Monthly Archives: December 2009

Merry Christmas!

For a while I thought I was going to be stuck in East Timor for Chistmas (getting out of the country was surprisingly hard) but after a bit of effort I managed to escape and am now spending Christmas in Bali with a couple of friends from back home.

Anyway, I just wanted to say merry christmas to all my readers, thanks so much for all your comments throughout the year, it’s nice to know that someone out there is actually reading this!

Hope you all have a great day wherever you are and whatever you’re up (I’m planning to give surfing a go for the first time). A special hello too to all the other blogging travellers out there – and I’m looking forward to reading what you’ve all been up to

x Geoff

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The multicoloured lakes of Kelimutu

Taxis don’t really exist in this part of Indonesia, which is how I found myself tearing up the side of a mountain on the back of a motorbike at 4am in pitch blackness, without a helmet, pointlessly racing three other motorbikes carrying similarly terrified foreigners round tight bends, and regularly having to slam on the brakes because a cow has wandered into the road. You may be wondering why on earth I was putting myself in such a situation in the first place.

The answer is that we were heading up to see the sun rise over the top of Kelimutu, one of Indonesia’s most awesome sights. The country has many active volcanoes, but this one’s claim to fame is that the craters hold three beautiful multi-coloured lakes. Not only that, but they actually change colour regularly depending on which minerals the volcano underneath chooses to spew up that week. Over the past twenty years they’ve managed to take on pretty much every colour in the rainbow, as well as black, white and chocolate-brown. Information on what colours to expect was pretty limited before we headed up, so we had no idea what to expect.

This being a relatively untouristed part of the country, and so it was no surprise that when we dropped off, slightly shaken but glad to be alive, there was a complete lack of signposting to tell us how to get to the lakes. It was of course still dark, but thanks to a bit of guesswork and a lot of luck, we made it up the last part of the hill to the viewing point above the three lakes. One turned out to be nearly jet-black, the second was turquoise, and the third a milky blue colour.

After eight months of travelling I’ve noticed it gets easier and easier to be dismissive of things – and in this case I have to say I was slightly disappointed by the colours the volcano had decided to choose this month (after all, you can barely swing a cat in the Andes without it plopping into a turquoise lake) – I was at least hoping for a red one. Is that really too much to ask.

Kelimutu sunrise

But still, colours aside, the setting was absolutely fantastic, as the sky began to light up as the sun began to creep over the lip of the volcano opposite, while in the distance all around sat jagged, misty mountains, framing the scene perfectly.

Even better was the fact we only had to share the view with ten others – eight of whom promptly left as soon as the sun was up (I have no idea why – unless you have your own transport, if you watch the sun rise over Kelimutu, it’s too late to catch a bus out, and there’s not a lot else to do but relax in the nearby town of Moni, where everyone stays). This meant that by the time the real show began, there wer just four of us to see it.

Turquoise lake, blue lake


For while the sunrise is impressive, the lakes don’t really show off their magic properly until the sun has risen higher in the sky. Being in no hurry, we sat around for a while chatting, before strolling over to a viewpoint between the two main lakes, where we were treated to quite a spectacular sight. Any disappointment I’d felt about the colours earlier instantly vanished as we saw that the main lake wasn’t just turquoise, it was a rich, vibrant turquoise, so thick and opaque it looked like someone had tipped a huge vat of paint into the crater. Not only that, bubbles of sulphur were continually rising up from underneath, leaving a bright yellow scum floating across the surface. Almost as good was the milky blue lake next door, which had a similarly paintlike appearance.

Mmm


unsurprisingly enough, we spurned the offer of a moped ride back down, and after a traditional Indonesian breakfast of Pop Mie instant noodles and a can of Pocari Sweat (a Japanese energy drink, for those unfamiliar with its delights) we set off down the hill for the 13.5km walk back to Moni.

It turned out to be beautiful. Leaving the road behind, we headed onto a narrow track that cut down steeply through the forest, before opening out into the fields that cover the fertile slopes of the volcano, growing bananas and corn. Every now and then we’d pass a house (normally to be greeted with cries of “Hello Mister!” from any kids in the household) and get directions, which mostly consisted of me saying ‘Moni?’ hopefully and the locals pointing the way. On the way, we got to see women weaving ikat (traditional patterns from this part of Indonesia), and the path all the way down was spattered with the red splotches where betel-nut chewing locals had spat. It was a great way to see traditional village life, and made us very glad we’d chosen to walk.

Making ikat

Everything was fine until the houses ran out, we reached a turning, and had to guess which way to go. Inevitably, we took the wrong one, and as the daytime heat began to reach furnace-like levels and the humidity that of a sauna, we found ourselves heading further away from Moni (which had been in sight before), gradually slowing as our sweat levels rose, our water began to run out, and our feet to tire. By the time we eventually made it back, we reckon we must have managed at least another 7km, and we were soaked, dehydrated, and knackered. But, our guesthouse owner had tea, water and banana pancakes ready for us almost as soon as we’d plonked ourselves back onto our terrace, and all was good again. Not a bad travelling day in all – three stunning lakes, a hard but rewarding walk, and all done by 11am leaving us plenty of time to adjust back to village time and do nothing for the rest of the day.

And with that, thanks to a marathon posting session here in Maumere, Flores, I’m finally up to date with my posting (I climbed Kelimutu yesterday – although there’s a slight delay in these posts appearing while I catch up) for the first time since about Mexico. I’m going to try my best to keep it that way, as I think fresher posting means fresher writing.

Unfortunately the way I’ve been able to achieve this is by uploading far fewer photos to Flickr, and at a far lower resolution, meaning I no longer have a proper backup (internet speeds are generally way slower than south america, which wasn’t eaxctly rocket speed). Let’s hope I can survive another four months without breaking or losing my laptop then.

The most beautiful creature in the ocean

As if having Komodo dragons wasn’t enough of an attraction, the Komodo-Rinca National Park also turns out to be one of the best diving spots in the world. All those powerful currents in the relatively narrow Komodo Strait mix warmer and colder water from the Flores Sea to the north and the Sunda Sea & Indian Ocean to the south, and that produces a huge diversity in marine life.

With my advanced diving certificate newly under my belt, I was dead keen to brave the currents and see how much I’d improved, so along with Victor and two of the others from the Komodo cruise, we popped into one of the dive shops in Labuanbajo (the main western port in Flores, and jumping off point for all boats into the National Park) and asked about diving the next day.

“Do you want to see big stuff or small stuff?” was the first thing he asked, and we all knew exactly what we wanted to see: big stuff, and in particular Manta Rays, which we’d heard were frequently seen around Komodo. So he promised to try his best to find us some big stuff, so the next morning we woke up for the last time on our boat, started saying our goodbyes to all our new friends, and prepared to head off to meet up with our dive boat.

Except there was one small problem we hadn’t factored in: the tide had gone out and the boat was too low down for us to reach the dock. After a few minutes trying to come up with an alternative, it soon became clear there was only one – we had to hop into the boat’s tiny canoe and be paddled out to the shore by one of the boat’s crew. Now these things aren’t the most stable at the best of times, but add in two huge backpacks and we were terrified we’d capsize, with all our luggage before we even reached land. Turned out that was the least of our worries – as the only place we could land was on a mudflat. So we had to get out of the canoe, put our backpacks on, and struggle across thick, calf-deep, slimy mud without falling. That was followed up by a scramble up the very sharp rocks that made up the edge of the harbour.

With that little mission out-of-the-way, we were soon on the dive boat and heading out into the Komodo Strait. The dive master had decided to save the Mantas til last, but he promised us we wouldn’t be disappointed by the sights on offer at the first dive site, and he wasn’t wrong. Within seconds of getting into the water we’d already come face to face with a black-tipped reef shark, and that set the scene for the rest of the dive – we saw loads of them prowling around along the coral wall. I’d only managed to see one previously in Honduras, and none on the Gili Islands, so seeing that many at once was incredible. If that wasn’t enough, we saw three big hawksbill turtles too. I’d seen turtles before, but only ever on the edge of the reef; this was the first time I’d seen them swimming freely in open water, and I was amazed to see how graceful they are compared to their awkwardness on land.

Amazing sights apart, the dive was a bit of a shock to the system for all of us – none of us were all that experienced and the currents were way stronger than anything we’d experienced before, which made the diving harder work, plus with their unpredictable nature we all found it much harder to control our buoyancy and keep a constant level. We could see properly why when we got back to the surface to wait for the other group – the dive site was around a little islet, and as the currents hit it, they swirled all around it creating ferocious torrents and whirlpools. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Dive number two took us to a site called Manta Point – named for obvious reasons – although he was keen to remind us that nothing could be guaranteed on a dive. After seeing some in the water from the boat while we suited up, we laughed this off – but soon realised he’d been right to damp down our expectations, as the dive was incredibly frustrating.

The dive site itself was easily the dullest I’ve been to, with very little live coral, and not many fish either. Furthermore, the current was even stronger than the previous one, so there wasn’t much to see and even that was hard work. From time to time we’d catch a glimpse of a ray in the distance, but nothing like I’d hoped for. With the time ticking on, and air running gradually lower, I was starting to resign myself to missing out.

Manta Ray - by Jon Hanson @ Flickr

And then, right towards the end, we suddenly came across a group of four not far away. We all swam over to a nearby rock, clung on for dear life (the current would have swept us in the opposite direction otherwise) and sat and watched, just a couple of metres away. It was worth all the wait, for they are truly stunning creatures. The biggest was huge – about 4m across – and they are so incredibly graceful. They were hovering on the spot in the current, gently flapping their wings up and down to keep them steady, while at the same time groups of tiny, colourful fish danced away right underneath them. We just sat and watched until it was time to head up for our safety stop. We only spent maybe ten to fifteen minutes of the dive with them, but it was a moment I’ll never forget. The Komodo Dragons may get all the fame (for obvious reasons), but for me my fondest memory of the national park will be those ten minutes I spent with the Manta Rays, they really are the most beautiful and graceful animals I have ever seen.

Here be dragons

As the boat approached Komodo, we were all busy trying to convince ourselves that it really didn’t matter if we didn’t see any dragons, you know, as the snorkelling had been so good and my what beautiful sunsets and weren’t the flying foxes amazing and how it’s all about the journey rather than the arrival and other such nonsense – but of course getting to see Komodo dragons had been the whole point of the exercise for all of us and we all knew deep down we’d be gutted if we didn’t get to see at least one.Keep silent

For those who don’t know, Komodo Dragons are the world’s biggest lizards – monitor lizards to be precise – and they are pretty deadly too, as just one bite from an adult is enough to kill a human through blood poisoning within just a few days. It was not exactly comforting to be told on arriving that they had no stock of the required antibiotics on the island, and that any bite would require evacuation to Bali, which is not exactly close. The sense of unease was heightened further as we set out on the path to be told about the Swiss tourist who had died after being bitten when he was separated from his group (although to be honest it was his own fault for lingering behind to get more photos), and about the park ranger who was recently bitten by a young dragon – although luckily thanks to its young age, he survived and was back at work within a few months.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long before catching our first glimpse. We soon reached the first waterhole, to find a single dragon stalking a group of deer. As soon as he caught sight of us (we were quite a big group, after all) he ran off deeper into the bush. Even with that brief glimpse, he was quite a menacing sight. Nearly three metres long from nose to tail, they really are massive beasts. Their big, wide bodies are propped up on short, powerful legs, and when they walk the whole body and tail move from side to side, like a giant snake on legs.

Hiding in a bush

Hiding in a bush

The ranger soon managed to track him down to his hiding place under a bush, giving us the opportunity to get closer. The whole time we took photos we could see him staring intently at us, and the moment we stopped paying attention to him to listen to the ranger talk, he took advantage of our distraction and fled at high-speed once more.

The rest of the walk round Komodo was a bit of a disappointment in dragon-spotting terms, but we weren’t too worried, as our next stop would be the nearby island of Rinca, which is much smaller than Komodo but with a similar dragon population – which in theory should make seeing them much easier. Luckily that theory turned out to be true, as within seconds of getting off the boat we came across a young dragon slinking his way along the path in front of us. From then on we saw loads along the way, mostly adult females basking in the sun. Even though we knew they’d probably be wary of a group our size, having seen them on the move we approached each one with great respect, stepping slowly around them keeping our eyes on them the whole time, as none of us really fancied being taken by surprise.

Not sure I'd want to stay in this guest house

The final group of dragons we saw were some big, lazy ones sleeping under the rangers’ kitchen hut (eating scraps is far easier than hunting buffalo after all), and seeing a big group of them together was rather scary – especially when one of them showed the pointlessness of building huts on stilts by climbing up the stairs and into the office, soon to be chased straight back out by a group of stick-wealding rangers.

Adult female by the rangers' hut

With its wild, hilly, unspoilt landscape filled with primeval looking plants and dragons, Rinca does a pretty passable impression of Jurassic Park – but all the more impressive for the fact that this one is real.

Rinca landscape

Sailing off in search of dragons

I was faced with three options when it came to getting to Komodo. Would it be the expensive flight on a dodgy Indonesian airline? Or maybe the uncomfortable 31 hour bus-boat-bus-boat overland option? Or perhaps the four-day all-inclusive boat trip island-hopping all the way from Lombok to Flores, taking in Komodo along the way?

The boat's route

It was a pretty tough choice as you can imagine, but in the end the boat won out and early on a saturday afternoon we set off from Lombok. We’d been promised many delights along the way, and the first of which turned up just a few hours in. We were all stood on the deck watching yet another gorgeous Indonesian sunset, and just as the sun went down, the sky began to fill with a huge flock of birds rising up from the mangrove trees on a small offshore island and heading back to the mainland to sleep. Except as we got closer, we soon realised they weren’t birds at all, but thousands of huge flying foxes. I’ve only ever seen tiny bats before, and these ones were a whole different kettle of fish. It was quite a sight watching them silhouetted against the red sky, and the spectacle continued for a good five or so minutes, as more and more made their way out of the trees and joined the migration.

The beginning of the nightly Flying Fox migration

Dinner (Nasi Goreng, of course) gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better, and I was once again lucky to be with a great little group. Alongside myself and Victor, the Swede I’d spent the week with in the Gili Islands, there were three more Swedes (you’re never very far from one in Indonesia), two Belgians, two Swiss, and one each from Germany, Holland & Quebec. It’s probably a good thing we all got on so well, as of course it being a budget boat (there are a few other options, but a bit too pricey for most backpackers) it turned out to be a big floating dorm, as the upper deck was completely filled with twelve mattresses with no gaps in between.

Tight squeeze on deck

It’s funny the things that travel agents miss out when they’re describing a tour to you – like the fact that the boat would be travelling all night on the first two nights. And of course the boat’s engine was the loudest imaginable, and was conveniently located right underneath the dorm. If the waves weren’t enough to keep us sleeping lightly, we all soon realised the engine would be. Predictably enough day two began by most of us being up and about on the lower deck soon after sunrise, everyone looking rather frazzled.

Perfectly calm sea near Sumbawa

Still, everyone was in good spirits, for as soon after breakfast we sailed up to a thickly forested, national park island, with its beautiful, white sandy beach, and inviting turquoise water. This was to be our first snorkelling stop, and it turned out to be fantastic. The coral here was far healthier than in the part of the Gilis I’d done it in, and the variety of corals and fish was huge. Best of all, I got to see my first ever sea snake, a huge black and white one slithering through the water looking remarkably similar to the way they move on land. That was followed by a quick trek through the jungle to a big waterfall with a huge pool for swimming in (and giant vines hanging over it that allowed all the boys to practice our best Tarzan impersonations as we swung into the water).

One of the things I’ve really began to appreciate on this trip is the miraculous healing power of salt water. No matter how tired (or indeed hung over) I am, all it takes is a quick dip in the sea and I feel completely restored. Getting back on the boat everyone had woken up, and we soon settled into a wonderful routine of sailing from island to island, occasionally hopping out for a quick snorkel or to laze on yet another perfect beach. It amazes me the effort people make to find the ideal, undiscovered beach in Thailand, when there are literally thousands in Indonesia, many of them on completely uninhabited islands – although other than doing a trip like the one we were on, getting there might be a bit of an issue.

Our own private beach

We realised we were nearing our destination when the boat hit the hugely powerful currents of the Komodo Strait – so powerful that you could see them on the surface of the water like rivers running through the sea, creating huge whirlpools whenever they hit an islet or some submerged rock. At one point we crossed into one and the whole boat lurched as if it had been hit by an object. Nature can be quite a powerful beast sometimes – something we were hoping to see in action again as we sailed into Komodo harbour. The big question was…after all the effort to get there, would we actually get to see any dragons?

My new favourite island

Arriving in Gili Air


I’m planning to head back to the Gili Islands for New Year to meet some mates from back home, so I figured I should check out one of the other so I could decide which one we should agree on. So I spent my last day on the islands visiting Gili Air – which was so peaceful it made Gili T seem like Bali. And I loved it. It’s even smaller, being just over an hour to walk round, and like Gili T is mostly developed on one side. It also has even nicer beaches – and in places the coral starts a bit further out, which makes swimming a hell of a lot easier.

Gili Meno from Gili Air

In fact, it’s pretty paradise-like, and I knew as soon as I arrived that it was where I’d want to spend New Year with my friends. Having been to a virtually untouched, perfect beach in Colombia (Tayrona National Park), I actually realise now that I prefer somewhere like Gili Air – it’s all very well having perfect scenery, but it’s quite nice to have a handful of small restaurants and bars as well to keep me amused (and my stomach happy) come evening. One of the bars in the north of the island will be having a party with a big fire on the beach come the 31st – and right now I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

Gili Air sunset

Fourth and last stop on my mini-tour of Indonesia’s beaches was an unscheduled one. I left Gili Air bright and early on Saturday morning to meet Victor, one of the swedes I’d met on the way to Gili T, in order to start a four-day boat trip to Komodo. But when we got to the pier in Lombok, we were told that we wouldn’t now be going til Tuesday. Or maybe Wednesday. They tried to persuade us to go back to the Gilis and wait there, but their vagueness was rather worrying so the two of us were forced to get angry and refuse to leave until we had a guaranteed departure date (preferably Monday, the day we’d been told the next boat was) and a free lift to the nearest beach town, Senggigi. It took us about an hour of arguing (and them trying to separate the two of us for some reason) but we eventually got what we wanted and headed down the coast. Senggigi is supposed to be one of Lombok’s main beach destinations – the island has been marketing itself as the next Bali for some while now – but it seems no-one appears to have noticed, as we arrived to find a rather forlorn looking town, and headed to the beach to find ourselves the only people there. This of course made us an instant magnet for every hawker on the beach, and we were soon surrounded by a horde of trinkets, sarongs, fresh mangoes and masseurs. We eventually cracked under the relentless pressure ( we felt a bit sorry for them, considering that’s how they make their living, and we were the only people in sight) and had a mango and a massage, the first of which was delicious, and the second the worst I’ve had in my life, as my neck and back actually felt far stiffer afterwards. After we’d persuaded the others that, no thank you, we wouldn’t be parting with a single Rupiah more, we had a swim, and soon realised one of the reasons the beach was empty – there was a huge amount of plastic and other rubbish in the sea. It was impossible to swim without getting entangled in it, which got a bit off-putting after a while. So there was only one thing for it – time for a nice cool Bintang in one of the beach bars, and it was from there that we got to see Senggigi’s best attraction, the sunset. I’ve seen a fair few beautiful ones since I left home, but the one we saw that night was easily the best. As the sun went down, the whole sky was lit up in a bright gold, and that was just the start. Once it had dipped below the horizon, the clouds began shifting colours, with pinks and golds giving away gradually to reds and purples. Meanwhile the sea, reflecting the clouds, began to look like a sea of gold. With the curve of the bay ending in a group of palm trees that were silhouetted by the fading light, it was breathtaking.

Senggigi sunset

Time to hit the beach

I’d had rather a hectic five weeks since leaving Santiago – 8 long flights, 3 12 hour overland journeys, and staying in 14 different places in 4 different countries, and quite frankly after all that I was knackered. This called for serious measures: time to hit the beach. Now the problem with that is there are quite a few to choose from amongst Indonesia’s 17,000 islands (ah, it’s hard life), so, along with the group I’d met on Java we started with the obvious choice – Bali.

Aquatic beggars

Aquatic beggars in Java

After yet another long journey (where I got to witness the most enterprising beggars I’ve ever seen: aquatic ones, swimming alongside our boat as we left Java, swimming around for coins and notes thrown down by passengers, and kept dry by packing them into their mouths like hamsters), arriving in Kuta was quite a shock to the system. Up until now the most touristy place I’d been to was Cusco in Peru. Bali is a different matter altogether – it’s more reminiscent of the big resorts in Spain than anything I’ve seen yet (not surprising really, it gets package tourists from all over the world, but especially Australians, for whom it’s their closest foreign country). Some people are very sniffy about the place for that very reason but I really didn’t care – I have plenty of time to see the ‘real’ Asia, and in the meantime it was great to find somewhere with a huge beach, great nightlife and novelties like fast internet. While my companions spent much of our time in Kuta trying their hand at surfing, I preferred to spend my time with more sedate pursuits like lying on the beach, with the occasional foray into the waves to cool off.

Kuta beach at sunset

Nice as it was to chill out in Bali for a few days, my ultimate goal was the Gili Islands, three tiny islands off the north coast of Bali’s neighbour, Lombok. After, you guessed it, yet another very long journey (I’m getting used to the fact that getting around Indonesia requires a fair amount of patience – what looked like a shortish journey took us over 12 hours, via two minibuses, a ferry, and a small launch, which was mildly terrifying as the waves were pretty huge and kept coming over the edge – the Spanish girl I was with spent most of the way hiding on the floor of the boat refusing to look), we arrived in Gili Trawangan, universally known as Gili T, the liveliest of the three islands, and I knew straight away I’d enjoy it. The whole island is so small it only takes around two hours to walk round the whole coastline, and it’s only ‘developed’ along one side – when I say that, it’s still very undeveloped compared to Bali or the big Thai resorts – there’s only one main road, which is still unpaved, and most of the buildings are still small, single story shacks, with a few bigger hotels and dive shops. The island itself is beautiful – covered in palm trees, with a long, white beach running all around (and there’s more than enough beach to go round, so they’re not crowded at all). Just metres off the beach lies the coral reef, and it’s so close to the surface that the snorkelling opportunities are amazing. Meanwhile by night, the handful of restaurants (most serving wonderful fresh, barbecued fish and seafood) and bars were more than enough to keep the party animal in me happy. One of the odd things about Gili T is quite how many Swedish people there are there – I’d met just one in 8 months before arriving in Indonesia, and since then I’ve met loads. There are so many who choose to come here in fact, that when I got off the boat, I was greeted by a local in Swedish first, before he tried English on me.

Gili Trawangan

After a couple of weeks on the beach I was feeling fully recovered, but I still hadn’t found a beach to really fall in love with yet…so on leaving Gili T it was time to give a third island a go – Gili Air.

How to break up a two-day bus journey in style

It was on travelling from Yogyakarta to Bali, that I realised quite how big a place Indonesia is. Java is only one island out of the 17,000 that make up the country, and a pretty small one compared to Sumatra or Borneo, and yet it took us two whole days of travelling – fifteen hours on day one, and then another thirteen the next day to make it just half way across Java and on to Bali.

We arrived at our night stop after 9pm, and left again the next morning at 9am. But as night stops to break up a long bus journey go, this one was pretty hard to beat – for it was at one of the most spectacular volcanoes in the country.

The volcano is commonly known as Mt Bromo, but Bromo itself is actually a relatively recent volcanic cone rising out of the centre of a massive 10km wide collapsed caldera. Of course we couldn’t see any of this when we arrived well after nightfall. Instead, as has become depressingly familiar so far on these travels, the best time to see the volcano is of course at sunrise, meaning yet another pre-4am start.

View across the caldera

There are two options for seeing the sunrise – walk across the caldera and then up the slopes of Mt Bromo; or take a jeep to a viewpoint on another volcano sitting just outside the caldera. Most of the travellers turned their noses up at the jeep option (‘we prefer to do things independently’). Their loss is all I can say, as the viewpoint was spectacular. From there, you can see the whole expanse of the caldera, with its steep cliffs dropping down to this massive, wide, flat plateau, from the middle of which rise up two cones, one extinct, and the other the active Mt Bromo. In the distance behind, you can see yet another volcano just beyond the caldera, erupting away with huge plumes of smoke at regular intervals. Getting to see the sunrise over this was quite incredible too (and at this time of year, pretty practical, as in the rainy season the whole view clouds over later on).

Sunrise duly having been watched, the jeep took us down to the base of Bromo so we could climb that too, and from the top peer down into the deep, smoking crater below.

Mount Bromo

I’ve been up numerous volcanoes in my trip now in several countries, each has been spectacular (from the molten lava of Pacaya in Guatemala, to the snow-capped Mt Tongariro in New Zealand) and each has been completely different. Mt Bromo has to be the one with the best view so far though, and as I said, not a bad way to spend a few hours in between bus journeys.

How to see temples without the crowds: Borobudur & Prambanan

If you asked most people to name a historic temple in South East Asia, you can bet that the vast majority would name Angkor Wat. In fact I’m sure most people would struggle to name many more. I know that was the case for me before I came to Asia, and on reading up on what there was to do in Indonesia, I was surprised to find out that the world’s biggest Buddhist temple is in the country.

Borobudur

Before Islam swept through the archipelago in the 15th century, Indonesia had been dominated by Hindu & Buddhist kingdoms, two of which have left behind massive temple complexes just outside Yogyakarta, both of which are World Heritage Sites.

Stupas on the upper levels of Borobudur

First up was a sunrise visit to Borobudur, a huge Buddhist stupa constructed in the 9th century. It takes the form of a stepped pyramid, with each layer being decorated by hundreds of intricately carved panels showing scenes from the life of Buddha, and overlooked by 432 statues of Buddha. The upper terraces are circular, and hold beautiful lattice-work stupas, each containing another statue.

It’s a stunning construction, but as was already becoming the norm in Indonesia, I was amazed to find that yet again there were virtually no tourists – maybe no more than twenty on the day we were there. Aside from the handful of tourists, the other main presence was the groups of roaming Indonesian English students, who’d been sent down to the area to stop tourists so that they can practice their English. So at various intervals on the way round we’d stop and chat for five minutes or so with a group, asking us lots of questions about what we were doing and where we came from, and telling us more about themselves. We even got a little demonstration of traditional dancing from one group, and then (slightly bizarrely) one of the girls sang us an Avril Lavigne song. It’s definitely one of the things I love about Indonesia – it’s so incredibly easy to meet locals as they have no hesitation in just walking straight up to you and striking up conversations.

English students at Borobudur

Next up was a short transfer to nearby Prambanan, a huge Hindu temple complex that was constructed around the same time as Borobudur, consisting of around 50 different sites. Largest and most impressive of all is the 47 metre high Shiva temple, flanked on either side by temples dedicated to Vishnu & Brahma. Sadly, the whole areas was badly damaged by an earthquake in 2006, so many of the temples were still closed off with repair work continuing. But despite that, it’s an undeniably beautiful sight.

Prambanan

Around the main temples are some smaller ones, and a museum, and it was as we wandered around we came across a group of locals practising playing Gamelan (probably the best know form of Indonesian music, played by orchestras with a variety of different percussion instruments). They invited us to sit down with them and learn to play a tune. We were each sat down with a Xylophone (with each bar being helpfully numbered) and given a sheet showing how to play a tune. It was a very simple number, but with the rest of the orchestra playing along with us the sound was beautiful, and we ended up playing for about fifteen minutes, with a load of Indonesian tourists staring at us all the whole way through.

Playing Gamelan

The only downside to the whole day was that it was completely overcast the whole time, creating that kind of dispersed light that makes taking decent pictures almost impossible. So apologies if these ones aren’t up to my usual standard (especially as I really don’t think they convey quite how beautiful both places are).

Where is everybody?

My trip to Indonesia didn’t get off to the best of starts, as a huge storm kicked up on our approach to Jakarta, meaning we had to divert to Singapore. By that time, we were running low on fuel, and the pilots had already worked over their maximum hours, so we had to sit around on the plane for three hours while we waited for refuelling and new pilots to be found. By the time we finally made it to Jakarta, we’d been delayed by more than five hours, and what’s worse, I was arriving in a huge city, on my own, in a new continent, with no hotel booked, at half past eleven at night, which was a slightly scary prospect.

I relayed my fears to one of the ground staff – who just laughed at me: ‘Jakarta is a 24 hour city. You’ll be fine’. That perked me up a little, and on the bright side at least it meant my taxi journey into town only took an hour at that time of night (it can easily be double that in the rush hour). I soon found a (rather basic) hotel in the cheap area of town, and headed out for some food round the corner, where I met three equally tired travellers who’s just arrived late as well for similar reasons: Stu from England, and Mike & Joachim from Sweden. A couple of beers later, I hit the sack, knackered after such a long journey and excited to see the big city the next day, despite the warnings from my Lonely Planet that there really wasn’t much to see.

Bugis schooners in Jakarta

They weren’t wrong. The old, colonial bit of the city is distinctly unimpressive (the Dutch must really not have been all that bothered with the place – after all, Holland is full of beautiful cities, but the architecture in Jakarta was pretty functional at best). The biggest surprise was the lack of tourists – this is the capital city of the biggest country in South East Asia (and the fourth biggest in the world) – and we must have seen about twenty foreigners the whole time we were there. At the time I presumed it must just be that everyone else had read that the city was a bit dull and headed straight to Yogyakarta. So we decided to do the same.

Making Batik in Yogya

With the bus terminals being way out of town (and the travel agents in town only selling tickets for expensive minibus journeys) we decided to take the night train down to Yogyakarta. Big mistake. The train stopped regularly throughout the night, and at every station a whole load of vendors jumped on, waking everyone up in their attempts to sell coffee, newspapers and nasi goreng. By the time we arrived (at 4.30am) we’d barely slept, and so ended up spending our first morning in the city asleep in the hostel.

Undergound Mosque in Yogya

Yogyakarta is a pleasant enough city, with some nice (but not stunning) historical sites, such as the Sultan’s palace and the ruined underground, circular mosque, but it certainly didn’t blow me away like many had in Latin America. Yet again though, there were barely any tourists in the city. With some of Indonesia’s most impressive sights nearby, I was beginning to realise that for some reason the country must have somehow slipped off most travellers’ map.

When there aren't many tourists around, there's plenty of time for sleeping