2014 - What a year! From Hospital bed to Motorhome Adventures!

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Wednesday 31 December 2014

2014 - What a year! From Hospital bed to Motorhome Adventures!

2014! What a year! So many changes. From starting the year living in a 2 bed flat in Durham and working a 9-5pm job at Newcastle University to finishing the year living full-time in a motorhome travelling round Europe.  From being oblivious to my own mortality to living every day as if it's the last.  Its certainly been an eventful year with major changes and the start of both a physical and emotional journey. This, more than any year so far in my life has been a year of ups and downs but which is ending today with me feeling more alive than ever before.

We started the year with the worry of the implications of my incisional hernia which had unfortunately appeared on Boxing Day (of all days) at one of my previous surgical sites. In October 2013, after 11 years together Esther and I finally booked a wedding date in February and had planned an extended walking tour as our honeymoon, hiking the GR5 from the shores of the north sea in Holland to the Mediterranean coast at Nice in France. These plans now looked unsure.  But in late in January, after a kind consultant took pity on our situation and offered a cancellation spot for the day after my consultation, we thought our luck had changed and I went in for surgery.  We'd been assured I would be up and dancing by the time the wedding came around and the walking honeymoon plans could continue, just preferably delayed 2 months to allow sufficient recovery before carrying my pack over such a long period of time. Apart from some adverse reactions to the morphine requiring an overnight stay after the surgery, all was well we thought.  But after a few days of not starting to feel any better and a rash appearing around the scar, the GP was called in. With 48 hours on antibiotics all would be OK but if worried we were to call again.  Still not much better after 36 hours waiting for the antibiotics to kick-in, Esther had a chance meeting with an old friend who strongly warned of the dangers of post operation infections, after which we decided to get the spreading rash and the now yellowing bulge checked out once more.
Waiting patiently for our appointment in the out-of-hours GP clinic, we sat wondering if we'd be back in time for a programme we wanted to watch that evening.  After a shocked out-of-hours GP, personally rushed us to A&E and called the on-duty surgeon, we realised we might have been quite naive and stupid to ignore the increasing bulge and rapidly spreading rash on my stomach.  When the surgeon arrived to say I would be needing more surgery, I didn't realise he would be getting out his scalpel there and then.  The first drainage of the abscess without anesthetic is not something I want to recall in much detail other than to say I hope I never go through that again.  After being prepped about all the different scenarios which could unravel once I was anaesthetised and the extent of the infection could be properly determined, I was wheeled through the doors towards theater at around 3.30AM.

Feeling very lucky to have woken up on 1st February, albeit in a lonely hospital room with only 2 one hour visiting slots to look forward to a day and oh yes... with a big gaping hole in my abdomen, the first few weeks of February passed in a blur. The hernia repair had had to be reversed as it was compromised by the infection and all the infected tissue had been cut out. The resulting hole had been left open so that the infection could be monitored whilst it healed from the inside out.  After a week in hospital I was allowed home to be nursed by Esther and the wonderful district nurse Michelle who'd come in daily to clean the wound and change the dressing.  Unfortunately and to the horror of all the nurses on the ward, it was advised we cancel our wedding.  Esther was a brilliant, dealing with all the emotional and practicalities that surrounded the cancellation.   Our friends in Durham gathered around my 'sofa'-side on February 22nd, on what have been our wedding day.  On the plus side the wound was healing well but on the downside, despite some very strong painkillers and antibiotics I was obliged to start working from home in order to keep our income through our now extended and uncertain time in Durham.

Continuing to heal quicker than expected (which Esther believed was all the vegetable juices she was making me), the consultant re-ignited our travelling hopes by suggesting I would be well enough to tour provided I wasn't carrying a heavy pack as the abdominal wall would take time to strengthen.  So we decided to swap our feet for a set of wheels.  While I was splitting my time between, resting and working, Esther started to look at motorhomes. A frantic two weeks ensued with her spending many late nights on eBay and Autotrader, making numerous calls, some long distance viewings and dealing with some unsavoury characters which unnecessarily added to an already stressful time.  But in late March, we visited a lovely couple in Halifax and on first entering the motorhome we knew it was the one we'd been looking for.  An RAC and a habitation check were organised and all being well, we arranged to return 2 weeks later to collect.  The day after we agreed the motorhome purchase, we put our flat on the rental market thinking it was best to get in early as these things can take time.  Two days later the first viewer was agreeing to a 12 month contract at the advertised rent but as he was currently living in hotel, wanted to know how soon we could move out.  A date 3 weeks later was agreed and the whirlwind of packing, organising and staying up late was the result.  We also decided to sell our car and after some disappointing quotes on car buying websites, we placed an advert on eBay and within an hour someone had transferred a deposit into our account.  Things were definitely starting to look up.

We finally picked up our new motorhome in early April and excitedly (and very nervously) drove it back to Durham from Halifax.  The day couldn't have gone anymore smoothly; driving down in our old car, selling our car at the train station to the buyer who had traveled up by train from the Midlands, being kindly picked up by the motorhome seller from the train station and then arriving back in Durham 12 hours later in our new moving home.  We then had a manic two weeks in which we packed up all our stuff into our friends attic (thank you Barry and Yulia).  We were extremely lucky to find two lovely foster homes for our bunnies and got them settled in. Cleaned and prepared our flat for the new tenant and then on the morning of the 17th April moved into the motorhome which was parked opposite our flat on our friends' driveway (thank you Christina, Catherine and Becca). I finished my last two weeks at work whilst Esther got the final loose ends sorted.

After a fun pack trip to High Ropes and after saying our final goodbyes to our friends and bunnies in Durham, our friend's waved us off on May 8th (only to get stuck in traffic on our first trip!).  We spent the next two weeks visiting and say our farewells to my family in Nottingham, friends near Birmingham and Oxford and Esther's Mum and Dad near Aylesbury, and even squeezed in a Bushcraft day.  Finally we left UK shores on May 25th taking the ferry from Harwich to Hoek van Holland.  We arrived in Holland, planning to visit Esther's 97 year old Oma (grandma) for a few days and ended staying more than two weeks as the busyness of the previous month finally caught up with us and we needed somewhere to rest up before the travels really began.

We rested up in Holland, enjoying quality time with Esther's Oma, who loved our motorhome calling it 'A Dream'.  We passed the time with beach walks, sunsets and bicycle rides and by 12th June were ready to set off into the unknown.  The question was whether to head North to Scandinavia and the fjords or South to the Alps.  As we set off, the decision was made to head 'Due South' and get to the mountains as quickly as possible.  After learning how to use our first sat nav, we started a long drive through Holland, Belgium and stopping off along the way in Luxembourg and France.
We finally crossed the border into Switzerland at Sainte Croix (after a few minor teething problems with the motorhome). After our first (of three) visits to the Roman town of Martigny, by June 21st we found ourselves in Val d'Anniviers where summer had "just started".  Following recommendations from new friends, we started to make use of the Liberte pass and explore the valley properly.  Our hiking boots got their first alpine experiences and we felt as though we'd really fallen on our feet; feeling so lucky to have found this amazing place so quickly.

July started with what we thought would be the highlight of our whole trip.  What could top the awesome sight of Aletsch Glacier we thought?  But after boarding our home onto a train for the first time and taking a trip through the mountains into Northern Italy and arriving at the alpine Lakes of Maggiore and Orta, we quickly learned that different landscapes had their own beauty.   After a few days putting up our feet, our hiking boots were on again.  But as quickly as they were on, we made an unplanned dash for the Mediterranean.  Hitting the coast first in Italy and then crossing the border to spend a lovely week around Nice, where for the first time since Holland the bikes were off the motorhome and we had some lovely cycles, including to Monaco and Cannes.
We celebrated our first motorhome birthday, which Esther had made very special for me.  The celebrations were made extra special with two trips to Aquasplash and Marineworld, with evening orca and dolphin shows being the highlights.  We moved inland towards the lower slopes of the Maritime Alps and here started our love for cycling up steep hills, with our first Tour de France climbs and even reaching the summit of Europe's highest road.  Plus our hiking boots got warmed up on local trails and on sections of the GR routes.

August was spent exploring the French Alps, moving onto the Ecrins National Park and being very lucky to enjoy some spectacular weather in an incredible place.  We found some wonderful and remote places to park our motorhome and spend a few days exploring different valleys of this amazing National Park, on foot or bike, each with its own beauty. We also enjoyed some time wandering the old streets in Sisteron, Briancon and Grenoble before heading north to the Mont Blanc massif.  Spending a week in the shadow of Europe's highest mountain and having a taste of the classic multi-day circuits left us marking the area as one we will definitely want to come back to. This brilliant month was finished off with a trip back into Switzerland as we headed towards Lausanne where we got to meet up with a good friend and catch up with news from home.  

Starting the month back in Switzerland, we would never have thought that the weather would have allowed us to spend the whole month in the Swiss Alps, but our luck continued and it did.  Starting the month with an amazing hike on the slopes of the Matterhorn, it didn't take us long to remember why we had wanted to return following our brief stay in June.  Again we made use of summer tourist schemes such as the Saas Pass allowing us to ride some of Switzerland's highest and most spectacular cable cars.  We made a tour of the Bernese Alps starting with hikes and rides in the Goms and upper Rhone Valley, including to the impressive Rhone glacier with its views stretching right down the valley to Mont Blanc in the distance.  From our peaceful stop at Grimselpass, we moved onto the Lauterbrunnen Valley, which lead to more hikes with brilliant views over yet more famous Alpine peaks; Jungfrau, Monach and the Eiger, and also allowed us to revisit the Trummelbach falls, which had made such an impact on us 11 years previously on our second interrail trip.
After a brief visit to and a hike in the Lotschental valley, we found ourselves returning once more to Val d'Anniviers for Esther's birthday celebrations, this time to Zinal.  After a relaxed and fun birthday, we were reminded how brilliant the Liberte pass was and again used to it explore many different parts of the valley. This time we also got to gaze at the distant stars and wonder at the sun's flares and also join in the celebrations of the cows coming home for winter (twice).   Here we fell in love with this wonderful valley with its variety and endless hiking possibilities; calling it our "Swiss Lake District".   However as the night's got colder and the forecast winter snow edged closer it was time to wave goodbye to Val d'Anniviers and to Switzerland.

Esther took a short pause from our adventures with a 3-day trip back to Holland to visit her family at the start of the month. It was time to begin a new chapter of our adventures and we started our journey south for the winter.  After a few days in the French Provence and succeeding in our wrestle with Mont Ventoux, our journey followed the route of the Rhone River as it made its way to Europe's largest delta and the Carmague nature reserve.  Here we were treated to our first sighting of Flamingoes and some peaceful beach walks, cycles and beautiful sunsets.  Following a brief taster of the cycle rides along the Canal du Midi, our legs were ready for some more serious action.  Having been to the Pyrenees to walk part of the GR10 last year, and as we were already missing the Alps we wanted to find a way back to the mountains.  But the Pyrenees in late October?  Again luck was with us and we were treated to some fabulous weather, which we intended to make the most of, after a short rest first.  Several beautiful hikes in the Pyrenees National Park and eight Tour de France climbs later, including the Tourmalet, Luz Ardiden, Peyresourde and Apsin our legs were ready for a break.

November came and the good weather continued so our legs had to wait a few days longer for a break as we squeezed in rides up the Horquette d'Ancizan, Portillon and Port de Bales.  Finally time to rest up and we found a lovely quiet campsite in Tarascon-sur-Ariege (which also had some famous cycle climbs to tackle). But as the weather turned chilly these were maybe a ride (or two) too far! Time to move south we thought. But as the long term weather forecast showed better weather still to come in the Pyrenees, we stayed put and enjoyed other attractions the region had to offer, including the fascinating Parc de la Prehistoric  and the stunning Niaux caves which allowed us the unique opportunity to cast our eye over original 13,000+ year old cave paintings.
As the forecast better weather arrived and our legs were rested, it was time to move on and we were treated to a further unexpected 10 days in the Pyrenees.  Making the most of the unseasonably warm weather with two further Tour de France climbs and several beautiful hikes in the remote Ariege region, also allowing us to experience other sections of the GR10 route.  We even had a quick trip over the border to Andorra to see for ourselves the slightly strange high altitude shopping arena (but did pick up a bargain new camera for Esther too).  As the weather started to turn, we squeezed in our last two mountain hikes in the Pyrenees and said our final farewell to the mountains, thankful for the bonus 6 weeks we had enjoyed since arriving.  The month ended with us waiting out a big storm just outside of  Perpignan, 10 miles from the border with Spain, giving us time to reflect on our trip so far and work out our touring costs.

After sitting out the storm in Le Boulou, we stocked up the motorhome with goodies from french bio shops and crossed into Spain at the start of the month.  Our first stop was Barcelona to meet up with an old friend and together we explored this famous city on foot.  Not accustomed to big city life, after our previous few months in remote areas of the French Pyrenees, Swiss Alps and French Alps, we headed inland to the natural parks in the mountains west of Valencia.  However, despite enjoying being back in the hills, the warmer weather of Southern Spain tempted us to move on.  A quick visit to explore Spain's third largest city, Valencia, turned into an 9 day stay once we'd discovered what the Devesa and the Albufera nature reserve to the south of the city had to offer.
We felt inspired and energised by the walks on the long sandy beaches and strolls through the dunes, giving us lots of time to reflect on our best and worst bits so far.  The nature reserve offered up lots of interesting wildlife too, giving Esther plenty of opportunity to get to know her new camera.   Saying a "see you again" to the Devesa and once more stocking up with goodies from the bio shops of Valencia, our planned destination for the Christmas period was the Cabo de Gata natural park.  Here we had been promised a remote coast line with numerous unspoilt bays and beaches to explore and some of Europe's driest weather.  So far it has not disappointed and aided in our very different Christmas build-up.
With many hiking and cycling possibilities, historic cities like Almeria, extinct volcanoes and abandoned gold mines to explore, we have decided to make this our base over winter and take a break from touring by moving into a mobile home, giving us some more space to really enjoy the Christmas festivities and to see in the New Year.  Plus, 10 days on and I am getting used to the brilliant news that I am now Uncle Dan and today got to meet my nephew, Dexter, for the first time thanks to Skype.

Resolutions for 2015
This is the first year I've put pen to paper (so to speak) and written a summary of a year but what a year to start!  With some very lows to start but with many highs to finish.  During the challenging start to the year a good friend said to us that she strongly believed the old saying "every cloud has a silver lining" and that at times when things looked bleak you can't see that silver lining. At certain points in a hospital room on my own or recovering at home and frustrated through inactivity I would have be extremely grateful for someone to at least hint at what the silver lining to the situation was going to be in order to give me motivation to get through those difficult weeks.  But sitting here on New Year's eve and reliving my year, it is clear now to see the silver lining.  Not only have Esther and I had a fantastic time travelling in a motorhome during the last 7 months, but the true silver lining has been that for the first time in my life, faced suddenly with my own mortality, I have been given a deep appreciation of living life and living to enjoy each day to the full.  So to quote several people (and one of my favourite films) my resolution for 2015: "Get busy living or get busy dying!"

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