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The far north of the far south

Brian has always been obsessed with visiting geographic extremities. We’ve been to several “northernmost points.” In 2006, we hired a guy with a Humvee to drive us down a gravel spit outside Barrow, Alaska while we hunted with a GPS for the northernmost point in the US. Icebergs bobbed in the surf on that freezing August afternoon. In 2002, we rented a little fishing boat and floated over the northernmost point in the contiguous 48 states, which is technically in Minnesota but only accessible from Canada because of an 18th century surveying error. Later in 2002, we tromped across a farmer’s field to visit the northernmost point in Washington State, its extremity also the result of an old surveying error that placed one border marker just a little further north than the others along the supposedly straight border. The border between the US and Canada was invisible except for the difference in crops planted in each side.

None of these extreme points were different in any way from the areas that surrounded them. No plaque marked the importance of the spot, nor did a ticker-tape parade await us upon our return home. But all of these pointless expeditions to extreme points are etched in our memory because they brought us somewhere we wouldn’t have seen otherwise and forced us step out of our normal travel routine to get there. So it was natural that we would look forward to a visit to the northernmost point in Australia when we were in the neighborhood in February. Though one might argue that the concept of the northernmost point of the southernmost inhabited continent is a bit of an oxymoron, like “jumbo shrimp.”

Laurel standing beneath a jumbo shrimp in northwestern Australia in 2005. There is a controversy in Australia about which town actually has the biggest shrimp statue and we wouldn’t want to get in the middle of that. Let’s just say this was the biggest shrimp statue we’ve personally seen.

If you look on a world map, you will see that Australia comes to a point on its northeast coast. That is Cape York and you can hike to the very tip. Unlike the neglected extreme points in the US, there is even a metal sign letting you now you really did find the right spot.

Standing on the northern tip of Australia, which would have been a little farther north at low tide.

“But wait a minute,” you say accusingly, “if you are standing on the northernmost point, why is there more land right behind you?” Well, we were on the northernmost point of the Australian continent, not the country of Australia. To the north, in the gap between Australia and New Guinea, are the Torres Strait Islands. The Torres Strait Islanders are an ethnic group distinct from the indigenous people of the Australian mainland, culturally more similar to the inhabitants of New Guinea. We visited Thursday Island, the most populous of the Torres Strait Islands and its commercial and governmental hub.

Thursday Island is a lush tropical island but surprisingly unremarkable. The overall impression was of a tidy suburbia with the calls of the tropical birds often drowned out by the roar of lawn mowers. Our exploration was cut short by the unrelenting heat, which also stalked us when we visited the three biggest towns in northern Australia: Darwin, Port Douglas and Cairns. The high temperature was often over 100 degrees and the weather forecast would say “feels like 117” because of the humidity. We like to go-go-go when exploring a destination but we always wilted after just a couple hours. It is no wonder that the folks in Cairns held their Zumba classes in a pool (video).

Darwin

All three cities market themselves as “the gateway to” beautiful national parks and outdoor recreation, smartly avoiding mention of their fairly meager in-city attractions. The highlight for us was a visit to Wildlife Habitat Port Douglas, an interactive zoo a few miles outside town. Many of the animals freely roamed around us visitors and feeding the kangaroos was encouraged.

Laurel is taken aback by the pelican’s salty language

And if you liked that pelican, here is a mesmerizing video of it vibrating the pouch on its throat, presumably to cool off. Many more photos of our new-found animal friends are below, followed by the other northern Australia destinations mentioned above.

Maluku Islands microcosm

Four hundred years ago, the most valuable commodity in the world was not gold, oil or web clicks…it was nutmeg. The only known source of nutmeg were the tiny Banda Islands, which are part of a larger group of islands called the Malukus or Moluccas or Spice Islands (today in eastern Indonesia). Nutmeg was so valuable that in 1667 the Dutch traded their American colony of New Amsterdam (now New York) to the British in exchange for a 1.4 square mile Banda island called “Run.”

Or so the over-simplified story is usually told. In reality, the British and Dutch fought a series of exhausting world-wars in the 1600’s and eventually called a truce by consolidating each country’s sphere of influence. That did include the swap of Run and New York but within a larger framework. Nutmeg is still the primary industry on Run and supports a very pleasant, if simple, island lifestyle. But the locals love to tell you with a proud grin about their brush with history and fame.

Run Island

We visited three islands within the Maluku chain: Run, Watebela and Banda Neira. They were a perfect microcosm of the rest of our trip through eastern Indonesia, with welcoming people and amazing snorkeling. Watebela Island was an extreme example of the phenomenon we mention earlier about the fun reception you can get in an untouristed place. As far as we could tell, tourists had never been to Watebela before and the enthusiastic welcome was off the charts. Both kids and adults with big smiles greeted us at the beach and around town. Everyone with a phone wanted a selfie with us and/or wanted to pose for a selfie with our camera.

An enthusiastic welcome on Watebela Island

Banda Neira, like Run, is famous for its nutmeg. And we enjoyed touring the nutmeg farms and seeing nutmeg drying on everyone’s front steps. But to us the highlight was a snorkel at Banda Api, a volcanic island just across a small bay from Banda Neira. It last erupted in 1988, sending a lava flow into the ocean. Since then, a beautiful coral garden has sprouted over the fresh lava and it rivals anything we saw in nearby Raja Ampat. There are lots of pictures below but it might be best appreciated in video.

Snorkeling over the former lava flow of Banda Api volcano, spitting distance from Banda Neira

All in all, the Maluku Islands were a great climax to our time in Indonesia. This was our second trip through eastern Indonesia and we’d be happy to do it all over again.

Raja Ampat

Sorry, no clever title or amusing anecdotes in this post. We take our snorkeling very seriously. Raja Ampat is a region of islands in Indonesia, just off the western tip of New Guinea. It is home to more species of coral and reef fish there than anywhere else in the world. As soon as you enter the water, the diversity and quantity of marine life takes your breath away. We’ve snorkeled all over the world and nowhere else compares. Pictures don’t do it justice — they can’t capture the variety of colors and the fish are rightly wary of us. But we’ll do our best.

A number of factors combine to make Raja Ampat the coral reef hotspot of the world: a stable climate with no cyclones, rich ocean currents at the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, few humans around to foul the water or overfish, effective conservation measures enacted in consultation with the locals, and the area has been geologically stable for millions of years while other seas have come and gone.

Here’s a 2 minute video compilation of the underwater sights.

The views above the water play second fiddle to the underwater beauty but would justify a visit on their own. The sculptured limestone islands are perhaps even more dramatic and picturesque than what we saw in the Rock Islands of Palau.

We are big fish in Cenderawasih Bay

When people ask us why we like to travel to remote obscure places, one of the reasons we often give is that we enjoy being not only the gawkers but the gawkees. In an area that doesn’t get many outside visitors, the arrival of tourists is an Event. The whole town will show up at the dock or airport for the excitement of seeing what strangely overdressed aliens might pop out. It can be a carnival atmosphere with children jockeying for a better view and vendors catering to the locals even more than us. Now in the era of ubiquitous cell phones, cameras click away at us like we are movie stars walking the red carpet.

Walking the red carpet at the port in Biak.

Once in Uzbekistan, a wedding party taking their official photos in a park called us over to pose with them, presumably to lend the photos an air of the exotic.

A 2015 wedding party in Samarkand, Uzbekistan with exotic guests. The location happens to be where got engaged 16 years earlier. This photo has nothing to do with our current trip; like Herman Cain we just like to say the word “Uzbekistan.”

New Guinea is divided between two countries: the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea and the western half is part of Indonesia. Cenderawasih Bay is on the north coast of the Indonesian side. When we were here four years ago, cell phones hadn’t fully penetrated the population but now everyone seems to have one. Not only in the bigish town on the island of Biak but even in the smaller villages we visited: Yende and Kwatisore. We got the full paparazzi treatment as well as endless request for “selfies” (the term now seems to be universal like “taxi”).

We’ve been to New Guinea three times and we always marvel at how friendly the people are. It is probably the friendliest place we’ve ever been. In the pre- and post-selfie worlds, we collected countless smiles, waves and handshakes. And not just because we are big fish in a small pond. We are small fry compared to Cenderawasih Bay’s most famous visitors: whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. They are not whales but are sharks, though it is mandatory to call them “gentle giants.” They eat nothing larger than a sardine.

Floating fishing platforms dot the waters of Cenderawasih Bay and it has become a tradition for the fishermen to feed the whale sharks, some say for good luck, others say that the feeding keeps the sharks from tearing into the fishermen’s nets for a snack. Nowhere else in the world are whale sharks so easy to see because of this unique cross-species relationship. We had the opportunity to snorkel with a young male whale shark, only about 20 feet long (a third of his potential) as he repeatedly came up to the surface to be fed like a begging pet by the fishermen.

That’s a nice fishing net you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it. Perhaps you’d like to feed me. For good luck.

Here is a video of our friendly gentle giant.

Swimming with a million jellyfish in Palau

First a bit of history, to explain why such a weird and wonderful activity is possible. Limestone is formed on the ocean floor and becomes dry land when geological forces push it up or sea level goes down. Once exposed, rain carves the limestone into caves and hills. That is how the humps of the Chocolate Hills formed. Now imagine that the base of the Chocolate Hills was flooded by a rising sea, leaving each hill a little round island. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because that is what happened in the Rock Islands, part of the nation of Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines.

As the sea level goes up and down relative to the hills, sometimes a bit of ocean is enclosed by a ring of hills and becomes a salt-water lake, complete with its original marine wildlife. Most of the wildlife has a hard time adapting to the new environment but the species that can adapt have the new lake all to themselves. In Ongeim’l Tketau lake in Palau, a trapped species of jellyfish adapted by becoming home to an orange algae that produces food for the jellyfish from the sun. The jellyfish no longer needed to hunt so they lost their ability to sting. That brings us to the present where we find ourselves swimming with a million orange jellyfish.

Groovy

The steep rock walls around the lake mean that the sun only shines in patches on the lake. The jellyfish migrate during the day to follow the sun. The sun was on the opposite side of the lake from where we got in so we swam toward the sunny side for a while before seeing our first jellyfish. Then another, then a few, then more and more until finally there were so many that it was hard to move without bumping into one. The jellyfish swim in every direction and every orientation, making a kaleidoscopic effect that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970’s movie depiction of an LSD trip. The adult jellyfish are about the size of a grapefruit and feel firm but soft like raw meat. When one unexpectedly swims into your leg, you can’t help but turn around to say “excuse me” since they feel like you are bumping into a person’s leg or arm (and there are usually several other snorkelers in the lake distracted by the jellyfish, so that happens too). Here is a video of what it is like to float among them. And if you want even more, try this one.

Jellyfish Lake is one of the coolest things we’ve seen. Even though we swam there in 2002, we were eager to do it again (and we generally hate repeating ourselves with so much new and exciting stuff to see in the world). We were glad to see that the lake was healthy, as were the beautiful conventional snorkeling sites around the islands such as “Clam City” and “Shark City.”

No zoom lens!
Those blue streaks are all fish

Here is a video showing how dense the sea life can be…with a surprise guest star at the end.

If you look at the images that Google displays when you search for “Palau” you would never know that there is any Human City in the country. Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world with only 20,000 inhabitants but the capital of Koror (where most people live) is a nicely functional town in a beautiful setting. It has several restaurants, a couple department stores (more than downtown Seattle now) and supermarkets overflowing with all the Spam you could ever want.

Spam became a staple all across the Pacific islands during World War II, along with other canned meat products that have largely passed into history back in the US.

Recipe for Bohol: add one pint of tarsiers to 1,776 Chocolate Hills

The allure of alliteration tempts many to talk about the tiny tarsier as a “pint-sized primate” but witty wordplay shouldn’t obscure the more fascinating fact that four or five of them could be packed into a pint. Weighing 3 to 5 ounces, only the mouse lemur tops the tarsier for the coveted crown of “Most Petite Primate.”

We happened to see about a pint of tarsiers at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary on the island of Bohol. Tarsiers live on several islands in the Philippines/Indonesia/Malaysia area but are hard to spot in the wild because they are tiny, nocturnal and endangered. Tarsiers spend the night flitting from tree to tree hunting for insects and other meaty morsels (they are the only purely carnivorous primate) and bed down at daybreak, clinging to a branch. In this sanctuary, rangers scour the forest every morning and mark the locations of the sleeping tarsiers so primate fanciers like ourselves can find them easily.

No way we would have found him on our own

Whenever you observe wildlife, it is best to keep as quiet and still as possible. We were doubly cautious when watching the tarsiers because guides told us that tarsiers will commit suicide in various gruesome ways if they are disturbed or kept in captivity. The concept was simultaneously horrific and darkly comical to us, as we imagined additional ways they could do the act (fashioning their long tails into nooses, etc). This behavior is widely reported on the internet but we couldn’t find any scientific source backing it up. One of the reported suicide methods, holding their breath until suffocated, is likely a physiological impossibility and perhaps evidence that a suicide legend was invented to preserve them in the wild. And it worked — no tarsier in our luggage.

Oh, no! Someone in our group woke him up!

The Chocolate Hills are the other main attraction on Bohol. They are 1,776 pleasingly mammiform limestone mounds rising several hundred feet above the otherwise flat tropical forest. During the dry season, the hills turn brown when the grasses that cover them die (the solid rock doesn’t support the growth of trees). We visited during a semi-dry period so the hills were more mint-chocolate chip than dark chocolate. We viewed them from a hill-top observation platform where we jockeyed for prime selfie position with other tourists and from a beautiful farm nestled among the hills.

Despite the tease of a food-related headline, this posting is not food-focused like our last two. We had a decent meal on a dinner river cruise but it was nothing to write home about (oops, just did). The forest on either side of the river was lit with colorful spotlights; an overall effect somewhere between magical and garish. The joyously un-self-conscious display, and its accompaniment on the dinner-boat by a lounge singer crooning 70’s disco classics, were perfect embodiments of a Filipino ideal of fun, immune to our party-pooping ideas of aesthetics and irony.

We were charmed by Bohol. The island is lush and unhurried, probably like Hawaii 100 years ago. We were also told that it has great beaches. If you ever want to spend a few relaxing days in the Philippines, Bohol would be a perfectly pleasant place.

Vigan is pronounced “vegan” but isn’t

Vigan is the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in the Philippines, earning it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is in the northern part of Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines, but feels a world away from the chaos of Manila 200 miles to the south.

Vigan is a tourist town but thankfully free of the hassle and over-commercialization that often chases us out of such places. Apparently a large cruise ship had dumped bus-loads of people into the town earlier in the morning but by the time we arrived it wasn’t crowded and the remaining tourists were a diverse mix from the Philippines and around the world. We enjoyed roaming the streets and peeking into the shops.

Low-pressure salesperson

We had read in guide books that one of the things to do in Vigan was to take a ride in a “kalesa” — a horse drawn carriage. One thing the guide books didn’t prepare us for was that these horses were the about the cutest tiniest horses we had ever seen. The little guys seemed to pull the carriages without too much effort even with a whole family crammed inside but we didn’t partake.

Before coming here, we always pronounced Vigan as vee-GONE, not knowing the proper pronunciation. This led to frequent confusion whenever we heard the proper pronunciation, such as in the phrase “you have to try the famous vegan empanadas!” We know that the concept of vegetarian, much less vegan, is pretty foreign to the Philippines and even vegetable dishes usually have a little pork snuck in for flavor. So hearing “vegan empanadas” raised an eyebrow until we realize that it was “Vigan empanadas.” OK, off to find a Vigan empanada!

Vegan Vigan empanadas, one stuffed with pork sausage, the other ground chicken. The little cups have vinegar for dipping your empanada. We always think of vinegar as the calling-card of Filipino cuisine.

Although the external appearance of the Vigan empanada is similar to the Latin American kind we were familiar with, when we bit in we were instantly reminded of a Chinese egg roll. The wrapper of the Vigan empanada is made with flakey rice flour and inside there are crunchy bean sprouts or shredded green papaya along with meat and eggs. Interestingly, this is the closest part of the Philippines to China and is the port where trading took place over the centuries between the two nations. Many of the people here are genetically and culturally mixed from Spanish, Chinese and native Filipino ancestors, making the Vigan empanada a perfect symbol of that heritage.

Vigan was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. In the end it wasn’t over-tourism that scared us away, but the tropical sun and humidity. We probably wouldn’t recommend a visit here except as a stopover on the way somewhere else (and not sure where that could possibly be). But we were happy to experience it for a few hours. And almost as happy for the 90-minute air conditioned bus ride through beautiful countryside that allowed us to make our escape.

Hong Kong with parrots, not protests

We were more than a little worried about beginning our latest trip in Hong Kong. From news reports, it sounded like the city was a battleground with fire-bombed subway stations, tear gas, and streets lined with riot police. The airport had even been shutdown by protests — would our flight be able to land? Stepping off the plane, we saw a different reality. The airport was its usual modern and efficient self. The city also seemed to be humming along as usual. During our three days in Hong Kong, our Fitbits say we walked 20 miles and the only clear sign of unrest that we saw was some anti-government graffiti.

We don’t know to what extend the calm that we saw reflected our limited view of the city, or whether it is a sign that the protests are fizzling out under the relentless suppression by the government, or whether the extent of the unrest has been overblown by the media. Probably all of those were a factor.

Tourism is down because of the preception and/or reality of the unrest which is a shame because Hong Kong is still a great destination. It is such an interestingly layered city, almost like an archeological dig showing differnet stages of its development, all still present and bustling. Look in one direction and it is hyper-modern Dubai; in another direction an alleyway could be in pre-industrial China; in another, Victorian England. Add in the modern infrastructure and ubiquitous English and it is a pleasure to visit.

Hong Kong has always been a shopping destination but one change we’ve noticed since our last visit is the explosion of extreme luxury stores. Every major European fashion designer has multiple stores, many bigger than you’d find on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. We were in one large mall where Laurel looked around slack-jawed and said “There isn’t an item in any of these stores that would sell for under $1000.” One whole wing of another mall was devoted to high fashion for children. Who even knew that Gucci made children’s clothes?

But we weren’t shopping for couture and had seen a lot of multi-cultural urban wonders on past visits, so we focused a lot of our time walking to the major parks in the city. It is fun to be walking through a dense urban jungle and come across a real tropical jungle. Well, “jungle” is perhap not quite the right word since the plants are mostly kept tidily in their place surrounded by an equal amount of pavement. The wildlife sounds are mostly from caged birds and monkeys. But the parks were still surprisingly lush and the animals housed in surprisingly humane conditions. Two of the parks had aviaries with an assortment of tropical birds in generously sized cages that allowed the birds to fly and flock. Hong Kong Park had the most impressive aviary. Instead of a cage, an entire forested valley was enclosed by a giant net. An elevated boardwalk runs through the forest, which covers almost an acre. Hundreds of beautiful birds were roosting in the trees or going about their business. We had a lot of fun spotting the different species, some of whom were not the slightest bit shy.

Among U.S. foodies there is a cult of finding the “most authentic” Chinese restaurant. We love Chinese food but some of our past experiences with truly authentic Chinese food in China has left us wary of the real thing. We just aren’t accustomed to some of the animals or parts of animals that find their way into the dishes. But we were determined to have a great “real” Chinese meal so we found a well reviewed Szechuan restaurant near an aviary we were visiting. Luckily the restaurant’s menu had English names for the dishes but they were cryptically sparse, like “Sliced frog,” “Double boiled pig lung” and “Chilled goose intestine.” About five pages into the menu we spotted the first item that we recognized as clearly palatable: kung pao chicken, one of our favorite dishes back home. Call us unadventurous, but that is what we ordered. We were relieved when there were no nasty surprise ingredients and we enjoyed the meal.

Bearly touching Ellesmere Island

Coming in at number 10 on the Top 10 Biggest Islands in the World list is Ellesmere Island. Not only is its size superlative, but it also is the most northly island in the world after Greenland and a few specks off its northern coast. As you might expect this far north, the land is mostly barren of vegetation but who needs veggies when you are a carnivore?

We visited Makinson Inlet on the southeast corner of Ellesmere and saw more polar bears there than anywhere else on our trip. They patrolled the beaches, looking for washed-up carrion or the chance to leap on one of the many beluga whales we also saw swimming tantalizingly close to shore (video).

One bear tore at the remaining fragments of a whale carcass on the beach (video), while bears lower-down the pecking order watched from a distance for their turn, including a mother and cub.

The only drawback of all that bear activity was that we couldn’t find a safe place to land on the island, lest we become the next dish on the bear buffet. In the end, we were able to hop ashore for about 30 seconds while our guide scanned the hills for bears. It felt like a special privilege to set foot at all on a place where humans weren’t in charge.

Wild Baffin Island

Imagine that the great geological monuments of the American West such as Yosemite and Zion National Parks were rising from emerald-green water and you will have some idea of what the east coast of Baffin Island looks like. Baffin Island is about 300 miles east of Greenland, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It looks small on a map next to its World’s Biggest Island award-winning neighbor, but is still a very respectable thousand miles long. And while we thought we had seen the pinnacle of dramatic landscapes in The Faroes and then Greenland, Baffin gives them both a run for their money in the Best Dramatic Scenery category.

We visited two uninhabited fjords on the east coast of Baffin Island, Buchan Gulf and Sam Ford Fjord (try saying that three times fast). Steep cliffs rose thousands of feet on either side. The rocks are three billion years old, some of the oldest on earth, and have been contorted over the ages with interesting shapes, textures and colors. Glaciers provided the icing on the cake, feeding giant waterfalls that looked like trickles from a distance. It was almost impossible to judge the scale of the unfamiliar landscape. On the few patches of land free of glaciers and flat enough to support plant life, there were miniature forests of colorful arctic plants. With the short growing season and scouring winter winds, plants adapt by sticking together and close to the ground. Willow trees can be hundreds of years old but only a few inches tall. Their leaves were just starting to turn color as autumn approached in late August.

The fjords of Baffin are also swimming with wildlife. The narwhal with its unicorn-like tusk is often described as “legendary” or maybe “elusive” but they were our frequent companions. Narwhals normally keep their horns underwater even when surfacing so they didn’t look much different than other kinds of marine mammals, but they were still thrilling to see, like a celebrity.

Swimming polar bears are a fixture of tear-jerking stories about global warming but bears who live near Baffin are used to ice-free summers. It is normal to see them cruising the fjords looking for a snack of washed-up whale or whatever else they can find. Their paddle-like paws are well adapted to swimming. Since they still have enough ice in the winter for their annual seal feast, the polar bears in the area are doing well. At least for now.

And here is a video of waterfalls tumbling down from a melting glacier, hopefully giving a little sense of the giant scale of the place.