The Huge, The Tiny and The Extraordinary

The Huge, The Tiny and The Extraordinary

I yelped in delight as my head emerged from the water. “Spaceships, they’re the size of spaceships”, I exclaimed breathlessly. Not that I have even seen a spaceship before, but these impressive manta rays were certainly out of this world. As my head went back underwater they continued to swim around me, graceful, serene and plentiful.

I had jumped off the boat into the Flores Sea, not far from Komodo Island, at Manta Point. I felt honoured to be snorkelling with these wonders, their mouths open as they sailed past me. I free-dived to get a view from beneath and I was struck by a scene that stays with me to this day; six manta rays, three turtles and two reef sharks. Where was my camera when I needed it, Doug Allan would certainly not have made the same mistake?

Indonesian waters offer many surprises and they are not always on the large side. Diving from Tulamben, on the east coast of Bali, I was rewarded with yet another memorable moment. Seahorses, something I’ve always been transfixed by. It’s something about their delicate ways and inquisitive eyes. Meeting a pygmy seahorse was to be one of the most unbelievable and lucky moments, remaining with me forever. Highly camouflaged, it was only when the local divemaster carefully pointed out this beauty that I looked beyond the coral branches to encounter this tiny creature. I managed my air so I could float with him for a few minutes, solitary but perfectly at ease in his bright pink coral. It pulled my heartstrings to leave him, his tail curled around the coral as he swayed side to side with the current but sadly my air gauge was telling me to move onwards and upwards.

As a divemaster myself I am always looking for the extraordinary so when I landed in Nusa Lembongan my sights were set on seeing the Mola mola or Ocean Sunfish. On hearing that the Blue Planet team had spent weeks in the area with only one sighting, my heart dropped, realistically what were the chances. We saved our dive for the lunch stop, which we were told was our best opportunity to see this mysterious creature. Whilst other divers were munching away, I did my final checks and stepped off the boat, after a quick ‘ok’, we started our descent. Within seconds I could see something lurking about 10 metres down. Surely not, was the divemaster really making the Mola mola dive sign – best dive sign invented by the way. No, I was not mistaken. Trying not to get too excited and start hyperventilating I slowly made my way down to this huge, coin-shaped oddity. Hanging in the water as bannerfish cleaned its skin, I floated mesmerised by his side. I stretched my arms out and realised he measured more than my arm span, impressive. We floated there for 15 minutes there until we thought we ought to give him some privacy plus my feet were getting chilly. To my utter surprise, around the corner we encountered two more Mola mola. Surely, I couldn’t have asked for more. Extraordinary to the limit.


Ubud, Bali

“Daddy, I’m not sure that I can cycle for twenty-four kilometres,” were the apprehensive words of my usually gung-ho eight-year old. The requisite distance having been covered and several hours later, he – as was all our party – was beaming with exhilaration on what was one of the most magical days that we have had, whether collectively or individually.

The day had begun many hours earlier at eight in the morning when we were met at our hotel by our guide Ayer, aka Benny. Benny exuded a laidback charm and karma that put us at ease and that we were to discover was very much part of the allure of Ubud, in the foothills of Bali. One of the smallest but most extraordinary islands of the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is a cluster of high volcanoes, their craters studded with serene lakes set in dark forests.

We clambered aboard our little minibus and headed uphill passing row upon row of shops selling ostensibly the same thing. Such industry is deceiving – behind the narrow roads was a green and verdant landscape that we were shortly to fall in love with.

We arrived at the stunning viewpoint of the crater-lake, which against my better judgement and fear of all things touristy, was spectacular. A quick drink and a few teenage selfies later we headed to a coffee plantation. Squirming that this was a sales-stop, which it undoubtedly was, I was impressed with the children’s interest in coffee and the process from berry on a bush to ground bean. Perhaps it was the Luka coffee – a bean digested and then excreted by the civet cat – that most appealed to them, not least with its moniker ‘cat-poo-ccino’.

The touristic preliminaries having been dispensed with, we were introduced to our bikes and my patronising protective parental words of last-minute advice, “Remember that your front brake is on the left and that if you press this too quickly, you will go flying over the handlebars.”

We head out and in trying to take a photo with my phone in my right hand, I apply my left brake. I end up on the side of the road. The bike’s brakes work, unlike my bike at home. QED.

Pride bruised, I remount to the laughter of my children and we continue on our way free-wheeling with gay abandon through timeless scenes. We travelled along minor backroads passing little traffic except scooters piled with rice stalks, bamboo bundles and whatever else the Balinese can cram onto their scooters. My favourite moment was a father cradling a young child fast asleep in one arm as he negotiated the winding road with his other – all done with the hugest of smiles.

We ride through lush forested areas, plantations full of Balinese staples and cash crops – cloves, coffee, cocoa, vanilla, tapioca, taro, local vegetables and exotic tropical fruit – but above all rice paddy fields. Picturesque panoramas framed by palm trees, whose fronds rattle overhead in the cooling breeze. Images of bucolic bliss.

The children not only get to see rice being planted but further downhill we get to see rice being harvested. A huge learning experience for them, a great photographic opportunity and, thanks to the typical and unquestioning welcome and generosity of the Balinese, a chance to get involved. We brake, this time without an ungainly dismount on my behalf, and step into the paddy field. The women are smiling and laughing and encourage us to join in the process of threshing and winnowing the rice. Not just an explanation of the process of growing and harvesting rice for the children but a hands-on demonstration that they will never forget thanks to the instantaneous enthusiasm of the Balinese.

The landscape is luxuriant, the richness of the volcanic soil displaying a fecundity of fauna that is beguiling. The intricate beauty of heliconia, amerilis, anthurium, bougainvillea all adorn the perimeter walls of temples. Inside the sweet-smelling flower of the frangipani.

Again and again, I am struck by the presence of temples and the importance to the Balinese of balance, the complexity of the symbolism. There are temples everywhere symbolic of the fact that God is omnipresent. The entire life of the calm and sensitive Balinese – their daily routine, social organisation, ethics, manners; in short, the total culture of the island – is molded by a system of traditional rules subordinated to religious beliefs. Religion is generally referred to as Hinduism but in reality it is too close to the earth, too animistic to be said to be the same religion as practiced by Hindus in India.

The grey moss-covered stone of the temples and shrines are adorned with flags, a symbol of wind, spears, representing fire, and umbrellas for protection. Penyors, tall bent bamboos, are festooned with decorations as a symbol of prosperity. Offerings are placed throughout the temple, as indeed they are in the streets and even throughout our hotel. The offerings – a square (representing man) of banana leaf filled with coloured petals of red, black, white and yellow – for me epitomise the beauty, sensitivity and colour of the people.

Even the houses are dictated by the same fundamental principles of belief. As we enter a house, Ayer points out that the layout and orientation is in accordance with the cardinal directions, the mountain and the sea, right and left. For example, that the kitchen is in the ocean, the red, in what we would refer to as the south. Such symbolism is perhaps lost on the children but not the sense of family and community – the notion of a nursing home an alien concept to the Balinese.

The Balinese still retain their traditions and hold to their own manner of life but under the banner of a new god – money – this is doomed to disappear under the merciless onslaught of modern commercialism and standardisation. The young we saw in the villages were wearing western clothes although those we saw on scooters off to attend a temple or shrine were sporting the more traditional white shirts, sarongs and udeng, a square piece of batik worn as a turban and tied in an amazing variety of styles.

For now, the young have a carefree charm and adorable smiles. I am continually gesticulating back at waving young arms, high-fiving outstretched hands and responding to animated “hellos” and beaming smiles. Like the huge fluttering kites sailing gayly above us in the sky, the children have an innocence and freedom.

It was a day of brightness, whether the light reflecting off the water in the paddy fields, the lushness of the green or the brilliance of the smiles. It was intoxicating and infectious.

Most of all the children were impressed and struck by the respect in which the Balinese hold for and show to each other. The beliefs of harmony and balance resonate with them. They see the pettiness of arguments caused by their own sibling strife and rivalry. Such a way of life is infectious and invigorating.

I sense and see a family unity that has been missing for a while. Yes, undoubtedly this is in some part due to being on holiday, relaxing, experiencing and enjoying together –  the value of shared new experiences – but it is in no small part to the beauty of the landscape and peoples of Bali. An enriching osmosis.

Our family motto has become, “Be Balinese.”


A family adventure in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo

“Can we hold one of the baby orangutans?”

“You can’t hold them. That wouldn’t be right. They need to be released into the wild when they are older and they must not become too habituated to people.” I beamed with pride at the grown-up and correct response from my eight-year old son.

Just hours earlier we had flown into Pangkalan Bun, the southernmost airport of the massive island of Borneo and the access point to Tanjung National Park, home to the man of the forest, the orangutan. Before journeying into Tanjung Puting we were fortunate enough to be visiting Lamandau Wildlife Reserve at the personal invitation of the Orangutan Foundation UK.

Yet at the time, standing at the dock in Pangkalan Bun, I sense the mood of the team was not one of being lucky. The vagaries of flight timings in a remote part of Indonesia and our misconceived western obsession with punctuality meant that we were late and tired. Our mood reflected the grey skies above. The four speedboats bobbing precariously in the water did little to alleviate the temper of the Mums, the drops of rain only further dampened spirits.

However, twenty minutes out of Pangkalan Bun we turned off the brown sludge of the wide and featureless Kumai River and headed up the much smaller and altogether more exciting Arut River. The speedboats raced along the black tannin river which was only several meters wide, hemmed in by a riot of vegetation. Slaloming through the foliage of the forest in the hope that the river did not have a two-way traffic system was adrenalin-charged. Parents likened it to the Bond film ‘Live and let die’ and children to Willie Wonka’s glass elevator; both found it exhilarating.

We arrive at Camp Gemini and walk through to a feeding site to see several orangutans emerge from the jungle to feed. If I sound somewhat matter-of-fact about a very special experience, it is because the enormity of the moment was perhaps too much for us to take in at the time. Reinforcement of the fact that it is always better to take time and do things more than once to fully appreciate them.

It was at Camp JL, minutes upriver, where they have four orphaned one-year olds, that the joy and wonderment at the privilege and pleasure of observing orangutans at close quarters and all alone shone through. There was delight on everyone’s faces as the babies were taken out of their cages by their carers and then placed in the lower branches of the small trees behind their cages. We spent a joyous hour watching them, laughing at their playful antics and delighting in their inquisitive looks at us. My abiding memory was, and will always be, one of the babies reaching out towards my eldest daughter, its hand a few inches from her beaming face. Rarely have I seen such a look of such pure unadorned joy on Isabel’s face.

On the return journey, everyone was much happier to get into the speedboats. The sun was shining, creating a glorious reflection of the vegetation in the dark waters of the river. As we raced back downriver, the treetops shook under the flight of monkeys and there were flashes of colour as kingfishers broke for cover. The girls in the boat behind had their hands held aloft, full of gay abandon, fluttering hair and huge smiles.

We return to town and the scenes of life along the river. Women washing clothes, men washing themselves, young children washing nothing but splashing noisily in the river. Older children were jumping into the river, the more flamboyant somersaulting, whilst others paddled in handmade wooden crates that look suspiciously unseaworthy. All the children waved and shouted with huge grins on their faces. Like the sunshine bathing Pangkalan Bun in a late afternoon glow, our mood is softened, brighter, happier.

We board our klotok, the onomatopoeic word used to describe the wooden houseboats that chug up and down the river, and as night falls we head out into the darkness of the Kumai River. After about ten minutes we head up the Sekonyer River, so named after a Dutch ship that sank at its mouth in the 1970s. I much prefer its original and local name, Buaya River, which means Crocodile River. The children were fascinated by this dangerous moniker and spend the rest of the journey religiously following the steady sweep of the spotlight in the search of crocodile eyes.

As it transpires, we did not see any crocodile but this may have had something to do with the fact that the children became the spotlight keepers. Great entertainment for them but not so productive for the adults. But isn’t that the modus operandi of a family holiday?

We arrive at Rimba Lodge, our simple home for the next three nights, tired from a long yet very full day. The discovery of a hairy caterpillar in our room does little to soothe emotions and bring on sleep. It is a long night.

We wake early the next morning, still tired but excited about the day ahead. We eat a hearty breakfast on board the klotok, we stop at a reforestation project, the children delighting in the fact that they get to choose and plant a tree for themselves and fascinated by the tapping of a rubber tree. We continue upriver to Camp Leakey spotting hornbills and parakeets in the air, common water-snakes and monitor lizards in the water and orangutans in the trees. I am surprised to see one orangutan foraging in the undergrowth only just about the water level.

Camp Leakey was set up in 1971 by Birute Galdikas and named after her patron Louis Leakey. The palaeontologist Leakey was fascinated by man’s relation and connection to the great apes and thus sent three remarkable women, Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas to study chimpanzees, mountain gorillas and orangutans respectively. All were pioneers in the different parts of the world in which they worked. All started from nothing. Cognisant of this, I hazard a guess that Birute Galdikas would be shocked if she saw the eighty or so camera-clicking tourists standing expectantly at the feeding station at Camp Leakey.

The shaking of the treetops indicates that the tourists’ patience will be rewarded, that an orangutan is emerging from the forest. The orangutans’ movements through the canopy are slow and deliberate, bending branches to pivot to the next tree, swinging a branch slowly from side to side until they are near enough to stretch out their surprisingly long arms to the next branch and move on.

The orangutans are mesmerising to watch. I am absorbed by their movement – that all four limbs are used equally and as skilfully as each other. I am entranced by their long slender fingers. Enthralled by their different faces and the variety of expressions. I am amused by the playful adolescents who pose unashamedly between two parallel trees, all limbs akimbo. Impressed by the strength of even the very youngest of orangutans to hang off a branch by only one arm for many minutes at a time.

The orangutans arrive at the feeding station – a raised wooden platform piled high with bananas and other fruit – in a variety of different ways. Some slide down, using the bare trunk of a tree like a fireman’s pole, others are more cautious descending slowly hand over hand over hand. One walks on the ground hands held aloft as humans sometimes do when walking on stony ground or through cold water.

Once on the platform, their behaviour is equally curious and different. One young orangutan stands upright; bipedal, back straight, little distended tummy sticking out, he looks like homo erectus. Nervous adolescents stuff as many bananas into their mouths as quickly as they can and then scamper back up to the safety of height. Mothers carefully choose their fruit, rejecting what displeases them, and always considering their little infant who is either riding piggy-back or hugging onto their mother’s front with all their might. The alpha males sit down stuffing their faces without a care, their presence dominating, their size shocking, their strength implicit.

I have my personal problems with the numbers of tourists at the sites and the feeding of rehabilitated orangutans in this manner. Notwithstanding my own doubts it is the easiest way to see an orangutan, which one must remember is both a solitary and arboreal animal. Over the course of visiting the three different feeding stations in the park we did see a wide variety of orangutans. Each time it was a thrill to do so and not even the rain could dampen our spirits. Perhaps it even raised the spirits of one orangutan who sat patiently, his hands raised above his head holding some large leaves in protection against the rain, watching the bedraggled kaleidoscope of multi-coloured ponchos in front of him.

Back on the klotok, we head back to Rimba Lodge in the late afternoon sun as the proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques come to the river to roost in the trees on the river’s edge for the night. It makes spotting wildlife easier and much more fun – all the children take part with real gusto shouting out their latest ‘spot’.

“Macaque.” “Where?”. “There.” “Where?” “Over there” “Where?….oh there.”

“Monkey at one o’clock.” Suddenly animals are spotted all around the clock, some not quite what they were imagined to be.

The golden snitch moment is spotting a crocodile. As a result, many ‘logodiles’ are spotted to much amusement. The laughter is infectious, the effect on morale instantaneous.

Such happiness dispels the fears of the night and we decide to opt for a night-walk. Mention of mosquitos and other creepy crawlies makes our assembled mob look like a bedraggled shooting party in makeshift plus-fours – trouser legs tucked into socks that are pulled very high up to deny entry even to the most tenacious of bugs. Inevitably we did not see much – due to the noise we were making and noise from the village azan (call to prayer) on the opposite bank of the river. Yet it was fun.

We balance on logs, squelch through mud, jump in alarm but generally have a very good time observing stick insects, spotting a tarantula, seeing bioluminescence light up the forest and listening to the incessant ringing of cicadas courting their females and the occasional hoot of an owl. The children, although initially wary, enjoyed the experience of being out in the forest at night. We emerge with wet feet, a few bites and big smiles. Mission successful.

A rainforest is not an easy environment for young people. The humidity, the bugs and perhaps above all the lack of a swimming pool, make it an alien environment for them. But it can be rewarding and the enthusiastic comments from the children, make it worthwhile from a parental perspective. But more than just that, it is also enjoyable from a parental point of view.


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Steppes Big 5: Thailand and Indonesian Five Star Getaways

In conjunction with Malaysian Airlines, Steppes Travel are offering truly incredible prices to five of our favourite resorts in Thailand and Indonesia. These limited offers are genuine and we keep pinching ourselves daily as they seem too good to be true. Stretch the body and not the budget with upgrades to business class from as little as £375 one way. Travel in style.


Choose from a hammock hangout on idyllic 15 km wide Koh Samui, located in the Gulf of Thailand. Or go west to the Andaman coast, and buzzing Phuket,Thailand’s largest island. Fringed by natural rain forests and internationally acclaimed marine parks, diving and trekking adventures are on the doorstep if you can extract yourself away from serious luxury.

Belmond Napasai – Koh Samui

A seven night stay at Belmond Napasai starts from only £1465 per person including flights. Save up to an incredible £1000 per person. The offer includes one free night and an early booking discount if booked 90 days prior to stay. Complimentary one way business class upgrade is included with Malaysian airlines, subject to availability. Price based on two sharing a sea view Hill Villa on bed and breakfast basis. Children under the age of 12 may stay for free with complimentary breakfast. Please enquire for further details.

Why we like it : We love the peaceful location and traditional sense of Thai service

Banyan Tree Samui- Koh Samui

A seven night stay starts from £1815 per person for one week in a Deluxe Pool Villa. Receive two nights free on any seven night stay, and enjoy a complimentary 60 minute massage in resort. Children travelling may qualify for a free stay when sharing a room. Stay at Banyan Tree between now and the 15th June 2017.

Why we like it : Large villas scattered along the hillside with stunning views of the white sand beach

The Sarojin – Phuket

A seven night stay starts from £1370 per person in a Garden Residence on a bed and breakfast basis. This price is based on two people sharing a room and flying Malaysian Airlines with a one way upgrade to Business Class. This price is valid for stays during September and October 2016. Prices from £1995 in November and December.

Why we like it : Genuine warmth of the staff and one of the best beaches in Phuket.

Indonesia – Bali

The island of Bali is a perfect summer getaway with weather at its driest during May – October. A destination for boutique hotels and stylish retreats, Bali offers fashionable night scenes in Seminyak; the coolest corner of the island with chic galleries and dining options. Or the flip side of stress easing jungle tranquillity in Ubud, Bali’s thriving cultural heart.

Alila – Seminyak

A seven night stay starts from £1785 per person, based on a Pool Suite on a bed and breakfast basis. Malaysian Airlines one way upgrade to Business Class included.  Stay at the Alila between now and the 31st October 2016.

Why we like it : Style, and bags of it. One of Bali’s more contemporary beachside properties

Como Uma – Ubud

A seven night stay starts from £1995 per person including a one way upgrade with Malaysian airlines to Business Class. Stay at Como Uma Ubud between now and the 31st March 2017.

Why we like it : A haven of peace but easy walking distance from Ubud’s bustling centre 

All these offers are subject to availability and need to be booked with Steppes Travel by the 19th August. Travel to be completed by the 15th June 2017.

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Indonesian Borneo Adventures

My guide meets me at the airport, I recognise him immediately as I walk through arrivals, my eyes being drawn to the sign he’s proudly holding up and waving in my general direction – his name is Deddy.

This is a small airport, just one baggage carousel as long as three office desks pushed together. We wait patiently as it trundles into action, each bag being carefully thrown from the other side. Typically my bag arrives last with Deddy scooping it onto his back before I can grab it. ‘This way’ he says as we start walking towards the exit. Leaving the air conditioned building behind, I’m suddenly hit with that oven like warmth I’d momentarily forgotten about.

I’m in Pangkalanbun, a small city on the southern coast of Indonesia Borneo and am here to hopefully see the mighty Orang-utan that live in the dense forests of the Tanjung Puting National Park. Made famous by Professor Galdikas’s establishment of Camp Leakey and her pioneering study of the Orang-utan in the 70’s, images of her paddling deep into the jungle by dugout canoe stick in my mind. I can’t wait to get there!

As we pull onto the swept, tarmacked road leading out of the airport, it’s not long until the pot holes begin to appear, the road narrows and the beautiful little villages start lining the streets. Children wearing faded Manchester United tops are kicking footballs to one another and chickens are busily scratching around in the dry, dusty earth. ‘That’s my house!’ Deddy exclaims, pointing to the left. ‘My Mother lives next door, my wife’s family over there, my friend there, ooooh and that’s the shop, the butcher, internet, post office…’ Before I know it I’m having the tour de grand of his own village and it’s not long until the taxi pulls over and I’m invited in to meet his extended family.

Locally ground coffee is brought out on a tray accompanied by what can only be described as a treasure trove of deep fried delights. A small bowl containing a fiery red liquid appears next to it and I am encouraged to dunk one of these patty like treats into the sauce – all eyes are on me as I pop one into my mouth. Unsurprisingly the red liquid turns out to be Sambal, a local chilli concoction, with my taste beds soon letting me know of the heat involved. Looking around the room, Deddy’s family appear to be tentatively waiting for the decision. A thumbs up followed by a somewhat muffled ‘It’s very good!’ as I swallow the last mouthful gives way to an unexpected commotion, gold teeth peep through big grins and soon they are all reaching for the plate in front of me.

We bid farewell after a short while and continue our journey towards the port town of Kumai, where a traditional two-tiered boat known as a Kloktok is waiting to take me down river. It’s beautifully painted baby-blue and two Orang-utan murals are cheerily smiling back at me as I step on board. I meet the Captain, the Captains Wife who doubles up as the cook and the Captain’s assistant who is busily preparing for us to disembark. Up on top deck I slump into a deck chair and admire the view as the motors grind into action, ‘Tea Sir?’ the Wife’s Captain appears alongside me with yet more plates of goodies, deep fried banana, tea, coffee and biscuits. I could get used to this I think to myself as our Kloktok starts puttering down the Kumai River.

We pass ships of all shapes and sizes, a water taxi wizzes past loaded with passengers, a local fishermen appears disgruntled as the wake of our boat knocks his slightly off kilter and children along the river banks wave excitedly as we go. On the other side of the bank I see Mangroves stretching to the horizon. ‘Over there!’ Deddy’s pointing to a small opening far in the distance – ‘TANJUNG PUTING’…

Watch out for Charles’ second blog coming soon…

For more information on holidays to Borneo or to speak with Charles further about his travels please call 01285 880 980.


Return to Indonesia

After four years I was delighted to be returning to Indonesia. The last time I visited was to focus on the hotels of Bali, however this time was to get a greater feel for the less visited cultural area of Sulawesi and a return visit to the cultural capital Java and in particular Jogjakarta.

My first week was spent visiting the wonderful cultural sights of Jogjakarta and surrounding area with particular time spent at the Buddhist temple of Borobudur, which I consider to be second only in south-east Asia to Angkor in Cambodia. I was lucky enough to have a second visit to the Hindu temple of Prambanan and be shown around the wonderful Sultans Palace in the heart of Jogya. Some time was also spent discovering smaller cultural villages.

One in particular was a rare treat where we explored the local market, watched with interest as the traditional herbalist made tinctures for the
local ladies and wandered along the maze of peaceful car free streets to see original Javanese houses and some ancient graveyards of former Sultans. I even had the opportunity to visit a Javanese chocolate shop where a Belgium Chocolatier has come over to buy the high-quality Javanese beans and turn them into the most delicious chocolates, teaching his trade to local people and thus giving them new opportunities.

In and around Jogjakarta there are really only a handful of hotels to choose from ranging from the very best with Amanjiwo to smaller more traditional Javanese style accommodation. Many clients choose to stay in the clean, slightly functional but very well run and perfectly good Hyatt Regency in the heart of Jogya. If you have a good budget then a night or three at Amanjiwo is hard to beat. Java really is somewhere worth considering visiting, whether you’re flying onto Bali or happen to be in Singapore for a few days, Java, and Jogjakarta in particular offer the most fabulous array of cultural sites and allow the visitor a real insight into Javanese and Indonesian history.

From here I flew the hour and a half to Sulawesi, the Orchid shaped island in the middle of this vast archipelago. My main reason for visiting Sulawesiwas to travel up to the middle of the southern arm of the island to see the Tana Toraja Tribes. Here they have the most elaborate funerals that can last up to 5 days and can slaughter up to 40 buffalo at one time. This area is also home to the most iconic bamboo reed roofed houses, boat shaped to represent those that they travelled to Sulawesi in from Indochina.

To travel to this part of Sulawesi really offers an insight into another world, you feel that you’re really travelling (not backpacking as such
because there’s one or two reasonably comfortable places to stay), that you’re really getting under the skin of the country and learning about a
culture that you just wouldn’t necessarily read about or see on the Discovery Channel!

I visited the Monday morning Buffalo market where people come to buy the palest buffalo they can find to keep in the ‘lap of luxury’ – fed until it is used for ceremonial slaughter at a funeral – the more buffalo that are slaughtered the richer or in higher regard the family is held. For fairness all the buffalo meat is shared out among the guests at the funeral and villagers, therefore nothing is wasted. This is not a site for the faint hearted and the government of Indonesia are trying to encourage the funerals to be held in the summer and thus providing some sort of macabre ‘tourist attraction’, not that the average villager is taking much notice, which is a relief. Bodies of the deceased can be held up to a year in the family’s home until they have saved the money to buy enough buffalo and to provide a funeral that they feel befits the member of their family or community.

At the markets the main sites include the fascinating cave graves, where the dead are kept in graves carved into the cliff wall with intricately carved wooden effigies representing those there, I must have only seen a handful of other western tourists. Sulawesi really is a place to visit if you want to feel you’ve got off the beaten track. There is a lot of focus on the dead in this part of Sulawesi but not in a mournful or depressing way but to celebrate the life of and respect their elders and what they meant to them. In their culture these funerals and rituals such as the cave graves give the deceased an easier journey to the afterlife.

From here it’s a short flight to Bali in a new and shiny Garuda plane. Yes, it’s chaos – there is a huge amount of traffic, endless development, a new airport is being built and yes it’s the Australians Costa Del Sol in parts however there is not much in this world that can beat the welcoming smile, the friendly nature and the genuine kindness of the Balinese people. I have been to Bali three times now, one of them unfortunately at the time of Bali bomb of 2002 then a return visit four years ago and now.

Bali continues to develop in certain areas but there are huge swathes of undeveloped landscapes North of Ubud and on up to Northern Bali where you’ll find the Menjangan National Park. Here on relaxed afternoon day I spent a good hour looking towards Java where I’d been 10 days before. I love Bali; I love the markets of Ubud, the rice paddies just beyond and the beautiful hotels, which, in my opinion and after 12 years of selling holidays, are without question some of the best in the world.

Sample the local roast suckling pig, lie on the beach, have a massage but also see the temples, watch the gentle Hindu people come and give
offerings, which they do every day in a stunning traditional dress – paramount in local Balinese society. Maybe you’ll come across one of the elaborate and colourful funerals with everyone turning out to pay their respects in fine form and fine tradition. Bali is a special place – ignore the bad press, ignore the busy areas with backpacker bars an Internet cafes. Find your special beach, find your rural idyll and add this peaceful and spiritual island to the end of a cultural Indonesian journey – it will not disappoint.

For further information about holidays to Indonesia or for more information or advice please contact Sally on 01285 643 333.


Borneo with author Terry Pratchett

Ashley Leiman reports back from her recent trip to Borneo accompanied by author Terry Pratchett.

It has been 16 years since Terry Pratchett and I shared an adventure in Borneo. He is truly an old friend so it was with much excitement that we planned our recent trip together.

In 1996, logging seemed the biggest threat to the survival of orangutans. Then, the chainsaw was our enemy. This year, we were confronted with the real threat: oil-palm plantations had replaced the swathes of forest.

We drove for more than three hours through unrelenting monoculture. There was nothing but oil palm. It was sobering, heartbreaking and frightening, because the conversion of forests has not stopped. The often-used statistic that orangutans have lost 80 per cent of their habitat in the past 30 years is brought home to you when you drive for mile after mile through such a devastated landscape. Logging often left trees standing which acted as life rafts for orangutans. But orangutans cannot survive in a plantation and they are forced to crop raid which leads to persecution. The challenge now is not to stop the logging but to limit the damage already done by plantations.

Terry and I were both shocked, but we could see glimmers of hope – especially with the Dayak and local communities the Orangutan Foundation works with. While they want to improve their agriculture, they also want to keep the forests and their way of life. It is sad that, after all these years, the threats remain so pressing but it is encouraging that all is not lost. For me personally, and I am sure for Terry, it was strangely motivating.

We have to keep on fighting. Thank you to those Steppes Discovery clients who have travelled to Borneo, seen the situation for themselves and now actively support the work of the Orangutan Foundation.

Join Steppes Discovery in Borneo and see for yourself the inspirational work being done by the Orangutan Foundation in Tanjung Puting National Park. Ashley Leiman will be leading our group tours departing in August and September.


Mime Artists

Researchers have recently discovered that (just like humans) orangutans will resort to miming to communicate with their human counterparts.

Recently they have observed an orangutan using her palm to mime opening up a coconut, in the hope that her human companion will use his machete to do just that. They also mimed the action of being scratched to get an itch attended to and enacted opening a termite nest to prompt a partner to help. Often, the primates resorted to mime after other methods of communication had failed, showing that primate communication is far more complex than previously thought.

This was certainly witnessed firsthand on one of our recent orangutan tours. During a tropical shower in the forest, our clients were taking shelter under umbrellas before the female orangutan and her infant picked up a thick set of branches to keep themselves dry.

There are still a few places left on our December Orangutan Photography tour, so you can see firsthand the intelligence of the most enigmatic of primates.


Aphrodisiac Shooting Slugs and 2 foot Stick Insects

Since my visit to Borneo in November 2009, I have attempted to try and keep up to date with emerging stories on the local wildlife & habitants. I read in a recent article, both covered in The Guardian and The Week, about recent discoveries in Malaysian Borneo.

So what is the longest insect in the world? The answer is Chan’s mega stick. Only recently identified by a Malaysian naturalist called Datuk Chan Chew. The creature measures almost two feet from its tail to the delicate tips of its antennae.

This is just one of 123 new species discovered in a vast conservation area on the island of Borneo. The heart of the Borneo Wildlife reserve, which is almost as big as the UK, is protected thanks to a pact between Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Since the agreement in 2007, biologists in the area have been identifying new species of flora and fauna at the rate of around 3 per month, with the World Wildlife Fund recently publishing an up to date list that includes 37 previously unknown species of orchid, 17 types of fish, a bronze hued snake and a yellow/green slug (Ibycus rachelae) that shoots other slugs with aphrodisiac darts to get them in the mood for dating!

Borneo is not just for seeing the endangered Orangutan in the wild, but exploring the unknown world of flora and fauna whilst maybe spotting that elusive wild Orangutan searching for berries and roots.