Australia was never a place we planned on going, but when Covid hit, it became a safe spot we could get to from Asia. We planned to stay for a month and then go on to New Zealand, but Australia and New Zealand both closed their borders within a few days of us getting to Australia.
Our original visas let us stay for 3 months in Australia, but one month in, all flights to the US through Western Australia had been cancelled. We kept waiting, thinking in a few weeks or a month that we would be able to get another flight, but every flight we booked would get cancelled.
More than two months in and no idea of when we would be able to get home, I started applying for a Covid visa. The process was long and complicated and you couldn’t get anyone to answer any questions. Unsure if we would get the extended visa, we figure the only way to get home would be to leave western Australia. At this time most of the states in Australia were closed to one another. The only place we could fly to was New South Wales. So we booked tickets to Sydney and tickets back to the US from Sydney. We were all really sad to leave western Australia. To this day, years later, we still miss it.
We booked a house in Ingleburn, a suburb of Sydney. We spent two weeks in Sydney. We enjoyed our time there. We had a small little house close to a few bakeries, grocery stores and shops. I tried passion fruit slices. They are like sugar cookie bars with passion fruit cream on top. Jess and I ran a lot. We played at parks with the kids, ate out and drove to the city.
We made sure to visit downtown Sydney and the famous Sydney opera house. We walked around the city and Jane was so excited to find flaming hot Cheetos after not having them the entire trip. We decided to let her get some even though they were $9 a bag.
1. Royal national park- we spent one day hiking around Royal National Park. There were beautiful beach views. We also spent a lot of time playing on the beach. We hoped to see the famous figure 8 pools, but we never figured out exactly where they were. There was an area we couldn’t get past because of the tide. Either way we thought it was a beautiful place.
2. Eagles-another hike we did was to the famous Eagle rock. If you look from the side it looks like the head of an Eagle.
3. Whale watching
4. Hike manly to bindi
5. Fitzroy falls
6. Blue Mountains
In our year adventure we: went to 14 countries, 4 continents, rode 20 planes, 2 trains, 4 buses and 2 boats and moved 51 times. We had the experience of a lifetime!
As Americans, it should be easy for us to grasp the sheer size of Australia—it’s roughly the same size of the continental United States. But it still is hard to understand just how big the state of Western Australia is; it’s about the size of all the territory of the United States west of the prairie states. So, when you set out to drive from a city fairly far south in WA to a city fairly far north, it’s more than just a one-day drive.
We downloaded several Netflix kids shows, charged the laptops, found a good audio book, and loaded our rental car with our luggage and the fixings for peanut butter sandwiches and hit the road.
The road generally led along the coast so that you could occasionally see the ocean. Even though we were on the main north-south highway in WA, the road was only two lanes and had no shoulder.
On our way to our first night stop, we stopped in at Nambung National Park and checked out the limestone desert.
Then we finished our drive to our partway stop, Kalbarri. It probably was a great little town, but for us, it was just a stop and a budget motel. The next morning, we continued on the second leg of the journey north to the town of Exmouth.
Exmouth was founded in the sixties to host a US military installation. The US withdrew its presence from the base in the 1990’s and now the population of 2,000 people in Exmouth rely mainly on tourism for income.
Although the town is hours and hours from any major city in a car, or a short flight away in a propeller plane, it is definitely worth a visit and was a highlight, if not the highlight of our visit to Australia.
We spent every day snorkeling and playing at the beach, but we did decide to brave the heat and hike around Cape Range National Park. We all thought it was beautiful. We saw a rock wallaby and even a dingo on the drive there.
Nolan and I were snorkeling one day right off shore and Nolan bobs up to tell me that there are sharks. In my mind all I could picture was a great white shark circling us. I couldn’t even look down, I just frantically swam to shore. Turns out they were just little reef sharks, but I was nervous snorkeling every time after.
Jess and Nolan got to spend one day snorkeling with juvenile whale sharks. The girls and I tried meat pies and wandered around the small town of Exmouth. We had hoped to take the whole family to swim with the whale sharks, but Margaret wasn’t old enough to go.
Here are a few of the statues found in the town
Toward the end of our time in Exmouth, I found out about a tour where you could snorkel with Manta Rays, see a shark cleaning station,and swim with dugongs (like manatees). Once again we couldn’t all go because Margaret wasn’t old enough. I was too chicken to take both Jane and Nolan by myself without Jess so he took the older two, When they got back they had been the only people on the tour. They saw so many sharks, fish, sea turtles, etc but the craziest thing they did was swim with a 12 ft tiger shark. I definitely wouldn’t have done that. It ended up being the highlight of the entire trip for all three of them and I was sad I missed out.
Perth-the capital city of Western Australia, with a population of just under 2 million.
We were only in Perth for a few short days. We stopped in Perth on our way up the coast to Exmouth and then returned again to catch a flight to Sydney (New South Wales) before returning to the US.
With limited time we only did a few things. We walked around downtown Perth. Everyone thought it was a beautiful and clean city. A few or the highlights were King’s Park and Elizabeth Quay (a mixed use waterfront development on the Swan River). With most business still shut down due to Covid, the city felt really quiet.
From the city of Albany in Western Australia we really wanted to continue south and east to the town of Esperance. We had heard from several travelers that Esperance had some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. But by early June, Winter is on its way to Australia, and the farther south you go, the colder it gets. Esperance was still a six-hour drive away and it was already too cool to truly enjoy the beaches. We decided instead that we would head north, ultimately to the Ningaloo Reef, but with a few stops along the way. One of those stops was a tiny town called Klondinin. We chose this town because of its proximity to a rock formation known as The Wave.
Klondinin is a tiny town. So small that there’s only one convenience store sized grocery store. So small that there was only one listing on AirBNB. So we booked that listing and drove six hours northeast and away from the coast through miles and miles of open, red-dirt farm country and to the town of Klondinin.
Since I (Jess) was the one who planned out the trip to The Wave rock formation, there wasn’t much actual planning involved. It turns out that it only takes about a twenty-minute visit to take in The Wave. And there’s pretty much nothing else within hours of Klondinin. Still, I thought it was fun to live in the rustic white house, staying warm with space heaters, and trying to find things to do in the area.
Here’s what we did during our three-night stay in Klondinin:
The Wave is a large natural rock formation in the shape of a cresting wave. For the aboriginal population, it was both a site of cultural importance as well as a source of fresh water in the small dished out areas where rain water would accumulated. For European settlers, it was also an importance source of fresh water. A low wall was constructed along the lip of the wave. During rains, the water that ran down the stone surface ran along the stone wall to a collecting reservoir. It was (and still is) a valuable resource in an arid land. For us, it was a neat thing to see and climb.
Hippo’s Yawn is another rock formation in the area. It looks like a wide open hippo mouth.
Mulka’s Cave is, according to local lore, the cave of a cross-eyed aboriginal man named Mulka. Although he was large and strong, his crossed eyes kept him from being a good hunter. So Mulka turned to killing and eating children. Mulka was eventually captured and killed (according to legend). Perhaps there is some truth to the legend. In any case, Mulka’s cave is a cave in which there are many (over 450) hand prints left by the aboriginal people.
The Tin Horse Highway is another main attraction in the region of The Wave. For many kilometers along the otherwise unremarkable two-lane shoulderless highway typical to Western Australia, the local community has erected sculptures of welded steel barrels and other metal scraps that are shaped and painted to become zany, anthropomorphic horses and cattle.
When we first got to Australia, we planned to spend three weeks in a RV driving a loop along the southern coast. One of the places we most wanted to see were the towns of Albany, Denmark, and Esperance.
After only 6 days into our RV trip, The Premier of Western Australia restricted all non-essential travel and everyone was required to stay within small regions. Albany wasn’t in our region so we thought we wouldn’t make it. As restrictions eased and the travel-bubble regions were enlarged, ours now included Albany, Denmark, and Esperance, so we packed our little Kia rental to the brim and headed south.
Albany is a coastal town on the Southern Ocean with a population of about 35,000 (which makes it the third largest city in Western Australia). We stayed in a cute 1940’s style home right off of the main street in town. It was within walking distance of a McDonald’s, a couple of grocery stores and a delicious fish and chip shop. I found out shark is my favorite fish when it is deep battered and fried. When we booked the house, we forgot to check if it had WiFi (it didn’t) and so our kids learned what a TV channel is. They watched a number of cooking shows and found they liked watching whatever was on TV as much as choosing their own show on Netflix. The town had a number of historic buildings that reminded me of the historic buildings in Salt Lake, Utah.
We made the most of our time while we were in Albany, and even though all the museums and some of the beaches were still closed, we managed to see some great places. We still wish we could have seen the beaches in Denmark ( a town close to Albany) like Elephant Rocks and Greens Pool, but they were all closed due to construction work going on in the area.
Our two older kids finished their online home school in Busselton. We tried to keep working on a few things while in Albany. Nolan worked on reading and writing, and Jane chose an “elective class” in cursive and for a few days she was pretty excited to practice it whenever she got a chance.
Lots of cool things to see around Albany. The weather was cool and rainy, so we spent less time at beaches and more time hiking and exploring.
Gap and Natural Bridge-Located in Torndirrup National Park, a natural bridge and a viewing platform provide views of the Southern Ocean.
Treetop Walk-The Valley of the Giants Tree Top located in Walpole-Nornalup National Park, gives you a bird’s eye view of some of the biggest timber giants on Earth – Western Australia’ tingle trees. The walkway climbs 40 meters into the forest canopy and meanders through the treetops for 600 meters. These giant eucalyptus trees are found nowhere else on Earth and are very old with some standing for more than 400 years.
Giant Tingle Tree– A fire-hollowed red tingle tree. As the trees grow compressive forces weaken or kill the center of the tree, leaving it susceptible to fire and insect damage. While the center may burn or rot, the outer trunk of the tree remains healthy.
This giant tree is very unusual – it is “emptied out” by a giant hollow. This hollow is some 15 m high and has been created by forest fires and further expanded by insects and fungus. The hollow is big enough to hold over 100 people. The tree is believed to be over 400 years old.
Granite Skywalk– The two lookouts give spectacular views across the park.
The two kilometre walk up from the Castle Rock picnic area passes through jarrah, marri, and karri forests and right by Balancing Rock to reach the base of Castle Rock and the lower lookout. Reaching the upper lookout requires scrambling through and over rocks and climbing a 6 meter ladder. Jess, Jane, and Nolan all did the upper and lower lookout, but Margaret and I only did the lower lookout.
Emu point beach-located in Albany, Australia. The kids had a fun time making sand food and houses.
Bluff Knoll hike in Sterling Range National Park– Not only does Western Australia have beautiful beaches, but also beautiful mountains. At 1098m above sea level, Bluff Knoll is the highest and most spectacular peak in the South West. The kids all were in good spirits during the hike and Margaret showed us all up by skipping up and down the 6 mile round trip hike.
Little Beach– a small beach in Albany. The kids had fun building wind tunnels. Jess swam despite the weather being cool and windy and I explored the surrounding area. Even though our oldest often complains about going to the beach, whenever we go to a beach, she ends up not wanting to leave. The kids spend hours making sand cakes and houses.
After a week and half in Albany, we had to plan our next destination. Esperance, a town about 6 hours further south and west had been our top destination in Western Australia. Several people had told us that Esperance has the most beautiful beaches in the world. But as the weather had turned cold, we didn’t think we’d be able to make the most of the beaches that far south and decided to travel north and into warmer weather. Our end destination was Exmouth, a town about 40 hours north and east of Albany. We planned a few stops along the way, one of which was the area of Hayden to see a rock formation called The Wave.
We started off our year-long adventure with plans to spend nearly the whole time in Europe. In the end, it was mostly the winter that changed our minds and pushed us to look for warmer destinations. So after Thailand and Vietnam, a logical choice was Bali, and from there tickets to Australia were cheap, so we decided why not? Our original plan was to then go on to New Zealand and fly home from there, but Covid changed our plans and Australia ended up being our final destination.
We settled on Perth and Western Australia over the busier, more populated eastern side of Australia. After our time in Two Rocks and our short time in the RV, we settled into a house in Busselton, about three hours south of Perth, with a population of about 25,000. The whole world seemed to shut down in late March early April because of Covid 19 and Australia was no exception. We needed a place to socially isolate for the indefinite future.
The Premier of Western Australia divided the state into 9 regions and shut the borders between each region. Busselton is in the South West region, the smallest region except for the Perth and Peel region.
Like most people, we spent a few weeks inside and didn’t do much. We played a lot of Monopoly, did crafts, baked, cooked, watched Netflix, took walks and slept a lot. We were used to traveling around every couple of days and now we were in a house with no idea when we would be able to move on again. We enjoyed not packing up and we all felt like we had a house again at least for awhile.
After a couple of weeks of sitting inside and not doing much, we were anxious to do a little exploring. Because of all the restrictions in place we could only travel within our small region. We started picking places to go visit most days and saw a lot of beautiful outdoor places. If you have to be stuck somewhere during a pandemic, Western Australia is a pretty incredible place to be. In addition to beautiful beaches, forests and coast line, we enjoyed seeing lots of kangaroos, emus, parrots, cockatoos, and other animals that are unique to Australia.
Since we were now confined to one place, our motivation to get up, get out, and get it all seen before moving on to the next place waned a fair amount. Jess and I both started running with goal of working up to a half marathon distance by the time we go back to the states. The area around Busselton is flat and just a few feet above sea level. The temperature was generally in the 60’s to high 70’s. Although it was a beautiful place to run, we’re probably in for a rude awakening when we get back to the hills, high elevation, and heat of Utah.
Here are some of the places we visited during our two and a half months quarantining in Busselton.
The Aquarium-A natural rockpool situated between two beaches near the town of Yallingup. Formed from granite rocks, it’s protected from the crashing waves with a gentle flow of fresh water coming into the pool. It is a great place to swim and snorkel. There is a surprising amount of sea life in the small pool.
Indijup Natural Spa- a sheltered inlet on the Indian Ocean not too far from The Aquarium (natural formation described above) near the town of Yallingup. If you sit in the right spot, you can get a seawater massage as the surf blasts over and through a rock formation and into a small pool—or in Jess’s case get hammered by the surf, when you go on particularly rough day.
Tuart Forest National Park-Containing the largest remaining section of pure Tuart (an indigenous Australian tree in the eucalyptus family) forest in the world. We spent an afternoon doing one of the easy walks. As with many of our outings in WA, we didn’t see another soul the whole time we were there. Almost no people and tons of open space to roam.
Bunbury street art and Marleston Hill Lookout-Western Australia is an enormous state, roughly the size of Washington State, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California combined. With a population of around 70,000, Bunbury is the second largest city in WA. This should give you an idea of how small the population of WA is. WA’s population density is about half that of Wyoming—the least dense state in the contiguous US. Anyway, we spent a couple of days in Bunbury wandering the empty streets (empty due to COVID-19) and checking out dolphins in Koombana Bay.
Canal Rocks-Part of the remote coastline on the Indian Ocean. Canal rocks is so named because two large rock formations are separated by a narrow channel of water.
Koombana Bay-located in the town of Bunbury, Koombana bay is home to more than 100 wild bottlenose dolphins. We we’re lucky to see a few hunting fish close to shore. We ran along the shoreline following them for about 15-20 min.
Hamelin Bay-where stingrays routinely swim near the shore searching for food. The area has beautiful clear turquoise water and is supposed to be good for snorkeling. We might have tried it the weather was a little warmer.
Possum Spotlighting trail-a self-guided trail in the Tuart Forest near Busselton you can go on at night with a flashlight to see both western ringtail possums and brushtail possums. We found a few of each as well as tons of spiders.
Moses beach and Quinninup Falls-just off a section of the long coastal trail called the Cape to Cape Track, a small waterfall comes spilling out of the rock. We thought the coastline in this area was some of the most beautiful we have ever seen.
Smith’s Beach and Cape to Cape track-Smith’s beach is a popular surfing spot close to the aquarium and natural spa. Part of the Cape to Cape walk, a 76 mile track running from Perth to the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park, runs in front of Smith’s Beach. We hiked a few miles on the track.
Dave Evans Bicentennial Tree- A 213 ft (6m) tall Karri tree. It the largest of three trees originally used as fire lookouts. To facilitate reaching the lookout platform at the top of the tree, the tree was “pegged” with short sections of re-bar rungs that spiral up from the base of the tree. Now mostly a tourist attraction, the tree is located in Warren National Park in Pemberton, Western Australia. it is close to the Gloucester tree that we saw and that Jess climbed while we were in the RV.
Jess climbed to the top of the highest viewing platform. Jane and Nolan both made it part way up. Margaret and I each did a few rungs on the tree and we were happy with that.
Cape Naturaliste and secret beach-The Cape Naturaliste Lighthouse overlooks the Indian Ocean at Geographe Bay. The lighthouse was closed due to COVID when we visited, but there was a lookout point to see whales migrating September through December. The rocky coast is accessible by a number of trails. This place ended up being our favorite spot. We found a beach about an hour’s walk on one of the trails from the carpark area. The beach was always completely empty. There was a big sand hill to jump down and we all felt like it was a perfect spot to spend a few hours. We referred to it as our secret beach and visited several times.
Surfing lessons in Yallingup– When COVID restrictions eased and small group surf lessons opened back up, Jess jumped at the chance to take a lesson and try surfing. He managed to get up a few times, so we will call it a success. Jane and Nolan decided they would also take surf lessons and both had a grand time and showed Jess up by getting up on their first try. Yallingup ended up being a perfect place to try surfing for the first time. The waves are predictable and mild and the area is sheltered from the rest of the ocean. The kids could touch bottom the whole time.
As restricitions eased up, the 9 regions were consolidated to 4, allowing more travel. We decided we would take full advantage of seeing a wider geographical area and headed to Albany further south and east along the coast. We had heard Albany, Denmark and Esperance were beautiful places and we hoped to see as many places as we could. As we said goodbye to Busselton, we crammed our small KIA rental with all the craft supplies, toys, and clothes we had managed to accumulate in our “home” in Busselton. We had mixed emotions leaving Busselton, but we were all excited to see Albany.
On March 23rd, we left our comfortable house in Two Rocks. Nolan and I drove our rental car south to Perth and returned it, took an Uber to the RV rental center, and after waiting two hours, were set up in our motorhome.
It was a crazy time at the RV center. The Premier of Western Australia had issued an order closing the state’s borders effective the following day to all outsiders, Australians from other places included.
This changed the holiday plans of many people. The lot at the RV rental place was filled with idle RV’s when this is usually the busy season. Many people were hurrying to return their rentals early and head back home.
A couple who had to cancel their trip early and fly back to Sydney gave Nolan and me a bunch of food and water and other supplies.
In any case, we headed back north, and six hours after leaving the city of Two Rocks that morning, we had the family loaded up and left it again.
The thought of driving on the left side of the road in Australia, particularly a big RV at first seemed daunting. But after driving the rental car for a week and a half, it seemed natural, and although the motorhome was big, it wasn’t that bad to drive.
Our plan was to make our way along the coast, southeast toward a town called Esperance, where we had it on good account that some of the most beautiful beaches in the world are tucked away.
Our first stop was a city called Bunbury about three hours south of Perth.
Our first dinner in the motorhome was Pizza. Then we parked in a public parking area near the beach and got ready for the night.
In the RV, one problem we faced every day was finding a place to camp each night.
There are plenty of RV parks in Western Australia, but the majority seem overpriced. In many, to park for a night on a gravel spot with a power source, the cost is $20-25 per adult and $5-15 per kid. Even though it’s Aussie dollars, that still seems steep to me when we can rent a whole house for the same price through Air BNB. Free camping sites are pretty few and far between.
The space we found in Bunbury, was one of the rare places that allows a few RV’s to camp overnight.
It turned out to be a great place–right on the beach and with a clean public restroom. Even thought our RV was completely self-contained and had a toilet and shower, it was nice to have a clean public bathroom with showers to use.
We spent a good chunk of the day at the beach in Bunbury. Like all the beaches we’ve seen in WA, the beach was beautiful and there were very few people. We fished a little and swam a little.
In the afternoon, we headed down the coast an hour or so to a town called Bussselton. It was a pretty little town that would probably have been packed if it hadn’t been for Covid-19.
One of the main attractions in town is the Bustleton jetty–the longest jetty in the southern hemisphere. We walked the 1km from the shore to the end of the jetty. Although there weren’t many people out, we passed some people fishing, so after that,Nolan couldn’t think of anything else.
We spent the night in a small parking area that allowed overnight camping and was about twenty minutes out of town.
We woke up early and drove back to the jetty, stopping at a gas station to get some fishing supplies, and then drive back to the Busselton jetty.
Nolan and I fished for about four hours from the jetty while the girls played in the park.
We fished for Australian herring–a species similar in appearance, but unrelated to true herring. We caught a few and cooked them up for lunch back at the trailer.
After lunch, we loaded up and headed down the road toward the town of Margaret River, stopping at a parking area just off the road for the night.
The Margaret River is famous for it’s vineyards, Mediterranean climate, and beautiful nature. But the actual town of Margaret River was a little underwhelming. So, we bought some groceries, played in a park, and then headed down the road to the Boranup Karri Forest.
Karri trees, like innumerous other species of plants and animals, are only found in Australia. They are quite beautiful trees, with bark that peels off during development, exposing the smooth, ivory trunks. Although the trees are not as big as California’s redwoods, they are big, and the feeling of walking among them is similar to a stroll through the redwoods. We saw very few cars on the road to the forest, and didn’t see another soul while we were walking the trails.
After a few hours hiking through the Karri trees, we hit the road for the coast to see where the famed Margaret River empties into the ocean.
The rangers also informed us that there was talk that in a few days, not only the borders between neighboring Australian states would be closed to travel, but also the borders between the small regions within the state of Western Australia.
Rolling into the parking lot near the beach at about sunset, we were hoping to park near the beach and camp for the night. But as mentioned before, Western Australia is not friendly to free camping, and park rangers showed up and moved us along, recommending a caravan park close by.
So we bit the bullet and rolled down the road to the nearby caravan park, arriving after dark. The front office was closed, but we were able to locate the park host. Although he was a little tipsy or perhaps because of it, he gave us keys to the park gate and told us to pick a spot. When we queried him about the cost of staying the night, he was equivocal and mentioned several prices, from $70/adult plus $10/child ($170 total–which I think is what they really do normally charge during the peak season, and if it weren’t for Covid-19, not only would this be the charge, but the caravan Park would have been completely booked up) for a single night to $54 total. In any case, the price seemed high (but in line with what we’d read on the internet) for a strip of gravel with an electric outlet to run an extension cord to.
But without knowing where to go, we chose a spot and camped for the night.
It was nice when we checked out the next morning the we were charged the lowest price he had mentioned.
At this point, even though we hadn’t used the RV shower at all, just the sink for washing hands and dishes, our gray water tank was completely full and starting to leak. So we hurried to the dumping station.
Certainly one of the most unsavory aspects of RV travel–dealing with the waste tanks. Turns out European style RV’s only have a grey water tank. The toilet empties into a “cassette” that you slide out by hand and empty into the dumping station. Since I knew this ahead of time, I insisted that whenever possible, we use any alternative to the camper toilet.
Once the toilet cassette and great tank were empty, we headed down the road, stopping after a few hours to check out Cape Leeuwin, and its lighthouse.
Then we drove inland toward a forest town called Pemberton, stopping in a primitive rest area off the main road for the night.
We hit the road early and rolled into Gloucester National Park the next morning. It rained off and on, but we did a little hiking.
By early afternoon, the weather was clear and we visited The Gloucester Tree, a giant Karri tree with a staircase of pegs spiraling up to the very top. It feels a little precarious to work your way up the bars 150 feet to the viewing platform at the top. But with sweaty palms, Jane and I both made it all the way up.
The view from the top was great.
There was only one other car in the lot in the National Forest. It was another RV with decals clearly indicating it was a rental. Turns out it was a child with a young son on holiday in Australia from Switzerland. They confirmed what we had heard–the borders between regions in Western Australia were closing, and the locals in the small towns were not pleased with holiday-goers. They have such limited medical services that they feared if Covid-19 hit their towns, they would quickly be overwhelmed.
That information roused in us a sense of urgency about finding a place to hunker down. With no desire to spend the next two weeks with our rented RV (we had it booked for two more weeks) hunkered down in an overpriced RV park, we started searching AirBNB for a place to stay. We found one in Busselton, the second town we had visited with our motorhome, the one with the long jetty. Fortunately, we ended up in a place with a driveway long enough for our motorhome. And for the record, as I write this post more than five weeks later, we’re still holed up there.
It’s a great place, right across from the ocean, with three bedrooms, two baths, a cupboard full of board games, and an old school video game table. With the virus leaving so many rentals empty, it’s a pretty good price, too. We couldn’t get any money back on the RV, so it was our means of transportation for two weeks until we turned it in and got a rental car.
Our next post will cover the rest of our time in Western Australia–which as it turns out is a pretty good place to self isolate if a pandemic strikes.
We left Ho Chi Minh City destined for Bali on March 7th, leaving for the airport at five am (again!).
At the airport, we weren’t allowed to check in to our flight until we could show we had a ticket to leave Bali. So, for once on our trip, we were forced to plan ahead farther than we wanted. We ended up buying a ticket to Australia leaving Bali on March 27th, planning on spending three weeks in Bali. Once we bought our ticket out of Bali, they let us check in and we were Bali bound.
Indonesia is a huge country consisting of over seventeen thousand islands! It has a population of over 250 million and is the most populous Muslim country in the world.
Among those islands, is one in the south called Bali. In contrast with the most of Indonesia, Bali has a relatively small Muslim population, with the majority of it’s people being Hindi.
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a religion that has such a visible display of devotion as Bali’s brand of Hinduism.
Each town, no matter how small, has multiple ornate temples and statues depicting the various deities.
Each devotee (it seems that nearly everyone in Bali is highly-dedicated devotee) daily places small offerings in front of these statues and temples but also many other places–the dashboard of taxis, the steps of their homes, their many motorscooters.
The offerings generally consists of a banana leaf folded and stapled into a small box which is then filled with flower petals, rice, candy, money, and a smoldering stick of incense. As you walk the sidewalks in town, you are constantly stepping over these small offerings.
In the small, family-run homestay where we lived in Bali, it seemed like half the staff spent the majority of their mornings making and placing these offerings around the rooms, statues, and fountains on the property.
Based on the recommendations of several travelers we had met in Thailand and Vietnam, we decided to start our Bali adventure in the city of Ubud, which in contrast with most of the tourist destinations in Bali, is miles from the ocean.
Ubud is super picturesque, surrounded by rice paddies and rainforest, and filled with Hindu temples.
The economy in Ubud, as in most of Bali, is very highly tourist-dependent. For us, one thing this meant was that it was easy to find little pizza shops and Mexican restaurants. And while I’ve read that things in Ubud are priced higher than in much of Bali, we found both food and lodging pretty reasonable.
Here are some of the things we did in and around Ubud.
Just waking around every day was a visual treat. Bright colors, ornate temples, statues dedicated to duties and other figures in Hindu beliefs.
There was a monkey forest with tons of monkeys and old temples. If you weren’t careful, the monkeys would grab your bag and put up a fight trying to run off with it.
In Ubud, the food was pretty good. The restaurants definitely were geared toward tourists. We did have some Balinese food, but also a fair amount of Mexican and Italian.
We hiked in the rainforest just outside of town one day.
After the hike, Nolan really wanted to swim. So a taxi driver talked us into driving us to a waterfall outside of town.
The girls stayed behind and Nolan and I hopped in the taxi and drove to the waterfall. It was pouring rain when we got there and walked down to the river in our swim trunks and carrying our goggles. It turned out not to be a great place to swim, but a great place to watch tourists strike a pose to get the perfect Instagram photo.
Nolan and I crossed the river on a little make-shift wooden plank bridge to reach a path where you could climb to the to of the waterfall.
Above the waterfall, we found a hotel pool where we could swim. It was pouring rain at this point. With ask the rain, the river surged and the little bridge we had crossed on got washed out and we were stranded on one side of the river with our taxi waiting for us on the other side. We had to take another taxi twenty miles upstream to cross back over the river to get back to where our taxi was waiting. The whole process took a few hours. But I guess it was an adventure.
One day, we hired a driver and visited a terraced rice paddy. We climbed around the rice patty for a while and Jane and Nolan swung out over the terraces on a giant swing.
We also toured a plantation that grows coffee, cacao, and a variety of fruits and spices. One of the specialties in this part of the world is kopi luwak, coffee made from coffee beans that have been eaten and defecated by the palm civet, a small cat-like animal.
Although it sounds like these coffee beans are scooped up from the scat of free and happy civets, in practice the beans usually come from caged civets. Not only is it a cruel industry, but from what reviews I’ve read from expert coffee tasters, it doesn’t actually improve the flavor of the beans. Anyway, don’t buy kopi luwak, despite what Jack Nickelson’s character on As Good as it Gets might recommend.
The plantation was nonetheless interesting to visit and we see cacao trees, coffee plants, papaya trees, and a variety of other fruity trees and spice plants.
We also toured the Tirta Empul temple, a temple with a holy spring. To enter this, as any other Hindu temple in Bali, you had to don a sarong. If you wanted to bathe in the holy spring, you had to change this first sarong for a special green sarong before you entered the water.
Margaret, Nolan, and I bathed in the holy spring and we all toured the beautiful temple ground with its many temples, springs, and pools.
Storytelling through music and dance is an important part of the religious tradition in Bali. Although the outdoor performance we attended was forced inside due to rain, it was fun to watch.
We had planned on going to visit cities in the far north of the island where the beaches and snorkeling were supposed to be wonderful. But in the few days after we arrived in Bali, the news about Corona virus began to really heat up. The US closed its borders to Europe and many other countries were starting to adopt similar measures. As cool as Bali was, and it was really cool, we decided that if things got worse and we ended up stuck somewhere, Bali might not be the best place to be stuck. So we changed our flights and at 4am on March 14th, we climbed into another cab and drove back to the airport–after just one week in Bali.
Since I am so behind on posts, I should explain that we left Vietnam on March 7th for Bali, Indonesia. We intended to stay in Bali for three weeks, but left early as things with COVID-19 were heating up worldwide. We are now in Australia and intend to stay until travel is safer.
The US government has called for US citizens abroad to return home if they are not prepared to remain in place for an extended period of time. The government’s call to return to the US is not a call to patriotism, but out of concern for the well-being of its citizens who may not be prepared to remain out of the country for an extended period of time.
For any concerned about us, we are prepared to remain in Australia until travel conditions are safe. We have consulted with the United States Consulate in Perth concerning this decision.
Our decision to remain in Australia is based on many reasons, among which are: we cannot return to our home until August (it’s rented out until then), our current health insurance is only active outside of the US (in the US, we wouldn’t be covered right now), Australia has good health care, and the situation with COVID-19 in Australia right now is a little better than in the US.
We are sheltering-in-place here just like most people in America. The state of Western Australia has locked down travel not just to neighboring states, but also between cities, so we will be in Busselton, a small town south of Perth, until the virus is under control and the travel ban is lifted.
But, there could be worse places to be in quarantine than Western Australia with an empty beach just across the street!
Anyway, on to the post about our last stop in Vietnam.
Our last few days in Vietnam were in the largest city in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon.
Right away, Ho Chi Minh was different from Hanoi, the second largest city. It was much cleaner. In Hanoi, people literally dumped their garbage on the street. At night people came with brooms and handcarts and cleaned it up. The same was true in Quy Nhon–there was always garbage everywhere by the end of the day. Ho Chi Minh had public garbage cans and dumpsters and the streets were much cleaner.
The food was also much better in Ho Chi Minh. I guess it’s hard to say since we only saw a limited slice of both cities, but it seemed that way to us. Despite originating in the north, pho was much better in the south. The bahn mi was also quite a bit better in the south than in the north.
We didn’t have a lot of time in Ho Chi Minh and prioritized seeing the war remnant museum and the tunnels in Cu Chi.
The war remnant museum displayed many of the tanks, planes, guns, and shells used by America against Vietnam. It had a display dedicated to the war protests among GI’s and civilians in America, and to the protests to the war in other countries in the war. Many of the GI’s stories were gut-wrenching and moving.
The museum also housed a display showing the terrible effects of Agent Orange, a chemical sprayed from planes that killed all the vegetation it contacted, reducing the cover where Vietnamese guerrillas could hide. Agent Orange is a chemical “intercalating agent”, meaning it inserts or intercalates a new base into DNA stands, inducing all sorts of mutations (many resulting in cancer) and permanently altering the DNA. Even trace exposure in results in permanent, irreparable damage to DNA that is passed on to the offspring of those exposed. Because of this, the affects of Agent Orange are multi-generational and still occurring in children born today.
We spent our last day visiting Cu Chi, a village located close to Saigon that was a stronghold for the Vietcong.
The villagers of Cu Chi dug tunnels in the compact clay plateau above the Mekong River. The tunnel construction started in the 1950’s under the French, but continued to the end of the Vietnam War.
The people lived in the tunnels, coming out at night to farm and to fight.
When you see this place and read the stories of those who lived in the tunnels, it becomes clear why the US never had a chance in Vietnam.
The Cu Chi villagers lived in an unsanitary, cramped, dark, and low oxygen environment with the constant possibility that the bombs dropped by the B-52’s would collapse the tunnels and bury them alive.
The US went to Vietnam to stop the spread of communism. But the truth is, those who supported the communists were not so much dedicated to the ideals of communism as they were to an independent and self-determined Vietnam.
They were generally the poor and working class who had grown tired of the oppression that they had endured for centuries under a ruling class. The oppression had worsened under the policies of the French who maintained their power by bolstering the upper classes. When the French left and the US intervened, the government they helped put in place maintained the dominance of the ruling class to the point of extreme poverty and starvation of the lower classes of people.
And so communism was not what they were striving for so much as an end to decades of French oppression and centuries of oppression before that.
Their level of commitment is something that cannot be grasped by someone who hasn’t known what it is like to live in those conditions for generations.
Living in the tunnels and fighting was just more misery and suffering for a people who had endured it for so long.
The Vietnamese were not just ready to die fighting for their country, they were ready to live in unbearably deplorable conditions, half-starved, indefinitely and then die fighting for their country.
Unfortunately, having eventually won the war, the government in Hanoi did not/could not live up to the hopes and expectations of the Vietnamese people and life after the war continued to be very tough.
The tunnels had three levels. The first was used for daily life–cooking, working, waiting, sleeping. The next, deeper layer was safer from shelling and bombs. The third, deepest level exited the plateau into which the tunnels were dug just below the level of the Mekong river and was used as an escape when Americans filled the tunnels with toxic gas–the Vietcong would follow the deepst tunnels to where they met the river, swimming through the several meters of water-filled tunnel into the Mekong river and then rising to the surface to escape.
The tunnels were intentionally dug low and narrow–on average 3 feet tall and one and half feet wide. Hollow bamboo poles placed vertically from the tunnels to the surface carried some fresh air into the stuffy tunnels. Cooking was accomplished using similar ventilation to carry smoke out of the tunnels. The tunnels had hospitals, schools, work stations and other places to go about the daily tasks of life during war. By the end of the war, at least 75 miles of tunnels had been constructed
Excerpts from A People’s History of the Vietnam War (Jonathan Neale)
An account of Le Van Nong, a farmer turned guerrilla who lived in the Cu Chi tunnels for years.
“The tunnels we were in stank and we stank. The tunnels were usually very hot and we were always sweating…At night we tried to cook the rice for eating the next day. If there was no time to prepare the rice, we went without food for the whole day until the next night, and we tried to come up to cook. It really wasn’t possible for us to cook underground, the smoke was always asphyxiating, you just could not breathe, there was no air down there anyway. Sometimes we were driven to attack the Americans and make them go away, just to we could come up and cook at night, cook in the open. You cannot imagine what pleasure it gave us. “
Vien Phong was a poet who worked in the tunnels, writing and printing leaflets for distribution in Saigon. He slept in a hole three feet high dug out of the side of a tunnel:
“I had not dug the shelter too deep, for we learned from bitter experience that the deeper the shelter, the greater the chance of being buried alive after a bombing attach, so I built a moderately strong shelter that could deal with the bomb fragments. When the enemy carried out their anti-guerrilla operations above, I went into my sleeping shelter, lit a candle, and read books or poems until the air was so foul I had to extinguish the candle and lie in the complete blackness of eternal night, listening to the tanks and guns above me. I did not know, and nor did my comrades, whether we had judged the depth of our tunnels correctly. One lay there, wondering if a tank would crash through the ceiling of your sleeping chamber and crush you to death, or worse, not quite to death.”
Dang Thi Linh was originally from Saigon. Helicopter gunships had killed both her father and mother in separate incidents. She worked as a dancer in one of the traveling theatre groups the Vietcong sent around to raise morale. They performed in the tunnels and were very popular. Peasants traveled from the surrounding villages and came down into the tunnels to watch. Air was always a problem. Above ground, the audience would have sung along with the performers. Below ground, the audience was usually silent, so as not to use up the air.
In any case, it was an eye-opening experience to visit the tunnels. There is a section of tunnel you can crawl through (although it was made specifically for tourists and is wider, taller, lit, force ventilated, and only 40 meters long), but Nolan and I got our fill of being in tunnels while we were in Turkey. So, the girls went without us, but apparently they had got their fill, too as they bailed out at the first side exit and didn’t make it the full 120 feet.
Even though our stay in Ho Chi Minh was short and the Cu Chi tunnels and war museum occupied most of our time, we enjoyed other things the city offered. We ate good food, both Vietnamese cusine and some foods we missed from home, including pizza and Mexican food. We also, found a great spa where our whole family got to soak our feet in a big pool with little fish that ate your dead skin. After sitting in the pool for 1/2 an hour, Ashley, Jane and I all decided to get pedicures and foot massages.
And then, we left Vietnam. We loved it. We stayed right up to the last day allowed on our visa. Like our experience in Morocco, going to Vietnam was a step back in time where you could see farmers working their rice paddies with water buffalo, people living in boats on the sea and on the river, and women carrying fruit or flowers to sell on a milkmaid’s yoke. It was a wonderful experience.
We left Hoi An via the Danang airport and flew to Can Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta.
The Mekong River flows from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia, then winding it’s way through southern Vietnam, finally reaching the sea.
For a hundred miles or so before it meets the sea, the river splits up into thousands of narrower branches which diverge forming the V-shaped delta.
This area is the most fertile in Vietnam and allows Vietnam to be the world’s largest rice exporter. Dozens of various fruits and vegetables are grown here as well.
We stayed in a little bamboo and grass-thatched bungalow (with no AC) with mosquito nets over each bed, right on a canal in the Delta.
On our first day, we took a tour up the river and visited a crocodile farm.
On day two, we left at five am for a tour of one of the floating markets in the Delta.
The floating markets are wholesale markets where farmed goods are shipped down the river on wooden boats powered by automobile motors attached to propellers by a long shaft.
The boats are of various sizes, but none are huge. Regardless of size, each boat has a wooden cabin where the sellers can live while they sell their goods.
Since it’s a wholesale market where vendors and restauranteurs from the local towns ride out on smaller boats to buy what they need for the day, all the action happens in the early morning. By ten, the markets close down as the sellers retire to their huts to sleep.
We ate a decent bowl of pho floating on the river.
Then we walked around a land market where all sorts of fish and fruits are sold.
We also visited a small factory that produced rice noodles. After mixing rice and tapioca flour into a thin paste, they spread on onto a finely woven fabric screen where it is steamed by a large wok filled with water that is heated by burning rice chaff.
The kids got to move the steamed rice flour “pancakes” from the fabric screen onto a bamboo lattice to dry in the sun. Then they got to run one of the dried pancakes through the hand-cranked machine that cuts then into noodles. They loved the rice noodles factory.
Back at our bungalow, we killed time fishing (Nolan caught a massive catfish), riding bikes into town to buy deep-fried cheese and cheddar fries from a roadside vendor, and trying “cupping”, a traditional healing technique offered for free by our hosts. As I write this, two weeks have passed since our cupping experience and I still have the bruises to show for it. Ashley and I both found it a moderately painful and unpleasant experience (see photos).
After just two nights in the delta region, we boarded a bus and headed to Saigon.