Entabeni: The Place of the Mountain

The road journey to Entabeni for my highly anticipated safari tour is one that will remain in my mind for a long time.

Out of the thousands of available coach drivers in Johannesburg, we had to get the driver from Hell. As we made our way from Johannesburg Airport to Sun City, the monotonous droning from the coach engine was suddenly broken by a loud exclamation from the driver.

“What? I am not staying there! I want to go home. No, no. The agency did not say I have to stay. I can take you there and then I’m going back home!”

Home for the coach driver from Hell, is in Pretoria, about 144 kilometres or a 2-hour drive from Sun City. The local guide tried her best to explain to him that the tour itinerary had been confirmed with the travel agency well in advance, and that his accommodation, meals and overnight stay allowance had already been paid out to the agency. The exchange between the tour guide and driver continued for some time with the driver grumbling loudly that he was not informed of the arrangement.

Fast forward to early next morning when we set off for Entabeni Game Conservancy, approximately 4 hours away from Sun City. After some attempts at making small talk with the driver, the tour guide managed to find out that the driver had never been to Entabeni. She reassured him that it was okay as she had been there several times and knew how to get there. I think the driver from Hell was still reeling from the fact that he had to stay overnight at Sun City and wanted revenge. When we came to a junction where he was supposed to take a right turn, he flatly refused, citing heavy traffic during that hour and that he didn’t want to get caught in a traffic jam. He took the left turn instead, telling the tour guide that he knew what he was doing, and that the road should eventually join back with the one to Entabeni. Well, that didn’t happen. Pleas by the tour guide to turn back fell on deaf ears.

We spent more than an hour in unfamiliar territory looking for a signboard or person to ask for directions. If you have ever driven on a highway across the savanna, you would probably know that the landscape looks the same everywhere and signboards are few and far-between. Finding another human being in No Man’s Land is practically an impossibility! Finally, our driver from Hell decided to exit from the highway to find a town where he could ask for directions.

I won’t go into details about this excruciating journey that seemed to last forever! We were all relieved when the coach pulled up at Legend Golf and Safari Resort an hour-and-a-half later. While we refreshed ourselves in the resort’s luxurious washroom, our driver from Hell went to the reception desk for directions to Entabeni. The final leg to our elusive destination entailed a dead-slow drive on an isolated 20-kilometre stretch of very bumpy, unused dirt road, before finally arriving at the security entrance of Entabeni Game Reserve. What was supposed to have been a 4-hour drive turned out to be a 7-hour drive!

Entabeni, also known as “The Place of the Mountain”, is a private game reserve in the World Heritage Waterberg region of South Africa’s Limpopo Province. The reserve traverses over 22,000 hectares showcasing a wide variety of landscapes. It is home to the Big Five and a diverse range of African wildlife and bird life.

Five eco-systems can be found here. The upper escarpment offers majestic craggy rock formations, wide-open grass plains and forested hills. 600-metre-high cliffs separate the upper escarpment from the lower plateau made up of sandy wetlands, with the temperature about three degrees warmer than the top.

The security entrance to the game reserve was as far as the coach was allowed to go. Thereafter, you can only get around in the reserve’s 4WDs. Entabeni has five lodges spread over different locations of the Conservancy. We waited 15 minutes for the 4WDs to arrive and ferry us to our accommodation – Ravineside Lodge, 4.5 kilometres away.

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The fun started almost immediately when we climbed onto the 10-seater 4WD. The ostriches around the security entrance began to chase our vehicles as we drove off, running side-by-side with the open-top 4WDS. These big birds can really run! From driving on the open plains, the vehicles continued into a wooded area. The ranger slowed down and told us to look on our left. I strained my eyes and got my first glimpse of a giraffe eating leaves off some tall branches.

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I was thrilled to spot some more wildlife in the distance as the vehicle made its way towards the lodge. The ranger reassured us that we would get the chance for a closer view during the game drive scheduled that same afternoon.

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First glimpse of Ravineside Lodge

By the time we arrived at Ravineside Lodge, it was 2:30pm – way past lunch time which was to have been at 12:30pm. As we were already behind schedule, we rushed through the buffet lunch and skipped high tea to get ourselves ready for a 3-hour game drive while there was still daylight left.

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The walkway leading to the bar and dining area.

Ravineside Lodge sits under the shadow of Entabeni Mountain on the upper escarpment overlooking the gorge. The lodge caters for three meals, which is commendable considering that it is quite a distance away from civilisation. The cuisine served here is very palatable – comprising a fusion of traditional South African and European elements, accompanied by fresh garden vegetables and fruits. Guests can have their meals either in the African-themed dining room or in the bar.

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The dining room
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African art donning the walls of the dining room
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The roof of the dining area has a safari theme.
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The bar area seen from the dining room.
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There is WiFi access in the bar but reception is somewhat erratic.

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The rooms are not found in Ravineside Lodge itself, but situated some 500 metres away. As the lodge is in the reserve itself, it is not uncommon to get four-legged visitors in the vicinity. So guests are discouraged from walking from the rooms to the main lodge due to the likelihood of running into wildlife. This means that guests are heavily reliant on the rangers for transportation between their rooms and the shared facilities.

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The thatched-roof en suite bedrooms at Ravineside Lodge sit on stilts by the cliff side. There are 22 rooms altogether, grouped in clusters of 3 or 4. You can’t see the rooms from the cliff. A wooden and stone stairway hugs the sides of the cliff and leads down to the rooms.

When the 4WD turned onto a sloping clearing at the edge of the cliff, a sudden panic came over me. I did not see any rooms – only a huge gorge in front of me. Worst of all, the ranger seemed to be going straight for the cliff’s edge. Oh, my God! We are going to die, I thought to myself. It was only after the vehicle had come to a complete stop that I realised the “lookout point” at the edge of the cliff was actually a stairway leading down to the rooms! Even thinking about that little clearing gives me the shivers until today! What if the brakes fail?

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The rooms stand on stilts at different levels of the cliff side.

The ethnic-themed rooms are simple, yet clean and comfortable. There is no air-conditioning, television or internet but each bed gets an individually controlled electric blanket. In light of the many activities available during the day, however, all you really want to do after returning to the room is have a nice hot shower, get between the warm sheets and fall asleep!

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Each lodge features 3 or 4 en suite bedrooms with ethnic-style decor.

The cluster rooms share a private open-plan lounge and bar area that extends out to the walkway and sundeck/balcony. From here guests can indulge in bird-watching and enjoy great views of the valley with its ravines and wooded hillsides.

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My room was at the furthest and lowest end of the cluster.
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View from the doorway.
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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!

Twenty-Four Hours in Mauritius

In mid-July of this year, I received a call from a close aunt, asking if I would like to go to South Africa with her. The local tour agency was offering a promotional package with a fully-sponsored two-night stopover in Mauritius thrown in. Although I was a bit hesitant at first, it struck me that I might not ever get another opportunity to visit South Africa…so I said, “Yes!”

We flew Air Mauritius, of course. Why else would the airline want to fully sponsor your accommodation, meals including a day tour of Mauritius if they are not hoping that you will like the place so much that you will return there one day? It was my first time with Air Mauritius and I really didn’t know what to expect. The return flight turned out to be better than expected. It seemed like the twenty-five of us in the group were fed non-stop inside the plane. The only downside was the choice of movies which was very limited. I will always remember Air Mauritius for its landing. They were the best landings I have experienced for any plane. Hats off to the pilots!

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Mauritius is a volcanic island of lagoons and palm-fringed beaches with coral reefs surrounding most of the coastline. It sits in the Indian Ocean, off the south-east coast of the African continent. Its 1.2 million mixed population comprises Hindus, Creoles, Muslims, Chinese and Europeans. Most Mauritians are bilingual and while English is the official language, French and Creole are widely spoken.

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Various view points offer great views of the western fringes of Mauritius.

On arrival at Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport (what a mouthful), our group was greeted by an Air Mauritius representative, who spoke only Mandarin and not a word of English. Good for her, I guess. She was spared from having to answer the many curious questions I tend to ask when visiting a new country.

Chamarel Waterfall

After buffet breakfast at 6:30am the next day, we set off for Chamarel that is known for its natural attractions. We drove along the coastal roads, passing fishing villages and the famous salt pans of Tamarin. I was disappointed that the coach did not stop for us to get a closer look at the salt pans. Since salt is found in virtually every household, it would have been interesting (for me, at least) to see how salt is derived from sea water pumped into large, shallow pans and left to evaporate before being harvested and sent for refining.

Our first stop was at Chamarel Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Mauritius at a height of 100 metres. There are two view points to see the waterfall. The first one is just off the carpark area. The second viewpoint is found higher up, requiring a climb up a stairway to view the waterfall from a different angle as it plunges into the pool below.

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Chamarel Waterfall from the second viewing platform

Seven-Coloured Earth of Chamarel

A short drive from the waterfall is The Seven-Coloured Earth, a natural phenomenon which is unique to Mauritius. It is a relatively small area of sand dunes made up of seven distinct colours – red, brown, violet, green, blue, purple and yellow. These colours are not that apparent from afar. In fact, as you approach the sand dunes, your eyes might deceive you into thinking that you are looking at hills with shadows of different shades. However, upon getting closer, you soon realise that the colours are real and the shadows an illusion.

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The bizarre dunes were created by volcanic rocks which cooled at different temperatures and became crushed into sand which then settled into different compositions bearing different colours. Interestingly, the colours do not erode during torrential downpours and changes in the climate.

What is even more incredible is if the coloured sand were mixed together, they’ll eventually settle into separate layers!

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The dunes are protected by wooden fencing and visitors can view the coloured earth from observation outposts along the fence.

Black River Gorge

The Black River Gorge National Park offers panoramic views of the island, including mountains, vistas, gorges, waterfalls and rivers. Stretching over 6574 hectares of land, there are lots of hiking trails to view the forests and wildlife. It would have been nice to spend more time here and wander around a bit, but that did not happen because we were on a tight itinerary.

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Sweeping vistas at Black River Gorge

Grand Bassin Sacred Lake (Ganga Talao)

Grand Bassin or Ganga Talao is a sacred lake resting high up in the mountains at 1800 feet above sea level. This natural crater lake is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites outside of India. Every year, more than 400.000 Hindus make the pilgrimage to Ganga Talao to pay homage to their gods. There is a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva, along with little shrines and colourful statues around its shores. You can’t miss the giant statue of Shiva marking the entrance. At 108-feet, it is the highest statue in Mauritius.

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Grand Bassin with the statue of Shiva towering majestically at the entrance of the sacred crater lake

According to a legend this crater lake is connected with India’s holy River Ganges. Lord Shiva (Transformer and Destroyer) took his wife, Parvati, around the world in a flying ship. He wanted to show Parvati the most beautiful places on earth, so they stopped in Mauritius. Throughout the journey, Shiva was carrying the River Ganges on his head to prevent the earth from flooding. However, when they were about to land in Mauritius, Shiva accidentally spilled some water. Drops of it flowed into the crater – making Ganga Talao what it is today!

Le Bois Chéri Restaurant, Saint Aubin

After Ganga Talao, we made a 20-minute coach ride to the famous Bois Chéri tea plantation for lunch. Le Bois Chéri Restaurant is a charming building that sits on a hilltop surrounded by beautifully maintained grounds overlooking a man-made lake.

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The Mauritian menu was imaginative, using tea leaves in many dishes, thereby adding a fresh twist to the elegant dining experience. The home-made rolls served with butter and four different types of custom dippings made this a meal that I will remember for a long time. We concluded lunch with a tea tasting session of 8 different types of Bois Chéri tea.

The Company’s tea factory is down the road from the restaurant, and it even has its own tea museum!

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Troux aux Cerfs Volcano

After lunch, we made our way towards the famous Trou aux Cerfs Volcano in the town of Curepipe. Some geologists believe that the island of Mauritius was formed by lava spewing out from this volcano, so you can imagine how I was really looking forward to seeing this extinct volcano measuring 300 meters in diameter,  605 meters high and 80 meters deep. 

Well, I was disappointed. The site was covered with overgrown bushes and trees such that the crater was hardly visible. What remained resembled more of a little pond, so badly silted and clogged up that it hardly had any water. Suffice to say that it just wasn’t worth the hour-long travel just to see this poorly maintained, vegetation-filled crater.

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Fortunately, the surrounding landscape around the volcano offered some consolation. It gives a panoramic view of Curepipe town and the southern part of Mauritius. The scenery stretches for quite a distance, allowing you to see several towns, villages, farms and the majestic craggy mountain peaks jutting out of the landscape.

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Wherever you may be in Mauritius, the mountains are not far away.

Aanari Resort and Spa

We put up at the Aanari Resort and Spa for the 2 nights we were in Mauritius. A minutes’ walk from Flic en Flac beach, this island-style resort with wood accents is in a two-wing complex ideally located in the village of Flic en Flac. There is a huge supermarket in the basement of the resort complex, with the police station and beach being right opposite the building. This is quite a happening place with restaurants, bars, clubs, bank, money changer, internet cafe, post office, clinics, pharmacy, laundry services, shops and boutiques within walking distance from the resort.

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Landscaped gardens

We were fortunate to get a corner room at the upper most level of the resort which also houses the gym, swimming pool and open spa. The rooms were slightly dated but clean and comfortable. A slight glitch took place almost immediately after we entered our room. The entire wing to which my group was assigned experienced a power blackout. Most of us had not even begun to unpack. Being new and unfamiliar with the place, all we could do was to sit in the darkness and wait for the power supply to come back. Some of us took this chance to get better acquainted with our fellow travellers standing outside the darkened corridor, while others took the opportunity to peep into other people’s rooms to compare whose room was bigger (and better)! Thankfully, this inconvenience lasted for about 25 minutes before power supply was fully restored.

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Getting from the lift to my room requires walking past a pretty, landscaped rooftop garden which offers sweeping views of Flic en Flac town and the areas beyond.

The meals served at Aanari were excellent. I enjoyed savouring the seafood and meat prepared in Mauritian style. The dining tables were set up in a lush, open terrace garden, complete with a sea view and live music entertainment in the evenings at the open lobby bar.

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Taking in the breeze and sea waves while dining
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Landscaped outdoor dining area

Riding the Storm: The Grampians

Just 235 kilometres west of Melbourne is Grampians National Park which is down on Australia’s National Heritage List for its outstanding natural beauty. The Park boasts of one of the richest aboriginal rock art sites in south-eastern Australia, with some of the best bush scenery against a backdrop of rugged sandstone mountains that can reach as high up as 1000 metres.

I had never been to The Grampians during my previous visits to Australia – until last year. Of all days, I had to sign up for a day tour during one of the wettest and coldest days in Victoria! It was too late to pull out from the trip by the time it was announced that heavy showers were expected the next day.

I felt less apprehensive when the Driver/Guide explained that The Grampians had its own climate and eco system, so the wet weather forecast need not necessarily apply to the National Park. With this assurance, I didn’t think too much about the intermittent showers that accompanied our small group during the 3-hour journey.

Brambuk Cultural Centre

The coach drove into the township of Halls Gap and dropped us off at the Brambuk Culture Centre. Owned and operated by five Aboriginal communities, Brambuk Culture Centre is the longest running Aboriginal cultural centre in Australia, offering information on the Grampians National Park as well as local aboriginal culture and history. The architecture of the centre looks like a flying cockatoo, a symbol of the local Aboriginal communities.

There was a lot of interesting things on display at the Centre – multimedia shows, art exhibitions, aboriginal artefacts, cultural talks, an aboriginal museum, and activities such as didgeridoo music, traditional dance, basket weaving, boomerang throwing and painting. I even managed to spot a number of wallabies roaming freely in the garden.

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The Brambuk Cutural Centre with the towering sandstone mountains of The Grampians

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The group was scheduled to have lunch at Halls Gap and I was really looking forward to checking out this interesting-looking town. Once we got inside the coach, however, the Guide broke the news that we would be by-passing Halls Gap and heading straight for MacKenzie Falls instead. Storm clouds had already started to form in the distance and he wanted to make sure that we got the chance to visit the Park’s major attraction before the rain. We began the 40-minute drive up the winding mountain road towards MacKenzie Falls.

On the way, I could see evidence of the destructive forces responsible for shaping the landscape – burnt, charred, naked trees everywhere with no birds or animals in sight.

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In the past ten years, Grampians National Park has been hit by a series of natural disasters, namely bushfires and floods. In 2006, a major bushfire devastated about 50 percent of the park, followed five years later by a major flood that damaged a significant amount of the park’s infrastructure, particularly along the MacKenzie River.

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The road we followed marked a transection between two distinct vegetation types – healthy woodlands on one side and scorched eucalyptus trees standing out of rock and ash on the other. The lonely trees, dark clouds and stillness of the surroundings gave the area a bleak and gloomy feel, as if waiting in quiet anticipation for something to happen.

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MacKenzie Falls

After a hurried lunch at the picnic area, I made my way down the 1.9 km path leading to the waterfalls. MacKenzie Falls is one of Victoria`s largest and most spectacular waterfalls. It is independent of weather and season, and flows all year round.

The falls sees torrents of water cascade over huge cliffs and plunging into a deep pool, sending fine sprays of rainbow mist high into the air above a stunning gorge.

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Small streams seen along the way to MacKenzie Falls.

The weather seemed to favour us, with the grey clouds being held in check by the wind. At first, the hike seemed to be an easy one but as I walked further in, the path became progressively steeper, involving many stairs going down to reach the base of the waterfall. In any case, it wasn’t nearly as tiring as climbing back up!

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The pool at the base of MacKenzie Falls looked tempting especially after the long walk. However, the water is deceptively deep and the rocks slippery. Swimming is discouraged as some people have drowned here in recent years.  It’s best to stay out of the water and just enjoy the scenery.

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Reed Lookout and The Balconies

Just as the coach made its way out of the carpark, the clouds gave way and it started to pour. It was still raining very heavily when we arrived at Reed Lookout.

Reed Lookout right across the carpark is supposed to be a fantastic platform for enjoying sweeping views of the Victoria Valley on one side and Lake Wartook on the other. This lookout is also the starting point of the track to the rock formation known as The Balconies.

Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to capture any views from Reed Lookout due to the rainfall, clouds and thick fog which reduced visibility to near zero. We remained inside the coach, hoping for the storm to subside soon. It was freezing cold outside and everyone just stayed put on their seats! I was beginning to think that this would be another one of those disappointing trips where I had to make my way home without accomplishing what I had set out to do.

Luckily, the rain eased to a moderate drizzle 15 minutes later and I decided to make the 2-kilometre walk to The Balconies that takes about 25 minutes one way. Apart from the fact that the ground was wet and a bit slippery, it turned out to be a pleasant walk on a gentle dirt track with some interesting sights along the way. I walked past a rocky outcrop of stacked rocks and through a forest with lush bush and wildflowers.

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Toadstool rock with Lake Wartook in the distance
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Storm clouds over Lake Wartook

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There were seats hewn from tree trunks for resting, before arriving at the highlight of the Grampians – the rock formation called The Balconies, better known as The Jaws of Death.

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At one time, there used to be uninhibited access to this lookout and people could walk all the way to the edge of the ‘jaw’ to take in the scenery. Today, the path is sealed off to visitors to allow the bush around the rock formation time to recover from the bush fires. I suspect that the real reason behind the closure has something to do with safety because someone accidentally slipped and fell to her death some years back.

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Visibility at The Balconies was blurry and misty – not what they could have been. Still, The Jaws of Death is admirably huge, jutting out fearlessly and majestically, and beckoning the daring and suicidal to walk out of its upper lip and mouth for stunning views of the valley below.

Just as I started to make my way back it started to rain again – a light drizzle at first, turning quickly into a shower and culminating in a downpour midway along the trail. I started to run all the way back, but was soaking wet and numb with cold by the time I got inside the coach. Ahh! It was so nice to have the air-conditioning turned up and feel warm again. I took this opportunity to space out and let my mind wander while waiting for the others to make their way round the bend and back!

Boroka Lookout

The last stop was to Boroka Lookout, a 10-minute drive up the mountain from Reed Lookout. This is an easy lookout as it is accessible via sealed roads and therefore suited for those with limited mobility. A casual stroll through an open forest leads to two viewing platforms giving a bird’s-eye view of the Fyans Valley, Lake Bellfield and more.

In my case, getting to the lookout involved a light sprint instead of a stroll as it was still raining. While most of the others remained inside the coach still recovering from the damp and cold experienced earlier, I made a dash for Boroka Lookout, taking a shortcut through the forest and bushes. For my efforts, I was rewarded with views of the fog, more fog and not much else!

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Fog scenery beyond the walkway.
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Negative space at the Boroka platform.
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A sign of desperation. No views so I turned to photographing the trees instead!

So…it was not exactly the best day to visit Grampians National Park. I must say, however, that the gloomy weather had a special quality of its own, bringing to attention other ordinary elements that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. In retrospect, I enjoyed myself immensely, although in an unexpected way! Id love to go back there again and spend a night or two at Halls Gap to explore more walking trails, lakes and waterfalls and take more photos in better weather!

Memories of the Great Ocean Road


While putting up at my mother’s place in Melbourne last year, I decided to sign up for a day tour of the Great Ocean Road. This was my third visit to the scenic coastline. I still remember my second tour of the same road many years ago. That was the time we took our 2-year-old daughter, C, on her first overseas trip.

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I had made sure that C slept most of the time during our flight so that the journey would not seem so long. When the pilot announced that we would be touching down at Tullamarine Airport in 90 minutes, the both of us felt relieved that the long flight had turned out better than expected. C had woken up by then and was trying to make friends with the little boy seated directly behind us. By and by, our attention turned to the airline stewardess who was running up and down the aisle and seemed rather flustered. Guess what? The little boy behind us had thrown up in the plane! The stewardess was doing her best to clean up the mess and reassure the embarrassed parents that everything was going to be alright. As the stench of vomit began to fill our nostrils, I started to feel queasy and turned to my husband for a sick bag. Unfortunately, he had his eyes closed while clutching a sick bag! I managed to find another one for myself and took deep gulps while doing mental workouts for the retching feeling to go away. Seconds later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was my husband gesturing to me that C looked like she was about to throw up! I had to act fast and quickly shoved my bag in front of her. Methinks the stewardess should have thanked me for saving her from cleaning up another mess. As for me, all that frantic gulping, swallowing and mind control actually worked!

The moment we got in the coach for the Great Ocean Road tour, I knew we had made a big mistake. Barely an hour into the journey, C started to show signs of nausea. Viewing stops in the itinerary were spent inside the Visitor Centre or in the cold outdoors, desperately trying to get C to recover sufficiently so that we could continue the next leg of our journey. What was supposed to have been an enjoyable day out on the Great Ocean Road turned out to be a nightmare. It was a huge relief when we finally made it back to Melbourne in the late evening!

This time, I was determined to make the most of the tour. So on a very cold and wet morning in August 2015, my sister, two nephews and I boarded the train to Flinders Street Station and waited outside St Paul’s Cathedral for the coach that would take us on the Reverse Great Ocean Road Tour!

Colac Park

Our first stop for morning tea was at Colac Park. The town is built next to the huge Lake Colac and sits on the doorstep to the Great Otway National Park. While we were helping ourselves to coffee and biscuits, I noticed that my 14-year old nephew was unusually quiet and asked him if anything was wrong. He told me that the memory card in his camera was full and that he didn’t have an extra one. Oh no! I hadn’t anticipated this! How could he have used up 8GB of memory within a few days of buying the camera? 

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The quiet breath of Lake Colac at dawn

I asked our Tour Guide/Driver if we could make a quick stop in Colac town to buy an SD card. She said “no” as we were on a very tight itinerary and it would be unfair to keep the other passengers waiting. What a crappy excuse! I would have been able to accept it if she had said that it was too early in the morning for the shops to be opened! Seeing my nephew so dejected, I allowed him to use my SD card from my cellphone – but not before issuing a veiled threat that there would be hell to pay if he lost any data or stored images. This act of kindness cheered him up immediately and he was soon back to his usual cheerful self. I was waiting for him to shed tears of gratitude but that moment never came!

London Bridge

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London Bridge is an impressive rock formation, offering sweeping views of the great Southern Ocean. During my first visit many years back, London Bridge was a double-span archway and tunnel which allowed me to walk right across to the furthest end of the cliff. In 1990, I read the news that the arch closest to the shore had collapsed, becoming a bridge without a middle. It’s good to know that I was one of those lucky ones who managed to make it all the way across before London Bridge fell down!

Loch Ard Gorge

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If you are looking to find a spot on the Great Ocean Road that has it all, then Loch Ard Gorge wins hands down! Where else can you find rugged natural beauty, towering limestone cliffs, offshore stacks, mysterious blowholes and friendly nature trails to explore? Oh yes! Let’s not forget the stories of shipwreck and survival!

Twelve Apostles

There’s no better place to leave behind life’s daily trivia than the dramatic and wind-swept coastline where the iconic Twelve Apostles sit. I first saw the golden cliffs and crumbling pillars from a helicopter during my first tour of the Great Ocean Road. At that time, nine apostles were still visible. My second time here is not worth mentioning as I only got as far as the Visitor Centre!

This third time, however, I was determined to see something – anything, so I made my way under a tunnel leading out to an extensive walkway complete with viewing platforms.

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Powerful waves and wind of the Southern Ocean pound the rugged, windswept coastline, carving them into caves, then arches, and eventually battering them down into columns that rise up to 45 metres high! They used to be connected to the cliffs of the mainland some 20 million years ago. The stacks continue to be eroded at a rate of roughly 2 centimetres a year. Over the years, some have given up the battle against nature and today, only seven stacks remain.

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Long ago, the Twelve Apostles was known as “The Sow and Piglets”. However, I’m sure you’ll agree that the name “Twelve Apostles” lends more credence and dignity to this weather-beaten magnificent landscape.

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It’s an invigorating, end-of-the-earth feeling to watch this dramatic coastline being whipped by howling winds and foaming seas. No photograph or video can accurately capture the ocean’s raw power and the emotion it brings out, unless you’re standing there yourself.

Wild Koalas and Birdlife at Kennet River 

Native animals and wildlife are certainly not shy in the Kennett River area, located half way between the seaside towns of Apollo Bay and Lorne. In fact, the wildlife appear to coexist with the residents there. How refreshing it must be to look outside everyday and spot a koala or kookaburra in the trees!

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A popular stop to see koalas, king parrots, rosellas and kookaburra is the Grey River Road. This dirt road winds up amongst some beautiful eucalyptus trees with wild koalas feeling right at home in their natural habitat. There are wild birds and cockatoos in the trees near the parking area. They are so used to humans gawking at them that they are no longer camera-shy – like this kookaburra below!

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Memorial Arch

Memorial Arch marks the gateway to the Great Ocean Road. The arch is a tribute to the 3,000 returned soldiers from WWI who built the road between 1919 and 1932.

The 243-kilometre stretch of road itself was built as a memorial for all those who had lost their lives in WWI. It extends from Torquay to Allansford and is the longest war memorial in the world.

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Next to Memorial Arch is a sculpture of two returned soldiers working on the Great Ocean Road. The sculpture was built to honour the men who used only pickaxes and shovels to clear the way and smoothen the road. The difficult and dangerous nature of the work resulted in a high level of turnover and a number of deaths.

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To give an idea of what life was like back then, bush camps were set up at the site, with a piano, gramophone, playing cards, games, newspapers and magazines for recreation and relaxation. Accommodation was in individual tents, with a communal dining marquee and a kitchen. The soldiers were paid 10 shillings and sixpence ($1.05) for an eight-hour day and worked a half-day on Saturdays. Meals were not provided, and food costs came up to 10 shillings week. Due to the distances involved, few soldiers were able to go home to their families during their rest days, so swimming, fishing and hunting became popular weekend pastimes.

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Sunset at Memorial Arch.

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Surf Beaches

The Great Ocean Road is dotted with many surf spots, attracting surfing professionals from around the world.

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Torquay, at the beginning of the Great Ocean Road, is the birthplace of surf culture. The leading surf brands of Rip Curl and Quiksliver were established here more than 30 years ago and are now global market leaders in clothing and equipment for surf, snow and adventure sports. The internationally renowned Bells Beach is home to the famous annual Rip Curl Pro event.

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We stopped at Torquay for a hearty Bubba’s Pizza dinner, spread across a barbecue bench next to the beach. There was a full moon that evening and its light across the darkened sky signalled the end of an enjoyable and satisfying day on the Great Ocean Road!

 

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.

 

 

Stopover at Emerald Springs Roadhouse

emerald-springs-roadhouseIf you are looking to have a break from the journey between Darwin and Katherine, then Emerald Springs Roadhouse is THE place for a stop-by. I visited the roadhouse twice – once for breakfast during the journey to Katherine Gorge and again for dinner before returning to Darwin.

One can be forgiven for not noticing this place, which sits just below the Stuart Highway. The exterior is rather nondescript and except for the signage, “Emerald Springs Roadhouse”, you would think that it is just another abandoned farmhouse. The narrow entrance at the side doesn’t help either. There are no signs to invite the weary traveller in for a good meal and refresh himself.

However, once I got past the door, a whole new world opened up in front of me. I was really impressed by the warm ambience, the vintage-style decor and wood furnishing. What a big difference between the outside and the inside! I will go so far as to say that once you are inside, you really don’t want to get back on the road too soon. Instead, you will want to pamper yourself with a hearty, value-for-money meal, sit back, relax and enjoy the retro-modern atmosphere.

The main dining area is air-conditioned and tastefully furnished with wooden tables, chairs and bar stools – perfect for enjoying an Aussie meal and stretching those weary muscles. The full bar, decorated with some interesting ornaments and wall hangings, offers an impressive wine list along with pub classics.

Next to the restaurant is a beer garden, great for chilling out and for the children to run around.

imagesOut the back is a huge timber deck furnished with cane sofas and plush cushions. The huge ceiling fans, flowers in jars and potted plants, all add to the relaxed, laid-back mood of the 1950s era.

The toilet facilities are clean and well-maintained. The owners have added a nice touch by placing a fresh flower stalk on each hand basin  – even in the men’s toilet!

Emerald Springs Roadhouse boasts of serving the best coffee along this stretch of the Stuart Highway, as they claim to own the only cappuccino machine between Darwin and Katherine.

We were given only 20 minutes for breakfast. Considering that I had to stand behind a long line for my breakfast selection, then join the queue again for ordering drinks and making payment at the bar, and finally queuing up for the toilet, it really didn’t leave me much time to appreciate my surrounding. What a pity! I decided to try out their famous scones topped with butter, jam and cream. So yummy! I would have happily gone for a second helping of scones, had it not been for our tour guide urging us to hurry, hurry, hurry, as we still had a long distance to cover!

Fortunately, things were not so so rushed when we stopped by again for dinner. I ordered the Chef’s Special of the Day – Grilled Barramundi with Potato Chips and Mixed Salad. It was lovely to have my meal out in the garden, waiting for the night to set in. It gave me the chance to reflect on the three National Parks I had visited in Northern Territory – each one giving me the permission to take back with me a small piece of their uniqueness, and finding a place in my suitcase of memories.

Granted that it wasn’t a brilliant sunset, this silhouette shot I took just before boarding the coach will always be a beautiful reminder of the cozy ambience, sumptuous food and wonderful people at Emerald Springs Roadhouse!

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This marks my last post about my trip to the national parks in Australia’s Northern Territory. Up to today, I still cannot say which visit I enjoyed most – Maguk, Nitmiluk or Jim Jim Falls. All I know is that whenever I recall these places, I tend to remember the journey there, rather than the destination!

Nourlangie’s Dreamtime Art Rocks!

After a satisfying picnic lunch at Angbangbang Billabong, our little group made our way to Nourlangie Rock (Burrunguy) to view Kakadu’s famous rock art gallery. Aboriginal art is the oldest ongoing tradition of art in the world and this is no surprise as Aboriginal people have lived in Kakadu continuously for at least 50,000 years.

Rock art consists of paintings, drawings, stencils, engravings, bas-relief and figures found in caves and rock shelters, on rock platforms and boulders. The paintings connect past and present, the indigenous people and the land, the supernatural and reality. Some indigenous paintings date as far back as 20,000 years old – so little wonder that Kakadu enjoys World Heritage status.

The Bininj/Mungguy (Aboriginal people) believe that Kakadu was shaped by their Creation Ancestors who travelled across the country creating landforms, plants, animals and of course, the Bininj/Mungguy. The Creation Ancestors left Bininj/Mungguy a legacy of kinship, linking people to the land and the cultural responsibility to look after the land. From then on, Aboriginal people became caretakers of their country. Laws including ceremony, language, kinship and ecological knowledge were introduced, and subsequently passed down from one generation to the next.

Our guide explained that we were standing right smack on one of the biggest uranium sites in the world. The traditional owners had rejected a very lucrative offer by a huge mining company to buy the land, as they felt it their duty to preserve the bond between Aboriginal people and land, and pass it down for future generations to continue this tradition.

We embarked on a 1.5 km circuit climb that took us through a shelter used by the Aboriginal people for over 50,000 years . Its exit opens out to Angbangbang’s Outdoor Art Gallery.

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A 20-minute hike up this ancient rock shelter opened up to the start of Angbangbang Art Gallery.
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Angbangbang Rock Gallery at Nourlangie Rock. Aboriginal drawings are found everywhere on the cliff sides. Boardwalks and handrails have been put up to prevent people and animals from touching and rubbing the art work. The boardwalks also prevent dust from accumulating on the rocks.

Reasons for rock painting

Story telling and education — The art sites are dreaming places, depicting dreamtime legends and images that communicate valuable lessons to be passed down from one generation to the next. There are more than 5,000 art sites that tell the story of Creation Ancestors and how they came to shape the landscape.

Hunting — animals were often painted to increase their numbers and to ensure a successful hunt by placing the aboriginal hunter in touch with the spirit of the animal.

Religious purposes — at some sites paintings depict aspects of certain ceremonies.

Magic and sorcery — pictures were drawn to manipulate events and influence lives.

Past time – for enjoyment, recreation and practice.

Some of the world’s finest examples of X-ray art can be found in this gallery. X-ray art is where animal bones and internal organs are drawn together with the outline. This detailed drawing gives the picture a three-dimensional effect.

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Dreamtime colours

The basic colours used Kakadu’s rock paintings are derived from several naturally occurring minerals.

  • Haematite – An iron-rich rock used for red
  • Limonite and goethite – For yellow/orange
  • Ochre – An iron-stained clay used to make red, orange and yellow and can be stained darker by baking it in a fire before grinding
  • Kaolin (pipeclay) and huntite – For white
  • Manganese oxide and charcoal – For black. Charcoal does not last long as it is not a mineral.

Of all the paints, haematite lasts the longest. This is why the majority of rock art that we see today are completely red.

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Dreaming

To make the paint the Aboriginal people crushed the pigments on a stone palette and mixed it with water to make a paste. They made brushes from human hair, chewed sticks, reeds and feathers. To create a stencil, they would blow wet pigments of ochre, water and animal fat from their mouths across their hands and other objects. The mixture is absorbed into the rock just like dye or ink on paper.

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Can you see a hand stencil on this rock?

Generally, it is the act of painting that was regarded as more important than the painting itself. The act of painting put Bininj/Mungguy in touch with their Creation Ancestors – a powerful, spiritual experience. I suppose this is a bit like praying or meditating. As the artist was not painting for posterity but simply to tell a story, many images have been painted over each other.

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For those of us who are non-Aboriginal, we view rock art as an individual piece of art. We admire the beauty and intricacy of the work, and then walk on to the next piece, just like in a museum.

Most Aboriginal art sites were not intended that way. The sites or places are in fact inter-linked – all adding up to an overall story whose sum is more than its parts.

A local rock art site might tell a particular creation story which is connected to another rock art site located a few hundred metres away. While some sites are a long distance apart, they are connected through the Dreaming stories they relay.

The stories associated with the rock paintings have a number of levels of meaning. Younger Bininj/Mungguy and non-Aboriginal people are only told the first level – that which is suitable for public consumption. Access to the ‘full story’ depends on an individual’s progression through ceremonial life, their inclinations, and their willingness to take on the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with the ‘advanced/secret’ knowledge.

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This rock was once used as a shelter from heat and rain.

 

Here is a short introduction to some of the Creation Ancestors seen on the walls of Angbangbang Gallery.

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The single male figure is Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after killing them by striking them with yam.

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Nabulwinjbulwinj on a cliff wall.
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Supernatural ancestors at Nourlangie Rock art site in Kakadu National Park.

Namarrgon

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Namarrgon ( Lightning Man)

This dramatic painting seen is Namarrgon, the Lightning Man. He is responsible for the spectacular lightning storms that pass through the area every year.

The band from his left ankle, joining his hands and head, and extending down to his right ankle represents the lightning he creates. The stone axes on his head, knees and elbows are used to split the dark clouds and create thunder.

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Barrginj, Namarrgon’s wife

Namarrgon’s rock home can be seen from the Gunward­dewarde Lookout. It’s not difficult to imagine Lightning Man standing on the rock, conjuring the lightning storms that overun the valley during the wet season.

Namondjok

Aboriginal people from different clan groups have different stories associated with Namondjok. To some, he is a Creation Ancestor who lives in the sky and can be seen as a dark spot across the Milky Way.

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Namondjok

To others, he is a Creation Ancestor who travelled through the Burrungguy (Nourlangie Rock) area and broke the kinship laws with his ‘sister’.

Kinship laws dictate who Aboriginal people may and may not marry. Aboriginal people have a much more complex kinship system than those of European descent. An Aboriginal person’s ‘sister’ also includes first cousins (mother’s sisters’ children and their father’s brothers’ children). Just as marriage between brother and sister is unacceptable in non-Aboriginal society, the same applies to Aboriginal society.

A solitary boulder on Nourlangie Rock (Burrunguy) is a feather taken from Namondjok’s head-dress by his ‘sister’, after they had slept together. The boulder is visible from Gunwarddewarde Lookout to remind others of what they had done. As the story goes, the feather turned to stone and can still be seen there today.

Family group

IMG_4044eBeneath these three Creation Ancestors is a group of men and women. Their elaborate dress suggests they are probably attending a ceremony. The dashes across the women’s chests indicate that they are breast-feeding.

These kinds of stories are told to explain the layout of the land and act as a reminder of the sacred practices and beliefs of the Aboriginal people.

 

Gunwarddewarde Lookout

A short walk through the bushes behind the Gallery led us to some rocky steps where we made our way up to Gunwarddewarde Lookout. The climb was short but difficult in certain places. Upon reaching the rocky top, however, all my tiredness dissipated and I was all over the place trying to capture the rugged beauty of the Kakadu escarpment.

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This is the view of Namarrgon’s rock home where he commands the lightning and thunder.
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The Aboriginal people believe that the solitary stone balancing on top of the cliff was a feather taken from Namondjok’s head-dress.

Rock painting is rarely done by the Aboriginal people nowadays. Among the reasons for this is the fact that Aboriginal people no longer live in rock shelters, and there are fewer people with the necessary knowledge to paint at certain sites. Nevertheless, modern day Aboriginal artists continue to paint on bark, paper and other materials.

4WD to Kakadu – Jim Jim Falls

After the stint at Yellow Water to watch the sun set, we rushed to Garnamarr Camping Ground before the gates shut, or risk being locked out to sleep in the bush with crocs for company. 

Garnamarr Camping Ground is the only campsite that allows access to Jim Jim Falls. It can take up to 250 people at any one time, and camping on the grounds is on a first-come-first-served basis. This campsite is not opened all year long just during the dry season (May – October).

IMG_3985aI must admit that I wasnt expecting much from this camp ground in terms of public facilities. However, I was pleasantly surprised! Clean toilets, hot water showers, cubicles fitted with a dry bench area, available drinking water  what more could a tired visitor ask for? Security is also commendable. The camp gates are locked from 8.30 pm to 6.30 am daily.

On the way to Garnamarr, the bumpy gravel road caused a runaway stone to hit the back window of the 4WD, resulting in a tiny crack that gradually spread out to fill the entire frame. This incident forced us to make an unscheduled stop in No Man’s Land, in an effort to seal down the cracked glass with tape and bandage the injured window with a towel. Suddenly, the desire to sit closest to the rear door of the vehicle was gone! Everyone was hoping that the glass window would not crumble and give way. 

Luckily, the cracked window remained intact right up to the end of the tour!

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Inside my tent

It was great fun sitting round the campfire. There were a number of new things I tried out that evening. I learnt how to set up a tent on my own, and then had a go at the didgeridoo but failed to get a sound out of this ancient aboriginal wind instrument. Finally, I tried barbecued kangaroo meat and buffalo sausages with mashed potatoes and salad for the first time in my life. It was a simple but tasty meal.

As I settled down inside my tent for the night, I started to recollect the day’s activities from the rocky waterfalls, massive gorges, gushing creeks, thriving billabongs, unique wildlife and diverse forests to gazing up at the twinkling silver stars peeping through my tent what a precious gift to have the chance of experiencing those rare moments in the outback.

Jim Jim Falls

The road from Garnamarr Camping Ground to Jim Jim Falls is only suitable for high clearance four-wheeled vehicles. The track was uneven with deep ruts, gravel and sandy patches, creek crossings and thick muddy soil. Sitting inside the 4WD was like getting a strong massage. The ride was so rough that we were falling all over each other forwards and sideways –especially when navigating the tight corners!

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It is a 2 km round hike from the carpark to Jim Jim Falls  The Jim Jim track is basically divided into three levels of difficulty. The first 100 metres or so is fairly easy, with the second part requiring scrambling over rocks, and the last part entailing a steep and slippery climb up the escarpment. What got me thinking twice about making it all the way to the waterfalls was our guide saying that accidents were quite a frequent occurrence during the last part of the hike, with some victims having to be air-lifted out of the area!

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Crocodile trap seen along the creek.

I managed to breeze through the first part of the track and was even walking in front of the rest. However, as I hiked further in, the trail became more and more challenging. Soon, I found myself scrambling over jagged rocks and sandy boulders, trying to keep my balance and not slip between the rocks.

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The hike took us past the Gorge Viewing Area where we got our first view of Jim Jim Falls. I could already see Jim Jim’s rocky escarpment in the distance. After this viewing area, the rocky track enters its third level of difficulty. At the thought of the struggle that lay ahead, I decided to remain at the viewing area and not proceed to the waterfalls.

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First view of Jim Jim Falls from the Gorge View Area.

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So while the rest proceeded with their hike, I stayed behind to catch my breath and enjoy the view. The place looked so serene that it was rather difficult to imagine that there is always the real danger of crocodiles waiting for their prey- under water and on land. While clicking away at my surroundings, I had to be extra vigilant that the world’s oldest reptile was not going to jump out of the calm water or appear from behind the rocks, and have me for its meal!

One of my biggest regrets about this trip is that I didn’t do enough reading about how fast crocodiles move on land. If I had, I would not have had to worry about what to do if a crocodile DID appear from behind the rocks, or wonder if I could scramble fast enough to outpace the reptile. This is what happens when you watch too many Sci-Fi movies about mutant super crocodiles that can chase you across the forest at 50 km an hour! 

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My decision to stay behind at the Gorge View Area was the right one. I felt good to have made it this far, and relieved that my limbs and camera were intact. After all, I was already at Jim Jim Falls – standing on the very ground that becomes a river bed during the rainy season. I scanned the raw landscape, grateful to have a few quiet moments to myself instead of feeling rushed and stressed out.

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If you’re not too fussy about sleeping and want to see as much as possible within a short time, travelling in a 4WD is a great way to see Kakadu National Park. Entry to Kakadu National Park is AUD25.00 per person, valid for 14 days. Those under 16 years of age and Northern Territory Residents are exempt.

Would I do it again? Absolutely, without a doubt! There is still so much to learn, see and do. Getting a taste of Australia’s remote and wild outback – now that is really something to remember!

 

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ernest Hemingway

4WD to Kakadu – Barramundi Gorge (Maguk)

After enjoying a short timeout at South Alligator River, we headed south for Barramundi Gorge or Maguk. The turn off is about 50 km from the southern entrance to Kakadu National Park and Maguk is another 12 km from that intersection. This unsealed track to Maguk is only suitable for 4WD vehicles. Once at Maguk’s carpark, you need to make a 2 kilometre round hike to view the spectacular swimming holes on top of the gorge as well as Maguk waterfall and plunge pool below.

The narrow trail inside the bush led us into a dense tropical forest with lush vegetation. The whole area was tranquil except for the sounds coming from rustling leaves and inhabitants of the bush. About 30 metres into the trail, we came to a boardwalk and I was secretly glad because I could now pay attention to the flora around me instead of trying to dodge the muddy ground. Further into the bush where the track crossed a small creek, a bridge had been built so that we didn’t have to get our shoes all dirty. Hmm.So thoughtful. I can live with this. 

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By and by, we came to a pristine jade-coloured pool. The water was so clear that I could spot small fish swimming around the water’s edge. However, none of us was tempted to venture too close to the water or stay there for too long for fear of crocodiles lurking underneath. Maguk has plenty of estuarine crocodiles. However, crocodiles safety measures have been put in place such that any saltie found moving upstream towards the gorge is relocated immediately.

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When we came to an intersection where the trail branched out, our guide, Tom, said that it would be better to get the difficult part over and done with. So instead of hiking to Maguk Waterfall, we made the climb up the gorge to where the swimming holes were found. The further up we went, the more difficult the walk became. The path was uneven and slippery with stones. We had to navigate over huge rocks to make our way up. The hot sun was on us most of the time and I even experienced occasional flies buzzing above my head and getting into my nose! Some portions of the narrow track wound round the edge of the cliff overlooking the gorge below. The view was awesome – even humbling but pretty scary!

However, for every rock we scaled, the scenery became more and more breathtaking.

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The rocky trail bordering the edge of the gorge.
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You might need to inch your way sideways or risk slipping over the side of the cliff.

Finally, we reached the top and the landscape opened up to a picturesque swimming hole. The place was surrounded by steep vertical sandstone cliffs, with ledges at different heights for diving.

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After spending one hour at the swimming holes, we made our way down to Maguk Waterfall. I had thought that the walk to the waterfall would have been easier than the climb up the rock pools. However, the hike there had its own set of challenges. We had to step on rocks protruding above the gushing creek and criss-cross our way to the other side. No boardwalks or bridges here! You just eyeball a dry rock, muster enough courage and step on it. One wrong footing and you either get your feet very wet, or worse still, slip into the water! The two photos below show the scenery at the backwater end of the creek. They look nothing like the swift-flowing water and cascades that we had to cross!

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After reaching the other side unscathed, we walked into some bushes and were rewarded with the sight of a lovely natural pool surrounded by red cliffs, with Maguk Waterfall completing the perfect backdrop. Maguk Waterfall is special in that it flows all year round, regardless of the season.

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The cave to the right of Maguk Waterfall used to be a rock tunnel that led to the top of the falls. It is now closed to the daring and the brave.

While everyone else was enjoying a refreshing swim in the pool, a curious goanna appeared from behind the rocks and made its way towards me. It crept closer and closer until it was right in front of me, extending its long tongue to lick my shoes! After some hesitation, it turned and made its way to the rock I was sitting on, and sportingly remained still for me to take some close-up shots. Then, like a true gentleman, it let me have back my rocky seat and made its way slowly back into the bushes.

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Soon enough, it was time to hurry back to the carpark and drive north to catch the sunset at Yellow Water. I must admit that the walk back across the creek was less stressful for me than the walk there. Perhaps I had become used to the idea of taking more risks. After I had gained a proper footing in the middle of the creek, I looked up at my surroundings for the last time. At that moment, I felt a surge of contentment on having found my balance with Mother Nature.

4WD to Kakadu – Picnic at South Alligator River

Kakadu National Park MapAt just under 20,000 square kilometers, Kakadu National Park is an ecologically and biologically diverse area with many different landforms and habitat. These include the sandstone plateaus, jagged rocks, areas of savanna woodlands, open forest, gorges, gushing rivers, billabongs, floodplains, mangroves and mudflats. Then there’s the wildlife. This unique park is also home to a great many species of birds, insects and reptiles including goannas, lizards, the saltwater crocodile, water pythons and a number of highly venomous snakes.

No wonder that Kakadu is one of only 22 World Heritage sites listed for both its natural and cultural heritage!

While Kakadu is indeed fascinating she remains mostly untouched and is not as developed as other national parks. As a result, finding your way around Kakadu becomes a challenge. To really appreciate the place, you need to move away from the sealed roads and take the road less travelled. Many of the tracks are suited for 4WD only. The hikes themselves include lengthy climbs over rocks and uneven terrain. Essentially, you need to be physically fit to take on Kakadu.

I signed up for an off-road adventure that would allow me to explore Kakadu’s less accessible attractions. So at 6:30am on a very cold morning, I found myself squeezed in the back of a 4WD, together with eight other first-timers to Kakadu National Park. There were 4 locals – three from Melbourne, one from Sydney and one each from London, Scotland, Germany and South Africa. Our backpacks, food supplies and camping equipment followed us in a small storage trailer attached to the back of the vehicle.

The journey on Arnhem Highway was pretty smooth and we spent most of our time getting acquainted with each other. After about two-and-a-half hours on the highway, we turned off into Old Jim Jim Road our 4WD adventure began! Throughout the journey, we saw only two other vehicles – one that overtook us and another one that came from the opposite direction! For the rest of the 100 km stretch, the entire road belonged to us.

Old Jim Jim Road is not opened the whole year round. The road is closed during the rainy season when the whole region becomes flooded. It is during this time that the flood waters carry crocodiles from one place to another.

Our tour guide and driver, Tom, was everything you’d want from a guide in the Australian bush – competent, knowledgeable, a skilful yet safe driver. Tom would step on the accelerator for the different road gradients so that we got our money’s worth of bumps and thrills!

After what seemed like a long never-ending ride, Tom announced that we would be crossing the South Alligator River to get to the other side of the road. What a thrill it was to drive through the river itself. We were all excited at the thought of spotting a crocodile swimming alongside our vehicle.

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Upon reaching the other side of the river bank, more good news came our way. We would stop at the shady rest right next to the South Alligator River for a 30-minute lunch break.

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While waiting for the picnic table to be set up and given the limited amount of time to take in the beautiful and quiet surroundings, we wandered off to take photos, but not before being reminded that croc sightings were fairly common in the area, and not to mistake a croc for a log!

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There is just something about having a simple meal in an area where crocodiles are known to thrive, that makes simple food taste extra-delicious and those fleeting moments in the outback so memorable!

 

Meiji – Over The Rainbow

This is a farewell to Meiji, who came into our lives for a brief period and left us in the wee hours of 7 April 2015.

Meiji was a spirited black rabbit – full of life and vigour. She behaved more like a cat or dog instead of a rabbit. In Meiji, we had the best of both worlds without the annoyances of either, because rabbits are generally clean critters with limited vocal chords.

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Meiji first came to stay with me when my daughter had to go away for two weeks. She needed someone to look after her two baby rabbits that she had just bought from a pet shop. Meiji had not found a forever home because of her colour. My daughter, on the other hand, has a penchant for the underdog…and so, Meiji became a part of our family.

 

We kept Meiji and Pocky in a nice pen in the living room, complete with a 24/7 supply of rabbit hay, pellets, vegetables and the occasional rabbit treats. Meiji was always the more active, inquisitive and greedy bunny of the two. During the time she was with us, she chewed everything she could get her teeth on – cardboard boxes, sofa corners, curtains, slippers, shoes, wooden legs, lamp cords, phone cords, mobile chargers, computer chords, TV and printer wires. The damage done to my digital organ’s power cable was so thorough that it became more cost effective to just give it away rather than having it repaired.

Meiji was always on the move, seeking out new spaces to explore and different wires to chew. She was discerning in her tastes, targeting only those new chords that she hadn’t yet tried out. She loved to play hide-and-seek. She would remain silent and still until I was just about to give up looking, and then she would resume exercising her teeth and make noises to attract attention. I would subsequently find her behind the clothes rack, behind the computer table or under the bed. She would pretend to look pitiful and crouch meekly while getting an earful from me, then suddenly make a wild dash for the staircase, skidding on the polished marble floor in her hurry.

Thankfully, it was easy to toilet train Meiji. Even when she was free to roam around the house and garden, she would make it back to her litter box in the enclosure to do “her thing”.

One idiosyncrasy about Meiji was that she absolutely hated being carried. After learning the hard way with scratches on my hands and belly as proof, I realised that the best way to get Meiji inside her pen was to look fierce and point at the direction of the enclosure. Meiji would take my cue and make her way back into the pen by herself.

I admired Meiji’s determination when it came to coming out of her enclosure. Meiji was an adept escape artist. She would push her nose against the metal bar of the pen to dislodge the top and bottom hooks that held the corners together. If she succeeded in dislodging only the bottom hook, she would use Pocky as a stool, climb on her back and stand on her hind paws to unhook the cage. Meiji was also intelligent enough to deduce that her pen cage had four corners. Even after tying up two corners of her enclosure with string, Meiji remained undeterred, directing her escape plan on the other two corners. I vividly remember one morning seeing Meiji stretched out on the staircase landing outside my bedroom, when she should have been inside her pen. Meiji had gnawed off the additional chord used to hold down the hooks and let herself out of the cage. She partied all night in the living room with Pocky before crashing out on the staircase landing. 20150125_093408a

I felt that something was not quite right when Meiji did not want to come out of her pen. She was unusually docile and sitting upright, refusing to move. She had not touched her vegetables from the previous night. At first I thought she was just sulking but later in the day, I noticed that her poop was less than half their normal size. I phoned my daughter and we rushed Meiji to the animal clinic. The vet told us that she had a contracted a rabbit infection that affected her respiratory system.

That same evening, we moved Meiji’s things to the guest room upstairs so that she would not infect Pocky. My daughter stayed up with her to make sure she got her two-hourly feed by syringe. Sadly, Meiji did not make it through the night.

We miss you, Meiji. I hope you are living it up and feasting everyday on pak choy, coriander and carrots on the other side of the rainbow bridge!

Happily Ever Afterlife (#48)

Two weeks ago, I attended the wake of a friend’s father, who had passed away at the ripe old age of 92 years old. In Chinese custom, living beyond 80 years old is a testament of a person’s longevity. The passing is mourned with lots of red decorations to denote that the deceased had led a long and full life on earth.

This old man must have been someone quite important and influential in his village during his younger years. His 4 sons and 4 daughters (my friend is the ‘baby’ in the family) spared no effort and money in making sure that their father would be comfortable and well-accepted as a ‘rookie ghost’ in the afterlife.

After a two-hour drive and contributing towards the funeral expenses by way of a ‘white packet’, I heard the loud beating of metal and went behind the huge white tent to find out what the din was all about. A ritual of burning ‘money’ was going on under the intense heat of the afternoon sun. The burning of ‘money’ (made out of rice paper) equates to making advance deposits into an afterlife bank account in heaven for the deceased. His grandchildren were beating on empty metal buckets, empty tins, iron rods and anything they could lay their hands on to frighten away evil spirits, lest they came to hijack the ‘money’ while the ‘funds transfer’ was taking place. The beatings only stopped 45 minutes later, after all the “money” had turned to ashes. So you can imagine how much money was deposited in heaven!

In addition to burning ‘money’, other miniature items like houses, cars, houses and TVs are also burned to make sure the deceased continues to enjoy the same things in the afterlife. My friend and his siblings didn’t just buy their father a house – they bought a mansion made out of wood and paper. The entire structure was about 7 feet high, reaching all the way to the top of the tent, and flanked by a silver mountain on the left and gold mountain on the right. Accompanying the mansion were many servants, a luxury car complete with driver, a motorbike, a fan, a music player with speakers and a garden with lotus leaves made out of  ‘money’. I was told that a total of US$11,000 was spent on this funeral, and this is not referring to paper money!

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The 4Ms necessary for a good afterlife – Mansion, Money, Maids, Mobility!
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Maid cleaning the main entrance to the mansion
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Prayers and offerings are also made to the many gods in heaven.

Attending this wake actually set me thinking about what kind of funeral I would have after departing from this world. I’ve come to the conclusion that I am ill-prepared for death. There is a need to sit down and detail in writing how I want things to be at my own funeral, since I don’t subscribe to any specific religion. Sometimes, I wonder how those who have attained an advanced age view death. Is there Acceptance? Nonchalance? Fear? Turmoil? Denial? Serenity? I’ve not had the courage to ask in case the question is considered inappropriate. Guess I’ll just have to wait for my turn to get an answer.

Mount Pulai Revisited

Last weekend, my friend, H, called to find out if I was interested to go to Mount Pulai again. For those who read my post about my first hike there last year, you would know that I suffered from terrible muscle cramps for both legs while three-quarters of the way to the summit. Since then, I have become wary of long, uphill walks. A few weeks after, I managed to sprain my ankle at Sungai Rengit and had to be home bound for a couple of weeks. It appears like I am prone to mishaps whenever I go on a day trip, and my poor legs at the receiving end! So you can understand my hesitation about revisiting Mount Pulai. However, I was given the reassurance that we could take our time, with no undue pressure to hike all 5 kilometres to the peak!

This time, I was better prepared. First, I decided to go light – no telephoto, wide-angled and macro lenses. I only brought my standard 18-55mm lens. Admittedly, my mind was plagued by a number of “What ifs”. What if I want to get a shot of a bird, or giant spider from a distance? What if I want a close-up of a flower or insect?  However, sensibility prevailed in the end. When the pain extends all the way from the legs to the hips rendering you temporarily paralysed, the last thing you want to do is to take a picture of the pretty butterfly that’s landed on the rock next to you!

I also made sure that I ate something before leaving home instead of packing sandwiches like the first time.  When you are inching your way downhill, hoping against hope that the next corner is going to get you out of the park, the thought deviating from the road and heading for the waterfall to eat sandwiches just makes me want to throw up!

Just to be doubly sure, I massaged both my legs with Tiger Balm cream and gulped down a muscle relaxant before leaving the house.

So at 6:15am on a Sunday morning, with the moon still in sight, we set off for Mount Pulai – my second visit to this recreational rainforest.

Even at that very early hour, all the car parks were full. Everyday of the week, come rain or shine, there are people here. The waterfall and the road to the peak attracts nearby residents to take a dip in the water or enjoy a good walk. Mount Pulai also attracts a fair number of Singaporeans, especially during weekends. The good thing about Mount Pulai is that while there are many visitors here, there is still enough space for everyone to enjoy the natural surroundings without getting in each other’s way.

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This morning hike turned out to be enjoyable. Walking light had a lot to do with it, and also not fooling myself into thinking that I still possess the energy of a 20-year old who can make it all the way up the 5 kilometre road in under 2 hours! I got to take photographs, smell my green surroundings and tune in to the shrill cicada calls coming from the forest.

On our way down, we saw three white gibbons swinging from tree to tree. At road level, some dog owners were trying to get their pets to stand up. The dogs were flat out on the road, refusing to budge despite their owners’ coaxing! One or two just decided to pick up and carry their dogs for the rest of the way!

We were down at the park’s entrance by 9:45am! Declaring it a successful morning, we headed towards the nearest town for breakfast!

2015 – Year of the Goat

Chinese all over the world celebrated Chinese New Year on 19 February 2015, ushering in the Wooden Goat. With the galloping away of the Horse, this New Year is expected to be much calmer; opening up new windows for reflection, compassion and appreciating what has been accomplished in the previous year. Combined with the regenerative characteristics of wood, creativity is expected to be at its optimum.

Below are just some photos of how I would like to remember this Lunar New Year. After all that feasting that has taken place the past fifteen days, it’s about time I got down to doing some exercise!

Around Siem Reap in a Tuk-Tuk

Getting around Siem Reap is easy. The Big 3 temples in the archaeological park are within easy reach from each other, and if you are physically fit, you can rent a bicycle for about USD$3 – USD$5 per day. However, since you’ve made it all the way there, why tire yourself out when your energies could be better conserved for exploring and getting lost in the temples?

I would rather ride in a tuk-tuk (US$15 – US$18 per day). Siem Reap does not have a public transport system in the form of buses and taxis. Visitors and locals get around by just getting into a tuk-tuk which can be found outside the hotel and around every corner! I found tuk-tuk  drivers to be generally patient, honest and accommodating. In the absence of a tour guide, they can even take you to the lesser-known temples and attractions in Siem Reap. They will keep a watchful eye on your belongings while you spend your day exploring, and uncomplainingly pull up at the roadside for you to capture that photo moment. If you offer to pay for their meals, you would have made a friend for life!

 

It’s also well worth considering hiring the services of a tour guide when visiting the temples (US$35 per day). Tour guides generally speak at least one other foreign language and need to pass an examination on Angkor’s history before being issued with a licence. They are recognisable by their uniform comprising brown trousers, beige shirts and name badge. Having a tour guide around gives you a local’s viewpoint without having to fork out a lot of money. They are able to work around your preferences and schedule and you can ask as many questions as you want, without having to waste time referring to guide books and maps. The travel experience is also enhanced because tour guides can recommend interesting spots less visited by independent travellers and tour groups.

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Sorn the Tour Guide/Driver

I felt lucky to have Sorn as our tour guide for the stay in Siem Reap. He was conversant in both English and Japanese. Not only did he take care of the logistics like transfer, transportation, entrance fees and meals, he went a step further by inviting us to his house to meet his family and experience a typical Cambodian home-cooked meal by his wife. Sorn was the translator during our interactions with the locals in the area. When the school we were supposed to visit turned out to be closed for that day, Sorn took immediate steps to find another primary school to visit. He successfully convinced one resident of Kampong Khleang to allow us inside her home (on stilts) for a look around. I passed up on this offer because I was afraid that the thin wooden staircase might not hold my weight! He is contactable by email at yannsorn@yahoo.com.

Angkor Wat

Bayon

Phnom Bakheng

Ta Prohm

Banteay Srei

Kulen National Park

It’s a pity that not that many visitors go to Phnom Kulen as it is a very interesting place. Phnom Kulen (Kulen Mountain) is situated about 50 km from Angkor and you need to be prepared for a long ride. The big challenge up the mountain is that half the journey is on a narrow and bumpy dirt road. It takes approximately 2 hours to reach the top and you need to make your way up before 11 o’clock in the morning. Once there, visitors can only leave the mountain after midday to avoid on-coming traffic. To get to Phnom Kulen, it’s best to hire a car with a driver. Avoid going on motorbike or tuk-tuk as the road is rather precarious.

The park has a temple, Preah Ang Thom, that houses a massive reclining Buddha. The statue is 8 meters long and was carved from a single sandstone rock in the 16th century. To see the statue, you need to climb a very steep flight of stone steps leading up to the summit.

Downstream is the River of 1000 Lingas, a series of Hindu-inspired motifs and designs carved into the sandstone bedrock. However the water level was high on that day and I only got a blurry view of the lingas!

The last attractive spot in Kulen is a beautiful 25m tall 2-tier waterfall. The water is considered holy and Cambodians like to bottle it to take home with them. The lower-tier waterfall is accessible by climbing down a flight of narrow, rickety stairs. In retrospect, I took a big risk going down and up the wooden stairway with my camera still attached to the tripod.

Lunch was under an attap roof shelter in the picnic area (USD$20.00) comprising a simple meal of chicken rice and fresh coconut juice.

Street Food

I am not much of a foodie so I didn’t take many food photographs. The tuk-tuk drivers seemed to enjoy eating balut, a developing duck embryo that is boiled and eaten in the shell. You can actually see the wings, feathers and eyes of the underdeveloped chick when you crack open the shell. I was invited to try this “delicious” street dish, but could not bring myself to do so!

The People

A place can be very scenic and culturally significant with plenty of attractions but in the end, it all comes down to the people. In Cambodia, they were friendly, soft-spoken and always hospitable.

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A last look at Angkor Wat before heading for the airport in a tuk tuk, of course!

Banteay Srei – Hidden Gem

The charm of Banteay Srei lies in its well-preserved state, small size in relation to other Angkor temples and decorative wall carvings that showcase some of the finest examples of classical Khmer art. Indeed the highly intricate carvings that grace this temple gives the first-time visitor a feeling of discovering a mysterious sanctuary in the middle of a magical forest!

Banteay Srei loosely translates to ‘Citadel of the Women”. The belief was that only a woman’s handiwork could have been responsible for creating something so beautiful and delicate. Dedicated to the Hindu god, Shiva, the carvings on this pink-red sandstone temple cover virtually every available stone surface, with a predominance of apsaras — celestial maidens who excel in the art of dancing and seduction.

Banteay Srei has quite an impressive moat with lotus plants growing in the water. But more remarkable is that Banteay Srei was completed  in 967AD – some 150 years before Angkor Wat!

Banteay Srei lies 38 km from Siem Reap, requiring extra time for travel. The journey by tuk-tuk takes about forty-five minutes each way, costing around US$20-US$25, including any stops you might make along the way. Renting a car with an English-speaking driver will come up to US$40, but the upside here is that you get to travel in air-conditioned comfort.

To access Banteay Srei you will need an Angkor pass. I would go for the 3-day pass for US$40. It costs the same as two single-day passes (US$20 for one day) and gives you unlimited access for 3 consecutive days to Angkor Wat, Bayon & Ta Prohm, as well as to some of the lesser-known temples.

The best times to visit Banteay Srei are early morning or late afternoon when there are no tour groups. I walked along the circular route, which took me past a small wetland nature reserve before arriving at the temple. It was rather pleasant to stroll down the gentle, shady path of this bird haven, complete with wooden walkways built across the lake for a better viewing experience of the surrounding landscape.

The sanctuary is entered from the east by a doorway only 1.08 metres high. What this means is that you need to stoop when making your way in and out to avoid knocking your head. Inside the temple, six stairways lead up to the platform, each guarded by two kneeling statues of human figures with animal heads.

It is out of the way, but Banteay Srei is one special temple that you should not miss.