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.