Return to solo backpacking

I’ve just discarded my initial 600 words on why it was such a challenge to get on a plane on my own and fly to Fuerteventura this winter. The less angsty, need-to-know summary is that I’ve been pretty conflicted about travelling in recent years. I was a frequent backpacker when I was younger, seeking out the cheapest huts, sleeping on one-inch mattresses, overlanding entire subcontinents for a fiver, etc, etc. I even turned my travel passion into something of a travel writing career.

But now I hate the flying, the research, the anxiety of going somewhere new and the suspicion that no one will talk to me if I do, being 50 and all that. Where did all this crippling angst come from? I don’t think it is age; I think it is the lack of risk-taking once you settle down. (I never thought I’d settle down.)

And so it was quite the emotional challenge to book a week in Fuerteventura at the end of November – one I’d spent nine months procrastinating over.

In the end, I booked two days before flying (in case I changed my mind) and snagged the last dorm bed in the only available cheap accommodation left in Corralejo – a surf lodge on the deserted edge of town for about £14 a night. I tried not to think about who I’d be sharing with but the thought that the mixed dorm might be all-male did freak me out. It’ll never happen I told myself.

SurfinTrip – turned out to be a really nice share house.

At least I’d been to Fuerteventura before (for a birthday surf and bodyboard) so I didn’t have to stress about going somewhere totally new. And my friend Kerry was flying out a few days later on her own trip so I would have someone to talk to for half the week.

Here are some snippets from my diary of what it was like, ending on the question: ‘Would I do it again..?’

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Saturday

I’m in a surf house that sleeps 10 people at the edge of town where the signpost says you are now leaving Corralejo. It’s actually pretty nice. It has a pool and a terrace and a large kitchen, albeit no space in the fridge.

I’m in a mixed dorm but in reality I’m sharing a stifling, slightly smelly room with three men: Jon, a surfer from the Basque Country; Alex, a 50-year-old Italian boat captain and kite surfer who looks a bit like George Clooney, and another guy who didn’t come home last night but is now sleeping and snoring his way through the daytime.

I’m here for the chance to walk, swim, exercise and generally get outdoors in the sunshine. The first frost has landed back home. Here, the light here is beautiful; there’s a soft warmth in the blue sky, even if the sea requires a brave plunge.

The wild West coast of ‘Europe’s Hawaii’.

Over the past 10-15 years I realise I’ve been gradually upgrading my travel choices. I’ve paid ever higher amounts for comfort, privacy and location.

A dorm bed in a share house has brought me back down the earth. There was no door-to-door airport transfer, either: I had to walk down a dark, deserted street behind a walled-off hotel complex and use a torch to find SurfinTrip Academy and Camp house.

It’s been a thrill already, even if it is the thrill of risk. I want to still love all this; me, a middle-aged woman with a rather large comfort zone. It’s good that I did this by myself and see what it’s like to drop out of my life for a few days.

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Sunday

It’s Mum’s 17th anniversary and I’m taking some time to remember her today. She would say ‘Go for it!’ – she always did.

I spend breakfast with the chainsmokers on the patio and the rest of the morning doing the chores of the self-catering budget backpacker: shopping at Hyperdinos and walking the long sweaty road home loaded down with heavy water and basic foodstuffs in the midday heat. Then I walk another hour to get to sunset, before realising I have my easts and wests mixed up and it’s on the other side of the island. So. Much. Walking.

Sunset shadow selfie.

It’s a pleasant evening at ‘home’, talking with a French Canadian surfergirl who’s become addicted to surfing and is 18-months into a backpacking trip with no return ticket, and a 27-year-old bubbly lady from Leeds who’s fresh off the plane. Later Captain Clooney points out Cassiopeia and other constellations in broken English like a scene from a John Cusack movie. I get no sense that he is going to make a move, though, thankfully; this is just a friendly ‘let’s look at the stars’ thing because the clouds have cleared away and a starry night sky remains one of the best things ever.

These people are my temporary family, made up of random strangers from around the world who are not so different from me, or at least who I used to be.

 

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Monday

Today a classic ‘dirty old man’ at the beach made eye contact with my unfocused, unspectacled eyes while I was drying off from a swim, and took it as an invitation to lurk. No, no. no. I thought I’d be too old for this particular joy of lone female travel.

After dinner (Kerry has arrived!) we walk along the seafront for a nightcap tea and Tia Maria coffee at Waikiki Bar. I was dreading the long walk home and sure enough the busy road was now dark and deserted but for the occasional car.

I don’t mind the dark or the emptiness, it’s when there are potential opportunistic humans around that I get uptight. I pull out my Swiss army knife and thread the corkscrew through my fist. The massive closed Aqua Park is the worst, with its broken chainlink fences and large car parks and Scoobydoo-like giant galleon rearing out of the ground with lion leaping off it. I try not to picture being jumped and dragged in there to die in a deserted fairground.

‘It’s all about risk-reward’ – this line from the young trainer at the UoB gym kept going through my brain. The risk in that walk back didn’t seem worth the reward.

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From this point on I moved to Kerry’s accomm. Although this has ended on a bit of a downer, I had a fantastic week’s break and I did get a lot from going back to budget backpacking if only for a few days.

It was fun, a bit uncomfortable but a good way to meet new likeminded people. I wasn’t the oldest person there, to my surprise, and no one was ageist in the slightest. In fact, I found myself remembering how open and considerate and up-for-life the average backpacker is.

As for my travel fears, the public bus to the airport was also way faster and cooler than the rammed and rambling airport shuttle – and it was cheaper. I didn’t take Valium on either plane journey for my fear of flying, and I was surprised at how little I fretted about these flights – an advantage of short-haul daytime flights and of booking last minute.

Would I do it again? I surely would.

Would I spend 11 months arguing with myself about booking it? Probably, but I’m working on it.

And look, I even look kind of happy.

Not relaxed but looking sort of happy.

 

My first (and second) art exhibition

An open call was issued by The Holodeck printmakers in Birmingham: submit an artwork for consideration for their new Riso book and exhibition on the theme of ‘Weird Science’. The exhibition was scheduled to run from 14 September to 13 October at Artefact in Stirchley.

I’ve never thought of myself as an artist but I had it in the back of my mind to do something with rabbits so I started playing around with some photomontaging one hot day during this summer’s heatwave.

I produced around 20 ‘weirded’ rabbits using black and white printouts of Joy, our rabbit who had died a couple of months earlier, mashed with creatures cut out from various books. In the end I submitted this simpler rabbit/volcanic island collage – and it was accepted, risoprinted and shown. My first artwork to be in an exhibition! As you can see, I looked pretty chuffed.

Emboldened, I decided to try for another open call, this time by the Edinburgh Collage Collective and Mark Murphy (moif_collage) on the theme of ‘postcards’. Once more I spent a very pleasant afternoon putting some options together and posted them under the #cutandpost hashtag to my @editoriat Instagram. As a collage beginner, it was no surprise that I didn’t make it into the final cut of 24 printed postcards but it was useful practice putting work together to a theme and a deadline.

In the end I framed one of the postcards and submitted it with another piece for the Artefact Winter Group Show. They were both accepted and were hung in pride of place by the toilet queue in the run-up to Christmas. Someone even offered to buy one of them. The Birmingham postcard still makes me laugh, though I’m tempted to collage something more into the bottom right panel. A work in progress maybe.

This all happened because of a) a local collage club that meets every month, b) having an ace local gallery space that is committed to its community, and c) putting my stuff out there when I could easily have left it in a folder in a cupboard at home and said ‘nah, they’re not good enough’. I’m glad various people encouraged me to go for it and grateful to those who accepted the work into their art spaces.

I still wouldn’t say I’m an artist but I enjoy making the artwork and being a part of something bigger. And I’ve learnt that if in doubt, go for it.

An Insta-fashionista for a month

Personally, I’m most at home in jeans and a t-shirt but I’m also fascinated by people who have an interesting style and who post it online. I’m not talking about big social media influencers necessarily but Instagram friends and accounts who post and pose in their outfits under ‘what I wore today’ #wiwt and other hashtags. Here are three examples of accounts I enjoy:

RhiannonBrum – a friend who is also a swishing, swirling dressmaker who makes and wears her own outfits.

GlacialGlow – an ethereal, elfin, silver-haired Alice in Wonderland who also has an awesome dog.

SashaEDavison – a fashion model who became pretty successful in the time I started following her. I used to dial up her Instagram as a brief to my local hairdressers and also bought some sparkly Top Shop shoes in the sale on her recommendation.

You get the picture. Anyway…

Earlier this summer, at the start of the heatwave, I decided to have another wardrobe clear out and had a sudden realisation – I buy dresses but don’t wear them and especially now that I work remotely in my metaphorical pyjamas most of the time. At least before bundling them up for the charity shop, I thought I should wear them. And so began a month of daily #wiwt poses and photoshoots – here’s the slideshow, and more info on what I learnt from the challenge below.

I never thought I’d end up doing a 30-day fashion challenge but perhaps there was something in me that wanted to document turning 50 this year. It would kind of be like a diary thing. In 10 years, I’d look back and go: Well, would you look at that – and be impressed, appalled or amused.

Along the way I learnt a few things:

1. Being your own photographer is good for a woman’s self-confidence – you only have to post the pics you like.

2. Being a daily Insta-fashion influencer is hard work – the staging, the variations, the bursts, the selection, editing, captioning and posting. I started off easy taking just a few minutes; the final shoot took an hour and a half to get the shot.

3. It was a bit of fun – and the feedback was like getting a reward. I looked forward to the reactions. I got loads of positive comments from ‘This is epic’ to ‘A___ said it was the highlight of her week (and she’d just given birth).’  And then someone took one of my pics – the kaftan one – and created a meme: the ultimate honour.

4. I can laugh at myself – I couldn’t resist posting a bloopers reel on my Instagram. You can’t take life too seriously.

5. Finally, turning 50 ain’t so bad.

Once more, here’s the full shoot. Enjoy! (Update: I’ve cleared out at least nine of these outfits, which leaves 21 things to wear. Turns out I quite like wearing dresses.)

 

 

 

Birthday surf and bodyboard in Europe’s Hawaii

It’s true, a few Atlantic Islands claim to be Europe’s Hawaii but Fuerteventura does lay a good claim to it as the north shore has massive waves and really does catch that laidback surfie vibe.

This was the whole reason I wanted to go to FV for my 50th – to bodyboard some waves. But I have to say I was pretty nervous, even though we were going out with a local surf school. The winds had been up for days and only a few brave souls were in the water.

Protest Surf School took us to Piedra Playa, south of El Cotillo – a well-known surf spot with long wild beaches and big fat Atlantic waves. We pulled up on the hill above the beach a few times before the boss settled on an area where we wouldn’t get too mashed.

I did try surfing a few times – but I really can’t do that Point Break ‘pop’ up on to the board. Never have been able to. Even when they showed me the sneak’s way to stand up (all fours first), I was just too tired to stay up. So I reverted to Plan A, which was to get my bodyboarding on, thanks to previous training at Bodyboard camp.

Despite the rips and strong undertow parallel to the beach,  I caught a few high-speed rides in on powerful white waves (the green ones were way too far out). Two hours of ‘woo’ and I felt fantastic. Swimming twice a week for the past eight months has really helped my fitness, even if my upper arms have a way to go yet.

It was fab to be in the surf in February in the sunshine, with Atlantic rollers rising up and breaking in the distance and regular ridable sets coming in. The last time I did this was Brexit Referendum result day – and like then, the overall physical commitment of surfing was enough to completely empty my mind of anxiety and bad stuff. I guess this is why surfing is such a spiritual sport.

I was a bit jealous of the surfers but I reckon I caught way more rides. Here’s one of them (pics by Pete Ashton). Hey surfer, no dropping in on my ride!

Awesome!

Fuerteventura crater walk

 

I don’t know why –I suspect it is something to do with being brought up on 1970s disaster movies – but I love volcanoes and volcanic islands. Visiting Keli Mutu in Flores, Indonesia, in 2002 probably tops the list of my volcanic visits. Since then I’ve mostly been getting my fix in the Canary Islands.

So far I’ve visited La Gomera and Lanzarote, and been very impressed with both. This year for my 50th birthday we went to Fuerteventura and on day two decided to walk around 10km from Lajares to Corralejo along four or five craters and volcanic badlands, and also climb the Hondo caldera.

We hitched a quick ride from a friendly French surfer to get to the camel parking (!), then began our hike. We had to turn back from the non-official route up to the Hondo crater because it was too steep and slippy, and Fuerteventura was delivering some of its famous 40mph winds. There was a grave on the way up so I think it was the right decision not to push ahead. I turned back at the rock circle.

Instead we walked a contour line around the back of the crater and up to a viewing platform that was overrun with chipmunks. Chipmunks and camels, who knew FV’s fauna was so unusual?

The drop of 70m down into the crater was pretty dizzying, and we could see two people dots on the opposite steep slope, giving it ridiculous scale. You’d have to zoom in to see them.

In the other direction we could see vigorous Atlantic rollers crashing along the wild north-west shore. I’d be bodyboarding in that tomorrow, I thought, with a fair bit of trepidation.

The colours are all shades of warm brown, peach and orange, making FV kind of glow in the sun. Although the wind is relentless but you can usually find a sun-warmed lava rock shelter of some kind – and a herder’s hut is where we stopped to have our bocadillo picnic. It really is beautiful.

The journey back took us along a dirt track road via a few more craters and badlands, with goats straying along the sides. It was pretty deserted – we saw one runner and one car on our three-hour walk through the peaceful but desolate scenery.

In the near distance we could see Corralejo and its two large wind turbines spinning fast from the north wind on Bristol Playa but the distance was like a desert oasis illusion – the more we walked, the further away it got.

Our city legs were seizing up by the time we hit the final Bayuyo Crater and walked into town, but those rooftop beer sundowners were some of the best beers of the trip.

 

Challenge: Get up early for a week

Kings Heath Park
Park report: King’s Heath is my current favourite to walk to. KECH girls are already going to school at 8am, flicking the finger at friends/enemies and checking out the boys. Drivers are driving like arses in 20 zones. It’s warming up for a 27 degree day. Grass is dewy but drying. A bee is hovering and checking me out – probably the smell of Soltan. Baby Driver soundtrack is playing. A hay fever sneeze. End of year accounts await and later an epic Moselele summer singalong. It’s gonna be a good day.

A random wish on my sabbatical list – and one of the toughest for me as a night owl – was to get up at dawn for a week to see what it would feel like and discover if/how it would change my day/life.

With sunrise at 4.45am in June and dawn at 3.55am, this was a bit too much of a stretch. Still, on the week of the longest day of the year I started to go to bed at 10.30pm in order to get up at 6 – three hours earlier than usual.

Three spare hours at the start of a day! What would you do?

Birmingham is a city often maligned and mistaken for a concrete jungle. Its critics are not aware of how much greener it is than, say, London. We have so many tree-lined streets but also a multitude of parks and recs. Within 30 minutes walk of our house, for example, are 12 or so parks: Kings Heath, Highbury, Cannon Hill, Holder’s Lane playing fields, Row Heath playing fields, Hazelwell, Stirchley, Muntz, Cotteridge, Cadbury’s ladies recreation ground, Bournville and Raddlebarn/Selly Park.

Waterwise, there is also the Lifford Reservoir, the Rea Valley Route, and the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. And, of course, my local Hazelwell Allotments to which I have the key.

I didn’t consciously set out to explore the parks and open spaces of south Birmingham in the early morning hours but it was a natural consequence of walking any short distance. The sun was shining, most people were still asleep or at breakfast, the day felt fresh and new. I downloaded a playlist on to my phone and started walking wherever (admittedly sometimes singing, dance-walking or air-drumming) to the beat of the music.

Here’s what I saw…

Hazelwell Allotments
Cotteridge Park
Muntz Park
Cadbury’s Ladies Rec
Rea Valley Route
Birmingham and Worcester Canal at the Lifford Curve
River Bourn at Stirchley Park and a shadow-me on the bridge

The walking felt good, the views were uplifting, the day started with a feel-good factor, and the music was a key part of the experience, giving me a lift and making me walk further and further, for an hour or more at a time. Coming home, my tea and toast never tasted so good. I even fitted in a meditation for extra deep levels of calm and relaxation, or visited a friend for a tea. And I still haven’t got over the weird feeling of having done so much and it being only 8 o’clock.

There were some downsides: losing my creative time at the end of the night and needing a nap to get through the day. But…

At the end of the week I was convinced enough to keep going with this new regime of getting up early Monday to Friday (and lying in at the weekends). Sunset walks were added, walks with friends and some trips further afield…

Harborne Walkway with Danni and Emma – a disused railway line close to the centre of Brum
Cannon Hill Park
Cannon Hill Park
Holders Lane playing fields and a paddle in the River Rea with sis
Kinver Edge walk with bro
Kinver Edge Rock Houses and breakfast overlooking the Black Country

On one walk I even discovered a secret canary yellow canalside breakfast caff in Stirchley, called the Barge Thru Café. It caused quite the stir on Twitter and I felt a little Lewis and Clark, discovering new things in an area where everything seems to be known. A breakfast expedition with other Stirchillians is already being planned – and if not a walk, an approach by raft or inflatable like the pioneers we aren’t. The adventure continues.

Brazilian-looking cafe at Stirchley ‘marina end’ – an unexpected find

And so…

It has had a big effect on me, and my mental and phyiscal health, this getting up early malarkey. This is the call to action bit. Is anyone else interested in an early morning walk around the B13, B14, B29, B30 post codes – there are some areas I don’t want to venture alone, namely the canals and commons.

Get in touch if you do.

Day 7: A wild swim and a very long walk

 

A tunnel to the Blue Lake
Dripping wet tunnel to the Blue Lake

Switchover day as we shifted to Dolgellau, taking in a wild swim in the Blue Lake (aka Golwern Slate Quarry). I’ve never done a wild swim in the UK but I have read some of Roger Deakin’s inspiring Waterlog and the idea of navigating through an old mining tunnel to get to the lake was too Indiana Jones to resist. So in I jumped. Pete, of course, had the camera…

The water temperature was as breathtaking as the vivid blue lake with vertical walls all around but I managed to swim across, trying not to think of the rumoured 90ft depth. Once out, my skin started to burn, not unpleasantly. I’m adding this to my #microadventures list. A challenge for me but nothing compared with those people who jump from high ledges 50ft down into the deep.

On a different kind of high, I set out to walk part of the 10-mile Mawddach Trail, along the wide estuary from Dolgellau down to Barmouth. The legs gave up around 6.5 miles in but I’m quite chuffed I made it that far and really enjoyed the changing estuary scenery, which was almost lunar in the sunshine.

Mawddach Estuary

Arthog
Mawddach Trail at Arthog
mawddach-trail
The trail was converted from an old railway track that was closed down after nationalisation

Now chilling with a sauvignon and a pie. Stay classy Dolgellau.

Microadventure #3: Bodyboarding weekend in Cornwall

Tl;dr: unfit middle-aged Brummie woman with lifelong surfing obsession fulfils dream by not standing up on board.
fiona cullinan bodyboarding

The challenge has always been to surf. It’s been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember fuelled by seeing early skateboarding films in the ’70s. Then came movies such as Big Wednesday, The Endless Summer, Blue Crush, Lords of Dogtown and the oh-so-quotable Point Break. I even read books: Andrew Martin’s cult classic Walking on Water was particularly inspiring as (like Keanu in PB) a fellow journalist gets the ultimate assignment – he’ll be paid to go surfing, in Hawaii, for The Times. ‘Awesome.’

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Microadventure #2: Nordic walking in the woods at night

‘There’s no snow, you know!’ OK, so walking with ski poles across the pedestrian crossing in suburban Birmingham may draw a few gags but needs must. I want to get fitter and this seemed a perfect way to take my daily 10k step walks up a level even if I did look a bit silly.

It’s not just walking with poles, though. I needed to book a lesson to learn the basic technique. Nordic walking involves ticking off a number of skills before you can join a group walk, and so, in the same way that people join ski school, I booked an hour’s one-to-one lesson with Hazel Jonas of Nordic Walk Now.

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Microadventure #1: Alone in Kings Heath park at night

IMG_6900My heart was practically tachycardic as I entered the blackness. They (if they were there) could easily see me nipping off-path and slipping between the large conifers edging the park into the expanse of darkness beyond. I was banking on no one of cruel intention waiting for me there. All I wanted to do was to be able to see the full moon undiluted by surburbia’s glow.

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