When Mt. Fuji erupted years ago, the lava flow resulted in the formation of lakes surrounding its northern edge known as Fuji-Goko or Fuji Five Lakes. Of the five, Lake Yamanaka (Yamanaka-ko), is the largest in terms of surface area (6.46 sq km) and the highest in terms of altitude (980.5 m). Ironically, the lake is also the shallowest of the five, with a maximum water depth of only 13.5 m. Due to its high altitude and relatively shallow water depth, Yamanaka-ko freezes completely during winter.
Some Japanese families have second homes here to take in the picturesque lakeside scenery. On a clear day, Mt. Fuji can be seen standing proudly in the distance. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get a glimpse of this famous mountain as it was covered in clouds and mist.
Yamanaka-ko is a popular recreation site for boating, fishing, water skiing, wind surfing and swimming, as well as camping, cycling and other activities along its shores. Japanese-style hotels, resorts, restaurants, cafés, onsen and museums have sprung up to cater to the inhabitants and visitors in this area.
Yamanaka-ko is home to various types of swans – the natural ones, the paddle boats who think they are swans and lastly…
…one giant swan spotting an elegant neck, a crowned head and an observation deck! No wonder Yamanaka-ko is sometimes affectionately known as Swan Lake!
I had great fun photographing the well-behaved dogs that got to join their humans on the 25-minute cruise excursion at Yamanaka-ko.
Oshino Hakkai is a rustic village of thatched roof houses located in the Fuji Five Lakes area between Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Yamanaka in Japan.
It looks like there hasn’t always been five lakes in the Fuji Five Lakes area. Centuries ago, there was a lake called Lake Utsu. When Mount Fuji erupted in 800 A.D., the lava flow divided Lake Utsu into two – giving birth to Lake Yamanaka and Lake Oshino. So for a short time, there was six lakes in that area. Over time, Lake Oshino dried up but some springs being fed by Mt. Fuji’s underground water reservoir remained. The water from Oshino Hakkai’s eight ponds come from Mount Fuji’s snow melt that seeps to the bottom and is filtered through a series of porous lava rock, to finally arrive at Oshino Hakkai almost 80 years later!
With such an elaborate and extended filtration process, you can be certain that the crystal-clear water from the springs of Oshino Hakkai is pure and loaded with mineral goodness.
Each pond is home to different freshwater plants and marine life at varying depths. The water is so clear that even with 8 metres in depth, we could still see the bottom of the pond with shiny blue “gems” and trout swimming around.
Because it comes from Mount Fuji, the water here is considered sacred and highly revered by locals. In olden times, people making a pilgrimage up Mount Fuji would first come here to purify themselves by washing in the eight ponds.
Oshino Hakkai is nationally recognised as having one of the best water in Japan. It is not often that one can boast of having water that has undergone 80 years of purification! I was really looking forward to catching a glimpse of Mount Fuji’s reflection in the pond, but sadly it rained yet again and the mountain got lost behind mist and clouds.
From the main road or car parking lot, the village is not apparent. You need to walk through an ordinary-looking lane for about 50 metres before reaching Oshino Hakkai. You know you’ve arrived when you spot an unusually large crowd of people at one corner of the street. Oshino Hakkai is open every day of the year and entrance is free.
Besides being well-known for its scenery, Oshino Hakkai is also a great place for a walkabout. It has many souvenir shops and food stalls along both sides of the street to entice visitors to part with their money. I really enjoyed wandering around the food stalls. So many mouth-watering food to choose from. It is enough to make any diet addict abandon her original plans and stuff all that sumptuous goodies inside the stomach. We bought a few nice-looking peaches to eat for supper and tried some toasted green tea mochi with red bean filling. The con-on-a-cob was out of this world and we dutifully queued up to try out the village speciality – soft tofu topped with a special dressing!
As we made our way out, I spotted a lavender field behind one of the shops and ran to have a closer look at the flowers.
The charm of Oshino Hakkai lies on the assumption that the scenery can be enjoyed in peace and quiet. Sadly, Oshino Hakkai has become too touristy and overrun with foreign tourist arrivals by the busloads. By late afternoon, the atmosphere became more serene and pleasant as most of the tour groups had already departed. This was a good time to linger around a bit longer, but we had to hurry to catch the last bus leaving Oshino Hakkai at 5:00pm.
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
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.
Hout Bay and Boat Cruise to Duiker (Seal) Island
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Amazing flowers lining the path to Boulders.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
A visit to Cape Town is not complete without a visit to the Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden. Set in a 36-hectare site on the eastern slopes of Table Mountain, it certainly lives up to its reputation as a wonderful showcase for South Africa’s indigenous flora.
Kirstenbosch was established in 1913 to promote, conserve and display the extraordinarily rich and diverse flora of southern Africa. Over 7000 species of indigenous plants are found here, including many rare and threatened species. In addition, there’s also a rich collection of bulbs, alpines and ferns.
In 2004, Kirstenbosch as part of the Cape Floral Kingdom, became the first botanic garden in the world to be included as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nature and flower lovers will no doubt be blown away by this place. The are a number of stunning themed gardens connected by hidden trails that offer little surprises at each turning. There is a lovely wooden tree canopy walkway giving breathtaking views of the rich and colourful landscape, with the majestic Table Mountain standing as a backdrop.
Inside the Visitors’ Centre entrance and at the main lawn is a bust of Nelson Mandela standing next to a pepper-bark tree (Warburgia salutaris). The bust was sculpted by John Francis Gardner, who gifted it to Kirstenbosch to commemorate Mandela’s planting of the tree during his visit on 21 August 1996.
It portrays Nelson Mandela during the pivotal years of his presidency and captures his radiance and generous spirit for which he is so well known.
Strelitzia reginae ‘Mandela’s Gold’ is a rare, yellow form of the crane flower and famous orange bird of paradise. This spectacular flower has flaring, yellow petals and a blue tongue reminiscent of a crested tropical bird. The grey-green leaves can grow to a height of about 1.5 metres and the large bird-like flowers stand above the foliage on the tips of long, sturdy stalks during winter and spring.
Too bad that we were given only an hour-and-a-half to roam around – which was hardly enough time at all, considering that six of us spent about half an hour going round in circles, trying to find the right path that would lead us to our meeting point at the second entrance to Kirstenbosch. Nevertheless, it was a morning well-spent in a very tiny corner of the African continent where for a while, everything was peaceful, balanced and beautiful.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a short introduction to some of the Creation Ancestors seen on the walls of Angbangbang Gallery.
The single male figure is Nabulwinjbulwinj. He is a dangerous spirit who eats females after killing them by striking them with yam.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Beneath 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.
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.
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.
It took a couple of hours to finally get out of the dirt road from Jim Jimand head northwards to view the rock art in Nourlangie. We made a stopover for lunch at Angbangbang Billabong, one of Kakadu’s most attractive billabongs. Here, you get to see a large variety of wetland waterbirds, water lilies, as well as Burrunggui (Nourlangie Rock) making for a stunning backdrop.
There’s an easy 2.5 km walk around the billabong but as the track is so close to the water, you need to be wary of saltwater crocodiles.
The long ride had made us very hungry. We set up our picnic goodies on one of the shaded park benches and made sandwiches topped with bacon, ham and leftover kangaroo meat from the previous night’s campfire dinner. The day was very hot, and we were glad to have a bit of a stretch, take selfies and enjoy the view.
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).
I must admit that I wasn’t 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!
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!
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!
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.
Still waters run deep and crocs lurk underneath
The first few metres of the track to Jim Jim Falls.
Rock scrambling for most of the 2 km hike to the waterfalls.
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.
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!
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.
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
Yellow Water Billabong is near the small settlement of Cooinda in Kakadu National Park. This massive wetlands is rich in wildlife and boasts of stunning scenery in an ever-changing vibrant landscape. The pretty water lilies dotting the calm water’s surface may give the impression that all is quiet, but don’t underestimate the serenity of this billabong. This place is notorious for crocodiles lurking beneath the surface…and these crocs share the same eco-space with a wide range of resident birdlife, fish and amphibians.
After a jam-packed day at Kakadu, watching the sun set behind Yellow Water was a great way to wind down for the evening!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
At 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.
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.
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!
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!
The single largest Buddhist structure on earth lies in the heart of the Kedu Valley in Central Java, Indonesia. Borobudur Temple. Built in the 8th and 9th centuries and set against the backdrop of active volcanoes, those who visit cannot fail to be in awe by Borobudur’s sheer size and the remarkable attention to detail that went into its construction. This temple used to be the spiritual centre of Buddhism in Java, before being lost to the world – hidden under layers of volcanic ash and jungle growth for hundreds of years. It was only re-discovered in the early 19th century by the British governor, Thomas Stamford Raffles (the founder of Singapore) and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
The entire lava rock structure is in the form of a lotus, the sacred flower of Buddha. The different levels of the monument symbolises the different levels of wisdom we have to go through during life until attaining enlightenment, symbolised by the spectacular upper terraces.
The base of the temple represents kamadhatu, the ‘realm of desire’ which is the state of mind lacking of morality. The middle level of five square terraces represents rupadhatu where man gets wiser and more virtuous, has some control over his negative impulses but is still chained to earthly and materialistic pursuits. The three circular platforms as well as the monumental stupa at the summit represent arupadhatu, the ‘realm of formlessness’where man understands that the visible world is just an illusion and the real meaning of life is found inside oneself.
The walls and balustrades are decorated with fine low reliefs
The temple gardens are green and spacious with the occasional elephant plying the well-kept grounds.
There are two other smaller temples that are located nearby to Borobudur, Mendut and Pawon temples.
During Vesak Day, the auspicious day that marks the birth, Enlightenment and death of Buddha, Buddhist devotees make their first stop at Mendut temple to prepare themselves spiritually, before continuing on foot up the 3 kilometre ascend to Borobudur. There is a gigantic tree outside Mendut temple that you cannot fail to notice. It is actually two trees, one growing on the other and extending its roots downwards from the heights of the branches to reach the ground.
On the way to Borobudur, there is the smallest of the three temples – Pawon temple. It boasts of beautiful architectures and exquisite sculpture around its walls.
It may be interesting to note that Mendut temple and Pawon temple were constructed before Borobudur. Both these temples lie on a straight line with Borobudur, suggesting a symbolic connection that got lost over time.
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.
One of Angkor’s most popular temples must be Ta Prohm, sometimes called the Jungle Temple or Tree Temple. Its unique combination of stones and trees growing out of the ruins with roots coiling and blending into the walls of this Buddhist monastery has made it one of the most visited temples in Cambodia.
Built in the late 12th and early 13th centuries (1186) by the King Jayavarman VII, Mother Nature shows that she is still all-powerful as Destroyer and Healer. Over hundreds of years, she has silently but surely strangled and split the carved stones apart, dressed their wounds with branches, leaves and mosses, and then bound them with her tendrils.
When Ta Prohm was discovered in the late 19th century, it was already extensively ruined. The giant trees had become so intertwined with the temple’s walls, that wood and stone had forged together. Restoration of the temple was not possible without destroying the trees that were enveloping the injured monument in their firm grip. So visitors to these unique temple ruins are actually seeing Ta Prohm in the same condition of neglect when it was first discovered, except for the wooden walkways, platforms and roped railings that have been put in place to protect the temple from further deterioration and damage due to the large tourist inflow.
Despite its condition, you can still explore numerous towers, closed courtyards and tight corridors behind the encroaching foliage. Some of the corridors are impassable due to the jumbled piles of stone blocks that clog their interiors. Others are accessible only by narrow, dark passages. You can get lost inside the ruins so it’s best to have a local guide or keep to the directional signs.
The scenes of Ta Prohm remained quite faithful to the temple’s mysterious appearance during the filming of “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”. I was watching a re-run of this movie a few days ago and had a good time identifying and matching some familiar scenes from the film with the photographs I had!
Ta Prohm was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1992.
After visiting Angkor Wat, many people head for Angkor Thom, which is situated just 1.7 kilometres away. Angkor Thom is well-known for its four-sided faces and towering southern gate. Established in the late 12th Century by King Jayavarman VII, this royal city was the last capital of the Khmer Empire.
On the way to the temple grounds, you cannot fail to be impressed by the 100-metre-long stone causeway, flanked by 54 gods on one side and 54 demons on the other. The demons are distinguished by their round eyes and grimacing expressions, while the gods have almond-shaped eyes and look serene.
A laterite wall, 8 meters high, reinforced by a wide earth embankment, runs around the full perimeter of Angkor Thom’s moat. Angkor Thom has five entry gates – North, South, East, West, plus an additional gate at the eastern entrance.
While Angkor Wat is Hindu-inspired, the sculpted images in Angkor Thom lean towards Buddhism. Symbolically, Angkor Thom represents the universe. The wall enclosing the city of Angkor Thom represents the stonewall around the universe and the mountain ranges around Mount Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolises the cosmic ocean.
At the exact centre of Angkor Thom’s axes stands the pyramid temple, Bayon. Most people will recognise Bayon for its four-sided smiling faces and extraordinary bas-reliefs. From afar, Bayon looks like a haphazard pile of stones. On closer look, however, there are some interesting bas reliefs on its outer and inner walls. Most of them are in pretty bad shape, but intact enough to give some insights into the Khmer way of life back then. The storyline carved on the bas reliefs are varied, depicting historical events, mythical stories and offering rare glimpses into domestic and rural life during that period.
Bayon symbolises the link between heaven and earth. It has some 50 towers with four faces carved in stone for most of them. Each face is four metres high with closed eyes bearing the same enigmatic smile. This gives the faces a mysterious yet serene countenance, perhaps portraying an all-knowing state of inner peace. I prefer to describe it as the “I know something that you don’t” look!
When looking at Bayon, two questions came to mind. How did the Khmer people manage to pile one huge stone on top of another?How did they manage to fashion faces from stones without using cement or mortar?
A Japanese team working on Bayon’s restoration estimated that more than 200,000 blocks of stone, some weighing 300 kilograms were used for its construction. While it would have been possible for four men to carry each huge stone with a sling, it still does not explain how the blocks could have been lifted to the heights of the central tower!
Time to revisit the Alien Theory, perhaps?
The east gate was used as a backdrop in Tomb Raider, where the baddies broke into the ‘tomb’ by pulling down a giant apsara. While the scene may have looked convincing on-screen, Hollywood actors are clearly no match to the ancient Khmers when it comes to strength because the apsara was made from polystyrene!
When I first told my friends that I had decided to go on a photo trip to Cambodia with four other photo enthusiasts, I was met with incredulous looks. They could not fathom how I could bring myself to go on a trip with perfect strangers.
I, on the other hand, welcomed the idea of going with like-minded people who shared my enthusiasm for photography. At least there would not be a need to justify myself for setting the alarm clock for 4am, and postpone dinner to a much later time. And so, five strangers met for the first time at the airport’s departure lounge, embarking on a journey together to Siem Reap to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Road to Angkor
This trip turned out to be a wonderful experience of discovery from the moment I stepped out from the plane. We were met by our Tour Guide, Sorn, who introduced himself in English and ushered us to three waiting tuk-tuks. Tuk-tuks are motorbike-drawn carriages that can seat up to a maximum of four people. I was thrilled to use this form of local transport. The adventure had begun! After leaving our luggage in the hotel, we climbed into the same tuk-tuks and headed for Angkor Wat. At the entrance and checkpoint to Angkor’s Archeological Park, we got down to have our photos taken – a pre-requisite to be attached with our 7-day Angkor entrance passes.
The Angkor Pass gives you entrance to all the temples and monuments in the Siem Reap area. Three types of passes are available for purchase – One day (US$20), Three days per week (US$40) and Seven days visit per one month (US$60). Remember to bring your passports with you. It would be such a shame to go all the way there and be denied entry because you left your passport in the hotel!
The straight road to Angkor leads up to a beautiful lake. The tuk-tuk makes a left turn and then a right, giving the visitor an uninterrupted view of the lake on the right-hand side. From a distance, I can already see moving figures crossing the causeway connecting the mainland with the temple. The heart starts to beat a little faster, with a heightened sense of anticipation. My eyes stay glued to the structure that becomes bigger and bigger until at last – I am in the presence of the iconic Angkor Wat!
The first glimpse of this architectural masterpiece from the road never ceases to amaze, etching itself in the memory forever.
Angkor Wat is Cambodia’s best preserved temple. This iconic Hindu temple comprises five soaring corncob-shaped towers and is surrounded by a wide moat. The laterite and sandstone complex of towers, moats and stone walls are believed to represent a mini universe.
Angkor Wat was built around 1150AD. The temple was dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu, venerated as one of the five primary forms of God . The 5-meter tall statue of Vishnu stands at the entrance of Angkor Wat. It is carved from a single piece of sandstone draped in colourful clothing with offerings from pilgrims visiting the temple. This stone statue has eight arms and the head of Buddha! De??? Apparently, when Angkor Wat became a Buddhist temple, the head of Vishnu was replaced with the head of Buddha!
As you walk further in, the intricacy of the layout becomes more obvious. Every nook, corner and door entrance is filled with fine detail. The bas-reliefs with plump figures and battle scenes are exceptional in craftsmanship, boasting of a history that was once vibrant, colourful and robust. The intricately-carved stone walls tell stories from Hindu mythology and a military procession led by Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat.
The heart of the temple, the Pyramid, is built on three levels. During my first visit to Angkor some years back, the Pyramid was closed to public. A look at the photo and you can probably guess why. The stone steps are very steep, narrow and sloping down. One slip and it’s an agonising slide all the way to the bottom! Since then, a wooden staircase has been erected so that visitors can climb up to the third level. There are usually long queues to go up and down. However, if you are willing to make the steep climb to the top, you will be rewarded with fantastic views in every direction.
Here’s the burning question. Why was Angkor Wat built in the first place? Was it for worship or funeral purposes? This confusion arises from the fact that entrance to the site is from the left, and the gallery of bas reliefs is viewed anti-clockwise; the direction associated with death. Nowadays, it is generally accepted that Angkor Wat was used by Suryavarman II for worship during his lifetime and then became a mausoleum upon his death.
To Catch the Sunrise
Dinner on our first night was at the Red Piano Restaurant. I discovered only much later that the Red Piano was Angelina Jolie’s favourite eating place when she was filming Tomb Raider. My new-found friends ordered Cambodian Curry Chicken, while I tried the Chicken Vol au Vent. After dinner, it was a quick walkaround in Pub Street to check out the night life. Then it was back to the hotel to catch some sleep before setting out at 4:30am to shoot the sunrise.
It was still pitch dark when we made our way across the causeway and turning left towards the lotus pond. What a difference in atmosphere from our previous day’s visit! The whole place had a quiet air about it – a bit eerie, I felt. People were using torch lights to find their way around. To my surprise, quite a number of people were already at the lotus pond, laying stake on the real estate which commanded the best views of the sunrise. Worse still, about 50 red plastic chairs had been carefully arranged at the edge of the pond, making this prime spot out-of-bounds to the rest of us! Fortunately, the really big crowd had not yet arrived, and I managed to find a small space at the water’s edge to set up my tripod. Any closer and it would have fallen into the pond!
About 10 minutes later, the crowd descended upon us, calling out to one another in loud tones, pushing and squeezing to get the best vantage point to watch the sunrise. I’m not sure if it was the lack of sleep, an empty stomach, the jostling and loud voices, or trying too hard to achieve lense focus and correct exposure in the ever-changing light. All of a sudden, I felt like throwing up! It was a scary few minutes with all kinds of thoughts going through my mind.
The only available spot to throw up is the lotus pond right in front of me. How embarassing to be sick in front of everybody! Another option. I could ask the lady on the red chair if I could please have her plastic bag of fruit. Not the fruit. Just the plastic bag. On the other hand, this might not be a good idea. I might throw up all over her before finishing my sentence. Have you even heard of anyone being sick at Angkor Wat? Not me! I don’t want to be the first one either! The gods would not like it, that’s for sure. Guess I could consider the third and last option. I always knew my camera bag was destined for a greater purpose!
I decided to do some stand-up meditation in the hope that the feeling would go away. By and by, I noticed that the incessant talking had stopped. The place had become much quieter.
The clouds had blocked the sun’s rays during those crucial few minutes. By the time the clouds cleared up, the sun had already made it’s way up to the sky!
We packed up and decided to go for breakfast at one of the local stalls across the road from Angkor Wat.