Sunday, 26 December 2010

Christmas Week in Sydney

Our extended sojourn in Byron Bay left us a little short of time when it came to driving down to Sydney and we decided we sadly didn't really have time to detour via the Blue Mountains. We decided instead to drive through Hunter Valley (wine country) as it was practically on the way.

Arriving in town around 11am we called into the tourist information office at Cessnock, in the heart of wine country, and twenty minutes later we had parked up the van in a campsite and departed on a wine tasting tour - so we certainly made the most of our last day before Sydney!

The tour called at five different vineyards (out of a total of 140 in the area) and we did wine tastings at all of them. That left us a little bit tipsy by the end of the day so we were glad not to have to do any of the driving.
We discovered the delights of a nice oaked, buttery Chardonnay and learned that the best Australian Shiraz (as we know and love it) is produced in southern Australia, where it's cooler, as opposed to the Hunter Valley.

We were met in Sydney by glorious sunshine, which would remain until we left Australia - some fine weather at last! Glad to be dropping off the camper van and checking into our swanky hotel, our arrival in Sydney was a happy one. The drive down through the city was tough though, somewhat similar to driving in London, with three lanes of traffic, one-way systems and a generally fast pace, making navigating and driving a bit of a challenge, but we got there in the end.

After checking in to the hotel we set out on a walk around Sydney taking in the famous Harbour Bridge and Opera House as the sun set. It was every bit as stunning as I imagined and very exciting to be in Sydney at last! After a stroll up through the 'The Rocks' we stopped for a couple of pints of particularly fine pale ale in the Lord Nelson and had a spot of dinner.

On day two Kev was booked into a recording studio to record some strings parts for his latest project, so I took the opportunity to do some shopping for Christmas presents and a bit more of a wander around the city, visiting Paddy's Markets and Darling Harbour, plus a swim in the pool.

With the weather still stunning (despite the rain forecast) we made for the beach and did the pretty coastal walk between Bondi Beach and Bronte Beach, stopping for swims along the way. Then we took the ferry out to Manly the following day, affording us amazing views across Sydney Harbour. At Manly we spent some time at the beach before getting some delicious fish and chips whilst watching the sun go down.

On Christmas day we first celebrated our first summer Christmas with a dip in the pool on the roof of the hotel and a bottle of nice Chardonnay over lunch, that with picked up in the Hunter Valley. It was very odd not having a family do to go to, and odder still not celebrating with roast turkey and all the trimmings. Instead we enjoyed a cold buffet lunch, followed by a Chinese in China Town in the evening, as it was the only place open for dinner! It was lovely, however, to catch up with the family on the phone in the evening, making us feel a little bit closer than the other side of the world.

So tomorrow we're off to New Zealand - and once again I can't believe it's come around so soon! Still, we're looking forward to the change of scenery (and the delicious New Zealand wine, of course!)

Speak to you all soon, hopefully.

Love, Sarah & Kev xx

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Brisbane and Byron Bay

We arrived in Brisbane in the blistering sunshine, not a cloud to be seen in the blue sky and headed straight into the city centre on the scenic route by catching a ferry along the river. Alighting at the South Bank we stopped for a swim in the open air pool, followed by lunch and a cold glass of wine in a pub.
Still not fully convinced that we had outrun the weather, despite today's heatwave (and with storms forecast for the whole of Queensland for the following day) we strolled along the riverside through the market stalls and paid a brief visit to the Gallery of Modern Art, which was unfortunately between exhibitions.

We then met up with my former housemate, Stacey and spent a couple of days with her at her apartment in Brisbane, enjoying good company, nice food a few beers and (when the rain eventually came) an afternoon at the cinema.

The next stop on our itinerary was Byron Bay, which we instantly fell in love with. It's a pretty small town with some fantastic beaches and a thriving arts scene, populated mostly by hippies, artists and backpackers. Our first day was another of glorious sunshine, so we headed straight for the beach for a couple of hours. The sea had some lovely surf, though the temperature feels somewhat more refreshing after spending so much time in the tropics. Still, it was perfect for cooling off and a real relief from the hot sun.

I was very excited to learn that Byron Bay has its very own circus school, offering amongst other things flying trapeze lessons to the general public, so I immediately booked in for a couple of classes. I also did my first ever catch! - I'll try and upload the videos at some point. It's great to be back in the swing of things (pun intended) as my circus classes are one of the things I've missed most about London.

On our second night in Byron Bay I spilled beer all over Kev's laptop keyboard, accidentally of course, but it meant we had to stay on a couple of extra days to try and get it fixed - and lucky for us we couldn't really have picked a nicer area to be stuck in. Fortunately for us both it was just a case of replacing the keyboard and not writing off the cost of the whole computer and all of its expensive music software, or I might have been coming home sooner than intended!

After a relaxing five days and nights and much delicious homemade ice cream we hit the road again bound for Sydney. We'll make a few stops along the way at Coffs Harbour and Port Macquarie as we travel down the coast.

Since entering New South Wales state there has been a definite improvement in the weather but there still seems to be a lot of rain about. There have been some predictions already of a wet Christmas so we're hoping to prove them wrong!

Speak to you all soon,
Sarah & Kev xx

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Great Keppel Island and Fraser Island

Well time really is flying - I can't believe it's December already. It's really odd being in a hot country at this time of year, seeing Christmas trees and hearing Christmas music in shopping malls doesn't feel remotely festive! I actually feel a bit jealous of all this snow that's been falling over in the UK, though I certainly don't miss feeling cold.
The weather here has been consistently hot, but also persistently rainy - and the weather I mentioned in the last blog post hasn't let up. It's such a shame as the rain really doesn't do justice to the beautiful beaches we have been passing on our way.

For Kev's birthday we caught the ferry out to the stunning Great Keppel Island and spent a night there, where we stayed in a safari style tent. The rain even held off until the evening, giving us a beautiful sunny day on the beach. Unfortunately we discovered a hole in the roof of our tent and we woke up with wet feet (though fortunately the rain wasn't dripping on our heads in the night!)

Whilst camping in the van and waking up early, we've got to know some of the local bird calls: the screaming curlews and the laughing kookaburras. We also saw a pelican on the beach in Yeppoon, which was absolutely enormous. There are funny big birds with curly beaks that look a bit like skeksis from the dark crystal! Once again our interest in ornithology has caught us by surprise! Ha ha.

In a bid to escape the rain we decided to head as far south as possible, as the rain will surely diminish once we leave the tropics. Our next stop was Hervey Bay - and yes, the sun came out! We hired bikes and enjoyed a leisurely 14km cycle ride along the bay, stopping along the way to swim, which we can now do safely and without the threat of the box jellyfish as the water is too cold for them.

From Hervey Bay we went on a two day tour to wild Fraser Island and had a fantastic time. We not only had no rain, but two days of sunshine (according to our guide: something Fraser Island hasn't seen in weeks!)
On arrival we boarded a four wheel drive bus and our guide took us out to see the famous sights that Fraser Island has to offer, including the swimming in the stunning clear turquoise waters of lake Mackenzie and the fizzing 'Champagne Pools', a natural jacuzzi created by the waves crashing over the rocks and bubbling into the rockpools on the shore. We also had great fun leaping off sand dunes and walking through the rainforest, taking in the Moheno shipwreck on 'Seventy Five Mile Beach' and watching the turtles and dolphins from the clifftop lookout at 'Indian Head'.

We enjoyed cocktails on the beach as the sun set and kept our eyes peeled for dingoes but we didn't see one, which was a bit disappointing, but I suppose they're only wild dogs so we didn't miss much really!

The beaches on Fraser Island are absolutely stunning - and the closest we've come to finding any that rival Cornwall's beaches. Look out for photos on the blog soon and see if you agree!

Well it's back on the road for us, next stop Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Sarah and Kev xx

Thursday, 9 December 2010

A funny song about Australia...

'Come to Austraia' by 'The Scared Weird Little Guys'

Our tour guide in Fraser Island played us this tune on the bus - have a listen, it really tickled us!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Campervan Adventures

We finally picked up our campervan in Cairns and ventured tentatively out on to the highway... Fortunately for us the Australians drive on the same side of the road as we do in the UK, which makes life easier - the only main difference in a car being that the lever for the indicators is where the lever for the windscreen wipers is - and vice versa. We got used to this remarkably quickly, however and found driving relatively straight forward. The roads are wide, long and straight (well, until we got up north towards Cape Tribulation anyway) and even when twisty there's enough room for two cars to pass comfortably.

The campervan is well equipped with everything we might need (fridge, gas stove, water tank, cooking utensils and bedding*) but is really, really small. It's quite a challenge fitting us and all our stuff inside, but it was the cheapest option so it suits us fine given the current economic conditions.

Out on the open road, north of Cairns, we started noticing the road signs, warning us about kangaroos, cassowarras, emus - and then there are the cane toads, literally hundreds of them sat in the middle of the road as we drove along. It's impossible not to squash them, but apparently they are a bit if a nuisance and even get culled on a regular basis, so we didn't feel so bad as we ran over them!
We have also seen lots of roadsigns telling us, 'don't spread electric ants'! We have no idea what this is supposed to mean - and I certainly hope we don't encounter any if these 'electric ants', let alone spread them!

Camping - even in a van, as opposed to a tent - does make you that little bit closer to nature and with that comes a realisation that, 'yes we are in Australia - and there are a lot of poisonous things here (that can kill you)!' In the campsite toilets at Noah Beach, near Cape Tribulation there were so many spiders I'd actually rather not go to the toilet - holding it in or finding a quiet spot out in the open is far preferable. It would be bad enough back home where the spiders don't bite, but as far as I'm concerned here a quick loo break could end in hospital!

After spending one night up towards Cape Tribulation the weather took a turn for the worse. Three days and nights of heavy rain later and the roads had flooded and we were unable to leave. With nothing to do but find a campsite and wait for the torrential rain to stop, we hoped we wouldn't be delayed too long. I don't think I've seen rain like it before - so heavy and persistent, and just when you think it's stopped and can't possibly rain anymore, down it comes again! Even in a van (as opposed to a tent) everything seems to get wet when it rains - that is certainly true of camping on the whole, so we're looking forward to moving on down the coast and out of the area appropriately dubbed 'the wet tropics'.

We picked up a copy of a brilliant book (which would become our bible) detailing all the free camping and rest areas in Australia, so we haven't constantly got to pay for campsites. Some maybe little more than a glorified hard shoulder on the side of the motorway, but there are some lovely spots too, right on the beach with showers, barbecue areas and running water, so they're worth seeking out.

After a week in the van we caught the ferry out to Magnetic Island and treated ourselves to a night in a hostel and a meal out - a welcome relief after sleeping and cooking in the van, I can assure you! The beaches on Magnetic Island are lovely: golden sand and turquoise water. However if you heed the warnings about jellyfish (a risk even when enclosures with 'stinger nets' have been rigged up) then swimming doesn't seem like such an attractive option. I think we're going to give swimming in the sea a miss until we're a bit further down the coast and the risk is no longer there!

We also made a visit inland and up to the mountainous Eungella, in the clouds. This national park is rainforest and home to the platypus - we were lucky enough to see a couple of them too.

We also saw our first kangaroos this week - a gathering (sorry, I don't know the collective noun) of nine or ten of them at the side of the road - much bigger than I expected too. As we approached with the camera they looked up at us inquisitively and watched without moving until they realised we weren't a threat. Once established they hopped off about their business.
We've been advised not to drive at night as our hoppy, marsupial friends aren't the brightest bunch and like to bounce across the roads infront of cars - we've certainly seen more dead kangaroos on the side of the road than we have live ones! More worrying is the damage they would do to the van, so we're sticking to driving during daylight hours only.

A week on and driving further still down the east coast the rain is still really persistent - locals are saying it's the wettest it's been in years and it's not even wet season yet! We're hoping it brightens up when we get out of the tropics, through Queensland and into New South Wales. Fingers crossed, as camping in the rain is a pretty miserable affair, wherever you are in the world!

So our journey continues down towards Rockhampton and then on to Brisbane in a week or so. I'll blog again then.

Sarah and Kev xx

*On a completely unrelated and somewhat random note, in supermarkets the section with the bed linen and towels is entitled 'Manchester' - not sure why it's called this but it tickled me, hence its inclusion in the blog!

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Diving the Great Barrier Reef

Shortly after arriving in Cairns we trawled the various tourist information and travel booking offices in pursuit of the best diving package on the Great Barrier Reef - something within our budget whilst still being run by a reputable company and looking to be the most fun!
When we dived in Gili our dive master warned us not to dive the reefs closest to Cairns on a day trip as they've already been somewhat damaged by the volume of tourists snorkeling and diving the site - from where they've accidentally kicked the coral with their fins. In the end we settled on a two day/one night trip, living aboard a sailing boat and with five dives included in the price - so if I have any remaining fear of scuba diving, it's sure to be gone by the end of the trip!

The night before our diving trip, however, we ended up in the local Irish pub - which was both a blessing and a curse:
It was fortunate we spent the evening there as we realised our clocks were half an hour slow (due to there being a time difference between Darwin and Cairns that we didn't know about). It was as we queued at the bar to take advantage of the buy-one-get-one-free offer that the barmaids told us that happy hour was over. We checked the time and no, it was definitely still happy hour according to our watches, so we asked other patrons sat at the bar what time they made it - and then made fools of ourselves when we discovered that we were indeed wrong. Still, if we hadn't found out the correct time we would have missed the dive boat the following morning!

The downside however was the inevitable hangover that we accrued from socialising in the bar all evening. When you do your dive training you are told that alcohol is a BAD THING (this is however is a paradox as all the divers I've met love a good drink. In fact, after our first day's diving the Great Barrier Reef our dive master cracked open a can of beer and then started on a bottle of rum, which incidentally was half empty the following morning!)

Getting up at 6am to climb aboard a boat to embark upon a three hour journey and then do three dives certainly wasn't what we fancied doing when we awoke the following morning, but we threw ourselves into it, determined to enjoy ourselves. On board the boat we took to our bunks when the motion of the boat threatened to make us seasick. It was too late for poor Kev though, who was also still suffering from an upset stomach from a few days previously and who threw up before making it to the first dive site. We did manage to complete and enjoy the three dives though, so it all worked out ok in the end.

The diving conditions were not great, sadly. Day one was largely overcast and rainy - not necessarily a problem when you're underwater, but the visibility was also poor. Our dive master said it was the worst diving he's experienced on the Great Barrier Reef in all the years he's been doing his job - what a shame!
By our final dive of day one visibility was down to just five metres - the lack of sunshine didn't help, but this was mostly due to the coral 'spores' getting ready to 'reproduce' so the water was really murky. We saw some amazing coral though, along with a stingray, clown fish, giant clams and sea cucumbers (which our dive master picked up and gave to us to hold!) I can only imagine how amazing the reef would look with a bit of sunshine and 25m+ visibility!

We also hired a digital underwater camera to document some of our dives but the majority of the pictures we took look like the kind of photos you get when you give a five year old child it's first camera! The murky conditions didn't help much either but we did manage to get a few good shots of each other in the water - look out for them on the blog soon!

By day two Kev was fully recovered and up bright and early, ready for our pre-breakfast dive. Conditions had improved quite a bit since the previous day and visibility underwater was up to 20 metres, though it was still a bit murky.Back on board we enjoyed breakfast in the sunshine up on deck before taking the plunge one final time before the three hour journey back to Cairns.

I have to admit that in terms of marine fauna, we saw a lot more in Borneo, but the coral in the Great Barrier Reef is truely spectacular and like nothing I have seen before (albeit in my limit experience of diving). Some of the other guys on the boat reported having seen a reef shark but I'm not sure if I'm disappointed or glad we didn't encounter that under the water! We did, however, see an enormous trigger fish (which can be really territorial and agressive), so that was pretty exciting for us.

The next chapter of our trip begins with us picking up our camper van and starting our massive 2000 km drive from Cairns to Sydney. We have five weeks to do it in though so we can be really leisurely and do plenty of sightseeing along the way.

I'll blog again soon when there's more to report.

Sarah & Kev xx

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Darwin, Australia

We landed in Darwin at 3am and spent an uncomfortable few hours waiting around in the airport before venturing into the city. It's really expensive here, so we thought we'd save on a night's
accommodation by getting a couple of hours sleep in the airport, however uncomfortable and disrupted that might be.

I think the price shock mainly came from having just spent two months in Asia, where the cost of living is very low, but also because the Australian dollar is very strong against the pound at the moment. I think it's even more expensive than London here - fingers crossed we won't be bankrupt before Christmas!
Luckily we managed to find a not too extortionately priced self- catering apartment who agreed to do us a deal for a week's stay, and so we could prepare all our own meals and keep a nice bottle of wine in the fridge - which kept the cost down a bit.

The weather here is so hot - it's actually too much to be out in the direct sun - and that's even after acclimatising to Asia's climate. It's also not possible to swim in the sea here though due to the 'stingers' (box jellyfish) and the 'salties' (salt-water crocodiles - as opposed to 'freshies', the fresh-water crocodiles!) so we were grateful for the pool in our apartment and the wave-pool on the esplanade to cool off.
When we are out and about we're covering ourselves with highest factor sunscreen and it still feels like we're burning! I don't think the temperature has topped 35 degrees Centigrade but it feels like the hottest country we've been to you. The weather however has been absolutely beautiful: clear blue, cloudless skies and just the odd torrential downpour and crack of thunder (well, it is wet season after all).

We treated ourselves to a day trip to nearby Litchfield National Park which comprised a jumping croc cruise', a visit to the enormous 'cathedral' and 'magnetic' termite mounds, dramatic waterfalls and swimming in the freshwater pools. Seeing the crocodiles up close was exhilarating, especially as they leapt up out of the water from the murky depths to take the meat dangled on a fishing line in front of their eyes. Look out for the photos to be posted on the blog soon.

Another day we braved the heat to walk over to Fannie Bay. It's odd to walk past empty beaches on such a hot day, but I suppose if you can't cool off in the sea, what's the point in being at the beach?
We visited the museum, which featured an exhibition on 'Cyclone Tracy' which flattened the city in 1974. Inside the exhibition was a sound booth with a genuine recording of the cyclone that sounded absolutely terrifying! Because Darwin is now in 'wet' season there are frequent cyclone
warnings on the television and radio so I hope we make it on to our next destination without a storm hitting!

On our final evening in Darwin, we went to the 'Deck Chair Cinema': deck chairs in front of a big screen under the stars, and where they sell big portions of tiramisu and trifle to eat during the film - a really pleasant way to round off our week in the Northern Territory.
Getting up at 3am the following morning for our flight to Cairns was not so pleasant - and so we found ourselves back in Darwin airport in the small hours. Still, fortunately no more flights for us now until after Christmas so we can't complain.

I'll blog again in a week, Internet access permitting, by which time we'll hopefully have stories of diving the Great Barrier Reef and driving around in our little camper van.

Sarah & Kev xx

Monday, 8 November 2010

Singapore, Bali & the Gili Islands

So after a busy and thoroughly enjoyable month we bid a final farewell to Borneo and boarded a plane bound for Singapore.
Singapore was just a short stopover really, just a transiting point as we can't travel directly from Borneo to Bali, but it was lovely to be back in cosmopolitan civilisation for a few hours, and we really enjoyed our time there.

In many ways Singapore is a lot like London: a massive sprawling city divided into different suburbs and with an attractive esplanade, which really reminded us of London's South Bank - with bars and eateries looking out over the river and Singapore's landmarks on its skyline.

We passed by Raffles Hotel and contemplated going in for a Singapore Sling cocktail before deciding we felt we were too scruffy to go somewhere so posh! Instead we took a photo and settled for a couple of beers on the waterfront.

We also visited the massive electronics market, which boasts something like seven floors of gadgets, computers, disks, camera and stereo equipment - and managed to resist spending too much money!

Next up on our itinerary was Bali: only a two and a half hour flight from Singapore but a journey that felt like it took all day. On arrival in Bali the 'visa on arrival' procedure took forever - so
long in fact that by the time we reached baggage reclaim our bags had been removed from the conveyor and put in the lost and found office! Lucky for us after the exhausting journey we had a taxi driver from the hotel waiting in arrivals to pick us up and despite heavy traffic on the journey, we were soon able to relax.

Bali is the most westernised and touristy place we've been to yet, swarming with Australian tourists (Bali to the Ozzies is a bit like Spain to the Brits: a beach holiday with guaranteed warm weather and a home from home).
The beaches are lovely, though being a popular surfers' destination sometimes the waves are a bit too big to be able to swim - so it was more a case of frolicking around in the surf.
There are hundreds of bars and restaurants too, serving cheap local beer and local and western dishes. We found a nice one with an utdoor pool attached and had a swim whilst we sipped our drinks and waited for our food.

After just one full day in Bali we took a speedboat over to the nearby Gili Islands for a taste of desert island paradise and some real R&R. There are three islands: Trawangan, Meno and Air, all surrounded by white sandy beaches and coral reefs. There are only about 200 metres of water separating the islands, but very strong currents so it's not possible to swim between them, as tempting as it might look.

The day we arrived we heard about a series of Indonesian earthquakes, a tsunami - and later a volcano. Fortunately we were far enough away not to feel the effects but it's scary how close we are to the action - especially when we're staying on a very small and low-lying island.

The pace of life is very laid back on Gili, with little to do except hang around, reading on the beach, snorkelling, sipping fruit smoothies and eating nice food. There are no cars or motobikes on the islands, instead transport is a bicycle or a pony and cart. After briefly being in Bali it's lovely to be away from the relentless raffic.

When we arrived on Gili Meno we found it mostly deserted. It seems low season here is very, very quiet so it's just a handful of tourists, hawkers and the locals with their ponies. That and what sounded like hundreds of cockerels who woke us up at 4am every morning with thier own rendition of the dawn chorus - which also coincided with the 'call to prayer' broadcast from the mosque, so it was quite an awakening!

The islands are also home to hundreds of cats, all with docked tails. I asked one of the locals who told me all cats across South East Asia are born with this defect: some tails are really short like rabbit tails, others are longer but only partially formed. Even the cats with long tails will be missing the tip or have a kink in it - strange!
I fell in love with all the kittens I saw and even had an invitation to take one - if only I could pack one in my bag!

We did a couple of dives on Trawangan, the first not being very enjoyable as the group we were with were more advanced than us, so we were quite literally out of our depth! By way of apology the dive centre offered us a free dive the following morning, just the two of us and an instructor, which we really enjoyed. The turtle we saw was only a fraction of the size of the ones in Borneo, but we saw some great lionfish, angelfish, clown fish (like 'Finding Nemo'), an octopus and giant clams.

Trawangan is the 'party island' of the three, with the main strip being lined with bars, restaurants, beach bungalows and dive shops. You're certainly never short of something to do - and there are loads of tourists around - so it wasn't until we spent some time on the other islands that we really had the desert island experience.

Last up was Gili Air, the closest island to the mainland of Lombok. We stayed in a lovely little place, just off the beach and run by a Swiss lady. There was a huge mango tree outside our accommodation and we learned to listen out for the 'thud' of the ripe fruit falling and hitting the ground, then running out to pick up and eat our harvest. It's definitely the sweetest mango I've ever eaten - delicious.

Whilst chatting to some of the locals I met a man from Gili Air who is married to a Cornish girl from Porthtowan! And then by the hotel pool in Bali I overheard a family talking about Penzance and Camborne College, so it really is a small world!

Next up is Australia - I can't believe our time in Asia is over already! Still it will be lovely to go back to our western ways i.e. being able to flush toilet paper down the loo; hot fresh water
showers being the norm rather than cold sea water being plumbed straight into the bathroom; and being able to buy things at a fixed price without having to haggle - still, we went out in style today when we haggled a trader down from his asking price of 550,000 Indonesian Rupiahs to 50,000 for two pairs of sunglasses - well, he was really trying to rip us off!

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Orangutans and Scuba Diving, Borneo

From the mountain we jumped on a bus to Sandakan, on the east coast of Borneo. Sandakan town itself is still fairly undevelopped and has little to offer, but it is the place to be to visit the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok, so tourists always have it on their itinerary.
It is, however, also home to an intriguing English tea house, set amid a manicured croquet lawn, with pet peacock and on top of a hill, looking out to sea. Quite why we decided we wanted to climb the 100 steps up to this venue the day after we just climbed up and down the mountain is beyond me, but we did have a lovely cream tea at the top (though they lost marks when didn't give us clotted cream, even though the guide book promised it!)

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the one you will have seen on the television. It's the biggest orangutan sanctuary (as far as I'm aware) and not only cares for orangutans but also releases them back into the wild when they're ready.
Set in an area of dense jungle, the only time you really get to see the orangutans is at feeding time, when the macaques also descend from the trees to fight the orangutans for the last scraps of food. For 30 minutes or so, the sight of primates swinging through the trees and on to the feeding platforms is the main attraction - and they put on a fantastic show - but then as soon as the food has been eaten, they
disappear back up into the canopy. It felt like it was all over a bit quickly but was a great sight to see nevertheless.
I would have been really interested in volunteering at the centre, but apparently the waiting list is two years - so another time, maybe.

Once our legs had just about recovered from all the climbing, we headed over to Semporna and enrolled on a scuba diving course (so within 3 days of being at 4095 metres, we were heading 18 metres under the sea!)
Day one was theory day, where we would realise there's a lot more to scuba than we had previously thought - including complex dive tables to calculate the levels of nitrogen in the body, and many technical things to remember. However, when we actually got into the water on day two, that's when the learning actually started and it was quite a challenge!

At first I felt quite claustrophobic being under water and consequently quite panicked - especially since some of the skills we had to learn were taking off the face mask, simulating we're out of air etc. Kev, on the other hand really took to it and picked it up easily.
The afternoon of day one we did our first open water dive in the resort of Mabul - which, after a morning of theory and technical skills was quite a relief. I even managed to enjoy myself down there! Conditions were fantastic and apart from a strong current during the morning dive we had thirty degree water, sunshine and ten metres visibility.

Still, the following morning I was nervous all over again, unsure of whether I wanted to continue, but I'm not one to give up easily - I've paid a lot of money for this after all - and didn't want to spend the afternoon sat on the beach (even if it is stunning) whilst Kev goes and gets certified. Fortunately, I picked up where I left off the previous day and had a really enjoyable couple of dives... We were lucky enough to dive with some fantastic marine life including giant turtles (they're HUGE!) barracuda, snake eels, pufferfish, grouper fish, angel fish, clown fish and many other tropical varieties - it was amazing and definitely worth overcoming the fear.

We've got a lot of travel coming up over the next few days. Once we get back to KK we've got a flight to Singapore, where we spend two nights, then it's off to Bali and the Gilli Islands (where we hope to do some more diving!)

I'll blog again once we're settled in one place!

Sarah & Kev xx

Friday, 15 October 2010

Mount Kinabalu, Malaysia

Mount Kinabalu dominates the KK skyline and is situated a few kilometres out of town, or in our case a bumpy three hour minivan ride away, through twisty and steep mountain roads.
By the time we arrive at the park HQ we are already at altitude and it's considerably cooler, which is a welcome relief from the heat and humidity of the city. Though we did wonder if we had the slightest chance of being warm enough when we climb to the summit at 3am!
Before we left KK we stocked up on mountain climbing gear: headtorches, gloves, thermals and snacks (spending a small fortune) but glad to be as prepared as possible without going the whole hog and wearing walking boots and carrying ski poles!

We spent a night at park HQ and got up bright and early the next morning to begin our climb. As with Mulu National Park, bureaucracy requires all walkers attempting the summit to have a guide, even though the path is well marked and the only way is up.
First stop was 6km from HQ at Laban Rata, where we would spend the night. Climbing was tough in that it was uphill and rocky all the way (a bit like the climb up from Pedney between the beach and the cliff path) but with plenty of time and rest breaks we made it up comfortably in time for lunch. Apparently most people complete this first stage in 4-6 hours so I was really chuffed when we arrived in 3 hours 45 minutes - I guess we must be fitter than we thought!
Shortly after arrival at Laban Rata hostel the weather closed in, bringing with it thick mist and heavy rain so we were glad to have
completed the climb in the dry.

At the hostel we were informed that there was a problem with the generator so there would be no heating or hot water, and electricity for just 3 hours a day. At first we thought we would just have a quick cold shower but after hearing someone attempt this - and hearing his shrieks at how icy the water was at over 3000m altitude - we decided to forego the morning shower and just wash when we get back to base!

Fortunately for us meals are included in our accommodation package as the price of refreshments half way up the mountain include the cost of a porter carrying the goods up the mountain. We passed some porters on our way up, one carrying a large sack of onions, others with huge gas cannisters, vats of cooking oil and crates of canned fizzy drinks. It's mad to even consider doing that as a job - needless to say their thigh and calf muscles are like steel! The mountain guides here also climb the mountain 300+ times a year, which is pretty amazing.

We all went to bed at 7pm as day two involved an early start, leaving at 3am if we were to be at the summit for sunrise - not that we got a great deal of sleep, a) going to bed so early, and b) in anticipaticion of what lay ahead.

The following morning it was still and starry - perfect climbing conditions. We joined the long line of climbers in our fleeces, hats and head torches all making our way towards the summit.
As we reach the half-way point of the summit trail, the rocky steps give way to rock faces and we have to haul ourselves up with ropes. In the pitch black all we can focus on are the ropes and rocks ahead. On the way down we got to see quite how close we came to sheer cliff edges!

With the summit suddenly in sight and the sunrise starting the glow orange in the far distance we push on, even though our legs are aching and oxygen is in short supply in the thin air. We reach the summit (4095.2m) just in time to have our photographs taken by the signpost and to get a few snaps of the sunrise before the biting cold wind and freezing temperatures force us back down the mountain again.

What we didn't anticipate was that the climb down would be much more taxing than the climb up. Our legs were like jelly after the summit climb, so to have to descend all 8.72 km of the mountain in one go was a killer! It took us as long to walk down as it did to climb up and by the end we could barely remember how to walk at all! Still, it was all worth it for the achievement.

At the bottom of the mountain is a large sign displaying the results of 'the world's toughest mountain race', an annual race up and down the mountain. The winner in 2009 completed it is 2.5 hours, which I just cannot get my head around as it took us 12 hours over 2 days!

So from here it's off to Sandakan, the base for our next couple of destinations: Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre and Semporna.

Sarah & Kev xx

Monday, 11 October 2010

Gunung Mulu National Park & Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia)

Onwards to Borneo's number one tourist attraction! If you've ever seen television documentaries containing footage of Borneo's bats and caves then the chances are that it's Gunung Mulu National Park, who's access is via a short flight from Miri, or a day-long journey by boat. We opted for the former to maximise our time there.

Being the most popular tourist site gave the park an altogether different vibe to the other national parks we've visited. It's the largest national park with a fantastic variety of trails - but also the most bureaucratic, so in order to visit the caves or walk the 'canopy sky-walk' you have to pay a fee to hire a guide and visit in a small group. However this would turn out to be an invaluable source of information on the flora and fauna along the trails, and the geology of the caves.

The caves in Mulu are fantastic - and like none I have visited before. What strikes you first is the scale of them, with kilometres of pathways linking up the different caves.
Deer cave is an immense chamber and is home to 2-3 million bats, which eat 4-5 tons of flying insects every night. Since the bats take care of most of the mosquitoes we didn't get bitten once!
In the cafeteria one evening we watched a couple of bats circling round and feasting on the moths, mosquitoes and (big) cicadas (!) which were buzzing around the lights.

It rained for 36 hours continuously during our trip, which obviously posed no problem for visiting the caves, but sadly we didn't get to see the millions of bats flying out of the huge cave mouth (like in the TV footage you might have seen).

After Deer Cave our tour took us to Langs Cave, home to some weird and wonderful looking stalactites and stalagmites. Sadly our cameras could not do justice to the sights we saw.

The following day we took a longboat up the river to two further caves: Wind Cave and Clearwater Cave. Since it was raining so hard - and the temperature was relatively cool outside - we didn't feel any if the air currents in Wind Cave (which are caused by a difference in air pressure and temperatures inside and outside the cave), but the guide did show us an interesting mineral formation called 'moon milk', a white, moss-like covering over the limestone, found only in Wind Cave.

The final cave on our itinerary was 'Clearwater Cave', a deep chasm with a fast-flowing river and rapids running through it. The volume of rainfall since we arrived meant that the river was swollen and part of the pathway was flooded so we had to turn back, but it was fascinating to see the limestone cave being sculpted before our very eyes.
When we left the cave it was raining harder than ever so we headed straight back on the longboat and back to our room - no matter how stunning the location it wasn't worth getting soaked again. Instead of walking we enjoyed a few beers in the cafeteria with some fellow travellers...

The rain did finally let up by the following morning so we were able to fit in the 'canopy skywalk' - a rickety series of rope bridges 40 metres high amongst the tree tops - where we were lucky enough to see several hornbills (the state of Sarawak in Borneo calls itself 'the land of the hornbills'). Apparently it's rare to see quite so many, so despite not being massive bird-watchers, we were pretty impressed!

Next up on our itinerary was capital city of the state of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu (fondly known as KK to the locals). Much to Kev's amusement he found and purchased an 'I heart KK' t-shirt (photo to follow!) - to be worn ironically, I hope!

KK is a lovely little seafront town with a nice selection of bars and restaurants looking out to sea.
Just off the coast are the Tunku Abdul Rahman Islands, a national park consisting of five tropical islands of white sandy beaches and dense jungle interior. We caught a speedboat to Manukan Island and spent the day there, enjoying a relaxing day swimming, sunbathing and reading on the beach. After quite a lot of time in the cities and national parks it's nice to have some beach time again.
On the return journey the captain of our boat decided to race another tourist boat back to the harbour - what fun it was leaping (for want of a better word) across the waves. It felt like we actually took off a couple of times! Now I know why they insisted we all wore life jackets.

Despite there being a wealth of bars and restaurants here the absolute best place to eat is at the night market on the waterfront. At the far end are the Filipino barbecue stalls, cheap as chips and selling fish that has been landed that same afternoon. Last night we each enjoyed an enormous tuna steak and rice for just £1.50. Food is traditionally eaten with the hands - chopsticks or cutlery aren't even available - but we took along our sporks as we chickened out and didn't think eating rice with our fingers an easy task (not to mention a bit unhygienic)!

In the night market we also tried durian fruit (if you've not heard of it before it's a large segmented fruit in a spiky shell that smells really bad - a bit like a drain. It's taste is an acquired one: I have heard some liken it to vanilla ice cream but the bit we tried tasted a bit like 'creamy onions'! Yuk - still, at least we gave it a go.

Next we're off to our final national park in Borneo: Kinabalu Park, home to the 4095m high mountain that we've booked to climb. Seeing the peak on the KK skyline is certainly intimidating but we're up for the challenge.

Sarah & Kev xx

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Similajau National Park & Niah Caves (Malaysia)

Hello again.

I can't believe we're on to our second week in Borneo already. Time is certainly flying. Over the last week we have spent time in two more national parks along with a few days in a city in between, to organise the next part of the itinerary.
The original plan was to chill out somewhere for a week or so but we've honestly been too busy to do this - there's too much to see (and so many things that we just cannot afford to miss!)

Similajau National Park is much smaller than Bako National Park and contains far less flora and fauna of note, so consequently it gets less publicity and a lot less traffic. This, however was perfect for Kev and me: glad to get away from the wealth of insects and our simian
friends, the macaques, and to have the trails to ourselves.

It was a great relief to find that macaques are not a pest in Similajau as they are in Bako - although they can sometimes be spotted in the trees on the trails. I was over the moon not to come across any of the little terrors after my scare at Bako a few days ago - and so we enjoyed all our meals outside, overlooking the beach without fear of monkey attack!

Sadly (or fortunately!) we didn't see any crocodiles - which are reported to frequent the river mouths and streams - despite spending many a moment peering into the murky, muddy waters and straining our eyes into the shady crevices of the riverbank.
The threat of crocs also meant that swimming was mostly off the agenda. Even in the designated 'safe area' it's hard to relax into a nice, refreshing swim in the knowledge there might be a croc lurking!

It's not just crocs we had to worry about though and of you heed the warnings of the park HQ it seems there is a whole host of 'marine stingers' including jellyfish, stonefish, weaverfish and sea urchins, all waiting to get their spines into you.
That said, it was a shame that swimming was out of bounds because not only did we pass some beautiful, secluded beaches, but it was very hot and sweaty work trekking on the jungle trails - even the shady ones. Any respite from the humidity would have been most welcome.

The main trail at Similajau is 10km long and leads through the jungle, running parallel to the coast. It runs from park HQ all the way to Golden Beach at the far end of the park (passing Turtle Beach 1 and 2 at the 6 and 8km points along the way). We made it as far as Turtle Beach 2 before deciding to turn back as an 8km walk in one direction means an 8km walk back to base - and in those temperatures we were averaging about 2km per hour, so we needed to be sure to be back before nightfall.

After a long day walking we watched the sun go down on the beach - look out for the pretty sunset pictures to follow.

Although we didn't actually see any turtles, we did see the tracks on the sand, from where they had come ashore to lay their eggs.
By day the beaches are teaming with life. Down towards the shore there are literally hundreds of hermit crabs, big and small, all making their way down the sand to the sea, scurrying in and out of a network of tunnels dug on the beach. The entire surface of the beach is covered with tiny balls of sand from where the crabs have dug out their underground homes.

We spent two nights at Similajau and then headed four hours up the coast to Miri, a base for our next trip: Niah Caves National Park.

Miri, like Bintulu before it, doesn't have a great deal to offer, but we found a nice little hostel in the centre of town and a cluster of excellent seafood restaurants which serve fish, fresh from the tank, cooked to your preference - and all for about a fiver per person. The last couple of nights we've treated ourselves to red snapper, sea bass and bream - lovely!

Niah Caves National Park comprises three main caves: The Great Cave, Mooncave and The Painted Cave.
First up was The Great Cave, with its huge chambers, lit by shafts of sunlight and swarming with clicking and twittering bats and swiftlets. The boardwalks, handrails and floor of the cave are completely covered in droppings and guano, making for a stinky and very slippery excursion.
Next was Moon Cave, a pitch black passageway which makes you wonder what might happen if your torch suddenly died!
Lastly we visited the Painted Cave, once an ancient burial ground with cave paintings dating back 40,000 years. To the side of the (now very faded) paintings on the wall are a series of 'death ships' - coffins (empty, thankfully) excavated from Neolithic times.
A collapsed boardwalk meant getting to the Painted Cave was a bit of a clamber so we were the only ones there - and it was certainly spooky and atmospheric, given it's history.

Our return to the park HQ was a 4km walk back through the caves and along a wooden boardwalk through the jungle. As we exited the cave thunder rumbled noisily overhead until it culminated in torrential monsoon rain, from which we had no shelter. We stopped at one point to pour the water out of our shoes but it was a futile gesture as within seconds we were squelching along again!

So it's back to Miri for one night then off to the famous 'Gunung Mulu National Park', home to the limestone 'Pinnacles' and the enormous bat caves.

I'll blog again once back in civilisation.

Sarah & Kev xx

Friday, 1 October 2010

Kuching & Bako National Park (Malaysia)

After a smooth flight into Kuala Lumpur we had a couple of nights to relax and sort out our bags before our journey to the island of Borneo.
We took a stroll around the Central Market, where we stopped for some lovely (but very spicy) Malay food for lunch and then up through the market on Petaling Street to peruse the cheap, fake designer goods. Kev had a successful shopping trip, picking up some cool sunglasses but which he managed to leave on the bus the following day on the way to the airport.

It's nice to be back in a country where we can at least phonetically read the language (unlike Thailand and Cambodia!) even if we don't know any words yet. Though that said, everyone speaks excellent English here. There are in fact some similarities in the language to English - here are some of my favourites:

Kek - cake
Teksi - taxi
Poskod - postcode
Televisyen - television

Malaysia is our first time in a Muslim country so attitudes towards dress and what is respectible has changed somewhat. Being Western will attract a few stares anyway but unless I want to look like I'm wearing 'the emperor's new clothes' down the street, covering the knees and shoulders is essential. Unfortunately for me the day I arrived in Borneo was 'laundry day' so I had no choice but to wear my short shorts! Still, I survived - and promptly changed into my long trousers as soon as the clean washing arrived back in our room.

Our first experience of Borneo was landing in capital city Kuching, a small riverside town in western Sarawak. Compared to hectic Kuala Lumpur, Kuching is pretty much the opposite, which would make for a halfway point, perhaps, for the wilderness we were to experience in Borneo over the next month.

Kuching is the Malay word for 'cat' and as a result the city is kind of dedicated to them. There are statues of cats, a cat museum, lots of cats on the streets - and funnily enough I didn't see one dog!

A lot of the cats I've seen have lopped tails, which I thought at first was an interesting observation - until visiting a craft shop that sold cat tail keyrings! It's basically a small model of a cat with an entire cat tail attached to a keyring - and they are sold everywhere. Needless to say I won't be bringing any back as souvenirs!

Having taken in the city's main sights we decided to do a trip to the nearby Damai Peninsula, maybe stay a couple of nights, but it turned out to be one of those days where everything went wrong...

The night before departure we discovered bedbugs in our hostel beds during the night, so no sleep for us. Deciding instead on an early start we braved the monsoon rain to catch the bus to Damai. Except the bus was a bit of a scam - simply dropping passengers to an area containing only 5 star resorts with private beaches. Now this may not sound so bad, but as without checking into said 5 star resort were had no access to the beach or restaurants and consequently nothing to do.

Consulting the guide book and giving our doomed trip to Damai one last shot, we saw there was what looked like a nice little guesthouse just a couple of kilometres away with affordable rooms - and one which the shuttle bus was prepared to drop us at. However, on arrival we were met by two young girls who didn't speak a word of English and two small dogs who were intent on eating Kev's rain poncho. When in transpired that the room rates were double what was quoted on the website we decided to make a speedy exit - a strategy shared by the dogs who ran off into the distance the minute we opened the gate, leaving the poor girl to desperately run after them in the pouring rain. We don't know if she ever did catch them!

Cutting our losses we boarded the first bus back to Kuching and decided to put the whole experience behind us.

The following morning we awoke bright and early to glorious sunshine and jumped on the bus that would take us to the boat jetty for Bako National Park, about an hour outside Kuching and our first experience of the Borneo jungle.

Arriving at the park by boat we were met by high cliffs densely covered with foliage, wooden boardwalks marking the trails through the park and screeching cicadas sounding from the trees. Before we even reached the park reception we had walked past a wild boar, snuffling through the undergrowth, and could hear the proboscis monkeys in the canopy overhead, whilst shrieks could be heard from the open air cafeteria as naughty macaques stole food from unsuspecting diners.

We checked into our very basic hostel room (which incidentally smelled like monkeys had been using it as toilet), put up our mosquito nets and headed out for our first jungle trek - a short 800m walk to a nearby beach That said, the 800 metres was mostly steep cliff paths and was quite a scramble, and with the 35 plus degree heat and humidity it took us much longer than expected to reach the beach.

After a spot of lunch we headed out for our second walk of the day to another beach, 2.2 km away, but with slightly easier terrain than in the morning. Arriving at the desserted beach very hot and sweaty it was a welcome relief to swim in the sea before making our way back to base before nightfall.

You can imagine my delight at seeing so many monkeys around the park. The proboscis monkeys were especially fascinating to see up close as they crash around in the tree tops. I only wish I had a better zoom on my camera to capture them!
The macaques however are an absolute menace - at first I just thought them mischievous and cute as they crept up on the cafe tables to swipe food from peoples' plates but then they did it to me, spilling my coffee over me in the process and it certainly was not funny then!

Scarier still, on day two we decided to do another walk down to the first beach for a swim but on the way we encountered a group of four monkeys blocking our way. At first we just though by making a lot of noise, clapping and shouting, the monkeys would step aside and let us pass - but quite the opposite: they hissed and exposed their teeth, and then one charged at me to really see us off! We ran screaming, a good distance back up the path until we were sure we had not been followed.

We would later learn that the best precaution is to carry a stick (or in our case, an umbrella) - it must be what the park guides use as the monkeys do respond to a stick being waved menacingly in their direction. It goes without saying that I'm quite terrified of them now and if I never saw another macaque it would be too soon!

Monkeys aside, we didn't suffer too badly at the hands of the insects, though even with insect repellent, long sleeves and trousers, and mosquito nets it's impossible to avoid getting bitten. Getting into the shower in the morning the mosquitos swarm around. I must have killed about fifteen during my first shower.

The moths haven't been too bad either - no major scares for Kev yet, though it is a relief to have the protection of the mosquito net to sleep under and know that nothing can get in!

Last night we travelled overnight up to Bintulu, the departure point for our next national park: Similajau, which is predominantly beach at 30km long and just 1.5km wide. We'll spend a couple of nights there before moving on to Miri and the famous Mulu National Park in a few days.

I'll blog again soon when we're back in civilisation.

Sarah & Kev xx

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Hoi An & Halong Bay (Vietnam)

After another gruelling overnight bus trip, we arrived bright and early in Hoi An, a charming little town on the coast in central Vietnam where the streets of the old town are lined with tailors' shops who do 'made to measure' clothes in 24 hours, for bargain prices. All the shops are identical in design with dark wooden shop fronts and signs with their names in gold writing.

After checking into a hotel we went to get measured up and to pick out our fabrics. Two fittings and less than a day later our new clothes were ready, packaged up and in the post back to the UK. Now let's just hope they arrive safely!

The bars and restaurants on the riverfront and nearby main streets are lined with colourful Chinese silk lanterns. Classical music is piped through the old town and after dark lanterns were floated down the river. We were lucky enough to be in Hoi An during their full moon celebrations, where the local children parade and dance through the streets in Chinese dragon costumes to the sound of taiko drums.

The bars all serve 'fresh beer' for around the equivalent of 10 pence a glass (as cheap as drinking bottled water!) and restaurants are all small, family-run affairs. If you go to the toilet in a restaurant you can expect to see the family's toothbrushes and toiletries lined up in the bathroom.
Great pride is taken in preparing the food and we've had some fantastic meals, with little worry of getting ill, especially the local specialities. I'll certainly miss the cuisine here when we move on to our next country.

The beach in Hoi An is the best beach we've been to yet. 30km of golden sands stretch between Hoi An and Danang and standing on the shore, the beach is all you can see in either direction. The sea was like bath water, but still offered relief from the sweltering temperatures in the sun. So scorching was the sun that Kev even managed to burn whilst sitting in the shade!

From Hoi An we took the overnight train from nearby Danang to capital city, Hanoi. We spent 16 hours on a hard bed, but it felt much more civilised and comfortable than taking the sleeper bus again - and also made for a good opportunity to meet the locals. I awoke in the morning to find two Vietnamese people sat on the end of my bed, chatting.

Like the vehicles on the road, the train also drives with the 'hand on horn' approach so we were glad not to be sitting too close to the driver's cab. It's not uncommon to see people walking along the train tracks, where they run parallel to the side of the road as it's safer than walking along the roadside, so I guess that makes sense to sound the horn.

Breakfast on the train consisted of steamed rice, chicken, cucumber and a portion of watery soup with green leaves and herbs. A bit of an alternative to our usual fare but enjoyable nevertheless. Coffee in Vietnam is served strong and sweet with a dollop of condensed milk in the bottom of the glass - quite an acquired taste when I'm so used to my cup of tea in the morning, but the strong coffee certainly does the trick!

By the time we arrived in Hanoi our time in Vietnam was really beginning to run low so we jumped straight on a tour to Halong Bay, foregoing any major sight-seeing in Hanoi itself.

Halong Bay was every bit as stunning as we had hoped for. We boarded a traditional Chinese junk boat in the morning and checked into our cabin and had lunch on deck. Being low season, there were only six of us on the tour, so we had time to fit in more to our itinerary and a had nice laid-back group.

Highlights were visiting Ti Top Island and climbing the 424 steps to the summit, affording us some stunning views out across the bay. We also had an opportunity to kayak to the 'Hidden Lagoon', whose entrance was through a low cave. Once inside we could see the limestone formations and dense jungle up close. You can imagine my delight when we saw a group of 8 or 9 monkeys - including some tiny babies - frolicking on the cliffs and swinging from the trees by the water's edge. I think this was a personal favourite moment of the trip so far!

We spent a night on the boat and were awoken at 1am by a spectacular thunder and lightening storm. The lightening was like nothing I have seen before, flickering incessantly like a broken strip light, lighting up the bay as the seas stirred up and the boat twirled around it's anchor. The thunderstorm continued on through the early hours of the morning and we all took to watching it - far more exciting than trying to sleep.

We spent a final night in Ha Noi where we sampled some of the street food and a couple of local beers before getting up early for our flight to Malaysia.

The taxi we got to the airport was terrifying! Not only was the fuel gauge flashing on empty for the entire 30km journey but the driver kept falling asleep at the wheel. His response to this was to pull into the slow lane with his indicator on. Unfortunately he spoke no English so didn't understand when we tried to tell him to pull over for a bit. We basically had to watch his eyes and shout at him if he looked like he was drifting off. It was such a relief when we finally arrived safely at the airport!

So our next stop is Kuala Lumpur for two nights then it's off to Borneo.

Speak to you again soon.

Sarah & Kev xx

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Ho Chi Minh City & Nha Trang (Vietnam)

We arrived in Vietnam the day before my birthday on another bumpy coach journey, though the roads were nowhere near as bad as the guide books would have us believe. Plunged into hectic Ho Chi Minh City in the evening rush hour, we were relieved to find our hostel just across the road from where the bus dropped us - and right in the heart of the backpacker district, chock full of bars and restaurants.

We spent day one wandering around the city, sampling some delicious pho (noodle soup) and spring rolls, and trying out one or two of the many local beers. In the afternoon we took a stroll through the market and on to the War Remnants Museum, which housed a fascinating gallery of photographs in addition to the gory facts.

On day two Kev treated me to a nice hotel with a pool on the roof for my birthday plus a trip to the nearby Dan Sen Water Park where we tried out some quite terrifying water slides (I think I'm turning into a bit of a scardy-cat in my old age, I never used to get frightened by water slides no matter how fast they go!)

The hotel served up an interesting breakfast of rice and noodles with a choice of chicken curry and beef in red wine sauce, as well as the more breakfast-like breads, jams and eggs. Needless to say we tried a bit of everything, even the chilli sauce on the side!

After just a short stay in Ho Chi Minh City we jumped on a sleeper coach to Nha Trang. The ten-hour journey was relatively comfortable owing to the fact that we had seats that reclined right back to horizontal, though space was in short supply on the full bus. The bumpy roads meant we didn't get a massive amount of sleep but it certainly beats trying to sleep sitting up.

We found a lovely little place to stay in Nha Trang called the Happy House Hotel, a stone's throw away from the beach and just minutes from the bars and restaurants. Perfect.

Apparently Nha Trang Municipal Beach is rated as one of the top beaches in the world, and with six kilometers of golden sands, warm seas and beautiful weather it's not hard to see why. It was sad to see so much litter in the sea when the tide came in though (and a relief that it was a plastic bag and not in fact a jellyfish as I previously feared!)

The following day we went on a 'booze-cruise' thinly disguised as a boat trip, to visit four of the off-islands. Whilst it wouldn't normally be our cup of tea we had a real giggle and it was great fun to socialise with other travellers, as up until now it's just been the two of us. Highlights included doing backward somersaults off the roof of the boat (me, not Kev!) and a floating bar set up by the boat company, which was dishing out free cocktails. I was less keen on being forced into doing karaoke - which the Vietnamese seem to love - but after a couple of beers it didn't seem so bad!

I was excited to find out my friend Jojo, who I did my massage training with, and who has been travelling around Asia since March was in town so we went out for dinner in the evening to catch up. Small world!

On our final morning in Nha Trang we decided to have a go at scuba diving - something Kev has been very keen to do, but which terrified me. Still, after a few tears (of fear) before I could bring myself to jump into the water, I decided I actually quite liked it and even braved a second dive (with an instructor holding my hand all the way!)

Visibility wasn't great (probably about 5 metres) but we did see some brightly coloured coral and lots of fish, including a jelly fish, which I didn't want to get too close too, even if it wasn't a dangerous one!

So the next destination on our itinerary is Hoi An - home to hundreds of tailors who will tailor you a suit - or any other item of clothing, for that matter - in 24 hours. We'll try not to go too shopping-crazy!

Speak to you soon,

Love, Sarah & Kev x

Phnom Penh & Sihanoukville (Cambodia)

Phnom Penh is a bustling city set on the banks of the Sap river. There is a vibrant night market and a busy stretch of riverside bars and restaurants, but just another city to us, really.
Our hotel was just a short walk from town, however there didn't seem to be any pedestrian crossings so crossing the road was a bit of a daunting experience - simply relying on the goodwill of drivers to stop for us! (I have heard that Vietnam is even more crazy in this department so we'll look upon this as 'training').

In all the major cities across Cambodia there is an massage school called 'Seeing Hands', which employs only blind people. Kev and I had a treatment here and enjoyed the fact that the therapist was really feeling his/her way - as opposed to the routine so often offered by 'seeing' therapists. Unfortunately for Kev though, his therapist spoke no English so he couldn't tell (or show!) him his badly sunburned arms. Being blind was a bit of a hindrance on this occasion and it made for a bit of a painful treatment for poor Kev!

After a night in Phnom Penh we got a bus to Sihanoukville on the south coast of Cambodia, home to glorious golden sandy beaches (though not a patch on Cornwall's, of course) and beautiful warm, turquoise waters (fortunately much warmer than the Atlantic I've grown up swimming in).

The bus ride from Phnom Penh was quite an experience - and I think the same applies across the whole of Cambodia. You can expect crazy overtaking on single carriageways, preceded by a hand on the horn, which basically means, "get out of my way, I'm coming through!" Smaller or slower vehicles are expected to pull off the road on to the dusty roadside to allow the larger vehicle to pass. This basically meant the horn beeping constantly for the entire four hour journey and frequently looking up to see us overtaking someone - and consequently being on the wrong side of the road with another large vehicle coming straight for us!

There are no advertised speed limits so drivers tend to go as fast as they can. Maybe the suspension on the (old) 'luxury' coach wasn't up to much either, so it certainly made for a bumpy journey!

We stayed just off Serendipity Beach in a little hotel with a nice pool, which would become a great relief from the hassle we were to receive on the beach everyday from people trying to sell to us.

Serendipity Beach is long and thin and lined with bars & restaurants it's entire length - a lovely place to stop for some fresh barbecued seafood and a beer or a cocktail after a busy day's swimming and sunbathing. That is until you sit down and then you get approached time after time by kids selling bracelets and fresh fruit, ladies selling massage, pedicures and threading, people begging... It just does not end. If you say you do not want to buy you have to go into full reasons why you don't want to buy - and repeat for everyone which comes by. It is utterly exhausting, to the point where we chose to spend a day by the pool to avoid having to bat anyone away.

Among the many tactics these kids use to engage you, they often ask where you're from and on replying, "England", they all come back with, "lovely jubbly!" Ok, so it's fairly safe to say Delboy & Co are popular on these shores. However what I found really strange was the large number of children who respond to me saying I'm from England by saying, "I'm from Scotland" (in a Scottish accent). I have no idea where they have got this from but found it very amusing. Answers on a postcard if you know what this is all about!

We arrived in Sihanoukville on a Sunday to find mostly Cambodians on the beach - who all seemed to find it quite a novel experience to see a white girl in a bikini. Though having read the guide book before arrival I was sure I didn't read anything about not wearing a bikini on the beach... Some Cambodian lads found it hilarious and bounded over to sit next to me whilst their mate took a picture on his camera phone! Then I noticed even the Cambodian girls were swimming in all their clothes. Fortunately, when I arrived on the following morning there were lots more Western girls there in their bikinis and I fortunately didn't have any more problems.

On another interesting beach related note, we noticed how they don't build sandcastles here, but sand temples shaped like Angkor!

After a few days rest and relaxation we took the bus back up to Phnom Penh for an evening before heading across the border to Vietnam. We fitted in a quick visit to the 'Killing Fields' - another gruesome reminder of the recent war in Cambodia - before our bus departed to Ho Chi Minh City.

So next up is Vietnam. I can't believe we're moving on to our third country already. Time is certainly flying!

(Photo albums from Thailand and Cambodia to be posted online shortly - watch this space for the links)

Monday, 6 September 2010

Angkor Wat & Siem Reap

Angkor Wat & Siem Reap

Hello from Cambodia! We've had another few busy days. Following on from our 12 hour journey from Thailand we (madly) agreed on a 4:30am start the next day to see the sunrise over Angkor Wat. One of the drawbacks of visiting in the wet season (as we are) however was that it was too cloudy to see a beautiful sunrise. It was very cool arriving in the dark though and watching the temples emerge from the blackness.
What we weren't then prepared for were the hoards of sales prople trying to sell us coffee, cold water, guide books and silk scarves! "You want coffee, lady?" became a bit of a catchphrase we would hear many, many times.
Outside the temples we were also met by lots of Cambodian children selling postcards and bracelets. I was amazed not only by their standard of English but also their ability to reason with you and try and persuade you to buy! Some of the kids approaching us can't have been more than seven or eight years old and on telling them I don't want to buy a guide book because I can't carry anymore stuff in my rucksack, they will look at Kev and say, "but he can carry it for you!"
It's quite exhausting constantly batting people away telling them you don't want to buy anything but in a poor country like Cambodia we are perceived as the rich westerners and everyone wants "just one dollar" from us.

So, on to the temples. We hired a tuktuk and driver for two mornings to take us round the temples and show us the sights, then on day three we hired bikes from the hostel and cycled round some of the temples nearest to our accommodation.
First up was the Angkor Wat (the famous one):

Then it was on to Bayon, which was my personal favourite:

Ta Prohm (otherwise known as 'Tomb Raider Temple'

Those of you familiar with the Tomb Raider computer game might appreciate the following, though I must admit it's lost on me!

I was taken aback by how many young amputees there are in Cambodia, all as the result of the massive landmine problem here. During the war millions of mines were laid but without being counted, or any maps of their location being created. Mines remain active for up to 150 years and are littered all over Cambodia.
We visited the Cambodian Landmine Museum to find out about founder Aki Ra, who single-handedly goes out everyday to find and disarm landmines. He has also set up an orphanage and school for child victims of landmines, which are still a massive problem for Cambodian people who rely on going into the forest to search for food.
We thought this was a great idea: - charity soap in the shape of a landmine; as it gets smaller so does the number of mines in the world.

Siem Reap is a busy and friendly tourist town and where all the visitors to Angkor stay. We were amused to find the main strip of restaurants and bars on a road called 'Pub Street', for obvious reasons, really! There is a great selection of good value Khymer and Western food and bar promotions though Cambodia is not as cheap as we expected since the tourists are charged a separate rate in dollars. Still, you can get a good meal for $3 or $4 and plenty of places offer draft beer for 50 cents, so we're not exactly getting ripped off!

Next it's off to Phnom Penh and then on to the beaches of Sihanoukville.

Will blog again in a few days.
Love Sarah & Kev xx

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Postcards from Thailand

Well what a busy few days we've had! Bangkok was crazy, non-stop and very, very hot. As we stepped off the plane we were hit by a wall of heat and humidity, a lot like going into into a steam room. We were relieved to have booked into a lovely hostel with a pool and very stylish outdoor bar area where we discovered the delights of Chang beer (and the corresponding hangover after finding out it's 6.5% proof!)

Not to be defeated by the jet lag we headed straight out to soak up as much culture as possible. First up was the city temples and the Grand Palace, outside which you have to leave your shoes before you can enter. In the surrounding streets I was amused to see rows of market stalls selling worn shoes, which I can only assume have been pinched from outside the temples!

Next up was the Khao San Road to try our hands at bartering and to stop for a couple of Thai beers, but it's literally impossible to sit still for two minutes without being hassled to buy some piece of tat (I'm good for wooden croaking frogs, beaded bracelets and croched hats, thanks.) The offer of 'fish massage' was intriguing but I'm a little bit too squeamish, I think!

The jet lag did eventually catch up with us the following day, when we couldn't sleep all night but then didn't wake up until 1pm. So we took a stroll around the weekend market at Chatuchuk, eyeing up the bewildering array of street food (only for the brave or initiated, I think!) and then resting our weary bodies with an hour's foot and shoulder massage, all for the princely sum of about four quid.

On our final day in Thailand we left the city behind to do a day trip to Ayuthaya, the old Siamese capital to take in the old temple ruins. I was fascinated to see baby elephants being used to give tourists tours of the area. We even had our photo taken sitting on a baby elephant's knee! It was scary and thrilling being so close to a huge wild animal, but in hindsight, so sad to see the elephants being made to do tricks, getting into poses for the tourists' delight - not wild at all really and probably drugged to avoid risk of the animals hurting anyone...

The train to the Cambodian border was an interesting experience: six hours trundling through rural Thailand and some lovely snapshots of local culture from the windows. We seemed to be the only Westerners on board, so we had no idea what was going on when the train apparently hit something on the track and we stopped in the middle of nowhere in the blistering heat. No one appeared to speak any English either, so we were relieved when the train shuddered back into motion within an hour or so. The border crossing itself was suprisingly quick and easy, and the journey to Siem Reap was altogether pleasant, albeit a sweaty one on a coach sans air conditioning.

My next post to you will be from Angkor Wat - a sight we've been really looking forward to seeing.

Sarah & Kev xx

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Our Itinerary

Hello and welcome to the blog!

Well it's just over a month until we're off on our travels and we're busy putting the final preparations in place. All visas have been successfully applied for and granted, the flat is slowly but surely being packed into boxes, our travel kit and supplies have been sourced and I'm counting down the final days until I finish work (7 to go!)

The glorious London sunshine and temperatures are giving us a hint of what's to come as we frantically scribble down last-minute tips and recommendations from our friends: what to see, what to avoid and so on.

So what better opportunity to publish our itinerary so you can help us count down to our departure and then follow our progress once we're on our way.

Don't forget to check back here soon to see what we've been up to!

Sarah & Kev x

26th August: Leave London for Bangkok.

31st August: Cross the border from Thailand into Cambodia.Spend a few days taking in Angkor Wat, the beaches of Sihanoukville and bustling Phnom Penh.

10th September: Taking a boat down the Mekong Delta from Phnom Penh and crossing the border into Vietnam. We'll be in Ho Chi Minh City in time for my birthday, then it's up the coast to Hanoi visiting Na Trang and Halong Bay amongst other places along the way.

23rd September: Leave Vietnam for Malaysia. Two nights in cosmopolitan Kuala Lumpur.

25th September: It's off to Borneo, where we plan to trek through the jungle, climb a mountain and see the orangutans!

23rd October: Fly over to Singapore for one night's stopover and a Singapore sling.

24th October: Over to Indonesia to take in Bali, Lombok & the Gilli Islands.

7th November: Our Australian adventure begins! One week in tropical Darwin, followed by a drive from Cairns to Sydney in a camper van. Christmas week in Sydney.

27th December: Off to New Zealand. New year in Auckland followed by a grand tour of both Islands in a camper van.

19th February: We venture out to the middle of the South Pacific to spend a week on the Cook Islands in search of desert island paradise.

26th February: Back to Auckland for a couple of nights in preparation for the long journey home.

1st March: It's back to London via Los Angeles. Two flights of approximately 12 hours. We land in London on the morning of 2nd March.