Saturday, December 22, 2012


I was now in the southeast of Australia, a part of the country I had already visited before, and I was alone. So what was I going to do? The answer was simple: party! Well, not quite. Over my years travelling and living in London (which is the 12th largest Australian city by population) I've accumulated a fair number of Australian friends whom I rarely get to see due to the obvious insurmountable distances. My little sojourn in the southeast would hopefully redress that, as the urban strip stretching from Newcastle to Melbourne is home to around two thirds of the country's population so pure probabilities meant that I would be able to see most of them.

A cliched photo of the Sydney opera house and CBD taken from the iconic harbour bridge.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Old And New, And Maybe True Blue

With my brother gone my father and I could revert to sleeping in the back of the car. We had a week to get down to Sydney for my father's departure and so we decided to forgo the well-worn coastal route through the beach resorts of Surfers Paradise and the Gold Coast, and instead we headed inland over to the dividing range before heading south into a part of New south Wales known as New England. The gently rolling green hills, quaint, tidy towns, and burbling streams, so uncharacteristic of the archetypal image of the vast Australian outback, dry, inhospitable, and probably out to get you.

The vast, untamed expanse of the Great Dividing Range at Gibraltar national park.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Coasting For A While

From the outback we had to quickly reach the coast as my entourage was about to expand substantially once again. My brother had also decided to come out and join us and we were to meet at the northern coastal town of Townsville (an odd, tautological name if you think about it). About 100km before reaching our destination we picked up a hitchhiker and since the roles are usually reversed I took the rare opportunity to do a good deed and help out another traveller. He turned out to be from Romania (although he initially said Transylvania as more people are familiar with that name thanks to Bram Stoker). As we progressed through our initial introductions it turned out that not only was he Romanian, but he had spent the past year in Indonesia studying Bahasa and was a good friend of Horia's. On top of that he actually knew who I was and had seen my blog before (and could even remember its ridiculous name). It seems that the world truly is getting smaller.

Iulius chilling with us at a national park. He's currently travelling throughout Oceania on his own little anthropological project to study indigenous and colonial cultures and their interactions (he had some great stories about his travels in Papua New Guinea). You can see his progress on his website, Southern Cross Badge.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Riding With The Stockmen

It was of course nice to see my father again after a year and a half and it would be good to spend "quality time" with him. However I would, by necessity, have to change my way of travelling to accommodate him somewhat, as it would be hard to expect someone in their late 60's to hitchhike and sleep rough, which would have been my first resort if left to my own devices, out of necessity if nothing else (Australia was already expensive seven years ago when I was first here, but since then the Aussie dollar has appreciated in value by about 40%, whilst prices have simultaneously gone up too, on the back of a gigantic natural resources boom, so that a simple overnight bus trip now costs more than my entire monthly budget in most Asian countries). The first thing that needed to be decided was transport: how are we going to get about this not insignificant country. Since flying was out of the question some sort of vehicle was in order. We weighed the pros and cons of renting and buying and decided upon buying our own vehicle, judging it might work out a little cheaper and, more importantly, give us more freedom and flexibility. It is a dream of many to buy a van, to be fully self-sufficient, and head off into the wild blue yonder. The reality though was that most of the vans for travellers on sale were either wildly overpriced or in such poor mechanical condition that arrival at our intended destination was akin to a spin of Russian roulette. So after discarding the poor pickings of Darwin's van offerings we expanded our search to estate cars (station wagons) in which it would be possible, at a pinch, to sleep in the back. Here the selection was far greater and of better value as it was aimed towards a more discerning, local market, rather than gullible backpackers. And within a day we had found ourselves a 2001, 4 litre Ford Falcon (a decidedly Aussie model not found anywhere else) that had been converted to run on LPG (thereby hopefully reducing our upcoming running costs).

With our trusty car, just before setting off, that, in flagrant contravention of Aussie backpacker tradition, we have neither painted with flowers nor given a name to.

Friday, November 16, 2012

From The Beginning

I enjoy travelling greatly. Expanding my horizons, meeting new people and learning about new cultures keep me interested and on my toes. The itinerant life is not for everyone though. Living out of a backpack can be tiring, though for most people it is the lack of permanence, stability and long-term human relationships, be they friends, family, colleagues or a partner, that play mostly on the mind. Man is indeed a social animal. These aspects do not weigh so heavily on me (whether that is a social strength or weakness is up for debate); but relationships are reciprocal affairs, and however much I may be callously OK without my nearest and dearest the opposite is not always true. And so my father decided (rather spontaneously for him) to come out and travel with me whilst I'm here in Australia.

Looking out across the Kakadu forest from the top of the Arnhem escarpment at Gunlom Falls.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Pics 2 (Asia)

It took me almost exactly 19 months to zig-zag my way from Turkmenistan through to Australia. As the largest continent, and cradle of civilisations there is plenty to see, taste, explore and experience. I have had innumerable encounters with unfailingly lovely people, made some life-long friendships, tried a plethora of strange dishes, witnessed some spectacular(ly odd) ceremonies, seen breathtaking landscapes, and learnt  much about culture and history that have allowed me to understand the world a little bit better (I hope). I also hope that this knowledge has made me a better, wiser person

Mushy introspection aside Asia has been an agreeably cheap destination (apart from North Korea) and I've managed to average a daily spend of £11, of which I'm quite proud. That average will definitely not hold out in the following months though. I've also picked out a selection of some of my favourite photos (in no particular order) from the past 19 months that I haven't previously used in any of my posts. Some of them perhaps have some deeper meaning or political significance, whereas other I just found beautiful. I hope you like them as much as I do (what are your favourites? are there any that you particularly like? If so feel free to let me know by leaving a comment.).

Mongolian girl.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

G'day Australia!

The boat was there on Friday afternoon; parked in the bay. It was a sleek, grey-and-orange catamaran called Cattitude. Dili doesn't have a marina so I asked a local with a small dinghy to take me across to it. As I boarded the skipper, a stocky man with a moustache and shortish beard, barked at me asking what I was doing on his boat. I pleaded my case as succinctly and eloquently as I could, saying that he was my last chance and putting myself at his mercy. He said sure, no problems, he was going back to Darwin in a few days and there was room on board ... but it would cost me $8000. That was obviously way out of my budget and I asked whether he might not consider lowering the price a little, to which he agreed and said that I could come with them as long as I gave him a decent bottle of rum. A deal to which I warmed far more readily. He then broke out a few beers from the freezer and insisted I stay and hang out with him and his mates for the afternoon, ominously asking me whether I "know what you're getting yourself into".

Our home and transport for the crossing from East Timor to Darwin: Cattitude.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

And You Thought You Had Problems

I went to see my boat contact on Monday morning. The boat had already come and gone ... though only to the south coast of the island, and would be back on Friday. This has left me with a dilemma: do I stay for a further four days in the hope that I will be taken when they return, or do I give up now and jump on the next plane out of town. I've already invested a good deal of time into getting this ride that it would seem a shame to surrender so close to a possible victory. Yet I'm also feeling restless as there is only so much that East Timor has to offer. Plus I would be mortified to overstay my welcome with Caroline (and her long-suffering housemate Gabe) and become an irksome burden for her, who has shown me so much kindness and hospitality - far more than I could have asked for. So whilst I ponder my next steps (the pessimist in me having already decided that no matter what my decision it will surely be the wrong one) I have decided to write about East Timor and its current situation, as it is not only a country that garners little attention in the international consciousness due to its (let's face it) insignificance, but also because its problems are unlike those of other Asian countries and are more akin to those of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Indonesian-era integrasi monument, depicting a personification of East Timor breaking free of its colonial chains (although it fails to show the new, almost identical, Indonesian chains being added soon after). It strikes me as strange that such a monument is still standing in downtown Dili (and similar, less grandiose, versions throughout the country).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

When My Ship Comes In

Before leaving Dili for my little tour of the country I had spent a few days owing around town in my (misguided?) quest to try and get to Australia without flying, the elusive Holy Grail of overland travellers. In fact just before leaving Indonesia I had received an e-mail offering just that from a private yacht planning to skirt north around New Guinea and hit Australia's east coast. Unfortunately the timetable was such that I would have had to have gone immediately, thereby forfeiting the possibility of seeing East Timor and Caroline. Although it pained me the choice was obvious. So instead I had to resort to printing out some flyers with my contact details and going round the city's hotels, dive centres and other places where foreigners congregate in the hope of catching the eye of someone with a boat … going to Australia … soon. A long shot I knew, but in the absence of a marina where yachtspeople could moor and be easily approached it was my only hope. I didn't fancy my chances as the main sailing season had already passed; but hope springs eternal.Upon returning to Dili one of my contacts told me that a boat heading in my direction is scheduled to arrive the next weekend. And so I have made that my deadline: if I don't manage to get a ride on it, or with some other boat that may turn up until then, I'll cut my losses and fly. In the meantime I had to find a way to keep myself occupied...

The statue of Maria atop Mt Ramelau, Timor's highest peak, catching the sunrise over a sea of clouds. I could use some divine intercession to help me find a boat to Australia.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Tour De Timor

Like all capital cities Dili is not representative of the country at large. The relative order of the city and the small, but noticeable local middle class, driving SUVs and the youngsters hanging out in the waterfront park crowded around their laptop screens sharing Youtube clips, obviously bear little resemblance to what life is like for the majority of the people outside the metropolis in this, Asia's poorest country. Determined to see with my own eyes the other reality of East Timor* I left a small, but heavy, box of unnecessary belongings with Caroline and set off on a loop around this half of the island.

The gorgeous Portuguese-era market in Baucau, looking more like a palace than a communal building. Sadly now it's only used for graffiti, as a lavatory, and for grazing goats.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Dili Dallying

The ferry journey from Oecussi to Dili was calm, uneventful, and would have been completely forgettable were it not for the presence of another foreigner aboard. Sometimes I purposefully avoid other Westerners whilst travelling, but I thought that anybody catching this particular ferry and sleeping on deck with the locals in such a forgotten part of the world must have a story worth sharing. There are three types of foreigner to be found in East Timor: those who work for the alphabet soup of INGOs or supranational organisations, such as the UN, Oxfam, MSF, Caritas, the UNDP and so on; the second are those who come to visit friends and family in the first group; and then there is the third group, those who are overlanders and completists, who include East Timor in a larger itinerary, usually linking Indonesia to Australia. Mike was none of these. Instead he was the quintessential eccentric Englishman; a solicitor who had decided to take his annual three week holiday in a lesser-visited holiday destination. He had just spent the past week in Oecussi, a place where most Timorese have never set foot. A rare breed of tourist indeed.

The modern-looking Independence Memorial Hall in Dili is one of the best history museums in Asia.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oecussi: Life In The Parking Lot

From Kupang there are daily buses that connect directly to Dili, East Timor's capital. That, however, would be far too simple, and for those who know me well, know that I never do things the easy way if it can be done in a far more complicated fashion. Instead I set my sights on the small East Timorese exclave of Oecussi sandwiched into a small slice of the north coast of the island by West Timor (although theoretically it isn't even a real exclave as it has access to the sea). I've always been fascinated by regions that are separated from the main body of their country. How did they arise? are they viable? what are the connections like with the rest of the country? Do the people identify with the rest of the country or want to be apart?

A traditional house from the western half of the island (including Oecussi). Note the very low door.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

End Of Indo

From Flores I caught the weekly ferry to Kupang in West Timor. I was unable to explore Flores all the way to its eastern tip as I would have liked because I had only one week left on my Indonesian visa and still needed to procure my East Timorese visa. Extending my visa was no longer an option for the frustratingly banal reason that I had no free space large enough in my passport to accommodate another extension stamp. I am, however, blessed with dual citizenship and so am able to carry on for the time being now that I've had my British passport shipped out to me. The West Timor immigration department has a wonderful website where you can apply for your visa online by filling out a form and e-mailing it to the address provided. The process has a single, but fatal, flaw. It doesn't work. I sent off my completed form four weeks ago and, despite several efforts to make contact, including a heart-rending sob story, could just have well have sent it into a black hole for all the feedback I got. So instead I had to resort to Plan B and turn up in person.

International man of mystery: which passport shall I use today?

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

What Have The Portuguese Ever Done For Us?

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit and set up shop in the Indonesian archipelago. They were also the last to leave when they were finally kicked out of East Timor in 1975. Nevertheless their influence has been relatively minor. The Indonesian language has only about fifty loanwords from Portuguese, such as gereja (church, from igreja), keju (cheese, from queijo), sepatu (shoe, from sapato), which pretty much sums up early European preoccupations: convert the primitive heathens, make them civilised by dressing like us, and finding a way to make them prepare decent food and not this rice rubbish (talk to almost any European who has spent a longer time in (south)east Asia and they will usually say that the one thing they are missing from home is cheese. The only lasting remnants left by the Portuguese are the name of the island of Flores (meaning "flowers") and Catholicism, the prevalent religion therein.

Traditional Flores ikat weaving. Simple designs and bold colours.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Here Be Dragons

My jaunt to Sumba completed I returned to Sape to join the well-trodden path to Labuanbajo. The town constitutes Indonesia's eastern outpost of mass tourism, as people from around the world flock to visit the islands of nearby Komodo national park, home to the eponymous dragons, the largest extant species of lizard in the world and dive in the renowned reefs in the surrounding national marine park. Being the wannabe naturalist that I am I couldn't not go, so I signed up and joined the queue.

A Komodo dragon in full swing, long, forked tongue out tasting the air.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

An Island, Not A Dance

The islands of Nusa Tenggara stretch out due east from Java like beads on a string: Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, Alor. The names exotic and evocative. My progress through to the tip of Sumbawa was relatively quick and, for the first time in quite a while, I was no longer the only white person in the bus. All were heading from Bali, via the Gilis (a cluster of islands off Lombok that have become a party favourite), to the port of Labuanbajo on the tip of Flores, from where there are many tours to the islands of Komodo national park. The trans-Sumbawa buses connect to daily ferries linking Sape to 'Bajo. But to the south, lies an island that many people bypass. Sumba's attractions are not as obvious as those of Java, Bali or Sulawesi. For Indonesians Sumba is best known for its horses. Not because they are particularly special, but because Sumba, with its drier climate and semi-savannah landscape, is the only place in the archipelago that is suited to them. For us foreigners who have seen horses before and think they are rather humdrum. Instead, thanks to being a generally poor island with few useful resources, the Sumbanese were pretty much left to their own devices throughout the colonial period, an attitude that didn't really change much with Indonesia's independence 65 years ago, so tribal traditions are stronger here than almost anywhere else in the archipelago.

The spectacular rumah adat of Ratenggaro village in west Sumba. In this part of the island the houses are larger (housing up to four families) and the roofs taller. Houses in Sumba all share a similar layout: ground floor for animals, first floor for people, second floor for eating communal meals and for the ancestral spirits, or marapu.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Which Bali Do You Want?

"Have you been to Bali yet?" is the question that I've been asked by almost every single Indonesian I've met in the 3 months I've been here. Although Indonesia is a vast country comprising over 17,000 islands, 300 ethnic groups and 742 different languages, I am white and ergo I must be going to Bali. If any foreigner has heard about Indonesia it is invariably about Bali. For many Australians it is their equivalent to the Spanish Costas for sun-starved northern Europeans, and their way of holidaying there is not at all dissimilar. Yes, I was planning to go to Bali I would reply, but also Sulawesi, Ambon, Flores, Sumatra and Java. There is more to Indonesia than just one island. Bali's overwhelming presence on the tourist trail through Indonesia made me resent it even before I had set foot on it. I was sure I wouldn't like it and wasn't planning on staying long.

My nightmare image of Bali.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Exotic Souvenir

On the ferry to Surabaya from Makassar I started to feel a little unwell. I thought it was due to the kretek smoke that was permeating the cabin and thought that some sleep and fresh air once on terra firma would be all I need to feel better. Unfortunately that wasn't the case and the first day back in Surabaya the dull, throbbing headache that had developed aboard was joined by a vice-like sensation behind my eyes and pain in my joints and muscles. I had a sneaking sensation and after looking into the symptoms online and getting a second opinion I was certain that I had picked up an unwanted souvenir in the Moluccas: dengue.

An Aedes aegypti mosquito, the vector of the dengue virus, biting an unsuspecting victim (actually, given the a photo was being taken of it the perhaps the victim was suspecting after all). [Photo from Wikipedia.]

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Ferry Long Way Round

In Ternate I found myself out on a limb as it were. I needed to get back to Surabaya where I had left the bulk of my belongings with Erika and I had to return there before continuing east again through the Indonesian archipelago. As I've mentioned before I hate retracing my steps and so refused to consider going back through Sulawesi and instead decided to head south through the rest of the Moluccas before swinging west and back to Java. It's a route that is heavily dependent on boat schedules, the information for which is patchy at best, but I decided to take a leap of faith and see how far I could get.

In blue my route out to Ternate from Surabaya and in red my route back. It took nine days, of which over 100 hours were spent on boats (and a further 15 waiting for them).

Friday, August 10, 2012


Indonesia is made up of around 17,000 islands. Some are huge, like Borneo and Sumatra, whilst many are tiny. The cluster of four islands of Ternate, Tidore, Makian and Moti, each centred around a volcano and each small enough to be circumambulated in a single day, is certainly towards the small and insignificant end of the spectrum. Nevertheless these tiny islands, located some 250km east of the northeastern tip of Sulawesi in a sub-archipelago known as the Moluccas (or Malukus), were to have a huge and dramatic impact on world history, far in excess of their puny size. According to legend Helen's is the face that launched a thousand ships. These little islands did that and far more.

A view of Ternate from its twin, and eternal rival, Tidore. Little speedboats shuttle people back and forth from one to the other throughout the day.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Swimming With The (Jelly)Fishes

Sulawesi is undoubtedly one of the world's oddest-shaped islands. Sometimes described as resembling an octopus or the letter K. Either way, its trailing tentacles and testing topography make travelling time-consuming. Bus journeys rarely take less than 8 hours and the various boats that service intra-island routes have seen better days. The tenacious are, however, rewarded with spectacular views of jungle-clad mountains that sweep down to isolated bays with turquoise waters and some of the best diving to be found anywhere in the world.

Sunset in the Togians always seems to be gorgeous.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Born To Die

Some say that the most important event in the (pre-)history of mankind was the discovery of fire and how to control it. I would say that equally important, if not more so, was the day man came to understand his own mortality and it scared the bejeezus out of him. The former gave him tools, but the latter gave him purpose. Ever since then man has been trying everything in his power to escape his fate. The most obvious manifestation of this is religion. In its myriad guises, and its various messages about ethics, lessons on how to properly sacrifice animals, what clothes to wear, and whether you can marry your first cousin the one constant seems to be a reassuring narrative of some sort of life after death, whether it be reincarnation, a hall for warriors full of wenches serving mead, or some abstract heaven. Follow us, the religions say, and we will ensure that the curse of mortality doesn't befall you. Even Buddhism, which is seen by many to be a philosophy rather than a religion, has incorporates the idea of reincarnation.

Smoking's a killer. Torajan skulls left with cigarettes as offerings.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Stuck In The Mud

It seems that Indonesia is becoming a place of reunions for me. I have no idea why, but a number of people I know are in the country at the moment and so I'm taking the opportunity to reconnect with them. Almost exactly 6 years after meeting Erika in a gorgeous guesthouse in Yazd I found her again in Indonesia's second city, Surabaya. At the time she and her partner Robin were cycling from Scotland east, with no definite goal in mind, seeing how far they could get and learning about the places along the way. They eventually ended up in Indonesia where Erika is now teaching English and quite content with her more stable situation: having a good job, a cosy house in a pleasant kampung and a circle of friends. I was glad to meet up with her again and catch up on what we had been up to in the intervening years and where we saw ourselves heading (much less clarity there). I was even introduced to some of her colleagues as they were celebrating a very British institution: after-work Friday drinks. It led to the bizarre situation where I was in the company of four other Scots, something that has probably only occurred once in the past 16 years since I left Aberdeen.

Monkey business in the kampung. Itinerant entertainers with a monkey on a chain and some music go round from neighbourhood to neighbourhood entertaining the kids with simple tricks.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Java Man (aka Where Are The Muslims?)

Of the little we in the West know of Indonesia, the fact that it's the most populous Muslim country in the world, with over 200 million officially registered adherents (more on this definition in a later post), is probably the most widely known factoid, helped by the odd Islamist bombing and display of irrational intolerance that make great media headlines. However it is an Islam that wouldn't be recognised in the Middle East. Islam came relatively late to the Indonesian archipelago, some time in the 12th century, by which time Hinduism had already been there for a millennium and Buddhism about half that, and it wasn't until the late 15th century that it became the dominant religion. Such a long legacy of Indian religions cannot but fail to leave a trace, a trace that is most evident in the Javanese heartland, which, paradoxically, is also considered to be among the most conservatively Muslim parts of the country.

Smoking Mount Merapi (one of the most active volcanoes in the world) towering above the ruins of Borobudur (visible in the centre-right of the picture as a small point, though trust me, it's big) in the pre-dawn mist.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Old Smokey

Jakarta was too hot and humid and so I decided to do what many locals do and head for the hills. My destination was Bandung, Java's favoured hill station. The weather is certainly more pleasant than Jakarta's oppressive heat and humidity, but that's about it. Bamdung has now mushroomed into Indonesia's third-largest city and has much the same traffic and air-quality problems as Jakarta. Along with the weather most Indonesians come to Bandung either to study or to go shopping at the city's many outlet stores. Those of you who know me will know that neither of those could possibly be a reason for me to come. So what drew me to Bandung?

The smoking, sulphurous crater Tangkuban Perahu is Bandung's premier tourist spot and it's possible to drive right up to the rim in your car. Souvenir vendors do a roaring trade in furry hats as intrepid Indonesians brave arctic temperatures (well, it's around 10 degrees, which is freezing for them).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Big Durian

New York is known throughout the world as the Big Apple. I'm not sure whether it's for its sweetness, juiciness, or tendency to turn brown on the slightest contact with air. Whatever the reason I feel that Jakarta deserves its own nickname too. It is just as big and is quite the metropolis in southeast Asia. I have therefore decided to call it the Big Durian in homage to the local pungent delicacy fruit that locals love and foreigners loathe with a passion: the first impression is the smell (or perhaps in the case of Jakarta the haze of pollution on the horizon); at first touch it's a hard and spiky, seemingly impenetrable and not worth the bother to investigate further; once you've finally opened it up you discover that most of it is comprised of inedible, useless ballast with only a small percentage of fleshy goodness; and when you finally get to taste it then it's a 50/50, Marmite-like epiphany of either love or hate. Jakarta is a lot of work and you may not even like it at the end of it.

Is it a spiky, love-it-or-hate-it tropical fruit? or is it Indonesia's much-maligned capital?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Java: Stronger Than A Cup Of Coffee

Given my aching thighs and calves following Kerinci I was glad to spend a considerable amount of time on buses, trains and boats over the following week (although I was less happy by one of my drivers' enthusiasm for trance music played at full blast in the minivan at 2am in the morning). From the fresh, tea plantations of Kersik Tua I headed east to the hot and humid alluvial lowlands of Sumatra and the not-at-all-touristic town of Jambi. My main (only) reason for visiting was the remains of the capital of the once mighty Melayu kingdom that flourished in the 13th and 14th centuries after the fall of the nearby Srivijaya empire. It is this kingdom that gave its name to the Malay peninsula (which it also controlled) and, by extension Malaysia. This has led to friction between the two countries with Indonesians angered that Malaysia is claiming for its own cultural traditions and heritage that Indonesians believe to be rightfully theirs. The most notorious is batik, the colourful, wax-resist dying technique that is used to make intricately patterned clothes. Long ignored by Indonesian authorities Malaysia quietly stepped in claiming it as their own. This led to Indonesians protesting and quickly registering it with UNESCO as part of their intangible cultural heritage. Ever since then Friday has become batik day (the registration was announced on a Friday) when all office workers are obliged to turn up in garish shirts (the most popular designs often incorporating football team logos) in a sort of nationwide "up yours" to their northerly neighbour that they love to hate.

The executive ManU batik shirt - no self-respecting Indonesian office worker would be seen without one on a Friday.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Climbing Kerinci

Travelling down the interior of Sumatra you get a good sense of its size and relative wildness. The Trans-Sumatran highway is a joke: barely wide enough to let two trucks pass, winding along the hilly spine of the Bukit Barisan mountains and potholed, you'll be lucky if you achieve an average speed 40lm/h. It gives you plenty of time to watch the surrounding countryside go by. Small, dusty, farming villages with their adjoining rice fields, vegetable patches and banana trees alternate with large chunks of forest spilling down to the roadside from the wild, green mountains. Encroachment onto virgin forest is a problem as the human population of Sumatra increases and demands greater space and resources. Nevertheless this is still a haven of biodiversity and is the last refuge on earth of some of the world's largest and most majestic animals: the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran orangutan (slightly different to its Bornean cousin) and Sumatran rhino are found nowhere else on earth (actually there is a small population, estimated at 25 individuals, of Sumatran rhinos in Sabah). Naturally it's difficult to get out to the places where these animals live, and a sighting is as likely as winning the lottery. Instead I decided to just go for a hike in one of Sumatra's three main national parks.

Statue of a harimau (Sumatran tiger) guarding the road that snakes through the tea plantations to the Kerinci National Park and the iconic volcano that lords over the surrounding countryside.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dangerous Island

Sumatra is a dangerous place. It's not the inhabitants though, but the island itself. Something deep down in Sumatra, more fundamental, geological, doesn't seem to like people. I've already mentioned the Boxing Day earthquake, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. There have been at lest half a dozen serious ones since then claiming a few thousand lives. Slightly further back in time southern Sumatra was host to the largest volcanic eruption of the past 180 years when the Krakatoa (aka Krakatau) volcano erupted violently in 1883. The explosion, which was heard up to 5000km away, became the first worldwide media sensation, claimed the lives of over 36,000 people, plunged the world into an ash-induced winter for several years, and even had a film made about it.

Intricate decorations adorning a traditional Batak house in the Toba area.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

The Day The Earth Moved

Up until six and a half years ago Aceh was a name that few people knew. For years the region at the northern tip of Sumatra was a no-go area thanks to the Free Aceh guerrilla insurgency that was seeking independence for the region underpinned by discontent about central government appropriation of Acehnese resources (oil had been found offshore Aceh in the 70's), an influx of outsiders and a desire for a greater role for sharia in local law. The almost three decades of conflict had claimed some 15,000 lives. All that was to change on Boxing Day 2004 when the third largest earthquake ever to be recorded struck off the northwestern coast of Sumatra. The resulting tsunami spread far and wide, causing immense casualties in Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Somalia and even as far as South Africa. The brunt of nature's force, however, was borne by Aceh which experienced some 70% of the total 185,000 casualties and the capital, Banda Aceh, was almost wiped from the map.

The owners of this house probably weren't too pleased to find that someone had parked a boat on their roof despite the very obvious sign.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Hello Mister!

After a week with my friends in Cyberjaya it was time for me to move on. They had already postponed my departure by insisting I spend the weekend with them, but the easy life wasn't getting me any further, and so with a last farewell I set off for Port Klang, Kuala Lumpur's port on the coast. It seems strange to me that despite all the difficulties in getting by sea from one part of the country to another, Peninsular Malaysia has good maritime connections with several neighbouring countries, including Indonesia. Although I liked my time in Malaysia I find it a rather dull place to be honest. Whether it's to do with the rather staid, conservative Muslim culture favoured by the authorities, or whether it has to do with reaching a certain level of development and therefore eschewing the happy chaos of less developed countries I'm not sure. But a difference in chaos was certainly evident in the transition from Malaysia to Indonesia. Boarding the ferry at the Klang terminal was a muted affair, with slowly shuffling rows of passengers trickling through immigration. Disembarkation, on the other hand, was joyously raucous as porters, passengers and onlookers jostled for position on the jetty. The immigration hall was full of shouting, sweaty bodies and a dense fog of sweet kretek (clove cigarettes that have already become one of the hallmarks of my time here in Indonesia) smoke. Nevertheless the bureaucracy was dealt with surprisingly swiftly as people huddled round the immigration desk where the clerks were a blur of furious stamping. The crossing was also quite merry as there was a karaoke video of popular dangdut (the Indonesian music of the masses, best described as the bastard offspring between Polish disco polo and Romanian gypsy manele) songs, which the passengers sang along with when they weren't quizzing me about who I was, where I was going, and other personal questions.

Medan's crowded public market has possibly the largest collection of dried fish in the world. It also has lots of smiling vendors who seem to want to talk about Chelsea or the upcoming Euro championships.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Putrajaya, Pants, And Other Ponderings

So, getting from East Malaysia to West Malaysia by boat didn't work out either. My German couple were ready to take me with them, and even wanted to go to Singapore. But it just didn't seem like it was meant to be as they discovered their boat had a leak and were forced to leave it in Borneo themselves. I'm sure Charley Boorman didn't have these problems when he was filming By Any Means, but then again he has his own BBC film crew and lackeys to organise his itinerary. Kuching was getting boring and 16 days really were enough. I had seen all I wanted to, and had begun to get itchy feet. With a heavy heart I headed down to the airport as soon as I got the bad news and bought myself a ticket to Kuala Lumpur (although, as an aside, I did get to do something that I had dreamt of doing for some time, namely turning up at an airport and just buying my ticket on the spot).

The famous Petronas Towers which I revisited 7 years after my first trip here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Travel Frustrations

I have now been in Kuching for over two weeks, the longest I've been in any one place on this trip (apart from Tehran). And it's not because it's a terribly exciting place; quite the opposite in fact. No, the reason for my extended stay is my stubborn desire to do this journey overland. I had already broken the no-flying pledge I had given myself by hopping from Taiwan to the Philippines, but I was damned if I was going to do it within the same country. Despite Malaysia being split neatly into two halves separated by some 500km of sea, the sole means of transport for ordinary civilians trying to get from one to the other is by plane. The last passenger ferry sailed its last over 20 years ago. That air travel is the default option is totally understandable: its faster, more comfortable and (thanks to the lack of tax on aviation fuel) is cheaper. But that it's the only option seems to me ridiculous. What of people who, for whatever reason, cannot fly; or if flying became impossible - not such a far-fetched idea for those who remember the chaos caused around Europe a couple of years ago when an Icelandic volcano started rumbling (and Java, with its collection of active volcanoes, isn't that far away)? I refused to to believe that there was no way to get by sea from East to West Malaysia so, when I arrived, I set about procuring myself passage to the mainland. Little did I anticipate how hard it would be.

Kuching is known as the "Cat City" - this is one of several such statues dotted around town.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Man Of The (Disappearing) Forest

For most people there is one overwhelming reason to come to Borneo: wildlife. The world's third-largest island is home to large tracts of virgin, untouched rainforest bursting with biodiversity and harbouring more than a fair few endemic animals. For the budding David Attenborough* there are few places that can offer such a range of things both bright and beautiful as well as short and squat. The biggest draw is, undoubtedly, our distant cousin, the orangutan (a word derived from the Malay, meaning "man of the forest"). There are only two populations of orangutan left in the world: one here in Borneo and the other in Sumatra. Sightings in the wild occur next to never and so the next best option is to go to one of the rehabilitation centres where orphaned and abandoned orangutans are cared for before, hopefully, being released back into the wild. One such centre is located just outside Kuching and I made it the first thing I visited when I arrived.

Orangutan faces are full of expressivity, betraying how closely related they are to humans.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

East Is East

Six days in Brunei was enough and so I set off for Sarawak. One of the reasons I stayed so long was that I wanted to do a trek to Gunung Mulu national park, just outside the Bruneian border and accessible from BSB. It is famous for housing one of the largest caves in the world which is home to a population of several million bats as well as some magnificent primary rainforest and karst terrain. To be able to afford the tour though I had to find other people with whom to split the costs of transport, guides and porters, but unfortunately I had no luck. Such is the way when travelling solo: sometimes it is not possible to do certain activities because you need a group of people and they just aren't available. Instead I had to make do with the caves at Batu Niah, also in Sarawak, but only a dozen kilometres from the main highway instead of requiring several days' hike (or a trip by plane). The main cave there is also staggeringly huge and is home to several species of bats and swiftlets, whose droppings, like in caves throughout the region, carpet the floor and give it a characteristic, overpowering odour. What perhaps makes the caves at Niah special are that they have been home to humans for some 40,000 years, with some of the oldest archaeological finds in all of southeast Asia. And they have been continually used for that entire time up to the present day, where local tribes collect swiftlet nests. Although it's not the season for collection the bamboo scaffolds used by the collectors are still up and extend vertiginously 50m or more up to the roof of the cave, seemingly held aloft by a single, narrow pole, somehow defying the laws of gravity.

Looking back at the entrance to the main cave at Niah. You can see that plants manage to grow for a little distance into the cave, but then lack of sunlight allows only a few hardy mosses to grow and then nothing.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Village In The Ayer

Brunei is one of those tiny countries that you might have heard of, but aren't really sure about: who lives there? what do the people do? how can such a tiny country be viable? The answer to the last question, of course, is oil. Although small, Brunei sits on substantial reserves of both oil and gas. Indeed, one of the reasons why people may have heard of Brunei is that, up until 1997, the Sultan of Brunei was the richest man in the world and a byword for profligate extravagance. Indeed it was the tiny sultanate's abundance of wealth that led to it refusing to join the Malaysian Federation in the 60's so as not to have their riches siphoned off to Kuala Lumpur (the sultan and his family were adept enough at that already).

A panorama photograph of the old stilt-houses of Kampung Ayer.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Octopus's Garden

Most of my travels are of the cultural (cities, museums, ruins, monuments, etc.) or outdoorsy (hiking, mountains, forests and national parks) kind. I don't really do "fun" stuff. Whilst in Sabah I decided to change that state of affairs. The seas of southeast Asia are home to some of the most pristine tropical coral reefs in the world. Snorkelling among them is my favourite thing to do whilst visiting beach destinations. But with snorkelling you are limited by your lungs to just the uppermost corals and only for as long as you can hold your breath. Obviously the glimpses you get of the myriad multi-coloured fish, urchins, invertebrates, polyps, nudibranches and other strangely-named organisms are only enough to pique your interest. To truly see the underwater world you need to go scuba diving.

All kitted up in my wetsuit, air tank and sundry other paraphernalia and about to roll back out of the boat (something I had always wanted to do). Diving is a truly incredible sensation and one I hope, for my wallet's sake, I don't get too addicted to.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Making A Molehill Out Of A Mountain (Of Costs)

As I stood on the deck of my ferry, carrying me from Zamboanga to Sandakan in East Malaysia, in the still night, watching the rippling wake reach behind us through the mirror-smooth Sulu Sea, I found it hard to believe that this is one of the most notorious stretches of water in the world. From Mindanao to Borneo there stretch several island groups -  Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi - that form the heartland of the current Muslim insurgency in the Philippines. Piracy is not unheard of around here and only two months ago a couple of European tourists were kidnapped on Tawi-Tawi whilst taking wildlife photographs. These are certainly not places to travel to thoughtlessly, although peering at the soundlessly calm expanse around me when I awoke in the middle of the night, with only a small glow on the horizon indicating a mini flotilla of sardine boats, it was hard for me to equate the view in front of me with any sort of danger. And indeed there was none to be had as we arrived in Sandakan without a hitch (except for the 9-hour wait in Zamboanga as the 300 passengers cleared the customs inspection that was manned by only two officers - although there were about a dozen soldiers milling around doing little else than motioning the queue to shuffle along every now and again).

A suburban cul-de-sac in Sandakan that reminded me of middle-class suburban neighbourhoods in the UK.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Risk And The Perception Of Risk

Most visitors to the Philippines do not visit the southern island of Mindanao. But then again neither do Filipinos who live in Luzon and the Visayas. Not because they can't afford it (although it's true that many can't it is possible to get a cheap, budget airline ticket from Luzon to Mindanao for only $20 or less, well within the reach of the burgeoning Philippine middle-class), but because they are afraid to. Mindanao is home to various separatist rebel groups (such as the unfortunately-named MILF) and has seen numerous bombings, abductions and killings of foreigners and locals alike. For most Manileños it's a lawless, anarchic place with danger lurking around every corner, completely forgetting that the vast majority of people who live there are ordinary citizens just trying to get on with their lives (if it was so dangerous they would have probably left long ago themselves). I, however, despite the many warnings and looks of incredulity from other Filipinos, was determined to go there. Partly because I find that there is always a huge disconnect between risk and the perception of risk. Often when I mention that I have been to North Korea the first question people ask is "but isn't it dangerous?" to which I, in all honesty, reply that it is probably the safest country to visit as a tourist, even more so than Japan, South Korea or any European country (with the possible exception of Liechtenstein). The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office would rather err on the side of caution and advises against travel to Mindanao (see map below), but luckily I am travelling on a Czech passport and a brief perusal of their foreign office website I found no similar warning, so that makes it OK to visit then. My other reason for going to Mindanao is far more prosaic: the only scheduled international sea connections from the Philippines leave from the island. One south to Indonesia, the other west to Malaysian Borneo. I had lost in my attempt to enter the country overland, but I was damned if I was going to be beaten twice in succession.

The British FCO travel advisory for the Philippines. As you can see the vast majority of the country is considered safe. Only Mindanao is dangerous, especially the western part where you shouldn't go under any circumstances (only that's where my ferry leaves from).

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Little Islands, Little Creatures, Little Hills

The small, teardrop-shaped island of Bohol lies a little off the eastern coast of Cebu. It's one of the main beach and diving destinations in the Visayas. But I wasn't there for the beaches. Instead it was a cute little creature that lured me over. The Philippine tarsier is one of the world's smallest primates and looks like Gizmo's long lost brother. Its big, owl-like eyes and general cuteness make it a favourite of the tourists who flock to come and have their pictures taken with the little fuzzballs. Unfortunately for the shy tarsiers captivity and constant petting stresses them out big time and very few kept for public display live for more than a year. Despite the desire to pet one I knew better and visited the official tarsier sanctuary that works to protect them and satisfied myself with a few zoom shots of a couple of tarsiers dozing in the trees. It's often the way with wildlife tourism that the act of visiting a site and interacting with the animals is detrimental to their well-being. It's usually better to curb the urge to pet and get too close and content yourself with a fleeting glimpse and the knowledge that the animals are there, alive, thriving and living the way that they were meant to.

The nocturnal tarsiers have suffered greatly due to habitat loss and the mistaken belief amongst local tribes that they were evil creatures that ate their crops (they prey solely on insects). Nowadays habitat loss is still a big threat as is the demand for tarsiers as pets or display animals.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Filipino Thoughts

The Philippines is divided into three main regions: the large islands of Luzon and Mindanao in the north and south respectively, and the cluster of islands in between that is known as the Visayas. It was to the Visayas that the first Europeans came. It is here that the Spaniards first converted the locals to Catholicism, here that they founded their first capital at Cebu (although at the time, in true Catholic fashion, they called it Villa del Santísimo Nombre de Jesús, until they realised that they were spending half their time writing the name on official documents). That the Visayas was the epicentre of Spanish colonialism in the Philippines is evident from the local place names: Toledo, Compostela, Sevilla, Santander, Cadiz and Valladolid all named after great medieval Spanish cities. However political and economic power has long since moved to Manila, with the local Manila language of Tagalog being imposed as the national one despite the fact that more people speak Cebuano and Visaya, a fact which still rankles amongst the locals.

The Baroque church of Miag-ao is the best example of the merging of Spanish and local architectural influences. The main relief shows Saint Christopher walking through a landscape of papaya trees and coconuts.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Get Around

Spending a lot of time getting from place to place is a natural byproduct of travelling the way I do. Not only actually sitting (or standing) in some sort of vehicle, but also researching about how best to get around, where the bus leaves from, what time, whether I need to buy a ticket in advance, and so on. I have therefore become something of an expert on public transportation around the world. Although it isn't something that we often consider when thinking about a country's culture or traditions, mobility is an important aspect of our lives and impacts it more than we might think. Especially in poorer countries where people can't afford their owns means of transportation then it is their lifeline to employment, getting their goods to market, accessing basic public services or shopping for life's necessities. Sitting on a bus can therefore end up being a small study in anthropology rather than a dull commute between point A and point B.

An old-school, overloaded jeepney plying the mountain roads of northern Luzon.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Paradise Flawed

As I mentioned in my last post, in a country made up of tropical islands, Palawan is the place to go for your dose of tropical paradise. More specifically the northern part comprising the karstic Calamianes and Bacuit archipelagos centred around the towns of Coron and El Nido respectively. Here black, jagged, limestone islands, their sharp pinnacles rising through their jungle cladding. The landscape very similar to that of Halong Bay in Vietnam and the Krabi province of Thailand. And, quite justifiably, they attract just as many tourists, both foreign and domestic.

A view of El Nido beach and bay, with the nearby islands of the Bacuit archipelago in the distance. Viewed from atop the karst cliffs overlooking town.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Leaving Luzon

From Luzon (the main island of the Philippine archipelago) I took the boat to Coron, at the northern tip of the Palawan group of islands in the western Philippines. The island group ignores the prevailing directions of the rest of the archipelago (towards the southeast) and juts out at a right angle towards Borneo, like its own, personal sword of Damocles. Palwan is a region apart from the rest of the Philippines, with a small population and little development, and so getting there by boat is not straightforward. My guidebook mentions several companies that do the trip, but unfortunately it was published in 2006. Since then budget airlines have eaten into the market for ferry passengers and as I contacted the ferry companies one by one I discovered that their Coron services had long ago ceased to run. Luckily I found a single company that still plies the route twice a week. I rushed to buy myself a ticket and, with it safely in my pocket, proceeded to find things to do for the next few days as I waited for the departure.

A view from a boat. Whilst lazing on our ferry before it left Manila I had plenty of time to contemplate the city's uninspiring skyline (as well as the nearby slums).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Mountain Of Rubbish

The great advantage in travelling the way I do, with no fixed timetable, deadlines or impositions, is that I can change my itinerary on a whim and respond to new opportunities in a second as they present themselves. And so it happened whilst I was up here in the Cordillera region. During my stay in Sagada I was lucky enough to meet Russell, a Canadian artist who has been living in the area for the past two years. His speciality is transforming ordinary, everyday rubbish into art and usable objects; what is nowadays known as "upcycling". He works with local communities and people, mostly women, in small villages where he has been successful in designing small bags and purses made from discarded wrappers that the women weave in their spare time with a view to selling both abroad and locally to both increase the peoples' income and reduce waste. Thanks to him I drastically changed my plans in a way that allowed me to see and interact with local communities that would not have been possible as a simple tourist passing through.

Close up of the bags made by local women around Sagada using used wrappers. The one on the left is from Sprite labels and the right one from coffee sachets.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Slivers Of Quicksilver

For most visitors to the Philippines there are two main attractions that draw them to the tropical archipelago: the beaches and associated diving and snorkelling activities on the one hand, and the mountains and tribes of the north of Luzon on the other. Seeing as I was already in Luzon, and that I'm not a huge fan of beaches, the decision as to where to head to after Manila was really a no-brainer. North to the mountains it was, with a little side-trip to the beautiful colonial town of Vigan on the coast, which still displays some faded splendour of bygone days. My little detour accomplished I finally made it to Baguio, the self-styled capital of the Cordillera.

Cute kids vying to have their photos taken by the beach in Vigan.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rucks And Malls

I had bought my plane ticket to Manila online with Cebu Pacific, the Philippines' answer to Ryanair. I had no problems buying the ticket, with the online check-in, or even with getting to the airport by midnight (my plane was scheduled to depart at half past one in the morning). What I hadn't counted on awaited me as I came to deposit my rucksack at the check-in counter and get my boarding pass. I handed over my passport and check-in printout. "And your return ticket sir?" I replied that I was not returning to Taiwan and that from the Philippines I was travelling onward to Malaysia. "But Philippine immigration requires that you show us an onward ticket." Ah... I tried explaining that I was planning to catch the scheduled ferry to Borneo and that these tickets were impossible to purchase without turning up in person. This failed to make an impression on any of the staff of the airline. So, with 15 minutes left before the end of check-in I persuaded the stewards to let me use their computers and quickly bought the cheapest online ticket I could find, one that I don't intend to use at all. I suppose it's an unofficial visa.

The streets of Manila are overflowing with life. Around every corner there's a hive of activity.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Taiwan 101

There are many different calendars in the world. Different cultures and religions each have their own, preferred watershed dates from which to start reckoning the beginning of time. For most Christians it's 2012, for most Muslims it's 1433, for Jews it's 5772, it's 1132 for Nepalis, 1390 for Persian Muslims and 2004 for Copts and Ethiopians. As you can see there's plenty of diversity out there and the Republic of China doesn't want to feel outdone, so they count their years from the demise of imperial China and the foundation of the Republic in 1911. This year is 101. Although the official year is based upon the Western, Gregorian, calendar, for celebrations and festivals it is still the traditional Chinese calendar that rules the roost. And that is why I have stayed in Taiwan so long.

A dragon dance, but with a difference, in Maoli. The dragons head is garlanded with firecrackers and during the dance  people throw more firecrackers at the dragon. It's very loud and smoky.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Museums, Shopping And Bad Weather (Could've Stayed In London?)

My mountain escapades got me some way to filling my time, but not all the way. Another project was the tying up of some administrative loose ends. Whilst at home going to the bank, shopping for sundries on the weekend, sorting correspondence, or just simply going down to the bank to give your accounts the once over are things that we don't really give much thought to and generally do them as and when we get round to them. But when on the road not only do you rarely have time to do these simple house-keeping tasks, sometimes it's hard to know how to do them at all. In the UK I know exactly where to go to buy myself an annual diary, but where do I do that in Hong Kong? or where do I get a new pair of hiking shoes in Taipei.

After 2 years on the road my shoes were beginning to show the strains of continuous use and hiking up various mountains. They can retire with dignity as I have managed to find a reasonable replacement pair. RIP shoes.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Climb Any Mountain

For a couple of reasons (which I shall go into later) I am staying in Taiwan until the 7th of February. Having done a loop of the island already I needed something to fill my time constructively, as I am not one to be able to sit on a beach for days on end. Luckily Taiwan has its mountains that I had mentioned previously, and this was the perfect opportunity to see them up close and personal. In Taiwan, however, going into the mountains is not simply a question of turning up at a trailhead and setting off at random. Perhaps it is a way of ensuring safety by knowing who is on the mountain should anything unfortunate happen, perhaps it is an environmentally-friendly way of limiting the human impact on a fragile ecosystem, or perhaps it is just the Taiwanese love of officialdom, but anyone heading to the higher mountains needs to get a permit. Sometimes two. The process is Byzantine, requires numerous forms to be filled out in triplicate, and, for the more popular trails (such as Yu Shan - Jade mountain), needs to be done several months in advance. Luckily through my host in Taipei I was able to find a group of people who were heading off on a 5-day hike and was able to join up with them.

View of the snowy peaks of Yu Shan (Jade Mountain), Taiwan's highest mountain.