Thursday, 18 April 2013

Day 334 – The White Cliffs of Dover. (France, England, crossing the English Channel)

We successfully managed so many border crossings and visa applications earlier in the trip, and struggled through police checks and corruption, but now that we were casually jaunting our way through Western Europe, visiting friends and having a nice time, things were pretty simple and straight forward. The last thing that we needed to organise though was the ferry crossing from the Continental Europe to the UK. Having taken vehicles across the English Channel umpteen times before on previous trips, Ben and I knew that Dunkirk to Dover on Norfolk Lines would be the best option and we were pretty comfortable that it would be cheap and simple to book. The problem is though that we left it until only a couple of days in advance, at which point none of our credit cards worked on the website. Stupidly we procrastinated asking Josje and Remco who we were staying with in Gent to help us out, and by the time we did it was less than 24 hours before the time of departure and all the prices had gone up. As expected Norfolk Lines had been the cheapest when we were trying to book it a couple of days in advance, the price from Dunkirk to Dover being £29. Now that all the prices had shot up though, much to our disdain the cheapest option was now from Calais on Sea France and it would cost about £50. It was very frustrating, but in the scheme of things really not the end of the world. We just hoped that France wouldn’t decide to go on strike that day.

Our time in France was brief, in fact all we did was drive to Calais, spend our last Euros in Subway, and head to the ferry port. The Customs and Immigration process to leave France was simple with just a regular passport check, a few questions about the nature of our trip (the same type of questions we received when entering Poland: Blog Day 312 – Third time lucky: our final entrance to the EU), and a form to tell them that we didn’t have any drugs or weapons on us. We were given a card to hang from our rear-view mirror that had the number 122 on it – the number of the lane we were to queue up in to board the ship from.

This was it. We were about to be in the UK, days from our destination, and this was farewell to, well, the trip really. I’ve mentioned before various points along the way that have felt a bit like end points (Blog Day 312 – Third time lucky: our final entrance to the EU), and this was certainly a pretty major one. Arriving in Scotland would be another, getting to Glasgow, and of course making it to our destination of Appin, but crossing the Channel was big. It was all a bit surreal as we waited to board the ship, then stood on the deck looking out over France and imagining all the places that we’ve been through on our journey to get there. Watching as the White Cliffs of Dover become closer was a landmark we’d been looking forward to, but unfortunately we couldn’t have chosen a foggier day. Everywhere we looked was a sheet of white, and although we stared and squinted, we didn’t catch a glimpse of the White Cliffs until we were already docked in Dover.

Driving on the left for the first time since Thailand was peculiar, and having gotten so used to driving on the right hand side with a right-hand drive car, we now had to get re-used to having the wheel on the correct side. We stopped at a rest stop on the motorway to buy some food and use a toilet, and realised just how used to constantly working through a language barrier we have become. Instead of saying “Bankomat?” we could now just approach anyone and address them with “hi, excuse me, could you tell me if there’s an ATM nearby please?” No one looked at us strangely and even our car blended in a bit more. We had become so accustomed to communication with strangers being a task and always sticking out like a sore thumb everywhere we went, it sounds ridiculous but it took several weeks for me to stop thinking twice about how to greet people. “It’s fine, they speak the same language as you,” I had to tell myself over and over again.

The last stop on our tour of people we met when travelling was Grady, the guy who we met at the Kazakh Embassy in Urumqi, China, the person who was with us while we battled NAVO (Nature Adventure Voyage Overland) as they used all their force and resources to try and blackmail us (Blog Day 117 - The incompetency of NAVO Part 1 -Kazakh visa troubles and Day 118 -The incompetency of NAVO Part 2). At the time he was in the middle of hitch-hiking from Perth, Australia to London to raise money for Chi Line, and after leaving Urumqi we spent a week or so together in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Grady isn’t just a fun and interesting person, he also happens to reside in the much sought-after fashion of on a houseboat, currently moored in the centre of London. Utilising the nearby Sainsbury’s car park we had the unique pleasure of enjoying London from the riverside, an experience that most people, locals and tourists alike, will never truly have. The mooring was extremely private, with the back of the Kensal Green Cemetery (where Freddie Mercury and countless other celebrities and persons of note rest in peace) on one side, the river on the other, behind which was a small walking track and then a high wall. Our first meal in London was sausages and burgers grilled over a campfire with some fellow river dwellers, and our time in London was spent cruising the canals, and relaxing at the waterside. There are a fair few house boats on London’s canals, and screeds of people walk and cycle along the paths running alongside the water every day, yet as we navigated our way around we were continuously met with looks of amusement and curiosity. If I saw a houseboat in Melbourne I’d probably stare, take a photo and tell everyone about it, but I would have thought they’d be used to it in a city where such a thing is so prolific. Yet we were still obviously a novelty and I even managed to snap a photo of someone taking a photo of us.

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