I’d heard a lot about spas here in Shenzhen and how different they were to western versions, and I was keen to see how they compared. One of my students offered to take us to D-Club, a luxury spa in the Futian district and it really was an experience unlike any other!
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.
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.
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!
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!
“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!”
“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!
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!
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”.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
If you would like to know more about what it’s like buying, developing and living on an island, Ian’s book “Paradise Delayed” (available on Amazon) details the trials, tribulations and joy of this adventure. He has recently updated the book to bring our story up-to-date.
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.