A Travellerspoint blog

January 2014

East Coast Australia - Sydney to Melbourne

sunny 30 °C

East Coast Australia - Sydney to Melbourne

Saturday 26th January

Taking the most direct route from Sydney to Melbourne would take about nine hours to cover the 881km on the highway inland, going through the capital of Canberra. The alternative is to meander along the Princes Highway, which weaves in and out of the various coastal towns, running along the seafront.

We started in the Blue Mountains and headed south east towards the coast, stopping off at the sleepy towns of Bowral and Bundanoon. Bowral had a quaint little high street set in traditional old buildings with a good selection of book shops and cafés. We stopped for a coffee and a browse around a couple of the shops. Bundanoon was more of a village and we just had a quick drive through it.

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Some of the views we have been forced to endure on our drive

We continued across to the coast and headed down, stopping to look at the gorgeous coastline in Ulladulla, before arriving in Durras North for the night.

Durras North is in the middle of Murramarang National Park. We had planned to stop in Bateman's Bay; however it was recommended we stop here as it was less touristy and kangaroos are guaranteed. You don't need to tell is twice!

We booked a cabin on a holiday park, which assured you you would see kangaroos and as we were checking in, a couple went bouncing past the front of reception. Later that evening, there was one just hanging out down the side of the caravans, looking as though he thought if he didn't move or look at us, we couldn't see him. The following morning, they were just lounging around in the shade on an open area of the campsite.

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Kangaroo!

Our cabin, described as retro was a mix between that and vintage. It was more like a very old mobile home with a Portakabin attached for an awning living room area. The sofa chairs in the living room were vintage dark floral green, the dining chairs and table looked like it was from the 1950s with its part pink leather upholstery. The curtains were all various different dark floral patterns. Fortunately the bed was newer and incredibly comfortable.

Sunday 26th January

The following morning, we walked the discovery trail along the lake and through the woods behind the campsite. Theses woods felt incredibly British, just lacking in heather! The route took a little over an hour and took you along the side of a tranquil blue lake with forest surrounding it on all sides.

After an early lunch, we walked along the deserted beach on the golden sands. The water was a beautiful turquoise and midnight blue mix with waves crashing at various points on the way into the beach. Sadly there were no kangaroos on the beach, preferring to stay at the campsite.

Back on the road again, we were stopping for the night at Merimbula, about an hour north of the border between New South Wales and Victoria. Along the way, we stopped for a cream tea in Central Tilba, which could probably be best described as Australia's answer to the Cotswolds. The buildings were traditional frontier style with timber weatherboard cladding and corrugated tin roofs, painted on earthy hues. The town was set in rolling green hills with a few token black and white cows. We climbed the hill to the water tower, which offered panoramic views of the valleys and mountains.

We stopped for the night at a motel in Merimbula, perched high up on the hill overlooking a picture perfect blue bay. The owner advised us do a driving route around town, which took us to a long stretch of beach, and a fisherman's jetty. The motel was west facing and so we watched the sun go down over the bay from our room.

Monday 27th January

The next morning we crossed the border into Victoria and immediately the weather improved. So far Australia had felt like those first days of spring, with the crispness gone but the sun not quite strong enough to warm through you. In Victoria, it's back to hot summer days, but at least without the humidity of Asia.

We stopped in Mallacoota, a town on the sea, where the river meets the ocean, forming various lakes and inlets which form part of Croajingolang National Park. The best way to explore these waterways is by hiring a motorboat for a couple of hours. Chris was thrilled that he got to be the captain of his own ship, even if at top speed it was passed easily by windsurfers. We passed through a couple of lakes and explored a couple of mangrove lined creeks.

After Mallacoota, we had quite a drive to Bairnsdale, where we were spending the night at another caravan park. Our reason for stopping here is to the East, on the coast there is a town called Paynesville. From here, you can park your car and take the ferry for free to Raymond Island. Raymond Island his home to a colony of koala bears, relocated here from Phillip Island in the 1950s. There is a koala trail around the island leading to a wooded area, where we found 8 little koala bears just chilling in the branches, each with their own tree, making it more of a challenge to spot them. I wonder how many we missed. Some of them watched you as you walked around their tree to get a better look.

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I'm watching you!

In addition to koalas, the island is home to some colourful green birds with red, blue, and yellow chests as well as kookaburras. After about an hour wandering around the island, we caught the ferry back to Paynesville. Now all we need to see are some wallabies and wombats.

Tuesday 28th January

Today is our penultimate stint along the coast before we arrive in Melbourne tomorrow.

We headed inland to Walhalla, a former gold mining town, which thrived during the 19th century. The town is set in the hills about 40km from the main highway. This town is very traditional, with its original post office, which avoided renovation or conversion and therefore looks just as it would have done 100 years ago. There is also the original wooden firehouse set over the river and an elevated bandstand in the centre of a very pretty garden alongside the stream. There are a couple of cafés, a hotel and a general store, but the main attraction is a trip down the disused gold mine.

The mine entrance is located 500m up the hill out of town, and offer tours at various times of the day during the weekends with one a day on weekdays. We joined the half one tour and donned our hardhats. The tunnel into the mine was quite high and we were able to stand most of the way through the 500m tunnel into the mountain. The edges of the tunnel were jagged from where they had exploded their way through. Along the floor lay the original tram lines used for removing the gold. The mine had a couple of lower tunnels, but even they were 5ft. One area opened out, which used to be home to the boilers and is sat next to the former lift shafts.

After looking around the old post office and the town museum, we did the final couple of hours to Phillip Island, home of the Little Blue Penguins, which tend to be referred to as just 'Little Penguins'.

We arrived at Phillip Island at 6pm, had some dinner before heading to the beach where the Little Penguins nest. The penguins come ashore at dusk, which is currently 21.15. We arrived shortly after 7pm to guarantee front row seats on the sand.

Walking along the boardwalks to the beach, there was a wallaby posing for photos up on the sand dunes. Another Australian animal ticked off the list!

Shortly after 9pm, the first few penguins began to come out of the sea and waddle up the beach. They were so cute as they came out of the water, being knocked over by the waves and pulled back in again. Some of them were more skilled than others at getting out; one took nearly five minutes. Once they made it out of the water, they had to scurry up the beach past all the seagulls, who were not too much smaller than the penguins who are only just over 30cm high. They tended to leave the water either alone or in groups of about four or five. On the beach, they would congregate at the bottom of the sand dune before heading up in a line to find their waiting chicks.

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Nesting penguins

As it's towards the end of the breeding season, the chicks are now about six weeks old and are nearly ready to leave the nest. As we walked along the boardwalks, which overlook the nesting sites, we saw an adorable little chick, who was just beginning to lose his brown fluffy baby feathers, so he looked like he had a fur gilet on with his flippers coming out the side.

We were finally kicked out at 10.30pm to find one in the car park all on his own.

We returned to our cabin for the night, ready for our final drive to Melbourne the following day.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 03:03 Archived in Australia Tagged koala penguin coast kangaroo wallaby Comments (0)

Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

rain 24 °C

Hunter Valley and the Blue Mountains are both easily accessible from Sydney, with tour companies offering day trips to both or you can take the train or as we did hire a car and enjoy the drive.

Hunter Valley, located a couple of hours drive north of Sydney is famous for its vineyards and wineries. We hired a car and began to head up the coast to Cessnock. Heading out of Sydney, we drove over the Harbour Bridge as opposed to taking the tunnel and on to the freeway.

At Gosford, we left the freeway to meander through the villages alongside the Yengo National Park. We stopped for lunch in a sleepy little village called Wollombi, and had the tastiest Greek style lamb burgers.

Once in Cessnock, we found a vineyard called Tambauline, where I'm unsure of the owners business logic. All the vineyards offer free tasters normally amounting to about five 25ml samples before you're expected to buy a bottle of your favourite. This guy was chatting away the whole time, making fun of his advertising stating 'sold out is just a marketing term which makes you want to buy it. Same applies with stock running low, means we've got too much to shift!' He was also a liberal pourer, probably offering about 50ml each time. As we discussed which wine we would buy, he interrupted us to say 'don't feel obliged to buy anything, you're backpacking!' As it was £5 for a very nice bottle of white, we didn't let him put is off.

In Australia, there used to be a law that if you owned a pub or bar, you had to provide accommodation for anyone who became to drink to get home, resulting in most towns having an abundance of affordable rooms. We thought we would give one of these establishments a try and had a very comfortable and reasonably priced room with shared bathrooms; however as this was a Thursday night, there was only one other couple there.

The following morning we visited another vineyard with sculptures in its gardens. We tried a few more different wines here before buying another cheap bottle. This winery seemed a little more interested in making a sale, with samples being smaller, but you were still unsure if they were really that fussed either way.

After this we hit the road and took the scenic route down to the Blue Mountains. Driving in Australia is so much more pleasant with rolling hills and empty roads. We headed along a 35km section of 'unsealed road', which is a gravel road to you and me and only saw a couple of cars in the other direction as we snaked our way through sections of forest and open plains. On spite of all the signs warning of kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and wombats, we were not lucky enough to anything more than some large black and white birds.

We stopped for lunch by the river in a village called St. Albans, which was very different to the St. Albans we know in Hertfordshire. There was an old fashioned pub and general store opposite the picnic area alongside the river. After lunch, we continued through to Wiseman's Ferry and, expecting to find a bridge, nearly shot off the end of the road into the river, not realising that you had to take a car ferry to cross the river.

Our last stop before Katoomba was Windsor, which had a peaceful little pedestrianised area set back from the river.

As we neared the Blue Mountains, it began to rain and cool down quite considerably. We found our hostel and actually felt cold for the first time in months!

The Blue Mountains are just over an hour to the west of Sydney. They are part of the Blue Mountains National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In the evening, we ventured down to the edge of the town where there are viewing points and trails around the Blue Mountains. We looked out on to three stacks of rocks known as the Three Sisters. Down the side of the Three Sisters is the giant staircase which is 900 steps to the bottom and rather more challenging back up again. We were more than pleased that this was not an option as it was drizzling and we only had a couple of hours of daylight left. We took the trail around the cliff to Katoomba Falls, which took about half an hour. The views were stunning, with the tree covered mountains as far as the eye could see looking a beautiful deep shade of blue in the distance.

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The following day we were pleased to see blue skies and the sun shining, while still cool, making for perfect walking conditions. Today we visited Wentworth Falls, where there are various trails along and just below the cliff edge. Again, the views were spectacular with the different coloured layers of rocks rising above you as you walked along the paths made mainly from rocks. The falls themselves were flowing well after all the recent rain, and had smoothed some of the sections of rock where it flowed before cascading over the cliff edge.

We followed the National Pass around the cliffs, taking you past various miniature waterfalls. The recommended walking time was 3-4 hours, a challenge Chris and I were more than happy to try and halve. We managed the route in about 50 minutes, if not less as we missed the marker for the end of that trail.

After the Blue Mountains, we began our journey along the East Coast from Sydney to Melbourne.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 02:59 Archived in Australia Comments (0)

Sydney, NSW, Australia

semi-overcast 24 °C

So much for 'Two Rolts, Two Continents, Two Rucksacks'!

Sunday 19th January

We set off at 5.30am to take the bus to the airport for our flight to Sydney. Considering the standard of driving, the bus ride was uneventful; however we were pleased to be off the 80 mile an hour bus being driven by a man who didn't look much over 20, on his phone, and sniffing a clear liquid out of a small glass bottle.

We checked in for our Air Asia flight, which had cost all of £100, even after all their Ryanair style add-ons.... We headed through to departures, got some food and drinks for the flight and waited to board. Our flights from KL international had all allowed you to take your drinks through, but Air Asia did not allow it at the low cost terminal. Seeing a chance to make more money, they also re x-rayed your bags at the gate, confiscated drinks bought in airside and forced you to buy their overpriced water on the plane. I bet Ryanair is disappointed that they don't have access to x-ray machines at the gate for this little stunt.

We arrived in Sydney at about 9.30pm to find that we could finally test out the epassport gate! (These never seem to be working in London.) We both headed up to the gate, and I had to take my glasses off. Without my glasses, I can see absolutely nothing, and so had to shut one eye and cross the other to try and read the screen. Clearly the machine didn't like that, wouldn't work and so I had to use the normal passport counter, much to Chris' amusement as he had gone through.

We checked into our accommodation, which had been advertised as shared bathroom. We were very pleased to discover that not only did we have a balcony, but also there was a private bathroom off of that! You know you've been travelling too long when you're more than pleased at having a bathroom, even if it's technically not attached.

Monday 20th January

The following morning, we dropped off our laundry, which probably weighed about 5kg. Lately in Malaysia, we've struggled to get it done for much less than £2 a kilo and so were not looking forward to hearing the cost of this. Turns out it's $10 (£5) to have it washed dried and folded!

That morning, we visited the Powerhouse museum, which is in the former steam powerhouse in Sydney. Along with quite a detailed exhibition on steam power, there were also exhibitions on space, Australian shops from the early 20th century, when the Beatles toured Australia, and an exhibition which had lots of ways to play with light.

Insert by Christopher: Another exhibition had real inventions but with ridiculous and amusing made-up stories for each one. For example shoes with mice on the front which the 'inventor' made to help his wife get over her fear of mice, only for her to try to run away from her own feet. Unfortunately I was waffling while Zoë was reading the introduction, causing her to misread it and not realise it explained this and read each of the twenty or so explanations believing them to be true. I had quite a giggle at how gullible she was. She really is quite stupid.

In the afternoon, we wandered through Hyde Park, to the cathedral in the middle. This cathedral looked a lot older than its 200 years and was pretty impressive. Afterwards we visited the shopping area, including the magnificent Queen Victoria shopping centre, which was incredibly grand inside with Victorian tiled floors and an open double height central area with balcony walkways between the shops. Chris bought some new clothes as he was beginning to look quite the scruff bucket.

Feeling as though we couldn't confirm we were in Sydney until we saw the Sydney Opera House, we took a train up to the harbour and by the time we got there, is was wet and miserable with a heavy drizzle. We headed to a restaurant for an early dinner, hoping it would pass and we could see the harbour by night but had no such luck.

Tuesday 21st January

The following day we visited the Sydney Museum, which shows Sydney life during the 20th century. The museum is located on the grounds of the first government house from the 1700s. At the front of the museum, there is a viewing cube, which looks out onto the square in front of the museum entrance. From above you realise that the various different coloured slabs and tiles have been placed to show the foundations and floor plan of the original building.

After lunch, we wandered around the harbour and the front of the Sydney Opera House before taking the ferry across to Manly bay. The main reason for taking this ferry is to obtain a better view of the harbour and therefore the Opera House and Harbour bridge.

We spent a couple of hours in Manly, wandered along the beautiful coastal path, which overlooks the crystal clear waters before stopping for a coffee on the promenade. All along the coastal path were signs warning of penguins, but unfortunately we were not lucky enough to see any.

After sailing back to Sydney harbour, we walked over the Harbour Bridge and took yet more pictures of the Opera House.

Again after dinner it began to rain and so we headed back, hoping to see the harbour by night on our final day.

Wednesday 22nd January

We rose early this morning and took the tram to Sydney fish market. We had read that this was the second biggest fish market after Tokyo's and so had fairly high expectations after the huge, chaotic Tokyo fish market being one of the highlights of our trip to Japan back in 2012. Sadly, there was not much to compare, with little bustle and only a few stands, with most of it shut off to the public. Never mind! We stopped off on the way back into town at Paddy's market, which is housed in an old fashioned looking market building.

We took advantage of the cheap electicals and the very good pound to dollar exchange rate and Chris purchased a new wide angle lens. I have now lost my husband to the ability to take new types of photos.

Despite the weather still not being great, (this is not proving to be what I had always thought about Australian summers; it is similarly wet and miserable at times and no one is saying 'it's not normally like this' but rather affirming 'this is Sydney',) we took the train to Bondi beach, which has gorgeous fine gold sand beaches. There is a large pavillion and cafés along the streets. It kind of reminded us of Brighton, if it were to have a facelift and some sand imported. It's a shame we didn't see it in the sun, but there were still a few wetsuit clad surfers playing in the waves.

We took the bus back to Central Quay, which was definitely more interesting than the underground train as we travelled through the surrounding suburbs of Sydney. We booked tickets to see 'La Soirée' at Sydney Opera House before getting dinner at a harbour side restaurant.

La Soirée was not we imagine, described as a 'burlesque circus cabaret'. Perhaps the clue was in the burlesque. The first act was three men painted and dressed to look like Aboriginies. They crept through the audience crouched low with spears to the stage in the centre. They moved around the stage before getting onto it and stamping their feet a little, before the music changed from traditional didgeridoos to Greek music with a dance twist and they began thrusting and gyrating to the music. We were in stitches from start to finish. We had bought cheapo mezzanine seats; however the ringside seats weren't full so we were upgraded and had front row seats. This allowed for a lady in a too tight red PVC dress to wiggle her bum in Chris' face and have him give her a bum push on to the stage.

Another act involved a lady hiding a hankie in her suit and gradually taking each item off so it couldn't hide the hankie anymore. She was soon naked and after a little thrusting and wandering around the audience, she went up on to the stage and hid the hankie one more time before mischievously retrieving it....

There was also a speech made by the Queen, who flashed his Union Jack boxers to finish. Most acts followed this style of entertainment, although there were a couple of proper acrobatic acts performed while suspended from the ceiling. (With a slight twist I suppose.)

I don't think we will be forgetting what we saw at Sydney Opera House anytime soon.

The following morning, we picked up our hire car to begin our adventures down to Melbourne.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 17:27 Archived in Australia Tagged sydney harbour opera bondi ferry Comments (0)

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Capital city time, rather than just the airports

overcast 28 °C

Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, centrally positioned halfway down the Malaysian peninsula. So far we have only used it as a base, taking advantage of their low cost routes to Sabah and Brunei. We had a couple of days to explore the city, before enjoying another flight to Australia.

We landed promptly from Sabah and managed to get out the airport within 20 minutes, managing to catch the half one bus to KL Sentral with minutes to spare. Perfect!

From there, we took the monorail to Bukit Bintang, where we had booked our accommodation. Checking in was relatively long process, with them wanting the passports and for Chris to sign the reservation as they filled out his details. We paid, and then the spent ages writing out the world's most detailed receipt. This though is fairly standard in Malaysia, where of all the countries, check in seems to take considerably longer. Once everything was sorted the receptionist casually announced that he would call someone to show us to their second hostel as that one was fully booked. And so the fun began. But it was OK as their second hostel was the same, just as good, same price, just 10 minutes drive away in Chinatown, where we did not want to be based. The second man arrived to take us across town and was very put out that we were being so ungrateful as he had organised and paid for a room for us at what turned out to be his girlfriend's guesthouse. He became quite rude, complaining that he would lose his money and that this happens all the time in peak season, especially when it transpires that a group booking for 24 had come in and that was naturally too good an opportunity to refuse. We took our refund and checked into the guesthouse next door for convenience, which rather annoyingly cost twice the price. We moved on the second night to KL Sentral station to stay in a cheaper hotel, ready for our early start to Australia. This room was so small, the bed was in the way of the door!

Particularly over the last few weeks, we have woken up a few times either in the middle of the night or in the morning, wondering where we were. On our first morning in KL, the alarm went off and I had no idea where we had stayed, but immediately thought, do we need to get up promptly for a flight, as we had flown so much over the past few days. I remembered Australia was next, but didn't think it was that day. After about a minute, I remembered where we were and that today was set aside to Kuala Lumpur. You feel so stupid that it is gradually taking longer and longer to work out where we are. At least it wasn't as bad as when I woke up in Koh Jum, convinced we were in a canoe! Nothing like another continent change to help with that!

We visited the Petronas towers and had a wander around the shopping centre underneath, stopping for a coffee part way round. This shopping centre has loads of designer shops and a few travel shops. The following day we visited the Pavilion shopping centre, which had virtually every shop you could imagine yet still Chris and I managed to leave without buying anything.

We wandered around the colonial part of town and Merdeka square, which was being used for various bike races. We stopped and watched the ultimate foldies race, which required participants to run the first few metres to find and unfold their bikes. Some of these folding bikes really did not look as though speed output even nearly justified the energy input required.

We ate at an Indian restaurant one night and one of the Chinese market restaurants the following night. As usual, the food was tasty and the waiting staff were on another planet. You can only laugh at their incompetence. They bring out dishes, which do not look as your expect or the picture, question what it is and they have no idea or ask what did you order. If you say is this rice, even if you were pointing at noodles the response would probably be yes. You might get your drink, you might not. Your food could be dumped on the table as they pass by. They will ask who ordered the chicken (maybe) before putting it down in front of the other person anyway. As rice comes from a large pot, it will come 10 minutes before your food. And the best part is 10% service charge appears to be compulsory, or at least as a tourist it definitely must be paid. Not like in England where if service is shocking, you can argue the 'compulsory' service charge.

We tried to visit the national mosque, which holds 10,000, but the opening times were different to what we had read. There were some pleasant fountains around the edge, but this mosque is not as grand or impressive from the outside as others.

In the evening, we decided to head up the telecommunication tower over the Petronas Towers as if you're up the Petronas, there's not too much else worth seeing. We went up to the observation deck a little too early, so had to wait about an hour for dusk at 7.15pm, allowing us to see KL by day and night on one ticket. The high rise tower blocks are relatively spread out with a lot of low rise buildings in the middle. The Petronas towers look brilliant lit up with white lights after dark.

While we were waiting for sundown, a lady approached Christopher, asking to take pictures of the side of his head, as the one she had taken from afar had not come out too well. She spent the next five minutes taking Chris' headshots from various angles with the city behind him. She showed him the photos afterwards, most of which were blurred; however Chris was unsure as to whether this was intentional to create an art effect. Who knows what she is going to do with them!

We returned to our box room, showered and went to bed, ready to get up at 5am for our flight to Sydney.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 22:24 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Kota Kinabalu, Sabah

Borneo: A view from below

sunny 30 °C

Kota Kinabalu is located on the northern coast of Borneo. It is popular for its island hopping tours and more so for the gorgeous beach resort of Gaya Island.

We decided to visit here to do a Discovery Dive as we had run out of time everywhere else. We booked with Dive Down Below, and having been impressed with the wildlife on land, we were very excited to discover Borneo from under the sea. We love snorkeling and have been on some pretty decent snorkeling trips, surprised by the variety of fish we were able to see with just a snorkel. As with all discovery dives, it was advertised that we had 3 dives; however the first 'dive' is in 4ft deep water.

We were collected promptly and taken across to the jetty before taking a speedboat for 10 minutes across to Gaya Island where the company is based. The sea which meets the island is very tidal, and so there was a 200m wooden walkway down to the boat. When the tide came in later, this added to the beauty of the view of this remote island.

After half an hour or so of instructions and training, we were kitted up with wetsuits and flippers before heading down to the water. At the edge, the oxygen canisters and inflatable jackets were put on, making our rucksacks seem incredibly light in comparison. We trudged into the water until we were at chest height. We knelt down so that our heads were below the surface and practised breathing normally! We also needed to practise retrieving and clearing our regulators, in case another diver caught ours and knocked it out, as well as how to empty water from your mask while submerged. As there had been quite a bit of rain the previous day, visibility was at about 30cm and it felt a little strange just sat on your own in all this silt, waiting for it to be your turn to practise.

After this, we took a boat out to do our first open water dive. As you dive down under water, you have to equalise your ears, popping them as you descend, otherwise your ears will hurt so much you won't be able to dive down. This is because the air contracts inside, due to the change in pressure and the weight of the water. To pop your ears, you just need to pinch you nose and try to push the air out of your ears. (Or at least that's what you feel like you're trying to do.) Most people do this all the time on planes if their ears do not pop, and it's pretty easy to do under water.

As we began to descend, the instructor was making sure we were OK and our ears were popping. Unfortunately, Chris couldn't equalise his ears and therefore couldn't get below two metres. We all went back up and Chris tried to pop his ears. The other girl with us was also struggling, but she managed it after a few more attempts. Chris could not pop his ears, so he stayed near the surface scuba snorkeling while the other instructor took us two ladies down to 4 metres. We saw all the usual fish, with some rainbow coloured parrot fish. We also saw a clown fish (Nemo) hiding in some coral. The coral was varied with some blue coloured tubular corals as well as ones which looked even more alive than normal plants. Luckily as we were only a few metres down, Chris didn't miss too much and as we headed back to base for lunch, Chris practised popping his ears.

Back in the water after lunch, we were heading down to 6 metres and from the surface, you could hardly see a thing. We all got in the water, rolling off the boat backwards with all our gear. We all started heading down slowly, and Chris sank like a rock! I was worried as you're not supposed to descend that quickly, and because of the problems he had had earlier. I don't know what the second instructor was doing, as he was not helping me and I could not get his attention to retrieve Chris. When he did finally realise, he dived down and dragged Chris back up, who was completely oblivious. It turned out his ears were fine, and he was able to complete the 45 minute dive. During this dive, I was left to swim freely, while one of the instructors kept hold of Chris and the other girl for the first half. I loved being able to swim unrestricted, and enjoyed filling and emptying my lungs to increase and decrease my buoyancy. This dive was a lot better as we were deeper, seeing coral which due to visibility only being about 5 metres, was invisible from the surface and could not be seen with just a snorkel.

I was really pleased that Chris had managed to sort his ears out as I did not want him to miss out. It later transpired though that he did not know how to pop his ears and was not doing it right.... He was just holding his breath and forcing the air in his mouth. There's always one! At least I had managed to teach him at lunchtime, otherwise he would have missed the whole thing!

In the evening, we went to a café for a coffee and as the price difference was only 50p between small and large, we both opted for a large latte. We had not expected them to be served in pint sized mugs and they became a bit sickly, especially as mine was a white chocolate latte. It was however delicious and one of my favourite flavoured coffees ever. Now to hunt that down in England!

Tomorrow it's on another plane back to KL for the third time but to finally visit the city, rather than just using it as a base for their low cost flights.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 03:09 Archived in Malaysia Tagged islands fish diving beach coral Comments (0)

Sandakan and the Orangutans! Sabah, Borneo

Visiting the orangutans and rainforest

storm 35 °C

We left Brunei and landed in KL, where we spent the night in an airport hotel before taking a flight back to Borneo the following morning to Sandakan, Sabah. The simple reason for this somewhat convoluted route, similar to that of travelling from Leeds to Manchester via London was all down to cost. Flying back to the mainland and paying for the pleasure of staying in a slightly questionable airport hotel did not even begin to make a dent in the price of flying across Borneo. And so apologies to the earth for our carbon footprint, but the flight was going anyway, right?

Almost doubling our accommodation budget, we splurged on the newly opened Sheraton hotel in Sandakan, which, although the Radisson in BSB paid more attention to detail, this was significantly nicer than we are used to. We had a side on sea view room on the 20th floor, allowing great views of the bay from the large window. This hotel did have a gorgeous infinity pool overlooking the sea on the 13th floor.

Sandakan itself is not really a tourist destination, but more a base for exploring the surrounding area. Despite the fact there are quite a few backpacker hostels and hotels, the locals are still fascinated by you being there. At least they wave and say hello rather than just stare as they did Vietnam.

Of our two days in Sandakan, the first was forecast to rain heavily all day, particularly in the morning and so we decided to head up the hill to The English Tea House, which had a vaguely English feel to it. The tea rooms had a croquet lawn which looked out towards the sea. The staff wore black dresses with white collars which had an early 20th century feel to them. For £5 you could have afternoon tea, with sandwiches and scones. The scones came with jam and what they called clotted cream, which although it was not, it was a pretty good attempt at clotted cream. This was all washed down perfectly with a pot of English Twinings tea.

We were very lucky and it remained dry long enough for us to walk the heritage trail around town, which took you on a slightly desperate route past a clock tower, which was literally just a clock on a painted concrete stand in the middle of a mini roundabout. You also passed a really cute miniature Chinese temple, which looked more like a converted traditional house. Carry on a little further, and you come to an English church. On our trip, we have read about various 'English' buildings that when we have been, you can see a hint of British to them but would never find them in the UK, as was the case with the tea house; however this church actually looked like it had been shipped over from a quiet little village and repositioned behind some Malaysian tower blocks. We were very impressed with this cute little church.

We finished off the trail at the tourist information, where we wanted to double check where you caught the bus to the orangutan sanctuary. The lady in the tourist information was very strange, and was more than happy to express her opinions. She disliked that we were staying at the Sheraton, therefore choosing to give our custom to an international chain rather than a local hotel. (Maybe if they were not so expensive for a room with a bathroom in a closet smaller than most people's downstairs toilets we would!) She also wanted us to take a taxi rather than the 5 ringgit bus. She got her way in the end as the 5 ringgit bus was conveniently delayed meaning you would miss feeding time at the orangutan rehabilitation centre, but a special 10 ringgit minibus was available shortly. Reluctant to potentially miss feeding, we took a taxi for 10 ringgit each with another couple.

The orangutans were beautiful. As the man began walking up to the feeding platform, a few of them began swinging through the trees in ropes ready for the food. In the morning, there were loads of cheeky little monkeys stealing the bananas and we returned for the afternoon feeding, during which the orangutans were more lively. At one point, a large male swung in along the ropes, put a bunch of bananas in his mouth and two in his feet before immediately swinging back off to eat them. About half way through, behind the viewing area, one of the old males began shimmying down a tree before getting onto the decking and making a beeline for the crowd of people, coming within a metre before one of the keepers got him to move away. He headed back up towards the entrance, and fifteen minutes after feeding had finished, we were waiting for the bus, when he came striding around the entrance hut, across the grass and ploughed straight through a half metre wide hedge, crossing the path and into the next bit of garden. As the orangutan was crossing the road, a young boy was riding his bike and had to break suddenly and shuffle back to avoid the orangutan on a mission. The look on the boy's face was priceless.

Just before we left the orangutan park, we saw a bright green viper snake hiding in the tree with its evil looking red eye. These snakes are venomous, and there was no mention of an antidote at the rainforest discovery centre. He was gone by the time we returned for the second feeding....

Between the morning and afternoon feedings, we walked up the road (in the sweltering heat) to the rainforest discovery centre, which is set withing the rainforest. There is a visitor centre showing you the wildlife you can find in Borneo and in their rainforests. Next, you head into a well maintained plant garden, which has a sizeable collection of plants and flowers you might find, all labelled up. After this, you are out into the rainforest, which although has paths, the plants have been left to their own devices. Other than a slimey looking 4ft long snake, which we saw slithering away into a log, we didn't see any wildlife, but the trails around the lake and centre were still very enjoyable, with a variety of plants.

In the middle there is a canopy walkway set amongst the tree tops. I'm sure if you were better at spotting birds and other animals, then there is a lot hiding in these rainforests but Chris and I struggled to see the great big monkeys being pointed out in Brunei so we didn't really have a chance.

After dinner, we had a couple of cocktails in the hotel bar with the couple we had shared the taxi earlier. The following day, we took a flight to Kota Kinabalu.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 05:39 Archived in Malaysia Tagged rainforest orangutan afternoon_tea Comments (1)

Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei

A little taste of Islam

sunny 35 °C

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Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque

Brunei is an oil-rich country, home to nearly half a million people, described as the green HEART gateway to Borneo. Brunei is ruled by the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, whose official title runs into some 31 names. As an absolute monarch, the Sultan combines the roles of prime minister, defence minister, finance minister and monarch, with various members of his family forming the government.

On becoming a Malay Muslim Monarchy in 1991, alcohol was outlawed in public, creating an underground drinking scene, including the non-muslim Chinese restaurants serving up wine and beer surreptitiously from traditional teapots and expats regularly making the 90 minute round trip to the first off licence over the border into Sarawak.

Due to the Sultan's wealth from the oil resources found in Brunei at the turn of the twentieth century, most things are subsidised, including the pilgrimage to Mecca.

According to the Brunei Times, tourism is on the up with nearly 200,000 visitors in the first nine months of 2013; however you would struggle to believe this on arriving at the capital Bandar Seri Begawan known locally as BSB.

Brunei is over halfway through their five year tourism initiative and so far, they have failed to reinstate the centre's tourist information, which was closed in 2008 and the remaining counter in the airport was withdrawn within the last year. There was also no evidence of their '8 hour transit tours' which had previously run for those with long connections. Buses which are scheduled to pass by the airport do not, with the car park man stating 'maybe tomorrow' when enquiring about the bus.

The night before our flight, we stayed at a hotel in KL Sentral, which had a dual aspect view.....of the monorail looping around our building, at the same height as our window. Just beyond that was a mosque, which issued its first call to prayer at about 4am. It is incredibly disorientating having an Arabic prayer call, something you associate more with the middle east, penetrating your sleep when you are fast approaching your eightieth hotel of the trip, and you were pretty sure you were still in Southeast Asia when you went to bed.

On our flight, the air steward double checked we were in fact travelling to Brunei as a final destination before handing over the landing cards. As we left the plane, we were wished in an unsure voice, 'a good time in Brunei'.

On landing, it was announced that there were renovations going on in the airport, causing disruption and delays at immigration. Knowing it could never be as bad as clearing immigration in London, we were pleasantly surprised to find separate desks for Brunei, ASEAN communities and foreign passport, with a clear run for us.

Our accommodation was the newly renovated four star Radisson, which has to be our poshest hotel to date. Out of town sits Brunei's one and only contender for a Dubai style six-star hotel in the Empire Hotel and Country Club. With rooms starting at £200 a night, this was sadly beyond mine and Chris' meager £17.50 a night budget. Maybe next time?

First impressions Of Brunei, with its pristine new tarmac and immaculately maintained painted pavements, are of a wealthy nation; however a lot of the buildings are low rise concrete eyesores, which could have done with being demolished, shortly after they were built in the 1960s. BSB is often compared to as a diappointing low key concrete version of Dubai, yet I would say that was not doing the place justice as a destination in its own right. BSB is a quiet Islamic capital with a wealth of culture and makes for a pleasant change from other more Buddhist Asian countries.

The whole centre of the capital takes barely 15 minutes to cross on foot with a lush green jungle like park called Tasek Lama on the outskirts. We set off on a short 1.7km loop, which for the first third was on a tarmac road, with overly maintained flowerbeds. It was still a better park than the supposed botanical gardens we attempted to visit in Georgetown. A third of the way round there was a viewing platform, which offers great views of the park. After this, you squeeze down a narrow concrete path past a water plant and the terrain completely changes. The remaining kilometre or so involved you scrambling up and down muddy near vertical tree root covered hills in a mature jungle. As we had set out for a stroll in the park, I was, as ever wearing my inappropriate Birkenstock sandals with their worn smooth soles after 5 months of continuous wear.

Down by the entrance, there was a group of monkeys playing around in the trees, swinging from the branches over the stream before letting go when the branch stopped swaying. They were having so much fun cooling off and pulling each other by the tail as they scrambled up the bank ready to go again.

Afterwards we returned to the hotel with a dripping wet Christopher and enjoyed a refreshing swim in the pool. I have my suspicions that this pool could have been chilled rather than heated.

The following day we visited the local market, which is said to be its busiest on a Friday morning. (Today.) The market is squeezed on to the riverbank and sold every kind of fruit and vegetable imaginable. There were a few other stalls selling cooking equipment and the odd one selling food.

The majority of BSB's housing can be found in the village of Kampung Ayer, which literally translated means 'water village'. This village, which is home to 30,000 people, sits on stilts within the rivers Kadayon and Brunei. A water taxi across the river takes you to the Kampung Ayer Tourism and Culture gallery, which serves as an excellent starting point to explorations of the water village. This centre shows village life through the centuries and includes a viewing tower, which offers 360° views of the village.

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Kampung Ayer water village

Towards the front of the village, immediately outside the centre, you will find a collection of large new builds, with smart painted wood cladding, which look better suited to dry land. It seems incomprehensible that such a large and proper looking house could be built over water. These identical, soulless new houses have concrete walkeways between them with railings along the edge. Every street is the same. Fortunately behind these houses lies traditional Kampung Ayer, with interconnecting rickety walkways between the traditional wooden built houses with large veranda gardens out front. These houses are a lot bigger than you would expect and also other houses we have seen on water. As we wandered around, the locals would call out to us, one of them you could hear the faint end of a hello, turned round to find a guy some 20 metres away madly waving.

Within the village are schools, police station, fire station, grocery stores and medical clinics. Although it seems strange that a capital city's accommodation in a rich country is timber built housing on the river, it is through choice and tradition, as there have been many attempts to try to relocate the families to land, but they do not wish to be moved. It would be interesting to see if more of the area is given over to spacious new two storey housing as time goes on. For now, it makes for a very pleasant and authentic walk along the maze of interlinking wooden walkways.

Unsurprisingly, Christopher was drenched after this trip in the midday sun and so as everything shuts for lunch on Friday, it was time to return for a dip in the pool.

We headed back out to the Royal Regalia museum. The main entrance is a large domed round room with a magnificent chariot for transporting the sultan during parades. Around the perimeter were various rooms exhibiting photos of the sultan from his childhood, including one from his circumcision ceremony. The majority of the museum housed the many gifts the sultan has received from different countries, including an cross stitch portrait which looked like an unfinished child's school project. The head was completed, and the person had clearly begun the yellow background, covering a square inch with thread. But that was all, therefore the background was just the yellow hessian material it had been done on.

In the evening, we tried to visit the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in the centre, which is sat in the middle of a pool of water and has a large long boat in front of it. This mosque is a grand white building with a large gold dome in the centre and several smaller domes off of turrets around the edge with a high minaret to the side. It is the simplicity of this white mosque reflecting in the water with the ornately decorated blue and yellow mosaic patterned boat in front which makes this mosque so beautiful. We returned at night to see it lit up with some questionable green lights to take some photos.

As Brunei is dry, before dinner we enjoyed a coffee overlooking the river, watching the water taxi speedboats zip up and down, wondering how they manage not to crash all the time.

We headed to the food market, which has been dubbed the most atmospheric place to dine. We had high hopes after the one in Georgetown; however this was clearly more for locals. The food was really well presented, as if we were in a classy restaurant; the drinks came in a 1.5 lite plastic bottle served into china mugs.

Our final day in BSB started early with a boat trip at 8am in search of the proboscis monkeys. Brunei is one of the best places to see Borneo's native proboscis monkeys, identifiable by their oversized noses. These are larger and more pronounced on the male, flapping up and down when they call out. You can do an official tour from $85 (£42.50) each for an hour's trip, or book privately with one of the local water taxis for $10, the difference is they might potentially speak little to no English and lack of lifejackets. Chris and I can both swim and dislike organised tours.

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Proboscis monkeys!

We found a boat man and clearly struck gold. He obviously enjoyed doing this trip as much as we did, was very good at spotting the monkeys and even imitated their calls in an attempt to get them to appear. He named all the males Bob, and females Betty. We had a running commentary most of the way and when our hour was up, as we had just found a group of ten monkeys swinging in the trees, we just stayed for an extra half an hour, watching them jump through the air between two sections of trees. We also saw a family of three sat on some half metre high mangrove bushes right by the water's edge. We were so impressed with the wildlife on this trip which also included sightings of two crocodiles, a monitor lizard, kingfishers and an otter.

The trip along the river to where the proboscis monkeys hang out passed along the two kilometres of the Kampung Ayer before opening out to dense tranquil mangroves along both sides. Another kilometre or so up the river, you pass the royal palace and a little further along, perched high up on the hillside overlooking the river is the new palace which is currently under construction.

We were dropped off in the Kampung Ayer village, on a different section which is attached to the mainland and wandered through to the Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, where before entering, despite wearing a long sleeved shirt and trousers, I was still required to put on a gown and as well as the headscarf.

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Me in my Muslim attire

Inside, the ceiling was very grand with simple gold patterns. We didn't see as much of this mosque and were not offered a brainwashing, I mean tour. Next stop on our mosque trail was the Jame 'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah mosque, which was a bus ride out of town; however we could not enter as it was closed to non-muslims due to a function. All the same the outside is so grand, it made it worth the trip just to wander around the grounds. This temple had lustrous temple towers rising high above the glistening gold central dome, with intricate mosaic patterns around the edges. The car park for this mosque was larger than your average supermarket car park, with two 25m long archways leading up to the mosque serving as shoe racks.

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Jame 'Asr Hassanal Bolkiah mosque

Our hotel was offering complimentary late check out, which was perfect for us with a 7 o'clock flight. We tried our luck leaving the 'please make up our room tag' out and were very surprised to find the bed had been made and fresh towels! I am definitely more suited to this style of backpacking. After lunch in town, we passed the final couple of hours at the pool before showering and taking a taxi to the airport, where due to torrential rain, our flight was delayed by an hour. Could be worse I suppose.

Bandar Seri Begawan served as the perfect weekend city break being one of our more relaxed city breaks. Without a guidebook, you would struggle to know what there was on offer in BSB, but it is most certainly well worth the effort of finding out.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 01:41 Archived in Brunei Tagged monkeys water mosque park river muslim water_village sultan oil wealth Comments (0)

Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia

Back on dry land....for a couple of days atleasts

sunny 35 °C

Our two hour early evening bus ride to Ipoh soon became a four hour journey, finishing at a bus station in the middle of nowhere shortly before 11pm. Local buses had finished and so we had to take a taxi into town. After asking a taxi to take us to our hotel, we had a five minute wait while three of them rather animatedly discussed the exact location of the hotel, waving our map around as they tried to work out where our hotel was located. The centre of Ipoh is about 2km across was a few key main streets running around the centre. I would like to think that if someone showed me a map of my hometown and asked me to take them to a point I could at the very least recognise the area? It always amazes me when they look at our maps as if they have never been to the town before.

Ipoh's name is taken from the local tree thge Upas which had previously flourished locally. It was once grown for its sap, which was used as poison by the Orang Asli for their blowpipe darts. What really put Ipoh on the map was the descovery of a tin field during the mining boom in 1880, resulting in an influx of merchants in search of their fortunes from all over the world, bringing with them their own styles and traditions. It is now the capital of the region of Perak and home to half a million people with the new downtown sitting alongside the colonial old quarter.

Once at our hotel, we had an anxious wait as the hotel could not find our reservation. For some reason, we had to be present while they sorted this out at half eleven at night and initially we were unsure as to whether they still had a room. Finally after 25 minutes, having found the booking, we were able to have our room.

The following morning, we had one day to cover Ipoh before catching the train to Kuala Lumpur. The grand train station building is considered an attraction in itself, with its white columns linking the upper and lower balconies of the grand facade. The interior was somewhat lacking in grandeur, with a station which could have been in any old common building.

After buying our train tickets, we looked into taking a taxi to Kellie's Castle, which is 12km away from the centre of Ipoh. Rather annoyingly, the price had doubled to £20, so we were initially unsure if we wanted to go as we had read mixed reviews; however there are not too many other reasons why you would make the stop in Ipoh en route to KL.

Kellie's Castle is named after its creator, a Scotsman named William Kellie Smith. Construction began in early 1909; however work was blighted first by funding problems, and secondly an influenza outbreak in 1920, which killed many of the Tamil workers. Before work resumed, Kellie funded the construction of a temple, which on completion saw the end of the influenza outbreak. Work resumed on the castle, but in 1925, Kellie died from pneumonia while traveling in Portugal and his heartbroken wife was never able to return, leaving the castle unfinished.

We had expected it to resemble more of a ruin, but actually the external construction seems pretty solid, with only the inside seeming incomplete. You can explore the three floors (and somewhat perilously, the roof) of the house and the off centred tower, which offers panoramic views of the grounds. In spite of it being deemed unfinished, Kellie's Castle is still exceedingly impressive with its red brick, Scottish style castle, with islamic influences, looking completely out of place on the Malaysian landscape and yet at the same time somehow managing to blend in nicely.

Kellie's Castle contains a lift shaft, which was to be home to Malaysia's first lift; however it is believed Kellie was on his way to collect the bucket lift when he died prematurely in Portugal. Internally, the castle is architecturally interesting, due to Kellie's inexplicable and fairly extreme paranoia for the safety of his family, resulting in the seamless construction of multiple hidden passageways and staircases, creating secret escape routes into one of four tunnels built under the property. One of the 1.5 metre high and 1 metre wide tunnels extended to the Hindu temple 500m away. Kellie's perceived threat on his family remains a mystery even today.

After the castle, we visited the town's local museum which was shut, but was almost worth the walk as we went past the poshest and largest school building I have ever seen, which was a cream rendered building, which looked like 4 grand churches with spires which had been joined together to make this magnificent building.

We wandered around Ipoh, visiting Panglima Lane, which was formerly used to house the mistresses of the local wealthy Chinese merchants and was therefore better known was Concubine Line. The majority of the terrace shop houses have since been left to ruin with some looking incredibly run down and dilapidated. A few have since been restored and look beautiful with their well presented rendered fronts and quirky Chinese style doorways.

We looped back round the town and continued along the river, past several tradional wooden Malay houses. The Malay houses are completely wooden structures with slatted shutters covering the windows. On the other side of the river is a high rise tower block, which we assume could be some form of social housing or equivalent as the whole building was well maintained, with all the external rendering painted half in blue and the other half along a diagonal in green.

After an hour browsing the local shopping centre and a quick stop for a slice of chocolate fudge cake, it was time to catch our six o'clock train to KL.

Posted by Roaming Rolts 06:15 Archived in Malaysia Tagged food scotland castle scottish kellie's Comments (0)

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