Land of the Long White Cloud – Northlands

Aotearoa

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Long White Cloud – early morning flight over 90 Mile Beach Northlands

The exact meaning, origin or translation of Aotearoa seems to be a matter of dispute, but the everyday consensus for the translation of the Māori name for New Zealand will serve as the title for this blog. Certainly the name evokes the natural beauty of this land, and the first two pictures, one of the Tasman Sea rolling onto 90 mile beach, the other, mineral deposits from geothermal springs in Orakei Korako give a flavour of this distinctive landscape.

As with our time in Australia, we have not travelled the typical backpacker route. Our

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journey is guided by the desire to catch up with friends, to visit new places, and importantly to not repeat the mistake of our last time here, when we dashed around trying to cover every remote corner. Of course the pictures and stories in this public blog miss out the catch ups, the laughter and tales over dinner, wine and a beer. They also miss out the generosity and hospitality of friends, for which we are extremely grateful, and look forward to repaying one day back in London town.

Our time here started in Auckland in mid March, where we had the excruciating pleasure of watching the English Cricket team annihilated over four days in a day night test match, as well as exploring the city and its surrounds.

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The day night test and pink ball failed to help a woeful English team

As we’d arrived at the end of the New Zealand summer, we needed to sort out a greater variety of clothing than the shorts and t shirts we’d relied upon for over a year. We also used rainy days to explore the city and its cultural highlights, but in truth the North Island was very kind to us, with mostly balmy days in the mid 20’s and warm evenings.

Auckland also marked the start of our exploration of the complex and historically troubled relationship between Māori and Pākehā (a New Zealander of non-Maori and non-Polynesian heritage). Though this is way too big a subject to be dealt with in this blog, it should be said it is a topic that we saw addressed wherever we went, and great care was taken to acknowledge historical wrongs and to give different viewpoints a voice.

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Victorian Pākehā images of Māori
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A modern Māori image of Pākehā

When we were in the north we visited Waitangi, site of the 1840 treaty between (some) Māori leaders and the British Queen. As happened elsewhere in the world (notably with Native Americans), Perfidious Albion ensured that the Māori treaty translation differed significantly from the English, claiming a sovereignty over the country that was never countenanced by Māori. Although the subsequent lands wars demonstrated the determined fighting skills of the Māori, including the formidable Pā fortresses that proved difficult to overcome, eventually colonial might prevailed, promises were broken and land seized. But since the mid 1970s onward a Māori campaign for justice and reparation has had a significant effect on New Zealand society, and the cultural impact of Māori is visible everywhere.

Auckland remains one of those cities that is easy to escape from, for a tramp in the wilderness or a sail on a boat. We spent a lovely day walking through forest on the ecology trail at Tawharanui Regional Park, where strict controls over invasive species like possum and rats mean the trees are alive with native birdsong.

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Perching Lilies, known to NZ bushmen as ‘Widow Makers’

The North Island Robin, the Fantail and the distinctive Tui prosper. We also saw many majestic Karearea (NZ hawk) soaring in the currents or feeding on roadkill. We failed to find the blue penguin or the elusive Kiwi though.

For our day ‘tramping’ Waiheke Island – a quick ferry from Auckland, we decided on one of the less popular walls along the north coast and were soon entirely alone, wandering down into beautiful bays along a path that often disappeared, with occasional views of Auckland city in the distance.

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Auckland Harbour on the way to Whaiheke

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Heading North

We hired a car from Rent-A-Dent, and headed north, up towards the Bay of Islands and stopped off en route at Mangawhai Heads for another day of walking, this time along the cliff tops.

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The glorious weather – sun, mid-twenties temperature and a sea breeze meant walking was a joy. It was a sign of what was to come in Paihia and the Bay of Islands.

Paihia

We checked in to the YHA in Paihia, which was a good base to explore from, and seemed to have more going on than in Russell across the Bay. After the usual shopping/laundry/ sussing out the area, we booked a flight in a small plane to the far north – Cape Reinga and 90 mile beach. The seven-seater plane took off as the sun rose over the bay and we had a fabulous journey in the early morning light, with a low mist and the clouds above reflected in the water below

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The mist soon cleared and we had a beautiful journey watching the surf from the Tasman rolling on to the beach.

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Landing in a field, we hopped in to a minibus and explored Cape Reinga, and the sand dunes
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We’d arrived in rush hour!
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Cape Reinga is a sacred place for Māori and the swirling surf is where the Tasman and Pacific meet.

After a bit of sandboarding, it was back to the plane for an even more spectacular return flight.

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We spotted a pod of Dolphins in the surf below

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We also did a fair bit of exploring in the Paihia area (walking and driving) and our Rent-A-Dent did let us down once on a remote dirt road, but luckily we were able to do a few running repairs and keep going. One trip recommended to us by a German couple in the hostel was a day trip on a sailing boat, and we had a fabulous time on the water in ‘She’s a Lady’ tacking across the bay in perfect conditions – with a bit of kayaking, snorkelling and swimming thrown in.

Again, there was a low mist as we headed out in to the bay, but the sun soon burned through for a great day.

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In our last day in Paihia, we finally got to Russell on the ferry and had a lovely time walking around the town and the hills around, before a sunset dinner in Duke of Marlborough and a moonlit journey back to Paihia.

Leaving Paihia, we headed along the coast to Aroha Island in search of wild Kiwis, but without success and then stopped for a few nights in the historical, and beautiful town of Mangonui and the nearby Coopers Beach.

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Waipoua Forest

We headed further down the west coast of the far north with the aim of visiting the majestic Kauri trees in Waipoua Forest. We based ourselves for a few nights in an adapted shipping container perched up on a hill near Donnelly’s Crossing, surrounded only by stillness and birdsong. It’s been the nearest we’ve got to glamping, though we didn’t try the outside bath!

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There really is something magical about Kauri trees. Some, still growing today, were mature trees before any humanset foot on the North Island. They grow tall and straight and were used by Māori for war canoes and then felled in their tens of thousands when Pākehā arrived. It is estimated the 4,600 square miles of Kauri trees were cut down and transported down the mountains – with loggers coming from around the world to fell these giants of the forest.

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The size and girth of Kauri trees is astonishing
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The scale like bark of the tree flakes off as parasitic plants try to attach themselves to the trunk, ensuring straight growth

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Cutting down these giant trees, using only saws and axes in remote, mountainous forest was a remarkable feat. As was moving them down using oxen and specially built rail tracks. Damns were also constructed high in the mountains and then the water released sending hundred and thousands of these enormous logs crashing down the hillsides to the sawmills below. The resulting devastation of the forests for a timber that was prized around the world continued until 1970s, despite many years of protest to protect this unique area.

One other historical episode in the Pākehā exploitation of the Kauri is that the sap produced by the tree was a valued component for quality paints and varnishes. As a result ‘gum-diggers’ arrived from around the world, digging down in to prehistoric forests to mine the fossilized gum. Their story, and the story of the communities that survived in this area is brilliantly told in the Kauri Museum in Matakhoe.

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The remaining trees are now protected and many are of particular spiritual significance to Māori who manage the Waipoua Forest reserve.

The rest of our NewZealand journey took us back to Auckland, and then south, by train car and boat, we’ll cover that in the second part of this blog …. coming very soon 😊.

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…

 

 

 

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 …

Click ‘follow’ to see where our adventure takes us …

Crossing Cambodia #2

Dividing this post in two parts made sense. It allowed those who wish to skip the horrors of Tuol Svay Prey High School and the Killing Fields in Crossing Cambodia (it felt hard to write any more after that). And it means if your interest lies in Siem Reap, Angkor Wat and beyond, you can, in any case, find it here.

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We traveled by bus to Siem Reap and stayed in Hideout Hostel . Cambodia, unlike Indonesia, is firmly on the backpacker trail and for the first time in months we encountered Irish, Welsh and British accents among the young travelers. The hostels have been great, with private rooms as well as dorms, and Hideout Hostel was a brilliant example of good value comfort -plus everyone was kind and friendly to us old folk (thanks for the pack of Irish tea.😊).

We purchased a three day pass to visit the temples in and around Angkor Wat, and hired a Tuk-tuk driver, ‘Tom’, to take us around. Motorbikes are banned in the vast temple area, and we figured bikes would be exhausting if we wanted to cover the outlying sites in thirty degree heat. Tuk-tuks (more spacious than their Thai equivalent) are by far the most efficient way to get around, plus money  goes directly to locals.

Urban Myth

There is a persistent urban legend claiming Angkor Wat is owned by the Vietnamese (grabbed by them when they overthrew the Khmer Rouge) and that none of the money collected from the 2 million annual visitors goes to Cambodia. As it is a World Heritage site, I thought it unlikely so I did some research (see https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/asia-south-east-asia-mainland/cambodia/vietnamese-ownership-of-angkor ). That is not to say there is no corruption/criminality involved – Cambodia scores very badly on global corruption tables, but Angkor Wat is very definitely Cambodian.

The history of the building, discovery and restoration of the different temples is complex and fascinating, and there are plenty of places on the Internet and in books where you can read about it. Not here. Here you will get an impression of the grandeur and beauty of this unique World Heritage site, with little in the way of detail.

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Early light on Pre Rup, guarded by lions. We started at 6.00am and had the place to ourselves

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The foundation stone is a rusty red Laterite cut and fitted together without cement, and the sandstone used for the buildings was quaried over 50km away and transported by specially built canals.

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Lions, again keeping guard over Anne on the steep climb at Pre Rup
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Elephants at dawn, Eastern Mabon

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Local kids playing by the entrance to the atmospheric Ta Som, where the jungle seems to be winning control.

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An advantage of having a local driver is that you can wander when you like and meet up later to explore some more. We had a relaxing explore through the shady forest from the heat of the elephant terrace in Angkor Thom to Bayon, finding temples on the way.

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Rant Paragraph

Exploring and photographing the temples presented its own challenges. With over a million tourists a year, it gets pretty crowded and the extremes of light or a hazy, cloud covered day will dramatically affect the quality of a picture. But worst of all is the mass obsession with selfies. Is a photograph of a unique, 12th century temple in the middle of the Cambodian jungle of no value without a pouting face in front of it? I have seen countless tourists only taking selfies. Do they think family and friends will not believe they were there? Do they believe that a photograph of themselves in the same spot as Angelina Jolie or Harrison Ford is the only reason to visit such a historic, beautiful and spiritual place. Seeing people queue to take a selfie in ‘the spot’ and then leave without a glance around them is profoundly depressing. 

Have you really come so far, for so little? 

See this article, identifying the same problem Instagrammers are sucking the life and soul out of travel

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Early morning at Ta Prohn, before the crowds queue for a selfie at the Temple of Doom
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Thommanon, a small and beautiful old ruin
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Bayon Temple is beautiful, but the crowds are overwhelming

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Lucky to have grabbed this shot, one of the Temple cleaners taking a short cut

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Angkor Wat

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The first thing that impresses you about Angkor Wat is its size. The temple is made from 6-10 million blocks of sandstone (transported through 50 miles of jungle), including some that weigh 1.5 tons. The original site was larger than modern day Paris and it remains the largest religious building on Earth.

Then there is the detail, corridor after corridor of galleries containing beautiful carvings depicting ancient Hindu tales. There are literally miles of sandstone carvings illustrating scenes including unicorns, griffins, winged dragons, chariots as well as fierce warriors following an elephant-mounted leader. The gallery wall alone is decorated with almost 1,000 square metres of bas reliefs.

We visited Angkor on two separate occasions, and it worked well. We did the pre-dawn visit, along with everyone else(!), for ‘that shot’ of sunrise and then headed elsewhere to see temples before the crowds arrived. On our second visit we again arrived pre-dawn, but went straight into Angkor Wat, and had the place virtually to ourselves for an hour or so before the crowds came in. Consequently we had a calm reflective experience of the place, not something most visitors would be able to enjoy.

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Before dawn. For some reason the camera picked up the pink lilies in the lake, along with the first light of morning

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Sunrise inside Angkor Wat, it’s worth it for the calm

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Moving on – Kampot

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Feeling a bit ‘templed-out’, as no doubt you are dear reader, we headed down to Sihanoukville and from there by bus to Kampot. Sihanoukville is a sad reminder of where Cambodian tourism is headed, with scores of ugly casinos and girly bars, all responding to the massive influx of Chinese investment and tourism, aimed at making it the ‘new Macau’.

We checked in to a ‘party hostel’ in Kampot, Mad Monkey and really enjoyed our time there. Again we had a comfortable spacious private room, there was a pool and a good restaurant, but most importantly the people, staff and guests, were fab. While it is defiantly a party place, where young travelers go to meet and have fun, the rooftop bar closes down at midnight (the young-uns move on to party elsewhere) and it’s an easy place to chill out. We met some lovely people, shared travel stories over a few beers, relaxed and enjoyed ourselves. Hostel manager Darren, from the Lake District, looked out for us on the organised tours (booze cruise and mountain motorbike tour), and people couldn’t have been nicer – our team even won the Pub Quiz 🍺🏆🍺.

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Cruising down a river with free beers, a beach and a sunset is a relaxing way to enjoy yourself

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We hired motorbikes for a few days, to tour the local area. The roads aren’t busy for the most part, and it’s great to be independent. On the first day, Sunday, after a leisurely breakfast we went to the seaside town of Kep. It’s not the best beach in the world but it was lovely seeing locals hanging around on hammocks in the shade sharing picnics with their families.

We went on to see the salt farms, quiet with no-one working on a Sunday. It’s a harsh bleak environment, but we were soon surrounded by local kids, so my origami skills were deployed once more.

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And then we stumbled on a small temple, deserted we thought, until we came across a monk on his mobile.

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Our second day on motorbikes started well with an interesting visit to a pepper farm – Kampot being globally famous for its pepper.

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Pepper farm worker

Heading on from there, we decided to take a road to a cave in the mountains nearby. While the road (we’re talking dirt tracks here) may have existed on the map, it soon disintegrated into walking trails and dead ends. GPS indicated actual roads nearby but we struggled along tracks for two hours to find one. The few locals we came across indicated by sign language what direction to take (almost always back the way we had come). We were well and truly lost, and Anne was low on fuel. Our cross country bike skills were improving, but we were getting distinctly worried we might get stuck in the middle of nowhere. After nearly three hours, we got back to the pepper farm, sorted a bottle of petrol from a roadside shop and headed back to bitumen and our hostel. Relief.

Phnom Bokor

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Our final bike day was part of a hostel tour organised by Darren, up in to the mountains, to Phnom Bokor national park, with the mist hanging around us. It’s a strange journey, up a very well made road, with surprising, sometimes disconcerting sights. It was also one of the last strongholds of the Khmer Rouge, who occupied the area in to the 1990s.

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Statue to the mythical Lok Yeay Mao , and below abandoned French colonial buildings and pagoda, much of it covered in red lichen (and graffiti)

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The abandoned church below, built by the French in the 1920s, was occupied by the Khmer Rouge and used as an execution site for conscripted farm labour, who were no longer capable of working. It’s a sad, desolate place.

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The old casino (originally French) is now being renovated and big money (thought by many to be controlled by Chinese and Vietnamese criminal gangs) is being spent on new casinos and hotel development.

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From Kampot we have traveled down to Otres river village, a sleepy beach area outside of Sihanoukville for a bit of relaxation. Tomorrow we head to Ream National Park, staying in a hostel there. We fly out of Cambodia on the 22nd on an elaborate journey (via KL, Bali, and Sulawesi) to get us to Raja Ampat by the 27th for some diving at the end of the year.

More posts likely to be in the New Year, click on ‘Follow’ to find out.

Happy Christmas 🎄

 

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!

 

Sulawesi Penjelajahan*

*Penjelajahan journey/adventure, Indonesian

It was around 4.30 last night/this morning (8/11/2017), when the rain came crashing down on the tin roof of our cabin in the Togian Islands with the intensity that only a tropical thunderstorm can generate. The racket, compounded by the cracking of thunder and lightning directly overhead, overwhelmed the previous, gentler sounds of cicadas, geckos and rolling surf. We are in the shoulder season in Sulawesi, that period between the wet and dry where blue skies give way daily to clouds and intense rain that lasts for an hour or so.

We have been in Sulawesi since mid October, diving and traveling in remote areas with fascinating scenery and people. Though it’s not even close to being the biggest island in Indonesia – it’s about the size of England, with a population of around 18 million – it impresses you as an intriguing adventurous place, difficult to travel around but full of varied, unique traditions, and wild, untamed land.

Flying in to Manado, in the north, we headed out by boat to Living Colours dive resort on Bunaken island, under threatening skies. The storm, and darkness arrived as we hit shore, with the boat threading it’s way through the mangroves, intermittently lit by lightning flashes. The next day saw blue skies and lovely diving – healthy coral, plenty of fish and turtles, and good visibility. Daylight also revealed the beautiful setting where we were staying, isolated, idyllic, peaceful (and with great food ☺).

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Diveboat in the Mangroves at Living Colours, Bunaken

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High tide

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Our cabin

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Heading out to Bunaken at sunset. View from Manado
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Christianity is important in the region – cathedrals next to shanty towns

Unfortunately after our second day of diving (easy, gentle, multilevel dives), that evening,  Anne developed a skin rash on her stomach that was tender and painful to touch. We were in contact with medical advice and insurers through the night and Anne took rehydration salts and painkillers. Diagnosed as mild skin DCS, thankfully it had disappeared by morning. However we took the boat back to Manado to consult the dive doctor there, who recommended Anne avoid diving for the next month.

So, our plans had to change. We stayed on at the resort, and I dived without Anne till the end of the week😢. We cancelled our diving trip to Lembeh and instead went back to Manado and booked a nice hotel, from where we planned to explore Northern Sulawesi – Tangkoko and Minahasa.

Tangkoko and Minahasa

Considering there is no developed tourist infrastructure, and given the variety of local languages, cultures, and terrain, the only way to properly explore the remote parts of Sulawesi is with a car and a local guide. We found a guide from Minahasa, Edwin, with

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Our guide, Edwin

decades of experience, who explained so much about the local cultures as we travelled through a beautiful landscape of vivid green ricefields, mountains, lakes and volcanoes. The highlight on our first day was a visit to the Batuangas Dua Saudara nature reserve. It is now famous as the location of the dispute over the Macaque selfie, and we were hoping to spot some, along with the tiny nocturnal Tasiers that live in the reserve.

In the late afternoon we entered the forest and luckily found a troop of Black Macaque monkeys, crashing through the trees, eating, playing, fighting and having sex, before heading up to the canopy above to shelter for the night. Photographing them in the fading light and the gloom of the forest was challenging – they were moving fast, crashing through the branches, running along the forest floor, often disappearing only to reappear for a moment and then move on.

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Female displaying

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Rodin Macacque
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Not quite navel gazing!

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And let’s not forget those tiny, shy Tasiers …

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Tiny little fingers!

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Following our exertions chasing primates through the forest we stopped at a local Warung for dinner and the local speciality of Tuna head – tasty, but hard work.

Tomohon

The following day we traveled through Minahasa, to the Tomohon area, with its traditional stilted houses, lush, productive land and beautiful volcanoes and lakes.

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Lokon volcano 

 

 

 

 

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We spent a lovely lunch watching birds feeding on the flowers, then visited Danu Linow volcanic lake, saw fish farms on the banks of Tondon lake, high in the mountains.

Tomohon Market – Pasar Beriman

Tomohon is famous for its market – Pasar Beriman, and there really is a staggering display of produce from local farms. Edwin had a long discussion with us about local customs in the consumption of meat so that we were prepared beforehand. We still found the scenes shocking though.

As a consequence I have placed that description, along with some graphic pictures in a separate file.

Sulawesi animal Document

Don’t go there if you think you might find it upsetting.

Pasar Beriman

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After our journey through Minahasa, we headed back to Manado for a nights sleep before flying down to Makassa to explore  southern Sulawesi and the Togian Islands.

Sulawesi was proving to be more varied and fascinating than we’d imagined. We will update the blog with stories from the south soon. Click ‘follow’ to get a notification of our next post☺ – and please comment/like and get in touch to your hearts content….

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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The stone plinth in the center of the village is the place of burial for tribal leaders and also where traditional sacrifices of buffalo are made

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We were able to meet and interact with many people on our journey. The general lack of tourists and the company of Mr Donatus and Herman helped (along with a bit of origami for the children).

Their pictures and portraits capture the beauty and diversity of Flores.

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Above and below are residents of the traditional village of Bena. In the full resolution picture of the girl below you can see the entire village reflected in her eyes.

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We came across a festival/celebration on the way to Bajawa, we still don’t know what it was about, but everyone was happy!

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Stopping for a coffee at a roadside Warung, we met this couple.

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This family came running out to say hello when we stopped to look at the view.

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