Kampot – day 368

With a little confusion over what time we needed to be down in reception for our tour, we got up early. The sleepiness and general haze lifted instantly when our breakfast – consisting of frosted corn flakes bathing in milo – hit our tongues. Raring to go, we were full of energy from the sugar, in hotel reception, at 07:40. The bus didn’t turn up until 08:50. We came down from our high chatting to the girls in reception. The daughters and cousins of the owner were all milling about, practicing their English and asking as many questions as they could before we left for the day. I somehow managed to swap my phone case with one of them for theirs – very artistic. The bus arrived, Corinna was already in the passenger seat next to the driver and we swung around the town to collect Sharyn from Mad Monkey and packed lunches from a quiet stall down a side street (maybe the drivers wife?). 
The drive up the mountain was longer than expected. We felt relieved that we had opted for a tour instead of riding up the long, windy road in slippery conditions. Plus, there was nowhere visible to purchase petrol so that would have proved a dilemma. 
We stopped at the old King’s residence under the Sitting Lok Yeay Mao Statue. I don’t think either the residence or dining area down the trail were the Bokor Palace referred to in the guide book. The derelict buildings were abandoned in 1926 (if memory serves me well) and the views are supposed to be spectacular. Except the clouds that we drove through earlier obscured the picturesque landscape 1km down. We carried on to the old temple, Wat Sampeau Moi Roi (Five Boats Temple), passing the new casino en route. The blight on the hillside provided the funding for the road (which is amazing), but have shot themselves in the foot by charging too much for their rooms and have never gained the business they hoped for. They also contributed to the fact that trekking is now banned in the national park due to all the development in the area. Anyway, we wandered around the temple, saw none of the monkeys that normally hang on the cliff railings, but enjoyed the mist rolling over the roof of the temple, the decorative interior and the rocks and boulders painted into the likeness of crocodiles. It was a short jaunt around the corner to the Catholic Church where we got a bit of a history lesson about Bokor. I regrettably don’t remember all the facts he gave about the place, but it was more informative than the guide book and explained ‘why’ the civil war and genocide began. The key facts followed the ownership of the hill top, with the French originally occupying and managing the area. They left for WW2 and returned again afterwards. Then there was the Khmer Rouge, then the Vietnamese. There was then independence from Vietnam sometime in the ’80s (I think, should look it up, but I’m not going to) and with the hill station by then a ghost town it took some time before investment and attention brought tourists to the area trekking and staying overnight. The double edged sword of the new casino has killed the trekking industry, but perhaps it brings more tourists to the area. Maybe the quieter jungle is helping protect the threatened leopard, Indian elephant, Asiatic black bear, Malayan sun bear, pileated gibbon, pig-tailed macaque, slow loris and pangolin. Probably not!

Back to the Catholic Church… the Khmer Rouge held out here during the fighting against the Vietnamese in 1979. There was no sign of the bullet holes that were shot from 500m away at the Bokor Palace. There was no sign of the fragments of glass at the nave windows. It was covered in the brightest orange lichen and the altar was vibrant with fresh bouquets of flowers. A little up the hill behind the church, one is supposed to have stunning views of the rainforest. We didn’t have any luck in that direction, but looking back at the church, the cross on the tower was striking against the rest of the hill. The old casino was quite impressive. Especially for a derelict building, flooded with water and covered in algae. There was an idea of the grandeur of the place and walking around the bare rooms it was obvious that more time was spent gambling than sleeping. We even got some rare glimpses of the sea and forests below, a break in the clouds showing how beautiful it must be on a clear day. Not included in the tour price (always something) was the entrance to the Popokvil Falls that are privately owned and maintained. To enter, you must buy a water, fair enough. Except they were out of water and we had to buy sugar cane juice for slightly more. When we got in to the restaurant to claim said drinks and enjoy them with our packed lunch of fried rice, there was a counter full of hundreds of water bottles. Ugh! The water was flowing incredibly fast and the ugly brown colour didn’t lend any favours to a nice photo. We watched as people jumped across the rocks to areas where they could get better photos. Slipping and posing on the edge of a sheer drop wasn’t fun to watch so we left. Kamikaze selfie photo takers should be given the Darwin Award. Back in Kampot I may have had a bit of a snooze. I think 40minutes is allowable. I may have been hit several times to wake up… apparently. So we strolled down to the water front, chilled out for a bit with the weather being nice and mild and then hopped on board a boat for a sunset and fireflies cruise.  There was no sunset, but we went upriver a bit enjoying the scenery, the changing landscape around ever bend in the river and we searched for fireflies in the hope of seeing a few even in the drizzling rain. We found a few and it was like a mini Christmas. A nice meal in the Rusty Keyhole of baked potatoes for moi and fish for Katherine was accompanied by an incredibly sour lime soda. Walked Corinna back to her guesthouse after saying goodbye to Sharyn. We struck it rich when the guesthouse next to Corinna’s had mini golf. For paying customers use, it was like we were meant to have ice cream. A ridiculously fun game of golf in the flooded course followed by chilli chocolate and ginger & lemongrass ice cream had a perfect end to a lovely day. Sunday 9th October 2016

Coober Pedy – day 322/12

Waking up 6.5m underground in a dug out that was excavated decades ago was weird… The sounds of other guest waking up in the cavernous holes (otherwise known as the hostel dorm rooms) were joined with pitch black darkness – until we turned on our room light and then we were squinting like blind moles! Managed to find a bathroom that had cubicles free for all of us where we proceeded to spend our shower time singing across the partitions, only to have a man cough halfway through our rendition of the ‘Muppets’ theme tune – cue some girly giggles from us and a hasty exit from the gentleman. Managed to get a clothes wash done whilst we had breakfast, choosing to sit outside (slightly cold) after spending the night in what can only be defined as a fancy coffin, complete with bunk beds and a mattress. Decided to spend the day walking in the town rather than partaking in one of the over priced tours which, apparently, showcase this town as a mining and tourist mecca. As we walked down the street and out of town towards our first opal mine of the day (that’s right… The first!!), it seemed like we had arrived in a post apocalyptic wasteland with the dry barren desert being riddled with holes, adjacent piles of dirt and signs warning of the dangers of ‘deep shafts’ and ‘walking backwards’. There were rusty car wrecks in front yards of houses that appeared to only have a front porch – the rest of the house is dug underground to cope with the 50°C summer days and lack of trees! Even at 10am in the morning, there were groups of aboriginals loitering on the streets in small groups, either already drunk or still intoxicated from the night before. The scene was the same for nearly every group we passed – swearing, shouting and poor attempts at fighting each other whilst calling ‘hello’ to every person who walked past them. Arriving at Tom’s Working Opal Mine, we were given hard hats and a map before being sent down into the working excavation. We were allowed to try the bosun chair that the miners used to descend themselves into the mine shaft, posing for the obligatory photos with a pick axe as we hung precariously several feet off the ground, not entirely sure if the cable on the ‘Ute’ could withhold our weight and/or had been checked in the last decade. All on solid ground and in one piece with an extensive amount of stone dust on our backs which glowed up under the UV light like a min solar system on our backs, we headed off down into the mine, exploring all the nooks and crannies including the sections where miners are continuing their search for the big vein. Jayne got far too involved in searching for her own small fortune by using the tools in the museum to crack open undiscovered opals in the rocks strewn around the place – alas, no opals found… Heading back up to the reception area, we got to watch a video on opal formation and mining (which was really interesting but I couldn’t tell you anything I learnt except that the big dinosaur skeleton found in Coober Pedy is not in Coober Pedy!). Heading back into town, we stopped off at the bakery to get some lunch of meat pies – the label said beef however none of us have seen any cats in the town – coincidence?!? Just saying! We consume our ‘beef’ pies on the veranda of the bakery listening to the dulcet tones of the fighting aboriginals al. around us. Walked over to the Catholic Church of St Peter & St Paul which was Coober Pedy’s first church and still has a sweet appeal with its statue-filled nooks and hushed classical music. Back to the hostel to have some lunch before crossing the road to explore the underground museum in the Desert Cave Hotel. More information and photos rather than anything else, the display of photos showing how people fall down the deep shafts and how they are rescued was equal parts funny and disturbing – we can only hope that they are staged photos. 

Walking back along the Main Street, we tried to find the leftover spaceship prop from the film Pitch Black but couldn’t spot it, so headed instead to the Big Winch which has sweeping views over Coober Pedy. From the view point it is obvious that the surrounding desert is jaw-droppingly desolate, a fact not overlooked by international film-makers who’ve come here to shoot end of the world epics such as Mad Max III, Red Planet, Ground Zero and (the only one I’ve watched) Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. The ‘if’ painted on the side of the big bucket is designed to sum up the towns spirit and from viewpoint we found the spaceship – we had walked straight past it! Heading back down the hill and with a couple of hours still to kill before our night bus to Adelaide, we decided to visit another museum mine – Old Timers Mine. It was an interesting warren of tunnels that was mined in 1916, and then hidden by the miners. The mine was rediscovered when excavations for a dugout home punched through into the labyrinth of tunnels. We started with a demonstration of the ‘blower’, a piece of mining equipment that is fundamentally a giant vacuum cleaner on the back of a ‘ute’ which, predictably, sucks up rocks from one place and blows them out of the other end. We each got to have a go feeding rocks and our arms into the machine – imagine a giant Dyson air dryer and you’ll understand what our hands looked like… Old ladies hands! Literally had to drag Jayne away from the noodling area at the end of our tour as the museum was closing and everyone wanted to go home, except us! We headed to our last stop of the day, Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Sanctuary. A bizarre combination of art and kangaroos left us all feeling a little bit uncomfortable. Clearly not as well funded as Brolga’s sanctuary in Alice Springs, the kangaroos were feed with wasabi peas and banana chips by the tourists. It wasn’t all bad though – Jayne and I bought our Australia painting. An aboriginal night scene around a fire with native Australian animals in the background. 

Heading back to the hostel, we packed up our bags on the front veranda. Jayne and Tracey popped to Johns to get take away dinner to consume whilst we waited for the coach to turn up whilst I guarded the bags, listening to the continuing arguments that floated down the streets from the groups of aboriginals. Walking the five minutes down the road to the coach ‘station’ we ate our food before boarding the bus. Tracey was disgusted as Jayne and I tucked into our local speciality – a coat of arms pizza which is topped with kangaroo and emu meat. Maybe this explains the lack of red kangaroos in the area?!? Had to sit near the front but we all got a two person seat each so we could spread out a little bit. Clearly one of the older Greyhound buses, it was a little rough around the edges with no wifi or in seat USB outlets – not a huge issue except we had all run our iPhones down with the assumption that we would be able to charge them on the bus – fool on us! Jayne and I watched the only film uploaded onto our iPad (About a Boy) and Tracey watched the only film on her iPad (Sixteen Candles), before we all tried to get some sleep on the rather juddery coach. 

Wednesday 24th August 2016