Mt. Doom

Australasia part 4: Taupu, NZ – Palmerston North, NZ

Wait, I hadn’t finished writing all these blogs? I thought I had written them up to Wellington but apparently not? Things all happened quite fast. One day we were cycling and the next day we weren’t. 3 months after finishing our trip, it still doesn’t really feel like we’ve gone back to normal life. We both have full-time jobs in Nelson, a house, a car (which we seldom use) but somehow things don’t feel normal. Maybe they never will again. Travelling with minimal materials, always on the move, meeting new people and seeing new things became the norm and it has likely changed us forever. Although life doesn’t feel like it once did, it feels like it makes more sense. We think a little more deeply about things and have a better understanding of why things are as they are. Rarely a day goes past when we don’t think of something that happened on our trip, and the feeling of nostalgia can sometimes be overwhelming. But it’s over now and its time to move on. However, first, I should update any of you that are interested, on our final few weeks of our cycle.

DSC_0714
Sunset over Whakaipo bay, Lake Taupo.

As we cycled out of Taupo we were in hysterics. We couldn’t cycle up the hill and had to keep pulling over. I’m not sure why it was so funny, but I had decided to buy 36 tortilla wraps for the next 3 days. I think I was afraid of running out of food and overcompensated. It was even funnier when I realised I had only bought 18, and it wasn’t that funny after all. A short 20km or so around the lake brought us to Whakaipo bay, a stunning quiet little bay with a small beach, lined by crystal clear water and not a soul around. We went for a swim in the icy water (Josie did too, believe it or not) and watched the sunset illuminate the volcanoes across the lake. Lake Taupo itself is a caldeira of a dormant supervolcano which has produced several of the planets most violent eruptions in recent geological history, and we were swimming in it.

DSC_0754
A Tui. You always hear them before you see them.

 

A mountain bike track built by the local community was what we followed around the lake the next day. It was tough on our touring bikes, but nowhere near as tough as the MTB tracks around Rotorua. It took us a while, but after several hours we made it through the track to a village called Kinloch where we had lunch by the lake and bid our farewell to it. After a boring stretch of straight roads, we joined a gravel road over a long and winding hill towards the campsite at the start of the Timber Trail. The day ended up being a long one of over 90 km (long for us considering a lot of that was on mountain bike track and climbing on loose gravel) and it was late when we arrived at camp. We cooked up some pasta whilst a Tui was busy collecting nectar from a Pohutukawa tree overarching our tent. Tui’s are unique in being one of the few NZ birds which each nectar (known as honeyeaters) and they have a beautiful and very distinct song. You always know when a Tui is around. We awoke early but got on the trail at around 11 am as we got into a nice chat with a couple at the campsite. One of the things we missed in Asia was being able to have conversations with people every day. In New Zealand, you are never short of friendly people to chat to no matter where you are.

DSC_0719
Josephines least favourite type of road.

The timber Trail is a famous NZ hike/biking track stretching 84 km through native forest. It used to be an old track for harvested timber from the native Kauri tree to be transported down into the valley and shipped on for export or domestic use. The trail was grueling on touring bikes and  it took us 2 full days of cycling despite only cycling 40 odd km a day. It was stunning through. Almost entirely native forest surrounded by local birds and an array of suspension bridges taking you high over the valleys and rivers below. We passed plenty of hikers as well as mountain bikers, but no other long distance cycle tourers. I guess other cycle tourers are a bit more sensible than us thought it was best to leave this track to the mountain bikers.

DSC_0766
Stopping for lunch at the highest point on the Timber Trail (940 m).

After the trail we made it to the town of Taumarunui where we could hit up a supermarket for the first time in 5 days. We stocked up big time as is often the case in NZ. We got used to cycling in SE Asia where you don’t need to carry more than half a day of food because there are places to eat and food markets everywhere. In NZ though, you often find yourself carrying at least 4-5 days of food. We had to become quite innovative with our food packing considering how little space we had in our bags. We checked the map and saw that the village of National Park was 45 km away and there was a tail wind. Despite there being a 900 meter climb, we decided to go for it and made it to a hostel/campsite in before it got too late. We had planned to do the Tongariro Alpine Crossing the next day which is a foot crossing of the volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park (where the Mordor and Mt. Doom scenes were filmed in Lord of The Rings). However, the weather was not on our side, you couldn’t even see any of the volcanoes from the hostel due to the cloud clover. The weather was so unfavourable in fact, that they cancelled all the bus shuttle services to the park as well. So we took a day off and washed all our smelly, dirty clothes. We also ate a lot of food, as often happens on our days off.

DSC_0808
You’ll find some pretty big ferns in Aotearoa.

We had excellent weather the next day and hopped on the 6 am bus at sunrise to get to the park. We were making good time with the crossing (It usually takes 5-7 hours) and made the decision to take the detour up to the summit of Ngaruhoe (Mt. Doom). The weather was perfect, no wind, not a cloud in the sky, and we had plenty of time to make it back to catch the last shuttle bus back to our tent. It was mega tough going, and there were times when we almost turned back. The scree was horrendously loose and every time you knocked a rock it would go hurtling down the steep slope into the valley. There was a small yet steep patch of snow we had to cross when we got to the summit, but we made it to the crater and had one of the most breathtaking views of our entire trip. We could see all of the national park, Taranaki, Lake Taupo and the Cook Straight. No sooner were we on the summit though that we had to make our way back down in order to catch the bus. By the time we made it back into the valley and onto the track we found ourselves in a mass of people. The track was like the M1 in England, people everywhere.

DSC_0846
The view over Tongariro and lake Taupo from the top of Ngauruhoe.

Our legs were not happy with us the following days. 11 hours of solid hiking with 2300 meters of ascending and descending had turned our muscles into jelly and the cycling was pretty chilled for a few days. Bending down to put the tent up was particularly hard. All I can say is thanks goodness we had our camp chairs. We took the road south of Mt. Ruapehu (highest point on the South Island) through Ohakune where we camped at a beautiful DOC campsite in the shadow of the mountain. We then found ourselves on some very slow gravel roads for a whole day in an effort to avoid the suicidal Highway 1. We were slow but it was enjoyable, following the rolling hills through the sheep fields. Every time we passed a wolf shed (this is the shed where the sheep are shawn), the farmers would offer us water. They also always asked “Why did you come on this road?”. “To avoid the suicide highway of course”.

DSC_0895
Rolling down the hill towards Mt. Ruapehu.

We found ourselves a small river and went along a railway service track to try and find a spot next to the river to camp. Just as we were sneakily opening a gate to a field, hundreds of sheep came around the corner flanked by several dogs and a farmer on a quad bike. Caught in the act! We asked him if we could camp in one of his fields and he directed us down to a spot by the river with a picnic bench and a BBQ. We didn’t find the latter 2 things, but we found a quiet flat spot and had a lovely evening by the river. It pays to talk to the farmers that’s for sure. Way better than sneaking into their fields and anxiously jumping at every noise you hear all night.

DSC_0901
One minute you’re the only people around and the next minute you’re surrounded by a flock of sheep. Ahhh New Zealand.

We had to join up with the State Highway 1 the next day which was a pain in the ass. The traffic as expected was terrible, but at least we had a moderate hard shoulder to cycle on. We peeled off the highway at our first opportunity to join the Manawatu cycle trail into Palmerston North. This trail is on a road, but there was hardly any cars and the road quality was perfect. We camped in a small field in the rain on the first night, but were gifted with blue skies and sun the next day as we followed the road through some picturesque valleys . We made it to a campsite where unfortunately there was a wedding. I say unfortunately because there were lots of loud children (and adults) running around playing terrible music. Fortunately for us, there was a second, empty field across the road we could camp in, and we made the most of our afternoon by washing our clothes and ourselves in the river. We were told by the ranger that there were a couple of caves/overhangs across the river with glow worms, so we went hunting after dark but to no avail. It was a pleasant evening walk none-the-less.

We had a strong tailwind the next morning which pushed us all the way into Palmerston North where we planned to take a few days off and chill with a Warmshowers host. NZ has been amazing for Warmshowers and we’ve met some great people though it. We were now only a week away from Wellington and our finish line of the tour. Still with no jobs or somewhere to live lined-up, but that’s okay.  We were keen to finish, but also still enjoying cycling, particularly with such less weight on the bikes! Good to finish the trip on a high I suppose. In fact, did we even want to finish cycling?

Trystan

Suicide highway

Australasia part 3: Melbourne, AU – Taupo, NZ

We hate flying, particularly with bikes. I sound older than I am when I say this, but flying isn’t what it used to be. It used to be a luxury and relaxing way to travel but now its a glorified, expensive bus service. A bus service for sardines. Coupled with transporting your bicycles and all your stuff and the stress of having to deconstruct the bike and pack it at the airport as well as the inevitable  “extras” you always end up being forced to pay against your will, it’s just not an enjoyable experience. So believe me when I say we were ecstatic that the flight from Melbourne to Auckland would be our last for a VERY long time. The flight didn’t go without issue though, I didn’t have a visa for NZ (Josephine did) and I had to book a flight out of NZ last minute to prove I would be leaving, to be allowed to board the plane. A stupid rule which only gives airlines more money which they don’t need.

Auckland airport bio-security was more thorough than Australia customs, but not too bad. We collected our stuff and slept overnight in the airport before reconstructing the bikes for the final time and cycling across Auckland city to some friends on the North Shore. We stayed with Anneke and Tane (you might know them on Instragram as ‘Worldpokespeople’) and Annekes brother, for a few nights and settled ourselves into the country we would now be calling home. We followed their cycle journey on social media from London to NZ a few years previously and it felt to us a bit like meeting celebrities! They made us feel at home and after several nights good rest we set off south. Our plan was to do a zigzag route through the North Island to Wellington which we would decree as our official ‘finish line’. A direct route from Auckland to Wellington would cover about 650km but our route was in excess of 1300 km, because, well, why the hell not?

The Auckland area contains over half of NZ’s total population so we were pretty keen to get out of there ASAP when we left Anneke and Tane’s. There were cycle paths occasionally, but traffic was horrendous and would remain so until after we left the Bay of Plenty a few week later. We climbed a very steep hill that evening to get to the village of Bombay where Annekes parents lived who hosted us for a night. We also met a Swiss couple who were cycling NZ for 3 months. They had just landed a few days previously so we had a nice chat with them, and could impart some invaluable advice from our experiences. Its striking how similar the UK and NZ are. Yes there are some trivial differences (as there are between Sussex and Yorkshire) but in general, we are very very similar countries. Some people are quick to highlight the differences between different nations but if you stood all the nations on earth in a row based on how similar their cultures were (I define culture by cuisine, ethnicity, language, music, sport, sense of humour etc), NZ and UK would be holding hands. We should be looking for our similarities, not our differences. If that’s one thing this trip has taught us, everyone is, in essence, exactly the same.

DSC_0580
Its interesting to think that we are now in a nation with Polynesian culture. My gosh we are far from home now.

The following day we were heading towards Hamilton trying to take the smallest and quietest roads possible. Not as easy as it sounds. We were on some small country roads for a few kms which had some intense downhills, I think I maxed out at 73 kmh, but inevitably had to join the SH2 for a bit which was not so fun. The driving is not considerate towards cyclists in NZ and we were happy when we could peel off on the smaller roads again. The headwind picked up and we were soon battling some strong gusts. One pickup truck drove past and gave us the middle finger (cheers mate?) and we got eaten by sandflies when we stopped for lunch. But the day wasn’t so bad. We passed some Marae (Maori ceremonial house) which were beautifully decorated and ended the day at a free campsite in a village with toilets and water available. There was a small touch rugby tournament going on which was enjoyable to watch, before snuggling into our thin summer sleeping bags for the last night before collecting our warmer gear in Hamilton.

We had brilliant weather the next day and a beautiful cycle path along the Waikato river into Hamilton. Excellent cycling, and we made it to Josephine’s cousin, Sarah by lunchtime. We had posted an 11 kg package from India to NZ in February and were now reunited with all of our warmer clothing and sleeping bags as well as some useless stuff we didn’t want to have to carry (like some porcelain mugs from Sikkim which were maybe not necessary). So, we decided to take some things and offload some things and post the package on (again) to Wellington and cross NZ with a very light-weight set-up. We sent on 27kg to Wellington which was literally a weight of our shoulders. The bikes were significantly more controllable and comfortable and if/when we do another tour it will certainly be with much less weight. We had some chores to do in Hamilton, Josephine opened up a bank account and I got a medical examination for my visa (NZ$500 for a neurological exam, blood and urine test and chest X-ray). Hamilton was nicer than we expected, very green with lots of native vegetation growing along the river. It was nice staying with Sarah and her husband and kids. They were a cool, sporty family and they even took us surfing in an hour away in Raglan.

DSC_0591
Following the Waikato River Trail on a sunny afternoon.

After 5 days in Hamilton we left on our light-weight bikes in the direction of, HOBBITON. We had been longing to visit this Lord of the Rings/The Hobbit film set since before we even set off from the UK and now we were only a days ride away. We continued along the Waikato river cycle trail in the sun before being forced to join the SH1 for a few kms (our least favourite road) and then veering off down the small farming road towards the film set. There was a campsite on the hill just before the set owned by a farmer who charged a small fee to pitch your tent and have a cold shower. When we arrived at 4 pm it was empty but it soon filled up and by the evening conversation was flowing with people from all over the world with a range of backgrounds and stories, but all of us shared one thing in common, we we willing to pay NZ$84 each for a 2 hour tour of Hobbiton. It was so worth it. Josephine cried with joy (I didn’t) and it really did feel like you were in Hobbiton. The set was incredibly detailed and they have a full time crew of 20 or so gardeners maintaining the set. I would highly recommend it. You get a free drink at the Green Dragon Pub as well at the end.

DSC_0600
The campsite before The Hobbit move set, there was a nice view in the morning over the hills.

After our tour we headed towards the port city of Tauranga on the Bay of Plenty. We followed some small roads south of the town of Matamata where we stopped for lunch and bumped into a Hungarian couple on a recumbent tandem bicycle. Yes you read that correctly. They were touring NZ for some months and we had some great craic with them. I even tried out the bicycle with Martin, which was literally like riding a bike again for the first time. They were taking a different road from us towards Rotorua while we were heading towards Tauranga. Between us and Tauranga stood the Kaimai range, a chain of mountains with only 2 ways across. The first way was a huge detour north through a gorge towards Waihi and then south into Tauranga. We were warned by a Dutch couple that this road was horrendous and dangerous and it would be best to avoid it. The second option was directly over the range via the SH29. Some had told us it was pretty steep and busy, but after what we had cycled we thought “How bad could it be?”. We almost died. I’m not kidding, it was flat-out suicide. There was no hard shoulder at all. an overtaking lane going up with trucks almost skimming our pannier bags. The traffic was astonishing. Tauranga is the biggest port in NZ and the road was full of logging trucks heading for the port. It was incredibly steep and windy with blind corners and holes in the fences all the way up where cars had gone through the fence. We only made it about 2 km’s having been almost skimmed by lorries several times. Josephine started crying and said she couldn’t cycle anymore. This annoyed me, not because I wanted to continue, but because she was right and it angered me how we had gotten ourselves in this situation. Why were the drivers so ignorant and why was there no safe road over these hills for bicycles?

We found a layby and Josephine (who normally is good at this) stuck her thumb out for someone to stop and assist us over the range. A guy called Trevor pulled up in a ute with a trailer full of tyres so we lifted the bikes into the trailer and he drove us right into the center of Tauranga. What a dude. He told us that the road had gotten busier and busier over the years as the port in Tauranga has been growing due to continued closure and transfer of duties from Auckland to Tauranga. Subsequently, Tauranga has been growing as well and we were actually shocked to see how big it was. We stayed 2 nights in Tauranga with an awesome family we met on Warmshowers. They took us down to Mt. Manganui at sunset for fish and chips and I spent our day off applying for a job and doing other various chores we always do on days off (cleaning, cooking, washing, emailing, buying etc.).

As is always good with Warmshowers, we got invaluable advice about the route ahead from our hosts and hosts friends and had a nice route planned from Tauranga to Rotorua via Te Puke. Te Puke is the kiwifruit capital of NZ so we were as expected, very excited. Not only were there kiwifruit plantations everywhere, there were also avocado plantations as far as you could see. Also plenty of roadside honesty boxes to pick up a bag of avo’s for a few bucks. It wasn’t quite kiwifruit season and the flowers had just started to fruit, but it was interesting to see how they were grown and how many new kiwifruit plantations were being built. It was a sunny day and we had taken a very quiet, unsealed road up towards Rotorua lake with a very gradual incline through sheep and cattle fields. It was long and by the time we reached Okere falls where we wanted to camp, it was getting late and we were struggling to find somewhere to put the tent. This was the first night in NZ we had tried wild camping and it took a while until we finally found somewhere between a fence and a hill with just enough space for the tent amidst the vegetation. We would soon learn that wild camping in NZ is not easy at all or a normal, socially accepted thing to do.

DSC_0660
A very New Zealand site: a rainy day in a forest full of endemic vegetation with a river running through it.

We had a rainy morning the next day and cooked breakfast in a bus stop shelter next to Rotorua lake. Okere waterfall was quite something though and the sun came out after a few hours as we routed around the west side of Rotorua lake to avoid the highway on the east side. The roads were perfect and we eventually hooked up with a cycle path which took us all the way into the centre of Rotorua. As we came into the city we were greeted by the smell of rotting eggs in the air as a result of the geothermal activity. Rotorua is full of bubbling pools and steam vents, some coming out of the drains on the street. We cycled passed a house which had its own home made thermal bath in the front garden! We had a gap in the rain to dry our sodden clothes and tent out in the sun before stocking up on several days of food and heading south along the thermal-by-bike trail.

The first part of the trail was through some sulfur fields but soon became quite dull along the main road and forest.It did eventually veer off the road and onto some quieter roads through farmland. There was of course nowhere to camp and we ended up asking at a house if we could put our tent on his land. He was more than happy for us to, but he said there was a campsite about 5 km down the hill at a lake where he said there were toilets and water facilities. So we carried on and reached the campsite, but there was no toilets or water as they were closed for whatever reason. There were just a few portoloos which were full of waste up to the brim and some rubbish bins which were overflowing rubbish all over the campsite. It rained all evening and we were pretty wet and cold by the time we got into our tent. The miserable evening was made better by a friendly German family cycling with their 2 kids under the age of 5.

The next morning we planned a relaxed day visiting several natural thermal rivers along the cycle trail. The day started off well but we were soon on some very steep mountain bike trails which required lots of bike pushing through wet muddy forest. Josephine actually ended up coming off her bike and fell down a ravine into some ferns with the bike flipping upside down and landing on top of her. Her emotions were already on thin ice and she broke down in tears like I have never seen before. It was uncontrollable. All I could do was comfort her and tell her everything was okay. Shes a trooper though and cracked on pushing her bike through the tough track until we reached a gravel road and made it to a thermal river called Kerosene Creek. The good thing about this thermal river was that it had no built-up infrastructure or entrance fees. It was literally a hidden river in a forest with a small gravel road leading to it. There was only a handful of people there and when Josephine got into the water she felt instantly in a better mood. The Māori believe these thermal springs have healing powers and after seeing the instant change in Josephine’s mood it’s easy to believe that. It later transpired that her emotional breakdown was due in part to it being a certain time of the month.

DSC_0694
The hot water enters from the right and the cold from the left side. It meets in the middle and results in the perfect temperature for bathing.

We continued slowly along the trail to another thermal pool which had a hot river and a cold river flowing into it meaning you could position yourself along the temperature gradient where you were most comfortable. We took the Te Kopia road towards Taupo which winded through some nice valleys, eventually turning into a poor quality gravel track over rolling hills through timber plantations. Forestry makes up a large part of NZ’s natural exports and the conditions in NZ (I was told) make the growth rates of these temperate tree species some of the fastest in the world. There was no farmers to ask about camping so we jumped a fence and put the tent up in a timber forest, it was actually a pretty nice camp spot. We hadn’t passed a person or vehicle for several hours so we assumed we wouldn’t be bothered by anyone all evening. However, after dinner and seemingly out of nowhere, 6 dogs turned up with radio tags on their collars. They were followed by several guys on bikes who hopped the same fence we did, looked in our direction, but then turned back and left. I am sure they noticed us but they didn’t seem to care. As often happens, after telling this story a few days later we were informed they were probably hunters looking for wild pig and not actually the land owners of the timber forest we were in. Most people told us it is almost certainly fine to camp in the timber forests and the owners wouldn’t mind. Unless we made a fire in which case we would likely be shot.

The next day was a hilly one into the town of Taupo. We very low on water in the morning and tried filling up at a cattle trough which was absolutely filthy and couldn’t even be filtered. The streams passing under the road were inaccessible due to an overgrowth of thorny brambles. It was one of the first times in our trip that we were actually running out of water. We eventually resorted to asking at a house if we could fill our bottles from their hose, which they were more than happy to help with. Every time in NZ we’ve been in a situation where we need help, people are always happy to assist. After some big hills and another broken powerbank (3rd of our tour) we arrived into Taupo and bumped into an English lad cycling in the same direction as us. He was crossing NZ too, but with a much lighter weight setup (he wasn’t camping and only travelling for 3 weeks). He had planned his entire route on his Garmin and booked all his accommodation in advance but ended up falling behind schedule due to the gravelly and steep roads and was on his way to rent a car to make up for lost time. For us this defeats the entire purpose of cycle touring, the freedom of going when and where you want and sleeping where you want. We never book anything ahead of time, nor do we plan which roads we will cycle until a few days before, and often these still change on the day.

DSC_0697
The Te Kopia road was a nice one with the occasional gas vent coming out of the hillside with cows in the foreground.

The heavens opened up big time, so we hid in a cafe waiting for it to pass (and had a very average veggie burger for like NZ$ 19) but it just kept getting worse and worse. We had found a campsite just north of the town which we were planning to spend the night at, but our enthusiasm was drifting away as the rain continued. Unfortunately for us, paying for a hotel or guesthouse is out of the question. Rooms start at around NZ$80 a night which is almost 2 days of our budget. We decided to send a very late message to a couple on Warmshowers who thankfully, responded immediately saying we were more than welcome to stay with them, score! Trevor and Rose had done some long cycle tours themselves and now lived a quiet live on the lake spending their time mountain biking or travelling around NZ in their camper van. It actually worked out really well for us because our plan over the following days would take us pretty wild for 4-5 days with nowhere to stop for food. This gave us a chance to wash our things and check the bikes over as well as prepare and plan for what food we were to buy and how on earth we would carry it all now that half our bags had been posted on to Wellington. But as always, when there’s a will there’s a way. Things got even better when they were handing out free cake outside the super market. No idea what it was for, but I ended up eating way too much of it.

Trystan

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penguin Beach

Australasia part 2: Hobart, AU – Melbourne, AU

Tassie weather was crazy. It was far colder than we anticipated, maybe we had simply assumed Australia was going to be hot as it’s mostly desert. But no, Tasmania was very cold, windy, rainy, haily and snowy (and sunny?!?!). Thankfully for us though, this cold means there are penguins in Tasmania. Little Penguins (that’s the common name, but they are also very small) are found on several beaches including adventure bay in Bruny Island. Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to see them on Bruny Island when we went there with my sister Emma (she told me to mention her by name in this blog) and her boyfriend Jeff. The weather forecast had been undesirable, so we drove back to Hobart to watch Lord of the Rings. My aunt had reliably informed me though, that we could see them in Bicheno, further North up the East Coast and we were determined to make this happen.

After bidding farewell to Emma, Jeff, Thrasher and Joni (the 2 fine specimens of hounds we had the pleasure of chilling with for 3 weeks with E&J) we got a push up the hill from the house (literally, it was so steep) and were on our way. It was sunny and the roads were quite busy heading out of Hobart. We took the Tasman highway around the bay East towards Dodges Ferry. The beaches in Tassie amazed us every time we went to them. the water is incredibly clear and full of life, although painfully ice cold. We found a small forest next to a car park with water and toilets to spend the night. After getting our tent up and dinner on, we were visited by some friends at camp. Josephine was convinced it had been a dog (and she still to this day adamantly believes so), but it wasn’t, it was a Potteroo. It is like a small wallaby crossed with a big mouse. Very cute with a wriggling pouch containing its joey. They are very inquisitive and came right up to us sniffing around for food.

 

The next day was tough. We opted for a direct, hilly, and quieter route up towards Orford via Dunalley. After stopping for delicious fish and chips in Dunalley (thanks again to Jennie and Simon for the recommendation) we headed up into the hills through the Wielangta forest. A tough, bumpy road through old Eucalypt forest. It was very enjoyable despite some bike pushing and we found a quiet beach to camp at that night overlooking Maria island (despite a sign on the beach saying “NO CAMPING”). Of course, no one was around all night and we got up early in the cold air and made it down the hill into Orford and back onto the main Tasman highway. By this point the traffic had died down a bit as we were further away from Hobart and the road was quite pleasant up towards Swansea.

DSC_0459
A classic Eucalypt forest in Tassie. They are also known as Gum trees.

E&J were planning on paying us a surprise visit in the car to camp with us for a night up the East Coast. This plan didn’t really work as we didn’t have a sim card or an active GPS anymore, so they wouldn’t have been able to find us. Instead we agreed to meet at Mayfield bay campsite on the beach South of Swansea for the night. We supplied the flatbreads, and they supplied the beer and we had a beautiful evening on the beach and in front of a fire. The sign said there was a total fire ban, but Jeff rang up the fire department and they said that there wasn’t and we were free to have one proving we took care. In the morning a local dude gave Emma an Australian Salmon he had caught and E&J headed back to Hobart and us on towards Freycinet National Park.

We had bumped into quite a few cycle tourers already in Tassie, all going the opposite direction. A mixture of weekend tourers and people on 2-week long trips. They were all great to chat to and all were shocked when we said we had been on the road for 16 months. It feels weird saying it after people saying they were just on a 2 week trip around Tas. We exchanged lots of useful information with each other about the road ahead, including one excellent piece of information. To get to Freycinet NP (FNP) you normally have to ride up near Bicheno and come down a road to Coles Bay, which you have to double back on, making it a long 60 km detour to FNP. HOWEVER, Tim sorted us out. Tim was a dude from Melbourne touring Tas for 2 weeks. We bumped into him in Swansea and he gave us a number of a guy called Nick who knew a guy called Nathan who apparently could get a tinny (small boat) organised to pick us up and take us across the river from Dolphin sands to Swanwick, saving us a huge detour and allowing us to cycle along Dolphin sands. This was a no-brainer and we organised this transfer for later that afternoon. The funny thing was, the boat trip is only 80 meters and they charged us AUD$30 each. But it was so worth it. The cycle was stunning and again, the crystal clear water at times made us feel like were in the tropics. We had been living cheaply in Tassie cooking all our own food and utilising the free camp sites regularly, so we were happy to splash out a bit and allow ourselves the afternoon off in the National Park in the warm sunny weather.

DSC_0486
This was the “river” we crossed to get to Freycinet. $60 for the crossing.

But this was a lie! As soon as we arrived in Coles Bay the weather stuck its middle finger up at us and it started blowing a gale. It was dry, but intensely windy, and we were unable to sit outside of the tent. Thankfully, our washing, which we had done in the sink at the campsite, dried in about an hour due the hot dry wind acting somewhat like a tumble drier. We spent the evening on the beach marveling at the Sooty Oystercatchers and their chicks on the sand and then made dinner and breakfast in the tent due to the wind. We had gotten up early to cycle up to the car park to walk over The Hazards to Wineglass bay. This is one of Tasmanias highlights and we were happy to ditch the bikes for a morning to do this 2 hour trek. The bay was absolutely stunning and the beaches with their white sand and crystal clear water looked like some version of paradise. There were a lot of people there though, which is of course to be expected.

DSC_0488
It is hard to do Wineglass bay justice with a photograph. Maybe because my photography skills are pretty poor.

One thing I forgot to mention was our encounters with the possums. They are not actually very nice creatures and many Tasmanians see them as quite annoying pests. One pooed in Jeffs car and they tend to be easy targets on the roads as they don’t run out of the way at night when cars approach. My aunt carries around a baseball bat in her car to finish any unlucky victims off in case they haven’t already been killed by the car impact. Just to be clear, she is not an animal abuser, but she has accidentally hit so many possums and the wildlife sanctuary cannot always send people out to rescue the injured animals in the middle of the night, some carrying fatal injuries. Its sometimes better to put them out of their misery. It made me laugh though as if you were an onlooker and saw someone run over a possum and then beat it to death with a baseball bat, you would probably have some questions. One possum came up to our bag of marsh mellows next to my feet on Bruny island and stole a hand full of them, stuffing its face. Another possum got into the vestibule part of our tent and ripped our rubbish bag open to get at some food scraps. Another one managed to open Josephine’s pannier bag and eat its way through a bag of rolls we had in there. They’re clever and cunning little creatures.

We only spent a day in FNP and headed north again towards Bicheno for some penguin watching. We could not find a free camping site in the vicinity of Bicheno so we sussed out a small patch in the trees to put our tent for the evening and then went down to the beach until dark to try and catch a glimpse of the Little Penguins. The Penguins spend all day fishing and come back after dusk under the cover of darkness to return to their burrows in the sand dunes to feed their chicks and respective partners. The trick is to get a red light (penguins cannot really see this wave-length of light so are mostly unaffected) and sit down on the rocks on the beach before dusk, not moving an inch. We found the perfect rock on the beach and sat still, waiting patiently. Slowly but surely, the brigades came in. First in a group of 10 then a group of 20. They marched up the beach with a sense of purpose, all the while being very wary and aware of the potential for people to be in their way. Our stillness seemed to work a treat and before long we were surrounded by penguins waddling around looking for the calls of their partners in the nests. Some were so close to us I could have reached out and touched them. I could smell them and hear their little penguin footsteps. A couple walked straight towards us before splitting up and going around the rock we were on, I don’t think they even knew we were there. It was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives and a real highlight of our entire trip. We hadn’t been so fortunate with wildlife in Asia but Tasmania treated us well. After returned to our pre-defined camp spot around the bay in the forest, we were then kept awake all night by the cries and calls of penguins in their nests surround our camp. That is something I didn’t think would happen in Australia, being kept awake by penguins all night!

We got up the next day a little tired from our late night and poor sleep amongst the penguin nests and headed north towards St. Helens and the Bay of Fires. The steering on my bike was acting a bit strange and I would get this strange kind of speed wobble between the speeds of 10 an 20 kmh. We pulled over so I could try and sort the problem. I swapped my front bags around, tightened my headset and the problem was immediately sorted. We have been quite fortunate with our bikes until now, nothing major has happened and most of the issues have been general wear and tear which is straightforward to sort out. Many bike shops suggest we should be cleaning our drive train every 500 kms and changing our chains every 1000 km but this is silly. It is not realistic for long distance cycle touring and we are not looking for extremely efficient performances from our bikes like in sprint road races. As long as the bike is rolling and nothing is rubbing, it’s working.

DSC_0444
Rolling hills throughout Tassie, good quiet roads make for very enjoyable cycling.

We received a battering by the weather heading up to St. Helens, a hail storm came in and the temperature dropped to below 5 C. We were cold to the bone but very thankful when we arrived in St. Helens and found hot showers to use! 3 minutes for AUD$2 which is more than enough and really helped our spirits. We cycled out to bay of fires to spend a night, the road was very hilly but once we arrived we were so happy we made the effort. We decided it was the nicest beach we had ever seen in our lives (if you want to see photos of it, refer to our Instagram posts). We found the perfect camp spot in the trees and I even went for a swim, which was painfully cold. It was so cold that it gave me a headache as soon as I entered the water, but I just couldn’t leave Tassie without having a swim.

DSC_0496
The clearest of water and cleanest beaches in Tassie.

Another stop at the hot public showers in St. Helens and we changed our course West heading towards Devonport and our ferry back to Melbourne. This was when things started to get tough. We now had a battering headwind which would stay with us the whole way to Devonport. It caned us for a week and completely sapped our moral and enthusiasm. Even on some of the steep uphills we were taking a hit and our average speed each day was almost half what it normally is, despite the roads being smooth as anything. It is amazing what a headwind can do to you. One day we made it to an old country pub, full of mountain bikers having lunch and pints. We were extremely windswept and cold and asked the barman for a pot of tea. He was shocked saying no-one had order a tea in weeks and most people order beers. We sat in the corner warming up and charging our phones like gremlins, not really keen to speak to anyone.

We stayed at a few free campsites on the way to Launceston, one of which was in a town called Derby. Derby is the mountain biking capital of Tassie and was chock-a-block with people coming from as far away as Queensland to ride the trails around Derby. The free campsite (complete with toilets, water, BBQs, showers and rubbish bins) was right next to a river and we cooked up dinner having a nice chat with a Kiwi lady who was cycling around Australia for 18 months. At dusk, Josephine spotted something moving in the water and half-jokingly said “Oh look a Platypus”. No, it actually was a platypus! The good old Monotremata still surprising us! They are very elusive and we were ecstatic to have seen one so close, albeit for only a few seconds. Much to our surprise, the next day we say another on in the middle of the day in a pond! It was splashing around in the water diving for food and we sat on the roadside for half an hour watching it in awe.

DSC_0552
The oddest lizard I have ever seen, the Blue-tongue lizard. Just chilling in the sun.

That day we aw the platypus turned out to be our hardest day in Tas. Almost 7 hours in the saddle and we made less than 60 kms due to the wind. We made it to (yet another) free campsite at around 7 pm and collapsed in our tent after dinner. We were happy to be making it to Launceston the next day and staying with a Warmshowers host and relax. The downhill into Launceston was fantastic and our direction actually meant we had 30 km’s of a tail wind which blew us along at 30 kmh with little effort. We restocked at a supermarket in Launceston and cycled out to our hosts in Rosevears. Chris and Caroline were really nice to talk to and were both interested in wildlife and nature as much as we were. They gave us some insight into which roads we should take to Devonport to avoid the logging trucks and the next day we were on our way with a new route. We normally plan our route very very loosely with very few set waypoints. Our routes change regularly and it really helps to have this flexibility when touring. Rigidity in your route serves no purpose what-so-ever.

Horrific headwinds brought us a short 40km to Deloraine where we were unable to find a free campsite. A guy from the council turned up in a small truck and asked if we were looking for somewhere to camp, when we said yes he told us to just camp behind one of the buildings near the tennis court. “No-one will care guys, just got for it, honestly”, he said. People in Tassie are incredibly laid back and friendly. Despite the rule-of-law being way more prominent in Australia compared to Asia, common sense and logic also prevail in Tasmania making it a very comfortable place to go about life. Our tarp under our tent got eaten by some creatures in the night further reducing the ability of our tent to provide a warm, dry shelter for us. Oh well, only 5 weeks left on tour.

A tough headwind riddled day the next day, brought us to Latrobe where we had originally planned to stay the night in search of platypus. Latrobe is the ‘Platypus Capital’ of Tassie, however we had got our platypus fill and so were not too bothered if we saw some or not. We walked around the island around dusk but saw no evidence of the little duck-billed critters, so retreated to our tent and got up super early to make it the final 9 km to Devonport to catch our ferry. It was a freezing morning but we arrived in good time to cook our breakfast at the port and make it onto our ferry with enough food for the 11 hour crossing in very choppy conditions (the blasted wind).

DSC_0571
For us, the cycle into Melbourne was stark contrast to Tassie. Tassie has 600,000 people and Melbourne has over 5 million!

We loved Tassie so much but were very happy to leave. The wind and weather took its toll on us and we were shattered by the time we got onto that ferry. Tassie had been everything we expected and more and after covering what we would say is a good bit of the island in our 5 weeks there is still a list of things I would like to still do such as Cradle Mountain, Pieman river, hike the Arthur Range, visit Gordon Dam, MONA museum and so much more. Unfortunately, like many places though it has its fair share of sad history which should be recognized. Tassie is it’s own microcosm of uniqueness and not really on the radar of foreign tourists. Beautiful beaches, abundant and diverse wildlife, super freindly people and happy and simple lifestyles make it a very appealing place to live. As I write this now I have a real sense of nostalgia about the island and will definitely be visiting again. Only a short few days in Melbourne before our 27th and final country of our 20 000 km tour, Aotearoa (New Zealand).

Trystan

 

 

 

 

Van Diemens Land

Australasia part 1: Singapore, SG – Hobart, AU

“Do you have you visas for Australia?”, we were told by the check-in lady at Singapore airport. “We don’t need visas for Australia”, I told her confidently (because we didn’t). She explained to us we needed to have done an eVisitor authorisation before boarding the flight, which we didn’t do. I don’t know how this didn’t cross our mind. I think we had focused too much on our entry requirements for New Zealand we had completely forgotten about New Zealand’s monstrous neighbour. Frustratingly we had to fork our SGD $60 each to get our eVisitor authorisation last minute and already running a little late for the flight and temperatures rising we returned to the check-in counter to finally check in our bikes and bags. “You’re 13 kg overweight which will cost you AUD $390”, said the check-in lady (I will call her Sue). “WHAT?”, I screamed. I was convinced we were well within our weight allowance, but we had overshot it by a mile. She said she would only charge us for 5 kg of excess baggage (AUD $150) but we were of course not willing to pay that. We frantically emptied our already taped and sealed Chinese shopping bags containing our panniers to distribute some weight into our carry-on bags whilst we started shouting at each other louder and louder. Meanwhile we were running later and later for our flight to Melbourne. Sue noticed our stress and came over, whispering to us that she had changed our baggage weight in the system and handed us our boarding passes and clocked off her shift. A lucky escape.

After a swift 7-hour flight (of which most was spent over the Australia outback – Australia is huge) we landed in Melbourne fully expecting a lengthy and thorough customs check of our bikes, shoes and camping gear. We were questioned at length by immigration about our intensions in Australia as well as our professions, family and our social media was also checked. After thoroughly checking the legitimacy of my passport, we were free to go and collect our bags. The queue was huge through customs and a customs officer came over to us and asked if we had washed our bikes and camping stuff. We told him truthfully that we had, and he then held up a handful of oranges and lemons and said in a stereotypically strong Australian accent “Got any of these?”. Satisfied he waved us through a side exit and our entire customs check took a grand total of 19 seconds.

My friend Andy kindly picked us up from the Airport in a van and we stayed a night with him in the city before catching our ferry to Tasmania. Melbourne felt odd to us. Something like a model city after the chaos and overflowing infrastructure of Asia. It wasn’t anything special, just a miniature London to us, but we are not city people. We stocked up at Aldi on the essentials (which we had to ditch before our flight from Asia, despite not having any of our stuff checked) and cycled down to the ferry port for our ferry to Tassie. Australia has strict biosecurity measures due to its unique ecosystems, but Tasmania even more so. No fresh produce can be brought in, but we forgot about our bananas and felt bad that we got them onboard. The ferry was 11 hours and we slept in some reclining chairs as we were not willing to pay the $300 or so for a cabin. The chairs weren’t very comfortable, and we ended up sleeping on the floor which we got away with despite being warned we would be told to move if we were found on the floor.

DSC_0255
Washing up in the crystal clear water after the stove inferno incident.

The ferry chugged into Devonport at 6 am and by 6:30 we were in the centre of the town. It was like a ghost town. Hardly anyone around and the clearest water in the harbour I had seen in a long time. It was also freezing cold (for us anyway), about 5 degrees C. We cranked up our Primus multifuel stove only for the internal o ring in the pump-hose attachment to pop and leak fuel everywhere, making our stove completely useless and obsolete. This happened before in Cambodia, but I had managed to remedy it until now. Although this time, there was no repairing it. Thankfully, we were now in a country where we could get hold of methylated spirits, so I cycled up to the Woolworths (supermarket in Australia which is weird as any English people will remember Woolworths in the UK before it went under) and picked some up. I built a rudimentary spirit burner out of 2 coke cans and almost set the wooden bench on fire that we were sitting it. I slapped the inferno off the table with my foot and stamped out the fire it had caused on the grass. Josephine was not at all impressed. Eventually I did get the breakfast made and as I write this now in NZ (7 weeks later) I can confirm the new design of my spirit burner is very efficient and safe and much improved from the original inferno proto-type in Tassie.

We had been eating rice pudding for breakfast in Asia, mostly because oats were imported and very expensive, but in Australia they were pennies, and it was nice to be eating oats again and not rice for 3 meals a day. Bellies full of porridge we cracked on south from Devonport towards Hobart. It was 300 km including a huge 1.2 km climb over the central plateau of Tasmania, which we had been warned could be very cold this time of year. We had posted all our winter stuff from India to New Zealand and had not calculated to arrive in Tasmania this early in spring when it was still so cold. We only had with us a 1-2 season bag each and Josephine had no thermal undergarments. Camping was going to be cold until we arrived in Hobart.

We cycled through a mixture of rolling hills lined with fields of dairy cows and eucalypt forests towards our Warmshowers hosts near Deloraine. Tasmania has fewer of the ecological pests that mainland Australia has (Dingos and foxes) and subsequently has slightly higher diversity of small mammals. Australia is characterised mostly by marsupials (mammals with pouches for their young) and also monotremes. Monotremes (‘mono’ – one, and ‘treme’ – hole: yes these animals poo, wee and lay eggs from the same hole) are a clade of mammals which lay eggs and lack distinct mammary glands. The young hatch from the eggs and lick milk which ‘sweats’ from the mothers chest. They also have lower body temperatures than other mammals, lack a connection between both hemispheres of their brains AND contain the only extant venomous mammal, the platypus. Platypus and echidnas (both monotremes) are found on Tasmania and we were not leaving unless we saw both of them. Unbelievably, we saw 3 echidnas on our first day in Tassie (by the end, we actually had seen about 50)! Echidnas are like large hedgehogs, but they have a funny, wiggly way of walking which is highly amusing to watch. They are also the cutest little creatures and don’t seem to be too afraid of humans. On the note of small friendly mammals, Tasmania also has plenty of wallabys, pademelons (small wallabys), potteroos (small pademelons), Bandicoots (that’s where crash bandicoot comes from) and even smaller marsupial mice. You can see the evolution from mouse to kangaroo in all the mammals on Tassie, its awesome. They are mostly crepuscular and come out at dawn and dusk. They hang around campsites a lot and if you ever go camping in Tassie, you will certainly be surrounded by these little marsupials hoping for some food.

DSC_0309
We had accumulated quite a bit of stuff from our last 4 weeks in Asia. Making the most of the cheap clothes to refill our wardrobes for when we finish our tour in NZ.

We stayed with Brad and Bronwyn from Warmshowers for a night in their off-grid house. Actually, they had just built a shed which they let us kip in which was lovely with beautiful views in the morning. They informed us their house was built by hippies which had come over to Tasmania in the 70’s to protest against the building of a huge dam in South West Tassie. It eventually materialised and the dam was built flooding a huge valley and making the largest human-made reservoir in Australia. But the protesting hippies built plenty of off-grid houses in the state. We noticed actually that the majority of houses in Tassie were partially or fully off-grid collecting rainwater and having solar panels. This may be due to the fact that only 600,000 people live there and a fully connected electricity and water grid is not realistic. But it was none-the-less refreshing to see and in general, Tassie felt like quite a ‘green’ place.

After our morning with Bronwyn and Brad we began to tackle the mighty 1 km ascent up to the plateau. We didn’t get very far at all. Josephine’s drive train was not in a good state. The teeth on her smaller front chain ring were knackered and looked more like triangles than cassette teeth. Her chain was stretched so much that none of the links matched up with the teeth on the front or back cassette. Additionally, her jockey wheels were battered and every time she put any force on the chain the whole thing just slipped and skimmed over the teeth, eroding them more and more. There was no way we were getting up to the plateau on our own steam and so we hitched a lift with an older dude in his campervan and his dog, Jet. We got dropped off at the top and were able to cycle the rest of the way to Hobart as there would be no more major uphill’s. The plateau was a different world. Freezing cold and a mixture of barren shrub land or burnt remains of Eucalypt forests. Eucalypt forests have evolved to be burnt as part of their lifecycle. Their bark peels off as a form of fire protection and the ash fertilises the soil for the regeneration of seedlings. However, in 2018, the fires in Tasmania grew out of control destroying many houses and rainforests that will never be able to grow back. Climate change isn’t just warming of the planet, it is also responsible for increased droughts and rainfall disparity making dry places drier and wet places wetter.

DSC_0285
Josephine wrapped up in the cold cycling past one of the alpine lakes.

The road on the plateau was newly sealed and good to cycle but we were not looking forward to camping that night. At some point it started sleeting and to our good fortune, my aunty Jennifer (who lives in Hobart) had kindly rang a lodge by the lake and booked us a room for the night which we were very thankful for, cheers Jennie and Simon! We arrived at the lodge wind swept and cold and were greeted by a bar with a roaring fire, the perfect place to warm up with a scooner. I connected to the internet and immediately ordered ourselves 2 brand new drive trains. Cassettes, chains, jockey wheels and front chain rings would all be waiting for us in Hobart at my sister’s place. We had bought potatoes for dinner which we managed to boil on our spirit stove and had a delicious dinner in our lodge room. The room was freezing in the morning and I couldn’t understand why there was an A/C unit in the room. It later transpired that the A/C units in Tasmania double up as heaters. Oopsie. I guess we had spent too long in SE Asia.

We wrapped up in everything we had and headed down the plateau to lower, warmer altitudes. The wind was against us, but the downhills meant we made good progress and had made it down to 200 meters where we found a small patch of grass by the road to put our tent. It was a freezing night in our summer sleeping bags even with all our clothes on. One of those nights where you aren’t quite shivering, but you can’t really fall asleep either. Josie also had a funny experience with a possum in the tree when she went out for a wee in the night. It went mental and jumped out of the tree and ran across the road. We would have further, funnier encounters with possums later on in Tassie.

DSC_0428
We also bought a tarpaulin in Hobart which has been a godsend. notice the little pademelons near our tent. We heard them hopping around us throughout the night.

The next morning was sunny and quite warm and we had a big day ahead of us to get to my sister’s place in Sanford. We rolled down the hill to the town of Brighton (we started our journey in Brighton, UK) and had lunch there in a park. We didn’t realise it but almost every park in Australia has free BBQ’s to use! It’s amazing, no wonder all Australians can BBQ. We avoided the main highway and took a route through wine country and apple orchards before reaching my sisters road which we nicknamed Jellybean drive because its name sounded like that. Her house number was 576 and we soon realised it would be a long way down the road to reach her house, most of which was up steep hills. We eventually reached her house and collapsed on the sofa after a tough first 4 days in Tasmania. It had been wonderful though.

DSC_0349
We picked a very good day to go up Mt. Wellington to see the view of Hobart.

Our first task was to order a new part for our stove which was quickly posted out for free by Primus. Josephine had to get her teacher registration done for NZ which required certified copies of her official documents which needed to be posted from the UK. We had to get some warmer clothes and Salvos (The Salvation Army charity shop) was the place to go. We got sleeping bags and blankets for less than $5. We also found the time to explore much of Tassie by car. We drove to Bruny island in the South, hiked the Tasman peninsula, visited the Tarkine (temperate rainforest) in the west and also lake Peddar in the South West. Tasmania has an unbelievable array of diversity in landscape and nature on such a tiny island. And with so few people! We were quickly starting to love it here and could see why my sister had decided to move there. My Aunt also lives around the corner from my sister, so we spent some time with her and her husband Simon who cooked us some delicious meals. It was a fantastic 3 weeks in Hobart except for England embarrassing themselves in the RWC final!

 

I intended this blog to go further but it has already turned out to be longer than I anticipated. Tasmania was full of adventures and surprises and I haven’t even begun to document our 900 km cycle along the East and North coasts. National parks, crystal clear waters, wind, sun, hail and animals galore. We were very happy to have cut our SE Asian leg short and fly to Tasmania earlier. Fewer people, more nature and easier, more enjoyable camping was exactly what we were looking for.

Trystan

The final Asian leg

South East Asia part 13: Perhentian islands, ML – Singapore, SG.

With our flights booked to Melbourne, our ferry booked to Tasmania and our planning for our route in New Zealand beginning, it is starting to feel like our trip was winding in. Long-term travel (as glamourous as it sounds) begins to take its toll. I find myself longing to get back to work and have my own living quarters which don’t need to be built every day with the use of pegs and poles. We have taken in an unimaginable amount of information over the last year and a bit, but there also needs to be time to process this information and apply it. Simply taking in data non-stop risks losing a lot of the new knowledge and ideas which this trip was supposed to bring. Saying that, I never get bored of learning, but it comes in waves and not every day is filled with amazing, new and mind-opening experiences. Some days are so dull that you forget they ever happened and looking back on it now, I cannot remember a single thing that happened on some days.

We left our mini-holiday break on the Perhentian islands and picked up our bikes heading south. It was warm but not unbearable and we had found ourselves cycling straight through the mid-day sun which a few months earlier would have been impossible. We avoided the busy highway running a little inland down the Malaysian East coast which took us through several nature reserves with signs warning about Malaysian Tapirs. Despite the many signs we passed, we were not to see a single one. We eventually made it back to the beach and found a small hut by the sand to pitch our tent under. We were hoping to meet up with another cycling couple we met on the islands and were a few hours behind us but unfortunately, one came down with an ear infection and our time constraints in getting to Singapore meant we would not have the time to wait for them as much as we would have liked to!

DSC_0157
These roofs are the perfect place to put our tent to avoid the evening rain showers.

The next few days were on quiet roads with the occasional stretch on the highway. Malaysian drivers are relatively respectable towards bikes and there is often a nice hard shoulder for us to cycle on. The Malaysian East coast is full of small shelters by the sea which is the perfect place for us to pitch our tent. Often, thunderstorms would come in at night bringing flash winds which one evening, almost blew away have of our belongings. Thankfully, the roof of the shacks protected us from the worst of the rain, but the sound of the waves crashing against the sea wall next to us made for a patchy nights sleep.

We had been told that fire stations were good places to sleep in Malaysia as they often had showers and rooms to spare for travelers in need. We highlighted all the ones we could find on our map app and rocked up to one on a rainy evening. They provided us with a huge room to put our tent in (with a fan) and even cold showers for us. Some of the fire fighters came in to say hello and some of their families also came by to take a few photos with us. In peninsular Malaysia, we found people to speak very good English, on par with India which made for lots of nice conversations with people, something that was distinctly lacking in the rest of South-East Asia. Malaysians were some of the friendliest people we met on our whole trip, always willing to help.

The following day we found what appeared to be an abandoned holiday park with a lone security guard hanging around. I asked him if we could put our tent there for 1 night and he enthusiastically allowed it. There was a large canopy and even plug sockets to charge our goods. As usual the place was riddled with ant hills so finding a good spot to put our tent without having unwanted visitors wasn’t easy. I went over to ask the security guard if we could use the toilets and the showers and he said only if I paid $50. I laughed this off, but he wasn’t joking. He wanted money from us, or he wasn’t going to unlock the facilities for us. I told him he was being silly, and we were not willing to pay that so we compromised and he showed us a tap on the wall outside and I managed to find a hose meaning we could still have a wash. Our more personal business needed to be done in the forest nearby.

DSC_0164
Almost every day we need to dry our stuff in the equatorial sun. It takes 20 minutes for everything to go from soaking wet, to bone dry.

The next day involved a lot of straight roads through barren land. East Malaysia is not very populated and there didn’t appear to be a lot of agriculture. Some of the days were a little boring but we had a good supply of podcasts to keep us going and there were plenty of places to get some good food. Malaysian food is excellent, quite spicy but very flavourful with influence from India, China and Melanesia. Some of the flat roads we cycled on were lined with housing communities with signs saying ‘Oran Asli’. In Malay this means ‘Indigenous people’. The Indigenous people of Peninsular Malaysia make up a very small percentage of the mainly Chinese, Indian and Malay ethnic groups but have lived there long before these 3 groups even arrived. They look a bit like people from Papua New Guinea and are Animists meaning they worship gods of nature such as tree, water and rock gods. They had frame photos of waterfalls, rocks and trees outside some of their houses. They don’t dress in Malay clothing and they have dogs as pets which makes them different to ethnic Malays. It was nice to see that the Malaysian government has funded housing and food for them, but unfortunately, they appeared to be forgotten and excluded by mainstream society. Many are unemployed and live well below the poverty line.

We met up with our Warmshowers host for a few nights south of Pekan, a guy called Pak-Yus. Pak-Yus ran a holiday home business on the beach consisting of small houses and chalets and had a small shack with a roof for us to pitch our tent. Sadly, since being open for 5 years, rising sea levels have flooded many of his chalets and he has since abandoned plans for constructing more chalets as flooding is becoming increasingly more common in the area. This is just one of the many cases where we have seen climate change having impacts on people’s lives. In any case, it was a beautiful spot and we had a day off there enjoying good food with Pak-Yus at the local eateries and doing some chores and cleaning. Our tent needed re-waterproofing, so I used some Tenacious Tap to tape up the seams and it made quite an improvement, although in bad rain the tent still leaks a little bit.

DSC_0191
Pak-Yus’ place south of Pekan. One of the most beautiful places we stayed in all of SE Asia.

It was duku season in Malaysia meaning we were eating a lot of the stuff. Duku is a small fruit with a thin, pale yellow skin and a white fleshy inside which tastes like a sweet melon-grape hybrid. It was delicious and incredibly cheap. It has been enjoyable travelling by bike through different regions and seasons as our diet adapts to what is on offer at that particular time and place. Mangos in Myanmar and Thailand, dragonfruit in Vietnam and now duku in Malaysia. Mangosteen was also in season and we bought a kilo of the stuff to try it out. It was good, but nowhere near as good as a duku. We quickly were surrounded by ants as we ate through the fruit and left our peels on the floor, a common experience in SE Asia.

After staying a night in a police station, we continued through some quiet roads through endless expanses of palm oil plantations. It was mesmerising cycling through these large, thick trees with monkeys screeching in the tree-tops and kingfishers sitting on the powerlines lining the road. We only spent about 6 hours cycling through these plantations but still got a sense of how many there are and how much money in brings the Malaysian economy. Most people probably associate palm oil with deforestation and subsequently climate change, which is true, kind of. The problem is not with palm oil, but with our intense demand for the stuff. As cooking oils go, palm oil is one of the better oils. It uses less square area for crop output than other oils like sunflower and soy, making it better for the environment to grow. It is also cheaper and potentially healthier for us than other oils. We shouldn’t be avoiding palm oil in place for other oils. We should be avoiding oil and processed foods altogether. Palm oil itself isn’t destroying the planet, our demand for it is. Unfortunately, we are addicted to the stuff and it is present in literally all processed foods, making it very difficult to loosen our dependency on it.

DSC_0203
Some of the national park roads in SE Malaysia – very enjoyable cycling in the early morning fog.

We stayed a couple of nights with Bob, another Warmshowers host in SE peninsular Malaysia. Bob had a huge garden with coconut and papaya trees which attracted loads of hornbill birds each evening to eat the ripe papaya fruit. Bob explained to us that the bird’s droppings contain papaya seeds which has led to an outburst of papaya tree on his property attracting even more birds. It was a great place to hang out and Bob knew all the local places to get great food, including our favourite of all, roti canai. Roti is what bread is named in North India and it is fried in oil with curry on the side. Alongside Banh Xeo in Vietnam, roti canai became our go-to food in Malaysia.

DSC_0215
We ate a lot of coconuts at Bob’s place, and ate some delicious food.

We left Bobs fully rested heading towards Johor Bahru, the border city with Singapore. On the way we had some rolling hills and a bit of tropical drizzle which made for an enjoyable cycle. We passed quite a bit of roadkill including a monkey with its family in the trees above screaming at the squashed, mangled body of their kin to get off the road. Poor things. We arrived in Johor Bahru in the afternoon and went straight to a supermarket to stock up on some of the essentials as we hadn’t passed a supermarket for almost a week. Our Warmshowers host in Johor Bahru was a young Malaysian who, like hundreds of thousands of others, crossed the border into Singapore each day to work. He had a flat on the 35th floor overlooking the border on the Malay side. This is the busiest border crossing in the world with over 300,000 people crossing into Singapore each day (roughly the population of Iceland).

We woke up mega early to try and beat the rush of daily commuters and, as usual, being foreigners on bicycles put us in the grey area and allowed us a quick entry through the ‘special lane’. Singapore was spotless. No rubbish, no crumbling buildings, no half-finished jobs. Everything looked like a model city. Perfectly painted lane markers fed into a multitude of slip-roads linking one road with the next. Technically we were not allowed on the expressway on our bikes, but we cycled it anyway straight into the centre of Singapore in under an hour, our quickest crossing of a country yet. We were staying with some friends in Singapore (Richard and Kim) who we met through Instagram, and had arranged to meet Richard at the British High Commission (where he worked) to meet with the high commissioner and talk about our trip over some cake and tea. It was very British and made us miss simple British small talk over a cup of hot tea after a rainy day (the heavens opened when we entered Singapore).

Singapore used to be a British colony and is inhabited by ~75 % ethnic Chinese, most of whom speak English in their day-to-day lives. Singapore is extremely expensive compared to the rest of SE Asia and the standard of living is a lot higher as well. More tan 80 % of Singaporeans live in government funded housing which is sold to them on a 99-year lease meaning you will never see a homeless person in Singapore. Saying that, the economy is completely de-regulated, and business is a free for all leading to an ultra-capitalist country. Despite the lack of regulations in business, media is tightly controlled with Singapore having an embarrassingly bad record on freedom of speech.

DSC_0222
Josie, Kim and Richard in the pool in their Singapore condo – photographed from the 32nd floor (or there abouts).

We went down to the harbour on our first evening with Kim and Richard to have a drink and watch the South African rugby match (they’re South African). A Guinness cost SGD $14 which was a bit of a shock, but not surprising given that almost everyone in the bar was in a suit and skyscrapers lined the edge of the neighbourhood we were in. Despite the extortionate prices and huge, wealthy expat community, Singapore is a city of locals with small markets and Hawker centres where locals eat for cheap. There are neighbourhoods of varying character and culture all over the city, our favourite being ‘little India’. We stayed 5 nights in Singapore and we ate in little India 4 of those nights.

We met up with another legend in Singapore by the name of SK. SK runs the Tree in Lodge Hostel and is a passionate cycle tourer himself. He knows everything about cycle touring and bikes and did so much to help us out with our new bike parts and preparing for our flight to Australia. Although we didn’t stay with him, he gives a 50 % discount as his hostel for bike tourers, a huge discount in a city where accommodation costs an arm and a leg. We were very grateful to everyone that helped us out in Singapore, and we ended up really enjoying our time there and would happily go back. It was the perfect place to end our SE Asian leg of our trip. A city that has everything you could imagine, and more with many surprises thrown in.

With our bike boxes strapped to the back of our bikes, we woke up at the crack of dawn for the 20km cycle to Changi’i Airport for our flight to Australia. We had to go on the expressway for a short stint before arriving at the airport which was a heart-in-mouth moment. I won’t go into detail, but the expressway is no place for a pushbike in Singapore! Regardless, we arrived safe and sound at the airport and proceeded to pack up our bikes into their boxes, ready for the flight. That was it. We had finished cycling Eurasia. It was an experience we will never forget. Next stop, Australia.

Trystan

 

Never wish for rain

South East Asia part 12: Koh Kong, KH – Perhentian islands, ML

We reached the Cambodia-Thailand border in the morning expecting a quiet and rather empty crossing. However, there was a lot of action going on near the border with a new and super fancy hotel and Chinese supermarket on the Cambodian side. From our experiences, countries always beef up their infrastructure within the first 1 km of their border to try and give a good first impression to people when they enter the country. This is never a reflection of the country, just a waste of peoples money for the ego of the government. The Cambodian border official took my Irish passport and told me he wasn’t going to give me an exit stamp until I had gone over to the Thai side of the border to confirm with them that I don’t need a visa. “Wait let me get this straight, you want me to go to Thailand and ask them if they will let me in?” I asked. “Yes”, he said sternly. I explained I had entered Thailand before, and EU passport holders get 30 days visa free twice in a calendar year at land borders. Luckily, I think my previous Thai stamp swayed him and he reluctantly stamped me out of Cambodia and we crossed the narrow patch of wet mud and gravel that was the border between the two countries.

Back on the left side of the road for the remainder of our trip! Thai roads are in immaculate condition compared to the likes of Cambodia and Myanmar. We had also returned to a land where healthy, tasty and cheap food was available again. Although we forgot how spicy Thai food is and Josephine struggled to eat her first plate of pad thai. The part of Thailand we were cycling through was very narrow, only about 500 meters across in some places and the road rolled up and downhill gently with the ocean a few meters away on our left. We gathered some food from an extremely well stocked market (and grabbed some ice from a 7 Eleven!) and set off towards a camp site we had found marked on an app called iOverlander. If you haven’t heard of this app before you should check it out, its free!

 

The rain had started and didn’t subside for the rest of the day. We thought it was best that we found a shelter for our tent that night and we struck gold at a centre run by the Thai red cross. It was basically a free campsite and we could put our tent under the roof and use the facilities for free. The only downside was my very upset stomach which had me running back and forth the 100 meters to the toilet all night whilst it was bucketing it down. When we arrived there was a family setting up a picnic but they soon sacked it off after the rain became beyond torrential. At one point we were worried the flooding streets would come over the tiled floor where our tent was.

DSC_0117
Attempting to dry our stuff under the roof of a monastery.

We had non-stop rain the next day as well. We considered stopping to ride it out, but there was no point as we had booked a train from Bangkok to the South of Thailand for a few days time and needed to get a wiggle on. We went to a Tesco which was quite an odd experience as it felt like being back in the UK again. Luckily they had all the ingredients for us to make pasta and tomato sauce, one of our favourite meals. SE Asian food is good don’t get me wrong, but sometimes we just need something European in our culinary experiences. The same way you would sometimes have a Chinese or Indian in Europe. We wanted to wild camp that night, but the rain was so bad that the streets were flooded, so we pulled up at an abandoned looking monastery to ask if we could put our tent under their roof. The only guy I managed to find could not have cared less and left us to it the whole evening, much to our delight. The rain on the roof was super loud all night but it made it cool enough to sleep comfortably.

DSC_0122
Even raincoats are not much use in rain like this.

We were still 400 km from Bangkok and had a train booked for 2 days from now, so we did another 40 km the following day to the town of Chanthaburi and hopped on a bus the final 350 km to Bangkok. Getting the bus was horrendously easy; the ticket lady spoke English, the bikes fit on easily, and the busses left every 25 minutes. We boarded the bus completely drenched as it had been raining that whole day too and shivered a bit in the AC until we dried off. The roads leading into Bangkok were unbelievably big. There was a flyover for 100km leading into the city and you could see from the top just how big this city is of over 12 million people.

We jumped off the bus and grabbed some food before reaching our warmshowers hosts Cindy and Thibault. Whilst we were having lunch I got a phone call from my mum telling me my grandad had past away in the night. I had a hunch it might have happened during our trip and I was unfortunately not able to make it back for the funeral, but I did have some nice catch-ups with my family reminiscing of all the fond memories of grandad playing football with us in the garden and taking us swimming. I could not have asked for a better grandad. It’s hard being away from family for so long (15 months at time of writing) especially in times like this. These moments are when you really take modern technology for granted and the ability to effortlessly pick up a phone and talk to family on the other side of the world for free.

Cindy and Thibaults (our Warmshowers hosts) apartment was on the 34th floor of an incredibly fancy apartment block (it even had an infinity pool on the 42nd floor!). However, they were very “normal” people who also did a year-long cycle tour themselves. When we arrived, all our stuff was soaking wet so it was the perfect chance to dry everything out on their balcony. When I opened my front pannier bags I was horrified to find a huge puddle of water at the bottom of both of them, one of which had my laptop in it. I have no idea how this happened as there were no holes in the bags and all the other 6 pannier bags on both our bikes were fine. Fortunately, nothing was damaged apart from about 50 % of the contents of our first aid kit. Some of our stuff had also began to smell strange and grow mould which was not a good sign. We washed everything and soaked the things which had mould in vinegar and brushed them vigorously which worked quite well to remove most of the mould.

DSC_0127
Writing a blog in Cindy and Thibaults amazing apartment in Bangkok

I don’t think we quite comprehended just how big Bangkok was. We had 2 chores to do the day before our train. Firstly, we had to go to an outdoor shop to get our tent pole fixed which snapped in Cambodia and secondly, we needed to fix Josephines tablet as the charging jack was broken. How long could it take to get both of these things done? Over 5 hours. The metro in Bangkok is not very good. It’s far too busy and has very few stations and doesn’t cover nearly enough of the city. Add this to evening rush hour and a maze of 3D pedestrian walkways and shopping centres to cross through and it makes for a very stressful journey. We were very glad to be leaving this city the next day.

Bangkok Central Station is small and we quickly found the ticket counter to pay for our bikes to go on the train. They needed to go on the cargo carriage of the train and required their own special ticket which cost about £3.80. The train went all the way through southern Thailand to Sungai-Kolok at the border with Malaysia and was scheduled to take 21 hours. We paid an extra £5 for a bed in an AC carriage which was surprisingly comfortable. We brought enough food with us for the duration of the train expecting food to be expensive on the train (which it wasn’t at all) and actually only had about 100 Baht (£2.50) left when we got on the train, hardly enough for 1 meal. Pretty bad planning by us. The train left 2 hours late and by the time we had arrived in Kolok it was 3.5 hours late and we were starving. Luckily in Southern Thailand your money goes far and we picked up some food for next to nothing.

The final 200 km or so towards the Malaysian border was marked by an increase in the number of Mosques and people dressed in Muslim clothing. Islam is quite prominent amongst the ethnic Malays in Southern Thailand and in the South-East, there is an active military insurgency against the Thai government with several killings every year. We were even told there was a shooting this year in Kolok, the town where our train arrived in. The UK government website advices against all but essential travel to this area, however we only spent 30 minutes here before crossing the border which was 400 meters from the train station.

DSC_0131
Peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast on the trains

The border crossing was our quickest and easiest yet, the border guard on the Malaysian side was having a laughing fit on the phone with his mate the whole time and took no notice of us. Because of our delayed train, it was very late by the time we crossed the border. We planned to cycle 40 km to the town of Kota Bahru where we would find a guesthouse as it would be well past dark when we arrive. Malaysia is a rich country by SE Asian standards. It has a well-developed economy and infrastructure with a GDP per capita higher than Thailand. It is also incredibly ethnically diverse with 60 % of the population Ethnic Malays (muslims) 24 % being ethnic Chinese, 7 % Indian and the remainder consisting of indigenous peoples. The Chinese and Indians were brought in by the British during their rule to work in the mines and plantations and this has led to both a delicious cuisine and a very good level of English amongst everyone. I don’t recall meeting anyone who couldn’t speak English, it reminded us of India.

We had our first roti canai (fried bread with a gravy sauce) on the outskirts of Kota Bahru which started a trend of eating about 10 each per day for the next 2 weeks; absolutely delicious. We arrived at a hostel at what we thought was 7 pm, but we were informed that it was in fact, 8 pm. The clocks had gone forward an hour when we crossed the border and we didn’t even realise. We also didn’t realise that Malaysia uses British plugs which we obviously didn’t have any of. We have used the European style plugs basically the whole trip and had dropped our guard a bit now when it comes to plugs. We went out on the hunt for some converters and were gifted one for free by a man in a shop, how kind. We also hit up the local night market and had some tasty but artery blocking food, and found ourselves a well-stocked second-hand clothes market where we managed some good finds. We are not far off reaching New Zealand now and would like to have some semi-presentable clothes as most of ours are stained, ripped and sewed back together by me, baggy or see-through. Not to mention stinky as hell.

DSC_0144
There were many empty patches like this along the East coast of Malaysia, perfect for camping.

We bagged ourselves another sim card the next morning and made our way south along the coast to the town of Kuala Besut where we would get a ferry to the Perhentian islands and do some SCUBA diving. There were plenty of parallel roads right next to the sea which were quiet and very scenic. There was an abundance of places to put a tent and we couldn’t wait to start wild camping again after months of sleeping in monasteries and/or guesthouses. At first, we were struggling to find drinking water in Malaysia. Petrol stations and eateries don’t have water dispensers like they did in Vietnam and Thailand and we were not sure how we could find drinking water without buying plastic bottles. It didn’t take long until someone showed us the water machines for filling bottles. For £0.05 you can get 3 litres of purified filtered water and these machines are everywhere. They always seemed to pop-up when we needed them most as well, as if they knew we needed them. Malaysia was fast becoming an absolute pleasure to cycle through.

 

We arrived in Koala Besut and paid/booked our diving and accommodation on the Perhentian islands for the morning. After scouting out some food at an eatery in the town we followed the coast a kilometre or so and found a small patch by the beach to sleep for the night. The lady in the house next to us saw us pitching our tent but could not have cared less. She did have a family of cats who hung around us all night like a bad smell and crapped outside the tent which I stood on in the morning in bare feet. I hate cats, I’m allergic to them as well and I think they know that and taunt me about it. It was strange seeing so many cats in Malaysia, in Islam dogs are considered dirty and on par with pigs, so cats make up the majority of domestic animals. I prefer dogs.

DSC_0149
These kids hung around whilst we were setting up camp and cooking dinner.

We had our breakfast at sunrise the next morning on the beach and cycled the short 1 km into town to jump on the 30 minute ferry to the islands (we left our bikes at the dive centre in town). I had visited the islands 5 years ago with some mates and remember having a nice view of the islands as the boat sped towards them. However this time our view of the islands was obscured by a thick haze which had blown across the South China Sea from the annual burning of the palm oil crops on Borneo. This haze stuck around for almost our entire time in Malaysia and at times you could actually smell the smoke in the air. Luckily for us we had ventured to the islands to go SCUBA diving, so the haze did not obstruct our visibility underwater. Although there were some easterly winds which led to a couple of dives in murky water. The diving was great there and the reefs are a lot more diverse than the ones we witnessed in Vietnam. Vietnams coastal reefs have been badly overfished leading to an ecosystem dominated by organisms lower down the food chain such as worms, shellfish, sea cucumbers and corals. In comparison the reefs we saw on the Perhentian islands are abundant in an array of fish and big predators such as groupers, sharks and turtles giving the ecosystem more balance across different levels of the food chain. I did my PhD on small marine creatures so from my point of view, I think the reefs in Vietnam had more to offer if you were up for looking more closely at what was around. But if you like turtles and sharks (which let’s be honest, most people do), then Vietnam is probably not the best place to go diving. Oh, we also saw an octopus scuttling across the seabed trying to disguise itself as a piece of floating seaweed. We were all fooled.

We met a friendly cycling couple on the island as well; Lukas and Ellis from Italy and Germany who we had a few evenings chilling with and chatting about our trips. We returned through the haze on the speedboat back to the mainland after 2 nights on the islands and headed off down the coast towards Singapore. After A LOT of back and forth we finally decided to skip Indonesia and fly to Australia from Singapore. At this point we were fed up with South East Asia. Fed up with the heat, humidity, pollution, overpopulation, noise, lack of wild nature and often boring cycling. There were pockets of beauty and genuine enjoyment, but overall, we felt that SE Asia is a bit over-hyped. Although, we felt a bit disappointed to not be going to Java and Bali, we were relieved when we finally booked our flight and also super excited for the coming change in scenery, culture, language and climate. However, we still had an action-packed couple of weeks left in SE Asia so stay tuned for the installment of our Asian leg.

Trystan

Dust in the lungs

South East Asia part 11: Ho Chi Minh City, VN – Koh Kong, KH

To be perfectly honest, Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t have much to offer. There is no real character to the city, no old quarter and nothing really to do. It is more of a local’s city and the best way to enjoy it is simply to do things you would normally do at home. Go shopping, go out and eat, commute around etc. We stayed with several people from Warmshowers/Couchsurfing which gave us some nice insight into the city and Southern Vietnam. Josephine’s family also came out for 2 weeks and we enjoyed hanging out with them spending time in HCMC, the Mekong Delta and on the beaches around Nha Trang. As soon as they left though, we were raring to get out of Vietnam after a long, tough 3 months. There were a lot of aspects about Vietnam that we were fed up with: The busy traffic and honking horns, the rubbish everywhere on the beaches, no real untouched nature, unfriendly people and extreme humidity. Some nice memories but it was time for us to jump ship. For anyone planning on cycling Vietnam I would suggest to you to spend as much time in the mountainous North, the Mekong Delta in the South and limit your time spent in everything in between.

We made it to the border town of Moc Bai in one day and found ourselves a guesthouse to use up our remaining Vietnamese Dong. We would have had a lot more left over but the screen on my phone cracked earlier in the day and we had to race around HCMC looking for a phone repair shop that was a) open (it was a national holiday) and b) could change the screen in less than 1 hour. We managed it and were left with very little cash to make it to the border. The guesthouse was cheaper if you checked in after 9pm (which was all we could afford) so we sat in the hot lobby for several hours waiting to be able to afford the room despite it sitting there, empty the whole time.

I woke up in the morning not feeling so well and limped towards the border on our bikes expecting a long hard slog through the corrupt, greedy and ignorant Vietnamese officials. As expected, we were asked for money. We didn’t pay. We had to join a longer queue. We were told off for not putting our passport on the desk at the right time. Josephine was told off for putting her passport on the desk too hard. All I can say is good riddance Vietnam. The Cambodian side wasn’t much better. British (maybe all EU citizens?) pay $30 USD for a visa on arrival at Cambodia. One border official was charging another British girl $35 (which she couldn’t afford) and he charged u £32 each. I was not in a fit state to argue (although Josephine was) and we paid the extra pocket money and hit the road searching for food as we had skipped breakfast due to having no Vietnamese money left.

DSC_0083
Man down. In a petrol station next to an ancestral shrine.

First impressions of Cambodia: people speak quite good English, the roads are disgracefully bad (in fact all Cambodia’s infrastructure is), they use a mixture of Cambodian Riels and US Dollars and we were back in a Buddhist state. Camping was Illegal in Vietnam so we were happy to be back in a country where we could camp again and stay in monasteries. It took us a few attempts to get Cambodian money and even longer to find some vegetarian food which wasn’t the best. I would also like to point out that the Khmer (pronounced Khu-mai by the way) people look very different to the Vietnamese. They have much darker skin and look less East Asian. The women are very pretty too (as is Josephine of course).

Cycling in Cambodia is tough going. The roads are either fields of potholes and dust, or, sand and dust. Josephine had to buy a facemask for the sheer volume of dust we were inhaling. After 50 km battling these roads in ferocious headwinds and with my fever not getting better, we threw in the towel and found a guesthouse in the next town. I slept horribly and could not even get out of bed the next day. Our GH had cruddy WiFi so we had to move GH’s the next day so Josephine could use the internet while I slept. That 600 meters was the toughest day of cycling I have done in a long time. I crashed out for another 2 nights waking up occasionally to eat fruit which Josie had gone out and bought. I tell you what, being ill is so much better when there is another team member to support you, I cannot imagine being alone in situations like these. After 3 nights of sleep I was well enough to tackle another day in the dusty headwinds towards Phnom Penh.

As previously, the cycling was dull and tough. We made it to a horribly dirty and smelly town on the Mekong river where we got some dinner in our tuperrware boxes (as we couldn’t find any vegetables to cook) and searched for a monastery to spend the night. The land here was extremely low-lying and waterlogged so camping was out of the question. We found a decent monastery where we were given a small room next to a statue of Buddha and some bottles of water. One of the monks was also learning English and could practice a bit with us. The caretaker also thought it was appropriate to slap my ass after showing me around. It’s always me that gets touched inappropriately, not Josephine. Honestly I would rather it be me than her, but this was not what we expected before we set off.

Still not feeling 100 % we crossed a huge bridge over the Mekong (interestingly, the first bridge over the Mekong river in Cambodia was only built in 2001, before that the only way of crossing was by boat) built with Japanese money and following the busy, dusty road towards Phnom Penh. Josephine informed me that a filthy fat man on a scooter pulled up beside her and said “I F**k you now, ok?”. I caught him up and despite my dizziness and headache told him what would happen if he said that again. He definitely got the point.

DSC_0093
Somehow Josephine is smiling in this photo, despite having to push our bikes around a 2 foot deep mud puddle.

We made it to Phnom Penh in the afternoon and somehow got absolutely obsessed with the idea of a pizza that evening. We googled it and went right out of our way to find an expensive pizza restaurant in the expat area of Phnom Penh. We splashed out $25 on that meal but I cannot explain how good it felt to eat some good food after days of mediocre Cambodian street food. We met up that evening with a Warmshowers host called Tony from France. He cycled from France to Cambodia a year ago on a self-made bamboo bike frame and was now starting a business in Phnom Penh making bamboo frames. He was great to talk to and I wish him the best of luck with his business in the future.

We had a day off in the capital city and spent the day cleaning and eating (as with most days off). I drilled some holes in my saddle and threaded some rope through it to prevent the edges of the leather from fraying and rubbing on my thighs. It’s one month later now as I write this, and I can say it has made a world of difference. Phnom Penh was an ok city, nothing spectacular. There is a very large and well-equipped expat area but once you leave this part, you can see how poor many of the people are in this city. Extremely polluted water ways, terrible roads and sadly, many homeless people, especially children. We thought Vietnam had a tough history, but Cambodia is a whole other level. Despite being bombed by the US, a civil war, communist dictatorship with a horrific genocide and then an invasion by the Vietnamese, people still smile and get on with life, but you can see why the country is so poor and has an underdeveloped economy and infrastructure.

We left Phnom Penh on (surprise surprise) more dusty and bouncy roads. We were feeling pretty low during our time in Cambodia and really wanted to get some distance under our belts and get down to Malaysia to a change of scene. We did a few 100 km days, which we rarely do, staying in a monastery along the way. Sadly, we had a honey pot malfunction in our cooking bag, and I had to clean out everything before dinner which is not fun when you are hungry! The roads got worse and worse and culminated in the worst road of the trip coming into Kampot. When we arrived, our faces were covered in dust and dirt, as were our lungs but we had some nice food and cooled ourselves down with some ice tea.

Kampot was a nice place with strangely, many retired, western-looking men. We cycled up the river a bit to a hostel/campground by the river which was really nice, despite a strange drunken Canadian guy running the place and just drinking and smoking cigarettes all day. We pitched our tent for the night only to hear a cracking sound as we were putting the tent up. A cracked tent pole, uh-oh. Luckily, it was not fatal and the tent could still be erected, but it was in urgent need of a fix and this wasn’t possible until Bangkok at the earliest. On top of this, our stove was not in a good state. The fuel in Vietnam had left a thick layer of carbon on the inside of the fuel regulating spindle and the threads had worn away on the spindle too. It still functioned, barely, but also needed some urgent attention. Incredibly, there was a silver lining in a hippy, backpacker café in the town. A small pipe brush used to clean their overly priced bamboo straws. The PERFECT size to fit in the spindle shaft of our stove and brush away the pesky carbon. Finally, a glimmer of good news for us.

DSC_0095
A mobile bakery selling fantastic baked goods in Kampot. They donate the left overs to the local shop and school at the end of the day.

The road improved a bit believe it or not after Kampot heading towards Sihanoukville and off to Koh Kong. No, I’m kidding. Somehow it got EVEN worse. Only now there were loads of polluting trucks and busses sharing the road with us. The sun was also beating down on us despite it being (supposedly) rainy season. We had one short rain shower when we entered Cambodia and not a drop since! It explains all the dust, but rain would have been very, very welcome. They say be careful what you wish for, the rain in Thailand made up for its absence in Cambodia, as I’ll explain in the next blog. We were not enjoying the cycling in Cambodia and we were frustrated further when we got charged $15 for some fish on the roadside. We were always given prices in $ USD in Cambodia (despite their official currency being the Riel), however we always paid in Riels. What was funny was that they always gave us back too much change in Riels. I am not sure if they had the conversion rate wrong (it was $1 ~4000 Riels), or if they couldn’t do maths correctly. Or maybe I couldn’t count due to all the dust in my lungs. Sometimes we would get our change in a combination of $USD and Riels. Why don’t they just stick to one currency?

DSC_0090
Our patch of home in Kampot. The river was 10 meter away and was the perfect place to relax with a beer (Cambodian beer is not very good though…)

The busy road went through a patch of palm oil plantations giving us the chance to wild camp for the first time in over a month, and it was beautiful. There was a lake for us to wash in and no-one bothered us all night. The sunrise through the palm trees was nice too and we set off the next morning with lifted spirits due to our quiet nights rest, but also because we were finally leaving the highway to follow a smaller road to Koh Kong and the Thai border. The road was beautiful and quiet with the backdrop of jungle covered hills and palm trees lining the hot but quiet road. Food, hard to find at the best of times in Cambodia, was now even more difficult. We had to settle on eating meat as there was no other option. Fruit was also few and far between and we were so thankful for forking out $3 for peanut butter in Phnom Penh.

DSC_0101
Morning amongst the palm oil trees.

We found a cruddy spot to put our tent the night before a day of climbing hills and at some point during the night, a motorbike turned up and our tent was illuminated by a light. I jumped out in my slacks and was confronted by a solo policeman with a huge smile on his face. “Anglais”, I said which he understood but couldn’t not speak any English. I explained with hands and pointing that we were only staying one night and heading on to Koh Kong in the morning. He seemed happy enough and drove away leaving us be for the remainder of the night.

We woke up the next morning to rain! Just a bit of drizzle but it was bliss and it made the climb the next day totally manageable. It was a short 300m stint followed by a 500m and another 300m. The scenery was great, through nature reserve with signs warning of elephants too. We even saw a giant hornbill which was actually the highlight of our time in Cambodia, sadly (well, until we reached Koh Kong that is). I had pretty bad Diarrhoea in the night and was feeling a little fragile. This worsened during the second climb and we snailed our way to the top in the heat of the day. After the downhill into Tatai we decided to throw in the towel and hitch a lift the final 20 km to Koh Kong where we could find a guesthouse. Surprisingly, it took us a good few attempts before someone stopped and agreed to take us and our bikes, despite about 15 empty pick-ups driving by. Eventually we were picked up by a group of young, friendly lads and sat in the back with our bikes over the final step hill and into Koh Kong.

DSC_0103
First hills we’ve seen in a while, and the first jungle, and the first pick-up truck!

We found a cheap guesthouse and used our remaining money on some nice dinner. I do not know how we found this place; it wasn’t on Maps.me or Google Maps, but down a small alley we found a tiny pizza place, run by an Italian man. He made the most delicious siciliana pizza we have had in years, so much so that we considered exchanging money just to go back and have another one. That was our highlight in Cambodia. We spent 13 days in Cambodia, and we do not have much to show for it. We took very few photos and have very few memories. I think it was a combination of me being sick, the terrible roads and weather and our growing frustration with SE Asia. It is a country made enjoyable mostly by the people who live there. Everyone’s experiences are unique in different regions of the world, so do not be put off by our experiences in Cambodia. It is not a country I would return to, but it is not a country I want to slag off. Regardless though, we were very excited to return to Thailand for the second time this trip.

Trystan

Mud in the Mekong

South East Asia part 10: Da Lat, VN – Saigon, VN

5 months in the humid climate of South-East Asia has made us really miss the English weather. Mild windy sideways rain is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea, but after long enough in borderline unlivable climates (at least for me) English weather is a dream. I can honestly say that the climate in the UK is my favourite in the world. It never gets too hot, or too cold. Yes, some might say the rain is a problem, but there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. We did not expect to find English weather in Vietnam, but we did.

We got off the bus to 18 degrees C and sideways rain. It was great, Josephine even put her trousers on for the first time since India! Da Lat sits at 1500 meters at the southern end of the Vietnamese Central Highlands. This altitude gives it a year-long mild climate enabling a variety of temperate crops to grow such as coffee, strawberries, cabbage and potatoes. We got ourselves a cheap hostel and planned our route for the next few days. We wanted to head up into the pine forests for a few days and finally enjoy camping again. The weather was perfect for it and the Central Highlands are drastically less populated than the coastal plains of Vietnam.

We packed several days of food including tomatoes, pasta and red wine, ready for a romantic few days alone in the forest (we were celebrating 5 years together don’t you know), but after leaving the hostel in torrential rain and cycling 5 km in the cold we decided to scrap our pine forest retreat and opted to descend a bit on the main road where it was a little bit warmer. This turned out to be a great idea as the rain stopped once we dropped 200 metes in altitude and we found ourselves a beautiful camp spot right next to a dam behind a coffee plantation. The weather was a balmy 22 degrees C with occasional showers, and we had a nice evening drinking wine and playing cards in the tent without the need for our USB powered fans, finally.

We took a small road the next day through further coffee, tea and rice fields and arrived at the edge of the Central Highlands. We were greeted with an incredible view of the lowlands all the way to the sea with the exciting prospect of a long downhill through the hills into the plains below. The temperature was in the mid 20’s and as soon as we started descending, we could feel the heat and the humidity rising. We stopped for a sugarcane juice and relaxed playing cards for a few hours to avoid the sun. A small tip from us, if you order a sugarcane juice in Vietnam, try and carry a lime or two with you to add to it, it takes the sweetness away and makes it even more delicious!

DSC_0745
An epic view across the coastal plains from the Central Highlands.

After a few more hours of cycling we arrived back at our least favourite road in the world, the QL1, the main highway in Vietnam running between Hanoi and Saigon. Luckily all we had to do was cross over it to get to the sea the following day. We got a guesthouse just off the highway and crossed over on foot it to get some food. Highways in Vietnam are not like they are in Europe. Shops, schools, markets and roads line the edge of the highway with kids playing on the hard shoulder and markets extending almost into the outer-most lane. All the while lorries and trucks are chugging past at over 80 kmph beeping and swerving around any obstacle. It’s abysmally loud and unpleasant and not a nice place to stop for food and relax, yet everyone does.

The next day we cycled into a landscape of sand dunes and dragon fruit plantations. Dragon fruit season is April to October in Vietnam and the fields were lined with crates and crates of harvested dragon fruit. They are roughly the size of a grapefruit bus cost as little as 5000 Dong each (£ 0.17). The roads went up and down over the sand dunes until reaching the sea near the town of Mui Ne. There was a strong onshore wind and the sea was choppy and turbid making the beaches look less tropical than the photos of Mui Ne on the internet show! We struck gold with a camping hostel where we could put up our tent under the palm trees for a very cheap price ($2 each).

We spent 3 nights at the beach hostel with a few trips into the town for some food at the market. The novelty of markets for us has completely worn off. After seeing markets all across Asia, visiting them becomes a chore now. Maybe if it is a huge city centre market might we get a bit of a kick out of it, but we tend to avoid them if we can. We found cheap coconuts though, for our morning rice pudding and made ourselves some noodles for dinner on our limping camp stove. The petrol we have been burning in Vietnam has completely clogged up the spindle in our Primus omni-fuel stove. So much so that I need to clean it every 2 days which is a real pain in the sphincter. It burns very inefficiently too, leading to all our pots being caked in a thick layer of carbon which is a nightmare to scrub-off.

DSC_0761
We boxed ourselves in with our bikes and 2 washing lines creating our own little space for a few days.

Following our mini-beach break, we smashed the road again hugging the coast towards the Mekong Delta. The following 100 km’s after Mui Ne were packed with resorts both new and under construction. There were obviously quite a lot of Russian tourists coming to this area with signs lining the road in Cyrillic, bringing back nice memories of Central Asia. I want to briefly mention how many seaside resorts we have seen in Vietnam. We have passed hundreds on our trip down the coast with about 80 % of them being half finished or abandoned before completion. I am not sure where the large demand for holiday resorts is coming from, but it is mental. I have a hunch it is the growing middle class in Vietnam allowing people to afford domestic beach holiday-breaks from their jobs in the cities.

On the note of a growing Vietnamese middle class, we have been shocked by the number of overweight children we have seen. It is extremely rare to see a fat adult in Vietnam, but fat children are available in abundance, especially the lads. I would hazard a guess at about 30 % of under 12 boys being overweight. You can see why too, every one of them have smartphones and I can’t recall a time seeing any children doing sport. Although the adults aren’t visibly obese, they spend a lot of time on their phones in cafes playing games and gambling. It is a huge contrast to other parts of Asia seeing so many people on their phones all the time and might be the cause of our feelings of limited personal interactions with the Vietnamese. Vietnamese people in general (with some exceptions) have felt very distant from us on both a cultural and personal level. I am not sure if this is because of their attitude to foreigners, or the language barrier, but we have never felt so different and isolated from the people in a country like we have in Vietnam. Don’t get me wrong, some people have been unbelievably friendly and open, but they are exceptions to the rule.

We spent the next 3 days following a somewhat boring coastline with vicious headwinds slowing us down and constant rain showers particularly at night. As I may have said before, our tent is not as waterproof as it was and constant rain at night leads to a few drips making their way into the tent.  Putting our tarp over the top of the tent normally helps with the leakage though. Some of the beaches we camped next to were also extremely filthy. They were isolated, but still covered in plastic rubbish, mostly originating from the sea and being dumped at the highwater mark. I am sorry Vietnam, but your beaches are riddled with trash and it is not a nice sight.

DSC_0795
This barge is surely 2 or 3 shovels off dipping below the water line?!

Our bums were starting to become quite sore from the long tough days in the headwind, but we had a solution. Yes, chamois cream helps somewhat but a better solution is distraction. During one of our coffee stops at a Ca Phe Vong (hammock café, these things are amazing) we stumbled across an array of new podcasts to download and listen to on the bike. This distracted us from the busy roads, headwinds and saddle sores and enabled us to get through to the start of the Mekong delta without being grinded down too much on the busy highways. We stayed at a Nha Nghi (guesthouse) at the edge of an industrial estate and were treated to a litter of brand new puppies less than half a week old. Unfortunately, the mum would not let us anywhere near them, but we could still look at them from a distance which was still nice. We got the room £2 cheaper than the price stated through some tough negotiation (we’re getting better at it) and had a tasty dinner of Banh Xeo (rice pancake, disgustingly delicious every time).

The next morning was a rainy one and we battled it out in our raincoats until the sun came out after 11 making it horrendously humid and moist. As we curved around the southern side of Ho Chi Minh City and got deeper south into the Delta the traffic slowly subsided and eventually reached a point where there wasn’t a single car anywhere. Vietnam has very few cars as it is anyway due to a huge import tax (200 %) on foreign vehicles to protect domestic automobile production. This means there are a lot of motorbikes in Vietnam, and I mean a lot. 45 million motorbikes in a country with a population of 96 million. The motorbike does everything. We have seen motorbikes transport animals, market produce, ice, construction materials, families, living room furniture and mattresses. We have seen motorbikes being used as candy floss stalls, knife sharpening workshops, bakeries, sandwich stalls, postal services and rubbish collection. We have even seen people napping on motorbikes (while parked, obviously). People drive into markets and buy a weeks’ worth of produce without even getting off their bikes. They drive up to food and drink stalls and get takeaway food without dismounting their bikes. The best thing is when it rains. All of a sudden, every single person has a rain mac which covers them and their bikes. And for the small percentage of people who left theirs at home, its not a problem, as street sellers magically (and seemingly out of nowhere) provide a bamboo stick with a selection of waterproof macs, coats and hats costing next to nothing. Even after 10 weeks in Vietnam, we are still surprised by what we see on the backs of motorbikes in Vietnam. It is NEVER boring.

DSC_0773
I counted 10 mattresses on the day, what do you think?

We were getting right into the maze that is the Mekong Delta. The Eastern region of Tien Giang province is lined with rice paddies and roads which come to an abrupt end at a river crossable by a ferry reserved for 2 wheelers only and costing about £0.20 each. We used about 6 of these ferries and the traffic and roads got quieter and smaller as we got deeper into the delta. We really wanted to try and camp in the Mekong but it was just impossible, at least wild camping. It is the rainy season and the afternoon showers make the ground completely saturated with water, especially the low-lying Mekong delta. We had heard stories of cycle tourers staying in churches or temples, but to be honest, we never tried asking.

DSC_0776
One of our many ferries lasting on average 4 minutes long each.

We reached a town called Go Cong in the pissing rain and found a guesthouse near the centre. After hanging all our stuff up to dry (as usual) we headed into town for some dinner. Now, when it comes to eating, I am the least picky person in the world and Josephine is, let’s say, more at the other end of the spectrum. To address our asymmetry in feeding preferences, I suggested that Josephine should always choose where and what we eat to avoid me picking something she doesn’t like. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for 2 main reasons; 1) I am extremely impatient, 2) Josephine finds it very very difficult to make decisions. Subsequently, this leads to me getting frustrated and Josephine sensing this and finding it even more difficult to decide. Recently it has gotten so bad that Josephine has been on the verge of tears as she is so anxious about making a decision on where to eat. Not necessarily because of my impatience, but due to a mixture of different circumstances. It’s an odd occurrence and we are not sure what is making her so anxious, but in the end, we always find delicious food and go to bed happy and satisfied. Our current plan is that I make the decisions on where and what to eat based on my understanding of what Josephine likes and doesn’t like. Writing this out, it sounds like a ridiculous first world problem, but for some reason it has become quite a serious issue in our day to day lives.

The following day we crossed yet another river by ferry into Ben Tre province. This province is famous for its coconuts, with an output of over 600 million coconuts a year. Additionally, Ben Tre province has an endemic species of coconut palm producing the unique Xiem coconut, a small and deliciously sweet coconut. Upon arrival in the province, you are immediately surrounded by coconut plantations. There are also fields of bananas, cassava and lemongrass making for some very beautiful cycling. We found plenty of small roads through tiny villages and markets and took a slow few days exploring the province. Some of these roads are rather unforgiving though. Remember I said it was rainy season? Yes, well some roads are made of concrete and some are not, and the ones that are not, do not drain rainwater very well, at all. We spent 2 hours pushing our bikes through 50 cm thick mud and clogging up our brakes and mud guards (not so good at guarding the bikes from mud when it’s everywhere). Luckily, a few local guys helped us the last stretch to the concrete path again and even assisted us in rinsing our bikes off in the canal (the wheels and chains would not even move due to all the mud). After this encounter, we decided to blow off another attempt at camping and stayed at another guesthouse where the owners kindly let us use their hose to clean the remaining crud off of our bikes.

DSC_0831
It’s not always easy.

We had slowly been waking up later and later these days as the heat has been less intense meaning we can cycle right through midday. We decided to get going at sunrise the next morning though and it was an awesome decision. Seeing the sunrise above the banana tree and coconut palms made for the most beautiful cycling of our time in Vietnam. Coupled with no traffic and tiny winding roads ensured we had smiles on our faces all morning. The abundance of coconuts also meant it was easy to pick them from the trees and chop them open with our coconut knife and slurp the sweet water with our home-made coconut straws from Laos. Man, we had a great time wheeling through the Mekong delta.

DSC_0820
Crossed one of the many monkey bridges (narrow bamboo bridges) to get ourselves a few coconuts.

Our fortunes improved further upon our discovery of coconut candy. This stuff is only produced in Ben Tre town from Ben Tre coconuts and is absolutely delightful (try the cocoa flavoured one). We bought ourselves a box of it and it was gone by the end of the day. After leaving Ben Tre town the traffic started growing as did the size of the vehicles. We took a small tour around an island before crossing a huge bridge with a crazy headwind and a freewheel down the bridge into the town of My Tho where we got our final guesthouse before reaching Sai Gon. A lot of the guesthouses in Vietnam are also known colloquially as “love hotels”. Many of them rent out rooms for an hourly rate and the rooms have red lighting and mirrors next to the beds. We normally get cheaper rooms if we say that we are leaving before 6 am and it works most of the time.

 

We had 70 km to our Couchsurfing host in Sai Gon (I use Ho Chi Minh City and Sai Gon interchangeably. The official name is Ho Chi Minh City, but the Vietnamese still call it by its pre 1975 name, Sai Gon) and for the first time in what felt like an eternity we had a beautiful TAILWIND. That breeze blew us into Sai Gon in record time and we were having rice in the centre for second breakfast by 11 am. We got to our host by midday and were kindly treated to our own room to dump our ridiculous amount of stuff and finally do some washing in a washing machine for the first time in ages. Strangely, we find Vietnam to be the only country we have been to where we prefer the cities to the countryside. Maybe this is because we did not have the best experience cycling the Vietnamese coast. Several reasons including climate and bike problems meant we were unable to venture into the hills inland and had to stick to the flatter coastal route, and this may be responsible for our rough ride through Vietnam. Our spirits were completely uplifted in the Mekong delta though. The cycling there is beautiful, the food is cheap and plentiful, and the people seemed to be a bit more open and friendly.

Despite Vietnam feeling very culturally distant to us, the extensive pollution and the tough climate, we are glad we stuck it out all the way to Sai Gon. The incredibly diverse food, numerous places to stop for a tasty coffee and lie in a hammock and the hilarious business we have seen on the back of motorbikes has kept us smiling and pedalling. A tough but rewarding place to travel, particularly by bike. Bike touring always shows you the “real country” and not just the highlights, and this can be both good and bad sometimes. We are happy to be finished though and looking forward to mixing it up in Cambodia and Thailand.

Trystan

One horrible village

South East Asia part 9: Da Nang, VN – Da Lat, VN.

Things have been getting better for us as we track more south in Vietnam. The monotomy, heat, humidity and traffic have been thinning out with more varied landscape, smaller roads to take, cooler days and even quite a few rain showers. We’re not going to lie, we are finding Vietnam tough. Not because the cycling is difficult, or the climate is rough or the interactions with the people being distant, but rather because we don’t feel like we are getting any mental stimulation. The coast of Vietnam seems to all be the same and feels like it’s dragging on for ages. I don’t think that this is an inherent issue with Vietnam itself as a country. It is not a boring place by any means. Perhaps this problem stems from the fact that we haven’t spent so long in one country before. We’re coming up to our third month in Vietnam now and maybe we are longing for some drastic cultural change? Whatever the root cause of our moderate boredom, we are pretty sure it is only temporary.

Da Nang is a big city, with lots of hotels and high rise buildings. This was unexpected but it meant we could get some supplies from the big supermarket there whilst we stayed 2 nights with our Warmshowers hosts. Binh and Allesio (who we stayed with) were lovely and even gave us our own room with A/C, an absolute luxury. I bought some new shorts at the market for $5 without trying them on, despite a disappointed look from Josephine. I attempted to try them on, but as I pulled my trousers down there, in the center of the market, the sales lady (shocked to her very core) immediately stopped me and held the waist of the shorts around my neck as a measure of if they would fit me. I have never seen such a thing before. Anyway, when we returned to our room, they did fit, but they were as tight as my cycling lycra shorts. Oh well, good thing I don’t care much for my appearance.

The following day we cycling a short 30 km to the town of Hoi An. Josephine had been here before and it is a very popular tourist destination in Vietnam. It has a very well preserved old market town and it is probably best known for being a cheap place to get tailor made clothes. We stayed at a hostel for a few nights where the owner kindly gave us a private room for the price of a dorm bed. To our shock, a thunderstorm came in the entire afternoon and evening, the first rain we had experienced since Hanoi. This didn’t stop us though, and we donned our rain coats and went out after dark to see the pretty lights lining the streets. It was madness, like a music festival. There were literally 100 million people on the streets all wearing single use rain macs purchased from women on the street. We got some Banh Xeo (rice pancake) and returned to our room to watch a film. I used to think it was a bit sad at a hostel to hide in your room watching something but after cycling for so long and being outdoors almost all the time, there is nothing quite like sitting alone in your room away from people enjoying the A/C and relaxing.

DSC_0572
The middle of the day isn’t the best time to mess about trying to get a photo of us.

Hoi An was a nice place and definitely worth a visit. We had the tastiest Banh Mi of our trip there too at a place called Madame Khanh’s. But after 2 nights we were keen to get back on the road and continue down towards Saigon. We opted for the back roads out of Hoi An through the rice paddies and villages rather than the main road. This turned out to be a nice idea, the roads were empty and it was pretty scenic with dark green rice paddies lined by palm trees. This changed drastically though from one minute to the other turning into a long straight road through sand dunes with nothing to see except the odd ancestral burial ground and pile of rubbish.

We camped that night at an empty beach side resort which we found from another cycling couple on Instagram (@rollingeast). The owner spoke perfect English and was happy for us to pitch our tent so long as he could take a photo of our passports to end to the police, #Vietnam. The beach homestay had a family of legendary dogs who kept us entertained all evening and in the morning. We woke up early to an incredible sunrise and hundreds of people walking/jogging/running up and down the beach. It looked like it was their morning exercise. We have seen this before in Vietnam, large groups of people gathering for communal exercise. I am not sure if it is a scheme put forward by the communist government, or just something that has been done for centuries. Either way it is quite intriguing to watch.

DSC_0586
Mosquito net, hammock and chair. Our camps are pretty comfortable these days.

The cycling in Quang Ngai province was very enjoyable. There were plenty of small roads to take near the coast through lots of villages and paddy fields. All this with the backdrop of the hills characterising the Central Highlands in the distance. We were keen to find a nice spot to camp and I managed to find a beautiful, quiet beach on google maps just over a small sand dune. We pushed our bikes over the dune and into a small village full of people who genuinely looked like they had never seen a white person before. We took a tiny track through the centre of the village down a steep sand bank to the beach. It was perfect, blimming hard work to get to, but perfect. Most of the village came down throughout the course of the evening to swim and many of them came over to investigate our bikes, stove and tent. We had to put the tent up early before dark as it looked like it was definitely going to rain. It didn’t rain in the end.

After nightfall and a yoga session and swim later, we cooked up some grub and Josephine went down to the water to wash up. As I was tidying up camp in the dark, a woman squatted alone next to me, gazing at me intently and touching all our stuff. It looked like she was looking for something. I pointed at a pair of shoes a few meters away which someone had left, assuming she was looking for them. She skipped over, picked them up and threw them at me. Hmm, I guess a breakdown in communication. The crazy lady went down to the water and squatted next to Josephine who was oblivious to her existence. Josie later told me the lady tapped her on the shoulder to which she jumped and turned around, illuminating the ladies face and toothless grin with her head torch. It sounded like something out of a horror film, and quite funny to hear.

Our evening got even worse when a lady and a man came down with a torch and told us that we were not allowed to camp on the beach. The lady spoke perfect English, thankfully and was very polite about it. She explained foreigners were not allowed to camp in Vietnam and no-one in the village was registered to allow foreigners to stay at their houses. We had to go to a guesthouse which was 12 km away on the busy highway. Unable to accept our arguments and protest, we reluctantly packed everything away and pushed our bikes back up what I can only describe as a cliff. The policeman and the lady returned to help, with the entire village, but they didn’t really do much. We eventually got back to the highway and found the Nha Nghi (guesthouse) that the lady had told us to go to. Luckily, she had rang ahead and organised the price so we didn’t have to partake in any annoying bargaining. A very frustrating evening but thankfully the guesthouse owner gave us some food when we arrived, some jack-fruit and 2 boiled sweet potatoes.

DSC_0684
It’s been satisfying seeing that number get smaller and smaller as we get further south.

We continued south into Binh Dinh province and to a small village called Nhon Hoi with a quiet, cozy beach hostel. It was a quant little place with a bay surrounded by fishing boats. We had a few days off and the hostel allowed us to camp on their balcony for less than $1 each which was a bargain. Unfortunately, the sea was extremely polluted as the villagers seemed to use the ocean as one big rubbish bin. Every day we saw people walking out of their front doors and throwing plastic bags of rubbish into the sea. No-one cared at all. Despite this we went for a night time snorkel using our solar powered Luci light as a dive light. It worked well and we saw an array of strange creatures including a 1.5 meter long sea cucumber. We also ate sea urchin for dinner one night, which was surprisingly tasty, even Josie liked it!

DSC_0660
Sunrise from the balcony in the fishing village.

A few days previously I had bought a large knife/cleaver for opening coconuts. It was one of the best purchases I have made in a long time. Now I can open a coconut in a matter of seconds and we add the coconut milk and shavings to our rice porridge every morning, it’s great. Speaking of rice porridge, what is surprisingly hard to find in Vietnam, is rice! It isn’t sold everywhere as you would expect. It is only sold at huge supermarkets or small roadside shops called Dai Ly Gao (Rice agents). Like almost everything in Vietnam, these are not open between the hours of 12 and 4 as the Vietnamese have their afternoon lunch break and “siesta”. I am not kidding, everything closes down. If we haven’t had our lunch yet and it reaches 12 o-clock, we’re f***ed. I am warning you now, if you ever plan to cycle tour Vietnam, make sure you have a big lunch before 11:30 otherwise you will spend hours trying to find somewhere to get food.

We passed through the town of Quy Nhon where we spent the morning at a beach bar drinking coffee and swimming. This town was really nice. It had everything you need and was the perfect amount of busy. It also had nice views of the surrounding hills and a huge beach. It was definitely a place I could have considered staying for a while longer, but we didn’t. We camped on a beach a few hours south of it and had a wonderful nights sleep in the tent for the first time in months. Even with the rain cover on. Believe it or not, we also managed to camp again the next night! We squeezed out a 110 km day (which is a big day for us) and found a beautiful spot on the beach near a shrimp farm. No-one bothered us AND no-one rang the police. It was very quiet and we cooked up a tasty dinner and had another great sleep. It might not make sense to all, but our spirits are greatly lifted after having a good camp. Nothing is more demoralizing then camping in a dirty, loud place and sleeping terribly.

The road the next morning was absolutely beautiful. It hugged the coast of the far South-Eastern corner of Phu Yen province and gave us some amazing cliff-top views of sheltered bays full of fishing boats as well as some nice downhills on empty roads. The previous night Josephine and I had found a small island off the coast of a peninsula which apparently had some really good snorkeling. We even read that you could rent snorkels from the resort on the island. Having done all our research and brimming with excitement we headed off the main road 20 km to the end of the peninsula to spend a day or two on this tiny island. Or so we thought.

We arrived in the village around 11 am. We went to 1 of the 2 guesthouses in the village and were greeted by a horribly rude woman. She told us a price of 170 k. Playing the game, we tried to haggle her down to 140. “NO!”, she shouted, and walked away and started sweeping the porch. We had never experienced anything like that before, and subsequently left. If she had been polite about it we would have of course paid the 170k, we were just playing the haggling game. But she was so rude about it we didn’t want to give her the time of day. The kid at the next place was a lot friendlier, and we got a room for 170k. We packed a bag ready for an afternoon on the island and went into the village in search of food…at 12:30 pm…big mistake. There was no food and no-one at all willing to help us. The people in this village either shouted at us, stared at us, or laughed in our faces. Eventually I found a place to get some instant noodles for an extortionate price. After being  semi-satisfied (Josephine only had a mango for lunch) we went down to where the boat left to the island. 2 men were there playing games on their phones and pretty much completely ignored us. 1 woman was willing to try and talk to us over google translate and told us if we waited an hour, we could get the boat for free. Out of no-where someone handed me a phone with someone on the other end who could speak English (this happens A LOT in Asia). The guy on the other end said the boat would cost us $20 EACH! For a 900 meter boat journey! I told him that was far too much money and he said “okay”, and hung up. No-one bothered helping us anymore so we returned to our guesthouse (after being pointed at and laughed at by some more fat children) and decided we would ditch this “island excursion”, leave our guesthouse, and head the 20 km back to the main road.

Not everything goes as planned, and despite our research online about this island, it didn’t materialise as we had hoped. Luckily we hadn’t paid for the room yet so we just packed up our stuff and left. We even cycled straight past the 9 year old girl who organised our room and she didn’t even look at us, just stayed glued to her phone screen. Fortunately for us, we found some food near the highway and a cheap guesthouse for the night where we washed our clothes and met the best dogs of the trip so far (see photo). The boy at the guesthouse was super friendly and made a huge effort to try and speak English with us. It is such a mixed bag of people in Vietnam. We have met some incredibly friendly people and some absolute animals.

DSC_0723
These dogs were both 1 year old and had the most energy of any 4 legged creature I have ever seen.

We did a short day the following day and found a camp on a hill overlooking a bay right outside the city of Nha Trang. We also lucked out with our lunch eating a delicious vegetarian meal for under $2. If you are in Vietnam look out for signs that say Com Chay, it means “vegan rice” and there is an incredible variety of dishes to be had, and all for so cheap! That same day Josephine spotted some hanging bags of dark green fluids outside a seaside shack. I knew exactly what they were and turned around to have a look. They were bags of microalgae being grown as food for shellfish larvae. It was an oyster hatchery where oysters are spawned and the larvae are reared until they are big enough to place outside in the bay, grown to adulthood and then harvested and sold at markets. For those that don’t know I did my PhD on this kind of thing so I was very interested to see how they did things there. It was an incredibly basic facility but they still seemed to have a huge output of algae food and oysters.

DSC_0726
Mmmm tasty microalgae food for the oysters.

We only had 15 km to do the next day through the city of Nha Trang to get to the bus station. We didn’t want to spend any time in Nha Trang as we would be coming back here in 3 weeks with Josephine’s family. Also, we were getting fed up with the hot humid weather and had decided we would go up to the town of Dalat in the Central Highlands up at 1500 meters asl. Unfortunately, I was unable to cycle up the hill due to my bike gear situation and Josephine was more than happy to get a bus up the hill. It was only 150 km so we wouldn’t be missing out on too much. We rocked up to the bus station with a pre-booked bus ticket and the staff took one look at our bikes and said “no”. We were used to this and simply smiled and said, “We will make it work, don’t worry!”. “NO.”, we were told again. Obviously, in the end it worked and we got both our bikes on the bus without any issues whatsoever. We were even helped with translating by a lovely elderly man. Again, an example of the extreme differences in temperament of the Vietnamese people. One individual can be horrible and the next an absolute legend. Vietnam is as mad as a bag of frogs.

Trystan

Will we make it all the way to Indonesia?

South East Asia part 8: Hanoi, VN – Da Nang, VN

Our last few weeks crossing Laos and entering Vietnam were super exciting. We were looking forward to seeing our old friends, but we were also looking forward to having a significant amount of time off the bikes and attempt to integrate ourselves into a slightly “normal” routine, albeit somewhat mildly. We had a lot to do in Hanoi; many things needed repairing such as my saddle, my backpack, my phone, my laptop screen, some of Josies clothes, the bikes etc. We also had many things to buy or replace and with over 8 million inhabitants, Hanoi was the ideal place to sort these things. We were also receiving a visit from my brother Alex who we hadn’t seen since Budapest. It was a fun filled month and we ended up really liking Hanoi as a city. There is so much you can do if you know the place (as our friends did) and also, many places outside the city to explore. I won’t go into great detail about what we did but our favourite aspects of Hanoi include: Bia Hoi’s, Pho, the train tracks and old quarter, cycling around Tay Ho lake and all the food.

We had our bikes serviced at a shop called Lam Velo near Tay Ho lake. We purchased new rear tires as ours were very badly worn, new handlebar tape (mine was starting to stink from all the sweat), new cables, new chains and a serious clean and service. The bikes felt like new and we were more than ready to get on the road again. We were a little bit itchy to get back on the road again our last week in Hanoi and it was very strange riding the bikes again after almost a month driving a motorised scooter around the city.

We decided we would get a bus the first 250 km south of Hanoi to a town called Vinh, very close to where Ho Chi Minh was born. We opted for this as we had already cycled 150 km of this road and it was very dull, flat, boring and full of industry. The cycle to the bus station in South Hanoi was absolute madness. The road ran parallel to the train tracks and every time the barriers went down the traffic would extend across the entire highway bringing everyone to a standstill. Luckily, as nimble as we are on 2 wheels, we are always able to weave in and out of the traffic and never have to wait too long. Finding the right bus was a bit of a challenge but once we found it we loaded our bikes underneath with ease and sat on one of the most comfortable busses I have ever been on. The seats are basically reclining beds, there is fast WiFi and the A/C is cranked up to full blast. It was bliss.

To our frustration, we were chucked out of the bus on the highway a few kms south of Vinh and had to backtrack a little to get on the road towards the beach. It was only 10 km to the coast and after picking up a few coconuts on the way, we finally made it to the beach for the first time in almost 10 months. I could smell it way before we even reached it and it was one of the best feelings in the world running into the ocean for the first time. That night we camped under an abandoned beachside shack but unfortunately, it turned out to be one of the warmest nights we have ever had in the tent. The future did not look good for Josephine and Trystan’s camping prospects along the Vietnam coast.

DSC_0493
It’s a bit of a slog from the highway to the beach in some places in Central Vietnam, but it’s always worth it

The next few days were scorching hot and Vietnams land gets very slim in the middle of the country leaving us with no option but to cycle on the highway for several hundred kilometres. We did take a few detours to the sea, but we always had to return back to the main road at some point. One of our detours took us to quite a nice sea side town called Cam Nhuong. We arrived at around 3 pm and the heat was so intense I was starting to feel a little bit delirious. A man pulled up claiming to be an English school teacher and offered to take us to his mother-in-laws guesthouse. We followed him but they wanted a ridiculously high price for a room which they wouldn’t budge on. Frustrated, we back tracked down the coast and found another guesthouse (guesthouses are called Nha Nghi in Vietnamese) only to be quoted the same ridiculous price. After a bit of haggling we managed to get a room for €11 and went down to the beach for some food and a swim. Luckily our month in Hanoi with Charlie and Jordyn armed us with some VERY useful and essential phrases when ordering food. This means we don’t even need to see a menu and can order some delicious cousine without too much confusion. The restaurant we went to had an array of seafood for sale still alive and swimming in the tanks. From squid to scallops, crabs to crayfish, they had it all. But the price was extortionate; €20 for a plate of shrimp?! We decided to save our sampling of seafood to another day and not in this expensive town.

It’s amazing what a night in A/C can do to you. We felt revitalised the next morning, zooming across the river and through the rice paddy fields back to the highway. To our dismay, the heat got us again as intense as ever around 9 am and by midday we were struggling with dehydration and some mild heat exhaustion. It’s odd, some days I am coping well with the heat and Josephine is struggling, and other days, its vice-versa. We were drinking upwards of 10 litres of water a day each AND rehydration salts and we were still finding ourselves doing only 1 wee a day. It was not an enjoyable period, and it was only going to get worse.

DSC_0494
Sun cream is redundant in Vietnamese sun. It sweats off and you would need so much it would cost you a fortune. The best solution is to just cover yourself with a long sleeve and hat. 

We stopped at a red light on a quiet road off the highway but standing around in the sun was slowly killing us, so we decided to skip the red light like 16% of Vietnamese drivers do anyway. We pulled into a petrol station and a policeman pulled up behind us telling us to stay put. He was not friendly at all and called his boss over who explained to us on google translate that we skipped the red light and had to follow them back to “their office”. I repeatedly asked them what they wanted form us and if we had to pay a fine and he shouted at me “No money, no money, no money.”. Taking this to mean that we wouldn’t need to pay them we followed them 100 meters back to their little squat on the roadside and I was shown a google translate message saying “Now we will work on you.”. A different, disturbingly serious officer asked for our ID’s which I foolishly handed over, expecting not to have to pay any money. Now, I have never been in this situation before and over the last year of cycling around the world, never once have we encountered genuinely evil or bad people. Until now. I handed over our passports which they immediately pocketed and said we need to pay a 500,000 Dong (£17) fine. Okay that wasn’t too bad, but I wanted a receipt. “No receipt”, they said. I explained I wanted official paperwork to make sure this wasn’t corruption. “1 million Dong”, they said. “Look, I just want a receipt officially stating the value of the fine I am paying”, I said getting more and more frustrated. “NO!”, they shouted, “2 million Dong”. It got more and more out of hand and after almost an hour I said to them that I had serious suspicions that they were trying to steal from us. They lost their shit. They threatened to put us in cuffs and take us to the station. They were clearly very, very offended I had suggested they were criminals (which they absolutely were).

To diffuse the situation, I agreed to pay them and got them down to 1 million Dong (£34) and got our passports back. It was not a pleasant experience and there were many things we should have done differently in hindsight. We should have given them photocopies of our passports rather than the real ones, we should have probably been more polite in the beginning and when it got really heated I should have started filming them and taken their names. Josie and I were fuming as everyone lost in this situation. We had our money stolen, the citizens have to live with corrupt, greedy, criminal law enforcement and the police who are so proud of their country are in fact destroying its justice system. How can you enforce the law of your country by breaking it? The whole robbery (I don’t care what anyone says, being intimidated and forced to bribe a policeman is robbery) episode left a sour taste in our already dehydrated, dry mouths for a few days after.

The next few days were very tough. The cycling was horrendously boring, the driving was retarded, dangerous and idiotic, the climate was unbearable, and the food was monotonous and tasteless. We put all our options on the table and considered that we would reconsider our trip and route after seeing Josephine’s family in Saigon at the end of August. We just simply were not enjoying ourselves. There was a silver lining though in the form of a middle-aged Dutchman called Eric.

We bumped into the cycling Dutchman Eric, 20 kms outside of Dong Hoi. He was on a solo world bike trip and said he hadn’t met a single cyclist on his trip so far! We teamed up for a few days and he was such an energetic and optimistic man. He really brought our mood up. We made our way to Dong Hoi and found a fairly new and cheap guesthouse near the beach. The owner used to work in Birmingham and had his mates round in the evening treating us to wine (I know, wine!), delicious seafood and a lot of funny antics. Food in Vietnam is cooked in a different way to how we cook in the west. They normally cook without any added flavour, which you, as the eater, add yourself at the table. For example, our host Huy had cooked several fish (guts and all) and put them on the table with a variety of flavoured salts, sauces, ginger, lime, chilli and other flavourings. It’s a nice way to eat and we had a nice evening with them and Eric. The next morning involved some more boring roads but we felt better that the struggle was shared with Eric. He was also finding the cycling and the climate a real challenge and expressed how happy he was that we were also struggling! Sounds strange but knowing other cyclists are also finding it tough makes you feel a little better.

DSC_0504
There are a hell of a lot of Vietnam flags in this country, and also some interesting murals and paintings encouraging workers and subtly enforcing nationalism.

One of the best things about Vietnam is the coffee. Most of the coffee produced in Vietnam is the coffee species robusta rather than what is normally consumed in The West, arabica. Robusta as a bean is less explored in terms of selectively bred flavours and is considered a little bitter when compared to the “more tasty” arabica. I love it though and Josie and I both have our favourite coffees which we drink at least once a day. Mine is called a Nâu Đá which translates to “brown ice”. Basically, a cold coffee with condensed sweetened milk. Josephine likes a Sữa Chua Cà Phê, translated to “milk sour coffee”, yoghurt coffee! A round of these would cost no more than £0.90 for both.

After 2 short days we waved goodbye to Eric as he headed in search of a guesthouse and we tacked down to the coast to assess the camping situation. After a swim in a warm ocean we sacked the camping and found a cheap guesthouse back on the main road. In the morning we crossed the old demilitarised zone which used to separate North and South Vietnam during the war and arrived in Dong Ha at a Warmshowers host, our first since India. We stayed one night with Tao and his family who made us delicious vegetarian food and gave us a room for the night. I also helped him out in the garden wheelbarrowing soil back and forth, which I strangely enjoyed. It was very hot in that house without aircon but after seeing the children and the granny sleeping on the tiled floor all night without pillows or bedding, I didn’t feel like I had had such a rough night. I am not sure why, but they do that in Asia. We saw it in Myanmar too. They sit on the floor and sleep on it. I guess comfort isn’t as important to them as to us, or maybe they are not phased by it at all.

DSC_0508
Josephine standing in the middle of the old partitioning zone between North and South Vietnam.

The next few days were semi-interesting, cycling through rice paddies off the main highway. The majority of Vietnamese (at least what we have seen) or not Buddhist, but they rather follow their own folk religion which involves ancestor worship and offerings to multiple gods of air, water, earth etc. They bury the dead in elaborate tombs spread all around the countryside interspersed with temples and shrines. We attempted to read about it and understand it. We even asked our Warmshowers host Tao about it. But neither he, nor Wikipedia could really explain the complicated rituals and details of this religion. We decided to leave it as a “known unknown” in our chapter of Vietnam.

The final 2 nights before Da Nang we camped, and it wasn’t too bad with the heat. The first night on the beach we slept without the tent at all, in an effort to catch some of the sea breeze, which worked. However, Josephine suffered an armada of mosquito bites to our surprise. We haven’t seen any mosquitos since arriving at the coast but somehow they still manage to find Josephine in the night. The following night Josephine slept under the mosquito net and I in my hammock. We decided to buy 1 camp chair in Hanoi between 2 of us. I know, risky right? But so far it has worked great as 1) I like the floor and 2) my brother brought out my hammock, so most of the time we have a chair and a hammock on the go, and we can switch between them.

DSC_0518
Josephine always has 20 minutes or so extra sleep in the mornings.

The night I slept in the hammock was an experience. We found an abandoned resort on an empty beach and set up our nest for the night. Then, 3 skinny old men turned up with 4 bottles of rice wine and some meat for dinner. They moved Josephine’s bike without asking and when I intervened one slapped my ass. They proceeded to get drunk through the night and started gambling which ended in shouting and a fist fight. One stumbled away alone into the darkness never to be seen again while the other two drove away but returned twice to look for something they left behind, apparently. It was annoying and kind of ruined our night, but they left at around 8 pm giving us enough time for some slumber. Looking back, I actually felt quite sorry for them.

DSC_0525
There is no messing about when we get to the sea, we’re straight in there even with our clothes on.

In the morning we woke up at 0345 hours to get up the Hai Van pass and into Da Nang before the sun got us and turned us into a Brooks saddle. The climb (490 meters) was sweaty and a little dull but not too bad. My lower chain ring has worn and therefore I couldn’t use my lowest gear meaning I had to bulldoze up the hill at a minimum of 12 kph leaving Josephine in the dust. We were passed by a load of trucks carrying pigs to slaughter as well as a truck load of dogs. We had already seen a good number of dog trucks but never this close. They were packed in so tightly I was sure they couldn’t breathe. They were squealing, whining and the truck absolutely stank. I am sure they were likely on their way to the North to be slaughtered and eating in North Vietnam and China. The downhill into Da Nang was absolutely stunning. The road was perfect, the view was amazing, and the traffic was minimal. It made the Hai Van pass totally worth it and we arrived in Da Nang at our warmshowers host around midday.

DSC_0534
The entrance to Lang Co lagoon before the Hai Van pass, near Da Nang.

The next few weeks look more promising. We have a few nice places of interest marked on the map and the cycling gets (apparently) more interesting regarding landscapes. We also can spend less and less time on the highway AND the climate is supposed to get a tiiiiiiny bit cooler. We are feeling a bit better now about our trip and at this moment are still planning on cycling all the way to Bali. Although the last 10 days have been tough, a lot of interesting and funny things have happened and as I write this and we look back on our experiences, we are still learning and still enjoying what we are doing, and that is the whole point isn’t it?

Trystan