Going Underground

Everything is underground in Coober Pedy, even us when we were there
Everything is underground in Coober Pedy, even us when we were there

We gave ourselves one full day in Coober Pedy and tried to run around and see all the tourist sights in town – two churches, the posh hotel, a museum, what amounted to a small shopping mall and a tour of the Umoona mine, which includes an inhabited dugout, and an older one, in its original condition – the Coober Pedy equivalent of living above the shop. In a way, the hostel was actually the most interesting place, as it has a sizable underground portion and was pretty empty when we visited. Coober Pedy was generally pretty empty, so we were alone in the churches too, which, being churches, tend not to give any impression of where they end, and seem to go on into the hillside indefinitely. It’s pretty interesting everything being undergound and its surprisingly easy to get used to the idea of living there – the temperature is always the same and its nice and quiet too. Opal mining is THE local industry and the theme runs through everything.

It doesn't look like much, but it does the job.
It doesn’t look like much, but it does the job.

We spent the afternoon driving around the desert to see the dog fence and the Breakaways. The dog fence runs all the way from the Darling Downs in southern Queensland, all the way across to Coober Pedy. Even people who thought a 5300km fence through the outback was a reasonable project weren’t mad enough to try and take it into Western Australia however. Somewhere in the west of outback SA, the fence turns south and runs down to the south coast near the Great Australian Bight. The objective was to keep dingos out of the pastoral lands south of the fence, to protect lambs. Since neither dingos nor lambs have really changed much since, the fence is still there, still maintained, and still protects lambs from Dingos. North of the fence, it’s a different situation.

Not far from the fence are the Breakaways –  a range of hills, rising, mildly from the arid desert. It’s an established tourist drive, despite being a 70km round trip on an unsealed road (rain isn’t a big problem here), with signs and lookouts, so you don’t miss interesting landforms like the two dogs. It’s feasible to walk between some of the lookouts, to get out into the desert among the rocks and shrubs. This is one of the reasons I consider Coober Pedy so accessible as an outback location – we had the breakaways almost to ourselves, and we drove there in a 2 wheel drive hatchback. We were back in town for dinner and to watch the sun go down at the big winch.

Another lovely desert sunset
Another lovely desert sunset

We found the major sights of Coober Pedy and the nearby attractions to be a feasible days sightseeing without rushing or skipping lunch. Without recent, major rain, the Breakaways road (which is around 70km as a simple loop) was comfortably passable with a 2wd car. If you’re OK with the drive there, Coober Pedy is a great place to visit, and a great stop on the way north. It’s actually the only real stop on the way from Port Augusta to Alice Springs, but its less than half way, so be prepared for another long drive!

Adelaide to Coober Pedy, the dog fence and the breakaways - all done easily in a budget rental car.
Adelaide to Coober Pedy, the dog fence and the breakaways – all done easily in a budget rental car.

On the road to Nowhere

There's not much to do along the Stuart Highway
There’s not much to do along the Stuart Highway

Ever since we had taken a trip down the Stuart Highway’s northern section from Darwin to Alice Springs, we had been hoping to find time to see some (or all) of the southern half – the more arid, desert region. We had also been plotting a return to the red centre, and after abandoning a plan to visit Broken Hill due to difficult logistics – not so many trains actually go through Broken Hill, we had selected Coober Pedy as our destination. By starting at Wilpena Pound, we had reduced the journey to a manageable one for a single day, joining the highway at Port Augusta, and then a straight road north with stops just for petrol at Pimba and Glendambo. Unlike roads in Britain, the Stuart Highway has long stretches of dead straight – so long and straight in fact, that it’s easy to drive faster than you think you are, as nothing really changes. We entertained ourselves through the 8 hour drive with the wonders of Bluetooth audio, and arguing about which rest stops to stop at – stopping at most of them to get out and look for red sand. We didn’t fint it, the red sand isn’t so much along the Stuart Highway, that was to come later, but we saw Emus with their chicks, and the gigantic, desolate landscape was enough for us at that time. Despite the 8 hours of relative tedium required to drive there Coober Pedy is actually one of the more accessible central Australian destinations, unless you fly to Alice Springs or Uluru. The red sands of Western Australia are a bit further from the CBD of anything, as we were to discover. All this driving was interesting (in a boring kind of way) in itself, but our main objective was Coober Pedy, a town of almost legendary reputation in Australian tourism. We arrived as the heat was beginning to dissipate for the day, and (after checking into our quiet, underground hostel) had a little time to explore the town. More than half the population genuinely lives underground, mostly burrowed into small rises, sufficiently so that there isn’t much room left to burrow any new homes. The town name comes from the local Aboriginal language, and means something like ‘white man in a hole’. Apart from the ones they live in, there aren’t as many white men in holes as there used to be in Coober Pedy, opal mining is only continuing at a very low level at the moment, and tourism seems to be the biggest industry for now.

The sun sets in the desert
The sun sets in the desert

The Good Life

After 9 months in Sydney, Adelaide was pretty different. It’s on a much smaller, quieter scale and feels a long way from the high rise cities of the south east. That could be something to do with the 2 hour flight required to get there of course. Knowing that there are huge tracts of sparsely inhabited land on 3 sides and the sea on the other contributes to this too. For some reason car hire is very cheap in South Australia and we picked ours up from near the airport, so we were able to transport ourselves around the way Australian cities expect you to. Adelaide airport does actually have a cheap bus service, but we didn’t use it, so can’t comment on it. After a stop for supplies and planning – and a visit to the Barossa reservoir dam – built to produce a whispering wall with perfect clarity – on the way, we headed into the Barossa valley itself. Australia has a well deserved reputation for the good life, and perhaps nowhere more so than South Australia. The Barossa is where it happens. Wines, cheese, dried fruit, pate, ice cream…these things are world class in the Barossa, it’s basically what they do here. A visit to the Barossa is a visit to a world where the objective is top quality in everything, exemplified by the food – which is great, because it allows you to buy some of it and take it home. And these are the wineries you’ve seen in your supermarket if you’re from Britain. If you like the wine, you’ve come to where it was grown and pressed, buy some – you already knew you liked it; now you’re a real connoisseur. Just as the wineries are inviting you in at their cellar door for a taste, so is every stall at the farmers market – that was good cheese, let’s buy one. Excellent dried fruit, but 200g or 500g? Hungry now, which sausages shall we get…let’s try them all before we decide. I wondered if so much free sampling would actually dent profits by allowing people to fill up on samples and lose their appetite. That was before I tasted the goods however. This was a farmers market on the next level up!

Wine is exported globally, but people come to the source from everywhere in the world too.
Wine is exported globally, but people come to the source from everywhere in the world too.

After the farmers market, and a great feed at the pub in Melrose, we were bush camping for the next few nights. This was, of course, Australian style camping, so no need for instant noodles or warm beer (or no beer!). As most of us were in fact, foreigners, the tents were camping style tents, but that was as far as it went. We earned our luxuries by a climb up Mount Remarkable, which made up for what it lacked in height and ruggedness by being under the blazing South Australian sun. We climbed it anyway and were down in time to have an awesome lunch. Mount Remarkable, at that time of year (October) at least, wasn’t seeing a lot of people climbing it, and for the most part, we were the only ones. It was a warm up for what we had planned for the next day.

We weren't quite the only ones on Mount Remarkable that day
We weren’t quite the only ones on Mount Remarkable that day

Not too much of a drive from Melrose, is the famous Wilpena Pound. This is a natural fortress, a patch of land surrounded on all sides by hills, with only low level gap. Here for the challenge, we climbed up for our first view of the pound, although there was some disagreement over what exactly we climbed. The plate at the top indicated that we had climbed Mount Ohlssen-Bagge, though that didn’t stop additional argument over what the other visible peaks could be. It wasn’t any cooler than it had been at Mount Remarkable, which may not have helped our ability to agree about things. Some of us spent a happy hour in swimming pool, some of us spent a happy hour in the bar, before a saunter through the pound gap to the historic homestead. The homestead has a few information boards up detailing the hard work of the early European settlers in cultivating and opening up the land at the pound. After initially breeding horses until the drought of the 1860s, the pound then found itself being used for farming, the furthest north attempt at farming at the time. Crops did grow here, probably due to the higher rainfall brought by the proximity to the Flinders, but efforts were eventually defeated by a huge flood at Christmas in 1914 which destroyed the road, built by hand through the Wilpena gap. This was the end of farming in the pound.

It was also the end of us at the pound. The next morning we were pressing further north into the inhospitable interior of South Australia.

A 2 Month Holiday?

I haven’t been on holiday for the last 2 months, at least not any more than at any point in the last four years – I’ve been hard at work preparing for the ski season – work, eat, sleep, repeat.

My limited “weekends” haven’t extended beyond eating cheese and crackers, and occasionally having a hangover. But with snow now abundant on our mountain – a new activity has appeared. I found that 6 months off from snow boarding didn’t have much effect, but 18 months did. I’ve forgotten almost everything except how to stand up! Good news is I’ve lost a lot of my bad habits and the muscle development that facilitated them, so now I’m just uniformly useless. Back to the beginner slopes for me, but at least there’s snow on those now.

Now I have time to work on my future plans (which allow for six weeks travel in November), I’m still going through pictures from out travels earlier this year, and now I should be able to start pumping out some more posts for this blog – so hopefully it’s back in business! In the meantime, here’s what’s keeping me occupied right now:

Having the run of Ruapehu's upper slopes
Having the run of Ruapehu’s upper slopes

These boots are made for walking

My walking boots; expected to survive 6-8 months of travel, finally thrown away over three years later!

It seems as a rule when travelling, the things you hope you’ll never have to replace will fall apart (shoes), get left on trains (shoes), or otherwise fail you (shoes)– while the temporary replacements, the disposables, the short term fixes – seem to last forever (looking at you, K-mart socks…). My already well used, five year old gore-tex hiking boots (£90 in 2007) were one such item. Not in the best of shape, I hoped they would survive the mud and dust of south east Asia and Australia, and perhaps still be of use for two months in New Zealand. They lasted fine, while a brand new pair of hiking trainers didn’t even make it out of Australia (OK, they were lost on a train – it’s not a quality control issue!). Two months in New Zealand and a trip round the south-west US destroyed another pair of trainers, but the hiking boots were fine, they may have even improved slightly. Fast forward another year of working on farms and ski slopes and exploring the backblocks of Wellington, and another pair of brand new hiking trainers had bitten the dust – but the hiking boots had survived. This has included four multi-day hikes, including the Milford Track (where it rained, as always). 8 months later, after several rain soaked hikes through the bush and volanic rubble of Mount Ruapehu, these boots finally came unstuck on the sodden clay of the the Hillary Trail on the west coast of Auckland. However, after repairs using superglue and a plastic bag (the plastic bag was accidental genius!), cured and dried in a stationary car – they were more than a match for Tasmania’s overland track, and have since completed several damp day hikes in the bush around Sydney as well. I finally wore through the soles while living in Sydney in middle of 2015, and the boots didn’t leave town when I did. Neither did the ones I bought in Taupo in May 2014! I did buy some $100 hiking trainers before I left, just for the six months of travel I had planned, they seem to be lasting well…

Showing their age, 8th November 2014 on the Hillary Trail, West Auckland
Showing their age, 8th November 2014 on the Hillary Trail, West Auckland

Rage against the machine

We usually rely on our travel cash cards when we’re travelling. They’re our main way of getting cash when not in a country where we have a bank account (the list grows). But what if an ATM were to swallow my card? When it happened in Dumaguette, it was a little different to the usual ‘forgot my PIN’ or ‘card no longer valid’ type of problem – this ATM crashed and began rebooting. If my card gets swallowed by an ATM, and the next person comes along and makes a withdrawal, then I know I’m not getting it back anytime soon. But nobody wanted to use this ATM, and I wondered what would happen when it finished rebooting – would it resume my session, time out, and eject my card? I decided to hang around and see. The ATM never seemed to successfully reboot, and it became obvious that the staff inside were working on it – we could see them through the cash dispensing slot! Occasionally they checked to see if we were still there, so I tried to see if they would tell me anything. An armed guard gestured me to continue being patient, without opening the door. I decided to continue being patient.

Eventually a bank employee came out of the bank, and I could see he had my card. He seemed willing to give me my ATM card, but didn’t seem comfortable just handing it over, even though he knew I’d been sat outside ever since the machine swallowed the card. I showed him my driving license, and he was happy to give me my card. A bit of an unlikely tale? Perhaps – I doubt it’ll happen again. I actually needed to withdraw money as we were going to Apo Island the next day and there’s no ATM there! The only other ATM nearby was one belonging to the same bank, but in a self contained system at a shopping mall – if it swallowed my card, I wouldn’t be getting it back. We decided to have a bit of an argument, and then go and try at the mall. We both had cards, so losing one was something we could cope with.

Before putting my card into the ATM at the mall, I decided the following:

  1. To make sure not to run low enough on money that an ATM could cause such a problem.
  2. To use ATMs at bank branches during business hours.
  3. To find out what happens to my card if it gets retained by an ATM.

After the ATM dispensed 10 000 Philippine Pesos, I forgot all 3 and went to have dinner. Probably sensible resolutions though.

This is as far as I could reach

And not for the first time either! Two years ago, we climbed from Turoa base area, as far as we could above the highest chair lift. This year I managed to get a little further. I’ll say I turned around when I knew I had to, to get back in time for my pick up – but about that time, the slope was steep and the going was slow anyway – all little rocks and scree and little solid to hold on to.

Upper slopes of Mt Ruapehu
Upper slopes of Mt Ruapehu

For those feeling like making an attempt on Mount Ruapehu from the Ohakune/Turoa side – here’s how I did:

I had a life up as far as the hairpin bend on the Ohakune Mountain Road, so it was only a ten minute walk up to Turoa base area. From there, I walked up the ski trails to the bottom of the High Noon Express chairlift, that took about 45 minutes. From there, I followed the line of the chairlift up to the Giant Cafe, and on to the top of the High Noon. That section took about 55 minutes. I’m not in great shape, and didn’t go as hard as I could, so those should be very reasonable timings. From the top of the High Noon, I headed straight up between the two tongues of snow – abandoning my ascent after about hlf an hour. Retracing that half hours climb took an hour, but the descent of the entire ski field only took a little more than an hour – although I was rushing to make up the time I lost coming back down so quickly.

It looks easier than it is from here!
It looks easier than it is from here!

For me, Ruapehu is a perennial failed ascent, it’s an enjoyable morning nonetheless. I wouldn’t attempt it after the first snowfall of the year, but this year it still hasn’t snowed.

During April, a good weather day typically isn’t too cold, and you can expect the temperature to stay above zero. With a wind below 40kph, I was able to try my ascent without the need for extra layers or thermals (the first time it was short and t-shirt temperature). I took thermals and a raincoast with me – it’s always a good idea as weather can change quickly with little warning here. As the ski field is closed from November to July, you need to take your own food and water as the cafes will be closed, and the streams are not safe to drink at high elevation (as far as I know). Perhaps the most important thing to remember, apart from staying within your abilities, telling someone where your’re going, monitoring the weather, etc…is to wave at Taranaki – someone might be waving back!

Wave, they might wave back!
Wave, they might wave back!

Shelter From The Storm

The best hostels and guesthouses in 6 months of travel

 Green View – Munnar, Kerala, India
This place is OK – but the selling point has to be the manager. This is Deepak, who doesn’t appear to sleep, knows everything about both Munnar and it’s connections to the outside world, and gives it to you straight, in terms you can understand. Go to Munnar with no idea what to do and see, stay here, and be looked after.

Backpacker Panda – Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
Prices may have risen in line with the Panda property in Goa, but when we stayed, it was about 200 INR/person. For that we got good dorm beds, hot shower, air conditioning, free laundry, a water filter, a rooftop, free internet, a kitchen and a lounge. It was of the standard of the best hostels in Vietnam and Thailand and the staff were friendly. They barely even tried to sell me an overpriced rickshaw tour!

India Guesthouse – Mumbai, India
This is run by some amiable Nepali guys and is essentially a cardboard doss house. Rooms start at 650 INR and the walls don’t go all the way to the ceilings. However this is Mumbai and they run such a flexible and helpful place that the walls shouldn’t bug you too much. Neither should the (clean) shared bathrooms or the multiple flights of stairs. This is an excellent location, you can walk to most of the stuff you want to see, and the atmosphere around check-in/check-out time is pretty social for a guesthouse with no dorms and no real common area.

The General Store, Anjuna, Goa, India
It’s all relative – they have simple rooms at average price, fan cooled and no hassle. Other places serve food, and probably would like to arrange a tour or something for you. Here they leave you alone. It’s on the ‘road’ by the church, back from the main strip – no constant offers of drugs or carpets, just a room to stay in. The only downside is no internet.

Gunu Paradise, Palolem, Goa, India
Gunu’s place is right on the beach, with prices to match some of the concrete cells in town. The quality of the establishment is somewhere in between, but at this price, you can focus on the genial management, the veranda just above the sand, and the easygoing atmosphere. Gunu will keep your beer cold his fridge, sort out trips (waterfalls, fishing, kayaks) on request, and plied us with prawns when we arrived. If you come to Palolem and want the location, but not the price tag, this is it.

Upcountry Guesthouse, Ella, Sri Lanka
Be warned, this place has limited rooms, and a shared, squat toilet. It may have hot water. The internet works though. ‘Welcome tea’ was the best I’ve ever drank, and fruit appeared in our hands from time to time too. It’s really a homestay with restaurant, and the family there are incredibly friendly. They actually seem to be pleased to see you!

The Travel Hub, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We’ve stayed here twice now, and bedbugs aside (KL has direct flights from Sydney), it’s a great hostel. The faces change, but the attitude stays the same – friendly and accommodating, reasonable beds, free breakfast, cheap bar, good internet, and all the help you need finding your way around KL and onwards.

Beds Guesthouse, Kuching, Malaysia
Malaysia sets a high standard with its hostels, and this one lives upto it. One neat feature is that the rooms cost double the price of the dorms, so if you’re a couple it’s an easy decision. They’re doing OK on the facilities and comfort side of things, but it’s another great staff that makes it – helpful and knowledgeable and straightforward. The location is pretty good too.

Kinabalu Backpackers Lodge, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
This guesthouse has a good location on Australia Place, and a friendly management. You can rent on of their lockers while you’re away in the mountains and jungles, and their ridiculously cheap, airconditioned rooms will be perfect when you get back. They even have a kitchen and free breakfast – and seem pleased to provide it all.

Pink Manila Hostel, Manila, Philippines
To be honest, this is a bit of a dump – the roof on the top floor dorm appears to be fabric, and the plumbing is hit-and-miss. But they have a good location in Malate, close to shops, an ATM and places to eat, as well as the LRT and a major jeepney route. It’s a 150 PHP taxi ride from the airport and they run a friendly bar with ridiculously cheap cocktails. It’s all about the character of the place and the attitude of the staff. This is the kind of place you can leave your luggage and come back in six months to find it still there. Who cares if the shower is a bucket?

Ronor’s Homestay, Apo Island, Philippines
Best, cheapest food on Apo Island and it must be some of the cheapest beds too. Ronor should consider increasing her prices as despite the basic conditions, it’d still be a bargain. From when you arrive, probably hungry, until she helps you arrange your passage back to Dumaguette, Ronor will look after you, and smile doing it. All the good stuff you’ve heard about the Philippines – it happens right here on Apo Island.

Born Free Hostel – Vista, Bangkok, Thailand
Probably not so special in a city of so many hostels, but since my preferred hostel in Bangkok got famous and raised its prices, and one of the best rated on HostelWorld has a string of bad, recent reviews (indicating a change of management), we tried out their neighbour. We weren’t disappointed. Friendly staff (from Burma, to add a touch of variety), fast internet, OK beds, aircon dorms, a nice lounge and warm showers (warm enough in Bangkok, anyway) and a Khao San adjacent location. It’s not too expensive and it’s pretty quiet anyway. Every negative point about my stay concerned the particular clientele at the time, hardly the hostels fault!

Context: The world of hostels being what it is, most of these places have probably closed, gone down hill, or otherwise become less than awesome. However, onto give my recommendations some context, perhaps you once stayed at one of these, once upon a time, they were great hostels too, perhaps they still are:

Backpackers Miyajima, Miyajimaguchi, Japan
Mozjo Inn – Nha Trang, Vietnam
Nomads, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Smile Society, Silom, Bangkok, Thailand – this one got featured in the AirAsia inflight magazine and has now raised its prices. Anyone know if its as good as it was 4 years ago?
Tree In Lodge, Singapore – not so long ago featured on http://www.bemytravelmuse.com
Alice Lodge Backpackers, Alice Springs, Australia
The Coastal Cow, Mangawhai Heads, New Zealand – they have an ‘honesty cow’!
Bamboo Hostel, Nadi, Fiji

What’s he got inside the case?

Well, it’s been six months since I left Sydney. I’ve driven around south, central and western Australia, and backpacked around northern Taiwan, western India, Sri Lanka, Borneo, the Philippines, Bangkok, and now I’m standing with my backpack in my new home in New Zealand (at least for now). My bag is a 65+15 Karrimor (so that people can tell I’m British) and I usually have a smaller bag as well. Lately these haven’t exactly been bursting at the seams. Before I spill open the contents and see what’s survived the trip and what surprises me by being still in there – here’s what I ditched, lost, or destroyed along the way:

Because we were driving, I had a pair of shoes, a pair of crocs, a snorkel, and some camping mats. We also bought an airbed, a tarp, and some other stuff in KMart but that doesn’t really count. Wandering around WA did pretty much destroy my shoes (I knew it would, that’s why I took them) although I actually ditched them and a ruined pair of socks in Jaisalmer.

Since leaving Australia, I’ve destroyed two shirts with endless sweating, getting wet in the sea, and general wear and tear. I sent a fleece home in the post after leaving the mountains in Taiwan (where it was actually cold – at least at night), I discarded a raincoat in Trivandrum because I knew I wouldn’t seen rain for the next few months after leaving there. I sent a sleeping bag home in the post after leaving Rajasthan, and I gave my spare shoulder bag (who has a spare shoulder bag anyway?) to a girl I met – hers was broken. I’ve also (lately) destroyed a pair of shorts, worn out a pair of flip-flops/thongs/jandals, and I lost at least one pair of sunglasses.

Everything else was either packed in the beginning, or bought along the way (so either I didn’t know I needed it, or I did know, or I didn’t need it – but I took it anyway!). Here it is:

Rucksack – 65+15 Karrimor Cougar This is a really comfortable bag and I’m glad I took it with me for overnight hikes in Australia and New Zealand. On this latest trip, it’s been good when having to walk any distance, but otherwise it’s too big and adds a lot of weight with it’s frame, and the big sack I bought to put it in on flights.
Day Pack – 25(ish) litre backpack I bought this on a market in London and while it’s been good, in general, I’d just buy a standard daypack and not worry too much about it – it’s likely to get worn out or stuffed inside other bags quite a lot.
Shoulder Bag I bought quite a tough Kipling bag in China (probably a ladies handbag but those get the biggest battering of all!). I bought a light, cloth bag in Mumbai and ended up giving the old one away – not worth the weight.
Foldable Pack This one is a Eurohike and our Kathmandu one is faring a bit better, but these things get a battering and have a short life. They’re very useful though and for some people, replace a day pack altogether.
Stuff Sack  Just to keep things a little bit segregated in my bag. I don’t have packing cubes and it’s nice for your room mates if you minimize the plastic bags.
‘Pod Sac’ Pack liner Supposedly watertight, the ‘in bag’ equivalent of like those dry sacs you see on canoeing trips. Ours would have got a proper test in the Borneo and in the Philippines…but we never actually capsized.
Rucksack Protector I originally had a lightweight sack for my bag to go in to protect the straps when flying. It was cheap and the zip broke, I bought a much heavier duty one in Hong Kong, which did a good job until it also took too much punishment. Just think what would have happened to my bag if it wasn’t inside! I bought a new, heavy duty one in Sydney, which is lasting well – but comes at the premium of it’s weight – just part of the snowball effect of having too much luggage.
Travel Pillow I’ve used sporadically on long journeys, probably better with inflatable one. It was free and I’ve never made up my mind to throw it away. One of the advantages of having a backpack with about 20l more capacity than is really necessary. Snowball effect.
Cotton sleeping bag Couldn’t afford a silk one. It’s good on trains in India and made do as a blanket until I bought one. I think these are worth having.
Blanket I kinda fancied a buying a nice blanket in India, and I used it on several bus and train rides, as well as in a few guesthouses that don’t provide sheets. It’s far from essential though.
Hiking Shoes This is my third pair in four years and they vary greatly in quality. These cost $100 in Sydney and seem the best of the ones I’ve had. I prefer to have a tough shoe but I don’t really want to haul around a full sized pair of hiking boots. These are a good compromise.
Loafers This is just me – I used them in cities, to avoid wearing out my hiking trainers on concrete. I probably wouldn’t recommend this approach to anyone else.
Insoles I aven’t needed them since I got rid of the shoes I used to use them in. I thought I might.
Long Trousers I’ve worn these everywhere I’ve been, but I know some people don’t even bother.
Vest Quick drying, minimal in size, for when you’d really rather not be wearing a shirt at all!
Linen Shirt I bought this in India and it’s been useful to have a proper shirt, going through immigration, etc.
Long Sleeved T-Shirt Less essential since buying a linen shirt, but it helps keep the mosquitoes off and I wouldn’t wear the linen on a long, sweaty hike.
3 T-Shirts 2 destroyed along way, 2 new bought in Bangkok. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll want to buy T-shirts I see along the way, so I shouldn’t bring many from home.
2 Polo Shirts It turns out these aren’t great in the tropics as they always seem to be made of such thick material. I thought it was a good idea, as I’d always seen people in the tropics wearing them and the collars protect your neck from your sun a bit. I won’t bother next time.
6 Underpants I usually do some washing in a sink before all of these get worn, but I wouldn’t want to have less than 4.
5 Pairs of socks It’s been a tropical journey, so some never even got worn. I’d say only 2-3 were ever in use. If I’d been in cold places, I wouldn’t have had enough.
3 Pairs of Walking Socks  These do get used, but I wouldn’t want to carry more than 3 pairs. Usually they get worn one after another on consecutive days until I have to reuse a pair, and then I won’t need them again for a month.
Towel I have a smallish normal towel, I’ve never tried one of those travel towels, are they any good?
Small towel That’s the polite description. It’s a sweat rag. If you don’t want to be covered in sweat or wipe your face on your hankie – this is what you get.
2 Pairs of Shorts I misplaced a pair of board shorts in Goa and replaced them, and wore out another pair and replaced them too. The stitching gave way on the replacements (you get what you pay for). The other pair I bought in India and haven’t worn much. If you have 2 pairs you can swim in, you’re all set.
2 Handkerchiefs Bought in India (threw the old one away) – often employed as sweat rags.
Hoodie/Sweater It’s heavy and not needed in tropics. I’d probably advise a fleece of some kind, you may come into contact with overly aggressive aircon (though not usually to this extent) or find places colder than you thought (Agra in December). It pretty much spent six months buried in my bag.
Scarf I bought one in India to wear on a camel ride as a turban. Europeans look cool doing that. Since then, it’s been a scarf, a blanket, and a poncho. Probably the reason my hoodie has stayed in my bag.
Rain poncho These cost about a dollar all over the world and don’t last long, but it’s good to have something like this when it does rain – especially at dawn or in the hills or something. It weights roughly 0 grams.
Cap I didn’t think I needed one, I was wrong – I bought this one in India. It isn’t a good cap.
Sink plug This isn’t necessary – you can always find something to stuff a plug hole with, usually the only reason to do so is to wash clothes, so just use those.
First aid kit I’ve really just used the plasters. Be careful with your painkillers, some countries consider them a narcotic.
Playing Cards Never actually played cards, not so easy to drop in a hurry.
Penknife I always try to have this with me, except when flying – then it goes in checked baggage. Great for opening boxes, cutting string, opening bottles and cans – I don’t think this is superfluous.
Camp mug Not used except when actually camping
A ball of string Used occasionally for impromptu washing lines in hotel rooms and tying flapping windows.
Travel Wallet / Money Belt Now very smelly, probably a decent idea anyway, particularly when on overnight trains and buses.
Headtorch & spare batteries  Good in hostels and on night treks
Spare Bootlace I actually broke both laces on my hiking shoes and had to replace them, they supply them with shite laces.
Bike Lock HippieinHeels advises this for overnight trains in India. We took note. One of us lost the key (fortunately the bag wasn’t locked to anything at the time, though it is now locked to the lock!). We did use them, but I’m not sure it was necessary. Doesn’t prevent access to the pockets, or stop slashing – does advertise that you might have something interesting in there.
Sharpie / Magic marker Write your name on your food in hostels. It’s good to put a face to the food you’re stealing.
Comb I haven’t found out what this is used for.
Torch It’s a bit superfluous having 2 torches really. Make sure you have extra batteries for the head torch and it should be enough.
Camping Cutlery set Not used except when actually camping
Shoehorn Never used
Instant Cold pack Never used – but I did have some back pain before I left, so it was just a precaution.
Filtering Bottle & 2 packs of filters I planned to use this with the Steripen. We didn’t use the Steripen and this bottle isn’t that great on it’s own. In fairness, it isn’t sold for travel purposes.
Novel You get the opportunity to swap for a new one quite often, there’s usually something.
Notebook Finished it, started a new one. I made a lot of notes.
Small notebook Kinda forgot this was in there and didn’t really use it.
Netbook + Power adaptor Our netbook is from 2011 and is getting a bit hard to keep running these days, but it still works, and I can plug it into an ethernet cable, type comfortably, and use USB storage. None of this is an option on a tablet without carrying extra components.
Quadband Samsung Galaxy I bought this in Los Angeles in 2013 – unlocked, for a price I never saw advertised anywhere else. It’s pretty outdated now, but I can still do everything I want on it and it’s not broken at all. I did buy a $5 case for it.
Panasonic Lumix w/ spare battery, separate charger and softshell case from ebay It’s the 2011 model and getting a bit worn out. It’s 12MP though and has a long zoom and isn’t too heavy. No lenses to change and I can leave the battery charging without leaving the camera unattended.
Steripen See my review.
Quadband Phone & Proprietary USB Cable This was my phone until I bought a smartphone, although I didn’t use it much, It works everywhere except Japan and South Korea. It doesn’t work that well, but it does it everywhere.
Solar Charger I didn’t use this as much as I should have. It’s probably not worth bothering with really, I’d be better off with a powerbank.
Samsung earphones Good for Skyping and take up no space
Folding headphones Only for those who want to listen to their music properly, or drown out other noises…
4 USB Sticks

4 Spare SD Memory Cards

Usually I get my photos, etc backed up into the cloud before I really feel the need to make use of any of these.

 

2 USB A-micro cables

USB 2A-mini cable

Micro SD – USB adaptor

USB Charger (US)

USB Charger (EU)

USB Charger (AUS/NZ)

Micro USB Charger (US)

Dual USB car charger

USB sound adaptor

I think it’s worth having a cable for (almost) all your devices – but not spares. USB cables don’t take up much space and sometimes you can plug stuff in, but not for long and you don’t know when the next opportunity will be, eg airports.
Prescription Glasses In their box, essential (to me). If you need them, you know.

 

Passport Best not left at security in Shanghai airport. Probably just me though.
Glasses Prescription Saves time if you know what you need. Useful for prescription goggles buying too.
Padlocks Have a couple of different sizes.
Carabiners String is usually adequate.
Several packets of instant noodles We kept hearing there was no food or it was horrendously expensive in some places. There was always food. We only ate noodles when we arrived somewhere with a kettle and no appetite anyway.
A packet of orange juice powder I saw it in a shop in Sri Lanka and bought it, as soft drinks are pretty expensive there, a least compared to India. We never stayed anywhere long enough to feel like using it.
Toothpaste
Shampoo
Toothbrush
Deoderant
Insect Repellent
Eye Mist
I’ve recently given up on trying to buy the best value sizes, instead going to the second smallest size. It’s going well, and we have less shampoo explosions inside our bags.

So there’s my entire inventory – I’m aiming to reduce it quite significantly for my next trip. It’ll be interesting to see how I do with less. Less clothes, less cables, less weight…

Apo Island In The Sun

It looks like a beach in the photo, but it isn't sand. That's not what Apo is about.
It looks like a beach in the photo, but it isn’t sand. That’s not what Apo is about.

It’s plenty hot on Apo, but this isn’t the beach to come to to lay on the bright white beach – that would be a waste of Apo’s real attraction. The island is home to a marine turtle sanctuary and the marine turtles are onboard with the concept. Despite the troubling practise of the local guides leading large groups on walks/wades across the seagrass and coral (a lot of visitors can’t swim – this isn’t a major obstacle here), you don’t even need to be particularly patient to find marine turtles of varying sizes, quietly tugging away at the grass, and gliding about in the deeper water. There are actually more turtles in the shallower water where the groups go, but around the fringes are also prime turtle spotting territory – we saw 3-4 simultaneously more than once. Because most people are visiting for an entire day, and aren’t marine biologists, and turtles don’t actually do that much, the excitement level is quite low and even on a weekend, there isn’t a feeding frenzy of turtle viewing and chasing going on. I found the most excited groups were in fact only excited about the fact that they were in the water and were in fact blissfully unaware of large turtles, often browsing a few feet away from them! Because of this laid back atmosphere, the turtles will be found well within paddling depth, which gave me the opportunity to take pictures of them without needing an underwater camera!

Turtles come to Apo to watch people, seems fair enough.
Turtles come to Apo to watch people, seems fair enough.

It’s easier to track down the turtles and anticipate their surfacing if you have one person below the water watching them, and this person gets to hear the turtle breath when it surfaces. Maybe it’s just me that thinks thats awesome. Three days on Apo and I never got bored of seeing turtles surface.

The main area for spotting the turtles is the marine sanctuary (the guide situation seems a bit fluid, see what it seems when you get there, they left us alone provided we rented fins off them – 100 PHP/day) but we also encountered a turtle repeatedly on the private beach just through the rock from the main stretch. Some people swim round the headland to this beach, some people simply walk through the gap in the rocks. Theoretically it belongs to the resort that’s on it, but in practise we found that anyone buying anything from their menu didn’t have to pay, and we didn’t even do that (in our defence, I only noticed the sign as I was leaving the beach – the second time!). The underwater environment is more fun here with deeper water and higher coral and rocks – the visibility is great and we watched the turtle swimming through channels and down deep before it eventually swam off into the ocean.

The resort beach - presumably the water is public
The resort beach – presumably the water is public
If you get bored of the beach, there are some short walks you can do enjoyably on Apo. We climbed up to the lighthouse on our last morning, which is at one end of the island and feels quite different to the busy beach. At the other end of the island, is a steep climb up to a lookout (with a nice, shady roof) – with a nice allround view, mainly of the sea.
The view from the top
The view from the top
Apo has an interesting situation with accommodation. There are two big resorts, and a few homestays. The resorts charge a over 2000 PHP/night. We stayed at Ronor’s homestay for 500 PHP/night in a double room. We were downstairs, and there are much nicer rooms with little balconies upstairs – all cost the same, so book ahead and try to arrive ASAP – a little hard if you go on Harold’s boat!  The food there is rumoured to be not only the best, but the cheapest on the island. Ronor knocks out great chicken adobo and curries of fish and coconut, with unlimited rice and included water, all for 150 PHP/person. Breakfast is included here too. Ronor’s is the best place we stayed in the Philippines and a top recommendation anywhere. She even sorted out our boat pickup back to Dumaguette by calling Harold’s for us – all part of the service.
The sun sets on our trip to Apo Island
The sun sets on our trip to Apo Island

 

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