Many moons ago, when I was a wee nipper running around the playground in shorts annoying the hell out of people (not much has changed, the playground has just got bigger…) we used to have a game of ‘tick’ that involved giving people THE MANGE. The rules were simple: you ticked somebody, thus giving them THE MANGE, and then they had to tick someone else to get rid of it. You see, marvellously enough, like something out of an episode of The Outer Limits, the ‘mange’ only infected one person at a time, so by giving your best friend THE MANGE, you were miraculously cured from it.
I think it’s the way most African leaders believe HIV works.
This game is nothing new, in America they call it Cooties, and, according to Wikipedia:
For ages 5 onwards, Cooties are known in Denmark as “fnat,” or “pigelus” (literally “girl lice”) and “drengelus” (“boy lice”), and in Norway “jentelus” (“girl lice”) and “guttelus” (“boy lice”). In Sweden and Finland it usually refers to girls, where they are known as tjejbaciller” (literally “girl bacillus”) and “tyttöbakteeri” (“girl bacteria”) respectively.
Anyway, there was one way to insure yourself against THE MANGE in my Liverpool school folklore; and that was by crossing your fingers and declaring yourself to be “on Barley”. I was never made clear weather this meant you had stacked up an invisible mound of barley and were standing on it, or did it mean you were metaphorically on an island immune from THE MANGE that happened to be called Barley?
Well, whatever it meant, I was now ON BALI, so there’s absolutely no chance of me catching THE MANGE. However, with all these mangy dogs running about the island, there was a good chance of catching Rabies, which I hear you can’t get rid of by ticking the person next to you and hoping they haven’t got their fingers crossed.
A short coach journey later I was in Denpasar, the capital city of Bali. Then it was a short taxi trip to the town Sanur and the Watering Hole hotel to meet the delectable Anna, my good friend from Liverpool who runs the biggest pole and aerial dance studio in the north west (and possibly the UK – I’ll have to check on that). She’s been in Indonesia for a week now, pottering about in Java and Borneo, but now our plans converge on the little Hindu island of Bali – an island whose reputation precedes her.
After a marvellously tasty breakle-fast, we headed over to Seminyak, just up the coast from Kuta beach. Anna checked into a backpackers hotel there, but I had somewhere else to stay – at a friend of my mum’s friend’s gaff. His name was Neil – a hilarious and good-natured ex-pat hailing from Port Glasgow. With several years working on and with superyachts under his belt, he would be my unofficial CouchSurf host for the next week or so.
You see, I was planning to leave on Friday (November the 5th) on the monthly Pelni ferry to Kupang in West Timor (East Timor being the 183rd nation of The Odyssey Expedition). But my laptop (Sony Jim) had other ideas. Yes, it was a few months ago when I cracked the screen, but the creeping darkness spreading itself like Venom over my liquid crystal display wasn’t too much of a mare until I got to Bali. Something about the climate, maybe, but the percentage of viewable screen reduced itself from (let’s say) 85% to less than 10% overnight. This meant I had to get it fixed asap. But first I had 25 hours worth of footage from Shanghai to Bali to upload onto the damn thing. Lucky that Neil had a spare stand-alone screen for me to abuse.
Thanks to a combination of lousy batteries and lousier advice from the fix-it people, it would be Thursday before I took the laptop to get fixed. They told me that they would order the part and that I should come back the next day with the laptop. I told them I was getting the ferry to Kupang tomorrow and it needed to be done today. But it was no way – I could either press on and hope to get my laptop fixed for a reasonable price in East Timor or Papua New Guinea (good luck with that!) or I could miss the boat (literally) and get it done here. No fear, I thought – with a bit of luck I could island hop down to Timor the conventional way using local ferries and it may only cost me a week.
Then again, what might happen is… oh, I’ll get to that later…
Anyway, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum; that afternoon, Anna and I went for a amble along Kuta beach and after beating off the advances of hundreds of old massage and bead-hawking women, eventually found ourselves enjoying a drink at the little bar at the base of the AJ Hackett Bungy (yes, that’s how they spell it) jump platform at the northern end of the beach.
Now the day before, Neil had been at a comedy night, and there he had got chatting with Paul, a young scouse guy who had been living in Bali for a few years now. Neil told him that he had the mad ging off that Nat Geo telly show staying with him, and Paul asked if we could meet up after work tomorrow.
So I called this Paul fella and told him we were at the AJ Hackett Bungy jump place and we waited for him to show up, which he duly did (eventually!), but while we were waiting I explained to the nice girl behind the bar that there really should be a dedicated AJ Hackett bungy jump place in the UK – specifically in Liverpool. Anyone with half a brain could scan the scouse skyline and hazard a guess where I’ve got in mind. She then dropped a piece of information that may (you never know!) make this pipe-dream a reality – Mr. AJ Hackett himself was here, in Bali, on a surfing holiday.
Could I meet up with him?
The girl humoured me, but I took it as a no. When this Paul chap arrived I told him the mad plan – and as if the planets aligned at that very moment, he explained that his mate Justin – who we were going out for drinkies with later – used to be the manager of the Double-Six club, part of the AJ Hackett Bungy complex.
Mr. Burns; Fingers tapping together; Ex-cellent…
Later that night, we met up with Justin. A real top bloke, he knew AJ personally and would have no problem arranging a meeting. Better still, he had a spare complimentary bungy jump (worth $100!!) that was up for grabs to anyone nutty enough to go for it.
I know someone!
That night descended (like pretty much every night I spent in Bali) into chaos, with Anna doing an incredible routine on the nightclub poles (the official dancers just had to wait their turn) and much utter jibber-jabberish being bandied about back and forth. It was lucky that Anna was with me, because otherwise I would have never found my way home.
On the Friday, it was Anna’s last day, so I asked Neil’s driver Madi to drop my laptop off at the fix-it place – I really didn’t want to have to waste half of my last day with Anna doing it myself (the congestion in Bali is epic). I thought that the screen would be sorted for the next day, I could do the bungee and meet AJ on Sunday and leave this burg next Monday.
Ha! That didn’t happen.
It was with a heavy heart that I said my fond farewells to Anna, but I was happy that over the last few months I’ve seen Hugh, Chris, Debbie, Stan, Helen, Thro and now Anna along the way: I just wish Mand had been able to meet me at some point too, but the fates… aye, the fates…
On the Saturday I fought through the traffic to the fix-it place, only for them to tell me that they couldn’t fix the laptop, so Neil’s driver Madi had kept hold of it. Would have been nice for him to tell us, nicer still if he had let us know that this weekend was some kind of Balinese festival which meant he would be unreachable until Monday. No laptop, no ferry, no escape, no fat cigar. What a frickin’ nightmare.
But this was only the start of my trauma. That night, I went out on the lash with Neil and we met with an Aussie called Ian who I (foolishly) tried to impress with my card tricks with the old Bicycle Deck. Turns out he’s a professional card magician and he saw right through my amateurish fumbles, but did give me one or two pointers as to how to up my game. By the witching hour, Neil was knackered and elected to return home. I stayed out with Ian and we headed into Kuta looking for Bintang and hilarity.
At around godknow o’clock I set off back to Neil’s gaff on the back of one of Bali’s ubiquitous motorbikes.
Only my hat didn’t.
My. Hat. Didn’t.
We went back, I searched and I search, but to no avail: Hat 5 was gone. Gone to join his brothers in the great milliners in the sky.
Hat 1: Lost at The V Festival in August 2003 after Ana Matronic from The Scissor Sisters got me so drunk that I passed out during The Pixies set.
Hat 2: Lost in February 2006 during the Half Moon Party in the jungle of Ko Pha Ngan thanks to Stan and copious amounts of beer and buckets of joy.
Hat 3: Disappeared in time and space some time between 2007 and 2008. May well have been destroyed by Mandy in a fit of peak (she no love Mr. Hat).
Hat 4: Retired in Feb 2010 after having shrunk in the wash. Kudos for having survived 142 countries on my bonze.
Hat 5: Lost in Bali, Nov 2010, after night out on the lash.
Without my hat I feel like half a man, the sun will bake my face and my ears will glow red like the Ready-Brek man. People won’t recognise me, I won’t be able to cover my bad hair days (which is pretty much every day – I’m a GING for Christ’s sake) I will have to dig out my sunglasses even though I think they make me look like a proper weirdo, I will have to invest in some sunscreen even though I HATE sunscreen with a passion. I will have nothing to use as a pillow against the window of the bus, nothing to cover my face when I sleep under the glare of the tropical sun, nothing to keep my hair dry when it rains and nothing to use as a fan on a dog day afternoon.
Without my hat, the expedition will go on, but with a heavy heart. I’ve lost my daemon. Hat 5, from country 143 (Libya) to country 182 (Indonesia): you may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten.
But let’s look on the Mr. Brightside: the girls in the Champagne Bar here dress like THIS:
WOO WOO WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!
On Sunday I met up with Justin for my bungee jump at AJ’s, but sadly, no AJ. He was there earlier, but not now. However, we did get him on the phone and he agreed to let me break ALL THE RULES and do a jump with my camera, much to the astonishment of the bungy staff. Hee hee – it’s not WHAT you know…
First Justin’s girlfriend Natalie gaffered my camera to my hand…
(If you look in the background of this shot, you’ll see a bungy menu that includes one called ‘THE FIRE BALL’. Yes – they set you on fire before you jump. Seriously. ‘MOTO MADNESS’ has you going over on a motorbike. I kid you not.)
And then I jumped…
Here’s the video of it:
As I had my camcorder attached to my hand and my glasses attached to my head with tape, I look doubly ridiculous. This was so I could film a line for the trailer for the second series of the TV show – yes, I still have to convince the Vogons at Nat Geo that it’ll be a good idea to commission another series. YGADS! Anyone want to commission a TV show for a fiver?
Funnily enough, you can quite clearly hear me swear that I would ‘never’ do a bungee jump again after this jump in New Zealand back in 2002…
…so you can gauge my commitment to the cause of Series 2, even if most of you Brits and Yanks haven’t seen Series 1 yet (hold on, it’s coming!).
Taking of Series 1, that night Justin and I headed around to scouse Paul’s gaff for some beers and telly – specifically, my TV show which was being screened here in Indonesia. Narcissistic, I know, but I’ve only seen half of the episodes, and I was hoping it was one I hadn’t seen before (it wasn’t, it was the first episode, bah!).
After that Paul (who, obviously from being out of The Pool for too long, is a red) wanted to watch Chelsea kick Liverpool’s arse. Strangely enough, Liverpool won 2-0, but then stranger things have happened – I mean, Stephen Hawking has had, what, three wives?
It was a good night, and the next morning I was up bright and breezy to claim my computer back off Madi and head off on my errands. First up, I headed over to AJ’s to meet with Justin and a guy from the UK called Simon who Justin reckoned was ‘the guy’ to fix my laptop. Simon took down the serial number and said he’d give me a call tomorrow.
Justin and I grabbed some breakfast with a Scottish guy called Dennis who was pretty hilarious and (like me) a huge fan of the Viz. I thought it might be an idea to introduce him the OH SO WRONG joys of K— and the Gang. Woo haha. Ha. Then we headed back to the Bungy place: AJ was going back to France this afternoon, this would be my last chance to bend his ear…
Thankfully, the man himself appeared soon afterwards and I got to sit down and have a good chat with him. AJ Hackett is one of the guys who put bungee jumping into the global subconscious – mostly by his audacious (and illegal) jump off the Eiffel Tower back in the eighties. After over three million jumps (and no fatalities – yet!) his bungee platforms have spread out from his home of New Zealand to Australia, Malaysia, Germany, France, Las Vegas and beyond. His jump in Macau, China is the highest fixed commercial bungee in the world according to Guinness Book of Records.
Having done hundreds of jumps himself, he’s only had one close call, and that was when he plummeted off a helicopter at the wrong height for his length of cord: he smashed into the sea way, way too fast and did himself a proper mischief: breaking a bunch of bones and leaving him with some pretty nifty scars.
Oh, and ‘bungy’ is the Kiwi spelling, apparently – don’t blame me!!
I snagged myself a great interview for the TV show and afterwards, I put forward my proposition: a 400ft AJ Hackett bungy jump in Liverpool – with my Anna as His Girl Friday to run the show. AJ’s eyes lit up on seeing where I had in mind. He had been looking for a suitable site in the UK for years, but never found anywhere…
So yes, my funky little city, if bungee comes to Liverpool, you know who to thank
I said my thanks and my farewells and headed off to the nearby Benoa port and marina to scope out another way of getting to Timor – nah – all the ferries leave from Padangbai a good few hours up the coast of Bali, and you have to island-hop your way there: via Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores. Well, at least I’d get to see a bit more of jolly old Indonesia AND WHATEVER COULD BE WRONG WITH THAT?
In fact, Indonesia has really really grown on me during this trip. I have to confess, when I was here a few years ago, I didn’t really warm to the place. I was on my own (as per usual) Bali just rained every day and compared with Thailand the beaches are blurgh (I’m not a surfer I guess), Java was dull and overcast, the memories I have of Sumatra involved copious amounts of mud and rather large and scary spiders and the LOCAL FOOD here is so damn awful it makes me *SHUDDER* just to think about it.
This time, with friends old and new, good cheer, hilarious escapades and copious amounts of alcoholic lubrication, I have had an utter utter blast: and I’m only a week into this little layover. However, the local food is still so lousy it makes me cry – if you like luke warm steamed rice and cold fish heads (no, seriously) then Indonesia will be your culinary delight. Then again, if you honestly like luke warm steamed rice and cold fish heads you’re a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic. I think the food here is what goes on in the head of a rabid Anglophobe French food critic when he lies back and thinks of England.
Other countries where the local food is AWFUL include:
- All of the Caribbean except Jamaica
- Most of Africa
- The vast majority of The Middle East (with the notable exceptions of Lebanon and Turkey).
But naff nosh aside, all I can say is this: don’t think for a SECOND that I’m not having the time of my life doing this adventure. Yes, there are lows: not seeing Mandy for a year, being chucked in jail in The Congo for no good reason, losing my hat, the depressing lack of w00t from the TV show, the crazy bus drivers, the deadly air-conditioning etc. but compared with the highs, the fun, the excitement, the randomness, the sheer joy of having a clear and defined mission to do and a blast to be had, I really cannot complain: ordinary life just doesn’t compare.
Justin picked me up from the port and together with his girlfriend Natalie (she who sellotaped my glasses to my head yesterday), we headed out to find THE LOST CROCODILES OF BALI!!
What what? Yes, any naturalists amongst you will swear that there are no native crocs on Bali, and you’d be right. But these snappers aren’t locals. In the 1990s a Balinese theme park was opened – a mini Alton Towers – with Balinese sculptures, a music hall, an artificial volcano(!) and a rollercoaster or two. Unfortunately, ten years ago the owner went bankrupt (or done a runner) and the bank left the theme park to go to rack and ruin. It has since been slowly – and magnificently – taken back by the jungle: a lost city which will hopefully bamboozle and confound future archaeologists… they made their sculptures out of concrete?
But there was the question of what to do with the crocodiles that had been shipped in and put in a crocodile pit for the thrill and amusement of the discerning public (knowing the Balinese, a daily live goat feeding show wouldn’t be out of the question). Well, this being Indonesia, the answer was simple: they just left them there to die.
But die they did not; fed for years by kindly locals throwing roadkill into the pit (and turning to cannibalism when the locals forgot about them), we felt it was high time to give these poor reptilian castaways a break. So we bought them some KFC.
Now in pretty much every country in the world (apart from the UK) you can choose between two types of KFC coating: original and spicy. I’m quite partial to original myself, but I was quite interested in seeing what these starving crocs preferred. So with a bucket of the Colonel’s finest (and some local cooked chicken as a control) Justin, Natalie and I joined forces to conduct an essencial scientific experiment – original or spicy – what will the crocs prefer?
Sadly, our expedition came to nowt. The crocs had been saved and taken to the zoo a few months ago (presumably as a result of the same magazine article that peaked our interest) and so I was left with a croc-less pit, a bucketful of fried chicken and egg all over my face. Well, at least the chicken didn’t go to waste
By Tuesday afternoon I still hadn’t heard back from Simon about whether or not my laptop could be fixed in Bali. At this point I was kinda raring get on with the adventure (if things had gone to plan, I’d be in East Timor today), but there was something holding me back: I can’t say really what it was, but it definitely had something to do with the sheer awesomeness of everyone I’ve met here in Bali.
For instance, the other day I met up with Neil in a place called KuDeTa, the swankiest bar on the island. I was just meeting Neil and then we were going on somewhere else – this place was way, way out of my price range (if it’s not a pound a pint I can’t help you). Just as Neil is finished off his bottle of Bintang, a lovely Japanese girl comes over to us, asks me if my name is Graham (which it is), explains that she’s the DJ here and says she’d really like to buy me a drink.
“That would be amazing”, I said, going bright red.
“Does this happen to you a lot?” asks Neil.
“Not really, but it seems to be happening a lot in Bali.”
So what if my laptop wasn’t fixed yet? I was having a great time. Although I have to say that Neil was a real trooper for putting up with me (and my mess) for so long. I hoped to remedy this by having a new screen fitted tomorrow so I could be out of here on Thursday.
But, as I said, I was in no great hurry. It looks like after my amazing 11 country romp through October, November would yield just one new nation, and that’s if I was lucky. My visa authorisation for East Timor STILL hadn’t come through. This was getting ridiculous. I had visions of me waiting like a noob on the border for two weeks while they got their shit together. Anytime before Christmas, lads, thanks…
Simon called me in the evening to say that there was no chance of getting the laptop repaired.
I’d have to buy a new one.
However, all new small laptops do not come with a firewire port and I don’t have any other means of backing up my video tapes.
Well, if the blogs are to continue I guess I’ll just have to bite the bullet. And so that’s what I did. On the Wednesday I met up with Simon and we spent the ENTIRE DAY (seriously!) looking for a new laptop. It wasn’t like there was a lot of choice, it was more to do with the eternal gridlock that typifies Denpasar, the capital of Bali. In the end I opted for a little HP which, at less than 180 quid new, was a better deal than getting my other laptop fixed would have been in China.
I haggled and haggled, but the price wouldn’t go any lower. Done.
Simon the utterly ace chap that he is, took my new lappy to fix it up with the latest bits and bobs – he would return it tomorrow (Thursday). Fair enough – I’d leave for East Timor on Friday morning.
HOWEVER, my new Bali friends Paul and Justin had other ideas: tomorrow night there was a beach party at an exclusive resort – free booze and free food – and I was on the guest list. Hip-Hip Hooray! After missing out on the Ko Pha Ngan Full Moon party, I was well up for a piss-up on the sand, and so my departure date got pushed back to Saturday. Sorry, Neil!!
By the time I rucked up at the party, everyone was already utterly wasted: they had started drinking at 4pm and by now it was dark. I tried my best to play catch up, but I didn’t stand a chance: before I could fully enjoy the ruinous effects of Bacchus’ finest I was told that the free bar had come to an end. Bah!
Oh well, I nursed my last free bottle of Bintang on the beach watching the dark tide roll in. I chatted to a Russian girl who was there but I had to leave the conversation as I was suffering from a giggle fit brought on by just how amazingly miserable this Russian chick was. I don’t remember her exact words, but they were something along the lines of,
“I hate this place… it’s all beaches and sunsets and parties… I wish I was in Moscow.”
Now we all get homesick, sure, but c’mon – this girl had just been tanked up for free in the swankiest resort in the whole of Indonesia. I guess what they say is true: there is no misery quite like Russian misery. That’s probably why I found it so hard to keep a straight face. Sorry, whatever your name was, I guess I may have come across as a tad insensitive. Poor girl, having to go to parties all the time in a tropical paradise and drink free booze…
The resort, I have to say, was quite exquisite: like something out of the brochures of other people’s holidays: luxury apartments overlooking a cliff, a funicular to take you down to an exclusive beach and an ‘infinity pool’ (a swimming pool which continuously pours a thin film of water over a ledge, creating the illusion that the pool has no wall on the far side) that catches the sunset each night like some kind of toothless yokel catching the moon in a bucket.
There was a large stylised ‘K’ drawn in the sand and lit with candles. It looked really cool from the top of the cliff. It looked even cooler after I rearranged the candles into a large comedy knob. I hope the honeymooning couples who had paid $1000 a night for a room overlooking the beach thought it was as funny as I did.
As I had caused enough trouble in paradise, Paul and I sped off back to Seminyak for a few more beers. However, considering how utterly plastered he and his mate were, it was a little like herding cats. We managed (just) to get something to eat from a burger kiosk and, well after that it all gets a little sketchy. I woke up in Neil’s the next day: FRIDAY… DAY OF ACTION!!
By 6pm on the Friday, I had got a good 5% of the things done that I wanted to get done before I left. That was the point at which Neil asked if I fancied coming out for a swift half. When I returned at dawn the next day it registered that I wouldn’t be leaving until Sunday. BUT ALL WAS NOT LOST! Last night I met a bloke called Tim who might be able to help me get to Palau next month from Sorong in West Papua. Yes yes there are some who may cock a snook at my partiality for socialising during this adventure, but a friendly chat over a cold frothy one has gained me (amongset other things) my passages to Cuba, my visa for Saudi and my escape from Dubai.
This journey is not about what you know, because unless you’ve already been there recently, ‘what you know’ is taken from the Lonely Planet or internet travel forums, and is, nine times out of ten, wrong. Maybe I should have had a scout to go on ahead and facilitate my course for me, then again, maybe I should have had two jeeps following me a la Ewan MacGregor and a helicopter on standby in case of emergencies.
But no folks, your hapless adventurer here has been flying solo without a support crew, safety harness or parachute (or landing gear for that matter) for the best part of two years now. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t. But one thing is for sure: I’m going to wiggle out of the alluring siren-like clutches of Bali and GET ON WITH THE SHOW.
Keeping this in mind, I resolved to stay in on Saturday night, ensure that everything was ship-shape and Bristol fashion. Amazingly, I kept my promise to myself.
Neil had gone out to some kind of dinner party (I only get invited to chimp’s tea parties) and left me in the house on my own. As I gathered my stuff together, a storm broke and the tropical rain began to cascade down in large spherical blobs. I changed into my swimming shorts and plunged into Neil’s swimming pool. There are few things in life that are better than ending a hot sticky day by nightswimming and feeling the cool refreshing rain on your face whilst emulating Andy’s victory pose from The Shawshank Redemption.
I have to get out of here. Calypso has me firmly in her clutches. I need to break free and continue my journey home to Ithaca. I leave in the morning NO MATTER WHAT.
It was too early to fathom what was going on, but I seem to have found my way into a taxi and it seems to be heading to the bus station. These are good signs. I think I know where I have to go and I think that it takes three hours to get there. The guy is telling me I can buy a ‘through ticket’ which will include the ferry to the neighbouring island of Lombok as well. Okay, sure.
I woke up on the bus having dreamt that I had just been driven onto the ferry to Lombok. I looked around. I had been driven onto the ferry to Lombok. Excellent. It would seem I’ve been doing this kind of thing so long I can now do it in my sleep.
Goodbye Bali. Goodbye Neil, Paul, Justin, Simon and all the brilliant, brilliant people I’ve met over the last couple of weeks. I can see why people find it hard to leave Bali, I did.
Arriving in Lombok, I wanted to get taken to the other side of the island, popped on another ferry and taken to the island of Sumbawa. Luckily, that’s what the bus driver also wanted to do and I was happy to let him. So another short ferry trip and I was in Maluk on the western tip of Sumbawa wanting to go east. There was a bus leaving in less than an hour that was going where I wanted it to go. This was like shooting fish in a barrel.
What’s more, the helpful tout dude offered me a through ticket for the ‘fast boat’ to Labaunbajo, Flores – the place from where I can get another ferry to Indonesian West Timor (East Timor hopefully being country 183 of The Odyssey Expedition). I settled into my seat on the bus as it sped off into the night. Tomorrow I would be in THE LAND OF THE HOBBITS. No, really.
The bus drove through the night, arriving in the eastern port town of Sape at 8am, just in time for the ferry to Labuanbajo in Flores. The helpful tout dude from Maluk yesterday ripped me off good an’ proper. I paid 150,000 Indonesian Rupiah for a ferry ticket that was worth 40,000. 150,000 is about US$17: enough for three nights accommodation in a Indonesian flea pit hotel. I may have to return to Maluk and kill him.
He also lied about the speed of the boat: this was NO ‘fast boat’, it was slower than a West African internet connection and didn’t get me to Labuanbajo until it was almost dark. This a merry man did me not make. I checked into the cheapest joint in town and headed out to find out the times of the ferries leaving Flores for Kupang in West Timor. Easier said than done. According to the Lonely Planet there was a boat leaving Larantuka on Wednesday which sounded good, but nobody could give me confirmation and Larantuka is one the far, far east of the long skinny island of Flores – two days drive from here. It was doubtful I could make it in time without spending a ridiculous amount ($200!!) on a taxi. Like in Splash.
Unfortunately for me there was no confirmation, timetable, inkling nor educated guess on offer with regards to if, when and where the next ferry to Timor would be leaving FROM ANYWHERE ON THE ISLAND. I would have to visit the port first thing in the morning and see if they could help me.
I settled in for the night in a great little bar called The Lounge which (if I had arrived earlier) would have been a great place to watch the sun set.
The next boat that would sensibly get me to the island of Timor is leaving the southern port town of Aimere on Friday morning. It’ll take me all of Thursday to get there, but hey-ho LET’S GO. I also found out that the Wednesday ferry from Larantuka may well be a myth. I had found this all out by about 8am after a bunch of phone calls and frantic arm-waving.
My work here done, I went to the Lounge Bar for breakfast and ended up staying there all day, abusing the Wi-Fi, updating my website, researching the South Pacific and working on this damn promo video for series 2 of ‘Graham’s World’. With over 100 hours of video to sift through, we could be here for some time… I kind of wish that the first season was good enough to sell the second one, I think that the problem is that this year things have gone spectacularly wrong, but not in a particularly sensational way – ie. me getting chucked in a jail cell in Africa. You’ll notice (if you’ve seen the show), my utterly successful jaunt around Europe (45 countries in three weeks) was reduced to a one-minute montage.
You see, since Michael Palin shat his pants on the dhow to India, it’s all been about the hardship hasn’t it? You sick little puppies.
Anyway, if you live in the UK you could really help my cause by writing to the Head of Program Acquisition at the BBC (try [email protected] ) and asking her when “Graham’s World aka Lonely Planet’s The Odyssey” will be shown on British TV – the imdb link is http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1669770/. Say you saw an episode on holiday in the Middle East, India, SE Asia or South America on Nat Geo Adventure. And don’t the BBC own Lonely Planet anyway? Yeah, say that too.
Okay, stop nodding and GO DO IT.
C’mon, I’m not going to write anything more until you do it.
Now yesterday (all my troubles seemed so far away) on the way to Flores from the island of Sumbawa I passed two islands: Rinca and Komodo. And you know what’s on Komodo don’t you? DRAGONS! Komodo Dragons, to be precise – the world’s largest monitor lizard (and the world’s largest venomous creature). I booked myself on a trip to go and see ’em tomorrow.
Onboard my boat to see the Komodo Dragons were a couple of mad Italians from Milan called Franco and Frederico. The two-hour ride from Labuanbajo to the island of Rinca (better than Komodo itself for seeing the dragons) would had been uneventful had the engine not EXPLODED three-quarters of the way there. The boat owners rushed to fix the blown gasket (ignoring the fact that we were drifting dangerously close to some rocks) as Frederico, Franco and I whistled and hollered at any passing ships that came within earshot. After about half an hour, a small ferry gave us a tow into Rinca Island’s one and only port.
Rinca and Komodo are protected national parks, so there are no backpackers and beach parties here: with good reason – the dragons are not just fascinating species worthy of protection (as are all animals within our increasingly shrinking biomass, with the exception of mosquitoes, parasitic wasps and the worms that cause river blindness: we could do without them), they are also remarkably deadly and a drunken backpacker would make for a great snack – if he or she hung around long enough for the venom to take its toll.
If anyone missed the macabre scenes shot for the BBC’s Life series last year of the dragons killing a water buffalo, I humbly suggest you attempt to track them down via YouTube. They’re at the end of the second episode, the one on reptiles. You see, the dragon’s venom isn’t very fast acting: indeed it can take up to three weeks to kill its prey. This is where it all starts getting a little morbid. After inflicting the deadly bite, the dragons will follow the stricken animal around 24/7 as it gets sicker and sicker, until it finally shuffles off this mortal coil – much like great big lizardy vultures.
Incidentally – do you know the difference between an animal that is venomous and one that is poisonous? The terms are not synonymous: ‘venomous’ means that the animal will bite or otherwise inject venom into its prey to kill them. ‘Poisonous’ means that you will get ill if you eat whatever it is. So a snake is venomous, but you can eat one it if you’re feeling peckish. A blowfish, on the other hand, will never bite you or cause you any problems whatsoever… until you’re stupid enough to eat one.
A good rule of thumb is that predators = venomous and prey = poisonous.
And, just for the record, ‘flammable’ means the substance itself burns (paper is flammable) but ‘inflammable’ means that the substance doesn’t burn, the vapours do (patrol is inflammable – as are all liquids you can set fire to).
I just thought I’d throw that in there. Don’t say these blogs ain’t informative.
Anyway, we had a guide with a STICK! (woo!) just in case any dragon decided he or she fancied dining on ginger Scousers (or mad Italians). Seems a bit mad that one of the most fearsome animals in the world can be held at bay by a stick. There was a large group of dragons hanging out under the kitchen hut of the reserve lodge. After snapping some photos and getting some footage, we headed out into the jungley interior to try and find one of these illusive creatures doing what they do best: hang around waiting for their latest water buffalo to die (poor old Fred Flintstone). We soon found evidence that Here Be Dragons: the females will dig loads of holes all over the place and only lay her eggs in one to confuse egg-eating predators.
After walking for about 45 minutes we stumbled upon a couple of buffalo chilling out in a muddy creek, and, sure enough – there was a dragon keeping sentry.
It didn’t move much, though. I asked the guide if I could borrow his stick to poke it. I hope he know I was joking…! Magnificent animals, but I didn’t get too close: I didn’t want a septic leg – when they want to they can move lightning fast. But not today and not in the tropical heat of the noonday sun. If you come to see them in June you might be very lucky and see a couple of males fighting. In a quirk of evolution, (and like Adult Friend Finder) the male-to-female ratio is 1 to 4 – so competition is fierce.
Hmm… my pics don’t really do justice to these fellas. Since I use professional video kit (which sometimes even works!) I don’t bother with a professional SLR stills camera: too much kit to guard 24/7! The video I got was much better. I might sell it to the BBC.
One of the things about living out of a backpack is that it’s so easy to forget things. I’ve probably got about one hundred items with me, ranging from my glasses to my malaria pills to the charger for my electric razor, and first thing in the morning is the worst time for having your brain in gear. When I think of all the things I’ve lost on this trip (my South America Lonely Planet, my little diaries, my hat) – it’s even more remarkable the things I haven’t lost.
Having said that, I do sometimes suffer from lapses in concentration that are, quite frankly, embarrassing. One such lapse occurred today as the bus charged towards the port town of Aimere (pronounced Eye-Mere-Ay) – I left my infernal Yellow Bible in the little eatery we stopped at to get the usual BLURGH of steamed white rice and fish heads (sometime you can get chicken bones instead w00t! – just as inedible). Maybe I was riling at the blandness (and coldness) of Indonesian cuisine. Seriously – I was given better grub in jail – at least it was hot!
Here in Indonesia, it’s like Monty Python’s Spam sketch, only with rice. Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner…
We’ve got rice, rice, rice, egg, beans and rice; that’s not got much rice in it…
It wouldn’t be so bad if they had the same selection of sauces they have in Chinese cuisine, but no – here any garnish will usually consist of a few green beans if you’re lucky or some cold curry powder slop if you’re not. Weird when you consider these were the spice islands – the lands that made mad European adventurers froth at the mouth for hundreds of years. Never underestimate the power of condiments. Wars have been fought over condiments.
Anyway, we were too far away by the time I noticed I had lost my book for us to go back. We had been cruising around the utterly incredible series of bends that constitute the main road of Flores (this place would make an ace episode for Top Gear) for a good couple of hours since the rest stop.
Luckily, the driver got in touch with a mate of his who was taking the afternoon minibus to Ruteng (halfway to Aimere). If I was happy to wait in Ruteng, he could pick my book up and give it to me later. But, by then, heaven knows how I’m going to get to Aimere: the last bus of the day would have already gone.
Was it worth hanging on for? After my experience of trying to get through South America without a guidebook, the answer to that question was a resounding YES. I don’t stand a chance of chance of getting to East Timor or West Papua without it. So I hung around the town of Ruteng for a couple of hours. Loads of schoolkids had an assignment which required them to bug Bules (pronounced boo-lays and meaning Johnny Foreigners in Indonesian) like myself to write in their exercise book that the kids speak good English.
Fighting the urge to demand payment for such duplicitous services (their English was as bad as my French) I happily signed about ten books during the afternoon, and each one I recommended for a gold star and a jellybaby. Oh and don’t worry about halal: Flores is a Christian island. Not that that stops the Muslim call to prayer being pumped out at some ridiculous hour of the morning. Lucky I spent so much time in the Middle East my body has learnt to sleep right through it.
By 5pm I had my book back (hoorah!), but now a bigger problem arose like a grumpy levitation from the depths: how the hell was I going to get to Aimere? But then, literally as my book was handed over, a people carrier sped past with a guy hanging out the window shouting ‘Aimere! Aimere!’.
A-ha! A shared taxi? How much? $11?
It’s amazing what outrageous fortune these gods of the Bronze Age keep on bestowing upon me, especially considering I don’t believe in any of the buggers.
As I clambered onboard I mused about the fact that here I was, crossing the fabled island of the human hobbits: homo floresiensis, At just one meter tall and with brains the same size of that of a chimpanzee (tellingly our closest surviving relative), the hobbit’s remains have been dated to just 18,000 years ago – a mere blip on the evolutionary timescale of us homo sapiens.
It’s sad that Flores and Neanderthal man died out, the world could be a very different place if more people understood that homo sapiens are not quite as special or unique as they seem to think (the vast majority of people on this planet seriously believe that we, alone amongst living things, are going to magically survive their own death! Ha! Good luck with that!).
Sharing the planet with two other species of human might have given us the lesson in humility that we so desperately need (if we’re ever going to stop destroying this fine planet of ours). But given the numerous purges, genocides, pogroms and ethnic violence perpetrated by humans against their own species, I guess our fellow hominids didn’t stand a chance.
There has been a bit of debate as to whether the ‘hobbit’ skeleton found in the Manggarai Region of Flores constituted a brand new species or whether it was just a normal human with a rare (but not unheard of) genetic deformity. The discovery of several similar skeletons nearby has all but chucked the ‘deformity’ theory out of the window (oh, Young Earth Creationists – if only Evolution was as easy to disprove eh?), and the brain size alone signifies that these guys were most definitely not sapiens.
It’s interesting that the first homo erectus fossils were found in Java – a completely separate branch of the hominid family to the hobbits.
While I was musing such matters, would you believe what I saw…?
Yes, I believe that to be a living hobbit. I may be wrong, maybe she’s just a tiny old lady, or maybe the hobbits ‘died out’ due to interbreeding with us sapiens. But I’m fairly sure people on this island (on average) are shorter than the folks on Bali…
Nah, they’re just kids. It’s cool that they all wave when the see a Bule like me drive past, reminds me of the good bits of West Africa.
Anyways, as night fell I was invited by the driver of my ‘travel’ (shared taxi) to play DJ.
Thank the maker! If there is one thing that may just put you off Indonesia for life, it’s the crimes against music perpetrated by the bus and ‘bemo’ drivers here. With sound systems set to ‘Krakatau’, they pump out the worst of the worst music you could possibly imagine: Indonesian music seemingly ripped from Japanese advertising jingles from the 70s, what I can only describe as ‘Oompah-pah Electronica’, desperately poor Indonesian hip-hop (think GLC taking themselves seriously), 80s mom rock that would make Elton John look heterosexual and the insipid drone of Bryan Adams, Phil Collins, Scorpions, and, worst of all, Akon. How a guy who sounds like the goat-diddling lovespawn of Crazy Frog and Stephen Hawking has sold a single album blows my mind.
The biggest joke is that most of the buses here are covered in punk rock stickers – it’s pretty funny to see a bus plastered with pictures of Sid Vicious blasting out Celine Dion at ear-splitting volume. Seriously. Seriously. Gay.
And who the hell sings that infernal cock-rock song about wanting to lie down in a bed of roses? Christ when I get hold of him I’m going to pull a Mel Gibson on the nonce and bury him under a bed of roses.
As I selected Blitzkrieg Bop from my iPod, I explained that for the next two hours I would be giving these guys a crash course in the sort of music that ridiculously over-amped sound systems were invented for…
A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.
Last night I stayed in the grottiest pension I think I’ve ever seen. Aimere is most definitely a one horse town as the only option was a pension down the street which (unlike the one I stayed in) had seen a lick of paint in the last few decades. Not that that justified paying twice the price.
When I was visiting the dragons on Wednesday, I was enjoying a nice cold Coke after all that trekking in the sweltering heat of Komodo national park when I got chatting to an Italian guy called Simon who was (marvellously enough) travelling from Italy to Australia in a Fiat 500. Just then his travel partner, Chesa, popped up and said I looked a little like that Graham guy off the telly. Funny that, I said, because…
After introductions we realised that we would be taking the same ferry over to Timor and would probably be in Dili at the same time next week. Emails were exchanged and now here in Aimere we met up again: they were actually staying in the same pension (not that there was really any choice). Their car is hilarious: just enough room for two front seats and backpacks.
So they didn’t make it all the way overland, they (and their car) had to be flown from Nepal to Thailand. Like the Oz bus, it seems that if you wanna overland it from John O’ Groats to Hobart in your Reliant Robin, you’re going to come unstuck when it comes to crossing China. Wouldn’t be such a problem if Burma wasn’t such a basketcase, but as it is there is no option but to fly. Of course, if you’re doing the trip by public transport it’s very possible indeed: well, at least until you get to Dili – something I’ll talk about more when I get there.
Funnily enough, Chesa and Simon, like me, couldn’t believe how good Iran was. A note to the people of Iran: you rock! A note to the government of Iran: you suck!
So we all clambered onboard the good ship to Kupang. I pretended to be with Chesa and Simon so I could get on before the braying masses (nobody thought to ask how on Earth I would have fitted in the car). I had paid $2 more for ‘executive class’ and I was bursting to see what this would mean. In the end, it just meant more comfortable seats, but still no air conditioning and the ship was pretty unclean.
What was good though is that the executive class was pretty empty so I could (happily) lay across several seats instead of attempting to sleep sitting upright with my chin pressed against my chest. Which is pretty dangerous, you know – it can cut off your air supply – that’s how come so many people died in the Moscow Theatre Siege. True story.
As Chesa and Simon caught up with their blogs (they’re just getting around to blogging about Pakistan! And you think my blogs are a bit late!!) I mooched around the ship: at the back of executive class was normal class, which I’m so glad I didn’t go for as everyone what perched on hard moulded plastic seats – the type you get in the doctor’s waiting room and the type that it’s pretty much impossible to sleep lying across without risking serious back injury (I know this from painful experience after attempting to sleep on the Grimaldi ferry from Tunisia to Italy last March). Downstairs in the cargo hold was the hilariously named ‘zero class’, which featured entire families lying on cardboard rollmats between the cars and goods and bananas and rice and cockroaches. I had flashbacks to last year’s nightmare trip on the Shissiwani from Dar Es Salaam to Comoros and ran back upstairs.
We left Aimere bang on schedule, but we wouldn’t be getting to Kupang in Indonesian West Timor until tomorrow. I did some working out: if you include the few boating excursions I’ve been on during this expedition, this was my 100th boat trip: from tiny wooden canoes to massive cruise ships and pretty much everything in between. Not bad for someone who gets woozy just thinking about the ocean.
That night I spent a good few hours sitting on the port wing of the bridge chatting to Simon about our various adventures around the world.
Ah, wanderlust: the overwhelming feeling that you should probably be somewhere else.
It that same wanderlust that led our ancestors out of Africa 50,000 years ago to as far a field as China, Australia, the Americas and Wales. It was the desire to see over the edge of the known world that propelled the likes of Columbus, Magellan and Cook to seek out strange new lands and it was that same desire to transgress every boundary – natural or otherwise that fuelled Gagarin’s and Armstrong’s rockets into the stratosphere.
Well that and some rocket fuel, I guess.
Can’t help it, mate – gotta travel. What are you waiting for?
A sticky and uncomfortable night on the ferry was compounded by the tuck shop’s (pot noodles and skinny cans of Sprite – it’s the same all over Indonesia) decision to start playing the usual rubbish Indopop at full blast at 5am. What is that? In lieu of the call to prayer. I went over and told them that if they didn’t knock it off, I wouldn’t be buying any more pot noodles.
Simon and Chesa were planning to spend the day in one of the villages surrounding Kupang. I, on the other hand, was tasked with the job of getting my Authorisation letter for East Timor. My first port of call was the bus company that runs minibuses direct to Dili. They didn’t seem to care if I had authorisation or not and just wanted to sell me a ticket for tomorrow’s 6am bus.
So I headed over to the brand new East Timorese consulate that has just been built (in fact, they’re still building it!), but it wouldn’t be open until Monday. Would it be worth risking it and heading to the border anyway? It was only six hours away: I could be there and back within a day if necessary.
I checked into the Lavalon Backpackers (although, being run by Indonesians, they didn’t quite get the concept, so the place was something between a grotty pension and a cheapo bed and breakfast, but they had a western toilet, so my bum was happy) and then headed over the road to the Lavalon Bar which was (surprisingly) run by the same guy, Edwin.
Edwin’s a bit of a legend in Kupang, so much so he’s actually mentioned by name in the Lonely Planet. He’s a bit nuts, but in a good way. He told me straight out not to attempt a border run without the Authorisation letter: I’d just waste my money. Best I wait until Monday and go to the Consulate. This would waste another 2 days, but what’s 2 days in 700 eh?
Brilliantly enough, Edwin’s joint had Wi-Fi, so after a little walk around town (it may be the capital of West Timor, but it’s quieter than a racist in a Nairobi gym), I settled in for the day with a bottle of Bintang and my laptop, content to watch the cooling afternoon rain lash down across the bay. Less brilliant were the flying ants that came out at dusk: they were EVERYWHERE – crawling up my legs, in my hair, in my beer. The rule is, in the tropics, you get an itch, you SCRATCH IT BEFORE IT BITES YOU. Quick quick!