Like many people, we hadn’t really thought much about diving in our local temperate marine environment. Cold water, kelp and often low visibility didn’t really sound appealing when compared to the clear, warm, tropical waters we so regularly dive. Yet in the green shallow waters just over an hour from Melbourne, Australia; you’ll find one of the most incredibly fascinating creatures, the Weedy Sea Dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus).
Only found in the relatively shallow coastal waters from Port Stephens in NSW, through Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Geraldton in Western Australia, these captivating animals are every bit (if not more) as wonderful as any species we’ve seen in the tropics.
The best place to see these guys in Victoria is no doubt the local pier in the small hamlet of Flinders, a mere 100 km from Melbourne’s CBD. And while the pier is also home to cuttlefish, smooth rays, crabs and plenty of other critters, the real stars of this dive are the dragons. So much so that the BBC’s Natural History Film Unit spent three weeks at Flinders Pier in January 2016 to get footage of the dragons for Episode 5 of Blue Planet II.
The pier has a grassy bottom which is why it’s the perfect home for the dragons. There are dozens of dragons here, and during the right season you might even see the males delicately carrying their eggs around. Like their close relative the pipefish, the male dragons take responsibility when it comes to child rearing. Each year in the spring, an elegant dance takes place, where the female’s bright pink fertilised eggs are transferred to the male’s tail. He will carry these eggs for around 8 weeks until the fully formed baby dragons hatch and venture into the green seas to fend for themselves by taking shelter in the sea grass.
Often invisible to the untrained eye, finding these guys for the first time can be a little challenging, but as soon as you’ve spotted your first one, more and more just seem to magically appear.
You’ll often find them hovering around fish larvae and plankton, constantly feeding and often unaware of your presence. Given they don’t have a proper stomach, they have to constantly forage for food, sucking their meal through their tiny mouth located at the tip of their snout.
How to dive Flinders Pier
While the pier can be dived at any time, it’s best avoided in strong Easterly or North Easterly winds, as when the sea is rough the surge and subsequent poor visibility can make it unpleasant. Visibility will of course be at its best when there hasn’t been recent rain.
You can enter and exit from one of the many ladders on the pier itself, or from the shore - depending on the tide. This is a shallow dive (around 5 meters) even when the tide is high, so it’s best dived on an incoming tide if possible. See Tides Chart or WillyWeather to plan your dive.
When diving, practice good buoyancy and be careful to stay off the weedy bottom as this is the dragons habitat. The pier’s pylons also have lovely growth and are home to many other critters, so be careful not to kick the pylons as you move throughout the dive.
As with most piers in Australia, fisherman are often present, so be sure to take your dive knife to de tangle yourself from potential hazards like fishing line, hooks and lures. Be sure to stay underneath the pier at all times to avoid fishing and boat traffic, and be mindful when surfacing. If you have a dive flag to alert people of your presence that’s even better!
The water temperature in the summer months ranges from 16 - 19 degrees. We dived in late January in 19 degree water temperature with a 7.5 mm suit, hood, boots and gloves.
The diving culture in the region is very independent, so if don’t have your own tanks or equipment, or you’re a visitor, you’ll need to hire these. Both the Scuba Doctor and Extreme Water Sports are open from 7.30 am in the summer months and can provide you with everything you need, including tank and equipment hire.
So that’s it. Don’t let the logistics and cold water turn you off, because once you encounter these beauties you’ll be totally in love! And it’s a great little side trip to add to your next visit to Melbourne!
Ever wondered how that magnificent liveaboard you’ve just been on was constructed? Meet the ship builders of Sangeang Api, IndonesiaRead Now
As the shores of their home village of Wera become ever more crowded with boats, this generation of ship builders finds space for their biggest achievement yet. It just happens to be at the base of an active volcano.
Every thirty minutes or so, a gush of ash rushes from its crater, a humble reminder of where we are. This is Sangeang Api, a commanding, impressive volcanic complex that towers over the black sandy shores of the recently settled village of Bontoh in North-east Sumbawa, Indonesia. However, despite all this volcanic fury, the village is here for one reason, and one reason only - and that’s to build a very big ship.
As our small boat approaches, my eyes strain in disbelief as we marvel at what looks like Noah’s ark being built on the village’s black sandy shoreline. Children play by simple outrigger canoes painted in a kaleidoscope of cheerful colours, and a handful of goats alongside the odd chicken or two guard the Ship’s gigantic wooden hull.
Bontoh village doesn’t have much. Its small square homes cobbled together from a jumble of materials gestures a very simple life. But what it does have, apart from the ominous volcano looming above, is world-class ship building skills.
The people here are descendants of the seafaring Bugis people from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. These accomplished seafarers were influential in the world’s spice trade, and for centuries (alongside their close neighbours the Makassans) built splendid hand-crafted wooden ships. Chasing the monsoon winds, they would sail uncharted waters of the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, often as far as Australia, gathering sandalwood, exotic spices, prized feathers, and even gold to trade with European ships.
The ship being built here is a traditional Indonesian Pinisi, a two masted, wooden sailing ship traditionally used for fishing and cargo transportation around the archipelago. Believed to be sailing Indonesian waters since the 19th century, Pinisi are famous for their ability to cover great distances and to breeze through rough seas.
The mid-1990’s saw the development of the Pinisi as a leisure yacht, and today they are also built for use as scuba diving safari boats, with large numbers of luxury Pinisi accommodating divers in their quest to reach the archipelago’s most impressive coral reefs.
As we approach the ship, the ingenuity of this ancient craft is revealed. On closer inspection, we see that each long slender wooden piece is beautifully hand sculpted and fastened in place by tight-fitting wooden pegs. The joinery is meticulous, with each piece delicately nuzzling up against the other in flawless perfection. This Pinisi is at least 30 meters long, and is the biggest this master ship builder has ever attempted.
Never built to plans, these ships follow a sequence of proportions set to memory by master ship builders and passed down through the generations. This one has been commissioned by a Chinese client who pays the master ship builder around $10 Euro a day for his workmanship. While this one is not destined as a dive safari boat, the technique, great care and skill in its construction are the same. This one will be used for cargo, and will likely transport rice, or even cement, a far cry from the exotic spices of the past.
Without any specialised engineering training, nor the need for complicated drawings or calculations, the master ship builder builds the ship by feel. Going by instinct, he tells us he will trust his eyes and heart to uncover the memory of what he was taught. This is only the third ship he has built since learning the craft, and it’s by far the biggest. “Normally we build small fishing boats”, he says. “But this one is really big and will take a long time”. Two years has already passed since the first piece of wood was shaped, and it will take another 9 months before the ship is complete.
Previously from the busy ship building village of Wera, just a mere 30 minutes away by boat, the master ship builder, his workers and their families moved to Sangeang Island for the space needed to build the ship. “Wera was full of boats, and also many ship builders” He said. “We needed our own beach for our first really big ship”. Around 30 people reside in Bontoh village and everyone is committed to the creation of the ship. The children also say they can’t wait to build their own ships. Unless they choose to leave the island, they too will be taught this fine craft - it is part of their identity.
The village has everything it needs. The surrounding sea is plentiful with fish, so when they’re not building the ship they’re out fishing for that evening’s meal. The island also harbours fresh water, and is close to Bima, the largest regional and economic hub of Eastern Sumbawa, meaning they have good access to the wood they need. The wood for the ship is ironwood and takes about 3 days to reach Sumbawa from the island of Sulawesi.
We gaze in amazement at the workmanship of this giant wooden ark, and ask how on earth they will ever manage to launch it to the sea. We are told that every member of the village will be involved in this extraordinary effort requiring pure determination and human force, often helped by the impending king tide. “When the ship is ready to launch, we will bring another 40 people here to help us” the master ship builder says. Logs are laid down at right angles to the ship, and everyone pushes until the ship rolls over the logs and out to sea.
We can only imagine the excitement of witnessing such a triumph; oh, and the master ship builder’s relief when he sees his biggest achievement yet floating just perfectly at sea!
Alongside the ship’s launch, a huge celebration will take place. After all, an effort of this magnitude deserves a big celebration, right? Looking around, we suspect that some of the goats currently lazing by the ship’s hull might play a key role!
We say our goodbyes, board our boat and leave Bontoh village. It’s hard to believe that once the ship is surrendered to the sea, it will only be a matter of time before a new ship takes shape on Bontoh’s black sandy shores.
The ship building settlement of Bontoh is located in the Lesser Sunda Islands on the island of Sangeang, north-east of Sumbawa in Indonesia’s Flores sea.
Just off the village’s shoreline lies a fabulous night diving site. Crocodile fish, shrimp, octopus, hunting napoleon eels, nudibranch, soft coral crabs, scorpion fish and frog fish, all star in great numbers.
The island’s volcano, Sangeang Api is one of the most active volcanoes in the region, erupting 19 times since its first recorded eruption in 1512, with the most recent being in May 2014.
In 2017, the art of ship building was recognised by UNESCO as part of a ‘millennia-long tradition of Austronesian boat building and navigation’, with the Pinisi, as the embodiment of this tradition.
We visited the village as part of a dive safari from Bali to Komodo with Mermaid Liveaboards.
Enviously located between Raja Ampat and the Lembeh Strait lies a challenging diving destination that’s surprisingly still off the radar, even for the most adventurous divers.
We divers are an opinionated lot, and although we don’t often agree, there’s generally a consensus amongst us that the Asia Pacific region takes first prize when it comes to top notch diving. So when we were deciding where to spend our Christmas and New Year break, we thought where could be better than somewhere half way between Raja Ampat and the Lembeh Strait?
Ok, see if you can guess. Lush volcanic peaks framed by swaying coconut palms, coarse sandy beaches extending to submerged coral gardens, and a mysterious atmosphere like no where else. Where you mistake the sound of a flock of Hornbills for that of a helicopter, and you’d almost swear the water was Gin, it’s that clear.We’re talking about Sali Kecil, a tiny island located in the Strait of Bacan. Ok, be honest, you’ve probably never heard of it, and even if you have you’ve only got a vague idea of where it is.
We bump our way along a meandering jungle road from Bacan’s Labhua Airport down to the waters edge, it’s prayer time and the call from the local mosque fills the warm humid air. Tired and with the evening upon us, we board a boat for our final leg to the only dive resort in the area - Sali Bay Resort on Sali Kecil. As evening falls the sky and sea are awash with diamonds as the starry night sky and bioluminescence rewards us for the long journey we’ve endured.
Located in the rarely visited waters of the southern reaches of the Indonesian island of Halmahera, and enviously located between the Lembeh Strait and Raja Ampat, the waters around this sparsely populated island are amongst the most impressive of all marine biodiversity hot spots. The waters here are uncharted, and despite its location amidst the richest seas on earth, the almost non existence of resorts and liveaboards in the area means it has remarkably remained off the radar, even for the most adventurous divers.
With the sea full of promise we are fuelled with anticipation as to what the diving here will bring. Upon submersion, we find ourselves amidst pristine coral gardens, complete with the unpredictable currents that characterise the region.
The islands of Sali Kecil (the small one) where the resort is located, and Sali Besar (the big one) are smack bang in the middle of the strait between Bacan and the main island of Halmahera. This location means that careful planning and selection of dive sites is required for safe diving. If you get it wrong, it’s all ‘washing machines’ and ‘mission impossible’ photography.
But the currents also mean the corals here are colossal. On each dive, we are dwarfed by gigantic gorgonians, elephant ear and barrel sponges, table corals and large gardens of cabbage coral. Delicate soft corals in a fury of pink and orange also star on every dive, providing a safe haven for numerous species of juvenile fish.
The resort’s remote location means total exclusivity to 60 known dive sites, and given much of the area is yet to be explored there is also the opportunity to add to this list with additional exploratory diving. We managed to visit 25 sites during our stay, all of which were uniquely breathtaking. It would take a lifetime to discover all of the dive sites in the area, a challenge we hope to undertake.
Whether your exploring the areas’s many sloping reefs, drop-offs or delicate coral gardens, wandering in the blue or getting down in the muck, you’ll find healthy populations of reef sharks, turtles, batfish, rays, bumphead parrotfish, napoleon wrasse (one was the size of a Fiat 500!), and more strange critters than you can begin to identify, many of which are new discoveries to the resort owners, and absent from marine life identification books. On one dive we came across what appeared to be a tiny white dragonet not much bigger than a pea!
Given its envious location, it’s not surprising that the biodiversity of marine life here is outstanding, yet its remoteness combined with a lack of marine survey data means the region is literally a ‘black box’, with very little understood. The only significant indicator of the region’s potential are the impressive results from a survey undertaken in 2005 in the south-western part of Halmahera, where renowned ichthyologist and marine zoologist Dr Gerald Allen recorded a total of 803 species of reef fish over 37 hours underwater at 28 locations. This is impressive given he recorded 828 species in Raja Ampat during a similar survey conducted over 60 hours in 2001. So maybe it’s not difficult to suggest that the region’s biodiversity could be comparable to that of Raja Ampat.
You’ll see almost every species of pygmy seahorse here, they star on every dive, and in 2013 a new species of walking shark was also discovered, Hemiscyllium Halmahera. Also known as the bamboo shark or long tail carpet shark, these sharks prefer to walk rather than swim by wriggling their bodies and pushing with their pectoral and pelvic fins. Relatively small, the species here is believed to reach a maximum of 70 cm in length. Seeing this shy creature is easy as it’s made a home in the shallow waters just off the the resort’s jetty. A dive in the late evening will give you the best chance for an encounter. We were lucky to see one during a night dive on the resort’s stunning house reef. Shy but curiously it peaked out at us from under a coral boulder before slowly shuffling backwards into the darkness. While we managed to get a quick photograph, no photograph could ever hope to capture the intimacy of the encounter.
All of this, alongside the chance of seeing of dolphins and numerous species of whale makes the region a very enticing dive destination. During a surface interval, we were lucky to encounter a pod of 20 pilot whales, including a calf who leisurely sojourned at the surface. Not in the slightest concerned about our presence, we marvelled at their majesty for almost 20 minutes before they finally slipped into the deep. The topside scenery didn’t disappoint either, with lush volcanic peaks and dense jungle vegetation, free from deforestation and inhabited by numerous species of bird and monkey.
The owners of the resort, a consortium from Italy and Switzerland are committed to protecting the marine environment and are currently working with the Indonesian government to protect the region’s unique biodiversity through the ambitious establishment of a marine park. To date, talks have been lengthy and are ongoing, but something tells me their passion for the region will help them succeed.
Want to dive here? Sali Bay Resort is located on the island of Sali Kecil in a protected bay in the Southern reaches of the island of Halmahera (North Maluku) Indonesia.
The resort caters to guests in twelve beach front deluxe villa accommodations nestled delicately on the shoreline with direct access to the sea. Larger groups can also book the Diver’s Lodge, located at the end of the bay and consisting of four rooms with private bathrooms and a wide veranda facing the sea.
Custom built dive boats and experienced guides take divers on challenging exploratory dive trips in the remote Halmahera sea, and underwater photographers are well catered for with a dedicated camera room and facilities. Twelve litre aluminium tanks with DIN and INT valves are provided and Nitrox is available.
The resort is also a paradise for snorkelers, and has the most beautifully intact and healthy house reef we’ve seen. A fresh water pool, intimate spa and fabulous food tops off the experience. Italian, German, English, Indonesian and French are fluently spoken.
Although the official wet season is considered to be November to March, Sali Kecil is protected by the islands of Ambon, Halmahera and Bacan, and therefore receives very little rain. We visited in January and experienced clear sunny skies and calm seas.
Halmahera is not an easy travel destination, and a visit to these uncharted waters should be considered not only an adventure but a privilege.
Sali Bay Resort is a 20 minute overland trip followed by a 50 minute boat ride from Pulau Bacan’s Labhua airport. Labhua airport is serviced daily from North Sulawesi’s capital Manado with a stop over in Ternate. Singapore Airlines’ subsidiary Silk Air runs flights from Singapore to Manado four times per week.
For bookings and information visit: salibayresort.com
Craving adventure but can’t choose between the mountains and the sea? Who said you should choose? From high altitude peaks where precious air is scarce, to deep blue lagoons and delicate coral reefs, here’s 10 breathtaking places to ignite your fearless spirit.
1. NGAZUMPA GLACIER, GOKYO VALLEY - NEPAL
West of the famous Khumbu region of the Himalaya lies the Gokyo Valley. Heading on foot from Gokyo towards Thangnak will see you cross a section of the longest glacier in Nepal, the Ngazumpa. Stretching for around 25km from its beginnings on the high slopes of the famed 8,000-meter peak Cho Oyu, Ngazumpa presents a challenging high-altitude trek. The constant grinding of the glacier echoes underfoot as it moves its way ever further down the valley. A stark reminder of this strange rock that we live on.
You can cross the Ngazumpa glacier as part of World Expedition’s 21-day circuit trek that takes in the spectacular Himalayan traverse of the challenging Cho La Pass, the blue Gokyo Lakes and the Khumbu Valley leading to Mt Everest Base Camp and onwards to Kala Patthar.
Plan your trip: Visit worldexpeditions.com ; welcomenepal.com
2. MONT BLANC, CHAMONIX VALLEY - FRANCE
Definitely one of Europe’s finest alpine treks, the tough 170 km circumnavigation of Mont Blanc across France, Italy and Switzerland is full of superlatives. This is adventure ‘the way you want it’, with the trek giving you the opportunity to camp in a tent, stay in pretty local accommodation, or experience the conviviality of the region’s many mountain refuges. Experienced mountaineers can also ascend the Mont Blanc mastiff itself, the highest in Europe at 4,809 meters. However you choose to experience it one thing is guaranteed, and that’s amazing local produce!
Insider tip: Avoid trekking during the popular Ultimate Tour du Mont Blanc endurance race which takes place each year on either the last weekend in August or the first weekend of September.
Plan your trip: Visit autourdumontblanc.com ; france.fr
3. KALA PATTHAR, KHUMBU VALLEY – NEPAL
At an altitude of 5,644 meters, climbing Kala Patthar is not for the faint hearted. Located on the south ridge of Pumori in the Nepalese Himalayas, this is the closest you can get to Mt Everest without having to climb it yourself. Oh, and it has bragging rights, as it’s actually higher than Mt Everest Base Camp. World Expeditions run fabulous trips to the region.
Insider tip: Consider travelling in December. Although December is the coldest time of the year in the Himalaya it also happens to be the clearest, so you’re sure to actually see the mountains!
Plan your trip: Visit worldexpeditions.com ; welcomenepal.com
4. GLACIER PIEDRAS BLANCAS, LOS GLACIARES NATIONAL PARK - ARGENTINA
While most adventurers scramble up the main trail from Argentina’s small settlement of El Chalten to descend on the mighty and highly recognised Cerro Fitz Roy, just a short detour off the main trail brings you to what is arguably the most spectacular glacier in the national park. With its distinctive icefalls that descend to the cirque of the North Fitz Roy mastiff, the Glacier Piedras Blancas will burn your retinas with its beauty. Definitely worth the detour.
Plan your trip: Visit losglaciares.com ; argentina.travel
5. ATACAMA DESERT - CHILE
With much of the desert at 4,000 meters, this is another high-altitude escapade. The landscape here harbours vast salt flats, volcanos, thermal geysers, and intense blue lagoons. Climb a volcano, or simply camp out in the desert and stargaze in what is believed to be the best location for astronomy on planet earth.
Plan your trip: Visit sanpedroatacama.com ; chile.travel
6. PADAR ISLAND, KOMODO NATIONAL PARK - INDONESIA
A climb to Padar Island’s impressive view point gives you an appreciation of Komodo’s rugged coastline, confirming its status as one of Indonesia’s most precious and mysterious landscapes.Whether you choose to island hop by local boat, walk with the Komodo Dragon, or dive into the depths of the region’s many impressive dive sites, a visit to Komodo is of Jurassic proportions, both terrestrial and marine.
Insider tip: If you MUST see the Komodo Dragon, give the dragons of Komodo Island a break and visit those at Rinca Island instead where populations are believed to be more stable and rangers are available to guide you.
Plan your trip: Visit indonesia.travel
7. TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, PATAGONIA - CHILE
As one of the most striking places on earth, Chile’s Patagonia oozes adventure and some! Whether you choose to do a day trip from nearby Puerto Natales; take on the full ‘O Circuit’, or ‘W Trek’; or snuggle up in a chic eco lodge, you’ll want to delve right in to this magical landscape.
Insider tip: Don’t be a Gortex ninja. Regardless of how much Gortex you wear, it won’t protect you from Patagonia’s unpredictable wind and rain!
Plan your trip: Visit torresdelpaine.com ; chile.travel
8. PULAU SILADEN, NORTH SULAWESI - INDONESIA
Forget Bali, Indonesia has over 17,000 other islands to explore, yet none offer a sunset as good as this. Loved by scuba divers for good reason, Pulau Siladen offers prime access to the famed Bunaken Marine Park, along with daily sunsets capable of making you weep. Underwater adventures are a must; with vibrant coral walls, abundant fish life, impressive macro critters and a friendly population of green and hawksbill turtles.
There is little accommodation on the island, so treat yourself to a stay at Siladen Island Resort.
Plan your trip: Visit siladen.com ; indonesia.travel
9. PIAYNEMO, RAJA AMPAT - WEST PAPUA
In West Papua, emerald jungle covered islands give way to brilliant white sandy beaches and delicate blue lagoons. Trek through the jungle on the quest for the Red Bird of Paradise, kayak from island to island with Kayak 4 Conservation in search of the rare Epaulette walking shark, or plunge below the surface into its coral gardens and underwater caverns harbouring the highest marine diversity anywhere on planet earth. Above or below, Raja Ampat delivers adventure in spades.
Plan your trip: Visit kayak4conservation.com ; indonesia.travel
10. ALOR ARCHIPELAGO, EAST NUSA TENGGARA - INDONESIA
A visit to Alor is like stumbling across a treasure chest with a kaleidoscope of colours and hidden gems that leave you breathless. The coral reefs here are exceptionally healthy, tourism is undeveloped with only a few eco operators, and the island’s here are still inhabited by many of the Flores sub ethic peoples who still preserve their traditional ways of life. Go scuba diving, free diving or just chill at the Alor Divers Eco Resort, or island hop your way around the archipelago. With mind-blowingly beautiful coral reefs, welcoming villagers and the chance to see; hammerhead sharks, dolphins, false killer whales, and marlin, what’s not to like?
Insider tip: Keep an eye out for the local fisherman as they dive to depth with their handmade wooden goggles to check their woven fishing baskets.
Plan your trip: Visit alor-divers.com ; indonesia.travel
There is no doubt that scuba diving has been life changing for us. It has improved our emotional well-being, self esteem and confidence; given us a much stronger connection and appreciation of nature; and we’ve been lucky to establish new life-long friendships. But it’s also taught us a few things that we never expected.
To slow down
Our daily lives above the surface are often a frenzied, crazy, mess. As we chase success and fulfilment we get wound up in a more chaotic and faster pace of life, and somehow we think this is normal. Our lives above the surface are played out under huge pressure. The demands we place on ourselves can often be debilitating, but we seem to think that if we stop moving, we will fall behind and fail, right?
Below the surface though, the more slowly you move, the more you see and the better your dive experience is. Slowly and purposefully creeping along a coral reef rewards you with marine encounters and interactions you may never have had if you were moving faster.
With our fast frenzied lives above the surface, it did take us a while to master the art of being slow underwater, but once we did, the more we appreciated our time in the ocean, and the more present we were in each moment.
We’ve tried to bring this ‘slow’ back into our daily lives above the surface, and the same rings true. Whilst it’s not always easy to slow down, we find that when we do, we tend to listen more, and therefore learn more, and have better interactions with others. We’re also less stressed and distressed.
How to talk without speaking
One of the best things we love about diving is the inability to speak underwater. Yet, this doesn’t mean you can’t talk.
Scuba diving has taught us that communication is far more than just speaking or writing. Most of us are unaware that we actually communicate in many different ways even when we’re not speaking.
We’ve met divers the world over and rarely do we speak the same language, but as soon as we slip beneath the surface, our language is universal. The simple hand signals you learn as a scuba diver, combined with the language of gestures, facial expressions, and behaviours underwater, unites us and gives us a means of communication and connection.
This scuba language has helped us above the surface as well, especially when interacting with people of different nationality, language, and culture. It’s made us think more carefully about making an effort to keep our communication clear, simple and unambiguous, whilst incorporating more hand gestures and facial expressions, just like the simple scuba signals. In an ever growing multicultural city like Melbourne where we live, we find our daily cross cultural communications are now more enriching as we try different communication techniques and rely less on our voices.
The beauty of the ocean is far greater than what you see on the BBC
We’ve all marvelled at the BBC programmes about our oceans. Spectacular coral reefs, amazing animal encounters, David Attenborough...... you think you know it. I mean you’ve seen how beautiful it is on TV right? Wrong. While the BBC does a marvellous job at portraying the beauty of the natural world, nothing prepares you for your first dive to depth.
As you descend, you enter a world of slow-motion. It’s colourful, eerie, and mysterious, and it totally engulfs you. And, no matter how many times you slip into the blue, you never know what you’re going to see, or when you’ll see it. One day you’ll peer into a cave to find a giant painted lobster, the next day the same cave harbours an octopus curiously extending its arm to greet you.
From the moment you roll off the boat, you’re submerged into an astonishingly different world. You have a ringside seat within the worlds biggest aquarium, and you have no idea what the show will entail. This is ocean’s real beauty, its mystery. And you can’t get that from watching TV.
Keen to try scuba diving? We dare you. Visit PADI for information on courses near you.
Ok, so even if you’ve never been to the Maldives, chances are that you’ve dreamily visioned yourself there. Every computer screen-saver comes up with that dreamy picture right?
There is no doubt that the word ‘beautiful’ is an understatement when describing the Maldives, and ashamedly we’ve been there three times. Yet recently we’ve begun to think more deeply about it’s future, and it is concerning.
But first, let’s start with the good. Crystal blue lagoons with water you’d mistake for gin, brilliant talcum powder beaches and coconut trees swaying softly in the breeze, sunsets that would make even a grown man weep, and beautifully refined resorts where you feel like a superstar. That’s right, there’s no question this is paradise, but when you see it on lists like ‘10 Places to Visit Before they Disappear’ then you have to begin to worry.
The islands are at the very forefront of climate change. The very existence of the islands and the people that rely on tourism for their income are under significant threat. According to the World Bank, with "future sea levels projected to increase in the range of 10 to 100 centimeters by the year 2100, the entire country could be submerged".
It seems ironic that tourism, the very thing that’s provided economic prosperity to the Maldives since the 1970’s, is now the very thing that is contributing to its climate woes. Our insatiable appetite for travel is causing climate impacts the world over like never before.
In a climate like the Maldives, air conditioners run in every villa, every day, at every resort and homestay on almost every one of its 1000 plus islands. Seaplanes and boats use large amounts of fuel shuttling around over one million visitors a year from island to Island, and don’t forget the food miles required to feed everyone, and of course the waste.
So where does all this trash go? Thilafushi, the trash island of course! Thilafushi was once your typical pristine lagoon but it’s now the chosen location to store the growing amount of waste produced by the booming tourism industry. It’s estimated that 300 tons of rubbish, much of it from resorts is dumped daily on Thilafushi. To avoid it spilling into the sea, much of the rubbish is burned which at times can create a haze that many visitors dismiss as ‘sea fog’.
As scuba divers, over the years we have seen the degradation of the islands coral reefs. Like many places in the world, warming seas have caused mass coral bleaching events with coral turning to ghostly shadows, and unsustainable tourism and fishing practices have turned some coral reefs into piles of rubble.
While many of the region’s luxury resorts are now carving out a niche as leaders in sustainable and eco-friendly tourism through efforts in; marine conservation, growing their own food to minimize food miles, and capturing rainwater for guest drinking water in reusable glass bottles, is this enough?
With more and more islands being built and visitor numbers expected to increase significantly, the Maldives will have the ever greater challenge of managing their waste and carbon footprint.
The challenge for us all is how we travel as responsibly and sustainably as we can. Yes it’s inconvenient, but necessary to save the places we love.
Our driver weaves his way through the chaotic traffic leading to Bali’s Benoa Harbor and pulls over, “we can get out here,” he says. In a flash, our dive and camera gear are whisked down to the harbour by a friendly smiling Balinese gentleman, who I’m sure can’t believe how much gear we’ve got as he struggles with our bags. We wave goodbye to our driver and make our way down to board our home for the next week, the MV Mermaid II. As we board, I remember I still have a banana in my carry on, I quickly eat it, everyone knows that taking bananas on boats is bad luck, right? At least that’s what my dad always told me.
As we approach the Mermaid, her body glistening in the sun, the hustle and bustle of Bali begins to fade. We are on our way to Komodo, a land of Jurassic proportions, where rugged coastlines and hillsides of dry savannah stretch down to brilliant sandy beaches and delicate coral reefs.
As we board the Mermaid, we are greeted by our trip leader Montse who eagerly tells us about the exciting week of diving we’re about to have. “Apart from the dragon” she says, “the mantas are the highlight in Komodo”. As we settle into our home for the next week, assembling our dive and camera equipment, we are thrilled to see that some Brazilian divers we met whilst diving the Alor Archipelago are also on board. It’s going to be a fun week.
Located in the Lesser Sundra islands between Sumbawa and Flores, and bordering Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara and West Nusa Tenggara provinces, Komodo National Park is a biodiversity hot spot both terrestrial and marine.
Founded in 1980, the original purpose of the park was to protect wild populations of the world’s largest lizard, the legendary Komodo Dragon. But as the importance of the region’s unique marine biodiversity was realised, 113,000 hectares of marine reserve was added to form what we now know as the Komodo Biosphere Reserve and National Park.
A UNESCO World Heritage site for good reason, the park is believed to be home to almost 6,000 dragons across the islands of Komodo, Rinca, Gili Motong and some areas of western and northern Flores. Getting up close (but not too close) and personal with the dragon is one of the many reasons’ visitors come to the region. Yet while Komodo’s top side attractions are certainly worthy of the effort, we came for the magic that lies beneath.
After a very thorough on-board safety briefing, we leave the chaos of Bali far behind as we cruise into the sunset on route towards Sumbawa. We spend this time socialising and getting to know our diving companions and crew for the next week. There are 17 guests on board the Mermaid, although she can take 18. With divers from all over the world, the boat is full of excitement for the week of diving that lies ahead.
As my stomach starts to signal dinner time, our first meal magically appears - a delicious prawn curry and numerous side dishes served buffet style. When you’re diving four times a day food is super important and can be the difference between a good and bad trip. After the first meal, I’m happy to say that chef Bruno and his team are up to the challenge.
As late evening approaches, we retire to our cabin; complete with double bed, its own air conditioning, bathroom and good storage space. It takes us a while to settle into the rhythm of the sea and familiarise ourselves with the pulse of the Mermaid’s engines as she moves her way through the open water. Regardless of how cosy we feel, the promise of tomorrow’s diving means we’re too excited to sleep well.
The following morning, we awake moored at Moyo Island for our first dive at Angel Reef. While we’re not even in the Komodo National Park yet, the calm, clear waters below us are full of promise. On submersion, my tired eyes are now wide open as we explore the reef’s beautiful steep wall adorned in its kaleidoscope of soft corals. It’s a vision so majestic, that I find myself unconsciously edging backwards as if that would somehow help me fit the entire reef into my field of view. With reef sharks, shoals of small fish and bigger species, like batfish, bannerfish and red tooth triggerfish dancing around us, this is a magical way to start our trip.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere, you’ll undoubtedly be aware of the celebrated diversity of Indonesia’s reefs. Komodo’s waters provide a safe environment for hundreds of species of coral, sponges and bony fishes along with crustaceans, turtles, dolphins, whales, manta ray, sharks and numerous invertebrates - all attracted by its nutrient rich waters and often ferocious currents.
Over a mouth-watering lunch, of which I added a regrettable mountain of chilli sambal, dive guide Yeray tells us that there are over 50 dive sites in the Komodo area. “There’s an astounding diversity of marine species here” he explains. “Almost anywhere you get in the water is an amazing dive site”.
With food in our bellies we retire to the sundeck for a quick nap. The soft breeze and warm sun is the perfect recipe for relaxing. As I begin to drift off to sleep someone shouts “dolphins”. Dragging ourselves up off the deck we approach the railing and peer over. Actually, it’s not dolphins, but mobula rays dancing at the surface. We watch them as they hunt a bait ball of small fish and wait in anticipation for their cheerful acrobatic display - but not today.
It’s not long and we’re back in the water searching for pygmy seahorse, before cruising two hours to Satonda Island for our first sunset dive at Satonda Sandy. We head to the dive deck and gear up. With quiet seas and the sky on fire we board our dive tender. Yes, it’s as good as it sounds.
While the Komodo region can be dived via land-based operators out of Labuan Bajo in Flores, the absence of land-based operators in the National Park itself means long boat rides can be necessary to reach the parks best dive sites. The region therefore lends itself well to a dive safari boat which ensures jaw dropping topside scenery and superior access to the park’s impressive dive sites.
Although most dive safari boats base themselves in Labuan Bajo, being ‘liveaboard virgins’ we chose to board the Mermaid II for its size, reputation and convenient Bali - Komodo - Bali itinerary.
Exploring Indonesia’s waters for almost 20 years, the Mermaid II is an impressive dive safari boat catering to 18 divers in deluxe accommodations. A large comfortable dive deck and dive platform provide easy exits and entries to the dive boats, and as photographers, we were thrilled to see the dive deck was complete with camera setup and rinsing stations making it easy to keep our equipment maintained and clean.
Naturally, being our first liveaboard trip we were slightly apprehensive at first, but as we eased into the rhythm of the sea we actually loved being on board. I’m not sure if it was a side effect of the sea sickness tablets, but it was as if the Mermaid floated wherever it liked, and I wondered if actually a giant octopus was gently carrying it around for reasons lost to time.
Each day on the Mermaid went something like this: eat, dive, eat, sleep, dive, eat, sleep, dive, eat, sleep, repeat. And while the daily naps weren’t mandatory, we’d certainly recommend them.
Whilst it would take a lifetime to explore all of the dive sites around Komodo’s islands, we spend the next few days enjoying some of the most famous sites in the National Park.
At Castle Rock huge schools of fusiliers and surgeon fishes seduced giant trevallies and Spanish mackerel. White tip and black tip sharks also patrolled the area, alongside eagle rays, blue spotted rays and hawksbill turtles.
Cannibal Rock’s stunning corals were home to sea apples, devil scorpion fish, pygmy seahorse, octopus and many varieties of nudibranch and flatworms, alongside large schools of fish, including big eye snapper and yellow-mask surgeon fish.
With low visibility because of its southern location and nutrient rich waters, Secret Garden appeared as a magical emerald underworld with masses of striking soft corals, cuttlefish, blue spotted stingray, frogfish, leaf scorpion fish and schools of five-lined snapper and fusiliers.
When you’re diving, it’s easy to always focus on the majesty of the ocean, after all that’s what we were here for right? It’s only as the day of diving ended that I remembered to look around me to see the magnificent Padar Island. We board our dive tender, approach the island and surrender to the allure of land. As we climb to Padar’s impressive view point, Komodo’s rugged coastline is bathed in a soft glow. By the time we reach the top, a riot of colour confirms its status as one of Indonesia’s most magical landscapes.
The Mermaid’s eight-day, seven-night itinerary included a total of 20 dives with the added highlight of walking with the dragons. Found nowhere else in the world, the Komodo Dragon as you may remember from its debut in James Bond’s Casino Royale is known for its impressive size, formidable appearance and astonishing ability to devour very large animals. As we step foot on the island of Rinca our ranger Benny stands proud with a large forked stick. “Just in case they get a bit close” he explains. “But if they start to get aggressive, then get ready to run”. He goes on to tell us that the dragon’s saliva contains bacteria that will eventually kill another animal. “The dragon bites the buffalo and then stalks it, sometimes for up to a week until it dies and it can be devoured” he says. Needless to say, our friendship with the dragon is somewhat aloof.!
Before getting back on board, an impromptu game of football begins. Typical, you can always trust Brazilians to find a football!
The next morning, we attempt the most anticipated dive of the trip, the Shotgun. As we descend down and make our way towards an area known as the Cauldron, we are welcomed by a large school of huge bump head parrot fish cruising the water like the coolest kids in school. We cross the Cauldron and approach a narrow passage of water; this is the Shotgun. When at its entrance, I expel the air from my buoyancy vest in anticipation of being shot headfirst and up towards the surface. Our dive guide Angela signals “one, two, three” and a gun with her hand as we feel the current lift us up and accelerate us forward. As we fly along, tumbling like a grain of rice in a boiling pot they appear; the most vulnerable, intelligent and enigmatic creatures in our oceans, the manta ray. Gently flapping their pectoral fins, they hover in the strong current. Like huge fighter jets, their mouths are wide open as they enjoy the nutritious plankton rich waters. It’s as if we have entered a manta mega restaurant! We continue to shoot the passage, passing more and more mantas as we go. I do my best to stay up current and enjoy an intimate moment with them. As always, these amazing creatures left a lasting memory that no camera could ever hope to capture.
Our exhilarating dive at Shotgun is followed by a dreamy dive at Crystal Rock, where we spend most of the dive marvelling at turtles, rays and dancing with huge schools of jack fish.
That afternoon we begin to motor our way back towards Bali stopping off at the Sangeang Volcano. Every thirty minutes or so, a gust of ash rushes from its crater, a humble reminder of this strange rock that we live on. I was surprised to see that at the base of the volcano lay a small village settlement, Bontoh village - yes people actually live here!
Today’s afternoon dive is located at the base of the volcano and is appropriately named Hot Rocks. As we descend down, I immediately make my way to the black sandy bottom to play in the bubbles caused by the persistent rumbling deep within the volcano’s bowels. As I move closer to the bubbles and lay my hand on the black sandy bottom, I feel a significant rise in temperature. A good reminder of where we are! As we move through the dive, the bubbling black sandy area gives way to a huge concentration of delicate soft corals in a myriad of colours.
We make our way back to the boat for a quick snack before boarding our dive tender to visit Bontoh village. On the shoreline, the children play by simple outrigger canoes painted in a kaleidoscope of cheerful colours.
As we approach, my eyes strain in disbelief as we witness what looks like a huge ark being built on the village’s black sandy shores. It turns out that the people here are actually descendants of the seafaring Bugis people from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi of whom were specialist boat builders and instrumental in the world’s spice trade. The village here has been building ships for generations, but this is their biggest yet. It’s for a Chinese client and is destined as a cargo ship. A handful of goats alongside the odd chicken guard the ship’s hull. We gaze in amazement at the workmanship of this wooden ark, and wonder how on earth they will ever manage to launch it to the sea.
Bontoh village doesn’t have much, its square shacks cobbled together from a jumble of materials gestured a very simple life. But what they do have, is a world -class muck diving site which we were itching to explore.
After purchasing some traditional handmade wooden free diving goggles from one of the village’s residents (and yes, they actually seal!), we make our way back to the Mermaid to gear up for what will be our last night dive and also a highlight of the trip.
In pitch black darkness, our dive tender brings us to an area just off the village’s shoreline. We turn on our torches and after a “one, two, three” back roll into the darkness. I descend to a max depth of around 8 meters and everywhere there is life. We explore Bontoh village’s dive site for over an hour, photographing crazy critters - crocodile fish, shrimp, octopus, hunting napoleon eels, nudibranch, soft coral crabs, scorpion fish and frog fish, all in great numbers. Now we understand why everyone said this was the night dive not to miss.
When to dive Komodo
While Komodo can be dived all year round, the best time to dive is generally considered to be between June and October when visibility is at its best (25-35 meters). From December to March, operators tend to dive only the southern dive sites where water temperatures are cooler and visibility is around 10 - 15 meters. We visited at the end of September and experienced calm seas and fabulous visibility on most sites. Water temperatures in the northern sites at this time of year are around 27 degrees, while southern sites are considerably cooler at around 24 degrees.
The Mermaid’s Bali- Komodo-Bali itinerary provided the opportunity to dive both within and outside of the Komodo National Park, taking in dives at Moyo Island and Sangeang Island off the coast of Sumbawa, Satonda Island, and of course the Komodo National Park itself.
How to get there
Joining the Mermaid II is easy with the boat departing and arriving at Bali’s Benoa Harbour. Bali is serviced domestically by Garuda Indonesia and Lion Air from Jakarta and numerous other Indonesian cities. If choosing a land-based option, your point of entry to Komodo will be Labuan Bajo. For the adventurous island hopper, there are also several passenger ferries operating in the East Nusa Tenggara Island chain.
So now that we’re no longer ‘liveaboard virgins’, I’d have to say that this type of scuba travel has won us over. A boat full of like-minded people passionate about the ocean and photography, great food, jaw dropping scenery, incredible diving and almost all the comforts of home - what’s not to like? Oh, and did we mention you can duel with dragons?
For more information on diving Komodo aboard the Mermaid II contact mermaidliveaboards.com. A weeks diving Komodo aboard the Mermaid II will set you back around $2,700 Euros per person.
10 days, 3 countries, 170 km, 11 passes, 11,000 meters of up, 11,000 meters of down, and more cheese and charcuterie than you can poke your trekking pole at! Could this just be Europe’s finest alpine trek?
As the highest mountain in the European Union standing at an impressive 4807metres, Mont Blanc continues to lure adventurers with dreams of conquering its summit and circumnavigating its commanding mastiff via the magnificent valleys that extend into France, Switzerland, and Italy.
Typically beginning and ending in the vibrant French alpine village of Chamonix, the 10 day Tour du Mont Blanc trek takes you on a 170 km circuit around Mont Blanc, passing through several picturesque alpine villages, each with their own quirky style and regional food specialties.
For us Australians, who usually have to lug a tent around everywhere we want to hike in Australia, the fact you can do this trek with no camping required is absolute gold! It really is ‘nature the way you want it’, with numerous accommodation options ranging from high-end resorts, small boutique family run hotels to mountain refuges with dormitory-style rooms. However you choose to visit, you’ll be guaranteed breathtaking scenery and challenging terrain. This is a trek of epic proportions!
The standard route has many variations depending on your fitness level, but we chose to push ourselves by often taking the more difficult routes - after all, the more challenging routes arguably offer the best views!
Being a circular route, it can be trekked clockwise or counter clockwise, starting and finishing at a number of different places. Instead of starting in Chamonix alongside hundreds of other hikers and day trippers, we opted to start and finish our trek in the pretty village of Les Houches, a short train ride from Chamonix and easily accessible by shuttle from Geneva Airport.
How you choose to undertake your trek may be dependent on accommodation availability. Only accessible for hikers from mid-late June to mid-September, this is a popular trek, so be sure to book way in advance. A bit more on that later, but first, here’s our route:
Day 1: Les Houches to Les Contamines
After spending the night at the gorgeous Campanules Chalet Hotel in Les Houches, which we must say punches well above its weight with stellar views of Mont Blanc and Aiguille du Midi, we made our way to the start of the trail for a quick cable car ride from the village and up to Bellevue to start the trek. Being our first day, we opted for the tough route via the Chalet de Miage, which provided jaw dropping scenery as we passed just beneath the Glacier de Bionnassay, before descending into Les Contamines. From glaciers to alpine meadows, this was a beautiful first stage of the trek, even the moo’s had fabulous views here! Dinner and overnight was at the classy Hotel Chemenez in the small village of Les Contamines.
18km, 7.5 Hours, 1500m ascent, 1300m descent
Overnight Les Houches: Campanules Chalet Hotel
Overnight Les Contamines: Hotel Chemenez
Day 2: Les Contamines to Refuge des Mottets
The start to today’s leg was relatively gentle with the first 5km seeing us meandering along the valley floor to the gorgeous chapel at Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here however, a murderous climb took us through the Contamines Montjoie Nature Reserve towards the Col du Bonhomme. As we approached the rugged landscape of the high peaks the weather turned violent with relentless wind and horizontal rain. The trail was a sea of ‘Gortex Ninjas’ as those on the trail found more and more gortex to put on! We stood at the top of the Col du Bonhomme (2329 m) and ate a piece of wet soggy Quiche Lorraine before climbing a further hour or so on rough and rocky ground up to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme. Continuing our climb in the pouring rain and thrashing wind over the Col des Fours (2665m), the commanding views of Mont Blanc we were expecting on this stage of the trek were non-existent as the rain and fog continued. After a long day with only the Marmots to entertain and keep us company, we finally made the steep descent to the idyllic mountain Refuge des Mottets, where a hot shower and hearty meal waited for us.
20km, 1600m Ascent, 900m Descent, 8-10 hours weather depending
Overnight: Refuge des Mottets
Day 3: Refuge des Mottets to Courmayeur
With the rain and fog still looming, we began our trek to the sophisticated and gorgeous Italian village of Courmayeur. After a steep hike up to the Col de la Seigne (2516m) we left France for my home country of Italy. It’s here for the first time that we could see the sunshine and the steep southern side of the Mont Blanc Massif, with its jagged peaks, momentous glaciers and dramatic waterfalls. The weather continued to clear as the trail descended through the high alpine meadows past refuge Elisabetta and into the Val Veni. After the previous tough and wet day, we chose to take the standard route past the snout of the Glacier du Miage to Visaille, rather than the tough option via Col Chécrouit.
As we made our way into Courmayeur we were welcomed by more sunshine. An impressive and sophisticated village, Courmayeur is not only a popular winter skiing destination and key hub for the Tour du Mont Blanc, but also an important staging post for two other iconic long-distance hiking trails: the Alta Via 1 and Alta Via 2. This year it was also the starting point for the Tor des Geants, a 330 km endurance event through Italy’s Aosta Valley. That evening in Courmayeur was heaving; hikers like ourselves, a sea of trail runners with their long compression socks, and the locals doing their traditional ‘passeggiata’ – all promenading in the streets before dinner.
17km, 750m Ascent, 800m Descent, 5 – 5.5 Hours
Overnight: Hotel Edelweiss Courmayeur
Day 4: Courmayeur to Rifugio Bonatti
With the weather now totally clear, today’s walk was to be a treat and was one of the highlights of the trek. We decided to take the high trail via Col Sapin which although doubled the climbing the views were spectacular. Drama unfolded at every turn with the dramatic icy panorama of the Mont Blanc Massif and Grand Jorasses revealing themselves across the valley. We left early that morning and arrived at Rifugio Bonatti just in time for some wild mushrooms with polenta for lunch! Unfortunately, Rifugio Bonatti was totally booked for the night so we took a steep trail down to the valley floor of the Val Ferret and hopped on the regular local bus service back to Courmayeur for the night.
12km, 1600 m Ascent, 1400m descent, 6 hours.
Overnight: Hotel Edelweiss Courmayeur or Rifugio Bonatti
Day 5: Rifugio Bonatti to La Fouly
The day began with a short bus ride from Courmayeur to the Val Ferret, where we had descended from Rifugio Bonatti the previous day. From here we made the tough climb to the Grand Col Ferret and left beautiful Italy behind for Switzerland. From the Col Ferret we gently descended through picture book scenes of chalets, grazing cows (with their bells of course), and fabulous alpine views. A highlight of this stage was the random dairy café that appeared, complete with their own cow’s fresh chocolate milkshakes! While the intimacy of the big mountains was now lost for a day or so, the idyllic alpine village of La Fouly with its wooden chalets overflowing with flowers boxes and Swiss flags warmly greeted us. Overnight at La Fouly’s Hotel Edelweiss was the perfect stop for the night.
Walk: 20km, 895m Ascent, 1410m Descent, 6 – 6.5 Hours
Overnight: Hotel Edelweiss La Fouly
Day 6: La Fouly to Champex
The easiest stage of the trek, this stage took us on some of the quietest trails through the small village of Les Arlaches, with its traditional wooden Swiss Chalets and gnome gardens to the lake side town of Champex. Champex with its lovely lake was the perfect way to soak up the afternoon sunshine over a beer or two. Overnight at the family run Hotel Belvedere was a cosy and quirky affair.
15km, 4.5 Hours, Ascent: 450m, Descent: 550m
Overnight: Hotel Belvedere
Day 7: Champex to Trient
After the previous days gentle trail, we decided to take the more demanding route via the spectacular Fenêtre d’Arpette to the Trient Valley. Climbing to 2665m this was a challenging, slippery and exposed trail, but worth every step with magnificent views across the mountain and surrounding valleys. After a tough day we descended to the valley floor and the small village of Trient. Overnight at the simple Auberge Mont Blanc.
15.5km, 1200m Ascent, 1450m descent, 7 Hours
Overnight: Auberge Mont Blanc.
Day 8: Trient to Tre Le Champ
From Trient, we started our climb back to the French border at Col de Balme (2191 m). From the top of the col, you can see the entirety of the Mont Blanc Massif as it stretches far ahead of you. Alongside it is the Chamonix Valley, the summit of Mont Blanc, the Aiguilles, the Mer de Glace and the Argentière glaciers! This is one of the most spectacular stages of the trek. The route continues via the Col des Posettes and Aiguillette des Posettes, with jaw dropping scenery throughout, before descending into the Chamonix Valley at Tré le Champ. Overnight was at the gorgeous Refuge La Boerne, where the dorm room we were expecting was upgraded to a new private double room set amidst a gorgeous garden. Oh, and boy was the home cooked Osso Bucco with tagliatelle a treat.. yes, even in France!
Walk: 11.5km, 1050m Ascent, 950m Descent, 5 Hours
Overnight: Refuge La Boerne
Day 9: Tre Le Champ to Planpraz
The next two days were a huge highlight of the trek as the views across the Chamonix Valley to the Mont Blanc Massif are spectacular. From our refuge, the trail climbed steadily via Aiguillette de Argentière to the Grand Balcon Sud of the Aiguilles Rouges. The fixed ladders and ropes in this section were fun, although may be challenging for those not fond of heights. Now in the Aiguilles Rouge Nature Reserve, the area was full of friendly Ibex and Marmot who were a real treat to photograph.
The climb onwards to Lac Blanc, delivered an idyllic refuge and the perfect spot for lunch. Descending down to the cable car station at Le Flégère we were soon rewarded with the 'Balcon Sud', a part of the trail that traverses across the mountain side with glorious views of Mont Blanc before finally arriving at Planpraz where we took the cable car down to the centre of Chamonix for our first overnight there.
11.5 km, 6-7 Hours, Ascent: 1300m, Descent: 530m
Overnight: Hotel Vallee Blanche
Day 10: Planpraz to Les Houches
After a fabulous evening wandering the gorgeous streets of Chamonix, we began our day by catching the cable car back up to Planpraz for our last day on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
While there are several options here, we took the toughest and most rewarding, after all – we had made it this far, so what was to stop us now? Our trail to Les Houches was via the Col du Brevant & the rocky pedestal of the le Brévent (2525m). At this stage of the trek, Mont Blanc is almost in touching distance on the opposite side of the valley. Unfortunately though, the morning was dense with fog, so the views were intermittent, hence the lack of photographs below. The steep descent to Les Houches past Lac Brevent and Bel Lachat certainly gave the knees one final work out. After descending into Les Houche we caught the train back to Chamonix and settled in to celebrate. Trek complete!
11km, 430m Ascent, 1530m Descent, 6 Hours
Overnight: Hotel Vallee Blanche Chamonix or Campanules Chalet Hotel Les Houches
How to get there
The most convenient way to access the Chamonix Valley is via Geneva Airport, with an easy 1-hour shuttle taking you from the airport to a number of locations throughout the valley. Bookings can be made by visiting Chamexpress or Mountain Drop Offs.
When to go
The only time to trek the Tour du Mont Blanc is between the middle of June to the middle of September, weather dependant. Often at the beginning and end of the season some passes can be covered in snow, so be sure to check weather conditions and book at least 8 months in advance as this is an epic walk which is very busy. We began our trek on 4 September and enjoyed fabulous weather for most days.
Experience and fitness
This is a strenuous trek with average ascents and descents of over 1000 meters per day, so an excellent level of hiking fitness is necessary. If you choose to trek self-guided, you will be responsible for navigation. While the trails are marked quite well, the depth and breadth of trails in the region can find you taking a wrong turn, so be sure to pick up good contour maps of the Chamonix – Mont Blanc region and the Saint- Gervais -les Bains region.
There is a variety of accommodation throughout the trek from basic dormitory rooms in mountain refuges to lovely resorts and hotels in the valleys. The accommodation recommended in our itinerary provided a nice level of privacy and comfort for a couple with private rooms and bathroom facilities most nights.
Planning your trek
The Trekking the Tour du Mont Blanc guide book published by Cicerone is a great reference and includes each stage of the trek, along with details of the more challenging variants. Be also sure to visit the trek’s official tourism website Au Tour Du Mont Blanc where you can book accommodation based on your route and availability. If its all too hard, Macs Adventure can book it all for you alongside a bag transfer for the ten days, meaning all you have to do is turn up and navigate. They will also provide maps and an ap to assist with navigation and can tailor the best route for you based on your level of fitness, time and accommodation availability.
So would we do it again? Absolutely. This is a challenging trek in a very beautiful part of the world. What’s not to like?
When we mention the words ‘West Papua’ to our non-diving friends, we get a look of ‘Huh? Where? Why go there?’ But to our diving friends, well their faces light up with dreams of uninhabited islands, pristine reefs and verdant green pinnacles rising from the blue.
Known as the birds head peninsula because of its shape, West Papua encompasses the islands of Misool, Salawati, Batanta and Waigeo. These islands, collectively known as Raja Ampat and affectionately referred to as the ‘Four Kings’, harness the highest concentration of marine diversity anywhere on planet earth.
Previously known as Irian Jaya, West Papua was actually under control of the Dutch, forming part of what was the Dutch East Indies. It was not until 1969 that the Dutch withdrew from the region and handed it over to Indonesia. Papua was actually never part of Indonesia prior to Dutch colonization, because Indonesia didn’t actually exist then. The 1940’s saw the formation of Indonesia as an independent republic, following which the United Nations forced the Dutch to give up West Papua. To cut a long story short, Indonesia then annexed West Papua as a province.
West Papua lies in the Asia Australian transition zone and actually shares the same tectonic plate as Australia, which can somewhat explain why the plants and animals here have similarities. Tree kangaroos, wallabies and other marsupials are common, but it is the region’s phenomenal biomass and endemic marine species that puts Raja Ampat on top of every divers ‘must dive’ destination.
Indisputably remote, wild and mysterious, the reefs and islands here are mind-blowingly beautiful and have so far escaped the over-tourism evident in other parts of Indonesia. Although part of Indonesia, the Papuan culture here is dominant. The shy, warm smiles and generous hearts of the local Papuan people, combined with the region’s wild landscape make this a very special place to visit. Whether your out diving or on a quest to see the bird of paradise, Raja Ampat will have you spellbound in a heartbeat.
Where we stayed
While many divers choose to dive Raja Ampat by liveaboard, we chose a more personal land based approach and stayed at Sorido Bay Resort on Kri Island. Just south of Waiego and run by the very reputable Papua Diving, the diving here at Kri has some of the highest marine diversity anywhere on planet earth. The resort’s local dive site Cape Kri has set the world record for the highest number of fish species, with scientist Dr Gerald Allen counting over 374 species on a single tank dive. The reefs around Kri boast an array of life from various shark species, manta ray, pygmy seahorse (almost in plague proportions), and incredible macro life.
The resort is owned by Papua’s own ‘Indiana Jones’ Max Ammer who came to the region over 21 years ago in search of WWII plane wrecks. Having personally discovered hundreds of wrecks and the majority of dive sites in the region, Max is deservingly the pioneer of Papuan diving. Not only has he personally discovered and named the majority of dive sites in this untamed region, but has also made it his mission to conserve its precious environment through the establishment of the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre (RARCC). The RARCC is led by Max himself and consists of a small team who dedicate their time to sustainable initiatives that both protect the environment and provide opportunities and training to the local Papuan people. Some of the staff at Sorido Bay Resort were previously involved in shark finning, blast fishing, illegal logging and turtle poaching, but through Max’s efforts the local people now generate an income by using their knowledge of the environment to guide guests and undertake conservation work. Currently, 90 percent of resort staff are Papuan.
While the RARCC’s current focus is on building a school and training the local Papuans in fibreglass boat building, carpentry and guiding guests for diving and kayak tours, Max is also building electric dive boats and has future plans to train local Papuans to pilot helicopters - part of his ambitious Bell 47 project where he is rebuilding three Bell 47 helicopters. Once rebuilt, the helicopters will be used to undertake air patrols to determine and deter illegal fishing activities, support search and rescue, and to assist scientists and other researchers to more easily access remote parts of the region.
Catering to a maximum of 18 divers, the resort offers sophisticated dive and stay packages in luxury villas nestled delicately amidst the jungle clad shoreline overlooking the lagoon, whose daily residents include hunting black tip sharks, rays and trevally. The resort also has an amazing array of wildlife on land including; numerous resident Cuscus, Shel Ducks, Coconut Crabs, Monitor Lizards, Papuan Hornbills and Beach Kingfishers.
As for the diving, well all we can say is wow! The reefs here are diverse; from slopes, canyons, seamounts, drifts and calm lagoons; the sheer abundance of fish in these waters is difficult to match. This, combined with the quality and diversity of its coral species and macro critter life makes for a thrilling diving adventure.
From the comprehensive dive briefing from Resort Manager Chris Harvey, to the all Papuan dive team who have a keen eye for everything from sharks to pygmy seahorse, this is a flawless dive operation. Diving here is unique, not only because of the resort’s outstanding location but because of the expert local knowledge of the dive sites, marine life and currents which comes from more than 21 years experience in the region.
Whilst it’s difficult to choose, here are a few of our favourite dive sites
This is of course the dive site where Dr Gerald Allen set the world record by counting over 374 fish species on a single tank dive. After entering from the south-east side of Kri Island, you make your way to the drop off where a steep sloping reef decends to around 40 meters. Soft and hard corals abound, where schools of small fish bring in hunting giant trevallies, spanish mackerel and tuna. White tip, black tip and grey reef sharks are also seen, along with passing hawksbill turtles and schools of ribbon sweetlips. The site also harbours an impressive range of macro critters, so be sure to keep an eye out for scorpion fish, nudibranch and delicate sea fans harbouring pygmy seahorse as you gradually ascend to your safety stop.
Best suited to experienced divers, particularly around the full or new moon when currents tend to run faster, this site can harness so many fish that they block out the sunlight! Best dived when the current is running from east to west, be ready to hook in and wait for the show. Numerous species of schooling fusiliers, trevally and barracuda are common, alongside black tip, white tip and grey reef sharks, bump head parrot fish, bat fish and napoleon wrasse.
This submerged seamount offers healthy and diverse coral gardens alive with the smallest of critters, along with patrolling grey reef sharks, hunting tuna, barracuda and the enigmatic Manta Ray (in season). The reef has a mix of hard and soft coral species including brain and table corals, gorgonian fans and large coral bommies carpeted with a myriad of soft coral species. This is a beautiful dive with something for everyone.
Named after Max Ammer’s son Mike, this site is set around a small rock island. From the surface it’s hard to imagine what lies beneath, but as you descend, it’s unique topographical features reveal themself. The reefscape can be owed to the US Airforce who during WWII bombed the island repeatedly after mistaking it for a ‘disguised’ Japanese ship (good one!). The result is huge bommies now carpeted in stunning soft corals, overhangs, ledges, crevices and swim through caverns. A very interesting dive site with excellent fish biomass, particularly when the current is running. A dive site not to be missed.
A sandy slope who’s name says it all. On the sandy bottom you’ll find a few large bommies that form the cleaning stations for the reef and oceanic manta ray. While you’re more likely to see the mantas here during December to April when the waters are plankton rich, the manta are actually believed to be in the area all year round. Diving here in July didn’t disappoint.
About one hours boat ride from Kri (weather depending), in the area known as the Fam Islands you find this spectacular underwater garden. Named after Max Ammer’s daughter Melissa, this dive site is definitely worthy of the journey. Made up of three pinnacles, this site boasts an array of hard and soft corals along with gigantic fans. Macro lovers will find soft coral crabs, nudibranch, flatworms and a plethora of other tiny critters. In the blue there are huge schools of fusiliers alongside schools of grumpy looking barracuda. The shadows cast by the pinnacles also make for some interesting underwater photography.
The passage is iconic when it comes to Raja Ampat dive sites. This narrow stretch of water between the islands of Gam and Waigeo with brisk currents and mangroves resembles more of a river than your traditional ocean dive site. We had heard that the photography opportunities here were fabulous, so we were disappointed when we were told the passage was no longer diveable. Needless to say that we were happy to choose another site once we heard the reason why. Anyone up to duelling with a large salt water crocodile?
When to go
Unlike in the South of Raja Ampat where operators close from July to September, diving at Sorido Bay Resort is available all year round due to Kri Island’s protected location.
While the best time to dive Raja Ampat is generally considered to be from November to May (because it’s Manta Season), a visit to Kri in June - October not only gives you some of the best visibility, but means you have the dive sites to yourself as the liveaboard boats have left the region. The resort is small and exclusive and often caters to documentary makers and film crews, so advanced bookings are essential. We visited in early July and experienced warm sunny days and light to mild winds, oh and we still saw the mantas ...... someone forgot to tell them it was no longer their season!!
How to get to Kri
There is no doubt that Raja Ampat is wild and remote, and getting there can be long and arduous particularly from European destinations. But it’s this distance and effort that keeps it beautifully secluded and untouched.
Sorido Bay Resort can be reached in 2 hours by boat from Sorong harbour. Sorong’s Domine Eduard Osok airport is serviced domestically by Sriwijaya Air and Lion Air from Manado and Makassar, with connections to the major Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Bali.
After an amazing week of the most magnificent diving, we would have to say that we are in love with this mysterious and wild part of the world. So would we return? Absolutely. Not just for the stunning diving, but for more of Max’s fascinating and side splitting stories!
Want to know more? Book your stay at Sorido Bay Resort or their sister resort Kri Eco Resort by visiting www.papua-diving.com
Ten percent of all resort profits go towards the excellent work of the Raja Ampat Research and Conservation Centre.
The thing we love about scuba diving is that it takes us to places way off the radar, and our recent trip to the magnificent Alor Archipelago In Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara province was no exception.
Diving in Alor is like stumbling across a treasure chest with a kaleidoscope of colors and hidden gems that take your breath away. Boasting over 50 dive sites, with an array of marine life, some of which are only found in Alor’s waters, this is definitely scuba heaven. The reefs here are exceptionally healthy, tourism is undeveloped with only a few eco operators catering for experienced divers, and the islands here are still inhabited by many of the Flores sub ethic peoples who still preserve their traditional ways of life.
Renowned for having some of the more difficult diving in Indonesia, the diving here is catered to quite experienced divers. Alor has everything; with rare critters, hammerheads, pristine reefs, pods of dolphins & false killer whales, astonishing visibility and adrenaline pumping currents.
The currents here can be very challenging depending on the moon phase, with some dive sites being inaccessible during this time. The unpredictability of the currents here means you must be experienced enough to be flexible and nimble with your dive plan. On a single dive it’s not uncommon to experience up-currents, down-currents, vertical currents , horizontal currents and the odd ‘washing machine’. But don’t fear them, as it’s these currents that bring a variety of pelagic fish species and keep the reefs in their pristine condition. Strong currents are also present on the surface, so make sure you bring your SMB as there are few boats to find you if you were to drift far from your group.
Water temperatures in Alor range from 26 to 29 degrees, but thermoclines of 20 degrees or less are not uncommon. We dived in a 3 mm full suit with a combination of thermal under layers depending on the dive site.
Most dive operators in the area close from mid December to mid March, so the best time to dive Alor is between April to November. We chose to visit in April and experienced exceptional visibility, clear sunny skies and pleasant evenings.
Many of the dive sites are located near local villages which provides a wonderful up close encounter into village life. On many dives you are greeted by children swimming or waving from the shore, or local fisherman with their home made goggles and spears. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll be down on your dive while a local fisherman free dives to depth to check his fishing basket.
Here are a few of our favorite dive sites:
This stunning wall is covered in a spectacle of corals with abundant fish life. This is a wide angle photographers dream, but don’t neglect the wall itself where you’ll find a diverse array of macro life. The wall drops below 40 meters but there’s also lots to explore in its shallow waters, so extending your dive time here is worthwhile.
This is a dive we will never forget. The current here can be tough and unpredictable; but as you descend below its initial slope and on to its endless wall you’ll find protection amongst unimaginable species of the most spectacular corals you’ll ever see. Vivid enough to burn your retinas! The steep wall appears to be endless, so keep an eye on your dive computer as the sheer beauty of this wall tends to draw you deeper!
The local jetty at Bajalang doesn’t fail to impress. Apparently only five years old, it’s pylons are covered in amazing coral growth and numerous varieties of nudibranch, frogfish, ghost pipe fish, shrimps, sea spiders, and crabs. The Jetty also provides a safe habitat for many species of juvenile fish to grow before they leave the protection of the Jetty for the open ocean. A resident school of very friendly Bat fish provide for some fabulous wide angle photography. An impressive dive site not to be missed.
This was our first proper muck dive and one of the very few places in the world where you can encounter the famous Rhinopias. Often described as the ‘Holy Grail’ of underwater photography for muck divers, the Rhinopias top our list of weird and strange critters.
Unfortunately the moon phase during our visit meant the diving conditions were not ideal for us to dive this site, but from what we heard from other guests, it is spectacular! If you can manage the sometimes death defying currents the key draw card here are the Scalloped Hammerhead sharks.
Where we stayed
We stayed at the Alor Divers Eco Resort, one of very few options in the area. The resort itself is nestled delicately amongst the native vegetation on a pristine white sandy beach. Catering to only 16 divers, this place is barefoot luxury at its best.
The resort has a selection of standard and deluxe bungalows. We chose to stay in one of 3 recently built Deluxe Bungalows at the end of the beach.
Exceptionally private, each are tastefully appointed in a traditional style, complete with all the comfort divers need. Proper hangers for drying wetsuits, two desk stations complete with power boards for assembling and charging your precious underwater camera equipment, a super comfy bed with mosquito net and lovely outdoor bathroom with eco body products.
The bungalows are not air conditioned, but this didn’t bother us in the slightest. While the days are warm, the evenings cool to a pleasant temperature for sleeping and the open air design of the Bungalows means the air flows through the building structure keeping you completely comfortable. We slept under the mosquito net with the double sliding doors wide open, allowing ourselves to be immersed in the sounds of the ocean, the light from the moon, and the rising of the sun.
Managed by British/ Dutch couple Rob and Yardena Wareham-de Haan, we felt completely at home the moment we arrived. Both Rob and Dena are very experienced in both managing the resort and guiding guests on the local dive sites. We were less experienced than some of the other divers, but they made us feel instantly comfortable and helped us improve our diving and camera skills during our stay. The stand-out quality of management was how engaging and fun loving they are. Well travelled and open minded, they had all the guests in stitches with their stories, making it easy for everyone to integrate and enjoy each other’s company regardless of country or culture. During our stay we had divers from France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Brazil, Hong Kong and of course us Aussies.
The resorts eco credentials are impressive. Each of the individual buildings are positioned to compliment the natural environment and were built from local materials with natural thatched roofing. The resort was constructed by local people from the nearby villages, and was designed to ensure protection from the heat eliminating the need for air conditioning.
The dive boats are small, efficient and quite and adhere to the strictest emissions standards. Water is supplied from the resorts own underground water reserve, and all waste is either composted or returned to the main island where it is shipped for recycling.
How to get to Alor
Alor may not be the easiest place to access and facilities here are limited, but that’s what makes it so special.
Alor’s Mali Airport is serviced by direct flights from Kupang, which has connections to the major Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Denpasar, Bali. Kupang is only currently serviced domestically, so transiting through Bali or Jakarta is necessary.
While the lack of easy connections and flight cancellations can make traveling a bit arduous depending on where you are coming from, once you arrive and descend beneath the surface you’ll soon understand why the journey was worth it.
Would we return? Absolutely! When’s the next flight!
You’ve got a murderous headache, nausea and you’ve lost your appetite. Your nose bleeds, and the dry air has opened up cracks in your skin. The cold hurts your lungs and even with two pairs of socks your toes are numb - but one look at the view burns your retinas and you wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.
This is high altitude trekking, the next step many hikers take in their pursuit of adventure. So how do you prepare to make your high altitude trek more enjoyable?
While we are certainly not experts in this field, here’s what works for us. But firstly, let’s talk about altitude.
There is the common misconception that the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere at higher altitudes is lower, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Regardless of whether you are at sea level or on the summit of Mt Everest, the atmosphere still contains 20.93 percent oxygen. The reason you have difficulty breathing at altitude is because the barometric pressure in the air decreases as you ascend higher, meaning it’s more difficult for the air to enter your lungs. So while the percentage of oxygen available is the same, your lungs have to work a lot harder to get enough air in.
We are lucky that our GP is a mountain enthusiast who has done a lot of mountaineering, so we welcomed his knowledge and advice when it came to easier breathing techniques.
Because of the change in barometric pressure, your first instinct is to force air into your lungs by breathing harder and faster. We found however that breathing became far more easier the more we slowed down our breath and increased its depth, so kinda like breathing into your stomach. This is where Yoga breathing techniques come in handy. If you have never done Yoga before, enrolling in a few classes will not only teach you deep breathing techniques, but will also improve your flexibility - this will do wonders for your trek.
Another technique our GP gave to us was to practice what he called ‘Pressure Breathing’, which is to purse your lips and exhale a bit more forcefully. While it felt a bit weird, this technique apparently enables an easier oxygen exchange in your lungs.
It’s all in your head
Everyone thinks that high altitude trekking is all about physical fitness, and while you do need to be super fit to sustain an extended period trekking at high altitude, your mental fitness is just as important.
Trekking at altitude is both physically and mentally challenging. It pushes the body in a way that few other sports do.
Take this scenario: You wake each day after sleeping on a hard surface in a small tent, often on the snow. You don’t feel particularly well, and you can’t wash like you would at home. Maybe you can manage a small bowl of water (if your lucky), but it’s far from that hot shower your dreaming of.
You put on the same layers of clothing everyday. You eat quite uninspiring meals, and each day can be a battle of altitude sickness, rocks, boulders and ice. This is your day - day after day after day - everyday, until your quest has been realised.
Maybe your quest is to climb a peak, maybe it’s to simply cross a high mountain pass, but regardless of what your striving to achieve, each day requires unwavering focus, determination, and of course ‘Clif’ bars!
You also have to be able to overcome failure, as not everyone may complete the trek, or make it to the summit.
So how do you become mentally fit? We found that the only way to get our head right was to get our bodies right. Being physically prepared will instil a confidence in your ability, therefore not allowing any demons of doubt to creep in. It’s also important to understand the environment you are going to, after all they say knowledge is power. Be sure to take everything one step at a time. Stay focussed, relax, and trust in the physical preparation you have done.
Because there are serious risks involved with high-altitude trekking , including altitude sickness, acute mountain syndrome and pulmonary edema, all of which can result in death, it’s really important to train your body to work effectively in a low oxygen environment.
When training for our first trip to the Himalaya we undertook a combination of high intensity interval training at the gym, self sufficient ‘hilly’ overnight hiking carrying a full pack, and two x 2-hour high intensity interval training sessions per week in the altitude training chamber at our local gym.
Interval training is believed to help your cardiovascular system manage the stress of of limited oxygen levels at higher altitudes. We particularly liked our gyms high intensity Circuit or HITT classes that combined a number of different exercises including cardio and strength building. These classes included everything from the treadmill, bike, weights, kettlebells, and medicine balls. You can also can train in the gym with your pack or a weighted vest to mimic the weight that you might be carrying during your trek.
We aimed for about 5 sessions of high intensity interval training per week, plus overnight hiking whenever we could. While the gym is great, the best thing you can really do to train is to do the activity you will be doing whilst on your trek. So carrying a pack up hill and being self sufficient is going to give you the best preparation both physically and mentally. Camping overnight in all weather conditions, having to carry everything you need also gives you that ‘discomfort training’ that the gym won’t. After all, it’s highly likely that you will be uncomfortable at times during your trek.
We started our training 6 months prior to our trip with the altitude chamber training taking place in the final 2 months.
The altitude chamber
So what does training in an altitude chamber actually do? According to our local gym Prosport, training at altitude:
“increases your red blood cell content (cells which carry oxygen to your muscles), metabolism, oxygen utilisation and keeps burning energy (calories) for a sustained period post altitude. All of this results in your body acclimatising to cope with a lower oxygen level”
While we were initially sceptical of how much this training would actually help our acclimatisation, it was proven whilst on our trek where we recorded oxygen saturation levels of 98 percent when above 5,000 meters!
Training in the altitude chamber also helped us get used to working hard in a low pressure environment, this helped both our physical and mental preparation.
Don’t worry if you don’t have access to an altitude chamber, just take your trek slowly enough to acclimatise properly by ascending no more than 400 meters per day, and always try to sleep lower than your highest altitude for that day.
We’ve been doing a lot of scuba diving lately, but 2021 is gearing up to be the year of the mountains! We’ve got some pretty challenging high altitude trips in planning where we’ll no doubt learn a lot more about our own bodies and fitness. So stay tuned!
A place that has long inspired poets and writers, Valparaiso is (in the words of famous Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda), a wonderful mess! It’s maze of Cerros (hills) with winding, steep and narrow streets; dilapidated and quirky architecture; endless staircases; and a gritty bohemian vibe makes it a must see stop on any visit to Chile.
While many people visit Valparaíso on a day trip from Santiago, you can easily spend 4-5 days here exploring the stories hidden in its amazing street art, staircases, funiculars and buildings. The colour in this place will blow your retinas, from brightly coloured painted homes to the wildest street art you’ll find anywhere in the world.
The street art here is prolific, particularly in the winding streets of it spectacularly chaotic and faded Cerros (hill-sides). Not only is it everywhere, including on the local garbage trucks, but each piece of art tells a story. From history, popular culture, politics and global issues you could spend months absorbing this syncopated city.
The best way to experience Valparaíso is to simply wander. It’s crazy maze of one way streets that never run parallel to one another, combined with its lack of traditional signage just adds to its appeal, craziness and charm. Choose your footwear wisely as most paths are steep and streets often cobbled.
Don’t miss a trip on one of Valparaíso’s 15 funiculars. Built between 1883 and 1916, these babies will save your legs and get you up those hills in a flash.
While a lot of the focus today is on Valparaíso’s heritage listed Cerros, don’t forget to explore the port district; where tourists, sailors, dock workers, fisherman, artists and prostitutes collide. Here you’ll get a real feel for the city’s seafaring side. There are also some stunning historic buildings here too, including the headquarters of the Chilean navy which is definitely worth a photograph.
While a bit touristy, try and take a boat trip from the harbour. Not only do they provide a fabulous view of Valparaíso’s spectacular Cerros, but you get to see the biggest, fattest and happiest seals ever! For just a few dollars you’ll get a 1 hour crowded boat trip complete with a crazy Chilean entertaining the crowd. Brush up on your Spanish as no English translation is provided. While at first we were a bit apprehensive, it was super funny - needless to say, we loved it!
If you are looking to party, there’s no better time to visit Valparaíso than New Years Eve. We arrived alongside 1 million Chileans! You’ll be guaranteed to be soaked in sparkling wine and you’ll be sure to make lots of Chilean friends. They’re a friendly bunch!
No visit to Valparaíso would be complete without a visit to La Sebastiana, the home of Valparaíso’s most famous resident - poet and politician Pablo Neruda. Getting to the house is a mean effort with a murderous uphill hike, but certainly worth it - even if just for the view. Just be sure to arrive early as it does get busy.
“Valparaiso, how absurd you are......you haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you” Pablo Neruda.
Valparaíso is about 1.5 hours from Santiago in Chile.
Getting there is easy with buses leaving every 15 - 20 minutes from Santiago’s main bus station.
We stayed at Via Via, a small beautiful Art Deco house on the hill-side of Cerro Alegre. Run by a friendly Belgian - Ecuadorian couple and right in the heart of the action, this place was certainly a find with some of the city’s best street art, cafes and restaurants close by. Check out viavia.world/en/south-america/valparaiso for information.
My earliest memory of the ocean is flying on an old-school 80’s surf mat with my brother and cousins at Australia’s 90 mile beach - the rhythmic waves rolling in and out, and the foam getting up my nose. I only have to look at this photo (that’s me in the red) to know that the pull of the ocean has never left me. In fact, it’s only gotten stronger.
From our ancestors who navigated the oceans to discover new territories, to the man who goes fishing but never catches a thing, to the woman who just likes to sit and look but is fearful because she can’t swim - humans the world over are drawn to the ocean.
Whether you are fearful of the ocean, or comfortable in its presence, there’s something about the ocean that draws us closer and fascinates us. It’s ability to ‘fix us’ on some level; to refresh, rejuvenate, inspire and relax us. The ocean’s combination of sound and smell and it’s effect on our brain has been dubbed by scientists as ‘Blue Space’. Its power to remove anxiety and stress is truly remarkable. But why are we so captivated? What is the deeper meaning behind our love and admiration for the sea?
Firstly, water is life. Water makes up 72% of the earth’s surface and over 70% of our body. Even as we age, our brain continues to be made up of 80% water. Half of the oxygen we breath is produced by sea plants, and the oceans also help to absorb the carbon emissions we create.
Through the ocean, we are all connected to the creation and evolution of life. The first life forms came from the ocean - single cell micro organisms that evolved into creatures of the deep that went from swimming, to crawling, and then to walking.
As children, we all spent our first nine months in water - our mother’s womb. A place that was our sanctuary before birth. And as adults, we are once again innately drawn to water to be healed and restored when life gets a bit tough
So, as I reflect on why I love the ocean so much, I also imagine an earth without oceans. While the oceans will get on fine without us (hell, they’ll probably be cheering that we’re gone); we simply cannot exist without them. They are our climate regulator, our food supply, our lungs and our therapists. We are connected to each other more deeply than we humans care to realise.
The actions of more than seven billion people are now impacting the health of the oceans like never before. Plastic pollution, carbon pollution, over-fishing and unsustainable tourism is killing the very thing we need most.
We have taken the oceans for granted. Surely it’s now time to give back?
Join us in saving our oceans and take the pledge to:
If you’ve ever been lucky enough to encounter a Manta Ray you’ll agree that they are one of the most fascinating, intelligent and enigmatic creatures in our oceans, but they are also one of the most vulnerable. Having dived with them for the first time recently, we are now captivated by the plight of their ongoing protection and survival.
Habitat destruction, over fishing, climate change and irresponsible tourism are all significantly impacting these highly curious and social animals, but it’s the more recent market for their gill plates that sickens us the most.
Over the past few decades, a significant market for their gill plates have developed for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Mainly sold in Southern China’s Guangzhou region to cure everything from cancer, infertility and chicken pox, a slaughtered Manta can be purchased for anywhere between a mere $40 to $500 USD.
While there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to the claim that the gill plates can detoxify and purify the human body by filtering out disease - just like the gill plates filter plankton from the water, fisheries are continuing to target them for their highly prized gills leading to devastating impacts on populations.
Although there has been much progress in protecting these magnetic creatures through laws and sanctuaries, the illegal trade continues and consumers remain unaware of the struggle facing these gentle and curious creatures.
The reality is, that these creatures are actually worth up to 2000 times more alive than they are dead, with every Manta generating $1 million USD over its life time in tourism revenue versus the $40- 500 USD if slaughtered.
While their tourism value is an incentive for increased protection, irresponsible tourism practices can cause decline in populations. In some locations, such as Hanifaru Bay, a world famous Manta feeding site in the Maldives Baa Atoll, the sheer number of people and boats in the water was impacting the Mantas ability to feed. The site is now hugely regulated with only a certain number of boats and people allowed at anyone time. As a result the Manta population is getting stronger.
So while the value of Manta tourism has created a desire to better protect the species, sustainable and responsible Manta tourism is imperative for the Manta’s future survival. If you want to see and experience the majesty of these amazing creatures, here’s a few tips:
If your interested to find out more about these magnificent creatures and how you can get involved in protecting their long term future visit www.mantatrust.org
We had not been scuba diving for that long, so when we embarked on our most adventurous dive yet at dive number 16 we weren’t quite sure what to expect. How would we feel about coming face to face with a Tiger Shark, would it be scary or would it instil in us a love for them forevermore?
On the morning of our first shark dive (we won’t lie), we were nervous. The weather was worsening due to a cyclone in neighbouring Vanuatu and we weren’t quite cosy with the conditions of our dive boat, the diligence of our guides, nor our hire equipment. With a huge swell, the captain motored 30 minutes to the ‘Cathedral’ dive site and dropped the anchor.
As we prepared our dive equipment Peter was slightly green, sometimes the sea just gets too much for him! We opted to get in the water as soon as possible, remembering that someone had recently told us that it was ok to vomit in your regulator! As we immersed ourselves into the deep blue the current pushed hard against us, using the buoy line we managed to make our way down to the Cathedral’s sandy bottom at 21 meters. We waited for the stars of the show to appear.
Before we had time to settle, a huge 7 meter female Tiger Shark appeared, the tiger stripes on her pregnant body glistening as the sun streamed from above. We were mesmerised. One of the greatest predators, so close, so majestic and magical, right before our eyes. She was soon joined by 6 other large Tiger Sharks, some quirky lemon sharks and of course the mighty bull shark - about 20 of them!
We stayed mesmerised for the duration of the dive, begging them to come closer and closer. We emerged from that dive forever changed, and forever in love with the most misunderstood creature in our oceans.
Note: This is a baited dive, as you wouldn’t normally be able to get this close to Tiger sharks without it. Fiji is famous for these dives, and there is a lot of controversy surrounding the practice (and other baited shark dives around the world).
The shark dive site is in an established Marine Reserve. Negotiations have taken place between government and the nearby village, who no longer fish the reef in exchange for a fee per diver who attends the shark dive. This revenue goes to the local village who would otherwise remain dependant on fishing. Subsequently, the reef and fish populations have a chance to regenerate. The reef where this dive was established was previously dead. It has since made a remarkable transformation.
As for the sharks, we would agree that baiting the dive does change the shark’s behaviour, somewhat conditioning them to divers, however we’ve been told that once the feed is over, the sharks do resume their natural activities. The amount of food given to the sharks is apparently not enough to supplement their diet, and so they don’t become dependant on it.
Having experienced this dive once, we’re not sure if we condone the practice, or how the sharks are handled, but with 150 million sharks per year getting slaughtered maybe the fact that these dives exist will protect these sharks. After all, if they are worth more for tourism purposes they are less likely to be slaughtered. Whatever your view, one thing is for sure - they are one of the most majestic creatures in our oceans.
The below video shows our experience of the dive with Beqa Lagoon Resort. We hope it helps you make up your own mind.
Respect the Fin!
If you love the outdoors like us, then you’ve probably already hiked, or at least heard of the W Trek in Chile’s Patagonia.
The gateway town to the 'W' is Puerto Natales which is easily reached by bus from southern Argentina or from Chile. Its a great place to pick up supplies and meet fellow trekkers. You can hire camping equipment for the trail and purchase whatever you need. The town is totally geared up for visitors so finding information about the trek is easy. Regular buses run from Puerto Natales to the Torres Del Paine National Park which is the start of the trail, and unless you have your own transport, this is the best way to get to the start of your trek. Information about the trail is readily available online, so we won’t bore you with all the detail, but here are our top tips on hiking this epic world class trail.
1. The best time to hike the W is in the Patagonian summer months between November and February. We hiked the trail in mid January and while certain parts were quite busy, there were still sections where you felt you were the only one for kilometres.
2. No matter what time of year you attempt the trail the weather is very temperamental. Over the course of the trek you will be hot, wet, cold and wind swept. The wind here is strong enough to knock you off your feet! You need to be prepared for all types of weather conditions on the trail so pack appropriately, remembering that you have to carry it!
3. Don’t be a Gortex Ninja - waterproofing yourself head to toe is not the answer. While you think covering up keeps you dry, it only makes you more wet......sweating like crazy on the inside! Our tip ? Have one pair of trekking clothes (AKA wet,smelly clothes that you wear while hiking during the day), and one pair of dry clothes to change into at night. If you get wet and feel cold, just walk faster to stay warm. Believe us, you’ll be warmer and dryer than those Gortex Ninjas!
4. Ensure you waterproof your pack, and that doesn’t mean using a pack cover. Use individual waterproof stuff sacks, or a large garbage bag (make sure you continue to reuse it) inside your pack to keep everything - especially your night time clothing dry. Pack covers are useless in such extreme weather conditions. They either fly straight off in the Patagonian wind, or bug the crap out of your fellow hikers as they flicker uncontrollably! Having your pack properly waterproofed also means you can throw it in a puddle and use it as a seat at lunch without all your stuff getting wet!
5. Keep moving. Don’t stop for too long as you will get cold.
6. Take the trail all the way up the Valle de Frances to Britannica. Many people miss this section as it’s a long day and is quite steep, it is however spectacular and a highlight of the trail. Leave your pack at the Italiano rangers station to lighten your load.
7. Make sure you book. Regardless of if you’re staying inside a Refugio or camping, parks personnel will not allow you into the park without a confirmed booking. Refugios and camping sites can be booked through Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia. These two seperate companies operate various refugios in the park so it’s necessary to book with both depending on the direction and route you choose to take. Both have websites with easy online booking facilities. www.verticepatagonia.cl. www.fantasticosur.com/en/
8. You don’t need to join a tour group. This is easily a self guided hike and even if you just do it on your own the refugios guarantee you’ll meet a diverse range of people from all over the world.
9. Drink from the glacial streams. The water here is pristine and there is water available everywhere. Fill up your water bottle and drink away.
10. Enjoy the moment. Have fun, breathe in the immense natural beauty of the landscape and talk to people. You’ll make life long memories and friendships.
11. Take lots of photographs but leave only footprints. The environment here is pristine so respect it.
Indonesia boasts a marvellous array of natural beauty and is home to what is undeniably some of the world’s most spectacular marine eco-systems.
North Sulawesi, best known for its breathtaking and vibrant coral walls has become world renowned for good reason. The area boasts vibrant corals, abundant fish life and a healthy population of green and hawksbill turtles. The region offers a mix of both reef and muck diving with a range of impressive macro critters. The currents here are medium to strong in some parts, with warm water and good all year-round visibility.
We opted to stay on Pulau Siladen Island at the Siladen Island Resort and Spa accessible by boat from the main island of Manado. Run by General Managers Ana and Miguel Ribeiro, the resort is an impressive example of exquisite and secluded comfort in the heart of the Bunaken Marine Park.
The property is located on the western side of the island on a 300 meter long stretch of white coral reef beach facing the Manado Tua volcano. So as you would expect, there are breathtaking sunsets all year round.
This is a full-service dive resort, with all the luxuries and comfort divers need. Great boats and fabulous guides that know where to find even the smallest of critters make the diving experience here second to none. Ever seen a baby frog fish less than the size of a lady beetle? Your guide will find it!
When you’re not diving on one of the marine park’s fabulous dive sites, there is a large free form salt water swimming pool complete with sun beds, umbrellas and beach towels.
The accommodation is very private and beautifully appointed with a combination of Garden, Beach View and Luxury Villas. We stayed in one of the 6 Beach View Villas, generously sized at 64 sq meters with beautiful wooden features, including: a king size draped poster bed, private outdoor bathroom, private sun beds and a sun deck.
While the resort caters for both divers and non-divers alike, 80% of guests during our stay were divers, so it’s a fabulous place to meet people from all over the world, share stories and make life long friendships.
While the region boasts a huge number of dive sites, here are a few of our favourites:
A phenomenal wall dive off the south west corner of Siladen Island and accessed from the jetty in the main village. On its impressive coral wall lie Scorpion Fish, a kaleidoscope of colourful Nudi Branch, Orangutan Crabs and Bubble Corals, with Green Turtles and Sharks frequent visitors. The variety of species on this site is remarkable.
Sachiko and Cha Cha
These two dive sites are fantastic drift dives which can be dived shallow or at depth making them suitable for all levels. Famous for their huge sponges, barrels, plate corals and boulder corals, the colours down there will blow your retinas! There is also a collection of Gorgonian sea fans which if your lucky will harbour a collection of Pygmy Seahorse. These two sites are comfortable drift dives with almost guaranteed turtle encounters and possibilities of pelagics such as Eagle Rays.
Bunaken Marine Park is located just of Bunaken and Manado Islands in Indonesia’s North Sulawesi.
Manado is accessible via a 4 hour direct flight from Singapore with Silk Air, with links to other Indonesian cities such as Jakarta.
A Beach View Villa at Siladen Island Resort and Spa will cost you around $2,900 Euro per couple (depending on the season), this includes all meals (full board) for 7 nights. Diving is not included, yet is very reasonably priced.
Want to know more? Visit www.siladen.com
In recent years Nepal, and in particular the Everest Base Camp Trek has become hugely popular. So how do you experience the thrill of visiting Everest Base Camp without feeling like you’re at the circus?
Here’s our tips on avoiding the crowds and staying safe on the trail.
1. While considerably more challenging than the standard base camp trek, taking the lesser known path that includes the spectacular Himalayan traverse of the challenging Cho La pass, the blue Gokyo lakes and the Khumbu Valley leading to Mt Everest Base Camp and onwards to Kala Pathar, ensures you avoid the standard base camp route and stay off the beaten track. Regardless of if you are travelling solo or as part of a group tour, opt for this route. Not only is it quiet but also more spectacular.
2. Choose to travel in December. While December is the coldest time of the year in the Himalaya it is also the clearest. We departed on the 7th of December and experienced 21 days of bluebird skies. December is also low season, so while there will still be trekkers on the trail, the numbers are considerably less.
3.Regardless of if you are taking the standard route or the alternative route we’ve suggested, everyone starts their trek with the exhilarating flight into Lukla. At an altitude of 2,860 meters, now is the perfect time to consider taking anti- altitude sickness tablets. While not everyone gets altitude sickness, if you think you might be prone to it, take the tablets early. Don’t wait until 4,000 meters before taking them. Trust us! By the way, Lukla also holds the title as the world’s most dangerous airport runway, needless to say there are only two types of pilots here, good pilots and dead pilots! So cross your fingers and toes and hope for the best.
4. Altitude sickness can be very dangerous, sometimes resulting in death, so take your trekking slow and seriously. Do not ascend more than 400 meters per day. This trek will take you up over 5,000 meters for quite a considerable time, so listen to the advice of your Sherpa guide and don’t try to be a hero.
5.Make sure you see your doctor before you go. You need to be in excellent health and fitness to complete this trek. It is not for the faint hearted. Have your iron levels checked. If your iron levels are low, or you have anemia your athletic performance at altitude will be significantly reduced.
6. Tell your Sherpa guide if you are taking any medication. Medication like ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory drugs work great if you have a sore knee, but taking them while at altitude can be very dangerous.
7. Sanitise, wash and sanitise! Bad cases of gastritis and other gastrointestinal conditions are very common in the Himalaya. To make this trip a memorable one (for the right reasons) it’s important to control germs and maintain your personal hygiene. Liquid hand sanitizer is easy to carry and should be used at all times. Use it after sneezing, touching your shoes, using the toilet and before eating anything. Also remember that your gloves harbour germs, so always remove them while eating regardless of how cold you are.
8. Hold on to your sunglasses! After witnessing someone using their trekking poles to retrieve their new sunglasses from a very basic drop toilet in Khumjung village, we’d recommend firmly attaching your sunglasses to your head!
9. Take your rubbish out with you. Respect the environment, the mountains and its people. There is considerable evidence of lazy trekkers leaving toilet paper and rubbish throughout the Himalaya. Don’t be one of those people. Leave no trace. Once you are at camp, your Sherpa guide can help you undertake a ‘clean burn’ of any rubbish you have.
10. Relax, enjoy and choose your altitude, oh we mean attitude. A trip to the Himalaya will change your life. Be nimble and open to the experience.