Adelaide to Melbourne on The Overland

The Overland train from the platfrom of Adelaide Parklands station
The Overland train from the platform of Adelaide Parklands station

Interstate train travel in Australia isn’t usually undertaken for convenience or because it is the cheap option. It is neither. Australia’s geography means long haul train trips are too time consuming to appeal to most and a trip on the Ghan or Indian-Pacific is ten times what it would cost to fly. Train travel in Australia is undertaken because that is the manner in which one prefers to travel.

The thought of train travel conjures thoughts of a traveling demographic confined to backpackers and the elderly with the occasional pteromerhanophobe thrown in for good measure. It is a world where men sport well-groomed moustaches and wear high cut pants or dress shorts with knee-high socks, gold rimmed glasses and comfortable shoes. Women opt for matching travel ensemble, scarfs, cardies and slacks. There isn’t a natural fibre in sight. Grumpy stooped back farmers smoke rollies, stay at The Vic Hotel and don’t drive in the big smoke. For long-term migrants – refugees from Northumberland, Newfoundland or Naples – stepping onto the platform brings back to memories of constant drizzle and warm beer.

I arrive at the Adelaide Parklands Rail Terminal in the pre-dawn gloom. It is two hours to departure but when one travels by rail ensuring it is prudent that you have time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast. A big day lies ahead of me, I am traveling from Adelaide to Melbourne on The Overland. With that thought in mind, I order a Full English breakfast and an Earl Grey from Choo Choo’s Cafe.

I sit with the morning paper and watch. Adelaide is the epicentre of Australian interstate train travel. It is mid-point of the Indian-Pacific (Sydney to Perth), the beginning of the Ghan (Adelaide to Darwin) and the end of the Great Southern (Brisbane to Adelaide via Melbourne).

The station has all the hallmarks of an airport: a sales and enquiries counter, luggage and check-in counter and copious seating but the atmosphere in the departure lounge is far more congenital. Maybe it’s the floral carpets or the elderly demographic but strangers interact, trade advice on blood pressure medication and reminisce about train journeys past.

As we inch towards the scheduled departure time people’s preparations for the journey ahead begin in earnest. A visit to the Train Shop is inevitable. A copy of the The Australian or Woman’s Day and a book of crossword puzzles is standard issue.

The Overland departs Adelaide for Melbourne every other day. The route has been operational since 1887. The original train is long gone but stepping onto the platform I am quite taken by our silver bullet with its Emu insignia, purple roof and blue racing stripe.

People find their seats and Rebecca from Great Southern Rail delivers an enthusiastic induction covering the blanket smoking ban, the drinks cart schedule, manual toilet operation (an electrical fault means you have to snib the door or risk exposure) and the bountiful fare available in the buffet car – the Matilda Café.

The PA falls silent as the train jolts to life. The slow rolling start elicits surprised excitement and collective calls of, “And we’re off”. A flurry of chatter about the joy of train travel follows, “This is all about the experience. You know…  chug-a-chug-a-chug!”

We roll out of Adelaide under a blue morning sky. The gentle shores of Glenelg recede from view during the slow climb into the bush of the Adelaide hills. Relaxing to the gentle rocking and rhythmic thud, squeak and grind it isn’t long before I have a decent snooze going.

I wake to the arrival of the morning tea trolley. White coffee was in high demand. I order a cup and glance out the window. The terrain has flattened out. Dry, rocky earth is only interrupted by the occasional tree or detention centre.

We rattle toward Murray Bridge. The town, imaginatively named after the first bridge built over the Murray River, hugs the river. Although it’s not the one we use, the original bridge still spans the river.

Mid-morning we move into a more densely wooded landscape. Gums, eucalyptus, stockyards and silos roll by. A small town comes and goes. Anywhere else Keith would be your uncle or a bloke you meet at the pub but in the South Australian bush it is a town like so many the others – pub, servo, shop, school, church and oval.

The railway, road and power lines run parallel in a trifecta of straight lines. A seemingly endless series of farms rush by as we head into the wheat belt. I take a walk to stretch my legs and I stop to stare out the window. I try to imagine what it would be like live in sheep country beholden to the whims of nature.

The passage from South Australia to Victoria at Bordertown wipes 30 minutes off our lives and brings us in line with Eastern Standard Time. My fellow travellers pass the time on a crossword, book or sleeping. Others stare wishfully at the dry fields and blue skies of southern Australia.

The rusted corrugated iron roofs and frontages of Nhill slip past before we stop at Dimboola. A two-minute pause allows a driver change. People flood off the train for half a cigarette. There isn’t too many more obvious expressions of relief than a pack-a-day smoker drawing back on their first cigarette in five hours.

Sweet clouds of stale smoke are left in behind as we head deeper into the wheat belt. Brown patterned fields of wheat, oats and barely are punctuated by a lone tree or the occasional paddock of spiky black fallow.

Lunchtime triggers a constant stream of travellers to and from the buffet car but plenty of packed lunches also emerge. Cheese and pickle sandwiches with the crusts cut off wrapped in baking paper, ripe bananas, Yo-Yos, Anzacs and thermos full of steaming black tea.

We rattle through the gold field towns of Horsham, Stawell and Ararat in a post food slumber. The stunning forested peaks of the Grampians fill the horizon before the country opens out into wide plains with undulating gum and eucalyptus bush. The vastness of it all provides a constant reminder of the magnitude of this land of ours.

The Grampians from a window of The Overland
The Grampians from a window of The Overland

The late afternoon breeze carries the first whispers of saltwater and it isn’t long before first signs of the urban sprawl begin to appear. Victoria’s second largest city is big enough to justify two stops. We pass the factories and industry on Geelong’s North Shore. Just after Newport we glimpse the Westgate and pass a Met train heading the other way. A heartbeat later we roll into the hustle and bustle of Melbourne.

After 10.5 hours and 828km the Overland arrives at Southern Cross Station. Adelaide is a distant memory but one supplemented by a truly memorable train ride.

Invasion day

Australia with flagWhen the implications of the scheduling of our trip dawned upon me, I couldn’t imagine anything more unAustralian than flying to New Zealand on Australia Day. We had an appointment with a bbq, beers and the beach at Killy for the sweet tunes of Triple J’s hottest 100. It would have ticked a lot of boxes. Yet we were giving all that up, opting for jandels, chillybins, hobbits and trum in Choicebroland. Sam Kekovitch would be bloody outraged. But the more I thought about it, the more appropriate the timing of the trip seemed. After all, it was  Invasion Day that we were leaving on. The day when the nation pauses to celebrate the arrival of a bunch of criminals, miscreants and misfits from the motherland.

It is apt to indulge in some self-reflection on our national holiday and that is what I did on the flight across the ditch. For mine, there is a lot to love about the Australia but also a fair bit to loathe. On the up side, we have deep-fried dim sims, the black death and incredible beaches. Our haphazard ethic brew has given us great coffee, amazing food and an interesting cultural mix. There is tremendous goodwill, people lend a hand when things go bad. There is a willingness to help friends and strangers when times are tough. Australia has tolerance, understanding and opportunity.

However, in many respects we still have a long way to go. Forgotten amidst all the chest thumping, flag waving celebration about the lucky country we often gloss over a fair bit: since the arrival of Jimmy Cook and his crib many of the locals live in third world conditions in one of the most prosperious nations on earth; there are 1003 children in our detention centres, having never been convicted nor committed any crime. There is racism, bigotry and ‘Two and a Half Men’ rates well. We are too piss-weak to stand on our own two feet and become a republic. What’s more, booze is expensive and the joint is a bit of a nanny state.

There are some pretty glaring black marks but at the end of the day I haven’t been anywhere else that I would rather live. I am proud to be Australian and I am taking that Australianess to New Zealand. For too long those damned kiwis have been crossing the ditch and taking all our unskilled jobs – in construction, hospitality and multimedia. I will strike back. I will buy Australian lamb. I will insist on getting five stars instead of four inked on my Southern Cross tattoo. I will make Sam Kekovitch proud.

Shanghai’s secret ancient town

An old man fishing the canal by long pole

Timing is everything, so the saying goes. Well the timing of our trip to China saw the continuation of our lucky run. As it happened, we were in Shanghai at the same time as Frank, an old mate from Melbourne. Frank was back in his old hometown to share the New Year festivities with his family.

Frank offered to show us one of Shanghai’s hidden gems. Who could refuse an offer like that? So we jumped on the subway and made our way a short way across town. We exited the subway onto a broad commercial boulevard and the anywhere nature of our surrounds led me to question whether we had got off at the wrong stop, but just ten minutes down the road we found the Qibao Ancient Town.

Qibao is an ancient water town hidden in the heart of a metropolis, just eleven kilometres from downtown Shanghai. Crossing the threshold we left the soulless high-rises, neon signs and broad traffic laden roads of modern Shanghai and walked into the bustling cobbled laneways.  It was like stepping back in time. The street was alive with colour and movement, red lanterns were strung up in every doorway and street corner. Multi tiered wooden pagodas and temples with tiled roofs finishing in a flurry of curved flourishes that draw eye and soul skyward. An old man smoked beneath the quaint stone bridge and fished the freezing canal waters by long pole. Shops and street vendors crowded the lanes with their wild and wonderful wares: foods of every kind, fireworks and rice whiskey.

I kept my eye out for one of Mr Wing’s suppliers so I could pick myself up a wholesale Mogwai but unfortunately we didn’t stumble across one. My disappointment was well and truly tapered by the stinky tofu, beer duck and beggars chicken. For the latter, a whole chicken is seasoned with herbs then wrapped in a lotus leaf then slow baked in a clay coating. The legend goes that the cooking method was discovered by a poor man who stole a chicken. He was preparing to cook it on the fire when the landowner happened along. To conceal his crime, he quickly wrapped it in mud and threw it in the fire, later he discovered the succulent cooked chook inside.

We spent a couple of hours wandering the streets reveling in the atmosphere. Then it was time to go. I got myself a porcelain flask of rice whiskey, a box of dumplings and walked back to the subway feeling thoroughly grateful to Frank for having shown us something we would never have otherwise seen.

Beggars chicken for sale at a street vendor
Chinese temple at Qibao Ancient Town

The lanes of Qibao Ancient Town

A red-letter stay in Shanghai

The streets of Shanghai on the eve of the Year of the Tiger

A week in Shanghai was a fitting end to our six-month expedition; we were there to share the New Year festivities with Amy’s cousin Toby, his wife Bonnie and their little boy, Sonny. It was a great time to visit, Shanghai is at its least crowded during that time of year, factories are shut and many of the people are on holiday. That being said, we were still left in awe of the sprawling metropolis, Shanghai is very much the archetype city of the new China.

I noticed very early on that the Chinese have a very different idea of the concept of luck. It is obvious that it is fundamentally important in all aspects of everyday life but I also noticed that it seems to be also something that can be influenced. Not content to wait for the winds of chance to blow favourably, Lady Fortune is coerced and courted.

By visiting during the New Year celebrations, we had definitely made our own luck. We saw a different side of the city; the weeklong national holiday had the city moving to a different beat. In a place where a sense of urgency is the norm people seemed to be taking a moment, pausing to reflect. As we ate, shopped and strolled amongst a maze of skyscrapers that just a generation ago would have been town houses and fields there were times when it seemed as if everybody had packed up and gone. Apparently that wasn’t too far from the truth, for many, the New Year holidays provide an opportunity to travel back to the towns and villages of their birth to spend time with family and friends.

With all the factories closed, the air was fresh and clear. The roads, while still chaotic were negotiable. There were times when the streets were largely deserted. In places usually hectic to an inch of your life, not a soul was to be seen. There were also times when a flood of unexpected visitors converged on what would normally be the city’s sanctuaries meaning that they were mercilessly devoured back into the metropolis.

There were a couple of staples of Shanghai life that even the celebration of the New Year couldn’t alter. The malls were full and so were the restaurants. I shudder to think what they are like when the city is in full swing.

Food is one of the fundamental aspects of Chinese culture. Meals are to be enjoyed, a time shared with family and friends. And so it was with us, we spent many hours eating and laughing with Toby and Bonnie. It is those eating experiences that will linger most vividly in my memories of Shanghai.

This isn’t to say that the Shanghai dining experience is a walk in the park. As an uncouth Australian, the language barrier was a very initiating hurdle as was the plethora of delicious looking digestibles. This meant ordering wasn’t a matter of peruse and pick rather a complex series of negotiations. As luck had it Bonnie is fluent in both Shanghaise and Mandarin and a shrewd diner to boot. She asked the hard questions and demanded the best but she always got results. This meant that we sampled a substantial share of Shanghai’s finest fare. So many satisfying meals make it hard to pinpoint the highlight but the crab and egg stew, a mixed mushroom stir-fry, chili beef and the shared hot pot stand out.

The actual New Year celebrations were something to behold. Shanghai was at its eerie best for the start of the Year of the Tiger. Bonnie and Toby live in an apartment on the 12th floor so it provided the ideal spot to sit back and watch the city put on its show. And what a show it was. In the hours leading up to midnight the city was flooded with flash and flare to the point of being reminiscent of a coordinated carpet-bombing campaign. But the lead up proved just a flash in the pan when compared to the New Year extravaganza that followed. Forget the choreographed and coordinated fireworks displays you see at events and milestones in Australia. This was a free for all of epic proportions. Families, friends and individual punters had brought bulk explosives and put on dazzling excessive displays, competing against one another to see who could pull off the biggest bang. The entire skyline was engulfed with colour, light and noise. A million different explosions overwhelmed all senses. Then came the calm after the storm. The city was left shrouded in a haze of smoke and the ground covered in a blanket of red, the shredded remains of the fireworks. Then the snow began to fall.

The following day – New Years day – we again went in pursuit of luck, this time at the Shanghai zoo. We practically had the place to ourselves meaning that all the luck associated with seeing Bengal and Sumatran tigers, on the first day of the year of the tiger was heaped upon us.

That was how we welcomed in the Year of Tiger in Shanghai. We ate, drank, laughed and became creatures of the night. We braved icy winds, smokey jazz clubs, explored the lonely streets and marveled at the spindled grey skyline. Fortuity, providence, chance, serendipity, whatever you call it, landed us in Shanghai. Our time with Toby, Bonnie and Sonny made it great. I count myself lucky to have visited Shanghai.

Sonny Mak: a little tiger living it up in the Year of the Tiger
Amy in the early hours of New Year's day
Amy in the early hours of New Year’s day

Toby Mak playing at the Melting Pot

Getting your toggs off in Thailand

Beach goers get their kit off in Phuket
Beach goers get their kit off in Phuket

Having done a lot of swimming in my time I was very comfortable with my Speedo wearing ability. I was quite confident on my ability to hold my own going into our trip to Thailand. Oh, how wrong I was!

When you go on a big trip it often gets to the point where you need to take a holiday from your holiday. That is what we headed to Thailand for and that is what the Thai tourism industry is banking on. Tourism certainly is big business there: according to the yellow bible (South East Asia on a Shoestring Lonely Planet) Thailand received 13 million foreign visitors in 2006.

From my experience, all of them like wearing Speedos. In the two weeks we spent lazing on Thai beaches (Koh Tao, Koh Phi Phi and Phuket) I was inequitably found out as a tin-pot dick-togg wearing pretender incapable of smuggling a budgie with any semblance of dignity.

Maybe, the lack of coconut and baby oil on my skin contributed to my incompetence. Maybe it was that I was loath to spend entire days frying myself in the sun.

Either way I just couldn’t compete with a dizzying multitude of European men wearing skimpy, high-cut, multi-coloured slug huggers all with clapt-out bog-catcher arses.

Not to be outdone, the women get amongst the skimpfest as well. It seems Thailand is the place to get your boosies out. And age is no obstacle, in fact it seems the older, more saggy and wrinkly they are the more likely they are to have their bits out. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great. I’m just too prudish to get amongst it.

With tourism being such a massive industry many of Thailand’s beach areas are super developed and westernised but it is still a great place to unwind from the rigors of Asian travel. It also provides the ideal setting to put your sun and skimp skills to the test against some really stiff competition.

Self-reflection from the top

Sunrise from the summit of Mount Kinabalu
Sunrise from the summit of Mount Kinabalu

What is this overwhelming urge that drives us to climb big stuff? When did it first start? Where did come from? Most likely a group of caveman were sitting around their cave fire, they had finished gnawing on the roasted mammoth they speared earlier in the day and had exhausted their conversation about the advantages of bronze over stone. One sits back contentedly then notices the snowcapped peak rising above their campsite. Suddenly his blood begins to boil with envy and quiet rage. Before going to sleep he thinks, “Look at you sitting there, so high and mighty. I’ll show you!”

The next morning he and his mates are lugging their hairy arses up some monstrously dangerous mountain.

I guess it has something to do with ego, the need to challenge yourself and, in doing so, learn more about your self and your limits. Irrespective, you have to admit that is quite odd that people choose to traipse up and down a big hill in the freezing cold in pursuit of some elusive glimpse of self-enlightenment. Why not just climb up and down some stairs in the comfort (and warmth) of your own home?

Not that I can talk, Amy and I were overcome by the same irrational impulse while in Borneo. Somehow, we convinced ourselves that it was a good idea to climb up and down Mount Kinabalu.

At 4150m, it is the highest mountain in South East Asia.  On a clear day you can see the Philippines from its summit, and we climbed up and down it.

I use the word ‘climb’ liberally as while we found the going quite tough (coming as we did off an intensive six month preseason of pissing on and sitting around) the route is very well established, meaning that ‘walking up a steep track’ is probably a more apt description.

While there are various permutations, to climb to the summit you have to buy a package. We caught a mini-bus from Kota Kinabalu at 7:30am. Arriving at the mountain about two hours later, we checked in our packs, collected our climbing permits and a packed lunch then met our guide. We jumped on another bus which took us up to the park entrance and the beginning of the climb. We spent the next four and a half hours alternating between walking up a really steep track and catching our breath at the rest hunts. We reached the lodge at about 3pm.

We ate, showered and watched the most amazing sunset from above the cloud line before heading to bed at about 8pm.

The next morning saw us rise at 2:30am, scoff down some breakfast before embarking on a two-and-a-half hour trek up to the summit. Negotiating the steep but smooth granite slopes in the dark was interesting but it was the biting cold that consumed us once we reached the summit, which was the most challenging part of the experience. It was well worth it to watch the ever-changing dawn light illuminate the stunning vista that stretched off in every direction.

From that point there was no other way but down. We reached the lodge at 8am, had breakfast number two before completing the four hour trek back down to the park entrance.

I am not sure that our walk up and down Mount Kinabalu taught me anything new about myself or my ego. What I did get was sore legs and a memorable sunrise.

Borneo: forecast unknown

A juvenile orangutan in trees of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
A juvenile orangutan in trees of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Common wisdom holds that you should prepare for travel: do some research about your destination, read some travel guides, and speak to friends and family who have been there before you.

It gives you ideas on what to do and where to go but it also builds expectation. This becomes a problem when the actual travel experience differs from the expectations you have imagined.

We had very high expectations for our time in Sabah Borneo. The things I read and the people I spoke to made it sound fantastic: great diving, jungle and mountain trekking, orangutans, pigmy elephants and great food.

Unfortunately we couldn’t help but feeling a little disappointed when we left. Much of it had to do with bad timing. The fact that it pissed with rain nearly the entire time we were there meant that the jungle trek we had planned was cancelled due to flooding, the beach time was average and the diving visibility poor. The North Borneo Railway line being closed for renovations also didn’t help.

But also unavoidable was the fact that much of Sabah Borneo isn’t the undeveloped jungle paradise we had imagined. Massive tracks of jungle have been logged and replaced by palm plantations, which makes for morbidly monotonous bus trips

Many of the tourist highlights are either highly regulated or ridiculously expensive. While it was exciting to see orangutans feeding in the jungle at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, average punters only get a minute glimpse of the reserve from the confines of boardwalk not much more than a hundred metres long.

That being said, we did have some great times. The food was fantastic, climbing Mount Kinabalu was amazing and the Sandakan Memorial Park, which marks the site of an infamous WWII Japanese Prisoner of War Camp, was heart-wrenchingly fascinating. There were also some unexpected gems like when Amy’s fruit salad was served drowned in mayonnaise, or surviving an eight hour ride in the back of 4WD with nine adults and seven kids under the age of three.

I learnt a lot from our visit to Borneo. First and foremost, disregard your expectations. Secondly, if you want to fully appreciate the natural gems that Sabah Borneo has to offer (the diving at Sipadan or the unspoiled beauty of the Maliau Basin) take a wad of cash. And finally, if you are going to plan ahead for a journey to Borneo, start by planning a visit in the dry season.

Vale Single Pluggers

So long dear friend
So long, dear friend

I bid a sad farewell to my friend and long-time travel companion: the greatest Single-Plug thongs to have graced god’s green earth (affectionately known to me as, SP).

SP’s departure was typical of a shoe that loved to travel: they took their last step in the departure lounge of the Ho Chi Minh Airport, Vietnam.

SP was born in central China and it was clear from an early age that they were imbued with a strong sense of wanderlust. So it came as no surprise when SP embarked on a treacherous month long sea journey aboard a cargo ship and arrived on Australian shores in 2007.

SP’s early escapades in the wide brown land proved to be far less fruitful than expected. Down on their luck, SP ended up languishing at the bottom of the bargain bin of the Gold Coast Payless Shoes.

Happily, it wasn’t long before fate intervened and I happened past. As soon as I saw their plight I posted bail and SP were free. It seems ludicrous to me now that the paltry sum of $1.69 was all that was required to gain a trusted travel companion for more than a year and a half. I would have paid that sum a hundred times over.

The fact that SP was able to overcome their humble begins was testimony to their sturdy character and moral fortitude. SP and I embarked on the first of many adventures.

We wandered the lanes and alleys of Melbourne and strolled the white sands of Perth. We explored many a Mekong shore, braved the flooded roads of Phnom Penh, trekked the jungles of Cambodia and Laos. Marveled and mocked the clean of Singapore. Risked death on the streets of Vietnam. Struggled to grasp the ordered chaos of KL. Slapped around numerous beaches and bars of South East Asia.

Throughout our time together SP always kept me out of harms way, protecting me from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (well mud, rocks and dog shit). They even provided protection (from the harmful rays of the sun) for a centimetre thick V shaped strip on the top of both feet.

At the time of their demise SP would have to have been considered one of the most durable exponents of discount single-plug footwear to have graced the footpaths of Australia and South East Asia in the past decade.

Dynamite Diving at GT

It is sometime in the mid-1970’s. Two men sit smoking Camels in a longtail fishing boat about fifty metres off the white sands of Gili Trawangan, a small tropical island off the North-West coast of Lombok. Looking down at the clear turquoise waters they see the coral reef that sits just below the surface. Despite the fact that the reef is teeming with fish today’s pickings have been slim.

Fisherman 1: This is Bullshit. There has to be an easier way.
Fisherman 2: Yeah. I have been thinking about that.
Fisherman 1: Well surprise, surprise. Brainboy has been thinking again.
Fisherman 2: Fuck off dickhead. You know how my brother Putu is in the army.
Fisherman 1: So?
Fisherman 2: Well I was talking to him the other day and he reckons he can get us a crate of dynamite for 15000 rupi.
Fisherman 1: Why the fuck would we want a case of dynamite?
Fisherman 2: That is what I have been thinking about. I reckon if we were to throw a stick of dynamite into the water, the explosion would stun the fish. They would float to the surface and we could just paddle around picking them up. Easy money.
Fisherman 1: Sounds alright.
Fisherman 2: Sounds alright.

A couple of weeks later the previous scene is reenacted, only this time a crate of dynamite sits between them.

Fisherman 1: Ok brainiach, what now?

Fisherman 2 selects a stick of dynamite from the crate, lights the fuse on the cigarette in his mouth, then tosses it about fifteen metres from the boat. The explosion sends a spout of water twenty metres up into the air. A couple of seconds later dozens of fish begin floating to the surface. They paddle over and begin hauling their catch into the boat.

Fisherman 1: Fuck me! This is great.
Fisherman 2: Told you.
Fisherman 1: Hang on a second. Looks like we blew fuck out of the reef.
Fisherman 2: So what?
Fisherman 1: Well we just wiped out entire underwater ecosystem, which took thousands of years to evolve.
Fisherman 1: So?
Fisherman 2: If we keep blowing up the reef it won’t be long before there isn’t any left. And no reef means no fish.
Fisherman 1:    What the fuck are you babbling about. The reef will be right. All I know is that this a shit load easier than regular fishing.
Fisherman 2:    Yeah, you’re right. I don’t know what the fuck I was banging on about.

And that is how kilometre upon kilometre of underwater wastelands were founded along the coasts of South East Asia.

Don’t get me wrong, I have built a life around taking the easy option and it’s all too easy to sit back and pontificate through the lens of affluence about irresponsible fishing (farming, logging, whatever) practices in developing countries. What would I know about hacking out an existence on the poverty line? Faced with a choice between feeding my family and preserving a coral reef, I would be putting grub on the table.

It is a sad sight though. You are snorkeling or diving the warm tropical waters expecting to see colourful coral gardens teeming with a thousand different fish and crustaceans. But a lot of what you find is large tracts of white grey coral graveyard. You have to dive down to 10m before you see anything of interest.

Despite suffering substantial damage, the diving around the Gilis is still very good. The practice of dynamite fishing has been banned around the islands and there is a substantial reef rehabilitation project underway. The water is warm and the visibility is exceptional.

We stayed at the Gili Eco Villas on the northern tip of GT, it was spartan but cool and we had some of the best snorkeling on the island at our doorstep. There were coral gardens, crustaceans, fish and turtles in abundance.

The island has a relaxed island charm; you can walk around the island in about an hour, all the locals seem constantly stoned and even better: motorised transport has been overlooked in favour of horse and cart. I really liked the place and the people there, but still no matter how many fictitious conversations I invent I will always struggle to comprehend the rationale of dynamite fishing.

A tough day in Bali for a little Aussie Battler

Mez has a little laugh about her shinner
Mez has a little laugh about her shinner

While we were in Bali Amy and I caught up with my sister Merryn and her fiancée, Glenn. Early in the trip Merryn decided she needed a good story to take home. This is how she went about it…

The day started ok. We were in Bali for a long-deserved holiday. The sun was shining, the beer was cheap, the locals were friendly and there wasn’t a profit and loss statement to be seen. We decided to go down to Doublesix in Seminyak for some sand, surf and sun.

About an hour in I decided to sneak off and get a massage. “What could be more relaxing than a Bali massage?” I thought to myself.

I decided to only take 40,000R (about $5) with me. This would put me in the power position in the bargaining stakes and I wouldn’t be tempted into buying superfluous crap.

Arriving at the Jayakarta Hotel courtyard I picked out a masseuse. The negotiation went exactly to plan…

Masseuse: “Just five Rupi more.”
Me: “Sorry, forty is all I have.”
Masseuse: “Sit down.”

I sat down, closed my eyes and silently congratulated myself on my forethought and bartering ability. The healing hands of Masseuse began to work their magic and my cares began to fade.

Things were going smashingly until a simple tap on the shoulder shattered any pretence of relaxation.

Hawker: “You want saucepan?”
Me: “No, thanks.”
Hawker: “Stainless steel”
Me (internal monologue): [They are nice saucepans]
Me: “Sorry, I don’t have anymore money.”
Hawker: “No problem, you pay later.”
Me: “No, thanks.”
[Hawker walks away]

A different hawker, selling plates, quickly took up the fight. For the next half an hour, an endless stream of women hawking various wares surrounded me.

At some point I gave in and must have whimpered something like, “Ok, ok.” thinking that would make things better. How wrong I was…

Hawker from earlier: “You buy from her and not me! Do you hate me?”
Me: “Sorry. Of course I don’t hate you.”
Hawker: “You buy from me! Pay later.”
Me: “Ok. Ok.”

I stumbled out half an hour later in a daze. As I walked back to meet the others, I took stock. I had two bags full of kitchenware and other assorted junk; my nails were painted; my heels had been scrubbed; and I couldn’t remember my massage.

Written on a scrap of paper was the IOU. I took it out and read it:

Mary: 600,000R
Annie: 600,000R
Sally: 400,000R
Tanya: 250,000R
Lucy:  200,000R

I did the math. “Holy fuck! That’s like $250!” I yelled. This was bad; you can buy seventy-five pots at the Cally for that.

I got back to the others and walked over to Glenn.

“What’s in the bag?” he asked. I broke down.
“They were all around me. I couldn’t say no. I owe them $250.” I sobbed.

Glenn wasn’t as sympathetic to my plight as I had hoped. I went for a swim to clear my head.

I knew that behind all the bluff and bullshit Glenn was a big softie. It wasn’t long before I managed to talk policeman plod into sorting it out for me. He took the merchandise back, told them how disappointed he was and paid them a token amount.

I was so relieved. We went and got some lunch and I pondered how to best spend the remainder of the day. As I saw it, there was only one viable option available.

I set about getting myself horribly, slurringly, lazy-eyedly drunk.  I drank and told the story about how, when I was in Bali, some hawkers talked me into buying a whole bag full of shit. Told it to anybody who would listen.  Then, just in case they hadn’t realised what a great story it was, I told it to them again, and again.

It was about 2am when I finally got tired of drinking and telling my story. We were back at the villa and I had just a couple of things to do before bed.

First, I went to the bathroom and picked the flattest bit of floor I could find. I tripped over and cracked my head on the sink.

With that out of the way, I crawled over to the toilet and repeatedly deposited the contents of my stomach into the bowl.

I laid my head down on the cool tiles of the bathroom floor, closed my eyes and smiled. The next day, I would have a quality shiner and a hangover to go with my story.