Texas – mad rodeos, crazy roller coasters and a pot of iced tea

Texas is huge. It is the second largest state in the United States, an area slightly larger than France. When we crossed the border between Louisiana and Texas, the first road sign informed us that El Paso (on the border with Mexico) was about 850 miles away (almost 1,400 km). Thankfully this was not our destination, but it is no wonder that the Texans drive faster and more aggressively than any other US state we visited – they have a long way to go to get anywhere!

Welcome to Texas, and please drive fast

Our first stop was in Houston, and since there is little to see – we stayed for whole three days. Maura (such an Irish name!) – our couchsurfing hostess , Mrs. Dermatologist in training and many of her pets received us very warmly. Her husband, a lawyer, was on a business trip in Dubai. Apparently in Houston, there are only two main professions – doctors and lawyers. There are over 100 hospitals in the city, compared with around 70 in London (population of London is over 8 million while there are only over 2 million people living in Houston!). The lawyers protect the very rich and lucrative oil industry.

During our stay Maura convinced us to try the crawfish (yum, yum, although very messy) and invited us to her favourite Tex Mex restaurant Chuy’s, where during Happy Hour Margaritas were half price, and the nachos bar was totally free. If you are hungry and looking for a quick dinner – I do not recommend crawfish! As nice as they are, it takes a lot of work and some skill to get a tiny morsel of meat out of the rock hard shell. We were also introduced to one of those strange TV shows – Duck Dynasty. We did laugh but we didn’t get hooked.

Williams Tower, Houston

Hermann Park - one of the nicest places in Houston

Apart from hospitals and petrochemical companies, there’s actually very little to see in Houston. Of course you could visit NASA’s Space Centre and probably hear the famous quote: “Houston we have a problem” but after the ‘amazing’ rocket launch in Florida I had enough of space stuff. We were in luck though – the annual festival Live Stock and Rodeo was in town. So we went and what a day we had – fun in a true southern style. There was pretty much anything and everything going on there: best cow and best horse competition, pigs races, horse boxes and ranch gates for sale, dozens of food stalls, roller coasters, a petting zoo (an attraction intended primarily for children, but I could not resist the temptation) and sellers of miscellaneous cowboy items.

It's a law in Texas to have a pair of these...

What Can I Say?

How could I skip a cuddle with little goat?

Our favourite attractions (except the petting zoo) included racing pigs and a competition called “Mutton Button”. The latter involved a bunch of kids of average age of six, to be set down on a back of a sheep. The sheep is then released and instinctively tries to get to its buddies on the other side of the field. The running sheep is like a bucking bronco to the kids and the challenge for the kids is to hang on for grim death until the sheep gets to the other side. No children or animals were hurt, the same cannot be said for the competitors or audiences pride…

Hold on Tight Kiddo

We had to try food favourites of such events – namely corndogs (for those of you who don’t know, a corn dog is a sausage on a stick dipped in corn batter and fried in hot oil – surprisingly tasty), and typical southern specialties – deep fried stuff: cheesecake , ice cream, chocolate bars and apparently even stick of butter!  We picked fried Oreos. An interesting experience, but not to be repeated – cookies lost their crunch and changed their usual taste, not to mention the unnecessary thousands of calories.

It's Food Time!

Fried Oreos

From Houston we drove to Austin, with a little stop in charming San Antonio along the way. San Antonio is famous for Alamo, a place of a battle between the free Texan state and Mexicans in 1836. And although the Texans were defeated, they remained a free state for another ten years, untill they joined USA as its 28th state. But besides the queuing crowds of tourists, San Antonia really is a charming place, with lovely buildings along the San Antonio River and plenty of cafés, bars and restaurants.

Alamo - San Antonio

Busy Wednesday Afternoon in San Antonio

Bells of La Villita

 Austin, the capital of Texas, is one of the favourite cities in the US and not just amongst Texans. So we had to find out what’s so great about it. And we found the crowds. It turned out that we arrived just in time for a great big musical event, which brought thousands of people from all over the country and beyond to Austin. This event was a festival South by SouthWest (written as SXSW if you are cool). Music was omnipresent. Standing anywhere along the famous 6th Street you could hear at least 3-4 bands playing in the nearby bars, at any one time . It was noisy, hot and crowded. And if this is how I define this festival, it just shows that I’m getting old … well, I guess I am. But we did enjoy the celebration we accidentally happened upon while passing a clothing store Patagonia. The shop was offering live music and free pizza and beer. How could we say no?

6th Street Austin During SXSW Festival

TEXAS Spelled in Light Bulbs, inside Capitol Building

In Austin, we experienced for ourselves that in the U.S. there really is no room for pedestrians. We went for a walk to the park and not having any map whatsoever, we simply got lost. Scampering mile after mile, jumping over hedges and wandering along the side of a fairly fast and busy road (in the ditch to be precise because there simply was no other option), we both remembered the pain of our favourite writer Bill Bryson in his book “Walk in the Woods” (we highly recommend reading it – it’s hilarious!) We did somehow finally get back to the house. A house, that for our two day stay in Austin, Sharon kindly shared with us. She wasn’t looking to host any couchsurfers during the festival, but took pity on us when she realised that we were travelling and just happened to hit Austin during this mad festival. Sharon was really cool -a nurse, at night studying business and marketing and investing in rental properties. A true business woman, though without a made-to-measure suit.

The Lone Star of Texas

The last thing we planned to see before leaving Austin was Mount Bonnell, that promised a nice panorama of the city. When we got to the top, we were approached by a young guy asking to take some pictures of him and his girlfriend. So I took the camera and trying to find the best background, shot a few photos. I was ready to give the camera back and move on but the guy looked a bit dissatisfied with what I had taken and asked me to take a few more. So back I went to my previous spot, and just as I was pointing the lens at them, the guy dropped to one knee and popped the question! I was a bit shocked and moved at the same time. I started shooting like the paparazzi. Afterwards Geoff said that it was a good job I had the camera, as he probably wouldn’t have taken a single picture after the guy asked his girlfriend to marry him. He likes to see unique things through his eyes not the camera, which would not have been useful for this couple. In all fairness you don’t witness moments like this every day. Hopefully they are pleased with the photos and one will end up framed and standing somewhere on top of the fireplace.

Unexpected Proposal Scene

Our next stop was Fort Worth. We stayed with Pamela and Mike in their huge, amazing house. It had to be big – they had nine children! Not all of them living with them anymore, but it still was a friendly and busy place. Pamela introduced us to another typical southern speciality – iced tea. You can buy it in McDonalds and in supermarkets in gallon containers. It’s pretty much everywhere and man it is SWEET.  Mesmerizingly so…

Geoff really wanted to experience the thrill of Six Flags amusement park, famous for having some of the world’s largest roller coasters. Why someone who does not like heights, wants to get into one of those cars, that climbs painfully slowly to a height of 25 floors, to roll almost vertically down the other side at a speed of 137 kph, is beyond me. Not that I’m such a tough cookie – maybe I’m not fretting while waiting in a queue for over an hour for this two minute scare ride, but when the cars begin to roll down, within seconds I have no clue where up or down is and I can’t control the horrendous squeak coming out of my mouth. Everything would be hunky-dory if it wasn’t for the massive queues and technical difficulties with the rides … in a few hours that we spent in the park we were able to ride only two rollercoasters. Three separate times we had been in a queue for over an hour only to be told to go away due to one problem or another. Never underestimate the power of complaint email though – we got full refunds, so we can’t really complain. A couple months later we read in the news, that a woman actually fell out of one of the cars during the ride on Texas Giant (one of the two we did get to ride on!) and died. I don’t think we’ll be going on any more rollercoasters, ever.

Texas Giant looked scary even from the bottom

Some People Waited Way Too Long For Their Ride

In Fort Worth we had to check the Stock Yards too. We even managed to get into a rodeo show – a bunch of crazy guys trying to ride the rather furious bulls…and how do they manage to put a lasso around those animals too?

On our way out of Texas we passed through Dallas. Not much there for tourists apart from the obvious. We stopped for a couple of hours to see Dealey Plaza – the place of the assassination of President Kennedy. There’s an ‘X’ on the street marking the position of the car, when the bullet hit the young president. The building from which Lee Harvey Oswald ALLEGEDLY pulled the trigger, is now a museum. I did write ‘allegedly’ because this is exactly what the information plaque at the front of the building says. There are plenty of conspiracy theories, a lot of which you can hear if you stop just for a few minutes outside the Sixth Floor Museum. We did and I must admit that there’s something in them…

 

Conspiracy Theory Masters Draw Attention Outside 6th Floor Museum

Plaque at Dealey Plaza

JFK Memorial in Dallas - a scary looking concrete structure

And so, still debating about the conspiracy theories we heard in Dallas, we were leaving Texas, heading towards Arkansas, and slowly making our way back to Orlando.

Howdy

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Where’s all that Jazz?

So we’re back. Although can you be BACK if you’re not exactly in the same place from which you took off? In any case, by ‘back’, I suppose I mean we are done travelling, back in everyday reality. Currently we’re in Northern Ireland, trying to sort and organise our future. But the memories of the trip are still with us and probably will stay with us forever.

 Just in case the memories fade with time, I’m going to eternalize them here, on this blog. And there’s still quite a bit to write about.  I must admit that posts were very random and few and far between so now I have a challenge to go back in time as far as March 2013 and revisit some of the places we had seen.

So far I managed to cover our first couple of weeks in America, which we spent in Florida, the breathtaking beauty of national parks and shared our tips on how to tackle USA on a tight budget.

Now it’s time to revisit south eastern states.

Louisiana

Jackson Square, NOLA

New Orleans is one of those places that pull you in like a magnet. There’s something about that city – its history, music, wild festivals – that makes you want to experience its atmosphere for yourself.  We were no different. We were late for Mardi Gras, so we didn’t get to witness the madness, but at least we managed to get a spot with a couchsurfer Pat – bit of a Mad Hatter and Mardi Gras enthusiast himself (had a huge collection of hats and costumes of all sorts). He also introduced us to a crazy discipline of ‘hashing’ – essentially running around a predetermined area, dressed up in costumes reflecting a chosen theme for the occasion, with a beer in hand, followed by more beer drinking and singing songs known only to fellow ‘hashers’. It certainly was an unforgettable, if slightly bizarre experience for us…

Only a small sample of Pat's hats and costumes

NOLA (for those who can’t be bothered saying ‘New Orleans, Louisiana’) certainly has a unique atmosphere. Whether it was one we were expecting is a different story. I had this image of smoky bars with a guy playing a trumpet or a piano somewhere in a corner, while the clientele sipped their bourbon. How different Bourbon Street turned out to be – neon lights everywhere, strip clubs, bars playing very loud music straight out of Top 40 Charts, offering fluorescent drinks in the most randomly shaped glasses. The street itself was pretty dirty, smelly and full of people wandering around with drinks in their hands (New Orleans, along with Savannah in Georgia, are the only two places in USA where you can legally drink alcohol out in the open).

Bourbon Street

But as much as Bourbon Street was disappointing, the rest of French Quarter still had its charm. The architecture of old colonial buildings with the elaborate ironwork balconies kept me in awe, while the upbeat music of the superb street performers made my feet tap along with the rhythm. Add to this many interesting galleries, delicious food (we tried po’boys, muffulettas and some pecan pies – yum yum) and great opportunities for people watching. It’s easy to see how you can spend hours and hours on the streets of New Orleans…

Streets of French Qarter

Street Music in NOLA

Muffuletta

Cemeteries are also on a 'To See' list

Art Galleries in New Orleans are pretty amazing

You can’t mention New Orleans without highlighting the impact Hurricane Katrina had on the city back in 2005. The iconic French Quarter wasn’t actually badly affected but other regions of the city took an awful toll. We went to see the 9th Ward, where the devastation was still visible – although some people came back and rebuilt their houses, many still stand abandoned as a reminder of the tragedy that affected so many lives. But this doesn’t stop the New Orleanians from getting back on their porches, sitting in the old wooden chairs and doing what they do best – singing their hearts out.

Humbling Experience in 9th Ward

While in Louisiana we also took a rest stop at Lake Martin – a swampland reserve full of birds, snakes hanging off the trees and little alligators minding their own business on the trails, unaware of the danger that one of us could have had imposed on them. Geoff was so engrossed in bird observation that he nearly stepped on one tiny alligator that stopped motionless in the middle of our path. Fortunately I saw him in time, and instead of squashing him, Geoff decided to give him a little pat. Mr Alligator was having none of that and he very nearly bit his finger off.  Luckily the finger was untouched and no angry mother alligator rushed out of the bushes so we could move on with our travels…

Trees Growing in the middle of St Martin Lake

Feisty Baby Gator

Our further journey in Louisiana took us from NOLA, across Lake Pontchartrain and the longest continuous bridge over water (over 38km!) in the world, to state capital Baton Rouge, where Monster Jam was taking place. So we went to have a look. It was deafeningly loud and smelled of burnt rubber while monster trucks were intent on flattening vehicles right out of the salvage yard – only in America! To sum it up – highly entertaining! We probably wouldn’t go again, but it certainly was worth experiencing it.

Lake Pontchartrain Csway - 38 km long bridge

Ironman doing Donuts during Monster Jam

From Baton Rouge we drove west and crossed into the Lone Star State. And this will be a subject of the next post.

 

Life on 4 wheels – around Australia in a campervan

For over three months now, a white 1996 Mitsubishi Express van has been our home here in Australia. We bought it in Melbourne off a French couple and after saying our good-byes to our Workaway family, at the end of the June, we set off on our Down Under adventure.

Australia Rock

Our ‘bus’ has it all: comfy queen size mattress, lots of storage, kitchen at the back and an inverter to charge our electrical goods. It certainly gives us freedom to go wherever we want and at whatever pace we choose, without too much forward planning.

Our bedroom and living room

Van posing in Emu Park

Since June in the south of Australia was pretty cold, we decided to head up north, where endless summer is a reality. Following the beautiful east coast we crossed through Victoria, New South Wales and are currently around the Cairns area, which is known as ‘far north Queensland’. You may think that Australia indeed is a large country, but you can put all of Europe right in it and still have half of the country left over! So to travel from south to north would take you a while and if you were travelling with us, it would take you even longer. True, that it is pretty much one beach after another, but what beaches they are! And as we have already figured out, travelling in Australia isn’t really about sightseeing – it’s about relaxed and slow living, day by day, enjoying yourself and the sun.

Relaxing with a book and a cuppa at one of the rest stops

And of course the wildlife. Kangaroos are a-plenty, but in some parts you see more of them than in others. They are super cute. Hopping around with their two tiny front paws and two massive back legs, plus a tail! We were lucky to see some of them dining, relaxing, and even boxing. We also saw mummy roos with tiny joeys poking out of the pouch. That really was something.

Mama Roo and her Joey

In the beautiful Kangaroo Valley apart from loads of roos, we have also seen wombats. What funny creatures they are – looking like small bears or massive hamsters, wandering around and at the tiniest hint of danger they quickly run off and hide in their burrows. While at night they dug some more holes and actually shook our van with us inside. Each time the shaking happened we giggled like two little girls.

Mr Wombat

We have also seen whales, dolphins, seals and turtles. We fed a friendly possum at Tooloom Falls and spent a few hours following our platypus friend, ‘Bill’, in Eungella National Park (they are way tinier than we expected them to be!). We discovered that the ‘monkey noises’ that we hear in the mornings are nothing else but chatting kookaburras. Other noisy but beautiful birds are lorikeets.

Shy but curious Kookaburra

 

And very colourful but noisy lorikeet

We took hundreds of pictures of pelicans, which right next to Toucans are our favourite bird. We spotted 16 koalas, either snoozing or munching away, on gumtrees on Raymond Island, Victoria. We had brief encounters with an echidna, an emu, a cassowary and a fleeing snake. A palm sized spider landed on our car windscreen, at a campsite, and I was scared to get out in fear of one of them jumping on my head. We saw a couple of big iguanas, hundreds of cute little newts and lizards and Geoff saved a few huge frogs that decided to reside in public toilet bowls. Not to mention all the mesmerising fish we swam with whilst snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef – our absolute favourite had to be the ‘Lunar Wrasse’, who flapped their tiny little fins just like birds do. Each and every one of those encounters felt amazing – they were right there, minding their own business, all those creatures we have previously seen only in pictures or in the zoo. And it did not matter that we saw kangaroo number 315 – it was still a cute Skippy to us!

Cute resident of Raymond Island

And then there are the aforementioned beaches – gold sand, white sand, rock fringed, cliffy – with nearly 50,000km of coast and over 7,000 beaches you are sure to find it all in Australia. Top it up with sapphire oceans and some palm trees and you get a picture of paradise. So it really shouldn’t be a surprise that if we happen upon one of those beaches we seem to forget that the real world exists, and we spent a few relaxed days (or weeks) nurturing our tan, reading book after book and cooling down from time to time in the 26 degree waters of the Coral Sea.

Beautiful Clifton Beach

Eameo Beach - one of many sunrises we get to watch on this trip

But coming back to reality, what we are doing over here is bread and butter for many retired Australians and young European people. And there is a whole network enabling such adventures – across the whole of Australia there are numerous rest stops, where travellers are allowed to stay a night, or a few, if they so wish. Some of these rest stops are very basic, but most would have some toilet facilities. And there are some that are situated in a lovely area away from the main roads, sometimes even with showers, where you just want to stay for a bit longer. Another common feature of Australian life are countless public barbeques. Any more popular spot would have a few along with some picnic tables, and as long as you can throw something on those hotplates, you’re going to have a good time and a yummy meal too. Although the more popular the place, the more people want to use them and a few times we had to find barbeques further away, as the ones we had hoped to use were ‘booked’ for the day. Booking a barbeque involves, piling out as many boxes and food items onto the barbeque and picnic tables as possible, so others are aware that this is your spot and you’re not to come near! Once we were delicately bullied out of one of those picnic tables, but ‘the bullies’ gave us enough beers for the whole incident not to matter.

Preparing dinner on one of the public bbqs

As long as you travel along the coast, most beaches would have showers. Some are indoors, but most are outside and have only cold water of course – but in these temperatures, who needs a hot shower anyway. After a while you even stop caring if a few people are sitting watching you lathering up and washing your hair…

Outdoor showers on the coast are great for us

The one downfall of travelling in Australia is the cost of pretty much everything. You can find cheapish basic food in supermarkets but things like fruit, vegetables and seafood – something that Australia should have in abundance,  aren’t as affordable as one might expect. We tend to pick up some occasionally from fruit stands situated along the main roads – they are cheaper and usually taste better, apart from the 8kg of oranges we got one time that had very rummy taste to them. But the cost of accommodation and tourist attractions are pretty much outrageous! For an unpowered spot in a caravan park you would have to pay between $20 and $40 per night. The very cheapest, most basic backpacker room would set a couple like us back an easy fifty bucks and that’s with a shared bathroom, or between $80 and $100 for a motel room.  We are talking no frills and out of season. And since we have had no luck with couchsurfing here either, we won’t be getting a break from our van anytime soon.

The tourist attractions cost an arm and a leg and possibly your other leg too. Entries to zoos, museums and most National Parks (with a few exceptions and all of Queenslands National Parks) cost a lot of money and sometimes quite frankly are not worth the money at all. There are loads of fun activities such as: Great Barrier Reef cruises, whale spotting tours, snorkelling, diving, paragliding, hover boarding (Google it), bungee jumping, jet skiing, fishing trips or basically anything you can possibly think of, but they are almost entirely reserved for those with hefty wallets.

Looks fun but 10 min costs $60

We did splash out on one of those cruises to the Whitsunday Island and we did have loads of fun. We covered three islands: Hook Island, Whitsunday Island itself and Daydream Island. Just being on a boat was fun, but then a couple of hours snorkelling on Hook Island exceeded our expectations. All sorts of amazingly colourful corals covered the ocean floor and loads of brightly painted fish were hiding in their nooks. We were literally surrounded by hundreds of fish, who didn’t seem to care that we were there and were occasionally bumping into our masks in search of food thrown from the boat.

Our boat on Whitsundays

After that, while heading towards Whitehaven Beach, one of the top ten beaches in the world, we were served some lunch. The beach was indeed dreamy – the sand was as white and as soft as flour. It felt amazing under our feet. In fact it’s so fine, that it was used in the mirrors of the Hubble Telescope. And being 99.8% silica, it never gets too hot, which has been one of our most recent problems when the sand gets too hot that we really can’t walk on it.

So this magnificent spot is where Geoff chose to pop the question. I said ‘yes’ and that’s how Whitehaven Beach will stay in our minds and hearts forever – as a place where we got engaged.

As an engaged couple on Whitehaven Beach

Now we have another thing to look forward to. At the end of October, Geoff’s parents are coming and joining us for a month. They are getting a campervan of their own (if only a little fancier than ours) and together we will travel from Alice Springs to Port Augusta and then west to Perth. Once we are on our own again we will head back to Melbourne and decide what’s next. These are the plans, but as always, who knows what life will bring.

America the Beautiful part 2

UTAH continued

  • Bryce Canyon National Park

Some of more distinctive rock formations are present in this park – hoodoos. They look like red and white very steep pinnacles and thousands of them form amazing walls of all shapes. To me they looked like some petrified ancient army…

The Hoodoos of Bryce Canyon

There are many lookouts conveniently located within a short walking distance from the car parks and the views are truly amazing. There are a few longer walks too and apart from the rim walk, most of them take you all the way to the bottom of the canyon – so you just need to bare in mind, that whatever height  you lose walking down, you will have to climb it all the way back again. As our luck would have it, the one walk that we wanted to do, through a great slot canyon was closed, due to a rockfall.

Long way up and down

I guess we should be glad that all those rocks fell before we got there and not while we were there.

Park rangers try to encourage people (especially young ones) to discover the park through various walks and for those who can prove (either by photo or by a stamp) that they walked the required distance, and say at least three designated signs, the special surprise prize awaits…

Posing for my surprise prize

Of course I got mine! And besides the prizes we were leaving Bryce Canyon dusty and tired…

  • Zion National Park

The park is most famous for its infamous hike to Angels Landing that has claimed several lives over the last few years. The last kilometer or so is a straight up climb over the sheer rock face with massive drop-offs on each side. There are a few chains, but with the crowds going up and down, more often than not you have to hug a stranger to be able to get a grip yourself. It really it more of a challenge and a kind of prestigious achievement that draws thousands of people to do the hike each year, as there are better lookouts elsewhere in the park. Just not the same thrill or potential for death!

Walters Wiggles on the way to Angles Landing

Admiring a view of the valley from Observation Point - Angel's Landing below

I felt the need to get to Angels Landing myself, but Geoff not being a fan of heights himself, wouldn’t let me go on my own. We did go as far as Scout’s Lookout and climbed the famous Walter’s Wiggles, from where we could see people struggling to get to the top of Angels Landing and back down again. It could have been done, but if there is one thing I hate about hiking, it definitely is traffic. This little episode conclude one thing – Geoff is going to let me get a horse (that’s what Monika thinks anyway), which I am going to name it “Angel’s Landing”.

Muddy tracks = muddy boots

We have spent a few days in Zion. We weren’t camping within the park, but each day we were travelling to and from Washington (not DC!) where we were staying with Bud and Carol – our couchsurfing hosts. It took us no time to feel like a part of their family. They were warm, welcoming, very generous and highly dedicated to the idea of couchsurfing. They even had a guest book complete with pictures of all the people who stayed with them and who left thank you notes and bit of travel info on the countries they were from. Carol is into scrapbooking and we got to see her masterpieces – really impressive! We enjoyed their company and Zions views so much, that instead of the initial three nights we had “booked”, we stayed for five!

A lesser visited Kolob Canyon

While in Zion we did a tour in a shuttle bus – cars are only allowed up to a certain point within the park – and stopped at the lookout points. We got our shoes covered in mud in Kolob Canyon. Decided to walk The Narrows, but the river levels were too high and the water temperature was a bit too cold to carry on further than the first few bends. We went to the wonderfully named Emerald Pools, which were anything but emerald or wonderful  (at least in our opinion). And finally we hiked eight long and steep miles through the spectacular Echo Canyon to Observation Point – a truly amazing spot with breath taking views of the park below. A hike well worth taking. And even after those few days spent in Zion, we could easily come back and do all the walks that we didn’t get a chance to do.

"Hiking" The Narrows...

Echo Canyon

ARIZONA

  • Grand Canyon National Park

The big, almighty Grand Canyon. Unsurprisingly it is one of the most visited national parks in USA. A few hours drive from Las Vegas makes it a popular destination on many a roadtrip in America. It is called grand for a reason – not only due to its size but most importantly due to the rewarding vistas all around.

Grand Canyon

We wanted to visit the less popular but apparently more beautiful North Rim, but while we were there (mid May) the roads were only starting to open after winter, and the main access road was closed due to a landslide. So we changed our plans, went to Vegas first (oh those lazy days spent by the hotel pool…) and from there went to South Rim instead. I’ve been to Grand Canyon before, but the views impressed me just as much, all over again. There are buses that take you all along the rim to Hermit’s Rest and let you get off at any of the many lookout points or hike trail heads. So even if you don’t fancy a walk, you can still admire its beauty in all its glory. But a hike down the canyon is a great experience and reveals a whole new point of view. Just few steps down and you are dwarfed by the massive canyon walls, millions of years old. That really puts your own existence into perspective.  And if you want to experience it, but don’t feel like a hike, you can join one of the organised tours and ride a mule.

Giving way to mules while hiking in Grand Canyon

The one thing they do warn you all around the park is attempting to hike from rim to rim. There was a story at the head of our trail about a young girl – a marathon runner – clearly fit and in prime condition, who died trying to do just that – walk from south to north rim in one day. Many have done that and live to tell the story, but the risks of dehydration, exhaustion and sun stroke are great and can really cause death.

But the canyon is beautiful and the views will make you stop for a good while and try to take it all in, especially when the place gets quiet during dusk and dawn…

View of Colorado River

We have plans to come back, do the rim walks and experience it all yet again.

Dry trees add to the desert feel

Of course American beauty doesn’t lie just within its national parks. We found it in wetlands of Florida and Louisiana and on beautiful beaches in Florida and California. We saw redwoods in NP – the tallest trees in the world (a family of previously mentioned sequoias – largest by volume). We had to miss out on spectacular Crater Lake in Oregon, because there were 12 inches of fresh snow on the road and we had no snow chains. But we have seen beautiful tulip fields in Woodburn (Washington) instead. We also went to see amazing Columbia River Gorge on the border of Oregon and Washington and we were amazed by the majesty of Mt Hood, still very much covered in snow in late April. We hoped to see it again while in Seattle (it has a prominent place in the city’s skyline), but the usual clouds made it impossible this time.

Tulip fields in Woodburn, Oregon

Mt Hood towering over hundreds of pear tress

There’s also a massive emptiness of Montana’s prairies, with horses feeding on vast grasslands with towering Rockies in the background. There are also peculiarities such as petrified forests (we saw one in Washington, but there are few other ones around the country) and Craters of the Moon – which might not be beautiful, but are definitely interesting and magnificent in their own right.

Vast emptiness in Montana

There were national parks we missed out completely (Yellowstone) and some we barely touched (Glacier NP). And although we have definitely seen a lot in our three months in America, there is still so much to see, that we have to come back for more, some other time…

Pictures of all the places we have seen will be appearing slowly on our gallery. So if you want to take a virtual trip with us, keep checking that space!

America the Beautiful part 1

For some America is a country of big cities and good shopping. Some travel the distance to see the Hollywood sign, have fun in Disneyland or try their luck in Vegas. And although we have also done some of the above, what we really appreciated was the natural beauty found in national parks.

We’ve all heard of Yellowstone and Grand Canyon. Those who like National Geographic probably know most of the other 59, but there are also state parks, national monuments and other sites, that would take a lifetime to see. No wonder Americans don’t travel abroad all that much!

Before we came to America we already had a list of a few parks we wanted to see and by recommendations from our couchsurfing hosts, the list was growing longer and longer.

The Beauty of Canyonlands in Utah

We actually didn’t visit any parks on the eastern side, although we were pretty close to the Smokey Mountains, which sounded great, and if it wasn’t for the cold, the rain and our lack of camping gear, we probably would have gone there.
We have visited 12 national parks in the west. The entry fee to a park varies between $10 and $25 per vehicle, valid for seven days. Knowing that we would visit enough parks to get our money’s worth, we decided to buy an annual pass at $80. The pass is called America the Beautiful and for a year it gives an access to over 2,000 sites around USA. Their website www.nps.gov is a great source  of information and is well worth checking before you even start planning your trip to any of the parks: it tells you when it’s best to visit, gives you details about available accommodation (whether you’re after a comfy lodge or a simple campsite), has a separate section on walks and other possible activities (white water rafting, horseback riding, etc) and quite often other useful updates, such as road closures due to heavy snowfall…
Below are a few notes and pictures of some of the parks we’ve visited.

CALIFORNIA

  • Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park

This was the first national park we’ve been to. We knew that the trees were going to be huge, but even with that knowledge, we were absolutely stunned and amazed by their size! Even three days on and after seeing hundreds of those giants, we still couldn’t comprehend how they got to be so BIG! The biggest of them all, by volume, General Sherman had a circumference of 31 meters, was 2,200 years old and if filled with water, it would hold 1,487 cubic meters – enough for 9,844 baths (that’s one bath a day for 27 years!).

With General Sherman - the Biggest Tree on Earth

We got to see those magnificent trees in the sun, a bit of cloud and rain, but we had a very mystical experience when a sudden fog fell over the park and we couldn’t see further than 2-3 meters ahead. We couldn’t even find our car when we were virtually standing next to it.

Monika and Sequoias in the Mist

An absolute must do is the climb to Moro Rock, from top of which you get breathtaking views. But be warned, in the summer, you will face a two hour long shuffle to the top, rather than the ten minutes it took us. Just watch for the weather – recently a person was killed by a lightning, when an incoming storm was ignored.

 

Views from Moro Rock

Also watch out for the bears; they are around and signs everywhere warn you to store ANY food and toiletries in bear boxes. They do break into people’s cars if they see or smell food or toothpaste, apparently…

Sunset over Sequoia NP

 

  •  Yosemite National Park

Mecca for climbers all around the world. El Captain stands tall and challenges the brave and skillful to climb its sheer face.
The whole park is organized as a little town: has its own free shuttle bus (use of your car is very limited within park boundaries), a few shops and a great network of campsites and lodges. We were there at the beginning of April, night temperatures were below zero and all the open campsites were full! So in season you really need to book well in advance.

Yosemite Valley

You can’t describe the beauty of this place. It was one of famous photographer Adam Ansel’s favorite spots and even though his pictures are impressive, you won’t understand how amazing this place is until you see the valley for yourself. There are some great walks, differing in levels of difficulty (one of the most famous that even got its mention on a fridge magnet is the ‘Mist Trail’) and you could spend weeks in Yosemite and still not experience it all.
In the evenings in the proper American camping style, we had s’mores (roasted marshmallows and melted chocolate in between two crackers), over a roaring fire. These were introduced to us by Adam and Kacy, our couchsurfing hosts from Atlanta.

S'mores Time!

We have seen marmots and deer but no bears although I had to strongly discourage Geoff from leaving food behind on a picnic table (as an invitation for Mr. Bear) rather than in a bear box.

Oh, I Forgot to mention Cute Squirrel

  • Death Valley National Park

Colours of the Death Valley

Colorful desert and hot, very hot! As with pretty much any other park, we got there out of season except in this case, the season ended, because the coming months were going to be too hot. And indeed, temperatures of above 40 degrees proved that. It didn’t even get cooler at night. All we were doing was thinking of water and drinking it. At our campsite, the water from the tap was warm enough to make coffee in the morning! After all we were in a place that has the highest ever recorded  temperature, 56.6 degrees on July 10th 1913. On this day, birds were dropping out of the sky. We didn’t experience these extreme temperatures, but we were struggling as it was.

15 more degrees? No, thank you!

Even the shortest hike was strenuous and when we went to see the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, we very nearly burnt our feet on the sand as we walked in our flip flops.

The Sand that Burns your Feet...

We have seen a road runner (too quick to get a picture of) and a coyote, which was not chasing the road runner as in the famous cartoon.

Have you seen the Roadrunner?

Despite the heat and the discomfort it caused, there was something magical, something inciting in the deserts of Death Valley.

Salt Flats in Death Valley

UTAH

If there is one state with truly amazing national parks, it has to be Utah. In this state alone we have visited five of the parks, all of which we would go back to again, without a doubt.
We arrived at the perfect time of the year; weather was fantastic but the crowds hadn’t arrived just yet.

 

  • Arches National Park

As the name suggests the park is full of arches – amazing rock structures with beautiful background settings. Most arches are easily accessible by car and a short walk, but there are some great longer walks, one of which takes you to Delicate Arch – very popular with sunset enthusiasts.

Awaiting the Sunset at Delicate Arch

Unfortunately when we were there the sun decided to skip the show, but instead gathered crowds got to watch a guy, re-proposing over the phone to his wife. He asked permission from the waiting photographers if it would be ok to disturb the scene for a minute or two, ran to the arch, called his wife, got down on one knee and a minute later punched his fist into the air announcing that she said ‘yes’…again! And strangely it was not a movie set… Nice to know that there are still guys out there with a romantic soul.

Window Arch

  • Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands NP

We were not even planning to go to Canyonlands at first, but it was close to Arches NP and we found out that it had one of our favorites – Mesa Arch. By pure chance a couple of years back, Geoff found this great picture on the internet that became our desktop background at work – what we didn’t know at the time, what we now know – it was Mesa Arch. For this sight alone, Canyonlands is worth a visit.

Mesa Arch - AMAZING

But there are more,  beautiful vistas to make a stay in this park worthwhile. We spent a couple of nights at one of the campsites and happened to make friends with a couple of ladies that were pitched next to us. The first night they invited us to their fire and brewed us some lovely hot tea (our camping gear was left behind in Greece, so apart from a tent we had nothing else, which they found hilarious). So the next evening we were invited to dinner and some more tea. Stunning views during the day and lovely company in the evening made our stay in Canyonlands a memorable one.

Canyons as far as eye can see...

Feeling sooo small here

Just another sunset in Canyonlands

  • Capitol Reef National Park

We went there because: (a) it was recommended to us by someone we met along the way and (b) it was on our route to Bryce Canyon anyway. We just didn’t expect to stay there for two nights and have that much fun. The campsite we stayed at was full half an hour after we arrived! It had free firewood and running water, which was a huge bonus. The other great thing about it was the campground keeper – a very friendly park ranger who was more than happy to help with any queries we had and to recommend various hikes. He showed us where to find slot canyons, pointed out the must see Cassidy Arch and encouraged us to cross a stream to bypass the closed track caused by a recent landslide on the way to a good hike .

Cassidy Arch

Geoff in Slot Canyon

Intrigued by this  closed track, we followed his instructions and soon bumped into another couple. They laughed at the idea of wetting their feet, rather than simply climbing over the fallen rocks, but the conversation went on, and 45 minutes later we were invited for some wine and cheese to their campervan. If it wasn’t for the fact that we had our tent pitched a good distance away from them we probably would have accepted, but as it was we just said our goodbyes and wished each other a great trip.

Strolling Through the canyon in Capitol Reef

How surprised we were when we met them on a different hike the next day! This time we walked together for a good bit, exchanged lots of stories (they happened to be keen travelers and cyclists themselves) and this time we accepted an invitation for lunch. We were starting to get used to this unprompted friendliness and generosity, but never have we taken it for granted. We did a lot of hiking – the weather was great and the views yet again rewarding. We thought we would have had enough of seeing rocks and canyons, but I doubt you can ever tire of it.

Capitol Reef NP

So if you want to know about the rest of the parks we visited, tune for National Parks Part II!
You can also find more pictures from Sequoia & Kings and Yosemite in our gallery; the rest will slowly find its way there too.

A Few Tips on Travelling in America

Now that our three month road trip in USA is finished, we thought it might be useful to mention a few tips we learnt along the way, and wouldn’t have minded knowing before we started.

For most long term travellers money is always an issue, and while America isn’t an expensive destination for those on holidays, it can be tricky to stay on a shoestring budget if you’re spending more than just a few weeks in the country.

So here are some of our ways to see a lot, have fun and not spend a fortune. By no means it’s a great guide; all I’m saying is that it worked for us.

ACCOMODATION

Let’s start with one of the biggest expenses there usually is. And guess what – you can eliminate this cost almost entirely if you put your preconceived notions aside and use Couchsurfing. It really is a great idea and if you want more than just a free place to stay, you won’t be disappointed. During our three months in America we spent 47 nights with our Couchsurfing hosts. And really only two of them were bit weird, not unpleasant or anything, just a tad awkward. Other times the people we met were friendly and hospitable beyond comprehension. And for those experiences we both strongly recommend trying it. Just be honest in your profile and DO READ THROUGHLY other users profiles before sending a request and agreeing to stay with them – there are some people out there with whom you might not feel entirely comfortable (nudists, for example), and it’s best to avoid them if you can. Even the cheapest motels generally cost from $50 (at the very very least) up to $100 depending on location. We assumed a conservative average of $60 per night. So, if we were to spend those 47 couchsurfing nights in dirty, rundown motels in bad parts of town, we reckon we saved at least $2,750 over the course of our trip.

Then there are campsites. We only stayed at the ones located in national parks (15 nights altogether) and were quite impressed with them. The facilities were basic (mostly pit toilets but very clean, no showers, some sites didn’t have running water but it was mentioned beforehand ), but the sites were quite big, usually had a picnic table and bbq pit and were pretty cheap ($10-20 per site, per night, there are some free ones out there too). We didn’t even have any camping equipment with us. All our camping gear that we had so carefully researched,  got left behind with our bikes, in Greece. So we ended up in Walmart buying the cheapest tent there was: junior dome for $25 (good job we are little people) and a couple of blankets for another $20-30. No mats, no camping stove, nothing. And we did survive quite a few nights like this, in below freezing temperatures…

With our Tent in Canyonlands NP

But if Couchsurfing and camping isn’t for you, there are countless motels and hotels wherever you go. Depending on location and season, the average price, as mentioned before, would be somewhere between 50 and 100 bucks a night. In many locations (restaurants, rest stops, tourist info) you can pick up free copies of hotel coupons, which have discounted rates for listed motels. These coupons are generally for one to two people from Monday to Thursday. It would save you a few dollars here and there, or you can try hotwire.com, which also lists discounted rooms, but you don’t find out what the hotel is or its exact location, until after you have booked it.

For those who travel in a vehicle and don’t mind spending the night in it, you can stop at any Walmart carpark and stay there for free. I don’t know why it’s so, but a few people mentioned it to us and indeed we have seen some campervans parked at the far side of the parking lot. So there you go, another free option, if you’re up for it.

FOOD AND DRINK

America might not be known for its gourmet cuisine, but it surely has the most fast food restaurants in the world. If you don’t mind putting a lot of rubbish in your tummy then you’ll be just fine. Mind you, they aren’t all that cheap, unless you just go for something straight from the $1 menu. For us good old Subway worked the best – share a footlong stuffed with all the veg there is (no raw onions and olives on Monika’s half) and you have a healthy-ish cheap-ish meal.

The Land of Fast Food

When we got here we thought that Walmart will be our supermarket for all food items. We couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only it has the tiniest food selection compared to its size, but you’ll be lucky to find there anything that hasn’t been processed to death or covered in some sugary coating. Even bread and milk (apparently fresh) would last weeks, not refrigerated. To make things worse, their customer service is unbelievably bad: no matter how many people there are in the shops, you always have to wait forever in a queue and staff just in general isn’t friendly at all. Probably the only place in whole of America where you won’t be greeted with a smile… But then you can’t blame them when you know what type of people are the majority that shop there. I hope I’m not offending anyone, but have a look for yourself here. Later on we have discovered Safeway – a much better supermarket, not as cheap but with very good offers for those who have their club card. So when we finally got a card (all you have to do is just go and ask for one and you get it straight away!) we didn’t shop anywhere else, unless we couldn’t find any Safeway nearby. They also had those massive sandwiches in their deli sections. Two of these sandwiches below would feed both of us for three days!

That's One Big Sandwich

And then there are All You Can Eat Buffets, pretty much in any town, mainly Chinese or pizza based, usually for about $10 a person. So you can always have a very big lunch that would last you for the rest of the day…Buffets in Las Vegas are a completely different story: way more expensive, but have more variety and better food in general.

All drinks are cheap. You can find water fountains pretty much everywhere and get your water for free. All soft drinks are cheap wherever you go; it is a birthplace of Coca Cola and Co after all. While we were there, McDonalds was selling any size brewed coffee, sweet tea (very big in the south) or soda for $1. Petrol (or should I say Gas) Stations usually have some cheap deals on ice cold or piping hot drinks too. So there’s always something to quench your thirst. And you must have an idea about the portion sizes in this country…simply massive! And on top of that, if you sit in most fast food restaurants, you are entitled to free refills. That’s a lot of sugar you can consume just from the cup!

If it gets too hot outside getting a cooler to keep all your drinks cold is a great idea. And it doesn’t have to cost as much as you can imagine! All you need is a Styrofoam box ($3 from Walmart) filled with ice (bags available for a few dollars in all supermarkets and petrol stations, or free from the motels’ ice machines if you’re up for it!). Depending on the heat, the ice will last a day or two. The cool box will serve you much longer.

 

ON THE ROAD

We found, that for a three month trip, renting a car was easier and possibly not more expensive. Buying a car in USA requires a lot of hassle and paperwork and if you just want to get out there and not worry about selling the car afterwards too, renting a car is a way to go. We rented two different cars, one in Orlando and one in LA, as a fee for dropping a car at a different location nearly doubled the rental quote. So it was cheaper to do two loops and fly across the country to get a different car.

It definitely is a good idea to get a Sat Nav. They aren’t that expensive (I’m talking about buying one at Best Buy for around $100 not renting one with your car) and they will become your best friend, especially when you have to navigate 8 lane highways to get off at the right exit. Geoff, who did all the driving, swears that as soon as we started approaching cities, he felt like he was on a race track! Pretty stressful, so Sat Nav is always a good solution.

Interstate Signs Give You All Information

Gas (or petrol as we know it) is pretty cheap compared to what anyone outside of America is used to, but varies a lot from state to state and quite often from one station to the other. If you add gasbuddy.com to your favourites, you’ll always find the best price wherever you are. We found that data was always up to date and very accurate too.

But nothing saves the money as good as slow driving. We must have been the slowest vehicle on American roads, but we did 18,770 km on 1,075 litres (and paid just over $1,000 for fuel in total). So it really is up to you.

On main roads, Interstates, there are quite regular rest stops that always have decent toilets and quite often some picnic sites too. Whenever you cross the state line, there are always visitor centres that have free maps of a state and plenty information and booklets and sometimes even coffee, also  free! So you don’t even need a travel guide and you’ll still be surprised how much there really is to see in every single state.

Very Useful FREE State Guides

OTHER

INTERNET is available almost anywhere. For our free access we always went to (not necessarily into) McDonalds. And since it’s USA, you will always find one when you need it! I think that Starbucks and few other places have free WiFi spots too, so you can have your own pick.

NATIONAL PARKS are really amazing and you probably have at least a few on your itinerary. Check the entry fees to them and work out if it won’t be better to get an annual pass. It costs $80 and allows a free entry of one vehicle, whether there’s one person in it or five. We definitely saved money with ours and we were there only 3 months. And when you’re done with it, you can always give it to some else.

Zion National Park

CITY PASS. If you love cities and all the museums, zoos and aquariums, most cities have city passes, that include access to the most popular attractions for a discounted price.

TAXES. All states have their own rules and that applies to sale taxes too. Remember that the price you see in a shop isn’t usually the price you’ll have to pay at the till. And they will vary from state to state. California has some of the highest taxes, so if you’re planning to do some shopping and will be going to other states too, save your bucks and get more for their value. You can check online, tax rates in all states and plan ahead.

RECYCLING. I thought I just mention it briefly. Some states charge for plastics bags in supermarkets, some don’t. Some states charge a deposit fee for glass and plastic bottles when you purchase them, but if you can be bothered you can return them to recycling centres and get your money back.

Travelling in USA is really easy and can be cheap. And it definitely is SO MUCH FUN!

G’day from Down Under

So we have neglected this blog for a while. There was simply too much going on and any time we got to ourselves, we just wanted to chill and sort our future travel plans (Geoff) and thousands of pictures (Monika).

The last post was about Florida and that was well over three months, 16 states and another country (New Zealand) ago. The plan to catch up on all this is still there, but it might take longer than I thought. So for those who do check this space and are curious about our adventures, please be patient, and visit our gallery, which is gradually being updated.

We are now in Australia. We got here on Friday morning on a flight from Auckland. We were bit worried about entry into Australia since we had no onward flight from Australia. But as it turned out, it wasn’t necessary, to be worried, after all. In fact, immigration officer didn’t ask us a single question! And even customs were happy with all the items we were declaring, even though we ticked almost all the boxes, saying “yes we have that and that and … oh yes that too”. So we missed the opportunity to be on the Border Security tv programme, which they were filming that very day!  On the other hand, when we were entering New Zealand, we had our hiking boots and the tent thoroughly checked by biosecurity. Who would have thought that entering Australia would be so much easier (just allow at least an hour of standing in a queue to have your passport stamped).

Right now we are in Melbourne, staying with our new Workaway family with two small children: Frida (4) and Sam (2), so there’s plenty of entertainment for sure. And while Geoff is searching the net for our new vehicle, I’m trying to put together a quick update here.

In short then. Three months in USA passed very quickly. We visited 17 states, some just briefly, while in others we stayed for much longer. We drove over 16,000 km, had some very cold (below freezing) and some very hot (over 40 degrees C) days, seen some amazing scenery and met loads of very friendly people. I will definitely write more about this trip, in due course – I’m still sorting the pictures!!!

Very Cold and Snowy in Glacier NP, Montana

Very Cold and Snowy in Glacier NP, Montana

And Super Hot in Death Valley, California

Our Favourite - Mesa Arch in Canyonlands NP, Utah

With our USA visa about to expire, we had to make a decision as where to go next. We already had our Australian visas approved, back in February when we planned to go to Australia (looong story), so that sort of sealed the deal. When we were booking the flights, it turned out that the cheapest option was to fly with a stopover in Auckland, New Zealand. And we remembered that we had some friends over there, that we met few years back on Inca Trail in Peru. They were happy to have us for two weeks, so we extended our stopover from couple of hours to a couple of weeks. And although New Zealand was definitely on our ‘must see’ list, the time of year wasn’t quite perfect for it. We still managed to see more than we planned, courtesy of our friends. But the idea is, that one day we’ll be back, hopefully with our bikes, and do a proper tour, in proper season. We’d still like to share what we saw and what we did in those 14 days on the North Island, but that again is a project for the future. Seriously, how people manage to keep their travel blogs up to date is beyond me…

At the Very Top of New Zealand - Cape Reinga

Lake Taupo at the Start of Winter

Ok, I guess it’s time to have a quick breakfast and then move on to another project – pictures 🙂