Ubud: Rice field walk and more art

The rice fields in Bali are the most incredible bright green that I’ve ever seen – my pictures don’t really do it justice. And the contrast between the green of the fields, the darker green of the palm trees and the blue of the sky is magical. Before we moved from our house in Penestanan to our current pad, the Merthayasa Bungalows on Monkey Forest Street (still in Ubud, but “downtown”), we ventured out on a walk through the rice fields near our place.

Climbing up the hill to a swanky hotel on the side of the river gorge, we turned left following the “Up the Hill” sign, and snaked our way up and along a small paved cement path into the hills.

The path travels up and along a ridge between two river gorges, one side of which is planted with rice and the other with villas and hotels terraced down to the riverbed.

After a walk of half an hour or so we reached a small village at the crest of the hill, seemingly every house of which belonged to artists and all selling paintings, carvings, and drawings from their home galleries (as well as renting bikes, motorbikes, etc).

Some of these places were very elaborate and also contained rental units; others were much more modest in scale.

As we walked along we could hear the hordes of ducks honking in the fields as they nosed in the cut rice for critters to eat.

We’d worked up a sweat from our climb and so stopped at one small home and gallery for a beer and to admire the view. While there, we had a look at all the paintings on display and decided to purchase one small painting on canvas of a barong dance and a stylised drawing of three figures dancing. Prices for the paintings here are incredibly inexpensive and if we had untold funds and untold room in the bags, we would probably buy more.

Further along the path we came to a newly-opened cafe situated in a lotus pond with a view over rice terraces, a perfect spot for lunch, after which we continued through more artists’ villages and onto a main road.

I had thought that this particular path returned via a loop to town but it became increasingly obvious as we went further along that it did not. Several cycle tour groups had passed us on the way and, luckily, one small group was just loading up the bikes to return to Ubud as we approached. After inquiring about how far the road went, and realising that, at 20 km, it was too far to finish that day, we asked for a lift back to Penestanan which they were kind enough to give us at no charge – huzzah!

Now that we’ve moved to the epicentre of Ubud, Monkey Forest Road, there are innumerable cultural options open to us just outside our doors (I can hear Ty sighing …).

After a torrential rain yesterday morning, we headed out down the road to visit the ARMA, Agung Rai Museum of Art, about two km from our place. This, along with the Neka and a couple of others, is one of the main art venues in town, set in several acres of beautiful gardens above and along the river.

In addition to the museum, and two open stages for dance performances, the compound includes a resort area with what looked to be rather swanky bungalows fronting the rice fields. The caretaker told us that the place had been neglected for some years and was only now seeing some money come in to refurbish some of the buildings. Few people seem to visit this place; other than us, I saw two others and they did not make the journey down to the rest of the compound. It’s too bad because the collection is interesting and the grounds are fantastic.

See more rice field pics here.

Read more about ARMA here.

Ubud: Art, Music, and Dance

Yesterday was a culture-filled extravaganza here in Ubud – what an amazing place this is. For a quite small town the number of art galleries, museums, and places to see and hear music, drama, and dance is incredible. Our plan was to visit the Neka Art Museum in the morning and so we headed out down the main drag towards Kedewatan Village. Of course, I could not pass by all the small galleries without investigating them. The first one, a large barn of a place, is called the Art Zoo, run by Symon, full of colourful expressionist paintings, sculptures, and mixed media works, including silk screens of the usual cast of pop culture figures (Marilyn Monroe, Mona Lisa, Einstein) and a pop-art take-off on that hellenistic favourite, the Barberini Faun.

Close by in another small gallery I chatted with Ngurah KK, a Balinese painter in the Young Artist style, whose works are featured in many art museums world-wide and on Unicef greeting cards.

We nipped into the Sika Gallery of Contemporary Art just across the way, a huge modern space containing many interesting paintings and objects by younger Indonesian artists, a space which we really enjoyed. We actually purchased two small oil paintings – small enough to fit into the ol’ suitcase – by I Made Aswino Aji from Bali and the Javanese Awan Yozeffani.

Carrying our red bag of paintings, we continued up the road to the Neka Art Museum, one of Bali’s most important venues for Indonesian art and art by international artists focussing on Bali.

This place has several pavilions of paintings and some sculpture, most depicting village life and the everyday rituals and mythology of Bali. Traditional Balinese painting, like Buddhist and Hindu art I’m familiar with, is highly detailed, colourful, and representational, sometimes in a deliberately naïve style.

Some of the contemporary Indonesian painting on view looked much like western painting from the 50s, some was reminiscent of German expressionism, and some more like Gauguin.

After immersing ourselves in art, we felt a powerful hunger coming on and staggered out of the Neka and into Naughty Nuri’s barbeque house just across the street, where we munched on BBQ’d chicken and pork, along with several other art lovers. Back at the ranch we plunged in the plunge pool and had a little lie down before emerging once again for a night-time dance performance at the Ubud Palace downtown. Since it was raining a bit, and we were late, we grabbed a taxi and got to the venue early, luckily, because we were able to get a front row seat for the Legong and Barong Dance.

I had never seen Balinese dance before and knew almost nothing about it so the performance was a delight.

Everything was new and unexpected. The colours of the costumes and makeup of the dancers and musicians were fabulous, and each time the scene changed and new characters emerged, I was enchanted.

Rather than one continuous story, the evening involved several different dramas. The Legong dance, a historical 13th century romance, features pre-pubescent girls; the Barong dance a lion-dog creature representative of good, manipulated by two actors, duelling with a monkey;

and the finale a story from the Mahabharata of two giants, Sunda and Upasunda, a beautiful goddess, her attendant nymphs, and two clown-like figures whose purpose was unknown to me.

The movements of the dancers, both women and men, are highly stylised, and include fascinating eye, head, and hand movements. While the womens’ movements are graceful and sensuous, the mens’ are more angular and sharp, meant to indicate strength and power.

The Barong was very humourous and reminded me of a sasquatch or abominable snowman-like figure, as well as our dog Brubin when he plays grass alligator. Accompanying the action was a gamelan orchestra and a male narrator who voiced all the parts, which must have been exhausting for him! This spectacular performance is highly recommended.

See more pictures here.


A Hot East Bali Road Trip: Padang Bai, Candi Dasa, Tirta Gangga, Amed

In Daiana’s taxi we headed east through the incredible crush of Bali traffic, along with thousands of other taxis, trucks, and, especially, motorbikes, some carrying as many as four family members, most without helmets. As in Fiji, the driving here consists of passing everything on the road, except that here there’s much more on the road, since seemingly Bali is a much wealthier place than Fiji and everyone has wheels. Motorcycles, like insects, dart here and there around the car, sometimes zooming up on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes coming straight at the car the wrong way down the street. The traffic continued heavy the entire way from Ubud out to the east coast – I was really glad that neither of us had to drive.

Our first stop along the east coast was Padang Bai, a small town from which the fast and slow boats to Lombok and the Gili Islands depart. It, too, was very crowded, mostly with people heading over to the Gilis or diving.

This area is known for its scuba diving and snorkelling. We drove past the town beach, a small strip of sand next to the small harbour mostly given over to Indonesian fishing boats, and headed up the rough road around the point to the Blue Lagoon beach.

This black sand beach is small, with good size waves, and is quite clean and has two places from which to rent sunbeds and umbrellas. But was it ever screaming hot.

Parts of the landscape looked black, as if a fire had gone through, but it is just (!) that the area has had no rain for months and all the vegetation is barely clinging to life.

From Padang Bai we headed up the coast for a brief stop at Candi Dasa, another area of black sand, also furnace-like and dry, dry, dry. There’s hardly any beach here anymore – breakwaters have been built to try to stem the erosion but sand is only visible at low tide. Since all the hotels are built along the water, there’s nowhere to walk except on the very busy roadway – not very appealing.

All through this area are small temples and small villages, as well as roadside markets selling cheap food and souvenirs. Past Candi Dasa a ways, we pulled in to the Tirta Gangga Water Palace; although I did not know it was here, I realised once inside that I’d seen pictures of this place before. It is beautiful – I love water palaces, and this one was great. The name means “water from the Ganges” and it is a holy site for Hindu Balinese.

From Wikipedia, here is info about the site:

The primary draw in this area for visitors is the Tirta Gangga water palace, a maze of pools and fountains surrounded by a lush garden and stone carvings and statues. The one hectare complex was built in 1946 by the late King of Karangsem but was destroyed almost entirely by the eruption of nearby Mount Agung in 1963. It has been lovingly re-built and restored and has an air of authentic royal magnificence. The centrepiece of the palace is an eleven tiered fountain and there are many beautiful carvings and statues adorning the gardens.

Read more about Tirta Gangga here.

After our stop at the Water Palace, we drove up and then down on winding roads and switchbacks, through incredible brilliant green rice field terraces with a view of Mt Agung.

Coming down from the mountainous area the terrain becomes flatter and much drier heading out to Amed on the coast. Along this road everything looked very parched and areas of the fields were brown, with the green of palms interspersed. Reaching Amed, we drove through a series of small villages to the end of the line where we were deposited on a black sand and rock beach for snorkelling.

Amed is renowned for its diving and snorkelling, both of which can be done right off the beach. Unlike the south coast beaches, here one can actually swim at all times of day. The bay is quite deep, with many interesting coral formations just beneath the water. Ty saw a reef shark and there were quite a few largish colourful fish flitting about around us as we cruised along. Unfortunately, we left our Kodak camera behind so I don’t have any pictures of the fish … sigh.

After having a drink beachside at the Blue Star café and bungalows, and chatting to a couple who are staying there for two months, we decided that, after Ubud, we’d come up here for a week’s beach time R&R in the scorching heat. This place gets the most sun of any place in Bali so, for a full-on heat extravaganza, this is the place.

See more pictures here.

Ubud, Bali: a feast for the eyes and ears

Q’ull picked us up from the Little Pond Homestay right on time for our one hour trip to the arts and culture centre of Bali, Ubud. Along the road between Sanur and Ubud are many small villages, all specialising in various crafts, mostly carving and sculpture for temples and private homes. As we zoomed along, we saw all manner of sculpted figures and heads, large and small, gracing the side of the road. After an uneventful, but busy, ride into the interior we pulled over at the side of a busy street in Penestanan, a village just outside the town centre, and dragged our bags along flat cement footpaths through rice fields to our rental house.

This house, along with a few others, is nestled right in the middle of beautiful bright green rice fields. It is a tall two story structure, mostly open to the elements, with two decks overlooking the fields, a very large fishpond, and a small plunge pool, the pool just finished the day we arrived.

It must have been hatching season for small red spiders because shortly after we moved in a vast stream of them emerged from under the stove top and underneath the large stone goddess holding up the staircase. There were too many simply to lift outside so unfortunately I had to blast them with bug spray, leaving hundreds of tiny corpses on the counter and floor. Although we do see little spiders, ants and other tiny insects crawling around the place, hopefully we’ll not be inundated with an entire army of them again.

The fishpond holds many large orange and gold carp and attracts beautiful dragonflies during the day and not-so-beautiful toads at night. Since I’ve only seen some small ones hopping along the cement paths, I’m not sure how large the toads that frequent our garden are, but they have very large voices with an interesting range of expressions. Some creatures in the rice fields (not sure what they are) sound like cell phones ringing, others make sounds like “whoop-whoop-whoop”, still others sound like crying babies. We also have a small bird visitor, one with a tiny white head, a black body and very long yellow legs and large feet, who strolls through the living room periodically.

After settling in Saturday, we headed out down one of the many cement paths through the rice fields to find the Bintang Market. We took a very circuitous route through a series of small paths but eventually emerged at Bintang where we purchased food and other supplies for the week. Later, on our way back, we stopped at a local restaurant (called a warung) nearby where we had some really excellent prawn curry for very little money.

The weather has been very good, warm (sometimes hot), not too humid, with only a tiny burst of rain once a day. Ubud is really a fascinating place; it’s always been on the art peoples’ radar, but ever since the 2009 publication of Eat, Pray, Love, and the crappy Julie Roberts movie version, it’s been flooded with even more western tourists looking for enlightenment. Right now it’s the low season so it’s not as busy as it otherwise might be (which is a good thing), but the main roads through “downtown” are bustling and during the day busloads of tourists from Kuta and points south, as well as cruise ship patrons, are dropped off to shop for a couple of hours.

From what we’ve seen so far, the town is full of art galleries, temples, bars, restaurants, yoga places, and various other necessaries for spiritual seekers, many of which ask western prices. Sunday we walked from our place into town, stopping first at the Antonio Blanco Renaissance Art Museum, a Campuhan hill-top compound, formerly the artist’s home, dedicated to all things Blanco. I’d never heard of Antonio Blanco before, but apparently his claim to fame in the 1950s was that he was the first artist to paint women’s clitorises … He’s known as the Dali of Bali and the site contains a neo-baroque museum, small gallery, and the studio where he used to paint, including all his paints, brushes and half-finished canvases seemingly undisturbed in the 12 years since he died.

The garden is fabulous, with many different kinds of tropical birds in residence, including toucans, parrots, cockatoos and a type of small buzzard. The museum building, which one enters through a gigantic sculpted rendition of the maestro’s signature (apparently renowned as the world’s largest signature),

is in colossal bad taste, with golden cheesecake statues of women gracing the terraces and rooftop, and two floors of Antonio’s paintings, collages and drawings, all in his own especially designed wooden frames (one featuring an effigy of ET).

Somehow, a piece of sculpture that might look right at home on a Hindu temple seems out of place on one man’s personal museum … We were not allowed to take photos inside the museum itself (I only snuck one of the second floor interior, shown below).

A museum attendant opened two special frames for us which displayed a couple of Antonio’s more pornographic works, one featuring a woman and a red candle dildo and the other two women having sex. His portraits are very skillful but OMG what kitsch! Breasts, buttocks, sultry looks everywhere in a softcore surrealist style.

The museum is a fascinating, and somewhat grotesque, testament to one man’s vanity. After a couple of hours at the Blanco compound, we strolled up the main drag, stopping for a drink at a riverside restaurant, and a snack at Coco’s International Restaurant, a good people-watching spot, before hitting the large tourist market. We had been told to head straight into the centre of the market if we wanted to buy anything, since all the shops sell more or less the same things, and those on the top floor interior get much less traffic. After looking around (and seeing a dead rat lying on the ground next to some garbage), we bargained hard for a black linen shirt and hit the road.

After a dinner of local specialties at a small path-side restaurant nearby, we were heading back to the ranch when an older guy invited us along to hear a “world-class trumpeter” at the Casa Luna Restaurant and Bar. We accompanied him back into town and had a drink at the Casa Luna downstairs bar while listening to a jazz foursome play. And the trumpeter was great –

I found it interesting that, while many of the many restaurants along the main street were practically empty, the Casa Luna, with its desultory service, was quite full. The restaurant is large and vaguely European in design, with antique wooden tables and chairs, marble columns and elegant décor, and could have been anywhere (possibly the reason for its popularity). While we didn’t eat, the restaurant is recommended for its good food – we will hope to check that out later.

Ubud has a profusion of temples replete with amazing sculptural decoration. Almost everywhere we look we see something beautiful or bizarre. The town has more galleries than the entire rest of Bali, I’m sure, some very high end and others more kitsch. It also has several museums dedicated to Indonesian and International contemporary art which I’ll visit while we’re here. And this is the first place in our travels that I’ve seen art supplies on sale. Almost every night there are Balinese dance performances, gamelan music, shadow puppet presentations and the like, many put on in the various temples downtown – a cultural feast.

See more pictures here.

Sanur, Bali – the spirituality of everyday life

Well, we are sitting on our small terrace at the Little Pond Homestay in Sanur, Bali soaking up the 30 degree heat and enjoying the calls of tiny birds in the trees. The transition from Sydney to Bali did not go as smoothly as one would have hoped, though. We made it to the airport in plenty of time – in fact, about 4 hours before the flight – and were quite near the front of the lineup to check in; unfortunately, when the airline agent asked us for our itinerary showing a flight back out of Bali, we didn’t have one. Neither of us had realised that we needed an onward ticket in order to get into the country and we did not have one – damn! Consternation! What to do!? We rolled our luggage trolley away from the check in counter and frantically around the airport trying to get an internet connection so that we could buy a ticket so that we could get on the Jetstar Bali flight. After trying a few different locations in the airport with no luck we finally got online and managed to buy two tickets through Air Asia to Bangkok 30 days hence – joy! We rushed ourselves and our trolley back into the lineup and, after 20 frantic minutes at the checkin counter trying to pull up the itinerary PDF, were able to demonstrate our onward travels and got our boarding passes in time to actually catch the flight … gong show and major stress.

On arrival at Denpasar airport we purchased our 30 day visas on arrival with no difficulty other than an enormous lineup, emerged into the baggage area only to be descended upon by 3 – 3(!) – porters who refused to relinquish our bags and held out their hands for money after transporting them about 20 feet. Luckily, our transfer driver was still there waiting with a sign for us and we hopped into a nice van for our one hour journey to Sanur and the Little Pond Homestay. The Homestay is a small place of about 15 rooms off the main drag through Sanur; it has a lovely small pool, the room is small but serviceable (and very inexpensive) and we have free internet. It is our home base until tomorrow.

Sanur itself is a seaside town on the south coast across the peninsula from Kuta Beach, the main tourist centre on Bali. While waiting for our breakfast place to open, Ty and I wandered along the main street and watched while several shop keepers installed small flower and incense offerings to the gods on their doorsteps. We also noticed two large and very elaborate tower-like structures which, when we saw the pictures affixed to them, we realised were funeral objects to transport corpses for cremation. These were parked curbside and with them were crowds of men dressed in their batik funeral headgear and sarongs. They liked Ty’s look and posed for pictures with him.

After breakfast at a local cafe, we packed our beach bags and headed out to find the ocean. Along the way I marvelled at the elaborate sculptural decoration of the buildings and the many small temples and carvings of gods almost everywhere, each of which was adorned with colourful offerings of flowers and fabrics.

Along the three km length of Sanur Beach runs a paved footpath past many restaurants, bars and shops – many shops! And in front of each was stationed many vendors, mostly women, who were relentless in their pursuit of buyers and attempts to get us to come into their shops.

After having found out our names, there was no escaping from them; each time we walked by during the day came the call to visit their shops – “Remember me, Monica – number 31”. We had walked quite far down the path when we decided to stop for a drink and the shop-keeper told us that we were lucky because the funeral procession for one of the dead was going to come right by where we were sitting. I had been wondering about the Balinese cremation ceremony and was very interested to be able to see it.

Across from where we were seated was an area of grass in which two banana wood furnaces had been built, one of them adorned with a head and tail of grasses. These were to be the pyres for the bodies.

Around the corner we could hear music and shortly a procession of people arrived, beautifully dressed in batik and lace, some of whom were banging drums and other percussion instruments and others who were balancing offerings on their heads.

Several men carried the temple structure holding the deceased. When they arrived at the pyre location they walked several times around the banana wood furnace before depositing the white wrapped body in it.

After removing the wrapping from the body, a group of men gathered around the furnace anointed the body with flowers, oils, food stuffs, water and beautifully coloured fabrics in a series of ritualised movements.

Once the body was fully covered with these offerings the two large propane tanks (tiger torches) were fired up and the corpse, with all its offerings, set alight. As the pyre burned a couple of men simply threw the temple-structure onto the garbage heap nearby.

We didn’t watch the entire ceremony but apparently after the corpse is completely consumed by flames, the ashes and bits of bone that are left are carried to the sea and disposed of. Rather than the sad and mournful mood of funerals with which I’m familiar, the mood here was light and almost joyous. As the body burned the crowd played music and chanted.

The Ngaben, or cremation ceremony, is the “last and most important ceremony of every Balinese life, in which the soul is released entirely from the body to ascend to heaven and to be reincarnated”. When the body of the deceased is carried to the place where the cremation is to take place, the temple-like structure carrying the body, called a Wadah, is shaken and turned by the people carrying it, to “make sure the soul doesn’t find its way back home”. Although this ceremony is Hindu, it reminded me of Buddhist practices such as sand mandalas designed to speak to the ephemerality of earthly life. In these practices much effort is spent on creating beautiful objects only to destroy them in the end – apt analogues for the human body and reminders that nothing stays the same, everything changes, so no point in clinging to anything in the earthly realm. In both belief systems, the immaterial soul is released from the material body, hopefully to a higher and better place.

Read more about the Balinese Ngaben here.

Later we sat on the beach and watched the women recruit people for massages and shopping while playing with their small children and swam in the warm ocean.

After a really tasty dinner of Nasi Goreng and Spicy Chicken at the Little Bird Warung just down the road, we walked back down to the beach from a different direction and came upon a wonderland of bonsai plants – an ocean of them in every size and twisty configuration. They must represent untold hours of work by the unnamed gardener – fabulous!

From the bonsai garden we walked to the Reggae Beach Bar and collapsed on their oceanfront bean bag chairs to listen to a Bob Marley cover band – Bob, long dead, lives on here in South East Asia.

Tomorrow at noon we leave for Ubud, the arts centre of Bali, about an hour’s drive north of here.

See more pictures here.


Downtown Sydney: The Rocks, Sydney Observatory and Chinatown

The Rocks, on the southern shore of Sydney’s inner harbour, is the place where the city began, established in 1788 after the colony’s formation.

Convicts, colonialists, sailors, hookers, and all manner of disreputable and dubious characters lived in this quarter and many of the old sandstone buildings, after which it’s named, from that era have been fixed up as hotels, pubs, restaurants, and shops, as well as galleries for local art.

We wandered through the narrow cobblestone streets, following the Nurses and Surgeons Walk, and spent some time in the Rocks Museum looking at the artifacts taken from the old houses. A small section of the museum provided material for creating one’s own display and so Ty left behind a classic British Columbian memento …

We also tried some vertical planking in interaction with local art works …

The colonial buildings here have been beautifully restored and give an idea of what the town of Levuka in Fiji might look like (since it’s buildings are the same vintage) if Fiji had the money to fix them up.

One harbourside building, a three story structure formerly used as a sailors’ dorm, is now an gallery featuring the work of Sydney artist Charles Billich; the building is fabulous, the art not so much … I did enjoy seeing the aboriginal art on display in another gallery – mostly abstract with bright colourful patterns, and painted digiridoos (one of which I’d love to have if they weren’t about 9 feet long and a bit hard to pack in the ol’ suitcase).

From the Rocks, we walked up to the Sydney Observatory, built in 1858 and now a museum featuring old astronomical and meterological equipment, maps, and navigational tools. It has two beautiful copper domes, each with a still-operational telescope. Read more about the Observatory here. (This town has an incredible number of guns and references to war …)

After walking around the harbour for a bit,

we hopped on a bus and headed down George Street to Chinatown, where we had a coffee at Starbucks (the first we’ve seen on our trip) and then dim sum at Marigolds, a cavernous Chinese restaurant on the top floor of a building across from Paddy’s Market. Here we gobbled down what seemed to be about 20 prawn dishes (well, 5 anyway) in 5 seconds – it’s amazing how much food one can consume when it comes rolling by on tiny plates …

Sydney seems to be more adept at keeping and upgrading their historical buildings than Vancouver is; many of the 18th and 19th century buildings in the downtown area are incredibly ornate and really beautiful and contrast nicely with the more contemporary skyscrapers.

See more pictures here.

Cycling Manly’s North Head: Bandicoot Habitat, Artillery, and Sandy Coves

We love Manly! What a great place! Are we ever glad we decided to stay here rather than in downtown Sydney.

Yesterday the weather was overcast so we decided to do the Cabbage Tree Eco-Sculpture Walk from the Corso to Shelly Beach along the waterfront (where we were surprised to see many Blue Bottle or Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish swept onto the beach from the brisk onshore wind). These are actually colonies of thousands of tiny creatures, none of which could survive on its own. More than anything, they look like used condoms.

From the Manly Life Saving Club pavilion at the end of Manly Beach, we walked along a paved foreshore walkway, along which are fabulous little silver sculptures on the rocks depicting the plants, animals, and humans of the Manly area.

Also, in front of several private homes, is a foreshore swimming pool, graced with two curvilinear bronze sculptures of female neriads.

We had a coffee at the beach bar at Shelly Beach and then climbed the stairs and followed the path leading around the forested headland. It reminded me quite a bit of Piper’s Lagoon in Nanaimo, except rather than Garry Oaks, it had Cabbage Palms and pines.

Today, although we had quite a rainfall early in the morning, it was good enough weather to head down to the Manly bike rental and grab two hybrid bikes for a three day excursion. We headed out down the beach walk, past the Manly Wharf Hotel, and up into a residential area for a ride past the Sydney Tourism School in what looked to be a former Cathedral.

After having checked out this area, we entered into the North Head Sanctuary; once housing a school of artillery where gunners lived and trained, the headland is now a sanctuary.

We stopped to talk to the guide in charge of the Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub Community Ecological Project, in which a group of local ecologists are recreating a habitat for the endangered bandicoot in the North Head area. Strangely, in a nondescript hut behind the presentation centre a gentleman is building a golden chariot for the British Royal Family (!).

We rode down the wilderness pathway, locked our bikes to a post, and headed down the metal walkway that winds throughout the North Head area, part of which travels over the old gunners’ walkway and seating area. We were intrigued with the many unusual indigenous plants here, including the Grey Spider Flower, the Heath Leaved Banksia, the Scrub Oak, the Grass Tree, the Red Mountain Devil, the White Flannel Flower and the Red Spider Flower, none of which we’d ever seen in North America.

These plants grow on wind-blown Aeolian Sand deposited in this area many centuries ago. Also along the walk we discovered the Third Quarantine Cemetery, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, with 241 graves from the 1890s small pox, the 1900 bubonic plague, and the 1918 influenza epidemics. A few of these still had legible headstones commemorating the mostly young dead. The site itself has a beautiful view over the harbour and the city of Sydney beyond; the gravesites are mostly tumbled-down, overgrown, and likely hardly ever visited, given over to the snakes and spiders.

Here’s more information about the North Head Quarantine area:

“North Head has long been recognised as the entrance to one of the world’s most picturesque harbours, Port Jackson, and has been portrayed by artists such as Augustus Earle from as early as 1825.

In particular, the Manly headland marks the site where ships carrying passengers with infectious diseases were isolated; an important means of defence for an island-nation. North Head was the first site in Australia to be used for quarantine purposes when the Bussorah Merchant was detained in Spring Cove in 1828. Some passengers were found to have both smallpox and whooping cough and were kept onboard the ship while the healthier voyagers were housed in tents on shore.

Soon after, in 1832, the whole area of North Head was set aside for a permanent quarantine station by order of the Governor of New South Wales. The move was in response to the cholera epidemic in Europe at the time, as authorities feared the disease gaining a foothold in the Australian colonies.

For almost 150 years North Head Quarantine Station helped protect Australia’s island nation from disease. Returning soldiers during both World Wars, prisoners of war, evacuees from Cyclone Tracy in 1974 and refugees from Vietnam in 1975 all passed through the station.

From its beginning until 1977 when the facility was closed, a total of 580 ships were detained and about 13 000 passengers, including generations of convicts, war veterans and free immigrants were quarantined for periods of up to 40 days.

Like the Point Nepean Quarantine Station, the facility at North Head is situated in a strategically isolated location. The major groups of buildings, although of a similar age as surviving complexes in other states, are rare in terms of their range and relative integrity. For instance, the Superintendent’s Residence at North Head, built in 1854, appears to be the earliest surviving, purpose-built, quarantine-related structure in Australia.

The layout of the station, including its buildings, roads, fences and cemeteries, was designed to separate the quarantined passengers on the grounds of health, as well as social and cultural background. For example, the first, second and third class passengers were separated into barracks-style accommodation in different areas.

Separate areas were also developed for Asians and in this respect North Head is an expression of the gradual implementation of the White Australia Policy during the 1880s.

The station’s facilities show how the area developed according to scientific responses to disease outbreaks. The smallpox epidemic of 1881, for example, resulted in new facilities such as a hospital, and stricter zoning by fences. The Quarantine Station was added to the Sydney Harbour National Park in 1984.”

Further into the Headland we found the Memorial Walk commemorating Australia’s participation in the Boer War, WWI, WWII, and more recent conflicts, as well as peace-keeping initiatives.

We also investigated the Number One and Two gun placement areas, with the remains of gun and shell areas from the Second World War.

Here’s more information about the site:

“North Head Sanctuary occupies the land of the former School of Artillery. The famous promontory of North Head contains Aboriginal rock engravings, rock art, campsites, burials, middens and artefacts. The island and landmark qualities of the area made it especially significant to the indigenous people of the Sydney region.

The military presence on North Head began in the mid-1930s as part of the coastal defence network established in the build-up to World War II. A battery of two 9.2-inch guns was installed in 1936. The main barracks complex and grand red gravel parade ground were completed in 1938 and today are a feature of the site. During World War II North Head (or North Fort) was one of the most heavily fortified sites in Australian history.

The Army School of Artillery, formed after the war, was based at North Head and remained there until its relocation to Puckapunyal in Victoria in 1998. The site hosts the Royal Australian Artillery National Museum, established in 1990.

Today, the former School of Artillery is being transformed into a sanctuary for flora and fauna, and a place of relaxation and enjoyment for the people of Sydney and elsewhere.”

Having ridden through most of the North Head we arrived back at the Parade Grounds and ate our peanut butter sandwiches while feeding the local birdlife.

Back on the bikes again we headed down to the Spring Cove, the trail to which required us to hoist our bikes over our shoulders and pack them in and out, the Little Manly Gas Works and Cove,

and the Manly Quay beach next to the harbour from which the Ferry to Sydney departs.

Here we had a front row seat at the Manly Wharf Hotel’s bar while consuming a Heffeweisen beer, after which we returned to the bike store, traded in our hybrids for city cruisers, and headed off to the Manly Market and the Coles Supermarket, before returning to the Waterfront Apartment in time for a pasta dinner. This was a really fascinating ride.

See more pictures here.

A ferryboat ride and a stroll through the gardens – Sydney!

Sydney – what a grand place! I have never had any inclination to come to Australia before and if we hadn’t had to travel here to catch our flight to Bali, I probably never would have come. But that would have been a mistake. Sydney, at least what I’ve seen of it so far, is beautiful. We arrived last night, being transported by Steve in his limo (!), at the Waterside Apartments in Manly, a lovely beach town about 45 minutes north of the city. According to Wikipedia, Manly was named by Captain Arthur Phillip for the indigenous people living there: “their confidence and manly behaviour made me give the name of Manly Cove to this place”…

Our home for the week is a studio apartment one block from Manly Beach – the location is fabulous, just off the Corso, a pedestrian area with many small shops, coffee bars, delis, restaurants and bars, and the Manly Wharf, with ferry service to downtown Sydney in 30 minutes. After having spent the last five days in a hotel, I’m really glad to have our own place – I like the anonymity of an apartment and, best of all, being able to cook our own meals. I do get tired of eating out. The apartment is small, one longish box with a small kitchen at one end and a large terrace at the other, but it suits us just fine.

This morning dawned slightly overcast with the promise of sunny periods (jeez, I do sound like a weather reporter …) and so, after a couple of cups of delicious coffee and pastries from the coffee bar around the corner, we headed out to check out Manly Beach. Along its length people were walking, running, skate-boarding, surfing and swimming. After Ty had picked up a new pair of flip-flops (his $8 ones having given up the ghost in Nadi),

we investigated the inline skate and bike rentals, determining that we’ll do that this weekend, and then headed towards the Wharf and the ferry.

After having purchased a weekly pass, we hopped on the boat and cruised along the coast to and through Sydney Harbour, passing the Opera House and Harbour Bridge and anchoring at the Circular Quay right downtown. Much of the land along the coast is undeveloped, with a long, low coastline and interesting shale rock formations with the occasional golden sand beach.

After getting off the ferry, we followed the Writers Walk, a 50 person bronze plaque trail along the harbourfront, including plaques for Robert Louis Stevenson and Jack London, took pictures of the iconic Sydney Opera House, and then entered into the Royal Botanic Gardens, an amazing park stretching out along the water.

Some philistine had parked his car on Umberto Eco’s plaque – the indignity!

The Botanic Gardens, established in 1816 and home to over 17,000 plant species, has, for us, really fascinating flora and fauna; almost every creature and plant we saw was one we don’t have at home.

Funny Ibis birds with long curved beaks, Noisy Mynah birds (cheeky beggars), red-beaked ducks with tiny babies (it’s Spring here), and other interesting varieties of birds captured our attention, as did the trees full of Flying Foxes, an indigenous variety of large fruit bats. These creatures have colonised several trees in the park, from which the wardens are trying to remove them, with little luck, as far as I can tell. The Mynah birds have incredibly sentient faces.

We were lucky enough to be able to check out the Artisans in the Garden art exhibition at the Lions Gate Pavilion, an interesting show of sculpture, pottery, jewellery, and ceramic art in a garden setting. Especially enjoyable were the silver sculptures of lizards and dragons whose alert faces and expressions really intrigued us.

After spending some time there, we wandered through the fern pavilion, in which beautiful varieties of tree fern were displayed – these are really amazing – and the Palace Gardens, whose sculpture reminded me very much of the Boboli Gardens in Florence.

We decided to venture into the Opera House and purchased tickets for the Tuesday night showing of Puccini’s La Boheme, which I’m very excited about. Satiated with grooving on foliage, we caught the ferry back to Manly, picked up some steaks to throw on the terrace barbie, and enjoyed a feed of red meat (first time on the trip for me – I’ve been eating mainly vegetarian). Mostly the prices for things such as cappuccinos, beer and wine, and groceries are more or less the same as in Vancouver, but some things are noticeably cheaper; for example, jars of peanut butter and jam are 1/5 the price.

Read more about the Royal Botanic Gardens here.

See more pictures here.

So long Fiji – leaving on a jet plane

Well – sayonara Fiji, hello Oz! We are off shortly to the Nadi airport for our afternoon flight to Sydney. Although we have mostly enoyed our time here in Fiji, the weather has not been great and, since we’re meant to be following the sun, and there’s no sun here at the moment, we’re happy to get on our steel horse and fly away. When we were researching this trip, the various articles we read online all said that Fiji’s rainy season doesn’t start until November. New Flash – it starts mid-September and goes until mid-April, according to the locals to whom we’ve spoken. The last couple of days have started out promising – with sunshine beckoning us at 6 am, but by noon the clouds have descended and the torrential rains come back.

Two days ago, we decided that we’d head out on the bus to check out Denarau, a “man-made” tourist island about 10 km outside of Nadi. This place has been carved out of the extensive mangrove fields and is home to a pier, with shopping, dining, a marina and boats to the off-shore islands, a golf course, several expensive resorts, and canals with large and expensive homes, complete with boat docks and boats out front. It represents a stark contrast to the down-scale Nadi town, from which all the workers take a bus out to their jobs. Denarau pier reminded us of Steveston, a similar kind of layout with fish restaurants and coffee and souvenir shops. This day the action was pretty quiet, since it was rainy.

Yesterday, in the morning sun, we grabbed the local Khan bus, whose driver was texting as he drove (aarrggh), and headed 6.5 km north of Raffles Gateway Hotel to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. Founded in 1977 by the 70s actor Raymond Burr, he of Ironsides and Perry Mason fame (remember them?), to house his own orchid collection, the garden has been expanded to contain Fiji’s largest collection of orchids and other exotic plant species. We meandered through the garden along scenic wooden walkways, past fish ponds with fish whose facial expressions reminded me of my cat Aran when he’s begging for food, and through a tropical forest, enjoying the sights and smells of the foliage. The “Sleeping Giant” refers to the profile of the mountain range that lies behind the Garden, although this can only be seen from a distance.

Since the bus only runs infrequently in this area, we walked back from the Garden to the main Queens Road and caught a bus down to the Smugglers Cove turnoff, hoping to spend a few hours in the sun on the beach. A man in a pickup took pity on us walking along in the heat and gave us a lift all the way down to Smugglers, where we enjoyed some sun until a thunderstorm chased us off the beach, into a taxi and back to the ranch.

See more pictures here.


Raffles Gateway Hotel, Nadi – waiting to fly

Nadi, Nadi, Nadi – not the nicest town, I’m afraid, but here we are in any case, for our last few days in Fiji. For the remainder of our time at the Beachouse, Ty and I walked for miles along the coast road looking for a change of scenery and finding it in  the Warwick Fiji resort five kilometers west of the Beachouse.

After a hot and sweaty walk, with no respite in sight, the “Approaching Hotel” sign was a beacon in the wilderness for Ty, dying of thirst.

Much more grand than our humble abode, the Warwick is huge, cavernous, and not unlike the gigantic hotels we wandered through in Waikiki. We made our way to the pool-view deck bar, sampled a couple of beverages, and then headed down along the beach to the souvenir stands run by the Korolevu villagers.

This day, being overcast and humid, the resort’s patrons were not interested in these goodies, preferring instead to consume vast quantities of chips and burgers (that quintessential Fijian dish) and the stands were bereft of customers. After perusing the jewellery and carvings, we strolled back through the village and were lucky enough to get a lift from one of the fishermen back to the ranch.

The last couple of days on the Coral Coast were rainy and we decided that we’d had enough of this particular venue, opting instead to jump in Hari’s van for a lift to Nadi, the site of Fiji’s international airport, and the Raffles Gateway hotel, conveniently located right across the street, literally, from the airport out of which we’ll fly to Sydney on Wednesday. Raffles has two pools, one quite large with a big slide, large enough to do some serious lap swimming which I proceeded to do.

The food, judging from our lunch, is decent and the place is pleasant enough; our room has a great shower with strong pressure and hot water, both of which we missed at the ol’ Beachouse. For dinner we headed into Nadi Town by local bus, about nine kilometers from the hotel. We walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seems depressed, desperate, and depressing – we won’t miss it when we leave.

Today, while overcast, was not raining and the sky seemed lighter so we elected to head out to the beach by cab. The driver dropped us off at the “New Town” beach – no new town was in evidence, nor was any beach – but the Nadi Airport Golf Club, of which the great Vijay Singh was a member and the club’s sole claim to fame, was there so Ty had a beer while we contemplated Vijay’s name on the members’ board as directed by the proprietor.

From there we walked back along the road and noticed a path heading off towards the ocean through a muddy field. We followed the path and – voila – the beach, along which we found, after walking a bit, a few small resorts, including the Smuggler’s Cove, in front of which we plopped ourselves in plastic loungers. Eureka – Nadi paradise found.

The few people on the beach were staying at Smugglers; along with them, the resort boasts three mangy dogs and a guy riding a horse accompanied by a lively cantering foal. As we enjoyed our coronas with lime, we watched two separate speedboats from the small islands offshore come in to the beach and disgorge their passengers; to me, being paranoid, it looked as though they were overloaded, but what do I know …

See a few more pics here.