The red-eye Jetstar flight from Melbourne to Christchurch was coming to an end and the plane had just lowered its wheels. Flaps were engaged and a few early bird lights of Christchurch were just coming into view, when the pilot suddenly gave full thrust to abort the landing procedure waking up the few passengers that were still dozing off. A small, but highly dense layer of morning fog had just settled over Christchurch airport causing the visibility to drop below its permissible threshold. Another loop and a few minutes later, the captain announced that our flight would be diverted to Auckland, all the way on the North Island, instead. Even though we were already quite used to Jetstar travel disruptions, this change of plan marked a new high in our list of “interesting” air travel experiences. There was no point in getting upset about it, so we decided to just roll with it and find out what our luck would have to offer for the rest of the trip. After a short stint in a depressing transit terminal at AKL, we were finally on our way back to Christchurch a couple of hours later. Our well-planned (we are German after all) itinerary had gone right out the window when the Jetstar airplane got scared of the fog and we had no choice but to give in to the general easygoing Kiwi attitude and roll with it. Utterly exhausted and sleep deprived we spend something very close to an eternity getting our ACE rental car in Christchurch, then some initial shopping for food supplies, domestic SIM card, and then we still had to drive 4 1/2 hours to Dunedin, our first destination on the South Island. Once again, we had booked our accommodation through AirBnB and felt obliged to inform our host of our unfortunate travel delays. It was a huge relief and welcome surprise after a series of annoying disruptions when we received Kirsty’s text message: “No worries, I’ll make some dinner for you when you get here.” It’s by no means customary or expected for AirBnB hosts to provide any cooked meals, but of course it was a godsend for us and the beginning of a lovely stay in Port Chalmers near Dunedin.

When we got up the next morning, well-rested and relaxed thanks to a wonderful dinner and most comfortable bed, we were greeted by a wonderful view of Otago Bay. Kirsty’s house is situated just outside sleepy Pt. Chalmers, an industrial, but charming small town near Dunedin right by the water shore with the backdrop of the Otago Peninsula. Kirsty had a great selection of local hiking (“tramping”) trails and so we set out to tackle the Highcliff day hike. Immediately we were struck by the beauty of the scenery and a sense of remoteness and adventure. The hike took us along the spectacular bluffs of the coastline, through thick grassy pasture, and past deserted cabins. Midway through the hike we reached a remote beach covered in large round boulders, appropriately called Boulder Beach. Sitting there, we watched a few seagulls go about their business of being birds, but otherwise enjoyed an untouched, pristine beach without another soul in sight. New Zealand generally has a remarkably well maintained network of tramps. Even so, you do have to explore the trails more or less on your own (with the help of a map) with no other hikers anywhere in sight. Instead we were greeted by lots of sheep and would wander about happily humming a Lord of the Rings cue while taking in the stunning landscapes - we found it to be the perfect activity to discover NZ.

The next day, much too soon, we had to leave Kirsty and beautiful Dunedin behind. We could easily have spent a few more days in the South, but it was a great first leg of our New Zealand travels. We loved the warmth and hospitality of sleepy Port Chalmers and couldn’t help but be enchanted by the beauty of the nature surrounding us. Walking in the woods it’s easy to picture fairy tail creatures hiding just out of sight. But beware, not all plants are as cuddly as they look, as Julia found out bumping into the local stinging nettle. With many new memories and pictures stored away safely we were off again.

After having been on the road for a couple of days around Coastal Victoria, we were eager to stay in one place for more than two nights in a row, and explore the cultural and urban experiences that the city of Melbourne has on offer. Sydney had been a bit of a disappointment for us mostly due to the bad weather, so we had high hopes that Melbourne would turn things around for us and our Australia experience. The weather played along this time (with a few exceptions), and we could enjoy walking around some of the cute and artsy neighborhoods like Fitzroy, Melbourne’s first suburb. The city definitely impressed us with its lively coffee culture giving us ample opportunities to complete our investigation of the differences between a latte, a cappuccino, and the Ozzie favorite, the flat white. After our caffeine fix and delicious pastries at De Clieu on Gertrude St, we would stroll around, discover the boutique shops, and indulge in people-watching. The selection of unique and funky pieces in hip local design shops (Julia) and record stores (Julian) was very tempting, but with limited budget and baggage allowance we unfortunately had to hold ourselves back and focus on the great coffee instead. Thanks to some insider tips from a few friends, we also got to sample the best parts of the funky laneways, narrow alleys in the CBD district, and had a few Victoria Bitters and some good ‘ol grub at Sister Bella to escape a sudden downpour. Melbourne also has a vibrant folk and singer-songwriter scene, so it wasn’t hard to catch a performance in a low-key Brunswick venue where all the patrons seemed to know each other.

Our luck had it that we arrived in Melbourne just in time for arguably the city’s biggest sports event, the Formula 1 Grand Prix. Julian took it as a sign from above and promptly decided that he ought to get a ticket. So we chose to split up for one day, and while Julia was taking a stroll along the Yarra river and got inspired at the National Gallery of Victoria, Julian watched fast race cars go in circles burning rubber and gasoline. It was a memorable experience for both of us though and we both returned happy to our lovely AirBnb accommodation in North Melbourne.

Despite all the urban excitements we nonetheless felt that we should get out of town for at least one day-trip, so we once again hit the road for an excursion to Phillip Island, about two hours Southeast of the city. The island’s biggest attraction is undoubtedly the colony of Little Penguins. Around 32,000 of the tiniest of penguins (they are only about as tall as a decent sized seagull) live in the waters near Phillip Island, and over 4,000 of them call the burrows around Summerland Beach their home. They spend all day hunting in the water, but just after sunset they return to the beach with remarkable time precision. In fact, the arrival of the penguins is such an event that the tourist information will post the ETA (estimated time of arrival) of the penguins for the day. Oh, and there are two giant bleachers at the beach for visitors to watch and admire the little buggers as part of a larger conservatory. It’s appropriately titled the “Penguin Parade” and here is the procedure: Visitors are advised to arrive about an hour prior to the penguin ETA to browse the gift shop, stock up on popcorn, and find their preferred seat at the beach. There will be a short introduction by one of the rangers, but other than that it’s mostly sitting and waiting for the first penguins to show up while the sun sets and the temperature drops. Before disembarking the ocean, the penguins will gather up a few hundreds yards from the beach to make sure everybody is ready. The penguins are extremely quick in the water, but the short stretch of beach up to their burrows is where they are the most clumsy and therefor vulnerable to birds of prey. So exposing themselves out on the beach is a big deal for such small creatures! As a consequence, they try to find their luck in numbers and will come out of the water in groups of maybe 10-30 penguins. The bravest and boldest go first, but even they will have a quick peak to make sure it’s safe. No, maybe not. Let’s try again… no, still not cool. Ok, here we go again. Nope, not safe. Again… You get the idea! Once they have finally deemed the beach safe, they will waddle up to their burrows in the dunes as quickly as possible. Since we were visiting during moulting season, some of the penguins had put on extra weight for a few weeks without food, which made them particularly clumsy as they struggled to keep up with the pack. It’s really quite adorable how they move about the sand and try to locate their homes. The conservatory has build wooden boardwalks that allow you to follow the penguins around a bit on their homeward bound quest. Unfortunately, taking any kind of pictures or videos is strictly forbidden, which is a shame, but whatever it takes to ensure the health of this largest of Little Penguin colonies is fine with us. We also had a beautiful beach and cliff hike around the island, but of course the penguins get all the credit. It was definitely a wonderful day-trip and a very memorable experience.

Finally then, it was time to say Goodbye to Australia and catch our flight to Christchurch, NZ for the next chapter of this incredible journey.

Fed up with the rain and looming cyclones in Queensland, we escaped to sunny and gorgeous Victoria on the Southeastern coast of Australia. Our disappointment about missing out on the Whitsundays evaporated quickly as we hit the road, rolled down the windows, and began to take in the beautiful coastline of the adequately named “Great Ocean Road”. Having travelled the PCH (Pacific Coast Highway) in California a few times, we were no strangers to breathtaking coastal highways, but the “Great Ocean Road” can certainly keep up. Winding it’s way past steep cliffs, small beach towns, and eucalyptus forests, we can easily see why it deserves its place among the most scenic drives in the world. And finally as we were making our way West, the sun came out and it would remain with us almost through the entire duration of our stay.

By the end of our first day on the road, we had made it from Melbourne to the famous “Twelve Apostles”, luckily and thanks to Julian’s brilliant driving, in time for a magnificent sunset. Originally the “Twelve Apostles” were known as the pig & piglets, but somehow that name wasn’t dignified enough for some and so Apostles they became. There may not actually be twelve majestic rocks precariously reaching out of the see, but that doesn’t matter when you take in the spectacular sight of them. Watching the waves constantly wearing down the rocks is at once calming and a reminder of the sheer power of the sea.

After spending the night in a hostel in sleepy Port Campbell we explored more of the many scenic sites along the Great Ocean Road. The coastal stretch near and around the Twelve Apostles is also known as the shipwreck coast. We stopped at many places that bore witness to numerous tragic wrecks and considered ourselves lucky to have arrived by plane. At one of the more notorious spots still stands the Otway lighthouse from 1848. It now contains a quirky museum and many letters and pictures provide a glimpse into the lives of its occupants at the time. It was, and still is, a very isolated place, and the stories of wives going mad, or assistants trying to stab their masters, doesn’t make it seem like the ideal work post. Wandering through the old residential house, we were surprised to discover that it now hosts a dinosaur collection that apparently had no better home. The collection came with its own talkative scientist, reminding us of the days before Australia got separated and dinosaurs ruled the world.

As disappointed as we were to miss out on all the underwater life in Queensland, the wildlife in Victoria quickly made up for it. We were excited to discover that the region is home to the largest Koala colonies in all of Australia. Spotting Koalas became a bit of a sport for us, and it is not as easy as one might think. Ultimately, they do rather resemble a grey furry bird’s nest up in the tree, and they move just about as much (the nest, not the bird!). When you do spot them however, it’s hard to look away and we would watch them for extended periods of time hoping for grand events such as an occasional scratching of an ear or looking around sleepily. Either way, we were utterly enchanted by their cuteness. Also hanging around in the trees, preferably near campgrounds, were parrots and parakeets of all colors. Spoiled by the occasional cookie, they’ll happily sit on your shoulder or arm if the price is right. Kangaroos and Wallabies are a different story. Especially at dusk, they enjoy crossing the road, and spotting them in time can be quite crucial. We tried to convey the concept of parallel hopping to them but they seemed unimpressed. At first we had a hard time knowing which kind we had seen, but that changed once we actually saw a Kangaroo. Unlike the darker, mouse-faced Wallabies, the Kangaroos’ face looks a bit like a rabbit, especially when it’s munching on some grasses. In the end, we had so much fun spotting Australia’s wildlife in the actual wild during our various tramps (Ozzie for “walks” or “hikes”), that we decided to skip the wildlife parks altogether. All in all, Coastal Victoria left a lasting impression on us and we were happy that we traded the miserable weather in Queensland for another memorable adventure.

The weather gods really didn’t mean well with us in Sydney, but little could we know that things could actually get worse in Northern Queensland. But first things first: we had done our homework to come up with a sensible route allowing us to see the best parts of the tropical North East of Australia as well as hitting a few famous dive spots. After landing in Cairns, we picked up our rental car and drove North to Port Douglas, a sleepy but cute little town offering the quickest boat routes to the outer reefs. Upon arrival though it dawned on us that the conditions really were against us with a forecast of winds up to 30 knots and 1-2 meter swells. After considering our options we ultimately decided to give it a shot and stocked up on fishermen’s grade Australian anti-seasickness pills. The ride out to the reef indeed turned out to quite rough and the poor tour guides were busy strapping on rubber gloves and handing out paper bags to most people in our group. It can’t be stressed enough how thankful we were for our meds, as we felt fine during the entire trip and could focus on holding on tight and enjoying the dives. Dive conditions at the Opal reef were alright, but not nearly as good as in Thailand or the Gili islands. Highlights of the dives were a giant resident Napoleon wrasse (pictured above) who came by to say Hi and be patted on his head, Nemo and his family (aka clown fish), beautiful corals, and a brief visit of a white-tip reef shark.

Besides scuba diving, Northern Queensland has lots of “above water” activities on offer, particularly the Daintree rainforest. We did our best to stay dry trying to catch the few hours without rain, but unfortunately that didn’t always work out so well as conditions can change very quickly. At one point we had just finished indulging in a massive cone of delicious ice cream and tried to burn some of those calories with a nice beach walk in Pt. Douglas. But all of a sudden the gates of heaven opened up and with no shelter anywhere close we got drenched within seconds!

As the days with high winds, cloud cover, and rain progressed, it became clear that our planned dive trip to the Yongala wreck off of Ayr would be cancelled. After Julian’s Bali Belly adventures this was already the second time we unfortunately missed out on diving an amazing wreck! So instead of taking the fast route to Ayr, we decided to drive to Townsville instead. Leaving Port Douglas behind, still hopeful that the weather might eventually get better, we took an inlands route taking us through the tablelands along beautiful scenery, which made up for the bad weather at least a little bit. Upon arrival in Townsville, we checked in at the most prominent building - the Holiday Inn! Lovingly called the “sugar shaker”, this slightly outdated looking hotel (with nice, modernized interior) actually offered us a really great deal on a comfortable room with a view. So we thought that we had broken our bad spell and had a good night’s sleep, only to find a bulletin board in the lobby the next morning. Posted was the weather forecast for the next few days with warnings for two tropical lows headed straight for our location. Later conditions worsened, resulting in a cyclone warning for the region around Townsville and the Whitsundays, our next planned destination. Oh joy!

Instead of letting these rather unfortunate events ruin our time in Townsville, we decided to make the most out of the actually somewhat decent weather and take the ferry to nearby Magnetic Island. The island offers some nice hiking opportunities as well as a couple of beautiful beaches that were an open invitation to take a quick plunge. Except - that we were still visiting during stinger season, which meant that you couldn’t actually take a swim without running the risk of getting stung by some potentially lethal jellyfish! Since we weren’t so much looking for daredevil activities, we opted for some serious bush walking instead. From Horseshoe Bay we walked inlands to the trailhead of “The Forts”, a highly recommended hike visiting an old WWII scouting and defense post. The old military facilities were certainly impressive, but the main attraction was to be found up in the trees: koalas! We spotted our first fluffy gray little friend snoozing (what else?) in a Eucalyptus tree branch right next to the trail, which was definitely a nice reward for all the walking. After “The Forts” we continued on another well marked trail back to Arcadia. Along the way, we had our second wonderful wildlife encounter as we saw our first rock wallaby hop along in the bushes. So cute! But this was just the warm-up for the grand finale at Bremner Point: as reported in our Lonely Planet guide, a whole bunch of rock wallabies shows up in the parking lot at 5pm sharp every day waiting to be fed by tourists! It’s unclear how it all started, but by now the wallabies are so used to the tourists that they will actually eat out of your hand. Feeding them is discouraged, because it has led to an unnatural growth of the wallaby colony and because the animals have certain dietary needs. But after some other travelers handed us a few pieces of dry animal food they got from a shop nearby, we just couldn’t resist.

So a long, tiring, but highly enjoyable day on Magnetic Island came to an end and we returned to Townsville. With the possibility of a cyclone encounter still high on the weather radar we now had to make the tough decision of either risking a couple of miserable days stuck in Airlie Beach as well as potential flight cancellations, or to abort our Queensland adventures and head to Melbourne prematurely. We really didn’t make this decision easy on us, but considering the weather information we had at the time, we ultimately decided to rebook our flight and leave the next day for Victoria. We were quite bummed out about it, because it meant that we would not go sailing and see the beautiful Whitsunday islands. But in retrospect it was the right decision and our next blog post will tell you why…

Our time in Southeast Asia had come to an end, and while we were excited about the destinations ahead, we boarded the taxi to the airport with a slightly heavy heart. We had a red-eye flight to Sydney and thought we had just watched the sun disappear behind Bali’s beach for the last time. But alas! Upon arrival at the airport, it quickly became clear that the island wasn’t fully done with us just yet, as our Jetstar flight to Australia was cancelled. Obviously, there are worse scenarios than being stuck on Bali, and so after some time spent in queues and in confusion, we found ourselves once again in a taxi headed towards Jimbaran beach. Jetstar’s hotel allowance turned out to be quite generous for local standards, and so we treated ourselves to a night at the Keraton Resort & Spa. Though the resort’s prime days may lie in the past, we still had a very enjoyable time and really couldn’t complain too much about this unexpected change of plans. The next day, back at the airport, we arrived early and left late. Again, there was a technical problem with our brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and we barely managed to get away once again. A significant portion of the delay was picked up as we waited for a signature to be exchanged via good old fax between Boeing’s headquarters in Seattle, the Jetstar office in Melbourne, and the Bali airport - much to a noticeably growing tone of frustration in the captain’s announcements. Though the plane was very comfortable and the crew tried their best to make up for the continued nightmarish experience - one day and five hours delay did seem a bit much in the end! Once we arrived in Sydney we were greeted by ridiculously long immigration and customs lines - partly due to our unscheduled arrival. It wasn’t until midday that we were finally able to say Hello to our friendly Airbnb host in the hip Newtown suburb of Sydney. We were exhausted, but excited to get started on this new adventure.

It wasn’t Julia’s first time to Sydney or to Australia. In 2006/7 she had spend seven months as an exchange student here, doing anything but studying. Coming back eight years later was a journey down memory lane, with many street corners bringing back long forgotten anecdotes and stories. Since Julia knew a few things about the city, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to see and do, and couldn’t wait to get going. One of the best things about Sydney is its beautiful geographic location. You really don’t need to go far to be on the famous beaches of Manly or Bondi, or in the tropical Blue Mountains. Sydney’s harbor is huge, and with so many attractions located by the water, getting places by ferry is half the fun already. The city has done a great job making walks and hikes easily accessible, so you don’t have to spend all your money in coffee shops and restaurants - unless of course, it rains. And while we were there, it rained in Sydney pretty much all the time! Most of our exciting plans got washed away with the rain, and the few times we attempted prolonged outdoor activities, we got wet quite well. We were painfully reminded of the difference between water-proof and water-resistant jackets once again.

Technically, spending a rainy day or two in Sydney is not a big deal. We really enjoyed the NSW art gallery and the quirky coffee shops around Newtown. Julian was eager to learn the differences between a latte, a cappuccino, and the local drink of choice - the flat white (It’s all a matter of milk foam and how it interacts with the espresso!). But there was one other thing we unfortunately had to discover: two coffees in Sydney cost us about as much as lunch and dinner for two in Southeast Asia. The difference in cost of living was quite startling and definitely something we struggled getting used to. Clearly, the days of splendor were over and we had to start paying closer attention to our budget. More easily said then done, when you have five rainy days in a row. We tried to keep our spirits up regardless and watched the weather forecast dutifully everyday. There was always a sunny day promised by the forecast like a carrot dangling in front of us, but all we got were a few hours of sunshine on our last day in town in the end. Even in the rain though, you can’t help but enjoy the beautiful parks all around Sydney, and the amazing birds that live there. Rainbow Lorikeets seem to be in every tree in the city, and on occasion they will even join you on an outdoor cafe table if sugar is to be had. Cockatoos rule the botanical gardens, especially at dusk. Julia, however says to beware of Cockatoo #55 (most have tags with numbers) in Hyde Park - it’s a cheeky one ;-)

After so much green, mountainous nature on Bali, we were ready to dive (quite literally) back into the blue of the ocean and the beaches. Initially, we had planned to spend a day of diving off of Bali’s West coast, but Julian suddenly got hit by the notorious “Bali Belly” and that settled that. While we never had any problems in Thailand, Malaysia, or Java, Bali is apparently a hot spot for stomach problems and 50-60% of travelers get sick at some point. So instead of spending the day exploring the underwater wreck of the USAT Liberty near Tulamben, Julian explored the insides of his stomach. Fortunately, we had a very comfortable accommodation at the Taksu Sanur hotel, and they helped us out with soup and some toast. A good dose of Pepto Bismol, lots of water, and hotel television ensured a speedy recovery.

Having heard so much about Bali’s beaches, we were left a bit unimpressed by Sanur. The beach is in parts only a sliver and not nearly up to the quality of Thailand’s beaches, although the 4km beach-walk is a nice way to get a feel for the location, and to see some of the old mansions built by early European ex-pats. Unfortunately, the beach is also lined with shops and and the ubiquitous calls: “yes? Looking here!” “Massage?” “Transport?” Maybe tomorrow?” - at times all from the same person! Venturing a bit off of the beaten tourist path, we did find a lovely local beach shack (“warung”), selling cheap bear, fresh coconut, and delicious Balinese pancakes. But as this is also most likely where Julian picked up his bug, we won’t praise it too much. In the end, we decided to make up for these disappointments by an extended stay on the Gili Islands off of Lombok’s Northeast coast.

The Gilis: three minuscule islands fringed by white sand beaches and coconut palms in warm turquoise waters. Spoiler Alert - it is as amazing as it sounds! Our first challenge was deciding which of the three islands would be the best fit for us. Scuba diving and glorious beach walks were on the top of the list, as was some level of comfort, since we already had had our fair share of “desert island” on Thailand’s Ko Kradan. We opted for the most developed island of Gili Trawangan (or “Gili T” as everyone calls it), despite its reputation as a party hub. It may be the most developed one, but there still aren’t any paved roads or motorized vehicles. So to get around, you can choose to either walk, bike or ride a horse carriage. Sure, the main drag is a bit touristy, but we quickly discovered that the days of endless parties and drugs fortunately seem to be over - at least that’s how we experienced the island during the wet season month of February.

Despite their proximity to Bali, the Gili islands have a distinctly different culture. Being predominantly Muslim and without major food sources, it’s the prayer calls from the Mosques and supply boat arrivals that dominate daily life. We still saw some traditional Balinese offerings here and there, but gone were the temples and the dogs. Gili T is mainly populated by cats and chicken, miraculously coexisting harmoniously. What didn’t change much however, was the friendly and easy-going attitude of the people that we had grown to love on Bali. Amplified by the relaxed vibe of a tropical island, we found the locals to be particularly friendly, chatty, and plain fun. Gili T turned out to be just the right fit for us: the beaches were truly stunning and there are plenty of beach front cafés offering delicious fresh juices and comfy spots in the shades to dream the days away. For us though, the main attraction was the warm, clear, and turquoise water, and everything beneath it. A casual snorkel expedition right at the hotel beach quickly led to our first turtle encounter, and many many more would follow. A truly magical experience! To go down deeper, we chose Blue Marlin as our dive operator, and we couldn’t have had a better time and better company on our underwater adventures. Going out in a typical wooden jukung (traditional double outrigger boat), we saw reef sharks, countless turtles, and all the tropical fish we could have wished for. Somehow, Julia managed to truly upset a very territorial triggerfish, who insisted on biting her fins, but at least the sharks were friendly and mellow. On our fourth dive, we went down to 30m only to find an unexpectedly strong current making it impossible to even get to our dive site. As we were about to cancel the dive, we looked up and saw a huge backlit shape gliding effortlessly through the water - kind of like a zeppelin. It was the first whale shark we’ve ever seen and it sure made up for all the troubles! Spending the first half of the day diving, and then relaxing in the afternoon was our perfect tropical island program. Despite it being rainy season, the weather was simply glorious, with the occasional tropical shower adding to the charm of it all.

We enjoyed a nice resort for the first three nights, but then opted for a more local and budget friendly option during the second half. Away from the beach front properties, local families rent out cute bungalows at unbeatable prices. And though they might not follow all Western standards, we had a great time and managed to shrug out shoulders at some quirks and mishaps. Our property seemed mostly run by a friendly 16 year old, who even brought us sandwiches and fresh pineapple juice every morning for breakfast. The terrace chairs were occasionally occupied by some local cats, but in Julian’s book that’s a plus! After stocking up on mosquito repellent burners, we even got to enjoy a Bintang or two in front of our bungalow while watching the stars. In the end, six days felt too short, and as the islands disappeared in the mist of the jets of our speedboat back to Bali, we promised ourselves to come back again some time.

Since the culture and the stunning landscapes around Ubud had left such a strong impression on us, we decided to dig a little deeper and venture out to the volcanic mountains at the heart of Bali. Our mountain retreat was off to a great start as we found a killer deal on Agoda for a cottage at Puri Lumbung Cottages in the small and picturesque village of Munduk. While our Lonely Planet guide did mention possible bus routes into this relatively remote area, we opted for the more comfortable and easy car & driver alternative once again. And boy, what a good decision that was: once we drove past the gorgeous lakes, the road got increasingly narrower, steeper, and scarier - no way we would have wanted to travel this route with a run-down minibus cramped with people, bumping into one another! Instead, we mostly got to enjoy the views of the volcanic lakes and daredevil locals zipping by on motorbikes at neck-breaking and without helmets along the way. Why most people seem to carry helmets, but not actually wear them, is another island mystery we were unable to solve.

We had made arrangements with Komang, our driver, to drop us off in Munduk, and to pick us up two days later for our way back and a bit of sightseeing along the way. So once we arrived at Puri Lumbung, we said Goodbye to him, knowing that he had at least four hours to go before he would arrive at his family home in Denpasar. This style of transportation still seemed strange and a bit awkward to us, but it ultimately was the best choice. All thoughts of transport and discomfort were wiped out immediately, as soon as we arrived at our two-story cottage in the middle of the rice paddies. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect and cozy get-away! The two-story cottage had a rustic and traditional feel to it, with wooden carved furniture and an old-fashioned four-poster bed covered with airy mosquito netting. But the best part was the view from our balcony as it was simply stunning and unlike any place we had been to so far. Rice paddies mixed with rainforest as far as the eye could see. As the day cleared, in the far distance, we could even watch the sun glistening in the sea at the northern end of Bali. Honestly, we could have easily spent days in our comfy chairs on the balcony watching the clouds move across the sky, and the smoke rising from little villages here and there in the valleys between the mountains. With only a few other patrons around, the serenity and peacefulness of this place was an open invitation to reflect on our trip and life itself over a beer or two. The atmosphere and calm of this timeless mountain village will hopefully stay with us wherever we go and it’s simply great knowing that this place is out there!

As tempting as it would have been to lean back and do nothing, we asked our hotel for a local guide to take us into the jungle. It’s not advisable to go out on your own as paths are not marked and walk-ways among the rice paddies change constantly. We were informed that guides come in 3 price categories: $6/hr for no English, $7/hr for a little English and $9/hr for good English. We choose the “no English” option and met a very nice and cheerful guide with perfectly fine English skills - go figure! Most likely we would have gotten him regardless of our selection, so for once we felt like we played the system well. Having a personal guide for our hike was great not only for finding the right way, but also because he was eager to point out most of the plants and fruits along the way. The variety of delicious fruits and produce that grow on Bali is simply amazing: coffee and coco beans, papaya, passionfruit, coconuts of various kinds, jackfruit, durian (of course), rambutan, mango, sweet potatoes, sweet and bitter eggplant, and the list goes and on. This is any food and fruit lover’s magic wonderland. Aside from the fruit, our hike also featured two impressive waterfalls, a warm rain shower in the afternoon while we were having hot coffee at a Warung, and many jokes about French tourists by our entertaining guide!

The next day we sadly had to say Goodbye to Puri Lumbung as our dependable Komang was ready to drive us to a few noteworthy sites more or less en route to our next destination, Sanur, on Bali’s Southeast coast. We stopped at Pura Ulun Danau Bratan (the temple on the lake), an important Hindu-Buddhist temple right at Lake Danau Bratan, and Pura Taman Ayun, which was the main temple of the Mengwi kingdom built in 1634. Both temples were certainly impressive and worth seeing, but they lacked the size and grandeur of Thai temples for example. For us, the spiritual side of Bali could be experienced best by exploring the small hidden temples among rice paddies and street corners, and watching the beautiful rituals of its people. Our day-trip had one last highlight in store: a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Jatiluwih rice fields. Even after all the lush rice paddies we had seen around Ubud and Munduk, Jatiluwih clearly beats them all. Despite the long drive along narrow backroads, there is no shortage of tourists in this area, but at least the big busses have not found a way to access the fields just yet. So we left the tourist cafés behind and went for a quite stroll in the magnificent rice fields watching farmers go about their business in this spectacular setting. This experience marked the end of an inspiring and eventful day deep in the middle of Bali, and we were ready to get back to the ocean and the beaches of Sanur and the Gili islands.

Long before we even set foot onto Bali we started to notice traces of the island’s magic: all you need to say is “and then we’ll go to Bali”, and everyone who’s been there will simply smile benevolently and sigh. “Ahhhh B-ahh-li.” Even though Bali is part of Indonesia, the difference to Java could not have been more striking. The reasons for the unique Balinese culture lie in its history. In the 15th century, the declining Majahapit Empire fled from invading powers and arrived with its royal court, nobles and court artist on the island of Bali. Isolated, their culture and religion flourished ever since to the point that it is truly unique and distinctly different from other parts of Indonesia.

During our travels we have been to many Hindu sites and temples, where we have picked up a few great stories and some basic knowledge of this ancient religion. On Bali it was all different. It is called the Island of the Gods and rightly so, as there are some 20.000 temples on the island. Traditionally, every Balinese family compound will have its own temple, where ceremonies are held, and where offerings are presented to the Gods and Demons multiple times a day. The offerings are usually beautifully crafted woven coconut palm leaf baskets containing flowers, grass, incense, and sometimes rice, other foods or some money. By placing the offerings either low for the demons, or high for the gods, the Balinese don’t ask for favors, but express their gratitude for the fortunes granted to them in life. This ceremonious act of giving has been inspiring and beautiful to observe. Along with Hindu mythologies, Balinese people believe in many demons, good and bad, and worship their land as well as their ancestors. For the locals their land is filled with magic and mystical powers. Walking around, listening to their stories, and smelling the wild mix of incense and herbs - it’s easy to believe that it’s true.

Our first stop on magical Bali was the artist town of Ubud, about an hour’s drive inlands from Denpasar. We had heard about the increasing popularity of this place and decided to stay away from the busy town center, opting for a more remote location instead. Looking over the rice paddies at Munari Resort with coconut palm trees swaying gently in the background, we truly felt the island’s spell on us. There aren’t enough names for the color green in the English vocabulary to adequately describe all the shades and tones we discovered by simply looking out the window. Clearly we had to get out there and the next day, we braved the heat and humidity for a wonderful hike through the hills and valleys. Within minutes, we were busy encountering magnificent butterflies, grasshoppers, and sweating more then we ever thought humanly possible. One can spend days just walking the countryside and taking it all in. Only a few minutes out of town, it’s possible to watch villagers go about their business as they have done for years and generations. One particular hike took us down a scary steep and slippery path into the beautiful valley of the Ayung River. As our guide book had predicted, it didn’t take long for us to stumble upon a local villager who was eager to guide us down the path for a few Ringgit. We were then informed that we would have to pay a fee in order to be allowed to pass through several private rice paddy fields along the river. Trying to haggle over the appropriate fee with an ancient farmer armed with the traditional curved knife without any English vocabulary whatsoever was certainly interesting. We were eventually allowed to pass and promised that the fee would be distributed among the villagers (yeah, right!), but just behind the next rice paddy we were greeted by an even older woman who insisted that we had to pay an even higher fee. Being squeezed for money by these farmers, certainly was a bit unpleasant and possibly a negative side effect of being a tourist. But in hindsight, it didn’t take away from the amazing landscape with intricate irrigation systems (thanks to Dutch engineers), palm trees, and gazillions of rice paddies.

Having been enchanted by the natural beauty around us, we were ready to appreciate the rich culture in Ubud, so we purchased tickets to watch a traditional Balinese Legong dance performance at the Royal Palace right in the city’s heart. After applying plenty of mosquito repellent, we found seats near the front in the truly breathtaking royal courtyard. In this most beautiful setting, the performance took us back to a different time, and exposed us to music and dance we had never experienced before. The rhythms turned out to be so inspiring that simply listening was not enough. The next day, Julian signed up for a one-on-one Gamelan music lesson with a local artist called Wayan Pasek. Situated in a traditional Balinese home it was a memorable afternoon that taught us a lot about the complexity and tonality of this wonderful music. Playing the traditional Kandang drum sitting in a awkward pose in 30 degree Celcius humid heat was not only educational, but almost physical excersise in itself. Strikingly, only very few of the accents of the Kandang Tungau rhythm pattern actually fall onto the beats (which would be common in most Western rhythms, particularly polka), so learning this multi-bar rhythm turned out to be quite challenging for a Gamelan novice like Julian.

Immersing ourselves in local traditions became a bit of a theme that kept us busy and amazed throughout our stay. Next up on the list was a Balinese cooking class. Beginning with a visit to the local market the class took us once again into the beautiful and airy home compound of a local family. All the Balinese people we met have been kind and generous hosts, always quick to laugh and to share their stories and wisdoms. The hosts of the cooking class were no different, and didn’t fall short to add some new hilarious slogans - like the “happy wife, happy life” rule that Julian will hopefully keep in mind! The best part about preparing local pastes, curries and sauces are the smells that fill the air as soon as you start grinding all the flavors like garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and chillies in the mortar. It’s hard work too and rightfully called the Balinese gym! The results were amazing and we hope we’ll be able to recreate some of the dishes back at home.

Our last stop on the cultural agenda was a return visit to a local painter we had stumbled upon in a village on one of our hikes a few days earlier. We learned a bit about the traditional techniques involved in his beautiful shop, and purchased a keepsake. But the best part about it was watching his young nephews learn the craft and keeping the traditions alive.

Ubud truly left us inspired and was a great beginning for our Bali adventure. Despite increasing tourism, the locals still keep up with their traditions, religion, arts and way of life. But the effects of tourism are impossible to miss. Especially on weekends the town gets terribly congested with motorbikes, bus loads of tourists and the inevitable, albeit somewhat charming, touts offering all imaginable services from transport to adventure sports. Looking for the less touristy Bali and some clean mountain air, we decided to continue our journey inlands to the less travelled mountain village of Munduk.

After having been cared for so fantastically by our host in Jakarta, we felt ready to venture out on our own and moved onwards to the city of Yogyakarta, or “Yogya” as everybody here calls it. Most people will know Yogya as the gateway to the magnificent temples of Borobudur and Prambanan. Naively, due to our lack of knowledge about Indonesia, we expected some kind of small town, rural atmosphere, only to find out that Yogya is actually quite a large city with a population of 2,400,000 in its greater area. Upon our arrival, we were immediately struck by the friendliness and hospitality of the Javanese people. Thanks to a great deal on Agoda and the fact that our visit fell into the second half of the rainy season, we had the pleasure of checking into the very new and luxurious Eastparc hotel conveniently located in close proximity to the airport and the Prambanan temple. Not only was our spacious room top notch, we were also presented with the most expansive breakfast selection we’ve ever seen so far the next morning. It was more or less impossible to not overeat considering the range of foods: from local dishes to Asian favorites, made-to-order crepes, eggs any style, juices, fruit, and delicious pastries. Too bad that we only had three nights in Yogya, so we ended up trying only a fraction of the spread, and we never made it into the lovely pool.

But that was all fine since we (like most other tourists) had decided to come here for some serious temple-visiting. First up was an excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Prambanan, a 9th-century Hindu temple roughly 17 km outside of Yogya. It is the largest Hindu temple in Indonesia, and one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. Within walking distance are several very early Buddhist temples, plus, there is the Ratu Boko palace compound just a short shuttle ride away. Once again, traveling in a place with only few Western tourists, we attracted quite a bit of attention and posed for more pictures then we could count. The smiles and genuine interest made it impossible to say no, so we just patiently played along. The best part was a group of local school girls who were “guides in training” and who volunteered to being our guides at Prambanan in order to practice their English skills. What they lacked in knowledge they certainly made up for with pride and determination!

While the Prambanan temple was quite impressive, we enjoyed exploring the various Buddhist temples by foot a little bit more, since we had them almost to ourselves. After a pretty long day of temple exploration we then were looking forward to return to our hotel, and figured that we would just catch a taxi at the temple exit or the main street. To our surprise though, there were no taxis in sight and after waiting next to the road for a while (no sidewalks of course), we started heading for the nearest market, hoping that we would have more luck there. Finally then, we discovered a shop sign that included “taxi” among several other services. We were greeted by a surprised looking boy who couldn’t have been older than sixteen years, and we assumed he probably was the son of the owner. Nonetheless, we asked for a taxi and after several attempts we were able to communicate our wish for a ride to the hotel. He then got on the phone and we imagined hearing a conversation somewhere along these lines:

"Dad, there are these two Western tourists here and they want a taxi to Yogya. What should I do?"
“Son, remember what I have taught you: never let the opportunity to transport some Westerners slip. You will have to drive them and we will make enough money for the next month. Just charge them ten times more than we normally would. This is your moment to shine!”

In any case and despite our concerns, we got into the car, which (not surprisingly) had no meter or any other features that would actually identify it as a taxi. The boy’s driving skills turned out to quite alright even though we basically had to lead him to our hotel ourselves. Thank heavens for our Indonesian phone card with internet so we could map the route as we went along, while using Google translate to come up with a few words of Bahasa Indonesia for giving directions. We did bargain about the price a little bit, but of course nowhere near as much as we probably should have. Trying to not get ripped off was the most difficult challenge of traveling Java more or less independently, particularly when it comes to transportation. Most hotels will suggest a car rental including a driver for several hours of the day rather than a metered taxi, which would be much cheaper most of the time. Since we didn’t want to be in a similar situation of trying to find a taxi at Borobudur, we shopped around a bit, but still ended up paying a lot of money for a car and driver for ten hours the next day to take us to Borobudur.

Observing sunrise at Borobudur is said to be a magical sight, and is therefor a popular attraction for tourists. But considering the weather forecast and our disappointing experience at Angkor Wat, we really felt that getting up in the middle of the night was not such an interesting prospect. So we chose to have yet another breakfast feast and headed out for the one hour drive to Borobudur at a more reasonable time. The Borobudur temple compound is a Buddhist temple built in the 9th century, which makes it quite a bit older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia (first built in the early 12th century). There’s a bit of a battle between these two temple sites going on in travel forums, but it is of course a bit silly and ultimately a moot discussion. Both Cambodians and Indonesians understandably take great pride in their respective temples, and they will tell you that theirs is the most magnificent one in Southeast Asia. Having been to both, we can say it’s certainly a difficult decision to be made. It was unbelievably hot and humid when we visited Borobudur, which made the climb to the top a painful experience. The views from the top though made up for the sweating, and the accomplishment of erecting such a glorious temple is truly remarkable. Ultimately, we found Angkor Wat a bit more enjoyable and impressive due to the sheer size of the whole area and its location amidst the villages outside of Siem Reap. A small, but nonetheless noteworthy minus point for Borobudur (and Prambanan for that matter) goes to the fact that one just has to feel like the Indonesians are trying to milk every dollar out of Western tourists. Having a two-tiered price structure (for locals and foreigners) is common throughout Southeast Asia and certainly agreeable, but having to pay as much as seven times the local rate does seem a bit too extreme. The icing on the cake was that the girl at the ticket booth refused to accept our US Dollar notes because of minor folds at the corners of the bills. With twenty dollars of admission per person for Borobudur, plus similar costs for Prambanan and the expensive car rental, our costs for temple visits easily exceeded the per-night cost of our hotel, which seems somewhat out of whack to say the least. The downside to all of this is that we really didn’t feel like spending any more money on gifts, souvenirs or food at the temple, which, from a marketing/business perspective, is an aspect the heads of the Indonesian tourism industry really should consider. All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our visits (ok, sans the sweating), but this aspect just left a slightly sour taste.

To wrap things up we asked our driver to take us to the city center of Yogya around Jalan Malioboro, the major tourist shopping street. Traffic was pretty bad along the way, although nowhere near what we had experienced in Jakarta. The city center definitely seemed like it was worth exploring, but unfortunately our arrival was greeted by what felt like the gates of heaven opening up. The heavy down-pour meant that we had to seek shelter most of our available time and resort to watching poncho-covered locals braving the weather on their trishaws. We only had three nights here before moving on to Bali, so we will have to explore the city of Yogya some other time. In retrospect, we were extremely lucky to actually leave Yogya by plane just a few days later causing airport closures and massive ash deposits. Phew….

In many ways our Jakarta experience was very different from the rest of our travels due to it being mostly a business destination for Julian. He was invited to present a workshop at the SAE Institute Jakarta to talk about music production and ribbon microphones. His Indonesian business partner did an amazing job taking care of us and our days were relatively busy with non-tourist activities. Because of that, we got a somewhat limited impression of Indonesia’s capital, but judging by what we saw, it was probably for the better.

We arrived in Jakarta during the aftermath of severe flooding, and we would regularly find streets and districts under water with make-shift bridges connecting buildings. The flooding probably didn’t help, but as a general rule of thumb, traffic in Jakarta is your worst nightmare - and that’s coming from two former Los Angeles residents! If you are at all interested in getting any sort of work done in Jakarta, hire yourself a driver, because that way you can at least utilize the time your sitting in stop-and-go traffic by writing emails. We had just an afternoon to explore a little bit of the city on our own, but that in itself was a daunting task. A busway system provides somewhat expedited travel along major routes, but it seems that the passenger capacity is nowhere near adequate what would be necessary to offer road congestion relief. Furthermore, it is quite apparent that Jakarta is simply not geared towards tourists that much, so navigating the busway system was quite tricky. Within our free afternoon, we barely managed to make it to the old-town Kota district with its old and weather-worn Dutch buildings to have lunch and get back to Central Jakarta

While walking the streets of Jakarta we witnessed shocking poverty and difficult circumstances of living still heavily impacted by the floods. By now it appears that this magnitude of flooding is something the people in Jakarta have gotten used to. Considering U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s urge for Indonesia to address their carbon emissions, it might be a problem that could easily worsen in the future. Since tourists seem to be fairly rare, our appearance drew quite a bit of attention among the locals, asking either if Julian was a professional photographer (with our Canon DSLR around his neck), or calling him Harry Potter! For once taking pictures of locals was not a covert activity, everybody and we really mean everybody noticing us, wanted their picture taken - undoubtedly hoping to appear in some magazine abroad.

Most of the other time during our business related activities, we experienced an upscale lifestyle of Jakarta that couldn’t be more segregated from the everyday struggles of the people we saw on the streets. A friendly driver would pick us up from our stylish boutique hotel that would have been at home in any major European city, and safely deposited us at either a secure office building, mall, or upscale coffee shop or restaurant. As it was our first time to Indonesia, Julian’s business partner did an excellent job of introducing us to the diverse and unique local dishes at several fine dining venues. Soon we had tasted many more varieties of peanut sauce and sambal than we ever knew existed. It was particularly interesting for us to learn how different the Indonesian cuisine is from the food in Thailand and Malaysia, and how the dishes and flavors vary depending on whether their origin is Java, Sumatra, or Bali for example. Having a local guide to this rich and flavorful cuisine made a huge difference and we soon grew to consider Indonesian food among our favorites.

The friendliness of the people, the hospitality, great food, and a surprisingly lively jazz scene made our Jakarta stay a special and highly enjoyable experience despite the traffic and sometimes unpleasant sights. Witnessing the hardships of the local people in this difficult time and the contrast between the two worlds that are Jakarta has given us a valuable insight into a very different way of life. We are looking forward to seeing more of this country’s wonders as we continue our journey through Indonesia.