East Coast Road Trip – Magnetic Island to Bowen

Day 2

Balgal Beach to Magnetic Island

The sunrise eased its golden glow through a gap in the curtains to unveil our surroundings. We’d camped just yards from the beautifully secluded Balgal Beach. It was a pleasant surprise to find ourselves in such a picturesque location. Our arrival the night before had been under the cover of darkness and all we’d seen was the road beneath our headlights.

The morning sun was warm and bright, which made dragging back the covers to snatch that first breath of fresh sea air, the easiest thing in the world. A grassy verge sloped down to the sand and signs warning of crocodiles made us wipe that last bit of sleep from our eyes. We ambled along the wild beach toward a headland which arced back behind our campsite. Here a lazy river merged with the sea through a minor marshy estuary.

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Balgal Beach meets the Estuary

It was exactly the type of place we’d hoped find ourselves. A place we had no need to go to and would likely never visit again, but a place that existed to be found. We doubled back on to the campsite and thought with vein hopes that the little camping shop might serve fresh coffee. It did! But it came from a jar and the coffee snob in me just couldn’t! I’m unashamedly a spoiled Melbournite who requires good coffee to function.

Lesson Number 3 If you are a coffee snob, like me,  who needs something a little more authentic to kick start your day…you’ll need to bring it with you! On nights when you stay a little off the beaten track you won’t have that handy coffee shop to satisfy that morning craving. I lamented the fact that I hadn’t brought along my Aeropress coffee filter.  You will always have access to hot water with the cooking stove, so all you need is the beans. Some things like washing, eating …breathing, you can go without. But good coffee is crucial.

We continued our tradition of cooking breakfast with a view and rustled up some eggs and bacon on a picnic table overlooking the beach.

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Cook Up at Balgal

After breakfast we hit the road and drove a quick 60kms down to Townsville to catch the ferry over to Magnetic Island. We’d heard great things about Magnetic Island but had always been sceptical as to whether it was going to be a bit touristy. To be safe we scheduled just a day on the island. From the ferry terminal in Townsville it’s just a short 20 minute hop over to the Island on the Sealink Ferry. It costs about $30 return and then $8 to park for the day, which on the whole isn’t terrible. With our early start we managed to catch the 10.30am ferry and arrived in Nelly Bay just before 11am. We had deliberated at length as to how we were going to get around the island. We considered bringing the car over, renting a scooter and even renting a pushbike. But in the end settled on getting a one day bus pass ($7), which turned out to be a great choice. If you have a larger budget though, renting a little Vespa ($40 p.day) to help you zip around the island, would be amazing!

Our first stop was in Picnic Bay, a quiet, sloping beach on the islands southern coast. We walked from the pier at one end to the headland at the other before jumping back on the bus for the 40 minute ride to Horseshoe Bay.

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Picnic Bay

The bus struggled up the islands steep, narrow inclines which prompted intense relief that we hadn’t rented push bikes. At the bottom of the climb we arrived in Horseshoe Bay, a small beachy suburb which was bustling in the lunchtime rush. The main road behind the beach, was lined with cafe’s, bars and restaurants, all lively and spilling onto the street. We wondered first along the beach, through a maze of market stalls which sold crafts and bohemian jewellery.

By now we were both absolutely starving and so we grabbed a bag of fish and chips to eat on the sand. We found a little shaded spot under a palm tree and tucked into our lunch whilst watching the boats whizz across the bay. As our attention slipped from the chips to the ocean we noticed two noses bobbing in and out of the water about 50 meters from the shoreline. We strolled down to the water’s edge and inched our way in to the cold water. At first we thought they were Dolphins, but were soon corrected by an interesting, elderly lady who we met standing in the shallows. She identified them as Dugongs (Sea Cows). It was incredible to see how close the Dugongs came to the shore despite the boats and jet skis skimming across the surface. We chatted to the friendly lady as our ankles lost feeling in the icy water and were soon gripped by her enriched life. She had worked as a nurse for the Peace Corp throughout central Africa. Having worked in this war torn region for over 30 years she now had a strong realist view of the world which made it hard to settle back in to western society with all its red tape and regulations.

As the clock ticked into the afternoon we decided to head south down to Alma Bay. The crescent moon beach was clamped between wild rocky outcrops and was much more picturesque than Horseshoe Bay. In an effort to avoid baking in the afternoon heat I went to explore the beach’s rocky surroundings. I clambered across the rocks to get a picture of the beach from above.

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Alma Bay

The water glistened under the dazzling sun, but despite its inviting blue shine, it took every ounce of effort to wade into the desperately cold water. The initial discomforting shock was far overshadowed by the refreshing waves which washed away the heat of day.

After a few hours at Alma Bay, a swim and a snooze under the shadow of the rocks we headed back to the bus and then onto the ferry. As the ferry pulled away from Nelly Bay we were treated to a beautiful sunset as the red blaze of the day’s dying embers disappeared behind the island.

We spent the night enjoying the hospitality of family friends on the outskirts of Townsville. On the menu was kilpatrick oysters, roast pork and good red wine. A far cry from our usual camping cusine.

Day 2 –  60km’s

Highlights

  • Horseshoe Bay
  • Alma Bay
  • Bungalow Bay Koala Village (Wildlife Sanctuary).

Where to Eat – ‘Horseshoe Bay Fish and Chips

Where to Stay – Base Hostel on Magnetic Island is situated right on the beach between     Nelly Bay and Picnic Bay. It is unrivalled for location and is also the home to the monthly ‘Full Moon Party’.


Day 3 

Townsville to Bowen

Before setting off on our 200km jaunt south to Bowen we made a begrudging coffee stop at Mcdonalds. Desperate times! Driving along the infinite Bruce Highway was pretty mundane, despite the invigorating morning weather we’d been treated to.  The small communities of Ayr and Home Hill were our only breaks from the highway but, we decided not to stop or detour from the route. However if anyone has a bit more time I’d highly recommend making a detour from Ayr and heading out to the coast to see Alva Beach. It is a long, untamed stretch of sand which dishes up spectacular sunsets. It is also home to Yongala Dive Centre who specialise in scuba dives to the SS Yongala shipwreck just off the coast.

Our visit to Bowen had of special significance to me on this trip as I’d lived in this little country town for 4 months back in 2012. As a tourist destination, it’s pretty unknown, but it attracts a good number of backpackers each year due to its abundance of available farm-work which backpackers use to gain their 2nd year Working-Holiday Visa.

Pulling into a parking spot on Herbert Street was like arriving at an old friends house. Everything was familiar and comfortable. It was as though the town had stood still, awaiting my return. We wandered through the town towards the harbour. By day when the farms are active, the streets are desolate. I couldn’t help but reminisce about the great times I’d had in this sleepy town. We made an obligatory picture stop at the newly installed ‘Big Mango’, just one of the many ‘big stuff’ you’ll see on Australia’s East Coast.

After exploring the town we decided to find a camp spot for the night so that we could then enjoy the day without worrying about where we were going to sleep. Originally the plan had been to find a quiet side street to park up by the roadside for the night. However we continuously ran into signs warning of $2000 fines if caught in a no camping zone. We thought better of it and instead found a cool little campsite just off the Bruce Highway heading out of Bowen.

Lesson Number 4 – One of the best things about having a camper is the freedom to just pull up at the side of the road in a beautiful spot and set up camp for the night. However in Australia, and particularly on the East Coast there are heaps of regulations. You can’t just pull up in the most picturesque spot. Always check for signs warning against overnight camping. If you are caught camping somewhere you shouldn’t there will be a hefty fine, which will probably be more than you budgeted for your whole trip. It’s better to budget a little each night for a spot on a campsite or go a little out of the way to find a designated free camping zone.

At just $25 for the night we couldn’t really complain. It was a great little sight with nice facilities and a big open grassy space to camp on. We booked our spot and then sat down to plan our afternoon. What isn’t really known about Bowen is that it is actually situated on a particularly beautiful headland, just North of the Whitsunday Islands. The beaches on this headland are really spectacular and well off the beaten track.

Having spent many a day off from the farm lazing about on these beautiful beaches, I was really keen to show Liska the best side of Bowen. The peninsular comprises of three great beaches. Queens Bay, Rose Bay and Horseshoe Bay (yes another one). I couldn’t for the life of me remember which one I’d preferred, but after unearthing a bit of local knowledge we chose Horseshoe Bay and were soon basking in our decision.

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Horseshoe Bay (Bowen)

Lady luck shined down on us and we managed to grab a parking spot right next to the beach. Before heading down to the sand we whipped out our cooking stove and sizzled up some sausages on a patch of grass behind the beach.

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A glorious afternoon at Horseshoe Bay

The afternoon could not have been more perfect. The beach was empty aside from a few elderly locals and the water was perfectly cool and calm, glistening in the afternoon sun.

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Exploring

To work off our sausage sandwiches we decided to explore the rocky clifftops overlooking the bay. We clambered through jagged rocks covered in sharp molluscs and hopped from boulder to boulder as the waves charged through the rock-pools below us. From the top we could see along the rugged coastline towards Rose Bay. We took a moment to absorb the views around us as we looked out towards the Whitsunday Islands way out in the distance. The descent was considerably more treacherous and by the time we reached the beach again we were absolutely desperate to cool down in the ocean. The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying the simple pleasures of a quiet afternoon on the beach.

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Front row seats for the Sunset

As the warm evening approached we headed around the peninsular to watch sunset. The day had been perfectly clear, leading the way for a sublime show of colours. We parked up by the boat ramp overlooking a smaller beach and watched as the sun melted into the serenity of Queens Bay.

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In the pitch dark we headed back to our campsite to set ourselves up for the night. The mosquitoes were out in force and so we decided to use the camp kitchen to rustle up a stir fry before heading to bed.

It was a pretty restless night! What we’d failed to comprehend, in our haste to pick a camping spot, is that pitching up so close to the HIGHWAY, is a bad idea!! Highways are noisy! Especially highways running through rural farm towns where huge trucks are a constant visitor.

Lesson Number 5 – select your camping spot wisely. The best spots will always be near to a toilet block and as far from any roads as possible. 

Day 3 – 202kms

Highlights – Horseshoe bay

Where to Eat – The ‘Grand View Hotel’ has great pub grub.

Where to stay – Bowen Palms Caravan Park

East Coast Road Trip – Cairns to Balgal

Worn down by grey mundane misery, we defied the birds and headed North to escape the cruel, cold clutches of Melbourne’s Winter.

We hired a camper-van and drove roughly 2000km’s down Australia’s East Coast, from Cairns to Brisbane.

Our route took us South, through the beautifully diverse region of tropical North Queensland down to the Sunshine Coast.

With the obvious attraction of the climate aside, our route served up tropical rainforest, secluded beaches, remote country towns and quaint seaside settlements. We had two weeks and a roughly penciled plan.

The idea was to use the freedom afforded to us by the camper-van, to travel at our own pace and to stray a little off the beaten track. This is the story of our trip (in a few different parts) – the places we saw, the things we did, the highs, the lows and the trails and tribulations that come hand in hand with road tripping down Australia’s East Coast.



Day 1

Cairns to Port Douglas 

 

On the most perfect of mornings we left Cairns, heading North, in precisely the wrong direction.

The Captain Cook Highway led us along an exquisite stretch of coastline towards Port Douglas. Every swooping bend revealed another amazing snapshot of the rain-forest looming above us and the ocean lapping below. Away from the grey of Melbourne, the blue sky seemed bluer and the sun practically danced off the golden sand.

Our excursion in the wrong direction was supposed to last just half a day. But our perpetual downfall on this trip was the freedom to stop where we wanted, which on a coastline like this could easily be around every corner.

After resisting a few opportunities, we pulled over at the ‘Rex Lookout’ where we watched a pair of para-gliders zip across the treetops. When the road eventually dropped down to the shoreline we stopped at Ellis Beach to stretch our legs on the sand. The beach was wild and tangled neatly with the tropical forest. We wandered down the beach for a short while to take in the stunning landscape.

After about an hour of driving we arrived in Port Douglas and were instantly taken by the quaint little town. We wondered along Macrossan Street and mooched through the cool, crafty shops, bars and restaurants all housed in traditional wooden buildings. The slow pace of the town was enticing and perfectly suited our mood. Within half an hour we had decided to throw our schedule out of the window and stay the night.

Even on the first day, we were already lauding the fact that we had the camper. It gave us the ultimate freedom to alter our schedule to suit what we wanted to do at that moment. A quick google search lead us to Dougies Backpackers where we booked a camp spot for the night and then settled in to enjoy the warm afternoon in Port Douglas.

After a bite to eat at the cheap and cheerful ‘Central Hotel’, we spent the afternoon exploring. Our first stop was a short drive up to Trinity Bay Lookout. This scenic view point overlooking ‘Four Mile Beach’ sits at the top of a steep climb. It’s certainly walk-able and the views up top are worth the effort.

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Trinity Bay Lookout 

We were really keen to see as many sunsets as possible on this trip and Port Douglas provided an idyllic location to watch our first. We parked up by the headland at Rex Smeal Park. This lush patch of grass was lined with tall palms and overlooked ‘Morey Reef’. We kicked back on the lawn and watched the sailboats return to the Marina as the sun melted beyond the horizon.

Once the sun had set we headed straight back to Dougie’s to set up camp. Dougie’s doubled as both a hostel and a campsite which was perfect for what we needed. We arrived just as it was going dark which allowed us just enough time to be shown around the hostel. However by the time we came to set up the awning on the camper … it was dark.

Lesson Number 1 – Set up the camper for the first time when its light! Generally they are really easy to erect. But it always helps to have figured out what goes where before you try to do it in the pitch dark! 

It was a bit of a struggle, but with some expert guesswork we managed to figure it out. We were actually delighted with how spacious it was. We cooked up some dinner on our camping stove (again shrouded in darkness) and enjoyed a romantic meal under head torch light.

Lesson number 2 – Bring a camping light or head torch. I will again reiterate that in some locations you will be camping in pretty remote areas. Once the sun goes down, you’ll have literally no light! In the winter months the sun sets by 6pm and so if you need to set up later than that you’ll need some decent lighting.

Rather than sit in the dark, we decided to take a short walk back to Macrossan street for a nightcap. By night the the town was lively with music coming from nearly every bar. We settled in Paddy’s Irish Bar and enjoyed a couple of Guinness’s before calling it a night.

Day 1 – 68kms

Highlights

  • Captain Cook Highway Drive.
  • Sunset at Rex Smeal Park.

Where to Stay – Dougies Backpackers

Where to Eat – Central Hotel, Port Douglas



Day2

Port Douglas to Balgal Beach

 

On the morning of our second day we woke up and hit the road early to make up some time on our schedule. Despite a long day ahead to make it to Balgal Beach, we were determined not to break our leisurely pace. For breakfast we headed back to a beautiful spot at Ellis Beach to cook up some eggs and bacon. It was fabulous to be able to set up our little kitchen in such an idyllic location. Mixing the soft crashing of the waves with the sweet sizzle of bacon has to be the greatest concoction of sounds since The Beatles wrote ‘A Day In The Life’.

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Breakfast with a view

We passed through Cairns and headed south on the Bruce Highway towards the Atherton Tablelands. Our first stop was the quaint town of Babinda. This one road town is most famous for the Babinda Boulders –  three huge granite rocks set into the tranquil mountain water of the Babinda Creek.

We found ourselves in an interesting little craft shop run by a local couple who had moved to Babinda from the Sunshine Coast. They much preferred the small town feel where their lives are quite literally on their doorsteps. This wasn’t an exaggeration! As we stood in the centre of town we could see the hospital, cinema, coffee shop and the famous Babinda Bakery. Everyone we spoke to in town pointed us in the direction of the bakeries famous Pies and Cream Cakes. As it was around lunchtime we decided to test out their credentials and were not disappointed.

 

With our bellies full of delicious local treats, we headed off towards the boulders. It was a pleasant little walk though forest to the Boulders lookout. The snaking path was shadowed by overhanging trees which at every bend allowed a sneak peak of the creek below. In sections, the clear water became a raging torrent and had carved out a path through the smooth rocks. We resisted the urge for a swim but took a moment to drink in the view.

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Babinda Boulders

As the midday heat descended, we drove south from Babinda to Josephine Falls. From the highway we veered onto a country road and slalomed through a beautiful ocean of sugar cane fields. The endless greenery eventually led us to a car park which was a short, scenic walk from the base of the falls.

Desperate to cool off, we quickly clambered over rough rocks and inched our way into the lagoon. The cold was breathtaking at first but after a few minutes of dilly-dallying we managed to submerge ourselves into the intensely refreshing water. Above us the main falls cascaded down onto the rocks before gently dawdling to the pool below.

We scampered up the slippery rocks to the top of the smallest falls to check out the view. The sun’s warm rays burst through the canopy of trees and sparkled across the rippling water. We stood above a spectacular natural paradise. The flowing water had smoothed off a section of rocks creating a slide down into the pool below. Naturally, we took full advantage of the ride down and cruised into the shallow lagoon.

We couldn’t pull ourselves away from the falls. Instead we dried off under the sun, lounging atop huge boulder. We stayed until we heard the humdrum of a tour group approaching. We took this as our cue to leave and so pressed on towards Mission Beach.

It was just a brief stop at Mission Beach, but again it was a place we could have spent much more time in. We had a quick wander down the beach before coming to the realisation that we still had a long way to go to our stop for the night.

On the way out of town we spotted a colourful fruit store at the roadside. We love to see these little stalls selling local produce and so pulled over to see what was on offer. We couldn’t resist stocking up with a batch of fresh, juicy Mangos’s.

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We raced against the setting sun to find a suitable spot to cook up dinner before being immersed in the approaching darkness. In the coastal town of Cardwell we found a quiet parking spot overlooking Hinchinbrook Island. With the efficiency of a German formula 1 team we unpacked the cooking equipment, rustled up a delicious Spaghetti Bolognese, washed up and headed off. It was a treat again to cook in such a spectacular location and to enjoy the last embers of daylight by the coast. By the time we had packed up and left, the light had faded completely. We drove the final 90 minutes along the infinite darkness of a remote section of the Bruce Highway.

Our GPS told us we’d arrived in Balgal Bay, although all we saw was what our headlights revealed. A long straight road cut through the darkness and led into a small pen crowded with campers and trailers. At the foot of a tree we parked in a spot we weren’t sure existed. Scrambling clumsily into the back we collapsed onto our mattress, listening to the faint sound of the waves which sang us to sleep.

Day 2 – 407km’s

Highlights – 

  • Josephine Falls
  • Driving through the cane fields of the Atherton Tablelands.

Where to Stay – Balgal Beach Foreshore Reserve – Free Camping.

Where to Eat –

  • Babinda Bakery.
  • Cook up a storm overlooking Hinchinbrook Island.  

Gili Air – 10 Reasons to Make It Your Next Destination

Despite being the closest to Lombok’s mainland, Gili Air is often the forgotten jewel in the Gili Islands crown. Tourists flock to the party hub of Gili Trawangan, and honeymooners make for the peaceful bliss of Gili Meno. This leaves Gili Air to cater for those searching for that something in between.

Here’s why that, is exactly what you should be looking for.

1. Shoes are not required

Ditch your shoes! Even though your friends may laugh and call you a tramp, from the moment you step foot on the island shoes are one less thing for you to contend with. The island is laden with dusty pathways, sandy beaches and only the occasional razor sharp coral. What a feeling it is to have the sand between your toes and the ocean up to your ankles. Just watch out for the horse shit!

2. The ocean is literally everywhere

Never has there been a more obvious statement! Of course there is water all around the island, that’s the very essence of  an island! But not until you have the pleasure of the clear blue ocean at your constant beck and call, will you appreciate just how amazing this is. No matter where you are on the island you are never more than  a hop, skip, and a jump away from water.

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3. You can snorkel with Sea Turtles right off the beach.

You don’t have to go far to find incredible snorkeling on Gili Air. Rent a mask and snorkel from a local vendor, navigate your way through the rough shallow coral and dive down towards the beautiful reefs surrounding the island. You’ll be treated to an array of fish and coral and if you’re really lucky, you’ll be chasing turtles all afternoon.

(As a side note, Gili Meno is actually the best place to snorkel with Turtles as it is much quieter, however there still plenty turtles to see on Gili Air!)

4. Exceptional Diving 

Diving around the Gili islands is spectacular. Each island has a selection of professionally run dive schools which explore the numerous dive sites surrounding the Gili Islands. It’s a great place to get your PADI license as the diving is fun and manageable whilst remaining relatively cheap for the quality tuition you receive. Each dive school will post their dive sites a day in advance. If you’re looking for a cruisy dive site check out the Meno Wall. It’s a great spot to see turtles and with the wall sloping down towards a sandy bottom at approximately 22m it is a relatively shallow dive. For the adrenaline divers out there, Deep Turbo will offer strong currents, overhangs and small caves. It’s a perfect place to dive on Nitrox.

All my dive experiences on the Gili’s have been with 7Seas – located just a short walk to the right of Gili Air’s Pier. They offer courses, fun dives and discovery dives as well as their own accommodation and training pool.

5. Fresh Seafood 

My dad has always told me “never eat the fish unless you can see the sea”. Well, no problems here! As you wander along Gili Air’s main strip you’ll be hypnotized by the smell of BBQing fish as it mixes with that crisp sea air. Select your sea critter and watch it sizzle on a smoky coal BBQ whilst you sit with your toes buried in the sand.

My personal favorite is the Seafood Kebab from ‘Chill Out’; a quiet and relaxed beach-side eatery which proudly displays its numerous daily catches. Choose from a huge range of fish including; Tuna, Marlin, Mahi-Mahi and Parrot-Fish.

6. The Sunsets

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Mt Agung at sunset
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Beanbags on the sand

This is how its done:

-Slouch lazily in a colourful beanbag.

-Position it just right to ensure that every muscle is sufficiently relaxed.

-Bury your feet in the cool sand.

-Order yourself an Ice-Cold Bintang.

-Watch the sun sink below the majesty of Mt. Agung.

It’s that simple!

7. The Sunrises 

With views like this, it isn’t hard to drag yourself out of bed for the sunrise. You’ll find the island at its absolute best – calm, peaceful and serene. Head to the East of the island and watch the sun burst from behind the majesty of Lombok’s Mount Rinjani.

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The Sunrise View of Mt.Rinjani from Gili Air

 8. Local Culture 

As you venture inland away from the ocean, you’ll be able to get a glimpse of the way island life used to be. A winding maze of dusty laneways laden with horses and carts. In the dry grasslands skinny cows laze in the shade under thirsty looking trees. The sound of laughing children is ever-present as they chase a deflated football around their schoolyard. A stroll through the islands heart is a stroll back in time and a gentle reminder of the islands humble roots.Be sure to check out the little shops selling local spices and vegetables.

9. No Motorised Vehicles 

As the headline suggests, there are no motorised vehicles on the island. And nor should there be! Islands are built for ambling along at a leisurely island pace.There is no need for hustle and bustle, no need for speed. Nothing is far enough away that you have to rush. In fact there is no real need to even know what time it is. However, if you are looking to explore the island at more than a snails pace, you could always either hire a bike or take a ride on a traditional horse and cart.

10. Its Just Downright Beautiful

The fantastic thing about Gili Air is that you’ll find everything you are looking for in an island escape. The beaches are wild and untamed, rocky in parts, pristine in others. The ocean is cool and inviting; its waves create that hypnotic draw, beckoning you in. Its dusty paths are shrouded by overhanging flowers which flood the walkways with summer colours. The floor is littered with fresh coconuts and ornate coral ornaments, and around every swooping bend is another smiling face, peering out of an old bamboo hut and waiting to greet you like an old friend. The beauty isn’t just in what you see but how the island makes you feel. The pace of the island strolls to the slow strum of an acoustic guitar. The waves wash away your worries and the Bintang is just simply always there.

But…

Yes, there’s a but. And it’s a big one! If you’re going to go, you need to go now! …or at least soon! Because this won’t last. The lure of tourism is a slippery slope. The draw of income for the islands original inhabitants is, understandably, hard to refuse. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the island three times over the past three years and each time I’ve noticed a stark difference. The bars are ever so slightly bigger and there are more of them. On my most recent visit, to my horror, I saw the first big concrete structure tainting the islands shoreline. I have no doubt it will become a beautiful resort, but it seems like such an eyesore on what was once such a traditional island. But fear not, we aren’t quite there yet. Gili Air is by no means as commercialised as Gili T. It still has its innate island-ness about it. The beaches are clean, the water is clear and coconuts, oh so fresh! My advice is to sling your backpack on, abandon your shoes, and immerse yourself in all that Gili Air has to offer, because in this case, diamonds aren’t forever!

 Getting There

Perama run a daily shuttle bus and boat service over to the Gili Islands.

The shuttle bus leaves Kuta each day at 10.00am and takes you to the port town of Padangbai.

The boat will leave Padangbai at 13.30pm and takes you directly to the Gili’s.

Give yourself a full day to travel as travelling in Bali is rarely punctual. In total from start to finish it should take you about 8 hours and cost in the region of Rp 400000 ($40 AUD)

 

 

Trails and Tales – A Walking Tour Of Saigon

It occurred to me lately, after spending a year living in a new city, that I’d become fixated on its current state. Finding my feet within a new culture had required a leap of faith. All of my energy was focused on catching up, and then keeping pace with the whirlwind adventure I’d latched onto. Living in the present turned out to be an enthralling and demanding challenge. But after becoming somewhat accustomed to the now, I realised I hadn’t had time to stop and appreciate the how. I was oblivious to the events and characters which set the foundations of the Saigon we see today. In order to immerse myself into it’s colourful past, I decided to take a guided walk through the streets which tell the story. I embarked upon the Trails and Tales walking tour, run by expat and English teacher Adam Priestly, to discover a side of Ho Chi Minh I had yet to experience.

The Tour

It was a particularly sweaty Saigon Saturday. Locals and tourists alike sat guzzling their ice coffee’s in the sticky morning heat. Adam greeted our group with an energising ice-breaker to set a comfortable atmosphere for the tour. He outlined our itinerary and gave a few housekeeping tips to keep us safe along the route before setting out in to the city.

Adam led from the front, his booming voice drowning out the melee unfolding on the streets around us. We ambled at a steady pace through narrow alleyways and along Saigon’s bustling main roads. Wandering through some of Saigon’s most modern dwellings, Adam was able to unravel the layers of time and reveal the concealed history beneath. As he spoke, I was able to close my eyes and place myself into the story, standing in the exact spot, where war and revolution had exploded to changed the face of a city. He told his stories with such confidence and authority that it was as though he’d written the pages of history himself. He pointed out old buildings which nestled amongst the city’s modern make-up. Some of these buildings held global significance but most had faded into the backdrop. Adam used famous photographs to show us how Saigon was swallowing up its own history, leaving only subtle reminders of its dynamic past.

Adam’s skill as a tour leader was highlighted with his ability to improvise in a challenging and constantly changing environment. When one of his key areas was blocked off for repair, he used another location to illuminate his story. It made me appreciate how well Adam knew the city and his desire to accurately tell its stories to those willing to listen.

Throughout the morning Adam was constantly tuned into the welfare of his group. He made a calculated effort to stop in the shade and tailored his path to pass cheap street vendors offering cold refreshments. Through his tour he has built relationships with the locals en-route. The stop at a small sugar cane juice cart was a genius inclusion which offered an interaction with local vendors and a uniquely Saigon experience. This was also a perfect location to practice the three bartering phrases he had taught the group to help us in such situations.

To finish the tour Adam engaged the group with a poignant tale of one of Saigon’s most famous characters. He tied our location to an event which shook the world, even rousing a reaction from the American President. You’d think after a year living not far from this location, I would have at least heard of it. But I hadn’t. Again, Adam held his audience with a story-telling ability to rival the best; letting each detail sink in before divulging more captivating insights into the history of Saigon.

Adam is passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic. He has clearly researched diligently and presents his facts in an engaging way. The chaos unfolding around him only seems to spur him on. His desire to tell the stories of the city he now calls home is clear and I highly recommend that you spend a morning in Saigon with Adam.

Key Information 

Price: The tour itself is totally free. There are no hidden costs and there is no obligation to pay anything. Adam believes that you, the customer, should decide what the tour is worth.

What You’ll See:

  • Ben Thanh Market
  • Tran Nguyen Han statue
  • Saigon Opera House
  • Bitexco Financial tower
  • Notre-Dame Cathedral
  • Reunification Palace

Where: Happy Life Bar (Opposite Crazy Buffalo), 185 De Tham, District 1

When: Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 8.45am

Duration: 3 Hours

What To bring? Camera / Sunscreen /Comfortable Shoes / Raincoat (in rainy season)

Contact

Website: http://www.trailstalessaigon.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trailstalessaigon

5 Lessons I’ve Learnt About Adventure Travel

1) Be prepared

On the morning of my deep dive training it was wonderfully sunny. Cruising out to the dive site I sat on the top deck of our little vessel completely distracted by the scene around me. On the lower deck, other divers scrambled around assembling their equipment. We were advised that we’d be diving against a strong current. An interesting new challenge, but I wasn’t worried. As the final pre-dive call sounded, most others on board were already raring to go. I hastily checked my equipment before grabbing a mask and fins from the box. Quickly slipping into my BCD, I felt the weight of the tank on my back. I noticed that the strap on one of my fins was flimsy and that they were probably a few sizes to big, but by now everyone was dropping into the water. I pulled the elastic strap tightly and hoped for the best. Rolling over the side I experienced that familiar rush of bubbles as I re-emerged from the wash. With my first gentle kick I felt the strap on my fin come loose and my heart wrenched at the realisation. The dive leader signaled to descend and I immediately regretted my complacent decisions.

Preparation is part of the adventure. It’s sifting through guides, scribbling endless to-do lists and re-jigging your budget. Without preparation, a successful adventure becomes unlikely. People will argue that spontaneous travel is the epitome of adventure. But the act of spontaneity is only a wonderful concept when executed correctly. The notion that travelers take off into the wilderness guided by nothing but currents and the wind is wildly inaccurate. You need a plan, al be it a loose one. One which sets the right conditions for spontaneity and allows the time and money for unexpected turns of events. Nobody wants to stick to a rigid plan – this would steal the very soul from a traveler. Furthermore, the ability to use local knowledge to find an undiscovered market or stay an extra night in a place you stumbled across, are the very foundations on which adventure travel was built on. Taking the time and effort to be organised will ensure you miss no opportunities, soak in as much of the culture as you can, and experience the most rewarding adventures.   

2) Ask Questions.

As we descended into a darkening blue abyss, I realised the time for asking questions was over. I’d been too embarrassed to flag my issue on entering the water. It would have caused a halt to the dive and nobody wants to be that guy. I could already feel the increasing current tugging at my loose fine. I kicked subtly, straining my ankle to create an angle from which my foot could hold onto the fin. I was so disappointed with myself. Firstly, I hadn’t been more organised in selecting the right pair of fins, and secondly, I hadn’t flagged the potential problem earlier. A simple question could have found a simple solution, but now I’d never know.

Conversation is really the bread and butter of a traveler. But simple interactions such as ‘asking for directions’, ‘asking for the time’ or ‘where to get a good coffee’, are ceasing to exist. With the emergence of smartphones, which admittedly are more convenient, we are losing the ability to converse with other humans. It’s a crying shame because the ability to interact with complete strangers is the catalyst for breaking down barriers between cultures. Nothing will immerse you within another society like social interaction, it was once the bread and butter of a travelers mindset. Many times whilst trying to navigate a maze of Asian streets, I’ve asked a local for directions. In broken English they try their best to communicate, they wave their arms and point in every direction. More than likely you will walk away none the wiser, but you will have shared a moment with another person that you won’t forget in a hurry. And you can always check google maps afterwards! 

3) Don’t Panic.

As we descended, the current became stronger and my struggle increased. I divided my time by equalizing the pressure in my ears and attempting to reach the strap on my fins in the most ungraceful fashion. At around 30m we leveled out. We were still a fair way from the sea floor and skirted a sloping canyon engulfed in colourful coral. I class myself as a very strong swimmer but even I was struggling to contend with the current’s force as we swam against it. I kicked forcefully, the only way to keep moving in the right direction. But then, in one horrifying moment, I felt the strap snap. Before I could even react the fin was whisked away by the current and I watched it descend into darkness below. Kicking with one fin when diving against a strong current is very difficult. I immediately felt the strain, first on my legs and then, more worryingly, on my breathing. As my heart rate increased due to the effort I was exerting, I found myself literally sucking the air from my respirator, each breath a conscious effort. The harder I fought against the current, the more my heart rate increased and the more oxygen I needed. Unfortunately, my respirator simply couldn’t supply the oxygen I desperately needed fast enough. It was a terrifying cycle. If ever there was a sport or a hobby in which you need to relax to enjoy, scuba diving is it. Your kit is not built to deal with such situations. I knew this. Around me I could see the other divers in my group enjoying their dive. I tried in vein to attract their attention, but rather annoyingly I didn’t know the dive signal for,

“I’ve lost my fin and I can’t breath very well!”

I fell behind alarmingly fast and came to the realisation that this could end very badly! But panicking was not the answer, in fact panicking was making this situation considerably worse.

Things often go wrong, such is the way of the world. If we knew travel would be easy, would there be much point in doing it? We gain much more from difficult situations, in which we find reward at the end, than events which we cruise through with ease. But when challenges arise, the key is to keep your head. Think! What should I do next? How do I come out of this well? Part of the learning curve of a traveler is figuring out how to solve problems on your own. There often is no safety net to run home to, just your own instincts and inhibitions to rely upon. 

4) Find Enjoyment In Every Moment.

Still battling the vicious current I watched my oxygen levels deplete at an alarming rate. I was fighting desperately to slow down my breathing without falling further behind my dive group. Still no one had noticed that I was struggling. But it’s funny how the mind works. Whilst half of my brain was battling for survival, the other half became distracted by my surroundings. At the most opportune moment a small turtle gracefully glided past, evidently immune to the fierce current. I realised that my Go-pro was still filming in my hand and scrambled quickly to capture a few frames of the turtle as it sauntered by. The coral on the canyon walls was breathtaking, huge mushroom like structures dazzled with fluorescent colours. I was lost in an appreciation for where I was and what I was doing. By the time I realigned my focus to the problem at hand, I was much calmer and had slowed my breathing. This allowed me to think clearly, unaffected by the stress at hand. Kicking slower, I released air from my BCD and descended to swim closer to the sloping canyon. Here the current dissipated slightly and required less effort to swim against. Our dive leader noticed my slow descent, ironic considering he’d managed to miss my earlier frantic thrashing. He dropped back to join me and even through his mask I could see his horrified expression when I pointed to my fin-less foot. He checked my air and soon gathered the group together to begin our ascent to the surface.

Travel asserts the need for self-reliance, especially if you are traveling alone. You will undoubtedly face difficult situations but throwing in the towel and opting for blind panic will get you nowhere and leave you bitter. Even in the darkest and most difficult moments there will always be a bright light, something in your vicinity that will make you smile and provide a moment of welcome relief. It can often be as simple as a friendly face, a funny sign or an iconic sight. You have to find the piece of magic in every moment because once your lessons have been learnt those are the moments you’ll remember. 

A Welcome Distraction
A Welcome Distraction

Reflect and Learn 

Emerging from beneath the surface was an almighty relief. My oxygen was all but exhausted. But climbing back onto the boat I felt both embarrassed and guilty. My mistakes had cost the other divers precious dive time. As the boat made its way back to the pier, I sat and thought about what had happened. I’d come pretty close to disaster but had managed to scrape my way through it. I replayed the events in my head and reflected on what I should have done to avoid them. I realised that I should have been more proactive in my dive preparation by organising my kit as soon as I was on board to allow myself time to address any problems which might have arisen. But the most important lesson I took from this experience was that keeping a relatively cool head had got me through. I was pleased to discover that I was able to think and focus under pressure.

The beauty of travel is that for the most part you determine your own schedule. Finding the time to relive and reflect on your experiences is key to creating a rewarding adventure. Keeping a travel diary or writing a blog is a great way to organise your thoughts. When you’ve come out of a scrape, had a great experience or just done something you enjoyed, taking the time to relive that moment is a great way to reflect on what you’ve done. If it was a bad experience, you’ll now know how do avoid it. If it was a good experience, you’ll be able to focus on what made it good. Be it the kind local who helped you, the short conversation you had with a stranger or even the spectacular view you were treated to after a hard climb. Whatever the experience, good or bad, it is the lessons we take away from the experience which makes them priceless.

Kruger: A Feast of Lions

Before heading off on Safari I was constantly asked,

“what animals are you looking forward to seeing the most?”

My answer was always the same,

“everything, anything…all of them!”

Not a single animal would disappoint me. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at any of them.

Being brought up in Wigan my upbringing wasn’t filled with regular animal sightings. Nothing exotic comes from northern England. In fact, I remember getting excited when my dad called me into the kitchen to see a particularly fat pigeon waddling around our garden. That was the extent of my wildlife experience.

However, after two eye opening days on safari in Kruger National Park, I was now becoming a tad picky. I’d seen the mesmerizing march of Elephants, watched Rhino’s rambling through the bush and experienced a Giraffe’s goofy grandeur. But I hadn’t felt the primeval rush of witnessing Lions up close. The brief glance I’d experienced so far had merely wet my appetite for the most revered of animals, and our final day on Safari certainly didn’t disappoint.

We entered the game reserve via the entrance at Melelane and followed the tarmac road all the way to Skukuza, Kruger’s largest rest camp. Along the way the roads were quiet. We were hearing reports of numerous exciting sightings over by crocodile bridge, the entrance we had used the previous day. Typical…

Eventually we came across two large Rhino’s skulking along the edge of the road. We crawled past them, observing every inch of their imposing frames. In parts, the Rhino’s skin folded like a poorly made paper-mache model, creasing and releasing with every labored step. A light dust covered their coarse skin radiating a warm, auburn glow. Although they never looked at us, the pricking up of their ears suggested they were indeed alert to our presence. My eyes focused on their iconic horns – solid, smooth and threateningly dangerous.

A Rhino Skulks along the Roadside
A Rhino Skulks along the Roadside

Our route to Skukuza cut through an incredible landscape which more than made up for the animal sightings we seemed to be missing on the alternative route. Despite our lack of the more obvious safari sightings we were lucky enough to come across a few of the rarer species lurking in Kruger.

Ambling cautiously through the bushes was a Duiker – an animal I’d never even heard of. It sat somewhere on a sclae between a small Donkey and a huge grey Rabbit. They are known to be notoriously shy and didn’t hang around long after we appeared. A little further along we passed a Nyala. Another new species to me. Nestled within the bushes the Nyala looked content. Its thick fuzzy fur made it look like an old teddy bear which had endured one too many washes. But despite its disheveled appearance there was an undeniable comfort as he ignored our preying eyes.

Our route brought us to a shallow river running along the roadside. For the most part our view of the river was impeded by luscious green trees, but every so often the green curtains were opened up. Pulling over at one such spot we were astonished by what we saw. On smooth rocks above the slow flowing river, two adolescent male Lions lay basking in the warm midday sun. For the first time we had a clear view of these beautiful animals. We ogled through the binoculars and watched as they rested, unperturbed by our distant presence. Looking closely I noted a fierceness imprinted on their young faces. These males faced a future of proving their masculinity and carving out their place within their tribe. But for now the midday sun restricted their activities to swatting flies and enjoying the sound of the water trickling by below them.

Later in the day we heard reports of Lions feasting on a kill close to Mondozi Dam. We weren’t far away, in the grand scheme of things, and so decided to alter our route to seek out the Lions. We headed off road through the most desolate of places. The ‘road’ was flat but covered in a thick, rust coloured dust which kicked up behind us. Not knowing the exact spot of the Lion sighting, we were fortunate that another car stopped us to point us in the right direction.

“Two lions” he said.

“They’re still feasting on a Giraffe”

In light of this new development, we high-tailed it onward, through an increasingly fertile landscape. Tall trees sprung up on either side of the road and the long grass made for an ideal kill zone for Lions. As we approached I was tense, wondering what we were about to witness and how the Lions would react to our presence. Through thick bushes we were treated to our first glimpse of the massacre. An imposing male Lion sat close to his kill which lay lifeless in the tall grass.

We edged on a little further, to where the grass had dissipated and the whole gruesome scene was unveiled. The male Lion backed away from his kill and sat under a small tree, soon to be joined by his female companion. They both lay down, panting and exhausted. Their backs arched inwards, weighed down by the weight of their feast.

It was a surreal feeling to see the Giraffe lying in a tangled heap; its carcass torn open revealing more than was desired. Only a few metres away the Lions watched carefully over their prize, clearly unwilling to share. Vultures who crept smoothly towards the Giraffe’s, remains received a haunting roar from the Lions as a clear warning that they were unwilling to share.

Lions Rest After Feeding
Lions Rest After Feeding

There was undeniable discomfort from the lions, a feeling I could relate to after indulging in a big meal; although I’ve never eaten a full Giraffe! From a short distance I studied the lions few movements through my binoculars. Each prehistoric roar revealed a set of teeth still dripping with blood. For the most part the female was calm but she soon took issue to the presence of both ourselves and the vultures.

Spotted by a Lioness
Spotted by a Lioness

Her piercing eyes sent shudders down my spine as I watched intently through the binoculars. I had a sudden appreciation of our wild isolation. What a spectacular scene we’d stumbled across. It was gruesome, yet real. This was all part of life for animals in the wild. Each day a struggle to survive, to feed and protect their young.

We were merely observers in this museum of life where, despite our presence, life goes on. There is no courtesy for the bystander; no visitors pass. You see what you are lucky enough to see knowing that whatever it is, isn’t staged. It’s life passing by of its own accord, sometimes pleasant and magical, but often unapologetic and raw. To finally see Lions up close was a privilege and to see them feasting was to see them at their natural best. An incredible experience and a story to tell.

Kruger: In Two Shakes of a Lion’s Tail

I’ve spent the last week re-writing ‘War and Peace’. My version detailed a gripping journey through the beautiful Kruger National Park. I described every animal with an artists precision and relived my journey by describing every bump in the road. Re-reading my ‘masterpiece’, I quickly realised that I’d written a diary entry…and nobody wants to read that drivel. So here’s the best bits, the snapshots of our adventure that matter and the highlights of an amazing first day chasing the ‘Big-Five’ in Kruger National Park.

Our first animal sighting occurred not long after the sun had risen. Traveling slowly we came across a car which had paused at the side of the road. Excitedly, we pulled up behind them and lowered our windows slightly to get a better look at whatever they had spotted. Everything was quiet as we scanned the landscape around us. We were surrounded by plump green bushes sprouting from long, dry grass. An excellent hiding spot for animals. Nothing appeared and not a sound was heard. Disappointed we crawled on a little further, still clinging to a vein hope that something might appear from the grass. Then suddenly, behind us, a Hyena calmly prowled across the road. It was scruffy a looking animal with bedraggled fur, not at all handsome. It carried with it a curiously dangerous presence for such a small animal. He appeared to be hunting and quickly disappeared back in to the thick foliage, but not before we could grab this little snap.

A stalking Hyena
A Hyena stalks across the road.

We set a course towards Tshokwane and the Nkumbe viewpoint. As we climbed higher, away from Kruger’s sprawling Savannah, we came across a lone Kudu nestled peacefully in a patch of sparse looking trees above the road. To the untrained eye he looked, at first, like a large Impala. But his proud and assertive posture suggested otherwise. His persona was regal, and his tall spiraled horns made him look considerably dangerous. From his perch he watched us as we passed, never seeming phased, but always watching.

The watching Koodoo
The observant Kudu.

Further on, through sporadic gaps in the trees, we were elated to spot a group of Elephants as they trudged through the bushes. They walked in a perfectly straight line, never breaking their lazy stride. I watched in amazement as these colossal animals strolled by. The huge matriarch kept the line moving with absolute authority, like an irate mother who was late for church. She raised her ears in dismay each time the group paused. At the end of the line two smaller elephants, the infants of the group, came bounding out of the bush, lolloping their trunks in swings of youthful excitement.

Elephants in the bush
Elephants in the bush

Reaching Nkumbe viewpoint, we clambered out of the truck desperate to stretch our lifeless legs. But it was the view itself that nearly knocked us off our feet. We’d driven through some incredible scenery which grabbed our gaze at every angle. But now, standing above it all, we were treated to the most spectacular view. Beneath the eternal African sky an endless expanse of dry Savannah stretched off into the horizon. The sheer scale of what lay before us was a breathtaking reminder that we were in the real wilds of South Africa.

The spectacular view from Nkumbe.

We descended from Nkumbe and headed to a watering hole in the hope it would be teaming with animal life. On arrival we discovered that where there was once luscious and fertile land, now sat a deserted, dried up basin.  A spindly old tree was the centre piece of this deserted landscape. Its branches twisted and curled like ageing fingers. Alone, a tiny Impala grazed on scraps and abandoned birds nests were the only other evidence of life in this vacant habitat.

All that remained at the dried up watering hole.
All that remained at the dried up watering hole.

Back on the road we encountered two towering Giraffes walking through the bush. There was a grace about the way they moved. Like a princess learning to walk in heels, awkward, yet strangely elegant. They walked slowly giving me ample time to marvel at this magnificent animal. Their faces were comical and friendly in the most attractive way. A trim and neat skin encompassed their delicate frame. One Giraffe had a much darker complexion than the other. This, I learnt, was a sign of age. Cautiously they reached the road, bringing our truck to a complete stop. Suddenly the young one bolted cross the road, flailing its legs at curious angles. The older one waited until he was convinced of his safety before strolling across calmly, providing us with ample time to snap a few pictures.

With our attention completely focused on the Giraffes, we had almost neglected to see a small group of zebra standing by the roadside. Their iconic stripes were covered in dust and dirt, yet they remained almost hypnotic as the ambled through the short grass. It became immediately apparent as to why every time I’d seen a zebra on TV, it was being mauled by a lion. The zebra’s were portly to say the least, like stately ponies, short and tubby. There was no way these beautiful animals were outrunning a hunting lion.

We drove for a while with the windows down letting the warm air ruffle our hair. The sweltering afternoon heat had encouraged the animals to rest in patches of shade away from our view. We settled for the picturesque views and serene atmosphere as we trundled along a rocky road, eyes remaining fixed on our wild surroundings.

Rejoining the smooth tar-mac road back to Crocodile Bridge we were promptly halted in our tracks by a group of Elephants crossing the road. They emerged from the trees led by a small infant who bounced jovially with every step. The elder elephants labored across the road in no particular hurry, begrudgingly dragging their trunks along the ground. Despite a wrinkled complexion, their faces twinkled with a grandmother’s friendly grace. This was the closest we had come to an Elephant and their sheer size was put into perspective as they dwarfed the cars approaching from ahead.

A pack of idle Impalas were the last animals we encountered on our first day in Kruger. As we passed by, their heads shot up out of the dry grass to check us out. We weren’t a predator, but we had hoped that the early evening cool would lure out Kruger’s hunters. Today, it wasn’t to be. Kruger’s ever illusive cats had remained hidden. As we left, the Impala’s returned to their sunset feast, safe for now.

Today, Kruger had offered up some of its most beautiful residents. Tomorrow we’d be back in Kruger and on the prowl for cats. Another day chasing the Big Five.

Impalas at Sunset
Impalas at Sunset