We headed straight to Ubud, with its weird and wonderful wooden and stone carved statues of Buddha, Ganesh, Vishnu and other Gods. In Bali 80% are Hindu and the other 20, Buddhist, Muslim etc... so lots of Indian influence.
The first night we saw a traditional Balinese dance with people dressed up as monkeys, dragons, deer...next day we rode through lush, green padi fields and got caught in the rain. We stopped in a farmer's field and watched 3 guys pull 3 huge pigs they had killed out of their pick up truck by the roadside and start burning the hairs off them and butchering them. They were getting ready for the one week long festival to start the day we were to leave Indonesia!
We stopped by on our way back and came across a strange gathering by the road, of large groups of men huddled together and shouting. As we approached, we saw they were getting 2 roosters ready for fighting, by wrapping mini daggers on their feet and then pushing each one forward towards the other aggressively to start the fury. The tension was mounting as each one tried to show off their bird as the strongest so everyone would vote for theirs. There was absolute mayhem when the fight began. Everyone rushed to the scene and feverishly started betting money on the cocks. They fought until one started bleeding from the neck, but it stopped there.
Ubud is rammed full of shops with labels and expensive clothes and restaurants. It was such an extreme to what we had been experiencing until now. It was also rammed full of Australian tourists there for their holidays. Fusion, i guess is what you'd call it. I suppose it was getting us ready for Australia.
Before our flight to Sydney we decided to see some of the coast off Bali. The hotels were bigger than anything we'd seen and the beaches weren't particularly beautiful. Resort after resort with posh swimming pools and extortionate prices (well, for Asian standards anyway). I think it was probably cheap in Australian terms.
Last hotel we stayed in was when I was told Rene my great aunt was dying in hospital back in London, so that was difficult especially as the last time I was in Australia, 10 years ago, her sister (my grandma Joan) passed away too. I felt so far away from everyone at that point.
I started trying to imagine the next leg of our journey. The plane to Sydney was imminent and it was time to prepare for going to Australia. It signified the start of a different continent and a totally different style of travelling, but also the end of an era almost! Our trip to South East Asia was finally over and we were half way through the "long voyage"! There were going to be no more restaurants, no more hotels, no more people rushing up to us shouting hello, we would no longer be the centre of attention, those who are "different", people would no longer crowd round Alana and Ruben taking photos with them. I can't say I was pleased to be leaving Asia, but we were really looking forward to getting to Oz, showing the kids everything we had seen 10 years ago. Also seeing one of my best friends, Zara and her family was exciting.
We were ready for the next step.
Flores is 2 islands away from Lombok and just before you get there, that's where Komodo island is. This is where the last remaining dinosaurs on earth live. Giant lizards, measuring 2 or 3 metres in length. And yes, we did tell Ruben they eat naughty children!
The journey to Flores had its different stages of excitement and exhaustion. It was the anticipation of seeing an island which was so remote and further away from anything that we had ever been to, which kept us fresh on our journey. The public bus after the 2 hr taxi ride was to take us across Lombok, onto the boat to the next island Sumbawa, and drive for another 12 hours almost to the other side of the island. This started off quite well, with the constant flow of biscuits, bananas, apples and peanuts we had bought. It was when we got to the other port after 7 hours of travelling, that we realized that the bus driver was in fact a crazy maniac, trying to kill everyone on the bus by steaming down the roads, not even slowing down to turn round the hairpin bends going up and down mountains, all the while it was supposed to be sleep time for the passengers. As you can imagine, Jeje and I didn't get an ounce of sleep in.
There were bottles of water rolling madly around the floor and bags falling from the overhead shelves. We did shout out to him to slow down. After a while we noticed that he had slowed down, but realized that it was because he had been wanting to overtake all the other buses to be the first to pick up the passengers hailing down the buses on the roadsides every half hour or so. Now he had filled up his bus, he didn't have room for any more people so he could go back to normal speed.
But it was like that for about 10 hours. When we were about 3 hours from the boat taking us to Flores, the bus suddenly stopped and we had to get off to get on another minivan. The kids were fast asleep and it was not easy.
To make things worse, the other bus was tiny and looking at the floor, and judging by the smell, it had been recently used as a public toilet. It was infested with mozzies and that's when jeje announced that there was a high risk of malaria here and on Flores. We were still taking our pills everyday and still no side effects, but the pills aren't 100% effective and there are other diseases you can catch at night and in the day from mosquitos. So we had to wait in this bus for about 2 hours at about 3 am, the kids by now were wide awake, until setting off for the final 3 hours before getting to the last leg of our journey. The boat was packed full of Indonesians. We were among the very few tourists travelling to Flores.
We wondered if it was all going to be worth it, especially when we arrived in a rain storm and looking at the weather forecast, it said storms for the next hundred days or so...we later understood, it just says that because it is the rainy season. Nobody really knows what the weather is gonna be like. Next day, bright and sunny like nothing happened and we set off on our scooters to explore a tiny tip of this huge island. Stumbled on a hilltop restaurant overlooking a long pier with a little hut at the end. No one in sight, we had the place to ourselves and the restaurant was open. Pure paradise. After a gorgeous meal, we made our way to the end of the long pier and took turns jumping into in the warm, wavy water. Ruben perfecting his newly acquired swimming skills. Alana swam from one island to another and proved that she really can swim quite strongly, even with a bit of current.
We went to the harbour to book a 2 day tour on a boat to see some islands around and the Komodo dragons. We packed what we needed for the trip and left the rest behind in the hotel. Early breakfast and off we went on our island adventure. We hired a private boat, with 2 locals, the skipper and his captain! Both from Komodo island. First stop a tiny atoll where we went snorkeling at about 9am, seeing clown and parrot fish, but also large, brightly coloured prawns and even a squid. Just around the island, where it was shallow, the water was turquoise, but it quickly turned a dark deep blue, and when you stuck your head under the water you could clearly see how the ground dramatically sloped down into the depths.
Next stop was Rinca Island where we saw our first Komodo dragons, snoozing lazily beside the park rangers' kitchen hut. Apparently they only become active in the early morning and early evening, when they get hungry. They feed on deer, buffalo and wild boar. There are about 1500 of them on 2 islands. Nowhere else in the world! They control their own population by eating their young. A recent discovery shows that females can produce eggs without being fertilized by a male! They didn't move much, but this is a clever hunting tactic which they use to trick their prey. Just when you feel safe...vram! they nip you. This puts bacteria into you and then you slowly die. They follow the prey and wait until in a few hours or days it dies and they eat it!
They are solitary, cold blooded creatures.
Next, on a brighter note, lunch! Mie Gareng à la capitaine stylee.
With a motor sounding like a pneumatic drill but ten times louder.
As we passed by every island, they all seemed to have their own personality. Different colours, different shapes. Some with posh resorts lining the beaches, some with shanty floating shacks; some with thick mangroves, some just a rock with a single tree sitting on the top, or a small stretch of yellow sand with a few birds resting.
We spotted a couple of giant turtles on the move in the clearer waters and some tiny flying fish which looked like huge dragon flies! They actually glided across the water, without touching!
That night we stayed in Komodo village in the captain's house. They have 4 boys. Here, having a big family is considered as bringing luck and happiness.
There is only one village on the whole island (which is quite big). They have their own dialect there! The village consisted of one street which ran parallel to the beach and had one school and one mosque. One generator provided electricity for around ten houses at a time and was automatically switched off at 11pm. We were invited to eat and sat on the floor in a circle. Conversation was limited, as we couldn't speak each others languages. The toilet was round the back of the house, but the torch light batteries had gone flat, so we were warmly welcomed into their rich neighbours house. They had an in house toilet! We slept on mattresses in the sitting room, along with hundreds of mosquitos. It rained hard that night on the corrugated roof and in between sporadic mozzie repellent spraying, we worried about not being able to leave the island the next day, but felt lucky that we hadn't slept in the boat!
Next morning, again, bright and sunny and after a few banana fritters we set off on the boat again. We met a Spanish couple who had slept in the boat and got completely drenched that night. We also learned that the rainy night we had arrived in Flores, the 4 day boat trip we had hesitated on taking, had turned into a disaster when the boat actually capsized and the 8 tourists aboard had to be rescued!
The captain announced that we were going to Manta Point, but I cannot quite explain the emotion or elation of what we were about to see. He pointed out some pointy fin type things in the water far off and we thought at first they were sharks but he said "no, Manta!". He waved to the driver to slow down and then turn off the engine and we all huddled together at the front of the boat to see what it was. All of a sudden, an immense black, graceful shadow gently glided right towards us and swam under the boat. Then another, and another followed. These creatures were about 4 metres wide. The sight was breath-taking and made me actually cry with amazement it was so beautiful to watch.
"Ok, snorkeling! No problem!" Me and jeje looked at each other in amazement. What? You don't seriously think we're gonna jump in there with those monsters? Well needless to say, it didn't take jeje long to weigh up the pros and cons (I don't think he even had time to do that), before he was rushing off to get his mask and fins and dived into the water. I wanted to but I felt so small and insignificant, i couldn't pluck up the courage. I don't know anything about these beasts. What if something goes wrong? Jeje got back on the boat and said it was amazing and I started thinking I would regret it if I didn't get in there and experience this. This is a lifetime thing. I might never get to do this again! So in i jumped and clang on to the side of the boat, hoping secretly that I wouldn't bump into one. Jeje jumped in beside me and we then swam off together in search of the fleet of Mantas! I can't describe the feeling when out of the blue you see one gliding towards you. I held my breath and jeje's arm perhaps a little too tight! All I could say was "wow, wow, wow!". Then another came along underneath us, following the same path. I kept looking out of the water to keep an eye on where the boat was. We were swimming further away. At one point we were surrounded by about 7 Mantas. One of them seared upwards to another one and did a kind of elegant marine sumo move. Another started swimming upwards towards us and that's when we said "ok, I think it's time to start swimming back!". We did feel a bit out of our depths and because we don't know these creatures well enough, we didn't know how to behave around them. Also there were little jelly fish stinging us everywhere! We got safely back and raved about what we had just experienced!
Next stop, a paradise island called Kanawa where you go up one side of the beach and get into the water and the current drifts you down to the other side, while you admire the schools of colourful fish, giant star fish and coral roses beneath!
Then it was time to head back to the harbour. What an adventure! We had come all this way to what seemed like the end of the world to see the Komodo dragons, but the unforgettable stars of the scene were the Manta Rays.
The next morning we got a flight to Bali, where we were to chill for the next 5 days. Amazing to think that it took us 26 hours to get to Flores, but only 1 to get back!
Kuta, Lombok is full of young gap year types on a budget and Australian surfers carrying their surf boards on their bikes.
We found a nice hotel with a swimming pool and did some serious schooling every morning: omnivores, carnivores, the life of a turtle, how to conjugate verbs, problem solving, and much more...Alana did all this while Ruben was swanning around in the swimming pool, looking pretty. Actually, he was secretly learning to swim, as we found out! Well it's the doggy paddle, but he's getting better everyday. Ruben gets really frustrated when he can't do something first time round. But once he's figured it out he loves practising his new skills.
We discovered a beautiful, empty beach, about 40 minutes drive away, where there were shells everywhere. The sand was made of dead, ground white coral with specks of red and the odd star fish and sea urchin thrown in for good measure.
To get there the road was the most beautiful we have ridden on so far, with fluorescent green padi fields and banana plantations either side and locals threshing the rice and drying the grains on the road side.
Where there are surfers, there are also big waves, and too much current on some of the beaches to swim in, but beautiful because of it.
Kuta has terrible food! We had an inedible meal which we actually refused to pay for in its totality. The manager told me I was a bad person. I don't think the Indonesians like that kind of confrontation. But it had to be done! They are very warm and gentle and believe in Karma, but so do I and the manager obviously thought my karma would be bad for not paying for one of the 3 dishes, but I thought his karma was bad for serving it!! Anyway...he told me not to come back there and I told him I wasn't planning on it!
We got caught in a tremendous rainstorm on the way back from one of the beaches. The puddles got so big in the road, we could hardly drive through them on our scooters. The rain so heavy, it was hard to keep your eyes open. We stumbled on a pub (oh how strange, hester and jeje stumbling on a pub!), where there just so happened to be a bloke, famous in Kuta, called "Miserable Man", playing the guitar, practising for his next night's performance. We stayed to listen and drink beer of course until late...no I mean, we had to stop there in order to dry our clothes, as soon as our clothes had dried we left!!
Everyone in Indonesia seems to play the guitar (either badly or well), but they do like music. We hadn't experienced that in any of the other countries until now. They have their own, very good reggae artists and local, Indonesian music too, which is quite good. There's live music almost on every corner. Even the guy at the fitness gym had a white Elvis guitar in his hands!
Our next destination was a real dilemma. Hester wanted to go and see the Komodo dragons she was dreaming of, but they were so far away. How could we possibly get there? Should we give up and just go to Bali for 10 days before flying out to Sydney? We spent hours thinking about this and looking at countless blogs of other travelers having done the same thing but years ago. The options were either to get a boat, leaving Lombok and arriving in Flores 4 days later, but don't forget it is the rainy season and storms are frequent. Doing things this way means you get to visit Komodo island on the way to Flores, along with other islands and snorkeling expeditions, but it is also very costly. The other option was to fly, but all planes go from Bali and it's even more expensive. Furthermore you miss out on travelling to the destination, which is half the fun! The last option (apart from not going there at all) was to get a taxi (2 hours), then a bus (3hours), then a boat (2 hours), then another bus (12 hours), and yet another bus (3 hours), then another boat (7 hours), until finally arriving in Flores. We of course chose this most difficult and tiring option, in order to really push everyone to the edge and just finish us off. But hey, we must be hardened travellers now, because although it was pretty harrowing, we arrived absolutely shattered, in the pouring rain in the far Eastern port of Labuan Bajo, in a pretty sane and almost calm, zombie like state, even managing to organise a hotel on arrival! This may seem like a pretty normal thing to do and not very difficult, but I can tell you it is extremely draining when you have just done a mammouth 26 hour journey with no sleep and 2 kids, one of which is constantly jumping up and down, banging his head on your elbow and hitting his sister (I won't mention any names). Totally incredibly, we managed to keep cool heads, though Jeje started to lose it a bit when there weren't any covers for the beds and started having a go at the poor receptionist, for which he apologized the next morning!
The rocky boat to Lombok only took 20 Minutes, but there were enough waves to keep you alert and looking for Ruben-sized life jackets, just in case!
Over the other side, we realized we hadn't organized anything and didn't really know where we were going. Over a plate of Nasi Goreng and Mie Goreng, (our daily diet of fried rice and fried noodles), we decided to go to the mountains, seeing as we had just spent one week lazing at the beach. It was time for some action! Jeje negotiated a taxi to a village at the foot of Mount Rinjani (3700m) and we stopped at a quiet hotel overlooking an immense rain forest.
That afternoon we heard live music and shouting and walked down the road to find there was a wedding! The weddings in Asia are held on the street and here there was a procession all the way down the steep hill with the band playing electric guitars and singers with microphones playing while walking behind an enormous speaker on wheels, that about 10 people were stopping from rolling all the way down the hill! Everyone was dressed in sarongs and the men had different coloured cloths wrapped around their heads. Of course when the villagers spotted Alana and Ruben, they got swept away and danced with and photographed. Me and jeje didn't even know where they were half the time!
The next day we went on a waterfall adventure and guess what? It was raining! We didn't get a bit wet...oh no...we got absolutely drenched. In fact at 3 different occasions on the way to the second waterfall we had to cross the river, which, don't forget it is rainy season Oh Best Beloved, was full and roaring. We started off trying to keep our clothes and trainers as dry as possible, but ended up, by the third river crossing, just going straight in with everything on. We were so wet it didn't matter anymore! Ruben found this extremely exciting, that he was actually allowed to jump in a river with all his clothes on!
We squelched our way back to the hotel and pulled our wrinkly feet out of our shoes and dried off. The room with the hot water we had turned down the day before suddenly became regretful!
After 2 nights here, we got fed up of not being able to either climb the mountain, or appreciate the views around, so we once again heard the South Lombok beaches calling and once again, a taxi was (badly) negotiated to get us there!
It sounds so nice to be able to say let's get a boat to Bali! But that's what we did. Next stop on the agenda (Sarah's idea) was the little island off the top Western tip of Lombok called Gili Air. We had a one night stop in Bali to get there. This little pearl was where we were to drop our bags for a whole week! Also this is where Sarah was to leave us to travel on her own to Lombok.
We stayed together 3 nights in little bamboo bungalows at about 10€ a night. The thing here is that because Indonesia is 95% Muslim, the mosque cries for prayer about 5 times in 24 hours. So this also happens at 3 in the morning and when the speakers are turned facing your bungalow, just a few meters away, I can assure you that you are forced to listen! It seems to go on for ages at that time.
The circular island is only about 2kms wide, so you quickly get to know where all the restaurants, hotels, shops and good beaches are. The water is incredibly clear and you can snorkel off the beach and see parrot and trumpet fish and even sea snakes just by the beach. Ruben did his floaty mask thing again and we all spent hours in the water. The hardest thing here is choosing which restaurant to eat in!
We went on a snorkeling trip and actually swam with giant turtles and saw loads more fish and coral. As it was a tour thing, it was a bit rushed, and having the kids to get ready meant that we didn't get as much snorkeling time in as we would have liked, but it was amazing nonetheless.
Sarah met up with a rather good looking french guy (trust Sarah, little devil, nudge nudge, wink wink!!) and also had a hard time choosing which restaurant to eat in and then whether to have pina colada or sex on the beach (no pun intended, sorry S I couldn't resist) for happy hour.
We just chilled and had a lot of beach time, then Sarah moved on and jeje and I decided to go diving! I was a bit nervous because I hadn't dived, dove, diven, for about 6 years or more, so I did a refresher course, where we did a couple of hours practice in the swimming pool before getting on the boat to the dive spot: Gili Wall.
The wall is about 30m deep and there was a medium current, so it was quite difficult to stay put to check out the fish and turtles, but the dive went really well and I had the instructor all to myself! He did all the hard work, I just enjoyed my dive!!
The visibility was about 25m and the water was at 30°, perfect conditions!!
We only went down to about 17m but that was enough to spot giant clams, swim face to face with a giant turtle going the other way, and even see a cuttle fish. I didn't realise they were so big! Anyway, maybe boring for some of you to read, but amazing for me to experience and I fully regained my diving confidence. But I hear you asking what we're the kids doing all this time? They were with jeje on board the boat snorkeling again! Went back to shore and next it was jeje's turn to do his dive. He has a higher level, so is autonomous and can go deeper. I took the kids to yet another restaurant and had a pizza on the beach.
What a life! The sand here is white from all the grounded coral and coconut trees are everywhere. Giant hibiscus and frangipanis, white and pink, and bird of paradise flowers deck the sandy lanes which meander between the houses and bungalows.
The east beach faces Lombok island, which was our next destination. From our paradise restaurants, everyday, we saw the mountain top in cloud and thundery rain and thought, "do we really want to go there?", but we had to keep moving and we were ready to face the rain!
Another long drive to the next volcano, even more impressive than the first. A harder, steeper, longer climb, we met people coming the other way with gas masks on. A couple kindly gave us 2 for the kids, but the wind was blowing in the right direction and the sulphuric smoke didn't reach us that much. There were huge blocks of sulphur at the bottom in the middle of the volcano, next to the unnaturally chalky blue coloured lake. Sulphur miners were hard at work, breaking it off and carrying it back down the bottom of the mountain on colourful carts, which on the way up they offered to pull tired tourists to the top, though goodness knows how they managed!
An English guy Chris, had woken up even earlier than us at 1am to 1. do yoga before the hike and 2. to see the famous blue gas lights you can see in the volcano at night. Sadly for him, 1. the yoga teacher stayed in bed, and 2. when he reached the top there were no blue flames in sight! Poor bloke! But we laughed!
We booked a tour to the East end of Java to visit 2 of the volcanoes: Bromo and Ijen.
An expensive tour but worth the while. A 6 o'clock start the first day, travelling by minivan all day long, finally arriving at our destination in the dark. We could tell we were high up, as the car had been climbing for the last hour or so. When we got out of the car, there were people selling woolly hats, which made a change from the sweltering heat!
While jeje and sarah were waiting for the keys to the room, hester needed a desperate visit to the toilet and trying to be clever she asked the way to the "mushola", having seen it on a sign with sarah the day before. The woman who was called to help, looked very determined to show the way as quickly as possible and hester followed her through kitchens, gardens and eventually to a little door. As she entered the little room, there was a little book neatly placed on a table in the corner and a nice carpet on the floor. But no sign of any toilet. Ruben had also been following everyone, trying to figure out what all the commotion was about. It was then that hester realises that mushola doesn't mean toilet, but temple... what a blunder. Luckily the woman found it very funny, as did everyone else she told, as we went walking back through all the rooms we'd just walked through. Sarah said the woman must have thought Hester was in need of some urgent soul cleansing!
Next morning, wake up call at 3 am to drive to the foot of the volcano!
We watched the sun rising over a jurassic landscape where you could imagine dinosaurs roaming between the volcanoes. It's the end of the rainy season so the sun wasn't very present, but we got the daybreak in! It was bloody freezing. Even if we had put all our layers on, we were still cold. We warmed up when we started walking up Bromo. Once at the top, having by passed all the flower/offering sellers and horsemen, some of whom had very peculiar looking horses with fluorescent pink hair, along with other masses of tourists we looked into the gaping cavern, with bubbling waters and hot steam.
Avoiding Jakarta, we took a plane via Kuala Lumpur straight to Yogyakarta (or Jogja as the locals call it), which is the main city in Central Java. The 3hr stop in KL turned out being a mad rush as our baggage from Phnom Penh didn't follow through, meaning we had to cross border control into Malaysia, pick up our rucksacks and go back again through the border and the rigmarole of security etc...
Yogyakarta is where we met up with the long-awaited Sarah (Hester's cousin), who took 3 weeks holiday to travel around Indonesia. We travelled together for 10 days altogether. The kids immediately jumped on Sarah and stuck to her like glue! It made us realize how much time we'd spent just the 4 of us until then. She was a breath of fresh air!
The 1 room plan came into action (with 2 double beds), making it cheaper for both Sarah and us! We soon headed out of Jogja as there was not so much to see there and it's really quite a large city. We only spent 2 days here and visited the ancient temple Borobudur on a small hill top.
So first impressions of Indonesia: it's TROPICAL!! Moist heat, tall coconut trees hovering high almost everywhere. Food is absolutely gorgeous, spices, fresh fish, cooked in banana leaves, red curries, yellow curries, large, colourful flowers... it's the end of the rainy season so thunder can be heard rolling in the distance everyday, but not necessarily rain. Mosquito heaven...
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