Road Trip

Having signed off back in January, planning to sit back for the year and relax and hear of others’ travel stories in 2020, well me anyway, Anne having gone straight into a work opportunity for three months, why are we on a road trip in March?

The answer is three fold: first, Anne finished her contact early with the project being put on hold. Second, at the same time, friends wanted their 4×4 vehicle moved to Tasmania from Brisbane. We seized the opportunity to help our friends and to travel through central New South Wales (NSW), a region we have not explored in 32 years in Australia. Thirdly, it also gives us a chance to spend money in rural areas and while we are not travelling through any towns affected by the recent NSW and Victorian bushfires, we think that any spending on accommodation, fuel and food must be a benefit these communities often affected by droughts and floods. We also heard of a campaign to get people to take an empty esky or cooler box when visiting fire ravaged towns to buy goods there and help the local economies, what a good idea.

While COVID-19 is sadly playing havoc with most of our friends’ 2020 travel plans, we thought that the risk of travelling by car with a single domestic flight back was manageable and we could monitor the risk as we travelled. So far so good.

We are off, a fully loaded 4×4 with no space to spare as our friends have packed the vehicle to the max. Anne loves driving a 4×4 from all her years traveling in the bush across the Northern Territory and Western Australia. It is a good feeling, with the reassuring thump of the diesel engine in our ears, to be out on the road.  Anne has planned a route that will take in a number of points of interest and, hopefully for her, some camping.  Not so sure about that myself.

Ready to start the journey to Tassie

Our route takes us west from Brisbane and over the dividing range on the new Toowoomba bypass that opened during our last absence from Australia. Soon we are out in the country and come across recent fire damage and regrowth. Anne refers to them as “fuzzy trees” due to the new growth on the branches and trunks.  With all the regrowth, the fire damaged tree shapes are different to the undamaged ones, they could almost be different species.  We do find the flies seemed to have returned after the fires very successfully and swarm on us at every photo stop. We drive away with a cloud of flies in the 4×4 cab each time.

What the bushfires have done to southern Queensland
After the bushfire, life is returning

Green is definitely the colour, the roadside has tall grass waving in the breeze, the country is transformed from the drought ravaged brown, we have been used to seeing on TV since we returned, to a lush verdant landscape.  The rain and green also mean that kangaroos are no longer gathering at the roadside looking for the last remnants of moisture, which makes driving in the late afternoon a little more comfortable.  We also see no kangaroo carcasses on the roadside until we reach Victoria, courtesy of the rain. I was surprised how small the Murray river seemed when we crossed at Tooleybuc and the size of the multiple pipes in the river used for irrigation extraction. The Murray Darling basin water issues seem a little clearer to me now.

New Orchards with irrigation pipes under water,
500km from the ocean, is this rain about to get worse?

Goondiwindi, Narrabri, Dubbo, Narrandera, places that until now have just been names on a map or news article. We find that each has its own character and feel. There are people working to restore old buildings, add new attractions and provide services for visitors such as ourselves. As an example in Narrandera we stayed at the Historic Star Lodge, where we were hosted by Angel, who in addition to running the hotel, is in the process of renovating and expanding the hotel. She was superb and our experience was matched by others when you read their comments. 

Vast breakfast selection at the Historic Star Lodge, Narrandera
Art Deco Hotel in Narrabri
Old and new communications technology, Post Office building in Hay NSW

In Hay we met Craig, a grass watering local who had not taken out his Harley Davidson for some time. After talking for a while, the next day Craig was on his motorcycle and out on the road. It is great to connect with people as we travel and get a better insight into the local life.

The Siding Spring Observatory (SSO) is situated outside the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran in New South Wales, great names are they not? The location was chosen for its lack of ambient light. Situated on top of a mountain, a number of optical/infrared telescopes, Australian, Japanese and Korean, scan the southern hemisphere skies adding to our astronomical knowledge.  When we visited we saw no one apart from kangaroos, the 30 or so staff are probably all asleep since they have to work at night.

The 3.9m optical telescope, biggest in Australia
Inside the 3.9m optical telescope housing at Siding Springs
Spot the Kangaroo at Siding Springs Observatory

Having visited the home of the visible spectrum observatories, we more forward to discover what we can learn about the non-visible spectrum which is so much broader.  North of Parkes is home of Australia’s largest radio telescope, some 64 meters in diameter which became operational in 1961. Given its southern hemisphere location, it was used in conjunction with NASA for the Apollo Moon missions and various NASA and ESA deep space missions. In over 50 years, upgrades have made it 10,000 times more sensitive than when it was originally constructed.  You must turn off mobile phones to avoid potential interference, no mobile coverage here please

Main Radio Telescope dish at Parkes, NSW

We have always said that we believe that truck drivers are the some of the best and most helpful on the road.  Somewhere south of Forbes, an oncoming truck suddenly started flashing his lights at us, he had seen as I had, a car, two behind him, making an impossible overtaking manoeuvre, as I plan to detour into the field on my left, the errant car driver realises his mistake, pulls back in and normal service is resumed. Thank you truck driver.

Beautiful trees in the afternoon sun in North Western Victoria
Great food at the Royal Hotel, Sea Lake, Vic

We spend a couple of days in Western Victoria’s wheat belt, following the Silo trail which has amazing artwork painted on old silos.  Anne has written a separate blog as part of her  ‘Street Art Series’.

While in Melbourne we visited the Hotel Esplanade in St Kilda, known locally as “The Espy”, our Australian penchant for shortage words at play again. Originally opening in 1878, it was recently refurbished in 2018. The top floor hosts the cocktail bar “Ghost of Alfred Felton”. The bar reflects one of the hotel’s most famous guest, Alfred Felton who took up residence in 1891 and took over many rooms, knocking out walls, redecorating and changing lights and never checked out until his death in 1904. A business man who left half his wealth to women and children charities over 100 years ago. The other half of his bequest went to the National Gallery of Victoria which in 109 years has allowed the gallery to purchase some 15,000 works estimated today to be worth more than 2 billion Australian dollars.

Friends Gavan and Anna at the Esplanade Hotel in Melbourne
Anne trying a stylish pose!
Friends Rick and Jane in Melbourne

A weekend in Melbourne catching up with friends and then onto the “Spirit of Tasmania II” ferry for a very smooth sailing to Tasmania.

All aboard for Tasmania please

– Anthony

Winding down in Thailand and welcoming in 2020

After a hectic schedule over the last couple of months we were looking forward to taking it easy in the run-up to New Year’s Eve in Bangkok to welcome in 2020 with our friends Dave and Sky.

Chang Mai.  The last time we were here was on Streak and Storm in November 2014. Today we are flying in to spend a few days with our friends Micheal and Nuch. We first met Micheal in Myanmar in 2014.  They are waiting to wisk us across the city out to their new home in the countryside. They entertain us royally and we spend our time visiting some of the local sights and enjoying good food and company.  We even had an afternoon of food and music at a local cafe.  We had a diverse group of musicians, both Thai and some originally from as far away as Switzerland and Malaysia entertaining us with their renditions of good 60’s and 70’s hits.

Michael, Nuch and us in an Orchid Garden

Our visit with Micheal and Nuch is over all too quickly, but we need to get to ourselves down to Hua Hin before Christmas where friends have lent us a resort cottage. We plan to just veg and do nothing but relax, sleep and eat. Which we do. Apart from relaxing, we start on a list of activities that need to be undertaken when we get back to Brisbane.  By the time we leave the list has over 70 items on it.

Feet up over Christmas at the Spirt Resort Hua Hin

We are in Bangkok for new year to catch up with Sky, whom we knew in Manly but had returned to Bangkok to be with family. We and our friend Dave decided back in June 2019 that we would come and visit Sky for New Year.  Sky had organised a dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River which was a great way to see the city at night.

Dave, Sky, Lek and us on the river in Bangkok
Rama VIII Bridge in Bangkok

The rest of the time was spent visiting eating out, visiting silk stores and admiring the communication network wiring that festoons every pole in the city.  Seems there is no plan and extra cable is just left coiled up for future use.  Perhaps Australia’s NBN program could have learnt a thing or two about keeping costs down.

Nature and technology can co-exist
Anyone got the network diagram?
Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple Bangkok
Flower stall outside the Sri Mahamariamman Hindu Temple
A small part of the Bangkok Skyline
The King Power MahaNakhon Building with glass bottomed skywalk
You see something new every day

We had a quiet New Yearks eve with Dave, we celebrated with fireworks and single malt. The proper way to see in a new decade.

Happy New Year for 2020 from both of us
Happy New Year 2020 from Bangkok

An overnight stop in Singapore to collect the other suitcases from six months of travelling give us a chance to see the Marina Bay Sands resort and nearby 101 hectare / 250 acre Garden by the Bay. Amazing to find such a park in somewhere so densely populated as Singapore.  We had heard that the newly opened Jewel at Changi airport was worth a visit with the world’s highest, 40 meter,  indoor waterfall  aptly named ‘Rain Vortex’ as the centrepiece.  It certainly is spectacular and worth the detour even if you are just transiting Singapore.

Walkway in the Garden by the Bay, Singapore
Marina Bay Sands Hotel and me
Waterfall at Jewel Centre Changi Airport
What a wonderful six months

So what will 2020 bring?  Many have asked us what’s next. Our answer is we have no idea, except that we will visit family in Europe sometime in the year. We would like to digest this adventure first before making plans for the future. Streak and Storm are still waiting for us in storage.

Latest News: Within days of our return Anne had secured a three month project management contract and started work immediately.  Well done Anne!  I will be working, slowly, through the list of now some 80 items we wrote up over Christmas in Hua Hin so that will keep me busy. 

Welcome home flowers from Anne’s sister
Getting used to domestic chores again

What about your adventures? We want to hear from family, friends and readers of their holiday adventures undertaken this year.  Keep well, be happy and travel safely.

– Anthony

The Many Faces of Vietnam’s Scooter Riders

Our drive from Hué to Hôì An via the Hai Van Pass and the My Son temple was short but very slow: 8 hours to cover 165 kms.  We went through numerous villages and small towns along the way and the scooter riders’ face masks and outfits provided me with great entertainment.  

When we were last in Vietnam, in 2003, there were bicycles everywhere – carrying families, bicycles being pushed overloaded with mattresses, furniture or live animals.  Now, it seems most of the Vietnamese population, of which the median age is 30,  is riding scooters.  There are more cars now than back in 2003 and very few bicycles in cities, although kids and older folk in the country still ride them.  

Cyclist in Thùy Thanh

According to figures by the Ministry of Transport, there are 45 million registered motorcycles. For a country with a population of 96 million, the 15th most populous nation on the planet, that’s close to one bike for every two people and 25% more than was forecast back in 2013. Also, 95% of householders own at least one scooter and interestingly, there are as many female as male riders,  a lot more equal than in our society.

Scooters in Hanoi

No room for pedestrians in Hué, Vietnam

Cars on the left, 2 or 3 wheels on the right

I love how how relaxed the passengers are, and elegant too when riding side saddle.

Scooter riders in Da Nang, Vietnam

Elegant scooter riders in Da Nang, Vietnam

So many Vietnamese wear face masks, not just scooter riders.  Apparently, it is not only for the pollution or to protect others from their germs as they do in Japan, but to protect and keep their skin pale.  Many ladies also wear elbow length gloves, hats and goggles. Masks seem to have become a bit of a fashion statement with the young ladies – some even have ponytail helmets! While helmets are required by law, not all wear them.  Being ATGATT proponents, “All The Gear All The Time”, it doesn’t make sense to us when we sometimes see just one rider wearing a helmet and not the other passengers.  Maybe it is because they get in the way when there are more than 2 passengers.   

He’s safe but she’s stylish

Smiley face mask

Another smiley 🙂

Hi there little guy!

Ponytail helmet!

Helmets designed to allow for ponytails, Vietnam

Vietnam has the same addiction with mobile phones as everywhere else it seems as another common sight is scooters riders concentrating on texting, even through intersections…

Texting addiction in Vietnam too

And of course, one can carry just about anything on scooters.

Space for a second cylinder anyone?

Hang onto that mirror lady!

There is no limit to what one carry

How can she carry all this let alone see where she’s going?

Scooter in Hué

Baby carrier built into scooter

It would be really enjoyable to ride around Vietnam on one of those scooters one day.  In 2014, we couldn’t take Streak and Storm due to the 175cc restriction, and the laws have changed numerous times since so I am not sure of the latest regulations.  At the speed at which most traffic moves at, 175cc is plenty and motorcycle rental is dirt cheap, so who knows, maybe one day??

– Anne

Vietnam, a week in the middle

We depart from Singapore’s Changi Terminal 4 for the first time. What an impressive terminal, spacious and airy with 6 moving sculptures with computer controlled programs and their movement set to music.  The departure level has dedicated areas where one can doze on couches with the light dimmed.  Those airports that seem to think we should not be able to lie down and sleep while in transit and design seating accordingly should take note. 

Changi Terminal 4 sculptures
Adult seating Terminal 4 Changi

Our flight Vietnam Airlines was uneventful but we did notice that during the usual announcements that three times they mentioned that any passenger opening an aeroplane door would be subject to a 20,000,000 Dong fine. Something that only happens in Vietnam?

A clever feature of our arrival at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport in Ho Chi Min City is the issuing of stickers to passengers connecting to a domestic flight which allows ground staff to help direct you to the baggage drop off, which is not obvious, and then onwards to the nearby domestic terminal. While waiting to board our flight we notice that each gate has one or more “gate change” whiteboards.  Their use becomes apparent as one is used to advise us our departure gate has changed from 15 to 8.  At our arrival at gate 8 there they are writing on another board that the flight from gate 8 has moved to gate 7!

Our destination is Da Nang, where we are spending a week in the region visiting both Huế and Hội An to see the historic sights that each has to offer. It seems a little strange as we head to our hotel by taxi to be surrounded by two wheeled vehicles and not be riding on one. We had decided that we were not in motorcycle riding mode. Without our usual protective gear and in a more relaxed frame of mind, we would stick to four wheels.

The last few years have seen regular reports on the progress of developing software and hardware   for driverless vehicles.  It stuck me in both Da Nang and Hué as I watched traffic merging seamlessly on roundabouts without priority or incident and the myriad of directions that mopeds, motorcycles, cars and other vehicles come from that perhaps the software developers could learn a thing or two here.  Having said that with 14,000 deaths on the road and over half on motorcycles, there is probably quite a way to go before we see full automation on the roads.

We are surprised at the number of Christmas decorations we have seen and shops playing Christmas Carols both in Da Nang and Hué.  They are not here for us westerners, but seem to be be for local middle class and popular with children based on the number of small Santa suits we see. Not what we expected.

Locals out to see the Christmas lights and decorations in Hué
Christmas deliveries via Amazon Prime?
The three wise men at Christmas

The “Renunciation Express” a term used for trains that travel between Ho Chi Min City and Hanoi are referred to is our transport from Da Nang to Hué. While the distance is less than 100km by road the train takes some three and a half hours to make its way along the coast northwards to our destination.  What a feat of engineering: we cross gorges with water pouring down towards the beaches below, dive into tunnels as the track snakes along the lush green covered steep sided hills that seem to just rise up from the sea. The track turns so tightly I cannot see the front of the train most of the time.

En route to Hue

We also learn something new at the start of the train journey apart from the stirring music played for our departure, do not fill an esky (cooler box) with locally made rice wine and then try to load it onto the overhead rack without enough assistance because when it falls off, it does leak. Luckily not over us!  Use bottles next time.

Hué was the capital of Vietnam from 1802 to 1945 and home of the 19th-century Đại Nội Citadel, another UNESCO world heritage site and contains the Vietnamese Imperial Palace and another “forbidden city” along the lines of that in Beijing. Wonderful to wander through what was once the centre of power in Vietnam without huge crowds of tourists. While the Imperial Palace fell into disrepair after the abdication of the Emperor in August 1945 who vacated the palace, much of the interior was destroyed by fighting in 1947 and 1968.  Restoration been undertaken since UNESCO listing in 1993.

Main Đại Nội Citadel entrance, Hué
Part of the Imperial Palace Hué.
Detail of the Imperial Palace Hué
Foundations of buildings destroyed inside the Imperial Palace Hué

We also travelled into the countryside from Hué to visit the covered Thanh Toan bridge in Thuy Thanh Commune.  Made of wood with a tile roof it was built in the mid 1700’s and it is unusual in that it was funded by the wife of a local Mandarin for the benefit of the local people crossing the river. 

Wooden construction Thanh Toan Bridge
Good place for a rest, Thanh Toan Bridge

One aspect of Vietnam we enjoyed last time was the food.  We found then as now a wide variety of tasty options and that the price range between regular and  top quality is not as pronounced as in other countries. Do take advantage of the opportunity to dine well as we did.

Dinner comes with own extractor fan

To get from Huế and Hội An we book a car to take us via Lập An lagoon, with its mountain backdrop, Hai Van Pass, a spectacular road highlighted in one of the “Top Gear” episodes, Marble Mountain and then on to Mỹ Sơn an old 4th-14th century ruined Hindu temple complex. Quite a day of exploration with our car replaced by an 18 seater minibus for two of us. The tour company did offer us a 50% discount on the price, but we would have preferred the car for taking photos while driving.

Fishing boats in Lập An lagoon
Local women collecting shellfish by hand in Lập An lagoon
Looking north from the top of Hai Van pass
The two of us on Hai van pass
Perhaps we can remodel the entry to accommodate this statue, Marble Mountain.
one of over 70 temples at Mỹ Sơn
Part of Group D buildings, Mỹ Sơn temple complex
Countryside around Mỹ Sơn temple complex

Hội An once a thriving commercial and trading port has become a major tourist destination with offers of food, massage and bespoke tailoring called out as we walk around the town.  A little overwhelming for us who prefer the quiet life. A day and two nights would have been enough for us.

Lanterns on Bash Dang street, Hội An
Hoi An lanterns
Picturesque Hội An
Statue of Polish archaeologist and architect Kazimierz Kwiatkowski who worked for 16 years on the restoration and development of Hội An and Hue
Anne overlooking old wharfs in Hội An

While sitting in Anne’s favourite coffee shop, the Hội An Roastery, in Hội An she remarks that the old city of Hội An reminded her of Khiva in Uzbekistan with merchant shops below and storage or living space above.  It changes my view of Hội An, for I realise that what I have perceived a tourist hot spot full of shops selling clothing and souvenirs is probably little different from 200 years ago when Hội An was a busy port with merchants selling their wares to buyers. The only differences are that the goods now come by road rather than sea and the customers are primarily tourists, both domestic and foreign, rather than regional buyers from central Vietnam. It puts Hội An in a completely different light, and although not somewhere I would revisit, I am glad we have been here.

Japanese bridge at night, Hội An
Closing up shop using wooden slats. Hội An

Our last port of call is Hanoi for an overnight stop en route to Thailand.  Anne finds a great restaurant called Essence and we recognise places we visited when here in 2003. A little trip down memory lane.

Hanoi Opera

All in all a great week, the people, the food and the scenery.  All I can say is “ cảm ơn,” or “thank you” to all those people whose paths we crossed and made our time enjoyable.

– Anthony

Friends, Dali and Tapas in Madrid

And so, our family visits over until next year, we have begun our slow trip back to Australia.  First stop Madrid which I have skirted a few years back but never visited.  Luckily, after the UN Climate Change venue suddenly changed from Santiago, Chile to Madrid, I found an Ibis hotel centrally located and not too expensive and strangely, it turned out to be literally a few blocks from friends’ place.  A visit anywhere is always more enjoyable and interesting when you can catch up with friends and locals.

Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas opposite our hotel

COP25 water bottles handed out at Madrid underground

We hadn’t seen Jonathan (my old boss from the early 90’s) and Mercedes for many years but it felt just like old times, just continuing from where we left off.  Our first evening at one of their favourite local tapas and seafood restaurant was a fantastic start.  The next morning, Mercedes and I caught up to visit the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia – the entrance ticket I booked online for 10am was a little too early for Anthony so it was nice to have company and be able to discuss various artworks with Mercedes rather than going alone.  I feasted on the many Dalis and Picassos and other Spanish artists such as Miró.  The museum was fairly empty so it was wonderful to be able to linger in front of favourite paintings and enjoy the details, especially the Dalis.

Dali – The Enigma of Hitler

Close up of Dali’s – The Enigma of Hitler

A visit to Madrid would not be complete without visiting the Prado, Spain’s national art museum which holds the best collection of Spanish art and one of Europe’s finest collection of European art.  Like the Louvre, it is impossible to see everything in a single visit.  Anthony and I met after lunch and spent a few hours meandering through this massive museum, selecting the artists and periods of personal interest – otherwise, it is easy to become overwhelmed when presented with so many works.  

Here is my favourite one of the day by Dutch renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Snowy Landscape with Skaters

Close up of Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Snowy Landscape with Skaters

Having spent my childhood in Saint-Quentin, in Picardie, northern France, I had to visit the grand monastery and palace which King Philip II of Spain ordered to be built to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory at the battle of Saint-Quentin against King Henry II of France.  The Royal Seat of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, named after Saint Lawrence, the saint day of the deacon who was roasted on a gridiron for his religious beliefs, was built in the shape of a gridiron.  Scenes of the battle adorn ceilings around the monastery.  Pity I eventually found out photos were not allowed – the royal library is remarkable but sadly no photos allowed.

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain

Battle of Saint-Quentin, El Escorial

Unsurprisingly, El Escorial and surroundings were declared a UNESCO heritage site in 1984.

Sunday 8th December, yes the blog is very late, saw us taking a lovely drive out into the countryside with Jonathan and Mercedes, lunch in a small village restaurant followed by a walk in the woods.  

With Jonathan and Mercedes

With Jonathan and Mercedes

It is funny how we can be creatures of habit:  the hotel recommended a local tapas bar just a couple of blocks down the road on our 2nd night – it was so good, we just had to return to on our last night.  The same locals standing in their favourite spot, our table by the window waiting for us, obviously, the waiters and waitresses welcoming us like regulars.  We have the roasted artichoke with Pedro Ximénez vinegar and crushed cashew nuts again, talk about our plans for the future.  The food and atmosphere are fantastic.  An elderly couple, one of them with a walking stick arrive, the place is now full, so I give up my seat.  Time for us to leave.  “See you tomorrow night” one of the locals called as we left.  I felt sad we couldn’t explain we wouldn’t be back.  But maybe I didn’t want to try and explain it because it felt good to feel like we belonged in a place…  It really is time for us to go home.

At our new local – La Tienta restaurant, Madrid

Our new local – La Tienta restaurant, Madrid

And so, quick as flash, our 3 days in Madrid were over.  So much more to see and do on a future visit.

Next stop, Singapore for a few days, to see our godsons and our friend Alicia.  It is funny how we have been to Singapore so many times, but always to visit friends.  One day we’ll stay longer and do some sight seeing.  This time, it rained heavily so staying indoors was the best place to be anyway.  Connor at 13 years of age is going through the typical teenage silent phase while at 11.5 Connor is still as affectionate as ever.  Precious times with them all, pity Michael was away on business.

With Ronan, Alicia and Connor

We leave most of our luggage at our hotel for our return in 3 weeks’ time.  Vietnam next.

– Anne