NEIL MILUM & SAM BROWN
NEIL MILUM & SAM BROWN
As we closed the door to the ambulance station, our shift came to a somewhat anticlimactic end. No big send off, no tearful farewells, in fact, no bugger all. But that was how we’d wanted it, choosing not to have a leaving party because, lets face it, we weren’t really leaving. However, this would be the last time we would see our place of work for a whole year. Now, I’m acutely aware of just how many people would love to be in this position, but just closing the door to an empty station, which like most places of work had become our second home, wasn’t how we’d pictured it. With nobody to offer those final handshakes, good luck wishes, or even somebody to simply wave goodbye to, I have to admit it left us feeling a little numb.
There wasn’t any doubt that neither of us would be missing work none too soon after the last six months we’d had. Averaging at least a hundred extra hours of overtime a month, we felt like we’d already worked the year we were going to miss in advance.
The reason for all the extra hours and our twelve-month absence was due to the fact we were soon to embark on the trip of a lifetime around the world.
It was something I’d spent probably the past twelve years of my life regularly pondering over, but never actually getting any further than just that. But even all that daydreaming of a year exploring foreign lands didn’t come anywhere close to how amazing the journey would actually be.
My life and circumstances took a drastic change of direction in the early part of 2007. It saw the end of a long relationship, which meant walking away from a property we’d spent the previous two years renovating. The property market was at the peak of its boom and being bought out meant that I had a reasonably healthy looking bank balance.
I had a rewarding job as a Clinical Team Leader/Paramedic with South Central Ambulance Service, but now found myself confused about my future and the direction I was heading.
So I was back living with my parents. I’ve always had a great relationship with both my mum and dad, but I was thirty-five years old now and although welcomed with open arms, living back ’home’ just didn’t seem right to me.
You see, things change, as individuals we’d all changed, and my attempts not to be a distraction or hindrance to their daily lives was in a head on collision with their sincere attempts to make sure I was ok, and that their ‘little boy’ was looked after. There was a great example of this one morning as I was making my bed. Now throughout childhood my brother and I were always being told to make our beds, and I have to say that over the past twenty five years I reckon I’ve pretty much perfected this simple task. So it seemed somewhat ironic that on the first morning, back under my parents roof and with the opportunity to show them just how far I’d come in my domestic capabilities, my dad should walk past my room, and on seeing me expertly maneuvering the duvet, utter the words, “ah, don’t worry about that!”….
Sam had only been employed by the ambulance service for approximately two and a half years, and was also studying part time to complete the first of a three-year paramedic degree at Portsmouth University. Sam too had broken from a long-term relationship the previous year, also leaving a property she’d worked hard to make a home. After similarly spending some time back at her own parents she was now renting a two bedroom flat by the sea on Hayling Island near Portsmouth.
We’d been working together on and off over the past year and formed a good partnership on the road. Now single, our relationship soon flourished and it wasn‘t long before we were not just sharing the flat, but buying it.
After purchasing the flat, with the money we had over from the sale of our previous properties, there was a rare opportunity staring at us. We both enjoyed traveling and began toying with the idea of a career break.
Now I’d been to quite a few destinations abroad, but they’d all been for holidays, and never longer than a month. Sam on the other hand was fairly well traveled having lived in Australia for a year, completed two seasons at ’Camp America’ as well as numerous other stamps in her passport.
But what we started to plan was something altogether different. We began by discussing all the things we’d always wanted to see or do and how we could go about squeezing the vast majority of those things into one trip, including places we wanted to explore and activities to experience. There would obviously be a certain amount of compromise as it would be impossible to do everything in the space of a year; but we set out to give it a pretty good go. And so it began, a ‘wish list‘, or ‘bucket list’ I’ve heard it more recently called. An assortment of must dos and must sees before you kick the proverbial pale:
Cage diving with Great Whites, Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, skydiving, the Grand Canyon, bungee jumping, watching the sunrise over Angkor Wat, watching the sunset over the Serengeti, white-water rafting, the Golden Gate Bridge, storm chasing, the Statue of Liberty, Sydney Opera House, hiking on a glacier, diving on the Great Barrier Reef. These were but a few of the destinations and experiences we listed.
Over the next few months we started to formulate a rough itinerary, and each put in a letter to our manager requesting the career break.
The plan had picked up such momentum that both of us agreed we were prepared to hand in our notice in order to realise this dream trip. Luckily, our managers supported our reasons for a career break, albeit for the purpose of working through a bucket list.
So it was agreed that our employment with South Central Ambulance Service would be temporarily suspended as from the 1st October 2007. The itinerary would now be completed in earnest, and certain arrangements that needed to be made early would now take priority.
We would actually be departing on the 11th of October, which would give us almost a fortnight to tie up any loose ends after working our last shift. We settled on this particular date due to the fact that, all going well, shortly before our departure, Sam was due to become an auntie for the first time, with Tabatha's (one of her two sisters) due date in late September. However, between then and now we had a mountain of things to do. When we weren't working, we spent the time meticulously planning, researching, and purchasing the limited equipment and clothing that we thought we would need.
As we found out, vaccinations cannot be started too soon, some taking three separate injections that require at least a week between each. Also, some malaria tablets need to be taken several weeks prior to entering the country where the risk is high. Particular drugs can be expensive and should be budgeted for. Our list of jabs and pills would just about make us immune to every disease known to mankind, or so we hoped. Our particular 6 week cocktail included: Hepatitis A, Tetanus, Typhoid, Rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Polio, Malaria, Yellow fever - it is almost impossible to cross some borders in Africa without proof of this vaccine.
Our final itinerary would take us into fourteen different countries spanning six continents, and this would be our route: Kenya - Tanzania - South Africa - Australia - New Zealand - Thailand - Cambodia - Vietnam - China - Hong Kong - Australia - USA - Canada - Peru - Spain.
The journey would take in some of the most famous landmarks and stunning scenery the world has to offer. We’d be dipping our toes into the Pacific, Atlantic (north & south) and Indian Oceans, as well as smaller but no less exciting bodies of water. We would also be exorcising some of our own demons by attempting some adrenaline activities, hidden behind the heading of ‘personal development’ in the letters to our employer. For example there was the bungee jump, of which I struggled to even think about without breaking into a cold sweat. Also, although not an activity as such, for me there was the fact that I have an aversion to spiders. However, I knew that one or more of our destinations could throw up a large specimen when I least expected it. Sam on the other hand, had already successfully achieved a bungee jump some years previous and wasn’t afraid of spiders, in fact she didn’t seem to be particularly nervous about anything. But everyone has a nemesis, and in fear of appearing the weakest link, I was determined to find it.
We spoke to, and emailed several companies with regards to around the world flight tickets one of which took a look at our route and said they’d never seen an itinerary like it and wouldn’t be able to help, but wished us the best of luck. We eventually settled with Trailfinders who were able to give us the best advice and price. Although we purchased our around the world tickets with them, we would still have to arrange several additional flights once we were on our way. The problem was, most of these types of tickets, which are excellent value for money, rely on you traveling in the same direction, whereas we would be going back on ourselves when it came to our Asia leg of the journey. The reason for making things a little trickier for ourselves was all down to timing. There were three points of the trip when we needed to be in a certain part of the world. We would be spending Christmas with one of Sam’s best friends who now lives in Melbourne, Australia. This in turn would mean a conveniently short hop to Sydney for New Year celebrations and finally we had a tour to pick up in Oklahoma USA, which would be one of our major highlights, on May 26th 2008. Apart from these dates we were free to chop and change our flight times as we pleased subject to a small fee and availability.
During the trip we would find ourselves in some great diving locations and wanted to take advantage of this. Sam already had her PADI Open Water qualification, but I needed to arrange a course, which would take up five of those precious days between finishing work and our departure date.
There was much deliberation on what equipment to take and in turn what to take that equipment in. As a person that used to struggle to pack for a two-week resort holiday, those who knew me scoffed at the idea of my packing one bag for a whole year. After trying several on for size and comfort, we each chose a backpack and subsequently filled it with our choice of essentials. A full list of the contents of our packs can be found with some explanations at the back of the book.
I purchased a new camera for the trip, which I hoped would be able to capture the amazing things we would see. Neither Sam or I were very knowledgeable in the art of picture taking, but we could both appreciate a good image when we saw one. It would soon be a case of snapping away in order to produce a few of our own. The 11th of October would see the beginning of the ultimate crash course in photography as we tried to capture some of the greatest manmade structures, as well as the stunning vistas supplied by Mother Nature herself. The worrying thing was we would be starting with arguably the most difficult of all, the unpredictable wildlife of Africa.
I’d decided to write personal letters to each of my nearest and dearest once the trip was finalized. It may seem a bit morbid, but if for some reason I wasn’t to return, I needed to leave those people I cared for most, in no doubt how lucky I felt to have shared my life with them. Having witnessed many a young life taken suddenly and prematurely during my years as a paramedic, I compiled the letters as a parting goodbye, and hopefully some form of closure to those I loved.
After several hectic months we were now almost ready. Just in time for Sam to meet and hold Teegan her new niece who had arrived two weeks late.
Both mine and Sam’s parents would be accompanying us to the airport for final goodbyes which left us rehearsing with Sam’s two sisters and their husbands, and my brother, sister-in-law and my two nieces a day or two beforehand.
So the day was finally upon us, and following the inevitable last minute rush we were on our way to London and Heathrow Airport.
Once there we all sat down for a coffee. There was an awkward silence from both mothers as they did their best to hold back their fears and apprehension over our safety in the coming year, whilst our dads did a grand job in fulfilling their traditional roles as rocks of the family.
As we made our way towards the departure gate we said our final goodbyes and the inevitable tears flowed.
Once we’d escaped from the vice-like grip of our mum’s arms, just a few frantic waves saw us disappear from view as we went through passport control.
Sat on the plane I thought about those we’d be leaving behind and had to appreciate it was much more difficult for them as they continued with their daily routines. After all we were free from work and any commitment for a year with the world beckoning, and we couldn’t wait. However, there was no guarantee that things would be easy.
I have the greatest respect for the likes of Michael Palin, Billy Conolly and Ewan McGreggor who, having made a pretty penny, could live out the rest of their lives in pampered luxury, instead chose to seek adventure in foreign lands that at times would put them way out of that comfort zone they’d worked hard to achieve. However, the luxuries that they do have include TV cameras, which lend themselves to making people a lot more accommodating and helpful. They have a film crew and a team of knowledgeable individuals such as fixers and interpreters who deal with organizing accommodation, border crossings, purchasing tickets and general travel arrangements. Whilst watching an episode from one of Michael Palin’s many brilliant series he mentioned that getting on a train meant loading some forty-three cases of equipment; we on the other hand would have one backpack each. Apart from all that technical support, they also have their famous faces, which I wont deny them for a second, but must help when in need of a favour. It often seemed a travesty to me, but fame had for some reason, chosen to overlook Sam and I. So as we couldn’t even rely on our faces to see us through those inevitable shortfalls, let alone interpreters and a generous TV budget. Knowing this, a good friend of mine gave me this advice before I left:
“When times get hard, or you find yourselves in a compromised position, try to see the funny side and keep going, for it’s those times that you’ll talk about the most when you return”.
I’d set up a travel blog site for friends, family, work colleagues and those who periodically read travel blogs as a source of information, to look at in order to relay our experiences to. They would contain pictures and details of our journey as we went from place to place. I hoped that they would reassure those who missed us that we were ok, inspire others to explore, giving factual information and ideas or maybe just provide a laugh or two for a casual reader.
And so began our adventure………………………