Going down under…

I got more than my fair share of funny looks while standing in Sydney Central train station. I suppose they were deserved to an extent; I was still sporting my vest, shorts and flip flops combo that I’d been wearing at the airport in Bali, whereas the rest of Sydney’s residents were in full winter mode: hats, gloves, scarves, umbrellas, the works! Not for the first time on this trip, Hels and I turned to each other and said, shivering, ‘What have we done..?’

So, yes, Sydney was grey, much like a wet winter’s day in London. Unlike the tropical rain to which we’d become accustomed, here it was raining like it rains at home – lightly but persistently, annoyingly, miserably, draining the life out of everything. We begrudgingly dug out our raincoats, hoodies and long trousers and wrapped up with the best of them before venturing out into the city.

All smiles despite the grey day!
All smiles despite the grey day!

But that’s the last I’m going to write about the weather! Of course, it often affects your perceptions of a place, but we knew we were heading to an Aussie winter, so no complaining… (Well, maybe just a touch more, we’ll see..!)

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How can you complain about the rain when you find a view like this …?!

As far as cities go, we thought Sydney had a lot going for it. Good open spaces in the form of the Botanical Gardens and Hyde Park, the fabulous harbour scenery and landmarks, decent beaches within striking distance and more cafés and restaurants than you could possibly imagine! You can’t go ten steps in Sydney without coming across another café with an alluring clear glass cabinet full of all manner of pies, cakes and pastry based treats.

Bourke Street Bakery - too good for words.
Bourke Street Bakery – too good for words.

We explored under our own steam for a couple of days and then took in a walking tour of the city which was well worth it to get a bit of a grasp on some of the history since Captain Cook’s arrival in Botany Bay on 29th April, 1770. Walking around, I was continually struck by something that just couldn’t place – something distinctly different, something more than the weather, more than the more developed infrastructure, and then it struck me – there was a conspicuous absence of scooters!

One of Sydney’s most famous beaches is Bondi. Synonymous with sun, sea, sand and super cool surfer dudes, Bondi is classic Australia. Since we were not racing to re-live our Bali surfing experience, we may have ended up skipping it had it not been for the BRAT Club connection. For those of you who don’t know, the Birmingham Running Athletics and Triathlon (BRAT) Club, the club of which Helena and I are members, was inspired into both existence and name by the Bondi Running And Triathlon Club; the original BRAT Club. We did a quick scout on their website, found a club session, popped on our BRAT vests and went to join the Bondi BRATs for a run. It was a small-ish group but they were very friendly and welcoming, and the intervals session along the beach front was mercifully short!

The Bondi Iceberg - fancy a swim session ...?!
The Bondi Iceberg – fancy a swim session …?!

We made an two awesome discoveries in Bondi though. While waiting for the session to start (as we were early – something that never happens in Brum!) we wandered into a little bookshop cafe. We ordered a coffee, a tea and a banana bread – gotta get fuelled up for the session, right? But then the lady behind the counter asked of the bread, ‘Would you like it toasted with butter?’ This is something we’d never heard of, and so we enthusiastically replied, ‘Oh, yes please!’ If you have never tried it, you really must. It turns a normal banana bread from a cake experience into some sort of series of heavenly, warming, buttery, bananary, mouthfuls of awesomeness. Oh god, it’s so good! Needless to say, this was not to be the first time we ordered toasted banana bread over the next couple of weeks.

Our second discovery was finite to Bondi though – and this was due to post-run refuelling; well, it was dinner time! Making our way back to the bus, we spotted a sign saying ‘Fish and Chips’. ‘Ooooohh, I could just eat some fish ‘n’ chips,’ I said, so we popped in. The shop was called ‘Mongers’, and if there are any Sydney based readers reading this, I implore you to go. It was the most amazing fish and chips ever. We ordered a ‘Mongers Box’ to share, which not only had fish and chips, but some amazing calamari, sweet potato crisps and homemade tartare sauce added for good measure. The only decision you have to make is whether you’d like your fish battered, grilled or barbecued. I chose battered (of course) and it was beautifully cooked, golden brown, light, crispy batter coating the two succulent and juicy fillets. I could write about this meal for days! It was plenty enough for two to share, too, and we left completely satisfied.

So we enjoyed our few days in Sydney despite the dampening attempts of the weather. Our other major job though was to plan what to do next! Fully inspired by our scooter experience in Bali, we looked into hiring a campervan so that we could get ourselves on the road in Oz too. We had dreams of doing a big, romantic East Coast road trip, and luckily, we managed to find ourselves a reasonably priced van and were soon on the open road, arguing about which was the best route out of Sydney to get to the Blue Mountains. Ahh, blissful motoring holidays, eh!

To be honest, the camper was less of a ‘van’ and more a glorified. We hired it from a company called ‘Jucy’, which annoyed my because I was always mentally replacing the inexplicably absent ‘i’ from the middle (i.e. Juicy).

Our Australian home!
Our Australian home!

It was a Toyota Lucida, so she presented herself to us with her name straightaway: the Juicy Lucy fun wagon! Although, not being ones for naming vehicles per se, we rarely used it. It (not she!) had basically had its rear seats ripped out and replaced with a space big enough for a two people to sleep, a sink (which was a pointless feature), space for an ice box, and a handy single burner stove. Add in a few pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups and a few utensils and pieces of cutlery and you literally have everything you need. It was a good option for us really as, despite the occasional annoyance of having to move bags around the make the bed and vice versa, we really didn’t need much more space for anything. Plus, being a car, rather than a van, it was very easy and comfortable to drive long distances and manoeuvre around in towns too. So that’s my bit on logistics for those of you thinking about doing it in the future!

And do it you must! Driving in Australia is easy. There are only two catches: 1 – everywhere you want to go is hundreds of kilometres away from where you are right now, and 2 – the speed limits are set at nausea inducingly low speeds almost everywhere, only exacerbating the issue of distance! Apart from that though, it’s simple. They drive on the right side of the road, for a start, and there is next to nothing in the way of traffic anywhere. Certainly not by UK standards anyway!

So – back to the Blue Mountains. This was to be our first stop. We popped into an information centre on the Grand Western Highway as we approached the national park and the helpful guys in there pointed us in the direction of a couple of free camp sites in the Megalong Valley. Turning up at dusk, we raced to collect bits of wood from around the place to build a fire. My man skills were put to the test here as most of it was quite damp but you’ll be pleased to know I succeeded in lighting a fire, albeit a ridiculously small and smoky one! We then drank tea, cooked a dinner of sausages with pasta and sauce, all washed down with a bottle of red wine. Perfect! And free!!

There were two other couples in the same campsite and once we’d finished dinner, we wandered over to say hello, mainly because they had a hearty looking fire going and ours had petered out to a wimpish, mildly warm orange glow. ‘Any chance we can join you? Your fire looks a lot better than ours…’ We were welcomed and got chatting. It turns out that they brought their own firewood – which is cheating isn’t it, surely? Either way, we drank more wine and chatted away while watching the sparks drift up into the star-filled night sky.

As the fire burned down to glowing embers, we said our farewells and retired to bed with a warming wine glow in our cheeks. That didn’t last for long though – it was bloody freezing in that car!! We slept in all of our clothes and I still woke up at 4am to put the engine on in a desperate attempt not to get frostbite!

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The captivating Wentworth Falls.

The following morning, we got the chance to explore some of the Blue Mountains, and they were spectacular! Our first port of call was Govett’s Leap which offered the most incredible views over the tree filled canyon. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this took my breath away. We moved on to the Wentworth Falls and spent pretty much the whole afternoon exploring the trails, marvelling at the falls, and taking in the scenery. As dusk fell, you could see the blue hue rising from the eucalyptus which gives the mountains their distinctive blue colour.

The blue hue rises as the sun falls.
The blue hue rises as the sun falls.

At the end of the day, we hopped back into the car and headed for Wimbledon – there are a lot of British inspired names in Oz of course, no tennis here though. As it happens, I have family in Wimbledon – apparently! I say apparently because I never knew. I just got an email from my mum saying, ‘You need to send an email to a lady called Janelle, she’s your Australian cousin.’ I must confess, it felt a bit strange emailing out of the blue, but I got a response from Janelle almost immediately and after a couple of exchanges, we’d arranged to meet at her farm.

With her address at the ready, and having scouted a map, we got moving as the sun went down. ‘It doesn’t look that far,’ I said, figuring we’d be there in about an hour. Famous last words – the sat nav gave us an estimated journey time of three hours. We’d better get moving!

It was so good to meet Mark, Janelle and Nathan (who took this picture).
It was so good to meet Mark, Janelle and Nathan (who took this picture).

Arriving slightly later than planned, we were greeted warmly by Janelle and Mark, and their son Nathan. It seemed so strange to be on the other side of the world, meeting people we’d never really heard of and yet for it to seem so natural at the same time. We had a fabulous pumpkin soup for dinner as we tried to decipher the history of the family tree that somehow connects us. I’m going to be honest here, I’m still not entirely sure what the link is, but I know you have to go up about five generations to find the start of the two diverging paths.

After the night before, we were slightly perturbed about the potential of sleeping in the van again (yet still determined to do so) although the chill was tempered by Janelle’s kind offer of an extra duvet which we gratefully accepted! We definitely needed it – there was frost on the outside of the car before we even got in!!

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Helena making friends with Snow.

Waking up the following day, we had a relaxing breakfast with some of Janelle’s homemade granola. ‘I’m sorry, this is all I’ve got,’ she said – it was amazing! I still need to learn how to make it. We then took their two dogs, Charlie and Snow, for a walk around the farm. ‘It’s just a hobby farm really,’ Janelle explained, as she took us down to their dam. This was also our first sight of wild kangaroos – we spotted them off in the distance in the neighbouring farm, initially grazing on the land, they soon bounded off majestically – a seriously impressive sight!

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Revving up the Juicy Lucy on the starting grid. Shame it’s an automatic!

After some lunch, Janelle and Mark took us for a short tour of Bathurst, the nearest large town, including doing a lap of the world famous Mount Panorama motor racing circuit. The race track, it turns out, is a public highway (although it has a strict 60kph speed limit – spoil sports!) so we put the Juicy Lucy wagon through her paces up and down its famed twisting climbs and descents. It’s a mind-bending course actually, one that you can’t truly comprehend taking at speed. Apparently, the racing drivers absolutely love it.

Our final stop in Bathurst was at Janelle’s mum’s house. One of the first things Janelle said to us when we arrived at the farm was, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t leave before I’ve taken you to meet my mum.’ We were more than happy to meet another family member and so popped in for tea and biscuits at Marjorie’s house. I had the family connection explained to me one more time. Now, don’t quote me on this, but I think my grandfather’s grandfather, was Janelle’s grandfather’s brother.

Helena and I enjoyed hearing stories of Marjorie having met my grandfather when he was in Australia many years before. Marjorie’s knowledge of the family tree is incredible and it was great to look through some old family photos with her. One of the most incredible moments for me though was when I asked Marjorie when she had last seen my grandfather. ‘Oh, the last time I saw Gordon was in 1947,’ she replied. They have kept in contact through letters ever since. I was speechless.

All too soon, it was time to move on. Armed with various provisions from Marjorie, including some fabulous local honey, and a whole raft of East Coast tips from Janelle and Mark we bade our farewells and headed off. Our next priority was to get to the Hunter Valley to indulge ourselves with some wine before heading north in search of the sun…

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Enjoying a ride on the Manly ferry.
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My terrible picture of this fabulous building.
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Wentworth Falls poised pre-leap!
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The dogs pretty much took us on this walk rather than the other way around…!
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Taking in the views from the top of Mount Panorama.
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Bali by bike – 400km of scooterific fun!

Sometimes you need to change pace. Having moved very little for almost two and a half weeks on the Gili Islands, Hels and I were recharged and ready to travel. We thought, why not hire a motorbike and go cruising around Bali for the remaining time on our visa? And that’s exactly what we did; although when I use words like ‘motorbike’ and ‘cruising’ to conjure up images of us astride a large, powerful, shiny steed with chrome plated everything, easily eating up the Balinese highways with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces… Well, that may be a bit of poetic licence! For motorbike, substitute in ‘old, pretty battered scooter’ and for cruising, think ‘frantically dodging potholes, stray dogs and traffic whilst praying not to get stopped by the police’, and you’re probably a little closer to our real experience.

We loved it though! Having our own wheels proved suddenly liberating. No longer a need to check out bus or train timetables, to endure the interminable wait in various stations, to negotiate transport from drop off to our desired accommodation, you just hop on and off you go.

I must just pop in a little paragraph about our boat ride back to Bali at this point though. So far we’ve been pretty lucky, with our various boat and plane rides being fairly stress free and relaxing. We’ve had the occasional mini-van ride that has left me feeling a little green, but apart from that, nothing. So we were probably due a bad one – and we got it!

Do you think we could squeeze in another engine somewhere..?
Do you think we could squeeze in another engine somewhere..?

Firstly, the Indonesian idea of a ‘speed boat’ appears to be simply a normal boat just with as much horsepower strapped to the back as you can muster – a very Clarkson-esque approach to nautical transport. (POWEEEEERRRRRRRRR!!) Secondly, Bali is famous for its surf breaks, and this has to come from somewhere, namely the Southern Ocean, in the form of huge waves and swells. The third factor in this potent mix is the relatively narrow channel of water between Bali and Lombok which funnels the waves creating an inescapably rough passage for this ‘speed’ boat. Not to be deterred, however, the Indonesian navigators point their trusty craft headlong into the blue mountains – for that’s what they were – and unflinchingly step on the gas.

To say this crossing was rough is like saying Antarctica can sometimes be a bit chilly. In the enclosed cabin, there were more than a few people having issues and there was no salvation to be had by gazing out of the windows either. The ocean repeatedly reared up like an incensed beast, filling the entire window with angry blue before disappearing entirely from view as the boat soared to the crest of the wave. An inevitable thunderous crash would ensue as the hull reacquainted itself with the descending surface, the passengers feeling momentarily lighter before being sucked back into our seats once more as the cycle began all over again. Desperately trying to remain calm, there were a couple of moments when Helena and I would catch each other’s eye with a ‘I wonder if we’re going to make it’ look. But, just as in a novel where the hero or heroine has a scrape with death half way through, you know they will make it out ok by the very virtue of the fact that you still have 150 pages of the book left to go. And so it goes with us – we made it safe and sound, and headed off to a hostel in Kuta.

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Look who we found!

So – we had a bike, we had slimmed down our big bags to just the essentials in our small backpacks, and we had a vague plan of action (vague plans are always the best, I find!) Our first stop was in a hotel in Kuta where we re-met the acquaintances of Zeki and Lucky – two of the team from our Mt Kinabalu adventure – whom we had heard from only the night before and it turned out they were five minutes down the road. Travelling is strange like that sometimes! We had a hilarious hour or so sharing stories over coffee and basically having a great time catching up. This meeting was significant however because they had just come from Java where they had climbed the Mount Ijen volcano. Zeki was passionately describing the experience, saying, ‘I know how much you loved Kinabalu. You’ll love this too. You have to go. Promise me you’ll go!’ So we promised, and said out farewells. (Lucky our plans were vague as we’d changed them already!)

We headed up the western coastal road first to Balian Beach, supposedly a chilled, funky surfer hang out were we thought we might get a surf lesson. On arrival though, the most obvious accommodation choice was super expensive, so we just opted for a pleasant room a little further up the road where the following morning we ate breakfast overlooking the beach.

Not a bad way to start the day!
Not a bad way to start the day!

The sea looked menacing here though – certainly not novice surfer territory. We watched one guy head out into the ocean, spend about 45 minutes paddling through surf and getting repeatedly smashed up by waves before seemingly calling it a day and heading back to the beach without even attempting to catch a single break. Not for us! It was, however, a pleasant stopover and after a short morning walk on the beach, we jumped on the bike and headed onwards. Our next destination was to be Mount Ijen.

At the north western tip of Bali, you find the port of Gilimanuk – from here you can see Java across the water and it’s only a short ferry ride. So our plan, as far as it went, was to jump on the ferry with the bike, find some accommodation and figure out how to get up the volcano the following morning. This was not to be…

Riding into the port, we saw one lane for trucks and vans, one lane for cars and one lane for bikes. Before I’d realised what I’d done, I’d ridden us straight into the bike lane which also happened to be a police checkpoint. ‘Oh sugar!’ – these were not at all the words that went through my head, but as this blog has a wide age of readership at the moment so I’ll let those of you who are able to fill in your own expletives.

The problem we were facing, you see, is that we didn’t technically have an international driving licence. And technically, to ride a scooter on Bali’s roads, your usual UK licence won’t cut it, you need an international one (or an Indonesian one that you can purchase from a police station in Denpasar if you’re willing to wait for three days – or more!). There are many stories of foreigners being stopped on scooters and having their licences checked and being put in a position where they have to pay a bribe – sorry, did I say bribe? I meant to say ‘fine’, of course – before being sent on their way by the technically efficient and vigilant Balinese police.

‘Licence and registration, please,’ said the friendly policeman who came out to meet us. Without flinching, I got the registration document from under the seat and presented my UK driving licence; I figured I could at least claim ignorance, although I know that is hardly a defence. The guy retreated to his office to consult with a fellow officer and it was this second officer who emerged with my documents in his hands. ‘Follow me to the police station, please,’ he said calmly. Oh, sugar…

So we hopped on the bike and followed him (riding up the wrong side of the road incidentally) to the police station. ‘It’s bribe time,’ I whispered to Hels as we walked in carrying our helmets. ‘Have a seat,’ he said, gesturing towards a wooden bench. All kinds of scenarios were playing through my head, and I was trying to conjure up excuses whilst also calculating how much this may cost us. It wasn’t long before the officer called us up to the desk.

Sitting nervously, waiting for the worst, Hels and I tried to look as innocent as possible. With the documents still in his hand, the officer looked at us, and then began…

‘This registration document is a photocopy, so you can’t take the bike on the ferry to Java.’

Is that it? Nothing about the licence? No demands for money? Desperately trying to conceal our relief in a visage of interested concern, all we could come up with in response was, ‘Ohhhhhhhhhh…’

‘You see this one,’ he continued, producing another document that had colours and watermarks on it, ‘This is an original. Your one is a photocopy. Is it a rental?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, tentatively.
‘I’m sorry, they should have given you the originals.’

We made our apologies before scampering outside to breath a huge sigh of relief. We were so desperate to get out of there that we inadvertently drove straight through an army checkpoint in the wrong direction. These guys must have been sleeping though because we made a quick U-turn and flew back past in our bid for freedom.

So the plans remained fluid… We quickly opted to aim for Pemuteran on the north coast, which should offer us the possibility of a snorkelling trip to Menjangan Island, but on the way we passed a tour shop offering day trips to Mount Ijen. I’ll skip the ins and outs but we ended up booking this tour – and consequently setting our alarms for 2am the following morning.

Ijen was spectacular. Our journey from Bali, over the crossing on an early morning ferry and into a waiting 4×4 was mostly spent sleeping, but soon we were in the early morning gloom at the foot of the climb.  It was getting light fast though and it became obvious that we were going to miss the sunrise. I was a little gutted because that also meant we didn’t get to see the blue fire coming out of the rocks that had so astounded Zeki.

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The yellow sulphurous clouds rise from the base of the crater.
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The rising sun gradually reveals the full scene.

Despite this, the crater of the volcano was a mesmerising sight, with its huge rocky rim, and turquoise blue acidic lake shimmering through the billowing yellow sulphurous clouds as the early morning light gradually awoke the scene. Parts of the landscape look positively other worldly, like something from the moon or Mars.

The craziest thing about the climb though are the sulphur miners who you constantly come across carrying wicker baskets of bright yellow sulphur down the mountainside.

One of the miners on his way down.
One of the miners on his way down.

Only when you get to the top do you realise that they have mined it out of the very base of the crater and manhandled it from that point onwards. A bit like the bed carrying guys from Mount Kinabalu, these men are almost exclusively in their later years but still strong as anything – well, you would be after that sort of exercise regime!

After Ijen, we headed inland. I’d read about a little village called Munduk in the hills, supposedly set amongst rice fields and waterfalls. I hadn’t realised it would be so high up though! Turning south from the northern coast road, the gradient kicked in almost immediately and didn’t let up. Ten minutes in I said to Hels, ‘It’s a shame we’re on this motorbike really, this would have been a great climb to do on our road bikes.’

Twenty minutes later, I said to Hels, ‘It’s lucky we’re on this motorbike really, I wouldn’t want to have to do this climb on a road bike…!’ It hadn’t let up for a second, and the scooter, although making a decent job of it, was beginning to struggle.

Soon, we reached Munduk. We walked into pretty much the first guest house we saw and were rewarded with a beautiful Dutch colonial room and a restaurant overlooking the rice fields with a view that tumbled all the way down the the coast and the sea in the distance. The sunset views from here were staggering! So we spent a couple of days exploring the highlands, skirting around volcanic lakes, wandering the botanical gardens and visiting waterfalls. Beautiful Bali at its best.

Our penultimate partially planned point of interest was the Jatiluwih rice fields, a UNESCO World Heritage site no less. Although we must have missed various turnings on the route there from Munduk, doubling back more than once, we eventually found the fabled fields and were immediately rewarded for our persistence. Put quite simply, if you go to Bali, you simply must get yourselves to Jatiluwih.

It's at times like these that I wish I were a better photographer...
It’s at times like these that I wish I were a better photographer…

It is perhaps the serenity of the atmosphere, perhaps the sublime curving terraces that are seemingly endless in their interlocking relation to each other, perhaps the fact that despite being a famous landmark, it still feels quiet, remote, authentic. Whatever it is, Jatiluwih was seriously impressive, and we happily tucked into some fabulous Babi Guling (traditional Balinese dish – roasted suckling pig) whilst overlooking the superb vista.

A lovely place for a spot of lunch.
A lovely place for a spot of lunch.

No visit to Bali is complete without a visit to a temple and so our final port of call was Pura Luhur Batakau, a temple built in the foothills of Gunung Batakau, Bali’s second highest mountain. On the way there, we thought we had taken yet another wrong turn… The surface of the road disintegrated steadily until there were more potholes than tarmac, forcing some rather sketchy riding over high puncture risk rocky gravel. This can’t be right, surely?

The traditional tiered structure of Balinese temples.
The traditional tiered structure of Balinese temples.

But no, it was indeed the right road and we eventually came out onto a larger route in gracefully better condition which we followed for the climb up to the temple. After acquiring a sarong for me (as my shorts were not appropriate dress), we spent a very pleasant hour or so taking in the peaceful temple scenery before heading back to the bike.

What now? One more night. Have to be in Kuta tomorrow by ten. Maybe we should go now, make things easy… Or, maybe we should go back to Ubud and get some gelato from the best gelato shop in the world…

Can you guess which option we took? Despite the route to Ubud from the temple taking us almost all of the way back to Kuta, we knew the Ubud gelato shop was worth it, and we rewarded ourselves with a Balinese massage too! Luxury.

The next morning, we headed back to Kuta to drop off the bike, now with an extra 400km on the clock! We’d had an absolute blast and now had to get ourselves sorted before flying to Australia – we just had one thing left to do. We clearly couldn’t come to Bali and not try our hand at the island’s most famous sport – surfing – so we headed to Kuta beach, hired ourselves a couple of beginner boards, and headed out into the ocean. We had shirked the offer of lessons (to save a few rupiah) and paid the price heavily as the huge swells picked us up, twirled us around, and smashed us back down. Repeatedly.
What the hell is this sport all about?? These surfers must be maniacs!! We couldn’t understand what was going on, but realised that we were way out of our depth in more ways than one. We tried again in the shallows, picking up the white water rather than the huge cresting waves and had more success, eventually both managing to get ourselves onto the surfboards for short runs standing up. Just a little way to go until we’re pro then…

(Incidentally, I’ve never tried a sport before where you spend 1% of the time doing the sport, 99% of the time hanging around and 100% of the time trying not to stay alive!)

Leaving Bali was significant because it also meant leaving Asia for the first time since we left home. It had been an incredible five and a half months; we’d travelled so far, visited so many places, seen so many things, shared so many wonderful experiences with so many beautiful people. What would the next phase bring..? We had a mild sense of trepidation at the upcoming culture change (not least the well documented challenge of budgeting in the expensive Aussie economy) but we were so happy with what we had accomplished thus far…

Sad to be leaving Asia :-(
Sad to be leaving Asia 😦
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These guys get paid by the kilo, and their weights are checked twice; once at the top, and once at the bottom.

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This guy requested to have his photo taken so I thought it only right that he features in the blog.

Loving island life in Indonesia

‘We’re in Bali!’ I said to Helena with mix of excitement and disbelief as we stepped off the plane. Not really knowing what to expect (yet again), I waited with the bags while Helena drew out two and a half million rupiah. Yes, that’s right, two and a half million! ‘We’re rich!’ I exclaimed when she returned with a bundle of 100,000 rupiah notes. Grinning with our newfound abundant wealth, we looked for a taxi to Ubud. ‘That’ll be 300,000 rupiah…’ said a friendly taxi guy. Maybe not so rich after all!

You may well have heard of Ubud. Not only is it famous for being Bali’s cultural centre, it was also immortalised – for better or for worse – by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. On a year long mission exploring pleasure and devotion, she ultimately seeks balance and love. Which she finds in Ubud – true story!

I hadn’t read it. I do remember seeing the film though, and that’s pretty much the same thing, right? (The classic response from studious yet canny English Literature graduates everywhere.)

So people flock here to immerse themselves in the Balinese way of life, doing yoga and meditating, while imagining themselves having a happily romantic bicycle accident with their own Javier Bardem along the way.

The Balinese have fabulously intricate carved doors and architecture all over the place.  This was the door to our room!
The Balinese have fabulously intricate carved doors and architecture all over the place. This was the door to our room!

Our reason for going directly to Ubud (and not heading straight for Bali’s famous surf breaks) was that Gav and Eleanor Lahney were also arriving that day. Before we left, Gav and I had a brief chat about the possibility of meeting up seeing as we were going to be in the same sort of regions at a similar time, but we hadn’t attached too much weight to it because it seemed pretty unlikely. So it was awesome to get to meet them not only once (in Thailand in March) but now in Indonesia as well.

We had a very chilled few days, exploring Ubud’s variety of chic cafes and restaurants, marvelling at the prevalence of huge wooden penises in the craft shops (they were massive!) and getting used to Bintang as the new beer of choice. Our trip to the Monkey Forest – a must if you are in Ubud – made for an enjoyable afternoon, and after the initial shock encounter with monkeys climbing onto us at will, we got into the swing of things (pardon the pun), happily exploring the forest and feeding the monkeys. They seemed particularly interested in our new GoPro and we have some hilarious shots of monkeys grabbing at it and trying to eat it! It is an action cam after all.

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The best looking monkey in the forest… Strike a pose!
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‘Just need to check your nose, sir. Nothing to worry about!’
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‘What is this little box you keep pointing at me?’

Our other main interest in Ubud was the Yoga Barn – a huge yoga venue with an excellent reputation that, despite its gargantuan size, manages to maintain a sense of calm and wellbeing. I’ve never been in such a large yoga classes before though! Gav and El had been doing a load of yoga prior to coming to Ubud, so they were well into the flow already. Helena and I however had done little or no yoga since our crushing Ashtanga experience in Mysore, so weren’t quite as flexible!

It was good though – we did a gentle class of Yin one day and then followed it up with a Vinyasa Flow the following morning. The thing about yoga is that you have to kind of surrender to the experience to get the most out of it. So if the teacher starts chanting at the start of the class, or meditating on ‘Om’, just go with it – chant away, loudly and proudly. It’s much better than looking around with an embarrassed nervousness that you might somehow look foolish.

Yoga Barn - a Mecca for yoga lovers!
Yoga Barn – a Mecca for yoga lovers!

So when the teacher of the Vinyasa Flow class, Wes, started not only chanting but full on singing in a hearty baritone with a resounding vibrato, I sang back happily with my eyes closed, enjoying the ambience. Wes was a real character – a kind of shortish, sort of stocky guy, with a hairy chest. He was just wearing a pair of tight denim shorts and he had a trunk that would put most trees to shame – clearly a man who was not shy of a sit up or two. Quite flexible despite appearances – although during the class he did very little actual yoga himself, something I only really realised afterwards. He had practised already that day apparently – that’s what they all say!

Wes’ teaching was very spiritual in its approach, possibly a bit on the simplistically idealistic side for my taste at the start, but just as I caught myself being cynical about what he was saying, I managed to open mind a little bit and accept the essence of the lesson. ‘How is your life right now? How are you feeling?’ he asked, and then replied in response to his own question, ‘If the answer to either of those two questions isn’t ‘amazing’, look around you. You’re doing yoga. In Bali.’ I guess he had a point.

He talked about desire and necessity. ‘What time is it? It’s daytime. How do you know? When will it be night time? How will you know? How do you know when to go to bed? What do you do when you get hungry? Of course, you eat. But do you have to eat right that second?’ Helena and I heard this quite differently at the time, but on reflection I think he was essentially urging us not to make things too over-complicated, to react to the cues around us, to respond to our bodies and yet not be limited by them, to experience our existence in the world as it is, at that moment, to not worry so much. Make of it what you will, it had an impact.

And then he broke us with his yoga class!

Taking in a traditional dance performance at the palace complete with gamelan orchestra.
Taking in a traditional dance performance at the palace complete with gamelan orchestra.

After a few days – and more than one trip to the most amazing gelato shop you will ever find – Helena and I bade farewell to Gav and El once more, booking a speed-boat to Gili Air.

The Gili Islands are three small sandy islands just off the north western tip of Lombok; their names being Gili Air, Gili Meno and Gili Trawangan. There are no petrol powered vehicles on the Gilis, and only a smattering of electric scooters. Other than that, the transport options are your feet, a bicycle, or a horse drawn cart called a Cidomo. We couldn’t bring ourselves to get a Cidomo though – let the horses rest! Everyone raves about the Gilis (and on them in the case of Gili T), and rightly so. Fringed by beaches that succumb on every side to clear coral waters, they are a mini slice of paradise. Oh and turtle viewing is all but guaranteed for snorkelers – so we were particularly excited!

Our first stop, Gili Air, is like the best of every world island. It’s quiet and super relaxed but there are enough bars and cafés to keep things interesting. We booked one night in a little guest house, Ananda’s B&B, and lucked out – it was beautiful! Fabulous rooms and a great breakfast meant we extended to five nights almost immediately. It was owned by a Scottish lady called Elaine who came to Gili Air 22 years ago and fell in love with the place so never left!

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Helena takes some time out from our hectic Gili Air schedule…

It was here where we also discovered the Indonesian ‘warung’ for the first time – like a buffet style restaurant with local dishes. There’s an awesome warung in the centre of the island; you go along, are offered white or red rice, and then you just point to what you’d like and they pile it all onto your plate. You can have as much or as little as you want, and they just add it all up at the end. Helena was in heaven because she’s the most indecisive diner ever – mainly because she just wants to try everything. It also comes with sambal, which is a must, but go easy on the Sumatran chilli. I got carried away the first time we went and I think I nearly did myself a mischief!

Our daily routine was established pretty quickly on Air: wake up whenever the sun or heat opened our eyes, pop over to the main house balcony for a breakfast of fruit, pancakes and eggs, then wander towards the beach and pick up some snorkelling gear. Snorkel around in the sea for an hour or two before getting out and drying off with a little lunch. Meander towards the western side of the island to take in the sunset before a visit to the warung for some dinner followed by a relaxed hour or so overlooking the sea in our favourite beach bar, ‘Munchies’. We became almost like regulars in munchies briefly, welcomed emphatically by Aman who, upon learning that we were from England, proceeded to greet us with a very cockney, ‘Awright geezer!’ each and every time. This guy was incredible actually – he could replicate a whole range of UK accents demonstrating a curiously acute sense of hearing for a non-native speaker of the language. (He is from Lombok!)

So we whiled away our days for a few days and relished the slower pace of things, the island lifestyle! The turtles were a massive highlight, to the extent that I’m pretty much at a loss of what to write about them. We had heard loads of stories about how many there were and so were gutted to miss out seeing one on our first day. On our second snorkelling venture however, we saw a huge green turtle almost immediately – I spotted it and almost choked calling Helena over frantically without wanting to disturb the turtle so she could actually see it. There was no need to panic however, as this guy (or girl) was just slowly scavenging around on the sea bed for something to eat. We snorkelled with it for about 15 minutes before it finally swam off into the blue. Delicate, gentle and yet majestic creatures they are, and so exciting to see in the wild. We absolutely love them.

These little guys were less than a day old!
These little guys were less than a day old!
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The baby turtles in the Gili Meno turtle sanctuary.
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We swam with this turtle for ages – absolutely awesome 🙂
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Love seeing them come up for a breath!

Feeling no need to move anywhere, we reasoned (unfathomably in hindsight) that we should leave Gili Air and head to Gili Meno. Where we had happened upon beautiful accommodation on Air, the opposite was unfortunately the case on Meno – we had inadvertently booked a rather shabby and grubby little place in the middle of the island. And we booked for two nights – what an error! I don’t want to write bad things about Meno though as it too is beautiful and a perfect destination if you’re really looking to get away from it all. My only recommendation for anyone visiting Meno is to splash a little bit of cash and book a comfortable resort – it’s worth it. The island is the smallest of the three, with a perimeter of less than three miles and although it too has wonderful snorkelling, it was just that bit too quiet for us I suppose.

We moved on to Gili Trawangan and were happy to find a bit more life – well a lot more life really. Before we got anywhere close to even looking for any accommodation (we’d foregone pre-booking in favour of a search on foot as we were arriving early in the day) we found ourselves at the desk of Freedive Gili – we pretty much stepped straight off the boat and straight into their shop. Within minutes we were contemplating a week on Gili T to allow us to Freedive with the group there and things were looking a lot more positive once more!

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Heading out for a dive session on the Freedive Gili boat.

I won’t write much about Gili T here as I covered it in our free diving blog, but to summarise, it’s a lively island where you don’t have to go looking for the party, the party will come and find you! We had some lovely meals out at various restaurants but our favourite eating destination was the night market that appeared every night a short walk from our room.

The night market is basically a collection of barbecues and warung stalls all selling fresh seafood and Indonesian dishes for wallet soothingly cheap prices. You could eat there for a month and not have the same thing twice if you really wanted to! Couple your food choice with a cold Bintang and what more could you ask for?!

So our Indonesian experience thus far had been mainly one of slowing down, recharging the batteries a little bit. It’s a funny thing, that when you travel for an extended period of time you sort of begin to tire yourself out. ‘How’s the motivation?’ was a question we were first asked in the Philippines by Brendan. ‘Not too bad,’ came the response, realising as we answered that we were flagging just a little bit. And no, before you say it, I’m not bemoaning the experience, not at all, just reflecting on the need to change pace sometimes.

After our final day of diving, we took in a final sunset – which from Gili T produces a glorious silhouette of Mount Agung on Bali – before eating once more at the night market and going for a short walk in search of ice cream. We found some, you’ll be pleased to hear, but we also came across an outdoor cinema that we hadn’t seen before. We decided that we could quite happily sit on bean bags on the beach and relax in front of a movie for a while, so we did. And what were they showing that night…? Yep, you guessed it, ‘Eat, Pray, Love’!

One of my favourite finds while snorkelling was this Lion fish.   They're poisonous apparently...
One of my favourite finds while snorkelling was this Lion fish. They’re poisonous apparently…
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Sunset snorkel in the placid ocean.
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Loving the underwater life!