East Java’s Hidden Masterpiece: Madakaripura Waterfall

On the way down from Bromo, we made a stop at Madakaripura Waterfall, which lies at the end of a secluded valley in the foothills of the Tengger range. The tallest waterfall in Java and second tallest waterfall in Indonesia, Madakaripura Waterfall is the product of seven waterfalls. The locals consider this waterfall sacred since its waters are believed to pour blessings on those who walk underneath it.

On arriving at the carpark, we went into a wooden hut and tucked into a simple meal of nasi goreng while our Guide went to make arrangements for a local guide to take us to the Waterfall. In the past, visitors could just pay the entrance fee and explore the place on their own but now, it is mandatory for every visitor to engage the services of a local guide to accompany them.

We each got on an ojek and rode for 4 kilometres before arriving at an archway where tickets were being sold. I thought that we had finally arrived at the Waterfall but it turned out that the arch marked the starting point of a 2-kilometre hike to Madakaripura Waterfall! We kept walking on a gravel track until we arrived at a gate with a statue of Gajah Mada in meditation.

A statue of Gajah Mada at the entrance of Madakaripura Waterfall

Madakaripura translates to “the last residence of Gajah Mada“. This waterfall is believed to be the final meditation place of military Commander-in-Chief and Prime Minister, Gajah Mada, of the Majapahit kingdom in East Java that thrived between 1293AD to 1500AD. It is believed that the source of his overwhelming power and abilities came from within the cave of Madakaripura Waterfall, where Gajah Mada frequently went to meditate. According to legend, the 60-year-old prime minister vanished spiritually and physically (moksa) while meditating. His body has never been recovered.

We followed a concrete path that led into the dense forest, cutting across tall cliffs and streams. The all-round lush, green landscape, giant palms swaying in the wind and soothing sound of rapids moving downstream gave the whole surrounds a peaceful, tranquil feel. It is not difficult to imagine why Gajah Mada came here whenever he wanted some alone time.

The deeper in we trekked, the more beautiful the views became. Just outside the entrance to a huge cave, two local men offered to sell ponchos, umbrellas and plastic bags to us. We declined politely since we already brought along our own raincoats, sandals and a change of clothing.

Inside the cave, I could see sheets of water flowing down the rock walls, forming puddles and rivulets on the cavern floor. The walls were covered with moss and crawling greens. The sound of gushing water above our heads, water dripping from the roof of the cave, being hit by mist and spray – it felt rather surreal!

While we did our best to stay dry, it soon became apparent that we would have to walk in water to move forward. Fortunately, our experienced local guide showed us the  way to wade safely across the sharp and slippery underwater rocks. The water reached up to the knees for most part and I was glad to be wearing sandals instead of flip flops as their grip minimised the possibility of getting cut.

Things brightened up when we reached the other end of the cavern. We could see water cascading down a steep, semi-circular opening. In order to get to the plunge pool in the main chamber, we had to climb, squeeze and inch our way between the rocks…but the risk and effort was well worth it. Once we made it past the boulders into the tabular chamber, we were rewarded with a spectacular and breathtaking view of Madakaripura Waterfall!

The sunlight pouring from the opening above onto the wet, green moss gives the plunge pool its green colour.

This huge cave behind Mada Waterfall is believed to be the meditation site where Gajah Mada was last seen.
The emerald-green water from the plunge pool was crystal clear but icy cold.

The images here do not do this Waterfall any justice. It was impossible to capture the scenery in its entirety, given the limited space and towering walls encircling this 200-metre drop cascade. You’ve got to be there in person to appreciate its awesomeness.

An hour later, it was time to get out of the forest and make our way back to the carpark.

What a special morning it turned out to be! Coming to this majestic Waterfall as our last stop was a fitting way to wrap up a most memorable visit to the Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park.

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Sunrise Hike to Mt. Bromo

Mount Bromo is not only Indonesia’s most iconic mountain but also the most hiked by travellers. At 2,329 m (7,641 ft) above sea level, it cannot even claim to be Java’s highest peak. That distinction belongs Mount Semeru (3,676 m or 12,060 ft) which stands imposingly in the background, like an older  brother watching over his sibling. 

So what is it about Bromo that makes people want to climb it? The adventure, the danger, the curiosity – these are some possible reasons. In any case, the stunning views from the summit are enough reason to go there!

The name Bromo is the Javanese pronunciation for Brahma, the Hindu god of creation. The Tenggerese inhabitants found here are one of the few significant Hindu communities left on the island of Java. The Tenggerese claim to be descendants of Roro Anteng and Joko Seger and the story goes like this:- 

Majapahit Princess Roro Anteng and her husband Joko Seger fled marauding Islamic forces, ending up at Mount Bromo. They established a new kingdom, naming it Teng-ger using parts of their respective surnames.

The Kingdom of Tengger prospered and Hinduism flourished, but the couple was unable to produce any children. In desperation they prayed and meditated for many days on Bromo. Finally, the crater opened and the almighty god, Sang Hyang Widhi, promised that they would have many children provided that their last-born was sacrificed back to the volcano. 

After producing 25 children, however, Roro and Joko could not bring themselves to sacrifice their last-born, Prince Kesuma. A dreadful eruption of Bromo followed and Prince Kesuma was swallowed up by the crater. Kesuma’s last words coming from inside the crater were that he had to be sacrificed so that the rest could stay alive. He asked that an annual offering ceremony be held on the 14th day of Kasada. 

This unique and sacred Yadnya Kasada festival started by Kesuma’s brothers and sisters has been organised annually, and passed down the generations until today. It is held on the 14th day of the Kasada month (12th month) of the Tenggerese calendar. During this colourful festival, offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables, meat and even livestock are thrown into the crater. 

At 3:30am, we were standing in the cool darkness at the base of Mount Bromo, ready for the climb. The whole place was pitch dark and eerily quiet. I had expected to see more climbers, but we were the only ones around at that time of the morning.

My headlamp proved to be ineffective in the vast blackness of my unfamiliar surroundings. I treaded carefully, afraid that any loose rock would cause me to slip and roll down. We were so focused on navigating our way up the craggy slopes that we didn’t notice anything else around us – until our guide told us to stop awhile and look upwards. It was a brilliant night with hundreds of diamonds across the sky!

After two hours, we finally reached the top, which was not too bad in my book, considering the number of photo and rest stops along the way. I found the hike to be quite challenging but the changing kaleidoscope sky, the silent silhouettes from faraway mountain ranges and stone structures, the floating clouds – made me forget my tiredness and aching feet.

In order to arrive at the mouth of the caldera we had to climb a rather steep stairway of 253 steps.

At the top, I found myself at the rim of Mount Bromo looking straight down at the smoking caldera. There was a sense of triumph and elation that I had managed to make it this far – to be standing on the summit of one of the most active volcanoes in Java. (Bromo’s most recent eruption was in 2016.) I stared down at the bottomless black hole for some time, mesmerised by its sheer size and sulphur emerging from its fiery depths. Surprisingly, there was no smell of sulphur in the air – only a low howling sound from deep below calling me to come closer. I started to feel slightly dizzy and turned my attention to my surroundings.

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Dangerous beauty.

Mount Bromo’s narrow ridge allows just enough space for only one person to pass at a time.

Some words of caution if you are reading this. The concrete pillars lining one side of the ridge are set too far apart to act as effective safety barriers. I must admit that my knees started to go a bit wobbly after standing at that narrow ridge for some time. An accidental slip would mean a dramatic entrance into either the smoking caldera or one-way ticket to the bottom of the stairway!

Looking at the Sea of Sand and Savanna from the volcano crater.
Boiled eggs and coffee for breakfast under a makeshift tent set up at the base of the stairway.
A Tenggerese man selling flowers for throwing into the crater.
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Horse rides to Mount Bromo are an alternative to hiking

After a simple breakfast at the base of the stairway, we made our way down the volcano and walked across the Sea of Sand where our Jeep was waiting.

We checked out of the homestay to embark on a 6-hour drive to Banyuwangi for our next adventure…but not before making a detour to Madakaripura Waterfall.

Starry Night at Penanjakan 2 Bromo

When “beautiful sunrise” is described in the same breath as Bromo, the first viewpoint that comes to mind is Penanjakan 1. At 2,770 metres (9,087 feet) above sea level, this is a very popular spot for visitors to witness the beauty of the famous volcanic crater, Sea of Sand and surrounding mountains at sunrise. It’s no surprise that this place becomes really crowded with people jostling for a spot to watch the unravelling of Mother Nature.

For those who want to watch the sunrise without the crowds, Penanjakan 2 is an alternative spot. Although the site is not as high as Penanjakan 1, it shares much of the same scenery, as Penanjakan 2 lies below the peak of Penanjakan 1. Its lower altitude also means that it is easier to reach this site.

Our stay in Bromo did not allow enough mornings to watch the sunrise from either viewpoint. We had to be content with just driving up to Penanjakan 2 in the late afternoon, after the walkabout at Cemoro Lawang village.

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A evening view of Mount Bromo on the way to Mt Penanjakan 2.

When we arrived, we found the place deserted except for two or three locals, and there was only one other car at the parking area. It was already approaching the blue hour and we were all over the place, trying to take in as much of the disappearing landscape as possible.

A last glimpse of Bromo Crater from Penanjakan 2 just after sunset.

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Tripod set up and ready for the stars to come out.

As the darkness made its way across the national park, temperatures dropped and the few people still around sought refuge round an open fire next to a lone food stall.

We pretty much had the whole place to ourselves for the next three hours. In retrospect, I cannot imagine how we could have remained up there for so long. There was just something about that quiet mountain spot, the cold night air, the thousands of little stars across the sky and yes…even the little fire, that made me want to prolong my visit on that mountain for as long as possible.

Besides, it was a good excuse to enjoy a cup of instant noodles accompanied by piping hot coffee. Somehow, these simple pleasures taste extra nice when you are seated outside in cold weather.

The stall is operated by a local resident who sleeps in a little room at the back. Considering the isolated location where she has chosen to do her business, I was curious and asked her where she got her water for her daily needs. She said that she visits the nearby mountains everyday to collect water and firewood.

Later into the evening, it became so cold that it was no longer comfortable to sit outdoors. I invited myself inside the tiny, cramped stall and promptly sat down on a log next to a small charcoal stove to keep warm.

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Gazing at the twinkling stars in the sky.

Before making our way back down the mountain, I decided to brave the cold wind and take a last look in the direction of the Milky Way which was lit by thousands of stars.

I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.

– Og Mandino

Desolate Beauty: Mount Bromo’s Sea of Sand

Mount Bromo has a caldera of 10 kilometres and is surrounded by a vast plain called Laut Pasir or Sea of Sand. Visitors wishing to get to Bromo’s crater edge must first cross this rather intimidating grey landscape of fine, black volcanic sand.

This Sea of Sand is bordered by rugged, barren volcanic peaks which is a stark reminder that you are actually standing inside the caldera of an active volcano.

The whole site is promoted as an adventure destination, with dozens of Jeeps, motorbikes and horses available to transport you across to the base of the volcano.

At 2,329 m (7641 ft) high, Mount Bromo is easily recognisable by its top that has been blown off, with white, sulphurous gas emitting from the active crater.
Mount Batok is often mistaken for Mount Bromo. No longer active, it has the shape of a typical volcano and adds to the overall charm of the place.

There are not many choices when it comes to food at the Sea of Sand.

However, not everything in this park is bleak and empty. Mount Bromo’s savanna area is quite beautiful, with some large areas of rolling slopes covered with lush, green grass fed by rivers from the mountains.

Pura Luhur Poten, a Hindu temple of the Tenggerese people, at the Sea of Sand. This sacred temple was constructed from natural black stones from nearby volcanoes.
Riders of the Sea of Sand

East Java: An Ojek Ride to Rogo Wulan

At one o’clock in morning, our Guide came by in a Jeep to bring us to some remote location to catch a Bromo sunrise. As the vehicle pulled out of the driveway on to the main street, I noticed that there were hundreds of Jeeps parked bumper to bumper on both sides of the road. Probolinggo was wide awake and bursting with life in the wee hours of the morning. What a big difference from the quiet town we had visited earlier that evening!

After leaving the main street, we found our 4WD vehicle racing side by side with other Jeeps across a dark, open space which, I later found out to be the Sea of Sand. By and by, our Jeep broke away from the others, took a left turn and started up a narrow winding road. I knew we were driving along the side of a mountain as I could see a trail of moving lights making their way up from its base. Our journey lasted for about forty minutes as we passed a number of random food stalls along that stretch, with dozens of Jeeps parked on the side. Just seeing the sheer number of vehicles along that lonely stretch of road got me wondering if we would need to fight our way for a spot to catch the sunrise. As if he read my mind, the Guide reassured me and said, “Don’t worry. We are not going to the same place as them.”

Our Jeep didn’t stop for a break like the rest but continued on, leaving the other 4WDs far behind. Further at the top, I saw the tiny lights flickering erratically in the distance and concluded that we had finally arrived at the viewpoint. It turned out to be a waiting area for a few hundred motorcycles!

We remained inside the Jeep while our Guide went to talk to a tall man who wore a helmet with the rest of his face completely covered with a scarf, exposing only his eyes. I hope he doesn’t turn out to be a terrorist, kidnapper or suicide bomber, I thought to myself.

Our Guide returned and asked us to get down from the Jeep, adding that each of us would be taking an ojek (motorbike taxi) for the final leg of our journey to the hidden viewpoint. As luck would have it, he turned to me and told me to ride with the masked man.

Being the only female among a sea of ojek in the dead of night in the middle of who-knew-where, I was not in a position to pick and choose. I meekly climbed on to the pillion seat and tried to look as nonchalant as possible – which wasn’t easy. I felt very tense, never having really ridden on a motorbike, let alone with a stranger to an unfamiliar place. While I was deliberating on how all that camera gear was going to fit on the narrow seat, my ojek rider, in a first sign of friendship, ordered me to hand over my tripod bag to him which he immediately slung across his chest. Then we were off into the blackness of the unwelcoming forest.

I can now see why this hidden viewpoint that we were heading towards is not known to many, except for the locals in that area. The narrow dirt trail cutting across the formidable trees is just wide enough for the wheels of a motorcycle to pass. It is therefore not accessible by car, 4WD or horse. Hiking is also out of the question as the desolate off-track covers a distance of 7 kilometres. I had to brace myself for an extremely bumpy ride caused by deep ruts left behind by motorcycle tyres. It didn’t help that it had rained earlier, and my rider had to exercise extra care in manoeuvring the bike as the trail had become muddy and slippery. As the bike moved along, we had to keep lowering our heads to avoid being hit by jutting branches and leaves.

The ojek ride was akin to watching a 3D movie, except that I was not the spectator merely going through all the action-packed bike stunts from the safety of a room. This was the real thing. If my rider lost control of the bike and skidded, I would go down together with him. It was a good thing that the darkness of the forest camouflaged the uneven track which was carved close to the sides of the hill. One wrong move would have sent the both of us plunging down to the black sand below. One learning point derived from this experience is that if you close your eyes long enough and imagine you are somewhere else, some of the fear will go away!

We were about 30 minutes into the journey when the ojek slowed down and came to a standstill. It took me a few seconds to come out of my trance-like state to realise that we had reached the summit of Rogo Wulan!

Hurray! Still alive and in one piece! 

I got down and walked gingerly towards the cliff’s edge in front of me. The entire place was still shrouded in darkness. I tried to make out the silhouette of Bromo but with no success as the night and  sea clouds blocked my view of the valley below. Nevertheless, I started to set up my tripod and camera in anticipation of the moment when the sun’s rays would entice Batok, Bromo and Semeru out of their dark blanket.

Gradually, I sensed a change in the sky. The sea clouds had begun to evaporate and the blue of the night was overtaken by a mixture of yellow and orange hues. Once again I strained my eyes for a sighting of the volcanic trio but saw nothing!

“You are not at the right spot,” said my ojek driver. “Come with me. I will show you.”

He led me away from the others, past some bushes and tall dry grass until we reached another spot overlooking an unlit side of the valley below. This time, however, I could make out the faint silhouette of all three volcanoes standing out from the dark grey surface. And then, everything happened very quickly. In a matter of seconds the sun had ascended above the horizon, extending its rays over the land and lighting up Bromo Crater along with her two other friends. It was a breathtaking sight – a humbling moment and such a privilege to see the mountains, grasslands and sandy plains of Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park come alive and ushering in a new morning.

The three ojek riders
Photo taken with my smartphone.
Mt Semeru, the highest mountain in Java island at 3,676 metres.

All six of us remained at Rogo Wulan Hill until it got too hot. Then it was time to make our way back down for breakfast. This time, however, the ojek ride was not as daunting as I could see my surroundings clearly. It took us only 20 minutes to reach the pick-up/drop-off point where our Jeep was already waiting.

A view of Bromo at the halfway point of Rogo Wulan Hill.

After spending a good three hours in the company of our ojek drivers, I felt rather sad to say good-bye to them. They turned out to be great company and had done an excellent job in bringing us up and down safely to Rogo Wulan. I must admit that despite my initial reservations about riding on a motorbike, this ojek ride turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip to East Java and the first thing I will always remember whenever I think of Mt Bromo.

One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.

-Henry Miller

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As we approach the end of 2017, I wish you all a joyous year ahead. May each day of 2018 bring new reasons to celebrate, travel and enjoy the company of those who mean the most to you. Thank-you so much for your support and dancing along with me over the years. Happy New Year!

Walking Tall: Mishima Skywalk

It’s not common that you get to see all three of Japan’s big attractions from the same place. However, a visit to the Mishima Skywalk offers that rare three-in-one opportunity.

Opened to the public on December 2015, the Mishima Skywalk is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in Japan at 400 metres long. At an elevation of 415 metres with a height of 70.6 metres and a footpath width of 1.6 metres, the bridge is family-friendly. It is wide enough for two wheelchairs to comfortably pass each other. Baby strollers are allowed…as well as pets, provided you hire a pet trolley.

Metal grooves have been built along the middle of the footpath, enabling the bold, brave and beautiful to look directly down at the green valleys and thick forest below.

On a clear day, all three of Japan’s “giants” are visible from the middle of the bridge – the Mishima Skywalk (longest pedestrian suspension bridge), Mt. Fuji (highest mountain) and Suruga Bay (deepest bay).The visit to Mishima Skywalk started off well although it started to get windy and cold as we made our way across. Nevertheless, the suspension bridge held well and there was very little wobble despite the pedestrian traffic. I really enjoyed the walk and took my time to soak in the fresh, cold air as well as admire the sweeping, green vistas around me.

Every visitor who purchased an entrance ticket (¥1000 per adult) received a free plastic raincoat. I didn’t think that there would be a need to use it, but just as we were rewarding ourselves with a bagful of chestnuts, the place went dark and heavy rain poured down almost immediately. Everyone scrambled to seek shelter in a small exhibition hall. We had to wait for around 20 minutes for the rain to subside before putting on our raincoats and making the 400-metre dash back.Upon reaching the entrance, we discovered that we had (once again) just missed the bus and would have to wait another 50 minutes for the next one to come along. In order to kill time, we decided to take the escalator up to the Sky Garden for a hot cup of coffee.The Sky Garden houses a beautiful exhibit of lush flowers that hang from a glass ceiling and bloom throughout the year. There are some souvenir and craft shops as well as eateries that provide snacks and meals under the soothing ambience of an indoor garden.

It still hadn’t stopped raining when we boarded the local bus to visit a nearby fruit farm. We decided to give it a miss and headed straight back to Mishima Station.

 

This is the last write-up about my visit around the Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan in August 2017. I wish I could dedicate a post on my successful climb up Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately it was not to be. We made it up to the 8th Station and were just 500 metres away from the summit. We were advised to turn back as the non-stop rain that followed us from the start of the hike greatly reduced visibility, rendering it slippery and dangerous to continue to the top. 

At Fujinomiya Fifth Station

Scenic Train Ride on the Ikawa Line

The 25.5 kilometre-long Ikawa Line runs between Senzu Station and Ikawa Station passing through 13 stations, 61 tunnels and 51 bridges. Although it’s not as well-publicised as its SL counterpart, the scenery through the forested mountain is nothing short of stunning. Embarking on this breathtaking hour and fifty-minute journey more than made up for the disappointment of missing the Oigawa SL ride the day earlier.

The red-coloured Ikawa Line begins its northwards ascent along the Oi River through an isolated mountain area with no cities or towns. Most of the passengers are either tourists visiting one of the hot springs resorts along the line, or mountaineers and hikers heading for the peaks of the Southern Alps National Park.

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There were so few passengers that we had the last carriage all to ourselves.

The rivers and mountains are the highlights of this train ride. As we chugged slowly inwards and uphill, the scenery got better and better. The water in the river changed from grey to blue-green, as it made its way through a series of rapids and ravines. From the cliff sides, waterfalls cascaded down into the valley. At some points during the bridge crossings, the railway tracks were carved so close to the edge that we were able to look directly at the water below, as if the train was making its way across a tightrope.


Onsen town seen from the train

Between Aputo Ichishiro Station and the Nahashima Dam, the slope is so steep that the train needs an additional boost make its way up. A rare Abt rack system has been installed for this purpose. An electric locomotive is connected to the back of the train, using a cog system that locks into a racked middle rail to provide that extra push up a 9% gradient across a 1.5 km section of the line.

Aputo Ichishiro Station
The view at Aputo Ichishiro Station where the electric locomotive connects with the train for that extra push.
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On reaching the top, the extra locomotive decoupled and we were on our own again.

Nagashima Dam

Points along the river are dammed with concrete walls to control the flow of water.
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A pop-up Post Office at Oku-Oi Kojo Station

Chubu Electric Power Museum

At an altitude of 636 metres (2,087 ft), Ikawa Station is the highest railway station in Shizuoka Prefecture. We had half an hour to grab a bite while the train “rested” for the journey back to Senzu Station. By this time, we were all famished as we had skipped lunch in favour of the Oigawa-Ikawa train ride. However, food options were limited at Ikawa Station. There was a small food stall in the station itself and another one at the bottom of a narrow stairway behind the station. We bought some oden (a one-pot winter dish made up of peeled whole boiled eggs, carrots, daikon radish, fish cakes and potatoes simmered in a soy broth) and enjoyed it outdoors in the fresh mountain air and cool forest surrounds.

At Senzu, we did a quick tour of the small town and had dinner in a typical Japanese family-run restaurant before boarding another train for Kanaya Station.

 

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Mount Fuji First Look (#56)

How thrilling to draw back the curtains at six o’clock in the morning and see Mount Fuji for the first time right from my bedroom window at Fujinomiya Green Hotel!

Shizuoka Area Tourist Pass Mini: Hamamatsu, Japan

Some time in May this year, my friends and I were thrilled to find out that Singapore Airlines was offering promotional flight rates to Japan. It was too good an opportunity to miss and within 10 minutes of discussion, we found ourselves with four airline tickets to Japan for August. We opted for a flexible travel itinerary by purchasing a Mt Fuji-Shizuoka Area Tourist Pass Mini.

The Mt. Fuji-Shizuoka Area Tourist Pass Mini is a rail pass for exclusive use by foreign tourists. It provides pass holders with three consecutive days of unlimited travel on designated trains in the Shizuoka Prefecture as well as on selected bus and ferry lines, especially around Mt. Fuji. The map above shows an extensive range of towns and cities covered by this Mini Pass.

Now this is the part where it gets a bit tricky. This 3-day tourist pass can only be bought online or through travel agents outside of Japan. You will initially receive a voucher that has to be exchanged for the actual pass at a designated station in Japan and this must happen within three months of purchase. At the time of exchange, you will specify a starting date for the pass which should be within one month of the current date. In our case, payment was made online and a trip had to be made to their designated collection office in Singapore to get our hands on the hard copy voucher. Immediately after arriving at Japan’s Haneda Airport, we had to lug our luggage into the train and rush to Tokyo Station before closing time at 6:30pm to exchange the voucher for the actual Shizuoka Tourist Mini Pass.

Our first use of the Mini Pass was supposed to have taken us to Kanaya for a ride in the Oigawa Steam Locomotive. Instead of taking the fast train, however, we got into the “wrong” train that stopped at every town. We arrived 10 minutes late, helplessly aware that the steam locomotive had left without us! We had to catch a bus to Shin-Kanaya Station to buy new tickets for the next day, and to add insult to injury, pay a fine totalling Y600 for failing to board the choo choo train.

With the morning’s plans up in smoke, we decided to use the pass to journey south to Hamamatsu.

Hamamatsu sits on the fringe of Lake Hamana. It used to be a freshwater lake until an earthquake in the 15th century destroyed the sandbank, causing the freshwater lake to join up with the Sea of Enshu. During the 16th century, a tsunami broke out causing the mouth to become even wider. This resulted in the creation of a saltwater lake which is present-day Lake Hamana.

Hamamatsu is an industrial city, specially known for musical instruments and motorcycles. Companies that have established their base here include Hamamatsu Photonics K.K., Kawai Musical Instruments. Roland Corporation, Suzuki Motor Company, Tokai Guitars Company and Yamaha Corporation. It is the only city in Japan that has a Museum of Musical Instruments!

After a walkabout around the Lake Hanama area, we caught the local bus and headed for Hamamatsu Flower Park.

Hamamatsu Flower Park is a botanical garden on the edge of Lake Hamana, boasting of 3,000 different species of plants in all. Sprawled over an area of 30,000 square metres, visitors get to enjoy seasonal flowers and greenery throughout the year.

The park entrance opens up to a well-maintained landscaped garden which overlooks a large musical fountain and a geometrically patterned flower bed. This spacious park has many walking trails for visitors to feast their eyes on the colourful flowers and plant sculptures.

As it was summer time, we did not get to see the cherry trees and sakuras for which the park is so famous. Instead, there were lots of purple and yellow blooms.

A good way to explore and see what the park has to offer is by first hopping on to a Flower Train for a guided tour. You can find out where things are and what flowers are currently in bloom, and then head straight for the spots that interest you.

In the centre of the park is a large greenhouse called the “Crystal Palace”. When you step inside, the first thing to greet you is a patio area filled with huge colourful flowers. As you wander further in, you get to see many beautiful themed gardens that take the breath away.

Fiery Sky (#55)

I just could not resist posting some photos of this absolutely brilliant sky captured with my mobile phone from the 15th floor balcony of my elder daughter’s apartment. Surprising moments like these make me wish I had come better prepared with a DSLR and tripod.

On a slightly different note, I leave tonight for Japan. A taxi will come to pick me up at 4:15 a.m. and drive me to the airport. I have been under some stress for the last couple of days, trying to make sure that life will still go on smoothly in my absence and my home is still standing when I get back! I know, I know. Don’t flatter yourself, I hear you say. Every one of us is dispensable.

As luck would have it, I discovered this morning that my automatic gate is not working. This has definitely added to my stress level. I need to get it fixed before I fly off. Can’t have my younger one getting in and out of her car to open and shut the gate. I’ve heard one too many horror stories about robbery and kidnapping when one leaves the car for just a few seconds.

Young people these days have an aversion towards the slightest thing you ask them to do. Take my younger daughter, for instance. She tells me I am nagging when I requested that she waters the plants and feeds the Koi while I’m away. I remember the last incident with our fish all too well. I returned from South Africa to discover that all four Koi that we had raised since young had died!

I will share some photos and details of my trip after I return. Cheers, everyone!

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the Edge of The Blue Lake

The weather here has been unpredictable lately – with sweltering mornings turning very quickly into heavy showers and thunderstorms in a matter of minutes. This makes planning for an outing difficult and frustrating. Three weeks ago, however, I felt that I had had enough of waiting for the weather to improve and decided to check out a mysterious lake  that I had read about on the internet.

I was feeling pretty disgusted with myself for not knowing that this lake is just a 33-minute drive away from home. Notwithstanding the fact that many residents who have lived here all their lives are unaware of the existence of this lake sitting in their backyard.

Better known as the Seri Alam Blue Lake, it is not a natural lake but an abandoned granite quarry – with the bluest water ever! While a lake with blue water may not seem a big deal, it is certainly not a common sight here. In fact, I’ve never come across a blue-coloured lake in Malaysia, let alone get to know that one has been practically outside my doorstep all along!

The trip was fraught with obstacles from the beginning. It started to rain heavily just as I was about to drive off. The downpour set me back by an hour but did not dampen my resolve to check out the lake that same evening.

Finding the lake was a bit of a challenge. There were no road signs to indicate that there was even a lake in that area! You would not expect to find a lake hidden behind a hill, with a university campus and a residential development project nearby. This quiet stretch of road transforms into a racing track in the evenings for Mat Rempit, the term used to describe local youths who race on their modified motorcycles at daredevil speeds with dangerous stunts thrown in.

Upon arriving, I was taken aback to see that metal barriers had been erected at the entrance to the car park, effectively sealing off access and rendering the Blue Lake off-limits to visitors.

I certainly had no intention of turning back without satisfying my curiosity about what was behind those barriers. We drove a little further down the road, trying to figure a way to circumvent the barrier. We spotted an opportunity where the barriers ended and joined up with the road railings. In the end, I decided to lie flat on the ground and wriggle my way under the railing to get to the other side.

We then made our way across the uneven, sandy slopes and continued uphill…

….until we spied what appeared to be a chasm in the distance.

On reaching the edge, I was greeted by a stunning blue-green body of water cradled by granite cliffs and green foliage. It felt unreal, overwhelming and sad to see this beautiful, quiet lake in such a forgotten state. I made my way carefully down a protruding rock to get a closer view of the blue water and its surrounds. The damp ground was narrow and slippery, allowing enough space for only one person at a time to take in the scenery. One false step would have meant a one-way ticket all the way down to the beautiful but toxic waters of the lake.

Photo credit to CY Lim    Panoramic view of the Blue Lake.

The fate of the lake looks uncertain. The water level appears to have dropped considerably, reducing the size of the lake and exposing the granite rock underneath. If left to the elements, it’s just a matter of time that the lake will dry up and disappear forever. With all the building and construction taking place in the surrounding area, I am hoping that the lake will be retained as another attraction within a recreation area in the vicinity. The worse thing that can happen is if all that water is drained out for land reclamation.

The Blue Lake is certainly a fetching sight. I am waiting for clear day to sneak back in to catch the sunset.

Journey to the Cape Peninsula

The Cape Peninsula with all of its stunning scenery and rich biodiversity is a feast for the senses. The weather was kind and it was a beautiful clear morning when we journeyed along the scenic Atlantic seaboard coastal road en route to Hout Bay. The road meandered out of Sea Point and into Clifton, which is home to real estate that only the super-rich can afford. Next to Clifton is the similarly affluent suburb of Camps Bay, popular with locals and international tourists for its long beach and pumping night life. This is THE place to strut your stuff and be seen. To my right, a never-ending stretch of white sand, sheltered from the south-easterly wind and very popular among sun-worshippers.

The Twelve Apostles on the Atlantic Coastal Road

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The coach pulled up at an open car park for a photo opportunity of the Twelve Apostles mountain range. The Twelve Apostles are a group of small mountain peaks that run along the coast of Capetown and are part of the national park that runs from Table Mountain to Cape Point. The formidable Twelve Apostles rise above the road on one side, while steep cliffs and unusual rocks formations drop into the seemingly endless Atlantic Ocean on the other.

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Hout Bay and Boat Cruise to Duiker (Seal) Island 

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We arrived at Hout Bay, a quaint fishing village which sits halfway between Cape Town and Cape Point. This once-fishing community is now a popular residential area nestled by mountains to the North, East and West and the ocean to the South. This village still carries the charm of a bygone era with many local craft markets and antique shops along the waterfront.

Hout Bay is well-known as the port of departure for scenic day trips to Seal Island.

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The boat ride to Seal Island entails circling round The Sentinel to the other side.

Located 6 kilometres out to sea from Hout Bay, Seal Island is home to well over 60,000 Cape fur seals and 24 different bird species. Seals are the favourite menu for the Great White sharks that circle this area. The seals are well aware that they are the choice meal for sharks and enter the ocean with some degree of caution.

The whole island is an ever-changing scene of shades of brown bodies stretching and rolling lazily on the rocks. The seals squabble, bawl, bellow and snort at one another. The larger males compete for dominance while other seals nonchalantly slide off into the cold waters of the Atlantic.

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We could only view the seals from the boat. This is not the kind of island where you can disembark. There is no beach, soil or vegetation at Seal Island. The whole place is rocky and slippery.

Groot Constantia Winery 

Dating back to 1685, Groot Constantia is the oldest wine estate in South Africa. It is particularly well-known for its legendary dessert wines (Constantia Wyn), which have been enjoyed by aristocracy and royalty, from Bismarck to Frederick the Great of Prussia, King Louis Phillip of France and Napoleon. The luscious dessert wines have also been mentioned by Charles Dickens and Jane Austen in their books.

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We were given a 45-minute guided tour of the wine cellar and watched the wine production process in action. We then made our way to the meeting room, walking past some beautiful works of art on the walls. The staff explained the background of the wines and suggested different blends and vintages that go well with food. During the talk, each of us got to sample the award-winning vintages he was referring to.

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From left: Gouverneurs Reserve 2013, Pinotage 2015, Merlot 2013, Chardonnay 2015 and the famous Sauvignon Blanc 2016

The Manor House, which is a good example of Cape Dutch architecture, provides an insight into the life of a successful Cape farmer as well as the lives of rural slaves who worked in the wine estate. Other exhibits include furniture, paintings, textiles, ceramics, brass and copperware from the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the historic core of Groot Constantia Wine Estate stands Jonkershuis Constantia Restaurant. It is spacious and flexible enough to cater for big group functions like weddings, parties and conferences as well as for smaller occasions like family-style lunches, small group outings and picnics on its front lawns.

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Sweeping views across the vineyards and beyond.

Fish Hoek Village

The wine-tasting and activities in the morning had whetted our appetites and all of us looked forward to having lunch at Fish Hoek.

The village of Fish Hoek sits on a pretty bay with a lovely beach and colourful Victorian bathing boxes that add a festive flavour to the place. This vibrant town is surrounded by rugged mountains and lays claim to one of the safest swimming beaches in Cape Town. It is no wonder that Fish Hoek is popular with wind surfers, lifesavers and hobie cat enthusiasts.

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The restaurant where we had lunch, The Galley, is situated right on the beach with fresh breezes and panoramic views of the waves and sand. Customers can choose to dine in or outdoors.

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For starters, we were served with Pumpkin Soup with Garlic Bread, followed by the main made up of Lobster served on a bed of Butter Rice, accompanied with Fish Fingers on Skewers, Salad and Chips. We rounded off the meal with ice-cream – a perfect dessert for a sweltering afternoon.

Boulders Beach, Simon’s Town 

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With all that heavy meal weighing inside my stomach, I was looking forward to getting a bit of a shut-eye inside the coach before we arrived at the next stop. Well, that didn’t happen. Seven minutes into the journey, the coach pulled up to the side of the road in Simon’s Town. We were asked to make our way down a somewhat steep side lane leading to Boulders Beach for the African (Jackass) penguins to have a closer look at us.

Every year over 60,000 visitors flock to Simon’s Town to watch and photograph the penguins in their natural habitat. Boulders Beach remains the only place in the world where one can get up close to African penguins. There are broad, wooden boardwalks cutting across the beaches for both parties to get a good look at each other.

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African Penguin standing directly under me on the boardwalk.

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Cape Point 

Cape Point lies 1.2km east of Cape of Good Hope and is the most south-western corner of the African continent where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet. Cape Point is in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and is part of the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site. This narrow stretch of land, dotted with beautiful valleys, bays and beaches, contains a stunning array of animal and plant species.

South Africa’s most powerful lighthouse can be found here. Completed in 1859, it still stands at 238 metres above sea-level on the highest section of the peak and is now used as the central monitoring point for all lighthouses on the coast of South Africa.

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In order to get to the lighthouse, visitors can either make an uphill walk from the car park to the lighthouse or take The Flying Dutchman Funicular. This funicular takes its name from the local legend of the Flying Dutchman ghost ship and is believed to be the only commercial funicular of its type in Africa. A 3-minute ride in this wheelchair-accessible Flying Dutchman Funicular transfers visitors from the lower station at 127 metres above sea-level, to the upper station to see the lighthouse and panoramic views of the ocean.

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The intermingling of currents from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans help to create the micro-climate of Cape Town and its surroundings. Contrary to popular belief, the meeting of both currents does not result in any obvious visual effect, so there’s no “line” in the ocean where the sea changes colour or looks different. There are, however, rough seas, dangerous swells, tides and localised currents around the Point and in the adjacent waters. There has been countless maritime disasters in the centuries since ships first sailed here.

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A bird’s-eye view of the strong waves directly beneath me.

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Cape of Good Hope

About 1.2 kilometres west of Cape Point is The Cape of Good Hope, a rocky promontory at the southern end of the Cape Peninsula. The Cape of Good Hope is a haven for historians, nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts offering scenic trails, hiking, biking, swimming in tidal pools, surfing, fishing, angling, bird, whale and wildlife watching.

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The fading rays over Table Mountain marked the end of an exciting and memorable day at the Cape Peninsula. As the coach cautiously made its way out of the national park, I looked out of the window at the darkening sky and hoped fervently that I might one day get to see this all over again.

Footnote: As I was preparing the final edits to this post, I was shocked and saddened to receive news that our Tour Leader to South Africa, Ms E.M. Law, passed away on Sunday December 4, 2016. It was just last month that I dropped by the tour agency to say “hello” and reminisce on some highlights of the trip. She had promised to keep me updated on a small-group tour to Botswana, Tanzania and Kenya planned for next year. I just can’t believe she’s gone!

On Top of Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa

If there’s one attraction that you just cannot afford to miss when you’re in Cape Town, it’s Table Mountain. The mountain forms part of Table Mountain National Park and sits right in the heart of Cape Town. The views from the top are one of the most stunning, so it’s no wonder that Table Mountain is one of the most photographed landmarks in South Africa!

Reaching a height of 1,085m at its highest point, it has a broad flat surface like a table, thus inspiring its name. The indigenous people call it Hoerikwaggo (Mountain in the Sea).

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Apart from gaining the distinction of being one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, Table Mountain also lays claim to being the only natural site on earth to have a constellation of stars named after it. The name of the constellation is ‘Mensa’, which translates to ‘table’ in Latin. Mensa is located below Orion and it is possible to get a glimpse of this constellation in mid-July if you are in the southern hemisphere.

For the adventurous who are into extreme sports, the mountain is currently the world’s highest abseil at 112m high.

For the fit and agile, this mountain is a hiker’s paradise with numerous trails and amazing views on the way to the top. It takes anywhere between 1 to 3 hours to get up there. However, while the mountain may look tame on any given day, it’s good to be well-prepared and carry water and warm clothing. Sudden changes in weather have resulted in fatalities every year. It’s preferable to hike in a group, hire a guide or join an experienced hiker.

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If you are like me, a casual tourist with limited time and whose fitness level is highly suspect, just use the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway. It only takes a 5-minute scenic ride inside this state-of-the-art cable car to reach the top. There’s no need to strain to see the cliff views above and city below, as the floor of the cable car rotates so that everyone gets a 360-degree view – no matter where they are standing.

There are actually two cable cars that travel at a maximum speed of 10 metres per second and can transport 65 passengers each. The cable cars counterbalance each other as one goes up, the other comes down. They cannot operate independently of each other. The cable cars base is filled with water that serves as a ballast in windy conditions.

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Through the cable car’s looking glass overlooking Lion’s Head mountain and the city of Cape Town.

This cableway has carried many famous visitors ranging from Hollywood and Bollywood megastars, sports personalities and royalty to political bigwigs and business leaders from all over the world.

They include Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Andrew, Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Jackie Chan, Forrest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Brooke Shields, Sting, Michael Buble, Tina Turner, Dolores O’Riordan, Usher, Blair Underwood, Ne-Yo, David and Victoria Beckham, Stefi Graf, Micheal Schumacher, Bob Skinstad, Robbie Fleck, Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo and Justin Gabriel – just to name a few. 

So when your nose is pressed against the glass of the cable car, remember that it’s entirely possible that an A-list visitor may have once pressed up against the very same spot!

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For about 2 seconds, there was no one between me and the glass, so I managed to get a shot of Cape Town.
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The view just before the approach to the upper cable car station.

At the top, there are friendly trails to breathe in the mountain air and explore the beautiful surrounds. On a clear day you can see miles ahead with the entire city spread out on all sides, embraced by the ocean with the clouds gently brushing your head! The photos here do not do this mountain justice.

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Even the birds can’t seem to get enough of the scenery from one of the most beautiful places in this planet.

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The rocks on the mountain are over 600 million years old, making Table Mountain one of the oldest mountains in the world. By comparison, it is 6 times older than the Himalayas and 5 times older than the Rocky Mountains.

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Lookout to Robben Island where Nelson Mandela spent 18 out of 27 years in a prison cell.

Table Mountain hosts the richest floral kingdom on earth with more than 2000 species of plants. About 70% of those species can only be found up here and nowhere else.

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Table Mountain is often covered in a sheet of cloud which is responsible for the flourishing vegetation found on the mountain. It looks similar to smoke but is actually the result of a south-easterly wind rising up to meet the mountain’s cooler air. The cloud that forms around the mountain is aptly called “table cloth”.

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Restaurant and a curio shop under the shroud of a “table cloth”

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Our coach driver (left) and his friend at the Cableway car park with Lion’s Head mountain (669m) in the background.

Sunset Over Mauritius

Upon getting back to the resort after the day tour, we still had forty minutes to dinner time. I decided to check out the resort’s fitness centre that’s equipped with a gym, swimming pool, two-tiered sun deck and a chic spa with hot tubs, sauna and massage rooms.

The fitness centre on the rooftop was tastefully done up with Balinese touches incorporated into its design – water features, small statues, candles, plants and the use of bamboo, wood, brick and stone to create a sense of harmony and balance with the environment.

What was most satisfying for me, however, was the orange sky I spied behind the pergola. I just could not believe I was seeing the end of day unfolding right in front of my “doorstep” of all places! At that moment, I almost changed my mind about going to the beach.

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A deep orange sky seen from the sun deck
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A view of the fading sun over downtown Flic en Flac seen from the rooftop spa balcony. The bird was a bonus!

However, noting that it was my second and last evening in Mauritius, I decided it best not to overthink,  so I made a dash for the beach to catch the last traces of light. Made it…but only JUST!!

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Good Morning, Singapore! (#54)

Photographed at Changi Village Beach on Saturday 1 October 2016 before the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk 2016 at Pulau Ubin, Singapore.

It wasn’t the most spectacular of sunrises but hey, I woke up at 3:15am just for this and had no intention of coming back empty-handed. I hadn’t realised that my shoes and socks had become completely soaked in the soft wet sand until the sun had already established a foothold across the sky.

 

In Sight Johor: The Sungai Johor Link Bridge

Three weeks ago, J and I made a trip to a town called Kota Tinggi to hand a pair of customised 2017 desk calendars to a food stall operator. This friendly old man had sportingly agreed to pose for some portrait shots during our last trip there. Needless to say, he was thrilled to see his photo on print and started to show the calendar to his customers.

After a quick meal of char siew and chicken rice at his stall (incidentally our drinks were complimentary), we proceeded to drive around a bit to explore the surrounding area. There was really not much to see along the trunk road except rows and rows of oil palm trees. By and by, we came to a handwritten sign pointing in the direction of a rumah rakit (raft house). We hesitated. Checking out the place meant doing a 7-kilometre drive inside a vast oil palm estate. Deep, dark, deserted – pretty scary, on the whole. After some deliberation, however, we decided to venture into the plantation. After all, no pain no gain, right?

There were some pretty anxious moments as the car made its way deeper into the thick, undulating forest. As the minutes ticked by, we became increasingly doubtful about where the road was leading us. The whole place was so remote that internet reception became erratic. The quiet, winding road seemed never-ending and we began to wonder if the sign seen earlier was out-of-date. To make matters worse, the petrol gauge showed that we were down to one bar. Earlier on, we had stopped by the only petrol kiosk at Teluk Sengat to fill up but guess what? All petrol had been sold out! A local resident told us that the next available kiosk could only be found on the opposite side, requiring a 26-minute drive to get there. As we couldn’t be sure about getting to top up even in the next town, we decided to continue exploring with the optimistic hope that there would be sufficient petrol to last until we reached home.

We drove uphill along the meandering road until we came to a slope cutting through an expressway tunnel. We found ourselves inside another oil palm estate but on the opposite side of the highway. I began to understand the actual meaning of the phrase, ‘So near and yet so far‘. Civilisation was right in front of us but the car could not get across as there was a shallow ditch and fence separating the estate road and the highway. By then it was already too late to turn back. We pressed further up until we were about to reach the highest point of the hinterland.

It was during that moment of approach when the Johor Bridge revealed itself, rising out from the lush green valley and river below. Woo hoo!  🙂 🙂

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Did we make it to the raft houses on the river? Yes, we did, walking around the jetty area before hurrying back up to our newly-discovered spot to catch a glimpse of the sunset.

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It would have been ideal to get a shot of the sun going down behind the bridge but that didn’t happen. From where we were standing, the bridge was a few degrees off from the sun.

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All in all, it was a successful day trip. Who would have known that such a pretty view can be found within the deep recesses of a dull oil palm plantation? And now that I know that the sign did not lie after all, I hope to visit Kampung Tanjung Buai again and spend a night in a raft house.

 

In Sight Johor: Teluk Sengat

In one of my earlier posts, “A Twist in Sungai Rengit”, I related how I sprained my ankle when I unwittingly stepped into a big crack on the concrete walkway. It was just punishment for not paying enough attention to where I was walking and ignoring an off-limits sign! What I did not mention was that after the incident I did not go home immediately, thinking I was suffering more from shock than anything else and that my leg would recover if I just allowed it to rest until we got to our next destination.

So we drove to another town called Teluk Sengat and stopped at a sloping rocky outcrop overlooking the sea. To the left, we could see a long jetty and J suggested that we make our way there to check out the view. By that time, however, the pain had become downright unbearable so to cut a long story short, we decided to leave the place and come back again when my leg was much better.

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Fast forward two years later…we made our way again to Teluk Sengat in the hope of catching the sunset.

Teluk Sengat is a quiet seaside town on the bank of the Johor River. You know you’ve arrived when you see the long jetty, as well as a row of open seafood eateries along the river bank. It’s a nice place to dig into an array of tasty seafood offerings while watching the sky change colour. The abundance of marine life here makes it a popular fishing spot, giving rise to a number of raft houses (rumah rakit) where fish, shellfish and crustaceans are bred.

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From the jetty at Teluk Sengat, you can see the Johor River Bridge in the distance. This 1.7km bridge is the the longest single plane cable-stayed bridge in Malaysia connecting Kong Kong Village in the west to Teluk Sengat in the east. It pales in comparison with the other bridges around the world but nevertheless, it makes for quite a pretty sight at night-time when the bridge is lit.

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Sadly, the appearance of heavy clouds that day dashed any hopes of capturing a brilliant sunset. We could have stayed back and waited for the Johor River Bridge light-up, but that would have meant driving on a rural road with little or no street lighting for most of the journey home.

Oh well…guess I will have to make another trip to Teluk Sengat. Who knows? I might be third time lucky!