And so at last, I'm home! After a fantastic seven months away I arrived back in the UK at the end of May having had a wonderful, sometimes challenging, but never dull experience.
It's certainly been an adventure - I spent my seven months walking, running, mountain climbing, sandboarding, bungee jumping. sky diving, white water rafting, sea kayaking, mountain biking, abseiling, paragliding, surfing, horseriding, school painting, zip lining, star gazing, swimming, diving, fishing, snorkelling, bakkie riding and even dangling over the edge of a waterfall!
People keep asking me what the highlight of my trip was - a really tough question! There's a few things that stand out, from fleeting moments to days spent in the company of great people, or doing fantastic adrenaline fueled activities. While it's hard to choose any one moment or place I visited, I think the following few photos and memories best encapsulate my trip...
My first real day in Africa was spent visiting the amazing Meru View School just outside Arusha in Tanzania. I'd planned a relaxing day acclimatising to being in Africa, but instead found myself dragged along to the school by some other travellers at my hostel and before I knew it I was painting the school classrooms and meeting some of the lovely kids from the school who gave me a fantastically warm welcome to Africa.
Climbing Mount Meru in Tanzania was another early highlight. Seeing the sun rise over Mount Kilimanjaro as we walked up the snow clad sides of the mountain in the dawn light will stay with me forever - a truly beautiful trek but incredibly physically challenging too. 4500m is very high up! It was also great to share the experience with Wim, Jorge, Steffi, Angie and Laura - a lovely bunch of people to look down on Africa with.
This next photo was taken on a boat with Rachel just off the coast of Zanzibar where we spent a fantastic few days celebrating our two year anniversary. Taking time away from work and travelling over the winter allowed me to spend a lot more time with Rachel while she completes her Phd research than I would have done otherwise, and this photo is just one of many from a great couple of months we were able to spend together firstly in Tanzania and then in South Africa. Honourable mentions must also go to spending Christmas Day on the beach in Cape Town, celebrating our respective 30th birthdays at Bulungula and Lesotho, and a very close encounter with an elephant!
Throughout my trip I took opportunities to push myself to experience new things and this photo probably best encapsulates that. I'd never done a bungee jump before and quite possibly never will again, but it was an amazing, frightening but exhilarating experience. As well as the bungee jump I sought out similar adrenaline rushes by white water rafting on the Zambezi River, sky diving over the Namibian desert, and mountain biking down the world's most dangerous road in Bolivia. Sitting back at a desk at work is certainly a bit of a come down after so much excitement during my time away!
During my four months in South America I was largely travelling on my own, but my brother Alex and sister Rosanna came out to join me for a brilliant two weeks together in Patagonia. For some reason they chose to join me for the potentially coldest, wettest and furthest away point of my trip! However, we were blessed with good weather and had a lot of fun exploring Patagonia. This photo was taken on the W trek, a wonderful five day trek in the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, that we completed together, carrying all our own tents and food and seeing some stunning scenery. I could have happily spent much longer in Patagonia so the two weeks I spent there wasn't quite enough, but with luck I'll be able to return again one day.
Another definite highlight from my time in South America was walking the Inca Trail in Peru. Although the sight of Macchu Picchu at the end was rewarding, I actually enjoyed the trek along the Inca Trail to get there more. Again I was joined by a friendly face from home, my best friend from uni Chris who came out to spend a couple of weeks with me in Peru, and we were joined by a fantastic group of travellers along with a great group of porters to walk the trail with. It's a tough walk in places, but a great way to see a lot more Inca ruins and we had a real laugh along the way.
A slightly unexpected highlight was the Bolivian altiplano which I passed through on a three day trip from San Pedro de Atacama in Chile to Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia with Jake, Tom, Glenn, Colin and Tom. Three solid days in a four wheel drive at very high altitudes was hard going at times, but made more than worth it by the incredible remote scenery, not to mention the opportunities to swim in thermal springs and stand next to some astonishing geysers.
Ending my South American travels in Rio de Janerio was also a real highlight. An incredibly beautiful and vibrant city which has unfortunately been the scene of quite a lot of unrest since I left - which I've not been very surprised by given the high levels of inequality I saw in a city which is spending huge amounts of money on bringing the World Cup and the Olympics to Brazil. Climbing to the iconic Christ the Redeemer Statue, wandering along Copacabana beach and seeing the sunset over Rio from the top of Sugarloaf mountain was a brilliant way to bring that part of my travels to an end.
One of the biggest elements of my time away is hard to show in a single photo, but the insight I gained in to everyday life in Africa and South America was a huge part of my time away. The children walking to school, the bustling markets, the busy road junctions, cramming in to minibus taxis and haggling over souvenirs in sketchy Spanish are all part and parcel of the experience, but easy to forget about as I settle back in to life in the UK and something approaching normality.
Although the big one-off experiences described above were genuine highlights of my time away, perhaps the biggest influence on me will come from the opportunity travelling gave me to see other cultures and ways of life, not least the reminder that it gives you of how fortunate we are in this country. I know all that is something of a cliche but it is true and as much a reason for seeing other parts of the world as the beautiful scenery, historic buildings, and exhilarating activities.
So now that I'm home it just remains for me to thank everyone that's taken time to read this blog (or at least look at the pictures!). It's been good fun to write and it will serve as a great record for me of all the amazing things I did, but it's always nice to hear that people have been reading it and I hope it gave you some insight in to what I've been up to.