Return to Bali, 2017

Bali is a regular place of escape from southern Australia’s winter.

In Bali, I try to avoid the beach ghettos catering for foreign tourists, which at their worst, are venues for booze swilling excess by those seeking the title of cultural barbarian/worst ambassador; and equally avoid the cloistered resorts that insulate guests from the real Bali in a more costly ghetto.

In spite of more than half a century of mass tourism, my impression is that Bali, away from the artificially constructed tourist enclaves, remains culturally and historically strong.

Bali visits always remind me of the humility, respect, friendliness, humour and warmth of the people. Only the Balinese could name their band for an Irish theme night The Paddy Fields Band.

Ceremonies remain a fundamental part of Balinese Hindu culture. Here are some images from a Sanur beach purification ceremony, the final stage of the cremation process.

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In rural Bali, age-old sights and communities flourish; here are typical rice paddies near Pupuan.

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I often enjoy snorkelling when visiting Indonesia to coral reefs and islands in Lombok, Nusa Lembongan, and Flores, as well as Bali. On the latest trip, I returned to Pemuteran, in  north-west of Bali, and nearby Menjangan (Deer) Island.

The visit raised concerns about the significant amount of coral bleaching, more than I recall from two years ago. Locals attribute it to rising water temperatures – global warming – a fate endangering coral reefs throughout the world. It will be a monstrous tragedy if current generations fail to move quickly enough from our destructive fossil fuel stage of energy generation to deny our descendants the chance to glimpse this remarkable undersea world.

DSCN0643Snorkelling off Menjangan Island. In the background are several of East Java’s volcanoes, and the boat that brought us to the reef.

Underwater, the view is a visual feast: swarming schools of fish, lone barracuda, clams, delicate and colorful fronds waving in the currents, and shallow coral gardens dropping off into inky depths where larger fish cruise.

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Kanawa Island: oh to be shipwrecked

The journey to Kanawa Island, located between Indonesia’s islands of Komodo and Flores, is memorable. Most visitors to Kanawa arrive by boat from Labuan Bajo, on the west coast of Flores, around 90 minutes flying time west from Bali.

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The jetty at Kanawa Island. The light coloured water is a metre or two deep, while the darker water shows the drop off to deeper water.

We hired a local fishing boat for the day trip, at a cost of about AU$100 (Indonesian Rupiah 1,000,000). The journey began a little late when our enquiry about the location of the life jackets, specifically ordered, revealed their absence.  Our skipper and his mate, somewhat reluctantly, eventually borrowed them from an adjoining boat, and the trip began.

We cruised past the bare dry hills of Rinca Island, reputably the home of more dragons than Komodo itself, pockets of dense forest, water of deepest azure, then turquoise, depending on its depth and after about 90 minutes we arrived at Kanawa Island.

The island has just one small resort consisting of modest bungalows and a restaurant. The main attraction is underwater, with extraordinary coral and colourful fish just a few metres off the beach.

We spent the day variously lolling about in the deep shade of the beach-side trees, reading, snorkelling, watching the progress of a few visiting boats and thinking about being shipwrecked.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter K.

Flourishing in Flores, Indonesia

Curiosity about Flores was the reason for our presence on the 500 kilometre flight from Bali to Labuan Bajo. The plane flew spectacularly over the crater of Lombok Island’s majestic Mount Rinjani, then the islands of Sumbawa and Komodo, and many smaller ones. Labuan Bajo is a small town in west Flores, with a population of around 10,000 that is rapidly growing, mainly in response to increasing western tourism. Many visitors come for diving and snorkelling and to see the Komodo dragon, the world’s largest lizard, as the town is near Komodo National Park, the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Guidebooks aptly describe Labuan Bajo as having a ramshackle air. There’s much corrugated iron – some rusty, otherwise brightly painted – and the buildings are an interesting mixture of old and new. Many have open-sided pavilions to take advantage of cooling breezes, and to catch the views: the harbour and its boat traffic, the appealing setting of islands and colorful sea, and the town’s hypnotic sunsets. Curiously, it also has about five Italian restaurants with Italian ownership.

Flores illustrates Indonesia’s diversity; here you are not in Bali, Java or Sumatra. Although Flores is nominally Christian, with the inevitable Indonesian underlay of adat (customary tradition and rules), Labuan Bajo has a significant Muslim population.

This is noticeable as mosques in town have spent heavily on their sound systems. One of the town’s largest mosques is located next a shop specialising in public address sound systems. There must be serious competition for adherents, as the volume level was unmatched in my travelling experience. Although difficult to encapsulate in a few words, it was as if 3 or 4 heavy metal bands located a few hundred metres apart were competing to have your total attention, while playing different songs in different keys at a volume suitable for a major outdoor rock festival. Unfortunately in the case of the mosques, while some of the sound was pre-recorded and beautiful musically (I enjoy Arabic and Middle Eastern music), several competitors had live performers who apparently acquired their positions on the basis of their inability to maintain a key.

From our hotel  balcony 500 metres or more up the hill, the competing volumes from the mosques made it impossible to conduct a conversation. We quickly adjusted to the afternoon call to prayer – between 4 and 5pm – by designating it the Call to Drinks. Travel encourages adaptability. Early morning calls to prayer (at around 4am and 5am) were less open to such innovation. No doubt for locals these experiences are part of the aural fabric. If they travelled to Paris, would the chiming of the bells of Notre Dame be a strange intrusion?

Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo National Park
Sunset at Labuan Bajo, looking towards the Komodo Island and National Park, as the crimson sky fades into twilight.

After my companions rather haughtily declined my invitation to see Komodo dragons, we hired a traditional wooden fishing boat with two crew members (cost AU$100) and spent an idyllic day: a trip through sparkling tropical seas, past many islands, finally disembarking at Kanawa Island. The island is quite small, with an attractive sandy beach backed by hills, shady trees to loll under, and a small restaurant, and modest set of bungalows. The snorkelling at Kanawa is excellent and safe. The bottom shelves gently from the beach to the drop off and the coral is very colourful, the fish even more so. A young Balinese in her shop in Sanur later described her snorkelling experiences on the island beautifully: ‘It’s like swimming in an aquarium.’

It pays to be curious.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter F.

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A Trip to Far North Queensland

Far North Queensland is removed from the southern states of Australia by more than distance.

The Daintree Rainforest region is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, and notable for the diversity of its vegetation. Off-shore  lies the Great Barrier Reef.  The region offers wilderness, solitude, and a sense of remoteness unavailable in more populous parts.

Cape Tribulation is located 139 kilometres north of Cairns. While the drive could be completed in around 3 hours, it is better to savour at least some of the offerings on the way. The chosen vehicle for this trip was a campervan hired in Cairns, and eventually returned in Brisbane 4,000 kilometres later.

The road between Cairns and Port Douglas is claimed to be one of Australia’s most scenic: it hugs the Coral Sea, meandering, and rising and falling with the terrain as the hills plunge into the sea.

Port Douglas is a popular destination, too popular perhaps for some, but it retains vestiges of its old frontier port ambiance, a raffish past, amidst the cafes, restaurants, pubs, and upmarket clothing and tourist shops. With a permanent population of  about 1300, which quadruples in holiday season, the town has a broad beach, a scenic location and port area with extensive offerings of reef trips, diving and snorkelling,  yacht cruises, and other marine adventures.

One end of the main shopping street, Macrossan Street, reveals the town’s palm lined beach, while the other terminates at a town park,  fronting the estuary and port.

Port Douglas
Port Douglas

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Mossman is the next major settlement north of Port Douglas, a farming town located in a sea of sugar cane farms, backed by forested mountains, and close to beautiful Mossman Gorge. Saturday morning is market time.

The Daintree River crossing, by ferry, marks a transition to the very far north. Things get wilder.

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No swimming is recommended

The camping ground at Cape Tribulation highlights an interesting feature of camping grounds and caravan parks in Queensland. In winter, many residents from the southern states and southern Queensland head north for the weather. Some camp grounds and caravan parks south of the Daintree are dominated by older travellers and rows of their very large caravans and matching sized tow vehicles. At times they almost resemble a retirement home where the residents occupy mobile homes/caravans instead of units or rooms.

As a contrast, the camp ground at Cape Tribulation attracts a different clientele. Adventurers in 4 wheel drives who are heading to or returning from Cape York (‘the Tip’) join a significant number of youngish overseas travellers, both backpackers and young couples and families, and Aussies of varying ages, who are all seeking elements of the rainforest, reef and wilderness experience. Most are keen to sight a cassowary, crocodile, and turtle.

Walk opportunities abound: on the beaches, into the rain forest, and beside the intertidal zone.

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A trip to the Great Barrier Reef is a highlight of a north Queensland visit.

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The soft coral surrounding this giant clam was dancing to and fro with the wave motion, like spaghetti cooking in a pot.

Cape Tribulation Recommendations

Reef trip from Cape Tribulation.

There is only one reef trip publicly available from Cape Tribulation. Professional and personable staff cater for snorkelling only with a small number of passengers (maximum 25) . At $134 the half day trip is much cheaper than those in Port Douglas.

http://www.oceansafari.com.au/

Cape Tribulation Camping

A really nice campground right on the beach with plenty of bush and rainforest. Friendly and helpful staff.  $40 per night for a powered site. Good facilities, including camp kitchens, which are a good place for informal chats with other campers, and a pub with modestly priced drinks and wood fired oven pizzas.

http://www.capetribcamping.com.au/