Travel Log, January May 2005

 

2nd-7th Jan 2005
Moved on to Christchurch where we decided that we were lugging far too much around with us so left some luggage before joining a Stray bus. This took us to the west coast via Arthur's Pass to the god-forsaken settlement of Barrytown (home to New Zealand's slowest and most expensive internet connection). Stuck there for a day and at a loss for what to do, we turned our hands to knife-making and are now the proud owners of two very sharp home-made carbon-steel knives. Look out!!!
Not content with South American glaciers we decided to sample the delights of New Zealand's glacier with a hike on Franz-Josef glacier which we now discover is currently advancing at a rate of 3 metres per DAY!!! That explains the creaking and groaning we heard while we were merrily traipsing all over it, and why the end is so steep that they have to carve steps in it to start the ice-trek. This glacier is unique in that it ends in rainforest at about 250m ab! ove sea level and only does so because the neve (snow-collection area) is so large and the glacier itself is so steep (F-J's normal rate is 2m per week compared to a 'standard' glacier that moves at about 6-7m per year).

8th-13th Jan
Enough of this nature-stuff - next stop was Queenstown - "adventure capital of the world", where Susana went for a tandem hang-glide, Roger went for a freefall into a canyon-swing, and we both did some white-water rafting down a very full Shotover river and broke with tradition by being dumped in the water by our capsized raft at the aptly named "Toilet" rapids and fully understood the meaning of the "Oh Shit" rapids that came next. Roger outclassed Susana in the "how-many-times-can-you-fall-out-of-the-raft" stakes (including capsizing 5 seconds after being rescued!). No injuries though!
Having used up our adrenalin quotas for the month we spent three days on one of NZ's Great Walks - the Routeburn Track and beat the averages by get! ting two days of blue skies out of three. Stunning scenery with lakes and snow-capped mountains as per the postcards! The third day, however, reminded us that this is one of the five wettest and coolest summers since records began in 1820!

14th Jan
From the blue skies of Te Anau we headed up to Milford Sound (which should really be called Milford Fjord, since it's a flooded glacial valley) for a cruise to discover that the weather really does change when you go through the mountains...back to cloud and rain! Milford Sound was spectacular due to the phenomal number of waterfalls cascading down the sheer cliffs of the sound/fjord. It was after about the tenth waterfall that the guy on the microphone said "... and here is one of the *six* permanent waterfalls...".

15th-18th Jan
The Great Kiwi Hunt continued as we headed for Stewart island just south of South Island (rough ferry ride) where, rumour had it, kiwis could be seen running around in broad da! ylight. A quick check of the weather (50-80kmh winds, cloud and rain and sand!) and the track conditions (extremely muddy) convinced us that our kiwi-hunting was to be restricted to day-walks on tracks around the main township Oban (pop: 400). Took the chance to see, with Sietske, the first NZ showing of Manic Opera's excellent show; the "Cake Suckers" at Stewart Island's "theatre" (three women: one Scottish, one English and one Kiwi/Maori).
Returned to the 'mainland' having seen mutton birds (sooty shearwaters), tuis and heard blue penguins, but saw no kiwis.

19th-22nd Jan
Headed for sunny Dunedin (Celtic name for Edinburgh - named by some homesick Scots no doubt!) via the Catlins and saw sealions and waterfalls. Began cat-feeding duties at Janet (Roger's final relative this trip) & Guy's, in between which we took a day tour to the renown Otago Peninsula to see yellow-eyed penguins, more sealions, fur seals and royal albatross with their massive 3.5m wingspan! ! Failed to tour Speights brewery so settled for Cadbury's instead. Then back to Christchurch.

23rd-26th Jan
That's it for NZ. Now back to Oz, this time to the north-east coast... Cairns.
Caught up on sleep, tested out Cairns' ice-cream stalls and swam in the 'new' lagoon (no jellyfish there!), and generally prepared ourselves for...:

27th-31st Jan
Boarded Mike Ball's (www.mikeball.com <http://www.mikeball.com>) Supersport (93ft catamaran (no sails) ) at 8pm for our 3 full days + 2 half days (4 nights) dive trip - My prize and 1 extra ticket bought! We had a great time with the chef trying to feed us so much good food we almost burst, doing 5 dives per day, and mastering Roger's underwater housing for the camera. No, you won't escape the underwater pics! Sadly, the fins were a less than perfect fit for Roger, so some of his toes are a little slimmer now (ouch!). Saw lots of colourful fish and nudibranchs (l! ike underwater slugs but much prettier) and even spotted a manta ray, a large cuttlefish and a sea snake as well as the inevitable non-plussed white-tip reef sharks.

1st-7th Feb
Rested for a day to recover from the exhausting but enjoyable dive trip (In and out the water every hour or so!) then took a trip to the Atherton tablelands for a bit of canoeing, a crater lake, some mountain biking and to some waterfalls (including the one used for the Timotei advert!). Next went to Cape Tribulation (not far from where Cook ran aground - he named it!) for some jungle, exotic fruit tasting and a bit more relaxing by the freshwater swimming holes and pools. Steered well clear of the beautiful beaches owing to a few hazards (box jellyfish and crocs!). Counted our pennies and decided that Oz is getting WAY too expensive and we'd better get back "on the wallaby" (on the road) off to Asia pretty quick else we'd have to come back a bit sharpish!
No ticket yet... watch out ! for forthcoming news from your happy little vegemites... :-)

8th - 14th Feb
Headed back to Sydney were we said our farewells to Ragan, Nick & Michelle, tidied up some loose ends and got stabbed a few times by innocent-looking nurses wielding syringes (claiming to be innoculating us), prior to departing for Asia. First stop Malaysia.

15th - 17th Feb
Arrived Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the early hours. Went up the 41st floor of the Petronas Towers (where the bridge is). Saw some old mosques and chanced across a Chinese New Year lion dance celebration not far from where we were staying. We were impressed with the friendliness of Malaysians and how hassle-free it is here.

17th - 19th Feb
Took a bus to Melaka (formerly Malacca) - an important trading town between India & China before the Portuguese, Dutch then British controlled it and reduced its importance (by exporting all the skilled people to Singapore).

20th Fe! b - 1st Mar
Flew to Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo where we explored several surrounding national parks (Bako - for bearded pigs and monkeys (including Proboscis Monkeys), Kubah - apparently reknown for leeches, Gunung Gading - for Rafflesia (2nd largest flower in the world) and barking deer. We were highly impressed with the size of plants, insects and other creepy-crawlies there. Some seriously big flowers, leaves, millipedes, centipedes, palms, vines and nice waterfalls and natural pools for swimming in. Throw in a trip to Semenggoh Wildlife Sanctuary with its rehabilitated Orangutans, and it's been a pretty nature-driven week or so. Also discovered Orang is Malay for man/person Utan for forest - Orang Utan -> man of the forest. (There are also Orang Ulu here - men of the river, but they are Homo Sapiens!).

2nd Mar
By now we were starting to wonder why all the cats in Malaysia have deformed tails - either stumpy or bent at right-angles. Contrary ! to our suspicions, several locals convinced us that they did not chop the tails at birth. Apparently genetics is at work. The first cats must have been mutants! Whilst in Kuching we enjoyed the tasty local delicacy "Ais Krim Goreng" ("Goreng" = fried, we leave the rest for you to work out!).

3rd Mar - 6th Mar
Went to Lalang longhouse on the Skrang river, after 4 hours by car and 1.5 hours upriver by longboat. There we lived with the a native Iban people, in their 23-family wooden, long, house on stilts where each family has an entrance door onto the long communal veranda. Entalai, our host and guide, showed us how well a 60-year old can carry an outboard engine for his longboat up and down a hill to the river shore.

We helped harvest some black pepper, their cash crop along with rubber and rice, and watched them dry in the hot sun. We also trekked to see their old longhouse (abandoned 1980), where we stayed overnight, and sampled some traditional bamboo coo! king, and were surprised from our rest by the riverside by a hunter returning from a successful trip, gun dangling from one shoulder, and the head of a wild boar carried on his back poking out of his ratan basket.

6th Mar - 10th Mar
On leaving the longhouse, we stayed a night at Sarikei before catching an express boat (long, narrow, powerful) to Sibu. Locals tend to sit inside in the chilled air-con, whereas we went for the open-air roof option, with free sunburn (narrowly avoided!), for the best views. In between boats, we made a flying visit to the 7-storey Chinese Temple with a lightning run-down of Yin & Yang by the temple curator (even the dollar sign comes from Yin/Yang... apparently!). Our next express boat spent 4 hours going up the Rajang river to Kapit past lots of logs floating downriver or awaiting collection on the banks, and numerous longhouse communities. After overnighting at Kapit, and declining the guiding services of an over-ambitious teenager ! wanting to take us to Kalimantan, we carried on up past the Pelagus Rapids to Belaga - a major settlement of 3000 in the middle of nowhere. Here, we declined the services of a middle-aged drunken chap wanting to be our guide, but not seeming to like tourists - a bit of a contradiction! For evening entertainment, we watched the local kids catching hundreds of noisy cicadas with nets and fingers. They then proudly paraded their buzzing bags along the streets, giving them a tap whenever the bag went quieter - then taking them home for later consumption (fried, less wings).

The internet is marching on - we met a couple of guys installing a satellite dish for the local school's broadband connection. We left Belaga by land via 4WD along the logging roads, arriving at the coastal town of Bintulu 4 hours later.

11th Mar - 13th Mar
Went to Similajau N.P. with its mangroves, beaches (had a quick dip in the South China Sea), forests, and lots of mudskippers (fish that! can hop and have lungs so can breath air), staying overnight, then back to Bintulu for a local festival then on to Batu Niah caves where we saw the rickety structures used by people collecting swiftlets' nests, eaten by the Chinese as a delicacy. Saw some ancient cave paintings and the excavation site of 40,000 years old human remains. The skies failed to darken as the millions of resident bats failed to show for us by sunset.

14th Mar - 20th Mar
A quick stop in Miri, an oil town, before flying to Gunung Mulu N.P. where we saw part of a complex of 107km interconnecting caves - a river still flows through. Deer Cave, the longest cave passage in SE Asia, is home to a few million bats which finally turned up after our 3rd evening of waiting! For a bit more exercise we did "The Pinnacles" trek - consisting of jumping in and out of a boat to help push up shallow parts of the river, an 8km trek through the forest to "Camp 5". Next day was climbing up 1.1km (to 1175m) over distance of 2km (i.e. it was pretty steep!)... to say we were dripping with sweat would be no understatement in the 98% humid, hot, steamy climb up and down. Borneo's biggest butterfly, the "Rajah Brooke birdwing" named after - you guessed it - an English Rajah by the name of Brooke, was relatively common here. It's black with shiny green wings and a bright red head. And big.

21st Mar - 7th Apr
After a couple of days recuperating in Miri, we headed off to the Highlands near to the border with Kalimantan, Indonesia. More precisely, we took an 18-seater to the metropolis of Bario - 800 people - accessible by plane or by foot (if you're a keen walker). Bario, 1000m up, nestled in a valley between jungle-covered hills, is the main town of the Kelabit people, who are even friendlier than the average friendly Malaysian. Being the place where the best rice in the world is grown (Bario rice), we had rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and, yes, rice for dinner - app! arently it's also exported to Italy, but it beats us how they have any left to export! Our planned week in Bario got somewhat extended partly due to weather and partly because we enjoyed it so much. It rained heavily overnight for three days, before drying a little at which point we trekked to the peaceful village of Pa Lungan (pop 80). We were caught by surprise by the rumbling of a water buffalo, en route to the village - it turned out to be Mado and his buffalo Bill Clinton. He took us to his home and was our guide for the next few days exploring the local jungle. Dora, his wife, cooked us delicious fresh jungle produce (ginger flowers, mushrooms, ferns, tapioca leaves, and other green things) accompanied by, erm, rice.

On return to Bario (which, in fact, has six 4WD vehicles - airlifted in pieces) we began a longer, six day trek from village to village along paths beaten by the villagers through the jungle. Along the way we had many discussions with Florence, the only fe! male Kelabit guide, whose fluent English enabled us to gain an insight in to the issues surrounding the Kelabits at the moment (e.g. nearby forest - last remaining primary forest in Sarawak - will be logged in 18 months time unless it can somehow be stopped!). We stayed overnight in Pa Main, now just a hunting shelter, in Andreas', the chief's son's, house overlooking a bend in the river at Pa Dalih, and in a longhouse in Pa Mada, where we tried all sorts of fruits.

Andreas took us to see some old burial sites and some primary rainforest, bringing us to within two more hours trek uphill to the Kalimantan border before we turned back. Along the treks we saw orchids, rhododendrons, all kinds of wild ginger, enormous mushrooms, heard gibbons, hornbills, various other birds, saw a monkey, and several colourful caterpillars - one of which even the bemused Andreas was impressed with. We became experts at flicking leeches off our shoes, and at applying DEET to the ones that man! aged to get us before we got them!

At Ramudu, Roger experienced the "Upub Boah Teru Bakah" - one of the Rambutan (like a WWII naval mine) literally exploded as he tried to open it! The phrase is Kelabit for "Exploding Boar's Testicle Fruit" - OK, so naval mine was a more polite description! Ramudu now has a logging road leading to it - an ominous sign of things to come. The rivers already run brown with sediment from logging upstream.

On return to Bario, somehow all the masses of food put in front of us for the next couple of days simply vanished!

Finally bid farewell to Sarawak and flew back to Miri then on to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.

8 Apr - 11 Apr
Headed for Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak in South-east asia at 4095m, to test our climbing prowess. From the starting point at about 1800m, we trudged our way up to 3323m for our night's rest, past impressive pitcher plants, more rhododendrons, and watched the trees and leaves decreasing in size! as we ascended towards alpine forest. After a short night's nap we rose at 1:45am ready for the final ascent to the summit for dawn. Once our group of 8 was ready the ascent began (3am). Two hours later we found that we'd overtaken everyone and were way ahead of schedule and nearly at the summit. Despite a dramatic slowing of pace we still summitted 45 mins before sunrise. At 4095m, it's cold, even with 2 layers of thermals, shirt, fleece, windproof jacket, woolly hat and gloves. After enjoying the sunrise and the long shadow cast by Mount Kinabalu across the land and sea, we sadly had to begin the long descent - back to base in 1 day... By 1pm we were back at park HQ with tired legs, and wobbly knees.

12 Apr - 17 Apr
Having tired of walking it was time for some diving, so we headed down to Semporna, via Sepilok and Sandakan (where we had tea & scones and a quick game of croquet at the English Tea House). Scuba Junkie took us for some excellent dives at Sipad! an island and Mabul island (where we blockaded our room against the resident rats). Sipadan had more turtles (hawksbill & green) than you can shake a stick at (at least 15 per dive), white-tip reef sharks, a huge school of jacks and apparently a leopard shark along its dramatic drop-off to the ocean floor 600m below. In between dive days we watched the annual Semporna water festival with colourfully decorated boats and dancers and as almost the only westerners, were interviewed by the Sabah News Agency!

18 Apr - 20 Apr
Having left Semporna and passed endless hours of palm oil plantations we decided to check out some of the last remaining jungle in Sabah, at Uncle Tan's (basic) Jungle Camp along the wildlife-rich Kinabatangan River. There we saw orangutans, many proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, hornbills, owls, otters, crocodiles, scorpions and the smallest frog in the world. Having heard from others that pygmy elephants were in the ar! ea, we arranged an extra-curricular trip 1.5 hours downriver to see them. Even though they only reach 3m high when fully grown, a mock charge soon sent us running when they'd had enough of our presence! At camp, we shockingly discovered that we are now officially 'adults' following a comment from Katie, an 18-year old from Hastings: "I think it's really cool when adults leave their jobs and go travelling". We returned, stunned and older, feeling the weight of responsibility on our shoulders, to Sandakan and the May Fair hotel for , at last, a nice clean shower with transparent water and even a DVD player in the room!

21 Apr
Took a flight to Kudat, on the northern tip of Borneo. In Kudat, we walked past the harbour where the local fishermen where unloading their fish and sorting out their catches. A few quick snaps on the digital camera and Roger became a tourist attraction for the locals - with half of the fishermen leaving their boats to see what was on the scree! n, while the younger ones posed for the photos! We bet they don't use the ubiquitous whitening facial cream (Susana is still desperately hunting for one without whitener - she's white enough already thanks!).

22nd April - 26th April
Attended the inaugural concert at the Tip of Borneo, by the KK Philharmonic Orchestra, to the delights of "The Sound of Music", "Phantom of the Opera and some Malaysian Music. On hearing about a big Sunday market in Kota Belud, there was no stopping Susana, so Roger guarded the bags whilst supping Milo and chatting to the locals in a cafe, and Susana ran off to spend money while he wasn't looking. Armed with suitable purchases, we headed back to Kota Kinabalu to check out the diving at Sapi and Sulu islands. The next day, we boarded an afternoon flight to Kuala Lumpur back on the mainland (having hastily posted said purchases back home to avoid paying excess baggage to Air Asia!).

27th April - 2nd May
Headed up to the co! ol nights of the Cameron Highlands to have a look at some tea plantations and do some more trekking. We decided to go for the trails labelled as 'for the die-hard trekkers', including an unmarked path. We duly followed an unmarked path through the jungle - so unmarked in fact, that it wasn't there! After scrambling downhill for an hour, disentangling spikey 'Hairy Mary' creepers from hair, T-shirts, trousers and backpack, using our highly tuned jungle skills to follow a few old knife marks on the bark of trees, and the odd sliced plant, we crossed a stream to find signs of habitation. We eventually arrived at the Tea Plantation we were aiming for, and hitched a lift back to town.

2nd May - 5th May
A visit to Malaysia wouldn't be complete without seeing Taman Negara, Malaysia's biggest national park (in fact the name Taman Negara simply means "National Park"!), so off we went, staying at Nusa camp just outside the park since, unlike the parks in Sarawak, the cost of s! taying inside this park was ridiculous. A couple of trips into the park and along its trails and we were rewarded the sight of a lemur up a tree and tried the busy, but rickety, canopy walk strung together from old ladders and rope. A hill climb later and, once we'd outrun the bees that were after our tasty, salty sweat, the loud whoosh-whoosh noise from some large wings alerted us to the presence of rare rhinoceros hornbills flying overhead and not a leech in sight. Back downriver we caught the 'Jungle train' up the middle of Malaysia to Kota Bharu at the north-eastern tip.

6th May - 11th May
We caught a ferry to the idyllic Perhentian Islands for a few days of relaxation and diving. An interesting variety of marine life, from the potentially deadly stonefish (if you get it to stab you), big puffer fish and the smallest shark we've seen - the bamboo shark at about half a metre long (or short!) and lots of nudibranchs (small, colourful sea-slugs). The Perhentians ! are also home to the titan triggerfish, which as its name sugests, grows quite big (one was about 70cm) and has an array of sharp teeth that it normally uses for crunching up hard coral. In nesting season they get very territorial and can be aggressive. One diver (neither of us) in our dive group foolishly decided to photograph it close-up, which seemed to agitate it intensely but nothing untoward seemed to happen. At the time. With Roger busy photographing some vertically-swimming razorfish, Susana felt a sharp pain in her calf and looked round to see one rather large titan triggerfish clamped onto her calf. The triggerfish retreated, happy with the speed at which the intruders were now leaving. Roger was impressed with the neat, fish-shaped bite mark from the teeth and contemplated a quick photo, but Susana seemed less than amused and, with his own safety in mind, decided not to risk it. Artist's impression available only. And thus concludes the Malaysian epic.

12th May ! - 15th May
With one day before our 3-month visa expired, we waved goodbye to Malaysia and said "Sawadee-khrap/kha" (depending on whether male/female is speaking) to Thailand. A torturously sluggish train, then faster minibus took us from the southern border to Hat Yai then Trang, and on to the island of Ko Lanta which suffered only light damage from the tsunami. May is low season here - so low that most dive operators had closed down for the season, and those that were open didn't have enough divers to make it viable to take us anywhere.

16th May - 26th May
So after a couple of massages, we left Ko Lanta and headed for Phuket to help sustain some more local restaurants and hotels and where we felt sure there would be more diving options. Sure enough there was a lot more activity. Plenty of building work going on, but the vast majority of hotels, restaurants and tourist agencies are fully operational and there's no real sign of devastation at least to the pa! rts of Phuket Island we visited. If you hadn't heard about a tsunami you'd just think they were building a few new hotels. Patong is the main touristy, bar-ry, clubby beach and is where to go if you want to get hassled the most. Along the streets, you have a choice of getting a suit made, eating or having a massage - these are the three main businesses here! Not many other people around, other than some sleazy, mostly overweight, westerners wandering around with some tiny, presumably hopeful, Thai woman.
We stayed at Phuket Town for a few days and brushed up on our cooking skills thanks to Noy (ratio 2 students:1 instructress owing to very low season), adding (or in Susana's case - revising) Thai food to our repertoires. An excellent location on the east coast of Sirey Island (www.phuketdir.com/pktthaicookery <http://www.phuketdir.com/pktthaicookery>).
On return from the Thai Cookery school, Roger was dismayed to discover that the Miss! Universe pageant had spent the last 2 hours in the street in front of our hotel (which had a prime balcony viewing spot) and that we'd just missed it by 30 mins. Having missed Miss universe in Ecuador last year, we came so close, but managed to miss it again this year.
We then opted for a 'holiday' and lived it up for a week in a nice hotel on Karon beach (Tsunami special at US$25 a night) with lovely views - warily avoiding the ground floor! Karon beach is not as "full-on" as Patong, but has the same array of businesses, and plenty of glistening sand and sunshine, with the occasional sting from a baby portuguese man-of-war jellyfish (3cm float, 40cm sting) thrown in for good measure (time of year we guess)!
Thankfully, the dive operators were all open and there were other divers around so we booked ourselves onto some dive trips with Dive Asia (www.diveasia.com <http://www.diveasia.com/>). Susana started doing a rescue diver course (pr! esumably to learn how to calm Roger down if he gets bitten by a trigger fish) and we have a few more dives to do before exploring the central/northern parts of Thailand.
Before we forget - we have some news. There are now three of us in the family... we adopted a gibbon by the name of Endoo, after visiting the Gibbon Rehabilitation Centre to the north of the island (which runs on voluntary donations, and whose income has also dropped since tourists stopped coming to Phuket).