22.10.2013 - 07.11.2013 29 °C
Ahoy there everyone!
Guess what...Lachlan and I are in Sydney, Australia! Our cruise ship, the 'Voyager of the Seas' docked at Circular Quay sometime before we woke up this morning, wedging itself between the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Opera House, providing us with spectacular and unique breakfast-time views from the Windjammer Cafe on Deck 11 and perhaps a bit of a shock for the early morning Sydney-siders heading to work. We hopped off the boat at around 8 am and made our way up George Street to the bus stop, totally enjoying the smell of Australia (a sort of damp dewy bush/gum leaf scent), the mild sunshine (much milder than in the tropics!), and the fact that not a single person wanted to try and sell us anything (e.g. breakfast, tuk-tuk or taxi rides, tours, suits or souvenirs....no-one hardly even looked at us despite the backpacks). Now we are installed at the YHA in Glebe for a couple of nights, before heading to Adelaide via Melbourne at the start of next week, arriving in to Adelaide Tuesday evening by train.
When I last wrote, we were still on our way to catching our boat in Singapore. To get there from Bangkok we took the train (narrow gauge, and consequently wobbly & rattly) south, heading down the long skinny bit of land shared by Burma and Thailand, which terminates in the Malay peninsula where the island of Singapore is nestled at the tip. The whole way the scenery was very beautiful, and there were a hundred shades of green. In the Thai part, bright lime green rice paddies surrounded the odd karst limestone hill clothed with bottle green forest, set against a backdrop of distant blue-green hills in the west. The landscape was predominantly flat and appeared flooded, with houses standing in water in some parts. High, dry ground seemed at a premium, both for living and farming, and ponds of water were packed with edible things including sprawling, bi-pinnate water mimosa flecked with small yellow pom-pom flowers, vines of trailing water spinach ('kang-kong'), and taro - conspicuous by its clusters of upright lily-shaped leaves growing out of the water, patterned prettily with pink. In the evening we caught glimpses of small monkeys (the size of brush-tailed possums) perched in the power lines along the train tracks.
Lachlan on the Sleeper train to Malaysia
The Bangkok train took us to Butterworth in the north of Malaysia. Here we swapped to bus travel, having already missed the one daily train to Singapore by the time we arrived at Butterworth's station. At this stage we had about 24 hours until we were due to board the boat in Singapore, so we opted for a bus to Kuala Lumpur (5 hours) where we then spent the night, followed by a further 5 hours by bus the next day to get to Singapore, leaving on the earliest bus - scheduled for 7.30 am. I had read about busses not always leaving when the ticket says, so I was not overly surprised when it didn't leave until 8.15am and then headed off to a different bus station in the city to pick up passengers before finally getting on the road at 9am. However, the main surprise was at the other end, when the bus didn't take us to Singapore precisely but to a bus station on the Malay side of the border, where it terminated in the bus station entrance, in the presence of immigration officials. Everyone had to get off and show their passport. Ours were glanced at and dismissed with the most dis-interest of any officials we had encountered all trip, but the officials then went on to detain and handcuff no less than four of our bus's remaining passengers. While we stood by wondering what to do next a taxi driver wandered over and told us that every day people are caught for travelling illegally. Certainly the people had passports in their hands...maybe they were fake? Anyway, we decided we should move on so we went in to the bus station and took a sort of local bus for the last bit of the journey...it went through the Malay-Singapore border in a series of hop-on, hop-off, hop-on, hop-off, hop-on stages, but it worked out fine and we made it to the dock in Singapore with half an hour to go until our boat's check-in closed.
I had been apprehensive about spending two weeks on a cruise ship, trying to dress fashionably, act posh and use the correct cutlery at dinner. However, we quickly worked out that while some people get all tizzed up and wear loads of flash jewellery, others get about in shorts and thongs...this second group just skip eating at the formal dining sittings and instead use the upstairs buffets for every meal. We did a bit of both. Luckily our cruise dinner seating was at a table for six where the two other couples were down to earth, and we all found enough to say to one another that many evenings we were the last table to leave the room. Lachlan and I spent our leisure time sorting trip photos, attending seminars in the conference room (topics included the monsoon in South-east Asia, dung beetles in Australia, and the philosophies of Confucius) and shows in the main theatre (various, including comedian acts, singers, a hypnotist, and an illusionist who actually made a lady disappear from the stage - she turned up in the audience), participating in a progressive trivia quiz (our team ended up in the top five after we won 25 points for being the only team to guess that 1935 was the year when Persia became Iran), going to the gym to use the treadmills (or exercise bikes if the sea was too rough to cut a straight path on the treadmill belt), splashing about in the swimming pools on the top deck, watching movies in the mini cinema on board or tv in our room, and going to the library to read or do jigsaw puzzles. There was also mini golf, rock climbing, and in-line skating on offer, and even real ice-skating at certain times of the day.
Because the 'Voyager of the Seas' was on a 'relocation' cruise, most of our time was spent motoring along at sea. After leaving Singapore the boat spent one day stopped at Port Klang in Malaysia (most people took a day-tour in to Kuala Lumpur; instead we caught a local death-trap style ferry to a nearby island to visit a Chinese fishing village where all the dwellings and footpaths were set on stilts in a mud flat surrounded by mangroves), one day at Darwin (where Zoe kindly collected us from the wharf, and allowed us the use of her car for the day so that we could have breakfast with Darwin people and visit work/friends/the storage shed/our tenants and get back to the boat with just enough time to call home while we still had phone reception), and one day in Brisbane (where we visited the mall to use the free Wifi, gate-crashed a horse auction and Melbourne Cup lunch at the CSIRO Ecosciences complex in order to catch up with friends working there, and ducked in to the Brisbane museum where we browsed an assortment of exhibits including a display of the various things that people collect (eg. number plates, neon signs, old tractors, rocking horses, matchboxes, padlocks, eggbeaters), arriving back at the boat with just enough time for a couple more phone calls to family.
For most of the cruise we were properly at sea , surrounded by water from one horizon to the other. Sometimes we saw other boats or cargo ships, but in general there was a lot of nothing but water. We did get a quick look at the tip of Cape York, passing between islands with low bluffs and sailing within sight of sand dunes and scrub on the main land for a couple of hours, but quickly we were heading away from the coast again in order to track down beyond the outside of the Great Barrier Reef. According to the captain, it is faster to sail on the outside of the reef because the water is deeper there, as well as the outer route being slightly shorter in distance. In addition, the ship only has about a day's grey water storage capacity, which is not enough to get it through the stretch of reef without having to discharge waste water. Despite all that emptiness of endless ocean around us, the weather was calm in general and it was easy to forget about being on a boat. However, the very last stretch of the trip, from Brisbane south to Sydney, was the roughest of the two weeks. On board it was hard to walk straight; going up the stairs was bizarre as one moment your body felt all heavy and dense and then the next step would be so light that you felt you might float away. Lachlan and I went outside to stand at the bow and look at the water. The sea seemed swollen and uncomfortable, like it had a belly ache. We watched chubby chocolate brown coloured (mutton?) birds winging their way over the water, somehow flying in tune with the rising and dropping swell without it ever wetting them. Our big treat was half a dozen dolphins, travelling together on a cross-trajectory with our path, just visible speeding through the water under the surface, and then arcing out of it for a second through the air, with perfectly smooth shiny dark wet bodies cutting an amazing contrast against the rough texture of the water.
4 m swells outside the ship causing 0.5 m swells in one of the ship's pools
Well now, I guess that is about it. We are back in Australia, having completed the overland travel from Helsinki in exactly fifteen weeks to get to Darwin and sixteen weeks to get to Sydney. It has been a whole heap of fun! And thanks to all of you who have kept in touch while we were away, it was always nice to get news from home. And extra big thanks for collecting our mail Zoe, and to Emily and Duncan for being travel buddies for part of the way (and for sorting out our car rego on your return).