Monday, September 15, 2008 Australia Australia

The Rock

Ayers Rock: just a short detour from Alice Springs! [Enlarge]

Most people are familiar with Uluru—the big, red, flat topped boulder formerly known as Ayers Rock. If you haven't been there you still know about it: you've seen it on documentaries, in magazines, on the front cover of any book about Australia. It rises suddenly from the flat, golden grassed plains, dwarfing the landscape, including the few stunted trees nearby. You see it from tens of kilometres away. For the aboriginal tribes it has been sacred for millennia; for the colonial explorers who stumbled upon it in the 1800s it was notable and they undoubtedly exclaimed "By Jove, how terribly notable", before claiming it as their own and naming it after Sir something Ayers, who happened to be important at the time. The government handed it back just a few years ago. It's up near the top of the 'must do' list for Australia. And yet even many Australians have never seen it in the flesh. This is not so surprising when you consider that from the local town, Alice Springs (which is in the middle of nowhere), getting to The Rock involves a 900 kilometre round trip.

Sand storm on the Lasseter Highway [Enlarge]

Still, what's another 900 kilometres, we told ourselves as we turned right off the Stuart Highway and began heading west. The Lasseter Highway was very quiet—even quieter than the Stuart Highway. We saw more camels than cars. It was blowing a gale and we were glad we weren't in a bigger van, as our tiny van was being blown all over the road. Ahead the sky was very overcast; surely it wouldn't rain on us? About 200 kilometres into the journey, with Isla in the driving seat, we saw something strange on the horizon. We'd seen plenty of dust devils up to this point, but ahead of us it looked as if the whole desert had upped sticks and was marching towards us in a spooky, amber cloud. Within seconds we were engulfed in a sandstorm. We slowed down and crawled along at 30 kph. Driving through airborne sand is very similar to driving through fog (something we Brits have ample experience of), your headlights reflect back eerily and shapes loom up from the roadsides. We seriously considered turning back, as it would take days to get to Uluru at the speed we were going, and in any case if the rock was also in the sandstorm there'd be bugger all to see—but we pushed on.

The storm eased up quite quickly and was completely finished by the time we got to Yulara, the purpose built tourist village that serves The Rock. It was still as windy as hell, but the sand was all on the ground where it should be. From our campsite we could just see what we'd come to see, but it was a long way away. To go any closer we would have to pay an admission fee—$25 each (GBP 9.36 / USD 15.81). Why is the Devil's Marbles free, but not Uluru? Why does the Devil's Marbles campsite cost $6.60 and the Yulara one $31.31? Answer: because they can! Uluru is a must-do and people will pay for the privilege of seeing it. Doesn't mean we're happy about it. We grudgingly paid up and drove down the narrow road. The closer we got, the bigger the rock became... obviously, but from a distance you don't realise just how huge it is.

Uluru at sunset [Enlarge]

The thing to do is to be here at dusk and watch the colour change as the sun sets, so we went to the sunset viewing area and waited. From time to time we glanced behind us. The sun was heading horizon-wards, but it was doing so behind a blanket of cloud—it was just a pale disc and wasn't strong enough to even cast a shadow. Had we just driven 450 kilometres through a sandstorm to watch a sunset that wasn't even going to happen? As we waited, some bored teenage girls on a school trip were combating the monotony by posing for photos of themselves with our cool campervan. Then just as we entered the golden hour before sunset, by some miracle the sun broke through the bottom of the cloud and Uluru's sandstone surface was suddenly bathed in warm, yellow light. Over the next hour we were treated to the most incredible natural light show imaginable, with the rock changing colour from pink to yellow to red, to a deep burgundy just as the sun dipped below the horizon, and finally to a black silhouette against the crimson night sky. It really was stunning. We went to bed thinking the 50 dollars had been well worth it.

The following morning we got a chance to look at our van in daylight; she* too had changed colour—from white to red, coated as she was in a layer of sticky, fine dust. We'll have to give her a thorough wash before we give her back, or they'll think we've been off-roading! The wind had dropped. We set off back toward the Stuart Highway, happy to be able to see the edges of the road this time.

Back on the main road we stopped for lunch at Mount Ebeneezer Roadhouse. We'd finished our Famous Mrs Mac's Pies and were availing ourselves of the facilities (US: using the bathroom) when a tour bus rocked up and a load of tourists flooded in. We overheard the tour group leader talking to the roadhouse staff about the previous day's weird weather. In his many years of Uluru tour guiding he'd never known a sandstorm like it... or a better sunset!

Driving through the desert [Enlarge]

South of Alice on the Stuart Highway is a whole lot of nothing. There's not much choice of campsites, so we drove until about 17:00 and stopped at the one we were closest to which happened to be at Kulgera Roadhouse. Apart from the Devil's Marbles, which only had a dirt toilet, and certainly no showers, it was the cheapest place we'd stayed: $11.00 (GBP 4.12 / USD 6.96). For that we got to park anywhere we liked on a large field of dry grass. We picked the only bit of shade we could find, behind a big yucca tree. The wind gusted across the campsite, rocking our little van from side to side. There's a good reason why campsite adverts emphasise "shady" and "sheltered"—when you're camping in the Red Centre it's very important!

We were sharing the huge site with half a dozen other vans. A tow truck was parked beside one of them, preparing to take it back to Alice Springs. There were no obvious signs of damage, but evidently someone's holiday had gone pear shaped. As we were making breakfast this morning the same tow truck rolled up again, and a second crippled campervan was loaded onto the back. This one had hit not one but two kangaroos last night—we mean it kids, don't drive in the outback at night! Park up and open a tinny instead.

We really hope our little Mitsubishi can make it out of the desert in one piece. This road trip has been one of the highlights of our whole round the world trip, but we don't want to be stuck in the desert forever, with this dust, constant wind and relentless sun.

[* For some reason, Isla always assigns a gender to vehicles (it's a girl thing). Our van is apparently a she—Glenn.]

Friday, September 12, 2008 Australia Australia

In search of water in The Alice

ANZAC Hill, Alice Springs [Enlarge]

Alice Springs is a town in the middle of nowhere. Known in Australia as 'The Alice', it's about as close to the centre of Australia as you can get in a normal car. It's almost the halfway point between Darwin on the northern coast, and Adelaide on the southern coast. Twenty-six thousand people call it home. Back where we come from that would be a sizeable local town, but nothing notable. Here it's the largest place for 1,500 kilometres in any direction. It's a very nice place with art galleries, restaurants, shops, and interesting tourist attractions. But it is absolutely in the middle of nowhere.

The Alice began life about 150 years ago. The south of Australia had been settled, with towns like Melbourne and Sydney attracting people from all over the rest of the world, but communication was a major headache. How could this new British colonial outpost function when it took three months to get a message to London, and another three months to receive the reply? What Australia needed was the latest high-tech communications network: the telegraph. Darwin in the north was quickly linked to Europe through Java, Singapore and then overland up through Asia. But the last link from Darwin to the south of the country was still unconnected. A mere matter of three thousand kilometres of inhospitable, mostly uncharted desert was in the way. And there was one more minor problem: telegraph technology was still in its infancy and messages could only be sent 200 kilometres before needing a repeater station. At each repeater station they had to be decoded by a person, and then manually resent down the line to the next repeater.

Telegraph Station, Alice Springs [Enlarge]

So, just to be clear, it's 1850-something; you're 12,000 kilometres from home; winter is summer and summer, winter; the natives... well, they're not very friendly because you've just nicked their country; it's up to 50 degrees in the shade; there's no water... and you want to build a telegraph wire across a continent with manned stations every 200 kilometres. These days no one would even tender for the contract, that's if the Health and Safety Executive hadn't already vetoed it. Back then, the Victorian can-do spirit made anything possible. And so they just did it, trekking off into the unknown on (imported) camels with a roll of fencing wire.

We found out about this history at the brilliant Alice Springs Telegraph Station from a guy called Bruce, who was a very knowledgeable volunteer guide. We highly recommend this museum to any visitors because it doesn't just give you the telegraph history, you get an insight into what any nineteenth century settler would have faced in the outback. We were left wondering why anyone would have taken the skilled job as a telegraph operator... not to mention the wives and families that went with them—it was a commitment to seven years of almost total isolation, and your shopping came twice a year by camel.

Some things are easier out here now: groceries are delivered to supermarkets by road trains and you can buy anything from fresh avocados to tasty cheese. We know it's tasty by the way, because it's called 'Tasty Cheese'. You can also get 'Extra Tasty Cheese', 'Australian Tasty Cheese', 'So Low and Tasty Cheese' and 'Strong and Bitey Cheese'. But still, we kind of wonder why people choose to live here.

The original Alice Spring [Enlarge]

Just next to the telegraph station is the actual Alice Spring from which the town gets its name. It was, of course, completely dry (did you expect running water?), and had a few wallabies walking around on it, but we were reliably informed that you can dig down a metre or so and find water. We chose to go for a cold beer instead.

Sadly, we missed by just a few days the famous Henley-on-Todd Regatta held every year in The Alice. Inspired by the Henley Royal Regatta held in London, the Aussies don't let the fact that the Todd river is as dry as a bone stop them from having a regatta. In fact, the Alice Springs version is the only regatta in the world ever to have been cancelled because there was water in the river. Details as ever at Wikipedia.

This historic building was built in 1939 - old by Alice standards. [IMG_5163]
RFDS Visitors Centre [Enlarge]

We visited the Flying Doctor Visitor Centre in The Alice, which operates out of the actual Flying Doctors control centre. If you're ill in most of Australia, you really need these guys—and you'd better hope you're not too far from one of the hundreds of airstrips dotted around the country.

The Flying Doctors were started by a missionary named John Flynn. One of the stories which inspired him to do this is retold at the Flying Doctor Visitor Centre in Alice:

Darcy was a stockman in Western Australia. After being found injured by some friends, he was transported over 30 miles (12 hours), to the nearest town, Halls Creek. Here, Darcy was met by FW Tuckett, the Postmaster, and the only man in the settlement trained in first aid. Tuckett said there was nothing he could reliably do for injuries so serious, and tried unsuccessfully to contact doctors at Wyndham, and then Derby, by telegraph. He eventually got through to a doctor in Perth. Through communication by morse code, Dr Holland guided Tuckett through two rather messy bladder operations utilising the only sharp instrument available, a pen knife. Holland then travelled 10 days to Halls Creek on a boat for cattle transport, a Model T Ford, a horse drawn carriage, and even on foot, only to find that Darcy had died the day before. To rub salt in the wound, the operations had been successful, but the stockman had died from an undiagnosed case of malaria and ruptured abscess in his appendix.

One of those who heard him speak was a young man named Clifford Peel. Sometime later, during World War 1, Peel wrote to Flynn. He had seen aeroplanes used in France by missionary doctors. Slowly Flynn began to solve the technological barriers to the service, and eleven years after Peel's letter was sent from France the service got started. On an average early twenty-first century day the flying doctor makes 159 calls and sees around 600 patients from its 22 bases across the country. The running costs are government funded, but all capital costs like replacing aircraft and buying lifesaving equipment are met by fundraising.

So we enjoyed our relaxed couple of days in Alice. Next stop, the world famous local attraction, Uluru (Ayers Rock).

Thursday, September 11, 2008 Australia Australia

A fair dinkum road trip

The UK, Ireland and Australia at the same scale
For us Poms, Australia is quite big [Enlarge]

Note to reader: this post should be read in an Aussie accent.

Mate, Australia is a big country. If you're a Yank you can probably understand but if you're a Pom you can't. No matter how much you think you can imagine how big this country is, you're wrong. It's way bigger than you reckon.

We thought we knew it was big, but we're Poms and so we had no real idea. Our plan is to go south straight through the 'Red Centre' of the country to Adelaide, and then round the coast a bit to Melbourne. The main road north-south is the Stuart Highway, named after the famous explorer John McDouall Stuart, whose route of 1861/62 it roughly follows. It's sealed and has just one lane in each direction. Most of the other few roads in northern and central Australia are either gravel roads or dirt tracks only passable with a 4WD.

Home (for the next three weeks). [IMG_5074]
Our van beside a termite mound [Enlarge]

As we left Darwin behind, the Stuart Highway was eerily quiet. We were so close to the state capital, yet we probably saw one other vehicle every ten kilometres. We did see a lot of termite mounds though. All along this section of highway, and as far as you can see off it, these teeny tiny bugs have constructed towering termite cities, many bigger than our van. In one area they were so impressive they had a tourist attraction sign!

We detoured off the Stuart Highway onto the Arnhem Highway into Kakadu National Park, to visit Ubirr, home of some famous Aboriginal rock art and cave paintings (our pictures here). We spent our second night at a campsite in Jabiru, near the paintings.

Past Jabiru the sealed road runs out and if you continue on the tracks (permit required) you enter an Aboriginal Reserve called Arnhem Land. Occupying a corner of the 'Top End' of the Northern Territory, Arnhem Land is bigger than Portugal or Hungary. In that space it has only about 16,000 residents. We couldn't go further as we didn't have a permit and anyway you're not allowed to take rental vans off sealed roads. So we turned back towards the Stuart Highway. In all, our little detour to see a few paintings was about 425 kilometres. Did we say Australia is big?

We'd heard about Australia's big skies. Heard about them, but never fully understood what they're like. The landscape spreads out around you in vast, sweeping bands of colour. The road stretches to the horizon, dead straight, disappearing into a shimmering heat haze. The sun beats down, white hot in a pure blue sky. You can see forever and you feel very small and vulnerable. Britain's skies are shrunk by buildings, trees, pollution, clouds, street lights—you're hemmed in, unable to see the horizon, except on the coast. Outside of the cities, Australia is absolutely empty. However, it's also a dessicated, inhospitable place. In places, bush fires have burned away almost all the grass and low bushes along the side of the highway, but the trees seem to be able to cope with it as they still have leaves on their top halves. The wind is as dry and hot as a paint-stripper, whipping up dust devils that surge across the road in front of you and blast the harsh dust into everything. It coats every surface and gets everywhere.

Porridge with banana and a mug of tea. [IMG_5091]
Breakfast [Enlarge]

The landscape was unlike anything we've seen so far. In the Top End it's a tropical climate and so there are lots of trees. In places it seemed to belong in Africa—there should have been elephants roaming and wildebeest stampeding, but instead there were kangaroos, hopping we presume. You see a lot of kangaroos on the Stuart Highway, but sadly they're all dead at the side of the road. Kangaroos are mostly nocturnal and anyone driving at night runs a real risk of hitting one. If you're in a car this is bad news for you as well as the roo. A male red kangaroo is about two metres tall and weighs 90 kilos (14 stone / 198 lb). Regularly we saw trashed cars by the side of the road, which had hit roos, or else swerved to avoid them, and then rolled into the bush.

At our third overnight stopping place, Nitmiluk National Park (formerly known as Katherine Gorge before it was handed back to the native people) the temperature on the walking trail was posted on a sign as 50 degrees Celcius (122 F), in the shade. We didn't go for a stroll.

Only once did we see a pair of live roos hopping away across the desert. However our campsites each seemed to come with their own unique wildlife features. At Nitmiluk semi-tame wallabies boing'd about the campsite. They were very inquisitive so everything had to be locked up so they couldn't get into it. As we were drifting off to sleep we could hear one of our fellow campers chasing them out of her rucksack that she'd left outside her tent.

Attack Creek [Enlarge]

Every few kilometres the road would pass over (or rather 'through') a dry creek-bed. The road signs would warn of the danger from flooding. Marker posts allowed you to gauge the water height before driving through it: the posts went up to 2 metres. At this time of year this seemed crazy, as there was not a drop of water in the creeks. It felt like the area had never seen rain at all, let alone floods, but actually in the summer the Top End gets a lot of rain and the minor roads become impassable. The highway deliberately dips into each creek to create a natural flooding point, to stop the whole lot from being washed away.

The Stuart Highway is the major road across this continent, yet the "towns" along its route are just tiny collections of a few buildings. The main focus of each town is the filling station, without which it would be impossible to continue. The fuel stops are so infrequent that we fill up at nearly every one. On day four, we stopped for the night at one such fuel stop, at Elliott, a dustbowl whose unique wildlife offering was a flock of peacocks! Out here there's no mobile phone signal for hours on end, sometimes all day. The van radio only receives static. Even now, in our high tech world, the outback feels unconquered. We're loving seeing this area, but we honestly can't see what would make anyone choose to live here.

Daly Waters Pub [Enlarge]

One thing we've found is that the people out here are friendly in the extreme. Everyone talks to everyone, presumably because they don't know when the opportunity to have a chat might next arise. One of Glenn's goals for his big road trip was to be called "darl" by an Aussie sheila when he went into a shop, and sure enough it happened at Elliott when he went in to pay for petrol ("Fifty bucks thanks darl!")

1324 kilometres into our journey, we paused to refuel at Renner Springs, the generally accepted boundary between the Top End and the Red Centre. When we set off again we could indeed see a subtle shift in the landscape, to a grassy savannah. Here the drought hardly ever breaks. It was 14:00 and yet there were no shadows. A raptor looked up from the kangaroo carcass he was pecking at to watch us pass, then went back to his lunch. The paint-stripper wind blew tumbleweed across the road.

The Devil's Marbles [Enlarge]

That evening we arrived at the Devil's Marbles, a bizarre rocky outcrop where massive boulders of ancient lava lie perched on the bedrock, as if placed there. According to Aboriginal tradition, the marbles were formed when... Sorry, we're not allowed to tell you the story according to our Barkly Region Tourism booklet. You'll have to visit for yourself. We had plenty of time to enjoy the view at sunset and then took a couple of cold tinnies of Victoria Bitter (a very fine beer indeed, considering it's made by Aussies) out of the esky as it got dark. Above us millions of stars came out across 180 degrees of sky. True magic. The Devil's Marbles Conservation Reserve campsite set us back a princely $6.60 (GBP 2.97 / USD 5.53).

On day five we got up before sunrise so that we could see the whole light show in reverse. It didn't disappoint. On the road that day not much happened, we were fully in the travelling groove and sharing the driving between us. There was no rush: we went at a steady 85 km/h (53 mph) and only did between 300 and 500 kilometres per day. Two notable incidents that day were crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, and being overtaken by a road train. Eventually, five hot but incredible days and 2,034 kilometres after we left Darwin we rolled up at the first real town, an oasis right in the centre of Australia: Alice Springs.

Map of Days 652-657

Days 652-657
Darwin to Alice Springs

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Saturday, September 06, 2008 Australia Australia

Crossing Continents

Chilli's Backpackers hostel [Enlarge]

Note to reader: this post should be read in an Aussie accent.

We stumbled into Darwin's airport at 05:10 local time (02:40 Sumatra time) and were completely awed by how friendly, helpful and efficient the immigration and customs staff were. They were like normal people. The staff in certain other Western countries (ours included) could learn a lot from watching them at work. We swapped our last few Indonesian rupiah for Aussie dollars and got on the airport shuttle bus into town. It was driven by a German guy on a working holiday visa. A visa which we'd love to have ourselves, but unfortunately we're over 30 so don't qualify.

Arriving in Australia was information overload. After 22 months in countries where English was at best a second language, we could now understand people's conversations on the bus, read every shop sign and billboard, and speak to anyone we wanted to. It was bewildering. We hadn't been able to book accommodation from Indonesia, so we asked the bus driver to drop us in the city centre.

Actually we say 'city centre' but the centre of Darwin is about the size of the centre of a typical market town centre back home, so it didn't take much walking to get anywhere.

We just wanted to find a room and go to sleep. After twenty minutes looking around the few places to stay which had manned reception desks (it was now still only about 06:30), we settled on Chilli's Backpackers hostel. Our double room with a shower, but no dunny, cost 77 Aussie dollars per night (GBP 34.64 / USD 64.31). Our days of sub-ten-quid hotel rooms are well and truly over. The Brit (on a working holiday visa) at the reception desk said that we couldn't check in until 11:00, but we could put our bags in their locked storeroom until then, which freed us up a bit. We gave up on the idea of sleep at that point—it was getting light and we were feeling more awake than before. So we went for a proper cooked breakfast at a nearby cafe, which consisted of extremely non-halal bacon and sausages, egg, beans, and proper tea with milk and the bag still in... absolute heaven. It was cooked and served by Brits on working holiday visas.

Now when we have western food we don't have to feel the slightest bit guilty about not eating the local food—this is the local food!

As we ate our brekky a group of Aussie workmen turned up at the cafe for their morning tucker. They were dressed in blue denim shirts, blue shorts, blue socks with workmen's boots and bush hats, and all of them were called Ned. We wondered if they were part of some tourist attraction but it gradually dawned on us that these were just regular guys. Although we were in a city, this was no Melbourne or Sydney. We were in the capital of the Northern Territory. The fair dinkum outback, mate. We loved Darwin already.

While we waited for check-in time to roll around, we put our efforts into what to do next. Number one on our list of things to investigate was transport. We didn't want to take a bus or train through Australia: a seat on 'The Ghan' train from Darwin to Adelaide will set you back a stinging 710 dollars (GBP 319 / USD 593) and a sleeper berth will come in at a brutal 1410 dollars (GBP 634 / USD 1178). The bus is cheaper but did we really want to sit on a bus for 42 hours? Anyway, we wanted to be able to take our time, and stop when and where we wanted. We've been looking forward to Australia as a major goal for a very long time, and there was only one way we were going to see the place: in our own vehicle.

The noticeboard at Chilli's was full of campervans for sale, but they weren't all that cheap, even if we went for a heap of scrap metal which would probably break down hundreds of miles from anywhere. And if we bought something we'd have the hassle of selling it later. Several companies will sell you a vehicle with a guaranteed buyback at the other end, but there are strings attached and of course a hefty margin built in for them on the prices. Hiring something seemed like the better choice. The tourist season in Darwin is very close to being over (summer, from October to March is very wet and very hot), whereas in the south of the country it is now springtime and the season is just beginning... So vehicle rental companies want their cars and vans down south to meet the demand of the summer tourists along the coasts. Maybe there was a deal to be had on a one-way hire to the south?

We eventually hired a little Mitsubishi campervan for 64 dollars a day (GBP 28.79 / USD 53.45) including fully beefed-up no worries insurance cover and unlimited kilometres. We have to deliver the van to the company's Melbourne branch in three weeks. We'll obviously have to pay for fuel, food and campsite fees, but that's us sorted for the next few weeks. Maybe we'll camp by the roadside some of the time to save on fees. We celebrated the discovery of a way forward with a delicious meal in town with Australian beer for Glenn and Australian wine for Isla and went to sleep very early.

Roads in the Northern Territories go on forever. [IMG_5050]
Endless highway [Enlarge]

At a reasonable hour the next morning, we had another fab cooked breakfast, picked up the van and spent the rest of the day sorting ourselves out with supermarket shopping (at which the checkout was manned by a Brit on a working holiday visa) and route planning. Mid-afternoon we drove out of Darwin and spent the night at a campsite on the edge of the city. A pitch in a campsite with cooking facilities, showers, barbecues and a swimming pool cost 30 dollars—much less than a gloomy hostel room. Prices will come down a bit as we get further from Darwin and choose more basic sites. So now, let the adventure begin! Ahead of us is over 5,000 kilometres of tarmac.

You will have noticed that we mention the fact that there are a lot of foreigners here on working holiday visas. If you spend any time in London, you discover that everybody working in the pubs and hotels there is an Australian backpacker. In return, all the British and European backpackers are doing the same jobs over here.

Map of Day 651

Day 651
Denpasar to Darwin

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, September 05, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia

Flying out of Asia

Javan volcano [Enlarge]

Our three flights have gone smoothly so far today (actually yesterday—we're writing this at stupid o'clock in the morning somewhere over the Timor Sea), although it's been a very long day sitting around in badly organised airports. We had a final chuckle on the first plane from Padang to Jakarta. Garuda's inflight magazine for this month has a couple of interesting articles that the general population could do with reading. The first is a piece by one of the magazine's publishers (a Westerner) all about why corruption is such a bad thing for a country; the second is by an Indonesian journalist talking about how the current generation of 20-to-40 year olds have to stop blaming colonialism for what's wrong with their country and their lives, and taking some responsibility for fixing it. We have to agree. Korea fared much worse under Japanese colonialism than Indonesia did under the Dutch, and it has almost nothing in the way of natural resources, yet it's now a prosperous developed country investing heavily outside its boundaries. Because its people are hard working and forward looking. Same with Singapore and Malaysia. And yet in Indonesia, everything is always the fault of the Dutch, even though they left over sixty years ago. And amid the moaning nothing actually improves.

So anyway, there ends our Asian adventure which began on a short ferry ride across the Dardanelles in Turkey twenty months ago. We've had infinitely more good times than bad. It's a shame we've had to leave on such a low, though it does mean we have no qualms about moving on. Australasia, whatever it brings us, will be very different. At the moment we're most looking forward to eating our own kind of food and being able to converse easily with the natives for the first time in nearly two years. We just have to remember not to mention Olympic Gold Medals... You beaut!

Map of Day 650

Day 650
Padang to Jakarta to Denpasar

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia

An uncouth place by the sea

Visit Indonesia?! [Enlarge]

After a couple of pleasant days in the mountain air of Bukittinggi we were cooled down and ready to continue south. Our research on flights suggested that the cheapest flights to Australia go from Denpasar airport on Bali, because Bali is one of the Aussies' favourite places for a holiday or short getaway. Getting to Bali by surface transport wouldn't be too much of a problem because the Indonesian islands of Sumatra, Java and Bali (part of the chain from Sumatra to Timor) are very close to each other, meaning short ferry hops from one island to the next. So the plan was to go overland to the southern tip of Sumatra, take a ferry to Java, down the length of Java and then another ferry to Bali. We thought we woudn't continue to the other islands like Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores because to be honest we were ready for a complete change of continent and were already looking forward to Aus.

So our next stop was Padang on the western coast of Sumatra, from where we planned to connect with road transport going south towards the Indonesian capital Jakarta on Java. Our guidebook painted a glowing picture of Padang. Most travellers rush straight from Padang airport to Bukittinggi and bypass Padang city, it told us. It went on to say that this is a mistake: Padang is well worth your while.

Hmmm... We think they got Padang confused with somewhere else. Penang in Malaysia, perhaps? Admittedly we arrived on a grey miserable day, blowing a gale and bucketing down with rain, during Ramadan, so we weren't seeing it at its best. Here's the story.

First stop as ever was the tourist office to try to get a city map. It was closed; the door bolted. The streets were almost un-walkable with diabolical pavements and big holes waiting to swallow the unwary traveller. And the locals were without a doubt the most uncouth, xenophobic and mercenary people we have met anywhere on our travels. We were trying hard to like the place, but Indonesia just wasn't weaving the same spell for us that Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Malaysia had done. It was beginning to seem more and more like India, even down to the legions of "where you go?" taxi and minibus touts. Indonesia is Greek for "Indian islands", so even the person who named the country saw the similarities. We were fed up, sick of being stared at and hungry, finding it even less possible to get food here than we did in Bukittinggi.

Eventually we had another 'sod it' moment and decided to fly out of Sumatra. We justified it to ourselves on the grounds that travelling by road here is guaranteed to bring on a near-death experience. Maybe Java would be better, we thought. We began a walk across town to the ticket office for Garuda Indonesia airline. We were both feeling disappointed, with ourselves and with the country. Every time we take a flight it feels like a small failure.

We weren't far from the airline office with Isla leading the way (we had to walk in single file most of the time in Padang) when a minibus tout decided to have a go at getting some money from the bedraggled locals approaching him. He obviously thought that, marching purposefully through the rain swept, mud-slick covered streets, we would just be in the market for a minibus ride. We weren't. And Isla wasn't in the mood to do battle with a tout either. As she moved sideways to give him a wide berth, he put out his arm to herd her towards his van. It was nearly full of locals, and these things never start moving until they're full. Everyone was impatient for us to get in. Isla's foot went onto the 45-degree angled part of the kerb, which was covered in wet mud. She slipped over and fell face first onto the pavement.

What did the tout do at this point? Apologise? Help the lady get up? Check that she was OK?

No, he laughed, as did his tout friends.

To say that being made to fall over in the rain, on a filthy pavement, by a lowlife piece of pond scum like this made Isla angry would be a world record breaking understatement. From that point on there was no doubt that we were not just leaving Sumatra, we were leaving Indonesia and getting a flight to anywhere, as long as it was a civilised country.

At Garuda Indonesia's office, we were able to start formulating a plan to get to Australia. We briefly considered stopping in Bali for a few days so that we didn't fly three times in one day (Bali is one big holiday resort and is nothing like the 'real' Indonesia, and certainly nothing like Sumatra), but then we came to our senses. There was no point putting it off any more, we should just get it over with and leave. As we stood at the counter Isla's tears (more from anger and hurt pride than the blossoming bruises on her hip, knee and elbow) seemed to make the ticket seller think that she was desperately trying to get home after some terrible tragedy had befallen her family. Magically, 171 US dollars came off the price of each of our tickets. After a lot of requests for various quotes we had put together an itinerary consisting of the first flight to Jakarta next morning, followed by an afternoon flight from Jakarta to Bali, and finally an overnight flight from Bali to Darwin in Australia. By the time the first sabbath of Ramadan came around, we'd be the hell out of here. It sounded perfect.

We walked back to our homestay accommodation via a disorganised supermarket where we bought some cold pizza slices, fruit juice and chocolate chip bread. Our purchases were tightly sealed inside their carrier bags by the staff, presumably in case we got an urge to snack before nightfall.

Imagine if being nice to visitors earned you points with Allah, rather than things like only eating at prescribed times... Then we suspect we'd want to see more of Indonesia.

Map of Day 649

Day 649
Bukittinggi to Padang

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia

Around Bukittinggi

A typical street scene in Bukittinggi [Enlarge]

Next day we took a tour of the area surrounding Bukittinggi. The itinerary included trips to a sugar cane farm, a peanut farm, a silversmiths' village (where we got to see some cool flying foxes), and so on, before a 44-hairpin descent down to the Lake Maninjau, a vast volcanic caldera (crater lake). Dono was a good guide and showed and told us plenty of interesting things. The volcanic soil and abundant sun and rain make the area highly fertile. Rice grows all year round, as do mangoes, bananas, pumpkins, cinnamon, coconuts, peanuts, sugar cane, ginger, and probably lots more. We sampled a cinnamon leaf straight from the tree, and also bought some peanuts which had just come out of the roasting pan.

Flying foxes [Enlarge]

The rich volcanic soils come at a price. This area is part of the Pacific ring of fire, constantly poised on the brink of seismic catastrophe. In 2007 Bukittinggi was hit by a significant earthquake. Many buildings were damaged, but few lives were lost because fortunately the big one was the last of a series of three shocks, increasing in magnitude. The first two made people get out of their homes and on to the streets, so that when the final, devastating quake struck, hardly anyone was inside the buildings to be buried in the collapse. The stunning Sianok Canyon was reshaped by the quake. The whole thing is made of a light sandstone, and whenever the ground shakes the walls of the canyon collapse a little more. The 2007 quake stripped the canyon walls of all the trees and vegetation and left one pinnacle bare except for a single tree clinging proudly to the top. Dono estimated that two or three more quakes will destroy the pinnacle completely.

Maninjau caldera lake [Enlarge]

Dono found us a homestay on the shores of Lake Maninjau where we could get a tasty and very welcome lunch. We ate it guiltily as the staff and Dono did everything they could to avoid watching us eating, hungry as they obviously were. Dono borrowed a prayer mat and went into an unoccupied chalet to pray. Being out with us he'd missed one or two of his appointments with Allah.

Back in town after an excellent day we had an hour in a friendly, cheap web cafe which had both wifi and beer. Indonesian Bintang beer is good. Why do muslim countries all seem to be so good at fermentation?

Monday, September 01, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia

Ramadan retreat

Pekanbaru morning [Enlarge]

Next day, our mission was to take a bus—a proper, public bus—to the old Dutch colonial mountain retreat of Bukittinggi. Before we set off for the bus station we ate as much as we could at the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast (all Glenn can eat is seven croissants in case you're wondering; Isla had a bit of everything except the bright turquoise 'pudding').

We got a hotel car to the Akap Terminal seven kilometres out of town which is described in our guidebook as 'uncharacteristically reserved and organised'. Those would not be our adjectives of choice. We'd go for something like 'weird, ghostly, confusing, tout-ridden, sleepy and purposelessly large'. We worried that if this place counts as uncharacteristically reserved and organised, we're going to have big problems catching buses in other Indonesian towns.

We just wanted a bus to Bukittinggi. The first bunch of touts tried to steer us towards the minivan station. When we successfully got past them and found the many bus desks, they were all devoid of staff, prices or timetables. And when we managed to round up the staff who were loitering outside, they seemed unconcerned about selling us a ticket. On closer inspection as we circled the desks, followed by a little crowd of touts, we saw that there were actually a few prices handwritten on some of the windows, but definitely no times.

The locals seemed to enjoy our confusion. I guess when you spend all day every day sitting around in this place, a couple of foreigners visiting counts as entertainment. Eventually someone suggested that there might be a 12:00 bus to Bukittinggi. It was 09:10 and we knew that buses are supposed to be hourly. After a while an 11:00 bus was suggested. Then a modern looking bus pulled up outside. On the windscreen it said 'Bukittinggi'. We bought a ticket. We got the price down a bit but failed to get close to the price marked on the window. We asked why we were not allowed to pay the marked price. 'This bus full AC, so more expensive.' Yeah, right.

(Not) fixing the road to Bukittinggi [Enlarge]

We had a go at negotiating further but we didn't want to wait in this godawful place any longer and they knew it. The inflated price was still pitifully small, and again, they knew it. We paid up.

To cut a long story short it was a truly awful journey. There was, of course, no AC (even though it was clearly and neatly painted on the very side of the bus!). The bus steward was a vile person, although interestingly only to the other Indonesians—he was OK to us. Every person we picked up as he strove to overfill the bus proffered a note or two and was sent back into their wallets for more. The more we saw the more we realised that we hadn't been ripped off just because we were foreign—being ripped off is a standard part of the service. The male passengers were all chain smokers, exhaling their toxic smoke literally all over the children crowded onto the seats with them. We were on the back seat, intended for five people. There were eight on the seat including us at one point, with a further three squatting in the luggage space behind us. Our sanity was salvaged when a nice woman named Lefi got on and sat next to us. She found the experience every bit as vile as we did as she chatted with us all the way to her village on the outskirts of Bukittinggi.

This is as close as we could get. If you only knew what we went through to bring you this picture... [IMG_4951]
1.6 seconds south of the equator [Enlarge]

One of the things we'd been looking forward to on this journey was our first ever crossing of the equator. We've taken more flights on our round the world trip than we hoped we would, but we were not prepared to compromise on this: we were determined to cross the equator overland, whatever happened. This moment had been a long time coming, and we were teased to the last as the GPS told us the road was steering tantalisingly close, only to veer northward again around a sharp bend. But finally, without fanfare, flag or signpost the GPS's digits lapsed from N to S and our latitude began to move away from zero. In a brief moment we'd passed from the late summer northern hemisphere to the late winter southern hemisphere. It didn't feel any different. We shared our excitement with Lefi and the man who had woken from his slumber on top of Glenn's rucksack in the luggage space behind us. Both of them were under impressed—they've probably crossed the equator hundreds of times before.

The sun began to set and the Sumatran late-afternoon rain arrived on cue. Bukittinggi is a mountain town, 920 metres above sea level. The altitude makes the air cooler and the rain more frequent. We were dropped off on the edge of the town centre. The streets were awash with muddy puddles and full of people, motorcycles, tiny, rickety minivans called opelets which serve as shared taxis, and a few horse-drawn passenger carts. Tomorrow is the first day of Ramadan, the month of fasting which forms one of the five pillars of Islam. Everyone was out on the streets hurrying between the market and the mosque. Indonesia is supposed to be laid back and lazy but it certainly wasn't anything like that as we arrived in Bukittinggi. We cut through the crowded streets to find our hotel. From among the feet of the people a rat shot down a wide alley. It happened to be going the same way as us so we followed it and finally found our way to the door of the Kartini Hotel.

Roadside snack stall [Enlarge]

A warm shower and a cool bed would normally have restored our equilibrium, but in Bukittinggi you are never, it seems, more than 100 metres from a mosque. And a mosque that doesn't just broadcast the call to prayer five times a day from the minaret megaphones, but broadcasts the entire sermon. If we could understand Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia we would have been left in no doubt about the solemn importance of Ramadan after the three solid hours of lecturing that we received that night. Even our ear plugs didn't shut the noise out.

It was even less funny at 4:30 the next morning when the whole thing was repeated.

Bukittinggi changes its character depending on the time of day. The road layout stays the same, but from morning to evening different shops seem to appear, while others vanish; and the people seem to come out in shifts. We spent our first full day there walking around the town, seeing the sights and enjoying the simple fact that at 920 metres high, Bukittinggi is not mired in tropical heat—you can actually walk around all day if you want to. On one side of town is Panorama Park. For 3,000 rupiah each (GBP 0.18 / USD 0.32) you can wander through a long, narrow park with a great view over Sianok Canyon. The park is home to innumerable macaque monkeys who like to perch on the pillars between the railings, have play fights with each other, and climb into the litter bins to do huge, steaming wees. They're also more than happy to pose for photos. From the park, we walked down into the canyon. The river that formed this huge geological feature is now just a wide, shallow stream, lazily tumbling over a stony river bed. A woman was collecting sticks. She was the first person all day who we'd seen working. Everyone else seemed to be hanging around, doing nothing. We knew that the end of Ramadan was a big holiday, but it seemed like schools and businesses closed for the start of Ramadan too.

During Ramadan, healthy adult muslims don't eat, drink or smoke from sunrise to sunset. In a town with something like 95% muslims this means restaurants, cafes and food stalls close, all day, for the whole month. We didn't mind too much; non-Muslims are free to buy food to eat in their own homes, or hotel rooms. But we decided to respect the local culture and delay our own eating until after sunset at 18:20, expecting all the restaurants to fling wide their doors and usher in the crowds. But they didn't. It turns out that they had all gone home for a big family feast. Confused and hungry, we lapped town a couple of times before going back to our hotel to eat something there. We asked the manager what we could have for dinner, as he tucked into a large bowl of delicious looking something. "Not tonight," he shrugged. He sent us round the corner to a Chinese-owned restaurant, the Mona Lisa. One of its doors was open a little, and through the crack we could see a group of foreigners squeezed around a table, filling the tiny place. No joy. There was only one other place in town open: Texas Chicken—a KFC-esque fast food place. And that's where we spent our first evening of Ramadan 2008.

Map of Day 646

Day 646
Pekanbaru to Bukittinggi

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Sunday, August 31, 2008 Indonesia Indonesia / Malaysia Malaysia

Return to the realm of the touts

Fenix Inn, Melaka [Enlarge]

The ferry terminal in Melaka is a small, single storey building just inside the river mouth. Tickets are not sold at the terminal. Instead you have to go to one of a handful of agents nearby. The one we'd bought our ticket from had told us to turn up at 09:30 for the 10:00 sailing, but we were characteristically early, and were glad to be so. When we arrived the covered area in front of the terminal building was already very crowded, and two queues snaked off in opposite directions. In the absence of any instructions we joined what looked like the shorter, quicker moving line and waited. Someone was in control somewhere because the queues kept taking it in turn to move forward as a few people at a time were let through to immigration.

To get onto our ferry we had to go into, across and out of another ferry. Paranoid about getting on the wrong one and ending up at the wrong Indonesian port we checked several times that we were definitely the boat for Dumai. Seats were unallocated so we nabbed the front ones with ample legroom. That also put us near to two exits in case of pirate attack or sudden sinking. For once the in-flight movie wasn't too loud or too bad, and free water and snacks were distributed.

Fifteen minutes or so into the journey, Malaysia was shrinking into the distance behind us, and we were settling into the movie quite nicely when we suddenly slowed down and the engines stopped. We spent a few stationary minutes looking out of the windows to see if there were any fluttering Jolly Rogers, or cutlasses glinting in the sunshine, but boringly it seemed to be some sort of mechanical problem... we started off again a bit slower than before.

The billed one and three quarter hour journey took more than three hours, but it wasn't too bad. As we neared the port we stood up and went over to the door area so we wouldn't have to wait while the mountains of luggage was gathered by our fellow passengers. As we came alongside we wondered just what sort of a country Indonesia was going to be.

The single door to the three-passenger-compartment ferry opened. At once the crowd around us surged forward toward the door in a fluid mass, suitcases flying. And then the mass stopped, as people in their misguided hurry to get out jammed the bags of the people in front of them. This made all forward movement by anyone impossible, and so everyone stopped, unable to make progress.

OK... It's going to be that sort of country.

Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. After we'd elbowed all the old women out of the way and pushed a few children overboard we found ourselves inside the terminal building wondering what to do next. We had no visa, but our research had told us that Dumai is one of the entry points where you can get a visa on arrival. There was an immigration office, but the door said staff only. Luckily a 'friendly local' was on hand to help us out. He sent us through the door and we handed over our passports and USD 50 (25 each). Our passports were returned about fifteen minutes later with a one page visa and a big entry stamp on the facing page—another double page wiped out. The friendly local, our new best friend (here we go again), had spent the intervening time finding out where we wanted to go and telling us not to worry, he'd help us get there. Uh huh.

He told us to come with him in his MPV, he'd take us to the bus station. Free, of course. We were some way out from the town centre with no readily apparent alternative way of getting to the bus station, which we knew was on the other side of town. We decided to go with him and see how he would try to get our money. Along with two Indonesian passengers we all got into the MPV and drove from the port to... the bus station? No, to a travel agent's office in town. Here we were sold what we were told was a transfer to the bus station and a bus ticket to Pekanbaru for significantly more than the price we were expecting, but still a pifflingly small amount for a five hour journey. We weren't in a position to negotiate, and the town didn't seem like one we wanted to linger in. We had some time to kill so our friend suggested we have something to eat at the cafe next door. We weren't hungry, but we were thirsty so in the absence of a menu to point at, we communicated a desire for two drinks.

No matter what we tried, they wouldn't take our money until we'd finished our drinks. Isla went up to pay expecting change from a 10,000 rupiah note, but the lady wanted more. She initially said 14,000, then her friend said something and the price went up to 20,000. Presumably the something was "Charge them more, don't forget we have to pay commission to the friendly local".

The MPV driver had just called us back to start our journey when we were approached by another 'friendly local', but this one turned out to be a bit different. He runs an English school in Dumai and offers native English speakers free accommodation and transfers to the bus station in exchange for coming to talk to his students for an hour or two. Glenn had read about him on Wikitravel, but we didn't expect him to hunt us down so effectively. If we hadn't already bought our bus tickets we'd have loved to take him up on his offer. Mr Teacher-man, if you're reading this, our advice is: try to get to the ferry terminal to intercept people before the scumbag touts do!

We accelerated out of the town centre in the MPV. The GPS told us we were heading for the bus station and everything seemed fine. Then the driver got a phone call. He did a u-turn, stopped at a shophouse, collected a box and sped away again. Just out of the town centre we turned up a narrow road alongside a stream that was so full it threatened to engulf the road at any moment, and finally stopped at a tiny cottage with a garden full of ducks. He delivered the box and we were off again.

Main road from Dumai to Pekanbaru [Enlarge]

After a while it became clear that we weren't going to the bus station at all, we had in fact unwittingly commissioned ourselves an MPV all the way to Pekanbaru. That at least explained the high price tag. To be fair, the journey was much more comfortable and faster than it would have been on the bus, even allowing for the absolutely heart-stoppingly, underpant-soilingly dire standard of driving in Indonesia.

Seven hours later, after many small detours to pick up and drop off packages and small family groups, we were dropped at the door of our hotel in Pekanbaru. We felt like kissing the ground in thanks that we had survived. The driving wasn't as bad as India's, but the problem was that the roads and vehicles were in a better state and so the speeds were much higher. When you're flying round a narrow, blind bend three wide at 100 km/h, there's not much you can do except maybe pray to Allah for safe passage. Unlike in our taxi ride in India we didn't actually see the aftermath of any accidents, apart from a few wrecked cars which had been mounted on posts as a futile warning to drivers.

Pekanbaru was grubby, devoid of footpaths, with muddy puddles everywhere... But unlike in India, at least it was just mud on the ground, and not anything more... biological!

Our hotel of choice was the Ibis, part of a French chain, and much higher-end than we usually go for, but Indonesia is very cheap. We took full advantage of the facilities: restaurant, money changing, travel desk and free wifi. The staff were very helpful, but every time we asked them something it seemed like it was the first time they'd ever been asked. Still, we had survived our first day in Indonesia and the spectacular sights of Sumatra were now tantalisingly close.

Map of Day 645

Day 645
Melaka to Pekanbaru

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Friday, August 29, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia

Plan B: Melaka

We keep coming back to Korean food... [IMG_4905]
Bibimbap! [Enlarge]

So, we found ourselves in Melaka (Malacca), a place we didn't originally intend to visit. Its name is very funny if you're Greek, too, as it sounds exactly like a Greek curse-word. Anyway, we're glad we came here—it's a wonderful mix of different cultures. Six hundred years as one of the region's most important ports has augmented the native Malays with immigrants from nearby Sumatra, China, and the former colonial occupiers Portugal, Holland and Britain. The blending of these different peoples with their varied cuisines and cultures makes Melaka totally unique. It's a good thing that we didn't go here first or we might never have left. We randomly picked the Fenix Inn from the many budget options on Hostelworld, and it turned out to be spotlessly clean, well located and wired for internet. The best part was that there was a Korean restaurant just up the road. Yum!

There's plenty to do in Melaka—a lot of it for free! We walked up to the hilltop church of St Paul which the Portuguese built ten years after they overthrew the local Muslim Sultans and destroyed their main Mosque. After the Dutch ousted the Portuguese they continued to use the church—there are some massive tomb stones propped against the walls, all inscribed in Dutch (there's a particularly tragic memorial at the bottom of the steps dedicated to five members of one family, mostly children, who all died within a few months of each other). When the British took over, they decided the church tower would make a fine lighthouse, so they turned it into one. Pragmatic to say the least.

You can buy highlighter pink or highlighter yellow at this Melaka night market stall. [IMG_4927]
Dye your hamster [Enlarge]

We also enjoyed walking up Jonker Street, the heart of Chinatown, and the surrounding lanes. A buzzing night market is held here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We discovered that's the place to go if you've run out of pink or yellow dye for your hamster.

If you're willing to fork over a few ringgits we'd recommend the Maritime Museum. It's housed in a replica Portuguese ship—made mainly of concrete, but you (almost) couldn't tell. When you pay your entrance fee you're give a plastic bag to put your shoes in—shoes are forbidden inside the exhibition rooms of the ship. Take our advice and use the bag rather than the shoe racks at the doors otherwise you'll end up having to cross the red-hot deck in bare feet to retrieve your shoes... It's impossible to run fast enough, and we literally burned our feet.

We first entered Malaysia on 13th July. We've had a few days in Singapore and a few more in Brunei, but still, we've been here a lot longer than we ever anticipated. That's simply because we like it so much.

Decorated trishaw [Enlarge]

But we have to move on, as we're still north of the Equator, still west of the date line. We're two years older than we were when we left home. We feel like we've skipped so many places already, but the truth is there's a lot of world left. Tomorrow we're going to catch a ferry across the Strait of Melaka to Sumatra, the western most island of Indonesia. It's one of the most earthquake prone areas on the planet. And just for good measure, the sea crossing we've chosen is pirate territory apparently, although they mainly target container ships going to Singapore or Hong Kong, so we should be okay. We're then going to work our way down through Indonesia before catching as short a flight as possible to Australia (there are no boats—we've checked).

So as we leave Malaysia for the last time, we think back on our time here. Before we came we had expected to have a few difficulties—like it would be hard to find sunscreen, it would be a bit dirty, transport would be unreliable and hard, there wouldn't be many places with internet, there would be an infestation of touts. We're happy to have been completely wrong. What does this mean for the rest of our trip? Should we reassess our expectations for Indonesia? Perhaps it just tells us that we should travel without any expectations at all.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 Brunei Brunei Darussalam / Malaysia Malaysia

Golden oil rigs

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque [Enlarge]

Brunei is difficult to describe. In some ways it's like the rest of northern Borneo, in some ways it's like a Middle Eastern oil producing state, and it also has similarities to Singapore—a small, wealthy country surrounded by the 'real' south-east Asia.

We sent an envelope back to the UK containing a postcard… from Singapore! We bought it, wrote it and even stamped it in Singapore but then we forgot to post it until our last morning there. We have a niece who was born just after we left the UK. We've sent her a postcard from every country we've visited (except Serbia—we weren't there long enough). It's harder than you might think. In some places you can't find postcards, in others you can't find stamps. Anyway, in Singapore on the last morning we couldn't find a postbox. There were plenty marked on the map, but they were all in malls and therefore impossible to find. So we carried the postcard all the way to Brunei, where we stuck it in an envelope and mailed it home.

Kampong Ayer (water village) School, Bandar Seri Begawan. [IMG_4879]
Floating school [Enlarge]

One of Bandar Seri Begawan's tourist attractions is the Royal Regalia Museum. It houses the Sultan's huge collection of presents given to him by worldwide leaders and various organisations. We thought we had too much stuff when we sold up to go travelling, and if you think your life is cluttered too, try being a Sultan! He has obviously run out of space in the palace because he's had to donate to the museum his model offshore oil platform (in solid gold); his silver model of Angkor Wat; the beautiful pair of side tables inlaid with tiger mosaics given by the late Benazir Bhutto; and countless thousands of other possessions including the enormous golden batmobile used for the his coronation. As part of the collection we saw a gift from our own queen, which we were pleased to see has a practical use for functions or just brightening up a hallway, being as it is a large (we mean large) crystal vase. The museum was interesting, but we didn't get any christmas list ideas.

This is all you ever see at Brunei intersections. Eventually you have to give up and cross anyway. [IMG_4881]
Don't walk [Enlarge]

It's worth mentioning the difficulty in crossing roads here. Being a highly ordered and developed country, every road junction has a pedestrian crossing, as you would expect. The problem is that they never seem to let the pedestrians cross! You push the button, and wait for the green man to light up, but he never does. Eventually you just give up and cross anyway, wondering if you've committed a crime.

After a quick peer at the Kampong Ayer (water village) and the Sultan Omar Sharif Mosque we really had done all there is to do in BSB besides eating and shopping. Brunei's not cheap compared with the rest of Borneo, so we decided to continue our journey north. We didn't have a fixed plan but we had sort of decided that we would get to Kota Kinabalu (neighbour to the semi-famous Mount Kinabalu) and then decide whether to fly somewhere or cross into the south of the island, part of Indonesia, and continue.

So our next step was to get into Malaysia's other Bornean state, Sabah. The road crossing from Brunei is very fiddly, and involves going to the thin sliver of Malaysia (Sarawak state) which divides Brunei, then back into the eastern part of Brunei, then finally to Sabah. Thankfully there is a much better way, by boat. You do it in two steps. The first is to Pulau Labuan (Labuan Island), which is a Malaysian federal territory, not really part of Sarawak or Sabah. That's just one hour away by express boat. From there you take another boat, three hours to Kota Kinabalu. In line with our new way of doing things we planned to do the journey over two days and spend the night in Labuan.

We caught the local bus to the ferry port from opposite our hotel. No one knew what time it would come because it has no timetable, it just arrives approximately every hour. We sat in the shade at the bus stop and waited. After twenty minutes along came the bus we wanted, a number 38. Walking down the aisle to find a seat we were surprised to be greeted in friendly fashion by French voices. It was one of the couples we shared a four-wheel-drive with from Belaga to Bintulu 17 days ago! After we left them in Bintulu they'd been on a trip to Mulu national park, we'd caught our colds in Miri and then slowly trundled to Brunei when we'd felt better, and here we were, the only four foreigners on a random city bus.

Some time later the bus stopped in Muara, Brunei's port town. We had to change bus in the town centre and get another one to the actual port. The French couple weren't coming to Brunei, they were just taking a day trip to nearby Muara beach before flying back home the following morning, so this was definitely a final goodbye.

For sale on the duty free island of Labuan, Sabah, Malaysia. [IMG_4892]
A fine whisky [Enlarge]

At the port, while waiting for the boat we got into conversation with a Singaporean guy who was delivering a spare part to an oil company in Labuan. We learned from him that Labuan is a major destination for the workers on the many offshore oil platforms in these parts, for two reasons. One reason is that many mobile drilling rigs set out from Labuan, but the main reason is that Pulau Labuan is a duty free territory with plenty of alcohol!

We had expected it to be easy to find a hotel in Labuan, but we were very wrong. Our first choice hotel was full. The receptionist there suggested another place, which luckily had one room left. Labuan was nothing special—just another small Bornean town, albeit one on an island with cheap booze. We planned to leave on the morning boat to Kota Kinabalu, but we suspected we'd have to book accommodation in KK because it's a major tourist destination for a lot of Asians, and August is prime holiday season.

Isla started phoning round KK's hostels, guest houses, lodging houses, budget hotels, mid-range hotels... nowhere had space for us, not a single place in the whole town. We even called the tourist helpline but they couldn't help. OK, we thought, no problem, we'll stay in Labuan for another night then go to KK... But no, Labuan was full the next day too!

Labuan to Brunei boat [Enlarge]

We were out of realistic options and so we had to do a quick but complete change of plan. We decided to go back to Miri (through Brunei again—aaaaggghh!) from where we would catch a cheap flight to Johor Bahru in Peninsular Malaysia. Then we'll do a short road trip to Melacca (Malaka), the famous colonial port on the west coast. Finally we can take a boat across the Malacca Straits to Indonesian Sumatra. We called our old hotel in Brunei and booked a room there.

The next morning, we went back to Labuan ferry terminal and bought a ticket on the first boat back to Brunei. As we sat in the waiting room, the guy from Singapore greeted us. He'd finished his business and was going back to Singapore by way of BSB. He'd had even more trouble than us finding a hotel the previous night. We'd been right to just take the first room we found.

From the ferry terminal we managed to catch an express bus back to BSB (it's pot luck), so we didn't have to change in Muara's town centre. The driver let us out right outside our hotel.

In the hotel's restaurant that evening, while we were eating some wonton soup the day's final prayers interrupted the programme on the big TV in the corner. Without hesitation the waiter picked up the remote and flicked to a non-Bruneian cable channel. Not all the Bruneian residents are happy with all the rules and restrictions, it seems.

Crossing the river in the rain [Enlarge]

The rest of the story is simple. Five buses and a boat took us back to Miri. Achoo, the slow and smiling bus driver, was still smiling. And his funny sign was still there reminding us that he wouldn't hurry.

Two days later another bus took us to Miri airport and an Air Asia plane took us to Senai Airport near Johor Bahru. We stayed the night there, splashing out on the Sofitel Resort because it was cheap, then caught a coach to Melaka. Travelling around Malaysia is easy. This is in part because everyone is so friendly. People who want to sell you something will take no for an answer the first time, and will happily tell you what you need to know. There's no lies or mis-information like the touts in India peddle. Sure, the timetables are patchy or non-existent, but so long as you can slow yourself down to the same, dawdling speed it's pleasant, relaxing and reliable.

Map of Days 636-641

Days 636-641
Bandar Seri Begawan to Labuan to Bandar Seri Begawan to Miri to Johor Bahru to Melaka

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 Brunei Brunei Darussalam / Malaysia Malaysia

Some rain, some Koreans and a crocodile

Longboat to Ulu Temburong [Enlarge]

Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan, capital city of Brunei, is a 150 kilometre trip involving five buses and a short boat ride across a river. It sounds complicated, but it turned out to be one of the simplest, least stressful overland border crossings we've done. We bought a combined ticket in Miri which got us from the local bus station in town all the way to Kuala Belait in Brunei (that's three buses and the boat accounted for). Then we caught a minibus from Belait to Seria, and finally another one to the capital. At each interchange our next bus was sitting there waiting for us. There were friendly people hanging around the bus stations who pointed at the right bus and were happy to tell us the departure time, fare, and anything else we wanted to know.

Our first bus driver out of Miri was quite a character. He was probably the least aggressive bus driver we've ever ridden with, and was permanently smiling. We think he believes he has the best job in the world, and that makes him a very lucky man. He took great delight in driving carefully and slowly, and even had a carefully stencilled sign above his head to tell us in three languages not to expect him to hurry:

I'm not a Formula one or sport car driver.
I'm only a normal bus driver.
If you people want to catch a plane on time.
You better take a taxi, Formula one or sport car.

We had just long enough in Seria between buses to buy some delicious toffee with peanuts and sesame seeds, and a couple of iced lemon teas. At all the other change overs the bus was moving almost before we'd sat down.

So, what about Negara Brunei Darussalam, country number twenty-six? There's no doubt that Brunei is more affluent than Sarawak, the neighbouring Malaysian state. This is most obvious in the kind of homes you see in the countryside—large private houses with big gardens, instead of communal longhouses or tiny wooden shacks. Brunei is one of the most observant Islamic nations in the world. You can't buy alcohol anywhere in the country, even if you're not Muslim (which 33% of the population isn't), although you can, we believe, ask for a 'special tea' in certain Chinese restaurants and you might just get a beer served in a teapot. We couldn't possibly comment on the veracity of this. If you're watching any of the Bruneian TV stations, your programme will be interrupted five times a day for prayers—yes, rather than just having the call to prayer ringing out from mosques across the city as happens in the Middle East, it is broadcast on the telly. But, these two differences aside, Brunei feels and looks quite a lot like Sarawak, only a bit more polished. The people are quite a lot like Sarawakians—friendly, smiley, delighted to meet you and happy to help, and not at all pushy.

Bruneian news displays a world map behind its presenter, but can you spot what's missing from western Europe? [IMG_4851]
Something's missing from the map [Enlarge]

Whereas a lot of Malaysians live above their shops, Bruneians seem to reserve the ground floor of their houses for shaded parking space for all their cars. They like their cars here: there are far fewer people on the pavements than in Malaysia.

The Sultanate has a long history of friendship with Britain, and was until as recently as 1984 a British protectorate (never a colony). It became fully independent on friendly terms and remains a member of the Commonwealth of Nations... So, we wondered while flicking through the channels, why is Britain completely missing from the map behind the presenter on the national TV news every evening? Has nobody ever noticed this before?

Brunei is a small country—a bit bigger than Norfolk, a bit smaller than Devon. The population is roughly the same as that of Manchester, England or Tulsa, Oklahoma. Most of the country is still jungle, and in fact because of the oil boom here, the country hasn't felt the need to destroy its rainforests for timber, and so it is home to some of the most pristine rainforests in South-east Asia. When the oil runs out, the forest is pretty much the only natural resource Brunei will have. The current plan is to exploit it for tourism, not for the timber trade—hopefully they'll be able to stick to this.

One of the most popular bits of jungle to visit is at the Ulu Temburong National Park. A day trip there starts with a swift speedboat ride down the Brunei River delta into Brunei Bay, round a spur of Malaysia which splits Brunei into two separate parts, then up the Temburong River to the small town of Bangar. From Bangar you take a car into the forest, followed by a longboat ride into the National Park and a tree-top walk along an impressive canopy walkway. A nice way to spend a Tuesday.

Down by the river in the early morning we met our trekking companions: a family of five from Hong Kong. As we boarded a speedboat at the Bandar Seri Begawan dock it was raining. Luckily our torpedo-shaped vessel was enclosed and almost watertight. The young speedboat driver was soon accelerating through the maze of streams that make up the Brunei River delta. We popped out into the open ocean and zoomed along a line of poles that marked the deep channel at low tide.

The rain had stopped by the time we docked in Bangar and met our guide, Langi. He is a member of one of Brunei's indigenous tribes. We've noticed that most of the people in Borneo offering services aimed at tourists are non-Muslims. He happily pointed things out and gave us snippets of information as we drove out of Bangar. One thing he told us was that Bangar just means "town", while the Bandar part of Bandar Seri Begawan means "city".

All the big travel companies in Brunei have their own lodge houses on the edge of Ulu Temburong with accommodation, catering facilities and a boat jetty. Freme Travel had laid on tea, coffee, banana fritters and sticky rice when we arrived. Once that was gone, we donned life jackets and took a longboat ride upstream into the national park. As we've mentioned already, Borneo is currently in the dry season. Langi told us that this usually means that the boat gets stuck and the passengers have to hop out and help push it over the rapids and sandbanks. But he said that because it had been raining all night we'd be okay, and we were. The driver had to basically point the boat uphill at each set of rapids, attack them at full throttle and quickly lift the propeller out of the water to coast through. We occasionally scraped the bottom, but Langi managed to punt us over it. Even without getting beached it was quite an exciting ride.

The steps up to the tree top walkway at Ulu Temburong. [IMG_4862]
We have to climb this?! [Enlarge]

At the entrance to the park, we had to get out of the boat to register at the park office. As we were signing the visitor book, Isla felt something sink its jaws into her shoulder. After some arm flapping and frantic t-shirt wafting a large ant fell out. When we say large, we mean bigger than your thumbnail. The wildlife in Borneo is super-sized.

Isla's gaping wound salved, we headed into the jungle. There is a way up to the canopy walkway involving some 1200 wooden steps, but this way is currently closed for maintenance because apparently several tourists have slipped over on the steps. That meant we would be taking the long way round through the jungle, using ropes to help us pull ourselves up, which was much more interesting. It wasn't too hot because there was a slight breeze coming up the river valley. Eventually we reached the base of the canopy walkway's tower, from which a long metal platform well above tree top level was suspended. Assuming you can get up the courage to climb to the top, you have a fantastic view over the top of the jungle. Of our group of seven, we were the only ones to go up.

Sliding back down the hill, we passed a group of Koreans on tour, coming the other way. We said "안녕하세요" (annyeonghaseyo / hello) to them as we passed and they almost rolled down the hill in surprise. We went on to further astound them by explaining in Korean that until June we had been English teachers in Seoul. They loved it.

at Ulu Temburong. [IMG_4865]
Isla on the tree top walkway [Enlarge]

We'd just passed a patch of monkey wee (it smells strong and musty), and a poisonous tree (don't touch!) on the way down the hill when Langi told us that it was going to rain. As soon as he'd said it, we could sense the change in the air, and the stiffening breeze, which we hadn't noticed before. We just made it to the longboats before the downpour came. The boatman magically produced waterproof ponchos for everyone and we had an even more interesting voyage back down to the lodge house. No danger of getting grounded this time! When it rains in Borneo it really rains, even in the dry season. Pity the poor Koreans who had probably just about reached the summit as 비가 왔어요 (bi-ga oasseoyo / it started raining).

On the way back to the city the speed boat took a route closer to the coast than it had before, as it was now high tide. We wondered if we were sticking to Bruneian waters or taking a short cut through Malaysia, so we tagged a few points on the GPS to check out later on Google Earth. True enough, we had sped through little creeks deep in the Malaysian mainland for a lot of the journey!

We were almost back to Bandar Seri Begawan when the boat driver suddenly cut the throttle and we all nearly flew through the windscreen. He excitedly pointed out of the window and we looked just in time to see a huge salt-water crocodile launch itself vertically out of the water, snap its jaws around an unsuspecting fish, and disappear again below the surface. The driver said that he'd never seen a crocodile here before, and he's been navigating the waterways of Brunei for many years. As usual, the highlight of the day turned out to be something unexpected.

Our trekking trip was fab. We're not sure that the Hong Kongers shared our view though. Take out the breathtaking treetop walk, and all you have left is a trudge up and down a hill and a wet boat ride. Life's much more fun when you try stuff. JFDI, we say.

Map of Day 633

Day 633
Miri to Bandar Seri Begawan

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.