All posts by Kjartan

Summer 2015 – VII

Kumamoto – Dogo Onsen – Kyoto (July 23rd – July 28th 2015)

Strolling to the tram with all the luggage, heading for the train-station in Kumamoto, this surely felt like to be another hot day, maybe even with a few more surprises? It started well, the tram from last century was punctual as usual. Arigato gosaimasssss.

Old tram
Old tram

Our plan was to head for the scenic route over Mt. Aso to Beppu before heading by ferry to Shikoku and a ryokan in Dogo Onsen. Mt. Aso is a gigantic volcano with 100km circumference and 5 active peaks, while Beppo, located quite close, has a vast array of onsen spas with hot water. The train was full, only 1 seat left later in the day. Replanning in 2 seconds, next stop Matsuyama and Dogo Onsen via Okoyama. The train network in Japan is amazing. We had a short stop in Okoyama, so we quickly grabbed an ekiben for lunch as the landscape was flying by towards Dogo. Ekiben is a railway lunchbox with various combinations of pickles, rice, cold meat or fish dishes. It comes ready with chopsticks and wet tissue, excellent on the go!

Train Food - Ekiben
Train Food – Ekiben

Dogo spa is about 30 minutes ride from the train station in Matsyama, again with trams that would be in museums anywherelse in the world. Our ryokan was a bit hidden behind large spa’s and hotels, but only a few minutes walk. Very cosy and extremely friendly and helpful staff. The room was traditional as it can be, large and spacious, covered with tatamis and with covered balconies. Kjartan’s head discovered that the roof was quite low a few places in the room (sturdy low hanging wooden beams). Hopefully no permanent damage. On a positive side, these beams and all wooden interiour gave a pleasent cypress scent to the room. This smell has followed us all over Japan, in ryokans and ancient temples and castles.

Dogo - Ryokan
Dogo Onsen – Ryokan

In Dogo there is a famous spa, Dogo Onsen Honkan, which was the model bath house in Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away”. It looks really nice, but we chose to go to our ryokan`s private onsen instead. Quite small, but very warm and pleasant. You have to make sure to take pauses with some cold water not to get a heat stroke.

This onsen was a perfect refreshment as we had visited a beautiful Matsuyama Castle Museum the same day when the temperature reached around 35++ degrees!

Dogo Onsen Honkan
Dogo Onsen Honkan

During the night we experienced some vibrations that resembled a fast train passing, only to find out in the morning that there was two minor earthquakes. Actually, the host did not even notice as it is so common, but other guests confirmed.

Next stop Kyoto! The traditional ground pillar of Japan, historically the capital for more than thousand years before Tokyo took its turn. Arriving, it was quite straight forward to find the hostel, great directions from our host. It was a shock to find that Kyoto was so full of foreigners. First impression was that it felt like the least Japanese city so far. People were very frequently walking on the “wrong” side of the street (right side) compared to the rest of Japan. We headed out for dinner in the direction of the Nishiki fish market. Most of the stalls had closed down, so sampling the remaining scraps was not very tempting. However, just at one of the entrances to the market, we found an excellent restaturant/bar playing Japanese hits from the 80’ties. Full of locals and families enjoying udon, takayaki and other grilled foods. Apart from a few smokers, the place had a very nice athmosphere and is highly recommended for anyone happen to be in the area.

Smoking in restaurants and bars is actually quite common in Japan and there are many public smoking areas and rooms. This is a big contrast to the rest of the world these days. Another thing we noticed here is that are very few garbage bins in public. Surprisingly, the streets are very clean and there is a big recycling awareness.

Kyoto - Restaurant in Nishiki Ichiba
Kyoto – Restaurant in Nishiki Ichiba

The next day, inspired by a very good Norwegian newspaper article, we wanted to see the more traditional Kyoto (“as Japanese as it can be”) and headed for the hills dotted with temples and shrines. We climbed a mountain with thousands of torii’s (red gates used as entrances in Shinto temples).

Kyoto - Senbon Tori
Kyoto – Senbon Torii

It was special even if the place was full with tourists. However we found a nice path exiting the torii and lead up to the peak through the forrest instead. This was a highlight, walking through a mix of cypress and bamboo forrests. There were lots of shrines along the way and very few people. At the very top, we entered the torii galore again and strolled down the mountain.

Kyoto - Bamboo forrest
Kyoto – Bamboo forest

The rest of the day we where walking alongside the eastern hills, visiting temples and the Gion district where geishas live and work. It should be said that this area is full of geisha wannabees that takes selphies and say “Waah!” (“Wow!”) here and there. We did manage to spot one real geisha in an alley that prepared the street in front of a very discreet entrance as the evening approached.

Kyoto - Temple garden in the eastern hills
Kyoto – Temple garden in the eastern hills

The next day we headed for Osaka on a one day trip. Osaka can’t be accused for being a beautiful city. However it seems to have been growing fast for practical purposes. It has several interesting areas for different merchandise. Small businesses are thriving and people are very friendly.

Osaka - Street scene
Osaka – Street scene

Osaka was once the capital of Japan and plays a very important role for trade, culture, handicraft and other merchandise. We went to Den Den Town, Osaka’s answer to Akihabara (Tokyio`s “Electronic City”) as well as Namba, probably one of the busiest commuting and shopping areas in the world. Even if the place was bustling with people walking here and there, the extremely kind and helpful station officers light up on the chance to help a lost foreigner on their way. Our officer jumped and reached for something in his little square pocket purse. We thought he was reaching for his reading glasses, but instead he produced a map neatly folded in many layers to eagerly show us the way.

By chance while looking for a big temple in Osaka, we found a smaller one called Isshinji Temple. It was actually very interesting and worth to see. It had thirteen Bhudda statues made of ashes of more than 200 000 people. We entered the temple during one of the ceremonies and saw people that came here and got calligraphy prayers written by monks to pay tribute to their buried ancestors. Really special place, both cemetary and sanctuary.

Osaka - Peoples Temple
Osaka – Isshinji Temple

The next day we finally took a train between Japan`s most famous cities: Kyoto – Tokyo. We are writing this on a top floor restaurant in the bustling capital that never sleeps. We are a bit delayed posting this due to temporary loss of Internet connection (who would think that in Tokyo!), so a new story is coming in the next episode very very soon! Photos as well.

Greetings from k&d in Tokyo, the Power House of Japan! 🙂


Summer 2015 – V

Beijing – Qingdao – Seoul (July 12th – July 18th 2015)

Beijing welcomed us with sun and a scorching heat > 40C. Our directions to the hostel were good. No difficulty to find even though it was located inside a Hutong area with narrow alleys. It was a cosy hostel, rooms where facing the yard (traditional Chinese “siheyuan” courtyard) which was a renovated Hutong with roof. Quite pratical for drying our laundry (finally washed and clean). Our first dinner was the traditional Beijing Duck, great restaurant in our street, then we had a stroll around the Qianmen area. It has changed a great deal, modern walking street full of fashion shops and souveniers for tourists. Several of the traditional Hutongs still stand, but most have been renovated a bit and clearly have higher standards than earlier. The area still has charm. Kids play and families are having their late night barbequed snacks with beer. The occasional card game can also be witnessed, the streets are well and living. It is good to see that good things stay the same.

Beijing - Card games in Hutongs
Beijing – Card games in Hutongs

Next day after booking a trip to wall, we headed for the Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Mausoleum of Mao. The Mausoleum seemed closed, but the Forbidden City was crowded, hot and noisy. It very different to visit in the summer in holiday season compared to the winter out of season. It is beautiful regardless, but with so many tourists and heat, several places felt cramped. Wintertime is recommended!

Beijing - Crowded Forbidden City
Beijing – Crowded Forbidden City
Beijing - Forbidden City
Beijing – Forbidden City
Beijing - Forbidden City - Tranquility can be found even during high season
Beijing – Forbidden City – Tranquility can be found even during high season

Beijing has several large gardens and palaces. We decided to go to two of these, the Old Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) and the Summer Palace (Yiheyuan). Both are easy to access by Metro now and both beatiful. However, the (New) Summer Palace is clearly the best. It has several large large lakes with causeways lined with trees and hanging leaves. It is very peaceful and you can see people fishing and even swimming at some locations. Take good shoes if you plan to walk around the lakes, the park is huge.

Beijing - Yuanming Yuan
Beijing – Yuanming Yuan
Beijing - Yiheyuan
Beijing – Yiheyuan

On the way back we tracked down the location where we met 9 years ago! The “Feiying” Youth Hostel had now changed and become a business hotel. The neighbourhood was not changed much so we recognized the sights. Very special!

Back at Qianmen we met a friend who took us to a Laoshe Tea House. It was about closing time, but we still managed to get some excellent tea before heading back to our hostel.

You can’t go to Beijing without taking a hike at The Great Wall of China. At the hostel some backpackers had just come back from the Jinshanling – Simatai hike and were telling us it was great. We agreed saying we did that almost 10 years ago 🙂 This time we took an advice from friends from Fujian and went to Mutianyu. Something to note is that even though the trip is slightly cheaper, you will likely not manage to walk the whole stretch including the stairs up to the wall, unless you take the cable car. Time on the wall is about 3 hours before you have to head back to the lunch and bus ride back. When including the cable car ticket, this trip is the most expensive one, but it is very special experience. Towers up to 23 are renovated. However past the tower no. 23 you can see old parts that are untouched. The wall is overgrown with trees, bushes and has only narrow paths  that are walkeable. In the summer it is not easy to keep the pace up to reach the remote towers, as the ascent is straight up the mountain, but the reward is great when you gaze down the mountain on the “ants” walking below. Only few tourists bother to go beyond tower 23 when coming with a tourist bus, but we did meet a few that had hiked a couple of hours from the other side of the mountain. With more time and devotion, going on longer hikes and stops in villages on the way is clearly possible.

Mutianyu - Great Wall of China
Mutianyu – Great Wall of China
Mutianyu - Great Wall of China
Mutianyu – Great Wall of China

With sore feet and after the long walk whole day a traditional Beijing Hot Pot can’t be recommended enough. It gives you both strength and nutrition and if you are not careful with the spices, it gives yourself and the whole restaurant an itch and a cough. Our neigbouring table, maybe from Sichuan, got the comment “What kind of fuel did you put in that burner?” (even the waiter had to run out on the street to clear her throat!) 🙂

Next stop  Qingdao, the home of Tsingtao beer and a port city. We were welcomed by a local friend Wenwen, that Dragana knows from Oslo.  After checking in, we had an excellent lunch/dinner with all local specialities and of course fresh unrefined Tsingtao beer in a pitcher. Later we walked through the night market (夜市) and walking street Taidong, looked in shops and had some iced coffee. Refreshing! Qingdao is one of the smaller cities we visited, has around 10 million people and a bit too much smog in the air, but all in all is quite a cosy place.

Next day we grabbed some breakfast and headed for the airport. The female taxi driver was very cool and had decorated the car with stitching. You have to be pretty tough to drive in a city like Qingdao, the traffic is terrible and there is no metro yet (to be finished in 2017).

Seoul welcomed us after a short double decker plane trip from Qingdao. This gigantic city has more than 10 million people + another 15 million in the suburbs and surroundings. Added with the media coverage of MERS outbreak recently, we were careful. Very few people wore masks and it seemed like people where quite relaxed now. Hand sanitizers placed around entries/exits of shopping centers and free masks in the hotel showed that the situation was taken seriously.

As we arrived quite late, our options for food were limited, but with the help of some local girls in the street, we found a great place for Korean soup and something similar to Hot Pot. Clay pot on a gas burner with well boiled meat, vegetables and assortments of kimchi served with Korean rice wine. Excellent! It was fun using the language in Seoul – it turned out that it went much easier once we used Chinese instead of English! The city namely speaks Korean, Japanese and Chinese.

The next day we headed for the palaces and the folk museum. Not so crowded, but very peaceful and serene instead. The Folk Museum was great, much information in English and with multimedia shows depicting peoples lives and livelihood in different seasons and times. The South Korean culture is quite specific. With later influences from China and Japan, it has an origins from long lasting and quite stable monarkies that were established by the tribes that settled and divded the land. The similarities to clothes, tools and similar used in Balkans, Russia and even by Norwegian indegenous people is striking.

Seoul - Changdeokgung
Seoul – Changdeokgung

The evening was spent in the more modern areas of Seoul, the Damdaeamun clothes market and Dootsa shopping mall. Contrasts are large in Seoul as well. Climate is pleasant, breeze from the sea and quite green with parks and well kept palaces.

Seoul - Dongdaemun area
Seoul – Dongdaemun area

Today we boarded the KTX (Korean Train Express) to Busan where our flying ferry is waiting to take us to Japan! It speeds through whole South Korea in only 2 hours and 30 minutes, impressive. There is not a city without some adventure. Kjartan read about the Yongtsan Electronic Market the day before. It is said to be as large as the electronic market in Hong Kong and Tokyo combined and was rebuilt due to the construction of new KTX lines (2004). Seoul has several train stations and it seemed quite logical that our train was to depart from Yongtsan station. We arrived in very good time and yes, there are KTX trains leaving from here. However not OUR KTX train, that one leaves from Seoul Station. Ok, jump in another taxi and head for the Seoul train station. At least we got to see the Yongtsan Electronic Market in the end 🙂

Next stop Fukuoka, Japan!

On the way to Japan!
On the way to Japan!
Fukuoka - The flying Beetle
Fukuoka – The flying Beetle

Summer 2015 – IV

Shanghai – Nanjing (July 7th – July 12th 2015)

Thanks to our friend’s help, we could easily pick up the train tickets Xiamen-Shanghai. During the trip through China, we have widely enjoyed the benefits of WeChat application (微信) functions: if you have a friend with Chinese mobile phone and WeChat account, he/she can pay the ticket online for you and you can give them money afterwards! It was enough to show passport and a picture of a receipt and many train tickets were soon in our hands! In this way, we have also just picked up our Beijing-Qingdao tickets for 15th of July, while we wait for the train to Beijing on 12th! Cool!:) Not to mention that the huge Nanjing train station, where we are now, seems even bigger as the typhoon stopped many trains towards the south and east and it is only like a million people around us! That’s nothing! 🙂

We arrived to Shanghai on 7th of July, and got on a metro with our new purple SH metro card. We found our hostel pretty easy and were happy that day although the room was terrible. Luckily we do not stay too much in rooms and the guys in the hostel were ok, so it went ok in the end.

The first evening we had a spicy Sichuan dish for dinner in a restaurant nearby and immediately headed for the famous Bund (外滩). We took some really nice photos of the area, both banks of The Huangpu River and curious, veeery curious, people passing by.:)

Shanghai - Pearl Tower in the fog
Shanghai – Pearl Tower in the fog

We strolled down the walking street, Nanjing Road (南京路) before heading back. The next day we started with a lazy morning and decided that it is time to slow down a bit. The typhon news started to arrive and we gave up on Hangzhou and Suzhou and made plans for Nanjing instead – not really being aware how big the typhoon will be and how lucky we will feel afterwards!

After breakfast we walked all the way to The Bund again and met The Pearl Tower (东方明珠) in its morning outfit. This famous landmark of Shanghai broadcasts TV programme that one can watch directly in the SH metro trains. We also visited beautiful and traditional Yu Yuan Garden, felt the atmosphere of an old Shanghai and had a nice rest in this place that is a real food for the soul…

Shanghai - Yu Yuan garden
Shanghai – Yu Yuan garden

Afterwards we also experienced the first raindrops, while sitting on the bench on The People’s Square, an area neatly arranged by the city government.

Shanghai - People's Square
Shanghai – People’s Square

This is my (Dragana’s) third short visit to Shanghai and I can say that every time is so different and unique, it’s like coming to three completely different cities. Not only due to the ten year change and development but the city size! It is huuuge and it takes ages to see everything.

Shanghai - Contrasts are everywhere
Shanghai – Contrasts are everywhere

Shanghai is a city of contrasts. As you stand next to an old temple with the red dragon-shaped roof, a growing skyscraper from the temple’s neighbourhood is unavoidable on that picture you are taking. Old, traditional spirit is easily being mixed with high-tech places, full of neon lights, “dum dum” music and those shopping centres where people stand in line to open one of those little boxes on the sale. Ok, they look stylish, but what is in them? We barely managed to see some pieces of fake jewelry. As people in Serbia say, “even the god loves it if it is for free”. Or on sale, I would guess.

We went through The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (fun for kids mostly) to reach the modern Pudong area and take photos of The Pearl Tower in the night fog. It was like a dream! Really nice experience. We could not climb the tower as it disappeared with its neighbouring sisters in fog and clouds, but went to a good and cosy Shanghai history museum which is located at the bottom of the tower and got an evening history lecture.
We would also like to recommend one of the Lanzhou noodles places, where Chinese muslims make huge portions of a various delicious food and you can see them as they “la mian” – strech dough and make noodle soup. I remember watching this in Putian-flashbacks from the previous life in China.:)

Our next stop was Nanjing and it was a pearl to discover. The green capital of Jiangsu province and an ancient capital of modern China that housed six Chinese dynasties!! We were so happy with this place! Our friend Charlie took really good care of us every minute and we are looking forward to welcome him and his family in Norway.

Nanjing - Gate to Old Town
Nanjing – Gate to Old Town

Two days in lovely Nanjing went fast but we managed to see ancient gates in the city, entrance to the Confucious museum, old city area where we had our first stinky tofu (臭豆腐)experience (it is really true: the stinkier this soya cheese is, the more tasty it gets!) and modern night-life area 1912 (the year of founding of the first China Republic).


K&D – First time stinky tofu experience

Nanjing - 1912
Nanjing – 1912

The next day we spent hours in a big Nanjing museum which we absolutely recommend as it gives a thourough lecture on Chinese and Jiangsu history. If you wonder which city to visit in China and want to know more about its culture and history, Nanjing is number 2 place to go (after Xi’an, the first capital ever, previously known as Chang’an). Nanjing is the city of green: bridges and roads are literally covered by green plants and leaves and as we go through and leave Jiangsu province now, the green is saying hi to our 310km/h bullet train.

Nanjing - Traditional restaurant
Nanjing – Traditional restaurant

Our next stop, Beijing, promises sunny weather and we hope that our friends in the south and eastern provinces will soon experience the same.

Go away, typhoon, go away! k&d

Summer 2015 – II

Xiamen – Putian – Xiamen (July 2nd – July 7th 2015)

After arriving at Xiamen train station, the adventure to find the bus to Putian is beginning. It was raining so people were quite nervous and running here and there. We easily found the way to the bus-station by crossing a bridge. Not exactly sure where to buy the tickets (on board or at the counter), we had to go back to the station and line up in the queue. With tickets in our hands again we were told to hurry. We crossed the bridge to get on the bus, but where was the bus? It was not there, so again we ran back to the station. Asking some people it seemed we where on the right way. No, wrong again. Asking here and there we finally found out that the tickets was for the “dongche” (bullet-train) and we had missed it! Bullet train line in Fujian was something new to us, China is developing very fast. Again line up in a different queue to change tickets, no problem. This time we had good time to find the terminal and we where first in line when it was time to check in. Standing in the line was like getting ready to a race. Clock counting down and guard asking to check if machine works. Red light, no, wait WAIT, the guard is shouting. Now, hurry, try again, green, lets go!

Dongche - Bullet train)
Dongche – (Bullet train)

Xiamen to Putian is close, it was a smooth ride in around 200 km/h. Once there we were welcomed by friends, Martha and Faye, who helped us with the hotel and treated us with an excellent dinner together with the whole family of three generations!

The next day we went by ferry to the Meizhou Island. Of course, the ATM did not work on the mainland, but there was plenty on the island! To make sure things should go smooth this is where we headed first. However, it turns out most banks and ATM, even with Visa and Mastercard written on them, do not work with foreign Visa or Mastercards. The machine just entered maintenance mode and did a reboot (windows sounds and all)! All the machines we tried “went to sleep”, so guess we crashed down the whole island`s ATM system! 🙂 Perfect, not enough money and where to get it? Friends stepped in, pulled some connections (“guanxi”) and, after taking a one-motorbike-taxi-ride, we could borrow some RMB from – an island government official! Finally our sightseeing could begin!

Mazu Temple is a beautiful and lively sight, crested on the green hilltops and with lots of people who go here to pay their tribute, burning hell-money and insense.

Mazu Temple - Prayer
Mazu Temple – Prayer

An occasional monkey (dressed up person) gives the impression that this could be a scene from the Jungle book. Dragana explained that the monkey character is Sun Wukong, one of the heroes from the Chinese classic “The Journey to the West”.

On the very top, the Mazu goddess surveys the sea and protects the land from the typhoon. From the hill close to the big Mazu statue one can see not only colourfull dragon-shaped roof tops, but also islands belonging partly to Putian and partly to Taiwan!

Mazu goddess
Mazu goddess

A bag full of lyche (Putian fruit) protects us from hunger. Perfect refreshing snack in hot weather. Chinese ladies use a different method: everywhere we have gone so far, we say thousands of big and small, bright and dark-coloursed – umbrellas (!) that protect the people from the sun! Not parasols- umbrellas! Guess it is because many people simply run dramatically from the streets when it begins to rain, so “rain umbrellas” are here pretty much useless as we know them. 🙂

Back on the mainland we head for the downtown Putian. Much has changed here in 10 years. The little town (of 3 million people!!!) has become a city with skyskapers everywhere. The cozy walking streets with “holes in the walls” with excellent local food turned into a little highway and the modern fashion and electronic shops were lined up side by side. Some areas are still the same though; looking behind the modern facades and digging into the alleyways, we found the school where Dragana lived and worked 10 years ago!

Putian school visit
Putian school visit

Next day, the journey continues to Xiamen. This is a rapidly evolving, partly mainland (suburbs), partly island (the real thing) city that attracts quite a large amount of locals, as well as a few foreign tourists. You reach the island by going through the underwater tunnel. It has lots of Western colonial architecture and was a well known port for foreign trade at the time. Xiamen has managed to keep some of its old charm with traditional narrow alleys, street sellers only few steps from modern walking streets with modern fashion.

One can experience different things in this growing city; while those prefering “food for the soul” head for the Zhongshan park and enjoy singing of a gathered Chinese choir in one of the traditional resting places (亭子), qigong, taiji and dancing groups or simply close their eyes and drift, those hungry for a speedy speedy life, shoping and modernization stroll down the walking Zhongshan road and get one with the crowd! Our local friends thou showed us something alternative: we saw the old railway track and went through the very nice tunnel that used to be active many many years ago. Now this place is called the Railway Cultural Park and our hosts explain that the tourist seldom find this place by themselves. Worth visiting and experiencing!

Xiamen - Chinatown
Xiamen – Chinatown

Gulangyu Island, a short ferry ride from the city, has well preserved architecture, beautiful beaches and several museums. It is CROWDED, especially at the ferry, but well worth a visit to get out of the city for a day. Don’t forget to sample local fish soup and grilled sea food in the streets! We tried those huge grilled squids in the street, our faces became orange and all that stuff, but we ENJOYED it as we finished it all with a can of Qingdao beer! Healthy food can wait a bit! 😀

Gulangyu - Sunlight rock
Gulangyu – Sunlight rock

As you can see, we had a short, but lovely time in a beautiful green Fujian province! As we are writing this draft, we are sitting on another “dongche” bullet train (not bus!:), this time crossing Zhejiang province and heading to Shanghai. We got up at 04.45 am, and before this “dong che”, took a local Xiamen`s blue BRT bus (not train!) which is elevated above the city and takes in anyone who can push, be pushed, squished and breathe in a most crowded possible vehicle!

Alarms to Get Up in Time
Alarms to Get Up in Time
Fujian - Green and Hot
Fujian – Green and Hot

Well that`s it for now. We are staying in Shanghai for the next three days and plan also to visit the neighbouring Hangzhou and Suzhou.

Stay tuned, folks! k&d

Minke Whale Itinerary, Australia

Nimrod Explorer 12-18 July 2005

I woke up at Asylum Backpackers in Cairns, well knowing that this was day one of the Minke Whale itinerary with Nimrod Explorer (Explorer Ventures Australia) to the Ribbon reefs #3 and #5 as well as Osprey reef way out in the Coral Sea. More than little tired after a ten days road trip from Cairns to Brisbane with my two friends Øystein and Jørgen as well as the delayed flight back to Cairns the day before. However, a late checkout and good weather conditions helped a great deal. Nimrod Explorer a 72 foot steel-hulled catamaran built and equipped solely for diving and relaxation offers several different trips to various destinations at the Great Barrier Reef. Minimum 4 days up to maximum 10 days with a capacity of 18 divers in 6 cabins with private facilities. Watching at the photos at their web-page and then comparing with the actual conditions one might think they would differ, but not with this boat. The standards did far exceed my expectations in every way. Crew where friendly and seemed to love their work. Food prepared during the whole trip was delicious, dive sites fantastic, and the weather even though not guaranteed, was perfect.

Itinerary overview, this trip was the red one (Illustration from Explorer Ventures)

Day one

As a bonus this trip included a scenic low altitude flight from Cairns to Cooktown, where the boat was mooring. Cramped together in teams of five we headed north in the smallest plane I ever flown before, cutting edges of the mountaintops and cruising over the reefs. A bird’s perspective to Manta Rays, turtles and sharks was a perfect start of the trip.

Scenic Flight to Cooktown, Lighthouse surrounded by reefs (Photo by Kjartan Ivar Paulsen)

Cooktown is a really small place, consisting of one road with surprisingly high density of pubs. While we waited for the last preparations to be done by the crew before boarding, practically the whole boat ended up at one of those pubs. The rest of the evening consisted of several briefings, setting up diving equipment for the next day’s dives and of course getting a taste of the great food we should expect during the trip.

Day two

Good morning! Good Moorning!

The clock showed 06:30, time for breakfast and the first dive briefing. It turned out that the Minke Whales we hoped to get a few glimpses of during the trip, actually welcomed us to Ribbon reef this very first morning. With a bowl of cereals in my hands I got my first look at these amazing creatures. Short after we heard the second call that from now on would be called 5 times a day throughout the whole trip. Dive time!

Each dive followed a certain procedure which impressed me a great deal. Everyone gathered in the saloon for dive briefing where one in the crew had drawn up an illustration of the dive site, quite detailed and instructive giving what to be expected of bottom conditions such as depth, formations as well as fishes, corals and other life. They also included a recommended dive plan to which depth and directions that was expected to be most interesting and where a safety stop was most convenient to do, if not directly under the boat itself. I especially appreciated the tips regarding where to look after certain species, their appearance and behavior. This made us more aware during the dive and I believe it made us more capable to actually seek out and find what we wanted to see during the dive. Anyway back to the diving.

The dive site is called Pixie and is located on Ribbon Reef #9. Buddy teams for those of us traveling by ourselves where put together by the crew based on our previous experience. They where not constant however and could be changed during the trip.

We geared up and plunged into the water. Finally! Descended the mooring line and marveled at the visibility.

Among the fishes we saw was several Barracudas, a family of Anemone fish, 2 Spiny-Black Trumpet Fishes and a White Tip Shark. It was a relaxing first dive on this trip with visibility of approximately 25m and it represented much of the common life we would encounter during this trip.

Well aboard again our second breakfast was ready to be digested. This time egg, bacon and beans as well as more fruit, cereal and so on… While eating and chatting about our first dive the whales came back! Everybody jumped in holding on to two lines after the boat. This is a method used to avoid the temptation to swim towards the whales. This way the contact is on the whales’ premises, they come to us by their curiosity. Listening to the pre briefing I couldn’t imagine that they would come so close and be so curious. They really showed off and stared at us sidelong, with eyes the size of a fist. Truly the most amazing and gracious animals I’ve encountered, attempting to communicate with us by showing their bellies, sprouting bubbles under water and peeking above the surface. I was marked for life.

Dwarf Minke Whale (Photo by Aaron Smith)

The boat moved on to next dive site. Pixie Pinnacle, also located on Ribbon Reef #9. This dive was completely different from the first dive. Instead of following a reef wall, Pixie Pinnacle was like a column growing out from a sand bottom. We constantly circled the reef clockwise, starting at 23.2m and going shallower along the dive. In addition to all the fish we saw on the first dive we also saw a Weedy Scorpion Fish as well as a Lion Fish. Another thing I never seen before was a Flame File Shell or at least it is Flame something. Sitting inside a small hole it had several stripes around its red body that shifted to white (like electrical impulses). Awesome dive! Well up again, more light snacks, fruit and nibbles.

Weedy Scorpion Fish (Photo by Aaron Smith)
Flame File Shell (Photo by Aaron Smith)

Still at Ribbon Reef #9, but yet another dive site, Vertical Gardens. My dive buddy Gavin, an Irish bloke with expressions others than locals never would be able to understand, skipped out this one, so I joined up with Colleen. Thinking back on the two last stunning dives, both between 50-60 minutes, the next dive couldn’t possible match them. He was right, it didn’t match them, but it was quite different. Not much different fish life, but visibility was slightly better and I know now why it is called a vertical garden. Amazing coral formations clad the wall and yes the wall was completely vertical…

Beautiful Fan Coral (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Lunch was served delicious as every other meal. It started to be a routine now! Dive, eat, dive and eat again. The break was a bit longer this time though and good was that, needed a little rest…

Next dive was the Monolith and Challenger Bay, still on Ribbon Reef #9. It was to be a dusk dive. Gavin was fit for fight again and we decided to do both dive sites in one dive since the Challenger Bay was quite shallow and we could easily do our safety stop here on our way back to the boat. Off we went swimming, paddling and paddling to reach the Monolith corals, or Pavona Cavas Crac-Monolith? It took around 10-15 minutes to get there, but I never seen anything like it. From a far it looked like a huge dark yellow grey carpet, stretching slowly from approximately 30m depth up to 10m and at least 30-40m wide. Coming closer we could see it consisted of many dark yellow corals looking like poles, quite close to each other. Small fishes where well protected between them and the larger fishes such as the Camouflaged Grouper, Napoleon Wrasse and Big Eye Trevally where swimming above, attempting to snatch those who dared to come out or too close to the top. We also saw a really large shark we couldn’t make out the species of, but we believe it might have been a Grey Reef Shark. Several smaller White Tip Sharks also swum in the distance on our way back to the Challenger Bay.

Challenger Bay was a quite shallow area with lots of different corals and fishes, very nice. Saw more quite large Groupers here before we turned back to the boat.

Between this and the night dive, dinner was served. The fifth and last dive of the day was at same spot, but we concentrated on the Challenger Bay on this one, both because the time was limited to 50 minutes at night dives and this area would certainly be interesting on night because of the rich life. Again we saw the Camouflaged Grouper, Red Bass and a funny long white, almost transparent worm, vacuuming the sand with tiny white tentacles. Because of the fish density one of them, I believe it was some kind of Wrasse, actually collided with my flashlight. I guess it must’ve been a little confused by all lights everywhere…

Day three

Good morning! Good Moorning! Bambambam. (Our door was closed this time…)

Guess what? I slept like a log all night and I sure wanted to sleep a couple of more hours, but today we had arrived on the famous Osprey Reef, a coral atoll 120km out in the Coral Sea. It is completely separated from the rest of the Great Barrier Reef and has depths surrounding it that ranges from 2-3km!

Raging Horn was our first dive here, quite scary name, but well suited. Following the mooring line down to a plateau I was stunned. We could actually see the divers below us on the plateau as clearly as if they would have been very close. When we came down to the plateau at 30m depth we realized that the visibility must have been at least 40m! The divers we saw, I believe it was Aaron and Alison, sat on the edge, peering down into the vast deep darkness outside the plateau. The wall was practically vertical and it plunged down into a depth of 2km, certainly deeper than our planned maximum depth for this dive.

We cruised along the plateau keeping watch for the huge sharks we where told hunted in these waters. We eventually saw the biggest White Tip Shark we had seen so far. On our way back at a shallower depth, we saw a little more life such as 2 Two Banded Anemone Fish, four Moon Wrasse and several kinds of Parrot Fishes. Temperature was surprisingly warm this far out, 26C compared to the 25C on the Ribbon Reef the day before. On our way back to the boat we saw some shining blue or white dots below us in the depth. This was actually some kind of shining plankton, most frequently seen at early mornings with good visibility. On our safety stop under the boat we realized that there where more sharks circling below us further out keeping watch on us and whatever would jump in from our boat.

Our next dive, Admiralty, is named after an anchor that once belonged to a boat that lay moored here, but was lost still stuck in a cave that we would swim through on this dive. It was a drift dive and we jumped in from the sides of the boat and glided along a vertical wall that plunged down into again almost unbelievable depths of about 2km. The water was crystal clear, even more so than last dive offered, approximately 50m! This of course spoiled us big time and none of the other dives had this good visibility, although all dives we had on Osprey reef ranged from 35-50. We saw a lot on this dive, two Grey Reef Sharks in the distance along the wall. It was an amazing feeling flying past the vertical wall and peer into the vast darkness below us.

We saw more sharks, three White Tip Sharks lying together on a sand bottom, another White Tip Shark on another sand bottom almost under the boat. On the other side of the swim through named Admiralty at a shallower depth we also saw three Star Puffers, two Triggerfish chasing each other and four Moon Wrasse as well as many Parrot Fishes. Amazing dive once again!

Admiralty swim through (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Next dive was also on Admiralty. This time we concentrated more on white sand bottom under the boat. It was so white you could almost imagine it to be snow. There where lots of Garden Eels, but they didn’t like our presence very much so they hid their holes when we closed in on them. A Moray Eel had its nest in a stone in the middle this sand bottom. It didn’t mind us much, though a bit vary, and posed politely for the camera. Again we saw the three white tip sharks, a bit more active now when we where closer and several kinds of Anemone Fish, two Yellow and two Black Backed. We also saw the two Moon Wrasses and the Parrot fishes again. The current was quite strong between the coral walls surrounding the sand bottom, and we had to paddle a great deal to get back to the wall and the swim through.

Moray Eel in rock on white sand bottom close to Admiralty (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Third dive was New-Castle under Brine. The crew had not done this site before, so the briefing was a bit vague except that it looked like a castle wall with a court inside from the surface. It was quite an interesting dive. There was deep water outside the walls and shallow inside. We saw one White Tip Shark, three Moon Wrasse, Parrot Fishes and one Black spotted Puffer. Well aboard again two of the other divers where practically jumping up and down telling us that they saw Hammer Heads on approximately 40m in the distance on this dive! This made me scout out in the deep water on all the rest of the dives, but sadly no Hammer Heads for me this time.

Tired of the quite deep dives this day, I skipped out the night dive. The dive was on The Castle, supposed to be quite similar to the last dive, but with some more “towers” sheltering the “inner court”. Instead of the dive I concentrated on my EANx course which I had a whish to complete on this trip. Besides, the sunset was great!

Sunset at Osprey Reef (Photo by Kjartan Ivar Paulsen)

Day four

The wakeup call never fails to amaze. Breakfast, dive briefing then gear up for the first dive. Still on Osprey Reef we jumped in at North Horn. We followed the same procedure as on Admiralty, jumped in from the sides of the boat and hoped on a nice current. The current was against us this time, however not very strong. We had once again an amazing visibility. Not as good as the day before, but still around 30m. This place was awesome, lots of fish and stuff! 1 Dog Tooth Tuna, two Star Puffers, one Smooth Flute Mouth, two Red Fire Fish, one Moray Eel, one Potato Cod, five Grey Reef Sharks, two White Tip Sharks and lots of Parrot Fishes, one Sea Slug and lots of Ramona fish attached to the sharks. They even tried to attach themselves to us! Neither I nor Gavin had underwater housings to our cameras and will probably regret that for a long time to come. We saw the greatest pose ever seen before. One of the Red Fire Fishes where idling in a hole, the Sea Slug was slowly climbing the wall up towards the same hole and then a Parrot Fish peeked out between the two before it disappeared again into the hole. The sun was shining and the water was crystal clear. Even without a camera this picture will probably stick to my brain forever…

Grey Reef Sharks at North Horn (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Second dive this day was still at North Horn. This time we did a shark attraction dive. All divers where gathered behind a line and a cage full dead fish where lowered down from the dingy in front of us. Two and two divers where signaled forward to watch from underneath the cage. Yes, there where a lot of sharks on this dive… They where circling around the cages along with lots of other fishes. Two Huge Giant Potato Cods also tried to get to the food. I’ve never seen a fish as big as one of those cod! We only encountered Grey Reef and White Tip sharks on the shark attraction, but that is perhaps a good thing (they where very close). When we had seen enough me and Gavin headed out to the opposite direction than last dive and spotted some nice corals, small caves and yet another Red Fire Fish.

Third dive today was False Entrance, more south than all the previous dives on Osprey. It turned out to be a quite funny dive and we covered quite a distance. On our way we saw one Turtle diving down from our left passing by us and then hiding in a cave. Two Grey Reef Sharks, numerous Parrot Fishes, lots of Barracudas, and many White Cheek Surgeon Fishes, an Amber Parrot Fish, one Clown Trigger Fish and thousands of Wrasse. Nice and warm water of 26C and the shining sun made it a bright and happy dive.

Turtle in hiding (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Fourth dive called Rapid Horn was said to offer us schools of Humpback Parrot Fish. We saw one Great Barracuda and while on our way we spotted at least 5 Hump Nose Unicorn Fish. These had such a peculiar look that we almost forgot to look after what we where supposed to look for, the Humpback Parrot Fish. A quick glance behind us made me completely leave the Hump Nose Parrots alone. A school of about 10 Humpback Parrot Fish where following us while they field bombed the reef as a bunch of U2 bombers! A hilarious sight…

Barracuda out in the blue (Photo by Bon Djonly)

We where actually supposed to do only four dives this day because of the long trip back to the Ribbon Reefs, but John, a crew member came up with the brilliant Black Water Hang dive. In pitch darkness we descended one of the many lines that where fastened around the boat, drifting in the middle of nowhere with depths of 2km below us. The boat where drifting so we had to hold on tight to the ropes to avoid disappearing into the dark… We had no idea what to expect other than weird stuff, it turned out quite interesting. Following the boats movements, up and down, we stared out into the darkness. After a while I saw many weird shapes, microscopic jellyfish like things with tentacles like threads, long transparent tubes which some claimed had long tentacles as well. I also saw some thin threads with a microscopic dot in the middle. Many of these transparent things had small particles inside that reflected the light with shimmering colors of red, blue, white or yellow. I have no idea of the names to all these weird shapes, but assume they where different kind of microscopic jellyfish, plankton and similar. The dive was limited to max 30 minutes, but that was for the good. Hanging in pitch dark under a boat in free water going up and down and watching weird stuff makes you quite dizzy after a while…

Dive Briefing to Black Water Hang (By John and volunteers)

Day five

Back again on Ribbon Reef, #3 this time. Dive site was Century Bay. The first thing that came to my mind was that the visibility was really bad, only 20m or so! We sure where spoiled out there on Osprey… Out from the ordinary fishes we saw on each dive we came upon a gathering of Cuttlefish. I counted seven, smaller and bigger ones. Seemingly there was some kind of happening because I noted that when one of the smaller cuttlefishes approached one of the bigger, it was abruptly chased away by the bigger one. I have never seen a cuttlefish shooting out it’s tentacles to chase another cuttlefish before, quite amazing. We where four divers watching them at the same time so while they moved around slowly they shifted colors repeatedly in attempts to hide from us all at once. Amazing creatures these cuttlefishes!

Dive two, still on Ribbon Reef #3, Steve’s Bommie. It was marked by a metal plate by fellow divers to Steve when he passed away in 1989. It was his favorite dive site and that was not a coincidence. This dive site was amazing. I had never before seen so many fishes gathered on one place before. Later while diving on the Yongala Wreck I decided it to be the only other place surpassing Steve’s Bommie in fish density and variety. It consists of two bommies, one big reaching almost to the surface from about 30 meters and a smaller one reaching up to about 20m depth just beside it (it is on this one the nameplate is bolted). In addition to be an amazing dive site this was also my first Nitrox dive during my EANx course. Of course I wouldn’t have any benefits from it on this dive since we circled clockwise shallower and shallower to cover the whole bommie.

Leaf Scorpion Fish (Photo by Bon Djonly)

The species variety was absolutely stunning. Among all the fish schools of Yellow Snappers and Sweet Lips, we saw one Black Spotted Puffer in Bicolor Phase, one White Margin Unicorn Fish as well as a Leaf Scorpion Fish. There where several patches of Green Carpet Anemone, and several Anemone fishes in their homes.

Black Spotted Puffer (Photo by Bon Djonly)

Dive three was also on Steve’s Bommie, but we did it anti clockwise this time. After some directions from another dive buddy team we found a Wobbegong Shark sleeping in its cave. We also saw lots of baby anemone fish swimming about among some hard corals on top of the reef. Just as we where back on the boat and ready to depart from Steve’s Bommie, two Dwarf Minke Whales appeared and swum around checking out the boat. Nice!

Dive four was at Ribbon Reef #5. It was called the Clam Garden because of all the huge clams. And they where huge! Wouldn’t put my hand or foot in one of those Giant Clams… Other than clams we saw the real Clownfish Nemo, two White Margin Unicorn Fish. Inside one of the many caves we stumbled on a Fire Fish. Two blue spotted rays where lying on the sand bottom as well. The visibility had decreased some and was now only 15m.

Fifth and last dive was to the same location, but I skipped it in favor for the EANx exam. The exam went well and I could go happily to bed with a good consciousness.

Day six

Still on Ribbon Reef #5, first dive of the day was Dali’s Garden. With approximately 15m visibility, we saw many of the previous mentioned fishes and also a Scorpion Fish along a wall.

Dive two, Jaynems. It was my second Nitrox dive. Visibility was bad, only 10m and compared to all other amazing dives we had during the last days this dive was quite boring.

I believe it was between these two dives we watched a great school of twenty dolphins or more, playing and swimming in front of the boat. What a sight!

Takt Mooring, again on Ribbon #5 started out as the previous dive, we where too spoiled to do more than just paddle along and see if we found something we haven’t seen before. Then suddenly while paddling around on our safety stop we found a Nudie Branch. It was small, orange and had a straight white stripe on its back and two horns with the same color as the body. About a minute later further downstream we found another one, completely different than the first. It was purple with lots of orange horns on its back. Aboard the boat there was a book of 3000 nudie branches, but sadly enough I never managed to find and name the two we encountered on that dive.

The fourth and last dive on the trip was again on Century Bay, Ribbon Reef #3. My and Gavins goal for this dive would be to locate all the cuttlefish we saw last time. On the very same spot as last time, we actually found two. Both about the same size, approximately as big as the biggest we saw on last time. They seemed to stay together and kept quite calm even though we circled around causing them to shift colors. Once again I experienced a move I have never seen before. When I went deeper they actually moved closer and over me, presenting a white underside that blended quite well against the surface. When I moved shallower again they moved away going deeper and tried to blend in with the corals surrounding us. Their eyes constantly locked to both of us at the same time.

Since this was the last dive on the trip and we had no dives left to do, some of us figured out that this was the perfect day to get wasted. After six days at sea and 22 dives watching all the amazing underwater creatures, beer and drinking games surely turned out to the perfect answer to end the trip. To fall asleep in a coach nearby would turn out to be less wise. The anonymous American doing exactly that woke up with pretty pink fingernails. If he would be able to hear the flow of other inventive ideas coming from everyone around the table, he would probably never fall asleep again amongst drinking divers…

Day seven

All good things must come to an end and this was it. Most of us however, gathered again later that night for dinner and more drinks, followed by a pub crawl and even more drinks.

Happy divers

An absolutely awesome trip with professional crew, delicious food and of course, the best diving I ever had!

For more information about Nimrod Explorer and Explorer Ventures, visit their homepage

Black Spotted Puffer (Photo by Bon Djonly)