The Road to Gunbalanya Social Club

Living and working in Kakadu, I came to hear of Arnhem Land, an area of Aboriginal land larger than almost half of the world’s countries yet somehow hidden in a remote, isolated corner of Australia’s sparse Northern Territory. One of “the last true wildernesses” on earth, Arnhem Land is home to wild, empty beaches, pristine rivers and uninhabited tropical islands, not to mention thousands of kilometres of unspoilt rainforest, savannah and “stone country”. This is one of the few places in Australia where Aboriginal traditions and lifestyle live on.

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Gunbalanya, otherwise known as Oenpelli

Across the Arnhem Land border is Gunbalanya (also known as “Oenpelli“, “Kunbarllanjnja” in Kunwinjku, and “Unbalanj” by the original Mengerrdji-speakers) and in Gunbalanya – officially a “dry” community – there is one bar: the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club.

There are many local rumours surrounding this bar; rumours concerning the vast quantity of alcohol consumed and the crazy, dodgy situations that necessarily result. One story goes that a satellite picked up an enormous tin deposit in this spot, but when the mining company showed up, they found only a sea of discarded cans, built up over years, out the back of the pub. The cans have since been removed.

The day I heard about this place, open only four days a week, for limited hours, and selling only light to mid-strength beers by the can or stubby, it became my life’s goal to get there.

My only informant on the matter was Seb, who often drinks with Aboriginal friends and knows Arnhem Land from countless fishing trips, but he couldn’t understand why I wanted to go. Everyday in the kitchen we’d have the same discussion.

“It’s a shithole. There’s nothing there. Just drunks and petrol sniffers.” (Two teenagers died and a third got permanent brain damage back in 2006, despite unleaded fuel being banned in Arnhem Land.)

But being warned against going somewhere is nothing new to me. I had the same thing when I insisted on crossing into Mexico at a time when the US media were going nuts with the Mexican drug war.

“I like shitholes. You’ll just have to take my word for it…If you see my blog, you’ll understand why I have to go.”

“One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” (I like to think this phrase is also true of tourist destinations.)

“I don’t even think you’ll be able to get a drink there. You’re not a member of the community and they’re pretty strict now on who they serve.”

Signing in as International Visitor at the Jabiru Sports and Social Club, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Signing in as an “International Visitor” at the JS

The drink situation around here is very serious.

  • At the JS (Jabiru Sports & Social Club) you have to register as an “International Visitor” before you can be served at the bar.
  • The Kakadu Lodge (also in Jabiru) issue an “Alcohol Card” to their guests wishing to use their bar.
  • One of the first things I noticed about the supermarket in Jabiru was that there’s no bottle shop.
  • The traditional owners of sites such as Ubirr request that no alcohol be consumed.
  • Even the festivals are “dry”, as I found out when we went to Mahbilil Festival.
Alcohol cards for Kakadu Lodge bar in Jabiru, Northern Territory, Australia

Alcohol cards issued for the bar at the Kakadu Lodge

More on the “Aboriginal drink problem” later.

Seb gradually warmed to the idea, even if he did think I was an idiot. One drunken night he even almost signed himself up to take me there…but of course later came to his senses. Anyway, without his advice – such as to drop plenty of psi out of our tyres – I might never have made it.

I had many obstacles to face:

  • The only road into West Arnhem Land is heavily corrugated, unsealed and 4WD-only recommended. Our bakery van is definitely not 4WD, and Seb had already warned us, “in the Territory, if it doesn’t say it’s sealed, don’t risk it.”
  • This includes driving through the East Alligator, a major tidal river (twice) only possible for a brief window every twelve hours.
  • As I’ve said, the bar is only open four days a week, for limited hours. (Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday & Saturday evenings from 6pm, I believe.)
  • Entry into Arnhem Land is restricted and a permit is required from the Northern Land Council (NLC), who will pretty much only issue one for visits to the Injalak Arts Centre. Somehow I didn’t think they would take kindly to my true intentions. I was torn: go without a permit or lie to get one.
  • And, perhaps most importantly, I would have to get a day off work – no easy feat in itself.

To complicate matters even further, the van got a flat just heading into Jabiru, at which point we discovered that some idiot had put sports wheels on it. The one tyre shop in Jabiru refused to tyre it up (Tim and Sarah had had an over-optimistic crack at the Gibb River Road – famous for its wild Outback terrain – and so the rims would most likely never hold air again) so we had to somehow procure a set of original steel rims from Darwin and the van was sat up on bricks for a few weeks.

Being not a sexy, single young woman, getting anyone to take me in their 4WD proved impossible. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

I called the NLC to ask about a permit.

“Do you have a car?

“Er…yeah, but I’ll probably just hitch.”

“Sorry, I won’t give you a permit for that.”

“Oh, okay – ”

“You can’t do that in the communities.”

“Oh, okay.” (I said I’d call back when my car was fixed.)

A select few tour operators, either indigenous-run or who’ve gained the trust of the traditional owners, are allowed to bring in visitors, but firstly these tours start at about $250 and secondly Ruth, who worked on reception and had managed to get a free tour, reported back to me that there would definitely be no opportunity to “slip away for a bit” and that any attempt to convince the driver to make a detour via the bar would no doubt be met with a “no”.

Artist's studio at Injalak Arts Centre, Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Injalak Arts: Just a typical artist’s studio? Photo by Ruth.

Screen-printing designs at Injalak Arts Centre, Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Screen-printing designs at Injalak Arts Centre. Photo by Ruth.

Aboriginal baby in plastic tub in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Just a baby in a tub. Photo by Ruth.

There are also certain special events, such as an “open day” once a year (in July, I think) when you don’t need a permit, but it seems I’d missed all these.

Oh and if that wasn’t enough, the Wet season started, so, after three months without a single drop of rain (honestly!) the roads were now partially flooded.

(I have to confess, I did get one opening, when the tides, my day off, the bar opening times, NLC opening times, everything came together, Seb came to me and said, “we just got back from Arnhem Land and the road’s been graded…It’s in the best state I’ve seen it in two years. I think you’ll even be able to do it in your van.” And then I went and got drunk in the bar and slept through what looked like my only chance to go to the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club.

“Such is life.” – Ned Kelly

But if you’re determined enough to do something, you’ll do it (unless that something is to eat a gold brick). Another opportunity presented itself and this time, rain or no rain, I wasn’t going to waste it.

It was Friday, 7th November. The NLC was open until 4.15 pm, Injalak until 5 pm and the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club that night. According to Willy Weather there would be a record low tide of 0.6 metres at precisely 5:37 pm, which would give me a two hour window either side of that to get in, do my thing and get out again.

Incidentally it was also a full moon, 35 degrees (25 at night) and with a 60% chance of rain, which would almost certainly see me stranded on the other side of “the East” until morning. I’ll take those odds! The sun would set at 6:40 pm.

In a strange coincidence, the NLC happened to be holding a conference at our resort at the time, so I’d managed to procure a copy of the conference paperwork and an NLC keyring, which I planned to flash around later if any trouble were to arise. (You never know.) Just as I was about to leave, as an afterthought, I realised that if all the NLC staff were here, there might be nobody in their office. I called them.

They were there, but about to close.

Ruth managed to get the arvo off too, so we jumped in the van (with its fresh new set of wheels and heavy-duty, eight-ply tyres) and raced off to get our permits.

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Modern Aboriginal street art in Jabiru

I would give you directions to the NLC, but everything in Jabiru is in the same place. It’s attached to the library, if that’s any help.

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The buildings in Jabiru are smeared with hand prints. Black means somebody died and the building is not to be disturbed. I can only assume this one means, “open for business”.

All the buildings in these blocks are smeared once around with hand prints, an act that anywhere else in the world would be considered vandalism, but here, I assume, means “open for business”. When somebody dies, black hand prints are used and the area is off limits. Seb had told me about the lonesome, abandoned houses along the tracks of Arnhem Land, smeared with black; places you cannot go.

Some things you should know about Aboriginal etiquette in these parts:

  • Don’t reference, or display images of the dead.
  • They’re not big fans of intense eye contact.
  • They don’t use greetings when they meet like we Westerners do.
  • They don’t use names in the same way either. Rather “kinship terms” such as “brother”.
  • Don’t take photos without permission.
  • Boh boh (pronounced “bor bor”) is “goodbye”.

The permit is $16 and you need your vehicle rego (registration; number plate; license plate) number (I had to go back out to the car park to get mine) and they give you a copy of the tide times and a sheet of information that says in big, bold capitals:

THIS PERMIT ALLOWS THE HOLDER TO TRAVEL DIRECTLY TO INJALAK ART CENTRE FROM CAHILLS CROSSING.

TRESPASSING ON ABORIGINAL LAND WITHOUT A PERMIT IS ILLEGAL

  • DO NOT STOP THE CAR AT ANY POINT DURING YOUR ROAD TRANSIT TO INJALAK
  • DO NOT TRAVEL DOWN ANY OTHER ROAD APART FROM THE TRANSIT ROAD TO INJALAK
  • DO NOT STOP IN THE GUNBALANYA/OENPELLI COMMUNITY, GO DIRECTLY TO INJALAK

The permit itself starts like this:

PERMIT TO ENTER & REMAIN ON ABORIGINAL LAND OR SEAS ADJOINING ABORIGINAL LAND

“The person named below is authorised to enter Aboriginal land only to visit Injalak Arts and Craft Centre and partake in tourism activities…”

…and among a long list of “TERMS AND CONDITIONS” are:

“1. This permit does not authorise entry into any buildings, dwellings, living areas or camps.

2. Permit holders must travel directly to their destination and not divert. No new tracks are to be created.

4. This permit is valid only for the purposes stated herein.

5. The carrying and consumption of alcohol is prohibited under part VII of the Liquor Act.

14. Motor vehicles and boats must be in a satisfactory condition and reasonable spare parts, food, fuel and water must be carried.

16. The permit holder enters Aboriginal land at his or her own risk…in respect of death…”

…etc, etc.

To anyone who thinks it was wrong of me to break the conditions of an official document, which I signed, I have this question for you to ponder: did any problems ever get solved by hiding them under a blanket?

Sometimes (actually, quite often, in my experience) an official body or authority can be wrong while an individual is right.

From Jabiru, you head back a couple of kms on the Arnhem Highway, then turn right on the Oenpelli Highway for 40 kms (this part described in my post on Ubirr). At Cahill’s Crossing - end of the road for my Ubirr story, but just the beginning for this one – you have to drive through the East Alligator River. “Whatever you do,” said Seb, “don’t stop. Just keep driving until you hit the other side.”

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Driving through the East Alligator River!

I ploughed through, throwing up waves like I’ve never seen, too focused to look out for the crocodiles that we knew were in the water.

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Cahill’s Crossing from the Arnhem Land side – Aboriginal land!

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A permit is required to enter Arnhem Land Aboriginal land.

Once on the Arnhem Land side, it’s a 15 km stretch of unsealed road that roughly follows the dramatic Arnhem Land escarpment through flood plains and tropical monsoon forest.

“This is the beautiful part.” She told me in the NLC office, “but don’t stop. Our rangers drive up and down that road every day and they will dob you in.” The greens and blues of the floodplains and billabongs, lush with the recent rain, made quite a sight blended with the deep red earth…

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The road follows the Arnhem Land escarpment on the one side…

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…and lush, green floodplains on the other.

…and the occasional burnt-out car. Apparently the local Aborigines get free cars from the government – a bone of contention with everyone else, as you can imagine. Arnhem Land’s remoteness makes a vehicle almost a basic necessity of life out here, but the abandoned cars at the roadside prove that people aren’t likely to value something they got for nothing.

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Burnt-out and abandoned cars are a common sight on the Oenpelli road.

By the way, on a complete side note, Arnhem Land is the birthplace of the didgeridoo, where it is known by many names (none of them even close to “didgeridoo”) including mako in Kunwinjku and yidaki in Yolngu…at least up until 2011, when some guy with a name sounding something like Yidaki died and they switched to mandapul.

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The road is unsealed, heavily corrugated and the Wet season has just announced itself.

We crawled along at 20 kmph, following the tracks of other (probably better suited) vehicles, shuddering over constant deep corrugations in the dirt, over pot-holes, through “puddles” almost as deep as the river, some spanning the entire road.

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Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, prepares to sing.

When, after 15 kms, you see the sign for the Oenpelli community and the road briefly becomes sealed again, take a left and follow the road round for 3 kms, past the only four places in town you’re allowed to go: police station, park, servo and shop. At the T-junction, swing a right and park up outside Injalak Arts.

Injalak Arts is a non-profit and one of only three Aboriginal-owned commercial enterprises in the community. (The others being an abattoir and of course the Gunbalanya Social, which I still had no idea how to get to.)

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Invited into the screen-printing workshop at Injalak Art Centre.

We went inside and were greeted by Sita, a Melbourne art student on an internship here. She showed us around and introduced us to some of the artists. “We have over 300 members of the community who actively contribute art. Some work here on site. Others bring it in from their outstations.” (After all, if you don’t work in the abattoir or the club, how else are you supposed to make money here?) Some men were painting, some women screen-printing and an old lady outside weaving baskets from jim jim (pandanus) leaves. We were given a little piece of it.

Old Aboriginal woman weaving from jim jim pandanus leaves outside Injalak Arts, Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Woman weaving jim jim leaves. Photo by Ruth.

“This one’s a freebie, is it?”

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Looking out across the river behind the Art Centre

From the back of the Injalak centre is an unimpeded view of the Adjumarrllal Billabong and, behind it, Injalak Hill, after which the centre is named. They also run tours up to Injalak Hill, which is home to some of the most impressive rock art galleries in the world.

Rock art gallery at Injalak Hill, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Rock art gallery at Injalak Hill. Photo by Ruth.

Back in the shop, I threw a coin in the “camp dogs fund” – set up to feed the stray dogs of the community – for once a cause I can get on board with - found out from a leaflet that if I wanted to I could learn Kunwinjku or Gundjeihmi for free, online at bininjgunwok.org.au (and also here) and we poked around at Cambodian-made clothes and art that, like original art the world over, only those few with money to throw away can afford. Luckily for Gunbalanya, those few with money to throw away are also partial to indigenous tours.

A sign on the wall said “CDEP Work Rules…11. No grog, no gunja.”

Sita showed us the Injalak Arts Facebook page and some photos she’d taken for the centre’s 25th birthday party, which we’d missed by just a few days.

Twenty-fifth birthday party for Injalak Arts Centre in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

The 25th birthday party of the Injalak Arts Centre! Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

Magpie guese hunters in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

“We don’t like to under-cater.” Magpie geese for the party. Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

Anne Gumurdul, Traditional Owner, with freshly caught ngalmangiyi long-necked turtle on floodplains of Adjumarllarl billabong

“Anne Gumurdul, Traditional Owner, with a freshly caught ngalmangiyi (long-necked turtle) on the floodplains of Adjumarllarl billabong.” Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

 in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Dancers, Joey and Harry, at Injalak’s 25th birthday party. Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

Band at Injalak Art Centre 25th birthday party in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

The band at Injalak’s 25th birthday party. Photo by Sita. Source: Injalak Arts Facebook page

I decided to broach the subject of the bar. She’d never been, but it turned out she was planning to go that evening, to celebrate one of her last nights in Arnhem Land with all the friends she’d made. She gave us directions: back though town, right after the police station, walk a bit, second left and follow it ’til it ends at the Club.

“Cool. Maybe we’ll see you there…”

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Injalak Hill from Gunbalanya

We had some time to kill, so we ambled along the banks of the billabong, though not too close (crocs) and played on the swings in the park amidst the iced-coffee cartons…

Keep Gunbalanya Beautiful sign at Injalak Arts, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land

Who are you trying to kid, Gunbalanya? Photo by Ruth.

…and the graffiti that blends ten thousand years of artistic tradition with…well, cocks.

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Traditional Aboriginal art, modern street art and graffiti penis combine in Gunbalanya.

I almost forgot – one of the conditions on the permit:

“11. All rubbish must be disposed of properly or removed from Aboriginal land.”

We did our bit.

Someone once told me that Aboriginal attitudes to litter tend to be something along the lines of: “White fellas brought litter to Australia. White fellas can pick it up.”

I think that might just be the dumbest opinion represented in this post, which considering most of the others are mine, is really saying something.

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Swinging in Gunbalanya.

As it neared 6 o’clock we got on our feet again, passed the school and a truck that seems to double as a police station, and now we were officially out of the bounds of our permit. The occasional camp dog eyed us from the dust. It was hard to believe you were in Australia, a “developed” country. I was reminded of the time I was invited onto the Montreal Lake First Nations (Native American) reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada.

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The “Police Station” in Gunbalanya

We soon became aware that we were part of a mass march or procession, the numbers growing exponentially with every street that converged onto ours. People were crossing fields and empty lots, appearing from the spaces between houses, all headed in the same direction. It was clear we weren’t going to need those directions from here. Everyone was going to the Social Club.

Dogs and wallaby at Aboriginal house in Gunbalanya/Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Pet dogs and…a wallaby!

According to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald (the only other account I could find of someone having been to the Gunbalanya Social Club) this migration across town is made by 300 to 600 people a night. Remember the population of Gunbalanya? That’s between a quarter and half of it!

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The much anticipated Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club!

The outside of the Club wasn’t much to look at, but once signed in (which went down as smoothly as could be hoped for), it stood in stark contrast to the rest of the community. Shady palms lined green, well-mowed lawns. The new community swimming pool next door made sure everyone knew who paid for it; the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club, of course.

Sunset and palm trees in beer garden of Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Sunset, palms and green grass at the Gunbalanya Social beer garden

People came to watch the national news on big plasma screen TVs as it did its bit to spread racism and hatred throughout the country. ISIS or whatever they’re called were killing some hostages or something somewhere in the world, if I rightly recall.

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The locals come to watch the national news on the big screen.

There was one other table of whiteys and everyone else was Aborigine, as you might expect.

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Sipping on a hard-earned, ice-cold can of VB Gold.

We ordered a couple of cans of VB Gold without difficulty, drank those hard-earned, ice-cold bad-boys down, perhaps a little too quickly, and got in another, which we sipped and savoured out in the beer garden massaged by the long rays of the setting sun.

Drinking can or tin of VB Gold at Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

Drinking a mid-strength beer at the Gunbalanya Sports & Social Club. Mission accomplished.

Guys drinking Carlton Mid and VB Gold at the Gunbalanya Sports and Social Club, Oenpelli, Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia

The guys

We explored a little, took some photos and soon people were chatting to us, taking photos with us…

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Ruth getting friendly with the locals.

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“No, you can’t take my photograph.” “Oh, I’m sorry, you believe it will take your spirit away.” “No, you got the lens-cap on it.” – Crocodile Dundee

Anyway, the sun set and the storm clouds gathered and it was time to say, “boh boh.”

“Boh boh!”

We raced the storm, driving through the river in complete darkness and running into a torrential downpour not ten minutes later.

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Sunset in Arnhem Land. Time to hit the road again.

Success!

It may seem like a long way to go and a lot to go through for a couple of beers, but you know what they say, it’s about the journey, really.

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Kakadu bound!

When we got back, Seb, Maike, Pottsy, Azza, Rachael, Rod and the whole gang were sheltering in the barbecue area, already well on their way. Fast-forward to 4 am. I’m drinking with Dean. Seb’s just gone to the ranger station to drop off an Aboriginal friend, whose name I forget, but who Azza insisted “looks like a Jimmy”.

Drunk in Kakadu

Azza and Rachael, pissed at the barbecue

We’re in the middle of some deep, philosophical discussion when Dean says, “yep, that’s definitely a snake by your leg, bro,” and then, as I’m slowly drawing my legs up onto the bench, “don’t worry, it’s just a python”.

Time to call it a day.

Scar ceremony

only light to mid-strength beers by the can or “stubby”

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

Maguk (Barramundi Gorge)

Only accessible in the Dry (season) and by four-wheel-drive (well, in theory), Maguk is a verdant gorge complete with tumbling waterfall, deep blue plunge-pool with crystal clear water teaming with fish, and even a “secret” path leading to a series of sparkling swimming holes hidden behind the top of the falls.

(“Secret” in the sense that it’s not advertised, signposted or mentioned in any brochures or guidebooks. Not secret in as far as almost every local knows about it and is quite happy to spill the beans.)

Despite being in a national park frequented by tourists, Maguk has somehow (perhaps due to its relatively inaccessible location) escaped the larger visitor numbers that you might expect at nearby Gunlom.

Gunlom, Kakadu National Park

Gunlom. (Photo from http://tourismtopend.com.au/.)

With all the things to do in Kakadu, everyone has their favourite spot in the park. This is mine (and Azza’s, who recommended it to us). In a place so dry, it’s no wonder all the best attractions are water-based. (Jim Jim Falls, Twin Falls, Maguk, Gunlom, Mamukala, Yellow Water, the billabongs, wetlands, rivers…I rest my case.)

I won’t bore you with words when the photos speak for themselves. (In the travel blogging industry, we like to call this a “photo essay”, by which we mean we’re too lazy/busy to write and we know you’re too lazy/busy to read it.)

Corrugated, unsealed four wheel drive reccommended road to Maguk in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Driving the corrugated, unsealed, 4WD-only road to Maguk in our van

Having just had a new set of wheel rims and eight-ply tyres, we decided to take on the unsealed, 4WD-only road to Maguk in our (non-4WD) van. The corrugations, though they may not look like much to the uninitiated, gave us one hell of a beating. Seb had told me that if you go over 100 kilometres an hour, you fly across the top of the corrugations and barely feel them. This is true, but, as I got over fifty, I went into a slide, realising I had almost no control over the vehicle and almost veering off the road.

The only other way to do it was to crawl along at less than twenty.

What’s only a 10 km turnoff seemed to take an agonisingly long time.

Luckily for us, the part that makes the road only suitable for 4WDs – an area of deep sand that we would’ve had to floor it through if there was any hope of not getting stuck – had miraculously been filled in with gravel, so we made it through without incident.

We parked up and followed the rest of the trail – a 2km return walk – on foot.

Turquoise blue green water at Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The deep turquoise waters as we approach Maguk

Estuarine crocodile warning sign at Maguk, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

“…crocodiles are known to enter this area undetected at any time.”

No climbing or jumping from rocks. Penalties apply. Warning sign at Maguk

Later we would remember (and of course ignore) this.

A path, marked only by the occasional arrow in the rock, lead through “monsoon forest”, over jagged rocks, through the river (which, I remind you, may have crocs in) and along its sandy, sometimes even beach-like banks.

River trail leading to Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Crossing the river and following it to the Gorge

As you work your way upriver, beautiful pools reflect the blue of the sky and the vibrant greens of this strange oasis and you’ll want to jump in and start swimming already, but keep going and you’ll soon be blown away by Maguk itself.

Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) through jim jim water pandanus aquaticus in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

First glimpse of Maguk through the jim jim (water pandanus)

Maguk or Barramundi Gorge in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Maguk! (Otherwise known as Barramundi Gorge.)

I laid down on the stone slab at the water’s edge and marveled at the blue-green reflection of the gorge shimmering simultaneously along with the fish that danced in the deep blue beneath the surface.

Reflections on water and fish in Maguk, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

The reflection and deep blue, clear waters of Maguk

Photos just didn’t capture it. I had to go video.

We swam out over the deep plunge pool (in which many Taiwanese people have drowned for some reason) – the scene (almost) too perfect to be thinking about crocodiles – to hidden ledges, through vast shadows, into the sparkling sunlight and even beneath the waterfall itself.

While we were out there a local guide appeared. We told him we’d heard about a secret path that leads to the top of the waterfall and a series of swimming holes in the rock and asked him if he knew where it was. Of course he did. “You head back along the river until you see the first place to cross without getting wet. On the other side, keep walking straight, with the river to your back, and eventually, after 100 metres or so, you’ll cross a path. Turn right and just keep following it…”

Then he dove into the water and swam to a little nook in the rock that we hadn’t even noticed, just big enough to conceal him, and he was gone…

We followed his directions. The path he’d spoken of was barely distinguishable from its surroundings and at first I wasn’t sure if it was the right one…

Secret hidden trail path to swimming holes at Maguk, Kakadu National Park

A hidden, unmarked and barely distinguishable path leads to the “secret” swimming holes above the waterfall.

…but soon a couple of partial footprints instilled us with confidence, and it all came good in the end.

The path emerged from under the foliage and into the unforgiving heat of the sun. It wound around the edges of what felt like a hot, dusty canyon, then up over the crest and down again. Then we knew for sure we’d found the place.

Secret unknown swimming holes and plunge pools at Maguk, Kakadu National Park

The “secret” swimming holes at the top of Maguk

We climbed down the steep rockface to the gleaming pools.

Natural infinity pool at the top of Maguk waterfall

A natural “infinity pool” at the top of the waterfall

View of Maguk plunge pool from top of waterfall at Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, NT

The view from the top

Secret round swimming holes at the top of Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park, NT

The swimming holes

We clambered over the damp rock, these tiny black frogs jumping around all over us, and followed the course of the water even further, every step revealing a new series of pools.

Barramundi Gorge behind Maguk waterfall and plunge pools

Following the gorge even further…

River at Barramundi Gorge behind and above Maguk waterfall and swimming holes

…and riding the river back again!

Deep round swimming hole plunge pool at Maguk with only one way out

Apparently the only way out of this one is to swim down a metre or two and through a tunnel…

Azza had told us about one pool that, once you get into it, the only way out is to swim down. So of course we stood on the rim and took photos.

Reflection in deep round swimming hole plunge pool at Maguk/Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu National Park

Staring into the abyss…and seeing myself at the bottom.

I considered diving in, but couldn’t see this tunnel he’d mentioned. The blackness was impenetrable. (He later told us it’s a couple of metres down…)

Reflection in Maguk swimming hole

Ruth’s arm always looks like that.

River at the top of Maguk waterfall, Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Relaxing at the top of the waterfall

Hours passed as we swam, dove, bathed and just relaxed and enjoyed the view from our very own, personal infinity pool atop the waterfall.

Maguk/Barramundi Gorge waterfall and plunge pool in Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Maguk waterfall and plunge pool from above

Eventually the threat of imminent sunburn caused us to flee the scene, but I don’t think I’ll ever forget the beauty of this place.

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Sunset at Ubirr Lookout

Day off.

The van up on jacks, the wheels two-hundred kilometres away in Darwin.

I was naked (as usual) when Vero knocked. Rod had fixed his “car” and was going to Ubirr. Did we want to go?

We grabbed some sandwiches for the road, Rod fueled up on resort and we sped off through the parched landscape. The trees clung to the red earth, somehow adapted to half the year spent without rain, and the other half spent drowned in it. Termite hills as tall as me peppered the landscape, along with the occasional burnt out or abandoned car.

Burnt out abandoned car at Cahill's Crossing, Kakadu National Park

Rod’s car, next in line for a good burning.

We passed large patches of blackened, smouldering forest. At first we thought it as the work of a wild bushfire, but actually these were controlled burnings, practiced by the locals for many thousands of years. “Whitefellas” have taken this long to realise the value of the burning, but it is done when the temperature is at its coolest and helps prevent larger, more devastating bushfires, removes undergrowth and helps encourages new growth and wildlife to return to the area. The Aborigines see fire as a nature occurrence, not something to be afraid of, and part of their duty as stewards of the land.

Rod swung a left just before Jabiru and now this was all new territory for me. The Arnhem Land escarpment (of which Ubirr is an outlying piece) rose up on our right while sparse patches of water still clung to the floodplains and billabongs to our left. The grass seemed to glow as the sun shone through it like a thick crop of blonde hair on a warm summer’s evening.

We passed Merl campground and pulled up at Cahill’s Crossing. For many this is the end of the road. From here you need to drive across the East Alligator – a major tidal river – and need a permit to enter Arnhem Land, the Aboriginal land on the other side.

But that’s another adventure.

Crocodile safety warning sign at the East Alligator River, Kakadu National Park

We’d been told.

We were here because Vero – my unofficial Spanish tutor and general creator of mirth – had never seen a crocodile. (We had.) So the four of us stood on the banks and watched as crocodiles moved about on the river, appearing on the surface only briefly, before descending back beneath the water with the rest of their lot.

Fishermen fishing from Cahill's Crossing on the East Alligator River, Kakadu National Park

“Brave” fishermen fish from the Crossing…

Brave (stupid) fishermen-and-women stood on the rocks or in the shallows and fished from the Crossing, as the occasional Aboriginal car or four-wheel-drive or road-train ploughed across the river at medium tide.

Crocs shoes and crocodiles at the East Alligator River

Can you spot the Crocs™?

Road train at Cahill's Crossing on the East Alligator River, Kakadu National Park

A road-train ploughs across the river at Cahill’s Crossing with ease.

Mosquitoes and flies buzzed all around, making their usual din. The flies here - march flies - bite and draw blood. Rod killed one just as it was in the process of lunching on his leg.

Everything in the Territory bites.

We stopped at the Border Store at Manbiyarra – a remote outstation beside the East Alligator river and Arnhem Land border, famous for its Thai food – for Vero to use the bathroom, but when she saw the state of the dunny (Outback toilet) she changed her mind and we were on the road again.

At Ubirr lies a rock art painting of the Rainbow Serpent – one of the oldest creator beings, known across much of Australia (locally as Almudj in Kunwinjku, Ngalyod in Gundjeihmi and Garranga’rreli in the no longer spoken language of Gagudju, from which “Kakadu” – the name of the Park – is derived) – who split and moved rock, creating rivers, wetlands and billabongs as she made her way through the land. (At Nourlangie, Christian the ranger told us of an ancient river – wider than any around today, that once ran through these lands, creating the Arnhem Land escarpment as its Eastern bank. Listening to this, I had to wonder; could this have been the Rainbow Serpent?)

On her travels the Rainbow Serpent passed through Ubirr, leaving the painting of herself, and crossed the East Alligator. She still rests somewhere deep in Arnhem Land, in a quiet waterhole, and, if disturbed, can cause floods and other natural disasters.

Rock art shelter at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park in Northern Territory

Ruth descends into the ancient shelter.

Rock art canvas and shelter at Ubirr gallery, Kakadu National Park, NT, Australia

The rock was both shelter and canvas, for 15,000 years!

Rod led the way, scrambling up the rocks, past rock art galleries thousands of years old, one of the Aboriginal rangers giving a free talk, rock wallabies bouncing through the dusty spinifex. A one-kilometre walking trail leads into the incredible “stone country” landscape before you climb 250 metres up onto Ubirr Rock – the Nadab Lookout – arguably the most beautiful sunset spot in the park.

Mimi spirits rock art at Ubirr, Kakadu National Park, Australia

Mimi spirits: the first creation ancestors to paint on rock

Of all the things to do in Kakadu, the lookouts are my favourite: steeped in Aboriginal tradition, they give context and perspective to everything you see down on the ground. Up here you see the bigger picture of Kakadu National Park, and nowhere else is its raw, wild beauty more evident – especially at sunrise and sunset. (Nawurlandja Lookout at Nourlangie is another.)

Ubirr Rock Lookout and Nadab floodplain at sunset in Kakadu National Park

Ubirr Rock: the Nadab Lookout!

The sun was getting low in the sky and we sat and watched as it shone through the long grass and sank slowly into its own reflection in the Nadab floodplain.

Nadab floodplain sunset view from Ubirr Rock lookout

Ruth, Rod and Vero gazing out over the Nadab floodplain

Rod looked totally at peace in this backdrop.

“I could live out here,” he said. “In the bush, catching and cooking my own food, camping out under the stars…”

I nodded in agreement.

Sunset over the Nadab floodplain at Ubirr, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Me, Rod and Vero watching the sunset

Rod’s from “Bundy” (Bundaberg). After his “old lady shot through”, leaving him to raise his daughter as a single parent, and having never been in a plane, out of Australia, or even Queensland, he one day decided to get the most out of life, packed up and set off across the continent in his high-clearance four-wheel-drive, laden to the sky with camping and fishing gear, spare tyres and jerries, and picking up work as he went. You meet very few people in this world who understand the value of this short life, but Rod’s one of them.

Nadab floodplain sunset in Kakadu National Park, Australia

Sunset over the Nadab floodplain

The sun set, as it has a way of doing – turning the sky and its reflection from blue to gold to red to black.

Sunset silhouette of Ubirr Rock lookout in Kakadu

Ubirr, after the sunset

On the way back (85 kilometres) we didn’t see a single car.

I guess Vero finally found a toilet.

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , | 1 Comment

Aboriginal Rock Art at Nourlangie

I’ve used the name “Nourlangie” in the title because otherwise almost no-one would know what I was talking about. The area mistakenly known as “Nourlangie” is actually made up of Burrunggui (the higher ground and Gunwarddehwarde Lookout) and Anbangbang (the lowlands and surroundings, home to the Anbangbang billabong and rock art gallery). Nearby is the Nawurlandja Lookout, of which “Nourlangie” was a corruption. I only say all this because, since the millennia-old names still survive, it would be really nice to go back to them (in my opinion, at least).

Backpacker van in South Alligator, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Ruth and Niina modelling the new “Shakerz Bakerz” van before heading for Nourlangie…

My first experience of traditional Aboriginal culture and gunbim (rock art), this region is one of, if not the most impressive collection of rock art in Australia and left me with a far deeper understanding of the land, the people and their history.

Aboriginal rock art of dancing figures at Nourlangie, Kakadu National Park, Australia

Care to dance?

From the Nourlangie car park a 1.5 kilometre circuit leads up through the ancient galleries, through a shelter that has been used for over 50,000 years. Due to its dry, covered location – a rare find in these parts – objects left behind over the centuries remain preserved and make up the shelter floor, making it possible to date its use.

Detail of rock art kangaroo at Nourlangie, Australia

Kangaroo – detail of a much larger piece

Aboriginals (in this region, at least) were traditionally a nomadic people. They had to be. The country and its food sources change completely from the Wet to the Dry, not to mention the myriad transitional sub-seasons in between. The bininj (Aboriginal people, of these parts) recognise six separate seasons. So there were no permanent settlements, but they often returned to the best spots – such as this one – year after year, generation after generation.

Aboriginal rock art at gallery near Nourlangie Rock, Kakadu National Park

More rock art…

The rock was their canvas, various minerals (chosen for their vibrant colours: reds, yellows, oranges, blacks) were made into paint and, in this “oral tradition”, this “living culture”, the paintings were used to pass on stories, important lessons and pieces of knowledge – to teach, in other words. The painting itself is a reminder for the next generation to tell the story, and it is in the act of repainting in which the story is told. This is why painting over another artist’s work is not only acceptable, but encouraged (only by those who know and understand the story, of course) while to destroy or erase a piece of art is considered a serious offence.

Aboriginal rock art gallery, Nourlangie

Niina and Ruth at the gallery

Many methods have been used to date the various pieces of rock art, which range from 20,000 years old right up to 1986, making this one of the longest records of any culture in the world. The world has changed alot in that time and this can be seen documented in the paintings.

A Brief History of Aboriginal Rock Art in Kakadu

  • If you believe this part, Warramurrungundji (Earth Mother) created the Mimi spirits, the first creation ancestors to paint on rock, who, in turn, taught the Nayuhyunggi (first people) to do the same.
  • In the last ice age, the world was cooler and drier, the sea lower and the land larger. Australia and New Guinea were one continent, joined by land. At this time people were painting anatomically correct (naturalistic) portraits of animals, including depictions of now extinct animals.
Naturalistic rock art painting of Kangaroo at Nourlangie galleries

Am I the only one who thinks these look like children’s drawings?

  • Humans feature as stick figures, wearing elaborate headdresses and their “goods” discreetly covered.
  • A boomerang shows up.
  • A “dynamic style” develops, in which people are depicted running and spears appear in mid flight, along with their path and tradjectory.
  • From 15,000 to 6,000 years ago, the earth warmed up, the sea level rose and completely reshaped the landscape. (Bear in mind how many generations must have passed over this 9,000 year period. It wasn’t as sudden as history makes it sound.) Tribes were forced closer and closer together, creating conflicts over land and so on. From this period come what are probably the oldest depictions of human on human conflict, known as “conflict art“.
  • With all the new food sources came “x-ray style” art, in which animals (and later humans) are shown along with their internal organs, in increasing detail.
  • Yams appeared on the scene and so did “yam art” in which various yams as depicted, often attributed with human or animal features.
  • Eventually the flow of saltwater was restricted, forming freshwater floodplains. Magpie geese and other migratory birds began to make an appearance, along with the spears used to hunt them and objects made from their feathers.
  • About 300 years ago, Macassan traders showed up, shortly followed by the Europeans. Guns, knives, eerily accurate sailing ships, ladies’ gloves, men on horseback and a figure known as “bossman” all feature in “contact art“.
  • With the arrival of balanda (non-Aboriginals) the Aboriginal population of the Kakadu area dropped to 25% (some estimate as low as 4%).
  • In 1962, David Attenborough photographed the faded gallery at Nourlangie.
  • In 1964, Nayombolmi (“Barramundi Charlie”) returned to repaint the gallery and the evil spirit, Nabulwinjbulwinj before he died.
Nabulwinjbulwinj rock art at Nourlangie, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Nabulwinjbulwinj, an evil spirit who beats women to death with a yam and eats them…

  • The last known art in Kakadu National Park was done in 1986.
  • While the act of painting on rock here has now ceased, the traditions and styles live on in the form of tourist trinkets and modern Aboriginal art, painted on bark, paper, canvas, fabric, etc…

The trail continued up to the Gunwarddehwarde Lookout, presenting a panoramic view of the Park and the Arnhem Land escarpment.

Arnhem Land escarpment view from Gunwarddehwarde Lookout, Nourlangie, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

View of the Arnhem Land escarpment from Gunwarddehwarde Lookout

You have to be careful not to take the turn off onto the grueling, twelve kilometre Barrk Walk, which leads up and down over jagged rocks, eventually passing the nearby Nanguluwurr Gallery (another major rock art site) before returning. (The Nanguluwurr Gallery can also by reached by an unsealed road and subsequent four kilometre return walk, which is signposted on the left before you reach Nourlangie.)

Next we headed to Anbangbang billabong, where we walked the 2.5 kilometre circuit around it and saw our first wallabies (thought they were kangaroos)…

Anbangbang Billabong, Nourlangie, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Anbangbang Billabong

…and hoped we wouldn’t run into our first crocodiles.

Crocodile warning signs at Anbangbang billabong near Nourlangie

Crocodiles move into the billabongs in the Wet, making swimming a bad idea in most of Kakadu.

The circuit, which can be done from both the Anbangbang Billabong car park and the Nawurlandja car park, has views of Nourlangie Rock (Burrunggui) towering over the wetlands. The Nawurlandja car park is also the start point of the steep-ish 600 metre return scramble up the rough rock surface of Nawurlandja Lookout.

It was getting late in the day and the sun was setting, glorious gold, behind the rock. We watched as shadow gradually enveloped the Kakadu landscape. Despite one or two other groups, a desolate silence descended over the scene – a distinct lack of human presence. It reminded me of that movie, Walkabout.

Nourlangie Rock, Burrunggui, Arnhem Land escarpment and Koongarra view from Nawurlandja Lookout

View of “Nourlangie Rock” (Burrunggui), the Arnhem Land escarpment and Koongarra from Nawurlandja Lookout

Coming back down we happened across a ranger talk and sat down to listen, during which I learnt much of the knowledge I’m now passing off as my own in this post.

Christian is one of the “whitefella” rangers in Kakadu, though, listening to him speak, you’d think he’d been raised Crocodile-Dundee-style by Aborigines. He’s an incredible speaker and, with long beard flailing, explained the six seasons and how the bininj read the land: the ground dries and cracks, small rodents return, to live in the cracks, snakes appear, to feed on the rodents…

He talked about Namarrgon, the “Lightning Man”, whose “song” is painted along the Arnhem Land escarpment on the far horizon and which, when compared to modern scientific readings, echoes the lightning storms that signal “the build-up” (to the Wet) almost perfectly.

Rock art of Namarrgon, Lightning Man, at Nourlangie, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Namarrgon (Lightning Man) and other characters

Finally, he told us about “Jeff” (Jeffrey Lee) – the only surviving member of the Djok clan, traditional owners of Koongarra (1228 hectares of abundant wildlife) – who, since he was a boy, has been turning down increasingly large sums (in the multi-millions) offered him by French energy giant, Areva, who would like to get their hands on the thousands of tonnes of uranium beneath his ancestral land - worth billions of dollars. He became famous when he left his homeland and travelled to Europe to make his case and appeal to UNESCO to defend his land. UNESCO eventually heard his plea and Koongarra was finally merged into Kakadu National Park.

Looking out over Koongarra, forever changed, we decided it was time for dinner, and set off again into the sunset.

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: | 2 Comments

Croc Hunting on the South Alligator & Yellow Water

You might think the last thing you’d want to be around is an estuarine (saltwater) crocodile – the largest and most dangerous crocodile in the world – yet we somehow found ourselves out on the water in a tinny, looking for them. As many adventures do, it all started in the bar…

Photo of estuarine saltwater crocodile in Australia

This is actually a photo on the wall of the bar. Scroll down for my (infinitely less impressive) pics.

In case you don’t know, I’ve spent the last three and a half months living and working at a remote Outback hotel in Kakadu National Park, in a place called “South Alligator”, which consists only of the aforementioned hotel. There’s a bar (with staff discount) so I’m happy here, not to mention a pool and spa (hot tub; Jacuzzi), tennis courts, all meals included, rec’ room with ping pong table, pool tables, books, movies, a 3.6 kilometre billabong walk and plenty of barbeques, bonfires and even the occasional “Latin American night” to keep me occupied. Oh, and no phone signal.

Standard hotel room at Aurora Kakadu Resort, South Alligator

Our home for the first two months. Photo by Sarah Froome (before we moved in, of course).

Anyway, Andy and Suzanne were behind the bar and we (me, Ruth, Seb and Azza) were on the other side of it, chatting to a couple from Devon who were touring the Territory in a camper.

Seb is a chef from Lancashire, but has somehow become more Territorian than half the locals. When asked why he travels, he’ll tell you “for the fish!” (in this case barramundi) and after travelling to some obscure places for that very reason, he finally found the place he was born to live: the Northern Territory. The day he found out he was being sponsored as an Australian resident, he went out and bought a boat.

The couple were getting filled in on all the things I’d learnt over the past weeks: that there are only two seasons here – Wet and Dry (unless you ask the bininj, in which case there are six – we moved from Wurrgeng to Gurrung into Gunumeleng), what it means to “go tropo”, that the NT is not a state, but a territory, that Darwin – its excuse for a capital – only got its first set of traffic lights in the last decade or so, and that anything goes here (at least as far as speeding, shooting and fighting are concerned…oh, and that Azza is from the “Beef Capital of ‘Straya”.

When the bar closed we got a carton (crate) of Great Northern and headed back to Beef Cap’s donga to watch Crocodile Dundee.

It’s funny, a lot of Brits wind up in Australia but (at least, before I met my wonderful Australian friends in Japan) I’d never been too fussed about the place. When I did come to plan this trip I was determined to see (at least once) the “real Australia”, by which I actually meant Mick “Crocodile” Dundee’s Australia. We flew to Darwin because it was cheapest from Bali, and we got jobs in Kakadu because it was the first offer we got…and now here we were, Azza talking us through all the Crocodile Dundee filming locations – Ubirr, Nourlangie, Gunlom…all just down the road, and I realised, we’re in it! We’re in the “real Australia”!

Photos on the donga wall – ex-girlfriends mostly, some from Azza’s ‘roo shooting days, some from his travels around Australia: pristine white, empty beaches at Great Keppel Island, Western Australia, Yamba, who knows where…

“You’ve never seen a croc?” Seb asked, surprised for some reason.

“Nope.”

“I’ll take you!” He checked the tides and it all looked good.

” – that’s true,” Azza said to himself in response to something Mick had said on the screen – something about how crocodiles don’t kill you at first – they hold on tight, drag you down to the bottom of the river and do a “death roll” until you drown yourself to death.

“I heard their jaw muscles are mostly for closing and it takes them ages to open their mouths again, so if they miss, you can just put a rock on them or something – ”

“They’re not gonna miss, mate.”

“If they wanna get you, they’ll get you.”

“They’re nature’s perfect predator, mate. They’ve been around since the dinosaurs.”

We drank into the early hours…

“Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.” – Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway would’ve been proud of Seb as we approached his donga early the next morning to find him already up and getting ready. Out front lay well-used barbeques, threadbare armchairs, eskies (ice boxes; coolers), scattered mud crab shells, Great Northern bottles…

We helped him unload rods, nets and other junk from the boat, he borrowed Azza’s ute (he’d soon get a nice little 4WD outfit of his own) and we headed down the road to “the South”. (The three major rivers in these parts – the East Alligator, South Alligator and West (you guessed it) Alligator – are known to locals simply as the East, the South and the West and are erroneously named anyway, since some idiot mistook the crocodiles for alligators and by the time Leichhardt got here to correct the mistake, it was too late – they’d already been mapped.)

Ute launching a boat on the South Alligator, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Backing Azza’s ute into the South Alligator River

“If you let go of my boat, I’ll fucking kill you!”

Down at the boat ramp. Ruth held the rope. “Whatever you do, don’t stand in the water,” said Seb, before wading in and jumping into the boat. (One of the classic traits of a true Territorian is the advising of others never to do something dangerous…and then doing it yourself on a regular basis. “Don’t stand in, or near, the water,” is a common one, often heard from fishermen/women standing knee deep in the East Alligator at Cahill’s Crossing. When a tourist or backpacker gets taken, they were a fool not to listen to the advise of the locals, but when it’s a local…well, let’s not talk about that.)

Launching tinny boat on the South Alligator River, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

“if you let go of my boat, I’ll fucking kill you!”

In all seriousness, a lot of people have died by crocodile attacks, even in the time we were at Kakadu, like this old guy who got taken from his boat and the occasional child or German tourist.

Seb launched the boat out with the tide (the Alligators are tidal rivers) then came back around for us.

Launching a tinny from a ute at South Alligator boat ramp, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Seb launches the boat out and brings it back around.

“I really can’t stress this enough: once you get in the boat, stay the fuck down! If you go in out here, you’re not coming back out!” (It turns out Seb and Azza recently had a friend fall overboard, and while her survival does prove him wrong, you can understand why he didn’t want a repeat performance.)

“On land you can outrun them, but out here in the water, you’re fucked.”

Seb knows the South like the back of his hand (though he’s also the first to admit that the river can change from season to season, even day to day, as mud and sand bars drift and shift) and negotiated the river with skill, taking the meanders wide - as most of the water does.

On the tidal South Alligator River, Kakadu, NT, Australia

Blasting up the South!

“If we get caught up, don’t panic. Just remember, high tide’ll come, then we’ll come unstuck.” (More than once, staff at South Alligator have had to spend the night out on the river waiting for the morning tide.)

I sat up front, under the scorching sun, the wind blasting off the river. Schools of skipping mullet glanced across the surface in every direction in a bid to avoid the boat’s path.

The South Alligator River, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

“Ladies and gentlemen, please keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.”

As we glided over the ever-moving surface of the river, it seemed as though the water had two consistencies – one thin and translucent, bouncing the bright blue sky back up off its surface, and the other; thicker, muddier, that seemed to move more slowly, yet somehow in perfect harmony, beneath it. A trick of the light? An optical illusion perhaps? But it was beautiful, even if it wasn’t real.

Seb pointed out a jabiru bird (after which the nearby “town” is named) nesting in the trees.

“Pretty calm out today!” Seb shouted over the boom, boom, boom as the bottom of the boat smashed up and down on the waves.

We turned up Nourlangie Creek and then we saw them.

Crocodile in the wild in the South Alligator River, Kakadu National Park, NT, Australia

Our first wild crocodile!

Seb slowed, stopped the boat. Where I was sitting, the boat sank two feet into the water.

We sat in silence.

Looking for crocodiles on the South Alligator River, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Sitting ducks: Ruth and Seb scan the water for crocs.

At first they looked like logs (and vice versa) moving slowly but deliberately, the ridges of their eyes, nostrils, a row of fins along their spine and hard, scaled back above the surface, then you had a few seconds to take your photo, before the crocodile coolly, quickly slips under the water and disappears – then you don’t know where he is, and it’s time to get moving again.

“They can stay under for hours. You can’t see them, but they can see you. There are probably about 20 around this boat right now…”

Back on the South, we saw more than 15 crocodiles in the end (yes, I counted) – a couple of them over four metres long (“you can tell by the size of the head”) – and not one other sign of human existence, save the Kakadu Air scenic flight that once passed overhead.

At high-tide we turned around and headed back.

I jumped out and pulled in the boat, making sure I kept hold of the rope against the tide (or else it wouldn’t be just the crocs trying to tear me apart)

“What a way to spend a morning!”

The Yellow Water Cruise

A few weeks later, Ruth managed to wangle us a free cruise on the Yellow Water Billabong (Ngurrungurrudjba), even further up the South Alligator River and here we saw even more crocodiles (not to mention a “Jesus bird” walking on water, a green tree snake moving in precise right-angles through the jim jim branches, jabirus, ibis, purple-breasted swamp-hens, herons, darters moving like black, winged snakes, magpie geese, sea eagles perched atop barren trees, shit loads of whistling ducks, water buffalo and even wild horses silhouetted against the blood-red sun).

Yellow Water boat cruise from Gagudju Lodge, Cooinda in Kakadu National Park

Ruth wangled us a free Yellow Water cruise!

Saltwater crocodile at Yellow Water, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia

Crocodile beside our boat at Ngurrungurrudjba (Yellow Water)

Crocodile at Yellow Water billabong, Kakadu National Park, Outback Australia

Saltwater crocodile on Yellow Water billabong

Pink and white waterlillies at Yellow Water wetlands, Kakadu National Park in the Australian Outback

Native pink and white waterlilies

Because it was the sunset cruise, the crocodiles were all out on the banks, soaking up the last rays of warmth from the sun, mouths wide open, apparently to regulate their brain temperature, and we were able to get right up close to them.

Cold-blooded crocodiles warming up on the banks of the South Alligator River

The cold-blooded crocs come out on the banks at sunset.

Crocodiles opening their mouths to regulate brain temperature.

They open their mouths to regulate their brain temperature.

(At no point was the water “yellow” as promised.)

Huge estuarine saltwater crocodile, basking in the sun at Yellow Water on the South Alligator River, Australia's Northern Territory

Another beast of a crocodile, basking in the last rays of the sun

Crocodile on banks of South Alligator River at sunset

Getting up close and personal with “nature’s perfect predator”

Categories: Australia, Northern Territory, Travel Stories | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

The Road to Jesus’ Backside Beach, East Timor

In war-ravaged East Timor there are hundreds of beautiful, sandy beaches just waiting to be re-discovered, but there’s one in particular that caught my attention. Worryingly, this isn’t the first time I’ve made a journey for a funny name.

Jesus' Backside Beach, Dili, East Timor

Jesus’ Backside Beach!

How to Get to Dili, East Timor?

At the time of writing the only regular flights to East Timor (or Timor-Leste) were from Bali and Darwin, plus the occasional flight to and from Singapore or Jakarta. The Bali flight, which we took, is a lot more regular and (usually) cheaper. Alternatively, you can come in overland from Kupang in West Timor (Indonesia) but you need to get all your visas sorted out in advance, which I sadly didn’t.

Arriving at Dili’s Nicolau Lobato International Airport, you’ll be swarmed by taxi drivers offering you a ride for as cheap as $5 per person, but walk to the main road and catch a mikrolet (shared taxi; you want the number 10) and it’s only 25c. (East Timor is on the US dollar.) I’ll never understand why most travellers opt for the taxi, or the $18 airport shuttle. Sure the mikrolets can get a little crowded, but if you’re not in East Timor to experience the local lifestyle and culture, what the hell are you here for?

Dili’s Colour-coded Mikrolets

The mikrolets are basically a bunch of kids with converted vans who took it upon themselves to become Dili’s (and East Timor’s) sole public transport system. There are currently 10 routes and each van is painted and numbered accordingly.

Mikrolet
Route number Colour
01  Red
02  Dark green
03  Light green
04  Blue
05  Salmon pink
06  Brown/maroon
07  Purple
08  Grey
09 Blue (with yellow trim)
10  White/cream

A (Ridiculously) Brief History of East Timor

  • Back in the day (’60s and early ’70s) Portuguese Timor was a stop on the overland “hippie trail“.
  • 25th April 1974, Portugal saw a (carnation) revolution and effectively dropped its colonies.
  • Political parties formed in East Timor…
  • …but civil war was soon to follow.
  • Indonesia invaded, backed and supplied with weapons by the communist-fearing USA, UK and Australia.
  • East Timor spent the next 24 years fighting a guerrilla war for its independence…and losing. Hundreds of thousands died. Like Sri Lanka, this is a country that was getting fucked for decades, and only saw the end of it in the 2000s. Torture, murder and disappearances were common thanks to the secret police.
  • East Timor’s plight only caught the international media’s attention in ’91, when an independence activist was murdered and Indonesian police were caught on camera massacring protesters. (They admitted killing 19, then 50…actually it was more like 280.)
  • 1998. Indonesian president Suharto resigned and his successor, B. J. Habibie, gave East Timor a referendum.
  • Indonesian military forces and pro-Indonesian militia threatened, intimidated and terrorized East Timor into rejecting autonomy…
  • …yet a brave 78.5% of the East Timorese public voted, not for autonomy but for total independence.
  • On their way out, an Indonesian company destroyed all the infrastructure they could: roads and bridges, telephone lines and power stations, businesses, government buildings, homes. They sent tens of thousands running for the hills and even attacked the UN, forcing them to withdraw and leaving East Timor defenseless. This means no employment, no canneries, no breweries…Everything from the police force to the roads to the entire economy would have to be built from scratch.
  • East Timor only became a country in 2002.
  • NGOs and aid workers flooded in.
  • Trouble still flares up every few years.
  • The UN only withdrew again on New Year’s Eve, 2012.

If you’re interested, check out the Resistance Museum and the Chega! exhibition in Dili.

Nowadays, East Timor only gets around 1500 tourists a year, which works out to around four a day. I’m not sure how they work out who’s a “tourist”, but there was only one other whitey (non-Timorese/Indonesian-looking guy) on the plane, so the shit checks out.

Where to Stay in Dili?

The accommodation situation in East Timor is ridiculous. (As is pricing generally.) The oxymoronic East Timor Backpackers offers dorm beds for $12 and doubles for $25, and that’s probably the cheapest accommodation you’ll find in the whole of East Timor. These days it’s packed almost every night and is in desperate need of some competition.

If heading for the Backpackers’, and unless you speak Tetun, ask for “Mandarin“, which I gather is the area of town, and jump off just after “Tiger Fuel” and just before the hideous clock-tower.

Tiger Fuel used to be a good place for food but since changing ownership is only good for expensive, disgusting pizzas. However, ask at the hostel and they’ll direct you to where you can get Indian, Thai and so on nearby. There’s also a bar at the hostel, where they can prepare various rice dishes for $1-3, and a whole-in-the-wall down the road where you can split a $5 rotisserie chicken.

For a long time, East Timor has seen only NGO and aid workers, who aren’t paying for their own accommodation and therefore couldn’t give a crap what they’re charged. This has created a huge disparity between the prices of goods and services (such as accommodation) and what the local people (a huge percentage of whom are still unemployed and/or living on aid) can afford to pay. There’s no way, with the East Timorese economy in its current state, and without aid, that the people could afford to buy food at the outrageous prices in their own supermarkets.

Oh and to make matters worse, the average mum has gone and had seven or eight kids.

If you can, stay with friends, or locals, or just rock up with a few dollars and see what happens. East Timor will need to get budget-traveller-friendly, fast (not to mention sorting out the rest of its economy) if it’s going to stay afloat once the NGO and aid money dries up.

What to Do in Dili?

Not much. No infrastructure means no commercial tourist attractions. I actually love places like this!

Dili street art in East Timor

Street art in Dili

East Timor has so many beautiful, untouched beaches, many of which could rival the best in South East Asia. There is also a series of coral reefs that run along the North coast of the island, often within swimming distance, placing diving and snorkelling at the forefront of East Timor’s diaper-clad tourism industry.

Dili is such a small city, and with such little commerce and activity, that it has to be one of the quietest, most tranquil capitals in the world. A very odd place.

Even the city centre has many peaceful, unmolested stretches of beach, where Timorese kids play football silhouetted against the sunset. Dili’s coastline stretches approximately 15 km, from the airport to the Cristo Rei statue at Cape Fatucama.

Starting at the western end, there is a row of stalls where you can eat fresh fish or chicken, local style, on the beach. We were having trouble finding them so I mimed a chicken and a fish and the universal motion for “eating” to the locals (who, to be fair, have had quite a few languages to learn – Tetun, Portuguese, Bahasa Indonesia and one or more of 20+ local dialects – without having to worry about English too). We got two fish and portions of rice wrapped and cooked in banana leaves for only $1.50 each.

Walking along the seafront, you won’t find a lot of business, but there are one or two lonely bars, such as Castaway, popular with the expats, but with Western prices to match.

What you will find are shitloads of foreign embassies, and you can’t help but think that maybe these countries have taken the piss just a little when they decided to buy up huge lots of prime, central, beachfront property that could have been used for something much more appropriate and beneficial to Dili’s citizens. Oh well.

Wave breaker seawall at Dili harbour, East Timor

The peaceful, picturesque port of Dili

Walking around Dili Harbour you’ll pass the Farol lighthouse and the sleepy but still operational port, which feels like a trip back in time. Centuries-old banyan trees grow amidst a very recently renovated waterfront esplanade. This area is misleadingly well kept (a security guard told me to get off the grass) while the rest of the city remains a complete dump.

Dili waterfront monument to East Timor's independence

A monument on Dili’s waterfront commemorates the shockingly recent, 26-year struggle for independence.

Banyan tree in Dili, East Timor

Age-old banyan trees grow along Dili’s waterfront…and all over East Timor, actually.

There are also a few fancy hotels. We went into one for advice on internet access and were greeted by a lavish welcome party intended for the arrival of the Portuguese President (or maybe it was Prime Minister), whose visit coincided, almost to the minute, with ours. The troupe of Fataluku dancers, poised to serenade us, gave me a strange look when the noticed my torn jeans, broken flipflop and bleeding foot. It turned out that this was a conference of the Community of Portuguese Language Countries. They closed the main road all the way from the airport to Area Branca (exactly the way we were walking) so we continued to run into the delegates of various Portuguese-speaking nations (as well as their security convoys and police escorts) throughout the course of the day, as they went about their business, stopped for lunch, saw the (carefully chosen) sights and whatnot. Apparently the President of Brazil had better things to do, so sent his Minister of Foreign Relations instead.

Welcome party for Portuguese President or Prime Minister for Community of Portuguese Language Countries conference, Dili, East Timor

This welcome party was expecting the President (or Prime Minister) of Portugal…They got us instead.

“Oh my God, it’s Equatorial Guinea!” I yelled, a little too loud. Their faces betrayed pride…and shock, that someone had actually heard of their country.

We stopped in Lita supermarket – one of only a handful in the capital – where food shortages are commonplace and the selection of beers tells you more about the country’s foreign relations than anything else: Sagres, Bintang, Heineken and of course Tiger, the quintessential Asian lager. No Timorese beer as of yet.

We ate our tinned fish and bread on the beach and then met a fellow traveller, named Giora, as we both attempted to put our rubbish in the otherwise empty public bins. Bins are a great place to meet other foreigners, we realised, as we’re the only ones here who use them. Giora was also staying at the Backpackers’ and had quite a story of his own.

Considerably further along, you’ll come to Area Branca, a beautiful beach area, once firmly planted on the hippy trail and sure to be the centre of backpacker tourism in East Timor whenever it picks up again. There are several plastic-chair bars and “restaurants” – such as the popular favourite, Caz Bar – where you can get a can of beer or a fresh, chilled coconut for a dollar.

Area Branca with beach chairs and coconut

Stop for a cool, refreshing beer or a fresh coconut at Area Branca beach.

After Area Branca the road is bare and exposed as it winds its way to Cape Fatucama.

Sandy beach in East Timor near Cape Fatucama

Everywhere you look in East Timor there are beautiful, sandy, empty beaches.

Rounding one such bend, we caught out first sight of Jesus, looking out to sea…towards Jakarta.

The Cristo Rei Jesus Statue

The Cristo Rei (Christ the King) statue is reminiscent of the much larger and infinitely better known Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) that stands over Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. (There’s also a Cristo Rei in Lisbon, Portugal.) In many ways, Dili and the landscape of East Timor is not dissimilar to that of Rio. Perhaps it was typical of the Portuguese, when scouting locations for their future cities, to choose those that already came with heavy natural fortifications.

The climb to the Jesus statue is made up of 500-ish steps and lined with a series of shrine-like grottoes that tell the story of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, including such important moments as “Jesus falls first time”, “Jesus falls second time” and my personal favourite, “Jesus falls third time”.

Five hundred steps to Cristo Rei Jesus statue, Dili, East Timor

The 500-ish steps to Cristo Rei

I practically flew up the steps, shirtless in the sun’s heat…and quickly became the subject of much laughter from groups of locals, who insisted on having their photo taken with the pasty, half-naked white guy and his infinitely more attractive companion.

It was in a similar state that we ran into Darran and Olivier, who we’d met at the Backpackers’.

Cristo Rei at Cape Fatucama, Dili, East Timor

Sacrilegious?

At the top you become aware of Jesus’ epic proportions and the views of Him, Cristo Rei Beach and the surrounding landscape are incredible - the best we saw in East Timor – the green mountains folding like dog’s paws into the blue slate ocean.

Cristo Rei Beach, Dili, East Timor

Cristo Rei Beach…or as I like to call it, Jesus’ Frontside Beach

We sat perched on a dusty, Algarvesque outcrop, taking in the view, but this wasn’t exactly what I’d come for. Rumour has it that behind the Jesus statue is another, often empty beach that due to its unfortunate positioning has been coined Jesus’ Backside Beach.

View of East Timor from Cape Fatucama, Dili

The view from Cape Fatucama, East Timor

Sure enough, back down the main steps there’s another path. It’s really not the stuff of secrets and rumours at all.

Jesus' backside from beach, Dili, East Timor

Jesus’ backside, as seen from down on the beach

Jesus’ Backside Beach

As we descended this second trail, Jesus re-emerged on his hilltop and as the sun set it passed behind him and plunged us into some much appreciated shade. A local couple with motorbike gear idly leant and watched as a giant, Jesus-shaped shadow enveloped the beach below, until it had dissipated completely.

Local East Timorese couple at Jesus' Backside Beach, Cape Fatucama

A local couple watch the sun set over Jesus’ Backside Beach

Jesus' backside close up silhouetted at sunset

Zooming in on Jesus’ backside

We took photos of the Messiah’s backside, then rushed down to catch the last rays of the sun. Though devoid of visitors and covered in white-gold sand, like all beaches in East Timor, it could’ve used a good clean up.

Jesus' Backside Beach, Cape Fatucama, East Timor

Down on Jesus’ Backside Beach

While we hadn’t managed to find a snorkel for sale anywhere in Timor (no shops; there’s a business idea for you) and we’re not the sort to fork out for a diving tour, we had managed to procure and adapt a child’s pair of goggles (don’t ask) and dove in. The water was too shallow, but it was cool yet warm, blue yet clear. Though far from being East Timor’s finest, most-swimmable, snorklable beach, it was the perfect example of what is sat waiting all over the country.

Swimming in sea at Jesus' Backside Beach, Dili, East Timor

The warm blue water; too shallow to snorkel, perfect for paddling.

Walking back along the winding Cape Fatucama road, rose-red sunset lingering on our right, we spotted Darran and Olivier and joined them for a beer at Caz Bar (or the equally good bar next to it – it’s difficult to tell which one you’re ordering from when you’re sat on the beach). These were two of the most insightful people I’ve met on my travels and it’s always a joy to chat with guys like that. (Call me a travel snob, but I often find that hard to reach or seldom visited places separate the most interesting travellers from the general mob.)

We found a place serving food and more beer and also got talking to a local Timorese guy who’d lived and worked as a chef in Oxford for nine years. It turned out he lived almost opposite the Backpackers’ (which we realised was about to lock its gates any minute now) and he offered to give us a lift. On the way, we had to laugh when he told us that the waterfront parks, clock-tower and so on had only been renovated a couple of days ago, for the Portuguese President’s visit.

Back at the hostel, he refused to take any money. The caretaker was just walking away from the locked gates as we arrived and had to open them again.

We said goodnight to Darran and Olivier and then ran into and got plastered with Stuart and Neil

Categories: Asia, East Timor, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | 2 Comments

Kawah Ijen Volcano, Crater Lake & Blue Fire, Java

Despite travelling Mexico, Central America and so on, I’d somehow never actually set foot on a volcano, let alone climbed one. So, not missing out this time, I steered my course for Java, to hike Kawah Ijen by night and descend down, through thick sulphurous gases, to the beautiful turquoise crater lake and mysterious “blue fire” within.

Looking into Kawah Ijen volcano crater lake in Java, Indonesia

Staring over the rim into the volcano’s crater

Getting to Kawah Ijen

Java is a hotbed of hundreds of volcanos – Semeru, Bromo, Merapi…to name a few - but the real jewel in the crown is to be found in the naturally beautiful and sparsely populated Ijen Plateau, which can be reached from either Bondowoso to the east or Banyuwangi to the west.

What I didn’t know before I arrived is that Java is the most populous island on earth! Expecting natural beauty, I was confronted instead with a string of “megacities” - home to way more rats, cockroaches and people than I cared to make acquaintance with. The road network is not equipped to handle anywhere near the volume of traffic it does and, as a result, travel on the island is unbearably slow. After 10 days on stifling buses, amidst stand-still traffic, dust, pollution and general greyness, I can say that Ijen is - for me, at least – by far the most impressive thing in Java. Of course everyone has a different experience while travelling, but most people we met on Java were trying to get out again. My advice? Rent a scooter on Bali and take the ferry over to Ketapang (Banyuwangi).

Arriving after dark at what turned out to be Banyuwangi’s Karangente bus terminal (on Jalan Brawijaya) (careful, there are at least two more major bus stations in Banyuwangi: Sri Tanjung and Ketapang), we walked to a place called Hotel Baru on Jalan MT Haryono, but you shouldn’t need to know that as it’s a shithole and if you read this, you’ll be able to do Ijen by yourself.

There’s no guaranteed way to get to Ijen by public transport, so it’s scooter or tour, I’m afraid. We booked a guide and driver through the hotel for 600,000 rupiah (£15 each for two), but you don’t actually need either. With a scooter, you can get all the way up to Ijen and, once there, you can just follow everyone else.

If you do fancy a guide though, Nizar was actually really good. Feel free to contact him directly and I’m sure he’s got a friend who’d drive you for less than 150,000.

The guide we were originally set up with told us we weren’t allowed to go down into the crater and that he wouldn’t take us down (thus, rendering him completely useless). His English was bad (because Indonesians have to learn Bahasa Indonesia as well as their local language – in this case Javanese – the level of English is noticeably poorer here than anywhere else I’ve been on this trip so far), yet he was confident and loud and kept telling us to “listen!” as though we were at fault for not being able to understand. I hate tours. I wasn’t looking forward to this at all.

We were due to set off after midnight, so decided to get a couple of hours’ sleep. Unfortunately a centipede had had the misfortune to die in our room and a swarm of ants were in the process of engulfing him and carrying him off into the bathroom at speed. The sheets were dark with sweat stains, a wet, moldy plastic bag in the bathroom made it clear no-one had even been in to check the room since the last guests, let alone clean it. A weak fan didn’t reach the bed and there was no shower (unless you want to wash yourself with the same filth-brown bucket that you use to flush the toilet).

In the early hours, when we went to meet our guide, we got our first piece of good luck. He couldn’t take us. He had another, more lucrative group and had appointed Nizar to take care of us. He said they didn’t want to share a vehicle (in other words, he wanted to get as much money out of us tourists as possible) but assured us we’d “meet there” and “go up together” (more bullshit).

We hit it off with Nizar from the beginning and the three of us, plus our trusty driver, set off into the night, first for supplies (water, snacks, cigarettes for the sulphur miners) then up an empty winding road, perfectly signposted at every turn for “Kawah Ijen”, hence why I say you’d have no trouble doing it by scooter, several of which actually out-performed the 4WD on these mountain roads. You’ll pass through an arch and the road thins out considerably, rising and falling in the cold mountain air, and eventually coming to the car park at Pos Paltuding.

It was freezing cold as we waited for the PHKA post to open at 2.30 am. Ijen (especially the night hike) has only appeared on the tourist circuit in the last few years, but due to how bloody amazing it is, there were a lot of other travellers about. There are public toilets, but there’s a charge to use the lights. Luckily I have no issues pissing in the dark…though the girl who followed me in may have had a few. Mercifully, they actually opened it at two, at which point you sign in and pay 15,000 rupiah per person. (If doing it without a guide, you can skip this – I know I would – but bear in mind that no-one would know if you fell to your death.) You have to pay considerably more if you have a camera. Twat-guide insisted we’d have to pay this, but luckily Nizar checked and phones don’t count. Digital cameras do. Either way, I’d just say you don’t have one.

What to Bring?

  • Torch
  • Warm layers
  • Scarf, mask or spare t-shirt
  • Drinking water
  • Snacks
  • Gloves, if you have them
  • Cigarettes for the miners
  • Camera
Scarf for sulphuric gases at Kawah Ijen, Java, Indonesia

Remember to bring a scarf and soak it with water.

Climbing Kawah Ijen by Night

In pitch blackness, just the light of the head torches (which Nizar kindly lent us) to guide us, hands shoved in pockets against the bitter cold, we started up a gravelly path. It reminded me of my recent night hike up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, only much colder. The incline was gradual at first, but soon we were working our hams and warming up as it got steeper and steeper. Nizar was great, considerately offering to stop whenever he thought we might need it. Not that we did.

The stars were overwhelming! All the constellations were there in plain sight and the curve of the milky way spread across the crisp night sky.

Soon the sheltered path opened out into exposed mountainside and we were only vaguely aware of the steep drop and the great void beside us. Here the surface – now very steep – became soft and slippery with the layers of volcanic ash. The silhouettes of Gunung Raung and another smaller peak were visible through the darkness. Merapi lay somewhere behind us, not to be confused with its more famous namesake in central Java. (“Merapi” means volcano in Javanese and Bahasa Indonesia so, as you can imagine, there are quite a few Gunung Merapis in these parts.)

We reached the sulphur weighing station, where several baskets were already waiting in the faint, misty twilight. We stopped here to rest until we got cold again, then set off on the last stretch, up to and along the crater rim. The crater! My first volcano! We couldn’t make it out in the darkness, couldn’t get perspective. I just can’t describe such a surreal feeling. I had never been in a landscape like it.

Kawah Ijen volcano crater rim in Java, Indonesia

Walking along the crater rim at first light

“I just can’t imagine it!” said Ruth.

Descending into the Crater

We began our speedy descent into the crater, into pure darkness, stepping on loose rocks and gravel, slick with ash and sulphur dust.

Visitors are prohibited going down on crater dangerous sign at Kawah Ijen volcano, Java, Indonesia

Many people, including guides, refuse to descend into the crater.

Soon the blue flames, which had been a distant flicker, were burning and smouldering right in front of us – some of them reaching up to five metres in height.

Sulphuric blue fire at Kawah Ijen volcano crater, Java, Indonesia

“Blue fire” from ignited sulphuric gas. The blue flames can reach up to five metres high!

Noxious gases blew in sheets across our path and we donned our scarves. Nizar used his expert knowledge to time photographs, reading the smoke patterns and the wind and yelling “smoke’s coming!” just in time for us to shelter behind the rocks and watch all the other parties choking and spluttering.

Resemblance to Raziel from Legacy of Kain Soul Reaver games

Anybody else see a resemblance to Raziel from the Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver games?

The sulphur smells strong, gets into your chest and throat, burning and causing shortness of breath, but the best thing to do is stay calm and breathe normally, he said. If in doubt, just look at the sulphur miners, who were already at work among us, completely indifferent to it, some even smoking cigarettes amidst the smoke!

He told us this was one of only two places in the world (the other being Iceland) where you can see these blue flames, which are caused by the igniting of sulphurous gases as they emerge from the volcanic vent. They are constantly burning, but just can’t be seen by day.

We made our way, past patterns of liquid sulphur frozen into the ground, to the edge of the acid lake. Still dark, we couldn’t yet make out its size, but we cold see its turquoise colour and bubbling, steaming surface and knew better than to strip off and go for a swim.

Sulphuric acidic turquoise crater lake at Kawah Ijen volcano, Java, Indonesia

Standing at the edge of Ijen’s highly acidic crater lake

We smelt the sulphur and felt its warmth with our hands - fresh out the earth. Many of the miners, whose fathers and grandfathers had also been miners, have started to turn their hands to carving handicrafts and souvenirs out of the sulphur, which I imagine is a more profitable profession.

We climbed back up the steep loose rocks, amongst queues of people, Nizar in a hurry to get us there in time for the sunrise.

Reaching the top, I felt a shudder as I heard my name. It was twat-guide, bunkered down in a little cave. “Stay with us,” he said. “You have plenty of time until the sunrise.”

Nizar and I looked at each other dubiously. Though I’m anything but a morning person, I’ve seen enough sunrises to know how quickly they come up once it’s light. I was going to kill this fucker if he made us miss it. We waited a few minutes, but still no sign of his group, who’d had to go down into the crater alone.

“You know what,” I said. “I think we’re going to make a move. I just don’t want to miss it.”

“You won’t miss it.”

“Better safe than sorry,” and we got going, marching quickly along the crater rim as the light began to give everything shape and perspective and a whole new sense of awesomeness. Huge channels ran across our path where lava had not so long ago cut through. Now for the first time we saw the turquoise lake below in all its glory, a square kilometre in size!

Kawah Ijen volcano and turquoise crater lake at dawn

Kawah Ijen in all its glory at dawn

Sunrise at Kawah Ijen volcano crater lake, Java, Indonesia

“What a way to spend a morning!”

Kawah Ijen crater lake through dead trees, Java, Indonesia

A French guy fell to his death trying to get this photo.

We made it to the best spot just in time for the sunrise. (There’s no way the others made it.) The sun cast a deep red glow over the scene, turned the sky pink and brought out the deepest turquoise in the lake. Clouds hung all around us, the view rivaling those from our recent trip to San Marino, and dotted with the occasional cones of nearby neighboring volcanoes.

Sunrise from Kawah Ijen volcano, Indonesia

Catching the sunrise from Ijen

At Kawah Ijen volcano crater with guide for sunrise

With out guide, Nizar, at the summit for sunrise

Kawah Ijen crater rim and wall at sunrise in Java

End of the road: the crater rim and wall at sunrise

Girl at Kawah Ijen looking into volcanic crater lake

Ruth’s morning view

Shadow at Kawah Ijen volcano crater in fog

My shadow cast across the crater at sunrise

Sulphurous gas vent at Kawah Ijen volcano crater, Java, Indonesia

Thick sulphurous gas streams from the volcano’s vent.

Crater rim clouds and volcanoes

Walking the cracked crater rim amongst clouds and volcanoes

The climb down was harder than the way up. Our legs were exhausted but our sense of awe at what we’d seen – and the beautiful landscape that was continuing to unveil itself to us now by the light of day – kept our spirits high.

Gunung Merapi volcano from Kawah Ijen hike, Java, Indonesia

Even the walk down was beautiful.

Back at the sulphur weighing station, the miners were busy trading in their hard-earned sulphur for cash. We’d passed many of them on the road. These guys get up at two in the morning, dig out the sulphur from the crater floor, amidst the noxious gases, carry 70, 80 kilos of it on their shoulder, back up the steep, slippery track (a round trip of three hours) two or three times a day, and earn almost nothing for it. The bone structure of their backs and shoulders are clearly warped (though it has to be said that the exercise keeps them relatively fit and healthy). We tried to lift a load that had just been brought up and literally couldn’t. It weighed in at 96 kilos! And the little guy who brought it up! I gave him the whole pack cigarettes we’d bought.

If you’re interested, some of these guys were featured on the BBC’s Human Planet series.

On the drive back, Ruth and Nizar soon started to nod off to sleep. I watched at one point as Nizar dozed off and fell onto our driver, causing us to almost veer off the road. He woke abruptly to find me in hysterics in the backseat.

Back at the hotel we ate breakfast and slept…or tried to: twat-guide was banging on the door trying to get our Facebook details. When we didn’t answer, him and and his friend from the hotel sat right outside chatting. I went out bleary-eyed and told them to fuck off.

Then we did sleep.

Then we got the hell out of Java.

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | 2 Comments

Renting a Scooter & Touring Bali, Indonesia

People often talk about “Bali” like it’s just one place – one town. Actually, while Bali is a small island (relative to, say, Java) it’s not that small. There’s actually tons of different towns, villages and even a city, all separated by mountains, lakes and countryside, plus loads to see and do, with each coast and region offering a completely unique experience.

Sunset at Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Sunset on Kuta Beach

My Bali Highlights

After rambling around Bali for a few weeks, here are my unmissables:

  • Throw yourself into hedonistic Kuta Beach, if only for a night!
  • Get naked on Bukit’s west coast, where anything goes!
  • Rent a scooter and take in Pura Ulun Danu BratanGunung Batur and more rice terraces than you can shake a stick at.
  • Get your Eat Pray Love on in Ubud.
  • Take the fast-boat to the Gili Islands for the paradise all the backpackers are talking about.
  • If you have time, take the ferry to Java for a night climb of Kawah Ijen.
Pura Ulun Danu Bratan water temple on lake near Bedugul, Bali, Indonesia

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan water temple on Lake Bratan, near Bedugul

Renting Motorbikes in Bali

With mass tourism effectively killing the bemo (shared taxi) industry on Bali (it’s been practically impossible for some time now to get out of Kuta or any other tourist area by bemo…except on market days, if you’re in the right place at the right time) and with scooters for rent just about everywhere for only 50,000 rupiah (£2.50) per day (40,000 if you rent for a few days) renting a scooter is the obvious, most cost-effective choice of transport for the budget traveller, and affords infinitely more freedom. The wind in your helmet, riding amongst a convoy of fellow travellers: that’s what travelling Bali is all about!

Lake Batur by rented motorcycle in Bali, Indonesia

Stopping to pose in front of Lake Batur

We rented from Beneyasa Beach Inn I, and they didn’t even ask for anything as a deposit. Apparently they tried the scooter rental business in Java too, but for some reason all the bikes got stolen…

Bali sunset by rental scooter

Riding Bali’s back-roads

Where to Go in…

…South Bali

Southern Bali, particularly Denpasar and the bottleneck around Kuta suffers from serious traffic as a result of mass tourism. If you’re going to “Bali”, you’re probably going here.

Pool tables at Tubes bar, Poppies Lane 2, Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Playing pool in Tubes bar, down Poppies Lane II, Kuta Beach

  • Kuta Beach – one of Bali’s longest-running and biggest tourist draws – it’s one of those places you just have to experience at least once. Other than clubbing, the main excuse for a tourist attraction is the Ground Zero Monument – a memorial to the Bali bombings of 2002, which destroyed Sari club and Paddy’s Pub and killed over 200 people. A lot of people hate Kuta, but if you like getting drunk abroad, it’s for you, and if you stay in the right place, away from the main strip (Jalan Legian), it can actually be quite pleasant. My tip is to do a lot of your pre-gaming in bars like Tubes and Alleycats down Poppie’s Lanes I and II before hitting the main drag, where drinks will cost you a fortune. When you do hit the main drag, Sky Garden is the place to be, with a roof-top bar, drinks deals and too many floors to remember. Oh, and watch out for drunk Australians on scooters!
  • Legian, the next beach up, is quieter, cheaper and still retains some of the hippy feel that put this region of Bali on the travellers’ map back in the 60s and 70s.
  • Seminyak, the next beach up again, is more sophisticated (and therefore expensive). Expect many a trendy wine bar.
  • Canggu (pronounced “changgu”) is further north again and the next in line for mass development. Many expats and surfers have already moved in to stay, taking advantage of the relatively low prices and close proximity to the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area. This is by far the quietest and most relaxed of the four…if that’s your thing.
  • Sanur, on the east coast, is a more relaxed alternative to the Kuta area, supposedly ideal for couples and older travellers.
  • Denpasar is the capital city of Bali but has more in common with Java. It is where all the locals live, has almost nothing to draw foreign visitors (besides genuinely cheap shops) and is a world apart from the beaches.
  • Ngurah Rai Airport, though officially labelled “Denpasar”, is actually so close to Kuta that you’ll watch the planes land from the beach and could walk it if you didn’t have a bag.
Ground Zero Monument Bali bombings memorial in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

The Ground Zero Monument – a memorial to all who died in the Bali bombings on 12th October, 2002

Bali bombings ground zero car park sign at Sari club lot, Kuta Beach, Indonesia

The “Ground Zero” car park: once Sari club, now an empty lot.

Balinese offerings in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Balinese offerings on the streets of Kuta

Surfing fake surf board at Tubes bar in Kuta Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Surfing my way into Tubes bar

Where to Stay in Kuta?

  • Beneyasa Beach Inn I (not to be confused with its shittier sister, Beneyasa Beach Inn II) has a pool, free breakfast, motorbike rental, great location and is only 175,000 (£8.75) per night for a basic ensuite double with balcony.
  • Suka Beach Inn, just a few doors further down, has better, cleaner rooms, more of a choice for breakfast and lovely Balinese architecture for only 135,000 (£6.75)! Downsides are no top-sheet or towels and the pool layout’s not as good for some reason.
Beneyasa Beach Inn I hotel accommodation in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia

Our accommodation in Kuta for only £4.37 per person per night! Why are you not here?

…The Bukit Peninsula

South of the bottleneck is the Bukit Peninsula. On its east coast is the high-end resort area of Nusa Dua, now connected to the mainland (and airport) by a 220 million (US) dollar causeway toll road. However, the oft-forgotten west coast remains relatively undeveloped and home to several hippy-come-surfer beaches, where anything goes.

Balangan Beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Balangan Beach on the Bukit Peninsula’s less travelled, west coast

  • Jimbaran Bay, on your way down through the ‘neck, has a bunch of seafront warung (local Indonesian restaurants) where you can buy fresh seafood by weight and eat it as you watch the sun go down.
  • Balangan Beach is probably my favourite. It has the bluest water and whitest sand I’ve seen in a long time, but sadly is quite narrow as far as beaches go. It’s great for surfing, and has plenty of rustic accommodation, bars and restaurants, but not-so-great for swimming – the steep shelf and massive wave will smash you up good. Once on the peninsula, take the Ulu Watu road then turn right at the turn-off for “Cenggiling” and follow the dirt road as far as it goes (about seven kilometres). It’s 2000 for motorbike parking and entry (6 am ’til 7 pm) but just ride straight past, turn left at the beach and this will take you along the backs of the beach accommodations. Just pick one.
  • Bingin is made up of beaches, cliffs and the network of narrow paths and passages that run thereabouts. Accommodation prices can range anywhere from the budget to the ridiculous, just next door to one another. (I recommend booking Leggie’s as I was gutted they were full when we arrived.) From the Ulu Watu road, take a right at Pecatu and right again when you see the accommodation signs. It’s supposed to be 5000 to park, but we didn’t have to pay.
  • Padang Padang Beach is a spectacularly beautiful spot between Bingin and Ulu Watu. It makes a great day-trip or rest-stop, but not a good place to stay overnight.
  • Ulu Watu is the end of the road and home to both a world-renowned surf resort and the Pura Luhur Ulu Watu sea temple (open 3 am ’til 7 pm; 25,000 entry and 1000 for parking), which has stood precariously on an outcrop since the 11th century and is best photographed at sunset.
Bingin beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Bingin beach and cliffs, Bukit Peninsula

Coffee and breakfast at Bingin beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Coffee and breakfast at a Bingin beach cafe

Padang Padang Beach, Bukit Peninsula, Bali, Indonesia

Padang Padang Beach, Bukit Peninsula

…South-west Bali

As for Bali’s south-west coast, avoid it. It’s the main artery from Java to Denpasar and so suffers from the same pitfalls as Java: heavy traffic, pollution, over-crowding.

Roadside Indonesian gas station with petrol in glass Absolut vodka bottles

What a petrol/gas station looks like in Indonesia. Why always Absolut bottles?

…North & East Bali

The north and east coasts are relatively free from traffic and offer more low-key, local black-sand (often a nice way of saying ugly) beaches like Amed in the east or Lovina, a string of fishing villages attached to Singaraja in northern Bali. Both are in the process of going from local secret to “off-the-beaten-track” destination and offer a more relaxed, more authentically Indonesian beach experience, for those who actually like to see the culture of the places they go.

…Central Bali

Central Bali is characterised by mountain roads, lakes and jungle, rice paddies, coffee plantations and clove orchards, volcanic crater rims, picturesque temples and beautiful Balinese architecture. North of Ubud, the traffic disperses and the tourists thin out.

Lake Batur, Bali, Indonesia

Lake Batur from the crater rim road

View of Mount Gunung Batur, Bali, Indonesia

Gunung (Mount) Batur from our hotel

Sign at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan reading your attention pleace visitor entering this temple are kindly requested to be dresed neatly and properly to observe the existed derectory to stay away during your period for the ladies keep clean liness and environment conservation

I wonder how well point three is enforced.

We rode up, past Pura Ulun Danu Bratan to Lovina, then borrowed a couple of scenic rides from Lash, who knows Bali ridiculously well, and drove the mountain road up to Kintamani, along the crater rim of Gunung (Mount) Batur, then down again through little Balinese villages like Manikilyu and Lembean and on to Ubud.

Balinese country road and moped

Exploring the Balinese countryside by scooter

Selamat datang Desa Lembean Balinese gates

Welcome to Bali! Balinese gates at Desa Lebean

Ubud is one of the major settings of Eat Pray Love (and so, as is to be expected, is full of women of all ages trying to find themselves). While not the most beautiful place on earth, it’s Bali’s unique, hospitable and beautiful culture that continues to draw travellers from all over the world, and Ubud is arguably the best place to experience this. Try:

  • The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
  • Traditional Balinese music and dance, such as kecak, legong, barong and gamelan. Ask around for nightly performances at the likes of Pura Dalem Ubud and Pura Taman Saraswati (all on Jalan Raya Ubud).
  • There are several walking paths around Ubud.
Brem Balinese rice wine in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Brem – a deliciously sweet Balinese rice wine – in Ubud

Nightlife in Ubud is easy: the place to go after hours is CP Lounge. Until then it’s all about great food and the many shisha, tapas and live music bars in town. My personal favourite spot is Laughing Buddha.

Live music in Laughing Buddha tapas bar, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Kacir live at Laughing Buddha tapas bar, my favourite spot in Ubud

Where to Stay in Ubud?

  •  Jiwa’s House, on Jalan Sandat, offers the perfect Indonesian homestay experience, with clean rooms, great breakfast, lovely, down-to-earth owners, friendly dog, good location, abundant greenery and Balinese architecture everywhere. This is the perfect place in which to experience Ubud and only 200,000 (£10), so I strongly advise booking ahead. You won’t regret it.
Jiwa's House homestay in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Parked up at the beautiful Jiwa’s House homestay in Ubud

Further Afield than Bali?

Take the ferry or fast-boat from the port of Padangbai – a decent backpacker town in itself – to Lombok and/or the Gili Islands (by the way, gili means “small island” in the local Sasak language of Lombok, so not only does “the Gili Islands” mean the “small island islands”, but all the islands in the region are “gilis”). You can get a door-to-door transfer from your hotel in Kuta (or Ubud) to Gili Trawangan for as low as 190,000, though that involved some serious haggling.

I also recommend taking the ferry over from Gilimanuk to Ketapang (the ferry port on Java, eight kilometres north of Banyuwangi) and tackling the volcano and crater lake at Kawah Ijen.

Enjoy!

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | 1 Comment

Gili Trawangan Nightlife Guide

Throughout my travels, almost everyone I’ve asked says their favourite place in Indonesia, or even South East Asia, is the Gili Islands. All different types of traveller, all talking as though they alone stumbled upon this paradise.

Turquoise water and white sand beach on Gili Trawangan island, Lombok, Indonesia

Arriving at Gili Trawangan, there’s no jetty; the boat just pulls up on the sand.

Gili Trawangan (“Gili T” by the time you’ve been there a few hours) is the famed “party island” of the three Gilis – the others being tranquil little Gili Meno and laid-back Gili Air – and, though this isn’t the 70s anymore, is definitely up there with the world’s greatest backpacker paradises.

Dutch football supporters celebrating on Gili Trawangan beach at sunrise

After losing my bet on Costa Rica to win the World Cup, we consoled ourselves by partying with the Dutch.

I call this a “nightlife guide”, but that’s not to say the party on Gili T stops during the daylight hours. I was there during Ramadan and still managed to only crawl in at 10.30 the next morning.

Gili Trawangan sunrise, Indonesia

Swimming with the sunrise after an epic night out!

Look out for a “vodka joss” – a local speciality, illegal almost everywhere else in the world - made from a shot of vodka and a sachet of energy powder.

The Nightly Parties & Where to Catch Them

Some of the major bars on Gili T have a kind of oligopoly over the island’s late-night nightlife, with “the party” doing the rounds every week. Don’t miss out on the action. Unless you’re there for Ramadan, when things are a bit different, this’ll be your bible for the season:

  • Monday night – Blue Marlin
  • Tuesday night – Trawangan (Beach) Cottages
  • Wednesday night – Tir Na Nog (“the Irish”)
  • Thursday night – Sama Sama + Pool party at Gili Hostel + Quiz night at Trawangan Dive (Bar)
  • Friday night – Surf Bar + Rudy’s
  • Saturday night – Sama Sama
  • Sunday night – Evolution + Ladies’ night at the Irish
Pool party at Gili Hostel in Trawangan, Gili Islands, Indonesia

At the pool party with a couple o’ cold Bintangs

If in doubt just hit the strip, ask around or follow the flow.

Gili Hostel pool bar party in Trawangan, Gili Islands, Indonesia

Pool party at the Gili Hostel pool bar

Must-dos for a Night Out on Gili Trawangan

All of this is on pretty much every night (except the boat party, which is three days a week) and should not be missed while your on Gili T:

  • After sunset, start a night at the night market. There’s amazing food all over the island, but this is by far the cheapest and most authentically Indonesian.
  • Pre-gaming from 8 pm ’til midnight at Jiggy Jig’s - home to the “Jiggy Jig’s Drinking Challenge”, where if you can drink selection of signature cocktails and shots fastest than anyone else (the current record is at around 17 seconds) it’s free!
  • Bonfire on the beach at Horizontal (they say from 5 pm, but actually it’s whenever it gets dark)
  • Shisha at Horizontal or Pesona
  • Live music at Sama Sama almost every night
  • The pool bar at Gili Hostel (best on a Thursday – see above)
  • The Irish hosts silent discos, pretty much every night during Ramadan.
  • Walk around the island for sunset and drinks at my favourite spot, the Exile.
  • There’s even a full-moon party on Gili T.
  • Also, don’t forget the Drunken Monkeyz (DMZ) yacht party!
Horizontal beach bar in Gili Trawangan island, Lombok, Indonesia

Chillin’ at Horizontal with 2-4-1 happy hour banana coladas

Beach bonfire at Horizontal bar, Gili Islands, Lombok

The beach bonfire at Horizontal from sunset

Pesona Indian restaurant beach bar shisha lounge in Gili T, Indonesia

Pesona Indian restaurant: a great place to chill out with shisha on the beach

The Exile hostel beach bar in Gili T, Lombok, Indonesia

Putting my feet up with a cocktail at my favourite spot: the Exile

Gili Trawangan map of bars and nightlife in Gili T, the Gili Islands, Lombok, Indonesia

Another one of my beautifully crafted maps. Print and have it framed if you want.

Other Cool Shit to Do on Gili Trawangan

Here’s some stuff to do that doesn’t (necessarily) involve getting drunk:

  • Movies on the beach opposite Jessica Homestay and also Vila Ombak. You can check showings a day in advance. Expect the likes of Eat Pray Love and The Hangover 2. You also get a free can of Bintang, popcorn, or a toblerone or whatever.
  • Climb to the viewpoint and World War Two bunker.
  • Swim in the impeccably beautiful turquoise waters.
  • Snorkel. (The best spot, if not taking a boat or tour, is the corner of the island, anywhere beyond Coral Beach 2.)
  • Dive. (Gili T’s one of the best places to learn in the world. If interested, look up Enrique.)
  • Save yourself you trip to Meno or Air and walk around the island for some secluded beach spots and great sunsets.
  • There’s a turtle conservation centre.
  • Paddle-board.
  • Take a horse and cart, the only form of transport on the island.
Sunset over water at Gili Trawangan island in Indonesia

The best sunsets are from the south-west corner, where it sets over the water.

Where to Stay in Gili Trawangan?

Gili T’s the kind of place where you can usually just rock up and find a place, though prices do go up in the high season. When you land, go inland a couple of blocks and you’ll save a fortune.

One place we can vouch for is Three Little Birds homestay. It seems to be run by a Norwegian girl and three Lombok Rastas, one of whom cooks the best eggs and pancakes I’ve ever had. It’s somehow clean to Western standards, really laid-back and only 150,000 (£7.50) a night for the room, in the high-season. They’ll let you fill up your bottles from their drinking water for a small charge and give you candles when the power goes out, which it will. From the boat, turn right down the strip, take left at Cafe Gili and it’s just down the second right, after the mosque. Look out for these signs:

Three Little Birds homestay entrance gate in Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia

The entrance to Three Little Birds homestay

Three Little Birds homestay sign in Gili Trawangan, Lombok, Indonesia

Our “home away from home” in Gili T

Methanol Poisoning: A Word of Warning

Just remember, this isn’t Bali; it’s Lombok, where the locals are mostly Muslim. Also, with Indonesia being the world’s most populous predominantly Muslim country, taxes on wine and spirits have been driven up, prompting many bars and shops to cut their alcohol with methanol, leading to the deaths of many tourists. This is a plain example of how foreigners are treated in Indonesia.

Rudy’s bar, for one, has been caught red-handed on several occasions and yet shows no signs of stopping, despite several deaths directly attributed to them. As you can imagine, in my “line of work”, I take this kind of thing very seriously and ask you to join me in boycotting Rudy’s and any other bar implicated.

Sorry to put a downer on things. You’ll have a blast!

Sunrise boat from Gili Islands to Lombok, Indonesia

Saying goodbye to the Gili Islands. Leaving on the sunrise boat…

Categories: Asia, Indonesia, South East Asia, Travel Stories | Tags: | 5 Comments

Where the Hell Can I Get a Drink in Brunei?!

When I knew I’d be passing through Brunei – a “dry” Islamic country in the process of introducing sharia law – my first question was, of course, “so where can I get a drink?”

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in Bandar…

I learned of the existence of a mysterious “speakeasy” known as “the lounge” and I made it my goal whilst in Brunei to track it down.

After reading a few accounts, like this one by Martin Vaughan for Wall Street JournalPatrick Brzeski’s detective work for The Hollywood Reporter or Roger Mitton’s recollections of the legendary Brunei journalist, Ignatius Stephen, for the Phnom Penh Post, nobody was giving away the location, but I had a few clues. I knew that “the lounge”:

  • Is located in a well-known hotel in Bandar, though the number of the floor differs depending on the account,
  • At the end of a hall, behind two unmarked doors, and that you have to listen for faint noise within.
  • Has an outdoor, but discreet terrace.

I also had to bear in mind though that these reports could be second-hand, or could include misleading information in order to protect the establishment, or the writer themselves.

Basically, this was the kind of place you’d only find if you were invited. You had to be in the know, gain trust, work your way into the inner circle…

…and I had two days to find it.

It was tough, but we did it.

Brunei Alcohol Laws

Brunei’s Sultan is in the very process of implementing good, old-fashioned sharia law, which means alcohol is illegal and drinking it (along with being gay, talking shit about God and probably even eating pork – the vices according to the Islamic world) can leave you caned, flogged, stoned (to death) or even missing a limb.

Here’s an overview of Brunei’s alcohol laws:

  • Consumption of alcohol by Muslims is illegal in Brunei.
  • Sale of alcohol is illegal.
  • Drinking in public is illegal.
  • Public drunkenness is a very serious crime.
  • However, the minimum legal drinking age, for non-Muslims obviously, is 17.
  • Non-Muslims are allowed to bring in up to two litres of bottled spirits or 12 cans of beer once every 48 hours (not twice a day, as some sites claim) as long as you declare it and get an “alcohol permit” on entry. This is actually one of the more generous, as far as alcohol import allowances go…
Yellow alcohol permit for Negara Brunei Darussalam

Crossing into Brunei with my single beer and “alcohol permit”

…but what they don’t tell you anywhere else, and which I learnt the hard way, is that if you’re coming overland from KK (Kota Kinabalu, or most places in Sabah, Malaysia) you won’t be able to bring your alcohol to Bandar (because you’ll cross into Brunei twice, within 48 hours).

Map of Malaysia to Brunei bus route

They should call me “the Drinking Map-maker”!

Typical! The first time in my life I play this their way and declare something at customs, and they screw me. I had to drink it on the bus. The bus drivers asked what the hell I was doing declaring it, saying I should’ve just brought it in. You want my advice? Never declare anything. Of course, nobody ever searched the bus. Part of me had to wonder whether the whole bus wasn’t loaded with illicit booze.

I love Brunei, I love money badges on bus to Bandar Seri Begawan

This photo totally sums up Brunei for me.

Also bear in mind that being non-drinkers themselves, the border officials often don’t know the difference between beer, wine, spirits and so on, and are also unlikely to be sympathetic to your cause.

For a full guide, check out this guide to bringing alcohol into Brunei by Don’t Stop Living’s Jonny Blair, who’s been even more places than I have.

So, How and Where Can I Drink in Brunei?

If you want a drink in Brunei, here are your options. Bear in mind, most of these are illegal. If you don’t want to break the law, listen to the laws above, not to my advice.

  • BYOB (bring your own booze) is common in some small, non-Muslim-run restaurants. There’s no corkage charge but remember, it’s illegal, so keep it hidden and low-profile and always ask first.
  • After Muslims, the next largest ethnic group in Brunei is non-Muslim Chinese – many of whom drink. Some Chinese restaurants offer the infamous “special tea” (beer in a teapot). As a rule of thumb, if there’s pork, there’s beer…or at the very least you won’t risk your skin asking for it. So head for Chinatown!
  • You can drink at your place or at the private home of a non-Muslim. (Remember, you’re allowed to bring in some alcohol.)
  • Do what the locals do: go to Miri, LabuanKuala Lurah, etc, across the border in Malaysia.
  • As it’s technically not Brunei soil, why not have a drink in your embassy?
  • There are, of course, secret, underground parties in isolated spots where you can drink and dance to loud music, but good luck finding them. They’re invitation only, but try your luck with the bell-hops (hotel porters) who are most likely to be in the know.

Exposing Brunei’s Underground Drinking Scene!

Early searches for “Brunei nightlife” led only to late-night coffee shops, like the ones in Gadong, and the Chinese restaurateurs I asked in the city centre were unresponsive and the visits unfruitful.

I attempted to use Foursquare, which has a list of speakeasies in Brunei, and came up with names of places like “My Dream”, “Area 31″ and “Bebeh Hotspot”, but all of these were on the outskirts of the city and the locations were too vague, with no other information on them available online. Not to mention they sound dodgy as hell.

I drew up a list of Bandar hotels and, with the few clues I’d garnered, began my sleuthing.

After checking out all but one of the central hotels, my money was on the Radisson, but while “the Rad” does have a BYOB lounge where you can store your alcohol in lockers, it is exclusive to guests and – the big giveaway – there was no terrace space visible from outside.

All we needed to do was get in the know, get talking to a white businessman in a hotel bar – but, oh yeah, there are no hotel bars! I was at a loss…

…but just then we spotted a fellow “whitey” leaving the Rad.

I saw a chance and I took it.

“Excuse me, do you speak English?”

“Sure.”

“Do you know if there’s a bar or anything around here?”

He smiled, instinctively looking around to check no-one was listening in. “Well…there is one place… It’s not much to look at, but…”

[By the way, unlike the other accounts I’ve read, I’m perfectly happy to blow the whistle on this place – they’re the ones breaking the law, not me, and I honestly won’t loose any sleep over making an enemy of the Sultan of Brunei - anyone who has 599 Rolls-Royces and decides he needs another one rather than sharing that money with the poor and disadvantaged is not exactly a potential friend of mine. What a twat!

However, I don’t want to be the guy who puts it online and ruins it for everyone. So, if you genuinely want to know where this place to drink in Brunei is, just contact me.]

Anyway, the guy, who we’ll lend an Irish accent and call “Cole”, was actually on his way to get booze and offered to give us a ride with his “driver”.

Cole was a great guy. He confirmed the stories of groups sitting drinking tea outside Chinese restaurants and getting gradually more loud and larey. He said that, behind the scenes, Bruneians are friendly and very liberal, like his driver, and that the lounge is actually owned by the Sultan’s cousin (a fact I obviously haven’t been able to confirm, but which I find highly plausible).

The drive was roughly four or five kilometres…or maybe it was miles.

Dropped off at the hotel, we walked in, through the lobby, took the elevator, and followed the hall to its end, where we were confronted with the set of unmarked doors, with masked, dome CCTV camera above, exactly as I’d expected. They’d even put three plants in front of the door in an attempt to disguise it.

Door to the lounge bar in Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

Plants mysteriously attempt to hide the entrance to Brunei’s most notorious “speakeasy”.

I thought I could hear sporadic noises coming from inside, but when I knocked there was no answer.

“Come on Roy, let’s just go.”

I knocked again and, after a short wait, a small side-door just to our right unexpectedly opened to reveal a group of security guards.

“Is this the lounge?” I asked, and they shrugged and let us in.

“It should be quite obvious,” Cole had said. “Clearly everyone knows about it. If it was actually unwanted, it would be in a warehouse somewhere with heavy security and rife with hookers and drugs.”

This place was quiet and civilised - no loud music or dancing or explicit sex acts – with a pool table, people sitting around on plush but faded, threadbare chairs, like in an old, local pub in England, smoking, enjoying a beer, or some food from the legitimate restaurant downstairs. (In case you’re interested, food is about $5.50 for soup or chips and $26 for a t-bone steak.)

Apparently the Chief of Police regularly drinks here, and (contrary to what you might first think) when he’s in the house your definitely safe from a raid.

“Do you have a menu?” I asked.

The bartender just laughed. “No.”

The choice of booze was limited to a few bottles – mostly whisky, which seemed to match the clientele – and beer for $7 a pint, which is, perhaps surprisingly, roughly UK price.

There were old black and white pictures on the wall, lockers for guests to store their booze, a TV, turned low, playing sports. There was the terrace, as promised, surrounded by staggered slats to impair viewers from outside.

Drinking alcohol in Brunei illegally in the lounge bar

Drinking a nice, illegal pint in a Brunei speakeasy

That shakey, adrenalin-induced feeling you get when you’re breaking the law, when you’re out of your depth and don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. Maybe the equivalent of how you’d feel if you sought out an opium den in the UK. It was my first “speakeasy” and the word alone put me in the mind of Bugsy Mallone or Al Capone or whatever. I’ve no doubt there are others – lesser-known, more local – roadside cafes and so on. House parties are also a big part of life here, we were told.

The feeling had faded and we were now relaxed, on seeing the harmlessness and strange normalcy (oxymoron intended) of the place.

A trip to the toilet (which had a bath-tub) gave the impression that this was a not-so-long-ago converted suite. The lack of decor (relative to the rest of the hotel) and the fact that there’d been no attempt to remove the bath pointed to the illicit nature of the establishment.

Bathroom in the lounge bar in Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

A bath in the restrooms reveals that the bar was once a hotel suite.

When we were good and tipsy we called our new driver, who 10 minutes later picked us up and took us back to the Radisson, where he, erroneously but quite conveniently, assumed we were staying.

“How much do we owe you?”

“Whatever you want to pay.”

“I don’t really know the currency… We only just arrived. Is ten about right?”

“Sure,” he said with a smile that could either mean “no, you cheapskate bastards” or “thank you kindly”.

On a side note, I’m now pretty sure that journey should’ve cost about $15 – or $30 after 10 pm, when rates double.

I won’t give away the driver’s name or number or any other details as there are apparently less than 50 licensed taxi drivers in BSB…though it’s probably safe to say he wasn’t one of them.

If you’re the kind of person who often finds yourself in a Muslim nation looking for drink, you may also be interested in my post on what and where to drink in Morocco. I’ve got quite the series.

Where to Stay in Bandar Seri Begawan?

When’s the last time you met anyone who’s been to Brunei? Accommodation (especially of the budget variety) is fairly limited in Brunei. Bandar has a handful of options though:

  • Pusat Belia – The equivalent of a YHA or HI hostel. Dorms from $10 (that’s Brunei dollars) (£5). Try it if you want. Didn’t respond to our emails and told us they were full when they quite clearly weren’t. (It’s massive!)
  • KH Soon Resthouse – $40 double or $35 single. (Prices have gone up a bit since the latest Lonely Planet – as they always do!) This is where we stayed. Huge rooms, squat toilets, no breakfast, dead centre of the city (shame not much else is) and staff are nice enough. Perfectly adequate. It’s extortionate for South East Asia, but a good deal for Brunei.
  • Terrace Hotel – $65 with no breakfast or $75 with à la carte breakfast. It’s dated but has a pool and is probably the best deal in town if you want a nice room.
  • Radisson – $80 plus tax. Buffet breakfast. I wouldn’t normally mention these options but there’s really not a lot else. It’s very swish though and within easy walk of the centre even with a backpack.

What Else to Do in Bandar?

Not much.

Derelict water village homes in Bandar Seri Begawan, Negara Brunei Darussalam

…and the view from literally the same spot, facing 180 degrees the other way.

You should probably check out:

  • The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque, pictured above…
  • …and the derelict water villages immediately opposite (and all over Brunei).
  • The night market and shitty day market for some relatively cheap eats.
  • Istana Nurul Iman – the largest royal residence in the world (bigger than Versailles) with 1,788 rooms and 257 bathroomscan only be seen for three days a year, during Hari Raya Aidilfitri (the end of Ramadan). Otherwise you can take a water taxi around its immense grounds for $15 and you won’t see shit.
Categories: Asia, Brunei, Travel Stories | Tags: | 8 Comments