Just when we thought 2011 was the best year of our lives, 2012 came along and surprised us. This year has been one of tremendous changes: Alberto left his job at the beginning of the year to join WildJunket; we became semi-nomadic, spending most of our time on the road; and in January, we launched WildJunket Magazine together. It’s been a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, as we learned and challenged ourselves along the way. We’ve since released five issues, received plenty of positive feedback from readers and critics, and even became a finalist in the Digital Magazine Awards 2012.
Looking back, I can’t believe that I actually traveled to all seven continents in just one year (Alberto six since he didn’t join me on the Antarctica trip). This year, we’ve had some of the most incredible experiences of our lifetimes – from visiting the Hermit Kingdom of North Korea to watching the Big Five in Zimbabwe and walking with penguins in Antarctica. Thanks to you, we’ve managed to continue doing what we love.
Here’s a look back at 2012 and all the places that have made the year such a spectacular one.
At the beginning of the year, we set off to the Philippines right after releasing inaugural issue of WildJunket Magazine to kick start our location independent lifestyle in Asia. We chose Southeast Asia to be the base of our nomadic lifestyle for the low cost of living and ease of travel. It was great to be back in the tropics, enjoying slow travel and let our hair down. We went on a food tour in Manila, swam with whale sharks in Cebu, traced tarsiers in Bohol and spent some time relaxing and scuba-diving in Dumaguete. It was an action-packed month but somehow we left feeling that there’s still so much to do and see.
After our first visit to Ho Chi Minh four years ago, we wanted to explore more of this intriguing country and that was exactly what we set out to do on this trip to Vietnam. We started where we left off in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon), before traveling north by train all the way to its border with China. The train journey itself was chocked full of fun encounters as we met locals who were incredibly friendly and hospitable. From the beautiful lantern town of Hoi An, to the beaches of Na Trang, and the rice terraces of Sapa, we discovered a country full of surprises.
We had originally planned to spend a few months in Thailand, as we needed somewhere to settle down and work on our next magazine issue. Our first stop was Chiangmai, where we met some old friends and chilled out over street food and cocktails. We then headed down to Bangkok by train where we celebrated Songkran on the streets and had a wild time. To bury our heads in work, we chose the laid back island of Koh Lanta as our base for the month. But luck wasn’t on our side as our trip coincided with the monsoon season and weather on the island was terrible. Not long after, we fell out of love with Thailand. I guess we just never connected to the country in a way others have.
Myanmar had been under our radar for a very long time – and it definitely did not disappoint. After the intense month of working in Thailand, it was refreshing to let our hair down and completely soak up the calm and spiritual undercurrents of Myanmar. From the shimmering Shwedagon Paya in Yangon to the stupa-studded landscapes of Bagan and the poetic water world of Inle Lake, Myanmar is a country so pristine, raw and untouched, it’s hard to believe that a country like that exists in today’s world. It continues to be my favorite part of Southeast Asia. Perhaps it’s because of years of isolation from the outside world, perhaps it’s the deep-rooted Burmese culture, Myanmar remains pure and untainted – for now.
Being such a big country with so much to see, China has always appealed to us especially since it’s my ancestral land. Our first visit was four years ago and we had only managed to see Beijing and Shenzhen. This time, with the help of China Odyssey Tours we set out to explore as much of the country as we possibly could over one month. We cruised down the Li River, we farmed on the rice fields with locals, visited the world’s tallest Buddha statue in Leshan, admired the thousands of terracota soldiers of Xi’an and explored the legendary Mount Emei – all of which were experiences that would stay with us for a long time. China remains an enigma to me, as it swings from its ancient, traditional past to the new, hip modern era.
North Korea was definitely the highlight of our jaunt around Asia. It’s a country that has always been projected in a negative light (with names like the ‘Axis of Evil’), and we were curious to see how life really was like in the Hermit Kingdom. We spent five days making our way around the capital of Pyongyang to the ancient city of Kaesong and the DMZ (demilitarized) border. Although we barely scraped the surface of the country, we took a peek into this isolated nation and experienced for ourselves life there We were definitely surprised by what we saw — people were curious about us, locals sang and danced in the park and there were signs of humanity everywhere. (We answered some of your curiosities here).
As part of the iAmpassador #LoveCapeTown program, we started our Africa trip with a bang in Cape Town. I visited last year and absolutely loved it – it was great to be back, this time in winter and with Alberto and good friends. We did a bike ride through a township, tested our cooking skills preparing some Cape Malay cuisine, drove to the southern tip of the African continent and swam with great white sharks (again!). Our trip also coincided with the Getaway Travel Blog Conference, and I spoke about travel writing. It was my first time on stage and those who were there would have seen how nervous I was, going up to the stage with a glass of wine. Thank god I survived it for the second leg of our trip through South Africa, which included a road trip from Johannesburg to Sabi Sands Private Reserve where we spent a couple of days chasing the Big Five at Cheetah Plains.
From Johannesburg, we flew straight out to Zambia where our tri-border crossing began. To get to our luxury river cruise, the Zambezi Queen, we had to cross three borders in one day: from Zambia, through Namibia to Botswana. But it was well worth it. Everyday aboard the safari cruise, we awoke to views of elephants and hippos grazing by the Chobe River banks, cruised alongside lonesome boatmen, and watched sunset over the savannas. Game watching was in the form of 4×4 safaris or river safaris – and we spotted hundreds of elephants, crocodiles, impalas, giraffes, and hundreds of bird species. It was an incredible experience and we couldn’t have asked for a better setting.
Our journey continued on to the Victoria Falls Private Reserve in Zimbabwe, for more wildlife watching. During our time at the beautiful Stanley & Livingstone, we were rewarded with impressive sightings from herds of zebras grazing on the grasslands, to kudus galloping amidst the bush, and vultures eyeing the savanna from the top of the Acacia trees. Out of the six black rhinos that call this reserve home, we spotted four of them, all inches away from our jeep. Of course we had to visit Victoria Falls, not just to witness this amazing creation of mother nature, but also to get our adrenaline fix. Alberto took this video when he did the Gorge Swing, a 72-meter free fall followed by a swing over the Zambezi river.
After weeks of intensive travel in Africa, we were ready to have some downtime and relax in Crusoe-esque style. And on Bazaruto Island, we did just that. At just 30 km from mainland Mozambique, it’s just a short hop away from the town of Vilanculos, yet it can’t be further away from the chaos of Africa. Inhabited by only 3,500 people, the island remains a stronghold of tradition for fishermen in the area and continues to steer clear of the tourist trail. During our stay at Indigo Bay, we felt like we’d been cast away on a far-flung island, somewhere remote and unexplored, but we were surprised to find creature comforts always within our reach. The flight to Bazaruto itself was well worth the trip.
After almost 10 years, we finally went back to the place where we met and fell in love. Miami is somewhere special for us and it was great to return after being away for so long. We partied on South Beach and took time off to relax under the sun. This time, we even got to fly over Miami Beach and see it from the skies. But there was more to Florida than Miami, so we explored all over the state – cruising the 10,000 islands of the Everglades, kayaked through mangrove swamps in the Keys and discovered the gorgeous, secret island of Dry Tortugas. It was also our first time experiencing a hurricane – thankfully Hurricane Isaac didn’t do any harm and we couldn’t have asked for better weather after that.
One of the reasons for our trip to the States was to visit my sister who lives in Fresno, California. My parents flew over from Singapore as well, and we had an excellent time reuniting over long lunches and day trips around the area. We only see one another once a year, so it was great to be hanging out with my family again. A highlight for us was our road trip to Sequoia National Park, where we actually spotted a black bear crossing the road. It was such a close encounter we couldn’t believe our eyes.
After our summer break, Alberto and I headed on separate trips for the first time this year. I flew over to the Pacific to pursue a life-long dream of swimming with jellyfish in Palau. Millions of translucent white jellyfish danced and swayed all around me, their short springy tentacles bobbing melodically in a synchronized rhythm. It must have been one of the most magical places I’ve ever been. In the week that I spent exploring Palau, we kayaked the Rock Islands, went scuba-diving with sharks and turtles, before going back on land and exploring the historical side of Palau, and eventually getting down and dirty on a wild ATV ride. I still have plenty of stories on Palau left untold – so stay tuned.
Riviera Maya, Mexico
While I was out and about in Palau, Alberto zipped over to Riviera Maya in Mexico for a press trip with several other bloggers. The Riviera Maya DMO set up an action-packed itinerary, including a Mayan jungle expedition in the heart of a sub-tropical rainforest where they entered the Sac-Actun cenote system, the world longest underground river. They also plunged underwater in the Nohoch Nah Chiich cavern, ziplined across the jungle foliage and rappelled into the beautiful Yaxmuul cenote. Another highlight was exploring Rio Secreto, an extensive cenote system discovered only in 2007.
After a few weeks of rest in Spain, we embarked on probably the most memorable trip of the year. Australia has always been one of our favorite countries, packed with so much diversity and raw nature. We started off the road trip in the Northern Territory with visits to the Alice Springs Desert Park and Reptile Center, before hopping on a hot air balloon to see Alice Springs from above. Our favorite part of the trip was joining Wayoutback Desert Safaris on a 3-day camping safari through Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Sunrise at Uluru was one of the most spectacular sights we’ve ever seen.
Driving through the Red Center had always been on our bucket list and we did it in style, on a spacious and comfortable Britz campervan. We drove to Adelaide, South Australia, before flying over to Tasmania, an island 150 miles away from mainland Australia – so similar yet different in every sense of the word. For the last part of our trip, we drove along the coast of Queensland up to Heron Island, which lies right on the Great Barrier Reef. As avid scuba divers, Heron Island was a dream come true.
To top the year’s list of amazing experiences, I joined G Adventures on the Antarctica Classic in Depth voyage aboard the MS Expedition cruise. Like my Arctic expedition in 2011, this voyage blew me away with mind-blowing landscapes and spectacular wildlife. Towering glaciers and jagged peaks flanked the photogenic Lemaire Channel, while mammoth icebergs littered the cold seas. We wandered around thousands of penguins that roamed the white, snow-covered slopes and tiptoed our way around fat blobberish elephant seals lazing by the shore. Everyday, Antarctica brought us one surprise after another. As harsh and aloof as it is, Antarctica is like no where else in the world. I yearn to go back and until then, my memories will have to do for now.
As the end of the year has crept up upon us, we have set off on a train journey with Eurail around Northern Europe in search of a winter wonderland. We aptly named this the Ice Run as this journey is aimed at challenging ourselves to the extreme cold and seeing remote parts of Europe. From Rovaniemi in the Finnish Lapland, we zipped over to Abisko, Sweden on the Arctic Circle train before arriving in Narvik, Norway. Along the way, we had tons of fun in the snow – going dog-sledding, ice-fishing, snow-mobiling, and hunting for the Northern Lights.
What about you? What exotic places have you visited this year? Where do you wish to go on 2013?