It’s 3.30am and it’s the last morning of our six week holiday in Phuket. My wife and I have just spent a month at the Soi Dogs Foundation working at the Flight Volunteer programme and getting to know six wonderful dogs. Now comes the hard part.
There’s just enough time for a quick coffee before we meet the gang at Phuket International Airport and we’re off out the door.
We arrive, slightly late, but the dogs are on time (5am) and all the wonderful folk we know at Soi Dog Foundation are here, bleary-eyed but enthusiastic.
A few tears are shed (not sure if it’s for the dogs or us) and Soi Dog's General Manager Gregg sorts out the paperwork with the very helpful Bangkok Airways staff.
And they're off down the conveyor belt and somewhere in the back of my head I hear Bruce Forsyth shouting “Cuddly toy, cuddly toy,” but times six.
It’s not easy this, but you have to think of what lies ahead. A new loving home filled with new loving family and friends, with a nice cosy fire to curl up in front of at the end of a hard day’s play.
Saying goodbye to the team is emotional too, but they go on to continue the fantastic dedication to the dogs. This is just part of the reason we love and respect this organisation so much.
We hit Bangkok at 8.30am, all is well and ‘Paperwork part 2’ is dramatically reduced thanks to photocopies (the staff's machine seems to be at the other side of the airport), and the fact that we seem to be getting the hang of this.
Again, the staff are wonderful and I'm sure helped on by the fact that they somehow recognise us.
We watch our dogs being loaded on to the plane so now we get to relax a little before the fun and games begin again.
We arrive at Schipol Airport, Amsterdam at 6.30pm. The bags are collected and we wait for that now familiar sound of six barking dogs coming down the lift and attracting the attention of everybody in the process.
The KLM staff and airport security go above and beyond their duty – some are even Soi Dog followers, so know the story. We're helped through and Jack, our gentle Dutch giant, is waiting for us with a big smile and a question of “How do you manage six?”
We head for his ‘animal ambulance’ through the hustle and bustle and drive 45 minutes to Marjan, a lovely lady and her warm welcome. She gives up her home for six dogs and two people, who systematically poo, wee, chew and smash their way through the night.
Don't get me wrong, it's all a lovely experience. After a night’s ‘sleep’ and just when they are all settled and sleeping like little angels, we have to start to prepare to leave for the ferry at 11am.
It was then that Izzy and I got our own back by waking them up when they least expected it, the dogs mirroring our groans and yawns from hours before.
So,we're loaded into Jack's mean machine and we hit the road. Marjan waves us off in her clogs and three cornered hat and I settle down in the back keeping our pals safe and as stress free as I can for the next hour.
We arrive in plenty of time at Hook of Holland for the Stena Line ferry to Harwich, England. We say goodbye and thank our Dutch friends, without whom this would have been an impossible task.
The doggies’ passports and all the paperwork once again gets a good grilling, but then eventually we're let free to board.
We load the crates in the hold and we make the long trek up the slippery walkway, with our bags and dogs pulling the way! This bit is not easy! But eventually we get to the boat and then start the process of carrying the dogs one at a time up the stairs to their kennel.
It's a great little room with nice big kennels for each of them. We bed them down using everything very kindly provided by Stena, they've been to the loo and have water and a juicy bone in with them, then we find our haven.
After a bite to eat, we grab three hours sleep and prepare to offload. A quick check on channel six and we know our babies are fine. The boat has their own channel for keeping an eye on the gang.
We've docked at Harwich International Terminal and it's 8pm on day two. We have 30 minutes to get through customs and onto our train to Liverpool St. Station in London. As ever, the staff have been tremendous, helping us to the platform, which they really don't have to do, but it keeps our spirits up at a pretty low time, as exhaustion from lack of sleep and a keeping a constant eye open is really kicking in now.
Even so, we're trying for the Guinness World Record of carrying the most stuff with only four hands. We're up to six dogs, six crates (weighing 45 kilos), two big rucksacks, two small rucksacks and the obligatory ladies handbag.
On previous occasions we've been met by adopters here, but this time the first ‘drop off’ is London. So we manage to climb onboard with everything and everyone without acquiring a hernia.
We take up most of a quiet carriage, settle down for almost two hours and watch our furries react to Western life. It's amazing how well they cope actually – kept together with loads of cuddles and reassurance, think of how many firsts they've been through so far.
Liverpool St comes along and thankfully no toilet stops were required, phew! It's 11pm and it's time to meet the lovely folk who are about to change our furries’ lives. Always a wonderful bunch, caring, bursting with love (which makes our job of parting much easier than it could be).
We're all knackered and over emotional at this point,which is always helped by the London commuters heading home after "after work drinks" and showering affection on the hairy ones. Brilliant!
Tears are wiped away but you can't stop the machine so onward we go with the help now of the fantastic lady Niz, guiding us through the London underground in our state of sleepwalk to our next abode in Streatham, where a nice bottle of wine is awaiting and a warm cozy bed.
The three hour sleep curse has been lifted and we revel in a cuppa after a near normal night’s sleep. Then it's duty as normal and off for a quick run up the common to get rid of some of that pent up energy from the long journey.
Day three and 11am strikes. Niz tells us goodbye and we're off to King's Cross Train Station. This time we had some extra help from a kind lady called Charlotte, who dropped us off there to save going on the underground again.
While waiting, there are a million "aaahhs" and cuddles then we get settled for the three and a half hour journey to Sunderland in peace. Hardly anyone on the train so we just climbed up on the nice comfy seats and cuddled in.
By this time, you really have an amazing bond with the dogs, obviously a little stronger for us as we spent a long time in the shelter in Phuket working with the dogs that are travelling to build up trust.
This makes the whole process easier for them, so by this time, it's like superglue! This is where you have time again to reflect and try to get a grip while saying goodbye to the last ones. This is not easy.
Five o'clock arrives along with the train pulling into Sunderland train station where we meet our last adopters. It's a brilliant feeling when the second they see their dog, tears pour (not so good for me when the football game has just finished and we're surrounded by big hairy blokes and I’m trying to be hard).
Harnesses get pulled out, new leads, doggie coats, treats, water bowls, the lot! It’s then that you know your furry is going to a good home. Result!
It takes us a week to fully recover and in this time we look back at all our memories with our new friends and think about all the love and hard work that makes this happen in the first place.
We think that if we can save just one of man's best friends by working together, just think what else can be done in this wonderful life and on this wonderful planet.
This was Zat and Izzy’s third time working as Flight Volunteers. To find out more about being a Flight Volunteer at Soi Dogs, visit: www.soidog.org/en/be-a-flight-volunteer