A Travellerspoint blog

New Zealand

all seasons in one day 10 °C

North Island

We landed in Auckland on a cold and rainy autumn night, and our tan fell off somewhere between the airport and the hostel! We spent our first day hiring a camper-van and buying some much needed warm clothes, before meeting up with our friend Kirsty who had emigrated here a few months before. We went for dinner and drinks in a cozy pub on the harbor where we spent the night catching up and listening to live music.
We got a good deal on a little basic camper-van, so when we turned up and found we'd had a free upgrade to an enormous motor home that can only be described as a house on wheels, we had a shock. But we didn't ask questions, we jumped straight in and headed off into the New Zealand countryside to begin our month long road trip.
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It didn't take us long to realise that New Zealand is beautiful beyond belief.One minute you're winding through rolling hills carpeted in lush green, the next you're cutting through ancient forests or majestic snow-capped mountain ranges before cruising along a dramatic coast line. Every turn brings a new view that wouldn't look out of place as a double page spread in National Geographic. In fact, the journeys were often more impressive than the destinations.
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However, as our first stop took us straight into middle earth, this particular destination was completely surreal! We went for a tour of the movie set where 'The Shire' was filmed in The Lord of the Rings. Set in the rugged hills of a sprawling sheep farm, we explored the hobbit holes before finishing with specially brewed beer and cider in the Green Dragon Inn at sunset.
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The amazing thing about travelling New Zealand in a camper van is freedom camping. Being able to pull up anywhere you like and make that your home for the night gives you such a sense of freedom. So that night we pulled into a picnic spot in the dark and woke up the next morning under the trees to the sun streaming in from a cloudless, crisp, autumn sky and a beautiful view over a valley.
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We headed down to the Waitamo glow worm caves, which was another other-worldly experience. We descended into the gloom of the Ruakuri cave, where the guide explained to us how the beautifully intricate cave formations were created, showed us fossils embedded in the limestone walls and allowed us to get up close the fascinating glow worms; their mucus feeding lines hanging down like delicate fairy lights. We then took a boat ride through the Waitimo cave, where there were so many glow worms hanging overhead it was like looking up into a clear night sky, with millions of bioluminescent stars twinkling above us.
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That night we camped in a particularly creepy field, and continued on in the morning to our next destination.
As we were driving down the highway a pungent smell of rotten eggs began to fill our nostrils. No, it wasn't Shaun, it was the smoldering geothermal hot spot of Rotorua! Pulling into the town clouds of smoke billow from the sides of the road and although the stench of hydrogen sulphide is impossible not to notice, the whole place has a powerful, raw beauty that leaves you speechless.
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We started the day in the Polynesian spa, relaxing in the outdoor hot-pools whilst overlooking the simmering waters of sulfur bay.
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We then went for a tour around the Whakerewarewa thermal village to see the awe-inspiring geyser fields, bubbling mud pools and hot-springs. Rotorua is more than a geothermal wonderland, it's also a great place to learn about the Maori culture, and so that night we went to a Maori cultural performance and hangi feast (which is cooked undergroud on a hot rock). Shaun got dragged up to learn the famous haka, but he didn't quite pull it off as well as the All Blacks.
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The next day we decided to go white water rafting at Kaituna falls, that included the 7 meter high Okere falls - the highest commercially rafted waterfall in New Zealand! After a very brief lesson on how to raft, we kitted up and jumped straight in. At one point Shaun fell out of the raft in what appeared to be slow motion, and then proceeded to tackle the falls without a boat until we picked him up further down the rapids. The whole trip was hilarious as well as adrenaline fueled.
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A few locals told us about some natural hot springs not far from where we were, so we headed there that night. There was a little pool under a bridge where a bubbling hot spring met a cool stream creating a perfect temperature natural bath - who needs a Polynesian spa!

The next morning we headed down to beautiful lake Taupo, the largest lake in the world that encompasses an area the size of Singapore (a country with a higher population that the whole of New Zealand). We wondered into the information center to casually inquire about the price of a skydive, and somehow ended up signing up for the next pick-up in ten minutes. We figured the build up would be worse than the main event! We were picked up in a delightfully tacky white limousine, and before we could even think about what was happening we were geared up and crammed into a tiny pink plane thinking 'how the hell did I get here?'. I was the first to jump so was crammed in right next to the door. At 12,000ft the door rolled open and a freezing gust of air filled the plane completely taking my breath away. The instructor swung us out so our feet were tucked under the plane, and then we'd rolled out before I had time to protest. The split second when you roll out of the plane and start tumbling through the air feels like it's all happening in slow motion, and then you stabilize and began plummeting towards the earth. But instead of a falling sensation you feel as if you're flying, being held up by the up-rush of air. It was the most exhilarating thing either of us had ever done. Then the parachute opened, and once I'd finished screaming there was a strangely calm feeling as we soared slowly back to earth over the beautiful lake Taupo. It was incredible.
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As I had forced Shaun to jump out of a plane, the next day it was his turn to choose what we did, and so he took us somewhere equally as exciting - the prawn farm! We had a tour, and then sat for three hours in the cold trying to catch prawns. It actually turned out to be quite fun , and plus, we did manage to catch 7 prawns which Shaun made into a very tasty - albeit very small - starter.
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After a drive round the lake we headed down to Tongoriro national park - aka Mordor. But as we cut through the dramatic snow covered mountains, it looked more like a christmas card than Mount Doom. The place, like so much of New Zealand, was awe-inspiringly beautiful. We took a walk to the Teranaki falls through a winter wonderland, and finishing the day with mulled wine made us feel like Christmas had come 6 months early.
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We had a day to spare before our ferry crossing in Wellington, so we took a detour to Cape Palliser. This took us along the most scenic costal route we've ever seen, and we arrived at a small, windswept town that had an almost post-apocalyptic feel; especially when we came across a beach pilled with rusty bulldozers. The powerful waves pounded the rugged, black-sand beaches, and the only other life we saw was the pungent seal colony (that we could smell before we could see!) lounging amid the rocky shoreline. We climbed to the lighthouse for an incredible view over this eerie landscape before heading back towards Wellington.
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In Wellington we just had time for a trip to the Te Papa national museum before catching our ferry to the South Island.

South Island

We started our journey into the south island with a full day wine tour of the Marlborough region. We were taken from one boutique, family-run winery to the next, cruising through the picturesque vineyards, being plied with copious amounts of Sauvingnon Blanc and pretending to be able to smell aromas of freshly cut grass and capsicums. The last four wineries are a little hazy, but as we bought bottles of wine, luxury chocolates, and then persuaded the tour guide to take us to a supermarket so we could buy cheese and crackers on the way home, it appeared that we had a good time.
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The next day we started to head down south, stopping at the Punakiki pancake rocks on the way. These are a set of unique limestone formations that appear to be made up of stacks of rock, with powerful blow holes and surge pools where the roaring swell of the sea bursts through the formations.
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We arrived in Franz Josef in time for a walk round Lake Mattheson, where we could see a perfect reflection of Mount Cook in the calm waters of the picturesque lake, and then watched the snow-capped mountains turn pink in the sunset.
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The next day we took a helicopter up to the Franz Josef Glacier for a 3 hour hike through the ice. It was our first time in a helicopter, and it was such a strange sensation being in this noisy, round , metal capsule that didn't look like it should be airborne. But we couldn't have asked for a better view, and landing on the glacier felt as if we were about to embark on some extreme expedition. The hike through the pristine blue ice pinnacles and ice caves was incredible, and we finished the day in the rainforest hot pools followed by drinks in a cozy pub with some painfully posh but hilarious southerners.
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We then headed further south to Wanaka, on our most scenic journey yet; past vast lakes reflecting the rugged mountains. We only had a short stop in Wanaka, just enough time to take in the beautiful surroundings and... Puzzling world. This bizarre place had a 3D maze and illusion rooms that use some of the techniques used in the Lord of the Rings films.
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We then headed to Queenstown. Not only is this place the adventure capital of New Zealand, it's a beautiful lakeside town filled with gourmet restaurants and quirky bars, and perched on the foot of Coronet Peak ski field. It's the most livable place we've come across in our whole time travelling. We spent our first day on the slopes, but as neither of us had skied in a few years, there were some spectacular falls, and I did manage to take out a couple of snowboarders - which is surprising considering how slow I was moving. The snow wasn't amazing as it was so early in the season but it was great to get back on skis and fly (or fall) down the side of a mountain.
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We spent the rest of our time in Queenstown ice-skating, playing frisbee-golf in Queenstown gardens, drinking mulled wine and eating Fergbergers - which are a tourist attrataction in themselves!
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After Queenstown we headed to Dunedin and spent the day exploring the Otago Peninsular. The eerie moon-scape sand dunes and lush wetlands are home to a surprising array of wildlife - whilst walking down an empty beach we almost fell over a huge sea lion sleeping on the sand like a piece of drift wood, before seeing soaring albatrosses fly overhead with their enormous three-meter wing span. Unfortunately we didn't have chance to see the peninsular's most famous resident - the rare yellow eyed penguin - as they can only be seen at dusk, and we needed to head back to Dunedin for our tour of the Speight's brewery. The tour was really good, especially as it ended with an open bar where you could pour your own selection of Speights ales and cider.
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The next day we stopped at the Moreaki Boulders. They're apparently formed by calcite concreations forming around ocean debris millions of years ago - in a similar way to how pearls are formed within an oyster - with the result being these enormous, completely spherical rocks that litter he beach like some giant discarded game of marbles. It's an unbelievable sight.
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We then had a stopover at Omuru, and were lucky enough to spot a few yellow eyed penguins coming back to their nests after a days fishing before heading to the blue penguin colony. These tiny blue birds are the smallest species of penguin in the world, and with little viewing panels above their nests we could get a really close look at these incredible creatures. After dark we sat and watched hundreds of them waddle and squwark their way from the sea back to the colony. We weren't allowed to take pictures, but it probably isn't a sight I'll forget any time soon.
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We finally reached Christchurch, where we had tickets to watch the All Blacks Vs France that night! The damage left by 2011 earthquake was more visible than we had anticipated, but the city still seemed vibrant and friendly. We went to he Re:Start shipping container mall and - as Christchurch is the 'aerial gateway to the Antarctic' - we also went to the international Antarctic center, where we could experience a simulated Antarctic storm.
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The atmosphere at the rugby game that night was incredible, especially as we had front row seats amid the patriotic Kiwis, to watch the bone-chilling haka followed by a 30-0 victory for the All Blacks. Not that this deterred the French fans from singing continuosly at the top of their lungs in the pub after the game!
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With just a few days left in New Zealand, we took a return trip souh to Kaikora in the hope of swimming with wild dolphins. Kaikora is yet another place that demonstrates the raw, rugged beauty of New Zealand. With misty mountains stretching to the rocky shorelines, the place is teaming with spectacular wildlife - from albatrosses to seals, sperm whales to duskey dolphins - the place is magical.
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However, as our dolphin tour was unsuccesful at actually finding any dolphins, it was a slightly anticlimactic end to the trip! We did however see a sperm whale, and took a walk to a beautiful waterfall where hundreds of playful wild seal pups were frolicking in the frothy waters.
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It was then time to head back to Christchurch for our flight to Fiji. And although we were happy to be leaving the caravan and the cold, we could have stayed there for much longer - it is country that is very easy to fall in love with! New Zealand is so much more than throwing yourself out of a plane or off a bridge, down waterfalls or snowy slopes; it is a country of astounding natural beauty, warm friendly locals and a unique and cherished culture. This photogenic country is so filled with diversity that it never stops surprising. You really do need to see it to believe it... but be warned, you may find it hard to leave!

Posted by ShaunYardley 19:52 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Singapore, Bali to Flores

sunny 30 °C

Singapore

After the beautiful chaos of Sulawesi, we stepped off the plane in Singapore into a pristine, air-conditioned world of order, convenience and efficiency. The whole city seemed to have been designed to make life as easy and comfortable as possible, which was a nice change at first but we quickly found ourselves slightly bored. With only a couple of days in Singapore we unfortunately had to spend a lot of our time trying to replace all the items that I had unintentionally donated to an Indonesian taxi driver a few days before, but as there appeared to be more malls than people, it was the perfect place to do some shopping!

After that we had just enough time left for dinner and drinks in the shockingly expensive but beautifully decadent Clarke Quay, and a day out at Singapore Zoo and Night Safari! On the way to the zoo, Shaun decided he would chose to drink chocolate milk on the bus in the cleanest city in the world... and when the bus lurched forward he sprayed it all over an angry Singaporean in a white shirt. Shocked gasps and wet-wipes appeared from every angle and I thought the whole bus was going eat us alive! But in the end the zoo was the best we've ever been to. We sat with orangutans, chased after lemurs and dodged flying foxes, before heading to the night safari to see the nocturnal animals come to life.
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From the very little that we saw of Singapore, we didn't find it to be the friendliest or most character-filled place we'd ever seen, so we were more than happy to board the plane back into the colour and chaos of Indonesia.

Ubud and the Gilis

It didn't take us long to realize that Bali wasn't quite what we had expected. We were shocked at how bad the traffic was and how built up the place seemed to be. Every inch of the place was crammed with shops, fast food restaurants and busy roads. Not the island paradise we imagined. We headed straight up to Ubud for a few days; a busy but lovely town filled with beautiful Balinese guesthouses, temples, spas, boutique shops and yoga and meditation centers on every corner. The streets are lined with intricate offerings and unique architecture, littered with petals and, much to our surprise, enormous grotesque figures that had been left discarded from the recent Nyepi festival.
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We had a few lazy days wondering though the town, trailing through the art shops and craft workshops but mostly relaxing, drinking Bintang and trying the Balinese cuisine. We hired a scooter and went exploring the beautiful temples and rice terraces of the surrounding area, and on the way back stopped in a little town where we found a stall selling delicious roast suckilng pig for dinner amid the busy markets.
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We then decided to move on to the Gili Islands for some beach time and diving. However, as we were hungover, had 'delicate' stomachs and were covered in furiously itchy bed bug bites, the speed boat trip over there was not exactly fun, and this was probably the first time we began to feel a little homesick!

The Gilli islands are a set of three idyllic Indonesian islands, with squeaky white sands and an abundance of turtles! Gilli Meno especially was extremely laid back, with just a few beach bungalows, restaurants, bars and a couple of dive shops, and as there are no motorbikes or cars allowed on the islands, the little sandy roads are filled with horse drawn carriages. It was the perfect place to wind down for a few days. Gilli Tarawangan was much livelier, with bars and clubs lining the main street and a huge square crammed with warungs where we could eat cheap and delicious grilled red snapper and Nasi Goreng. We spent our time snorkeling, diving, relaxing on the beaches and visiting the turtle sanctuary! Shaun did have a slight scare during our dive when he ran out of air, despite his pressure gauge showing 30 bar. The dive guide however didn't seem to think it was anything to fret about - after all, it's only air!
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Climbing Rinjani

After so much relaxing we obviously thought it was about time we climbed a mountain. Actually, we decided it was about time to climb the second highest volcano in Indonesia that takes 3 days to reach the summit. I think we momentarily forgot that we are unfit and don't particularly like trekking.

Because the volcano is sacred, we had a blessing and set off into the hot and sticky jungle to begin our assent.
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It was tough right from the start, and in the first half hour I wasn't sure that I'd make it through the first day. But once we found our pace (a pace somewhere roughly between extremely slow and stationary) it was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other.
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We had one guide and 3 porters who carried all of our camping gear, food and water supplies in unimaginably heavy baskets joined by a bamboo pole that they rested on their shoulders. They wore only shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops, and practically ran up the steep path ahead of us in order to set up camp and get our dinner ready for when we arrived. It made us feel incredibly unfit that we were pouring with sweat and panting as they were storming on ahead of us. The jungle slowly turned to dense shrubs and then grassy rolling hills as the altitude increased, and after 7 hours of solidly uphill trekking, the last hour before our first base camp was so steep we had to climb on our hands and knees through the rocks.
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Our camp site was situated on a ridge, but we couldn't see much of what was over the edge due to a thick fog. But as we were setting up our tents, the fog dissipated and a beautiful turquoise crater lake, surrounded by jagged mountains and crowned with a dark smoldering volcano came into view. That night, we sat watching the volcano become intermittently illuminated by a raging thunderstorm off in the distance, which was probably one of the most impressive sights we've ever seen.
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The next morning, we woke for sunrise, and set off down to the crater lake over a slippery, treacherous path carved into the rock. After a few hours we reached what was supposed to be natural hot springs (that could only be described as luke-warm springs) for a much needed wash before continuing on to the final base camp. By this point we were beginning to feel exhausted, the climb became steeper and as we reached up into a cold wet fog and it began to pour down with rain we lost most of our motivation. When we eventually reached the base camp we fell into our tents, climbed straight into our sleeping bags and fell asleep.
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The next morning we were woken at 2:30am for the climb to the summit, in the hope that we would make it for sunrise. It was bitterly cold and still raining, and putting on our wet clothes and venturing out into the dark was definitely a low point.
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Now is probably a good time to mention that we had the camp crazy person, Sarah, in our group, and although the guide had suggested that she should wait for us at base camp as the summit is much harder than anything we'd experienced so far, she was determined. After around 15 minutes of scrambling uphill through slippery black gravel, she began screaming and swearing untill the guide had to leave us to continue on whilst he took her to a safe spot to wait for us. The last 300m were hell, it was incredibly steep and the gravel beneath our feet was so unstable that every step we took left us slipping two paces back. It was so disheartening, especially as the sun started to rise. I almost gave up 100m from the top, but in the end we reached the summit to find a few hard-core German trekkers sat waiting at the top. The clouds cleared and and in the pinkish glow of the rising sun we could see the Gili islands looking like three tiny turtles on the surface of the sea. We could see as far as Bali to one side and Sumbawa on the other, not to mention the huge smoldering crater below us. We were on the top of the world.
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It was only on the climb back down in the light that we realised the path was crumbling away, and one wrong footing could have sent us plummeting down the side of the volcano!
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When we neared base camp, we found Sarah clinging to a tree, again screaming at the guide and telling him that she had a near death experience. He guided her back to camp where she sat telling us to hurry up packing the tents because 'she would like to get home at some point today', and then walked around the rest of the groups telling anyone who would listen that the guide had almost killed her. It was definitely an awkward walk back down! The drama didn't quite end there, and another girl in our group fell badly and had to be carried back by her boyfriend for the rest of the way, meaning we didn't reach the village untill half five - meaning we spent a full fifteen hours walking on our last day!

The Boat to Komodo

After a day to recover in an air-conditioned hotel room, we set off on a four day boat trip to Flores, that would stop at both islands in Komodo national park to see the highly anticipated Komodo dragons! We knew that this wasn't going to be any luxury cruise, but when we arrived at the harbor and saw what looked to be small fishing boat that was going be the home to us, fifteen other guests and five crew for the next 4 days, we definitely had reservations as we stepped aboard. The boat had an upper deck, lined with mattresses and covered with a tarpaulin, and a slippery lower deck with a kitchen (a corner with a gas stove), toilet and cool box of beer. No shower, no seats. However, the rest of the group all seemed nice, which was a relief seeing as we were to be staying in such close quarters over the next few days! One of the best things about travelling is meeting a huge variety of people that we would never usually encounter in our daily lives, and this boat trip epitomized this. On board was an incredibly eclectic mix of people including two travelling circus performers and a 77 year old nomad Jim, who had been travelling none stop for the last 23 years and didn't show any signs of slowing down!
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The first moring we stopped off on a little island to visit a beautiful cascading waterfall for the coldest shower of our lives, and then moved on to another island for some snorkeling.
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That afternoon we set off on the 17 hour trip that would take us through the night to Komodo. This is when the storm came. The tiny boat was thrown about on the thrashing waves and rain lashed in through the plastic sheets that were pulled down over the open sides of the boat. People began to feel sea sick and were throwing up over the back of the boat, and there was nothing to do but huddle on the sleeping deck and wait for morning. Shaun went down to use the toilet in the middle of the night, and with the boat still tumbling around on the waves in complete darkness, the captain sat at the wheel with nothing but a tiny compass and a spliff. It was not the safest thing we'd ever done.
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In the morning we were all relieved to wake up to clear skies, still water and a beautiful sunrise.
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We went snorkeling at red beach and then headed to Komodo national park, for a guided tour through the island, hunting for the dragons. These modern day dinosaurs can grow up to three meters long, reach speeds of 20kph and with a mouth so full of bacteria just one bite can leave their prey dying from infection.
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This is why, when we saw that our guides were armed only with sticks, we were feeling a little nervous. During the three hour walk through the beautiful untouched island, the dragons appeared to evade us. We spotted plenty of dragon food; deer, wild boar, monkeys - but no dragons.
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This was until we neared the ranger station towards the end of the tour, and saw four of these huge lizards lying there like logs. They payed no attention to the wild boar that was trotting about in the distance, and even less attention to us. Although they looked magnificent, it was hard to imagine these lazy looking lizards being any sort of threat!
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After the guided tour we reluctantly jumped back on the boat and headed to Gilli Laba Laba to watch the sunset. As the sun sank hundreds of flying foxes took flight and seemed to fill the entire sky. We attempted to fish, without any luck (despite Shaun's determination!) and as the darkness gradually descended we sat around fishing off the remaining beer from the cool box.
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The next day, we were once again woken at sunrise, this time for a guided morning tour around Rinca, the second island in Komodo national park. The island was beautiful, with stunning views from the top of the rugged grassy hills, and unusual Dr-Suess-esque trees dotting the horizon.
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The dragon spotting was also much more successful. It only took a few minutes before we heard the trees behind us rustle, and whipped round to see one of these terrifying lizards stalking out into the long grass looking for it's next meal. It was an amazing sight.
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After Rinca we continued on to a picturesque little island for a final snorkel, where we spent the majority of our time swimming with two baby reef sharks! We then, much to everyone's relief, finally pulled into the harbor at Labuan Bajo and ran to find a room that didn't sway through the night.
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Labuan Bajo

We met up with everyone from the boat trip over the next few nights, and a few of us decided to book a full day diving trip whilst we were there, as Komodo national park is supposed to be one of best diving spots in the world. We booked with DiversParadiseKomodo and turned up at 7am the next morning ready for our trip. That is when things started to unravel. We were told that the usual boat was in for repair, but that they had managed to a acquire a replacement boat and crew for the day. When we saw the boat, it was clear that it was barely sea worthy, never mind fit for diving, and took an hour to leave the harbor as the steering didn't work. This is when we also discovered that there was only one dive guide for a group of seven people. We probably should have abandoned the trip right there, but the dive guide was determined to continue. We missed the first dive sight due the boat's inability to steer, and ended up in relatively close proximity to another dive sight that we were told we would have to just swim to. However, the currents around Komodo are so strong and we ended up getting washed straight over the dive sight! A little speed boat had to drag us back and we tried again. Because the currents were so strong we were told to kick down as quickly as we could, but my ears wouldn't equalize quick enough and we had to call off the dive completely. We then had to sit for about 20 minutes, floating on the surface of the water, waiting for the boat's engine to start up so it could come and collect us. The rest of the day was just as disastrous, and then culminated in the crew getting the boat stuck on a shallow reef on the way home. By this point it was around 7pm and the majority of the dive boats were already safely back in the harbor. As the tide gradually receded, the boat began to tip to one side, and it was clear that the boat was stuck there until the tide changed the next morning. We had no lights, and no water and had to wait 3 hours for a rescue boat. When it finally arrived we were told we would have to swim to it. The water was pitch black, shark infested and the currents were strong and unpredictable, so we all unsurprisingly refused. We then had to wait for a man in a little fishing boat from a neighboring island to come and take us over in groups of three. We eventually returned to harbor at almost 1:00am. The disastrous trip didn't quite end there, as we then had to fight for a full refund with the manager Wolfgang who refused to come into the shop to hear our complaints. After a staff member quitting on the spot, and Shaun being told he was a bully and 'undemocratic' he eventually gave in and we received our full refund 'out of courtesy'. But as we were flying back to Bali the next day, we were more disappointed that we'd missed our chance to dive in Komodo National Park. We thought we'd heard the last from them, but a few weeks later we received an email from the dive guide, Theo, admitting that he wasn't actually a qualified a Dive Master, and had been guiding groups solo before he had even finished his Rescue course. We can't say we were too surprised!
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Back to Bali

After a less than perfect end to our Indonesia trip, we decided to spend our last day in Bali in luxury. We booked into a guest house with a beautiful private garden and pool, air-conditioned rooms with big flat screen TVs and an amazing restaurant on site. So after a day of being waited on by the pool, we reluctantly said our last good bye to Asia and boarded the plane to Australia.
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Posted by ShaunYardley 02:55 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Sulawesi - Indonesia

sunny 30 °C

WARNING: SOME PICTURES SHOWN BELOW MAY BE CONSIDERED TO BE OF A VIOLENT OR GRUESOME NATURE

Makassar

Growing up in England, we've become particularly accustomed to banal small talk with strangers - it did not take us long to realize that the Indonesian people appear to be much more to the point. We sat next to a lovely Indonesian lady called Poppy on the plane to Makassar, whose first question to us was: "So when do you plan on getting married?". This seems to be a perfectly acceptable question that results in Shaun breaking into a cold sweat and squirming uncomfortably in his chair. The next question was: "How much do you earn?" and the conversation gets no less invasive as time goes on. When we landed, Poppy and her family insisted on driving us into Makassar, to our hostel and then arranging to take us out for lunch the next day.

Makassar is a big chaotic city of minimal appeal. Actually if I'm being completely honest it's about as appealing as a hole in the head. The only redeeming factor was being taken out by Poppy and her daughter for a delicious Makassarian lunch followed by traditional cakes and desserts. We then met the whole family including her two adorable grandchildren, before she left us with a big bag of pastries for the bus journey that night! We kept waiting for the catch but it never materialized (although they did make us try durian fruit - which to us had the smell, taste and consistency of what can only be described as cheesy sick).P3070681.jpg

The rest of our time in Makassar was quite tiring, with people following us round for hours asking to practice their English, take our picture, record us speaking or just shouting 'hello mister!' and staring at us so intensely that we had to check we hadn't suddenly sprouted another head. So we were glad to settle onto the bus that night and head up to Tana Toraja (even if we didn't get a minute of sleep as the driver insisted on playing hard core dance music the whole night).

Tana Toraja

After a sleepless night on a cockroach infested rave bus, we arrived in Rantepo to an onslaught of hostel owners, ojek drivers and guides, which we did not have the patience to deal with as 6am. So after checking into our hostel we hid away in our room for a few hours to catch up on some sleep. One guide had sat waiting for us for hours outside our room, and in the in end his persistence paid off and we hired him for the next day.

Although around 90% of Torajans are Christian, they still retain many of their traditional beliefs and ceremonies - especially when it comes to their funerals and attitudes towards death, which remain an integral part the Torajan life style and culture. In fact, many people spend their whole lives saving up for their own elaborate funeral ceremony. When a family member dies they are injected with formaldehyde and kept in the family home, and are not regarded as deceased until their funeral up to a year later. Buffalo sacrifices are of utmost importance n Torajan Funeral ceremonies, as they believe that the spirit of the animal caries the deceased into the afterlife, and as buffaloes are such a symbol of status and wealth, over 40 Buffalo can be sacrificed at an upper class funeral - each costing the price of a small car!

Whilst we were in Toraja, we were lucky enough to attend two funerals. The first ceremony was only small, but as it was the 3rd day it was the day when the buffaloes were sacrificed. We had not been there long when the massacre began with a squealing pig being dragged by it's back legs into the clearing where it was stabbed in the heart and gutted before having it's hair singed off with a kerosene torch.
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This however in no way prepared us for what was to happen next. Five placid yet proud buffalo were led into the clearing, and one by one their throats were slit in one swift motion. A crimson fountain exploded from the giant red wound, as they reared up and threw back their huge heads before falling silent and dignified to the floor. All this taking place in front of an incongruous Christian pulpit and crucifix, made it seem like a scene from a bizarre macabre nightmare.
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The next funeral was much bigger, and as it was the 2nd day; the receiving of the guests, it had much less blood and death and seemed much more like a party! There must have been around a thousand guests for the funeral of a 90 year old man. The beautiful Grandchildren of the deceased wore colorful traditional Torajan dress, and were so welcoming. They thanked us for coming and asked if they could take pictures with us before seating us with the family for tea and cakes. A few of the smaller Grandchildren followed Shaun round like little shadows, and an old woman chewing bettel nuts and who had the most infectious laugh, sat with us and tried to teach us some Torajan phrases. The guests were lead in by the Grandchildren in groups of around fifty, preceded by their donations of live pigs strapped to bamboo or huge barrels of palm wine. A big circle of people all dressed in black sang traditional songs as each group of guests was seated and presented with cigarettes and betel nuts. It couldn't have been further from the funerals we have back home, it felt more like a celebration of the life of the deceased and a time when family and friends come from all over the country (some even as far as Papua and Australia) to get together and essentially have a big three day party. There was even a videographer their to record the entire event!
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After the funerals we went for a lunch of palm wine and pork cooked in bamboo. I was still feeling a little queasy, but Shaun polished off all of his and the majority of mine... it takes more than a couple of animal sacrifices to put him off his food! We then went to see some rock graves, where detailed wooden effigies of the deceased, with blank eyes and outstretched arms, guard the grave from a little balcony.
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We also went to an ancient cave grave, which although was set amid tranquil, glistening rice fields, was a little unnerving once we'd clambered into the dark, dank cave to find it littered with skulls and watched over by more eerie wooden effigies.
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After that, the rain came like we'd never seen rain before and cut our unexpectedly enjoyable day short. So after Shaun had a crash course in off-road scootering - tackling roads that a 4X4 would struggle with, we arrived back at the hostel completely exhausted and soaked to the bone.

The next day we decided to go exploring the region without a guide. We started the day at the livestock market. We wondered between old men selling little squealing piglets from sacks, and huge fully grown pigs strapped down to bamboo, their guttural, child-like squeals filling the air.
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The next stop were the stars of the show; the hundreds of great, docile buffaloes tied up by the rings through their noses as potential buyers deliberated over which would look best at the upcoming funerals. As we were leaving we saw the highly sort after white buffalo - with black spots and wild blue eyes - being paraded round by their proud owners. They can be sold for up to $10,000!
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We then jumped back onto the scooter and headed into the hills. Toraja is beautiful, littered with towering, Tongkahon houses crowned by sweeping boat-shaped roofs, set amid cascading rice paddies to a backdrop of misty, jungle-clad hills. Soaring Megaliths,ornate hanging graves and picturesque villages dot the landscape. Friendly old women bent double from a life time working in the fields stop to chat, kids run out of their houses to shout hello, huge buffalo wallow in the mud or cool off in the streams whilst families work away in the fields. The people we met were so passionate about their culture, and were more than happy to tell us stories and answer our questions. Despite such a heavy emphasis on death, it really is one of the most beautiful and unique places we have ever been.
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Togean Islands

We had been told that getting to the Togean Islands was an adventure in itself, but despite it taking us a whole three days to get there, it was a lot easier than expected. We took a painfully slow but scenic ten hour bus journey to Tentenna, which at one point came to a complete standstill when a fallen tree blocked the road and so Shaun, along with the driver and a few other passengers, had to saw it in half and heave it out of the way. We had to stay the night in Tentenna, where no one really spoke much English and we consequently had to pick up some Indonesian phrases pretty quickly. We eventually found someone to drive us to Ampanna the next day, where we had to stay another night before getting a boat to the islands. On the boat over, we were asleep on the deck when the captain ('Captain Nine' he proudly told us, as he was missing a thumb!) woke us up to show us a huge pod of dolphins jumping right by our boat. I think it was at that point that we realized that the three day journey was definitely going to be worth it.
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We arrived on Poyalisa island, and stepped off the boat onto complete paradise. It was a tiny island holding one resort with just eight other people staying there. For just ten pounds a day we had our own private bungalow, plus three meals a day (invariably fresh fish and rice with spicy tomato salsa - but still delicious!). All the guests ate together on one long table so there was a really sociable atmosphere where everyone got to know each other pretty quickly. The island had two pristine white sand beaches, and the sea was so unbelievably calm and clear that we didn't even need a snorkel - we could just hang off the jetty and see the colourful aquarium below like we were looking through glass. The best time of the day was always sunset, where everyone gathered with a couple of beers to watch the sun sink slowly beyond the horizon, as burnt orange brush stokes appeared across the sky. One night a huge ray lurched about two meters out of the water to the spectacular sunset backdrop, another night we saw huge marlin and hundreds of flying fish skimming across the water. At night, the phosphoresence left twinkling footprints in the sand and there were more stars in the sky than I even thought possible - we could even make out the milky way. If you don't mind bucket showers and the occasional enormous spider... this is paradise!
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Some of the staff took us all out on the boat one morning, where we went to an amazing snorkaling spot followed by lunch on a perfect deserted beach. After lunch we cracked open a couple of coconuts that we'd found lying on the sand for dessert before heading back to the island through a Bajo stilt village.
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Our next stop on the Togeans was Kadidiri, which although wasn't quite as beautiful and homely as Poyalisa, it was still pretty close to perfect. We spent a few long lazy days sat reading in the hammock on the long sun-bleached wooden jetty that reached out into the sea, punctuated only by a quick snorkel or a few games of badminton.
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We went on a day trip to the memorizing jelly fish lake. A completely isolated salt water lake on a neighboring island, where the thousands of jelly fish that inhabit it have lived so isolated for so long without any predators, that they have completely lost the ability to sting. It was so surreal swimming through the swarms if pulsating alien creatures, gently nudging them out of the way, or - if you are Shaun - putting them on your head. We then stopped at yet another perfect beach for a snorkel before heading back to the island.
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Much to our disappointment the time eventually came for us to catch the 12 hour night ferry from the neighboring island of Wakai, to Gorantalo back on the mainland. A highlight of the country so far had been the unbelievably friendly locals, especially the kids, who want to constantly try and talk to us. Unfortunately our Indonesian is very poor, but Shaun figured out that magic tricks transcend language barriers. And so waiting for the ferry in Wakai, he was surrounded by a huge group of kids, laughing and dragging their friends over and trying to get him to show them how to make things disapear, or showing us some of their own magic tricks with elastic bands.

Bunaken

After a 12 hour sleepless night ferry, a 10 hour car ride with 7 people people crammed into a car that could really only hold 5 (with a chain smoking driver just to make the journey that little more comfortable!), and a 30 minute speedboat ride, we finally arrived on Bunaken; a small island renound for having some of the best diving in the world. We started diving the very next morning, and our first dive was the best we'd ever done. We saw a white tip reef shark and two green turtles within the first 10 minutes! The next dive spot was spectacular, a huge wall of coral that looked as if a toddler had been let lose with Plasticine and stuck unnaturally bright and colourful, bizarrely shaped blobs haphazardly between the barrel sponges, neon nudibranches and sleeping turtles. The only problem was that the currents were much stronger than we were used to, and we were both finding the dive really difficult. At one point towards the end of the dive, I got caught in a strong up current and dragged up and over the top of the coral wall. The dive master saw me and swam into the current, rescued me and took me back up and onto the boat. Because I was feeling a bit shuck up he gave me a free dive the next day so I could get my confidence back. He took us to a really easy dive site with no currents, where we saw giant clams and a huge sea snake, and I felt much better afterwards.

The main reason people come to Bunaken is for the spectacular world that lies beneath the surface of the sea. But it's also a great a place to relax after a full day of diving and snorkeling. At night we sat on the beach round a big camp fire whilst Lorenzo, the big friendly resort owner, sat and played songs for everyone on his home made ukulele!

Tangkoko national park

After getting the boat back to the mainland, we set off on yet another not so straight forward journey up to Tangkoko national park; the home of the rare nocturnal tarsier and the endangered black crested Macaque. This involved a mikrolet (a small taxi/bus which is really just a mini bus with the doors cut off!), a public bus, another mikrolet and finally a pickup truck crammed with 22 people! We honestly looked like a group of Chinese contortionists! We eventually reached Tangkoko and found a homestay and a guide, who arranged to pick us up at 4:30am the next morning to begin our trek.

The next morning we set off into the dark jungle, and after about an hour we arrived at an enormous knotted banyan tree that was home to the tiny tarsiers. We sat in the dark in front of the tree, and then as the jungle around us began to get lighter, we heard a distant high-pitch singing. The guide turned to me and whispered: 'They're coming!' and a few seconds later we started to see around six of these little fluffy tarsiers, each about the size of your hand, their huge saucer eyes glinting in the light from our torches, their ungainly long legs and arms propelling them through the trees. They stopped a few feet away from us in their banyan tree, staring at us inquisitively with their impossibly big eyes and every now and then jumping close to us to catch an unfortunate cricket from a near by tree. It was amazing to see. After the sun had risen and they had dissapeard within the tree, we set off to search for the endangered black crested Macaques that inhabit the forest. We saw the great hornbill, and poked our heads into another Banyan tree to see yet more sleeping tarsiers, but the Macaques continued to evade us. By 10am we were exhausted, hot and ready for breakfast, but the guide was determined. We'd almost given up hope when we saw a huge macaque stride through the forest floor in front of us. As we followed him more and more macaques began to appear, swinging down from trees, clutching tiny white faced babies, munching on fruit or sat grooming each other on nearby fallen trees. There must have been about 50 of them, going about their daily lives without giving us a second glance as we walked among them.It was definitely a David Attenbourgh moment! At one point I was even sat on a log where 3 macaques were sat grooming each other on the other end. That is until a rather large member of the group strutted up and bared his teeth and I made a swift exit! It was unbelievable, and the only other people we saw in the whole jungle were two BBC documentary cameramen - which kind of gives an indication of how amazing this place was!

So whilst we were still on a high after the best trek of our lives, I decided to leave my bag in a mikrolet on the way back to Monado. That included my camera along with the last weeks worth of pictures (hence the lack of pictures towards the end of this entry!), my kindle, the guide book and my purse... all donated to an Indonesian mikrolet driver. So that was an unfortunate end to the best 3 weeks of our trip so far! But even with the mammoth journeys and occasional unfortunate incidents, this lesser known island of Indonesia has never stopped surprising us and has been the most beautiful, unique and diverse place we've ever been.

Posted by ShaunYardley 03:54 Archived in Indonesia Comments (0)

Malaysia

semi-overcast 30 °C

Penang

We arrived in Georgetown late at night, after a long 12 hour journey that involved a very bumpy speedboat ride and a mini bus driver who appeared to have Tourettes. The first indication that we were going to like this city, was that when we finally reached our hostel and asked the man at reception if it was too late to find somewhere to eat, he laughed and replied: 'This is Penang! People eat here 24 hours a day!' He then proceed to write out a list of restaurants we had to visit, and dishes we had to try, and then highlighted 4 and told us he wouldn't let us leave until we had tried them!

Penang is famous for food, and with a little India, a China town and innumerable Malaysian hawker stalls, there is a lot to choose from. So we got started that night with a platter of tandoori chicken, a big wad of naan bread and a plateful of different curry sauces. Over the next few days we treated Penang like an all you can eat buffet, working our way through the list. We tried Roti Cani, Char koay Teow, Wan Tan Mee, Mee Goreng - even Hokken Mee complete with pig entrails, and the famous Fish head soup, Laska (neither of which are particularly appetizing - but we've come to realize that things described as 'delicacies' rarely are!). We enjoyed the Malaysian food, but what we really loved was the Indian food... claypot Byrianis, gapatis, Puri, Masala Tonsai, curried potato and chickpeas and a dozen different currys.
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But anyway, apart from eating we spent the days working up an appetite with some serious sight seeing in the blistering heat! Georgetown is a really interesting city to explore, with grand mansions and colonial architecture alongside eccentric Chinese wooden houses, ornate Hindu and Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and cathedrals. The busy streets are strung with Chinese paper lanterns and dotted with imaginative street art. We visited a beautiful hilltop temple that had an enormous bronze statue of The Godess of Mercy, a koi carp pond where the fish swam in a perfect figure eight, and a liberation pond filled with turtles where you can make a wish. We went to the botanical gardens that were over run with black Macaques and huge monitor lizards, and we also spent an uncharacteristic amount of time in museums and art galleries - mainly to take advantage of the air conditioning!
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On our last day, Shaun said it was his turn to decide what we did... so we went to a pet shop, the cinema and McDonalds... 3 of his favourite things!

Cameran Highlands

As the Cameran highlands never really reaches above 20 °C, it was a huge relief from the sticky, sweaty streets of Penang. The town has an abundance of English tea, strawberries, scones and hikers - and seeing as it rained every day we were there, it kind of felt like home! Whilst we were there we decided to go on a trek to see the Rafflesia flower; the biggest flower on earth that is only in bloom for around 4 days. So we trekked for over 2 hours in the jungle, in the pouring rain, over rivers and fallen trees, wading through thick mud and getting attacked by leaches - to see one very big flower.
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We also went on a trek to the mossy forest, which is apparently one of the oldest in the world and filled with prehistoric ferns and carnivorous pitcher plants. The guide knew everything there was to know about the forest, and as the place was so damp, eerie and dripping with moss, it felt as if we'd stumbled onto a Lord of the Rings set. After the guided trek we thought it would be a good idea to trek back to town with some German hiking enthusiasts. As Shaun was the most reluctant member of the group, it was quite surprising that when the trail turned out to be harder and more complicated than we were lead to believe, he ended up leading the way and got us all home unscathed! Even if he did fall over spectacularly down a particularly slippy embankment and had to walk the rest of the way covered in mud.
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Whilst we were in the highlands we also visited a strawberry plantation, where we had strawberries and scones; a butterfly farm where we held a rhinoceros beetle, an orchid mantis and a dried leaf frog; and Shaun's favorite place so far, the tea plantation. This is where we saw the whole tea making process and then sat on a balcony overlooking the picturesque plantation whilst drinking tea. As I don't actually like tea, I took this opportunity to eat an enormous chocolate cake.
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The only problem with the Highlands was that there wasn't really anything to do at night, and the only place open past 10pm was a Starbucks. Consequently, we spent most nights just gorging ourselves on Indian and Chinese food!
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Tamen Negara

At 130 million years old, Tamen Negara is known as one of the oldest rain forests on earth. To get there we had to take a two hour boat trip down a fast flowing river with dense jungle looming over us on either side. From the boat we could already see playful monkeys swinging from branches and colourful tropical birds flitting between the trees, so we were really excited to start exploring the rainforest.
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We reached the little village at the national park headquarters, and after checking into our hostel we went on a guided night walk through the jungle. Unfortunately, the tour was a little overcrowded, and as our group contained four girls who screamed every time they saw an insect, it's a surprise we saw anything at all. However, we did see stick insects, huntsman spiders a bird eating spider, lizzards and snakes, and even a small deer like animal that I can't remember the name of. But the best thing about being in the jungle at night was the deafening chorus of toads, frogs crickets and circadas, making the whole place feel completely alive.
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The next morning we started the day with a walk along the tree top canopy walkway - a series of rope bridges between the tops of the trees. After that we went on a short trek through the jungle. As the trek was predominantly vertical, it was around 90% humidity and I have the fitness level of a dead frog, we did find it quite difficult. And so when we finally reached the top the spectacular view definitely looked better than we did!
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The next day we went to visit an Orang Asli tribe; the only people who are allowed to remain living in and living off the national park. On the way to the settlement we were floating down the river in a little wooden boat, when two huge monitor lizards floated past us, clinging on to each other and looking completely bemused! The visit to the tribe was really interesting, and our guide was so knowledgeable that we seemed to get a good insight into their lifestyle, religion, history and culture. In fact the only question he couldn't answer was about their life expectancy as no one seems to keep track of their age - but we did notice that everyone appeared to be chain smoking, including the children! The children were really cute, and looked curious but wary as they peered at us from behind their parents. The chief showed us how they can build a fire in less than a minute, and how they make blow darts and blow pipes for hunting. We were then given a blow pipe demonstration before trying it out for ourselves. I don't like to boast but I think it's important to point out that I beat Shaun.
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Kuala Lumpa

Kuala Lumpa had all the sights, sounds and smells of a typical Asian city, but without the chaos and overcrowding that we've come to expect. Its filled with decadent malls, air conditioned to arctic temperatures and crammed with pristine designer shops that we couldn't set foot in wearing the bedraggled clothes we've been living in for the past four months. There was an abundance of fast food restaurants (that we took more advantage of than I'd like to admit), clean spacious parks and gardens, impressive architecture and bustling markets. We visited the Petronas towers which look amazing lit up at night, especially from Skybar at the top of the Traders Hotel - even if we could only afford to have one drink in there! We went to the top of the KL tower for a panoramic view of the city, bartered in the huge central markets and paper-lantern adorned market streets of China town and wondered around lake gardens before escaping the heat in huge air conditioned malls. It was also a relief to have something to do at night again, because with the Cameran Highlands and Tamen Negara completely shutting down after 10pm, we'd grown far too accustomed to early nights over the past week! Overall it was a great place to wind down for a few days before heading to Sulawesi.
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Posted by ShaunYardley 19:30 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

South Thailand

sunny 30 °C

Arriving back in Bangkok, where it all began just three months before, felt very surreal. This time we arrived under infinitely better circumstances, for one I had my luggage and wasn't throwing up my stomach lining, but also, the city that had seemed so daunting the first time round now seemed like a welcome relief from the gloomy hectic streets of Hanoi. We were so happy to be back to the sweet, spicy, colorful cuisine, the shiny blue tuk-tuks and the warm friendly locals. Even the sticky, unrelenting heat seemed like a welcome change.

As some of our friends had asked us to meet them in Koh Phangnan for the full moon party in a few days time, we booked onto a bus and left for the south islands the next day.

Koh Phangnan

On Koh Phangnan, it can be easy to forget that you are actually in Thailand. Instead it feels as if you've entered a backpacker bubble that's filled with 18-25 year old travelers, drowning themselves in buckets of Thai whiskey by night, and darting around on scooters and sleeping off hangovers on the beach by day. So, we spent the next three nights immersing ourselves in a blur of blaring music, crowds of dancing people, fire-dancers, an abundance of UV paint and rows of stalls selling toxic concoctions in plastic buckets. And we spent the next three days exploring the island on a scooter and looking for a suitably beautiful beach to sleep off a hangover. Our favorite night was the Jungle Experience party, that took place unsurprisingly in the middle of the jungle, which really was the most incredible party venue I'd ever seen. House music blared from a huge flower shaped stage, lights were strung from the trees and fire dancers surrounded the hundreds of people who were dancing away as if their lives depended on it. After that the full moon party was unfortunately a little disappointing through no ones fault but my own. The night started well but it must have only been a few hours in before I turned around and realized that I'd lost everyone to the throngs of painted, drunken, dancing people that took up every inch of the beach. So after another hour of futile searching I decided to accept defeat and wait for them back at the hotel.
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After an authentic, cultural experience on Koh Phangnan, we decided to head to neighboring Koh Tao to learn how to Scuba dive and get our open water certification.

Koh Tao

Koh Tao is a small, beautiful island that seems to be struggling to keep up with the extreme development that's taking place there. Everywhere you turn there's another resort popping up in a cloud of sawdust and cement. The dive sites are used so intensely that even though all of the dive schools are ecologically minded, damage unintentionally still seems to be being done. However, despite how busy and over-developed the island was, it seemed strangely laid back after 3 days on Koh Phangnan, and we soon found ourselves not wanting to leave.

We got picked up from the pier by Roctopus dive school, and started our course straight away. Our instructors were amazing, I'm usually really nervous about open water but they were so enthusiastic and passionate that I couldn't wait to dive in when the time came. Our first session took place just a few meters under the surface while we practiced our basic skills, but nevertheless, my first few breaths underwater were completely surreal, and I was hooked immediately. It was quite an intense few days, working 9 - 5 plus homework, but once the written exam and our confined water was out of the way, the instructors took us out for a meal to celebrate, and the real diving started the next day. Over the next two days we had four open water dives that were all incredible. It felt like an entirely different world down there. A world where you are completely weightless, and alien creatures like the colorful Christmas tree worms vanish into coral as you swim above them, Clownfish dart in and out of Anenomies, menacing looking Moray eels tentatively poke their heads out of their holes, little Cleaner Wrasses nip at your ankles and Butterfly and Bannerfish, Parrotfish and Groupers swim by completely unperturbed by your presence. On our last day, a videographer came with us to film our dives, and that night we met up in a bar to watch the video and celebrate becoming certified divers by drinking dubiously named cocktails, dancing on the beach and playing fire limbo.
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We realized we were still desperate to get back in the water, so despite our better judgement at spending almost a months budget in a week, we decided to take a days break and start the advanced course the day after.

Our day off consisted of playing Frisbee in the sea, sunbathing on the beach, drinking fruit shakes, eating seafood BBQs and getting a Thai massage - which Shaun described as paying £5 to get beat up for an hour. The image of Shaun's grimacing face as a tiny Thai woman stood on the back of his legs getting extremely frustrated because he just wouldn't bend like a normal person should, is a sight I hope not to forget in a hurry.
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Our first advanced dive took us to 30 meters, the maximum recreational depth. The next was a ship wreck, which I was particularly excited about because as we descended into the deep, a huge sunken war ship appeared gradually from the murkey depths, and it felt just like the beginning scene of Titanic. The last dive of the day was a night dive, which was completely terrifying! We plunged into the black water armed only with little torches, to find mesmerizing blue spotted sting rays, comical Pufferfish and sleepy giant Groupers. What made the experience even more unearthly is that when we hid our torch beams so we were in complete darkness, and waved our hands in front of our faces, a disco of green phospheresence lit up before our eyes. The next day we had a go at under water photography,which is a lot harder than we imagined, but hiring the camera definitely paid off. On our last dive when we were practicing perfect buoyancy, we ended up swimming with a beautiful green turtle (that apparently is quite rare around Koh Tao because the bigger animals tend to go off to find reefs that aren't so congested with amateur divers). It was a perfect end to our diving experience in Koh Tao.
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Koh Chang

We decided that after an intense week of diving on Koh Tao, that we wanted to go somewhere peaceful away from the hoards of tourists that swarm the majority of the islands. We ended up on the quiet little island of Koh Chang, just off the Adaman coast. As we had to reach the island via a long boat filled with fifteen other people and a load of coconuts instead of a catamaran for 500, I had a feeling we were on the right track. However, when I gracefully disembarked from the long boat by falling head first into the sea, fully clothed, backpack and all, I began to have my doubts. We then proceeded to trudge, soaking wet, for an hour down the beach looking for somewhere to stay. We eventually booked into a little stone bungalow just a few meters from the sea. We did however have to share this bungalow with an enormous gecko that lived on the balcony, a big green lizard in the bedroom and three stubborn toads that lived in the bathroom and refused to be evicted no matter how much Shaun tried to coax them out with a toilet brush. We also had no hot water, flushing toilet or electricity, but this was all made up for by the incredibly friendly Thai lady that ran the place. She couldn't do enough for us, made us feel like part of the family, and cooked an amazing green curry!

We spent the next few days sleeping in hammocks, playing in the sea, devouring a stack of books whilst lying on the beach, eating spicy green curry, sitting by the campfire and watching the stars, going to sleep with the sound of the jungle, and waking up to the sun streaming through the billowing mosquito net and the sounds of the waves lapping up on the shore. It seemed that we had found the tranquil paradise we had been looking for. Except of course when we decided that we (and when I say we I mean I...) wanted to go for a trek in the jungle to look for Hornbills. We ended up getting unequivocally lost and arguing about which way would lead us back to the beach. It was midday, we were running out of water and the eagles that we had thought looked so impressive before, now looked as if they were circling, waiting for one us to drop dead from dehydration (or more likely for one of us to kill the other). In the end it turned out that Shaun was right, and if we'd have followed my finely tuned instincts we would have ended up 10km in the opposite direction - he now thinks he's Ray Mears. Needless to say, we didn't spot any Hornbills. Then, when we were having breakfast on the beach the next morning, one landed in the tree next us... meaning our impromptu trek was unnecessary as well as disastrous!
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Koh Phi Phi

After having had such a good time in Thailand so far, we were admittedly more than a little disappointed with Koh Phi Phi. As the boat turned into the bay we were over-awed by the distant strip of white sand that stretches between two clusters of cliffs that reach out of the tranquil turquoise sea. But once we'd reached the pier, we wished we had stayed at a blissfully ignorant distance. Firstly, as Koh Phi Phi is the busiest stretch of island I have ever seen, it is inadvisable to turn up without booking accommodation at least a few weeks in advance. We therefore ended up on an overpriced resort a 'short' taxi boat ride away from the main town. Only once we'd paid upfront and had been left unceremoniously at the rundown resort, did we realize that the taxi boats were infrequent, expensive, and the last one left at 5pm, meaning we were essentially stuck there and could not visit our friends staying in the main town. When we did visit the town however, we were almost relieved that we were unable to stay there.The beautiful stretch of island had been crammed full of bars, pizza restaurants,dive shops, hostels, pancake and burger stalls, internet cafes and minimarts, tattoo and massage parlors. So much so that the hot, smelly, claustrophobic streets are far from the paradise it should be, with piles of rubbish rotting on every corner and beer bottles floating in the otherwise pristine sea. So, we did what we came there to do and went on a snorkeling trip around Koh Phi Phi Leh to see Maya Bay (where 'The Beach' was filmed), and then left. The day was admittedly really good, with Shaun spotting a black tipped reef shark, and the bay being as beautiful as we had imagined - with dramatic limestone cliffs enclosing an almost iridescent ultramarine expanse of water and pure white stretch of sand fringed with coconut palms. That being said, we were more than happy to be moving on the next day.
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Koh Lipe

Koh Lipe was our last stop before heading to Malaysia, and we definitely picked the right place to end our island hopping. It was quiet enough to feel peaceful and romantic, but busy enough not to feel isolated or bored. It's set in the middle of a marine park, and its beaches are the type you dream of when you think of a paradise island. The colour of the sea, the powdery white sand, the colorful sashes tied to the long boats - all looks as if someone has turned the contrast up on a camera, so it feels as if you've stepped into a picture from a holiday brochure. We did a couple of fun dives whilst we were there too, and the underwater scenery is just as spectacular. Billowing soft corals of mesmerizing lilacs and oranges, reds and blues, are home to sea horses, pipe fish, box fish, scorpion fish, stone fish, lion fish and giant Moray eels, and makes you feel as if you've swam straight into a David Attenborough documentary. The snorkeling was impressive too, with Shaun spotting sting rays, giant porcupine fish, moray eels and bat fish. At night, we'd never seen so many stars in the sky, and the phosphorescence that washed up on the beach made it look like there were stars in the sand too. It was the perfect place to spend valentines day (for which Shaun gave me an almost heart shaped piece of coral that had washed up on the beach, and some flowers that he'd stolen from the resort - I am very spoilt!).
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We spent our days snorkeling, diving, swimming, sunbathing, reading and playing Frisbee, and spent our nights meandering down walking street where you can eat an enormous seafood BBQ or delicious masuman curry whilst listening to live music or watching a film, then walk a little further for pancakes and ice cream and then finish off the night lying on a futon in a candle lit beach bar.
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When the time came to leave Thailand, although we'd had a great time island hopping and were thoroughly relaxed after a few days on Lipe, we were beginning to get a little restless after almost a month of beaches and so we were definitely excited to be moving on to Malaysia.

Posted by ShaunYardley 21:48 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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