Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Ski Goddess returns to Japan

Aah travel days, and yes, this one's a plural. Japan may not be that far away in longitude, but it sure is a long way north, especially when heading to the northern island of Hokkaido.

First off was the drive down to Perth with the ski gear, obligatory "funny face" photos which have become a tradition, then a cab to the airport.

Perth to Singapore in a tiny 30 row plane, that had just done a run to Kalgoorlie and was heading off over the equator. We had a lovely flight up the west coast almost to Geraldton before heading west. I think it's the first time I've arrived in Singapore by air during the day, very pretty indeed.

The 4 hour layover in Singapore went pretty quickly, especially after I had fuelled up on a big bowl of hot noodle soup. Heaven!

It was an overnight flight in to Tokyo on JAL. Not a lot of room, but comfy enough in a window seat with decent reclining seats so I got a few hours of shuteye before a very early breakfast - the cabin crew are great at not disturbing you for the late meal service at 11:30pm and offering it to you for an early breakfast instead. I've rarely had that happen before when I've chosen to sleep through the meal service.

I've been travelling in just a skirt, singlet top and thongs (flipflops) so after going through immigration at Haneda I popped the leggings and big boofy boots on, because it's a wee bit chilly from now on. Then drop the bags off at domestic transfer, jump on the free shuttle and shlepp over to the domestic terminal. There I get to watch the sun rise over Mt Fuji with a full moon as well. Bloody awesome.

This trip i've brought very little camera gear, opting just for the iPhone. No big camera, no GoPro. So I'm apologising right now if some of the pictures are a little grainy, especially if I'm using the digital zoom.

Final flight of the day was to Sapporo. By our departure time of 7:30am the sun is well and truly up in a blue sky, and the city with Mt Fuji in the background makes an awesome picture as we take off and cruise further north to Hokkaido.

As we cruise in to land we are treated to a completely snow covered landscape.

I had hoped to take advantage of the Onsen at Sapporo airport, but it's closed for cleaning between 9and 10am, so I had to make do with a wander through the shops, before lining up for my bus transfer even further north to Furano. We are based here for the next 10 days, skiing resorts within the area, so I was able to unpack and settle in.

But first, I hit the hotel's public baths. They have inside and outside pools, and I had the place to myself, looking out across a snow covered field to some trees on a nearby hill, and watching the snowflakes drift down. Now this is why I come to Japan!

My roommate is a snowboarder, and pretty easy going. I'm really glad to find I'm not the only girl on the trip. Usually it's just blokes who've left the wife and kids at home to come on a trip like this, she's done the same. Mind you, her husband heads off to Alaska heliboarding when she gets back….

After the onsen it was a nice sleep for a few hours then a meetup with the crew at the bar. We've a crew of 12, half skiers, half snowboarders, and 2 guides, all seem to be great people, mostly Aussie, one Kiwi, one Canadian. No Americans….

Some of the crew headed in to town for a knees up, it being Australia Day and all. Me, I had dinner with a few of the crew and went to bed.

Tomorrow I go skiing….

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Summer wasteland

As usually happens this time of year I ask myself why I bother to try and grow anything in the vege patch, because the dry winds and heat make it a difficult job for plants to survive. Slowly my soil has improved, but it remains somewhat hydrophobic still, meaning daily watering continues to be a necessity.

Shade makes a huge difference, but because there are lots of gaps and overlaps, some plants still manage to get fried within the couple of hours of direct sunlight they receive each day. Greenhouses just encourage pest epidemics, I'd rather have my many feathered visitors helping out thank you.

So what's made it? Well not a lot.

All the cucumbers succumbed pretty quickly, as did the snow peas, but some hardier beans are growing in their place. The baby corn refused to ripen, and what did ripen was tasteless.

The eggplant seedlings are all just hanging in there or dying. The one plant that I grew from seed over a year ago produced fruit that stopped growing at somewhere between golf ball and tennis ball size. It actually makes a handy single serve portion, but I'd prefer they grew a bit bigger given the effort that's gone in to producing them. But now, even that plant has lost its leaves and is looking like dying.

None of the pumpkins did much. I managed to pick a few tiny fruits which made single serve portions in the kitchen, but the heat and powdery mildew meant few survived. I still have a couple of vines struggling, but no fruiting going on.

Neither passionfruit shows any sign of fruiting. I've noticed the occasional flower, but no fruit. I might try some potash...

Tomato plants grown from seed are doing well so far. They are all in the shade and well protected. My older tomato plants are all finished, so there's a bit of a gap. Never mind, I cooked and bottled most of the excess of a couple of months ago, so I've not been without so far.

The asparagus has been good this year, and I've managed to eke out a steady crop until now. Once their growth accelerates with the heat you just can't catch them in time before they unfurl their little ferny foliage.

I had another go at Okra. Again, the results were shabby. All the seeds sprouted, but then shrivelled up and died at the 2-4 leaf stage. I've bought some more seed of a different variety so might have another go. You've got to be an optimist to be a gardener...

The kumara is doing well though. I regularly snip the trailing new growth as it makes a good spinach alternative in stir fries. Gotta use what you've got, especially when the perpetual spinach my house sitters put in just shrivelled up and died.

Talking about using what you've got, I've discovered a new superfood. It's called papaya. Not only can you eat it when it's golden and ripe, but it's also perfectly edible when unripe as well.

I was first introduced to green papaya salad at the Rapid Creek Market in Darwin when I lived there. Rapid Creek Market is the closest thing to an authentic Asian market outside Asia. Seriously, rock up there at 7am on a Sunday morning and you'd be excused for thinking you'd been teleported to Thailand. I wonder if anyone grows durian up the top-end? Anyway, Som Tam is a classic Thai salad from the Isaan region of Thailand, and it's crunchy, spicy and delicious. It uses grated raw green papaya, chilli, lime juice, garlic, tomatoes, dried prawns and peanuts to make a simultaneously refreshing and perspiration inducing experience. I love Asian cuisine.

I got a little sick and tired of making green papaya salad with the many green fruits from my trees that drop before they ripen. It's fiddly, and requires quite a few ingredients on hand in the pantry. And sometimes I don't feel like salad. So I started using it in different ways. Like roasting it.

It turns out that green papaya behaves somewhat like potato, in that it's a starch that softens with cooking and will take on the flavours of things added to it. I often add it with other veg like pumpkin and eggplant in a roast, and recently I made spicy papaya wedges. Yes, it was freaking delicious.

Now papaya grows like a weed in my garden. Until recently I had four female trees all fruiting, but one has fallen over due to the trunk rotting out and will be in the compost bin pretty soon. I'm jusr waiting for the final fruits to either ripen or drop. I also have 2 male trees, whose flowers I use to manually pollinate the lady flowers, just in case nature doesn't do its job.

A month or so ago I threw some chia seed into a box of home made compost to grow some chia plants and harvest my own chia seeds. Instead I ended up with a huge amount of papaya plants germinated from the compost! I figure I might as well plant a few more trees, and pull out any that end up being male, because it's such a versatile fruit for the kitchen, and it grows here so easily. I mean why fight nature right?

As mentioned, I also have many ripening papayas. So far I've made papaya ice-cream, dried papaya, and frozen yoghurt. Not yet tiring of this amazing fruit.

In other fruit news, the dragonfruit is fruiting. The main big red plant had at least a dozen flower spikes though some of them dropped before flowering, and the white put out a solitary flower, which, because there is nothing for it to cross-pollinate with, then dropped its fruit before it developed. I'm not that fussed, as the white dragonfruit doesn't have much taste compared to the red. Sometimes its OK to grow something just for the aesthetics...

The mango tree looks magnificent. There will be fruit, in another 5 years....

I completely forgot about the water chestnuts last year. They've multiplied and are currently growing well in the small pond next to my green rainwater tank. Must remember to harvest them in June. The watercress and kangkung are also happy in there, along with a resident frog or two.

I've been working on the pond and waterfall, trying to make it waterproof and also mortaring the stone surrounds to hide the tyres. Getting it to a waterproof state was quite an effort, involving lots of silicone and a number of efforts at getting the water to not run off in the wrong direction. I did get a little help moving the rocks, but mostly I did it myself. Yes, NOT what I should be doing just before a ski trip. I know.....

I purchased some goldfish to eat the mosquito larvae breeding in the pond. Then some predator went and ate them. One day there were six fish, next morning there were none! I need to give them some good hidey holes before I get any more me thinks.

Here's a little video of the pond and waterfall before I fixed the latest leak....

The chooks, by the way, are just gloriously healthy. They are fat and happy, very sociable, and laying well, despite the heat. I've been giving them a bit of extra meat meal in their feed and they just look absolutely luscious at the moment. I've never owned such happy healthy chooks before. They are still confined to the upper pen, which has heaps of shade and easy access to the water tank, so I'm not planning on moving them down into the other run any time soon. Besides, I haven't fox proofed it yet.

So, that's about it. Next: Japan....

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Nusa Tenggara route planning

It seems really weird to be so deep into planning a 3 month trip to Indonesia in March when I have a big exciting ski trip to Japan in just over 2 weeks time. But aside from a mere detail like all the documents for the trip still outstanding I'm all packed and ready to go. I rang the travel agent last week and explained that sending stuff to me in deepest darkest regional WA is fraught with the real danger of it not turning up in time. Turns out she can indeed email me everything except some vouchers, and since she's joining me on the trip she can courier them to Japan herself. Sorted!!

But see, once I get back from Japan at the end of Feb I only have 2 weeks to get an Indonesian visa and pack the backpack (mostly packed already anyway), and absolutely no time to plan my route.

The scenario is this: Visit the string of islands at the eastern end of Nusa Tenggara Province and explore them extensively. Allow myself 3 months to do this. But: I need to be in one of three places within the region that has an Immigration Office after 2 months so I can renew my visa. Some islands I will be visiting only have weekly ferries, and I don't want to do too much backtracking. I also want to avoid the high season for tourism, which is June to August, but since most places I'm going are well off the beaten track the only place I expect to see other tourists is Flores.

At present I have a one way ticket to Maumere, in the eastern portion of Flores. Here's a little map so you can get an idea of where I'm going. Australia, BTW, is not too far south from Rote, but unfortunately there are no longer any flights between Darwin and Kupang.

The reason I am beginning in Flores is because at the very eastern tip is a town called Larantuka which has a 500 year history of Portuguese Catholicism and holds a really fascinating Easter Procession on Good Friday. Which will occur about a week after I fly in, giving me time to check out the Maumere region before heading up there. There's some interesting villages, many markets, ikat weaving, snorkelling and diving, and even a couple of volcanoes to climb.

After Larantuka I'll be ferry hopping my way through the Alor Archipelago to Kalabahi. There are traditional villages, pristine beaches, world class diving, at least 2 decent volcano climbs, and a village that still hunts whales traditionally.

From Kalabahi I'll be taking a ferry to Atapupu in West Timor, allowing me to make my way slowly by road eastwards to Kupang. More traditional villages, ikat weaving, lots of markets and another mountain to climb.

From Kupang plans get a little sketchy as they are totally dependent on ferry timetables which are notoriously unreliable due to the treacherous oceans the boats have to negotiate, and why so many surfers visit this region. Dependent on ferry schedules I hope to visit the islands of Rote, Savu and Sumba, but will probably travel from Savu to Ende on Flores, explore the rest of Flores in an eastwards direction, pick up my visa extension in Labuan Bajo then jump on a ferry to Sumba. That way I'm not sweating on getting back to Flores for my visa and can enjoy taking my time on Sumba. From Sumba there's a boat to Sumbawa, the next island to the west of Flores.

OK, I missed the Komodo islands somewhere in there didn't I? Been there, done that, on a dive liveaboard back in the mid noughties. I'm interested to see what Labuan Bajo looks like these days, as it was a dusty little frontier town last time I was there. I've heard it's gone upmarket, got flash hotels and restaurants and just a little bit "Bali". Ah well, after the privations of 2 months in the sticks it'll be a welcome respite for a few days.

Once I'm in Sumbawa I'll be winging it depending on how much time I have left before my return flight mid June. I'd dearly love to climb Tambora, we shall just have to see...

So, now that I have pencilled out a route that will fit my criteria, I've got little else to do as far as travel planning.

Now I can start to get excited about my upcoming ski trip to Japan. A full month of powder skiing, it's gonna be awesome!!

Needless to say, I am limiting my heavy lifting (though there are a few big rocks I need to manoeuvre around to get the pond and waterfall finished before I leave), I am madly doing squats, lunges and balance/core exercises, and I am being a little frustrated by this totally weird weather we are having here - there has been NO WIND this year and there's NO WIND forecast for another 3 days, and then only for one day then more hot weather forecast. Geez I'd be pissed off if I'd chosen these 2 weeks for my windsurfing holiday, something many overseas and interstate visitors do!

Then again, if there'd been wind, maybe I wouldn't have had time to do my research. Now I feel ready to head off!

Time to start the countdown......

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Gotta love a new gadget

A couple of months ago whilst spending far too much time browsing on internet forums I discovered this nifty little item, yet another example of a successful kickstarter project. If you are a photographer who sees the value in using a tripod, but you also like doing lots of trekking, then this ticks a lot of boxes.

Introducing the Trail-Pix ultralight tripod....

So my previous experience was to go off overseas with my big heavy SLR and a really good quality tripod. And because I'm not short of a buck I spent big a few years ago and purchased a lightweight carbon tripod. The legs are 835g, which is pretty lightweight for a sturdy tripod (there's a saying that you can only ever have 2 out of 3: light, sturdy, cheap) that will hold up in wind and other extreme situations. Then, because I'm a camera nerd, I got myself a good quality tripod ball head (weight 375g) to mount my camera on. Trust me, a good ball head makes the world of difference.

old set up on the left, minus big heavy SLR

Some people believe that a tripod isn't an essential travel accessory, and is just too much extra bulk and weight for the ability to occasionally use it. But for me, it's essential. With an interest in landscape and long exposure photography, both of which need a tripod, it's a no brainer. And I love taking selfies on a summit after a long and arduous climb!

Here's a few shots I couldn't have taken without a tripod

I thought I had it covered, and then I saw this accessory. Admittedly I will be losing sturdiness, but I'm willing to compromise because of the weight savings, the multi functionality and the fact that I'm now travelling with a much lighter mirrorless camera. A lighter camera puts less strain on a less sturdy tripod.

So, this little adaptor uses the tips of your trekking poles as the legs. Since most people only carry two poles, the third leg is a collapsible tent pole. So all three legs are multifunctional and there's still a little bit of latitude with height adjustments but not quite as much as the carbon legs.

Let's face it, you're not going to need your poles at the same time you want to set up a tripod, so it's an elegant use of something you already have in your hand. The extra leg is light (85g) and can also be used as... gee I don't know, a tent pole??

The accessory itself weighs 68g, the poles weigh 400g, and were coming anyway, and the Gitzo ball head pictured above weighs only 117g. This is small and light but I hated using it when I took it to Java in 2014 because it doesn't have a quick release or a panning mode. If your camera has a strap then screwing it on to a tripod takes time and effort and not a few curse words! So in the interests of my mental health I'll be taking the bigger, heavier, Markins ball head, because I'll take much better pictures using it. It's actually a bit big for the adaptor, but I've tried it out and the legs still seem to fit OK.

In the end I'll be saving about 700g in weight and considerable space in the backpack. Yet I'll have a pretty functional tripod still. I also like how I can use it as a table top tripod, and even turn it into a selfie stick. That makes it infinitely more versatile.

If anyone is tempted to get one for themselves, just a hint that the screw for the ball head is only 1/4" and my ball heads all accept 3/8" screws, so I had to order a 1/4" to 3/8" adaptor on eBay to fit them.

Gotta love a new gadget....

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Packing for a 3 month sojourn in Nusa Tenggara

So peeps, guess what's in the bag for my next backpacking trip to Indonesia?

All this:

A long time ago I worked out that you needed exactly the same amount of stuff for a one week trip as a 3 month trip, particularly when it comes to clothes. You've just got to wash them regularly, you know, like you do back home. It's hardly rocket science. And if you get bored with your clothes, just buy something new. Easy!!

Firstly, my bag for this trip will be a 30L Osprey backpack. This was what I used for a 3 week Javan adventure back in 2010 (when I didn't bring a laptop), and it's been my go to cabin bag for most of my other trips - the ones where I travel with real luggage, like ski gear. I love this pack for its lightness (780g), its comfort, and its size. It's just small enough to not be too uncomfortable squeezed between your legs on a long bus trip, and it's just big enough to accommodate my laptop in the water reservoir pocket for easy access through security checkpoints.

If you followed my 7kg challenge from 2014 you'll know that I ended up deciding to purchase and bring a 40L backpack on my 2 month trip through Java, because I was bringing camping gear and needed the extra room for gear and food. Since I won't be camping on this trip, and I've purchased some nifty new gadgets recently, I've managed to cut down on gear and weight, yet will be keeping most of the functionality.

So, no camping planned, but I'm bringing some basics that pack up small and give me some options should I get caught short. It goes without saying that I'm bringing a mosquito net because malaria is still present in the east. I'm also packing an emergency bivvy, a sleeping mat and a silk sleep sheet.

I don't go anywhere without a sleep sheet. It not only protects me from some dodgy mattresses and blankets, silk deters bedbugs (not been bitten yet), it's an extra layer to keep me warm and it can also be used as a sarong at a pinch. My old silk sleeping sheet expired, after 20 odd years of use and considerable attempts at repairing tears, then got repurposed as a dress.

The sleeping mat will double as a protective sheath for my laptop, so it won't be unused. Popped in to a lightweight dry sack, it's my version of a multifunction laptop bag.

No cooking gear on this trip, but I am going to bring my water bladder and Steripen, and try to avoid purchasing bottled water. Mainly to avoid the environmental consequences of all that plastic.

Hat. Never leave home without a hat. Old Australian saying, ignore at your peril! Works well in hot steamy Indonesia too. While I'm on headgear: an LED headtorch takes up little room, and doesn't drain your iPhone battery.

Laptop, Kindle, spare hard drive. Cables and cords and adaptors. I've rejigged my setup for travel to use more space on my laptop thus only requiring one hard drive for backups. That drops 250g immediately.

plus a few cables

Mask and snorkel. Yep, I'm going to do a little undersea exploring, maybe even go scuba diving. Bringing my own snorkelling gear gives me the freedom to not need to look for hire places.

Clothes: 3 undies, 2 bras, 2 socks, 2 trousers, one long sleeved shirt, one woollen thermal, 2 polo shirts, one singlet, one pair of trail runners. And maybe that silk dress….

Travel towel and minimal toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, tweezers, cake shampoo, insect repellant and sunscreen. I use copious amounts of conditioner whenever I wash my hair (which isn't very frequently) so it makes more sense to buy product only when I need it. The reason I bring toothpaste is because I get small tubes from my dentist every 6 months which are perfect for travel.

Camera and 2 lenses, battery charger and spare batteries. I'll be bringing the Sony A7R, which is mirrorless and much smaller and lighter than my old SLR. And a new tripod setup.

Remember on my last trip I thought I might not bring both trekking poles with me on my next trip? Well after reading lots of stuff in books and online I've come to appreciate that using 2 poles is more energy efficient and comfortable than using just one. So I'm bringing both, and will be learning to walk with 2 sticks. Then I discovered a nifty little attachment that links together your trekking poles and one tent pole to create a camera tripod. So I can leave the big heavy tripod at home, and just use this wee gadget. That saves a whole kilogram! More multi-functionality.

Full post on this coming up....

So I shoved everything, including camera gear, very haphazardly into my bag and it fits with the absolute minimum of effort. All up it'll weigh a bit less than 8kg.

Last trip I had about 11kg of gear and still managed to get my gear on as carryon. Air Asia allows you a 7kg carryon, PLUS a laptop bag or purse, so I shouldn't have any problem aceing this 7kg challenge.

Now in case you were wondering, I'm already packed for Japan...