27.03.2013 - 19.06.2013 30 °C
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
In the morning we were all relieved to wake up to clear skies, still water and a beautiful sunrise.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.