The Great Ocean Road Trip

Originally our travel plan for Australia was to hire out a camper van and travel around the coast – with the probable exception of parts of the Northern Territories. (Given Sams’ fear of this area after watching the movie Wolf Creek too many times!!) The romantic idea of life on the road was quickly jettisoned for a number of reasons. The thought of spending hours in a small metal box in temperatures regularly over 30 degrees wasn’t hugely appealing. We both don’t have the greatest backs in the world and figured sleeping on a camper van mattress for several weeks might result in a lot of pain and a large and prolonged chiropractors bill.  Finding the right places to park up, especially in the cities, also felt like another hassle that could spoil our time in Melbourne and Sydney. The likelihood being we’d be stuck on the outskirts in a trailer park when we wanted to be in the hustle and bustle of these amazing cities. Being 50+ flash-packers, not backpackers, means we just aren’t cut out to rough it very much anymore. Instead, the combination of house sitting, AirBnB and a decent rental car proved to be far more appealing.

We picked up our car in Adelaide and headed south on the first leg of our drive that would see us motoring along the coast all the way to Sydney over the course of the next few weeks.

The Great Ocean Road is one of, if not the highlight of any Ozzie road trip. It’s quite a drive from Adelaide before you reach it but these less heralded strips of coast offer a great deal of pleasure, beautiful small towns, wonderful hospitality, wildlife and cracking coastline scenery – hence the barrage of photos in this blog.

Driving south from Adelaide we reached the Coorong National Park – a seemingly endless stretch of quiet sandbars, lagoons, and dry salt lake beds creating wide open barren spaces and a strange isolated atmosphere. It has a Hollywood claim to fame being  the setting for the film “Storm Boy”.


Although there was very little traffic and few people around to share the Coorong experience, we weren’t alone, with large gatherings of pelicans on the waters.


Seeing them so close up makes you realise what a bizarre bird they are with their giant bills dominating their features. However, they glide with such grace, with an astonishing wingspan. With rather less grace, Sam managed to capture me with a rather unfortunate pelican appendage while I was adopting a pelican pose…

The Pelican Briefs

Our first stop was the lovely town of Robe on what has become dubbed Australia’s “Limestone Coast” – it seems the tourist marketing people just can’t help themselves when it comes to branding and badging. With the school holidays over and the first signs of summer waning, Robe was very quiet and extraordinarily windy. The beaches looked great but it was far too blustery for a dip.

Robe, South Australia

After an overnight stop in probably the best AirBnB we have ever stayed in (not often you arrive to be greeted with wine and chocolates!), we headed off the next day immediately taking a detour to the even smaller town of Beachport. One of the pleasures of a leisurely road trip is looking at the map and picking random places to pop in and take a look at just because you like its name. Beachport has a huge jetty that provided us with a bracing morning walk that blew away the cobwebs and had us struggling to remember the searing heat of Adelaide.

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Sam drinking in the morning sun on Beachport Jetty

Mount Gambier was our next port of call, partly because it was the largest town on this stretch of the route, but also due to its famous Blue Lake, which the blurb assured us was bright blue. It’s easy to be cynical about these boasts, the biggest, best, tallest, oldest etc.  but for my money Mount Gambier really isn’t doing its Blue Lake justice – it really is the brightest blue lake we’ve ever seen. The lake sits in a volcanic crater and it apparently turns a bright turquoise blue overnight during November and stays that colour until March. It’s one of those sights that is so remarkable it looks slightly unreal, and you have to keep looking to convince yourself it really is that blue. After some double takes a smile creeps across you face and you think “yep, that’s worth boasting about – that is the bluest blue lake ever”. A road with several viewing points circles the lake and every time you jump out and take another look it repeats the trick of astonishing you.

Mount Gambier’s Blue Lake….no filter needed!

On the second night of our trip we stayed just outside the improbably named Port Fairy, close to Tower Hill Nature Reserve. Our AirBnB hosts advised that we would probably see a few Koala’s in the reserve – which filled us with excitement – but the first encounter we had was with a couple of Emu’s that were roaming around oblivious to our attentions.


After wandering around various trails in the reserve we hadn’t seen any Koala’s and were resigning ourselves to having to wait longer to see some of these adorable creatures in the wild – which is of course when we finally found two, snoozing away in Eucalyptus treetops. Almost as evocative as the Kangaroo, the Koala just looks like it needs to be hugged – although with the claws they have, that probably isn’t the best idea. Unlike many Kangaroo’s, Koala’s are great subjects to photograph, rarely moving a muscle.

Koala action shot…..

Our third day would see the start of the Great Ocean Road proper, making our way out of South Australia into Victoria. We started the day by visiting another recommendation off the tourist trail (an advantage of AirBnB – getting locals top tips), a rocky secluded beach tucked away just beyond the western end of the Great Ocean Road – Childers Cove, which we had all to ourselves – the only time we were going to experience that feeling all day as most tourists heading from the east in Melbourne don’t stray much beyond the Twelve Apostles and its neighbouring sites.

Childers Cove – not easy to find, but worth the effort

We headed west and started making the obligatory stops at what are the crown jewels of the Great Ocean Road: Loch Ard Gorge, London Arch, and the highlight, Twelve Apostles. You know you are nearing these attractions as helicopters buzz into view, whizzing passengers along the cliff line for what must be a tremendous view. The other tell-tale sign was the growing traffic and heaving car parks that left us wistfully thinking about the solitude we had left at Childers Cove.

Erosion in action – London Arch,

There is no question that the scenery is ruggedly beautiful, showcasing the power of erosion that is reshaping the coastline and ultimately has and will continue to wear away these iconic rocks.

Loch Ard Gorge

We had a feeling of deja vu as our visit coincided with the Chinese New Year, and hundreds of holidaying Chinese tourists making their way along the Great Ocean Road in fleets of coaches and mini-buses.

Twelve Apostles

Having travelled from the west we reached Twelve Apostles reasonably early in the day and before the day-trippers from Melbourne could get there. Nevertheless it was very busy and by the time we had wandered around, taken in the awesome views and slipped out of the car park it was starting to feel a bit over-run.

Looking West From the Twelve Apostles

Our last stop along this section of coast was a winding drive through the forests Great Otway National Park to its lighthouse – one of the most southerly points of mainland Australia. This is a bleak unforgiving spot, and the gale force winds that hit you as you step out on to the balcony of the lighthouse feel a million miles from the heat on the beaches of W.A. and Adelaide.


Our AirBnB experiences on our Oz trip had been excellent up to this point, however, that was about to change. The omens were not good as we drove through the popular resort of Apollo Bay and the rains came down. Nowhere looks great in the drizzle and Apollo Bay reminded us of Blackpool on a cold grey wet February afternoon – thoroughly grim! Our accommodation was a few miles further on in Wye River in what was described as a former monastery set right on the coast road – it sounded great and had an appealing name “Seacroft”. It wasn’t!!  As we entered our hearts sank at the sight of portacabin type accommodation and communal mixed sex toilet blocks. “OMG, we’ve been banged up” I said to Sam. We walked along a grim concrete pathway to our “cell” and I couldn’t help repeating the opening lines of Porridge: “Norman Stanley Fletcher, you have pleaded guilty to the charges brought by this court. You are an habitual criminal, who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard, and presumably accepts imprisonment in the same casual manner. We therefore feel constrained to commit you to the maximum term allowed for these offences: you will go to prison for five years.”

Thankfully our sentence was only to be one night – the punishment handed down for the crime of gullibility: believing rave reviews on AirBnB from previous guests who presumably had subterranean expectations compounded by acute myopia. We glumly surveyed our room and its generous helpings of dust and peeling paintwork. The mattress had clearly seen better days and as soon as we hopped on it from either side we both rolled to the middle as it sagged under our moderate weight.

At first light we tried to complete discrete ablutions in the toilet block and promptly hit the road. Mercifully the sun was back out and we started the next stretch of the Great Ocean Road, our mood lifted by the wild gorgeous beaches…


This is where the road hugs the cliffs alongside superb beaches and crashing surf – stunning views combined with rally-like bends as you weave your way along the hillside, with one “wow” moment after another. This felt like the heart of the road trip and it’s difficult to recall a more impressive scenic drive.

The Great Ocean Road approaching Lorne.

This tremendous drive was made even better by pulling up at Lorne – a place that is everything Apollo Bay isn’t (think Brighton vs Blackpool). Stylish, great shops and restaurants, quaint buildings and a buzzing beach filled with children learning to surf – a thoroughly wholesome place where we had a lovely healthy breakfast followed by bit of retail therapy and a dip in the sea.

A well kept Lorne

A short drive inland took us to Erskine Falls – another beautiful detour that further endeared Lorne to us. We really wished we had stayed here rather than at HMP Seacroft, but you occasionally have to take the rough to cherish the smooth.

Erskine Falls near Lorne

All too soon we were rolling into Angelsea and the official start/end point of the Great Ocean Road. Here we made a quick detour to see the famous local golf course that is inhabited by kangaroos..

Angelsea golf roos

After a final night in Queenscliff, part of the promontory of Port Phillip Bay, we started to make our way to Melbourne. This is another pretty and relatively un-touristed part of Victoria that was recently featured in the TV series “The Cry”, – a neat journey bookend to “Storm Boy” in Coorong.  Before reaching Victoria’s capital we stopped off to check out Geelong (still don’t know how to pronounce it) which was the largest place we had seen since Adelaide. Geelong has a potentially lovely pier part of which is inexplicably used as a car park – which is a real shame as the front is picturesque with a nice mix of old and new. Geelong is famous for its colourful wooden statues which can be seen all along the front that hark back to its seaside and seafaring past which adds to its sense of fun and frivolity.

Geelong Lifeguards

After five days driving and four nights we had completed a leisurely drive from Adelaide to Melbourne, including the Great Ocean Road itself. It’s certainly a trip we would recommend, and if you have time investigating the western end into South Australia is worth it. The Great Ocean Road itself feels as though it has two quite distinct characters. You can’t fail to be impressed by the coastal scenery of the Twelve Apostles area, it is striking and it lives up to the hype. However, be prepared to share this experience with hundreds of other sightseers slowly shuffling around the viewing points and searching for a space in rammed carparks. The drive in this section doesn’t routinely offer sea-views, although the forests of Great Otway National Park does compensate for that. The drive just north of Apollo Bay to Angelsea is superb. There isn’t a single iconic scene to pick out here, but it delivers sheer driving / sight-seeing joy with the added bonus of delightful Lorne – do stop here if you have the time.

Top Travelling Tips

Despite our one mishap on this part of our journey, for us AirBnB remains a far better experience than hotels. Warm greetings, the personal touch, great insider tips on what to see, where to eat, and of course great value for money. We’ve stayed in some beautiful homes in fabulous locations. Once in a while things go a bit pear-shaped, but that’s usually down to not spending enough time researching options.

Next Up: Melbun & Miriam Margolyes

Mercury Rising in Stylish Adelaide

It would be fair to say that our trip to Adelaide didn’t get off to the most auspicious start. Arriving at our hotel very late after a three hour flight and “losing” two and half hours travelling east from Perth, the receptionist seemed to have trouble finding our details. I passed her my phone impatiently showing the email from Agoda confirming the booking. After glancing at it for a moment or two she passed it back to me and politely suggested I scroll down on the email. Following her instructions I read with horror the phrase “we apologise but on this occasion we cannot confirm your hotel reservation”. I immediately changed tack from affronted customer to sheepishly asking if they had any rooms available – which luckily they had, for about double what we thought we were going to pay! It took eight months for this type of cock-up to occur, so that isn’t too bad.

Despite being one of Australia’s largest cities, Adelaide seems to have a slightly tarnished reputation, being seen as slightly dowdy, old fashioned and out in the sticks…..Sadelaide?. Even locals talked it down a bit suggesting that there wasn’t really much to see or do. We have to say that this was not our experience. Adelaide is a beautiful, vibrant place with tons to see and do in and around the city.

Another Plus for Adelaide – Trams!

On arrival the Adelaide headlines were all about the weather, the temperature topping 40 degrees  on our first day, and reaching a ridiculous record breaking 47 on the second, so we ventured out with some nervousness plotting a course through the city centre from one air conditioned location to another. In doing so we marvelled at the architecture that has been protected so well in the city, from civic building to the iconic Beehive Corner that helps to create a sense of history and stylish gravitas.


The City’s bustling Central Market offered another welcome diversion from the heat, full of life, colour, smells, fruit and veg we couldn’t identify…..and people with lots of body art …Tatadelaide? (Editors Note: that’s enough Adelaide puns!) Given its world famous vineyards, it wasn’t surprising to see lots of different grapes on offer at the market.


Day two presented a real challenge for us as we had to check out of the hotel, and kill several hours before we headed off to our house sit late in the afternoon, negotiating a day that was to be the hottest we’ve ever experienced and the hottest on record for Adelaide. About 800 metres away was the City’s Library and Art Gallery – which came highly recommended to us. We set off, stepping out of the hotel into an oven (we now have a vague idea of what it feels like to be cremated), aiming for every spot of shade on offer between us and our destination. This included contorting our bodies to fit the shape of even the slimmest of shadows while waiting at traffic lights. With fellow pedestrians doing the same we must have looked like an anguished mime flash mob, manically dispersing to more shade as soon as the green man appeared. The heat was breathtaking as we slowly made our way along the street occasionally stepping into its full glare before stepping into the sanctuary that was the library. This isn’t just any old library, in keeping with Adelaide’s historical swagger it contains the Mortlock Wing, a gorgeous interior of dark wood surrounded by shelf upon shelf of books that probably haven’t been opened in decades. In the tradition of all good libraries it also had people pretending to study in it.


We cooled down and enjoyed excellent displays, including one on the history of the establishment of colonial South Australia – as a free State rather than one based on convict labour – becoming a self governing colony in 1856, and in 1895 being one of the first places in the world to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election. There are always two elephants in the room when you start to look at Australia’s colonial and constitutional history. The treatment of its indigenous Aboriginal people, and the ongoing role of the British Monarchy represented by the Governor-General. It was interesting to see the demonstrations on Australia Day which marks the anniversary of the landing of the British fleet. The demo’s have rebranded it “Invasion Day” with the slogan “Always was, always will be Aboriginal land”. We certainly noticed a lot of  recognition of Aboriginal heritage when we reached Melbourne. The sense is that the numbers challenging the current Australia Day is growing, whether it will change the date and meaning of the Day remains to be seen, but it’s a fascinating example of how history and its legacy is being reviewed and challenged here and elsewhere.

Housesitting Harley

Our second house/pet sit in Australia was in the neighbourhood of Seaton Park, west of the city centre and just a ten minute drive from the long strip of pristine beaches that border the City. We had just over a week looking after a gorgeous Australian Sheepdog called Harley and a couple of rabbits (Peter and Asta). We immediately fell in love with Harley, funny, playful, obedient and very, very intelligent, we knew our time with him was going to be a delight.

Dog Walking Paradise

We started every morning with a long walk along the beautiful beach at Grange, much quieter than its more famous and busier neighbours in Glenelg and Brighton to the south. Harley had boundless energy chasing balls that we threw for him left, right and centre – he must have walked and run 10 metres for our every one. He did have a slightly inconvenient habit of dropping his ball in the sea making us wade in to find and retrieve it before hurling along the sand again – it seemed to be his way of maintaining a balance of power with his new best friends. With a face like that it was very hard to tell him off….


The long morning walks on the sand were an idyllic way to start the day, and given the heat, the best time to get out. We miss our greyhound Ruby terribly, so having bursts of dog sitting is a great antidote, especially in such a perfect environment. As well as miles of sand, Grange Beach had a jetty that was great for sunset watching.

Under Grange Beach Jetty

…and boasted a glorious Victorian three story terrace built in 1884 and the only one of its kind on the Australian coastline.

The Marine Terraces at Grange Beach, Adelaide

Drowning not waving

When not out walking with Harley we managed to see a number of sights in and around Adelaide, with two very contrasting days looking for dolphins. On the first of these we signed up for the classic “go swimming with dolphins” offer. What could go wrong: taking a magnificent catamaran out of the harbour at Glenelg..

So far so good…..

…donning our wetsuits, masks and snorkels and heading into the St Vincent Gulf. Sadly, out at sea the water did not look like the picture above, in fact it was really quite choppy. After about 45 minutes of kangarooing about on the boat our guides spotted a school of dolphins and got us ready for our encounter.

Looking the part…..

However, this was not going to be a gentle floaty snorkel with Flipper and his mates. Instead, we were to launch ourselves into the ocean and hang onto a large rope trailing the catamaran (without a life jacket) and listen to instructions on the whereabouts of dolphins while partly submerged. As I type this I can’t believe we actually jumped into the sea. Things started badly, inadvertently hitting the rope as I jumped in I managed to rip the mask off my head….twice! Eventually we were both in the sea hanging on to the rope for dear life – our main concern at this moment was not whether we saw a dolphin, instead focussing our efforts on not drowning. Sure enough a guide saw an emergency signal from one of the “swimmers”, a life buoy was thrown out and a few seconds later I saw a bedraggled Sam slowly pass me in the water being towed back to the safety of the boat. This was health and safety of Indonesian proportions. Despite this traumatic start and partly out of a morbid curiosity to see if my life would pass in front of my eyes I jumped in for a second time and found myself hanging on to the rope a long way from the boat.

Second from the end, head down contemplating my mortality,

It was a strange mixture of exhilaration, seeing dolphins dart about below us, and abject terror being in the ocean with only the strength in my tiring arms keeping me attached to the boat. Of course seeing the dolphins was great but what I really enjoyed was hearing the strange sonic ethereal noises they make as they communicate with each other. I’m no expert on “dolphinese” but I think one of them was pointing to me and saying to his mates “I’ve got that twats’ mask”.  Here is a bit of footage from the safety of the boat….

In complete contrast we spent the next day serenely kayaking around the Port Adelaide estuary. Here you can gently paddle among eerie shipwrecks that despite their dereliction intimidate as you get close to them:

Port Adelaide Estuary Shipwreck

..and gingerly work your way into the mangroves through small openings into an overgrown maze of watery routes that quickly befuddle your sense of direction, with the only sounds being the splash of your paddle on the water and the occasional thud of your head hitting a low hanging branch.

Here the Estuary dolphins gently glided by, a welcome change to the adrenaline fuelled panic 24 hours earlier. It was another example of the astonishing range of waterways Australia offers. It’s far from being all about those perfect sun-kissed beaches and the variety makes exploring this fabulous country constantly fun and invigorating.

Estuary Dolphin

Deutscheland Uber Alles

One of the most popular day trips from Adelaide is into the rural and rustic Adelaide Hills, where the city quickly yields to bush and offers panoramic views of Adelaide and the ocean beyond from the summit of Mount Lofty

Looking Down on Adelaide

It makes for a beautiful scenic tour, every now and then hopping out at a vintage looking store to stock up on refreshments where the welcome is so warm and friendly.

A Good Old Fashioned Store

A short deviation from the Adelaide hills takes you to the slightly bizarre historical village of Hahndorf, Australia’s oldest German settlement which dates back to December 1838 when 52 of the founding families of Hahndorf arrived from Germany. Given my heritage this was a trip I was looking forward to and it wasn’t long before we got into the spirit of things, marching down the high street and behaving in a suitably Bavarian manner.

No excuse for this…but it gets worse…
……Rather pleased with my legs in this shot

Kitsch doesn’t come close to describing Hahndorf. It’s quaint and quite endearing, but surely there is a limit to how many shops can sell cuckoo clocks and frankfurters.

Much further south on the unpronounceable Fleurieu Peninsula is Victor Harbor a great little town that is connected to Granite Island by a long walkway. Here the scenery is rocky, jagged and wild – and when you look south from the island you realise there is nothing but sea between you and Antartica. We didn’t get to see any of the penguins the Island is famous for, but we did enjoy the unexpected works of art that have been installed at the top of the Island.

No…we don’t know what this is either

The views from the Island back to Victor Harbor are stunning. It’s a perfect day trip and we subsequently discovered that we were lucky to visit it when we did – a few days later the roads in and out of Victor Harbor were cut off by bush fires.

Victor Harbor Bay

Our travels around Adelaide continued to offer so much fun and diversity from watching the incredible efforts of the competitors at the Australian Open Water Swimming Championships on Brighton Beach, to snuggling under blankets in surprisingly cool temperatures at the Adelaide Moonlight Cinema in the Botanic Gardens to watch The Favourite, complemented by our daily walks with Harley – we felt very lucky to be experiencing so much in picture perfect Adelaide.



Our experience of Glenelg had been tainted by the dolphin experience, so on our last night we returned there to walk along the beach, enjoy the sea lapping over our toes and watch a beautiful sunset. No trip to Adelaide is complete without a Glenelg sunset.

Glenelg sunset …note the low budget flood defences in the foreground!

Our time in Adelaide had come to an end, and with it a very special part of our travels. Saying goodbye to Harley was terrible and we consoled ourselves with the thought of more wonderful doggies and house sits to come in our journey across Oz. As for Adelaide – don’t listen to any naysayers, this is a wonderful city that offers something for every taste and interest. We can’t wait to have an excuse to return. Our sadness in leaving was tempered by the thought of the journey ahead – the Great Ocean Road trip to Melbourne.

Top Travelling Tips

It’s been a while since our last TTT’s and will be obvious from our Adelaide and Fremantle posts.  We would recommend investigating house/pet sitting. As well as getting the opportunity to indulge a love of animals you get to stay in lovely homes free of charge – a big help when it comes to budget management – where you can self cater (you really can get very tired of hotel food) and live like a local getting off the tourist trail.

Life’s A Beach On A Margaret River Road Trip

A three hour drive due south of Perth takes you to a small protuberance on the south west corner of Australia: the Margaret River region. It’s topped and tailed by two lighthouses at the northern (Naturaliste) and southern (Leeuwin) ends of one of the best roads in Western Australia – the Caves Road that runs parallel to the Indian Ocean and delivers you a series of caves and the most beautiful beaches you could ever set eyes on.

As this was a road trip we had to do something we hadn’t done for seven months: drive a car. Our trepidation was tempered by how quiet the roads are in W.A. and having driven part of this route before a couple of years ago. Like the U.K. they drive on the left in Oz, which helped, and the car was automatic, so no worrying about clunking gear changes and ham-footed clutch control (if you can be ham-fisted, I presume you can be ham-footed?).

Our itinerary was relaxed, starting with two nights in an AirBnB in Busselton, which gave us plenty of time to wander off our planned route and follow our noses to interesting diversions, all of which turned out to be more engaging than our first stop in the intriguingly named Australind. It’s an unremarkable spot and while it had a very pleasant estuary it suffers from being so close to far nicer beaches, starting with Koombana beach in neighbouring Bunbury. This is a popular stretch of sand that has an excellent Dolphin Discovery Centre, soft sand and crystal clean water.

Koombana Beach

Like many W.A. beaches it does experience a wind that whips from the west and makes Sun-Brolly positioning and erection something more akin to a mechanical engineering exercise than simply popping it open and sticking it in the sand – if you do that it will be the last you see of your shade, unless it spears an unfortunate family of sun-seekers immediately downwind of you. In that scenario in all likelihood a big tattooed Aussie bloke called Shane will return it to you offering to pop it up for you properly…..after sticking it somewhere the sun doesn’t shine – and there aren’t many of those places in W.A.

With that in mind and being the sort of chap who prefers to avoid confrontation (i.e. British) I spent a good 20 minutes excavating a hole to bury the bottom half of the brolly, and weighed down the umbrella section with a variety of heavy objects. The result was that our deluxe 6ft Sun-Brolly now crouched at a rather lowly 3ft, making it look like a completely out of place toadstool. “I know it’s a bit inconvenient….” I said to Sam as we burrowed our way under it, “….but it’s not going to blow away and cause a scene”.  Sod’s Law being what it is, I wandered off to get a drink after all that digging and returned to find Sam battling with the brolly which had decided it would look nicer as a deformed Tulip.

After a dip and a spot of lunch, we set off for our stay in Busselton, a lovely buzzing beachside town that boasts two great attractions (in addition to the stunning beach). Busselton Jetty runs just shy of 2 kilometres and is one of the southern hemispheres longest wooden jetties.

The Long and Winding Jetty

If that isn’t enough to induce you to walk its length, then at the end you will find its underwater observatory, where you descend a spiral staircase 8 meters to the seabed and can take a look at a live sea life show, marvelling at whatever happens to be swimming by. To add to our entertainment we had a guide who we suspect had received her training from the Gestapo. “Achtung! There vill be no fun on zis tour, children will be quiet and do exactly as I say and do not touch zee glass”. Seriously, at one point when a child was wailing she said to the beleaguered parent in a sweet but firm tone “you are free to leave the tour now and go upstairs if you like.” As fine a display of passive aggression as you could wish to witness.


After a couple of relaxing days at Busselton, on a recommendation we headed west towards Dunsborough to grab breakfast, stroll around the town and head to the beach. Like Margaret River itself, Dunsborough has a slightly hippy laid back vibe going on that makes it immediately likeable and relaxing. We found a great little breakfast spot for a super-healthy snack and what could be our first and last tasting of a thick turmeric smoothie. It must have been incredibly good for us as it tasted awful!


Dunsborough isn’t a completely new age po-faced PC hipsterville though, as this A-Board wittily demonstrated…


…..we passed on this tempting offer and headed down to the beach, where we pitched up on the sand and took advantage of a calm lagoon to do some more Stand Up Paddle-Boarding. While paddling along I saw the dark shapes of Rays swimming beneath me – a reminder of the fabulous sea-life that frequent the waters here. The wind made paddle-boarding harder than usual, pushing us both towards the sandbar enclosing the lagoon, but it was ideal for folks in boats.

Mini-Catamaran’s on Dunsborough Beach

We set off again westward ho! toward Naturaliste lighthouse, and in doing so came upon Eagle Bay. As we pulled up in the car park and looked down on the beach Sam and I said “Wow” in unison. In front of us was the archetypal perfect beach: soft white sand, a turquoise sea, deep blue sky and incredibly, hardly anyone there. Initially we decided to have a stroll up and down the beach marvelling at the beauty. However, we agreed that we couldn’t look back on this beach without getting in the water. I raced back to the car, got our cossies and jumped in the sea…omg it was cold, not U.K. cold, but still a bit of a shock after the temperatures we had got used to. Once in it was okay and the water was the clearest I think I’ve ever swam in.

Eagle Bay – A Beach to Behold

We finally made it to the lighthouse after these delightful detours, but just too late to go into the building itself. We had to make do with a stroll around the grounds. It was odd how many times we found ourselves unable to see the lighthouse as we meandered about – hopefully there is a clearer line of vision from sea!


From Naturaliste we headed due south on the glorious run that is the Caves Road, past forests and countless wineries to the town of Margaret River. Curiously, it’s not on the coast but lies a few kilometres inland. It’s a pretty town with quaint shops, good eateries and the perfect base for the beaches and wineries. It’s also a good spot for finding kangaroos in the wild. While heading into town we had our first ‘roo experience when one bounded across the road about 20 metres in front of us: simultaneously an exciting and frightening sight. A ten minute drive from town into a sparsely populated area you will find kangaroos bouncing about and grazing to their hearts content in the gardens and fields of local residents.

“Call that a fence..?”

From Margaret River we made further jaunts up and down the Caves Road visiting the coastline that offers one golden strip after another – Yallingup being a particular favourite – with the rugged and wild Canal Rocks breaking up the stretches of beach.

Canal Rocks

When it comes to beaches and beautiful coastline, the Margaret River area has an embarrassment of riches, and with such great expanses you rarely find the beaches crowded. We enjoyed some wonderful beach life in S/E Asia, but here there is the beauty, tranquility, and not a spot of litter anywhere. For my money, the best beaches we’ve seen anywhere in the world……but we haven’t gone east yet.

Surfs Up: Yallingup, a special beach

After our short trip through Margaret River we headed east to spend five nights of solitude staying in our nephew’s holiday home in what can definitely be termed the “middle of nowhere” – although with the small town of Mount Barker a 15 minute drive away, there is much more “nowhere” to be found in this vast country.

The view from our verandah – our nearest neighbour and Stirling Range in the distance

On our way we headed into the dense Karri Forests to visit the Gloucester Tree. Standing at almost 200 feet tall the first thing you notice about the tree (other than its height) are the stakes driven into the trunk in a spiral that enable the intrepid to climb almost vertically to the top. A small net runs alongside the stakes to help prevent you launching yourself sideways off the tree. This is not for the feint-hearted, unfit, dodgy-kneed, or those with a fear of heights. Happily I ticked at least three of those boxes, although my siblings Sue and Dirk have both climbed it, so Mitchell’s have been to the top of the tree.

The Gloucester Tree

The tree is one of eight look-outs for detecting bushfires during the hot season, so as well as being a tourist attraction, they serve an important purpose.

Staying with the forest theme we travelled to Walpole and the Valley of the Giants, which as the name suggests hosts huge Tingle Trees. It’s a great visit that has a superb tree top walk 40 metres high, where you can stroll along the forest canopy testing your nerve as you look down the vertiginous trunks. The walk is sturdy, but you can certainly feel plenty of “bounce and wobble” as you gingerly step along the walkway On reflection, maybe that movement was just me after festive excesses.

Valley of the Giants Tree Top Walk

In contrast back on terra firma there is an equally impressive walk through the forest where you can get close up with the tree trunks and marvel how they still stand despite age, fire and disease hollowing out their bases.

Impressive girth!

Star of the trees is Grandma Tingle, sitting and watching over the forest, so named for obvious reasons…


On the coast of this stretch of W.A. sit pretty towns such as Walpole, Denmark and Albany, all sharing a lovely laid back feel and rugged beauty that reminded us more than once of California’s Big Sur.

Green Pools, Denmark

In a distinctly chilly Albany we were about to abort our trip on account of the cold when we popped into St John’s Church, a very pleasant building with striking stained glass. However, the best thing about the place was meeting a lovely man called Norm who delayed locking up to tell us a bit about the church including its history in hosting the very first on the Anzac Day Dawn Services in April 1930. Albany was a key location for the assembly and departure of convoys heading to the battlefields of WWI. Norm was fascinating, telling us of his father who had survived the Great War and met his future wife while convalescing in England after the War. She subsequently joined him in Australia, stepping off the boat at Fremantle in her bridal dress to be married in a local church an hour later. Then it was off to the outback to farm 4000+ acres – that must have been a shock but they made a success of it and it was passed on to their children. History was made even sweeter when Norm told us that he and his wife had just celebrated 60 years of marriage. It was a heartwarming experience and we felt rather sad to leave Norm and his treasure trove of experiences and stories.

Back at home outside Mount Barker we were enjoying the isolation and getting to meet the neighbours: dozens of sheep and two alpacas called Salt and Pepper. Having chatted to out nearest neighbour (who lived about a kilometre away) he encouraged us to get to know the fluffy condiments by feeding them carrots.

“What do you mean ‘no carrots today’?

They really enjoyed the treat and whenever they saw us leaving or entering the field next to theirs would pop up their heads and amble over in the hope of more. They are very lovable but skittish things with teeth that don’t seem to distinguish between carrot and finger!

In Mount Barker itself we couldn’t resist paying a visit to a wonderfully ramshackle book shop that contained an incredible array of literature and other bizarre memorabilia. It was one of those places where you could spend hours searching through it in the hope of stumbling across a priceless first edition.

Never judge a bookshop by its frontage….it’s mayhem on the inside

There probably is one in there…but your chance of finding it among the crammed higgledy-piggledy shelves.. well you may as well buy a lottery ticket. We gave up after about half an hour of rooting around and satisfied ourselves with a couple of old paperback Penguins. Charming place.

In contrast to the beaches, coastline and forests, the Stirling Range dominates the skyline, brooding over the plains below, changing colours like moods. We spent a day driving around its foothills and finding viewing points, but had left it too late in the day to trek in the climbing temperatures. The views of the Range are as stunning looking up as they are looking down, made even more so by the splendid isolation.


There is a magical and mystical feel to the Sterling Range and Bluff Knoll in particular which is captured by the Aboriginal interpretations and understanding of nature and their relationship with it. The Noongar warn of the dangers of the mists and evil spirits circling the mountain, leading the unaware astray.


Our trip south of Perth had come to an end, and on the last night we quietly sat watching the colours and shades change as the sun went down. A beautiful end to a lovely trip to Australia’s south west corner.


Next Up: Mercury Rising in Adelaide


Home Comforts Sea, Sun and Sailing in Perth


Cottesloe Beach Surfer Sculpture

Exactly six months after stepping into the humid embrace of Ho Chi Minh City, we left Bali for the three hour flight south to Perth to enjoy a relaxed Christmas and New Year with my sister Sue and her family.

Naturally we were looking forward to catching up with family after six months in S/E Asia, but it’s also true to say that  reacquainting ourselves with some home comforts had us drooling as we patiently waited to board our flight from Bali to Perth. In an exchange of texts with Sue we ran through the food we were most looking forward to eating when we got to Australia. There was nothing sophisticated or remotely indigenous in our tastes. Instead we asked for potatoes in any and every form, but especially baked and mashed; porridge; and a cheese and tomato sandwich on brown bread with salad cream. I can’t recall enjoying a sandwich more than the first one of those we tucked into: absence truly does makes the heart grow fonder when it comes to simple culinary pleasures. Our tastes have subsequently expanded but the joy of making beans of toast remains unadulterated.

Yum Yum!

Having said that, Cray Fish and King Prawns for Christmas dinner in the sun was rather special. On reflection this is one of the lessons we’ve learnt from travelling: taking so much pleasure from something that we would normally take for granted. That learning has played out several times staying with Sue as we immersed ourselves in domesticity, enjoying the novelty of making our own breakfast; not having to do a google search for “nearest laundry near you”; and gorging on TV fodder (….I confess to watching “Call the Midwife” MORE THAN ONCE!). The simple things you can’t really do in a hotel environment. We’ve even done a spot of gardening and came across these very friendly crickets.


Our wardrobe has enjoyed a bit of an overhaul as well so there will be some variety in the clothes we are wearing in our pictures at long last!

We do miss our greyhound Ruby terribly, so meeting Sue’s rescue greyhound Asta has been wonderful. She has the same traits as Ruby and its been such fun walking, stroking and playing with her.

Sam and Asta By The Canning River

Our arrival in Perth coincided with the Australia v India Test match, the first game to be played in the City’s stunning new cricket ground. With my nephew John we went to the third days play and were able to witness India’s Virat Kohli reach his ton – one of the few high points for India in a game dominated by Australia and their bowling attack.

Inside W.A’s new Cricket Stadium

The stadium offers fabulous views regardless of where you sit and is a bit like the Tardis, looking far bigger on the inside than the understated but beautifully designed external view.

Outside view of the Stadium

In-between loafing about in the garden we have managed some activity. The climate and the abundance of beaches and rivers in Perth creates a love-affair with water-sports and sailing. We headed south to Mandurah with John and his lovely little ones, Owen and Jazzy, for a look around and a boat trip through the harbour and estuaries, with John and Owen doing a marvellous job as our skippers while we admired swanky quayside houses and spotted dolphins playing in the water.


A few days later we got a bit more “hands-on” trying out mini-catamarans on the Swan River. Sam and I are clueless about sailing; how to position the sail or steer. However, after a 5 minute briefing from a very patient chap we were away moving off at quite an impressive speed as the wind drove us on. Admittedly it took a few attempts to successfully make a turn and dive across the deck avoiding being hit by the big wooden thingy attached to the sail, but once we got the hang of it, it was a tremendous feeling sailing back and forth across the river in the shadow of the city’s sky-scrapers.

The opportunity to embrace the outdoor life in Perth is one of the most striking differences with the U.K. We are far from hermits back home, but the weather here invites you to make the most of the varied and beautiful environments on offer – the only problem being the constant need to be careful of sunburn, especially at this time of year when the temperatures regularly climb towards 40 degrees.


Nowhere offers better views of Perth than the beautiful Kings Park that sits above the city. From this vantage point the layout of the city unfolds revealing the flow of the Rivers Swan and Canning past the city centre and onto Fremantle.

Perth from Kings Park

Perth city centre itself is a lively spot with a great pedestrianised shopping area five minutes from classy developments on the Swan River such as Elizabeth Quay and the new bridge to the cricket ground. It’s a bustling city and its easy to forget that north, south and east sit the vast sparsely populated areas of Western Australia that makes Perth the most isolated city in the world.

“Swan Bridge” to the Stadium

A very short journey on Perth’s great transit system takes you to Fremantle, a port town with tons of charming architecture, a brilliant market, and lots of trendy shops. After the bright new urban feel of the centre of Perth, Freo really captures the laid back easy going charm that is so prevalent in W.A.

A Different Take On Street Art in Freo

As one of the country’s key ports, Freo has a long and interesting history, with many sites of interest including the old Prison, and a vibrant quayside, and quaint buildings that have been mercifully preserved. Just up coast there are long windswept walks along quiet beaches: this is where we found the superb surfer sculptures that top and tail this blog: staring out to the sea waiting for the perfect wave.



It’s funny how a chance coincidence can change the course of travelling. Originally we had planned to see much of the Australian coast in a van or motor home. However, thanks to social media a friend of ours, Wendy, saw our posts from Perth and let us know that a former colleague was staying in Freo. So it was that we met up with Deano and her lovely partner Leesa.

Sam, Deano & me at Little Creatures

It really is special seeing old friends on the other side of the world. What made it even better was learning about their experiences. Like us Deano and Leesa  have turned their back on the 9-5 treadmill, and have been travelling for a mightily impressive 2 years. What started as a catch-up soon became a discussion about travelling tips, and what really intrigued us was their successful experiences house and pet sitting as a means of making travel more affordable, staying in nice homes (rather than hotels), getting off the tourist trail and indulging a love of animals. That ticked lots of boxes for us and with their “go for it” advice and infectious enthusiasm ringing in our ears a few days later we were registered on a website and had our first sit lined up: a week in the upmarket neighbourhood of Mosman Park, just north of Fremantle, looking after a 9 month old Kelpie called Max, four chickens and a fish.

With Max down by the river

Max was a lovable bundle of energy who took us out on gorgeous walks along the Swan River, through picturesque parks and the dog beach. He had a slightly disconcerting habit of chewing my trainers and eating flies – usually in mid-air with no thought as to where he was about to land! As well as having a great time messing about with a dog full of character we got some much needed exercise for the week and I learnt the mysteries of looking after chooks, rewarded with the very freshest of eggs!

Chook Management for Dummies!

We discovered an open air cinema in the neighbourhood and couldn’t resist seeing a film under the stars – albeit with some blankets to ward off a surprising evening chill.

Movies With The Stars Under The Stars

Seeing a new neighbourhood through the eyes of a temporary resident is a dimension of travelling we hadn’t thought about. We really enjoyed our first sitting experience (which we received a rave review for and a 5 star rating!!) and as a result have adjusted our plans to be a mix of sits and traditional tourism. We are lucky to have the flexibility and take these opportunities as they arise. Wendy’s message and meeting Deano and Leesa feel like a wonderful piece of cosmic serendipity guiding our journey – what a perfect way to start the new year.



Next Up: The Deep South…Margaret River and Albany.

South East Asia: Reflections On Six Months of Travel

Sunrise Over the South China Sea

After six months of travelling throughout South East Asia, we’ve come to the end of this leg of our journey. Where better to reflect on our experiences, and what we’ve learned, than relaxing in the heat of sun-kissed Perth for Christmas and the New Year before we set off again. 

First here are the crude numbers: 7 countries; 24,000+ miles; 50 hotels; 25 flights; 1000+ mosquito bites (Sam thinks that’s a conservative estimate!); 5 haircuts; 20 blogs; 100,000+ Chinese tourists (there may be some South Koreans in that estimate); 28 books read; 1000+ photos; and no arrests!

 Here are brief thoughts on each country we’ve visited 


To quote Frank S “if I can make it there…. I can make it anywhere”. Manic Vietnam is probably the best place to start a trip in S/E Asia –  it’s a complete shock to European sensibilities, especially the omnipresent motorbikes. But once you’ve adjusted to and embraced the mayhem, everywhere else will feel serene (except Phnom Penh and Jakarta). Sitting cheek by jowl with the vibrancy are gorgeous beaches, stunning scenery, a truly fascinating ancient and modern history, and welcoming people. For some reason Vietnam will always be a personal favourite for us, the wild child of S/E Asia, the tearaway younger sibling China can’t tame. Long may that continue. 

You need hands…Ba Na Hills


We only saw two cities in Laos and one of those was the dull capital Vientiane. So we have a lot more to see and learn about Laos. However, Luang Prabang was one of the stars of our journey, a beautiful town wedged between two great roaring rivers, with picturesque buildings and a calming atmosphere. We visited Luang Prabang out of season, which was probably a good thing as we hear it can be a bit overwhelmed at other times. We definitely need to return to Laos.

The Mighty Mekong flowing beside Luang Prabang


Like Laos we only managed two cities and again didn’t like the capital at all, but you have to go to learn first hand about the Killing Fields. Siem Reap on the other hand was another gem and not solely due to being the base for Angkor Wat explorations. It’s a lovely town and the people in Cambodia are incredibly friendly and warm. Of course Angkor Wat is astonishing – the range and beauty of the temples are unique, the crown jewels among the treasures of S/E Asia. It’s a must see and make sure you give it enough time. We spent five days exploring the temples and could have taken longer still.


Writing a blog on the experience of the Killing Fields was difficult: trying to find the right words and images to express anger and outrage alongside respect and humility.   Without question this was the most bewildering and upsetting experience of our trip so far. The sight of the tree where children were murdered will never leave us, nor should it. 



Good old Thailand – same same but different for us as we revisited some familiar haunts, but also discovered  new treats. In and around Bangkok has so much to offer, but the real surprises for us were the inexplicably low-profile ruins and temples at Sukothai, the jaw-dropping limestone karst scenery at Khao Sok National Park, and beach life at Krabi, all of which left us re-appraising our favourite Thai places. We also endured one night in the worst hotel of our trip, monkey-ridden Lopburi. Don’t go!

Ruins at Sukothai


Having briefly visited KL before we didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the country and were delighted with what we discovered. Multi-cultural, relaxed, great food and architecture. Plus you have the joy of the Peninsula (with another city highlight for us – GeorgeTown); and Malaysian Borneo which kind of feels like another country, but because it’s Malaysia is very accessible and manageable for travellers. Fantastic street art can be found in nearly every town and city. The wildlife and jungle is something else again. We’ve still got the central highlands and the east coast peninsula to explore, so we will definitely be returning. It’s a very relaxed place…..



We came to Singapore with a bit of a cynical “will it be clinical” mindset and left it starry-eyed. What an island! Take Hong Kong, stir in some Manhattan and add a dash of  Vegas with some great ethnic neighbourhoods and colonial charm thrown in. It’s not cheap but you can spend judiciously and have a great time. Soooo many highlights here but Gardens by the Bay is just remarkable. Anywhere that makes you wander around smiling like a wide-eyed kid has got to be great. 

Gardens by the Bay


We’ve visited three of the main islands (Sumatra, Java and Bali) and I still don’t have the foggiest idea of how to capture the essence of this country. I’m not sure the people do either. Maybe that’s its secret: the diversity of beliefs, peoples, languages, and the vast archipelago itself. It’s got it all, wild beauty, dense jungle, Borobudur, volcanic lakes, Balinese beaches and the most hospitable hosts. It has a horrible health and safety track record that can fray the nerves somewhat. Nevertheless it’s a really enigmatic place that has been fascinating to experience, and we didn’t make it to Komodo so we will be back to explore more.

Lake Toba

Mekong River

Okay it’s not a country but for several months it was a feature of our journey seeing it rolling alongside four of the countries we visited. From the deep red mud saturated delta in Can Tho, Vietnam to the bulging fast-flowing river crashing alongside Luang-Prabang, witnessing and boating along this mighty river fulfilled a lifetimes ambition. 

Dawn on the Floating Market on the Mekong, Can Tho

So, what have we learnt?

It would be easy to gush about all of wonderful experiences we have had – and there have been plenty. But we’ve always tried to balance the superlatives with some of the day to day realities of travelling in this region. Here are some random thoughts, compliments and complaints.

S/E Asians – the world’s friendliest people?

After you grow accustomed to the friendliness of the people of S/E Asia it is easy to take it for granted, but it’s such a warm welcome you get everywhere in this part of the world. Some of it is pure generosity, some of it is inquisitiveness, and at other times it’s amusement, but it’s always with goodwill and a smile on the face. Admittedly as travellers we encounter a lot of people in the service industry whose job it is to be welcoming – but just consider that proposition for a moment and apply it to London or Paris! 


Life’s a Beach

I’m not sure we are ever going to be able to hobble back onto the pebbled beach at home in Brighton and Hove after this trip. Talk about being spoilt!  The choice seems to be as endless as some of the stretches of beaches. Soft clean sand, warm crystal clear waters, and the sun beating down in what was often allegedly “rainy season”.  Having said that, it does pay to check whether you need to be on east or west coast of Thailand to avoid monsoon. The only cloud on this idyllic horizon? Litter. As the blog from Mui Ne (What a Waste) illustrated – when it’s bad, it’s appalling. Someone is making a lot of money from tourism and not re-investing in basic infrastructure. That needs to change.

Beautiful Quy Nhon

Travelling not Holidaying

A corollary to our beach time has been the understanding that we are travelling and not on holiday, which in turn means not feeling guilty about having downtime. Doing nothing is not only fine, it’s essential to avoid total exhaustion. Sleeping well and eating as healthily as we can has also been key to our wellbeing. We haven’t over-planned things, rarely booking flights or accommodation more than 3 weeks ahead. Occasionally that has left us nervously wondering where we will be sleeping next week, but wifi has improved out of all recognition here and its been very easy to get online, understand and sort visa’s and book hotels, flights etc with the minimum of fuss.

Borneo Sunset

Back-Packing or Flash-Packing?

When we meet people on our travels and tell them our plans they often say something along the lines of “how wonderful, backpacking through South-East Asia”. We haven’t corrected this assumption because it makes us sound very adventurous and hardy. However, backpacking we are not! The idea of spending one minute let alone a night in a hostel sharing the same bathroom and oxygen with a bunch of hairy arsed flatulent 20 somethings is totally out of the question! We are “mature” travellers and need some level of comfort and privacy. It turns out that as with everything in life there is a label for us – we are “flash-packers”.  And with the incredibly affordable cost of living in South-East Asia and a reasonable but not over-indulgent budget, it’s possible to lead a very comfortable “flash-pack” life here.  Back-packer or Flash-packer?

Travelling light

Japanese Occupation WWII and its Legacy

As we’ve worked our way through countries and cities, reading about their history the common thread of the impact of Japanese occupation has surfaced frequently. In some cases at high profile sites such as Kanchanburi, but also at the lesser known: the Sandakan Death Marches that was an act of mass murder. It’s made us realise how little we know about the WWII Pacific theatre of conflict. Inevitably what little we do know tends to focus on Allied forces, but time and again we discovered the brutality and terrible losses the indigenous populations suffered at the hands of Japanese imperialism. Their departure created vacuums that nationalists tried to fill, but not before dreadful, misguided campaigns by the French, British, Dutch and USA caused further suffering and enmity. Seeing the work of COPE in Laos supporting victims of land mines was for us one of the most eye-opening experiences of this legacy, the effects of which continues today.


One Road, One Belt…..a big cheque book and a lot of debt.

Anyone who has (inexplicably) read a lot of our blogs will have noticed a recurrent theme: an antipathy towards China and Chinese tourists. This isn’t borne out of some irrational jingoistic prejudice. More a case of speaking as we find. It’s no secret that many third world countries have welcomed Chinese investment with open arms – why wouldn’t they? The problem is that many of these projects are destroying the environment and further harming endangered species, for example the Threat to Orang-Utans in Sumatra and the damming of the Mekong in Laos that will change the nature of the River downstream forever: Impact of Dams on the Mekong River. In addition to the environmental harm the Dam collapse in Laos in July killed 39 people and left thousands homeless. What is more, China’s huge One Road, One Belt project seems to have a canny knack of channelling its benefits back to the homeland.

Having invested so much in South East Asia it’s little wonder that the new Chinese middle classes who are now holidaying abroad in their millions treat it as if they own it – they kinda do!  Their graceless behaviour neatly leads us onto another gripe….

All Hail Insta-Culture!

Now we have no problem with Instagram, in fact if you go to  #samjohntravelogue on Instagram (shameless plug) you will find a thriving collection of some of our favourite travel images. There are no selfies. You won’t see a picture of Sam blocking out a perfect sunset or a gorgeous ancient temple with a vacant smile and two fingers in the air. Worse still you will not see a picture of one of us sitting crossed legged in a meditation pose in front of an image of Bhudda while out of shot hundreds of irritated sweating tourists mill around waiting to do the same. It seems to be a growing problem:  Instagram Snappers Hogging NZ Beauty Spot

“When you think you’ve gone too far…go farther”

Democracy – it’s so overrated

There is no denying that there are some dubious political practices and situations in this part of the world where there have been abuses of power. Men who were once freedom fighters have slipped easily into the role of dictators, holding onto power despite shocking levels of inequality and grinding poverty. It would be easy to point to a lack of true democracy in some countries. However, the recent pantomime performance of western-style democracy in the UK, USA, and Australia does leave you wondering who, if anyone, is getting it right.

We didn’t have any particular desire to visit Myanmar but would not do so on principal given the genocide that has taken place there over the past two years. It’s also been disturbing to see a serious shift towards some rabid homophobia – particularly in parts of Indonesia – in order to win votes. 

Books, Books, Glorious Books.

One of the unexpected joys of our trip has been having time to read and enjoy books in a way that we could never do when working. Biographies, crime thrillers, philosophy,  and spy novels have all been devoured. It’s interesting to see the path that we’ve followed in selecting books, where one novel has led us on to another.  Sam has been much more eclectic in her tastes, currently devouring Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming”, while I’ve become obsessed with George Smiley, enjoying the time we have to read every Le Carre book he appears in. 


What started out as a bit of an informal diary so that a few family and friends can keep track of us has turned into a monster! I’m a slave to it, constantly trying to source interesting stories, perspectives, and appropriate photos. It’s been great fun and it’s a brilliant way to keep track of what we’ve done. Comments and likes from readers is such a pleasant surprise. There have been times when I’ve got really frustrated with the limits of my vocabulary, and on one dreadful occasion I somehow lost nearly all of a blog I’d been writing for an hour or two. I crash out a rough copy then Sam patiently polishes it, correcting grammar, carefully editing and occasionally pointing out that “this paragraph makes absolutely no sense at all”. 

Working From Home

Jungle Wildlife

Last and most certainly not least we come to what we both agree is the highlight of our journey so far – wonderful wild animals. The sheer majestic beauty of lumbering Asian Elephants frolicking in rivers. Fireflies mysteriously lighting up a pitch black sky. Tree vipers lurking above our heads; Monitor Lizards scampering by our feet; Monkeys galore from the cute Dusky Leaf Monkey, ubiquitous long tailed macaques, and the downright bizarre Proboscis Monkey. Gibbons hollering and swinging through treetops. Sun and Moon Bears in their sanctuaries protected from poachers.


The highlight of the highlight? The moment after hours of trekking through the jungle we looked up and saw wild Orang-Utans just a few metres above us in the trees. It was overwhelming and very emotional.

Orangutan Mother and Child


Finally, we would like to say a bug thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read our thoughts, and send so much generous feedback. It really is appreciated and we look forward to resuming our musings in 2019 with blogs from our travels in Australia.

In the meantime Happy New Year and All The Best for 2019.

Sam & John xx




Borneo – It’s Wild Man!

Hello Handsome!

Borneo was never really on our itinerary, it seemed too remote and to be completely honest we didn’t know much about the island and the peculiar boundaries between Malaysia in the north, Indonesia in the south, with Brunei adding a very small punctuation on the north coast.

However, Borneo does have a certain mystique about it. What is more we don’t know anyone who has been there, so it would give us marvellous bragging rights. Sam and I have rehearsed the ways in which in future conversations in company, regardless of the subject matter, we could interject with the line “yesss, that reminds me of our time in Borneo…

Of course it would be churlish to say that was our sole motivation…but it is an added bonus. The real reason for our visit was the prospect of seeing the Old Man of the Jungle again. Experiencing Orang-Utans in the wild in Sumatra had whetted our appetite and the chance to see more in Borneo was irresistible. Plus it’s the only place to see the Cyrano De Bergerac of the ape world in the wild: the Proboscis Monkey. 

Old Lady of the Jungle

First stop was Kuching, the capital of Sarawak province, in north west  Borneo. Kuching has a real charm to it. Unlike other parts of Malaysian Borneo it didn’t suffer from too much Allied bombing during the Japanese occupation in WWII and as a result it has retained much of its colonial  architecture. In fact it reminded us of one of our favourite destinations so far (also in Malaysia) George Town in Penang.

Old Kuching

And as with every town we’ve visited in Malaysia, street art thrives and brightens up the streetscape with vibrant colours and images:

Kuching is obsessed with cats!

Food options are plentiful, and we had some of the best meals of our journey here in upbeat atmospheric bars and restaurants, one of which was the original Courthouse, converted into a really cool eatery. 

Running through the centre of town is the Sarawak River with a backdrop of mountains in the distance that further adds to the beauty of the city. Almost as remarkable is the local Parliament which is a real statement building – quite what the statement is, wasn’t clear to us, but subtle it is not. See if you can spot it in the photo below…

Now that is what I call a Town Hall!

But as much as we like the city, the real draw is the fun in the jungle. We had read about a fabulous kayaking trip down the Semadang River which we duly booked. As it’s low season we were the only visitors and had the guide to ourselves. After a bit of a dodgy start on quite a rapid section we got into our “stride” and quietly paddled downstream with the current, enjoying the sights and sounds of dense jungle from river level. It was a beautiful experience. 

Although you can do this as a Kayaking novice, the tuition we received on the distinctly un-jungle  like River Adur in Sussex before we set off on our trip certainly paid off. Just look at this technique….


It was time for another haircut to follow the excellent ones in Vietnam, Loas and Thailand. I wandered into Kuching’s Chinatown area and came across a very small barbers shop.  The rather elderly hairdresser had a dashing hairstyle so I thought I was in safe hands. After some rudimentary sign language he went to work. I should have known better as the only English word he knew was “short”…and that is what I got. On reflection I should have found the barber who cut his Barnet! 

On returning to the hotel I checked my collection of hats!

From Kuching we made the short hop eastward by air to Kota Kinabalu further up the coast, although we very nearly refused to board the plane for obvious reasons. I’m pleased to report that it performs better than the team…..and stayed up for longer.

Like a lot of the developments on the north coast of Borneo, KK is a strip wedged between the sea and the jungle. It only ever takes a short walk to be back in the encroaching overgrowth with the soundtrack of cicadas as we found when we took the Heritage Trail around KK and looked down on the City from a hilltop.

Concrete Jungle v Jungle Jungle

We’ve had some wonderful day trips on our travels, usually as a result of careful planning and thorough reading. But we finally came a cropper in KK when, due to tiredness and hunger, we lazily booked a tour from our Hotel without doing some proper research. On paper it looked good: a visit to see Proboscis Monkeys and Fireflies, having first stopped in to see KK’s picturesque Mosque by a lake. We were assured numbers would be low, due to it being rainy season, and we wouldn’t spend ages on the coach collecting other passengers. Things started to go a bit pear-shaped when we shot past the Mosque without so much as a glance towards it. We picked up a nice group of Filipinos and headed for a short lunch stop of 20 minutes. An hour or so later Sam & I found ourselves picking large chunks of chicken out of our veggie fried rice, wondering when the journey would resume. We eventually got to our destination where we were joined by a couple of dozen Chinese tourists and then crammed onto a boat to go in search of the Monkeys. As we weaved around other boats on the river it was noticeable that we were the only boat of passengers not wearing life jackets. The search was fruitless – not surprising given the number of outboard motors roaring up and down the river chasing any sign of movement in the jungle and the noise of all the tourists on our boat. We did briefly see a distant Proboscis Monkey shape on a tree, but it didn’t really feel like a proper sighting. At least a Sea-Otter prevented the boat trip being a complete washout.


The time taken searching in vain for Monkeys meant that we had a headlong dash to see the “magical sunset” alongside several other coach loads, just arriving in time to see the sun slip away.

The lady on the right is almost certainly taking a selfie!

It was pleasant enough, but our spirits were getting lower by the minute as we were herded back onto the coach and taken back to the river for dinner, which resembled a school canteen with everyone pushing and shoving to get to the food. After another prolonged period of time-wasting, we began our 45 minute trip to see the  fireflies. The seats on our boat were too low to see out, so we were told to put our feet on the seats and sit on the hard back of the seats. Not only was this intensely uncomfortable, but being a good foot taller than most of the other passengers, my head was rammed onto the roof of our boat. Crammed onto a boat with a bunch of screaming Chinese tourists wasn’t quite how we planned to witness the remarkable phenomenon of watching fireflies lighting up the pitch-black like a sea of magical moving Christmas lights. Worse still our guide encouraged them to scream louder (the Chinese tourists that is, not the fireflies). After just 20 minutes we headed back to the quay. Normally we would have complained about being sold short on time, but on this occasion it was a blessed relief. The final insult on a fairly disastrous day was an interminable meandering two hour coach drive back, where we dropped off just about every other passenger before reaching our hotel. On our travels we have developed a stoic outlook to life and we agreed that rather than be irritated and let it fester we would learn from the experience and never book that sort of trip again. A decision that paid dividends a week later.

From KK we decided to treat ourselves to a couple of days on the beautiful Manukan Island, just 20 minutes by boat. Our trip over was delayed by an hour but we were handsomely compensated with a wonderful room upgrade, taking a Villa on the hill overlooking one of the secluded beaches.

The View From Our Villa Balcony

The island gets quite busy with day trippers until mid-afternoon when the last boat back to KK departs the pier and you have the Island to just yourself and the handful of other hotel guests. 

The Pier at Manukan island

The beaches are stunning and the waters full of fascinating life, including the largest Sea-Urchins we’ve ever seen. Apparently Reef Sharks are common as well but we didn’t encounter any while snorkelling, but  we did come across a family of Clown Fish, with their beautiful distinctive markings.

Clowning Around

Manukan also boasts “Sunset Point” where you can get an uninterrupted view of the sun going down over the South China Sea. It was a 1.5km walk along a good path through the jungle and was really worth the effort, revealing wonderful changing colours and shades. The walk back afterwards was more of a challenge, as this had to be done in the pitch black with just a torch to guide us safely along the pathway.

With it being Wet Season the Island was sparsely populated and in the evening the restaurant  was very quiet. As soon as we arrived a musical trio spotted us and were quickly at our table side singing to us. Normally we find this a bit cringey, but these guys were great, asking us where we were from before launching into a tribute to The Beatles. In fact, they were a bit of a Jukebox, name a band or singer & they always seemed to have it covered! On our second night at the restaurant, having cornered us again and in deference to our nationality they announced that they would now play a song by Pink Floyd. “This will be interesting” I said to Sam, but they proceeded to fire off an unexpectedly fine acoustic version of “Wish You Were Here”. Possibly not the most romantic of tunes to serenade us with, but enjoyable nonetheless. 

The Stunning Colours of Manukan Island: A View From the Pier

Onward our journey across Borneo went, to east coast and the fascinating town of Sandakan where we enjoyed two very different but hugely satisfying days. Sandakan itself is not an especially pretty town having been thoroughly bombed by the Allies during the tail end of Japanese occupation. In fact it was the WWII history of the town that led us to discover more about the Sandakan Death Marches and visit the Sandakan Memorial Park that commemorates fallen Allies and civilian victims. The Sandakan Death Marches have been overshadowed by other Japanese atrocities such as the Death Railway on the River Kwai and Changi Prison in Singapore. However, it’s a story that really deserves more awareness and the Memorial Park is a fine monument to the tragic events that took so many lives. 

Looking Serene: The Site of the Sandakan WWII POW Camp

Allied Prisoners of War were moved to Sandakan to construct an airstrip for the Japanese Army. Living in squalid conditions and as defeat loomed the Japanese forced the 2,500+ malnourished, sick and dying prisoners on a number of forced marches: 140 miles through the Borneo jungle. Of the 1,793 Australian and 641 British prisoners only six survived. 

In Remembrance of Sandakan Death Marches

There is an excellent App that acts as a guide to the site, detailing conditions, escape attempts, the torture of prisoners and the Death Marches themselves. Regardless of whether you visit Sandakan you can download an App from the usual places and learn more about this shocking episode – search for “Sandakan Memorial Park”. It’s well worth listening to and looking at the images provided with the App. Having recently visited Kanchanaburi it made us realise how little we know about the conflict in the Pacific in WWII and given us an appetite to learn more.

We popped by the beautiful colonial house of the American author Agnes Keith who wrote a few books about her life in Borneo, including her years as a prisoner detained by the Japanese on an island with fellow civilians. The house was gorgeous and judging by the photos on display retained many original features and furniture.

Agnes Keith’s House

After wandering around the house we strolled across to the garden and treated ourselves to an English Afternoon Tea that included rather splendid scones with cream and jam!

Tea for Two

Most tourists to Sandakan use it as a base to visit the jungle and three local sanctuaries that protect endangered species: Orang-Utans, Proboscis Monkeys, and Sun Bears. After our problems in KK we planned this much more carefully and were rewarded with one of the best days of our trip. 

A Close Encounter: Orang-Utans can get very close at Sepilok

As the natural habitat of Orang-Utans has been lost to the growth in the cultivation of palm oil, the Sepilok Sanctuary has been protecting and nurturing for decades, including orphaned Orang-Utans who can enjoy the safety of a nursery area before joining the adolescents and adults in the neighbouring jungle.  We watched them as they played and frolicked, looking full of joy, curiosity……and bananas!


What is wonderful about the Sanctuary is that other than the nursery area there are no boundaries, no fences. There is a feeding time and if Orang-Utans turn up that is lovely to see, but it’s not guaranteed, and if none arrive, well that is just fine, they are out there in the jungle looking after themselves.

Loving the Banana Feet Look

They are truly majestic creatures and it’s been an unforgettable honour to see firsthand in Borneo and in Sumatra.

The Old Man of the Jungle

It’s a similar story a few miles up the road where the Proboscis Monkeys face the same threats – particularly from Palm Oil. Having failed miserably to see some in KK we were lucky enough to see an Alpha Male and his harem right in front of us….and what a sight he is……

Well Hello There…

Apparently male Proboscis Monkeys are permanently erect, although we did see some evidence from the fellow above to question. I imagine it would be hugely inconvenient swinging through the trees having to constantly watch out for branches that might damage your manhood! 

Male on the Left, Female on the Right

We were very close to these bizarre monkeys – the largest Monkey species and the only one that boasts two stomachs to deal with the poisonous vegetation they can eat. And as for that nose – it’s truly mesmerising ….although the other male protuberance does tend to distract you from it!

Sun Bears are the smallest of the Bear species and their sanctuary, although in a large area of jungle, does have fencing, more for their own protection than anything.

Sun Bear – love the Batman logo!

Poachers have been a particular problem for Sun Bears and we saw one that had rough markings around its belly that was probably caused by being chained.

Snuffling Sun Bears

It was a sad sight on a such a fabulous creature. But as with the other sanctuaries there is a real sense of optimism that work is being done not only to protect these marvellous animals, but to see them thrive in their natural environments. As we’ve said before in the blogs, you really do run out of superlatives to try to properly describe the pure joy and exhilaration you feel seeing unadulterated beauty.

 The final word on Borneo must go to the jungle, always there, ever present with its wild sounds and lush shades of green. It’s both a beautiful and intimidating presence constantly reminding you that its the boss in Borneo. I think it’s that sense of the untamed that makes Borneo feel so special and makes its protection more important than ever. If you get the chance, go, you wont regret it and you will never forget it.

Next: Bali – Our Final Stop After Six Months of Travelling Through S/E Asia.

Bustling Bangkok and Kool Krabi: A Perfect Thai Fortnight.


After our travels in Indonesia it felt odd travelling northwards to Bangkok, but we were very excited at the prospect of another visit from family, with Sam’s sisters, Tina and Sandra joining us for two weeks in Bangkok and Krabi.

To say that we had two contrasting weeks would be something of an understatement. Tina and Sandra arrived on Saturday afternoon and we agreed it was best to let them adjust to the heat and humidity for the remainder of the day before hitting the tourist trail with a vengeance.

Chatuchak Market

We decided to jump straight in at the deep end and head for the City’s legendary Chatuchak Market on Sunday. In what was to become a metaphor for the fortnight we enjoyed a relaxing ferry across the River Chao Phraya followed by a bustling trip on Bangkok’s excellent Skytrain service to get to the Market. Calling Chatuchak a “market” does it something of a dis-service. It’s one of the worlds largest markets covering nearly 30 acres hosting 15,000 stalls that attract 200,000 visitors each day. It’s like visiting a village that lies dormant during weekdays, only to spring into life on Saturday and Sunday.

 Shopping Sisters

It’s a fun and vibrant place to visit whether you are searching for unique fashion designs, sampling tasty street food and drinks, enjoying a much needed foot massage or simply people watching. Given the size of Chatuchak it will cater for whatever you are looking for. However if you are clothes shopping be warned – in temperatures climbing uncomfortably above 30 degrees there is a tendency to sweat profusely. Not surprisingly this makes trying on clothes very tricky and many stalls display the sign “no trying clothes on” – so its a question of making your best guess!

One of the main perimeter routes at Chatuchak

Sam and I visited Chatuchak ten years ago when it seemed a bit more ramshackle and we had the unfortunate experience of stumbling into a section where there was cock-fighting going on. A horrible sight but happily no repeat this time. In fact it felt like a very safe place to be – enhanced by the reassuring site of the Market Police….

Segway Tourist Cop!

Another thing that has changed since our last visit is the speed of Bangkok Tuk-Tuks which like the City itself seem to have been turbo-charged. Instead of taking the same route home from the market we decided to jump into a couple of Tuk-Tuks for what tuned out to be a high speed race / chase through the city. Thoroughly scary and entertaining!

Who needs F1 when you have Bangkok Tuk-Tuks!


The “planes, trains, automobiles” theme to our week continued the next day when we headed north out of the city to one of Thailand’s most celebrated ancient sites – Ayutthaya. We decided to catch the train for the ninety minute journey starting out from Bangkok’s lovely Hua Lamphong Railway Station


Ayutthaya dates back to the 1300’s and is a fascinating collection of ancient ruins dotted around the town. I had been reliably informed that the sites were in walking distance from the railway station, so when I manfully strode out into the blistering heat of Ayutthaya I imperiously waved away enthusiastic Tuk-Tuk drivers, indicating that we were British, we had a map, and we would find the sites on our own steam – thank you very much. You could see the collective reaction of the drivers on their faces: “…Really?”

Thankfully after we had walked about ten yards and were starting to wilt a persistent driver gave me the charitable chance to re-think my strategy and we gratefully bundled into a Tuk-Tuk, having completely lost face.

Some of the thousands’s of Bhudda images to be found in Ayutthaya….

We’ve really been spoilt visiting ancient UNESCO Heritage sites and the trip to Ayutthaya was another that did not disappoint, with fabulous statues of Bhudda, Stupas galore, and temples spread throughout the town. There was one site we were incredibly excited to see though: the remarkable image of Bhudda embedded in a tree. It exceeded our expectations.

…but only one Bhudda in a Tree 

Kanchanaburi and the Bridge over the River Kwai*

With all the riches that day trips in and around Bangkok brings its hard to pick a favourite, but the day we spent in Kanchanaburi visiting the Bridge over the River Kwai sites was very special indeed. Our first stop was the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery which is a beautifully maintained and moving memorial to the Allied soldiers who lost their lives in inhumane and brutal conditions. Over 7000 servicemen and women are commemorated at the Cemetery. Visiting just a few days after Remembrance Sunday it was a sad and humbling experience to quietly walk among the headstones and reflect on sacrifice and the lives stolen away.

Honouring the Fallen

At a local Museum we learnt more about the horrendous conditions in which prisoners were kept. Over 15,000 prisoners of war and 100,000 civilians died of died of sickness, mistreatment, malnutrition and exhaustion as as result of the building the “Death Railway”. 

One of the many moving Memorial Plaques

We travelled by boat up to the infamous bridge itself. As with many of these sites (the Killing Fields and 9-11 spring to mind) there is part of you excited about seeing and photographing such a famous landmark, but another voice reminds you that this is the place where people lost their lives. It’s a delicate balance between the demands of tourism and showing respect.

The Bridge

Train services continue to run over the bridge and several miles up the line so we took the opportunity see the railway and countryside, including the remarkable viaduct that snakes its way along part of the line.

Viaduct heading west toward Burma

Jumping on an old-fashioned train and rolling along the tracks is one of the best ways to view S/E Asia, but this trip and route had an extra resonance.


Our day was made even more memorable by having the most wonderful guide called Vanda who as well as being incredibly informative, was the funniest and most sociable guide possible. Before we set off Vanda disappeared into the bathroom for a very long time. She then reappeared bouncing into our van apologising for the delay explaining that she had needed the toilet very badly but everything was okay and we would be pleased to know that she had washed her hands thoroughly! A case of a bit too much information first thing in the morning, but delivered with such frank glee that we couldn’t help but laugh. Vanda made sure we had perfect seats on the train and became our unofficial photographer. We think she is the best guide in Thailand!

Moments after the pic the train started to move almost leaving our guide behind

* A little known and rather inconvenient fact is that the Bridge does go not over the River Kwai – this was an error by Pierre Boulle the author of the book. The Bridge actually crosses the Mae Klong River but there are proposals to rename it Kwai!

As luck would have it good friends of  Tina’s – Veronica and Ray – were also in Bangkok and we enjoyed a great night out with them and over a meal and a few beers learnt more about their journey through S/E Asia. Veronica gives us lovely feedback on the blog so it was extra special to meet up.

The Grand Palace and the Reclining Bhudda

No trip to Bangkok would be complete without a visit to these two amazing sites (three if you include the short hop across the River to Wat Arun). Both always attract big crowds but the masses thin out remarkable quickly when you get inside given the sheer size of the sites.

Picture Perfect Palace’s

And what a greeting you get, glorious almost garish colours bask in the sunlight depicting tales of ancient creatures, monsters and demons, alongside beautiful temples and golden images of Bhudda.

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The detail is astonishing and the almost overwhelming assault on your sense leaves you wondering where to look next. It’s a spectacle that you can never tire of and when you have had your fill at the Palace, the Reclining Bhudda awaits.

Endless Treasures

Space is at more of a premium when you get to the Reclining Bhudda (in Wat Pho) and it can feel a bit more like a scrum than the Palace. It doesn’t really breed an atmosphere for reflection or spirituality – it’s more a case of sharpening elbows and getting stuck in, and just when you think you’ve made it to the ideal vantage point, the ultimate challenge totters into your viewfinder: a selfie-obsessed Chinese tourist. Why anyone thinks a picture of the world’s most beautiful Bhudda will be enhanced with an incongruous Churchill V sign and vacant smile in the foreground of the shot is beyond me – forget Bhudda it’s all about worshipping the 21st Century social media god: Insta.

Astonishing: the Reclining Bhudda

Hypocritical grumbles about fellow tourists aside, if you are patient gaps open up and you can stand in awe at this incredible sight, okay…it helps to be 6 ft+ ….and what you cant see in the two photos of the Reclining Bhudda are the hordes of 5ft something Chinese tourists buzzing about below me. A quick detour across the river to the striking Wat Arun completed the day and our sightseeing – we were well and truly pooped.

Wat Arun


Tina and Sandra’s trip really was a game of two halves, with the hyper-activity of our Bangkok days replaced with a much more sedate pace in Krabi where we arrived at a picture perfect resort on Tubkaak beach. Having visited Ko Phang Nga and Koh Samui earlier in our trip it was really interesting to compare west vs east coasts. Our conclusion was that beaches around Krabi win it by a short head on account of the huge limestone castes that sit brooding in the sea to create a dramatic backdrop against a clean, warm sea that laps on to beautiful sandy beaches. Heaven.

It really is that beautiful..

Hong Islands Hopping 

One of the attractions in the area is to hire a long tail boat and view the uninhabited Hong Islands close up. Setting off early we met our skipper for the day who was the living definition of the phrase “salty sea dog”. A lovely friendly fella who looked after us.

Our Skipper and his Boat

We headed out to the islands cutting through turquoise waters that revealed huge pink jellyfish that mercifully don’t venture into shallow waters. Our first stop was a hidden lagoon where after negotiating a narrow entrance it opens up into a bay with waters that invite you to jump in – which we did with no hesitation.

Secret Lagoon

Then we navigated our way to a lovely stretch of beach on another island which is part of a National Park. Your boatman drops you off and for a small fee you can stay on the beach for two hours before you get collected. It did feel and look a little bit like “The Beach” albeit without Leonardo Di Caprio and Tilda Swinton, but with a supporting cast of dozens of extras – you can’t expect to have these spots to yourself. The waters were full of fish making it ideal for snorkelling.

Hong Island Beach

After our allotted time we rejoined our boat and made for another unspoilt beach where if you time it right you can see the see separate at low tide – how very biblical! Sadly we didn’t catch low tide and missed out out on the chance to impersonate Moses. However the beach did have one of the ultimate Insta-magnets: a swing upon which we witnessed some remarkable posing and pouting. Of course we yielded to temptation and went for a nice family shot before we headed home through darkening skies and threatening cloud.

Swinging Sisters

Busy Doing Nothing

It’s quite hard to summon up the creative juices to describe the several hours we spent crashed out on big bean bags that begged you to firmly plant your backside into them and move no further, occasionally beckoning drinks from the bar-staff.

Sunset on Tubkaak Beach

But to be fair we weren’t totally idle as there were complementary Paddle-Boards and Kayaks to try out. The calm sea conditions were perfect to try these out, especially as Sam and I had practised Paddle -Boarding on Hove Lagoon and Kayaking on the River Adur in anticipation of exactly this opportunity. The Paddle-Boarding was great fun although as anyone who has tried it will know, it’s not as easy as it looks. Sam & I definitely benefited from our sessions earlier in the year, and after a bit of coaxing and a lot of wobbling both Sandra and Tina managed to assume the perpendicular…before heading for the horizontal! Fair play for having a go though.

..and when he was up he was up, and when he was down he was…..wet

Energised by a hitherto unknown passion for water sports Sandra decided to have a crack at kayaking next. As I nervously sat waiting in the kayak Sandra braced herself by sitting on its the edge promptly catapulting me out into the sea swiftly followed by the kayak itself. After this rather undignified start we managed to re-board successfully and paddled off without further incident. Sandra assures us that her maiden voyage wont be her last: something the Harbour Master in Christchurch should probably be made aware of. 

Pampering Krabi Elephants

Just an hours drive from our beachside reverie was an elephant sanctuary and the chance to share with Tina and Sandra the wonder of getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures. During the hours we were with them we made them food, fed them tons of bananas, helped give them an exfoliating mud bath and then scrubbed them clean in a lake. It was an elephantine pampering session. But after a tough life of logging if anyone deserves to be spoilt it is these wonderful animals.

Glorious Mud

By chance the morning we went to the see the elephants the heavens had opened but by the time we were heading back the clouds had cleared and we could hear the siren call of the beach bean bags summoning us back to that gorgeous strip of sandy shore and stunning views of the Andaman Sea.

A reluctant goodbye to Krabi

Before we knew it our wonderful fortnight was over and Sandra and Tine were heading home, while we set ourselves for Borneo. Travelling for so long we have really missed family and friends (and Ruby!), so it’s been great having our journey punctuated by visits from home, and less than a month after waving Tina and Sandra goodbye, we shall be arriving in Perth to stay with my sister Sue and her family for Christmas. 

Next up: Wild Borneo!


Enigmatic Indonesia: Our Week in Java

Borobudur – a place for quiet reflection

It’s been a strange time to be in Indonesia. Inevitably the local news has been dominated by the Lion Air crash into the Java Sea a few minutes after take-off from Jakarta. As more information emerges about the troubled history of the aircraft it does seem incredible that it was permitted to fly. We mentioned the Lake Toba ferry disaster in our previous blog – another local example of where safety seems to have taken second place to profit. Indonesia certainly presents travellers with food for thought. On the one hand this huge sprawling archipelago of islands offers the opportunity to visit unique, unspoilt and stunning scenery, incredible historical sites, jaw-dropping endangered wildlife, and meet the friendliest people imaginable. And it goes on and on and on….we still haven’t got our heads around the geography of thousands of islands that make up the country  – to explore Indonesia properly would probably take at least six months.

Indonesia: persevere and be rewarded with wonder

However, it’s the first place we’ve been to where we have been aware of heightened security – routine checks at hotel’s and shopping centres mean you get routinely screened walking into both whilst our taxis are stopped and the boot checked and the car scanned before being allowed to proceed to the the drop-off at the hotel lobby. Indonesia has been hit by numerous terrorist attacks over the years, many in areas popular with Western visitors, so these actions are both necessary and likely to remain in place. Meanwhile the road’s outside Cities can be horrendous, and certainly the worst we’ve encountered, with some hair-raising driving to boot. Add to this the seemingly slip-shod approach to safety, plus unavoidable natural disasters such as the earthquake and tsunami of recent months, and it leaves you thinking twice about where to go in Indonesia, how to get there, and how to travel on. We’ve moved from quite care-free planning to much more careful consideration of our itinerary.

A Glimpse of Bhuddism

Just a few days after the air disaster, we flew from a very small airfield in Sumatra to Jakarta. We are not overly nervous flyers, but on this occasion we both felt tense, and you could sense our fellow passengers unease by how quiet the plane was as we started to taxi for take-off. The mood wasn’t helped by an astonishing announcement from one of the cabin crew “Let us all take a moment to pray to god and wish for a safe flight.” We prefer to put our faith in having a plane and pilots that are fit for purpose  rather than putting our trust in some unspecified deity who – if you follow the logic of our steward – was untroubled about 190 people perishing in the sea a few days beforehand. The country and its people deserve better and need to find a way to ensure that Government and business delivers on promises of improved safety and accountability. I’m afraid that at the moment the reassurances all ring a bit hollow.


I Would Go Out Tonight But I Haven’t Got a Stitch To Wear

It’s not often you book a hotel solely on the basis of its name, but the Morrissey Hotel in Jakarta was too good to miss. We had visions of a bizarre boutique hotel inspired by the songs of The Smiths and all things Mozzer. Reviews were good and a hotel that provides an in-house laundrette warms the heart of bedraggled travellers – good times for a change.

Please, please, please let me get what I want.….but sadly, like the theme of most of his songs, heightened expectations were crushed, replaced with disappointment on arrival – no Smith’s knick-knacks, no pictures, no posters nor sign of Manchester (… much to answer for), not even Reel Around the Fountain piped through the sound system by the Pool. To be fair having a hotel located in the Southern Hemisphere but themed on lyrics of English northern misery probably isn’t the most brilliant marketing strategy. Loved the motorbike and sidecar on the forecourt though….

Nowhere Fast…#1

We were warned about Jakarta, but told to look beyond the mayhem to find its charms. So, on our first day we strolled to the striking National Monument celebrating the nation’s struggle for independence from the Dutch.

As we made our way to the monument tower we suddenly had a sense of deja vu – people smiling and staring at us. Before we knew it we were being asked to pose for photos with young and old alike.


It was a small taste of celebrity and we can confirm that the novelty wears off pretty quickly – just about as long as you can maintain a rictus grin on your face for shot after shot after shot….”just one more Mister”, “please Missus”. It’s impossible to refuse and flattering that anyone should take an interest.

That grin stayed stuck on my face for hours!

Inside the monument, circling a huge hall, was a series of really quite brilliant dioramas detailing Indonesia’s history and rebellions against colonialist oppression. Inevitably, the British managed to play yet another less than glorious role in this story after the departure of the Japanese from Java in 1945, so any hope we had of enjoying some moral superiority on the Dutch was short lived.

IMG_6447 3

National Monument

From our very lofty position on the tower viewing area, we spied Jakarta’s Mosque and Cathedral, conveniently located a few yards away from each other and we agreed to visit them the next day. On checking the map, I calculated that by hopping in a tuk-tuk we should take about 15 minutes to get there. What we hadn’t bargained for was a combination of Jakarta’s awful traffic – the worst we have encountered in the world – combined with a demonstration at the Mosque. So it was that we found ourselves in a tuk-tuk oven, slow cooking at about 40 degrees in seven lanes of standstill traffic,  breathing in horrendous fumes: the most uncomfortable experience of our trip so far. With nothing moving we agreed it was best to pay our driver and hop out, snaking our way between idling vehicles to the sanctuary of the pavement.

Nowhere Fast #2: Jakarta traffic

As we neared the Istiqlal Mosque, the crowds got bigger and we realised that it wasn’t going to be possible to see very much of anything, and we were feeling acutely “other”. In Indonesia the clothing is far more modest than in some parts of SE Asia and we always aim to respect the mode of dress, covering shoulders, long trousers rather than shorts etc, when the need takes. However, around the mosque this became more marked than in the rest of the city. Nobody was dressed in Western clothing and the few women we did see were wearing veils. Although we felt safe and nobody approached us, it was clear the demonstration was attracting large crowds, and today was not the day for two heat and traffic weary Westerners to request to take a look inside the mosque. We detoured to the neighbouring neo-gothic Cathedral which gave us a welcome respite from the stifling heat. The building has fascinating iron spires sitting on more traditional stone and some part of it is open to the elements as birds flutter around the roof space swooping over what was a growing congregation gathering for a mass. The proximity of the Mosque and Cathedral is no accident, being designed to highlight the Indonesian philosophy of harmony in diversity (the cannibals on Samosir Island didn’t get that memo!).

St Mary of the Assumption Cathedral

Two days in Jakarta was enough to get a bit of a feel for the Capital and a longing to be back out into the countryside for the highlight of our trip to Java – Borobudur. We flew to the pleasant town of Yogyakarta, or “Yogya” as its called locally and stayed in a lovely old colonial hotel in the town centre. Yogya is the base for trips to Borobudur and other local historical sites such as Prambanan.  On arrival we were asked an unexpected question: “Are you here to see Mariah Carey?” “No – we will never be anywhere to see Mariah Carey!” Mariah must be doing her “Ancient Monuments” tour (cue the take one to know one joke) as she was performing at Borobudur the day after our visit. Briefly I had unkind visions of her entourage descending on a windswept Stonehenge in November.


Borobudur is the largest Bhuddist Temple in SE Asia and is close to Angkor Wat in its beauty, if not on the same scale. Sitting on a hilltop overlooking lush jungle and distant mountains Borobudur was built in the 9th Century and remains in superb condition despite centuries surviving earthquakes, jungle and erupting volcanoes. Indeed it was lost to the jungle and covered in volcanic ash until being rediscovered in 1815.


What Borobudur manages to combine so brilliantly is a sense of impressive almost intimidating scale, combined with stunning intricacy, being adorned with kilometres of carvings telling the story of Bhudda that circle the temple layer upon layer. The detail of the carvings was remarkable – with a depth that made them truly three-dimensional….


…until you reach a higher level where Borobudur’s iconic bell-shaped Stupas sit:


..accompanied by over 500 Bhudda statues



It’s a remarkable monument that made the trip to Java so memorable.

From Borobudur we visited other local temples before heading to Prambanan, one of the world’s largest and most ancient Hindu temples. After Borobudur there is a risk that everything that follows will underwhelm, but Prambanan does not disappoint. Also built in the 9th century the temples celebrate the Hindu gods Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu.


Like Borobudur, the shape and silhouette of Prambanan casts an iconic image over the landscape which is truly breathtaking.


Once again the detailed decorations have survived the passage of time and like its more famous neighbour it has been lost, found, restored and rightly granted Unesco Heritage status.

After the heat, pollution, hustle and bustle of Jakarta, the mystical and spiritual treasures of Yogya shed a beautiful light on the glorious ancient history of Java.

Detailed stone carving at Prambanan

Going Solo

Java enjoys an unexpectedly good rail system, which we took advantage of by hopping on the local service from Yogya to Solo – just over an hours journey for next to nothing.

We do like our train travel 

Apparently there is something of a rivalry between Yogya and Solo when it comes to claiming the status of true historical capital of Java. Solo (aka Surakarta) has the distinction of hosting two royal Palaces both of which can be visited. Our favourite was Manakunegaran where you can stroll with your guide quietly thrilled in the knowledge that members of the current royal family might pop out from the adjacent residential quarters. Our guide told us that on occasion the King has met and chatted with visitors and had a cup of tea with them! The King is now a ceremonial one only and as far as we could make out has a real job – a refreshing model of royalty that would not go amiss elsewhere.

Manakunegaran’s Main Ceremonial Area

While not as grand as Manakunegaran, Keraton Surakarta boasted some fine looking guards in traditional attire who seemed to take a particular delight in brandishing their  swords, well you would wouldn’t you!

Sam looking regal while I worry about the proximity of those swords..

Our time in Solo wasn’t completely without incident as I managed to lose one of my bank cards. Unlike back home the ATM’s here give you the cash first, card second. As we withdrew some Rupiah from an ATM I was distracted by the promise of some rather tasty ice cream, took the cash and marched off in search of gelato. Presumably the ATM sat there with my card sticking out waiting for me to take it and after a short while duly swallowed it. On returning to the hotel I realised my mistake and ran back to the shopping centre where despite their best efforts the staff couldn’t locate my card. Given that we were leaving Solo the next morning I thought I wouldn’t get it back. However, the staff at the Mall checked the CCTV and confirmed that my card was in the ATM. The staff at our hotel then contacted the Bank and with just an hour to spare before we caught our train to the airport arrangements were made for me to pick up my card at the Bank. This was fantastic customer service from everyone involved who could not do more to help reunite me with my card. I know that in an ideal world this is how things should work – but let’s face it we rarely see things play out how we hope. It was another example of the fabulous hospitality and friendliness of Indonesian people. One of the many reasons that makes Indonesia a wonderful place to explore.

Rather than continue eastwards to Bali, our journey now takes us north and back to Thailand where we will spend two weeks with Sam’s holidaying sisters’s Tina and Sandra in Bangkok and Krabi. We plan to return to Indonesia in December….in search of Dragons!

Top Travelling Tips

We aren’t really ones for promoting particular products or services on our blog but its worth mentioning the incredibly convenient service Starling Bank provides to travellers. It’s an App only bank that offers the best rates in terms of charges and during the lost bank card dilemma rather than cancel the card, and trigger all sorts of logistical difficulties, I could simply press a button on the App that deactivates the card. Once I got the card back, I opened the App pressed the button to switch the card back on and hey presto everything was back to normal. Incredibly convenient and through the App the Bank provides loads of other features that are ideal for travellers. Plug over!


Next Up: Bangkok and Krabi




Calmer Sumatra: Indonesia’s Mystical Western Isle.


Here’s Looking At You Kid

Poor old Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, the western-most island of the Indonesian archipelago. Wherever followed Singapore had drawn the short straw. To be honest, even if we had hated Singapore we would struggle to take Medan to our heart – it’s such an unlovable city.

Things started badly when we jumped in our taxi for the hour’s drive from the Airport to the city centre. We don’t know when our driver last rested but about twenty minutes into the journey an alarmed Sam turned to me and said “I think he’s falling asleep John!”

Instead of panicking I maintained a David Niven like calm and undertook discreet inspection of his eyes in the rear view mirror which confirmed that he was driving with approximately 2mm of vision in his left eye, while his right eye, having satisfied itself that its partner could take the load,  was completely shut.

Thankfully at this point we turned off the “motorway” and ground to a halt in Medan’s crippling, choking traffic – never have I been so happy to be crawling along at a few miles an hour. The worst that could happen if our driver nodded off would be a gentle kiss on the bumper on  the vehicle in front.

Bizarrely this seemed to wake the driver up and he started completing his own facial…..while driving. Selecting from a small selection of tweezers stored in the driver door handle recess he gamely plucked away at offending hairs. Some of these were in quite an awkward spot necessitating him craning his head backwards so that his drowsy eye(s) were squinting at the interior roof, while continuing to negotiate Medan’s crazy traffic. I was directly behind our driver so couldn’t see exactly what was going on. Sam, however, had a front row seat and seemed to be mesmerised and appalled in equal measure. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t look away.

The upside of an unappealing, traffic choked city are the hotel rates where you can get 5 star accommodation for under £50 a night. On entering our plush new home for the next three days we turned to each other and without saying anything telepathically agreed it was best if we didn’t leave this oasis of calm until check out.

Regular readers will have noted that by paragraph four or five of our blog we would have inserted quite a few photos bringing to life our words. Well, in this case if a picture speaks a thousand words, no picture speaks far more about the grottiness of Medan!

However, apart from the hotel it did have two redeeming features. Firstly the people are fantastically friendly – probably astonished to see tourists in their city – calling out “Hello’s” and “where you from?” Surprisingly none asked “why the hell are you here?”. As we clambered up and down pavements resembling bomb sites, dodging cars as we were forced into roads, a gentleman in uniform sidled up to us and with an apologetic smile said “Welcome to Medan” in perfect sarcastic English. Heartwarming.

As our travels in Sumatra unfolded we have discovered that they are amongst the warmest people we have met on our travels – which is saying a lot given how friendly people are in S/E Asia.

The other positive thing to report is Medan’s only tourist attraction – the home of a benevolent Chinese businessman that has been maintained and restored beautifully. Records show how he invested in local schools, education and welfare to develop Medan. We are glad he can’t see what’s become of his philanthropy.

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Things worked out quite well really as Medan’s lack of attractions gave us an opportunity to rest up after our hectic Singapore schedule.

If we can’t make any recommendations about Medan (other than “don’t go”), the rest of Sumatra has been fantastic, swapping an uninspiring City for some of the most wonderful wildlife we have ever seen.

We took a three hour car journey north to the small town of Bukit Lawang which sits on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. It was here on a one day trek into the jungle that we hoped to fulfil a lifetimes ambition – to see Orang-Utans in the wild.

All smiles…little did we know

Our guide was optimistic, but reminded us that there were no guarantees of seeing any, regardless of how long we searched. The heat and hilly terrain meant that we were certainly going to earn our sighting.

Rickety Jungle Bridge

After about three hours trekking we had fleetingly seen a giant squirrel (think dog in a tree and you’re 90% there) and two dullard peacocks who didn’t have the fancy feather display thing going on.

We came across three German trekkers and their guide who said they had no luck spotting our ape cousins either. Hot, bothered and disappointed we sat down and had some fruit, when something remarkably bad happened. One of the German trekkers pulled out a ukulele from her bag and started singing “Me and Bobby McGee”. Who in God’s name thinks “what shall I pack for the trek in the jungle today?  I know I’ll take my ukulele!” 

This was the most toe-curling exhibition of backpacker conceitedness we had encountered in five months of travelling. As we sat there, opened mouthed in horror and barely able to conceal our loathing, we have to confess that Sam wanted to stick the ukulele… can guess the next bit….and in deference to my own German heritage I longed to burst into a hearty out-of-tune rendition of “Deutchland Uber Alles”. I know that is wrong, but we were tired and fed up…..and we cant stand that song unless it’s sung by Janis.

Maybe if we had, karma would have dealt us a bad hand and we wouldn’t have achieved our ambition. As it was after a further couple of energy sapping hours and just at the point when I thought Sam was going to drop from exhaustion we came across a group of Kiwi’s (san ukulele) who were staring upward in awe. There about 20 feet above us in the trees were three Orang-Utans: a mother and baby, and a youngster (about 8 years old our guide judged).

What a beauty

This was a moment when we wanted time to stand still and savour the amazing creatures in front of us. The grace, power, dexterity and those eyes staring back at us, indifferent to our astonishment. Then slowly moving, next branch, next tree, onwards, carefully clutching her baby.

I really don’t know how long we spent with our necks craned upward, with crazy smiles on our faces, just wanting to say thank you to the Orang-utans for letting us briefly share their world. Our guide knew how much this meant to us and was thrilled to see us so happy.  There was an element of sadness in the encounter though as our guide said that the mother was trying to leave her eight year old daughter behind so that she would become independent, but the daughter continued to gamely follow her mother and baby sibling a few yards behind.

Having walked so far it was time to have lunch, but before we could sit down there was more commotion in the trees and our guide beckoned us up yet another hill, pointing to a family of white faced Gibbons swinging about in the treetops. Being much lighter than the Orang-utans, they can go far higher, and being more nimble they easily leapt from tree to tree. Orang-utans are a tough act to follow, but they were splendid, striking wonderful shapes high above us.

Hanging Around

Incredible body shapes

White Face and Hands

After seeing these funkiest of gibbons we sat down and had our much delayed lunch, overwhelmed, exhausted and very, very happy. We were told that our trek would end with a rafting trip down the river rather than a long hike home – music to our ears. On exiting the jungle and approaching the river bed a man greeted us with our “raft” – three large inner tubes lashed together with rope:

Your transport has arrived Sir!

Our guide said that it usually took about 30 minutes to float downstream back to Bukit Lawang, but in view of the recent heavy rain, the river was full, fast and it would be far quicker – he said this with a manic grin that didn’t leave his face for the next fifteen minutes. What followed was great fun as we careered down river, kangarooing up, down and over rapids with our pilots using just bamboo rods to steer us between rocks.


Stuck on Repeat

Our travel bible warned us that when travelling any distance in Sumatra you will usually experience a spine shattering journey at some point. So it was when we made the EIGHT hour journey by car from Bukit Lawang to Samosir Island on Lake Toba. To give you an idea of how bad the roads are in Sumatra the distance between the two is about 150 miles. You would think that meant we pootled along at 20mph – if only! Allowing for a couple of breaks we spent over 7 hours alternating between hurtling head-long towards oncoming traffic or bouncing up and down at 2mph over the most potholed surfaces (I can’t dignify what we were driving on with the term “road”). It’s hard to say which was worse, but this was a journey I wouldn’t wish on anybody with the possible exception of Indonesia’s Minister for Transport.

After a couple of hours our driver popped a CD on – a funny eclectic mix. As The Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup” came on Sam said “oh I like this tune” – “you won’t in six hours” I replied. And so it proved as the CD was left on repeat replaying, I think, seven times. Whenever we hear any of those songs again it will remind us of that day. But you know what they say – no pain, no gain and as we neared our destination of Parapat, we got our first glimpse of Lake Toba and Samosir Island:


Samosir Island and Lake Toba

When we planned our trip to Lake Toba we were excited about the prospect of the stunning beauty of the volcanic countryside. However, we learned that as recently as June of this year a ferry sank on the lake with 190 lives lost. An appalling tragedy caused by overloading of passengers and sailing in bad weather. It’s the sort of avoidable disaster that seems to be too common in Indonesia. It was a sombre feeling crossing the lake on water that gently rippled beneath us.

The Ferry from Parapet

Lake Toba has a remarkable history. 75,000 years ago it was the site of a super-volcanic eruption that caused a mini-ice age, with ash being deposited as far as Africa. Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world measuring a staggering 100km long, up to 30km wide and depths reaching 500 meters. Sitting in the middle of the lake is Samosir Island with its own claim to fame being the worlds largest island on an island.

Approaching Tuk-Tuk, Samosir Island

It’s created a stunning rugged landscape that constantly reminds you of the latent power rumbling away beneath our feet – brought home to us more prosaically by the advice on “what to do in the event of an earthquake” in our lodgings. In these parts it isn’t a question of “if” but of “when”.

The best way to get about the Island is to either hire a scooter for a day to investigate and look at the scenery from different angles, or get on the lake itself with a kayak – we spent a couple of days doing both.

Sam sporting her “Hello Kitty” crash helmet!

After a day whizzing around on a 125cc scooter, it was lovely to clamber into the kayak and enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake with only the sound of our paddles breaking the silence.


More often than not Lake Toba sits calmly reflecting all that looks down on it, while in contrast on its shoulders sit terrifically steep mountain-sides, dark and broody.

Lake Toba

The indigenous Batak people have a history as interesting as the geology on which they live. Isolated from other communities for centuries they practised animism: the belief in spirits in flora, fauna, land and humans. The real elephant in the room when it comes to the Bataks culture was their practice of ritual cannibalism. We visited a place called the “Stone Chairs” where Batak elders had sat in judgement on wrong-doers, some of whom would be killed and eaten for punishment. In more recent centuries condescending Missionaries of various faiths became a staple in the Batak Cookbook, until Dutch Colonialism brought it to an end. Booo!

Batak Wood Carvings


Distinctive wood carvings can be found throughout the Island, as can the unique Batak houses with their striking roofs, which are still in use today.

Batak Village Green Preservation

There was something quite “Wicker Man” about Samosir Island – and we liked it all the more for that. After the excitement of orang-utans, gibbons, rafting and spine shattering car journeys, it was an oasis of calm, quiet reflection –  watching the mood of the lake change with the weather.

Reflections on Lake Toba


Top Travelling Tips – Talc

In the five months we have been travelling, with the exception of our time in the Vietnamese highlands of Dalat, there have probably been only a small hand full of days when the temperature hasn’t topped 30 degrees. The heat and humidity finally got to Sam in Singapore when she complained of an unpleasant and unrelenting chaffing sensation. She stomped into a pharmacy (as far as one can stomp while chaffing) and asked for talc. I was initially perplexed by this having not used talc for as long as I can remember – but I didn’t dare question Sam’s motivation. What a revelation talc has been in our daily battle to manage the perspiration that springs from our pores, and of course reduce chaffing! Now, we begin our day with a liberal dousing of talc, that produces small clouds as we walk through the streets. We have no idea what people must think, but we don’t care – it provides some small but lovely respite. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next Up: Our next Indonesian Island: Java




Singapore: A Sensational Assault on the Senses

Gardens By The Bay At Sunset

Singapore was always going to feel like a very different stop on our travels through South East Asia. After the relatively chaotic nature of cities like Hanoi, Chiang Mai and to a lesser extent Kuala Lumpur, would it be too cold and clinical compared to the hospitality and warmth of its neighbours? Happily, our five days in Singapore was a really good balance: enjoying its creature comforts – something as simple as walking on pavements unencumbered by mopeds or craters – stunning architecture and gardens; and vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods.

As you would expect, Downtown Singapore is very built up, resembling a clean-cut cross between Hong Kong and Manhattan.


One of the striking features of the modern skyscrapers is how much greenery has been incorporated into the design. As a result “vertical gardens” complement the glass and concrete beautifully throughout the downtown area. Combined with bays and rivers it makes for an engrossing built environment that demands attention and appreciation.

Vertical Gardens Galore

Dotted among the modernism are colonial style buildings that act as a reminder of an evocative past when the streets were full of rickshaws, opium dens flourished in China Town, and the Singapore Sling had just been concocted. Sadly one of the best known colonial buildings, Raffles Hotel, is currently being renovated so we didn’t get a chance to see much of it beyond glimpses  above construction hoardings.

Nowhere is the City’s commitment to greening more beautiful and stunning than Gardens by the Bay. This was one of the “must sees” on our travel to do list and it lived up to our very high expectations. Covering a huge area, the Gardens are dominated by the Supertree Grove and two huge glasshouses.

Looking down on Gardens By The Bay and the Shipping Lanes Beyond

The Supertrees are straight out of a sci-fi film, towering over the gardens, the “trunks” covered in flowers and foliage, while the “branches” stretch out carrying illuminations. You take an elevator inside the “tree” to get to the “Observation Deck” (how very Star Trek!) where you can get up close to the trees and survey the “forest”.

Super Tree Walkway

The best time to visit the Grove is late afternoon early evening as the sun is going down and the lights on the trees begin to glow, the colours constantly changing with the sunset. It makes for a magical sight, another experience we will treasure, but unlike the many natural wonders we have seen, this is man made ingenuity, a wonderful marriage of design and horticulture at its very best.

Lighting Up

Local families and sightseers gather for the Supertree Light Show that takes place twice in the evenings, when the trees light up in harmony to a soundtrack. “Tonight’s show” a voice sounding a bit like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey “will be on the theme of musical theatre”. On hearing this a little part of me died inside, but to be fair the show was fantastic, a symphony of lights and colour that made the Grove flash out against the nights backdrop. I even managed to appreciate a few seconds of Phantom of the Opera……just a few. Sharing this experience with hundreds of people gathered round on the grass was a delight and Sam captured a bit of great footage..


The two giant glasshouses comprise a Flower Dome and a Cloud Forest. The former is impressive, but the Cloud Forest really is jaw-dropping.

Cloud Forest Waterfall

Waterfalls cascade down a mini-mountain of flora creating a fine mist, among lovely orchids and rare plants.

A Forest Under Glass

Every effort is made to create a superb visitor experience and even though you are one of hundreds slowly wending their way through the forest it never felt crowded or hurried.

Misty Mountain Top

Towards the Bay Area sits the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, quite unlike any other building in the city centre. Sam thinks the design of the top section is based on a surfboard, while it reminded me of something far more mundane, an ironing board. Judge for yourself….


Stonehenge maybe?

The plateau roof boasts a remarkable infinity pool, but it looks horribly crowded as hotel guests elbow each other for a bit of space to claim their perfect Insta shot. Like all tall buildings these days the hotel has a viewing deck (top right in the pic above) that has great views of Gardens by the Bay on one side and the city on the other.

Above The Flyer

It even manages to look down on the Singapore Flyer – largest wheel of its kind in the world providing more views of the city, sitting above the Singapore’s F1 track that hosts a night time Grand Prix. We took a spin on the Wheel – although at 30 minutes to rotate you hardly feel any movement.

As night falls the City lights up beautifully.

Up-lit Downtown


If this all sounds as though it does confirm the modern Singapore stereotype that would be a bit unfair as there are three neighbourhoods that literally bring you back down to earth with their age, authenticity, colour and vibrancy.

Street Art by Arab Street

I have to confess a real ignorance about Singapore: I had no idea about its ethnicity or language (I actually asked Sam “do they speak Singaporean”?) No, the ethnic mix of Chinese (76%), Indian (7%), and the indigenous Malay (15%), with a few others thrown in, means there is a mix of languages, although its colonial history  means that everyone seems to be able to speak English.

With this mix comes the three neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India, and the Arab Quarter. We saw some of Chinatown where it borders the Downtown area so we decided to spend more time in the other two.

Looking Cool in the Arab Quarter – it was about 35 degrees!

The Arab Quarter is relatively small but boasts a lot of tourist activity along the busy and pretty roads around Arab Street, the local Mosque and Malay Heritage Centre.


Colourful street art sits alongside buzzing cafes, independent shops, and cool bars. It’s the ideal spot to window shop and given the heat, regularly stop at cafes for refreshments and people watching.

Little India on the other hand is a much bigger area where the large Tamil population are based, in crowded streets where the noise, shops and stalls engulf you.

Shoppers Paradise


Little India Market

The indoor market is fabulous fun, drawing you in and saturating you with colour, fragrances and warm welcoming smiles.

Friendly Little India

This area feels nothing like the Singapore we expected, and it’s all the better for that, reminding visitors of the diversity of the City and an environment that feels a million miles from its high-tech neighbour just a mile or two Downtown.

The Double Helix Bridge

..and amid that modernity there is fun as well. On passing one of Singapore’s huge shopping malls a glittering chandelier caught our eyes. Further investigation revealed a giant sparkling light set above a digitally interactive dance floor where children cavorted about gleefully, seeing their footsteps create patterns on the floor. A joyful scene that made Singapore more endearing than we ever imagined it could be. It’s not typical South-East Asia, and it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s worth the effort and expense – there really is no place like it.

Not Your Usual Mall

Top Travelling Tips – Embracing the Bum Gun

South East Asia doesn’t have the most robust sewerage systems in the world and in most countries there will be a polite message by the toilet reminding you not to put paper down the loo but rather in the bin. Before you recoil at this, that paper should have been used for a gentle pat dry after deploying the Bum Gun. Plumbed into nearly every loo is a sort of hand-held bidet that shoots out jets of water to clean what needs to be cleaned. After overcoming my usual British reserve I have learnt to embrace the Bum Gun – metaphorically and literally. However, a word to the wise, care should be taken. Somewhere in Thailand I had become a bit Bum Gun “trigger happy” and rather gung-ho when I came across one that had its water pressure set so high I nearly shot off the pedestal. That one really made the eyes water – got the job done though!


Next Up: Orang-utans & Bataks in Volcanic Sumatra