Saturday, 22 May 2010

Island hopping and dragon spotting

Following a good few days relaxing on the island of Gili Trawangan we then set sail early one morning on a rickety old boat into the Indonesian Sea bound for (among other places) the island of Komodo. Komodo is home to the Komodo dragon – a huge prehistoric-looking monitor lizard that prowls the islands and is known to bring down and eat buffalo, deer and fellow dragons. The island has been in the running for the title of one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. Before we left Gili we had regularly been given the same two warnings about boat trips to Komodo: 1) The boats are very basic 2) Make sure boat operator’s safety standards are high as the seas can be treacherous. We would soon have 1) confirmed and as for 2) – the less said the better...

We left Gili for the larger island of Lombok and from there we were driven to the other side of the island to the port that our boat was leaving from, en route our tour guides loaded up the bus with food for our four day voyage: 50 pineapples, three giant bags of rice, plenty of noodles and three large sacks containing chickens (alive and flapping profusely inside the bags) - at least the food would be fresh!
Fresh food...

Elizabeth and I couldn’t help but laugh at the comparison of sailing in Indonesia with sailing in Australia. When we went on a one day boat trip in Oz the crew spent 40 mins explaining in precise detail where everything was, where we could and couldn’t stand, procedures for each type of emergency etc etc (in ridiculous detail to be honest). Contrast that to our arrival on the boat in Indonesia. The guide stood up and said: “Hello, my name Lim. Only I speak English – please no speak anyone else on boat for information. Please no fleep-flops on boat.....ok let’s go”. If there were any lifejackets on board we certainly didn’t see them.

Our rather basic home for four days

Sunset on the water

It was of course all funny rather than concerning but one memorable moment came the first evening. I went to the toilet and as I stood crouched over in a tiny cabin trying to use the loo the boat came suddenly to a halt (as though it had hit something). I went flying, the light in the toilet went out and the chickens in the kitchen went crazy. I emerged from the toilet to find that our captain had ran us aground a mile or so offshore onto a sand bank – two of the crew had to get out and literally push the boat back into deeper water!

Some views of the Indonesian Sea

After all the initial excitement we sailed along the northern coast of a group of Indonesian islands for three days, heading east towards Komodo. We stopped regularly to go snorkelling, climb a waterfall, watch as bats (Flying Foxes) came to life at sunset, go fishing and all sorts of other things. Since we were on the backpacker boat things were quite basic and we all had to sleep on deck for the three nights which was a bit uncomfortable but also added to the whole experience - Elizabeth woke up one night soaked in water due to torrential rain and huge waves pounding the boat.

The last part of the trip involved exploring the islands of Komodo and Rinca (Komodo dragons live on both). We didn’t get up close to any dragons in Komodo (we saw one in the distance, patrolling the beach close to where a wild pig mysteriously disappeared moments later...) We saw lots of Komodo dragons in Rinca (as prehistoric looking in the flesh as we imagined), as well as water buffalos, monkeys, cockatoos, jungle fowl (chickens) and other animals. The islands could both be mistaken for Jurassic Park sets - the scenery was very cool.

Feeling the heat on Komodo

Feeling refreshed in a salt-water lake, the result of an infamous Indonesian tsunami flooding 
a volcano crater over 100 years ago

Our last night saw the demise of the chickens – I turned the corner to see one of our crew pinning down a chicken and another guy with a giant meat cleaver. Being in a Muslim country they were killed using the Halal method – not pretty. That said, since it was the first meat any of us had had in four days no one was too emotionally attached to the chickens.

The main attraction...

Saying farewell to our group

After Komodo and Rinca we spent some time on an idyllic beach and then sailed to our final destination, a port town called called Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores where we are now. Yesterday Elizabeth and I decided to catch a boat to another, more remote island off the north Flores coast where we spent the day and night relaxing before we head back to Bali tomorrow (on a mammoth 36 hour bus-ferry combo). It’s been a nice way to end our Indonesian stint - the island had only a few bungalows along the beach front and the sea was crystal clear.
The views on arrival, perfect for R&R!

We really enjoyed the Komodo boat tour, the only downside was that out of the 18 backpackers that were onboard about 14 came down with a nasty eye infection, and I happen to be one of them. First time I’ve been ill since we started travelling though so I can’t complain too much.

Anyway, back to Bali tomorrow then onward to Singapore. The question is where next....?

Transport en route to refuel - McDonalds!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Monkeys, rice padis and castaway islands – we’ve landed in Asia

Our first port of call in Asia is Indonesia. Indonesia is a country with over 17,500 islands, slap bang on the equator it is fourth in the world in terms of population (after China, India and USA) and is the world’s largest Muslim country. It also has one of the most diverse eco-systems on the planet and is home to a tree-kangaroo, a frog with no lungs (it breathes through its skin) and the orang-utan (which we’re hoping to see!) as well as much more.

Our room - first night in Indonesia

From Darwin (a very small, hot and humid Australian city) we decided to opt for a few days in the cultural centre of Bali – Ubud - instead of the drunken Aussie filled beaches of the south! Bali, in particular Ubud, was a brilliant entrance point into Asia. The island of Bali is predominately Hindu which in itself is fascinating as it sits in a Muslim country. Every day walking around Ubud we saw offerings to the Hindu gods being made, the smell of incense was always present and the ornate temples scattered around the town were very impressive. After all the over-priced Australian and New Zealand backpacker hostels we happily found ourselves staying at an immaculate complex of bungalows with infinity pool in front and a bright green rice padi at the back – all for about a quarter of the price of a dorm bed!

The view of the rice terraces


On one of our five days in Ubud we took a walk to a sacred monkey forest at one end of town – imagine a tropical forest complete with temples and a few hundred local monkeys. We were both fascinated by how human they behaved – combing and grooming each other, fighting over bananas and protective mothers keeping a close eye on their mischievous off-spring.

I signed up (and dragged Tom) to a couple of hardcore yoga and pilates classes (very amusing watching him stand in various ballet positions all in the name of good posture). Also with almost every other shop offering massages we couldn’t resist and booked ourselves in for full body massages complete with warm bath filled with flowers to relax in afterwards – Tom thought he was in heaven!

From Bali we took a boat trip to the Gili islands just off the coast of Bali’s neighbouring island Lombok. Gili Trawangan is known for being a laidback, hedonistic island - it is a castaway-type place with awesome snorkelling, crystal clear water and we’re staying in a bungalow run by a local family spanning four generations.

There are no cars or motorbikes on the island (which is the opposite of bustling Bali) so instead they use pony-drawn carts (it’s a tropical version of Zermatt!). One other noticeable difference between here and Bali (and South America) is the apparent lack of stray dogs, instead the island is populated by very slim versions of my mum’s tabby cat Milly (RIP). Trying to sleep through the nearby mosque’s morning call to prayer has been interesting but definitely adds to the island’s exotic feel.
"Gili Milly"

First impressions of Asia have been good to say the least.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Final Frontier - Western Australia

We spent a couple of days in Perth where we managed to meet up with one of my school friends and checked out what seems to be one of Australia’s most relaxed cities. Setting off from Perth in our second campervan of the trip we knew we had some very long drives ahead of us. Bearing in mind that Australia is pretty much equal in size to the whole of Europe, with the state of Western Australia taking up almost half of that, we embarked on a mammoth 10-day jaunt. 
The long open road

Any idea what these animals are?!

One of our overnight stops

First highlight was a world heritage area called Shark Bay which is home to a small bay called Monkey Mia. We knew that the area was popular with wild dolphins living off the west coast in the warm Indian Ocean and were lucky enough one morning to arrive at the bay in time to feed them. Actually seeing the dolphins up close and personal was incredible as they paddled in the shallow water waiting for their morning snack of fish. The rangers in charge were really informative telling us about the different families that the dolphins were part of and how they get themselves out of tricky situations with the not so friendly Tiger sharks - nearly all the dolphins had scars from shark attacks and sharks regularly come into the bay and swim around the snorkelers!

Our next port of call was much further up the coast, a town called Exmouth. We’d already booked ourselves onto a Whale shark tour as it’s currently the season for Whale sharks to feed off the coast before they return to Asia. Unfortunately what could have been a highlight of our entire trip - swimming with the largest fish in the sea - was actually a huge disappointment and to cut a long story short the day was a disaster! Firstly everyone (us included) suffered from terrible sea-sickness and then every time a shark was spotted by one of the overhead planes, our boat arrived too late and just as the shark had dived down into the ocean therefore impossible to swim with. So as we were both thoroughly disappointed we checked into a holiday park and treated ourselves to a hot shower (bliss!)

Our next stop was a couple of hours back down the coast to Coral Bay, a cute holiday town (village) with a stunning beach fringed by the Ningaloo Reef - a rival to the Great Barrier Reef. We collapsed on the beach, slept, read and swam with the fish which was just what we needed to boost our spirits!

Our final destination was a good full day’s drive away - the Karijini National Park. Karijini is similar to the Ayers Rock area, bright red soil and nothing other than wide open scenery that spreads for hundreds of miles.

We headed to one of the park’s camping sites in time for sunset and spent the following two days adventuring into the wilderness. The park is known for its huge gorges, waterfalls and watering holes which were all picture perfect and certainly kept Tom snapping away.
Piffy on a rock bun...

Lazing around on the rocks, wading and swimming through the water pools we really had time to enjoy a more off-the-beaten-track side of Australia.
My very own natural hot tub!

Unfortunately we did encounter a flat tyre (which neither of us really knew what to do about what with Tom only having passed his test before we left home and me, well being me) but of course there was a helpful Aussie trucker who guided us through the process (and probably had a good snigger about how useless the English are!)

and finally...!