Last Build Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2015 04:19:01 PDT
Wed, 04 Oct 2006 06:37:08 PDTWell, the big trip is nearly at an end, but we wanted to make sure that we ended it in style so we saved the Kruger National Park until the end of our time in South Africa. We decided to visit the main 'public' area of the park rather than the far more expensive private reserves, so we were a little bit worried that we might not see as much as we headed off into the park at 6am on the first day.There are of course many different animals in the park but most people are here to see the 'Big Five'. There's not really an official league table but we decided that the animal kingdom here is definitely divided, at least in the eyes of the tourists. At the top of the list you have the Big Five, these are your Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United, the Premier League of the park, so named because they were ones considered by the old hunters to be the most challenging. The rest of the animals can be considered to be merely 'League One', and some of them are very clearly 'Vauxhall Conference', with apologies to all the non-football fans out there (which will of course be soccer to some of you!).Anyhow, it is apparently quite tricky to spot all of the Big Five, and to do so in a single visit to the park would be quite an achievement. So armed with our list of the 5 at 6am on our first day we let battle commence. We were through the park gates by 7am (you see it isn't all lay-ins this travelling lark!) and by 9am we had done 80% of the list, not bad going, at this rate we could pack up early and save ourselves a few quid! Something made us look at the list again and we realised that we had in fact only seen 20% of the list, the Elephant. Somehow, Giraffe doesn't make it into the Premiership (come on, how difficult would it have been to shoot one?!), and neither do the Zebra or the Hippo, clearly BIG doesn't necessarily mean LARGE in this game....... So having properly reviewed the list and established that we were in fact looking for Elephant, Rhino, Buffalo, Lion and Leopard we carried on into the park. Any doubts that we would drive for hours and see nothing were very quickly quashed as by about 11am we had clocked up a list of around 10 different animals that we had seen, still only the one in the Big Five though but based on what we had heard from other people, we were pretty convinced that we would at least get 60% of the list ticked off on this trip.There are just a few rules that you have to obey in the park. First of all, the speed limit is less than 40mph and you are restricted to only 25mph on the dirt roads, although you often need to be travelling even more slowly than that if you want to see much. Then there's the rather important 'staying alive' rule, so you aren't allowed to get out of the car, in fact "no part of your body or camera may protrude from the vehicle". (There are a few picnic areas but these are well fenced off from the wildlife!).You also need to pay close attention to the park closing times. The main gates to the park close overnight and the 'campgrounds' where the accommodation is are also locked overnight. So by 6pm you either need to be out of the park or safely inside a campground, now this might seem straightforward but when you're driving 150 miles in a day at an average of only 15mph then you do need to pay close attention to the time!!By the end of the first day we were getting pretty good at the animal spotting, although it really is amazing how SLOWLY you cover the distances when you stop every kilometer or so to watch some zebra or giraffe just grazing at the side of the road. We had also been warned that we would see loads of "Rock Rhino". It took us a while to figure out what this meant, but we eventually saw plenty of them, along with a whole load of "Log Lions", "Boulder Buffalo", and of course "Tree-Raffes". Yup, once you start looking closely, EVERYTHING looks like it could be an animal hiding in the grass!! Despite all these false alarms though we had still spotted some real buffalo and a solitary rhino, so we were back up to a genuine 60% of the Big Five by the time we arrived safely [...]
Sun, 17 Sep 2006 10:41:51 PDTOur extended journey along the coast meant that we were limited to a single full day in Durban so we really can't say we saw the city properly. On the afternoon we arrived we visited uShaka Marine World, no prizes for guessing what the attractions are there! My only complaint about uShaka was that the entrance area seemed to have been designed by the same people as the one at Universal Studios in LA, which basically means that you have to walk through what is really a shopping mall before you eventually find the gate to get into the park you came to see.There are a couple of walking tours offered by the tourist office in the city and we opted for the 'cultural' tour which took us around numerous old local buildings, including a visit to the largest mosque in the southern hemisphere. I wouldn't say that our guide was nervous, but she was very keen for us all to stick together and every time I got my camera out she would remind me to keep hold of it firmly. I can only assume that Durban is generally not that bad in broad daylight otherwise they wouldn't take tourists wandering around the streets accompanied by middle-aged women, would they?!We didn't really encounter any problems, although we gave a wide berth to the 3 blokes having a heated discussion about the events that had led to the breaking of the bottle that one of them was still holding. Other than that the streets were fairly busy with people buying and selling a wide range of things from fresh fruit to the traditional doctors who offered a variety of unsavoury looking items to cure all ills. Then there were all the people hanging around near the local government office offering to take photos for passports etc. Our guide assured us that these people were only in the photography business, but I suspect that some of these people would probably also provide you with a full driving licence or passport for a few extra Rand.My favourite local businesses though were the 'phone shops'. Throughout the country we have seen half size shipping containers branded with the name of a mobile phone company, inside these are public payphones which use the mobile network instead of landlines. On the streets of Durban however things are much simpler (and somewhat unlicensed I think judging by the reaction I got each time I tried to photograph one!). All you need is a mobile phone (well, SOMEONE's mobile phone anyway), a normal telephone handset, some sort of electronic metering device, a few bits of wire and a car battery. Then all you do is stand at the side of the street and sell your phone service to passing members of the public! And finally there are the local taxis. As with the rest of the country these are actually small minibuses rather than cars, but Durban's fleet is somewhat distinctive. The word 'Bling' could definitely be used, and after one look at the outside of the vans the loud hip-hop soundtrack emanating from within is no surprise. In fact, if 50 Cent were ever to decide to branch out and start a taxi company then he could easily find vehicles here! [...]
Sun, 17 Sep 2006 10:33:18 PDT(image) After seeing a bit of the real countryside our next stop was at the opposite extreme with a trip to the seaside town of Ramsgate just south of Durban. The towns along this stretch of coast really do seem like English seaside towns, complete with fish & chip shops, teashops and of course the local, er, crocodile farm.
Sun, 17 Sep 2006 10:27:13 PDTAfter coming to the end of the more touristy Garden Route we carried on up the coast and into..... nothing. All of the maps we have seem to suggest that, with the exception of the town of East London, there's virtually nothing at all between Port Elizabeth and the tourist towns south of Durban. Luckily Malan and Erin back in Cape Agulhas had filled us in on the parts that other maps can't reach. This was the real bit of Africa that we had wanted to see and grew to love, tiny little round houses with thatched roofs perched precariously on the hillsides miles away from anywhere. Clearly anyone with a car in these parts is a tourist and everyone waved to us as they were going about their daily business. This generally includes two 20 kilo bags of maize being carried around on ones head (women only) and a sack of oranges and onions in each hand. Training for this amazing skill starts young, we met a group of 9 or 10 year old girls on a weekend morning who were carting firewood around on their heads. So from an early age your neck muscles resemble a racing drivers and your legs need to be pretty strong too as you probably have to carry this lot for about 5 miles along dirt rods, grass tracks .... did we mention the hills? We were not sure that we would manage to keep a book on our heads over the same distance and terrain let alone over half an average womans bodyweight. Consequently we have rather alot of pictures of this as I was just amazed at the grace with which they managed to walk under all the weight.This was also the countryside where Nelson Mandela was born and grew up so we popped into Qunu this village in the middle of nowhere that had some kind of Mandela information centre. As we peered through the window into a room that looked like no one had been in there for several weeks, someone came trotting down the street to let us in. Into what was not really that clear, it was a lot of information boards lent randomly against the wall, reading them meant tipping some forward to reveal the one behind, much like you do when you look at posters in Athena. We didn't really establish why it was in this higgledy-piggeldy state but we got the information we wanted and had a look around the village. Mr Mandela still lives here although his house is rather noticeable from the main road as it is about 20 times bigger than anything else around. That is if the 6 foot fence doesn't give it away! In this part of the country there are no fences so we didn't win any prizes for spotting the house.In the nearby town of Mthatha the main part of the Nelson Mandela Museum is located so we stopped there and found out more about his life before, during and after incarceration. By far the largest part of the museum is the section now titled 'Gifts to the Nation'. These are all the presents that have been given to Mr Mandela over the years since his release and which he has accepted on behalf of the nation and requested to be displayed for all people to see. Some of the gifts are really quite astonishing, what would anyone want with a 2 foot glass boat complete with a couple of hundred oarsmen an oars? No wonder he wanted somewhere to put all these things, I wouldn't want half of them on my mantlepiece either!!! Jokes aside, it was a really interesting museum and completed our portfolio of Mandela related activities on this trip.One of the few 'towns' around that catered for tourists was Coffee Bay, a tiny little hamlet of 2 backpackers and a handful of houses situated on a little bay with the river running down to the sea. This also turned out to be another of those places where we really wished that we had been able to stay longer. The choice of where to stay was made even easier by the fact that only one of the two places had any beds left for the night, and after checking in we established that our room was on the other side of the river from the main hostel! There was also no 'safe' parking on the other side of the water, so unpacking our luggage involved dr[...]
Sun, 27 Aug 2006 08:12:05 PDTSo we eventually made it to the Garden Route albeit a little behind schedule but still with enough time on our hands to enjoy it. This is the bit along the east coast that more people have heard of and yes, it's pretty, but the inland bits and the bits further up the coast are much more breathtaking.At this juncture our random approach to finding rooms finally failed us and we arrived in Storms River Village which is in the heart of the Garden Route and the main stop off point for many backpackers to find the only two hostels were full. This was rather surprising really as recent reports of terrible weather along this route had apparently cut off some towns and villages, and even the main highway was closed for a while so we had guessed, wrongly, that people might pass this stop by. After travelling around some of the worst roads that we have come across in our entire trip with lots of potholes still full of all the storm water and thus hiding quite how deep, large and generally vicious they were we decided that we had to head onwards. This was not before we had taken a careful turn to avoid one of the more vicious of these craters and found ourselves temporarily beached on a concrete kerb stone. It must be reiterated at this point that there was no clearly defined road, no road surface to speak of (unless brown is the new black), no pavement and therefore the need for kerb stones was totally superfluous, in fact this was probably the only one in the whole village.So we inflicted damage on our hire car for the first time in the whole trip, which considering the amount of miles we have done can't really be that bad and we thanked our lucky stars that this incident didn't occur in any of the cars lent to us by friends on this trip! It was no great loss that we had to head on because it allowed us to catch up some miles that our 3 days of reckless drinking, eating and dancing had squandered! This part of the Garden Route is 'thrill' country and as we have described before, we'll leave the bungee jumping to other people! So really, we didn't miss much out by not stopping in the mud bath that was Storms River Village. In fact, it put us a little ahead of our new revised schedule and allowed time for a great hike along the Robberg Peninsula which was really spectacular and gave us yet more opportunities to see Southern Right whales and also some time to stop at a monkey park, hence the mix of photo's in this set. Rocky outcrops and peninsulas along the coast mean one thing, yup more lighthouses so I have had my fix for a while now and Mark can breath easily that I shalln't be traipsing down any more gravel roads for a while in search of the end of the land.Further along the route you get into surfing territory and as we had been to the surfing area near Margaret River in Western Australia we thought we should also check out this place, not that we really have any idea of a good wave from a bad one although we saw just a clearly at midday the sheer absence of anything resembling a wave that some keen Aussie had trotted down to the beach at 6am for, hence there are no great surfing shots! This part of the Garden Route has to win the prize for the funniest protection racketeer of our South African experience to date. He was all smiles and "good mornings" as we parked our car and tried desperately to get us to have it washed ... hey it was a hire car that we had just crashed do you really think that we want all the mud washed off for the true damage extent to be shown to the world? Nevertheless, we gave him the usual fee and decided in the big scheme of things that he was onto a pretty good thing. (We probably haven't already mentioned this but it seems that parking is often 'free' in South Africa, but regardless of cost you are expected to tip the 'attendant' who looks after your car in your absence. Occasionally these people are fairly official looking but at other times it does seem like you are tipping som[...]
Wed, 23 Aug 2006 03:15:12 PDT(image) This is ostrich farming country. We only had an overnight stop so we didn't actually do that much, but we did do the key Ostrich activities, namely visiting a farm and, er, barbecuing one (not a whole one of course). The hostel we stayed at also provided free ostrich eggs for you to make scrambled eggs with, not too bad but I think we'll stick with chickens. None of this is of particularly great importance, but it does give us an excuse to publish the pictures of me riding an ostrich at the farm! People have said that they "...didn't know you could ride and ostrich..." and "...is it safe?.." and my answers remain the same, "...neither did I..." and "...probably not...". Nevertheless it was the funniest experience and fortunately I still have all my limbs intact. Luckily we did the eating bits before the farm visit, not sure it would have been quite the same the other way round as we met breeding pairs Adam and Eve and Bonny and Clyde, the latter having been together for 30 years!
Tue, 22 Aug 2006 14:27:23 PDTAfter the whales in Hermanus our plan was to drive through some more countryside before making a quick stop at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa. We assumed that this would be quite a tourist attraction, and another opportunity to stick up a signpost showing distances to far flung places, but it seems like it's almost a secret that the South Africans are keeping to themselves at the moment. The backpacker 'Baz Bus' doesn't get within about 70km of the place and although there are quite a few guesthouses in the area we hadn't seen them advertised. Also, the two free backpacker guidebooks to the country don't (currently) list anywhere to stay in the town. In fact as far as we could tell the only accommodation was at a backpacker place we saw a poster for back in Cape Town. So of course we did the responsible thing and turned up in town without a booking, gambling that the place didn't turn out to be terrible..... We reasoned that it didn't matter much as we were only going to stay overnight, grab a few quick tourist photos in the morning, and then head off back up the road. How wrong we were!!We soon discovered that the only reason the place isn't in the guidebooks is because it only opened this year, it will however be jumping straight into the 'Best Of' awards at the end of our trip. Back in Singapore we were lucky to find a great hostel based solely on someone else's blog recommendation, so hopefully we can now pass on the favour to others. So, if you're travelling along this bit of the coast go to Cape Agulhas, and when you go there make sure you stay at Cape Agulhas Backpackers, our photos are here. It didn't take our hosts Erin and Malan long to talk us into joining them for a Braai that evening. For the uninitiated (which included us) the Braai is the South African barbecue, and if you thought that the Aussies were the BBQ experts...... well, let's just say that you don't want to come to South Africa and start making statements like that! Down here it's got to be a REAL fire, and even charcoal is frowned upon by many, wood is the only way. In fact we met at least two people who seemed quite traumatised (disgusted even) by the knowledge that the Aussies and Brits barbecue on GAS, how could they?!?! We did try to explain that in the UK the timing of a BBQ is critical, and that using gas is often the only way to cook, eat and get back indoors before the rain starts, but it didn't help.Anyhow, back to our first night in town. Having learned the rules we left the cooking to the experts (thanks Malan), and after one or two (OK, maybe more) drinks we were already agreeing to go along to a wine auction at the local bar/social club/nightclub. This was all great fun and somehow, after another few tasty beverages, we were already making plans to return to the club the following day for the big Saturday night out in town, not only that, but we had the opportunity to join a boat trip the next day. Whooosh.... there goes our plan for a quick overnight stay! We were feeling a bit tired after our biggest night of drinking for quite some time so we almost didn't go on the boat trip, but fortunately we talked ourselves into it because it turned out to be one of the highlights of our entire trip. It certainly helped that the boat trip had been organised for one of the local winemakers, so of course he brought along some freshly bottled wine for us to sample. The plan was to go out into the bay and have a couple of drinks, a few snacks, and enjoy the fine weather. However, as it's whale season you can't sit around in a small boat for too long before you might attract the attention of one of the local marine residents. So whilst we enjoyed the fine local produce we were visited by a Southern Right whale of quite some size, I have no idea exactly how big it was but the important thing is that it was significantly larger than the boat in which we were all sitting. [...]
Tue, 22 Aug 2006 05:07:20 PDT(image) South Africa is of course famous for numerous land mammals, but it is also one of the best places in the world (so they say) for watching another group of mammals from the land. Several species can be sighted from the coast but it is the Southern Right Whale which is most commonly seen, and for once we have arrived bang in the middle of whale season. The self appointed capital of the whale watching coastline is the town of Hermanus, which has a 'Whale Crier' who walks around telling the tourists where the recent sightings have been. It was a nice little town, we stayed in a great guesthouse, and were directed to an excellent fish & chip shop, BUT over the course of a week and about 5 or 6 different towns it was the only place where we DIDN'T see any whales!!
Tue, 22 Aug 2006 04:54:52 PDTBefore we commence on this part of the story it must be said that despite the evidence to the contrary, this trip was NOT planned according to how many wine producing regions we could go to. But as we were on the doorstep of yet another great wine producing area it would be rude not to pay our respects! So we ended up in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek for a couple of days and came away with some great recommendations and yet more independent wine merchants that we must seek out when we get home. Over the course of our travels our tastes have moved from "...yup, I like that..." to "...nice, but not as good as in Oz..." You'll be pleased to know that we haven't got as far as saying "...oooh, a bit earthy..." but I tell you, we could 'fake it' with the best of them after all the dribble we have heard spouted over the last few months. One experience that was really nice was in Franschhoek where we were recommended by one estate to visit a couple of others. In one, the restaurant was open and they seemed to think that the other half of the business was open too but no-one seemed to have told them that the tasting room had knocked off early! The second one was a real gem. After we had negotiated the tree felling operation and taken the long route through the front garden of the house we arrived unscathed at the tasting room. In fact it looked like it had just been well and truely locked up for the winter and had a layer of dust to boot but that was part of the charm as the lady tried to remember where the light switches were and dusted off the tasting glasses .... particularly large ones too, always a good start! And then onto the wines, they only made 4 and none of them were technically 'white' so Nikky was off to a bad start. During the tasting, the wine maker who we had seen busying himself in the corner of the cellar as we arrived popped in and it was a great experience to meet the man that created the masterpieces. He was supremely proud of the mere 1500 cases (of 6 that is) that they produce each year and pooh pooh's the recipe factories of Jacobs Creek and the like who are proud of the fact that they can get a bottle from vat to dock in 3 hrs.If anything, the last year has made us appreciate in more detail than basic supply and demand, why some bottles command such a high price and some are 'cheap as chips'. Naturally, we procured a couple of bottles from this fine establishment to accompany the couple we had already purchased. Now we have reds and whites to accompany a steak, a curry, a chinese and a BBQ so we just need to find somewhere to prepare the accompanying food!Of all the wine producing regions of the world that we have been to this has to rank among the prettiest in terms of the 'chocolate box' appeal. Both Stellenbosch and Franschhoek were like stepping back in time with limewashed houses and thatched roofs. Although unlike home, they all look like they have been recently re-thatched rather than in desperate need of re-thatching. Stellenbosch and Franschhoek were the only wine producing towns that we went to in the area, although there are several more, but there is scenery to see and we must press on ........[...]
Tue, 22 Aug 2006 04:53:35 PDT(image) We decided to pick up a car and drive this bit ourselves for two reasons. Firstly, there are many coach tours to choose from but they're all pretty expensive, and secondly because we're rapidly discovering that as soon as you get outside the town and city centres public transport is largely non-existent.
Mon, 14 Aug 2006 13:19:34 PDTWe were a bit apprehensive about doing this tour, not because of any safety concerns but because we didn't want to just drive through on a bus and peer at it all through glass. There are probably better ways to spend more time with the people who actually live there but we didn't do too badly, and our guide did actually live in one of the local townships and obviously knew a lot of the locals.First stop was the home of the local traditional doctor. He wasn't around but we were allowed to look around the 'surgery', which actually looked a lot like a two car garage except that instead of car parts lying around there were items such as dried lizard skins hanging up. Most of the other bits and pieces weren't easily identifiable and it was probably best left that way!Visiting one of the local 'pubs' was quite an experience. It was basically a large garden shed, inside which two local ladies were creating the local brew in something the size of an oil drum. There isn't really a price for drinks in these places, just a daily rate. So apparently you pay 5 Rand a day (less than 40p) and sit there and drink as much as you like (Yes Phil and Andrea, you read that right!). The price goes up at the weekend, to about 50p, but to be honest neither of us could say that we were great fans of the 'beer'. It was drunk from a can which looked like it may once have been produced by Dulux. In fact it looked a bit like what you'd get if you whisked up the dregs of a tin of 'Brilliant White' with lukewarm water, and had a taste which suggested that you'd made up that very concoction and chucked in a bit of Fijian Kava for good measure. Having said all of that it may still taste better than a certain inexplicably popular brew from the west side of the atlantic..... True!As a result of our previous days of rest we'd ended up doing this tour on a Sunday. This meant that we were not able to visit the local museum which tells the history of the townships, however the alternative activity on Sundays is a visit to the local baptist church. As you might imagine this is a fairly lively event, and although the tourists were all seated at the back we were by no means left out. You may notice that there are very few photos of the service, this wasn't because we weren't allowed to take pictures (we were), but because most of the shots came out as a blur of motion! We did take a couple of short videos so we'll try to add in a link to those later. The minister started off by asking all those who were visiting the church for the first time to stand up, this included a few locals but it was mainly those of us at the back. Having asked each of us where we were from (the service was mainly in Xhosa but some parts were in English) he proceeded to welcome us all and invite us to join in. In place of songs sheets or hymn books they use an overhead projector, so it was quite easy to follow along, although to be honest our Xhosa pronunciation was not really up to scratch!The proceedings followed much the same pattern as any other church service although one particular section brought home the fact that we were in a very different environment. Unemployment is high in Cape Town but we were told that it is over 40% in the townships. So when the minister asked for those who had found jobs or gained promotions during the past week to stand, they were very few in number but received rapturous applause and congratulations from everyone. The rest of the photos are here.[...]
Mon, 14 Aug 2006 13:04:35 PDT(image) Having already visited Alcatraz we weren't really sure what to expect here, although the first thing we discovered was that the tickets sell out just as quickly as those for 'The Rock'. One reason for this is that there are far fewer visitors on the island at any one time so it didn't feel so much like a theme park. There was also not quite so much to see here, it's more the significance of the place than the actual 'sights'. The first part of the tour involved driving around the island in an old prison bus, this did involve a visit to the quarry site where the prisoners used to have to work but also included a few stops to check out the wildlife on the island (Springbok, Ostrich and others). There was also a large colony of penguins waiting to see us off as we left the island.
Mon, 14 Aug 2006 01:20:35 PDT(image) It's fair to say that we weren't looking forward to arriving in Johannesburg at 7am after a ten hour flight. I'd read numerous tales of horrendous immigration queues followed by an airport full of people waiting to rip you off in one way or another. It turned out to be OK, the passport control queue wasn't as bad as the one in Macau, and we managed to make our way through the terminal without any problems. In fact the only 'problem' we encountered was the fact that it's winter here, and it's bl**dy cold!
Mon, 14 Aug 2006 00:52:13 PDT(image) Right in the heart of the CBD,
Mon, 14 Aug 2006 00:47:26 PDTIn the last few days before arriving in Singapore we have met a number of people from this island. Naturally we asked them from a locals point of view what we should not miss. All have said that there is basically nothing to do except shopping and eating. Wrong, Wrong, WRONG! Whilst this is definitely the place to come if you want some retail therapy and also suits the eating machines amongst us, it has so much more than that. Having said that, the only reason why Singapore doesn't appear at the top of the medals tables at major sporting events is because Shopping and Eating are not (yet) Olympic sports.It probably didn't help that we arrived in the middle of the 'Singapore Sale', which basically seems to be a huge event coordinated by all the retailers, to encourage both the locals and the tourists to spend more money. Orchard Road is the local equivalent of Oxford Street and it probably would have taken us a couple of days just to make our way up and down each side of the street and visit all the shops. In addition to this there just seem to be shopping malls all over the place, and if you ever tire of the shopping then every single one of the malls has at least one area dedicated to the other competition sport that takes place here. Eating.Prior to arriving here Kuala Lumpur was holding the prize for the best place to eat on this trip, but after a few hours in Singapore things were looking uncertain. Eating in Kuala Lumpur is definitely cheaper, and the choice is almost as varied, but somehow it just seems impossible to avoid food in Singapore. The locals certainly seem to dedicate an awful lot of time to eating, and even in the relatively quiet suburb where we stayed there was a 24 hour food court on the corner of the street.Somehow, in amongst all this 'sport' we actually managed to get around and see some other bits of the city. First of all we joined the steady procession of tourists heading to the Long Bar at Raffles for their Singapore Sling. If you're lucky (and you aren't wearing shorts) then you can sneak inside the main hotel building and have a look at the lobby. We didn't get very far though, as even with the proper attire we only managed to get a few feet inside before meeting 'Residents Only' signs. For the sake of the proper fee paying guests the Long Bar is conveniently at the other end of the hotel buildings, in fact it's actually about as far from the main hotel as it's possible to be without being on the other side of the street! It's all very 'traditional' and there are peanuts and local birdlife but, more on the bar and 'The Sling' in the next post.... I will say however that it glides majestically to the top of the "Most Expensive Round Of Drinks All Year" league (although the previous chart topper, The Peninsula in Hong Kong, may still win since we only went in there for Mark to see the gent's toilets!). I (Nikky) was pleasantly surprised that there weren't tower blocks and sky scrapers crammed onto every piece of vacant land. It was just fantastic, a perfect balance of old and new, open spaces, greenery and a great waterfront full of bars and eateries. You would clearly need several months to try them all out and a heafty budget to boot. One of the most noteworthy problems in Singapore is the humidity but we had arranged for it to rain for the 5 days before we arrived so we could have our 4 days in comfort! If you don't believe us then you can just say that we were rather jammy! (Apart from the photos above there are also night pictures here).So in this city with nothing to do apart from eat and shop, we found ourselves pretty busy. We spent the whole day at the zoo, yup, a full 8 hours of wandering around saying "hel[...]
Mon, 31 Jul 2006 15:46:04 PDTAfter the 'excitement' of Kota Bharu we headed south to Kuala Terengganu, which turned out to be so fascinating that I later realised that we have no photos of the town whatsoever! There were a few day trips to the surrounding area, so we took a trip to the Kenyir lake and dam.The main reason for being here was as a stopover on the way to Redang Island where we had planned to get in our last bit of snorkelling. There are any number of islands off the coast of Malaysia where you can go for a little 'Robinson Crusoe' experience, or as close as the 21st century comes to recreating total isolation, so the jetty where we caught the ferry was packed with coach loads of tourists on the way to various islands (this, by the way, is not the jetty in the photo!).. The boat to Redang only comes and goes once a day, there are no phones (for public use, although naturally there is a mobile signal for those who just can't be out of contact!) and no internet (OK, now that's taking it a bit far!).We had a great time snorkeling around the island, and the place we had chosen to stay was pretty good. It was kind of an 'all inclusive' resort but at a budget price. So there was as much tea, coffee, juice and water as you could drink, and free toast all day long! There was quite a wide range of fish to see around the island, but a lot of the coral seems to have seen better days. There is a 'Marine Park' area, but this doesn't appear to be particularly conservation oriented as they allow hundreds of tourists at a time into a fairly small area and also allow them to feed the fish with lots of bread! We saw a couple of very small Reef Sharks here (don't get too excited Andrea, they were only about 18 inches long!) as well as some larger fish. There were also a few jellyfish around. We had no idea whether they were particularly dangerous but we opted to avoid them just in case. The resort also had a digital camera with a proper underwater case that you could rent for the day, so we finally managed to get some half decent snorkelling photos. You can judge for yourself here.Planning our trip away from the island proved to be a little difficult. Our plan was to get a bus directly to Singapore after being ferried back to the mainland, but there seemed to be a little problem. After the return ferry there was a 45 minute minibus ride back to Kuala Terengganu, which would get us to the bus station about 15 minutes after the daytime buses left for Singapore. This would mean that we had to hang around town for about 11 hours, before catching the night bus to Singapore which would take about another 10 hours. Strangely this didn't appeal to either of us. There were buses direct to Singapore from the jetty, but they were aimed at Singaporeans who had booked return journeys from Singapore to the island, and we were told that they were full.The resort staff were actually really helpful with everything, except for our attempts to get back to town in time for the morning buses. We tried numerous attempts at arranging an earlier ferry, even offering to pay extra if they found us someone (anyone) with a vaguely seaworthy boat. So we had no choice but to buy tickets for the overnight bus and look forwards to 11 hours waiting around in a town that had so far turned up nothing worthy of even being photographed. Our last hope was that we could jump off the return ferry and run around all the buses looking for spare seats to Singapore, and as it happened that was exactly what we did. The minibus driver, having been tipped off to our plight, had already spoken to all the bus drivers and found that there were indeed a few spare seats, so after a brief pause to hand ove[...]
Sun, 30 Jul 2006 14:30:25 PDTOur next stop in Kota Bharu was right across on the east coast of the country, and turned out to be one of the most difficult journeys we've had to make for quite a while. The problem was not so much the distance, but that it seemed as if we were the only people who had evered considered travelling from the Cameron Highlands to Kota Bharu. The alternatives seemed to be either a combination of night buses, which took about 12 hours to go all the way back to the west coast before making their way around the north side of the mountains, or a small minibus which went roughly in the right direction and might be persuaded to drop us off after a little negotiation with the driver!The hostel staff turned out to be incredibly helpful and managed to persuade one of the minibus drivers to drop us off at an intermediate point where we could get a connecting bus. This meant only a 7 or 8 hour daytime bus journey. Along the way we discovered that the reason for the lack of direct bus transport was that the (very good) eastbound road through the mountains has not been open all that long and nobody seems to have thought to run scheduled buses along it yet. It did mean that we got to stop at a little town in the middle of nowhere and have a look around while we waited for the next bus. We'd met a few other people on the minibus but they were carrying on further to catch a train to the Taman Negara national park. The minibus driver helpfully arranged for us to leave our bags in the 'bus station' (a.k.a. concrete shed with barred windows). So we did this, and set off to walk to the village centre for lunch, just in time to see the two ladies from the bus station office drive off in a car without seeming to have done much to secure the aforementioned shed which now contained our luggage. We're obviously getting a bit more relaxed about the whole idea of losing our wordly possessions because we just shrugged it off and carried on walking (NOTE: There is also the fact that despite our luggage being lighter than it once was we have met very few people in Asia who have sufficient build to even carry our backpacks, let alone run off with them, even if they wanted to!).So off we went to explore. We were in the middle of nowhere in a small town so we looked forward to being the only tourists about and having the place to ourselves for a couple of hours. We're also now in a more Muslim part of the country, so a lunchtime beer was pretty much out of the question, but the food choice was looking good and very authentic...... right down to the Halal KFC on the high street! And wait a minute...... some suspiciously familiar looking white people with backpacks strolling in the other direction.....It turned out that the train station that the others were being taken to was at the other end of the high street from the bus station. So now we were no longer the sole explorers in a foreign land, but we did have lunch companions. You'll be pleased to know that on this occasion we didn't cross the palm of Colonel Sanders with silver, but instead dined at the local 'Roti Shack' which was far more satisfying, with it's lack of menu, aircon or even walls, but very friendly owners, good food, and almost zero cost.The World Cup was now over, but the international language of football was still the icebreaker, although in a rather bizarre manner in this case. Right back as far as Tokyo we've grown used to variations on the following conversation:Local: Where are you from?Us: EnglandLocal: Aaahh!!! Steven Gerard/Frank Lampard/David Beckham/Wayne Rooney!! (*)(*delete as appropriate)However, this time it was different. One of our 'van mates[...]
Sun, 30 Jul 2006 12:43:07 PDTThere are numerous hiking trails around here which range from a couple of hours to a couple of days (or longer if you get lost). The thought of a couple of days in mosquito infested forests didn't really appeal to us much (we must be getting lazy!) so we decided on one of the day tours around the highlands. Given our growing dislike of organised tours we didn't set off with high expectations but it was actually pretty good and not as rushed as others. We even got to wander off into the forest for a bit, albeit only for about 30 minutes.We started off at one of the tea plantations with a short tour around the processing area followed by a stop for tea and cake (of course). Remember the queue jumping German from the Petronas Towers? Well, of all the tea plantations, in all the world...... he had to walk into ours! Somehow I got the impression that he didn't like us much. What a shame!Anyhow, the plantation was quite interesting, particularly the details about the harvesting. Some of it is still picked by hand, but even the 'machine harvested' stuff is done with a lightweight machine that is carried by two people. The pickers are paid by weight, so apparently they love rainy days, because they earn more when they turn in baskets of wet leaves. Fancy a job in the outdoors? If you're a good picker you can apparently haul in about 200kg a day. Assuming that the figures we were given are correct, if you manage this you'll earn the princely sum of about £5.50 a day. If anyone wants the address for applications let me know.....After tea we set off to the highest point of the highlands, which is allegedly 6,666ft. As you can see from the photos of the day it was pretty cloudy so the view was hardly spectacular. On the way back down the hill we had a short walk in the forest where we got to see a few of the curious looking local plant species. Our guide seemed very concerned about local conservation and there were a couple of times when he showed us plants at the side of the road which he was keen to keep hidden from following traffic. Apparently some of these plants fetch high prices at market and are therefore rather vulnerable to 'poachers'.The local butterfly farm was a bit of a disappointment, and in true South East Asian style was an unexpected extra payment we had to make. It did however provide Nikky with an opportunity to get up close to a Rhinoceros beetle, not that she ever realised that she wanted to do this before the man thrust it at her on a stick!After that it was off to visit another 'hill tribe'. Again, it wasn't entirely clear how these people have come to be living where they do, but they do draw in the tourists because they are known for hunting with blow pipes and very poisonous darts. Of course the reason for the visit is because you get to have a go with the pipes. I'm not sure whether the poison tipped darts are really as deadly as we were told, but to be honest you wouldn't want to be hit even by an untipped dart as even with our amateur skills we managed to get them quite firmly stuck into the target.There is one rather worrying side to the visits to these villages, which is that you are encouraged by the guide to take along small gifts for the children which you hand out after the main event. Now in theory this is a great idea, but unfortunately the 'gifts' take the form of either sweets or biscuits purchased from a nearby convenience store, so sadly the dental health of all the children seems to be suffering somewhat.The final stop of the afternoon was to check out one of the other major local crops. Strawberries. There are quite a few farms wher[...]
Sun, 30 Jul 2006 12:05:39 PDTAfter a few days in Kuala Lumpur and a spare day to recover from the 5am World Cup final night we were back in a bus station, this time for our first experiment with long distance Malaysian buses. The road up to the Cameron Highlands is very steep and twisty and we'd read a couple of horror stories about bits of luggage falling out of buses on sharp bends, so nervousness was high! Fortunately we had a tip off about the bus company to avoid so we were OK. The buses here are even better than Thailand, almost as cheap but even more comfortable. The 'V.I.P.' buses here are full size coaches with only 26 seats so even overnight trips would probably be pretty good.The main town in the Cameron Highlands is Tanah Rata, which is about 4 hours on the bus from KL. The journey starts off quite well on a major motorway, but the second half is the really twisty bit where the limitations (and age) of the bus become more obvious. The coach had definitely had an upgrade in the air horn department and these were put to good use on almost every corner, as it seems that the oncoming traffic really can't be trusted to be on their side of the road! Our bus driver also seemed to be a cigarette delivery man. We didn't figure out quite what was going on, but every few corners someone would appear at the side of the road and the driver would throw an individual cigarette or two (not a packet) out of the window. Whether these are just his mates, or whether there is some kind of 'protection' racket going on we really have no idea!Tanah Rata is really quite a small town, less than 10 minutes walk from one end to the other, but all the local hostels seem to offer free pickups from the bus station. It's also quite high up in the hills so Nikky thought she had arrived in heaven as we were back to cool 21 degree temperatures for the first time in weeks. The big local crop is Tea, and many of the locals are the descendants of the Indians who were first brought here by the British to work on the plantations. This means that one side of the high street is full of Indian restaurants..... great for Mark, not so great for Nikky!! The British influence on the architecture also shows around here, right down to one of the local hotels which has a 'proper' red phone box outside.While we were here we finally got to try the infamous Durian. This fruit seems to very popular throughout Malaysia and other parts of South East Asia, but it has such a pungent aroma that it is banned from most hotels, buses and taxis (pretty much anywhere indoors). You can't really forget because there are "No Durian" signs everywhere. It's a very strange fruit, about the size of a melon but with the spiky Lychee like skin. Inside the flesh is white and segmented with a small peach-size stone in each segment. And the taste? Hmmm. It has a texture somewhere between Lychee and overcooked boiled onion..... with a taste to match. So it sort of tastes like a slightly sweet mushy onion. Lovely, can you see why everyone here loves it so much??!! [...]
Sat, 29 Jul 2006 16:36:52 PDTThis was one of the few places on our itinerary that we had actually been to before and it was lovely to have a bit of familiarity around us for a change. On our last visit we had a fairly hectic F1 motor racing schedule to adhere to so all we could manage on the sighseeing stuff was a half day charging around in a bus. This time we were able to see some of these things at a much more leisurely pace and see some new things that we don't already have pictures of!There is a pretty tried and tested walking route around central Kuala Lumpur, we know this because we met at least half a dozen other people clutching their Lonely Planets' and vaguely wandering in the same direction as us. It took us past lots of old colonial buildings which are wonderful and some beautiful mosques. It was during this walk that we stumbled across a huge tourism event which we decided to hang around and have a nosey at. Tourism Malaysia have a big campaign 'Visit Malaysia 2007' to mark their 50th Anniversary of independence next year. They want to really promote tourism in Malaysia and organised this event and invited people from all over the world to attend. There must be worse perks if you work for Thomas Cook! Basically it was a big procession with representatives from all the states of Malaysia in wonderful costumes and lots of dancing and stuff. It was really inetersting but after 4 hours standing against a railing it was getting a bit tedious so we decided to call it a night and comforted ourselves with the fact that we are a year ahead of the crowds!The tallest building in the world for many years, the Petronas Towers are now referred to as the tallest 'twin towers' in the world, this is because someone came along in Taipei and built something bigger ..... what's that phrase about keeping one step ahead? There is also the KL tower which looks taller than the Petronas towers but is cheating because it is built on a hill! Last time we were here we went up the KL tower so this time we decided to join the crowds at the Petronas towers.Great thing about the Petronas towers is that they are free but the downside is that you have to get up really early to be in the queue for tickets at about 8am (they don't open the desk until 8:30). Unless that is you are a big fat German ****** and come along late and just push in the queue ... but don't get Mark started on that! He, nearly sucessfully (along with some others) got him removed from the line but a slight confusion in the translation of "yes he did push in" from English to Malay and he'd got his greasy hands on the tickets. Worse thing was that we ended up with the same time slot as him so we had to keep bumping into him for the next few hours which was even more infuriating. Despite being in our rightful place in the queue at 8am our time slot was 9.45am which by all accounts is pretty good. Only a limited amount of tickets are given out and by the time we were coming back down the next available slot was 2.30pm and the queue was still long.It is all a pretty slick operation and you only get a few minutes up in the air which is totally the opposite from our usual experiences where we spend hours gazing at the world below us. Nonetheless it is a great experience as you get to walk along the sky bridge which joins the two towers and at that point there is actually more above you than there is below you. Whilst you do get a good view, you are not really that high up at all, only the 41st floor, so if you want views, the KL tower is better but if you want dramatic architctur[...]
Thu, 27 Jul 2006 15:57:33 PDTMany of you will know that I (Nikky) have a small obsession with James Bond. Whilst the rest of you may relish the world of Star Wars (you know who you are), for me it is the ubiquitous British secret agent 007 that floats my boat. It must be said at this juncture that I am not so obsessed as to embark on crazy weekends with like-minded weirdos, this is just a minor fantasy that keeps me smiling. This started at an early age, in fact my first cinematic experience was to see For Your Eyes Only. James Bond also reminds me of my childhood and Christmases in particular. The 'Boxing Day film' when I was young was always James Bond and being the only child in the family I happily plonked myself down in front of the TV and immersed myself in the wonderful worlds created by Messrs. Fleming and Broccoli whilst the 'grown ups' did whatever grown ups do. As a 70's child it was Mr Moore that portrayed this lovable character and that is probably why I am with the minority that prefer him to Mr Connery, ahhhhh "a sin" I hear you cry! Well the truth is out, although I do think that Mr Brosnan is doing a fairly good job and maybe it is time he is compared with the other two .... but that's a whole other debate best left for another time.Why all this dribble I hear you cry. Well as we are here in Phuket it would be a sin not to venture into Phang Nga Bay and the iconic island that features in Man With The Golden Gun (one of my faves). As all good tours go, there is rather alot of dribble to get through before the main event. Ours started with a visit to a cave which had a numerous monkeys living outside and millions of bats living inside. It was all pretty ordinary until the 50p ran out in the meter and we were plunged into darkness. Had any of us in fact been Mr Bond then we would have had some super powered torch in our shoe laces run by the sonar emitted by the bats which Q would have designed for this very scenario. Instead, using the light emmitted from a few mobile phones and digital cameras the 15 or so tourists that were stranded managed to make our way down the pathway although I use this term VERY loosely to safety. At this point we were hoping that this was the only scary episode of the day. We arrived at the wharf to catch our boat to the island. All the other boats that were doing similar tours (there are hundreds of them) seemed to be quite smart, so quite why ours looked like it had been around for a hundred years we will never know but despite it leaking from the top and the bottom we made it to James Bond Island in one piece.In the movie the island looks so beautiful and idyllic, the setting certainly is but you have to look past the stalls of tourist rubbish to imagine Mr Moore, Christopher Lee and Nick Nack poised in a friendly twist on pistols at dawn on the beach. In fact it is totally spoilt as it has basically become a gift shop and other than the name, has no reference to James Bond at all. If you weren't prepared for this then you would be extremely disappointed but we had been well tipped off so I was just content with the fact that I had been there and I tried my best to ignore everything else. We were the only people on our tour that didn't make a purchase from the tacky stalls .... not surprising then that with a purchase success rate of about 80% they won't be going anywhere soon!Phang Nga Bay photos[...]
Thu, 27 Jul 2006 15:19:44 PDT(image) We have said before that this travelling lark is hard work and although we have received zero sympathy votes on this subject we decided that we would treat ourselves to a weeks holiday. The typical lounging around by the pool, reading books and getting up late type of holiday that we all need once in a while. So we decided to pick Phuket for this which all sounds wonderful.
Thu, 27 Jul 2006 15:07:06 PDTUp to now we've managed to avoid going on too many organised tours, but getting round this part of the country is not that easy if you don't have a car, and tours seem to be the best option, albeit our least preferred choice if we had one, which we don't! So off to the 'infamous' Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar/Burma meet.We discovered at this point that organised tours in Thailand have the same kind of pricing as Tuk Tuks and night markets. The advertised price will probably be double what you eventually pay (because of course you are that very special customer who gets a discount!), but then when you actually get on the tour you discover that there are various things along the way where you have to pay extra to get in. All very frustrating, but once again it's all part of the fun of visiting Thailand!Now that the opium trade is no longer here the main cross border trade in the immediate Golden Triangle area seems to consist of two things. Firstly there are the Thai tourists crossing the border to enrich the Myanmar 'government' (we assume) at the conveniently located casino on the other side, and secondly there are minibus loads of tourists (that'll be us then!) who are taken on a boat trip that takes them across the river to a village that is allegedly in Laos. Quite which country this village is really in is open to question I think, we bought postcards and posted them with Laos stamps (at vastly inflated prices). But there was no international border as such, other than the 20 Baht 'Landing Fee' we had to hand over to some bloke at a wooden table. Then we had 30 minutes at leisure..... although the only thing to do was browse the souvenir stalls which sold the usual tourist tat alongside fake looking cigarettes and liqueurs containing snakes and various dead lizards!After returning to Thailand the next stop was the land border with Myanmar at a place called Maesai. It's a very odd place, the 'high street' just sort of ends at the border post and is lined with shops that seem to be mainly aimed at tourists. I'm not sure how many tourists really cross the border here but there does seem to be some kind of dodgy scam going on where you can cross the bridge and get a Myanmar stamp in your passport for a small fee (in that favourite local currency, the US dollar), then you just walk back again. This also seems to be a well established method for extending your visa to stay in Thailand, since you apparently get another new stamp when you re-enter the country.Besides this it was difficult to see what really went on there, and it's quite a sad place really. As far as we could gather from our guide the Burmese people are allowed to enter Thailand for a day at a time. We were told that sometimes this is for work, but there were also quite a few people (including very small children) either trying to sell goods, or just asking for money. It appears that this is tolerated right at the border point, but a couple of miles back down the road on the Thai side is an armed police road block so it's fairly clear that people aren't allowed to travel too far.The final stop of the day was another place where we really didn't get as much information as we'd have liked. We visited three different 'hill tribes' who all live in adjacent small villages, the main reason for the visit being the 'Long Neck' Karen people. It's only the women who wear the (extremely heavy, about 5 kilo's) neck rings, which we discovered are added at the ra[...]
Thu, 27 Jul 2006 14:53:47 PDT(image) We were a little uncertain about this at first, but we'd been told that the elephants were well looked after so we went along. Now, you might expect that animals the size of elephants would be kept at a fairly safe distance from the tourists but this wasn't the case. They were loosely restrained with a chain around one leg, but other than that we could walk right up to them and feed them with bananas and sugar cane. All quite good fun until one of them 'affectionately' blew Mark a kiss to thank him..... or to put it another way, sneezed full in his face! Thankfully there are always helpful tourists with wet wipes around!
Thu, 27 Jul 2006 14:49:41 PDT(image) There are quite a number of cookery schools around Chiang Mai aimed at tourists so we decided to have a go. The day started with a trip around one of the local markets so that we could have a good look at all the ingredients we were going to use. This was all very well, but I'm not sure how easy it's going to be to find some of the stuff back in the Maidenhead farmers market!