Outback Roadtrip – Sunsets, Sunrises and the Magic of Uluru

The lights on and around our table were switched off so that there was only the glow of the heat burners close by and the stars above. Our star guide was pacing between our tables as he began to speak.

“I want to begin with a Hindu story of wise sages. One night the wisest sage was meditating and in the morning he had a question for his disciples. When does the true night end and a new dawn begin?” Our guide paused for dramatic effect. “One of the disciples replied, when I rest my head on my pillow after a long day of work and wake to the sun through my window ready to start again. That is when a true night ends and a new dawn begins. It is a good answer, replied the sage, but not the one I was looking for…”

We were in the middle of the desert at a secluded spot for the famous Sounds of Silence dinner at Uluru. It was an activity I agonised over booking, availability wasn’t there, then it was, then it seemed too expensive, but now I couldn’t keep the smile off my face. Uluru so far had been magical, exceeding my expectations in every way.

As mentioned, booking our stay at Uluru had been a stressful experience. There is only one accommodation option there, The Ayers Rock Resort, but it caters for all levels of budget, from campsite to simple cabins to 3 and 4 star hotels. There are shops, museums and a huge range of activities available on site and Uluru and Kata Tjuta are a short drive away, which you’ll need to pay a $25 park fee per person for three days entry to the protected site. However, accommodation gets booked up fast and the online booking system was a nightmare, no one was replying to emails and calls went straight to an automated message so we had rushed to book two nights in where we could and hadn’t been able to arrange the Sounds of Silence dinner I was keen to do, so had instead opted for the sunrise Field of Light tour. On arrival we discovered they could squeeze us into a tiny spot that meant we could have an extra night which also meant we could book in for the Sounds of Silence dinner. Everything was coming together.

It was an early and freezing cold start to be up for the sunrise and to visit the Field of Light. This is an art installation of over seven football fields worth of lightbulbs slowly changing colour, fibre optic tendrils spreading out from them like something from Stranger Things. It was created by the artist Bruce Munro and was originally conceived in 1992 when he visited the red desert with his wife and said of the place;

“There was a charge in the air that gave me a very immediate feeling which I didn’t fully understand […] It was a moment when I felt at one with the world […] I recorded thoughts of creating a sculpture on a landscape scale, incongruous in size and location, and experienced by the transient visitors […] I saw in my mind a landscape of illuminated stems that, like dormant seeds in a dry desert, quietly wait until darkness falls, under a blazing blanket of southern stars, to bloom with gentle rhythms of light.”

The art installation is so far temporary and will only exist until 2020 so I was keen to see it while I could. First we got a view from above, looking down on the huge expanse from a dune top viewpoint. Then we got to walk amongst them, pathways winding this way and that, the whole place feeling like something out of a sci-fi or fantasy film.

As the light began to creep into the sky the automatic and solar powered bulbs began to switch off and we made our way back to the dune top to watch the sunrise with hot chocolates in hand.

We had caught glimpses of Uluru as we drove in, seeing it from afar, but this felt like a special reveal. Uluru went from a shadow on the horizon to a glowing red rock, as if it was pulling all the sunlight into itself, warming up for the day. Which was something we were in desperate need of. Once we could pull ourselves away we headed back to the van and climbed back into bed, still early in the morning, to try and get toasty and ready for the rest of our day.

We had seen Uluru from afar and now it was time to take a look up close. The base walk is 10km but there is a shorter walk called the Mala walk which takes you as far as Kantju Gorge or you can hire bikes and cycle round if you aren’t up for the long walk. I wish we had also known about the free guided version of the Mala walk you can do in the mornings too as this is the perfect way to learn about the Aboriginal stories associated with this sacred place. Instead we gathered information from the Cultural Centre before setting off and it was well worth doing as it meant we could look out for the specific formations that denoted stories.

Uluru is fascinating to see up close as one side looks fairly symmetrical but the other side is a contortion of shapes. There are areas that look like the rock has been burned with acid, a section where it looks as if the side has melted and dripped down into a cavern and up close you can see the mottled surface looks almost like rust or copper.

The Story of Kunija and Liru

Wherever you walk around Mutitjulu Waterhole, you are surrounded by the presence of two ancestral beings – Kuniya, the woma python, and Liru, the poisonous snake.

The Kuniya and Liru story occurs on different sides of Uluru, but their deadly battle took place near Mutitjulu Waterhole.

The Kuniya woman came from far away in the east to hatch her children at Uluru. She carried her eggs strung around her neck like a necklace and brought them
to rest at Kuniya Piti on Uluru’s north-east corner. There she left the eggs on the ground.

Kuniya camped at Taputji and hunted in the nearby sandhills. As she left and entered her camp, she formed deep grooves in the rock. These grooves are still there.

One day, Kuniya had to draw on all her physical and magical powers to avenge
the death of her young nephew, also a Kuniya. He had enraged a group of Liru, or poisonous brown snakes, who travelled from the south-west to take revenge on him.

They saw him resting at the base of Uluru and rushed upon him, hurling their spears. Many spears hit the rock face with such force that they pierced it, leaving a series of round holes that are still obvious. The poor Kuniya, outnumbered, dodged what he could but eventually fell dead.

When news of the young python’s death reached his aunt on the other side of Uluru, she was overcome with grief and anger. She raced along the curves of the rock to Mutitjulu Waterhole, where she confronted one of the Liru warriors, who mocked her grief and rage.

Kuniya began a dance of immense power and magic. As she moved towards the Liru warrior she scooped up sand and rubbed it over her body. Her rage was so great that it spread like a poison, saturating the area at that time.

In a fearsome dance she took up her wana, or digging stick, and struck the head of the Liru. But her anger was now beyond restraint,
and she hit him again across the head.

He fell dead, dropping his shield near Mutitjulu Waterhole, where Kuniya herself remains as a sinuous black line on the eastern wall. The blows she struck are two deep cracks on the western wall, and the Liru’s shield, now a large boulder, lies where it fell.

-from https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/culture/stories/kuniya-liru-story/

One of the things to be aware of around Uluru and much of the outback, is flies. They are everywhere and they will get everywhere. You may feel like a fool but I highly recommend a fly net and we even got stopped by people who thought it was a great idea and asked where they could get some from – ours were generously gifted to us by one of the parents of the kids Joey taught.

The other thing to know about Uluru is that the Aboriginal People ask you not to climb it. I was aware of this before we arrived and as the climb is closing permanently in October it has been a topic of conversation every time we mentioned we were going, yet still it shocked me to see so many people climbing the rock right next to a sign that literally asks people not to climb. For the Anagu people Uluru is a sacred site, not unlike a church would be to a Catholic or a mosque to a Muslim, so it is worth asking yourself whether you would climb these sacred buildings? There is the argument that Uluru is natural and so that should make it available for everyone to do as they wish, however if anything this should make us want to protect it more. We can’t renovate something natural, once it is worn down or damaged by tourists there is no going back. Most importantly it is the route for Mala men to complete as part of their Mala ceremonies. If you need another reason not to climb, it is also dangerous; the way is steep and there is only a metal chain fence to use as support on the way up. To date 35 people have died climbing Uluru, something which greatly saddens the Anagu people. If you will be visiting before October, please do not climb this sacred site, there are plenty more ways to enjoy this incredible place.

It had been a long day, starting with a sunrise it felt only fitting to end by watching the sunset. Even though we got there early the sunset viewing Carpark was pretty full and all the best spots taken. We knew that we had other opportunities to get a better view, so we mentally edited out the tree that was central to our view, brewed some hot chocolates and set ourselves up in the back of the van. As the light changes from oranges and yellows to pale lilacs and blues so did Uluru change from a burning orange to a dusky purple.

Uluru is without a doubt the main attraction but the national park is also home to Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas. The sacred sites of the Anangu, and in fact any aboriginal Dreamtime stories, can only be told in part as each must be kept secret within the different tribes and passed down through families. Kata Tjuta is an important site for men’s business and so little of the Dreamtime stories are known about this place, which may be another reason why Uluru is better known as we have more access to these stories, even if we still only know them in part. It is still an incredible place and so different from Uluru yet equally striking against the otherwise flat landscape. We headed there for a walk and a look around. Again there are various length walks you can do and this time we opted to go through the Olgas rather than do a longer base walk around it, offering some very different views when you are surrounding by the magnificent red rock.

In the evening it was time for our Sounds of Silence dinner. We were picked up by bus just outside the campground with other guests and transferred to a secluded area of desert quite a distance from Uluru. It was another chance to watch the sunset and this time we could do so while sipping Prosecco and nibbling canapés. The area where we mingled was perfectly located to be able to see Uluru on one side and Kata Tjuta on the other. To be honest I think I preferred the sunset over Kata Tjuta just because it is perfectly placed to be thrown into darker shadows, creating a much more intestine silhouette as the colours of the sky burn around it. When we were shown to our table we happened to be seated perfectly to take it all in.

While enjoying our bubbly we got talking a lovely Australian family visiting Uluru. David and Helen were traveling with their grown son, Benjamin and his partner Mijoko. Over dinner we spoke about Dark Emu, an interesting book and a constellation the star guide referenced later, about Aboriginal culture. We compared campervans and it was safe to say theirs sounded much more impressive than ours and by the end of the evening we had been invited to visit anytime we were in Cairns, where they were from. The evening was beautiful but it was made even more special by making new friends.

As for the dinner itself, we were serenaded by a didgeridoo through our starter of tomato soup (which even though it was a simple dish was full of flavour) and then invited up for the buffet dinner after. I didn’t have high expectations for this but every bite was delicious and we even got to try kangaroo (actually very tasty and similar to beef) and crocodile (a bit too fishy at times and the texture of calamari), though my favourite of the night was the creamiest risotto I’ve ever had in my life. Desert wasn’t as great, but perhaps that was because my nut allergy only allowed me to have a couple of selections of the mini cakes and tarts on offer. The hot chocolate and port to finish the night made up for it though.

Between dinner and desert was when our star guide took us on a journey through the night sky (so cheesy but I couldn’t resist writing it) helping us spot certain constellations and telling us stories of the stars. “When the disciples could not answer the wise sage’s question,” our guide concluded, “he told them the answer. The true night ends when two travellers meet and share a meal and wine and look up at the stars and realise they look at the same stars, they are the same people, that’s when a true night ends and a new dawn begins”. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe this perfect night.

The Outback Roadtrip – German Food, Kangaroos and Underground Homes

The road trip had only just begun but already our van was running into problems. It was jerky and struggling to get up hills or change gears and though it had started along the Great Ocean Road, by The Grampians we had to admit we couldn’t go any further until it was sorted. We called the mechanic who had done our roadworthy in Melbourne and though he tried to diagnose the issue over the phone there wasn’t much he could do. He knew a guy in Adelaide who could take a look at it for us if we could get it there but we didn’t want to risk the long drive. We asked around for a local mechanic and rocked up first thing to find out what was going on. Within minutes he knew it was an ignition misfire and luckily said he believed we could nurse it to Adelaide and get it fixed there as he was booked solid that day and we wanted to avoid staying somewhere so out of the way.

With the road trip at least temporarily back on we set off straight away but before Adelaide we had one more stop to make. Back in Melbourne we had spoken to two different people who recommended a German town outside of Adelaide called Hahndorf. They said there was good food and cute shops and it sounded like our kind of place.

We arrived late in the afternoon and once we were all set up at the campsite we ventured out into the rain to find food. There are a few German pubs in Hahndorf all of which do these huge sharing platters of German food, which as soon as I read about I knew we had to try. The Hahndorf Inn had the best reviews and straight away we had great service, being offered to sit by the fire and getting wine recommendations. The German Platter was piled high with pork shoulder, the meat falling off the bone, pork chops, sauerkraut and a variety of German sausage plus two pretzels. It was all a bit too much even for us! Tasty, but very stodgy too. No room for dessert!

The next day we got to explore the town a bit more, ducking into shops selling handmade soaps, candles and honey. We admired the expensive imported wooden trinkets made in Germany and realised it would be cheaper for us to fly to Germany to buy something there than to buy here. We also tried out one of the other German restaurants called Haus, this one had more of a mix of cuisine on the menu so was a great place for breakfast, serving some of the most delicious pancakes and poached eggs we had so far on the trip.

When we reached Adelaide it was too late to get the van looked at that day and we happened to have arrived on a weekend so we extended our stay and waited until Monday to get the van seen to. In the meantime it was a good opportunity to catch up with Ashlie, a friend of a friend who had started her working holiday visa a few months before us and happened to fly across from the East Coast to Adelaide in search of farm work. It was so nice to commiserate on finding work and share the ups and downs of travel. We got to chat to a few of the friends she had made in the hostel too and gain some travel tips from them and her. More than anything, I think for both of us, it was nice to have that little piece of familiarity from back home and I hoped our paths would cross again while in Australia.

Finally we managed to get the van looked at and the ignition misfire confirmed. As much as we love the van it has been a struggle and a cause for some low moments when our plans seem halted to get things fixed or paperwork needing to be ticked off. It had been a huge worry for us that if the repairs set us back financially it would change the course of our trip, or even lead us to have to give up the van entirely, or if not now then it could become a constant stop start on our journey and possibly even leave us stranded in a tricky situation if we broke down on the road. It is something we had accepted when we knew we wanted to buy a vehicle and road trip Australia but when the reality hits it can be a different story. Thankfully the costs were less than first quoted and it was all sorted in a day putting us back on track for the next leg of our journey.

Along the Great Ocean Road the drive times had been relatively short at 2 – 4 hours per day. Now we were heading into the outback those drive times would mostly be 6 – 8 hours long. Port Augusta was our first stop and this was mainly to break things up a little bit. It is definitely a hub for different road trips, whether you are heading north, south or west, it is a good jumping off point and quite a pretty place in its own way with a huge river cutting through it.

After resting up and enjoying the first evening of the trip so far that we were able to sit outside our van for a little while, it was an early start to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town whose residence have a unique way of living. Most of Coober Pedy’s homes are actually underground! This means that the houses stay cool in the hot sun and it makes expanding easy as you simply dig out another room whenever you need one. Even our campground was underground…well… sort of. We opted to stay at Riba’s Underground Campsite, which is just outside the town and offers people the chance to pitch up their tents underground for a campsite with a difference. Unfortunately we couldn’t park the van up underground so we had to live with the dust and the wind up top but we did join in with the mining tour the owner runs on site.

We gathered at the entrance with quite a big group of other guests at 7pm and were taken down into the cavern where various pieces of equipment were set up to demonstrate the method of opal mining in Coober Pedy. Our guide was a little odd, trying too hard to be funny at times and getting quite short with people (verging on rude) if anyone asked any questions as he clearly had his speeches and ways of explaining things that he didn’t want to be interrupted or thrown off course. It was $26 per person but meant we got 50% off one night stay but to be honest we saw better and cheaper mining tours around town so I wouldn’t necessarily be suckered in by this deal.

Still, it was interesting to learn how miners would follow certain veins in the rock to where the opal was most likely to be. Most of the mines were dug out by hand but slowly machinery began to be brought in and huge blowers would be used to suction out the debris creating the iconic mounds of dust and limestone that you’ll see scattered across the otherwise flat landscape as you arrive in Coober Pedy. If you are lucky you may even find some opal shrapnel by noodling (sieving through) these piles, something we saw several people doing while we were there.

The next day we visited Josephine’s Gallery and Kangeroo Sanctuary and met Judy, an incredibly knowledgeable woman both on aboriginal art and kangaroos. To begin with we had time to look around the gallery. There were some gorgeous art pieces but all too expensive for us frugal backpackers! Though we did treat ourselves to some smaller, cheaper prints of the original art. Once enough of a crowd had gathered we were taken out back to where the kangaroos were. They currently have three adults and many more joeys. We were handed some wasabi peas (apparently kangaroos like spicy food! They even eat the plants in the wild that have a spicier taste that other animals don’t eat) and all stuck our hands over the fence expectantly. But they were too lazy and remained where they were, collapsed in some interesting positions…

The little joey she brought out next was much more friendly. After having some milk Clyde clambered out of his pouch strapped to Judy and hopped around, exploring the little courtyard area, licking the wasabi peas (he was still to young to eat them but liked the flavour anyway) and sniffing at everything. He liked reaching up to give Judy a cuddle and let us stroke him too – he had the softest fur! Judy told us so many facts about kangaroos but one that stuck with me was that kangaroos actually use their hormones to choose the sex of their offspring right before birth. With most animals the sex is random or if it is affected by hormones it happens much earlier in the pregnancy but kangaroos can wait until the last moment to judge whether the ratio of male to females is right before the joey is born to keep things in balance. Pretty cool!

Although I could have had cuddles with little Clyde all day long, eventually we had to let him hop back into his pouch for a nap and head out exploring. We stopped off at the Big Winch View point, which is no more exciting than the name describes but did gives us a Birdseye view of this strange town. Everywhere you look there are junk piles or sculptures made from abandoned cars and rusted metal. It seems almost like an abandoned post-apocalyptic landscape, which may be why it was chosen as a location to film the Mad Max films. To get a real sense of what is going on beneath ground it is worth checking out Faye’s Underground home.

It was only $10 per person to look around the house and $15 to see the mine as well. We were taken through each room and told more about underground living and about Faye and the two other women she lived with who helped build the house. Faye came to Coober Pedy in the 60’s and decided to start opal mining, she hand dug her house, which became known for parties, as was evidenced by the liquor cupboard there. As their mining company became more successful they even built an above ground pool, which was a major luxury seeing as they had to have the water driven up from Adelaide to fill it! But they were always welcoming guests and neighbours to make use of it. They sounded like pretty badass women.

Coober Pedy is probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever been and for that reason alone it is worth visiting, even if it isn’t somewhere you would want to linger. Our next stop was to be a big one though – Uluru. It has been a place I’ve always wanted to visit and I couldn’t wait to get there.

The Road Trip Begins

Finally, after much paperwork and repairs, the van was ready for us to hit the road. We had ended up spending a couple of weeks in Melbourne and we felt this was more than enough. We were ready to move on and put our road trip plans into action.

On a grey morning we did our final preparations and set off for The Great Ocean Road. We couldn’t have picked a more scenic way to begin our trip. The Great Ocean Road actually officially starts from Torquay, a surfing town just outside Melbourne, and hugs the coastline for 243km until it reaches Warrnambool. Along the way there are plenty of viewpoints to stop off at and towns to explore so I had planned that our first day of driving would be a short one. The drive itself is half the fun though. The road twisted and turned, always with the sea to our left, crashing against rocks or lapping at small beaches. We passed coastal towns and stopped along the way at Point Addis, one of the many scenic viewpoints along the route. It felt so good to know that we were finally on our way.

Even though I had planned a short driving day after a late start and stopping for a few photo opportunities it was getting dark by the time we turned off The Great Ocean road and headed inland to find our first camp spot for the night. I had picked a free site in the Otway National Park called Beauchamp Falls. I pictured us arriving early, in time for a quick hike down the falls and then setting up camp. As is easy to do in Australia I had misjudged distance and we found ourselves driving through the dark up a long and winding road. Either side of us was thick forest and the signal was patchy and then gone entirely. We only passed one other vehicle, a mini bus of Asian Tourists, who stopped to ask the way back to Melbourne. We warned them it was a long drive and they would arrive in the city late and they warned us that they had turned back because the road was too narrow. But we had no choice but to carry on.

When we eventually pulled into the basic campsite it was pitch black. We used the headlights to scout the campground and found we couldn’t even park up on the grass as there were bollards in the way. There was no one else there and the deep dark forest surrounded us on every front. My imagination was running wild. Every bad horror movie was running through my head and looked suspiciously into the trees, half expecting to hear something or someone stirring. I tried to push these thoughts aside and started cooking dinner, making the van warm and cosy.

In the morning I emerged from the van into a tranquil forest glen. What had seemed dark and eery the night before was actually a gorgeous forest, with moss and vines growing over the trees that stretched endlessly to the sky and curly fungus growing on fallen logs. I stood in the middle of it all and took in the beautiful quiet, only the occasionally drip from the leaves around me and the twittering of birds nearby.

We were up nice and early and headed over to the nearby Otway Fly Treetop Adventure where you can either zip line through the trees or take a more sedate walk along the treetop walkway. Normally I’m always up for zip lining but to save a few bucks we opted for the walk instead. It was incredible to be right up in the canopy of these giant trees and there were signs with information about the local fauna that were really interesting. It is definitely worth a detour from the Great Ocean Road.

There was still plenty more to see along the next stretch of our journey and we headed out of Otway National Park and back to the coastline. There are several different rock formations along the Great Ocean Road, though the most famous and the one I was looking forward to the most was The Twelve Apostles. First we saw the Razorback, a long section of broken away cliff where the top has been worn razor thin by the elements. Then there is Loch Ard Gorge, which is named after a ship that wrecked there in 1878 as they were coming to the end of their three month journey from England to Melbourne. And finally The Grotto, an archway in the rock that frames a rock pool looking out to see, like a little private infinity pool. The Twelve Apostles is the main sight to see and it does perfectly capture what is so beautiful about the Great Ocean Road – a coastline stretching on forever, picturesque beaches and impressive rock formations. The Twelve Apostles are limestone stacks that have taken over 6000 years to form their shape and only eight remain after the other stacks collapsed into the ocean. But to me they were a symbol that the places I had seen pictures of, taken tips from guide books and brochures about and even described to others looking to book that trip, was now something I was getting to see and experience in real life. It brought home the fact that our long awaited road trip dreams were finally happening.

We veered off from The Great Ocean Road before it officially ended as our next stop was The Grampians National Park. It was another short drive day but again with all the stops in between we arrived as it was dark and bumped down a dirt track that led to our next free campsite. Luckily in this case there was another car on the road, a Juicy camper car we figured was also heading for the same campsite. We turned out to be correct and once we were parked up they came over to say hi. They were a lovely French couple spending six weeks exploring Australia and had already been in the national park for a couple of days so were able to give us tips on which hikes to do. This night didn’t feel quite so creepy as the last one and we were starting to find our feet with traveling in the van. Before settling in for the night we gazed up at spectacular starry sky, the Milky Way shimmering above us and loving every moment of being out in nature.

The next day we were off to explore it all by foot, starting our day of hiking with The Pinnacle, one of the most popular hikes in the Grampians. There are a few different options for walking it. You can start from Halls Gap, which is around 9.6km and takes around 5 hours going in a loop, there is the Sundial Carpark start point which is around 2.1km and 2 hours or from Wonderland Carpark which is similar distance and length but a slightly more challenging route. We started our walk from Sundial Carpark, mainly because we had one full day here and there were other hikes we wanted to fit in as well. The first natural marker we came across was The Grand Canyon,which isn’t quite as Grand as the one in the USA and made of grey stone instead of red (wish I could tell you the actual types instead of just the colours but that’s as far as my geology stretches). It is easy to think of Australia as being all like the outback, very much a desert landscape, but one of the things that has fascinated me about this country is just how different it can look from one area, one town, one state to another. In the Grampians, despite the different coloured rock, it could have been an American National Park we were hiking through – apart from the eucalyptus trees every so often – no koalas though unfortunately.

From the mini Grand Canyon we continued following the dusty path upwards, passing little nooks in the rock perfect for cooling off and tall sparse trees either side of us. Sometimes we followed the path and sometimes simple markers as we walked over rock. Eventually we reached Silent Street, an indication that we were nearing the top. This narrow path between a stone crevasse finished with a few steep stairs and only another ten minutes or less to the top. The Pinnacle itself is a rock jutting out (not unlike pride rock in the Lion King) over an incredible view o the National Park below. The views took your breath away but there was still more to see.

If I thought the view from The Pinnacle was amazing then I was even more blown away by the view from Baroka Lookout. For this we had to jump back in the van and head upwards on some very wiggly roads, even the temperature dropped further this high up. But it was worth it. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to see so far from a viewpoint before.

After Baroka Lookout we did another couple of shorter walks, one to The Balconies, an almost mini version of The Pinnacle but on a much flatter walk and overlooking a different side of the Grampians. The second to MacKenzie Falls Lookout. You can do a longer hike down to the falls themselves but we were feeling a bit tired at this point and opted to just look from afar from the shorter viewpoint walk instead. It turned out we made the right decision as after checking out the falls we turned to do a loop back to where we came from where a sudden movement to our right startled us both. We turned to see a wallaby hopping away into the brush. We got a good clear look at him as he tried to suss us out and then hopped into denser brush then we spotted a second but both were so well camouflaged (there is a wallaby in the first photo below as evidence of this – check out @ThereAndBackAgainJJ for a clearer video) we could have walked pass a hundred that day and not realised. We were so excited to see them up close and we got an extra treat back at the campsite when a cluster were grazing just outside our van at night and some were even nearby in the morning as we packed up for our next destination.

I would have loved to stay in The Grampians longer. There is so much to explore and many more hikes on offer, plus the campsite itself was so peaceful, but unfortunately up all the hilly roads our van had started making strange noises and we felt it was best to get it checked out in Adelaide where there were more accommodation options if we had to leave the van overnight to be fixed. As great as van life is this was a reality check to us that there are always possibilities of things going wrong and we crossed our fingers that we would make it to Adelaide safe and sound, that the van would be an easy fix and that this wouldn’t be the end of our road trip before it had really begun.

Melbourne – Exploring Australia’s Most Liveable City

Melbourne was voted most liveable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit for seven years in a row, a record breaking length (until it recently lost out to Vienna) and out of everyone I had spoken to about Melbourne I had only found two people who weren’t too keen. It was why we chose Melbourne as our starting point, to suss it out as a potential place to live later in the trip. Yet a week into arriving in this magnificent city and we hadn’t seen anything more interesting than the VICSRoad office, the bank and our caravan park. With life admin squared away we decided it was high time we checked out what Melbourne had to offer.

Melbourne Sea Life Centre

Just down the road from our hostel (also a short walk from Flinder’s street Station) is Melbourne Sea Life Centre, so after passing it so many times we decided to kill an afternoon while waiting for van repairs to take a look around. It was fun to check out, especially when trying to spot and name the fish we had seen on recent dives, but it was definitely more of a family activity. With the ticket price at per person $42 (or $32.50 if you have student discount) it probably isn’t worth it for a backpacker on a budget. That being said I did enjoy the talk by the big tank which features several types of shark, giant rays and a massive grouper called Mr G. When they first bought Mr G to the aquarium they decided to make sure he was well fed so that when he was introduced into his new tank he wouldn’t eat any of the other fish. They stuffed him full of 12kg of fish and figured that was more than enough. Oh no. Not for Mr G! He had been in the tank only a short while before he swam up to one of the sharks, almost the same size as him, and swallowed him whole. Yep. A grouper ate a shark whole. I never thought I would be more scared of a grouper than a shark! Apparently if you had blinked you missed it, his huge mouth opened and just gulped the shark whole. As unbelievable as it sounds, watching Mr G contentedly swimming around his tank, huge mouth gaping, it actually wasn’t too hard to believe.

Melbourne Zoo

I love a good zoo! I know a lot of people question the ethics of zoos but I believe as long as you are selective about going to legit zoos with a good reputation and outstanding conservation efforts, you can support something worthwhile. Melbourne Zoo was super easy to get to with tram, bus and train routes that stop directly outside the zoo. It’s a reasonable size too that if you want to see the whole park you can fi it into a full day without feeling rushed. The enclosures are broken down into groups and paths lead you on loops around each section. There are plenty of eating options but like most zoos it is all overpriced so best to bring a picnic. The only downside was the animal talks were quite short, less than ten minute run downs on the animals main attributes and background. It was one of my favourite things to do in Melbourne because it is always a joy to me to watch animals just being animals.

Free Walking Tour

After an incredible free walking tour in Berlin that set the bar high, we always keep a lookout for free walking tours wherever we travel. They are a great way to get a feel for a city and know your way around while getting an interesting history and side stories about the place. At the end you tip what you feel the tour was worth, or what your budget will allow. We took this tour with walkingtours101 which we heard about through the YHA hostel as they do pick ups there. He told us many interesting facts about the city, including that it was originally designed without any town squares as they didn’t want places where people could gather. Our guide explained the rebellion against the gold mining licences at the Eureka stockade and how the Eureka tower represents this with the red representing the blood shed, the blue the flag they flew and of course the gold top for the gold. Another interesting fact is that the city was originally called Batmania after one of the founding fathers called John Batman. Personally I think they should have kept the name, imagine telling people you were just off to Batmania for the weekend! The highlight for me was ending. At the Melbourne gaol where Ned Kelly was hung. Our guide told us the story of Ned Kelly’s final showdown and it sounded epic and made me interested to know more.

Secret bars – Berlin’s Bar

There are loads of secret bars in Melbourne. They have adopted the prohibition style without ever having had a prohibition in Australia. I wanted to check out a few more than just Berlin Bar but being a bit far out from the city centre this was the only one we made it to. It is above a bar called House of Maximon, which holds a free comedy night (again tip what you like) every Wednesday night. The bar is designed with one half like east Berlin and the other half like West Berlin, though we heard that strangely most people choose to sit by Stalin’s portrait in West Berlin than to enjoy the glam of the East Berlin decor.

Laneways

As part of our walking tour we passed through Hosier Lane, well known for its ever-changing street art. We were recommended to go more than once as you’ll see something different every time; this was definitely true as some of the art had already changed only a few days later when we passed through again. Most of the best stuff in Melbourne happens down these laneways, there are quirky shops, cute cafes and hidden gems of restaurants waiting to be found. We also met a friend for drinks at Chuckles Park Bar, right near Flinders Street, that turned out not to be down an alleyway but the bar was the alleyway itself! Heaters gave the place a warming glow, lanterns hung above us and the little shed at the end served up cocktails, wines and beers. Perfect place to spend an evening after a day exploring the city’s backstreets.

Immigration Museum

We walked past this museum over and over again and what caught my eye was the exhibition on tattoos in different cultures that sounded interesting. On a rainy day we decided it was a good time to mooch about the museum. Students get in for free, otherwise an adult ticket is $15, and it is worth checking out. The exhibitions are detailed and thought provoking. I’ll admit I found the tattoo exhibition the most interesting but it was a great rainy day activity.

St Kilda

I had heard lots of good things about St Kilda – basically if you like cafes, good food and markets this is the place to go. We went on the weekend and there were definitely Sunday vibes in the air. Everyone was eating outside in the sun and it reminded of pub lunches back home. The other great thing about Sunday is the St Kilda Esplanade Market that runs every Sunday and sells all sorts of trinkets, home-made soaps and tasty oils, spices and other foods with plenty of tasters on hand. Another must do is to try one of the cake shops in St Kilda. Europa has windows lined with chunky cheesecakes, thick wedges of cakes and fruity tarts – just about every treat you could want! We grabbed a chocolate cheesecake for me and a lemon meringue pie for Joey and headed to the Botanical Gardens for a mini picnic.

As the sun started to set we headed to the Pier for the other reason we had come to St Kilda. Every evening the little Fairy Penguins that call the rocks surrounding the pier home come back to their nests to fee their young and rest up before heading back out into the bay at dawn to fish again. Get there early as it gets very crowded but once the penguins start coming in people tend to disperse and stay a little later to see many of these cute penguins up close. The little penguins are kept an eye on by volunteers from Earthcare St Kilda, a non-profit organisation that work to protect the penguins and their home, making sure a safe distance is kept and their habitat isn’t disturbed.

I could see why Melbourne had won the award for most liveable city. I imagined myself living here, heading to the markets for fresh veg, hopping on the free inner city trams, spending lazy weekends in St Kilda and discovering all the secret bars with friends of an evening. At the same time the cold and the rain was off-putting and with so much more to explore of this vast country we were excited to move on. It was the perfect start place and I look forward to visiting again in the summer, whether we will settle here or not is still a long way off, for now we have some road tripping to do.

Bali Part 3 – Broken Roads, Manta Rays and Surfer Pros

Spending the past week in one place was a really welcome break but with so much to see and do in Bali we started to get itchy feet to explore some more. We were enjoying island life and had heard good things about the Nusa islands so we hopped back on the ferry and left the gorgeous Gili islands behind.

Day 12 – To pick up where I left off we arrived in Nusa Lembongan and had booked a stay at Taos House. While checking in our host told us it was her birthday and invited us to join in the celebrations later that night. We were immediatly made to feel welcome with home cooked food and ice cold Bintang beers, which mysteriously kept replenishing every time one was finished. Once the Bintang ran low we were offered vodka in a small martini glass and from there graduated to a strong Balinese liquor that came from a plastic water bottle. Apart from the fact it tasted like nail polisher remover, it didn’t seem all that strong but that being said we only had a bottle cap full. It was a fun and unexpected experience – the party as a whole, not just the alcohol!

Day 13 – Our main reason for coming to the Nusa islands was because we had heard we were basically guaranteed to see manta rays there, something which had become a bucket list item for us after hearing it was a possibility in Bali. So first on the agenda was to find a dive centre and book in a manta dive. We asked around at a few places before settling on Two Fish divers and booking in for two dives the next day.

With this underway we stopped for lunch by the sea and then continued on our way the Mangrove forests. You can book boat trips, snorkel trips or kayaking through the forest. When a guy we were chatting to knocked the price down to 100,000 IDR we were tempted but having lots of cameras and bits with us we didn’t trust leaving them behind or potentially getting them wet. I had also read up that there wasn’t a huge amount to see in the Mangrove forest, that being said though the only way to see them is to take a boat trip. We went to the edge thinking we could at least see a little bit or venture part way in ourselves but the way is pretty much blocked by restaurants and places to arrange tours. Being able to bargain down to £5 for a couple of hours trip though isn’t a bad deal if you do want to explore.

From the mangroves it was on to the neighbouring island of Nusa Cenigan. I had heard of some beautiful spots, such as Blue Lagoon and Secret Beach. They were a bit tricky to track down and to be honest Blue Lagoon was pretty but nothing spectacular and after rattling down a dirt track and going through a resort to get to Secret Beach, I was disappointed to see it was nothing special. The wind and waves were too fierce to swim there and it was a rocky beach with very little sand to chill on. The photos I had seen online looked more impressive. It is something which has been a topic of conversation recently that many typical instagram spots in Bali turn out not to live up to expectation and I have to say this is something we encountered a lot. Many places looked nice but less impressive than the edited photos online and for these photos to have zero tourists in they must have had superb timing in visiting places as it was a constant struggle to get photos without crowds. Aesthetics aside the other disappointment is that many of these picturesque beaches are too dangerous to swim in and generally, views aside, there are not a lot of activities to do on these islands.

That being said, simply watching life pass by from the back of the motorbike, zipping through villages, past bustling markets, serene temples or even the beautiful blue ocean, on our way to these view points and beaches was an experience in itself and made the day all round worth it.

Day 14 – An early start for our dives this morning but it wasn’t long before we were on the boat speeding round to Nusa Penida. After some research we discovered that although Manta Point dive site is off Nusa Penida, most dive shops are based on Nusa Lembongan, although more are opening up on Nusa Penida now too, and they will charge an extra fee for the manta dive sites (150,000 IDR per person). On the way we saw a couple of dolphins jumping out of the surf and I took it as a good sign for the days dive.

The water was a lot colder than we had been used to in the Gili islands as manta rays prefer colder water. We were diving down to a known cleaning station where other fish come to eat parasites and other icky things from the rays, keeping them nice and healthy and feeding the other fish at the same time. I was expecting we would be lucky to see a couple on our dive but almost immediately we saw our first manta ray and it was stunning. I knew they would be big but their size still surprised me and so did their grace as they glided through the water. I could have watched them all day. The most magical moment was when a particularly dark one, black almost all over, came straight towards me. I hovered in the water as it moved closer, feeling completely at peace and in awe of this incredible creature, before it swerved away into the ocean depths. One of my favourite moments of the trip.

After that experience the second dive was a bit of an anti-climax however it was still a beautiful reef, teeming with fish. We managed to see a couple of moray eels and I even spotted a lobster that had recently de-shelled, the poor naked lobster looked very startled and scurried under a rock!

Day 15 – We checked out of our AirBnB and headed to the Yellow Bridge to get a boat across to Nusa Penida. The journey is just 10 – 15 minutes and costs 40,000 IDR per person each way. It was simple to get a ticket, there was a guy with a stall, he handed us a yellow ticket with the names of the boats on the back for us to look out for on our open return and then took a seat and waited to be called up. Our next Air BnB picked us up the other end and a kind local even helped us out by calling him to let him know we had arrived when he saw us trying to track down wifi to message him.

The rest of the day was spent chilling out and in the evening we hopped on a scooter hired from our host and headed to a popular restaurant I had read about online called Penida Colada. If you are a big group it is best to book ahead and I think most tables are reserved after 8pm as there is always a queue. But the wait wasn’t long and it was most definitely worth it! Penida Colada is a stylish beach side restaurant with a mixture of tables and more casual beanbags, benches and sofas, in case you want to wander straight off the beach, and is great for watching the sunset. It was started by a Balinese guy called Pak Wayan and his Australian wife, Liz, you can usually see him helping out around the restaurant and keeping things running smoothly. They only hire locals and cook with local produce, which is great in itself, but they also make it their mission to get involved in community projects, run beach cleanups you can join in with and sell eco friendly bits and bobs such as bamboo straws. The menu is quite small but there is only one thing you need to order – the honey barbequeue prawns. We ended up coming back a second time and I couldn’t resist eating them again. Joey had major regrets and food envy both times. If you are on Nusa Penida definitely pay them a visit, it is a great way to support the local community and eat some amazing food.

Day 16 – Around lunchtime we headed to the nearby Crystal Bay, the same bay we had done our second dive at, to chill on the beach. We were hoping it would be a bit more built up so we could grab lunch, wander through some shops and then relax on the beach but it turns out to be a few shack shops selling cheap lunch and not much else. So we chilled for a bit and then hit the road again to find the Guri Putri Cave temple.

When you arrive you can hire sarongs from a shop over the road, then head up the stairs where at the top you’ll receive a blessing and provide a donation to enter (40,000 IDR for two of us). The entrance is a very small hole you have to climb into. It isn’t too tight a squeeze and as soon as you are in the ceiling is low but it all opens up pretty quickly then you can walk through these huge caverns. It was very humid and there were several alters and statues in the different chambers we passed through. A few people were at prayer but otherwise when we visited it was very quiet.

At the end as we left there were some monkeys outside the temple, only I got completely caught off guard by one on a railing that I seemed to have also startled. He bared his teeth at me and then made to lunge forward, I took a step back and lowered my gaze, trying to appear submissive, and at the same time one of the men from the temple chased him off but it was a scary moment!

Day 17 – Today was our big siteseeing day. We were driving over to the other side of the island to see Broken Beach and Angel’s Billabong, Kelingking Beach and Waterfalls. As we were leaving our AirBnB host warned “broken beach, broken road” and he was not wrong! I expected some uneven ground, potholes and dirt tracks, what we got was mile stretches of all of these things combined to the worst possible standard you could imagine, plus going up and down hills, plus going round tight bends sometimes and as there were plenty of big cars taking other tourists there, we also had to occasionally dodge these too. “Hold on”, Joey was yelling repeatedly as I gripped the back of the motorbike and rattled around so much I swear my brain was bouncing about in my skull. But eventually, we made it.

Angel’s Billabong is a rock pool that creates a natural infinity pool overlooking the sea. If you come at low tide you can swim, enjoying the crystal clear waters, but at high tide the waves crash over the edge and it is too dangerous to enter the pool. We had tried to time our visit for low tide but seemed to have gotten the wrong information as the pool was cordoned off. There were so many people surrounding it to get photos that I was almost glad I wasn’t swimming with them in a small pool where everyone would be trying to get the over the edge shot.

Around the corner from Angel’s Billabong is Broken Beach, so called as it is encircled by land that has an opening, creating a kind of bridge on one side and an enclosed beach to look down on. You can’t get down to the beach but it makes for some stunning pictures from above.

Next was KelingKing Beach, so well known as the rocky outcrop next to it looks like a t-Rex head from above. Again it was a bit of a battle to get photos without people in (how they do it for instagram I have no idea?!) but it looked gorgeous. The beach is accessible here… if you fancy climbing down approximately one thousand steep steps. We went part way down for a better look but didn’t much fancy the climb back up and to be honest we would be glad we saved our energy. This is another beach that isn’t great for swimming, though as long as you don’t go too far out in the surf you can actually get in the water.

Final stop for the day was Waterfall and if I thought the steps at Kelkinking were bad I was in for a surprise! The blue stairs leading down was more like a ladder at points and the gaps between the stairs themselves were enough to make my knees weak. The fact that the old, collapsed and rusted previous stairs still lay directly underneath these new ones didn’t help either. However, it was worth the journey. At the bottom is a temple so you need to wear a sarong t visit. When we reached the rocks at the bottom there was water cascading over them and it was a little slippy so you had to be careful. We passed through the small temple gates and down the rocks, with nothing more than natural footholds to climb down, to an area where you can bathe. There is a set of mini infinity pools that offer a beautiful look out to sea as the waves crash just below you. For the first time that day there were not many people around, we reached the bottom not long before sunset so everything had a slight golden glow and the water was cool and refreshing after a humid hike down. It was so peaceful. I took a moment just to be.

Unfortunatly it couldnt last too long though as we were nervous about getting caught on bad roads in the dark so as much as I would have liked to sit and watch the sunset we got going on the long climb back up and luckily didn’t come across any broken roads on the way back.

Day 17 – The end of our trip was approaching fast and we had decided to spend our final days back in Canggu. We loved the food, it was nice to go back to somewhere we knew and we were still keen to give surfing a go. It took us retry much the whole day to get back as it involved getting the short boat trip back to Lembongan first, getting picked up by Scoot at the Yellow Bridge, a bumpy boat journey back to mainland Bali and then a long taxi ride mostly in traffic from Sanur to Canggu.

Day 18 – Canggu is known as a good place to give surfing a go as the waves are great for beginners. I had only tried surfing once before and loved it, so was keen to give it another try. We booked a lesson for 350,000 IDR per person but we went with the first person we spoke to so it is worth asking around for the cheapest price.

The instructor didn’t have the best English so I felt like I missed some of the finer points of surf techniques but once I got the hang of it in the water he was very encouraging. It was slightly disappointing that Joey had a different instructor and was taken off separately but he really needed bigger waves than me to get the best experience. We managed to cross paths though when I looked up to find the surfer in the white rash guard was my boyfriend, my first thought was ‘amazing! He’s standing up!’ And my second, as he came straight towards me was ‘please dont kill me!’ Up to that point I had been struggling to stand, always losing my balance at the last moment, but I think seeing him made me more determined than ever and on my next go I stood up on the board. I was amazed that I managed to ride a wave a fair while and only jump off when I was either losing momentum or heading towards another surfer.

It was a great way to end our time in Bali and we sat talking over our trip and reminiscing about our favourite parts as we sat on the beach, cold drinks in hand and watched surfers more pro than us. Our next adventure was about to start and although I hoped there would be more times like this I knew that we had a lot to do when we touched down in Melbourne. Bali was the perfect break we needed to soak up the sun, let go of past stresses and find our feet traveling. There were times this country surprised me, times it didn’t quite meet expectations and times it exceeded them immensely. Above all I can see why people come back again and again and I knew as we lingered another moment longer on that beach, that we too would be back again one day.

Bali Part 2 – Turtles, Reef Sharks and Sunsets

Gili Trawangan is an island off Lombok known for a party atmosphere but even if partying is not your thing there are a host of other activities to enjoy. We had barely dipped our toes into the ocean and now we were off to the gorgeous white sands and crystal clear waters of Gili T for diving, snorkelling and more. If you want to hit the strip and hop from bar to bar there are cheap drinks to be had and great live music to get the party started. However, our scene is a bit more laid back and we discovered there is still plenty of more chilled out spots, fresh local seafood to try and amazing ocean life to experience.

Day 7 – We travelled to Gili T on a one way ferry ticket for 500,000 IDR for both of us, which is around £28. There may be cheaper deals to be had if you book a return ticket or even with a bit more haggling but since we had heard of return tickets for one going for 600,000 IDR we didn’t think this was too bad. It’s always hard to know what is a fair deal for the locals and a cheap price for yourself.

It was an early start to get to the dock with an hour transfer there and then a lot of standing around in the heat waiting for our boat. You need to have your wits about you as a guy who seemed to be taking us to our boat left us waiting and never came back to collect us when it actually turned up. Luckily the local hawkers on the pier were very helpful and let us know we needed to get a move on to catch our boat. The journey was fine if a bit hot and stuffy and we were soon piling out onto the white sands of Gili T.

Just seeing the hustle and bustle of holiday makers and backpackers, the array or restaurants, shops and bars along the beach front and the dive shops everywhere you looked we had already decided we were glad not to get a return ticket and to extend our time here. Having a 4* hotel also helped! Villa Ombak was stunning and we stayed in a traditional Lumbung room, with our own private terrace and balcony plus outdoor shower to bathe under the stars. We wanted to stay forever.

Day 8 – Knowing our days in luxury were numbered we took full advantage of the facilities today and spent most of the day swimming and sunbathing. In the afternoon we went back to one of the dive shops we had checked out earlier and booked in to dive the next day.

Day 9 – There are a lot of choice with dive shops but after ducking our heads into a few we went with Dive Central as they made the dive sites sound most exciting and seemed pretty chill about us getting back in the water after quite a break from the last time. Only downside was we did feel at times they were selling the dive packages and courses a little too much. This is surely down to competition from other dive shops and partly also because we seemed to speak to a different person each time but as we dropped in a few times over the course of the week to chat about what dive sites were coming up this got a bit repetitive.

Selling aside they were great to dive with and we headed to Turtle Heaven for a mid morning dive. This certainly lived up to its name! Within 5-10 minutes we had spotted our first turtle. They have a mix of Green and Hawksbill turtles and I’ll admit I’m not sure I could tell the difference. I was impressed by the size though with some stretching up to my shoulder if we were laid down next to each other. We lost track of how many we saw in the end but we loved every minute and along with turtles we saw a stonefish, trumpetfish and humphead bannerfish. Along with, of course, many of the regulars you see on tropical reefs, the yellow, black and white bannerfish you would recognise as Gill from Finding Nemo, clownfish too, many bright blue and neon fish, anemones and so much more. If you want to see a video of the dive you can check it out here on our facebook page @ThereAndBackAgainJJ.

Day 10 – As if we hadn’t had enough of turtles we started our day with a snorkelling trip. If you are on a budget then you can join the group boat trips from as little as 150,000 IDR (around £8) but these trips can have up to 30 people on them, so a great way to meet other backpackers but also expect crowds. We opted for a two hour private snorkelling trip so we could choose a time when the sites would be less busy and went early in the morning, which I would definitely recommend. We paid 600,000 (around £34), which in hindsight was more than it was worth for 2 hours, especially as they had advertised it as 4 sites and we only went to 3, however the first place we went to had asked for 900,000 and we had talked the one we booked with down from 750,000 but we were told the prices were high because of peak season.

Regardless we had a great time! Our first stop was Turtle Heaven again and this time the turtles were a lot more active, coming up to the surface to breathe so that we could swim right alongside them. It felt magical to dive under the waves and float along next to them as they munched on coral.

The second site was not great visibility so we didn’t see a huge amount of sea life and didn’t stay long. The final site was the famous ring of statues that is also a popular instagram spot and this was my least favourite of the day. It was pretty cool to dive down and swim amongst the statues but dodging the flippers of other snorkelers trying to get that perfect shot in the water was not so fun. The way everyone was splashing about in clusters reminded me of a net of fish on dry land, flapping about, not really sure which way to go. It has the possibility of being such a peaceful spot but after a while it got a bit too much and we gave up and hopped back on the boat.

To end the day we hired bikes from our Air BnB (by this point we had moved to Lumbung Cottage Air BnB, a huge step back to basics after our gorgeous hotel but it would do the trick or the next few days and the staff were very helpful and kind) and set off to see more of the island. We stuck to the coast and some of the paths were pretty tricky, stony or too sandy to ride over at all, when we cycled back we had more luck cutting across the island where the roads weren’t cut off by sections of beach. The sunset side of the island is a completely different vibe, very quiet and dining and drinking options a lot more spread out but I have to say some of the accommodation we passed looked lovely. Definitely a good shout if you want some peace and quiet. We settled down right in line for the sunset and although slightly obscured by the clouds, it was gorgeous and the perfect way to end the day.

Day 11 – Joey wasn’t feeling a second dive so opted to do research on our next stop but as you can’t keep me out of the water I booked an early morning dive to Shark Point. Dive Central explained that with the water temperature drop recently and the sharks enjoying cooler water there was a good chance of seeing them and I was in luck! This dive was deeper than the one before and the currents were strong so it was a bit of a battle at times but as we were drifting along, letting the current take us, our guide pointed out two white tip reef sharks sitting on the bottom. Neither were huge but one was bigger than the other and both darted awake as us divers went past. I wasn’t nervous of the sharks at all, they really just look like big fish, but I can’t say I would be so chill if it was a great white!

Along with the sharks I saw a sting ray and blue spotted eagle ray, an octopus hiding away in the rocks and a cuttlefish that was so well camouflaged I had to look three times to spot him! It’s incredible to see this animals in their natural habitat and I’m always recommending people give diving a go to enjoy the same wonders. It may not be for everyone but it certainly gives you a whole new perspective from snorkelling alone and actually a lot of the time the breathing is easier (if that’s something that worries you) as there is no chance of accidentally sucking up water. You won’t notice the depth either because there is just so much to see! It really is an amazing experience I feel privileged to be able to do.

Day 12 – As I write this we are sitting in a cafe not far rom the ferry port waiting to catch a ride to Nusa Lembongan where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Nusa Penida and finally back to Canggu for a final couple of nights. There are lots to do on these islands so I feel our chill out time is coming to an end but having the luxury of three weeks to explore means we’ve been able to do everything at a slow pace and not cram a lot in. The Nusa islands offer some amazing beaches, cliff top lookouts and swimming with manta rays (fingers crossed for us and this big bucket list item!) so lots to see and do. We managed to get a direct ferry from Gili T for 600,000 IDR for both of us which also included a ferry on from Nusa Lembongan back to Sanur, Bali and a transfer from there to Canggu, so even better value than our outbound trip. And apparently boats between the islands are pretty cheap.

I can’t believe we have reached the end of our second week in Bali! I can feel that now we are more energised our attention is beginning to shift to Australia and all we need to prepare for our Working Holiday. It is exciting to still have so much to look forward to but for now I can’t wait to get to Nusa Lembongan and plan our next week of adventuring.

Bali Part 1 – Finding Our Feet, Thieving Monkeys and Canyoning

Bali, the land of rice paddies, instagrammable swing moments and stunning temples. I had previously dismissed Bali on the South East Asia trip as being too touristy, and though this may still be true, I’ve had so many recommendations to go I couldn’t wait to see it for myself. It also seemed like the perfect respite between quitting our jobs and heading over to work in Australia and only a week into our Bali trip so far, that is exactly what it has been.

Day 1 – We arrived in the evening to Denpasar and had a transfer booked through our Air BnB, though I’ve heard much advise on being careful with the taxis ripping you off and being careful to get metered taxis or even walk a way outside the airport to find a decent rate. Our first two nights were in Canggu, which I had heard was less touristy than Kuta and Seminyak but still close enough to the airport to not be too long of a drive after we had just arrived – though I never accounted for the traffic, which meant we arrived late and crashed out almost immediately.

Day 2 – I was keen to experience surfing in Canggu as the waves are often perfect for beginners but between jet lag and a general feeling of finding our feet in a new place we actually opted to give it a miss for now but hope to return later in the trip.

Instead we explored the local area and enjoyed the food – Oh my gosh the food! We ate mostly Western fare and struggled to find local Balinese places (although we didn’t stray too far from the beaten track either) but every meal was deliscious from the much-needed breakfast burger to the healthy chicken wraps to the spicy noodles for dinner. As much as I always try to sample the local dishes and encourage others to do so I’m a big believer in eating what you want when you travel. If all you are craving is a burger, go for it. If you’ve fallen in love with a local dish and you want to eat it everyday, no one is here to stop you. I think sometimes there can be strange preconceptions on the way we should and shouldn’t do things, including the way we eat, while traveling but at the end of the day variety and balance is usually best and ultimately, do what you enjoy.

That being said, Canggu does seem very set up for Westerners with cool cafes, sleek restaurants and a myriad of clothes shops. There are times when it feels difficult to see the real Bali beneath these tourist constructs, and sometimes it is all taken too far, but for the most part I can’t seem to help but find it all very likeable. Canggu was an easy place to just chill, wandering from shop to shop, more dining options than we could ever hope to try and some great surfing and yoga options too. It is the perfect introductory place to ease yourself into Bali or even as a base to explore from if you fancy hiring a bike and finding more obscure places to visit.

Day 3 – Moving day. Check out was late from our Air BnB. We had been staying in a simple but lovely room attached to four others of the same with a small communal kitchen (though the food is so cheap I’m sure it is rarely used) and a tiny pool to cool off in. If you want some privacy and a quirky or chic place to stay Air BnB’s are a great choice in Bali. Hostels are of course available if you are looking or a more social way of traveling but with such affordable luxury hotels and Air BnB’s you may as well treat yourself and they are often the more popular choice. So after a leisurely breakfast at Monseiur Spoon, at which we had eaten the day before and equally savoured every bite again today, we experienced the joy of doing nothing while waiting for our transfer.

We were heading to Ubud to stay in the gorgeous Hotel Tjamuhan. It’s a place I recommended often through work and I was excited to experience it for myself. It did not disappoint. The hotel looks out over the jungle and winding pathways take you to traditionally decorated rooms overlooking the river. I will admit parts of the hotel are looking a bit tired and shabby, maybe in need of a spruce up but for the sake of the wonderful service and stunning setting this was easily overlooked.

Day 4 – After a few days of settling in, getting over jet lag and generally relaxing I was eager to get out and explore. The Monkey Forest Sanctuary was only a short walk away from our hotel and cost just 80,000 IDR, approximately £4.40 per person. Word of advise, keep everything in your bag and a lock on your bag too, those cheeky monkeys will grab anything not bolted down, cameras and phones in hand being the exception perhaps, and they know how to undo zips. We discovered this to our peril only a few steps into the sanctuary. Although we had put away sunglasses and hats, Joey had stopped to get something out of the bag for his camera. We were near two monkeys grooming and all of a sudden Joey’s rustling caught one of the monkeys attention. “Joey…” I tried to call to him but it was too late and the monkey was on him! With deft fingers it managed to get into the front pocket and luckily grabbed nothing more valuable than a pack of tissues. After ripping the packet open with his teeth he seemed disapointed to pull out tissue after tissue instead of the yummy snack he was surely hoping for. They never seemed to go for cameras and phones, it was always things in plastic packaging (we wistnessed a few packets of wet wipes being stolen and one couple’s plastic money bag, which luckily the attendants chased down the monkey and retrieved it for them) so they have obviously learnt what is most likely to have food in.

After that we were more cautious but even so I must have caught the eye of a monkey, something you are not suppposed to do, while crouching down to take a photo and next thing I knew he was clinging to my skirt. I tried to calmly back away and the photo Joey snapped may seem like I’m thinking nothing more than ‘oh my gosh, a monkey!’ But I was definitely more nervous than I let on!

For the most part though the monkeys will leave you alone and as long as you follow the advise at the entrance on how to behave they wont be aggressive. It’s a great way to get up close to these semi-wild animals and get great photos. There are also temples there, which seem overshadowed by the wildlife, which is a shame and not what I expected from the complex (I imagined something like Angkor Wat but smaller and with monkeys) but they were still beautiful to see. One area was shrouded in vines and a bridge nearby goes straight through a tree whose roots stand tall and vine- like as well. There are many statues scattered around and Balinese carving is really a sight to see, as our driver the following day joked, “We have so much time on our hands we just carve everything”, and he was right! It is all so intricate and detailed you could stare at it for hours and keep finding new points of interest.

In the afternoon we took advantage of the spa facilities at our hotel. Similarly to Thailand but perhaps not quite as cheap and popular, are the masssages and treatments. We went for a package that included an hour massage, body scrub, yoghurt rub, flower bath and use of spa facilities for half the day for only 1,188,000 IDR approx £70 for two people. Ill admit it was a slightly odd experience at times, having two lovely Balinese women rub us down in what turned out to be literally yoghurt and not some fancy way of describing body lotion, while wearing very ill fitting and very transparent disposable underwear but we walked away feeling relaxed and serene none-the-less. It helps that the massages and flower bath take place looking out over the river with the gentle sounds of the running water, bird life and rhythmic chirping of crickets to further relax you. Would highly recommend.

Day 5 – Our busiest day yet. A good friend recommended us Bali Bro Tours as she had met it’s owner, Dedy, on a previous trip to Bali, before he set up his own business of Bali Bro Tours. We had a blast with him! His sense of humour will have you chuckling all day and although he left most of the decisions as to what we wanted to see for the day up to us, at times he had some suggestions to take us away from the more touristy areas.

Our first stop was Beji Guwang Hidden Canyon to go Canyoning. I had read that morning that the water wasn’t too deep and at points we may go up to our waist but if the water was low it could also be likely we got in no deeper than our knees. Dedy also reassured us the water was likely to be low but we had brought our swimming gear and towels anyway and boy were we glad! As soon as we got the front desk we were told it was full submersion today! The price was 300,000 IDR or £17 approx. This was a little more than what i had read online which suggested the entrance was 15,000 IDR per person plus 100,000 IDR for a guide but possibly my research was out of date or there are multiple entrances that charge different prices, so do your research ahead of time. The currents were also strong in places so if you don’t feel confident in the water it might be best to call in the morning and find out what the water level is like. The guides are great though as they are locals who have been playing in the canyon since they were children and despite being lean they were strong enough to help me up rocks and pull me through stronger currents.

The canyon was so pretty though and there were not many others going through it so it never felt like one long queue of people. We scrambled over rocks, clinging to small ledges at points, waded through water and hopped from boulder to boulder. Round every corner seemed to be smooth rocks with the sun shining down from the crack cross the sky or a peaceful area with small waterfalls running between huge round rocks, or a sunspot between a junction in the river that I could have stayed at for hours. Well worth it.

I was keen to see the natural beauty of Bali and Joey had looked into some waterfall spots we could stop at, including Tegenungan waterfall. This was the only part of our day which was a disappointment. The waterfall was surrounded by restaurants and hotels, which were blasting music, and swarming with people. We had pictured a natural beauty spot but to be honest it all seemed very unnatural and there was a charge, albeit a small one, for going down to the waterfall at 20,000 IDR per person. I think if you want to see waterfalls you will be better off doing research, hiring a scooter and heading off to more secluded areas.

The rice fields were next on the day’s agenda and they were everything I imagined them to be. Even though we had come just after harvest so the rice wasn’t as tall and lush as it would normall be, it made for a spectacular view for a lunch spot and it was nice to go further down for some photo opportunities in the fields themselves.

Though we had two stops left on the list we only made it to one as it was already late afternoon. Dedy had suggested a Luwak coffee place he knew of that also had swings there that would be cheaper than going to some of the more official Bali swings, though almost everywhere we went had either swings or those woven nest type perches for photo opportunities. Luwak coffee is known as one of the most expense coffees in the world, it is made from coffee cherries that have been fed to and passed through the digestive tract of civet cats. I am skeptical of the ethics of Luwak coffee and have to admit the cats were in fairly small cages. We were reassured that they are fed other foods as well as the coffeee cherries and that they would naturally eat these cherries as well but with different countries having different standards of animal care sometimes, it’s hard to tell.

I did feel guilty for enjoying my time here but couldnt help feeling it was a lovely end to the day. Attentive guides talked us through the coffee making process and gave us a free sample of the different flavour coffees they make. It was only 50,000 IDR for a cup of Luwak coffee, which at around £2.80 is cheaper than most standard coffee in the UK and a hell of a lot cheaper than the £30-40 you can buy the Luwak coffee for in some places. Not being a coffee drinker myself I stuck to the locally grown cocoa and treated myself to a chocolate ice cream.

Last to tick off the list was a Bali swing. At 200,000 IDR (approx £11) for around 5 minutes on the swing is probably a rip off but was also cheaper than entry to the swing parks, which we were less interested in. I spent a ridiculous amount of time worrying about getting the perfect photo on the swing. Before coming to Bali I had filled my head with instagram pictures of beautiful women in flowing dresses posing on swings and felt like it was almost a requirement to get that perfect shot. Silly I know. I had even brought a dress to change into to fully look my best and I was worrying about this to Joey who said, “Why dont you do it just for the fun of it and not for the photo”. At that moment behind us a little girl was just being strapped into a swing and when they let her go she whooped with joy. Seeing her giggling and smiling as she flew out over the rainforest made me feel like even more of a fool. She was having the time of her life, the swing was something fun to do, not a modelling opportunity. So I did it, and of course I still wanted some nice photos of the experience, but I also tried to let go and just enjoy it. I whooped too at that rush when they let you go and you feel like you’re flying over this incredible view below. It didn’t matter how I looked; it was fun.

Day 6 – After a couple of busy days we decided to balance it out with a more relaxed one and simply hung out at the hotel most of the day. It was also a chance to forward plan for the next few days and we got our transfer to Gili T booked in. We managed to get a deal for 500,000 IDR (around £28 for two people) one way. We might have been able to get cheaper for a return or haggling a bit more but from comparing places nearby this seemed a fair price for a one hour transfer and over an hour ferry journey. We wanted to leave things open as the planned part of our trip was coming to an end. Once we arrived in Gili T we had three nights at Vila Ombak booked in and then the rest was yet to be decided.

So far though I am loving Bali life. Australia will be all go, lots of planning, driving, adventuring and working too so even if we may be doing things at a slow pace, it is pure joy to sit in a cafe chatting or writing or going through photos and knowing the only thing we have to do with our day is decided whether to go for a swim or where to go for dinner. Two thoughts that are always the forefront of my mind.

I have had some technical issues uploading photos and formatting so apologies for any issues.

Amsterdam: Birthdays, Marijuana Museums and Dutch cycle rides

Amsterdam is a classic weekend break and I feel like almost everyone I know has visited it before, some for the museums and the culture, others for more alternative reasons. Even my customers all seem to be going and they ask me where is a good place to stay and what is worth seeing and I figured I’d finally find out for myself as a Birthday trip last November. This post has been a little delayed with all the Christmas excitement but finally I have a chance to share it.

I’ve been to Amsterdam once before but I wouldn’t really count walking through the streets, getting lost, getting hangry, doing a short canal cruise and then leaving after less than 12 hours a proper visit. As mine and Joey’s birthdays were coming up and they are so close together we thought this would be the perfect way to treat ourselves. So I flexed my fingers, cracked out my travel agent skills and got booking.

 

Day 1 – Pizza and a Temperamental Balloon

Arriving at the airport with the minimum amount of time left to spare I still decided it was a good idea to sit down in Bella Italia and have the pizza I was craving. Twenty-five minutes later and I’m asking the waitress to cancel the order because the plane is boarding as I can see them placing the pizza on the counter ready to be served. We ran to the plane with said pizza in a take away box and munched it while the air hostess did the safety announcement and our fellow passengers shot us dirty looks for being the last ones on the plane. But it was a damn good pizza – I regret nothing!

The air hostesses barely had time to whizz down the isle with their cart before we were touching down. We were staying in The Student Hotel, a place recommended by friends and through work so we knew it was easy to get to we just didn’t know how. Our first experience of the Dutch was amazing! A cheerful lady recommended the 3 day travel passes to us that would allow us to use the trains and trams, explained the easiest route to get to our hotel and wrote down all the details we needed. We were off to a great start.

Getting to the Student Hotel was as easy as promised and a half hour or so later we were crashed out for a late afternoon nap as if we had just flown halfway across the world rather than a 2 hour flight.

 

Feeling refreshed we headed out to Dam Square where I had heard of the grand Switching On of the Christmas lights. We didn’t really know what to expect but it turned out to be pretty cool. A whole show was put on including acrobatics on a crane, singing, dancing and giant balloon birds! The only downside (apart from the fact it was all in Dutch and we couldn’t understand a thing) was the giant balloons had a mind of their own and kept drifting in front of our view at the vital moment. Hence why my photo looks like a giant balloon giving birth to baby balloons! We were so excited by it all though that we failed to notice that the Christmas lights on the De Bijenkorf department store never actually switched on! It was only when we returned home that we discovered someone had tripped a switch and they were never actually switched on.

Day 2 – Anne Franks house and the Weed Museum

Our first proper day of exploring started with a Sandemans tour. We’d been on one of their tours in Berlin which had been brilliant. The guide told us interesting and unique stories and had even given us a full history of Berlin in an amazing 10 minute run down. This tour didn’t quite hit the mark on the same level but I think after Berlin our expectations were high. Our guide, Kendra, was funny and chatty but told more stories about previous groups than about the history of Amsterdam. However, when she did talk history it was clear that was where her passion was and she knew all the old buildings and what they used to be at different points in time.

We went down backstreets, checked out the University and the Amsterdam Museum. She told us that if you’re walking down the street with a pint in one hand and a spliff in the other the police are more likely to stop you for drinking in the street. Marijuana is not technically legal but is tolerated to the point where even the police won’t bat an eyelid about you smoking in the street. We learnt just how many bicycles end up in the canals (between 12,000-15,000) and saw the skinniest house in Amsterdam. And as a final treat Kendra popped over the road to grab us some delicious Dutch cheese from a friend of hers.

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Pancakes came highly recommended to us as a post-tour lunch so we headed there next. It was a nice cafe but not particularly warm or cosy as it had a chain feel to it and the pancakes were nothing special. It’s certainly nice for a quick lunch and more filling than you would expect but there are better options out there and after a bad customer service experience with them later in the trip they wouldn’t be top of my recommended places.

In the afternoon we visited Anne Frank’s House. This is an experience that must not be missed and I found it very inspirational. For me personally, it wasn’t just what the family did to try and survive but Anne’s determination to make something of herself despite her adverse situation. She didn’t just write her diary for fun or to stop herself going crazy in that attack (though these were also important reasons) but to give people a unique narrative of the events around her, something she knew would be hugely important in the future. As a writer this was what I took away from the experience more than anything.

Most of the house is empty and the only things to see are the information and photographs on the wall but the audio tour was very enlightening. Alongside general descriptions are anecdotes and insights from those who were there at the time, making everything in the house seem more real despite the sparse rooms. You move through the house practically in single file and see the warehouse rooms, the offices upstairs and finally the iconic bookcase that kept the annex secret for just over two years. The annex itself is one of those rooms that carries an almost tangible feeling with it. It wasn’t chilling in the same way standing in the gas chambers at Auschwitz was, after all these walls had heard laughter and everyday chatter as well as sadness, worry and fear. Yet it still felt heavy, like a magnet at once drawing you in and weighing you down. What struck me the most was the photos pasted on the wall, perhaps because there was no other furniture, but also because I knew whose hands had pasted them there and from the extract printed next to them “Thanks to Father – who bought my entire postcard and film collection here beforehand – […] I was able to plaster the walls with pictures. It looks much more cheerful” I knew what they had meant to Anne Frank. On my way out I bought her diary at the gift shop and received a special sticker inside to say I had bought it there. I’m still only in the beginning stages of the diary and it is interesting to hear Anne talk about daily life and how, although in many ways it was quite different, in yet more they still went through the same every day struggles they did outside of the secret annex.

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It was still early and there was so much more to see and do so we headed over to the Hash, Marjuna and Hemp Museum in the Red Light District next – just a slight change of pace from Anne Frank’s house! The museum was actually split up into two exhibits in separate buildings down the street from each other. The first detailed the history of marjuana, it’s uses and different varieties. There were some interesting tit-bits in here but no great wisdom that would set about changing opinions on the subject. The second was focused on hemp and the products you can make with it. As fascinating as it is to see car doors, shoes, clothes and children’s toys made from the same substance as a recreational drug, we were flagging at this point and could probably have missed it out altogether. However if you want your free taster of vaporised weed then it’s still worth stopping in at.

Day 3 – Banksy and Red Light Secrets

As we felt that somehow we had flitted back and forth from the Red Light District (who would have known it would be such a lure?) we decided to head off to a different area of Amsterdam and visit the museum square. First things first we attempted to take our classic “I am Amsterdam” sign photo but typically all the other tourists were ruining my own perfect selfie. It was also threatening rain so after a quick snap we ran to the nearest museum.

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The Van Gogh museum takes some forward planning as the queues are ridiculous if you want to get in there and then. Book ahead or rock up literally as they open the doors if you are keen to go. We weren’t feeling the Van Gogh vibes on this trip, instead we went to the Moco museum, which had a great selection of Banksy’s most thought-provoking works. It was just a shame there wasn’t more information about where each artwork was placed as often this is half the significance of the peace. I still found it very interesting and also enjoyed the Roy Lichtenstein and Salvador Dali works that were also on display. It was just the right amount of art for the day and didn’t take too long to go around – plus we picked up discount cards from our hotel to get a cheaper entry.

Our next museum of the day was the Body Worlds Exhibition. This was one I wasn’t sure how I felt about at the end. In case you haven’t heard of it before the Body Worlds displays plastinagtions which are essentially a real human body that has been dissected and preserved with special polymers turning them into anatomical models. Many will find this quite macabre. Peering at dissected body parts or full posed bodies did at times make me feel a bit funny. After all these were people who had once lived their lives, dancing, running and sitting in the same ways their bodies were now eternally posed in. However it also serves an important purpose to showcase our internal structures and make us think in more detail about what makes us us. The exhibit is not just limited to anatomical knowledge and learning how the body works physically but also has a specific theme for each exhibit. The one in Amsterdam was exploring the idea of happiness and all the ways in which our bodily functions affect our happiness. Despite the initial weirdness it was fascinating and I just wanted to absorb every piece of information in there. If you have reservations I would say give it a chance, you might be surprised.

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As if the attractions we had visited so far couldn’t already be more different our next stop was Red Light Secrets the Museum of Prostitution. This is of course in The Red Light District and features the only windows you are actually allowed to take photos of (although of course you ideally want a picture from the outside of yourself in the window but to do this you would need to go through the museum while your friend waited outside). Since prostitution is legal in Amsterdam I was expecting a positive argument running through the museum to persuade people of the reasonings behind this move but I was surprised to find that the information didn’t shy away from the dangers of this profession. You’ll get to see replications of the rooms they use and the difference between a high class prostitute and your average red light window. There are plenty of hilarious photo opportunities as you check out the bondage room and the classic red lit windows. There is also a screen that shows the kind of looks the workers get as they stand in their windows, which definitely sent a shudder down my spine. Actually the part I enjoyed the most was the sex confessions that visitors had written on the wall just before the gift shop. They were brilliant! Even though it wasn’t shining as positive a light on prostitution as I expected it was still a pretty good museum and was the perfect balance of gimmicky and informative.

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Day 4 – Birthday celebrations!

Today was my birthday and as such we were in no rush to go anywhere early. Though the trip was for both our birthdays, Joey had celebrated his the day before we departed so it was my turn to open my presents. I sat in bed eating what has to be the ultimate birthday breakfast of a strawberry and cream waffle drizzled in chocolate and opening my cards. I had already received my awesome polaroid camera early so I could use it on the trip and I had a couple left for when I returned home but even so I was totally spoilt.

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After a relaxing morning we headed off for the Sandemans cycle tour in the afternoon. This isn’t one of their free tours but an extra you can book. Funnily enough we ended up with Kendra as our guide again and enjoyed a few more funny stories and historical facts as we took our bikes across on the ferry with the rest of the group. It was a nice change to get out of the city centre and see some countryside. We zoomed through picturesque parks and cycled along country roads. We saw some classic Dutch houses and the highlight of the tour was the pretty windmill perched on the riverbank. It was an easy pace with lots of stops to ask Kendra questions and hear more anecdotes. On our way back she announced that she had an idea. we could either continue on our way or take a detour to a new brewery that had just popped up nearby. Of course the majority voted brewery and off we went! Though I’m not a fan of beer I will admit that the SOMETHING had some interesting flavours to try and was a unique twist to our tour.

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Back on our bikes we went over on the ferry again and saw the last stragglers from the Sinterklaas parade, the celebration to welcome old Saint Nick to the city for Christmas, that had taken place that day. As much as I enjoyed the ride I couldn’t help the little kid in me being kind of disappointed at having missed Santa Claus.

As if the Marijuana Museum, Prostitution Museum and even the sex show weren’t enough we decided we had to check out the Sex Museum too. This was something I had never imagined doing on my birthday! There is also an Erotic Museum but apparently the Sex Museum is much more worth visiting. I hadn’t expected it to be so big! Although why I was shocked about the amount of sexual artefacts, photos, erotic designs and other paraphernalia that existed from throughout the years I don’t know! It was a good laugh and the sheer amount of stuff was overwhelming! There are actually a few interesting exhibits that show different cultures views on sex throughout history but for the most part this is a very tongue in cheek museum from the giant penis model to the clunky animatronics. It’s cheap, it’s funny, it’s full of penises – whats not to like?

A birthday celebration wouldn’t be complete with a full blow out meal and we couldn’t have chosen a better place. The Seafood Bar does the most amazing seafood platters we just had to try first hand! I think the waiter was getting a bit impatient as he came over about three times and each time we were still debating what size platter we could realistically manage. You can choose between a hot or cold platter with a variety of shellfish and fish dishes piled together in the ultimate feast. We opted for the hot one as it came with prawns and lobster and our eyes almost fell out of our heads when they placed a stand on our table that would hold a plate almost as big as the table itself. We gorged ourselves on seafood and still had room for dessert afterwards. As an extra special touch they even served our desserts on the same plate with a birthday message to the both of us written out in chocolate. Right from the free procesecco when we arrived to the birthday wishes at the end, the staff really worked to make the night special.

Day 5 – Souvineer Shopping and Final Canal Walks

We only had one morning left in Amsterdam and we decided to use this to grab our souvenirs for friends and family. There are plenty of shops around Dam Square (also where Body Worlds and the Sex Museum are located) so we wondered in and out buying tulip bulbs and postcards. Even though it was bitterly cold and threatening rain we took some final photos on the quaint canal bridges and of the neat narrow iconic Dutch townhouses.

I loved Amsterdam and I could see why it was such a popular destination. Even though we had crammed a lot into our five days here it is somewhere I could easily return to again and again and still have more to do.  Winter time was a lovely time to visit, though unfortunately we were just slightly too early for the Christmas markets, but I can imagine that summer strolls along the canals and picnics in the park as bikes whiz by would be equally beautiful. Amsterdam might seem like a city break that everyone has done but there is a good reason for this. I’m already looking forward to my next visit.

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Vietnam Part 2 – Halong Bay Cruises, Harry Potter Cafes and Yet More Caves

The end of the trip was drawing near so I was determined to make the most of these last few days. Travelling was beginning to exhaust me. Moving from place to place, living out of a backpack, is a difficult thing to do but oh so rewarding and there was still a lot left to see and do!

Day 133 – Today we left for Phong Na, stopping on the way to check out another set of tunnels. The Vinh Moc tunnels were different though. Here hundreds of people cooked, went to school, received medical treatment, gave birth, watched movies and basically lived underground for six years! We stooped through a winding network of tunnels, imagining how much darker it would have been with oil lamps flickering, as we explored the tiny nooks that served as people’s homes during the war. It was nerve wracking for anyone who was claustrophobic but fascinating! I couldn’t believe they could live underground for so long.

Our hotel was a far cry from the living conditions we had just been to see. The mountains sheltered our swimming pool on one side and palm trees waved at us from the other. It was the perfect serene location for an evening meditation session after our swim. Our guide led us in a beginners meditation class under the stars and I let my mind empty, focusing on my breathing and the beautiful place in which I had found myself.

 

Day 134 – In the morning we headed to Paradise Cave. Apparently you can camp out in one of the cave networks but a day trip was enough for me. I always love spotting the weird and wonderful formations in the rock that look like coral, as if I’m walking underwater, or something alien from a planet far far away. It was nice to see but not nearly as exciting as the afternoon activity.

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Caitlyn and I headed over to the slightly more foreboding sounding, Dark Cave.The name was much gloomier than what we were to get up to though. Just to get to the mouth of the cave we had to zip line over a beautiful aqua blue river before jumping in and swimming to the entrance. From there we followed a guide into the cave, the light from the entrance slowly diminishing as we walk further and further in. Suddenly the line of people turned, went behind a rock and disappeared. With only our head torches to guide us, Caitlyn and I followed and were led down a narrow muddy pathway. The walls became more and more mud caked as we went and eventually other groups, passing us in the opposite direction, even more covered in mud. At the end of the tunnel was the source of all the muddiness. We had to clamber past everyone, slip sliding on the rocks, and into the mud pool. It was the weirdest, funniest and one of the best experiences of the trip. In the mud there is no way to sink so at one point I ended up flipping over and over, splashing everyone with mud, much to their annoyance. Finally I got my footing but even then I discovered I could hover vertically with my feet off the ground. I could lounge on my back with my feet up as if there was an invisible rubber ring around me. It was hilarious!

Once we were covered from head to foot we climbed out. And yes, I did fall over. And yes, probably more than once. We stopped at one of the pools on the way out to wash off the mud but not before sliding down a natural mud slide! Once we were clean and back out in the open we climbed into inflatable kayaks and attempted to paddle back to the starting point, if you can call zig-zagging back and forth paddling. Back at the start point their was one more zip line to go on. This one seemed even more fun but I managed to mess it up. We had to take the handles and launch ourselves off a platform, leaping into the water at the last moment. Only I followed suit after a few idiots before me and let the thing flip me off, landing flat on my back! Luckily the life jacket absorbed the shock for me but next time, heed my advice, just let go!

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Day 135 – After all the excitement from the day before it was a fairly chilled day today. We arrived in Ninh Binh in the afternoon and decided to go for a bike ride again. We cycled rather clumsily (working brakes are not a legitimate thing in Asia) past towering green mountains and stretches of rice paddies towards a cute pagoda by a lake. Unfortunately we had to pay to get a closer look so we gave up on that and went back past the scenery, which was apparently where the new King Kong movie was filmed, towards the main part of town and another lake before heading out for a nice meal.

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Day 136 – Today we drove to Hanoi and our last point on the Stray tour. I should have been sad it was all coming to an end but with so much travelling and early starts I was kind of looking forward to a few days in one place, even though our time in Hanoi would be broken up with a trip to Halong Bay.

On the way we stopped off at Trang An grottoes boat trip. Here a woman paddled us through the low hanging caves, winding in and out of the different systems and ducking to avoid stalectites. The strength of the women paddling us was admirable too – I even saw one paddling with her feet!

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We passed through mountains shrouded in mist and arrived in the non-stop city of Hanoi by afternoon. As we went in search for dinner along Beer Street, I found I was reminded of Phnom Penh – except there were much more motorbikes!

 

Day 137 – This was our chance to properly explore Hanoi. Our guide walked us here there and everywhere! Unfortunately none of us were much in the mood to wake up early and be dragged around the city and the drizzly weather didn’t make things any better. First we went to see the Ho Chin Minh memmorial but after one look at the long queue we decided to pass on walking past a dead guy, despite how important and respected he is in Vietnam. Our next stop was the Temple of Literature. This old university with its Chinese architectural influences was so pretty and peaceful. A nice little place of zen in the busy city where big stone turtles, a symbol of good fortune in Vietnam, hold plaques with the names of all the students who have graduated on them. Our last stop was the Hanoi Hilton, which was much less glamorous than it sounds. It was a prison for political prisoners and American prisoners of war. The cutaways of the cells with models of the prisoners inside showed just how terrible conditions were for these prisoners.

After that we definitely needed some cheering up. Our guide left us to our own devices and we took over the tour for ourselves, next stop, Harry Potter Cafe! Along an unsuspecting street hung a triangular sign with ‘Always’ written on it. Inside were props to try on and take photos with, memorabilia from the films and books and, best of all, classic HP beverages. I had to try a butterbeer (also known as cream soda and coca cola) and actually enjoyed the sweet liquid topped with whipped cream. Elly was not so big a fan though. On the plus side if the butterbeer wasn’t for you, you could always try a polyjuice potion – so long as no one’s dropped a cat hair in it…

Day 138 – Today was the day of our Halong Bay cruise. I had been picturing lounging on a deck chair as we sailed through magnificent scenery, the sun shining as I sip a cocktail. Well there were deck chairs, and magnificent scenery and cocktails but no sun in sight. Somehow though we managed to brave the chilly air to go kayaking around the rocky outcrops springing from the water. It was like something out of a storybook with its emerald waters and rainforest spilling over the tops of the limestone islands emerging from below. Despite the bay being packed with similar cruise ships to ours, floating along in our little kayaks it felt like we were the only ones for miles. It actually didn’t seem so cold when we weren’t moving so we even braved the water, leaping in from the side of the boat. It wasn’t too bad in the water but as soon as we were out we were running, shivering to our hot showers!

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Luckily dinner was amazing, just as lunch had been, and we gorged ourselves on the feast. The plates just kept coming! As the night sky fell, the stars reflected on the water, the lights from the hundreds of ships sheltered in the bay began shimmering.We soon broke the peace and quiet though with our crazy karaoke singing though!

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Day 139 – If we hadn’t seen enough caves already we definitely felt like we had after this morning. We were taken to the Surprising Cave but the only thing surprising about it was how packed full of tourists it was. The cave was beautiful though, that couldn’t be denied, even though we were all a bit caved out by that point. Our final activity was back on the boat. We had what they called a “cooking class” but really this was putting ingredients inside rice paper to make spring rolls. Still, it was nice to get one last meal in before we headed back to our hostel.

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Day 140 – Finally I had some time to relax. Rachel, Caitlyn and I went exploring and did some much anticipated shopping. We had a lot of souvenirs to bring home, okay? And of course a shopping trip in Asia wouldn’t be a proper trip without a massage stop. I was starting to wonder whether I would get massage withdrawal once I got back home. The only off-putting aspect to my last Asian massage was the horrendous shorts I had to wear so they could massage my legs. They looked like men’s boxers and that thought did not relax me while the massauses hands got to work.

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After a day relaxing it was time to let loose in the evening! We went back to beer street where we had eaten the other night but this time we put the name to the test. We almost got kicked out for bringing our own beers into one of the bars but not before we got some dancing in!

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Day 141 – After chatting to a woman over breakfast, I was recommended to check out the Women’s Museum. On my way I stopped off to grab an ice-cream (another one of my addictions South East Asia had started) and when I arrived Rachel and Caitlyn immediately burst out laughing. Five months travelling and I still hadn’t learnt how to blend in, in fact, in my purple flip flops, classic giraffe tourist top, camera round my neck and audio guide on my head I looked more like a tourist than ever. Once they had stopped laughing we started looking around the museum. It was actually fascinating to read about women in Vietnamese culture, how brave they were in the War and how interesting their views on marriage are, the woman often choosing the man and proposing marriage to him. There were four floors but I only got to zip round the last one, showing Vietnamese women’s fashion, as the audio guide took about four hours. It was still worth a visit though.

It was our last night out together as a Stray group so we attempted a final family dinner only we all ended up eating at different places. We did meet up for one last drink together only this time instead of beer it was hot chocolates. We were just so hardcore.

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Day 142 – My second from last day was spent travelling back to Bangkok where I would fly home the next day. It felt strange that this five month journey was coming to an end. It felt so much longer than five months and to be honest I couldn’t wait to be home. The last time I went travelling I left too early and spent the whole flight anxiously wishing I wasn’t leaving. This time round I had timed things a bit better. I was sick of getting no sleep in hostel rooms. I had eaten enough rice to last a lifetime. I hadn’t seen my friends and family in almost half a year. I was ready to come home. Don’t get me wrong, I loved travelling. I loved being on the road and having new adventures everyday. I knew that a little time of being at home would have me craving those adventures again soon enough, but for now, I needed to rest, relax and most importantly, see the people I love.

I boarded a plane to Bangkok, my third stint there, but this time I would be staying round the corner from the airport rather than on Koh San Road. Though it was a short flight the journey still seemed to take up most of the day, not helped by the fact that I couldn’t find my pick up to the hotel for what felt like an hour. Eventually I made it there though and got at least a brief stint soaking up the sun by the pool, enjoying the 30 degree heat that was so different from the cool air of Vietnam, before eating my last Asian dish. It had to be Pad Thai.

 

Day 143 – The quicker I wanted to get home the longer the journey seemed to take. I distracted myself with another film and suddenly the announcement that we would be landing shortly brought me back to reality. I pushed through the crowds, tapped my foot impatiently at immigration and paced nervously between the carousels waiting for my bag, the last time I would collect it at an airport for a while. England, through the airport windows, seemed so strange and yet so familiar. I burst out of the gate and there was mum, calling out for me. I hadn’t thought I would cry and yet I felt my eyes brimming with tears as I ran to her embrace. There was one more surprise for me though. Mum pointed and the crowd parted and there was Joey, my boyfriend, waiting with a sign and a bunch of my favourite flowers. It couldn’t have been a more perfect homecoming.

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Now a new adventure was beginning – settling in back home, getting an adult job and figuring out my next move. I had finally caught up with my journal on the plane home and this is what I wrote: “I will miss having new incredible experiences everyday. I can’t even begin to describe how many times I’ve just been in awe of the place I am at of the thing I am doing. Every day is a new challenge, everyday is a new opportunity, a new adventure. I hope that even while I am not travelling I can bring a piece of that feeling home with me.”

143 days of joy was just the beginning.

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