Monday, 18 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Hiking Bali's Mount Batur


When my partner and I visited Indonesia in October, one of my favourite things we did on the whole trip was hike up Mount Batur, a volcano on Bali.  I had read about this before we departed, as it seems to crop up on every "must-do" list for Bali. But to be fair, it was absolutely incredible. We booked a guide the afternoon before we wanted to go, and tried to have an early night. As the trek was timed to reach the peak at sunrise...

Today's post is the story of our hike, and if you want to read more about our Indonesian Adventures, you can find them linked here.

*****

For some reason, we once again found ourselves getting up at stupid past two in the morning, aka 2:15am. Again, self-inflicted as it was volcano day.

We slithered out of bed, donned the long trousers we had been advised to wear, grabbed our bags stuffed with water, head torches and my camera and stepped out of our lovely air conditioned bedroom into the night. 

I refuse to call it morning. It was pitch black, hours away from dawn and the warm, almost damp air made the extra layer we had been instructed to pack seem like foolishness. I didn’t want to haul it up a mountain if I didn’t have to.

Our driver for the day (ie the night) was a surprisingly-cheery-for-the-hour chap who helped us into the car, confirmed our itinerary and then said we could nap while he drove if we wanted to. Winning!

The plan was this: drive to the bottom of Mount Batur, an active volcano, meet our guide and hike to the summit in the dark. Watch the sunrise and eat breakfast, climb back down again, visit the Tegallalang Rice Terraces and go home. Simple.

And with an hour to doze and compute all this, my eyelids closed and while I didn’t sleep, it was better than propping my eyes open.


After an hour or so, we pulled into a dark parking lot where one or two other vehicles had already arrived. We were introduced to our guide - also surprisingly cheery - handed a torch each to light the way, and off we went. Simple.

The sunrise trek up Mount Batur was popular and there were other groups behind and ahead of us - often quite large groups! It was nice to be just me, Pete and the guide as we could walk along at our own pace. While the odd super-fit couple overtook us, we actually walked past quite a number of groups which is quite pleasantly motivating. It was also unexpectedly chilly and I shrugged into my cardi, glad of the extra layer. It seemed funny that the idea of wearing more clothing had been laughable only an hour earlier.

Our Guide gave us some info as we started the trek; he said it was about 8km as a round trip up and down the 1717m high peak and that it would take about 2 hours to reach the top. The first half was all uphill through the forest and the second half was harder and steep. It was 3:45am when we set off which should get us to the summit just in time for sunrise at around sixish. There’s nothing like a deadline to make you hike and so we eschewed his first offer of a break, ploughing on uphill.

It was strange hiking in the dark. The forest did indeed creep about half way up the slopes of the volcano and it rose tall and shadowy around us, tree bark plunging into the sky in numerous shades of grey. I flashed my torch around watching the beam jump from branch to branch. It felt very atmospheric.

Every so often, the atmosphere was shattered by a moped ploughing to the top; I think mainly locals transporting things to the top to sell in the tourist trade. But occasionally one would offer transport to weary travellers.

Cheating.

We reached the first more obvious resting point and the guide parked us on a bench for a few minutes to catch our breath. We had been marching pretty quickly up until this point on no breakfast so I wolfed down a chunk of cereal bar from within my bag.


Our guide explained that we had two options from this point: the hard way, which was a bit shorter but steeper, or the slightly easier way. We opted for the latter in the end as we had time and didn’t see much point in pushing ourselves for a different hike in the dark. It’s not like the scenery made much difference on the way!

So we set off again, continuing to refuse breaks, overtaking a couple of larger groups and inching further up the mountain. Our progress had slowed to more of a trudge at this point. The footing wasn’t always easy as we were walking on black, dusty, volcanic rubble, almost like gravelly sand which would shift beneath our feet. We carried on dodging motorcycles and there was often the odd flicker of a bobbing head torch up ahead, showing where the next section of climb would take us.

Eventually, we emerged from the forest line and slogged up to the next resting stop. I slurped up some water and another hefty chunk of cereal bar for energy. We were both sweating and my cardie had long-since been relegated to my backpack. We perched on a bench outside a little shack selling drinks and snacks and regrouped. It was nice to feel the cool air on our hot faces and take a little pause. We scanned the dark view below, trying to make it out; all we could see were one or two pinpricks of light in the distance, marking sleepy villages. Our Guide explained that below us was Lake Batur, the largest lake in Bali. That explained the huge expanse with no little dots of streetlights. And looming above us was the volcano: a darker shadow against a dark night sky and it still seemed an awfully long way up.

And yet we trekked on, undaunted. After a little while, our guide told us there was only another 45 minutes to go, and not long after that we arrived at the next rest stop. The slope had definitely got even steeper in the last section, and I remember reading that the last 30 minutes were the hardest. Could it really get much steeper?

After a quick rest and the end of my cereal bar, it turned out that yes it could. The path turned rocky and there was a real sense of clamber and scramble as we made our way ever higher. Once again, we were offered another break but we pressed on.

Which turned out to be the right decision as only a couple of minutes after that, we reached the top! In the dark, I hadn’t realised we were close; with my phone in my bag I no idea of the time or how we were getting on, and it was quite something to totter up onto the summit and grab ourselves a spot on one of the benches. It was surprisingly crowded with lots of people having made the trek to see this spectacle.


There was nothing to see yet; just a pale swirl of cloud against a dark grey sky. When I checked my phone, I found it was only 5:20. Somehow we had done the trek in an hour and a half instead of 2 hours. So much for all those breaks then! But it gave us time to settle into our spot on our bench, get my camera ready and enjoy a bit of breakfast.


Breakfast turned out to be quite entertaining: we were given a banana each, a passionfruit each and another type of fruit each that we couldn’t identify. So we peeled one, a bit like an orange, and shared it, finding it had pulpy seeds inside like a passionfruit, but a little sweeter, and a very soft, pillowy pith all round the inside. 


There was also a packet of Tim Tams. Sweet! 

It was indeed surprisingly chilly at the summit and I was glad of my cardi. The clouds swirled around us and lightened slightly, but still gave away nothing. We could see the misty tendrils rushing up over the ridge behind us and cascading over the assembled sun seekers, and the air was damp, leaving little dewy beads of water over us. 


Which meant I was also incredibly glad of the hot cup of tea our guide produced, clutching my little fingers gleefully round it.


Suddenly a small gap opened in the clouds rushing past and we could see a pinkish glow on the horizon. Sunrise was about to begin.



It was indescribably beautiful, watching the first rays of the morning start to illuminate the breathtaking view. This is what we had climbed for, and we would finally get to see the panorama of planet earth spread out beneath us.



The sun lit the sky gradually, highlighting mountains both real and imagined; both volcanic craters and peaks and lofty castles built of clouds, revealing layer upon layer of detail and starting to shade in each with its own hue.



The light eventually reached the caldera floor, sparkling off the edge of the lake, picking out the shine of a rooftop and mapping out the life below. It was glorious; I took picture after picture and drank it all in, each shift in cloud or degree of sunrise showing off a new and different and beautiful vista. I think it may have been the best view I have ever seen. It was a very powerful moment and I loved every second.


With the sun climbing a little higher in the sky and escaping its cloudy trail, our guide reappeared with second breakfast. Sweet! This turned out to be an egg sandwich each and a banana sandwich each - we couldn’t remember the last time either of us had had a banana sandwich, but we enjoyed it all and despite getting my egg sandwich a bit grubby by accidentally coating it in volcanic dust, I hoovered it up anyway. It was probably good clean volcanic dust. Possibly there are even health benefits.




And then it was back to more pictures of the landscape from any and every angle, switching out to my wide angle lens to absorb even more of the view. Our guide also kindly snapped a few of Pete and me together.



As we were getting a couple of pics in, monkeys started to appear at the summit; just a couple at first but before long a whole troupe had arrived to join the party. And they were definitely looking for breakfast. 

This caused much surprise and delight among those assembled, and pretty soon they were being handed breakfast leftovers, skipping along benches and generally having a marvellous time. They would take food pretty politely from outstretched hands, and our guide in particular seemed to enjoy the commotion, grinning away, chuckling to himself and passing choice morsels over. 


Monkeys and hikers alike became more confident, with several people tempting monkeys to sit on their shoulders. Pete decided he wanted a pet monkey too and our guide persuaded one of the little chaps to climb up his back with a hunk of banana. I think it made Pete’s day as his monkey perched quite happily, balancing nimbly over his shoulders and munching on his fruit.



We walked along the ridge at the top of Mount Batur, spying more and more monkeys on the way. There was a little shrine as we reached the end and again monkeys gambolled over it, scrapping with each other and demanding food. They’ve clearly got it made up there with the daily hoards arriving at dawn to feed them.


With no more summit to explore, it was time to descend Mount Batur; a significantly quicker process than going up. We didn’t stop for much in the way of breaks, having only a quick pause at a temple we had completely missed in the dark, but the steep terrain made it quite rough on the knees.

It didn’t seem long before we were back down in the car park, climbing into the car and waving our guide farewell. Ready for the next adventure!

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find more posts about our time in Indonesia linked here: Indonesian Adventures.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Diving in Bali



Back in October 2018, my partner Pete and I spent a couple of weeks exploring Indonesia, travelling around different islands and discovering a few of the things this amazing location has to offer.  We had both qualified as Open Water divers the year before so we were keen to fit in some scuba time, and Bali provided perfect opportunity.  We booked a couple of days diving with superb Adventure Divers Bali, a little company operating out of Amed near the famous USAT Liberty wreck, and I would highly recommend them.

Today's post is pretty long as it covers a couple of days of our diving experiences.  It is also almost completely devoid of pictures as my charming GoPro packed up during the first dive and pretty much refused to work from then on, which was frustrating.  But such is life, and I was still able to grab one or two pictures from our guide. To read more about our other Indonesian Adventures, more posts in this series are linked here.

*****

Our alarm ding-a-linged too early for my liking but we hauled ourselves out of bed with as much good will as we could muster as it was the first of our two diving days.

We tumbled out of our room - which was lovely by the way: air conditioned, with its own entrance - and wandered around looking for breakfast. We eventually located the hotel’s outdoor restaurant by the pool, overlooking the beach. It was really lovely, and before long we were slurping an orange juice apiece and waiting on our banana pancakes. Not too shabby.

Then at 7:45, we were picked up by our diving centre, taken to central Amed (a smallish village composed almost entirely of hostels and dive centres) and kitted out for our dive.

Our diving guide was named Tom and he sorted us out with wetsuits and weights, BCDs and masks, flippers and shoes and the paraphernalia that comes along with diving. We had opted to do three dives and we sat in the lovely, leafy courtyard of the the dive centre while Tom explained that our dives would be shore dives. 

Pete was buzzing and good to go; I was still a bit nervous, so actually shore diving was a good move. We were going to start on the beach and head down gradually: our first dive being Jemulek West, a reasonably shallow site where we could swim along the line of the coast and see coral which had grown up around artificial reefs sunk some 18 years previously. It sounded promising and I swallowed my nerves and we set out for the beach.

The dive turned out to be pretty successful all told, and a good introduction to getting back in the water! I needed some extra weight (too floaty) and I had a bit of trouble equalising my ears but with that problem eventually solved, and an extra weight attached to my tank, all went well. And there was lots to see, with coral blooming across the seabed and the artificial reefs proving pretty spectacular. They weren’t the concrete blocks I had imagined at all, but were full of life, and rather more elegant. The place was teeming with fish and there was a lot to see. Tom was very handy, pointing out anything and everything and doing a pretty good job of communicating despite being underwater.

We ended the dive at the point that I’d sucked up all my air down to 40 bars because breathing is my thing (Sorry, not sorry) but Pete had somehow stored all his and had about 3 and a half tanks left, or something. However, the dive had lasted 54 minutes which is pretty decent, so I didn’t feel too bad (see log book, dive 5)

We waddled back up to shore and then hopped a lift back to the dive centre where we were given a banana milkshake each and some cookies. Winning!

Tom’s verdict was that the dive went reasonably well but that he wanted to cuff our hands to stop us waving them about (our bad) and that we should swim beside each other (my bad as I kept trying to follow in a line).

Before long, it was time to learn about dive two, this one known as the Pyramids of Amed, which in my opinion sounds like a level in a computer game from the nineties.

Anyway, the plan was to walk to the beach, swim out, drift around with the current a bit over a slope covered in naturally broken coral, and then climb back out again a bit further down the beach.

Which is basically what happened. I was able to equalise properly this time, things went more smoothly and I felt more confident. The pyramids were also manmade structures composed of hollow concrete tubes, but looked ethereal in the watery half light and were also crowded with coral and sea life.

We managed to pop back up in the right place, we flailed about a bit less I reckon and even with my enormous air hoovering capacity, the dive was still almost an hour long. (See log book dive 6)

Popping back up to the dive centre, we had a lunch of “vegetarian food” which turned out to be some rice, some stir fried veg, a boiled egg with spicy dippy sauce, some tofu, a potato cake, a handful of peanuts and some prawn crackers. Combo!

Lunch consumed, it was time for prep for our third dive of the day: the Jemulek Dropoff (see logbook dive 7). We headed down to the beach again but this time set off to the east, following the beach down. My ears were equalising much better this time round and we made our way round to the drop off. 

It was quite a site to see as we made our way down: 18m underwater we could see the edge of a shelf and then it plunged down into deep blue below. There was ocean above and ocean below and it was a bit like hanging in mid-air over a drop, as though we were cartoon characters who had run out of an upper storey window but not realised they’re going to fall yet. I think that was my favourite dive.

After that, we hauled ourselves back out of the water, ditched the heavy tanks and peeled off our wetsuits one more time and showered back up at the dive centre. Tom went through our logbooks with us and we discussed all the fish we had seen, as he looked them up in marine guides for us.

We had seen a little orangutan crab (seemed appropriate) which was tiny but had long, orange, hairy arms that had clearly given it its name. I think one of my favourite things we saw was a clown fish, rooting in and out of an anemone, peering at us and then bustling back into the fronds. (With fronds like these...)

Actually, afterwards, we learned that it wasn’t a clown fish, but a False Clown Anemone fish. Could’ve fooled me, but I guess the clue is in the name. And this is Tom’s picture not mine as he helpfully allowed us to swipe the pics he took on his GoPro.


We saw an amazing, very sizeable cuttlefish hanging out and disguising himself among the dead coral; his camouflage allowed him to blend in pretty perfectly. We saw star fish of all colours and sizes: giant orange, puffy ones with rounded legs which looked more like children’s drawings and long blue ones - blue sea stars - draped elegant yet alien over rocks. 

The coral we saw was also magnificent, creating otherworldly landscapes, erupting into giant spongy boulders or spreading like giant fungi interwoven with vein-like threads, or trumpeting into tubes or fanning out in delicate, fern-like webs. 

We saw rays hiding in the sand with their eyes watching up, and those who were swimming would glide by unheeding, flying through the water. We saw angel fish and little tropical fish of all different hues, busying about in their underwater home, and we discovered lion fish, with long, stripy fins, trailing like the coral and sea plants around them; they were beautiful.

We clocked a moray eel hiding in a hole beneath a rocky outcrop; he looked the worse for wear and had clearly been in a few fights. After facing us down failed to make us go away, he emerged from his den only burrow fully back into it face first. I don’t think he was ready to face the world.

When we were over the drop-off, there were fish below us, in and amongst the reef, but we could also see schools of fish passing overhead, swimming in formation to who-knows-where. And at one point we swam after a barracuda, eyeing us suspiciously with a sly expression but refusing to be baited by our guide’s shiny pointing stick. Possibly not a bad thing: Tom said afterwards that they are like magpies, attracted by shiny things. But if the barracuda had gone for the shiny stick, he might have got a great picture but lost a hand.

As we were ready to leave, we checked in with Liza, the centre owner about our next day’s diving. She said it would be an early start. I smiled ruefully, expecting her to say that we would need to be ready for six. Not a problem; dive sites are often quieter first thing and there are more fish drifting around so it would be worth it.

I was wrong: she grinned and told me that we would be picked up at 4:50am. Yikes!

We got a lift back to the hotel, battling with 5 different ATMs on the way and losing. Typical. Two of Pete’s cards got frozen in this misadventure, but eventually Monzo came through, allowed us to unfreeze the card and enable magnastripe withdrawals. Which is what the dodgier out-of-date cash machines use. So eventually, we were able to get hold of some extra cash.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening hanging out at the hotel, sitting by the pool with views over the beach, reading and catching up with the travel journal and having a beer (him) and a freshly squeezed orange juice (me!). As the sun set and the night drew in, the moon rose red over the sea and we saw the rosy effects of an eclipse. It was beautiful and a perfect night for it: a big full moon and no clouds. 

We had an early dinner of fried rice and noodles - and split a portion of fries for good measure. And then it was time to pack up our bags, check out and turn in for our very early start.

*****

4:30am. Our alarms rang in unison and neither of us were particularly jazzed at the thought. But hey ho, time to go sunrise diving. We gathered our last few bits and pieces together, hauled our backpacks from the room and went to meet the car, Pete requesting that I wouldn’t make him get up in the morning.

I agreed wholeheartedly.

It was dark as we climbed into the van to go diving. We dumped our bags at the centre, picked up our equipment and then jumped back into the van to drive to Tulamben. Today, we would be diving to the wreck of the good ship USAT Liberty. Not so good any more I suppose.

The ship is an old US artillery ship, but was running cargo in the area when it got torpedoed by the Japanese. Fortunately no one was killed and at a loss for what else to do, the US towed the ship to Bali and parked it up on the beach where it sat for a couple of years. Cue the volcano, which erupted all over the place, swivelling the Liberty round and pushing it out into the sea where it has since become one of the best wreck dives in the world.

Today was another day of beach diving and so as the sun finally peeked over the horizon, we were yanking on our wetsuits and hauling up our tanks of air ready to start diving. In fact, it was still not yet 6:00am when we climbed into the water!

The reason for our early start was to try and spot the bumphead parrotfish who sleep in the wreck. If fish even sleep. Not sure. Anyway, they hang out there at night doing whatever it is they do, and scarper at dawn before the divers come clanking about the ship. 

We had a new guide today - he was Indonesian but I didn’t catch his name. He was good-humoured though and a great guide. There were a few other divers with the same idea but it was good to get into the water and get going and we didn’t actually see many other divers down there.

We were lucky almost immediately, spotting a bumphead (pointed out in ridiculous, head-banging underwater sign language) before we had even really left the beach in only a few metres of water. Visibility was only at around 10m so he disappeared into the blue gloom. Happy days!

On a slightly more annoying note, my ears started giving me trouble pretty quickly, refusing to equalise. Every time I went up and got them to pop, they felt pressured and painful again when I dropped down another metre.

It was a depressingly slow process getting them to work and I couldn’t relieve the pressure entirely. Which was a bit of a shame as we came across the wreck within metres of the shore and it was a while before I could really start to take it in.

It was huge. The plan for our dive was to swim around it and at almost 100m in length, this was no mean feat! We could see holes in the outside where fish were getting in and out and while the rough shape of the ship was sort of clear, the ocean had had its way with the wreck, bending and breaking the craft and plastering it with life and coral and plants of every variety. We found a huge grouper resting in part of the wreck and crabs and shrimps wandered around looking for food. 

Rounding the end of the wreck, we swam into current, and it’s strange to find yourself kicking your fins but not really going anywhere. It also made it hard to stay down close to the sea bed. Tricky!

One of my favourite moments was coming across a row of sweetlips (hilarious name) which are yellow and blue striped fish, and quite large. They were all sheltering behind a long bit of piping poking out from the ship, swimming forwards in a line in unison, facing into the current and remaining stationary. Our guide commented later that they look like a line of parked motorbikes, and he wasn’t wrong. (See dive log number 8)

We swam back up the beach and emerged back into the air. The sun was really up now, and we were just in time to see Voldemort walk into the sea in full wizarding wear carrying his broomstick.

This was a slightly bizarre sight and amused our guide no end - it was he that dubbed the wizard Voldemort.

We schlepped up the beach and our morning exertions were rewarded with banana pancakes. Yay! And very tasty they were too. We washed them down with a cuppa from the nearby beach shack.

We finished our breakfast, watched Voldemort climb back out of the sea again(???) and Pete and the guide prepared to go back in. I decided to sit this one out and see if I could get my ears to clear a little. It made diving a bit uncomfortable, distracting my attention from the dive and holding up Pete as well.

Disappointing, but the right decision.

Very disappointing in fact, as during the second dive to the wreck, Pete was able to swim into and through the ship a couple of times, exploring the hold and the engine room, seeing the steering wheel and encountering a whole family of orangutan crabs.

By the time they emerged from the water, I had been watching group after group of divers arrive at the site. There were loads of them; the wreck must have been getting pretty crowded. I was at a loss to discover why they were all arriving so late - until I remembered that it was still only about 8:30am. It felt like the entire morning had passed.

We had lunch after they’d completed the second dive - at 9:20, naturally, munching on rice and chicken, an egg and some prawn crackers. A fried egg seems to be a standard serving with each meal. I quite like it!

Our final dive of the day was the Tulamben drop-off. I think this turned out to be my favourite of all (dive log number 9).


We set off down the beach again, almost immediately spotting a stone fish nestled in among the stones. Again, he was brilliantly camouflaged, with only his eyes giving him away. But as most stones don’t have eyes, they did give him away. But he never broke his act, not moving a muscle as we peered at him. Well played.

My ears were frustrating again, but we managed to carry on and we reached the drop-off. It was spectacular; I’ve never seen anything like it. It was basically a massive rocky wall of coral plunging down some 50m. We couldn’t see the bottom , just the odd protruding shelf which gave even more marine life the chance to find a foothold. Or finhold.

And the landscape looked like something out of sci-fi. We swam along at a depth of 18m and drifted in the current. Crevasses opened up in odd places, sheltering fish, and the most weird and wonderful coral grew up in all shapes and sizes. I think the strangest were the ones that grew into giant vase shapes; they looked like a cross between triffids and fungi, and were a vivid orange, with wide open holes in the top which I assume are to beckon in prey.

And there were fish everywhere: schools passing above and below all the time; it even felt like we were swimming within them at some points, as bright yellow and blue fish swam right in front of my face and past my fingers. It was a pretty incredible sensation.

Swimming back was again a bit of a challenge against the current. And I found myself floating upwards even when I didn’t want to. We saw lots of other divers also exploring the drop off and I could see why it was such a popular site.

Finally as we swam back up the beach, our guide found a proper a school of mackerel for us: hundreds of them, all swimming together in an incredibly tight formation, swirling and whirling in unison, while a larger fish swam hungrily just outside. It was amazing to see something like this for real, right in front of me. 

A full day of diving completed (by 11:00am) it was time to get rid of the wetsuits and kit for the last time and drive back to the dive centre. The staff were incredibly helpful, sorting out a cab to our next stop, giving us drinks and water, and our guide helped us update our logbooks. And then we had to head out for the next phase of our holiday adventure.

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find links to some of our other stories from Indonesia linked here: Indonesian Adventures

Friday, 15 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Rafting in the Sumatran Jungle


Today's post goes back to a 2 day trek that my partner Pete and I took in the jungle of northern Sumatra. It had rained solidly overnight and our only choice to return to the local village was to take a raft on the river. Sweet! There aren't many pictures to go with this story, simply because you need both hands to cling to a raft and my camera isn't waterproof, but I've included the one or two I did take. If you want to read more about our jungle trek, or the rest of our Indonesian Adventures, they're all linked here: Indonesian Adventures

We slept for about 11 hours all told. And while I had quite weird dreams, I slept pretty well, enjoying being curled up in the fresh air, with only a sleeping bag liner necessary to stay warm. It wasn’t until almost nine that anyone was really up, which wasn’t that surprising given the continued pounding of the rain.

We got dressed and our guide appeared with breakfast, announcing that we couldn’t trek today as the weather made the paths pretty much impassable (which we could well believe given the torrents of water which had been paths yesterday). However, he reckoned we could enjoy a bit of breakfast, relax and then head back to the village around lunchtime.

By raft. Whoop!

Breakfast arrived in the form of biscuits and another, very welcome, jug of tea. We were half way down this before a fruit platter appeared for us both, consisting of several passionfruit, a couple of bananas, pineapple, watermelon and a mandarin. Each.

So we tucked in. Part way through, Pete paused to wonder if this was our whole breakfast or if there was more forthcoming. And sure enough, in addition to this mountain of fruit, we were shortly presented with a triple decker toasted sandwich each, with an omelette in the bottom, salad in the middle and cheese in the top.

Tasty! And immense.

Just as we were polishing off the last few remnants, our guide reappeared to say that the water level was rising and that we should probably head out now rather than waiting until lunch. So we dressed in our swim things, made a last trek to the loo and got soaked and then packed up all our things. I slung a t-shirt on over my bikini and the Guides then wrapped our bags and shoes in plastic and went off to scope out the rafts.

We watched from our hut as they lashed together three rubber rings, tied our stuff to them and topped the whole thing off with a roll mat. Then we were beckoned over to join the fray.


Sliding over the slick stones along the river bank, we clambered into the middle ring of this little vessel, the river crashing along, swollen with water from the overnight onslaught. Then one guide sat in the back ring, another sat in the front ring, they strapped our flip-flops to the little craft, and off we went!

Rafting turned out to be an optimistic term for holding on to the rubber rings and having the two guides fend off the rocks with long sticks. The rain continued to lash down at us and we were drenched from above and below as waves and rapids rocked our little boat and crashed over us.

And it was BRILLIANT! I laughed out loud for the sheer joy of it and we went whisking over the river, almost but never quite smashing into the rocks.

The jungle loomed over us, misty and mysterious, shrouded in rain and we shook the water repeatedly from our eyes in this absurd and exciting adventure. It was wonderful and exhilarating, and we shrieked and whooped whenever a new wave unexpectedly lurched the rubber rings and set water crashing over us. The guides were clearly expert, always knowing just how to ping us off a rock, or wedge the raft around into the rapids.

And despite its hotch-potch appearance, the little craft held together and held all of our things and we made it, drenched and giggling back to the village. We hauled ourselves out of the river and huddled under a nearby cafe. The guides unwrapped the luggage and found our boots...and the bags of two other people.

We just laughed; after all, our bags would come floating down the river after us sometime later with the next group.


So there was nothing for it but to stumble back to the lodge, under a kindly loaned umbrella that was too little too late, dripping apologetically at the front desk with literally nothing but the swimwear we were standing up in. Plus the flip flops and a borrowed umbrella.

Fortunately we were able to access our stored bags and they gave us a room. I had a cold shower, felt much cleaner, and more importantly, drier than I had in a while and we spent a very pleasant morning sitting on the verandah outside our room reading and watching the rain.

Our bags turned up in due course (hurrah) and I was able to sort out my things. We had an even better room this time: a double bed perched on a raised platform with a mosquito net canopy. And once again, an open air bathroom, this time featuring an entire garden.

After a while, the rain finally eased and lunch beckoned and we had a light meal, more tea and watched monkeys gambolling about in the bamboo. They had a real very-busy-doing-nothing vibe going on and we marvelled at their agility in hopping from tree to tree.

The afternoon also proved relaxing, full of reading time and travel journal time, interrupted only by the occasional thump of a monkey on the roof.

The daylight gave way to darkness in the very sudden way it does here, and we released the netting around our bed and wandered back to the restaurant for dinner. We had ordered a chicken rendang for two for dinner, which had to be requested at least 3 hours in advance so we were looking forward to trying some Indonesian fare. It proved delicious, with the chicken being cooked along with potatoes in a dark, rich, slightly bitter sauce with a deep, intense flavour, a bit of heat and lots of deliciousness. We had it with rice and despite the large platter we we served, we polished it off effectively! I washed mine down with a local drink which the menu claimed was made of ginger, lemongrass and brown sugar. When it arrived, it turned out to be hot and incredibly sweet but with a real hit of ginger. In fact, there were big chunks of fresh ginger in the glass and it was very warming; a bit like drinking toffee or Jamaican ginger cake, but with more burn.

After dinner we headed back to our room and chilled out before an early night. Because our cab was coming to take us to be airport at 2:00am...

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find more of our Indonesian Adventures linked here.

Wednesday, 13 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Sumatran Jungle Camp


On our trip to Indonesia, my partner Pete and I had decided to spend a night camping in the Sumatra jungle, making the most of the chance to trek in really exciting and different terrain and to spot wildlife. So today I thought I'd share our experiences of a night spent chilling in the jungle. You can find the story of our trek, plus other stories from Indonesia, linked in this post: Indonesian Adventures.

*****

We slithered down into camp, climbed over rocks along the side of the river and discovered an outcropping of little wooden huts set up, draped in black tarp and open to the air along the front. Pete and I had our own to share, with two little foam mattresses made up inside a mosquito net. Handy.

Next, we were told that we could swim. Hmmm. The river looked cold and very rapid, but then we were extremely hot and sweaty. And then a chap told us we could have tea after our swim. Nothing for it then: got to swim for tea.


We pulled on our swimmers, hung up our damp clothes and inched into the water. The current was surprisingly fast and strong, slicking the rocky riverbed into slippy smoothness. It was actually quite tough to hold on and stay in place, and very cold! But once we got used to the temperature, the water felt lovely on weary feet. There were quite a few other trekking groups at the camp and others also came down to join us in the river.

After a bit of a chat, and an accidental drift downstream, it was time to clamber out, locate our flip flops and get dressed.


We decided to have our tea out on the riverbank, and it was set up for us quite beautifully. We sprawled, almost comfortably, on a tarp spread over the rocks and tucked into an entire jug of hot tea and a packet of biscuits. Winning! Indonesia: surprisingly good at biscuits. As we ploughed through our refreshments, we reflected on the day. Pete wished aloud that it would rain as it would be cool to camp in a proper storm.


The afternoon wore on and it clouded over and threatened rain. As it got gloomy, we thought we’d head indoors (ie under the tarp) just to be on the safe side. Less than five minutes later, the heavens opened and a tropical storm ensued. There was thunder and lightning, full on rain and absolutely nothing we could do about it. I decided to wait until later to use the open-air loo.
We whiled away a couple of hours in the tent/hut, catching up on some travel journal writing and then having a bit of a doze. It had been an energetic day! Our guide popped in to see if we would like dinner; we opted to have it around seven and curled up on the foam mat for a bit longer.

Before dinner, I still needed the loo, the rain was still crashing down and the view was lit sporadically with lightning. It was also fully dark. Leaving Pete asleep, I collected my loo roll, swapped my dry t-shirt for my damp top from the trek, and donned my head torch and flip flops in search of the toilet.


I clambered and slithered over stones, working my way around our hut and up the back of it. The rain had turned paths to small streams and filled the gaps between rocks and I splashed through the dark. I got lost on the way, having to ask directions at another hut and then being directed down a path that I could only see a few feet of in the weedy beam of my head torch. There was very wet jungle on both sides of me and I stepped gingerly along the path keeping my eyes peeled until eventually I found the loo.

It was, as expected, a hole in the ground with waist-high tarp pegged around it. But I managed and nobody else came along and I kept the loo roll reasonably dry, so I’m calling it a win.

I got back to our hut just in time for dinner; our guide brought us a couple of candles to dine by and it was actually very pretty. There was no ambient light at all and the little glow of the candle was all the more appreciated.

We tucked into rice, chicken rendang, veg in a spicy sauce, red soy bean fritters and little potato cakes and it was very tasty.

By half seven, we had eaten more than our fill and as it had turned dark so early, it felt very much later. We crawled under our mosquito net and spent an hour or two chatting: I refused point blank to go to bed until at least ten, especially since we didn’t have to get up particularly early. I was convinced we would just lie awake half the night.

Eventually however, we made one more trek to the loo together (romance, obvs) and then settled in for the night. Lying still, it was quite something to listen to the incessant rain pounding down and the river roaring outside our hut. And actually, it was no problem to sleep at all.

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find all the Indonesia Travel Journal posts linked here.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Trekking and Orangutans in Sumatra


One thing we were really excited to do in Indonesia was a bit of jungle trekking; the chance to experience the tropical forest terrain was incredibly appealing, and we booked a 2 day trek with Trek Sumatra, along with an overnight camp. And I would massively recommend them, by the way, as we had a great experience, a very helpful and knowledgeable Guide (and fab food!). This is the story of our first day trekking, and you can find more of our Indonesian Adventures linked here: The Full Indonesian Adventures

*****

We had a pretty chilled out morning when trekking day rolled around. Time to get up and shower (cold!) and pack up our luggage for storing and our day bags with the things we would need overnight.

We headed back over to the bamboo lodge and settled in for breakfast: delicious noodles (my faves so far - top work Indonesia!) and a fried egg, prawn crackers, some pineapple and a passion fruit juice. We practically needed a rest afterwards to digest, but instead we loaded up on water, met our guide and sauntered off into the jungle.

I say sauntered off, but actually we started climbing the hill behind the lodge. The temperature was in the thirties and the humidity was intense thanks to the rainy season, all of which conspired to drench us in sweat immediately. Wowsers. We’d both gone for long trousers to keep bitey things at bay but fortunately I’d gone with a vest top. However, it was soon damp from our exertions as we marched along behind our guide.

We crested the hill and walked through a rubber tree plantation; we could see where the trees were being tapped and apparently a tree can keep yielding its sap for about 25 years if you cut it right and look after it properly.

We had just under an hour’s walk to the national parkland where our trekking would mainly take place. Residents include bugs (obvs), little monkeys, monitor lizards, orangutans (our guide seemed to think we might even see them but we were aiming not to get our hopes up) and even tigers. They are virtually never spotted (because they’re striped - BOOM!) there being only a few hundred Sumatran tigers left in the wild. But apparently one raids the local village and steals a cow every so often, so they are certainly about.

We made it to the park: a protected area where you’re not allowed to farm or take things, with a boundary marked only by an inconspicuous slight clearing. We promptly plopped down for a brief rest. Phew! We took to giving face status updates to monitor our horrifying sweat levels. Streaming seemed to be the word for it.


And then we set off walking again. The terrain was absolutely fascinating: I can only describe it as the most proper-looking jungly jungle you can imagine. Jurassic Park could happen here, Indiana Jones is probably knocking about too, and it made for incredibly exciting and satisfying trekking.

Trees rose high into a canopy above us and we were always in a green half-light shielded from the direct sun which dappled through from time to time. The roots mapped the jungle floor out beneath our feet: always at the surface, tangling together, protruding and twirling together and matting the ground. The terrain was extremely hilly and we alternated between scrambling up and sliding down, and the roots formed rickety stairways, spiralling around tree trunks, plugged with mud that you could perch on while you looked for your next bit of footing.

Vines seemed to plummet down from the canopies, twirling around like crazy cables, swaying but incredibly strong, and leafy creepers climbed any surface they could, be it huge boulders that we squeezed through or boughs of trees. Huge ants marched across our path, big butterflies flapped languidly through the still, sweltering air and we tramped on, up and down, marvelling at this strange new world. There was no one around for miles and it felt like we were the only people in the world.

Until we came across the orangutan.


I couldn’t believe it: it was right in front of us, huge and larger than life, and we practically walked into it. For real.

Of course we didn’t: we backed away slowly as it ambled along, ignoring us perfectly. And as we did so, hoards of other trekkers seemed to pour out of the jungle in all directions, like rival factions who’ve all discovered the holy grail at the same time. There must have been about 15 of us congregating on the orangutan.

Supremely unconsciously, he lumbered along, completely unaware that he was the source of so much fascination. So we all wandered around after the orangutan for a bit, who performed and posed for us, stretching out those remarkably long arms. I was most struck by his INCREDIBLE fur: it was long and smooth, not matted or knotty like I would have expected, but glossy and groomed, practically sparkling whenever it was hit by a stray ray of sunlight. He occasionally strolled on his knuckles but he had a properly chill King Louis vibe, and was mostly swinging on vines and small trees, even when his feet were on the ground. I expect he just liked the sensation.


We were blown away by the experience. I don’t think either of us had really expected to see an orangutan, being drawn to Sumatra mainly for the trekking, but it was really something to spot this chap in the wild.


After all the excitement, it was time for a fruit break. (NB pre-break Face Status update: swampy) From inside his backpack, our guide produced insane numbers of passion fruit; it was almost comical. However, they were immediately followed by mandarins, an whole bunch of bananas and an entire pineapple, half of which our guide deftly sliced up and peeled while the other half disappeared back into the bag. We managed about half a dozen passion fruit, all the pineapple, a banana each and none of the mandarins. Our guide seemed a little disappointed in our efforts. It was a much needed source of hydration though, as I was already well into my day’s water supply. Post-break Face Status update: dry. Hurrah! I think my body had just leeched back in whatever water it could. Charming thought.

It was soon time to get trekking again and we began another climb: the longest and steepest so far. But we came out at a lovely viewpoint when we scaled the final ridge, and while it called for some climbing using both hands and feet, the panorama over the jungle was worth it.

I haven’t yet mentioned the noise of the jungle: it has its own wonderful, incessant, cacophonous music that is going all the time. It’s easy to sort of forget that it’s there as you grow accustomed to it, but I loved hearing the multitude of sounds, made all the more curious by the fact that you can’t see whatever birds or insects are chirruping and droning away at such high volume. Added to the almost pulsing humidity, it started to feel as though the very air was alive.

The climb had caused my face status update to shift from dry to moist to damp and into clammy. But we were enjoying ourselves too much to be really put off by this. And we set off again merrily on our way.


We hadn’t got very far before we happened across another orangutan, this time with a baby in tow. The little one was clearly trying to learn to climb independently and it was almost successful. It was entertaining to watch the attempts.


We trekked a little further, reaching the top of another hill and it was time for lunch. A number of other groups had also had the same idea and we dropped gratefully to the ground. Our guide again rummaged around in his bag and produced a quite improbably delicious meal: fried rice, a fried egg, prawn crackers, salad and chilli sauce, all wrapped inside a banana leaf. I was surprised to find how much rice it’s possible to pack into a banana leaf, and it was so delicious. We were also presented with the rest of the pineapple (although after our poor efforts the first time round, we were not offered any mandarins. Fair cop).

After lunch, we carried on with our trek. The up-and-down aspect reached new scales of ridiculous. I felt like a B-movie explorer, hauling on implausible tree roots to climb a mountain, and clinging to vines to descend a mudslide. And I am only slightly exaggerating.


Slithering down a banking to a stream, we met another orangutan: this one was smart, known to the guides, and had a will-kidnap-tourists-for-bribes plan.

She swung out of the trees as I was taking a picture of the stream, and our guide cautioned us to stand back so that she wouldn’t hold our hands. Which seemed a little strange, but as a basic rule of life is “don’t mess with wild animals, especially when said animal is a loose bag of muscle that could tear your arm off” we followed his advice. He tried to shoo her away with a stick which she calmly took from him.

She swept past us, approached a group of trekkers who had skittered down the banking behind us and wrapped her hand gently but firmly around the wrist of one of their party. Holding his hand with her other hand she sat down and would not be persuaded to move.


The guides told the captive guy to sit down too and explained that this is what she does. She holds someone hostage, in a non-aggressive way until they pay her off with fruit. She took and ate the first two mandarins offered but despite coaxing from the guides, refused to let go of her new friend. It took two more mandarins to persuade her to let go, along with the knowledge that she could hear the next group of trekkers start to make their descent and that she would soon have another ransom opportunity.

The guides joked that she was like the police: if you can pay the tax, you can go past. But if you don’t pay, you can’t go past. You have to pay your fruit.

It was amusing but we couldn’t help speculating on the intelligence of the animal. An orangutan who not only knows how to get fruit out of passing travellers, but knows to do so gently to ensure a continuing supply. An orangutan who can think through bargaining in the long term. I still find it astounding to see a creature capable of that level of thought.

Orangutan averted and our tax paid in mandarins (4 is the going rate apparently, but I’m not sure what that equates to in pineapple, or what the conversion rate is to passionfruit) we crossed the stream and began another energetic climb up a jungle mountain.

Our final stretch to the camp was a long downhill (ie vertical) slither, where I literally had to hang on to vines to keep my feet. While the climb down didn’t have the heart-pounding effect of going uphill, it was still tiring and sweaty work, but it was also wildly entertaining and we made it to the riverside.

Face status update: torrential.

Camp was another fantastic experience...but that's a story for another day.

Kisses xxx

P.S. You can find links to all the Indonesian adventures here.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Indonesian Adventures: Planning the Trip


Back in October, my partner Pete and I spent a couple of weeks exploring Indonesia. We had been plotting a trip to Asia for a while and eventually settled on Indonesia due to the enormous diversity of the different islands, the opportunities to trek and dive and see wildlife (hello Komodo dragons) and the chance to immerse ourselves in a new culture. 

Over the next few weeks, I'll be posting stories and pictures from our adventures, but I thought I'd start off by sharing the planning process and a few things that we found useful to know.


Firstly: Indonesia is huge. Way bigger than you imaging.  So in a couple of weeks, you absolutely cannot go everywhere. Each different island and region has its own draws and experiences to offer which is wonderful, but means that if you're planning to visit, you really need to narrow things down a bit and decide what's most important!

For us, we were looking for opportunities to go trekking, and somewhere we could go diving, as we both has our PADI open water diving certification. We also fancied climbing a volcano if possible, and I was adamant that we had to go to Komodo as it was a life goal of mine. A further consideration was that I had previously visited Java and was pretty keen to venture to somewhere completely new. In the end, we decided to travel to three places: Sumatra, Bali and Komodo, which ticked all the boxes for us but meant that we wouldn't be travelling every single day.

Actually, our trip was pretty action packed as we squeezed every last drop out of those 2 weeks of holiday, but it really depends how much you want to do.


It's worth noting that, as a teacher, I can only travel in school holidays. That's not a problem, but does mean that things can often be a bit more expensive and potentially book up more quickly if everyone is aiming at the same couple of weeks for things. It also means that while I am grateful for the amount of holiday I get, I don't pick when they are, so I can't choose to travel in the best season, for example. If you do have the choice and flexibility, it might be worth investigating when the best weather is, what wildlife you might see at different times of year, and when off-season is if you want so save a few pennies.

When it came to booking flights, we found it to be most cost-effective to book a return flight from the UK to Singapore first and foremost, and then island hop within Indonesia from there. This had a couple of added bonuses: we could spend a night in Singapore to start to acclimatise and lose the jetlag, and we left straight from work on Friday evening to maximise our holiday.

Visiting several different islands necessitated a number of little hops by plane. We found that it wasn't always possible to fly direct between islands, so it was worth considering different routes or trying out different days for flexibility. The flights we took were often with tiny little airlines we'd never heard of (it's a good idea to check them out before booking) and they rarely included luggage, which was an extra cost.  Skyscanner is your friend for finding flight options, but it doesn't tell you when you're going to get slapped with luggage charges, so keep in mind that the cheapest flight doesn't mean the cheapest flight.


With our itinerary roughed, out we booked a couple of things in advance, using the Lonely Planet guide to identify interesting things to do, and I researched through different blogs.  The best way to find accounts and reviews is simply through googling; I don't always get on so well with Trip Adviser, but it can be helpful for an overview.  A longer blog post will often give you more insight into the experience.

Indonesia is a cash economy; lots of local businesses don't have the infrastructure to take payment by card, or will charge steep fees for doing so.  We booked 3 things in advance: a couple of days trekking in Sumatra, a couple of diving days in Bali and a boat for three days in Komodo.

The diving didn't require any pre-payment. For Sumatra and Komodo, I had to pay small deposits, but both requested the money in cash on arrival. And booking took place over email; again local companies tending not to have fancy websites.  It's good to support locally owned and run operations where possible so that tourist money is genuinely going into the economy, and a little bit of research will usually tell you if a company's request to send money is genuine. I think it can seem strange to those more used to slick, western-style booking operations to just send a bit of cash through Paypal, but that is how Indonesia works. We also took the attitude that if we lost our deposits, it wasn't the end of the world, and didn't part with tons of money.


Even though Indonesia is a cash economy, it doesn't mean that getting hold of cash is easy.  We took a fair chunk with us which turned out to be useful as, on the occasions when we could find ATMs, they often didn't work, or were empty. They also tend to be older, magnastripe machines which many banks refuse as they aren't secure. To get around this, using a cash card such as Monzo is a great idea - and Monzo came to our rescue more than once as it's all app based, you can load your card whenever you like, and you can enable magnastripe withdrawals for short periods to be able to use older ATMs. Plus if the card is lost or stolen, you can instantly freeze it and transfer your money back.


Most importantly, we kept some time to ourselves to just explore and have fun. Part of the joy was to be able to spend some quality time together and experience a new place and a new culture. We packed pretty light, discovered new areas, laughed a lot, tried new food, had the odd hiccup and had to just bump along with the pace of Indonesian life.  And it was the most wonderful trip.


I will be writing a number of posts about our Indonesian adventures, and I'll link them all back here as they're published, if you'd like to read the full story! These photos are just a little taster of some of the things we've seen (but I've saved my favourites for the real posts)


You can find the first instalment of our adventure here:
Singapore
Trekking and Orangutans in Sumatra
Sumatran Jungle Camp

Kisses xxx

P.S. We're now busy planning our next trip and it's going to be a big one!