The Watery World of Exmouth

Somewhere along the 17-hour journey from Broome to Exmouth, the season pattern changed from wet-dry to Summer-Winter. In Broome and Darwin, being in the middle of the dry season meant temperatures in the low to mid 30s and relatively low humidity, but in Exmouth – still technically in the tropics – the winter season meant it was suddenly 10-15 degrees cooler and rainy. Had I known, I might have stayed in Broome for a couple more days…

The overwhelming majority of visitors to the Exmouth come to see the Ningaloo Reef, which stretches 160 miles along the western length of the North West Cape peninsula, a twenty minute drive from the town. People come for snorkelling, scuba diving, and at this time of year boat trips to swim with whale sharks. People don’t hang around in the town unless they’re forced to by, say, inclement weather, so there’s not much touristy development in the town; a couple of surfer clothing shops, a single cafe, two supermarkets and a few pricey restaurants is about all there is in the town ‘centre’, as well as a scattering of shops to book reef excursions. It reminded me in that way of Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies, where I lived and worked a few years ago. The village of Lake Louise is pretty nondescript; people come to see either the lake or the ski hill depending on the season, and then they move swiftly on to Banff, a more charming place to wander around, with lots of amenities and eateries. Also, although Exmouth has a much more substantial static population than Lake Louise, the workforce is largely driven by transient workers, in this case diving professionals who work for the whale shark and scuba diving companies. The similarity between this group and Lake Louise’s hospitality and ski bum population was highlighted on the Friday night a week after I arrived, when the bar next to the hostel had its weekly party night, and all of the dive boat staff came out to play. Just like in Lake Louise, the local economy can’t support a nightlife scene as such, but there are enough young working people to support a weekly dance night in the otherwise deserted and low-key hotel bar. Very nostalgic.

Although it’s on the opposite side of the peninsula to the Ningaloo Reef, Exmouth does have a beach, known unimaginatively as Town Beach, which I walked out to see on my first day. It’s not particularly well-regarded compared to the fine sand and clear water further around the coast, but it was what I think of as a ‘proper’ beach; brown, gritty sand scattered with a heavy dusting of pebbles and sharp shells, a strong smell of seaweed and a breeze that whips the sand and grass up from the dunes right into your face. After the hot sun and immaculate white sand of Cable Beach, it made quite a refreshing change, and walking on to the small harbour I had a good nose around the fishing and sailing boats.

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Mandu Mandu Gorge

It’s useful and usual to have a car here, because the main land-based event is to visit the Cape Range National Park on a drive up and around the peninsula. Luckily I was able to catch a ride with some people I met at the hostel and we went for a drive through the showers to have a look. It’s pretty amazing the effect the weather has on the landscape; on a hot sunny day the undulating scrubland of the bush looks parched and sandy, but with a little rain and cloud it is suddenly transformed to a green but desolate place. It reminded me so much of the North York Moors, I half expected to see Kate Bush dancing around in a leotard. Dodging the showers, we made a brief, windswept stop at the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse, before going for a short but energetic walk around Mandu Mandu Gorge, a pebbly dry river valley surrounded by steep green and orange slopes. We then headed to the popular snorkelling spot of Turquoise Bay, which on that grey, windy day was all but deserted, and had a rather pessimistic and ill-advised go at snorkelling in the rough swell. After quickly giving up on that idea I had a bit of time to look at the amazing colours of the landscape – the turquoise shallows then the deep aquamarine of the water over the reef, blending into the ominous dark purple of the clouds – before the heavens opened and the rain started.

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SS MIldura Wreck

This rain continued all afternoon, and for two more full days, during which my scuba dive trip was cancelled and there was very little to do except hang around the hostel and wait for the weather to improve. But eventually the worst of the weather passed and my temporary travelling buddy Cat and I hired a car and went for a drive, and although we followed almost exactly the same route as I had done a few days before (there’s pretty much only one direction to go for a drive from Exmouth), a bit of sunshine changed everything. We stopped by a viewpoint for the wreck of SS Mildura, a cattle ship sank off the tip of the North West Cape in 1907, which is juuuust about visible from the shore, and had a second, less windswept visit to the Vlamingh Head Lighthouse.

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Vlamingh Head Lighthouse

The views over the land and the sea were lovely, not to mention the imposing figure of the pylons of Harold E Holt Naval Base. The site was leased and developed by the US Government as a communications base at the height of the cold war in the mid 1960’s, and the town of Exmouth was established 6km away at the same time to service the base. The naval base has the distinction of housing the highest freestanding structure in Australia in the form of the central mast, as well as being named after Harold Holt, a previous Prime Minister of Australia, whose premiership came to an abrupt end in 1967 when he went for a swim in Port Phillip Bay in Victoria and was never seen again. After a lunchtime picnic stop at a packed Turquoise Bay, we headed on for a walk along the Yardie Creek Gorge, the only permanent river on the North West Cape. It was very pretty and enjoyable, slightly scrambly walking, and we even spotted a few tiny rock wallabies scurrying around on the cliff.

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Yardie Creek Gorge

As the weather improved, so did the prospects of my being able to do what I came here for; to get out on the water and see some wildlife. The most popular excursion from Exmouth at this time of year is to take a boat trip to spot and snorkel with whale sharks, the biggest and most docile species of shark. Unfortunately it’s also the most expensive excursion on offer and as awesome an experience as I’m sure it is, I couldn’t justify the $400 price tag. Instead I spent an afternoon sea kayaking along the coast, spotting turtles coming up to the surface for air, pelicans grazing the water, and looking at the swampy mangroves growing along the shore.

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A break from kayaking

But the main event for me was my scuba diving day. I had been hoping to do some more scuba diving since I did my Open Water course in Thailand, but I when it came to getting in the water I was really quite nervous. I hadn’t dived in five months, I’d never dived with anything less than one-on-one supervision, and I was suddenly hit by the knowledge that I was very inexperienced and didn’t know what I was doing. As I got into the water the feeling got more intense as the current and the swell were much stronger than anything I’d experienced in the still waters of Thailand. Hanging onto the mooring line as the rest of my group started to descend, I decided in a hyperventilating panic that I couldn’t go through with it, turning and explaining to the group behind me that I needed to get back onto the boat. Luckily however they helped to calm me down, reminding me that the surface is the worst part of a dive, and when my guide noticed I was missing and came back up to find me, he was very calming and kept a good eye on me as we began the descent. As soon as I got away from the waves of the surface I felt much better and had a fabulous dive. On this and the following dive we saw a couple of friendly sea snakes, a huge stingray floating overhead, a big reef shark scouring the bottom, as well as some lovely corals and lots of pretty little fishies.

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The Ningaloo Reef

After finishing the dives and returning to the hostel, it was sunny and warm enough to sunbathe by the pool, and I spent a while picking the brains of diving instructor Keenan. It was really good to be diving again, great to learn from the pros and improve my skills, and quite elating to have conquered my fear and panic and to have not given up.

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Scuba diving
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Relaxing in Broome

Broome is a small town perched on the Dampier Peninsula in the far north of Western Australia, about as far away from the state capitals as it is possible to be. The town developed around the pearling trade, and because of this is one of oldest multicultural towns in Australia, as Japanese, Chinese and Malay divers came to work on the pearling ships from the mid 19th Century onwards. While pearl farms are still big business in the region, the town now lives on tourism, attracting a primarily domestic market for some Australian sun in the winter months.

The town centre is made up of two streets lined with cafés, high end gift shops, galleries and pearl shops. Also on the main street is the Sun Cinema, where I went one evening to see Finding Dory (to get me in the marine life mood for my next destination, the Ningaloo Reef). The oldest operating outdoor cinema in the world, it opened in 1916 and has rows of deckchairs facing the big screen, only slightly more comfortable than normal cinema seats. As the trailers started we realised that we were sitting right under the airport flightpath, and the thundering of aeroplanes passing over our heads every half an hour  added a certain drama to the experience.

It is a sprawling, spread out kind of town which seems to expect everyone to have their own transport, and which makes it feel bigger than its 16,000 people. There are several attractions spread out along to beachfront (well, mudflats-front) side of the town, one of which is the Broome Museum. Located in the former Customs House and run by the local history society, it offers mini exhibitions on all kinds of things, from the Second World War to sailmaking and ropes, from the Australian equivalent of the Women’s Institute to an impressive but random collection of sea shells. The main event though is a display about Broome’s early pearl industry, which was really interesting although it made me feel a bit funny reading about early divers, knowing what I now do about underwater atmospheric pressure and decompression sickness.

While the beach on the town side of the peninsula is all mudflats and marshland, the western side has Cable Beach, a lovely stretch of white sandy beach famous for sunsets and camel rides. A fifteen minute bus ride from Broome proper, it’s a mini resort town, with its own hostel, bar, and a whole range of hotels, centred around the popular life-guard covered section of beach. From there I followed a walking trail that took me south through the bush parallel to the beach towards the outcrop of Gantheame Point. It wasn’t really walking weather – about 32 degrees – and as there weren’t many people around who thought that walking in the heat was a good idea, the trail was mostly deserted. It was nice, fairly sheltered walking, with lots of birds around. The bushes rustled ominously every so often, and in some spots the sandy path was covered in the unmistakeable curve of snake tracks, but I didn’t come across anything that looks like it wanted to kill me, much to my disappointment.

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Trail near Cable Beach

After a few kilometres I climbed a metal staircase up to the top of the sand dunes and dropped down onto the beach and walked along the shore. Only a short distance away from the busy swimming beach, this section of beach was almost completely empty, with a few sailing boats moored a little way out. It reminded me a little of the beach at Khok Kloi in Thailand, where I did my volunteer teaching a few months ago; quiet and serene, covered with little crabs, but with big sand dunes instead of fancy houses.

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Gantheaume Point

Coming closer to Gantheame Point the dunes turned to cliffs and I had a bit of an adventure clambering over orange rocks trying to get up to the road, and reached the carpark and information board covered in sweat and dust. Gantheame Point is home to a lighthouse and a biological research centre, as well as some fossilised dinosaur footprints. Unfortunately they can only be seen every few weeks when low tide is particularly low, so I wasn’t able to see them, but I had a nice time walking around looking at the piles of bright orange rock on the headland, all flat and flakey-looking like slate.

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Gantheaume Point

Heading back to Cable Beach, I took my shoes off and walked along the edge of the water, dodging all the washed up jellyfish half buried in the sand like gigantic globs of pinky phlegm. Arriving at the kiosk near the swimming beach, exhausted and dehydrated, I treated myself to an ice cream, a cold drink and a well earned rest.

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Cable Beach

The main event on Cable Beach though is the sunset, marketed as the best in Australia. The day before my walk, I had spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and stayed to see whether the sunset would compare with the many, many sunsets I’ve seen on my travels. I got a nice quiet spot on some rocks a little way away from the main beach, which turned out to be right next to the 4X4 track onto the beach. I haven’t seen it anywhere else, but in Australia it’s apparently a very popular thing to drive right onto the beach to enjoy the sea and sand without getting wet or sandy and especially, as it turns out, to watch the sunset. Cars and motorbikes turned up in droves coming onto the beach next to where I was sitting and driving around the headland to the special beach just for cars. The sunset itself was ok, even if I was sitting on Broome’s own Piccadilly Circus, although I found myself spending more time looking at the couple a little way in front of me, posing for artsy-wistful photos of each other gazing towards the sunset. As soon as the sun disappeared the cars started driving past me again in the opposite direction, but soon after that, dozens of camels came across the sand being led towards their farm, fresh from the sunset camel rides that Cable Beach is known for.

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Camels at sunset

I had been half intending to stay in Broome for a while and find some work, but after a few days’ relaxation I decided to move on. I was still in holiday mode and couldn’t quite summon the motivation to look for a job, and as nice as Broome is for a few days of sunshine, I didn’t love it enough to stay for much longer. And besides, I’d seen lots of adverts for diving and snorkelling further along the coast, which had left me impatient to get there as soon as possible. So after four days in Broome, I got the overnight bus to Exmouth, WA.

The Grampians National Park

As we headed north from Warrnambool towards the Grampians National Park, for the first time I started to get a sense of inland Australia. We followed minor roads through small towns and agricultural land, crossing the flat plains with the mountains rising up ahead of us. It felt like we were moving to a different part of the country, although at just two hours inland in a country where you’d need weeks to drive from coast to coast, it was hardly the outback.

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Named by the British after the mountain range in Scotland, the Grampians National Park feels quite British in some ways, and decidedly not in others. Our campsite, a well-appointed holiday park on the edge of Hall’s Gap, was frequented by a mob of kangaroos (yes, that is the collective noun), who grazed around our camping plots during the night. On our first night I walked from the amenities block to the van without a torch, and would have walked right into a big mean-looking one if it hadn’t been chewing so loudly. There were also plenty of white and yellow cockatoos, which we’d seen quite a lot of, and kookaburras, which we hadn’t. Like quite a lot of Australian animals, kookaburras look like an amalgamation of various animals that don’t quite go together; a huge squat head with a pretty intimidating beak stuck on to a weedy little body, making them look like they could topple over any second. Over dinner we watched a group of middle aged Australian campers feeding them strips of cooked meat, which the birds took in their beaks and beating them on the ground with all their might until they were convinced the bits of cooked meat were in fact dead, before swallowing them whole.

The mountains here aren’t the biggest – the highest point is only 1,168m (3832 ft) – but like the mountains in UK, what they lack in sea level metres they make up for in drama and variety. On our first day we walked from Hall’s Gap to the Pinnacle, a popular viewpoint over Hall’s Gap and its surrounding lakes and forests. It was a varied walk, taking us first along a shady creek, then up through steep, narrow canyons and bouldery rock formations, and finally up to the rocky summit.

It was lovely to be walking in the mountains again, and the following afternoon when our plans of going rock climbing fell through, we drove up to the northern end of the Grampians to do the short, scrambly hike up Hollow Mountain. A favourite spot for climbers and boulderers, this walk took us through the brush, still scarred from the forest fires in 2014, before climbing steeply up through the limestone boulders of the mountain. There were plenty of caves, ledges and gullies to explore, with lovely views over the plains to the north of the National Park.

For the slightly lazier nature enthusiast, the Grampians had plenty to offer besides walking. As well as a spot for walking and climbing, Hollow Mountain is also an important spot for the local Aboriginal group, the Jardwadjali. Not far from the start of the walking trail is the Gulgurn Manja, or ‘Hands of Young People’ cave painting, a collection of hand prints, emu tracks and parallel lines painted in vivid orange and white inside a shallow cave. In its sheltered spot with a wide, open view overlooking the vast plains, it’s easy to understand why this spot is of great cultural significance to the Jardwadjali people. Likewise the Bunjil Shelter, on the eastern edge of the National Park, was a perfectly chosen spot. We stopped by as we left the Grampians on our way back to Ballarat, to see the cave painting there of Bunjil the creator, and his two dingo helpers.

Other spots we visited included the Balconies, a dramatic rocky shelf jutting out into the valley, Bellfield Lake, a pleasant lake with dead trees sticking up out of the water and emus running around on the shore, and MacKenzie Falls. At this point in the trip, we had tried and largely failed to see some impressive waterfalls. Sheoak Falls near Lorne was completely dry; Splitters Falls on our walk to the Pinnacle was barely a trickle; even Erskine Falls, also near Lorne, although very pretty was not exactly the dramatic gush we had expected. So as we followed the path down to the bottom of MacKenzie Falls, our expectations were pretty low; as long as there was some water in it, we’d be happy. What we found was a wide cascade, complete with rainbow, in a cool, pleasant valley. Expectations certainly exceeded.

The Great Ocean Road: part two

Lorne to Warrnambool

As we left Lorne on the fifth day of our trip, we decided that we needed to pick up the pace if we were going to tick off all the places we wanted to visit, and we agreed to cover some more substantial ground that afternoon.

After a quick walk to Sheoak Falls, which I imagine would’ve been very pretty if there had been any water coming over them, and a quick lunch in the town of Wye River, we made a wildlife stop in Kennett River. We had been advised by the Lorne Visitor Information Centre to turn off the main road here and drive inland a short way for the best chance of seeing koalas in the wild. We found them easily, or at least we found the people pointing cameras up into the trees easily; the koalas themselves were a bit trickier to spot, but there were quite a few when you knew where to look. Most of them were high up in the trees lazily munching the eucalyptus leaves, but we came across one crossing the grass from one tree to another with its strange hobbly way of moving.

The road along this part of the Great Ocean Road was probably my favourite, winding its way up the cliffs to lovely viewpoints before coming back down to sea level to cross over creeks and streams. We made plenty of stops to admire the various views, including one at a beach just before Apollo Bay, where over the last couple of years people have taken to building little towers of pebbles balanced on each other. The beach is now covered with these stone piles, which makes it seem like they should have some kind of cultural significance, like the Canadian inukshuk, but as far as anyone can tell people just like balancing rocks on other rocks.

After a quick stop in the town of Apollo Bay we followed the road inland as it cut across Cape Otway through the forests of the Great Otway National Park, and came off the main road for a while to head back towards the coast to see the Cape Otway Lightstation. It was a nice drive through the forest, with plenty of wildlife spotting, and we had a quick glimpse of the lighthouse before moving on. Coming back to the main road we took another quick detour to see pretty lake along a bone-rattling bumpy track, before arriving at our campsite in the hamlet of Princetown. It was a pretty campsite with a nice view over the river and, most importantly, a kitchen with a fridge, toaster and kettle. Luxury.

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Princetown Campsite

The next morning we did our first proper walk, from Princetown to probably the most famous part of the Great Ocean Road, the Twelve Apostles. It was the final section of the Great Ocean Walk, a 105km trail starting in Apollo Bay, and the path took us across the river valley and through the sandy brush surrounded by tea trees and spiky shrubs, emerging on the cliff tops with lovely views of the sea and the Twelve Apostles. They are a group of dramatic limestone pillars in the sea, the highlight of a section of coastline scattered with gorges, caves and arches carved into the rocks by the ocean. Originally named the Sow and Piglets, with the Sow being Muttonbird Island to the north, the limestone stacks were renamed the Apostles in 1922 to encourage tourism, and despite there only being nine (one of which collapsed ten years ago), they are now known as the Twelve Apostles.

After retracing our steps back to Princetown, we had some lunch and had another foodie visit to Timboon Distillery and local produce shop, before heading back to the coast. We spent the afternoon exploring the interesting things that seawater does to limestone, from Loch Ard’s Gorge, named after a nearby shipwreck, to Thunder Cave where water is forced through a tunnel producing a pretty thunderous noise, and London Bridge, a limestone arch which aptly enough fell down in 1990, leaving two people stranded on the newly formed pillar, from where they were rescued by helicopter. This part of the coast, with its shipwrecks, caves and cliffs, reminded me very much of the Jurassic Coast in southern England and was my favourite coastal scenery of the trip.

From there the road turned inland through agricultural land to where the Great Ocean Road ends quite unceremoniously as the road joins the highway. After visiting the pleasant town of Warrnambool (which I’m still none the wiser how to pronounce), we camped in a roadside rest stop, ready to head inland the next day to the Grampians National Park.

Kalaw

The bus ride to Kalaw began with a stretch along a new Chinese-built highway, which was smooth, straight and completely deserted, presumably because it’s a toll road. After an hour or so we were back on ordinary single-lane roads and a few hours after that, as we started climbing and zigzagging towards Kalaw, I remembered how much I’d missed being in the mountains. Kalaw sits at an altitude of 1300m and despite being on a latitude closer to the Sudan than Switzerland, it did feel quite alpine. Lots of pine trees grow in the area, and although it follows the wet/dry season pattern like the rest of Myanmar, it did feel noticeably cooler. For this reason it was a popular destination for the British as a holiday retreat when Yangon was at its hottest and wettest, and it remains a popular holiday home spot for the Myanmar elite. The British architectural influence is noticeable here, but in a different way from Yangon; Yangon is full of imposing, imperialist official buildings – banks, hotels, government offices – while Kalaw reflects early 20th century domestic architecture – family homes with steep roofs and mock Tudor rendering. The climate and the surroundings felt oddly familiar in a way I wasn’t expecting at all, but it’s a pleasant town, quietly prospering as a popular hiking destination.

We experienced what the region had to offer the next day on our full day ‘trek’ (although what makes it a trek and not a walk or hike I have no idea) around the area to the west of the town. Our guide for the day was incredibly knowledgeable about all kinds of things, telling us first about the pine forest at the edge of the town, a protected ‘community forest’, which is being cleared regardless for house building as Kalaw grows. We stopped by a house belonging to an elderly couple, and were told how, as there is no pension system in Myanmar (apart from government employees), ‘retired’ people who do not have sufficient savings must either rely on their children, or make some kind of living for themselves. Many of these people in rural areas are able to grow crops in their gardens, like the couple we met who grow Chinese celery, which is used as a remedy for high blood pressure and is in high demand from city dwellers.

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Kalaw

As we walked uphill and away from the outskirts of Kalaw, we found ourselves walking through steep farmland and could see the area’s main crops. International trade has been allowed in Myanmar since 2010, which has seen an explosion in demand for ginger and an increase in price from around 200 kyatts per kilo (about 12p/kilo) to 1200 kyatts (about 70p/kilo). It’s a reliable crop, with two harvests per year, and grow happily on the steep slopes of this area. Tea is another popular crop, specifically the Chinese variety, which is used to make green tea. In the rainy season, the leaves are picked, roasted, dried and packaged on site, all by hand, and sell for about 5000 kyatts per kilo (£2.80/kilo). Prior to 1975, when the government cracked down on opium production, opium was frequently grown in the area, and smuggled in tea shipments. The tainted tea leaves used in the smuggling were then sold as opium tea.

We didn’t see many animals in the area, and were told that most of the large mammals in the area have mostly been driven away. Tigers, for example, used to be seen often in the area, but they have now moved on to more remote places as humans have settled in the area and the habitat has shrunk. More direct means were used to remove monkeys from the forests, as they were eating the farmers’ crops. The solution the local monks came up with was pretty ingenious – they told farmers to catch as many monkeys as they could, dress them up in human clothes and makeup, and release them back into the wild. When the captured monkey found its group, the other monkeys wouldn’t recognise it and they would run away, and eventually the captured monkey would rid itself of the clothes and be reaccepted. It sounds like something from a children’s book, but apparently after repeating this as often as they could for several months, the monkeys left the area completely.

We walked through a village on our way, which was home to about 180 people of the Palaung tribe. Most of the men here work in a jade mine a little way from the village, so are away from home when they’re working but usually return in the rainy season. For this reason most of the farming is done by the women, with help from any children old enough to be useful.

It’s as tough a life as you’d expect being several hours horse and cart ride from healthcare or any other infrastructure. Many births are not registered, which makes it impossible to travel or vote, and there have been problems with army press-ganging in the past. But our guide was optimistic about the future, as there have been efforts in recent years to increase birth registration numbers, with officials visiting remote communities conducting censuses and infrastructure reviews. He was also optimistic, as everyone seems to be, that the Myanmar economy will grow under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership, and that this will lead to an increase in living standards for everyone.

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We passed through a monastery before climbing up to our lunch spot with a view, and had probably the best meal so far. We then descended into the cool and shady rain forest and emerged at Kalaw’s reservoir before passing through more farmland. This time the farms were on flatter ground, so the main crop here was rice, with a few strawberries and other fruit and veg.

After a shower and dinner at a popular local Nepali restaurant, some of the group went for a drink at a tiny bar near the hotel. It was one room, about 10×30 feet, with a long bar in the centre of the room, and it was packed with about 25 people. A few people sat in the corner playing guitars and singing. After a little while the landlord got everyone’s attention to tell us about his charity project. He told us a story of how on Christmas Eve 12 years earlier, an Irishman got talking to the musicians and the landlord and they ended up organising a charity collection for education supplies for local children. The landlord has continued this every night since, and they now raise hundreds of thousands of kyatts each year from tourists, local people, and Burmese visitors from the big cities. I have noticed this kind of small scale charity project throughout the trip, and in some ways it is not surprising; the Buddhist culture puts a great emphasis on donations and offerings, and in the absence of a welfare state it is the monasteries that the destitute and desperate turn to. Put this together with the fact that only 5% of the country’s GDP is spent on education and it’s no wonder people feel the need to do something to help their local community. It will be fascinating to see what will happen under the new government later this year.