Up and about in the Lofoten Islands

It always begins with an airline offer and that conversation, as far as I knew, would never end well for my bank account. A troubled dinner, some arguing and a wistful reminiscence of the Arctic North later, we decided that Norway was the place to visit this time around. TC has never been there and I was thrilled at being able to do this with another person – in a car as well.

Stuck between the Western Fjords and the Lofoten Islands – which had my eye for many years now -, the next few days were a blur of looking through web photos, crumpling the pages of Lonely Planet Norway, and doing up possible travel itineraries that would accommodate about a week in the Fjords (either the Northern and Western ones).

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The Lofotens won by a large margin and I hunkered down to start planning the itinerary, which for some reason, always seemed daunting when it came to a country as long and large as Norway.

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For our trip this coming March, we’ve narrowed down getting to the Lofotens to 3 possibilities:

  1. Flying from Oslo to Bodø. Rent a car in Bodø and take a ferry to Moskenes – hopefully all within a day, then taking the car north to Svolvaer Airport. But further research on forums like Tripadvisor discounted this possibility, because of the rough seas in winter, which meant that ferry schedules aren’t not only limited, but are subject to change at any time. A night’s stay in Bodø was recommended, but we didn’t want to waste a day and the extra cash on taking a car across the sea.
  2. Flying into Svolvaer from Oslo and flying out from Leknes.
  3. Flying into Leknes from Oslo and flying out from Svolvaer.

Many have suggested taking advantage of the Lofotens’ 2 airports as an embarkation point and that’s what we’ve decided to do.

Options 2 and 3 are similar, in that they require a trek around the island in an awkward manner, simply because Leknes is smack in the middle of the Lofotens. We’d be doubling up on the routes, but with a car at least, to make things much easier.

Other options that we dismissed because of cost and time:

  1. Taking the Hurtigruten down the Northern coast.
  2. Flying into Harstad, renting a car and driving south for about 3 hours until we hit the Lofotens.

After several late nights of frantic research, we’ve decided this is how it’ll go down:

Fly into Svolvaer and stay for 2 nights, then it’s all the way south to Reine for another 2 nights, before the last 2 nights in Stamsund – which is within easy reach of Leknes airport, where we’ll make the long, laborious flight(s) to Copenhagen.

A Thai pocket of paradise

There is a little something for everyone in Thailand, even the Travel Companion (TC) who is known to be finicky at the best and worst of times. Having been to Thailand thrice in the last half this year, I think I’m inclined to understand why.

Khao Lak – a small place that’s really a series of villages about 70 km north of Phuket – wasn’t a destination that TC had initially agreed to, but after some form of cajoling, agreed and upon arrival, didn’t find the place too bad at all.

A long stretch of highway connects Phuket Airport to Khao Lak and an hour’s drive brought us to The Sands on the north side of Nang Thong Beach. Thankfully not as touristed as Phuket, Khao Lak’s renewal is nothing short of amazing after the 2004 Tsunami decimated kilometres of the coastline. I arrived exactly on the 11th anniversary of the Boxing day tragedy and having seen pictures of the devastation wrought by the power of nature, marvelled at how life somehow manages to crawl back. Only having been brought up the long coastline on ‘taxi’ (which is really a modified pick-up with added seats in the back) were we able to comprehend the scale of the disaster that must have struck this part of southwestern Thailand.

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Without a map, the piecemeal information I could glean from the internet is probably a testament to how much less touristy this place is than Phuket. Without a moped, we walked up and down the beach from Nang Thong north to Bang Niang and pretty much left it as that. Wilting under the heat of the day, we plied the well-worn paths down the main highway (or the high street) eating Thai food and buying rubbish snacks and souvenirs, then plunged into the pool for a much needed cooling off.

But I was here also to visit and dive in the Similans, the marine national park which is only open for half a year, dragging TC with me on the first, unfortunate journey that involved a speed boat, loads of movement causing sea-sickness and tons of tourists on the white-sand Similan beach. Nevertheless, these are the best dive sites I’ve ever visited, the staggering amount of pelagic sea-life simply unbelievable, especially in Richelieu Rock.

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Big Blue Diving is half-Japanese, half-Swiss owned, and populated with British, Japanese and Scandinavian staff, all of whom I’m sure have very interesting personal stories. I only managed to speak to a few of them – and being rolling stones is the only thing they have in common – but the perspectives they all offer often fracture my own changing opinions on travel and work. Therein perhaps, is always the heart of why I travel.

 

 

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3 days in Krabi and that sentiment might just characterise the Travel Companion’s (TC) and my dive experience.

The TC had too many questions (mostly unanswered) about buoyancy – an issue that sorted itself out by the second dive day. The poor thing somehow figured it out all on her own after the numerous explanations given by several dive instructors. That, and a rather ‘deaf’ Norwegian man who went ‘Haarh?’ loudly at everything people said to him, before answering in an unintelligible accent. Coupled with a Divemaster in training (from Sweden) who was made the errand boy for all things and still didn’t quite know what to do.

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We sailed on the Lavadee – the boat belonging to Scuba Addicts – on both days; the first to the local islands in Ao Nang, and the second to Phi Phi. The heavy rains on the day we arrived had made visibility 1-2 m, which was a challenge to dive in, but Phi Phi offered somewhat better conditions at least.

Scandinavians and Russians are aplenty in this small resort town littered with rows of shops and food touts who come alarmingly close to you. On the boat, the Norwegians were surprisingly chatty, speaking about everything under their fjords, the failing oil & petroleum industry and the long way back from South-east Asia. The Russians pretended to be cocky Americans. ‘Nuff said. Throw in a Brit or 2 and the mix becomes weird.

I can only hope TC feels better prepared for the Maldives trip we’re taking next year.

Bruised, battered, victorious

The travel companion (TC) finally tells me – on the way to the airport – that Bali has been, on hindsight, quite an enjoyable experience. It helps that we’ve both passed the different dive courses we’ve signed up for, even though we’ve been bruised, battered and badly cut in the process.

For that I’m thankful, even if we’ve spent most of our time shopping at Guardian pharmacy (TC simply bought more and more bottles of shower gel and muscle ache packs for god knows what reason) and eating at the same Italian place more times than I can count.

We’ve finally trudged along Sanur’s beachfront walk, done the obligatory shopping and rub-downs at spas and eaten more Balinese and Indonesian food than we should. But I’m astounded that TC finds it hard to admit that Bali is really quite civilised and sort of tourist-friendly, but I’m also grateful to learn that I’ve managed to spin several tentative thoughts that planning for the next dive trip isn’t too bad an idea as well.

We’re cosied up in a corner of the departure lounge and TC’s gone off to take photos of the very modern Bali airport to prove to some friends that we haven’t visited a dump in some corner in the world.

Sigh.

Sometimes, TC needs a little nudging in the right direction.

Oh, such luck

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that you never always get what you wish for.

Translated into diving terms: I didn’t see a damn Mola Sunfish in sight.

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But at least a manta ray or 2 graced us with its presence at Manta Point in Nusa Penida. Crystal Bay was supposed to be dive stop 2, but the extremely choppy sea meant that the captain of the speed boat took us to S.D Point instead where I actually had my first drift dive experience over a coral plateau. 7 kg heavier with a 5 mm wet suit in colder waters, I felt like a complete beginner struggling with buoyancy in the gentle drift over the amazing reef.

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A page over the intercom turned the afternoon a little sour when theory became reality: 2 missing divers – an instructor and a beginner – in the waters around Nusa Penida. The boat I was in powered through the choppy sea and found the stragglers on another speedboat. “We” took them in – the poor beginner looked stressed and exhausted while the instructor was chirpy but grateful – and handed them back to their proper boat whose inhabitants were crying with relief.

That made me wonder about the rescue training that I was taught just yesterday. Just how useful can I really be in that situation except to commiserate and comfort?

Bali Redux

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“I’d sooner be eaten by a shark than be rescued by her.”

So says a person who’s actually related to me when asked to volunteer as my unresponsive dive ‘victim’.

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As much as I’m able to ignore that particular lack of confidence in my rescuing skills, I’ve found the PADI rescue diver course to be the most challenging that I’ve ever done in my very…short diving experience these past few years. But everyone speaks highly of it (most shop owners/instructors I’ve met say the same thing) and someone had even gone so far as to say that it should be a necessity for all divers – at all levels – all except my instructor who was dubious from the start of my ability to actually save people.

To expect the unexpected and to be prepared for it is probably the underpinning principle of the course, but isn’t that true of life in general? Well-said and taught…up until the point I nearly drowned my own instructor when using a pocket mask to tow him back to the boat in a relatively strong current. He gleefully brought up that incident time and again, making me wonder if he not so secretly enjoyed Schadenfreude.

It has been a tough 2 days of a full classroom session followed by a pool session and finally acting out those rescue scenarios in the open sea. I’m sort of familiar with the environment (both hotel and dive shop to minimise the unfamiliar) at least; being back in Bali in 2015 isn’t very much different from being in Bali in 2014, and going back to Padang Bai and the Blue Lagoon is like visiting a friend whom I’ve not seen for a while.

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Essentially, I’m treading old ground – except for the dive course – with a belligerent and very sullen travel companion who is determined to think the worst of everything, sometimes comically so. What most Europeans consider ‘exotic’ and ‘ambient-rich’, my TC calls it ‘deluded’, ‘run-down’, ‘dirty’ and ‘incomprehensibly stupid’. The only draw for TC, is that prices are staggering low and the spas heavenly…by TC’s own standards. To be fair, TC hasn’t seen the nicer side of Sanur and its seaside stuff; the only places we’ve been back and forth are the street the hotel’s on and to the dive school.

But I’m glad that TC’s open water course is going fairly smoothly, despite all the complaints, fears I’ve been privy to and the numerous scrapes, cuts and bruises we’ve all miraculously acquired in the pool.

TC and I head to different dive sites tomorrow, of my own making really, because I really need to see a Sunfish.

Phuket and its surrounds

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The slow boat to Phi Phi – a good 48 kilometres away from Phuket’s Chalong Bay – was close to the equivalent of a slow ride to hell. Nothing to do with the weather really, but I slowly went out of my mind trying to find things to do on the boat, other than pace the narrow corridors like a convict. Denis was the only other recognisable person on the boat; the others came from yet another dive company and we soon found ourselves talking to Katie of San Diego, another lone diver who seemed content to sit in a corner of the slow boat to hell.

Denis spoke fondly of months where there wasn’t a single drop of rain. I was horrified.

Thankfully, he went on to talk about his past as a Mountie, his gym training, his para-motoring hobby and the sheer number of eggs he consumes a day. Katie on the other hand, spoke repetitively about her job, the wonders of California and her trepidation of diving.

I tried not to make inappropriate remarks.

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At Phi Phi and Shark point, the dives were good though not as spectacular as I’d hoped they would be with rather poor visibility and moderate currents, but then again I’d never had schools of fish swimming around me before. That mild euphoria evaporated when I returned to the mainland late and was reminded immediately just how expensive things are over here when I paid an exorbitant amount for my laundry load – which I suspected was weighed using a scale tipped in the shop’s favour.

Why am I bloody not surprised?

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If there’s anything I’m going to remember of Phuket, it would unfortunately be the relentless heat and humidity, the never-ending touts and the costs I’ve racked up in the past few days, even in a quieter place like Karon. I’ve spent an extortionate amount on transportation, an unwelcome hotel deposit fee, underwater photos and driver tips that have come up to a staggering amount.

The only place of relative normalcy is Phuket (Old) Town, which has a surprisingly eclectic vibe of the old and the modern with the sheer number of cafes stubborn holding their own in the presence of traditional shops. But I’d only wandered those charming streets for 40 minutes, having been given a strict curfew by the driver who was adamant about my punctuality like an army sergeant.

And then it was back again to Karon, with the sounds of ‘taxi, hello taxi?’ dogging my every step.