Tag Archives: #boats

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!

 

 

 

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.

Reflections on Inle Lake

As my brightly painted long-tail boat sped back across the vast, tranquil waters of Inle Lake, I took a moment to count my blessings. The sun warmed my back as the moon beckoned me on to my hotel in Nyaungshwe and I felt, well, blessed.

According to Timehop exactly one year ago to the day I had spent ten successive days marking and moderating GCSE folders, crunching data, writing reports and filing progress checks, on top of my normal teaching timetable, while frantically searching for new accommodation and a new job! Fast forward 365 days and I was exploring an area of natural beauty by wooden boat, visiting watery villages built on stilts over the lake; watching local fishermen balance, one-legged, on the very tip of their long, low wooden boats, reeling in nets while steering with a pole entwined by their other leg. I was laughing as flocks of black cormorants dispersed before us, taking cartoon runs across the surface of the water before settling down a few yards further on.

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I was realizing how lucky I was to experience this place. Popular, by Myanmar tourist standards, but vast enough not to feel crowded. I could see plenty of other long boats scudding along in the distance and hear the lawn-mower hum of their engines but I was also passing ordinary fishermen, plying their trade, mostly oblivious to us. I felt like I’d gone back in time and I stopped taking photos and just watched what they were doing, drinking in the scene. Having the time, and peace, to be able to do that was a world away from last year. I was in a different world, and I was happy to be there.

So happy, I ordered salad and a virgin mojito for dinner because heavier food would have spoilt the satisfaction I was feeling with the world! The place felt unsullied by modern living. (That is, if you look away from the perennial problem of plastic that litters the sides of the lake quite deeply in places). Simple, peaceful, almost unspoilt. I had to count my lucky stars.

I didn’t think I could like Inle Lake any more after that first day but I fell in love with it all over again the next morning. Scooting back down the canal to the now misty expanse of lake was a chilly experience, but to see fishing boats emerge out of the mist in all their pastoral glory is a sight not to be missed.

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Continuing my exploration of the channels, villages and floating gardens didn’t get old on the second day and, while I was subjected to the tourist sell even Myanmar can’t escape from, I enjoyed learning about the process of weaving lotus silk, the way to test true silver and cheroot making, each illustrating a culture rich in colour, creativity and industry.

I also loved the day market I visited. Once I’d got past the tourist stalls (yes, I did purchase – I can’t even resist the soft sell!) and into the local’s section I lost all sense of time and orientation as I wandered happily, watching cheroot smoking grandmas and a plethora of brightly hatted locals wearing colourful headscarves made from local material, or more often than not, simply colourful towels. I’ve always loved markets but this riverbank rural delight comes close to the top of the list.

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I also loved Shwe Indein Paya, a mad juxtaposition of old, crumbling, brickwork stupas reminiscent of Began, and recently restored white and gold stupas that seemed charmless in comparison. Many of the new stupas were restored with donations and had plaques of dedication on them but I preferred the older, ruinous sections more, with trees growing out of stupas and broken buddhas. Myanmar has many such sites which could be UNESCO Heritage sites but after a long period of isolation from the world the country has been slow to take on the offers of help from outside agencies, leaving beautiful sites to crumble or managing the renovations themselves, resulting in a strange juxtaposition of old and new like at Indein.

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To reach Indein you have to follow a long canal. I say canal because it was vaguely reminiscent of the scrubbier parts of the Grand Union, and it even had locks. Not the locks we know it the UK but man made steps up and down the waterway. Here, they are simply bamboo poles driven into the riverbed leaving a gap wide enough for one boat to pass through at a time. Then sandbags and reeds and debris ‘walls’ stop the water from passing and raise the level of the river behind it a little way. When you ride them in a longboat it is like bumping over the little waves on a water-ride, although the prow of the long boat rises several feet into the air and it makes it look like you are cresting white water!

My third day was very lazy. Nyaungshwe is a typical tourist base these days with little to see or do so I went to the Red Mountain Winery to spend the morning gazing out across the Shan plateau with Inle Lake to my left and rolling vineyards to my right, tasting wine and eating pizza. In spite of everything, Western influence is galloping a pace across the country, but, as yet, it hasn’t spoilt it.

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Again, I got to reflecting on how lucky I am. I was enjoying beautiful scenery less touched by tourism than many places in the world today. I’d met lovely people and seen amazing places that I’d never even heard of twelve months ago. I wasn’t working my arse off for little reward or stressed out beyond all reason. I was enjoying myself. I was content.

“There’s a hole in the boat” ©Bethany Conway

The day dawned greyly, matching my pessimistic mood exactly. I had been worried about white water rafting since the group had signed up for it over a year ago and the past few days had left me increasingly nervous. None of us knew what to expect and tensions ran pretty high with the jokes of some battling with the silent anticipation of others.

After a short journey in a cramped mini-bus we arrived by a muddy riverbank and were ushered out of the bus. This abrupt start left us a little bemused and was not helped by the language barrier of stilted English and rapid Spanish.

Slowly we gathered together and were given buoyancy aids and helmets and a short, stilted safety briefing, which was reiterated by Tim. I didn’t feel safe; my buoyancy aid didn’t completely do up and I wasn’t sure the group had followed the briefing properly but we were ushered into the waiting rafts with little ceremony and our adventure began.

Somehow I found myself at the front of the boat, NOT my plan as I could see everything. Unfortunately, so could Bethany. Some early cursing led to an alarmed cry of ‘Oh my God, there’s a hole in the boat’ when she noticed one of the drainage holes in the edge of the raft. Gales of laughter and some reassurances helped to calm her down before a few practice paddles and spins sent us flying towards our first rapid. It looked fast and bumpy but nothing like the rapids in ‘The River Wild’, which had been my greatest fear. We all paddled as instructed and hit the white water square on. Screams at the cold turned into screams of fear as Katie disappeared over the side of the boat and flashed past us, making us forget to paddle and turn sideways into the rapid. After a bumpy few seconds Tim and the guide rescued Katie and we were all soaked yet relieved to have survived our first white water rapid.

From then on it became a competition to see who could fall in. In our boat Gianni was the winner hitting the water twice from the raft and once from the rescue boat that we accidently capsized! But my favourite was Liam.

We were approaching a minor rapid that I pointed out to the casually chatting group. Liam had his back to it and queried my call but turned and paddled as instructed. He then turned round to me and grinned, as if to say ‘see, it was nothing to worry about’ at exactly the same moment as he slid, grinning and almost frozen in time, backwards into the water!

The other boat survived similar experiences, the highlight being Rachel’s disappearance under the boat only to resurface without her jelly shoes, a minor disaster compared to what could have happened.

It all came to an end too soon and everyone agreed that they’d do it again given half the chance.

Once a team photo had been taken and sweet bananas had been consumed we returned to the bus, now bathed in sunshine and smiles and returned to our hostel, ready for our next adventure.