3

Farewell North Shore, Oahu…

Last Thursday when I placed our order for 2 cheese pizzas at the Wicked Hi pizza stand, the lady taking our order smiled at me and said “I love that your family comes here every week.” I smiled back and replied “yeah, but sadly this is our last week coming here. After 6 incredible months in Oahu we head back to the mainland end of this month”…

As I walked away a wave of emotions washed over me. This was the first time it actually hit me that our time here is almost up.

While I’m excited to be going back to our beautiful home in Marin and can’t wait to catch up with all of our friends, I know that I’m truly going to miss living on the North Shore of Oahu.

Here’s my compilation of the top 10 things I’ll miss most:

1. Perfect weather every day
Having lived in a range of climates, I can definitively say that I love warm weather the best. I know some people need to have their seasons, but for me, warm and sunny every day is perfection. And that’s what you get living in Hawaii. Now, admittedly we did have a handful of rain drenched days during the winter, but for the most part, every day here over the last 6 months has been ~27 degrees celsius (~81 Fahrenheit) and sunny. Can’t be beat!

2. Thursday evening pizza picnic at Waimea Valley Farmer’s Market
One lovely weekly ritual for the family was to visit the Waimea Valley Farmer’s Market every Thursday afternoon and having a picnic in the lush surroundings. We’d bring a bottle of red wine (thank you wine club membership at Haleiwa Bottle Shop!) and a picnic mat, and then we’d go order from the food vendors in the market. Our favorite (as you may have picked up from the intro) was Wicked Hi’s sourdough pizza’s (a must have for the kids), but Christine and I also branched out to indulge on pasta, burgers or poke salads depending on our mood.

But what I loved most about these weekly picnics wasn’t just the food, but the beautiful atmosphere. Waimea Valley is a breathtaking setting with lush greenery and giant trees. And the sight of children coming together to play tag, hide and seek or climb trees is truly special.

3. Finishing work by 3pm
I’m not going to lie but the 3 hour time difference between Hawaii and SF was tough at times, particularly with 5am board meetings. But on the flip side, it also meant that I was done with meetings most days by 2pm and could switch off not much past 3pm. It really allowed us to have two parts of our day: working and playing. It really made life feel much more balanced.

4. Finding mangoes on our morning walks
Early in our stay, Christine and I saw a sign that said: “Watch out for falling mangoes.” We looked up at this tall tree that didn’t appear to have mangoes and we asked each other “Is this a joke? Do mangoes really grow on tall trees like this? I thought they grew on bushes…”. Well, fast forward a couple of months and while on our morning walk not far from our house we stumbled upon a half eaten mango on the ground that a wild chicken was pecking at. I didn’t think much of it at first, until I noticed a second and then a third mango on the ground. I looked up, and lo and behold it turns out mangoes do in fact grow on tall trees!

Mango tree! (Look closely!)

Best thing about having mango trees near your house….. free mangoes!! (so long as you can get to them before the chickens peck at them first!).

5. Sushi in “town”
It’s funny how every place you go, there are references for various other places as “the city” or “town.” On Oahu, Honolulu is “town.” And while I’m glad we chose to live outside of “town” to get more of a low key, chilled setting while living in Hawaii, I’m also glad we had access to Honolulu given the number of amazing world class restaurants there (a major advantage of Oahu vs. other islands). But if there’s one cuisine that Honolulu really excels in, it would have to be sushi. No doubt a result of the large Japanese population and Japanese connections, there are a number of outstanding sushi restaurants and izakaya’s. Our favorites: Sushi Izakaya Gaku, Sushi ii, Izakaya Torae Torae, and @sushi. All wonderful! We also wanted to try Sushi Sho and Sushi Sasabune but couldn’t find a time. Next time!

6. Hiro Dreams of Sushi!
On the topic of AMAZING sushi, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give a shout out to a wonderful sushi chef who came to our place not once, not twice, but three times (!!) during our stay, Chef Atsuhiro (“Hiro”) Kajita. We got introduced to Hiro through our very good friend Molly Goshorn when Molly, Joshua and their family came to stay with us. Turns our Molly went to high school with Hiro and he has since become a world class sushi chef living on Oahu. Molly and Josh gifted us an evening with Hiro when they stayed with us and we were hooked! Can’t recommend Hiro more highly!

7. Date night with help from Auntie Jay
Our many sushi date nights in Honolulu would not have been possible were in not for Auntie Jay. Auntie Jay is a wonderful lady and grandmother who lived in Waialua not far from our home. Once we discovered her, it became an almost weekly ritual to drop the kids off with her on a Saturday afternoon so that Christine and I could have a date night. What’s best is that the kids always looked forward to visiting Auntie Jay’s and getting to watch movies and playing with so many toys!

8. Our North Shore friends
Christine wrote a post on Ka Hana Pono, our kids’ preschool (which in itself deserves to be in my top 10 things I’ll miss), but one of the amazing side benefits of the preschool was the community of parents we got to know. It was a wonderful mixed crowd of people who’ve lived on Oahu for many years, to people staying for a few months like us. We will miss you all!

9. Watching the world’s best surfers on Pipeline
I remember when I was 11 years old that I had a friend who surfed called Barney, and he told me of the hallowed beaches of Waimea Bay and Pipeline, where the world’s best surfers went to prove themselves. Incredible that almost 3 decades later I would be living on this very spot, learning from the locals about the incredible intricacies (and dangers) of surfing Pipeline and witness first hand the spectacular perfect barrels of the break. A great documentary we watched that really captures the place is Momentum Generation (and another great cheesy movie that kind of captures it too is North Shore). Christine and I had countless evenings sitting on our lanai with a glass of wine, awestruck by the surfers at Pipeline. When we arrived we found out we were neighbors with pro surfer, Jadson Andre, and it was a thrill to watch him surf. We also often saw world famous surfer and Pipeline resident Jamie O’Brien shredding it on our doorstep. And we even got a glimpse of Kelly Slater out there one day too.

On topic of celebrity sightings, Christine often bumped into Jack Johnson riding his kids to Sunset Elementary on her morning runs! How cool is that?!

10. Living by the beach
Saving the absolute best to last, I’m truly going to miss living on a beach. I grew up in Sydney and lived my entire childhood and early adulthood only a stone’s throw away from the beach, but living right on the beach just can’t be beat. From hearing the thunderous winter waves from our bed at night, to the numerous quick dips in the ocean between work meetings, to the many hours we spent mesmerized looking out at the pacific horizon, the experience living here for the past 6 months has been nothing short of magical. I very much hope to make living by a beach a bigger part of our lives in the future!

0

7 observations from a month in Berlin

Berlin Trabi Car

Berlin Trabi Car

[NOTE: For those of you who know us well, you’ll realize that this blog post is a bit out of date. I began it in Berlin a couple of months back but never got around to publishing it. Oh well, better late than never!…]

Berlin was a really fun place to hang out in for a month. While it has many of the familiarities of a typical modern western city, it also has its quirks that make it like no other. Here’s a list of some of the more different and defining aspects of the Berlin and Berliners:

1. Poor, but sexy

Street performer

Street performer

There’s a famous quote from a former Berlin mayor, saying that “Berlin is poor, but sexy”. I think this sums up the place well.

On the “poor” side of things, I must admit that this came as a bit of a shock to me. Given the relative strength of the German economy, I was surprised to find that the economy of the capital city isn’t so strong. From what I learned, the period of East German communism (1949 – 1990) led to almost all major German corporations moving out of Berlin and setting up shop in the major West German cities. As a result, there is a dearth of industry to power the economy here. A positive bi-product for day-to-day living is that Berlin is really cheap for a major European city. Rent is cheap. Food is cheap. Beer is cheap (often cheaper than bottled water).

As for the “sexy” side of things, Berlin has this in spades. Nightlife is big with a world renowned electronic music scene. And what it lacks in investment bankers and suited corporate types, it makes up in creative types like artists, musicians and start-up tech workers. The style in Berlin is retro, hipster and grungy. Think: fitted plaid shirts; beanies in summer; coloured hair, tats and piercings.

Berlin hipsters

Berlin hipsters

But I’d say that Berlin is more than just sexy. It’s also very liveable. There are parks everywhere. Great cafes, restaurants and bars at every block corner. And a highly efficient and effective public transport system that one would expect of a major German city.

2. Everyone carries a beer with them, everywhere

Beer on the streets

Beer on the streets

It felt like we would see people carrying an open beer with them everywhere we went. And I mean everywhere! Guy riding his bike down the road: drinking a beer. Couple of young women heading to the train station: drinking beers. Couple of guys chilling outside of a convenience store: drinking beers.

3. You can mention the war

John Cleese from "Fawlty Towers"

John Cleese from “Fawlty Towers”

One of my favourite shows growing up was Fawlty Towers, and one of the all time great lines was when Basel Fawlty (played by John Cleese) would tell his staff “don’t mention the war” in reference to the German guests staying with them. However, in reality, the idea that Germans are touchy or hush-hush about Germany’s role in WW2 couldn’t be further from the truth. Berlin is full of museums and monuments that lay out in great detail the many atrocities committed by the Nazis, without sugar coating. Interestingly, this is pretty different to our observations in our recent travels in Japan.

4. May Day chaos

May Day street party

May Day

In our month in Berlin we were witness to more demonstrations and strikes than we had experienced in our entire lives. It seems Berlin is a bit of hub for this. This is most evident on May 1st, where leftists and anarchists from around Europe descend on Berlin to participate in demonstrations that can border on riots. Kind of a strange tradition, but fortunately the more mainstream thing to do on May Day is to party on the streets (which is what we did!).

May Day street party

May Day street party

May Day street party

May Day street party

5. Graffiti and street art

Berlin wall

Berlin wall

Berlin is also a city of graffiti. It’s everywhere. Just to give you one example, we stayed in a relatively nice apartment in the very family friendly neighborhood of Prenzlauerberg, and yet the doors and hallways were covered in graffiti. On the positive side, not all the graffiti is just lame tags. A lot of it is truly a work of street art.

6. Photo booths

Photoautomat

Photoautomat

Fitting in with the retro vibe, there are old school photo booth machines all around the place. In an era of ubiquitous camera phones, it’s cool to see that these machines have survived and remain surprisingly popular in Berlin.

7. Open Air Karaoke in Mauer Park

Karaoke at Mauer Park

Karaoke at Mauer Park

IMG_2457Now this is really cool. Every weekend a guy comes along with a microphone, loudspeaker and a computer full of back up sound tracks, and invites people to sing karaoke to the hundreds of onlookers in the park. Super fun atmosphere with the occasional brilliant singer up there among the many not so brilliant.

* * * * *

To sum it up, as noted by many other Berliners and visitors of Berlin before us, Berlin is the least German city in all of Germany. Christine and I had a brilliant month living here and look forward to returning again soon.

Finally, we’d like to give a big shout out to Werner Zedler, our friend and Berliner, who took us under his wing and showed us the very best parts of Berlin and its surroundings during our month here. Werner, we are forever in your debt!

3

Japan: the fun and the fascinating

Cherry blossoms, Kyoto

Cherry blossoms, Kyoto

To put it simply, we loved Japan. 3-weeks was barely enough time. A beautiful country with a rich and truly unique culture. We loved how efficiently everything functions, like the train system that runs so punctually that it puts every other country’s train system to shame. We loved how incredibly polite and hospitable everyone is, such as the times we would ask someone for directions and have them personally accompany us all the way to our destination. We loved how clean everything is, even though you struggle to find a rubbish bin. We loved Japan’s quirkiness, such as the crazy cafes where young waitresses dressed up as french maids “meow” at you, or the cosplay fashion where young adults dress up like comic book characters. And of course, we loved the food. More on that later.

Tokyo: random Karaoke

Our first stop in Japan was Tokyo, where we stayed for a week. Tokyo has that incredible buzz of a metropolis mixed with everything great about Japanese culture from cleanliness, to efficiency, to politeness and of course quirkiness. It’s a place we want to go back to again and again, as we get the impression we would never grow bored of it.

Lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo

Lights of Shinjuku, Tokyo

“Meow!” at the Maid Cafe, Tokyo

Shinkansen (bullet train), Tokyo

Shinkansen (bullet train), Tokyo

One of the highlights of our week in Tokyo was not really planned. On our second evening we found ourselves feeling a little hungry. It was a bit early for dinner, so we decided to just have a snack at a yakitori (chicken skewers) joint. We’d been told that a good place to try yakitori is Omoide Yokocho (also known as “piss alley” for some reason) in Shinkuju so we thought we’d give it a try. The narrow alley is littered with small restaurants, with very little written in English. Unsure how to choose, we figured to go after the joint that seemed most crowded with Japanese people and found this great place where no English was spoken. Through a bunch of pointing we were able to order some skewers of a whole bunch of different pig parts. I’m usually not a big fan of innards or tongue, but this stuff was delicious. So delicious that our quick snack turned into a full on dinner, as we tried all sorts of meats that I’m not even sure of and drank lots of beer.

Omoide Yokocho (

Omoide Yokocho (“piss alley”)

Omoide Yokocho (

Omoide Yokocho (“piss alley”)

IMG_1481

Our yakitori joint, Omoide Yokocho (“piss alley”)

First course: pig intestines (I think...)

First course: pig intestines (I think…)

Second course: beef tongue (yum!)

Second course: beef tongue (yum!)

IMG_1490

Skewers of all different parts of the pig

Skewers of all different parts of the pig

A couple of hours later, we stumbled out of the joint and it was now dark. Not yet ready to go home we looked for a bar to have a drink or two before calling it a night. Just down the road from Omoide Yokocho is another place that was recommended to us: Golden Gai. Golden Gai is a neighbourhood full of tiny bars that barely seat 6 people. Each has its own kind of theme. Again we looked for a bar that seemed to be busy and found one that could just squeeze us in. The great thing about these kinds of bars is that they’re intimate so that everyone talks with each other. While not a lot of English was spoken, the guy next to us tried his best. After a couple of drinks, two more guys came in the bar, one from Japan and one from England. We started chatting together and before long we were invited to come and sing karaoke with them. Why not?! So what we expected to be a casual and quiet Sunday evening, ended in late night beers and karaoke. Only in Japan.

Our bar in Golden Gai, Tokyo

Our bar in Golden Gai, Tokyo

New friends (Kevin and Ken) we met at the bar

New friends (Kevin and Ken) we met at the bar

Karaoke with our new friends, Kevin and Ken

Karoake with our new friends, Kevin and Ken

Karaoke with our new friends, Kevin and Ken

Karoake with our new friends, Kevin and Ken

Mt Takao: the “oh so cute” Japanese school children

View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao, Japan

View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Takao, Japan

Having budgeted 6-days in Tokyo, we figured that afforded enough time to make a day trip out of the city to get a bit closer to nature. After some asking around, we heard that Mount Takao would be a good choice since the surrounding nature is beautiful, it has a great view of Mt. Fuji, and it is less than an hour away by train. While all of that turned out to be true, the actual highlight of our day trip to Mt. Takao was observing a group of adorable 6 year old Japanese school kids on excursion.

The whole scene could not be more different to what a school lunch break was like when I was 6 years old, where we’d sit on the ground and eat a sandwich with our grubby fingers. Instead, each of them had their own picnic mats that they took out of their backpacks and carefully laid out in front of them. Before sitting on these picnic mats, they took of their shoes. Before beginning to eat, they took out a rolled up wet cloth (that had its own special container in their backpack) and diligently cleaned their hands. And of course, the food in their lunch box was wonderful. Each child had their own bento box that had clearly been homemade. We saw skewers of edamame; rice balls with smiley faces; nori rolls, just to name a few. Watching these children reminded us of everything that is so wonderful about Japanese culture.

While we didn’t want to be those kinds of tourists who secretly take photos of other people, we couldn’t help ourselves…

Naoshima: bumping into friends in the middle of nowhere
For our first stop after Tokyo, we made our way to the tiny island of Naoshima for a day and a night. Over the last 10 years, Naoshima has established itself as a bit of an art lovers destination with its several art galleries and installations scattered across the island. That said, the place is tiny with barely 3,000 people. So you can imagine our surprise when we bumped into our friends Alan Au and Kian Lee from Sydney, who happened to be there on their honeymoon!

“Look who we bumped into?!” with Alan Au and Kian Lee in Naoshima

Biking around Naoshima

Biking around Naoshima

Naoshima art island, Japan

Naoshima art island, Japan

Hiroshima: hula-hooping under a cherry blossom tree.

Peace memorial park, Hiroshima

Peace memorial park, Hiroshima

By the time we arrived in Hiroshima, the cherry blossoms were just starting to bloom. Now, I’ll admit that before we came to Japan I was skeptical as to why there was so much fuss around cherry blossom season. It’s just a flower blooming after all. However, after having experienced it I can appreciate why the occasion is so beloved. First of all, cherry blossom trees grow almost everywhere in Japan and so when they hit full bloom the colours of the trees transform the streets and parks. Second, the cherry blossom trees themselves don’t have any leaves at this stage so all you see is the beautiful white/pink blower buds which almost looks like snow. It’s like a winter wonderland in spring. Third, the tradition of having picnics under cherry blossom trees create a festive atmosphere. And last, the fact that the full bloom barely lasts more than a few days creates a feeling of preciousness to the occasion.

One of our favourite cherry blossom experiences was in Hiroshima at Hijiyama park. We went to the park looking to find a quiet patch of grass where we could practice hula hooping for a while. We ended up finding this beautiful spot right under a cherry blossom tree where we plugged in our headphones and hooped the afternoon away. It was a serene experience. The perfect weather; the state of flow we got into while hooping listening to music; the beauty of the cherry blossom tree. Just amazing.

Miyajima: our secret night time cherry blossom spot

Floating shrine, Miyajima

Floating shrine, Miyajima

Five story pagoda, Miyajima

Five story pagoda, Miyajima

Another one of my favourite cherry blossom experiences was at Miyajima, nearby from Hiroshima. Christine and I were taking a stroll in the evening after dinner, and took a detour away from the main strip up into the nearby hills. It was there we stumbled across this tiny park, full of cherry blossom trees that were illuminated at night with pink lanterns. Under one of the trees a group of young Japanese adults were having an evening picnic. From this spot you could look through the lit up cherry blossoms out onto the waters of Miyajima.

Evening cherry blossom viewing, Miyajima

Evening cherry blossom viewing, Miyajima

Night time cherry blossom viewing, Miyajima

Night time cherry blossom viewing, Miyajima

Kyoto: Discovering Dashi
After a few days spent between Naoshima, Hiroshima and Miyajima, we arrived in Kyoto where we stayed for 4 days. We had decided to spend a good amount of time in Kyoto because it is the cultural capital of Japan and we’d also been told it was the best place to view cherry blossoms in the country.

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto

Bamboo grove, Kyoto

Bamboo grove, Kyoto

Tenryuji Temple, Kyoto

Tenryuji Temple, Kyoto

Geisha tea ceremony, Kyoto

Geisha tea ceremony, Kyoto

Dinner with Pato and Kenny, Kyoto

Dinner with Pato and Kenny, Kyoto

We had amazing food experiences throughout Japan: yakitori; gyozas; ramen; udon; soba; tonkatsu; miso; tempura; sushi; just to name a few! In Kyoto, we got a little closer to understanding why Japanese food is so great, taking a cooking class with Cooking Sun. We cooked a bunch of different dishes, but the biggest revelation was learning about Dashi. Dashi is a broth that is the foundation of many Japanese dishes from miso soup to the accompanying broth we had with many fish dishes to the sauce we dipped our tempura in. What I love about Dashi is that unlike other European style broths made with bones, it is so quick and easy to prepare. Just kombu seaweed and bonito (dried fish) flakes. Like other broths, the purpose of Dashi is to bring out the umami flavour in foods which the Japanese are masters of. Since doing the cooking class we’ve since read about the rich history of Dashi along with the many health benefits. And we’ve even had a chance to experiment with making Dashi and other variations at home, even using it as a base in European dishes we cook (worked very well!).

IMG_2251

Dashi ingredients: dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu seaweed and bonito

Making our first ever dashi!

Making our first ever dashi!

Kobe: Kobe in Kobe
On the topic of great food experiences, one of the absolute highlights was eating Kobe beef in Kobe. After some digging around we’d heard that Kobe Ishidaya would be a great introduction to the wonderful world of Kobe beef. Ishidaya is a Teppan restaurant where the chef cooks in front of you (no, they don’t throw food at you like at those cheesy Benihana restaurants). Christine and I both ordered the set menu, with one of us taking the very highest grade Kobe (most marbled) and the other taking the next grade down (slightly less marbled) to have some point of comparison. Both cuts of meat were incredible. Melt in your mouth incredible. The taste was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. It was probably more akin to fatty tuna than steak. As I recall this experience I find my mouth watering…

Kobe beef, Kobe

Kobe beef, Kobe

Kobe beef cooked on the teppan, Kobe

Kobe beef cooked on the teppan, Kobe

Delicious Kobe beef, Kobe

Delicious Kobe beef, Kobe

Kinosaki Onsen: our glimpse into traditional Japan
Almost everyone, who we asked for tips on Japan, said we had to experience a traditional Japanese onsen (hot spring), many recommending the small onsen town of Kinosaki Onsen as the place to go. We loved it. The whole experience was so calming and another wonderful example of everything we love about Japan.

Kinosaki Onsen is a tiny town with barely more than a few Ryokans (Japanese traditional accommodation) and the seven public bath houses built upon the natural hot springs. It is set in beautiful hilly countryside, not far away from the northern coast of the main island of Japan (Honshu). The majority of the architecture is old style Japan. Most of the guests in the town are dressed in the traditional Yukatas (like a basic version of the Kimono) as they go from bathhouse to bathhouse.

The Ryokan experience is wonderful in itself. The room you stay in is very basic. Just tatami mats and a low table with cushions. A Kaiseki (multi-course) dinner was served in the room. It was quite serene to sit in our Yukata robes and eat this wonderful meal together. And then afterwards, the staff cleared everything away making space for our futons for us to sleep on.

Tokyo (again): farewell sushi
After almost 3-weeks in Japan, we found ourselves back in Tokyo for our final two nights before we flew out. A little while ago, Christine and I had watched the documentary of a Japanese sushi chef, Jiro dreams of sushi, with awe and fascination. While it would have been cool to actually eat at his restaurant (which was out of the question since it’s booked out months in advance) we did the next best thing and found an equally impressive high end sushi restaurant for our last night in Tokyo, Sushi Kanesaka. To say it was the best sushi we’d ever eaten would be an understatement. Every piece we ate was an absolute delight. The perfect end to a fantastic Japan experience.

2

Blissful Bali

Enjoying the view at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

Enjoying the view at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

If I were to use one word to summarise our 2.5 week stay in Bali, it would be “bliss.” Pure, utter, serene, “bliss.” The Balinese are friendly, happy and peaceful people; the tropical island landscape is stunning; the accommodations are luxurious; the food is delicious; massages are fantastic and incredible cheap; and then add to this mix, getting to spend time with some of our closest friends, it was clear that our stay was going to be an amazing few weeks.

You’ll recall that we hadn’t originally planned to cut to come back to Asia, however our plans changed after Christine was lured here by a hula hooping retreat (Christine will write about this separately). So we made the 40 hour journey from Rio to Bali, the longest haul either of us had ever done. We arrived into Bali 4-days before the hula hoop retreat and joined our good friends Teeba and Basel at our villa in Seminyak, Bali. I don’t know which was better, getting to see Teeba and Basel, who we hadn’t seen since Tomorrowland last July, or getting introduced to the amazing accommodation they had booked for us with our own private infinity pool, tropical garden and luxurious bedrooms (of course the answer is getting to see Teeba and Basel :)).

Arrival drinks in Bali

Arrival drinks in Bali

Basel and our beautiful villa tree

Basel and our beautiful villa tree

For the next four days, we made full use of the villa, while also taking time to go explore the island. We saw one of the most spectacular sunsets from Uluwatu, where a 11th century temple is perched on the edge of a cliff face looking south over the Pacific ocean. We also got to explore some of the jungles and canyons of the island as we abseiled down waterfalls and jumped into waterholes during our canyoning day trip. And on the final evening when Shilpa and Pato arrived, we partied the night away at one of Bali’s many beach clubs.

Chilling at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

Chilling at the Bulgari Hotel, Bali

Cliffs at Uluwatu

Cliffs at Uluwatu

Uluwatu Temple

Uluwatu Temple

Sunset fire dance at Uluwatu Temple

Sunset fire dance at Uluwatu Temple

Basel and friend at Uluwatu Temple

Basel and friend at Uluwatu Temple

Shilpa chilling at the villa

Shilpa chilling at the villa

Hula hooping at the villa

Hula hooping at the villa

Cuddle puddle

Cuddle puddle

At the end of the four days, the girls made their way to Ubud for their hula hooping retreat while Basel and I headed off to scuba dive at Tulamben for a day and a night. It was my first night dive experience which was pretty cool. It’s kind of eery down below when you can only see along the tunnel of light projected by your torch. And also cool to see plankton glow like stars as you kick your fins.

Suiting up for scuba

Suiting up for scuba

Christian and Basel scuba diving at Tulamben Bay, Bali

Christian and Basel scuba diving at Tulamben Bay, Bali

ahem... how did that photo get in there?...

ahem… how did that photo get in there?…

After diving, Basel had to leave to return back to work, which left me at a loose end. Initially, I thought I would just take it easy and just chill in Ubud by myself. But at the last minute I was inspired to go join the girls in the hula hooping retreat and see what all the fuss was about. As I said, Christine’s going to write a separate update on the retreat so I don’t want to steal her thunder, other than to say that personally for me it was an amazing experience.

After the retreat was over, we decided to hang out in Ubud for 5 more days. Of all the places I’ve visited in Bali, Ubud is by far my favourite. While it isn’t on the beach, it nonetheless has incredible natural beauty mixed with a very peaceful vibe. It also has many great places to eat and grab a coffee, as well as a number of fantastic massage places, so it wasn’t hard to fill in the time here. One of our favourite things to do in Ubud was just roam around the lush green rice paddies.

Rice paddies near Ubud

Rice fields near Ubud

Rice paddy

Rice fields

Ubud

Ubud

On our final day we left Ubud to make our way to Balangan beach and enjoy one of our wedding gifts: surf lesson in Bali (thanks Lara and Greg!). After the lesson was over, we sat by the water, drinking our Bintang beers not wanting to leave. While our upcoming adventures in Japan excited us, it was tough to say goodbye to such incredible bliss…

3

Change of plans

map - keynote - newBali.001

Although we had originally planned to stay longer in South America and then head to Africa to finish up our year abroad, our plans have recently changed. Instead, we’ve ended up back in south east Asia. Bali to be specific. To do a hula hooping course (I’ll let Christine fill in the details soon!).

From here we plan to visit Japan and then finish up our year abroad in Berlin. If anyone has plans to be close by these places over the next couple of months, please let us know!

Best,

C&C

10

Antarctica: Our expedition to the end of the world

Blog - cover - ship in ice

Santa Maria Australis in the Antarctic Peninsula

A year ago while we were planning our trip to Antarctica, our research uncovered that there are really only two options for touring the region. Since there is no accommodation for tourists on land and highly restricted access via air, your choices are to either go on a large cruise liner (ice-breaker), or alternatively you can sail on a smaller sailing yacht. The cruise liner is relatively safer and more comfortable. Sailing in on a yacht is considerably bumpier, more cramped and you are required to help out with many of the duties from sailing to cooking and cleaning. Despite what you might expect, the yacht option is no cheaper than the cruise liner. A year later, as we boarded our Qantas flight out of Sydney en route to Puerto Williams, Chile, where our boat awaited us, I struggled to understand what was going through our minds when we decided to go with the sailing yacht. I dreaded it may be a decision we would later regret…

Why Antarctica?
My fascination with Antarctica sprouted a few years back after reading about Ernest Shackleton’s doomed expedition in 1914 on board The Endurance. Since then it has held a firm place at the top of my bucket list. Similarly for Christine, Antarctica represented a real adventure and the trip of a lifetime. Antarctica is the only continent uninhabited by humans and in many places on the continent, entirely uninhabitable by any flora or fauna. The vast majority of the continent is covered in ice all year round. Some areas have not had a drop of rain for more than 2 million years and the general lack of precipitation in Antarctica makes it the largest desert in the world. Although conditions are generally too harsh for land animals, it’s a different story for animals that thrive in the sea. Whales, seals, orcas are found in abundance. Deeper beneath the sea you can find fish with antifreeze in their blood as a natural adaptation to the ice cold waters. And then of course there are the continent’s most well known animals, those loveable penguins.

Although many countries have made claims on Antarctica, in 1959 a treaty was signed by these nations to establish Antarctica as a territory only to be used for scientific research that belongs to all mankind. This treaty protects Antarctica’s environment and prevents any commercial development on the continent, allowing it to remain in its untouched, pristine condition. The only exception to this is the handful of scientific bases scattered across the continent and even those operate in a way to ensure they leave no permanent mark. Science in the region is varied, from meteorology to oceanography to global warming to understanding whether life could exist in Antarctica deep below the ice. Some scientists compare the harsh conditions in Antarctica to those on Mars, and so the discovery of life forms could give hope to finding life in other environments beyond this world.

The Antarctic treaty is due to end in 2041. While many are trying to get this treaty extended there’s no guarantee how things will play out. So there may be a limited window to see Antarctica in its current, untouched form. And that’s why we were eager to go there now.

Chilling in Puerto Williams (the calm before the storm?)

Puerto Williams is the southern most town in South America. Originally little more than a fishing village, in recent years the population has spiked with the set up of a naval base, along with the increased tourism to Antarctica for which the town is well positioned to support. Puerto Williams along with Ushuaia on the Argentinian side are the two most popular ports of embarkation for Antarctica tours. That said, Puerto Williams is still little more than a village with fewer than 2000 inhabitants.

IMG_9504

Puerto Williams

Puerto Williams made a great first impression upon us. Stepping out of the airport we saw sunshine, blue skies and a stunning view over the waters of the Beagle canal onto the picturesque town centre, just a few kilometres away. Seeing all the other passengers from our flight get into their private cars, it became evident that there wasn’t really any public transport or taxi infrastructure supporting the airport so Christine and I figured we would have to walk into town. Fortunately, a few hundred metres later, a friendly local asked us if we’d like a lift. His name was Nelson. Nelson didn’t speak much English but between his limited English and Christine’s limited Spanish, we were able to tell him the place we were staying, which he knew, as well as some details of our upcoming trip. To our delight, he told us he knew the skipper of our boat and described him as “muy bien”. Upon arrival at our Hostal, we tried to communicate to Nelson that we’d like to buy him a drink to thank him for giving us a lift. Unfortunately neither Nelson’s English nor Christine’s Spanish was up to the task, so we had to settle with just saying “muchas gracias” and then parted ways. Our Hostal was called Residencial Pusaki and owned by a lady named Patty. Patty was equally as warm and friendly as Nelson and made us feel very much at home at her place. Seemed everyone in Puerto Williams was incredibly friendly.

We had two days in Puerto Williams before we began our Antarctica expedition which turned out to be the perfect amount of time to explore the small town. It gave us a chance to make a couple of short hikes, visit the local museum, stack up on some supplies and visit the 1 cafe, 3 restaurants and 2 bars on offer.

Meeting the boat and crew (day 1)

After two days in Puerto Williams we headed down to the marina to join our boat, the Santa Maria Australis, where we met the captain and the rest of the group. A great first impression. Everyone seemed super friendly. People were already cracking jokes, playing off one another. Both Christine and I loved the intimacy of having such a small expedition group, something we would not have had going with the option of a cruise ship.

Our captain was Wolf Kloss, a German sailor who had been sailing to Antarctica more than 30 times since 1989. It was this depth of sailing experience in the region that convinced us to go with him and SIM Expeditions. I also took comfort in his German heritage since I tend to associate Germans with safety and doing things properly which seemed appropriate for the expedition at hand. Before meeting Wolf, I had pictured a burly German guy, who is serious, strict and has a sharp German accent. In reality, Wolf was nothing like this. He was relaxed, cheerful and incredibly friendly. While he ran a tight ship, he did it in a surprisingly positive and light hearted way. His crew were a young Austrian couple, Daniel and Beate, who grew up in a town only a stone throw away from the town Christine grew up in. Daniel even went to the same high-school as Christine’s brother. Small world! While young, they themselves were incredibly experienced sailors having sailed together on their own boat around the world for more than 6 years. Throughout our expedition I was to be constantly impressed about how smoothly they ran all the operations of the boat in such varied and trying conditions.

And if there wasn’t already enough combined sailing experience among the captain and crew, so too did we have a huge depth of sailing experience with the other 7 passengers on the boat. Turned out that Christine and I were the only ones without much experience. Our fellow passengers were: Roberto (owner of a boat building company) with his son Leandro (industrial engineer, entrepreneur) from Buenos Aires; Joerg (pipe organ builder) from Sipplingen, Germany; Heinrich (process consultant) from Soest, Germany; Michael (tax advisor) from Bammental, Germany; Werner (editor in chief) from Berlin; and Martina (physiotherapist) who was Daniel’s mother from Bad Hofgastein, Austria.

The first day was all about getting the boat ready and settling in. To our surprise, the yacht was quite spacious. High ceilings inside the saloon and cabins meant that no one would have to crouch. Our assigned room was close to the rear with bunk beds. That pleased us since we’d heard that the back of the boat rocks less at rough seas. After packing the boat with supplies we then covered our first round of safety instructions. Shortly thereafter, it was time for a round of pisco sours at the local bar (one of the only two bars in town) followed by a fun dinner. Our first impression was further solidified – this group is really fun. Everyone was interesting and seemed easygoing. A lighthearted group that was excited for this special trip! We spent our first night on the boat that day and slept surprisingly well.

The dreaded Drake (days 2 to 6)
To get from Puerto Williams to Antarctica requires crossing a stretch of open sea known as the Drake Passage, that connects Cape Horn with the Antarctic Peninsula. It is considered to be one of the most tempestuous straits in the world. Even on the large cruise liners, many people struggle with intense sea-sickness during the 2 day crossing. For our yacht, the passage was expected to take more than 4 days and be a somewhat bumpier journey. The crossing would be a good first test of whether we’d made the right decision to sail on a yacht.

We set sail south out of Puerto Williams down towards the Drake on a picture perfect day with blue skies and sunshine. This turned out to be a good omen for our crossing of the Drake Passage. In the end, the entire crossing was, for want of a better phrase, smooth sailing. Christine and I had no problems with sea sickness. May have helped that we took sea-sickness tablets and wore acupressure bracelets. Who knows? Wolf later remarked that it was one of the better crossings he’s experienced. I guess we got lucky.

The day we set out was a Sunday. We learned that Sundays on the boat are good food days with treats like eggs for breakfast and freshly baked cakes for afternoon tea. Turns out Thursday are also a special day called “Seaman’s Sunday”, at least on German boats. So we would be getting cakes and elaborate meals twice a week. Nice. Impressive that Daniel and Beate found the time to pull this off with all the other things they had to do.

Although we had no troubles with sickness, there were still some new things to get used to. First, was learning how to balance on a boat. Simple things like carrying your coffee to the table, or going to the toilet became feats of acrobatics. We would constantly hear Daniel yell out “one hand for the seaman!” to remind us to keep a hand free to balance when walking around the boat. Another thing to get used to was getting out of bed in the middle of the night for our nightwatch. Once on the Drake we had 4 days of continuous sailing which meant working in shifts of 2 hours on and 6 hours off. Although it was tough at times to pull yourself out of bed, I nonetheless took pleasure in the adventure of being at the helm in the middle of the night on the Drake Passage.

For most of the crossing we saw nothing but sea to every point on the horizon. However, there were a few treats to break up the monotony. Just before we entered the Drake we stopped by Lennox Island and stumbled across a lone king penguin, unusual for the area. Such a majestic creature with the orange across its beak, neck and head.

blog - king penguin

Christine and king penguin

Later, on the Drake, a group of dolphins came racing along beside our boat, darting from side to side and at times jumping out of the water playfully.

blog - dolphin 1

Dolphins swimming with the boat

Others on the boat also had some brief whale sightings although none unfortunately on our watch. And then on day 6, we started seeing icebergs. First small ones, and later huge ones, 40m high and hundreds of meters long. It was a sign we were getting close. By the evening we finally reached our first stop in Antarctica, Deception Island. We cracked open beers to celebrate our arrival.

It’s an expedition, not a tour (day 7)

Early on during the trip, Wolf set expectations that our trip to Antarctica would be an expedition, not a tour. During a hike to a penguin colony on our first day in Antarctica, I started to understand what he meant. What I thought would be an easy walk over the hill to see penguins became a true 5-hour expedition, that included some seemingly never ending ascents of icy inclines so steep that our gumboots struggled to maintain grip. We started off from the shoreline covered in black volcanic stones (Deception Island itself is actually an active volcano and one of the biggest crater islands in the world), passed ice covered lakes, where the blue of the water shone through incredibly brightly, and then trudged our way up over the peak to where we could hear the chatter of the penguins through the mist down below us. The stretch between us and the penguins was a steep slope down, covered in snow and ice. The only way to get through was to slide on our bums. Lots of fun, but we dared not to think about having to go all the way back up.

At the bottom of the ice peak we found ourselves among hundreds of Chinstrap penguins with their chicks. Despite how excited I was to see my first colony of penguins, I have to admit that the initial thing I noticed was their bad smell. And up close, I saw that they were pretty dirty too from the food they regurgitate to their young. Plus, their poo everywhere! Somehow the documentaries fail to show that side of penguins when they breed. That said, they were still incredibly adorable. Their waddle is just as cute in real life as on the documentaries. It was really funny to watch the younger chicks chase their parents around, seeking regurgitated food!

blog - chinstrap dirty

Chinstrap penguin colony

After spending the better part of an hour hanging out with the Chinstraps, we headed back to tackle the steep icy slope that we slid down to make our way back. Christine remarked “it’s like we’re climbing Mount Everest” seeing everyone slowly making their way up, at time losing their footing and stumbling. The only one in the group who seemed at all prepared for this was Heinrich who’d brought along clamp-on grips for his boots (“they only cost 3 Euro from Aldi” he proudly told us). The rest of us had to make do with just our gumboots. But we all made it out alive and felt very accomplished to have done it. I wouldn’t expect we would have had an experience like this had we gone with a cruise ship voyage.

Blog1 - skua

Skua

Blog1 - Seal

Fur seal

blog - funny21

Two penguins (TLP!)

Later in the afternoon I asked Wolf where would be a good place in Antarctica to go kayaking or to take a quick dip. Two things I was keen to include in our Antarctic expedition. He thought there would be better places later on to kayak but here would be as good as place as any to take a swim. So Christine and I took the plunge from the boat into 1 degree Celsius waters. It was so cold that we’re literally in and then out in less than 10 seconds. I was glad to be able to check that off he list of “crazy things I’ve done and will never do again”… or so I thought. Later on, Michael mentioned that he’d be up for swimming in Antarctica but would prefer to dive off an iceberg. I couldn’t resist and made a pact to jump in with him when we had the opportunity.

That evening, Roberto and Leandro volunteered to cook dinner. What followed was an impromptu Argentinian evening: Pastel de Papa, followed by Alfajores (cookies with chocolate and dulce de leche) and even some Tango dancing in the 2 square meter saloon. A fitting end to a great first day in Antarctica.

Whales! (days 8 to 9)

Besides penguins, the other creatures we were most excited to see in Antarctica were whales. Although our crew told us that there were no guarantees on seeing whales, we nonetheless got our hopes up. Fortunately, we were not let down. On day 8, while sailing south from Deception Island to our next anchorage on Enterprise Island, a huge group of more than 10 humpback whales came up to our boat to say hi. They swam around and under our boat, and at times their head would pop up less than 2 metres away from us. Just magical.

blog - whale 1

Humpback whales

blog - whale 2

Humpback whales

blog - whale werner 1

Humpback whales

We thought that this experience would be hard to top, but were proven wrong. The following day, it happened again. Another large group of humpbacks came right up to our boat. This time the water was perfectly still and the sun was shining. It’s hard to describe how serene the moment was. Again, I thought that this experience would be hard to top. Again I was wrong. Just moments later Wolf asked, “do you want to try kayaking next to them?”. So Christine and I quickly threw the kayak in the water, jumped in and gave chase. As we were paddling out we saw the group go down under water. We knew this would mean they probably resurface in a minute or two in a different location. The key was to follow the bubbles. Once we spotted where the bubbles were we knew they’d resurface there. We started paddling full throttle to the bubbles. When we were about 5 metres away, Christine started getting nervous so we dared not go closer. And then they resurfaced right next to us. Breathtaking. Just a few metres of water and an inflatable kayak between us and these massive, majestic creatures. This experience is one of our absolute highlights for our Antarctica trip and probably for our entire travels to date.

blog - kayak whales 0

Kayaking

blog - kayak whale 2

Kayaking next to humpback whales

blog - kayak whale 3

Kayaking next to humpback whales

We stayed out on the water and followed the whales around for a little while before returning to give some of the other guys a turn on the kayak. Afterwards, Roberto remarked “you wouldn’t get to do that on a cruise ship.” By now I was thoroughly convinced we made the right decision to go on a yacht rather than a cruise liner.

In the early afternoon on day 9 we arrived at our next anchorage, Cuverville. Cuverville is a popular spot for both its beautiful scenery and also large Gentoo penguin colony. To me, Gentoo’s look cuter than Chinstrap penguins with there bright red beaks, so I was very excited to go meet them.

blog - gentoo13

Gentoo penguin

Walking among the penguins we thought that this would be a good place for Christine to do her Antarctica hula-hooping video. It turned out OK, but I had a feeling that we could do better and made a note to be on the lookout for better locations for the next video.

blog - hula 11

Hula hooping with penguins

Later that day we enjoyed a feast. Not only was it a Sunday but also Martina’s birthday. Daniel and Beate went all out in baking a Malakov birthday cake accompanied by champagne, and cooking Martina’s favourite meal, lasagna. Delicious! An amazing day ended with interesting conversations and lots of laughter.

Scientific base visit (day 10)

As mentioned, the Antarctic Treaty declares Antarctica as a territory dedicated to science and research. So throughout Antarctica there are numerous scientific bases representing various countries. While we were fortunate enough to be taken on quick tours of the Spanish base at Deception Island (Gabriel de Castilla) and the Argentinian Base (Base Brown) near Skontorp Cove, our most substantial base tour was at the Chilean base, Gabriel Gonzalez Videla. The base is right in the middle of a Gentoo penguin colony, in a cove called Paradise Bay. 13 members of the Chilean air force live here from November through February each year. They arrive in November and typically spend 3 weeks digging the base out of the accumulated snow. The air force has two objectives at the base. One is to support the scientists that work on their base from time to time. The second objective is to provide emergency support for anyone that needs it in the region. The colonel showed us around the base, including the living quarters for the crew. He was proud to announce that this year they’ve finally been able to hook up satellite television. A big boost for the crew’s morale. They also have internet access. Arriving into their dining room we’re surprised to be greeted with coffee and biscuits. As a thank you, we invited the colonel back to our boat that evening for whiskey and popcorn. In this environment he opened up and told us what it feels like to lead a team in one of the remotest places of the world. An interesting conversation.

Blog1-Argentinian base

Argentinian base

Iceberg graveyard (days 11 to 12)

The best weather we had during our whole trip was on day 11. Blue skies and sunshine the entire day. This happened to coincide with our sailing through one of the most beautiful channels along the Antarctica peninsula, the Lemaire Channel. Lemaire is an impressive narrow canal taking you between tall ice peaks on either side, and also through some of the most densely packed ice we’d seen to date.

blog - lemaire12

Lemaire

Blog - iceberg

Iceberg

Christine and I were steering at the helm through the Lemaire. Deeper into the canal the ice got denser and denser, until it became almost impossible to avoid them. At this point we handed the reigns back to the captain, and he decelerated the boat speed to barely a crawl. Slowly, we drifted through the packed ice. The quietness was occasionally broken by the sounds of ice fragments scraping the side of the boat.

blog1- iceberg cemetery - lookout

Lemaire

blog - lemaire 1

Lemaire

blog - lemaire 2

Lemaire

blog - iceberg grave 4

Lemaire

After what seemed an eternity, we at last reached the end of the canal where the sea opened up again. Then we saw the most spectacular landscape to date: Port Pleneau. Nicknamed the “iceberg graveyard”, Port Pleneau is an area where huge icebergs accumulate together after they are blown into a bay. All around us were icebergs from 5m to 30m tall, each with unique shapes. Some looked like faces, others like sky scrapers. Looking across the landscape it felt like we were in another world. Spectacular.

blog - iceberg graveyard 10

Iceberg graveyard

blog - iceberg grave 2

Iceberg graveyard

blog - iceberg grave 3

Iceberg graveyard

Sailing through these impressive and imposing structures, it struck me that this would be an even better spot for Christine’s hula-hooping video. So after reaching our anchorage, Daniel sped Leandro, Christine and I on the zodiac to one of the icebergs, where Christine climbed out and we shot one of our favourite hula hooping videos yet. Leandro and I also took the chance to climb on the iceberg. It felt surreal standing on a floating piece of ice, swaying with the movement of the water.

DCIM101GOPRO

Hula hooping on an iceberg

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0440.

Standing on an iceberg

That evening, everyone was in high spirits after experiencing one of the most spectacular days of our expedition. Martina, Joerg and Werner cooked up a German/Austrian feast of smoked pork ribs with potato puree and Sauerkraut. We then witnessed a stunning, colourful sunset followed by the rising of a full moon. A perfect end to a perfect day.

blog - planeau1

Port Pleneau

Blog1 - Deck chat

Daniel, Beate and Martina

blog - planeau2

Moonrise at Port Pleneau

The next day was far from perfect. We awoke to almost the exact opposite weather conditions. Blasting winds, dense cloud cover and drizzling rain. Christine and I made a brave attempt to kayak over to a seal and penguin colony.

Blog - Seal

Weddell seal

Battling the strong winds, we barely made it. When we later returned to our kayaks we saw that the wind had blown it metres away and in the process snapped one of the kayak paddles. Bummer. The whole group retreated to the yacht to wait out the storm. Unfortunately it didn’t die down the entire day so we had to abandon our visit to the Ukranian base, Vernadsky. No vodka shots with Ukranian scientists. Instead we had to settle for red wine and pisco sours (personally prepared by Captain Wolf) back on the boat. A worthy consolation.

blog1 - pisco

Captain making pisco sours

Visiting the southernmost post office in the world (days 13 to 14)

After a full day of being stuck in Planeau we were relieved to see the winds subside so we could make our way to our penultimate anchorage in Antarctica, Port Lockroy, home to a British base. This base is one of the few bases in Antarctica not dedicated to science. Instead it is a heritage listed museum, where you get to see what it was like for the former British scientists that lived there from the 1944 until 1962. The museum is really well done. And it’s ably supported by a souvenir shop and post office (the most southern post office in the world) that appears to be an incredible money maker for the base.

blog - port lockroy1

Port Lockroy

I’d almost forgotten my pact with Michael to dive off an iceberg, but as our time in Antarctica was coming to an end, we realised that if we didn’t do it now we may not get the chance. And so again I headed off in a zodiac to climb an iceberg, this time with Michael accompanying me and both of us only wearing swimsuits. At first, things felt OK standing half naked on top of the iceberg. Then my feet started to feel like they were burning. The only way to give my feet relief was to dive off the iceberg into the freezing water that felt even colder the second time around. Once again, I was in the water for barely 10 seconds before returning to the zodiac and rushing back to the warmth of our yacht. Now I think I can safely say that I’ve checked it off the list of “crazy things I’ve done and will never do again.”

blog - stand on iceberg2

Michael and I standing on an iceberg

Blog - dive iceberg

Me diving off an iceberg

The following day we headed a bit further north to make our final stop in Antarctica at Melchior Bay, and prepared for our return trip back across the Drake.

Return of the Drake (days 15 to 19)
While we had an easy crossing of the Drake the first time around, the same cannot be said of our second crossing. Most of the journey was through waves up to 5m high that would hit our boat in rapid succession from all angles. Christine and I both felt our stomachs churn early on in the crossing, but eventually our bodies adapted. Fortunately for us, we never really got hit with a full bout of sea sickness. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for some of our fellow passengers, who struggled throughout the four day crossing. During that time, Christine and I got into a routine of sleeping, waking up for our 2 hour shift at the helm, eating, and then sleeping again. We probably were sleeping (or at least in bed) for 14 hours of the day. It seems unreal but some combination of the boats rocking and our sea-sickness tablets was probably the cause of these marathon sleeping sessions.

A highlight on the way back was observing the albatrosses that loved to follow our boat for long stretches. I never knew how graceful these birds were. Daniel told me that they spend most of their lives out at sea, only coming back to land once every two years to breed. Amazing animals.

blog - albatross 3

Albatross

As we approached land, our initial plan was to make our first anchorage at Cape Horn. However, we got blown too far east and had to settle on Nueva Island, a little further north. When we finally set anchor I could feel the relief on the boat to finally be done with the Drake. To celebrate, we again cracked open beers this time accompanied by freshly roasted peanuts.

Return to Puerto Williams (days 20 to 21)
We used our last days to slowly make our way back up the Beagle Canal, and on the afternoon of day 21 we finally arrived back where it all began in Puerto Williams. That night, over dinner, we toasted a successful and incredible journey. And then made our way to the yacht club bar for a final drink (or in the case of some, many drinks!).

blog - group photo

Our expedition group at the farewell dinner

~~~~~

All in all, the expedition to Antarctica rates as one of the best journeys we’ve ever made. The scenery was like nothing else. And to know that this landscape has remained largely untouched for millions of years makes it all that more special. The animals too were an absolute highlight. Both the adorable penguins and the majestic humpbacks that we got up close and personal with.

And as for the decision to do the sailing yacht rather than the cruise, we couldn’t be happier with our choice. It was truly special to go with such an intimate group, and we both really enjoyed the adventure of sailing across the Drake. One major advantage of a sailing yacht that I didn’t mention earlier, is that you get to do a lot more landings. There is a restriction in Antarctica that no more than 100 people from a boat can come ashore at any time, which massively limits how much time cruise passengers spend on land and where they get to go.

I also can’t speak more highly of Wolf Kloss and his crew from SIM Expeditions. Fantastic operators. Before we booked with Wolf we considered some other operators and found Wolf and his team to be the most professional and impressive of the lot. And during our trip it was clear to us how valuable Wolf’s experience was to handle the challenging, unpredictable and constantly changing conditions of Antarctica. So as you can imagine, we feel very fortunate to have chosen Wolf. And what’s more, the Santa Maria Australis is a very well equipped and comfortable boat too.

Thank you Wolf, Beate, Daniel and our fellow passengers for an incredible expedition!

DCIM100GOPROG0060370.

Fun photo

3

18 days in the Outback

IMG_7808

“Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m tanned, or just really dirty”.

This quote of Christine’s, from our campsite in Tennant Creek, nicely sums up our 18-days traveling through the Australian outback. Lots of sun and lots of red dirt.

Our route took us from Darwin on Australia’s northern coast right down to Adelaide on Australia’s southern coast; the first time either of us had driven across the entire length of a continent. The main highway for the journey is the Stuart Highway and the journey itself is dubbed “The Explorer’s Way”. Both are in reference to the early Australian explorer John McDouall Stuart who was the first white person to cover this stretch back in 1862. One slight difference between Stuart and us is that he did the journey from south to north. Another slight difference is that he didn’t have a car.

In Darwin, we picked up our 4wd rental, fully equipped with tent, sleeping bags, mini-fridge and cooking equipment. Having a fridge was a pretty sweet addition and meant we’d have more flexibility in what we cooked than we otherwise would have with just an esky.

Before we left Darwin, we stopped by a supermarket to stock up on provisions. The two most important items for us to buy were 30 litres of water in case we broke down in the outback, and a bunch of lacinato kale because Christine doesn’t eat any meal that doesn’t include kale these days. Along with this we bought some other moderately important things like toilet paper, soap and non-kale food items too.

Fully stocked, I was itching to hit the road. But one last thing to do before we left was to set the trip odometer to zero and photograph it so we could capture the full number of kilometres we travelled on our journey. Little did I know that this thing resets itself every 2,000km so I was unable to get a nice picture with the total kilometres we covered. In case you’re wondering, we covered 5,425km and if you do the math you can work it out with the pictures below :).

Our first stop was Litchfield National Park. Although less well-known than the nearby Kakadu National Park, Litchfield is a beautiful park in its own right. Upon arrival we went straight to the nearest waterhole for a quick dip, which was a great relief from the 40+ degree (Celcius) temperatures. Cool and relaxed from our swim, we then found a nice patch of dirt to set up camp. Admittedly, we struggled at first working out how to pitch our very large 4-man tent. It was not as easy to assemble as the 2-man tents we’re used to. However, later we were very grateful to have a large tent since the night time temperatures throughout the trip were often north of 30 degrees and the bigger tent was actually quite airy, providing some relief to the heat.

The following morning we awoke early to sunrise and did a short hike to a peak where you could look out over Litchfield. Having built up a sweat we then made our way to a waterfall for a swim and were lucky to have the entire place to ourselves. An incredible first 24 hours.

Next stop was to backtrack a little and then head east over to Kakadu National Park. I’ve been wanting to go here for years so I was excited to finally make it. We ended up spending 3 nights in Kakadu. Highlights were our first evening picnic at the Ubirr sunset point; seeing some of the oldest Aboriginal rock paintings; the Yellow River cruise which allowed us to get upclose to tons of saltwater crocodiles along with other beautiful bird life; and the little advertised waterfalls at Yurmikmik that Christine and I stumbled across and got to swim in.

On the topic of swimming in Kakadu, because of the saltwater crocodiles there aren’t really any truly safe places to swim in Kakadu. Waterholes are either signposted as “Don’t swim”, where you’d be stupid to swim since there are known crocodiles in the area; or “Swim at your own risk” which is where the rangers do not believe there are crocodiles and make an effort to check on this, but just can’t be 100% certain. Knowing that nothing is 100% certain, definitely made the heart beat a little faster on the couple of times we did swim in Kakadu.

On day 5, we woke up early to hit one of the longest stretches of our journey from Kakadu down to Tennant Creek. Fortunately the road conditions were good so we got into Tennant Creek a little earlier than expected. This allowed us to spend some time getting to know the town. We hit the local RSL club for a beer and a steak, chatting with one of the locals who regaled many a story about Tennant Creek’s booms and busts over the years with mining and cattle butchering. Afterwards we stopped by for a beer at the Tennant Creek Hotel. We were the only non-indigenous clientele there that night. Interestingly the only people who gave us funny looks were the bar staff.

Next morning we got up at 4:30am so that we could make our way down to see the Devil’s Marbles (Karlu Karlu) at sunrise. It was breathtaking experience and well worth the effort. The Devil’s Marbles are this incredible set of rock formations where weathering over time has created these large round rocks everywhere. At sunrise you got to see the rocks change colours and the landscape come to life.

Later that afternoon, we arrived into Alice Springs where we stayed with Christine’s brother-in-law’s sister, Geeta, and her partner David. Geeta and David were incredibly hospitable, taking us out for lunch and showing us around Alice Springs. It was great getting an opportunity to get to know them. It was also great to learn from them and their experience working on Aboriginal health issues. One of Australia’s most pressing social issues is the state of affairs of Aboriginal communities and our country’s dealings with its original owners. It’s an incredibly complex issue and was great to hear perspectives from people who work and contribute to change in this area.

Although we were tempted to stay a little longer hanging out with Geeta and David and getting to make use of a real bed and clean shower, we were also excited by the next few days ahead: a short detour off the highway to pass through the West Macdonnell Ranges, Kings Canyon and Uluru (Ayers Rock). Highlight of the West Macdonnel ranges was driving from gorge to gorge, where we’d do a short hike followed by a dip in a beautiful waterhole. In Kings Canyon the highlight was our sunrise hike around the rim of the canyon. And the highlight for Uluru was  probably the highlight for our whole trip: seeing Uluru at sunset. I’d been to Uluru before about 10 years ago. Since then I’ve always remembered it as my single favourite place in all of Australia (and maybe the world). Coming back to Uluru for a second time, it was equally as incredible. As you approach the Uluru from 50km out, there is only flat earth as far as the eye can see. And then, on the horizon, you see Uluru as this massive rock that seems to emerge from nowhere. It boggles the mind as to how this rock should exist there. Up close, Uluru feels like it has its own field of gravity, pulling you in. For our sunset there, we went to the lookout, prepared a wonderful picnic spread, popped open a bottle of bubbly, plugged in our headphones to our iPod and sat on the roof of our 4wd admiring the changing colours of the rock at sunset. We ended up staying there long after the sun had set, admiring the beauty of our surroundings. Just magical.

After Uluru was another long driving day of about 750km, first heading east back to the Stuart Highway and then south all the way down to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is a quirky town of only 1,500 residents. Its claim to fame is that it is the world’s largest Opal mining town. Its other claim to fame is that it is the most uninhabitable place on earth with ground temperatures often above 65 degrees, along with extraordinarily strong winds. In order to deal with these conditions, many of the people live in houses built underground. So one of the “must do’s” in Coober Pedy is to stay underground for the night. In our case, we camped underground which was a really fun experience. It was actually one of the more comfortable places we slept in given that the temperature was a cool 22 degrees and we didn’t have to battle with any rain or wind. While in Coober Pedy, we also made time for an Opal mine tour and a visit to an underground church.

After Coober Pedy, we decided to take another detour of the Stuart highway so that we could make our way over to the Flinders Ranges. Along the way, we bumped into some travelers we’d seen at our underground camp place in Coober Pedy, so we hung out with them for a couple of days. Dimitri and Els from Belgium and Maarten from the Netherlands were in the middle of a longer road trip from Perth to Melbourne, also via the Flinders. Together we visited some cool natural springs, camped under the stars, and had a lunch of Australian feral animals at the very “hip” Prairie Hotel. The Prairie Hotel is worth a call out because it was an absolute gem of a find. Situated in the town of Parachilna with only 2 permanent residents (which, as described by Grant, the hotel manager, is “northeast of the middle of f***ing nowhere”), the only reason to stop is to come to the Prairie Hotel. 20 years ago, on what sounds like a whim, the new owners decided to turn the run down pub into a boutique hotel. The hotel itself is very tastefully done. But the reason we came by was to try the famous “Feral Platter” which is an antipasti plate of emu pate, camel wurst and smoked kangaroo. Everything we ate there was just delicious. And Grant was a barrel of laughs too.

Along the drive to the Flinders we saw emus in the wild for the very first time. Crazy animals as you can see in this video:

But the highlight was for Christine getting to see big red kangaroos in the wild for the first time. Prior to this, Christine had been complaining that she’d only seen small kangaroos and wallabies in the wild and was starting to not believe me that you could see big ones in the wild too. But once we arrived into Flinders Ranges National Park, we saw big ones everywhere. Very cool.

Flinders is famous among geologists for having some of the oldest known rocks in the world that now potrude out after movement in the earth millions of years back. But beyond just having really old rocks, the area itself is beautiful. We spent two days there, hiking around and enjoying the slightly cooler temperatures than further north. Given the vast area of the Flinders Ranges, that we could never entirely cover by hiking or even by car, we decided to take a scenic flight which gave us a very different and spectacular perspective of the landscape.

Our penultimate stop along the journey was in the South Australian wine region. It was two stops really, one in Clare Valley and the other in Barossa Valley. Part of the reason for deciding to go from north to south was so that we could finish up our journey in this beautiful wine country. In Clare we hired bikes and rode along the Riesling Trail (Clare is famous for its Rieslings) from winery to winery tasting wonderful wines and gourmet food. In Barossa we did a wine hike, walking from winery to winery to taste the wines and food. Mixing exercise into our wine tastings helped us justify the 4 straight days of indulgence.

And finally, 18 days after departing Darwin we arrived at our destination: Adelaide. We’d both been to Adelaide before so didn’t budget a lot of time here before we flew back to Sydney. That said, we still made time for one last gourmet experience dining at Andre’s Cucina & Polenta Bar where we celebrated the amazing journey we’d just completed.

1

Maximising Happiness: Experimenting with meditation

maxhap meditation.001Several years ago I was in a taxi caught in traffic, running late to get my flight from Sydney to Melbourne. There was really nothing I could do. When I finally made it to the airport, I rushed all the way to the gate only to see my plane pulling away. I’d missed the last flight for the day so I had to wait for the early flight the following morning. I was incredibly stressed during the whole “ordeal”: stressed out in the cab anticipating missing my flight; stressed out when I arrived at the airport and was told I had missed my flight; and I barely slept that night afterwards as I replayed over and over again in my head the episode of missing the flight, and as a result I felt terrible the next morning when I had to get up early for my new flight. I’m sure many people can relate to a scenario like this in one way or another.

However, I realise now that the unhappiness I felt was entirely my choice. I could have chosen to remain calm during the entire situation knowing that having to get the next flight would have an immaterial impact on my life. By doing so, I would have felt considerably better. Of course there are higher stake situations that can create stress (e.g. related to health or safety), but even then the degree of unhappiness and defeatedness you feel is still a choice. Choosing to be happy (or to not be unhappy) is easier said than done. When we feel stressed it’s hard to simply decide to be happy. What we need are tools that help us in these kinds of situations. Our initial search for such a tool has led Christine and me to meditation.

The promise of meditation
Meditation means many different things to many different people. The way I define it is as a practice of focusing your concentration on an object (e.g. your breath, feeling your body sensations, a mantra etc.) and observing it in a neutral and passive way. There are many reasons why people meditate. For some people it is spiritual and often heavily tied to Buddhism. For Christine and me, the reason to meditate is less spiritual and more practical. Specifically, we see two potential ways this practice can make us happier in life:

  • The first is turning off the voice in your head. This is the voice that unnecessarily creates anxiety either anticipating something or even stewing on something that has already happened. Many a sleepless night has resulted from this form of stress. Meditation is a practice of dealing differently with your thoughts (aka the voice in your head). Rather than allowing yourself to get lost in your thoughts, you learn to turn down the volume of chatter in your head and as a result reduce this form of anxiety.
  • The second way meditation may help is in dealing with a stressful situation in the moment. All too often we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t go the way we want it to and we react in a negative way. In doing so, we make ourselves feel unhappy and generate unhappiness for all others involved. However, we can choose to respond more gracefully, not allowing ourselves to react in a knee jerk fashion, and as a result not generate the same degree of unhappiness. The way meditation is said to help with this is that through practice you learn to assert a level of control over you mind that in the moment you can more effectively control your reactions.

Our journey with meditation so far
Meditation first came up as a topic of conversation on a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul in early August. It took us until mid-September when we found ourselves with a lot of time and not much to do due to a plane delay in Jiuzhaigou, China to start proactively learning what meditation is by reading books and asking friends. Shortly afterwards we started doing 5-minutes of meditation per day, building up to 20-minutes per day by the end of October (with the occassional 45-minute session). And then we jumped in the deep-end: a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Malaysia where we meditated for 10.5 hours every day. But more on that later. Right now we’re doing between 1-2 hours every day.

Results from meditation so far
At this point I’d say it’s too early to tell. As we are right now experiencing one of the happiest periods of our lives, there isn’t a ton of anxiety floating around in our heads nor do we face many stressful situations. But on the odd occasion that we have faced some kind of stress I don’t know if I’ve yet seen a major difference in how we’ve reacted in the moment. A few weeks back we found ourselves getting frustrated with each other when we were lost looking for our hotel in Kuala Lumpur, lugging our suitcases around in the sweltering humidity. Ironically, we were in KL to go to our meditation retreat. Although it wasn’t a big deal, afterwards we had to laugh because it didn’t seem very “zen” to let such a little thing annoy us.

However, if there has been any progress, it’s probably more at the intellectual level than the visceral level. While I still may be falling for the same knee jerk reactions, once I have time to think, I have been able to respond differently. The other day, I was playing with my wonderful nephew, Jayden, pretending to be scuba divers for literally the 12th time that day. I found myself getting kind of bored with the repetitiveness of the game. However, I then realised I could either choose to be bored by the game, or choose to enjoy the moment of playing with a great kid with such a wild imagination. I chose the latter.

Our next steps with meditation
Based on the advice from our teachers at the meditation retreat, we’re trying to do 2 hours of meditation every day. We’ll pull up in the new year to re-evaluate this level of commitment but for now, we’re all in. We’ll report back soon on how this journey plays out.

2

Maximising Happiness

MaxHap paper

Right now Christine and I are experiencing one of the happiest periods in our lives. Just married, traveling the world… what could be better? One of the many great benefits of our current circumstances is that we have the time to think through the important questions we face as we plan out our lives together. As we’ve been discussing many of these questions they all seem to bubble up to an ultimate overarching question: How can we set ourselves up for lives full of happiness? How can we maximise happiness?

In tackling this question, there have been 3 topics we’ve started exploring:

1. Understanding what makes us happy.
We have a reasonable idea of what makes us happy at a high-level (e.g. being healthy, spending time with friends, success in our career, having a family etc.) but the devil is in the details. For example, I really enjoyed my career at LinkedIn but what exactly did I enjoy? Working at a consumer internet company? Working at a fast growing company? Leading a large team? Ownership over a large business line?… Only by understanding what makes me happy at this detailed level will I be able to properly determine the right next step in my career. Furthermore, another interesting component of understanding happiness is knowing how happy each aspect of life makes us (and over the longer term) so that we can appropriately balance the many competing priorities in our lives.

2. Making the right life decisions.
Understanding what makes us happy is the starting point but then we must also make the right life decisions if we are to maximise happiness. And I can tell you that right now it feels like we have a bunch of important life decisions to make. At the top of the list: Where do we want to live after our travels? What career moves do we want to make? When do we start a family? Not a day goes by when Christine and I don’t discuss these questions. The exploration of them will no doubt be a big part of our journey to maximise happiness.

3. Better dealing with things that can make us unhappy
No matter how well we do in making the right decisions to make us happy, there will inevitably be times when we feel less than happy. Things don’t always play out as expected, and furthermore, many of the happiest things in life require hard work that in the moment can feel difficult. While we consider ourselves to be people that generally have a positive outlook on things (in fact, I’d say Christine is one of the most positive people I know) one can always do better in this regard. Our initial exploration on ways to better deal with unpleasant things has led us to explore meditation. We already have thoughts to share on this topic but we’ll save that for future posts.

Exploring each of these 3 topics will no doubt be a dynamic and lifelong process. What makes us happy today may not be what we find to be important further down the road. And the set of decisions we have to face now will be very different to those even a few years from now.

Our plan is to make this an open exploration and to write on these topics regularly. By doing so we hope that we can share in this journey with our friends, family and all other readers of our blog. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives on this topic too.

More to come…