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!