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!

In Sight Johor: Air Papan

While cruising along the east coast of Malaysia I came across this beautiful 3-kilometre stretch of beach, hidden away from the main road. Naturally, I had to stop to have a closer look. The tide was low and I managed to walk quite a distance out to sea. It was a good day to catch a glimpse of some of the surrounding islands in the vicinity. I did wonder if the water was shallow enough to get to the nearest island but didn’t attempt as there was nobody nearby to call in case I needed help!

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A little further up the road…

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In Sight Johor: Tanjung Balau

If you would like to get away for a day from the hustle and bustle of city life, then Tanjung Balau is a good place to visit. Just an hour and fifteen minutes’ drive away from the city centre, this rather laid-back village on the east coast has a nice beach for swimming, fishing and relaxation. Established more than a hundred years ago by fishermen from the north-eastern Malayan states of Kelantan and Trengganu, Tanjung Balau is the oldest fishing village in Johor, Malaysia.

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For those who are keen to know a thing or two about the livelihood of traditional fishermen and its historic legacy, there is a Fishermen’s Museum right by the beach. Artefacts on exhibit include fishing nets and tackles, and traditional tools used to fish. Visitors also get treated to a dose of local seafaring superstitions and techniques to determine a good catch.

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The entire seascape at Tanjung Balau is especially beautiful during low tide as this is when the hidden marine life are revealed. There are lots of seashells in various shapes and sizes, small fish trapped in shallow pools of water between rocks and sandbars, and tiny crabs skittering across the sand, then disappearing just as quickly into unseen holes.

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However, the most unique feature about Tanjung Balau are the wind-stressed rock formations seen only during low tide. The rocks are believed to be from the Permo-Carboniferous age, which is more ancient than those of the Permian period that began 275 million years ago!

It is possible to have a closer look at these prehistoric formations if you take the cement walkway that extends out to sea, circling round a little bay on another side of the promontory, before crossing a small bridge that joins up with the mainland. A number of shelters have been built along the walkway to allow visitors to take in the lapping waves against the rocky surrounds.

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Wild monkeys are a common sight in Tanjung Balau. The family of monkeys living inside the forest next to the car park are rather mischievous. When they see a car approaching the parking area, they start chattering among themselves, as if deciding as to whose turn it is to prank the car driver. By and by, one of them walks to the middle of the road and lies down, pretending to be dead. This forces the oncoming car to stop. The “dead” monkey then gets up and starts to usher the rest across the road. The other monkeys take their time to cross, running back and forth before finally disappearing into the bushes. Usually, I would get out of the car and start taking photos. However, after my last experience in Chiangrai, Thailand, I decided to give this one a miss!

There are toilets, shower rooms as well as a food court for day trippers. However, I wouldn’t bet too much on getting a meal and drink at the food court. I thought a glass of iced coffee would be a good way to cool down and keep awake during the ride home. As it turned out, only one drinks kiosk was open and there was no one manning the place. I made my way into the kitchen, placed my order, then went outside and waited…and waited…and waited for ten minutes! There was no sound or activity from the kitchen! That was when I concluded that the residents at Tanjung Balau must be earning such a good income from fishing that they are not interested in any other trade to supplement their income!

I left Tanjung Balau without coffee.

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For those who wish to stay overnight, there are chalets nearby as well as tents for camping on the beach. Just remember to bring along your drinking bottle and fishing rod!

 

 

 

 

Shipwrecked: Loch Ard Gorge

Loch Ard Gorge is a must-stop point along the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. It’s found in Port Campbell National Park, just three minutes away from the world-famous Twelve Apostles.

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Flanked by two cliff faces and tufts of vibrant greenery, this scenic gorge is home to a secluded, turquoise-coloured bay with rolling waves caressing a narrow, sandy beach. However, Loch Ard Gorge isn’t just another natural Aussie attraction. It has a history of tragedy, irony and heroism that started from a voyage 130 years ago.

In 1878, the Loch Ard, a magnificent three-masted square-rigged iron clipper ship set sail from Gravesend (I’m serious!) in Kent, UK.  Measuring 263 feet long with a beam of 38 feet, it carried onboard 17 passengers and 37 crew for a 3-month voyage to Melbourne. For the past 90 days at sea, it had been smooth-sailing and everyone was in good spirits, looking forward to their arrival in Melbourne the next day. On the night of 31 May 1878, a party was organised to celebrate the end of a long voyage.

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Many days of fog and poor weather had made it difficult for the newly married, 29-year-old Captain Gibb to calculate his exact position for the critical passage into the western entrance of Bass Strait. By the time the mist lifted around 4:00am, the Loch Ard was greeted by powerful breakers and treacherous cliffs of the Victorian coast just two miles away. The Captain and his crew tried desperately to drop their anchors in an effort to steady the ship and turn her about, but it was too late. There was not enough space to manoeuvre such a large vessel, particularly with the wind and current against her. The Loch Ard struck Mutton Bird Island, crashing against the reef, dislodging rocks from the limestone cliffs onto the ship’s decks.

Pandemonium broke out as the crew struggled to launch the lifeboats, while passengers screamed in terror as the ship started to disintegrate. Many of the crew and passengers were washed overboard, and others trapped as the sea began to invade the ship. The Loch Ard sank within 15 minutes of the crash, with passengers having little chance of survival in the icy and treacherous waters.

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Fifty-two people went down with the ship on that day. Only 4 bodies were eventually recovered and later buried in the clifftop cemetery – in coffins made from piano crates!

Only two people survived the Loch Ard Shipwreck – Tom Pearce, an apprentice seaman aged 18 years, and Eva Carmichael, also 18, a passenger emigrating with her family to start a new life in Australia. When the Loch Ard was going down, Eva had raced onto the deck to find out what was happening, only to be confronted by towering cliffs looming above the stricken ship, before being swept off by a huge wave. She could not swim and clung fiercely to a chicken coop for 5 hours. As the angry waves carried her nearer towards the entrance of a long, narrow gorge, she saw a lone figure on the distant beach and screamed for help.

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Tom Pearce, a member of the crew, was swept into the sea while helping to launch a lifeboat. He managed to hold on underneath the upturned boat and was swept into the same deep gorge that now bears the name Loch Ard Gorge. He managed to swim to shore and was recuperating in a sea cave when he heard Eva’s cries for help. Although himself exhausted, he bravely dashed back out into the raging sea to rescue Eva. It took him an hour to swim out to Eva and pull her ashore. He brought Eva to a nearby cave in the gorge where she collapsed from her ordeal. After a few hours of resting, Tom climbed up the surrounding cliff and walked over three miles to seek help.

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Stalactites hanging from the ceiling of the limestone cliffs.

He managed to raise the alarm from the nearby Glenample Homestead and both survivors spent the rest of their time recovering at the farmhouse.

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These days, there is a wooden stairway for visitors to get to the beach. Back in the 1800s, there were no steps and climbing the cliff was very difficult.

Tom and Eva became the subject of intense media attention and romantic speculation. On the one hand, there was the romantic expectation for them to marry. On the other, Victorian attitudes suggested that she was compromised by sleeping in a cave with a young sailor, and he should do the right thing by offering to marry her. Disappointingly for the romantics amongst us, Tom and Eva went their separate ways. They never saw each other again. Eva returned to Ireland where she later got married. Tom went back to sea and his heroism earned him a medal from the Humane Society.

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Visitors to the area today can see the Gorge where the disaster took place, the rock stack of Mutton Bird Island that brought down the Loch Ard, the beach where Tom and Eva struggled ashore, and the cave where she lay exhausted while Tom went for help.

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The other survivor of the shipwreck is a life-sized, brilliantly-coloured 1.5-metre-tall Minton porcelain peacock, perched on a rock. It was on its way from England to be displayed at Melbourne’s Great International Exhibition of 1880. Apart from a small chip on its beak, it was undamaged and is Australia’s most valuable shipwreck relic on display at Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum with an estimated worth of $4m.

Life After the Shipwreck

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What became of Tom and Eva after they went their separate ways?

After recuperating for 6 weeks at Glenample Homestead, Eva boarded a steamship and went back to Ireland! What a brave young woman to board a ship after all that had happened just a few weeks ago!

Eva married a Captain Thomas Townshend. Notice that her husband and rescuer had the same first name. Perhaps the name ‘Tom” was very common during that time. 

Could Tom Pearce have been jinxed – or as we Asians call it – suay! Before the Loch Ard, Tom Pearce had previously survived another shipwreck 3 years earlier in 1875 when the Eliza Ramsden went down near the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. After the Loch Ard tragedy in 1878, Tom returned to sea in 1879. The ship Loch Sunart he was in hit a rock off Ballywalter in what is Northern Ireland today.  The story goes that Tom was washed ashore and carried unconscious to the nearest house. Guess whose house it was? Eva Townshend’s! Coincidence? Fate?

Tom eventually married a woman who happened to be the relative of another ship apprentice that went down with the Loch Ard. He retired in 1908 and died in his Southhampton home at the age of 49. It’s a bit of an irony that Tom managed to survive 3 shipwrecks but didn’t get to reach his 50th birthday! Perhaps he had cheated Death one too many times and his time was finally up! 

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Tom Pearce was born Thomas Richard Millett. When his civil engineer father died in 1874, Tom’s widowed mother married Captain James Pearce and Tom took on the surname ‘Pearce’ from then on. Tom’s stepfather, James Pearce, happened to be the captain of the ill-fated SS Gothenburg that wrecked on the Great Barrier Reef in February 1875!

Tom’s family history is littered with tragedy. Both his sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became sailors. However while Tom managed to survive three shipwrecks, his sons were not so lucky and both boys died at sea. Tom’s daughter was killed in a road crash and a granddaughter committed suicide.

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Back to present-day Loch Ard Gorge where yesterday’s tragedy has become today’s tourist attraction.  I felt very small standing on this narrow stretch of sand, sandwiched between towering cliffs on both sides. While some of the fascination has rubbed off, the coast has not been tamed. It’s really not difficult to imagine the chaos, destruction and danger that sweeps across this part of the Great Ocean Road during a thunderstorm.

Sand, Sea, Surf – Forrest Caves

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To be honest, you’re not likely to go ga-ga at the mention of Phillip Island’s Forrest Caves, unless you have a passion for surfing. There are three exposed beaches on this 1.3 km of coastline with extensive rocks, reefs and bluffs around. These waves have strong rips with a number of breaks over the reefs. Breaking the waves, flipping the board, turtle roll! You can realise all these moves here!

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A 45-minute return walk along some large sand dunes will bring you to Forrest Caves. These are large sea caverns in the rock carved by the unceasing erosive action of the waves. The caves become exposed and are accessible only during low tide.

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Forrest Caves carpark viewed from the wooden steps.
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First view of the ocean from the viewing platform.

You get to see some beautiful colours on this walk – the red stained tuff rocks, grey boulders, green tussock grass, the blue sky, white waves and golden sands. Best of all, the whole beach was deserted. What a special way to be spending my last few hours in Phillip Island!

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Approaching the sea caves at low tide.

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Along the Boardwalk – The Nobbies, Phillip Island

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The Nobbies is actually the more popular name for Point Grant, located at the western tip of Phillip Island. In addition to boasting of panoramic ocean views and dramatic sea bluffs, the Nobbies is home to one of the largest fur seal colonies in Australia. It’s not quite certain as to how the Nobbies got its name. Perhaps it was from the domes at the end of the point, or from the rocks that protrude from the water like knobs when the tide reaches a certain level.

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Unlike Cape Woolamai where the hike can be quite challenging, the one-kilometre walk around the Nobbies is a relaxing one via a series of wooden boardwalks and stairs that wind around the edge of the cliffs, offering uninterrupted views of fiery waves and white water crashing against the rocks.

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The Nobbies showcases nature at its best. There are many native birds and wildlife in the surrounding area, and they turn up at the most unexpected moments. If you are thinking of coming here, consider bringing along a pair of binoculars. We spotted quite a number of wallabies hopping about, and admiring us while we admired them. Elsewhere, there were Grey Geese wandering about with their goslings. It’s amazing to think that little penguins land here and climb the cliffs to their burrows every night. We spotted many man-made burrows and even spied little penguins inside some of them.

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After crossing a level stretch of the boardwalk, we arrived at a viewing platform for the Nobbies Blowhole. There is a 12-metre-deep sea cave just below the boardwalk. When smashed by a strong wave, the blowhole returns fire with a mist of air and water that sprays out of the hole. It was mesmerising to watch this phenomenon from the safety of the platform.

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There is a sign along the boardwalk to explain how this force of nature works. Those with a physics bias will appreciate this additional information.

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1. A large wave enters the blowhole.
2. The wave fills the tunnel from floor to ceiling, compressing air against the rear wall.
3. The wave hits the rear wall and rebounds, its speed increased by the explosive force of the compressed air. This creates a jet spray from the tunnel entrance.

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Are those white streaks caused by seals, dolphins or whales?

The plus point about the rugged scenery of the Nobbies is that there are no entrance charges for the the pram-friendly boardwalk. Free. Now that’s a word I rarely hear these days! Don’t forget your jacket and scarf as it can get very cold especially if you are visiting during winter and spring.

Phillip Island:Chasing Dawn

It’s not often that I get the chance to catch the sunrise in a beach setting. So very early the next morning, I forced myself out of the warm bedcovers, grabbed my jacket, camera and torchlight and used a shortcut to Cowes beach. The entire neighbourhood was still in slumber as I walked right to the end of the street. I made my way across the grass and into some bushes and trees that hid a narrow trail until I came to a flight of wooden stairs leading straight to the beach. As I made my way through the foliage, I could hear the distinctive calls of birds and insects as well as movements and cracking branches coming from the trees above me. This is what I love about Phillip Island. You get to really experience close encounters with wildlife in their natural habitat.

At that very early hour, I was the only person on the deserted beach. The sand was still wet and soft under my feet, forming little pools of water with every step forward. In the distance, I could make out the dim flicker of lights from the town and the black silhouette of trees against an emerging gold sky. I gazed at the waves ebbing lazily in their silver blue-grey coat and waited. A flock of seagulls kept me company as I watched the sky perform an elegant dance ritual of colours in blue, purple, pink, red and orange.

I felt as if I was in a huge open air concert hall and the light extravaganza was for my eyes only. What a humbling feeling!

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All too soon, the magic of the moments came to an abrupt end. The sun’s golden rays had appeared surreptitiously but quickly, casting its light over the landscape and staking its claim on a new day.

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A Nature Walk Across Cape Woolamai, Phillip Island

Going to Melbourne and spending some time with family is always something I look forward to. Besides being able to put up at Mom’s place for as long as I wish, my two married sisters will always make sure that my time in Melbourne is well-spent – be it catching up with close relatives, window shopping, visiting Melbourne’s historical monuments and city attractions, or joining their famiies for outings to explore Victoria’s many natural attractions.

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This time round, my sister announced that she and her family would be bringing me to Philip Island, staying for three nights in a time-share resort. This would be my first time to Philip Island so I was pretty excited about the prospect of getting some great photographs. Getting the chance to join my sister, brother-in-law and nephew was the icing on the cake as the family are nature lovers, spending weekends in the outdoors and making short trips to those places less trodden without burning a big hole in the pocket!

The drive from Melbourne to Philip Island is about 130km and takes about an hour and forty-five minutes. Due to the after-office crawl on the highway, however, we only arrived in Phillip Island two-and-a-half hours later and checked into the villa after dark.

The next day, we drove to Cape Woolamai, Phillip Island’s most southerly point that’s world renown for its surf beaches, natural beauty and shearwater rookery (mutton birds). In fact, Cape Woolamai has been declared a National Surfing Reserve, where you can just enjoy the beach and watch daring surfers in action. If coming here is in your itinerary, make sure you are prepared to walk a few kilometres in from the Woolamai Beach Surf Lifesaving Club carpark.

IMG_4804aFrom the carpark, we walked down a wooden ramp to the beach and made our way along a wide strip of sand towards an outcrop that juts out from Cape Woolamai. On the other side of this rocky point is the spectacular granite formation called the Pinnacles.

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IMG_4910aAbout 700 meters before reaching the end of the beach, we came to a wooden staircase leading up to the sandy grass-covered bluffs that connect the rocky end of Cape Woolamai with the rest of Phillip Island.

Once at the top, the rugged landscape of Cape Woolamai opens up to views of red cliffs, blue oceans, rocky shores and golden beaches.

There is a sign here highlighting four of the most rewarding walking track loops that run along the coastline and are interspersed with viewing platforms that offer superb views of Phillip Island. Each track is identified with a different colour marker, and varies in distance and terrain.

  • Pinnacles Walk – The green track is 4.5km long, with an estimated walking time of 2 hours return. The path winds along rugged granite cliffs and impressive rock formations known as The Pinnacles.
  • Cape Woolamai Beacon Walk – The black track is 7.4km long and continues past the Pinnacles to the light beacon at the high point of Cape Woolamai (118m) before looping back around the end of the cape. It has an estimated walking time of 3.5 hours
  • Old Granite Quarry Walk – The blue track is 5.6km long with an estimated walking time of 3 hours. It crosses over to the east side of the cape that was once the site of an old rock quarry.
  • Cape Woolamai Circuit Walk is 8km return and takes about 4.5 hours to compete all three walking tracks.

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Our initial plan was to take the shortest of the three walks – the Pinnacles Walk (2 hours round trip), leave Cape Woolamai by 4pm and finish the day with a hearty dinner in town before returning to the resort.

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However, by the time we arrived at the junction where the walking trails branched out, all initial plans were forgotten. Since my sister’s family had not tried out the inland route, we decided to start with the Cape Woolamai Beacon Walk first, and then head back via the Pinnacles Walk so that we could take in the ocean scenery for the remainder hike back to the carpark.

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The Cape Woolamai Beacon trail enters some woodlands, which provide the only shady area in Cape Woolamai. As we approached the beacon, the trees gave way to shrubs and we continued the long hike on undulating terrain before finally arriving at Cape Woolamai’s beacon.

At an elevation of 118m, the beacon sits at the highest point on Cape Woolamai and all of Phillip Island. While looking seemingly ordinary, this light beacon is responsible for keeping ships from running into Phillip Island!

It is also from this lookout point that we got to see stunning panoramas of the island, including the Bass Strait that separates Victoria from the island of Tasmania.

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From the beacon, we took the left trail that looped round along the sheer cliff tops towards the direction of the Pinnacles. You know you’ve reach there when you see a wooden bench at the edge of the grassy bluff with spectacular views of granite formations that make up the Pinnacles. Here, sea stacks resembling connected rock columns rise out of the water and strong waves crash into the rocks, exuding energy, anticipation and excitement to the seascape. If the views are so mesmerising from the top, how stunning the Pinnacles must look if seen up close from the rocky shoreline!

However, none of us attempted to venture down the rocky shoreline as it was already getting dark and the path looked rather unsafe. You need to go down the narrow trail leading towards the steep embankment overlooking the bottom. Extra care is needed to make sure that you don’t slip on the soft soil held together with loose vegetation. I wasn’t prepared to take the risk of injuring myself so early into my stay in Australia.

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During the hike, we spotted a number of curious wallabies and one echidna which was trying its best to hide away from us. Dotting the cliff sides, we also saw many burrows dug by short-tailed mutton birds.

Mutton birds are plucky creatures. Around the last week of September every year, they brave a 15,000km journey from Alaska via Siberia, South America, Antarctica and Japan to arrive on the shores of Philip Island. They remain for nearly six months to rest, build their burrows and mate, with each pair producing one large egg. The newly born chicks have an extraordinary penchant for survival – waiting up to two weeks between meals whilst the adult birds travel to as far as the Antarctica to feed on krill, which they regurgitate for their waiting chicks back in the burrows of Philip Island. We managed to see the occasional mutton bird and spotted a chick or two peeping out from their burrows.

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While the walking routes at Cape Woolamai appear generally flat and undulating, it is a physically challenging one. The first half of the trail is over deep sand that gives way with every step. It was energy-draining and exhausting to walk on. Near the stairs, the beach becomes somewhat rocky and rough and the rest of the walk along the cliff is laden with loose stones that are quite slippery. If you’re not confident with your level of fitness, you might want to give this place a miss and check out Philip Island’s other natural but less strenuous attractions.

It’s also best to be accompanied by someone if you are thinking of doing this track. Should the unthinkable happen, at least someone can go for help.

IMG_4798aIn addition to your camera and binoculars, I would bring along a jacket, biscuits and a plentiful supply of water. While it may have looked like a nice, sunny day, the winds were strong and it was actually very cold. I had my jacket on during the entire 8.5km walk. A torch would be worth packing especially during the winter months when daylight hours are shortened. The most important thing is to make sure you wear solid shoes with a good grip for traction on the slippery rocks.

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By the time we got back to the carpark, everyone was very hungry and looking forward to having fish ‘n chips for dinner. To our utter disappointment, most of the eating places in town were already shut by 7pm. We finally ended up having Chinese food in a small cafe.

 

 

 

 

 

Blue Horizon at Mindil Beach Sunset Markets, Darwin

Mindil Beach Sunset Markets are something of a Darwin institution. Held every Thursday and Sunday during the dry season months between May and October, the markets are a melting pot of cultures and cuisines, where you can sample a wide variety of flavours from the Asia-Pacific, shop and be entertained beneath the coconut trees swaying gently against the backdrop of a brilliant sunset.

The stalls sell bush art, clothes, puppets and pottery. For something to remember your visit, you can take home a didgeridoo, Aboriginal painting or a crocodile wallet, wristband or jewellery made from crocodile teeth.

All around the air is filled with delicious smells. This is the place to sample spicy Thai tom yum or green curry, or traditional Indonesian goodies like bakso (savoury meatball noodle soup), gado-gado (vegetable salad with peanut sauceand satay (barbecued meat morsels on skewers, marinated in turmeric) topped with a hearty dose of peanut sauce  and served with ketupat (rice cakes)

Then there’s Malaysia’s laksa, mee siam and nasi goreng; Vietnam’s buncha (pork meatball and noodle salad), goi cuon (shrimp or pork with herbs rolled up in rice paper) and nem nuong xa (grilled meat on lemongrass skewers).

Closer to home, crocodile, buffalo and barramundi are just some of the fresh specialties for the taking. For those traditional foodies, there’s always the roasts, burgers, fish and chips. To finish off with something sweet, there’s tropical fruit, fresh juices and a great array of exotic desserts.

At dusk, the throngs of locals start arriving, armed with deck chairs, stools, rugs, mats and magazines to stake a space on the sandy beach and wait for the sun to sink below the horizon. The Sunday that I went was especially busy with the spillover of merrymakers who had gathered earlier in the afternoon for the 42nd Darwin Beer Can Regatta.

By the time I made my way to the beachfront, I could not find a nice spot on the sand. Everyone looked well-prepared except me. I had forgotten to bring something to sit on. As time was running out, I took off my shoes and sat on them. A few feet away from me, a resourceful French backpacker had appraoched a Dutch girl who had already secured her spot, and asked if she could share her rug.

So there was only me on the beach – along with a few hundred other people, waiting expectantly for the magic to happen. By and by, the murmurs, quiet chattering, shifting and movements stopped as the sun recede into the waters below.

The sky lit up into a blend of reds, oranges, yellows and even purple. The ebbing waves carried a hint of red, with dark blue streaks running across the waters. Everyone was transfixed and mesmerised. The contrast between the dark waters and the painted sky made the horizon look mysterious and beautiful at the same time. For a few moments, the world was quiet and restful as the sun transitioned from day into night.

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A few minutes later, the silence was broken. Around me, a flurry of activity as people started to pack up and make their way out of the beach.

As for me, I couldn’t bring myself to leave so quickly. The last traces of light was still across the sky and I decided to just wait a little longer for the darkness to set in. I rummaged inside my bag to look for my little LED torch, just in case it became too dark to make my way out of an unfamiliar place. By the time I looked up again in those few short seconds, the fading sky had changed once again and transformed into a rich, creamy, blue canvas, spilling silver dust all over the water.

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I sat there and waited until the beach was almost deserted. Then I dusted the sand from my toes, put on my shoes and made my way back to the hotel.

 

 

Cruising Along Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk National Park

IMG_4182aJust a 70-minute drive away from Edith Falls is one of Australia’s most spectacular outback regions – Katherine Gorge or as the local indigenous Jawoyn people call it – Nitmiluk National Park.

Frankly, I had envisioned the gorge to be something like Maguk (Barramundi Gorge) where the hike is long and strenuous across most parts. My fears, however, proved unfounded. You can’t just walk in and out of Katherine Gorge. You either take a cruise or canoe.

All tours in the region are operated by Nitmiluk Tours that offers 2-hour and half-day safari gorge cruises, canoeing, hiking, helicopter rides and accommodation within the National Park. You can buy your tickets at the Nitmiluk Visitor Centre located at the entrance to the jetty, and then make your way down the ramp and hop into a boat or canoe.

IMG_4183aNitmiluk Gorge is made up of 13 separate waterways that wind along a 12 kilometres stretch of ancient rock with heights extending to more than 70 metres. Sculpted from sandstone over 20 million years ago by the Katherine River, it is open all year round, and features some of the most stunning gorge scenery in Northern Territory – raging waterfalls, rocks and boulders, breathtaking cliff views of Jawoyn country, pockets of rainforest along streams, water holes, bushland and a myriad of lizards, insects, birds including freshwater crocodiles!

IMG_4192bThese thirteen gorges are actually sections of one massive gorge that become separated by rock bars and boulders when the water level drops during the dry season. Conversely, when the water level rises during the rainy season, rivers, rapids and waterfalls develop and flow down the escarpment. Therefore, accessibility into the upper reaches of the gorge by boat and canoe depends very much on the water level.

The cruise I went in took me as far as the Second Gorge. The guide gave a good account of the local Jawoyn culture, the make up of the gorge, and some of the plants and wildlife that inhabit the area. It was not long before we came across a freshwater crocodile camouflaged underneath a rock along the bank.

At reaching the end of the First Gorge, we had to get off the boat and make a 400-metre walk across rocky terrain before getting into another boat that would take us to the Second Gorge.

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This crossover with its uneven surfaces can become quite tricky. Those with restricted mobility do not need to hike all the way to the Second Gorge. There are benches and rocks at the crossover to sit down and take in the views while waiting for the rest to return.

Here are some views that opened up as we made our way to the Second Gorge.

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Making our way down the steps to the Second Gorge.

The Second Gorge is even more stunning than the first one. Every turn of the winding river provides another visual masterpiece of near vertical bedrock plunging straight down into the blue-green waters of the expansive Nitmiluk Gorge. 

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I felt a sense of deja vu when cruising along the Second Gorge. The place looked strangely familiar and I couldn’t recall where I had seen a similar scenery. And then it struck me! I was cruising along the same route that was used in the filming of the Australian horror crocodile movie, “Rogue”.

Rogue (2007) is about an idyllic wildlife cruise that disintegrates into terror when a party of tourists are stalked by a massive man-eating crocodile. The movie was shot in Yellow Water at Kakadu National Park, with additional scenes in Nitmiluk Gorge. You can watch the trailer here.

All too soon, two hours seemed to whiz by. It would have been very nice to have been able to stay back for the sunset. Sadly, time did not permit. We were soon back inside the coach, making a stop at Emerald Springs for dinner, before embarking on the last leg of the long journey back to Darwin.

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A last look at Nitmiluk National Park.

No Place Like Katherine – Edith Falls (Leliyn)

Edith Falls, also known by its Aboriginal name Leliyn, is a picturesque collection of dazzling waterfalls that crash down the surrounding cliff sides and into the one large plunge pool. Surrounded by lush vegetation and a quirky array of wildlife, Edith Falls is a popular recreation spot for visitors on the look out for the Top End’s mesmerising outback scenery.

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The falls are located about a one hour drive north from Katherine in Northern Territory, and is a must-visit attraction if you’re headed for the Katherine region.

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The falls are named after the Edith River which runs through the Nitmiluk National Park. It is a thriving habitat for plants and animals, whilst the rock pools offer cool respite from the hot Australian outback.

In addition to the waterfalls and rock pools, the landscape surrounding Edith Falls is carved with numerous hiking trails which are popular with more active travellers. There are plenty of scenic bushwalking routes for exploring, as well as a handful of secluded spots with grassy sites and ample shade for picnics and relaxation.

Hot shower facilities are available and there is a kiosk for buying food and drinks.

Edith Falls can be visited at anytime of the year, but it’s best to experience it during the dry season between May and September. The rainy season might be less crowded, but there’s a chance you might not get to swim in the pools – one of the main highlights of the trip.

It was a lovely start to the morning. I got to try crocodile meat for the first time during lunch, and then we  were back on the road again, headed for Katherine Gorge.

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