Twitchhiker | Paul Smith's travel tales from here and there

The Shorty Awards – a very good night (and day) in NYC
04/03/2010, 19:27
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So the Twitchhiker project won a Shorty Award! It’s very nice and shiny. Best of all, even though I stopped out til 4.30 this morning, which culminated in necking shots with a former Navy Seal who did three tours in Vietnam, the award is intact. No chips, no cracks, base still attached. Result.

I met plenty of brilliant people last night, the highlights being shaking hands with Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, and having a beer with Janis Krums, who helped push Twitter in the mainstream with a single photo. I also got to meet my fellow finalists, including @newyorkology – one of the finest Twitter users out there (and Amy’s website is pretty cool, too). The company was great, the bar was free. Perfect.

If you voted, thank you. If you supported the Twitchhiker project last year – whether you followed from afar, provided words of encouragement, offered to put me up on your sofa, shouted me a beer, drove me from here to there – then this really is your award, because it simply wouldn’t have happened without your involvement.

So to summarise: I’m in New York, I have no hangover, the award is in one piece and Stephen Fry has been in touch. Not the best day of my life, but a very good one.

The Shorty Awards – now it’s time for the finals!
31/01/2010, 20:00
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Today marks exactly one year since the concept for the Twitchhiker project was conceived. I can’t quite believe how time has scurried by so quickly – or how it has changed my life.

I never expected it to, and I vehemently resisted it in the beginning. I just wanted everything to settle down, to get back to work, spend time with my family. I didn’t act on the calls to write a book – I accepted the offer of an agent but I barely lifted a finger. Nor did I bother exploiting what had become a brand, despite some very adamant individuals with money wanting me to.

But slowly, everything changed. I changed. I found myself wanting to travel more – I’m desperate to travel to Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore when I have the money. I’ve been back to New Zealand, albeit briefly – I hovered in Auckland airport for an hour or two on my way to Australia to blog about Crave Sydney. I am writing a book, although that offer didn’t appear until November – eight months after I’d finished my trip. And aside from this blog, I’ve given up on travel writing – I haven’t the time for commissioning editors who either ignore every pitch or blatantly steal them, passing them onto staff writers as a cheaper option.

And now, on the first anniversary of Twitchhiker, we’re able to celebrate it all over again.

Twitchhiker is in the finalists for the Shorty Awards, a celebration of people who have done something different and unique with Twitter – it’s among a handful of brilliant finalists in the travel section.

Plenty of you have voted for Twitchhiker in the past month and for that I’m blatheringly grateful. To win, however, I need one last favour: the voting for the winner in each category begins at midday EST tomorrow (5pm for the UK) and continues for just five days. While the winner isn’t simply determined by the quantity of votes – other factors are taken into account – it certainly can’t hinder our chances.

So. If you thought Twitchhiker was a fun, interesting, unique or standout use of Twitter – please vote tomorrow.

When I talk about this, or Twitchhiker in general, I tend to about we, not I – I might have been the point man, but it never would have worked without the 40 or so people who directly helped me, the hundreds of offers, the thousands of followers or those that donated of thousands of pounds to charity: water. As far as unique, community-driven, travel-related uses of Twitter go, I don’t think it has been topped, and a Shorty Award would be the perfect way to celebrate what we did together.

It’d be fun to win. Not just for me, but for you too. Let’s see how the week goes.

Want to design the book cover for Twitchhiker?
04/01/2010, 22:15
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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m currently bashing out letters and words in chaotic fashion, in the hope that they’ll be vaguely entertaining and cohesive enough to form a book to be published later this year. I have to deliver 90,000 words to my editor by Friday 26th February. Have many have I wrote so far? Well… let’s not talk about that. I appear to be writing backwards.

I had an idea about involving Twitter users once more in the tale of Twitchhiker – since the publishers Summersdale found the book through Twitter and the story owes everything to the Twitter community, it’d be fitting to find a cover artist through Twitter also.

The publishers like the idea too, so if you’re an artist or designer (especially with book cover experience) interested in proposing a book cover design, then you can send ideas or roughs to The publisher adds that “a fee (in keeping with our standard fees) will be paid for any design that Summersdale decides to proceed with, although Summersdale reserves the right not to proceed with any submitted ideas if they feel none is suitable”.

You’ve got until Friday (8th) to get in touch with Jennifer if you’re interested – she’s a very nice lady so don’t be shy. I’m not allowed to do it – I last designed a book cover when I was 18, chopping up my mum’s medical encyclopedia for the cover of my bestseller The Stranger Things. Of course the publishing world and I had differing views on that point, and I don’t think I told my mum about her encyclopedia. And Jennifer doesn’t want a cover with exploded brain matter on it, so I’m out. Over to you!

Twitchhiker, the book – ETA Summer 2010
23/11/2009, 16:17
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I’m happy. Very, very happy. It’s that particular brand of happiness where if I wasn’t overweight or desperately unfit, I’d consider performing a backflip to express my mercurial state.

When I undertook the Twitchhiker project in March, it was to satisfy my curiosity – to see if social media in general and Twitter in particular was capable creating a physical network that would allow me to travel around the world. On the way we raised thousands for charity: water and plenty of awareness of Twitter.

It was a tremendous adventure, enjoyed not only by myself but those who assisted me (and I dare say some who followed me, if only to see if I ended up mauled by a bear), and while I struggled with the relentless schedule at the time, I look back at it with nothing but fondness and pride. Since then I’ve done a smattering of public speaking, recounting my travels in a montage of photos and tall tales – and while I considered writing a more in-depth account of my travels immediately afterwards, it was ultimately more important to settle back into the slog of everyday life and earn what I laughingly call a wage.

After all this time has passed, I thought that was the end of it. So I’m thrilled to teeny tiny bits to announce I’ll be writing a book about Twitchhiker. It’s all a bit of a blur right now – the offer came barely a week ago and the deadlines are very tight – but I’m so excited about revisiting my journey with the benefit of perspective and a good night’s sleep.

I’ll tell you more about it as I find out, but for now it’s time to dig out the notes and the A3 envelope stuffed with all my flight details, trinkets and room cards (the plastic, easily replaced type of course) and turn the clock back eight months.

What are Feats of Tweet?
16/07/2009, 22:01
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Twitchhiker - stranded abroad, but in a good way

There are worse places to be stranded in the world than here. Not that I’m actually stranded, but merely presented with the illusion of being so. This is because the only sign of life is a supermarket a mile to the east, there’s no pub within walking distance and the nearest town is half a day away, but only if you ignored the advice that suggested CAR HIRE IS ESSENTIAL. I could call a taxi anytime I like. I think.

I’m staying in a gated resort, stuffed full of private villas and apartments, most of them deserted right now. Regardless, the pool is immaculate, the temperature’s high and the sky is a piercing sunshine blue. The halcyon blend of factor 20, backstroke and sangria, away from the distractions of my dining room office, has led me to calmly consider two decisions concerning what happens next between Twitter and I.

First, there’s Twitchhiker. It was a very dear experience, to me and plenty of others, but I almost ruined that by forcing through another idea that really didn’t make sense.

I still find myself travelling plenty, I’ve an appetite to do so even more since March, and I’d like to gather all my thoughts, photos and writing together as I skip naively along the way. So the plan is for the Twitchhiker blog to get a new lick of paint, keeping all the material from the March trip and adding new posts whenever I happen to stray somewhere interesting. It’ll become more of a travelogue than just a holding page for the jaunt to New Zealand.

I’ve also agreed to take part in a project to promote the North East of England. It’s been my home for nearly all my life, so I’m looking forward to exploring all the nooks and crannies of somewhere I like to think I know well. They apparently want me to try out extreme activities; I’m afraid of heights and not brilliant in water, so I suspect I’ll be hanging from rock faces and diving in the North Sea. Gah. I’ll probably post updates through @twitchhiker, because after travelling around the world I’d like to share my place in it with everyone else.

The bottom line is I won’t personally be dreaming up another project to try and move the story on. As I tug on a second can of Amstel and reluctantly take my MacBook indoors to evade an aerial onslaught of black winged things, I really don’t think Twitchhiker is shouting for a sequel.

So onto that second decision.

I mentioned in recent entries that I’d had another idea. As with Twitchhiker, I tested the idea on the same small handful of trusted tweeps, but despite a unanimous seal of approval I hesitated in setting to work on it. What concerned me was losing my life to another project, especially a project that had no fixed end date. I didn’t want to jeopardise my writing career again, and blah blah blah. All of that doesn’t matter now, because while I wasn’t sure initially, I now believe it can work. And if it works, the sort of project it is means there’ll be plenty of people to help me. I also get to stay at home this time, which will hopefully lessen the probability of divorce.

While it makes sense to simply use the @twitchhiker account for this project, it has to live or die on it’s own merits. So there’s a new Twitter account I’d like you to follow, and I’d like you to ask your followers to follow, too. It’s called:


Over the coming weeks there’ll be a new website, chocked full with blurb about what Feats Of Tweet is and how it’ll work. The project itself will hopefully launch in September, once there are enough followers behind it. Between now and then I’ll be asking for some help too – as you’ll have noticed I’m not a graphic designer or a web developer by trade, and I could do with a hand in the PR department too.

Sorry for not giving much away right now, but very soon the information will be coming thick and fast. Thick, at least. If you have a moment, follow the account and lets see what happens. It should be fun.

07/04/2009, 07:00
Filed under: twitchhiker project | Tags: , ,

I never thought I’d be here again just yet.

I’m lying in bed in another anonymous hotel room, just six days after arriving home. This time it’s at a Kensington address in London, and in a whisker under 79 minutes time, a car will arrive to spirit me away to the studios of This Morning which, in case you don’t live in the UK, is a popular mid-morning magazine show.

Home. I’ve been trying to write something since I stepped foot through my front door last Wednesday night, but life has kept getting in the way. Life, and sleep. I’ve nearly 80GB of television stored on the Sky+ hard drive in the living room – a month’s worth of CSI, Battlestar Galactica, Smallville, Lost, 24, Fringe (it’s all high quality viewing, alright?) – and I’ve barely made a dent in it; I can’t keep my eyes open for more than half an hour without blacking out during every major plot revelation.

And then I’ll wake up at some nonsensical time of the morning, bright as a button and ready to rise. At first it was 2am, then 3am, then 5am for a couple of mornings – this morning I forced myself to doze until half past six. It’s not so much jetleg – I haven’t felt particularly sluggish or under the weather at any point – more my body having a word with itself concerning which timezone it happens to occupy right now.

I miss it. I’m delighted to have returned to the arms of my wife, to my friends and family, to my routine and the prospect of earning more than buttons to pay the mortgage, but I miss it; having a purpose, such a clear-cut objective, every day an adventure, a world of people and places and experiences. To live life out of two messenger bags with no real need for belongings, to implicitly trust those I meet and be enriched by their company – Twitchhiker has created a void it no longer fills.

Of course there’s still real life to be getting on with – I’ve plenty of work to be getting on with, my business partnership developing iPhone applications looks likely to go full-time in the summer and the living room needs decorating immediately for fear for a good shoeing. There’s some talk of Twitchhiker continuing in one form or another… we’ll see.

36 minutes to go. It’s fair to say I’m bricking it.

Day 29 / 30 – journey’s end?

When I landed in Auckland a week ago, if you’d asked then whether I’d settle for reaching Stewart Island and going no further, I’d have told you absolutely not. If you’d told me I stood a slim-to-non-existent chance of peering across to Campbell Island from a distant vessel, I’d have angrily disagreed. But as the week passed, it became disappointingly clear that Stewart Island would see me reach the end of the road.

At every stage of this journey there has been a natural momentum, an irresistible force born out of the ceaseless support on Twitter. Once I reached New Zealand’s South Island, that forward motion began to wane. Activity on Twitter Search started to slow, the re-tweets fell away. Why did it feel as if I’d stalled at this critical stage?

Running thirteen hours ahead of the UK meant I lost my home support, as my daytime activity was missed by the sleeping majority. I think there was an element of fatigue too – I’d been banging on about Twitchhiker for two months solid, and perhaps people felt they’d shouted themselves hoarse on my behalf.

I’m sure these points contributed, but I think the biggest obstacle was New Zealand itself. I remained out of contact for long stretches of time on my journey across the South Island, either because of a lack of internet access or mobile phone coverage. On a land mass the size of England and Wales, with just one fiftieth of the population, a cast-iron communications infrastructure simply isn’t necessary. Where I did find internet access, it was often decrepit to the point of useless. In fact wherever you go in New Zealand, residents will complain how utterly frustrating the technology is, one born of a telecommunications monopoly and the country’s remote placing on the planet.

So I wasn’t able to push my message as hard as I wanted to in the final days of the project. That, and there weren’t an awful lot of people around to hear it. Invercargill, the southernmost city in New Zealand, has a population of just 50,000. Stewart Island has a population of 400. As much weight as Twitter had thrown behind me, it was being channeled into a sparsely populated region that was unable to hear my call or support my cause.

After spending time on Stewart Island, I survived the organ-loosening ferry back to Bluff then saw out my remaining time in Invercargill. As the hours slid by, so did the options of progressing further south. To set foot on Campbell Island required me to be at sea by Friday; it was a three day voyage one-way. That was always unlikely; was I ever going to find a captain who’d risk his life and that of his crew across some of the most treacherous seas on Earth, for six days? Unpaid? Who was on Twitter? And on Saturday I spoke to a pilot in Invercargill, who told me that the planes making the daily crossings to Stewart Island simply weren’t up to flying any distance out to sea; according to most passengers, they’re screaming hellfire for the twenty minutes they are in the air.

After two months of living and breathing this project, I’d reached my journey’s end. I wasn’t going to see Campbell Island, but it honestly didn’t matter anymore. The aim was to travel as far as I could from home as possible within 30 days, and by reaching Stewart Island I’d travelled to a place the majority of New Zealanders have never set foot on, never mind the rest of the world. Since officially ending the project, the amount of money raised for Charity: water has smashed through the £5,000 mark, and they’ve received media coverage the world over. I’m sure Scott and the team will put the money and exposure to excellent use helping communities in developing countries.

With @SmileyKiwi at the wheel of our @MauiRentals camper van, we headed for home. The drive from Invercargill back to Queenstown was quiet and serene. I attempted to photograph the magnificence of Lake Wakatipo as we drove along its eastern shore; in the end, I put my camera away and lost myself in its glory – I couldn’t capture the scale and magnificence of the azure-blue waters and tumbling, crumbling valleys above. I would dearly love to share that sight with you, but no camera invented will do it justice; you’ll have to visit this country of wonder for yourself.

And so I’m here, back in the Sky City Grand in Auckland. I wasn’t going to say no to some plush five-star treatment after five days of hostels, camper vans, ferry crossings that Ernest Borgnine would balk at and cockroaches the size of horses.

Did I fail? Not at all. On a personal level, I saw the world, proved it isn’t full of rapists and bastards, and travelled more in one month than most people manage in a lifetime – hopefully you enjoyed the journey alongside me. The Twitchhiker project showed that kindness is universal, that the whole can be infinitely greater than the sum of its parts, and that social media may begin online but it will converge with the real world whenever and wherever you let it. Twitter proved without a shadow of a doubt that it is much more than a social network, but a user-defined network that can be harnessed to change lives and expectations, and provide unique experiences and viewpoints. And together we raised enough money to ensure that somewhere in the world, people will drink clean water for the first time, and for the rest of their lives.

The big question is: what happens next? I don’t feel like this is the end. I’m already mourning the loss of this project from my life. It now feels entirely natural to live out of a single messenger bag, to throw my belongings into the back seat of a strange car, to bed down wherever I’m offered charity.

There’s something else there. I just don’t know what it is yet.

Days 25 to 28 – from Wellington to Stewart Island

I’m sat at the scarred oak dining table of the Bunkers hostel in Oban, Stewart Island, a fleck of savage rock and fauna 20 miles off the tip of New Zealand. It’s like Site B in The Lost World, but with fewer Hypsilophodon and a single pub serving the 400 inhabitants called the South Seas Hotel, one of the most friendly, drunkard locals you could ever care to topple into. Local fishermen slap each other hard over the back while recalling their tales for tourists, while last night’s talent quest discovered a gentleman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Paul McShane’s dad belting out Burning Love to the tune of In The Ghetto, although not in a manner that suggested it was intentional.

I’m about to head back to Invercargill on the mainland and see out my remaining time there. If the offer of a flight or a boat comes through, that’s most likely where I’ll need to be to take advantage of it. There’s so little Twitter activity now that I’ve reached the last outpost of my journey, I can’t really see my journey progressing. In recent days I’ve been frustrated that my quest might stop short of its destination, but now I’ve come this far, my view is more pragmatic. The aim was always to travel as far as I can from my home; wherever I manage to reach will invariably satisfy that aim.

I arrived on New Zealand’s South Island after departing Wellington on the InterIslander ferry, courtesy of @ExploreMoreNZ. Smaller than the ferry that had chugged me across the North Sea to Amsterdam all those days ago, this particular vessel possessed a curiously sharp aroma of farmyard that singed the nostrils. Parked near the stern were several cattle wagons, lacking their cargo of sheep but retaining a journey’s worth of dung; just what the captain ordered for a three hour ferry crossing. Fortunately the seas remained calm and the stench of my bile didn’t add to the already viscous fumes.

The voyage across the Cook Straight into Picton was breathtaking, and not because of the smell. Now, that may appear to be a lazy description and indeed, it’s a word that is vastly overused to describe everyday, mundane occurrences that do no such thing. Trust me when I say the sight of dolphins jumping across the path of your ferry while travelling through the forested magnificence of the Marlborough Sounds will cause your jaw to loosen and your lungs to be gently squeezed empty of air.

And it won’t be the last time you experience this very real sensation of Mother Nature applying a firm hand to your sternum. This country is the world in high-definition – an infinite wash of shapes and colours, a cascading stream of contours and textures that overwhelms the senses, too much for the eye to comprehend or the brain to process. That is in no way a criticism, but rather a celebration of New Zealand.

In Picton I was met by Smiley – not his real name, obviously – a driver from Kiwi Experience who was to be my chauffeur on the South Island. Built like a brick outhouse, accompanied by a mouthful of teeth that made friends everywhere they went, Smiley was a rugged Kiwi who’d driven tourists up and down New Zealand for years. Like half the population here, he’d worked as a production assistant on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but after years of a career in film production he’d discovered bus driving to prove far more satisfying.

In our Maui Rentals campervan, we travelled the lonely coastal road to Kaikoura that evening. In fact all roads on South Island are lonely; a land mass the size of the UK with only one million inhabitants means you’re unlikely to suffer road rage. As the sun set over the rolling foothills of the Southern Alps, ash-blue mists swirled in over the charcoal grey beaches. The occasional surfer tried their luck in the twilight, but otherwise we were alone on our travels.

Because of the kilometre-deep Kaikoura Canyon that lies off the town’s coast and the unique transition of ocean currents found there, Kaikoura is renowned for whale-watching. The canyon is also home of the mythical giant squid; although proof of the submarine sized beasts is scarce, remains are washed up along the beaches from time to time. As it transpired, the sperm whales that are commonplace to these feeding grounds remained just as elusive as their squidular nemesis. On our catamaran cruise the following day, we saw plenty of horizon and the occasional albatross, but otherwise it was very much a whale fail.

From Kaikoura, we continued south to Christchurch; our intended route had been to head straight on to Invercargill, but we’d had to take a later trip for our whale watch, and the road to Invercargill was over ten hours long. Instead, we decided to break the journey up by heading to Queenstown, smack in the heart of New Zealand and a journey that took us through the broken land of the Southern Alps. The sight of dolphins in the Marlborough Sounds had brought tears to my eyes; the distant Mount Cook seen from the shore of Lake Tepako caused them to roll down my face.

By contrast to that regal view of peace and splendour, there was Queenstown. It’s the destination for 20 something-year-old adventure junkies who want to throw themselves into canyons by way of bungee jumps, parachute over glaciers and seek out other adrenalin-spurting activities I hadn’t the slightest wish to indulge in. If that sounds like your dream of Mecca, you’re very welcome to Queenstown.

Unfortunately, it also means you deal with hundreds of 20 something-year-old adventure junkies when they’re smacked out their skull on drink every evening. Perhaps I was too old to appreciate the scene, perhaps I was too tired to embrace a lively night out, but I can go to the Bigg Market in Newcastle any night of the week for that experience, and at least there I won’t find gobby Essex chavs taking the piss out of me for showing a little common courtesy when ordering a late night snack, although the burgers at Fergburger made the abuse from the spindly framed gobshites almost bearable. Almost. Every place needs to let its hair down, and for South Island it’s Queenstown; it’s an easy place to lose in the vast emptiness of New Zealand if it’s not your thing.

Yesterday saw Smiley and I arrive in Invercargill early for a radio interview on local station More FM. Invercargill is rather unfairly referred to by the rest of New Zealand as the arsehole of the country;  perhaps that’s a purely geographical reference, because from our brief time spent there it looked like a perfectly pleasant small town going about its own business. I did see one or two mullets, however, which is one or two too many, whichever continent you happen to be stood on.

Throughout the week I’d told people of my intention to at least reach Stewart Island, and to a man, not one person in New Zealand had a good thing to say about the ferry crossing. Smiley told tales of wall-to-wall vomit on one particular trip, to the point that he swore he’d never step foot on board again. Let me tell you that Smiley is a particularly fearless bastard, so anything that scared that man troubled me no end.

On this occasion, the crossing was relatively smooth, at least according to the locals; that is to say it was still comparable to necking oysters while downing tequila on the back of a bucking bronco. After 45 minutes of sea-sawing across the Foveaux Strait, I felt like I’d been kicked in the guts by an angry horse. I staggered from the port into Oban and up to the hostel, clutching my guts as the island and my head swirled in opposite directions. I was officially sea-sick and about to say hello once more to the morning’s eggs benedict.

24 hours on, I’m still wretchedly ill. As I type this, the living room of the hostel is spinning and I can feel myself gently rocking back and forth. In two hours time I’ll be back on the ferry to Invercargill; Stewart Island Experiences (@StewartIslandEx) can’t guarantee me a spew-free return, although they were kind enough to bring me here so it’d be rather rude to return the favour by throwing up on their boat.

Once I reach Invercargill, I’ll wait and hope that Twitter pulls one final rabbit out of its hat. If it doesn’t, I’ll be satisfied I reached this point, having travelled this far, meeting the wonderful, gracious people I have, seeing more of the world that most people see in their lifetimes and having raised a healthy amount of money for Charity: water.

Privately, there’ll be the tiniest flicker of disappointment and hopelessness in my mind, that I’ve come so close and fallen at the last hurdle. But I can live with it. I can.


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