Category Archives: Travel

Kicking around Krakatoa

When a merry band of colleagues departed from Surabaya airport for an adventure into the wilds of Indonesia I don’t think any of us anticipated exactly how the adventure would go. We had arranged a trekking and snorkeling trip to visit Anuk Krakatoa, the child of the famous volcano that erupted in 1883, obliterating the surrounding area and sending shock waves around the world. Anuk Krakatoa and its surrounding islands are the remains of the three original volcanoes, and are situated between Java and Sumatra.

Getting there, as with everywhere in Indonesia, was a bit of a mission. A late night pickup from Jakarta airport (seriously one of the worst airports in the world, you spend almost as long taxiing as you do flying to get there!) lead to us all piling into a small people carrier with our driver, guide and luggage to take a break neck, four hour journey to the north west coast of Java, where our tour would begin.

Manoeuvring Jakarta’s famous traffic was not a problem at that time of night but Indonesian roads are not smooth and random potholes, people and traffic can cause sudden breaking and a bumpy ride. I was seated in the middle with no seat belt and I know the speedo hit 120km on a number of occasions. Obviously I didn’t sleep, even though it was the middle of the night, as I was permanently braced for impact.

Of course, that also meant I could witness the eerie, alien landscape of the chemical processing plants that line the northern coast of Java. Illuminated, futuristic factories spewing out god knows what into the environment made me feel like I was entering a sci-fi movie rather than the action-adventure I was hoping for.

We got to our destination in good time (not surprisingly at that speed) and collapsed into our insalubrious accommodation at about 3am. We took little notice of our location at the time but in the morning we discovered we were holed up in a house on a semi deserted housing estate. Apparently, many of these second homes were empty because relatives did not know the owners had them when they passed away. Hasn’t anyone heard of a will? Still, our place was comfortable enough and was only a pit stop before we headed to the port later that morning to catch our boat out for our volcanic island adventure.

The port was actually a small pier opposite a popular seaside playground offering pumping techno and banana-boat rides at 8am. Our guide, Bonsai, got us all on board and we were on our way, heading west towards the Indian Ocean and Krakatoa.

Bumping along for a couple of hours was fun at first but quickly got nauseating, especially when combined with petrol fumes, rocky seas and regular drenching as the waves over took us. The weather was not perfect and necessitated a change in our itinerary right from the beginning, which ultimately created a very memorable trip.

Our first stop was to snorkel off Badul Island coral reef. The water was crystal clear, if a tad cool, and the reef was very interesting, teaming with tropical fish of all sizes and colours. Many I had seen before on my adventures around Bali and Lombok but the reef was none the worse for that and there were spots of colourful coral and some new varieties to wonder at. The reefs around Indonesia are suffering the same fate as others with much damage and bleaching occurring. Our guides were mindful when it came to anchoring and warning us not to touch the coral, and a greater awareness is growing in the tourism community about saving their beautiful environments, but they are a small minority and a great deal of damage has already been done. While there was much less litter in the waters here than around Bali and the Gillis the coral is by no means pristine.

After a fried chicken lunch we headed to our accommodation on the island. We were only there long enough to dump our bags and admire an amorous peacock that took a great liking to our party, before heading to Unjung Kulon to go hunting for Java rhino. Don’t get me wrong. The only shooting would be with a camera, if we were even lucky enough to find one as they are the rarest rhino in the world, but it was a lovely opportunity to take a boat ride through some tropical forest and see what we could see.

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Having arrived on the island we were eventually bundled into a small wooden canoe that we set about paddling along a murky green river, manoeuvering sunken tree trunks under an eerie canopy of rainforest green. Huge tree roots lined the banks and enormous seedpods from strange plants closed in on us from all sides. We rounded a bend in the river and were hailed by a canoe coming the other way. It was much larger than ours and carrying just two passengers, so the rangers decided we should swap boats mid river. By this time we had learnt that there were crocodiles in the area so I was already nervous about being on a river with only a small wooden boat between these frankly terrifying predators and myself. Moving seven people between two canoes was asking for trouble in my opinion. The canoes wobbled and bumped and I held my breath and prayed, ensuring I only trod in the middle of the boat and keeping my centre of gravity low. We managed without capsizing and continued on our way, stopping whenever we heard sounds of life on the banks. And we heard loads. Crashes, crunches and rustlings seemed to surround us until one of the rangers suddenly announced that a rhino was likely very close by. He shored the canoe and encouraged us to get out and go rhino hunting with him. Now, during the boat swap I had ended up moving from the back to the front of the boat, so I was the one who was expected to lead the expedition into near virgin rainforest and find the rhino. It was not a role I relished. Reluctantly I scrambled up a gully and peered cautiously into the undergrowth, more than a little nervous about what I was going to find. As everyone got off the boat behind me I had to edge further and further forward so they could climb up with me, until I was stepping into the unknown. Eventually a ranger overtook me and started carving a path through the forest using a machete; it was all very ‘Jewel of the Nile’. The going was very difficult, slippery and uneven. Most of us were not equipped for the adventure but it was one of the best experiences of my life. At one point we had to cross a gully. It was too wide to jump and quite deep, with muddy water flowing through it. The only option was to slide down the bank on my arse, step into the water and do a slippery scramble up the other side. The mud in the bottom of the gully formed a suction that dragged my shoes off and I actually ended up barefoot and mud coloured by the end of it. This could have gone on for hours, with not a rhino to be seen (mostly due to the noise we were making) but a group decision was eventually made to turn back as the light was fading and we had at least one hour of canoeing to do before we got back to the beach. The whole situation was hilarious and ridiculous and probably really dodgy, but very memorable!

On our return to the beach we ran into the sea to wash ourselves off as best we could before boarding the boat to return to our accommodation. Our captain (and chef) had prepared sweet potato chips for our return, and they were much needed. Delicious, deep fried chips of sweet potato that Bonsai (newly nicknamed Tarzan due to his vine swinging antics in the rainforest) then continued to fry in the bottom of the boat as we sped back home, using hot oil on a gas burner with the canister conveniently hidden in a cupboard held closed by the captain’s foot. It was a health and safety nightmare, but as with all these alarming scenarios in Indonesia, everything was fine!

It rained heavily that night but we were quite content in our accommodation, a kind of research station with rooms on a quiet island. We were fed fresh fish caught earlier in the day by our captain. In fact the spread was pretty impressive and all cooked in that little boat on a single ring gas stove.

The following morning we managed to escape to the boat before the peacock found us. We were island hopping, visiting another snorkeling site that offered yet more colour and variety before arriving at Peucang Island. The accommodation there was a bit more salubrious and our neighbours were deer, monkeys and wild boar, all of whom wandered happily on the lawn in front of our ‘villas.’ We arrived just in time as the heavens opened just as we were meant to head out and explore the island. I had my obligatory dance in the rain (I was already damp from snorkeling) then proceeded to sit out the downpour with tea and conversation on the veranda.

Eventually the rain eased and we set out to explore the island. Bonsai led us along a trail through the forest to a lookout at the other end of the island. Tropical rainforests after a downpour are magical places and exploring huge tangled banyan tree trunks and spotting deer, boar and more monkeys out in the wild is always a pleasure. Reaching the lookout at the other end of the island and being able to see clearly the reef below us, even though the waves were crashing against the cliffs, was also an astonishing site.

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Later we travelled to yet another island to see a herd of wild cows, unique to Indonesia. No one can really explain their presence on the island or say why they are the only herd of their kind. They are simply there, and another good example of the unique nature of the Indonesian archipelago.

The following day was our last, and finally we were going to visit Krakatoa. I’d been looking forward to this moment for the entire trip. 2016 had turned into a year of volcanoes for me so Krakatoa was going to be my fifth. Getting there was another matter though. Bad weather had already altered our itinerary back to front and the weather had turned again. What had been a bumpy sea crossing the first time was a heart stopping one on our return. Huge waves kept threatening to engulf the engines making them heave and splutter, leaving us at the mercy of the open water. Several times the boat stopped as the captain nursed the boat into a calmer patch to allow us to continue. At one point I was checking the horizon for other boats in case we needed rescuing, and we even put on life vests just in case (for all the good they would have done) while the Indonesian crew calmly rode the storm as though it was just another trip, although they all got soaked. Still, as we approached Anuk Krakatoa we saw that the cloud that had shrouded it a few days before had cleared so we could see its cone. We headed for the shore.

Anuk Krakatoa is yet another distinct landscape: red and grey, dusty and gently steaming. Volcanic bombs litter the slopes and in places the shoreline is actually cooled lava, with flashes of green where nature fights to return to the area. We were not allowed to climb to the top of the volcano, as it is still extremely active, although we did wander on the lower slopes. Even there the heat was palpable. In places the lava was only five meters below the crust of the earth and steam vents puffed gently, as did smoke from the top. I could feel the warmth through the soles of my feet and as we descended down an ash track I took my sandals off and walked barefoot, as it was more comfortable than having pumice and ash trapped inside my shoes.

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After one more stop for a bit more snorkeling in yet another crystal clear bay teaming with tropical fish, we turned our heads for home. The merry band was to part ways at Jakarta airport after a very memorable trip, in a year of very memorable trips around Indonesia. It certainly ranks as one of my favourite Indonesian adventures – so far!

 

 

 

Friends, Fire, Food etc.

Last Christmas my best friend (The Wife) and I decided to embark upon an Aussie Road Trip; a classic journey across the South of Australia from Melbourne to Adelaide to Sydney. It was in keeping with our seasonal tradition of leaving the festivities far behind us and embarking on an adventure instead, and this one certainly embraced some of Australia’s epic quirkiness.

Friends

We met up from our distant bases in Melbourne, a city I never quite manage to explore. We drank wine, caught up on all our news, consumed glorious Mexican food and giant cocktails and met up with a mutual friend neither of us had seen for years at the Stables Café at Como House:http://www.thestablesofcomo.com.au/#!home/mainPage It is always nice to see old friends and it’s even nicer to know that when you see them you can pick up where you left off as though it were only days rather than years since you saw them last. While there was near enough a decade of catching up to do with our Melbourne friend it was a very pleasant afternoon where conversation and laughter flowed easily. Time passed all too quickly and before we knew it was time to go our separate ways and start our road trip.

Melbourne to Adelaide is a 750 km drive, which we completed in a day, in order to visit one of the wife’s friends from her time in the US. We managed the trip in about eight hours, with plenty of stops and little difficulty. Our biggest problem was the sat nav, promptly nicknamed The Bitch, who would insist on taking us the long way round when we wanted an alternative route. As neither of us are strangers to maps we sometimes navigated from the road atlas I’d bought and she really couldn’t cope. Long stretches of entertainment arose from watching her recalculate the route, time and again, only for us to ignore her.

We stayed in Moanah, a beach suburb to the east of Adelaide, and spent a chilled out day visiting the beach in the morning then hitting the near-by Maclaren Vale in the afternoon, visiting a few of the cellar doors along the way. Our favourite by far was Chapel Hill Winery: http://www.chapelhillwine.com.au/ It provided us with a couple of very nice Rose (and we don’t like Rose) and a beautiful red that we managed to save until the last night of our trip. We even managed fish and chips on the beach that evening although the Wife and I privately agreed that British fish and chips are better! It was a very sociable and relaxing time, gaining a little glimpse of a happy Aussie family lifestyle, a far cry from our usual routines and very much needed by us both.

Fire

I’d watched fire reports on the TV while waiting for The Wife to arrive in Melbourne so I was aware of the situation South Australia was facing. Months of hot weather (we’d just missed a heat wave in Melbourne), tinder dry forests and lightening storms are typical fire hazards at that time of year. But on checking our route I was relived to see that the fires were north of us, so we were going to be able to follow our plan.

Having enjoyed the hospitality of friends The Wife and I set off on our adventure proper. We were heading East again, back towards Melbourne but via The Great Ocean Road: http://www.visitvictoria.com/Regions/great-ocean-road This was a second visit for both of us – on separate occasions – but as we’d seen different things we took great pleasure in stopping off and showing one another the features we remembered: the Giant Koala and Crab roadside attractions, Umberston Sinkhole at Mt. Gambier, and discover sights neither of us had seen before, like the Blue Lake and the Land Rover on a pole in the middle of nowhere! Christmas Eve was spent sight seeing the iconic views along the Great Ocean Road and stopping at every viewpoint for cheeky selfies, wearing hers and hers Christmas T-Shirts, simply because it was funny. It was a very hot and exhausting day and we pushed on to Lorne little realising that the road was closing behind us due to massive bush fires caused by lighting strikes in the Great Ottoway National Park above us. We innocently enjoyed a lovely Greek meal at a restaurant just across the road from our hotel: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ipsos-Restaurant/772249959543934 and turned in, sun exhausted, ready for a relaxed, beachy Christmas Day.

The day dawned normally enough. We wandered down to the beach and breakfasted in the shade watching families laugh and play and swim in typical Aussie Christmas Day fashion. When we got too hot we returned to the hotel and chilled out. Our plan was to lunch on some good cheese, bread and olives we’d purchased on the road, drink some Mclaren Vale fizz we’d purchased for the occasion, and when it was cooler, head back to the beach to watch the full moon rise. We were not completely oblivious to the plight of the people back along the coast from us. When getting coffee that morning we had overheard locals discussing fires in the vicinity but had not appreciated just how close they were. At lunch we’d commented on a huge smoke cloud towering above us. Then, as we lounged in the shade that afternoon, recovering from our delicious, boozy lunch a helicopter landed in the grounds of the hotel. A man, who looked like a journalist, was met by staff, and ran inside. The helicopter waited, and so did we. By and by the hotel manager approached us and other guests and announced that Lorne was now under recommended evacuation as the fires were very close. The Wife and I were both far too under the influence to drive so, as the hotel was actually the local evacuation point anyway, we elected to stay. If the worst came to the worst we were to cross 500m to the beach and sit in the ocean to keep safe, which was kinda our plan in the first place.

All joking aside, this was a serious situation and a great many people lost their homes as a result of the fires. We were well cared for by the remaining hotel staff, with a free dinner thrown in for all those who had stayed, or who had evacuated from the further reaches of the town. We joined an Australian couple who seemed to attract this kind of drama on a regular basis, judging by the stories they told us of other holidays that had involved natural disasters. We drank, we laughed, we tried not to imagine the worst. The staff briefed us on what would happen if the direction of the wind changed and we had to evacuate over night. We retired to bed, wet towels and air con at the ready.

Much to The Wife’s annoyance I slept like a log that night. She slept fitfully and put the air con on when the room started to smell smoky. The worst did not happen but when we checked out we saw people asleep on sofas and a very worn out looking staff. The weather was grey and damp and the road was open so we set off again, relived that the fires had not reached us and sorry for all those affected by the disaster. As we departed we were told we’d experienced a typical Aussie Christmas – not the BBQ on the beach and the outdoor lifestyle but the on going threats of drought, fire and loss.

Fairy Penguins

Phillip Island, to the East of Melbourne, was our next destination. Specifically, the Penguin Parade, having booked a guided safari to see cute little fairy penguins return to their burrows in the evening. http://www.visitphillipisland.com/ Having arrived early afternoon we whiled away the time with a leisurely lunch on Churchill Island, visiting the koala sanctuary and Cowes beach before heading off to join the safari at dusk. We had front row seats on the beach to watch nervous groups of penguins run the gauntlet of gulls and kangaroos on the beach to find their well-worn paths home. We then followed the boardwalks, watching them scuttle along, almost blindly, as their homing instincts are remarkably faulty; listening to the youngsters squawk and twitter as they waited for their parents. It was adorable, and far too brief an experience.

Food

One of the main focuses of this trip was food. Frankly, no get together with The Wife is complete unless food and drink is involved. My larder is rather restricted in Indonesia and I was looking forward to enjoying wine and cheese and more familiar, western dishes that I can’t get in Surabaya. From Mexican in Melbourne to massive Thai inhalation in Mt. Gambier, http://www.wildginger.com.au/ cellar door visits and stop offs at cheese emporiums and random towns for lunch, we managed a great variety of epicurean delights.

Our next significant destination was Beechworth, an historic little village in the heart of the Victorian wine and cheese region. We stayed at the Foxgloves Bed and Breakfast, http://www.foxgloves.com.au/ hosted by the formidable Sheila, a South African émigré with a sharp wit and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the area. Her husband John also made the most amazing cakes, to be consumed with afternoon tea on the quiet, bee filled terrace. The house was artfully adorned with curios from the abundant shops in the area and breakfast brought all the guests together to enjoy a huge feast around a round table, liberally oiled with excellent conversation.

Beechworth is a little like the picture perfect village of Sandford in Hot Fuzz; superficially a lovely little community concealing a hotbed of gossip and scandal (if Sheila was to be believed) but it does have some excellent boutiques and foodie havens. We enjoyed craft beer and pizza at https://bridgeroadbrewers.com.au/pizzeria-bar/ wine, cheese, olives, honey and loads more during our stay, loading up on supplies for New Year while we were at it. [In homage to our Aussie friends and love of Aussie movies we even bought cherries in Bonny Doon along the way.] We ate, drank and chilled to our hearts content.

The final meal worthy of note was in Katoomba, where we spent New Year’s Eve. http://www.bluemts.com.au/info/towns/katoomba/ Having visited the Three Sisters and gazed across the Blue Mountains we were, of course, in search of our next meal. It came in the form of delicious Malaysian cuisine at the Unique Patisserie: https://www.facebook.com/UniquePatisserie It was so good we ate there two nights in a row, and I also indulged in huge, hedgehog shaped meringues, the likes of which I haven’t enjoyed in years.

New Year came in with a whimper (I believe I was actually asleep), we acknowledged it with more fizz and cheese and that was it, our journey was done. The Wife had to return to Hong Kong and I was off to discover the delights of Perth.

It was an adventure filled with friends, fire, fairy penguins, food and, most importantly, fun!

 

 

Mt. Rinjani – between heaven and hell

Mt. Rinjani, my fourth volcano this year, is by far the toughest to visit. It is Indonesia’s second highest volcano at 3,726m, and takes, at the very least, two days to summit. I signed up for a four-day/three-night trek, having been warned that it was a tough, but achievable, adventure. I know that I am a slow, cautious walker and not as fit as I should be, so I wanted to give myself as much of a chance as I could.

I’m glad I did. This trek is as much about mental stamina as about fitness. Having a positive mental attitude and the sheer force of will to put one foot in front of the other when it feels impossible to go on are essential because the whole trek is unrelentingly steep, almost from the word go.

Day one is all about climbing to the rim of the caldera in preparation for summiting Rinjani in time for sunrise the following morning. My trek (with Rudy Trekker) started from Sembulan Village at 8am. I was with a much younger, fitter couple, a guide and four porters who were carrying all the camping and cooking equipment we needed for our trek (about 35kg each). The beginning was a fairly gentle gradient although in full sun it quickly became necessary to stop regularly for water breaks. Our guide set a cracking pace, which I struggled to keep up with as the trek progressed, but was essential to get us from point to point in the end. I walked with a pole for the first time ever and truthfully found it very useful in taking the strain off my aged knees during the steeper sections. (I even resorted to two poles coming down when my knees were pretty much buggered, and they helped a lot!)

We walked steadily upwards for about 7 hours, including a lengthy lunch break at 11 in a less that scenic location. When we arrived at the rim we were greeted by a carnival of coloured tents and knackered hikers, most of whom were planning on summiting Rinjani the following morning. A few though, had already decided not to try due to the steepness of the day’s trekking, which says something about the gradient of day one and the potential gradient of day two! Our campsite was well located in a sheltered spot overlooking, so we were told, Segara Anak Lake. The only problem was that the cloud had come in and enveloped the slopes of Rinjani and its surrounding mountains so all we could manage were tantalising glimpses through the mists. Eventually a full moon came out and the skies cleared a little, magically making the tops of the mountains glow as though they were floodlit.

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We retired to bed early in an attempt to get a few hours rest before beginning the summit trek at 2am. This ascent is divided into three distinct sections: a very steep start once we had left the carnival site behind us; a steep ridge walk and then, for the last hour or so, a scramble up a relentlessly steep incline of sand, ash and loose shale where one step up could actually be two slips down and any incremental progress was a cause for celebration. This is where sheer bloody-mindedness kicked in and I literally cajoled myself up to the summit with motivational mantras, threats and a lot of swearing. I was resigned to missing the sunrise with my tortoise speed but I actually made it bang on 6am, just before the allotted time. According to the guide my speed was normal and there were still a lot of people behind me when I summited. My companions, by comparison, were cheetahs, and managed the summit at a much greater speed with seemingly no side effects.

The top of Rinjani is cold, very cold at about 1 degree, and sadly very busy with all the other trekkers we had seen at the bottom who had made it to the top. Our sunrise was hampered by low cloud again but to be honest, the glimpses we got of the lake, the Gilis and of Bali and Lombok below us, were nothing compared to the sense of achievement I felt in actually summiting a mountain nearly four times as high as Scafell Pike in the UK, and definitely four times as steep.

Of course, we had to go back down the way we had come up. Theoretically, it should be quicker as you can let gravity and the shifting shale do a lot of the work for you. But it’s easy to fall too, and a long way from help if you injure yourself. Having two walking poles definitely helped at this point but I was just a slow coming down as going up, although I was able to enjoy the views as the cloud cleared below us.

On returning to camp, we had a quick second breakfast of burger and chips before packing up and continuing our descent to the lake and our second campsite. This trail was also steep, and rocky, and my knees were starting to suffer. It was a miserable, damp, foggy walk that I completed pretty much in silence. I began to get irritated by the inane chatter of surrounding walkers, the graffiti and the incessant litter problem that Rinjani suffers from. Reputable companies bring down the litter generated by their groups and guides and porters are expected to carry down an additional bag of rubbish each as they go a long. But lots of disreputable companies also run treks here and sadly lots of locals also wander the lower trails and leave very clear, and disgusting, evidence of their visit. The campsite by the lake was one such ‘tip’ and the warm springs, part of the attraction of the lake and a great place to ease aching muscles, looked like a refugee camp with tents and litter everywhere.

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That afternoon I just put myself to bed and tried to ignore the noise and chaos that surrounded me. I ate what I could in my tent but I was so exhausted I wasn’t hungry and sleep and oblivion were much more appealing. When I surfaced the following morning I did feel more human and a dip in the best of the hot springs did ensure that I wasn’t as crippled as I could have been.

Our third day’s trek was negotiable. We could have simply walked for a few hours back up to the caldera rim and camped there with the hordes. My group, however, elected to continue down the mountain for a few more hours and camp in the rainforest, therefore removing us from the masses and reducing our final day’s trek to a few hours, rather that seven. It was as unrelentingly steep as before and although rocks and tree roots make great steps up, negotiating them going down when your knees don’t want to bend further than 90 degrees is very hard work. The trick is to use the porter paths, which might be a bit longer but usually avoid the steeper sections. They’re not always easy to see, especially when you’re already knackered from focusing on making every step as painless as possible. But they help.

Camping in the forest was lovely. There was peace and quiet, a camp fire (how many men does it take to light a fire?), beer, a lovely curry for dinner and glimpses of the sunset through the trees. Sleep came early again that night although the darkness was punctuated with unfamiliar noises, the worst of which was the dogs, used for pig hunting. One dog, we discovered in the morning, had got caught in a pig trap nearby and its pain was palpable and loud. It was alive and walking, but badly injured with the trap around its waist. It hovered around us but was uncatchable, and made its way painfully down to the forest edge with us. That simply added to the pain I was feeling on the last day. My thighs were screaming, my knees jarred and I developed a blister on one of my toes with every downward step. However, I made it to the pickup point: exhausted, grubby, bleeding and hobbling but exceedingly proud of myself.

I would say it is one of the hardest treks I’ve done and is somewhere between heaven and hell. I’m glad I did it, and I’m delighted by all my volcano adventures this summer, but I don’t think my love of Lombok will extend to repeating a visit to Rinjani.

 

 

Three Vocanoes in Three Months

I’ve just returned from trekking my third volcano in three months and I’m pretty pleased with myself.

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The first, Mount Batur in Bali A Sunrise Trek of Mt. Batur, Bali was significant in several ways. It was my first Indonesian volcano; it was proof that I could travel solo successfully in Indonesia after a less that successful previous attempt, and it was a return to health – and ultimately, the gym – for me after months of feeling under the weather. On reflection though, it was a bit of a disappointment. The walk was only two hours each way but it was steep, a combination of rocky paths and shifting sand, and ridiculously crowded. While my lack of fitness can partly explain the pain I felt for days afterwards it doesn’t change the lackluster sunrise and rather touristy feel of a place that is supposed to have a religious significance to its people. It felt tatty and tacky in a way. But I’d done it, and that felt good.IMG_0196

My second was Mount Bromo in East Java. This was a fun trip with friends, organized by a colleague. We did the tourist thing and hit the overcrowded sunrise spot by jeep and motorbike rather than on foot. At first it felt a bit like Batur, but the sunrise was pretty spectacular and once Bromo was glimpsed through the hordes of people the magic began. Bromo is stunning. Helped by the sunrise, the shapes and shadows, cloud and smoking caldera make this place other-worldly, alien almost. Walking on newly fallen ash up to the smoking crater was like walking on powdered snow, the type that’s good for snowballs. We went away from the crowds and crossed the whispering sands, which didn’t whisper that day; turning a corner to see vivid green, rolling hills (appropriately called Wisata Teletubbies), hidden behind the grey, lunar landscape. I was reduced to the child-like exuberances of singing and dancing like a loon at the breathtaking change. It was impressive beyond words and an excellent day out.IMG_2740

My third volcano, Mount Ijen near Bangywangi in Java was probably the most awe-inspiring though. Famous for it sulfurous blue flame, this volcano has real power. Its toxic sulfur clouds, acidic turquoise lake and Jurassic landscape forced thoughts of a lost world upon me and if it hadn’t been for the upsetting sight of twentieth century graffiti and litter along the way I would have expected raptors and rexes to rear out of the misty, fern fringed ridges we descended after sunrise. The fact that men still mine the sulfur in the crater and carry at least 75kgs of it out on their backs in baskets twice a day made the place seem more real, and more hostile, than the other two.IMG_0400

The trek itself was relatively easy because I’m now fit (in comparison to Mt. Batur when I was not!) The journeying of the miners has smoothed the route and while there are some steep sections during the first two hours they weren’t onerous. The last thirty minutes took me down rocky steps into the crater to see the blue flame fairly close up, and by that I mean ‘close up as in wear a gas mask to be safe close up’! The route can be slippery and I had to make way for the miners climbing with their loads but with the right foot wear, a powerful head-torch and a guide who knew all the lads, I was fine! If you’re really struggling you can get a cart, only recently introduced, which the miners usually use to take their heavy load down the volcano once they’ve lugged it out of the crater. A very strong ex-miner can pull you up or push you down! I elected to walk.IMG_0411

I really enjoyed Ijen, I’m proud of my small accomplishment of three volcanoes in three months (I think it’s becoming a bucket list thing), and I’m pleased that my Indonesian travels are coming together at long last.

Here’s to the next one: Mount Agung on Bali or Mount Rinjani on Lombok?Mt. Rinjani – between heaven and hell

 

A Sunrise Trek of Mt. Batur, Bali

I miss mountains. I miss hikes and fresh air and the thrill (and chill) of high places. So when I realised I had a long weekend ahead of me at the beginning of March I decided to do something about it.

Bali is only a 40 minute flight away from Surabaya so I resolved to do a sunrise trek among Bali’s volcanoes in order to sooth my soul.

Gunung Batur is 1717m, one of several volcanic cones in what seems like a giant dish with water in its bottom. It was formed in an eruption in 1917 and has been active as recently as 1994. There are lots of tours there so once I’d arrived at my lovely hotel in Ubud (The Saren Indah, highly recommended for a relaxing break), I asked them to sign me up (I’m getting lazy in my travel habits out here), and then relaxed for the rest of the day, in preparation for my efforts.

Pick-up was 2am. I’d indulged in lovely Balinese cuisine and a glass of wine before going to bed early, managing about four hours of sleep before my alarm went off. I rolled out of bed, pulled on my hiking gear and grabbed my new, lightweight rucksack. The car arrived and in I climbed, the first of three pick-ups around Ubud. Then we drove for about an hour in dozy silence, up towards the start of our trek at Toya Bungkah. But first, we stopped off at a little place that provided us with banana pancakes and coffee, and our ‘second breakfast’ for the summit (ultimately banana sandwiches and a boiled egg). Then we drove a further 15 minutes to meet our guide.

As I said, there are lots of tours, so it was no surprise to draw up to a huge car park filled with tired looking hikers gripping bottles of water and flash lights. We were organised into groups of four, given a flashlight if we didn’t have one (I’d remembered my head torch, naturally!) and sent on our way.

Our guide was, appropriately enough, named Dante, as in Dante’s Peak. The irony did not escape our group. He set a cracking pace, which was fine to begin with, but the route quickly became steep and is, by alternates, rocky or sandy. I was quickly reminded that I am not as young or fit as I was. Two months of battling an ear infection had stopped my gym visits early in January, so I quickly got out of breath compared to my younger, fitter companions. Additionally, although the ear infection was no longer rife, the aftermath of slight deafness continued, and I found myself feeling a bit dizzy the higher we climbed, which was a concern when I repeatedly stumbled. Dante, however, kept us going and made frequent rest stops.

Each rest gave us a wonderful nighttime view across Bali. The silhouette of Gunung Abang opposite us on the other side of the lake dominated the landscape, matched only by banks of cloud that regularly lit up with orange lightning. The sky was clear and the stars were out in abundance, lighting our way.

At one point we had a long rest while our guides prayed at a shrine before the steepest ascent to the summit. Bali is a Hindu country, although Balinese Hinduism is a unique blend of beliefs. They believe that spirits are everywhere and good spirits dwell in mountains and bring prosperity to people. Sadly, some groups were ignorant of local customs and failed to wait quietly while their guide prayed. It always disappoints me when people ignore local customs, as it takes very little to learn about and appreciate other people’s cultures and beliefs.

Mt. Batur is always busy, but especially so at weekends when groups of students are able to complete the walk. One thing that kept me moving against all the odds was the desire to get way from the shouting, music playing hordes and breath in the space and silence of the volcano. I’d positioned myself at the front of our group, knowing the slowest should set the pace, but I could feel the youngsters stepping on my heels behind me, perhaps not as used to walking in groups as I am. Still, I slogged on, determined to out pace them. It was more easily said than done, I can tell you.

We arrived at the summit in good time; it was still dark and clear when we arrived at the already crowded lookout. The sunrise wasn’t far behind us. The sky quickly took on a lighter glow behind Abang and the cloud-banks surrounding it. As the light increased, so did the cloud as heat and cold met. So the sunrise wasn’t a spectacular as I could have hoped. But never mind. I was high up (1717m); I was cold (such a nice feeling after constant heat and humidity – I even got to wear my favourite Rab feather down jacket and enjoy a hot chocolate from the food station near the top!); I had space around me, even though the top was crowded with snap happy student groups. I was happy to be there.

Once the day had well and truly begun and we’d been at the top for nearly an hour, we turned around and made our way back. The steep top was quickly managed, as it was mostly sand and therefore quick to descend using the ‘dig your heels in and slide’ method. We stopped briefly at the crater, active in 1994, and gazed at the still blackened landscape below it. We felt steam rising from fissures in the ground and dodged tourist savvy monkeys, greedy for anything they could get their hands on.

About half way down we diverted from the original route and took what could pass for a road to the bottom. It was certainly accessible to traffic as we dodged motorbikes laden with passengers and goods. It was also a good deal easier to walk after the rocky slog we had endured on the way up.

Dante discovered I was an English teacher, and, while teaching me some Indonesian phrases such as ‘kaki ku kaku’ meaning ‘my legs are stiff’, he grilled me in English grammar, and the finer definitions between maybe and probably (amongst other things)!

Soon enough we were back at the car park fulfilling the ‘two hours up-two hours down’ prophesy every one had warned me about. Reunited with our driver we were quickly on our way, although the drive home seemed to take forever and I was desperate to get back and take a shower after my exertions. I had sensibly booked a massage for later that afternoon and, I have to say, it helped work out the stiffness really well. Of course I was still rather sore for a good couple of days afterwards, but it was definitely worth every step. I had got my mountains fix, with added stars and lightning clouds and a tiny bit of sunrise, to make everything well in my world.

 

 

 

By the skin of my teeth…

Having  travel-hopped my way around South East Asia a flight at a time over the summer, it didn’t occur to me not to hop between flights when booking my trip to Australia for Christmas. I had been advised that I could get cheap flights there from Bali and, as that’s only a 50 minute flight on a cheap airline from Surabaya, I figured I could hop between the two easily enough.

When I found a rediculously cheap overnight flight to Melbourne with Air Asia I immediately booked it, relying on the fact that I could use a good local travel agent in the mall opposite my apartment to sort my ticket out for Bali afterwards. The problem was, I impulsively booked my flight to Oz in Hong Kong when visiting my travel buddy. By the time I got back to Surabaya another week had passed, and although I wasted no time in booking my connecting flight I came up against a problem. It was the end of October and all the sensible people had already started booking their flights out for Christmas. When I was shown the availability of flights, on a Friday afternoon at the end of the Christmas term, I was pretty limited in my choices. All the early afternoon flights were already fully booked leaving me with early evening options only. Now, this might not seem like much of a problem when catching a 00:40 flight, except for two things. There is a one hour time difference between Surabaya and Bali that reduced my travelling time; and, I am the sort of traveller who likes to get to the airport in plenty of time. The fear of missing a flight is my worst nightmare and when, in the past, I have felt that I have been cutting it too fine, I have become extremely stressed. It doesn’t start the journey well, and I hate that. By travelling solo I have reduced the likelihood of it happening dramatically, but not this time…

I booked the only flight available to me and started to pray. It was a calculated risk. Past experience had taught me that flights to Bali on a Friday evening were likely to be delayed, and Christmas travel days are always disrupted, which potentially left me with even less time to get from the domestic to the international terminal in Denpasar. Initially my flight times gave me two and a half hours transfer time, which should have been plenty of time, but of course, any delay would further reduce my window of opportunity.

I tried to cover all my bases. Hand luggage only, so I didn’t waste time waiting for baggage. (I’m an expert packer; you’d be amazed what I can fit in a small shoulder bag that will last for a three week trip to Oz!) I checked in on-line and printed my boarding pass to save further time. I couldn’t do any more. So I worried instead.

The more I travel the more I find intuition a useful thing, and my gut told me this plan was risky.

4am on December the 18th. Departure day had arrived. I had been packed and ready to go for days and I was desperate to leave. Of course I woke up rediculously early, increasing the time I was already expecting to be awake (approximately 26 hours straight) by another hour and a half.

3.30pm. After my final morning at school my 4pm taxi arrived to take me to the airport. Bluebird taxis in Surabaya are the most reliable firm in Indonesia but I’d forgotten that a 4pm booking would mean a 3.30 pm pickup. I arrived at the airport ridiculously early and resigned myself to a long wait before checkin opened. But at least I was on my way!

5.30pm. Having waited a sufficient time at the airport I managed to check-in with Lion Air even though my flight wasn’t officially up on the board. I’d spent an anxious hour watching the boards, conscious of the number of flights to Jakarta (which is the opposite direction to Bali) that were delayed. As I received my boarding pass I was informed that my plane was delayed by 50 minutes. Not by the lady on the counter I might add, but because I noticed that the boarding time was a good 30 minutes after the flight was supposed to depart. I did a quick calculation and reassured myself that I still had enough time to make my flight; but my stress levels started to rise.

6.30pm. I headed to the gate and waited, with an increasing sense of foreboding. Sure enough, an announcement in Indonesian crackelled across the tannoy, the people around me moaned and I looked at the gate information board in horror. My worst nightmare was about to come true. The flight was delayed until 9.30pm! Fireworks went off behind my eyes and I sat for a moment with my hand over my mouth, cursing quietly. Then I steeled myself and went up to the front desk. I explained my situation, showed them my Air Asia boarding pass, and was promptly taken to Customer Services downstairs. The girl from the desk disappeared with my boarding pass for what felt like hours (but was probably only five minutes) and eventually another girl came to talk to me. She told me she could transfer me to an Air Garuda flight scheduled to leave at 8.25pm. Huge relief! She then told me that that flight was also delayed and probably wouldn’t leave until 9.25pm and that she couldn’t guarantee that ground staff would help me once I’d landed. I asked if Lion Air could contact Air Asia and let them know I was delayed and on my way but no, that wasn’t possible because they worked from different terminals and couldn’t contact each other(!) I asked if Lion Air staff could assist with a quick transfer once I landed and I was assured that they would help me in anyway they could. My details and telephone number were taken and emailed to the Bali ground staff and I was advised that they would call me once I’d landed and help me from there. There was nothing I could do except lay it on thick about how important it was that I caught my flight. The girl was very apologetic, and I was very polite. I left Customer Services and returned to the gate to wait feeling less than reassured.

The minutes crawled past. Another flight ahead of mine was also delayed by two hours. Refreshments were served, camaraderie abounded. Eventually they started boarding and I moved closer to the gate willing the process to go faster. My agitation was palpable. When another announcement was made in Indonesian and everyone laughed I stared around wildly in desperation. Several travellers took pity on me and explained that I could get a snack from the desk. But by this point I really wasn’t hungry. I told them my sorry tale and they were sympathetic. I tried to bolster myself up by reassuring myself that I was in the system now; that the delays were probably the same at Denpasar; that Lion Air would save the day. I twitched, a lot. I tried not to look at my watch every thirty seconds. Time stood still.

9.20pm. Finally our flight was told to board. I tried very hard not to rush, knowing that we were all leaving at the same time regardless of how fast I got on the plane. All the checks and safety procedures took forever. We waited to take off at the back of a long queue.

10pm. At last! We departed from Surabaya, which was 11pm in Bali and meant that boarding for my next flight was starting in forty minutes. It felt impossible.

I twitched. I prayed. It’s possible that I talked to myself out loud. The gray fog and dry mouth of extreme stress had descended.

11.40pm. We landed, as far away from the terminal as it’s possible to be. Everybody moved painfully slowly so I just missed getting on the first bus to take us to the terminal. All the while my eyes were peeled and my phone was poised, waiting for the call from the helpful staff of Lion Air who would save the day…

12.00am. I sprinted off the bus scattering passengers in my wake. The baggage hall was a blur as I saw the sign for the International Terminal. Although Denpasar is small there are interminably long stretches of corridor to run down inbetween, and not a Lion Air staff member or golf buggy in sight. As I jogged desperately round corners and up ramps I realised just how unfit I’d become. 

When I arrived at the terminal and galloped past checkin I then hit immigration. SHIT! I’d totally forgotten about it in my panic to catch the plane! Now, I am a queuer, I loath queue jumping and I hate being rude but this time I had no choice. I apologised a lot as I pushed my way to the front, smiling and explaining while working my way forward all the time. Everyone was very kind. I can’t decide if it was my British accent or the tone of apologetic panic in it that cleared the way for me. I sent my bags through, grabbed them on the other side and queue jumped again to passport control. I was processed very quickly and as I went through I realised something was missing. I’d lost my scarf and handbag (with money, kindle and camera in). In my haste I’d only managed to grab half of my possessions. I had to go back.

I charged back round, looking like a headless chicken as I scanned the rows in an attempt to reclaim my possessions, losing several valuable minutes in the process.

Even though I was now pretty sure I’d missed my flight I kept running, nearly decapitating myself on the strap of my shoulder bag as it swung around my neck. I took the long route through Duty Free as I searched for a board to tell me which departure gate I needed. 9A! Last call for 9A! I was going to make it. Then I saw the sign for 9A. It was still 7 minutes away.

With sweat rolling down my face and panting like an asmatic steam train I trot-staggered on towards 9A frantically begging anyone with a walkie-talkie to radio ahead and let them know I was coming. The panic coursed through my veins as I comedy ran along, desperate to reach the gate before it closed. With the gate in sight at the end of the corridor I waved frantically to let the guy behind the desk know I was on my way. He saw me, and promptly dropped out of sight behind the desk! ‘You bastard!’ I muttered before realising that the was Gate 9B, and I wanted 9A!

When I reached the gate I was almost hysterical. Had I missed the flight? The guy who checked my bag and the woman who took my boarding pass just grinned at me. I checked my watch. It was 12.30am. I’d made it, by the skin of my teeth!

Ahead of me a girl casually wandered up to the desk and handed over her boarding pass before heading on towards the plane. WTF!

12.40am. By the original departure time I was in my seat, pink of face and soaked in sweat, recovering my breath and relating my tale to my neighbour while apologising for my state profusely. We didn’t leave until 1am.

As worst nightmares go, it could have been worse, but not by much!

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Ten weeks of travelling. Three countries, 15 cities, and four islands visited. More photos (and selfies) than I can be bothered to count. And now it is all coming to an end. Soon, I will be repacking my rucksack for the last time, stripped of ancient, travel wrecked clothing and rammed with more keepsakes than I meant to buy. Heading to yet another new destination, but this time with the intention to live there, not just to travel.

While I have tried to blog, Instagram, Facebook, Tweet and review my adventures to create some sort of lasting record for myself and others, there’s just been so much to take in I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. With time, I’m sure more memories will emerge but for now, I just want to share some of my highlights, for the sake of posterity:

  1. Flying over downtown Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda for the first time as I left Myanmar for the last time.
  2. Spending a day learning how to care for elephants in Chiang Mai http://www.pataraelephantfarm.com
  3. Cycling around Sukhothai and Si Sanchanalai in Thailand.
  4. Taking the train in Thailand from north to south.
  5. Discovering Phuket Old Town is similar to Georgetown, and they’re both a bit like Hoi An. But that I actually like Hoi An the most.
  6. The utter decadence of the Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa and their amazing buffet breakfasts. http://www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/hktbr-renaissance-phuket-resort-and-spa/
  7. Enjoying a variety of performances. From Phuket Simon Cabaret http://www.phuket-simoncabaret.com/ to Phare, The Cambodian Circus in Siem Reap http://pharecambodiancircus.rezgo.com/ and the AO Show in Ho Chi Min City http://www.aoshowsaigon.com/. All brilliant in their own way although my heart belongs to AO.
  8. Whizzing around Angkor, temple running, in a tuk-tuk.
  9. Rattling along on the Bamboo Train, Battambang, in the rain with my arms outstretched yelling ‘Wooo-hoooo’ as we picked up speed.
  10. Watching bats flock like starlings in the sunset skies near Battambang at the end of a great day sight-seeing.
  11. Trekking in the jungle around Dalat. http://www.ptv-vietnam.com/product.php?rid=7
  12. Conquering my fear of motorbikes and getting on the back of a motorbike taxi to visit a lovely tropical beach near Hoi An, Vietnam.
  13. Doing a posh cruise on the Dragon Legend II around the less busy area of Bai Tu Long Bay in Halong Bay and spending the night on the boat eating, drinking and laughing. http://www.indochina-junk.com/dragon-legend-cruise/
  14. Visiting some pretty amazing UNESCO sites in Vietnam including My Son, Hue, Hoi An and Halong Bay.
  15. Enjoying all the food porn – from street food and amazing seafood in Thailand, new tropical fruits such as rambutan, national dishes from all around Cambodia and Vietnam, trying weasel coffee and egg coffee, and tasting my first fried crickets.
  16. Doing lots of accidental tourism and taking a few chances along the way, all of which turned out really well.
  17. Taking indulgent selfies anywhere I fancied. I’ve made a slideshow of them so I can cheer myself up when I need to!
  18. Treating myself to a posh hotel and spa stay in Hanoi to rejuvenate at the end of it all. http://www.hanoilasiestahotel.com/
  19. All the amazing people I met along the way – locals, friends and fellow travellers who’ve chatted, laughed, shared stories and tips and made my journey all the more interesting.
  20. Most of all, I have enjoyed the challenge of finding my way around SE Asia on my own; living in the present; being self reliant and doing exactly as I pleased.

Of course, there were disappointments too, but I have to say, that once again, I have been extremely fortunate in my travels and look forward to my further adventures with great anticipation.

Cambodia

Cambodia held a sense of menace for me as a child. While old enough to be alive when the atrocities by the Khmer Rouge took place, I was too young to comprehend what it meant. The name Pol Pot was always associated with evil and I remember being unnerved by his image although I could never say why. As I learnt about what had happened it held the same tragic sense of horror I felt when learning about the Nazis or Communist Russia.

Now I’ve been there, I would encourage others to visit too. It’s a rather wonderful place and its people, who went through hell and back only 40 odd years ago, and still face many difficulties, wear their hearts on their sleeves and are some of the friendliest characters I’ve met.

I only spent two weeks there, visiting Siem Reap, Battambang and Phnom Penh and I know that they are just the tip of the iceberg of an emerging country with lots of beautiful places to offer. I would like to spend more time there, visiting the coast and exploring lesser known towns but I’d also like to revisit Angkor Wat because, although Cambodia is a small country (181,035 sq. km) it holds many delights.

I was passing through from north to south, making my way to Vietnam, so I first arrived in the country via Siem Reap, which rather provocatively means ‘Siam defeated’ from early conflicts over land in this troubled region. The airport is smaller than I’d expected and as I travelled by tuk-tuk to my boutique hotel, I marvelled at how provincial it seemed. I had, foolishly, expected an urban sprawl out to the Angkor Wat National Park like Giza encroaching on the Pyramids, but that was far from the case. In fact, Siem Reap is a like a country town, and if it weren’t for its insane traffic, I’d almost call it sleepy.

Traffic in SE Asia is a curse. Some of the worst traffic, and pollution, in the world is found there. But Siem Reap is no Beijing. It’s not the amount of traffic that was the problem, although after several weeks on sleepy Thai Islands I’d got used to quiet roads, it was the chaos of it. Tuk-tuks, motos, bicycles, old and modern cars were all moving every which way, all at once. On the wrong side of the road, on pavements (when there were any), at crossroads, with the unspoken rule that if you can’t go forward you go round and if you can’t go round you stop until everyone’s shifted enough for you to carry on, and all the while wary pedestrians weave their way through as well. Strangely, horns were seldom used, everyone just watched and weaved and stopped if they couldn’t proceed. Of course, there’s less traffic as you make your way out around the National Park, and everyone has the same purpose there, following one of two routes around the ancient sights to visit the wonders of Angkor.

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Angkor Wat is as stunning as you’d imagine and worth several visits. Angkor Thom, Bayon and Banteay Srei are all intriguing as well, and while you can get templed out quite quickly, there are other things to do. I also visited the Landmine Museum, showing the efforts of one man who had fought in the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Army since a child, growing to understand the error of his ways and make up for it one land-mine at a time. It was quite a wake up call about the problems many Cambodians still face as the aftermath continues to cripple them, physically, economically and politically. As an antidote to that, I also visited a small butterfly farm which raised my spirits a bit. Not surprisingly, the Cambodians are very conscious about the preservation of life, be it human, animal, or insect and there are also a great many attempts to conserve Cambodia’s heritage. Many are small, like the butterfly sanctuary, but there are also lots of NGOs in the country doing a lot of good where it’s needed. One example is Phare, a multi-arts centre for disadvantaged children. While the main activities happen in Battembang, Siem Reap has an internationally acclaimed circus branch and it is worth every penny to go along and see an amazing group of talented performers present physically and socially challenging shows.

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I’d planned to take the boat to Battembang, I’d even bought a ticket from a reputable source. But having experienced a stormy visit to Tonle Sap, the largest body of water in Cambodia, and seen how shallow it was in places at this time of year, I wasn’t surprised when it didn’t work out. I was told there was something wrong with the boat, but I suspect it was the instinctive desire to please that make Cambodians so easy to get along with that allowed me to buy a ticket on a route that was never going to run.

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I got to Battambang by bus instead, after a tricky moment when the agents organising my trip sent a tiny girl on a motorbike to carry me and two rucksacks to catch the bus. I’m terrified of motorbikes, and the weight and imbalance of me and my luggage scares me even further. Thankfully, Mr.Chi, who had driven me around Angkor Wat, came to the rescue and ferried me there instead. The bus was tackily decorated with limp fake flowers and childish stickers and I was jammed into a window seat with no leg space under the seat in front. I had to pull the DVT card when three quarters of the way into the journey the girl in front decided to lower her seat back. My knees were bruised from resting against the back of the chair  and with it back I had no way of keeping the circulation moving with exercises. Thankfully, it looks like the blood thinners I got in Thailand did their job! But not a comfortable ride, and not scenic either.

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city yet it also seemed provincial and sleepy like Siem Reap. It’s bus station is the side of the road, just outside the city. Of course we were met by dozens of tuk-tuk drivers all touting for business. I accidentally caught the eye of one young man who greeted me like an old friend. After some banter and barter I agreed to let him take me to my hotel.

Actually, Samol turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He also ran a tour service which he’d just set up on Trip Advisor and I booked him for the following day. Like many Cambodians his story wasn’t a happy one but he was working hard to make things right and the tour I had with him was great fun. I even ended up helping him with his English homework!

Beyond the limited delights of Battambang are rice fields, fishing villages, a vineyard (I don’t think the rest of the wine producing world has anything to worry about with regard to Cambodian competition), pagodas, killing caves that are a stark reminder of the country’s horrific past and The Bamboo Train. This brilliant experience is under threat and may well close due to the possibility of a high speed line (Cambodia currently has no rail service to speak of) but I really can’t see why it should. I took a short ride on a single track between two rural stations, riding a bamboo pallet on tank wheels driven by an outboard motor. I sat on a cushion and dodged overhanging undergrowth as the wind whistled through my hair and the heavens decided to open, then watched as the ‘train’ was dismantled to allow traffic coming the other way to pass. Priority was given to greater numbers of trains and people, so I got off a lot. But I loved every second of it!

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Another highlight of Battambang were the bat caves. While not up to Christopher Nolan standards, the sight of thousands of bats exiting a network of caves commonly called The Killing Caves, is pretty impressive. At dusk bats start to circle the mouth of the cave, high up in a cliff, and then suddenly they decide to start streaming out in two directions, a sentence of commas across the sky. I’m told this phenomenon can go on for up to half an hour but I only stayed for 10 or so as they were late leaving, it was the day after the longest day so dusk was around 6.30pm, and Samol had to get back to go to night school. In fact, by leaving then I also got to see the mesmerising sight of them pulsing and receding across the sky like flocks of starlings, dividing and reforming before heading off into the distance to hunt, some even going as far as the coast before returning at dawn. It was a good day.

After Battambang came Phnom Penh, which was a shock to the system after the beaches of Thailand and rural idylls of more northern Cambodia. Phnom Penh is Cambodia’s capital, a real city with long boulevards, a tower block and a lot of noisy traffic to dodge. The tuk-tuk drivers and restaurateurs are pushier, there are more modern amenities and the riverfront is very touristy. It is nicknamed the Pearl of the Orient but I’m afraid the pearl I witnessed was paste. It’s not without its attractions, a cute museum and cultural performance theatre, some attractive pagodas and the Royal Palace, but little stood out to make it a rich and lustrous experience. Of course, S-21 and the Killing Fields are sited there too, and should be visited for a greater lesson into the Khmer Rouge and the history of the Pol Pot era, but that was inherently depressing so I was glad to move on, especially as I was lodged in a hotel room opposite the sex tourist from hell!

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My next stop was Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City, still referred to as Saigon by the locals. It was another bus trip, rather more comfortable than some, and my only land border crossing. I’d got my visa in Siem Reap, ready to start for July 1st and duly arrived on that day. Getting out of Cambodia was fine, you just take your passport, see the immigration guy, go through the motions then get back on the bus. Getting into Vietnam was a little more chaotic as your bus company takes everyone’s passport and hands them over to immigration and you stand around, with all your luggage, until you are called up randomly to the desk. Once you’re through, you then have your luggage scanned before getting back on the bus. It was fine, and didn’t take too long, but I can imagine the difficulties during busier times.

All in all, Cambodia was an adventure and I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience. I wouldn’t say I left my heart there but I am already thinking about how to return.

From sunrise to sunset

‘It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, … and I’m feeling good’

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As I watched the sunrise behind Angkor Wat to mark the summer solstice of 2015 I got to thinking about the significance of the sun rising and setting and the beautiful versions I had witnessed.

In every culture, the sunrise and sunset holds significance. The dawn is a symbol of new beginnings and something I have become more keenly attuned to in recent years, making sunrise my favourite time of day. The dusk offers us closure, and it can be a fearful time when darkness and trouble closes about us. To my mind, it is an opportunity to reflect, and prepare for the new day.

Unfortunately, the promise of a sunrise or sunset in an exotic place can often be like the promise of the New Year, with all the potential and all the anti-climax that goes with it. I have been fortunate enough to witness some amazing dawns and dusks on my travels. And also, some damp squibs.

My greatest disappointment was probably at Uluru. I’d been aching to visit such a mythical, spiritual place for years and when I finally go there, on a beautiful day, I wasn’t disappointed. However, the beauty of the day didn’t encourage a beautiful sunset and the sun went down without the spectacular show of colour I had dreamt of. Just a slow dimming of the sky from blue to white to black and a greying of the famous Rock. Clearly, the spirits were not looking favourably upon us that evening. ‘Never mind’ I thought, ‘the sunrise will be better’. And it was, as the Rock achieved a warming glow, yet I still felt a little cheated of the colours I had dreamt of.

sunset oz      sunrise oz

A better example was the sunset and sunrise over the Sahara desert in Morocco. Maybe, because it was almost the New Year, the day decided to celebrate with us. Or, more realistically, perhaps there were more molecules in the air, serving to scatter the light and offer us the exotic golds of dusk and vivid pinks and oranges of dawn that sat beautifully above the orange sand.

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My favourite experiences (so far) were probably in Myanmar. Maybe it is the eternal layer of dust in the sky that fractures the light so beautifully but both sunsets I witnessed, in Mandalay and Bagan, were so powerful I could feel the heat of the red sky on my face for sometime afterwards. As for the sun rise over Bagan… words can’t really describe the way the light slowly grew through the mist of the early morning over all those half ruined pagodas. It was breathtaking.

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Sadly, the sunrise and sunset I saw in Cambodia were not really ones to write home about (hence the tangent!) but they were still an opportunity to reflect. Cloudy weather tempered the possibility of spectacular colour and light, yet the stillness of the hour, the gentle murmur of voices and the soft light, seemingly painted by the wings of birds wheeling through the air, still made for a reverential sight. I realised that I really don’t have a worry in the world, the darkness holds no fears for me now, and I appreciate that each day doesn’t have to be spectacular to be worthwhile. They are all a new beginning and a chance to live, full of light and promise.

Elephant Tears – learning why elephants cry

A melancholy brown eye stares at you from the grey, wrinkled face, fringed with luscious eyelashes. A tear stain reaches down the trunk of the poor, sad creature and you feel compelled to reach out and help.

A familiar image? It’s certainly one that has been used to generate much needed support for the dwindling elephant community on this earth. But is it the truth?

In my lifetime, in the last forty years, elephant numbers in Thailand have almost halved. That, in itself, is a travesty. What’s worse is that those that are left are often ill treated, broken, and abused in order to entertain tourists and the like. Anthropomorphically, they certainly have a reason to cry.

Elephants are complex, social creatures that need space, and variety in their diets and routines, not a concrete box and three shows a day. And that’s where Patara Elephant Camp is different. It is not a visitor center, a circus, or a place to watch elephants play football. It is a safe haven for rescued elephants, run by a Thai family who have taken in these poor creatures and supported their recovery. They are not ‘Conservationists’. (I use the capitalisation and inverted commas deliberately here because there’s conservation and ‘Conservation’ and Patara do not wish to be associated with the media circus surrounding elephants.) Neither are they activists, they are not trying to fight the good fight. They simply see elephants as part of their global family and have chosen to dedicate their lives to enabling these creatures to become happy and healthy through rehabilitation. They also have a reproduction programme that has successfully supported several offspring, with five more due by the end of 2015.

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My day with this elephant family started with a meet and greet by two mothers and their offspring. We were encouraged to stroke and pat them as they consumed sugar cane, cut up for them by their handlers. This wasn’t part of our day but a bonus while we waited for other people to arrive. In spite of our gushing interference, the elephants and their babies continued to eat and drink steadily, barely pausing between trunk-fulls of food.

Soon, we were called together for ‘the talk’ where the philosophy of Patara was presented to us and we started to learn about elephant care and how to make friends with the elephants we were to look after that day. Initially I thought it was a bit late for that lesson, having been let loose on the group earlier, but as the host explained I realised what an amazing job Patara do in rehabilitating these creatures to the extent that strangers can approach them and touch them without cause for concern.

Elephants are wild animals, but, like humans they show their emotions through body language. An angry elephant would have held its ears wide, away from its head, whilst happy elephants, like the ones we met, flap their ears every so often and flick their tails every once in a while. The best way to ensure an elephant stays happy, and becomes your friend, is to feed it.

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Elephants eat all the time. Wouldn’t you if you had to heave tons of body weight around with you for eighteen hours a day? This is the average time an elephant is on its feet. Even when they are meant to be resting they only sleep for forty-five minutes then get up, eat and play before settling down again. Interestingly, elephants lie down to sleep. A test to check that they are healthy is to check that both sides of their body are muddy. If they’re not then something is wrong with the clean side. If they sleep standing up it is because they are scared to lie down because they won’t get up again, so they rest against a tree, and that means something is really wrong.

So I fed my companion for the day, fourteen year old Manoi, and met her two year old, Passar. Manoi was also pregnant with baby number two. Elephants gestate for up to twenty-four months. Through observation, the camp has learnt that babies can arrive any time between nineteen and twenty-four months. They’ve also learnt that if they arrive between nineteen and twenty-two months they’re likely to be female, with the males being a little slower to appear! Manoi was only five months pregnant, poor thing. She still has a long way to go.

Feeding an elephant was a little like putting my hand into a gooey vice. I had to say ‘Bon, Manoi’ to ask her to raise her trunk and open her mouth, then I placed the small banana or sugar cane in as far as I could. Elephants have no front teeth and barely any lips therefore if I withdrew my hand too fast the food would drop from her mouth and I ran the risk of appearing to tease her with it, SOMETHING YOU SHOULD NEVER DO TO AN ELEPHANT, so I ended up having my hand repeatedly clamped in her soft but strong jaw and had to tug to release it! Every time I got my hand back I patted her trunk and said ‘De De Manoi’ which means ‘good girl.’

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Manoi and I made friends quite fast; at least, I think we did. The basket of food disappeared very quickly and if I stood in the wrong place her ears would dust me when she flapped them. Passar preferred to stay with her Dad and pose for photos with other members of the group, only choosing to join us later.

Another test of their health is the state of their dung. In true Gillian McKeith style we inspected the poo of our elephants. Size, consistency, and water retention are all considered. You can tell an elephant’s age by the fibrous structure as older elephants chew less so their poo is more straw like than a youngster’s, and you can also tell if they have drunk enough water by squeezing the dung to see if water comes out. If it’s dry then the elephant hasn’t drunk enough, which is another sign that something’s wrong. Elephants drink gallons as well as eating all the time and as a result they poo and wee almost every hour, if they’re healthy. Believe me when I tell you, ours were VERY healthy!

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A further test of their drinking habits is to check that they are sweating. Gross? Well no, not when you learn that elephant’s sweat glands are in their feet so they only sweat around their toenails. A nice sweat stain around each nail is all you need to look for to check if an elephant is fit and well.

Both Manoi and Passar were quite healthy. In fact, as we learnt the signs, it was increasingly clear that all our elephants were happy and healthy. For a small camp like Patara, who have sixty elephants and approximately 150 acres of land, that is a credit to them as many of the older elephants came to them after less salubrious starts to life.

With the feeding and health checks successfully completed, the next part of the day was the trek, a bit like taking your dog for a walk, only the elephants took us. I have ridden an elephant before, on Koh Samui, where I used a chair on its back and rode bareback on its neck. A seat can cause all sorts of problems for an elephant. I hadn’t known this when I did it and I certainly wouldn’t do it again now I do. The correct, most comfortable, place to ride an elephant is right up against the back of their heads on their necks, with your knees tucked up on the top of their ears and your feet dangling behind them. When I say comfortable, I mean comfortable for the elephant, because I suffered from acute cramp in my hips and knees after a while! It is quite secure though, as long as you trust the elephant and counterbalance yourself as they move so that you don’t fall off. Manoi had a rope around her shoulders to hold onto if I felt worried, and when descending steep slopes on a tall elephant I did feel worried.

Passar is too young to ride. She simply walked with her Mum. Or rather, rushed off into the undergrowth, bulldozed every tree she saw then ricocheted back onto the track on her knees right under her mum’s feet! Apparently, this is ‘play’ and the sign of a happy elephant. I was inclined to call her a liability, like a bulldozer with no driver and no brakes is a liability, and she caused many hair raising moments for us all, whilst also being the most adorable thing I have ever seen!

After about an hour, we came to a waterfall, where our elephants were to have their bath. Elephant’s skin is very thick and hairy, and of course, they get dusty every day, so they must be kept clean on a daily basis, just like us. We all had lunch first, and then it was bath time. Let me tell you that cleaning an elephant is not all about splashing and laughing and having your photo taken. There is an element of that of course, but actually, it’s bloody hard work! While Pon, her handler, used a wicker bowl to splash Manoi as she lay down in the pool I was handed a scrubbing brush and told to scrub. I clambered onto her back and worked over her head, back and shoulders, then slipped into the water as she rose so that I could do her flanks, scrubbing hard for a good fifteen minutes to ensure all her skin was clean. Then I had to keep throwing water at her to rinse her down. I actually bathed an elephant, and it was amazing!

Eventually, we had to return to the camp. I was exhausted, but jubilant. The trek through the forest had been brilliant, the weather overcast but not raining and not too hot, the insects had whined but not bitten and the hills had worn cloud caps that created an otherworldly feel. It was probably one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. Patara do a great job of caring for their elephants and their guests. Their philosophy, that we are one global family and we should treat everyone and everything as such, is born of Buddhism and a lesson we should all remember.

So, why do elephants cry? It is not, as is sometimes suggested by charitable campaigns, because they are sad. In fact, if the tears stop, you should start to worry. An elephant has no tear ducts so continuously weeps to keep the eye healthy. Equal tear stains on an elephant’s face indicate that all is well rather than misery or mistreatment. So next time you see an elephant in Thailand, or anywhere, check the signs: flapping ears and tail, dusty sides, tearstained eyes and sweaty toenails (I’ll let you off inspecting the dung). It sounds disgusting to us but it means nirvana for elephants.