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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!

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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!

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!

 

 

 

 

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.