Farewell Brazil …

Saying goodbye to Brazil was going to take a little time. Choosing an island paradise as our final destination in South America really was a no-brainer, but getting from Barreirinhas in the Amazon to the remote, beautiful island of Fernando de Noronha required careful planning and complex transport arrangements. Sometimes the journey and the destination seem to merge. It certainly felt like that for part of our final three weeks in Brazil.

São Loís

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A taxi, a five hour bus ride and another taxi took us to the old quarter of São Loís, 250km in the opposite direction to where we were heading; travelling northern Brazil is like that. With a journey of well over 2,000km to go we intended to stop off, explore and rest up along the way.

We’d booked two nights in São Louís, staying in Casa Frankie where a Danish guy Frank had spent time and care restoring the colonial Portuguese house that had once been a brothel.

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Although São Louís is (another) big Brazilian city, the old quarter of hilly cobbled streets is relatively compact.

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Many of the World Heritage listed buildings show signs of their former regal splendour. In the early nineteenth century, due to slavery and sugar plantations São Louís was one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil, but the majority of these charming structures are now crumbling slowly beneath the weight of neglect and tropical decay.

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We were reminded of how Galle in Sri Lanka (see our blog from January 2017) used to look before it’s its restoration and tourist development.

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Our visit to São Louís coincided with Brazil’s Independence Day (7th September) so many places were closed. We did get to visit the Centro de Cultura Popular Domingos Vieira Filho  and see the fascinating masks costumes and drums that reflect the Afro-Brazilian and indigenous culture of the region.

Exploring São Louís further was curtailed when Anne was struck down with food poisoning. She had barely recovered (a grim 36 hours) before the next stage of our journey – a flight to Fortaleza and a two hour cab ride to Canoa Quebrada.

Canoa Quebrada

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We’d chosen a good spot for some much needed rest and relaxation. Canoa Quebrada is a seaside town, popular with locals and has a relaxed feel with a central pedestrianised street complete with small bars restaurants and shops. We’d also picked a great Pousada with a comfortable spacious room overlooking the sea, a pool and fantastic breakfasts. The owner of Pousada California comes from Liverpool and was super helpful and friendly. Time on the beach, reading in hammocks and by the pool, it was just what we needed. Plus we got to go on a beach buggy trip across the sands.

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Collecting seaweed with a horse and cart
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Water sleeps through the crumbling sand cliffs

I also had a go at paragliding, while Anne watched from solid ground. I ended up doing three trips as the winds kept varying, it was a sublime experience.

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Hold tight
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My hairy knee and Anne below

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Shadows

Feeling relaxed and revitalised we headed back to the airport at Fontaleza for a flight to Recife and from there to our final destination, the island of Fernando de Noronho.

Fernando de Noronho

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Set around 500km off the Northeastern coast of mainland Brazil, Fernando de Noronho holds an almost mythical spot in the minds of many Brazilians. It is a tropical island paradise where pristine beaches meet crystal clear waters, where the natural environment is unspoilt and cooling breezes create a year round summer climate.

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It really is this beautiful …

For a country so famous for its idyllic beaches, three of the top ten are on this tiny island. The water is warm and visibility is 30m plus. A large part of the island and it’s surrounds has been a national and marine park since the 1980s (astonishingly it was once a penal colony and a military base) and rules regulate and restrict development.

But paradise in Fernando de Noronho has a cost, and the majority of Brazilians will never be able to afford to visit. Flights, accommodation, food and drink are at least double that found anywhere else in Brazil and there is an environmental tax when you enter and a park fee to pay (around £240 for us, but cheaper for locals). For those lucky enough to get to Fernando de Noronho, it really is nourishment for the soul.

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View of the harbour from the old fort – we wandered around the local town, trails and beach on our first day

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We booked some diving on the second day, but found the process a bit disappointing. The dive outfits are efficient and well organised, with good equipment but it tends to be a ‘one size fits all’ operation. A group of twenty people with varying levels of experience on a dive that lasts for forty minutes just didn’t seem worth the cost. Instead we went snorkeling and over the week saw stingrays, turtles, sharks, in fact more marine life than we’d found on our dives.

We booked a boat trip and an island tour during our week on the island and these really gave us a chance to explore the place.

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The boat trip started on an overcast morning

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But the clouds lifted and we were visited by a large pod of spinner dolphins

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Nurse sharks gather in shallow bays. The wildlife seem largely unconcerned by the presence of humans

And then there are the views, and the beaches

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snorkelling in paradise

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And so our big adventure is coming to an end. After nearly two years on the road, by the beginning of November we will be back in our home in London town. Right now our minds are racing, excited at the prospect of seeing our wonderful daughter, family and friends. Now does not seem the time to reflect on all we have explored and enjoyed together. Nor does it seem the moment to consider what next.

One thing does remain as true now as when we started.

Rust never sleeps.

Fiji

It would be hard for a traveller to not enjoy Fiji. Over 300 islands, clear tropical water bursting with life, remote palm fringed beaches, and a vibrant culture that is positive, friendly and welcoming. This belies it’s previous decades long history of ethnic conflict, military coups and expulsion from international bodies. Indeed, now, according to some international surveys Fiji is rated as the country where its population is happiest.

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Beach Rugby

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We landed in Nadi, on the main Island of Viti Levu and took a two hour bus ride to accommodation we had booked in Pacific Harbour, arriving at night. In Fiji we found that backpacker dorms tend to be located within holiday resorts, meaning private rooms proved relatively expensive, especially as we had arrived in the Australia/New Zealand school holidays.

With blue skies the next morning we explored our surrounds and spent quality time in hammocks, planning our journey in Fiji.

Locally, we booked some diving with Aqua-Trek Beqa Dive Centre (old, badly maintained gear), and on my birthday had two dives with beautiful soft coral and clear water teeming with life. We came across around a dozen tawny nurse sharks asleep on the sand, reef sharks and a big bull shark, moving fast, clearly on the hunt.

The area is renowned for shark feeding displays, and even though we had avoided this, it was clear that the practice impacted on how sharks and other underwater life behaved. A remora (a fish that hangs around sharks hoping to grab some food) took a painful bite out of Anne’s little finger, something we have never encountered before.

Heading back to Nadi, we checked in to Bamboo Travellers on Wailoaloa Beach, an old-school backpacking haunt, where you can relax in the bar on the beach, swim, eat good food, drink cold beer, watch sunsets and talk into the night with fellow travellers. My kind of place.

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Bamboo Travellers also had an efficient travel desk that meant we were able to sort out all our Fijian travel and accommodation arrangements with minimum fuss, something that we had found near impossible till then. Our next stop was the southern Island of Kadavu.

Kadavu

Our fifty minute flight south to Kadavu was on an eighteen seater De Havilland Twin Otter, with passengers distributed according to their weight.

 

 

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The Great Astrolobe Reef Kadavu.
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With only one landing per day (weather depending) it’s not the busiest airport.

We were met at the airfield and taken through Vunisea, with its government buildings, post office and local school.

 

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Most students stay at the school during the week. With no roads and a population of under 10,000 a daily journey is impossible
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There is still evidence of the damage caused by Cyclone Keni in April this year

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The boat trip to Matava resort took around ninety minutes in some heavy swell (despite the protection of the Astrolobe Reef), and poor weather characterised our time in Kadavu. Strong Trade Winds from the south-east can develop at any time between May and October in Fiji, and this clearly affected activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. We were able to enjoy some good diving on the reef however, with colourful soft coral, unique macro life and massive cabbage and brain coral sitting on brilliant white sand. On our first dive Anne spotted a leopard shark asleep on the sand, who then woke and circled us a few times.

The company of other guests was enjoyable, the staff lovely and the view from our bure was transformed by different light on the bay. But those trade winds kept on blowing.

 

 

Among the staff at Matava were two O’Connors … very distant relatives

The Yasawas

On the day before our departure from Kadavu the plane tried to land twice, but the strong winds meant it had to return to Nadi, so we were unsure whether we would be able to leave the island. All turned out well on the day however and we were soon back in Nadi, rushing around withdrawing cash from ATMs before our trip north to the Yasawas.

The Yasawas are an archipelago of around twenty volcanic islands, scattered along the north east of Fiji. At one time they were remote and visited by only the most determined backpackers but these days island hopping is popular with travellers, budget-backpackers and those seeking luxury resorts.

We’d selected two islands and travelled first up to one of the northernmost islands, Nacula, aboard the Tavewa Seabus.

One feature of touring the Yasawas is that you frequently bump in to people you’ve met on the boats on other islands and because you share meals, activities and travelling tales, a shifting community soon develops. Add to this the friendly and enthusiastic engagement of local Fijians and you get a relaxed and entertaining journey. While we enjoyed snorkelling, visiting caves and chilling in hammocks, for me the best part of our time in Nabua Lodge was the visit to a local village where we got a real sense of how the community live, work and play in an isolated environment.

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Village life

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Origami continues to make friends

 

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Kava session on Saturday morning following a wedding in the village the previous day

Our second stop in the Yasawas was at Korovou Eco-Tour resort in Naviti. Lovely beaches, blue skies and sunsets – classic Fiji.

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Special mention should go to Abu in Korovou, who involved everyone with demonstrations on coconuts and herbal medicine, quizzes, games, singing and dancing.

 

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Great to see young people taking travelling seriously! This London couple had been on the road for a year and had a real sense of adventure

 

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Back to Nadi on the Yasawa Flyer

It felt appropriate for us to spend our final night in Fiji at the Bamboo Travellers, bumping in to people at the bar who we’d met along the way.

Then, with that abrupt transition that modern travel brings, we’re suddenly back in Auckland, staying once more with good friends who we’d said our ‘final’ goodbyes to last April.

We’ve now made our final plans and booked our flights. We’re off to Argentina on Sunday and then plan to travel overland to Brazil and along the North East Coast. We have a flight booked out of Brazil and will be home in London by the beginning of October. There is still plenty of travelling to do and there are adventures yet to come, but we are slowly heading back. Inevitably, over the next few months I suspect we’ll both be posing the question, ‘What next?’

And finally for this post, a few pictures from Muriwai, just an hour from Auckland. We saw this colony of gannets on a beautiful winters day. They are themselves great travellers, making the 4,000km journey back and forth to Australia.

The Gannets of Muriwai

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With a two metre wingspan they plunge into the sea for fish, hitting speeds of 150 kph

 

 

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Felt like we were intruding a bit here

So, South America on Sunday – we arrive four hours before we leave, thanks to the international date line.

Click ‘follow’ to see how we get on…

 

 

Wild Days In WA

That laconic steering wheel wave, common in country areas throughout the world, acquired greater significance as we travelled the often empty highways of Western Australia. The glinting metallic dot on the horizon, slowly taking shape on the long straight road, a momentary human contact quickly disappearing in the rear view mirror, emphasising the vast open spaces and sparse population in this mostly flat, always intense landscape.

And WA really is big. A third of Australia’s land mass, 980,000 square miles, and if you exclude Perth and it’s surrounds, containing a population significantly smaller than the North London borough we call home; it’s hard for us city folk to comprehend.

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The South

We had said final goodbyes to our Melbourne friends (for this trip anyway) and spent a few weeks relaxing and planning in an Airbnb near the beach between Perth and Fremantle. Freo was laidback, Perth pretty anonymous and Rottnest Island idyllic, but this blog is about the vast beauty of the WA outback, so just a few pictures for now.

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Fremantle, Rottnest and the South have lots to recommend them …. including the unique, and cute, Rottnest Quokka, coastlines and sunsets.

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Up North – Broome

Originally we intended to drive a campervan on a one way rental from Perth up to Broome, but realised we could save $1000 by flying to Broome and driving South – the route less travelled.

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Boab trees in Broome, vacant lots in the middle of town and unexpected street signs

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From our hostel in Broome we made final arrangements for the big road trip and decided to spend a day in a 4WD exploring the Dampier Peninsula. Well north of the Tropic of Capricorn, bitumen quickly turned to hard red dirt and we began to appreciate just how big and empty the place is. And the sheer intensity of colour, red green and blue under a harsh northern sun burnt the landscape into your eyes.

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Termite mounds and as we moved north, red earth the like of which we had never seen

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Perhaps it was overconfidence in a 4WD, and the packed solidity of the dirt roads, but the decision to drive on to the beach at James Price Point, and then on to the white sand, following other tyre tracks, was a big mistake (mine). Soon we were stuck in soft sand. Digging out, lugging rocks into position underneath the wheels and deflating the tyres didn’t work – the car was buried to its axles. Anne noticed a vehicle on the other side of the bay, and I headed over to see if they could help with a tow. The young couple had only stopped briefly for the view and a drink, but they were the only people we were to see all day. Unable to help extract us, they left some water and headed off, promising to ring for help as soon as they got a signal – a good long drive south.

Hours spent in heat and an eerie lonely silence, getting mobbed by flies and contemplating your own stupidity is probably good for the soul, but it certainly made the sight of a tow truck appearing very welcome. The rental people Broome Broome who sent the truck were great and reassured us that had they not got the call (thank you Alanna & Robbie) they would have come looking for us the next day. Now that would have been a long long wait. Lesson learned.

On the Road

The campervan had a few important comforts – toilet, galley with fridge and a BBQ, and at 7m long, there was plenty of space for two. Our roadtrip of 4,500 kilometres began with a ‘short’ 370km drive to 80 mile beach, long enough to get used to handling the vehicle and negotiating the Road Trains, an iconic feature of life out West.

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A misty sunrise at 80 mile beach and the anglers are out with all the kit

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The early bird …  A Rainbow bee eater

Although we had come across Road Trains down South, these were of a different order. Thundering up and down the Great Northern Highway at a steady 100km, carrying all manner of goods. Iron ore, petrol, food, building supplies, houses or massive mine equipment – they sometimes linked up at a railway, or at  a roadhouse siding to swop loads.

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Over 50 metres long (think 11 cars) and sometimes traveling in pairs, you need to see a long way ahead before venturing to overtake.

Driving into Port Headland, we saw glimpses of the economic powerhouse in the region – mining. A 20 minute stop at a railway crossing to wait for an iron ore train stretching as far as the eye could see.

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So much of this activity exists unseen, way off the beaten track. After an overnight stop and a beautiful sunrise in Port Headland, we headed for the national parks.

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Karijini National Park

The campsite in the heart of the national park, with no electricity or running water is accessible by sealed road. It’s tropical, semi-arid climate, mixed with a distinct geology marked it out as a special place in our road trip. The ancient banded iron formations of sedimentary rock, cut open with deep dramatic gorges hiding shady rivers and rockpools are ideal for walking, swimming and scrambling over. And at night the sky is alive with stars.

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The rocks at our feet, the color of rusty iron and cold to the touch
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Just spectacular

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Anne, peering in to the depths, and swimming in the pools

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That night, we watched a bright full moon rise and went to bed to the sound of dingoes howling at the moon. This really is the outback.

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After two days we had to head out of Karijini, but stopped off to walk Joffre Gorge.

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The climber at the bottom gives a sense of scale

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We drove on to the town of Tom Price, to replenish our water and power, and here we saw some gallahs belie their reputation for foolishness by turning on a camp tap to gain access to water.

Coral Bay

It was over 600 km to Coral Bay, still just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, and we headed there for some diving on Ningaloo Reef and snorkeling with Manta Rays. In truth the diving was not that great, with surges around a shallow reef, but we saw reef sharks on a cleaning station, a cuttle fish and schools of snapper and trevally. The snorkelling with Mantas in a shallow bay was fantastic though, as these pictures show. Credit to Peter Wandmaker for the underwater shots.

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Exmouth

Exmouth is not a town that recommends itself, flat, spread out, vacant lots, with the odd craft brewery in mitigation. We had booked a campsite in town, but quickly moved out to the Lighthouse, at the tip of the peninsula, and caught up with the intrepid campers, Innis, Nat and Callum, who we had first met in Coral Bay. These were real campers, with tent pegs, ropes, canvas and a trailer. Callum was clearly in charge, issuing instructions, pulling up pegs and having a great time, as only a two year old can.

Whale Sharks are regular visitors to the peninsula between March and August and the chance to see them had been on our list from the start. However a South Westerly was pushing rain up the coast and the winds were too strong to snorkel outside the bay on Ningaloo Reef, so we were landlocked for a few days. No worries though, Cape Range National Park was pretty much on our doorstep.

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Kayakers in the gorge
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Yardi gorge runs down to the sea and Ningaloo reef beyond

The place was bursting with wildlife, and during our walk in Yardi gorge we came across black footed rock wallabies clambering the rocks and feeding on the spinifex.

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Young black footed wallaby in the rocks beneath us

Not to be confused with Roos, Emus and Dingoes ..

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Dingo with a kill, we saw around six of them in Cape Range NP

My enthusiasm to spot indigenous Australian wildlife led me to jump on the brakes when I spotted an Emu while driving the camper van through the Cape Range NP. Unfortunately a slab of beer stored under the bed, came sliding down the van and collided with the fire extinguisher. As a can exploded, spraying beer throughout our ‘home’  I was already out of the van, camera in hand chasing the large, shy elusive bird through the scrub. Whoops.

Our boat trip with Three Islands – snorkeling with Whale Sharks – set out on a cool morning, with grey skies but good visibility under the water. The briefing and organisation was professional and friendly and soon a spotter plane had located an adolescent male whale shark in the bay. We spent the maximum allowed time, one hour, taking it in turns to enter the water and swim alongside the oceans biggest fish. Magical.

And thanks to Dave from Three Islands for the shots.

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We also had the chance to snorkel with other creatures on the reef, including some rays and the local, but weird, black sailfin catfish.

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Yes the sailfin catfish is weird.

After a farewell dinner with Nat, Innis and Callum, we replenished supplies in Exmouth, and headed out of the North West Cape and down to Wooramel, a station just off the coastal highway, where they had stayed on the way North. Great spot.

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It took 3 sets of confusing directions to find the fresh water tap in the centre of Exmouth …
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… no-one mentioned it was next to the giant pink prawn!

At around 1,500 square kilometers, Wooramel Station is not large by Australian standards – the largest is bigger than Wales. It is impressive enough though, with an ‘upside down river’ that only comes to the surface two or three times a year when it rains inland.

It also has hot baths (33°C) from artesian wells where you can sit and admire the Milky Way at night in all its glory. Special.

The next day, on our way down to Kalbarri NP, we took the fascinating detour to Shark Bay and Hamelin Pool to see the Stromatolites – the largest living fossils on Earth. We also stopped over in Monkey Mia – famous for its, now heavily regulated, dolphin feeding event. Much more our style was the sailing boat Shotover that cruised the bay looking for dolphins and dugons – and we saw quite a few as the breeze rippled the sails.

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Bottle nosed dolphins at Monkey Mia
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The Shotover at sunrise

 

Dolphins in the bay were busy mating, with two bulls coraling a female, it seems there is no choice for the female – who may have to abandon her calf if she falls pregnant. Not so cute.

On shore we came across some eccentric looking Pelicans, and a thick-billed grasswren, a rare and endangered species.

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A rare and endangered thick billed grasswren

Kalbarri

And in Kalbarri, we were soon climbing down gorges again – perhaps not as impressive as those up north, but a beautiful National Park, with a spectacular and varied coastline. Still pretty special.

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Mushroom Rock
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Conquering fears
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Nature’s Window

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Perhaps that ‘special moment’ in Kalbarri though was when Anne and I were walking the coastline by Island Rock and a majestic Humpback Whale breached the surface, turned and disappeared into the deep. Wonder full, but alas no photograph!

The Pinnacles

Just over 200km north of Perth, and the final stop on this epic roadtrip, our visit to the Pinnacles was rushed, but also wonderfully timed. Walking the Kalbarri costal cliffs had delayed our departure (but we did see that whale) and with a 250km to drive, we would be lucky to get there before sunset.

As we approached Nambung, the sky turned all manner of colours, the windscreen was smeared with large drops of rain and swarms of insects began to spatter against the glass. It all added to the atmosphere as we arrived at this sand dune desert with striking limestone columns whose origin is unknown.

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And after that, the drive to Perth, the red-eye overnight flight to Sydney, a few goodbyes to dear friends – and some huge memories of an epic roadtrip.

And now we’re in Fiji.

But that’s another story.

West Papuan Paradise

Unsurprisingly, given our plans and dreams in London 2016, it seemed fitting that we would spend the end of 2017 diving what is probably the richest coral reef ecosystem in the world.

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In truth, it was simply good fortune and a last minute cancellation with Papua Explorers, that meant we ended up in the heart of Raja Ampat as 2017 moved in to a new year. It took some substantial reorganisation and planning for us to get to this remote location in West Papua, just after Christmas. But as a consequence of this rethink, we were able to spend a fantastic five weeks in Cambodia a country that had not been in our plans before – that’s the joy of traveling without a fixed agenda.

That change also meant we spent Christmas day in a hotel in Sulawesi that ran out of food, beer and cocktails on the day itself, but such is life on the road – and at least we were able to swim in the pool, relax and talk with family and friends around the world.

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Christmas Day proved to be a struggle in Sulawesi …

Raja Ampat

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The beauty and wonder of this dive destination was well worth the effort of getting there though, and we had some spectacular dives in seas that were bursting with life. Even the journey from Sorong to our destination on the island of Gam, West Papua promised something special – a pod of over a 100 dolphins turned up to play in the speedboat’s wake.

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Can anyone identify these dolphins? Thought they were Spinners, but didn’t see them spinning!

The exceptional diversity of marine life in Raja Ampat is down to both it’s remoteness from large scale human habitation and its position between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, where strong currents ensure coral and fish larvae are shared between the two oceans. Even by the standards of the Coral Triangle, this is an abundant habitat and we saw fish, sharks and coral that we had never encountered before. Wobbegong sharks, Oceanic Mantas (one ‘dive bombed’ me!) and Walking Sharks stand out, but there was life everywhere, alongside the most beautiful coral I have seen.

We also stayed in a truly idyllic environment, with a spacious pondok (cabin) on stilts over the sea, where we fell asleep every night to the sound of schools of fish moving in the shallows below.

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Our Pondok, where we were woken every day with a tropical dawn chorus
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Local carvings were everywhere
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sunrise

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We had peace, calm, beautiful sunrises and sunsets, with exotic birdsong from the jungle behind us. Plus we had some great company from divers who had travelled from around the world to greet 2018 in this special place.

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Diving locally almost every day ensured we could be conservative in managing our surface interval time and avoid any recurrence of Anne’s DCS. And staying in the centre of the marine park meant we were able to observe how the local villagers interact with tourism and benefit directly in preserving this marine eco-system, probably the most important guarantee for its continuing survival.

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Full credit to Papua Explorers for their efforts to educate and learn from the locals as well as explaining to tourists both the complexity and necessity of action to ensure this paradise survives.

And what a paradise…

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An ocean-going yacht on the horizon at sunset

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Farewell to Asia

Leaving West Papua marked a new year and a farewell to South East and East Asia, through which we’ve been travelling for over a year.

We are now in Melbourne Australia, reuniting with friends from what seems a lifetime ago when we were tram drivers here in the

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Waiting for the Cool Change

early 1980s. And of course, summer in Melbourne is currently in a hot spell – lowest temperature last night, 28°C; it’s now a hot 42°C, as I write this.

Like all Melbournians we’re hanging on for the ‘cool change’, that will see a 20° drop in temperature in half an hour – it’s due about 8.00pm tonight.

As with other times in this adventure when we’ve caught up with family and friends, there are likely to be fewer blog updates and photos as we concentrate on friendship and shared moments. We do intend to travel this vast and beautiful country over the next few months though, and will share the wonder as we go.

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Classic early morning, Swanston Street …

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One year on the Road

Just a few pictures from every month over the last year …

Not the ‘best bits’, because all too often there’s not a photo record of them. Just clusters of pictures to give a flavour of our wonderful adventure since leaving London twelve months ago.

We’re hoping the pictures say it all. If you haven’t been following the blog, this should sum it up.

And of course, dear family and friends (the old and the new!), please get in touch with all your news.

We’re having fun but we miss you all.💚

November/December

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December/January

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January/February

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February/March

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March/April

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April/May

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May/June

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June/July

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July/August

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August/September

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October/November

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The last shot was from 6.00 am this morning. The classic Angkor Wat at dawn. More from Cambodia in our next post.

‘Follow’ to keep in touch.

 

More tales from Sulawesi

We flew from north to south for the second part of our journey through Sulawesi – from Manado to Makassar. Travelers had told us that the journey to the Togian Islands in central Sulawesi was easier from the south, and we also wanted to visit the mountainous region of Tana Toraja, with its unique traditional way of life.

Edwin, our guide from Minahasa (see Sulawesi Penjelajahan) recommended a Torajan guide, Gibson, who we met in Rantapau. His local knowledge gave us a fascinating insight into Torajan culture as we spent two days touring the area.

Tana Toraja

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The Toraja inhabit the vast, rugged landscape of the South Sulawesi highlands. Although nominally Christian Protestant (imposed by Dutch colonial rule and evidenced by the numerous churches and cathedrals), the Toraja have an ancient animist faith that continues to determine much of their daily lives. Gibson recalled a local priest explaining to an anthropologist that his congregation were Protestant for one hour every Sunday, but animist for the rest of the week. They have an ancient caste system, centred around the extended family, their traditional home and complex rituals about death.

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A Tongkonan – traditional family house

Although modern Torajans may have left the area and made money, for example in the Indonesian oil and gold mining industries, their position in society is not measured in modern wealth but where their family is in the ancient hierarchy. Torajans (loosely translated as mountain people) believe in a mythical land to the south, to where the dead must travel and much of their elaborate ceremonies centre around this transition.

Family homes, tongkonan, are built collectively in a traditional style, using interlocking, elaborately carved wood, with no nails, always pointing north to south. The roof is made of overlapping bamboo, styled to represent the bow and stern of a boat.

They are built on stilts and have similarly crafted rice stores around them. The rice stores are a sign of wealth and have a raised door and round pillars to keep the rice safe from rodents.

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Rice Store – a bamboo ladder is used for access

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In tropical conditions, the bamboo roofs are soon bursting with life and need to be replaced every six or seven years.

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Internally, the room allocation also represents life’s journey – the young sleep in the northerly-most sections, the elderly nearest to their final destination, in the south.

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Interior with interlocking timber. Below our Torajian guide Gibson.
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Toraja is surrounded by mountains and rice terraces are everywhere

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Death in Toraja

We were introduced to the Toraja view of death with visits to a series of cliff faces and caves where upper-class Toraja dead are entombed. The graves are guarded by tau tau (life-sized wooden effigies) carved in their image. These eerie, striking cliff cemeteries and caves are scattered throughout the region.

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Bodies are put into graves once they have decomposed, meaning many generations will share the same space. The coffins (shaped like a traditional house) are carried to the cliff face or cave, and left to rot. Torajians have been outraged and offended to discover some of the ancient tau tau have been stolen and sold in the international art market.

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Anne and Gibson in one of the cave graves
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Many bodies, once decomposed, share the same coffin. As the wood rots, skeleton parts fall to the ground below

 

Burial tree

The most poignant burial site we visited was a tree where babies were buried. Situated close to a Torajan village, only those children from the village who had died before growing teeth were buried. They had to be buried within an hour of death. They were placed in the tree in the foetal position, and once sealed the parents walked away without looking back. The sap from the tree was believed to nourish the child until it was ready to make the rest of it’s journey. It was a sad and peaceful place in the forest.

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Each patch marks where a baby has been buried to be nurtured for its onward journey

Thankfully most of these graves are decades old and our guide explained that UNICEF now provide a free healthcare programme for new mothers and babies in the region. Infant mortality has dropped accordingly.

Sacred buffalo

One constant factor in our tour through the region was the importance given to buffalos, both as a sacred animal and a signifier of status. We saw them washed and pampered everywhere and found ourselves discussing the key discerning features of the most prized animals.

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The fairest of them all. Blue eyes, pink and black skin, only the wealthiest Torajan can afford this buffalo.

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Unlike elsewhere in Asia, they are not worked; rather they wallow in mud and have their needs catered to daily – until the moment when they are brutally sacrificed, usually in a funeral ceremony.

As shown earlier, houses are decorated with buffalo horns to demonstrate traditional status and wealth. When we visited the market in Rantapau we were told that the most prized animals were sold for up to US$4,000.

Death’s Journey

The importance of death to the Torajan way of life is shown most clearly in extensive funeral celebrations, taking place over days, and normally years after the person has died, with the body remaining in the family home throughout. The funeral itself is a celebration involving hundreds and is more of a going away party than a sad occasion.

When a Torajan dies the deceased is not buried but is embalmed and stored in a traditional house under the same roof with his or her family.  Until the funeral ceremonies are completed (often years later, depending on the family being able to raise the money for this most important celebration), the person is not considered to be truly dead but merely ‘a person who is sick’ or ‘asleep’.  During this time, the deceased family member is symbolically fed, clothed, cared for and taken out, and is still part of the family until arrangements are in place to send her/him on their final journey to the land of souls.

The funeral we attended was particularly lavish and involved two deaths, a man and a woman.

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The eldest daughter of the deceased with his tau tau

Both were of the status to have tau tau, which means over 200 buffalos would be slaughtered on the final day and the meat distributed within the community. Pigs and buffalo are also slaughtered daily, to feed the large numbers attending.

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With our guide we were welcomed to the celebrations
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Traditional dancing and singing

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Temporary accommodation needs to be built to house and feed the visitors, and the family members dress in elaborate traditional costumes.

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Everyone is involved, it demonstrates the importance of family and community to Torajans.

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The funeral procession involves carrying the coffin back and forth, with much laughter and good humor.

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The Togian Islands

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Situated only 40 km from the equator, in the Tomini Gulf, central Sulawesi, the Togian Islands are difficult to reach.

We hired a car for two days to make the journey from Rantepau – Tentena – Ampana (not a cheap option) in order to then catch the speedboat to Wakai. With an overnight stop there, we could catch the public ferry early the next day to the volcanic Pulau Una Una. We had met a couple in our lodging in Rantepau, Willi and Katja, who were heading in a similar direction, but they decided to take the public bus in order to save some money and maybe get to the Togians quicker.

The first leg of our journey, the 300km from Rantepau to Tentena took 11 hours to drive – two mountain ranges and a long section of the highway/roadworks reduced to a sea of mud in a tropical downpour, with a truck stuck at one stage, blocking the road.

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The highway can be slow at times – truck in mud

After a night’s sleep in the Victory Hotel, Tentena, we got up early the next day to find Willi and Katja sitting in the breakfast area – they had just arrived! Their bus had broken down and the journey had lasted 20 hours. They decided to travel the next stage in the car with us and we got on well, sharing information and stories from our collective traveling adventures.

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Public ferry from Wakai to Una Una

So, getting to the Togians is an adventure in itself, but there is a real sense of peace and isolation when you arrive, you really have ‘got away from it all’.

We spent our time in Sanctum Una Una, a dive resort with great diving just a short boat ride away. Our cabin looked out over the tranquil sea and the sounds we heard were rolling surf, the humming of cicadas and the burp of geckos.

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What a place to spend your birthday! Anne, living the dream …
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Driftwood Manta

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With such a wonderful location, the other key ingredient is the people, and they were fabulous. Joni and Indah were so friendly and kind – we won’t forget the birthday cake for Anne, Indah😁 🎂😁. The dive guides, Dorian, Allie and Emiline shared their enthusiasm every day and even though Anne couldn’t dive she saw bump heads, schools of  barracuda, turtles and beautiful coral while snorkeling.

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Not a sunset, moon rise on the equator

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We even met Will and Katja again – this is them surfacing after a dive at the end of our jetty

Happy days!

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Manta Man Dorian – he found a Manta, the first seen in Una Una – on my rest day 😢

Great staff, great guests and great crew. Thanks guys.👍

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Moving on

From the Togians we took a complex route back to Bali and checked in to our regular Denpasar lodging -for the fifth time this year I think! 20171117_064157_crop_748x489We’ve stored our dive gear with Made and Widuri in Jepun Segara and are touring Cambodia for a month or so. In reality we don’t intend to rush around too much, so it may be a country we will have to return to.

Follow the blog to find out!

 

Roadtrip through Flores

The grandly named Trans Flores Highway cuts through forests, climbs over mountains and skirts around volcanoes on its 550 kilometre route from Labuanbajo to Maumere. Although it’s a single lane highway throughout it is an impressive feat of engineering, with spectacular switchback routes crossing a wild, luxuriant, dramatic landscape of dense forest, landslides, ricefields and lakes.

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Our driver Mr Donatus, and his son Herman
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Tourists are sufficiently unusual to be worth a wave and a smile
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Dramatic Volcanoes dominate the horizon at times

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For whole sections of the journey, signs of human habitation can be sparse. But the highway links the towns and cities with diverse, traditional rural cultures that seem unchanged in centuries alongside the five distinct linguistic and cultural groups that make up the islands population, from the west to the east.

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Labuan Bajo. We started from here after six days diving with Scuba Junkie
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All aboard the Trans Flores Highway

This beautiful four day roadtrip (and our diving in Komodo, of which more later) plunged us right back in to South East Asia, after our brief visit back to England (see ‘Home & Away’ ) in September. It was a fantastic way to acclimatise to the adventure and excitement of travel, we were back on the road and in a spectacular landscape full of wonder.

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We came across this buffalo and his mudbath up in the mountains in the Lembor ricefields

In comparison to Bali, Java and certain sections of Lombok, Flores seemed less developed in terms of tourism, and the locals less reliant on this as a source of income. The overwhelmingly rural economy seemed productive and people looked to have larger houses, gardens and a sustainable way of life. Of course poverty is never far away, but the roads were full of children walking to school and we were met with lots of smiles and laughter.

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The majority of Flores is Catholic (due to the Portuguese colonial regime). Every village has a church and many of the schools are Catholic run
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…. and the odd cathedral

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School’s Out

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Origami proved popular 😊

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The land in Flores seemed productive. Vivid green ricefields stretched across valleys, fruit and vegetables were on sale in roadside warungs and the forests themselves were full of jackfruit, papaya, mangoes, cashew, macadamia, bananas and pineapple.

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bananas in all varieties

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Macadamia
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The famous Spider Web ricefields

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It’s a stunningly beautiful landscape

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Of course much of central Flores is mountainous and pretty near impossible to cultivate. The terrain and the thick groves of bamboo, rising 20m+ mean that some areas are impenetrable.

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Nothing gets through here

We passed by some impressive volcanoes on our journey, some of them like Agung Inierie, currently active.

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Steam and water flowing from the crater of Agung Ebulobo

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We also came across a tribe of monkeys, foraging for food, on our journey through the mountains.

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Traditional villages in Flores

We visited a number of traditional villages  including Bena, where housing is a collective endeavor, built and lived in by families, some of whom are said to originate from Java. Although declaring themselves Catholic, it was clear that this was a religion bolted on to the ancient adat/animist beliefs which governs their daily lives.

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