Think of South Africa and many images are conjured up – arid landscapes, wild animals, colourful garments, Nelson Mandela. Rain, I have to say, hadn’t featured in my imagination. Rain did, however, feature heavily in our reality. On our journey from Cape Town to KwaZulu-Natal, days sprinkled with the most glorious of sunshine were rudely interrupted by the odd full-day torrential downpour. Forget cats and dogs, on those days it rained rhinos.
South Africa has suffered badly over the last two years with the worst drought in over a century. The consequences have been dire with many big game animals dying – their carcases a reminder of how dependent precious life is upon water. So, this rain was a slight inconvenience to our holiday, but at least the big picture had a big dam full of water.
“Break it to me…what does it say?”
Weather reports are sometimes wrong, are they not? Nick and I had booked 5 days of camping in the Drakensburg, so named because of how the landscape looks like a multitude of dragons lying down for a siesta. Nick had dreamt of going since being a nipper, and with my love of Daenarys, ‘Mother of Dragons’ (Game of Thrones) I was firmly on the bandwagon.
“More rain…and thunderstorms.”
As we looked further into the week, the millimetres of rainfall due increased, and although I didn’t know exactly how much 8 millimetres of rainfall was, it surely wasn’t going to be too much fun in our wee 2-man tent. Having said that, with all our faff trying to work out a route that would coincide with this, that and the other, it was the only blasted thing we had actually managed to book! We would just have to go and hope for the best.
It was a beautiful day as we drove from Nick’s auntie’s in Grey Town to Royal Natal National Park in the Drakensburg. Superstitious though we aren’t, we do always proclaim to be ‘lucky’ with the weather. Aha! Maybe rain wasn’t really due. Maybe South Africa’s version of The Met Office had written the report.
As soon as we opened the car door, the hailstones started. Crap. Having checked in, we both sat in the car next to our camping spot, wondering when, or indeed if, there would be a break in the rain, and both looking decidedly sorry for ourselves. Sinking into the mud, we did what any sensible person would in this situation – we had a beer and decided to…
Screw the budget!
This was one of the things we most wanted to do in South Africa and we had driven about 5000 kilometres for the pleasure. Looking at Nick’s sad face as he realised we couldn’t see the mountains from the campsite, I did a Beyonce and offered to upgrade him, though I had to be clear – this would not involve ‘looking fly’. What it did involve was swapping the 3 nights camping we had booked in Mahai camp site for 2 nights in a chalet in Thendele resort, paying the difference and not worrying about it.
Oh c’mon now. We all know I never have no words…
Opening the front door we were like two kids at Christmas. Inside the bedroom-stroke-lounge was an enormous window. Outside the enormous window were some even more enormous mountains. Truely jaw-dropping. The velvety-green mountains sprawled out for miles – wide and expansive, they could have breathed life into a teapot.
The next day up we got up super early hoping to get a hike in before the inevitable afternoon downpour. I was on track to receive a scar from every country we had travelled in: in Nepal I fell down a hole, in Myanmar I fell off a bike, in Thailand I kicked some coral. I just needed one from South Africa. Well, the long grass soon sorted that out. With no long socks or boots, my ankles soon looked like that of a dyslexic self-harmer.
The Policeman’s Helmet
Rocks being personified took us back to a cave tour in Thailand where the guide pointed at abstract looking rocks and said things like, “elephant” or “man with a beard skateboarding on one leg”. The likenesses were a stretch of the imagination at best. Here, however, was a rock looking exactly like that which it was named after – a Policeman’s Helmet. This was our target for the day, rested on a medium high ridge. We were not disappointed! From this ridge we not only had a stunning view of the Amphitheatre, we also had a 360° view of the endless mountains.
We wanted to stay longer – up on this ridge was the perfect picnic spot, but knowing how quickly the weather can change in The Drakensberg and not wanting to push our luck, we headed back to enjoy our luxury digs. As it was, the weather was good all afternoon, too. We were still thankful for that first down pouring of rain, though – it gave us the perfect excuse to indulge ourselves for two nights. Drinking wine by the fire and looking out at the stretches of those slumbering dragons was absolute bliss!!
Be-Xhosa I’m happy, sing along if you feel like happiness is the truth…
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)
Heading down the highway, I slowed down trying to scan the faces of the people stood at the side of the road waving 10 rand (50p) notes in their hands, as if I would somehow be able to tell if someone was ill-intentioned or not. I wasn’t sure that a car-jacker would be so courteous as to make a really mean face, just to make you aware of his objective. Now, given the fact that we were in South Africa, I was aware that trying to pick up hitchhikers wasn’t the most sensible idea I had ever had, but each time I saw them (and there were many), I couldn’t help but feel awful. I had the privilege of a car, and yet, I couldn’t share that with those that couldn’t afford the same and simply needed a ride to travel, often immense distances. In a country with reports of violent car-jackings run-of-the-mill stuff, we were advised strongly against it.
Our loop of South Africa had taken us from the beautiful beach destination of Cape Town, along the garden route. We were now heading towards Pietermaritzberg, via somewhere called ‘Coffee Bay’ in The Transkei. I’m a tea drinker myself, but I decided I could take the hit; so many people had raved about this place. As we turned off the perfectly tarmaced N2 onto a dirt road riddled with potholes, it was clear we were about to discover another, more rural, side to this fascinating country.
Run, Forest, run!
The boy was giving Ussain Bolt a run for his money, something we were unfortunately unable to say about the internet in the country. Given his attire, I thought it was a fairly safe bet that he wasn’t a murderer. Finally I got to pick up a hitchhiker – an extremely polite boy named Thembani, who was late for school. Success! We had picked up a hitchhiker, no one got hurt, a boy got to class on time, and, selfishly, I could ease up on the guilt-trip I had been putting myself through. So when we saw two girls on the side of the same rural road that we had been driving on for the last hour, I was ready to go again. Local people were obviously very friendly.
“Ay waant eet”
The girls wanted to be dropped somewhere we didn’t know the name of, but since this never-ending road only went one way and was sans turn-offs, we figured we couldn’t go too far wrong. So, off we went.
Our attempts to converse in English weren’t going so well, and it soon became apparent that they only spoke the essentials, like, “My nayme ees…” and “Ay waant eet.” The “eet” related to some biscuits dumped on the back seat, and we were more than happy to oblige. But Nick wasn’t going to stop there. “Here, have some popcorn,” he threw in with a smile. By the time we got to the clinic, the back seat looked like a food fight had broken out and Nick’s cheshire grin had morphed into a slightly puzzled expression. They got out of the car and said, “Thank you,” but not before scanning for anything else they could grab, including my bottle of water. I guess all that salt was dehydrating.
As surreal as it was, it was interesting to be a bit more exposed to black South Africans. Until that point, we had only had passing exchanges – buying something in a shop, listening to a busker, watching a protest, booking into a dormitory, hiring a car. The one thing I was afraid of when coming here was that we wouldn’t be able to mix like we had done in Asian countries. Sure, there were township tours in Cape Town, but I didn’t want to pay lots of money to go and ogle at people who had nothing. There was something that didn’t sit right with me about that. I really wanted to interact, and on a simple level.
When we eventually arrived in Coffee Bay, on “The Wild Coast” there was beer, but no coffee. Now that’s what I call an upgrade. The whole area comprised of a very rough, but stunning, coastline, and when a European ship carrying coffee beans ran aground there, the bay in question became Coffee Bay.
We were in the heart of rural South Africa and home to the largest community of Xhosas in the country (Zulus are the largest African group here, followed closely by the Xhosas; together they make up approximately half the black population).
I was interested to find out that the backpacker’s place we were camping in only employed people from the local Xhosa community, and were obviously ploughing many efforts and funds from the guesthouse into improving quality of life and education for the locals. Advertised online they had a multitude of fun activities for young people: surf lessons, coastal hikes, picnics – but the one thing that we couldn’t leave without doing was a homestay with a local Xhosa family. I had no idea what to expect, but we hoped to at least get a better understanding of their life. Plus we got to stay in one of those ‘rondavals,’ a traditional round house made of mud and concrete. Awesome.
At 3pm African time (that’s 4pm to you and me), Elvin, the father of the family came to pick us up. A short 30 minutes walk (for us anyway – he was on crutches) and one crossing of a small river, we were on the top of a rolling green hill, air fresh as a daisy. This was their home. Nothing around for miles except peace and quiet and a few cows. And then, in the distance, screams of manic excitement pierced the silence. Suddenly we were ambushed by two young girls, energy like bottles of pop, ready to explode. They threw their arms around me and gave me one of those squeezes you give a long lost friend – one where you don’t want to let go. Taken aback momentarily, I steadied myself and took a deep breath. We were in the kids’ zone and I knew just what to do.
The next three hours were spent in utter chaos: songs were sung, dances were danced, pictures were taken (by the kids – we had no chance!) acrobatics were performed, and kids were swung around. We were with Elvin’s eldest daughter, Zama, 14; the two mini firecrackers, Mengalally and Sia; and a group of their friends. I had wrongly assumed that Mengalally and Sia were Elvin’s children; they were, in actual fact, his nieces. However, the Xhosas make no such distinctions, which I subsequently read in the autobiography of the most famous Xhosa, Nelson Mandela. Your cousin is your brother and your auntie is your mother. Sounds confusing, but the point is that family is family, and they all look after each other as such. While all this was going on, Zama was intermittently herding the cows, and the goats, and baking bread.
“Oh. If you had two, I would have asked you for one”
I was in my comfort zone and enjoying the simplicity of cross-cultural interaction with children when Zama asked me how many phones I had. “Oh. If you had two, I would have asked you for one.” I had to laugh at the boldness of the girl, but I felt for her. Pulled between a rural existance with no running water and no electricity, and the educated life her parents are willing her to attain, she is a girl that has been exposed to modern things, but is not in the position to have them. When pushed about why she wanted a phone, her answer was that she wanted to Whatsapp her friends in the evening. The small matter of charging the phone, internet connection and buying credit, just tiny hurdles in her teenage brain of infinite possibility.
Dinner was up, and we were slightly perplexed to find that, although Elvin’s wife had been slaving over the pots and pans, she wasn’t sitting down with us. In fact, she barely got an introduction. After the HUGE meal of miele (corn), spinach, potatoes and beans, all grown by the family, Elvin decided we might be hungry from the lack of carbs, so he proceeded to serve us up a big slab of bread. They say The Big Bang was the biggest explosion in history, but my belly was about to beat that.
Around the dinner table, and with the little ones now subdued from their full tummies, the conversation turned to practice of the Xhosa language. Their X’s C’s and Q’s are pronounced like different types of clicks, and me being me, I was having fun taking on the challenge. Zama was only too happy to drill me and even happier that I was so bad; my obvious inadequacy was rewarded with an exaggerated roll of her eyes and a smirk.
As it was now pitch black outside, and Zama had to be up early in the morning to start her hour and a half walk (!) to school, it was time to retire to our rondaval, but not before a quick trip to the outhouse toilet. With our head torches mounted, we stumbled and giggled like idiots as we crossed the uneven ground to reach it. The family have no such problems; even with no light they can navigate their way, knowing every inch of the land as a blind person would.
We awoke to the smell of farm yards. It wasn’t the cow outside our window, but the floor. I had forgotten that another material they use in the rondavals is dung. This makes the floor nice and glossy, and apparently the smell does disappear after a while. Ours was obviously a shiny new one. It was still early, but already Zama was up and dressed, had collected us water from a nearby village tap, and was heading off to school. After a quick wash in a bucket, and a goodbye to the kids, we sat down with Elvin to eat bread and drink coffee and find out more about life as a Xhosa.
We learnt about many Xhosa traditions, such as, if a man and woman get married, the groom’s parents must give a few cows to the bride’s parents, which is a bit like the dowry tradition in India but the other way round. To stop arguments between couples, they also added in a rule that if a man fights with his wife, she will go and stay with her parents. He must then pay them a cow to get his wife back! Cows are valuable and there are evidently a lot of them going back and forth here.
We also were privileged enough to hear all about Elvin’s experience of apartheid. How he mined platinum for the rich Afrikaners (white, Dutch origin), and about how, as a black man, if you dared to try and speak to a white man in those days, you would be beaten. Far from being bitter, Elvin actually welcomes white tourists into Coffee Bay, acknowledging that without tourism, there is little way to make any money there. In fact, this area is apparently the poorest area in South Africa. The majority of people lead a sustenance existance, growing corn in the summer and vegetables in the winter. What little money they can make, from selling jewellery, working in guesthouses or shops, they spend on milk and flour to make their daily bread. It’s a simple life, and one they work hard to maintain, but they hope for more opportunities for their kids. With their hard work ethic, I hope the same for them, too.
Here’s a video that Zama took of her cousins and their friends singing and dancing. Amazing energy!!
It don’t shouldn’t matter if you’re black or white…
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)
Going to South Africa, I was unsure exactly what to expect, and even now, ask me to sum it up for you and I’d struggle. In fact, pre and post writing this particular blog, I debated whether I really should. In the search to understand a bit more, I read many articles debating the current state of South Africa and how it relates to the past, which both helped and confused the matter! Some of you reading may know a lot more about this topic than I do, or have even lived it. So who am I to throw in my tuppence worth? Well, I decided that there are probably others that, like me before this trip, know very little beyond the ol’ Mandela story. I hope this goes some way towards painting a broader picture. I couldn’t shake the feeling that a country this fascinating – politically, historically and geographically – needs to be talked about.
Diversity and division
Black South Africans here make up 79% of the population; there are Zulus, Xhosas, Tswanas, Vendas and 10s of other groups of which I still don’t know the names! Of the white population, who are a minority in numbers, roughly equal amounts are made up of Afrikaners (Dutch origin) and those of English origin. The other minority are classified as “coloured.” This term refers to anyone Indian, Malaysian or “mixed” (aren’t we all?) race and is not considered derogatory. It’s easy to see why this is still a country of diversity and division.
The obligatory historical bit
The Dutch arrived in Cape Town in 1652, South Africa being a tactical stop off on trade routes. With their superior weaponry, they slowly took more and more land and resources, including livestock, from the black groups – Zulus, Xhosas etc..These people had come from other parts of Africa thousands of years before. That’s not to say that the people already living here were doing so peacefully – apparently there was a fair amount of discord between the groups. The Dutch used this to their own advantage and began what was to turn into centuries of black oppression.
Those of the Dutch arriving without land or wealth slowly moved to other parts of South Africa, and lost touch with the colonialism of their rich counterparts in Cape Town and Europe. They were called “trekkers”. Eking out a subsistence existance for themselves, they stole farm land and killed native adults, often keeping the children as slaves.
The English took control in 1795 and in the 1820s, a substantial amount of English people were moved here as part of a plan to relieve poverty at home. Apparently we were just as brutal to native South Africans, but humanitarian pressure led to legislation that called for the release of slaves in The Cape Colony by 1838. The Dutch speaking colonists weren’t happy about this and resentment grew towards the English. This led to the Dutch forging a new distinct national and cultural identity and a new language (Afrikaans). They set out to recreate the subordination of nonwhites as labourers for whites that had previously existed in The Cape. This was already well established by the time diamonds and gold were discovered in the country. The systematic oppression of the nonwhites continued, as they slaved away for peanuts to make the Afrikaners rich.
Meanwhile, the English, far from having the nonwhites’ best interests at heart, consolidated their power over most of the colonies of South Africa after the Anglo-Zulu war. Although they succeeded in the end, it’s worth watching the 1964 film, “Zulu” to see how the English, with their superior weaponry, got annihilated in one battle with the Zulus!
The conflicts between the English and the Afrikaners continued, and after many revolts, culminated in the Second Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Brits took back all the power at this point, but Afrikaner national identity was strengthened further. The National Party, who were Afrikaner and right-wing, came into power in 1948. Building on the foundations of white superiority and black oppression that had already been established, they introduced the apartheid (literally meaning “division” in Afrikaans) system, whereby blacks and whites were completely separate.
What did this mean in practice? It meant that there were different shops for blacks and whites; different buses; black children were schooled in how to be servants or work the fields, while white children had academic schooling; black people could get beaten for talking to white people were they not invited to do so. It also facilitated the abuse, torture and rape of some blacks by some whites.
So, what of “The Rainbow Nation” first coined by Desmond Tutu and referred to by Mandela? You might be excused for thinking that since the end of apartheid in 1991, everyone is living in equality and harmony, but with such a rich and complex history, the status-quo is ever in a state of flux. Nick and I had the privilege of travelling through the country in a short space of time, observing a wealth of different situations, talking to whites, blacks, coloured, all levels of wealth and background.
Is it coz I is black?
Racial tension is bound to exist between groups that are culturally distinct. Even the English and the Afrikaners are meant not to like each other, though the Afrikaners we met were all super friendly to us. Generally I found out-and-out racism (by that I mean hatred for another based solely on skin colour) to be scarce. However, what we definitively felt was the level of fear and distrust between cultures. Racial stereotypes of black people as thieving, violent and/or lazy prevail, harming the black people that are none of those things. Unfortunately, “This is Africa,” as people kept telling us. Almost all the white people we knew had been robbed or been victims of violence, serving to compound, rather than subvert, stereotyping. Also at the table are the voices of those blacks that dislike whites because of the colour of their skin and what they think that represents. “You white people are all the same.”: a comment made to Nick’s uncle when he asked the neighbours to turn their music down. History cannot be erased, and though Mandela would have had people forgive, resentment dies hard.
“It’s for putting a fire out.”
The ANC (Mandela’s party) are now in power. They are a black party, but unfortunately they have forgotten who they are fighting for and are more interested in lining their own pockets with government funds. The president, Zuma, is detested by everyone we spoke to, and all the stories in every paper are about how corrupt he us. The most recent story detailed how he spent the equivalent of 11.3 million pounds of public money on upgrades to his house in the name of national security. Because everyone knows that the best way to protect yourself from a fire is by having a swimming pool installed. Duh. Oh, and did I mention that he publicly announced he minimised his risk of contracting H.I.V. by showering after sex? In a country with the largest prevalence of the virus IN THE WORLD. Yes, the mind does boggle.
“South Africa is a Cappuccino”
The white population are, on the whole, substantially richer. I don’t blame those whites born into a system that favoured them – the mistakes of our ancestors are not ours to seek penance for, they are something we must learn from. David Cameron’s father avoiding tax caused uproar in the U.K. recently, and while I don’t think he should be held accountable for his father’s actions, to suggest that he didn’t benefit from them is preposterous. In a similar way, it is impossible not to acknowledge that white wealth in South Africa could not have become what it is without the apartheid regime. The blacks are the under classes, the whites are on top, and the few black people now in the middle classes are but a sprinkling of chocolate on top. This is the way I saw it described in a South African newspaper. This is the South African cappuccino.
The majority of the jobs issued by government now go to black people. This is important for readdressing the balance, but in a weird twist of fate, young white men are now severely disadvantaged because legislation doesn’t see them as an oppressed group. If you are a white woman, you might still be ok. We heard some debate about this, one argument being that a well-trained employee shouldn’t be replaced by someone that doesn’t know the job just because they fit a statistic,especiallyat atimewhen the country’s economy is in such a terrible state.
In present day South Africa, treatment of blacks may be good (it was were we were anyway) but that white families still have black maids, and in restaurants, the people serving are predominately black and the people dining are predominantly white, are of note. These are divisions based on class and education, but they are inextricably linked to colour. Picking up on this, I was told that black people are just happy to have more jobs available now. However, things still have a long way to go, and that will take time…and a president that isn’t a half-wit. The government has a duty to provide good levels of education for everyone so that equal opportunities in the workplace can really start to exist. Perhaps, just perhaps, we will then start to see a more united South Africa where it really don’t matter if you’re black or white.
Under the sea, under the sea, darlin’ it’s better down where it’s wetter, take it from me…
(Written by Steph, photos courtesey of a friend with a GoPro, some downloads & some Nick’s)
Spluttering and exhausted, we finally dragged ourselves out of the water and onto the pier only to be greeted by umpteen mobile phones pointing at us – loaded and ready to shoot. Oblivious to our ordeal, the crowd of locals weren’t taking “Thank god they made it” photos – they were rather more interested in having a snap with a tourist while they laughed and joked and barbecued their fish on the beach. Ahh, the simple life.
We had come to the island of Bunaken, in a far flung region of Indonesia, for Nick to do his Open Water Padi course. That’s diving to you and me. My previous two pneumothorax (a collapsed lung for those of you that didn’t grow up watching Casualty on BBC1) ensured that this was not to be the double act we had grown so used to.
Nick, in a fit of romance, or possibly guilt for abandoning me for the deep seas, had mentioned that this was our honeymoon in his email to the place we were staying. Could we reasonably still class it as that 6 months on? Well, there’s nothing “reasonable” about travelling for 6 months, anyway. This reminds me of a story told to us by a couple we met travelling of a time they went to Mexico and pretended it was their honeymoon. Seven days of being pursued by the band, who assumed that they would like to be serenaded at every available opportunity, followed. Needless to say, they never did get married.
“Your name is Steph? Ohhhh”
There was no fanfare when we arrived at Bunaken Sea Garden Resort, but there was a beautiful smiling girl to greet us. She introduced herself, as did I. She looked confused. People in Asia often had difficulty pronouncing my name, but her reaction was odd. It wasn’t long before we went in our room and discovered why. There on the bed was a big heart drawn out with flower petals. And our names – Nick and Irvine. Apparently Nick loves himself.
Rather than taking the plunge on the first day, Nick decided he would delay the diving for another day so that be could spend time snorkelling with me. We had heard that no more than 100 metres out from our bay lay the most amazing coral, but that we should go out at high tide – that couldn’t have been more true.
Flippers on, we headed out. Now, flippers are great when swimming in strong currents, and they also provide protection against Triggerfish, should they decide to attack, but try walking in the blinking things. Not only was the tide still low, but in order to get out, you had to cross a huge section of mangroves, negotiating broken trunks piercing the water’s surface. However, we had also heard that stingrays sometimes settle on the sea bed here, so we would have to be careful not to tread on one. Easier said than done with water murky from the mangroves. Swimming out in water only two feet deep meant we had to use very little movement to avoid stirring up the mud further and scratching our bellies on these alien looking forms below us. Looking ahead through our masks all we could see was half a metre of turbid water, but post minor meltdown (mine), Nick calmed me down and I agreed we should swim out just a bit further.
It was lucky that Nick has the patience of a saint or we might never have made it those extra few metres. Suddenly the water cleared up and we started to see starfish and spikey sea urchins everywhere. Barely half a metre below us was the most stunning coral – we would have to be extra careful not to kick it as we manoeurved through. In Surin, we had been privy to some extraordinary animals, but unfortunately, due to the boxing day 2006 tsunami and perhaps global warming, much of the coral had been bleached. The algae living inside the coral can only do so at a certain temperature, so when the water temperature rises, the algae is expelled. This leaves the coral colourless, and effectively dead. Here in Bunaken, we were surrounded by blues, greens and pinks swaying back and forth with the pull of the tides. It was quite something to feel how alive it was.
Finally we managed to cross the shallow corals and out of the blue we came across what Bunaken is famous for – “The Wall”. Right next to the warm shallow corals was a drop-off so huge, you suddenly felt like a toy in a giant paddling pool. Its enormity was overwhelming: a wall 40 metres deep. Still, it was a relief to be able to come up to a vertical position. Treading water in the freezing depths, we reviewed where we were in relation to the shore. We must keep our eye on the currents here.
When skin meets coral
Almost as soon as we put our masks under, we saw what we had yet to tick off in Surin – a turtle! The moment was short-lived as it ducked under a rock embedded in the wall. It was obviously a popular hangout as the turtle displaced another new animal for us – a blue spotted sting ray. We could hardly believe our luck.
With no watches, we looked at the sun’s position. We must have passed hours with our heads down, distracted by this new world of discovery. Out in the depth of the ocean, we had neglected to observe the tide. Shit. We attempted to swim to shore, carefully navigating gaps in the coral boulders where the water was deeper, but we were in danger of being pulled into the sharp protrusions that surrounded us. We didn’t get far before we had to abandon that plan, for fear of damaging either the marine life or ourselves. I had already experienced what happens when skin meets coral, and it wasn’t pretty.
Plan B was to swim along the drop-off to a pier we had spotted in the distance. That way we would be in deep water, swimming parallel to the shore, but we should be able to get to safety along the pier. Just to get there…
To begin with, we enjoyed the continuing underwater adventure – spotting yellow Trumpet fish we had never seen, steering clear of the Triggerfish we now knew were well worth avoiding, but the pier didn’t seem to be getting any closer, and the current was getting stronger.
Battling against the flow, and convincing myself that the best course of action was just to keep swimming strongly, we were finally about 100 metres away. Nothing could keep us from the pier now. Nothing except…ANOTHER TURTLE. This one was coming up for air and was swimming so close to me…in the opposite direction. It didn’t take a second’s thought to know what to do – and with that we were swimming back in the direction we had just come from.
“Whoa is that another octopus? It’s so translucent and mobile…”
Bunaken epitomised everything we had come to believe about Indonesia. The people were beautiful inside, though the streets were outwardly sometimes less so. Tiny Bunaken island was a world away from the dirty and smelly port of Manado we had left from, though the mere 9 miles of sea that separated the two posed a problem. On the island, they worked hard to keep their shores clean, but they were taking on an impossible task. With so much rubbish being dumped off the mainland, it was hardly surprising we mistook the odd plastic bag for an octopus; afterall, last time it had been the other way round. Luckily the island didn’t smell like the port, and if you could get over the odd plastic bottle when the sea was rougher, you might be lucky enough to see an actual octopus. You’d certainly have to be the unluckiest person in Indonesia if you didn’t see turtles.
The never ending story…
Swimming alongside these majestic beings, I was reminded of that dog from The Never Ending Story. Not because they looked like dogs, but because they swam like that dude flew. Gliding and floating, I felt like all my Christmasses had come at once being able to get so close and accompany them until they inevitably outswam me.
After Surin, I had the snorkelling bug, but I wondered what a new place could realistically offer me. With the concentration span of a goldfish, surely I would be bored seeing the same old thing? It’s funny, but it never got old. All the new things we saw, and the things we had seen a hundred times before, held such a draw. Darlin’ it really is better down where it’s wetter…take it from me.
NOTES FOR TOURISTS:
– To get to Bunaken island, fly to Manado. Lion Air are the cheapest airline, but you might have fun and games trying to book with them! You may not be able to book on their website, add they don’t except visa or Mastercard. Rather go through tiket.com. Flying with them is also confusing as you get on and off flights like changing tubes, and quite often don’t know what is happening, but we had no major disasters with them and after we realised this was normal, it was funny more than anything else!
– Manado is quite expensive for accommodation. We stayed at Manado Grace Inn overnight, which was cheap (about £9), but about as basic as it gets.
– A taxi from the airport to this hotel cost us about £12 in the middle of the night. Cheaper options may be available during the day.
– You can get blue mini-bus taxis to the port of Sulawesi (near hotel Celebes) that you hop on and off. We had to change once. Ask locals for help – they are very friendly. It only cost about a pound each, but if you have lots of luggage, you may be charged more. In fact, these buses are TINY, so if you do have a lot of luggage, you may find it easier to get in a private taxi.
– Public boats leave from the port at around 2pm, but this is dependant on the tides and whether they are full or not. It only cost £2.50 each, but you may prefer to take a private boat if you can’t handle the smell or the waiting!
– Bunaken Sea Garden Resort is one of the best value with the best reviews. The staff were all very friendly and the food (included in the price) was good, although you might struggle if you don’t eat fish. They will pick you up from the Bunaken port if you book with them.
– The price of staying in a small bungalow with double bed was 44 euro (£35) for two sharing. This included three meals a day and drinks like juice, tea and coffee.
– Wifi wasn’t very good on the resort, but towards the end of our stay, they did get it working much better.
– We bought sim cards (Dtac have good reception in general) from a shop right next to the port, but again, we only had reception near the port of Bunaken, and not at the actual resort. Someone who spoke English helped us buy these as people in the shops don’t really speak English.
– The resort only has electricity in the evenings. Wiithout a fan, this place can get HOT, so it better to be out diving or snorkelling everyday.
– The Open Water Padi course took 3 days and cost around 395 euro (£310). I would advise anyone taking this course to do some studying beforehand, as the reading material is quite comprehensive.
– Snorkelling equiptment can be hired for 5 euro a day. You can head out by yourself, as we did on the first day (really do go in high tide!) or you can go on the boat with the divers for another 5 euro. I also did this, but I would imagine this is better if you are not the only snorkeller.
It was a phrase we were to hear repeatedly over the next three days, along with “lovely jubbly”, “easy peasy lemon squeezy” and “owight maaay” (think cockney impersonations). It appeared we weren’t the first tourists here. In fact, one of our guides, Bobby, had been doing this for 15 years.
My first encounter with an orangutan was not in the wild, but rather in a zoo in Spain. I can’t remember how old I was, but my elder sister was being passed off as under 12 by my mother, who only wanted to pay a child ticket for her. My mother, the serial age deceiver: honest to the core…except when it comes to child fares. It must be why I always think I’m younger than I actually am. Anyway, back to the orangutans. Holed up in a large (but not nearly large enough) wire cage, a small baby had poked its head between the bars and got it lodged there. The mother was frantically trying to free her baby by pulling its legs, but this only caused the baby to scream in distress. Eventually the mother was shot with a tranquiliser gun until the baby could be freed, but the whole thing made a huge impression on me. I wanted orangutans to be free and I wanted to see them in the wild.
In 1973 two Swiss zoologists, Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, came to Indonesia to rescue orangutans that people had kept as domestic pets. A law was passed banning this kind of activity, but what of the animals already raised in captivity? Regina and Monica opened up a rehabilitation centre where the animals stayed before releasing them back into the jungle – the jungle of Bukit Lawang. Fast forward however many years, and we were here to see these awesome beasts in their home territory…and definitely on their terms.
We had only been climbing, albeit it steeply, for about 10 minutes when we came across a mass of tourists. More than we had seen the entire time being here anyway. The object of their affection was a semi-wild orangutan, who had thoughtfully come down to visit them. I was happy enough to watch from a distance, not wanting to crowd her or feed her unnecessarily. Some of the guides had given fruit to their guests to feed her so she would come close, but the point was to try and keep them as wild as possible, so I was glad when our guides said they didn’t feed the orangutans unless absolutely necessary. It wouldn’t be long before we found out what they meant…
With a reputation that preceeded her, Mina, the oldest of the semi-wild orangutans, was one to watch out for. Many a guide carried the mark of her teeth on their bodies through one altercation or another. The story goes that one of her babies disappeared in the wild and since then she has been very aggressive towards humans. Face of a mafiosa, when we saw it, there was no mistaking it was her. She had positioned herself in the middle of a small clearing. Some tourists had passed by her and were on the far side. We were approaching on the other. I could see how uneasy she was about being surrounded, but there was no doubt about who would come out on top if it came down to it. As we tried to creep past, she started to come towards us. The guides were taking no chances; they pulled out some bananas, which they passed to her from as far away as physically possible, as we slipped away.
After a slow but arduous climb and equally steep decent, we reached camp. Here we were met by Rahim, our jungle chef. Hungry and tired, we wolfed down the amazing selection of food cooked for us. How on earth did he manage to get all the supplies here to the middle of the jungle, we wondered. “Short cut.” Looking at the phone’s GPS, we could see we were suprisingly near where we started our trek. Seems we had been taking the scenic route, but we certainly weren’t in the middle of the jungle. We hung out our stinky wet clothes and tucked ourselves into bed, drifting off to the sounds of nature.
The next morning we were unsurprised to find that our clothes were still soaking wet and just as smelly as we remembered. Reminding ourselves we would be just as wet within about 10 minutes of hiking, we forced ourselves into the same clothes as the previous day and set off on what seemed to be an even steeper path through the jungle.
Maybe it was that the hike was harder today, or maybe just that we didn’t see any animals, so we had no reason to stop, but we were feeling it. This was especially true of the girl of the couple we were with, Mylan. Afraid of insects and struggling with the ascent, she was certainly not in her element. Nick, on the other hand, was absolutely loving the insects, particularly the ants. The day before he had actually missed the entire approach, hangout, and disappearance of several orangutans, because he was taking photos of ants. It was on this day that he received his nickname, “Mr Ant.”
“Keep moving, keep moving.”
We were nearing our camp for the second night, resigned to the fact that we would not see any animals that day (bar the ants), when we saw a flash of orange up ahead. I checked to make sure Nick hadn’t gone ahead. No, it wasn’t his beard; it was pure orangutan and it was headed our way. In fact, as the orange got closer, we saw there were three of them – the mother was Jackie and she was accompanied by one large baby and one tiny one.
This was the moment we had been waiting for all day, but the guides seemed intent on moving along quickly. Hang on a minute, we thought. We hadn’t seen any animals all day, and here we were being rushed away from these three. Jackie landed and Heri, one of our guides, went to distract her so we could pass. Reluctantly, we kept moving, but the Canadian couple hung back to take a photo just a few seconds longer. Before we knew it, Jackie was on the path with me and Nick ahead, the Canadian couple behind. As Mylan tried to walk past, Jackie’s hand was already firmly around her wrist. Ha.
So, what to do now? Jackie wasn’t aggressive, but she knew what she was doing, and that certainly didn’t involve letting go. As we continued along the most difficult part of the path yet, Mylan was led by Jackie, who at times, politely signalled her to go first. Unable to free Jackie’s firm grip, she did as she was told, although trying to keep at an orangutan’s pace through the jungle was no mean feat. Hurried along the path, we reached a flat bit of land and Nick, Mylan’s boyfriend and I were instructed to carry on the path out of sight. Selfish as we both knew it was, we admitted how much we would have liked to be the one being latched onto by Jackie. However, the reality is, this kind of contact passes bacteria between the two and can be very harmful for both human and animal.
Finally Mylan caught up with us, Heri the guide still out of sight. As Heri had passed her some sugar cane, he had managed to distract her enough to prise Mylan’s arm free and tell her to leg it (probably followed by “take your time – you’re on holiday”). Jackie had got what she wanted all along. Mylan was her hostage and sugar cane her ransom.
Take your time, hurry up, choice is yours, don’t be late…
If I didn’t know better, I’d have said that it was not Kurt Cobain, rather our other guide Heri that had written this. The next morning Nick and I opted for a couple of hours trek before meeting the other guys, obviously out-jungled, at a waterfall.
“We’ll have to leave at 8am,” Heri decided.
By 7.55am we had shoes on and were raring to go. No sign of Heri. At 9am I found he had returned and was, surprise surprise, smoking a fag in the kitchen.
We had been waiting for him for an hour, but we bit our tongues at his suggestion that we should “take our time, relax, no worries, you’re on holiday.”
We hadn’t been walking long when we came across a big group of long tail macaques. Good news. This was why we were hiking after all – to experience the animals in their natural habitat. Naturally we stopped to take pictures.
“Ready? Are you ready? Mr Aaannt..?”
Nick had no sooner got his camera out than Heri was rushing us on. Fags were obviously higher up the food chain than monkeys. We made the decision there and then to skip the trek and instead opted to stay and watch the monkeys, Heri’s incessant chatter about relaxing bubbling away in the background.
We watched them for a good half an hour, the dynamics of each group giving new interest: two tiny babies wrestling in the trees, tumbling down and crashing into a preening session, whilst close by the alpha male did his best for procreaction, although his best was a few seconds at most.
Even when we got back to camp, the fun was not yet over. We had one important part of the journey left – rafting on the river to get back! It was a fitting end to an unforgettable three days.
“You do know you have to cross the river TWICE, don’t you?”
He was about the third person to say this to us, and we were starting to wonder if this really was a line to get us to stay in their own guesthouse or if crossing the river was actually as dramatic as they made it sound. Either way, Nick was determined that we go to the furthest away guesthouse from the bus stop. So far away that the last hour had to be walked along side the river. The river that you had to cross…dun dun duhhh…TWICE.
We had emailed the guesthouse with the normal amount of warning that could be expected from us contrary Marys – all of a few hours. Needless to say, we hadn’t received a reply.
“It’s ok – they’re my friends. I’m going that way anyway.”
A local not only lent us his phone, but also offered to accompany us. For free..? Apparently so. We were waiting for Jeremy Beadle to jump out of the bushes shouting, “Fooled you!” but that moment never came. Laos, where no one does something for nothing, had obviously made us cynical. How refreshing to be on the end of genuine hospitality, and this was only our second day in Indonesia.
We weaved our way along the river until the path abruptly stopped. Aha. This would be the first crossing then. Shallow, but wider than we had first imagined, we shuffled across the fast flowing water, trying our best to avoid the slippery stones and maintain our balance with our big bags. It was fun, but nothing we couldn’t handle – we watch Bear Grylls, doncha know.
Arriving at Back to Nature, I was most put out. It was amazing, and that meant I would be having hat for dinner again. When we hadn’t got a reply from the guesthouse, I had wanted to grab a spot nearer the town. All the guesthouses overlooked the river and had looked pretty good to me, but Back to Nature was something else. It really was right in the jungle. No WiFi, no toilet paper (apparently this is a leading cause of deforestation – up there with palm oil) and owned by a man kean on taking the protection of the severely threatened rainforest seriously. It was just where we wanted to be, and we weren’t the only ones…
“Where are all the other guests?” we wondered. There were only four rooms, but no one was around. Probably out trekking, as was the thing to do here. Sitting down to a ‘jungle tea’ (delicious!), we were joined by a dude who, based on his haircut, was into punk. His name was Thomas, and he was a Thomas monkey. Cool as a cucumber with a mohawk, Thomas came and sat on the table, turned his back on us…and weed. Thanks for that hearty welcome, Thomas.
“She is sad because she can’t cross the river.”
That first day we also saw a couple of orangutans across the river in the jungle. One of them had apparently slept on the sofas of Back to Nature for a while, but had been moved across the other side for her safety and to prevent her relying on humans. Even though that was a while ago, the orangutan could still be spotted trying to work out a way across the river. Ahh, how sentimental, I thought. Turns out there are good fruit trees on our side of the river. Motivated by food, it was easy to see that we share 96% of the same DNA.
We did two treks that took us further into the jungle while in Bukit Lawang, but without moving anywhere, we saw so many animals – large groups of macque monkeys, 3 Thomas monkeys, 2 orangutans, a hornbill bird, massive black bees, a multitude of different butterflies, and some very hard to spot gibbons. Oh, and a few cockroaches. Where was my bottle of hairspray when I needed it? Unable to blow torch them like the good ol days, I set Nick on them. Turns out that he is an awesome cockroach killer. They do say that travelling gives you important life skills.
As well as getting to know the animals here, one of the most fascinating things was getting to know the people. Each one of the workers did so for free, only wanting experience and a roof over their head, and each one of them had an incredible story – leaving home at 11, living on the streets of Medan, busking for a living and getting in fights with the mafia who were trying to get a cut of their earnings, living and surviving in the jungle for 6 months…each of these guys were only 23. What a different life they had led. All at once I was amazed by their survival, admiring of their lack of want, and envious of their simple life.
Every evening we all came together to jam. They sang and played like it was an ourpouring of their souls, and I was hypnotised every time. What, I wondered, would it be like to be near the jungle everyday, to spend the days carving, painting, playing music. Then again, would that really be enough for our digital brains? Would we tire of the peace and quiet eventually? Would we manage to survive the jungle if it came down to it? The thing we would likely struggle with most would be the river.
After returning from our survival trek in torrential rain, which didn’t pause for a full day and night, the river had doubled in height and width. The once clear and mildly white-water was now a raging torrent of opaque brown. Not a raft on the waters was to be seen.
What about crossing the river…TWICE? The capital letters were now warranted. A German couple we had befriended had a flight to catch and we were also planning on leaving.
“Too dangerous,” they said.
Now I had seen the locals in the river in the deep parts with the strong current, and they rocked it. Even the littlest of the dudes could handle it, so if they said it was too dangerous, it was too dangerous. What if it didn’t stop raining? Hundreds of streams ran into the river, making it quite easy for the water level to increase dramatically. They had experienced major flooding on more than one occasion.
Luckily, as you have probably guessed, we did get out alive. The rain stopped and the river level dropped, although the flood took out one of the bridges and the river was still fierce. But we got by…with a lot of help from our Indonesian friends.
The most dramatic flood happened in 2003, when logs falling in the river had caused a kind of dam. The water built up and up and up…until the dam broke and all that water burst out like a giant wall. Suria, one of the guys working there, told me about his experience of it. Their only option was to run away as fast as they could. They couldn’t run up the steep slopes that border the river as the river was already higher than them, and there was no time. He was only 10 years old as he watched houses and people alike swept away by the river. Around 1,400 people lost their homes and 239 people died in that flood.
Da-da da-da do da-da do da-da, said I love your smile…
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick)
“What do you mean you don’t have a return ticket?” the man said with exaggerated surprise in his voice.
So I might have read that one of the Indonesian visa-on-arrival stipulations is that you must have a return flight. However, I had also read this about other countries and we hadn’t, thus far, encountered any problems.
The truth was that didn’t know where we were going to fly to next, and we also wanted to see if we liked the country before deciding exactly how long we would stay. That thing about honesty being the best policy did us no good here.
“But you need a return flight.”
“Unfortunately we don’t have one.”
It was a game of ping pong that was likely to continue until suspended by the slip of a note being pushed across the table. A note with dollar signs on it. We had been warned by some other tourists that Indonesia was about as corrupt as it gets, only to have this confirmed by a German sat next to us in the waiting room for people pulled aside at border control.
He didn’t have a ticket, because he wanted to take a boat to Singapore – one that you had to book in Indonesia. As he had been in Indonesia before, he knew the drill and was ready with a little bribery money. Appearing from his turn in the office, he signalled we would be ok if we did the same. The thing was, we didn’t have any money on us. Absolutely nada.
As the conversation with the official progressed in a loop-de-loop, Nick started to utter something about an ATM. I stopped him with a hand on his arm, sensing a hesitation in the official.
“Ok, I make an exception.”
As soon as he knew we had no money on our person, he obviously realised the futility in keeping us there. Sometimes having no money does pay.
So we had got through our first experience of bribery unscathed, but what would the rest of the country hold, we wondered. The three of us hopped in a taxi come mini bus for roughly 2 quid each and headed to Medan. There we would stay for the night before pressing on to Bukit Lawang in the hope of seeing orangutans.
The number 64 bus from our guesthouse in the Masjid Raya area to the Penang Baris bus station was just as cheap at about 35p each, and we marvelled at the ease of it. But nothing lasts forever, as they say…
As we got off the local bus that took us to the bus station, we were immediately surrounded by a group trying to take our bags and load them aboard their mini van.
Not a popular question with these people. After we bartered them down to half what they quoted us, but still 2 and a half times the local price, they demanded that we pay the driver. It seemed that the 5 of them, though they had done nothing to get our business, wanted their commission. We had read that the 3 hour journey to Bukit Lawang should cost no more than a pound each. We also read that you should, under no circumstances, pay before you arrive. Their shifty demeanour and unfriendly demands did nothing to gain our trust. Sticking to our guns, refusal to pay upfront ended with us disembarking the bus and 5 touts and one driver with empty pockets.
Five minutes later we boarded a different bus, and a similar debate ensued, only this time we had already been driving for 10 minutes. At this stage, Nick was getting quite irrate, determined that the driver know we knew the real price and that we had been warned to only pay on arrival. Suddenly the van stopped and our door opened. We were about to be thrown off again. But Nick was not backing down. Before I knew it, he was out of the van and squaring up to the driver. Fearing a game of fisticuffs was about to ensue, it was time to intervene.
“Right, we’ll pay you the 50,000R each (£2.50) but we will only pay when we arrive. Yes or no?”
The driver mumbled something.
“YES OR NO?!” I barked.
I got a reluctant “yes” before the two boys’ complaints subsided and we continued in silence. It wasn’t a great start to the day, but we had been warned that we might come against some hostility. Fortunately, this was our first…and last…negative experience of the place. Okay, bar the beyond basic room we stayed in, furnished only with a bed and a couple of cockroaches.
The thing that struck us most was not these experiences, but the local people. Arriving in a Muslim country, I had done my best to be mindful of this and had covered my arms and legs, but I was still unsure how we would be received. The answer to that was in the Mexican wave of smiles that burst into life as we passed by, punctuated by the odd wave or thumbs up. Walking around the streets of Medan on our one night there, we ended up in a local cafe serving a sweet nutty sauce that you dip fruit in. We laughed and joked as we tried to converse. Everybody in that street cafe was warm and genuine.
Moving on to find something savoury to eat, we were stopped by a group of twenty somethings, eager to practise English and tell us about their country. Kids smiled and giggled when you looked at them, and we wondered how few tourists must go through there that we were still such a novelty. Or maybe, Medan being a big and ugly city, tourists just didn’t wander about too much. Either way, we both felt strongly reminded of our beloved India and in this way, quickly connected to this new land.
Notes for tourists:
From the airport to Medan, trains are expensive (about 100,000r, which is £5 or 7.50 USD). We paid 120,000r (£6 or 9 USD) for a taxi between 3 of us, but we had to barter down from 150,000r. The journey takes about 45mins to an hour.
Accommodation is VERY basic in town. Cold Water is the norm, some rooms don’t have a shower, toilets are bucket flush, you might get a cockroach. BUT, they are super cheap. The cheapest ones are right by the mosque, which looks pretty, but believe me, it’s LOUD. At 5.30 in the morning when the call to prayer starts, you definitely know about it. We paid 700,000r for a double room (£3.50 or 4.75 USD). Get a fan – it’s HOT! The one plus was that the mattress was actually soft – a bonus after Nepal, Myanmar and Thailand! Our guesthouse was called Residence.
Turn left out of the front of the guesthouse and walk to the end of the road. When you meet the main road, cross to the other side and wait for the number 64 mini van going to Pinang Baris bus station. Give the driver money at the end (as do all the locals). We paid 7,500 each (about 35p or 50 cent).
Minivans from Pinang Baris to Bukit Lawang are privately owned, so you will need to barter. We read that you should only pay 20,000 each, but we paid 50,000r (£2.50 or 3.75 USD). It’s more than twice what the locals would pay, but we do earn more money, so I think that’s a fair price. I would reiterate what we read, which is not to pay any money upfront. Buses regularly break down (if this happens, you have to wait for the next mini van passing by to pick you up). You’ll be expected to pay for the amount you’ve travelled if so. If you’ve already paid, I doubt you’ll get a refund! Paying on arrival also ensures that you get taken to where you actually want to go. NB – the minivans stop about a couple of kms away from Bukit Lawang. From there you have to get a tuk tuk to the guesthouses.
That evening we headed up a detour road simply marked “adventure time!” on the map sent to Nick by his friend, Chris. We had no idea what this meant, but were unsurprised to find yet more steep dirt tracks leading the way. We rocked up to be greated by one lone man…who didn’t speak English. The strange expression on his face would have had us believe there was no accommodation, but as luck would have it, a few minutes later a few Thai people showed up. Their first question: “How did you know about this place?”. The fact was, we didn’t really. We weren’t even sure if this was where Chris had stayed or if any tourists ever ventured this way. But as sunset was only about an hour off, and with no monastery to fall back on this time, we were counting on this being a place to stay.
With the new Thai group standing in as translators, we were soon looking at our room for the night – a 6 bed dorm, cheap as chips, sleeping only us. Score. The group were even so sweet as to invite us to eat with them. Thai camping is a military operation, not least in terms of the cooking. Whole kitchens are transported just for one night in a tent – food really is at the centre of their social events.
However, we had some exploring to do – this place was not only special because of its remote location, it seemed that here you could quite likely do what we hadn’t succeeded in doing before – walk into Myanmar. As we started along a path leading into a forested area behind the accommodation, we looked on Google – only 1km from the border. Where was all the border control now, we wondered? Pressing on, we could see the blue dot moving nearer and nearer that line, the words of Chris echoing in my mind – be careful not to cross over to the wrong side. We weren’t sure exactly where he meant originally, but now we were here, it seemed this could be the very place – nowhere else had we found it remotely possible to get even this close. As dark was coming, and Myanmar militia groups were probably close by, we sensibly, for once, decided to heed Chris’s warning and head back to our digs. Still, after all the “no entry” roads we had encountered near the border, it was exhilarating to think we had got that close, unnoticed and unhindered.
That’s not what we learnt in school…
It’s funny how perspective can change something as rudimentary as history. Reading a book about the Israel/Palestine conflict, I remembered an Israeli girl remarking that they didn’t know that Palestinians were chased out of their homes at gunpoint – the story that they were told at school involved the Palestinians running away and abandoning their homes like cowards. Sometimes white lies are easier to swallow. Except when it comes to history, the white lies are often very dirty. So imagine our interest, as two Brits, walking into the Hall of Opium Museum in Chiang Saen to hear history told from a non-British perspective. Our country was no longer a nation of heroes, but one that intentionally got China hooked on opium to further our own agenda, notably, facilitating our tea drinking. Apparently tea was a major expense to us and we had to find a way of funding our indulgence. Now, I’m all about the tea, but to discover the lengths we went to, and the manipulation involved, was quite the eye opener. We spent a good four hours in that museum and I don’t think we missed one placard.
“The Golden Triangle”
The afternoon of day 9 and we were nearly at the point after which this loop was coined – “The Golden Triangle”. On a map, this is the point where Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. In reality, this is an ugly tourist trap with a ghastly monument, some misplaced attempt to mark the significance of the place. We were aware that this might be the case, and yet, we felt compelled to stop and decide for ourselves. Nick even got me on a boat up the Mekong. Now that might sound idyllic, but I can promise you that it wasn’t. The surroundings were that of an industrial bomb site placed next to a murky brown river. I wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but I boarded the boat, contrary to my better judgement.
Noisy engine propelling us forward, we looped around the casino – evidently constituting something of interest for a nation where gambling is illegal. The next thing we knew, we had pulled across on the Laos side to go “shopping”!! When the guy selling us the tickets had mentioned the word, we explicitly said we only wanted a boat ride. Just when we thought people coming to the boat to sell us things was bad enough, around the corner appeared an elephant giving rides with one of those brutal chairs on its back. That was it, we got the boat guy to take us straight back across the murky brown water where we promptly moved on.
Luckily that wasn’t to be our only experience of the Mekong. Aiming for Chiang Kong, we had the most beautiful ride along a road that weaved alongside the river. The water was now much clearer in colour, although still not quite clean enough to tempt me in for a dip. Nick, on the other hand, was raring to go, and it wasn’t long before we found him a spot to fill his boots, or rather, dunk his toes. Either way, he was in, and he wasn’t the only one. Two young boys were also swimming and had a great time trying to copy Nick swimming upstream against the strong current. We had such fun with them, practising their few words of English, that after they left, I made Nick ride after them on the bike to give them something I had been carrying around since the beginning of our travels – a children’s picture atlas. It had served me well in terms of learning my Middle Eastern capitals, but it was never intended for me. I had brought it along hoping to find a new owner, and as these boys ran off with it and sat on the step of their house to eagerly flick through the pages, I knew that they had been a good choice.
Accommodation along the Mekong road was far too expensive, so we had continued to Chiang Kong to sleep the night of the 9th. It was just such a beautiful bit of road, though, we decided to go back on ourselves this morning. Breakfasting looking out over the Mekong in the morning sunshine was a bit of pure bliss.
After a lazy few hours reading in our glorious location, we headed for Phu Chi Fa, where it was said you could look straight down into Laos from the border.
This time we did actually get up for sunrise. Us and the rest of the world. Certainly busier and more commercial than some of our stop offs, it was, none-the-less, quite beautiful. It was evidently a place for some of the Hmong people, who originated from China.
We were meant to be doing a long journey on the bike today, but we hadn’t got far from the viewpoint when we passed a street full of people wearing the most amazing outfits, and this time it didn’t appear to be about the tourists. Now quite used to being brazen, we got off the bike to go and see what was happening in the school playground where all these people were congregating. Unmoving in two lines, they were simply throwing tennis balls back and forth. And back. And forth. Perhaps Murray had an opening for a new ball boy.
Fruitlessly we tried to find out what it was all about. Perhaps we assumed that because we were near a tourist attraction that someone might speak a bit of English. Not a sausage. It wasn’t until some other Thai tourists came along that they managed to find out for us that this was a new year festival and the throwing/catching game was one that was traditionally carried out between girls and boys that like each other. Now that’s what I call a date.
We had arrived in the north of Thailand only a couple of days before our visas were due to expire. But a couple of days would be fine to get an extension…or so we thought. Ah. The weekend. It had been so long since we had endured a proper working week that we had forgotten about the fact that offices close on Saturdays and Sundays. So we would have to extend on Monday, the day our visa expired. Donning our smartest clothes, as advised on the net, we headed off down Chiang Mai’s superhighway towards the visa office, and crossed everything that we could whilst riding a bike.
Without a hitch (bar recognising our own names as they were called out in Thai accents) we got our visas extended for another month. Now we were free to do what we had planned since the beginning – explore the north, full of jungle, waterfalls, tribes and greenery. Time to get back on the bike – quite literally…
Days 1 & 2
It was only day two of our second motorbike trip in the north of Thailand, and we had already met some funny characters. It was Christmas holidays, and so the Thai middle class, who love camping even more than me and Nick, were still out in full force. We got to a hot springs, of which there are plenty in Thailand, to a setting of picturesque pools, small bridges..and children…everywhere. We opted for the hot spring pool with the least kids in, and dipped in an empty corner.
“Jingle bells, jingle bells, la la la la la”
It was perhaps less than a minute before a Thai couple started talking to us. The guy’s English was minimal, but what he lacked in language, he made up for in laughter. He had a story and he was committed to trying to communicate it. Oblivious to the stares of the more conservative eyes around him, he started clapping the back of his hand against the palm of the other; the next thing he was cradling an imaginary baby. We got the jist. As he got on his knees and mimed praying to Buddha, he reached his pièce de résitance, “Jingle Bells”; we were in fits of hysterics. He and his wife had been married a couple of years and had been trying for a baby. Camping was their romantic setting and Jingle Bells their prayer song to Buddha. We would have to take a note for future reference.
That night we rocked up at Wat Thummuangna, a monastery just a kilometre from the Myanmar border. Nick’s friend Chris had told us he had stayed there before, but on arriving, it seemed like most of the people staying there had come to practise Buddhism. Funny that. Feeling a bit presumptuous, we did the obligatory tour before being offered some food and a bed for the night by a friendly monk. I have to say, it was the most glamorous room we have ever stayed in, though I’d hesitate to call it The Honeymoon Suite for obvious reasons. We made ourselves at home to the soundtrack of mantras being chanted, and in the spirit of things we decided we might join them for a while. How long would it go on for, we enquired. Oh, only three days…THREE DAYS?! People in the temple (built into the side of a cave) were literally falling asleep mid-chant, waking up and joining in again. For THREE DAYS! Forty-five minutes and my legs were going dead. The only Nirvana I knew about was in my CD collection.
Days 3 & 4:
By the next morning we had racked up several offers from the monk – it seemed like he was taking his vows seriously and trying to give away anything and everything he owned – tiger balm, candles, snacks. However, “Thou shalt not take copious amounts of pictures of oneself” was evidently not in the Buddhist guide. As we sat together with him and his side kick – one very extrovert nun, he got out his phone to show us photos of where he’d travelled. This monk was a serial-selfier. Hundreds of pics and not one missing his face!
Actually it was fascinating talking to those two, as well as a couple of other nuns there. What I hadn’t realised is that anyone can become a monk or a nun, and they can choose how long for. Each had their own reasons for being there, and each chose the length of time. One woman told us of her controlling Japanese husband she needed some space from, while our fun-loving nun had worked for the U.N. for a time and didn’t like what she found out. As for the reasons they shave their heads, stop wearing make-up, give up possessions, and meditate, I thought I might have had an idea. However, I wanted to ask those willing to do so what was their perspective. Essentially, the fullest explanation I managed to wrangle was, “Because Buddha did.” Nuff said.
We spent the next two days camping at Fang hot springs, right next to the pools. It was pretty idyllic, bar the smell of eggs from the sulphur in the springs. This is where photos sometimes do lie.
The next day we headed up Doi Pha Hom Pok, the country’s second highest mountain at 2285m. So far Thailand had been tarmac heaven. Although we loved the smooth curves of the previous motorbike loop, it had admittedly been just a little too easy. Not that I was complaining – there’s no way I would have had a go on the bike otherwise (a brief 2 hour affair). We had ummed and ahhed about whether to both get a small bike for this loop (Honda Wave 120cc) or for me to take up my usual pillion position on a Honda PCX 150cc. As we approached the road leading up to this national park, I was pretty relieved we had gone for the latter of the two options! A steep dirt road, full of large rocks and uneven ridges led us up to the top, finally arriving at dusk. Just time to set up the tent and get some food…
We had asked for noodles. There were no noodles. Soup? No soup. The cafe seemed to be strangely unoccupied, and instead, a national park guard was taking us on a tour of the stock room to see what we could find. It seemed they had had a big weekend and the cafe owners had gone to town to restock. Eggs and beer it was then. What more could a girl want? Actually, a thermal blanket for the brutal cold. The plan was to get up early to hike the last few kilometres to the summit – a hike that would start in the dark, last 3 hours, and get us there for sunrise. Bitterly cold, we renaged on that one.
DAYS 6 & 7:
We stayed in a simple room next to the river in a lovely Thai town called Thaton. It’s the perfect place to take a 2 day boat journey to Chiang Rai, but we had the small matter of the bike we had hired. Instead we passed sunrise at the stunning, if slightly commercial, Monastery, Wat Thaton; swam in the river; and made a plan for the next day. We decided that, as wonderful as Thailand had been, we had only scratched the surface when it came to the hill tribe people there. There are 6 main tribes: the Akha, Karen, Lisu, Lahu, Hmong and Mien, but like everything in Thailand, these tribes were now increasingly merging with the mainstream – a Thai commodity in fancy dress. We had even heard that the long neck Karen tribes (so called because of the beautifying coils placed around their necks as children, which encourage their necks to grow long like giraffes) had sometimes been forced into commercial tourism – fenced in and peered at like animals in a zoo to make somebody else profit. Sounded like something we would be loathe to support. So how could we meet these groups on a non-commercial level? Surely they all lived somewhere hidden in the hills…
“Turn around. It’s another one. “
Looking ahead we could see this was another army base, small but ubiquitous this close to the Myanmar border. Nick had had the cunning idea of using google’s satellite imagery to try and pin point some extra small villages on the map. Unfortunately for many of the hill tribes, the Thai government has tried to relocate them from the hills, where they go about their traditional ways of life, to near roads. Something about border control and security. Still, it gave us the chance of finding an authentic group, or so we thought. This was the third army base we had mistaken for a village on the map, and we only had one more place to check out…
We arrived on our roaring bike to stares of disbelief, or bewilderment, or perhaps a mix of the two. Entering the village there were perhaps 5 houses on either side, and one at the end. So, casually pretending we were just passing through wasn’t going to wash with them. Enclosed in their horse shoe village, we conspicuously dismounted the bike, looking around for a guise – maybe that old, “Let’s sit in a cafe and have a cup of tea” defence. Scanning from left to right, there was no cafe, not even a plastic table and chairs set up outside someone’s house as we had come across so many times before. There were people, and pigs. And maybe a few chickens.
We saluted the suspicious faces with the Thai “Waa” (hands together in prayer position, and a bowing of the head to show respect). Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Hill tribes have their own customs and language; had we been in any doubt, this confirmed that we were now looking at one.
Unsure what to do next, we latched onto the kids. Even though they were shy, they seemed happy to entertain these strange people who had just invaded their village. The elder people were more cautious, although not unfriendly. Obviously us turning up uninvited was probably quite bizarre for them, and with a communication barrier the size of the ocean between our respective lands, we weren’t able to convey anything about why we were there. Indeed, why were we there? I suppose were curious about a more minimalistic way of life and keen to understand what life was like for hill tribes in a society either trying to change or marginalise them. However, being there actually felt intrusive.
Feeling like we should move on, we took a quick walk up the road first. Here we got a clue as to what these people hold dear and what they don’t. There a concrete building stood, with smashed windows, quite obviously abandoned. Venturing inside we found walls painted with colourful pictures, each next to the relevant word…in English. Whoever had opened this school, had seemingly tried, and failed, to introduce Western schooling to these people. As we so often do in our society, we assume that our ways are the best ways, not considering the fact that other societies live by a different set of ideals, perhaps contented to continue as they are.
(Written by Steph, photos by Nick & some downloads)
We thought we were done with islands. We had done beaches, and we had even done a bit of snorkelling off Ko Phi Phi, but when the workers in the jungle bungalows told us we had to go to the Surin Islands, we were convinced. They were guys that really knew Thailand, in particular the great snorkelling spots, and we knew we’d probably regret not going. The speedboats there were going to be expensive, and we had to pay a national park entrance fee, but once there, we were told we could camp on the beach. As Cheryl Fernández Versini would say, it sounded “Reet oop mai streeet.”
Looking on the map we realised that the Surin islands, although within Thai territory, were right next to the Myiek archipelago that we had passed on the boat to get to the south of Myanmar. The ones that we had really wanted to visit but were off limits. This nailed it for us. We were going.
We arrived to water that didn’t even look real. I want to say it looked like water from a swimming pool, but it was even more turquoise than that, if that’s even possible. After we got off the speedboat on one side of the island, we got a longtail boat to the other side, where we had been told there would be less “day trippers.” With only a couple of bungalows and lots of tents, staying here wasn’t ideal for everyone. Luckily Nick and I love camping.
Our first afternoon would be one of the craziest. A couple of hours after arriving and choosing our tent (the tents for rent were so spacious and breezy, we still didn’t use the one we had carried around for 3 months!) we headed out on a boat to go snorkelling. The area here is vast, so each trip takes you to several different spots. The spot this first day was Sakut. According to a Korean guy on the trip, he had seen sharks here many times before. Nothing like starting big.
Mask fixed, I lowered myself carefully into the water. I took a deep intake of breath, closed my eyes (force of habit) and tentatively lowered my mask under the water, face towards the sea bed. Head submerged, I opened my eyes and immediately took in a sharp intake of breath. The sea was deeper here than in Phi Phi, but you could see literally to the bottom of the ocean. It was like being on the set of The Little Mermaid, but less safe and certainly somewhat overwhelming. There was an entire world down there, carrying on, oblivious to us humans. Calming myself and taking a few deep, slow mouth-breaths, Nick and I, curious more than brave, headed towards the bay where the Korean had said he’d seen sharks. I had always maintained that the things I was afraid most of in the world were crocodiles and sharks. But hey-ho, here I was heading straight towards their territory.
I’m not a strong swimmer. In fact, I should fess up, I’m actually really shocking. My 8 year old niece could leave me in the dust spray. Those water baby classes didn’t reach my household and my first memory of swimming was my parents sending me to classes at around the age of 11. I was fast, but got puffed out after a width or two. Here I was in the big bad ocean – no life jacket, no flippers and completely out of my depth. I should have been petrified, but I took Nick’s tips of using a slow breast stroke, and much to my delight, head down and my hips up, I discovered the science of salt water and buoyancy.
I shouldn’t have been shocked. I’m not sure what exactly I expected. It should have been thinner, more friendly looking, more like the ones in the aquarium…less…shark like. Just up ahead of me was a black-tipped shark and it was FAT. Maybe it had had its fill of human for the day.
I had been so distracted with the swimming, that when I saw it, I was completely taken off guard. I quickly looked around, but I had out-swum Nick. I had to share the news. Lifting my head out of the water, I called to him in a mix of panic and pure exhilaration.
I did the pointy signal that means little on land, but on a snorkel site means, “Get your head under water – you are not going to believe this!” I quickly resubmerged my head, but it had gone. Looking in every direction, it was a strange feeling to know it was somewhere still near us, but we had no clue as to where.
From then on, I became intent on seeing more sharks, and I did, although no other shark was a match for that first one. We loved that snorkel so much, that what we had intended on being a one or two night stop over turned into 5 days, where each day was a new snorkel site with treasures untold to discover.
Our time in the sea was an eye-opener each and every time. Sometimes full of joy at finding Nemo, for example; or full of amazement at the octopus that Nick spotted, following its transendent appearance from plastic bag to rock, skin morphing into its surroundings like something from The XFiles; or the fear I felt when spotting what I thought were barracuda and realising I was one very strong current away from anybody. It’s really lucky we didn’t know just how dangerous some of the animals we encountered were until we left the island. With no internet, we were left to imagine what might be unfriendly, with absolutely no warning from any of the staff, or our boat captain, who didn’t seem that bothered. He, we guessed correctly, was a sea gypsy, from a group called The Moken. We were obviously amateurs in his eyes. I legged it paddled it away from needle fish, thinking they looked aggressive, only to find out that they only harm humans “by accident”. They do this by diving out of the water at 30mph without looking, having speared the odd unsuspecting human at various points in the past: the aquatic version of the Indian driver.
Later a German girl was telling us all about “trigger fish” and how vicious they can be. Imagine my horror when she showed us a video of one of these beasts attacking a diver and I realised I had swam over that very fish! Luckily I had been late heading back to the boat and only gave it a cursory glance as I paddled furiously overhead.
But we also had so many magical moments. At one point Nick and I swam quite far away from the boat, where built-up coral full of big colourful fish gave way to deep mid-blue ocean. These parts tended to be full of schools of tiny fish, whirling around cylinders of themselves the depth of the ocean. Suddenly we happened upon another school of fish, only these were bright yellow and about 30cm long – bigger than all the other schools. There were hundreds of them, moving around like a synchronised swimming team. We spent half of that dive just swimming amongst them, watching them part as we went between them, or swimming directly above them as though we were part of their gang. Somehow I don’t think we made the grade, but they didn’t seem to mind us too much.
Maybe because they seemed to be being “bullied” by a couple of enormous metallic blue fish and they assumed we were some kind of protection. I still haven’t found out what fish these were, but Nick and I agreed this was definitely one of our highlights.
They say size isn’t important, but in the sea it is. Had we not been the size of sharks (we aren’t quite as fat, but with all the beer we’ve been drinking, we certainly aren’t far off) we never would have had my favourite deep sea encounter.
Our korean friend, Subin, new to swimming and waving her arms around, spluttering and panting was calling to me. It took me a few seconds to realise that, no, despite the fact that she had taken her life jacket off, she wasn’t drowning. Good. I had left my red swim suit at home.
I swam over to her quickly, hoping that whatever she had seen hadn’t floated away with the tidal wave from her frantically treading water. There, under her life jacket, were two of the tiniest fish I have ever seen. Black and yellow striped, they measured about a centimetre each in length. I put my head under the water and they immediately swam to my mask. They disappeared. I turned my head, they were right there, by my ear. Then in front of my mask. I had fun for a few minutes before swimming off to explore something new. But these guys were in it for the long haul. I swam on only to realise that these guys were swimming alongside my head. Whenever I stopped, they swam in front of my mask.
“Are you looking at me?”
I would like to think that these little guys just really valued the friendship we had made and were trying to do their bit for land/sea relations. Alas, no. These were the same ones an American guy we had been hanging out with had told us about. They had followed him in the same way, too. On googling back on the mainland, I found out these are called “Golden Trevally fish” and they normally display “piloting behaviour” accompanying sharks. They eat the bacteria off the sharks, and in return, the sharks act like some kind of protection. So, really we were just dirty bodyguards. I had to keep my mouth clamped round the mouth piece for fear of swallowing the sea water, and possibly the fish, but inside I was grinning from ear to ear.
HOW TO GET THERE:
– The speedboat goes from aThai town called Kuraburi – small town, dress conservative. Nice food markets daily. Bus goes there from Surathani to Phuket or Krabi (or vise versa).
– Tom & Am tours were just where the bus dropped us on the main road. They can book your boat and will even take you to the port and pick you up. Great English and super nice couple.
– If you want somewhere cheap to stay, they also have some very basic bungalows for 290THB (about £6 or 9 USD) per night. Take mozzie lotion as these are quite open to the elements! They do have nets for night time, though.
– 1700 THB for the return speed boat (about £36 or 54 USD)
– 500THB for the national park entrance fee (about £10 or 15 USD). This lasts for 5 days. If you wanted to stay longer, on the 6th day, you would have to pay this again.
– 300THB to use one of their 3 man tents (about £6 or 9USD). Mats are about 40p a night, pillows, 20p and sleeping bags something similar.
Note – if you take your own tent, it is only 80THB a night, but I don’t know if this is per tent or a per person charge.
– 150THB for a long tail boat to take you to various snorkelling sites. These go at 9am and 2pm everyday, and work on a two day rotation. If you want to see sharks, the afternoon trip to Koh Samut is the place. There are two locations on this trip and this is the first of the two. Head towards the sandy cove. This is where they hang out!
– Rent masks and flippers for around 40p each for a half day.
OTHER THINGS TO DO ON THE ISLAND:
– Take a hammock!
– Read a book
– Get up early and go monkey spotting on the beach 200m walk from the quiet camping beach (this is the one the longtail boat will drop you off at when you first arrive).
– Do the trail that goes from this beach to one of the other beaches. I think it’s a couple of kilometres (we only did the first part and then went off piste to monkey spot).
– Spot the water monitor lizards! There are a few of them just by the campsite, especially near the little bridge.
– Swim! There are also some good things to spot further out on the camping beach if you are a strong swimmer. Mantarays and turtles were cited to us by other tourists, but we didn’t actually see these ourselves.
– Visit The Moken (sea gypsy) people on the neighbouring island.
THINGS TO BE AWARE OF:
– Food works in a voucher system, so you buy vouchers from the reception and hand these in in the restaurant.
– Food is only served at certain times, 3 times a day.
– There is only one restaurant and the food is so-so. Also, there is no bar, although you can buy cans of beer.
– Maybe go prepared and take some food and drink with you, although beware the monkeys that can not only smell food, they can also unzip your tent!!
– Thailand is home to over 200 different types of poisonous snakes – be careful in the jungle and near mangroves.
– Do not feed the monkeys! It’s not good for them to become reliant on humans, especially just so you can take a close up picture. For that matter, don’t feed any of the animals. 🙂
– Before you go snorkelling, look up some of the fish so you know what to be aware of. Barracuda, needle fish, trigger fish, stone fish, octopus etc. The sharks are all fine.