Just checking out the visa situation, flight times, getting the first pack done and saying final goodbyes (well any excuse for a beer - or champagne in Sarah`s case).
As if Jersey didn`t want to give us a chance to get off the rock, fog came down and delayed the start of the trip. Luckily this was forseen and hasn`t impeded the rest of our trip. The only sad part was not being able to visit Bill, Sasha and Sophie in Croydon.
Off to Nairobi in the morning, can`t wait for the warm weather!
Arrived Nairobi last night - wow! Visas obtained no problem then nervous wait for our bags that came off last - phew! Very hot - and interesting taxi to the hotel......
Took a walk around Nairobi city centre - drew lots of attention from guys on the street, all wanting to sell us something or take us somewhere! They seem dodgy but harmless really - you just have to learn to say no! A busy capital city with crazy driving and lots of chancers... but friendly enough. Stayed in hotel in the evening as dangerous to walk the streets at night.
Tour welcome meeting - met tour leader, Wendy (enthusiastic Canadian), and driver Tom (quiet Kenyan). 5 other people on 1st part of tour, Kerry, Darren, Anthea, Per and Esther. Seem a nice bunch from England, Oz and Sweden. So excited feels overwhelming at the start! Saw our truck - `Chobe` which will be our transport for the next 58 days - for the 1st time (see picture).
Drove to Nakura town, saw Rift Valley on the way, did a bit of shopping in Nakuru and bought a nice soap stone bowl which will be posted home soon. Sarah tried to haggle but liked the bloke so probably paid him too much - never mind! Drove on to Lake Nakuru for our first big game drive. Amazing sights, saw the following animals: Water Buffalo; White Rhino (28 over 2 days!); Water Buck; Flamingo; Marabu Stalk, Vultures, Baboon, Vervet Monkey, Zebra, Giraffe, Hyrax (rat type thingy), Secretary bird, Eagle.... etc, see pictures.
Camped out in bush in the park surrounded by Baboons. Really exciting, lit a fire, cooked our first meal, lots of sounds during the night, beautiful scenery and long drop toilets (bushes were favoured). Woken in the night by Baboons and Hyenas outside the tents.
Woke before sunrise for an early morning game drive, watched the sunrise against a beatiful setting with a White Rhino really close to the truck!! Lots of photos taken.More animals spotted including a rare antelope called a dick-dick!! Had bruch over baboon look out point - stunning view, and excellent food (by Sarah and Anthea:-)
Next we drove to Eldoret - bumpy dirt track roads - Phil managed to get two injuries and because we tried to eat rice this went everywhere - everyone found this histerical!!
That night we stayed at Raj`s place campsite - interesting smells in the bar from the locals smoking `stuff` Raj has a thing about dogs - he has 50 of them - some hang out in the bar - on the bar!!
Having a great time - much more to update you with, but leaving now to get back on the road - take care all!
Phil and Sarah xxx
p.s - we are writing this in Kampala (capital of Uganda) and although nice - these computers are pretty rubbish and our photo loader is not working so you`ll have to wait a few days to see our pictures! (No fast internet in these parts)
Today (31/1) we are back in Nairobi but we are so behind on this blog we`ll start by updating you on the past week - and we are going to attempt to upload our photos so fingers crossed!
A few sayings we have picked up:
HEY - MZUNGU! Hey, white person!
T I A - This is Africa - things happen slower or sometimes differently to back home - expect the unexpected!
T R I - Truck related Injury!!
19/1 We crossed from Kenya to Uganda to find a gren lush landscape with fruit trees everywhere - colourful dressed people who are SO friendly it`s lovely to be around them. Our campsite was in Jinja - called `Nile River Explorers` and known for the watersports on the Nile..great facilities and the BEST ever shower which had an open view straight over the source of the Nile - see pictures..
20/1 Next day we all chose the option of the School Volunter project for an organisation called Softpower - they support AIDS orphaned kids and villages where the kids want to get some schooling. We visited the centre with IT, Arts and Crafts and Health section to promote education. Kids were everywhere and all wanted to be cuddles and picked up - it was quite emotional to see such poor kids smiling so much..
A pick up truck took us to the school that we wer going to paint for the day - and we soon got stuck in - and covered in paint! We had some free time to spend with the kids - football and more cuddles and talk of their school and ambitions..Picture taking was very popular as the kids loved to look at the photo on the screen and laugh histerically! :-) That night we had quiet beers overlooking the Nile watching parrots flying around - and monkeys jumping through the trees - and reflecting on the school experience - such a special day.
21/1 We moved to campsite near Kampala - Red Chilli - just an overnight stopover on the way to Lake Bunyoni. HUGE rainshower thunder lightning etc then hot again! It was Antheas birthday so we took a scary taxi ride to Fasika = Ethiopian restaurant. Food was beef chiken and fish type stews and some pancake type bread to scoop up with - I took some pictures ( I must admit the big plate did look a bit like someone had been sick - and one dish reminded me of a water buffalo cowpat I had seen before! We had chosen a dorm room at Red Chillie - oo-er it was horribvle - mosquitos buzzing around all night and beds did not look too clean. Sarah hired bedsheets and we wrapped up in our silk liners plus head nets - socks etc - I think we had a couple of hours sleep betwen us that night! Next day no sign of bites or bed bugs so quite releived...
22/1 Lond drive (400km) to Lake Bunyoni. Campsite is just passed one of Idi Amins posh houses (African dictator who murdered many - portraid in film ` Last King of Scotland) He died in 2002 so thats good.Camped next to lake - great views and lovely cool nights slep in tent listening to frog songs..
23/1 To Rwanda! (getting nearer to the Gorilla trek!!!) VERY rough roads to Rhuengeri in Rwanda - travelled in a van type taxi ` MAtatu` another scary drive on `roads` of dirt! Crossed border into Rwanda at Kisoro. Saw a UN refugee camp (this is to do with the Congo refugees problems) Once in Rwanda roads were perfect tarmac and infrastructure light years ahead of Uganda (surprising!). Rwanda is very hilly with tall mountain ranges and low clouds covering them - stunning views - even grener than Uganda! Stayed at an old convent now a hotel `Fatima`s place` where we would have one nights slep until we met with our relatives - the mountain gorillas!! Dinner that night was slow but funny as the waiter was African version of Manuel from Faulty Towers! He would walk calmly in the restaurant but when fetching us somthing we caught him running as soon as he was out of sight - bless him! Early night for all as 6am up for Gorillas adventure....
24/1 Drove 12k to Parc Nationaol de Volcanoes where groups were gathering to start their trek. Our main guide was Mr Placid - what a great name! A very gentle softly spoken guy who explained the plan for the trek.
Ther are 600 Mountain Gorillas left in the wild - in the whole world. This park had 14 groups with betwen 9 to 42 in each group. The group that we wer going to trek was a family of 9 - 1 silverback, 2 black backs, 2 mums and 2 infants and 2 babies - couldn`t wait to go!! Trackers had ben sent out at 6am to find the group for us - they would then radio our guide who would lead us into the forest. Walked on hilly terrain through villages with potato and daisy fields heading towards the mountain forest - felt so excited! Met up with 2 other guides plus 2 Rwandan Army guys with AK47`s (protecting us from poachers, or to scare away the mountain elephants or Buffalo that might be around) The Uphill trekking started after about 20 minutes - it was hot so got out of breath quickly - also altitude affected us a little..Another 20 minutes and our guides spotted them about 40metres away - oh my god our hearts wer beating really fast as couldn`t believe we were going to be with them soon..Leaving our bags with the guards we then entered dense forest with a guy at the front using a machete to clear the pathway. The hillside were our family was sitting was sometimes 80 degrees steep in places, so we were literally scrambling up to them. the guides held our hands to drag us up! Sarah was at the front and Phil at the back - our guide Placid got to the top with Sarah - cut away the undergrowth and there he was - CHARLES - the Silverback head of the family - 25 years old - 200kg in weight - and about a metre away from Sarah. Instead of taking photos she just froze, trembling with tears in her eyes - (Sarah - ``I was not expecting to feel so emotional when face to face with them but they are so placid and gentle but also huge and powerful - this was a completing unique and humbling experience for me)
2 infants and a baby tumbled into view and we watched them playfighting - rolling around they got within touching distance (got some camera footage) - then Sarah turned around and notice Mum RIGHT behind her - just keping a quiet watch on proceedings but not bothered by us at all. All the time the 3 rangers made soft grunting and grumbling sounds which meant to calm the gorillas and tell them `everything is alright, no need to worry` amazing skills from these guys - they just kept pulling us up through the bushes helping us take photos etc - they encouraged us to get close and enjoy the time with them (Only 1 hour, quickest hour of my life?? :-(
We REALLY hope some of the trek photos and videos we will upload can help you share part of our experience which the whole group agreed was once in a lifetime feeling, and a true privelege - We will definately be back to this place in the future, without a doubt!!
After the fantastic day with the gorillas yesterday, today was definitely a much more somber afair. We took the Matatu from Rhuengeri to Kigali. The scenery was stunning, tea plantations, mountains (no snow caps) and driving through the clouds to the capital Kigali. The reason for going there was a serious one. The group had decided that the trip to Rwanda should include a visit to the Genocide museum in order to understand better what the people of Rwanda had to endure in 1994 whilst the world looked on and did little.
On arriving at the museum, the security was tight. No blades etc were let through, including swiss army knives. Once through, we entered was seemed to be calm in the storm of Kigali. The grounds were well kempt and staff very somber. We were shown round the garden and the mass grave. Apparently 258,000 peoples remains are buried in the grave. This is just from bodies/remains that have been located to date in the Kigali area. There are other smaller mass graves/memorials around the country.
Every family of any deceased, hutu or tutsi, have the right to re-bury the remains of their relative in the mass graves, once it has been located and exhumed from the spot they were callously buried by their murderer. There are still remains being found as only now are some of the perpitrators of the genocidal actions are confessing. Of the bodies buried there seems to be only 10-20 thousand names on the boards as the staff are still identifying the bodies. It is shocking that this happend a little under 15 years ago!!!
Inside, the museum tells the story ot the Rwandan people, before colonialism; during colonialism by the Belgians and the Hutu/Tutsi segregation by the colonials; after the Belgians left and the supremacy of the Hutu majority; the build up to the genocide; the West`s reaction; the Genocide; and the miraculous aftemath and forgiveness. The museum is a very moving place and goes into great detail, especially the stories on videos by surviors on the loss of their loved ones. Other rooms that are very moving are the room of bones, room of clothes and room of stories. However the room that got me was the room of children who all died in the genocide detailing the age, likes, dislikes, hobbies and attrocious way they died either hacked to death, burned alive, shot or drowned, sometimes a mixture of them all.
After seeing the horrors at the museum, knowing it only happened 15 years ago it is amazing to see people live side by side of eachother. I am humbled and think that the Paul Kagame, no matter what bad press is given to him by the French, have done an amazing thing. Long may it continue.
Following the museum, we all headed to Hotel des Milles Collines (Hotel Rwanda) to see the place where the film was set. Seemed like just another hotel, but it was good to see where it all happened especially as the film was filmed in South Africa. Sarah did find a book however which disputed alot of the things that happened in the film, however we believe the film still has a lot of merit as it opens the viewers eyes to what happened in Rwanda.
After the hotel we headed back to Uganda and Lake Binyoni for a few days. Needed the break after the emotional rollercoaster of Rwanda.
Cold night in Lake Binyoni, to be woken at 4am by the idiots from Africa Travel Company truck leaving and shouting across the campsite. Annoyingly some hungover idiot called James had pitched his tent next to ours and had refused to wake up on time so we suffered the brunt of the shouting aimed at him... hmmm!
After a bit more sleep Sarah headed to the local market with hope in her heart and shillings in her pocket. Luckily there wasn`t much there to buy aimed at a Muzungu.
Anthea and Darren hired a dugout canoe for the day to paddle about on Lake Binyoni only to spend the best part of an hour doing the fabled "Muzungu corkskrew". Once they returned from their unsuccessful trip Sarah and I borrowed the canoe and headed for the island in the middle of the lake. After minimal corkskrewing ourselves we arrived to be greeted by the friendly staff. After deciding that we weren`t trespassing we said hi and asked a few questions as the island was beatifully kept. It was an eco friendly holiday island with separate eco lodges and tents. We were shown around by a young lad Gregg. The lodges were stunning and a snip at US$50 per person per night and the tents $40 per person per night. If only we had more money and time...
On the walk round the island Gregg told us he was an orphan adn the owner of the lodge supports his education suffice as he does well and works there during his holidays which seems fair. He also asked if we`d seen any local singing and dancing, which to date we hadn`t. He told us that if we wanted to he could arrange for some local kids, some of them AIDS orphans to perform for us later that night. We would have to check with the others but in principle yes.
Following the paddle back to shore Phil went with a swim with Wendy, the tour guide, to the island and back. About 2km in all. Have to say Phil hurt after exercise for the first time in a long time. Had a small panic half way back with the thought of the lake being 6500ft deep and no in depth survey of the lake has been carried out so anything could be in there...
Once we`d prepared dinner we headed out of the campsite to see the the children and what performers! First they were singing, then they were dancing and then singing and dancing. Lastly with Muzungu participation. Phil has been threatened with the placing of video on YouTube... not funny! The kids were great, we gave some pens and pencils (with great thanks to MArcia!) to them as they start back top school next week and we donated some funds to them.
Before we left, the kids were invited to dinner. After a little wranging with the campsite guards, the kids were allowed in and after making up some Ugali (corn meal) we fed 41 out of food that was meant for 9. Didn`t eat much that night, but it has to go down as the best meal so far without question and a fantastic end to the day!
Lake Binyoni - Jinja
Long truck day back to Jinja, the source of the Nile. Watched the world go by and read. Stopped in Kampala and we found an ATM in Uganda that didn`t reject my card so I was happy. We bought a box of wine to celebrate!
Once we got to jinja we got a talk from the rafting company about possibly doing rafting the next day, decided to turn it down due to the cost ($150). Wanted a day relaxing anyway. Went to sleep to the sound of the Nile crashing over the rapids.
Phil wasn`t in the best mood this morning as he`d missed out on the bacon for breakfast as he was doing all the hand washing for us. Took him a while to recover and forgive people. The moral is don`t mess with Phil`s bacon!
Went for a walk to Bujugali Falls to watch the white water. To be honest it wasn`t as impressive as I thought it would be however Sarah loved it as she had`t seen white water up close before.
Had Chipatis outside the campsite for lunch... good eats! After lunch we bought a painting from Fatia, a lady with a painting stall just outside the campsite. She was a hard bargainer as we had discovered from her bartering with Darren and Anthea. Luckily we got her just after her haggle with them so she was already in the money after using emotional blackmail of her baby. That technique would not and did not work on us. To be fair to her she did try and Sarah had to hold the naked 1 year old hoping that he wouldn`t try to put out a fire on her... I looked on in amusment.
Had homemade burgers by Per that night, which made up for the lack of bacon that morning. Stayed up drinking the red wine we bought in Kampala with Tom and a few others. We found out Tom was leaving us at Nairobi but we would be joined by his brother Patrick. We will miss him and his cheeky smile when he is trying to apologise for not seeing the speed bump in time, really nice guy!
After the long Kenya - Uganda border crossing we were up early for the Jinja to Eldoret return. Crossing only took 30 mins and managed to get a transit visa for $20 rather than what seems the usual $50 visa price, which was a nice surprise.
Due to the speedy crossing we arrived at Raj`s (Eldoret Overland Campsite) early afternoon with plenty of time to spare. Ditched the tent for once and stayed in a dorm which left us with an extra 15 mins around the pool, which we had no time to spend in last time due to chores and late arrival.
Had group meal at bar in aid of Tom`s impending departure. A nice curry selection with Naan Bread. It was good to have some spicy flavours. Really good eats!
Stayed late drinking with Tom and met Raj on the way to bed. An interesting character, aggregate millionaire who seems very relaxed about most things. Met his side kick Habi who was a complete waste of space. A swiss guy funded by his parents and complaining about capitalism and the over exploitation of Africa by the West. A little bit of a hypocrate...
30/1/09 - Eldoret to NAirobi
ANother early one, actually 5am start. That early that I saw the Southern Cross for the first time before the sun came up. A 10-12 hour drive to Nairobi, stopping in Nakuru for supplies along the way. Some of the traders remembered us from a couple of weeks ago. We handled them a lot firmer this time, old hands now and bought a few souveniers and stocked up on beer and water for the stay in Nairobi.
Stayed just outside the Karen suburb of Nairobi which is where Nairobi turns white. Amazed at the chelsea tractors around all driven by affluent whites. Stayed up drinking late for the first time. Per was picked on during Ring of Fire and ended up wasted, though it was his own fault for not following his own drinking rules.
31/1/09 - Nairobi
Up early again as body not used to a lie in... it will get there! Sarah a little worse for wear so I got the breakfast ready for the group. Stole some eggs and bread made some french toast and tried the local honey we bought a few days before with the bee in, was good!!!
Headed to the Karen Nakumat mall in our first Matatu (Kenyan minicab - designed for 10 people, but easily manage twice that amount) as there was ATMs, internet etc. Downloaded the gorilla photos to DVD but managed to corrupt the data on the memory card at the same time so couldn`t download the gorilla photos to the to the blog as also couldn`t find a DVD reader. Did manage to download some Lake Nakuru and Jinja photos to CD so got some photos on the blog, not without a little panic. Got a taxi back to the campsite as couldn`t be bothered with waiting for the Matatu. Taxi driver informed us that up to a few years ago, Africans (blacks) weren`t aloud in the mall unless they worked there, shocking! It isn`t just South Africa that had this prejudice.
1/2/09 - Nairobi to Masai
Another early one, you`d think we`d get used to it, however it seems that for the first time we got a little confused so instead of breakfast at 6:30am, which is what we thought, it was breakfast at 6am and leave at 6:30am... a little rush in the morning just before we meet the new bods.
Made sure that the original community had the best seats then set off for the Boulevard Hotel to meet everyone. Tried to sneak a free breakfast at the hotel as we missed ours but were busted and had to spend close to 6 quid on a breakfast. Wasn`t that hungry but made sure we got VFM.
Seemed to be a lot of convicts (australian), a couple of english youngsters, a south korean girl and an american girl who lived in London, plus 4 Danes in their 60`s. Fair play! In all the group of 7 had increased to 24, not a spare seat on the truck!
Headed off to the Massai Mara in converted toyota minivans. Stopped at the rift valley again for the newbies to see it, then headed off to the Mara. Got there just in time for lunch and a late afternoon game drive. Saw what for us now is the usual antelope, zebra, plus our first elephants, a Topi, Hatebeest, leopard tortoise. The highlight of the drive however was watching 3/4 lions stalking a hartebeest, pretty impressive. Shame our driver got a little close to the hartebeest and startled it off... No kill yet!
Stayed in spacious 4 man tents in the Mara with Darren and Anthea, in the hope we get a double room in Zanzibar!
The new people are: Dimitri, Nissansala, Sriyan, Cathy, Dominique, Alex, Jemma, Tobias, Steph (all Australian), Lorna, Keely (Brits), Tom, Gehard, Estred, Jytte (the Danes), Sue (South Korean) and Brian (sorry, Breanne the american)
2/2/09 - Masai Mara
Morning game drive to the Mara River where you see the wildebeest/zebra migration on the tv documentaries. No migration, but plenty of hippos and a few Nile Crocodiles. Got to see lions, Massai Girraffes, a pair of servals.
After the drive, Sarah went to the MAssai village nearby the camp for an authentic look at masai life [Sarah to UPDATE]
3/2/09 - Masai Mara - Nairobi
Early morning game drive. Got to see our first black rhino, but way way off in the distance. Lots of elephants, the vans were charged at by one of the adolesasant elephants. Quick work by the drivers helped us avoid being tipped, though I don`t think we were fully aware of the danger we were actually in. Saw our first spotted hyenas, plus good news for Per (who jokingly wanted to see some ants, some Safari Ants... Not just interested in the big animals.
Headed back to Nairobi for the new guys first night of real camping... lets hope the dogs perform as they had the previous few nights and keep every one awake!
Woke up early by one of the Danish couples shouting to each other from in/outside of the tent - they are just very noisy people in the mornings ( I suppose these 60 year olds get up early)!
Safari vehicles picked us up and drove us to the Ngorogoro Crater and Serengeti. Our first view of the crater was amazing – such a vast landscape with so much wildlife living there.
Through our binoculars we could make out some Water Buffalo, Wildebeest and Elephant on crater floor– this was before we drove down into the actual crater itself.
As we drove through the Serengeti we found ourselves in the middle of hundreds of wildebeest and Zebras all moving together across the plains – basically this was part of the continuous migration that takes place here. It was stunning to witness such a large scale movement of the animals – and quite a surprise! We also saw: Black Backed Jackal, Golden Jackal, Civet, Spotted Hyenas plus vultures who were scavenging a carcass. That night we rough camped in the park that night – could hear the hyenas very close by before heading into bed for an early night (these game drives are exhausting!)
Second game drive was another early start – especially for Sarah and some of the other girls – plus the 4 Danes – who were on the balloon ride that morning.
Phil stayed on game drive and didn’t see much but finally managed to find a Leopard! Although far away it was still visible and definitely worth a tick on the Big 5 List!
Sarah’s balloon ride was not full of animals either, unfortunately, but was entertaining due to the cheesey American pilot who was a real Poser and made the girls cringe!! I think we took some photos we can put up…Anyway – saw lots of hippos bathing in pools and some running across the ground – they move fast! Also saw lots of monkeys jumping through trees – so scenery amazing but lack of animals was a shame. (Couldn’t get a refund coz of this though!:-)
Other highlights from the 3 days of game drive were lots of elephants – old and young – plus a wildebeest in the middle of labour – the guide told us the birth should take 7 minutes…..we stopped and watched for about 30 minutes but she still hadn’t managed to push out the calf – so we had to accept that this one was not going to be successful and that Mum and calf would not make it – we drove off and everyone was very quiet after witnessing something so real…I suppose that’s life!
Sarah got very drunk with some of the others that night – till 3 am ish…It was a hilarious night drinking in the campsite bar with the owners and bar staff who were really funny..They dished out the local ‘killer’ shot called Ma’s Revenge (Ma is the owner) It contained something called Stroh 80, plus tequila and Tabasco (ah... Phil remembers it from Austria - look it up guys) its probably petrol or something! The drinkers decided to have 3 shots each – quite dangerous but so funny!! Anyway – the hangover the next day was one of the WORST Sarah has ever had – had to lie on the floor for most of the truck journey! The other funny thing was that some of the less exciting members of the truck were ‘not impressed’ by happy drunk people making noise falling into their tents at 3am – when I told Ma the 60 year old owner about these unhappy people – she said – TELL THEM TO TOUGHEN UP OR GO HOME!! Now that sums it up – coming from a pensioner too!
Arrived in Tembe late after long day on the truck. Sarah recovering from hangover en-route. Was on cooking duty so had to cook in the dark. Had decided from our previous few days to instigate portion control. Certain people, mainly the antipodeans seemed to lack this so others had had to make do with little (good for the diet I suppose). Obviously took a few by surprise, but at least everyone got a fair portion. Don`t think anyone wanted seconds of my cooking anyway...
The drive to Dar es Salaam was hot and sticky (40 deg C in the truck!). Could tell we were getting nearer the coast by the appearance of palm trees. On arrival in Dar, tried to get cash out to no avail as Barclays had “forgot” to note my travels. Took a 20 minute roaming charge call to rectify... wonder if I will get a refund out of that! Campsite was on the beach, had first swim in the Indian Ocean. Really warm! Spent a very hot and sticky night in the tent, not a good night. Had a new girl join the truck, Charlotte, will be with us to Livingstone.
Early start for Zanzibar. Had to catch two ferries, one across the estuary and the other to Zanzibar. Bit of a rush for both as Patrick overslept and Wendy had to drive... lucky we made it in one piece ;-). Had decided a few days before to bin off Stone Town and head straight to the beach, giving us an extra day and a half there and without the new people, who we were still getting used to. First time we felt like really traveling was on our way up to Nunwe with Per, Anthea, Darren and Esther. Stayed in a bungalow at H&H Bungalows, 5 min walk from the beach. Headed straight to the beach once we were sorted and the view was like a postcard. The turquoise sea against the cloudless sky and the white sand. First holiday of the trip had just started! Ate on the beach that night, actually got the restaurant to set a table on the beach for us. The calamari was good!
Didn`t feel like much of a holiday the next day as we were up early again in order to go deep sea fishing (a present from Per). Per, an online poker gambler, had tried his hand at online bingo (a game he admits is for old women) just before Christmas and luckily won to the order of GBP 11,000 on his first attempt!!! He always goes fishing when on holiday, but invited us all to join him, which was very generous! Fishing trip went well, in all 9 Dorado were landed. The only downside to the trip was the sun`s reaction to the Doxycycline. Our skin felt like it had been burnt by acid for a couple of days. We had one of the local restaurants cook up the fish that evening. Beautifully cooked and served with chips. That tired afterwards we all headed to bed.
Next morning Phil went diving at Nmembe (a marine park to the North East of Zanzibar). Had two dives, saw lots of fish, puffer fish, purple spotted ray, trigger fish, turtles and a couple of sharks (not sure what kind). In the meantime, Sarah sunbathed and got a henna tattoo on her ankle. Very pretty. We went for a sundowner at Cholos, had a cheap chipati dinner and a few cocktails with the usual crowd, plus Breanne, Bob and Cathy (new members to the drinking alliance).
The last day a the beach, had a last morning swim before heading back to Stone Town. On arrival in Dar, we felt down after having a relaxing time in Zanzibar, could have spent a couple of weeks on the beach there. First place we`ve been that we will definitely go back to. Kerry also left the truck to head to Egypt. Will miss the Australian whine, the “cappuccino baby” and the “up the for thinkin`, down there for dancin` and, wierdly, in there for romancin`”
Road trip to Kande Beach in Malawi. 3 days of driving. Stopped in Iringa (Tanzania) and Chitimba (Malawi) along the way. Saw the aftermath of a really bad road accident on the way to Iringa, the first of our trip. Wendy, Patrick and Per (trained paramedic) assisted with the casualties. 1 fatality, 2 that probably won`t make it and a guy that lost 3 fingers as the truck overturned. Felt a little worthless as unable to assist but we`d have been in the way as there was already a crowd of locals not assisting. Stayed overnight in Iringa and had a local African dinner. Far too much food. The Ugali fills us up so no room for meat.
Another long day on the truck, arrived 5ish, but was cooking again! Had a little time on the beach before having to cook dinner. Actually good, though not spicy, Satay. Had time after diner to watch the stars and have a few drinks on the beach with Sarah. Watched a lightening storm off in the distance, thought nothing of it and left the fly off the tent as it was so hot... not the best idea. Felt a few drops around 2am, thought was a light shower and would pass. It didn`t! A torrential downpour started and I had to race to the truck to get the fly. Absolutely drenched. A fly is never to be forgotten again! The good thing was, everyone else was in the same boat so it was quite funny to see all the blokes running for the flys whilst the ladies kept dry in the tents.
Arrived in Kande Beach at 4pm, handed in washing to one of Patrick`s many daughters. This man is a bit of an African Lothario it seems with children all over the place. Upgraded to a beachfront bungalow. Beautiful place, perfect with the waves crashing at the beach just in front of the bungalow steps. Had a few beers in the bar and watched a thunder storm over Mozambique, the other side of Lake Malawi.
Relaxed on the beach for 3 days, 3 nights. Overslept for the 1st time. Just got in for breakfast and shirked my first duty of packing. Oh well. Went on village tour, got guided around by the local beach boys (lads from the village who hang out on the beach and are permitted by the local chief to show tourists around the village, school and hospital, all with imaginative names. Julius Caesar was the leader, but others were Winston Churchill (mine), Swede Banana (Sarah`s). My personal favourite was Mr T, always wore camoflage shorts, but didn`t get the “I pity the fool!” jokes. Nice lads, but always wanting to make extra cash by selling Bao games (we bought one) and Malawi Wawi... a local herb I believe.
Village and school tour was really interesting. Seems the school is one of the best in the region, thanks to the helping out by tourists, i.e. sponsoring of children, volunteering to teach (no quals needed it seems!). You can volunteer there for free and stay in the Kande Beach campsite for free, which is a good deal.
It seems that the storms in Malawi are fierce, one night we were on the beach around a fire when the locals started scattering at the first couple of droplets. In 5 minutes we were in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm. There was tent flooding, lucky we didn`t have a tent. Decided the bar was the safest place (usually is) and sheltered there until it was over. Amazing storm, at one point the sky was on fire! Definitely the loudest thunder we have ever heard!!!
The day before we left Kande Beach we had arranged for a goat on a spit (we had the option for pig roast, and the majority voted for it, but as in true African politics the majority doesn`t always win...). We woke early that day to watch sunrise before I headed off to the village to watch the slaughter. Patrick was supposed to be there but he was probably off visiting one of his many wives... Instead the village Beach Boys did it... Not good, almost turned me vegetarian and they made a right hash of it. I have a video for all of you to see when I get home. Safe to say that the torment of the slaughter made the goat tough... Pig would have been so much better!!!
The last day we headed off towards Senga Bay for another day on the beach before heading to Zambia. It was not to be as, in true African driving style, there was a spectacular accident (we weren`t witness to). One 18 Wheeler had overturned across the road, then two 18 wheelers from opposite directions decided they could still go round (off road). However the rain the previous night taking its toll had made the off-road part a little muddy so both had got stuck, completely blocking the road! Instead of waiting there until help arrived (could have been days in Malawi) we turned back and went inland to get to Lilongwe. It seemed that the something was against us getting away from Kande Beach as the rain had taken its toll on the road to spectacular effect. Crevasses over a metre wide and a metre deep had opened up following the rains. Patrick did well and got us out of the first dodgy spot, however this only delayed the inevitable and we got well a truly stuck further up the road. Took an hour to get out. Good stuff, as I thought the trip was lacking a bit of team bonding. Still interesting to see those who generally sat or stood around whilst others worked to get out of the predicament...
Got to Lilongwe late after the delays on the road, set up camp away from most of the others as it was a little crowded. Had a few sundowners at our impromptu bar (they had a lime tree which went well with the Gin and Vodka and tonics!).
Two long days driving, first crossing the border to Zambia and then across Zambia to Livingstone.
Even though we were heading off until 11am, it was an early start for some. Seems our (Sarah and mine) luck had turned for the better when everyone who had camped on the other side of the site had a infestation of ants. Some of the poor girls had ants all in there hair whilst they slept. We didn`t have any problems and slept soundly. Bit of a chill I the air in fact.
Easy border crossing. Stayed in Chipata at Mama Rulas on the first night. Sarah cooked a nice “sausage” chilli with Breanne and Dimitri. Had the Sri Lankans testing the heat, so ended up being a little hot. Introduced the crowd to sweaty Phil with chilli! Always a good look...
Another long truck day to Lusaka. Stayed in a campsite where some locals were having a party. Ended up playing volleyball with a few of the drunken party. Celebrated Patrick`s birthday with a meal and a cake. Tom, one of the Danes revealed the night before over a beer that he used to be Danish Magician Champion 2 years running, so he kindly offered to do an impromtu magic show for Patrick`s birthday. We were amazed at the card and money tricks, the jokes and how much he can hide in his hands!
Early start, but arrived in Livingstone in time to go to Victoria Falls. Beautiful! Amazing how much water flows over every second, especially in wet season which we were in. Stayed in Livingstone for 4 nights at the Waterfront. Upgraded to a riverside apartment. Starting to live in luxury! Stunning views across the Zambezi, surrounded by trees with Vervet Monkeys in (don`t leave washing out too long!).
Bit of an adrenalin filled few days. Went out for cocktails and diner the first night, which didn`t help the next day. Booked ourselves on White Water Rafting and a lion walk. Sarah decided it was time to do a bungee over the Zambezi. The hangover got the better of me (Sarah I believe to this day to be still drunk at the time of deciding) and I decided drowning was a much better way to go than jumping off a perfectly good bridge in no mans land (how would we get the body back!!!).
First up was the zip line/bungee/gorge swing combo that Sarah put herself up for with Esther and Charlotte. Esther knows what`s coming and is an “old” hand at this, Charlotte hasn`t a clue but is very vocal and definitely over confident and Sarah, with the hangover kicking in, is a little nervous about what she signed up for. First of all they lull you into a false sense of security with a pensioner style zip line across the Zambezi to the bridge connecting Zambia to Zimbabwe. Piece of cake for everyone! (I may even be up for that...)
Next up the trio were split into bungee and gorge swing. Sarah opting for the bungee, though not realising and Charlotte opting for the gorge swing, not having a clue what is about to happen. 10 minutes later, Charlotte is plummeting straight down towards the Zambezi thinking it had all gone wrong as you would think a “swing” would mean that, a swing! Eventually the rope and bungee cord kick in after a second or so of free fall and she starts the swing, with a blood curdling scream all the way as she thought she was going to die. The confidence was definitely drained, the poor girl. Sarah, at this point was still deciding what she`d signed up for and wasn`t too confident in the people around her, a couple really pushy. Walking up to the edge you hear “1, 2, 3 BUNGEE”... and nothing. Sarah`s still there. Obviously wasn`t to be this time. Sarah moved away from the edge and back onto the bridge for second thoughts. In the meantime, Esther walked up and promptly jumped, as I said old hand at wanting to kill herself off a bridge! After a lot of contemplating, Sarah stepped up to the plate and decided she`ll give it another go. This time, after a lot of explaining and serious faces from Sarah (see the photos), she took the leap of uncertainty and “1,2,3 bungee” she was off! Luckily everything worked despite a slight slippage around the ankles at the end, which was a little worrying (not Sarah`s exact words!).
Next, and finally on the agenda for Sarah was the Gorge swing. Having seen Charlotte, who still carried on and did the bungee after “surviving” the near death experience of the gorge swing, though I believe tears were shed all the way down (she’s crazy!), Sarah felt a little, let’s say, “hesitant” about this task. Despite my ginger-like offers to do it with her. Thankfully, she refused my offer and decided Esther to be a more robust partner for this. Wise choice! Both were preparing in their own way, Sarah serious, trying to understand every syllable and comprehend what was ahead, Esther smiling and nodding, thinking let’s do this! Sarah, still comprehending the fall awaiting. To the edge they went, arm in arm. Holding on tight to each other, they were ready to go. Again, second (possibly third or forth) thoughts by Sarah prevented the jump. Don’t blame her really after watching Charlotte. Esther jumped on her own, not thinking anything of it. She came back and confessed… “worse than bungee”. This was NOT what Sarah needed to hear. After a good 20 minutes and lengthy discussions with the head guy at the bungee, it was decided that she would do it with him. (brave man!). Up they stepped and after contemplation, off they went. Sarah hated the fall (feet first), but loved the swing and was very grateful to the man (who she can’t remember the name of). This whole episode was supposed to be quick and over in an hour or so… 5 HOURS later we made it back to the Waterfront. It was tiring being in the support crew. After a few celebratory beers the DVDs of all the girls’ attempts of suicide were shown. I was proud of Sarah, especially as realistically I never even contemplated it!
Next day was rafting, followed by a sunset booze cruise on the Zambezi. Rafting started early with a cooked breakfast (all the better to help you sink)… This for Sarah was more scary than the bungee, for me, I was loving it and looking forward to a swim! Sarah was very worried about the rafting but was resolved to go through with it. Fair play! Again there was a lot of concentrating and Vinnie, our guide, and luckily the head guide, was very patient and helped Sarah through it… despite some of his (what I thought funny) ill-timed jokes about drowning. After a bit of practice in the calm, we were off down the rapids. Though classed as a Grade 5 river, the rapids were only between 3 and 4 due to the rainy season. Still big enough for a novice, and to some extent me.
Our boat had a group from Acacia - Dimitri, Breanne, Esther, Sarah and I together with Adam (Australian mine engineer) and Jamie (Scottish environmental Assessor working in the Zambian mines) and Vinnie, the tour guide. We as a group had some worrying moments along the way, although we all made it through: first Dimitri “fell” in on the first rapid. I say fell as I may have inadvertently helped him into the water, sorry mate, will buy you another beer in Melbourne; We all flipped and went for a swim on the last standing wave (we were the only boat that rode it though) and I fell in on the last rapid as we decided it would be good to stand up for it (it was grade 2) – I managed to fall straight into a whirlpool, which was a little worrying for Sarah as I think she saw me go under a couple of times before finding my way out… survived at least! Along the way we got out on the Zimbabwe side of the river for some rock jumping. There was a 2m jump, 5m jump and 10m jump. Sarah and most of the others did the 5m jump. Only Adam and I did the 10m jump… still wouldn’t do a bungee though. Sarah made it through and I think her confidence has grown around the white water, but I’m not sure if she’d do it again… though she wants to do another bungee… strange (to me!).
Got the glad rags on for the sunset booze cruise. Free bar, so made the most of it. Started drinking whisky and lemonade… Jamie’s influence! Bob and Cathy were also on board. Bob especially made the most of the free bar… Along the way, mixed into the boozing, we saw hippos and a crocodile as well as the sunset over the Zambezi. Esther managed to lose her sunglasses overboard whilst posing for a photo… shouldn’t laugh… Then Sarah managed to lose her Oakleys once back on shore. She put them down in the bathroom and they were gone! Despite these setbacks, everyone managed to drink and dance (well, try) until the early hours.
The last full day in Livingstone was the Lion Walk. Another early one and one that “we” almost didn’t make due to the hangover - “We”, being Sarah. Despite the hangover and early start it was well worth it. The walk was conducted by Lion Alert. They are dedicated to repopulating the wild with lions, starting with hand reared cubs, who are taught how to hunt and be independent once they are 12 months old, then moved as a small pride to a small reserve then onto a bigger reserve. We were walking with two lionesses 9 month old sisters, who were beautiful. We got an hour with them and got to stroke them, walk holding their tail and be part of their pride. Despite the odd rule to follow it was very safe and well worth it.
That night we had farewell drinks for Per, Bob and Kathie (2-4-1 happy hour at the cocktail bar in the mall). They were all off to Jo’burg on another truck. We get to stay on Chobe until Cape Town.
Before we headed to Kasane (Botswana) we spent some time posting the goods and furniture we purchased in East Africa, namely the Malawi chair and table… both arrived safe, though unsure about the strange GST bill Toni had to pay…
New people arrived on the truck to replace those leaving. It will be 16 down to Cape Town, which is great news as 24 was too much! The new people were: Sarah Cooper, Sarah Reid (Canadians), Francesca (NZ), Chris (Brit, living in NZ – Francesca’s husband), Cindy, Jacinta, (Australian), Julien (French), Seunyeung (South Korea), Jasmine and Turak (German) A short drive and boat across the Chobe river (and the border) to Kasane in Botswana. Short distance but time consuming as we had to wait our turn on the ferry. Saw Bob, Kathy and Per again at Kasane. Seems that Bob and Kathy saw a leopard on their Chobe game drive… there’s hope as we go tomorrow! Had second farewell drinks for Bob, Kathy and Per, but knackered so sloped off to bed early on.
We went on a morning game drive with Chris in a very nice, open-sided safari vehicle. Saw some tired hippos out of the water and doing some big yawns for camera (nice). Saw elephant (dead unfortunately) with hopeful black-backed jackal standing next to it – the trouble was (Chris informed us) a jackals teeth are not strong enough to break the skin of the elephant so he would just have to wait for some other scavenger to prepare his meal!
Towards the end of the drive we saw a lioness and her cub cross the road right next to us – Sarah moved seats so that one of the new guys could get a good photo – after all – we had seen lots of lions already.
Later on we went on an evening river cruise, taking a cool box with some vino, beers and snacks. The scenery across the river was spectacular – and this was such a calm way to view animals as the boat made hardly any noise drifting across the flat river. Saw: silver monitor lizard, lots of hippos, kudu, and 3 big elephant herds – what a privilege to get up close to elephants watching their bathing and play time together!
That night we slept well and woke occasionally to hear hippos close to camp…
Next day was a driving day to Maun – this is the gateway to the Okavango Delta which would be our next safari and bush camp adventure! Maun itself does not live up to the quote in the Botswana Tourist guide ‘ you can’t help fall in love with Maun’ as we found it to be a dusty one horse town with FA to do! The campsite itself was quite nice, situated next to a croc farm where they held 6,000 crocs to be used for the meat supply – mmmmm croc burger! That afternoon some of us helped Wendy pack supplies and equipment from the truck that we would be taking on the mokoros (dug-out canoes) into the delta the next morning. Had a few beers and early night after 6 nations rugby had finished.
Next morning we went to the river banks where each pair picked up a mokoro with guide. We watched the mokoros getting filled up with all our camping supplies - tents and all – basically everything a group of 16 plus guides needed for a day and night bush camping on the river banks. Its amazing what these small carved boats can carry!
Our poler was a bloke called Luckshan – teenager who had been working as a paddler for a couple of years – his uncle owned the mokoro. 1.5 hours glide to the bank where we would set up our bush camp. There was beautiful scenery of reeds and lily pads, with small painted reed frogs hanging around to say hello. Sarah found it so relaxing that she fell asleep and Phil ‘claimed’ that she was snoring – hmm.. debatable!
We set up bush camp and then went for refreshing swim in the warm delta waters – the only disturbing thing here was that Phil thought it was amusing to take underwater photos of Sarah - which have been censored to protect her image I’m afraid folks! There is also a short film that we might show one day if Sarah allows it. Later we tried to learn the art of mokoro ‘poling’ paddling the boat – very difficult to master especially turning but managed a few good moves with no capsizing!
A late afternoon safari walk was organized – small groups went with one guide and basically walked around the bush – we were given a briefing on what to do if certain animals appeared – so here’s the guide for those who find themselves in the middle of the Botswana bush:
‘’You are walking along and stumble across’’:
A WATER BUFFALO – RUN! These guys are a bit stupid and also angry - and may crush you - just take your chances and leg it
A LEOPARD – STAY CALM, KEEP WALKING – BUT NO EYE CONTACT!!! You must appear submissive with this guy – one direct stare and he will take that as a threat – so just ‘mind your own business’ here people.
A LION - STAY CALM – STAY STILL!!?? – AND STARE THIS FLUFFY MONSTER DOWN!! Erm, this is what the guide told us in all seriousness – but I’ll leave it up to the general public to make their own minds up about this one
After this briefing I (Sarah) was struggling to believe their were ANY animals here if we were just allowed to walk around with a guide who’s only tool was a mobile phone attached to his belt! (time to demand a refund perhaps????)
NO – after a couple of hours walking our guide climbed a large termite mound and declared ‘giraffe’ in the ‘distance’ – and that we must find it.. So we made a beeline which took ages but was well worth it for when we got there we also saw Zebra then 2 elephants – it was complete madness to be walking casually past these animals and following 2 elephants! Phil got a bit too keen and close - and the guide had to ask him to move away (good photo though). We then had to speed walk back to camp to beat the sunset as we had no torches – I could hear the hyenas close to us as the night got closer... spooky… but made my legs move faster! Back at camp the group had already started eating dinner without us – but ensured us that they were relieved to see that we had not been massacred by lions. (or were they secretly gutted coz there would be less food leftover???)Hmmmmm… MASSIVE THUNDERSTORM after dinner – we all huddled under the canvass canopy and the mokoro polers sang their local songs to us – completely mesmerizing in the dark with lightning lighting up the camp every now and then. These are the unplanned moments that you cherish in Africa… though we did get wet in the process (bothered?). Though the tent was on a slope, we stayed dry during the night, which is more than what could be said about some of the others.
Next morning was Phil’s birthday (which he insisted he wanted to be kept as low key as possible), and it was up early for a dawn walk to the Hippo Pool. Another lovely sunrise in Africa and a short walk to the hippo pool. Stayed our distance, some 50 or so metres… Just about saw some through the binoculars. Walked back to camp to see 3 elephant across the river. Wendy took over cook duty from Phil and cooked pancakes. Sat and watched the elephants, was a pretty cool start to Phil’s birthday.
After breaking camp we were poled back to the start, where we bumped into the old crowd. Sunk a couple of beers on the way back to Maun, actually saw a few of the old lot drinking which was almost a first! It was free, so I suppose that helped those on budgets… We chilled for the afternoon in the bar with Bob, Kathy and few others over a few beers. Had a chicken Braii for dinner and was given a cake and a bottle of South Africa Sparkly. Thought Sarah had a hand in the present as she knows he prefers beer whilst she is definitely the sparkly drinker… Was also Tobias ad Steph’s 1st wedding anniversary so they were celebrating with their truck. Had a few more beers but age took its toll and Phil was put to bed at 10:30pm!!! Shocking!
Next day we arrived at Ghanzi in afternoon and made a truck stop in town to visit a local craft shop – Phil became a small boy again as he obsessed over a San tribe hunting set – bow, arrow etc.. Insisted on buying it and also tried to talk Darren into buying one too – after all – they both already had Masai spears and blankets – why not add to the fancy dress props?? Bought some other souvenirs and pressies for luck individuals (sorry – can’t name you as you will have to wait and see if you receive a mystery parcel in about 2 months! (Or as long as the cheapest surface mail service takes!) Sarah sat round the back of the shop with the local women and their babies – the women were making the jewellery – friendly bunch who allowed a couple of photos to be taken.
We stayed in a traditional wood reed thatched hut that night – we put up the mossie net but still kept waking up during the night to check for bugs and any other animals that would have found it very easy just to wander in and hang out there – very restless nights sleep due to us not being used to that sort of thing! Earlier that evening we were very privileged to be taken on a bush walk with the local San tribes people – we filmed most of this as the language and bush skills were fascinating – they were walking through the bush then digging up various plants and roots to explain what they used them for – also started fires with the soft and hard woods and the bush – we learnt so much about their culture – this will be great footage to show friends when we return.
Sat around camp fire that night then rang our folks – was great to hear their voices after so long – so little time to tell them about our adventures! Oh – must mention that Phil got up during the night, put on the torch and shouted ‘Jesus!!’ because he found a massive millipede on floor next to our bed – eeeeks! Also the next morning Sarah woke and looked up at the net to find a maggot that had squeezed half-way into the net and was right above her head – NICE!
Visited Windhoek, Etosha, Spitzkoppe and Swakopmund.
Really early start in Ghanzi to get to Windhoek 4am!!!! We had a border crossing so you never know how the roads will be, plus the rains had supposedly effected the roads a lot in Namibia (though mainly up north). Arrived in Windhoek at 2pm. Was a bit of a culture shock, this was the first city in 8 weeks where it felt European. So many white people… It still had a small undertone of Africa in the form of hunting regalia, Zebra skins, hunting attire. Very strange, also a lot of things were in German. It was also the first city where you could be lulled into feeling fairly safe, but this was confirmation that we had definitely left real Africa!
Two more people, Mathius (Swedish living in Cape Town) and his traveling partner Isa (Belgian, deciding where to live) joined. Really nice couple, though Mathius I think had been a little corrupted by the Afrikaans way of thinking.
Went out that night to Jo’s Beer House to sample game cooking and celebrate Sarah Cooper’s 30th. Sarah had a bit of everything on a stick (Ostrich, Crocodile, Zebra, Kudu and Chicken, while I had Kudu steak with mushroom sauce. The kebab was a little mass produced and over cooked, however the Kudu steak… mmmm… Kudu is goooood!!!! If ever you get the opportunity (meat lovers), try Kudu!
As it was Sarah Cooper’s birthday, we thought it should be celebrated, so Sarah (Carré – yes it got confusing for everyone!) checked with the barman where the locals go for drinking and dancing to local music. She was given a list of both tourist nightclubs and local nightclubs. The top of the list, and where she was told not to go by the barman (as it was not a place for white people) was Chesne Temba… Obviously this was the place to be! Unfortunately, Sarah Cooper’s age got the better of her (and possibly the early start) and she and everyone else sloped off home to bed leaving Sarah, Esther and I (the usual suspects) to investigate the night club. We got a clapped out taxi to give us a ride to the club which was out in the (not so well off) suburbs. Dropped off and the only white faces in the area we arranged for the taxi to pick us up at 2:30am.
Unsure as to go straight in we milled around and met two local girls (Natasha & Malemba) who’d just come out of the club and were heading to a local bar (beer was half price for twice as big). At this we followed like sheep deciding that cheap beer was the way ahead for the impending night of dancing. We had a long chat over a few large beers with the girls, who insisted in walking the girls AND myself to the toilet to ensure nothing happened. This was a bit strange for me, esp. in the club where I’m pretty sure there was no doorway blocking the view! After a few, and once the bar shut at 1am, it was off to the club for dancing. Being the only white faces in the place we were attracting a few stare, but to be fair to Natasha and Malemba they looked after us and were more wary about the locals than we were. Sarah and Esther learnt the Africa bum wiggle, I say learnt… it was more like they were shown and then put their back out trying to copy. Hilarious to watch.
As promised the taxi driver turned up at 2:30am… into the nightclub(!!!!) and hung around waiting to give us a ride home. He waited… and waited… eventually Sarah was ready to leave at 3:40am after some reminding that we had to leave Windhoek early to get to Etosha. We gave Malemda a lift to her home in Sowetto (another black suburb, not the township). On the way back from Malemba’s the taxi conked out and wouldn’t restart. After several attemps of bump starting, we had to leave it for dead outside the Windhoek prison gates and we got another lift from another taxi (all of us including the driver) back to the hostel (the Cardboard Box). About 9 of us in the car. Eventually arrived home at 4:40am, having to get up at 6:30am for the drive to Etosha!
Bad hangover… Bad, bad hangover the next day. Sarah slept it off on the truck! Before getting to Etosha, we stopped off in a town where local Himba women were selling their wares. The Himba are interesting because they are descended from the Masai so are tall, sleek and dress in red, but they also have their own traditions. They put red clay in their hair and over their bodies and believe that the most erogenous zone is the ankle, therefore always keep their ankles covered, but are topless. Sarah bought a Himba bracelet made out of plastic water pipe but decorated with clay and carving. The Himba are very aware of their differences to us and the fact that tourists want to take photos so charge an arm and a leg for the opportunity… so we didn’t take up the offer.
On arrival to Etosha, we upgraded to a beautiful ensuite bungalow on arrival in Etosha. It was expensive, but what you got far outweighed the price. Definite VFM! Stayed in Etosha for two nights, went out on a couple of game drives but not much to see as it was the rainy season. Saw plenty of Springbok, Jemsbok (Oryx), Black backed Jackals, Southern Giraffe, Duiker, Dik-dik and Red Hartebeest. Had a god meal cooked by Sarah’s team (supervised by Seunyueng) of Korean hot and sour won ton soup and mince. The soup was fantastic! One of the jackals around the camp ran off with Patrick’s shoe… moral is, don’t leave shoes out when wild animals are around!
The normal road to Spitzkoppe was long as the normal route was flooded. On the way to Spitzkoppe we stopped at a semi precious stone market. Sarah bought some rose quartz and I bought some different colour fluorites which are also called bushman’s fireworks – you throw them on the fire and watch them pop. Next years camping here I come!
Spitzkoppe is two granite rock formations, greater and lesser Spitzkoppe formed millions of years ago from the spewing out of lava from volcanoes then weathered. It was an amazing place to see, though initially it was somewhere we could have bypassed but, we were so glad we went. We rough camped that night, some people slept under the stars but there was a threat of rain so we decided a tent was preferable – without a fly was almost under the stars anyway but without the mosquito bites. Beautiful sunset and sunrise together with an amazing amount of stars as we were now in the desert.
We drove from Spitzkoppe through the Namib desert and along the Skeleton Coast to a cape fur seal colony before heading onto Swakopmund, the adrenalin capital of Namibia. We spent 2 nights in Swakopmund, 1½ days. This was just sufficient time for me to go quad biking in the dunes – awesome fun, although ecologically reckless, sand boarding and Sarah and I to kayak and swim with a fur seal colony at Walvis Bay and for our finale – skydive over the Namib Desert. I almost didn’t make the 2nd day as on the way back from the quad biking I was getting a little bored with the “follow my leader” riding and was chucking the back out to power slide along the sand – sounds great but looked pretty lame – when I pushed it a bit far and was sent flying. Luckily it was soft sand so no damage was done accept cuts and bruises. Had to fill out an incident form – apologized for being stupid. Worried Breanne and Esther who were quad biking with me.
The kayaking was really good, once we got the hang of kayaking together. Got really close and personal with the cape fur seals and saw a dolphin. It’s not usually part of the tour but we were allowed to get in and swim with the seals, we had to let them come to us. They were very inquisitive, especially the youngsters.
We had a bit of a rush back to the hostel to get picked up for the skydiving, though we did stop to take photos of a large salt evaporation plant at Walvis Bay. Strange to see the pink hue of the algae/plankton over the evaporation pans – the same crustacean and algae that attracts the flamingo to the area.
Skydiving – what can I say, we’ve been looking forward to it for ages, especially me as I would prefer to jump out of a plane than off a bridge. It was amazing and we both really enjoyed it, even if we had two different experiences of the parachute part. After being driven out the to desert airstrip, which is in the middle of nowhere, we were briefed by Paul – who definitely flouted the 100kg limit placed on the tandem skydivers (I was close!). He was a really nice guy and very experienced. To ease any nerves why we wait our turn we were given complimentary beers, I know you shouldn’t drink and drive but I thought drink and jumping would be fine. We watched a few people jump before it was our turn. Sarah and I went up first, Sarah striking up a friendship with her Tom Jones lookalike jumper and Breanne and Jacinta went up second, the last jumps of the day.
The plane used was an encouragement to jump out. It was basic and with 6 jumpers in the back, Sarah and I, the two tandem guys and two cameramen, it was a little cramped. Jumping was so by the numbers, we didn’t have time to think, and as soon as you were out of the plane it didn’t feel like falling – it was just amazing. The view of the desert meeting the Atlantic Ocean and Swakopmund caught between the dunes and the sea. The 30 second free fall went so quickly, certainly not long enough, we both just relaxed completely… possibly too much. Next thing, the canopy opens and you lose contact with with your parachutist for a split second and feel as though you are faling on your own, which is a little worrying and is known as the "trap door effect". Whilst I enjoyed the parachute phase, spinning and stalling the parachute, Sarah had a little bit different experience... After the trap door effect came the rubber stomach reflex. Adrenalin was the cause, and is apparently very common in first time jumpers. Anyway, the main thing was we both enjoyed the skydive and are eager to do another one if time and money permit.
Over the last 6 days, we covered Sessrium, Sessrium Canyon, Dune 45 (most photographed dune in the World), Sousesvlei, Fish River Canyon (the second largest canyon in the world, after the Grand Canyon), Orange River (the border of Namibia and South Africa), wine tasting in the Western Cape and eventually arriving at Cape Town. Quite a bit for 6 days!!! After 52 days, the last 6 were pretty hard and we both started to get "truck fever"!
Sessrium is a small town, ideally located near to the Sessrium Canyon, Soussesvlei and Dune 45. After arriving in the afternoon, we set up camp and visited Sessrium Canyon. Due to the heavy rains the canyon was full of water for the first time in ten years. This is not due to global warming, but is a cyclicle rain that happens every five to ten years. Admittadly, at first glance the canyon doesn`t look too impressive, but in comparison to the arid landscape, it is pretty cool. After making our way down to the canyon floor (or as far as we could go before hitting the water, it was suggested by Wendy that we go for a swim. Only myself and Julien volunteered as the water did look a little sceptical. As we would have had to trapse to the top of the canyon therefore it was down to the bare essentials before diving in. It was cold, but refreshing... and tasted pretty clean. It was pretty cool swimming in an acient canyon, we swam as far as we could in both directions before getting out and drip drying off.
Next day we had a very early start to get to Dune 45 and Soussesvlei for dawn. We started the walk up Dune 45 before dawn, the walk was quite hard going, but worth it. Most people were on one side of the dune, but we managed to get away from the crowds with Mattius and Isabelle (it was quite a big dune) in time for dawn. The dawn was stunning with the sunlight catching the red of the sand and the yellow of the rocks. Strangley, because of the rains, there was greenery growing on the surrounding dunes. After dawn, it was down to the truck for a pancake breakfast with the last of Wendy`s real maple syrup.... mmmm!
We were picked up at the dune by Boosman (Bushman) and rode, cattle style in the back of his truck, to Soussesvlei. He took us on a walk over Soussesvlei to Deadvlei and the petrified forrest and back. The walk was fascinating! He explained that Soussesvlei is so called because a "vlei" is Afrikaans for where the water flows in the wet season or somewhere the water is and is shown by trees growing. This is obviously rare in a desert. It is called "Soussesvlei" because when the Bantu "black" africans first arrived in Namibia, they used to make forays into the desert, but never returned, either they couldn`t find water or were called by the local Khoi-Khoi people ("Bushmen").
The Khoi-Khoi people or "Bushmen" as the colonialists called them are a fascinating people. Their weapons are effective for hunting are accurate over short distances. They creep up on their prey, Oryx, Springbok, jackal slowly hiding behind bushes and firing a poison arrow at the prey. The prey can take hours to die, so they track the prey until it falls. As there is no way of preserving the kill, they have to eat as much as they can there and then, before the scavangers arrive. This need has allowed them to evolve a stomach that can eat up to 10 kilograms of meat in one sitting. After eating they look pregnant!
The Colonialsts called the Khoi-Khoi (and the San) "bushmen" because when defending their territory, they used the same technique against the colonialists. The bushes fired arrows, hence the "bushmen"!
After describing the bushmen to us, the Boosman took us over Soussesvlei and over the dune to Deadvlei and the petrified forrest. The forest has been petrified for 1500 years, ever since the dunes, moved by the wind, closed up the vlei (creating Soussesvlei) and condeming the trees trees where they stood. The Boosman also showed us the tracking techniques and the way the trap door spider hunts. All in all a very interesting morning in the desert, and a must if you go to Namibia!
After Soussesvlei it was off to Fish River Canyon. We arrived after 2 days travel in time for sunset, though we were held up about an hour away from Fish River Canyon by a fast flowing river. No way the truck could get across when we first got there. Wendy and I tried to walk across (the only two up for it) but only got 1/4 of the way before struggling to turn back. We were stuck waiting for the flow to weaken sufficiently for 5 hours. It was quite entertaining watching various cars and trucks think about crossing the river and turning back. Eventually it died down, we tried to walk across again and got further, though it was still too strong to cross. Patrick, though thought the truck could make it... not all the passengers agreed, but Sarah and I got in. Blind faith... or stupidity... Anyway the truck made it, we picked up the others (who had walked over the railway bridge) and we were off to Fish River Canyon. Another pretty cool sunset in the desert and the canyon was much more impressive than we first thought.
Next day was over the border to South Africa. A short journey and a very smooth crossing, considering the crossings we`s had. Spent most of the afternoon sitting in the bar in the shade (it was warm - 35 deg C) and playing with the dogs. The labrador, Sam, loved to swim in the river, so Wendy and I took Sam for a swim as we attempted to swim back to Namibia. The river was high and the flow was very fast due to the rains. We started off well, but then and very quickly after, though we were swimming upstream, we were moving backwards very fast. I looked across to Sam and he was going backwards fast. We could probably have made it across as we were travelling sideways but we would have ended a mile downstream from the campsite... or out in the Atlantic Ocean! So considering this, and the fact that Sam wasn`t our dog, we headed back to South African Soil, probably 200m downstream after only 10-15 mins swimming. Both Sarah and the campsite owners weren`t too happy with this escapade, we had to swim along the riverbank where the flow was less to get back as it wasn`t possible to walk all the way back. That night was strange, lots of Afrikaans pop and folk music being played in the bar, no black aficans anywhere, even Patrick didn`t feel welcome. We bought Patrick a beer and had a drink with him away from the bar.
The wine tasting in the Western Cape was a good laugh at Highlanders, a vinyard owned by Sparky, an ex-electrician and ex-tour leader for overland trucks, though the wine itself wasn`t the best, still wine-tasting around a plunge pool is always welcome after 57 days on the road. I led a mini mutiny against Wendy that day before the wine tasting when I refused and got my team to refuse to clean the truck "top to bottom" after the previous truck cleaning teams had done a slap shod job for the past week or so, especially as the truck would have been professionally cleaned when it hit Cape Town. It went well, we didn`t clean the truck, but these things obviously lead to drunken discussions with Wendy later on. This and a little heated discussion with other members of the truck at 2am after a heavy session led to Sarah and I deciding in the morning that enough was enough. We were supposed to go on a township tour with the group once we hit Cape Town, but decided that when we stopped in Cape Town, we`d get off there, only a couple hours short but at least we could avoid a few fake farewells and get out on our own!
When we left, it was a little uncomfortable, but amazingly, just walking across the road to the cafe whilst the others headed off to the township tour was SOOOOOO uplifting. It was like a massive weight being lifted from our shoulders. We headed to Long Street, the backpacker area of Cape Town and checked into the Mountain View Hostel, a run down place, but safe enough for the night. After popping back to the truck to pick up the last of our stuff to post and saying goodbye to Wendy, we headed out for the night on Long Street. Found a bar full of locals, Bob`s Bar. Have to admit we went there for the name, but got chatting to a few locals. Interesting people. Apparently the bar used to be split in two, one half for the whites and one for the blacks. Ate at Haya Yamin (the "meat house") on Long Street. Beautiful game carpacio and wild boar ribs and Eland. Also had our first taste of Fleur du Cap Shiraz, nice tipple, and nice meal to celebrate the end of the trip!
We moved to the Sunflower Stop on Main Road in Green Point. This was so much nicer than the Mountain View Hostel, and for only 5 quid more a night. Trouble was it was away from Long Street, but it was only 15 minutes walk to the Waterfront and had a prime view of the new football stadium being built for the 2010 FIFA world cup. Impressive building, would like to catch a game there sometime in the future. Tried to go to Robben Island the first day, but couldn`t so spent the day a the Waterfront. This was a world apart from what we were used to. So many western shops in the mall and good food - ate loads of sushi at Willougby`s in the Victoria Mall, then went to the cinema for the first time in months. Watched 7 Pounds, good film, Sarah saw a trailer for Marley and Me and vouched to see it before we left for India. Tried again the next day for Robben Island to no avail, the ferries are not that reliable with as they don`t operate in big swell. Instead we headed to the Two Oceans Aquarium, where we saw sharks, turtles, rays, jackass, rockhopper and emporer penguins, lots of big fish that live in the surrounding waters. More Sushi, this time at the Cape Town Fish Market before heading off to watch "Slumdog Millionaire" (as preparation for India). Finally got to see Robben Island on the third time of asking! It was worth the wait. On the way out, we saw cape fur seals and jackass penguins. On arrival at the dock there were large pictures of how the inmates arrived, probably on the same ferries by the looks of it. We were shown round the island by a former political prisoner inmate. The island tour was very informative, but over very quick. The best part being the inside of the prison, the cells, how they lived, the discriminitation even inside the prison system - there were varying menus for white prisoners, coloured/asian prisoners and bantu/black prisoners. The inmates of robben island, both coloured and black fought together against this discrimination which was unheard of in the South African prison system. On the way back from Robben Island we saw plumes of smoke coming from Table Mountain. Met up with Sarah Cooper, Sarah Reid, Francesca and Chris in Long Street for a night out. Found out that the night before there had been a bush fire over most of Table Mountain. If we`d had stayed at the Mountain View Hostel, as we had the first night in Cape Town we would have had ring side seats! Needless to say the mountain was still smoking for days afterwards. We all went to MAma Africas for dinner to listen to a live band. The band and the food was good, Sarah is loving the Kudu, same as me! At closing, we took Sarah Cooper and Sarah Reid to Bob`s Bar, met up with Annie who`d we met last time and got a lock in, with shot drinking and dancing, until 3am. When the others headed off to a night club we decided it was prudent to head home as we had to be up early to watch cricket the next day (Sarah wasn`t that enthusiastic about the decision). Next day, with hangovers, we took a taxi to Newlands to watch the first day of the Third Test between South Africa and Australia. Australia had already won the series by winning the first two tests, but South Africa were playing for pride. We got tickets for R50 each and sat n the grass with a stunning view of Table Mountain. Australia won the toss and elected to bat first, but the day was all South Africa with no one making a 50 and getting bowled out for just over 200. Ponting got a duck which was great to see! What was good to see was at the lunch and tea intervals, the spectators were allowed on the outfield to play cricket, rugby or just walk around and take a look at the pitch. Another entertaining bit was the hit the wicket competition to win a case of Castle Lager. Also managed to ruin Bradley`s day by texting him where I was, whilst he was in the middle of a KYC project... Needless to say, the relaxed atmosphere, getting to chat to locals, opportunities to sleep off the hangover for Sarah made it a very enjoyable day and she was the one that suggested coming for a second day. Obviously I bit her arm off at the opportunity and we parted with another 100 rand for the next day, vowing this time to take public transport, not a taxi. Next day was more of the same, though a little busier and more boistrous, especially once the castle lager had kicked into the locals. The Australians were getting pummled in the field all day with the Proteas batting all day and the next. The Australian spin bowler Harris was getting particular attention as he was getting hit for fours and sixes in almost every over. At lunch there was a presentation to Steve Buckner who was retiring from Test Cricket umpiring after this test and an Australian guy from our hostel won the hit the wicket competition. We headed back to the hostel after the the day`s play to get ready for the next leg of our jouney, the Garden Route and wine tasting!!!
1st day of our own transport and really started to feel like we were now on our own. The first destination with our set of wheels (VW Polo saloon) was… Canal Walk, the biggest mall in the Southern Hemisphere. Partly in the hope of locating a camera that Sarah had been after and partly to stock up, post whatever needed posting (which was quite considerable) and lastly to have a decent haircut. Somehow we hadn’t trusted the roadside barbers… Before leaving we also tried out the sushi restaurant at Cape Town Fish Market. This was so much better than the one on the Waterfront, especially as the dishes on the conveyer belt were correctly named, but for me Willoughby’s was better all round sushi.
With the first major job done, the posting of various ethnic items purchased and things we decided were surplus to requirements. Once offloaded we spent a good few hours wondering the mall, taking in all the western shops and foods before heading to Hermanus and the start of our trip along the Garden Route.
Taking in the Garden Route, we stopped at Hermanus, Mossel Bay, Plettenberg Bay and Storms River before heading back to Cape Town via Oudtshorn, Stellenbosch and Simons Town. Our first task for getting started was actually getting out of Cape Town. This sounds simpler than it actually was as Cape Town is built around Table Mountain and though you may think you are heading in the right direction, the outcome isn’t always as you would expect. Plus the road signs are in Afrikaans as well as English, but happily interchange between the two. Eventually, after 3 tries, we got on the right road and were out of Cape Town. The coastal road the Hermanus was beautiful, and we could see why it seems to be a Mecca for Whale watching… trouble was we were here at the wrong time of year!
When we got to Hermanus, we stayed at the Hermanus Backpackers, a little walk out of town. Nice place and could see that people stay here for a while. Shame it was just an overnight stop. Met a waiter, Anton, at Rossi’s restaurant, food good, but service great. We headed to the bar round the corner, Barney’s, for after dinner drinks to watch the rest of the Wales v Ireland game. Good game, shame about the result. Chatted to Anton for a few hours and it was interesting to get the White’s perspective of post apartheid South Africa. Didn’t entirely agree, but it’s good to hear both sides.
Next day was an early start. Walked along Hermaous Bay watching the waves crash over the rocks. The water was cold!! On the way to Mossel Bay, we headed to Klein River, near Stanford as Anton had told us about some good cheeses. We bought some gruyere, reputed to be some of the best and chatted to the owner. The milk used for the cheese comes from Jersey Cows!!! Though she seemed a little unimpressed when we told her that was where we were from… Anyway on the road between Klein River and Mossel Bay w saw plenty of Jersey cows. Poor things were sweltering in the heat.
Mossel Bay was a quaint sea-side town. We stayed in the Santos Express, which was an old converted train, right on the beach. There were plenty of other places we could have stayed but not for the money and definitely not the view. It was the closest place to the beach. We went for our first swim in South Africa, though it was supposedly on the Indian Ocean side, it was only about 16 or 17 deg C. Like Jersey in Summer. For dinner we were a bit bored of South African fair so we asked around about a Chinese restaurant. Obviously not something the locals are fond of as we got a few strange looks and comments. Even so, there were 2 in town, one was shut (it was a Sunday) and the other looked shut but was in fact open. IT WAS THE WORST CHINESE EVER!!!!
The food was bad, I went for an adventurous 3 cups chicken, which the waitress didn’t even know what was in the sauce. The funny thing was when the waitress came to serve the food she had to do it whilst stamping on a big cockroach and trying to hide it by trying not to move one foot and stretching over to serve our food before scuttling away with the cockroach stuck to the bottom of her shoe. Good eats! Sarah had chowmein (surprise!), which was huge and not tasty. We could see why it was deserted and the locals gave us funny looks!
Best thing about the night was watching the first half of the 5-0 thrashing of Villa by Liverpool.
On the way to Plettenberg Bay, we stopped at a small town called Wilderness. You could see why it was called that when we walked along the beach. The place was sand duned on one side with waves crashing on the beach the other. Very wild. It was also the summer lodgings of many a rich South African with plenty of opulent beach houses spread along the beach. Some old, some new and some being built. Reminded us of the film “A Weekend at Bernies”. After Wilderness, we stopped in Knysa, I have to say… it was not so Knysa! Definite resort town with prices through the roof. Didn’t stay long before hightailing it to Plettenberg Bay.
Before heading to the hostel, we stopped at the bar estuary west of Plettenberg Bay for a picnic. We were loving being out of season, as the beach was deserted a part from one family. Again, this side of town was for the affluent so was kept very clean. Stayed at Nothando Backpackers, pronounced “No Tan Doo”. A family run place and it shows. The owners keep an immaculate house with a bar/kitchen. It was a really well run, a place you’d let your parents stay at. They had a really intelligent border collie dog/puppy, funnily enough called “Sarah”, who always wanted attention. She loved playing fetch, to the extent that she’d find you and loiter, dropping the stone/seed/ball at your feet until you picked it up and threw it for her. Cute at the start… could get annoying later!
Next day we headed to the Knysa Elephant Sanctuary to do a walk with the elephants. Really enjoyed walking with the elephants. Got to walk in front of them whilst they held your hand with their trunk. Though we had a lovely time with the elephants, we were a little dubious as to the methodology of the place. They told us they were there to rehabilitate the elephants, but they were going to keep the elephants for 9/10 years before releasing them into a monitored reserve. This seems excessively long to “rehabilitate” an intelligent animal.
After the walk, we spent the afternoon at Roberg Beach, at the eastern end of Plett Bay. The waves were up, only 3/4 feet, but really powerful and with a strong rip. Was fun getting thrashed by the waves, though being dragged out to sea wasn’t always much fun as it took some time to get back…
Another rubbish meal that night. Should have seen it coming. The place was called “Moby Dicks” and was decked out in all sea-faring paraphernalia and the food was all about deep fried fish. It was greasy, tasteless and the calamari was like a rubber band. The waitress was so apologetic about the whole experience we felt that bad we actually asked for a doggy bag and dumped the lot as we got outside. The plus point was it was on the beach. So far Sarah was 2 for 2 in the restaurant picks… the pressure was on!
Next stop was Storms River, as we arrived at the Tsitsikama Backpackers we met Wendy who was just leaving after staying there a couple of nights. We had a chat before heading off for a 12km walk in the nearby forest. Nice walk and great to stretch the legs, though we could tell we hadn’t really stretched our legs in a while as we found some parts tough going. We were back in a tent that night as the backpackers hired out already erected tents. Was good to get out into the fresh air again.
We decided that the Garden Route was nice, but not exactly what we’d expected after what we’d heard and imagined. Maybe we were there at the wrong time of year. In any event, it was definitely relaxing.
After Storms River, we decided it was time to start heading back along Route 62, the wine route. We headed to Oudtshorn, the ostrich capital of South Africa. Stayed at Oasis Shanti. An old house turned into a backpackers. It was very basic, but clean and the staff were really friendly and relaxed. Visited Kango Caves. On the way to Kango Caves, we were stopped by a herd of running ostriches out for the daily constitutional, or just being moved fields. Was a little surreal sitting in the car surrounded by about 1,000 ostrich running past.
Kango Caves had two routes, the tourist route and the adventure route. Due to time, we could only really do the Tourist Route. We were shown round in a large group of pensioners, we were the youngest by about 20 years. The first couple of halls were impressive with huge stalactites and stalagmites. Apparently they used to hold concerts in the first hall until the end of apartheid. The next hall, the Rainbow Room was where the disappointment started to trickle in. The “Rainbow Room” is so called because… it has coloured lights shining on the rock formations! Ingenious!!! It actually looked better with white light. After that it started to fall a part for the guide, but the final straw was the last room on the tourist route, the drum room. This is so called because the rock formations were so thin and flat that they were translucent, but when hit they produced a great sound. Unfortunately they were unable to show us this sound as the tour guides had broken the drum formation a few months back… oh well it will only take another 100,000 years to create another! This was a great insight into some of the South Africans mentality.
Sarah came out trumps that night, after the previous two restaurant choices. We ate at Jemima’s which is one of the top 10 restaurants in South Africa. The food and wine were great! Tasted Hartenberg Pinotage for the first time, decided to try to locate the vineyard when we got to Stellenbosch.
Next day was hard, we both had a hangover so couldn’t face an ostrich omlette, so we took the egg with us to our next stop, Stellenbosch. Hangover or not, we’d been told about some good port houses just west of Oudtshorn in Calitzdorp. First place we stopped at was Boplaas. We tasted a few of their ports, including a good tawny and a pink port, just out in the last 6 months we were told. It was very light, but not as sweet as a white port. As a novelty, we bought a couple then headed to De Kraans for the next round. When we told the lady at De Kraans we’d been to Boplaas and tried their Pink Port, she had a bee in her bonnet. Rightly so I suppose as apparently De Kraans had thought of the idea and developed it over a few years and released it 12 months ago. Boplaas quickly followed suit. After trying the De Kraans Pink, it was evident theirs was better and more refined. As we bought a couple of the fake, we had to buy 2 of the real stuff. Apparently, due to the EC ruling, the producers aren’t allowed to call their wine “Port” after 2012. A bit like champagne and sparkling wine.
As we got closer to Stellenbosch the Ostrich Farms started to give way to vineyards and the scenery became more mountainous. It was late once we got to Stellenbosch we checked into Ikayha Backpackers. The room was shocking. We had some guy living in the communal area of this two bedroom flat. We decided to move the next day. We ate at a chain of bar/restaurants called Dros, and it was Dros!
Checked out early the next day and moved to The Banghoek. Only 120 Rand (£8) more a night for the room, but a world a part from where we were... This was definitely the best place we had stayed in South Africa. Once checked in we picked up some books and maps of the vineyards and headed out on the wine trail. The first stop was Bergkelder by the railway station in Stellenbosch. Discovered when we got there it was where Fleur de Cap was made. The tour and tasting was a good laugh, though we had to watch the amount we were drinking. Some people (SA dignatories use the wine caves at Bergkelder to keep their wine there until maturity. Tempted to join them, but we’d just blow our budget! Instead, we purchased a wine book, and some Noble Late Harvest (dessert wine). After looking at the new book, we decided to only head to the best places as we only had a short time. On that note we headed first to Kanonkop, then Hartenberg (hoping to try “The Stork”, the 3rd best shiraz in the world, supposedly), Simonsig and Morganhoff. We tried and purchased wine from all the vineyards, some because we went there (Morganhoff) and others because we really liked the wine (Hartenberg, Kanonkop and Simonsig). Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to try The Stork as it was too rare to use for tasting… we bought some anyway. A bit of an investment. The highlights of the day were definitely Bergkelder for the tour and Hartenberg for the wine and the service.
Needless to say, we had a bit of a hangover, so it was a take out Chinese from Magic Flavour in front of the football. The best Chinese in a long time. Not at all greasy.
Next day, we were heading to Simons Town to see the penguin colony, but we stopped at JC Le Roux (famed for sparkling wine) along the way. Definite girls palace. The place was decked out in pink and white. Great views of the vineyards with the mountains in the background. We tried lots of sparkling wine before having lunch there. Sarah had a great time and could imagine a lovely girls day out there in the “private” tasting rooms.
When we got to Simons Town, we were backed up in traffic as unknown to us we were visiting on their busiest weekend of the year, the Navy Festival (according to the guy at Simons Town Backpackers). This meant that the dockyards were open and we could walk around the frigates and submarines. The queues for the submarines were understandably large, so we opted for the frigate. Was good to look inside and walk around on deck. The place was a bit like an English fete so we felt a little at home, especially once Sarah had eaten a hotdog.
We went to visit the penguin colony in the morning before heading back to Capetown. Got a little lost on the way back as the coastal road was shut, but just made it in time to drop the car off before being charged for an extra day (10 mins to spare).
We spent the next 3 or 4 days back at the Sunflower Stop in Cape Town catching up with admin, posting more stuff home and arranging for the wine we purchased to be delivered home … hands off!!! We also ate lots of Sushi, bought a new camera (Sarah had her eye on the fabled Panasonic Lumix TZ15 since Nairobi), decided that Willoughby’s was the best all round Sushi option after strenuous research and we went to watch Marley & Me… Sarah’s choice. I think Sarah would advise all dog lovers to watch the first hour or so, then TURN OFF. Tears were shed in the watching of this movie (not mine).
Last day we finished the posting, and headed to the airport for our flight to Delhi via Doha. Flights were good but the lay over in Doha was BORING. Nothing to do and 14 hours to do it in. Good thing was we had two free meals, though food was crap.
Swine Flu Strikes!!!!!
Actually, worse than that, the blog we had written for Delhi, Rajasthan, Amritsar and Varansi got sick. Unfortunately the medicine used to make the memory stick and laptop better deleted it all, along with the large majority of the photos from Rajasthan. Fortunately, we do have the photos from Jodphur onwards, but it means that the images from Delhi, Jaisalmer, Udaipur and Pushkar will forever be stored in our own memory banks. Don't worry though, there are plenty for the rest of India to get us through
Arrived in Delhi, after a relatively smooth immigration we headed into the city centre. The fabled bad traffic was no where to be seen, though this could be because we arrived at 4:30am. Checked into Hotel Grand Godwin, which was surprisingly plush considering the surrounding area near the New Delhi train station we were staying in. Once we'd caught up on some sleep, we headed out and arranged a tour around the city for the next day and a tour around Rajasthan for 12 days. We had originally wanted to train it around Rajasthan but if we did this we were informed we would miss Udaipur and other "most beautiful places in Rajasthan".
That evening we headed to the Red Fort as they do a light and sound show there all about the history of the fort, which is the history of Delhi, until the Raj. Before heading to the fort, we wanted some food so started to wonder around the nearby Chandi Chowk, a sprawling market in old Delhi which is home to the majority of Delhi's muslim community. After being duped by the neon lights everywhere, usually indicating eating establishments but fiding them to be hindu or Krishna temples Sarah led the way down an alley. Seconds after I mentioned that I wasn't sure this was the right way, Sarah - putting her best foot forward in search of any edibles - walked into what looked like a thin layer of mud covering an area of 5 or so square metres but completely blocking our path. Not thinking much of it, she walked a bit further, only to suddenly find her feet ankle deep in the "mud". Thinking it best to keep walking to get out rather than backtrack a flip flop was lost, the other completely caked, though you couldn't make it out against Sarah's black feet. I had also stepped into the "mud" but luckily I was sufficient distance behind to notice what was going on and only managed to get the sole of my flip-flop covered. The mud we discovered was not mud but either animal (i.e. cow) or human excrement!!!!!!
Sarah at this point was barefoot and to her credit, though obviously a little distraut, was laughing. The ever growing crowd of men gathering above were also laughing. We think the fact Sarah took it so well, on the outside, helped later when they finally helped us. Anyway, obviously Sarah couldn't walk around Delhi with one flip-flop, however filthy. The lost flip flop was nowhere to be seen, it had been swallowed by the shit about half way. Sarah didn't want to go back in to fish it out, so it was up to me to rescue the estranged shoe. After removing my flip-flops I ventured into the fluid like brown ooze, trying not to get my nose too close. Thankfullly, just as I found the flip-flop a young lad turned up with a very log stick so I wouldn't have to get my hands to shitty digging it out. Once the rescue was over, the next thing we heard was a gruff voice of "Follow me", to which we did blidly, hoping that there would be salvation from the shit caked on our feet and hands. To our gratitude the kindly gent had led us to a trickling tap and also sent boys to get jugs of water to help us clean ourselves. Once clean, well relatively as the water was also filthy, we said our thank-yous and headed off before they could try to sell us their wares. Once clean we headed to the Red Fort for the 'Sound and Light' display for a brief history of Delhi and it's fort. This was good but a definite anti-climax to the events leading up to our visit.
We headed out on a tour of Delhi the next day with what was to be our driver through Rajasthan, Sanjay. He took us to the major sights in Delhi, the highlights being Jamid Masjid and Ganhi Smitri. We got Sanjay to take us to a local restaurant rather than a touristy one. We had to cut the tour short after 3 hrs in the afternoon when Sarah had sudden pangs of sickness. This led to firstly Sarah and then I being sick and confined to our room for 48 hours
First couple of days were a bit of a waste. Visited Mandawar and Bikaner, but felt very weak still, though in Bikaner we did manage a breif tour of Bikaner fort and our first food in 72 hours... omlette!
After Bikaner we headed to Jaisalmer on the westeren border with Pakistan. A big sand castle in the middle of the desert. On arrival we discovered that we missed an earthquake that morning of 5.7 on the richter scale. We went for a short camel ride in the desert which was relaxing except for the constant locals wanting to sell their wares and drinks at inflated prices. We stayed in the fort, which compared to everywhere else we'd been in India was clean.. well ish as there were numerous stray cows and dogs relieving themselves wherever and whenever they felt like. We stayed a couple of days and enjoye3d walking round and shopping for local artisan patchworks. Phil also got his trousers fixed for free.
Next stop was Jodphur, the Blue City. After a long drive, Sanjay decided, with our help at navigating to get lost in the small streets of Jodphur. After an hour and a half of searching for our hotel we eventually arrived. After being used to rather dodgy "Heritage" havalies (like hotels but made to look like mocked castles, we were pleasantly surprised with our hotel in Jodphur. It even had a swimming pool that was swimmable and cold! Once settled, and swam we headed to the fort on top of the hill. Apparently it was where Liz Hurley got married, if you read Hello... Sue! It was by far the best fort so far and had gr3eat views of the city painted blue. After the fort, we cut the sightseeing short as there more pressing matters at hand, shopping for curios and spices. After a long search we were led to MV Spices by a friendly guy who made us promise to visit his shop Maharani Art Exporters after and we would not be disappointed. MV spices was an experience, it has been on BBC and a few travel programmes. We got to sit down and taste the spices as well as shown how to test saffron for the real McCoy. If MV Spices was good, the Maharani Art Exporters was better. We were sat down and dozens of bed throws, kashmirs, silks, and tapestries were thrown in front of our eyes. THis together with stories of Richard Gere and Brad Pitt purchasing numerous throws at affordable prices was really interesting. They supply the following designers: Channel, Armani, etc. The quality of the workmanship convinced us to buy a few.
Udaipur - Octopussy territory. We stayed there for two days, watched sunset from the Monsoon Palace, Rajasthani dancing, the finale of which was the water dance where a women danced around with 10 pots on her head. We went to an ornamental garden, which was great once the coachloads of tourists left apart from the local tourists wanting to take our photos with them... bizarre! The city palace museum was interesting and gave great views of the lake palace, where Octopussy was filmed.
Pushkar - a one night stopover. Phil slept whilst Sarah took advantage of the nice swimming pool. Pushkar was a strange place, on the hippy trail, lots of holymen, fake and real, lots of hippies, Bhang LAssi, drugs and to top it all off the whole place is vegetarian... no BBQs.
Jaipur - the Pink City
First stop was the post office, thankfully we were helped by Sanjay to get around the locals dislike for non-hindu speaking foreigners and constant queue pushing. We went with Sanjay to the Copper Chimney, had a few beers and got home "late". The over friendly owner was not happy at this, though later he apologised in the morning. THe next day we visited the Amber Fort. Gave up the chance to ride to the top on an elephant as you could tell they weren't treated well and were struggling under the weight of some of the heftier tourists. We were definitely in the minority doing this. It was a good fort to explore, lots of alcoves and easy to get lost... which we did. Once we were out we headed back into town to a carpet weaving factory. Watched hand-made carpets being made and went through the long process. We ended up buiying a stunning camels wool carpet, which I believe has arrived home already! :-) Next we went to the observatory built by Jaigh Singh in the 16th Century. Completely different to what we expected. All the instruments were built out of stone and metal. giant structures and housed the worlds largest sundial, accurate to 20 seconds.
Agra - the Taj Mahal
The hotel was a dump, but situated between Costa Coffee and Pizza hut. By this point we were getting pissed off with hawkers and rickshaw wallas, constantly wanting our business and not giving up easily. We went to Agra fort, beautiful carvings and inlay marble stone. Got our first peak of the Taj Mahal down the river. Even Phil was starting to get impressed. Had a pizza and an early night ready for our sunrise tour of the Taj.
To our pleasant surprise, the entrance was free, a saving of 20 quid, as we visited on World Heritage Day. Got there just after dawn, still spectacular. Walked around admiring the art work and took lots of photos of the inlay of emralds and rubies and semi-precious stones in the marble. After the Taj, we returned to Delhi, a good end to a somewhat indifferent tour of RAjasthan.
On arrival in Delhi, Sarah had done her research and we headed straight to the newest and one of the biggest mals in India to chill.
Took our first Indian train to Amritsar. Impressed by the Shatabdi Express. comfortable trip with breakfast, lunch, water all complimentary and aircon. Arrived in Amritsar at lunchtime. On arrival we took a share taxi to to the closing ceremony of the Attari - Wag border with Pakistan. The only land border with Pakistan since the PArtition in 1949. Not really knowing what to expect we traveled there with a couple of Indian families who seemed to be on a pilgrimage. On arrival we were let into the VIP section as we were foreign, better that than be sat with the 5,000 locals separated by sexes. The frontier soldiers all dressed in thier finest acted like celebreties, posing for photos. For each side of the border it was a show of great patriotism, both with their respective MCs trying to encourage the crowd b playing music, chant and win up the other side. For us, the Indians were the better at this. Whilst the Pakistanis were sitting uniformlike and chanting, the Indians got the women and children to march up to the frontier with Indian flags and back, dance in the street and do the conga. First blood to the Indians. However once the real ceremony started, the Pakistanis seemed to gain the advantage. First there was a stand-off between the orders being barked, it seemed a competition to see which commander had the loudest and longest scream. Then came the marching up to the border, both sides goose-stepping, almost kneeing themselves in the head with the intent of insulting the other side by showing the underside of their boot. The Pakistanis were the clear winners at this. The ceremony from start to finish lasted 3 hours, but was all great and free entertainment, especially that they do this ceremony every day since the creation of the border in 1949, unless the border is closed.
Next day we visited the Golden Temple. Before entering we had to remove shoes and because it is a Seikh Temple we had to wear orange head scarves... hmmmm... The temple is stunning compared to other temples in India. It is free, still a working temple and fully inclusive as it accepts everyone. We went to the museum to learn about the history of Seihkism, which was very brutal and war like, considering that in essence it is a very peaceful and trustworthy religion. They were just persecuted by everyone.
We caught the overnight train to Varanasi, our first sleeper train. Luckily our travel agent Mr Sharma decided that 1st class was the safest for us. Catching the train was the 1st task. On arrival at the station we had to sort out which carriage we were in as it wasn't clear on the ticket for our novice eyes. Next we had to negotiate the chai and water wallas who were selling all food and beverages, not giving it away like our previous journey. Once it was discovered that they were not trying to fleece us (only two trains in India provide free food and water, one being the Shatabdi Express...) we settled into our compartment awaiting our fellow travellers. Amazingly they didn't turn up so we had the whole 1st class compartment to ourselves for most of the journey, though we were joined on the journey by some obviously well to do cockroaches... Ah, India! Mosquito nets were used that night to ensure the cockroaches kept to themselves.
At midday we arrived in Varanasi. We tried to get the pre-paid auto rickshaw to the old town, only to be met by a closed shack and a load of drivers wanting to charge through the nose for the short journey. Got given the runaround by a couple of guys, the driver seemed trustworthy but his sidekick took us on a wild goose chase around the old winding streets of the old city where our hotel was as rickshaws aren't allowed in there so he would have to show us the hotel. Trying to disorientate us going up one street, down the next in stifling heat, must have been close to 40 deg C, the cheeky "honest Nepalese" kept asking us if we wanted to rest and eventually happened upon our hotel after a good 20 minutes walk, then demanded 100 Rupees for his trouble... Not being that niaive we know when someone's taking the p*ss gave him the bare minimum to cover the rickshaw and him and told him to bugger off... Welcome to Varanasi... at least we made it to our actual hotel which is more than a lot of others do. Went for a little walk to the Ghats, sorted out a morning boat ride and went for some food at the Brown Bread Bakery... a god send to those with dodgy stomachs.
The morning boat ride was a really interesting, beautiful sunrise at 5:30am over the Ganges, great people watching, morning rituals, prayers, bathing, fishing, ferrying, selling, laundry, cremations, cricket games, people relieving themselves (not no.1 either!) and swimming lessons at the many swimming clubs dotted all along the Ganges... Phil was not even remotely tempted, especially after stopping at one of the two burning ghats.
At the burning ghat we witnessed an old person being burnt at the river's edge, the only way to stop the continuous circle of re-incarnation and go to heaven for a hindu. From the pyre of burning wood you could make out a foot, then one of the cremators poked the fired and pushed the foot into the pyre more, revealing a leg. Not good to see before breakfast. We got a talk from one of the cremators about the process and the beliefs. There had been 57 burnings already today... it was only 7am!!! The guy explained that the ceremony is attended by relatives of the deceased and they aren't allowed to cry during the burning - if they do the soul will not travel to heaven and will continue to be re-incarnated. Also the relatives have to pay for the wood used for the burning which is calculated using the deceased size and weight to ensure the minimum amount is used. Strangely there isn't any smell of burning body as they used cedar wood and other aromatic woods for the burning, trouble is this wood is expensive so it is prohibitive to the poor. Now we know why we don't see any large old Indian people, they must either be rich or hated by their relatives.
Due to the heat (46 degs C) and the early start we slept most of the day, then headed out down the Ghats to watch the Puja, a daily hindu ceremony where budding priests make offerings to the Ganga before heading to dinner and our first, and definitely not our last, taste of tibetan momos.
We headed to Darjeeling the next day on an overnight train to New Jaipaljuri. Read in the paper that a train had been hijacked in Bihar which we'd be traveling through the day before in protests against the elections... Whilst waiting for the train in Varanasi, Sarah witnessed probably the worst example of Indian's apparent complete disregard for hygene - a women in mid 40's was next to her and Sarah saw some "water" trickle down the woman's leg, followed by the woman squatting and promptly having a sh*t on the platform in the middle of a crowd! THe other amazing thing was the Indians didn't seem to notice or care...
The train journey was worse than the train to Varanasi, partly because we had to share our 2nd class compartment with 3 Indian men when there is only supposed to be 1 person per bed. 2 of them intent on staring at Sarah every so often and eating their curry on Sarah's bed, the other reason was there was a large police presence on the train due to traveling through Bihar and the previous day's hijacking. There wasn't enough beds so the police just took any spare then refused to move when the rightful occupents arrived. Phil had to butt into an arguement at 2am to tell the policeman to keep it down... seems that they are more worried about pissing off a tourist than a local as straight after he jumped down towards Phil brandishing his lee-enfield WWII rifle and walked off. Finally some sleep!
First, I should describe where I am writing this... Swinging in a hammock watching the sunset on Bottle Beach in Koh Pha-ngan, Thailand. Still a good month or so behind but relaxing too much to focus on this.... Enjoy your day jobs!
On arrival off the, to be honest, the worst rain journey we had in India in New Jaipaljuri (NJP) we haggled a share jeep to Darjeeling. The two hour drive up the long winding road was stunning, if not a little cramped - we only took up one seat each despite the tout’s insistence that we tourists should take 2 seats for our extra comfort and double the price... No chance! The drive up was a little hairy but the views were stunning. You could feel the temperature dropping the higher we were going. Once we were higher than the clouds, the temperature must have dropped from 35 to 25 deg C. It felt so good following the 40+ heat of Varanasi.
Once arrived in Darjeeling, which was more bustling and built up than we'd imagined we checked into our place of rest for the 1st night, the Tibetan Rooms. This place was dedicated to the Tibetan way of life and for the first time, but certainly not the last we saw pictures of and quotes from the Dalai Lama. Our room was great with a view over the valley to the west of Darjeeling. You could make out the many houses and buildings spread down and across the valley together with the numerous tea plantations. It was a chilly 20 or so degrees, even with the sun out, we could definitely see why the British Raj hid in the hill stations during the summer!
Darjeeling is a large town centered around two main roads, the Mall leading up to the main square Chowrasta, and Hill Cart Road which traverses the valley along the bottom of the town. The inhabitants were of mainly Nepalese and Tibetan descent, therefore mainly Buddhist, though it was strange seeing oriental looking women in saris and bindis (red spots on their forehead). This was the first time we felt that we'd left India, the food - mainly Tibetan, and the people were so different. They were so friendly and honest (most of them) and the climate and scenery so accommodating that it was the first time since South Africa we felt relaxed. There was no need to get up in the morning and wonder how long it would be until you'd have to have an argument about price or that you didn't want to buy something you really didn't want or need.
We had planned on heading further north to Sikkim to do some trekking but we were so relaxed in Darjeeling we ended up staying 10 days there and to be honest we could easily have spent more.
During the ten days we moved place twice, the first was because where we wanted to stay originally (the Dekeling) didn't have room the first night so put us in their sister hotel, and the second was to find somewhere cheaper (Andy's Guest House) - save some much needed cash. The Dekeling was central to the Mall. Andy's Guesthouse was on the other side of the hill, about a third of the price, basic but very clean. To be honest we could have stayed the whole 8 days there without any problem. It had a great view point where on a clear day you can see the Himalayas, including Everest... sadly it was foggy, rainy or just cloudy for the whole time we were there. Another good thing was it was above Chowrasta so nearby to where all the locals went to chill, gossip and drink chai.
We spent our time in Darjeeling walking, eating, drinking tea and just relaxing. Though it sounds boring, there was still plenty to do there:
On different days we visited the zoo, mountaineering institute, tea plantations, the Tibetan Refugee Centre, took the toy train to Ghoom and walked back to Darjeeling. Other days we just chilled, roamed the streets, and went from tea room to tea room.
The local zoo is reputed to be one of the best kept in India... which isn't hard after seeing the Indian's lack of respect to animals... This was demonstrated again during our visit to the zoo. The zoo prides itself on being the only place in the world with a red panda breeding program which has successfully released pandas into the wild. These cute and cuddly bears are now one of Sarah's favorite animals. The enclosures, well some of them, are quite large and without a cage, some are unfortunately still caged. At least it seems an enlightened place. They also had, leopard, snow-leopard, tiger, musk deer, yak (which was huge!) wolf and bear. In addition, they seemed obsessed with having pheasant, about 10 different types, and wild chickens. We went through this part quite quickly. It was a good morning out, despite the Indian tourists doing their utmost to ruin it. There were signs everywhere pleading for quiet for the sake of the animals, but they took no notice - shouting to each other, down their mobiles and at the animals to get their attention so they can get the good picture. If this failed, Sarah actually saw a guy chuck a stone at one of the leopards to get its attention. Somehow, it doesn't matter where we went in India and how many benefits of the doubt we gave to them, Indian people showed their utter ignorance for the world around them and that was the educated ones!!!!
On the same site as the zoo was the Mountaineering Institute started by Tenzig Norgay (the sherpa who reached the summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary. This was a fascinating place where they had memorabilia from a lot of the expeditions on Everest and other peaks. Sarah got into trouble there for taking photos when there was a sign saying no photos... however, when in India, do as the Indians do... who reads signs!
The Happy Valley tea plantation, is a good walk down the valley and along Hill Cart Road. We saw the tea picking on the way, then when we got there we got a free tour round the fermentation rooms. There were 4 processes of fermentation before you get the tea. Though it all seems to be centered around air being passed over the tea leaves. Once the process is finished it is sorted to leaves, broken leaves and dust. There they produced Darjeeling black tea and green tea. We walked back along the bottom of the valley through the residential area, much quieter and rural, though even here what we've seen as a problem in Africa and India is rubbish. They seem to think that whatever they throw out will degrade, trouble is modern packaging doesn't degrade so the rubbish just lies there and is pushed into the waterfalls. Admittedly the problem is inherent in India due to the caste system where the higher caste people just chuck everything and expect the dalits/low caste people to scavenge and clean everything, so educating people to slip out of the social system is very hard if not sometimes impossible. Despite of the rubbish problem which admittedly in Darjeeling was no where near as bad as Delhi, Rajasthan or Varanasi (Amritsar, probably because of the Sikh religion was clean and no cow sh*t). It just shows up more when it is in an area of natural beauty.
The Tibetan Refugee Centre was set up with the blessing of the Indian Government after the Chinese invaded the Tibet. There are two in India, one in Darjeeling and the other in Darhmsala, the other side of India. There it showed the story of the Tibetan invasion and the movement of the Tibetan people to India, together with stories of the Dalai Lama and a child taken by the Chinese at the age of 5 or 6 reputed to be re-incarnation of the 3 most important Lama. This was 12 years ago and he is the reputed to be youngest ever political prisoner. China has also decreed that there will be no re-incarnations of high Lamas without the strict permission of the Chinese government, therefore they can control who is in charge in Tibet. This is a fascinating story of a highly spiritual people and their oppression by a much more advanced people for the exploitation of their natural resources. It sounds terrible, but then you look at what the British did in India, Africa and Asia and it is easy to feel like a hypocrite. In addition to the stories and pictures of their exodus, the centre was set up in order for the refugees to earn money by making Tibetan handicraft like hand-weaved carpets, wooden furniture and artifacts. We ended up purchasing a singing bowl made of an alloy of 7 different metals, a soft blanky for Sarah and a carpet - ordered but will hopefully be delivered in January next year. Perfect timing!
The toy train to Ghoom is one of the last small gauge railways left in the world and is a world heritage site, like most things in India! It was a short trip down to Ghoom, though you can take the train all the way to NJP, but it takes 7 hours... We walked around Ghoom, and towards some lakes, though man-made they were supposed to be beautiful... It wasn't, but the walk up was good. It was a shame we were there at the end of the dry season as the lakes were pretty much empty. However, according to Natshull - a local lad of 13 or 14 we met on our walk it is a place when it is full a lot of people go to commit suicide... NICE! After the walk we were invited to Natshull's for tea, which we happily accepted. We met his mum and cousin and given a lovely cup of chai made from home-grown tea leaves. These people are so nice and friendly. Natshull hopes to be an astronaut some day, an obvious ambition considering he lives at the top of the world... We were shown his father's Gurkha memorabilia as he was in the Indian Gurkhas serving in Rajasthan. After our tea and chats we headed up to Darjeeling. A couple of hours walk along the road past huge monasteries, memorials to Gurkhas and through hamlets.
As well as visiting the above we went to the cinema and watched Chowrasta, a film based in Darjeeling which was fun. The acting was wooden, the dialogue confusing but the scenery beautiful. We also went to Jimmy's bar at the bottom of the Mall, the owner of which was in the film. We gave him our critical view, which went down surprisingly well. Jimmy was chilled and took it all in his stride. He was more concerned with having to close for the next 3 days due to the elections. This was a shock to us. We didn't realise that the whole town shut down for the elections... what were we to do for food and in general what were we going to do?!?
On the day of the elections, the place was full of locals and tourists not knowing what to do. They all seemed to hang out in Chowrasta chatting and people watching. We managed to get breakfast at the only place open, and we'd got take out shabhally the night before from Kungas as well as cakes from Glenary's to stave off the hunger. All in all we ate well and cheaply!
Whist we write about Darjeeling, we cannot forget about food and especially the "momos" - steamed Tibetan wontons. This is now Sarah's favorite food and some of you lucky folk will have the opportunity to taste some when we return. Other handy hints for eating in Darjeeling, of which there were numerous places were the stalls in Chowrasta and near the zoo, plenty and all serving great little Momos with chilli sauce and chai (sweet masala milk tea), but the best VFM and quality meal was eaten at a small shack full of locals on Hill Cart Road called Gurung Tea Shop, half way to Happy Valley tea plantation. We had 6 momos, coriander/chilli broth soup and chai for 22 rupees for 2. Everyone made vegetable momos but they all put their own variation of vegetable mix in them. this was the best as they put cabbage onion and ginger all finely chopped, which went perfectly with the soup. The old rule works still - eat where the locals eat! Our absolute favorite place to eat though was Kungas - underneath the Dekeling - do not confuse it with Dekevas it's neighbor as the food there is inferior. Kungas served the best Tibetan noodle soups (thenthuk and Bhagthuk soups) and shabhally (deep fried momos filled with either pork, chicken or vegetable but the size of a cornish pasty). Comparing the Tibetan food to the Indian food we'd been eating is impossible. The flavours were so much more delicate and if you wanted to add chilli, they gave you some home-made puree chilli paste on the side. In addition to the Tibetan food, the British left their mark in Darjeeling with the tea rooms. Our favorite was Glenary's. An old fashioned tea room with a view down the valley but it had the best cake, pies and buns. The cherry cake rivaled my mum's!
The only bad thing about Darjeeling is that we found that one of the memory sticks had picked up a virus and transferred it to our laptop, so we ended up losing a lot of the typed blog, which is recoverable - when we could be bothered - but worst of all, ALL the photos from Delhi, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Pushkar as well as our last couple of days in Cape Town. These things will happen, we just have to be more careful. A guy in an internet cafe did his best to sort the virus out but no joy, it was too far gone. We still despair at why people write these things!
Darjeeling is definitely a place we would like to return to, though we have been told October is best if you want to see the Himalaya, especially as the fog there is so bad.
On leaving Darjeeling we took a 2 – 3 hour share jeep down the mountain road again to New Jaipaljuri. The reverse happened of it getting warmer as we got closer to sea level. The scenery was again fantastic and the Indians will play cricket anywhere, even a road with an angle of 30°.
Our train left NJP station bound for Kolkata in the evening so we arrive early morning in Kolkata. I have to say that though the Indians in Darjeeling were more Nepalese and Tibetan, the ticket purchasing was much the same as the rest of India. These people do not know how to queue. Luckily we have our queuing secret weapon… Sarah. She takes no prisoners, especially since she discovered the unwritten rule that women can push in and be served before the men in India. Trouble is the woman has to put up with the men pushing and shoving. Not the nicest of experiences.
On the train we met a very nice family on their annual summer break from Mumbai. We stayed up late playing cards with the father, whilst the mother slept and the children watched a movie. No matter how nice they are, Indian men are all about showing off how well they are doing or who they know. This guy used to play cricket with Sachin Tendulkar supposedly… could have been big in cricket if it wasn’t for the family business…
When we arrived in Kolkata we argued with taxi drivers then luckily met up with Chris (a guy we met in Jimmy’s Bar in Darjeeling) going to the same area. He’d managed not to be taken the p*ss out of by the taxi drivers (well almost) and we all shared to the same backpacker area. We checked in, slept for a bit then went out to explore Kolkata. Despite all the bad stories we heard about it, it seemed a clean city… for Indian standards. Definitely cleaner than Delhi. The trouble was it was sooooo hot and humid. 40°C heat, 90% humidity, it was oppressive!
We went for a walk, but found the heat and humidity so bad, plus it was a Sunday so most things were shut, we ended up hiding in what the locals called shopping centers, which the majority were actually big building that from the outside looked like a mall, then the locals filled it with as many small shops as possible selling every possible bit of cr*p imaginable. Somehow, they’d Indiafied the bastion of capitalism, the shopping mall. Fair play to them! We did find one place that resembled a Western mall (though small), which had some decent shops and an IT shop where the owner and staff were so friendly and helpful with the virus on the laptop. They basically fixed it, installed an anti-virus AND split the hard drives all for the cost of the anti-virus. Therefore, if ever you are in India, and either have a problem with your computer or want to buy a travel gadget (they had numerous very cool things, especially the pocket projector), you have to visit Nouveau Infotech in . They also have a website that should be up and running now, www..com.
That night, to celebrate the computer being fixed, I took Sarah to a Chinese, very posh… full of locals wanting to impress family and friends, though we’re not sure why as the food was more an Indian version of Chinese… when will we ever learn!
Next day, the West Bengal Tourism Office opened at 10am, we were there at 9am as we wanted to try to get to the Sunderbans that day. We’d tried to book whilst in Darjeeling at the West Bengal Tourism Office there but it was useless. The office was open, luckily. They helped book two nights at the Government Lodge and told us not to stay anywhere else. They said the bus had already left at 6:30am but we may be able to make it if we caught a bus from Kolkata zoo to Sajnikali, boat to Gosoba, boat and cycle rickshaw to Pakahrilla and boat to Sajnakali (the tiger reserve). All in all, should take 6 hours, if everything was smooth.
We thought, may as well have a go. We rushed back to the hostel, packed, checked out, taxi to the zoo. Asked the taxi driver where to catch the bus… not a clue. There were 3 bus stops at the zoo, he managed to drop us at the one furthest from where we should be, about 20 minute walk with our backpacks on!!! Eventually found the right bus. Paid to go all the way, 100 Rupees for 2. The trip was 3 – 3 ½ hours long. My thermometer read 48°C, no fan, just natural aircon. The bus started off not busy, then got packed to breaking point as it weaved round the houses and headed South. The ride was one of the most uncomfortable because of the heat we’ve had. At Sajnikali, we trudged off to the pier through this village to see the boat just leaving. Gutted!!! We chatted to some locals, the ticket seller said we could charter a boat to our destination for 2000 Rupees… about £30. Another scam to get our money, not a chance! Eventually I asked if there was any other way to get to Gosoba… ah, he thought, “I suppose you could take an auto-rickshaw, it only takes 30 minutes.” Sometimes, we found that the locals can’t think outside the box and suggest alternatives. You always have to think for yourself.
Off we trudged back to the bus stop to get an auto-rickshaw. We got a share rickshaw so it was cheaper, though because of the bags we had to pay extra, but not to worry. 30 minutes later we were at our next stop. At Gosoba, we caught a ferry across the river, on which we met a nice guy who helped us get a cycle rickshaw. The cycle to Pakharilla was beautiful. The village and the roads, though just dirt tracks, were so clean, such a contrast to the cities and towns. There were locals harvesting and drying chilies. At the end of the 30 minute cycle the sun was going down, but all we needed was the ferry across to the Tiger Reserve. We’d made it… now we felt as though we were really travelling as it was the hardest journey we’d done so far, made worse by the heat.
By the time we got over to the reserve and the government guesthouse it was dark, we were tired and grateful for somewhere to crash. We ate and headed to our room. It wasn’t great at first sight, but we made the most of it… we put our own mosquito net up as the place hadn’t been cleaned in months. It was probably the worst night sleep we’d had with the heat and the power cut that turned the fan off at 4am. It was a sweatbox. In daylight, the room was a hell hole. What surprised us was we were the only guests… actually we weren’t that surprised… but the employees there (all men) just lay about and slept. Basically they didn’t give a cr*p.
We went on a day river cruise to see reserve, the mangroves and hopefully a tiger, but again we were there at the wrong time of year. It seems that the tigers hide away during the hot season so it is very hard to spot one. We did see some large monitor lizards, monkeys and red deer, but sadly no tigers. Our “guide” wasn’t the best and barely spoke English with the exception of a few facts and figures about the mangrove and the number of tigers in the reserve, though this figure was from 2004 and no other survey has been done since. Probably scared of finding out the number has depleted. Despite this, the scenery was stunning. I loved being within the mangroves, but the heat was suppressing.
Anyway, we’d booked for 2 nights at the government lodge, but 1 night was more than enough. After our cruise we decided enough was enough so we quit the Government lodge, without refund of the extra night… long story but we were fleeced by government bureaucracy and downright greediness of the manager. Off we set across the river back to the village of Pakharila… This was a 6pm and the sun was starting to set. We needed to find accommodation and fast!
The first couple of places we tried weren’t open, this was a backwater and we were there in low season. We walked what must have been ½ mile with our packs on in the 35 °C heat and decided to rest on a bench outside a shop and what looked like a derelict or ½ built hotel. Obviously a couple of sweaty western tourists with backpacks on attract attention, but this time it was the right attention, and as we have found out on our travels, it’s the women who are the most industrious. A woman noticed our plight and ran off… to find her brother who was manager of the ½ built hotel. This was great, we had a good room, massive balcony, food, a guided walk round the cleanest Indian village, a chat with the local school teacher and a drink with a few University students down there on a break from study (all Accountants… it seems the norm in India to do either that, Law or an MBA then still struggle to get a job!!!).
After a great relaxing night with the locals and Kolkata students after the relative hell of the past day and a half we headed off early to Kolkata along a similar 6 hour route, though this time we met a friendly local heading back to Kolkata for his MBA. After a good ear chewing by Sarah about the rudeness of most Indians the poor guy was a little sheepish, paid for one of the boat crossings (2 rupees) and offered to pay for our train ticket from Canning to Kolkata (we didn’t take him up on it). This time the route was… cycle rickshaw, walk, boat, auto-rickshaw, walk, auto-rickshaw to Canning, boat across the river, final walk to the Canning station and Train to Kolkata.
The route was fairly uneventful accept when Sarah was taking pictures of chilies drying by the roadside on the cycle rickshaw, I shouted “SNAKE”… Sarah got a picture. A 7 – 9 foot king cobra was making its way up the side of a village house. The locals looked and just carried on their business… I suppose they learn to live with them.
Once back in Kolkata we checked into a hotel near the airport as we were flying out in the morning to the Andaman Islands… A much need rest after the Sunderbans and the rest of India (except Darjeeling, that is).
Fond memories… that is our lasting memory of the Andaman Islands, especially Neil Island. We spent 12 days in the Islands, 8 of which were on Neil Island. Best bit of relaxing ever!
We arrived in Port Blair at 10am, eventually got through the 1st, but certainly not the last swine flu health check with flying colours (we’d been in India since before the initial outbreak! Checked into our hotel, the Andaman Residency and headed down the port to obtain our ticket… This is where the fun started… and again it showed how well the Indians don’t know how to queue. The ticket office DOES have a queue for tourists and about 10 other queues for locals, however the tourist queue is also for pensioners and wasn’t manned, whilst all the local queues were overflowing. A Spanish woman was the only person in the tourist queue when we arrived. We asked how long she’d been waiting… “oh only about 30 – 45 minutes” was the reply. Sarah “crowd control” Carre was off! Within 5 minutes, after a couple of threats to speak to the manager, the booth was manned. However, not a single mention of thanks from our Spanish companion!
As soon as the locals noticed the trainee manning the tourist line, there were countless locals trying to push in. Together, we fended them off, including the “pensioner” who decided it was her right to push to the front. No Chance!!! After an hour (the Spaniard’s enquiry took 30 minutes about boats back to Chennai in a few weeks later… By this time the tourist queue had grown considerably… not exactly considerable to others…) we got our tickets and headed to the beach at Corbyn Cove to relax between the Japanese gun emplacements and the cows that freely roam the beach (bit like home and the German bunkers).
Headed back to the hotel, reduced our bags to one, leaving the other at the hotel whilst island hopping and headed out for dinner… something that will be remembered for the wrong reasons over the next week or so. I ordered Garlic/Ginger chicken, but said no garlic, just ginger… it came and what I thought were large bits of ginger were in fact whole garlic cloves in a ginger sauce… I only noticed this on almost my last mouthful. There must have been over a whole bulb in there and now it was in my stomach. Needless to say, Sarah had to put up with garlic breath for a week to 10 days. The poor girl!!!
Next morning we headed to Neil Island. Quick crossing and really comfortable once we opted for the bow of the ship rather than the airconned windowless passenger room with the rest of the passengers… As we were to discover, Indians on holiday LOVE aircon! The sea was stunning turquoise, the sky blue and the sun strong. Perfect!
Our arrival at Neil Island was stunning, translucent turquoise giving way to coral and white sand with the backdrop of palm trees… the only scar on the horizon was the litter all around the jetty beach. To be honest, it only took a little of the shine off it. We met the guy from Tango Beach and got a lift to the “resort”. It was definitely a chilled place, we got a bungalow facing the beach, about 50m back but nothing but trees between us and the sand. Next stop was the not so free ride to the hospital for our next swine flu check up. We were told India was the safest place to be as they don’t have swine flu there… we refrained from mentioning the outbreaks of cholera, plague, malaria, dysentery and anything else related to poor hygiene.
We spent the next 8 days on Neil Island, initially we were 2 of only 6 foreign tourists on Neil island, the rest were Indians who generally stay in the government lodge or one of the two hotels there (they have aircon). Also they hardly ever go to the beach, and if they do they do so with the use of a minivan,(aircon) jump out, jump in the sea – men in speedos, women in saris – jump back in the minivan and gone, all in the space of 20-30 minutes.
There are two swimming beaches on Neil Island and a couple of snorkeling beaches. The beach we were next to was a snorkeling beach – therefore no Indian Tourists, except at sunset as it also had Sunset Point on it, but good enough to swim at high tide and we could find shade throughout the day if it got too hot. So we spent our days lazing on the beach, a 2 mile stretch where we were pretty much the only people on the beach, Phil hiding under the coconut groves or chilling in the sea, Sarah sunbathing, chilling under the coconuts or the sea. Our only companions were dogs, sometimes 1, sometimes 2 and sometimes 6 – Sarah seemed to befriend them all, especially a little puppy whom she adopted for the time we were there.
In the evenings we generally went to Green Haven restaurant – actually we went there for breakfast, sometimes lunch and the majority of our dinners. When we went somewhere else to try, we ended up regretting it as the food there, and the company of the staff was far superior there than anywhere else, especially grilled red snapper and chips (homemade!). We also ended up meeting Richard and Aisha together with Lyndon and Andy there. They were also staying at Tango, but arrived a couple of days after so we just didn’t meet them as our routine was wakeup, breakfast, then beach.
One day, we hired bikes for a couple of days, cycled to the other side of the island, checked out the best swimming beach, nice to swim, but the dead fish on the beach kind of put us off (it was next to a fishing village) but we also got to witness 1st hand the Indians arriving in minivans, going for a swim, then back in the minivan… v. funny! We also made it to Blue Sea Restaurant. As it was low season, all the other restaurants out of town, except Green Haven seem shut, especially as they only make money from foreign tourists, the Indians eat in the hotels. We had a great banana leaf curry, but despite the owners claims it wouldn’t take long to make it, we had to wait 2 hours, luckily there was a beach nearby to swim at. We went back there the following night for grilled fish and a few drinks with Richard, Aisha, Lyndon and Andy (we had to cycle there that morning to let him know of the extra people so he could get more beer and food in). The owner lit a big fire and got his brother and mate to help out, it was a great night. The 2 – 3 mile cycle back was a little hairy in the dark (not much lighting on Neil Island) and the adding of dogs chasing us it got a little scary.
Most of the other nights we spent at Green Haven, catching up with Lyndon, Andy, Richard and Aisha – it was nice to speak to other tourists, though we started reminiscing about food we were missing, especially roast dinners and fresh Italian food. Luckily the grilled fish and the curry was good enough to take our minds off it.
One first for Sarah was it was also the 1st place that Sarah snorkeled for a very long time, she started on the way to fight the fear of putting her head under water. The snorkeling wasn’t great, but at least she got to see lots of giant clams and multi-coloured fish… who knows where this could end up. Another 1st for us was we got a taste of the wet season on Neil Island, with a huge downpour which we watched from our balcony – it was only for a couple of hours on the final couple of days.
After 8 days on Neil Island we were sad to leave, though really chilled, we’d said goodbye to Richard and Aisha who were heading back to Poland a couple of days before and Lyndon and Andy who were staying for another 10 days (lucky gits) before heading back to Australia. We caught the ferry to Havelock Island.
We stayed at Symphony Palms, a little posh and full of Indian Tourists but the other alternatives weren’t that appealing, especially as it was getting closer to the closed season so not much was open. We hired a motorbike and a moped and headed to Beach No. 7, voted “Best Beach in Asia” by the Observer. It was a beautiful stretch of white sand, turquoise sea and a jungle back drop. Also it was empty, which was great, except a couple of Indian families had just turned up in their minivans for the 20 minute dip, women fully dressed in saris.
Beach No. 7 had another thing to boast, one of the best Italian restaurants in India. Run by an Italian woman, the Mahua Italian, was great. Set between the beach and the jungle, the food was amazing! Actual basil, garlic, cheese, porcini mushrooms and pasta (not noodles)… fantastic! We ate there for lunch that day and dinner the next!!!
The next day we’d arranged for 2 dives at South Button Island, I dived, Sarah snorkeled. We arrived early, grabbed breakfast and headed out on the dive boat to South Button Island. Initially Sarah was a little tentative as she’d paid to go on the boat to snorkel, but it seemed that there were no guides on there and she was the only one snorkeling, despite telling them she was a bit of a novice. Determined as ever Sarah, though scared of the unknown (it was her 1st deep water snorkel), decided to go… and definitely didn’t regret it. Whilst I went for my 1st dive, where I saw a couple of rays, my first cleaner/anemone shrimp, loads of fish, moray eels, Sarah was a little unsure still; the only other people on the boat were the two boat boys – who to this point hadn’t said a word. Whilst I was under, Sarah got asked if she was going in… then one of the boys jumped in and offered to be her guide (he was a qualified Divemaster). Sarah jumped in after and had a fantastic time. By the end of my dive, I expected to find Sarah on the boat, still unsure about whether to snorkel or not but there she was spouting out everything she’d seen, she’d only just got out and claimed she probably saw more snorkeling (she counted 30+ fish, all unidentified) than I did diving and that snorkeling was better than diving… something I disputed but nevertheless she was adamant, we’ll see!
After a curry lunch, we were off on our second dive and Sarah on her second snorkel, (she wanted the camera but I refused) - again she claimed she would see more and snorkeling was sooooo much better than diving. Well at least though she never dived under, she’s started overcoming one of her biggest fears which is amazing!
At the end of 2 days on Havelock we headed back to Port Blair in order to catch our flight to Kolkata. Air India – what a shambles. On arrival at the airport, no-one would man the x-ray machine so we couldn’t check in (there was an abundance of staff but obviously the jobsworths wouldn’t do anything outside of their job description – we found that Indians were great at doing their jobs, in fact they were brilliant at following the letter of their job description, it just meant that most couldn’t think laterally – the ones that did probably got fired!!! Then the Air India computers were down so everything was by hand… luckily they love extra admin. One nice surprise was a few Indians actually shouted at a couple of others for not queuing properly… brilliant!
Luckily, this time in Kolkata Sarah had thought ahead and booked a niche hostel/guesthouse, the Bodhi Tree, funnily enough near the largest mall in Kolkata… The guesthouse was really nice, though a pain to find. A relaxing end to what at times had been hectic, gruesome (Varanasi/Delhi), breathtaking (Amritsar, Varanasi, Darjeeling and the Andaman), maddening, frustrating (the people) and wondrous. India is definitely a place of contrasts, frustrations and pleasures. It’s an amazing place but not one to be taken seriously. Be ready to argue everyday, but try not to get mad or they’ll send you mad! For me it wasn’t top of the list to visit, but I am glad I went and would definitely go again. Forewarned is Forearmed!
We spent 4 days in Bangkok, before heading to Damnoen Saduak for a night and to see the floating market, then Kanchanaburi for 3 days to take a cooking course before heading to Chiang Rai for a trek and finally to Chiang Mai to fly out to Laos.
Bit of a whistle-stop tour, but when we only have 8/9 weeks in SE Asia, and there are beaches to go to – so I was being told!
The flight from Kolkata to Bangkok was such a contrast to Air India, if you have to travel in India by plane… Jet Airlines! This was a good warm up for the arrival in Bangkok, where instead of Indian inefficiency, staring and general glumness of officials we were greeted in the “Land of Smiles” by smiley happy people, an efficient and clean airport. What a contrast to India!
We headed to Bangkok and Khao San Road to our hostel, Lamphu House, nice place. Had a shower and headed out to experience Khao San Road. I noticed that it had got a lot calmer in the 6 years since I was there, however it was still the main hangout for backpackers and again was such a contrast to India, there were some days we would never see another westerner, but in Bangkok we were surrounded by them. We decided to stay for a drink… a few drinks later it was 2am and I was knackered, Sarah on the other hand was fueled by Thai redbull. She decided the night was too young and the next-time I saw her it was 7:30am and she was still up chatting to a couple of Americans, one a Buddhist heading to India.
After dying the next day, we headed out the following day on a mission to sightsee… what we didn’t bargain for was though it was cooler in Bangkok than Kolkata and most of North India, it was sooooo humid! I mean really humid, sweaty Phil was a constant companion of Sarah when outside. Therefore, we made it to the water-taxi, a great way to see the city from the river, found our way to the monorail and happened upon Siam square… great shopping in the mall! Don’t get me wrong, there was still plenty to do there. They had a Thai food exhibition, plus a classic car exhibition and the Thailand Breakdancing championships. We had plenty to do and watch! They also had sushi in an amazing foodhall. We tucked into the sushi and Thai food, couldn’t get enough after our time in India. I like a good Indian curry, but this food was so fresh and so good! Sarah definitely fell in love with Thai food, though Sushi will always be her number 1, especially as over the next couple of days we ate it at any opportunity!
Next day we headed to Chattachowk, the weekend market in Bangkok (also the world’s biggest flea market) full of everything you could possibly want or not. We bought a few souvenirs, met the most outrageously male ladyboy selling shakes. V.funny, but impossible to tell on a blog. After the market we headed to Siam Paragon for dinner… at 2 sushi restaurants. I was a little sushi’d out by this point!
Next day, we headed to Damnoen Saduak, I wanted to show Sarah the floating market, and as Sean had done before, getting there early you get to see the locals trading before the tourists turn up. We got there the night before, ate off the street, good food on a stick and great soup. The next morning we arranged a 2 hour tour of the market with a boatman. This was the 1st shock/slight disappointment I was to have about Thailand and progress. When Sean and I went 6 years before, there was a little tourism, but mainly the stalls sold produce and everyday articles, now the locals have seen there is more money in selling rubbish to tourists! The good thing was we were pretty much the only Westerners there at 7am so we got to see some monks in boats getting offerings and some locals trading goods, but the majority of the stalls and the prices of the food were definitely aimed at tourists. It was still very beautiful but it was definitely more touristy than it was 6 years previous. The good thing was, though the food was a little more expensive, the quality of the food from the boat sellers was the same as it always was and the coconut patties/mini pancakes were phenomenal, as were the freshly made spring rolls!!! Great breakfast feast, trouble was we forgot our second stomach as there was so much good stuff to try.
After 3 hours of the market, we headed back into town, checked out and caught the first of 2 buses out of there heading to Kanchanaburi.
On arrival in Kanchanaburi we headed to 7-Eleven for the best air-con in Thailand (it was muggy, and the buses had no air-con… though they chucked on the fans when the bus stopped (the Thais hate to sweat). We were picked up by Ba, the cook/general handywoman at Apple’s Retreat. Again, Kanchanaburi had changed… the price of progress I suppose. When I last visited there must have been 4/5 bars on the road leading to the bridge over the River Kwai and a few by the river and Apple’s was making the corner. Now Apple’s was a building site (apparently the land owners wanted a bit of Apple’s action, so kicked them off the land), there were bars teaming with prostitutes all the way down the road leading to the bridge and Apple’s Retreat had retreated to the calm and sanctity of the other side of the River Kwai. What Apple & Noi had done on the other side of the river was stunning, immaculate accommodation on one side of the road and the best restaurant in town on the other. Hardly any reason to visit the seedy side… except for a bit of nightlife... That night we ate at the restaurant, Sarah had the best Phad Thai she’d tasted in Thailand and I had my 1st taste of Massaman Curry (it was recommended in the back of the menu where they had cleverly placed a lot of the guest’s comments).
The next day we’d booked ourselves into a cooking course, it being the main reason for me wanting to go there. The course was taken by Noi, the main chef and partner of the business. She was very forthright and opinionated, which for a Thai woman was very refreshing but definitely frowned upon by tradition. Our course was small which was perfect, the only other person was Amanda from Vancouver. On arrival we were given the menus and told to choose 4 dishes between us from it which we’d like to cook. After much debate (the menu is extensive) we selected Phad Thai (Thai fried noodles), Stir Fry Ginger, Tom Kha Soup and Massaman Curry. Everything has to be fresh, so off we went to the local market with Noi to show us round. Whilst Ba went off to purchase the ingredients, we were shown around the market by Noi where she showed, and we tried out, the various contents of the sticky rice banana leaf parcels, street food snacks, spices, dried goods staples, like tamarind, bale fruit and tropical fruit (lychees, mangosteen, duriens, rambutans and local apples) and the importance of balance in a Thai diet. They eat constantly, but because of the chilli, spices and balance they stay thin. She also told us of the Thai obsession with European fruits such as strawberries, kiwis and raspberries – the opposite of Westerners obsession with tropical fruits.
After the market, we headed back to Apple’s Retreat, were first shown to make the dishes, then we repeated to varying degrees of success. Needless to say we will be trying out the dishes on our friends when we return… especially as we headed out the next day to purchase the utensils and some of the dried ingredients – now posted home and carefully stored, so there is no getting out of it.
The next few days, we chilled at Apples, visited the market and surrounding shops, generally ate at Apple’s and street stalls. We did borrow a couple of bikes, cycled around Kanchanaburi, bought our train ticket to Chiang Mai (so much easier than India), visited the bridge over the river kwai and marveled at how much Kanchanaburi had changed. Not to judge without trying the new “improved” version was we did go out one night for a few drinks and found a bar with a band doing western covers and surprisingly Thai rock/pop songs. The ladyboy waitresses were crap dancers though! We walked the street and decided to stay away from the prostitute bars, especially the one called “K-9” – and yes, it was full of dogs!
Eventually we left, both sad to be leaving Apple and Noi’s as both Apple (the young one – there are two the older we didn’t meet as she was looking after the other establishment Apple’s Guesthouse) and Noi were great, full of information and Apple was great company at mealtimes – it took 30 minutes to order sometimes when she wanted to talk about Thai politics, the royal family, customs and both her and Noi’s family life.
We bused 5hrs to first Supanburi, then Ayuthaya to catch the overnight train to Chiang Mai. The train north was fantastic compared to India. The set up was very different and regimented. The train stopped for 1 minute at the station and everyone had to pile on board. The first difference was the train staff helped everyone on board, I mean grabbed the bags and helped you to your allocated seat – brilliant! Next, the staff were friendly – after badgering you to order food, they sat down had a chat. Even tried to beat us at cards… though one woman did play a mean hand of rummy. Trouble was she taught Sarah to play as well as her! After cards, it was time for bed (it was only 9pm) but the staff came along and converted the seats to beds in lightening speed. After a sound night sleep we arrived rested in Chiang Mai. After arrival, we took a bus to Chiang Rai. Beautiful scenery, rolling green hills and valleys.
In Chiang Rai, we stayed at Baan Bua, nice clean place, full of backpackers wanting to experience Northern Thailand how it used to be, like us. Chiang Rai was quite big town, considering it’s supposed to be provincial. Like the guide books say, it’s a place to live rather than visit… didn’t get it at first but now I realise… no real attractions, just a great place to chill (it’s colder here and rains a lot), relax and visit the hill tribes. There’s a daily night market and every weekend they shut the main street and made it a walking street for the locals and visitors selling lots of street food, putting on a band and locals getting drunk and dancing in circles. Needless to say, we did go to this before going on our trek – lots of fun and great food! We also had our first Thai massage, just the ticket before going on a trek.
The trek was great, we were met by Kao Chiang – or Chiang as he liked to be called – in the morning. Dropped our bags at the Hill Tribe Museum and headed off by long tail boat to the Elephant station. Boarded our elephant and we were off for an hour relying on this poor elephant to take us where we thought no elephant could reach to get to a Yao village. Both a little scared in parts (Sarah more than me, obviously!), especially going up or down almost vertical paths covered with mud. Walked onto an Akha village and waterfall. Saw the sacred arch and swing used by the Akha. On the way to the village we walked through a lot of long grass, once we reached the path, we met some Japanese behind us who were going the same way – they were covered in leeches… we were fine though. Apparently, the leeches live in the long grass near streams and rivers and we must have disturbed them when we walked through and they attacked the Japanese… ha ha! We hiked a bit further to a Lahu village where we stayed the night. We were cooked some great Thai food – about 4 dishes in all by Chiang, with a little help from the family we stayed with. Wondered round the village, had a shower and got into dry clothes. It was hot and sweaty work!!!
We had a great sleep – mosquito net helped – then we trekked for 3 hours through the hills, fields, forest and mosquitoes to a hot spring. We had a private hot spring bath and got rid of all the sweat, mud and grime. Got a ride in the back of a pickup back to Chiang Rai, packed our bags and headed to the bus station to catch the bus to Chiang Mai. Chiang followed us to the bus station and gave us as a parting gift a whole tub – must have been 2 or 3kg or fresh Arabica coffee beans from his farm in the hills. We sent this home and will have to learn how to roast them ourselves.
Chiang Mai had changed too since I last visited 6 years ago. There were lots of high rise hotels around as well as backpacker places. We checked into our guesthouse (Phonepasanth), went for a swim (it had a nice pool) and headed out for a walk towards the night market and bars. The night market was full of tourist crap, there was 24hr Burger King and MacDonalds, chain coffee shops, mobile ATM, loads of tourists and loads of bars. Managed to find one without prostitutes had a few drinks for dutch courage before heading into the main strip of bars. Spent our night hanging out, shooting pool with the owner and barmaid as well as a young lad from Czech Republic (he was a little shy until I talked about football and the Czech fans being brilliant – he told me what their “Czech Czech Czech” chant meant, but don’t ask me to regurgitate it as we were a little ticking at this point). The owner and the barmaid were chuffed that Sarah was speaking to them as most Western women ignored or looked down on Thai girls as they kind of suspected they would try to steal their boyfriends/husbands. We all got kicked out at 3am and headed to a nightclub with the owner, barmaid and Czech tagalong (he was after the barmaid) – we all danced in there surrounded by Western guys and Thai women/prostitutes. After the club we met some English lads and headed back to their hotel for a few more drinks, carried on drinking until 9:30am… it was time to leave then as we had to pack and check out of our hotel at 10am – plus we were catching a flight to Lao that afternoon with the notorious Lao Airlines… it’s that bad it doesn’t release it’s safety record and diplomats are banned from flying on it!!!
After rush packing and checking out we hung around Chiang Mai with a stinker of a hangover and no sleep until our taxi to the airport where we slept on the most uncomfortable seats stinking of alcohol like true teenage backpackers… yes we can keep up with the kids when we want to.
As we were in North Thailand, we thought it would be a shame to miss out on visiting Lao as we had heard so many good things about it and the people of Lao. However, we felt that instead of traveling there over 2-3 days via the Mekong River we should fly there from Chiang Mai, that way make it back to Thailand a little sooner so as to head to the beach (we were in the tropics and haven’t been near a decent beach since Zanzibar and Lake Malawi back in February).
Anyway we flew with Lao Airlines, who I have mentioned before have the reputation as being shocking – and I have to say they were! We flew on an old Russian Aeroflot passenger plane for the short journey. The scenery was stunning, with the Mekong River, rolling hills and immense greenery, however that only took a little away from how bad the flight and especially the landing was. I’m not normally a nervous flyer and never really think we’ll crash, but this time even I was a little scared, zig sagging left and right to line up the landing, then almost missing the runway before finally landing on two wheels. Nick would not have enjoyed that one… makes Aurigny and Blue Islands look good! I have to say that the fact we were both hungover as dogs probably did make it worse…
After our bumpy arrival into Luang Prabang, somewhere we had heard a lot about and the guide books raved about we were expecting good things from the town that had become a UNESCO heritage site. On first viewing we thought, yeah, it’s not that bad a place, beautiful mahogany buildings, with mahogany signs and mahogany furniture. Then we noticed that all the main street was like this, but instead of peoples homes or hotels, they were all travel agents, bars or restaurants – all put there for the tourist! Also for such a poor country (Lao is one of the poorest in the world) the prices of everything, especially some of the accommodation was laughable!
We hunted around and found a place off the main strip near the river which was more reasonable Phoussi Guesthouse. It was clean, nicely furnished, had a fan and aircon, fridge and tv showing some American news all for $15 – still expensive compared to Thailand, but the best VFM we found! After finding the place, we put our heads down and tried to sleep off the hangover and lack of sleep from the partying the night/morning before.
We stayed in Luang Prabang for 3 nights, the first day we obviously didn’t see much of the place (sleeping), but the next couple of days we borrowed some bikes and went for a cycle around the town, up and down the rivers. It was a pleasant enough place, a nightly market with an eating street (watched a girl make about 50 spring rolls – very handy for our lunch boxes when we return!) – the night market sold a lot of stuff – all good quality, but then after you’d passed 10 or so stalls you realized they were all pretty much selling the same stuff manufactured in a factory/sweatshop somewhere just for us tourists… so we bought a few souvenirs. I have to say, the French did leave something good behind in Lao, except the bakeries (fresh French bread… hmmm) – they taught them to make biere blonde! Beer Lao was the best beer we’ve had on our travels and kicks Beer Chiang’s butt on the tasting and consumption front. We also found a few cool little bars on the opposite side of the peninsular to the Mekong, the best being “Hive Bar”… One tip however, if you’re tempted by the cheapness of the “Lao Lao” cocktails… remember there is a reason for this, not just because it is the local poison… it tastes disgusting and ruins a perfectly good cocktail! Let this be a warning to you all!
To sum up Luang Prabang, it has character, a lot of character in fact, but as every building on the main street has the same character it seems that it has become a bit of a caricature of itself and we felt we were in a theme park, not the capital of a Lao province.
After 3 days we decided to bus it down to Vientienne where we were hoping to spend a couple of nights before heading back to Bangkok by Train. The bus ride down was a little hairy and for Sarah “Back Seat Driver” Carre we were in the worst position… on the top deck, right at the front so she could see everything coming and pass comment on the driving around steep hillside corners in driving rain. I would have like to have slept on the 10 hour journey… but to no avail!
Checked into a dingy room in the Phonepasanth Guest House – it was cheaper than the plush option next door. We went for a walk around the small square nearby where there were some nice French restaurants. Decided to spend the money we saved on accommodation on a slap up French meal of beautiful steak (Sarah had buffalo), sauté potatoes and veg flushed down with a couple of Beer Lao and carafes of house wine… we could’ve been in France, but the food was even better. Sarah’s buffalo steak was fantastic! We passed the evening chatting with the staff and a few of the diners, in particular a couple from America and an English social worker who’d just got a job heading up the social services department in Vientienne after 10 years of volunteer work in Africa and India.
Next day, with a little bit of a sore head, we went out to book our ticket to Bangkok. We’d read that we could get a train direct from Vientienne to Bangkok, however the service had only started in February and they were a little slack in getting things organized. Apparently we could get the ticket, but we’d have to get a taxi to the train station, a good 30km out of Vientienne, buy the ticket for the next day, get a taxi back, then the next day get a taxi all the way to the train station again. Plus the ticket worked out more expensive than the traditional bus to the border on the Friendship Bridge, tuk-tuk to the train station and train it to Bangkok overnight. So we opted for the traditional route, and we were in luck, the travel agent was selling two sleeper tickets for that evening… we’d end up getting there a day earlier than expected so we could start searching for a tailor so I could get my wedding suit made – the travels just started to get a little scarier and real!
The journey to the border and Bangkok went off without a hitch. We met a couple from Switzerland, Silva and Virgini at the train station, shared a few beers and thoughts with them before catching the train and got a good Phad Thai takeaway for the train. Silva put a seed in our heads that the Thai’s, yes they are friendly, but only for money and they actually look down on Westerners, a fair point I suppose, but we didn’t think anything of it.
The train journey was smooth, no hustling waitress wanting to beat me at rummy this time.
Our early morning arrival into Bangkok and the theory Silva sowed was tested when the taxi drivers were trying to hustle us and overcharge for the short journey to Khao-San Road, but to be fair, taxi drivers all over the world try to pull a fast one on tourists, and these guys won’t be our last!
There was no room in Lamphu House this time so we went down the street to New Siam III – an extra 10 quid but good vfm and plush! Caught up on our sleep (no matter how comfortable trains are, we never sleep properly on them, especially in Asia as the aircon was so cold. We only stayed there a night then headed back to Lamphu House (cheaper) for the next 2 nights.
Whilst in Bangkok we bought a load of cooking supplies in Central World food hall (recommended by Noi in Kanchanaburi) and I got my wedding suit measured up and made… scary stuff… plus organized for trousers and shirts to be made up for Nick and Sean for them to wreck on the wedding night (Nick WILL spill!). We searched around a lot, there are loads of tailors in Bangkok, some good, some bad, some excellent and some terrible! After a good search, we found Ricky’s on Sukhumvit Road. The guys there were great, really thorough, patient (it took time to decide on the colours), especially David, very patient and helpful!
The suit and shirt they knocked out in 2 days was fantastic, obviously, I’m not a tailor but the workmanship seemed really good. They even gave me an extra ½ inch to play with around the waist, bring on the Argentinean steaks!
To celebrate finding and getting measured up for the suit, we decided it would be good to head out to Khao-San Road for a couple of celebratory drinks, found a place advertising “VERY STRONG COCKTAILS” and took this as a challenge! We met some French girls and an English lad, decided that when the bar closed we should head to the mobile bar on Soi Rambuttri (just outside our place) to carry on drinking… and we did until 9am the next day (thanks to a Samsong bucket with Thai Redbull concentrate), saying goodnight to some friends and making new ones. A good night, but a hell of a hangover!
After trying on the final fitting of the suit, posting home our cooking stuff and other bits and pieces, a great way to spend Sarah’s birthday, we caught an overnight bus/boat transfer to Koh Tao – finally we were heading to the islands. The journey was efficient, though we weren’t told about the 2 hours we had to sleep on a bus terminal floor before catching a 7am ferry to Koh Tao. Finally we got to use our camping roll matts after carrying the damn things for 5 months!
It was good to be on a boat and see the islands, we’d booked a place called Moondance on the recommendation of Richard and Asha, the guys we’d met in the Andaman Islands. We caught a boat around the coast and was a little disappointed to see what was on offer for the price. Sarah had been looking forward to a nice beach, lazy bungalows, relaxing, especially after spending her birthday doing admin, posting and catching an overnight transport to Koh Tao. Moondance bungalows didn’t have glass or mesh on the windows, but wooden bars, and we’d heard stories of someone waking up with a snake in their room… it wasn’t a great start to Koh Tao, especially after minimal sleep on the journey down. On a map given to us on the ferry was a picture of a stunning place just up the hill from Moondance, with what looked like a pool (the beaches in Koh Tao are impossible to swim on as they are so rocky and the water shallow/oily from the boat traffic).
I gave the place “View Point Resort” a call, the guy quoted me 800, 1000 or 1200 Baht to me for the bungalows, I thought it was fantastic if they have a pool and we can start to celebrate Sarah’s birthday properly. He popped down the hill, gave us a hand with our bags, showed us a couple of bungalows, then Sarah asked the pertinent question… “do you have a pool, you know, somewhere to swim?” – “pool? Ah, you mean the Villa!”. Off he trotted and took us round a maze of a well kempt garden to a down some steps to a secluded gate… WOW!!! First sight was an infinity pool, then to the left was the main building, huge bedroom, massive bed, veranda over the cliff, big open rainforest bathroom with a massive rain shower. I thought fantastic… but no chance on this one, it’s how the other have live. Then I went outside, saw a second building with a waterfall down the side, looked in… a tv/entertainment room with a fish pond on the inside!!! Now I know we’d blown the budget even thinking about this. Just out of curiosity I asked they guy… “how much?” “12,000 Baht normally”… about 250 quid, OUCH! Hang on, he said “normally”, so… “how much if we were to stay tonight?” – he’d already told us it was VERY quiet at the moment and he’d given discounted quotes on the bungalows he’d shown us. Long story short, I managed to get it for 5,000 Baht (about £100) as long as we only stayed one night. Well, I figured it was Sarah’s birthday and we’d both fallen in love with the place.
We spent the whole 24 hours there, swimming, relaxing, swimming, eating dinner, drinking wine, watching a dvd, enjoying the wildlife (big spiders and large tree geckos) and watching the big dive boats sail past. It was a great day and night, relaxing – just hope we didn’t get used to it! (Just check out the pictures!!! Well posh – for one night only!)
Next day, we moved to a bungalow nearby, again at a discount, and headed down to the Chalok Baan beach to check out the diving options for me. To be honest, I wasn’t impressed with what was on offer, yes, I could have got my Advanced PADI cert there cheaply and including accommodation but at the same time, the dive boats were massive and it seemed a bit of a factory. Plus if I was out diving for the next 2 days, there wasn’t much for Sarah to do as the beaches were rubbish.
We decided that that was that for Koh Tao and we should move on to Koh Phagnan (Sarah had read about Bottle Beach in the north of the island, away from the Full Moon Party beach of Had Rin… it wasn’t full moon for another 2 weeks anyway.
Our trip to Bottle Beach was easy, boat – chakraw (taxi/pickup) – water taxi and we arrived about midday. We checked out the accommodation on offer, they cater for all kinds, budget, midgrange, and top end(aircon apartments with tv…) we opted for Bottle Beach 1 (or BB1) as it was comfortable, beach front and 450 Baht, with a pool if the sea was a little rough. Bottle Beach is a place where travelers/holidaymakers visit on day trips as it has a fantastic beach, but not many stay over – they stay in Had Rin… more fool them!
We stayed here for 7 nights relaxing on the beach. We also made a few good friends, namely Lois a nurse from London who was Sarah’s sunbathing buddy and Phil and Terri a couple who were heading off to Australia to emigrate after changing his career to a tree surgeon. We also met our first people from Jersey – randomly a girl who used to be the chef at Café Poste (where we had Valentines dinner last year) and a couple on our last night Phil and Jane from St Peter. Random!
We really enjoyed ourselves on Bottle Beach – I bought a hammock and swung on the veranda in the shade, while Sarah sunbathed, I played beach football (realized how unfit I was) and volleyball, watched a few good films in the evenings at BB3, ate good food and even had a couple of good parties put on by BB1 (they were a little peeved people kept going to BB3 to watch films in the evening). The 1st party we watched them twirling fire sticks…. Something Sarah thought was a bit like majorettes and she could master no problem… next thing Sarah was down on the beach lighted fire stick in hand and started twirling… to be honest, she wasn’t bad! Wasn’t as good as the locals, or as fast – but definitely more burnt - but she did pretty well, considering how much she’d drunk at the time… don’t worry, I filmed both her and the locals for a comparison – just need to see how to upload them to this blog/youtube… We were up however until the early hours – Sarah DJing and me sneaking behind the bar, went for a dawn swim before heading to bed for a few hours kip, before it was back to the hammock swinging for me.
Needless to say, the fire twirling put Sarah in good stead with the young girl travelers – next night at BB3 watching a movie it was… “oh, are you Sarah? That was amazing last night…”.Yes – Sarah is still ‘down with the kids!’
After 7 days we were sad to leave but relaxed after staying somewhere for longer than 3 days. It was time to leave as our visa ran out at midnight, so it was another long journey down to Penang in Malaysia. We would definitely recommend people to visit and stay at Bottle Beach, it was the first time for a long time we could chill and enjoy the sun (and hammock!)
Firstly, I admit it…. We’ve been slack. I wanted to catch up on this blog whilst we were in New Zealand, but here we are crossing the Andes into Argentina and only just finishing off Malaysia. Before I continue, I have to say that the views are too amazing for words, clear blue lakes, alpine forests and snow-capped mountains all around. Anyway… to Malaysia, somewhat a little more tropical than our present location.
The journey from Koh Pha-gnan was long, hot and arduous. We had to change twice along the way with being ushered but not explained to what was happening. I suppose the people were used to dealing with young backpackers who will follow like sheep. Being a little older than the average backpacker… especially in Thailand… we were asking questions, disagreeing with them – refusing to get on the back of a motorbike taxi with our backpacks and day bags on. To be honest we were getting a little fed up with the Thais at this stage!
Anyway, we finally made it to the border crossing over to Malaysia, the usual screening questions re H1N1 and our temperature being taken… all this next to a Thai woman who was clearly seriously ill and had just been sick on the floor. After clearance, we were off to Penang – hopefully clear of infection from the border crossing!!!
When we arrived in Penang (I must stop mentioning this and it’ll prob be the last time until South America you’ll be pleased to hear) – it’d changed, but this time probably for the better. I remember the streets of Georgetown being grotty and the Komtar Tower being a little non-descript. This time the streets were clean, the hostel we stayed in was clean and modern (Banana New Guest House) while still being centrally located.
We’d come to Penang for two reasons, the food (it is renowned to be a massive fusion of Indonesian, Indian and Malay – plus I loved the food last time I was hear and the hawker stalls) and the border crossing was easier and less reportedly dangerous this side on the peninsular. Anyway, after checking in we were a little peckish and tired. There were a few hawker stalls outside as it was 10pm when we arrived. We looked around and shamefully (for two reasons) found an amazing burger stand – it was also called “Manchester United Burger”. We put our heads down and hoped we’d be a little more prepared to wonder the streets of Penang the next day (we’d planned to leave the next day but it was a 6:30am start and there was NO way we’d be able to do it after the 15 hour journey to Penang). We needed the extra day resting.
We slept until late the next day and made it all the way to the Komtar Tower which now had a mall inside. Not just any mall but it had everything… and cheap, especially electronics (Penang is now Malaysia’s version of Silicon Valley). I got my phone fixed (it died on me in India) and Sarah searched and shopped through all the cheap clothes/glasses.
For dinner that night we went to the main Hawker Centre on the water front – after a dodgy taxi ride there… according to him we were “Bad People”, though this was after him taking us to the wrong part of town, trying to charge us more to take us to the hawker centre and us giving him the agreed price and walking out… maybe we are! The Hawker Centre was not as I remembered it – gone were the rickety stalls selling fantastic street food, instead the centre was a cement forecourt with permanent stalls segregated into styles of food and all selling mediocre versions of what it should have been! The good point was we met a couple of Indian lawyers happily praising Great Britain and ending up buying us a drink.
Next morning we were off to the Perhentian Islands. The long minibus journey to Kuala Besut to catch our boat to the Perhentian Islands was comfortable in comparison to our journey from Thailand, and the 40 minute boat journey was beautiful, the sea calm and turquoise – we were on our holidays again!
We stayed on Perhentian Kecil (the small island) for 9 days first staying at Fatima’s Bungalows for a night, the room had no windows, it was 30+ degrees, grotty, holes and massive spiders webs right outside. After that we moved up the beach to Senja Bay, a bit more pricey but great views and had windows you could open.
During our stay we picked a dive school “Quiver Dive Team” after checking out the others, sitting down with East End wide boy Jamie “I’ve dived all over the World mate” whose smooth salesman skills (and the odd beer) convinced me to do my Advanced PADI and Sarah, amazingly, to think about doing a “Try Dive” – this is the girl who up to the Andaman Islands, a month ago, had refused to put her head underwater.
Sarah thought the next day it might be an idea to get her head under before diving, so on our 1st foray into snorkeling in the bay she dived down with a snorkel and mask for the 1st time and didn’t die. That was it, there was nothing stopping her after that, especially after she saw a cuttlefish puffer fish, nemos (clown fish) parrot fish and angel fish.
I started the Advanced course with Loic the next day, where he introduced me to the macro world of nudibranch (small colourful slugs) and cleaner shrimps. Sarah also did her 1st ever dive with her instructor, Candice. I was a little nervous for Sarah, but not half as nervous as she was. It was a big FACE YOUR FEAR day for Sarah… the worst fear of all – especially as she’d only learnt to dive with a snorkel the day before while we snorkeled about the bay spotting all sorts of tropical fish. Eventually I saw Candice take Sarah under in the shallows. I sat around looking at my watch, as 30 minutes approached I started to get a little worried (Sarah was REALLY nervous of today)… Eventually I saw two neoprene clad bodies emerge from the water and make there way up the beach, one with a huge smile – Sarah had found a new passion, diving! Now she just wanted to do it more and more.
Over the next 3 days I attained my Advanced PADI - seeing a couple of black tip reef sharks in the shallows where people were swimming on my last dive and a school of cobia (sharklike fish 1.5 – 2m long) on my night dive – and Sarah got her Open Water, diving with a black tip reef shark on her last dive and loving every second!!! After some discussion, we agreed it would be a good idea to get Sarah to do her Adventure Diver (half way between Open Water and Advanced), however to stop me from twiddling my thumbs whilst this happened I opted for a dive day at Pulau Redang, a beautiful white sandy island about 50km south of the Perhentians.
Whilst I was away diving with Iain, English instructor, Liverpool fan and all round top bloke, loving the clear blue waters, jellyfish and hawksbill turtle (luckily on the last dive) Sarah was supposed to be doing two of her adventure dives.
However, when I returned from Redang, as we pulled up in the boat I saw Sarah doing what looked like her navigation dive… (this is only compulsory for Advanced) and anyone who knows Sarah knows she HATES navigation with a passion and would never do it if she had an option not to… unless she was pulling a sneaky one and completing her Advanced PADI hopefully without me knowing. BUSTED!!!
Anyway, all was good, Sarah completed her Advanced the next day, with me joining her on her last dive (hence Sarah’s facebook picture of us underwater together). It was my first dive with a girl leading it and, I don’t want to sound sexist – it may have been because she was Canadian – but there was high fiving and whooping on the dive and smiley faces drawn in my log book. Gotta love Candice!!!
Other memories we have from the Perhentians are two Russian divers, Yuri and Sveta - they loved to dive all over looking for the wild, strange and wonderful things to photograph and film. They had a bit of a professional setup, Yuri was the lights man and Sveta was the photographer. All they had was a small digital camera with a macro lense screwed on and a couple of had held lights but they came back with the best photos and films. They could do a book after their trips. Sarah’s favourite was the fire worm together with Sveta’s “do, do, do, do, do” commentary mimicking the fire worm “playing, not fighting” with a cleaner shrimp. We also loved just chilling and hanging out with the guys at Quiver, Loic, Iain, Candice, Jim, Luc, Nicole, Lars, Wing, Jimmy and Jamie playing cards (Uno – Quiver rules) for snickers bars (an expensive commodity in the islands).
Next day, we said our goodbyes to Quiver and the Perhentian Islands. We’d made some good friends there, also Sarah will always remember it (and bore you until you agree to go there) as it was the place she overcame her biggest fear. We caught the boat to the mainland with Jim and Jamie who were off to Kuala Lumpur to a diving conference, we caught a flight down to Kuala Lumpur (Air Asia – it’s cheap as!).
When we got to Kuala Lumpur, we stayed central at Pujanga Homestay – not far from some of the malls and Little Arabia. We stayed for 4 nights.
Over the four days we met up with Jim and Jamie (they were in KL for a course) from Quiver to watch a couple of films – Transformers 2 at the IMAX – though it wasn’t IMAX - and the following night we watched Terminator 4 – a much better film, even Sarah liked it! We had some random meeting with Yuri and Sveta just walking through a technology mall. We also went on a shopping mission to buy batik, a hooker pipe and some things from Chinatown (all posted home), went to the PADI diving exhibition (remember, Sarah is now obsessed with the underwater world!) to buy a snorkel and mask. We also did a little sightseeing at the Petronas Towers and Chinatown, it was also the 1st time we had to get our visa in advance for Indonesia so had to visit the Indonesian Embassy, a lot less hassle than we 1st thought.
Our standout memorable evening in Kuala Lumpur was when we went for a fantastic Italian dinner at Nero Vivo – a little up market than our usual choice of restaurant. We got a good table outside, ordered a bottle of house wine (tasted great!) and a large starter to share, a kind of a large antipasto for our entire meal (we couldn’t afford much on the menu). This was the start of one of our strangest eating experiences we’ve had so far on our travels, all thanks to our friendly and over generous waiter who was either mad or trying to get fired: we must’ve been their 1,000th customer or something as we ordered a bottle of wine, which we drank, but before that arrived we received a glass of champagne each, once the wine was finished, another was produced, after the meal we got a shot of grappa each followed by an amaretto each, finally our waiter popped up as we were chatting with a dessert. All of this he said, “don’t worry…. On me”, then when we gave him a tip he looked genuinely shocked and when asked why we received all this extra service he replied “that is how we are, and we hope you enjoyed your meal”. The meal was excellent, especially as it’d been a while since Italian food, but we left the place feeling completely bemused.
We thoroughly enjoyed Malaysia and is a place we will be returning to, especially as Air Asia does cheap flights from the UK, and we will definitely be returning to the Perhentian Islands to further our diving – one thing, DO NOT ask Sarah about it as she will probably bore you with it and how great the underwater world is until you relent and book your flight to Malaysia (she will want confirmation!).
We flew into Banda Aceh, the source of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, so we expected a certain amount of devastation, especially as it was a war zone before the tsunami. However we were pleasantly surprised on arrival to see that the NGO’s had done a fairly good job, everything was rebuilt and things still looked new.
We shared a taxi to the port with Rob, an English teacher from the midlands based in Hong Kong. He was a little more experienced at diving than us, clocking up over 150 dives. A really chilled guy, enjoying his summer holidays in his favourite country to dive, Indonesia, trouble is it’s a huge country with loads of different places to dive, I think we’ll end up coming back!
The port was smart, not what we expected and the ferry trip good over relatively calm seas. We caught a mini-taxi to Gapang Bay, planning to stay at Lumba Lumba Dive Centre, though it was a little bit pricey compared to other local options. Before checking in, we decided to look around for other options, but to be honest they were either full, ramshackle or great value for money (apparently in one place we could fit up to 25 people for the same price... it ‘d been done) but without a toilet – and no public toilet to be seen... decided that the accommodation at Lumba Lumba, though more expensive was amazing value for money, so we plumped for it, so did Rob. We decided to keep the diving on the cheap to make up for the accommodation.
Gapang Bay is a strange little bay, about 200m long with not a lot there. We were expecting something a little more built up but on 1st view was more of a small time building site than a beach resort, and definitely not a tourist destination. However the surface doesn’t have to be pretty to be a good place under the water! Anyway, after eating at Zero Cafe, Mama Jungle’s, meeting Papa Jungle, eating doughnuts from Mama Doughnut (they were good doughnuts, especially with Dulce de Leche on top, we discovered it was more a small village community with Papa Jungle being the head man watching over his village. It was a nice place, obviously still a little devastated after the Tsunami, the NGO’s didn’t make to to Gapang Bay, so it was left to the locals to rebuild!
We stayed on Pulau Weh at Gapang Bay for  days, doing a few shore dives with Lumba Lumba on our own which was great experience for us both, especially natural navigation as we did get a little disorientated without a guide – arguing directions underwater is a little interesting to say the least! However we decided Lumba Lumba was too big an operation for us to dive the proper sites, up to 14 people were on the dive boat at one time, so we opted for the smaller operation of Pulau Weh Dive Resort run onsite by Pete from England and his other half Vale from Chile. This was great as for most of the diving it was just us two and them, with Rob joining us for the last 2 or 3 dives as he found Lumba Lumba a little too busy for his liking. As it was a small operation we could pick our sites, depending on current and tide and not have it dictated to us.
We had an education diving in Pulau Weh from the sublime of Batee Tokong – so good we dived there twice (1st time I didn’t know where to point the camera, the water was so clear, and we were surrounded by fish, I should have filmed it!! – to the almost ridiculous of Pantee Pintang – where the current was so strong and we had to physically climb hand over hand up and through a wall of boulders whilst being hammered from all sides by the current. We both found the climbing a little tough and unexpected, though we knew there would be some current as it attracts the big fish, but the surface was so calm compared to the torrent of the bottom. We both ended up with a few cuts and bruises after that one, but it was like an adventure down there trying to beat the current. Sarah ended up ith a small infection on her fingertips after the dive, probably cut on coral, but the current was so strong, you didn’t look where you were putting your hands, you just wanted to hold on!
Pulau Weh was excellent spot for diving, though it was a steep learning curve, especially for Sarah, it was in a completely different league to the Perhentian Islands, not just the fish life but the difficulty of diving. However we both survived and saw some amazing things from a turtle to loads of lion fish, bump head parrot fish, ornate ghost pipe fish, giant pipe fish, garden eels (they look like grass), a massive tuna swimming overhead, an octopus (bad picture as he hid by the time I got the camera out) to hundreds of moray eels, including a Harlequinn moray eel (looking like he just cracked a joke/passed wind). We also dived deeper than we had done before, Sarah bottoming out at 35m, me a lowly 31m, but I’m happy at 31 – Sarah just wants to go deeper, I just want to dive longer!
Have to say, we really enjoyed our time in Pulau Weh, especially the diving and meeting Rob, Pete and Vale. Vale was so nice as to give us two pages of things to do in Chile, including her Mum’s phone number in case we got into trouble whilst we were there... how nice is that!!!!
After heading back to the mainland Sumatra, we flew to Medan. On the flight we met Justin, from Hawaii. Really nice guy and even invited us to stay in Hawaii if we diverted our trip (I think he hoped we wouldn’t). A little spiritual (supposedly his cat was a virgo, therefore obviously attractive) but really genuine. We caught a taxi to the bus station with him, he was heading to , the other side of the  National Park to Bukit Lawang where we were heading. The purpose of this trip was to see Sumatran Orang-u-tans in the wild, somewhere different, less visited and a lot cheaper than doing it in Borneo. We only had two days to get there, see the Orang-u-tans and head back to Medan, so we had both fingers crossed that we would get to see them – they are wild, so it is not guaranteed!
At the bus station we parted ways with Justin, and after searching the bus station for the best part of an hour, chatting to some locals to no avail, we hired a minivan taxi to take us there for 100,000 Indonesian Rupiat, about $30. This was our 1st ripping off for a while and made us a little angry at being so stupid! Instead of taking us on the 3 ½ hour bus trip to Bukit Lawang, exclusively we kept picking up people along the way and then got dropped off where another minibus was taking about 16 other people to Bukit Lawang, and we would have to fit in. Not exactly what we paid for! Luckily we were veterans of India and stood our ground, 1st refusing to get out of his van and then publicly demanding the money back, calling the driver a thief in front of everyone. He finally relinquished the cash, and we had our luck turn, we met our guide ‘to be’ in Bukit Lawang, Eru who was in Medan visiting family. Eru made sure we and our bags got on the minibus and arrived safely at the Eco Lodge in Bukit Lawang, and we didn’t even pay for the minibus – he was so ashamed of what happened, he was trying to promote tourism to the area.
We organised a full day trip with Eru the next day, though we had to be back in order to catch the bus back to Medan in the afternoon as our flight was leaving Medan early the next day for Singapore. Eru was an excellent guide, he took us into the Gunung Leusur National Park, gave us explanations as to the habitiat of the Orang-u-tans. We walked for an hour before we came across a male who was a little angry at being disturbed by another group or tourists whilst trying to make relations with a female, the female had just fled. We spent 30 minutes with the male Orang-u-tan, watching him swing from tree to tree, though not as you’d expect, he climbs to the top of the tree then uses his weight to swing the tree in the direction he wants then eases to the next tree, really graceful for such a big guy. It was amazing to see him, like the gorillas in Rwanda but unfortunately a little marred by the guides (thankfully, not Eru) who were constantly chatting on their mobile phones!
We left the big guy to his own devices, and the other tourists as we felt as though we imposed a little too much and headed to track down the female. On the way we saw high in the trees a family of white handed gibbons swinging from tree to tree. Really shy creatures they always stayed out of range of us on the ground, which is also where their predators live, such as the Sumatran Tiger! We found the female, but as soon as we turned up, the other tourists turned up too, so it wasn’t the same peaceful non-intrusive watching as Africa, but it was still amazing in its own way.
After some time watching the female we headed to a small creek for lunch before heading back to Bukit LAwang and saying our goodbyes to Eru. On the way to the creek we came across the same family of gibbons a little closer and this time without anyone else so we could enjoy watching them high up in the trees without any intrusion. They were a little high so no great pictures but it was amazing to just watch them.
On the way out of the National Park, we had to cross a fast flowing river, so we stripped to the waste and waded, followed by a bit of a swim to cool down. Really refreshing! We also saw a lonely female Orang-u-tan in a quarantine cage. There because she was ill and had to be kept separate from the wild population until she recovered, not nice to see, but there for a reason!
After our goodbyes, we headed back to Medan (after a well deserved shower at the Eco Lodge), stayed overnight in Medan and caught our flight to Singapore on the reputable airline “ValuAir”... never heard of them, but pretty good compared to Laos Airlines, and as the name says... good value!