That’s The Funny Thing About Overlanding Australia…

We spend our evenings counting stars and spotting satellites, soaking up the refreshing chill in the air that finally sets in about an hour after sunset. Traveling through the north-western outback in Australia, in winter, is a traveller’s dream. There are no rains to dampen your day-long riding and even if the midday temps get you hot under the collar, you know there will soon be a respite.

img_1643

It’s a fine line, in this big land, between perfect and downright miserable. We seemed to have crossed it about 200kms before we hit Exmouth. In the preceding weeks, the days had still been just a tad too cool and the nights downright frosty. The elusive ‘good night sleep’ in the tent, for me, happens above 8 degrees Celsius. I’ve become a bit of a princess like that. The days of seeking out suffering in order to feel ‘adventurous’ are way behind me, thank you very much. But when you’re in Oz-land one has little choice in the matter. In order to be ‘somewhere specific’ at ‘just the right time of year’ means the in-between’s probably gonna suck. And so it was with Perth, a city we left a little too late. But the amazing news is that along with my fervent displeasure at having to suffer the wrath of bad climate emerged an immense pleasure at riding at breakneck speed to move on. Super.Pixie.2 demands no less than a cruisy 110km/hr – right on the speed limit – and inches just above that when I’m not looking. The cheeky devil.

But the amazing news is that along with my fervent displeasure at having to suffer the wrath of bad climate emerged an immense pleasure at riding at breakneck speed to move on. Super.Pixie.2 demands no less than a cruisy 110km/hr – right on the speed limit – and inches just above that when I’m not looking. The cheeky devil.

on-road-to-exmouth-8

Before too long, we find ourselves in the middle of nowhere. This too has the habit of sneaking up on us. One moment there’s a town, traffic, crowds, shops. Next? Nada. A seemingly endless stretch of flat horizons that runs into the thousands of kms, a bunch of retirees in campers experiencing what has become a rite of passage and an insane number of truck drivers on a mission.

In a nation that is THIS big and with the incredible expense of domestic air transport, trucks and their hardy drivers have become the backbone of the local economy. Since turning east and heading to the heart of the mineral-enriched Pilbara region, it’s 28-axle road monsters filled to the brim with all manner of prized minerals which keep us company all day long. They feed on iron ore, gold, nickel, copper and zinc, and their hunger seems insatiable. Western Australia boasts half of the mineral deposits of all of Australia and so it also reasons that here is where we find the most incredible kaleidoscope of colours, compliments of Mother Nature.

img_1602

As we ride along one morning admiring the change from drab-brown to intense firey red, a multi-coloured canvas takes shape befofre our eyeszon, I imagine my delight being similar to those who sat in front of the TV, all those years ago, and saw the picture suddenly change from black and white to colour.

Just like magic.

p_20170803_142549_1

on-road-to-exmouth-53

img_1577 img_1578

on-road-to-exmouth-2

The unsung endemic wildlife species not mentioned in any guide book, the grey nomad, continues to thrive even this far north. This impressively large group of retired couples makes up an entire social and economic class on the road. They’ve raised their kids, run their businesses, exhausted their careers and spend their twilight years roaming their country slowly and relaxingly. Some for a few months every year, some continuously. Some for whom the caravan is a holiday-mode of transport, others who’ve literally sold up everything and gone mobile full-time.

Many seem to ping-pong between children living in different states, many admittedly content not to be stuck with grandchild-raising duties. Quite a few boast rigs that would make your head spin. much to their children’s chagrin, they’ve spent their life savings and all their worldly possession to afford large and very comfortable caravans. These oversized yoghurt tubs on wheels provide much of the transient business in rural Australia and many towns are busy installing bio-toilet dumping spots and parking lots in order to accommodate them and entice them to stay for a day or two, hopeful that they’ll spend boatloads at the local pub and supermarket. They usually do.

When we set off from Sydney and all along the eastern and southern states, we used an app called WikiCampsAU a very popular travel tool here, to seek out suitable bush camp spots. But as it happens, our idea of bush camping, and the grey nomad’s, are often polar opposites. After a full day on the bike, a bush camp for us is a little corner of quiet, some shaded shelter, and a little distance from the main road. For the great majority of local travellers, however, a bush camp must have at toilet block, several rubbish bins, be built as close to the road as possible, and phone connection thanks. So what ends up happening is that a caravan of caravans ends up overtaking every spot mentioned on Wikicamps, and since the Nullarbor, we’ve actually been using it to ensure we miss those specific pinned spots instead.

Aside from freezing temps, there are other things which can sour my sleep, namely a generator that’s left to run all night, radios and TVs on full blast until the wee hours of the morning and incessantly inane drunken conversations a metre from our tent. Can really do without those, to be honest. Because as big as the Outback is, trust me that it can shrink in the blink of an eye.

Luckily, there are plenty of spots yoghurt tubs can’t get to.

img_1616

In this remote region of Australia, which stretches for half a million square kilometres and boasts only about 50,000 inhabitants, we encounter but a handful of foreigner overlanders.

on-road-to-exmouth-17 on-road-to-karijini-3

After all these years and given all the incredible highlights, my favourite part of the day is still the end of it. I love getting off the bike after a full day’s ride, searching for a super secluded spot, collecting firewood and exploring the ground for the millions of insects who seem to happily thrive here. That’s the thing about the arid and deceptively lifeless plains: life is everywhere. At night, if you turn on your head torch and shine at the ground at just the right angle, you’ll see life staring back at you in the form of countless pairs of curious translucent eyes. They scared the beejeesus out of me the first time I spotted them. I thought our tent area was surrounded by snakes with mini head torches on. But turns out that as darkness falls, thousands of tiny little beige spiders come out of the woodworks and their tiny burrows, no doubt as surprised to see us as we are to see them. I’ve even gotten used to the thumping sound of hopping roos in the middle of the night. We hear them thump-thump-thumping towards us, stopping to figure out what on earth we are, and then thumping off into the darkness.

img_1590 img_1563 img_1572

We dash into the Karijini National Park and soak up the visual feast for a few days. It is outlandishly beautiful out there and our eyes dance in delight at the shapes of the park’s gorges and peaks, not to mention the array of hues. We chat to a lovely young couple about the impressive number of highlights in this country which one really shouldn’t miss. And together, we also commiserate over the thousands of kilometres of endless and monotonous plains that separate them all.

karijini

For the first time in three years, it feels like we’re actually travelling. Not merely meandering and living on the move as we have done for so long, but on a bonafide motorbike journey. Our resolve to circumnavigate Australia within the limits of Chris’ one-year tourist visa undoubtedly adding a tinge of travel angst and excitement, the kind we only really ever experienced when crossing China.

In every other country we’ve travelled through, the options for onward travel were always multiple. If we had to move on swiftly, for whatever reason, we could simply just choose a land border into the next country and get on with it. But Australia’s insistence at being sea-locked makes this a tad difficult. We’ll try to apply for a visa extension in Darwin in October and face the possibility of one being denied. If that’s the case, we could do a visa run to Bali (not the most horrid plan in the world, if you ask me) but if we feel our time has come then we’ll simply move on, having only scratched the surface of the country in a year. Mind-boggling.

on-road-to-exmouth-57

If there were to be a serious gripe about travelling through the western half of Australia, aside the astonishing size of the state, it would have to be the painful expense of it all. Coupled with the fact that if the government could find a way to charge travellers for the clean air they breathe they certainly would, the sheer cost of travel in WA makes this one of the most expensive overland regions we’ve ever come across. Ironically enough, fuel price is the only reasonable aspect of travel here yet the fact you need ginormous amounts of it to get anywhere, even the relatively low per-litre-cost doesn’t help things much.

Australia is renowned for existing in a financial bubble of sorts, the kind that didn’t even really burst during the global financial crisis of a few years back. Prices are outrageous just about everywhere, compared with the rest of the world, and although it may be relative to the kind of high incomes afforded in all the major capital cities, it certainly loses all relations in the countryside, where prices are at least 30% more expensive than in cities yet incomes nowhere near as high. We’ve shopped in some outback IGAs and wondered how locals could even afford to live there. Ghost towns once famous for mining or logging now left almost derelict bar a few poor souls who’ve nowhere to go and food to buy.

Outback towns certainly boast their own unique charm but there are a million reasons no-one wants to live there. It’s quite eerie to walk through a ghost town that is still, somewhat, clinging to life.

3-wheatbelt-way-61 3-wheatbelt-way-62 3-wheatbelt-way-55

Then there are the rare economic anomalies: places that are still in the middle of nowhere and with few inhabitants, yet are nearby special attractions so attract a healthy dose of tourism traffic. Tourist towns like Coral Bay and Exmouth hold their captive audiences hostage to extortionate ransoms. We lasted less than an hour in Coral Bay. The campsite was full and the overflow campsite (which was the car park at the beach) came at a rate of $50 per parking bay. No joke. We rode out of town and took a 20km dirt road which we’d hope would lead us to the beach. Before hitting the sandy shoes, we found a dude in a kiosk and a STOP HERE! sign. ‘That’ll be $20 a head thanks’ he said. He repeated it three times, each time louder. I stood there as a stunned mullet, unbelieving of the fact that the local council would put a booth here in the first place. Poor dude just thought I hadn’t heard him.

Coral Bay was indeed lovely but it was also immensely overcrowded and expensive.

on-road-to-exmouth-52

It’s no wonder then that the only foreign travellers we’ve met in the last month have been a couple of groups of backpackers who are sharing one rental camper or one recently-purchased 4WD. They say sharing is caring but here in WA, sharing is also travel-surviving.

This thriving Aussie-senior-travel group bodes well for all outback towns, but not so much for anyone who doesn’t fit into the mold. They are, perhaps more than anything else, responsible for the high price of all things tourism-related in the outback. They see nothing untoward about a charge of $50 for a parking spot and $5 for a coffee, and just about all with whom we have spoken seem completely oblivious to the disparity in living costs between Australia and everywhere else. It does make sense, in a way. If you spend $200,000 on a campervan in a country such as this (where driving to a neighbouring country in impossible) chances are you’re probably not all that interested in overseas travel anyway.

The only discouraging part is that their lack of knowledge and understanding leads them to be particularly nasty to young foreign backpackers. They’re all stingy, they say: if they can’t fork out $50 a head for a pub meal when they come here then they shouldn’t travel. The poor victims of the prejudice, by the way, are the same foreign backpackers who pick Australian fruit and vegies every year. The same backpackers on 407 working-holiday visas most Australians loathe, whose backbreaking work contributes to 30% of the agricultural economy of the country. between stints of backbraking work they try and see as much of the country as possible, trying to avoid $50 meals in pubs, naturally.

 

img_1599

“There’s so much to see here, the country is so huge, you could drive around Australia for years and not see it all….why the need to go anywhere else?” This is something many local travellers have told us time and again. And every time I hear it, it still catches me by surprise. It’s a concept I simply don’t understand. And actually, forget the expense of it, the only true downside to spending a year overlanding Australia is that you can cover tens of thousands of kilometres and still not experience any kind of cultural or historical variation. This is the most ethereal Australia travel experience of them all.

Within a 1,000km radius of Chris’ hometown in Germany, you can visit 32 countries. That’s 32 distinct cultures, 32 histories, 32 languages, 32 cuisines and countless diverse natural landscapes. We are both quite fond of diversity and I suspect that although we are thoroughly enjoying our journey here, the lack of diversity is what will eventually entice us onwards. We have now covered 12,000km in Oz, more than we covered in Europe through 12 countries and more than we covered through all of Central Asia. By the time we’re done here we will have probably ridden 50% of our total trip distance in one country alone.

It’s worth mentioning that the mentality that there is enough to see and do here to last a lifetime (so why bother travel abroad) is not necessarily unique to Australia. It’s a common trait of many who live in incredibly big nations.

For now, Chris and I are relishing exploring this country one kilometre at a time. We’ve resorted to our old trick of thinking merely one section forward at a time. The Australian bush is still one of the most unique and surreal regions on earth. I suspect it’ll be quite a while before we do exhaust our curiosity here.

on-road-to-exmouth-71

I recently applied for a potential dogsit in Broome and the lady owner just replied this morning. ‘I’d never let bikies look after my furbabies!’ That was it. A one-line reply. I chuckle. I wonder how many Hell’s Angel members would have gone to the trouble of setting up a profile on TrustedHousesitters and, moreover, how many would have applied for a sit with a blind Chihuahua and three-legged poodle. Normally, I’d be inclined to enlighten the lady as to the wondrous and VERY VARIED blend of people who ride motorbikes and overland Australia but, today, I simply can’t be bothered. She can keep her misconception.

I have stars to count.

Posted in Overlanding, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When the shit hits the fan – just open your arms wide, shut your trap, and go with the flow

Three months. Just three months have passed since my last blog and our resurrection of Pixie…and I’m experiencing a severe case of dejapoo.

I have a feeling we’ve been through this shit before…

Puck, dead as a door knob on the side of the road, north of Perth

Puck, dead as a door knob on the side of the road, north of Perth

Our travels over the last three months have been rather blissful. Obvs, up until this point, smart ass. Leaving Melbourne behind after making that somewhat painful decision to postpone our trip to Tasmania, we found ourselves leaving everything behind. The stress of Pixie’s breakdown, the frustrations, the worry and yes, even dreams of Tasmania. The immense relief at just having my wheels back in order was enough to restore my spirits. I spent the first few weeks anticipating…something. I always have, with my beast. Yet within a month I’d finally relaxed, confident that Super.Pixie.2 felt as revitalised as I did. She runs differently, now, she prefers to purr along at 100 rather than 75, she’s zippier and far smoother than she’s ever been.

I guess Puck became resentful of all the attention showered on new-and-improved-steed.

The glorious coast of South Australia

The glorious coast of South Australia

Australia's obsession with all things BIG known no bounds...

Australia’s obsession with all things BIG knows no bounds…

Some people travel to the ends of the world to find themselves. If only I'd known how close to home I was...

Some people travel to the ends of the world to find themselves. If only I’d known how close to home I was…

1-sa-2

In hindsight, the choice to skip Tassie altogether proved to be a genius one. I froze my nuts off meandering through the Wheatbelt Way last week and detested the rain dance we had to endure in the southwestern corner of WA at the end of April. I dread to think we would have been forced to miss out on all this beauty because of the encroaching winter cold.

3-cape-le-grand-6

3-cape-le-grand-3

Western Australia has astounded me in ways I never thought possible. At the risk of sounding judgemental, the coast on this side of the country totally shits all over the east. Lost in this remote, unspoilt and inherently rugged world, I feel as far removed from the overly built-up east coast as if I were in the Atacama Desert. A friend recently posted photos of Surfers Paradise on Facebook. The skyscrapers, the people, the civilisation. I let out a groan. I don’t think I could ever look at an east coast beach the same way again. Not after discovering what’s on the other side.

The spectacular Cape Le Grand National Park

The spectacular Cape Le Grand National Park

3-cape-le-grand-1 3-cape-le-grand-5 3-cape-le-grand-2

We’re as happy as a couple of pigs rolling around in the proverbial youknowwhat. Our days are spent exploring side tracks, quaint little towns, finding 1001 glorious bushcamp sites and nudging forward at literally only 100km a day. There’s just so much to discover here, so many distractions, so much startling natural beauty. Yet winter is coming and neither one of us is keen on too much suffering nowadays, so we make a right-hand turn and head up to Perth for a month of housesits, work, and even a sprinkle of socialisation. We catch up with friends, mind baby whippets and I – surprise surprise – bake everything under the sun for a whole month.

4-perth-3 4-perth-1

By the time we leave Perth the mornings are positively freezing yet we decide on a Wheatbelt Way loop suggested to us by new friends Tam and Xander, of Overlander Adventure Equipment fame. It’s gloriously quiet, out there. Apparently, we were the only idiots camping out there on what was arguably the coldest week of the year. I made a resolve, a couple of years ago, that I no longer do -2 but riding through Australia we feel this incessant nagging thought: will we ever get another chance to see this? To go there? To do that? Trust me, overlanders who don’t admit to occasionally suffering from FOMO are lying to you. Of course we do. It may not last long, and we’ve become apt at reasoning that ‘we can’t possibly do/see/discover it all’ and moving on, yet that inherent need to just see what’s around the corner is ever-present.

5-wheatbelt-way-4 5-wheatbelt-way-5 5-wheatbelt-way-6 5-wheatbelt-way-1 5-wheatbelt-way-2 5-wheatbelt-way-3

So now here we are, on the side of the road about 400km north of Perth. Our loop has come to an abrupt end just as we’d ridden north enough to wake up to 10 degrees Celsius. Bugger.

The funny thing is that we ain’t even that stressed, to be honest. Our conversation went something like this:

C: Puck is dead. He just died.

L: Oh. That’s unfortunate…

24 hours later

C: Ok, he’s really dead. Maybe I’ve cracked a valve. It’s serious. We’ll need to get towed back to Perth. We’ll probably be backtracked for a bit.

L: Right. Never mind. I’ll bake some more. Fancy some lunch?

That was it, basically. A call for help to Tam and Xander, a long ride day and here we sit, with a fresh loaf of thyme and garlic bread baking in the oven. Dejapoo can sometimes be a welcomed relief. Oh yeah, whatever, been there, fixed that. She’ll be right.

Because sometimes, you just have to really roll in that pile of crap to find your true zen.

6-puck-breakdown-2 6-puck-breakdown-3 6-puck-breakdown-4

We’ve now spent two beautiful weeks with Tam and Xander. We’ve chatted, relaxed, gone riding, celebrated my birthday and probably piled on an extra couple of kilos each. Or possibly just me. It’s been an absolute highlight spending time with them and getting to know them better. Those silver linings – the ones we already knew to await  – have been flooding us from every side. Two more weeks of work, two more weeks of rest and two more weeks with beautiful people What more could you ask for out of a shitty breakdown, I ask?

Puck is back in business with a new valve and new piston rings thanks to a great mechanic friend of Xander’s, and I’ve had a chat to Pixie to make sure she’s also doing fine and not contemplating any tit-for-tat reprisals. She’s had two lovely ride days, her chain has been polished and I’m contemplating dropping a spoonful of Nutella in her tank to make sure she’s as happy as can be. That normally works for me.

So north here we come, aye?

Again.

 

 

 

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Getting nowhere fast. That’s travelling in Australia for ya!

‘I have a crazy story for you…’ I told the young police constable behind the desk.

‘Oh goodie!’ he replies ‘I love crazy stories!’

And so it begins. The long and arduous task to try and locate the individual who, all those years ago, abandoned a 1996 BMW F650 at a motorbike workshop in Melbourne. It’s been standing there for years, they tell me. So long, in fact, that’s it’s been there longer than the longest employee has worked there.

‘About 10 years, I reckon’ I’d been told.

She looks good. Well, she actually doesn’t. She looks like she’s been sitting in the back of a workshop collecting dust for 10 years, but you know…she looks good. If the dash is right, she has only 27,000km on her clock. A ‘spring chicken’, one would say.

As far as crazy stories are concerned, this one takes the cake.

Our friends Jonas and Ellen are convinced that this is a case of fortuitous time travelling. Just as Pixie broke down near the port of Melbourne, I travelled back 10 years, and brought a beaten up old beemer to Melbourne, and abandoned it there for me to find later. How nice would that be?

This insane coincidence is only part of a bigger picture, one which actually played out a lot more painfully than I now remember. It takes time, they say, time to ascertain what on earth to do with an abandoned motorbike. Legalities must be considered and procedures must be followed. Someone tried to ‘rid’ the workshop of the bike a few years ago, but the whole procedure was chucked in the ‘too hard’ basket when it became obvious that ‘reasonable efforts to locate the owner’ would have meant visiting the local police station, the Victoria Roads and Traffic Authority, and on and on and on…

And the bike stayed put, right there. Just waiting.

You must admit...that's a good looking engine!

You must admit…that’s a good looking engine!

‘So I’ve asked them if I could take on the job of locating the owner on their behalf’ I concluded to the young constable.

‘You’re right’ he said ‘It’s a frigging crazy story’

It takes weeks to go through the process. To cross every t and dot every i. This dude has got to be the most difficult to find person in the universe. Everything comes up blank.

By the last visit to the police station, the constable tells me the little information we have now gathered – that the bike was registered 10 years ago to a PO Box in a country Victorian town – points at the man either being a seasonal farm worker from god-knows-anywhere in Australia (or he could even be from overseas) or simply someone who doesn’t want to be found. The bike was last registered many years ago, has never been reported stolen and is under no dispute.

‘There are plenty of folks in the country who live off the grid and keep a low profile. I don’t think this guy’s gonna come looking for his bike. As far as we’re concerned we say the bike is free to go. You’ve done enough’

As nice as it was to hear those words from the police, I was crushed. I wish I could find the guy. I wish I knew who he was so I could contact him, offer him money for the wreck, and finish this once and for all. We’ve been stuck in Melbourne for 5 weeks now. There’s no suitable second-hand engine in Australia, and importing one from abroad is just not feasible. And all this wait, anyway, has been based on a hunch. A hunch that whatever problem spurred this guy to bring the bike to a workshop, it had nothing to do with the engine.

After all this hassle, we still don’t know if the engine even turns.

‘Look, we really have no idea. He could’ve brought it in for a broken headlight, for all we know. The only thing we know for sure is that he brought it here, and never picked it up’ the manager of the workshop said.

Ultimately though, it’s his decision to make. The bike was ‘abandoned’ on their property, not mine. They take their time and consider their option. Also their risks.

I offer to write a letter to the workshop, stating I’d take delivery of the bike and that the owner – whoever he may be – could simply contact me if he were to ever show up.

That seemed to work.

Pixie being delivered to the operating theatre (ie. a friend's garage) for her much-needed transplant

Pixie being delivered to the operating theatre (ie. a friend’s garage) for her much-needed transplant

How I initially came across this bike is a crazy story in its own right but that’s a story for another time…

Let the transplant begin…

day-2-3 day-1-22 day-1-29 day-1-37

They say that every misfortune hides a silver lining – and although I must admit to feeling quite down in the dumps when Pixie broke down – it took merely a day to discover ours.

We’d met Colin and Kaye in Dali, China, nearly 3 years ago. We’d had a great time together back then, sharing wonderful conversations and bottles of red wine, and left with promises of a ‘cup of coffee together’ whenever we were to come through Melbourne.

Here we were in Dali, along with our friend, Michael.

china

‘That’s the longest cup of coffee I’ve ever had!’ says Colin cheekily as we knead and roll our fresh bread dough. It’s our thing now, cooking together. Well, me cooking, mostly, and Colin moseying around me expectantly. So what shall we have for tea then, dear? And off we’ll go raiding pantry and fridge and coming up with 101 menu variations before finally settling on one. Except for Friday nights. Friday night is junk food night. Friday night we have sausages and potatoes wedges.

Colin brought out the big guns to celebrate Chris' birthday: his bright blue satin bow tie

Colin brought out the big guns to celebrate Chris’ birthday: his bright blue satin bow tie

Colin and Kaye and their small tribe of furry babies have been our saving grace. They’ve not only extended their ‘coffee invitation’ without batting an eyelid, but they’ve been our emotional saviours too. They’ve nurtured us and kept our spirits up, they’ve embraced us into their family and never once made us feel that we were intruding in their wonderfully private lives, although I’m sure we have. We have so much in common with these two crazy kids, that I know how they’d feel having their togetherness disturbed. Yet they lovingly put up with our crazy antics. Our shared love of all thngs furry made life together easy and fun.

img_0730 img_0731

 

We celebrated Chris’ birthday at home, with Colin’s daughter and son-in-law, and a fantastic array of thoughtful presents which beautifully captured just how well we’d gotten to know each other. It’s quite surreal arriving at someone’s house as ‘travel acquaintances’ and leaving their home as really, really good friends. We just love these guys to bits.

The men doing their men-liest poses

The men doing their men-liest poses

Quite the apt borthday present for the coffee-addicted

Quite the apt birthday present for the coffee-addicted

Along with Chris and Kaye, we’ve adopted their extended family and it’s with Colin’s son, Ben, that Chris gets to working on the Pixie heart transplant.

day-2-20 day-2-19

All the while Ben’s partner Julie, and I, supervised proceedings. And sipped vino. As you do.

day-1-68

Somehow, the fact that the bike started on first go didn’t seem to surprise anyone. After all the waiting, and working, and struggling, and swapping, it just seemed preposterous that the engine would turn out to be a dud. Murphy’s an asshole sometimes, we all know that, but I couldn’t possibly be the only one who thinks Pixie’s earned her stripes…and a well-deserved stint of seriously good luck.

Taking the old engine apart we unveiled the truth about the work that was done on the bike back in Java, Indonesia. You’ll remember that Pixie’s engine seized near Surakarta, and that in a desperate attempt to reach Bali, we put the bike in the hands of a mechanic neither one of us really liked. Roby, the guy who owns Superbiker Moto Indonesia in Surakarta came across as an absolutely arrogant idiot when we first met him, and 9 months later it turns out to also be a cheat. Although he kept us in Surakarta for a week, raving on and on about all the ‘kung-fu mechanic work’ he had to do to fix the bike – which involved a new piston, new valves and new rings, according to him – it turns out the only thing he did (and which the bike needed) was to change the rings. But of course, he charged us for the lot. That’s what you get as a farang aka: a walking ATM. First chance they get, they’ll take you – and your bike – for a ride. Oh well, various reviews and warnings have been posted online now, so anyone who searches for his shop will be fairly warned. But I have more important things to worry about than some random and unimportant idiot. Besides…if this story isn’t a beautiful example of karma, I don’t know what is.

We’re on the road again!!

img_0943

 

img_0936

img_0938

We’ve been on the road now for almost 6 weeks. We’ve followed the southern coastline from Melbourne to Adelaide, and we’ve enjoyed a visual feast that you wouldn’t believe. All without any mechanical issues. The first couple of weeks I rode on eggshells, expecting a breakdown any minute. I simply don’t remember the last time we rode without repairs for this long. But the feeling is slowly dissipating and we’re enjoying being back in the saddle, and nature, immensely.

These landscapes are sensational.

img_0860 beauchamp-falls-walk-28

Now we’re getting ready to cross the Nullarbor Plain, the largest karst limestone tableau in the world (because in this country, they don’t do anything small). Just on 1,200km separate Ceduna in South Australia and Norseman, in Western Australia, 147km of which hold the record for being the ‘longest stretch of straight road in the world’. It’s not a particularly hard crossing, I’m told. The road is tarred all the way, and there’s a refuelling roadhouse every 300kms or so. The biggest dangers, apparently, are road trains and boredom whilst riding!

The importance of this crossing is more emotional than physical, for us. So far, we’ve ridden almost 5,000km in this country, yet when I take a look at the map and see what we’ve ridden to get from Sydney to Ceduna, it just seems like a dot on the page. It will be absolutely amazing to finally be on the opposite side of the country! Australia is a colossally huge island, everyone knows that, but it’s only once you attempt to actually cross it that you fully realise what that means. You just ride, and ride, and then ride some more, and never flamin’ get anywhere!

So yes, we may be getting nowhere terribly fast in this monster of a country…but we’re finally having some real fun out there.

Stay tuned folks…next stop, Western Australia!

xx

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle (or a Ferry to Tasmania)

“She’s dead. Pixie is dead. We’re not going anywhere.”

I let that thought sink in for just a moment, before I throw myself on the ground, right there on the footpath, and proceed to have the mother of all hissy fits. There’s no 3-year-old on the planet who could out-fit me, right now.

I’m still holding my mobile phone. I stare down at the message that just a moment ago came through from our friends, Jonas and Ellen, of Intothefar fame.

6.58am “Morning! Hope you are good and almost here? We’ve accidently queued in…”

I envy them. They’re sitting in their perfectly working Landy, big smiles on their faces, queuing to board the ferry to Tasmania at the Station Pier in Melbourne. They’re blissfully unaware that, as far as we are concerned, the shit has just hit the fan. Quite possibly, literally.

We’re supposed to be there too, joining them on the 9 hour voyage across the Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania ferry. We’d planned this trip for months. Except now, at 6.59am, we are 10kms away from the port, sitting in a gutter, staring incredulously at Pixie and her now dismantled oil pump.

Chris shakes his head

“There are bits of copper metal in the oil. That’s not a good sign. I think the engine is kaput.”

Oh fuck-a-duck.

I am not superstitious by any stretch of the imagination but this colossal stuff-up probably only happened because of something I said last night, to our friends Colin and Kaye. Over a sumptuous dinner of sauteed chicken and veggies, I was reiterating some of Pixie’s antics over the last couple of years.  And I specifically mentioned that although Pixie has had her fair share of breakdowns, she’d never actually forced us to miss anything. We’ve never missed a visa deadline, a meeting, a border crossing, a flight. Nothing. Amongst all the shit, we’ve always managed to make it on time, wherever we were meant to be, at any given time. Well yes, except for bloody right now, obviously.

We’ve just missed our ferry to Tasmania.

p_20170128_070633

Our Sydney sojourn

Our introduction to life in Australia has been exceptionally busy and immensely enjoyable. We landed in Sydney in late October and proceeded to spend the next 10 weeks catching up with friends, devouring insane amounts of excellent food (I had forgotten, really, all about Sydney’s gastronomic scene) and having a wonderful Christmas. Poor Chris coped incredibly well with meeting after meeting with all my dearest and nearest. I’m tickled pink that he’s finally met all my closest friends and all the wonderful people who were such a pivotal part of my life growing up.

Sydney is as resplendent as I’d always remembered.

p_20161106_111601

Crossing the Great Dividing Range

And then off we went, exploring the Snowy Mountains and the Alpine National Park bordering the states of NSW and Victoria. I had once driven to Melbourne in just a single day, and here we were taking two whole weeks to zigzag our way down south. Stunning scenery and our first wildlife encounters were food for the soul. We rode, we camped, he fished, I cooked…aaahhh…it was pure heaven.

(PS. I shall now include several gorgeous photos of our days’ explorations in wonderful landscapes. Because if I were lulled into a false sense of travel security…so should you)

3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-12

We're not quite sure if they stand at intervals of 7 and 25km, respectively. We'll see

We’re not quite sure if they stand at intervals of 7 and 25km, respectively. We’ll see

3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-43 3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-24 3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-61

Brumbies! Australia's wild horses, across the top of the Snowys

Brumbies! Australia’s wild horses, across the top of the Snowys

3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-83

Jonas helping Chris change Puck’s rear tyre

3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-78

The top of the Great Dividing Range is stunning

The top of the Great Dividing Range is stunning

3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-102

Oh finally, a jacuzzi! Bath time on day 7

Oh finally, a jacuzzi! Bath time on day 7

3-snowy-mountains-alpine-park-130

We stalked Jonas and Ellen all week. Alright, yes, mostly because he bakes bread every day :)

We stalked Jonas and Ellen all week. Alright, yes, mostly because he bakes bread every day 🙂

Our first Kolly. Asleep, on the tree next to where we set up our tent

Our first Kolly. Asleep, on the tree next to where we set up our tent

We came across lovely little country towns every day. Easy stops for stocking up

We came across lovely little country towns every day. Easy stops for stocking up

Our first bush camp vino, cooled by the Snowy River

Our first bush camp vino, cooled by the Snowy River

And amongst all this beauty, Pixie happened, because heaven forbid she goes more than a whole month without ONE frigging mechanical problem.

Actually, make that 2 weeks.

Canberra’s (rather lovely) hiccup

We did have a colossal carburettor problem when we hit Canberra, one which was speedily solved by the genius hands of Mike, the guru-mechanic. At the ripe old age of 20-something, Mike is a passionate and gifted bike whiz, one who restores vintage Ducatis for a hobby. He and his German girlfriend, Angelika, were incredibly helpful and hospitable. One fixed the bike, one cooked us spaetzle. What a wondrous dream team! Our whole Canberra stay was actually divine, bike problem notwithstanding because in hindsight, when you know that bigger crap was to come, it’s all wonderful, isn’t it?

Now you do know I’m talking about Pixie here, right? Of course you do. Silly me.

In our nation’s capital, we stayed with John and Peggy Bright, a lovely couple we were introduced to by a mutual travel friend. Adventurous seasoned traveller, John and Peggy welcomed us with open arms as if were long lost friends. Any overlander will appreciate how special that is. We spent a few days together, chatting, sharing travel stories and delighting in Peggy’s incredible cooking (check out her unique cooking blog, right here) and enjoying furry cuddles in our spare time.

Chris and Mike working on Pixie

Chris and Mike working on Pixie

p_20170120_135036 p_20170117_193655

Soon enough, however, Pixie was roaring to go again. She rode beautifully. Better than she had for years.

It lasted precisely 10 days and about 20 hours.

Hitch-hiking on a bike trailer, Pixie's newfound favorite past-time

Hitch-hiking on a bike trailer, Pixie’s newfound favorite past-time

Poor Pixie. I shouldn’t be so tough on her. I’ve verbalised my fantasy of blowing her up with TNT or shoving her off the edge of a 3,000m cliff many times. Oh, I salivate at the joy that would bring me.

For what it’s worth, however, I don’t think Pixie is a lemon, not really. She’s a single cylinder, 20yo bike with just about 100,000km under her belt or rather, her chain. She’s done everything she was built to do. I estimate that only a quarter of those kms were on nice, good-quality European roads. Pixie crossed Africa for a year with Biggie, her previous owner, and then had to endure me for the last 4.5 years, 40 countries and over 40,000km. Through outback Eastern Europe, those horrendous mud-ridden roads in the Stans, being towed through the Pamir Highway, zooming non-stop through 8,000km of China, aaaaallll of South East Asia for two years, plus that atrocious mountain crash in Sumatra and countless other drops. If all that wasn’t enough, she also had to endure a thorough clean before flying to Australia.

It was the cleaning that did her in, I’m convinced of that. I don’t think these Funduro bikes are meant to be cleaned. I always joked that it was the caked-on dried up mud that kept Pixie in one piece and perhaps I was more prophetic than I realised.

So now my Pixie is dead. AND we’re NOT going to Tasmania today.

A wonderful local biker hears our cries for help over FB. Raymond the legend picks us up in his trailer just as Jonas and Ellen celebrate their first hour onboard the Spirit. We hobble back to Colin and Kaye. “Come in, pet. I’ll put the kettle on” he says.

p_20170128_104602_bf

Lovely Raymond manages to put a smile on my face, which is no mean feat given the circumstance…

After much deliberation, we’ve decided that a Pixie resurrection is a more viable option than a vehicle swap. With a heart + lung transplant, I’ll have myself a bike I know and can ride; one that is set-up for long-haul travels and – for lack of better terms – a devil with which I am familiar. Spending just a couple of grand on a different vehicle and I’ll be up for all sorts of unknowns.

The search for a Pixie engine replacement is on and we’re in the extremely lucky position of being in Melbourne, as opposed to bum-fuck-nowhere (as a fellow biker put it), we are being hosted by a gorgeous couple we met in China in 2014, have plenty of friends with which to catch up and a handful of helpful mechanics just a phone call away.

Life is still good then, it may not be life in Tasmania, right now, but we’ll get there. I’m sure of it.

With a new engine and lease of life, Pixie will spring back into action. As Chris said: “With a new engine…what else could possibly go wrong with her?”

I just wish he hadn’t said that…

 

 

 

 

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Overlanding Southeast Asia – The Idyllic Dream That Never Really Was

**I’ve been a little quiet on the blog front in the last 12 months, choosing to only post a few fluffy bits and pieces as the months progressed. It wasn’t by accident, I can assure you. But Southeast Asia is one of the world’s ‘special’ places, where even a single critical Tweet can see you booted out and onto the next plane home. Thanks Leonardo di Caprio. And when you travel with your motorbike (oh, and your life partner) getting booted out is a tad inconvenient. So I’ve had to be quiet. Eerily quiet. There have been 1001 thoughts and anecdotes I’ve been busting to share, but couldn’t. Until now.

There are also certain situations where a bit of distance, physical and emotional distance, is needed in order to recalibrate the mind and sort out thoughts. We’ve been in Australia for 5 weeks now and I’m finally ready to share.

Here goes. You may want to make a cup of coffee first.

It may seem incredibly unfair to clump an entire region of the world under one banner. But I’m gonna do that anyway. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all clumped in my brain, in my memory bank. Two years travelling through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, with a brief side-trip to southern Vietnam. Two incredibly interesting years but also two years filled with frustrations and contradictions and quite a few shakes of the head. It’s not unique, in this respect, Southeast Asia. Yet although the feelings it elicited in me may not be unique, the reasons certainly are.

So if you’ll be so kind as to forgive my sweeping generalisations, I’d appreciate it. These are my memories, my thoughts, my observations and my eventual conclusions, as an overlander, after 25 months. Brutally honest though you may find them. If you had a different overlanding experience over an extended period of time, and the mere mention of ‘Southeast Asia’ makes you feel all warm and fuzzy, then great.

But it doesn’t really work for me. And these, after all, are my travel tales.

The stunning canyon at Nong Khiaw, in northern Laos. An idyllic beginning....

The stunning canyon at Nong Khiaw, in northern Laos. An idyllic beginning….

I had dreamt of spending a whole year in Southeast Asia from the moment we started planning our overland motorbike trip, back in 2012. Mind you, I wasn’t quite convinced I’d ever get there, on my own two wheels, but nonetheless, I dreamt. I fantasised about spending an entire year of my life wearing only my bikini and sarong. Of spending endless days sipping fresh coconut juice under the shade of a colossal palm tree, strolling along endless stretches of blinding white beaches, and watching the sun set beyond an azure horizon of calm and warm waters. In my tropical dream, I enjoyed it all very much. It was heaven, in fact.

But then I went and did it.

When no-one's looking, in low season, the beaches of Ko Lanta, in southern Thailand, are left to the graces of sea currents.

When no-one’s looking, in low season, the beaches of Ko Lanta, in southern Thailand, are left to the graces of sea currents.

It all started off innocently enough…

The moment we entered Laos, from China, we encountered the first lot of foreigners. Oh, how nice that was! After months of social deprivation here we were meeting travellers at every turn, sharing meals and conversations, all without the help of Google Translate. Goodie. Laos is where we met Jonas and Ellen, of Intothefar.de fame, who would become treasured friends and travel companions for a great part of the following two years.

Laos is also where we finally entered the tropics and cast our eyes, for the first time on this trip, on enticing tropical jungles. The impenetrable pain in the ass jungles, as they would soon come to be known, that apparently are only enticing from a distance.

From a distance, in fact, Southeast Asia is idyllic. And when I say ‘distance’, I mean that quite literally.

Like, from a plane.

Komodo Island, from a couple thousand metres up, is perfection.

Komodo Island, from a couple thousand metres up, is perfection.

It’s when you get too close that the picture starts to really come into focus. When the sparkle starts to fade. Those stunning beaches I had dreamt for so long turned out be mostly rubbish-strewn, and when they weren’t filled with rubbish, they were filled with tourists. Lots and lots of tourists. As happy as I was to finally see them in Laos, I couldn’t wait to get away from them in eastern Indonesia. Tropical ‘heavens’ besieged by foreigners looking for a cheap time, if not a good time. And who can blame them? When you can live like a king for 20 bucks a day, and you’re willing to overlook a few irksome aspects, Southeast Asia works a treat. But that’s the problem with tropical but undeveloped countries: they attract a certain kind of tourist. One who puts ‘cheap’ above and beyond every other priority, one who turns out to be more detrimental to a region than beneficial. One who exploits. And exploitation, in all forms, is what stands out more than anything else in Southeast Asia, one of the few regions in the world renowned for its thriving child-sex industry. Since Thailand has been busily cracking down on the practice, Cambodia is swiftly rising in popularity. While we were in Cambodia, there were almost weekly reports of foreigners arrested in connection with paedophile rings.

But sometimes, it doesn’t have to even be that extreme.

I remember meeting a retired British expat, living in Thailand, in January 2015. Upon first meeting him, and after literally two minutes of conversation, he went on a tirade about how awful the UK has become. About how you can ‘walk down any street and you hear every language except English!’ So I asked him how long he’d been living in Thailand.

“8 years” he replied.

“WOW…you must be so fluent in Thai!”

“Don’t be daft” he said, “That’s what I’ve got my young girlfriend for!”

The beautiful countryside of northern Laos

The beautiful countryside of northern Laos

There are plenty of corners of the region not besieged by tourists or expats. Or if you do find some, they are the other kind of foreigners, the one you like. The great majority keep away because of a dreadful lack of infrastructure so that in turn makes it blissful for the discerning overlander. But only for a short while, of course, because that lack of infrastructure gets up the discerning traveller’s goat too, eventually. I loved the southwestern coast of Sumatra, for example, but it was impossible to stay for very long. It was ridiculously expensive, comparatively speaking, and lack of amenities made it less that comfortable. Not much to eat besides the now loathed nasi goreng. A disastrous lack of electricity, and of decent places to sleep, the lack of cleanliness and even lack of friendliness. Whilst I grew to detest the ready smiles and disingenuous friendliness we experienced in touristy places, it was still a better alternative to the ‘fuck you!’ we received in remote corners of Sumatra. Beautiful, wild Sumatra. My favourite part of all, in retrospect.

You know…besides the fuck-yous.

Sumatra was absolutely spectacular. Worth a few insults, at least

Sumatra was absolutely spectacular. Worth a few insults, at least

If ever you wish to really understand the old adage ‘you can’t have it all!’ then you ought to consider overlanding through Southeast Asia. Yin and yang, pros and cons, something’s gotta give…these all became our most uttered phrases. But that just about sums up every country in the world, does it not? Well, yes, it does. Some just a little more than others.

A fuming Mt Sinabung

A fuming Mt Sinabung

Back to those jungles, those thick, impenetrable cosmos where dengue and malaria-carrying mosquitos lie in waiting, salivating for your blood. Where you couldn’t pitch a tent to save your life. Not without hacking away with a machete for at least a couple of hours. But in 40-degree heat and 250% humidity (yes, 250% humidity is real, trust me) you won’t be doing any of that. It’s too hot to camp in Southeast Asia, too damp and too unbearable to sleep in a tent. Luckily, accommodation is cheap and, to varying degrees of comfort and cleanliness, you can score an air-conditioned room of sorts for just $10. So that’s what we did. For two years straight. And it killed us. It literally drowned our nomadic spirits. Always in a town, living in between walls, surrounded by people all the time.

It is impossible to get away from people in Southeast Asia, they are everywhere.

Our friend and fellow biker, Michael, trying to fill up in Belawan, Sumatra

Our friend and fellow biker, Michael, trying to fill up in Belawan, Sumatra

Southeast Asia is roughly half the size of continental USA, but boasts an eye-watering 620 million people, almost twice as many as the US. Six hundred and twenty million people in a landmass that’s just over half the size of Australia, imagine that. AND, to top it off, most of it is uninhabitable, so all those souls are crammed into slithers of developed roadways. To enjoy some aloneness you’d need to head out in the countryside but you can’t escape anywhere, because of the jungle. If there’s a cleared track, somewhere, rest assured there’s a village at the end, and houses sprawled alongside the track the whole way.

As an overlanding destination, Southeast Asia is hard work. Really, really hard work. You’re fighting all the time. Fighting the oppressive heat and humidity which never abates, all year long. Fighting your inner desires to enjoy nature and to keep as far removed from it as possible. Ironically enough, this isn’t something I noticed straight away. The first thing I noticed was the rubbish. The oppressive air pollution came later.

6.Puck broke own on our drive out of Melaka, in Malaysia, on one of the smoggiest days of the year. The air was so thick it was unbearable

6. Puck broke own on our drive out of Melaka, in Malaysia, on one of the smoggiest days of the year. The air was so thick it was unbearable

We didn’t see blue skies for 6 whole weeks at the end of 2015. We were in Southern Malaysia while Indonesia was burning its oil plantations.

Oil plantations, now there’s another bane of the region…

The mosque of Melaka, and the constant greyish colour of the sky, for months on end

The mosque of Melaka, and the constant greyish colour of the sky, for months on end

We rode through thousands and thousands of kilometres of oil plantations, all the way from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur. A disastrous crop that’s literally in everything and makes up almost 40% of the vegetable oil production on our planet yet an industry which feeds millions of people and one of Southeast Asia’s biggest earners. The social and environmental impact of palm oil are mind-boggling but the collective and misguided pointing of fingers is even more staggering. Malaysia was livid with Indonesia during the yearly back-burning, yet Malaysia is the largest producer of the slimy liquid gold, producing almost half of the world’s needs. In the West, we are perhaps even more idiotic. We are quick to chastise Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, and every country heavily involved in deforestation without acknowledging the fact that if we made more conscious choices the demand would certainly dwindle. But it’s an insidious product, palm oil, and it’s in an insane amount of products we all use, every day.

10-palm-oil-list

Then there’s the local aspect, of course. Southeast Asians love palm oil and use it incessantly, even in bread, shampoo, soap and cereal. It’s cheap to make, boasts an impressive shelf-life and besides, locals have been using it since time immemorial. In the remotest parts of Southeast Asia, we had no choice but to consume it, and even to buy it to cook. There was simply no other oil or fat available. If it were up to us, arrogant us, we’d just ban the damn thing in an instant. Then millions would die because they’d have no other way to earn a crust. And not many think about that either.

The environmental devastation I personally witnessed in the region will remain with me forever. The stench, the rubbish, the deforestation. The atrocious pollution was the ultimate killer, for me. I’ll never forget landing in Sydney just a month ago and seeing, for the first time in months, clear blue skies. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw that kind of blue.

Exploitation of Southeast Asia’s resources, in every way imaginable, is by far its biggest downfall. And everyone is responsible. Them for allowing it, and the rest of the world for inciting it. What we’ve managed to do in more developed countries is export manufacturing so that we can enjoy clean air, and then point the finger at our enslaved productive regions and admonish them in disgust for ruining the planet. The irony is painful.

Southern Indonesia on fire. Pic courtesy of TodayOnline

Southern Indonesia on fire. Pic courtesy of TodayOnline

The racial divide of Southeast Asia

It still seems quite odd to me, that over the course of 2 years, we had very limited cultural experiences. Minimal as minimal can be. We were outsiders, constantly. We were farangs…and we weren’t allowed in. The rare times we were, then we were special ‘guests’, something I often loathe. Don’t get me wrong, we made a few beautiful friendships, but only enough to count on one hand.

The seemingly impossible barrier between locals and foreigners, even those who have lived as expats for years, was something which fascinated us no end. In southern Thailand, we befriended a Greek couple running a café on the island of Ko Lanta, and they told us they waited 2 years before they were invited over at a neighbour’s house for a meal. At the time, I found this incredible. I had never encountered this phenomenon anywhere else, this complete separation of people due, no doubt I thought, to the substantial cultural differences between East and West.

We spent two weeks on Ko Lanta, at the height of low tourist season. Probably the best (and worst) time to visit. No tourists but full of rubbish

We spent two weeks on Ko Lanta, at the height of low tourist season. Probably the best (and worst) time to visit. No tourists but full of rubbish

At first, I thought the divisiveness which we encountered in Southeast Asia was due only to our physical differences. Westerners can never really integrate here because they simply stand out too much. They will never be considered ‘local’ no matter how many decades. But then I experienced quite extreme racial intolerance in Southeast Asia, to levels I had only ever encountered in Africa. The Thai guesthouse owner who didn’t want to advertise her business on TripAdvisor because heaven forbids Chinese visitors turned up.  Or the Indonesian food-stall owner who laughed whole-heartedly after refusing to feed two Burmese migrants.

If you are one of those who holds the common misconception that racism is a trait specific to the white race, you may need to travel a little more. Asian racism is as insidious as it is disturbingly widespread. A unique aspect here, as opposed to many other parts of the world, is that it is ingrained in their very current laws and was part of their very recent history.

The cleansing of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, in the 1960s, is something I’d barely even heard mentioned. If you ever happen to have a spare 90 minutes, then watch The Act of Killing, undoubtedly one of the most disturbing movies/documentaries I’ve ever seen. It is almost imperative to watch it when travelling to Sumatra, and then to realise that the police death squads which carried out the genocide then, are still in power now. Just last year, an international tribunal set up in The Hague concluded that Indonesia’s killings were ‘crimes against humanity’ and that “Australia, the US and the UK were complicit in the crimes”. Apparently, our countries were only concerned about the spread of Communism, not the fact that the great majority of victims were ethnic minorities.

A still from The Act of Killing, in which the subjects of the documentary, and perpetrators of the killings in 1965, had to pretend to be shooting a movie about the crushing of Communism, not a critical documentary about the genocide. The whole thing makes for a totally bizarre watch.

A still from The Act of Killing, where the subjects of the documentary, and perpetrators of the killings in 1965, had to pretend to be shooting a movie about the crushing of Communism, not a critical documentary about the genocide. The whole thing makes for a totally bizarre watch.

Over the past 50 years, the mass movement of people throughout Southeast Asia, due to racial oppression, has been considerable. Almost half a million Burmese Indians have fled Myanmar, and when they sought refuge in Bangladesh, they were systematically targeted for decades. Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime is perhaps the most famous ethnic cleanser of all, doing away with more than 1.5 million people in what has since been dubbed the ‘purest Cold-war genocide of all’. In Malaysia, blatant discriminatory laws impede life for Chinese and Indian Malays who, combined, make up just under half the entire population. From university places to jobs, pensions, health care and preferential choice on land ownership, trust funds and scholarships, ethnic Malays have the upper hand in every way. It matters not that Chinese and Indian descendants hail from a line of Malays who have lived there for centuries. They’re not made to feel at home in their own country.

So how does this affect the foreign overlander?

Well, it doesn’t, not really, not unless it bothers you. And it bothered me.

Sure, I could have travelled through the region for two years willy-nilly, with blinkers on, and ignored the blatantly obvious. But a month after we entered Laos, a titbit of news reached my ears.

For a year and a half, I obsessively followed the fate of two migrant Burmese workers who were arrested for the horrendous murder of a young British couple on Thailand’s Ko Tao island. I’ll spare you the details, but it soon became obvious that among a small island where corruption is strife, two innocent men, foreign men, were made scapegoats. Certainty is elusive, of course. A part of me desperately wishes for them to actually be guilty because receiving a death sentence for something you haven’t actually done is heartbreaking and unthinkable. But something which happens more often, all over the world, than any of us dare imagine.

So no, I couldn’t really play the holidaymaker in Southeast Asia (hard to do in places like Phnom Penh anyway) except a few delightful episodes of bliss. Because there were also plenty of those. The weeks spent exploring southern Laos, a dreamy paradise we never recognised as such at the time. My birthday in the Komodos, my mum’s visit to Ko Chang and good friends’ vacay in Hua Hin, all of which were quite idyllic. Because if there’s one thing Southeast Asia does well is offering up the ‘picture perfect vacation’. Not for too long, mind you, and in the right place, and at the right time of year. Then, it’s a dream 😉

And the last word I will say is about Bali. Wonderful, complex, toxic and stunning Bali. There’s at least another 5,000-word blog I could write on Bali alone. It’s everything you think it is and then some. The best and worst of Southeast Asia all in one little tropical package. The place where we made the most friends, in the end, local and foreign alike. The one place that took us in and made us feel at home, the one – perhaps only – place I would actually return to.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cruising the Komodo Islands – the Good, the Bad and the Utterly Unforgettable

A stellar boat trip through this UNESCO heritage listed Komodo National Park is an experience none of us will forget in a hurry.

These are a few snippets of our life at sea…

We fought hard to secure a private charter, sacrificing the space and comfort of a larger boat, for the priceless luxury of dictating the where, how and what of our trip. I’m sure I speak for all 6 of us when I say it was a brilliant compromise. We loved our little boat, we had a ball together and we lucked out with a brilliant father + son team who seemed to know just what we needed at the right time. The nature of the Komodo National Park is resplendent, in parts. As long as we were away from the crowds and the rubbish-strewn beaches of the most popular islands, we loved this archipelago.

Far too many people and not enough conservation work being done. On one overnight anchor spot, we were even approached by a guy paddling on a kayak selling pearl necklaces and souvenirs. It totally cracked us up! Yet luckily, the national park covers an area (both land and water) of 1,800 square kilometres. Finding a corner of heaven, a ridiculously beautiful uninhabited island, and peace and quiet, is superbly easy.

The worst part of the trip was watching what is supposed to be a majestic dragon, the largest lizard on our planet, trying to crawl over an abundance of rubbish on the beach of Komodo Island. The best? Everything else. The fun, the snorkelling, the coral reefs, the hikes, the myriad of colourful fish, the sun and even the rain. The beauty, out here, is staggering…as is man’s encroachment on nature. The ying and yang of our planet, all here in one unforgettable place.

What made this trip all the more special, above all else, was that it was shared with good friends. Thank you to Jonas, Ellen, Arjen, Liliya and especially Chris, my love, for making this a most memorable birthday.

xxx

Settling in aboard the Amalia

Settling in aboard the Amalia

Our favourite cruising spot

Liliya and I swiftly found our favourite cruising spot

Docking on Rinca Island

Docking on Rinca Island

4

5

The mighty Komodo Dragon!

6

7

Rinca Island is home to about 2,900, but spotting them in the wild at this time of year (mating season) is very difficult. But there are always a couple who hang around the ranger station, no doubt fed to keep them from disappearing in the bushes

8

Cloudy morning…perfect for a hike

9

The views from the peak of Rinca are gorgeous

11

Chris loving his dragon!

10

12

Back on our boat, everyone finds their fave spot

IMG_1813

On board entertainment…balancing on one foot in rough seas

IMG_1808

Ellen & Jonas…probably contemplating how to turn their Land Rover ‘Foxy’ into an amphibious vehicle!

IMG_1801

Arjen and Liliya chillaxing

IMG_1806

A shipwright by trade, my Chris is as at home on a boat as he is on 2 wheels…or 4

IMG_1820

Our floating laundry

img_1823

Playing rock, paper, scissors for the last piece of fried banana. It became a recurring theme (both the bananas and the game) :)))

IMG_1825

Gorgeous sunset alongside mangroves chock-full of flying foxes

IMG_1822 IMG_1839

The Komodo Dragon chase continues

The Komodo Dragon chase continues

IMG_1865

My picture-perfect beach dragon on Komodo Island

 

IMG_1887

The brutal reality of the beach on Komodo Island. Littered with plastic.

 

IMG_1867

Still, an incredible creature to encounter

IMG_1878

IMG_1898

That’ll be our dinner!

IMG_1901

Back on the sea…my favourite part

IMG_1903

After a difficult snorkel on Manta Point, we spot this idyllic little paradise. So off we went…

IMG_1914

Sunset spotting

IMG_1915 IMG_1918

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Our “totally cool jungle off-road” adventure in Sumatra

This was never meant to be a gargantuan off-roading adventure. This was meant to be a shortcut. With the added bonus of a change of scenery, perhaps, but a simple shortcut nonetheless.

Leaving our friends heading for Banda Aceh and the lovely island of Weh, Chris and I decided that we were indeed in desperate need of a change of scenery and, even more importantly, some cooler temps. Google insisted there was no road across the volcanic Barisan Mountains which traverse western Sumatra, but rumours told us otherwise. Some evil motorbike overlander even went as far as to write ‘totally cool jungle off-road’ on one of the maps we came across, and the legendary tales of this elusive road, linking Blangkejeren to the east and Babahrot to the west, started to take momentum.

By the time we turned off westbound in Blangkejeren, we’d surmised the road was ‘quite good’ in fact, about 135km in length and had parts which ‘may or may not be slippery when wet’.

This shall now go down in my travel history as the understatement of the flamin’ century.

Just follow the red line....she'll be right...

Just follow the red line….she’ll be right…

I read a BBC article yesterday, about the making of a psychopath. About how difficult it is to profile them because they are so adept at appearing charming, and normal, and friendly. Until they turn evil.

Well…this road we took was the epitome psychopath. The first 50kms out of Blangkejeren were simply stunning. We rode through a pine forest, saw autumn colours, admired buffalo cooling off in lakes. We were so happy and awestruck we completely let our guards down. But then again, evil hardly ever comes with a warning.

1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (12) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (16) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (3) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (4) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (9) 1) start of mountain pass road Sumatra (7)

The gravelly bits started innocently enough. Just a few hundred metres here and there at first, certainly nothing to worry about. Until the road started to get steeper and steeper, and the gravel looser and looser. As you can imagine, an utterly charming motorbiking mix.

3) steep starts

2) gravel starts SumatraI hate loose gravel at the best of times (ie. when the road is flat) but riding on it at very steep angles takes 10 years off my life per 100 metres, on average.

P_20160329_124844

It’s a pity that photos can’t quite portray the angle of a road. At least, not whilst you take them lying down.

As usual, I trailed behind Chris. I find this to be the safest way for me to ride on dirt roads, as while he’s busy working out the best route, all I do is follow in his wake. I then only make adjustments if I see him wavering. What I hadn’t counted on, was his bike stalling on the steepest part of an insanely gravelly pass. The scene played as if by slow motion. I saw Chris desperately trying to hold his bike upright and stop it from sliding backwards. His brakes just couldn’t hold the weight, at that angle, on such slippery rock. The moment he gently laid his bike to the side, I had nowhere else to go. Well….except horizontal, of course.

As I laid off the accelerator to prevent myself crashing into Chris, Pixie stalled too. My brakes? Bloody useless. I then did the most idiotic thing ever. As Pixie started to slide and tilt on the downhill slope (gravity’s a bitch), I should have simply hurled myself on the uphill side and let the bike go. But no. That would have been way too smart. Instead, I geniously decided to pit my left leg against the gravity-assisted slide of a 280kg heavy bike, thinking I’d have the strength to tilt Pixie the other (and much safer) way. Yes, I’m also still laughing about that.

P_20160329_123643

I heard the ‘pop’ in my knee almost as soon as I said to myself ‘this may not be your brightest moment yet’. The agony was excruciating. I screamed into my helmet and was overcome by nausea, which is never a good sign.

In hindsight, it wasn’t a big fall at all. It was just an incredibly unlucky one. The big fall was yet to come.

A half hour rest and recoup in a shaded spot gave me the chance to catch my breath, confirm nothing was broken and conclude that I’d probably stretched or snapped my anterior cruciate ligament in my left knee. As soon as I could move my toes and at least put some weight on my leg, I instinctively knew it was a ligament issue. It’s been more than 20 years since I snapped a ligament in my right knee, but the pain is unmistakably unique and unfortunately familiar. Bugger. As I strapped my knee, Chris and I made plans on how best to continue. All the while, locals wearing flip-flops and riding shitty little scooters rode past us. Normally they’d be yelling ‘HELLOOOO MISTEEERRRRR’, stop for a selfie and to bum a smoke, but the road was too steep for them to stop. So they kept on trudging on, mostly walking alongside their scooters while revving at full throttle.

P_20160329_125536

“Let’s do what we did in Georgia” Chris eventually said “You walk and I ride the bikes on the steep parts. Think you can ride the straights?”

“One legged? No worries!” was my reply. And that’s what we did next. He took one bike up, ran down, and took the second. And I walked. In the heat, on a steep gravel road, with a banged up knee. Funnily enough, the thought of simply turning around and going back to Blangkejeren never entered our mind. Although if we knew that this was just the first of 6 gravel-ridden mountain passes over a stretch of 10 kilometres – and not even the steepest one at that – we may have.

P_20160329_151401_1

The second fall happened so fast I can barely recount it. I know I was riding in deep gravel on a straight, and that the descent literally came out of nowhere. I think I panicked and hit the brakes, which is what did me in. This time, however, I was smart enough to tuck my legs up and simply flew (literally) in whichever direction momentum dictated. The fall was again not particularly hard…had it not been for the pointy boulders on which I landed. ‘That’s gonna hurt tomorrow’ I thought.

Three days later. Yep, still hurts. It's one of 5 bruises on my legs!

Three days later. Yep, still hurts. It’s one of 5 bruises on my legs!

I remember standing up and looking at the road. This time, I had been riding in front because Chris wanted to keep an eye on me. My fall had caused him to stop and stall, and he smartly laid down his bike to prevent it from sliding anywhere. By this stage, and because I’d been in deep religious contact with the gravel, we’d figured out that the gravel was granite. About the most slippery rock of all.

Anywho, I saw a motorbike box just lying there, in the middle of the ‘road’, thinking ‘that’s a weird place for a box to be, I wonder who lost it?’

That would be me.

IMG_0984 IMG_0985

Half an hour and a ratchet strap later, Pixie was ready to go again. Up and down two more mountain passes before a threatening storm started brewing.

I saw the hut just a millisecond before I heard the sound of a very small waterfall. The perfect emergency campsite. We set up home inside – a place we believed to be a praying hut due to the abundance of prayer mats  – and decided we’d had enough for the day.

P_20160330_081214

The obligatory photo op with passing locals soon followed. They didn’t seem to mind that we’d taken over the hut (we are still not sure how ‘religious’ the locals are up here) but they actually only stopped to eat and chat and didn’t take a moment to pray at sunset, so we now assumed they’re quite relaxed.

Out of 1,000 things I wanted to do at this very moment, posing for a photo was not among them - although I think I bluffed well

Out of 1,000 things I wanted to do at this very moment, posing for a photo was not among them – – although I think I bluffed well

The night was one we’ll probably never forget. As the heavens opened up and the most incredible thunderstorm erupted, I bundled myself in my sleeping bag, whilst Chris settled in for the night in our camping chair. We didn’t put up a tent because we didn’t think it to be the safest place to be, to be honest. We knew passing motorists would inevitably stop, and Chris wanted to be only semi-asleep in case of any eventualities. Our minds are not yet set on locals in this region of Sumatra. Something makes me feel uneasy and I still don’t know what it is, but I’m certainly aware of this anxiousness so always err on the side of caution.

IMG_0990

As darkness fell and the drowsiness effects of my painkillers took hold, the hut glowed and shook with a particularly massive lightning bolt . It was so damn eerie, and for the next few hours, I jolted awake every few minutes. Partly because of the thunder, but mostly with a heart-stopping feeling of falling into a void. It happens whenever I take a bad fall on the bike. It’s as if the body replays it over and over again in my sleep. It’s one of the most disturbing feelings I’ve ever had.

It’s called hypnic jerk, this jolting yourself awake just as you’re about to fall asleep, and it’s said to be exacerbated by anxiety. I often experience it after a hard day on the bike, and on this particular night, it would plague me for 10 hours straight. Half way through the seemingly endless night I dreamt a tiger leapt into the hut and attacked Chris, and just as I woke up from the nightmare, a colossal lightning bolt struck and I nearly carked it on the spot. Then I noticed the familiar glow of a cigarette towards the general direction of where Chris was sitting. It was too pitch black to see anything else, but I figured if Chris was really fighting a tiger he couldn’t be holding a cigarette. Although knowing him, he probably would.

What I’ll remember most from this night, however, were the ear-piercing sounds of the storm and jungle around us. Every time lightning struck, a nearby tribe of monkeys would go off their heads, screeching and carrying on. During the few quiet-monkey-minutes, the frogs and crickets would take over. It was a deafening madness.

The first light of day, and rays of sunshine, were blissfully welcomed.

P_20160330_085735

After a heart-jumping cup of coffee and liberal application of Dencorub (I pretty much used it as a body moisturiser) we set off for our day’s adventure.

We immediately came across a termite-ridden tree that didn’t survive the storm, and provided a sorely needed (NOT!) chance to get the day started with a stint of gardening. Because what could be more enjoyable – at this stage – than spending an hour clearing a path through half-rotten trees?

P_20160330_090924 P_20160330_092421 P_20160330_092632

We continued at a snail pace. Up and down, over and out. Me hobbling the steep parts and riding the straights, and Chris picking up the slack whenever I felt uneasy. For 7 hours straight. The walking did grant me incredible opportunities to soak up the stunning scenery, so there’s the fabled silver lining for ya.

P_20160330_094755 P_20160330_120335 P_20160330_120357

P_20160329_141027 P_20160330_094242

The moment I cast my eyes on the freshly laid tarmac I was dumbfounded. I literally just looked at it like I’d never seen asphalt before. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. Just as we were contemplating finding a place to pitch a tent for another night, the possibility of sleeping in a bed and having a shower in one of the coastal towns emerged as a literal light at the end of the tunnel.

I don’t have a photo of my face when I first spotted asphalt, but this sums it up quite well…

surprise dogOver the following 20 minutes, we would cover more ground than in the previous 7 hours. As the road turned steep I nearly laughed to myself – and the road – thinking ‘you can get as steep as you want mother f****, as long as you’re asphalted I’m the queen of the road!” I can get quite cocky on asphalt. I probably rode faster than I should have, considering my muscles were starting to relax and the cramps were setting in. The rains came again, they cooled us off, and we kept on riding. For the first time since I can remember, we rode past sunset, eager to get to the coast and leave this road behind.

IMG_0994 12) Indian oceam at last Sumatra (2) 12) Indian oceam at last Sumatra (7)

We’re now going to take a few days to rest so that I can lick my wounds, recoup, and milk for sympathy. Then we’ll be heading for Lake Toba. Google tells us the road from the west coast of Sumatra to Southeast Asia’s largest lake is in good nick and fully asphalted, but the last time I believed anything anyone said about a road in Sumatra…I ended up soaking up the rays and listening to waves of the Indian ocean crashing right outside my hotel room.

Oh…wait…

P_20160331_130310_1

 

 

Posted in Overlanding, Travel Guides | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Best Guide to Southern Laos Highlights (no, really!)

I’ve been meaning to blog this guide for months (March 2016 update – make that a year), ever since I compiled it for a fellow overlanding couple who was following on our tyre-tracks back in 2015! Considering the fact I’ve shared it at least half a dozen times in the past few months, I thought it worthwhile to now post it here, hoping it may benefit anyone overlanding – or indeed holidaying – in this gorgeous part of Laos.

I’m always quite eager to share my tips on southern Laos. After 18-months in Southeast Asia, and with the gift of hindsight, I fervently rate this as my favorite corner of all in this region. Ironically enough, I distinctly remember thinking – at the time we visited in January 2015- that Laos was the most ‘touristy’ region we’d come across in a while. But, of course, all in travel is relative. We’d just spent two months crossing remote regions of China, and 6 months prior to that zig-zagging our way through the Stans. Compared to them, Laos was touristy. Compared to what we experienced afterwards – Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia – it most certainly was not!

1. southern laosSo why only  southern Laos?

The answer is quite a simple one: it’s the one ‘half’ of the country I loved most and – more importantly for a guide – the one which people know the least. Don’t get me wrong, we had an amazing time in northern Laos! We made some gorgeous new friends, discovered some unexpected treasures (like Nong Kiaw) and relished the first hint of the popular backpack route known as the Banana Pancake Trail. Yes….northern Laos is where I first devoured the Nutella and banana pancake! We very much enjoyed popular hubs like Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and the Plain of Jars, but these are destinations which anyone who is headed for Laos knows all too well.

Northern Laos has a well-established tourist infrastructure, is (relatively) bustling with tourists and everything is good and dandy. You don;t need a guide on that from me.

That’s why I want to write about the south. Because the wilderness, remoteness and relative peace and quiet south of the capital, Vientiane, is something to behold. Because there are few buses, fewer guesthouses and infinitely fewer people. Because the best way to see it all is by private vehicle (your own or rented from Vientiane), because it’s a camper’s haven (you know, in winter!) and here nature is centre stage. Not night markets, and temples, and pancakes (however great they all are).

For reasons unbeknownst even to me…I wrote this guide backwards to the way we travelled it and, most likely, the way you will travel it too! 🙂

From the tip of the southern end, all the way to Vientiane (and just beyond), here are my favourite highlights of southern Laos.

For your travelling pleasure…

4 Thousand Islands 

A stunning archipelago on the southern reaches of the Mekong River, Laos’ 4 Thousand Islands (Si Phan Don) are a haven of tranquillity and nature. A place where Laotian-time slows down to infinite degrees, if that is even possible. There are three main inhabited islands where visitors head to, one of which is renowned as a bit of a party town, with much tubing, alcohol-consuming and debauchery after dark. Everywhere else, life is simple, tropical and very enchanting. 

2. 4 thousand islands laos

We based ourselves in Don Khong which is the only island attached to mainland by bridge. We contemplated leaving the bikes behind to stay on one of the islands, but in the end, decided to visit them on day trips instead, as transport by boat is easy to arrange, relaxing and cheap as chips. We stayed in a guesthouse, but if you’re an overlander you can head to the southern end of the restaurant/hotel strips (very short strip) where you’ll find a huge open field where I am sure you can park & stay overnight without any bother at all.

You’ll find lots of restaurant ‘shacks’ along the waterfront at Don Khong, the best we discovered is the second last (from the southern end). They make amazing Mok Pa (fish amok in Cambodia), which is the local dish of fish cooked in coconut milk & spices. Super yum!

3. don khong laos (1) 3. don khong laos (2)

From here we took a day trip to Don Det which was USD6 pp by long-tail boat (about an hour there & hour back). Don Det is the most famous island and bit of a party place at night, which means it is sleepy and quiet during the day.  Everything in DD is set around the boat pier so the moment you walk away from there along the road (there is only one) you are in very quiet countryside. Take a walk for couple of hours, grab lunch/ice cream back at pier and take a boat back. From 9am to 3pm. It’s a gorgeous day-trip to take. Just about every guesthouse on the water runs the same boat trips. Staying just one night will also give you a chance to enjoy stunning sundowners, but I’d recommend walking away from the pier to find accommodation. The last few guesthouses in the village looked absolutely divine!!

4. don det laos (2) 4. don det laos (4) 4. don det laos (6) 4. don det laos (9)

Bolaven Plateau

Fertile and relatively unpopulated, the Bolaven Plateau is Laos’ coffee growing plantation, revered for its (only slight) elevation and myriad of waterfalls. This is still UXO territoty, made almost entirely uninhabitable during the Vietnam War thanks to the obscene cluster bombing from the US. Read all about Laos and it’s dirty, evil little secret.  Strategically placed just inches away from Vietnam, the area is slowly being cleared of unexploded bombs, and farmers are busy planting coffee and fruits.

If you drive north from the 4 Thousand Islands you’ll come across Pakse, a particularly uninspiring town, but a great food & refuelling station, ideal for stocking up the camper with supplies, before a  loop trip to the Bolaven Plateau, the coffee plantation area of Lao.

5. Bolaven plateau laos

Now, the loop is ‘nice’, I’d even say it’s ‘beautiful’, but I would not say it is a must-see, not all of it anyway. if you’re on a tight visa/holiday schedule, then this is the part I would personally recommend you skip. BUT, on this loop, only 80kms from Pakse, is where you’ll find Tad Lo and it’s amazing waterfalls. We loved this village so much, we ended up intentionally stranded here for a whole week. As you do 🙂

6. tad lo falls laos (1a)

6. tad lo falls laos (3) 6. tad lo falls laos (2)

Behind the falls there is an upmarket resort (Tadlo Lodge) home to two elephants. At 4m every day, they go down to the river for a swim and a wash. Yes, there are tourists there, but it so beautiful to see them playing in the rapids (the elephants, not the tourists) and so close to you. I despise these creatures being used for tourist rides, but at least here they enjoy a peaceful bathtime every afternoon. The manager of the Lodge is American, and he can be seen frequently intercating with teh ellies and hgging them. My optimistic side hopes it’s not just for our benefit.

7. tad lo elephants laos (1) 7. tad lo elephants laos (3) 7. tad lo elephants laos (4)

Thakhek Loop

A gorgeous round trip of a few hundred kms, the Thakhek Loop takes in the best sites of roads 12 and 13, brimming with bright orange dirt roads with the occasional spurts of tarmac. No doubt, in a few years, this whole route will be tarmacked, so my recomendation is to get here before that happens. Caves, waterfalls and submerged valleys are the highlights. Gorgeous guesthouses and eateries are splattered along the route. 

8. thakhek loop map

Thakhek is the popular base town from where people rent scooters to do the famous Thakhek Loop. You can skip the town (although it’s good for food shopping) but definitely do not miss this loop. It’s the best part of southern Lao.

8. thakek loop laos (2) 8. thakek loop laos (3) 8. thakek loop laos (4) 8. thakek loop laos (5)

On the loop road, do stop at the Sabaidee Guesthouse in a village called Tha Lang. the owner is crazy fun and the food in the restaurant is AMAZEBALLS!!! Especially if you’ve been in Southeast Asia a while and the sight of a bowl of sticky rice has the ability to send you into a murderous rage in 2 seconds flat.

9. sabaidee guesthouse thakek laos

Konglor Cave

Arguably the best highlight of the whole country (as rated by moi) Konglor Cave is truly a spectacular sight. Her sheer size is breathtaking. A karst lime carved cave that is 8 km long and anywhere between 25 and 50 m wide. It’s only accessible by motorized canoe, on a ride that includes time on-land to inspect rock formations, stalagmites and stalactites. This is the one highlight of Southern Laos no one should miss.

The cave is set within a National Park (costs a couple of bucks to enter) and from here you can take a longtail boat ride through the  underground cave. Stay a bit on the other side and the head back. 2-3 hours for the whole lot BUT outside the cave (on the return, opposite car park) you can swim, sunbake & picnic the whole day on the river’s edge. The boat trip costs about USD 15 – plus $3 cave entry fee. A boat can take 4 pax, so visitors often team up at the entrance, to share costs. Mind you, we ran into 4 people the whole day we were there (love low season!)

10. konglor cave laos (1) 10. konglor cave laos (2) 10. konglor cave laos (3)

10. konglor cave laos (4) 10. konglor cave laos (5) 10. konglor cave laos (7) 10. konglor cave laos (12)

Here we stayed at the Spring River Resort which has the most idyllic, quiet setting away from all the villages, right on the river. If you can’t find a spot to park overnight on the river’s edge, I reckon these guys will let you park here for a couple of bucks. GREAT food and incredibly peaceful spot!!

11. spring river resort laos (1) 11. spring river resort laos (2)

Vientiane

Great base for a couple of days but absolutely nowhere to park/camp near town, there are no hotels with gardens or anything like that. Great food & massages to be had here!!

12. vientiane laos (6) 12. vientiane laos (2) 12. vientiane laos (4) 12. vientiane laos (5)

BTW, dysentery is quite strife up in Laos so do be careful with salads/ice/water etc. It’s a water borne bacteria. Starts with diarrhea and basically doesn’t end until you poop blood, panic, go to hospital and get 3 doses of antibiotics. Talking from experience, here. It’s hideous and can kill if untreated so please be aware and be careful. The treatment we got in Laos was the same as our family doctor would give us at home (I double checked) so trust them that they have the rights meds. Note: this is not a highlight.

2 hour drive north of Vientiane – Nirvana Lodge (next door to Blue Lagoon)

Have a few days to spare? Bypass Vientiane and head north to Nirvana, where you’ll meet Christoph, a gorgeous Frenchman who has a stunning lodge by the river, and rescues animals. At the moment he has an adorable little black bear, who’s just divine. (NB update March 2016: Just checked latest photos and oh my lord tthat bear is huuuge!! 🙂 )

This spot ended up being our favourite for R&R. My Chris was recovering from amoeabic dysentery so we ended up chilling here for 2 weeks. Heaven.

If you want a place for a couple of nights to just completely chillax, read, etc this is the place!!

13. nirvana lodge laos (5) 13. nirvana lodge laos (6) 13. nirvana lodge laos (1) 13. nirvana lodge laos (2) 13. nirvana lodge laos (3)

 

You may understand now, why we rate Laos as our fave country in Southeast Asia. So far.

We’re off to Indonesia in a few days and hoping we’ll finally get to experience some more of that gorgeousness we found in sothern laos.

Go see it. You won’t regret it.

Scout’s honour.

Posted in Overlanding, Travel Guides, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Visit Hong Kong: A Captivating City Where it Costs More to Bury the Dead than House the Living

I’m under no illusion that my travel experiences, in some of the world’s most popular destinations, have a lot to do with the time of year in which I visited. This is why I was stoked a few weeks ago, when the stars aligned just right for us to take a side trip to visit friends in Hong Kong, so we could renew our Malay visa. Not only were both Chris and I free of work commitments, but one of my best buddies happened to be home (she’s been living in Honkers for 10 years) AND, lo and behold, temps were hovering around the 15 degree Celsius mark. To two overheated overlanders who’d been coping with excessive temps and humidity for 18 months now…this trifecta just sounded too good to be true.

You see, I have been to Hong Kong a few times before and my most vivid memories were of sweating buckets just standing in the shade, and having difficulty breathing due to the all the incessant smog. I was never a huge fan of the city, yet I’d only ever visited in summer and knew that my opinion was tainted by the timing of my visits.
So off we went for a week of wintery city-scape shenanigans and, perhaps, a change of heart.

We stayed in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, a gorgeous oasis only 20 minutes away by ferry from Central

We stayed in Discovery Bay, on Lantau Island, a gorgeous oasis only 20 minutes away by ferry from Central

Commuting into the city center is a relaxing affair

Commuting into the city center is a relaxing affair

Except I don’t own nearly enough clothing to cope with winter temps so had to borrow half my girlfriend’s wardrobe!

OK, this happened to be fake snow but you get the point. It was a tad chilly...

OK, this happened to be fake snow but you get the point. It was a tad chilly…

A concrete jungle, shocking climate, horrendous pollution, too many people, good food. That’s pretty much how I’ve always seen Hong Kong, in a nutshell.

Yet as it happens, Hong Kong in winter is an absolute treat and granted me such a different perspective on the city, I can hardly believe it. Among the scattered rains and heavy cloud cover were moments of pure, clear bliss. Blue skies, lofty verdant peaks, a stunning harbour and incredibly enticing islands. This wasn’t the Hong Kong I remembered at all.

In all the times I visited, I had never managed to go up to The Peak, the fog was always so ubiquitous that, to be honest, I don’t even think I ever saw the top of the hill on Hong Kong Island.

The view from the Peak is breathtaking

The view from the Peak is breathtaking

Everywhere you look...nature!

Everywhere you look…nature!

As for the crowds, they too were eerily missing, but I have a sneaking suspicion this has much to do with the fact that by now, we have spent a lot of time in some of the most populated cities in SE Asia.
Hong Kong crowded?
Not compared to Bangkok it ain’t!

Seriously, we dealt with bigger crowds at the Mid Valley Megamall in Kuala Lumpur, the week before Christmas, than we ever encountered in Hong Kong over the course of a week.
Hong Kong (7)

Hong Kong (9)

Hong Kong (10)

Hong Kong (14)

Made Up of over 260 islands, 170-odd of which are totally uninhabited, Hong Kong is an archipelago like no other. Boasting the highest concentration of skyscrapers of any city in the world – twice as many as New York in fact – this metropolis which started off as a nondescript fishing village, was literally built upwards ever since the British landed in 1841 and claimed it as their own. Unlike all other major Asian cities, foreign presence lies at the very heart of the city’s essence. Without European expats, there simply would be no Hong Kong, a fact that is quite palpable. Sure, we’ve seen plenty of expats in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Kuala Lumpur, but never did we feel they were part and parcel of those cities but merely spectators stopping in for a while. In Hong Kong, there are Westerners who were born there and feel as much part of the local population as anybody else, and that’s quite unique.

The perfect 'souvenir'!

The perfect ‘souvenir’!

What may surprise many is the fact that three-quarters of Hong Kong is made up of natural wilderness, with the city boasting dozens of reserves, parks, deserted beaches and outstanding island coastline only accessible by boat. Within just 20 minutes of the most densely populated suburb on earth (Mongkok, where the Ladies’ Markets is), you could be hiking in pristine forests. Something, by the way, which you’d only ever want to do in winter!
Hong Kong (16)

Hong Kong (8)

Hong Kong (15)

We take advantage of a rainy day to barricade ourselves in the Honk Kong Museum of History, a very interesting and humongous complex which retells the story of the city from prehistoric times, right up to the present day. It tells a somewhat unbiased tale of Chinese immersion, of the complete disintegration of its indigenous population by the Han Chinese Dynasty, about the toxic Opium Wars with Great Britain led primarily by the fact that although Europeans went nuts over local products like silk and tea, the desire to reciprocate trade was non-existent.
“There was nothing made in Europe which the Chinese coveted”
That made me smirk.

That was until the Brits inundated the trading port with opium they were growing in India, single-handedly causing a huge drug addiction problem within the local populace.

When Emperor Chia Ch’ing literally banned the import of opium, the Brits responded with war. Imagine that? They literally forced the country to accept their drug, of which they had a seemingly endless supply.
The Opium Wars ended with luck on the British side and the rest, as they say, is history. When the Crown took over Hong Kong in 1841, the city was nothing more than a hamlet of about 20 villages. By the time it was returned to China, on 30 June 1997, it had become one of the world’s most pivotal trading cities. English is still the official language (along with Cantonese) and, from what we gather, locals feel about as Chinese as we do.
Hong Kong (1)

Hong Kong (2)

Our enjoyment of Honkers had most to do with the fact that we had the chance to spend time with some dear friends. When that happens you could be just about anywhere and have an amazing time.
Hong Kong (8)

Hong Kong (3)

This is my gorgeous friend, Caterina. We met at the smoker’s wall at university 24 years ago and have been soul-buddies ever since. Obviously, our penchant for pink bonds us…

Still, the city has plenty of appeal regardless of whether or not you have a local buddy here or not. And considering the fact that neither Chris nor I are fans of big cities, it turned out to be the best city-scape we’ve had in years.

So now I’ll leave you with some interesting facts you may not know about this vibrant, cosmopolitan city. If you’re ever in the mood for a little getaway and wish to explore a unique and enticing place, give Honkers a go. Bet you won’t regret it
Just make sure it’s in the months between November and April 😉

1. HK is one of the world’s richest cities and boasts more Rolls Royce per capita than any other. The Peninsula Hotel placed an order in for 14 Phantoms, the largest order of Rollies ever made.
The Peninsula Hong Kong

2. It also boasts the most expensive real estate on earth, with tiny one bedroom flats in Tsim Sha Tsui (the southern tip of Kowloon Island) selling for USD 3 mill. That’s a lot of dumplings.

Tsim Sha Tsui at twilight

Tsim Sha Tsui at twilight

3. Unsurprisingly, HK also boasts the highest concentration of eateries in the world and is home to the cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant you’ll ever find anywhere. PS We ate there!

The famous pork & shrimp dumplings at Din Tai Fung, in Causeway Bay. Yuuuuum!!

The famous pork & shrimp dumplings at Din Tai Fung, in Causeway Bay. Yuuuuum!!

4. Locals are just crazy for designer gear, and HG boasts the most expensive designer retail shopping area in the world, having overtaken New York in 2012.

5. More than 42 million people visit Hong Kong every year, spending more than USD 34 BILLION dollars. This doesn’t include mainland Chinese, of which there are 58 million. That’s right, more than all other nationalities combined.

Wan Chai Markets

Wan Chai Markets

6. The Global Geopark of China, a UNESCO-listed reserve which covers 1,253 acres, is less than an hour’s drive out of the city.

7. Camping is free for all, in all public parks, beaches and uninhabited islands, unless specifically stated otherwise. We only encountered one ‘no camping’ sign during our week’s exploration. If you had a kayak, you’d have literally thousands of idyllic coves and secluded beaches to explore at length.

8. In 2012, a Hong Kong tycoon offered USD65 million to any man who was able to ‘turn’ his lesbian daughter, woo her, and marry her. He failed and she married her girlfriend instead. You go girl!

9. Hong Kong has the largest fleet of ferries in the world (connecting not just Kowloon to Hong Kong Island but also many cities on mainland China), as well as the longest bi-cable aerial car and one of the most efficient public transport systems, with an on-time rate of 99%.
Hong Kong (5)

10. Due to the insane cost of housing, many of the city’s poor live in wire ‘cages’ which can be rented for USD200 a year. It’s believed that over 50,000 locals live like this. Read more here.

Dramatic inequality, HK's least enticing aspect...

Dramatic inequality, HK’s least enticing aspect…

11. An 800m-long covered escalator helps commuters get from Mid-Levels to Central. It’s the longest escalator in the world and it switches directions at peak hour. Down in the morning and up in the afternoon.

Cat and I riding up the Hong Kong Island hill towards SoHo!

Cat and I riding up the Hong Kong Island hill towards SoHo!

12. Traditional burial plots can sell for upwards of USD80,000 and spaces are painfully amiss. It’s believed more than 50,000 people’s remains are stored in funeral homes for years, whilst their families wait in queue for a plot. Considering people here are cremated at death and need only a small plot for an urn, a running local joke is that in Hong Kong it costs more to bury the dead than house the living.
And that’s saying something.

Posted in current affairs, Overlanding, Travel Guides | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

2015 – The Travel Year (that wasn’t really)

I woke up this morning realising that we covered more kilometres during our 8-week traverse of China, in 2014, than during the last 12 months in Southeast Asia. The thought made me smile.

Travel. It’s bloody brilliant no matter how far you get or how fast you move.

Yep, we’re still here. Still in Malaysia, about to celebrate our 6th month in the country. It’s ridiculous, I know. Surely we should be on the other side of the planet by now, you say? Yes, maybe…but what’s the rush?
Australia is just around the corner, even though, in all honesty, it has been just around the corner for about 18 months now. Friends have suggested that perhaps we are subconsciously delaying our arrival in Oz because it will mark the ‘end of our journey’, but trust us when I tell you: we ain’t all that deep. Not really.

What many see as our ‘journey’ we see as a simple phase in our travelling life. Nothing will end once we get to Australia, it will only begin. Maybe we’ll stay a while, maybe we’ll continue on. Perhaps we’ll park up the bikes and get a camper or – if my lurve has his way – we’ll find a rickety old boat, do it up and sail to Alaska.
That’s his latest idea.
Last time he came up with ‘idea’ of his I ended up riding 37,000kms on a motorbike, so forgive me for being a little nervous.

Anyway, where were we…
2015. What a year. A year when even the negatives turned out to be incredible positives.
So at the risk of sounding all too-hippy for my liking, a year for which I am incredibly grateful.

I’m grateful at the chance of starting the New Year with new friends in one of the most ridiculously low-key capitals in the world, Vientiane

Jonas, Ellen, Chris and I waiting for the NYE fireworks (that never came) in Vientiane,Llaos

Jonas, Ellen, Chris and I waiting for the NYE fireworks (that never came) in Vientiane,Llaos

I’m grateful that Chris’ parents joined us for his birthday and we had the chance to experience new lands together

Hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Hot air balloon ride over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

I’m grateful for my bout of tendinitis that put a tremendous ‘brake’ on our travels this year. We’ve had the priceless chance to ‘live’ in these foreign countries, rather than just visit them

Rockin' that sling, Bangkok

Rockin’ that sling, Bangkok

I’m grateful that 2015 brought us together with my mum and my best girlies. I’m grateful for the laughs and the love

My fave ladies!

My fave ladies!

I’m grateful for the discovery of house & pet sitting, it’s opened up a whole new travel world to us, one which is sustainable long-term

Julian, Doug & Gus (three other little demons missing), the best furry new friends we made this year

Julian, Doug & Gus (three other little demons missing), the best furry new friends we made this year

I’m grateful for the chance to discover new places, explore new cultures and learn more about this wonderful world of ours. And, above all else, I’m so very grateful for my health and that of Chris, so that we may continue to explore this insanely addictive, complex, dumbfounding and interesting planet of ours.

Island hopping off Sihannoukville, Cambodia

Island hopping off Sihannoukville, Cambodia

And finally, I’m grateful to all the amazing people we’ve met this year, who have enrichened our experiences and made our journey – in life, not just on the bikes – so much more fulfilling.
Thank you to all our dearest family and friends, for keeping us connected to our ‘homes’, and making us feel supported and loved. That’s the most appreciated gift of all.

I wish you all an amazing start to 2016. May the silver linings that will inevitably come, be the sweetest of all.
‘Till soon
Laura x

Posted in Overlanding | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment