I am up at 5:45AM, put my bag out at 6:30AM and have breakfast with the group.The tropical rainstorm lasted all night and only let up as we leave in the boat to board our bus waiting for us at the jetty on the other side of the lake. We have a long day ahead of us, driving over a road that is full of construction and bumps.
This afternoon, we stop at the Kampung Annah Rais, a Bidayuh longhouse – actually a series of houses strung together with bamboo boardwalks. There are 160 families and about 3,000 people in this community. The place is very quiet, since most residents are at work or away at school. They have a skull house, which contains about a dozen very old skulls from headhunting days long ago. Interesting note from our guide Lemon, although the Bidayuh were headhunters, they were not cannibals.
After arriving back in Kuching, we are again staying at the Waterfront Hotel. There is some time for us to explore Kuching on our own in the late afternoon and evening. The hotel is adjacent to the Harmony Arch in old Chinatown, the old courthouse and jail, and the Kuching waterfront on the Sarawak River.
After breakfast this morning at the resort, some of us take the canopy tour: hiking up a hill behind the resort to walk among the treetops to discover the canopy layer of the rainforest on a 120 metre-long (425-foot-long) walkway, suspended 56 metres (165 feet) above the jungle floor (see banner image above). We all find it challenging in the morning heat, and we see no animals or birds. We check each other over for leeches and ants before returning to the resort.
Later in the morning, we take a longboat trip upriver to visit the 34-family Mengkak Longhouse of Iban tribe. First, everyone toasts with their rice wine called tuak, then we watch them perform the Hornbill dance in costumes, have some lunch in the longhouse, and then return to the resort in the afternoon. They appear to be well-pleased by our gifts of exercise books and pencils for the children. Some work their way through us shaking hands and bowing as they return to their quarters after the chief distributes the gifts to each family. The tribe is protected by a carved wooden statue of Agum, which is setup right above the longboat docks at the entrance to the longhouse.
By the time we are taken back to the resort in the longboats, I’m pretty well wasted by the oppressive heat and humidity of the day. I retreat to my air-conditioned room, have a shower and go to the bar for a beer before returning back to my room, since the patio at the bar is far too hot. After I recover a bit, I sit outside on the covered deck with one of our group. We discuss our travels as we watch a thunderstorm break over the lake and enjoy the sounds and smells of the ensuing tropical rainstorm.
Although the Aiman Batang Ai Resort is quite elegant and large, it is showing its age. I would estimate that the facility is about 40 years old by the age of the original plumbing and other fixtures in the rooms and common areas. The staff work hard, but a facility this big is hard to keep operational, when the “works” are aging. It appears to me they have about half the rooms mothballed.
The bus leaves at 8AM, so I’m up by 6:20AM and put my bag out and have breakfast at 7AM. These early starts to the day are killing me, but at least the breakfast in our hotel is very nice, and they have cappuccino! Lemon takes over as our guide since Sarawak is his home turf.
Our first stop is the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, which is only about a half hour’s drive south of Kuching. This sanctuary for Orangutans is only open for an hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon. The morning feeding, although crowded with people is very rewarding photographically. The camera angles are better than the wildlife sanctuary in Sabah, and two Orangutan mothers show up with their babies clinging to them. I’m very happy with my photos of these fascinating creatures!
We then spend several hours in the bus – another endurance contest. We stop twice: once for a rest break and a visit to the local market in Serian, and a second stop for lunch at a Chinese-run local restaurant beside the road in Lachau. We all order fried rice and at Lemon’s suggestion, buy some exercise books and pencils as gifts for the Iban villagers we will be visiting tomorrow.
We end up at a jetty on an artificial lake created by a hydro electric dam, and take a launch to the Aiman Batang Ai Resort, which is located across the lake. We are now only 1°24’ north of the Equator. Temperatures are in the high 30s C and the humidity is right up there as well, so everyone is feeling the heat as we get settled into our rooms.
I leave early this morning on the all-day Munduk Highlands tour of Bali. I deliberately chose this excursion awhile ago since it gets me away from the hot and humid coastal area. We drive out of the port of Benoa upcountry to the Sangeh monkey forest, with its towering nutmeg trees and temples. We watch dozens of resident Long-tailed Macaque monkeys frolic along the pathways. Some jump on tour group members, however they are much more friendly, gentle and well-behaved than monkeys in other areas. The cool of the shade in this place is wonderful. A couple of Balinese actors show up in full costume for us to take photos of. What a great touch!
We continue climbing up into the mountainous area of Bedugul to see the Lake Bratan area at 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) above sea level in the crater of Mt Catur. The Pura Ulun Danu temple is located along the lake shore, dedicated to the lake’s water goddess. While visiting the temple, we see local Balinese people in a funerary parade, and others are praying in the nearby temple. Decorative statues on the lakeshore are amazingly picturesque, as is the scenery in this old volcano. The climate is a bit cooler than the seaside areas of Bali, and yet the Sun is out.
We climb to the ridge line of the mountains and see the twin lakes of Buyan and Tamblingan, which are two of the largest lakes on the island. After taking a few photos, we descend a bit to have a nice buffet lunch at the Bali Handara Country Club, a local golf course with a view of one of the lakes.
En route back to the port, we stop at a so-called local fruit and vegetable market, but it appears to be mainly a shopping stop for tourists to buy t-shirts and other souvenirs. I stay on the bus, as do several others. There are peanuts, corn, and other food being sold to the local people as they drive by on the road.
While I’m away on my excursion, the ship leaves port around Noon, and anchors out in the bay due to tides being unfavourable for our proposed departure time of about 6PM. When my excursion returns to the pier, there are several hundred passengers waiting for tenders. Apparently the currents are too strong for the ship’s tenders, so the ship has contracted with two larger and more powerful tenders to move passengers back to the ship. The operation is slow and excruciating for us as we wait in the heat and humidity. At least these tenders are large, moving at least twice as many passengers at once as the ship’s tenders. They also have nine motors on the back, so there are no problems with powering through the tidal flow!
After my return to Canada, I make a point of funding some Indonesian villagers who need to buy pigs to raise and later sell. I make micro-loans through Kiva. Hopefully some of you reading this will consider doing the same. When the loans are repaid, you get to choose a new group or individual to support who needs a bit of financial help.
We drive back into Germany from our Austrian hotel this morning to see two famous Bavarian castles both near Füssen in Bavaria.
King Ludwig II’s Neuschwahstein Castle is probably the most famous, since Disney’s Fantasyland castles are modelled after this spectacular castle located on a hillside overlooking a beautiful green valley and lake.
The crowds here are very bad, especially on Mary’s Bridge, which is above the castle, giving a picture postcard view of the castle with the valley behind. This castle was built in the 1800s, and poor Ludwig only got to enjoy his castle for a few months before he died. When Ludwig was king, his ministers plotted to depose him in 1866 because he was homosexual. He committed suicide in the nearby lake along with his doctor (who had just declared him mad – later disproved).
Heohen-Schwangau Castle is a beautiful castle located beside The Alpsee, a glacial lake. This is where Ludwig’s parents lived, and where he was raised. His father the king loved the night sky, and had his bedroom equipped with stars in the ceiling and a Moon, which could have the phase changed as required.
Jennifer and Sylvain have a picnic lunch all ready for us when we return to the parking lot, so we spread out near the Alpsee lake and enjoy ourselves. After clearing crowded Neuschwahstein Castle, we take a group photo in the nearby valley, posing with the castle behind us on the hill while sipping some schnapps.
Next stop is a luge – individual carts run through a metal tube down the hill, slalom-style. Everyone in the group tries it – some go faster, and others take is slowly. The luge is one of the reasons I finally decided to book this Rick Steves tour. I reasoned that any tour operator who includes a ride on a luge as part of the stated itinerary must have something going for them!
Oct 31, 2010 – Sunday – Whangamata to Rotorua, New Zealand
Our B&B is located in a small community just south of Rotorua called Lake Okareka. At this location, we don’t have to put up with the sulphurous smell that is so apparent in the city, and we are hoping the light pollution may be subdued enough to allow us to take some astronomical photos of the night sky. Lake Okareka B&B is quite deluxe, and our hosts Patricia and Ken are very helpful. This B&B is now closed, but there is a new property, in the same area with the same owners.
Once we unpack and have a bit of a rest, we drive back into town and have a look at the hot bubbling pools of water and mud in Kuirau Park, which is a civic park that is free admission. This evening, we go to the Lovely India Restaurant for dinner, and order the Butter Chicken, along with some Lamb and vegetable dishes with rice. The food is superb…the best Indian food I’ve had in a long time!
After returning to the B&B, Ken tells us he has found a good spot to observe the stars from. He shows us a lovely beachfront park which is only about a five minute drive away. An alternate site is the neighbour’s place next door to the B&B. They are away, so the place is dark, and it is so convenient. I setup my astronomy camera and take a time lapse sequence starting at sunset, however the clouds are factor tonight, so I call it an early night.
Nov 1, 2010 – Monday – Rotorua
Patricia makes us a continental breakfast each morning, accompanied with a savoury frittata. This is the only B&B who have a super automatic espresso machine, so I take advantage and have two Cappuccinos each morning!
Today is a down day, which means no activities involving driving. I catch up on my JoeTourist blog, sort through the hundreds of photos taken so far on the trip, do some laundry, and take a long walk around part of the lake. The Lake Okareka Walkway is a boardwalk over a marshy area of the lake where the wildlife are protected, so there is ample opportunity to see marsh birds such as Black Swans, ducks, Pukeko birds, and many other birds, including their young.
We drive into Rotorua for dinner, and after wandering around for a while, settle on Café Ephesus (now closed). This small, unpretentious restaurant is run by some Indians, but offers mainly a Greek menu with some Middle Eastern influences. We have a very nice dinner of a mixed Greek platter and a pizza, which we share around. We also buy a bottle of wine from a vendor across the street and bring the bottle to the restaurant. “Bring your own” is quite common in New Zealand restaurants – not something that is encouraged in North American eating establishments!
This evening after dark, both my friend and I setup our camera gear again on the hill beside the B&B. It is quite cool this evening, so I leave my camera clicking away and retreat back to the warmth of my room at the B&B. I shoot a wide field time lapse video of the Crux-Centauri region: Alpha and Beta Centauri slowly slide below the hill while the bottom star of the Southern Cross moves north along the ridge line. Eta Carina is visible in the frame for the full duration of the video from 9:50pm to 11:45pm. This time of year is not ideal to observe the Southern Cross, since it is upside down and low in the sky. The Milky Way is clearly visible as a wide band of red visible behind the hills.
Nov 2, 2010 – Tuesday – Rotorua – Waimangu Volcanic Valley
We drive the 17 kilometres south to Waimangu Volcanic Valley, which offers a very special experience with volcanic pools. Although publicly owned, this park is run by a private operator, so admissions are charged. We choose the self-guided EcoTours, since we feel it offers the best value: Walk/Hike and Boat Cruise option at NZ$77. Please note that discounts are offered, so check out the website and ask for the discounts at the admission booth.
Walking the 4.7km from the entrance to the lake jetty takes us about two hours at an easy pace. The slope in this direction is generally downhill, with a few steep grades and the occasional uphill section. Anyone who can normally walk this distance on flat ground should have no problem with this walk/hike. Be sure to take water and a snack with you, since there are restrooms, but no refreshment stands along the way. If you get tired, there is a shuttle bus you can catch in two spots mid way, as well as at the end where the boat jetty is located. We also take the boat tour of the big lake located at the end of the trails – Lake Rotomahana. It is worthwhile if for no other reason, to appreciate the sheer scale of the largest volcanic eruption which took place during human recorded history – Mount Tarawera in 1886.