An Irishman's Travels - Niall Stenson (Guest Blog)
(Photo: Train through the tea plantations in the mountains of Sri Lanka.
ALL IMAGES in this post courtesy of Niall Stenson. Copyright Niall Stenson.)
We recently caught up with travel titan Niall Stenson from Carlow, Ireland to learn about his outings and adventures around the world. From scuba diving to hiking and huddling together in freezing temperatures. To the hustle and bustle of the great cities of the globe. As with all of our guests, like on The Bootcast podcast, there are some great key takeaways from Niall's story about leaving one's own country to stepping beyond the comfort zone and the life skills that travel opens up for people. Have a read below. Enjoy.
1. Name, age and where you’re from:
I’m Niall, I’m 33 years old and originally from a town in the sunny southeast of Ireland, Carlow. Often referred to as a commuter town to Dublin in recent years but in reality I think it has much more to offer for travelers. Most notably its hiking trails, the river Barrow and being part of the South Leinster Way. Mount Leinster itself is a bit of an Irish Mecca for hang gliders, paragliders and mountain biking.
(Photo: Deep in the Amazon with a local guide - somewhere between Columbia, Peru and Brazil - you can pass freely between the 3 countries within the jungle.)
2. What do you do now and where are you based?
I work in E&I construction management, most recently specific to the Oil & Gas and Resources Industry. I moved to Australia in 2008 and have been in various parts ever since but for the past 14 months I have taken time out to travel, it’s been a constant incurable bug for the last 11 years. Currently though I’m sitting in Indonesia on an island called Nusa Lembongan, due to its cheap living, diving and proximity to Australia as I apply for jobs back there, the fun, for this trip, is nearly over.
(Photo: "Stone tree" exposed by sand erosion over decades in the deserts of outback - Bolivia.)
3. Why did you leave Ireland?
That’s a question I haven’t probably stopped to think about too much until recently. I was relatively young leaving home, having left home at 22 in 2008, just finished my original qualification as an electrician and was hooked on the wonders of the documentary channel on sky, watching travel docs most evenings. I was, let’s say, enjoying my youth and partying quite a bit and it got to the point of getting a bit bored with it and wanting more out of life. I had a problem though –I was pretty broke. I had bought a house just over a year earlier (one of those people who didn’t think the boom would end) so with all the expenses that go with that and my life style, my saving wasn’t in line with my travel ideas. So with the confidence of youth I came up with an idea. I would borrow 10,000 euro from the bank, leave 25% at home to cover my first year repayments of the loan, rent my house out, buy my flights, visa, pay my car loan and board the flight with the rest. I booked a flight from Dublin to Bangkok, gave a number of weeks to make it down through Thailand, Malaysia and onto Singapore where I’d get a connecting flight to Brisbane, Australia, no itinerary or accommodation booked. By the time I boarded the flight in Dublin, after sorting repayments and all of the above, I had under 4000 euro. A financial risk I’d find hard to take now. I suppose where there is a will, there is a way. I had a return flight back to Ireland 10 months later, which I took, for a holiday and returned to Oz two weeks later. Eleven years on, now a dual citizen — it’s a place I feel as comfortable in as I ever did in Ireland.
(Photo: Heading for landing on a Zodiac in Antarctica)
4. Where was your very first trip abroad to?
As a kid with my parents I had gone a few times to England and France but as an adult (I use the term adult quite loosely here) a couple of friends and my partner Dee, were in the house one night and we looked online for “anywhere” fights. Basically you go online and put in Dublin to — and there is a function you can use “to anywhere," which brings up, in order of the cheapest to the most expensive, flights from Dublin to anywhere. The cheapest turned out to be Latvia. So off we went, 6 lads and 2 girls, to the capital Riga, great craic was had.
(Photo: Kids Fishing at the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean Sea off of Panama.)
5. How many countries have you been to now in total?
45 Countries, 7 Continents, not including airport stop overs etc. The notorious numbers question though, one that drives many “Insta travellers” and the likes but it shouldn’t. Experiences are worth more. Some countries have loads to offer, probably more than you could ever fit in. Indonesia for example is made up of 17,508 islands, an archipelago in South East Asia and so many diverse cultures, communities and echo systems. I have been here 6 or 7 times and still have seen nothing on the grand scale of things. I think enough time spent to see all there is to offer in one country is more important than a short time spent in any.
(Photo: Marine Iguanas on the beach - Galápagos Islands)
6. What's your favourite country in the world and why?
An incredibly hard question to answer – I love Ireland because of family, the sense of humour and the no shit Sherlock attitude of the people. It feels effortless there. I love Australia because of the weather, scenery and the opportunities it gave me when my own country couldn’t. Peru sticks in my head, the people, the unreal trekking to be done there. Huaraz, a rural city there, which is a serious base for some unreal treks. I love Cambodia and its harsh but open history and also the islands off it, we ended up at a crazy rave in the jungle one night there with a group of friends that we met from home, only took us serious hardship climbing uphill for some time to find it. Sri Lanka, because of the unexpected friendliness. Colombia, Bolivia because of the Amazon, Ecuador because of the Galapagos, South Africa for the wildlife – I dunno, it’s a question I get asked a lot from home, the answer is impossible, everywhere for different things. But that’s the beauty of travel I suppose, you think you know what you are into until you discover something different.
(Photo: Cars pass by on the streets - Havana, Cuba - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
7. More specifically, where's your favourite location in the world and why?
While I enjoy the hustle and energy of big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Dubai, Paris, San Francisco or Rio for short periods of time, I prefer the slower pace of island life styles, it can bother people when you want something in a hurry and it doesn’t happen until people are ready and get around to it and that type of thing used to bother me a lot but I think travelling has thought me to slow down a bit, especially when I can’t in my normal working life in the fast paced environment it is, I think I value the slower pace more because of that, it also happened as I grew up a bit I suppose. So anywhere in South East Asia or the Caribbean.
(Photo: "The Torres" of Torres del Paine - Patagonia - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
8. Favourite type of travel — hiking / diving / safari etc?
Adventure breaks or active trips. This wasn’t always the main thing for me, I used to want to party in most places I went, so when I was younger I sought out places to accommodate that. Now I try to find places where I can do something adventurous or active like scuba diving. Having a relatively short career in diving (2 years) I have been lucky enough to dive in some of the best places in the world, Galapagos, Utila (Honduras), Indonesia, Sodwana Bay in South Africa, Bay of pigs in Cuba, Mexico, Sri Lanka and snorkelled in glacial meltwater between the Eurasian and North American Continental shelf in Iceland. Hiking too has took me by surprise after a 15 day trek in March 2017 to Mount Everest Base Camp, my first time doing a multi-day trek. That gave me the confidence to take on loads more trekking on our travels. A 9 day trek down in Patagonia another time with all our food, tent and equipment to sustain us. There have been many more but as soon as you do the first your hooked and realise your more than capable and it builds confidence in your own abilities. Also, more recently, Paragliding. I took a course in Ecuador and ended up completing my pilot licence there. I flew a few more times in Peru and my experience is still a work in progress. The biggest thing about doing activity based travel is that you meet people. You meet people with ease and they are like minded. If I had one bit of advice for people that want to have a beer with new friends at night, it’s to sign up for activities during the day with total strangers – the best way to meet people and make life-long friends. Of course, a bi-product of meeting new friends is the obligatory session or two, so job done!
9. Best place in the world for scenery?
Nepal – Hands down trekking through the Himalayas was some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. Climbing up higher and higher as you go and finally reaching Mount Everest Base Camp is breathtaking both figuratively and literally – at base camp the Oxygen level is 50% less than at Sea Level. Standing at the base of the Khumbu Icefall looking through it, wondering how anybody manages to climb through it before reaching the South Col, not to mention summiting Everest is unbelievable. We also climbed a peak nearby the night before reaching base camp, called Kala Patthar, standing at 5645 meters, to watch the sunset on Everest. From here there are three peaks lit as the sun goes down, the last tip to be hit by the sun is Everest, unreal sight and the highest I have ever been.
10. Best place in the world for adventure/extreme?
Man apparently Queenstown is the extreme sport capital of the world. I haven’t been yet. I could say going to Burning Man, a 9 day self-expression and arts Project, held on a millennia-old dried up lake bed in the Nevada desert every year, where radical self-reliance is a main principle, meaning you need to bring everything from the water you drink to your own water to wash yourself with, bringing the dust mask and goggles for the intense dust storms, known as white outs, where you can’t see a meter in front of you and then bringing it all away with you at the end, including your wastewater to Leave No Trace – another major principle of the project. Or times I trained at extreme sports like Skydiving, Paragliding, Scuba Diving – but as boring as this may sound, I still think multi day trekking/climbing is some of the most extreme experiences to be had. Take a trek that is considered relatively safe and done by many people each year such as Everest Base Camp. We decided to do it very early in the season, this meant it was going to be colder with some snow but also meant less people. We took the chance and went. A few days in we ended up snowed in for two days, there was also a group of 7 Russians with no local guide stuck there with us. The third day the Russians decided to go. We waited at the request of our Nepalese guide to see if the break in the weather held, which it did for a couple of hours. We left two hours after the Russians in snow but relatively mild weather. It changed very quickly. After an hour the wind was unbearable, snow smashing us and we could hardly see each other if we strayed more than 5 meters away. The only thing guiding us was our guides intuition and experience. Two hours in, some four hours after they set off, we (by sheer luck) stumbled upon the 7 Russians, all huddled together in the blizzard behind a mound for warmth – lost!! They gladly joined us under the instruction and navigation of our Sherpas and mountain guide. Some five hours later we reached our destination after climbing passes over 4500m in almost zero visibility. If this is not an advertisement for paying the little extra and using knowledgeable, local guides, I don’t know what is. There is a certain bit of anxiety attached to starting a multi-day trek into the wilderness that builds the further in you go. Say the O. Circuit in Patagonia, If you are 4 days into a 130 km trekking circuit, with all your food and rations, you are now the same distance in as it takes to get out. No cars or emergency vehicles can get to where you are — the only way of getting out of there is by helicopter evacuation, unless you stay hiking. There is no better training you can do to make you push yourself more than this feeling and there is something exhilarating about that for me. This is probably a great time to mention travel insurance — not only to take it out but to make sure it covers your activities. For instance some companies don’t cover you after 4500 m altitude, this all needs to be checked, because as fun as the above is, you don’t want to be at that midway point and break an ankle, only to realise you are not covered for the altitude you are at or the activity you are doing. Also check in with someone, let them know where you are going, route, expected Date/time to return —etc. A few “silly” things that could make a huge difference.
(Photo: Under the water- diving at Sodwana Bay South Africa - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
11. Most memorable moment while traveling, either positive or negative?
I have a couple. Walking off the beach in Galapagos with a snorkel and goggles and literally swimming with sea lions and turtles, a secluded beach, a 5 dollar pair of snorkel and goggles and these totally uninhibited creatures swimming by, even rubbing off you in only waste deep water — unafraid of us. Makes you think about the impact humans have had on the rest of the world. Seeing the sunrise from behind the Moai statues on Easter Island, claimed to be the most remote inhabited island in the world, sitting on its own in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, who made them and why?? Since a woodwork project in 3rd year in school I found these fascinating . And finally landing on the white continent Antarctica- an unreal place for its vast silent landscape and getting up close with its most famous inhabitants, the penguins! Watching some calving events on giant icebergs and glaciers. A world we are still learning so much about. With the negative ones, I don’t have many when it comes to travel. Maybe I was broke once, lost my bankcard, got lost or missed a bus but they were also positives in other ways, in every place there was another human willing to help. Even if they had nothing themselves or didn’t speak your language. It just shows that 99.9% of people the world over are the same and just want positive experiences, another reason to get you off the couch and travel. Admittedly again I have been very lucky, I have never been assaulted or robbed while on a trip. Even if I had, that could happen on a Saturday night in Dublin or Carlow. I think that speaks volumes of the human race, of all the trips and countries and nothing. Just take the usual care and be a bit respectful and you will be grand 99 times out of 100.
(Photo: A lion chilling in Kruger national Park - South Africa)
12. The single biggest thing you have learned about yourself from traveling?
I dunno, maybe a bit of ego death. People can put it down to leaving your fish bowl, being outside of your comfort zone, engaging with different people with different views, some who don’t like your views or even you and coming to terms with that or even awareness brought on by experiencing ritual or psychedelic substances in different parts of the world. Maybe it is all of the above. I dunno. Travel has humbled me, at times broke me and other times gave me great confidence in myself. Learning to adapt to meeting other people and being in different situations and then in turn understanding more about yourself and maybe what narrow views I had, even if within the sphere I had been living weren’t considered narrow.
(Photo: At the Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
13. Do you take out travel insurance for your trips or an annual policy?
It depends, most years I have had the privilege of knowing what months I can travel and what months I can’t – My rule of thumb is if you have more than 3 trips a year planned or expected –just take a 12-month plan out. It works out almost the exact same. And honestly, the slightest issue and it will pay for itself. For example, one time I took a two-week trip and my bags didn’t arrive until 48 hours later – not a huge thing but I would have had to buy clothes as I had no clothes for those 2 days and after travelling for 15 hours in the ones I had on, I needed clothes. A quick look at my travel insurance, I realised I had a budget of 250 dollars to buy clothes if my bags hadn’t arrived after the first 12 hours, so I went and spent it – kept the receipts and got reimburse a week later. Basically it’s worth it, even for the simple things, that nearly paid my years insurance, albeit in clothes. That’s a simple thing, “medivac" situations are a lot more expensive –take out the insurance.
(Photo: Sea Lion on the beach - Galápagos Islands - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
14. Top tip for anyone on the fence about travel or changing their lifestyle?
PULL THE PLASTER! Book the flight, quit the job — just go! Honestly this is one I can’t stress enough, probably the thing I have learned most about travelling. The anxiety and nervousness you feel booking the flight, quitting your job, being alone somewhere else literally evaporates as soon as you land where you are going. You have too much other things going on to even think about how you felt about that worry. Admittedly I have done all of the above with my partner Dee but one thing we both agree on is lone travellers find it far easier to meet people than couples or groups of friends. Also the more you put yourself out of your comfort zone the more you become comfortable — in any situation. Travel has shaped me into a more confident person but in a different way than I was before, not like you're partying social butterfly way. I think I am more confident doing the things I actually want to do, more understanding of other people, their traits, personalities and ways of life than I was before. Now you can alSo put a lot of that down to growing up but I really don’t think I would have had the same tolerance or acceptance otherwise. Or the confidence I have in myself to survive, make friends and enjoy life in a way I didn’t have before.
(Photo: "In the Clouds" On our way to Mount Everest Base Camp - Nepal - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
15. Are there any key career/work skills have you learned from traveling?
Yeah look, I’m not an Instagram blogger or a travel guru trying to make a living from it, that is not my scene, although I like sharing my travels with family and friends on FB because that is the main medium I keep in contact with home and other friends travelling. I’m sure a lot of people might throw that in here at this section in this day and age but for me the things that have and can benefit me most from travelling in my work life is literally, like I said above, being more accepting of other people’s cultures and situations and being more approachable — a thing I needed to work on quite a bit when I first left home.
(Photo: Flamingos at a lake in the outback - Bolivia - Irish Bootstrapper Blog)
16. Are there any travel related resources online or offline that you really like/use/recommend? (books, podcasts, websites, bloggers etc)
An oldie but a goodie – Lonely Planet books, even their website. Trip adviser is also really good for firsthand experience from people. I also subscribe to and have attended the Banff Radical Reels website and road show — it’s all based around the Banff film festival for adventure folk who make mini docos about their adventures in all kinds of outdoor and travelling adventures. The radical reels version tours the world annually putting on a series of short films, usually 6 or 7 in one night, in cinemas or outdoor areas around the world. It is great for inspiration and giving you that “what are you doing with your life” fire in the belly. Anything to do with Jimmy Chin, loads of docos online from him, an adventurer and film maker. Honestly also Netflix has some great docos in every genera for anyone considering a holiday or extended trip.
17. Do you use any travel apps when booking travel or when you arrive?
Yes, most are well known though. Booking.com for accommodation, even in the most remote places, you would be surprised their reach. Skyscanner.com is unreal for flights. Look if you are in Asia, a lot of street vendor, single counter to the street places, can get you really good deals too — but for universal coverage these have been great. Buses in Central or South America use busbud.com – Hostelworld.com is also really good. But if you want some advice, book only your first night on these apps. When you get there, talk to the owner, nine times out of ten they will give you cheaper rates for the following nights because they won’t have to pay on the commission to these companies. Especially in poorer countries, it might only save you a couple of dollars but it means so much to them.
18. Where are you off to next?
Back to Australia next week, work is a calling!! The bank balance is low and as nice as the last 14 months was the thoughts of routine and normal life again is needed. For Now!
(Photo: The sun rise behind the Moai Statues on Easter Island)
If you have an interesting story about travel/adventure, please get in touch with us.
Also, keep an eye and ear out for the new Series of The Bootcast podcast coming very soon!