Christmas in Australia

This year there would be no cosying up by the fireside with a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie… well actually there would be mince pies, a lot of mince pies! Otherwise Christmas in Australia was going to be a little different than back home.

There would be no blustery wind, rain or snow days either but as Christmas approached the temperature rocketed. The hottest day we have had so far is up to 45 degrees so instead of huddling inside for warmth we found ourselves flopped out under the air con. Sticking my feet into the kids paddling pool was also a favourite way to cool off. Yet despite the heat it was beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

A big part of this was living with a family and being au pairs. Seeing the kids excitement growing everyday definitely helped with the Christmas spirit whereas I think if we had been travelling on our own for this portion of the trip we might have felt a bit detached. We made Christmas cookies, played Christmas songs while the kids got ready for school and even helped Elfis, the very cheeky elf that came to visit.

So how is Australian Christmas different to UK Christmas? For starters ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ has new lyrics (obviously) and they have a song called ‘Six White Boomers’ a.k.a Six White Kangaroos – you can listen to them if you click the links. The kids got to meet Santa when he drove through the streets on a firetruck handing out ice lollies. Although mince pies are available here they aren’t as popular as back home but Claire kindly bought us some to help us get a taste of home and every time supplies ran low, another box appeared. And another box. And another box, until I think I ate more mince pies here than I ever would at home and I LOVE mince pies. But it was a sweet gesture and much appreciated, especially when we got ourselves a bottle of Baileys to go with!

Otherwise everything felt surprisingly similar. Even the Christmas cards and decorations are still snow themed, which I still can’t get over. What we did miss was our own traditions. Weekends away with the family, having Christmas songs blasting in my headphones while I shop for presents, meeting our friends on Christmas Eve and of course all the family traditions big and small we enjoy on Christmas Day itself.

Christmas Eve in Australia was spent baking cookies with the kids and cooking a big sausage roll as our contribution to Christmas lunch. In the evening we watched Noelle with the kids and once they were in bed settled down with a glass of rum and coke to watch Bad Moms Christmas. Then it was into bed ourselves before Santa arrived.

Despite turning twenty-seven this year I am truly a big kid at heart and barely slept for excitement of Christmas Day. We woke early to the kids excitement as they opened their Santa sacks and then Joey had to put up with my excitement at the presents my mum had kindly posted to us to have something to open on Christmas Day, which we had placed at the foot of our bed. It was nice to have a moment to ourselves to open presents in bed, exchange the simple gifts we got each other, and make sure we did some things just for us as well as getting involved in family Christmas. Joey’s mum sent us money, which we greatly appreciated as it can go towards an awesome experience for us along the next leg of our trip and make it that much more special. We also got to FaceTime our friends as they enjoyed annual Christmas Eve drinks (thanks time difference!) so as we were passed down the table, having mini catch ups, our FOMO diminished and Christmas cheer peaked.

Breakfast was pancakes and ice-cream and not long afterwards the Grandparents and Great Grandparent (Claire’s grandmother) arrived for present opening. Cue absolute chaos. Wrapping paper flew in every direction, Claire tried to keep track of whose presents came from who while taking photos, we tried to snap photos for the family, attempting to catch that brief moment of joy before the furrowed concentration of opening the next present and the toys piled up. The family was even kind enough to get us a few small gifts and chocolate to add to our ever growing stash. It made us wish we weren’t such poor backpackers that we could gift them more than a box of chocolates in return. Seeing the joy on the children’s faces when they opened their chocolate Christmas trees and an X-Box Kinect game we knew they would love, was the best part of all though.

As present-opening mayhem calmed down and the nerf gun war began, we gathered up the food to take over to the grandparents for lunch. They live on an olive farm just down the road and in fact their land stretches as far as the field at the end of the street from the families home. Even though it was a short distance I gripped the plate of nibbles I was holding in fear, using all my core strength to stop pretzels and salami flying in all directions every time we went round a corner. Luckily everything arrived in one piece and we were soon sitting down to lunch.

Due to the heat a massive roast is the last thing you feel like eating but there was still turkey on the menu. After a starter of prawn cocktail we got stuck into a buffet of cold cuts of ham, turkey and chicken, various salads (including a delicious broccoli salad I want the recipe for), our sausage roll and a cheesy potato bake. There were almost as many desserts as there was main food so of course I had a bit of everything. No Christmas pudding here, there was pavlova, rice pudding, cheesecake and trifle. Yum!

Full of booze and food and with the kids eager to get home and play with their toys, we retreated back to the families home for a rest. It wasn’t long before I was deep in a food coma and woke later in the afternoon to the family getting ready to head back over to the grandparents for the evening. Joey and I hung back, allowing them to have some family time and a bit of downtime for ourselves as well before joining them later on. As the sun faded, spreading orange and pink across the sky, the golden grass shimmering in the last of the days heat, I felt like this year Christmas had been a world apart from our normal Christmas and yet in some ways exactly the same. In the end it wasn’t the type of food we ate or opening presents or the little Christmas traditions I missed, it was simply being with family and friends. Yet I was grateful to have Joey by my side and being able to share in this adventure together.

The miracle of technology helped as well and getting to FaceTime both our families throughout the day to hear that they were having a good time too. As the stars (and the mosquitos) came out we shared family stories with Claire and Josh, having one more Christmas tipple before bed, feeling happy about where we were and what is yet to come for the New Year.

Wine, Beaches and More Wine

After leaving our farm position we had a couple of weeks before our next opportunity working as au pairs in a small town called Tocumwal, three hours north of Melbourne. After looking into what we could do along the way we decided Kangaroo Island seemed right up our street. It is hailed as one of the best places in Australia to see wildlife so it seemed perfect for us. The ferry departs from Cape Jervis so we decided to take our time travelling there and stop off at a few places along the way.

Having not really experienced the beaches in Adelaide yet we spent the first few days after leaving the farm hanging out near Glenelg beach. The weather still wasn’t quite sunbathing standard yet but we enjoyed nosing around the shops, the small museum above the information centre that explained the history of Glenelg and how it is considered the oldest European settlement on mainland South Australia and spent the rest of our day sipping a cider and a beer, watching the world go by. It was nice to have a little extra time in Adelaide area but it wasn’t a place that grabbed us so we weren’t too sad to be moving on.

From here our next stop was the McClaren Vale, one of the best wine regions in South Australia. Our campsite was really pretty, an alley of trees leading to a secluded green spot amongst the fields of grapes. Almost immediately we ventured out to some of the local winerys. Within walking distance were two recommended ones, Oxenberry Farm Wines and Serafino. Both offered free tastings and funnily enough I preferred the wines at the first while Joey preferred the wines at the second. They might have only been small tasters but you could easily get tipsy from hopping from one winery to the other and though the tasters were little more than a sip or two for each wine there would be five or six tasters per winery so it never felt like your cup ran dry. At Serifino we decided to grab a full glass each though to truly relax and savour our favourite wines while looking out across the nearby pond.

The next day we headed to d’Arenberg Cube, a winery that is as much an art piece as a vineyard. The building is designed to look like a Rubik’s cube, representing the puzzle that is wine making. Corner balconies jut out, like the Rubik’s cube in motion, allowing for spectacular views of the rolling hills and grape fields for miles around. The winery has connections with art in other ways too and was currently showcasing a Picasso art collection. On the first floor there is also an art gallery full of weird and whacky sculptures from legs dangling from the ceiling to old wind up wooden fair ground toys. There was also a room featuring projections on every wall that showed just as whacky annimations with interesting names such as The Laughing Magpie and The Broken Fishplate. We couldn’t get our heads round it but took it to just be part of this eccentric aesthetic however when we got up to the top floor where the tastings are held we learnt the true meaning behind the animations. Each one was representing the wines on offer, which had the same unique names. We went for the classic tasting options but rotated in a Reisling to try too as it is a wine we enjoy back home and were curious what it would be like in Australia. The reds were a bit too dry for me but right up Joey’ s street. The white wines were fruity, crisp and delicious. Afterwards we grabbed a drink in the cafe to continue enjoying the laid back atmosphere and amazing views.

We had thought to end up there for most of the day but finished earlier than we thought and so decided to check out the nearby town and beach front. I imagined a beachfront pavilion with shops to explore and cafes to while away some time in but it turned out to be just the beach and one expensive restaurant. We didn’t really mind though as the beach was a really pretty spot and not too busy. Part of the joy of having the van with us meant that after a short walk to check it out we headed back to the van, changed into shorts, grabbed our camp chairs, some snacks and a drink to soak up the sun for the rest of the afternoon.

Being in no rush to get to our next campsite we returned to the beach in the morning and this time I even braved the water – cold but refreshing! We had a picnic lunch on the beach then set off for our last stop before Kangaroo Island. Joey had discovered a really cool campsiteto that wasn’t too far from the ferry port called Rapid Bay. It was cheap at just $9 per person per night and we got to park up right on the beach. This was what we had dreamed of when imagining our life in the van, being parked up so close to the beach we could take a dip in the water, walk along the sand to see the jetty at one end and the cave at the other then take just a few steps to our camp chairs to sunbathe the rest of the afternoon away. It was probably our favourite campsite yet.

Our ferry was departing in the afternoon the next day so again there was no rush and we enjoyed another swim and walk along the beach before packing up to go. It was only a short drive to the ferry port and super easy to get checked in and board the ferry. Joey drove on and any other passengers have to board on foot so I met him on board once the van was loaded on. It was just 45 minutes to Kangaroo Island and as we set off towards our campsite we were blown away by the beauty of this island and immediately knew we had made the right choice in going there. We would have plenty to see and explore over the next five days.

Kings Canyon, Alice Springs and Back The Way We Came

We were coming to the end of our outback roadtrip and soon it would be time to turn our tails and head back the way we had come for an opportunity back in Adelaide. In the meantime though, there were still a few places we were keen to see.

Before we left Uluru we took one last morning to soak up the culture by visiting one of the art galleries on site there and happened to catch one of the free talks. This turned out to be such a good experience as, since first seeing Aboriginal artwork, we had wondered what the meaning behind the dots, lines, patterns and symbols were and this talk explained exactly that. Our speaker was a lovely young Aboriginal woman who explained that each painting depicts a story but only those within the tribe can know the full story, even she does not know the full meaning behind paintings done by someone outside her tribe and her own tribe’s stories were passed on to her only when she came of age. However, there are certain aspects of the paintings that everyone can understand and she taught us how to look for these symbols. For example, a “U” shape means a person and if they are arranged in a circle it means people sitting together. A circle with a dot or smaller circles within it means a meeting place and the marks that look like bird feet are actually kangaroo feet! Dot painting is probably the most well known form of Aboriginal painting but is by no means the only one. Sometimes the Dreamtime story is depicted beneath the painting as another layer so that it is woven into the artwork without revealing itself to anyone outside the tribe. The speaker told us a story about an obnoxious customer who had bought one of the artworks and then demanded to know the story behind it, believing that because he owned the painting he also had the right to own the story. Definitely not!

There were yet more talks and activities I would have loved to do in Uluru but our time there was up and we set off for Kings Canyon. There are a couple of camping options here but similarly to Uluru most of the land is protected and therefore other than roadside stops there are only two options. One is Kings Creek Station which is further away from Kings Canyon so to save some fuel and driving time we opted for Kings Canyon Resort, though it has stunning views of the canyon it is still a short drive to the start point of the hikes. On the first afternoon we did little more than get settled in and watch the sunset over the canyon.

After a relaxing afternoon I was hoping I would be all fired up for a day of hiking Kings Canyon but alas, our hiking mojo was gone. It had been a busy past couple of days, even weeks, and we were starting to feel it. We hadn’t come all this way to sit in our van though, so dragging our heels just slightly we set off regardless. We chose to do the iconic Rim Walk, a 6km hike to the top, around the rim, a visit to the Garden of Eden, an oasis tucked away within the canyon, past the domes and back to the bottom again. It was supposed to take 3-4 hours but we did it in around two. There were some incredible views and I’m very glad we did it, at the same time maybe our reluctance to hike was simply that it is a slight anti-climax after Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We were happy to finish up earlier than expected and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the shade of our camper van as we relaxed.

We had only planned on spending a couple of nights in our next stop, Alice Springs, yet when we arrived Thursday we were told about the Henley on Todd regatta happening on Saturday and decided it was a sign that we should stay longer. Living near the Henley on Thames regatta back home, though we had never actually been, it seemed too weird and wonderful an opportunity to pass up going to the Henley on Todd and seeing how on earth a regatta works in the middle of the desert! It would also give us a longer break from driving for a while, something we were in need of after the long distances we had traveled.

There were a few other things to explore in Alice Springs as well. First up we decided to mooch around Todd Mall, which turned out to be a single street of a few random tourist, charity and other shops. In the afternoon we checked out the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia Museum. The name is a bit of a mouthful and so is the information provided! There is lots to read but also a lot of displays of old medial equipment, radios used, an aircraft you can get in to explore, virtual reality headsets that let you “sit in”on a real medical flight and a holographic presentation to start the experience off. Even if there was a lot to take in it was very interesting. The Royal Flying Doctors of Australia is a service used to this day for people in rural communities to receive the medical care they require. It was officially started by John Flynn but the idea arguably came from himself and two other men. One of which was a man who was hit and trapped under a cart, he was suffering internal injuries and had to be taken on a harrowing and bumpy journey over miles to the nearest doctor to then also have to wait for a surgeon to arrive separately to perform an operation and in the end he died the day before the surgeon arrived. He was an inspiration for the desperate need for medical care to be able to reach these remote places. And so the idea of flying doctors was born. It was also brought together by the use of radio. This allowed people in remote communities to talk to a GP and have a consultation without having to travel.

Although I would have loved to visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs at $80 per person and having been to Josephine’s Kangaroo Sanctuary and art gallery in Coober Pedy, we decided to give it a miss. The next best thing was a visit to Desert Park. This is kind of a botanical garden / wildlife centre mix. As you make your way through the park you’ll visit different types of desert environments and get to explore and learn about the flora and fauna that grows there, as well as the eco-systems they support. If you’re an avid bird watcher this is the perfect place for you with many mini averies along the way. The highlight for us was the Nocturnal Centre and joining onto the guided tour made it even better. Lots of the creatures were really active in their darkened enclosures. I had no idea how many similar but at the same time very different types of marsupial rodent type creatures the Australian outback had! The Bettong looks like a rat, only bigger, with furry tails and a more rounded face, then there are Bilbies that look like a mix between a mouse and an anteater, with grey fur, long pinkish ears and a long nose and the Northern Quoll has a rodent-like face but with big rounded ears, brownish fur with white dots and long claws – just to name a few! My favourite was the Hopping Mice who raced about so quick they looked like a blur. When they do pause long enough to look at them properly they have big ears and kangaroo like legs that make them so quick! We finished our visit at the bird show which is one of the more impressive bird shows I’ve ever been to as the focus was more on demonstrating each birds unique skills as they would use them in the wild as opposed to simply doing tricks for the audience. The black-breasted buzzard uses tools to break open eggs. In the deomnstration the bird picked up rocks and repeatedly threw it at the egg to crack it, revealing a treat inside.

On the day of Henley on Todd I still didn’t know what to expect. We were about to watch a regatta on the dried up riverbed of the Todd river. I shouldn’t have doubted the Australians though as a little drought was never going to hinder them. The day started with a parade of the boats. These turned out to be self-made, carried, shells of boats in all shapes and sizes which, when the events started, would be held up by teams running races across the sand to see who could come first. There was much silliness, cheating, laughing and good fun. The races had different categories and were broken up by other challenges and events reminiscent of a British sports day obstacle course. There was also a prize for the best boat and this rightly went to the man dressed as a barrel with a baby on his front and a toddler on his back, the three of them making up the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They won the hearts of the crowd and joined in every event, they were brilliant!

The sun was out, we were finally feeling some real heat on this trip, there were plenty of food trucks to scurry off to and we were loving the festival vibes. Throughout the day the three main teams of the bigger boats (vehicles dressed up) egged on the crowd for support and frequently broke out into water fights and scuffles between the teams. This was all in the lead up to the grand finale which was a massive battle between the three teams: the Navy, the Vikings and the Pirates. If I thought the day had been worth it so far things were about to be taken to the next level as the teams climbed aboard their vessels and the battle began. Suddenly all hell broke loose with canons firing what looked like dust and confetti, water balloons being hurled and water canons being fired. The boats chased each other round and round the arena and often ended up with one poor team in the middle, desperately spinning and hurling water bombs in every direction as two other teams circled them, equally ferociously fighting back. When the bedraggled teams did one last lap and lined up to have the winner chosen you wouldn’t be able to tell who came out best from looking at them. However the reason for the teams throwing sweets into the crowds all day became clear as we discovered the winner was to be chosen by the loudest cheer. My favourites were the vikings who seemed to have endless energy and really threw themselves into the days events all day long but it was the Navy the crowd seemed to love more, even if it was a close call. The whole day was a bit strange and a bit fantastic and definitely worth extending our time for.

Originally we had planned on travelling all the way into the Northern Territory and to Darwin before continuing on to the East Coast however, all the way back in Hahndorf we had found an opportunity to do our farm work in the Adelaide Hills. This meant a massive change of plan but to be able to tick off our farm work so soon was a massive plus to us and we felt it was worth the effort of turning tails and coming back. At the time of writing this we’ve actually come to an end of our time here so I’ll tell you all about it in the next post. The journey back was a lot shorter, though with the lengthy drives it didn’t feel like it! We drove from Alice Springs to Coober pedy to Port Augusta and arrived back in Adelaide on a wet chilly day, already missing the outback temperatures. We had loved our time in the van and now we could set up and pack up in a few minutes. Although the van was beginning to feel like home at last we couldn’t help but crave some stability of being in the same place for an extended period of time – not to mention having a proper bed to sleep in! That first night on the farm I was nervous as to what the experience would be like, feeling out of sorts in a new place that would be our home for potentially the next few months and a little excited to be in the beautiful and peaceful Adelaide Hills. Our Outback Adventure was over but (and please excuse the cheese) a new chapter to our trip was just beginning.

150 Days On The Road – Expectations vs. Reality

Strictly speaking not all 150 days were spent on the road. Some of those days were spent on boats, in aeroplanes, on beaches, on farms, riding bikes, travelling by foot, working in fields, swimming in oceans or swimming pools and a whole load of other places and ways to travel in between. But it makes for a catchy title and it is true that we have now been away from home for over 150 days.

This is the longest either myself or Joey has been away for and yet, though we have moments of missing home, friends and family, surprisingly neither of us feels ready for the trip to end yet. We’ve found that where the working holiday visa works really well for us is being able to stop and work when we are craving stability and move on when we are getting itchy feet again. In that respect the WHV has been what we expected and hoped for but in pretty much every other way it has not gone how I imagined it would at all. As someone who often has high expectations, a fantasy version of how I imagine everything will fall into place perfectly, it has been a steep learning curve to be more flexible and accept that I can only make decisions based on my current situation. In fact I feel like I’m still learning that there is no place for regrets on this trip, that I need to live in the present and accept that I can only make decisions for the next steps based on my current situation. That being said, I thought for 150 days I would run you through my expectations for this trip and what it has been like in reality.

Expectation: Australia is expensive.

Reality: Australia is expensive.

There are plenty of ways to keep costs down in Australia from free campsites, house sitting, work aways, cooking cheap meals for yourself and other tips and tricks but it is unavoidable that Australia is an expensive place to travel. There were definitely points of this trip where we could have travelled smarter or cheaper but I also know we have spent money on some amazing experiences that I wouldn’t change for the world, as well as finding plenty of free ones too. However, owning a vehicle, especially a camper van, has been the main expense. I didn’t expect so many repairs, I wasn’t adequately prepared for the costs of rego and insurance and general set up and I definitely underestimated not so much the price of fuel but just how often we would have to fill up because of the distances travelled. If you think you’ve saved enough for Australia, save more.

Expectation: We’ll find farm work easily and find something cool and unique.

Reality: Lots of terrible Gumtree ads, more experience needed than we thought and cool, unique places not being what they seemed at first.

There are plenty of ways to find farm work in Australia but finding something that doesn’t sound dodgey, isn’t impossible to get to or doesnt require farm experience was harder than we expected. We thought we had hit the jackpot when we got a position in the Adelaide Hills on a beautiful farm less than an hour from the city but the reality of being the only two workers there meant it still felt isolated. We had wanted to find something different from fruit picking if possible but at least fruit picking with other backpackers gives you a sense of community we felt was missing from our experience. Basically it had all looked picturesque and too good to be true on the surface and definitely didn’t live up to expectations. However I still enjoyed working outside, having time off to explore the local area and learning some new skills.

Expectation: We will spend the majority of our time on the East Coast.

Reality: Halfway through our visa and we haven’t even reached the East Coast yet.

The plan was always to travel through central Australia really quickly and end up working and spending the most time on the East Coast, when we accepted the farm work and backtracked to Adelaide this changed everything. The downside of this is we feel we have met less backpackers on the road than we thought we would as we have been travelling less popular routes. On the plus side we have been travelling less popular routes. We would never have ended up on Kangaroo Island if we hadn’t been looking for a way to fill our time being farm work and au-pairing. I never imagined that the little town of Hahndorf we admired while passing through on our way to the Red Centre would be somewhere we could pop into for lunch on our days off from the farm. At times it feels like we still have so much left to see of this vast country and other times it feels like we have already seen way more than we expected.

Expectation: We’ll meet lots of other backpackers in campervans.

Reality: Not so much.

We’ve met and seen plenty of grey nomads (retiree Australians with fancy campers and trailers) but not so much other backpackers. Maybe this is due to the places we’ve travelled to so far and maybe this is due to staying on paid campsites more often than we thought we would. It could also be the season we are travelling certain areas in. Whatever the reason we are often left thinking where are all the backpackers? Sometimes we like the time to ourselves and sometimes we crave company. Our recent trip to The Grampians did change things though when we got chatting to an Ozzy bloke traveling with his girlfriend who turned out to be from the UK, who in turn also got chatting to another van life couple from the UK. We spent a couple of nights swapping stories round the campfire and one very adventurous hike together and it did wonders for lifting our spirits.

Expectation: Freedom and Flexibility.

Reality: Constant decision making but also more opportunities.

I thought I had always wanted to do a trip that was completely open-ended with no plan in sight, however this trip has made me realise that I definitely prefer to have a plan. I might not always stick to it but I feel a lot happier and more secure if I know what our next steps are. One of the things I have found hardest about this trip is the constant decision making. Trying to judge whether we are doing the right thing or not is not easy. I mean I can’t even decide what to order at a restaurant let alone where, when and how we should travel the next part of our trip! Yet not having a plan, or at least not having anything booked ahead of time that we have to be somewhere for, has meant that when an opportunity has cropped up that sounds really good, we can go for it. There is no wondering ‘what if’ because we just move things around, reassess our current vague plan and make a new one. It is what led us to au pairing in Tocumwal, where we are currently at, a rural town three hours north of Melbourne we would never have expected to be but living with a lovely family and learning about the Australian way of life.

There are so many more ways I expected this trip to go but these are the big ones. At 150 days in it is hard to say Australia has exceeded my expectations as I still feel we have so much more to do, but it has certainly been unexpected in some of the best ways possible.

I have some major catching up to do on the trip posts so hang tight and expect a flurry of updates on what we have been up to. I’ll link them here as they come out too so all expectations and realities will begin to make sense.

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.

My Epic South East Asia Trip

Ever since my 7 week gap year trip around Australia and New Zealand I have been dying to  go on a bigger, longer, even more awesome trip. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of my gap year trip but when I kept running into people who were travelling for three months minimum I started to feel like mine was a little more like an extended holiday. I shouldn’t have put myself down so much because I’ve come to realise it doesn’t matter the length of the trip but the experiences you have along the way. I crammed a lot into Australia and New Zealand and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. That being said, I’ve still always wanted to go on a longer trip for the simple reason that I can fit in even more great experiences!

One day I drop into an STA travel shop and tell them my budget and my ideas, now a couple of months on I have an epic itinerary planned! STA have been so helpful with putting together something really cool and also kind of complicated; I’d definitely recommend using them. Asian culture is so different from anything I have ever experienced before so it’s been a long time dream to visit Thailand and we built the trip from there. In the end I booked a 5 month trip around South East Asia!

My big trip starts ten days after my last MA assignment and I can’t wait. Here it is:

10th Oct – I’ll fly to Dubai to catch up with my friend Taylor. I’ll be spending four days here with Taylor showing me the best local places, doing some shopping (well maybe window shopping – I have got to save some money for the rest of my trip) and visiting swanky bars.

14th Oct – After this short stop over I’ll be heading to Sri Lanka for a week. I don’t know what I’ll be getting up to in Sri Lanka yet but I’m excited to start planning!da7bcabad41cdf7778311fbaf44d70f8

21st Oct – Next up is India. I’ll be on the Uncover India tour which will take me from Dehli
to Goa. Along the way I’ll be checking out the Taj Mahal, learning henna painting, bathing in Pushkar lake and visiting many temples.

6th Nov – Once I’ve lazed around on the beach in Goa for a few days I’ll be flying to Singapore where I’ll make my own way to Kuala Lumpa. I’m looking forward to this bit; a little taste of freedom to travel where I want, when I want and some independance to figure out how I’m actually going to do that!

16th Nov – I’ll be flying to Manila to explore the Philippines next. This is another leg of the journey I’m doing solo and also where I’ll be celebrating my birthday! I’m hoping here I’ll be able to do some diving as I island hop around Philippines’ 7,000+ islands! Swimming with whale sharks, visiting the chocolate mountains and the hanging tombs are also on my list of things to do.

28th Nov – From there I head over to Borneo for almost three weeks. I’ll fly into Kota Kinabalu and have five days to explore there, perhaps hiking Mount Kinabalu and visiting Turtle Island. Then it’s on to Kuching and my first volunteering experience: Orangutang conservation. I’m sure it will involve some hard work at times but will also be a lot of fun and gives me a chance to explore the rainforest and even stay in a traditional longhouse.

16th Dec – Finally it will be time to head over to the long-awaited Thailand. For this section of the trip I’ll be meeting up with my travel buddy Joey. You’ll hear more about a previous trip we’ve been on together in the next post but in the meantime check out his blog https://themichaeljoseph.com. We’ll spend a day or two in Bangkok before heading up to Chaing Mai where we will do one week of elephant conservation. Elephants are my favourite animal and one I’m currently writing my novel about so I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip. Being up close and personal to an elephant will be a dream come true! We finish just in time for Christmas and hopefully for a couple of other friends to come and join us; Ed and his girlfriend Becky. From there the four of us will head South to explore Thailand’s islands and celebrate the New Year.

IMG_23289 Jan – After I’ve said goodbye to my friends I’ll be joining the Stray Asia bus. This is a flexible hop-on hop-off service that will take me through Laos, Cambodia and end my trip in Vietnam. I chose to travel this way because I did a similar pass with the Oz Experience and New Zealand Experience, both of which were great. It’s a fun way to meet new people and do a wide range of activities with the ease of having a tour guide to help book them for you. They also offer unique experiences like remote homestays I might not otherwise be able to do if I were organising it on my own. This will be the most flexible part of my trip and I’ll be able move on when I like or stick around for a few extra days somewhere if I feel like it- as long as I’m back in Bangkok to catch my flight home on the 1st March that is!

So that’s it! This is my epic jam-packed trip and everything I’ll be doing along the way – or at least what I have planned so far. This will be the longest I’ve ever been away from home and the first time I’ll be travelling completely on my own. I am equal parts terrified and excited. Bring on October. Bring on South East Asia!