Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Equipment review - lessons learnt from a trip through Java

So I'm home after 2 months backpacking in Java. I've come back to balmy weather, not too hot, not too cold, for the first week of winter. After hot, sweaty Java it's nice to be comfortable again.

I went to a lot of trouble picking and choosing just what to bring on my recent trip. You'll find the links to what I packed by clicking on the headings below.

So how did I go? Did I make the right decisions? Bring too much or too little? Did products perform as expected?


Bringing the laptop was a great decision. Along with the iPhone, an Indonesian SIM card and a data package, I've had access to the internet via WiFi or the mobile hotspot on the phone pretty well everywhere. I've been able to import and edit my photos, and publish them, write and publish blog posts, watch movies, use the digital guidebooks and Indonesian language dictionaries I've installed, surf the internet, use google maps and google translate when needed, and of course keep my Facebook status up to date!! I've been able to do my internet banking on my own computer, not one in an internet cafe, and reply to emails in a timely manner. The laptop takes up little room and isn't heavy, and has meant I haven't had to search for internet cafes, which these days are much more difficult to find now that everyone has mobile internet access. I know a few years ago I couldn't see a reason to bring a computer on the road, now that the situation has changed, it's almost a necessity.

I can also Skype mum, only her freaking computer is so old and lame that Skypeing seems to bugger up all her computer settings. Never fear mum, I'm buying you an iPad for your birthday, enough is enough!!

One issue I had was that my smartphone runs out of juice in less than 6 hours if I am using it to take photos and navigate in a strange city, even if I hardly update my Facebook status all day! This means using it as my only camera on a day trip isn't actually viable. I had planned to bring a spare battery, which would also be able to power my other electronics, but decided to leave it behind due to weight. First thing I did when I got home was buy a small power bank just for the phone that can easily fit in a pocket for those day trips, and will give me that piece of mind I'm lacking at the moment. Having to put the phone in airport mode to save power gets a bit tedious after a while.

Having mobile internet access has been great. It's awesome to have the hotspot on the phone, but the internet data packages in Indonesia stink. If I purchase a pack from the national provider which has the best coverage, you purchase 12GB of data, but 11GB has to be used between midnight and 9am! This can work OK if I edit during the day and then upload photos early in the morning...

Yes there's WiFi, but choosing your accommodation based on whether there is WiFi available really reduces your choices, and inevitably increases your accommodation costs as well. Those places where I had WiFi it wasn't that reliable anyway, so the mobile cellular hotspot was by far more convenient. In total I spent just over $32 on internet, including purchasing a SIM card and all my phone calls and texting, great value for money.

I've learnt at my expense that purchasing cheap electronic gadgets on eBay is a really bad idea. Cheap card readers that corrupt your camera card, USB cords that turn off your computer.... Lesson learnt: buy quality electronics from reputable sources.

Bringing two portable hard drives and maintaining exactly the same redundancy, backup and photo editing workflow as I do at home worked really well. In the end I got sick of deleting older Lightroom catalogues from my Dropbox folder and just purchased 100Gb. It means I can be a lot more flexible with what I store in the Cloud on future trips.


Bringing the dSLR camera and tripod was always a given, and I'm glad I did. Restricting my lens choice to a 10-22mm wide angle and 50mm prime has affected my photography options, but in a good way. I've had to think about my compositions a lot more, not just stand there with a telephoto and zoom it into a composition I'm happy with. I've particularly enjoyed spending time using the neutral density filters taking delayed exposure shots, although it has sometimes pissed me off to find no photographs I am happy with after making so much effort to reach a place to take the shots. I console myself with understanding that I have still had the experience, I've learnt what doesn't work (and maybe that will help me find what does work), and that just because I don't have a good photo to show for it, doesn't make the experience any less.

I'm not very happy with my 50mm prime though. Almost all my shots with it are very soft and out of focus. I think it has a limited focal length and I've been expecting more out of it than it can deliver. So I'm still working on what lenses are right for travel.

Getting absorbed in photography can be incredibly destructive. There have been times when I have negated an experience simply because all my photos didn't work out. Yes I could go back again and try again, and committed photographers do just that. I'm yet to work out a balance between travel for the experience, and goals related to my photography. There have been times when I've thought that the photography gets in the way of the experience, and other times when it has totally enriched it.

And then a few days before the end of my trip I flooded my camera! I wasn't devastated, I just accepted the inevitable and took the last few wildlife shots with the iPhone. Remember I went to NZ one year with just the iPhone and took some great shots with it, so I wasn't completely lost without a camera.

Because of my self imposed weight restriction for this trip - OK the airline imposed it but I decided not to use check in luggage - I used a much smaller lighter ballhead on the tripod. It's unfortunately a screw on attachment to the camera, which has been a total pain in the arse, and it's not the quality of my Markins ballhead that is much easier to position and has a slide in plate attachment. The Gitzo ballhead does the job for 500g less weight, but at the cost of ease of use. It's also possible that the heavier ballhead would have made my tripod more stable and prevented it from toppling over and dunking my camera.

The new camera harness worked well, certainly more snug fitting and less bulky than the previous harness system, but I think it's too big for me. Being quite short in the torso I'm at the extremes of the straps, and think it could be slightly more comfortable with a smaller sized backplate. I'm going to modify it and see how I go.

Camping gear

As it turned out I didn't do as much mountain climbing and trekking and camping as I'd originally planned. Lots of reasons for this - the weather, poor logistical choices, timing and prices - but the camping I did do was totally worth it. Sure it rained all night on both my camping trips, but besides that inconvenience, both experiences were otherwise exhilarating. Those few hours in the afternoon in the sun on Teletubbies Hill were just magical.

However, bringing a hammock to camp at altitude was a bad idea. Not only are you limited in your choice of campsite - there need to be two structures of appropriate distance apart to erect it from - you are limited in your orientation as well. If the wind or rain come in from an inconvenient angle you can't just reorient the hammock. Also, I need a little more than a space blanket and sleeping bag to keep warm at altitude.

Whether next time I'd bring a tent or just hire one when needed, I'm undecided. The latter seems like a smarter option yet am inclined towards maybe having an emergency bivvy or tarp, as I'm pretty keen to spend time out in nature on my trips. It really does change the dynamic when you go the rental option, because it usually means hiring a guide as well. I really enjoyed being self sufficient and ending up camping with local hikers, also self sufficient, rather than being on a "tour".

The sleeping bag was a great buy. Not only is the outside water repellant, it's warm, light and packs down to almost nothing. I've used it a few times in hotel rooms when I've been cold as well, as it unzips from a cocoon to a duvet easily.

My cookstove is fantastic. Small and compact without any excess gadgets, it's a perfect piece of camping equipment. I had a little trouble finding fuel initially, but now I know to just go to a paint shop, I'm cooking! It's been a godsend to cook up some hot noodles and a coffee after a cold night in the hammock. And having it in Baluran meant I didn't go hungry there either. The lightweight bamboo cutlery set given me for Christmas by my lovely neighbours has also been well used, and well appreciated. The chopsticks are perfect for stirring and eating noodles, it's a present I'll cherish for a long time.

This is the first trip I've brought trekking poles. I've always used a stick or such when I've gone trekking, so packing lightweight collapsible poles for use when needed has been a good decision and they've been well used. I feel much more comfortable doing descents now I have poles, having had a few nasty falls in the past...But I probably don't need both pairs, next time I'll just pack one.


The new 44L backpack is an improved design on my smaller one and has been wonderfully comfortable to wear, especially when fully loaded on treks. But I felt it was just a bit too big for day to day travel - if I wasn't carrying the camping gear the smaller 33L would be my choice.

In the end I used absolutely everything I brought with me, except for one thing.

My Pstyle.

I just squatted!!


  1. Interesting post to hear how all the equipment worked

    1. thanks Pauline. I think I've done enough travel now to know what's superfluous but it's still tricky deciding what you do need when you've not actually got a fixed itinerary.