More ‘Stralia Stories

Our trip to the Blue Mountains – Katoomba, Mudgee, Armidale and beyond – gave us a glimpse of the stunning wilderness that is the Great Dividing Range. Flowing down the east coast of Australia, it separates the populated coastal areas from the interior and stretches from the tropics of Queensland down through New South Wales and then west to the Grampians in Victoria. It is vast, often remote, and astonishingly beautiful.

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And of course, as with the rest of Australia,the European ‘rules’ for flora and fauna, wildlife and climate do not apply. Once again we have witnessed the unique and glorious way that nature works in Australia – it still amazes.

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The people at the top of the waterfall give some sense of scale

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In our brief time here, we’ve come across rosellas, gallahs, kookaburas, sulphur crested, black, and salmon cockatoo and some majestic wedge-tailed eagles. We’ve seen water dragons, blue tounged lizards, huntsman spiders and an emu. Koalas, brush-tailed rock wallabies, eastern grey kangaroos, dolphins, cormorants and pelicans. Goanna, lyrebirds, red-beak oystercatchers and fruitbats.

We’ve also seen wombats and possums – but only as roadkill 😕. It’s a very different world…

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We found these brush-tailed rock wallabies on the road to the Jenolan caves
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A Goanna, hiding in the rainforest canopy
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A fledgling muttonbird emerging from its nest on Muttonbird island
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Dolphins in the bay at Evans Head
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Koalas preserve energy by sleeping for extended periods, and stay cool by hugging gum trees

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Urban Fright. This Huntsman on a box of beer in Melbourne …
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A water dragon after our lunch, and a blue-tounged lizard after some cat food

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Kangaroos in the upper pasture. Eastern Greys, early one morning, Evans Head
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Pelicans with diving cormorant beneath

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Eucalyptus

Then there are the gumtrees. Massive, varied, superbly adaptable – from the high Snowy Mountains of NSW, to the dry, hot red centre. They define the environment, and drive the process of renewal that distinguishes this continent from any other.

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Of course, we now see them everywhere, Africa, Europe, the Americas, the SE Asian rainforest, devastated by Agent Orange, and garden centres in North London.

Yet until the 1770’s they were unique to this place, with over 700 varieties perfectly adapted to tropical rainstorm, drought, flood, bushfires and extremes of temperature. They are the tallest flowering tree (only the coniferous American redwoods are taller), and some, still standing, predate the European invasion by a hundred years or more.

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The Journey

Our trip from Sydney to just over the Queensland border took a couple of weeks. Driving a hired car, staying in motels, country pubs, Airbnb and Youth Hostels – it’s a different sort of traveling than we’re used to in SE Asia. Though accommodation is expensive, cooking our own food in hostels helps the daily budget.

T20180216_095255-881x1568he cooler climate also means we’ve been able to a lot more walking, and the National Parks are fantastic places to explore Australia’s natural world.

After a few days in the fabulous art-deco Blue Mountains YHA  in Katoomba we went via the Jenolan caves to Mudgee where we stopped for a night in a grotty, but cheap bar and then on to Armidale. High in the Northern Tabelands at an altitude of 1000m we felt cold for the first time in a long while.

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The Jenolan caves must have been an unbelievable discovery for the early explorers. We spent two hours in just one cave system

P2015378-864x1152From there we had a spectacular journey with forest walks and waterfalls, down towards the coast and Coffs Harbour.

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The journey to the coast is dotted with country pubs and small town Victorian wrought iron/weatherboard frontages.

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Bellingen

The Coast – Coffs Harbour, Evans Head and Byron Bay

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The Southern Pacific. Coffs Harbour – Park Beach
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We walked along the coast from Park Beach to Muttonbird Island

We really enjoyed our stay at Evans Head. Catching up with Roseanne and Bill, exploring the local area (this is where we saw the Koalas, Pelicans, Dolphins and Kangaroos above) and relaxing into the way of life.

We also came across some old photo albums from our dear friend Grum, who we first met him in a losmen on Java in 1983. Our paths crossed regularly as we did our first backpacking journey through SE Asia, and he became a great friend. Happy memories, and sadly missed.

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With Anne, Grum and others in Borobodour. I’m reading from ‘SE Asia on a Shoestring (2nd edition)’.
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The river in Bangkok City – on our way to the Post Restante, for news from home
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Idyllic Koh Samui. Things have changed in 35 years.

The Southern Pacific

Lenox Head and the Cape Byron Lighthouse offer spectacular views of the coastline, wide sandy beaches, waves crashing onto rocks and endless surf.

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Our journey up the east coast ended in Mudgeerabar, Southern Queensland. Our diving buddy Lindsay, who we’d met in Komodo last August, was working there, and it was also the childhood home of Rachael, a good Aussie friend from London. We had great fun catching up with Lindsay and swapping yet more travel tales, and it was fantastic to meet Rachael’s folks and make the connection.

Heading back towards Sydney we stopped for a few days at Port MacQuarie (Ozzie Pozzie YHA) and explored the area. The Tacking Point lighthouse again gave spectacular views of the coastline.

We also walked through the rainforest canopy boardwalk at Sea Acres National Park. Made more wonder full, because we had the place to ourselves.

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Strangling Fig

We then visited Roto House, a beautiful example of an old colonial house, built from Australian redwood, with wide, bull nosed verandas and cool interiors.

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It’s also the site of a Koala hospital (rescued from bushfires etc) , which gives me the opportunity to finish by posting a couple more pictures of sleepy Koalas.

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Displaying the unique ‘two thumbs on the front paw’

So, after a brief stop with old friends in Sydney, a quick flight to Melbourne, our next port of call is Tasmania. Despite living in Melbourne for two years, it’s a place we’ve yet to explore…

 

 

 

Stories from ‘Stralia

Heading back to Australia, especially Melbourne, is like meeting up with an old friend. You immediately feel comfortable, you’re besieged with fond memories, and swear you both haven’t changed a bit. You re-live old experiences and then, slowly, realise things are, in fact, different. Consequently you become engaged in new ‘conversations’ with a familiar place, you feel ‘glad to be back’, though neither us nor ‘Stralia were ever here before.

Quite a change from our last year then, backpacking in South East Asia. Just so lovely to see familiar faces – good friends for over 35 years ….  though of course we haven’t changed a bit.😁. But this public post won’t be about those lovely times with wonderful people, their kindness, the shared craic, laughter, smiles, trials and tribulations that are so close to our hearts.

This will be about our idiosyncratic reconnection with a country, the old and the new, where we’ve lived and visited over the decades. It won’t be a coherent journey through Australia, it won’t be a standard Oz Blog. Here’s the first of our random stories  from ‘Stralia ….

Hello again Australia.

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Melbourne

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There’s always going to be a big place in our hearts for Melbourne, the city and the burbs, the quaint Victoriana and the hip, our first big travel adventure as tramies in the 80’s and the friends we still hold dear. Sorry Sydney, #1 city in ‘Stralia.

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Under the Clocks at Flinders

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Spoilt for choice in Melbourne bars
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Weatherboard houses from the’20s

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La Trobe Reading Room, with wonderful space and light. Beautifully illustrated Victorian books, and Ned Kelly’s body armour!
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Side streets and street art

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And, just to prove our hipster status, we also looked in on the old Collingwood Technical College experimental ‘Intermission’ exhibition. Not the Melbourne we knew!

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The place was full of serious art folk … 😃

Think we need some old ‘Stralia again, before heading on to Sydney …

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Sydney

With good friends in Bondi Junction, it didn’t take us long to reacquaint ourselves with Sydney, and again we came across the old and the new. Sydney always seems like a serious, ‘proper’ city, and then you wander down to the harbour, the beaches and the bay, and you realise Sydneysiders are just pretending to be city folk ….

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It’s a busy bay
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Traditional pubs in the heart of the city, thanks to the TU and residents campaign in the 70’s
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Big cruise ships in the harbour

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Climbing the bridge

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Yup, still Sydney

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And then there’s Manly

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Can you see the City?

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Swimming poolside, with battleships to starboard …

Of course, beyond the bay and the bars there’s the museum’s and galleries which still reflect the duality of Australian history.

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But you can always come across a cockie on your way home …

More stories to come.

So, we’ll upload some more random thoughts and pictures of our journey through New South Wales in the next few days. We’re off to Unexplored Territory next – Tasmania. Click ‘follow’ to keep in touch.

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Home & Away

It was Anne who first suggested a trip back ‘home’ as part of our journey, and it turned 20170925_193914-705x1253out to be a great idea. Of course home needs to be in parenthesis as our house is still rented out and despite all the wonderful family and friends we have been  able to catch up with, the local haunts revisited and familiar food and beverages consumed, it still feels like we are ‘on the road’, although in a very familiar environment. Landing at Heathrow (yes there was light rain!), the Piccadilly line to North London where we’ve spent the last three decades brought a smile to both our faces.

We’ve spent just a few short weeks in these refreshing, cooler climes and now before we know it, we’re flying back to Kuala Lumpur later today.

20170925_212953-612x816So this blog post is not like the others. Whole sections of this part of our trip are not photographically recorded – those times were spent in the company of loved ones, family and dear friends, catching up, talking – often late into the night, and just hanging out with each other smiling, laughing and enjoying the moments. Inevitably there were people we failed to see or others where we only had a brief time to share stories of these last ten months. But that’s life and there’ll be plenty more to share when we finally return.

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We managed to catch England and Scotland in the last throes of summer, so there were blue skies and sunshine interspersed with those grey days which will soon be the norm for the autumn and winter to come. It was wonderful to walk in the still green countryside and feel a cool breeze on a long warm evening. Fond memories to take back to SE Asia.

Of course we are visiting a country that has been crushed by seven years of ‘austerity’, a political dogma that has hurt so many and visibly damaged so much of the infrastructure that ordinary folk rely on. People stressed and depressed trying to do a job in sectors like health, social care and education, where funding cuts make it is impossible to deliver to those in need. Meanwhile wealthy politicians make light of the million plus people, many who are working hard every single day, yet rely on food banks to survive. There is a palpable viciousness here and the ticking time bomb of Brexit looks set to make it worse.

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Sign of the times. Poundland Wood Green – once famous for its Banksy on the wall is now reduced to 90p land

But for us, our thoughts are now all about the next stage of our trip, we feel lucky to have the chance of adventure and the resources to backpack the world. We feel energised by all the company of these last weeks and are keen to get back to diving again in Komodo.

Our flights from KL to Denpesar on Saturday and then to Flores the next day may yet be disrupted by the rumbling Mount Agung, that looked so majestic and peaceful just a few weeks ago. But that’s a story for the next blog.

Scotland

After a few days in London, happily spent with Oona and close friends we flew up to Edinburgh to see Grant and Virginia – who were busy preparing a film shoot in the Outer Hebredies with Stella (looking forward to seeing the end result!). Edinburgh has its own character, steep streets with elegant Georgian gardens and buildings, all overlooked by the castle. And now the tram line is working, its easy to get to and to get around.

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The tenement buildings add real character to Edinburgh

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The railway station still has lots of  grand Victorian flourishes

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An old Saab – a fabulous prop for a road movie!

The Tower of Glenstrae

And then we were off out West, back to Glasgow by train and then on to the fabulous Tower of Glenstrae  and our dear friends Maggie and Takki, where we like to think we started this adventure in November last year. This time our good friend Anne joined us, her first visit to the tower, and conversations, wine and whisky flowed long into the nights as old friends reconnected in a wonderful environment.

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The tower from the ruins of Kilchurn Castle

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Rainbow over the Loch
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Storm clouds add to the atmosphere

We made the most of the good weather with a trip to Mull, thanks to Takki for all the driving, and providing the brilliant walking weather!

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Glorious walking in Mull
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The evening ferry back to the mainland was idyllic

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After Anne L headed back to Glasgow, the weather stayed (mostly) kind and we explored Stirling (great castle) and the magnificent Kelpies, where again the stormy sky added to the dramatic environment.

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The low grey clouds flying by added to the grandeur of the Kelpies

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A brief stop in Glasgow for haggis, neeps, tatties and some street art, then back to London town.

We enjoyed our time there, connecting with friends (thanks for the grand shed accommodation Julie!), organising our visa for the next two months in Indonesia and shopping for essentials. Then we spent a wonderful week of family time in Bristol – great to see Pam in good spirits, before heading to Stroud to catch up with Simon, Liz and family. Back to stay with Mary in London.  And that is about it.

But as I said at the start this blog is missing the core part of our trip ‘home’. The hugs, the smiles, the craic and the loved ones – you’re with us in our hearts every step of the way.

Our plane is about to depart, goodbye London town… Asia, here we come!

 

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Here be Dragons

In the past, maps were sketchy, illustrative affairs with missing detail, unchartered territory and oftentimes relied on rumour and superstition, when information was lacking.

It was the 16th Century Lenox Globe that first warned ‘hic sunt dracones’ when mapping East Asia, and certainly this could be related directly to tales of Komodo dragons told by local fishermen. More probably though, as with other maps outlining fantastic creatures, wild beasts and frozen seas, it was simply warning the intrepid traveller that they were about to enter unknown and uncharted territory and should expect the unexpected.

Now of course we travel with a digital map in our hand, where routes are already plotted and a search engine tells us whether dragons lie ahead before we set out. We search the globe seeking the new and exciting, while simultaneously clutching reviews and guides telling us where others have been before and what to do when we arrive.

Luckily, in defiance of Google Maps and Lonely Planet, as the ancient Greeks observed No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’. So for us, this section of our trip is unchartered territory, containing more mystery excitement and adventure – and yes, here there be dragons … and other wondrous creatures besides.

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Towards the end of our time in East Bali, we again hired a car and travelled the less populous sections of this beautiful island in a 14 hour day of driving, exploring temples, coastlines and remote villages.

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Pura Lempuyang – Gateway to the Heavens, with its spectacular views of Mount Agung. Locals visit this temple and then climb 1,700 steps further up the mountain in pilgrimage. It’s a real family outing, with everyone dressed in their finest clothes.

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The luscious green rice fields, lakes and mountainous volcanic landscape of the Balinese countryside is spectacular.

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Threshing the rice

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Temples can be ornate and stylised …

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… but also a bit scary

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is on a lake amongst the clouds

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After our month in Amed, we headed back down to Padang Bai for a few days diving in somewhat tough conditions (strong winds, cold water and heavy swell in a fishing boat) before taking a ferry to Gili Air, then on to Lombok, and from there heading to Flores for diving in Komodo.

Gili Air

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Gili  Air, with Lombok across the water

With only sand for roads, there are four types of transport in Gili Air

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Coping somehow! ☺

Lombok

We headed down to Kuta, in the southern part of Lombok, famous for its beaches, clear water and surf.

This part of east Asia still has plenty of travellers, but the roads are often less well made, or non existent in places, the beaches more remote and pristine and the lifestyle slower. We had a definite sense of the road less travelled as we bounced our motorbike along dirt tracks in southern Lombok (but yes, Google Maps was still there!), and we began to anticipate our final diving adventure for this part of our travels in remote Komodo

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Sarongs and bracelets for sale …

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Yes, we bought a bracelet.

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The trip from Lombok to Flores takes three days by sea and road, so with our visa running short we had to fly back to Denpasar and from there to Labuan Bajo.

Komodo

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Air Garuda to Flores, see the speedboat in the corner of this picture
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It’s then a boat ride from Labuan Bajo to Scuba Junkie

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Bats heading out at sunset

Our time diving at Komodo was simply fantastic. The environment above the surface is serene – calm seas, clear water and a beautiful unspoilt landscape. The resort was relaxed, friendly and peaceful and all the staff at Scuba Junkies Komodo worked hard to ensure everything came together for some world class diving. Plus we met some wonderful dive buddies from around the world, with evenings re-living the days dives, telling tales, smiling and laughing over a meal and a cooling Bintang. Happy times.

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As always, I struggle to describe the experience of diving. It’s exhilarating, tranquil, awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful all at the same time. The coral is teeming with life, the pelagics are majestic, in a boundless crystal clear sea. Whether you are hooked on in a pumping current surrounded by Mantas, sharks and devil rays, or gathered around an impossibly tiny Zebra crab, bemused by the mating rituals of cuttlefish, or just astounded by the wonder of it all, diving is special. We are lucky indeed to share this joy with each other.

Thanks to dive buddies Kristin, Sascha, Louisa and others for sharing these

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Here be the Dragons

On our final ‘no dive day’ before flying to Denpasar and then on to Malaysia, we visited the nature reserve to see the Komodo Dragons. Perhaps not as graceful as the marine life we’d been witnessing over the previous days, but, with their armoured scales, flicking tongues and reputed speed, still pretty impressive.

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So, we are currently in Melaka, Malaysia and we board a flight for our short trip home next week. We are really excited about catching up and hearing all the news before getting back on the road again.

At the end of September, we plan to dive in Sulawesi (and perhaps back to Komodo, depending on visas), then maybe heading towards NW Australia, aware that we will need to go looking for some new dragons.

Click ‘follow’ on the right hand side to keep in touch ☺ – and/or ‘like’ /post comments below.

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Balinese Bersantai*

*bersantai  (relaxation, rest) Indonesian/Malay bahasa

** see also, breaking news at the end …

Once we had decided on our destination (see previous post, Borneo Briefly), the journey from Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to Bali was smooth and straightforward, with a direct evening flight from Air Asia.

Landing in Denpasar late at night proved a bit challenging though, as we negotiated the ATM (withdrawing a quick 2 million rupiah), then hassled to sort a taxi at 2.00am. Trying to calculate and adjust exchange rates that had moved from a tenner for 55 ringgit in Malaysia to an equivalent 172,000 rupiah in Bali, we were always going to be mugged by the taxi at the airport, especially at that time of night. But at least we sat calm and cool in the back of the cab crawling around the tiny silent side streets, as the cab driver asked everyone still awake if they knew where our lodging was.

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Kuta at night

The 10 minute ride proved to be more like an hour, but we got there and slept soundly through what was left of the night, then woke to our first cup of Balinese coffee for breakfast.

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This is what a million looks like. The largest note (100,000 rupiah) is around £6

Of course Kuta was unrecognisable from our visit 36 years previously, but 20170707_073055-864x1153despite the buildings, clubs restaurants roads and traffic it still hangs on some charm. The small canang saris (offerings with incense in a palm leaf tray) are everywhere, especially outside shops and on the shore.

Little Hindu statutes, or even temples are prominent in people’s homes or in losmens. And when you are approached to buy a bracelet, a Bintang or a massage, just like all those years ago, the people are invariably calm and smiling.

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canang saris – small offerings with incense in a palm leaf tray
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Of course Coca Cola is keen to get in on the act
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Kite flying is still popular with local kids

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Alongside the upmarket, often arrogant and exclusive resorts, restaurants and bars, normal interaction still happens – food stalls, kite flying and little ‘bars’ on the beach, with eskies, 20170707_075547-1157x867plastic chairs in the shade and a crate to put your feet up, watching the surfers as the sun sets.

Kuta was never going to be our destination in Bali, and after a day or so sorting essentials we took a Grab to Padangbai, further East along the coast. Although it’s a ferry port, connecting Bali to Lombok, Flores and beyond, it’s a sleepy little town for the most part. This was accentuated by our lodging, up on a hill (with the family living in the floor below us) and being woken by sunlight and birdsong rather than motorbikes at dawn. We checked out the local dive shop, hired a couple of motorbikes, visited the local beaches and considered whether this might be the place for us to chill and recharge for a month.

The steep hills and very narrow roads put us off using motorbikes for anything but local exploration, but we managed to hire a car for a couple of days exploring.

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Sleepy hills around Padangbai

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Walking home?

They drive on the left in Indonesia (it seems the Dutch, and their colonies did before the Napoleonic invasion – not cars obviously, but the colonies never changed) and we felt safer and happier driving a car rather than motorbikes through the mountains and countryside of SE Bali. We could talk, share the scenery, discuss/argue about the route and clarify what we were looking for as we travelled this beautiful country.

We visited Ubud and Klungkung over a couple of days, taking time out of the car to visit temples, go on walks through vibrant green rice terraces and soak up the beauty of rural Bali.

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Lovely cafe to rest our tired feet outside Ubud

 

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Quite an entrance
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Ducks on the terraces
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The village that was Ubud over 35 years ago is now a busy, bustling town. Look beyond and the charm is still there.

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It’s great to have your own tour guide ….

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Rice fields and bamboo everywhere

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Klungkung

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Wonder woman, not a new concept

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Amed

So, after two days wandering and discussing, we ended up in Amed. In reality Amed is a string of fishing villages that follow the coast, increasingly merging and linking as tourism expands. There are no big hotels, just small groups of lodgings, warungs (small family shops and restaurants, used by everyone) lots of fishing boats and the odd dive shop.

The beach is black volcanic sand/pebbles and the sun sets behind the 3000m high volcano, Mount Agung the highest point in Bali. We had been recommended Amed by Eedes, a dive buddy we met in Bohol, and we soon agreed it was the place we were looking for. The dive shop, Adventure Divers, came up with some suggestions of where to stay longer term and we soon found a little place on the beach, with a kitchen, including a fridge and a two ring stove. Lily Amed is a quiet, laid back place with super friendly staff and just a few bungalows, so it’s never really busy. Perfect.

We’ve been able to relax, to plan, to cook, eat healthy breakfasts and watch sunrises and sunsets. Our local Warung Enak has wonderful food when we don’t want to cook, and they have been kind enough to let us have fresh Tuna, brown rice, black pepper and proper bread for when we cook ourselves.

We’ve been diving with Adventure Divers, just on days when we felt like it, and experienced some lovely dives, from the iconic USAT Liberty wreck to muck diving and some interesting and varied natural and artificial reefs, all surrounded by black volcanic sand.

Most importantly we have been able to rest up, read books, think, talk and plan. And we’ve made some decisions…

So, we’ll move on from here in another few weeks, head back down to Padangbai then to Lombok and Komodo.

Breaking News

From there we are flying back to Denpasar as our two month visa runs out, then off to Malaysia, and from Kuala Lumpur we’ll fly back to the UK for five weeks to say hello to all our family and friends. We land at Heathrow on the 24th August (nine months after we left) and we’ll fly back to KL on 27th September. Super excited 😁. 

We don’t quite know where we’ll be staying (offers appreciated) or how we’ll be traveling around yet, but we’ll be in London, Bristol and Scotland and maybe points in between. Get in touch (comments below, or SM) and let us know when you’ll be around. We are so looking forward to seeing everyone we can, it’s been a while …

And, to finish off for now, a few pictures from peaceful Amed.

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Walking the black sand at sunrise

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Up early to fish

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At over 3000m Gunung Agung dominates the sky

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‘Hello, what’s your name, where are you from?‘ is the familiar call on the beach in the afternoon (after school) as kids try to sell bracelets.

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This wonderful woman is selling salt.
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Anne convinced her to smile

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and of course, sunsets

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Local family cooling off as the light fades

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Child, rolling in the surf at sunset