OZ Road Trip. Part IV: Southern Australia

As we crossed the border on the morning of Tuesday 7th August 2012 we were offically in Southern Australia. We had seen enough of red sand and desert. All we wanted to do by this stage was to get to Adelaide and see the coast and beaches which we dearly missed.

We drove for about 350km to a place called Cooper Pedy , very famous for its Opal mining and the fact that it is so hot here most people live undergroud. Thus the reason for all the warning signs to watch where you are walking as there are loads of holes which are entrances to mines, underground houses and hotels.

This unusual place was somewhere we did not want to miss. It was also a relief that petrol prices were no longer $2.20 a litre, but down to $1.99 a litre. Not as cheap as we were used to on the east coast when it was as low as $1.20 a litre. Nonetheless we were not in a position to negotiate and it was still cheaper than the UK!

Coober Pedy bills itself as the opal capital of Australia, if not the world. Opal was discovered here by an aboriginal teenage boy in 1915, and the chance of a strike has since enticed people from all over the world. We heard all about the outrageous stories of fortunes made and lost, intrigues, vendettas and crazy old-timers. Every few years someone makes a million-dollar find, but some miners spend decades hard at work and make very little for their efforts.

The name Coober Pedy is from a local Aboriginal dialect and is said to mean ‘white man’s hole in the ground’. About half the population, comprising more than 40 nationalities, lives in dugouts (underground rooms) to shelter from the extreme climate: daytime summer temperatures can soar to over 50°C, and the winter nights are freezing. Apart from the dugouts, there are more than 250000 mine shafts in the area. Although these days the shafts are fenced off, it pays to keep your eyes open if wandering around!

Coober Pedy is in an inhospitable environment where rainfall is scant, so even in the middle of winter the town looks dry and dusty, and water is expensive. You could never describe the town as attractive. In fact, it looks a bit like the end of the world, making it the perfect locale for ‘end of the world’ films such as Mad Max III and Stark, and otherworldly movies including Red Planet and Pitch Black.

It was so bizarre seeing all the Mad Max props in near good condition in the back of people’s gardens after being left out in the desert. This was my favourite.

We also decided to check out a few places underground, particualy an interesting church.

On Wednesday 8th August 2012 we drove another 380km all the way to Pimba/Woomera an old CIA and Australian Rocket Launch area which used to be the Australian equivalent of Area 51.

The Southern Coast of Australia wasn’t too far away from here, and we were so excited to being back in civilisation and seeing the gorgeous beaches which Australia is so famous for. It’s quite ironic after all the beaches we have seen we were now missing them.

The following day we drove all the way to the coast at Parham, just 50km away from Adelaide. It was so good to be back in civilisation. Even walking into Coles or Woolworths was a luxury as we could buy whatever we wanted to. The problem with the outback is there are limited supplies and everything is pretty basic (and expensive!)

First of all we started to see green grass and vegetation which we so missed.

We were so happy to be reunited with the fresh smell of the sea, to see a beautiful white sandy beach, but more importantly have no red sand anywhere!

It’s hard to put into perspective the sigh of relief we gave getting back to civilisation. But if you can imagine driving non-stop for 6-8 hours a day, doing 110 km/h in a straight line in the middle of the desert for 2 weeks, you probably get a sense of what we endured.

The outback is also pretty dangerous with many people going missing whilst swimming or fishing at rivers due to crocs. Most Australians are clued up with dangerous animals, like checking your shoes in the morning for spiders, never putting your hand into a hole, under a rock or somewhere there is litte light. It’s basically common sense which you need to adapt to very quickly.

We were also warned not to stop and help any supposed victims of vehicle breakdown, just phone in help for them. We heard of too many backpackers going missing stopping at the side of the road. We were also glad we hadn’t seen any outback horror movies!

We always had to keep our eyes open for bouncing kangaroos though, anywhere in Australia!

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On Friday 10th August 2012 we woke up at the beach and loved waking up to the sound of the waves crashing in. We saw loads of beautiful parrotts.

Also the unmistakeable pelican.

We drove the short drive to Adelaide, the capital of Southern Australia. Found a lovely place to stay near the city centre and explored this lovely city. We walked via the river and fell in love with the city pretty quickly.

It was clean, spacious and very easy to find your way around.

The wide sweeping streets, city squares and lush green boundaries make Adelaide an enchanting city to explore. You only need scratch the surface of the quiet achiever of Australian cities to tap into its hedonistic vein. It boasts world-renown major events, spanning the cultured and cerebral, artistic and gastronomic, petrol-burning and sports crazed.

The pleasure-seeking spirit flows from varied cuisines and magnificent wines through to the healthy live music and bar scene and numerous galas that celebrate a thriving arts community.

On Saturday 11th August 2012 we took a drive to the Adelaide Hills. A very famous part of the world for wine enthusiasts, which we loved.

A rural playground for many Adelaidians, the Adelaide Hills are only a 30-minute drive from the city. They are surprisingly undeveloped with lush woodland and offer numerous conservation areas with walking trails.

Wineries dotted throughout the hills make for a relaxed wine-tasting and gourmet eating trail. All the big wine companies are here including Jacobs Creek, Wolf Blass and Penfolds to name just a few.

Since the first vines were planted in 1791, Australia has become a significant wine producer. The main grape growing area spans the south eastern part of Australia which has a temperate climate. In particular South Australia has a Mediterranean-like climate, characterised by warm to hot, dry summers and mild to cool, wet winters. It’s ideal weather for growing rich, intensely flavoured grapes with balanced acidity and fine tannins. These ideal viticulture conditions explain why South Australia is the most significant wine state, comprising 40% of the country’s grape crush. Throughout Australia there are more than 60 designated wine regions.

Jacobs Creek was probably our favourite cellar door with its trademark creek running past. It was simply stunning walking through the vineyard seeing all the famous varieties of grapes including Cabernet, Savaugnion, Shiraz and Chardonnay.

We then walked into their HQ to learn more of their history and taste a few of their lovely wines.

We loved it.

Penfolds was also an incredible experience, it was interesting to learn about their heritage and history.

Rather nice wine too.

Equally as good was Wolf Blass where we tasted more fine wine.

We loved their Gold range.

Learned a lot about all the different grapes too.

We love Australian wine.

The Barossa Valley is so pretty where the wine is grown and produced. Beautiful hills, creeks and lush green valleys. It was very similar to parts of the Scottish Highlands!

We absolutely loved the countryside, and to think we were in the desert a few days ago was surreal!

On Sunday 12th August we drove through more vineyards and enjoyed this pretty countryside. Adelaide and it’s surroundings is gorgeous. We stopped at a wildlife zoo called Gorge Wildlife Park.

We had such a good time with all the Australian animals, most of which we had seen in the wild.

But it was good to be reunited with them, and not have to avoid hitting them in the car!

Some of them are so cute especially the baby kangaroos still in their mothers’ pouches.

Australia has such an amazing wildlife.

Some dangerous ones too.

But mostly cute.

We love the koala bears which are just adorable.

We also drove to port Adelaide, and what a drastic change of scenery. Huge long white pristine beaches. The locals have huge houses with their own private piers and enormous boats outside.

Port Adelaide, about 10 kms north-west from Adelaide City, with its maritime ambience and landmark Colonial buildings is an interesting place to visit.
We loved the white sandy beaches here.

Soon afterwards on Monday 13th August 2012 we drove to another famous wine region, the McLaren Vale where Hardys is situated. We had a lovely time experimenting with all the different grapes and wines. Got a nice bottle of red sparkling which was unusual but very tasty.

The nest stop was Victor Harbour, a holiday-maker town with long foreshore adorned with towering pines.

We took a beautiful walk out on this long boardwalk to Granite Island where penguins can be spotted.

Because it wasn’t dusk our chances were slim, but we wanted to go anyway just for the views. There were however a few whales in the bay.

That night we stayed on a beautiful island called Narrung.

Possibly one of the best free sites we have stayed at.

On Wednesday 15th August 2012 we went to a beautiful place called Robe. Situated along South Australia’s magnificent Limestone Coast lies the historic seaside resort of Robe. It was lovely seeing all the limestone cliffs.

The next day was our last in the state of Southern Ausrtalia and we stayed beside a volcanic crater called Mt. Schank. Just 20 minutes south of Mount Gambier was Mt. Schank, an extinct volcano rising abruptly from the plains to 158 metres above sea level.

We loved Southern Australia, home to long summers, stunning beaches and award-winning wine, events and festivals. It’s the gateway to the unique National Landscapes of the Flinders Ranges and iconic Kangaroo Island.

The beautiful wine regions and hills were also spectacular with more than 200 cellar doors on its doorstep, all within an hour’s drive of the city.

It’s no surprise too that Adelaide has been voted Australia’s most liveable city. We would certainly miss this state, particualry Adelaide.

On Friday 17th August 2012 we would cross the border and enter the state of Victoria.

To be continued….

Thanks for reading

Norman and Cheryl
xxx

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OZ Road Trip. Part III: The Outback

Into the vast empty spaces of the outback is a huge imposing red rock which we had known as Ayers Rock. After learning about Australian history we realised this is now known by its Aboroginal name, Uluru. We were ready to travel through this sparsely populated and often harsh country to find this spectacle of nature. The journey itself was exceptionally rewarding.

The outback includes much of the Simpson Desert and the harsh, rocky landscape of the Sturt Stony Desert. There are also huge salt lakes that fill with water every once in a long while.

It’s not wise to stray from the few main roads without a 4WD (or a camel!). Fuel, repair facilities and spare parts are limited, so we had to be prepared in case of breakdown. We filled our campervan full of food, water and a very big road atlas map listing all the petrol stations. We also had to make sure we had entry permits which are required for a large part of the northwest (which is either Aboriginal land, national park or the Woomera Prohibited Area).

The Northern Territory is the kind of land where clichés are born. It mocks polite attempts to penetrate it. And there are all of those deadly animals poised to snap, sting and strike.

So you might wonder why on earth would we want to put ourselves through all these risks? Well, it is quite simple! In the middle of this flat desert, after travelling in a straight line for about 7 days doing 130kmph in this vast wilderness, there is a massive big red rock, some call the beating heart of Australia.

We decided to take the not so popular route from Cairns to Normanton, Mt. Isa, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs because we had already driven part of the Charters Towers route and did not want to backtrack on ourselves as it would waste a couple of days covering the same old ground. Some “Developmental Roads” made the drive a bit interesting and a bit dangerous.

It was quite unnerving when we drove at 120km/h along a road, which was just wide enough for our campervan, and then a 50m ‘road train’ came hurtling towards us!

You have to concentrate all the time.

We also had to be very careful and extra wary of the wild crocodiles in the waterways.

There are bottlenecks through which travelers are safely funnelled, but equally there are huge tracts of country that mightn’t have seen a person in decades. There are art galleries in the outback oasis of Alice Springs. And of course, there’s the mesmeric changing colours of the iconic Uluru (Ayers Rock) in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Crossing this vast country on a legendary road trip provided us with the chance to watch for wildlife and admire art, to hike through rainforest and rocky gorges.

We did loads of research before we left Cairns. As wise travellers we crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s. It was very important that everything we planned for the next few weeks would go ahead as planned.

The fridge and cupboards were literally full of food, water and essentials. There would be very few supermarkets where we would be going, and sometimes we would have to go very very long distances without seeing a town or village or any form of life! More importantly we would see very few gas stations so it was important to fill up every time we seen a garage, unfortuntely irrespective of the price per litre.

So we plotted our route around gas stations and non-Aboriginal land. We had been advised never to travel in the desert in the dark or at dusk as this is when all the animals become most active, particulaly kangaroos and emus which can be dangerous when you are driving.

So on Wednesday 25th July 2012 we woke up at 7am and were a little bit anxious, but we also had a sense of excitement. We would leave the metropolitan city of Cairns and start heading East, inland towards the state called Northern Territory.

We wished the campervan luck too as we got ready for an epic adventure.

We set a point in the GPS and started heading out of Cairns. We got a shock straight away as ‘The Outback’ desert set upon us.

We started leaving civilisation about midday, and by 3pm we began to see the infamous red dirt. It was a dramatic change of scenery even after driving 311km to a campsite in Mount Surprise.

Loads of friendly people and even a snake.

Thankfully a non-venomous one. We even got our photos with it.

Very educational as the locals told us what to do if we ever got bitten by a venomous snake. Nearly all snake bites are in the leg and what everyone does wrong is run for help. This is the last thing you should do as the venom will spread as you move. So it’s vitally important you move as little as possible, just move away from the snake and do not touch the wound. The doctor will swab the wound to detect which type of snake bit you, then give you the particular anti-venom which is available for most snakes.

Close to where we camped was a river with crocodiles and a sign warning you of the dangers. A year ago German family went swimming and ignored the warning signs, even though they are also written in German. The mother has never been seen again. It’s just so important to be sensible when you are out here.

We had a good night’s sleep but it started getting really cold at about 2am as we were in the desert. The next morning we woke to lovely hot weather and anticipated up to 40C during the day, but could expect -1C at night. We left to continue on the exceptionally long and straight road where we left off the day before.

The land out there is so flat you can see for miles and miles. All around you it is so quiet. If it was anywhere else in the world we would’ve just put the foot down and floored it. But you can’t because kangaroos, cows, crocodiles, emus, ostritches and reptiles can come out of the bush and run across the road.

That day after driving in a straight line for about 6 hours, hardly seeing anyone else on the road, a big iguana stepped out of the bush and ran right in front of our campervan. Because the bush here is taking over the landscape you can’t see what’s hiding at the side of the road. Not too far ahead of us was an oncoming car towing a caravan so we couldn’t swerve onto the other side of the road to avoid the beast. Miraclously Cheryl managed to aim the campervan and drive over it perfectly avoiding its tail and head as it escaped under the undercarriage. We then looked in our rear view mirror as the oncoming car did exactly the same. A very lucky iguana!

It got hotter as we inched closer to the middle of the desert, but thankfully it was winter here so not ridiculously hot. Even still we just wore our shorts and t-shirts.

We unfortunately had to share the road with 50m road-trains. They are huge big trucks which have 3-5 trucks/trailers stuck on their backs. They also have priority as they go so fast. It’s best just to get out of the way and let them pass you, but as they overtake you it’s so important not to change your speed as they take so long to get into the other lane you might end up going into the back carriages.

We didn’t see much for the rest of that day as it now became a massive red desert. Red sand is everywhere and it gets everywhere. We drove a whopping 505KM to Bang Bang, a very funny name for a town.

On Friday 27th July 2012 we continued on our straight line. The road was in pretty good condition now, better than most of the roads in the UK. Got to a place called Cloncurry then onto a town called Fountain Springs.

On the way we came to Normanton, where we had to stop with a name like that!

It’s just like driving in a straight line all day and unfortunately the campervan did not have cruise control which was a pain. Drove just over 300km that day and found a campsite in the middle of the desert. It was strange to think when we parked up beside the other campervans that we were the only people in this vast land.

One thing we noticed becoming more expensive was petrol. It was nearly $2.00 a litre here. Very little did we know how expensive it would really get further into the outback. Nearly as expensive as the UK!

The long stretches of road could get a bit boring. We had already  listened to our MP3 players back to back as we have had them whilst travelling without being updated for nearly a year. So we started counting road kill! It was quite incredible!

A wild pig ran out infront of us one day, and later a kangaroo jumped across the road. It’s just so important to be wary of everything around you and to expect the unexpected.

On Saturday 28th July 2012 we really started to notice the difference in temperature between day and night. It was much cooler when the sun went down, but when it came up in the morning it was so hot all day without a cloud in the sky. The sky at night was crystal clear, the stars were so bright. We could see the Milky Way and the famous Southern Cross which is on the Australian national flag.

We were loving the Outback at this stage. It was completely different from what we were used to with no beaches or sea. Fellow campers were so friendly as well. Everyone said hello and chatted. Many Aussies were interested in Scotland as so many of them have family heritage in our country.

In the afternoon we drove to a town called Mount Isa, the last town before we officially entered a new state. The laws are much different as we soon found out, especially with alcohol. Most of the land in the Northern Territory has been handed back to the Aboroginal people, with the most obvious now being Uluru which used to be called Ayers Rock.

Unfortuntely a high percentage of Aboroginal people have alcohol problems. So the government has come down hard on people in this state including visitors. You can’t bring any alcohol into the state and you are limited to purchase about one bottle of wine per day. Strict checks are kept on a registered system where you need to hand over your identification so people aren’t drinking too much, or even stocking up.

That day was mostly about driving through the red dust and very flat land. There are no contours or hills anywhere, you can see for miles. Occasionally there is the odd bump in the ground- a termite mound!

…and mini hurricanes.

The next couple of days consisted of loads and loads of driving. On Sunday 29th July 2012 we drove 520km. Petrol starting shooting up to $2.20 a litre. We drove all the way to The Pebbles near Tennant Creek just after Three Ways. The main roads were still in very good condition and so very long. At Tennant Creek we saw The Pebbles which were nowhere near as good as the Devils Marbles which we saw later.

When you see a sign saying, “last petrol station for 400km” it actually means that and is not a marketing ploy. So it’s important to fill up every time you see a station. We have heard a lot of stories of petrol stations closing early or running out of fuel so the driver needs to camp at the petrol stations and wait for supplies.

At this point road kill was at over 30.

On Monday 30th July 2012 we drove 320km to Wycliffe Well, the UFO capital of Australia. There was an interesting cafe with newspaper articles of all the alleged UFO sightings, and all the alien souvenirs you could imagine!

Very interesting indeed. Although I must say they served a good pie and chips!

That day we came across the Devils Marbles which are amongst the most famous Australian rocks, right up there with Uluru and the Olgas.

Got loads of photos.

All guide books and brochures about the Australian Outback feature a picture of the Marbles.

There are loads of these perfectly spherical rocks here, almost like someone dropped a huge load of marbles from the sky.

The Devils Marbles are a unique wonder and arguably as spellbinding as Uluru or Kings Canyon. They are an extensive collection of huge round red coloured boulders which seem precariously, almost impossibly balanced in stark contrast with the relatively featureless surrounding landscape.

They are granite rocks of volcanic origin which have been eroded over 1500 million years to produce the formation they are today.

The Devils Marbles are explained in a Dream Time legend told by The Warumungu, the native Aboriginal people, who say that they are fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent.

For this reason the Devils Marbles Reserve is another spiritually significant and sacred site to the Aborigines.

That night was pretty cold, nearly 1C. Thankfully we had good sleeping bags and were well equipped with our Icebreaker Merino clothing. The sun came up around 7am and the temperature rose drastically to a lovely heat around the mid-late twenties. We needed to apply sun lotion, and it was great wearing our thongs (flip-flops), shorts and t-shirts.

On Tuesday 31st July 2012 we drove all the way to the only city in this vast emptiness; Alice Springs. It was a sigh of relief seeing the city after 7 days of driving through the dry desert.

The thriving outback town of Alice Springs rises out of an endless expanse of red dirt and rugged ranges from all sides. What began 135 years ago as a simple telegraph station has developed into a modern low-rise metropolis. It’s famous for its remote location, and many local business operators have a franchise on the outback look, dressing buildings with corrugated iron and other rustic touches. It’s so popular that tourists can outnumber locals six to one.

Alice Springs is populated by Aussie characters (where else would you find the biggest boat race on a dry river bed?) and is a national hub for Aboriginal art, with loads of galleries and arts-related events. And, in case all those cafés and shopping centres make you forget how isolated it is, a number of sights serve as pertinent reminders, such as the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base and the School of the Air.

Though Pine Gap’s not on the tourist radar, a significant pocket of Alice’s population works for the CIA at this nearby US installation. The highly secretive satellite-tracking station has been listening in to the world since 1966. Most of the estimated 1000 workers apparently call themselves gardeners. And, judging by all those manicured lawns fronting cosy suburban houses, they are quite good gardeners too. The local Aboriginal tribe is The Arrernte and they have lived in the area for over 20 000 years.

Ayers Rock or Uluru is about 300km away from here, but we spent most of the next couple of days relaxing and recuperating in Alice Springs stocking up on food, fuel and water again thanks to a large Woolworths being present here. Almost a miracle in the middle of the desert we thought. The number of road kill counted at this stage was 55.

On Wednesday 1st August 2012 we visited some amazing places close to Alice Springs. About 100km East of Alice Springs was Simpsons Gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges National Park.

There are often rock wallabies in the jumble of rocks either side of the gap.

This towering gap in the range is the result of 60 million years of effort by a river – a river that rarely runs.

Simpsons Gap is one of the most prominent gaps in the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Then we went to Ellery Creek Big Hole.

Stretching 170 km across the West MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, this is one of the most visited parks in the Red Centre. Its highest peak is 1531 m Mount Zeil, in the far west, and its gorges contain beautiful waterholes, startling white ghost gums and retreats for wildlife.

The waterhole is a part of the Finke river which is believed to be one of the oldest rivers on earth, 15 million years old. Most of the time it’s dry, like any other river in the Outback. But there are several waterholes (billabongs) where the water is deep and cold so they never completely dry out.

It was extradordinary to see all these beautiful things in the middle of the desert.

We then went to Ormiston Gorge. This was one of our favourite spots. Massive geological forces created the towering red walls of Ormiston Gorge, located within the West MacDonnell National Park.

Within the gorge is a permanent waterhole, estimated to be at least 14 metres deep, which provides a refreshing finale to a day’s exploring.

A stunning Gorge.

To finish off an absolutely fantastic day we stayed at the Glen Helen Resort by the Glen Helen Gorge.

The landscape around Glen Helen is spectacular – a towering sandstone wall is the first thing you see as you arrive. The area includes views of Mount Sonder, one of the highest points in Central Australia, which changes colours with the light.

At Glen Helen Gorge the ranges part to make way for the Finke River. The permanent Finke River waterhole is an important refuge in the hot summer months for all nine species of fish recorded for the Finke, and migrating waterbirds. From here the Finke River continues and makes its way to the Simpson Desert.

The area’s traditional owners believe that this inviting swimming spot is the home of an ancient and powerful Rainbow Serpent, and regard it as off limits.

We had a lovely night and I collected loads of firewood.

I created a huge bonfire by the campervan as we gazed at the clear starry sky.

On Thursday 2nd August 2012 we had to drive all the way back to Alice Springs via the same way we came as the alternative route requred a 4WD. The next day we would go to Uluru (Ayers Rock) so we drove all the way down South. A long way but gorgeous scenery. It looked very much like the desert now with really bright red sand everywhere, and so flat. It’s stunning when the sun comes out.

The next day Friday 3rd August 2012 we had an extra bounce in our step as we would finally see Uluru, the rock we had come so far to see. As we got closer to Uluru we were continually looking out for it as you can see it from miles away.

We then thought we seen it as we approached a mammoth mountain, but this soon turned out to be Mt. Connor. This huge rock, three times the size of Uluru, was equally impressive and we were surprised how little people talked about this.

So we continued driving for another hour and spotted this enormous red rock come up from the horizon. That was Uluru. It looked so beautiful. It’s just so bizarre out there in the middle of the desert. We got a lovely campsite not too far away.

We decided first of all to visit another collection of giant rocks known as The Olgas (or Kata Tjuta).

The name Kata Tjuta actually means ‘many heads’ in traditional Aboriginal language. The alternative name, The Olgas, comes from the tallest peak Mt. Olga.

We had a lovely time as we walked in between the massive round rocks.

They lay 35kms west of Ayers Rock along Lasseter Highway and have a slightly different make-up to their better-known neighbour. The highest point is Mount Olga, rising to 546m above ground, some 200m higher than Ayers Rock. It’s about 22kms around the circumference (Ayers Rock is about 10kms).

Local Aboriginals often stage ceremonies here at night.

Then we drove to Uluru to catch sunset and see if we could spot this powerful rock changing colours. The long journey to the centre of Australia on the other side of the world was worth it!

One of the world’s greatest natural attractions.

Uluru is a massive sandstone rock that is sacred to the Aborigines of the area, who are known as the Anangu. In recent years Uluru has also become important for New Age practitioners.

Believed to have been formed by the activities of ancestral beings in creation time (or Dreamtime) the beautiful site includes many caves, waterholes and ancient rock paintings. Uluru is the traditional name for the rock, Ayers Rock is the name given by European explorers, and Uluru/Ayers Rock is the official name.

The Aboriginal inhabitants of Australia believe the Central Australian landscape was created at the beginning of time by ancestral beings. According to Aboriginal myth, the world was unformed and featureless until ancestral beings emerged from the void and journeyed across the land, creating all living species and the features of the desert landscape. Uluru is regarded as spectacular physical evidence of the ancestors’ activities during this creation period.

Aside from its imposing size the most impressive feature of Uluru, beloved by Aborigines and visitors alike, is its beautiful range of changing colours throughout the day and year.

Sunrise and sunset are particularly remarkable, with the rock glowing a deep rusty red.

The rock derives its rust colour from oxidation, and the glowing effect at sunrise and sunset is due to the arkosic sandstone of the rock which contains reflective minerals and changes colour according to the attitude of the sun.

We were very impressed as the rock put on a colour change show for us that night.

Amazing.

On Saturday 4th August 2012 we slept just 10km away from one of the most famous landmarks in the world. We had a lovely breakfast and couldn’t contain our excitement as we hoped to climb to the top of Uluru.

We got to the base of the rock and were immediately overwhelmed by its presence.

The Aboroginals who own this land ask you NOT to go to the top or climb on it as it is sacred them. However, the most popular thing to do at Uluru is to climb it.

Ayers Rock contains a variety of interesting cracks, canyons, caves and natural formations, all of which the Anangu attribute to the activities of ancestral beings at the creation time. The shallow caves at the base of the rock contain ancient carvings and paintings.

A sign at the base of Uluru posted by the Aborigines specifically requests visitors not to climb their sacred rock. It reads in part:

“Our traditional Law teaches us the proper way to behave. We ask you to respect our Law by not climbing Uluru. What visitors call ‘the climb’ is the traditional route taken by ancestral Mala man upon their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance. We have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. ‘The climb’ is dangerous and too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru. Many others have been injured while climbing. We feel great sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land.”

However, since Uluru is currently leased to Australia as a national park, visitors are free to climb the rock and there is a marked path with chain handhold provided to make it a little safer. Many tourists climb the rock each year, but as the sign above points out, the climb is no easy task and over 35 have died in the attempt.

The steep climb to the top of Ayers Rock takes over an hour in hot desert conditions. A reasonable level of fitness, proper clothing, and plenty of water are necessary. There are emergency radio alarms at various points around the base of Uluru in case of injury or health problems.

It’s obvious how people have died, it’s not easy and pretty unsafe. To start with the chain which helps you up at a very steep angle stops a third of the way, probably in attempt to stop people continuing the rest of the way up.

As I said it is extremely steep, not only getting up but the angle on the descent is quite dangerous too. The rock is so smooth you really need good grip on your footwear, and definitiely do not wear flip-flops or other flimsy shoes.

The weather also has a massive impact on safety and the climb is often closed if it’s too hot or windy. A lot of people complain when it’s closed but in our opinion it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

We were lucky the weather conditions were perfect, just as good as the day we got to Everest Base Camp. Clear blue sky, not too hot.

Once the chain finishes you need to work out your own route to the top following markings on the rock. As we ascended the view became more and more spectacular.

We could see the Olgas in the distance which we went to visit the day before.

The desert is so flat and we were standing on the highest viewpoint on a clear day. The desert seemed to stretch to infinity in all directions. It really left a lasting impression.

It was all in all a fantastic walk to the summit.

We stayed there for a while.

Admiring the views.

We couldn’t stop admiring the beauty and the vantage point we had.

The very top.

The descent was pretty tough over the moon-like surface. I felt sorry for a lot of people who were ill-prepared and particualry a few old people who found the ascent difficult enough.

The descent was tougher and I could only wonder how some of the less agile visitors would find the more difficult descent.

An amazing experience was had by both of us and we were just in awe with the views and scenery.

However, I dont think it will be long until climbing to the top of Uluru will be banned indefinitely.

We went to the culture centre after the climb and learned a lot more about the Aboroginal culture. Debate continues on when the first Aborigines moved into the area but the best evidence suggests that it was at least 20 000 years ago. On October 26th 1985, the Australian government returned ownership of Uluru to the local Pitjantjatjara Aborigines, with one of the conditions being that the Anangu would lease it back to the National Parks and Wildlife for 99 years and that it would be jointly managed. The rock and the surrounding park were designated a World Heritage Site in 1987.

After we left Uluru we headed back on the road towards Curtis Springs when a huge emu came out of nowhere onto the road. Annoyingly emus tend to run by the side of the car so it’s best to slow down so it stops doing it. Thankfully this one stopped in the middle of the road and went back the way.

That night as we were sitting outside with a glass of wine we got a shock when another emu walked up behind Cheryl and started drinking out of her glass. Cheryl ran into the campervan leaving her glass of wine behind.

I think the emu enjoyed the wine as it came back a few times looking for more.

On Sunday 5th August 2012 we set off early to go to the Kings Canyon, one of the most spectacular sights in central Australia. This range contains a massive gorge with red sandstone walls that rise over 100 metres to a plateau of rocky domes and other sandstone formations.

It was getting a bit late by the time we got to our campsite so we sat out and watched sunset over the Kings Canyon.

Another spectacular event.

This was also our first spotting of a Dingo, a wild dog.

The next day Monday 6th August 2012 we drove to the actual Kings Canyon where we would trek right around the rim. Walks lead along the canyon floor as well as up to the rim and around the full length of the canyon.

We did the Canyon Rim Walk which is certainly one of the best and most varied walks you can do in central Australia.

There is an initial steep climb up to the rim.

You then follow the northern rim on a flat path over weathered flaky sandstone, with great views into the canyon and to the opposite wall.

The path is a lot less steep where it comes down again on the other side, but you are only allowed to follow the walk in a clockwise direction. So there is no avoiding the steep initial climb…

If you are out of breath just pretend to admire the views. They are impressive after all!

At the top end of the canyon the ground becomes more uneven.

As you follow the walk around you find yourself between the weathered sandstone domes called “The Lost City”.

There is also an opportunity to descend into a very sheltered valley with a permanent water hole called “The Garden of Eden”.

You really should not swim here for environmental reasons, but everybody does anyway.

I found this part of the walk the most scenic, up and down through some narrow gaps and rugged valleys… (There are boardwalks and stairs for the steep sections.)

It certainly is a very varied walk.

The scenery changes all the time, and each part of it is impressive.

That afternoon we drove a whopping 380km to the Southern Australia / Northern Territory border. We slept our last night in the Northern Territory state.

A couple of things we will not miss from The Outback is the red sand that goes everywhere and the suicidal animals. We counted 236 roadkill on our Outback journey, at least 50 of which were huge cows that must’ve caused some damage but now looked like old leather suitcases!

As we stepped across the border that day we knew the gorgeous Australian coastline with its beautiful beaches and civilisation was not far ahead of us.

So we put the foot to the floor!

To be continued…

Thanks for reading

Norman and Cheryl

xxx

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OZ Road Trip. Part II: Queensland

On Friday 29th June 2012 we left pretty New South Wales and crossed the border into Queensland. This was our first state crossing in Australia.

The first place we went to was Surfers Paradise. The neon lights of the Gold Coast have more in common with the glitz and glamour of Miami or the hedonistic pastimes of Las Vegas than they do Australia. But somehow this heady mix of high-rise apartment blocks, airport-sized shopping malls and million-dollar theme parks feel at home here.

While there’s no denying that this 35km strip of golden sand is the most aggressively developed patch in Australia, it’s also one of the most popular holiday destinations and receives more than two million visitors every year. So it must be doing something right.

The shared appeal is the sand, surf and nightlife, but there’s more to the Gold Coast than just the beach. Beyond the high-rises stands the Gold Coast Hinterland, a densely forested region home to two of Queensland’s best national parks: Lamington and Springbrook. And then there’s Surfers Paradise & Broadbeach, which is both the epitome of the Gold Coast and the exception to the rule. It’s brash and it’s tacky but that’s exactly what people love about it.

When we arrived in Surfers Paradise there was a marathon in progress and all the campsites were fully booked so we carried on to Broadbeach, a few kilometres down the road. Here things shifted down a gear and we found more space and less noise.

On our way up the East Coast from Sydney we came across endless deserted beaches in New South Wales, one after the other. However the beaches here were packed with tourists and surfers, and was just not our scene. However we did find a pretty little town called Jacobs Well.

We stayed there a couple of nights as it was very relaxing. We also came across a beautiful upcoming village called Calypso Bay where they were building luxurious houses right on the bay, each with private dock. A fantastic development which we both adored and were tempted to put in an offer!

On Sunday 1st July 2012 we drove to Brisbane, the capital of Queensland.

We passed through a few beautiful places called Cleveland and Wellington Point en route.

Brisbane and the Gold Coast boasts 35 beaches and 300 sunny days a year. The Gold Coast promises its four million annual visitors a taste of the quintessential Aussie lifestyle of sun, surf and fun. After seeing endless beaches coming up from Sydney we found the beaches here spectacular, with excellent surfing conditions and good fishing.

It may be Australia’s third-largest city, but for a long time Brisbane was seen as something of a poor cousin to Sydney and Melbourne: a sleepy country town hiding behind a big city façade. In recent years, however, Brisbane has stirred from its slumber and is casually emerging as one of the most desirable places to live in Australia with an estimated 1000 people packing their bags and moving up there every week.

Of course locals have always known that ‘Brissie’ offers the perfect lifestyle and it doesn’t take visitors long to understand why.

Despite the transformation into a sleek, cosmopolitan city complete with world-class art galleries, a booming live music scene and a fabulous café culture, Brisbane still retains the laid-back, easy attitude of a smaller community.

No doubt the lazy subtropical climate, gently curving Brisbane River and rich cultural flavours of its many neighbourhoods also have something to do with its appeal. But mostly people love Brisbane because it’s a ritzy city with a down-to-earth attitude and we found home to some of the friendliest locals in Oz.

We spent a couple of days in the city exploring and getting a feel for the place. On Monday 2nd July 2012 we caught a futuristic river taxi which took us right down the river that splits Brisbane in half.

We went right through the city which gave us ample opportunity to admire its beauty. Many lovely residential houses, Universities and high-rised buildings gave a lovely picturesque view of Brisbane.

After a while we explored the Botanic Gardens and walked through the most popular streets. We loved Brisbane and its inner city suburbs, particularly our walk through the city revealing Brisbane’s colonial history and architecture.

Australia is a big place (as many Australians will like to point out to you) so we left after a couple of days to Maroochydore which is officially on the Sunshine Coast. It was also beautiful with many beaches.

Each beach had its own style, but all feature a strip of cafés and shops lining a main street running parallel to the beach. This is the most developed patch of the Sunshine Coast and is becoming permanent residence to more and more Australians each year.

Soon afterwards we were in North Shore close to Nusa. We had to catch a ferry boat across onto an island where we would spend the next couple of nights in tranquility.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the island surrounded by gorgeous white sands, stunning wildlife and great fishing. We also encountered a giant kangaroo which the locals were feeding loaves of bread (which may have explained its size!)

On Wednesday 4th July 2012 we left the island and drove further up North to a place called Rainbow Beach. Another beautiful place and a fantastic location at a massive beach. We knew straight away this is the kind of place we would want to stay a couple of nights, and so we did.

We did loads of sunbathing, playing football, walking along the beach and obviously some fishing here. The view from the campervan each night was simply stunning. Knowing this pristine beach was at our doorstop, almost empty of tourists, was just a dream.

We’re not the biggest fans of rugby but we did get into one of the biggest rivalries between NSW and Queensland; State of Origin. A Rugby League tournament, best of 3 games between both states, and that night would be the decider. It was interesting to watch and quite appropriate that we would be in Queensland for this game as we saw the last one in New South Wales.

Queensland won (just!) which meant they were unbeaten for 7 years. The rivalry was definitely present and we started to see some differences in people from Queensland and New South Wales. We toasted a victory for Queensland over a lovely cold crisp beer overlooking the beach.

On Friday 6th July 2012 we went to a place called Maryborough where the author of Mary Poppins was from. We then continued to a place called Hervey Bay where we found a beautiful campsite. We took a walk along this pier that stretched 800 metres out into the sea. It was massive, with beautiful scenery and out in the distance we spotted Killer Whales and Dolphins.

Killer Whales have very large distinctive fins and I decided to stop the fishing short in case I caught one, or the Killer Whale caught me depending on who would win the tug of war race.

Wildlife in Australia is very impressive, it boasts a huge range of unique and diverse animals. Parrots for example are very common, with all sorts of beautiful colours and designs. At the campsite we were told to be ready at exactly 5:15pm for thousands upon thousands of parrots coming into the park to rest on the treetops and circle around before sleeping. The locals can set their watch by this! It was a spectacular event which went on for about an hour.

Then after a continuous intense chirping noise, you could hear a pin drop as they all just went to sleep.

Very fascinating.

The next place we went to was Bargara, where there was a small beach in comparison to the 90 mile beaches we continuously passed to get there. It was a nice town with loads and loads of sugar canes, which was soon to become a common sight at the side of the road, until we got to the North of Queensland. There were also many train crossings just for the sugar cane.

We then went to the town of 1770. First discovered in 1770 by Lieutenant James Cook, the twin villages of Town of 1770 and Agnes Water remain remarkably unspoilt. Surrounded by National Parks its sheltered beaches of Agnes Water and Town of 1770 offer an array of coastal activities and lifestyle.

The coral cays and reefs of the Southern Great Barrier Reef are some of the most pristine in the entire barrier reef system, with Town of 1770 the closest access port to Lady Musgrave Island. Lady Musgrave rests on the edge of a coral fringed lagoon with an array of options to view this underwater playground including a semi-submersible and glass bottom boat, underwater observatory, comfortable pontoon, snorkelling, diving and a guided island tour! We decided however not to dive here as it was still cold, and waited until warmer waters further North.

We also got some photos of the Captain James Cooks memorial. In 1770 the navigator and astronomer Captain James Cook ‘discovered’ the south east coast of Australia, landing in Botany Bay. On 22 August 1770, he claimed the whole of the east coast of Australia at Possession Island, naming south eastern Australia New South Wales.

On Sunday 8th of July, 2012 we stopped at town called Awoonga where it is famous for Barramundi fish.

We went fishing at the lake but unfortunately didn’t catch any of these rare and powerful fish. Awoonga was beautiful with a lovely lake surrounded by hills and green lush grass. We spotted loads of Kangaroos thankfully not throwing themselves in front of our campervan.

The next stop was Yepoon. It was an attractive seaside village with pleasant beaches giving way in the north to rainforest around Byfield. That night we decided to try Kangaroo and bought some kangaroo steaks for the barbeque (and some lamp chops in case we didn’t like it!)

I absolutely loved it and from what I have researched is very good for you with high protein and very little fat. I thought this gamey meat was very tasty. Cheryl on the other hand did not like it so she was much pleased with my back-up plan of lamb chops.

On Tuesday 10th July 2012 we woke up to torrential rain. thankfully no dodgy stomach from kangaroo meat. We drove a whopping 450km, the furthest distance covered on the East Coast. Cheryl drove for over 6 hours. Amazing! We seen loads of road kill, something that was becoming more and more common as we went further North. On average we were seeing about 10-15 dead animals per day, mostly kangaroos and wombats. I hated to think what The Outback would be like!

That day we unfortunately encountered a chip on the windscreen from a road-train. These huge lorries stuck together are so powerful and often dangerous. Thankfully we were able to get the chip fixed, not by our hire company’s recommendation of putting selotape over the chip, but by getting a professional company to super glue and fix it so the screen wouldn’t crack further.

In the afternoon we drove to a place called Mackay quite a Scottish name for a very big town. The largest metropolitan area in the Whitsundays region is a lush, palm-lined city with streets that hum with a relaxed café and bar scene. Across the Pioneer River was the marina which added a new dimension to the city, with a bevy of stylish residential, tourism and dining developments.

We used MacKay as an excellent base for visiting Eungella National Park with its famous platypuses and the wilds of Finch Hatton Gorge.

That night as I went to the lavatory I spotted one of the most dangerous and deadly spiders in Australia, the Redback. The notorious Black Widow Spider of the United States is a close relative of the Redback Spider. I did a lot of research into the animals, sharks and other risks to our lives before entering Australia, as I do with every country.

But I knew Australia would be different as they have some of the most dangerous animals in the world. The Redback’s jaws cause many bites and its venom acts directly on the nerves, resulting in release and subsequent depletion of neurotransmitters. I kept very clear of it and the other six that we spotted that night.

The next day after quadruple checking our shoes for spiders before putting them on, we headed to Eungella National Park in search for the platypuses. We also found a campsite with a glorious view of the valley.

Possibly one of the best beer gardens we have ever seen!

The weather was equally stunning.

However, the next day we woke up to rain which put a dampener on our trekking plans.

But this would not stop us in the search of these unusual animals.

The shy Platypus is found only in eastern Australia, where they live on the edges of rivers and freshwater lakes.

If you thought this was a cute and cuddly Australian animal well you are only half correct. The male platypus have a hollow spur about 15 milimetres in length on the inside of both hind legs. This in turn is connected to a venom gland, and the platypus uses this spur to defend itself against predators.

The male platypus has venom strong enough to can kill a small dog, or cause excruciating pain among humans. They are so unusual as they are duck-billed, web-footed, egg-laying, venomous, beaver-tailed and otter-like mammals! When the first platypus specimen was sent back to Britain it was thought to be a fraud, and biologists checked through the (dead) body looking for evidence it had been stitched together.

Sightings are very rare in the wild, we were very lucky it rained that day as they love the rain. But we had such a good time.

We seen 4 or 5 of them swimming and playing in the river.

Gorgeous animals to look at.

But just don’t give them a cuddle!

The next stop was Airlie Beach at the Whitsundays. The gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, Airlie defies its relatively small size by humming constantly to the tune of a party somewhere. It was simply stunning here.

There are 74 wonderful islands here, located in the centre of the Great Barrier Reef, on the tropical coast of Queensland. We were surrounded by natural beauty, dotted with secluded beaches and friendly towns from which to explore. The hardest part is choosing how to fit it all in.

The islands here are amazing for a quick snorkel and you can then wake up to a sunrise over the world famous Whitehaven Beach.

The Whitsundays are famous for their 74 tropical islands which were postcard picture perfect. We explored this area for a couple of days just loving all the beaches, amazingly still not getting tired of beaches.

We came across one beach called Conway Beach where we seen millions of Blue Crabs as they were heading out into the sea.

Because it gets hotter as you go North you need to be very careful and vigilant in case there are crocodiles lurking in the waters.

We had yet to see a wild crocodile at this point but had been warned by many locals that we absolutely would see them at some point. So we were informed to respect the crocodile warning signs as they are there for a reason. We heard so many unfortunate stories of tourists losing their lives to crocodiles for ignoring the warning signs.

As we drove alongside a river we saw a Crocodile warning sign, we didn’t see any but did see hundreds more Kangaroos. So very cute, but by the amount of road kill we have seen on the roads they seem a bit stupid and dangerously so!

On Saturday 14th July 2012 we drove further up North to Bowen. Such a lovely place with loads of small cute shops and pretty beaches. The weather was good as well, so hot.

That night we decided to try the Australian local rum called Bundaberg. It was okay, nothing special I am afraid. I think Australia should stick at what they are good at: world class wine.

The following day we drove 200km to Townsville and we found a lovely campsite at the beach.

We drove to the top of a mountain which we had lovely views around the city. It was an old American watch site used against the Japanese in the war.

Townsville was a big country town surrounded by pink hills from which sunsets plunge into a scaled-down Riviera dotted with water craft. A shyer version of Cairns with its sweeping waterfront esplanade, decent museums and thriving nightlife, Townsville is also the jumping-off point to the Yongala shipwreck, one of Australia’s top dive sites.

It was also a good moment to spot a rare sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. 🙂

On Monday 16th July 2012 we decided to head inland from the coast. We went to an old gold mining town called Charters Towers. All the buildings still intact as they were in the 1880s. You can really imagine what it would be like in the town at that time, it was as if we were stuck in a time warp.

Its living history can be seen in its imposing public buildings, and friendly locals are keen to regale you with tales of the past. During the 19th century locals used to have to pinch themselves at their new-found wealth; some of that optimism still lives on as men in cowboy boots court local girls in halter tops at the town’s socials.

The gleam of gold was first spotted in 1871 in a creek bed at the foot of Towers Hill by an Aboriginal boy, Jupiter Mosman. Within a few years the surrounding area was peppered with diggings and a large town had grown. In its heyday, around the end of the 19th century, Charters Towers was known as ‘the World’ for its wealth and diversity. It had almost 100 mines, a population of 30000, a stock exchange and 25 pubs.

Unfortunately all the campsites in town were booked so we had to carry on our way up the coast. The weather was getting very hot, it was surreal to think it was winter.

We went on a lovely drive to the largest free falling waterfall in Australia called Wallaman Falls.

It was truly spectacular. What a view we had watching this waterfall. So peaceful, just the two of us.

Quite tough driving as well as we had to ascend 20km mostly on a dirt track. There was also loads of warnings for Cassowaries and not to leave your car in certain places in the rain forest.

These huge birds are like ostriches with massive claws and dangerous beaks. They can attack humans and disembowel with their claws!

Unfortunately (or thankfully!) we didn’t see any of these prehistoric creatures on this occasion.

We also saw a dodgy looking spider in the toilet.

Then another that was on the outside of our campervan window.

A warning sign as well for snakes and another one advising to go around the snakes and never to provoke them!

On Wednesday the 18th July 2012 we woke up to a Green Tree Frog hiding in the electrical box.

Fortunately it did not jump on me. In the morning we went to Lucinda where we walked alongside a massive jetty that went out to sea, so long I couldn’t see the end. But again we had to be careful as there was a warning sign for a recent crocodile sighting in the area. It was a saltwater crocodile which is one of the most dangerous if it catches you as it will not let go and rolls around the ground breaking and crushing your bones. Thankfully, we did not see it.

We then drove to Mission Beach.

It was lovely with a 14km stretch of beach – including Wongaling and South Mission Beaches in the south, Mission Beach in the middle, and Bingil Bay and beautiful Garners Beach in the north. It lures many beach and rainforest pilgrims, not to mention southern state escapees seeking an endless summer and a café latte within arm’s length.

Mission Beach is fast becoming the busiest pit stop between Townsville and Cairns. Its signature species, the endangered southern cassowary, lobs around reminding everyone why they came here in the first place. We had a rough idea what to expect from all the signs on the way.

and another,

and finally

You can imagine our surprise one morning when this massive bird poked its head into the campervan looking for food!

It just came out of no where! It was so big with massive claws and unusual colours and a sharp beak.

Allegedly we were very lucky to see one as they are quite rare. Afterwards we relaxed for hours at the beach. We spent a few days here is was so pretty.

Absolutely loved this area and could have stayed a lot longer. On Friday 20th June 2012 we got woken up by the same Cassowary which was wandering about again. Cheryl got a fright as she was hanging up the clothes and I noticed it behind her.

It even ran after her for a bit. But she was fine.

I started taking photos and it then ran after me!

The next stop was Innisfail which was just 100KM away from Cairns via loads more sugar cane.

…and of course the sugar cane trains.

It also had a nice beach but loads of warning signs for recent crocodile sightings.

I did a bit of fishing but couldn’t relax as you need to be wary of everything around you, so stopped after a bit.

On Saturday 21st July 2012 we drove all the way past Cairns to Port Douglas as we would be returning to Cairns at a future date.

It was a beautiful drive along the coast, particularly Wonga Beach, the furthest north we would go in Australia. The roads past this point are only accessible with a 4×4.

Fetching Port Douglas, or ‘Port Dougie’ as it’s known, has long been submerged in the southern consciousness as a sun-drenched place to flee winters. Backpackers complain there’s not a whole lot to do here unless you have a whole lot of money. It’s true the town dances to the beat of flash restaurants and retail. But it is a great base to tour the Low Isles, Great Barrier Reef, Mossman Gorge, Atherton Tablelands and Cape Tribulation.

In 1996 then US president Bill Clinton and the First Lady enjoyed a holiday at Port Douglas as their only Australian holiday stop. In 2006 Steve Irwin – the Crocodile Hunter – died at the Batt Reef, out from Port Douglas. He was injured by a stingray while filming a documentary.

This would be a perfect base for us to go diving at the Great Barrier Reef. But first we wanted to see a crocodile in the wild as we were annoyed (or maybe thankful) that we hadn’t yet seen one in the wild. We took the campervan up to the Daintree River and joined a small boat trip with a very knowledgeable captain.

We were cruising down the river only a short while when we got lucky, a monster of a crocodile was bathing on the side of the river.

Nicknamed by the locals as ‘Scarface” he had numerous scars on his face and had killed many other Crocodiles protecting his territory.

Crocodiles are cold blooded killing machines and one of the only animals in the world who see humans as prey, sometimes easy prey.

Thankfully we were in quite a safe place.

Story after story of tourists who want to edge closer and closer to the edge of the river to spot a crocodile. The only problem is the crocodile has been waiting in the river in the exact position for days as it can remain still for many days without food.

We saw loads of crocodiles, even small little babies.

The crocodiles always kept an eye on us, praying one of us would slip into the river.

It was great to see crocodiles in the wild, but it was a relief to get as far away as possible to a safe place as they carry some punch with incredible speed.

On Sunday 22nd July 2012 our alarm went off at 5.30am as we would be diving at the Great Barrier Reef. We decided we would do the maximum three dives, which wasn’t cheap. But worth it as this would mean we would have dived at the top two out of three diving sites on the planet!

We drove down to the pier and were flabbergasted by this state of the art, huge, and ultra modern high speed catamaran. Compared to the last boat we used to dive at Sipadan this was just a completely different type of luxury.

We were served fresh coffee, biscuits, a seafood lunch and it was so comfortable. Five of us went diving and enjoyed an amazing 3 dives. We took one step off the ship and dived to 20 metres. It was amazing to see the coral, fish, rays, sharks and turtles. There were loads snorkellers on our boat but none of them could see what we were seeing. We were so lucky. Nearly as good as Sipadan.

Dive 3 was the best as we saw a couple of huge sting rays and reef sharks. (Check the shark in the distance in the photo below.)

Cheryl was the first to spot this shark hiding in its cave looking pretty scary. We also saw loads of cute turtles. Diving at the Great Barrier Reef meant we could tick yet another thing off our near complete bucket list!

Diving at the Great Barrier Reef is highly recommended.

Ironically as someone who was never confident under the water, but definitely is now, Cheryl dived the deepest out of all of us, even deeper than the Dive Master! You go girl!!!

On Monday 23rd July 2012 we drove to Cairns avoiding all the amazing animals en route.

Cairns boasted an infectious energy and a lush tropical setting. It is unashamedly a tourist town and its popularity is global. On Cairns’ foreshore, Korean bird-watchers swivel 15cm lenses, local ladies aqua dance at the very public lagoon pool, Islander families share picnics and fitness types jog along the Esplanade where pelicans cavort on mudflats.

Overhead, planes take off with amazing frequency yet the sound of geckos still lingers in the air. But mostly the crowds come to visit the Great Barrier Reef which sits offshore and shapes the city’s character. It is one of the world’s most popular diving sites and the number of tour/dive/snorkel/cruise operators operating here is mind-boggling. Cairns can offer you bungee jumping before breakfast, as well as tours to the Atherton Tablelands and beyond.

We found Cairns to be fun and a popular place to hook up with fellow travellers.

We loved how modern and vibrant Cairns was. It truly is the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas and the Daintree Rainforest.

We spent a few days in sunny Cairns and then it was time to head into the desert (The Outback).

Come Wednesday the 25th July 2012 we were ready to hit the road on a completely different project into The Outback, and a new state The Northern Territory. We wanted to visit Uluru (Ayres Rock), Kings Canyon and drive for days upon days hardly seeing a soul in the desert. But it wasn’t easy and a little bit on the dangerous side.

To be continued….

Thanks for reading,

Norman and Cheryl

xxx

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OZ Road Trip. Part I: New South Wales

On Friday 15th June 2012 we packed the campervan and filled the fridge full of Bollinger, Haggis and Toblerone. This is what we would call our home for the next few months.

It had all the mod cons, fridge, freezer, microwave, cooker, and was very spacious. In fact the campervan we invested in is designed for 3 people, but with the size of our rucksacks we would fit in just nicely.

If you can afford it and have the time, getting a campervan is the only true way of exploring the East Coast of Australia. Although the drive is considered to be one of the best in the world, it doesn’t always run parallel with the coast. Throughout our amazing journey we had to wander of the main highway numerous times to explore all the beautiful beaches and scenery.

With nearly 18,000km of coastline, Australia’s East Coast has some of the most captivating scenery on the planet. A journey we couldn’t wait to get started, especially since we had all the time in the world.

For the purpose of the blog I intend to break up the East Coast journey into two entries: one for each state; New South Wales and Queensland.

I think it’s important firstly to explain why the East Coast is considered as one of the most beautiful coastlines to drive and explore. As avid divers the most famous attraction for us was the colourful aquatic wonderland of the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for more than 2000km and contains an astonishing array of marine life.

The scenery on the route is pretty special. Both on and off the reef, we encountered hundreds of islands from craggy windswept nature reserves to rainforest-covered isles.

Most of the beaches are mesmerising and go on in isolation longer than the eye can see.

Away from the ocean we would find bewitching national parks, with lush rainforests (temperate, subtropical and tropical), rolling mountains, pristine lakes and a staggering array of wildlife that rates from cute and cuddly (koalas) to down-right fearsome (crocodiles).

We travelled from Sydney to the Daintree River above Port Douglas (QLD) via famous Aussie landmarks such as Byron Bay, Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, Noosa and Cairns to name just a few. Cheryl was the designated driver and she quickly adjusted from her high performance BMW to a Toyota Hiace. My responsibility would be GPS Data Inputer, Kangaroo Watcher and Full-Time Chef. Any other chores would be decided upon over a game of Texas Hold’em!

The good thing about Australia is that everyone drives on the correct side of the road (the left hand-side) and the main roads are generally in very good condition. The only dangerous things are kangaroos jumping out in front of you or the very annoying 53 metre road trains which stop for nothing, including wildlife or oncoming cars!

But hey we hadn’t left Sydney yet, so after saying all our goodbyes to our friends off we went. First of all we had to get out of Sydney, a rather busy city.

Cheryl did an incredible job of driving us through Sydney city centre then right over Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Our first stop would be Anna Bay in Port Stephens. It took about an hour in total to get out of the Sydney traffic and soon we began to see how open and beautiful Australia is. Beautiful green lush fields and loads of beautiful lakes.

This stunning sheltered bay was about an hours drive north of Newcastle and not too far away from Hunter Valley, where we will return to in late September with friends to drink fine wine, dine and explore the vineyards.

This beach was beautiful, deserted and had a gorgeous sand-dune system. It was also time to try out the kitchen, which turned out to be pretty spacious with loads of utilities.

Later we transformed the sitting room with our unspoilt beach views, into our bedroom. We found it very cozy with loads of room.

Next morning, Saturday 16th June 2012 after some lovely fresh coffee.

We took a walk along the beach. The beach stretches for a mile, a gorgeous semi-circle of the softest sand and bluest water. In fact, we loved our first beach so much we had to stay a second night. So after a run along the beach we watched sunset together over a game of chess.

On Sunday 17th June 2012 we woke up to incredible sunshine without a cloud in the sky. It’s crazy to think this is the Australian winter, a season I would gladly swap with our British Summer!

We continued our route up the East Coast and drove to the lovely dispersed settlement of Foster. There we bought a couple of fishing rods which came in very handy when the GPS took us to a campsite beside a river full of fish 🙂

This beautiful village was surrounded in white beaches. It was a picture perfect white powdery strip fronting azure seas.

To paraphrase the immortal words of Crocodile Dundee: that’s not a beach… this is a beach. Isolated Ninety Mile Beach is a narrow strip of sand backed by dunes and lagoons and stretches unbroken for 90 miles (150km).

After a while we somehow managed to take our eyes and thongs (flip-flops) off the beach and took a walk to the river to go fishing (again).

This was our introduction to the beautiful wildlife here in Australia as we were taken aback by what we saw that night. Beautiful coloured parrots were flying around, pelicans landing in the water, and fruit bats.

Incredibly the all-talented Cheryl caught the first and *cough cough* only fish, a very tasty Bream.

The next morning Monday 18th June 2012 we drove for a few hours North to Diamond Head. We saw our first kangaroos here, loads of them.

Initially Cheryl and I found them so humorous to look at, almost similar to overgrown rabbits. We took loads of photos and were glad to see this animal in the wild at last. Little did we know at this point we would see thousands more of them bouncing about Australia on our travels.

The next day we took a walk in Laurieton to Perpendicular Point. An uphill walk for 45min, a thoroughly deserving ascent. This is a view point for spotting whales going up and down the coast.

At this time of the year the whales were heading up North into warmer waters.

Unfortunately we didn’t see any whales but the view and the drop from the edge was stunning.

Shortly afterwards we came to a very Scottish-named town; Bonny Hills. The views on the way were very bonnie indeed. Beach after beach, all near isolated and in pristine condition.

I decided to do some more beach fishing and caught a nice Bream. Its hard to believe how long and beautiful the beaches are here.

Australia landmass is so big and with just a population of 25 million once you venture out of populated cities the vast beaches are empty due to the minute towns between the bigger cities.

On Wednesday 20th June 2012 we were loving it here so much we stayed another night. We went to another view point which we drove up for 10km a rather steep ascent.

The view at the top was fantastic. You can see both islands meeting in the middle and the view stretches for miles.

This would also be our first encounter of the very cute Koala Bear. It just sat at the top of its tree eating away at some leaves, very adorable. Or so we thought as it decided to urinate on a couple of tourists watching from below.

On Thursday 21st June 2012 we drove to a place called Port MacQuarrie which was stunning, with gorgeous beaches to relax and fish on.

Loads more beautiful beaches, particularly one called Lighthouse Beach which we seen some funny looking camels.

We took a walk up to the lighthouse which was well worth the walk as the views were absolutely breathtaking – out to the limitless ocean, down to the deserted beaches and back to the apparent wilderness of the coastal plain and mountains.

It’s as if Cook had never arrived at all.

It was an excellent spot for dolphin and whale watching.

As we looked closer in the sea we spotted loads of dolphins swimming. They were just beautiful showing off to entertain us as they swam around the coast.

Further in the distance were massive whales blowing air through their blowholes and splashing their tails. They looked incredible albeit we wanted to be a lot closer to them.

So we decided to jump in a speedboat and get a lot closer. Before that though we explored the gorgeous beaches this port is spoiled with, all nine of them. One of them though I wish I hadn’t found.

That afternoon Cheryl and I went for a run along the beaches. Everything went as planned and tried to cover as much ground and as many of the beautiful beaches as we could. However, it was to to my great surprise when I seen an obese German coming out of the water with his Bockwurst for all to see. We had accidentally stumbled upon a nudist beach. Don’t think I have ever ran as fast as I did in my life, in the opposite direction!

Port MacQuarrie is stunning and we stayed here for 3 days. It makes the most of its position at the entrance to the subtropical coast, lovely beaches and its laid-back coffee culture.

On Sunday 23rd June 2012 we woke up with excitement as we would be going whale watching. It was a strange feeling waiting to go searching for whales as we had never seen one in real life before. But in Australia it is a common sight watching these enormous creatures swimming up and down the East coast.

So off we went in search for these giants.

As we sped out in our almost James Bond-like boat we encountered some beautiful dolphins to begin with. So pretty to watch and loved the way they would swim underneath the boat. Soon after we were told to keep an eye out for big jets of air shooting into the sky from the whales blow-holes.

Cheryl was the first to spot one in the distance as she pointed and instructed the captain on where to go. We got so close to them, the first group had two whales which were jumping in and out of the water. The noises and speed they were doing were breathtaking.

We were soon rewarded with a group of three whales soon after who were just as eager to impress. Whales are exceptionally friendly and inquisitive which is the reason they like to come to the surface, look about and perform tricks.

Soon after our amazing experience with the gigantic whales we travelled to Hat Head. A lovely beach again off the main road. It’s so hard to explain how beautiful Australia is. Beaches go on for miles and miles and their beauty is deserted. The Australian people are so very nice as well, very similar to the Scots in my opinion.

That night we decided to go for a schooner, which is the Australian terminology for a pint, albeit a bit smaller. The barman was a quarter Scottish his surname being MacSporran, you just couldn’t make it up.

On Sunday 24th June we set off early as we wanted to see more kangaroos in the wild. We set off early as there is more chance off seeing them in the morning as they are hungrier. We drove to a place called South West Rocks.

The amount of Kangaroos we saw was incredible.

They look so funny, I love the way they bounce about.

Near where the kangaroos were situated was a beautiful hidden beach called Little Bay. Got loads of beautiful photos, one of Cheryl nearly getting stuck on the island 😉

As we continued North we drove to a place called Nambucca Heads, yet again another gorgeous beach. Fishing, sunbathing and just walking along these sort of beaches is just a dream. Having a barbeque as well is quite good, especially with some nice fillet steaks.

The next day as I went fishing early on I caught loads of fish, in total keeping five for dinner which was delicious.

Very tasty.

On one occasion as Cheryl and I were relaxing while fishing and a massive stingray came swimming along beside us almost catching our bait. I am quite thankful I didn’t catch it on the hook as I doubt my rod would have been capable of landing it.

Soon afterwards dolphins came in and although amazing and picturesque to watch, they are a fisherman’s nightmare as they scare all the fish. Nonetheless it was a spectacular display as loads of dolphins swam around us showing off. The fish tasted very well on the barbeque.

Unfortunately on Wednesday 27th June 2012 the heavens opened, something we were not used to. We decided to cover some distance and headed further up North away from the rain as it’s always hotter in the North too. One village we drove through MacLean was of particular interest with its Scottish heritage. Very fascinating, particularly all the lamp posts as they had been painted with all different tartan clans. I was rather happy when I found mine.

We drove all the way to Ballina where the weather did not shift. The next day we drove to Byron Bay, a hippie old town with beautiful beaches and huge waves which is why surfing is particularly famous here. We found some of the beaches closed for reasons outwith the surfers control.

The sun came out and we were happy, particularly with the scenery at Tweed Heads. Most of the day we watched the surfers and more enormous looking waves crashing into the pristine beaches. The weather had really picked up and soon we had to put the sun screen on. As we continued further North we could almost touch Brisbane, the biggest city in the next state we would enter; Queensland.

It was gorgeous as we could see all the beautiful beaches in the far distance and further afield the highrise buildings and the lovely city of Brisbane which we would soon be at.

The next day we would be entering a new state and the huge metropolitan city of Brisbane.

To be continued…

Thanks for reading

Norman and Cheryl

xxx

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Sydney – The Start of a New Chapter in Our Adventure.

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After a luxurious flight with Emirates we landed on Australian soil in the capital Sydney. We were very much looking forward to coming here, and also excited to see friends both old and new.

Asia and the Middle East were absolutely fantastic and we loved every second of it. But it seemed the right time to move onto another continent.

After being in Asia for so long, I in particular was looking forward to not having to negotiate for everything right down to the price of a bottle of water. As a professional negotiator, and may I add one of the very best in the business, after seven months of haggling and attempting even a sensible price in Asia it really did began to tire me out.

Asia seems to think its okay to charge tourists sometimes more than treble the going rate for something. To begin with I thought it was quite funny but after seven months it just gets tedious. I wonder how that would go down if Britain did this to all foreigners?

This is why I think in the last two countries, Philippines and Thailand, they loved the fact I just couldn’t be bothered negotiating anymore.

I do intend on summarising Asia in another post, but I feel it’s right to move onto the subject of Australia and Sydney first. If I may also add as well my apologies in the lateness of the blog. When you are traveling for long distances of time, days and dates mean nothing unless it’s the date at the end of your visa!

Sydney was of course our first stop, a city we were very much looking forward to explore.

It is the largest, oldest and most cosmopolitan city in Australia with an enviable reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful and liveable cities.

The city is set next to miles of ocean coastline and sandy surf beaches. Its also home to the Sydney Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge, two of the most iconic structures on the planet.

We found the city surrounded by beautiful nature and national parks, which extend through the suburbs and right to the shores of the harbour.

We had amazing views of Sydney Harbour and Sydney Opera House as we flew in to the Kingsford Smith Airport.

We passed through customs and immigration without a bat of an eyelid from security, which surprised us with the amount of stamps on our passports from the last seven months alone in the Middle East and Asia. I’m wondering if it was all down to the honesty of ticking YES to bringing into Australia a dangerous item, albeit wooden chopsticks for our friends.

So off we went through the safe area and looked for our friends. Thankfully even though it was 7am our friends Wendy and Karen were waiting for us. We cannot thank them enough for coming to pick us up and for the rest of their hospitality which was just a dream come true. Cheryl and I would love to return the favour if they decided to visit Scotland.

The first thing that took us by surprise when we got into Sydney was how very cold it was. It’s winter here, but in comparison to Scottish weather we soon found out it’s just wonderful. Due to the high heat we have been used to in the last seven months, I think we had forgotten what a comfortable temperature felt like.

Now, I have flown with most of the worlds airlines and hands down Emirates is just a different class. Our round the world ticket is with Emirates and it was so good to be back with them after a whopping 25 flights with other subordinate airlines in just the last few months.

Asia don’t do soft beds, they prefer them hard as a rock no matter how much you pay to upgrade. As strange as it may sound the harder the bed the more of a luxury it is in Asia, especially in Vietnam where complaints from customers on how soft the bed had led the disgruntled customers to sleep on the floor. On one occasion Cheryl and I found the bed so hard we stole, sorry borrowed, all the duvets in the rather modest hotel and used it to soften our sleepless bed. Ironically the next morning as Cheryl and I were having breakfast on our balcony we seen one of the receptionists coming round the corner with his scooter overloaded with extra duvets. 😉

So it was a luxury to have a soft bed to sleep in at Wendy’s awesome house.

The first night in Sydney we were introduced to the traditional Australian barbeque. What an introduction it was! Breakfasts were also amazing.

With rice coming out of our ears from Asia the unrecognisable potato, which I had almost forgot existed, just looked and tasted like in my dreams. You can just imagine how our taste buds felt when we seen a rack of Lamb chops placed in front of us.

To clarify at this point I’m not dismissing Asian food, particularly Thai and Malaysian food, it’s right up there as some of the best cuisines in the world. But eating it for seven months in a row, the luxury digests away.

Wendy and Karen are just amazing cooks and wonderful company. We simply can’t thank them enough for looking after us.

The next day in Sydney it rained and we thought it appropriate to buy a pair of denims. This was a very strange experience, not just the rain but wearing something past your knees!

When you live in a climate so hot for seven months you are running from air-con to air-con and wear as little as possible just to survive, wearing trainers, socks and denims just felt so wrong and weird.

Were we struggling to fit back into society or maybe we forgot what normality felt like? Previously back home we wouldn’t have thought twice about spending over a £100 on a pair of denims each. I stood there for nearly 30 minutes wondering how silly I would look in Asia or the Middle East with denims on.

That night we went to the fantastic Corner House at Bondi Beach.

We met our friends Ben the manager, Amy, Lucy, Wendy, Karen and Nawi.

If you’re ever in the area you would be silly not to go to this fantastic establishment. Their cocktails and pizza are delicious, I highly recommend the Gluten Free base pizza.

On Monday 4th June, 2012 we woke up to stunning weather. Not a cloud in the sky and the sun was exceptionally hot. To think this is the Australian winter puts the Scottish Summer into absolute shame.

We had a lovely day as Wendy, Cheryl and I drove to McCarrs Creek,

It was beautiful.

Church Point.

Manly Beach.

Maroubrough Beach and Palm Beach.

That night Nawi and I were introduced to extreme rock fishing. You hear so many stories of foreigners being washed away in Australia because they ignore the safety signs around rocks and beaches. Well that was nearly me (but not intentionally). Nawi said enough to startle me to make sure I was not going to fall in when he pointed that sharks are all over this place. We found a lovely place to fish and soon were catching very unusual looking fish.

We only forgot how much fun we were having when we were nearly surrounded by dangerous water and a few fins.

A lesson to be learned never take your eye of your game, no matter how much fun you are having.

We got soaked but we didn’t fall in and we caught some fish. A great time had by all.

The next day the gorgeous Cheryl and I got down to the business end of coming to Australia. We got ourselves some Aussie sim cards, bank accounts and nearly a house we were having so much fun.

On Wednesday 6th June, 2012 we met our friend Norelle, who we also met in Laos with Wendy on the back of an elephant. Norelle owns a hair salon, and it seemed an appropriate time to do a plank on an original barber’s chair. It’s always good to see a familiar face and will definitely meet up again when we come back to Sydney in a few months.

Then we went to meet the equally awesome Karen and Scott at their lovely house in Botany where they kindly invited us to stay a few nights. We had a great time and thank them so much for their hospitality.

It was here I was introduced to something called a schooner! Not quite the size of a pint glass yet bigger than a half pint. Nonetheless it was a very good schooner of Coopers, a beer Cheryl and I would soon begin to love.

On Thursday 7th June 2012 Karen, Cheryl and I went into the centre of Sydney for the first time. It quickly became apparent that the British public transport system could learn from some of the Australian systems. For example buying a bus ticket from a shop before you board would make bus journeys faster and more efficient.

We loved the views at Circular Quay and we walked around admiring the place. It was a dream come true to be here eventually.

It was yet another perfect day, so hot without a cloud in the sky. Australians are so lucky to be able to call this their winter.

Soon our walk took us to the stunning Sydney Opera House. We had to have a drink in the Opera Bar which had the backdrop of the Opera House but also perfect views of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Unfortunately Karen had to go to work so Cheryl and I decided to catch a ferry to Manly. We sailed right beside Harbour Bridge and past Sydney Opera House, it was just beautiful.

Manly was a lovely place also and we enjoyed fish and chips, not as good as Stornoway fish and chips but I’m going to be biased in my opinion.

On the way back into Sydney we were equally impressed with the sunset views.

The next day Karen and Scott got off work early so we went back into the city to an area called The Rocks for a pub crawl where we tried loads of Aussie beers including Coopers, Fat Yak, Pure Blonde, Carlton and VB (which some refer to as Vomit Beer as it’s not the best beer Australia has to offer! )

We also tried Kangaroo, allegedly very good for you with its low fat count and high protein. I thought it tasted quite splendid on a pizza.

Soon after a few other lovely drinks we went for a Sushi buffet. It was very tasty and fresh.

The night would not be complete without going to Orbit bar for cocktails. The whole top floor rotates 360° with spectacular views over Sydney and the Vivid show.

Orbit is right up there with one of the best bars we have been to in the world.

If you are in Sydney you must go, it’s quite expensive but when you consider the view it is priceless.

The next morning Saturday 9th June 2012 we sadly had to say our goodbyes to Karen and Scott. We both look forward to being reunited again in a few months.

We then met up with our equally awesome friends Bree and Craig who we met in Vietnam. Had a couple of lessons from Craig with the awesome Didgeridoo.

We dumped the rucksacks at theirs and went into the city for more sight seeing.

They also introduced us to Vegiemite. I was not a fan but Cheryl gave it the thumbs up.

Our journey started at Milson’s point by going over the Sydney Harbour Bridge with some fantastic views. We then had some well deserved cocktails with stunning views of the bridge and Opera House.

We then found a fantastic picnic spot under the Harbour Bridge and toasted a glass or two of Australian bubbly.

It was a truly stunning view and we absolutely loved Bree and Craig’s company. We can’t wait to see them again on the Hunter Valley Wine Tour.

We were very much looking forward to tasting Australian bubbly as we are big fans of champagne, particularly Bollinger. Comparing the two in my opinion is futile, but the best Australian sparkling wines are excellent alternatives to champagnes.

We continued drinking bubbly into the night.

I also met the absolutely fantastic Luis, a cute four-legged friend.

The next day Sunday 10th June 2012 was a day of shopping. We got loads of things western people wear like a shirt, jumpers and even socks.

It was also a chance to learn about the Australian history as we watched Mabo, a film recommended by Wendy. An opportunity to learn about the Australian culture and aboriginal history, a true story of one man’s epic fight to change a nation.

The next few days involved us getting a campervan, the only true way in my opinion to explore the east coast of Australia. Although buses regularly go up and down the coast, very little will stop at all the places we want to go to. A campervan is absolutely perfect for our needs, we can go up the coast at our our leisure, stop as many days as we want and continue on our epic journey.

Our intention is to spend four months in Australia then two and a half months in New Zealand before going home for a pit-stop on 21st December 2012.

Some of the major places we hope to visit in Australia include: Brisbane, Cairns, Great Barrier Reef, Darwin, Broome, Alice Springs, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Adelaide, Great Ocean Road, Melbourne and Canberra.

We plan on taking the campervan for six weeks initially from Sydney to Cairns. Including all the stops and routes we want to visit, this will come to over 4500km (2800miles).

This part of the journey alone will take us to Byron Bay, Brisbane, The Gold Coast, The Sunshine Coast, Fraser Island, Capricorn Coast, The Whitsundays, The Great Barrier Reef, Townsville, Cairns and Port Douglas to just name a few.

It’s going to be an amazing journey, the East Coast of Australia has a dazzling array of beaches all along its coastline its going to be hard not to stop at them all. Australia also has magical bushwalks, magnificent wildlife, aquatic beauty (colourful coral reefs, whale and dolphin watching). It is home to bouncing kangaroos, cuddly koalas, beautiful parrots and cackling kookaburras – not to mention crocs, spiders, sharks and snakes! Australia has a treasure chest of wildlife.

We love diving and snorkeling so the magnificent Great Barrier Reef will provide countless opportunities for aquatic adventure. Surfing, diving, snorkeling, kayaking, reef walks and marine wildlife watching also some things we wish to do again – few places on earth can compete with Australia’s enormous bounty.

Thanks for reading

Norman and Cheryl xxx

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Bangkok: Where East Meets West.

It would be inappropriate to leave Asia after spending seven months in this wonderful continent without exploring Bangkok. Bangkok is excess in all of its unrestrained glory.

We found it a city which demands that you be in the present and in the moment, not necessarily for a religious epiphany, but because the city is self-absorbed and superficial, blissfully free of wrinkle-inducing self-reflection.

We had spent a month in Southern Thailand packing in most of the incredible islands which this country has to offer, and two weeks in beautiful Chiang Mai being enriched by it’s culture. So we were well prepared and very much looking forward to returning to the Thai culture (and food!).

Of the famous and infamous attractions, Bangkok’s best feature is its intermingling of opposites. A modern world of affluence orbits around a serene traditional core. Step outside the five-star hotels into a typical Siamese village where taxi drivers knock back energy drinks and tasty food is prepared on a street-side barbecue.

Bangkok is a huge and modern city humming with nightlife and fervor. We stayed in the Khao San Rd district which gave us a taste of everything we wanted in spending a week here.

Despite the sensationalised international news reports and first impressions, the city is surprisingly safe (except from some petty crimes) and is more organised than it initially appears. It is full of hidden gems waiting to be discovered. The high relative humidity and warm temperature favour the growth of tropical plants — you’ll find exotic orchids and delicious fruit everywhere.

Thai cuisine is justifiably famous, varied, and affordable. In all the countries we have travelled to Bangkok  represents the quintessential Asian capital. Saffron-robed monks, garish neon signs, graceful Thai architecture, spicy dishes, colourful markets, traffic jams and the tropical climate come together in a happy coincidence. It is difficult to leave with lukewarm impressions of the city.

Monks can be seen everywhere.

Some younger than others.

We were happy to be back in Bangkok as we have loved and embraced the Thai people and their culture. It was almost a sense of relief to get here after traveling between eight countries in Asia, some logistically difficult to commute, language barriers, visa restrictions and other complications which westerners find difficult to adapt to. Bangkok seems to have the best of everything and gave us the opportunity to sign off Asia with out making too many alterations to our lifestyle.

Bangkok would not be the same without the much-loathed, much-loved tuk-tuks:

You’ll know them when you hear them, and you’ll hate them when you smell them — these three-wheeled contraptions blaze around Bangkok leaving a black cloud of smog in their wake.

Almost as common as the tuk-tuk is the ‘Sexpat’. Typically fifty-plus, bald, beer belly, stained shirt, lovestruck expression and a hairy arm wrapped around a girl too young to be his daughter. He’s found what he’s looking for!

We tried to fit in an much as we could in the short time we were in Bangkok and thought it would be appropriate to visit the Royal Palace considering the Thais have much love and adoration for their King. His photos are everywhere in every pose imaginable. In Thailand the King is respected very much, some people say even more than Buddha.

The dress code was very strict on entry, as I soon found out. It was an exceptionally hot day and I was wearing my shorts and sleeveless t-shirt as I have been doing for the last seven months. So it was a bit of a shock to the system when I was asked to cover my knees, put a pair of trousers and a rather crinkled shirt on.

This did not go down well with my body which initially thought I was going to have to go to work then it nearly overheated. As I gazed around me in this grand palace I wasn’t the only one finding it uncomfortable with most tourists struggling in the intense heat without a shade to hide from the very hot sun.

The palace was very grand, the opulence of Thai architecture and Buddhism at it’s best.

If there is one must-see sight that no visit to Bangkok would be complete without, it’s the dazzling Grand Palace, undoubtedly the city’s most famous landmark.

Built in 1782 – and for 150 years the home of the Thai King, the Royal court and the administrative seat of government – the Grand Palace of Bangkok is a grand old dame indeed, that continues to have visitors in awe with its beautiful architecture and intricate detail.

All of which is a proud salute to the creativity and craftsmanship of Thai people.

Within its walls were also the Thai war ministry, state departments, and even the mint. Today, the complex remains the spiritual heart of the Thai Kingdom.

After avoiding the Royal family we then went to Wat Phra Kaew or the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (officially known as Wat Phra Sri Rattana Satsadaram) is regarded as the most important Buddhist temple in Thailand.

Located in the historic centre of Bangkok, within the grounds of the Grand Palace, it enshrines Phra Kaew Morakot (the Emerald Buddha), the highly revered Buddha image meticulously carved from a single block of jade.

The Emerald Buddha (Phra Putta Maha Mani Ratana Patimakorn) is a Buddha image in the meditating position in the style of the Lanna school of the north, dating from the 15th century AD. Unlike other temples, it is not one building, nor are there living spaces for monks. Instead, it is a collection of highly decorated holy buildings and monuments. One of its buildings houses the Emerald Buddha, and while you might not expect it from its size, it is the most sacred Buddha image of Thailand.

We also went to visit Wat Pho , or Wat Phra Chetuphon as it is generally known to the Thais, which is mainly famous for the huge Reclining Buddha statue it houses the world’s largest reclining Buddha image. At 20 acres large, it is the largest Wat in Bangkok, and is technically the oldest too, as it was built around 200 years before Bangkok became Thailand’s capital. It holds the dual honors of having both Thailand’s largest reclining Buddha image and the most number of Buddha images in Thailand.

The highly impressive gold plated reclining Buddha is 46 meters long and 15 meters high, and is designed to illustrate the passing of the Buddha into nirvana.

The feet and the eyes are engraved with mother-of-pearl decoration, and the feet also show the 108 auspicious characteristics of the true Buddha.

Food in Bangkok is fantastic, particularly street food which can be found all over Bangkok. Wherever you’re staying you rarely have to walk more than 100m for a cart or street restaurant. Many of the street vendors sell pad thai for 40 Thai Baht (80p) a piece.

One of Thailand’s national dishes is pad thai which we enjoyed in abundance; stir-fried rice noodles with eggs, fish sauce, tamarind juice and red chilli pepper. It can be prepared for you on one of the ubiquitous carts, or in a street restaurant. You can order it normally with chicken or shrimps.

Another one of Thailand’s national dishes you should try is tom yam kung, a sour soup with prawns, lemongrass and galangal — beware, as it is very spicy! Khao man kai is another popular street food. You can identify it at stalls displaying boiled chicken. Served with a bowl of fragrant chicken soup is a mound of rice topped with sliced chicken pieces and cucumber. Side sauces are spicy and go well with the bland chicken and rice. You can sometimes add optional liver and gizzard if that is your taste!

If you like sweets, try to find a kanom roti street vendor. The crepe-like dessert is filled with sweetened condensed milk, lots of sugar, and can also have bananas inside. It’s also fun just to watch them being made.

In all the countries we have been to in Asia, Thailand undisputedly has the best cuisine. So what if you just want a small snack? Well you could always try some insects if you are brave enough!

Khao San Road is known for its carts selling bugs — yes, insects. They are nutritious and quite tasty with the soy sauce that is sprayed on them.

Types available: scorpions, water beetles, grasshoppers, crickets, bamboo larvae, mealworms and some more seasonal specialties. Break off the legs from grasshoppers and crickets or they will get stuck in your throat.

Bangkok’s nightlife is infamously wild, but it’s not quite what it used to be due to recent social order campaigns. There have been quite a lot of crack-downs on opening hours, nudity, drug use etc. Most restaurants, bars and clubs are now forced to close at 01:00 sharp. We relived our youths as we celebrated the end of another continent and got ready for six months in Australia and New Zealand.

Hippie hangout Khao San Road is also slowly gentrifying and a score of young artsy Thai teenagers have also made their mark there. Going out in Khao San Road is mostly casual, sitting at a roadside bar watching people pass by which we loved. In fact we loved it so much we bought a six pint pitcher, which didn’t last long in the heat.

Did I mention they sell Guinness on draft in Bangkok? Seven months being Guinness free (not out of choice) was difficult.

It was so good we got two!

And when you’re totally exhausted in Bangkok you’re in good hands: quite possibly, the world’s best. Whether you drop into a shopfront foot massage place for an hour-long session of bliss or you go upmarket and book yourself into a spa for the works, you’re in for a treat. Think manicure, pedicure, body scrub, facial, four-hand massage. You’ll get value for money and service that has a global reputation.

Bangkok therefore is definitely worth a visit and we’re glad we went. Like I said it would be a bit odd not to visit Bangkok after visiting nearly every country in it’s continent. Just don’t let the smog and crowds distract you from what can be an invigorating and intriguing city.

I can’t believe seven months in stunning Asia just flew by, quite literally- 24 flights between nine countries! It was truly amazing! We experienced things and saw places we thought we could only dream about. However, the rest of the World awaits and it’s now time to spend six months in Australia and New Zealand!

For my next blog I intend to post a summary of our times in the Middle East, The Himalayas and Asia, stay tuned…

Thank you for reading and take care,

Norman and Cheryl

xxx

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The Philippines: A stunning archipelago of 7,107 islands

On the 8th of May we went to the Philippines. There’s no question that the Philippines is a little more challenging to visit than some other Southeast Asian countries we’ve been to. For starters, it’s separated from the Southeast Asian mainland by several hundred kilometers of ocean. Then there’s the somewhat chaotic scene that greets you at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport (where most people enter the country).

But for us who made the effort to get there, the Philippines is a very pleasant surprise. The people of the Philippines are as warm and friendly as you’ll meet anywhere, and the island and mountain vistas are truly superb – some of the best in Southeast Asia. And with over 7000 islands in the archipelago, it’s easy to get that off the-beaten-track feeling, something that’s getting harder to do in most other parts of Southeast Asia.

We found the Philippines much more expensive than most other Asian countries, but still quite affordable by Western standards. We avoided Good Friday and Easter Monday coming here, as this is when legions of overseas Filipino workers return to spend the holidays with their families: accommodation and transport tend to fill up during this period.

Holy Week brings the Philippines to a standstill every year, as Roman Catholic Filipinos (the majority in the country) take advantage of the four-day weekend that begins on Holy Thursday. Being the only Christian nation in the Far East, the belief of such religious observance was inherently Christian in origin brought to the Philippines by the Spanish Conquistadors when they first planted the Cross, symbol of Christianity, on the islands thus signaling the advent of the conversion of the natives to the faith of the Conquerors. They have incredible colourful displays of penitence on Good Friday, in San Pedro Cutud men have themselves nailed to a cross after reenacting the Via Crucis, a Kapampangan rendition of the passion play.

With over 7000 islands and a stunning tropical location, it’s hardly surprising that the Philippines also boasts some of the world’s best beaches. Our choices ranged from touristy and developed spots like Boracay, to desert islands where you can, and we certainly did, live out our own ‘stranded in paradise fantasy’.

Due to its great diversity of natural terrain, the Philippines is a natural venue for all sorts of outdoor and adventure sports. Indeed, only Indonesia and Thailand from what we saw can compete with the Philippines for the title of ‘ adventure sports capital of southeast Asia’.

The Philippines is the only predominantly Christian country in Asia – almost 90% of the population claims to be Christian and over 80% are Roman Catholic. The population is upwards of 90 million and Cock-Fighting, Basketball and Billiards are the only sports they watch and participate.

The first thing that amazed us was an assemblage of 7,107 tropical isles scattered about like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, the Philippines stubbornly defies geographic generalisation.

It’s wildlife is quite spectacular with 10,000 species of trees, 900 types of orchid, 447 species of coral, 888 species of fish, 5 species of turtle and 114 species of birds. We expected the best corals and diving conditions than any other country we have been lucky to see when we got here, but we were very much disappointed. Not in a ‘spoiled’ disappointed way as we have been truly spoiled with all the diving and snorkeling we have done in some of the best diving locations on the planet. A lot of the coral has been damaged, nearly in every island we went to, and we went to a hell of a lot of paradise islands in the Philippines. In fact we have seen so many tropical islands recently we are looking forward to staying on land for as long as possible now.

We sailed to numerous diving locations in the Philippines and were a bit puzzled with how poor it was compared to Indonesia and Thailand. I did a bit of research and according to the World Bank only 1% of the reefs are in a pristine state, while more than 50% are unhealthy. Incredibly short-sighted techniques for making a few extra bucks include dynamite and cyanide fishing. I will come back to this as we spent a lot of time diving and snorkeling in the Philippines.

Our first stop was of course the capital of the Philippines, Manila. But only for a stopover to connect a flight onto the island of Palawan. The National Geographic Travellers Editors chose Palawan as among the best travel destinations in the world and has been included in the top 10 islands in the world you must visit. The National Geographic cited Palawan’s limestone karst cliffs, corals, mangroves, white beach, and extensive fringing reefs as among the province’s attractions. The monkey trail connects Sabang to Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park, popularly known as the Underground River, which is also of course one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. We did not want to miss this must-see island.

We absolutely loved Palawan and it is fast becoming a haven for nature buffs and intrepid adventurers. Drifting on the Philippines western edge this long sliver of jungle is one of the country’s last ecological frontiers. The Amazonian interior is barely connected by a few snaking roads that made my fillings jingle, and the convoluted coast is comprised of one breathtaking bay after another. We stopped over in Puerto Princesa the capital of the island, but it is nothing more than an extended village beside a busy airport after 11 hours of flying and 3 flights to get here.

The first thing we saw which made us laugh is the three-wheeler taxis they have here known as tricyles:

Something else we soon began to enjoy was the food in the Philippines, especially their love for pork and the dish Adobo.

Adobo is usally made from pork but you can also use chicken, squid or vegetables stewed in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, peppercorns and bay leaf. From speaking to the locals the dish was derived, and then Filipinised from the Spanish adobado, a more complicated preparation soaked in garlic and oil.

It’s lovely, and to begin with we just couldn’t get enough of Pork as it’s obviously an animal which has been hard to find in the previous Muslim countries we have been in. A note I must also make is the excellent fish assortment and choice the Philippines have and are very good at preparing.

Buffets are very common in the Philippines and you pay to eat as much as you want. A great idea as I love buffets and I love tasting all the local dishes. The only problem is when to say no!

Traditional corn beef, rice and egg is a lovely traditional breakfast here. The corn beef tastes nothing like back home, nor does it come from a tin. Lovely tender bits of meat in a tasty tomato sauce marinated with onions, garlic and other Asian spices. I loved it, Cheryl hated it.

The following day we caught a tiny minibus and we were hyptonised by the breathtaking scenery along the coast up to the infamous Sabang, with its sublime beach and famous Subterranean River and laid-back port Barton. Tiny Sabang has a heavenly expansive beach and is famed for the navigable Subterranean River National Park (Underground River). One of the UNESCO seven natural wonders of the world attracts loads of tourists from all over the planet which winds through a spectacular cave before emptying into the sea.

After walking the length of the beach which took about an hour we found the most incredible beach hut with its own private view of the beach.

We had our own private view onto the beach and we loved it here, absolute bliss.

There we bumped into Tom, a friend who we would bump into again on our travels. Most people who come here do so to get to the Underground River if you are lucky enough to get a ticket. Unfortunately, tickets had been fully booked for the entire month and no other tickets would be issued until the 1st of June. Instead we just admired the beauty of the area and this fabulous beach.

We did a lot of relaxing and tasting some of the fantastic local Filipino beers here, including Red Horse:

I highly recommend this beach if you are on this island it is a wonderful place for dinner at sunset, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most beautiful islands on earth:

Next we set off north to El Nido via the glorious scenery along the coast of this wonderful island. El Nido is the gateway to Palawan’s greatest natural treasure: the Bacuit Archipelago. El Nido itself commands a stunning location, sandwiched between towering limestone karst cliffs and Bacuit Bay, with the fantastic contours of Cadlao Island looming right offshore.

Unfortunately, El Nido is literally caught between a rock and a hard place (excuse the pun), for the town itself is quite unprepossessing, with a collection of substandard accommodation and an overcrowded, hastily developed foreshore. Thus, if you want to visit the Bacuit Archipelago, you must choose between roughing it in El Nido, or shelling out big bucks for the accommodation in the archipelago itself.

We couldn’t believe our luck when we found yet another stunning beach hut, right on the beach. We woke up to this view for 5 days:

We absolutely loved our beach hut, and made the most of it.

El Nido has over 50 beaches to discover, hundreds of enchanting lagoons with tranquil turquoise-green water, caves that can take you to hidden beaches, and a very diverse array of wildlife. The limestone cliffs of El Nido were naturally carved out of extensive and thick layers of coralline deposits. They formed 250 million years ago in the shallow sea covering the area that North Vietnam and South China now occupy. These layers slowly rose from the sea as a result of the collision of India and mainland China about 60 million years ago.

El Nido’s front yard of Bacuit Bay is what tropical paradise is all about. It is littered with gorgeous islands – those sharp, jagged peaks shooting like torpedoes to the skies.

El Nido dare we say it, is better than Vietnam’s Halong Bay and Thailand’s Krabi. We have been to both of these world class locations.

Fortunately, island-hopping in Bacuit Bay isn’t a difficult proposition, it’s quite easy to hire a boat and live your own island hopping fantasy.

Unfortunately the island hopping had to wait a day as the heavens absolutely opened the next morning. This was the first time we saw how people here need to live under torrential rain. This rain was nothing like we had seen before, so heavy and caused the streets to be flooded in minutes.

It’s coming up to Typhoon season, and some were happier than others to finally see some rain after 6/7 months as we watched this Filipino kid dance and swim in the school playground

The next day was much better and was the start of continuous and increasing heat in which we found difficult to adapt to. We headed straight to our boat and took in some glorious scenery which was like paradise. The jaw-dropping Big Lagoon is undoubtedly the most iconic of all that El Nido is usually remembered for. I had to pinch myself to realize where I was!

What makes the islands also a draw for many visitors are the plentiful secluded white sand beaches. The question was how many islands did we want to see, as we could see them all around us:

We fell in heaven with all the beautiful islands and beaches including, 7 Commando Beach:

Big Lagoon:

Secret Lagoon & Small Lagoon in Miniloc island, Simisu island for snorkeling and lastly, to Ipil Beach.

The views were breathtaking to say the very least with such clear sea.

Sadly, not everything is as good as it should be in this paradise. We snorkeled at the Big Lagoon and soon realised there’s something amiss. While it’s gorgeous above water, the view down below is abruptly different. There were hardly any corals left, most of them have died, withered and bleached for various reasons: cyanide fishing, dynamite fishing, strong typhoons, El Niño or something new I only learned that day, a sea tormentor called the Crown of Thorns.

Snorkeling off Simisu island was no different either. This was where most tour boats were anchored for the snorkeling part of the tour. It was disappointing to see dead corals or what was left of them. With less corals, there were also less fish to see.

On another side of Miniloc island, we snorkeled into Small Lagoon by swimming through a narrow opening on the limestone karst. Our guide led us into this small subterranean cave, lit naturally from a crack above while we floated aimlessly in the deep water. I found it creepy, imagining weird creatures that might suddenly grab me from under!

We went to one secluded cove in Miniloc island where lunch was prepared by the guide and the boat captain. Mostly made from the fish he had caught while we were snorkeling. Nothing fanciful but still gratifying. Check out the fish-heads:

After lunch, everyone but us went into sun-bathing mode (We’re now naturally tanned after 6 months of intense heat already, so I think the other travelers knew why we hid under the palm tree ;-).

All I wanted to do at that point was just relax and enjoy the view.

We loved it here.

My thoughts went back to the sorry state of marine life in this beautiful bay. I asked the guide what was being done. There’s an ongoing drive, he says, to combat the Crown of Thorns infestation. As for the other causes, he wasn’t even sure. El Niño and typhoons are something else but cyanide and dynamite fishing? I do hope they do more than just address this issue of a coral-eating starfish. A lot of work needs to be done.

El Nido is paradise worth saving.

That night we bumped into our friend Tom, always good to see a familiar face and good to get the British colony up to three. We have hardly seen any British travellers in South East Asia, mostly French, Dutch and off course Russians. Says a lot about our economy!

The three of us agreed to go to go on another boat trip the next day which includes a trip to the Hidden Beach, Secret Beach, Matinloc Island, Matinloc Shrine, Tapuitan Island and Helicopter Island. We had our picnic buffet lunch at Tapuitan Island.

It didn’t really matter where we were because every inch of this paradise is beautiful. For the next 7 hours or so we truly did see paradise again, just more beautiful parts of it.

We discovered the amazing rock formations and hidden beaches that have given inspiration to Alex Garland’s novel “The Beach” which was written while the author was in El Nido and has been made into a major motion picture starring Leonardo Di Caprio. This was truly a hidden beach!

As the boat sailed to a rock cliff that stretch into the sky the captain pointed to a small gap that appeared now and again between the crashing waves that hit it. Through that small hole we would swim under and find “The Beach”. This is what we had to swim through to find one of the most beautiful secret beaches on earth: (The hole is hidden in this photo with a wave crashing through as it was high tide)

We all dived in and coped well with the current and crashing waves. As we neared this small gap we all took a breath of fresh air and swam under this wall. What we saw when we came up was truly a gorgeous spot. Now you would need to be absolutely crazy to take a Canon SLR camera with you, so I am afraid no photos. But trust me it was more beautiful than Koh Phi Phi and you can Google to your hearts content about its secrecy and how beautiful it is.

It was so peaceful and beautiful. How on earth anyone discovered this is beyond me. It made me really think when the captain told me how thankful he was that the Filipino Government did not allow the film “The Beach” to be filmed in here or anywhere in the Philippines because of their strong stance on drugs. He said this would be as busy and congested as Koh Phi Phi right now. I nodded in agreement as I had been there.

Although Koh Phi Phi is absolutely stunning and arguably one of the most beautiful locations on this planet, it makes you wonder how long it will remain like this with all the tourists.

From the towering marble cliffs and enchanting lagoons to its white sandy beaches and lush jungle, El Nido is one of the top tourist destinations in Palawan, which is often referred to as the Philippines’ Last Frontier. It’s of no wonder National Geographic Traveler’s magazine, has chosen El Nido as one of the best travel destinations in the world.

Another incredible looking island Helicopter Island.

The name of the island comes from it’s shape from afar, it looks like a helicopter. Up close it’s actually a nice beach to just sit back and relax. But only to relax enough to know that monkeys also live on this island who nearly ran away with my bag, cheeky so and so’s!


We had a fantastic barbeque at Star Beach. The name of the beach came from the fact that there are a lot of starfish around its waters.

Dilumaca Island was next.- This island has a beautiful white sand beach stretching to some 300 meters that is ideal for picnic lunches during island-hopping trips. Aside from the Hidden Beach, the island is also famous for the Kulasa Beach, a 100-meter beach strip of fine white sand located at one of its coves.

The sea floor surrounding the beach slopes gradually and the water deepens only after about 10 meters. This location is one of the best snorkeling spots in Bacuit Bay.

Matinloc Shrine – Hidden among the lush forested island is the Matinloc Shrine (also known as Shrine of Our Lady of Matinloc and Shrine of the Blessed Virgin) a sacred monument built in 1982 to honor the blessed virgin mary.


Legend has it that a woman dreamed of an island shaped like a heart and it had a temple to worship on it. From above this island is shaped like a heart so when she found it an exact replica of the temple she dreamed about was built on it.

A German man and his local wife built a beautiful grand house here 18 years ago. Unfortunately, the couple split up 3 years ago and left the house to wither away. The house still in relatively good condition though and we were free to walk around it and imagine what it was like to live here.

We were invited to climb the limestone cliff standing mightily on the beach and we we were blown away. The top of the cliff offered a magnificent view of some parts of Matinloc Island and other nearby islands and beaches. From there, we saw the waves rolling, slapping the white shores as other boats sailed by.

It was a pleasant feeling. We were the only people in the area and we felt like we owned the place!

El Nido was amazing and I can easily see how people come here to spend a few weeks. We unfortunately had to move on as we wanted to explore so much more of the Philippines as possible. On Tuesday 15th of May we took the long but gorgeous bus journey down to Puerto Princeca, catching an onward flight to the Visayas.

Cebu is the hub around which the Visayas revolves. It is the most densely populated island in the Philippines and we would first go to Cebu City. The City of Cebu is the capital city of Cebu and is the “second city” in the Philippines with the second most significant metropolitan centre. It is known as the oldest settlement established by the Spaniards in the country.

As far as we were concerned, Cebu City is Manila minus the mayhem. Its traffic is chaotic, but not insane. Its size and layout can actually be understood, rather than merely endured. And – sigh – hardly any of the taxi drivers here are employed by Satan.

The Philippines is extremely religious with most being Christians adopting the Catholic faith. There are Catholic churches everywhere, pictures of Jesus Christ and crosses adapted into all jewelry, advertisement posters, shop malls and TV adverts.

We decided to see a few religious sights the first Basilica Minore Del Santo Nino. The Minor Basilica of the Santo Niño or Basilica Minore del Santo Niño is a 16th century church in Cebu City in the Philippines.

It was built purportedly on the spot where the image of the Santo Niño, a sculpture depicting the Holy Child Jesus found by Spanish explorers in 1565 preserved in a burned wooden box which was left behind during the 1521 Magellan expedition.


The history of the Augustinian Order in the Philippines is intimately connected with the history of the country. The Augustinians were the first missionaries ever to reach the Philippine shore.


We then went to Magellan’s Cross a Christian cross planted by Portuguese, and Spanish explorers as ordered by Ferdinand Magellan upon arriving in Cebu in the Philippines in 1521.


A sign below the cross described the original cross as being encased inside the wooden cross that is found in the center of the chapel.

This is to protect the original cross from people who chipped away parts of the cross for souvenir purposes or in the belief that the cross possesses miraculous powers.

In the afternoon we went to look at the well built Fort of San Pedro. Fort San Pedro is the oldest fort in the Philippines.

Built by the Spaniards to repel sieges by hostile natives and Muslim pirates, the fort was deemed finished in 1738, some 200 years after it started construction.


The fort is triangular in shape, with two sides facing the sea and the third side fronting the land. The two sides facing the sea were defended with artillery and the front with a strong palisade made of wood.


A few well secured prisons also in the fort which I put to good use 🙂

Throughout our travels in the Philippines everyone was talking about Malapascua Island, an island situated in the Visayan Sea, located across a shallow strait from the northernmost tip of Cebu Island. This of course where the infamous ‘Bounty Beach’ is located. On the 18th of May we decided to go…

We arrived late but it looked so beautiful already.

We were not disappointed when we woke up in the morning and saw the island in all its glory.


Malapascua was “discovered” fairly recently, only in the early 90s. The island was first known for its wide white sand beach, known as Bounty Beach; it has also become known for its beautiful coral gardens and excellent local dive spots, as well as further-out sites including Gato Island, Monad Shoal, and Kemod Shoal. Monad Shoal is an underwater plateau where thresher sharks and manta rays can be sighted on a regular basis. It also holds some amazing Japanese shipwrecksa from WWII which we were desperate to explore.

There are no cars or paved roads on the island, only a network of walking tracks which reminded us a bit of the Gilli Islands in Indonesia. These tracks wind past such humble attractions as the waterside town cemetery, with its sun-bleached graves, the lighthouse on the island’s northwest, and the 12m-high lookout up near Los Bamboos, which some brave souls treat as a cliff jump.

Divers are spoilt with three wreck dives, the marine sanctuary of Gato Island – a famous sea-snake breeding ground – and almost daily appearances of the otherwise rarely sighted thresher shark off Monad Shoal.

The people of the towns are friendly and welcoming, andwe soon made friends with Herman, a local restaurant worker/cock-fighter and future Filipino international badminton player.

It would seem that Malapascua offers everything that the discerning beach bum could wish for. We absolutely loved ‘Bounty Beach’. Absolutely gorgeous beach with fantastic coconut trees.

We were so luck with our hotel room view, as you can see from our balcony view

One downside to the island is the lack of air-conditioning and again we just couldn’t cope in the intense heat which hits 42c at noon then only goes down to 35c at night.

We spent so much time just reading our books and raising our eyes to remind us of the beauty in front of us. One of the reasons we found it so difficult to get off this island, because we didn’t want to! But of course with the beauty surrounding us on shore things looked a lot different under the water.

We went diving around the island and experienced an incredible time around a Japanese WWII wreck.The marine environment faces the usual challenges of this region – first and foremost, dynamite fishing. Despite protestations from local government that they are on top of the problem, divers report that on many dives they can still hear the sound of blasting. To combat the problem, local dive centres successfully lobbied the government to implement full-time patrols of the marine sanctuary.

The preservation of the island environment is another matter. Ironically, where the dive centres have continually accused local government of not doing enough to halt destruction of the corals, when it comes to preserving the beaches, it’s the government’s turn to put the heat on local business.

We sometimes imagined we were shipwrecked on this island in a good way, with the little tourists here.


We were aware that the Philippines was going to be one of the most expensive countries we would go to (surprising to us), but we were pretty shocked at some of the prices on this island. Even with tough negation on some things we found ourselves paying European prices on accommodation and food.

When we were on the island there was a local fiesta which was going to bring the island to a stand-still. We wanted to explore this and Herman kindly agreed to show us around, including the absolute number one sport in the Philippines -cock-fighting. The second major sport being Basketball then Billiards. Cock-fighting however would be a bloody interesting introduction to their pastime and their national sport.

Herman drove all three of us on his rather proud bike:

We had a lovely time exploring parts of the island that no one else would have got to.

Seeing into the way Filippinos live was also interesting as he showed us around his hut/house which was very bare. We could hardly find space to sit it because of all the bananas he had.

As we walked around he introduced us to some of his prize cockerels and he explained how much pride and joy he had for them. At first it was quite funny to watch as he lifted them up and almost cuddled them.


His cock “Black-Hawk” would fight later today for the first time in it’s life, and he told me how confident he was that it would win. These words stuck in my head right up until the fight, which I will get onto in a bit.This is Black-Hawk.

Cock-fighting is everywhere in the Philippines and I am surprised it took us this long to see what all the fuss was about. The rules are very simple, if a cock wins, the owner earns money, just as the persons who visits the fights and put their money on the winning cock. During the fight the fighting cocks wear sharp razor blades fixed on their legs, a bit like gladiators. The duel will only end by the death or (bloody) flight of one of the cocks. To rub salt into the wounds of the losing owner, the winning owner gets to keep the cock that lost and eat it, sometimes mostly straight after the fight.

We were first of all introduced to all the cocks and the owners as they showed off their cocks.


It was also quite ironic how Herman explained they take great pride in their cocks as they shampooed and dried them to pristine beauty. The cocks would be separated into different weights and paired off.

We would then be seated in the ring and everyone would bet on the winning cock with odds from 2-1 too 5-1.

Black hawk would not enter until fight 5 so we had plenty of practice and as newbies quickly lost a lot of money, mostly because Cheryl wanted to pick the pretty cocks. Come fight 5 Black Hawk entered and Herman seemed relatively confident and of course from his previous statement I stuck a fair whack down on it. It soon came clear why he was called Black Hawk Down. We did manage to break even by the end of the day, I guess we couldn’t complain since it was our first outing.

We found the experience interesting as we learned a lot about local culture, but I don’t think we would attend again as it is not pleasant. However, if you do visit the Philippines it would be highly likely you would see or hear about cock fighting as it is on all the time, day and night. It’s also the no1 national sport and they have a dedicated 24hr sports channel showing non-stop cockfighting. Not the greatest sight when you wake up first thing and switch the TV on in the morning before breakfast!

The areas of the island we seen with Herman was lovely and his mother and family wanted to meet us. Filippinos are so friendly and kind.


Then it was back to ‘Bounty Beach’ to relax and savour how lucky we are.

It’s no wonder the beach is named after the famous bounty advert, Bounty Beach:

After spending 5 days on this gorgeous island we headed south to find a lovely coastal beach called Moalboal.

Diving, drinking and dining (in that order) top the list of activities in the dive colony of Moalboal , however as we have spending more time under the sea than above we just couldn’t face any more diving. So we just relaxed:


We had a lovely time at White-Beach where we caught a tricycle which is how we roll.

When we did get to the beach we certainly were not disappointed. Very pretty.

A lovely white beach with food and drink huts for the tourist, but we hardly seen any tourists, just the locals having a good time.

I have been told the coral is better here but we didn’t go diving here so I shall only comment on how beautiful the scenery and my fiance is 🙂 She’s perfect 🙂

The sand was very white.

Soon after on Wednesday 23rd of May we drove and sailed to another island called Negros where we would spend 5 days. We stayed in Dumaguete City, a nice place. Everyone raves about the Rizal Blvd promenade, and it’s true there’s something genuinely charming about this harbourfront ‘quarter mile’: the faux-antique gas lamps; the grassy median strip. But there are other things to like about Dumaguete: it’s big but it feels small, and it’s less congested, less polluted and – being a university town – far more hip and urbane than your average provincial capital.

That said, there’s not actually a lot to do here and, after a couple meals and a night or two on the town, most move on but we just couldn’t face another beach or another island. Seriously!

We have seen all the best beaches and islands you can possibly throw at us in South East Asia and then some. We’ve been there and done it and it’s a lot of hard work travelling and sailing from island to island. As it was coming to the end of our 6 month travels in Asia we just wanted to stay in a nice hotel, air-conditioning and close to all amenities for the last few days.

Dumaguete City was a great experience and showed us what the Filipino way of life was like not living on small islands of paradise. It is a wonderful place and more importantly a wonderful country.

The Philippines still offers remarkable experiences: buried gold; unexplored caves; diving holes; sunken Spanish galleons; dense jungles with rare plants and animals; primeval people; active volcanoes; and uninhabited paradise islands.

Although travelling in the Philippine archipelago can tax your flexibility and wallet at times, you would have to go a long way to find people as friendly and helpful as the Filipinos. This place, as the locals like to remind you, is ‘where Asia wears a smile’.

Compared with other countries of South East Asia, the Philippines doesn’t take up much room in the major travel catalogues. Because of this, there’s no doubt that it loses out economically, but this country has recently been through enough natural and political upheavals for this to be a blessing in disguise. The Philippines simply isn’t ready to withstand the stresses that mass tourism and its consequences would bring.

For the traveller, it is the variety the Philippines offers that is so interesting. The bustling capital of Manila contrasts with lonely islands fringed with superb beaches. There are towns where you will find a thriving nightlife, but you can also visit mountain tribes who still live according to their own laws and traditions. There are huge rice terraces built eons ago with the most primitive of tools; wide sugarcane fields with subterranean rivers and lakes; or shadowy palm forest groves and dense jungle. If you can learn to be as laid back as the Filipinos amid all this natural beauty, you’ll fit in just fine.

Next stop Bangkok for 4 days then Australia for 4 months…

Thanks for reading.

Norman and Cheryl xxx

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Indonesia the Sleeping Giant.

On Monday 16th April we flew to Indonesia where our opportunities for exploration and adventure were limited only by how many of the 17,000 islands we could reach before our visa expired in 28 days.

It’s one hell of a sweep and we wanted to see as much as possible of this beautiful country. With its equator as its spine, Indonesia stretches between Malaysia and Australia

We found the nation’s diversity staggering, alluring and inspiring, from the snow-capped peaks in Papua, sandalwood forests in Sumba, primary jungle in Borneo and impossibly green rice paddies in Bali and Java. Indonesian coral reefs are up there with Malaysian Borneo while the surf is the best anywhere in the World.

Indonesia is also the most active volcanic country in the World. From the low-lying coastel areas, the country rises through no fewer than 129 active volcanoes – more than any country in the world.

But even as the diversity on land and sea ran like a traveller’s fantasy playlist, it’s the mash-up of people and cultures that ultimately was the most appealing.

Bali justifiably leads off, but there are also the stone-age folk deep in Papua, the funeral-mad Toraja of Sulawesi, the artisans of Java, the mall-rats of Jakarta and the list goes on.

As different as people were, however, we didn’t take long to realise what a truly engaging and welcoming place it is. Hence why I have been busy tweeting, trying to share all our incredible experiences here.

Indonesia needs a good press agent I think as it always seems to be in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami ravaged Aceh in Sumatra. Then, in 2006 a quake rocked Yogyakarta, killing almost 7000 people, and in 2009 a quake devastated Padang in Sumatra.

Combine this with a series of ferry sinkings and plane crashes that exposed the decrepit state of Indonesia’s transport network and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. The EU have just banned all Indonesian airlines because of their horrendous safety records, one of the reasons we chose to travel over land and trusted ships only.

Infact this the main reason that we and many thousands more are now refusing to put our lives at risk to see the Komodo Dragons. They are so far away you need to risk the dangerous safety records the airlines have which is appalling and to make matters worse the fleet of aircraft’s are 25 years old!

The last trusted ship that sailed to the Komodo Islands : Perama, unfortunately sank last year en route, forcing the survivors to swim ashore to be faced with the man-eating hungry Komodo dragons.

We haven’t seen much improvement since these incidents but hopefully things will get better and make it much easier and safer to travel through this vast country.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim nation but it is no hardline Islamic state, far from it. Indonesians have traditionally practised a very loose-fitting, relaxed form of Islam and, while there’s no desire to imitate the West, most see no conflict in catching a Hollywood movie in an American-style shopping mall after prayers at Mosque.

But from what we’ve seen not everyone has the cash and there remains a yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Indonesia is much poorer than many of its Asian neighbours, with almost 50% surviving on US$2 a day, and in many rural areas opportunities are few and far between.

Indonesia’s population is the fourth-biggest in the world, with over 240 million people. Nearly half living in Java.

The island of Bali was our first stop and entrance into the country after lapping it up in luxury in Singapore for a week. It felt like we had landed early into Australia. Many Australians take advantage of the strong Australian currency compared to the Indonesian Rupiah and come here to enjoy the beauty of the beaches and world class surfing.

Bali is truly beautiful and we loved it. With stunning green rice terraces, pulse-pounding surf, enchanting Hindu temple ceremonies, ribbons of beaches, a truly charming people: there are many images of Bali as there are flowers on the ubiquitous frangipani trees.

Bali is a small island – you can drive the entire coast in one day. Our first stop was Kuta Beach, a 10 minute drive from the airport.

No place is more visitor friendly. It’s hard to believe this is where the Bali terrorism attacks took place.

In October 2002, two simultaneous bomb explosions in Kuta, targeting an area frequented by tourists, injured or killed more than 500 people. Tourism (meaning the economy) was devastated and was dealt another blow in 2005 when more bombs went off, albeit with less loss of life.

It was pretty scary to think we slept, dined, drank and relaxed in the same area. Since these attacks however, Bali has been on a roll.

It elected the the hero of the 2002 bombing investigations, Pastika, as governor. A record of nearly 2 million visitors a year turn up to enjoy the island and development here is everywhere. People are starting to ask: ‘Can we be too popular?’

The food here is absolutely delicious. We dined on local foods such as Nasi Campur, all bursting with flavours fresh from the market stalls. The seafood from the seaside shacks were also fresh and delicious.

This was our very first experience of a cold Bintang to help cool us down where it gets to 40c at 11am. This lovely cold beer is crisp and tasty.

We spent loads of time at the beach and just relaxing. Quite amusing watching all the beginner surfers falling and tiring out, wondering if this is how we will end up?

Around the beach is a tangle of narrow side streets, with an amazing hodgepodge of tiny hotels, souvenir stalls, bars and even a few remaining coconut palms.

After a few days we travelled to Ubud. We loved it here perched on the gentle slopes, leading up towards the central mountains.

Unlike South Bali, Ubud’s focus remains on the remarkable Baliniese culture in its myriad forms.

It’s not surprising than many people including ourselves and our hotel guests come to Ubud for a day or two and end up staying longer, drawn in by the rich culture and many activities.

We went to loads of chilled-out restaurants and cafes, plus artful and serene places. Some of the views we had of the beautiful rice fields over dinner was also spectacular.

Our hotel room was massive bigger than most flats I have stayed in Glasgow. Huge lavish gardens and a lovely vibe. So very relaxing here.

We also loved the temples and ancient sites where we watched villages queue up in turn to bathe in sacred places. Fascinating.

Ubud is quite close to the middle of Bali and it’s countryside remains unspoiled with lush rice paddies, towering coconut trees and a vast forest known as Monkey Forest.

We spent most of a whole day in Monkey Forest where we watched Macaque Monkeys do what there best at ; fooling around, swimming and having a good time.

The cool and dense swathe of jungle houses three holy temples which I think the monkeys have taken over.

We love monkeys, apart from the one who stole our lunch in Nepal and humped Cheryl’s leg.

They are so spontaneous and a luxury to watch, particularly in the wild. There were loads of these monkeys and they loved playing in the water pond, swimming and pushing each other in.

Before we left lovely Ubud we were told of the opportunity to visit an active volcano. We wanted to get to the summit and watch sunrise. It was all agreed with our guide, however the only downside was we would need to wake up at 2am!!!

It turned out it was worth waking up at that time as we experienced some of the most beautiful sights ever.

It took a while trekking up the volcano, always having to be careful where to put your feet in the pitch darkness with the semi-working torch we had.

It took a couple of hours to get up and we soon noticed black volcanic ash and heat pores coming through the soil. You can boil a kettle in less than a minute by placing it over one of these small holes.

The risk of going up an active volcano is pretty obvious, but when else would we have this opportunity. It got steep at the end and suddenly we were at the top having seen very little on the way up except for the beautiful starry sky.

All I knew was that the ground was hot, it melted my Salomon trainers, and we were quite high up.

Then at 6:30 am the sun rose behind Mt. Agung, another volcano in Bali. It was an incredible view, one that is hard for me to describe its beauty.

As I turned round to take in the surrounding landscape I soon realised we had walked up a rather steep ridge of a volcano crater with quite a lot of smoke coming out of it!

We were reassured a lot of researchers were monitoring the volcano and it wouldn’t go off today, I just crossed my fingers.

The view from the top was amazing. Although not as spectacular and challenging as MT. Everest Base Camp, it was one of the best climbs ever!

We sat for a while taking in the beauty when suddenly a dozen Macaque Monkeys who miraculously live in the crater came to see us. They were so funny to watch who were probably wondering who we were and did we have food for their leader.

We walked down the ridge of the crater taking in the sights we missed on the way up. The guide took us to a few sacred parts of the volcano, inside the crater where people come to worship.

As we got deeper into the crater the heat was getting more intense and the smoke from the core causing problems for visibility.

It was an amazing experience one we will never forget! The frightening experience of spiders at the bottom was also unforgettable. Thanks Denzil for pointing them out as I stood there below them unaware of their presence.

On Sunday 22nd April we left the Island of Bali to sail to Lombok, first stop the beautiful Gili Islands.

These islands are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life!

We made the short hop from Bali and were immediately blown away by the unspoilt bleach white sands. As we dipped into the turquoise-tinted, bathtub-warm waters of the tiny, irresistible Gili islands we knew straight away we found the most beautiful beach so far on our travels.

Long and healthy deepwater coral reefs teeming with sharks, rays and the most beautiful friendly turtles! One day we swam with a massive hawkesbill turtle (nearly extinct, please see my Malaysian Borneo Blog for more info) by ourselves as we followed him around the island before he swam off into the horizon. It was a fantastic special moment.

There is also the serenity that comes with no motorised traffic, gorgeous beachfront bungalows and cafes where we had the most amazing fresh fish and rather exotic Gili Island cocktail.

A long stretch of white sand surrounds this island and it was so picturesque cycling around it. The locals are also so very friendly.

We loved and appreciated all the beaches we saw in Southern Thailand. Some of them were gorgeous, unfortunately though very busy with hotels taking over a lot of the land. We have found the sands here in Indonesia cleaner and whiter. The beaches are unspoilt with no big commercial hotels. The corals are so much healthier with a lot more marinelife. Lastly Indonesia is much more cheaper than Thailand.

But with the problem of it being unspoilt just now means this is inevitably going to change. It was only recently they put an ATM on this island.

We spent a lot of time just staring at the beauty around us on the Gili Islands. If you are looking for paradise this is pretty close to it!!

It was tough leaving the Gili Islands and it will definitely be a very popular destination once the big hotel resorts get their way. Thankfully none have got here yet!

We thought we would not see that beauty for a while again. How very wrong were we. After the Gili Islands we went to the mainland of the Island of Lombok and stayed at Sengiggi half way down the west coast of the island.

The next day we went to Kuta, not to be mistaken with Kuta in Bali we had been to. This is where we witnessed THE most beautiful beach yet!

Firstly this is no tourist ghetto like the Bali version. It’s languid and stunningly gorgeous, with white-sand bays that line chiseled cliffs and rugged hills, and world-class surf.

The white sandy beach travels nearly the whole area of Southern Lombok. Technically speaking Kuta beach is loads of beaches divided by small peninsulas.

The coastline is empty with very little hotels. How long it stays this way is debatable as development is looming.

We hired scooters as there are no taxis since it’s not used to tourists. The freedom the scooters gave us was fantastic. We saw so many beaches, each one getting better and better.

Scooter-boy!

As we drove around each peninsula we would be just awestruck at the beauty scratching our heads why tourism is so under-developed here. No hotels or accommodation to be seen, local kids would sell us a coconut or pineapple

Then after driving past a dozen secluded beaches we drove to this beach shaped like a heart!

This is the most beautiful beach we have come across ever!

There are a lot of reasons for it. Firstly no one knows about it apart from the locals. Unfortunately a Dubai development company is planning to build hotels at nearly all these beaches which will take 15 years. Get here quick is my suggestion!

Secondly it is the whitest sand we have seen ever, with beautiful torquoise water. The coral is good for snorkeling and turtles are so easily spotted they come up during the night to hide their eggs here while it’s still quiet from commercial ears.

Thirdly there is a local family who own what I can only describe as a shed which has the most amazing food and they have sun loungers available.

Fourthly, the view of the bay is unique as it closes in itself in the shape of a heart. We only seen about 5 people at the beach all.day. It’s got everything going for it. We simply couldn’t fault it. We found the next ‘Koh Phi Phi’!!!

After Kuta on Sunday 29th April we sailed back to the island of Bali and stayed a few days in Sanur where we were confronted with a rather nice 6KM beach.

A beautiful white-sand beach sheltered by a reef. The resulting low-key surf contributes to Sanur’s nickname ‘Snore’.

We loved the fact we did nothing but relax and sunbathe at the beach. The food here was also special, particularly the oodles of cafes and restaurants at the beach, absolutely delightful.

On Tuesday 1st May we sailed to Nusa Lembongan one of the 17,000 islands that make up this beautiful country.

The boat anchored offshore so we got our feet wet as we carried our rucksacks above our shoulders. Those who brought wheeled bags were comically inappropriate especially on the beach.

It’s the Bali many imagine but never find: lovely rooms on the beach, cheap beers with incredible sunsets, days spent diving, and nights spent riffling through a favourite book, exactly what we did!!

This island is so excluded it doesn’t have an ATM or Police Station. It has so many beaches too, lovely arc of white sand with clear blue water, with superb views across to Bali. We watched sunset a few nights with mouthwatering views and a rather fresh Bintang beer.

The coral here for diving or snorkeling is also world class. We really are getting spoiled with the new hobby we now both love.

Giant Manta Rays can be spotted here and we decided to try our luck on Thursday 3rd May 2012. We hired a speedboat which took an hour to the only point they are spotted, Manta Point.

We wanted to go as early as possible so the busy boats and divers didn’t scare them away. When we got there we were very happy we were one of the first.

It was very wavy and close to a big rugged wall that caused loads of big wave crashes. It looked like very unfriendly waters and we had to be on our guards for the drift that was pushing the boat and us towards the big wall.

I jumped in first and wave after wave just crashed into me and my gear. I put my head under the warm water and it seemed so calm.

Then… at the corner of my eye an enormous Giant Manta Ray was swimming gracefully. It’s size just took me for surprise, before I could concentrate I quickly swam up to the surface, shouted for Cheryl and told her one was right beside me.

Her face said it all, she already knew and watched its massive frame swim inches below the surface of the sea. It was an incredible moment.

She jumped in and we both watched this monster of the sea swim beside us.

In total we saw three Mantas, each about eight feet in length and we swam with them for about an hour. They look pretty scary, as they swim with their mouths open. Especially when they swim towards you, as they can’t swim backwards it is you that better get out of its way.

After Manta Point, we went to four other diving points and enjoyed snorkeling around fantastic coral and a massive abundance of fish, and a rather big water snake which looked evil, thus retiring us for the day.

Then on Friday 4th May we received a breaking news tweet from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office about the Yogjakarta exclusion zone around a VERY active volcano. We would be flying there the next day for 3 nights.

The zone – known as the “Ring of Fire” – is notorious for frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and coincides with the edges of one of the world’s main tectonic plates. More than half of the world’s active volcanoes above sea level are part of the ring.

We seriously contemplated cancelling our flights, take a loss, and move straight to the capital Jakarta. However, we spoke to a few locals particularly who were from that area and reassured us we should be ok and Yogjakarta should not be missed.

We flew to Yogjakarta the next day from Bali. We landed in a thunderstorm and we absolutely loved our hotel because we caught a free upgrade. Lovely swimming pool, jacuzzi and very modern.

Yogyakarta is a bustling town and the most popular tourist destination on Java, largely thanks to its proximity to the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan which we did not want to miss out on.

Yogyakarta lies in one of the most seismically active parts of Java and has thus repeatedly been struck by earthquakes and volcano eruptions. The worst in recent times was the earthquake of May 27th 2006, which killed over 6,000 people and flattened over 300,000 houses. However, the epicentre was 25 km north of the city, which thus avoided the worst of the quake.

After rumbling on and off for two months amid fears of another devasting earthquake and volcano eruption, the volcano quieted down by December 2010. On past form we were told it’ll be another 2-3 years until the next small eruption and 10-15 years until the next biggie, so its either now or never for a visit while we still can!

We had a fantastic time here sucking in all the marvelous art and wonderful culture. Two of the most important temples in the world for Buddhism and Hinduism are close to this city; Borobudur Temple and Prambanan Temple.

The first temple we went to was Borobudur Temple. This massive Buddhist temple of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist monument in the world, is 40 minutes away by car and one of the main drawcards for visitors to Yogyakarta

Borobudur Temple is a 9th-century Buddhist temple in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. The monument consists of six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues. A main dome, located at the center of the top platform, is surrounded by 72 Buddha statues seated inside a perforated stupa.

The monument is both a shrine to the Lord Buddha and a place for Buddhist pilgrimage.

The following day we went to Prambanan Temple a 9th century Hindu temple compound, dedicated to the Trimurti, the expression of God as the Creator (Brahma), the Sustainer (Vishnu) and the Destroyer (Shiva).

The temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, and is one of the largest Hindu temples in the World. It is characterized by its tall and pointed architecture, typical of Hindu temple architecture, and by the towering 47m high central building inside a large complex of individual temples. One of the most majestic temples in the Southeast Asia, Prambanan attracts many visitors worldwide.

Unfortunately in no time nearly a month flew by in Indonesia. This country is massive and so very beautiful. Somewhere we can’t wait to come back to. Indonesia is the sleeping giant of Southeast Asia!

Indonesia markets itself as Wonderful Indonesia, and the slogan is quite true, if not more!

Next stop The Philippines for 3 weeks….

Thank you for reading and take care,

Norman and Cheryl

xxx

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A Singapore Fling

On Wednesday 11th April 2012 we flew from Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo to Singapore.

We had heard so many good things about this country and were very excited to come and explore it for ourselves. When spending time in another country, it’s always wise to make yourself aware of the local laws and customs.

Singapore is small in relation to other countries, but it is so beautiful and clean. It has very high standards and to maintain these standards there are some crazy laws which we had to learn. Some of which seemed a bit harsh coming from a ‘westerner’.

First of all bungee jumping is illegal but hey not planning on doing that here. That’ll wait for New Zealand- the biggest bungee jump in the world. The sale of gum is prohibited and if caught chewing gum you will receive a guaranteed sentence in prison and a few lashings of the cane. Seriously, the Rattan Cane is a legally sanctioned form of punishment and is often employed for over 30 types of offence such as robbery, breaking and entering, assault, rape, living off the earnings of prostitution, vandalism etc.

There are a few other very strict laws in place that keep Singapore the squeaky clean place it is. The following are prohibited… smoking in public, spitting in public, littering, jaywalking. Failure to observe these laws will result in stiff fines and prison sentences. Other laws which we had to watch carefully too, especially me: Failure to flush a public toilet after use may result in very hefty fines a minimum of $500 depending on where you did it! Seriously, I had to be on my guard and flushed every single time just incase 😉

However I do agree with some laws such as cigarettes are illegal in all public places and if you are convicted of littering three times, you will have to clean the streets on Sundays with a bib on saying, “I am a litterer”.

Basically from our experience in Singapore, we didn’t see any crimes, any litter and everybody was having a good time. CCTV is everywhere and is by far the most sophisticated in the world with face recognition and changes in body behavior are alerted on camera where in case you become aggressive. The police do not do anything, there is nothing to do.

We loved how clean the city was. You are not allowed to eat or drink on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), their huge and impressive subway/ railway. In my opinion this is great news, why waste all tax payers money cleaning up after people littering on public services. The pavements were so clean, another example of the misuse of chewing gum and how other cities should go ahead and follow suit. I will stop there with my suggestions on which laws should be adopted elsewhere, but after being to Singapore it definitely, absolutely definitely works!

Getting from the massive and futuristic, Changi International Airport to our hotel we caught the super fast and simple MRT. These efficient, wide and very long trains go underground and overground all over the island. Because it is illegal to smoke, eat and drink in public and public transport it is also super clean.

We dropped our luggage in the hotel and headed straight back out onto the MRT to meet Mitch and his family who were on holiday here. This being their last day we did not want to miss out on seeing familiar faces. The meeting place would be the infamous Singapore Marina Bay, this former administrative enclave of the British is home to a swath of colonial architecture, museums and the track for the Formula One night race.

The Raffles Hotel as well is infamous for the cocktail Singapore Sling, a lovely tasty drink at a pricey $25 per glass (excluding government tax and charges) if you can afford it.

It’s always so good to see a familiar face. No matter how long you go away from home or how far you may go, we never forget about our friends or family. We had a few local beers as in Tiger Beer, a very nice beer in my opinion.

Later on we watched the incredible light show at the Marina Bay. It was an amazing convergence of light, music and sound set to a breathtaking orchestral soundtrack; ‘Wonderful Life’. They use electric light and laser effects to tell the universal tale of the journey of life. We sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the show, it was simply stunning. You just lose yourself in a stunning showpiece of visual effects of interweaving lasers, searchlights, LEDs, video projectors and giant streaming water screens.

The Singapore skyline is so beautiful especially at night when it is lit up. Land is so scarce they are building out into the sea which has created a spectacular harbor. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is an integrated resort fronting Marina Bay. It is the world’s most expensive standalone casino property at $8 billion, including cost of the prime land.

Water is so scarce in Singapore, they are collecting all the rain that falls onto the island and closed off all the sea water coming into the island. In 10 years time the sea water will have gone away and they will have a huge amount of fresh water which they can use.

The hotel hosts a museum, two large theatres, seven “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, an ice skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. The complex is topped by a 340m-long SkyPark with a capacity of 3,900 people and a 150m infinity swimming pool, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, which overhangs the north tower by 67m with a view of the Singapore Marina and skyline.

The three towers are connected by a 1 hectare sky terrace on the roof, named Sands SkyPark. This is where the infinity pool, the world’s longest elevated swimming pool and open night club is. We were just blown away by its beautiful and original design. Its size is just overwhelming and when you consider there are three enormous pillars expanding as they go up into the sky while it keeps this huge hanging roof on the top really is something.

On Friday 13th April 2012 we went back down to the harbor as it s just so beautiful. Seeing everything in the daylight shows another gorgeous side to the Singapore architecture. They have spent a lot of money on keeping this city look pretty in the dark but it’s just as nice during the day.

Shopping is second only to eating as a national pastime, which means that Singapore has an abundance of shopping malls, and low taxes and tariffs on imports coupled with huge volume mean that prices are very competitive. The malls are well air conditioned which was a very welcome relief from the heat. I tried and tried to persuade the gorgeous Cheryl we should get the new iPad for half the price in the U.K. but unfortunately it didn’t happen. I did however take advantage of stocking up on super cheap and very fast memory for the Canon at ridiculous low prices.

Singapore is definitely a country I could easily live in, everything seems to work here. Fantastic prosperity, great health care, longevity and great weather. Land is scarce but they are continually building out into the China Sea like there is no tomorrow. When they do build something it always has to be the best.

On Saturday 14th April 2012 we took the subway to the Singapore Botanical Gardens which were so beautiful and relaxing walking through them.

There are more plant species here than in the whole of North America, with all sorts of lovely animals living here. We spent most of the day just wandering around taking in all the plants, trees and wildlife. At one stage we were watching some beautiful swans swimming along the lake when cute little turtles started popping their heads out at us.

I particularly liked the Evolution section of the Botanical gardens which hosts all the plants, trees and flowers from as far back as possible. As you continue walking through this section the ground evolves from lava to mud to concrete as the ages of time progress, as does the wonderful vegetation around you.

One last bit I need to give a shout out to satisfy my green fingers was the Toxic section which had all the most dangerous vegetation in the world. We took great care avoiding any contact with these poisonous plants, still alive and healthy, which easily cause death to both animals and humans.

On Sunday 15th April 2012 we visited Sentosa Island in the south of Singapore.

This mostly manmade island has everything you can think of- Universal Studios:

Three manmade beaches with manmade islands facing the beaches to hide one of the busiest shipping lanes and ports on the planet. It is a massive playground designed to keep you entertained and to have a great time. We certainly did that!

We particularly enjoyed riding down from the highest point on the island on the Sentosa Luge (a steerable bobsled on wheels) after taking the Skyride up the hill. Cheryl and I had such great time racing against each other, it was no holds barred though as we had to take a few others out on as well in the race.

Unfortunately I was reprimanded a lot of times by going too fast and ignoring every single law on the track race, but I was adamant I would beat the world‘s fastest lap (even if I had to cheat a wee bit). Unfortunately I didn’t.

The beaches on the island were okay, we have come from a very high standard of beaches so it was never going to be up there with the Caribbean or Thailand. I would also never have known they were manmade, although the islands created in front of the beaches to stop the views of the long oil tankers did look a bit fake, but necessary.

That night was the 100 year anniversary of the Titanic and coincidentally we went to watch the film in 3D accompanied with a box of tissues. It was very good and we particularly enjoyed the 3D special effects. The tissues were all used up by me!!

We tried one of Singapore’s traditional dishes ‘fish head curry’ that night in Chinatown. Can’t say it was the best meal we’ve ever had but we washed it down with a traditional Singapore Sling and a few Tiger beers!

Singapore was a fantastic experience, somewhere we will definitely come back to with more money to spend!

Next stop Indonesia for 4 weeks….

Thanks for reading,

Norman and Cheryl xxx

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Part II : Malaysian Borneo

After Kuala Lumpur we flew to Malaysian Borneo. Borneo is a bit like the result of a grand experiment. It answers the question of what would happen if you put a giant island right on the equator, sprinkled it with a vast amount of genetic material, soaked it with heaping quantities of sunlight and water, and then waited a few million years. The result is an explosion of life in exuberant abundance – Mother Nature’s wildest fantasy.

People come here to trek up the mighty Mt Kinabalu, dive around the Sipadan reef, try and see the orangutans or proboscis monkeys at Sepilok or trek the massive jungles and sail down the Kinabatangan River through another diverse jungle. Well we did all that apart from than trekking up Mt Kinabalu, we much preferred the Liwagu trek around its base.

The trouble is, Borneo’s northernmost state is so rich in treasures that it’s hard to know where to start, and once you get stuck in there’s always just that one more thing you want to see. As well as its host of natural features, Borneo has an equally fascinating ethnic heritage, visibly distinct from the indigenous peoples further south.

Although the jungles may be wild and untamed here, they’re covered in streamers of red tape. We were advised we would need a lot of patience and a lot of pre-planning to get past the permit restrictions and booked beds. However, we came without prior notice as we didn’t even plan on exploring Malaysia until a last minute change of mind.

It was one of the greatest decision changes we have ever made.

We first of all landed in Kota Kinabalu after a two hour flight from Kuala Lumpur. The modern high rise buildings and futuristic transport networks were long gone. Strategically situated in the Northwest Coast of Borneo Island, facing the South China Sea against the backdrop of Mount Kinabalu; this beautiful ‘Nature Resort City’ stretches for miles along the coast.

The first thing we noticed was how very little western people were here, we thought this was great! Walking along the streets and going into shops we can only presume we now know what it feels like to be a celebrity. The constant smiling looks and giggles to see white skin and round eyes was very amusing to the very friendly people of Borneo.

It was strange to begin with, but after a couple of days we began to realise these people have never been to a foreign country, let alone seen a western walking down the street in a tank top looking to find a bar in this very VERY dry country!

After a few days exploring the city, particularly enjoying the amazing fresh seafood and Malaysian curries we hired a rather fast speedboat. Along the coast are gorgeous islands with pristine white sands and lovely corals for snorkeling.

Sapi, Manukan and Mamutik were just that, absolutely lovely. We had a fantastic day sun bathing and snorkeling around the coral from island to island.

It was a luxury having a private speedboat as we didn’t have to wait for the hourly ferry from each island.

Along the pristine beaches on each island was incredible coral which kept me under the water most of the time hypnotised by the beautiful coral and marine life.

As I mentioned before the food here is so tasty and fresh. We had dinner at the sea front where we shared the biggest tiger prawns and a huge grouper fish. It’s so cheap here, we were absolutely spoiled nearly every day of our trip in Malaysia with fresh fish and amazing tasty Malaysian curries.

On Friday 30th March 2012 we went to see the tallest mountain Mt. Kinabalu. We had not planned to go to Malaysia so we didn’t have trekking permits to go up to the summit (4,095.2m or 13,435.7ft above sea level). Mount Kinabalu is Borneo’s tallest mountain and is very sacred to the locals.

They believe that spirits of their ancestors inhabit the top of the mountain. Previously, a chicken was sacrificed at the peak every time a climb was made but these days this ceremony only happens once a year when only seven chickens are needed to appease the spirits.

Because of our time constraints the issues of waiting for days for climbing permits and by law you need to hire a guide, we decided against it. We decided to do a trek around the mountain called the Liwagu trek which took just under four hours. Anywhere off a main road in Borneo and its just jungle, and this is what we had to endeavor. I was prodded to the front by Cheryl to clear all the spider webs and presumably to defend my gorgeous fiancé of any wild animals.

The next day we had a lovely bus journey that took just over six hours to Sandakan. We had breathtaking views all the way as we drove through vast jungle. With jungle everywhere there is some of the best natural wildlife in the world here.

Sandakan has character and even a certain downmarket charm, though once the shop shutters come down at night the centre can feel disconcertingly deserted. The real attractions lie outside town, but there’s excellent seafood to enjoy and beautiful views from the hills at sunset.

The adventure for wildlife and marine life started here where we hoped first of all to see Proboscis Monkeys in the wild. The Proboscis monkey, native to Borneo, is known for its humongous nose, which it uses to attract females. It’s rather funny looking nose also serves as a resonating chamber that amplifies the monkeys’ warning calls.

They quietly spend most of their time in trees, but are also excellent swimmers, having been picked up by fishing boats in open ocean up to a mile from shore. Proboscis monkeys have can be seen walking upright, making the only monkey known to walk on two legs for significant lengths of time. In addition to its huge nose, this monkey is also known for its pot belly. Quite human like we thought. However if we were to see any of these incredible animals we would need to be lucky as only about 1,000 proboscis monkeys are known to still exist in the wild.

We hired a taxi car for the day where we were driven a couple of hours out of Sandakan into the Borneo jungle at Sepilok. You then walk into a part of the jungle and at 9:30am and 11:30am every day in the same place a pile of bananas and some other fruit are dropped on this platform. We were told we would need to then wait and cross our fingers to see if any Proboscis Monkeys would come from the vast jungle.

When you’re deep in the heart of the Borneo jungle, it’s easy to imagine that you’ve slipped back in time to a world where plants and animals went about their business undisturbed by human beings.

So it was to our amazement when we seen a huge Proboscis Monkey sitting on a bench upright with a massive pot belly at 9:20am. In all seriousness when I say this, they look hilarious and the noises the make are so funny. If you have a chance google the Proboscis Monkey noise, so cute and funny.

It was so timid and almost looked like it enjoyed our company as we snapped away on our cameras. As we gazed further through the jungle we could see other Proboscis Monkeys hanging from the trees looking with interest.

The guide told us that he had never seen so many before in the trees as they came forward one by one. Attempting to take them seriously as they came closer with their huge noses resulted in Cheryl and I bursting into laughter!

A tray of fruit was placed about twenty yards from where we were in the jungle and three groups of Proboscis Monkeys came. It was fantastic and we loved watching them eating. They would have to push their nose out sometimes all the way out before putting something in their mouth. Their noses swell and turn red when they become excited or angry. But it was the loud honking sounds as a warning when they sense danger, which make their noses stand out straight which was the highlight.

We must have seen about ninety Proboscis Monkeys in total, which means we seen nearly 1/10 of the last Proboscis Monkeys left in the world in the wild. They are so cute and although funny to watch their characteristics, we left with a feeling of sadness not knowing if we would ever see them in the wild again.

They are under serious threat of extinction as their value on the black market is unprecedented for poachers who are only interested in making financial gain. Recent wild fires in the jungle have also reduced their numbers, some of the fires started by man to stop other breeds of monkeys coming close to villages aimed mostly at the macaque monkeys.

While we were watching this rare glimpse into the life of these fascinating monkeys, a very rare Oriental Pied Hornbill was spotted by one of the locals. I don’t get as excited with birds as I do with animals, but this crazy looking bird got me very interested in its bizarre looking beak. It flew from its tree branch right up beside me where we left a bit of banana for it and quickly swooped in to take a bite. A stunning looking bird.

After our experience with the Proboscis Monkeys we went to the Rainforest Discovery Centre. This offers another alternative to walk in the rainforest. There are a number of trails and also a canopy walk, up high in the forest canopy. The canopy took us to the very top of the trees and we could see vast jungle going for miles upon miles in every direction possible.

In my personal view I knew I wouldn’t see any Proboscis Monkeys or Orangutans here as they aren’t stupid. This canopy was constructed to spot the the wildlife from a birds eye view, but I think the construction of this vast walkaway probably sent the animals they wanted to see as far as away as possible. Nonetheless, we did see all sorts of trees, flowers and beautiful views of the jungle.

In the afternoon we went to a feeding platform for Orangutans. Same rules apply, it’s a feeding ground in the middle of a jungle and its purely down to your luck if you see any orangutans.

It turned out to be our lucky day! Waiting for us, even without any food on display was a family of Orangutan, a giant Father and Mother with a tiny small orangutan baby.

Orangutans are currently found in the wild only in the rainforests of Borneo. These extremely intelligent animals, which share 99% of the human DNA, diverged 400,000 years ago. If they wanted to these beautiful primates could kill you in a heartbeat. Built like a machine the Male stands at 8ft not even including its long arms. Between us and the Orangutans was only 20 feet of jungle!

Having signed a disclaimer I didn’t really understand before we seen them we were then warned of the dangerous venomous snakes in this part of the jungle. Extremely camouflaged and love the taste of humans. Great we thought.

Thankfully nothing happened and it’s the risk you have to take when experiencing these amazing animals in the wild. It was a long walk into the jungle and the trees made you feel very confined as they hung around you. Fortunately we seen none.

The experience with the Orangutans was spectacular.

Particularly with the fact there was a small baby with the parents. The male was very boisterous and breathtaking in size as he swung from tree to tree. This was a very rare sight with only a few hundred left in the wild. Unfortunately Orangutans are so seriously close to extinction that even with all the protection already in place they will be extinct by 2019 according to the WWF.

Unfortunately, in addition to illegal logging, the orangutans face multiple other threats. The number of babies being stolen for the pet trade is increasing, and the only way to get a baby is to kill the mother.

After about half an hour watching these huge animals roaming about on a tree, we heard large noises in the distance. Huge trees were swaying from side to side and from nowhere another three huge adults came to see what we were up to. We were in awe at their size and grace.