Java, Part 1.

Probolingo, Java Timur. Thursday 19th October 2017.
I’ll state the obvious by saying that Java is very different to Bali! The first thing I noticed was a ‘proper’ truck. And by that I mean an articulated one, the first I’d seen since Australia. The second thing was that very little English is understood here, out in the countryside at least. I suppose I’d been spoiled by Bali in that respect, the knock on benefit of tourism. When I stopped for a cuppa I had to work hard to get my request understood, even in Indonesian. The road from the port was not in very good condition and was busy with trucks, which tended to hang about in gangs. But I was able to zip past them quite easily and once I’d overtaken the slow one at the front of the group I had a nice, empty road until I caught up with the next mob. Overtake, ride, repeat. The countryside was more open, with woodland containing mostly deciduous trees, as far as I could tell. Did an absence of rain forest signify an absence of rain? Only time would tell on that. Regardless, it was a very nice ride. Welcome to Java.
The town of Probolingo – these names are starting to sound more and more like those from Gulliver’s Travels – was only going to be an overnight stop. As I rode through town I spotted a sign saying ‘Housetel’. That was a new variation on the theme. I pulled in and found it to be closer to a motel than anything else, with two rows of six rooms facing each other across a covered parking area. And the room was cheap too.


Both a house and a motel. A Housetel.

My first tourist visit was to be in Surabaya, the main city of East Java and a very busy port as well. It was, of course, another ‘hell on wheels’ kind of place, with endless traffic. On the way in I’d spotted a sign for a toll road but had ignored it. I pretty soon regretted that and the next time I saw one I headed to it. Massive fail! When I got to the toll booth it was made clear to me that motorcycles weren’t allowed on it and the official had to stop the traffic to get me across the lanes so I could get off again. It amused the truck drivers, if nothing else.


From food stall to cigarette manufacturing. Mr and Mrs Sampoerna.

There is a cigarette factory in the city, which had come up high on the list of recommended places, and it sounded intriguing. The House Of Sampoerna began life as an orphanage in Dutch colonial times but was bought to house the factory at the beginning of the twentieth century. The building now only houses the museum and a small production facility for making special blends with no filter. Bigger factories are sited elsewhere. The business is now part of the Philip Morris empire but it began life as the brainchild of a Chinese immigrant. He had a small food stall but big ideas to go with it. Smoking had given him asthma and he found that medicating with cloves relieved the condition. So his big idea was to combine cloves with the tobacco, hoping that it would reduce the harmful effects. Kill and cure in the same packet. My museum guide, when I asked him, confirmed that it makes no difference health-wise, but people like the taste. Cloves are a local produce so there was always a plentiful supply. How did a poor immigrant manage to start a factory? The story goes that his wife had hidden some of the takings from the food stall in one of the bamboo supports so they had enough money to kick start the project and it grew. It remained a family business until Philip Morris bought it. There is a viewing area where I could watch the manufacturing process down below. Workers, mostly women, put the mix into a rolling machine, apply the paper and pull a handle to roll it. The mix can also contain sugar cane too. Their target is 325 per hour and they get a wage, then a bonus for beating it. The museum had all sorts of artefacts in it and it was all quite fascinating.


Photography wasn’t allowed but I sneaked a photo of these ladies rolling up.

Now here I must mention a phenomenon that was both amusing and puzzling me. I was forever being asked to appear in selfies. Wherever I went, including at this factory, people wanted to take their photo with me. Young, old, male, female, it didn’t seem to matter. What was the reason? Was it being a westerner; my beard; my age; the bike; all of them? I couldn’t work it out. But as I travelled round I noticed a couple of large restaurants which advertised ‘selfie space’ and that was when the penny dropped. It wasn’t all that much to do with me really, it’s just the selfie craze that’s sweeping the world now. It’s bigger in Asia than anywhere else and I was just a more interesting subject that happened along. As I said, I didn’t mind it but I was glad that when I visited some of the tourist attractions there were other westerners there to help carry the load.


Selfies and yet more selfies.

This large and busy city definitely had some features I hadn’t seen in Indonesia so far. A kebab shop, for one. Beggars for another. I was sitting at a street warung when a young lad came up to me holding a piece of wood with a piece of metal attached to the end. He clicked it a couple of times then held his hand out for money. I told him No! Another young guy came over holding a guitar. I waved him away before he’d even played a note. No aggression involved but different to previous experience. There was also a bit more edginess on these streets, with me getting some stares from people as I walked by.
Next morning, being in a double room, I was presented with two breakfasts. I was very good and ate only one before heading out of town nice and early. My eventual destination was the town of Batu and en route I called in to Malang to check out another Hindu temple, Candi Jago. Tucked away up a side street, it was quite unprepossessing if I’m honest. Built in the thirteenth century, none of the statues or carvings had survived. More enjoyable was the people I met. There was a crowd of school kids there, all sat up on the top level of the temple with their teacher trying to take a photo of them. I kept distracting them by waving at them but the teacher got his own back by bringing them over to where I was sitting and insisting on photos. I then got chatting to a couple of young students, both of them with good English, about their life there and their ambitions. They’ve both just graduated and hope to go abroad to study further. A pleasant little interlude, despite the disappointing temple, although the students did direct me to a much better one, in a nearby village.


Distracting the schoolkids.


Articulate and friendly students, especially the young woman.

Heading into Batu I found lots of road closures and as I was riding up a dual carriageway there was some kind of parade coming down the other way. I stopped for a look. Lots of dressing up and dancing, with some miming and pretending. Fun to watch but I had no idea what it was about. There was clearly something going on in town that weekend because there were coaches everywhere and nary a cheap bed to be found. I ended up in an expensive hotel, chosen for its proximity to the two places I wanted to visit.


She looks as puzzled as I was about the dance and the parade.


One man pretends to be three. Nope, I don’t know why either.

The first of these was the Batu Secret Zoo. A strange name, with no obvious reason for it. There is, quite rightly, lots of discussion about zoos and their role in conservation juxtaposed with animal cruelty. I’m a fairly neutral non-expert on the subject but I enjoyed this one very much. There were lots of primates, many of which were completely new to me. The focus was more on Asia than anywhere else, which wasn’t surprising really, but there were some African mammals too. Giraffes are incredible animals to see, and always look so elegant. There were a couple of elephants, with people having fun feeding them carrots. Watching those trunks at work is an amazing sight. I had to feel sorry for the smaller of the two, who struggled to reach across the barrier. There were various tigers too, including a rare White Tiger. All of the animals looked content except for one of the bears, which paced up and down continuously. There was a museum section with plenty of stuffed animals set up in tableau form and, best of all, a section with butterflies in it. Many of them were very big and some were truly beautiful. I wasn’t too impressed with the aquarium but other than that, it was a great visit. Being a weekend though, and a special one too in some way, it was very busy indeed. What with the zoo’s method of forcing visitors to follow a specific route, I was feeling plenty of sympathy for the animals by the end of it.

Reaching over the barrier was hard.                             But worth the effort.

A rare White Tiger.                                                                  A Phasma Reinwardtii.

That took up the morning and the afternoon was spent at Angkut Museum. This place is part transport museum and part film heritage museum. I really enjoyed the display of cars and bikes, mostly British and American. It really is amazing how many bike manufacturers there were in Britain between the wars. Quite incredible. Lots of big American cars too, all nicely restored. Up on the roof they’d created a mock airport terminal, dating from the seventies by the look of it. You could go on board the plane and be welcomed by a stewardess. A bit twee really but I’m sure kids liked it. The second section was themed on some Hollywood movie scenes and also various places around the world, such as Las Vegas, Buckingham Palace and so on. The vehicles and other objects all matched the age and place and they also had performers recreating movie scenes and getting the crowd involved too. I discovered a small theatre focussed on silent movies and watched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a film I’d never seen all the way through before. The last section housed the Indonesian Heritage display where a guide latched on to me and insisted on explaining every single thing on display there. He was very knowledgeable and I took in as much as I could, but I think I’d rather have walked around on my own if I’m honest. The floating food area enabled me to eat well before walking back to my hotel after a very busy day.

MV aren’t usually associated with two strokes.                         A very nice Mk VIII Jaguar.

These two places surprised me somewhat. My experience of Indonesia up to now had been of beautiful countryside, very busy towns and cities, some natural beauty spots and a variety of old temples. Plenty of tourists around too but my perception of Indonesians hadn’t led me to think they were likely to be heading off to the zoo very often. They always seemed too busy trying to earn a living. But this view is a bit patronising really, so I was quite pleased to have my eyes opened to the fact that there’s plenty of disposable income around, just like anywhere else, and that people enjoy spending it.
Another day, another Hindu temple to visit, this time at Tenatara. Supposedly another building of note, I really wasn’t all that impressed and have reached the conclusion that Jimmy’s comments hold true. They are just piles of stone unless something is actually happening there, such as a festival or celebration. Then, the statues and buildings are splendidly decorated with flowers and costumes, as are the people attending. The nearby museum was more interesting, with its display of artefacts and statuery, but no words in English to tell me what they were about.
But at least the ride out to there was very enjoyable, with hills to ride around and small towns nestling in the valleys. It was great to be out of the traffic and the feeling of openness uplifted my spirits. I didn’t travel far before I came to a town where a suitable hotel could be found. Some good English spoken there, which always helps. Sometimes these places are surprisingly cheap although this one was a bit dearer by Indonesian standards. A whole £10 per night. Shock, horror! And that got me a double room with hot water and air conditioning. I often pay only half of that but the room would then be rather basic. I don’t mind that. I’ve spent enough nights in a tent to be able to appreciate having facilities, whatever they may be like. But they’ll usually have a squat toilet and, if there’s a shower, it will be cold. More often there will just be a tank of water and a scoop, which you use to throw the water over yourself. And this, to my surprise, I found to be very refreshing, although I’m glad I don’t have long hair to wash.
Food can be found at amazingly cheap prices. If you’re happy with a nasi or mie goreng (fried rice or noodles) then you can eat for less than IRP10,000. To put that in perspective, if I then went to an Indomaret (convenience store) and bought a Magnum, it would cost more than the meal, at around IRP14,000, but which is still less than £1 (about IRP17,500 to £1).


Rio with his blinged up Yamaha Max scooter.

After I’d been out I got a message that someone wanted to see me. Down in the lobby was a guy named Rio, who runs a local biker’s club. I use the word ‘bikers’ advisedly as they all ride Yamaha Max scooters. I’m guessing the reception staff rang him, knowing he’d be interested in meeting this foreign tourist passing through. I went with him up to his house for coffee, and met his family. He wanted me to come and meet the other club members that evening but I could sense a long night ahead of me so I cried off, agreeing to meet again in the morning.
Rain, and lots of it, was what greeted me when I came down. But Rio and his crew had turned up anyway, so we chatted and drank coffee until the rain stopped. These guys take their scooters seriously, with lots of bling. They all fit loads of LED lights, all wired up to control units which enable them to ride along with the lights flashing away, or with different coloured LEDs wired up to the brake lights. I’d seen a couple of groups like this already, riding along looking like mobile Christmas decorations. Very showy but also good fun. Many of the young lads do similar things to their bikes, with anodised aluminium wheel rims or brake levers, just to look a bit more individual.


the BILTAR crew. A lovely bunch of guys.

We went for brunch at a warung across the street, then we rode down to a memorial centre dedicated to President Sukarno. Very much revered in Indonesia, he was the first elected President following the declaration of Independence, on the 17th August 1945, immediately after the Japanese had left. His trade was that of architect and he managed to build a new country by uniting all the disparate groups, religions and tribes into a new nation. The Dutch, reluctant to let their former colony go, fought a rearguard action but by 1949 Sukarno had sent them packing using both diplomatic and military means.
Sukarno developed his nationalist ideas as a young man and worked with the Japanese invaders during the war so as to be allowed to spread them across the country. When the Japanese left he was ready to put his ideas into practice and was able to win the election. He focussed on secularism, education and unification. Indonesia’s motto is ‘United in Diversity’. But by 1967 he’d been pushed aside, with help from the western powers, who didn’t like his tolerance of communism. At that point, General Suharto took over. Sukarno was kept under house arrest until he died in 1970. Looking at Indonesia now it’s clear that his efforts to unite the different peoples have paid off. Although nominally a Muslim country, all cultures and religions seem to live happily side by side, as far as I can see, although I know there have been some terrorist incidents in recent years. It seems the ‘do it my way or else’ mobsters get everywhere. The museum was full of photos, paintings and other memorabilia. One of the paintings had those eyes which seem to follow you around. ‘Sukarno is still watching over you’ seemed to be the message.
That is just a potted history and there is, as ever, lots more info here:


Those eyes follow you around. Museum staff, using an unknown gesture.

The rain had stopped and it was time to go. I had originally planned to visit Gunung Kelud, an occasionally active volcano which had a steaming lake inside its caldera. But Rio said the path up to it would be impassable after the rain, so I got him to lead me out to the edge of town headed off down the line.
And then one of those chance meetings happened, which on the face of it are just an opportunity to say ‘hello’ to a fellow traveller but which actually provided me with a solution to a problem which had been aggravating me for a couple of weeks. I was just overtaking a truck when I noticed that the bike following it wasn’t a local scooter but a big BMW. I pulled over and so did he. Deon Hubach is an Aussie from Fremantle and he’s travelling pretty much the same route as me before he ships across to South Africa. We stopped for a cuppa, where the locals thought they were in selfie heaven. Two bearded westerners, plus big bikes, in one place was just too much for them to resist. As Deon was leaving I noticed he had a small case on his handlebars with his phone inside it. He said it’s waterproof and enables him to use his phone as a GPS while riding. Now that was just what I needed! The GPS I’d used for the last eight years had finally succumbed to the rain and the spare I’d brought with me was also faulty. I’d tried, but failed, to make one good one out of the two. Navigating through busy and confusing towns, or out to small villages to visit a temple, is extremely difficult without some kind of electronic aid. All I could do was to stop from time to time, dig my phone out and check whether I was on route or off it. A right royal pain in the behind. So when I got to a town for the evening I found a phone shop – all towns have dozens of them – and bought one. It’s been a real boon ever since. So thanks Deon, and well met. Deon is supporting a charity with his ride, and also has a blog. Details here:

The next day went like this. I reached the small town of Wonsori within two hours, to be my base while I visited two nearby sites. So first it was a recce to locate Goa Jambang, a cave accessed by winch. It’s at the bottom of a very large hole in the ground. Even with my newly available phone mapping, it took a deal of finding. But it was worth the effort because I was able to check they could include me on a tour next morning and also know that I wouldn’t get lost and miss out by being late. The next visit was to the Prambanam Hindu Temple in Jojakarta, the biggest city in the region. This was also a very big temple. Despite being ‘just another pile of rocks’ its sheer size meant it was impressive and the quality of the bas relief carvings was excellent. But I still sneakily thought that a bit of paint wouldn’t go amiss, just to relieve the endless gray. It was built in the 9th century and has three main buildings dedicated to Brahmin, Shiva and Ganesh. They are very tall and had smaller temples around them, with lots more around the edge of the site still undergoing restoration. The government is paying for this following recent earthquakes. A broadly Muslim administration paying to restore Hindu temples. They clearly live up to their motto in Indonesia.


This place is definitely BIG.

Meanwhile the whole site was full of schoolkids, so selfie mania was rife. But this was one of those places where there were lots of other westerners around to share the load. It’s clear these kids are tasked with talking to westerners to practice their English. I was cornered by one group of nine to ten year old lads who asked me questions off a prepared script. They did very well except that their spokesman kept calling me Madam. ‘Not with this beard I’m not sonny’ was my immediate thought.


Let’s be fair, that’s an impressive bit of temple building.

The riding had been good once more. I passed by plenty of pastoral activity, with field surrounded by low, dry stone walls, and a huge variety of different crops. The fields all seemed to be worked by had still. I saw very little by way of agricultural machinery anywhere on my travels. Plenty of wheelbarrows, hand tools and people wearing those conical Chinese hats. The little motorbikes would often be pulling small trailers containing plant, of both kinds. Rural Indonesia clearly still does it ‘old school’.


Getting ready for the drop.

There was a large group of people gathered for the caving adventure next morning. After tea/coffee we all got kitted out in a harness and hard hat and were lowered, two at a time, down the side of an enormous hole in the ground. It was about 100 metres across, with almost vertical sides, and full of trees and undergrowth. At the bottom we all walked down a very steep and slippery slope into a large cave (Goa Jambung). Across the other side was a fast flowing, and cold looking, river. Close by that, up in the very high roof of the cave was another vertical hole, about ten metres across and surrounded by trees and vegetation. We waited around a while and eventually the sun came round to the point where it was shining down through the hole, creating a magical effect as it illuminated the mist laden air and shone onto the rocks below. It was quite something, and worth all the effort. A honeymooning Japanese couple had gone to the trouble of bringing down some very smart clothes, and a professional photographer, and were having some rather special wedding photographs taken. With that golden cascade of light as a backdrop, they must have looked terrific.


This is what we came to see.


What a terrific backdrop for a wedding photo.

As well as in the cave, the walls of the hole itself were covered in stalactites, lurking among the vegetation, and something to look at as we were hauled slowly back up. At the meeting place there was a lunch to be eaten and experiences to be shared. I’d been chatting to Kirsten, a very tall German woman, who was on a three week holiday, trying to cram in as much as she could. Most of the other visitors were western as well.


Borobudur is another massive work of worship.

I now only had one more place to visit in this area and, with regard to temples, I’d saved the best until last. Borobudur is a another 9th century building, but is Buddhist rather than Hindu. At about 120 metres across, it is a huge building, consisting of six square levels, and then three circular ones. On the top is a circular dome surrounded by seventy two perforated stupas, each with a Buddha statue inside. There are a total of five hundred and four Buddha statues. The edifice is designed so that pilgrims follow a particular path up and around the various levels. On the way they will pass 2,672 bas relief panels, all linked to the various levels of enlightenment that a Buddhist will attempt to pass through before reaching Nirvana. The detail on these panels is amazing and I’m sure the stories are quite easy to follow for someone with the relevant knowledge.


These very detailed panels have survived over 1,000 years.

Java was ruled by Britain from 1811 to 1816 and it was the Governor, Sir Thomas Raffles, who first began the re-discovery of the temple. There had been local stories about it and he decided to follow them up. It had been hidden by volcanic ash and jungle for centuries. Raffles did little other than reveal it to the world and it was the Dutch colonists who finally uncovered it in the mid 19th century. Since then it has undergone much restoration effort and is finally available in all its glory. UNESCO helped with advice and funds during this period and it is now on their list of World Heritage Sites. Once again, it was the Indonesian government that funded and organised most of the restoration and it is the single most visited site in the country, with 80% of visitors being Indonesian. I was very impressed by it. Guess what? Lots more information here:


Some of the stupas that surround the dome, each with its own Buddha statue inside..

My next port of call was a port. Semerang, to be precise, up on Central Java’s north coast. From here various ferries departed for various islands and I wanted to get to Borneo, or Kalimantan, as the Indonesians name their part of it. My newly developed GPS system got straight there so I parked up and entered the bear pit. Firstly though, I should explain that there are various ferry companies operating out of here. My research had shown that ASDP Ferries (Indonesia Ferries) was the cheapest by a long way, at around IRP500,000, for the 24 hour crossing. This company runs the ferries that I’d used to island hop across Indonesia up to now. So I went looking for their ticket office. Today was Friday, the ferry was due to leave from a town called Kendal at 12.00 Saturday. So why was I at Semerang, 30kms away? Because Google maps didn’t show a ferry terminal at Kendal, which isn’t quite on the coast, nor a ferry route leaving there, so I guessed it actually left from Semerang. Was I right? I didn’t get the chance to find out.
As soon as I walked into the building I was leapt on by this man, a ticket ‘agent’, who immediately started quoting me prices for me and my bike. And I foolishly let myself get drawn in. IRP1,250 million for both, on a ferry that left at 16.00 Saturday. So, right day, wrong time and definitely the wrong price. So why on earth did I meekly hand over the money? I said to him I wanted ASDP ferry but he kept saying no, and telling me about this other one run by a company called DLU. He departed with my cash and eventually returned with a ticket, which gave the price as one million. While I’d been waiting I’d been thinking about it all and realised that I’d been a bit stupid so when he returned I queried everything. He told me to follow him back to the ferry ticket office, a short distance away in the town, and once we got there I made a real song and dance about the price, seeing an opportunity to cancel this deal and get the one I’d hoped for. So after some very assertive talk from me (otherwise known as shouting) I got a refund from the ferry and my money back from the agent. It was now chucking it down with rain and I didn’t have the heart to go back to the terminal to find ASDP. So I set off for Kendal to see if there really was a terminal there.
Once I’d found a hotel I went back onto the ASDP website and noticed they had a Facebook page. I sent them a message asking where this ferry actually left from and was surprised to get a reply, fairly late on a Friday evening. But that reply puzzled me even more because it said that the ferry left from a town called Jepara, 70kms east of Semerang. I double checked the information with them and it made some sense in explaining the lack of knowledge about the ASDP ferry at the Semerang terminal. So, with plans laid for an early start on my two and a half hour ride to Jepara next morning, I got an early night.
So did it all work out? Oh no, not a bit of it. I had a good ride to Jepara, getting there in plenty of time for the 12.00 departure. But I was in the wrong place once more. The only ASDP ferry that left from there went to one of the other islands. With the help of a local who spoke good English I found that my ferry did leave from Semerang but it was now far too late to catch it.


I’d asked someone if women were treated equally, i.e. could they join the police force. It seems so.

A slower ride back to Semerang got me there soon after midday and I found a ticket agency by the bus terminal who said he would organise my ticket for the DLU ferry. That all went wrong because he quoted the wrong price for my size of bike and didn’t take enough money off me. By the time he’d come back and got more money from me he was too late to get the ticket as the office had closed. I was now faced with not even getting that ferry, and the next one was Monday. Angry and despondent, I headed to the port and, avoiding the lurking and surprised original agent, found a different one who said he could still get me on the boat even though it was, at gone 14.00, theoretically too late to load my bike. He quoted me 1.1 million, a slight saving on yesterday’s price. I followed him through the terminal, out to where the ferry was docked. He spoke to one of the officials, got the nod, and took me back inside, where he issued me a passenger ticket. What about the ticket for the bike? Back to see the same official, where money changed hands, including an extra 100k from me, and I was able to load my bike onto the boat. I was both relieved and extremely fed up. I’d reached the conclusion the ASDP ferry didn’t really exist, that it was just trick to annoy weary travellers. But the saga of the ferry hadn’t ended yet. But more on that in the next blog.


The cheerful 2nd Officer gets Trixie tucked nicely away.


Even the lowliest of rides are entitled to a bit of bling.

Beautiful Bali – Again.

Ubud, Bali. Tuesday 4th October 2017
Those of you who’ve been following this tale will know that I spent Christmas 2015 in Ubud with my Aussie friends Phil and Trish. They weren’t around this time and with Dan gone, I was on my own. My plan was to spend a couple of days in Ubud then return to Nancy’s to take up her invite to stay for a few days. I rode into town on familiar roads with the advantage, for once, of actually knowing where I was going. Ubud is always busy, although it being the low season I was hopeful of finding a decent homestay at a good price. After riding round the streets near the centre I found a really nice place where I was able to talk the price down from IRP350k to only 200k, a real bargain for a very nice room. I’m sure the effect of the Mount Agung volcanic activity worked in my favour here. It was nice to walk around this atmospheric town again. The streets were very busy, as were the eateries, but I found a nice backstreet warung where I enjoyed Pepes Ikan, one of my favourites dishes.


The sign by the front door.

When I was here last Phil and Trish had just divested themselves of a partnership in a yoga retreat and had acquired some land on which they planned to build their own. Phil had taken me to see it, when it was just a patch of trees and scrub. By this time it had been completed and operational for six months. I was very keen to see just what sort of job had been made of it. One thing I did know was that they both expended many hours of effort and heartache in the design and on decisions about decor and furnishings. Was it worth it? Yes, very much so.


As yoga studios go, this beats the local leisure centre any day.

One of the key features of this piece of land is that it backs on to a tree filled ravine with a river at the bottom. This has been cleverly incorporated into the design in that the yoga studio and spa area both overlook this feature, giving a sense of huge openness and space as you look out across it. Greenery and sky is all you can see, probably about as relaxing as you can get. There’s a swimming pool where the water flows out over one end in a waterfall, and is then collected and pumped back up to the pool again. So while you’re lying on the spa table, having your muscles pulled this way and that, you can listen to the calming waterfall and watch birds flying around the treetops. What could be nicer? The rest of the building is equally thoughtful and well designed. Beautiful bedrooms, a lovely lounge area and all with decor and furnishings of superb quality and taste. Yes, I was very impressed.


A super relaxing ambiance.

Phil and Trish have been great friends to me so although I don’t usually do this kind of thing, I’m going to give them a shameless plug. Trish is a very experienced yoga instructor and runs her own retreats there at various times of the year. They also hire it out to other people so they can run retreats of their own. If you want to attend, or run, a yoga retreat then contact them via their Facebook page: Villa Tana Shanti or Shake Your Buddha Yoga. I don’t believe you’ll regret it.
I spent the rest of the day trying to buy some things I needed, and failed, but walked a long way in the process. So when I got back to the centre of town and saw a place advertising a ‘hot stone massage’, it seemed like just what I needed. Apart from anything else, my back (which I wasn’t going to mention again) was still sore and I thought some heat treatment might help. It’s very nice to spend ninety minutes lying on a table while somebody oils you up and then manipulates every muscle, from neck to toe (excluding the middle). Then to have the hot stones placed onto various parts while their heat transfers into your muscles is exquisite indeed, provided they’re not too hot of course (definitely avoiding the middle!). Did it help? It’s hard to say but I enjoyed the attempt very much. Ubud is full of these kind of personal therapy places. It all ties in with the spiritual and new age ambience of the town.


Who is the subject of this statue, in the middle of one of Ubud’s busy junctions? I’ve no idea, but I love it.

There was no rush to get to Nancy’s next morning so I drifted over there about midday. Let me explain a bit about her. She came to Indonesia as a Peace Corps volunteer during the seventies after she’d finished college. Following that she became an employee of the World Health Organisation, mainly dealing with women’s health, especially reproduction. She’s acted as consultant on various projects and in effect spent most of her working life in the region. She bought this house in Bali about fifteen years ago and has built a guest house as well. That was where I’d be staying. It’s a source of income for the family that look after her and maintain her property, so I was therefore happy to pay my way.
Nancy was in Timor Leste at the time of the referendum, acting as an official observer. She said most westerners involved hoped that the people would decide to become an autonomous region within Indonesia and go for independence later. But given how they’d been treated during the occupation that was always unlikely. The country made some bad decisions, Nancy thought, especially in choosing Portuguese as the official language. They’d been governed and educated in Indonesian for the last twenty five years so they straight away put themselves at a disadvantage. The departing Indonesians damaged a lot of the infrastructure too so the new government bought a lot of ‘clapped out gear’ (Nancy’s description) from Portugal, such as communications equipment, when they could have got better for less elsewhere. Not a good start for a new country and it’s no surprise that progress seems slow.


There’s always colourful shrines around.

Among other conversations we talked about crime in bigger towns, such as those in Java, the next island I’d be visiting. Nancy made the point that with a much more itinerant population in these places the ‘home village’ effect was greatly reduced. By this she meant the social pressure that falls upon people to be of good character so as not to shame their family. It’s not that anyone who’s living away from home will misbehave, but some do and that’s were the security risk arises. If you think about your own childhood, and your parents’ demands not to ‘show us up’ or ‘bring shame on the family’, this pressure is the same everywhere, to one degree or another. Having always felt safe in Asia from some of the kind of pressures that go with life in the west, I appreciated the warning.


Nancy and one of her dogs.

One morning Nancy told me she was going to a funeral and invited me along. The deceased was a a relative of Abeen, who works for her, and was gong to be buried. Being a Hindu society, the desire is for a cremation but these are very expensive and also require a highly auspicious day. So families will bury their dead until they have enough money for the cremation, then disinter them ready for the ceremony, usually to be held alongside other families, and possibly years later. But the burial also requires an auspicious date so the body of the deceased could have been laid out in the family shrine for several weeks. It would have been embalmed and kept wrapped up, and the embalming helps preserve the body during its temporary rest in the ground.


Last resting place before burial.

We arrived and were made welcome. We were given some snacks and Nancy handed over her gift to the family. Gifts are always given and a note is made of who gave what so that proper reciprocation can take place when required. I was allowed to take photos of the body too, which was adorned with small gifts and clothes, useful in the afterlife. I wasn’t alone in this seemingly ghoulish activity. It is, in fact, perfectly normal, it being a celebration after all. This woman was sixty five when she died, which matches the average life expectancy in Bali. There was plenty of chatter going on, and mingling of people. Several people spoke to me too although we left before the actual burial. There were three taking place that morning.
Talking of auspicious dates, Nancy showed me a calendar which had been collated by the local spiritual leaders. It showed the best dates for many activities, including such things as buying a goat; planting rice; buying and knife and even a good date for sharpening it. Balinese life is full of ceremonies and I remember being told last time I was here that their cost is partly responsible for keeping poor people poor.
I mentioned to Nancy at one point that I’d seen a shop selling ‘fashionable hijabs’. She said that when she first arrived she very rarely saw them but thinks that there is now a baleful Saudi Arabian influence at work. They contribute money towards new mosques and not unnaturally probably expect something back by way of a closer acceptance of their version of Islam. It seemed to me to be the younger women who liked the hijab. I often saw mixed groups where the older women didn’t seem to be too bothered. As I may have mentioned before, I haven’t seen a face veil of any kind, which to me can only be a good thing.


A calendar filled with auspicious dates for everyday life.

So those few days with Nancy drew to a close. I’d had a great time talking to and learning from her and we shared common feelings on many things. Yes, we did discuss Trump, and she’s appalled by him, but as time goes by she feels more and more disconnected from her homeland, having lived away from it for so long. Meanwhile I’d spent some of my time making plans so it was time to get going once more and carry them through.
The area around the capital, Denpasar, can be both heaven and hell. The roads definitely fall into the latter category, being choked with traffic and its associated foul air, heat, dust and frustration. But some of them lead to nice places, so it’s often worth the fight. One such is the Le Meyeur museum, down by the beach at Samur. Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur was yet another European painter, Belgian this time, who came to Bali and fell in love. In his case as well as the island itself it was with a young dancer who was his model for many art works but whom he later married. And I don’t blame him for that as she certainly looks stunning, as do her two friends, who also modelled. The paintings reflect Balinean life as it was at that time. After Indonesian independence they were persuaded to sign over the house they shared by the beach to the government, so it could be a museum for his works, 80% of which are displayed there. After his death in 1958 Ni Pollock, his wife, carried on living there but on condition she accepted the presence of visitors. The house itself is significant enough to be worth preserving as it is furnished and crafted in a style representative of that period. He was one of many European artists attracted to the natural and unspoiled beauty of the island and to the unique culture practised there.


Taman Kertha Gosa Halls of Justice.

I rode a bit further round the coast, then inland a bit, to a place called Klungkung, where I wanted to have a look at the Taman Kertha Gosa. This 18th century pavilion was built by the local Rajah as a meeting place for him and his ministers where they could discuss justice. It was the courthouse too and it was in this regard that the ceiling and frieze were decorated with scenes from the story of Bhima Swarga, the main character in a Hindu epic. The story deals with various aspects of heaven, hell and justice, and is painted using very popular Balinean characters. It’s very gory, with stabbings, be-headings and beasts of all kinds, but the objective was to give those who were on trial an idea of the punishments they could face but also, if they looked up at the centre of the ceiling they could find consolation in the paintings of the gods. The paintings have been restored several times and while I was there I saw a guy drawing some designs on paper for transfer onto the ceiling later. He told me he was a descendant of the original artists and that it was common for this work to stay within families. There are two pavilions there, one smaller than the other, but both decorated in the same way. They were surrounded by water and very nice gardens, a common feature of significant Balinean buildings. Across on one side was a museum with some local artefacts in it, worth a look but nothing very special. But there was something fascinating about Kertha Gosa and how it represented this strange outpost of Hindu culture mixed with local custom, known as Bali.


Behave, or else!


Fantastical figures and an amazing cutural work of art.

The threatening clouds hovering above me started to deliver so I went looking for a bed. After a false start or two I came across a very cheap hotel, was able to put my bike in the foyer and settled in to easily the roughest room I’ve stayed in, and paid for,so far. But it had a bed, the bed had a mattress and pillow and there was a bathroom down the hall. As well as being dirty it was dirt cheap, so I didn’t mind. Just down the road was a food market where plenty of stalls sold a whole variety of dishes and I had a very nice Gado Gado for a very small price. To finish up the evening I walked over to the Cenotaph where stories are told of Balinese defenders battling against various invaders, including the Dutch. Unfortunately they were usually bringing knives to a gun fight so eventually lost, but the displays were great. Individual set pieces made up of models acting out the battle scenes, rather like what the local modelling society might display at the church fete, but better. They even had the information written in English too. Wonderful.


I probably should have taken more notice of this sign. If only I knew what it said.

Crappy room or no, I still slept well and set off next morning for a busy day sightseeing. The temple complex of Pura Besakih was the first port of call, perched 1,000 metres up the slopes of Mount Agung. Now that name should have rung a bell but I hadn’t actually realised that was where I was heading. I still didn’t realise it when I rode through a town, passing some police vehicles and a large yellow sign with red writing on it, along with a no entry sign. But I began to get an inkling that something wasn’t quite right when I arrived in Besakih and found the place to be completely deserted. Now this really is unusual. All Indonesian towns are as busy as an ants nest and a bee hive combined. There’s always people buzzing around on their scooters, or in and out of shops. Add in that it’s a major tourist attraction too, and the streets should have been crammed. Instead – nothing! It made me think of Dodge City at High Noon. Eventually the penny dropped. The temple was inside the Mount Agung exclusion zone, set up because of the threatened eruption, and I’d ridden right into it. A local told me I might as well have a look at the temple while I was here, so I did just that. I couldn’t get inside it so I walked around the grounds and took photos.


Just the start of the temple complex. There’s lots more behind it.

I’d just got back to where I’d parked the bike when the aforementioned police vehicles turned up, like the Flying Squad arriving at a bank raid, complete with sunglasses, moustaches and AK47s. The boss man shook my hand and very politely enquired as to what I was doing, explaining that I was inside the risk area. I said I’d just come up to get some photos and apologised for my mistake. We chatted about where I was from and where I was going and he, assuming I’d just arrived there, said I could climb up the first set of steps and take a couple of pictures. I somehow failed to tell him I’d been there a while so fell in with that suggestion before thanking all these gun toting young men and made good my escape. It was a shame I couldn’t explore properly though as this is quite a spectacular place, as temples go. There’s twenty three of them, leading ever further up the mountainside. During the eruption of 1963 the lava flow only missed the complex by a few metres, which was considered a real miracle by the locals and a significant message from the spirits which occupy Mount Agung. You and I would probably just call it good luck.


Oops, it’s the Rozzers. Note the utterly deserted streets behind them.

Climbing further up into the hills, on permitted roads this time, I went to the Batur Lake viewpoint. A very busy place by contrast, crowded with school kids on a day out. The view is spectacular, looking right across the lake to Mount Batur, with its double caldera. It too is active. Last erupting in 2000. Despite the risk, there are four villages beneath it, enjoying the benefit of the super fertile soil and taking advantage of the tourist industry too. Sadly it was far too hazy for decent photos. Then, it was back down the mountain road, along the coast for a bit, then up into the hills again. Good riding, quiet roads and great scenery. The rain holding off too. I like this life on days like these.


Volcano and lake at Mount Batur viewpoint.

My last port of call for the day was Taman Tirta Gangga. The name means ‘Water From the Ganges’, with an obvious cultural significance for Balinese Hindus. It was built in 1948 by the local Rajah, whose name was Anak Agung Agung Anglurah Ketut Karangasem. I know full well that you’ve read all the way through this blog post just to enjoy reading that name. This large complex, proudly rebuilt since its almost total destruction in the Mount Agung eruption of 1963, is a peaceful haven of fountains, ponds, plants and statues. There’s a pool in which to swim and the main pond has a network of stepping stones in it so you can get nice and close to the fish and fountains, if you want to. The main feature is an eleven tiered fountain, reminding me of a watery wedding cake, possibly suiting a king with almost as many names. I wandered around the many paths, just enjoying the ambience as the afternoon drew towards evening. The complex includes an expensive looking hotel, which may have been the former palace.


Designed for peaceful enjoyment.


Fit for a king.

Such places are too rich for my pocket so I tried one of the homestays opposite the entrance, and found an excellent place. So nice, in fact, that I spent three nights there. Homestays are a great way of getting cheap accommodation and they’re invariably of good quality. Most of the time you’ll be in a small building of your own, with one or maybe two double beds and en suite bathroom. Usually with free wi-fi and also air conditioning. They don’t often have hot showers but that really doesn’t matter in such a warm climate. The price will reflect where it is and what’s nearby. This one was set in some beautiful gardens, clearly the pride and joy of the family that owned it, and the property included a nice, and cheap, warung. All this for RP100,000 – less than six GBP. A couple of times I’ve arrived at places later than intended and have had to search around for accommodation. The mapping apps on my phone can be very helpful here but can’t always be relied on. I’ve found myself knocking on the door of private houses sometimes, believing them to be guesthouses. Very embarrassing. But I’ve always been lucky in finding a place to stay at a reasonable price – so far.


A beautiful garden to look at while I worked.

A couple of days in this relaxing place enabled me to catch up on some writing and to enjoy a walk up in the hills, where rice paddies abound, alongside various other crops. The area is very fertile and well watered, and it shows. When on the bike, heading from one place to another, I rarely have reason to wander ‘off piste’. But while out walking I went down some of the back roads and was surprised to find how much activity there is around and about. Very small settlements of maybe a dozen houses but usually a shop and a tiny warung in among them. The shop would mostly be for the very essential cigarettes and also packeted junk food for the kids. I’ve honestly never been in a part of the world where the men smoke so much. It was very rare to see a woman smoking in public though.
After that relaxing sojourn it was time to get back on the tourist trail. I headed back down to the coast, now noticing several signs at various junctions warning of the Mount Agung exclusion zone. After a while I saw a sign telling of a waterfall so I thought I’d take a look. Pulling into the parking area I saw a couple of western guys there so I got chatting with them. Blue and Jimmy are both American but have lived in Bali for many years. I didn’t get to discover Blue’s back story but Jimmy told me he came here in 1991 and got involved in property development down in Semingyak. When he started building down there that hell hole of traffic and tourists was just paddy fields, he told me. He married a Balinese woman and now spends his time between Bali and Aspen, Colorado. He said he’s become fed up with the States, with all the friction between people, and that it’s become a dreadful place. They both told me the waterfall wasn’t really worth the thirty minute walk to see it and recommended another one, a short distance away, called Sekumpul. Twin falls, very spectacular. So I left there and headed off.


It’s no wonder my brake didn’t work. Vital parts, gone AWOL.

Now here’s one of those bike riding stories which always make me feel a bit foolish. Ever since Timor Leste I’d had a problem with my rear brake slowly applying itself until it stopped the bike – which is its job, after all. At first I thought it was a problem with a sticking valve in the master cylinder but eventually I realised it was the adjuster bolt for the brake pedal. It had lost its lock nut and was slowly winding itself out, thereby taking up the slack and eventually pushing the brake on. I’d replaced the adjuster nut but a couple of days previously had made an adjustment to the brake and had undone a retaining clip in the process. I’d obviously forgotten to replace the clip because when I’d had a look at it up at the waterfall car park, wondering why I had no back brake at all, I realised the pushrod that links the brake pedal to the cylinder wasn’t there. Well, that would explain the total absence of rear braking effect then. This was going to require some new parts and at the second bike repair shop I tried, the guy there had some new brake cylinders, which come with the pushrod included. Unfortunately he didn’t have one that fitted my rather obscure make of bike so in the end he took the pushrod from a new cylinder and we jury rigged it to fit. It works perfectly, and all for the princely sum of 4 GBP. Wonderful!

Much better now though.                                   And with a helpful shop owner to thank.

Sekumpul waterfalls were as amazing as I’d been promised even though getting to them was a bit of an endurance test. I was directed into a car park, even though I could see there was a road going further towards them. “For locals only,” I was told. But, spookily, someone would take me down there, for a fee, on their scooter. I don’t play that game so I walked the 2kms down to the entrance, which had a perfectly good car park next to it, paid my fee and then went down what seemed to be endless steps to get to the bottom. I love to look at waterfalls. I just like the endless flow of water, which seems focussed on nothing more than falling over the cliff edge and foaming away downstream to who knows where. It’s both mesmerising and peaceful, despite the constant thunder of sound. I sometimes wonder what it’s all for but then realise it isn’t ‘for’ anything. It just ‘is’. Rivers carve up the land and one of the marks they leave as they go is a waterfall. Wonderful.


Sekumpul waterfalls. Nature doing its thing.

On the walk back towards those dreaded steps I was stopped by a group of lads for a chat. We talked for 10-15 minutes, with one of them videoing it all, probably as proof for their teacher, and many selfies were taken. They decided to accompany me back up the steps, which worked out well because they had scooters parked at the top and one of them gave me a lift back up to my bike. That saved me a long walk. Thanks lads, it’s always good to talk.
That evening was one of those where I had to wander around, from place to place, to find a room. Too expensive, full up or not open was the story until I finally found a hotel where I got an economy room. ‘Economy’ meant there was no shower, just a tank of water with a scoop, no bed covering and the wi-fi signal didn’t quite reach the room. Being a Friday the only place I could find open nearby was the Indonesian version of KFC, Jaya Fried Chicken. In Sanskrit ‘Jaya’ means ‘Victory’.  Yes, it was just as bad as KFC but at least it was food.


I’ve no idea what this represents but it’s quite a sttaue!

The village of Candikuning is supposed to be some kind of special place. It’s nicely situated by a lake up in the hills, and spreads itself up the hillside, but the only thing to see of any note, apart from expensive looking restaurants, was the Botanic Gardens. And these were very nice indeed. The wide road up through the middle had some striking statues along it, based on Hindu legend, I’m guessing. I liked the giant ferns and the walk through the bamboo forest, but my favourite was the cactus house. There was a huge variety of types and sizes, some of which I would never have identified as cactus had they not been labelled. They were all set out in a very attractive way too.


Inside the amazing cactus house. Pretty prickly.

Another local homestay that night, but this time with the free addition of two mosques nearby. I only mention them because the Muezzin seemed to be in competition with each other as to who can shout the loudest, and they were at it for over an hour. It seemed that the call to prayer had been extended to actually broadcasting the whole service over the loudspeakers. These things become normal background noise after you’ve been in a Muslim country for a while but even so, I was hoping they wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic for the morning call at 4am.
The threatening rain didn’t appear as I headed back to the coast, aiming for temple complex of Uluwatu. Perched high on a cliff top, it had several Hindu temples and shrines, dating from the 11th century, located among nice gardens and walkways. Jimmy had opined that these temples are just piles of rock unless a ceremony is going on. This place brought that home to me as none of them were accessible. An unspectacular place in a spectacular cliff top location. What a shame. More interesting were the Macaque monkeys, especially one little beggar. He was on the ground so I stopped to take a photo. The clever little monkey promptly snatched my water bottle out of my hand and scampered up a nearby tree. It seems they do this hoping to get fruit off their victim, at which point they will give up what they took. This bartering system is a behaviour they’ve learned and is passed down through the generations. I didn’t know the rules so I just picked up a stone and threatened him with it. He snarled at me and I snarled back at him and eventually he dropped the bottle. Then after a bit more snarling he moved off and I retrieved my water. Geoff 1 – 0 Monkey.


He snarled, I snarled better.

On the recommendation of some people I met in the car park, I headed to a nearby backpacker hostel, where there were some English people staying. It was nice to be able to have a chat for a change. Being back in the tourist area the hostel was not all that cheap but when the young Balinese guy in charge learned about my travels he gave me RP20k back “because you’re so cool.”. I didn’t mind that at all.
As I walked down to the main road to get some food I passed by some kind of event taking place in a field. On closer inspection it turned out to be a cock fighting arena. Now rightly banned in the western world, it still seems to be legal here to the extent that the arenas are marked on mapping apps. Curiosity got the better of me and one of the guys near the fence said to come on in, so I did. It’s not at all a pretty sight, as you can imagine. The cockerels have a huge metal spur on their foot and wear a hood until the fight starts. There’s lots of betting of course. After all, that’s really what it’s all about. The owners squat on the edge of a square showing off their birds to the crowd. They stand up and walk around a bit, then squat back down again, then repeat. All to get the crowd going. It reminded me of nothing more than two posturing sumo wrestlers, although much slimmer and with no salt throwing. Eventually the hoods were removed and the fight began, with the two birds charging each other. In a flurry of screeching and feathers, it was all over within ten seconds. I didn’t see the coup de grace as someone got in the way, and I think I’m quite glad about it. Raising animals purely for the purpose of fighting is an appalling thing to do, it must be said, but I make no apologies for having a look. I left to continue my walk to the warung where I was careful to select a seafood dish.


Getting the crowd worked up ready for the fight.

My final temple visit was to Tanah Lot, the best known down in that area. This temple, Uluwatu and five others all form a chain along the south west coast. Each one is within sight of its neighbour although I don’t know whether there’s a particular reason for this. They’re all influenced by ancient Balinese culture as well as Hinduism. The rocky coastline makes a dramatic setting for the two temples here. One was built on a promontory of rock which has an arch through it where the sea ebbs and flows. That one was closed for safety reasons. The bigger one sits on a small rocky island, only accessible when the tide is at least partly out. Getting to them from the car park involves a walk through a maze of souvenir shops, selling all the usual tourist tempting rubbish. As usual, I was amazed by how all the clothes shops sell the same clothes, the trinket shops all the same trinkets etc. What is the point?


Dramatic setting, but no access.

Down on the beach I walked across to the temple rock, went through the ritual hand and face washing in holy water you’re encouraged to do before entering some of these temples (for a small donation, of course), then found it to be closed. I wasn’t impressed. It had been Diwali that weekend, which may have had something to do with it, or it may have been for safety reasons. But I don’t know. So I had a walk along the rocky beach and took photos. There wasn’t much else to do really. I fancied taking some sunset pictures from the cliff above, where there was a long row of cafés and eateries, all overlooking the sea and situated there for that purpose. I got some tea and waited around until the sun set behind the clouds and disappeared over the horizon which I couldn’t see. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely place, but I definitely came away disappointed.


Them main temple out on the rock. Another dramatic setting but …..

Before going to the temple I’d found a nice homestay in a nearby village and decided to spend a couple of nights there, needing to make some plans. I’d pretty much seen all I wanted to in Bali and was going to Java next. I must admit to usually feeling a bit nervous before heading off to a new place. Even though it’s only a short ferry ride away, Java is very different to Bali and I wanted to feel prepared. The homestay owner, Kutan, put my bike in his garage where I spotted that he had his own collection of bikes, some of them clearly classics. Something to investigate tomorrow, was my thought. He gave me a lift down to a place called the Fat Hog, right next to the beach. Run by an Aussie/Indonesian couple, it had only just opened and was catering to the tourist trade. Prior to this they’d bought and sold land (that sounded familiar) but now wanted a steady income. The ambience was nice and the food was good so provided there’s no volcanic eruption I’m sure they’ll do well.
One of Kutan’s neighbours, a guy named Gapi, called round. He speaks very good English and is training to be a tour guide. We got on very well so decided to go back to the Fat Hog that evening. That was handy because he could give me a lift. It’s a bit of a walk down to there. Joking aside, it made a pleasant change to spend an evening in somebody else’s company and it was very enjoyable.


Two obscure European two strokes. Nicely restored and readynfor parading.

Before I left next morning I had a look at Kutan’s bike collection. He seems to like obscure European two stokes, the makes of which I can’t remember, and he also had a nicely customised small Honda, in a bright yellow. But the strangest of his machines was a trike, which had begun life as a scooter but which now had two more engine/rear wheel units added to it, one each side of the original. It must have been very strange to ride, especially with three rear wheels and three engines. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The picture tells the story and it does look very neat. He said he’s a member of a club which takes part in vehicle parades.


A novel but very strange thing to do, to my mind. But very well executed.

Time to go, so I headed west along the south side of the island, a route renowned for its heavy traffic because it goes from Denpasar to the Java ferry. To avoid all that hassle I’d planned to ride north, across the island to the other coast, reckoned to be a much quieter road. And it all worked out well, despite the extremely heavy tropical rain I encountered as I crossed the mountains. But that didn’t worry me at all as I’d been enjoying the ride and continued to do so once I came down out of the rain clouds. Once down on the coast the main job was finding a place to stay, which I did after a couple of false starts.
Most hotels and homestays supply breakfast of some kind. Maybe just toast, perhaps a banana pancake or an omelette. This place did me proud with loads of fruit, a pancake and a doughnut too. It’s a great way to start the day. It had rained hard last night but the morning was warm and breezy, and the road was good. As I neared the port I stopped at a store and got chatting to a guy who worked for the tourist board. I’d had a question in my mind for a while, about Borneo and whether I could cross over from the Indonesian to the Malayan side of the island but then, most importantly, whether I could cross back again. I’d heard some stories about it not being too easy to get an Indonesian visa at that border. He assured me there would be no problem at all, so I headed off to the ferry feeling very relieved that my plans for the next few weeks were going to work out.
The ferry between Bali and Java is both fast and cheap and before long I was on the sixth island of my visit to the Indonesian archipelago. There’s about 13,600 of them altogether so there’s a few to go yet.


Marching down the street, with drums and gongs a-banging. Part of one of the many Balinean ceremonies.

Reflections on Bali? It’s a beautiful place and is ideal for the western visitor because of the relaxed culture. Most people speak at least some English and there’s no issues surrounding the purchase of alcohol. Nice as it is, I do find Ubud somewhat hedonistic, but that’s what visitors want so that’s what they get. There is something special about it, as witnessed by the many European artists who’ve made Ubud their home. Denpasar is just hell and the nearby beaches are just tourist traps. It’s far better to go along the coast and find the quiet, secluded beaches, of which there’s plenty. Up in the hills lies as much natural beauty as you could ever want. I’d enjoyed my self very much.



Things you see, Pt 1. Going gardening.


Things you see Pt 2. Getting a ride home from school.

Heading West: Sumbawa to Bali.

Sape, Sumbawa. Wednesday 27th September 2017.

It’s been good fun travelling with Dan, which is been a bit of a surprise really. Apart from a few days down in Tasmania, when I hooked up with a young English visitor, my 106,000 plus kilometres have been solo. And that’s the way I generally prefer it. I’d always worry about having to compromise on routes, or sites to visit or riding pace. But none of that has come about. Partly it’s because the route and the riding pace were pretty much dictated for us. But it’s also because we want to see, and don’t want to see, the same things. Travelling across Flores got us into the swing of things. Dan’s an easy going guy and we’ve enjoyed some great chats about bikes, travelling and other things. So everything is good so far. Dan’s on a bit of a time limit with his visa but, looking ahead, we don’t see that being a problem.
Catching our second ferry wasn’t a problem either. No Daisy to help us this time, but she wouldn’t have been needed anyway. We arrived at the ticket office at 7.30, paid our fare and were directed straight onto the boat. With the bikes safely tied down we found ourselves some seats in one of the lounges which had its sides open to the sea breezes, and settled down for the four hour crossing. The only slightly puzzling thing is that this ferry cost us more than the one from Kupang to Flores. Maybe that was because of Daisy’s help, but who knows. We chatted to a Californian couple who were SCUBA diving instructors. They’d been working in Bali but were moving on because tourists were staying away. The threatened eruption of Mount Agung was to blame. It’s been fizzing away for a few weeks, with steam coming out of the sides and plenty of underground rumblings. The authorities had evacuated people living nearby and put an exclusion zone in place too. All of this was scaring away many tourists and it’s been a big news story on Aussie TV. Were it to erupt the problem for them would be with flying home. Dan was worried enough to decide on a leaving date and book a flight, while his insurance company were still prepared to cover the possibility of cancellations.


Houses on stilts, ready for the high tide. Definitely a bit run down.

We’d reached the conclusion there wasn’t a huge amount to see in Sumbawa unless you were a fan of surfing or trekking. It’s a small and mountainous island, but with good surfing beaches. Once we’d disembarked at the port town of Sape we found a good hotel where they insisted we bring our bikes into the lobby for safe keeping. That was a first, and another traveller box ticked.


Safely tucked away for the night at our hotel in Sape.

Sape looked a bit run down, as did the little pony carts we saw, carrying passengers, goods or both. They looked cute but were a real pain because of the way they held the traffic up in the narrow streets. The poor little ponies didn’t look too happy about it either. I see that as a sign of economic struggle. Down by the harbour most of the buildings were on stilts, raised above the high tide level. There were mud flats either side of the road, the ferry terminal being at the end of a peninsular. We spotted a boatyard, where three wooden boats were under construction. They were identical to those we’d seen in the water, which part of my mind had assumed were very old and would have been superseded by something more modern. Clearly not and I suppose the maxim ‘why change it if it works’ applies here. We ate at a nearby warung, cheap if not wonderful.


Boat building, old school style.

As we rode across Sumbawa it became clear this island has a heavy agricultural presence, with most land being cultivated with some crop or another. Down by the coast we came across some large ponds, separated from the sea, with several electrically driven paddles in each one, agitating the water. We presumed they were fish farms, not being able to think what else they could be. The roads were really good and we even came across a dual carriageway outside one of the larger towns. Oh the thrill of being in top gear at 100kph! We know how live, do Dan and I. We stopped to admire the view at one point and Dan decided we should ride down a little track, out to a headland, just to get some photos. That was a little bit of fun, for no reason other than that we could. I think the sunny weather and the holiday mood was getting to us.


Cute, but very slow. A real pain on these narrow streets.

Sumbawa is a mostly Muslim island, so mosques were plentiful, one of the factors in choosing our hotel last night, i.e. there wasn’t one within shouting distance. The Hijab was a common sight and I was amused to see a shop selling ‘Fashionable Hijabs’. I was told later that it’s something of a new habit among women, mostly the younger ones. Older women don’t wear them so often, which answered the puzzlement I’d felt when I saw young women wearing them but their older female relatives not doing so. Indonesia is generally a Muslim country but clearly not as strict as those in the Middle East. In fact there is an equal pay law in Indonesia, not at all what we’ve been led to expect from Muslim countries. It was certainly the case that none of the women were shy about talking to us. Perhaps there are lessons for other countries to learn here. At time of writing this I think I’ve only seen one burka.
In the larger towns now we were seeing big convenience stores. Part of a chain rather than the small family run ones we’d seen everywhere else, although those were still plentiful. Another sign that we were reaching the more modern parts of the country. There was one next to our hotel and Dan spotted some cans of beer in the chiller cabinet. But sadly they were the Islamic version, with a big 0% ABV written on the side of the can. We decided to have an ice cream instead.

All you’ll get in a Muslim owned store.     I’ve never seen this flavour in Britain. Delicious!

We’d ridden across Sumbawa so quickly that we decided to get the ferry to Lombok the next morning. It took us less than two hours to reach the port and, after a cup of tea, we boarded the 11am boat and settled down in some seats up on deck. Apart from what we’d observed from the saddles of our bikes, we hadn’t seen much of the island. But that was OK as everything that could be done involved expending copious amounts of energy. On this occasion we were happy just to enjoy the ride.
A puzzling feature was the number of police we saw in some of the towns. We hadn’t seen many up to now and the odd thing was that there were three distinct types. Some were in light blue uniforms, some in dark blue and some in brown.  We rode respectfully past each time, not wanting to create a stir, and got some smiles of appreciation for it. Dan had no IDP so the last thing we wanted was to be pulled in. I later discovered that those in light blue were marine police; those in dark blue state police; those in brown are regional police. We passed an airport and those guys were toting automatic weapons, reminding us that Muslim countries also have to guard against terrorism.


A fish farm, we presumed.

The ferry pulled out, slightly late, got a few hundred metres out into the bay, then changed its mind and came back again. Reason unknown. It was 12.30 by the time it left for the one and a half hour crossing, but we got there soon enough. We had a list of several places we wanted to visit on Lombok, and would have gone to see the Pink Beach en route to our planned overnight stop, but the ferry’s lateness legislated against that. So once we’d arrived we headed straight down to the beach resort town of Kuta, down on the south coast. Once we’d left the port we entered traffic hell. The built up areas never seemed to end and they were jam packed with cars, trucks and scooters. The level of aggression seemed to be higher too. There were loads of mosques, many of them very beautiful, but with stupidly loud chanting blaring out from some of them. At various points there’d be people standing in the middle of the road waving charity buckets at the passing traffic. They also had incredibly loud music or chanting blasting across at us. Not something that was likely to make either of us feel very charitable.
Eventually we were able to turn off that awful road into some relative calm and we soon got down to Kuta. Jasmine had recommended a good restaurant to us so we parked up in the centre of town for a look around. It happened that we’d stopped right by a home stay, which had decent rooms at a good price. So we booked ourselves in and went for a walk.
Kuta is tourist hell, or heaven, depending on your point of view. Lots of Europeans once more and plenty of the kind of place’s they like to have around. Restaurants or warungs; pizzerias; barrista cafés; bars down on the beach; scooter hire shops; tour shops; surfboard hire shops. We enjoyed a beer at one of the beachside bars then found the restaurant Jasmine had recommended to us. A nice meal there. Back at our homestay we met a group of Italians, who’d ridden across from Bali on scooters. Simone is a diving instructor and his Dad had come over to visit him, along with some friends from Italy. They’re all keen bike riders so we had plenty to chat about. Dan went out with them later on, but I cried off, feeling that I needed some sleep.


These Kawasaki KLX150s are handy little things and make ideal transport for surfboards too.

We went out for a walk next morning, on a bit of a mission. Dan had remembered that it was AFL Grand Final day so we were hoping, given the number of Aussies around, that one of the bars would be showing it. We found one quite easily and went back over there to get a good seat and enjoy the game. There was a crowd of Aussies just behind us and more came in before the game started, so it would be a good atmosphere. The final was between the Richmond Tigers and the Adelaide Crows, with the Tigers winning easily in the end at 106-58. At half time I ordered a Spaghetti Bolognaise, which was very nice except that the sauce tasted sweet. I think they must have put honey in it. Familiar dishes in foreign places can often have a surprising taste.
After an afternoon rest we ate at a warung, where I had Gado Gado, a dish made from vegetables with a satay sauce on them, plus rice of course. Food in Indonesia can be quite boring at times, with small warungs only offering basics, such as Nasi Goreng (fried rice), Mie Goreng (fried noodles), usually with vegetable and egg in it. Bigger ones will offer fish, chicken, pork and various curries. I discovered a really nice dish called Pepes Ikan, which is a piece of tuna, wrapped in a banana leaf and served with vegetables, sauce and rice. Food is usually quite cheap although some places in Kuta definitely had tourist prices.


Two grades of petrol, hand pumped from the barrel below and gravity fed.



A definite step up from bottles, a funnel and a cloth for a filter.

Back at our homestay the power was out, the town having suffered a power cut, although it did come back later on. Dan was going out again so I just had a relaxing evening.
In the morning it was time to head for the hills. But first we had to fight the traffic once more as we headed north. It was a Sunday, for goodness sake, don’t these people ever take a day off? Repetition is supposed to make something easier but not when it’s this bad. When people talk about the bad traffic in Asia, this is what they’re referring to. But eventually we could turn off onto a quieter road and, after a tea break, we started climbing and left the population behind.
We were slightly puzzled as to why there were hundreds of bikes climbing this steep, twisty road. Groups of them parked by the roadside too. When we came to the top of the pass the answer lay before us. A glorious view out across the valley below and to the steep hills beyond. There were crowds of people there, with plenty of stalls to supply them. There’s a special viewing point, accessed by climbing up another slope, but that has to be paid for although it possibly has some cultural significance too. I haven’t been able to find out. We just settled for the cheap seats and enjoyed the views and being among the people.


A popular place.


With a fool blocking the view.

We pushed on, down, around, up etc, stopping at one point to allow some rain to pass us by. Every time we stopped people would want to talk to us, find out where we’re from and so on. It was nice to be among such friendly people. On one particularly steep hill I made a complete arse of myself by falling off the bike. As we came round a bend we found a truck stuck on a steep slope. I would have just gone round it but there was a car coming towards me. So I stopped and promptly overbalanced on the very steep camber and fell off the bike. Dan went past and stopped but couldn’t help me because he had the same problem. Fortunately the truck driver and his mate came over and helped me pick the bike up. Then they jammed a rock under the back wheel so I could pull away easily. I think they owed me that!
Although the roads we’ve ridden so far have been generally good, they aren’t what you might call ‘engineered’ very much. By that I mean that they follow the terrain faithfully rather than having any bends levelled off or brows of slopes flattened. There’s been very little sign of anything as drastic as blasting the rock face away or building a viaduct. All of this means that steep bends will have steep cambers, in either direction; you can’t see what’s over the next slope and it could well be a sharp bend; the roads can be very steep and narrow – think back roads in the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales. So caution has to be the watchword, all the time. As I discovered, you never know what’s around the corner.


You might brush into one of these half way round a blind bend.

Eventually we reached the waterfalls we were heading to at Senaru, near to Lombok’s north coast. The spectacular Sendang Gile and Tiu Kelep waterfalls are on the slopes of Mount Rinjani, a favourite place for trekking and forest walks. We pulled in to the car park of Café Emry and allowed ourselves to be persuaded that we needed a guide to take us down to them. There were a group of young lads there and one of them led us down some very steep earth steps, which had crumbled away quite badly, until we joined a proper path going further down. This café had been the first we’d come to as we rode up the hill and they’ve very enterprisingly cut these steps to give access from their premises to the official path. I’d kept my riding trousers and boots on and promised my self I wasn’t going to try to climb back up that way. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t make it.
The waterfalls are quite something. They’re a few hundred meters apart and, for reasons of irrigation control, are linked together by a tunnel so that water flows between them at ground level and is controlled by sluices. Visitors are free to walk through the tunnel if they want to as the water is only up to about thigh level. We stuck to the path. The first one we got to was Sendang Gile, a water fall that drops from two places but falls into one pool. Swimming permitted and plenty of people did just that. Then we back tracked a bit and followed the path, part of which was above the tunnel, over to Tiu Kelep. Getting there involved wading across the river in two places and I’m pleased to say that my riding boots proved to be completely waterproof. None came into the boot until the water got deep enough to flow over the top, and then once inside it wouldn’t come out again. Tiu Kelep is the most spectacular of the two, with multiple cascades falling down over the rocky ledge and above them a much higher fall. The bathing pool beneath is cold but plenty of people felt the obligation to get in anyway. I never have a problem resisting that kind of masochism.


Tiu Kepel waterfalls. Quite spectacular.

When we went back up to the café I took the longer route and by the time I got there Dan had got the teas in. There was a honeymooning Dutch couple there so we chatted with them. They were highly amused to have discovered that the Indonesian word for Holland is Blunda. Roy, the guy who runs the café, recommended a homestay just up the road and said to mention his name for a discount. It worked, and we got good rooms at a reasonable rate. We went back to the café for a couple of beers and a meal which we ate while Roy regaled us with tales of mountainside ganja farms and how the local mafia destroyed a 400 hectare crop simply because it hadn’t been approved by them. He reckons this kind of thing happens on most of the islands. Well, maybe but who knows?
It really was a beautiful place up there. Roy had done an excellent job with the garden of the café and the backdrop provided by Mount Rinjani made it a peaceful and special place. We were very glad we’d come up here especially as were going to be on the ferry to Bali next day, signalling the end of our trip together.

Beauty and peace in the garden of Cafe Remy while gazing out at Mount Rinjani.

An early start saw us on the road to the port at Lembar. Nice riding at first, with blue sea and white sand to admire, but eventually we hit the busy urban streets and exchanged sea air for diesel fumes. Nothing to be done other than put up with it but we were very pleased when we reached the port.
No hassles with getting on board. Buy the ticket, ride on, tie down the bikes and find a place to sit. We opted for the indoor lounge as the deck had no comfortable seating, but it did get rather hot after a while so we went outside and discovered our Italian friends out there. One of Dan’s concerns was that he had no IDP, not having planned to be riding a bike when he first left home. The police in a tourist filled place like Bali will often stop tourists, knowing that the fine for not having one can supplement their pay very nicely. I’d experienced this myself. Simone said there was very likely to be a checkpoint when we left the ferry and he was right. But to Dan’s great relief all they wanted to see was vehicle registration documents. In Indonesia these must be carried on the vehicle. I had mine, Elisa had left hers with the bike and the Italians’ scooters were all rented so they had theirs too. Easy peasy.


A typical inter-island Ro-Ro ferry.

Simone had a rented house down in Seminyak, part of the Denpesar conurbation, so we headed off down there via the Expressway. Dan needed to be in Seminyak too. He’d managed to borrow some riding gear from a shop called Eiger. In effect, they sponsored his trip across from Kupang by lending him some boots, jeans and a jacket provided he posted pictures of him wearing the gear to Facebook regularly. He’d bought his own crash helmet and goggles though. As I said before, he’d had no plans to ride anything when he’d left Aus four months earlier. As far as he knew he was obliged to return everything and he wanted to talk to the manager to tell him how he got on.


Fill up all the spaces with scooters and cars and you have some idea of what Seminyak traffic is like.

As the Expressway entered the city everything slowed down until we were obliged to ride on the dirt at the side of the road to make any progress at all. We came to a cross roads which was completely jammed up, with nothing moving. The Italians zipped around via a zebra crossing but Dan and I, on our bigger bikes, got a bit stuck in the narrow gaps and upset a few car drivers by forcing our way through. In fact one got so upset that he got out of his car and threatened to hit Dan. That was funny in a tension relieving kind of way and we made good our escape and caught up with the others. They’d pulled in because they were turning off the main road and it was time to say arrivederci. We Googled to see what accommodation was available, bearing in mind this area was a tourist hotspot and it was now nearly dark. We were relieved to find the M Boutique Hostel, very close by, and worthy of mention because it had capsule style accommodation. This is rather like having a closed in bunk. We had a large locker for personal gear (although most people seemed to prefer the floor) and then we could crawl into the capsule, pull the blind down behind us and shut out the world. The capsule was as wide as a single bed and with enough room to sit up. With power points and a light it was cosy, private and comfortable. These places are popular in Japan although I didn’t use one while I was there. A hot shower, cold beer and a good meal at a nearby warung brought back some much needed peace and harmony to the soul.


Capsule living. Cosy and private.

The last day with Dan started with us making our way to Eiger where the manager was happy to tell him he could keep the riding gear. Dan had been hoping this would be the case – who wouldn’t? It was all very second hand now anyway but had done the job required of it. The store is very much like places such as Cotswold Outdoors or Kathmandu except that they provide motorcycle riding and touring equipment too. After tea and photos with the manager we set off towards the small village of Mas, near Ubud. This is were Nancy lives and it was were Elisa’s bike was going to be kept until she could collect it and restart her trip. Nancy is a friend of Elisa’s father, which is how that offer came about. We followed her instructions and got ourselves there easily enough, once we’d fought our way through the traffic again. Nancy is quite a woman and a very interesting character. I’ll write more about her in my next blog. Suffice to say she made us very welcome and we got the DR650 tucked away and covered up.


Safe travels Dan. I hope to see you again somewhere.

Journey’s end for Team Dan and Geoff. He was getting a taxi back to Seminyak and would then spend a few days with friends before flying home. I was going to ride into Ubud and spend a couple of days enjoying the town and its delights once more. As you all know, I’m a solo traveller and prefer it that way. But the opportunity had presented itself to ride with Dan and it made complete sense to do so. We had a great time and got on very well, both personally and as riding buddies. Neither of us felt pressured by the other, either into doing something we didn’t want to, or not doing something we did. Our two weeks together had been really good. It was Dan’s first taste of this type of motorcycling and he’s now keen to do more. That’s great news. So thanks for your company Dan and good luck with your new life direction.

Heading West: Kupang to Flores

Timor Leste/West Timor border. Friday 8th September.

While it would have been nice to linger a few days longer in Dili, mainly to rest my back, the validity of my Indonesian visa was swiftly drawing near. My rib and back were still sore but I knew I could ride without problems. I also knew that in time it would all be OK. So this will be the last mention of that sorry incident.
You just never know what border crossings are going to be like, especially in third or second world countries. Travellers will often describe corrupt practices or seemingly pointless hassle from immigration or customs. Up to now I’ve never had a problem, except the one time in Kazakhstan, when I hadn’t registered my presence and he made me sit around for an hour and a half before letting me out. But, like the road from Dili to the frontier, this time is was as smooth as you like. A helpful young Timorese showed me where to get my passport stamped and then where to get my carnet stamped too. At some borders I’d faced a 5-10 kilometre dirt road ride between leaving one country and entering the next. This time it was 300 metres of concrete, with not even a pothole in sight. The Indonesian officials were equally helpful and efficient, although customs did insist on me removing my panniers so they could go through the x-ray machine. Not a problem, just a nuisance. But I felt better about it after they’d let me sit in their air conditioned customs hall while I ate some lunch.


There’s even a better quality of town centre statue in West Timor.

Setting off into the twenty first country of my trip, the difference was immediately noticeable. The villages were better laid out, with buildings constructed from breeze block rather than bamboo. They appeared to be more prosperous but even so, I still saw people carrying buckets of water into houses. The terrain was, as you might expect, just the same, but there was more obvious agriculture. The traffic was no different though, with small scooters or bikes everywhere, mixing it with the heavier traffic with he usual Asian panache. Best of all, the roads were great. Twisty, windy and mountainous, of course, but I always had the feeling that whenever I went round a bend there’d always be a good surface all the way through. Not that I abandoned caution. I was still in Asia after all.
Kefamenanu, and the Victory hotel, were my overnight resting place. Evening meal at a cheap and cheerful warung (café) just down the road, followed by a good night’s sleep. The only problem was that I forget to say ‘Tidak Gula’ – no sugar, when I ordered my tea. I’d got used to tea with no milk, but adding in sugar makes it undrinkable. I get the impression people in these parts have a very sweet tooth.
It was a nice ride to Kupang, the capital of West Timor. Good roads, nice weather and nice views too. There was a fair bit of traffic around, with the occasional overtaking manoeuvre taking place halfway round a blind bend, but slowly enough not to pose a threat. I was often amused by some young pup on a scooter, overtaking me seemingly just below my elbow as I rounded a bend. Obviously keen to show the foreigner on the big bike how it’s done in those parts and taking advantage of local knowledge and lack of fear. I stopped for petrol in one of the towns, joining the long queue of small fry to fill up, but pleasantly surprised that it was only 7,500 Indonesian Rupiyah per litre – about 0.40GBP.


A similar sign to those I’d seen in Japan. Where to run to in the event of a tsunami.

Once in Kupang I found the Lavalon Seaview hostel, up on a cliff above the beach. The owner, Edwin, spoke good English and was renowned among travellers for his knowledge and helpfulness. It was here that Elisa had left her bike, and I sent her a photo of it just so she knew it was OK. There were plenty of shops nearby, including one that sold SIM cards. Best of all was an evening fish market in one of the side streets, were I could go and choose the fish I wanted to eat, watch them BBQ it, then have it served at the table along with rice, vegetables and tea. It was delicious. The area was very atmospheric, with the illuminated stalls, all the fish laid out for inspection, the smoke from the BBQs, all on a warm, pleasant evening.
I made contact with Elisa and she told me that Dan, an Aussie friend of hers, would be arriving in Kupang to take her bike to Bali, where it could be safely stored. When she was well enough she would fly out to collect it and continue her travels. Dan was already on a long holiday in SE Asia, so he agreed to extend his time and ride her bike to Bali. The obvious thing was for us to ride there together, so that was agreed on. Likely to take about three weeks, it would be a different experience for a solo traveller like me. But I was looking forward to it.
Various people drifted in and out of the hostel while I was there. Thomas is Finnish and had been on the road eleven years, including four in India riding a Royal Enfield. Lee had been travelling for four years and they planned to ride their small Indonesian registered Suzukis into Timor Leste, then across to Indonesian half of Papua, where they would sell them. The next stage would be to go into Papua New Guinea, buy a dinghy and take it across to Australia, about forty kilometres away. It sounded totally mad.


Thomas, a new bike and a mad plan.

Kupang, and this hostel, seem to be a gateway in and out of Timor Leste as well as a jumping off point for ferries to nearby islands where there’s good surfing and diving. Edwin used to be an actor, a journalist and, more recently, a professional photographer. His claim to fame is his involvement in the making of the Channel 4 drama which replicated the journey made by Captain Bligh when the Bounty’s crew mutinied. It began near Tahiti but ended in Kupang, on the beach below the hostel. He was an advisor on the programme and feels the history so strongly that he wants the beach officially renamed Bounty Beach. I asked why there were no stairs down from his place to the beach and he just said “Crocodiles!”


Pick it, cook it, eat it. Delicious.

I went for a walk down to the old port area one morning and strolled around the market. Lots of fish for sale, fresh or dried, vegetables, spices and some fruit. Plenty of clothing and dry goods too. Busy, noisy and a bit smelly, but nothing that tempted me. I jumped on a Bemo, Kupang’s version of the small, fixed fare microbus, and went to the museum. Very small entry fee and I was shown around by two high school students who act as guides so as to be able to practice their English. It was interesting enough to make the visit worthwhile, focussing on local culture and artefacts. Cotton weaving and wicker boxes for betel nuts seem to be very important. In a separate building was the skeleton of a Blue Whale, which had been washed up on a local beach in the 1970s. I was surprised to read that one of the local islands carries out an annual ceremony where they catch and kill a Blue Whale, which is then cut up and divided between all the families. It’s part of a ritual of some kind but I’m surprised such a thing still goes on in this era of conservation. They showed me some ancient skulls, found in a nearby cave and reckoned to be 60-70,000 years old. It seems ancient humans got about a bit, aided, no doubt, by the land bridges that linked many of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands before sea levels rose.
A short walk took me to the Lippo Mall, a big, Western style shopping centre. I was in a hardware stall when I spotted another European, a Swiss guy names Matthias. He’s ridden across to Indonesia from home on a BMW GS1200, a choice of bike he said he regrets. They weigh in at 220kg unladen, so I didn’t need to ask him why. He was in the company of Radin, a Czech guy currently living in the USA, riding a KTM 990. They’ve met on the road a couple of times and have teamed up for the journey to Darwin, at least, where they’ll stay with Dave while their bikes are cleared through customs. We had a long chat about the dreaded AQIS and I warned them to expect it to be a slow process. Radin had ridden through Myanmar as part of a group. It can only be done with a guide and he was full of praise for the way this worked out. I’d heard similar stories before so I wasn’t too concerned about there. Thailand is a different matter but Radin had managed to avid the permit/guide requirement on his way back from Laos. He’d also managed to get his big bike into Vietnam, something I’d heard was impossible. If only Thailand would drop their new regulations my life would be so much easier.


Matthias and his BMW Behemoth.

Friday arrived and so did Dan. He flew in from Bali and we started to make our plans to ride back there. He had a visa deadline to meet but we had plenty of time, reckoning three weeks should be enough to island-hop westwards. Dan is very easy to get along with, a typical laid back young Aussie. He’s between jobs and took an extended holiday before he returns to throw himself into the family plumbing business. We hit it off straight away and I was confident we’d enjoy the trip together.


Dan, my new Aussie riding companion.

Ferries from Kupang to Larantuka, in Flores, leave on Thursday and Sunday, at midday. We decided to take a reconnaissance ride to locate the port rather than put ourselves under pressure on Sunday morning. It was just as well we did because we had to try three times before we found it, despite the ‘assistance’ of mapping software. We parked our bikes and took a walk round, checking where to buy a ticket etc. Then we were approached by Daisy, a thirty something local woman who’d worked in the tourism industry and spoke excellent English. She took us under her wing and showed us where we needed to go for everything. She is a delightful young woman, very helpful, and once we’d finished at the port she offered to show us a couple of local sights. She jumped on her 50cc scooter and we followed her – slowly – to the Crystal Cave. We walked down between some houses, then down a rocky slope, where we found the cave on the side of a limestone rock escarpment. Scrambling down the slope into it we came to a very deep, crystal clear pool, apparently very cold too. On a thirty plus degree day, it looked tempting. It’s popular for cave diving too and her cousin rents out cameras to visiting tourists.
Next we followed her to the western beach, popular for sunset viewing, where her cousin (a different one) sits up in a watchtower guarding the oyster beds out in the bay. Two big searchlights for spotting potential thieves, but no sign of the machine gun the tower looked like it ought to house. Daisy kept apologising for her slow scooter. She used to have a bigger bike but her family pressured her into giving it up for something more ladylike. She’s worked abroad and was in Kuala Lumpur for five years, but it seems now that family pressures prevail. We followed her back to her house and said our goodbyes to this lovely, cheery woman, before heading back to base.


Our lovely guide and assistant, Daisy.

We decided to have an eve-of-departure meal out so walked down to the local market area looking for a place we’d been recommended. It was closed but we found a great alternative, with good, cheap food and cold beers. A large dining area with a band due to be on later. We got chatting to the owner who was telling us that Kupang was a big Aussie tourist area until the late nineties, when flights from Darwin were suspended. It seems that Indonesia and Australia had a falling out over the situation in Timor Leste, around the time of the referendum there. The direct flights have never been resumed. It was noticeable how few Europeans there were in Kupang although Edwin’s hostel seemed to attract plenty. But the city isn’t that much of a tourist place anyway.
By 9am we’d left for the ferry terminal. On the way I spotted Daisy waving at us from the side of the road. She came with us and really made life so much easier. She showed us where to buy the tickets, made sure we got charged the correct amount (there was a risk of being cheated here,it seems) and accompanied us onto the boat. We strapped our bikes down as best we could within the confined space we’d been forced into. So tight, in fact, that we had to use the side of a truck as an anchoring point. It’s a sixteen hour journey and I’d been warned that we should get up on deck as quickly as possible to be at the front of the queue for bunks. Once the doors to the bunk room are opened it’s everyone for themselves and devil take the hindmost. But once again Daisy came up trumps and took us straight into the sleeping area, aided by yet another cousin who was a crew member. I’ve never met anyone with so many useful cousins!

The sleeping room. Not wonderful but better than the alternative.

We claimed a couple of bunks then waited around until the doors were opened and people flooded in, accompanied by all their goods and children and, in one case, a box from which a cheeping noise emanated. This was placed on the floor at the head of Dan’s bunk although it later disappeared, for reasons we didn’t bother to ask or want to know. Daisy waited around until we’d had our tickets checked and had paid for the bunks, before heading ashore. What a lovely woman.
How was the voyage? At sixteen hours long, very wearing. But it could have been worse. There were fifty bunks in the sleeping room but everyone got settled in, with their bits and bobs packed around them. The room was air conditioned so didn’t become the sweaty, smelly hell that it might have been, and smoking wasn’t allowed below decks. Indonesians are considerate and tidy people. The toilets remained clean, unlike some cross channel ferries I’ve been on, no doubt helped by the absence of alcohol. There was a small café for drinks and snacks, mostly pot noodle. We spent most of our time lying around, chatting, reading and so on.
Up on deck there were people sat on every seat or laid down on mats under the available shelter. Calm and hot, the weather was ideal for being on a boat. This one was nearly thirty years old and the exhausts for the twin 650hp Perkins diesels were noisy enough to make conversation difficult while on deck. This inconvenience was fully compensated for by the finest sunset I’ve ever seen. Unlike others, where the sun’s last rays are shining through the clouds on the horizon, this one had no clouds to obscure it. Dan and I watched the fiery disc slip gradually behind the edge of the sea, starting with the edge resting on the water then sliding down until there was only a tiny sliver left. Then it was gone. Wonderful.


See you tomorrow Sun.’

The ferry docked on time at 4am. Dan and I waited a while before following the crowd down to the car deck. We managed to unhook our bikes from the side of the adjacent truck a few minutes before he pulled away, then we followed the crowd onto dry land and out of the port. We’d already worked out a route across the long, thin island of Flores, so we headed west, off into the dark, planning to overnight in Ende, another mucky old port town.
With the buildings now left behind the road started climbing upwards, twisty, steep and challenging. My LED headlight and spotlights threw a goodly amount of light ahead of us so I took the lead and we made good but wary progress as we followed the coast. We stopped for a break after an hour or so, next to an inlet where we decided to watch the sunrise. While we waited we could see large shoals of fish swimming around feeding. They presented a solid mass as they wheeled around, rather like a flock of starlings, hoovering up their food. The early fisherman out in his boat seemed unimpressed though. A routine event for him, no doubt.


The strange sight of feeding fish, en masse.

Rather than go to Ende we stopped at Moni, the step off base for visiting Kelimutu, with its three crater lakes. We found a restaurant with nice home stay rooms, which we got for a good price. We chatted to some women who were staying there too, with Dan agreeing to take one of them, Charlotte, up to the crater on his bike when we went up there to see the sunrise. Sunrise happens early, departure for the crater would happen even earlier, so after a good meal it was time for an early night.
Another 4am start. “Why can’t we watch sunsets,” I wanted to know. “They take place when I’m not in bed!” Charlotte wasn’t feeling too well, so she cried off. Which was just as well really. The road up to the national park entrance was even steeper and bendier than that of the previous day and I know that Dan would have seriously struggled with a passenger on board.
We left the bikes in the car park and walked up the path to where we could see the lowest lake. Then we walked up the steep steps to the higher level, with a couple of pauses for breath on the way, in my case. Was it worth all the effort? You betcha! We’d heeded the advice to dress warmly and that advice was good. There was a very keen breeze up at the top. There’s an obelisk there, with a variety of people selling hot drinks and snacks. All of their goods had been carried up there and I did wonder at what time they must have started in order to get there ahead of us. Looking across towards the volcano (extinct now) we could see two of the three lakes. The odd thing about them is that they all lie inside the caldera but are separated by jagged rock walls. Each has its own mineral content and will show different colours when the sun shines on them. One blue, one turquoise and the third a reddish colour. We weren’t going to get that effect at sunrise unfortunately, and we had neither the time nor the inclination to climb up in the hot afternoon sunshine to do so.


It’s a long, hard walk up to see the sunrise.

The sunrise was spectacular, with the sun slowly creeping over the far edge of the crater and illuminating the deep waters inside. It was a bit cloudy, sadly, but we felt it had been worth the hard climb just to see the start of a new day in such a special place. It’s easy to understand why ancient peoples revered such places and events so ardently.
Back in the car park we enjoyed a rather expensive glass of tea and chatted to two of the women who’d been at the hostel the previous night. They’d been told of a path that led down the side of the hill, back down towards the village, allegedly a nice two hour walk. We had our bikes to ride so we left them to it.


What we’d climbed all that way up to see.

Our next destination was Bajawa where we planned to visit one of several nearby traditional villages. As we rode through the very busy town of Ende I felt my clutch cable give a bit, right in the middle of some seriously heavy traffic. We managed to get clear but as I pulled in to check it, that’s when it snapped. “No worries here, I have a spare,” was my thinking. I pushed the bike across the road and into some shade where the usual crowd of onlookers gathered to watch as I fitted the new one. All done and adjusted up, I got on the bike to pull away and promptly dropped it. Why? Because the idiot who fitted it misrouted the damn thing and the front forks wouldn’t turn, that’s why! All credit to my audience, who where too concerned that I’d hurt myself to laugh, but helped Dan and me to pick the bike up. Once I’d done the job properly we set off again.
The road followed the coast for the most part and was a pleasure to ride. We’d noticed that as we’d come further west the whole aspect of Flores improved. Villages where much neater; houses where more modern and built of block and tile rather than bamboo and thatch; the roads were excellent and seemed to have been recently resurfaced. It may seem like a cliché to talk about coconut trees and banana plants, but they were everywhere and mostly seemed to be growing wild. Bananas were always on sale, often from street sellers, although they tended to be small. We didn’t see coconuts for sale much, but their main use is in cooking, so I wasn’t surprised.


Lots of pretty blue pebbles, on Blue Pebble Beach.

We had a lunch stop at Blue Pebble Beach, which lived up to its name quite well. Local people gather up the stones, bag them and sell them on. We saw stacks of bags at the side of the road, awaiting collection. I believe they get sorted, polished and then sold as art or jewellery. They come from a pale blue rock, which lines the coast in this area. I don’t know how the colour gets into the rock, which seems to be limestone, probably from a mineral source. The café where we had lunch also seems to cater for larger parties, judging by the rather odd arrangement of umbrellas strung out along a section of the beach, which we presumed were to provide shelter from sun and rain. Strange but pretty.


Mary Poppins was nowhere to be seen.

After a couple of false starts we found a nice hotel, close to ‘restaurant alley’, where finding a good place to eat should be easy. We went to acafé on the first floor of a building, remarkable mostly for the fact that the wooden floor bounced every time somebody walked across it. It was like trying to eat a picnic on a bouncy castle and I felt slightly seasick by the time we’d finished.
The nearest traditional village is Bena, a nice, twisty ride through the exceedingly green countryside. We paid our entry fee and had a walk around. The houses reminded me of a similar place I’d see in Japan. Very high and steep roofs, thatched with reed, built around bamboo frames. Nothing like as well built though, or as decorative. People sit on the verandas, under the extensive overhang of the roof, working on crafts: weaving for the women, carvings for the men. Most of the women had very red mouths and teeth, a sure sign that they ate Betel Nuts. Their juice stains the whole mouth and looks, to my eyes at least, horrible. But they’re an important part of Asian culture and we could see them laid out on mats, drying in the sun, as were several other nutty type fruits. These are part of the cash crops that help support the village.  Betel Nuts are so important that decoratively woven storage boxes are often included as part of the exchange of gifts between bride and groom at weddings. The red stain is considered to be a thing of beauty but the nut also gives a nice buzz and can become addictive. The major downside is that they cause various oral cancers and can contribute to other health problems too. I hadn’t seen them in use up to now, but in a place full of tradition I suppose it wasn’t so surprising.


How things used to be.

The village rose up a slope, with the roofs of the houses tiered upwards on each side, like any row of terraced houses you’d see in a British city. There was a large compound in the centre where villagers gather for ceremonies and the like. At that time it was full of the previously mentioned drying mats but we also saw arrangements of jagged, upright stones, surrounding some flat rocks which had space for fires beneath. We couldn’t quite puzzle out what these were for – cooking for village feasts, maybe? – but it turned out that they’re simply where offerings are placed as part of ceremonies. Although generally Catholic, it’s common for villages such as these to follow their ancient rituals where they maintain contact with their ancestors, who they believe are still with them. There were some curious, small huts at one end of the largest compound, which were clearly used as schoolrooms, judging by the pictures drawn around the frieze above the open walls. One of them contained the skulls and horns of water buffalo, but we couldn’t guess at their significance. There were several homes which had these outside too, so clearly they’re culturally important.


The women weave this cloth. The patterns have cultural significance. Some are men only, some women only.

It was easy to see that this is a ‘living’ village, not just a tourist site. Yes of course they make some of their income from entry fees, and the sale of cloth and carvings, but they don’t go home at night to somewhere else. Their facilities match those of most other rural villages and we were amused by a couple of incongruous modern touches, such as a fire hydrant (very sensible) and some corrugated iron peeking out from beneath some of the thatching (cheating!). There was a new house being built, seeming to use traditional methods but with timber beneath the rattan walls. But that fire hydrant seemed like a really good idea in a place so full of flammable materials.


Ceremonial offering site.


This information summarises how the village functions.

Talking of water, we rode further down the same road and found Mangeruda hot springs. This is a wonderful place where geothermal springs rise out of the ground and then join with a normal mountain stream. You can choose to go hot, cold or a mixture of both. I was able to sit in a pool where I could alternate between the two just by moving across slightly, from one rock to another. It was bliss. The hot water has minerals in it. I don’t know of what type but the water tasted rather sour, like milk that had gone off. The kind of thing that Victorians would have paid a fortune to drink down at Tonbridge Wells, or somewhere similar.
After some lunch we rode back to the hotel where the two Dutch women we’d met at the car park at Kelimutu had now arrived. Sitting around in the late sunshine was very pleasant, as was the meal we all enjoyed later. Then they taught us a Dutch card game, whose name I forget, but which kept us amused for the evening. Such are the pleasures of life on the road.


Lotte, Flo and Dan. Chilling in the sun with a beer. It’s just about culture you know.

Up on the north coast lies the town of Riung, where the main attraction is to go on boat trips out to the Seventeen Islands. We then planned to ride along the coast, and inland to Ruteng, home of the Hobbit cave. When we told this to the hotel manager he threw his hands up in horror, telling us that the road along the northern coast from Riung was really, really bad. Dan looked at him and thought of the fun he’d had on rough tracks on a KTM out in Cambodia. I looked at him and thought “You’ve clearly never been to Timor Leste mate.” But we just assured him we’d be OK and headed off. About 30kms north of town the road turned into patchy, potholed asphalt, as if to give us a training run for the ‘terrible road’ that was to come. The villages were starting to get poorer and I noticed steel poles lying at the side of the road, looking like street lamp posts. My curiosity led me to realise that, unlike other areas we’d ridden through, there was no obvious electricity supply. That explained the steel poles then. Although Riung did have power, it came from a very noisy generator. What with the state of the road, it seems that the north of Flores still needs modernising.


If you want fuel, you join the queue. It can take a while, in the hot sunshine.

The first thing we did in Riung was to book a boat trip for the next day. We were the only two on it but the guy said that the price would come down if we could find people to share with us. We found a really nice hotel and restaurant and, by dint of good luck we found six other people to join us, some of whom had come to the hotel to eat. One of them even gave us a lift down to the harbour in the morning.


Nice boat, blue sea, beach BBQ. Wonderful.


A hungry clam.


Cheeky face among the coral

The point of the trip was to see, and admire, the very pretty islands out in the bay, and to enjoy some snorkelling. The sea here seems to be more saline so it was easy to float over the coral, almost with no effort, and admire the different types and colours, and the very pretty fish that swam among them. Add into that a very nice lunch of freshly BBQ’d fish and fresh fruit, and it’s easy to say that it was a terrific day out. On the way back we stopped by some mangrove trees, which were full of roosting fruit bats, and our boatman swam over to roust them out of their slumbers. He soon had them all wheeling around the trees, reminding me of flocks of starlings on an autumn day. These bats are strange creatures, very noisy and smelly, and I’ve no love for them, but I felt rather sorry for them as they were forced to perform for the tourists.


The excellent La Mar hotel and restaurant.

Once we’d found the right road out of Riung we soon discovered why the manager down in Bajawa had reacted that way. It was dreadful! Rocky, sandy, washed out and broken up. Dan was in his element. Even on a heavy bike like the DR650 he was having fun. I was more cautious, the memory of my last fall still fresh, but we enjoyed the challenge and the surrounding countryside was very nice, with some spectacular coastal views to enjoy. But that road reinforced how much development work the north of this island still needs.
Eventually we turned inland, onto better roads, and tried to find the Hobbit cave. I’d marked it on Google maps but I missed the turning so we tried to follow a different route. In the best traditions of this usually useful software, it led us along ever smaller roads, through villages where the inhabitants stared at us as if we were mad, until we eventually left the sealed road and took to a stony track. After one particularly tricky uphill climb we turned round and saw that the track we should have taken just beforehand was nothing more than a narrow, muddy trail wandering across the hillside. Tolkein wrote “The road goes ever on and on” but we quickly decided we weren’t going to be finding any Hobbits along that particular goat track and turned back. The villagers enjoyed their second chance to stare at the mad foreigners as we regained the main road and headed into Ruteng. Heavy tropical rain accompanied the last part of our journey. We were very pleased that we found a nice hotel so easily and began to get warm and dry.


A crowd of curious schoolkids. They’re always happy to pose.

As we walked back to the hotel after our meal a group of lads suddenly approached us out of the gloom. Slightly startled, we wondered what was about to happen, as might be expected. But all these teenagers wanted was to talk to us briefly, then ask us to sign their contact books to confirm we’d spoken with them. It seems they’re tasked with speaking English with tourists, whenever they can, as part of their school work. We were happy to oblige these pleasant young guys.


Flo’s skeleton. She’s just over a metre tall.

Next day we found Liung Bua (the Hobbit cave) very easily, simply by following the signs from the town centre. Although the mapping software shows several routes to it, there’s only one that actually goes all the way there. So we were on a hiding to nothing yesterday anyway. Homo Floresiensis lived in the area from around 100,000 up to about 12,000 years ago. The archaeological digs revealed a layer of volcanic ash below which the remains of Flores Man, and various now extinct animals, were found. The cave was later used by modern humans, with modern animals, suggesting that it was volcanic activity that caused their extinction. Other research suggests that modern humans may have lived alongside Flores Man and may have been part of the reason for their demise. It’s a confusing picture. What is fairly certain is that they moved out of Africa around one million years ago, along with many other branches of the Homo Erectus species. Their main feature is their size. At just over a metre tall they are the smallest known humanoids. Scientists suggest that evolution shrunk these people because the available food wasn’t good enough to support their original height. Their prey was fauna such as the Giant Stork and the Stegodon (a small elephant), both of which went extinct at around the same time. Although their brain was only one quarter the size of Homo Sapiens, the section that controls cognition was the same, suggesting they would know how to use tools and to control fire. Ultimately there’s almost as many theories as there are scientific groups studying them. Wikipedia lays them all out, if you want to have a read through.
The museum told the story, with lots of information to see, described in English too. There are copies of all the skeletal remains and two versions of how Flo, the almost complete female skeleton, might have looked.


How Flo might have looked.

The cave itself is large, with a floor that used to be much lower than it is today. They had dug down several metres when they found these bones and were initially searching for evidence of modern man’s migration to Australia. The workings have been filled in now but the cave has a definite air of mystery to it. There are stalactites and stalagmites but instead of the needle-like formations normally found underground, these are misshapen lumps of rock, hanging around like monsters at a beauty pageant. I’m guessing the reason is that the cave is open to the weather. All in all, a fascinating place.


The rather atmospheric cave where the remains were found.

We left Hobbiton behind and continued across country towards the west coast. This part of the island is definitely more prosperous, with agriculture taking place on a more industrial scale. Huge paddy fields climbed up hillsides and there were other crops growing too. The villages all had electricity and the houses were of a much higher standard. Best of all were the roads. Instead of being steep and twisty they were fast flowing and in great condition. We even got into top gear sometimes, a real contrast to the first and second gear climbs back in the east. We saw some large churches too, although not so many mosques. Like West Timor, Flores is largely Catholic. As we got close to our destination the clouds rolled in over the hills we were riding through but this time we stopped and joined a dozen or so other people in a roadside shelter, clearly built for wimps like us. We sat there and watched the rain hammer down for the next two hours, very pleased we weren’t riding. It would have been quite dangerous anyway. Eventually the rain slowed down and the clouds started to clear a little, so we donned our wet gear but soon rode away from the bad weather and made it to the port town of Labuan Bajo, right at the western end of the island.


I believe we were right to shelter from this.

We made our way to Dragon Dive hostel, another diving orientated hostel recommended by Kate. The price seemed rather high so we only booked in for one night, but after we’d made enquiries at some other places we decided it was probably the best option and we stayed for three. It was full of Europeans and it had a wood fired pizza oven too. A taste of home and a benefit of being among tourists again. The quality of the dorm was good, with thoughtful things like a USB charge point, socket and reading light for each bunk. Dan and I had been using hotels but had kept the cost down by sharing a room. If a hotel didn’t have a twin room then we simply found one that did. This is a slack time of year for tourism so it was never very difficult.
Our early wake up call next morning came from three sources. The Muezzin at a nearby mosque; the bells from a nearby church (it was Sunday); and the bloody cockerels right outside the door! The muezzin and the bells eventually stop, the cocks seem to want to crow forever. I’m surprised that none of the religions use these birds for gathering in the faithful. Let’s face it, they’re very reliable, very cheap to run and they definitely don’t need a loudspeaker.
The day was spent organising a boat trip to see some Komodo Dragons, checking where we needed to go for the ferry to Sumbawa and just generally chilling out. We had a choice of two boat trips: one to Komodo Island, the other to Rinca island. We chose the latter, having been told we’d see more dragons. We’d also get to do more snorkelling. There are dozens of places selling these trips and we’d enquired at lots of them. They all quote the same price, more or less, but the place we chose was cheaper and the people seemed better organised. This town has an evening food market so we were delighted to enjoy some BBQ’d fish once more.
An early start saw us down at the port, clutching our packed lunches, where we joined our fellow passengers. No beach side BBQ today. This boat was much bigger than the last one so we had plenty of room to spread out while we chugged our way across to Rinca Island. The two islands form a national park so there was a fee to pay, but that included a guide who told us all we needed to know about these ancient creatures.


Hanging around, hoping for a handout.

They are a type of Monitor Lizard, grow up to three metres long and live off wild deer and carrion. Humans are sometimes attacked, especially by nesting females. The warning was, Don’t Get Too Close! They kill their prey by means of bacteria from their mouths (up to fifty different varieties) and an anti coagulant. The victim will run away but will slowly die from the infection. Ironically the Komodo that killed it may not actually get to eat it if the animal managed to get out of range of its sense of smell. They also have a bite strong enough to kill smaller animals outright. If they can catch something like a goat they will swallow it whole then slowly digest it and not eat again for a month. They’ve been known to dig up recently buried humans too. We saw plenty of them hanging around the lodges at the visitor centre, where they are happy to live on kitchen scraps. On our walk round the island we were shown a nesting female. She would have dug, or adopted, several holes but laid her twenty or so eggs in only one of them. They take about eight to nine months to hatch and then the young live in trees, eating insects, to protect themselves from predators, including cannibalistic adults. Once widespread throughout Asia and Australia, they now only survive on Komodo, Rinca and Flores islands. If I’m honest, they’re nothing special to look at. Just a dull, grey, scaly lizard, lying around in the sun. But it’s their size, rarity and that they’ve been around for about 40 million years that makes them fascinating. Guess what? There’s loads more info here:


Definitely not a good idea to get too close to this nesting female.

After some great snorkelling we enjoyed a sundowner beer with a couple we’d met on the boat. They both come from Birmingham. Justine came to Australia as a young woman and now lives in Bali. Her friend, Cameron, is deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph website and we had a great time putting the political world to rights while the sun set over the bay.


A Batman Fish.


Some rather strange looking coral.

It was time to leave Flores, a fascinating island showing us a real variety of Indonesian life. It’s a place of great beauty and friendly people. The name is the Portuguese for flower although we didn’e see too many of them. But Indonesia has 17,000 island so we needed to move on and explore the next one.


Cameron and Justine, enjoying a cold one while the sun sets.

Timor Leste

Dili, Wednesday 16th August 2017

As I came through airport arrivals I was swamped by taxi drivers all keen to do business. “How much to the city centre?” I asked. “Ten dollars” came the replies. A friend who’d recently had the same experience had told me that I’d be able to knock that down to five. So I kept saying “five dollars, five dollars,” until one of them accepted my offer. Even so, another driver tried to carry my suitcase for me, hoping to drag me over to his taxi and to charge me seven. I resisted and loaded my gear into the boot of my chosen carriage and we set off.
Dusty streets, full of decrepit yellow taxis, motorbikes and scooters, beaten up trucks, gaudy buses and no real sign of traffic discipline. Honking horns, the bikes buzzing around and through the rest of the traffic, vehicles stopping and pulling away with no warning, all in blazing sunshine slightly fogged by the exhaust fumes. All of this said to me “Welcome to South East Asia.”
Dili is the capital of Timor Leste (or East Timor), a former Portuguese colony about six hundred kilometres north of Darwin. It was also, for a very unfortunate twenty five years, part of Indonesia before gaining its independence in 2002. I’d flown in from London, via Bali. My bike had arrived by ship from Darwin a week or so earlier. Timor Leste was to be my gateway into Indonesia and the rest of SE Asia.
The taxi took me to Dive Timor Larosse, a SCUBA diving centre which also had backpacker accommodation, pleasantly located across the road from the beach. Once checked in I met up with Elisa, a young American woman whose motorcycle travels I’d been following on Facebook (search for Travel Bug Blues to read her story). Hostels in under developed countries can be a bit so-so, and Dili was no exception. Elisa had found Dive Timor and recommended it to me. I wanted to meet her anyway so it was the obvious place to go.


Elisa plus Suzuki DR650.

Elisa is a teacher from Seattle, is in her late twenties and is an experienced motorcycle traveller. She’s ridden in South America but recently came to Australia, bought a Suzuki DR650 and headed for Timot Leste. We were introduced by a mutual friend on Facebook and ended up using the same shipping company out of Darwin. Her plans were also to head west, into Indonesia and beyond, but she’s had to call a temporary halt. She started to suffer from severe joint pains all over her body, which laid her low and prevented any riding. The initial diagnosis was suspected Osteo Arthritis. Not unheard of in one so young but not good news. In the end she went back to Australia where blood tests revealed a vitamin B12 deficiency. Latest news is that she’s recovering well and likely to be able to continue her journey soon.
Once I’d settled in at the hostel Elisa took me down to the port to show me where to get my carnet stamped by customs. We then walked round to the offices of SDV, the shipping agent in Dili used by Bolloré, the Australian shippers. This is where things ground to a halt in a mire of ill feeling, mostly mine. It was all about the charges that SDV wanted to levy for handling the container and my bike. Elisa had also shipped with Bolloré and paid SDV $75US; the staff at Bolloré had estimated $100US; SDV wanted to charge me $245US. I was not at all happy! There’s a story here, which goes like this.
I’d taken my bike to Bolloré in early July, asking them to put it on the ship due to leave on the 29th. My plan was to have three weeks back at home then fly to Dili in time to meet it there. These scheduled sailings rarely leave on time but that wasn’t an issue. About a week before the sailing date I contacted Bolloré because I’d yet to receive an invoice for the shipping charges. I worried that they might not load my bike if I hadn’t paid. My contact there had gone on leave so I rang up his colleague who told me my bike wouldn’t be going on that sailing after all because they didn’t have enough cargo to fill a container. (Elisa’s bike had gone on an earlier ship). The next scheduled departure was on the 14th August. What to do? I’d already booked flights out to Dili, via Bali, so the options were to take those flights and wait in Dili; go as far as Bali and wait there; change my flights to suit the new sailing date. Dili is an expensive place in which to kick your heels, Bali less so. But I decided to pay the cost of changing my flights and stay at home for two extra weeks. All well and good until Luke, my contact at Bolloré, came back from leave and proudly told me my bike was going to sail on the original ship after all. So I’d wasted £270 on changing my flights, all for nothing. I was not impressed. The only upside was more time with people back at home. So that’s why I was down hearted and wound up in Dili.


Unpacking my bike, after I’d unpacked my wallet.

The guy in the office explained to me that the container handling charges were divided between all those who had goods inside it and because there were only two of us using that container it was a 50/50 split. The cargo manifest showed that the other user had three cars and two bikes in it, I just had my bike. The injustice of this situation really angered me. He wouldn’t budge on it so in the end I told him I wasn’t going to pay that amount and stormed out. Now I’m sure you’re all aware that SDV held the whip hand in this situation. No pay, no bike. So on Friday, having complained bitterly about it all to Bolloré, I went back down there, paid the money and got the necessary paperwork to get my bike released from the bonded warehouse. I, and the guy at SDV, knew it would come to that but I wasn’t going to give in easily. Thankfully, with a new battery installed, Trixie started on the button and I rode her back to the hostel and tucked her securely away in the yard.
Meanwhile Elisa had reached a decision about how to deal with her situation. She decided to ride across into Indonesian West Timor, go to a hostel in Kepang, the capital, and see a doctor there. She left on Thursday, with my grateful thanks for her help, and a couple of days later got to her destination. After some inconclusive tests she decided to leave her bike in Kepang and fly to Sydney, where she felt she’d get better care. The doctor in Kepang was good, but testing facilities there weren’t as sophisticated as those in Australia, and she needed a solution. Now that it’s under way she’s may be back to collect her bike soon.


Alternator stator gets replaced.

Elisa had put me in touch with an Aussie guy who managed a car hire company in Dili, name of Phil. I rang him up and he sad I would be welcome to use the workshop facilities at the car hire base. The staff there were very helpful and I spent a happy Saturday servicing the bike and replacing the failed parts, which I mentioned in the last blog post. While back in the UK I’d visited the CCM factory and the ever helpful people there had supplied the the bits I needed, most of them under warranty. Many of you will know that there’s great satisfaction to be derived from riding into a workshop on a bike that’s not working as it should, then, thanks to your own hard work and skill, riding back out with a bike functioning as it should. After my tribulations with the shipping, it was just the tonic I needed. The final note on that situation is that my strong complaints to Bolloré have elicited a promise to refund me the excess charges I suffered in Dili. Good news.
I spent the next few days making plans and looking around. I was helped in this by Kate, another hostel resident. She’s from Brighton and has been travelling through Asia for the last three years. She suggested some places to head for in both East and West Timor. She also gave me a list of Indonesian words to learn. Possibly useful in Timor Leste, definitely good to know for Indonesia and Malaysia too, as the languages for both countries are similar. On Sunday I went down to the eastern end of the bay to have a look at the Christo Rei (Christ the King) statue. This sits on top of the headland and is a modelled on Rio De Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue. It is nothing like as big, neither is it, fortunately, anything like as high up. In the area around the bottom of the hill were several large groups of people, mostly young, engaged in some kind of religious performance competition. Music and karaoke, or so it seemed. A scoreboard sat on one side and the enthusiastic audience applauded the participants. This was no surprise as Timor Leste has been Catholic since priests arrived with the Portuguese colonists in the 16th century, but more of that later.


Sitting on top of the world.

As I walked up the steps, and then stairs, I passed alcoves containing bas relief carvings of the crucifixion story, with biblical quotes above them. Very uplifting, or they might have been if they hadn’t been written in Portuguese. While I walked up fit young men and women ran past me, some of them stopping to throw a few push-ups into the mix, before running on again. I was impressed but not tempted. At the top is a nice viewing platform, with great views across the bay. The bronze statue sits atop a globe and looks pretty impressive. Sadly, I couldn’t say the same for the sunset, mostly because of the haze. Shame.


Memorial to the massacred students.

Kate had told me all about the massacre of student protesters at Santa Cruz cemetery in 1991, an atrocity carried out by the occupying Indonesian army. She also mentioned the Chenga! Exhibition and as they were close to each other I took a Microlet from outside the hostel round to that part of the city. Microlet’s a small mini buses, with bench seats facing each other in the back. You flag them down, jump on, then when you want to get off you just tap on the hand rail with a 25 cent coin and the driver will stop. That same coin then pays the fare, regardless of how far you’d traveled. Very cheap, very handy.


Typical Microlet.

The student march that culminated in the massacre had begun in the city centre. As it progressed the army became more aggressive and eventually corralled them in the cemetery before opening fire on them. Over 250 were killed but the events were filmed by British cameraman Max Stahl, and witnessed by two American journalists, both of whom were beaten. The footage was smuggled out of the country to Australia then had to be smuggled out of there back to Britain. It was shown in the ITV documentary ‘In Cold Blood: The Massacre of East Timor.’ It helped to wake the world up to events in that country. Much more info here:


A place people should go to when they’re dead, rather than to die.

The nearby Chega! Exhibition (Chega! means Enough!) is housed in the former prison building that had been used by the Indonesians to hold political prisoners. It was refurbished, post independence, as gift from the Japanese government and was home to the CAVR, the post independence Truth and Reconciliation committee. It now houses the exhibition which tells the story of the struggle for independence after the Portuguese left and is a harrowing tale of genocidal murder across the twenty five year Indonesian occupation. Up to the time of the massacre the rest of the world mostly supported the Indonesian annexation; partly for oil, partly for arms sales; partly for convenience or disinterest. The UK redeemed itself late in the day when Foreign Secretary Robin Cook supported negotiations which eventually led to a referendum for self determination. On another occasion I visited the Resistance Museum, which told the same story but also covered the early history of the island.
On that note a brief run through of Timorese history seems appropriate. The island was occupied by both the Dutch ad the Portuguese during the 16th C. At first they fought over who ‘owned’ what but eventually they more or less agreed a border, although it wasn’t finally ratified until 1914. For the Portuguese it was the Sandalwood which attracted them. They had constant battles with indigenous peoples but as is always the case, superior forces and weapons gave them the edge and soon it was just another Portuguese colony. After that the priests moved in and today Timor Leste is 97% Catholic.
Roll forward to 1974 and the Carnation Revolution, which ended the dictatorship in Portugal. All its colonies now saw the opportunity for independence and in East Timor FRETILIN (Frente Revolucionaria Do Timor Leste Independente), the largest of the revolutionary parties, declared independence from Portugal on 28 November 1975. Fearing a communist state within the Indonesian archipelago, the Indonesian military, with Australian, British, and US support, launched an invasion of East Timor in December 1975. Indonesia declared East Timor its 27th province on 17 July 1976. A minority of Timorese wanted to be part of Indonesia but the majority didn’t. The genocide of the next 25 years led to a near 25% reduction in the Timorese population, such was the determination of the Indonesian military to quash all resistance. Here I have to give praise to the Catholic church, which supported the rebels as best they could and, in particular, tried to keep their plight active back in Portugal.


Far too much of this went on.

As mentioned above, it was the Santa Cruz Cemetery massacre which woke up the world, particularly Portugal, but it wasn’t until the death of Indonesia’s President Soharto that the UN was able to broker an agreement for a referendum on self determination. It asked the Timorese whether they wanted to remain part of Indonesia and the proposal was rejected by 75% of voters. Elections followed and in May 2002 Timor Leste became the 21st century’s first new sovereign state.
Timor (meaning East in Malay) Leste (meaning East in Portuguese) is about 15,000 square kilometres in size (about 10% larger than Northern Ireland), with a population of around 1.2 million. Its currency is the US dollar and its economy centres on oil, sandalwood, coffee and other agriculture. The official languages are Tetum and Portuguese although English and Indonesian are designated as working languages. It has a low but improving literacy rate, likewise with life expectancy. It will take time for this poor but new country to develop and grow. It starts from a very low base and it could be said that it’s done remarkably well in such a short time. So there we are. Lots more info to be found here.
Meanwhile it was time for me to leave Dili and head off to explore the Eastern part of East East.


I was sorry to leave these little cuties behind when I left. Kate and I had adopted them.

Once I’d left Dili the road climbed up a hill before swooping back down again, through a series of hairpin bends, to rejoin the coast. I’d been following a young woman riding a scooter, who tackled the bends with a panache I didn’t have the confidence to match. And the good sense not to try, either. Local knowledge is sometimes all that counts on these roads. But the sea was blue and pretty so who cared about speed of progress? Not me, which was just as well really because it wasn’t very rapid at all. The road was ‘enjoying’ improvement work and about every 100 to 200 metres traffic would be diverted down into a gully alongside it while culverts were installed beneath it, intended, I presume’ to carry monsoon water away. Further along, and as an alternative, there were huge humps in the road where culverts had been half buried then had gravel laid over them, forming the kind of ‘whoops’ beloved of motocross riders. Trixie is not a motocross bike, so ‘steady as she goes’ was the order of the day. I’m guessing that once finished the road will eventually be raised to the same level as the humps and will run on a causeway, making it an all weather route.



A colourful bus makes its way round the roadworks.

I passed through the modern looking town of Manututo but, by contrast, also some very poor hamlets, with driftwood shacks. Some villages consisted entirely of bamboo houses, with deeply overhung reed thatched roofs, but maybe with a brick built administrative building as well. Some others had breeze block houses being built alongside the bamboo ones, so improvements are clearly under way. All villages had electricity, to the village if not to each house, but water mostly came from wells. Timor Leste is a very poor country and is a long way from having the kind of infrastructure that provides running water and sewage disposal, but progress is under way. In the late afternoon I came to the town of Baucau where I found the Victoria Café, precisely as marked on (Easily the best mapping system around). I also found that it was a hotel too, so stopping for the night seemed like a good idea. A simple room, cold shower but cheap price. A nice meal too. I took a walk around the town and was quietly impressed with the quality of this regional capital. It seemed well organised, plenty of shops, buses buzzing up and down and generally clean and tidy. One very encouraging thing I’d seen was that even the smallest villages seemed to have a school, with neatly uniformed kids in attendance. I stopped to take a photo at one point and they all rushed over to look at the curious visitor. I later learned that elementary education is provided up to the age of twelve but I don’t know what the provision is past that age.


Curious kids wave at me.

Next morning I was woken early by a cacophony of cockerels, and once they’d started they didn’t stop. The loudest of them was right below my window and I was tempted to go out and wring its neck. But I didn’t know what the penalty might be for cock nobbling, so I let it be. A simple breakfast, then back on the road, still following the coast in the warm sunshine. No roadworks now so progress was swifter. I planned to get to Bauro, then head down to Jaco Beach, right on the eastern end of the island. Jaco Island was just off shore, recommended by Kate as being a beautiful place to visit for swimming, snorkeling and so on. At one point I stopped in a village to check directions and a group of lads came over to say hello and to confirm where I needed to turn. One of them asked me for ‘a ciggy’ and his mates where highly amused when I told him off for smoking.


Standard village housing.

When I eventually turned off the coast road I discovered just how bad Timorese roads can be. A steep track took me up the hill, where I had to fight my way over loose stones and rocks. A guy walking down looked at me in amazement as I bounced past him but I was enjoying the challenge and made it to the top with no problem. Through the town of Bauro, hoping for a cup of coffee, but none to be seen. I did ride past an estate, for want of a better word, of pre-fab houses, neatly laid out and all looking the same. I wondered if it was some kind of camp, but I saw ordinary people doing normal things so I think it was perhaps just a housing project. It did look very out of place though.


Very put of keeping with the more normal bamboo.

Although I’d been warned about the road down to Jaco Beach I was still surprised at how bad it was. I’m sure it was once a really nicely laid, compacted stone track. But now it was a rocky horror show. Very steep, hairpin bends, loose rocks the size of melons, with ‘step-offs’ from one rock ledge to another of about 200mm. But Trixie and I enjoyed the challenge and got down with no real drama. But I knew that coming back up would be a different story, a real test of man and machine.
There’s beachside accommodation down there so I got a hut for just one night. I’d already decided not to go over to the island but I had a nice swim anyway. At dinner I met two French couples so we had a nice meal, chatting and swapping stories. One of the guys worked for Heinecken, in Dili; his girlfriend, rather mysteriously, does ‘this and that’; the other couple were friends on a visit. They’d come down in a 4WD Ute and very kindly offered to take some of my luggage and to follow up behind me in case I needed assistance. And that assistance was very much required. I nearly made it on my own. I came off when I simply ran out of steam on a steep, loose section, but managed to pick the bike up myself and carry on. But the second time was more than I could deal with. I gently collided with a rock at the side of the track, the bike rolled backwards and I couldn’t stop it, so I baled out and laid it down.


This time I needed assistance.

Unfortunately it was laying across the track and was over centre, so even with the help of a passing local, I couldn’t manage it. Knowing the others were close behind, I didn’t get too stressed and just waited until they turned up. With five of us it was easy to lift the bike and push it up the last part of that particular steep section and then I rode it up the rest of the way. Even the Ute got stuck at one point, and they had to roll back for a second go. At the top of the track we paused for breath, took photos and said our goodbyes. Although they had introduced themselves last night I didn’t make a note of their names. They said they would email me a couple of photos and remind me of the names as well, but I’ve heard nothing so far. So for now they are simply Mes Amis Francais.


L’Equipe de Secours.

Going back through Bauro I stopped for some fuel. Not at a petrol station, servo or gas pump. There’s none of that kind of thing out there. I just looked for the wooden rack of 1 litre bottles that I knew would be at the side of the road somewhere and sure enough, I soon saw a row of them, filled with blue fluid. I pulled up and asked the price, and at $1.50 it was half as much again as the price in Dili. I tried to talk it down but he was having none of it, so I settled on ten litres. I’ve no idea what grade it was , nor did I really care. They were poured into my tank through a cloth filter and a funnel by a cheerful young guy. Meanwhile I chatted to his friend who had worked in Manchester for a year so spoke good English. The other young lads in attendance just crowded round and watched the show.


“Fill ‘er up please mate.”

The road carried on, up and down, and rough as guts. Steep climbs, loose stones, narrow but not too much traffic. Villages tended to be strung out along the road, the buildings a mixture of traditional and modern. Sometimes I came across buses and wondered just how uncomfortable the journey might be on those roads. The continuous stream of small motorcycles and scooters coped quite well but mostly by riding slowly and using local knowledge to pick the best course. I was OK on my off road orientated bike, with its soft, long travel suspension.
But however capable the bike is, the second half of a successful equation is the rider. And here there was something missing. As I came down a slight slope and round a bend, I managed to drift off the side of the road and the front wheel went into a ditch. The bike flipped round, I flew off and landed on my back, hard enough to completely knock the wind out of me, and I somehow managed to face-plant into the muddy ditch too. I sat up, trying hard to draw breath, and was immediately helped by some people who’d been working in the adjacent fields. They picked me up but I couldn’t manage to stand, so sat down again. One of them went off to fetch some water and then washed my hands and face for me. Eventually I was able to stand and was helped up the slope to one of their buildings where I laid down on the floor, seeking a position that was comfortable and pain free. And I stayed like that for most of the next three days, taking painkillers, sleeping and eating the simple food they provided me with. They were kindness personified but unfortunately we had no common language so were completely unable to communicate past simple sign language. They only spoke a local dialect so even my few words of Indonesian didn’t help. Later on some other people came round and moved my bike off the road and up to where I was.


I didn’t look, and I wasn’t feeling, very good.

The family seemed to consist of a married couple, with five young children; another man of a similar age to the husband; an old couple; another man of the same age. Their accommodation consisted of a two storey building, the upper part of which was for cooking, the lower part for sleeping. Another building had a bedroom in it and there were various outhouse structures connected with animals. Apart from one, which had a large fire pit in it. This was used for boiling their spring water to make it drinkable. After three days of I was getting a bit sick of woodsmoke flavoured drinking water! They kept cattle, hens, a variety of skinny looking dogs, and a pig, which walked around with a stick tied to one end of the rope that was tied around it. An effective means of preventing escape. They also had some agriculture on the go, but I’m not sure exactly what.
Some visitors came by, one of them speaking a little English. He asked me if I wanted an ambulance but I declined, saying that f I could stay where I was for a couple of days I’d be better off. I couldn’t imagine where an ambulance might have taken me anyway as there were no medical facilities nearby. They were all OK with that so that relieved me somewhat.


One of my hosts and the place where I slept.

The old fella was very solicitous in looking after me, making sure I had plenty of water, showing me where I could wash etc. He took it upon himself to clean my muddy riding gear too. I couldn’t have asked for more, despite the very basic facilities. On the third day, Sunday, I felt ready to try riding again. I was desperate to change the hard floor I’d been sleeping on for a soft bed, and the chance to eat something other than rice, scrappy bits of chicken and noodle soup. So I slowly packed my gear away and changed into my riding gear. I gave the old fella some money but that was very quickly demanded by his wife, obviously the boss of the operation. Handshakes and hugs, and then I left.


The Boss.

I headed for the regional town of Viqueque, where I knew there was good accommodation and a hospital. The road there was no better than previously, proving to be 70kms of hell. But, by stopping every 10-15kms for a rest, a stretch and a drink, I made it to Motel Borala. There I had a soft bed, a hot shower and a nearby café that sold good food. On Monday I was taken down to a clinic to see a doctor. I couldn’t quite understand why the people who ran the motel didn’t take me to the hospital, but the Cuban doctor soon confirmed what I had thought – that I had cracked a rib.The back protector in my riding jacket had done its job well but I’d been bruised up nicely. He just gave me more paracetamol and told me to rest. I asked them how much I owed – Nada. I offered a donation – Nada once more. This was one of those free clinics gifted by Cuba to third world countries. All I could say was “Thanks Fidel, you weren’t such a bad guy after all.”


The kind of bed you dream of scoring in.

I spent another five days resting and trying to find how best to manage the discomfort but eventually I felt fit enough to tackle the ride back to Dili. As I left Viqueque the road out of town was smooth asphalt and I was hopeful of an easier journey, but it didn’t last long before it deteriorated into the usual rocky hell. But it did improve eventually, especially after it had come down the 1200 metre mountain. Although the last 50kms were really tough, I got there in the end. And I really did enjoy the beer I had that night.
Seven days in Dili, mostly spent resting. Various people passed through, with whom it was nice to socialise. They included a very blonde German woman who said that when she was in Flores people kept prodding her to make sure she was real. Given that she was on her own this was, not unnaturally, very disconcerting for her.


A sacred house, although I’m not sure what goes in them.

I did a few jobs on the bike and in the process discovered that one side of my luggage rack had broken in two places. Bad roads always take their toll. Just down the road was a small workshop where I got it welded back together. I was amused but concerned to see the guy sensibly using eye protection when he used the grinder to prepare the metal, but none at all when he actually welded it with his arc welder. But it was not for me to say anything and he did a good job.

Not much good.                                                   Now good to go.

Eventually I had to leave because the validity of my Indonesian visa was soon to expire. I was annoyed by the delay and that I hadn’t been able to visit some of the places in Timor Leste that had been recommended to me. All my own fault, of course, but that didn’t make me feel better about it. At least I could safely(?) say that it had been an adventure. I packed my gear on a sunny Friday morning and set off for the border.


It always puzzles me when non-English speaking countries write signs in English.

Topping Off The Tour. Part 2

Wangi Falls Camp Site, Litchfield National Park. Thursday 15th June, 2017


Wangi falls, Litchfield NP

Litchfield National Park. It’s not far from Darwin, less than half a day’s ride, and was the first place I chose to visit on my ‘final tour’. I camped at the Wangi Falls campground for a couple of nights and explored the park from there. It’s a usefully compact park, only 1,500 sq kms, but with plenty to see. There’s five different waterfalls, tumbling down off the sandstone rock outcrops. Beneath most of them are swimming holes, with cool, clear water in which to take a refreshing swim. I sampled those delights at Wangi Falls twice, particularly when I’d returned from a hot and sweaty walk around the trail above the spectacular Tolmer Falls. The area beneath those falls isn’t accessible for swimming, being a special place for the local Aboriginals. I also took a look at the Magnetic Termite mounds. There’s an area which has hundreds of them, almost like they were planted there. I’d seen them before, up on Cape York, two years previously. The termites build them with a north/south orientation so they always have a shaded side to escape the heat in. Some species can be very destructive to buildings, but not these. They are often referred to as White Ants but are actually related to cockroaches. Their bodies are almost translucent and they have no defence against the sun or its heat.


Florence falls and their popular swimming hole.

The Bamboo Creek tin mine was a reminder of people’s determination to extract value out of the land. They managed to haul in some heavy machinery, including a large engine. Opened in 1906, it became too difficult to extract the ore because of water ingress and it was abandoned in the 1950s. The rusting machinery left behind is a testament to the tough mining life and the tough men that lived it.


Old tin mine workings, up on the hillside. Industrial archaeology in natural surroundings.

At the camp site I met another biker, named Jorge, a German now living in Leeds where he is a vet. His sister lives in Aus and he asked her to obtain a bike for him. She managed to get him a Kawasaki KLR650, fully equipped with panniers, at a great price. A French guy was selling it urgently so he could buy a plane ticket home. Stress sales can be a great way to find a bargain. Jorge was very happy with it and I’m not surprised.


Jorge and his nice’n’cheap Kawasaki KLR650.

Talking of bikes, I discovered a fault with mine,of  which I had been conscious for a few days. The battery had gone fairly flat while I was in Darwin and wouldn’t always start the bike. On my Suzuki that was never a problem because I’d had a kick start as back up. No such thing on this one, so I’d bought one of those Lithium Ion battery packs that can be used to charge electronic device,s and also to jump start cars. It’s not very big, and I had doubts about its capability, but it always did the job, for which I was very grateful. While I was at the camp ground I decided to run some tests, enlisting Jorge’s help, and quickly realised that the bike’s alternator stator wasn’t working properly. There was enough output to run the bike, once it was started up, but not enough to charge the battery too. I knew I’d be OK until I left Australia, but it was another item on the list for the factory to replace under warranty. It was a bloody nuisance though and the hassle of constant jump starting tended to discourage me from making unplanned stops to look at things!


Flying in to check my braking system. I stayed clear!

After Litchfield I decided to head down to Douglas Hot Springs, a bit further south. I’d met another biker on a camp site who had recommended them, and they sounded good. I really do wish I hadn’t listened! On the way there I was on a dirt road and came to a creek crossing. It wasn’t wide or deep so I went across at a sensible speed, but stood up on the footrests. Usually I’d be sitting down with my feet close to the ground. What I hadn’t realised was that the road base was concrete and, of course, was covered in slippery weed. As I came out of the creek the rear wheel slid round and I came off the bike. It was all at low speed but I landed awkwardly enough to bruise a rib and my foot got twisted round as I came off. The result was a twisted ankle, which was to give me trouble for several weeks. I could walk on it, so I knew nothing was broken, just for a change. But it was swollen up and appropriately painful. I managed to get to Douglas Springs and camped there for a couple of days. The problem was that the river water was hot when all I wanted was cold! There were no facilities there to speak of, so nowhere to get any ice, or similar. I paddled in the hot springs but my heart wasn’t really in it. Once I felt rested enough I headed for the town of Katherine and booked into a hostel to rest up.


Twisting the night away.

My initial booking of three days grew, a few days at a time, into seven. I long ago learned the art of sitting still and to avoid the urge to be doing things. And my sore ankle encouraged that attitude. I bought ice and placed bags of it over the swelling. The bruising gradually went down but the ankle itself stayed swollen up and stiff to move. After a few days one of the other guys there offered me some heavy duty anti inflammation tablets. He said to only take one a day. He’d got them in Thailand when he pulled a shoulder muscle. I took one that evening and in the morning it was as if a miracle had happened. The swelling had gone right down and I could walk without limping. Wonderful! He gave me a few spares, which I took over the next few days, reveling in the relief they brought.


Katherine Gorge from the cliff top above.

Katherine isn’t a very big place, with only a few tourist sites within the town. But there are several in the area around it. Nitmiluk National Park is the most significant. It includes Katherine Gorge, a series of thirteen gorges strung along the Katherine River like green pearls. They can be explored by canoe or on foot, but I sensibly chose to visit them on an organised boat trip. I only explored two out of the possibe three, which involved changing boats half way along. At this time of year the water level is too low to pass from one to another. It was fascinating to see how high up the water reaches in the summer months – easily five metres above the winter levels. The gorges are, of course, beautiful, with plenty interesting geology. One of these was a feature known as sub gorges. Land movement causes gaps to open up in the cliffs that line the gorge, creating sub gorges, which sit opposite each other. I hadn’t seen this before.
On the rock face near where we changed boats was some Aboriginal rock art. The Jawoyn people are the traditional owners of this area. They were among the first Aboriginal groups to successfully reclaim ownership of their land. As is common now, they immediately leased it back to the government so that a national park could be created.


Between the gorges, where we have to walk past the rocks.

Katherine suffered from Japanese bombing during WW2, the furthest point south to do so. It was a base for troops and a supply line for invasion forces too. This information was on display in the town museum, along with much else. The town itself only started when a bridge was built across the river as the railway headed south from Darwin. The original town of Emungalan, centred around the new telegraph station in the 1870s, had many of its buildings moved there. Pastoral activity supported that town too, as did mining activity. The river had been named by explorer John Stuart, chosen in honour of the daughter of one of his sponsors, as he headed north. Perhaps the most significant incident in the town’s history was the flooding of 1998, when the river rose by twenty one metres and destroyed most of the centre of town. There had been others before, but this was by far the worst. But the town recovered and nearly twenty years later it thrives as a busy regional centre.
One of the strong impressions left by the town was how close it is to the edge of nowhere. There’s several towns on the way north to Darwin of course, but the road sign to the south told me that the nearest place of any significance was Alice Springs, all of 1,200kms away. To the west it’s Kununurra, over 500kms. To the east? Nothing. Just bush. It brought home the size of Australia and just how vast and remote the Top End is.


The nest of a Bower Bird.

With the clock ticking, and my injuries feeling much better, I decided it was time to explore Kakadu National Park, lying north and east of Katherine. At almost 20,000 square kilometres, it is the Territory’s largest and the second biggest in Australia. Its wetlands are visited by vast numbers of migratory birds and it is populated by a huge variety of flora and fauna. I wanted to take a closer (but not too close) look at one of these, Estuarine Crocodiles – or Salties, as they’re called. The biker who had told me about Douglas Springs also mentioned Cahill Crossing, where the crocs go to catch fish along with careless tourists. Definitely intriguing enough to be worth my while. I had already seen plenty of natural beauty, which often involved walking, so me and my still painful ankle where going to limit the sightseeing to the Aboriginal rock art the park is famous for.
One difference between this park and most others is that an entry pass has to be bought. You’re trusted to go and buy one once you enter, but there are plenty of rangers around who may ask to see it. Fair enough in itself, but what annoyed me is that I had to pay for seven days when I was only going to be there three. Although it wasn’t very expensive, at $35, it’s still a bit annoying to pay for more than you plan to use. But I suppose the positive side of it is that the money helps support projects aimed at Indigenous Peoples. They own the land and are heavily involved in managing the park. It borders Arnhem Land, which is totally given over to Aboriginal people. It’s a vast area that borders the coast and had I wanted to go there I would have needed a special permit, as would all non Aboriginals. There are a number of such areas around Australia, a positive attempt to enable Indigenous Peoples to regain their culture.


Seen at the visitor centre. A sign of the times?

Once I’d set up camp I visited the Warradjan Aboriginal Centre, where I bought my pass then looked around the information displays. The focus was on local culture; about the six or seven different seasons Aboriginals recognise; various hunting and fishing artefacts; some displays telling the stories of how children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to mission schools; how the people had to rely on working on the stations in order to get food, although without pay. The history and effects of the destruction of Indigenous culture is a long and troubling one but the existence and operation of the national parks is at least a beginning in the search for a solution.


Figures from a Dreamtime story.

Next day, as I rode to a different campsite, I went to see the Aboriginal rock art at Nourlangie. The park has created access by installing a walkway which took me up around the rocks and enabled a great view of the artwork. Fortunately they also have infoboards, essential for interpreting the drawings. It’s common to find new art drawn over old. Some of it relates to the Dreamtime stories. These are the Aboriginal creation stories; how the landscape was formed and how animals came to be. Others relate to activities such as hunting, dancing and other ceremonies. It’s not uncommon for them to be simply diagrams used to help the elders teach boys necessary skills. Some of them are as much as 20,000 years old, although most of them are clearly more recent. They tend to be located up in rocky areas, hidden from easy view. They were the best I’d seen anywhere, much better than those in Katherine Gorge, for example.


Dancing figures. Rhythmic story telling.

Some of the drawings showed kangaroos but my next stop was all about crocodiles. Cahill Crossing is where the road into Arnhem Land goes over the East Alligator River. Was that name ironic or just a simple confusion by explorers between snappy jawed reptiles? Whatever, the river at this point is tidal and at high tide sea fish swim upriver and the salties wait upstream of the causeway and snap them up as they swim across. Clever!
I’d checked the tide times at the visitor centre and got there in plenty of time to watch the fun. The river was running downstream, across the causeway and there were plenty of people fishing. The best of them were the young Aboriginal lads who forsook expensive rods and reels and just used spools with line on. No bait is allowed so lures are used, to great effect. I’ve no idea what the fish are but by the time the tide had started to come over the causeway the lads had loaded about twenty into their car. Most of the other fishers released those they’d caught. Just downstream was a 4WD lying on its roof. By the time the tide was full all except a wheel was under water. Apocryphal tales abound about careless tourists who misjudge the strength of the water flow and end up as crocodile lunch. Was this one of their vehicles?


Abandoned 4WD at Cahill Crossing. Did the driver become crocodile dinner?

The fishers abandoned their positions as the waters rose and eventually it was possible to see the crocs, over on the other side of the river, swimming around purposefully. It was plain to see they were catching fish although details were hard to see. It does seem as if the causeway slows the fish down, making the crocs’ task that much easier. Man and nature in perfect harmony then. It’s worth noting that fifty years ago crocs had been almost hunted to extinction, mainly for their skins. Making them a protected species has increased their numbers hugely, with 10,000 reckoned to live in Kakadu alone. Apart from a very few locations, swimming is not advised because of the risk. Finally, how do you tell the difference between a Freshie and a Saltie? A Freshie will swim away from you, a Saltie will swim towards you. But they’re not easy to see anyway. A stark warning indeed!


Deep and fast flowing at high tide.                                  Crocs await their lunch.

It was a ride of only a few hours from Kakadu to Darwin. Once I’d settled in I made a ‘to do’ list. At the top of it was to go to Alicross Motorcycles for new tyres. I’d called in to see owner Richard when I was in Darwin last time. He’s a friend of Dave’s and, like Dave, often helps travelers passing through, letting them use his workshop and so on. He fitted my new tyres while we chatted about bikes and traveling. I met Jason there too. He was having his racing BMW R100 checked on the dynomometer for power output. He uses it for drag racing, a bit of an unusual bike for that activity. It looked nice though.
Next task was to organise the shipping of Trixie the short distance across to Dili, in East Timor. Getting a bike across water is a vital step in any journey and can be fraught with difficulty. You hear tales of people turning up at a port, talking to crew members and getting their bike onto a local ‘onion boat’. I’m a realist and experience has taught me that the best way is to do it ‘official’ and use an agent. More expensive but always easier. Apart from anything else I planned to leave my bike in Darwin while I went back to the UK for a few weeks so I needed it all to be handled properly. Bolloré are based in Darwin and deal with ANL Shipping, a company that runs freighters to Dili, Singapore and back to Darwin. Just what I needed. I’d already chatted to Luke, at Bolloré, last time I was in the city and he’d assured me they could find a transportation frame for my bike and that they would arrange everything for me. So I called him and made the final arrangements. He couldn’t quote me a full price but was able to give me an approximation, which sounded OK.


Coffee time visitor.

The customs office was just up the road from the hostel and I took the bike up there so they could check its details against those on the carnet. Next job was to sort through my panniers and separate all the gear I was planning to bring home with me. I won’t need my camping or cooking equipment in South East Asia as living is very cheap out there. It will just be an unnecessary burden. The rest would stay with the bike. In the morning I rode the bike to Bolloré, sorted everything out with Luke and waved goodbye to Trixie. See you in Dili!
A helpful truckie went out of his way to give me a lift to the bus stop on the main road, where I immediately got a bus back into town. Straight to customs to get my carnet stamped. And once that was all done I could relax.


A nice display in the Botanic Gardens.

My idea of relaxing somehow seems to involve a lot of walking. From the hostel down to the botanic gardens – which were very good. Then along the seashore path to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. There was plenty of modern Aboriginal art to enjoy and puzzle over; some excellent natural history; and a film all about the effects of Cyclone Tracy. Apart from Japanese bombs, the cyclone was the most devastating event that Darwin had ever suffered. It pretty much wiped out the city, and on Christmas day to boot. There were 49 casualties, but fewer than the amount of damage caused might suggest. If there is an upside to such a disaster it’s that a rather dowdy city was turned into somewhere much more attractive; and that building regulations throughout Australia were changed to make buildings more cyclone proof. The scale of the disaster provided a wake up call to the whole of Australia and its ability to manage such disasters was stepped up considerably.


Modern Aboriginal art at MAGNT.

The piece of artwork above reminds me that the Maroons beat the Cockroaches, by a healthy margin, in the deciding game of the State of Origin competition. Making it, I believe, eleven wins out of twelve. It’s shame I missed the game.

So in general my last few days in Australia were spent enjoying Darwin in a very relaxed fashion, sampling coffee, food and beer. But eventually my last journey on Australian soil was completed on the airport bus before I flew out of one of the most remarkable countries I’d been to on my travels so far.

Topping Off The Tour. Part 1

Gregory Downs Roadhouse, QLD. Thursday 1st June 2017

The Northern Territory covers about one sixth of Australia’s land mass and the Top End is the northern part of it. I’d been to the Territory before of course, when I visited Alice Springs. On that occasion I’d only traveled south of Tenant Creek, this time I was north of it, where the Top End is considered to begin. But one question on my mind as I rode there was this: why did the Northern Territory never become a State? After all, there’s Western Australia, South Australia, so why not North Australia? The basic answer seems to be that there was nothing and nobody there – not of any consequence to the settlers in the south at any rate.
South Australia attempted to colonise the north during the late 19th century. It was slow going but Palmerston (later renamed Darwin,) and Port Darwin were established and some pastoralists began operations there. When I said ‘nobody there’, I meant Europeans. There were plenty of indigenous people but in the Australian mindset of that time, they didn’t count. There were problems with populating and administering the area, although the numbers did slowly grow. SA kept trying to create a northern colony in its own image but gave up in the end and sold the area to the new federal government in 1911.
One of the fundamental problems with the NT was that it didn’t have much to offer economically and is still reliant on the Federal Government for much of its income. At 30% it has the highest proportion of Aborigines out of all the states too. In effect it’s unable to be independent financially and to contribute to national funds. This situation is improving, especially with an increase in mining activity. There is a desire among many Territorians to apply for statehoood, although a 1998 referendum on the proposal failed. Current thinking is that it is likely to come about in 2018. It’s a complicated business though, so I’m not going to bore you too much but will use my usual cop out and provide you with a link for further reading if you wish to learn more.


Northern Territory humour? Or a snappy snack?

Meanwhile, I hadn’t even got there. My journey from Mount Isa was going to include lots of dirt. A 1,400km journey, more than 1,000kms of that on gravel roads, as I rode from Queensland to the Territory. I would be camping and refueling at small roadhouses, with only two small towns to call in at for supplies. Probably my last ever taste of outback Australia. Gregory Downs was the first of these, where I watched the Maroons, Cockroaches and some frogs.
I know that sounds very odd so let me explain. Every year Queensland and New South Wales enjoy an interstate Rugby League challenge called the State of Origin. The Maroons (QLD) and the Cockroaches (NSW) battle it out across three games for nothing other than honour. Oh yes, not forgetting lots of TV money. It’s a big event and the first game happened to be on TV that evening. What does ‘state of origin’ mean? It refers to the location of the players’ first professional club, either QLD or NSW. No other states are involved, the competition simply reflecting the general sense of rivalry between the two states. Gregory Downs is in QLD and the bar was filled with a large crowd of road workers,billeted just across the way. It was very noisy but good natured, although things went quieter when QLD, usually the stronger team, lost by a big margin. It was good fun and I was cheering for the Maroons too. Fortunately they won the next game so the third game is a decider. It’s a real shame I’ll have left Aus by the time it’s played.


Frogs ahoy! And they do’t look as if they’re just passing through either.

And the frogs? Well this was very peculiar. I had used the camp site toilet earlier and when I flushed it I saw a pair of frogs legs fighting the flow of water as it came out from under the rim of the bowl. I looked behind the cistern and found a pair of blinking eyes staring at me from a green face. Ah, mystery solved. A frog had wandered into the toilet. Not quite! I lifted up the cistern lid and found a whole family of them looking up at me, sitting on the various bits of plastic inside. I counted nine of them, who had clearly taken up residence. I stared at them, they stared back at me. In the end I put the lid back on and left them to it. Who am I to disrupt nature’s ways? When I left next morning I told the staff about them and their response was “Only nine? There’s usually more than that.” We had a laugh about it and then I hopped it.
Meanwhile there had been an increase in volume from my exhaust and I could feel a buzzy vibration coming from the bike. I had a good look around and discovered that a weld had broken on the exhaust header pipe. It was where a lug is welded on for the purpose of securing the heat shield. This was annoying but not a disaster and it explained the increase in noise and vibration. It also explained why my leg was getting hot! The escaping exhaust gas was warming me up nicely. So when I came to the small town of Burketown I located a young guy who had a TIG welder and asked him to try a repair. We couldn’t undo the rusted in heat shield bolts so he only managed to weld about a third of the crack. But he did manage to charge me $50 for the privilege. OK, I know that TIG welding is specialised but even so, it came as a bit of a shock!


Cracked weld. Followed by an expensive partial repair

Feeling poorer, and a bit hard done by, I carried on to Hell’s Gate Roadhouse for another night in the tent. No frogs here but I chatted with Kate, who comes from London, about road conditions further along. (One of the guys working there comes from Gravesend, so it was almost like a reunion.) This part of QLD tends to be a bit wetter than most other parts. I was now in the tropics, where there is more rainfall and the creeks actually have water in them most of the time. She told me the latest news about Calvert Creek and the Robinson River, two crossings that I would need to take care at. The roadhouse isn’t quite the fount of all knowledge but they do gather useful information from other travellers as they pass through, and share it.
When I headed off along the track I actually came to five creeks, all with water in and with varying degrees of difficulty. Hang on, they’d only mentioned two! The dreaded Robinson River was by no means the worse. I managed to drop the bike in the sandy exit of one of them, with no damage done. I’d tried to ride up in 2nd gear instead of 1st and just didn’t have enough momentum.


Lying low for a while. My first ‘off’ with this bike.

I stayed in the town of Borroloola that night and rang Hells Gate to give them an update on the creeks. It seemed right to pass back some information. The town has a high Aboriginal population so there are restrictions on the sale of alcohol. I fancied a beer so I walked up to the local restaurant, where I could get a drink with food, and enjoyed the best piece of battered Barramundi I’d eaten since arriving in Aus. It’s a delicious fish, always moist and tasty. Much better than cod. A couple of beers to wash it down too.
Parked next to me on the campsite was a very battered looking trailer, towed by an equally battered truck. I got into conversation with the elderly Kiwi who was with it and he told me quite an amazing story. As well as living in it, he uses his trailer as a kitchen too. He drives out to stations at shearing or mustering time and cooks meals for the hands. He was driving along one of the nearby tracks and was just crossing a narrow bridge when a road train came round the bend, going too fast and with no way of stopping. My Kiwi friend accelerated off the bridge, managed to swing his truck to one side but the trailer was squashed up against the bridge railing by the road train, half tilted over. Meanwhile the road train had just carried on as if nothing had happened. He was unhurt but his trailer was pretty smashed up. He has a satellite phone so he rang the police and they managed to stop the truck 200kms further along the road. The driver said he simply had no chance of stopping the truck. It was found to weigh 165 tonnes. The legal limit is 73 tonnes! The driver said his company forces him to run overweight. If he didn’t agree he’d be sacked, he said. How awful. Meanwhile the old fella had to arrange for a crane to come down to lift the trailer off the bridge railing and also had to get two tyres helicoptered in to replace the burst ones. That must have cost a powerful amount of money but the freight company will have to pay for it. The driver will be prosecuted as well.


Don’t argue with a road train!

So with that cautionary tale at the forefront of my mind, I carried on, taking extra care at any bridges I came to. The road was getting steadily rougher though. Plenty of corrugations and stony creek crossings – the dry ones that is. At one point I stopped for a break and noticed something a little odd about the bike. The rear light lens was missing. What? Where on earth had that gone? At the same time I realised that the rear mudguard had fractured on both sides, right where the indicators are mounted. It was clear that the vibrations had been taking a toll. Later, when I was discussing the various faults with the factory, they refused to accept this damage as a warranty claim. Their point was that taking a bike off road was going to be risky. I was astonished by this attitude. My belief is that if you’re going to sell a bike aimed at off road riders then you should fit components robust enough to handle the work involved. I never had any problems of this kind with my Suzuki. This bike isn’t proving to be anything like as tough. So I’m not too happy with CCM at the moment.


Please try harder on the next model CCM! More robust components are required.

I called in to have a look at the Southern Lost City. Skyscrapers dominated the landscape here, but built from sandstone rather than concrete and glass. Once upon a time they were part of the seabed but movement of the Earth  exposed the land they were part of. Erosion has done the rest. They reminded me of the Bungle Bungles, over in Western Australia, although their rock content is different. There are other examples of the same thing in this region.


The Lost Southern City shows off its tower blocks.

I bush camped that night and discovered that I’d left my wash bag behind in Borroloola. Now that’s the kind of thing that is seriously annoying. A moment of forgetfulness leading to loads of hassle. But being on the road brings these fun filled moments.
I was gradually making my way north and west, towards the Stuart Highway, which is the road that runs between Adelaide and Darwin. Grace had told me about the hot springs up at Mataranka and had recommended Bitter Springs as the best one to visit. I camped in the nearby site and walked down there for a dip. The water was only lukewarm so I felt a bit disappointed, but what did strike me was how the vegetation had changed significantly over the last few days. Since leaving Mount Isa the scrub land had gone and been replaced by woodland. But here I was in tropical forest. Palm trees, giant ferns and fig trees. They all love the wet areas and the walk down to the spring revealed their dank habitat, among the wetlands. I was quite taken by the change from the random shapes of woodland trees to the almost geometric patterns these plants offered the eye. I’ve no idea why this should be. There must be a reason but I don’t know it.

Nature’s perfection.                                   A marked change in flora.

Camping next to me was Dan and Colleen, a friendly biker couple. Dan has a Honda Goldwing, with which he tows a trailer, although this time they were trying out their new caravan and the Grey Nomad lifestyle. Dan had brought me over a beer as soon as I’d pulled in and they invited me over for some dinner and good conversation. Being able to share a meal with friendly strangers is one of the delights of travelling in Aus.
Next day I made it to Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory and Australia’s northern front line and gateway to Asia. I was heading up there to stay with Dave for a few days. Dave is a terrific guy who offers hospitality to motorcycle travellers as they enter or leave Australia via the port. Darwin is probably the most common entry point for overlanders as there’s a regular freight service to East Timor and to Indonesia. I’d contacted Dave via the Horizons Unlimited website ( and he’d invited me to stay while I sorted out my Indonesian visa and organised the shipping of my bike. He’s a very well travelled man, having been to Europe and South America often. He has bikes there ready for him to fly in and ride. He’s a great fan of the Isle of Man TT and has been there several times, as well as to Northern Ireland to watch bike racing there. He’s a gregarious character and he had plenty of tales to tell. There were five other people there too: a Swiss couple, Thomas and Sylvie; another Swiss guy, Kevin; Joe, a Kiwi; and Elaine, a French woman who was staying at Dave’s long term. She had a van parked on the lawn, which she slept in. Apart from Elaine, they had all met up at a Horizons Unlimited meeting in Indonesia and had decided to share a container to get their bikes across from Dili to Darwin. The problem with coming in to Australia with a vehicle is that it has to go through quarantine and it’s impossible to know how long this will take. I’ve done it twice and have been fortunate both times in that my bikes were cleared in less than a week.


Elanine, Sophie, Thomas, Kevin and Joe.

I had some jobs to do on the bike and Dave was happy to lend me the equipment I needed and to assist me as well. I sorted out some wiring, cleaned the bike up after its dirty experiences and made various adjustments to this and that. Dave has a big shed and I put it to good use. He decided I needed a Camel Toe, which in this case is a large foot to go on the bottom of my side stand. Perfect for stopping it sinking into the sand.
I went into the city (Dave lives about 20kms outside it) and found the Indonesian consulate. The process for getting a sixty day tourist visa was far easier than I had expected it to be, especially compared to my previous experience in Melbourne. They’d told me it would take over four weeks because they had to send my passport back to the UK for processing. That was obviously nonsense because the helpful guy in Darwin said it would be about four days. And that’s all it took in the end.


One of Dave’s friends called round with this beautiful Panther.

My plan had always been to arrive in Darwin, sort out the visa and shipping, then tour the local area. I arrived in early June so had plenty of time on my hands. Getting the visa took a bit longer than it should have though because a three day weekend got in the way. Most states have a bank holiday for the Queen’s official birthday so I had to wait an extra day. I’m no royalist but it would be a handy excuse for another one in the UK. Meanwhile the others where getting the real run around with regard to releasing their bikes. Their container still hadn’t passed its quarantine inspection, let alone the bikes inside it. Problems with spiders I believe. I learned later that things moved quite quickly for them once the container was given the all clear and they had their bikes the next week. Their experience is a warning though. Things may not happen very quickly when taking a vehicle into Aus.


Darwin’s Knowledge Tree. An Aboriginal meeting place.

Darwin itself is a nice city. It’s not large and the CBD is only a few blocks in length and width. It’s a nice place, with plenty of parks and gardens. None of the buildings are very old. Let’s be fair, neither is the city really. But it suffered almost total destruction when it was hit by Cyclone Tracey in 1974 and had to be rebuilt. It was originally called Palmerston but the name was changed in honour of Charles Darwin. There is now a suburb called Palmerston so the name has stuck around. It is a port so there’s plenty of shipping activity as well as marinas all around. There are several headlands so there’s plenty of seashore to enjoy. The winter weather is invariably sunny and warm, with little rain, so it’s a great place to walk around. It has a tropical climate so summers tend to be wet and often stormy. Cyclones are not all that uncommon.


Tailfin of the Boeing B-52 bomber. A truly massive aircraft. Four engines on each wing!

Perhaps Darwin’s biggest reason for a special place in Australian history is that it became the country’s front line in WW2. On the 19th February 1942 around 188 Japanese aircraft bombed the harbour in a raid that equalled Pearl Harbour in terms of size and damage. In fact it was the same aircraft, from the same aircraft carriers, that carried it out. Many ships were sunk and some of the town centre buildings were destroyed, most notably the post office. The two raids killed at least 243 Australians and allies. Almost 400 were wounded. Twenty military aircraft were destroyed, eight ships at anchor in the harbour were sunk and most civil and military facilities in Darwin were destroyed. Fortunately all but essential civilian personnel had been evacuated because the threat had been present for some months. Even so, the city was not prepared militarily, giving the raiders an easy ride. The true record of events was suppressed throughout the war so as to avoid undermining morale, especially in the southern states. The city suffered a total of sixty four air raids over the next two years, although none were as devastating as the first one. It became a military base, both for American forces as well as Australian ones, and was the launch pad for the Allied invasion of South East Asia. It’s the 75th anniversary of this event so there was plenty of information on display. Lots more information here:

I visited the Aviation Museum and saw some great aircraft. Best of all was the absolutely huge Boeing B52 bomber. Too big to get a photo of the whole plane. FOUR engines on each wing! The F-111 was another fine aircraft on display. Sleek and purposeful.


The beautiful F-111 bomber.


One of the oil tunnels, built beneath the cliffs.

Having been to the visitor centre I took a stroll around the CBD, following the Heritage Walk. A few interesting buildings to look at, also another Knowledge Tree, this one still alive though. But the strangest place out of all of the sights was the Oil Tunnels. When the Japanese first bombed Darwin they either had prior knowledge or were simply lucky, because they hit several of the oil storage tanks just after they’d been filled up. The port was a naval base and the government needed to find a way of protecting the stored oil from the raiders. So a scheme to dig tunnels under the cliff was born. In retrospect it seems a rather crazy idea and at the time many people had doubts. But it went ahead and turned into one of those never ending jobs which just have to be seen through to the bitter end despite, or because of, the amount of money, time and effort already invested. The idea seemed simple. Dig tunnels into the cliff, line them with steel and then concrete, store oil in them. Sounds simple, but almost insurmountable problems arose. The rock from which the cliff is made is very loose and unstable so the actual mining task was extremely difficult. A series of wetter than usual summers meant that the already difficult drainage problems were almost insurmountable. Chief engineers were engaged and then replaced and by the time the tunnels were ready to actually serve their purpose, the war had finished anyway. The plan had been to store oil directly inside the concrete lined tunnel but constant water ingress defeated this idea. Two tunnels did get used by a commercial company post war, for storing jet fuel. But that didn’t last long because of water seepage. But they do make a unique tourist attraction and are a good example of lateral thinking.


Water ingress, the reason why the idea didn’t work.

It was fascinating to walk through the one tunnel that was open for visiting. Seeing the water running down the walls made it plain how difficult the task was. But at 172 metres long and 4 metres in diameter it certainly would have held plenty and easily protected it from Japanese air raids.
Darwin Waterfront has recently been developed for leisure, with a water park for swimmers and a nice eating area around Stokes Hill Wharf. There’s a museum there, dedicated to the events of WW2 and the Flying Doctor service. It was Sunday and they’d closed by the time I arrived, so I settled for sitting in the sun drinking coffee. There were more sites to visit in the city but I was going to leave those until I returned. But I did walk up through the Bicentennial Park, where there’s a lookout over the harbour and various memorials relating to Darwin’s history.
After a few more days, some of that time spent socialising with Dave and his friends, I got my passport back from the consulate and headed out of Darwin to explore the Top End’s beauty spots.


Dave’s patio area. We ate and socialised out there.