- Getting Spoiled in the Spoiled Paradise: The Philippines
- First Contact with the Last Frontier on Earth: Papua New Guinea
- Escape the Heat: Winter in Australia
- Aloha Time Travel, Aloha Hawaii!
- Reunion with Friends in the Continental US
- What’s Next?
The Philippines, a country which should be renamed as the ‘Fee-lippines’ didn’t live up to expectations. Yes, it’s one of the cheapest countries in the world but the value for money is quite low. Yes, people do smile but you are just a cash cow and it’s more of an exception to encounter genuine smiles. Yes, you can find nice beaches but pollution is such a huge problem that even the super touristy Boracay Island was temporarily shut down due to decades of non-sustainable tourism. In short, we had high expectations and the Philippines didn’t really serve up to par except for the stunning marine biodiversity. Luckily I happened to plan our month in the Philippines around the dive hotspots close to Cebu Island.
Our route and experiences in the Philippines were as follows:
Scuba, scuba, Malapascua, May 26-31, 5 nights
Malapascua, a tiny island known as the only place in the world to encounter Thresher Sharks year around, was our first step into paradise after spending the very first two nights in Cebu City. It’s a hassle to get to the island if you don’t arrange private transportation (it took us 8 hours in total!). Although I found visiting the island just for the Thresher sharks not worthwhile, the day trips to nearby islands were memorable. Gato Island stands out in my mind as the best dive site and Kalanggaman Island as the best beach.
Home away from home, Panglao, Bohol, May 31-June 13, 13 nights
Bohol is said to be one of the most diverse and adventure-packed destinations in the entire Philippines. It’s indeed a showcase of what you can find in the whole of over 7000 islands: Pretty beaches, jungle-fringed river adventures, waterfalls, caves, hills, and top-notch diving spots all in one place. Normally you wouldn’t have to stay that long to explore the island but since I had a huge open wound on my neck, we stayed at the Flower Garden Resort in Panglao for almost two weeks to avoid a nasty infection. And too, our Swiss-owned self-contained bungalow felt so homey with a French bakery, Italian pizza, Swiss restaurant, and Deli shop close by. As we finally were able to exit the loop, we hit the beaten and off the beaten paths on the island:
- We took a kayak tour on the Abatan River where we glided through nipa palms and mangrove forests and learned a great deal about the local ecosystem where eerie fireflies decorate the mangrove trees for Christmas, every night. Please do not join any motorboat tours! They destroy the mangroves, thus the fireflies.
- We joined a van tour around the island, where I did super(wo)man ziplining over the Loboc River and had loads of fun riding a water bike while others were having lunch at a floating restaurant.
- Pedaling hard on the water wasn’t enough, so I took a local jeepney to Tagbilaran City and went to Chocolate Hills Adventure Park (CHAP) to surf ‘n ride over the famous Chocolate Hills. There are far more activities on offer that you might spend easily a half day at the CHAP (that’s why it’s not part of the package tours).
- I met the sweeter version of the Gremlins at the Philippines Tarsier Sanctuary in Corella town (please make sure to visit only this one where they get the silence, space, and forest they require to survive).
- I dove around Balicasag Island and got super lucky to encounter a huge school of jackfish. One of those moments that reminded me why I love scuba diving (and wonder why I keep eating fish).
In my opinion, Bohol is a perfect place to base yourself but don’t expect picture-perfect beaches. Camiguin Island for that purpose was on my agenda but I had to skip it due to my neck.
Sardine run, canyoneering, hedonism, Moalboal, June 13-20, 7 nights
If it wasn’t for the sardine run, Moalboal could easily be skipped from your itinerary. But again as located on mainland Cebu, it can also easily be used as a base to do hikes up to the mountains or more refreshing canyoneering trips to Kawasan Falls. In Moalboal, you can snorkel with thousands, millions of sardines just offshore, or do an early morning scuba dive to encounter hungry Thresher sharks if you are lucky. I also dove the Pescador Island and found the reef similar to Balicasag but not as stunning.
If you are not an active type, you can watch turtles swim by while slurping your cocktail at one of the waterfront bars —what we did so very often here in Moalboal and got sort of spoiled after living a basic life in Japan.
We concluded our trip with another night in Cebu City to get a super cheap haircut and stuff before boarding an overnight flight to Port Moresby, PNG via Manila (June 21, 2018).
So, the bottom line is: if you are an avid scuba diver and don’t mind the slow and tiring travel within the country, you won’t be disappointed. Otherwise, either keep your expectations low or look elsewhere.
An important side note: Oslob on Cebu Island is famous for Whale Shark trips but having the opportunity does not mean you should seize it without giving it a second thought. Although we both loved the experience in Tanzania, we decided not to support this controversial activity in Oslob. The former fishermen, now called whale shark guides, feed the animals causing unnatural behavior, such as not avoiding boats and humans, and not migrating anymore. Check out my a bit lengthy article here to find out more about whale sharks and what a real encounter looks like.
Papua New Guinea is a fascinating country both naturally and culturally but let’s be honest. PNG is not for everybody.
PNG is a still-developing third world country and considering its incredible topography and geography, the country lacks not only core infrastructure but also budget accommodation options, making it a hard-core place for independent travelers. As a result, the majority of people visiting PNG bring a fat purse and have the experience of a lifetime on guided tours, and very few step outside their comfort zone and explore the country on a DIY tour (Who needs another backpacker Mecca anyway?!). As we belong to the latter group, Tom had no interest in visiting the country from the beginning on. Ever since we landed in Japan, we had been having several discussions and negotiations to make both of us sort of happy. In the end, I worked out a 2-week itinerary covering only remote island provinces of the country, away from the big cities with a bad reputation.
While I fell in love with the country even before landing, Tom would continue to loathe it. Long story short, I, unfortunately, Tom, fortunately, spent only a week in Papua New Guinea but with so many intense experiences that I surely will return to PNG before mass tourism spoils the fantastic people and nature forever. And I think Tom’s hate got weaker by the end of the week as he further had the chance to mingle and chat with the friendly locals. But I also think he wouldn’t return before mass tourism arrives—if ever.
The shortest but the most intense week ever in my new favorite country was as follows:
- Kavieng, June 22-25, 3 nights
- Boluminski Highway, Luakis Beach Bungalows, June 25, 1 night
- PMV (public bus) ride to Namatanai, June 26, 1 night
- Banana boat over to Kokopo, PMV to Rabaul, Volcanoes, German Colonialism, Whip Dance event, June 27-29, 2 nights
Every single moment was an experience in itself that I’ll be writing about PNG more in detail. If you are one of those very few people interested in this special country, you may want to subscribe to my newsletter. Who knows we might even go and have the adventure of a lifetime together next time!
Australia, a land of diversity, we actually hadn’t intended to visit at all but somewhat ended up visiting, despite all the advice from Australian travelers we met. “It’s boring, expensive, and not worth it,” they said. “Go to Indonesia instead and make sure to get far away from drunken Australians”. Firstly, we did not listen to them, and then we traveled all around but the East Coast, which was meant to be our main route.
We started off our 28-day-long Australian trip in Cairns, a place that we had decided to go after PNG while in the Philippines. Why? Simply because we’d already had enough of the heat and island hopping, and it’s just down the road from PNG. Our original idea of having a few days’ layover in Brisbane turned into a road trip from Cairns to Brisbane. But then we couldn’t find something that really excited us in the first place (okay, we are spoiled), and made the decision to see that iconic rock in the Australian outback before continuing along the coast as intended. So, were those Australian fellow travelers right? Read on to find out.
Cairns, June 29-July 3, 4 nights
Cairns is the perfect place for retirement and to base yourself to visit the Great Barrier Reef (corals about to die), UNESCO-listed rainforests, and even the outback (but not Uluru) with countless adventure activities on offer. After making my first acquaintance with drunken rude backpackers, I spent several days going through the flyers, guidebooks, and blogs and found only a mountain bike bungee jump unique and worthwhile. Pedal off the platform into the void, how cool is that?!? Unfortunately, I happened to be way too light for that activity (need to travel with a courageous tandem partner!), so we left Cairns to see the iconic rock in Central Australia with the intention of coming back to Townsville to dive the world-famous wreck of Yongala.
After covering a distance of 2120 km in 33.5 hours (two nights and a day) on Greyhound Bus, we arrived in the Red Center of Australia.
Alice Springs, July 5-7, 2 nights
Alice Springs in the Red Center of Australia appeared to be a small and pleasant desert town at first sight. But latest by midday, drunken Aboriginal people were roaming around. Apparently, they get kicked out of the pubs during lunchtime, so they hang around until they are allowed to re-enter and continue drinking. During the night it got even worse with streets full of youngsters fighting with each other. As we wanted to leave a pub by 10 pm, we were advised to take a taxi instead of walking the 1 km distance back to our hostel. PNG makes the headlines for being a dangerous country but no one warned us about this, especially Tom, who ran away from danger(!) to Australia. But apart from this sad situation with Aboriginal people being seemingly not well integrated into society, the Red Center of Australia is a unique place on earth and worth the long journey.
We spent here two nights before our camping trip to Uluru. On our free day, I joined a tour along the West MacDonnell Ranges that was not only breathtaking but also very educative. If I had more time, I’d have loved to visit the Desert Park.
Uluru Camping Trip, July 7-9, 2 nights
Honestly, witnessing the sunset and sunrise at Uluru, the largest monolith rock in the world, was not that high on my bucket list, but going with the flow made it happen way earlier than ever imagined. Despite the windchill, it was a stunning experience to watch the sky and the rock change color at dusk and dawn. And unobstructed views made the stars appear close enough to touch.
You can join any of the organized tours to Uluru, a far far away spiritual place of Aboriginal people, departing either from Yulara (the closest airport) or Alice Springs towns, but I’d recommend a self-driving DIY tour to make the most of your time at your own pace. The ‘organized’ tours are rushed and not so well organized, IMHO. On the one hand, they steal your time by picking up and dropping off people at the Yulara airport on the first and second days, and on the other hand, they rush through places not leaving enough time to enjoy themselves. What they offer is rather a been-seen-done experience that I am not keen on. It was still not bad, but ‘not bad’ is not good enough for your Royal Highness 🙂 Nevertheless, our camping trip in the Australian outback with two nights spent under the million stars blanket of the Milky Way was a memorial experience.
If you are not flying out, all tours return to Alice Springs towards 6 pm on the third day, so another night in Alice Springs is a must.
Coober Pedy, July 10, 1 night
After our 3-day camping trip in the outback, we hopped onto a bus towards Adelaide with an overnight stay in Coober Pedy. The dug-out underground desert town located roughly halfway between Alice Springs and Adelaide is one of the quirkiest and most unique places to visit in Australia. Should I ever return to a place in Australia, it’d be Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world. The next time I’d join a Mail Run tour for a day as well (available only Mondays and Thursdays). And who knows I might dig out my own million dollars worth of Opal too.
Adelaide, July 12-14, 2 nights
The only thing I remember about Adelaide is the Sushi Train next to the Central Market, and the quite high Asian population (which is also the case in Melbourne and Sydney). Awesome as we love Asian food!
Tour from Adelaide to Melbourne, July 14-16, 2 nights
From Adelaide, you can visit Kangaroo Island, known as the Galapagos of Australia. But in winter time, it made more sense to me to travel through the Grampians National Park and the Great Ocean Road (the winner is hands down Hwy1 in the US) to Melbourne. From this 3 days/2 nights trip, the Pink Lake and the wild Kangaroos stick in my mind, and the hike in the Grampians was also worthwhile.
Melbourne, July 16-18, 2 nights
Melbourne is a big city that frequently ranks first as being the most liveable city in the world. I would vouch for it in Australia or perhaps in the Southern Hemisphere but in the world? Nope. It’s for sure more pleasant than Sydney (not weather-wise though), but neither is my cup of tea. The reason enough is that it looks like people celebrate Oktoberfest every day despite the high prices of alcohol and they seem to love fighting, no matter white or black. Or it was just my bad luck being welcomed by drunken people in each and every place (except for Coober Pedy).
Just like our fellow travelers, we also seriously got sick by the time we arrived in Melbourne. Yet still, we were able to join a free walking tour (I’m Free Tours) and visit the winter night market. If we were fit enough, I’d have loved to visit the fairy penguins at St. Kilda Beach, where they are said to come out of the water at sunset in thousands.
Sick in Sydney, July 19-27, 8 nights
Another overnight bus journey of 12 hours while being sick was definitely way too much. I’ve learned to fall asleep easily when I am tired, but this bus trip was horrible. As we arrived in Sydney and our hostel room turned out to be the best we had in Australia, we decided to stay and stay until we were ready to move forward again. Eventually, we decided to skip the East Coast and all the beaches and famous islands there. They just didn’t seem attractive enough for us to justify another 24 hours on the bus. So, after a total of 66 hours (34+8+12+12) of mainly overnight bus journeys, we bid farewell to Australia.
This was our route. What else is out there? Darwin in the north is famous for its rainforests and saltwater crocs, where you can even cage dive with them (I save it for South Africa). Likewise, cage diving with great white sharks (saving for South Africa too) or snorkeling with whale sharks (done already) is possible in Western Australia. Oh, one should not forget to mention Tasmania.
All in all, I seem to understand the Australian fellow travelers but this country is really diverse and it’s worth a visit just to see the wildlife endemic to Australia. You just need to know what you want and make choices wisely. Not everything is worth spending money and time. BTW, don’t ever plan on driving long distances, as outside the urban settlements there is absolutely nothing, not even SOS signal reception. If you are not taking a bus for long-distance journeys, take a flight to a city to base yourself and drive around the major sights (or join tours).
Among all of the countries I’ve visited, Australia is my least favorite, it ranks last right after the Philippines. I am glad I’ve visited both countries, but I don’t need to return to either of them unless I get offered a fully sponsored trip.
A voice from the cockpit wakes me up in the middle of the night: “Aloha ladies and gents! Set your clocks 4 hours forward but the date back to yesterday. We’ve crossed the International Date Line.”
On Friday, July 27, 2018, we crossed the Pacific and did that crazy thing where you land before you took off! I get so very often confused while traveling. Not only days of the week, but also seasons, dates, and all the constant change totally messed up with my biological clock!
Anyway, I got a second chance but I forgot to play the lottery again. So nothing has changed in my ordinary life, though, the 32nd day of July, or the second time Friday, July 27, 2018, was more pleasant than the first one with the nice temperature, long sandy beach, and excellent water quality at the Waikiki Beach, Honolulu.
A trip to Hawaii, a far far away and expensive holiday destination that I hadn’t even dared to put on my bucket list, was made possible thanks to a super cheap flight deal from Sydney. What is Hawaii actually? The 50th and most recent state of the USA is a volcanic archipelago in the North Pacific composed of 8 major islands. Two of those are off-limits to visitors, and most people choose one or two of the remaining 6 for their holiday. We spent a total of 12 nights split among Oahu (July 27- July 31) and Hawaii Island (July 31- Aug 8).
Oahu is home to the state capital, Honolulu, and chances are you’ll land here from international destinations. We found Waikiki Beach and its surroundings very pleasant, so you could easily spend a few days exploring the island. It’s the busiest of all islands but if you get away from the crowds, you can still find secluded places. And there is the Pearl Harbour for history buffs.
Maui is said to have the nicest beaches, and the other islands, especially Kauai, are less touristy, more lush, paradise-like as we heard from fellow travelers. Our budget does not allow us to visit places just for their beaches, waterfalls, or tropical forests. So we skipped all but the Big Island, which also gives the Aloha State its name. If you haven’t been to Hawaii Island, you haven’t been to Hawaii 🙂
The Big Island has it all: Tropical vegetation, waterfalls, beaches (good enough even if not the best in all of Hawaii), the world’s largest collection of telescopes high at the summit of Mauna Kea, active volcanoes, extraordinary night dives, and more. On the Big Island, you can either base yourself in Kona or Hilo towns. As diving was the main draw for me, I picked Kona. The Big Island is quite big so you may want to consider renting a campervan to avoid driving back and forth around the island. Whatever you do, make sure not to miss out on the manta ray night snorkel/dive though!
Even though I could have remained in an endless loop of manta ray diving, lava chasing and stargazing on the Big Island of Hawaii, we made it to the Continental US on August 8, 2018, and had an awesome welcome party thrown by our friends.
Since then, we have been having a low profile in the Emerald City of the Evergreen State and it feels great to be home again💚 From time to time, we stayed in self-contained accommodations to avoid homesickness but without having the special people around, it wouldn’t feel like home. Now I realize why I felt homesick not for my own home but that of my parents or my brother. It’s not the place, it’s the people, and I am glad we have some special people in this part of the world, too.
To my shame, I had no idea that Seattle is such a green place with loads of outdoor activities on offer. Everyone complains about the shitty weather, so I imagined a grey city. Luckily, the weather has been quite nice that I could try SUP (Stand Up Paddling) on Lake Washington (it’s super easy, you simply stand up and paddle, that’s it!), go for a walk in one of the many waterfront parks, or do my lap swims in the heated ocean water of Colman Outdoor Pool. Having a sort of routine to exercise and eat healthy food felt awesome after so long on the road. But before it got too ordinary, we drove to Long Beach, WA for the week-long Washington State International Kite Festival that takes place on the full third week of August every year (Aug 20-26 2018). This event might possibly be the most interesting and phenomenal event I’ve ever attended. It’s worth its own blog post, so please be patient and check back later.
We’ll be hanging out with our friends in Seattle until we board our flight to Las Vegas on September 5, 2018, to meet our other friends from Amsterdam. We’ll then hit the road for a road trip —as usual, we have no set plans, just a rough itinerary in my mind. Sometime around early/ mid-October, we’ll eventually be heading to Mexico, fully recharged for a bunch of new adventures. I’m super excited about the second half-time of our trip that I’ve already started polishing my rusty and basic Spanish knowledge.