Battambang – day 371

We woke up early and transferred to our original hotel. We both felt much better after some sleep and as the guesthouse owner himself came to meet us at our replacement lodgings and walked us back to the guesthouse, apologising en route. Dropping our bags in the room, we rented a scooter and headed out for the day. First stop – the travel agents to buy bus tickets to Bangkok. Having learnt our lesson from Kratie, we went to four different places before making a purchase! Turns out that only 2 places sell tickets to Bangkok so we chose the cheapest! Got back onto the scooter and, I’m blaming the tiredness, I drove atrociously! So much so that Jayne told me off!!! Deciding it was going to be one of those days, I drove us straight to Gloria Jeans for a cup of coffee and a danish – or, as it turns out, a fruit smoothie, a coffee frappuchino, an almond croissant and an piece of Oreo cheesecake. Feeling more human (and less likely to kill each other), we jumped back on the bike and made our way to the bamboo train when it started raining. It rained so hard that we had to take shelter in the petrol station. The attendants brought us chairs to sit on as we watched the rain pound down, frogs frolick in the puddles and drivers swerve to dodge the water filled potholes. When the rain slowed down enough, we waved goodbye to our new friends and kept driving down the road to one of the world’s all-time unique rail journeys!The 7km bumpy train journey goes from Battambang’s old French bridge (Wat Kor Bridge) to O Sra Lav along warped, misaligned rails and vertiginous bridges left by the French. The journey takes 20 minutes each way, with a 20-minute stop at O Sra Lav in between (for the obligatory gaggle of souvenir shops!).

Each bamboo train – known in Khmer as a norry (nori) – consists of a 3m-long wooden frame, covered lengthwise with slats made of ultralight bamboo, that rest on two barbell-like bogies, the one at the rear is connected by fan belts to a 6HP gasoline engine. Pile on 10 or 15 people, or up to three tonnes of rice, crank it up and you can cruise along at about 15km/h.Sitting on straw mats that have been laid over the bamboo platform, we held onto whatever we could and the contraption quickly began to pick up speed!! Peeking down through the cracks at the rail tracks below was simply a blur and the long grass kept whipping our arms as the scenery shot past. We tried to talk to each other but we had to yell to be heard and, even then, the wind carried half our conversation away. The genius of the bamboo railway system is that it offers a brilliant solution to the most ineluctable problem faced on any single-track line: what to do when two trains going in opposite directions meet. In the case of bamboo trains, the answer is simple: one car is quickly disassembled and set on the ground beside the tracks so that the other can pass. The rule is that the car with the fewest passengers has to cede priority. We got to see this in action as the oncoming train was dismantled, removed and reassembled in front of our eyes in less than a couple of minutes. With the wind blowing in our hair, it was impossible not to smile (mainly because the speed was forcing my mouth apart) as we chugged past fields, across rickety bridges, and through stretches of bush. Locals walked on the tracks and only hopped off when the train was almost upon them. We also picked up a little girl and her mum halfway down the track. 

Arriving at the souvenir station, we did the rounds of each stall to pass the time but found the begging to buy something a little bit intense. Fortunately, by the time we got back to our train it was ready to go so we headed back to the start. Got about a minute down the track when it started raining again and we were completely soaked within 10 seconds. We were asked to tip the driver when we had finished, which always annoys me. If you ask for a tip then it is no longer a tip! One of the only times we have done it because the poor boy looked as much of a drowned rat as we did!! Jumping on our bike again before we got more demands to part with money, we had to take shelter in another petrol station as the rain made it difficult to see the road. 

Used the time to work out our route to the winery (yes, a winery!) while we waited for the rain to subside. Ended up driving down a little road where we got stuck in the mud. It was slightly tough dragging the scooter out of the mud without falling over ourselves – I ended up taking off my shoes and Jayne got covered head to toe in mud after I revved the engine at the wrong time… Emerging from the mud bath onto the main road, we spent some time declogging the tyre of mud to make it safe for us to drive again as locals watched us (and were laughing, I’m sure!). 14 kilometres out of town is Cambodia’s first and only winery, the Chan Thai Choeung (or Banan) Winery, which is open for visits and tastings. Known for its production of chilli peppers (harvested from October to January), Cambodia’s only winery grows shiraz and cabernet sauvignon grapes to make reds, and tropics-resistant Black Queen and Black Opal grapes to make rosés. Both taste completely unlike anything you’ve ever encountered in a bottle with the word ‘wine’ on the label. Putting it politely, the wine is not exactly to Western tastes – it tasted like vinegar!!! We also tasted their ‘cognac’ which isn’t as bad as the wine, and their juices — grape and ginger — are pretty good. Chatting to a French couple, who we had convinced not to try the wine, we organised to meet up with them for dinner before heading back into town. Dropped off our bike and headed up to our room to remove our slightly damp clothes! Chilled out for a while before going for a walk around the night market. A slightly odd experience as the market was a mixture between food stalls and shops selling random assortments of products, all with music blaring out and drowning out its neighbour. It was intense. The fairground section was also fun with its rides hanging halfway off the pavement or being run by fans!Met Francois and Veronica (I hope I’ve spelt their names right!) at the White Rose for dinner. It was a really nice evening, chatting about our respective travels. They had started with the Trans-Siberian railway and spent time in Mongolia – it sounds incredible and is now on my list (as is a million different other places!). We all went back to the night market for ice cream before heading back to our guesthouses. 

Wednesday 12th October 2016

Shepparton – day 333

Happy Father’s Day to all the Aussie Dad’s. With enough adverts being on tv for the coming weeks, it was hard to be believe that it was finally here. So what does one do… very little until going around to Tracey’s parents house, where her dad will cook us dinner on the BBQ. 
Enjoying several cups of coffee and easing in to the day, I whisked up a batch of pancakes and we ate a stack with some fresh lemon and sugar. The two Ninjas went off to KMart and Coles for shopping and browsing and I plonked myself in front of the beloved and missed tv to watch a film. But, still tired from two months on the go and not sure when the other two would be back I put on a film that I would be happy to turn off. Of course, I could have watched two by the time they came back with bits and pieces and food for the evening. 
Preparing some salads and jacket potatoes to bring with us, Katherine was all excited at the idea of being able to try the Eski scooter. When we arrived I got to see the famous Chevvie and Eski scooter (a scooter made from an ice box). With an offer that couldn’t be refused we zoomed off down the backroads in the vintage blue Chevrolet. The speed and power were incredible and apparently it does better when the engine is warmer. BETTER??? Pure power, motoring down the road with plum trees blooming. I think Katherine has found a close second to the VW Campervan if she ever wins the lotto. Back at base, without even asking, clearly telepathy being one of Kat’s new gifts, John went about powering up the Eski. The engine is inside the ice box and the battery is flat, so needed a boost start from another. The result… a tiny little scooter that revved to life in the back garden from the creativity of a mechanical genius. Showing Kat the controls and telling her the safety briefing, she did a few lengths of the gravel. With toys aplenty, there was an electric scooter to try (more up my alley) and obligatory photos with daredevil poses. So, we (that would be John and I) started the BBQ in the dark. Florrie was busy setting tables and plating salads and other assortments. Ninjas… Sat on their asses and drank. So, a bit of ridicule that we all did something for Father’s Day except Tracey (she did get a present, just slagging her), we had a fabulous evening before heading off. A perfect way to end the weekend. Sunday 4th September 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