Category Archives: World Travel

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” (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.

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!

Backpacking Grand CanyonIt 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.

The RVAfter 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.

Desert View Grand CanyonWe 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!

Sunset at Grand CanyonWe 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.

DSC03687After 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.

DSC03730It 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.

DSC04184This 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.

DSC03794We 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!

Phantom RanchThe 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.

DSC04191It 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

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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.

Continue reading Heading West to Del Rio

Leaving Austin

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

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

C Hunts Ice Bar in Austin
C Hunts Ice Bar in Austin

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

Ian with Chester
Ian with Chester

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

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

Continue reading Leaving Austin

Texas State Parks

So far on our Texan adventure, we have enjoyed various RV hangouts, which have for the most part been free. These have included numerous Walmart car parks, outside the Hostel on Riverside, Pecan Grove RV Park in the centre of Austin and in front of Michelle’s house in North Austin.

As we ventured a little further afield, we discovered the Texas State Parks and decided to pay the $70 annual subscription which allows us free entry at any of the 90+ parks and attractions across Texas. We no longer have to pay an entry fee (average $4-6 per person, per day), and now only pay around $20 for a full hook-up. This means we get mains water, electricity (air-conditioning), and somewhere to dump our “grey” and “black” water tanks. There is the added advantage of a beautiful park with rivers, creeks or swimming pools to cool off in the hot, Texan sun.

The State Parks often have far superior RV parking spots compared to privately owned RV parks. Primarily because they have space, and plenty of it! We have stayed in parks where we could park the RV and comfortably house up to eight people in tents. Together with picnic tables, fire pits, BBQ’s and shade, these parks have become our “home” of choice and we have mapped out our route west to stay at as many of the parks as possible on our way to New Mexico.

McKinney Falls

McKinney Falls, just a few miles south of Austin, was our first choice. A quiet, natural retreat on the bank of Onion Creek, we quickly made our way to the waterfalls to cool our bodies, which were struggling to acclimatise to the near 100 degree temperatures. The water was not clear, there were too many people stirring up the sediment, but it was deep enough to swim and have fun in the spray of the falls. We shared the water with turtles and fish, and we have become ardent “turtle whisperers” as we stalk them in the rivers, trying to get as close as possible without scaring them. They do nip occasionally, so we stay away from the big ones!

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There are two falls at McKinney, the upper and lower, where Onion Creek laps gently over the smooth white rocks that allow for a spot of bouldering. We preferred the upper falls as the water was consistently deep, allowing for better swimming and floating in our Walmart inflatable chairs!

Continue reading Texas State Parks