Manta Point

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Along with 2 partying Aussie women, a Belgian who sounds vaguely Russian, a Swede who sounds too much like American TV and an unnamed European who loves Taiwan and Hong Kong, I made a quick trip down Sanur’s Jln Kesumasari and then we were trudging down the beach at low tide to get to the speed boat aptly named ‘Halloween’ given the time of the year.

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An hour later, we found ourselves at Nusa Penida’s Manta Point under the care of Ethel and Imam and gearing up awkwardly in the cramped space of a speedboat. And then it was a backward-roll and straight into bloody cold waters.

“Great idea. Diving in a shorty!” The Big Belgian proclaimed loudly and sarcastically to himself when it became apparent that the water was too cold for anything that ended at knee level.

I only managed a choked chuckle while shivering with the cold. Of all the people in the group, he was the most boisterous and the most entertaining.

In short, Manta Point was a disappointment lasting 45 minutes. Visibility wasn’t too good and the state of the reef could not compare to the one at Tulamben or even at Padang Bay and nary a Manta in sight.

We all ascended except for the Big Belgian who, in his own words, said later, “I have 100 bars left, so I thought ‘Fuck it’, I’m going to stay down. I must see a Manta.”

In all his 500 dives around the world, he’d apparently never seen one and the desperation was showing, having already promised a few beers for everyone for every Manta that he spots. The only conditions were that he had to see it with his own eyes and that the Manta had to be bigger than him.

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20 minutes into the second dive at Manta Bay, 4 of those graceful creatures glided in like thieves in the night and frolicked on the surface where our exhalation bubbles were. I floated (or tried to) enraptured as they swished and turned and flapped along with shoals of fish, and developed an equalisation problem at the worst possible time.

The Big Belgian was so satisfied with the Manta spotting that he couldn’t care less about the rest of his dives the next day and looked puzzled when no one seemed as excited as he was. Truthfully, I stopped caring once the ear started giving problems.

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And just like that, our 50 minutes were up. Back to Joe’s gone diving for lunch (Big Belgian said that he was hungry enough to eat a manta, god forbid) with Buttons the Beagle, with loads of time to spare to collect the laundry I sent in yesterday.

We never got our promised beer.

*Underwater photos courtesy of one of the Aussie ladies who had the very good sense to rent an underwater camera. 

Sanur Beach walk

I’m bad with free days on vacation. Without something planned on the agenda, I’m as lost as a pigeon without feed. Waking up late is a side luxury when I’ve been getting up at the arse crack of dawn the past few days and wandering down to the hotel’s bakery, I decided that the 4km-length of the Sanur beach walk might do some good.

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Under the scorching heat, I lasted merely a kilometre or so before hailing a taxi back to languish in the pool for a bit, while wondering how people manage to do this all day.

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On the brighter side of things, I’ve finally managed to get the camera to take higher resolution shots.

Diving Deep into Hot Waters

The weeks leading up to an impulsively booked trip to Bali for Advanced and Rescue/Recovery Diving passed in an anxious blur of respiratory specialist visits, spirometry testing, frights over difficulty breathing and a steady stream of decongestant medication.

And all of that for a doctor’s signature on the PADI diving medical form.

I packed my bags with trepidation a few days ago and headed off after several sleepless nights and was pleasantly surprised to be the first at a sleepy immigration corner upon arrival. Even the hastily-arranged driver from Putu’s gang of merry men actually turned up a few minutes late – his arrival finally caused the rest of the taxi hustlers to drop away like salt on leeches.

Monday arrived too quickly and those cold feet returned when Joe’s Gone Diving’s driver whisked me off to the office to meet my instructor Ezra, who said that he would be supervising the entire course for two days. Joe’s Gone Diving is run by 2 Dutch expats and attracts people from all over the world, meaning, a motley crew of hedonistic expats, serious Indons and everyone else in between seeking some sort of deep-sea gratification can be found here.

I was made to study in the van on the way to Padang Bay and to Tulamben, covering topics like Wreck diving, Deep Diving, Peak Performance Buoyancy and Navigation (not my favourite at all). So far out of my comfort zone, I’ve managed to: Tumble head first into the water after some weak protesting, doing a forward somersault with the damned BCD and tank, stabbed my toe hard against the rocks on Tulamben beach, hit the knee even hard and get quite sunburned.

Not too bad for someone who hasn’t dived in years.

Buoyed by the high of actually completing the course, I ditched the rescue one and chose to do a fun dive instead at Manta Point in 2 days.

The lack of photos is pretty conspicuous here, because I’ve brought a different camera than the one I usually bring and the lazy lack of exploring its features meant that I’ve only been taking low resolution rubbish shots that are unworthy of publication.

The day of errands

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After the drive north got cancelled, we found ourselves a little too lost with more time on our hands than we’re normally used to on our typical mad-rush vacations. The only things left to do were to rediscover the city centre and try out weird and wonderful food – there was whale meat, horse steak and reindeer salami from the Grillmarkadurinn in Reykjavik – and window shop on a day that was miserably bleak and rainy once more.

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When the next (and last) day dawned in Reykjavik, TC and I decided that trying to climb Mt. Esja would be our workout of the day. Going halfway up through moss, melting snow and mushy earth was quite a challenge, although finding the parking lot leading to Esja proved to be the bigger challenge after vague instructions given to us by the Tourist Office.

On the bright side of things, laundry went as planned without either the machine or the dryer malfunctioning for once.

 

 

When the weather forces its hand

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Breakfast in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse is a curious affair. Waking up too early has no merits here (at least on the day we were there) because the cook who was supposed to prepare the first meal of the day was still asleep by the time we got to the breakfast room. Instead, the owner of the property, an elderly farmer by the name of Jónas Gunnlaugsson, regaled us with tales of driving through thick snow in Mjóafjörður, his theories of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane and his efforts to learn about money and currency after Iceland economic crisis while we waited for breakfast.

The worsening weather threw a spanner into our well-laid plans when the roads to Mývatn stayed closed for the whole day. The next 2 days we’d planned to stay up north in Mývatn and Varmahlíð would have had to be redesigned around South Coast driving. A few desperate calls later, we had a night booked in Volcano Hotel (the same place we stayed in 3 nights ago) and another in the Blue Lagoon (and hopefully throwing in some time around the Reykjanes peninsula as well) before heading back to Reykjavik.

Getting a refund from our pre-paid accommodation up north was another story altogether.

Daniel, the very helpful receptionist in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse, commiserated with us in a repetitive outpouring of sympathy.

“Something more should be done about this,” he said emphatically. “Many tourists come at this time of the year and are frustrated when their plans don’t work out because the roads are closed with no warning. All you hear is ‘Come visit Iceland, come anytime’ but no one is told that these things will happen. And when they come, this is what they get.”

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To say that I’m terribly disappointed is quite the understatement, even though it’s probably yet another excuse to return and visit the northern part of this fascinating country. 

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We headed out into the heavy rain at around 10.45 am and spent the entire day covering 3 days’ worth of driving distance in awful weather conditions. There was heavy fog in many parts and ice in others and after several near-collisions and losing traction on slippery surfaces, we finally stumbled gratefully into Vík after 8 hours on the road, happy to be alive. Vatnajökull’s many glacier tongues had disappeared completely from sight and the landscape that had been breathtaking in the sunlight now came straight out of the Norse myths of old. 

Eastwards in snow

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The second day on the road brought sunny skies, high winds and impossible views of the many glacier tongues that stick out of the southern end of Vatnajökull national park. We stopped at Skaftafell for a 3-km walk, then carried on towards Suðurland and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, finally bunking overnight in a country (farm) hotel that could have easily been the set of Dagvaktin.

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Weather and road checking became our latest obsession. The road leading eastwards had been closed because of heavy snowfall, forcing us to think about contingency plans at every stop on this ring road tour. It’s no casual undertaking, even at this time of the year: don’t pass up any opportunity to eat, stock up at a provision store or refuel because the next town could be too many kilometres away. On Sunday as we finally headed into the fjords towards Egilsstaðir, the chances of doing all the above decrease dramatically. Consequently, a huge plastic bag full of biscuits, skyr, chocolates and crisps took up permanent residence in the back seat, picked from supermarkets and stores found all over various stops in the South and the Southeast. TC depleted the storehouse quickly as he foraged for lunch.

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The weather turned from grey and bleak to blue and sunny again in a matter of an hour. Still, route 1 was closed for the final stretch into Egilsstaðir and the detour took us around the coast for a while on route 96 before going into town on route 92. On the grit-filled road, the sprightly Ford Titanium that had once looked like a hulking vehicle in the Thrifty showroom now resembled a tiny, beaten-down farm tractor that a horde of cute Icelandic horses have trampled on.

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I always looked forward to dinner after checking into the accommodation – as a celebration of having completed each day’s mileage. Simple fare at Salt last evening – burgers, pizza and hot chocolate – made my night.

Sandblasted on the sunny south Coast

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The Iceland adventure in a four-wheel drive began on a sullen Friday morning in Reykjavik as spring brought unpredictable winds and a very changeable sky.

After quick stop at the Thrifty office somewhere in town and a warning not to drive the new Ford rental SUV into a river, we took off for the 832-mile ring road. Finding the Miklabraut was tricky thanks to a GPS that led us to a dead end of a suburban neighbourhood instead of where we needed to go. Getting lost really (as well as driving on a different side of the road), should have been the least of our worries. I’ve been told to expect sunny blue skies replaced by bleak storm clouds at any minute and up the mountains in Hveragerði, the winds did indeed pick up – so much, that counter steering became a norm.

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Several panic attacks later after truly believing that TC would drive us off into a lava field or off a cliff, the landscape flattened out and we floored it, overtaking where we weren’t supposed to and accelerating straight the face of a speed camera. Our traffic sins continued in that fashion as we tried to get to Mýrdalsjökull in time for a Skidoo ride and a glacier walk with Arcanum tours. TC managed to meet that magical deadline with many minutes to spare, only to find out that the winds up in the glacier made both activities impossible. The only other option was to go in a super Jeep tour which we agreed to. Ólafur was our guide – and the first person who tried to speak Icelandic with me and failed when I gave the wrong answer to his question – up there and suffered the travails of a broken rim when we were halfway up. While waiting for rescue, he cheerfully regaled us with tales of the worst tours he’d given and assured us that this was a lucky break.

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I left the tour disappointed that I hadn’t been on yet another snowmobile but grateful that I hadn’t done it in this weather.

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The ring road is everything Iceland has to offer outside of Reykjavik and I’ve not even seen half of it (let’s not even talk about the inner roads that are off the beaten track). At every turn is a powerful contrast of black lava sand and snow-capped vertiginous cliffs as the roaring winds add to the tortured, brutal feel that you’ve come to a place on Earth that is closer to an alien (or lunar) landscape. The Dyrhólaey (hill-island with the doorhole) peninsula at Vík í Mýrdal is such an example of it: behind us is Mýrdalsjökull and to the east, Reynisdrangar’s black lava columns rise out of the sea, fronted by the menacing sentinels of Reynisfjall’s basalt sea stacks that look as though they rise to the heavens.

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That there is a surprising lack of cars the further along we went is a baffling question I’ve been constantly asking myself. Where are all the people that had piled out of Keflavik airport and into the buses that headed for the capital city? It turns out that March is obviously not quite a popular month, even though visitor numbers are slowly creeping up every year. And that’s something to be grateful for really, when I’m able to stand, solitary, in open-mouthed wonder without needing to apologise for being in someone else’s picture.