Now that we had Noah’s Ark safely tucked into the Benoa Marina, we started looking for flights – and managed to find some reasonably priced flights from Singapore to South Africa leaving in just over a week’s time. This would give us time to prepare the boat for our departure, and get to Singapore. We were all very excited to be going home, to connect with family and friends and enjoy some land-time again before returning to continue our journey in the dry season.
There was only one problem – the erupting Gunung Agung. The winds had shifted, blowing the ash cloud towards southern-Bali and forcing the closure of Denpasar airport. How were we going to get to Singapore?
We decided to wait and reassess the situation after a couple of day. It sounds crazy – but we all worked 4 solid days to get the boat ready. The water-maker had to be pickled (so that bacteria don’t grow in the membranes), the outboards had to be securely stowed, toilets had to be flushed with fresh water, all the stainless and moving parts needed to be oiled, bilges cleaned, food given away and cupboards cleaned (to prevent insects from breeding), everything locked away … as well as a whole lot of admin. Marco also organised that Made would come aboard and start the engines once a week in our absence – so had to take him through the boat and explain the procedure, as well as problems to check for.
During this time, a cyclone was developing in the sea south of Java, bringing lots of rain and unusual wind patterns to Bali – blowing the ash cloud south west and closer to Denpasar airport. We even noticed that the rain droplets on the boat were slightly grey. Denpasar airport remained closed, and there was a growing backlog of people trying to leave Bali. After 2 days we suddenly heard the roar of jet engines and spotted the first plane coming in to land. The winds had shifted, blowing the ash cloud south east and opening a weather window for planes to fly in and out. We had to chuckle at some of the overseas news headlines: “Qantas sends Boeing 747 to rescue stranded tourists” – as if they were in a war-zone and their lives were in danger! Tens of thousands of Balinese were in makeshift shelters and their homes and livelihood were in danger, but shame, those poor tourists who had to spend a little longer in this beautiful island. I think it’s a healthy reminder that we’re not actually in control of everything!
Anyway, with all the chaos and uncertainty at Denpasar airport we decided to take a more adventurous route to Singapore – which involved driving to the north-west of Bali, catching the ferry across to Java, driving to Surabaya and flying from Surabaya to Singapore. This would give us a chance to see more of Bali, and even a bit of Java – and I thought this would be more pleasant than fighting frustrated crowds in Denpasar.
I managed to get Marco to whittle the surf luggage down to 1 board bag (with 3 boards in it) and 1 bag full of wetsuits, leashes and other surfing paraphernalia. Marco and I only had our old travelling backpacks from yesteryear on the boat – no space for hard suitcases! We didn’t have a big enough bag for the boys, so used a cheapie Transkei-trek bag for them, and piled their schoolbooks into a Bintang box. Together with hand luggage and computers, we were still pretty loaded – but thought we’d just manage carrying everything up and down stairs, on and off ferries, to and from airports etc in one go.
After finally sorting everything on the boat, we were picked up by our driver for the trip to the north-west of Bali. I had found a little B&B set up in the hills in Negara, only about 100 kms from the marina, but a 4-hour drive away due to the winding single-lane roads, and array of trucks, scooters and cars that meandered along them. It was a pleasant drive, becoming greener and more picturesque the further north we went. Big mountains provided the backdrop for vast rice paddies and coconut palm forests, with the ocean flanking us on the left. We stopped for lunch at Medewi – a known surf spot, and where a surfing competition was coincidentally being held. The swell was pretty small at the time, but Marco reckoned it was a beautiful long wave that would have been perfect for the boys.
The north-west of Bali is the least commercial, least touristy part of Bali – the locals say it’s how the whole of Bali used to be. It definitely felt like we were getting a glimpse of authentic village life as we turned off the main road and headed towards our B&B. We wove our way up and down village lanes, eventually finding a little track between rice paddies that ended at Uma Sari Resort.
It was a little haven in the most stunning setting. Our room looked out onto green hills and villages stretching out towards the ocean, and Java was just faintly visible in the distance. We had our own private pool – which we made use of immediately. The boys stayed at pool to relax for the afternoon, while I took myself off for a walk around the neighbourhood, armed with my camera.
I really enjoyed taking in the scenery, chatting to a couple of the friendly village kids, and admiring the ornate architecture and statues I came across. I narrowly missed stepping on a snake – a thin one wriggling right on the path in the front of me. I somehow hovered over it, endured the inevitable adrenalin rush that comes with encountering a snake, and vowed to wear sturdier shoes on every future walk. I also came across a collection of traditional marimba-like instruments set out in rows under a makeshift shelter at the top of a rice paddy. Perhaps they get together and play music here in the rice fields? What a wonderful place to play. I felt a little inspired and tried out a couple of notes on the unusual looking instruments.
The owners of Uma Sari cooked us a delicious dinner of chicken curry and fish kebabs, with various soups and salads on the side. We left the next morning, and organised a driver to take us the last 30 km to Gilimanuk, where we caught the ferry to Java. Java and Bali are quite far apart in the south, but are almost touching in the north – with the ferry ports only a few nautical miles apart. The ferry crossing took about 45 minutes – most of which was spent waiting for our turn to dock in Java. The wait was particularly painful for the boys as we were subjected to endless videos of cheesy 80s B-Grade love songs. Luckily the words were on the screen too, so we could all sing along while Noah cringed in his seat.
Josh got some dirty looks when he carried his Bintang box down the stairs and off the ferry – little did they know that he was lugging his schoolbooks, not carrying his parents’ stash of beer around! We all trundled off the ferry at Banyuwangi in Java, and now had to find a driver to take us to Surabaya. There are buses, but we were sick of lugging our bits and pieces from place to place, and were happy to pay extra to have a little more comfort and to take the more direct route. As always, Marco rose to the challenge – this time organising for us to be driven by a policeman. He was actually on duty – but when he heard what we needed, promptly took off his uniform, donned his plain clothes and agreed to drive us the 300 km to Surabaya!
Whew, what a looong journey that was! As in Bali (and probably most of Indonesia), the roads are pretty narrow and pass through numerous villages, wind around mountains and are used by an assortment of vehicles and people. It took us 9 hours to get to Surabaya. Big respect to our driver, as it was 9 hours of total concentration on his part. People drive pretty slowly in Indo (probably an average of 40-60km/h), but need to be completely focussed the entire time. Cars suddenly brake in front of you, pull in from the side, and overtake anywhere; animals and people wander near or into the road; trucks park right next to (or in) the road etc – and drivers just calmly anticipate and move in total sync with each other, it’s amazing! Hooters are used to warn others of an approach – and I have never seen any aggression or road rage, nor any accidents! There was probably little risk of our driver falling asleep with all the activity around him, but he must have been exhausted from 9 hours of sheer concentration! I did check his eyes in the rearview mirror now and then, and could see he was totally awake and focussed. Not only did he drive us there safely, but immediately left to drive the return journey back to his wife and child. Incredible!
We stopped for a late lunch at a roadside warung, and enjoyed the hearty, spicy fare on offer. During our drive I’d been Googling some places to stay fairly close to Surabaya airport. Due to it being a big city (the second biggest in Indonesia), there weren’t any cute B&Bs – rather big non-descript hotels. The Lonely Planet did mention a rather grand, colonial hotel called Hotel Majapahit, describing it as a “memorable place to stay, exuding class and heritage”. I wasn’t sure that we’d be exuding class and heritage after the long road trip, but I was keen on collecting memories – so we called them. Delightfully we discovered that they weren’t that much more expensive than the other hotels, and were still cheaper than the budget airport hotels in Brisbane. We still had a day to kill in Surabaya and it sounded like a wonderful place to relax and rest before starting our flights – so decision made!
We must have looked a little funny arriving at this grand hotel at 8pm, in crumpled clothes from our long car journey, loading the fancy golden luggage trolley with our Transkei-trek bag, old backpacks and Bintang box, but the hotel staff were welcoming and friendly, bringing us hot towels to dab our tired faces and welcome drinks to whet our parched throats. We had been upgraded to a Heritage Suite, with a separate lounge area adjacent to the bedroom. It was very luxurious and tasteful, with a real old world charm. I had a lovely long hot bath while the boys went for a late night jacuzzi in the spa (as you do).
Breakfast was one of those grand buffets, which the boys have not had the pleasure of experiencing very often. They thoroughly enjoyed sampling a bit of everything, including every flavour of yoghurt, most of the cereals, a full cooked breakfast, pancakes and baked goods. Marco delved into some of the local specialities – which included curries, stirfries and sushi (for breakfast?)
After breakfast we wandered around the hotel, and learned a bit about its history. It is actually a significant landmark in Surabaya, having been built in 1910 by the Dutch Sarkies brothers (the same people who built the various Raffles hotels). During the Second World War, parts of Indonesia were occupied by Japan – and the hotel was made the Japanese headquarters in East Java. After the war, the Dutch took occupation of Indonesia again and set up their administrative headquarters in the hotel. Meanwhile, the independence movement had been growing among the Indonesians who were tired of colonial rule. When the Dutch raised their flag on the hotel’s roof all hell broke loose, and Indonesian civilians stormed the hotel. It is said that they clambered up the flag pole and ripped the blue stripe off the Dutch flag, leaving only the red and white stripes – which has since become the Indonesian national flag. Soon thereafter Indonesia gained its independence, and various agreements were signed at the hotel.
We spent the day relaxing after our long trip. The boys enjoyed swimming in the huge pool, and I unfortunately spent the whole day in bed. I seem to have picked up a tummy bug somewhere along our journey (the first so far!), and felt drained and listless. Amazingly, I slept the entire day and can confidently say that the hotel has wonderfully comfortable beds! Later on the boys went to the nearby mall to upgrade our Transkei-trek bag and Bintang box, and then went for supper at one of the hotel’s restaurants, whilst I kept sleeping into the night. It’s a pity I couldn’t fully appreciate and enjoy the elegant surroundings and facilities, but was glad that I had such a pleasant place to rest in. I’m not sure what impression the hotel staff had of me – Marco and the boys were out and about whilst I was hiding away in the hotel room with the “Do not disturb” sign on the door all day, and when we vacated they would have found a very rumpled bed and empty Bintang box.
The next morning we woke at 4am to get the taxi to the airport for our flight to Singapore. I really felt my worst as I woke up – and kind of reached my low point lying on the bathroom floor retching into the toilet. All I could think about was how I was going to make the 3 flights, and all the queueing and standing that would inevitably be part of it.
Miraculously that was my lowest point, and I slowly improved throughout the rest of the journey. The airline counters were all empty and we could check-in immediately. There were no queues at immigration or security, we never had our luggage or body cavities searched, everything worked like clockwork! Marco and the boys did all the carrying and admin, leaving me to rest whenever possible. In Singapore I even felt like food, and enjoyed some delicious chicken soup (it’s good for the soul!). The Singapore airport is so jacked, and we found some lounger-style chairs where I dozed for hours. The boys were so excited for the Singapore-Dubai leg aboard the Emirates A380 – the biggest passenger plane in the world, and by then I had perked up enough to feel their excitement too. They all passed out during our horrible 3-hour layover in Dubai (from 1am-4am), and I was rested enough by then to watch over my sleeping chickens. 1 more flight, Dubai to Cape Town and we were finally home!
What an adventure to get home – but so many wonderful sights and lovely people along the way! With Noah’s Ark safely resting in Benoa, we can now enjoy time with family and friends before continuing our journey after the rains in 2018.