Journey across Flores

 

Flores owes its name to Portuguese sailors who called it Cabo das Flores (Cape of flowers). It is a place of raw and startling beauty, fringed by coral gardens and surrounded by volcanic isles. Amidst the tropical flowers which cover the island are smoldering volcanoes, steaming hot springs and ancient villages where animist rituals are still practiced. A remote location in the south eastern corner of the Indonesian archipelago has saved the island from the excesses of the modern world and concessions to tourism are few, but that just adds to the magic. Continue reading

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Bali Eco Village

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong we may begin to use it with love and respect.

Aldo Leopold    

High in the hills, in a valley shrouded in morning mists and perpetual tranquility, Bali Ecovillage provides a welcome sanctuary  from the excesses of southern Bali.

Bali Ecovillage  is set in a mountainous valley to the west of Kitamani, surrounded by bamboo trees, rainforests and coffee plantations. Original plans were for a weekend house built in bamboo, a place for the owners to relax and revel in the beauty of nature, but as the walls grew, so too did the idea of turning this peaceful sanctuary into an eco lodge that others could also enjoy;  guest bungalows and a couple of spacious villas were soon added to the plans. Continue reading

Travel Stories

When I was 21 I left Australia strapped into a giant purple backpack…… I wanted to go everywhere and see everything and my quest took me around the world, from the steamy jungles of Mexico, to the pyramids of Guatemala, and hidden surf beaches in El Salvador. Travels through North America led me to the icy mountain peaks of Canada, and the ancient red wood forests of northern California, then to Hollywood and Venice Beach and a summer tour with the Grateful Dead. From New York I flew to South America and travelled by land from the coke hazed streets of Santa Marta Colombia, across the mountains through Equador and Peru. I saw the sunrise over Machu Pichu and watched pink flamingos dance in a bright red lake in midst of the vast salt planes of Boliva. There was a gut churning flight over the Nazca lines, and the discovery of a desert strewn with mumified bodies (complete with hair and nails) and an awestruck moment watching the sun set and the full moon simultaneously rise over the Valley of the moon in Chile. Across the world, the rosy hued hidden city of Petra in Jordan revealed its secrets, and long summer days were spent exploring the rocky churches of he surreal valleys of Goreme in Turkey. I rode a donkey through the valley of the kings and lost my heart in Istanbul, the magical city that straddles Europe and Asia. There were long cold winters in London and a long term affair with Italy – with its streets of marble, ornate fountains, craggy coasts and beautiful food. Asia called and a dream came true with the rising sun over Angkor Wat in the jungles of Cambodia. There were long slow boat rides through the rivers of Laos and hikes through remote mountains in the north of Thailand, and then there was India in all its colouful chaos, a country like no other, more an experience than a destination. After 15 years wandering the globe I washed up on a beach in the fiji islands. For the next two years travel writing was replaced by an altogether more serious and stationary job managing a resort on a remote island. These days I live in Bali and spend my time writing about food and luxury villas, I miss my days of wild adventure, but you cant carry around a backpack forever! I still travel when I can – Indonesia has thousands (17,000 in fact) islands to explore which should keep me busy.

Jammin Island

This is a story I have just written for Get Lost Magazine, it will be published in September

MC Berto

Nyepi, the day of silence, brings Bali to a complete standstill, all businesses close, including the airport, no lights are allowed and everyone must remain indoors. It is a day of reflection and meditation, the Balinese believe that by staying hidden, the evil spirits will pass overhead without noticing the island, thus bringing an auspicious start to their New Year. As Bali falls under its annual cloak of silence on March 26, many escape to the neighbouring island of Gili Trawangan in Lombok, for the first ever Jammin Island Roots, Rock, Reggae festival.

Gili Trawangan is a hedonistic slice of paradise with a well earned reputation as a party island, and its white sandy beaches, swaying palms and blazing sunsets make it the ideal setting for a reggae festival.

A relentless surge of boats bring Indonesians and tourists piling on to the beach, and the plethora of guitars, drums, dreadlocks and sweet reggae infuse the island with a distinctly Caribbean vibe.

Cidomo

Jammin Island 2-1

It’s late afternoon when the festival gets under way, an angry storm is brewing over the mountains of Lombok and thunderous clouds creep towards us. The official opening is marked with the release of 100 baby turtles to the ocean.  We carry the little creatures down to the beach, their legs flapping furiously and there’s plenty of cheering as we place them on the sand and they scramble awkwardly down to the water and freedom. As the turtles discover the rhythm of the ocean, gentle reggae rhythms fill the air, and then it’s the rhythmic patter of falling rain as the storm hits the island forcing the event indoors. Instead of dancing barefoot in the sand under the stars, we are packed inside Sama Sama bar, but the rain doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The air is thick with smoke; the arak (rice wine) and the laughter flow freely; dreadlocks are flying and the atmosphere soaring. The heat is intense, but I found consolation in the fact that I am sweating out the alcohol as quickly as I consume it and looking around I can see that I am just another sweaty body grooving on the dance floor.

turtle release

The crowd is a great mix; Western surfers; Euro backpackers; island locals and of course the Indonesian dread community is out in force and providing plenty of eye candy for the western girls. Some of the guys look pretty scary with their wild hair and elaborate tattoos but these are not trench town rastas, mostly just nice guys from exotic places like Borneo or Sulawesi or Papua who dig reggae and like to get irie.  Indonesia’s burgeoning reggae scene has produced some incredibly talented musicians and festival headliners include Steven and the Coconut Treez who achieved international fame with their Trawangan inspired song ‘Welcome to my paradise;’ Lombok’s own Richard D’Gilis; and Lawa Am Q, from the Spice Islands.

Jammin

We are all united in the sheer spine-tingling pleasure of the music and I am not talking about the same old Bob Marley songs that you hear ad finium on beaches all over the world, this is real roots reggae, Indo style. The performers seem to have more fun than anyone and there is a constant rotation of musicians on stage as these brothers from another mother jam it out like there is no tomorrow.

richard and lawa

the guys

As the evening progresses I notice that the photos I am taking are increasingly out of focus. I wonder if it’s me; have I had too many jugs of rum and coke? Or it is the people I am photographing; perhaps they have had too many? Or maybe I am just capturing the vibe, because it all seems to get rather blurry and surreal. The storm passes and we all stumble outside to clear our heads, bask in the star light, eat barbecued fish and watch the fire dance show. Then it’s the rhythm of the drums and the gentle lapping of waves on the shore as the dancers twirl and swirl in a whirl of fire.

iwan

The music is even better on the second night of the festival but the pace much more relaxed and fewer people means more space to dance and a much more intimate atmosphere  –  it feels more like a really cool party. Richard D’Gilis croons his song ‘Gili Trawangan,’ and we all sing along,

“Pulau yg indah

Bersih pantaiyana,

ga ada polusi dan polisi”

(The beautiful island, the beach so clean, no pollution, no police)

The “no police” bit gets everyone cheering.

Berto

When the music ends people drift towards the bonfire on the beach and the soft strumming of guitars. A bunch of us head en masse to Rudy’s bar, a dark, divey outdoor club where The Chemical Brothers ‘Hey Boy, Hey Girl’ is booming. And once again we are all leaping around the dance floor. Just before dawn the music finishes. The muezzin call to prayer rings out from the mosque, roosters crow, stragglers stagger on to the beach and finally as the first rays of sun hit the water, the island falls silent.

fire dance

The next day we lounge around at Coral beach 2, a guesthouse set on a quiet and very pretty part of the island, fringed by bougainvillea and palms. I float in the fluorite sea and ponder whether to have an avocado and chocolate shake or a fresh papaya juice. Or maybe it is Bintang o’clock. Life is sweet!  The musicians are gathered under a palm tree, still jamming, still irie. They are friends of mine and in the two years that I have lived in Indonesia, these are the nicest guys I have met, truly brothers from another mother. We are all spread out over the islands of Indonesia but every now and then we get together in Kuta for an event or just by chance and we hang out and make music. Someone brings bottles of Arak, someone brings food and everyone looks out for one another. It’s this closeness and sense of family that makes the music so special.

backstage

Gili paradise

For now we are all enjoying the island which is so picturesque it’s almost surreal, a kind of fantasy world where things like time have no consequence. Nothing is urgent and everything is put off till tomorrow, even leaving. Last year I planned to stay for a week, and was still there two months later. Some people never really leave and the island has been bought up parcel by parcel by Westerners. It is no longer a well-kept backpacker’s secret and more and more luxury villas and boutique resorts are springing up all over the island. Thankfully it has retained its quirky laid-back atmosphere. One of the restaurants has a sign ‘no shirt, no shoes, no problem,’ which kind of says it all. Bicycles and horse drawn carts are still the only form of transport, thongs are still the footwear of choice, the smell of weed still permeates the air and many bars and shops still offer ‘trips to the moon no transport needed,’ via their mushroom shakes. The island is quite an anomaly;  mainland Lombok ─ Islamic and conservative ─ is just twenty minutes by boat, but here on Gili, anything goes and the locals are more up for it than anyone.

mushrooms

The area known as Sentral or ‘downtown’ has a ramshackle assortment of dive shops, restaurants and bars lining the seafront.  Lounging is the key word; it’s all about the cushions really, they fill the berugas (open sided huts), the day beds and the sofas. Dining is informal, candle-lit and alfresco, most restaurants offer fresh seafood, you choose what you want and then lounge around while it is cooked on the barbecue. At  Pesona restaurant you can sprawl on the bamboo mats under a blanket of stars and smoke sheesha (water pipes) filled with apple tobacco; A couple of places even have berugas fitted out with plump cushions, televisions and dvd players, perfect lounging conditions. Lounging aside, most of the action takes place here in Sentral and there are three organized parties a week, rotating between the bars: Monday night is Blue Marlin, they have an excellent sound system and belt out old school hard house. The spacious wooden deck upstairs is great for dancing: Tir na nog, the Irish bar hosts Wednesday night parties with a mix of hip hop and pop. In true Irish style this is more of a drink till you fall off your barstool type affair: Friday night is Rudy’s, a dark, sleazy, outdoor club with random music, psychedelic décor and mushroom shakes. It’s the sort of place where you find yourself doing funky moves to Michael Jackson or Ice T at 4.00 in the morning: Sama Sama Bar has live acoustic music every night of the week, their house band S2 play great reggae and the open-mic nights can be hilarious.

Gili Trawangan

I have met people who have put off going to Gili because of its reputation as a party island, but away from the south eastern Sentral area, things are really quiet and the beaches on the undeveloped western side of the island are the stuff of cast away fantasies. Walking around the island takes about an hour and a half and is a great way to experience its contrasts. Heading north from Sentral the style becomes increasingly rustic and relaxed, more island hick than island chic. The area known as Coral beach on the north eastern tip of the island is my favourite. Its quiet here and the wide expanse of beach is dotted with berugas where I can settle in for the day; eat fabulous Italian style pizza and snorkel right off the beach.

Continuing around the island; there are groves of palm trees; patches of dense coastal scrub; deserted beaches filled with drift wood and bleached coral; and the occasional resort. The views out to sea change dramatically; the eastern side of the island overlooks the small island of Gili Meno and the mountains of Lombok; the northern tip is flanked by open sea; but as you continue walking down the western side, Bali and its towering volcano loom into view.  Sunset bar, a huge open-air building hugs the south western corner and is indeed a great place for watching the sunset. Sadly the owner died of a heart attack on the opening weekend and it now sits empty, although enterprising locals sometimes bring a boom box, beer and spirits and set up a make-shift bar.

on the beach

The view is also pretty good from a lounging position and I often find myself sinking into the cushions in a beach-front beruga with a thick sticky Lombok coffee. Monsoon season is a magical time when the heavy, dark clouds looming over Lombok create a moody back drop. Nature is broody here and unleashes dazzling electrical storms which whip the sea up in a frenzy of whirl pools and crazy currents. But the storms blow out as quickly as they blow and calm is soon restored.  It is also a great place for people watching: Colourful outriggers from Lombok bring locals with sacks of produce to sell in the market; Fast boats from Bali disgorge backpacker-laden tourists searching for cheap digs; Beach-sellers ply their pearls, watches and silver; Local women glide by with baskets of bananas or fresh fish balanced on their heads; Children play in the shallows and giggle; Muslim women pass by covered in head scarves, long shirts and trousers; Western girls pass by – barely covered at all. Goats and chickens trot along the road and there are cats everywhere, mostly with deformed tails or no tail at all. It’s a genetic defect, but the islanders love to invent stories and will tell you that cat tail soup is a local delicacy.

The locals are friendly and cheerful and always up for a chat and a laugh. When I tell them I am Australian, they say “Hey mate, ozzy ozzy oy oy oy.” When I ask where they are from, I inevitably get the answer, with a smirk, “From my mother.” The groups of local Casanovas (also known as big mosquitoes) that hang around can be a little intimidating and prey on the western girls. “You want boyfriend,” “you want free transport,” “you want take me home.” They are mostly harmless, just bored and always on the lookout for a girlfriend and a free ride. Enough of them get lucky that you can’t really blame them for trying.

Gili is also a popular dive spot and a good place to get certified. Dynamite fishing and coral bleaching have taken their toll on the reefs, but you can still find patches of healthy coral and the marine life is plentiful with reef sharks, seahorses, manta rays and turtles. Efforts are being made to regenerate the reef, the dive shops actually pay fishermen not to fish in the waters surrounding the island. Another initiative is the use of Biorock, which uses electrical currents to stimulate coral development. There are a couple of decent places for snorkelling just off the beach, although the best coral is found on the snorkelling boat trips which also visit the islands of Gili Meno and Gili Air.

In the days following the festival, as the dreads, the drums and the guitars trickle off the island, I have that really flat ‘the party is over’ feeling. But then my friends inform me that it is Bintang o’clock, and it is Monday night – that means a party at Blue Marlin. And I am reminded that here on Gili, as the song ‘Welcome to my paradise’ goes, “the party is never-ending.”

Varanasi, the city of light

I arrive at the Ganges as the sun begins to cast its glow over the waking city.  The river runs purple and its banks gleam a shimmering gold.  All around is the sound of music, ringing bells and chanting as Varanasi comes alive in a mad frenzy of devotion.  I watch a man walk into the river, arms outstretched, a look of ecstasy on his face as he  calls out  “Ganga”.  I am overwhelmed by the intensity of emotion – this is no ordinary river.

I find a teastand and sit down, enjoying the sweet spicy brew.  An old man sit next to me.  “Did you know that this is the oldest city in the world? He asks.  “It is the center of all knowledge and wisdom, he who searches for answers will find them here is Varanasi”.   For thousands of years people have come to worship and offer their prayers to the river Goddess.  A dip in the holy waters of Varanasi is said to wash away all sins. Continue reading

Gallipoli Turkey

On April 25 every year, thousands gather at a narrow peninsula in Turkey under a deep blue sky. The rugged landscape is hauntingly beautiful, with its dramatic ridges, isolated beaches and deep valleys, but that’s not what draws them. They are mostly young New Zealanders and Australians, backpacking, hitchhiking and staggering out of old Kombi vans, drawn to a location they know little about except its place in their nation’s histories. Continue reading

On the road with the Grateful Dead

Jerry Garcia, singer, songwriter and founding force of the Grateful Dead was a larger- than-life character, hailed by many of his fans as a Messiah-like figure. When he died in August 1995, 20,000 people gathered in San Francisco for a candle-light vigil. Shortly after, the band announced their split and to many it seemed like the end of an era. But time has proved otherwise and ten years after Jerry’s death, and forty years after the band played their first gig, the spirit of the Dead is alive and kicking. The Grateful Dead formed in the 60’s and seamlessly provided the background music for Ken Kesey as he unleashed his acid tests on California. Playing their unique, psychedelic boogie music, Jerry and the Dead came to symbolise the summer of love and the phenomenon of the‘Dead Head’ was born as loyal followers went on the road for the bands legendary tours across America.

In the spring of 1993, I embarked on my own summer of love and went on tour with the Dead– albeit selling falafel to hungry Dead Heads. We arrived in Chicago for the first show and seemed to have passed through a time warp when we entered the parking lot. There were tie-dyes, buses with flowers painted on them, girls in patchwork dresses, drumming circles. It was bitterly cold but everyone was in high spirits and incredibly friendly. I swapped a falafel for a space cake and off I went. A truck opened its doors, revealing hundreds of balloons, a queue formed and people were soon reeling about with big grins on their faces as they inhaled the happy gas from the balloons. Everything seemed to go a bit crazy, my friend Martin was arrested for selling falafel and the cops were bombarded with snowballs. The disco bus raised its flag, cranked the volume and the air was filled with the funky beat of Freak out, suddenly everyone was dancing – even the cops. All around the snow gently fell. Continue reading