A rainy Monday. Torrential, in fact. Depressing? Or inspirational? It depends where you are. In our case if it was Monday so it must have been Indonesia – Day 10 in our round-the-world-in 12 days “Great Escapade” odyssey. And from our breakfast perch on the windowless hotel verandah high above a rainswept gorge almost overrun with verdant, luxuriant jungle dotted with palms, frangipani, hibiscus and pink orchids, the rain was positively uplifting. That’s the funny thing about rain.
Through the window of a Cornish hotel or a mountain restaurant in the Alps, it is usually an unwelcome sight. But watching it teeming down into a mist-shrouded rainforest in Bali, droplets cascading down the thatched rooftops of the luxury “bungalows” and drenching the swallows cartwheeeling above the jungle canopy, seemed to have the opposite effect. It was inspiring and profoundly cleansing. The tropical rain forest in the magnificent surroundings of the Kupu Kupu Barong Hotel was being fed its life-blood.
It was not our first taste of rain during our madcap journey, in which Air New Zealand, Singapore Airlines and Ansett Australia had conspired to give us a much speeded-up version of what can be achieved by more leisurely-minded passengers over the course of a year with their joint round-the-world ticket. Only three days earlier we had braved intense drizzle in Sydney to accomplish the latest and most intriguing, if not mildly alarming, tourist attraction in town: climbing the harbour bridge, the city’s famous landmark completed in 1932.
Having been breathalysed and searched for weapons (you cannot be too careful these days) you actually climb – tethered by lanyards to a static line just in case – three kilometres of catwalks, ladders and arches to the very top of the bridge, where with any luck you may be greeted by the resident peregrine falcon which guards the summit.
Although ever mindful of the 16 men who died during the the building of the bridge – six killed by falling, ten by falling objects – we were assured that during our 1500 metres of climbing and descent, there was “absolutely no way you can fall, jump, be pushed or blown off.” We were rewarded with spectacular views of the harbour, repeated in somewhat more comfortable style when we took a “Taxis Afloat” seaplane across the Kuring-gai National Park and the Hawkesbury River to an excellent lunch at the Cottage Point Inn. Someone asked whether kangaroo was on the menu. “Kangaroo makes good dog food” was our waiter’s response. “Why eat kangaroo when we have such good beef? It’s just for tourists!” I settled for calamari. While two well-fed, semi-tame Kookaburras strutted expectantly up and down along the restaurant balustrade, one of our number, Jeremy, who day and night throughout our adventure siezed every opportunity for a swim, was restrained from a pre-prandial dip. Although we never saw them, the crocodiles were said to be lurking in the tranquil waters of Cowan Creek.
What we did see – from the air during our return flight – was the joyful spectacle of two huge whales gamboling in the Tasman Sea as they moved south after breeding, their threshing tails churning the waters off Long Reef Point into malachite blue. We were still talking about the whales at the newly refurbished reaturant at the Opera House. What a duet they would have made if they could have been brought here to sing their song of the ocean.
We spent a lot of time in the air – 53 hours all told – as we journeyed from London one fine Friday afternoon to Los Angeles and onwards to Fiji, Auckland, Sydney, Perth and home again via Bali and Singapore. Total distance 29,000 miles. It was more a question of going down for air rather than coming up for it. Like American tourists, we did the lot (mostly, it must be said, in excellent weather): the celebrity homes tour of Beverly Hills, the stroll down Sunset Boulevard, swarming with bizzarely-dressed Halloween revellers, dinner at the Skybar, breakfast in the Speakeasy Rastaurant at Santa Monica’s Georgian Hotel where Bugsey Segal and Al Capone used to meet in a secret room, the Paul Getty Museum tour, the idyllic desert island experience at Yasawa, where Captain Bligh and his crew narrowly escaped being caught and eaten by a canoe-loads of Fiji warriors, and where Brooke Shields shot the re-make of the 1930s classic, Blue Lagoon. We even dived into the waters of the Blue Lagoon Caves, only to be driven out again by the irritating nibbles of water-fleas.
When cannibalism was rife, one local chief famously claimed to have eaten 839 people, but these days, in what is a largely Christian society, the topic – especially in the form of cannibal jokes – is considered very bad taste (joke unintentional).
Based in luxurious beachside bungalows, and fed delicious fare such as linguini with local crab and coconut sauce, we shared the island with white-collared kingfishers and orange-breasted honeyeaters.
By now it was still only Tuesday. Reluctantly we tore ourselves away and climbed aboard a Sunflower Airlines Islander for our bumpy take-off from the island’s grassy runway en route for Nadi and New Zealand.
On Wednesday, Auckland hove into view. From now on, although it did not feel like it, every hour in the air would be taking us back towards London. From Auckland, a yacht took us round Motahi Island and Rangitoto Island and the forthcoming America’s Cup Course. After Jeremy had once more led a charge over the side into the bay for yet another dip, we enjoyed an on-board barbeque before overnighting on Waiheke Island.
The following night we had the faintly surreal experience of watching – but not hearing – Auckland celebrating Guy Fawkes night some 12,500 miles from the British Houses of Parliament while we circumnavigated the city from the orbiting restaurant atop Auckland’s new Sky Tower. Although a hundred bonfires festooned the city, and expensive roman candles flowered briefly and distantly, from our sound-roofed eyrie, even the highest-flying sky rockets looked like damp-squibs.
By Sunday it was Fremantle, voted “the best preserved 19th Century seaport in the world” – the backstreets resemble an amalgum of a rural Sussex town and its Vermont counterpart – and Perth. Here we breakfasted heartilly at Fraser’s Restaurant in Kings Park before cruising down the Swan River with a winemaker, Bill Crappsley, who just happened to have brought some of his wines on board the Karen Sue. A shame we had to rush a delicious lunch at the Indiana Tea House (where Jeremy still managed a quick dip on Cottesloe Beach) But, almost before we knew it, and still without a glimpse of a single kangaroo – even on a plate – we were on a plane to Bali. Which is where we came in.
With an almost entirely Hindu population, Bali seems a million miles from the rest of strife-torn Indonesia. Before the torrential rain set in, we enjoyed sea-kayaking in Lake Tamblingan, the crater lake of an ancient volcano, and a barbecue lunch including, improbably, a jar of Russian caviar each, washed down with plentiful Mumm champagne. Back at the Kupu Kup Barong we dined in style on gado gado (mixed vegetables with peanut sauce) ikan pepes (mackerel wrapped in banana leaves) mie goreng (noodles fried with vegetables) and a mixed satay of beef, chicken and fish, followed by coconut pudding.
Before leaving for the last leg of our tour – to Singapore – we enjoyed an open air massage and then travelled to Manggis, East Bali where we enrolled briefly at the Seria Hotel’s new Cooking School. Here – while the ocean pounded the shores of Amuk Bay – the mysteries of Nasi Goreng (fried rice to you and me) and other Balinese staple dishes were revealed. Our various attempts were later served to us as part of dinner!
Homeward bound now, our visit to Singapore (Tuesday) was brief but exhilarating: delicious soft-shelled crabs and prawn cakes at a poolside reception at the Traders Hotel, the inevitable Singapore Slings and Million Dollar Cocktails at the Raffles Hotel (amidst much juvenile throwing of empty peanut shells on the floor, a tradition at the Long Bar) followed by a bumboat taxi ride to a dinner of North Indian cuisine at Kinara on the bustling banks of the Singapore River, and a round of fairly unpleasant “Bank Breakers” – a melon liqueuer and whiskey cocktail tribute to Nick Leeson – at Harry’s Bar.
Phew. Just the 13 hour flight to London to go now.