Yes – the most powerful word

‘Yes’. That single, affirmative response to a million questions asked every second around the world.

Used 12 days ago in a sweaty, run down Nicaraguan town, the word set in motion a serious of events of such epic proportions, that they can only be described as a damn proper adventure.

I had asked a question. It was about football. I asked it to a long lost friend who was now sitting opposite from me in the heat-filled room, both of us using a cold beer to combat the intense closeness of the air. A losing battle. “Do you still like football, Mark?”, I put the question out there, amongst others designed to fill in some of the gaps 14 years of separation had created. And that’s when it happened. The word. The affirmative. 3 single letters, one massive outcome. “Yes” he said, almost throw away. And the next question; fired out with not much hope of a similar response; “wanna go see Honduras play Australia tomorrow? It’s 500 miles away, and in the murder capital of the world. And we probably can’t get tickets. But it could be fun?”. “Yes”.

Where there is a will, there is a way. I’ve learnt to stand by that saying over years of adventures and foreign travel. I’ve been in situations I had no right to be in, survived others that quite frankly, should have killed me. But, if you give it your all, ask enough questions, drink enough beer and make enough friends, anything can happen. So, with enough beer, some newly acquired friends, and a few loose questions asked, we found ourselves on a bus, leaving Nicaragua, and heading towards San Pedro Sula. Now a quick wikipedia search on Honduras’ second largest city greets you with the following:

WARNING: San Pedro Sula has been named the most dangerous place on earth, with an average of more than three homicides per day; it is one of the world’s most violent areas.

That’s quite an accolade. The most dangerous place on Earth. But surely it can’t be that bad? They wouldn’t be playing a FIFA World Cup Qualifying match there if there was chance of everyone dying before kick-off would they? Well, yeah, as it turns out they were. And we were on our way.

Of course, simply driving for 12 hours across Honduras wouldn’t make for a great lead up to this epic story. And so, it’s worth mentioning the other crazy series of events that almost prevented us from even leaving Nicaragua before the journey had begun! It’s my own fault really; the fact that the border guard on the Honduras/Nicaragua crossing point was mightily confused by my passport(s). Only 24hours earlier, I had made the reverse journey, from Honduras into Nicaragua. I was detained for 4 hours, my passport was battered and worn and quite simply, had enough stamps in it to make me look like an international arms dealer. I was refused entry. I produced a second passport, a clean one. It made me look guilty as hell. They didn’t like that. The result? Both passports were stapled together, I was interviewed and made to promise i’d leave Nicaragua by the International Airport and not come back for a set amount of time.

Fast forward 24hours, I was standing back at the border, drunk, with no luggage, a long lost friend, and 2 passports that looked like a naff Blue Peter project. Of course the guard was confused. I was looking less like an arms dealer and more like an idiot, things weren’t going well. But then it hit me. I had a secret weapon. Instagram! You see, during the excitement of actually agreeing to do this crazy journey, we had briefly (and unsuccessfully) researched buying match tickets online. There weren’t any. And so, I did what any drunk foreigner would do, I sent an Instagram message to the captain of the Honduras National football team, asking if he could help. And there was that word again – “yes!”. Not only did he reply, he said he would get us a ticket, and we proceeded to have a lengthy conversation on messenger. He called me his friend. This was gold dust. I showed the message thread to the border guard, and things changed. His eyes lit up, here I was, a friend of a Honduran national hero, asking to be let into Honduras. The entry stamp was applied to my passport (he then tore the 2 documents apart) and gladly waved me into the country. Easy as that!

We arrived into the murder capital of the world, and made contact with a man who we had found online (!), who had given us his word that he would not only help us get tickets (incase the Honduras Captain was busy, you know, playing football), but would also get us safely into the stadium. It was at this stage that Mark, my long lost travel companion, and I, decided that if we were to survive the hours ahead, we needed to blend in, look less like hungover idiot gringos and more like die hard (excuse the pun) local football fans. Our £6 spent on official Honduras football shirts did just the trick. Now we fitted right in. And so to celebrate, we drank a lot more beer.

Omar, our new friend, was true to his word. He sourced us 2 black market tickets, put us in the back of his pick up truck, and drove us to the game. He introduced us to his friends, they bought us lunch, they bought us beer, they took selfies with us and made us feel like absolute celebrities. And then we entered the stadium. It was wild, a giant concrete amphitheatre, an enormous circle of noise. It was chaos. It was hot. It was brilliant. Beers kept coming; vendors shouting from all sides with local lagers stacked high like some kind of drinking challenge. It was one big party, a far cry from the red tape and safety barriers in a European stadium. They must have had previous experience of football violence however, as heavily armoured soldiers carrying multiple weapons stood to attention at every exit, stairwell and pitch side space. Of course, no trip to a fortified stadium would be complete without a few selfies of us with the battle clad militia; some were happier to see us than others! The locals however, went crazy for us. Handshakes, photos, more beers. I didn’t even need to mention the story about my friend the team captain!

The result, 0-0, did nothing to dampen the party. We can only imagine what would have happened if Honduras had actually won the game. The Australians weren’t great, but probably didn’t deserve to lose either way. The party continued after the full time whistle had blown, we drank more (again), went for dinner with our new friends, and after hopping back in the pick up truck (we decided a 7km walk through town was a bit too risky), we were even delivered right to the door of our hostel. What a day.

Of course, the adventure wasn’t complete yet. We still had to make our way back into Nicaragua, the same journey that 48hours earlier had seen me detained, questioned and almost very stuck. We went for it. The beauty of having zero luggage, possessions or quite frankly, any care in the world, means that you can travel fast, light, and with no real idea of where you will end up. The problem here was that it was by no means fast (another 12 hours on a bus), and I was a little uncertain what would happen.

And what happened? Possibly only the greatest border crossing I have ever experienced in my life! We hopped off the bus at the official border crossing point…and the same border guard was there. I’ve never received a welcome from a person of authority quite like it in all my years of international escapades. As we stood at the back of a now lengthy queue of other travellers and locals alike, all weary from travel as they tried to navigate the often lengthy exit/entry procedure that often accompanies these places, he saw us, and he smiled. A big smile. He yelled at us, called us to the front of the queue, and if it wasn’t for the large bit of security  glass separating us from him, he would have hugged us i’m certain. Instead, we got fist pumps and handshakes through the small window, and in full view of the very official warning sign that said PHONES AND PHOTOS PROHIBITED,  he insisted on several selfies with us both. We told him about the game, I showed him more messages between me and the captain of the Honduras football team, he waved us excitidly across the border, but not before calling over a few of his colleagues so that they too could have a photo. Pure brilliance.

So. There you have it. A damn proper adventure. The next time someone you haven’t seen in a while asks you to go do something a little bit crazy, just remember to say “Yes”.

 

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The Diaries: Kids and guns

In 2001, I spent my summer in Honduras. While everyone else back home was celebrating A-Level grades and choosing their halls of residence, I was 5000 miles away, hanging out with pirates, sheltering from hurricanes and narrowly avoiding 9/11.

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The internet was still in its infancy really, and being on a remote desert island meant that whatever slow speed dial up was available to the rest of the world, was very much out of our reach. We did however have daily satellite link up with the mainland, this was essential to give us any heads up on severe weather warnings coming our way, although when we were later hit by the tail end of a hurricane, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was happening, and the weather warning from the mainland was of little use when we were all huddled together for shelter in the main cabana. Thankfully, we only received a small kicking from Hurricane Chantal as she bounced our way after destroying Mexico before spinning off and away from us. The camp took some damage, the clean-up operation was tough, but at least no one was hurt. It was however news fed via the satellite linkage that shed some light on a rather different yet utterly incredible event that took place that summer, and I was fortunate enough to be right there, at just the right time.

Evenings in camp were bliss. Chatter about the day’s dives would fill the air as we all sat in the main cabana drinking chilled beers (the generator was put to good use in the day by powering a small fridge), or on nights with a bit of a breeze, we would pile out onto the beach or the wooden jetty, the moving air keeping the mosquitoes and sand flies at bay. On one such evening, some of us were putting the world to right, high on sea air and island life, the local beer doing the job of relaxing us all to the max. The night sky provided us with enough visual entertainment for hours; shooting stars were common, the tiny white orbs fizzing across the star studded universe above us. Being so close to the equator made the stars seem so much brighter, and closer; reach out and you could almost touch them. We were all fixated on the galaxies and constellations light-years away, but the group all saw it at once, I mean, it was hard not to. It kind of just appeared, out of nowhere, from behind the stars, from somewhere, literally from outer space. It started out as a small bright orange dot, and rapidly grew into a fast moving, yellowy orange mass, about half an inch in diameter and by far the biggest object we could see. “Holy shit!” came the shouts, “it’s a bloody comet” came all of the excited remarks. The comet flashed across the sky above us, leaving behind it a thick, burnt orange trail that seemed to just hang in the sky like a paint stroke on a black canvass.  It was mesmerising, we all just stood there, and stared up at the celestial object as it blasted its way over the horizon. And then it struck us, seemingly all at the same time, the alien object was heading towards Earth?! The conversation amongst us was frantic. Where had it landed? Did it hit a city? Was this the end of the Earth as we knew it? The comet soon passed out of our view and over the curve of the Earth to our left, the burning trail hung in the air for a few moments more, a reminder of what had just happened. It made for a long night, we all stayed up into the early hours desperate for a glimpse of another rock falling to the Earth, bizarrely praying for some form of meteor shower to keep us entertained. We all awoke the following morning with similar buzzing thoughts, how lucky we were to have witnessed the events of the night before, retelling the story to those unlucky souls who decided to turn in early. They would soon feel even more gutted about that fact, as we were about to find out.

Not long after morning chores, news soon broke to us via the satellite link of just exactly what we had witnessed, and it was absolutely incredible. We thought we had seen a comet falling from above and hitting the Earth, but in fact, we had witnessed something much more amazing. That night, the US Space Shuttle re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere above Central America, as it made its way home after a space voyage, and landing in Florida. I had to ask the guys to repeat it several times when they told me, each time my jaw fell even further toward the ground. We had been there, right there on that clear Honduran evening, to witness something that so few people in the world had ever seen, an actual space ship coming back from space, its heat shield burning up to 2300 degrees C as it flew back to the safety of Planet Earth, towards home. Just wow. I was 18 years old at this time, and was already having the adventure of a lifetime. I had learnt to dive, swam with dolphins, seen an underwater world I didn’t even know existed and watched a man-made rocket carry people back from the cosmos. Little did I know that the adventure was about to get a whole lot more crazy.

The Matterhorn

5 years ago I climbed in The Monte Rosa range, a mountainous area sandwiched between Switzerland and Italy. It’s famous for its range of 4000m mountains, lengthy glaciers, its typically alpine climate and, at one end, a rather good view of the Matterhorn.

I was tired, 10 days of traversing 4000m peaks had left me a bit wrecked, and in need of some english food and solid ground under my feet. I sat on a ledge and stared across the horizon at arguably the most iconic mountain in the world; The Matterhorn. It rose like a  shark fin, isolated on the skyline, but majestic in it’s prominence. My tiredness aside, I thought to myself that one day, i’d like to stand on the very top of it. And so…last week and a mere 5 years later, I did.

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Of course it didn’t actually take me 5 years to climb it…I kind of got distracted along the way. A few expeditions here, some other mountains there. But as they say, the big mountains never go anywhere, they remain in place for us to climb, when we are ready.

And so, July 17th 2017, at 4am, I set off and stood at the base of the giant mountain. I placed my hand on the cold slab of rock and acknowledged what I had to do. 1200m of vertical ascent, followed by the same, only in reverse. It took me just over 4 hours to reach the summit. Once there, I looked back across the valleys and glaciers, to a place where roughly I thought I sat those 5 years earlier, and I smiled. It’s a wonderful feeling when you take your dreams, and give them a memory, a place in time. It’s even better when you make them come true.

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A little bit of Paradise 

Sometimes in life, if you put in the hard yards, you get rewarded. Thankfully, this applies to travel also; if you’re prepared to take several flights, then one more, jump on a bus, and spend some time on a boat…then you might just end up somewhere awesome. 

That’s what happened to me in the Philippines: 


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Hitting the Ho Chi Minh Trail

It’s fair to say that Vietnam has had a bit of a chequered past. Much like Rwanda, Honduras, South Africa and many other countries i’ve visited, Vietnam has suffered from civil war, political upheaval and unwanted international attention. But just like these other countries, it also continues to wow travellers with its unique landscapes, unbelievably cheap food and a population of warm, open people. And the best bit? If you get a motorbike and a sense of adventure, you can see it all. Just remember to hold on!

A kiwi kind of adventure

I left the UK on Boxing day 2016. It wasn’t raining, which was nice. The debacle surrounding Southern Trains was set to continue (if you’re not familiar with this, google #southernfail), the Brexit debate rumbled on, and we were at the end of what many people would agree was a rather naff year. There was only one thing for it, one way to wash away the 2016 blues and see in 2017 with a bang. Yep, I needed another adventure.

New Zealand tops the list of my favourite countries in the world. OK it doesn’t come anywhere close to the incredible wildlife found in many African nations, or the food and drink journeys you can go on in South American or European ones, but damn does it make up for that with one thing – being an adventure paradise!

Helicopter rides to stunning rock pinnacles in Paihia, swimming with dolphins, white water rafting the highest commercially raftable waterfall in the world in Rotorua, skydiving in Ashburton, bungees and wickedly fun jet boats in Queenstown; all backed up by kick ass scenery, empty roads and (sometimes) ace weather. January was a bit good, February hasn’t been too bad either. This post comes from a quiet title cafe in a town on the East coast of Vietnam. Just a shame there’s no skydiving here.

Drones and high places

So here it is, the final edit of my short video for the International School of Mountaineering, a showcase of their UK Rock Climbing & Alpine Preparation course. It was such an awesome challenge having to carry and pilot my drone from the climb, but one that produced some ace shots. I’m now freeing up space on my memory cards as I pack my bags for New Zealand, where I know some cool filming awaits! For the adventure