Australia and New Zealand, 2 December 2010 to 15 February 2011 – The Final Chapter

We put the grumpiness of our Darwinian taxi driver down to the fact that it was relatively early in the morning and there were few if any coffee shops open.

Our hotel was pretty basic but well placed in the town and the management was friendly and helpful. Our first task was to make contact with the shippers and so I set off early in the afternoon to introduce myself to them, find out what the program was and establish what part I had to play in it. The petals began to fall off the roses shortly after stepping over their threshold. The boat had been delayed by a couple of days and was rescheduled to arrive late on Sunday; the presence of the Giant African Snail in Timor Leste meant added precautions had been imposed by the Australian quarantine services and every container arriving from Dilli had to be pressure washed externally before contacting Australian soil, a process that could, we were told, add up to three days to the unloading program. I was also informed that it was my responsibility to arrange customs and quarantine clearance of my cargo unless I wished to employ the services of a company specialising in this service – as this was already the most expensive shipment we had encountered to date I opted to do it myself! Nothing could be done until the ship arrived and the shippers issued a release date and program – so we went fishing! Full of thoughts of big fish and tasty bits to take back to our YHA hostel with cooking facilities, reality was somewhat different – a glut of ugly red fish that were deemed inedible and all were returned to the sea to frustrate another boat load of anglers! It was a good day out however and we had good company. The next day we visited the thriving Saturday market at Parap a short bus ride from the city. Filled with all styles of fast food and local crafts it was a great morning out. The Navigator took a particular shine to a wood carver who resembled ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and was in the act of picking up one of his ‘very realistic’ lizard carvings – when it moved! After an uncharacteristic expletive and a turn of speed that would have impressed a cheetah, sanctuary was sought a few metres away at the base of the ramp leading up to the ‘disabled’ loo but any thought of safety evaporated swiftly when the unusually designed ‘bracelets’ adorning the handrail turned out to be snakes!

On Monday we were informed that the container would be available for clearing on Wednesday – the boat had not arrived until early on Monday. I went off to customs first and then to AQIS, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service to arrange their respective inspections. At AQIS I met an Italian couple whose car had arrived on the same boat as ours – they had driven a Fiat 500 from Milan and were headed for Sydney! Between us we arranged for our clearance inspections to take place early on Wednesday morning.     

On Wednesday at the appointed hour we removed our respective vehicles from their containers during which Genghis suffered minor damage because a ramp could not be provided (‘it’s not our responsibility to provide a ramp, mate’ – shipping agent!) Genghis was driven into the quarantine area where he was inspected and passed by customs after which the quarantine inspectors moved in. Genghis’ entire contents were unloaded and placed on the floor of a shed for inspection and were passed. Then Genghis was presented and within 5 minutes was declared unfit – he had not been cleaned to the standards demanded. The Italians were knocked back for the same reason. We remonstrated with the shippers over the fact that their agents in Dilli had neither made us aware of the severity of the inspections we would face in Darwin nor provided us with advice on the companies in Dilli that were equipped to prepare our vehicles to the requisite standards. The AQIS website gave us a statement on the cleanliness of vehicles expected at inspection time but it did not allude to the ferocity of the inspection, something the shippers and their agents were aware of in minute detail. Before blows were exchanged the manager was summoned and eventually a semblance of calm was restored. But that only lasted a few minutes when we were told that the vehicles could not be cleaned by the shippers (who are their own agents in Darwin) for at least four days; they didn’t have the manpower and they refused to allow us to operate their high pressure hoses in case we broke a leg! The root cause of our anger and frustration was a very poor service exacerbated by a leering yard foreman who seemed to take delight in our frustration and disappointment and who clearly ruled operations at the Darwin end of a shipping company that has a monopoly on freight between Dilli and Darwin. Finally sense prevailed and the manager had our vehicles washed on Thursday ready for an inspection on Friday which both vehicles passed – but not before the Italians had lessened the odds of failure by ripping out their carpets, back seat and all door and boot seals and throwing them away!

Not surprisingly, our view of Darwin as a city was, for want of a better word ‘contaminated’ by the inexplicable inefficiency, unfriendliness and unprovoked hostility we encountered at the shippers and their agents. Nevertheless we enjoyed the buzz of the city generated by a large number of tourists and locals who loved to party in a climate that demands the consumption of abnormally large quantities of liquid, water in the day and alcohol at night!

Part of Darwin's revitalised water front

The billion dollar development of the waterfront is stylishly attractive and once completed will provide the city’s inhabitants and visitors with a ‘softer’ venue for wining and dining as well as giving them a safe ‘beach’ environment to enjoy thanks to the artificial beach that has been created there (you cannot swim or relax on any of Darwin’s natural beaches thanks to the presence of crocs, sharks and deadly stingers such as the Box Jellyfish). Darwin has a unique character – hard countries breed hard men and women and as there is nothing soft about the Northern Territories it is not surprising that it attracts and breeds people who not only work hard but play hard too.    

After ‘springing’ Genghis we spent that night in Darwin and left early on Saturday morning for an oil change and the start of our long journey to Tasmania via Perth! For those following a similar route we want to note the difficulty we had obtaining 3rd party car insurance – we found it impossible to arrange third party insurance through the normal insurance companies and eventually obtained it through the Darwin office of ‘Autobahn’, a company that hires out camper vans and which is found in most major cities in Australia. They were helpful and very efficient delivering our insurance in a matter of a few hours. Our delayed departure from Darwin had forced us to forego a visit to the Kakadu National park so our route was planned to take us first south to Katherine then west to Kununarra where, if it was open, we would travel the unsealed Gibb River Road to Derby and then on to Broome where we would turn south and follow the coast to Perth.

The two hour drive to Katherine was uneventful and the countryside relatively flat and uninteresting, except for the

'Ordinary' termite mounds

thousands of small termite mounds that dotted the landscape. We anticipated spending little time in Katherine but saw more of it than we intended as we searched for an aboriginal community art gallery, Mimi, which, when we eventually found it, was shut – it was Saturday. We had literally rubbed shoulders with aborigines in Darwin, our first contact with Australia’s first human inhabitants but we were woefully ignorant of their history and the challenges they face in contemporary Australia. Our interest in them grew through conversations with people in Darwin and in particular through an art gallery that works hard to promote their art through their non-profit making organisation. It was explained to us that encouraging the communities (of which there are many, speaking more than a hundred different languages) and supporting them in what is a therapeutic activity, helps them to confront and manage the challenges they face in adapting to the changing world they live in; and the money they earn from the sale of their art also directly benefits their community. The consequence of this belated interest in the aboriginal communities added a new focus to our journey through Australia and we made plans to visit as many aboriginal community art centres and galleries as possible.

By late afternoon we were accommodated in the road house at Timber Creek having travelled through much more varied and attractive countryside; undulating, golden grass covered hills interspersed by gum trees with leaves of various shades of green and trunks ranging in colour from pale beige to black. The termite mounds we had seen on the Darwin/Katherine road were still in evidence but they were now much taller, reminding us of watchful Meerkats.

'Meerkat' termite mounds

And for the first time in our voyage we came across ‘road kill’ in quantity, most of it involving wallabies. At one point we came across a group of the live versions one of which ran in front of us before pirouetting at the last split-second to avoid a lethal clout from our bumper – any ‘Wallaby’ would have been proud to be associated with such agility!

Our roadhouse was run by a fifteen man/woman crew of mainly young backpackers working to meet the conditions required to renew their temporary work visas. The roadhouse pub was well patronised by the local aborigines each of whom was required to produce their ID card the details of which were recorded and against which the purchase of their alcohol was entered. This seemingly demeaning requirement was, it was explained by one of the staff, imposed on the aboriginal community at the request of their elders who have had to live for too long with the deeply destructive consequences of wide spread alcoholism within their community. Later in our trip through the ‘Top End’ we regularly encountered signs declaring that the carriage of alcohol was prohibited in defined areas – further indications of the ongoing battle against a widespread disease afflicting many of the aboriginal communities.

'ZBF' termite mounds

The following day we set off to cross into West Australia and to spend a couple of nights in Kununarra, the eastern extremity of the fabled Kimberley. The road was good, the countryside varied, interesting and quite beautiful in a crystal clear atmosphere – and at

Approaching Victoria River Crossing

 last, near Victoria River Crossing, we encountered the region’s famous and distinctive ‘boab’ trees. But during this drive we also killed a number of birds which flew into the windscreen whilst wheeling and turning in flocks at low level – sadly many of these were pretty bee eaters one of which we unknowingly carried, wedged on the bumper, until it rolled off into the path of a startled shopper as we parked outside a supermarket in Kununarra!

The border between the Northern Territories and West Australia (WA) is marked by a manned quarantine check point designed to prevent the spread of plant diseases – all fruits, plant material and seeds have to be declared – their type and condition dictates their fate but it is true to say that most are consigned to a rubbish bin. The quarantine staff are also engaged in preventing the importation of cane toads. Originally imported into Australia and Queensland specifically to target the damaging sugar cane beetle, the toads turned out to be ineffective pest controllers but excellent breeders that have voracious appetite for the native fauna – snakes and lizards in particular. Now over 200 million strong (from an original 100 or so imported in the id 1930s) a major campaign to halt their spread is underway with the campaign’s literature pulling no punches when it comes to the methods by which the toads are best dispatched! Having negotiated the border crossing successfully and changed our time zone to that of Perth we turned south to visit the artificial Lake Argyle, the consequence of the huge Ord (river) Irrigation Project designed to create sufficient irrigated land to make settlement and farming (particularly of rice for sale to the Chinese) viable in the region.

Lake Argyle

It is spectacularly beautiful and when full covers an area of around 2,000 sq kms – but the rice crop it was designed to irrigate proved unviable as a consequence of which it provides irrigation for a much reduced agricultural area.

Kununarra is a modern, well laid out town and the centre of the rural community made possible by the Ord Irrigation Project. It is unremarkable save for this point but was a pleasant enough place to catch up on a little administration. The old stock route known as the Gibb River Road starts further west of Kununuarra towards the El Questro Wilderness Park and the town of Wyndham which is West Australia’s oldest and northernmost town. This old route provides a much shorter east /west (Wyndham to Derby) crossing of the Kimberley than the much more modern Great Northern Highway which ducks to the south of it, but it is a rough, 4WD only road that is bisected by a number of creeks that become impassable in ‘the Wet’ (the monsoon season).

The arrival of the monsoon

The monsoon normally begins in November so we were surprised to learn in Darwin that the road was still open in early December but heavy rains were forecast and on reaching Kununarra we found it closed. Although disappointed this was probably fortuitous as had we become stuck between swollen creeks we could have been there for weeks and as it transpired the monsoon began in earnest the day after we left Kununarra, coincidental with the time we would have been on it.

Instead we set off for Fitzroy Crossing via the Aboriginal art galleries at Turkey Creek (Warmun) and Hall’s Creek. As before, the road was in good shape and we enjoyed the views of unspoiled and rugged countryside all around us. Clouds were beginning to gather to the north and although we didn’t experience any rain then it was clear that it wasn’t far away.

Turkey Creek

Having crossed the Ord River our first stop was at Turkey Creek to visit the Warmun Gallery, a surprisingly modern (and clearly expensive) building in the middle of not very much, a little oasis in the wilderness.

The Warmun Gallery, Turkey Creek

Inside, the space was filled with colour; hundreds of canvases recording thoughts and dreams to a pitch that made you smile at the joy this release of energy and emotion must have given its artists. Therapeutic indeed! We spent a good hour at this wonderful place before moving on to Hall’s Creek where the gallery we encountered there was less ‘up market’ but clearly a great asset to its mainly women artist community.

Hall Creek's memorial to 'Russian Jack'

But there was inspiration of a different sort here. In the heart of the small community next to the visitor centre is a large memorial to ‘Russian Jack’, a gold prospector who built a ‘bush’ wheelbarrow and pushed an injured colleague 300km to a doctor. He did it a second time but on that occasion only 180km was needed to get medical assistance!

We arrived late in Fitzroy Crossing and had little time to find accommodation finally pitching up at a caravan park and a non-powered site. The park had a bar and a restaurant and having opened up the roof tent we set off for a site inspection. As we walked through the grass we were assaulted by huge grasshoppers which we learned were known locally as ‘locusts’ – we would have referred to them as ‘crickets’ but as this was about the time of the victorious second Ashes test match we had been advised to refrain from using the ‘c’ word in public! We opted out of the bar, had a meal in the restaurant and returned to the site to finalise our sleeping arrangements before turning in. A few minutes later a squeak of distress from the ladies loo caused me to head there at a gallop with thoughts of snakes and large lizards uppermost in my mind. Thankfully nothing dangerous was the cause but the pesky locusts had infested the cubicles and in the flickering light from a single, 20W light bulb outside the cubicles, were difficult to spot. Deep in contemplation of the day’s activities, the unexpected arrival of several ‘locusts’ with spiky legs seeking purchase on a bare ‘bott’ was understandably shocking – hence the cry for help. Clearing the locusts wasn’t a simple task because as quickly as they were expelled the albeit pathetic light source acted as a homing beacon – and there was no chance of continuing the motion in the pitch darkness – sentry duty won the day. We did not sleep well that night! No ‘locusts’ in the bed, nor any mossies or flies but it was a very hot (37oC), humid and still night which left us wet with perspiration. Having cleared the loos of locusts in the morning we had a silent breakfast, packed up in a zombie like stupor and departed for a two night stop in Broome via Derby. As we drove out of the site we couldn’t help but notice an unusual sign on the opposite side of the road on open ground; ‘No Grog, No Humbug, No Gambling’ followed by a details on how to inform the police of such activities. The sign starkly highlighted the negative behaviour of those failing in a community that is battling alcoholism and its wide ranging consequences.    

A couple of hours later we reached the outskirts of Derby having driven through increasingly flat terrain as we dropped down onto the coastal plain. We had visited Derby and Broome before and so this aspect of the journey was a trip down memory lane and began with a re-visit to the Boab Prison Tree.

Derby's 'Boab Prison Tree'

Reputed to be at least a thousand years old, this extraordinary tree has a girth of over 14m and a hollow trunk that can be accessed through a narrow fissure. It is an important aboriginal site and acted as an overnight prison for aborigines in the custody of the authorities during transportation over the Kimberly during the latter part of the 19th C – there is a similar tree on the other side of the range at Wyndham. The town had grown since our visit to Derby ten years ago and a little corrugated iron shack at the end of a bauxite loading ramp in which we had had a memorable meal ten years previously had been comprehensively modernised to the extent that, for us the soul had been removed from it. After lunch we visited a vibrant and educative gallery a few kms up the Gibb River Road, the Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre depicting styles of painting wholly different from those exhibited in the galleries south of Kununarra. And it is that ever changing style that makes this genre of artworks so surprising and fascinating, styles that catch the eye and demand further investigation, an investigation which delightfully begins with the language spoken by the artist before identifying their community and almost as an aside, their name.

We sauntered into Broome and our YHA accommodation in time to get unpacked and go out again to re-familiarise ourselves with the town. Again, it had grown remarkably and appeared far more prosperous than it had during our last visit. Broome is fiercely proud of its heritage – essentially a remote outback town, it was established as a pearling port in the late 1800s by Japanese businessmen. The business attracted a Chinese dominated Asian workforce who with Aboriginal divers handled the dangerous end of the business building up a trade that supplied the world with the vast majority of its demand for mother-of-pearl. The trade had died off before the start of the First World War but Broome continues to farm oysters for the production of pearls and successfully markets exquisite Broome pearls.

The coastal plains before Derby and Broome

Positioned at the gateway to the beautiful north-west of Australia, Broome is a highly popular tourist destination and as such caters for all tastes, ages and wallet sizes – and it is this tourist mix that gives the town a vibrancy that makes it an exciting ‘base camp’ from which to explore Cape Leveque and the Dampier Peninsula.

After two nights we set off for Port Headland, a long day’s drive further down the coast. The port is the highest tonnage port in Australia and central to West Australia’s huge iron ore mining operation so there was no high expectation of a beautiful, unspoiled beach venue but we thought we should at least see it. Miles before we got there we met road and rail traffic suggesting that there was a large earth moving operation in the vicinity. Once we had fought our way through the outskirts of railway siding, engineering works, a salt processing plant and a myriad of other industrial works including those supporting the offshore natural gas fields we arrived at the port and the heart of the town – and it wasn’t all bad! There were a few ‘period’ buildings to offset the more modern, unappealing architecture and there was a port with huge iron ore bulk carrying cargo boats virtually moored on the doorstep.

Tugs manoeuvre a bulk carrier in Port Headland's narrow entrance

Our room was in the pub which burst into life shortly after our arrival at 5pm when it seemed the entire mining community descended on the pub to drink, eat and party the night away. Whilst they warmed up we went off to visit Portland’s Courthouse Arts Centre and Gallery at which there was an exhibition entitled  ‘The Way it Was’ which comprised Aboriginal paintings each accompanied by an explanation by the artist of the memory that had inspired it’s creation. It was very well done and added to our new found interest in Aboriginal art. The open air ‘snake pit’ in the pub comprised two bars, one on each side originally intended to separate ‘white fellas’ from Aboriginal workers and whilst that was no longer the intention rival groups harangued one another good naturedly across neutral ground. Supper in this noisy and energetic atmosphere was fun but only for as long as it took to eat ‘mains’ and eventually the ‘grey nomads’ (we were not the only ones there), were forced to yield ground and seek sanctuary in their rooms.   

We slept well and left early in the morning for a very long drive to Carnarvon, 800km south on the coast and in the heart of fruit and vegetable growing country. Unusually it was pouring with rain and as we headed south it intensified to a point that the ‘fast’ wiper setting barely coped. It was the monsoon season and we were glad that we were not on the Gibb River Road. By 1pm the rain had stopped and the road conditions improved quickly as the water levels in the floodways (signed danger areas generally in the troughs of undulating roads where flooding normally occurred during prolonged heavy rain).

The Tropic of Capricorn near the Minilya Roadhouse

As we passed through the Tropic of Capricorn (Tropic of Cancer in The Kutch, Gujerat, India and Equator in Pontianak, Kalimantan, Indonesia) we smiled at each other with a sense of achievement and in celebration I handed the driving over to Belinda – magnanimous as ever. 5km down the road we drove at 110kph into a floodway full of water which immediately threw the car slewed the car and threw up so much water we were temporarily blinded. Belinda controlled the car as best she could, reoriented us by switching on the wipers and slowed down carefully with the brakes before getting us through to dry road. A very scary reminder of the unexpected but with the sun out and a drying road each trough in the road appeared to be full of water until you got close to it and the mirage disappeared – not so on this occasion!  At 3pm we arrived at the Minilya Roadhouse to fuel up before making the final dash to Carnarvon. We were very low on fuel when we arrived and were surprised to see a long line of road trains parked on the side of the road and the roadhouse’s forecourt jam packed with cars, 4WD vehicles and caravans.

Some of our neighbours at Minilya

At first we thought that the fuel had run out but we very quickly learned that the rain we had experienced earlier had caused flooding along the road in front of us and it had been shut 6am! Optimism was high but it quickly evaporated when a highways maintenance vehicle announced that the road wouldn’t open until the morning at 6am provided there was no more rain. The gulley outside the hotel had changed from a very dry, 10 years dry, 80m wide riverbed to a raging torrent of over 7m in depth in less than a day – during the night it got very close to the level of the road surface over the bridge at which point there would have been a serious danger of structural damage. So we made the best of it along with 300 other stranded travellers. The roadhouse owners, who had had only taken over their new acquisition two days previously, put their shoulders to the wheel and laid on as many burgers and sausages as they had in their chillers and freezers. They sold out all their cabin type accommodation and all their camp sites in the twinkling of an eye and everyone got on with it – and it continued to drizzle through much of the night. We slept well in the roof tent,

Minilya wheelybin!

 had an early breakfast and joined the throngs waiting for news. The anticipated decision at 6am didn’t happen but we did get confirmation that the road running to Geraldton, south of Carnarvon and our anticipated route out of the town was also closed and appeared to be in a worse state than the one leading into it. By 10am there was still no word and we were all getting agitated particularly the road train drivers many of whom were carrying perishable goods. Some of the throng called it a day, mostly those with children or pets who, having heard the extent of the damage caused by the rain and the likelihood of extensive delays to road travel abandoned their holiday plans headed back the way they had come. We too looked at the options and in our case it was easy – stick with the current situation and hope that it improved or take a long 23 hour detour drive north then east through Tom Price and Newman and south west to Perth. As we deliberated the news came through that the lorries were going to be allowed through which to all the 4WD drivers meant that we too would be allowed through.

The floodwater was pretty high in places

And so it was – we pushed our way apprehensively through water that was above the level of the bottom of the doors (and much higher in one place) and we ‘cruised’ into Carnarvon as people gathered on the main bridge to see the tidal wave of muddy water and broken trees flushing down the previously dry river bed. We reached our YHA hostel as news broke that flood levels were increasing and that serious damage was expected. As it turned out, over the course of the next week the agricultural community was devastated by flood waters that wiped out many farms and destroyed not only the existing crops but the means to plant next year’s as well. We heard of one distraught farmer who watched his 1500 head of cattle drown and many others suffered similar losses.

A flat bed lorry took us across the floodwater to Carnarvon's airport

The flood waters reached to within 200m of the town centre and the town was cut off and could only be re-provisioned by air – the airport was on high ground. We were unaffected unlike the many people around us who were very worried about family, friends and neighbours. Extra flights were laid on between Carnarvon and Perth and on the 21st December we took advantage of one.

Having secured Genghis we boarded a flat bed lorry to cross the waterlogged airport road and flew to Perth where we hired a car and headed south to spend Christmas as planned with old friends in Denmark on the South Coast or ‘Great Southern’ near  Albany.

We couldn’t head south from Perth without spending time in the renowned Margaret

Flinders Bay, Augusta, near Cape Leeuwin where the Indian and Southern Oceans meet

 River region so we booked into a B&B for three nights and luxuriated in the beautiful countryside and coastal scenery, gorgeous wines and mouth watering food. We then moved east to Pemberton, deep in the karri forests where we met food smokers and a man who had just begun the business of cultivating ‘marrons’,

'Marron', a feshwater crayfish

the west’s answer to ‘yabbies’ or fresh water crawfish and it looked to us that he was going to do well with these (by yabbie standards) enormous beasts. We also learned from him that the many trout in the streams and lakes of the region are incapable of breeding in these waters and are bred by the authorities and when mature enough are released into the waterways for the pleasure of fly fishermen. Pemberton is far smaller and much less commercial than Margaret River but it has an air to it that suggests that it is taking the wine and food industry very seriously indeed and it intends to have its name writ large on any map depicting the gastronomic regions of Australia.

Denmark - forest fire burned trees rise above the new growth

Denmark is also a very pretty town with a stunning coastline, beautiful forests and rolling countryside. We spent a very pleasing five days there with old friends during which we celebrated Christmas with them which necessitated, in keeping with their family tradition, a swim in the Southern Ocean! We met many of their friends and revelled in the coincidences that placed strangers with friends and acquaintances of ours on the other side of the world.

We drove back to Perth on the 27th, spent a night on the outskirts and flew back to Carnarvon the following day with fairly heavy hearts – we knew that our exit route was still closed and we were mentally preparing ourselves for our 23 hour detour drive.

Carnrvon's fishing fleet waiting for the start of a new season

On our return the flood waters had receded a great deal and the air of despondency that prevailed at our departure had been replaced by an air of optimism as the reconstruction began. But not all was well and many from the farming and fruit/veg growing communities were contemplating financial ruin – at least one family had turned their backs on their property and left for Perth, for good. As we stepped off the aeroplane we met the travel agent through whom we had purchased our tickets who greeted us with ‘Happy Christmas, you must be pleased with the news’ – it had just been announced that the southern exit road to Geraldton would open in the morning at 9am!

We re-packed Genghis with springs in our steps and after a good night we left early for our journey through Geraldton to the small crawfishing port of Jurien. The damage on the sea level and featureless road between Carnarvon and Geraldton was plain to see; wide tracts of vegetation free land identifying the paths taken by flood waters that had literally swept away everything in their paths, buildings, roads, livestock and fences. At one point we were startled to see an Emu and her chic staring at us from the short roadside scrub – escaped inmates of some farm or wild birds? The road to Jurien from Geraldton took us along the coast and through a very long stretch of impressive sand dunes before we reached the town. Settled around a port that contained commercial craw boats and some very impressive private game fishing boats, the town was neatly laid out and tidy giving the impression that it was home to a relatively prosperous community. Our cabin style accommodation was part of a pub/restaurant/bottle shop (off licence) complex and having unpacked we set off to see what the facilities had to offer. The whole complex was housed in one huge room; the bottle shop in a glass screened corner, the bar taking up most of two walls and the dining area competing with a couple of pool tables in what remained of the floor space. The place was packed to bursting point; children getting rid of what remained of their daily energy quota; mums watching children, intervening in trouble spots, chatting, drinking; dads without a care in the world having a beer at the bar with mates; singles drinking, playing pool and eyeing each other – just the sort of place for a quiet supper! We took the first vacant table which just happened to be within queue backswing range of one of the pool tables. And we enjoyed very much the good natured tussles that took place on it whilst we set about tucking into the obligatory steak and chips – incredibly for a crayfishing port fresh crayfish was unavailable.

We were told that the entire catch was regularly sold to Chinese agents who sent the catch live, on ice, to China where they fetched premium prices!  The evening was fun and being back in the chaos of lively company had been good for us.

Having checked all the usual fluid levels in Genghis he was given a rather more detailed inspection underneath to ensure that he had no loose nuts and bolts and that all his belts were in good order and tensioned properly. We had a long drive ahead of us to reach Norseman, the town at the beginning of the two day journey across the Nullarbor plain that links West and South Australia along the Southern Ocean coastline. Incidentally, Nullabor is not an Aboriginal word as is widely assumed – ‘nullus arbor’ is latin for ‘no trees’!

Our route that day from Jurien took us for hours just north of the Great Eastern Highway through the rolling hills of the Wheatbelt which at that time of year were covered by a golden wheat crop made even more dramatic by contrasting dark lines and copses of gum trees. We passed through small, neat agricultural towns like Moora, Wongan Hills, Goomaling, Wyalkatchem (we’ll catch them?), Nungarin and Merredin before joining the Great Eastern Highway which we travelled on for the rest of the day.

A roadtrain

This ribbon of tarmac took us through the last Wheatbelt town and first Goldfield town of Southern Cross before turning south and ducking under Australia’s largest producer of gold, the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. A lack of time prevented us from visiting the town – well, that plus the Navigator’s reaction on reading in the guide book that the plethora of bars in the town were staffed by bargirls wearing only underwear! To be fair, the decision to bypass the town was by mutual consent – even the prospect of scantily clad bargirls paled into oblivion at the thought of the damage that could be done to our credit card in a gold mining town!

900km after we set out from Jurien we rolled into Norseman and into motel accommodation. It was quite late by the time we arrived and chose the accommodation because it boasted an on site restaurant – but it was closed due to New Year’s holiday taking by the staff. The only alternative was the Miners and Working Men’s Club a short drive up the road. We set off grumpy at the restaurant closure and returned from the club with smiles on our faces having had an unexpectedly good meal in friendly company.

On New Year’s Eve we set off on the Eyre Highway for the Clare Valley north of Adelaide, a distance of over two thousand kilometres that we planned would take us three days.

A 'gunbarrel' section of the Nullarbor

The route is devoid of habitation save for the handful of road houses and inns that serve the needs of those in transit so we had filled fuel tanks and jerry cans to bursting, topped up our 60 litre water tank with drinking water, checked the accessibility of all recovery kit and made sure that our jacks and wheel changing tools were ready to hand – it was very hot and we wanted to reduce any necessary physical activity to the minimum. The drive went well; we started in the early morning to take advantage of the relative cool, we re-fuelled as planned, we didn’t suffer a puncture or breakdown, we were knights in shining armour for a young German couple who had broken down and we reached our overnight New Year’s Eve stop at the Eucla roadhouse in time to book a table at their restaurant! 

Apart from the memorable location there was little else to remind us of the transition from 2010 to 2011. The first person we met on the first day of January 2011 was an elderly man who we found inspecting Genghis. He turned out to be an avid Vauxhall car fan who owned a rare 1950s model of the marque which was sitting on a trailer waiting to be transported to a Vauxhall owner’s meet in Gipsland, Victoria. He had travelled from Perth and reckoned the round trip would take a little over two weeks! Just before the end of our conversation his wife, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Hattie Jacques, clambered into the towing vehicle, slammed the door and sounded the horn several times to alert her husband to the fact that it was time to be off! With eyes rolled heavenward he said goodbye, sauntered over to the car and set off for an interesting four days to Gipsland. We left a few minutes later and after a few kilometres passed through the quarantine check point on the West/South Australian border where we noted a couple deep in animated conversation in a parked car towing an old Vauxhall car on a trailer.  

Our journey that day took us through Ceduna where we left the Eyre Highway and headed south down the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula towards Coffin Bay, famous for its oysters and at its southern tip Port Lincoln ‘Tuna Capital of the World’. But very few tuna caught by boats from Port Lincoln are landed. The commercial reality is that damaged tuna are worth nothing to the highly lucrative Japanese market and in order to avoid damage caused by over handling they are transferred at sea to Japanese factory ships that are equipped to prepare this prized fish for immediate exportation to Japanese tables. Our destination was not to either of these locations however as we had chosen a town a little closer to the Nullarbor at which to spend New Year’s Day, Streaky Bay.

The Nullarbor

The emptiness of the Nullarbor had not, for us, been the boring experience predicted by the authors of literature we had read about it. Far from it – we loved the changing patterns and colours of the landscape caused by the sun’s position, intensity and relationship to any clouds;

Nullarbor 'tree' art

we were fascinated by, for want of a better phrase ‘the tree art’ we came across from time to time by the roadside. It only seemed to occur in areas where Aboriginal Lands bordered the highway so we assumed they were related to those communities but we never did determine their origins; we smiled at the Royal Flying Doctor Service emergency landing strips marked out on the particularly straight and flat sections of the road where natural roadside obstruction

RFDS emergency landing strip

 didn’t exist; we smiled when oncoming drivers acknowledged our much practiced, casual index finger raised salute from the steering wheel (those that didn’t acknowledge our salutation withered under a torrential tongue lashing); we marvelled at the fact that we were experiencing all of these emotions and felt very privileged. 

The road to Streaky Bay kept twisting and turning, dropping and rising and at every bend gave us a little glimpse of what to expect; from wheat filled fields to isolated farm houses; from tree covered hills to grain filled silos; from cud chewing cattle to offshore islands; from snapshots of sea to white sand fringed bays. The town lived up to the anticipation. Our pub with rooms was perfectly situated overlooking the sea and the pier.

Streaky Bay's safe swimming encloure

At the halfway point of the two hundred metre long pier was a large rectangular ‘swimming pool’ delineated by a surrounding metal grid from the sea bed to a height about two metres above sea level. This was a safe bathing area, the waters beyond having been determined dangerous not only due to the presence of shark but also because swimmers had had their feet badly lacerated by a large mussel like bivalve that liked the area and buried itself in the sand with just its very sharp ‘lips’ protruding above the level of the seabed. At the end of the pier a few fishing boats were moored and here three generations gathered to teach the art of drop net fishing – and by the look of the catch of blue swimmer crabs the ‘oldies’ were passing on their skills very effectively.

We celebrated New Year (in lieu of the Eucla roadhouse where to be fair the food had not been at all bad) in a restaurant overlooking the water where we did have a meal worthy of such an event. We were interested and somewhat disappointed to learn that despite the presence of the local fishing boats it was impossible for the restaurant to purchase fish direct from the boats. It was much more lucrative and far less time consuming in terms of bureaucratic form filling for the fishermen to sell their entire catch to one agent than it was to sell a part catch to two parties – one party, twenty minutes form filling, two parties, forty minutes form filling (even if that party only wanted two or three fish). The restaurateur was well aware that he was having to purchase less fresh fish from an agent tens of kilometres away who had in all probability purchased the catch from a boat moored a hundred metres away from his kitchen – how frustrating. Our sleep was interrupted by revellers – hangers on from a New Year’s Eve party that had attracted a large gathering of young people who had seen in the New Year well. There had been trouble however and after we had left the town we learned from the national news that a young man had died in hospital as the result of an altercation that took place on the green just outside our bedroom window a few days before.

On the 2nd of January we set off for the Clare Valley, a region renowned for both its beauty and its ability to nurture great grapes. The day was notable because it was my birthday, a birthday marking an age that was difficult to acknowledge without sinking into deep and sometimes despairing thought. I had had the good fortune to spend a previous milestone birthday with our family in Victoria’s Yarra Valley also noted for its great wines and so having lunch in the Clare ten years on seemed appropriate. But that didn’t upstage the predecessor sufficiently so we had planned to skip off after lunch and spend two nights in a neighbouring and very fine wine growing region, the Barossa Valley.

The Skillogallee winery

We arrived in the Clare Valley ahead of schedule and had the opportunity to visit a very well known winery before heading off for lunch in a small, less well known vineyard that had been recommended not only for its wines but also for the quality and innovation of the food served in its small restaurant. The setting was superb and we dined al fresco under a beautiful olive tree that was reputed to be well over a hundred years old. Needless to say we eat well but limited ourselves to only one glass of wine owing to the need to drive for a further hour before reaching our overnight destination – but it was a very satisfying glass of wine.

Our two nights in the Barossa were spent in the small town of Angaston, one of three towns in a valley that is only about 25km long but which produces just over 20% of Australia’s wines. There is a sense of deep rooted self satisfaction in its community at what has been achieved here and along with many beautiful cellar doors there is a burgeoning supporting cast of well established restaurants, fashion boutiques, delicatessens, wood turners, local food factories and farmer’s markets. All in all a very satisfying place in which to spend a few days.

Harvesting in the Clare Valley

We left the hill country to the north and east of Adelaide and headed south to the Limestone Coast on the south western flank of the flat plains between the Murray River and Victoria. Our destination was Robe, a popular seaside getaway for the well healed of Adelaide and Melbourne. It is a very pretty place based on a port, some beautiful beaches and a plethora of residential buildings that reflect the quality end of contemporary Australian architecture. The main street was lively and bustled with families heading in or out of the many restaurants that catered for the throng of holiday makers. We eat in a restaurant that we had booked earlier because it was renowned for its local sea food but it was a disappointment and joined a growing list of places we had eaten at which failed to live up to their promises. Our accommodation was on the outskirts of the town in an old house under renovation. It had been built by an Englishman, the black sheep of a family who learned in Australia that he had inherited a fortune in the old country. He travelled back to England to claim his new found wealth and on his return to South Australia chose Robe to build his handsome single storey building, a replica of his family home in the UK.

Due east of Robe is the renowned wine region of the Coonawarra, a mecca for those who appreciate a spicy ‘Cab Sav’, a powerful Shiraz or a creamy un-oaked Chardonnay. At the heart of the region is the town of Penola which recently basked in the media spotlight when Mother Mary McKillop, the co-founder of the town’s Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart in the mid 1800s was canonised by the Pope in October 2010 making her the first Australian Saint. Before setting off to visit a couple of the vineyards we spent a good time with the local butcher who did all his own curing and smoking and wasn’t reluctant to share his recipes and techniques with us. The vineyard cellar doors were informative and fun and a perfect prelude to a picnic lunch under a huge cypress tree at the corner of two large blocks of vines. After lunch we headed to Mount Gambier where we intended to spend a couple of days catching up on our administration and in particular planning the few days we would spend in Victoria before setting off for Tasmania.

Throughout this region there are references to the Chinese miners who in the late 19th C were being lured from South Australia to the gold mines in Victoria’s Ballarat. To impede their progress and curb migration the authorities imposed a hefty transport tax on all Chinese labourers in the hope that they would stay put or return to China. But they hadn’t counted on their fortitude, particularly strong when gold is around! 16,000 of them walked to Ballarat and a far from welcome reception. Throughout our journey through Australia we were surprised by the size and significance of the contribution made by the Chinese to the development of the country – a contribution that extended to a large part of South East Asia (and beyond) but in Australia largely went unsung. It is worth noting however that not all immigrant contributions to the development of the country at that time in its history have passed without any fanfare; the Ghan, the famous train link between Adelaide and Darwin should more properly be spelled ‘ghan – it is the clipped version of the word Afghan and pays homage to the Afghan camel drivers and their beasts who played such an important role in the pioneering of Australia’s largely desert interior. Incidentally, when we travelled through Oman we learned that Afghani and Omani camels are of the same breed and it was only these that were imported into Australia. As a consequence the Australian camel’s blood line is uncontaminated through careless breeding and is regarded by the Middle Eastern camel aficionados as a very valuable asset! A parallel, in some ways, are the vines originally imported into Australia in the early part of the 19th C that escaped the phylloxera plague responsible for the devastation of up to 90% of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s.

From Mount Gambier we headed into Victoria with not a quarantine check point in sight. We drove through beautiful countryside around Heywood before dropping down to the start of the Great Ocean Road. We had driven this road before and so had not planned to follow it through to Geelong. But we had met an Australian silver surfer at Pantai Lakei on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa and had said that we would visit him if we ended up in his neck of the woods, Port Campbell on the Great Ocean Road.

Boggy Creek's water skiing dairy farmer

So we found him, had a good chat and then headed inland to Curdievale (just north of Peterborough) and a very comfortable homestay that just happened to be a neighbour to the

Boggy Creek Pub, an atmospheric pub built in 1856. We had supper there whilst watching a beautiful sun set over meadows and the creek – on which a dairy farmer and his friends were attempting to water ski behind the farmer’s very new, very expensive and very noisy ski boat!

The next day we drove into Melbourne and into the suburb of St Kilda where we were based for two nights before crossing the Bass Straight to Devenport on Tasmania’s north shore. The drive along the Princes Highway from Geelong to Melbourne was, on this occasion a unique experience. I had driven this road many times but never in my own car – and as we entered Melbourne proper and drove past familiar landmarks I think we realised for the first time what it was that we had achieved.

The crossing from Melbourne to Devenport on the Spirit of Tasmania II was unseasonably cold and very rough.

Unique to the island

We had opted for a daylight crossing that began at 9am and was scheduled to conclude at 6pm. By the time we had driven onto the boat and secured Genghis on one of the huge car decks the majority of foot and other car passengers had loaded and there was little in the way of comfortable seating left. There had been three basic options at booking time; basic seating (no charge) or pay extra for recliners or for a further supplement, a cabin. Cabins were an unnecessary expense for a daylight crossing but recliners would have been nice but there had been none left. So we made ourselves as comfortable as possible with our picnic lunch and warm clothing on Deck 10, as high as it goes for passengers, and whiled away the time. Visibility was limited and for the majority of the voyage all that could be seen was a wild grey sea overlaid with a perforated blanket white, breaking wave crests. The ship shuddered a lot as it dropped into the troughs created by a very heavy swell and it wasn’t long before sea-sickness afflicted a significant number of passengers around us – there but for the grace of god! Deck 10 was pretty Spartan by comparison to the plusher main deck at Deck 7 but it had the advantage of fewer passengers who had the luxury of  less congested loos in which to throw up – small comfort maybe but comfort nonetheless! As the voyage progressed and the ship’s movement intensified it was not difficult to imagine the plight of small boat crews in such conditions – the infamous Sydney Hobart yacht race had concluded a few weeks before with a high number of retirements due to dismasting and other forms of incapacitating damage.

We eased into the very welcome sheltered waters of the River Mersey at just before 6pm and after a short km or so of steaming through Devenport we docked on the eastern bank of the river. It took time to unload and after passing through a quarantine check point we headed off to our pub accommodation on the west bank of the river and directly opposite the ship – we had spotted it from our deck on the way in.

Having settled in we ate in the pub and went for a short walk to orientate ourselves and confirm the location and opening times of the Visitor Information centre which turned out to be 7.30am suiting us well. As we returned to our pub the Spirit of Tasmania II was easing off her berth after which she nosed a short distance upstream before turning through 180o in what seemed an impossibly narrow part of the river before gliding downriver to the sea and her overnight return to Melbourne.

We obtained the information we wanted from the Visitor Centre as soon as its doors opened and after breakfast set off on a short shopping trip during which I purchased a spinning rod and reel and a 7 day fishing licence (only required for river fishing) in a camping shop the proprietor of which told me which lures to use. We set off for Arthur River on the North West coast. Our original plan had been to to head east on arrival and work our way clockwise around the island but the weather forecast relayed to us on the ship had warned of strong north easterly winds and heavy rain in the east so we went from clockwise to anti-clockwise!

The north coast road to Stanley was good and traffic was light at worst! The countryside was pretty; gentle hills covered in copses and crops rolled down to the coastal towns set on a predominantly rocky shore. We visited a cheese-maker en route and the delightful Burnie Makers’ Workshop, modern freeform building which houses a number of activities concurrently: interpretative displays chronicling local history and manufacturing processes, a café, a shop, Creative Paper (a successful local initiative that recycles industrial by-products into art papers) and, most importantly, a number of workshops scattered within where resident makers produce their work as well as give demonstrations – artists specialising in ‘miniatures’, sculptors using a variety of materials, furniture makers, musical instrument makers, wood turners and so on. From Burnie we visited Boat Harbour nestled under hills at the end of a cul-de-sac beside a beautiful bay. It was here that we first noticed an unfamiliar pink crop that was fenced and had warning signs detailing the dire consequences that would befall any trespasser. This crop turned out to be poppies and we came across many, many more fields of them as we journeyed across the island; Tasmania is considered the world’s most legally efficient producer of poppies with the highest yield per hectare of any opiate-producing country (around 2.5 tonnes per hectare). Further up the coast is Stanley, a town that is situated at the end of a thin strip of land in the lea of a very prominent piece of rock known as the Nut. After a quick visit to the fishmonger to get some local information and prices of fish we left for Arthur River via the commercial town of Smithton where we provisioned. The two hour drive took us through countryside that slowly changed from cropping and dairy country to one that was predominantly forest and later, nearer the coast’ heath. Some dairy farms were interspersed among the trees and open heath land taking advantage of the lush growth achievable in an area noted for its high rain fall. The cattle certainly looked to be in superb condition. Our accommodation was on a camp site a short drive from the hamlet of Arthur River, a small collection of mainly run down holiday shacks for those who loved the relative peace of the location – and an unforgettable view across the river and out to a rock strewn shore battered by a wild Southern Ocean. Our host was a cray fisherman whose boat was undergoing a refit so he was busy attending to the maintenance of the site and was very happy to take a break and chew the fat. In the course of our conversation we asked him about the possibility of buying a crayfish straight from a boat and he confirmed the view expressed by a cray fisherman in Jurien, West Australia – not worth his effort due to the time he would have to spend filling in a catch and sale return – pity.

Australian Salmon - very big plate!

He did tell us where to fish however and armed with our rod and reel I spent a few happy hours in the teeth of a gale thrashing the water – and I caught two very fine Australian Salmon which we cooked and ate within an hour of their capture. The fish is not highly prized by fishermen generally which surprised us as we found it very good to eat – but it was very fresh and perhaps that is key to its flavour.

Driftwood at what the locals call 'the end of the world'

We enjoyed two days at Arthur River and enjoyed it for the same reason as the locals – an unspoiled, wild beauty and peace and quiet.

From Arthur River we headed south on the Western Explorer Road to the once thriving gold mining town of Corinna where we caught the small Fatman ferry across the Pieman River to continue our journey south to another mining town past its best, Zeehan.

The scarred hills of Queenstown

South of Zeehan is the reputedly beautiful town of Strahan but we were becoming a little wary of beautiful coastal towns that in our recent experiences turned out to be chocolate box perfection but without character or soul so instead we headed inland to the open cast mining town of Queenstown. If you want the absolute antithesis of places like Strahan this is it! The winding road into the town suddenly revealed a lunar landscape, a pockmarked hillside bisected by dry gullies and devoid of vegetation; not the opening scene to a Star-Wars like sci-fi film but the western route into a very earthy town. We didn’t stay long and climbed out of the valley bottom and headed east in the lea of Cradle Mountain en route to Lake St Clair and then on to Great Lake in the Great Western Tiers. The countryside was reminiscent of the Auvergne region of France with twisting roads, conifer forests and fast running rivers – very pretty but bloody annoying when we were stuck km after km behind caravans being towed by underpowered 4WDs!

We arrived at Great Lake in time to thrash the water for an hour or so but shore fishing here is a very hit and miss affair without accurate local knowledge – we did see a couple in a boat land a very good looking fish which kept our spirits high. The following day was wet and windy but those are the conditions when the fishing is best – aren’t they?  – not in our case! But it didn’t matter because we were in pretty country and with our 4WD capability we were able to wander down some remote tracks and enjoy the scenery.

From the Great Western Tiers we headed for a three day stay in Hobart.

Sullivan Cove, Hobart

  • Accommodated in a YHA on the outskirts of the city we used local transport to get us into town and especially the Sullivan Cove port area around which there is much to do and see; Salamanca Place, a picturesque row of four-storey sandstone warehouses that show off Australian colonial architecture at its best; the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery where their exhibition on the sorry history of Tasmania’s Aboriginal community is thought provoking; the Maritime Museum of Tasmania and the Carnegie Gallery with exhibitions of Tasmanian photography contemporary Tasmanian art, craft and design; the lively Salamanca Market that takes place every Saturday and is a magnet for foodies and every craftsperson between the Bass Straight and the Southern Ocean.

    Crawfish pots waiting to be fished

We loved Hobart and could have stayed there for a week or two but we were pressed for time and there was still so much to see and do – and the next stop was Franklin to the south west of Hobart. First we wanted to visit Bruny Island where, from the Salamanca Market we had learned there was a smoker of some repute. The ferry from Kettering across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel gobbled up the long line of waiting cars, caravans and commercial lorries and took just 15 mins to land us on the island. Our time on Bruny  was spent exclusively with the smoker. He was an interesting man, passionate about food in general and smoking in particular. He was catering to a niche market and was doing very well with smoked salmon in particular and a range of home made preserves.

Waiting for mail - Bruny Island hopefulls

He recognised a need to expand his produce and had experimented with duck, quail and other meats but had been floored by bureaucracy – the government demanded AUD$2,000 annually to conduct inspections three times a year to ensure the product’s suitability for human consumption; a total of AUD$8,000 annually for the four products he was considering. He didn’t object to the need to be inspected but knew that he would have to sell an unrealistic amount of the new products just to break even; his conclusion was that he could not afford to branch out and grow his business. Rather than help a business and, as a spin off the community, the authorities seemed hell’s bent on stifling initiative and enterprise. Sadly this was not the only occasion we came across the Luddite mentality of the authorities towards enterprising opportunities that had as much to do with underpinning small communities through job creation as it did to satisfy the aspirations of hard working individuals. From Bruny we returned to the mainland and visited a highly successful sheep cheese making enterprise set in beautiful countryside – Ewe with a View! – before setting up camp in a public camping site on the Huon River in Franklin, a small boat building town between Huonville and Geeveston. Our neighbours in the camp site were intrigued by our roof tent and we didn’t want for a drink for the rest of the evening! In the morning we packed up and drove a hundred meters into the town to visit the Tasmanian Wooden Boat Building School.

The school's old wooden boat reunion

Established over 20 years ago by an academic who wanted a change of life, the school teaches would be wooden boat builders the skills of such an artisan. Over two years they are actively engaged in on the job training building a wooden boat for the sponsor of that intake. The sponsor is required to purchase the materials for the project and the material that has to be used is a wood known as Huon Pine. This pine is particularly slow growing, a matter of 4mm in girth every 10 years but the resulting tree is straight and yields a wood of very fine grain. It is very highly prized as boat building material and all Huon pines are owned by the government which auctions the wood when it is available. The current course’s sponsor is Tetsuya Wakuda the renowned Japanese-born Australian chef widely recognised as one of the country’s most original, creative and successful culinary talents. His boat a 34 or 36 foot motor launch will be launched in 2011. The yard is not given over to the school exclusively and as it wants to promote the skills associated with wooden boat building any available space can be offered to a boat builder.

'Peggy' takes shape

At present a retired shipwright in his late 70s is building a very beautiful 22 foot yacht, ‘Peggy’ which he designed and has already spent well over a year in its construction. Whilst watching him at work it easy to understand his prediction that it will take at least another year before she enters the water. Having seen wooden boat building in the Oman and then India it was very satisfying to see the same skills shared by another culture.

From Franklin we headed back to Hobart and on to the Tasman Peninsula and that night’s stop at Dunalley, the point at which the 105 year old Denison canal cuts the peninsula from the mainland by linking Blackman Bay on the eastern side of the peninsula with Norfolk bay in the west. The swing bridge over the canal is made of metal, as is the road surface which gives off a slightly eerie moan as vehicle tyres pass over it. The town has a well established and innovative restaurant and a fish market where there is fresh fish available every day thanks to the five or six local fisherman who are supported by it. We camped in the grounds of a hotel/pub close to the canal from where we had a beautiful view of Norfolk Bay and the marine traffic entering and exiting the canal. Rather than pitch the roof tent on this occasion we erected our guest annex, a 4 man tent. We intended to stay at the site for two nights so using the tent meant we could reserve our pitch whilst we went off in Genghis to explore the peninsula the following day. We eat in the pub that night and had a surprisingly good night’s sleep on an inflatable mattress that took an unexpectedly large volume of puff to inflate.

Dunalley - the view from our breakfast table

Early in the morning we set up the stove, cooked breakfast and eat it whilst looking over Norfolk Bay. A couple of small 5m ‘tinnies’ had set off before first light and we could see in the distance that one was on its way back so we went down to the fish market to see how he’d done. The skill with which this single handed fishermen recovered his trailer borne aluminium fishing boats was good to watch and testament to the hundreds of times he had carried out the operation. When his dog had stopped growling we were able to get close enough to see his catch – a boat full of flathead, a fish much prized for its flavour. The market was run by a man who was struggling to make ends meet. He supported the livelihoods of six fishermen including the one we had watched but he was forever under the pressure of local bureaucracy that made his working life increasingly more difficult to manage. His concern was that he would be driven out of business which if it were to happen would affect the fishermen he supported, their families and the community in general. In the course of conversation with him he told us that someone in Eaglehawk, a little further down the road towards Port Arthur, pickled octopuses. Having pickled octopus ourselves and adored the result we were keen to compare notes with a ‘professional’ – so we climbed into Genghis and set off. We had neither name nor location other than the name of the town so an hour later we stopped at Eaglehawk’s small port to ask questions. But there was no one there and as we turned round to set off back to the main road a cray fishing boat steamed onto its mooring and two crewmen came ashore in their tender, one man in his forties and a teenager. As they landed outside the Tuna Club of Tasmania’s weighing station we asked them if they knew anyone who pickled octopus to which the older man replied that he did and why were we asking. Having explained the reason for our search he told us to follow him as he jumped into his ‘ute’ and 20 minutes later we turned into a driveway to a house where he stopped and the two of them went into the house. We too parked and approached the front door to be met there by an elderly woman in a pink dressing gown who sought an explanation for our presence. We explained our quest after which she ushered us into her home where she was struggling with a failed batch of apricot jam. The two craw fishermen were busy making tea in her kitchen and turned out to be good friends of hers. We soon learned that the lady’s name was Rose who was in her mid to late seventies, sprightly and with the complexion of someone who had spent the vast majority of her life outdoors. She was extremely hospitable and over tea and homemade biscuits she told us of a life catching, curing and marketing pickled and smoked octopus. Her memories were punctuated by the fishermen the older one reminiscing of the days when as a schoolboy he would go down on a low tide on his way to school and catch octopus which he sold to members of the Greek community – he was disappointed if he had less than eight. It was a particularly good business for him because he joined the men to whom he had sold his catch on the way back from school at the end of the day and helped eat the catch which was being barbequed! Rose was still pickling octopus as a hobby but the real work was now being done commercially by her son in a larger town who, due to our mismatched itineraries we were unable to visit. We reckoned that Rose had been involved with octopuses for over 60 years which may have had something to do with the name by which she was affectionately known in the region, ‘Octopus Rose’. She epitomised the strength of character we expected to find in relatively isolated communities where you had to be tough to meet the challenges of the environment. She was a lovely lady and I would have given my eye teeth for a tape recorder and a few hours of her time – what a fascinating story she had to tell. Her friend, the cray fisherman was also an interesting man with a story to tell. As skipper of his own boat for 27 years he was wrestling with bureaucracy to maintain his livelihood. Qualified and certificated to the highest level, a new requirement for continued qualification had recently been introduced that required a skipper to jump into the sea from a structure several meters above sea level. With a back damaged from years of hauling craw pots he was not prepared to take the test and failed to accept its relevance when he worked day in day out on a platform less than a meter above sea level. He is in danger of having his license withdrawn but intends to take his case further – but he is unsure to whom he can appeal as he has little or no confidence in the authorities and the union which should be taking an interest in his plight and that of others in similar positions – Rose is also a qualified skipper and will not be jumping anywhere soon! Our conversation with these two supported our observations that in Australia generally there was a rather heavy handed approach to the introduction and implementation of rules and regulations without fully appreciating their consequences. The potential damage being caused to communities which depend on small enterprises to provide employment and thus keep families in the area instead of forcing them away to seek employment must surely be a political aspiration which deserves a more sympathetic ear than currently appears to be the case. Our views on this subject could rightly be criticised for lack of real research. But after more than two months traveling through largely rural Australia with its many small towns and isolated communities where we have rubbed shoulders with a hugely diverse and colourful cross section of this type of community we echo many of their concerns that boil down to a feeling of frustration at increasing levels of bureaucracy that stifle innovation and enterprise, the life blood of the small community.  

We could happily have spent more time in Dunalley but we left for the east coast after two nights there and traveled for much of the day through empty, beautiful countryside to Great Oyster Bay and after a brief visit to the Freycinet National Park we moved north to Friendly Beaches.

Friendly Beaches

We camped there in sand dunes that were alive with wallabies. At this point the sea arrives on the beach having journeyed uninterrupted by landfall from Chile or Antarctica! It was mesmerising not just for its fury but also for the gentle, deep swell that suggested infinite power. Having witnessed a novice fisherman catch a couple of decent looking fish from a rocky promontory just before sunset I planned to fish from the same spot early the following morning but the swell had increased in size overnight and now regularly inundated the area with surges that once spent retreated with such speed and force that it was easy to hear large boulders giving way to the power and movement – no fishing from there! There weren’t any other suitable spots from which to cast a lure so I had a stroll along the beautiful beach which had not a single manmade piece of flotsam at the high water mark, a very unusual and satisfying observation. On my return route through the sand dunes I came across a group of wallabies chasing one another through the knee high scrub and stood still to watch them at which point a movement 2 meters in front of me caught my eye and there tunneled into the scrub and busy eating some tender shoots was a young wallaby quite unperturbed by my presence. Eventually it emerged from cover and lazily hopped off to join the group gamboling in the scrub further on. After a cooked tailboard breakfast we packed up and set off to the north on a short leg to St Helens a town recently damaged by floods in the heavy rains that had been predicted in the forecast we had heard on the boat coming over to Tasmania and the reason we had headed west on arrival and not east as we had originally planned.

Founded as a whaling town in 1830 (it also attracted ‘swanners’ who harvested the under-down of the bay’s black swans) St Helens is a pretty town with a picturesque marina and a port that is home to Tasmania’s largest fishing fleet.  The town is the northernmost on the east coast and guards the southern access point to the beautiful Bay of Fires, so named by early explorers after they saw Aboriginal fires along the shore.

Guillemots at The Gardens

The residential end of Binalong Bay

We spent three nights in St Helens exploring the town, swimming at beautiful Binalong Bay and taking in the views of the rusty red lichen covered boulders that dominate the shore at The Gardens. We also tasted our first Australian crayfish here – fresh caught and cooked within a few hours of being landed it was, quite simply, the best textured and tastiest crustacean we have ever eaten.

For a Jerseyman to put a Jersey lobster in second place in a ‘tasty’ crustacean contest is tantamount to sacrilege but there it is, the truth will out!

The non-residential end of Binalong Bay

From St Helens we began our journey back to Devenport and started the journey by heading west towards Scottsdale. The first leg took us through heavily wooded high country to the dairy farming plateau around Pyengana, home to

The Princess of the Paddock

Priscilla, the Pig Princess of the Paddock. Priscilla lives at the ‘Pub in the Paddock’ where she whiles away her time making herself attractive to visitors and – drinking beer, her party piece! Pyengana is also home to one of Tasmania’s best known cheese makers, the Pyengana Dairy Company which has been crating tasty cheeses, mainly Cheddar style cheeses, for four generations and was well worth the visit. A little further along our route we came across the Weldborough Pass and its forest interpretation site. We got out of Genghis and spent a happy half hour amongst stands of blackwood, sassafras and myrtle interspersed by wonderful displays of ferns – and all this against an acoustic background of several very raucous kookaburras!

Weldborough Pass' ferns

Fifteen minutes beyond the pass we arrived at Weldborough and our night stop, the Weldborough Hotel. Weldborough was first known as Thomas Plains, after an early surveyor. The original plan was to open the area to rural development but the discovery of tin resulted in a sustained mining boom and the construction of a service town that included a racecourse and, a little later, a hotel (with good accommodation!). ‘The Centenary of Portland’, an early guide to the region, describes the town in the 1880s; ‘The Chinamen came and set up a local Chinatown, carrying on as tin scratchers everywhere. All tin and goods went and came from Georges Bay (St Helens) by pack track and slab roads … crops were put in, with good results at Christmas time, while a few cows arrived upon the scene’….. ‘In the roaring days of the Weldborough Mine the lights were never dimmed, and with three shifts to every bed the trade ‘roared on’ continuously, and every prospector bore a pleasant smile. Having exhausted its importance as a going concern, the Weldborough petered out’ It is widely recognised that this was the largest Chinese community on any tin field in Australia and they are said to have outnumbered the Europeans. A large, classic Chinese cemetery remains on a hillside as evidence of the size of the community and in contrast to the Chinese miners who died and were buried in Ballarat, little repatriation has taken place. The hotel, originally built in 1886 and named the ‘All Nations Hotel’, allowed us, for a small fee, to camp on its pretty, grassed, gum treed back garden and having set ourselves up we sat under the gums and had a glass of wine or two before heading into the hotel for supper. We chose the special, T-bone steak with home made chips and fresh vegetables and they were, by a country mile the best steaks we had eaten in Australia. By happy coincidence it transpired that the farmer who grew the beasts whose meat had given us so much pleasure was sitting behind us so we were able to thank him personally for his efforts, a very satisfying way to conclude a great meal.

We slept like logs in our elevated tent and after a muesli breakfast under the gum trees we set off for Launceston via a vineyard or two.

Dairy country in the Western Tiers

It didn’t take long to drop off the high country and reach the northern coastal plain where we chose to visit the ‘Dalrymple’, ‘Bay of Fires’ and ‘Jansz’ vineyards where we whiled away a good morning (and a decent portion of our remaining budget) before heading into Launceston for a late lunch. We didn’t have time to do justice to the town and instead drove through its centre and Old Launceston Seaport on the South Esk River before having lunch in a bizarre eatery – Davies Grand Central Station, a petrol station and delicatessen selling gourmet food and local wines and beer. Super food and well priced diesel – we couldn’t want for more!

Our camp site that night was south of Launceston on the banks of the Macquarie River at Longford where we cooked the last meal of our entire journey and spent our very last night on Genghis’ roof  in our tent. It was a sad occasion and our spirits were not as high as they should have been in such a pretty place. The next day we drove just beyond Devenport to visit a very disappointing market at Penguin before doubling back to Devenport to the pub where we had spent our first night in Tasmania. Early the following morning we boarded the Spirit of Tasmania I and, in reclining seats this time spent a comfortable 9 hours on a relatively calm Bass Straight to Melbourne where we spent the night with friends.

We spent our last week with Genghis in Victoria’s Western District and in the Grampians catching up with old friends whose generosity did much to overcome the sadness we felt at reaching the end of our journey.

A last breath of fresh air before being consigned to a container for the journey home

After saying goodbye to them we returned to Melbourne for a night and a day later on Monday 31 January I reversed Genghis into his container, tied him down and wished him bon voyage for his passage back to Southampton. A day later we left for New Zealand by air. It had been our original plan to take Genghis to New Zealand for at least two months but our new grandchild oriented timetable having curtailed the time we had in the country ruled out any thought of pursuing that plan. So instead we aimed to spend two weeks with a hire car visiting friends on the North Island only. And that’s what we did.

Having returned to the bosom of our family we often reflect on a journey that will only be properly concluded with the return to Jersey of our vehicle, Genghis. We often think of him in his container on the high seas and celebrate the strength of the vehicle and the qualities it has. A long distance traveled with no breakdowns and only one slow puncture. Miles of road eaten up in comfort and safety; the few near misses remained near misses thanks to the original build quality and  subsequent preparation of the vehicle.

As for us, we wallowed in the journey of a lifetime; unrepeatable experiences in all sorts of situations with wonderful people from all sorts of cultures, all of whom showed nothing but kindness to us. We are truly grateful for the opportunity to have begun and successfully complete a journey that gave us the chance to investigate our navels in detail, that reinvigorated us and that provided us with the focus and energy we needed to confront the next few chapters of our lives.   

 

Facts

Distance (road travel):          47,000km

Fuel burned (diesel):              7,000 litres

Distance (sea travel):            16,000km (including all outgoing container shipping and ferry trips)

Countries visited:                   Jersey, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, India, Nepal1,  Malaysia (Malay Peninsula, Sabah, Sarawak), Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia (Kalimantan, Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, West Timor), East Timor (Timor Leste), Australia, New Zealand1. (1 – visited without Genghis)

Time on road:                             412 days (One year, one month, two weeks and 3 days)

Time in roof tent:                    61 nights

Accidents:                                     One minor in Ooty, India

Puncture:                                      One in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia

Breakdowns:                               Nil

Illness:                                            Nil

The end of the road - Willaura, the Grampians, Victoria

Indonesia, 9 November to 2 December 2010

Java. Semarang, Central Java’s Regional Capital was a pleasant surprise. Although we had enjoyed Pontianak in Kalimantan, driving there had been made doubly difficult by the huge volume of motorbikes on the road and the quirks of their drivers; overtaking on either side of the vehicle; stopping dead in the road to talk to a pedestrian or oncoming motorcycle driver; always joining a road without looking or stopping. But Semarang was not plagued by motorbikes and our first impressions of the city were good. Evidence of the city’s Dutch colonial past were visible in the dilapidated but elegant buildings in the north of the city which we detoured through on our way from the port. Most striking of all was the Dutch church, Geraja Blenduk, which we discovered later had been built in the middle of the 18th C. We saw little else of the city other than modern shops and offices but for us it was a pleasant stop over.

We left early in the morning for what we expected to be a long drive to Malang, an historically important town en route to Bali and which has a good name for many forms of art. We had wanted to visit Yogyakarta but regrettably time was not on our side and long detours from our principle routes were not yet an option. There was also the added problem of the effects on the city of the ash produced by the recent eruptions of Mount Merapi.

Our route dictated that we head east to Surabaya before heading south for the last 100km to Malang.

Hold very tight please....!

It quickly became clear to us that the appalling road conditions were not going to allow us to reach Malang before dark and halfway through the day we made the decision to make Surabaya our night stop. The road was a single carriageway for most of its length on which it seemed the entire Javanese lorry fleet was operating.

Most lorries were very heavily laden, as usual, and each occupied more than half the width of the road. Add to the lorries a very liberal sprinkling of motorbikes and our average speed was reduced to no more than 30kph. Overtaking any vehicle was chancy as it required us to put the two offside wheels onto the hard/soft shoulder which was of indeterminate condition and very often containing well camouflaged drainage ditches.

Wide load!

Even if you got away with the manoeuvre it had to be repeated again to overtake another lorry a few minutes later – and it all seemed a bit pointless when, stopped at the next road works, all the lorries you had overtaken hissed to a halt a few metres behind you and another endless line of them stretched into the distance in front of you!

The scenery was pleasant enough and we delighted in the huge fleets of brightly painted

Part of the fishing fleet

fishing boats in the natural harbours up the coast to Surabaya. Eight and a half hours after we had set off from Semarang we stopped at a small hotel in Surabaya in the north of the city for a well earned rest and an opportunity to stretch aching joints and muscles after a pretty frustrating day’s driving.

We had an early supper in the hotel’s restaurant during which a waitress announced to us that we had a flat tyre (would you like anything with it sir?). After finishing the meal we went to inspect Genghis and sure enough the right rear tyre was as flat as a pancake. By now we had three members of the hotel’s staff huddled around the offending wheel offering their help. We had the wheel off and replaced by the spare in a matter of a few minutes after which a short search identified a headless nail just showing itself in the tread. After the discovery and without hesitation the wheel was rolled across the main road to what looked like a food hawker’s stall until closer inspection in the dim light revealed a large air compressor – this hawker was a tyre repair specialist! He quickly extracted the offending nail, reamed out the hole with an auger and then pushed in a fibre plug and trimmed it. He pumped up the tyre to the correct pressure, checked that there was no air escaping and charged me the equivalent of £2 for his work! The repaired tyre was fixed back on the spare wheel carrier and after thanking and remunerating our band of helpers we turned in very grateful for their alert and for helping us to resolve the problem so quickly and satisfactorily; yet another example of the generosity of spirit with which we had been met throughout our trip.

With all four wheels functioning normally we set off early in the morning (again) to follow the north coast round to Ketapang, the ferry point on the east coast that feeds Gilimanuk in west Bali. The roads were far less crowded than the previousday and we made good progress, passing through the massive electric generating power stations on the east coast in the early afternoon before reaching Ketapang at around 2pm.

Bali. A ferry was waiting ready to go and so we handed over our Rps 95,000 for the car and two passengers and drove straight onto the car deck. Five minutes later we were in the channel between Java and Bali heading for the clearly visible Gilimanuk ferry terminal just forty minutes away.

We were not sure what to expect from Bali. A number of friends gave it a so so review and had advised us to stay well clear of Denpasar and the south of the island generally and some of the travel blogs we’d seen had recommended a streak through to Lombok. We opted to head to the north coast for our first night after which we would decide where to go – but we only had a couple of days, three at most on Bali. On arrival at Gilimanuk we shot through all the customs and immigration checks and stopped in the main street for a late lunch at one of the many warungs. Choc a bloc with rice, beef rendang and some wicked sambal we set off for the homestay

The ceiling in a traditional Balinese house

we had booked at Pemuteran. The drive was very relaxing, no traffic and very pretty, lush countryside. Half an hour after finishing lunch we arrived at our destination and settled down for an ice cold Bintang to wash the dust away. The usual map and guide book poring exercise concluded with a route for the following day that would take us over the hilly centre to the south coast town of Padangbai, the ferry port that feeds Lembar on Lombok’s west coast.

We left our night stop and headed east towards Singaraja, Bali’s second largest town. We hadn’t travelled far before the eagle eyed Navigator saw a road sign indicating a track at the end of which was a pearl farm! And what a place it was – situated right on the sea, the compound comprised two two-storey buildings in front of which was a long jetty. The first building appeared to cater for the divers whilst the second comprised a showroom and admin offices upstairs with the working are of the pearl enterprise below. Having ummed and ahhed our way through the showroom and its exquisite produce we were taken downstairs to see the operation. The pearl bearing oysters are grown from scratch and after their nursery time in land tanks is over they are sent to sea where they are reared in mesh bags suspended from long lines.

After having a 'nucleus' inserted into them, oysters are bagged before being returned to the sea to grow their pearls

 As they grow they are re-bagged into ones with a larger mesh size thereby giving them the increased water flow that they need. Once they reach a certain size the oysters are opened carefully, a wedge is placed between the two shells, a slit is made in the tissue at a specific point and a hard ‘nucleus’ is inserted into the slit. A piece of tissue from an oyster that has produced a particularly beautiful pearl (this tissue can also dictate the colour of the future pearl) is also inserted with the ‘nucleus’ after which the shell is closed and the oyster goes to the recovery room. Later it will be returned to the sea to grow its pearl and after periodic x-rays will be re-opened and its pearl will be removed. We were allowed to watch each stage of the very slick operation and left the centre highly impressed by what we had seen.

A pearl being extracted from a live oyster

All non-pearl producing oysters were sold to the seafood trade – incentive for the oysters to produce a pearl and a cash alternative for the growers if they didn’t – win, win!

Back on the road, we headed east and having passed Lovina Beaches and Singaraja we went a little further before turning south at Kubutambahan and headed up towards  Gunong Batur and the lake that occupies the crater it made after its eruption in 1917, Danau Batur. The drive up the northern slopes took us through small villages and beautifully lush vegetation and the views across to the west and Gunungs Sangiyang and Batukau (both 2000m+) were spectacular. As we crossed the summit of our route and began the descent, the nature of the countryside changed as it became more populated and farmed.

A Balinese school run!

 Traffic increased and after lunch in Kintamani as we headed south and into Penelokan we came across tens of tourist buses and mini buses collecting their clients from modern restaurants overlooking Danau Batur and returning them towards Denpasar. We were fortunate that we didn’t have to take their route but instead took a narrow, traffic free road all the way to the coast where we turned east towards Padangbai. At this point it was noticeable that Bali was suffering a diesel shortage as we were hunting for a station at which to top up before Lombok and came across the fifth that day that was out of it. In no time we arrived at Padangbai where, having confirmed the ferry charges and times we set off to find the accommodation we had booked. Unfortuneatly, despite their having assured us that there was secure parking for Genghis, there wasn’t any and so we moved a little further up a crescent shaped beach full of moored boats and found an alternative. The accommodation wasn’t the best we’d had, bunk beds, desk fan and cold water only but what it lacked in creature comfort it more than made up for in atmosphere – and secure parking. After a refreshing swim, a wander around the beach front and a good supper we turned in ahead of the early start for Lombok in the morning.

Lombok. By 8am, having paid the Rps 550,000 for the 3.5 hour trip to Lembar on Lombok’s west coast, we joined the queue and waited. This was quite an exciting time for us as geographically; we were entering the last phase of our journey to Australia. Lombok is the western most island in a chain known as Nusa Tenggara after which we would follow the chain through Sumbawa, Flores and West Timor before crossing into independent Timor Leste from where we would ship to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, the Top End.

Boarding late, a pretty common practice in this neck of the woods, we had a good crossing to Lembar and immediately after disembarking headed off to Penujak in the bottom, middle part of the island to find a pottery that we had heard was doing rather well and exporting a significant amount of pottery to Australia and Europe through Surabaya. Traffic in Lombok is much gentler than in southern Bali and it didn’t take long to get to the town – but it took a very long time to locate the pottery. Much as we had discovered when searching for textile manufacturers in India’s Gujerat, this type of enterprise isn’t based on one easy to find building we expect to find in the West. These enterprises are reliant upon the collective skills of a whole community and as in this case, can cover large areas of closely interwoven dwellings that don’t necessarily have a core. Anyway, we found a lady who introduced us to another lady and eventually we found the lynch pin. We were taken for a bewildering tour of the site, met numerous families and their friends and eventually arrived at the banks of a river where a kiln was located.

The basic kiln and part of the order for Australia

This was not a conventional potters kiln but more a thatched, open sided roundel at the centre of which large dried earthenware plates had been stacked on their sides on a bed of rice husks that had also been tightly packed around each plate before a thick layer was bedded in on the top and the whole ensemble set alight. The husks smouldered for hours giving off sufficient heat to ‘fire’ the plates which were sold ‘as is’ around the world. These were not the only items made by this pottery, just the latest order for several hundred being prepared for a client in Australia. Huge and beautiful earthenware jars decorated with traditional motifs headed the list (1.5m tall, 90cm in diameter) followed by smaller versions and many other interesting vessels, all made using the same black clay, the same building techniques using moulds and wheels and the same firing process.

We counted ourselves very fortunate to have been given such an interesting tour of the pottery and set off in high spirits to the north, to the town of Tetebatu that nestles in the southerly slopes of the 3726m Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia’s second largest volcano. With no detailed maps available were reliant on the GPS to get us there and for the first part of the trip all appeared OK.

Sunset over the rice padi near Tetebatu

We departed sealed roads quite early on and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves surrounded by paddi fields and driving on very narrow compacted mud roads better suited to a motorbike than to a wide vehicle. We were headed in the right general direction but as light was beginning to fade so the pressure was building to get back onto a sealed road which we knew was somewhere close. At every narrow junction we asked passers by if we were on the right road for Tetebatu to which they either nodded or indicated a different direction to take. We continued to drive down dark tracks made all the more dark by huge bamboo groves until finally we came across a sealed road that led us into Tetebatu.

The GPS had done its job but had ignored the main roads and taken delight in introducing us to a countryside the more direct route would never have shown us – and it was delightful with a beautiful sunset thrown in for good measure.

Our accommodation for the next two nights was a homestay with views of field after field of rice paddi to the south and the three peaks of Gunungs Senkereang, Baru and Rinjani to the north – very picturesque. We slept badly that night because the mosques were very busy throughout the night with non-stop prayers. In the morning it was explained to us that the ‘haj’ in Mecca was about to officially get under way and that the prayers were for those Indonesians attending the pilgrimage. A little bleary eyed we set off with our self-appointed guide Abul (the ‘d’is deliberately missing) to the big Wednesday Market at which we were promised all types of produce, cooked food and handicrafts.

A cloud wreathed Gunung Rinjani from Tetebatu

Our route took us over an hour of stumbling through paddi fields, through a stream and onto surprisingly substantial aqueducts feeding paddi fields for miles. Sweating profusely we bust onto the site of the market to find it empty – the mullah’s had given everyone a bad night and in anticipation of a sleepless night the vendors had decided to stay at home!

Planting out the new rice crop

Another hour’s walking and we returned to our homestay where after a cold drink, we re-arranged Genghis’ interior to make room for Abul and set off to a village some 15km away well known for the quality of its textiles. At midday we arrived at Pringgasela to visit The Young Art Shop, a co-operative that like many similar enterprises in Gujerat, coordinated the work of a village so that they achieved better sales and better prices. It certainly seemed to be working and there was a noticeable muting of the more traditional and very bright colours to ones that were softer and generally more appealing to European tastes. We eat lunch of satay and bulaya, sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf, with Han, the co-op’s front of house man before taking our leave. Not surprisingly we didn’t depart empty handed!

Examples of Pringgasela's textiles

We left our idyllic spot very early the following morning for the town of Labuhan Lombok from where we would catch the ferry to Sumbawa. It was an easy drive with only a trickle of traffic on the road and we rolled into the ferry terminal at well ahead of our estimated 8am. We paid Rps 322,000 for the one and a half hour journey to Sumbawa’s Poto Tano port, and drove over to our loading lane. Only one car was ahead of us in the queue but it wasn’t long before a handful of others joined us and then the inevitable heavily laden lorry or two squeaked to a halt beside us. Quite a few motorcycles lined up in their lane but all in all it seemed that we had a partially empty ferry. And that is the way it was; the ferry appeared from Sumbawa, unloaded and we were marshalled on board.

Sumbawa. The departure from Lombok was very picturesque and as we left the protection of the natural harbour Sumbawa was clearly visible. In no time we were parallel to Sumbawa’s south west coast heading north. There were few signs of habitation until a beach and a what looked like a resort came into view shortly after which an inlet appeared with a large number of cargo vessels and dormant ferries moored in it. We headed east down the inlet and then did a u-turn into Poto Tano, a very well concealed and pretty natural harbour.

Fishing at Sape

As in Labuhan Lombok, fishermen and women were standing neck deep in the sea fishing with long willowy rods, shielded from the hot sun by their distinctive conical hats.

Our GPS was still functioning as a position indicator but the information it signalled was overlaid on a very crude map without any roads depicted on it. Not totally useless but not a reliable map reading aid. We had a very simple paper map and after disembarking set off on what we thought was our route. Twenty minutes in to it the GPS’s compass confirmed that we were not heading in the right direction and we were forced to backtrack.

Two hours later, having travelled on a well surfaced road, we came to Sumbawa Besar, the principle town in West Sumbawa. Up until then we had not seen a paddi field, a stark contrast with Bali and Lombok. Here, cattle and goats took pride of place in the food production chain and most of the land that had been cultivated was given over to grazing land. Later, in the hills, the paddi made a re-appearance but never in the density with which it’s sister islands were covered. The vegetation on Sumbawa was also different to that of the other two islands. It was drier, less fulsome and seemingly stunted, clinging tightly to the hillsides and valleys without much variance in canopy height – a bit of a crew cut (no4) as opposed to the long flowing locks and beehives of Bali and especially Lombok. It was also far less populated that fact manifested in the absence of torrents of motorcars although that was more than made up for by the masses of heavy produce delivering lorries.

A north coast fishing village

Just prior to entering the town a sign post indicated a bypass which would take us towards Dompu, some 150km to the east. The bypass had not been completed and was in a very poor state. The reason for the fact that we didn’t see another vehicle on it was now evident. Once more we reached a surfaced road and rejoiced in the smooth ride it gave us – but only for a matter of minutes. For the next four hours we lurched down one of the worst roads we had encountered anywhere on our travels. The road was narrow, covered in huge, well concealed, suspension breaking potholes and more twisted and undulating than a snake in its death throws. It offered very little opportunity to overtake the many huge, overloaded lorries that were reduced to walking pace in many, many places and in the hills the situation became even more dire. Had it not been for the (calculated!) risks we took overtaking on blind corners and on the inside of the juggernauts we would never have made our destination by nightfall – and travelling on these roads at night was not an option.

As we coasted down the long and winding road from the hills onto the plains and into Dompu we contemplated the effects on the economy these terrible roads inflicted. Ferries and lorries are the life blood of the islands – there is no way of getting the fuel, food stuffs, fertiliser etc into the communities and the produce out without their collective efforts. Whist the ferries (in our experiences) did not operate to a strict timetable they were constant and provided the essential inter mainland/island transportation network upon which the lorries depended. In Java and on the islands generally the lines of road communication were in such a poor state that lorry journeys were prolonged by days, not just a few hours. The cost of this lack of efficiency grossed up must have been considerable not only in financial terms but also from an environmental perspective. A view through western eyes? – maybe.

Pantai Lakey's surf watching/judging towers at sunset

From Dompu we headed south to the coast to the fishing village of Hu’u and the beach at Pantai Lakey, a location well known to Australian and the more intrepid international surfers. We arrived at our hotel just after sun set after a bone shaking journey of nearly nine hours. The amazing properties of an ice cold Bintang set the world to rights and we settled in to a two night break.

The next day, our only day, we swam, watched a variety of mainly Australian surfers young and old paddle out to the break on the reef and then followed their fortunes on some very nicely shaped waves. We have not experienced many more laid back places – the spirit of the hippy lingers on!

After another early start following our second night of relaxation we drove east to Sape where we intended to overnight before catching an early morning ferry to Flores. The journey was much easier than our first on Sumbawa and we rocked and rolled our way into the sleepy harbour at Sape and checked into our accommodation.

Sape harbour

This was in stark contrast to the relative luxury we had enjoyed in Pantai Lakey. The room was overpoweringly hot, it smelled of cat pee and the bed sheets were of very dubious cleanliness – another case for the silk sleeping sacks.

We had a late lunch in a warung and sauntered around the ports buildings trying to obtain information that would confirm the rumour we were operating on – that an 8am boat (the only ferry of the day) to Flores would depart tomorrow morning. We failed to get any assurances so went back to our room, which was only a matter of metres away from the port and had a sweaty siesta. After 4pm the temperature had dropped a little and we made another foray to the port. There was a little more activity by this time and an English speaking local took us to the car registration kiosk, a building that had been closed on our arrival. After some loud shouting by our befriender, a sleepy official appeared and a process of registration began. Our details and those of the car were written down in a register and we were given a number which turned out to be our loading number – we were no 6 and yes there was a ferry in the morning and we were to report to the kiosk, ready to go by 7am.

We didn’t sleep well that night not least because caterwauling cats were jumping up and down on the thin, flat roof throughout the night. At the appointed hour we were parked up behind five other cars and there were a few more behind us joining a considerable number of large and medium sized lorries stacking up in their respective lanes adjacent to us. There were too many vehicles for one ferry unless it was the size of the one we had journeyed from Pontianak to Semarang in and the harbour didn’t look capable of handling a ferry of that size. Another English speaker joined us for conversation and he very quickly enlightened us on the loading procedure; the ferry would take 8 large lorries, 4 medium lorries and 4 cars so if you have a car number higher than 4 you are unlikely to get on! Being No 6 this wasn’t news we wanted to hear and it became especially galling when we learned that the registration kiosk had been open when we arrived, the official was merely taking a siesta in the back room, and that had we woken him up we would in fact have been No 1. The four vehicles in front of us had registered in the afternoon when we were ‘enjoying’ our sweaty siesta! We watched the vehicles loaded on to the ferry, a very long process over the make shift and precarious loading jetty. At about 9am the process was complete and the ferry set off whilst we sat disappointed in Genghis and contemplated the prospect of another night in cat litter. As we resigned ourselves to a return to our room, our genial English speaker knocked on our window and announced with a huge grin that there was a second ferry being prepared to leave for Flores later in the morning at around 11am. And so there was. As we were now No 2 in the car section we were almost guaranteed a place – why the ‘almost’? Because if you slipped the registration official and the policeman a little ‘coffee money’ it was possible to leapfrog the queue! So we paid up to ensure that no one jumped in front of our rightful spot and at 11.15am, having paid Rps705,000 plus a little ‘coffee money’ we boarded the ferry and set off for the six and half hour voyage to Labuhanbajo, on Flores’ west coast.

Flores. We found seats next to a porthole in the VIP soft seat section and settled into books. The sea was like a mill pond, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and there was always something going on on the sea – flying fish, a huge shoal of tuna feeding on the surface with terns hovering and diving to pick up left overs, other ferries and as the journey progressed Komodo and its attendant islands came into view.

Labuanbajo

After meandering through a group of smaller islands and promontories Labuanbajo came into view. The town surrounds the port, rooted into the hillside overwatching it facing west towards Komodo. The journey had passed quickly and having offloaded quickly we were at our hotel on the town’s main street within a few minutes. With Genghis parked in front of the hotel’s foyer we climbed a steep flight of steps to our room where we had spectacular views over the port and the bay it sat in and then beyond to Komodo.

A sunset over Komodo from Labuanbajo

Sunset came quickly after our arrival and it wasn’t long before we were sitting at a table outside our room savouring a cold beer whilst marvelling at a spectacular sunset that seemed to set Komodo on fire – no wonder the stories of the fire breathing dragons!

We spent two days in Labuanbajo revelling in its ability to absorb tourism without letting it interfere with its charming, unhurried and unspoiled way of life. We also visited the area of the bay that is clearly visible from the town and which has been given over to expensive resorts and hotels. Most have respected the environment in which they exist and have set themselves back from the beach and camouflaged relatively low rise buildings with natural vegetation and clever design.

Fresh fish in Labuanbajo's market

Regrettably, in a manner not dissimilar to Kuching’s water front, money has spoken and an awful and large multi storey hotel dominates the foreshore and stains the beauty of the bay.

On the third day, a Wednesday, we set off to Aimere, a port on the south coast from which, we were assured by several sources, a ferry leaves for Kupang in West Timor  each week on a Friday at around 8a.m (but mention also of a Thursday departure had determined that we leave on a Wednesday) .

Labuanbajo's beautiful fruit market

The first section of the journey took us over the forest covered hills to the south-east of Labuanbajo and into the rice growing plains around Lembor before heading east on the twisting, turning roads through beautiful forest covered hills that shoot you out into another fertile rice growing area that surrounds the long, drawn out market town of Ruteng. By this time we had enjoyed about three hours of sparsely populated, lush and very hilly terrain – and there was another three hours of similar countryside to go before reaching Aimere. Two hours from Ruteng we reached Mborong and an hour later rolled into the dusty and sleepy town of Aimere. Having eventually found the ferry terminus, an inconspicuous building by a an equally inconspicuous jetty we set about confirming the information we had wrestled out of tourist offices and guides in Labuanbajo.

23 November - a birthday dragonfly!

The first problem we encountered was that there were very few people around to ask and those that were around didn’t speak our language or perhaps more to the point, we didn’t speak theirs. So we retired to a warung for a late lunch of rice and Kampung chicken accompanied by an excellent and fiery sambal. (Kampung chicken: scrawny chook that play in the dust on the outskirts of villages and forever sprinting in and out of passing traffic helping it to develop long, muscle bound legs that an Olympic sprinter would be proud of. The trade off for the energy spent developing these powerful pistons is a complete lack of  a breast, something no doubt a Vivian Westwood model would be proud of! ) The warung was adjacent to a bank that was still open and as luck would have it one of the startlingly pretty cashiers spoke excellent English. She very kindly used the bank’s phone to get in touch with a string of people which ended with a conversation with a ferry official who confirmed that the ferry left on Saturday at 8a.m. – so the time at least concurred with our sources. An elderly man waiting his turn in the bank’s queue confirmed the Saturday sailing and so we left the bank confident in the knowledge that we had some time to kill.

Fresh from the boats - a fish seller in Aimere

There is no accommodation for tourists in Aimere so we set off inland for an hour’s drive up a long and winding hillside to the town of Bajawa. We found accommodation out of town and booked in for three nights and of course sought further confirmation of the ferry’s movements from a variety of passer’s by including a carpenter and a lorry driver we met in a filling station. Their verdict – it definitely leaves on a Friday at 9a.m.! Dilema! After much wailing and gnashing of teeth we opted to pack-up in time for a pre-dawn start on Friday so that we arrived at the terminal well in advance of any Friday sailing time. If there wasn’t a sailing until the following day we had lost nothing but a little sleep.

You can't be in a rush in Aimere!

We spent the rest of the day preparing Genghis for our dash through West Timor and Timor Leste to Dilli where he would be thoroughly (and expensively) cleaned in advance of the Australian Quarantine Services’ rigorous inspection of him on his arrival in Darwin.  

And so, on Friday, we arrived at the port at dawn to be met by a stream of passengers and a few vehicles – we thanked our instincts and sauntered over to the terminal to pay for the voyage. There, in very broken English, a ferry official informed us that we could not buy a ticket to Kupang because ‘dat sheeps’ was headed south to the island of Sumba! We did however get confirmation that the Kupang ferry would depart at 8a.m. on Saturday and we managed to leave our personal and vehicle details with our very helpful and tolerant ferry official who appeared to understand that we would be returning the next day.

Looking across Aimere to the west from Bajawa

We immediately reserved another night at our hotel and returned to Bajawa where we spent the day shopping for provisions for what we believed to be a 22 hour ferry journey!

On Saturday, again before dawn, we set off for Aimere for what we hoped would be the last time. As we reached the lower slopes of the hills the light was good enough for us to see a ferry approaching Aimere on a flat calm sea under a cloudless sky – the omens were good! We joined the vehicle queue as the boat we had seen the previous day bound for Sumba eased onto the ferry pier and disgorged its cargo of humans, vehicles, horses, cows and pigs!

Our ferry arriving at Aimere from Sumba

We paid our Rps 1.8m ferry ticket and were called forward to load amongst the general chaos of arriving and departing passengers and vehicles on a ferry loading ramp designed at cope with, at best, either departures or arrivals but not both at the same time!

West Timor and Timor Leste. Tucked into the lea of a heavily laden lorry on one side, a large stack of rice sacks on the other, a straw filled area alive with pigs in front and a car behind we locked Genghis up and headed for the passenger decks. The economy class seating area comprised rows of broken fibreglass seating in the midst of which were a couple of low platforms on which some foam filled plastic sleeping mats were scattered. Towards the bows was ‘Firstklass’ where the seats were padded and although filling rapidly we managed to secure a row of four seats which we defended with great ingenuity and skill! We were right at the front of the boat which meant that we were just ahead of the open sides, open sides that would let in rain (although there were drop down canvas screens) but more importantly would let air into what was already a very hot and stuffy place. As we set sail it became clear to us that we would not benefit from any air flow but on the plus side, having hired a sleeping mat we had two berths, one along the four seats and one on the mat on the steel deck. It was a long day and a much longer night during which we sweated continuously. We eat our picnic lunches and supper, downed a few litres of water and dosed, read and finally slept our way through to Kupang where we landed just as the sun was making its first appearance of the day at 6a.m.

Not all the passengers were waiting for a mobile phone signal!

Unloading was the loading chaos in reverse and we finally broke free unscathed about half an hour after we docked. The road surfaces were good and we sailed through Kupang stopping only to test an ATM and to visit a fish market on the beach just outside the town that was just setting up.

Our destination that night was Kafamenanu, a small town a couple of hours short of the international border between West Timor and Timor Leste. The road continued in good condition and we made very good progress through a clearly impoverished and sparsely populated countryside that was noticeably less rugged and hilly than its contemporaries in the Nusa Tenggara chain of islands. From the outset we were assaulted by clouds of yellow butterflies that diminished in the border area, grew in number again just before Dill and which we found again, later, in the Kimberly area of Western Australia – put that in your pipe AQIS!

A typical West Timorese hut

Road kill had been a rarity in the other islands so we couldn’t help but notice the number of dead snakes on he road, more than ten, that appeared to be of the same variety, black and obscenely thick and shiny. Timor’s distinctive round, thatched buildings were a very pleasing addition to the countryside and without really knowing it we tumbled into Kefamenanu in the afternoon after six hours driving. Our hotel was adequate but being a Sunday, it was difficult to find anywhere open where we could get a meal and eventually the hotel rustled up a late lunch snack for us and supper. We left early on Monday, hoping to be first in line at the border when it opened at 8a.m.

Thatched, round buildings exclusive to Timor

The drive down was pleasant enough particularly when we met the coast and followed it around to the border check point at Atapupu. It was a hot, cloudless morning and the sea was so calm and of such a colour that at the horizon it was impossible to distinguish sea from sky. We stopped at the police check point at around 7.30a.m. and with half an hour to kill went to a warung on the opposite side of the road for a coffee. Just outside the entrance on a small BBQ, the proprietor was basting fresh, sardine like fish with a thick sambal before gently grilling them over the coals – a perfect start to the day and quite delicious.

Breakfast!

At the appointed hour we reported to the Indonesian authorities to go through our exit procedures. After being checked by the police we moved on to immigration where, in the act of lifting the official stamp to record in our passports our departure from Indonesia he asked us to show him our visa for entry into Timor Leste. We informed him that as far as we were aware British subjects were entitled to apply for and receive visas on the border, a fact that we had double checked earlier in the year. After a telephone call to the Timor Leste immigration officials two hundred meters up the road we were informed that the visa regulations had changed in April and that we were now required to apply for visas by email after which the application processing time would take at least ten working days! After we had picked ourselves off the ground we began to consider our position. We had a container shipment booked for 2 December that required us to be in Dilli in good time for the vehicle to be cleaned and loaded. Any delay of more than a day would cause us to miss the deadline and we would be forced to wait another week for a similar shipment and as things stood it was highly likely that the visa processing time would rule this option out too – there wasn’t another boat until 22 December! First and foremost we had to find an internet facility – the very obliging Indonesian immigration official had supplied us with the Timor Leste Visa site address. The Timor Leste official had suggested that we return to Atambua, a largeish town we had passed through on our way to the border from Kefamenanu or if that failed we’d find an internet connection in Kupang but a kindly soul in Indonesian immigration suggested we go twenty metres down the road and ask the owner of the very small convenience store if he could help. Downhearted and sceptical we did as was suggested – and the gods smiled on us – he’d very recently opened a rudimentary internet café!

Angel and the soldier

To cut a long story short, with the help of his non-English speaking daughter, her English speaking soldier boyfriend and numerous phone calls to Timor Leste Immigration’s Visa section we only had to spend that night in Atambua before our visa was issued the following morning and we crossed into Timor Leste and put our watches on an hour and a half. The additional silver lining to this cloud was that we were able to enjoy another BBQ grilled fish breakfast before crossing the border!  

From the outset the roads were in much, much worse condition than those in West Timor despite the rumoured affluence of the country since its Independence and assistance from the UN.

Timor Leste's north coast

We bucked and rolled our way along the deeply potholed roads for three hours until we arrived in Dilli where we spent another two hours trying to find our shippers! The official with whom we had been dealing had omitted to tell us where they were or that they were co-located with a better known company that were in fact the shipper’s agents! Having finally arrived at the shippers we finalised the documentation and to our surprise were sent off to the nearest local car washdown for a hose down. We had been led to believe that we were in for a USD$500 minimum ( Timor Leste’s currency is the US$) car cleaning process so it was with some pleasure that we found ‘Mr Clean’ whose gang gave Genghis a thorough squirting for $10!

One of the many bridges in Timor Leste

We booked into our out of town hotel, spent a pleasant night there and the following day went off early to load Genghis into his container. With a little time to spare we decided to return to a travel agent (who had been responsible for giving us the correct directions to our shippers) to see about our flights to Darwin. We were rocked back by the $416 per person for the one way, one hour flight to Darwin so searched through all the options available – and hey presto, if we left the next day at 7a.m. we could get tickets for half that price – no contest!

Fish for sale at the roadside in Timor Leste

We loaded Genghis into his container, paid the bills having queued in the ANZ bank for nearly two hours, returned to our hotel, packed and enjoyed a good supper before turning in early.

At 5a.m. Nurt, a young taxi driver we had met the previous day, turned up bang on time. The previous day’s loading of Genghis had not gone that smoothly and during the loading a temporary support under the container had collapsed rendering one of the doors incapable of being shut. We were unhappy at the thought that the container was insecure and had urged the shippers to confirm that the door was properly closed and Customs sealed before work finished for the day, which they did. Despite the company’s assurances ‘seeing is believing’ and so we diverted Nurt passed the agents where we confirmed for ourselves that the container was indeed secure. At Dilli’s airport we checked in, bought some duty free hooch and boarded our North Air’s Embraer 170 Flight TL511 to Darwin which took off a few minutes after its scheduled departure time of 7a.m.!  

Dilli's protector

We were very satisfied with ourselves – we had hugely enjoyed Indonesia, extracted ourselves (with much help) from a potentially devastating delay and were now, on Thursday 2 December, seated in an aircraft that would deposit us in Australia in an hour’s time. Genghis was scheduled to depart Dilli on the same day as us arriving in Darwin on Saturday with a likely clearance procedure beginning after the weekend on Monday 6 December – back on schedule! Everything in the garden was rosy!

Borneo, 15 October to 9 November 2010

Sabah. We landed at KK in the early evening and went straight to our hotel where we discovered that we had lost our ‘travel’ mobile phone. Despite a search of the aircraft at Tawau, its destination after KK, and the taxi we had used from the airport it wasn’t found. Luckily we had a ‘spare’ phone which, because we kept all our contacts on our small laptop computer, we were able to update quickly. The purchase of a new Malaysian SIM card the following morning completed the process. 

KK's Phillippina night food market

 Our hotel was pretty much in the heart of KK and on the opposite side of a main road on which were the shipping agents responsible for clearing Genghis through customs on his arrival. It was now Saturday and we were expecting him to dock either this day or on Sunday with a clearance through customs on Monday. I introduced myself to the agents who explained immediately that the ship transporting Genghis hadn’t yet arrived in Port Klang (Kuala Lumpur) to pick him up. They explained that the agents in Kuala Lumpur had been trying to contact me by phone without success but had sent me emails to explain the situation. I returned to the hotel, established a wifi connection and recovered the emails explaining that the delay was due to congestion in an intermediate port. On Tuesday this delay increased further as a consequence of the tragic tsunami in Sumatra and to cut a very long story short, we were told that the ship would not now appear in KK until the next weekend at the earliest! This was sorry news indeed as it robbed us of 7 days travel in Sabah.  

Part of KK's large fishing fleet

We hastily reviewed our travel plans and realised that as soon as Genghis was out of his container we would have to depart Sabah and head south if we were to get anywhere close to achieving the timetable we had set ourselves as a consequence of our visit to the UK in the summer. Disappointed though we were we knew we had to make the most of the week we had.  

Our first excursion was to Pulau Mantanani a small island off Sabah’s North West coast. The journey began by coach and took us north through Kota Belud before we turned west to the coast and a boat transfer to the island. We were in a group which comprised a couple of Europeans and twenty newly wed Chinese couples on their honeymoons – bliss! Thankfully for us the group was split up at the departure jetty where the day visitors were loaded into one boat and the overnighters another – much to our relief the giggling honeymooners turned out to be day-trippers. Our group was six, two Swiss men, one Frenchman and his girlfriend and us. Our boat was an 8m ‘pencil’ powered by twin 150hp Yamaha outboard engines which had us bouncing over the swell in no time. Forty five minutes later with our spines only marginally compressed, we arrived at Pulau Mantanani Besar, the larger of the two Mantanani islands. Our resort was made up of a central admin area and a number of stilted ‘cabins’ which were either two bed or 4 to 6 bed dormitories. We were allocated our two bed cabin which was a square room with two mattresses on the floor. Opposite the entrance was another door leading to an open air w.c., basin and cold, fresh water shower – basic but very adequate – and the beautiful clear sea was quite literally on our doorstep.  

Having lazed away a few hours with a buffet of very local produce we swam and read books until it was time to go snorkelling. Our boat took us to Pulau Mantanani Kecil, the smaller of the two islands where a large longhouse like structure was located on stilts above the sea a couple of hundred meters off shore – quite a sight. This was a dive centre where there was rudimentary accommodation for divers of whom we had six on board. The dive centre was equipped with a compressor capable of charging the SCUBA tanks and having picked up fresh tanks we headed to a reef on one side of which the divers exited before the snorkelers headed to its shallower inshore side and flopped into the sea. The reef was disappointing, the visibility was great, but there was none of the activity, colour or diversity that we had witnessed in Egypt’s Red Sea. Nevertheless we enjoyed an hour or so in the water before being recovered and returned to the resort. That evening we met several nationalities whose company we enjoyed before turning in for a relatively early night. The Swiss and the French partied on well into the night!  

The following day began with a swim and breakfast after which we went for a walk to the other side of the island. By 9am it was hot so our excursion was a sweaty one particularly as it took us an hour to reach our destination – an achievement the heavy headed Swiss 30 years our junior failed to manage! En route we passed through the only village on the island before breaking out  

'Blue Bucket Lagoon' - Pulau Mantanani

 of the casuarinas and cocoanut palms onto a blindingly white sandy beach on the fringes of a glassy lagoon. In the middle distance small dug out canoes bobbed about close to the lagoon’s protective reef on which small breaking waves were the only feature that helped to differentiated sea from sky. With the exception of the distant canoe’s occupants there was no one to be seen. After a happy hour soaking off our sweat and marvelling at the beauty and tranquillity of this happy place we sauntered along the beach in the general direction of our return route. After a little time we came across a selection of huts amongst the trees on the point of land that separated the sea from the lagoon which turned out to be the daytime ‘camp’ for another snorkelling/diving resort that had accommodation a little further down the lagoon side of the beach – an idyllic spot! After a cool cocoanut milk straight from the nut we headed back to our resort for lunch and a final swim before heading back to KK.  

By the time of our departure the wind had got up and roughened the sea. Our boat this time was a bigger ‘pencil’ powered by twin 200hp Yamahas. The helmsman juggled steering and throttles levers throughout the one hour journey to maintain a balance of speed and comfort – everyone was glad when the journey ended. At the jetty we met yet another large group of honeymooning Chinese couples who shared our bus and giggled all the way to their drop off points, the Shangrila and Nexus resorts! We were left in peace for the remaining half hour of our journey to far more modest accommodation.   

It was now Thursday evening and with some relief we read an email that informed us that the boat carrying Genghis was en route to KK and would dock either late on Friday evening or early on Saturday but it was unclear if a berth would be available immediately on its arrival. This news lifted our spirits as there was a possibility that if he arrived on Friday night and if the boat had a berth there was an outside chance that we could clear customs on Saturday morning before the customs department closed for the weekend. Once bitten, twice shy – we didn’t hold out too much hope but whilst there was the glimmer of a chance we couldn’t afford to swan off too far. On Friday afternoon the agents contacted us to say that the boat would dock on Saturday morning too late for a customs clearance – so Monday it would be.  

A Bajau horseman at Kota Belud's Tamu Besar

On Sunday we travelled two hours north to Kota Belud to visit their Sunday market, the Tamu Besar. Our taxi driver was the son of a man who had taken us to the National Museum soon after we arrived and like his father was a qualified tourist guide and a Sikh, an unusual religion in Sabah. We were lucky to have found them both as they spoke excellent English and were good and informative company.  

The Tamu Besar is a big social occasion that brings together food, clothing and handicrafts as well as providing a venue for a range of traditional activities including competitions involving the playing of traditional musical instruments. Also there to add colour and a sense of occasion to the proceedings were some of Sabah’s celebrated Bajau horsemen. All the ingredients were there in the right measures to create a lively, carnival like atmosphere much to the enjoyment of everyone present.   

We returned to KK in the knowledge that Genghis had arrived, the ship had berthed and the plan was to get him out of his container and through customs by late on Monday morning! After that our plan was to re-pack him and shoot off to Menumbok in the south of the country in time to catch the 4.30pm ferry to Labuan where we would overnight before catching another ferry to Muara in Brunei. The journey to Brunei via Labuan was necessary because the recently introduced direct ferry service between Menumbok and Muara had been suspended for mechanical reasons – we couldn’t help but think that the gambling tables on Labuan were probably suffering too much from this ‘bypass’ and the bosses had ‘engineered’ a return to the status quo!  

And so it was that on Monday all our plans came to fruition. En route to Menumbok we passed a German registered Land Cruiser heading towards KK, the first kindred spirits we had set eyes on since a chance encounter with a Dutch Toyota in Cairo.  

We departed Sabah feeling sad that we had not realised our plans to visit places like Sandakan, Tawau and Kalabakan, locations at the centre of folklore I had been introduced to as a young man. But we were pleased with how we had managed our vehicle-less time; we had visited museums and handicraft centres in an attempt to get to know the history of the region better and we had increased our knowledge of the region’s food through our extensive visits to the food markets and night hawker stalls in and around KK. Nevertheless we felt that we had unfinished business in Sabah and hope to return to conclude it in the not too distant future.      

A very full ferry headed for duty-free Labuan

Our one and a half hour ferry trip from Menumbok concluded at the duty free island of Labuan at 6pm. We were anxious not to let the opportunity to stock up on much needed hooch to escape us so immediately after checking in to our hotel we headed off to a shopping centre where we purchased an obscene amount of liquor for less than we would have paid for a couple of bottles of blended scotch in the UK – this would help us to keep the mossies at bay for at least a month or two!  

   

Brunei. At 11.30 the following morning we set off from Labuan for Muara Port where we arrived three hours later. It was a strange feeling to be back in a country we had spent several years living in and which at its mention always conjured up thoughts of interminably long flights. Having signed out of Malaysia on Labuan we prepared the Carnet for presentation at Muara only to be told that it was unnecessary as a separate document would be issued to us – the same system as used in Jordan and Thailand. We did however have to declare our booze for which a license was necessary – not an eyelid fluttered at the quantity and once issued we were free to go. We had not realised that Brunei had become a totally alcohol free zone having imagined that it would be much as it had been, no overt alcohol sale or consumption so beer served from a teapot was tolerated! Not any longer!  

The Istana Pantai at Tutong, BruneiThe roads were much improved and as we had no desire to visit Bandar Seri Begawan we plodded down the highway to Tutong, an old stamping ground halfway between the capital BSB and Seria. Thankfully for us very little had changed and the Istana Pantai, a traditional, wooden, stilted beach house where we had spent many happy days as a family was in better shape than we had ever seen it. We had a little moment smiling at the thoughts that the place evoked. Its caretaker, known to all as ‘six foot’ because he was only knee high to a grasshopper, had died in 2009 – a pity as it would have been the icing on the cake to see his toothless smile again and hear the broken English he spoke in his uniquely squeaky voice.  

Further south, Seria had changed quite a bit but the roundabouts had remained constant and it wasn’t long before we were passing the site of a much loved house – but disappointingly it had been demolished and replaced by a more modern, characterless version. We quickly found our way to our host’s house, a spacious bungalow on the beach – we remembered it being built. After unpacking and exchanging news with our friends we drove into Kuala Belait, a town that sits close to the border with Sarawak and which was our shopping centre and social hub for many years. Like Tutong it had changed little and the Meng Feng, the Chinese restaurant we had frequented 20 years earlier, was still going! Two days later we said goodbye to our hospitable friends and set off for Sarawak, over the bridge spanning the Belait that we saw being built two decades ago and through the re-vamped border checkpoint.  

   

Sarawak. Exiting Brunei was easy, our driving permit was simply handed back and the procedures for entering Malaysia again were simple. The customs staff had not seen a Carnet before so I was requested to fill it in after which the requisite stamps and signatures were applied!  We were fully laden with fuel that we had purchased in Brunei assuming that it was cheaper than elsewhere. Not so – in an attempt to stop Malay registered vehicles slipping across the border and taking advantage of cheap fuel, each Brunei fuel station has a separate pump for use by foreign registered vehicles only where the fuel costs the same as it does in Malaya – more than twice that paid by locally registered vehicles!  

The first leg of our two day journey south to Kuching ended at Sibu, the port at the end of Sarawak’s mightiest river, the Sungai Rajang. We passed through two divisions, Miri and Sibu the latter having the worst roads which threw us around considerably. But there was little traffic and we made reasonable progress through much changed countryside – the forest we remembered as far as the Niah caves had all given way to oil palm plantations which increased in density the further south we went. In truth the diversity of the countryside we remembered had disappeared to be replaced by a monotonous alternative. It took seven hours to reach Sibu where we found an adequate hotel close to the Express Boat Terminal. There is little reason for tourists to visit Sibu unless they want to visit Sarawak’s interior. From the Terminal, fast pencil thin boats ferry passengers east into the interior for 125km as far as Kapit from where other boats can take passengers north to Belaga. We enjoyed Sibu where there is little high rise modernity to detract from the comfort of the traditional Chinese chop houses that make such a significant contribution to the character of so many Malaysian towns.  

The countryside adjacent to the road to Kuching from Sibu was more interesting than the one we had experienced the previous day. The rain forest never appeared too far away and there was far less boring oil palm to dull the anticipation of what might be around the corner. The road surface was also mainly good and eight hours after we set off we drove into Kuching having had a very tasty noodle lunch at a trucker’s halt en route.  

Delicious bamboo clams

Our hotel had views of  Kuching’s river, the Sungai Sarawak and was well placed for us to explore the town which we got to know and like very much. We eat well in hawker stalls and Chinese restaurants where the fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine has evolved to produce a unique blend of flavours. We ate bamboo clams (small razor fish) steamed in Chinese wine which were delicious and without a grain of grit. No end of persuasion would get the cook to tell us her secret so sadly gritty razor fish will have to remain on our household menu!  

The rich interior of Kuching's Hoi San Si temple

We had planned to spend three days in Kuching during which I wanted Genghis’ fuel injectors cleaned, something that was done by a very efficient little company specialising in the procedures and who were recommended by the Toyota agent in the town. Having completed the job in half a day for an embarrassingly small charge we set off to visit Kuching’s Cat Museum, an extraordinary collection of artefacts paying homage to everything to do with cats – very fitting for a city who’s translated name means ‘cat’. We visited  

 the Sarawak Museum with its collection of fascinating tribal handicrafts as well as its moth eaten collection of stuffed animals, birds, fish and reptiles and spent time in the Textile Museum with its awesome collection of tribal weavings.  

The Old Courthouse in the centre of Kuching

We visited many of the colonial buildings that have been well preserved and which help to mute the tasteless architecture of the high rise hotels that spoil Kuching’s river frontage.  

A Bidayuh longhouse

A visit to a Bidayuh longhouse was a very satisfying way to spend a couple of hours and preceded a trip to the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre where orphaned and unwanted pet orang-utans are taught to live in the wild and fend for themselves.  

A man of the forest

Although not actually ‘in the wild’ these animals live in the surrounding forest and come and go as they please so there are no guarantees of a sighting. We were lucky, fruits in the natural forest were not yet ripe so some of the clan were enticed back into the heart of the centre with juicy tid-bits – and we saw six adults and a baby – a very pleasing note to end our visit to Sarawak. Kuching (and Sarawak) has a charm that will lure us back.  

   

Kalimantan. After four nights in Sarawak’s capital city we set off at 5.30am for the long haul to Pontianak in Kalimantan, the Indonesian half of Borneo, and a town that sits slap bang on the equator! We crossed the border at Tebedu (Sarawak)/Entikong (Kalimantan) at 7.15am (6.15am in Indonesia), a straightforward but lengthy procedure that took two hours to complete. Our GPS didn’t have any mapping for Kalimantan despite it advertising the fact that it covered Indonesia, so armed with a sketch map drawn by a taxi driver who had covered the route 5 years ago, we set off. With warnings ringing in our ears about the atrocious state of roads in Kalimantan we were prepared for the worst. An hour later we were at the first of the taxi driver’s intersections at which we had to turn right.  

Tebedu

We were pretty pleased with the progress we had made and were yet to find the road conditions predicted. Three kilometres down the busy intersection we saw a faded sign giving us two route options to Pontianak – one was 144km long, the other 224. Rubbing our hands with glee we chortled off down the shorter road with thoughts of a late lunch in Pontianak. The countryside was interesting, the road not bad at all – in fact everything was going impossibly well. Having taken a well sign posted right turn off the main road towards Pontianak we suddenly came across un-surfaced, mud road that was deeply potholed. This was nothing new for us as we had encountered these unfinished sections of road in many countries and we had learned that you just have to grin and bear it until you reach the next section of finished road. Five km down the road we spotted a queue of stationary vehicles heading in our direction. This too, in our experience is normal as there tend to be choke points at the joining of finished and unfinished roads and traffic control measures slow traffic to a halt on at least one carriageway. But there was no oncoming traffic. Fifteen minutes later, parked behind a queue of impossibly laden lorries a driver indicated to us that there had been an accident up ahead. From time to time heavy trucks appeared from nowhere and trundled past us headed in the opposite direction and an hour and a half later an ambulance bounced past us with its emergency lights flashing. From time to time we shuffled a few metres forward and equally infrequently oncoming traffic ground its way passed us as trying to avoid the ever deepening potholes. Then the rain came and the mud deepened and the traffic slowed. Three hours after we joined the queue we got passed the blockage – nowhere was there any evidence of an accident but plenty of heavy earth moving equipment was being juggled around in a tight space trying to reinforce a temporary road incapable of supporting the heavy traffic. Once passed the blockage we continued down an atrocious road that reduced our speed to no more than 20kph. We crawled into Pontianak at 5pm, eleven and a half hours after we started our journey – with all thoughts of a late lunch replaced with those of a cold beer and an early supper!  

Genghis at Pontianak's Equator Monument

As we crossed the high, hump backed bridge and looked down onto a major traffic intersection in Pontianak, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at coloured leaf litter being transported on the backs of a million worker ants. The leaf litter was cars whose shapes had been made irregular by the tightly packed escorts of hundreds of motor scooters on which helmeted drivers and passengers resembled an army of soldier ants – a quite extraordinary sight and a portent of things to come. Having eased our way into the nightmare traffic we made slow progress to our hotel which we had chosen due to its proximity to the Java bound ferry pier and the ferry company’s ticketing office. We finally emerged from the traffic stiff and tired, checked in and put our feet up with an ice cold Bintang beer as a reward, another portent of things to come! It had been a hard drive but as usual Genghis had taken the conditions in his stride and shrugged them off as if they were of no matter. We eat well in the hotel’s restaurant that overlooked the Sungai Kapuas, a significant river that has its headwaters high in the rain forest on the Kalimantan/Malaysia border and which provides an important trade route as well as access for travellers to the more remote areas of West Kalimantan. We slept well that night. The following morning we visited the ferry company’s office where we had to undergo an unnecessary visit to customs on the pretext that we had to have their permission to leave Kalimantan for another part of Indonesia. A senior customs officer pointed out to the company that we had all the papers and permits necessary to travel anywhere we wished in Indonesia and dismissed them and us. We paid for our ticket (Rps 4m – about £280), had Genghis washed and visited a super market to purchase an Indonesian SIM card before we returned to our hotel (where we had purchased a very late check out) to pack and rest before reporting to the ferry terminal at 9pm for an 11pm sailing to Semarang in Java, Central Java’s regional capital.   

Prima Vista's KM Marisa Nusantara

At the appointed hour we reported to a very inactive ferry terminal at which the 7,000 ton, side loading vehicle ferry KM Marisa Nusantara was berthed. We sat in the car for an hour before some impossibly large vehicles were loaded on board. The vehicles had only centimetres of headroom as they lurched through the side loading door, each lorry making the boat list to starboard. After six of these vehicles had loaded we returned to another hour of waiting until, well after the scheduled departure time had come and gone, more heavily laden vehicles arrived and were loaded and then another thirty minute pause before another three arrived. Suddenly, next to us, a brand new caterpillar tractor with a huge hydraulic arm and bucket coughed into life and we watched in awe as its driver manoeuvred it onto the ramp, through the loading door and into the bowls of the ship – he was a very skilful operator. After the tractor, at 12.30am, it was finally our turn and we parked up behind the tractor, unloaded our bags and two camp chairs and wormed our way through the tightly parked vehicle to the access stairs. We had booked a VIP cabin and at ‘reception’ we were handed the key to VIP 207 on D Deck. It wasn’t far away. The first thing we noticed after opening the door were the cockroaches on the walls, quite a few of them but thankfully not the large, crunchy variety but smaller cousins. The narrow beds were end to end down the right hand wall at the end of which was a porthole that had a very good view of the bow’s port winch (by straining your head it was possible to see the starboard one as well). The left wall had a very narrow table anchored to it beyond which was a locked cupboard that we discovered later housed the very old lifejackets. Above the cupboard, hanging from the ceiling and protruding into the passageway between beds and table/cupboard was a large varnished box into which a TV had been placed – but it didn’t work and was just an unnecessary encroachment into the very limited space. The sheets and pillowcases were a faded battleship grey that gave no hint as to whether or not they were clean but as we always carry silk sleeping sacks and our own pillowcases in our overnight bag this was not a big issue. There was rudimentary, uncontrollable air conditioning and a loudspeaker through which not only the Indonesian only ship’s instructions were broadcast but also the Muslim calls to prayer, the first of which begins at 4am (which we learned later is the practice wherever you are in Indonesia). We discovered that a small rotating knob in the ceiling was this speaker’s volume control – so it was turned off. We unpacked as best we could and went off to the communal loos to carry out our ablutions before turning in. Apparently the girl’s loos were OK but the boy’s weren’t – three very small shower cubicles which just had a spout and a water lever and three European style loos each with a shitaffa, that rather quaint water spout that is the alternative to loo paper. Under normal circumstances these facilities would have been tolerable but for the fact that there was no water except for a trickle from one of the shitaffas. With the aid of an empty plastic water bottle, a plastic saucepan like baler from one of the shower cubicles and the trickle of water from the shitaffa it was just possible to douche – but it took a very long time! Our sleep was interrupted at 5am by a knock on the door which when opened revealed a member of the crew waiting to issue two polystyrene boxes and two sealed plastic ‘glasses’ of water with accompanying straws – breakfast. 

Breakfast on board the KV Marisa Nusantara

After a mumbled ‘terima kasih’ we were left staring at some cooked but cold white rice, a dried fish and some bean curd. It would be untrue to say that we attacked this meal with gusto but we did give it a shot – the fish was definitely an acquired taste but provided you breathed through your mouth and didn’t have to smell it it was palatable and the rest of the meal was just bland but eatable. We tried to get back to sleep but failed and so having passed the first of two nights aboard the boat we went exploring. The decks were littered with ragged sleeping mats on which men, women and children slept in all sorts of contorted positions whilst others, mostly family groups, were breaking out supplementary food from battered basket ware and plastic bags. A central ‘café’ at the aft of the ship was just beginning to function and provided coffee and pot noodles to wash the fish down with. By 8.30am it was hot but because we were moving there was always a breeze available somewhere, the trick was to be in the shadows whist enjoying it. Groups of young men shuffled from the ever changing position of the shadows dragging sleeping mats with them. Denied the use of their motorcycles and mobile phones they were able to pursue the other activity for which they have no equal – snoozing. Inside, there were vast sleeping platforms on which dozens of families slept or went about their normal lives – catering to the needs of their energetic children. The scenery from the external decks was limited particularly after we broke away from the islands adjacent to the west Kalimantan coast but from time to time an isolated island or a passing ferry or fishing boat alleviated the monotony. We deployed our camp chairs on the foredeck and spent a fair bit of the late afternoon reading and enjoying the breeze – and it was here that we digested our noon lunch, the same as breakfast but with the addition of a chicken wing tip, and contemplated what might be in store for supper! At about 5pm the ship’s captain came over to talk to us and to invite us to watch sunset from the bridge, a very kind invitation which we accepted with alacrity. 

Captain Anshar, First Officer Hattu (uniform) and Crewman Hussein

 At 5.30pm, after spending half an hour marvelling at the distances covered by shoals of flying fish, we reported to the bridge, removed our shoes and entered the unlit space to be given a guided tour of the instrumentation and to watch a beautiful sunset. We left the bridge when a bulk carrier was picked up on the radar and appeared to be set to cut across the bows of the ferry too close for comfort. As we put our shoes back on the ship’s engineer gave us an invitation to watch sunrise from the bridge at 5.30am the next day – sweet man, did he realise that in all likelihood we wouldn’t be able to answer the knock on our cabin’s door by the breakfast bearing crewman? Supper that night was variation on a theme – without chicken wing and with a differently cured fish which despite a valiant attempt, was impossible to eat. We slept reasonably well despite a snooze or two during the day and reported to the bridge again at the appointed hour – and before breakfast had been served. Sunrise was quite beautiful and we returned to our cabin to tidy up and pre-pack in anticipation of our arrival into Semarang at midday – ish. At about 9am, much to our surprise, the breakfast boy caught up with us and we were proudly presented with a late meal that he had kept especially for us – a very thoughtful man!  

A tri-hulled fishing platform in the approaches to Semarang

As we gazed from our camp chairs over the safety rails on the bow deck we were entertained by tail walking garfish which could travel long distances above the surface of the sea with just their tails in the water providing propulsion and steering. Beyond the fish, Semarang’s port had drawn closer but it was clear that the predicted midday arrival was just wishful thinking. Much later, having negotiated its way through the huge tri hulled fishing platforms lining the approaches to Semarang, the ferry, with the help of a tug, finally berthed at 4pm, forty three hours after we had reported to the docks at Pontianak for the voyage!

West Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore 3 June to 22 October 2010

We departed Chennai in the knowledge that an illness in the family necessitated our return to home as soon as was practicable. Enquiries in Penang about secure parking for Genghis for a period of up to 2 months had not been promising but good friends living in Chiang Mai in Thailand had indicated that they might be able to help once we got there. Leaving Genghis with friends was a far more attractive proposition than searching for alternative ‘secure’ garaging in a place where we had no one upon whom we could rely. So the plan was to drive from Penang to Chiang Mai lickety spit, bed Genghis down and fly home at the earliest opportunity.

The three and a half hour flight from Chennai to Penang passed quickly. Boarding procedures at Chennai were slick as were the immigration procedures at Penang; British passport holders don’t need a visa to enter Malaysia. Taxi services from the airport are centrally controlled and having used one of several ATMs to get some Malaysian Ringgit (MR4.7/£1) we bought a ticket for Georgetown and set off.

Pinang Peranakan Mansion - a fascinating glimpse into the past

Our hotel was centrally located and chosen because it was easily accessible and close to the roads and bridge leading to the mainland where Penang’s port is located. It took exactly a week from our departure from Chennai for Genghis to arrive in Penang and a further two and a half days to clear him through customs. We almost fell at the last fence when he appeared in his container at a warehouse site that had a ramp. Although the ramp was height adjustable and fitted snugly against the lorry borne container it was too narrow for Genghis’ wheels! As it was getting late on a Friday options were few – until I remembered a similar predicament in the Oman which was resolved by the use of a crane. I asked the Chinese owner of the site if he knew where we could hire a crane and after a phone call and a thirty minute wait a large crane trundled into the yard;

Durian - described by an Australian as 'like eating peaches and cream in s---house'!

within twenty minutes the container was on the ground and Genghis was out. Half an hour later I arrived back at the hotel where Belinda was waiting with our luggage which, in anticipation of a 5am start the following morning, we loaded immediately. The week plus in Penang had been a good break and allowed us to gather ourselves  after the rigours of India and to prepare for our trip to Chiang Mai and our return home for a period of no less than a couple of months.  

We set off on time at 5am and covered the traffic- free, well surfaced 180km dual carriageway to the border crossing at Bukit Kayu Hitam  in two hours. Exiting Malaysia at the border was a straight forward procedure and with Carnet duly completed we crossed into Thailand. Thailand is not a signatory to the convention for which the Carnet de Passage en Douane is the key document and instead has its own procedures for the temporary importation of cars.

Despite our visas being valid for 60 days, customs officials only gave us permission to have Genghis in Thailand for a month. They explained that we would have to apply for any extension we wanted to the custom’s authorities in Chiang Mai. This was an important piece of knowledge for us and enabled us to ask our long suffering friends in Chiang Mai to investigate those procedures on our behalf, well in advance of our arrival there.

The vehicle entry into Thailand had been smoothly efficient and we shot off down the road less than half an hour after entering the border area congratulating ourselves on our preparation. Ten minutes later we suddenly realised that despite having cleared the vehicle we hadn’t had our passports stamped! A quick about turn and back at the border post we joined an unfamiliar queue and duly had our arrival in Thailand recorded. And whilst we were there I bought some third party insurance, another oversight that had contributed to the speed with which we had entered the country! More haste, less speed!

The rest of the day was spent on a very good road heading north up through rather bland but lush SE Asian countryside towards the point at which Myanmar (Burma) steals the lion’s share of the land between the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Having made such good progress we opted to continue beyond the point at which we had planned to stop and continued to the town of Chumphon – we’d covered 750 km without noticing it!

Dried Squid in Chumphon's night market

Our ‘hotel’ in Chumphon was very basic but we eat well in the local night market before turning in early prior to another dawn start. The staff (what is the singular?) told us that we could get some tea and a boiled egg from 5.30am so we planned to leave before 6. In the morning we took all our bags down to the reception at 5.30 to find the night watchman and duty manager fast asleep in their rattan chaises longue. We made sufficient noise to wake the manager who blearily told us that breakfast would not be ready for another hour. Our watches quite clearly showed the time to be fast approaching 5.45, quarter of an hour after we had been assured breakfast would be available. There was nothing to be done but express our disappointment and displeasure (we had paid for the room the previous night) and leave, noisily by which time the wide awake watchman and manager were grumbling together – something to do with bloody foreigners no doubt! The first round about we met had a clock tower at its centre bearing a classic railway station type clock which read, to our chagrin, 4.50am – our watches were set to Malaysian time which was an hour ahead of Thailand’s! To our shame we did not continue round the roundabout and return to the hotel to apologise for our grumpy departure. On the plus side we had a lot of daylight in front of us to knock off the kms towards Chiang Mai.

And knock them off we did, again on very good roads on which there were disciplined drivers! We cleared Prap Khiri Khan, the strip of land at which Thailand is at its narrowest and at which point the development of the seaside suddenly became noticeable, perhaps it signalled the point at which commuting to Hua Hin or even to Bangkok became viable, at least at weekends. Soon, we saw signs to Kanchanaburi, the site of the 2nd WW’s infamous Japanese run railway building death camps on the River Kwai. But any visit would have to wait until our return to Malaya because we were headed in the opposite direction towards Bangkok where we anticipated a difficult passage through a notoriously busy city en route to Chiang Mai.

Much to our surprise transiting Bangkok was a breeze! Having crossed the impressive Bhumibol (Mega) Bridge we negotiated quite a few highways and their intersections (the GPS was a godsend) we decided to take a toll paying superhighway that quite literally took us above the city and onto the road leading to Chiang Mai. Later that afternoon, 860kms after leaving Chumphon we stopped for the night at the historic town of Kamphaeng Phet – but we saw very little of it! We had supper in the hotel, one to remember with a smile. The dining room was large, garishly decorated and included a stage at one end. There were six staff on duty to look after us, the only diners. As the first bowl of noodles arrived a couple of young women arrived, very impressively dressed for such a modest venue. Then we noticed a young man on the stage using a shielded light to fix some electrical gizmos – by now the familiar signs of karaoke were beginning to take shape and we shuddered at he thought of being the sole audience for whom a group of wannabee pop stars would perform – and so they did. Each nervous young woman got up onto the stage, suddenly realised that whilst miniskirts at ground level might be OK the elevation of the stage revealed much more than they intended and would have made their parents faint with embarrassment. Nevertheless, precariously balanced on impossibly long high heels and standing deliberately knock kneed to preserve their modesty each contestant belted out her song with varying degrees of success. We applauded each of the first eight contestants until our hands were so sore we were incapable of using our chopsticks – and so left the dining room for our beds and another early start in the morning.

By early afternoon the following day we were in Chiang Mai with our good friends, planning our return home. A neighbour very kindly offered us the use of an unused car port which meant that Genghis would be under cover during our absence and a strategy for keeping him in Thailand beyond the period authorised had been devised and sanctioned by the customs authority in Chiang Mai.

Tasty fried cockroaches in a Chiang Mai market - the wings are a bit tough but the legs make great toothpicks!

Six days later we were home in the UK.   

I returned alone to Thailand in the second week of September to legalise Genghis and prepare him for the final leg to the Antipodes. We had had to apply for new visas prior to arrival because unless you have proof of a planned exit from the country (a plane ticket) you are ineligible for an ‘on arrival visa’ – ours were applied for through the Thai Consulate in Birmingham which is the only office in the UK that deals with postal visa applications. I also knew that the scheduled arrival of grandchild no 3 in late March 2011 had given us a date by which we needed to be back at home and the time now available to achieve all that we had set out to achieve was tight and there wasn’t much room left to cope with delays in our revised schedule.

The Chiang Mai customs department were as good as their word and having paid a nominal fine for overstaying his welcome Genghis was given another month’s permission to be in country with an option for a further month if necessary. After that hurdle had been jumped it was time to prepare him for the next leg. The front axle oil seals were renewed, wheel bearings were repacked, all brake pads were renewed, all fluids changed and just to be safe, his timing belt was also renewed (even though it looked to be in good condition it was unclear when the original had been fitted).

At the end of September Belinda arrived back in Thailand and having said farewell to our very good friends we headed 4 hours north of Chiang Mai to Tha Ton where other friends have built and now run an extraordinary and beautiful river side resort in the lea of the razor ridged hills delineating the border between Burma and Thailand. The resort was purpose built to cater for tourists as well as for school groups from all over the world engaged in field studies so as well as the staff normally associated with running a hotel, the resort has a permanent cadre of qualified adventure trainers.

Loom shuttles loaded and ready for use at a village handicraft enterprise near Tha Ton

Children of tourists at the hotel can also participate in field type studies as well as in other confidence building activities – all while mum and dad relax beside a pretty pool, remarking on the bird life and taking advantage of the resort’s liquor license! www.maekok-river-village-resort.com .

After a very pleasant night there we set off east to the Thai/Laos border crossing point on the Mekong River  at Chiang Khong.

The view across the Mekong from the Chiang Khong border crossing point to Huay Xia in Laos

 The drive took us through pretty, rural countryside dotted with rice paddy and fields of ripening corn. After a short descent several kilometres short of our objective, we burst into an enormous bowl overflowing with vivid green rice paddy interspersed with tall, mature trees all set against the steep forested hills that mark the Thai /Laos border south of the flat and fertile plains adjacent to the Mekong. Chiang Khong is a typically busy border town bursting with hectic energy – until the early afternoon when everything slows down to a siesta governed halt!

After a typically tasty bowl of noodles spiced up with fried chillies ground to a powder and mild chillies immersed in rice vinegar we set off south to the town of Nan, 30km west of the Laos border and due east of Chiang Mai.

Rice paddy in the shadow of the hills that mark the border between Thailand and Laos

The route took us through relatively wild country, densely forested and home to the hill tribes of the region. The countryside is lush, largely speaking uncultivated and tourist free – there is little to bring the average tourist into this area. The road was tortuous, climbing, diving, twisting and turning – a strain on brakes on the steep descents, a strain on engines and cooling systems during the ascents. We caught glimpses of tribal people, men carrying woven backpacks with gollocks at their waists (yes, gollocks, the Thai equivalent of parangs or machetes)   and old, very old hammer shotguns over their shoulders. It was delightful countryside that warranted a much closer on another occasion.

The journey to Nan was long and difficult and we arrived in the town after dark. We selected a hotel from the guide book and with the aid of the GPS got there without fuss. The parking was secure, the room adequate – and we were far enough away from the karaoke stage not to be disturbed! The night market was disappointing and much like many of the towns off the tourist track, last light signalled an end to the day and activity in the town had dwindled to the activity surrounding a handful of restaurants. We found one where we had a reasonable noodle meal after which we walked the deserted streets back to the hotel for an early night.

We left early the next day for a long haul to Kanchanaburi, one of the infamous  death railway camp sites run by the Japanese during the Second World War and the one immortalised by Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins and William Holden (amongst many others)  in the 1957 film ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ which won seven Oscars. The route took us through pleasant countryside and the towns of Uttaradit and  Phitsanulok before we joined the main Bangkok-Chiang Mai highway at Nakhon Sawan. Shortly after joining it we turned off the highway at Uthai Thani and headed straight to Kanchanaburi through Suphan Buri thus avoiding Bangkok. We slipped into the bustling tourist oriented town just before dark and found accommodation fairly close to the star attraction, the bridge.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

We had noodles and a beer that night overlooking the bridge which was garishly illuminated with bright, coloured lights that flickered on and off throughout the evening. On the river itself a couple of floating nightclubs towed by tugs made their way up and down stream and from time to time brightly painted long tail boats propelled by powerful un-silenced engines zoomed off to unknown destinations. It is understandable that veterans have complained at what appears to be an insensitive and disrespectful assault on a site of so much suffering. On the other hand, the bridge is visited by many thousands of visitors each year who by their very presence acknowledge and promote the site’s importance as a globally significant war memorial.

In the morning we visited the bridge itself and then headed off to the ‘Death Railway Museum’, formally known as the ‘Thailand –Burma Railway Museum’ and the War Cemetery. The museum is a gem – small, informative and well presented, it charts the history of the Thai Burma Railway in a style that underpins the shocking facts with individual accounts of the period that are absorbing. It is a credit to the tenacity with which its curator, Rod Beattie has tracked down and brought into the public domain the facts and human history of this infamous enterprise. Of particular note are the post-war efforts of the British, Australian and Dutch manned War Graves Unit whose task it was to first identify the whereabouts of all gravesites through the analysis of Japanese records and by interviewing ex POWs and then, having corroborated the evidence, to exhume the bodies and record then reinter the remains in War Graves Commission cemeteries. Rod Beattie’s book ‘The Death Railway – A brief history of the The Thailand – Burma Railway’ can be ordered through the museum using the email address admin@tbrconline.com.

Called 'flying kampongs' by the prisoners, these converted trucks were used to transport much of the material needed to construct the railway.

Kanchanaburi’s War Cemetery is next door to the museum. Beautifully kept, as are all War Graves Commission cemeteries, there are over 7,000 Allied Servicemen buried here. But Kanchanaburi is not the only War Cemetery in which Allied Servicemen are interred; there are many more in the cemeteries at Chungkai and Thanbyuzayat. It is rather poignant to note that whilst all Allied Servicemen were accounted for and their names commemorated in cemeteries there are no known burial sites for the 85,000 Burmese, Malay and Javanese slave workers who died during the construction of the railway.

From Kanchanaburi we headed back to familiar territory as the journey took us back to the southern corridor that leads to (or from) the Malaysian border. We travelled through the urban sprawl of the Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Petchaburi triangle after which the countryside began to return around Hua Hin and increased the further south we drove. We reached Chumphon late in the afternoon and planned to stay in the same hotel that short drive we came across a the setting up of a night market in a small but fishing village in the process of setting up a night market. Very pretty and enticing as it was there was no where to stay and it was getting dark so we pressed on and eventually found somewhere to spend the night – right on the beach!

After another day’s driving south and we were within a few kilometres of the border and stopped to fill both tanks and our two jerrycans so as to reduce the amount of Thai Bhat we’d have to exchange at the border. As we were about to depart the service station the first of 28 Malaysian ‘rally’ cars arrived to fuel up. They were a group of 4WD enthusiasts who had travelled together to China where they had spent a month ‘having fun’ as one driver put it. Each of their vehicles was resplendent in a coat of decals advertising sponsors, places visited and equipment they had attached to their vehicles – very colourful. We chatted at length as several drivers inspected Genghis but as soon as the organiser’s klaxon was sounded the cheery bunch of travellers ran back to their cars in a manner reminiscent of an old Le Mans race start and in one huge phalanx streamed back onto the highway and swept off with much horn honking. Thankfully they were not in the queue at the border which we crossed without fuss.

Thailand's beautiful rural north-east

As we headed towards Alor Star in the state of Kedah, our night stop about 40km down the road towards Sungai Petani, we were able to reflect on what it was that made Thailand such a pleasant place to visit. The people were delightful; open, friendly, helpful and not as eager as others to wrestle the money from your wallet. The urban areas although hectic were free of rubbish and there was a social structure that suggested that each person understood that they had a role to play which if fulfilled would make the environment a better place for the community as well as themselves and there seemed to be pride in the levels of success they had achieved. In the rural areas the countryside was ‘tidy’; there were few fallow fields or patches of unused land and those that were under cultivation were laid out and planted with obvious care; again there was no rubbish and where fertiliser or fish meal had been delivered in sacks these were stacked neatly, full or empty, in communal piles; rural villages were models of cleanliness echoing the urban ethic of community effort and responsibility. In short, Thailand exuded a sense of pride and satisfaction in the success of the collective’s effort to create a pleasant environment in which to live – and in our book they have created a very pleasant place to live – they have, in Australian parlance, ‘kicked a goal’!

Having overnighted in Alor Star we set off the following morning for the east coast and Kota Bharu. The route took us through the sprawling outskirts of Sungai Petani and on to Pengkalan Hulu which is located on the interstate borders of Kedah and Perak and is within a few km of the Thai border. From there we headed south and up and up through the northern reaches of the Cameron Highlands to Gerik. We then turned east again crossing the densely forested Belum Forest Reserve and Temenggor Lake before entering the state of Kelanatan and the long downhill section to Kota Bharu. The urbanisation of the coastal plain was in stark contrast to the lush forest and sparse population that most of the route took us through but there were advantages for us in the bustling communities leading to Kota Bharu – I was able to stop at a well equipped garage and get Genghis’ oil changed in a matter of minutes!

Kota Bharu is Malaysia’s northernmost city and is both deeply Muslim and a custodian of many of the skills associated with the handicrafts heritage of Malaysia. Located close to the Thai border, Kota Bhru has had a long association with its northern neighbour and it is common to hear Thai spoken in the city, especially amongst the more menial workers. We found the city difficult to get to grips with – there didn’t appear to be a defined centre and the seemingly haphazard sprawl of shopping areas added to our confusion. But we were not interested very much in ‘ordinary’ shopping – we were intent on learning as much as we could about the traditional crafts of top spinning, shadow puppetry, kite making and silverwork.

Malaysia's 'Master Craftsman' kite maker at work in Kota Bharu

We learned later on in Kuala Lumpur’s Craft Complex that the Federation singles out craftsmen and women who, through their exceptional skills, have kept alive the art of traditional craft making. These people are awarded the title of ‘Master Craftsman’ of which there are only twenty or so with skills ranging from the various textiles through silversmiths and weapon makers to the Master Craftsman of quail trap making! Without being aware of it we were had the good fortune to see the Master Craftsman kite maker at work in his very small wooden workshop on stilts. It really was a joy to see him at work. Later we met a family who have been involved in the art of shadow puppetry theatre for at least three generations. They are not only the musicians at the theatre but also the puppet makers.

Nasir and his family of shadow puppet theatre musicians and puppet makers.

Each puppet is made out of buffalo skin and strictly follows the shapes associated with the characters portrayed in the stories at the heart of each performance. Appropriately shaped pieces of cured buffalo skin have an intricate template attached to them after which the maker uses a series of small chisels he has manufactured from old bicycle spokes (bespoke?) to cut out the intricate shapes. Once the shapes have been produced they are painted using waterproof inks and then the articulated parts of the puppet, legs, arms and sometimes jaws are attached using ‘toggles’ of skin. Finally the palm wood supports and joint

Nasir's collection of leather punches made from bicycle spokes

 manipulators are attached. In older puppets the whole puppet was constructed from the bi products the cow – skin for the puppet, horn for the supports and articulating rods, glue from the skins and bones. We saw an exquisite example of one of these puppets in Singapore later in our journey – it was quite beautiful and carried a price tag to make your eyes water. We also met a ‘Master Craftsman’ Silversmith whose work was astonishingly intricate and diverse. Despite much of his work not being to our taste we could not help but admire his skills.

A small fishing community at Marang just south of Terengganu.

From Kota Bharu we moved a short distance down the coast to Terengganu and managed to find accommodation close to the town centre with secure parking for Genghis.

Picnic lunch of fresh fish and vegetables on a deserted beach near Terengganu

We explored the town and very much enjoyed the market from which we bought fresh fish and vegetables as a prelude to a picnic on the beach. Finding a deserted beach was far more difficult than we had anticipated but after a few false starts we finally found a quiet spot about 30km south of the town and set about preparing and then cooking a meal very reminiscent of our meals on Oman’s Mazirah island.

We left Terengganu with the aim of spending a night or two in Kuantan but good roads and an early start gave us a chance to crack on straight through

KL's iconic Petronas Towers

to Kulaa Lumpur which is what we did. We headed straight for the Malaysian Tourist Information Centre (MyTIC) where we hoped to clear up one important issue – could we ship a car by car ferry or container, from Tawau in north eastern Sabah to Tarakat in Kalimantan? The centre put us in touch with a shipping agent who was adamant that we could not so at that point we had a clear idea of how we would get to Australia – Port Klang (KL’s port) to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, then by road around Sabah to Brunei then Sarawak and to Kuching where we would cross into Kalimantan at Tebedu and head to the capital of Kalimantan, Pontianak. From there we would take a 40 hour car ferry to Semarang in Java and drive (with the aid of vehicle ferries!) through Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and West Timor. Once on Timor we planned to cross into East Timor (Timor-Leste) from where we would ship Genghis in a container to Darwin.

We spent time in KL arranging our Indonesian visas , investigating shipping options in Indonesia and  arranging our exit from West Malaysia to East Malaysia and Sabah in particular. But not everything was related to route planning – we eat well at hawker stalls, shopped in Chinatown where raids by customs officers seeking big brand copies were frequent and one member of Genghis ’ crew had her feet nibbled clean by a tank full of fish! 

The shipping agent we had been put in touch with at MyTIC turned out to be a member of an international freight forwarding group and so we gave him the task of getting Genghis to Sabah as quickly as possible. It transpired that it would be ten days before we would see him in Kota Kinabalu so we planned to split that time between KL, Singapore and KK. After spending three days in the city sight seeing and finalising our plans we moved to the outskirts to spend time with old friends.

They were very generous with their hospitality and we saw much of a city that would have passed us by without their local knowledge.

Malaysia's National Monument

 Of all the sights we saw the highlight for us was a visit to the Islamic Arts Museum, home to thousands of exquisitely beautiful artefacts of all types and materials.

We enjoyed KL very much but with Genghis about to depart Port Klang we said goodbye to another set of generous friends and headed to Singapore by air for a few days during which we said hello to more old friends before heading to KK to prise Genghis out of his container. Our last visit to Singapore had been in the mid 1970s when one of the friends we saw on this fleeting visit had persuaded us to abandon our scheduled plans and instead visit Phuket. That trip necessitated an overnight self-drive dash to Penang where we boarded a very old DC-3 (Dakota) and spent a glorious week on an island that had no tourism to speak of and at that time, less than a handful of hotels!  

Singapore's Clarke Quay

Singapore of course has changed immeasurably since our last visit. The city’s character as we remembered it was manifested in the cheeky mix of high class, high rise and glittering hotels for the wealthy interspersed with much more humble attractions such as the Orchard Road night market and the politically incorrect but highly entertaining  Bugis Street. This image has long gone  and been replaced by the growing number of sanitised shopping districts with their mile upon and mile upon mile of brassy malls and high priced, high rise urbanisation. Whilst the chilli crab doesn’t taste as good as we remembered it from a night hawker stall in a car park on Orchard Road,  it is very apparent that Singapore is thriving on a hedonistic lifestyle that has been created for a large section of the population who aspire to it.

After four interesting days in the buzzy state we flew to the much more down to earth city of Kota Kinabalu in Sabah to recover Genghis and continue our journey first to Australia and then to New Zealand.

India 4 May to 3 June

Our route from Vadadora took us well south of Ahmamdabad through delightful countryside which was surprisingly lush considering the lack of rain and a 40oC + temperature. Acacias and mango trees laden with fruit lined the road either side of which the dusty brown fields were punctuated with green leaved trees in whose shade goats and cattle sought respite from the heat of the sun.

Cool buffaloes

Cool buffaloes

No such respite for the farming communities however, their presence in the drab fields signalled by haphazard pinpricks of vibrant coloured saris and white turbaned heads. Every now and then we passed a small town each with its transport hub comprising a chaotic collection of buses, motorcycles and tuc tucs which in turn provided an opportunity for stall holders and hawkers to ply their trade. The road was in good repair and we reached our destination in just over 4 hours. We saw little of Sayla but what we saw wasn’t attractive. To its east there are gravel producers providing a continuous stream of lorries with the wherewithal to repair old roads and make new ones. The town centre is situated around a busy crossroads and the guest house we were seeking (an old palace) was here but set back far enough to mask the traffic drone – but it was closed and falling into disrepair. Down the road was Rajkot which we didn’t particularly want to go to because it took us too far away from the villages we wanted to see. Nevertheless we set off in its direction while we considered our options. By the time we reached the next crossroads we had decided to head north east towards Surendranagar, a large town close to which was one of the villages we wanted to see. It is not a town that appears in any of our guide books and the second of the villages we wanted to visit wasn’t marked on any map we had – we had been relying on information from the guest house owner to find it. The journey to the town was just 35km but the road was in poor condition and we had to travel slowly which, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise as 10 minutes up the road we bounced around a corner and had enough time to read a very small pale blue sign with the word ‘Somasar’ written on it in faded black lettering – this was the ‘unmarked’ village. Having gingerly driven into what we thought was the heart of the village it soon became apparent to us that we were encroaching into the centre of a village that wasn’t designed to take vehicles so we gingerly extricated ourselves and went back to the road. As we parked on the hard shoulder we were met by a man in his mid 30s who in good English directed us to a small house which turned out to be the ‘shop’ for the textiles produced by the village. The man turned out to be the textile designer and after a display of the cotton and silk saris, ‘doputtas’ (scarves) and other items produced by the village he took us on a guided tour of the production processes – cotton and silk dying (the skeins are brought in from Bangalore) bobbin loading and weaving. The whole village was involved in the process and each house we

Loading  bobbin

Loading a bobbin

 were invited into was a hive of activity, particularly because school holidays were in full swing and youngsters too had been co-opted to help family and friends. We enjoyed a good hour with the people of Somasar who had been very generous with their friendly hospitality.

Surendranagar was a bustling town that was a nightmare to navigate in – so I was told! We entered the town blind, not knowing if there were any hotels available and if so where they were. In the end a friendly face suggested the name of a hotel and with the aid of the GPS we eventually found it – having been ticked off by a policeman for travelling the wrong way down a busy street! The hotel was fine and had secure parking for Genghis which was a bonus. By the time we had settled in it was early evening and we decided to visit the next town on our list if it was reachable by tuc tuc. As luck would have it, the town, Wadhwan, was only 10 minutes away on the other side of a bridge. Wadhwan is famed for its tie dying (bandhini) rather than for its weaving and again it appeared that the whole village was engaged in the process in some way or other. IMG_1780The tuc tuc took? us to the centre of the village where we tried to communicate our interests to anyone who could understand us. The second person we spoke to was a young woman who not only spoke excellent English but also turned out to be a member of a tie dying family – and so it was that we met her father, mother, brother and a myriad of other members of her extended family. We watched the tie dying process from start to finish and ended up in a wholesaler’s shop where quite a number of women arrived to sell articles that they had tie dyed in their homes. The wholesaler spent time showing us a wide range of articles and styles of dying before suggesting that we complete our visit to the village with a visit to a small temple

Wadhwan's Temple

Wadhwan's Temple

around the corner which turned out to be a very old, simply styled but beautifully symmetrical structure set over water, so much more attractive than the profusion of ornate ‘wedding cake’ temples that dotted the countryside. For the second time in the day we had been humbled by the generosity of strangers.

Early the next day we set off north to The Kutch (Kachchh) and the town of Mandvi. The journey began well but having crossed over the area of the Gulf of Kutch inlet that separates Kutch from southern part of Gujarat the roads got worse and the lorry traffic increased. We made the mistake of hugging the coast and passed through the chaotic town of Gandhirham and then the port town of Kandla before more open roads eased the strain. Mandvi is just like many other rural towns in that it has a central market around which radiates every other conceivable type of business all of which are connected by an endless stream of bicycles, motorbikes and tuc tucs. What makes it different is that it sits on a small inlet on both sides of which huge wooden boats are being constructed in much the same way as they were hundreds of years ago. There is also a textile industry here which is based largely on cross stitch embroidery and Kutch’s distinctive mirror work.   

The boat yard we visited was just a flat piece of ground on which the boat building materials had been deposited. Those materials were almost

Boat building in Mandvi

Boat building in Mandvi

exclusively raw trunks of Malaysian teak (the same as that used by the Keralan boat builders in Sur, Oman) from which all the timbers would be cut using petrol driven chain saws in the first instance followed by adzes, axes, hand saws and chisels. Measuring tools were very basic but due to the scale of the project there wasn’t the need for mm accuracy. And the scale of these boats is astounding. Ours is a cargo boat being built for a client in the UAE who will use it to ply the route between the Gulf States, Oman and Somalia, a trade route that has been in operation for thousands of years. It will take two and a half years to complete and at the time of our seeing it had eighteen months to go. She is 134ft (41m) long, has a displacement of 1200 tons and we were in awe of the massiveness of her timbers. The keel and ribs had been

The massive timbers of a 134' cargo boat

The massive timbers of a 134' cargo boat

 rough cut from the trunks before ‘made on site’ templates had been used to refine the final shape of the pieces before more accurate cutting tools are used to produce them. The planks that sheath the ribs are held in place by 12” long steel nails that are hot galvanised on site, but these are temporary fixings that will allow the timbers to season to the contours of the hull. Once the seasoning process is completed the nails will be removed, the planks will be trimmed, refitted and secured with new countersunk nails. Caulking will be traditional tarred hemp rope that will expand into the cracks when it gets wet. The fact that The Navigator was also intrigued by this project bears testament to the unique opportunity we had been given to witness the building of something special.

From boat yard to cross stitch – the penance to be paid for dragging The Navigator round a half built wooden boat in searing heat! As luck would have it our tuc tuc driver was a Muslim and a Jath, a caste that is renowned for their embroidery skills and all his immediate family just happened to be involved in the production of cross stitch embroidered clothing and artefacts!

A Jath embroidered tunic

A Jath embroidered tunic

He was one of six brothers all of whom lived with their respective families in a family enclave a few minutes drive from Mandvi – and we were invited to meet them. The house was full of activity with the older female members of the family engaged in the embroidery whilst keeping a weather eye on the younger members of the family who were either looking after their even younger siblings or, as one young girl was, engaged in trying to copy the artistic skills of the older members of the family. The father of the family was a well respected sifayaurvaid (herbal medicine) doctor whose skills had been singled out in the past for a visit by Indhira Gandhi. The eldest son had followed in his footsteps, two were educating themselves elsewhere in India and the remaining three alternated between running the family shop in Mandvi or tuc tuccing. The embroidery skills were fascinating to watch and although the items on display in the house were not to our taste we resolved to go back into the town and to the family’s shop to choose some examples of their work from the stock there – and so we did!

The Beach at Mandvi Palace

The Beach at Mandvi Palace

Before leaving Mandvi we drove to the Vijay Vilas Palace where Lagaan and other Bollywood films have been made and had a very good lunch in a tent on a completely deserted beach – in fact a rather special tent that was part of ‘The Beach at Mandvi Palace’ resort where we were the only visitors.

The road north to Bhuj was empty, well surfaced and we reached the town well before dark which was fortunate as at one point we were directed through the main market area that consisted of narrow streets lined with hawkers setting up their stalls. Difficult though it was it would have been impassable a few hours later when the market got into full swing.

Our hotel was well placed and overlooked the once beautiful Aina Mahal Palace that was badly damaged in the 2001 earthquake and which is now derelict and uninhabited save for the many pigeons and ground squirrels that live in its crumbling walls. A project is underway to secure the funds needed to restore it to its former glory but the sum involved is so enormous that unless an international organisation steps in with considerable financial assistance we can’t see the project ever being completed.

Our main purpose in visiting Bhuj was to see the textile skills associated with the town and its immediate environs and to visit the more remote villages in the Kutch to the north of Bhuj as far as the Pakistan border. A conversation with our host gave us an introduction that night to an entrepreneurial couple who had started a cooperative designed to keep alive and promote the textile producing skills of the Kutch tribes. Their passion was clear to see and as we looked through the articles that were being prepared for sale it was clear to see why they were being courted by dealers from exclusive

A typical horizontal loom

A typical horizontal loom

shops in many of Europe’s capital cities. They were kind enough to give us introductions to some of the manufacturers and dealers around Bhuj and Bhujodi and the following day we spent an exhausting six hours in the heat of the day travelling from one location to another in a tuc tuc. It was a fascinating experience that covered the weaving of single ikat silk Patola saris, the weaving of wool and silk by a family who also designed and dyed the materials they produced and Ajrakh, the production and use of vegetable dyes. We were introduced to Ajrakh by Sufian Khatri whose dedication to keep alive the natural dyer’s techniques and skills mirrored that of his father Dr. Ismail Khatri who had received an honorary doctorate from De Montfort University for his work in this field. Sufian is the eleventh generation of his

Stirring a vat of natural indigo

Stirring a vat of natural indigo

 family to be involved in the family business and it was with great pride that he told us that his son, a twelfth generation male, had recently been born and was already under starter’s orders to lead the family business into the second half of the century!

What we hadn’t appreciated before this first visit was that it is generally the men who weave and dye whilst the women concentrate on embroidery. As our knowledge of Indian textiles increased so we became more aware of the high levels of skill, imagination and the patience needed to produce them.

Block printing a 6m cotton sari with natural dyes

Block printing a 6m cotton sari with natural dyes

And although the workers’ financial recompense would be regarded as pitifully small in a European context it was clear to us that unless prices were kept at a level that guaranteed marketability there would be no point in perpetuating the knowledge and skill levels needed to keep production going. Textile producers and marketers we met are already concerned that the ‘skills drain’ is impacting on the industry as young men, the weavers, and to a lesser extent the young women embroiderers were being wooed by the material benefits that could accrue to a white collar worker in the larger towns. As far as the cooperative managers are concerned their faith in the industry’s future is in the hands of passionate artisans who, with help from government and NGOs, will not only keep the skills base alive but also act as a source of inspiration for others. As long as their skills are attractive to local and overseas markets there will be a living to be made. 

For the first time since our travels began I was laid low the following day with food poisoning but thankfully the symptoms eased in time for the next day’s visit to the tribal region to the north of Bhuj. The night before we left we reported to the Gujarat Police’s  Prohibition and Excise Department to apply for a permit to go into the Great Rann of Kutch where the villages we wanted to visit were grouped.  

We started early the next morning on a road that ran due north of Bhuj and ended in India at its border with Pakistan. We aimed to stop about 15-20km short of the border in the town of Kalo Dungar having spent time in a number of villages on the way. The countryside was flat, scrub desert with very few features to enhance the landscape – and it was very hot. Having driven through a police checkpoint at Bhirendiara followed by a sign that announced that we were passing through the Tropic of Cancer, we headed to the tourist village of Hodka where a tourist camp has been set up and from where visitors can head out with guides to see the local wildlife. Being out of season it was empty when we visited but the caretaker was happy to show us around and have his family’s photo taken. After half an hour or so we left them, headed back to the police post and en route saw a beautiful sand coloured mongoose before turning north to visit the villages of Khavda and Kalo Dungar. The latter, just a few km shy of the Pakistan border was the more remote of the two and on our arrival we were mobbed by children and teenagers. It was clear from the outset that we were not permitted to take photos of the inhabitants which was a pity as all the women, young and old, were dressed in their traditional costumes which were based on smocks embroidered with the beautiful cross stitching technique we had seen in Bhuj.

Traditional dwelling at Ludia

Traditional dwelling at Ludia

We knew from our contacts in Bhuj that these costumes were hand embroidered in the village and unique both in design and the extent to which the smocks were embroidered. We left (beat a hasty retreat!) after The Navigator had her arms pinched and her blonde hair felt (pulled) by the over enthusiastic youngsters but not before we had given away our lunch! We felt as if we were the first white tourists to have visited the village in some time. On our return route we went off road to look for the village of Ludia which didn’t take long. The village was made up of several ‘enclosures’ each of which was demarcated by a 2m high and at least 2m thick thorn tree enclosure (boma, zareeba fence) inside which were a group of buildings many of which were traditional round, mud (madwa) walled buildings with conical thatched roofs. What made these even more special were that the exterior walls had been painted with patterns that apparently told a story.

Part of a story telling wall

Part of a story telling wall

Their presence in the area was becoming more rare as they were susceptible to damage and after many of them had been reduced to rubble during the 2001 earthquake they were replaced with more durable and easy to build concrete structures roofed with clay tiles, a style that was growing evermore popular. Again we were given an enthusiastic reception which we did our best to respond to but again we could only marvel at the beautiful costumes worn by the women but which couldn’t be photographed. From Ludia we headed back towards Bhuj but turned west after passing through the police check point and headed towards Than and Nakhatrana on a circuitous route back to Bhuj. The countryside in the west of the region was hilly and far more interesting to travel through but the textile heritage of the area was less interesting and we reached Bhuj late in the afternoon without stopping. We thoroughly enjoyed Gujarat as a whole, the Kutch in particular and we felt that we had done justice to our quest to learn more about Indian textiles in a region that for good reason is renowned for them.

The next day we left Bhuj early and headed east into Rajasthan and our first stop at Udaipur. With time foreshortened by our Maersk troubles we were unable to do in this region what we had originally planned so had settled on Udaipur and Bundi as the two locations we would visit in the region before heading south. The road to Udaipur was a good motorway described on our map as the east-west corridor that linked Gujurat to West Bengal. Governed entirely by linked toll roads (average R45 per toll and about 10 tolls) progress was good and we only came off the boil when forced to slow down by the effects of blockages caused by landslides in the hills of Rajasthan. Driving through Udaipur is an experience not easily forgotten but we made it safely to our obscure ‘homestay’ in the countryside just outside the town. Staffed entirely by Nepalis, we spent two nights in this beautiful location where we were able to watch frolicking mongooses (mongeese?) and a wonderful diversity of birdlife from a balcony and horizon pool overlooking fields and a range of hills to the west.

Udaipur - sunset from the balcony

Udaipur - sunset from the balcony

The Navigator took advantage of our one full day in situ and attended a cooking course in Udaipur where she learned the skills required of Indian bread making much to the satisfaction of the staff and the other guests of the ‘homestay’ who benefitted from these newly acquired skills.  

We set off for Bundi using the same good east-west corridor as before cutting north for the final 30km – a very congested 30km. Bundi’s location is first signalled by the Taraghar (Star Fort) that sits on the hill top above the town. Approaching from the south, the next indicator that you are about to arrive at the town is the appearance of the beautiful Bundi Palace which seems to be carved into the hill in whose shadow it lies.

Bundi Palace overwatches the town

Bundi Palace overwatches the town

The palace overwatches the town that nestles in a bowl below the level of the road from where there are great views across the flat roofs of the Rajasthan coloured houses to the temples and history filled architecture. Our very basic accommodation was in a traditional haveli situated on one of the banks of Nawal Sagar, an artificial lake to the west of the town. The ramshackle private garden overlooking the lake was wonderfully peaceful and relaxing and capable of accommodating Genghis thereby relieving us of the security concerns we would have suffered had he been left outside on the narrow, unlit streets. The town started to come to life late in the afternoon and as the heat dissipated so the volume of people and motorcycles swelled. The atmosphere was carnival like, lively and friendly and people were more than happy to have their photos taken, particularly the men with their fantastic moustaches and brightly coloured turbans – they will definitely be reincarnated as peacocks

The moustache and the turban

The moustache and the turban

 in the next life! The market was a delight and a long walk through and around the town convinced us that this place was rather special – long may it remain so.

After a lingering breakfast overlooking the cattle grazing on the bed of the dried lake we set off for Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, a town that sits on the crossroads of the east-west and north-south trunk roads that effectively divide India into quadrants. We had been waiting for a week or more for information concerning our exit routes from India and had hoped that we might be able to visit India’s north eastern regions before dropping down to Kolkata and shipping out. But there were still too many unanswered questions to justify our reliance on this route in an exit plan so we took the decision in Bundi to head south from Jhansi and end our journey in Chennai from where we had a number of clear shipping options. The route to Jhansi was straightforward but navigating through this major transport hub was nerve wracking and it took us some time to find the road that would lead us to our overnight stop at Orchha, a small town about 20km to the south of Jhansi.

Orchha is accessed via a fortified granite bridge and is a small, pretty town dominated by two palaces, Jehangir Mahal and Raj Mahal. Our accommodation was in one of the wings of the Jehangir Mahal which is separated from the village by a restricted causeway.

Orchha's Jehangir Mahal

Orchha's Jehangir Mahal

We were able to park outside the hotel which was situated on high ground overlooking the village. The proportions of the hotel rooms were enormous befitting such a beautiful and large palace but we felt that the hotel struggled to fit comfortably into such huge space. The town was very tourist oriented but not in a pushy way except a little around the temples which were the focus of attention for local visitors at this time in the Hindu calendar. Orchha provided us with a very relaxing break from mad Jhansi and although we didn’t know it at the time, gave us the energy we needed to tackle the next day.

Since committing to the southerly exit option we had decided to visit one of Madhya Pradesh’s tiger reserves and it was one of those towards which we headed the following day – but the journey would take two days and our next stop was Jabalpur, 430km to the south on the north-south trunk route. It took eleven and a half hours to complete the journey, the entire length of which was on a road under construction – a nightmare journey that tested our patience and Genghis to the extreme. We arrived in Jabalpur much later than we had anticipated and having found our accommodation very quickly thanks to The Navigators excellent map reading, we just as quickly declined it because it was dirty and squalid, not at all as it had been described and it didn’t have the secure parking that had been assured. We then remembered that when we had booked our room for the next day’s visit to the tiger reserve, run by Madhya Pradesh Tourism,they had mentioned that they also ran a hotel in Jabalpur. A phone call later we had the location of the hotel and having hired a tuc tuc to lead us to it we arrived there quarter of an hour later. The hotel was very adequate, had secure parking and was on the right side of town for the start of next day’s journey to Kanha National Park.

Having anticipated a re-run of the previous day’s road conditions we set off early only to be met by well surfaced roads in a largely forested environment so we arrived at our destination well ahead of schedule!

Khana National Park covers nearly 2000sq km that are divided into two roughly equal zones, a buffer zone and a core area. The creation of the core area, in which there is no habitation save for guard (warden) huts and a Madhya Pradesh Tourism lodge, was a key requisite in the establishment of the park under the Indian government’s 1973 Project Tiger initiative. That initiative was in response to the grave concerns being voiced at the time over the dramatically declining numbers of tigers on the sub-continent. Khana was one of the first nine reserves created initially (there are now 28) and required the removal and relocation of the many villages located in the proposed core area.

A banyan tree hosts a Spotted Owlet

A banyan tree hosts a Spotted Owlet

Those villages were relocated to the buffer zone where the inhabitants continued to farm. Loans were also made available to promote businesses that would be support the anticipated increase in tourism and employment was offered to the families who knew the country and its wildlife well – they are now the park’s guides and guards. The over farmed land in the core zone was allowed to go fallow and re-emerged as grass land, the beautiful sal tree forests recovered from decades of exploitation as the principal source of timber for the manufacture of railway sleepers and bamboo thickets too were allowed to flourish. As the habitat thrived under careful management so did the fauna. In 1972, one year before the launch of Project Tiger an all India tiger census put the number of tigers in the country at 1,827; at the time of the 2005 census that figure had nearly doubled to 3,600 of which 129 were living at Kanha. To support that growing population the management team had first to create and then control a suitable environment in which those numbers could at least be sustained; the challenges they have faced since Kanha’s creation continue – to manage the environment they have created in the face of ever growing human pressures on their space.

Beautiful Chittal abound in the park

Beautiful Chittal abound in the park

Housed in the core zone in the MP Tourism lodge we went on three safaris; one morning safari and two late afternoon ones. From 10am until 4pm is siesta time in the park for the animals and staff as it is just too hot. Each morning’s safari begins at 5am and concludes at about 10am; the evening safaris start at 4pm and finish at 6.30pm – no one is allowed into the core area between dusk and dawn for obvious reasons. A safari comprises a ride in a roofless Suzuki jeep with raised seats in the back, a smaller version of the African Toyota based safari jeeps. Each vehicle has a driver and guide and as we were the only endangered species of non Hindi speakers at the reserve we had a vehicle and English speaking crew to ourselves, Sukhlal  our guide whose father was a guard and Sondar our driver. In the course of our three safaris we saw a wonderful selection of animals and birds, too many to list here. And did we see a tiger? Oh, yes! During the course of our morning safari we caught a fleeting glimpse of a cub playing in the long grass with mum and then we were called to an elephant rendezvous, climbed up a ladder onto the back of Nirmilla the elephant and under mahout control trundled off into the forest. Within a few minutes we came across two passenger less elephants shuffling about noiselessly under the control of their mahouts. We were busy trying to look through the forest in anticipation of seeing a fleeing tiger when our mahout Ashish pointed to the ground in front of Nirmilla – and there to our amazement was a huge male tiger resting against a fallen tree.

Our Shere Khan

Our Shere Khan

He appeared totally unconcerned by the presence of the elephants until one moved behind him which made him snarl. He was so, so beautiful but quite difficult to keep in view because his beautiful coat blended so effectively with the sun dappled forest floor. We watched him for several minutes before he slunk off just like Walt Disney’s Shere Khan – you could almost hear George Sanders muttering grumpily!  It was explained later that he was the father of the cub we had seen earlier and after we had left the forest and returned to the track and our jeep we saw him once more at a distance as he crossed a dry stream bed. Joy of joys – we had seen what we had hoped we would see but that said the diversity of the wildlife we encountered during our stay would have compensated for a no show tiger – but it was very satisfying to have iced the cake!

During our short visit we were befriended by two Indian families. The first comprised granny and grandpa, their daughter, her husband and their daughter; grandpa was the son of the man responsible in the Indian Lands Department for setting up the park in 1973 and his family name was much revered in the area. So much so that he and his family had been invited to watch a dance performed by local Baiga tribesmen and women that evening – and he invited us to accompany them. The Baigas are some of the oldest inhabitants of India and remain a primitive tribe that has retained its beliefs in animistic religion, sorcery and jungle lore. They are also well known for their deep rooted? knowledge of the uses to which many jungle plants can be put. The evening was a great success despite the arrival of high winds and a thunder storm that didn’t deflect attention from a spectacle that we knew we were very privileged to witness.

Baigas celebrating a successful harvest

Baigas celebrating a successful harvest

When this family left the next day we were adopted by Rajesh and his extended family. They were from Hyderabad and this was their third visit to Kanha because Rajesh rated it above the other 16 tiger parks he had visited – it was his aim to visit all 28 before he went to the happy hunting grounds. A civil engineer by profession, Rajesh had branched out into the wedding industry – he provided the venue and made all the arrangements, including the catering, for Indian wedding parties which are generally pretty large affairs. He had had to draw the line at an all up total of 250. We got on very well with the family and during the course of my discussions with him over routes to Hyderabad, which we reckoned would be best split over a night stop, he suggested it would be better done in one journey and that he would be happy to lead the way as he and his family were leaving Kahna at the same time as us. We bowed to his local knowledge at which point he offered to arrange accommodation for us for two nights in his club in Hyderabad, the Secunderbad Club!

We reluctantly left Kanha the next morning, later than we would have liked as a fairly laid back Indian family took a leisurely breakfast before shoe horning themselves and copious amounts of luggage into two cars, one driven by Rajesh the other by his driver. 750km and fifteen and a half excruciating hours later, just before midnight, we arrived at our destination and in a sumptuous room in the magnificent Secunderbad Club fell into exhausted sleep. I had broken my golden rule of not driving at night and we had come close to disaster on more than one occasion when we were blinded by oncoming lorry after lorry on full beam. It seems it is the custom of all Indian drivers to drive everywhere at night on full beam.

The following day we had an opportunity to walk around the club and what a place it was. Built by the Nizam Chor Mahila as his residence in Hyderabad in the late 19th century it had been given to the British whose military occupied it for many years, also as a club, before the Indian Army acquired it at Independence. When it became surplus to their requirements it was taken over as a private club and now has a membership of about 2000. Although slightly run down it remains an intriguing set of buildings the public rooms of which retain much more than just an echo of the past. On site there is a shop, beauty salon, petrol station, accommodation for travellers, games rooms, bars, dining halls, swimming pool, library and so on – rather special. We said goodbye to the very generous Rajesh and Laxmi at dinner that night hoping to one day see them in our neck of the woods. The following morning we set off for Bangalore – but not before we were presented with a box of mangoes (Rajesh and his brother own several mango farms) and a large jar of Laxmi’s homemade green mango pickle!

The road to Bangalore was good and we covered the 580km in a touch over eight and a half hours. We didn’t have the time or the inclination to sight see so after a fast food meal we turned in early ahead of a just post-dawn start to beat the city traffic.

We were headed for the Nilgiri Hills and to Udhagamandalam aka Ootacamund, Ooty, Snooty Ooty but we took a brief look at Mysore first – and what we saw we liked, rather a lot. The traffic was nowhere near as frenetic as the other, similar sized towns we had visited, there were seemingly many more tree lined roads than in the other towns and the general pace of life appeared more relaxed. Lunch was delightful and the flame trees in full bloom lining the route out of the town crowned a very satisfying morning. Not much later we were battling our way up the steep, winding road leading to Ooty’s summit at 2,300m. The road was a battleground with down coming as well as up going buses and coaches overtaking on blind corners. Being cut up by overtaking cars whose luck had run out was par for the course and in any case the limp wristed hand signal and a prolonged blast on the horn immediately gave them right of way! Our ‘homestay’ was a delightful bedroom in a period cottage and was well placed to visit the town but not so close as to suffer the noise of the incessant traffic. The town was scruffy and any charm it might have once had had disappeared a long time ago which was something of a shock as it dispelled so many pre conceived images of this well known hill station. Vestiges of better times could be glimpsed on the hillsides from time to time when old, well proportioned houses and mansions made a brief appearance but other than those brief reminders of racy past Snooty Ooty had lost its charm. 

One of Mysore's many Flame trees

One of Mysore's many Flame trees

 

In the morning we set off for Fort Cochin but first I had to change Genghis’ oil, not something I was equipped to do on the drive of the house we were staying at. Simpson’s garage was at the bottom of the hill on our route out so we stopped there to see if they could help. They couldn’t so directed us to the official Tata garage a few hundred meters further into the heart of down town Ooty. Just outside the garage I had my first accident in India. My fault or his was a mute point and not one worth arguing when the damage is relatively minor, the crash site language is one you don’t speak, the inevitable crowd is growing by the second and the policemen have started to arrive like hyenas sensing an opportunity to leave the scene better off than when they arrived. The driver of the van that assaulted Genghis had cut across us but got snagged on our 3mm thick steel front bumper – 15- love. His left rear quarter panel was staved in and his tail light cluster was broken but his sliding door still worked – 30-love. Genghis’ bumper had some paint on it – 40-love! By the time all this had been ascertained I had found out who the vehicle owner was, not the driver, and started to negotiate a price with him. I began by offering INR 1,000 (£15) at which point there was much sucking of teeth in the crowd – I can count in Hindi so the crowd quickly got the gist of what was going on. The owner was unimpressed particularly when the driver said it was going to cost INR10,000 to replace the light cluster. By now the police were involved but they were split into two camps; the hyenas and those who wanted the street unblocked asp. At the mention of the sum for the light cluster the mood of the crowd changed as did that of the good cops. With support from the crowd I was urged to offer INR 2,000 which was also rejected by the owner. The best cop suggested INR3,000 but this too was not only rejected by the owner but also by the crowd who said it was too much! Eventually we did settle on INR3,000 which I paid to the owner who immediately told me how to get to the Tata garage – deuce and rain stopped play. The good cops left smiling, as did the crowd. The Tata garage crew were real stars and carried out the oil change for me allowing us to continue our journey on to Kerala’s Kochi (Cochin). After leaving the hills and reaching what we thought was the comparative safety of level ground and straight roads we were subjected to our first potentially fatal incident. From oncoming traffic a large Tata lorry pulled out from the lorry ahead of it and drove straight at us, the driver completely ignoring the safe option to pull back in behind the lorry in front of him. We had no room on the single carriage road to manoeuvre and in a split second had to decide if the substantial drop off the new road surface onto the mud verge would roll the vehicle and if it seemed likely that it would could we dart across the oncoming traffic to the far side of the road that had a wider, flush with the road verge? I opted for the nearside verge and as the nearside wheels dropped at least 30cm the overtaking lorry shot through and we tipped dangerously to the left, shaking violently as the wheels bounced over the deeply rutted, hard mud packed surface. A gentle flick of the steering wheel on a raised piece of the verge and the 4 wheel drive gave us the purchase we needed to be thrown roughly back onto the road. There is no doubt in my mind that a less robust vehicle would not have survived that manoeuvre. The incident left us shaken but not stirred – too much. To add to a bad afternoon, our delayed start had thrown timings out of the window and I again had to break the night driving rule but not, thankfully, in such bad conditions as before. We arrived at our guest house in Fort Cochin in good time to unpack, gulp down a couple of refreshing and rare alcoholic drinks in a very swanky hotel and then tuck into a tasty fish curry at a popular thali restaurant. Fort Cochin felt good.

In the morning we walked to the tip of Fort Cochin to see what a guide book describes a ‘the unofficial emblems of Kerala’s backwaters’, the graceful

Fort Cochin's Chinese fishing nets

Fort Cochin's Chinese fishing nets

cantilevered Chinese fishing nets. Next to them are a handful of fish mongers from one of which we bought a kilo (20 pieces) of medium sized tiger prawns (not caught in the Chinese nets) which we took to a local restaurant which cooked them for our breakfast! The rest of the day was spent wandering around Fort Cochin, acquainting ourselves with the small town and, of course, shopping. On our way back from town later in the afternoon we bumped into a pair of travellers with whom we had shared our ‘homestay’ in Udaipur. It was good to see them again and we had drinks and supper together and swapped travel stories and nightmares. They left in the morning, UK bound whereas we went in search of spice and antiques. Our talkative tuc tuc driver was a knowledgeable man who was slow to warm to – but it was good that we did because he knew Kochi as well as Fort Cochin’s neighbouring districts of Mattancherry and Jew Town. His tour through the spice shops and

Spices outside a warehouse in Mattancherry

Spices outside a warehouse in Mattancherry

 warehouses along the streets and on the waterfront was a delight – we learned much and had a lot of fun in the process! The antique shops were Aladin’s caves with a bite – it was impossible to tell if you were being ripped off or not. Prices were quoted, offers were telephoned to an anonymous Mr Big whose answer was relayed through the front men (mainly women) and you accepted or not the verdict. We did buy a couple of small pieces one of which was less than half the price of a similar item we saw in another shop later on – did we do well or did we buy the fake? In addition to the antique shops there is a growing number of Kashmiri owned and run shops selling Kashmiri products. Some of these are enormous and carry a vast array of goods. No one knows how they make money but they are not much liked by locals who regard them as being unnecessary and out of place in the neighbourhood. Our guide and driver had done well and provided us with an agreeable end to our visit to Fort Cochin. We hadn’t attempted to visit

Ginger drying in the sun outside a river side warehouse in Mattancherry

Ginger drying in the sun outside a river side warehouse in Mattancherry

 Kerala’s back waters because we were in the wrong place. Despite advertisements to the contrary the back water country is south of Kochi at Alappuzha (Alleppey) a town on our next day’s route but not one that we had time to stop in. Another time perhaps – our traveller friends had had the time to travel in the back waters there and had loved it.

We left Fort Cochin at 5am intent on getting out of the urban area before the traffic became tiresome – and so we did. Our destination was Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin), the southern most tip of India. We made good progress initially but a poorly signed diversion and a very confused GPS undid all the gains we made in the early morning. The traffic was its usual mixed bunch of lorry, bus and Tata jeep taxi interspersed with enormous numbers of motorcycles thrown in to plug any gaps. The only road rule that is loosely obeyed is that you drive on the left but even that goes to the four winds at roundabouts – chaos underpinned by ‘might is right’!

Kanyakumari is the point at which the Indian Ocean’s Arabian and Andaman Seas meet. We felt a sense of accomplishment when we reached the town and were genuinely excited when we walked around the point and joined thousands of local tourists at the tip of India. No single point appears

Kanyakumari's Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar Memorials

Kanyakumari's Vivekananda and Thiruvalluvar Memorials

 to identify the precise location of the tip of India’s mainland but instead a group of memorials and temples occupy the small triangular space; the Kumari Amman Temple; the Ghandi Memorial; the Kamaraj Memorial. Offshore and south of the tip are two small islands each of which hosts a memorial; on the larger of the two is a building that reflects architectural styles drawn from all over India and commemorates the life of philosopher, Swami Vivekananda; the smaller island hosts an enormous statue of the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. On India’s east coast, a couple of hundred metres from the tip, is a small harbour that provides shelter for inshore fishing boats as well as being the point from which a couple of ferries take tourists to the Vivekananda Memorial. Beyond the harbour is a breakwater designed to protect the bigger fishing boats and a much larger collection of inshore boats from westerly winds and seas. At

Kanyakumari fishing village in the shadow of a Catholic church

Kanyakumari fishing village in the shadow of a Catholic church

the landward end of the breakwater lies a fishing village that nestles under the gaze of a ghostly white, ornate, almost surreal Catholic Church. There is a good atmosphere at the tip of India.

A day later we were in Madurai en route to Puducherry (Pondicherry). Again we left early in the morning expecting a traffic filled journey on the same north south trunk road that had given us such a bad time previously. Not a bit of it – the road was new, service roads were in place to allow buses to pull off the dual carriageway to deposit and take on passengers, lay-bys for truckers had also been created off the carriageway and all the villages and towns had been by passed the consequence of which was that we arrived in Madurai in time for breakfast, not lunch as we had anticipated! We used the extra time to catch up on administration and left early the following morning for the only French colonial state (in three parts) that existed in India, Pondy. The road from Madurai was as it had been the day before, a breath of fresh air, literally as there was hardly any traffic to speak of. But despite that we had our second ‘near death’ experience on a section of almost empty dual carriageway. Tootling along at just under 100kph, a large earth moving lorry in the oncoming dual carriageway pulled over into his fast lane with the intention of cutting across our carriageway – there was no dividing barrier. He stopped at the junction of the carriageways to let us go through, or so we thought. At almost the last minute he pulled out in front of us. He was too far across us for me to steer to the nearside verge and we had both noticed another lorry in the oncoming carriageway but he was obscured from our view by the bulk of the lorry now broadside onto us and very close. Our brakes locked, I eased off for a split second then locked them up again before finally, and at the last minute, releasing them briefly to steer to the right and then re-applying them to bring us to a wobbling halt in the oncoming carriageway. At that point we saw the other oncoming lorry which thankfully was in the slow lane and giving us some space. We caught up with the lorry driver who clearly knew he had come within a split second of writing us off – The Navigator gave him the haranguing of his life – not a pretty sight – that left him in no doubt of the error of his ways.

Pondy got better after we passed through its centre and entered the residential area with its quiet, tree lined streets.

Pondy's L'Ecole Francais

Pondy's L'Ecole Francais

This was what we had imagined the town to be and here at least we weren’t disappointed. The street names began with ‘Rue’ and all around us there were hints of a French colonial past – even the policemen wore ‘kepis’. In the older buildings the architecture reflected the need to cope with the climate but still managed to flaunt Gallic flair and charm in much the same way as it does in Hanoi and other French colonial cities and towns. Restaurants proudly produced French menus that included hams and cheeses as well as carefully selected Indian wines (a legacy of the French colonials?). In the haunts of the French expats and tourists Ricard was out in force, cigarettes smoke wafted up from most tables, hand gestures and shoulder shrugs accentuated lively conversations so it wasn’t difficult to imagine that you had been transported several

A slection of Pondy's finest!

A slection of Pondy's finest!

thousand miles to the bistros of southern France. It was not difficult to see why this place is popular. If you are mindful you could stay here for a week without noticing India much at all.

Our time in India had drawn to a close. The monsoon had almost arrived in Kerala, our shipping date from Chennai to Penang in Malaya had been confirmed and we had a rendezvous with friends planned in Chiang Mai, Thailand for the third week of June.

We spent our last days in bustling Chennai finalising our exit arrangements. It is interesting for us that little or no Hindi is spoken here, only Tamil and some English.

We had spent two months in India of which a month was overshadowed by the delayed arrival of our vehicle, a consequence of the unbelievable incompetence of the shipping company Maersk. Without our wheels we visited Gujerat, Goa and Nepal’s Kathmandu and got to know Mumbai quite well. Reunited with them we travelled 6,300km in a month during which each one of our senses was thoroughly worked over. By the time we reached Chennai at the end of the journey it is true to say that the road and driving conditions, the noise, the dirt, the begging and the petty corruption had ground us down and we were not sad to leave the country. Nevertheless our experiences have also left us with fond memories of a country with a generous spirit and a cultural diversity that gave us a good deal of pleasure.

The changing face of rural India - plastic gagris

The changing face of rural India - plastic gagris

India 29 March to 3 May

We landed in Mumbai just before 3pm after a two and a half hour flight from Muscat. We were now 5 ½ hours east of GMT , the currency is based on the Indian Rupee of which 1000 roughly equate to £15 (R65/£1) and, for the first time since leaving Jersey in late October 2009, vehicles drive on the left of the road!

Our hotel was situated in the Churchgate area of Mumbai which is an hour’s taxi ride from the airport. The taxi system is again centralised and there is a choice between a ‘cool cab’ (air-conditioned) and a normal taxi. We chose the former at a cost of about R550 and set off in the dense Mumbai traffic. Within minutes we were the target of slum children begging for money, a sharp reminder of the contrasts we are about to be introduced to in the world’s third largest city.

Although described as a ‘backpacker’s hotel’ our base for the next few days is situated on Marine Drive, facing north west and with uninterrupted views over Back Bay towards Malabar Hill and Chowpatty Beach.

Mumbai - Hotel view

Mumbai - Hotel view

It is also located next to the Brabourne Stadium, home of the Mumbai Indians cricket team that plays in the hugely popular 20/20 Indian Premier League (IPL). 

Over the course of the next four days we walked for miles and got lost en route to landmarks like the bustling and seemingly never ending maze of street and alleyways that make up Crawford Market; the Victoria Railway Terminus that cleverly combines Victorian, Hindu and Islamic architectural themes to produce a quite beautiful building that houses Asia’s busiest train station; the wonderful High Court, Mumbai University Library and

Mumbai's Rajabai Clock

Mumbai's Rajabai Clock

Convocation Hall buildings and the Rajabai Clock Tower all of which were designed by Gilbert Scott who built London’s St Pancras Station. They line the eastern side of the Oval Maidan which, as its name suggests, is the venue for a multitude of impromptu games of cricket in which young hopeful’s dream of emulating the success of Mumbai’s hero of the moment, Sachin Tendulkar. We shopped in paper making factories, street art galleries and in old fashioned fabric shops that would have made John Hamon smile – and we ate well whether at established restaurants or at street stalls.

Our final day or rather early morning was given to a visit that we hoped would satisfy our hunger for fish markets, a visit to Mumbai Harbour’s Sassoon Dock. The security guard at the entrance to the docks was perched on a broken chair when the taxi turned off the road and its lights suddenly illuminated him. He sprang to life stiffly and demanded that we stop so that he could determine the identity of the passengers. Seeing two bleary eyed tourists on the back seat he growled ’no camera’ and waved us through. It was 5.30 am when we stepped out of the taxi onto a badly pitted road that led to the docks. We were immediately assaulted by an almost overpoweringly deep smell, not of rotting fish but of drying fish mingled with the smell of drains and the harbour’s glistening black mud surfacing on an ebbing tide. It was deeply ingrained in the place, thick and so pungent you could have cut it with a knife – but had you done so it would have sealed itself like treacle. It was still dark and all around were shapes of buildings and trucks in various shades of grey, punctuated here and there by pools of light cast from naked bulbs which added sporadic dots of colour to the picture. There was energy and purpose all around as people headed for the docks; sari clad women with large plastic bowls on their heads striding gracefully towards the market, wiry men pushing impossibly long hand carts laden with beautifully woven ice filled baskets and small groups of buyers issuing final instructions to their porters before crossing the start line to do battle. Lorries too were arriving prodding the gloom with their lights, introducing more colour to the unfolding scene as they discharged their cargoes of porters, mainly women armed with baskets and bowls. Closer to the docks a noisy ice factory was busy distributing crushed ice to waiting trolleymen and their baskets and parked in front of the ice factory, in an attempt to provide an alternative and cheaper product, a covered lorry loaded to the suspension stops with huge ice blocks. On the tail board a skinny young man clutching enormous metal callipers was struggling to haul the blocks to a petrol driven crusher that spewed small ice shards onto a beaten up piece of metal sheeting from which customers quickly filled their baskets. From slippery tail board to jaws of ice crusher was a very short distance and shivers ran up our spines at the thought of the consequences of a misjudged footfall or the sudden and unexpected release of the callipers from a slippery block of ice.  On another side of the street a number of wooden framed beds were laid out in a line in the open, each contained a blanket shrouded figure seemingly oblivious to the cacophony of noise. We arrived at a fence of red iron railings and a gate with a sign on it stating that what lay beyond was a ‘Restricted Area’ and which restated the ban on taking any photographs. There was more light here and a greater gathering of people not just because it was a choke point but because not everyone was hell’s bent on passing through the gate to the market proper; some were content to remain on the fringes and appeared to be setting up their own small stalls. We assumed that these were the independents; the entrepreneurs not tied to a team but who would rather sell their own wares directly to buyers at a fixed price rather than run the risks of an auction. It later turned out that they were indeed independents specialising in the sale of prawns of all shapes and sizes.

We passed through the gate with a gaggle of porters and saw that we were on a quay about 150m long and 25m wide down the centre of which were two open sheds separated by a 20m gap. On the left of the quay, were a handful of large wooden fishing boats lying unattended on their sides in the stinking black mud whereas on the right side, for the entire length of the quay, we looked down onto a large, tightly packed and haphazard raft of purposeful wide beamed wooden fishing boats built on the same design principles as their predecessors had been for hundreds of years before them. Most had short fore and aft masts to carry navigation lights and antennas between which were strung lines of drying bombil fish, the fish that in its dried state is better known as ‘Bombay Duck’. The deck lights on these masts were on to help the crews sort the catch into baskets which would, when all was done, be carried up to the quay to join the auctions. The scene was made almost festive by the addition of tens of red flashing strobe lights on the end of net marker buoys that hadn’t or couldn’t be switched of and which continued to send out their signals, punctuating the gaps of darkness between the deck lights. Meanwhile on the quayside more and more people filled the narrow space; groups of men staring down onto the boats, chatting amongst themselves quietly with an occasional ribald comment hurled at a crewman on one of the decks that invariably brought with it a ripple of laughter from those around him; sitting in their plastic bowls to insulate themselves from the wet and putrid surface of the quay, women porters huddled together in groups and slowly turned from the moths they had been in the pre dawn light to butterflies as the light of day intensified and the colours of their albeit faded saris brightened the surroundings; the long barrow pushers shouted out warnings as they steered their heavily ice laden carts through the chattering throng. At this point most of the activity was on the boat decks; crewmen squatting in semicircles under pools of light cast from foremasts sorting through an assortment of fish upturned in front of them from baskets hefted by colleagues; another crewman, possibly the most newly joined, working below decks in the iced holds, surfacing only to pass another basket of fish up to the deck and occasionally to dip his freezing fingers into a plastic mug of warm water to restore some feeling into them; prized fish, the large ones, being manhandled into pride of place in the centre of the deck for all above to see; and throughout all this activity little appeared to be said by the crews who were going through a well rehearsed schedule that required their concentration and energy rather than commands and idle chatter – the chatting was left to the waiting watchers above them on the quay. Despite the lack of activity on the quayside, there was an air of anticipation, as if everyone was milling around before the start of a marathon, jostling for position and straining for the off. And suddenly, without warning and with no perceptible fanfare, an auction in one of the open sheds began, and then another outside the shed and before long there were many mini-auctions taking place around the seaward end of the quay before they slowly progressed towards the open space between the sheds and onwards through the other shed and up to the gate. It was difficult to establish any pattern to the proceedings and any attempts to do that were thwarted when some of the women began introducing fish from cold boxes stored on the quay that clearly hadn’t come from the boats. As each auction concluded the winning bidders loaded their prize into the plastic bowls carried by the women porters who having balanced them on their heads weaved their way gracefully through the crowds to their various destinations beyond the gate. The rather torpid crowd was now wide awake and fully engaged  in the fish selling business; a small auction amongst a handful of men for a very large grouper like fish was conducted with a great deal of good humour  and concluded with a grinning victor walking away with his trophy well satisfied with the 12,500 rupees (about £190) he had paid for it; two sharks were purchased by a young girl who had shyly outbid her male competitors but it appeared that she may have been carried away by the moment when she was seemingly chastised by another woman at her side; baskets of small fish fry, tiny squid and prawns ranging in size from tiny shrimps to large tiger prawns were auctioned, sold and whisked away by the basket carrying women porters of whom there appeared to be a never ending supply. In between the auctions taking place all over the quay, there were static displays of fish that had been pulled out of ice boxes stored in the gap between the two sheds. Carefully selected from these ice boxes, the women stall holders laid out their prize fish in what they believed to be a seductive array, ready to snare any half interested passer by, Sassoon Dock’s answer to Amsterdam’s Reeperbahn! Two hours after arriving and with the docks covered in a boisterous, seething mass of colour, we left the quay, inspected the mounds of prawns the independents had for sale and made our way back to the main road, a taxi and some relatively fresh air.  Whatever the rest of the day held in store for us it was going to be an anti-climax.

We left Mumbai for Ahmadabad on a 5.30am flight which was a shock to the system! Our ‘plane was full with passengers who had arrived in Mumbai on a delayed flight from London which meant that they had missed their previous night’s connection to Ahmadabad. It was slightly incongruous to listen to women dressed in saris on the Indian sub-continent speaking fluent English with heavy midland accents one minute and fluent Hindi or Gujerati the next. Their children didn’t appear to speak either Indian dialect but their English was unaccented and clearly the product of expensive English private school education. These were families coming back to India to meet parents and grand-parents, families whose skills and general knowledge of Gujarat’s renowned textile industry had given them the opportunity to emigrate and start new lives in the great textile producing areas of England.

Arriving at Ahmadabad’s airport at 6.30am we had a hassle free taxi ride on pretty much empty roads to our hotel on the outskirts of the very large town. As the shops didn’t open until 9.30am+ we settled in and had a rest before setting off to explore the old town of Ahmadabad, a maze of alleyways lined with every conceivable type of shop interspersed with colourful fruit and vegetable stalls – Gujarat is not only a dry state, it is also vegetarian! Nothing prepared us for the torrent of humanity and motor traffic that greeted us on leaving our hotel – it was quite literally breathtaking. We spent the morning in traffic with the odd foray into shops and guide book recommended sites before returning to our hotel for a siesta- Ahmadabad shuts from 3pm to 5.30pm. Supper in town was disappointing and having had a 3am start that day we opted for an early night. 

We spent the whole of the next day at the ‘Calico Museum’, owned and run by the Sarabhai Foundation. Every visitor makes up part of a guided tour of which there is only one each morning and afternoon; the morning visit concentrates on Gujerat’s and India’s famous textiles whereas the afternoon concentrates on Indian Deities and their influences on the textile industry. Of all the museums we have visited in our lives this was the most informative and interesting and we commend it to all without reservation. It’s web site www.calicomuseum.com is very simple and provides basic information about the foundation and the museum.     

Genghis arrived at the port of Pipavav on Easter Saturday so on that day we left mad Ahmadabad by car for the 250km drive to Rajula, a small rural town about 20km from Pipavav, which had a hotel that would provide a suitable base from which to clear Genghis, a process that we anticipated would take at least two days.

We arrived at Rajula at 3.30pm having taken 5 ½ hours to cover 250km – shades of things to come! Our driver was competent and hadn’t taken any risks, a very wise philosophy bearing in mind the awful standard of driving exhibited by many of his compatriots.

Rural Rajula

Rural Rajula

Our hotel was located just outside Rajula and was very new having been built to accommodate the business its owners anticipated the expanding port of Pipavav would generate. The staff were very eager to please, so much so that they were trialling a buffet supper around their swimming pool that night, a buffet that provided the additional luxury of chicken and mutton curry which after veg only meals was quite enticing – regrettably we were the only takers although some other businessmen did eat in the veg only air conditioned dining room. We slept well that night in anticipation of starting the formalities necessary to recover Genghis the next day.

We had been assured that Easter Monday was not a public holiday in Gujarat but despite our best efforts we could not contact Maersk at Pipavav, even the boss’s mobile was switched off and so, by 4pm, we had to conclude that, surprisingly, the company had indeed observed Easter Monday as a holiday. Disappointing as it was, we used the day to map out routes, identify likely stop over points and generally prepare ourselves for the journey through Gujarat and then Rajasthan.

By 10am on Tuesday I had contacted Maersk and arranged for a car to take me to their office at Pipavav. A white knuckle ride later I was in Maersk’s office where, after formalities and confirmation that Genghis had arrived, I was introduced to a clearing agency run by Mr Joshi who spoke good English. All our travel and vehicle documents were photocopied and I was asked to wait until they were processed through customs. After a mistake I’d made in Oman, that of turning up to clear customs without first having obtained car insurance, I had arranged with an insurance company in Mumbai to obtain cover through their Bhavnagar office, Bhavnagar being a largish provincial town half way between Ahmadabad and Rajula. The procedure required a physical inspection of the vehicle before a certificate could be issued and the inspector was going to meet me at Maersk’s office at Pipavav. Not long after I arrived at the port he contacted me to say that the port authorities would not let him into the restricted area because he had a camera. It transpired that not only was a physical inspection required but photographs had to accompany the report. After some delay the underwriters agreed to allow the inspection to take place and if all was satisfactory a certificate could be issued but once outside the restricted area photos would still have to be taken – hallelujah! But first there had to be a vehicle to inspect – and, oh, the vehicle has to be registered temporarily in India before it could be inspected and insured! The inspector went home as there was no way that we could achieve customs clearance and registration in what was left of the day. Four hours after Mr Joshi had photocopied our papers he announced that I had a meeting with the Deputy Commissioner of Customs at 3pm to go through the clearance procedures – I didn’t have a good feeling about this meeting. The Deputy Commissioner was very apologetic when he announced that because this was the first case of the temporary importation of a vehicle through Pipavav he had had to seek advice. After consultation with Mumbai and having read their operating manuals it was clear that Genghis could not obtain customs clearance at Pipavav – goods, including vehicles being imported into India under the authority of a Triptique or Carnet de Passage were restricted for customs clearance to 5 ports only – Mumbai, Delhi (a port for these purposes), Kolkata, Chennai and Cochin. This bombshell was disheartening to say the least but there was nothing we could do but address the immediate situation and then explode.  After some time talking with Maersk we agreed that the only option available to us was to re-load Genghis onto the first available vessel and send him to Mumbai for clearance. It was now Tuesday and the first available ship would be at Pipavav on Saturday which meant customs clearance in Mumbai would not take place until the following Tuesday, the day after the vessel docked in Mumbai.

We had time to kill so, having made all the arrangements late that night, we set off very early the next day on a two and a half hour early morning white knuckle taxi ride from Rajula to Bhavnagar and boarded a flight to Goa, selected because it wasn’t on our intended route and it sounded fun. After switching flights in Mumbai we landed at Goa’s airport a few hours later and took a taxi for the hour long run into Panaji and our backpacker hotel.

Panaji, Goa’s capital, is situated at the mouth of the Mandovi River and we’d opted for it because we were uncertain of Goa’s beach culture and wanted a base from which to review the area before committing to anything else.

Panaji - The Church of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

Panaji - The Church of our Lady of the Immaculate Conception

The town itself was manageable, quiet, well stocked with shops, bars and restaurants and retained a good spread of interesting architecture that reflected its Portuguese colonial past. Having familiarised ourselves with the town we set off for the beaches at Calangute and Baga, close enough to Panaji for daily excursions – but sadly we were unimpressed by both the beaches and the hoards that frequented them so after a very good fresh fish lunch we left with no intention of returning.  

The following day was more successful when we spent the morning travelling inland to Ponda, about 30km from Panaji, where we visited a spice plantation. Our guide had been a chef who yearned to know more about the foods he cooked and as part of that process had come to work on this old, very well established and beautiful plantation.

Nutmeg in its natural state. The red 'basket' when dried is mace.

Nutmeg in its natural state. The red 'basket' when dried is mace.

We were the only visitors that morning and as we walked through the spice trees and bushes it was clear that he had a passion for his subject which translated to a knowledge that he was keen to impart on his visitors. An hour and a half after beginning our visit we sat down to a curry lunch of gargantuan proportions that showed off the flavours of many of the spices grown on the plantation.

Our river trip the next day was less successful. Crowding one of Panaji’s jetties is a clearly recognisable collection of two storey river cruisers, each of which manages a couple of hundred people. A reasonable walk from Panaji’s centre to the jetty, these boats do a roaring trade for the mainly Indian visitors. We arrived at about 5.30pm, purchased our tickets and joined a throng of people being herded by officials onto the ‘Princess’. The gangway lead straight onto the upper deck where we were met by the sight of row upon row of tightly packed dining chairs in which well over a hundred people were already seated. We were very much the last group to arrive and struggled to find any seats that would give us a decent view of the riverbanks but finally, having purchased a couple of beers from the bar, we settled for two slightly damaged chairs at the very back of the boat adjacent to the steps leading to the lower deck. At the front of the boat, towering above the upper deck, there appeared to be a helm position but there was little apparatus to support this assumption, just a solitary man dressed in designer clothes, wearing ‘heavy’ sun glasses and with earphones on – not marine like at all. Below him, taking up the very front of the upper deck was what

Panaji's Fruit and Veg market

Panaji's Fruit and Veg market

could be best described as a stage – but even then we didn’t get it. A minute later we did, when, as we departed the jetty, a man in a sparkly suit with a microphone in his hand leapt onto the stage and in an amplified voice that could have been heard in Mumbai introduced first himself and then the ‘famous’ DJ above him. The ‘cool’ DJ reacted by acknowledging, in Pope like fashion, the two or three visitors who had gasped in awe when his name had been announced. Our entertainment began immediately when our MC invited all the children on board to ‘come up and have some fun’. As parents thrust or carried their reluctant infants up to the stage the DJ began writhing in the crow’s nest and immediately a noise reminiscent of a needle sliding across an old 45rpm record accompanied by a bass note that made the ship shudder, belted out from the man size speakers barely feet away from the dancing infants. One just pre-teenage girl loved it and whilst the younger participants giggled, cried or ran their way through the ‘music’, this little thing went into a routine that had been well rehearsed with friends or in front of a mirror. Unfortunately, at the back of the ship not far from the bar was a bunch of lads, all middle aged, who were definitely out on a bender at the end of a hard week and they were in the mood for dancing! Fuelled up, they sauntered up to the stage, leapt onto it and began to dance only as middle aged men can. Thinking themselves the best dancers to hit the stage since John Travolta wasn’t a view shared by the audience, particularly the children’s’ parents, and it wasn’t long before security, in the shape of a very young and small man appeared to lead them off the stage, a task he finally achieved with some difficulty. One of the ‘lads’ was an elderly Sikh sporting a dashing blue turban who, having declined the opportunity to dance, had instead had positioned himself at the end of a row of chairs from where he had admired the children’s dancing and in particular that of the young girl. As his colleagues were unceremoniously herded to the back of the ship, he stood up, elbowed his way to the stage and thrust some notes into the speechless girl’s hands. She was sooo excited, a sentiment that clearly wasn’t shared by her father who accosted the retiring Sikh and demanded to know what he meant by the gesture. With that lovely waggle of the head and twist of the wrists he gestured that it had meant nothing but dad wasn’t having any of that. With his by now humiliated daughter sobbing beside him, he removed the notes from her bunched fist, rammed them none too gently into the Sikh’s breast pocket and returned with pinioned daughter to their seats at the front of the boat where mama and a severely embarrassed small boy waited to receive them.

At this point the MC quickly brought on a dance troupe who went through a traditional dance to catcalls from the ‘lads’ who could clearly not be contained by the small ‘security’. At the end of the troupe’s very tame performance, dancing was thrown open to couples to which only a few of the more senior citizens responded. Nevertheless the turn out wasn’t bad and as they held each other in anticipation of a gentle and romantic melody, the DJ let rip with something more akin to a crazed re-work of Aerosmith. The combination of being a cool dude ‘so in touch with my music, man’ and the powerful Stevie Wonder dark glasses covering much of his face made him oblivious to the fact that the dance floor had emptied within seconds of his first offering and there was a real danger that the ‘lads’ would fill the vacuum. The MC, drawing heavily on his cigarette and deep in conversation with one of the professional male dancers obviously assumed that his septuagenarian clients were relishing the opportunity to give their hip replacements a work out to ‘Jaded’ and so he too was unaware of the opportunities presented by an empty stage. Within seconds the pack was back gyrating and grinding its collective pot bellied body around the stage whilst re-enacting every pose a heavy metal guitarist had ever dreamt of. By now the MC had flicked his cigarette over the side and valiantly tried to regain control. With much argument and head wagging, the boys were herded to the rear of the boat once more and the dance troupe made a lively return dressed in typical Portuguese attire? By the time they had completed their highly interesting routine the boat had reached the estuary mouth, felt the swell of the sea and turned to head home. At this juncture in the cruise we were directly opposite and very close to a horribly expensive looking resort and it was precisely as we reached the resort’s sun bed surrounded pool that open house was declared on stage – the volume of the music increased, the lad’s hit the stage running and as they got into their stride more middle aged men threw off their pleading wives, undid a couple of buttons on their shirts and launched themselves onto the stage with gay abandon. A beautiful sunset distracted attention from the antics of ‘the damned’ and before long most of us were breathing a sigh of relief and running down the gang plank as if we were pleased to get off the boat! A voyage to savour!

We returned to Mumbai the following day having enjoyed Paniji but our experiences generally, short and superficial

Prawn shellers at Panaji's fishing port

Prawn shellers at Panaji's fishing port

 though they were, lead us to conclude that it was only a matter of time before Goa’s long running flirtation with tourism ended in tears.

Our return coincided with the imminent arrival of Genghis and so we arranged to meet the agents who would help clear the vehicle through customs. We had used Damco in Egypt and to an extent in Oman and whilst reasonably happy with their performance we were still a bit tender from our experiences. After our meeting on this occasion we decided not to use them again – they wouldn’t clear the vehicle because it was too expensive and complicated – we learned later that they had had no experience of temporary importation of vehicles and had been quoted for the regular importation of a vehicle which is a completely different and far from tax free exercise. Nevertheless they recommended a company that could meet our needs and so by happy coincidence we came across Buhariwala Global. They immediately understood our requirements and at our first meeting with them shortly after leaving the Damco office we completed all the necessary paperwork including RAC verification of the validity of our Carnet. With hopes set high, I set off the following day to Nhava Sheva port with John, an agent from Buhariwala to begin what we anticipated would be a two day process. After a two hour taxi ride and a series of security formalities at Maersk’s gates we entered the main office to start the process. We had been in contact with one of their agents earlier in the day so it was he who we wished to see but he did take his time getting to us – and it wasn’t long before we knew why. Due to internal administrative failures Genghis had not actually been off loaded at Mumbai and was currently on his way to Jebel Ali in the UAE! Speechless, incredulous, apoplectic, despairing, deeply disappointed and very, very angry – it took all my resolve to maintain some sort of composure. In the end there was little we could do about the situation except object in the strongest terms officially, make a claim for expenses incurred and soon to be incurred and then try and rescue something from the damage. This delay, added to the week’s delay in Egypt and the mess up in Gujerat now amounted to a month, more importantly a cool month during which we should have been travelling in the hot states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh before spending May languishing in the hill stations of West Bengal. Genghis was due back in Mumbai on April 24th so we set off for Nepal and Kathmandu, a place we had planned to visit later on the voyage – we just accelerated the program.

The flight to Kathmandu from Mumbai took a couple of hours only and we were in our hotel for a late lunch. Thamel, the main tourist area was packed with touts, tourists and traffic that combine to create a vibrant, brash, hectic and colourful community. Our hotel for the first night was set back from the main street, a blessing as there are a couple of night clubs that play very, very loud music into the small hours which has caused problems for hotels in the immediate area. Although having visited Nepal on a number of previous occasions, we had never spent much time in Kathmandu but we had retained some memories of it, sufficient to draw some comparisons.  

We could not help but notice the increased pollution straight away and the accompanying tide of scooters, motorbikes and cars that contributed to the sense of almost uncontrolled chaos. ‘Load Shedding’ or power cuts took place every day and have caused all the major hotels to install costly and noisy generators to take over when the power switches off for anything up to 18 hours in a day. In the bustling shopping areas, dodging crazy motorcyclists whilst dealing with good natured hustling is the name of the game and one that was played by everyone with humour, so much softer than the hard selling tout tactics employed in Mumbai.

Street Shrine to Ganesh - Patan

Street Shrine to Ganesh - Patan

Our principle reason to visit Kathmandu was to catch up with a number of old friends, something we were very glad to be able to do at this stage in our lives. We met many of them and very much enjoyed chewing the fat over cold beers and good food. All feared for the future of Nepal in light of the growing problems facing the country as a consequence of the destabilising effects of the Maoist movement. It was sad to talk to taxi drivers and shop keepers who would not even enter into conversations about them lest they were overheard by sympathisers and punished. We also took the opportunity to investigate a possible route to Thailand by driving through Nepal, into Tibet and then turning east into China proper before turning south to cross the China/Thai border. Enquiries made by email to the Chinese Embassy in Khatmandu previously had indicated that we would have to use Chinese approved travel agents in the UK who would work with Chinese approved travel agents in China. It was possible to do what we were seeking to do but

Potter - Bhaktapur

Potter - Bhaktapur

authorisation would take a minimum of three months to achieve and we would be required to carry a ‘minder’ provided by the Chinese in our vehicle throughout our travels in the country. To double check the information provided by the Chinese Embassy we turned to the nephew of one of our friends who ran a travel agency in Kathmandu specialising in trips to Tibet. He could get us into Tibet and arrange for us to hire a vehicle with driver there, but he confirmed that the regulations governing the temporary importation of a vehicle into the country were so complex and lengthy that he had long ago given up considering the potential that self drive into Tibet might have for his business. Exiting India was now reduced to two options; out through Myanmar or by boat to either Thailand or Malaya.   

Our first hotel could only accommodate us for one night so we moved on the second day to another hotel, also in Thamel that was even more insulated from the noise on the streets. This was quite literally a haven of peace and tranquillity with a good spread of guests from all walks of life – and due to the effects of the Icelandic volcano we remained a community for the best part of a week, most unable to get out and no arrival of fresh blood to dilute the community as the hotel had no rooms available for new arrivals.

Bhaktapur

Bhaktapur

With no time to wander beyond the Kathmandu valley we visited the towns of Bhaktapur and Patan; both their Durbar Squares were declared World Heritage sites by UNESCO in the late ‘70s. Bhaktapur is by far the larger of the two and it would be easy to spend a day there drifting between the beautiful temples and the old town full of narrow streets separating wooden framed two or three storey buildings that created an almost medieval atmosphere. The area is full of interesting tourist shops and the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed – there is little hard selling and a polite ‘no thanks’ is all that is needed to end a tout’s endeavours.

Patan is much smaller but nonetheless well worth a visit. Its museum is a gem; beautifully presented in a cleverly and sympathetically restored building.

Patan's Durbar Square

Patan's Durbar Square

We left the valley as others struggled to get home to European destinations and arrived back in Mumbai the day before Genghis was due to arrive for the second time in Nhava Sheva. Having settled back into the same hotel in Colaba we prepared for our departure which we assumed would be on Wednesday morning. Wrong again! I finally prized him out of customs late on Friday afternoon after a nightmarish week during which the administrative mistakes made by Maersk took days for my agents to unscramble. Despite a highly complex series of customs procedures, the agents know them well and had it not been for the unbelievable incompetence of Maersk we would have met our Wednesday deadline – instead we left on Sunday morning. The only plus point during the week was that I got to know Mumbai railway’s Harbour Line quite well and very much enjoyed glimpsing the little cameos of everyday life played out along the tracks early each morning and again late in the afternoon.

As a consequence of driving Genghis the entire length of Greater Mumbai during the rush hour on Friday, I was determined to avoid a similar experience for our departure – so we left at 5.30am on Sunday, a time when you are not required to observe traffic light signals! Guided by a taxi driver we had got to know, we cleared Greater Mumbai in an hour and continued north up the Ahmadabad road, arriving at our night stop 100km south of Ahmadabad in the town of Vadodara seven and a half hours after we had set off. The drive up could only be described as educational – reasonably surfaced dual carriageway for much of the way, saturated with lorry traffic and madcap overtaking punctuated from time to time with the added spice of vehicles on the wrong side of the carriageway travelling towards us! Concentration, anticipation, a good horn, good brakes and a bit of luck were the orders of the day – as they were for the days to come!

Rajkot road - where there's a will...............

Rajkot road - where there's a will...............

The next day we set off for Sayla, a small town 80km to the east of Rajkot from where we aimed to begin our search for the renowned textiles of Gujarat – our Textile Trail.

Oman, 11 to 29 March 2010

The flight from Cairo to Oman took nearly 4 hours which meant that with a time change to GMT+4 we arrived at 10pm. Duty free spirits, wines and tobacco were available prior to immigration procedures as was an ATM which enabled us to ‘cash up’ with Omani Riyals (OM) at an exchange rate of £1.83:OR1. We didn’t have visas which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the queue for those with visas comprised much of the flight. We were the only passengers needing visas which required OR6 each and the completion of a brief form before our passports were stamped and we were directed straight through to the baggage hall and a few minutes later we were ordering a taxi from the kiosk as all taxis from the airport are centrally controlled. Moments later we were being driven at speed along an impossibly smooth highway to the Muttrah district of Muscat and to our budget hotel, the Nazeem. Room 32 had a beautiful view across the harbour in the centre of which was berthed Sultan Qaboos’ private yacht. I only mention the room number because we highly recommend the very clean but basic Nazeem and for increased value rooms 12, 22, 32 and 42 have views over the port. One other point for would be travellers to Oman – the electrical sockets are of the UK 3 pin design and some seem to have been modified slightly to also accept a standard European 2 pin without the need to risk electrocution by pushing down on the earth lug with the nearest available pointy thing that invariably turns out to be made of metal! 

We slept well and were up bright and early to make the most of our one day in Oman’s capital. Most of our morning was spent in Muscat’s fish market – we had chosen the Nazeem because of its proximity to this market and the souk. We have visited fish markets in many parts of the world and this one ranked highly, not just because of the diversity and quantity of fish available but also because of the unique way in which it operated. At the front of the market were the stalls selling anything from anchovy fry (sun dried for ‘ikan billis’ or fermented as the main ingredient of fish sauce) and live crawfish  to beautiful Yellowfin Tuna weighing up to 75 to 100kg and small (30kg) sail fish which really should have been returned to the sea.

Beautiful Yellowfin Tuna in Muscat's Fish Market

Beautiful Yellowfin Tuna in Muscat's Fish Market

At the back were about twenty to thirty stalls in which young and old skilled ‘fish cleaners’ sat. . Fish were purchased from the vendor and then deposited at a stall with instructions to the cleaner on how it was to be prepared. The undoubted king of the cleaners was a young Keralan who was frighteningly quick with his razor sharp knives but clearly very skillful as all his fingers were in place. We watched him for well over half an hour as he worked his way through his orders – Emperor Fish, King Fish, Grouper, Barracuda and Yellow Fin Tuna, the last weighing a good 30kg which he filleted, cleaned and diced  into 5cm chunks in less than a couple of minutes!

The rest of the day was spent wandering around the souk but we were competing with a an enormous and very ugly cruise liner that had disgorged its cargo of elderly (steady!) Italian tourists and so the touts were having a field day and as far as they were concerned we too were part of the gang and ripe for a rip off.

Our flight to Salalah left at 7.50 am and after an hour and half’s flight we arrived at Oman’s second largest town and the regional capital of Dhofar. Maersk, the shipping line transporting Genghis, had kindly booked us into a hotel whilst Genghis cleared customs so having deposited bags in a very odd room I took a taxi to Salalah Port to meet Adil with whom I had been dealing. Unlike Egypt there were no slicks here as all the clearance work was done by Maersk and Adil was my guide from Maersk. He helped me complete all the necessary documentation after which we drove to the Port Police and Customs building where it took just a matter of half an hour for clearance to retrieve Genghis – save for one caveat, the production of a vehicle insurance certificate. I had become too used to land border crossings at which an insurance agent is always on hand but not so at ports. By now it was 12.30, the town based insurers would break at 1pm and return to work at 5pm and the port shut at 6pm. With the driving distances involved it was impossible to clear Genghis that day.

Adil took me back to the hotel and pointed out an insurer within easy walking distance – he would be open at 8.30am and having done my business with him I had time to get back to Adil by 10am at the latest.

The following morning I joined the queue of youths reporting to the insurers with their damaged vehicles and very quickly found out that this insurer did not insure foreign vehicles – but Dhofar Insurance Company did so off I went, met a very helpful Omani there who rushed my proposal through and by 9.45am I was back at the port. Half an hour later all documentation was complete, release papers had been issued and all that was left to do was to get the container out of the container terminal and liberate Genghis. It had been suggested quite early on that to avoid paying the terminal charges for moving the container around to an unloading area, it would be much cheaper to take the container out of the terminal and off load Genghis anywhere a suitable ramp – and the initiator of the suggestion knew precisely where such a beast existed. Accordingly Adil had found me suitable a lorry with driver to whom I would pay OR35 and so I was introduced to Musallam, a small, young and very skinny driver who drove a Volvo articulated lorry capable of carrying two 20ft containers. He disappeared into the terminal with his lorry and the necessary documents and I said farewell to Adil. Three hours later, in the heat of the day Musallam re-appeared with our container – it was a very busy day in the terminal. I jumped in the cab and off we set for the ramp situated somewhere on an industrial site. It was perplexing to hear the bangs and squeals of metal on metal every time we hit a poor piece of road surface and even more so when we pulled over to the side of the road with English speaking driver muttering something about the container moving around because it hadn’t been secured! Ties and stops in place we got to the industrial area and very soon found the ramp. Having sought the owner’s permission had backed up to it was clear that the bottom lip of the container was 30cm or so higher than the ramp. No matter, said Musallam, we will build a smaller ramp on top of the big ramp which after half an hour in the blazing heat we abandoned when it became clear that this would not work. We went off in search of another ramp, found one that suffered the same problem as its predecessor and finally came to the conclusion that we had no choice but to return to the original and build a ramp even if it demanded the help of others. Returning to the ramp I went off to negotiate permission from the owner and to seek his help in constructing something to ease Genghis’ passage out of his box. The owner was busy manipulating a heavy diesel generator into place with a very large crane, a task he did with great skill and precision. At this point the lights in the house went on and when he had finished his task I asked him if he could crane the container off the lorry, let me drive Genghis out of it and then return the container to the lorry.

Genghis, Musallam and the crane driver

Genghis, Musallam and the crane driver

Not a problem said he in his best Madrassi and half an hour later the job was done, Genghis was blinking in the bright sunshine, undamaged, and I had arranged a return match three weeks hence when we would re-stuff and lash Genghis prior to shipping him to Gujurat!

To celebrate the restoration of our independence we set off to explore Salalah and its beaches.

At Taqah we were fortunate enough to come across a community pulling in a huge net that had been cast with the aid of a boat. What made it special was not only the joy that this activity gave the participants but also the sights of a very large pod of dolphins barely 30m offshore patrolling the extremities of the net for any escapees. As the net neared the shore it was clear that there were so many fish in it that unless great care was taken it would split. But of course they knew this and men with smaller nets sewn into open mouthed bags were dispatched into the surf and the mouth of the net where they scooped out large quantities of fish and carried them ashore – full bags that easily weighed 25 or 30 kg. As the load in the main net lessened so more of it was dragged from the sea and eventually it arrived on shore, almost empty as it became clear that the main net was merely a means of corralling the fish whilst the bagmen emptied it. And at the end of an operation that netted two Landcruiser trays full of fish an old man wandered waist deep in the sea beyond the limit of where the net had been, feeling for dead fish with his feet.

The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the Sea

When he found one he ducked down and retrieved it – he knew what he was doing, all were small sharks that had drowned in the net and dropped out of it.

Having re-packed Genghis we set of early the next day to travel the coast line north-east of Salala, knowing that the road ran out 200km beyond our start point and that we would have to return to Salalah before heading north and east towards the island of Masirah.

The road was unbelievably good and we made good progress along a route that without a very disciplined approach to photography could have had us stopping every few kilometres to capture yet another breathtaking view. The sandy beaches and bays, fringed with black rocks were filled with a clear turquoise sea in various degrees of intensity and in the end we became almost blasé about their beauty. The first town of note on the route was the fishing town of Mirbat where a fishing fleet of dhows as well as the smaller fibreglass outboard engine powered inshore fishing boats were harboured. Very hot and seemingly exclusively peopled by Kerelan fisherman, Mirbat is a household name to elements of the British Army who fought with the Sultan of Oman’s Armed Forces during the Yemeni supported Dhofar Rebellion in the early 70’s. Mirbat is renowned in those circles for a particularly fierce engagement centred on an area around Mirbat’s fort (not its castle) involving a very small group of British soldiers and their Omani colleagues which resulted in a decisive victory over almost overwhelming odds but which also claimed the lives of two very courageous British soldiers.

The Fort at Mirbat

The Fort at Mirbat

The fort is still in place but is sadly in a poor state of repair.   

After a stunning lunch of a fish masala we headed north to Hacik and the road end a few kms beyond it. Without a sole within 6km of us we had the luxury of positioning our campsite anywhere along the beautiful never ending stretch of white sandy beach. We settled for a spot 10m from the high tide mark and having set ourselves up we began preparing a very live and colourful crawfish purchased in Mirbat a few hours before. A blissful hour or two later we turned in to the sound of the Arabian Sea gently pounding the shore.

Camping at Hacik

Camping at Hacik

We retraced our steps the next day and camped on the beach 30km from Salalah having first met a wonderfully generous fisherman further down the coast who gave us a hammour , a much prized fish that I think is from the grouper family. We were again in splendid isolation – until a young Bangladeshi man carrying some rudimentary fishing tackle appeared from nowhere and sat down to rest. He spoke a little English and after a cold 7Up explained that he had been in Oman for two and a half years and was part of the work force constructing a hotel further down the coast. He had recently returned from a short visit to see his family and was clearly homesick. For us he epitomised the plight of the migrant workforces from poor communities who were seeking a better life overseas and not always finding it. Another supper of fresh fish

Orange melamine and Indian Mackeral - priceless!

Orange melamine and Indian Mackeral - priceless!

, exquisitely prepared by The Navigator  – followed by a night’s sleep interrupted from time to time by waves crashing on the beach.

The next morning, after a swim and a fruit breakfast we set off for an admin. day in Salalah – booking a container with Maersk, arranging flights to Amadahbad via Mumbai, searching for an internet café and visiting a barber to get a moth eaten beard removed and a haircut. All achieved, plus a very good chaat lunch, we set off on the journey north and east to the island of Masirah, once the home of an RAF airbase. The road to Thumrait (another ex British military base) was being turned into a dual carriageway so we didn’t make as good progress as we would have liked but we reached the town an hour or so before last light and turned east, back towards the sea and on a line with Hacik, the road’s end we had visited 2 nights earlier. Forty km after leaving Thumrait we turned off the road onto a small track and drove across the desert until we found a suitable spot behind a small sand dune where we set up camp. A good lunch meant that we didn’t have to cook that night so we prepared and ate a simple salad after which, with a little help from a worryingly diminishing stock of the amber liquid we slept fitfully through a cool and noise free night.

Early nights signal early rising and we were up just before dawn and a beautiful sunrise. An hour later we were on the road and heading towards an unfinished section of the road that we hoped we could negotiate to connect us to the coast via Shalim Wa Juzor Al Hallaniyat. When we reached it the road itself was blocked off but the heavy plant feeder road was available although very uncomfortable to drive on. We progressed slowly on the corrugated surface and eventually reached a point that suggested we had missed a turning. It was too late to turn back so we pushed on along a much smaller and less well defined track across a moonscape that reminded us of scaled down Capadocia in Turkey. IMG_1376Our gamble paid off and despite a few anxious moments we reached a well defined un-surfaced road that eventually led us to the coast. But a worrying rattle had suddenly appeared underneath Genghis which despite a thorough search remained untraceable. Back on a surfaced road it all but disappeared and as there didn’t appear to be any problems with the handling of Genghis, we pressed on north up the coast. We stopped briefly at a number of fishing villages before arriving at Jinawt where the inhabitants were not Kerelans but Pakistanis. We enjoyed a late lunch of very tasty, freshly made paratha and an omelette in the local bakery before exploring the road we had come to find. This unfinished but fully surface road headed south towards Hacik, the point at which we had had to turn back after our first night’s camping with Genghis. As we progressed along this new road it was clear that it was only a matter of a year at most before this road would link with Hacik signalling the completion of a coastal road network from Muscat to Salalah and beyond to the South Yemen border. It wasn’t hard to imagine the changes these extended lines of communication would make to these hitherto relatively isolated villages – we had already witnessed large scale developments on the outskirts of the tiny village of Hacik and other small villages in anticipation of the new road. It had taken us two days of hard driving to reach each end of this incomplete road – in less than a year the journey would take no more than 10 minutes!

We camped by the sea again that night having visited a picturesque lagoon where we saw our first flamingos. Supper comprised paratha from the Pakistani bakery, a salsa left over from the hammour supper and a tin of pork paté that had been lurking in the dry food store for the last 5 months. A game of trivial pursuits later (The Navigator is not a good looser) and we hit the roof – for another good night’s sleep.

In the morning we were visited by the Police, our first visit from Oman’s finest. They were mildly inquisitive but didn’t ask for any documentation. Immediately succeeding them was a Landcruiser with three occupants whose driver spoke passable English and who was very inquisitive. A man old enough to be his grandfather and who had only one tooth in his head squatted on the ground and seemed to be in charge of the interrogation. The third member of the gang inspected the vehicle without saying a word. After we politely refused their offers of shelter in their house, food and anything else we needed they drove off leaving us with a slightly uneasy feeling.

We left a little later than planned on a day that was already signalling that it was going to be very hot. The route north us up a very flat, featureless coast past several small villages until in the early afternoon we arrived at Ad Duqm, a larger town where we had lunch in another Keralan run restaurant. Partially hidden behind a garage we came across

Omani 'pigeonnere'

Omani 'pigeonnere'

Oman’s answer to the pigeon towers of Egypt – a valiant attempt to provide pigeons with a home but hopelessly outclassed by the 5 star accommodation available to them in Egypt!

We set off in the heat in the hope of finding somewhere suitable for a camp that night but the featureless terrain seemed never ending and the road was far enough inland to make a beach camp selection impractical. Late in the afternoon we turned right and headed towards Muhut beyond which we hoped to find some cover where we could set up camp, but the billiard table snmooth plain continued. The road we were on ended at Shannah, a small port but more importantly the port from which the Masirah island ferry operated. We reached it as the sun went down and immediately began searching around for a place to camp. The ferries berth at the end of a modern causeway where there is also a collection of administrative buildings which, after a very long and hot day we thought might provide us with a sheltered parking space where we could pop the tent and get some sleep before crossing to Masirah in the morning. By now last light was fast approaching and as we turned the corner at the end of the causeway we could see the landing craft type ferries lined up, bow ramps onto the road. In front of one of them a figure was furiously waving at us and as we drew up to him he gesticulated that we should board the ferry – which we did. As soon as we had done so the bow ramp was raised and we set off. Only at this point did we check to make sure that it was Masirah that we were going to and OR10 and an hour and forty minutes later we drove off into Hilf, Masirah’s only town of note. By now it was fast approaching 8pm and too late to set up camp so we checked into the Masirah Hotel for the night.

Early the following morning we checked out and prepared to set off to explore the island, a round trip of about 200kms. I was still concerned about the rattle under Genghis which we had first noticed two days earlier but which I had been unable to trace. On surfaced roads it appeared occasionally but on the gravel tracks it was a constant and worrying noise. I had another shot at tracing it that morning and to my dismay found that the right rear shock absorber was no longer attached to the body and was rattling in the cup. A petrol pump attendant gave us directions to the only garage in town and we set off with a heavy heart knowing that in all likelihood we were going to be without Genghis for some time while parts were ordered and delivered.

The Chenai Gang- lyrics by Roy Orbison

The Chenai Gang- lyrics by Roy Orbison

The garage was run by a band of Indians from Chennai ((Madras) who were working on a fascinating assortment of old vehicles, mostly ageing Land Rovers. I explained the problem to one of the mechanics who immediately grabbed a piece of dirty cardboard sheeting and disappeared under Genghis. A moment later he re-appeared and went in search of some spanners and a huge pipe wrench – not the sort of tool you normally want anywhere near your nuts! Disappearing again he popped his head out minutes later and confirmed with a smile that the shock absorber was intact and working properly but that the rubber bushes at the top had disintegrated and had to be replaced – and he shot off on a scavenging expedition amongst his wrecks. With much chat and directions given by his colleagues he converged on two vehicles and from one appeared with two rubber bushes and a triumphant grin. Five minutes later Genghis was as good as new. This tightly knit group of men were a delight to be with and we marvelled at what they were achieving with the very rudimentary resources available to them – bush mechanics at their best!

The island itself is a flattish figure of eight shape running north east/south west with a very well surfaced road running around the entire coast line with an east/west link round about the middle – hence the figure of eight. Hilf is in the north adjacent to the military air base and the rest of the island is populated by small, coastal fishing communities whose livelihood centres on small, beach launched inshore fishing boats. The boats are launched and recovered simply by being towed by a suitably powerful 4WD vehicle. And for once the vehicles of choice are not the ubiquitous Toyotas but ageing left hand drive long wheel base Landrovers many of which house growly V8s. These vehicles can be seen throughout Oman and have acquired cult status.  The centre of the island is dominated by a rocky ridge of hills and there is very little vegetation – but the beaches are to die for. We were very keen to watch turtles coming ashore to nest but knowing that we were ahead of the major season by a couple of months we weren’t all that hopeful. However that hope soared during our recce when we came across, sadly, a small, dead Radley turtle on a beach we were driving across. We found it on its back which may have been the reason for its death because there were no other marks on it and it was still very fresh. A couple of beaches later we came across the tracks of a much larger turtle which further lifted our spirits. After lunch in Hilf where we stocked up with some fruit and vegetables we set off for our first camp site, one of several that we had noted in the GPS.

Bay Watch

Bay Watch

We set up on the beach 20m from the sea and spent a pleasant afternoon beachcombing and swimming before preparing ourselves for an evening of turtle watching. After last light we set off with our chairs and a couple of torches and positioned ourselves on a small piece of beach between two small, sandy bays. In all we sat there for about two hours but saw nothing. Early the following morning we checked the beach for tracks but found none. Disappointed we set off early for Hilf to check ferry times for the following day and en route drove to the bay where we had seen the dead turtle – and there were fresh tracks! We resolved to watch the beach that night. After checking ferry times and having eaten a very tasty roti and vegetable curry for breakfast we set off for a 40km drive to an isolated beach that we had spotted on our first day.

Splendid isolation on Masirah

Splendid isolation on Masirah

We spent another blissful day beachcombing, reading and swimming before setting off for the beach we wanted to watch that night. We got there just before last light and positioned ourselves for a good view over the crescent shaped beach – three hours later we had seen nothing and turned in rather disappointed.

A first light inspection of the beach showed that no turtles had ventured ashore during the time we were asleep which made us feel a little better. We broke camp early and headed to Hilf and a 10am ferry back to the mainland. But first we had a few chores – stocking up with food for the next two nights camping, repairing some areas of our awning that had come unstitched and to have another Indian breakfast so we could drive through the day without stopping for lunch. The stitching was carried out by a ‘Gent’s Tailoring’ shop of which, alongside Coffee Shops, Foodstuffs and Hairdressers there were hundreds. We missed the ferry – it was full at 9.30am so had left. Now we had an hour and a half to kill so we did some more admin at the Restaurant where we had had breakfast. We loaded early and watched a fishing dhow come alongside the jetty and offload a cargo of fish that included at least fifty small sharks, two very large 3m sharks some prized Kingfish and a small 2m sailfish. All were loaded into a refrigerated truck that then reversed onto our boat and proceeded to offload all the small sharks onto the deck. Money changed hands and an already overloaded Landcruiser that was on board reversed up to the mass and threw them in – the strong, ammonia like smell of shark stayed with us throughout the voyage!

We arrived back at Shannah at 1pm and set off  with the aim of getting to the turtle beaches of Ras Al Hadd, 40km south east of Sur before last light. At this point we decided to take a gamble. On all the tourist maps of Oman there is a significant break in the coastal road just north of Shannah between the towns of An Najdah and Abu Al Akarish. Confirmation that there is no road linking the two towns is also given in several guide books but during our lunch at Ad Duqm three days earlier we had been told by an Indian lorry driver that there was a road link but that it was not yet complete but could be negotiated in a 4WD vehicle. We decided to give it a shot because the alternative route would add over three hundred kms to our route and we would be nowhere near Al Hadd that day. The gamble paid off – the road was rough to start with but 30km into it a brand new, surfaced road became available that was not yet in commission – we travelled at high speed in splendid isolation through magnificent sand dunes all the way to the large fishing village of Khuwaymah before we returned to the regular roads.

During the journey we established that we were woefully ignorant of the habits of the turtles we so wanted to see and that the hit or miss, very much miss, approach we had employed on Masirah was tantamount to searching for a needle in a haystack. We needed guidance. Ras Al Hadd is the eastern most point of the Middle East and where the sun’s rays make first landfall each morning – but more importantly for us, a series of beaches just a few kms to its south at Ras Al Jinz is the nesting site for 30,000 turtles each breeding season between June and the end of August. Early though we were we had a reasonable expectation of seeing them here if we received help. During our brief visit to Muscat on our arrival in Oman we had met an English family who had seen turtles at Ras Al Jinz and kindly given us a brochure from a hotel at Ras Al Hadd that had organised their visit – it was in the glove box. We’d purchased an Omani SIM card for a spare mobile to cut out expensive roaming charges so we tried to contact the hotel several times without success and in the end took pot luck and turned up late in the afternoon to see if they had a vacancy – we took their last room. I say room but in fact The Turtle Beach Resort comprises a large number of independent reed shack type bedrooms clustered around a central administrative block adjacent to a small private beach. The admin. block houses a large dining area, games (billiards) area and to our absolute delight, a bar! With the exception of a sniff of the all but exhausted amber liquid that we keep for medicinal purposes, we haven’t had any alcohol since we arrived in Oman so the opportunity to have a glass of wine or a cold beer or three was very welcome. The resort is well established, efficiently run by its Philippino, Keralan and Nepali staff and we had booked in for two nights to give us the best opportunity to see the turtles. Then we discovered that the resort didn’t actually organise visits to the turtle beaches but instead puts visitors in touch with the Turtle Habitat 7km down the road at Ras Al Jinz. Having contacted them they allocated us a place in the turtle visit at 9pm that night.

After a very refreshing swim and supper with half of France we set off for Al Jinz in a high state of anticipation. Ras Al Jinz’s two beaches and their surrounding areas are a nature reserve that is off limits to the general public and very efficiently patrolled by wardens. The beaches can only be visited after booking a slot with the Turtle Habitat which acts as both a visitor centre and scientific research facility. The Turtle Habitat is based on a large, modern and impressive building on the fringes of the beach. Our group of ‘watchers’ comprised 14 other people of many nationalities and we had an Omani guide who briefed us on turtle watching etiquette before leading the group onto the beach. In general terms, wardens on the beach identify the location of turtles and what they are doing, they inform the guide by walkie-talkie and he leads the group to the activity. The wardens had signalled that there were already five turtles on the beach – yippee! After a 15min walk we entered the beach area and shortly afterwards came across our first Green Turtle. Her size took us aback because she was so much larger than the little dead Radley we had seen on Masirah. This one had dug a burrow that she was in the process of abandoning before digging another so she was left alone in favour of another turtle further down the beach – and she was laying her eggs! In groups of four we were martialled forward to watch this beautiful creature depositing her one hundred or so eggs in the burrow she had dug with her flippers – and although we had seen the same images on TV natural history programmes nothing could eclipse the magic of that moment. Later that night we saw her bury the eggs before returning to the sea. In the interval we were taken to another area closer to the sea to watch the end of the cycle – tiny baby turtles with disproportionately large front flippers making their way like wind up toys to the sea, another magical moment – but less than one fifth of one percent of all the hatchlings from Ras Al Jinz would make it to sexual maturity (reached after 37years!) and return to the same beach to begin the cycle again. Two hours after first entering the beach area we returned to our resort in high spirits – all the efforts we had made to observe wild turtles in their natural habitat were justified. Now it was time for a glass of chilled white wine and a cold beer!

The next day was spent lounging at the resort and catching up on administration – and speaking Nepali with two of the staff much to our mutual delight. The major part of France had disappeared earlier that morning so we had enjoyed the resort pretty much to ourselves until half of Germany arrived, the half that lived in old people’s homes!

We checked out early after breakfast the following day and headed for Sur, 50km up the coast. The town is split into two parts that straddle a river mouth and which are connected by a bridge; Sur proper on the northern side of the river is the commercial and business centre whilst the south bank.is very pretty,

Sur, south side

Sur, south side

almost village like and is largely residential. The southern part has an interesting past having declared independence from the rest of Oman, a declaration that ended following two years of careful negotiations by the British Government and the Sultan. The bulk of Sur on the northern bank is a sprawling town that caters for tourists and acts as a seaside getaway for Muscat to which it is linked by a motorway. We spent a large part of the morning here not because the town was that interesting but because the directions we had been given for Sur’s boat yards were sketchy and we went down several blind alleys before finding them. Situated on the north bank of the river in the shadow of the bridge (closed for repair whilst we were there) , the boat yards are renowned for the building of traditional Omani wooden boats. The one we visited had three

  A Samboog under construction

A Samboog under construction

Samboog boats under construction, boats that had been trading vessels operating between Oman and East Africa and India. The yard quite literally makes each boat from scratch having first bought in seasoned teak tree trunks from Malaysia from which every plank is made. These are not small boats being at least 20m in length with wide beams and deep draughts and with three on the go at once, each taking at least 7 months to complete and all at a different stage of completion, the yard is a hive of activity. The Samboog is the same in shape and size as another trading vessel, the Al Ghanjah but which is identified from its sister by a differently shaped bow stem or prow (forgive my un-seamanlike terminology). The stern is flat and normally well decorated. The Boom is a similarly sized boat but has a canoe stern and the Badan is a 12m boat designed for short haul cargo and passenger traffic along the Omani coast. All are still built at the yard although not for their original purposes but for tourism needs throughout the Gulf, a happy alternative that allows the traditional boat building skills to be kept alive.

Carving a stern plate for one of the Samboogs

Carving a stern plate for one of the Samboogs

Again it is the Keralans who are the work force in the yard – it is a wonder that there are any men left in Kerala as most of them seem to be the power behind every aspect of Oman’s commercial activity!

Our visit to Sur marked the end of our surge towards the north of Oman. Because of the short time available to us we had taken a conscious decision to concentrate on the coastal regions as far as we could and we had achieved our aim – but in doing so had sacrificed the opportunity to visit the better known areas around Nizwa and Muscat.

Our journey back to Salalah took us two days of hard driving across featureless desert in high temperatures – and we missed the aircon for the first time since it packed up 3 months ago!

On arrival in Salala we booked ourselves into the Hilton for a night to celebrate a birthday (joined up meat for the first time in weeks) and left the following morning for a quick dash down to the South Yemen border and a final night’s camping in Dhofar.

The road south begins with a steep ascent from 0 to 1000m in a very short distance necessitating a very windy hill climb that reduced Genghis to a crawl at times. In the valley bottoms we came across portable bee hives much the same as those that we had first seen in Greece and later on in Turkey. This region had had some rain two months earlier and the hives had been moved from farms near Salalah and brought up here to take advantage of the new growth. This type of country was something new for us and refreshingly different from the plains. Cattle mingled with camels grazing in the hills that became visibly greener the further west we went and the fishing villages of

Deserted fishermen's huts at Rakhyut

Deserted fishermen's huts at Rakhyut

Rakhyut and Dalkut were populated not by Keralans but by Omanis with, as you would expect, close ties with Yemen. As we approached Sarfayt on the border we passed through two military check points manned by soldiers who, in stark contrast to those we had seen elsewhere in the Middle East were alert, smartly turned out and well equipped.

We camped in splendid isolation under a star filled, moonlit sky in hills overlooking Salalah and in the morning began preparations for our journey to India; Genghis was containerised and cleared through customs for his four day journey to Pipavav in Gujerat and we packed our bags for a flight to Mumbai and a four day break there before flying to Ahmadabad in Gujerat, the recovery of Genghis and our journey through India.

We thoroughly enjoyed Oman but despite driving over 4,500kms, we saw only a very small part of the country. Nevertheless, because our journey was more extensive than most tourist visits and because we were entirely independent in our wandering, we were able to record an observation that might elude the average visitor; Oman exudes wealth, it is well ordered, drivers obey traffic lights, the streets are clean, the road networks are comprehensive and well maintained, there is little overt presence of the police.People are generally polite and helpful. In short it appears populated by a people who are happy with their lot. But that lot is dependent upon a huge, largely Indian workforce for its well being and there were incidents that we witnessed suggesting that some elements of Omani society, particularly poorly educated, overindulged and jobless youths, treat the ex-patriot workers with contempt. It would be a shame if steps weren’t taken to address the matter.

Egypt 30 January to 11 March 2010: The Journey East Begins

The first leg of our road journey from the UK to New Zealand began on 23 October 2009 and concluded in Egypt six weeks later on 9 December. We remained in Egypt until 14 Januaury 2010 when, having found secure parking for Genghis, our Toyota Landcruiser, we returned to our home in the UK for a two week break to catch up with family and friends.

Our return to Alexandria at the end of January marked the beginning of the second leg of our journey, a leg that would take us from Egypt to Thailand.

During our break we had used improved communications to thoroughly investigate the route options available for our exit from Egypt and journey towards the east. In the final analysis there were three;

  • backtrack through Jordan, Syria and Turkey and drive through Iran and then ship to India via the UAE;
  • obtain a transit visa for a dash through Saudi Arabia, enter Oman and ship to India from Salalah;
  • ship from Egypt to Oman, spend time there and then ship to India.

We were not keen to backtrack and in any case we did not have the opportunity to obtain visas for Iran which necessitated submitting our passports to their embassy in London where we were told that in all likelihood it would take more than two weeks to process the applications. We could not be without our passports for that long and there was also no guarantee that our applications would be accepted. Travelling to Iran and hoping to obtain a visa at the border was not an option.

Our enquiries in Egypt with regard to Saudi transit visas were met with the response that it was unlikely that they would be granted. Even if they were, we were not keen to ship to Jeddah and then ‘dash’ across a couple of thousand kilometres of the country in the stipulated number of ‘transit days’ – and so that option too was rejected.

So shipping from Egypt to Oman was the option we chose and as soon as we were back on Egyptian soil we set about putting the pieces of the jigsaw in place. Although we had at least three weeks in Egypt our intentions were to spend as much time as we could on the house building project in Siwa so all activity that required our presence in either Cairo or Alexandria needed to be attended to first so that we had clear water in front of us en route to Siwa.

We arrived back in Egypt at midnight on Saturday 30 January courtesy of British Airways, spent the night in a hotel in Cairo and at 10am on Sunday morning submitted our passports and visa applications to the Indian Consulate in Cairo who told us to return three days later with LE£500 when they would be ready – and three days later they were!

On our return to Alex we began the task of tracking down shipping agents and forwarders, not an easy task for novices who had no previous knowledge of this sort of business. But we had been fortunate during the crossing from Aqaba to Nuweiba when, during a conversation with John and Amy, they’d advised us to use Maersk if ever we were in need of a shipping line. So our first ‘lookup’ on the internet gave us the contact number of their agents in Cairo who helped us through the first part of the jigsaw. We gained a great deal of information from them and finally established dates and the fact that we could ship from Alex to Salalah although the journey time would be extended from 5 days (Port Said to Salalah) to 10+ depending on the cross shipping time in Port Said. The extra couple of days made no difference to us and the convenience of being able to ship from Alex was a major advantage. At this point Maersk informed us that we needed the services of a ‘forwarder’, a company which specialised in the preparation of documentation and which could smooth our way through the minefield of bureaucracy surrounding the port authorities and customs agency. Damco is a sister company of Maersk and were an obvious choice – and Maersk introduced us to Mr Ahmed Habib, Damco’s Senior CHB Coordinator for Landside Services who reassured us when he told us that he had moved eight other vehicles similar to Genghis and that the procedure was quite straight forward. Another major advantage for us was that Damco had agencies wherever Maersk were which meant that anywhere we were likely to ship from and to in the future would be covered by both companies. We disappeared to Siwa for another two weeks and returned for the first part of the exit procedure on 20 February.

  •  Day 1– Mr Habib unavailable today so 10am meeting with deputy. After an hour and a half’s delay we were whisked off at 11.30 to the Traffic Department by Ahmed, a freelance agent used by Damco to smooth the paths we had to tread – he turned out to be very efficient! Due to the sharp dress code adopted by Ahmed and his henchmen as well as for their purpose of pouring oil on rough water I decided that they would best be  referred to hereafter as ‘slicks’. Traffic confirmed that we were not involved in any ongoing accident disputes etc. and 45 minutes after arriving there Ahmed re-appeared from the crowds wearing a grin and brandishing an ‘all clear’ document. So far so good.
  • Day 2– 10am meeting with Mr Habib to go through the loading schedule, finalise costs etc. The meeting concluded at midday after which we went to the bank to withdraw the funds needed to settle our invoice the next day. HSBC were very efficient and swiftly depleted our bank balance.
  • Day 3 – 10am meeting finally got off the ground at 11.45 with the re-appearance of Ahmed and two other slicks. One climbed into Genghis beside me and gave directions to the port where Ahmed and his other companion met us. Having been given a coke and told to remain in Genghis the three slicks disappeared into the bowels of the Port Police offices to obtain Police permission to enter the port’s restricted area. At 2pm they emerged looking battered and bruised with the news that we had to return the following day! Apparently a government decree issued in late January prevented the likes of me from entering the port on the day the application is submitted – news to Damco and Ahmed. Foolishly we had assumed that we would load Genghis this day and overnight bus tickets to Siwa to conclude unfinished business had been purchased – and could not now be used!
  • Day 4 – 9am meeting (urgency kicking in) with Mostapha, Ahmed’s right hand slick, and a trip straight to the port to continue the previous day’s failed business. By 10.45 Mostapha and I had concluded all the paperwork which with my passport were delivered, along with about fifty other similar applications, into the boss’ inbox. He alone could sign off – heaven help you if he was sick or otherwise indisposed. Anyway we were told to return at 1.30pm which we did and at 2.15pm Mostapha Chamberlain leapt out of the building waving my authority to enter the port – all was well. A few heart stoppers later we were driving in the port’s restricted area and heading for customs, where Ahmed, like a genie, appeared. A mechanic took rubbings (brass rubbing technique) of chassis and engine numbers, attached them to yet another document which was added to the ever growing pile carried by Ahmed who in turn thrust them through a dark hole in the wall in the manner of a gaoler thrusting food into a vermin ridden prisoner’s cell. Not very much later a smiling duo appeared to say that all was clear and we could proceed to the next step – loading into the container perhaps? – not quite. A short drive later, at 3pm on the dot, we arrived at a shed containing a number of dusty cars (Bentley Continental, Porsche Cayenne, UK registered BMW X5 etc) and were directed inside. I assumed that this was the customs shed where Genghis would be inspected before being loaded – wrong. Customs finished work at 3pm and as I was now in a restricted area from which Genghis could not now leave he would be locked up for the night pending loading the next day – oh, and please leave the keys with the dodgy looking man in the corner. This was very disappointing to say the least – and plans to return to Siwa that night went out of the window, again.
  • Day 5 – Despite itching to complete the loading process I was not scheduled to meet Mostapha until midday. I took a taxi to the now very familiar Port Police building but was met not by Mostapha but by Ayub who I had met briefly two days earlier. As far as slicks went Ayub and Ahmed played in the Premiership League – unfortunately for me, Mostapha my genial slick and Arabic teacher by profession, had a long way to go before joining their company and was currently trialling for Portsmouth with little hope of being selected – but he was a trier! Paperwork flashed back and forth as did small denomination notes and at 2.30 pm we had all the necessary clearances to load – hallelujah! We walked the short distance to the custom’s shed where Genghis had already been removed to the road outside in preparation for the journey to the container loading area. I was assigned a ‘marshal’ to guide and hold my hand en route to the container terminal and to hand over the paperwork. He was a man of such obese proportions that I seriously didn’t think he would get into the vehicle – and I really didn’t want him there in case he broke the seat, something his sheer bulk indicated he could do with ease. Having wheezed himself into position he produced a large sandwich and proceeded to munch his way through it, very noisily. Meanwhile I had noticed that some of the loose items in the cab were not in the positions in which I had left them and a short inspection later confirmed that all the door pockets, the glove box and centre console had been turned out and the contents haphazardly returned with the exception of a torch. Naively I had assumed that whilst in the custody of the customs the vehicle would be safe. I made a fuss but decided to call a halt to the gnashing and wailing in order to get on with the loading. Having shaken hands with the leader of the custom’s shed pack I headed off with the mammoth – Mostapha had to follow in another car. We duly arrived outside the container terminal, presented the paperwork, the mammoth belched and departed but Mostapha seemed caught up in some sort of dispute with the terminal staff. A feeling of déjà vu suddenly surfaced with my fears confirmed a couple of minutes later when Mostapha appeared to say that he needed another piece of paper and would return in a few minutes, half an hour at most. Two hours later he re-appeared looking triumphant only to return from the terminal’s office two minutes later with the news that they would not give him permission to enter the terminal with me. In good colonial fashion I demanded to see the boss for an explanation – and he gave me one – Mostapha was not authorised to enter the terminal although I was. Good, says I, I’ll leave Mostapha here and load Genghis myself! Not allowed says he – you must have an authorised guide. What about the vehicle lashing team says I, they must be authorised to enter the terminal and surely they know their way around it?  OK, says he, but it is your responsibility to get the lashing team here. At this Mostapha and I grinned at each other – the lashing team was already here, we had met one of their team (we learned later that he was the only member of ‘the team’) earlier when he confirmed the container number we had been allocated and deposited some ratchet straps in Genghis – and we knew he was in the terminal. A phone call later and ‘the team’ appeared at the office, jumped into Genghis and guided me to ‘my’ container. Five minutes later I had reversed Genghis into MSKU7157240, done my impersonation of a contortionist to get out (it was a very tight fit!) and then gave advice to the lasher on how to use a ratchet strap as he went about his business, business that he was clearly exercising for the first time! A ten minute walk later I was back at the office where a sheepish Mostapha was apologising for the hundredth time. He had been a very amenable companion during the last few days despite my non-existent Arabic and his mainly unsuccessful but valiant attempts to speak English. Having said our goodbyes he handed me over to a slick I hadn’t met before and after a 15 minute route march through the docks and a couple of unlit and rubbish strewn alleyways we emerged onto a main road, climbed into a taxi and twenty minutes later I was deposited outside our accommodation in Alex. At 7pm, less than an hour later, we were heading off on the 7 hour drive to Siwa.
    Tight Squeeze

    A Tight Squeeze!

 Four days later we were back in Alex having got very close to completing our building project. Genghis had departed on the high seas two days earlier and all that remained of the exercise to ship Genghis to the Oman was a final meeting with Mr Habib at Damco to obtain a Bill of Lading and the return of our Carnet de Passage booklet with the completed Egypt section confirming that Genghis had been exported from the country within the stipulated time frame. He had been due out by 2 March so the timings had been tight and we were glad that we had allowed sufficient time for any protracted procedures!

 The meeting got off to a bad start when I was presented with an amended sailing schedule, printed a week earlier, showing a revised program from Port Said to Salalah involving a different ship and an arrival date in the Oman one week later than that given on the earlier confirmatory shipping letter. To cut a long and grisly story short, I expressed my displeasure at having to wait a week for this news which had a serious impact on plans made in accordance with the original information and then got on with the business of rescuing us from a mess. Our flights to Muscat were cancelled as were two night’s hotel reservations, applications to extend our visas were made and granted and so, to kill time, we set off for five days in the Sinai at Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba – all’s well that ends well!Sign

Waterfront Cafes

Dahab's Waterfront

Monastery

St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

 Dahab is a dive resort that has managed to hold onto a laid back character developed in the 60s and 70s – there is still a ‘hippyish’ feel to the place and whilst locals might mourn the changes taking place it will take some time yet before it echoes the vulgarity of a much larger resort 90km to its south – if it ever does. You cannot visit the east coast of the Sinai without visiting St Catherine’s Monastery, an hour and a half’s drive from Dahab.  Built to house and protect the Greek Orthodox priests in 565AD  it is the oldest Christian monastery in existance and well worth visiting.

 Back in Alex we had a clear day to pack before setting off on our re-scheduled flights first to Muscat and then on to Salalah to pick up Genghis. He was due to arrive there on Friday 12 March, a holiday, so we were hoping at best to clear him through customs the following day, the 13th. But that depended on Egyptian customs signing off the Carnet de Passage and getting it back to Damco in Alexandria before we left for the Oman. In the event that it didn’t reach us in time the documents would be couriered to us but even with the best will in the world they wouldn’t be with us before the 13th and in all likelihood would take a few more days beyond that.

Eel Garden

The Eel Garden End of Dahab

 On the 10th, two hours before the Customs closed for the day we got word that Damco had the documents and with a huge sigh of relief we put the finishing touches to our packing and arranged a rendezvous with Mr Habib, the very harassed Mr Habib who had finally pulled a rabbit out of the hat!

 We set off for Cairo Airport by train from Alex at 8am on the 11 March for a 4pm flight to Muscat. Our last experience in Cairo revolved around Said, our taxi driver. He was a cocky young man with slicked down hair whose style of clothes and long pointed shoes announced that he was a ‘cool dude’. He drove a battered Peugot 504 that had wheel bearing problems and which shook violently at speeds in excess of 80kph, a speed he seemed capable of maintaining everywhere but at police manned traffic lights. The trip wouldn’t be worth mentioning but for two points – it was our last on Egyptian soil after 3 months of great fun and we were saying goodbye to a son and because Said blew away the much touted assumption that men cannot multi task. Cairo traffic is pretty awful at best and anyone who has actually driven in it knows that you need 100% concentration as well as the largest and cleanest wing mirrors. The Peugot didn’t have an internal driving mirror but had both wing mirrors, held on with an assortment of rubber bands cut from inner tubes rendering them incapable of being adjusted thereby causing the driver to shift his position when using either of them, a position that differed depending on which one he was using. His taxi was also equipped with a steering column mounted gear shift and a substitute horn which was activated by a button mounted under the steering column, an action that required Said to lean forward, slip a hand under the steering wheel and press the button. Before we had left the confines of Cairo station we had been given the privilege of witnessing a performance that couldn’t help but make you smile – normality was suddenly interrupted by Said suddenly pushing himself back in his seat to peer at his right hand wing mirror then almost violently lurching to the right, stretching his neck forward and cocking his head to the left to peer into his left hand mirror before lurching forward and ducking down to steering wheel level to activate the horn. If you weren’t aware of what he was doing you could have been forgiven for thinking that he was suffering a fit. Whilst these antics were frequent interruptions to the journey Said introduced another prop to the show, a cigarette. He didn’t have a lighter but used a box of matches which, with an open drivers window and no winder handle, demanded that he shield the match and box in cupped hands as well as shorten the distance between the anticipated flame and the cigarette protruding from his mouth – whilst simultaneously watching his wing mirrors, avoiding the very many surrounding and overtaking cars as well as letting all around him know that he was there with his horn. A few wobbles later and the cigarette was alight and the usual pigeon mating dance continued. Finally a mobile phone was brought onto the stage and with some aplomb. On the first ring the cigarette was transferred from right to left hand, a quick bob and weave to check mirrors, an obligatory punch on the horn button, head cocked to the right, button pressed and ‘hello’. He was on the phone for much of the journey but after one particularly animated and very loud exchange we had to ask him to put his mobile away. Our tolerance of his antics petered out when we observed him steering with his knees, changing gear with his left hand (gear shift on the right of the column) which necessitated him twisting his whole body to the right whilst holding the mobile to his ear with his right hand and angrily shouting into it – and all this in very heavy traffic on a fast moving freeway. Checking in at the airport was a relief!

Egypt 9 December 2009 to 14 January 2010

We had visited Egypt on two preious occasions prior to disembarking at Nuweiba. With the benefit of an Egyptologist son we had been introduced to the many famous archaeological sites as well as many that were not on the well trodden tourist routes. Our visit on this occasion was not to go over old ground but more to concentrate in an area of Egypt that our son and his partner had fallen in love with and where they had purchased some land on which to build a house – the Siwa Oasis in the Western Desert. Situated in the upper left hand corner of Egypt, the oasis is 300km south south west of the coastal town of Marsa Matruh and a mere 40 odd km from the Libyan border. It is unique amongst Egypt’s five great oases because its inhabitants do not regard themselves as Egyptians but as Siwis who, as descendents of the Berber and Toureg nomads more commonly associated with Western North Africa, speak their own language.

But first we had to get there and after a disturbed night’s sleep in the Prince Home resort at Nuweiba we set off north towards Taba from where we turned west towards Port Suez. After arriving from Aqaba the evening before we had settled into the Prince Home in the dark, the only occupants.

Prince Home, Nuweiba - £8 per night!

Prince Home, Nuweiba - £8 per night!

We had not had an opportunity to view our surroundings which in the clear light of early morning were spectacular. To the west were towering rock cliffs leading into the desert and to the east the Gulf of Aqaba and to the north and south, empty beaches. The Resort was 10m from the edge of the sea and we enjoyed a very healthy date and foul (bean stew) breakfast before heading off.

We reached Taba in forty minutes during which we had driven along the coast passing an abundance of hotels, resorts and sea side shacks in various stages of completion. The coastline was very pretty and judging by the signs we saw en route, a diver’s paradise. Taba is adjacent to Eilat in Israel which in turn is adjacent to Aqaba our port of embarkation in Jordan the day before from which it had taken ten and a half hours to progress to Nuweiba!

Having turned west towards Port Suez we travelled fast on well surfaced ‘gun-barrel’ roads for the next two and a half hours before passing under the Suez Canal and taking a break. A soft drink later we had set off en route to Cairo where we had a rendezvous with our son who was crammed into the 3rd seat and we all set off for The Fayoum, a “semi-oasis” south west of Cairo. This son inherited his map reading skills from his mother (who, I hasten to add has successfully made a big effort to improve them) and the journey took much longer than expected. A white knuckle ride along Cairo’s ring road freeway with a setting sun making it impossible to see the warning of break lights kept this driver on his toes and by the time we turned off towards The Fayoum my eyes were out on stalks. We crept around the southern shore of Birkat (Lake) Karoun in the dark and finally reached our destination, an eco-lodge hotel at the lake’s south western corner. The day’s journey had taken an unexpected 10.5 hours largely due to ‘temporary disorientation’ and very heavy Cairo traffic. Joined by our son’s girlfriend a couple of hours later we were set to explore an area famous for its history, its fertile soil and its pottery. But The Fayoum is also famous for its pre-history;

40m year old parts of whale skelletons in the Valley of the Whales

40m year old parts of whale skelletons in the Valley of the Whales

 50 million years ago a very early type of whale, the Zeuglodon or Basilosauras, lived in the Fayoum where over 240 skeletons have been found near Kasr el-Sagha north of Lake Karoun. Some of these skeletons can now be seen in the ‘Valley of the Whales’, the first and only World Heritage site in Egypt.

 

The Fayoum  

 
One of Egypt's many beautiful Pigeonieres - more to follow on this subject

One of Egypt's many beautiful Pigeonieres - more to follow on this subject

Cultivation on the banks of Lake Karoun

Cultivation on the banks of Lake Karoun

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From Fayoum we headed north to Alexandria where, after a couple of days washing clothes, servicing Genghis and generally preparing ourselves for nearly a month of camping, we set off on the 7 hour drive to Siwa.

 

The Siwa Oasis

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The route is split into two exactly equal legs; 300km Alex to Marsa Matrouh; 300km Marsa Matrouh to Siwa. The road is generally good and we arrived in Shali, Siwa’s town’s centre, on schedule. We immediately departed to the site on which the house was being built and with the exception of forays into the desert and surrounding areas that is where we stayed for the next three weeks.

The site is pretty having its own date palms, garden and most importantly its own source of fresh spring water. Durville Folder 559The walls of the house had already been built. Made of ‘karshif’, salt block broken into small palm size and smaller pebbles which is held together with mud. The walls are 50cm thick and  built up using layers of karshif the insulating properties of which are extraordinary. Its major drawback is that it is seriously compromised by water and especially rain which thankfully is a rarity. Nevertheless on one infamous occasion in 1926 three days of of unusually heavy rain literally melted large parts of the fortress town of Shali which is still in the process of slowly being renovated.

 Our job here was to help wherever we could so that by the time we left in early January  at least the roof on the first floor would be in place – and it was. We also spent a novel Christmas with Billy which was delayed until the 28th due to the late arrival of guests who could not get to the oases in time for the 25th. It was to be a special event and one that justified a special meal – enter Billy the Kid.

 Billy was purchased two months before the event and lovingly looked after in the intervening period during which he was fed well, very well! On the morning of the 28th he was sent very quickly to the happy hunting grounds (do goats really go there?) by the butcher from whom we picked him up. IMG_0947Curled up in his big plastic washing up bowl he did look a little pathetic but the satisfied smile on his face, his head was still attached to his neck, gave us comfort and the resolve to celebrate his life in style. The cooking style chosen was a Siwi speciality – ‘Abu Merdem’ which is difficult to translate but alludes to something ‘buried’. This involved a 40 gallon oil drum cut in half laterally, some hefty chunks of olive wood (yes, yes Peter I know your thoughts on people who burn olive wood), a sand pit (not difficult where we were) and a very, very large aluminium plate.

 The expert chef was Ibrahim who with assistance from the group began the process by making a hearty stuffing/marinade. To benefit from the flavours that this stuffing would give to Billy, his flesh was slashed and the mixture was roughly pushed into each cavity. Still in his pink bowl, the large aluminium plate was placed on top to keep away the flies and our attention was turned to the ‘oven’. The 40 gallon oil drum had been bought earlier in the day and cut in two by a lorry mechanic wielding a huge electric grinder – his antics and those of a colleague under an antique Isuzu lorry would have given a Health and Safety inspector apoplexy! IMG_0948A deep hole was made in the sand and the sharp edged half barrel was lowered into it leaving about 5 cm of it above sand level. It still had some oil in it so a small fire was set to burn it off and half an hour later the olive wood was added and a fierce fire developed. As the wood burned it was broken up and gradually the bottom of the barrel developed a layer of hot coals.

 An hour and a half into the process Ibrahim declared the barrel ready for Billy who was removed from his orange bowl and placed onto a round grid that was gingerly lowered into the barrel and placed directly on top of the red hot ‘coals’. IMG_0950Immediately the aluminium plate was placed on top of the barrel and the first of many shovel loads of sand was placed on top of it until the barrel was completely sealed into a sand cocoon to a depth of at least 10cm. An hour and a quarter later Ibrahim began to remove the sand very carefully until the plate was entirely exposed and brushed free of sand. Then, to prevent any grit dropping into the barrel when the lid was removed, he ran a pointed stick through the sand immediately under the rim of the barrel. The effect of this was to create a small trench into which the now unsupported sand around the rim of the barrel fell thereby preventing the possibility of sand falling into the barrel when the lid was removed.

 And finally the huge aluminium plate was carefully removed and we stared into the barrel to see what appeared to be a perfectly cooked Billy – but the sceptics would only have their doubts removed when we tasted him – was he cooked through after such a short time in the barrel and, heaven forbid, was he gritty? IMG_0956Triumphantly carried to a makeshift carving table on his upturned aluminium plate, Billy was carved and served with a selection of roasted local vegetables – and he was absolutely delicious, succulent, tasty and totally grit free.  

 We used the ‘Abu Mardem technique twice more, once to cook five chickens (one hour) and once to cook two gigots of local lamb (one hour). The products on each occasion were superb!

 Christmas with Billy Recipe

 5kg dressed weight of young goat

 2kg red onion grated, juice of 4 lemons, 1 lemon finely sliced, large bunch of green cumin plant very finely chopped, 6 large tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped or 500ml Passata, 400g butter, melted over a bain marie and 400g Billy Mix – ground cumin, ground coriander and curry powder in equal quantities – mix all the ingredients together well and rub handfulls into the slashed flesh of the goat..

 House building continued throughout this period but after a quiet New Year’s Eve we set off into the desert with Genghis and another Landcruiser driven by a Bedouin who was well versed in the techniques of desert driving and we spent a wonderful two days driving hard during which we visited areas full of fossils, fresh water lakes, hot springs and meteorites – and we slept under a full moon and a star studded sky. A very fitting end to over ten weeks driving to get to the oasis and a finale that has whetted the appetite for longer and more challenging trips – perhapsSand Sea in the not too distant future!

 Durville Folder 1089

We left the oasis on 8 January, returning to Alex to sort ourselves out prior to taking a two week break in Jersey. We also began the process of planning our exit from Egypt at the end of February – and from the outset we had our concerns about those options confirmed. We will not get a clearer picture of which route we will take to get to India until our return at the end of January. As we leave on completion of Leg 1 we have travelled 11,394 km and consumed 1,700 litres of diesel, an average of 6.7 km/litre or 19.06 mpg.

Jordan 6 to 9 December 2009

As we passed through the final border gate and set off down Jordan’s main north south highway that links Amman and the north with Aqaba on the Red Sea we were struck by the number of police check points on the route most of which were engaged in conversations with the occupants of vehicles they had stopped. If this heavily overt police presence was designed to intimidate any ne’er-do-well it was probably quite effective particularly when added to the attention we witnessed given to the Lebanese driver at the border crossing!   

We had other immediate observations; where Syria’s roadsides were festooned in discarded black plastic bags and empty plastic water bottles Jordan had successfully applied a good deal of effort to remove rubbish from the roadsides; where Syria appeared to have little in the way of planning guidelines for urban development, all the evidence we saw pointed to the fact that Jordan had embraced the need to plan and control the manner in which the urban and rural areas were developed. It is perhaps unwise to draw too many conclusions from these simple observations but by the end of our very brief visit to the country we concluded that Jordan’s relative order muted its raw character, something that had not happened in Syria and which made that country, in our eyes, more appealing. A little like comparisons between Singapore and Hong Kong in the 70′s when the earthiness of Hong Kong won the character contest against an increasingly sanitised Singapore.    

Our first overnight stop was in the market town of Madaba in the hills south of Amman. We had little difficulty finding the hotel which was situated in a residential area within easy walking distance of the town. The town centre was very well ordered and obviously geared for tourism as every other shop appeared to be selling souvenirs of one sort or another including, in some numbers, ostrich eggs painted with scenes specific to Jordan but which we were told later were imported from China! Also in the town was a bar serving beer and wine which it was impossible to resist. There we met a couple who were back packing their way around Jordan and Syria in public buses because they felt that it helped them intermingle with the local population far more effectively as a consequence of which they got a much better feel for their host country – fair point but each to their own. After a kofte supper we finished off our administrative tasks for the next day’s travel and turned in early.

Breakfast saw a few hard boiled eggs added to our collection after which we set off to the Dead Sea a short distance away. The morning was hazy and long distance visibility worsened the closer we got to the rift valley in which the Dead Sea and the River Jordan lie. After half an hour’s driving we reached the lip of the ‘high’ country and began the descent into the valley on a good, downwards spiralling road. The atmosphere became more oppressive the further down we went and it wasn’t long before the altimeter in Genghis showed that we had dropped below sea level – ultimately to a ‘dpth’ of something approaching 350m!. The immediate scenery was ruggedly beautiful and to our eyes almost entirely devoid of any vegetation, a mistaken conclusion judging by the number of shepherds with their flocks that we saw heading into the gulleys and dried stream beds. I have forgotten how many thousands of litres of water evaporate from the Dead Sea each day but a combination of that loss and the reduced amount of water flowing into it as a consequence of human demands on those sources has reduced the surface area of the sea by something like 20% since it was first measured in the early 1950s. We were thankful to be visiting it in the winter months as it was oppressive enough even without the addition of extreme heat.

We had been advised to use a ‘pay beach’ from which to have our obligatory swim because they are equipped with the essential fresh water showers needed to remove the post swim salt from our bodies, a must if you want to be comfortable for the rest of the day. Our ‘pay beach’ was equipped with changing facilities, a couple of swimming pools, restaurant and café facilities and a wired off section of beach with tatty beach furniture and – showers. Everything there came at a price – entrance €15 each, towel €1 each, locker €5 each and the price of a drink afterwards was also steep by normal standards. Having changed we toddled off to the beach, passed a group of visitors who were covering themselves in the black mud that is supposed to rejuvenate the skin, and finally into the sea itself. Earlier, as we had descended into the rift valley and caught our first sight of the sea through the haze we had remarked to each other how ordinary it looked with its small waves whipped up by a southerly wind.
The salt encrusted Dead Sea shore near Mazra'a

The salt encrusted Dead Sea shore near Mazra'a

I’m not sure why we expected it to look different but we did and now we were going to experience the characteristics for which it is renowned. The water was cool and at first appeared little different to ordinary water but as we waded out to knee level there was a noticeable resistance to our movement that intensified the deeper we got. Not much further out we lowered ourselves into the water and our legs immediately shot out in front of us as our bodies were cocooned in the water – a feeling rather like lying on a super soft chaise longue. The water was ‘thick’ and left skin covered in a thick, opaque emulsion but the most disconcerting effect of the dense salt solution was that as you got deeper so buoyancy increased and it became impossible to put your legs down and, as you floated on your back, the only method of creating any form of movement was to use your hands just below the surface to paddle and propel your body backwards. It is impossible to swim in the Dead Sea – a very odd sensation. That sensation promotes all sorts of questions – can boats be used in the sea, if you jumped into it what would happen to you and so on? The presence of the fresh water showers was a relief as by the time we reached them it was clear that the rest of the day would be made very uncomfortable without washing away the emulsion entirely – we tasted the water which was almost painfully salty but were careful to avoid getting it in our eyes which we were told is a very uncomfortable experience.

IMG_0625

The rugged hills leading to Karak

Having thoroughly enjoyed our ‘swim’ we set off south along the sea shore to Mazra’a, the point where it turns west and becomes part of Israel. At this southern end of the sea the land is extremely fertile and for many miles around the shore line there are large agricultural enterprises which add refreshing colour to a largely khaki landscape. From Masra’a we turned east and began the long climb up to Karak and its Crusader fort before joining the King’s Highway that links the hill top villages along Jordan’s spine and which include Petra, our next stop. The highway is a great vantage point from which to view some very beautiful and unexpectedly rugged countryside. After a late disappearing hard boiled egg lunch supplemented with bread and tomatoes bought in Karak, we set off for the final three hour stretch of the road to Petra. The altitude of the road at this point was about 1500m and there were black rain clouds hurrying in which began emptying their contents on us a few minutes later. In addition to the heavy rain the clouds settled themselves on the hill crests and reduced visibility to no more than a few metres at best. What should have been a three hour journey became five and we crawled into Petra well after dark and in the pouring rain. The first ‘pension’ we stopped at was full but another was recommended and we obtained a room there. The Frenchmen we had met in Damascus were sitting in the public room and unexpectedly welcomed us like long lost friends. They explained that the rain we had experienced had put an early end to their Petra explorations but as they had allowed themselves two days to do the recommended sites they were not too perturbed. The forecast for the next day wasn’t very bright- more rain clearing late morning – and we only had the morning to see as much as we could because we needed to be in Aqaba by last light. Our room was dirty but it had a loo and the semblance of a shower and it was dry. Later, during a supper of spaghetti, we decided that we would get up early and be through Petra’s visitor gates by 7am which, after a reasonable night’s sleep we managed to do.

IMG_0322

First sight of the Treasury from the Siq

The forecasted rain hadn’t appeared but dark, threatening clouds still hung around the tops of the immediate hill tops and we expected the worst. As, it appeared did all the other tourists because, with the exception of a lone American, we were the only ones there – a site all to ourselves again! With only 5 hours at our disposal we had to be picky about the sites to visit and with the advice of the Frenchmen and some friends at home we settled on a short list that was manageable. A horse and cart to the start of the ‘Siq’ saved us half an hour and still allowed us the joy of walking through the narrow canyon with its clever viaduct and interesting carvings at the end of which was the awesome ‘Treasury’. There is hardly a Middle Eastern guidebook available that doesn’t wax lyrical about Petra and all we could do was to agree with all that they say – in our very limited experience it ranked alongside Syria’s Palmyra but in the final analysis was eclipsed by it. We didn’t see the ‘High Place of Sacrifice’ but did get to see the ‘Monastery’ which we travelled to and from by donkey which saved us at least two hours if not more. Some would say we ‘cheated’ by not visiting all the sites on foot and a purist would be right I’m sure but if you are pressed for time and do have to make choices the horse/donkey options are huge time savers. But a word of caution to those who do opt for the donkey ride to the higher spots – there are places on the ascent that will make vertigo sufferers’ heads spin but other than that it is a great way to observe the fabulous scenery.The descent is different. I am a reasonably strong man but I struggled on occasion to stay in the saddle during the descent, particularly when the donkey’s hop from one front foothold to the next.

The Monastery

The Monastery

On a number of occasions I nearly tipped over the donkey’s head or slipped sideways out of the saddle and was doubly concerned because my boots were jammed into the stirrups making it impossible for me to pull my feet clear of them during a fall. The Navigator enjoyed the complete attention and support of the guide and remained oblivious to my predicament – I have to smile at the tought of what Thelwell would have made of my efforts to stay in the saddle! Forewarned is forearmed! After five and a half hours on site we left Petra having enjoyed a very full morning.

A detail of the rock face near The Tomb of 17 Graves

A detail of the rock face near The Tomb of 17 Graves

Our journey to Aqaba was uneventful other than to say that the scenery was so much more interesting than the equivalent north/south highway in Syria. Here the spectacularly rugged hills erupted out of the desert floor in profusion creating a landscape that wasn’t expected. Although we didn’t have time to visit Wadi Rum it wasn’t difficult to see from the road why it is such a tourist magnet. The signage into Aqaba was poor but after an unexpected visit to the container port we finally made our way to the town centre and our hotel.

Aqaba is a very pleasant sea side town, well laid out, clean and clearly thriving due to the success of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone (ASEZ) which provides tax breaks for business and reduced customs duties. We were here ahead of our schedule here because we had been told that the ferry to Nuweiba in Egypt didn’t sail on Thursday’s and as it was important for us to be in Egypt by Friday morning we had had no choice but to cut our time in Jordan by a day – hence our hurried visit to Petra. With the help of a travel agent adjacent to the hotel we acquired the location of the ferry agents (written in a notebook in Arabic), presented it to a taxi driver and 5 minutes later we were there. There are two types of ferry to Nuweiba, the slow (6 hour) conventional ferry that departs at midnight ish (it is prone to severe delays) and the Fast Ferry (1.5 hours) that departs at 1pm. Unsurprisingly we had opted for the latter and were very relieved when the two ladies dealing with us agreed that there was space on the Wednesday sailing. $US 360 later we were smugly settled over a kebab before having a quick search around the hotels in the immediate area for a cold beer – without success.

The following day we loaded up and made our way back to the container port and the passenger terminal where, after a couple of wrong turns we ended up at the embarkation terminal where we began the process of leaving Jordan and entering Egypt. The procedure was pretty straightforward and it wasn’t long before we had collected all the necessary paperwork and stamps. A cold soft drink later we returned to Genghis to find an expedition Landrover parked behind us, crewed by Amy and John who were headed for Cape Town. They informed us that the boat was leaving at 1pm not midday as we had been told by the agents. Having swapped experiences we boarded late but easily amongst the health and safety nightmare we were becoming accustomed to. We sat together for the journey that got us alongside the port in Nuweiba at about 3pm. We hadn’t been able to view our progress down the Gulf of Aqaba because the salt encrusted windows prevented that and there wasn’t an opportunity to step out onto an outside deck. Eventually, nearly an hour after we had entered the port we were given the all clear to return to the vehicles and drive off. We stopped on the quay side with Amy and John’s Landrover while an official called Rafaat recovered some paperwork from the boat that we should have been given earlier. He was a stocky, middle aged man with a hawkish face who wore a uniform with rank insignia on his epaulettes. He had a pleasant manner, spoke heavily accented English and introduced himself as the man who would see us through the immigration process. He knew his business well and John and I were whisked backwards and forwards filling in forms, paying $US for insurance, vehicle registration, import taxes, purchase of Egyptian pounds etc. Finally, over three hours after we had driven off the boat we were handed our temporary Egyptian licence plates, hastily attached them to the cars with cable ties, said farewell to Rafaat with what we assumed to be a fair tip for his services and drove off into the darkness. We had arranged to stay the night in a small hotel near the sea just north of the port and John and Amy drove off south towards Dahab. We watched their tail lights disappear and drove off towards our night stop.

We had achieved what we had set out to do on Leg 1 – to drive from our home in Jersey to Egypt where we would team up with an Alexandria based son and his partner and do what we could to help them build their house in Siwa, an oasis in the Western Desert. We would have a month there before returning to our home for a 10 day break after which we would return to Egypt at the end of January for another month when we would investigate the route options for Leg 2 which would conclude in India.