When visiting a foreign city, it’s customary to focus on the notable sights and experiences, the ones recommended by guidebooks, tourist brochures and tours. Yet to confine a visit to just those features can create a distorted impression that ignores the realities of life for many of the city’s residents.
Jakarta has extremes of wealth and poverty. Liveried doormen greet luxury cars that disgorge their owners and passengers at marble shopping malls where the world’s luxury brands are displayed in air conditioned comfort while a few kilometres away, scavenging for discarded plastic bottles can provide an income of sorts.
The photo was taken in Angke an old suburb near the sea. A walk in the neighbourhood is a reminder of the city’s Chinese community, with a stroll past Confucian temples, through the Muslim community by the mosque where the labryrinthine lanes are just wide enough to allow two people to walk abreast. An open door reveals a lounge-room, an open window is a tiny shop, a few steps away someone is washing their hair in the lane. The locals don’t seem to mind strangers wandering about. In fact, there are many smiles. Western concepts of space and privacy are distant.
In this poor part of Jakarta, there are no parks or open public spaces, just the train lines. The people in the picture who were sitting on or straddling the lines removed themselves in time from danger from being run over by the train emerging through the smoke.
Like many developing nations, Indonesia has a serious rubbish problem. Countless generations used natural wrapping and packaging in the form of banana leaves and bamboo that can be discarded anywhere to turn into compost to enrich the soil. Plastics have become a pervasive problem in a society that has no rubbish disposal system. Indonesia is grappling with introducing a fee for plastic bags, hopefully a positive move to eradicate this environmental scourge.
Campervans can be a great way to enjoy holiday travel. Most campervans are a delivery van fitted out to provide self-contained accommodation and cooking facilities. The smaller ones in Australia and New Zealand are usually Toyota Hi Aces, while the larger ones are generally a Mercedes Sprinter or VW Crafter.
Small campervans are quite basic, offering a bed that is converted at night from a table and seats, a few cupboards, a gas 2 burner cooktop, and a fridge. Larger campervans, often called motorhomes, usually have the same configuration, but with more generous dimensions, and have a combined shower/toilet, more storage and internal space, a TV, and a heater. The best equipped one that I’ve hired also had a very handy external fold out barbeque and table.
Campervan hire is like booking a flight with a budget airline. The bargain airfare quickly turns into a bloated deal by the time extras are added: checked luggage, a meal, an allocated seat, credit card surcharges, and the like. With campervan hire, the extras can often more than double the initial appealing quote, and many can be avoided or reduced with planning.
Careful preliminary reading of the documentation allows you to avoid paying for unnecessary extras. It’s unwise to arrive at the hire company’s office tired after a long flight or journey without having properly appreciated in advance all the tricky elements of the deal and their cheaper alternatives.
A few months ago, I hired a campervan in Queensland for 28 days. I saved about $1,000, paying around $57 per day instead of $90 per day, mainly by taking out my own insurance cover for damage or an accident, rather than following the hire company’s preferred procedure. Incidentally, if I had used the hire company’s cover I would have still been liable for an additional excess of $250 instead of nil with my own insurance.
The information below is quite detailed because hiring arrangements are made complex by the dense nature of the contracts used by hire companies. Ultimately that detail will only be of interest to someone seriously thinking of adopting some gypsy freedom. If you’re not so inclined, Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon may convert you.
The next photo is of the virtually brand new camper I hired in May 2014 in New Zealand. The daily hire rate was AU$30.33 per day. There were extras, but as outlined below, there are ways to reduce them.
Another picnic spot by the sea in New Zealand
Our small campervan (a Toyota Hi Ace) on the ferry from Townsville to Magnetic Island in north Queensland
Seaside camping at beautiful Cape Hillsborough National Park, near Mackay, North Queensland.
The photo below shows the beach a few metres in front of the camp site at Cape Hillsborough.
Details of Main Savings and Issues
1. Know the contract terms
Each hire company uses its own detailed contract. While there is no standard form, most share common features that often parallel car rental contracts. When a booking is made in advance, the hire company supplies a summary of contract to be signed on collection of the vehicle. I treat this document as an important and lucrative (or loss-making) issue. The one finally presented usually adds some additional onerous terms.
The hire contract will contain many restrictions. For example, most campervan contracts prohibit the hirer from driving on unsealed roads (or off-road), unless it’s a short defined distance on a well maintained road to a recognised camping ground. I hire a 4wd camper if I want to explore on dirt roads or go off road.
2. When to hire
Prices are highest at peak holiday times, particularly around Christmas, Easter, school holidays, and at seasonal times when demand is likely to be high. In Australia, winter holiday-makers flock north (to northern New South Wales and Queensland, northern Western Australia and the Northern Territory) to escape the cold or cooler weather further south. The reverse migration pattern applies in summer.
Camper hire companies cut hire rates drastically out of season. For example:
(a) In New Zealand and Tasmania, May to September rates are relatively cheap.
Factor in the weather if choosing to hire within these dates. My own experience is that the North Island in NZ is fine to visit in May (as is Tasmania) with sunny days, little or no wind, days that are around the high teens to low 20s (celsius) in temperature, and cool nights. Nice for camping. Higher altitudes will be colder, of course. A larger campervan should have a gas or diesel heater for warmth if required. (Check the contract).
Hire companies regularly offer specials. For example, Britz in November 2015 offered a 25% discount on hire charges for Tasmania over March and April.
(b) Relocating a camper can be very cheap, sometimes for nil to $1 a day.
A relocation may also include reimbursement of fuel costs, and if relevant, a sea crossing (in New Zealand between the North and South Islands, and in Australia, the Bass Straight crossing between Melbourne and Tasmania).
There could be major savings involved. I recently read a quote of AU$750 for a return crossing of Bass Strait – Melbourne to Tasmania – for a 7 metre long motorhome. As a reference, a Mercedes Sprinter motorhome is about 7.6 metres long.
However, watch the insurance issue as noted below. It also applies to a relocation.
The main negative of a relocation is that the hirer is only given a limited time to complete the journey.
3. Liability and Insurance
Essentially, the hire contract provides that the hirer (renter) is responsible for any damage to the vehicle or its fittings (usually including tyres and windscreen) or for damage to another vehicle or other property. The liability is regardless of fault.
Here, major savings can be made.
(a) Use an appropriate credit card to pay for your campervan hire, one that includes travel insurance cover, specifically covering your hire vehicle accident liability. Read your credit card contract carefully, as the terms differ from issuer to issuer. Examples of some differences and issues:
Some cards only cover passenger vehicles.
All have limits on the maximum accident liability cover. The ones I’ve checked have an upper limit of $5,000. Some hire companies impose a higher sum for liability, for example, $7,500 for a Britz motorhome and some of Apollo’s larger motorhomes.
Some cards, like my ANZ Visa Platinum Frequent Flyer card, apply to passenger vehicles only in Australia, but also apply to passenger vehicles and campervans overseas.
If you rely on your credit card for cover, ensure that you have activated the cover. For example, the credit card contract may require a minimum amount to be spent on travel costs using the card before the cover applies.
If you do rely on your credit card for cover, hire companies generally require a payment of the full amount of your accident liability under the hire contract. With my last hire, I was required to pay $5,000 (the accident liability amount) to the hire company (Apollo) – only by credit card – for the amount to be refunded within 28 working days of the completion of the hire. Plus their 2% surcharge. In fact, the refund was made after about 3 weeks.
This practice seems to be designed to strongly discourage people from opting out of the hire company’s insurance scheme. If you have a lazy $5,000 of credit with your card, you will incur fees – cash advance interest – before receiving a refund.
If it’s an international transaction, an overseas visitor hiring a vehicle in New Zealand for example, then the credit card payment to the hire company attracts currency conversion fees from the hirer’s bank, and the hire company’s bank initially, then the same again when the refund is made.
(b) Take out your own insurance cover. If you have travel insurance, it may cover you. On my recent 28 day campervan hire, I paid $125.80 for my own insurance cover that simply covered hire vehicle excess liability instead of paying $1,232 to the hire company.
I used RACV, one of Australia’s motorists’ organisations. See:
Apollo is representative of hire companies in only accepting payment by credit card. It charges a non-refundable fee of 2% on Visa and Mastercard and 4.5% for American Express or Diners Club.
This means that you cannot take advantage of saving by paying by direct deposit or in cash.
4. Other extras and issues to watch out for
It’s convenient to hire various extras along with the vehicle to make your holiday more comfortable. On the other hand, some can be easily obtained elsewhere at better prices.
GPS – Hire companies charge around $10 per day (usually with a maximum of $100). Bring your own if possible. Most smart phones now have a GPS, although you may need an app or map if visiting a foreign country. Paper maps still work.
Outdoor table and chairs. Rather than pay the hire fee of $17 per chair and $24 for the table (total $58), I buy them from a shop like KMart or Bunnings for around $7 per chair and $19 per table (total $33). Donate them to a charity (Opp Shop) or give them away at the end of the holiday.
Don’t assume that the daily hire rate is cheaper the longer the hire period. This is true up to a point, but with my most recent hire the daily rate increased after 28 days.
5. Cooking for yourself
Buying meals constantly can be both expensive and unattractive, depending on your food preferences. Travelling provides opportunities to buy fresh produce at markets and farmers’ outlets, and seafood along the coast.
I prefer a picnic or meal in the open air with fresh local ingredients, together with a cheeky local wine, rather than a deep fried generic meal in a pub or cafe that offers nothing notable about its taste, location or origin.
Of course, eating out is important when it’s notable for the food, view, ambiance, or cultural experience, laziness….
As one whose culinary skills are most advanced in the fields of kitchen hand and washing up, I am acutely aware of the importance of observing the views of the chief cook on the issue of eating in or out.
6. Check the state of the vehicle at the time of hire, and at the end
Make sure that the vehicle report you sign when collecting the vehicle accurately states any pre-exisiting damage. I’ve found Britz and Apollo good on this issue of vehicle condition, but have experienced the opposite elsewhere. Take similar care on the vehicle’s return.
7. Where to camp – expensive, cheap or free?
Camping fees can be a major part of holiday costs.
In Australia, the nightly fee for a campervan with on-site power at a commercial camping ground/caravan park/holiday park will generally be about $35 to $45 for 2 persons. Extra fees are charged for additional guests.
As an illustration, my daughter recently paid $66 nightly for a powered beach front camping site at Tathra on NSW’s south coast for 2 adults and 2 children.
Higher fees are usually charged for peak periods, popular locations, and where there are more facilities (swimming pools, water slides, entertainment centres and so on). My experience of New Zealand is that the fees are at least as high.
Cheaper paid camping is available, although not necessarily in the most popular or well known destinations. National parks, and campgrounds in less frequented locations generally offer lower fees or none, usually for fewer facilities, or none.
Most hire campervans and motorhomes have a dual battery system that allows camping using 12 volt power from the auxiliary battery for lighting, while the cook top and refrigerator use gas. Therefore, it’s feasible to camp away from mains elecricity for a few days.
One potentially relevant issue is whether your campervan has an onboard toilet, as many municipalities require free camper vehicles to be self-contained in terms of toilet and waste water facilities. On the other hand, experienced Australian campers know that in the bush, a short walk with a shovel can solve those issues.
New Zealand is generally more accommodating than Australia towards free camping, and doing so at beautiful coastal locations is much easier than on Australia’s east coast. On the other hand, Australia has great free camping opportunities away from the coast. One of my favourites is to camp on the Murray River, our longest river, where there are numerous free camp sites stretching over hundreds of kilometres where you can enjoy Australia’s unique timelessness, most often without anyone else around.
7. The exchange rate
If you are visiting from another country, the exchange rate is an important cost factor.
Only a couple of years ago, the Australian dollar was above parity with the US dollar. Now (December 2015), US$.73 = AU$1, so an American who wants to holiday in Australia and hire a campervan is getting a 30%+ discount from the Aussie dollar’s recent high point. The Euro exchange rate is also better for a visitor to Australia than several years ago.
8. High season hire costs with no savings
In early November 2015, an Apollo Euro Tourer just like the one in the first photo above – a 2 berth motorhome with shower and toilet – would cost $226 per day to hire for 2 weeks over the Christmas period (15-28 December) from Melbourne + extras:
$44 per day to reduce the accident liability to $250 ($616)
After many visits to Bangkok over the years, last week I saw something extraordinary, something that seemed unimaginable. This was in Banglamphu, one of the oldest areas of Bangkok.
In the klong (canal) outside my hotel, the water was being churned, splashed and swirled around by what looked like a Loch Ness Monster: a long tail thrashing in and out of the water, a slender reptilian head emerging, forked tongue flashing, eddies and swirls in the water, then another head appearing.
My mind was also swirling. Perhaps it was some mutant, malformed by exposure to the less than pristine water.
I turned to point out the extraordinary event unfolding 30 metres away to some locals, who were sitting in the shade of the big trees by the canal and enjoying a cup of tea and conversation. My embarassingly meagre Thai vocabulary did not equip me to do anything other than point dramatically in the direction of the primaeval happenings, now transformed into a couple of large creatures swimming on the surface of the water. With the usual Thai response of being polite and patient when dealing with a deranged farang (foreigner), they smiled understandingly, indicating that the spectacle was the equivalent of being alerted to the fact that there were cars driving on the road. This was an everyday occurrence.
After some comments in Thai, eventually one of the spectators said ‘komodo’, and everything started to make sense. So, my astonishment was just fed by ignorance. In fact, it’s well known that Bangkok’s waterways are frequented by the Water Monitor (varanussalvator), a species that lives throughout South East Asia and can grow to 3.2 metres long.
Thailand’s Water Monitor, hia in Thai, looks familiar to Australian eyes, because it’s a close relative of the goanna, or Lace Monitor (varanus variius), which grows up to 2.1 metres long, and is also related to Indonesia’s komodo.
When camping in the bush or by the sea back home in Australia, it’s always nice to be visited by a goanna or two as they wander around the campsite using their forked tongues to smell for food.
I never expected to see a similar sight in the middle of a big Asian city. Travel definitely broadens the mind.
The sun begins to light up the sky over south-east Bali.
In the distance the island’s holy mountain, Gunung Agung, emerges from the morning mist.
As the light increases, a fisherman casts his net around the moored traditional fishing boats – Jungkung in Balinese and Prahu in Bahasa Indonesian – while a couple of boatmen already have their boats moving in readiness to brave the often turbulent tidal streams and waves offshore.
The boats look like aquatic praying mantises in the morning light. With their canoe-like hulls and bamboo outriggers, they have a reassuring seaworthiness for their fishermen skippers, as well as for visitors who travel in them for snorkelling and diving pursuits, or as transport to the beautiful Gili Islands off Lombok’s coast.
A family of five comes to the beach for their morning ritual, saluting the mountain and the rising sun. They wade chest deep into the water, releasing and watching their floral offerings drift out to sea.
Others, alone or in groups, are sometimes silent, or murmuring, or conversing. They imbibe the dawn while the sea at this coral reef protected beach quietly and soothingly adds sounds to the hypnotic scene.
On a clear morning, across the Lombok Straight, another volcanic shape can be seen, 3726 metre high Mount Rinjani, as well as the white cliffs of Nusa Penida, another island about 15 kilometres across the sea.
The dawn described above is a world away from the gross features of mass tourism that afflict a small part of Bali, yet it takes place at a major tourist destination. Here, traditional rituals, culture and ceremonies flourish at least as strongly as a generation ago.
Perhaps the wealth generated by tourism has had some positive effects. Historians often suggest that the European Renaissance, the flowering of the arts, literature and intellectual pursuits, required a degree of wealth, patronage and leisure to promote those cultural activities. As in Bali?
As a regular visitor to Bali and quite a few other islands in Indonesia’s 17,000 plus archipelago over many decades, Bali remains a beguiling place to visit for the warmth, humour, respect and culture of the people, the great food, and the extraordinary diversity and beauty of its landscapes, beaches and undersea. Traditional life and culture have survived better than some imagine.
Kerala state in India’s tropical south promotes itself as God’s Own Country. Although the claim to be India’s Venice may be a little fanciful for Kerala’s Aleppuzha (or Alleppy), its annual Nehru Trophy Boat Race and attendant festivities are truly spectacular, and spending time on the adjoining backwaters is a sublime experience.
For visitors, the backwaters are best explored by houseboat, formerly a traditional riceboat (or ketuvellum), now a comfortable, relaxed and gentle glide through the vast Kerala waterways.
The waters are fringed by coconut palms, almost painfully green rice fields, and brilliantly painted houses. The locals go about their daily activities: immaculately dressed children travel to and from school by boat, women (yes, invariably women) wash clothes the old way, rinsing and squeezing and audibly bashing them against hard surfaces, small passenger ferries course up and down collecting and discharging passengers, a man in a small dugout canoe drifts by using his net to catch fish, raising an umbrella to ward off rain, farmers walk to their small holdings to work, and innumerable kingfishers perch high, diving frequently in a blue flash into the water.