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2018 Highlights, 2019 Plans

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
Mary Oliver (The Summer Day)

2018; another year of memories gathered, activities enjoyed and goals achieved. In some ways it was more of a transitional year, a soft landing leading from constant travel in Benny to a return to a more rooted existence. House-sits and WorkAways helped reconnect us to the idea of motionless living. We regained the love of sitting still, of being a part of a small community. Of creating use from objects, of honest labour, productive acts, holding local knowledge. The coming year has much to live up to.

TMB Day 8 (Enjoying the downhill)

Annecy - (first view of lake)

Everything in our recent travels had been generalisation. We had spent little time anywhere, passing through and glimpsing only a sliver of the life of each place. One blurred facet of one afternoon, one small portion of a village or town, and yet we reacted and drew conclusions from the visit. We judged, we opined, we decided our mood and experience based on the scantest of evidence, the whims of the weather. Destinations were deemed perfect, poor, terrible or terrific on the strength of that short, solitary instant. We jumped to thin, creative judgements of boastful self-indulgence. Our experiences were unique to us, to that time, and, in all honesty, tell others nothing of true value of the place or the people we encountered. These travel-through screenshots represent a momentary mirage, an insubstantial connection as we rudely, uninvited, threaded our lives into those of locals. Nothing is complete, nothing lasts, no description by any tourist day-tripper can capture a place with dependable emotion and clarity.

Our House - (from the pool)

Now, we were settled. We have a base, a home. We are able to make longer judgement on an area, our area, no longer reliant on tentative and superficial first impressions. We no longer need to be presumptuous. We can creep below the surface and uncover a new layer of reality, a deeper understanding beyond the trivial veneer we normally witness. We are no longer only travellers, but residents, and have the right to both observe and absorb at leisure.

Our days are filled with a different type of experience. Different dreams.

Lake Vassiviere (swim exit)

Key highlights of 2018

Completed several house-sits and WorkAway projects, befriending great new people and learning new skills
Attended and completed our first SwimRun event at Lake Vassivière, France
Hiked the Tour du Mont Blanc, a 180km multi-day trek through three countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)
Crossed the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world near Zermatt, Switzerland
Bought a home in south-west France, to be our new regular base for future travels.
Participated in three 10km races in the wine regions of northern Spain and two more locally in southern France
Spent the days before Christmas soaking up the festive atmosphere in Paris

Paris (eiffel tower lit at night)

Key goals for 2019

To run my first marathon, with a finishing time starting with a 3. A 16-week training schedule is underway and going well so far. The distance and the time are both feeling achievable, barring injury or other catastrophe. We will see.

To write better, focused pieces, deeper dives into the meaning of travel, beginning with a new Medium account. The focus will be on improving the storytelling rather than simple diary posts following our daily travel exploits. I’m also writing a draft of my first novel, to see where the process takes me, even if the final product is unusable and flawed.

Additional time is to be given over to painting, specifically line & wash watercolours. I’m tentatively considering that the novel above could evolve into an illustrated graphic novel, but time, technique and talent may have a say on that outcome. My aim is to produce paintings I would be contented to see hanging on our new French walls.

To complete all the on-going projects around our new French home. Alongside the typical DIY works, I hope to build a few detailed furniture pieces, design and construct several stained glass windows, and plant a fruit tree orchard. All new skills to learn.

To continue to travel around Europe, with shorter trips to north eastern Spain, Cote d’Azur and the Italian Dolomites already planned, and others under consideration. We are also looking at trips further afield, a few flights of fancy to faraway lands.

DAY 11 - Brevents panorama

Brantome - (panorama)

Randa (Bridge Panorama)

Haro - (panorama)

We have nothing but time, yet we never seem to have enough. To paraphrase The Great Gatsby, life may well be much more successful when looked at through a single window, but we don’t want to sign up to the limitations that implies. We don’t want to expend all our energy on the pursuit of only one goal. We want to dabble in everything that interests us, and that includes many subjects. We may not be capable of achieving brilliance at any one activity without focused dedication, but that’s okay. Enjoying a taste of many things won’t bring excellence, but it will bring interest, satisfaction and stave off boredom. We dabble at kayaking, cycling, running, skiing, open water swimming, chess, free-diving, painting, furniture-making, woodworking, quizzing, gardening, cooking, writing, mountain climbing, guitar playing, piano, beer brewing, sketching, poetry, photography, mathematics, astronomy, theatre, scuba-diving, movies, learning languages, and blogging. We read biographies, science journals, logic manuals, graphic novels, contemporary fiction, Arctic exploration histories, travel monologues, legal opinions, and everything in between. And long may our thirst for the new continue.

We want to be generalists, not specialists. And we want to continue to explore every avenue we can.

A&N x

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Spain – Haro & La Rioja pueblos cycle

The weather was an uninviting grey, cold and windy, at first light.  In no hurry, we waited a few hours until the rising sun worked its magic on the thin clouds and removed the morning chill. On bikes we tried to leave Casalarreina on a marked, signed route, but as is often the case, the hardest part of any new trail is finding the start.  There were many signs in many directions, but none seemingly pointing the way of the correct route we wanted to follow.

Haro - (nicky cycles past vines)

Haro - (countryside cycle)

With a photo of the route map we ignored the finger posts and backed ourselves instead, and soon we were on empty gravel tracks, enclosed by red-green vines and feeling fully immersed in an ancient Spanish countryside. Dusty hillsides stood tall wrapped with patches of deep green foliage and below them wide fields varying from green to yellow to brown, depending on current use.  Neat rows of box vines, aflame with oranges and reds, lit up the flat, monotone landscape. Church bell towers stood tall, distinctive silhouettes on distant hillsides, helpfully marking each coming village on our chosen wine route cycle.

We passed through each small settlement in turn, circling their proud churches and making the local dogs bark manically. Zarratón, then Rodezno, then Ollauri to Gimileo.  Each village was strategically positioned on a natural, curved mound set above the flat plain, and each brought a warming, breath-stealing hill-climb up followed by a fun, sweeping descent back down the opposite side.

Haro - (tasting the grapes)

Haro - (vines and cut bunches)

Tiny black grapes hung in huge bunches from vines, them smaller than blueberries.  Most grapes had already been harvested, but some remained, whether left or missed.  We tasted a few, and they were sweeter than expected, tiny bursts of juice but with pips that were a quarter of the grape.  The route ahead was cut up in deep ridges and very steep in places, a portent for our upcoming run in similar terrain.

After 15km or so, we were approaching the main town of Haro.  Dating from 1040 CE, historic Haro is the capital of the La Rioja region.  It was scruffy on first approach, sprawling and flat with constant lines of single-storey commercial premises, and from the viewpoint of our bikes it was unclear where the historic centre of town was.  We re-joined the road and eventually found signs directing us to the Centro that led us to the main church and then into the beautiful Plaza de la Paz. The town hall, all flags and wine barrels, defined one corner of this impressive, imposing square that featured an ornate bandstand in the centre.

Haro - (nicky in bandstand)

Haro - (Town hall and wine barrels)

There were a series of bronze statues representing, even glorifying, ordinary local jobs, from shoe-shiner to goat-milker to grape-crusher to wine-bottler.  Roundabouts were decorated with giant barrels and bunches of grapes, the motifs of wine-making always in plain sight, leaving no doubt as to the town’s primary occupation. It reminded us a little of Chateauneuf-de-Pape, in its single-minded approach to promoting its famous wares.

We cycled to the other side of the river where many of the regional producers had visitor centres huddled together. One vineyard’s posh tasting room had been designed by the office of the late Zaha Hadid, so we had to check that out in passing.  We stayed on this side of the river and followed a small irrigation canal back west, through more expansive rows of colourful grapevines. This route led us through Anguciana then into Cihuri, with its old abandoned bridge, once maintained for passing pilgrims by the local monastery.

Nicky suffered another puncture on our return to the outskirts of Casalarreina. Unfixable, we walked back, thankful we weren’t far from Benny.  This likely spelled the end of our cycling on this trip, at least until we reach a larger town with a shop where we can buy a repair kit or spare tubes; we checked the local supermarket to no avail. Kids were playing football in the sports centre adjacent to the aire, but took their frantic, energetic noise back home at dinner time, leaving us again to pass a quiet night in the drooping shade of the tall willow trees.

A&N x

Spain – Guernica & Gorbeiako Parke Naturala

We slept well after our night run in Bilbao and lazily packed up to head the 35 minutes east to visit the rebuilt town of Guernica, or Gernika in the local language.   The morning was light with clear skies, making bright a town with a tormented history.  Not many historic buildings remain due to extent of bombing raids during the Spanish Civil War.

Guernika - Nicky on bridge

Guernika (Henry Moore Sculpture)

Guernika (Central cathedral)

We reached the Parque de los pueblos de Europa, where we walked on leafy paths by a trickling stream, ending in a grassy meadow where several sculptures sat. Henry Moore and local Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida had both created works to pay homage to the trials of the people of Guernica.  The Moore sculpture was an abstract figure wrapped in shell-like shapes, representing the deep instinct of individuals to seek comfort, refuge, protection, refuge, the primordial urge to feel safe.  It seemed poignantly appropriate.  We passed the cathedral and market square, mostly untouched in the bombings, and walked through the currently empty market square, gently exploring at a slow pace.

Guernika (main square)

We visited the Assembly House of Gernika, the historical seat of Basque power since the Middle Ages.  The highest governing body in the region, the Assembly House is seen as a living symbol of the history of the Basque people.  Its oval Assembly meeting room, plush with red cushioned benches and portraits of previous leaders, is where Plenary meetings of the current General Assembly occur.  Outside, the Tree of Gernika, a symbolic oak tree, is planted within a small formal garden in front of a neo-classical portico.  The ceiling of a large function room tells the history of the oak tree and how it is intrinsically connected to the Basque people, as a place of meeting and discussion.

The old trunk, planted around 1700 CE, is the oldest surviving remains of previous tree incarnations.  It was replaced by a successor in 1860, and that tree lived through two World Wars and a Civil War, surviving until 2015.   The trunk of the old tree, the one planted in 1860 and survivor of the bombing raids, is now stood proud within a circular stone portico in the grounds.  A new tree replacing this historic one was planted in 2015, at 15 years old, as a symbolic continuation of the Basque spirit, renewed by each new generation, but never changing nor faltering.

Guernika (Stained Glass ceiling)

We had thought to overnight in Gurnika and see the celebrated Monday morning market, but it was still early and we didn’t feel the love for the car-park aire, so we headed off south.  We stopped briefly in Artea for a bite of lunch, where we were bravely approached by two 8yo Spanish girls curious about us, and after our first greetings in Spanish we had them practising simple English (Where are you from?  What is your name?) with us.  Less than a mile later we stopped again in Areatza, walking along the river through a pretty square to visit a tourist office that was unhelpfully closed until 4pm. So again, back in Benny and through steep-sided rolling countryside bright with rusty autumn colourings, similar to Limousin where we now live, except with fields here were full of sheep rather than cows.  We reached Gorbeiako Parke Naturala on tiny, single track roads, expecting the visitor centre parking to be empty.  Instead, it was mostly full, with dog and hillwalkers, campers, motorhomers and picnickers all around the ample parking area.  After some deliberation we choose a spot and parked up, then visited the Interpretation Centre for a look at their exhibits.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (a brief moment of sunshine)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (valley view)

Late at night we could hear jangling bells, and although we could see nothing in the darkness we assumed a large wind chime must be hung in the trees nearby.  We could see no sign of anything in the morning light and it was much later that we decided it may have been a flock of rogue sheep sneaking around, as the flocks on the hills all made similar sounds.  Today we planned to climb to Gorbeia, the natural park’s highest point at 1482m.  We were parked at around 640m, so we only had an ascent of around 850m to contend with.

The route was a rather dull path, a driveable, gravel road for most of the way,  and low cloud prevented us seeing much of a view.  We grasped occasional glimpses of the tree-lined valleys to each side during short breaks in the cloud cover, but only for a few seconds at a time.  We passed a few hardy long-haired horses and a lot of grazing sheep, many wearing the tinkling bells we had heard throughout the night. Combined with the browning bracken, pine trees, prickly gorse bushes with small yellow-flowers and tiny, budding purple crocuses, this could have been any mountain slope in Scotland or Ireland.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (summit trig point)

Nearing the top, the cloud got thicker, visibility dropped to tens of metres and an icy wind blasted us from the west.  We added our windproof coats, hats and with hoods up we were still shivering under the wind’s viscous assault.  Exposed and feeling battered, we spent short seconds at the summit, pausing only for a hurried photo with the decorative trig point set below a metal tower structure, then began a hasty descent. Within minutes we escaped the bank of dense cloud and regained solace from the harsh wind, allowing us to begin warming up again.  We jogged short stretches to ease wear on our knees and to aid the warming process.  This descent, by the same route, was memorable only for us finally seeing our first other walkers of the day, near the bottom of the trail – three men with walking poles and wicker baskets, and we thought them likely to be mushroom hunters.

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (aaron in trees)

Gorbeiako Parke Naturala (the forest)

The centre had told us the walk would be 3.5 hours to the top, and similar to return, but because we didn’t linger, we were up and back in well under four hours.  We enjoyed a well-earned lazy afternoon in Benny, snug away from the wind. A later short pre-dinner walk led us to discover a nearby area of beautifully expressive and wild beech trees, long-fingered, knotted and gnarly, photos of which had initially brought us to this park.  We had nearly missed them, yet they stood in all their wonderful, twisted majesty, set in a thick blanket of crispy copper leaves, only metres behind where we had parked.

A&N x

A Liebster Award nomination – Zen and the art of new blog appreciation

LiebsterAward

Out of the blue we were nominated for a Liebster Award by Jane at bonvanageblog.com

Many thanks to Jane for introducing us to the concept and handing us the opportunity to ramble on at length about things that interest us with no need to feel (too) self-conscious of our indulgence.  Jane & Tim write a travel blog with a similar theme to ours, all about their travels in Europe in a motorhome – please click through and give them a visit.

One set task of the process was to ‘spread the blog love’ and nominate other blogs for the Liebster Award. We are not prolific followers of other blogs, or at least not ones that are just starting out.  There is only one blog that we currently follow that qualifies for being nominated for this Liebster AwardLiving this Life Out Loud so we will call out to Julie to see if she is interested in continuing the tradition and passing on the ‘blog love’.  If we come across any other blogs we will return and update this post to expand its reach.

UPDATE 2:  Julie posted her Liebster Award response post here – check it out. 

UPDATE 1:  We’ve spent a lazy morning with a cup of tea and, whilst being lovingly nuzzled by a well-fed cat, managed another look through blogs we follow and discovered a few more worthy candidates to celebrate:

Motorhome Moments  –  Meet Richard & Kate, currently chasing the winter sun

Followourmotorhome  –  Meet Andi & Paul as they motorhome around Europe in Boris

And to finish, here are two other blogs, that we find inspiring and hope you will too

Paddleagainstplastic – Cal, Jack and Zoe

In their own words, they are “Inspiring positive environmental change through adventure”.  We very much appreciate their passion, drive and commitment to their goals and the sentiments behind it as they help clean up the seas around one of our favourite parts of the UK – the Scottish Western Isles.  Please read their blog and support their efforts.

Groundwerk – Heath Johnson

Although this blog doesn’t quite comply due to already having a few too many followers, I’m bending the rules a little to add it in, as the motivation and effort inspires us.  Heath is walking thousands of kilometres across Europe, from Spain to Cyprus, to raise money for three very worthwhile charities.  Have a read, follow and donate if you can.

Thanks for reading.  Our questions and answers follow below:



What country, city or continent would you most like to visit and why
Continent – Antarctica, as it’s the most inaccessible and the last on our wonderful pale blue dot we are yet to visit.  We love the history of all things related to polar exploration (especially loved a visit to the Polar museum in Tromso).  Seeing penguins in their natural habitat is a long-held dream, a visit to Scott’s hut near McMurdo would be spectacular, along with the opportunity to stand at the South Pole.

Country – Currently we would choose to visit Madagascar, for the varied wildlife, jungle and mountain terrains and the fusion of South-East Asian and African culture.  It has long been on our list, so we’ll hopefully make a visit soon.

What was the most inspirational time in your life so far
This is utterly impossible to answer, even with the benefit of hindsight and time.  Certain individuals from my school and university days taught me the potential for living a life beyond what I originally thought was possible for a poor boy from the backstreets of Northern Ireland.  Growing to understand the size, scale and breadth of available paths through life were the first steps in grasping what is potentially achievable.  Opening up the world, through snippets of conversation, books and old maps led to taking tentative exploratory steps and to daring to dream bigger dreams.  But meeting Nicky on those terrible, rainy roads of Russia, a like-minded partner-in-fun with a similarly deep passion for sporting activities and travel, was likely my most inspirational moment.  She opened up another huge aspect of the world to me, sharing adventures, and has been inspiring and pushing me on ever since.

What are you passionate about?
The values of Humanism; equality, honesty, inclusiveness, critical thinking and the reliance on evidence over wishing.  Being treated fairly and treating others with the same courtesy.  Understanding the obvious fact that we get only one ride, one shot at this glorious, incredible life or ours.  We have the precious gift of consciousness for such a short moment; to miss this single, fleeting opportunity to fully live would be asinine.  Making sure we don’t waste it drives us.  We’re passionate about facts, evidence, reason, logic, truth. We’re fervent about the intellectual simplicity and elegant beauty of science, a guiding light of rationality in the expansive dark sea of superstition and ignorance.

We are passionate about living life.  We love the natural world, its ecology and conservation, and searching for our place within it alongside all other creatures.  We love the open spaces, the wild countryside, and living the active outdoors life the Scandinavians like to call friluftsliv.  We are passionate about reading, learning, seeing and experiencing new things, having an active, inquisitive mind, exploring both the physical and the cultural aspects of any given place.  We love mountains, the buzz of a hard-earned peak or the after-glow from a long trail run.  We care deeply for our fitness and our health, ensuring the longevity of our adventures through sensible body management, exercise and diet.  We love cooking and eating, exercise and resting, reading and writing, playing and listening to music, chilling and dancing.

What is your favourite book and why?
We read so many, in such a range of topics and genres that it’s incredibly difficult to pick out true favourites.  I’ve picked out four that jumped to mind, though I’ll no doubt think of twenty books I prefer more than these just as soon as I post, but here goes:

Paul Auster – New York Trilogy, as a study in timing, threads of coincidence and meaning, of loss and grief, acceptance of fate or driving desires, a complicated, exceptionally written book for those willing to give it the time it needs to sink in.
JRR Tolkien –
Lord of the Rings, as the definitive fantasy book, with the history and story and deep characterisation that defines the genre.  A far-reaching story of sacrifice, strength and defiance of evil, the only book I have re-read on more than one occasion.
Paul Theroux – The Happy Isles of Oceania,
as both a travel book (kayaking around the south Pacific islands) but also as a study in dealing with grief and loss as he comes to terms with his marriage break-up.  Moving and inspiring on many levels.
Jostein Gaarder –
Sophie’s World, as a beautiful, accessible story-telling way to tiptoe readers into the complicated history of developed thought and philosophical musings, assisting future understanding and the development of key thought-processes.

What is your favourite time of year?
Long days of dry, sweet warmth, the summer sun soaking into your skin on long mountain hikes and cooling river swims.  Crisp autumn days, bright with burnt yellows and deep red colours, on leafy paths under empty blue skies.  A hard day’s skiing, followed by a winter-time roaring fire and a glass of warm mulled wine as the snow falls gently, soft and white, outside your frost-marked windows. A budding spring as the weather finally turns, holding the vast potential for growth yet to come, us out cycling under pleasant, clear skies as the countryside awakens from the chilly frost and returns to green.  Each season holds its own wonder, each turn of the clock brings something new.  There are no favourite times, just favourite experiences.

What other interests do you have besides blogging
I’m not sure blogging is a real interest, but more a way to keep in touch with people at home and a vehicle to help us remember where we’ve been and what we’ve seen.  But it has been a good way to meet other like-minded people, and to feel in some small part a member of a large community, from a blogging, a travel-writing or a motorhoming perspective.  There is such diversity across each discipline, and this has opened up a new range of insights, ideas and opportunities to us.

Our main interests are plentiful; cycling, hiking, running, wild swimming, kayaking, sketching, music, movies, literature, cooking, beer, wine and whisky.  We lead a relatively simple life, unencumbered by unnecessary material things but rich with time and experiences.

Do you prefer the beach or the mountains
We definitely prefer the mountains, but sea coasts are a close second.  Mountains can be cycled down, skied across and hiked all over, offering such a variety of vista and experience.  Beaches are, to us, a means to access the sea for swimming and kayaking, rather than a place to linger lazily for a day. We have enjoyed the odd day lying on a towel, soaking up rays and reading our books to the low murmur of gently-lapping waves, but it’s such a rarity when we want to do so.

Wide, flat beaches can be more appealing under a huge, brewing storm, with wild waves crashing high on the sand and a wind that blows you sideways.  A bracing walk in those conditions can shift cobwebs and build appetites.

Where did you go for your most memorable holiday
Even ignoring the last 15 months of travels in Benny, see our page on previous travels to outline how difficult such a question is to answer.  We have had so many wonderful and incredible experiences all over the world that picking just one memory from them all is impossible and would do a huge disservice to other equally-deserving destinations.

If we need to pick just one, we’ll single out our Greenland camping / kayaking trip for its glorious icy setting.

Do you prefer a sunny or a rainy day
Sunny days can be filled with anything, on rainy days you have only a few good options.  Sunny days offer all manner of possibility so will always be our preference.  To temper that, too much sun is beyond my useless, pale celtic skin to deal with, so scorching days in foreign climes can be quite limiting and repressive in many ways.  If I have a long run planned, then a light rain would be preferable to a hot sun, but warm and dry will always win out over grey and dull.

If you had a day all to yourself how would you spend it?
This depends on where we are and what the weather is doing, and what we’ve been up to recently.  Ideally – A lazy breakfast then a long walk or cycle in the morning, followed by a cooling swim in a calm, fresh lake.  Content with the day’s exercise, the afternoon would be baking bread or cakes, and reading our latest books with cups of tea as we awaited our masterpieces from the oven.  A local post-cake walk for some sketching or photography practise and then, with the sun set and dinner eaten, we’d open a bottle in front of a roaring fire and snuggle up to watch a movie.

What books have you been inspired by and why?
Adventure travel books in any genre always leave me wondering about how much more we should be out doing, how much harder and further we should aim and struggle for, before the twin curses of age and infirmity overcome us and deny us the opportunity.  Climbing multiple mountains, skiing across ice sheets, cycling or running around the world, swimming or kayaking around islands; what to do?  Our current life is wonderful, but is lived at a level we could still achieve 20 years from now, so should we now be pushing harder, ensuring we have reached the full potential of what we are truly capable of?  This is the telling question that often surfaces with book-led inspiration.

A short selection of books ranging over different interests:

Fearless –  (biograpjy of Freda Hoffmeister) – Joe Glickman
Blazing Paddles: A Scottish Coastal Odyssey
Brian Wilson
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Gerrard
Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know
– Ranulph Fiennes
Touching the Void – Joe Simpson
White Spider – Heinrich Harrer
Moods of Future Joys – Alistair Humphreys
Arabian Sands – Wilfred Thesiger
Force of Nature – Robin Knox-Johnston
Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

On an entirely different tack, quirky travelogue books of simple adventures also appeal to a different aspect of us, like A year in Provence, or Driving over Lemons.  But there is time yet in our future for such classic, relaxed living.

What would you say has been the biggest challenge of your current lifestyle?
Being patient and accepting of the loss of privacy and the cramped living quarters of a life in a motor-home.  We have daily differences on how things should be, and the sooner I learn to accept Nicky’s way is the right one, the easier my life will be. 😉  We gave up a lot to follow this lifestyle; the comfortable ease of our busy, professional lives and seeing friends and family, possessions and the easy comforts of home.  A large part of the challenge has been in accepting the loss of those things and now learning to ensure we make the very most of every moment we now have.

 What has been the biggest benefit of your chosen lifestyle?
Time; an embarrassment of time, so much that we waste far more than we ever would have before, and often don’t even feel guilty about it.  We can go where we like, or stay still, on our own schedule and daily whims.  It’s so liberating not to be squashing our many interests into mini-chunks of time scheduled in accordance with society’s expectations of us.  We are learning and experiencing more, being healthier and more active with every day we spend away from ours desks.  A life fulfilled.   A&N x


liebster-award

Liebster Award images appear courtesy of the Global Aussie – thanks.