Victoria!

Victoria in the springtime… To use the Australian vernacular “it’s bladdy beautiful!” All the plants were flowering and the birds were even more magnificent than usual, positively exploding in mating colours and filling the air with their song. The weather in these parts can be somewhat topsy-turvy; when the wind blows from the north it comes from the hot dry centre of Oz bringing temperatures of 40°C+. But if the wind shifts to the south then Antarctic howlers can drop this to a few degrees within hours and it all makes for some ‘interesting’ weather. Having finally arrived in Melbourne our first action was to promptly leave Australia…

On entry to Oz, we were granted a free 12-month visa, conditional that we leave and return every three months, so we flew to Auckland for a long weekend as our first three-month stint was almost over. The bikes were safe and sound in John’s garage having been cleaned, serviced and had new rear tyres fitted. With the visa reset for another three months and after over two years on the road, it was great to spend some time with family and we were positively spoiled at each of the three stops we made with my cousins John, Ann and Denise, offering us three very different insights into life in and around Melbourne. John and Diane first with their grand place on Brighton seafront; a chance to catch up on family histories over some fine wine and food and take in the sea air from walks along the bay. Then on to Ann and Richard in their splendid town house and a lively traipse around the city itself to explore markets and riverwalks with our engaging hosts. And last but not least, Denise and Trevor and their idyllic location out on the Mornington Peninsular at Mount Martha where we toured the wineries, took in the gorgeous beach there and drove up to see Arthur’s Seat and the breathtaking views over Port Phillip Bay.

Our stay with Denise coincided happily with the Melbourne Cup, Australia’s most prestigious annual thoroughbred horse race. The two-mile handicap, billed as “the race that stops a nation”, is one of the richest turf races on the planet with total prize money for the 2017 race of $6.2 million AUD plus trophies valued at a further $175,000. The winner of the first race way back in 1861 received a gold watch; today the winning horse will net a cool $3.6 million. We can vouch that the nation does indeed stop and embroils in a 24-hour party, an excuse to sink a few ‘stubbies’ and have a flutter on the gee-gees. The newspapers reported that in the previous year Australians bet $657 million over the course of the four-day Melbourne Cup event with about $350 million of that placed on Cup day itself. Australians drink the equivalent of 25 million swimming pools of alcohol between breakfast and dinner on Cup day, which is a public holiday across Melbourne and most of Victoria. The event itself is attended by crowds in excess of 100,000 people and just about everyone else will stop whatever they are doing to watch or listen to the great race.

The city turns into a ghost town as everyone heads to the nearest television to watch the race. Every taproom and tavern, lounge and saloon was kitted out to take bets as folk quaffed the afternoon away to a soundtrack of race commentary, news and latest form from the multiple TV sets stacked around the bar. Denise and Trevor took us to a local establishment where we settled in for the day’s entertainment. There was a tremendous buzz to the afternoon as we contributed about a washbasin full of alcohol to the fore-mentioned national ‘swimming-pool’ statistic. I’d like to say now that we stacked a hundred on the outside winner and formally announce my intention to retire and stay on the road forever on the proceeds of this staggeringly lucky bet. However, true to form, we somehow managed to pick a fine selection of mule-eared also-rans from this field of fine stallions, our gambling contribution to the day merely further enriching the bookmakers. Still, fine company… a wee drink or two… a bit of starters orders and then a wallop down the track… it all made for a truly memorable day.

An easy ride from Melbourne took us to Foster, an old mining town and access to some fine hiking at Wilsons Promontory. We spent a pleasant afternoon hiking up Mount Oberon for some wonderful views of the coastline in these parts and then down for a paddle at the aptly named Squeaky Beach, so called because the fine white silica sand chirps and squeaks as you walk across it. On our way back to Foster we had our first Echidna encounter. The Echidna could be loosely described as an Aussie hedgehog and is one of only four remaining species of ‘monotremes’ in the world (mammals that lay eggs). We were riding along the road when we spotted this fuzzy football object crossing our path ahead. We dismounted and caught up with the cute little fellow on the grass verge just as he curled up into a ball, dug into the ground with his feet, flexing his thick spines for protection. Echidnas are remarkable in that they have no nipples (their young, known as ‘Puggles’, are reared in a pouch and suckle milk from the pores of a pair of milk patches that secrete milk onto specialized hair follicles). Males have a four-headed penis of which only two heads are used during mating, releasing semen into the female’s double-branched reproductive tract with head sets alternating each time the Echidna mates. However before he gets that far the male has to compete with other males to win his mate and females are often seen with a train of up to ten eager males all trying to hit ‘home base’.

Our travels took us next along one of the worlds great motorcycling rides; the Great Ocean Road that runs west for around 150-miles along the coast from just outside Melbourne. Similar to some of the classic American routes like ‘The Going to the Sun Highway’ and the ‘Blue-Ridge Parkway’ it was built as a public works / job creation scheme in the days after the First World War to open the area to tourism and further settlement. On completion it was dedicated to the fallen from WW1 and as such it is the world’s largest war memorial.  In the early days it was a single-track gravel road and had tolls levied on it but these were lifted once the original costs had been recouped and today it is a splendid modern road that winds along some fine breathtaking ocean terrain.

We explored the road from a couple of delightful camping stops at Anglesea and Apollo Bay and spent our days undertaking a few invigorating cliff-top walks and visiting the magnificent Twelve Apostles rock formations. At the western end we made another halt at the beautiful little town of Port Fairy, formerly known as Belfast. A lovely volunteer lady at the local Tourist Information office gave us a potted history of the town. The port was originally discovered when some whalers sailed up the Moyne River in search of fresh water. They named the area after their cutter ‘The Fairy’ and the nearby ocean would be a rich hunting ground for whales. A whaling station was established in 1835 but the whalers were so successful that within only a decade, the supply of whales was exhausted and the whaling station closed. By now some of the seamen began to settle the land, realising the potential of its rich and fertile soil. In 1843, James Atkinson, a Sydney solicitor, obtained land in the town by ‘Special Survey’ from the Crown in 1843. He drained the swamps, subdivided and leased the land, and built a harbour on the Moyne River. He named the resulting town “Belfast” after his hometown in Northern Ireland. Within a few years Belfast was one of the largest ports in Australia. Atkinson seems to have been an absentee landlord but another gentleman, one William Rutledge, also purchased a swathe of land under the Survey system and, at his own cost, arranged for several families to come from Ireland to work the new holding. The area attracted settlers from Ireland, both North and South, Protestant and Catholic and also a few Scots, who seemed happy to live side by side in this new life on the other side of the world. Their efforts evolved into a great potato and onion industry that would soon feed most of the city folk elsewhere in Australia. In 1887 the town’s name reverted back to Port Fairy but wandering around its quaint little streets lined with whalers cottages, old hotels and shopfronts there are plenty of reminders of its past. It felt pleasantly strange to saunter small town Oz and be confronted with shop names like ‘the Belfast Emporium’, “Belfast Ice and Cold Storage’ or the ‘Crepe Man of Belfast.’ We passed the ‘Caledonian Hotel’ (oldest licensed hotel in Victoria – 1844) and sauntered by ‘Dublin House’. Down at the small harbour there was even a boat named the ‘Jasus’, which gave us a chuckle.

A cool morning ride out took us to nearby Tower Hill, a small wildlife reserve and a place of stunning beauty. Set in the lake filled caldera of an ancient volcano, the reserve is a great place to see wild Koala and Emu. We found the Koalas almost immediately on setting off for one of the short hiking trails round the park. There they were, slouched up in the trees like a bunch of little old drunks sleeping off a bad one. Much more lively were the Emus, engaged in a spot of picnic robbery, ready to snatch a morsel or two from rug or table. Signs at the picnic area advised that the best way to drive off a persistent raider is to stand tall with your arms stretched high above your head and hands formed to make a beak. Emus are incredibly dumb and think you look like a taller Emu so will back off. We can attest that this does in fact work although at times you needed to have eyes in the back of your head. We watched one stalk an unwary lady at another table, creeping up silently behind and then precision snatching a sandwich out of her hand from over her shoulder, scaring the bejasus out of her in the process.

We rode north and east through rolling potato fields, legacy of the original settlers of Port Fairy, on superb empty roads that led us through the Grampian Mountains to the delightful city of Bendigo where we had been invited to stay with Steve and Serah Campbell, some friends from HU Indonesia. We spent a relaxing day out with Steve visiting the surrounding area and mooching Maldon, another old mining town whose population once grew to over 18,000 miners keen to exploit the Victorian gold rush back in the 1850’s. The mines were already exhausted by the turn of the century and nowadays Maldon is something of a sleepy little backwater of a thousand souls but it oozes with atmosphere and we spent an hour or two clumping along the boardwalks and soaking it all in with yet another great Australian host. Our time with Steve and Serah was all too short as we had a boat to catch that would take us to our next destination; Tasmania.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Victoria

 

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Making Melbourne

In the early sixties my uncle Jackie and aunt Betty immigrated to Australia. Back then Australia had launched a major drive to expand its population, offering ‘Assisted Passages’ to UK nationals for only £10 spawning an influx of ‘ten quid tourists’. My uncle served in the Royal Navy during WW2, winning a DSM at Normandy. After the war he returned to Belfast and found employment at Shorts Brothers aircraft factory. He raised a young family but found life unsettling especially against a constant threat of lay-offs and factory closures so decided to move to Australia. In those days such migrations were like a death in the family and wakes were often held for the departing. While the ‘Assisted Passage’ made immigration affordable, a return was prohibitively expensive in both time and money, so there was a silent understanding that when people left they would probably be gone for good so in many ways it felt like a funeral event.

I was around three years old when they left so I have no memories of my Aunt and Uncle or of my three cousins John, Anne and Denise. Yet their memory lived on and I grew up having this war-hero uncle who had travelled to the other side of the world, a powerful image for any child’s imagination. I loved maps and often finger-traced the lines their voyage would have taken around the world in my atlas. I pondered their route; did they go through the Suez Canal or round Cape Horn? Did they see the pyramids, ride on a camel? Did they stop off at exotic islands like Madagascar and Zanzibar or did they go straight to India and sample the crowded markets in Bombay. Then sailing on through the spice islands of Indonesia, braving earthquakes and volcanoes to reach the Land of Oz… and here I believe are the incipient seeds of my own wanderlust. As I grew older I vowed that one day I should undertake the same journey only I planned to do it by land. The family settled in Melbourne where they did very well indeed. Sadly Uncle Jackie has since passed, as has Aunt Betty earlier this year, but my cousins are all still there. All roads now led south to Melbourne and ‘Making Melbourne’ would be a dream come true.

For the most part we followed the coast, spending a few days at Noosa Heads National Park. It was a school holiday period and Noosa itself was somewhat overcrowded and touristy but the hike out to Hell’s Gate and views along the expanse of Sunshine Beach stretching forever off over the horizon made it worthwhile putting up with the crowds. From Noosa we rode south towards Brisbane, where we would be meeting some more recent immigrants from home; my mate Stevie Anderson, who left Belfast over twenty years ago, and his wife Ruth with their two kids Ewan and Charlie. We approached Brisbane late on a Friday afternoon and were horrified when the GPS took us off the highway and into the city centre before we realised what was happening… We girded our loins for a nightmare pell-mell of big-city traffic, the Friday rush hour just getting going, to make our way through and south of the city to reach Ruth and Stevie. It came as a pleasant surprise to find we’d chosen a public holiday so the city was eerily deserted and we rode straight through the ghostly streets with minimal delay. This was but a prelude to a lovely weekend, meeting Ruth and the kids for the first time and the twenty years since we’d last seen Stevie were reduced to what seemed like a short moment in time, surely the sign of a special and lasting friendship.

Goodbye Brisbane, farewell Queensland, hello New South Wales as we journeyed on down the Sunshine Coast, where we found some of the traffic we’d missed in Brisbane. Our beautiful beaches described in the last post were still there but now they were horribly obscured by mile after mile of high-rise concrete and steel, casino and resort, that seemed to run forever and all progress was wracked painful by endless traffic lights that promised nothing but tedium all the way to Sydney. Fortunately help was at hand from some Facebook friends, Jules and Andy Buckland, who have been following our progress and recommended some timely diversions that led us away from the coast and on to some of the finest motorcycling roads on the planet…

Our first stop was Walcha, reached via a cracking road called Thunderbolt’s Way that led us up into the Northern Tablelands region of New South Wales. Thunderbolt’s Way is named after a local 19th century bushranger-cum-folk legend, Frederick Ward, who went by the moniker Captain Thunderbolt in his career as a notorious highwayman and outlaw. Frederick was born in 1835, the youngest of ten children to a convict father and grew up around Windsor, where he started work at eleven years of age and gained a reputation as a useful horse breaker. After a few years, he expanded his career into rustling but the gang he was involved with was busted when they tried to sell some stolen horses at auction. Ward received a ten-year sentence of hard labour and was sent to the Cockatoo Island penal establishment. After four-years he was released under a ‘Ticket of Leave’, a government system whereby a convict could be released on a sort of bail provided he behaved himself.

He found employment as a horse wrangler at another station but misfortune seemed to dog his life.   He had a relationship with a lady called Mary Ann Bugg, who was then living with another ex-convict and she found herself pregnant with his child. The couple travelled to her father’s farm to have the baby but unfortunately this was in breach of his ‘Ticket of Leave’ conditions, an event further compounded by the fact that he was found riding a stolen horse. So Ward was sent back to Cockatoo Island to serve the remaining six-years of his original sentence, with an additional three-years added for the stolen horse.

After a short time he managed to escape from the island, swimming across to the mainland whereupon he set off on a trail of highway hold-ups and it was in this period that he bestowed the title “Captain Thunderbolt” on himself. One can only imagine the hardships endured in that life as he joined with other felons to prey on the innocent. He was shot in the back of his left knee in a shootout with troopers during one robbery in 1863 and various accomplices were gunned down as the authorities tried to hunt them down. Eventually he was cornered, shot and killed after robbing a band of travellers, at an untimely 35 years of age, at a place called Kentucky Creek near Uralla. Still he has a highway named after him today…

Leaving the coast near Grafton, at first we climbed a long twisty treat through dense forest mountain that was a joy to ride given we were the sole occupants of the road. The road led us to the tablelands where we travelled through the small town of Armidale, a sign at the entrance proclaiming it as ‘Australia’s Highest City’ at 1050m. By afternoon we were speeding on across flat undulating farmland that ran off to a dreamy campsite in Walcha. The only downside was that with this slight elevation we were starting to experience cooler evenings in the tent. On from Walcha, the Thunderbolt left the tablelands to spiral along the Hunter Valley and drop us into Gloucester and on via the Putty Road (another iconic motorcycling road in these parts named after a river this time) into pretty Windsor, where we found another idyllic campsite called Percy’s Place, set inside a huge U-Bend of the Hawkesbury River. Had this been England, I’m sure there would have been a stately home atop the slight rise above the river. In fact with all the English place names and rolling rural landscapes you could be forgiven for thinking you were actually back in England; that is until you suddenly come upon an incongruous prehistoric Cycad in a hedgerow or a dead kangaroo that instantly kills the illusion.

From Windsor we rode on to Sydney to stay with Jules and Andy, who proved to be impeccable hosts. More fine motorcycling followed as we took a Saturday ride out to Berowra Waters, catching the ferry there and riding a stunning series of S-bends that slalomed to a lofty café called Pie in the Sky for lunch. The afternoons ride continued on to the coast at Brooklyn, a picturesque little harbour-town and then back home via another snake of a road that ran through Galston Gorge. Once again the road has led us to another fine doorstep and underlines the old chestnut that there is no such thing as strangers, only friends you have yet to meet.

Before quitting Sydney we met up with another motorcycle hero, at least for those of us riding F650’s; Wayne Carruthers. Wayne is the author of the website www.crossroadz.com.au a resource for all things technical relating to the bikes and he first contacted me way back in 2007 after our Pan-American trip with a query regarding a nasty number of instances of fork failures on the pre-03 model F650GS (for full story see www.panamericanadventure.com/reference/bmw-f650gs-bikes/). Although our meeting was brief it was still great to catch up face-to-face with Wayne and thank him for the tireless effort he has put into his website.

From Sydney, more spectacular motorcycling roads beckoned back on the coast through the very beautiful Royal National Park. This took us down to Berry, a quaint little town full of ‘I saw you coming’ gift-shops and on to Eden, a former whaling station. At the local museum we learned how the whalers had a special relationship with the local Orcas, demonstrating once again how clever and cunning these killers can be. When a pod of big whales (Blue or Right whales) appeared in the vicinity, on their annual migration path, the Orcas would come close to the harbour and cry out an alarm. The whalers would scramble their boats, rowing out to where the rest of the Orca pack had rounded up the big whales. There were tales of Orcas actually towing whaler boats out to the hunt. The large whales were too big for the Orcas to successfully attack alone so they used the whalers to do it for them. As their reward, once the whales had been harpooned and dissected, the Orcas would be fed the tongues and brains of the kill. It seems this relationship had lasted for hundreds of years, the new colonists apparently picking it up from Aborigines in the area.

And so on to making it to Melbourne and that family reunion. The last miles towards that dream come true were slowly turning under our wheels made somewhat uncomfortable by the fact that our rear tyres, replaced in Darwin, were now well and truly squared off by all that long distance highway riding making for some awkward squirming in the bends. Added to that, the thermometer was plunging as we travelled further south with several nights under canvas at a shivering 2 or 3 degrees Celsius. And then the final ride, a short day of only 160 miles but what a lovely feeling as I input my cousin John’s address into the GPS! The day was pleasant with blue skies spotted with white cotton-ball clouds. We seemed to fly across the East Gippsland plains and on into rolling hill country, the road positively frolicking through lush landscapes of green grass and cereal crops. Then a descent down to the coast and another red-letter occasion to mark this special day.

My bike, KP52 VTO, finally racked up 100,000 miles, the first bike I’ve owned to do this. I know it’s only a number but symbolically as a traveller to take your bike around the clock is a significant achievement and to do it on today of all days made it doubly delicious. I thought back over the fifteen years I’ve owned this bike and all the magnificent places we’ve been. I pulled over to take some photographs of the clock at 99,999 miles and then another mile up the road and…’0’. Mags pulled over and dismounted to give me a big celebratory hug and KP a wee pet on the tank. An hour later we stopped again outside the gates of John’s house…

It is essential in life to have dreams, big and small, important never to give up on them and one of the most rewarding experiences is to one day pursue them such that they become reality (make this promise to yourself every day). They give life so much form and direction and one of the most glorious occasions imaginable is the day when dreams come true… Today was that day as our trusty little steeds carried us across the finish line and the realisation dawned that there was an end to this particular dreamtime; we’d finally made it to Melbourne.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Making Melbourne

 

Life’s a Beach…

Back on the water, having exchanged bike for boat, the 62-foot, gaff-rigged schooner Providence V wallows under motor, sails flapping lazily in the wind as she hauls us out on a day-trip to the Whitsunday Islands. We’ve been on many boat trips and usually relish such excursions, but at the moment this one is not quite living up to expectations as scrub-cloaked shorelines drift past to the putt-putt soundtrack of our boat crabbing across the sea. Our co-passengers seem mostly content to sit and simply soak up the rays as we plod on to reach our anchorage. A rubber inflatable drops us on the beach on Hill Inlet from where we trek up through a scrubby scraggly wood to reach an over view of the other side of the island and then… Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!

The outline of the Australian coast stretches for more than 30,000 km (18,500 miles) and that makes for a fair number of beaches. In fact the ‘Coastal Studies Unit’ at the University of Sydney has counted 10,685 beaches in Australia, based on the definition of a beach as a stretch of sand longer than 20 metres that remains dry at high tide, which means that Australia has more beaches than any other country on the planet. To put this in perspective, if you were to visit just one beach every day, it would take over 29 years to visit every single beach in Oz and that’s just on the mainland. Given the harsh climate and environments of the interior it is estimated that around 85% of Australia’s population live no more than 50km (30-miles) from the sea and the next leg of our trip would expose us to a number of these superb locations as we ran along the East Coast. Often the access to the beach was via some great hikes through spectacular rain forest.

We dragged ourselves away from the lovely folk at Townsville with a somewhat heavy heart but were soon soothed by spectacular coast roads as we headed north through Cardwell and on to Mission Beach, each mile candidating for the perfect paradise postcard view of palm-lined beach. After a few laid-back days relaxing at Mission Beach we were pondered the point of riding any further as the place was simply divine and one of the most stunning strands we ever set foot on.   Deserted palm-fronded golden sands stretching as far as the eye could see, lapped by lush blue oceans, the horizon dotted with pleasant little islands and all of it so very easy on the eye.

Making headway north, chasing these wondrous beaches all the way, we rode on to Daintree Village and from there explored the road up to Cape Tribulation before making our way to the end of the paved road up the East Coast at Cooktown. At Cape Tribulation, early in the evening of 10 June 1770, Cook ran the good ship Endeavour onto a reef and holed the side of it so badly that it was thought they might founder. A technique called ‘fothering’, whereby a sail was prepared with caulking material and hauled under the ship with ropes, effected a temporary repair. It was a grim time for the crew who, had they had they been shipwrecked, would have been marooned on these distant shores with no hope of rescue. Having covering the hole, they furiously manned the pumps and cast heavy items like cannons overboard to keep the ship afloat. The mood is captured in the place names noted in Cook’s logbook as they sailed on looking for a site to make a permanent repair. The cape he could see was named Cape Tribulation, the logbook noting “this is where our troubles began”. The reef the ship had struck was aptly named Endeavour Reef and a bay to the north where the crew rested from towing the ship up the coast with rowing boats was named Weary Bay. Luckily the repair lasted sufficiently to allow the ship to make way on up the coast to the site of modern Cooktown where Cook was able to beach the ship in a river estuary to effect a full repair.

During the repair work Cook and his crew met local Aborigines, who assisted with the repairs. In his observations on the Aborigines he noted ”From what I have said of the natives of New Holland they may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans; being wholly unacquainted not only with the superfluous but the necessary conveniences so much sought after in Europe, they are happy in not knowing the use of them. They live in a tranquility, which is not disturbed by the inequality of condition: The earth and sea of their own accord furnishes them with all things necessary for life.” They tried to give the Aborigines clothes and material but observed that these items were soon discarded along the beach and in the bush, as they had no use for such things. Shortly after this the Endeavour headed further north where the Union Jack was planted to officially take possession of Australia in the name of the British Crown.

It was at Cooktown that Cook’s men also sighted their first kangaroo, which was duly hunted down and eaten. What’s not to love about a country that has lots of cutesy animals with ‘oo’ in their name? Kangaroo, Cockatoo, Kookaburra to name but a few… The coast in these parts of North Queensland is also the abode of the Cassowary a huge, flightless, emu-like bird and road-signs warn of the danger of hitting one as they seem to be as clueless as ‘roos when it comes to roads safety. But for all that these coasts sport such magnificent sandy coves they are mostly deemed too dangerous for swimming. This was brought home on the road to Cape Tribulation when we stopped for lunch at the beautiful sandy bay at Thornton Beach. We left our jackets and helmets on a conveniently placed aluminium bench while we took a short walk. It was only when we were recovering our gear that we noticed a memorial plaque on the bench noting that a Cindy Waldron had been killed near this spot in 2016. It was a heartbreaking story. Cindy, a New Zealander in her mid-forties, was holidaying here with a friend who had just concluded a successful cancer treatment when they decided to go for a late evening swim. They made their way out into the water around 10:30pm when Cindy felt something brush against her leg, her preliminary contact with the crocodile who then dragged her off into the dark. A few days later rangers ‘euthanised’ a 4.5m croc and found the poor lady’s remains inside.

From Cooktown the road took us south to the delightful resort town of Port Douglas and then on to Airlie Beach via Cairns. Our couple of days at Cairns were notable for (1) failing to get an extension to our Australian visa and (2) the first heavy rain we have experienced for a long time. The standard entry visa for Australia is now 12 months with a proviso that you must leave every three months and it is free. You can apply for a 6 or 12-month visitor visa but there is a requirement that you have not visited any high risk TB areas in the last few years made this untenable for us as it now requires an extensive medical which is both expensive and can take up to 12-weeks to process. We were well into our first three months and had hoped to be able to talk to someone at immigration to see if there was any way to extend our current visa but it seems everything is handled electronically so this was not possible. Having clarified this point we settled into our tent that evening to the soporific pitter-patter of a light shower on canvas. A few hours later and the light shower was now persistent rain and the flysheet on our little tent began to sag miserably. We met this threat by ignoring it and snuggling down deeper into our sleeping bags, which enabled said flysheet to contact the mesh inner and seep into all our belongings, which duly got soaked necessitating a few hours the next day utilizing the dryers in the laundry room.

We have been camping all the way since leaving Darwin, which in Australia is generally a rather pleasant experience, with the exception of that one day of rain, given that most campgrounds have camp kitchens (complete with fridges, kettles, toasters and microwaves) and laundry facilities so I am pleased to report that we are travelling well fed and with the cleanest of socks and undies. Camping has been made even more delightful by the contact with other campers who are keen to offer advice on everything from where to go next to an invite to drop by for a home-cooked meal. The first of these invites came from the Cole family, Steve and Rebecca with their three charming kids, Hudson, Olivia and Ben. The Coles have been travelling around Eastern Australia for the past few months and we first met at Port Douglas where were invited over for a roast pork dinner (with all the trappings) and again at Airlie Beach for home-made hamburgers, the best we’ve had in a long time. The dinners are spontaneous episodes of kindness and have been happy exchanges and insights into our different ways of life that last long into the evening. They are simply one of the spices that make us relish our travels so dearly.

Airlie Beach was notable for a not so pleasant encounter with another of Australia’s voracious predators. The climate is superb so on setting up camp the first night, we frolicked around in shorts and flip-flops preparing dinner. The location came with a picnic table, soon laden with a tasty repast and a cask of fine wine all of this quaffed to a backdrop of a glorious sunset. Going to bed that night I began scratching at my legs; this beautiful location was also home to midges or sand flies and I’d been eaten alive. Locals will tell you that they don’t actually bite but urinate on you causing a skin irritation that gets worse with scratching but this seems to be an urban legend and they actually are bites. The problem is that the little flies are so small (another name for them is no-see-ums) that their presence goes unnoticed until it is too late.

And so to that island cruise to the Whitsundays and the drop off at Hill Inlet. Then that climb, wondering what all the fuss was about, until we spilled out onto the overview of Whitehaven Sands and what has got to be the most beautiful beach on the world. Stark white sands spiraled around and into an inlet with waters a swirl of blues of every shade from deep ultramarines and indigos through lighter teals and turquoise like a vast cappuccino in blue. Down on the sand the super fine grains squeaked as we walked barefoot. The sands also felt cool to the touch as they are almost unique on the planet possessing a silica content of 98%. The guides claimed it to be of such high purity that it was used as the base material to make the mirror for the Hubble Space Telescope, a fact I have been unable to confirm. So I will leave you for now holding that vision of a world in ethereal blue and a recommendation to go see it for yourself. It is surely a worthy inclusion on anyone’s bucket list. Or for a sneaky peak, just click on the link below to visit our photogallery for this post.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Life’s a Beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Heart

HMAS Courage, the latest addition to the proud Royal Australian Navy, finally cornered the pirate-vessel up the Todd River after a long and harrowing sea-chase. It is amazing we still have piracy in these modern times and every modern navy is pledged to action wherever their presence is discovered.   The hunt was on and the modern frigate closed up for action as weapons officers armed guns and missile systems, ready for the final showdown. In comparison, the pirate resembled nothing more than a shoddy collection of lo-tech sticks and string yet they were determined not to give in without a fight. You can imagine the horror onboard Courage as they rounded a bend in the river to confront not one but two adversaries… As weapons trained on the pirate ship a second sail appeared out of the mist; a fully armed Viking longship intent on raising hell with all comers.

No, not a computer game, but the finale of the Henley on Todd Regatta, held every year on the Todd River, Alice Springs, a place about as far as you can get from the sea as anywhere on the planet. Now in its 56th year (same age as me!) the regatta is another of those fine Australian institutions where something fundamental, such as a total lack of water in a river, will not deter the execution of as a fine boating event as ever took place. The Regatta has only ever been cancelled once in 1996 due to water in the river from unseasonal rain. The day started with a splendid street parade – a sort of entry of the gladiators and then with crews and spectators gathered along the river we had a welcome address from the Commodore, fresh from the deck of his moored up HQ, the infamous paddle steamer “Pistil Dawn”. The day was packed with a full programme ranging from yacht racing to rowing fours and there was even a yellow submarine. The races were highly entertaining, the lightweight ‘vessels’ being simply picked up and propelled by leg power along the sandy bed to round the buoy and sail back to the start-line. Other events included sand shoveling, tug-of-war, a ‘budgie smuggler’s’ race for blokes in tight fitting Speedo’s and a series of foot races for the little nippers so everyone could join in. It all culminated in that grand finale; the spectacular shoot out between the three local Rotary Clubs who had constructed splendid motorised battleboats, complete with powder-blasting pyrotechnics and water cannon. The winner was decided by the highest decibel recorded for the loudest applause from the audience: the Vikings carried the day due to a mix of splendid costumery and a slight edge on the level of madness generated compared to the pirate and navy boats.

It was with a degree of sadness that we packed the bikes to leave Dave Wright’s place and Darwin. Staying with Dave had been a superb introduction to Australia but we were fully primed and ready for the road. We started with a short ride to Litchfield National Park and the fabulous Wangi Falls, a huge waterhole fed by twin spouts of the falls, all surrounded by a simple paradise of lush tropical vegetation. It was our first taste of the real Outback; bush country life alternating between dusty danders along winding trails in the heat and delicious dips at the cascades. The area is festooned with termite mounds; everything from spectacular cathedral mounds, built over centuries, to marvelous magnetic termite mounds. These two dimensional structures are built by a translucent species of mite that is sensitive to heat exposure so they build across a north-south axis to minimize the solar heat effects. An info-board told how scientists messed around with the magnetic field to deliberately offset the north-south polarity on one mound; the termites simply adjusted the building to follow what they thought was the correct polarity.

Having spent the last eighteen months riding in Asia, with congested narrow winding roads, sometimes in deplorable condition and where journeys were reckoned in time taken rather than the actual distance to cover, it was something of a relief to find ourselves in wide open spaces barreling down roads straight as a rifle with nothing in sight for miles bar the odd roadhouse. Riding was adjusted to keep an eye on those distances as there isn’t much in between and fuel / water stops have to be given some thought. It is very relaxed riding with few threats; little in the way of traffic, other then the odd road-train nor obstruction or even bends to think about. We turned off the intercom to save battery life and also because, in this environment, there was little to comment on. This condition induces a certain state of meditative nirvana, with the mind just churning along to the tune of the bike in the wind, where thoughts can tumble like weeds and be allowed to drift carelessly off until we no longer had a care in the world. And every night under canvas, skies darkened velvety black by 7pm, brilliantly jeweled by a billion stars and the light dusting trail of the Milky Way. If it’s black by night then the days are an outrage colour from the azure blue of the sky to the ruddy rouge desert as we lunged ever on into the red heart of Oz. Suddenly a city; Alice Springs, something of an oasis after many long days of desert overlanding and hick-town overnight. Even better there’s that Regatta on at the weekend so first class entertainment before we plunge on to see the Red Heart itself; Uluru.

Uluru is, first and foremost, simply and utterly magnificent. Crossing the flat, barren landscapes suddenly these red outcrops spring up on the horizon like surfacing submarines. First Mount Conner on the road into the National Park, then Uluru itself and finally the spectacle of the Olgas. To be honest I was prepared to be underwhelmed as it all just seemed like red rocks in the desert – albeit very big ones; what could be amazing about that? Yet walking the 11km perimeter track around Uluru presented an ever-changing spectacle of light, colour and texture, all radiating redness against that brilliant blue sky. Up close Uluru looks like the shot-peened carapace of an upturned vessel, maybe even one that crashed from another planet, with smooth lines that have melted and flowed straight into the surrounding desert. This up-turned hull even resounded with a hollow metallic ring as we tested its surface with a rap from our knuckles. In other sections the face appeared to have been machined away by Mother Nature to reveal inclusions that resembled cross-sectioned channels of a huge monolithic brain.

Another day, another hike: Kata Tjuta or the Olgas – a nearby collection of red rocks appearing as a series of huge but distinct boulders on the horizon accessible via the Valley of the Winds hiking trail that reduced us to a pair of leprechauns treading some fantastic sci-fi kingdom. The entrance to the trail was guarded by a huge formation that looked like a beached and ossified Russian submarine. The 7.4 km path then meandered through and amongst the big rocks and again that natural display of sol et lumiere had necks craning in every direction to take it all in. There is something of a sense of enrichment or even empowerment to be gained from wandering in wondrous terrain. It blanches both soul and spirit and leaves one feeling incredibly humble and uplifted.

The Red Heart had one more thrill in store as we mounted up to head back north and east towards the coast; Kings Canyon. A 100-mile spur road took us to a splendid little campground, our base for a few days exploring an entirely different take on the red-rock of these heartlands. Here a river had made some impressive cuttings into blushed salmon terrain that, from the air, resembled a huge tray-bake, where wind and water had invaded the cross-cuts to erode the ‘bakes’ into a fantastic series of beehive-shaped monticules. The rim-trail was one of the best day hikes of the entire trip starting with a steep and torturous ascent up a series of natural stairs, softly coloured like honeycomb, to attain the rim and then a couple of hours meandering through a landscape of pure wonder. At the far end a man-made stairway descended back to the canyon for a side trip to visit the aptly named Garden of Eden, ending in a watering hole lined with splendid tropical plants and feathered with yet more examples of bewildering Australian birdlife.

Our visit to the Australian heartland was marred, if only slightly, by two incidents of thievery, one a mindless act of theft, the second an attempted theft that resulted in a beautiful wildlife encounter. The first was at Uluru resort campground where some scumbag stole our lightweight travel towels from the laundry lines. These items were 15-years old and had given faithful service through all of our big trips. Even although they were a little faded and washed-out we were saddened that someone had decided to appropriate them for their own use and it has made us watchful over the rest of our gear, something we’ve not really had to do for a long time.  The second incident was at Kings Canyon, where we left a bag of rubbish in the porch of our tent after lunch. We were lying reading with the tent doors open when a little doggy head reached round and attempted to snatch the rubbish bag. It was our first encounter up close with an Australian dingo.

The heartlands proved to be extremely cold at night as the desert readily yielded up the heat of the day. Add to that 500 metres of altitude and nighttime temperatures dropped to just above freezing. Our summer tent and sleeping bags were barely adequate and we found ourselves rummaging in amongst thermal kit for the first time in ages. Days to get in and now days to get out as we retraced the ride back to Alice Springs and on up to Tennant Creek, where the road ran east to Townsville on the coast. This took us through hundreds of miles of empty flat landscape to the mining town of Mount Isa, which proved to be more of a ‘mine and a town’; with the town but a slight appendage to the huge ‘Mount Isa Mines’, one of the most productive single mines in the world for lead, silver, copper and zinc extraction. Then on through a surrogate Surrey of places with names like Richmond, Croydon and Hughenden.

The chain and sprocket kits on the bikes were now showing signs of terminal decline. We managed to find one replacement kit in Alice Springs and fitted it to Maggie’s bike (thanks to the fantastic help from all the folks at Desert Edge Motorcycles) but now, nearing the coast, the chain on my bike was on really on its last legs. We finally made it to Townsville and the delightful Rowes Bay Beachfront campsite, a much-needed stop to sort out that chain and plan our tour of Australia’s East Coast. In the site we met two local retirees, Terry and Kay, who had travelled all of ten minutes from home in their camper van after winning a two-night stay in the park in a local raffle. They immediately took us under their wing, inviting us to spend a night at their beautiful homestay and directing us to R.H.D. Classic Supplies and Services to get that chain sorted.

Pulling in to the little industrial unit we found ourselves in a yard full of Harleys and wondering had we come to the wrong place. We’d just taken our helmets off when we were greeted by a lovely lady with a ready smile who instantly bade us a hearty welcome… “Wow you guys have come a long way! What can we do for you?” …and so we met Spanner, proprietress of RHD. We explained that we needed a chain and sprocket kit for my bike. She apologised that the best she could do was tomorrow after getting the kit by express airmail… and me thinking we could be stuck here for a week or so ordering parts in. Next day the parts were there as promised and a little corner was cleared for us in the busy workshop, so the chain could be fitted to the bike. I can think of no better way to wind up this post than with expressing a hearty thanks to mechanics Lance and Bruce and of course Spanner for the sterling service, help and welcome we received at RHD. Now I wish I could be treated like this in more bike shops back home, no longer feeling like a walking wallet just in for an extraction. We left Townsville once again under smooth transmission, ready now for that coast!

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Red Heart

 

 

 

 

 

CU in the NT!

I was standing at the roadhouse bar waiting my turn to get a drink when the girlfriend of the guy in front of me came up behind us, her arrival announced by the sound of her knuckles dragging along the floor. The place was stuffed with Territorians replete with beards and bellies, black singlets and inky tattoos… and that was just the women. God it looked rough! “Giddus a beer ya cant,” she shouted to her beloved. “Comin’n a minute love,” he replied. Another typical Sunday afternoon in the Humpty Doo Hotel, where locals come from far and wide to banter one another and listen to the music laid on by a three piece band knocking out some cracking sounds, little bits of everything from Clapton to Floyd. Out front a line-up of graceful Harleys, old American pick-ups and Australian Utes filled the dusty parking lot.

The use of the ‘C’ world, even in today’s society, is generally quite shocking. At home it is surely the nuclear swearword in our lexicon of profanities; to call someone a c**t is a last resort / ultimate insult before violence erupts, yet here it was being casually used in witty banter, outback style. We’d found swearing in the Northern Territories to be almost endemic; the sign for the loos in another roadhouse literally read ‘Shithouse ->’. But even I took a double take on a bumper sticker that read ‘CU in the NT’ – text write for ‘see you in the Northern Territories’ with ‘in’ written over ‘the’ in a very small font such that from a distance the two words are invisible. A few days later strolling the streets of Darwin there was a shop selling this same logo emblazoned on everything from mugs and mouse-mats to baseball caps and car stickers… It seems they are proud of swearing up here.

Our arrival in Darwin almost ended in disaster. Our short red-eye flight from Bali landed us in Oz at 5:30am to find that the car rental desk was shut until 7:30am. We were both shattered when we wandered off, keys in hand to collect the car at a remote parking lot. The sun was up so I went to grab my sunnies, stashed in my camera bag, when I realised that said bag with my Canon EOS 6D camera and snazzy ‘professional series’ lens was missing. I had plonked it on top of our baggage trolley at the hire desk and now it was gone! I quickly retraced our steps to the desk but there was neither knowledge nor sight of the bag. We were directed to a security desk to see if it had been handed in and our stomachs were writhing pits of dread at the prospect of losing such a fine and expensive camera that, at this point in our travels, would have been simply irreplaceable. Even worse we pondered the notion that it had somehow been stolen; we couldn’t remember being distracted or any contact with persons unknown but we were both gritty-eyed from lack of sleep, so who knows? The security desk hadn’t seen any camera bags handed in and we were arranging contact details in case it turned up when another guy walked in and said “someone here lose a camera?” We could have kissed him! The bag had fallen off the trolley, unnoticed in our knackered state on our way to the carpark and an employee found it minutes later and handed it in at a different location.

Australia as an overlanding travel destination is mega-expensive, especially as a follow on from months of budget travel in SE Asia.  The cheapest hotels in Darwin come in at over $100 a night for a minimal standard private room so our first mission was to acquire a set of camping gear. We had soon abandoned our own camping gear back in Europe as we couldn’t see the need for it in Asia, where decent rooms were cheap and bountiful. Luckily Darwin had a couple of really good outdoor stores and we soon had a decent budget tent with sleeping mats and bags. We camped at a beautiful site up at Lee Point and had a few days exploring the coast around Darwin while we waited for the bikes to clear customs. Darwin was an unexpectedly delightful place and the simplicity of communicating with people in our mother tongue once again was a pure joy. An immediate impression of Australia is that it is a delightful explosion of birdlife. All through SE Asia and Indonesia, birds were remarkable mainly by their absence. Even in Komodo we saw but a single seabird perched on an isolated rock and the captain of the boat took a shot at it with an imaginary rifle, suggesting the likely demise of the little birdie’s friends. Now we had the constant companionship of darting little black and white Pee-Wees, scrawny looking Ibis, both white and pink varieties of noisy Cockatoos and beautiful Lemon-Masked Lapwings. Overhead Black Kites graced our campsite dinners with daring swoops and grass-cutter fly-pasts.

We met up with Gail, who had lingered in Dili and booked to have the dreaded quarantine inspection completed for our three bikes. We also had new tyres ordered from Richard Cross at Alicross, a highly recommended and competent motorcycle repair shop in Darwin, so soon we would be ready for roads south. But first that inspection… Initially we were told we were on a ‘gas’ hold… For a horrible moment I thought that my dodgy fuel pump had started leaking again and the container was contaminated with gasoline but it turned out that we were on a ‘GAS’ hold; actually the acronym for Giant African Snail. In the 19th century, when the Europeans were exploring the islands of the Pacific, they left pigs on each island they visited. The pigs would forage and prosper, thus ensuring a supply of fresh meat for the next ship to arrive. The Japanese did something similar but they left Giant African Snails as their food supply. When the quarantine guy explained this to us we chuckled; seriously? A giant snail? What possible risk could that be? Not exactly hard to see or to catch are they? He disappeared and returned with a plaster model of one (see photogallery)… It was huge! About the size of a shoebox and I reckon there was the equivalent of a large T-bone worth of meat curled up inside! “One of these can eat its way through 29 head of lettuce in a night,” he explained. “But worse than that each one can carry up to 20,000 eggs and once dispersed the eggs lie dormant for two to three years so you see, the risk of an invasion isn’t to be taken that lightly.” It transpired that Timor is a high risk for giant snails so every container is placed in a salt ring and then inspected for snails / eggs before release.

Luckily there was no snail contamination and within a few days the bikes were cleared and ready for inspection. We completed the necessary paperwork and paid the remainder of the shipping fees and then met the inspector at the bonded storage facility. It was great to see our treasured bikes again, released from the container and all gleaming, all ready to go. Then the inspector got to work… A little hmming and haaaing… Front mudguards looked good, engine good too – no oil or grease. “You did a pretty good job cleaning these… looks good,” he went on and our hopes soared. Then the rear mudguard… “Oh, oh what’s this… hmmmm, looks like mud.” I was quickly down under the rear guard and he pointed two miniscule spots of dried earth on some screw recesses, same place on both bikes. I can only imagine that when we’d cleaned the bikes they stayed wet and remained invisible when we checked them in Timor. “Seriously?” I enquired and explained how we’d spent a week cleaning everything in Dili. Same on Gail’s bike… some tar with something organic stuck to it under the front guard… “Can’t let these pass, no way” he said and that was that – we had failed quarantine.

We tried to reason with the inspector; as the amounts were so miniscule couldn’t we simply scrape it off, bag it and then burn the bag? But there was no way; he’d write up the inspection report and the bikes would have to be cleaned by an authorised cleaner.   Enter now a nightmare of uncertainty and running costs… It took nearly a week to clear this inspection. The bikes had to be trucked to an approved cleaning agent, where the offending material was removed and bio-disposed of. It cost us $725 (Australian) for both bikes! I know there was a set of requirements and we did fail to meet them, by some meager margin, but what made me really angry was that the same guy then released all of our baggage from the bikes without inspection. It contained camping and hiking gear, tools and riding kit, all of which has had over two years of outdoor exposure and he wasn’t interested in it! It was all there on the same bikes that had just failed his inspection yet he let us unpack it and go. It seems this inspection is a lottery as some Indian friends shipped Bali to Melbourne and inspection consisted of a quick look at the tyres before a pass and release. I’m sure as our inspector drove off I saw a sticker on the back of his car that read ‘CU in the NT’…

It was in the middle of all of this that we met a fairy godfather in the shape of Dave Wright, a local overlander who occasionally hosts fellow travellers at his spread just outside Darwin. Gail had contacted him through an online forum and we were all invited for a superb Aussie Barbeque at his place, which turned into an invite to stay. Dave was a big Koala Bear of a fella (if Koala Bears grow to over 6’ 2’’), a gentle giant with a range of bike experience and stories from riding in the Americas to pit crewing at the Isle of Man TT. With the bikes released and new tyres fitted by Richard, he helped us fettle them for the journey ahead, repositioning handlebars (remedy for some tennis elbow I’d been suffering) and repairing our clutch and brake levers (the lever pins and bushes were badly worn). He also made sure we had adequate capacity for carrying water, which was something we’d not taken too seriously up to now.

Dave took us to some weekend bear racing at the Hidden Valley circuit in Darwin. As with GAS, this was another acronym; BEAR standing for British, European and American (bike) Racing. I’ve not been to a bike race for years and the meet was small and somewhat informal so we could drift in and around the pits and see the teams in action. Stars of the show were a pair of beautifully rebuilt Laverda Jotas from the late 1970’s from Redax Laverda in Brisbane resplendent in their orange race trim with gleaming polished alloy casings. With the racing finished for the day, they were started up and a couple of riders took them on a demo ride around the track proving them to be even more beautiful in sound and motion.

We finished our splendid day out at the Humpty Doo Hotel, foot tapping to the music over a few suds and bantering with the locals. Looking around I thought ‘if you were parachuted straight from home into the middle of this lot, you might find it somewhat a tad intimidating’ but today they were the end of our road to date; another magnificent palace full of lively people, colourful in action, colourful with their language and all having a good time. We looked at each other and thought, ‘at this moment in time there’s nowhere else in the world we’d rather be!’ The bikes are finally released and ready…  Australia awaits…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link:  Welcome to Oz!

 

 

 

 

The End of Islam! (End of Asia Pt 2)

The 1am ferry arrival in Kupang, capital city of Indonesian West Timor was remarkable not only for the lateness of the hour but also in that it marked the end of our nautical ventures in Indonesia. We wobbled off the stern ramp bleary eyed into pitch darkness to find our bed for the night. It took a couple of days to organise mandatory Visa Authorisation Letters for Timor L’Este at the consulate in town but other than that Kupang and West Timor held little of interest. The north coast had some fine sandy beaches but those around the city were badly polluted with discarded plastics and we’d been warned that the same beaches are also stalking grounds for saltwater crocodiles so even a paddle was a risky proposition.

A day’s ride into the hinterland of this last part of Indonesia delivered us to the small town of Atambua and a one-night stop before the border crossing. The road was reasonable with some fine panoramic views along the way but we felt a growing sadness that we would soon lose the bikes for several weeks once they were cleaned, packed and sent to Australia. The realisation also dawned that once we crossed the border, we would enter Timor L’Este, a predominantly Christian nation and our travels through the magnificent lands of Mohammed would be at an end. The call to prayer has been a constant feature since we entered Turkey almost two years ago and I have to say that we have been heartily welcomed everywhere we have travelled in these Islamic nations. Whenever the subject was raised, we encountered nothing but abhorrence for the terrorist actions of extremist groups like ISIS. It seems their major success has been nothing more than to create a worldly mistrust against all of Islam, which is ultimately undeserved and tragic. Our travels testify for this; we have travelled these lands at all times feeling safe, welcome and always found help on hand when we needed it from some of the kindest people on the planet. It is the end of Islam in our travels for now but we leave with a treasury of beautiful memories of beautiful people, cultures and traditions. It is also the end of babble and exotic cuisine. No more foreign tongues for a while once we enter the land of Oz, no more wondering what that weird sounding dish is on the menu nor assault on the taste buds when it turns out (mostly!) to be yet another unknown delight. Yes, we will miss this hubble and bubble of travel as we exchange it for more familiar surroundings. But I am getting ahead of myself; first we had to negotiate our exit from Timor L’Este…

Timor L’Este, to be honest, rated low in our expectations when reviewing the list of countries to visit on this trip. It has a reputation for being vastly more expensive than Indonesia with less bang for your buck yielding mediocre accommodation at inflated prices (all paid for in US Dollars, the local currency) coupled with poor facilities and infrastructure, yet it is the jumping off point for shipping to Darwin, Australia. The border crossing was casual and easy with the right pieces of paper and the final morning ride to Dili, the capital, took us along a spectacular swathe of blue ocean road. First impressions were not great, especially when we checked into the dismal and dank Dili Homestay. At $40 a night, this was over twice what we’d been paying for vastly superior accommodation in Indonesia. Initially we had tried to book for two weeks to arrange our shipping but the owner, a scraggy Australian expat named Meg, failed to answer our booking enquiries so we cautiously booked for one night via Booking.com. We had to postpone our arrival by one day, due to a delay in getting the Visa Authorisation letter and emailed her to let her know. “OK” was the response. A couple of yappy dogs snapped at our heels when we arrived in the dusty courtyard and followed Meg into the dim recess of our ‘deluxe’ bedroom… a dark, mosquito infested pit. The remote bathroom was described as ‘rustic’, which we learned is a term applied round here for ‘filthy’. Meg complained that her kids no longer visited from Oz and that she was just recovering from a recent bout of Dengue fever. Timor L’Este is rated as a high-risk area for the disease and the property was festooned with anti-mosquito sprays, smoke-coils and electric bats. It all added up to a horrific dose of culture shock, spiced with a whiff of rip-off and the unhealthy prospect of a tropical disease thrown in. Luckily we had a Plan ‘B’ in the form of the Casa Do Sandalo, a small apartment in the grounds of the Mexican Consulate. We made a tentative two-week booking and rode out that afternoon to check it out. It was a little piece of heaven; a beautiful apartment complete with kitchen, bathroom and patio area for the same price. A no-brainer as to where we would be staying for the duration in Dili.

We honoured the Booking.com reservation and stayed the one night with Meg but in the morning she was clearly miffed that we were leaving. A breakfast of stale rolls and jam was flung on the table before us, as she made a desperate bid to undercut the Casa but we explained that she needed to do something about the mosquitos, the toilet and the general state of the place. We paid up for the night and as we were leaving she suddenly presented us with a second bill for delaying the original booking! It capped off a horrible experience in one of the worst accommodations of the entire trip and needless to say we declined the payment. Fortunately this nasty introduction to Dili was short lived as we met Ivan and Andre, our lovely hosts at the Casa. Those words ‘mi casa es su casa’ never rang truer and the welcome was completed with a complimentary bottle of fine Portuguese wine and a bowl of fruit.

And so on to the shipping… A lovely lady called Lenor at ANL advised that our container would be ready for packing in five days so we were immediately immersed in a hectic schedule to get everything cleaned and ready. Australia, being an island with unique endemic species, is very alert against incoming bio-security risks, having suffered massively at the influx of such foreigners as rabbit infestations and more recently cane toads, introduced to eat cane beetles. Unfortunately the wrong species of cane toad was introduced, one that couldn’t jump high enough to catch the cane beetles, yet possessed a toxic skin coating that poisoned anything that tried to eat it causing massive damage to indigenous predator populations. Consequently there are strict quarantine requirements on all goods coming into the country and vehicles in particular must be immaculately clean, with no mud nor dirt, grime nor grease permitted. This includes all areas; wheels, tyres, up under the mudguards, in and around the engine. The same requirement also applies to all personal effects; tools, riding gear and footwear, hiking and camping kit; it all had to be meticulously clean and we spent a couple of days at the Casa with everything emptied out and scrubbed.

Enter another overlanding hero; the charming and vivacious Antonio Fortuna. Antonio runs the Ford Entrepost dealership in Dili and happily permits overlanders the use of his workshop facility to clean their bikes for shipping. This includes the use of a power wash and a compressed air line for drying and blasting off the muck. We spent two and a half days with Antonio and his crew, who assisted us in cleaning the bikes. Wheels were removed and we disassembled the bodywork and headlight fairing to get at all the underlying dust. Mudguards were scrubbed and all baked-on oil and dirt gradually dissolved from the engines and wheels such that the bikes shone with a brilliant gleam. We were horrified to note that the ANL loading yard was a huge white dust bowl and could imagine our newly cleaned bikes getting into a right state as we rode across this to gain access to the container. “No problem!” said Antonio who quickly organised trucking the bikes to the container so they stayed clean. The only payment requested for this sterling help was a signed framed photograph of our bikes to add to his collection. What service and what a star!

At ANL we met Gail Baillargeon, a smiling big John Wayne of an American on a BMW 1200GS Adventure, who was four years into his round the world trip and would also ship his bike in the container with us. We spent the rest of our time in Dili exploring the city by day and enjoying the comforts of the Casa in the evening where we cooked up a few boozy dinners with Gail and Jason Kind, the English cyclist we mentioned in the last post. Wandering the streets of Dili, we learned a little of the history of Timor L’Este, one of the newest countries in the world. The country had been a far-flung colony since the 16th century when the Portuguese took possession, attracted by the trade in sandalwood, which grows there. By the mid-1970’s, Portugal suffered an internal collapse as the 40-year right-wing dictatorship of António de Oliveira Salazar ended by military coup. The new democratic regime struggled to sustain its colonies in places like Angola, Mozambique and Timor, which were all pressing for independence.   On 28 November 1975, the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) declared the territory’s independence and the Portuguese withdrew.

The problem was that FRETILIN, at that time, followed Marxist-Leninist leanings and the prospect of another communist enclave in SE Asia horrified the western world. The US at the time was at the end of the disastrous war in Vietnam so it was with some relief that the president of Indonesia offered to take care of the problem… Nine days later, Indonesian forces invaded and quickly occupied the country marking the start of a horrific guerilla war that would fester over the next twenty years. Once again on this trip we found ourselves walking the sorry scenes of a genocide that occurred in our own lifetime yet was scarcely reported on the news back home. An estimated quarter to one third of the entire population of East Timor perished in a series of battles, massacres, round-ups and starvations as Indonesia sought to tighten their grip on the country. By 1999 the United Nations intervened, resulting in a referendum, which conclusively showed that the people wanted independence. Indonesia relinquished control of the territory and in May 2002, Timor L’Este was officially recognised as the first new sovereign state of the 21st century.

We visited the resistance museum, which told the story of the long struggle for independence but, walking the streets, it is clear to see that something awful happened here just by looking at the people. Over 60% of the population is under 24-years of age, highlighting the fact that an entire generation has disappeared. There is a sorrow in the eyes of folk here and we sensed that there is a generation of youth deprived of the benefit of elders (casualties from the war) to guide them through growing up. We heard various tales of a gang culture and corruption is rife in all echelons of civil life. There is little industry, just farming and fishing and the presence of the UN, with the adoption of the US Dollar, seems to have inflated prices as previously noted so everything is expensive and the temptation to progress by criminal means is tempting. With the setting of the sun, the streets of Dili quickly emptied. Buses and taxis disappeared and for the first time on this journey we felt a little uneasy in the city and were glad of the security of the high walls surrounding our Casa.

Our three bikes were shuffled into place and securely strapped down and the container was delivered to Dili Port. From there they would travel to Singapore and on finally to Darwin, where we would collect them in just under three weeks time. We flew to Bali to sit out the rest of their transit in a beautiful little apartment in Sanur. It gave us time to rest and contemplate the next leg of this wonderful journey; the ride through Australia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 2

The End of Asia! (Part 1)

Our days in Asia were slowly but surely running out whilst up ahead, Australia beckoned. Ahead of us lay a thrilling a volcano-lined road that threaded the island of Flores to reach the small port of Larantuka. From there a twice weekly ferry ran to Kupang in West Timor, where we could ride overland to reach Dili, capital of East Timor and ship the bikes on to Oz; alternatively we could backtrack all the way to Bali to find a shipper there. For several weeks we had been gathering quotes from various agencies and to be honest none of them looked either attractive or reliable. SDV offered the most logical choice; a container ship direct from Dili to Darwin supposedly taking only three days. Yet four riders who we’d met at HU had waited over 5-weeks for their bikes and faced horrible frustrations and delays, topped with escalating charges, throughout the entire process so we saw nothing there to recommend their services. We also obtained a reasonable quote from a company in Bali but an online search revealed more dissatisfied customers with costs eventually doubling the quotation price. To be honest, we didn’t really want to backtrack either. Our bikes are once again showing signs of wear and tear from the ride through Indonesia, with rear tyres now shot and needing immediate replacement in Australia. That left us with ANL. They sail the triangular Darwin-DiliSingapore route, which takes a little longer than the more direct route but they came with several good overlander recommendations and it meant we could continue on to explore the two islands of Flores and Timor and, of course, reach the end of Asia!

In Labuan Bajo, the comfie Surya hotel proved to be one of those nodal points in travel where you meet, mingle and part with friends old and new. We bade farewell to Tom and Phil, who were headed back west and met up with Thomas Brandt, a young German rider from Rostock, also headed west on his KTM 690 and Jason Kind, a stubbled, bean-pole of an English cyclist from Hastings who had covered a lot of the same ground as us using pedal power.   We have met quite a few cyclists and find a lot in common with them as fellow travellers; like us they carry a little self-sufficient world on two wheels and are fully exposed to the elements with the added encumbrance of powering their journey using their own legs, yielding a journey travelled at a much slower speed but with the advantage that they will see so much more. It’s not a mode of transport I would personally consider for the same reason I’ll never model dresses on a catwalk; I just don’t have the legs for it…

The ride through the island of Flores proved to be simply spectacular. The road from Labuan Bajo climbed up and into a mountainous hinterland, a sinuous slash of sexy tarmac that occasionally dropped into plains of rice-fields before coiling off once more into highland territory rendered breathtakingly beautiful by blasts of bamboo forest. We stopped at a little Warung (local café / food vendor) for some lunch, in the seaside town of Borong, where we met Jason pedaling along, enjoying a stretch of straight and level road. It had taken him four-days to cycle what we covered that morning and his legs were feeling it.

Our target for the day was the mountain town of Bawang and the ride just got better and better as we left coastal plains and climbed high into cloud forested mountains. Now and again the cloud would drift apart, offering sneaky-peaks of nearby volcanoes or treetop terrain running all the way to crystal blue waters back at the coast. We were both feeling fairly cold by the time we pulled into town to find our preferred hotel fully booked and a couple of alternatives asking lofty prices for mediocre accommodation. We were rescued by the Hotel Korina where we met Brian, Brad and Shorty, a trio of Aussies from Tasmania touring the island on rented motorcycles who became first date beer-buddies and then a bunch of good friends after a few lively evenings in the bar.

The landscape had definitely been changing as we rode east through Indonesia. I started reading Alfred Russel Wallace’s ‘The Malay Archipelago.’ Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin and independently conceived the theory of evolution through natural selection, co-publishing papers on the subject with Darwin. Wallace had travelled previously in the Amazon but famously made a number of startling observations about the bio-geographic diversity in the Malay Archipelago where he travelled between 1854 and 1862, including the definition of what became known as the Wallace Line. This line identifies and associates the wildlife and plants on the island of Bali and everything west of there with Asiatic origins, whilst everything on the island of Lombok and onwards east has a pronounced Australian origin. It is quite fantastic as the two islands are only 22-miles apart and it was the bird life that gave him his first clues to the delineation. In Bali he found species of woodpecker, kingfisher and pheasant, birds that are endemic to Asia from India to Indonesia all the way east to Bali and Borneo, while across the Lombok Strait he suddenly found himself in the world of the cockatoo and the eucalyptus. Amazingly the birds have failed to migrate across this short stretch of water loosely suggesting that the islands down to Bali were previously connected to the Asiatic landmass and therefore populated by flora and fauna from that point of origin, whereas the lands to the east of Lombok have obvious associations with Australia.

The traditional village of Bena, a short ride from Bawang, felt like neither Asia nor Australia. The road fooled around the base of the pointy-coned volcano of Inerie that provided an otherworldly backdrop to the morning.   The twisting single-track ribbon took us on through more majestic cathedrals of bamboo and by the time we arrived at the village our bodies were fully sated with joyous endorphins that can only be delivered by slowly riding a motorcycle through a stunning landscape. We abandoned the bikes at a small carpark and walked the short trail into Bena itself. That location, with the ever present backdrop of Inerie, one moment all skirted by cloud, the next all lifted to reveal its splendorous peak, reminded us we were right up against an active volcano, a smoking gun capable of instant obliteration. We mooched through the tall thatched-roof village houses, sited around an elongated common of dirt all ringed by a dry-stone wall. In the centre henges of tall burial stones stood, somewhat Neolithic in appearance and here and there marked with the sign of the cross; folks on Flores are predominantly Christian. It was still early in the morning and there was an air of peace and tranquility about the place. A few women fretted at their looms making scarves and wraps for tourists. The detailing on the wooden house frames showed images of horses and boats and here there horned animal skulls adorned the façade. It all felt a bit weird, as we seemed to be so far from plains or sea in this Conan-Doyle-Lost-World-complete-with-smouldering-volcano-on-your-doorstep. Or maybe we had drifted on to a stage set from Peter Jackson’s ‘Lord of the Rings’, a place inhabited surely by the Riders of the Rohan, but again that incongruity with never a harness nor horse in sight. Whatever; it was magical.

Another day, another ride… More cloud forest dropped us into the high mountains and Moni, where we hoped to visit Kelimutu National Park and its three-cratered volcano. We got absolutely drenched on the last few miles into Moni itself as the hide-and-seek game we’d played with the rain that morning finally ended in defeat as the heavens opened on a mud-drenched road. “Nearly there so hardly worth stopping to don the wetsuits” proved to be the wrong tactic for todays play with the weather and we looked like we’d dressed in blotting paper as we pulled into the Sylvestre homestay. The weather really socked in for the next day with the main street outside looking more navigable by boat than bike so we settled in for a soggy siege and hoped the weather would clear to allow us access to the mountain. Our plight was alleviated somewhat by Sylvestres, which proved to be a little haven for sleeps complemented by brilliant eats at the nearby Mopi’s restaurant.

Next morning dawned bright and beautiful and the corrugated roofs over the town were jewelled silver from the rain of yesterday as we set off on the two bikes to ascend Kelimutu. We had been warned that the first mile or two were slathered in mud from a recent landslide. It proved to be as bad as it sounded with heavy earth-moving machinery on site to try and clear the way, although this seemed to principally involve spreading the mud everywhere. With our worn rear tyres, this was not fun although they did hold better than anticipated and we were soon through and riding high on the mountain albeit with one eye on the weather as bands of low cloud suggested more rain was not so far away. At the summit we were rewarded after a brief hike with cloud-shrouded views of the three craters. Each lake is a different colour, the reason for which is unknown; the acid-filled lakes are inert and dead and the only plausible explanation seems to be that the chemistry of each lake changes from time to time resulting in colour changes. Two of the lakes, Tiwu Ko’o Fai Nuwa Muri (Lake of Youth) and Tiwu Ata Polo (Bewitched Lake) are separated by a shared crater wall and were reported as being green and red respectively. Today both appeared as slightly differing shades of turquoise. The third lake, Tiwu Ata Bupu (Lake of the Old People) was supposed to be blue but had assumed a horrid dark brown colour. Local legend has it that the spirits of the recently deceased travel to the lakes and are greeted by gatekeepers who judge and consign them to one of the lakes depending on their age and how well they behaved when alive with all the baddies sent to the Bewitched lake. I really hoped I did not perish on the mountain today; by the end of our visit, my spirit was totally confused by which lake was which and what colour they were supposed to be.

We left the rains and Moni for a ride to the north coast of the island, spending a few days in one last decent hotel in Maumere, marking time for a few days until the Friday boat on to Timor. A final ride took us to Larantuka where we checked in to the Lestori hotel, basic and clean but one of the noisiest places we’ve stayed on the entire trip. Bass undertones and horrid treble screeches emanated from a nearby karaoke that ran all night and was still going strong at 6am. To this cacophony add one rooster, staked to a pole just outside our door who cock-a-doodle-doo’d the whole night through, a pet/cage bird with a sort of piercing wolf-whistle and to cap it all the guys in the room next door were up a 4am taking a slosh in a bucket shower and vociferously clearing their throats in a rasping noise that sounded like a heavy box being dragged across a wooden floor.

We made our way bleary-eyed to the ferry where we crashed out on the upper deck as she finally set sail an hour late at 1pm. It was the weekend before the end of Ramadan and a time when Moslems all over the world head for home to celebrate Eid. Consequently the boat was packed and we’d been advised to grab a bunk below decks before the ship left harbour. This was ill advice as the bunks were all stacked together and the compartment more resembled some horrid slave-ship with bodies crammed into every nook, space and cranny, totally devoid of any idea of personal space. We camped out on the upper deck, happy for some open space and a healthy jollop of fresh air to relish the spectacular views of Flores as it sank slowly under the horizon in our wake. Mid-way, Dolphins and flying fish frolicked around our vessel as she plodded across the vast ocean to take us safely if somewhat late into Timor and the end of Asia…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: End of Asia Part 1 – Flores

Way of the Dragon!

“Here!!!… Here!!!… Here!!!…. Go!!! Go!!! Go!!!” the skipper of the Nurwati yelled, jabbing manically towards the sea with an outthrust boney finger, urging us all overboard quickly…   Perched on the prow of the boat, where for the past ten minutes he had been scanning the seabed for something, he had clearly now located his target… “That’s a lot of exclamation marks” I thought as I shuffled across the deck on my butt like an up ended clown in flippers struggling to get my mask on. Then, over the side and into a world of deepest blue… A sudden moment of disorientation as I adjusted to breathing through the snorkel… I shivered slightly at the cooling effect of the sea on sun-warmed skin. Adjusting my vision I looked down to see what all the fuss was about and “what the…!!!!!!!!!” The exclamation marks floated off to the surface like tiny air bubbles, expletives quickly drowned as I beheld something the size of a billiard table wafting across the carpet of coral below: a Manta Ray, maybe 2-metres across, moving slowly and with grace right beneath our fins. Our trip to the Komodo Islands had once again proven to be rich pickings for wildlife encounters and there would be many more to come…

The Nurwati was hewn from local timbers and painted bright white with a deck of minty-mouthwash green. She was long and narrow in the beam with a clackety-clack engine mounted below deck, just aft of amidships. Slatted benches ran along both sides of the deck with a small serving table in the middle, from which some very tasty repasts would be served. She had a rudimentary upper deck too for sunbathing with an awning at the rear providing a bit of shade. An icebox full of beer and some good company and we were all set for a good time. Setting out from Labuan Bajo early in the morning, it took a few hours to putt-putt our way to the island of Rinca, first stop on our Komodo tour. Sitting on the boat I pondered the previous days that brought here us from Horizons Unlimited in Sumbawa

An easy day’s ride took us to the little town of Bima towards the eastern end of Sumbawa on beautiful empty roads through this majestic island. Along the way we picked up our old buddy Phil Stubbs and later met Tom Curtis (of postie-bike fame) at the hotel in Bima, all of us headed for Flores with Komodo in our sights. This eastern end of the islands was reminiscent of the Western Isles at home with vast landscapes of sea, mountain, rolling marshland and staggering skies, all of it deserted and amazing biking country. Next morning we rode on to Sape where we would catch the 8-hour ferry to Flores, next island in the chain. We dumped the bikes at the hotel and took a stroll along the narrow causeway of a town. There is a lot of, what I guess would be considered, poverty in this part of Indonesia. Far removed from any city life and influence, people are living from hand to mouth by subsistence farming or fishing. There was a lot of squalor in Sape with many people living on top of their own refuse as there is just no infrastructure to remove it. The rubbish and litter is so incongruous with the beautiful location but folk seemed mostly happy and were, without exception, very friendly and eager to engage in a chat.

Maritime activity was everywhere from fishing nets laid out to dry to large-scale boat construction on slipways between houses laid out in a herringbone configuration along the causeway. Stopping to nosey at a small crew working on a large vessel we were eagerly invited onboard to check out the construction. We picked our way through a timber yard, where the raw material for the boat was stored and out onto a flimsy jetty to clamber aboard the hulk. Her keel of around 70-feet in length, had been laid on some stone pilings and work had commenced installing the cross beams and building the hull outwards on each side. The guys were forming the wooden parts by hand with a chainsaw, electric planer and more basic mallet and chisel. A lot of the parts were pinned together with stout wooden dowels and metal tie bars were used for the crucial load bearing parts. There was a total absence of drawings or plans and it seemed like the entire project was being executed according to the shipwright’s eye. Later we boarded a more complete vessel in the process of having her cabins and accommodations finished using the same processes; everything constructed and finished by hand to create a sea-going vessel of some beauty.

An eight-hour RO-RO ferry crossing deposited us in Flores, where the small town of Labuan Bajo proved to be a delightful stop-off to organise our trip to Komodo. The place is like a pirate hideaway; dirty, dusty, yet full of energy with narrow streets winding and spilling up the hillsides around the harbour. We battled our way through rush-hour motos and mini-vans to reach the Surya Hotel, our home for the next week or so. Supping a beer at the rooftop bar of the Bajo Taco, a great Mexican eatery that became our local haunt, a splendid view ran away over red-rusted rooftops down to the bay where a myriad of small vessels were anchored against a backdrop of jeweled islands set in a sapphire sea emphasizing the notion that this was indeed some Indonesian Tortuga. Maybe a pirate crew would be just the thing considering our next quest was to set out to see some dragons…

Komodo Dragons are to be found (unsurprisingly) in Komodo National Park, a raft of some twenty-six small islets clustered around the three larger isles of Padar, Rinca and Komodo itself.  The surrounding waters contain some of the richest marine biodiversity on Earth hence encounters with Manta Rays and a paint-box full of tropical fish was guaranteed. The park is located in the Sape Strait, the channel of sea between Flores and Sumbawa that we had already crossed on the ferry to get here. The strait is also a junction of the Pacific Ocean to the north and the Indian Ocean to the south. The seabeds of the two oceans vary in height by several hundred metres so the flow of waters from the north to south during tidal exchanges creates some of the strongest currents in the world making these potentially dangerous waters for any small boat.

We arranged a two-day cruise aboard the aforementioned vessel, the Nurwati, with its crew of three, none of whom spoke more than a few words of English but made up for this in copious quantities of smiles and good food for the duration. We coasted along the isle of Rinca and turned into a small inlet where we disembarked for our first dragon encounter. The Komodo Dragon is the world’s largest lizard, at around three metres in length and weighing in at over 70 kg. Unknown to the West and science until 1912 they are known locally by the natives as Ora, which means “land crocodile”. Komodos are an ambush predator, basically lounging around looking dim and docile until some unsuspecting beast (or person) wanders up too close. Then they can sprint with vicious rapidity and are equipped with a fine set of teeth and claws to rend any prey in proper dragon style. Our guides informed us how they can take down deer and even huge Water Buffalo as they don’t need a quick or clean kill. It was believed that their bite was laden with a cocktail of deadly bacteria such that even if the prey escaped it would soon die from the poisoning effects of the saliva in the wound. However it has recently been discovered that the dragons actually possess true venom glands in the lower jaw that inject an anti-coagulating poison that causes tissue damage and slow paralysis resulting in an excruciating death. Even if you get away after being bitten, they just wait till you die from your wounds and then move in for a feast. Easy-peasy given that they can detect carrion at ranges of up to two miles and can consume up to 80% of their body weight in one sitting.

Almost immediately on entering the park visitor centre on Rinca we saw our first dragons. They were certainly big but didn’t seem all that menacing and I got the impression that they were loitering around the bins to see what leftovers they could scavenge. Our visitor group was protected by a couple of park guides armed with cleft sticks; apparently the beasts are easily deterred by a rap on the head but to be honest it wasn’t something I wanted to put to the test. You see they do take people! In the past forty years over thirty people have been bitten with five recorded deaths. A few weeks before we visited a Singaporean tourist made the headlines when he was savaged by a dragon. He had been so intent on photographing one docile beast that he failed to register another animal that sneaked round behind him and he was badly bitten on the leg. Luckily it was a smaller dragon and he was evacuated to hospital in Labuan Bajo where they were able to save the leg.

Our visit continued as we set off for the island of Komodo itself on a voyage rounding Padar island. It’s funny but the islands themselves were draconiform in appearance, resembling green-backed monsters with folds in the landscape looking like overlapping scale and plate and here and there a headland that rose out of the water like some giant sleeping head. On Komodo the best encounter came on a short hike to Sulphurea Hill when we found our progress blocked by a beast on the trail. I greeted the dragon with an appropriate ‘My! What big claws you have!” He was enormous but again looked dozy and none too threatening. The guides made ready with their sticks as we clambered around the monster, giving him as wide a berth as possible and then stopped to get some photos. He sat there unmoving with a somewhat disconcerting Mona Lisa smile. Beady black eyes flickered with base intelligence, assuredly observing everything that was going on. Like the Mona Lisa I was certain his gaze followed me as I changed position to get a better shot. I watched him watching me and then it dawned on me… In our group I was the oldest male. I had a dodgy leg that also made me the slowest of the bunch in any event involving flight. I figured the dragon had clocked all this and given the opportunity would cut me out of the herd for dinner… Then it dawned on me… I was… I was prey!!!

We slept on deck that evening on thin mattresses after another sumptuous dinner. Never mind it was the same menu as lunch, it was all eagerly woofed after our day on the islands. But Komodo held one final and very special treat for us before the day was through. Overhead, squadrons of Flying Foxes were setting out for the night on a flypast across the bay where we were anchored.   There were literally hundreds of them flying in perfect formation, wave upon wave like ghostly squadrons of night bombers, all chirping and squeaking as they flew to nocturnal feeding grounds elsewhere on the isles on the soft whoosh of leathery wings. It was a special moment and one we will treasure for the rest of our days; we came here to see dragons and now were entreated to a performance by yet more marvelous and mystical creatures.

The second day of our Komodo tour started with a short but utterly spectacular hike along the dragon-back spine of Padar Island. The island is made up from several overlapping craters that have eroded to form an assemblage of serenely beautiful bays fringed with golden sands that run down to lapis-lazulian seas giving the impression of the crash-site of a huge butterfly on the ocean. The hilltops are dusted in khaki scrub grasslands and everywhere the horizon is a smash and dash hash-up of Komodo Islands. Later, snorkeling with Neptune’s treasure-box of tropical fish and of course that Manta Ray encounter, which ended in a ballet performance by five of the beasts. It’s hard to gasp with a snorkel stuffed in your gob but we somehow managed!

So that was Komodo… a place that will linger in our hearts and memories as one of the highlights of this life. On our Pan-American trip we had the good fortune to visit Galapagos and gasp at the treasures of another wildlife paradise. We thought then that such an experience could not possibly be equaled… it couldn’t possibly, could it?… until today… here… now… in Komodo.

One for your bucket list!

The gallery for this post may be accessed by clicking the following link: Way of the Dragon!

 

 

 

Profile of an Adventurer: HU Indonesia 2017…

We left Bromo with a spring in our step, revitalised and full of marvel at yet another of these surprises that our wonderful planet lays on from time to time. Our final halt in East Java was at the ferry port of Ketapang, which doubled as our base to explore yet another volcano; Ijen Crater. This entailed a 1am pick up to drive up into the mountains for a guided 3am hike along the crater trail to catch the sunrise. Ijen is famous as one of only two places on the planet where you can witness a very peculiar and somewhat eerie blue sulphur-light, visible only in the pre-dawn hours (the other is in Iceland). The volcano also hosts an active sulphur mine and the stench is so bad that the guides issue you with gas masks for when the wind blows up from the crater. The lights failed to live up to the hype as recent activity had closed off access to the crater itself and although we did see the blue lights, they looked like someone waving a torch at you in the dark from the far end of a foggy football stadium.   The crater lake itself was clad with a drape of thick cloud which lifted but momentarily in the dawn, offering ghostly views of this ghastly slash in the landscape. We found a perch in the early dawn to watch the sulphur miners begin their day’s work, climbing down into the crater area to chip out chunks of the yellow rock. There was a hierarchy to their travail with the older more experienced miners licensed to barrow their spoils down the mountain, whilst the new-starters had to port hefty loads on their bare backs, an immensely physical and time consuming graft for which they are paid a pittance.

An hour on the ferry took us to Bali, most renowned isle of the entire Indonesian archipelago and perhaps the very notion of an ultra-exotic tropical paradise. The ride along the north coast was pretty enough but the climb over the mountains to reach the pretty ville of Ubud proved to be a chore as we negotiated a never-ending column of excruciatingly slow buses and trucks on winding lanes and suddenly we were back in the congestion of West Java. We did find homely accommodation in Ubud and Mags signed up for a fortnight of classes at the famous Yoga Barn, while I spent some time fettling the bikes, in particular finally repairing a leaking fuel pump on my bike. The Starbucks in Ubud is probably one of the prettiest in the world. Word has it that the royal family of Ubud developed a taste for their brew and consequently they are the only big multi-national fast food outlet to be granted a license to operate in town. Their premises overlook a palatial Lotus garden where you can sip your latte whilst watching devotees make their daily offerings.

It took very little to persuade us to swop Bali for less congested Lombok, via a 5-hour ferry ride and we immediately relished the slower pace of life there.   We abandoned the bikes in Senggigi for a weekend on the promised tropical paradise islet of Gili Air for a spot of snorkeling. Even better was the snorkeling on the small islets off Sekotong, in southwest Lombok, where the reef is a lot less damaged by the idiotic practice of dynamite fishing practiced around Gili Air. Every dip became a beautiful immersion into a universe of tropical fish all competing with one another for the most garish colour scheme. Gili Kedis was memorable as the smallest island we’ve ever been on, literally a few palm trees and a small hut seemingly made of driftwood selling cold drinks and snacks, an idyllic spot to be ‘Robinson Crusoed’ for a few hours.

One of things I love most about this kind of travel is how your day can start out as one thing and then transform into something completely different… We had to travel into Mataram, capital of Lombok, for another visa extension involving a lot of form filling and hanging around in a government office. We took a walk outside to grab a coffee from a little street vendor and were invited by a bunch of customers to join them at a table. Engang resembled a slightly shorter and younger Morgan Freeman but with the same big grin and gravelly voice as the famous American actor. We sat a while chatting about our trip and he in turn told us about the delights of his vegetable garden and how he loved to work the land. “So what are you doing in the city?” we asked. “Oh the garden is just a hobby,” he replied. “I work over there, in the school.” He pointed to a squat lime-green coloured building, which had thousands of scooters and small motorcycles parked out front. “I am a teacher; English,” he explained. That day Engangs class gained two impromptu class assistants as we were introduced to a room full of 14 and 15-year olds and regaled them for half an hour with stories from our life on the road. It was an immensely rewarding experience and emphasised how the best thing you can give to children is neither money nor material things; it is your time.

All too soon we were on another ferry, this time from Lombok to the next island in the chain, Sumbawa, for a remarkable event; the first ever ‘Horizons Unlimited’ rally to be held in Indonesia. For non-overlanders, ‘Horizons Unlimited’ or ‘HU’ is an online resource for those of us with a passion for seeing the world on motorcycles. It dates back to 1997 when two Canadians, Grant and Susan Johnson, had just completed an epic round the world trip on their bike. At the end of their ride, they had amassed an enormous amount of information on overlanding by bike, everything from preparing for the ride to vaccination requirements to shipping your bike between continents to customs formalities at various borders. They decided to share this data in hope of inspiring and assisting others considering trips of their own and so HU was born! Back then, the Internet was an up and coming thing and an ideal platform for what has become a two-wheel overland resource as others added their experiences until today it is the first port of call for all queries on overlanding by bike.

There is another side to HU and that is the rallies. What started out as a few friends gathering in someone’s garden to talk about travels on their bikes over a beer and a barbeque has grown into national events with the HU meeting in the UK regularly attracting hundreds of overlanders. The events have grown to include a range of presentations where riders can share their experiences and practical skills from the road and the invitation has been extended to other overlanders from cyclists and 4-wheelers to kayakers and boat travellers. When we heard that Indonesia was planning it’s first ever Horizons Unlimited meeting we decided it would be one not to miss…

The event was organised by Jeffrey Polnaja, the first Indonesian to ride around the world on a motorcycle and the location was the Kencana Beach Resort on the island of Sumbawa next in the archipelago after Lombok. It would be a happy collision of riders from the west heading east with those from the east heading west, all leveled by a great bunch of local riders seeking inspiration and knowledge of the world beyond. People had ridden in from Austria, Canada, UK, Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and of course from all over Indonesia. A smattering of Americans flew in too along with the guest of honour, the redoubtable Ted Simon, author of the superlative motorcycle travel book; Jupiters Travels, a man who could rightly claim the title of granddaddy to all of this. It was an outstanding weekend. Aside from the travellers presentations we had a traditional welcoming ceremony involving the Mayor of Sumbawa Besar and splendid local dance troop, all very colourful and wherein the male visitors were honoured by the gift of a local headdress. The setting was just divine too especially at dawn and dusk when Maggie ran her first ever ‘Beach Yoga.

So who are these overlanders, these perhaps perceived unbalanced individuals who shun ‘normal life’ to take to the road? A bunch of rich kids / silver-beard retirees on the latest sixteen grand BMW 1200GS Adventure bikes, armoured for the road with all the catalog accessories costing almost as much again as the bare bike and sporting thousand pound Gore-Tex jackets? That’s certainly what the marketing folk would have you believe you need to tackle this ‘lifestyle’ but bear in mind all they are interested in is selling you an image and it’s something they do very well as these days the ‘adventure bike market’ is one of the largest sectors in the motorcycle industry. To answer this question it’s better if I introduce you to some of the riders we met at the event so, in no particular order, please meet…

Noortje Nijkamp (Nora) and Johannes Weissborn (JJ), from Den Haag, Holland and Vienna, Austria respectively are a delightful young couple brought together by a life on the road and have been riding from home in Europe to reach Bali and the end of their trip, with a final diversion to Sumbawa for HU. Nora has a 650 Suzuki V-Strom and JJ has a KTM 950. Nora has compiled an amazing V-Blog of her trip and I can heartily recommend perusing the fantastic episodes on Adventurism TV, her very own YouTube channel.

Mike and Shannon Mills (www.smboilerworks.com), a lively couple from Seattle, USA on Suzuki DR650s also at the end of their trip, which has taken them over the past three years through the Americas, across Europe and Asia and down to Jakarta where they will ship back to the Americas. They are proof that overlanding on a motorcycle holds part of the secret of eternal youth…

Blasius Ediprana, a charming young man from Bandung, Java, Indonesia, called into HU in the middle of a two and a half month tour of the Indonesian islands on his Indian Pulsar 150cc bike.

Andy Dukes from UK. It has taken us almost two years to reach this point of our travels. Andy did the same journey in three months on his BMW F800GS! His mission is to ride around the world while competing in a series of marathons, one on each continent. He flew in to be at HU for the first few days and then returned to Kuala Lumpur to run in the marathon there, a brutal event given the high temperatures and humidity; finished it too in less than 4.5 hours! Check out Andy’s blog at www.themarathonride.com.

Faizal Sukree from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, flew in for the event and is an accomplished motorcyclist who has completed an epic round the world ride on his BMW F800GS.

Kevin Bärtschi, a gentle young man from Frutigen, Switzerland, riding his KTM 690 to Australia.  Check out Kevin’s travels (for German readers) at @knastbrostravel

Joe Hambrook, a Park Ranger from New Zealand, has spent the past year riding towards home from the UK on his Suzuki DR650. Click here for Joe’s Blog.

Phil Stubbs from Essex, UK, who we met in my last post, was also here on his locally procured 225cc Yamaha Scorpio enjoying his slow ride round Indonesia.

Silvia Walti and Thomas Gentsch are riding their respective Yamaha XT660 and BMW F800GS from home in Zurich, Switzerland to Australia. We already met in KL at Sonny’s Cycles, then again in Bali and have been comparing notes on our routes ever since. Click here to access Silvia and Thomas Blog (for German readers)

Iif Brillianto from Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia came to HU on his 250cc Suzuki cruiser. Like Blasius above Iif is currently touring his homeland and popped in to say hello.

Nicole Stavro Espinosa from California, USA flew in to present her slideshow on a recent trip in East Africa. She is currently planning a RTW in a Ural sidecar outfit so she can bring her two kids along.

Josh Johnson from Darwin, Australia. Another ‘starter’, Josh is in the early days of his trip to circle the globe on his Honda Africa Twin.

Anita Yusof from Ipoh, Malaysia. Anita was the first Malaysian woman to ride a motorcycle around the world. Her bike? A 150cc Yamaha, which proved to be a fitting mount for her Global Dream Ride.

Jeff de Wispelaere flew in from Denver, Colorado, USA especially to be at this inaugural HU Indonesia, which held a special place in his heart as his family came from here.

Steve Campbell, originally from Victoria, Australia arrived on his Kawasaki KLX150 from his current base in Lombok to regale us in the evenings with highly entertaining tales of his overlanding through Asia back in the 1970’s.

And on to three young lads…Liam Della from Perth Australia (gone-postal.com), Matt Booth from Yorkshire, England (@OilyRagAdventures) and Tom Curtis from London, England (www.tomcurtis.world). All three are set on riding their individual 1970’s vintage Honda CT110’s (better known to the outside world as 110cc Australian ‘Postie bikes’ a derivative of the ubiquitous Honda C50 / 70 / 90 family) from Australia / New Zealand to the UK. They started out independently and then met along the way to converge on HU. Their bikes are fitted with homemade panniers / saddlebags and riding kit consists of a motley selection of outdoor gear / hiking boots and flip-flops but it all has a function, it all works and these riders are living proof that you don’t need a huge budget and top of the range machines /gear to be an adventure motorcyclist.  In fact this last statement can probably be applied to most of the riders here, where smaller / older machines seem to be the preference, bikes that are simple and easily repairable on the road. The key message here is it doesn’t matter what you ride, just get out and do it!

Almost last (but not least), our gallant host Jeffrey Polnaja. Jeffrey spent 9 years riding 820,000km just about everywhere you can around planet Earth on his BMW 1150GS – check out www.rideforpeace.net. With HU Indonesia 2017 he simply wanted to extend the wonderful hospitality he had partaken on his travels to fellow overlanders in his home country. Aided by his beautiful wife Maya and young daughter Kirana, they hosted a superb event that will forever linger as a highlight in the lives it touched over the four days in Sumbawa. On behalf of everyone who attended, thank you!

At the end of the event a crowd of us took a boat for a day trip to the spectacular island of Moyo. This is a real backwater of Indonesia offering two precious commodities; real desert-island beauty coupled with remote privacy attracting the likes of Mick Jagger and Princess Diana as a holiday retreat. On landing we rented a fleet of motor scooter taxis to take us on an adventure ride to the beautiful waterfalls at Mato Jito and later took a hike to the falls at Diwu mba’I where we were entertained by the local kids diving in off a rope swing. Paradise just got better that day.

I will finish now with one final introduction to another of the local riders we met at HU. Raditya Eka, from Bandung, Java, arrived on his Harley Davidson and entertained us with well made videos of his various rides through Indonesia. I can think of no better way of signing off for this time than the following video compiled by Eka covering HU Indonesia 2017. Enjoy! Please click here to view: Eka’s HU Video

In addition to the various links above, there are two photo galleries for this post that can be accessed by clicking the following links:

  1. Ijen, Bali and Lombok
  2. Horizons Unlimited, Indonesia 2017

 

And Now For Something Completely Spectacular…

Early next morning the deluge had departed leaving a blue sky full of puffball clouds and the air a tad humid. Around the hotel carpark, the block paving had largely dried out but here and there large puddles attested to the volume of rain on the previous day. Our hotel room looked like an explosion in a flag factory with sodden garments draped all over the furniture to dry them out. As related in the previous episode, our day of near-death encounters with heavy lorries and broken roads had ended in a monsoon storm that drove us off the road and seeking the succour of a cosy hotel. On top of that, having overcome the dead battery in Sumatra, we now had a busted spoke on Maggie’s bike causing a horrid front-end wobble. Looking back at these mechanical problems, at the time they seem like mini-disasters, but invariably involve the trip taking off at some unexpected tangent with a rush of delightful encounters and new friends. So it was to be in this case but not just yet…

A short ride took us to Borobodur, our abandoned destination from the day before. Here we had the delightful experience of actually turning a FaceBook friendship into a real one when, by pure coincidence, veteran SE Asia tourer Phil Stubbs wandered into the hotel we’d just checked into. Phil hails from Essex in the UK and had flown out to Indonesia where he bought a little 225cc Yamaha Scorpio, a perfect vehicle for touring the islands. We had corresponded on various issues on FaceBook, neither of us realising how close we were to one another in the real world.  Next day we trotted off to see the sights of Borobodur itself, the world’s largest Buddhist temple. Built in the 9th Century, it occupies a most majestic setting against a lush jungle backdrop. The architecture resembles a huge wedding cake consisting of nine stacked platforms topped by a central dome all rendered in dark grey volcanic Andesite. The temple is detailed with 2,672 relief panels, houses 504 Buddha statues and the central dome at the pinnacle is surrounded by a further 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa weirdly resembling a troop of serene and smiling Daleks. Pilgrims worship in Borobudur by following the trail of staircases and corridors that ascend all the way to the top with the various levels representing each stage of enlightenment in Buddhist cosmology. The entire complex was lost to history, hidden for centuries under layers of volcanic ash and jungle until 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, was appointed governor of Java. He took great interest in the history of the island, which was certainly piqued when he heard stories of a lost mega-temple buried deep in the interior. Unable to make the discovery himself he sent the Dutch engineer H.C. Cornelius to investigate and he in turn found Borobodur.

The city of Yogyakarta would be our home for the next week or so. We found solace in the beautiful tree shaded garden of the Puri Pangeran Hotel, an ideal base to explore the city. Jeffrey Polnaja, a man with more contacts than an octopus playing drums, recommended a visit to see brothers Lulut and Yayak Wahyudi to solve our wheel problem. Travelling by bike, of necessity you will engage with many motorcycle repair shops but we never encountered anything that quite approached Retro Custom Cycles. Pulling up in the forecourt we were greeted by a huge smile and a warm handshake from Lulut himself. The entrance was home to a huge candy red American Dodge car and a coffee bar where, over an excellent Kopi Susu, we explained our latest mechanical mishaps. With Yayak and one of the lead mechanics fussing over the bike, the offending wheel was soon removed and sent for correction. While we were waiting we took a tour of the shop…

Race-flag chequered tiled flooring was home to a beautiful Harley chop and further back an old WLA Harley was being fettered for a customer. But it was out back in the cavernous workshops that the real treasures lay. Out of a palette of raw rusting ironwork, motorcycles were being handcrafted. Standard was binned and unique designs were given life in this Orc forge where rod, bar and plate were chopped, formed and welded to create machines of heavenly beauty. On a wall a row of brightly painted petrol tanks hung like teacups on a dresser, teardrop canvases of most beautiful line and symmetry. A new-model Harley, recognizable only from its engine, was having new bodywork hand made from aluminium, one of the technicians tinkering each piece into shape, final-forming it into body-jewelry that would later be burnished brilliant as armour for a road knight’s mount. Tour finished, we sat out front waiting for the wheel to return. A kitchen door opened and the mother of the family, a fine lady and beautiful hostess, kept appearing with fresh-cooked morsels for us to try, in case we were hungry. Then the wheel returned; a new spoke had been fabricated from a heavy-duty motocross item. A bent spoke had also been straightened and the wheel was trued; our latest batch of problems was put to rest.

In Yogyakarta we organised our first visa extensions and visited the grand palace of Kraton, actually a walled royal city within the big city and an easy stroll from the hotel. We also rode out to visit the Buddhist temple complex at Prambanan. Set in a splurge of greenery, Prambanan felt like the ultimate ‘walk in the park’ with a collection of four individual temple sites spread across several acres of gracious gardens and we contentedly lost ourselves within the tranquil setting for an afternoon. Riding east from Yogyakarta, the traffic finally began to ease as we left the horrid congestion of West Java well and truly in our wake. Roads now wound along paddy-field valleys taking us back into the mountains to a one-night stop in the city of Malang, springboard for what would prove to be one of our finest ever motorcycle adventures ever and that ‘something completely spectacular’ as promised in the header for this post…

Sleep… sleep… sleep… I am riding across an arena of slate grey sand enclosed by a coliseum curtain of sheer rock. I think I’m standing up on the footpegs; I can feel the bike slalom occasionally as the sand gives way but am reassured as the back tyre bites in and regains firmer ground. I glance in my mirror to check on Maggie; I know she hates this soft stuff but all I can make out from the recess of her helmet is the flash of a huge wide grin as her tyres spew little puffs of grey matter in her wake. None of this makes sense but then most dreams never do. A veil of cloud wafts down from the bluff and drapes a gossamer cloak across our path. We ride on and enter a ghost world, a road to hell lined with tussocks of spikey grass that point to nowhere, only tell us there is no way out. I glance back to see a phantom horseman ride across our trail and disappear off into the gloom. Both sky and horizon have vanished and we are two lost souls. Stopping, we kill the engines and dismount. There is no sound but the whisper of the wind and the tink, tink, tink of cooling metal from the bikes. The cloud parts briefly to reveal a glimpse of the squat form of an ancient temple some way off in the distance. It appears to be made of some black material and is festooned with pointed turrets. When I awake will this all rapidly fade leaving me just titillating fragments in the dawn from this otherworldly encounter?   As I survey our predicament I realise this is not a dream; this is Bromo and we have just ridden onto the crater floor of a very active volcano.

We left Malang and were soon ascending narrow mountain roads that led us up over the 2000 metre mark into volcano country. The mountains were magnificent but we began to suspect that yet again our GPS had led us up a blind draw as it seemed our base to explore Bromo, lay somewhat bafflingly on the opposite side of the mountain. We finally arrived at a gateway to the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, where the rangers explained that to get to our destination we simply had to cross the crater! And so we descended a sharp series of hairpins that dropped us onto the Segara Wedi, the Sea of Sand, that carpets the crater floor and into a world like nothing we’ve ever encountered. We paused a while to ponder the way across and survey the stupendous landscape before us. The crater is about 10km in diameter and within the encircling walls is a little green jelly-mould of the conical Mount Batok. Next to this is the low, jagged and blasted caldera of Bromo itself, not so spectacular yet easily identifiable from the plume of sulphurous gases ascending to the heavens. Finally, nestled at the foot of both, is the Pura Luhur Poten Hindu temple, a low sprawl that looks like some forlorn outpost from a Mad Max movie.

You would think it highly unlikely that you could get lost in what is essentially a big circle yet that is indeed what happened. Riding across the sand flats for several kilometers, we were utterly blown away at the realisation that we were actually riding across the crater of an active volcano. Then realisation dawned that there seemed to be no obvious exit route back up to the rim. The blanket of cloud came rolling in reducing visibility to a few metres in all directions so we stopped and a mild wave of panic set in, a normal reaction I guess when you are so suddenly disoriented… Eventually a pair of headlights loomed out of the murk, a Land Rover whom we flagged down for directions. The driver explained that we had overshot and missed the exit completely. It proved difficult to spot, even in normal visibility, as the road was hidden behind a screen of trees and bushes but fortunately the cloud lifted enough to allow us to take a bearing and make our escape.

Next day we hiked down into the crater from the hostel town of Cemoro Lawang. The views over Bromo crater and Mount Batok from the rim in clear weather were simply breathtaking. Horsemen, looking like fierce nomads on their stocky little ponies, offered tourist rides up to the crater itself and jeep safaris were taking folk across the caldera. We declined these to walk across the floor of the crater, a hike that was every bit as exciting as yesterdays ride. From the temple we picked up a trail that led to a series of steps that marked the final ascent of Bromo itself. The views on up to the summit, then the panorama across the crater to the rim and over to the adjacent Mount Batok were beyond equal in all of our travels to date. We had truly attained something completely spectacular, yet all of this visual hyperbole was nothing compared to what happened next. The summit was circled by a narrow path making an ideal perch to sit and appreciate the internals of the volcano itself. The view was somewhat occluded by the clouds of steam belching forth but other senses now heightened as noses twitched at the stinky sulphur and, most spectacular of all, we felt the acoustics of the volcano rumbling. I say ‘felt’ rather than ‘heard’ as deep base notes resonated our very chest cavities, shaking us to the core. Slow brains processed all of these inputs and realisation dawned that we were listening to the actual sound of the internal workings of planet Earth, our home. It was a humbling experience, leaving one feeling so insignificant in the overall scheme of things yet standing in total awe of this beautiful and natural world. Bromo was completely spectacular and we will remember and treasure these days for the rest of our lives.

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: East Java