Sunday, 25 March 2012

Perth, Australia...

Australia is massive, vast, remote and epic in all it's diverse proportions. However, it is sparsely populated; in size it rivals the USA, yet it's population is just a mere 20 million the same as the city of Mumbai, India. It is an ancient land and often looks it; in places its the most eroded, and driest of continents, unforgiving to anyone who treats this land with anything but the utmost respect. The bulk of the country is like this, arid, flat and remote, but, it is also rich in natural resources and minerals that is the source of this countries great economic growth and prosperity. It's these unique qualities that present the countries most beautiful attractions. This faraway island offers the isolation and remoteness like no other country in  the world; from the vastness of the outback with its dazzling salt plains, ever changing landscapes and diverse wildlife and reptiles to  rain forests, The Great Barrier Reef, rich marine life and stunning beaches. In contrast to this natural beauty, it's cities hug the coast line and are relativity new, no older than 200 years and express a youthful optimistic energy. The cities are  social microcosms of music, dance, art and sport an orientation the ozzy's are fiercely proud of, a part of their everyday life which is as famous as the Kangaroo, or their love of a barby with an ice cold beer. In the time of writing this blog I have travelled over 5000 km in just over 6 weeks crossing this vast county by 4x4 from Perth all the way to Sydney; So get ready for an unforgettable ride and adventure through the vastness of Australia...'No Drama's'. 

We arrived at Perth Airport on the 2nd February refreshed and ready for a new chapter on this journey around the world. Laura's Aunty and Uncle, John & Susie picked us up in their 1970's Rolls-Royce, a little gem and a reminder that we had left the developing countries of south east Asia behind for the money and prosperity of Western Australia. I remember walking out of the airport and feeling the sun on my face and looking at a big blue sky... everything is the opposite to England and its summer here in Australia...'get in there'.  We stayed in one of Perth's many suburbs, a place called Woodbridge a very up-market area. John and Susie settled us in and made us feel right at home, and what a home, I mean it was like a mansion, the place had five toilets and we had our own wing. When you have stayed in some of the places we have stayed in over the last 6 months arriving here gave us the distinct feel of Royalty...well almost. We were also greeted by their two big Irish Setters; Morse and Phoebe, they are beautiful dogs, very energetic and inquisitive. They also have a big Ginger cat called TJ who runs the house. The first night I woke up in the early hours to find him lying next me hitting me with his tail and looking me in the eye making that deep purring sound; I think he was letting me know who the boss was in this house.

It sounds almost criminal to say but travelling wipes you out, I mean we were both exhausted by the time we landed in Australia,  physically,  mentally and emotionally. Living out of a backpack for over 6 months constantly on the move soon takes it's toll on you. So for the next two weeks we had a little bit of luxury to fully recharge our batteries and indulge in the things we take for granted back home like having a hot shower, sleeping in a descent bed or having a proper cup of tea while watching some classic DVD's. It was nice to walk the dogs of an evening around the big picturesque lake that surrounds John & Susie's house, that's what is great about Australia, they have so much natural space. However during the second week the usual walk with the dogs turned a little bit more eventful. Phoebe, who is getting old decided to get under the fence and chase the ducks, an old past time of hers. The problem was she forgot that she was old. She swam straight after the ducks and right into the middle of the lake, swimming in circles. After about five minutes it was clear she was in a lot of trouble and she was to tired to swim back. We all watched helplessly for a couple of minutes shouting for her to come back but she was to tired to comprehend the instructions and to tired to act on them. Her head started to go under and she was breathing heavy as she kicked her back legs frantically to stay a float. The next thing I know everyone is looking at me to do something because I was the closest to the lake. So, like a scene out of 'Baywatch' I stripped down to my underpants and took the plunge into the lake. I swam as fast as I could as I knew she only had seconds before she drowned...but I underestimated how hard it was to swim in fresh water and when I got to her I was knackered too. I sucked it up and got her by the neck and struggled back to the bank. It must of been a funny sight to see both me and the dog lying there totally fatigued on the bankside with our tounges hanging out. Well I saved the dog which ment I was in the good book's with Susie all week.

Perth was founded on the great riches found in the soil, most notably the gold booms of the late 19th century. This resulted in places like FremantleFremantle was only a short train ride from where we were staying so we spent the day there on a number of occasions exploring the place; I was impressed by the well-preserved 19th-century buildings, thriving port and history of the place which give it a somewhat colonial timeless feel. The train is a great way to travel around Perth and a day saver allowed us to visit the city regularly and cheaply. Over the two weeks we were in Perth we visited a number of places including Yanchep up in the north, were I saw my first Kangaroo and Mandurah, the sleepy little sea side harbour where I done a spot of fishing. We also walked to Perth's many view points to take in the majestic view points of the Swan River and the city rising in the distance. We had a fulfilling two weeks in Perth, a place I would prefer to visit than live...It feels a little to isolated for me and the weather is always intensely hot most of the year round. The next stop on our journey was east to Melbourne, but, we had no idea of how we would get there. We put an add on 'Gumtree' and made a series of phone calls and as fate would have it, we met a guy called Naider who had a PhD in Physics, his own Subaru 4x4 and more importantly he was keen on much more than just a trip that was a means to an end, he was looking to go on a fulfilling adventure, a journey across the real vastness and remoteness of Australia's outback...a 'road trip'. That sounded good to us. We left on Saturday 18th of February and it was to be one of the best 11 days of my entire life.  

"You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to"
                                                                                                                 -J.R.R Tolkein

Perth City from one of the many view points


Perth Swan River

Another fish caught...Mandurah

Yanchep caves

My first Kangaroo

The lake that I saved Pheobe from drowning in

Morse, Me and Pheobe...Who has the best hair style?

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Bali, Lombok and the Beautiful Gili Islands

After experiencing the beauty of Gunung Bromo the natural step for us was always to continue further east to Bali, then on to it's neighbouring island Lombok using it as a spring board to travel to the Gili islands. There are three islands just north of Lombok; Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air. We had researched a little into these islands and the more we read the more we wanted to go. Long stretches of remote beaches, giant surf against the back drop of volcanic mountains, deep water corals teeming with sharks, rays and giant turtles, beautiful food and no pollution due to no motorised traffic allowed on the island. This done more than wet the appetite. I also wanted to do my last dives in south east Asia, and I was told there was no better place than gorgeous Gili. 

After a long journey, crossing by ferry and then more hours on our cramped public bus, we eventually arrived in Bali. We where dropped off in Kuta, which is a 'lively' resort. Now I use the term lively loosely, its more like the equivalent of Australia's version of what Benidorm is for England. After one evening there, it was all too much for us, even me and Laura felt super old in Kuta. It was a resort full of young, wild and drunken Australians and that was definitely not where we wanted to be, especially in order to embrace Balinese culture. So, the next morning and with out hesitation we hopped on a bus and headed North to a place called Ubud.

I loved Ubud. This beautiful place for me is the real Bali; perched on gentle slopes that lead up to the mountains surrounded by lush paddy fields and palm trees, Ubud remains, retains and practises Balinese culture in all its forms. You can really feel it as you walk around its old cobbled streets, traditional houses, holy temples and feels ancient, untouched. That's not to say that there isn't restaurants and cafes here there are many; the culture here is laid back and chilled out. However, the growing number of traffic, especially mopeds is causing to much congestion on the main roads and consequently far to much lung chocking pollution. We decided to rent some bikes for a couple of days and venture a little bit out of the main town and we were rewarded. The surrounding countryside is unspoiled, untouched by the modern world and it was a joy to ride...well most of the time. I found out what it must of been like for Lance Armstrong on the mountain section of the 'Tour de France; the hills are practically vertical, great for going down but climbing up I felt like my calf's were going to blow up. I loved it really, great work out and a great way to start the day. You have to imagine the views. You are surrounded by beauty. Open green paddy fields and coconut tress glow as the sun beams and the air swells. Storm clouds swirl and gather on the distant horizon, a threat of things to come, its rainy season again. Small villages pop up and the odd school were children play and they all scream and wave frantically as we ride past. Bike rides like that are unforgettable and makes the pain all worth while. Every night the weather closes in for about one to two hours and you experience the most powerful and turbulent storms. I used to sit outside our room under the cover of our balcony roof and watch with amazment, like a young impressionable innocent child in awe at the power of nature. You feel every thud of thunder and shake at the noise of each bolt of lightening, it's an electrical storm of the highest order.

The Temples of Ubud

Bike riding through the serenity of Ubud

The perfect scenery to bike ride through

The power of Nature: The view from our room during an electrical storm
From Ubud we traveled the short journey to the coastal town of Padangbia were we stayed for one night before traveling to Lombok. We where lucky enough to find a gem of a guesthouse here, the actual room was more like an apartment, with a downstairs, upstairs and balcony included. But, the one night we chose to stay, as luck would have it a local wedding was happening next door and the mix of traditional Balinese music and hardcore trance music blasted out until the wee hours. It's funny, intriguing, almost insane that such an eclectic mix of electronic noise appeals to the usually traditional Balinese cultural taste in music.

We set off for the island of Lombok on the 21st January via the slow boat from which I quickly renamed the very very slow boat; it took us 5 hours to travel just 25km...I could have swam it quicker. We could have opted for the speed boat and arrived at Lombok in a mere 90 minutes, but, it cost three times as much, so we decided on the do the math. The journey was quite interesting; despite the hundreds of cockroaches that scurry about playing footsie with your feet, the diabolical safety record and the fact the ferry only has one life boat to accommodate at least 300 people I enjoyed the ride. I indulged in some reading, challenged Laura to a game of 'boy girl' (and got whupped) and spent time on deck starring out to sea lost in thought, in awe of this vast, rough remote blue abyss that makes you feel vulnerable. You really get a sense of the force of nature when you are at the mercy of it. The sea is power, raging with energy and force, but, it also has this mystical, gentler side that draws you in; the smell of the sea, the spray, the rhythmic sound of the waves crashing and the silence...timeless. 

We eventually arrived at Lombok port and got on a minibus to Senggigi, where we were greeted by a man called Abdul at his tourist office 'Lombok Smile'. He offered us a package to scuba dive on the Gili Islands and also stay in Senggigi for few days, which was perfect for us. We usually don't book anything in a package, we prefer to do everything as we go, but, this sounded good...but as I was to find out very soon, it good. We stayed in a local village area with a traditional room and this is the place where our lessons began in the Indonesian language. All Abdul's friends hung out at the guesthouse and his friend Dedi owned the place. We would sit and chat to them for hours and worked on perfecting our knowledge of the Indonesian language. We spent the next three days, wandering around the place, eating local street food, engaging with locals and again I ended up having a little jam with this cool little artist. By the end of our time in Senggigi, I could have a small conversation with local people, asking how they are, saying my name, asking their name, saying my country of origin, asking where they come from and talking about food or the weather. I could order my food in Indonesian and ask for the bill, but, more importantly I could order a ice cold beer...quality.

Jamming with a cool little artist

It's good to get back on the bass
We headed over to Gili Trawangan on Tuesday 24th January, the furthest and most lively of the three Gili Islands, by a small fisherman boat. The boat should carry around 30 people, but the Indonesians don't worry to much about passenger safety and the day we crossed over, they crushed over 50 people on. And in the middle of the boat they loaded  it with a stock of beer, water and other goods being delivered to the islands adding  to the weight and danger. The waves where very choppy and slammed into the boat as we crossed the open water; the Bali sea that runs between the Indian and Paciffic oceans is really powerful and untamed, very unnearving. Thankfully, we arrived safe and sound to Trawangan and the initial quietness and open sands welcomed us with open hands. We wandered along the track around the island and bumped into a local guy who worked at a guesthouse. In the end, we walked with him and went to check out and stay at this guesthouse called Dua Nina. It was clean and basic and a good price for us too. All water on the island is cold sea water, as there is no fresh water on Trawangan, so plenty of ice cold sea water showers and loads of mosquitoes. 

On the beach of Gili Trwangan

Crystal turquoise blue water-the island to my left is Gili Meno

A fishing boat moored on the beach a sign of the power of the sea

My view every day-beautiful

'Life is to important to be taken seriously'

I was here for diving, so I went and found 'Lombok Dive' centre, and met for the first time the Divemaster, a guy called Mohni; as circumstances would have it we were to become good friends. I showed him my receipt, payment for 4 dives purchased from 'Lombok Smile Tours' costing me £140.00 and told him I would like to dive on Thursday and Friday. I was really excited and I arrived at 10am on the Thursday ready to dive. This is when the fun started. I could tell by the way Mohni greeted me that something was up. He told me that 'Lombok Smile Tours' doesn't pay him any money for diving and hasn't done so for over 12 months. He basically sells the dives on the main land but doesn't forward the money onto Lombok dives, which is a different company. Abdul is a con artist and the receipt he gave me was as worthless as the paper it was written on. I couldn't believe it, ripped off again. I was so angry, but Mohni is a good guy. He said that I wasn't the first person, and wont be the last. After speaking with him for a while he said he would let me do two dives today in return that I go with him over to Lombok and confront Abdul and get my money back. I done my two dives and Laura decided to stay on Gili Trawangan while I went over to Lombok to try and get my money back, with the plan to get the water boat back to Gili during the night. It is a 40 minute boat ride to Lombok and a 40 minute drive back over to Senggigi and during the journey I was thinking, this guy could be mafia, what happens if I get the police involved and he is paying the police...I felt a little anxious and all the dive crew were quiet, it was like i was going into the unknown. When I got to his office it was already dark and the wind had really picked up. There was already two young German girls at his office who had both been ripped off with nearly £1000. They had got a flight over from Bali and had been hunting him down for a week... they were fuming. He eventually turned up; this little sly looking man, who looked like the Joker out of Batman with all his make up off. He was sweating and he looked as if the world was going to end, sullen pressured face. We gave him until 8 pm to get us all a refund or we told him we were getting the police. It was tense, no one was talking, we just sat looking at this pitiful man. Then, we had a power failure and total black out. It just added to the atmosphere, it was a strange scene, the lights of the cars going passed lit up his face for a moment, a shadow and I kept glancing at his dejected cunning face. It was crazy...I was thinking; what the hell am I doing here? It was only two hours ago when I was diving in beautiful waters and having tea with Laura relaxed on the beach. Now look at me. I am sitting in an blacked out office in the middle of Indonesia with the joker, two German girls going crazy in that efficient totalitarian German tone, while outside I was aware of a growing gang of lads by the door, who at any moment were going to kill us all because the guy were integrating was a Mafia kingpin. I was getting a little anxious to say the least. I checked the weight of a chair next to me, so I could use it as a possible weapon if anyone attacks us, but,  to my surprise it was made out off solid oak or something and weighed a tonne...why was the chair my only weapon so damed heavy?

As we are sitting there watching the clock, two other girls came in and complained about that the hotel they booked with Abdul. It didn't take them long to put two and two together. So there was now five of us and he owed us a total of 1,600 pound. He was a con artist and his luck had finally run out. We were in the police station for ages, half of them were laughing and the rest were playing Fifia on the computer...crazy, it was like a scene out of Police Academy.  I just wanted to get out of this situation, because you don't know who to trust. Mohni turned up and promised me all my dives tomorrow so I was gone...leave the Germans to it. By now the weather had changed dramatically, it was gale force wind so I had to stay on Lombok. I could not get back to Laura who was on Gili and by now a little worried. She either thought I had sank on the boat or I was swimming with fishes after messing around with the Indonesian Mafia. My dive master booked me into a family guest house and he paid for it all. It was a great little place. The owner and his wife took a liking to me and he fed some beautiful chicken and then pulled out a bottle of famous Lombok palm wine. It's funny how a normal day can turn into a little adventure with a great ending; 'All's well that ends well'.

The diving was fantastic, although I never saw any sharks, the amount of diverse life and coral was impressive. The turtle is protected in this part of Indonesia, thus attracts hundreds of them and I was lucky enough to swim with some giant turtles on the reef. They are so laid back, just watching them swim with the current is an amazing sight. We dived a number of sights including Bounty's Wreck and Meno Slope at depths of 18m - 24m. One of the best things about diving is that you meet so many great people from all around the world. After my little escapade with Abdul all the dive crew treated me like I was one of the them. It was as if I had stood up to a bully for them and straight away I felt a new found respect bestowed upon was a pleasure to dive with such a humble and funny group of people. The feeling of being under water surrounded by shoals of fish in their blue world is one of the most free and exhilarating feelings. On my last dive a couple from Australians dived with us and one of them took an underwater camera on the dive. She took some amazing pictures which gives a unique insight of this underwater Paradise. Enjoy!!!

Ok! Me enjoying the he freedom of diving

Lion Fish

Add caption

A species of Cuttle Fish

Hawksbill Turtle

Finding Nemo-I love these fish, they are so protective of their coral home

"I suffer from short term memory loss. It runs in my family... At least I think it does... Where are they?”

A shoal moving effortlessly like a single entity

Moray eel

A tiny little crab

Me diving next to a shy Turtle that is chiling on the coral just below me

We had to make our way back to Bali by the 2nd February in order to catch our flight to Perth, Australia. However, one of the ferry's (the same one that took us to Lombok from Bali) sank in rough sea's. This resulted in all boat's being ordered by the Harbour Master to remain at port. We were in effect stuck on Gili Trawangan. It was an agonising wait, but, thankfully after three days we got on a speed boat back to Bali were we spent another couple of great days relaxing and eating in our favourite little family run restaurant.

Indonesia was an unforgettable experience; rich in history and as diverse as the 17,508 islands that make up this country, it was the perfect way to end our journey around south east Asia and begin our next leg...Australia. 

Good Bye Bali