit level on the engine hood.

Many times at campsites we watched people with blocks of wood or plastic wedges, setting them under the wheels, guessing the level of the vehicle, before driving up onto these precarious platforms. They would often repeat the operation over and over until they got it right.  See picture above. No fun in cold or muddy conditions.

The power jacks are quicker, safer, and so convenient. You don’t even need to get out of the RV if it is raining – just level-up from the driver’s seat when you park, then put the kettle on!”

Vanessa’s favorites

“We took a long time to decide on this particular RV. I really liked how well looked after it was. In comparison to many others, there were no smells of stale tobacco, damp or other odors. However, one of the main things that influenced me was the design of the bathroom.

I liked that you could close two doors to create a large bathroom giving complete privacy in that area. Or you could close just one door to make a large en-suite bathroom. With hanging space in two additional wardrobes it is a good practical use of space. But the toilet does have a door and is enclosed for privacy.

The whole bathroom area dries out very quickly because of this open design, so it never has that damp musty smell that many smaller bathrooms acquire.

The bathroom sink is easily accessible too – if the kitchen sink is full or in use, you can still refill the kettle, or rinse something off in this extra sink.

I also like the kitchen area. The fridge is a decent size, and there’s an oven too, not just a microwave, as you’ll see in many older RVs. If you can’t run the generator (campground restrictions), the option is there to use the gas oven. There’s a microwave too, of course. The finish on the table and counter tops is lovely. In fact the whole RV is very well finished and I really like the window blinds with their day and night options.

The vehicle always felt very secure when we locked up at night. The windows are pretty high and we could double-lock the door. We checked and with the night blinds down, no one could see in. This really has been a lovely cozy home for the last six months and I will miss this nomadic lifestyle.”


During our six months of ownership we had only one major problem to deal with, when the radiator sprung a leak. It was the original 1998 radiator, so it had done very well.

This was replaced with a brand new unit at Texas Fleet Maintenance in Austin. They did a great job, and we haven’t had any overheating issues since, even on the steepest grades. We climbed up over 11,000 feet on the I-70 across Colorado from Grand Junction to Denver with no problems at all.

The only other job we had to do is top up the hydraulic fluid for the jacks. It’s an easy job which takes just a few minutes.

We have lived in this RV through extremes of temperatures from 40 degrees to well over 100 degrees. We have experienced torrential rain and storms with not a single leak to be seen. We’ve used the heating system and the air conditioning extensively and found them both to be more than effective in their respective temperature ranges.

Buying an old vehicle is often considered a risk, but we are very happy with the decision we made. It is, however, important to buy a vehicle that has been used regularly. More problems occur with vehicles that have been in storage for long periods of time. Low mileage doesn’t always mean low maintenance. It’s better to find an RV with slightly higher mileage that has had regular use, regular services and regular system checks.

If you are thinking about buying an older RV – in my opinion don’t hesitate. Use common sense, drive the vehicle, check out all the systems and make sure there is a comprehensive history. Ask lots of questions.

Or you could visit PPL in Houston – we would happily recommend them to anyone. All vehicles are sold on consignment, so there is no pressure to buy. No high powered sales people on your case from the moment you enter the door – as was our experience in some other centers!

Our road trip was a great, once in a lifetime experience and if you follow in our footsteps, you too could soon be eating breakfast, as we did,  on the edge of The Grand Canyon!

Our journey

Over the past six months we covered over 5,000 miles and saw some amazing and beautiful parts of the US. We spent a couple of months visiting the lovely state parks of Texas and then traveled west toward and along the border with Mexico.

After a brief visit to Guadalupe Peak on the Texas border, we journeyed on to The Grand Canyon where we spent a couple of weeks exploring both the south and north rims.

Then on to Bryce, Zion and Arches National Parks before finally heading to the higher, cooler mountains and ski towns of Beaver Creek and Vail.

We headed back to Houston before flying to the UK. We met some amazing people along the way and experienced unrivaled hospitality from  the American people. We certainly hope that we might someday experience our “second” trip of a lifetime and find another wonderful Pace Arrow to experience a different area of the US!

  • September 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

Purple Martin roosting phenomena

A spectacular natural event at a car lot in Austin

Last night we were invited to join the locals to watch an amazing spectacle in a parking lot behind a “Jack in the Box” fast food outlet in Central Austin. The instructions told us that we should bring a lawn chair, a hat and binoculars!

Until mid-August, Purple Martins come to roost here in just a few trees for the night. After migrating to Brazil for the winter, the birds travel back to their homes in the US and Canada each spring, where they lay eggs, raise their young and prepare for travel. Some birds leave as early as July, whilst others stay as late as October.

When not breeding, the martins form large flocks and roost together in great numbers. We are not talking about a few birds here. We were told that from 8.00pm until sunset, somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 birds would swarm overhead. This was not to be missed, and so we headed down at around 7.30 in the RV to claim our spot in the car park.

Crowds gather in the car lot to see the Martins

Crowds gather in the car lot to see the Martins

When we arrived, the car lot was already filling up with couples and families, many seated and ready to watch a natural phenomena that has been occurring in this same spot, we were told, for many, many years. No-one seemed to know exactly how these birds “home” back to the same few trees each year and we were fascinated to see how so many would all find space to roost!

We found a spot and settled back to watch the skies. There were probably no more than a dozen birds scouting the skies above us when we arrived. But as sunset turned the skies pink, more and more birds swarmed in ever growing numbers, synchronizing their flight patterns just above us.

Purple Martins swarm in the darkening skies

Purple Martins swarm in the darkening skies

Purple Martins (Progne subis) are the largest of the North American swallows, averaging around 20cm. Adults have a slightly forked tail and have a steely blue-purple sheen, more pronounced for the males. The females have some lighter colouration on their lower belly.

Male and female Martins

Male and female Martins

It was hard to believe that we might see up to half a million birds in this one location, but during the next hour we watched mesmerized, as the skies filled with more and more martins performing aerial acrobatics with great speed and agility. Others dived from high above to join the mass that was congregating above the trees.

Purple Martins build their nests in cavities, however, following the release and spread of European starlings in North America during the 20th century, a severe population crash occurred. Where the martins once gathered by the thousand, in the 1980s they had all but disappeared, as they competed for nesting sites. This is when a new bond was created between people and martins which cannot now be undone. The martins became totally dependent on human-supplied nesting boxes, and east of the Rocky Mountains, martins nest almost exclusively in man-made houses where they can raise their families each year.

Nesting House

Nesting House

This human interaction has provided the conditions for a regeneration of the martin population, and we were thankful to be able to see just one of the consequential flocks in this small area of Austin.

As we scanned the darkening skies, the martins behaviour intensified. A dark cloud of birds seemed to fly in a circular frenzy as the horde grew in numbers. There were many “oohs” and “aahs” from the crowds as the birds swept back and forth across us before finally settling to roost.

Final roosting place

Final roosting place

As the evening came to a climax, a number of us moved toward the three or four trees that would be home for the night and were astonished to see just how many birds were claiming space in such a small area of shrubbery. As the birds settled, huddled together on  branches, they became still and calm. It was fascinating to watch as the remaining birds jostled to find a perch for the night, and how the intense chirping of the birds droned out the sound of the passing cars on the highway just beyond.

Lining up for a good night's sleep

Lining up for a good night’s sleep

This was certainly an amazing spectacle that at times sent shivers down my spine. Experiencing nature in this way has a unique and moving effect, and as we the car park started to clear I felt privileged to have been part of this extraordinary event.

For more information about Purple Martins, check out the “Purple Martin Conservation Association”.

Their website can be round at http://www.purplemartin.org and they can provide help and information about how you can set up nesting boxes to ensure that future generations of martins have safe haven in North America.

Travis Audubon Information center at last night's event

Travis Audubon Information center at last night’s event

Also visit the Facebook site for Travis Audubon for local events, at:


Travis Audubon promotes the enjoyment, understanding, and conservation of native birds and their habitats.

  • July 27, 2014

A week in the wild with Ben Fogle

Our “New Lives in the Wild” Filming with Ben Fogle

Since deciding to stay on in Panama with Ian, we’ve had a fun and busy time together. We spent Ian’s 50th birthday in LA with friends Teresa and Evan where we also attended a course to learn about public speaking. Ian had recently been invited by TEDx Vienna to talk about living “an unlimited life” and if seemed that this might be the beginning of a new career path. It was something he could do as we travelled, if he were able to sell “Usher’s Island”. We had been looking at ways to continue earning money which we obviously needed, to support our unconventional lifestyle.

“Sell the island?” I hear you ask. “But you’ve only just arrived”.

Usher's Island

Usher’s Island

When I met Ian in London, he had already decided that his time in Panama was coming to a close. He had spent well over two years clearing the island, building a house and developing what was now a viable off-grid property. He was ready for a new challenge.

But, as in any new relationship, we had lots of things to discover about each other. We decided we would be happy to remain living inexpensively on the island while I also waited for my home to sell back in England. We both wanted to travel more and it was fun to explore all the different options – the world was quite literally our oyster – with no strings we could pretty much take off wherever we wanted.

However, there were to be a couple of distractions before we could make any decisions about our future, and one that would certainly take me outside my own comfort zone!

Ian was contacted by Renegade Pictures in London, who film the UK Channel 5 program “New Lives in the Wild”, featuring the presenter, Ben Fogle. Renegade had read about Ian’s story and wanted to know if he’d be interested in appearing on an episode for the second season. On hearing that I had recently given up my life in London to live with him in Panama, the producer was keen to chat, and before I knew it I had agreed to be featured alongside Ian in the hour long TV documentary.

We explained to them that we were trying to sell the island, although it hadn’t yet been placed with any agents. Ian had managed to secure an article with the Daily Mail, but with the market the way it was, we fully expected it could be another year or so before the island sold. The producer had no problem with that, it was a lifestyle that Ian had chosen and had been living for a couple of years. It didn’t necessarily have to be a lifestyle that would continue forever.

Bocas Town Seafront

Bocas Town Seafront

It was a beautifully hot sunny Tuesday morning when Director, Elliot and Producer, Kate arrived in Bocas del Toro. We had arranged to meet up with them in town for lunch and were feeling quite relaxed about the whole affair. We’d already had a couple of Skype conversations with them both in London, but still we were surprised at how laid back and easy going they were. I suppose we expected them to be a little more formal, but we were soon all enjoying our lunch and chatting through ideas for the show.

Ben Fogle, and the crew weren’t arriving until the Sunday, and Elliott and Kate had plenty of preparation and location scouting scheduled for us over the coming days. There was a lot to organise, not least because boat transport was involved in most activities and this was very much weather dependent.

We were both intrigued to discover more about the process behind the filming of a documentary and were keen and willing “helpers”. Ian has produced a fair number of YouTube videos and we both have a love of film, so this was going to be a very interesting experience.

We left Elliot and Kate to settle into their hotel and headed back to the island after braving a flash storm that saw us dangerously close to sinking our neighbour Kent’s borrowed boat, a second time! Kent was fixing our new engine so that we could get our boat back on the water in time for the filming. The crew had arranged to hire a boat and driver to ferry them and their equipment back and forth to the island and filming locations, but we needed our boat for our own use. Thankfully, both boat and new engine were waiting for us on our return.

Part of our weekly routine here on the island is to contribute to the broadcasting of the daily radio station via the VHF radio, quite aptly named the BEN network. This stands for Bocas Emergency Network and both local gringos and boat owners partake in the daily broadcast. Ian acts as Net Controller on Wednesday mornings and I do the weather for “Ladies Day”, on Thursdays.

We thought this would be a great opportunity for Ben Fogle to make contact with the local community. Kate and Elliot were keen to listen to the format of the program and so arrived at 7.30am ready for the start. They were impressed and it was agreed that Ben should partake on the following Wednesday. And so we had our first activity agreed. That was easy! Now we just had to work out an itinerary for the rest of the week. But that couldn’t possibly be considered until we had baked some lovely fresh olive bread and tucked into warm slices with lots of butter and blackberry jam.

After breakfast Elliot and Kate wanted to scout the local environment around Dolphin Bay and to see some of the swimming locations we had suggested. We had hoped that the guys would see dolphins and we weren’t disappointed.

Dolphins in Dolphin Bay

Dolphins in Dolphin Bay

We managed to get some photos of the dolphins surfacing in the bay before motoring on toward the “Secret Lagoon”. We tied the boat up to the mangroves and clambered across the roots into the hidden expanse of water. The locals are very adept at traversing the mangrove roots – we were all a little less nimble!

We took a well earned dip in the lovely deep, clear water around the outside of the lagoon where we put the fear of God into poor Kate, as we told her our shark encounter stories. She was to be the brunt of many shark jokes over the next week but she took all the jesting in great spirits. We had only spent a couple of days with her, but we both really liked her and felt very comfortable in her presence. We were going to “bare our souls” over the coming week so it was important that we felt comfortable and relaxed around the guys. Kate and Elliot reassured us with tips about how to remain natural throughout the filming and assured us that within no time we would forget that the camera and sound were there at all.

We spent the rest of the day talking through ideas and activities that we could film with Ben and were pleased when they confirmed that the building of the Helipad was still on the list. We worked out a preliminary schedule and it was soon clear that Ian was playing a vital part in helping Kate get these projects organised. Kate joked about him being part of her production team as well as “contributor” to the show!

Building the Helipad

Building the Helipad

Over the next couple of days we had to locate sheep, organise catering for the crew, visit the local fiesta at the Indian Village and check out the Chocolate Farm. Finally we would need to visit our Thursday afternoon social at “Valley of the Frogs” and talk to Jean about ordering a new canoe.

By now we had a better understanding as to why Elliot and Kate had arrived so much earlier than the rest of the crew. Elliot also explained that he had to try and formulate the story line for the program ahead of filming. Kate also had to carry out risk assessments and deal with all the local contractual and payment transactions. We were starting to see just how involved the process was.

With Director Elliot at Rana Azul

With Director Elliot at Rana Azul

We had a brief day of rest on the Saturday before the arrival of the crew on the Sunday. Before I knew it Ben and Ian were heading toward the balcony with an entourage of people, including cameraman Geraint, known simply as “G”, Jackson, his young assistant, sound man Grant, and of course Kate and Elliot in tow. Elliot’s head was now buried in his monitor unit where he could see and hear exactly what was being filmed.

The crew in action

The crew in action

After a short period of nervousness, I quickly became at ease as we went about our daily tasks, me with microphone permanently attached to my cleavage. We shot more than 23 hours of film over six days and so it was quite an intense schedule. The crew stayed in town but Ben remained each evening on the island. He was an easy person to have around – Ian and he are quite similar. They established a great rapport which comes across well in the final program and makes for some very funny moments. Both Ian and I agreed that the overall experience was probably one of the best we had to date. The crew were such great people, and all felt like friends by the time they left.

Ben reading Ian's book "Paradise Delayed"

Ben reading Ian’s book “Paradise Delayed”

The program aired in February 2014 and we were very excited to watch the final edited version. We had been at pains to ensure that our interaction with the community, both Indian and other local ex-pats, was portrayed. We particularly wanted to include our wonderful afternoons at jungle Pizzeria, Rana Azul, where filming had begun on the Sunday. Kate and Elliot seemed to understand how important this was to our lifestyle, having spent time with us. However, the final cut is made by the Executive Producers back in London, and unfortunately they removed all filming that portrayed time spent with our friends.

Oktoberfest at Rana Azul

Oktoberfest at Rana Azul

Overall we were really happy with the portrayal of our lives and had tremendous feedback from viewers. Our disappointment surrounded the fact that they made our lifestyle look much more remote than it actually was. They also got a number of facts and figures relating to the cost and development of the island incorrect. However, Elliot “got” our situation totally, when he had Ben summarise in the narrative at the end of the show:

“But now Ian and Vanessa will be going in search of their own adventure together,  a shared adventure”.

And what an adventure it is turning out to be!

Painting the Helipad

Painting the Helipad

If you would like to know more about what it’s like buying, developing and living on an island, Ian’s book Paradise Delayed” details the trials, tribulations and joy of this adventure. He has recently updated the book to bring our story up-to-date.

  • February 28, 2014