Katie & Ben’s wedding – Koh Samui

Sadly, I couldn’t get to the wedding because of work commitments… but Katie and Ben almost didn’t make it either! Due to a handful of incidents involving forgotten cases, volcanoes, monsoons and bad airlines, what is usually a stressful time for any couple became unreal for them.

However, thanks to Holiday Inn Atrium, Singapore and Napasai Koh Samui, things ended very happily indeed! I don’t mind giving credit where it’s due and Katie tells me both of these places went above and beyond to help smooth things over. I’ll let her tell you the rest in her own words from an email she sent. Published with her permission and I’ve only edited it for appearance’s sake.

There are also photos of the wedding on Esther’s blog.

I thought I’d write a wee update while I am now emotionally stable and awaiting the Big Day to kick off in a few hours.

It has been the most stressful week of our lives.  It all started in Darwin, one of my bags got left in the boot of a car on the airforce base (containing the rings, flight details, veil, ipod, camera…)  and we were at the airport. We managed to get the bag as Ben’s friend had runway clearance so made a mad dash from the airport back to base to get it via the runways!

Then we were delayed due to a volcanic erruption for 4 hours.  We arrived in Singapore, myself Ben, Richo and Nordo where we found Ben’s aunty and cousin. We ended up arriving at 11pm and my friends Li and Andrew took us out for dinner in Singapore that night. We crawled into bed at 1am.

The next day we went to Universal studios in Singers which was lots of fun! Crazy rollercoasters.  We headed to the airport at 4pm for our 8pm flight to Koh Samui but were not allowed to check due to severe flooding in Koh Samui. They eventually checked us in at 10pm, after 3 hrs in the departures they cancelled our flights. We were now a party of 7 as American Alison joined us.

Bangkok Air were awful, they couldnt tell us anything and sent us back through immigration, where immigration tried to take our duty free off us. Ben cracked it as we had been waiting for hours and immigration wanted us to get refunds on our booze, but we all just walked past them and kept our drinkies!

Bangkok Airways then left us to fend for ourselves!  Finally at 4 am we found a hotel to put all 7 of us up for a night. Amazingly the Holiday Inn were fabulous! They upgraded us to suites and gave us free breakfast. The next day we had no idea if we were flying out, the airline did not call us we had to call them every 2 hours. Then they told us we would not be flying out tonight due to the storms and the airport was still under water.

I went to the poshest shopping centre with Alison that day and when she went into the changing room, I had a very public meltdown! I cried my eyes out.  I came back to the room and cried for 3 hours!  11 months of wedding planning and waiting to see friends and family about to disappear!

The Holiday Inn were fabulous, they allowed us to checkout at 4pm! We then arranged to stay another night as the plane was cancelled and they had no rooms left but put all 7 of us in the Honeymoon Suite.  They also gave us keys to the Executive Lounge for free nibbles and alcohol. Pour your own. As you can imagine we were told we were definately not flying out that night so we had a very drunken night courtesy of the Holiday Inn!

We returned to the Honeymoon Suite and drank our duty free as they told us we would not be flying out until Saturday afternoon!!! OMG after the wedding!!!

I had friends and family stuck in different airports, and we were not going to see them! We thought we would have to get married via Skype!  Also friends on Koh Samui had been sand bagging the beach and wading through water waste high to get food and water!  So we drank lots to commiserate!

Then at 11pm we got a phone call that we had to be at the airport in 1.5hrs to fly out to Koh Samui. As we were rather drunk, Alison was passed out on the couch! we got to the airport and boarded the plane with some more guests.

The landing was worse than the Universal Studios rollercoaster! We missed the runway and had to ascend at the last minute! We thought we were going to die. However we finally got to the Napasai at 5am.

It was too wet to bring our luggage so they took Ben and I  to the room and said they would bring our bags in the morning and check us in. We got 4 hrs sleep before going to breakfast and checking in wearing the same clothes!!! Gross.

The funny thing was I was convinced that they had us in the wrong room, so I told Ben not to touch anything as we were supposed to have a pool villa, but there appeared to be another residence further down the hill that had the pool! We then told reception who pointed out that we had the entire hill side consisting of two houses each with bedrooms, set among tropical gardens on the mountain, a separate lounge house and then the pool and pool lounge area was also ours!!!!!!!!!!!  Amazing, it is spectacular.

We had a “thankgod we made it party” at our villa on thursday night – the day we arrived, as it’s so massive, instead of the Hen and Bucks do as the town was so flooded.

The Napasai have been lovely. We have settled for Backup plan C for the wedding venue, we have canned the marquee but its all good. In fact the reception venue is better than a marquee on the beach.  All 61 guests are here including us! And there is a tiny bit of sun.

The most hilarious thing is I had my make-up and hair trial yesterday and I have a team of ladyboys! They look more feminine than me!! I have never seen the assistant who sweeps the floor strike a pose so much in the mirrors than one of these ladyboys!!

So that is the excitement and dramas, I think i need a holiday to recover. Who could predict we chose our wedding venue to be declared a national flood disaster zone.

Ben and I have been exceptionally lucky that everyone is here and have just been so fantastic to us and supportive, the Holiday Inn Singapore and Napasai have just been outstanding.

Now I am getting very excited as the big day is about to begin and the preparations start! Bring on the ladyboys!

All I can add to that is my personal thanks to Holiday Inn Atrium, Singapore and Napasai, Koh Samui for looking after my friends so well. Katie and Ben took such great care of me the last time I was in Darwin, and it’s lovely to see karma giving them some help in return.

Guys – have a wonderful life together. I hope it’s full of many more, less stressful, adventures than the past week has had for you!

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The land of the rising sun

First sight of Japan

First sight of Japan

Clock up number 47, if I have my maths right. I’ve finally made it to Japan!

I ended up having to get the bus to Cairns Airport as the weather was so bad. It’s not a long walk (around 1½ hours) but in torrential rain it just wasn’t happening. Thankfully this meant I got there to be at the front of the check-in queue before the hordes of homebound Japanese tourists appeared.

I blew my remaining phone credit calling Marina at home. Despite being a call to the UK I got a staggering 50 minutes from the chaff left over from my last payment. Mobiles are far cheaper in Oz.

The flight to Tokyo Narita Airport was pleasant enough. I slept for 2-3 hours and finished the book I was reading (Mayday by Nelson DeMille and Thomas Block – amusingly enough about an air disaster), then spent the rest of the time leafing through my Lonely Planet and talking to the Aussie guy next to me. He was flying to Japan to spend time off work with his wife, who’s Japanese. He was a very useful resource for Tokyo-related information.

Immigration was quick and painless with my lack of accommodation address brushed over quickly when I said I was going to sort something at tourist information. I had looked into booking something the day before, but the only places I could find were “book my email, reply in 48 hours” which was no use.

One thing to note: the Tourist Information Counter at Narita Airport closes at 8pm. I got there just as they were packing up, so they handed me a couple of sheets with a list of accommodation details on. I had to make my own phone calls, so I needed change. It’s only 10 Yen for a minute on the payphones, but you can also use 100 Yen coins. However, as far as I could tell, there’s no way of cancelling a call and making another using your remaining credit if you use the 100s. This makes it very expensive to ring around hostels and hotels… Phone cards are the way to go but I couldn’t find anywhere selling one.

The first place I called was the cheapest, but I only got an answering machine. In Japanese. Arse. The second was much better. Taka from the Fuji Backpackers answered and told me to get to Narita train station from where he’d collect me.

I paid 250 Yen for a ticket to Narita, hopped aboard one of the frequent trains and soon enough was in Taka’s car. The hostel’s lovely. Quite small, comfy beds, communal kitchen with TV, DVD, microwave and free wi-fi. Breakfast is also included (a KL-esque tea and toast), but the shower is 100 Yen for 10 minutes!

My plan is to to this and some nearby neighbourhoods tomorrow. The cherry blossom is still on the trees in Narita (it’s vanished in downtown Tokyo) so I’ll get some good photos of that, and I’m not too far from the two train stations. I will have a chat with Taka-san in the morning and see what he recommends.

Welcome to Japan!

Welcome to Japan!

On Saturday I will meet with Noriko, one of the girls on my tour bus in Tasmania all that time ago. She has offered to show me around for the day. I am also supposed to meet with a Couchsurfer – Misa – in the evening to stay at her flat. I will try to work this out so that I can stay there, yet leave my luggage at the hostel. I would not bother, but it’s not cheap to stay here. One night CouchSurfing will a) be a great experience in this country and b) save me over £20.

From what the other guests here have told me, leaving my luggage and collecting it on the way to the airport on Sunday morning will not be a problem. Their praise of the hostel owner has been very high indeed!

Otherwise, I’ve not seen a lot as I arrived in the dark. The first view over the wing of the plane as we passed the coastline was simply beautiful. Forests and mountains with chains of electric light sparkling in the darkness. Lovely.

The thing about vending machines doesn’t seem to be a stereotype, either. You can barely walk 10m without passing at least one. And the Japanese are as polite and helpful as they’re made out to be. Always with a smile and a nod. They do tend to give foreigners a little bit of a berth, though. Whether from politeness, shyness or some small amount of xenophobia only they could say but one example was on the train from the landing area to the main terminal at the airport.

The Aussie I’d been speaking to and myself made it onto the train. It was busy but by no means packed. Passing Japanese preferred to wedge themselves into the two doors on either side than cram in next to the gaijin blocking one doorway. This is strange only in that they have no issues with squishing themselves together like very friendly sardines in the trains running at rush hour.

I think I’ll like it hear. The only downsides is it’ll be an incredibly short stay and it’s incredibly expensive. Damn the collapsed British economy – everything’s twice the price of 2-3 years ago.

At least ATMs that accept foreign cards are slightly more prevalent than they have been in the past. There’s one in the 7-Eleven down the road from the hostel and I gather a lot of CitiBanks will take them, too.

Oh, and if your mobile phone‘s not 3G-enabled, then don’t expect it to work in Japan. At least this is what I’ve read and I can’t get onto a network here. I did see a couple of American tourists with new phones on my flight who had received calls so I know that some non-Japanese phones must work. I assume it’s down to how new they are.

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The world gets smaller

Rainy but nice

Rainy but nice

After meeting my first hostel-owner now driving tour buses across Kakadu, I was surprised to see a familiar face outside my hostel in Cairns when I arrived this morning. None other than Heath, the man who instructed me through my Open Water PADI course over two years ago!

We got talking and he’s still with the Dutch girl he copped off with at the post-course party. He’s travelled Europe and is looking at settling outside of Cairns. Good on him and great to see him again.

As promised, fella, once I have some solid ground under me there’s a spare bed you’re welcome to use.

Otherwise, an uneventful flight back to Cairns. I slept for about 90 minutes on it in a surpisingly comfortable front-row seat. Once we landed, I decided to walk in the light rain into the town centre. I’d been plodding for about 20 minutes, and wasn’t too far from the junction with the main road when a guy (I think a park ranger or something, going by his uniform) stopped and insisted on giving me a lift close to my hostel. Thank you!

I managed to locate a bookshop which did 10% off Lonely Planets and already charged less for them than the larger stores. $41 for the Japan edition is still above the UK cover price, but only by a smidgen. The larger book stores are charging as much as $56 which is franlky ridiculous.

So I’m sat outside McD’s (surprise) running down my battery before heading to the hostel for a snack and maybe a movie or some book reading. An early start in the morning for a last mail check (no free internet at Cairns airport) and then onto my Tokyo flight.

My main concern is I have no accommodation booked in Tokyo and I couldn’t find anything online. This is going to be a challenge when I arrive.

Also… due to some issues at home, my stay in Japan will amount to three days. I’ve had to book a flight back to the UK on Sunday. I may or may not be flying back to Japan a while later. I don’t know yet. I’ll see what I can see in the Japanese capital in the short time I’m there and hope I get the chance to catch some more of the country later in the month – although there’s no guarantee.

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In the airport

Another airport post, this one from Darwin International Airport. I’m heading to Cairns, have 6 hours to wait until my 3am check-in and have free wi-fi. Annoyingly, I only have an hour’s battery left on my laptop and none of the plug sockets seem to work here. Grr.

Once more as I move from city to city I have to send out an enormous “THANK YOU”. This time to Katie, Ben and Toni who housed me, fed me and drove me all over the shop even at stupid times of the day and night. Guys, really – thank you.

Oh, and also a hearty “congratulations and good luck” to Katie and Ben who today moved into their new house together. I helped Ben shift the boxes, and it was the least I could do after their awesome hospitality. I’m sure they’ll have a great time in their new pad with the insane Scrappy-dog to keep them company.

Not a lot else to write. I moved stuff, I got tired and sweaty, we ate good food and Katie dropped me at the airport. All good!

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Fogg’s Dam, Litchfield, Dakota diving and Kakadu

My gracious hostess!

My gracious hostess!

A veritable nature trail over my handful of days here. On Thursday, Katie and Ben drove me to the nearby Fogg’s Dam reserve. It’s quite a small place, but very pretty and loaded with birds. There are a handful of crocs around here, too – one persistent salty in particular – but mainly it’s our avian friends who make it what it is.

Mein hosts, and my other co-tenant, Toni – are regular visitors down here so I had the common birds pointed out to me as we crawled ever so slowly towards the picnic point in the car. We didn’t see the croc, but we did have an enjoyable couple of hours watching the feathered world go by and eating sandwiches.

Katie was back at work, but Ben off on Friday. I dropped the van back off at Apollo where I found I’d only used $560 of my $750 fuel allowance, as well as making the journey in three of the five days allotted. I still think I could do it in two. Everything was ship-shape and I just have to wait for my deposit and fuel fees to be restored to my credit card. I’m hoping the exchange rate works in my favour for this! Either way, I defy anyone else to find a way of getting from Cairns to Carwin for less than $5.

As an aside, I recall mentioning the problems I had filling the van with fuel. It turns out this is an inherent problem with the modifications made by Toyota themselves to tutn the Hilux into a motorhome. The pipe to the fuel tank is severed, then joined to an extended section by a rubber hose link. This bodge job makes the thing a nightmare to put fuel into – the diesel keeps bubbling up so you have to drip feed it.

It's grown!

It's grown!

One way around it is to use the funnel and pipe doo-hicky that should be stored in one of the external “cupboards” on the van. It’s meant to be used when you’re filling up from the jerry cans, but there’s no reason you can’t jam it in place and then shove the fuel pump nozzle into the funnel. The tube bypasses the problem area in the filling area and the fuel flows directly into the tank a lot faster.

After the van was back in the hands of the hire company, Ben drove me down to Litchfield National Park. I’d last visited here in August 2006 towards the end of the dry season. Everything was – as you’d expect – barren and dusty. This time, however, it was a much greener Litchfield that awaited me. I also swear the termite mounds had grown a good metre of so!

Not shy

Not shy

We lolled in the Buley Rockhole for an hour or so, where a decent-sized monitor lizard put in an appearance. Afterwards we visited the Florence Falls for a further dip. I’d been here on my last trip, but hadn’t been able to swim with my camera. This time I got some nice underwater photos and a bit of video around the back of the very noisy waterfall. At some point, that’ll make its way to YouTube.

Saturday was an easy day. I checked my emails at Katie’s work then sorted out my Japanese Rail Pass (after a fashion) in town. Essentially, it was impossible to get one from Flight Centre as they would have to order it, get it couriered up and then couriered down to Cairns. I’d have been very lucky to get it in time. Instead, their Cairns branch pointed me in the direction of another company in Cairns itself which will sort me one out in about 30 minutes. I’ll be heading there on Wednesday if I eventually make my mind up that the pass is worth getting.

Just chillin'

Just chillin'

On Sunday, I had another email check followed by a dive with Coral Divers. Just the one due to the nature of the tides in the Darwin area. This was my umpteenth wreck dive but the first time I’ve seen an plane underwater. It’s an old Dakota which ditched during a training or test flight in 1947. It was discovered in 2006, and a bunch of the loose artifacts were stolen late in 2008 by some scavenging filthbag.

The visibility was akin to “English diving” according to the skipper. In other words, poor. However, you’re down there to look at an object in this case – and not a large one – so visibility’s not the issue it could be elsewhere. It’s certainly an interesting wreck. Approximately half of the plane is present, and it has an abundance of coral growing from it. Many, many small glass fish surround it with a handful of larger specimens swimming around or “sitting” on the wings not caring how close you get to them.

Underwater life

Underwater life

I managed around 45 minutes with my buddy Ulrika – a German with a strong Glaswegian accent! In fact, she became the first German who I have ever heard say “cheerio” as I departed after the dive. No pictures, sorry. I had my camera with me, but didn’t take it down when I heard the visibility was poor. A shame, as I would have got some great shots of the larger fish.

The end of the nature trail was on Monday as I joined a coach trip around Kakadu. This is an enormous national park (around 20000 km²) and quite a distance from Darwin itself. Katie very kindly dropped me off on the Stuart Highway where the bus could pick me up without me having to go all the way into Darwin.



Our driver/guide was Marcel from the Netherlands. He’s now resident in Oz and used to own a hostel. As the day went on, things started to sound vaguely familiar regarding the place he used to run. I checked the name – Gecko Lodge.

This is the first place I ever stayed in on my first visit to Oz back in August 2006. Marcel cooked my first ever Aussie meal for me (well, he made the breakfast pancakes). I saw my first ever possum digging through the bin in the back yard of the Lodge.

Talk about a small world. It turns out he got sick of running the place a year or so ago and sold up to a Vietnamese woman who’s apparently still trying to turn a profit from it. Pretty much full circle – from my very first day in Oz to what is likely to be my third from last for some time to come.

Rock painting

Rock painting

Kakadu, as I mentioned, is big. Really big. Vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big. In fact,you may think it’s a long walk down the road to the chemist’s, but that just peanuts compared to Kakadu (5 points if you can name the author I just ripped off). As such it is definitely better tackled as a two or three day visit with overnight camping. I had been told this before but these trips are expensive and I didn’t have three whole days. I would also recommend getting there about two weeks later in the year than I did to give the waters a chance to go down. This will bring more crocs out so you have a chance of seeing them.

However, it’s truly spectacular so close to the end of the wet season. The greenery is amazing. Marcel pointed out that a lot of this is already dying. Areas we passed that were green today would be brown within 48 hours. The natives would also deliberately burn some areas back to refertilise the soil.

Pretty, innit?

Pretty, innit?

I was on the lookout for rock wallabies, but didn’t see any. However, I think I’d be disappointed anyway. My first thought was of a small kangaroo-like creature with long hair, playing guitar and head-banging but apparently they’re just like other wallabies only a bit smaller. Ah, well.

Although we had a lot of driving and not so much stopping, Marcel was full of information relating to the history, geography, Aboriginal stories, wildlife and so forth of the area.

We stopped at three main areas (plus lunch): the Anbangbang rock art “gallery”, an indiginous culture museum and Yellow Waters where we had a 90-minute boat trip.

Anbangbang is not a huge area, but chock full of rock art. This is essentally hand-painting on the rock walls which is fine and dandy as it’s really old, but far more interesting when you have a guide explaining what it all means. As with virtually all Aboriginal places, we don’t have the full story and we never will. As non-Aboriginals we’re “children” so we can’t be told everything that an of-age man or woman of Aboriginal descent could be.

Not shy at all

Not shy at all

Their belief system is very much unique as far as I’m aware, but at least they’re closer to the actual age of the world (or “country” as they would put it) than the Christian church. The Creationists will have you believe it’s around 6000 years. These uncultured heathens from backwater Australia are fairly sure it’s 65,000 as that’s as far back as their history goes. I’m still gunning for a few billion, but 65,000 is closer!

Hearing Marcel explain a lot of the ways Aboriginals look at life it’s pretty easy to understand how they and we could never really see eye to eye on a lot of fundamental things. The whole concept of possession, of owning something, simply doesn’t exist to the Aboriginals. Everything that exists is somehow related to everything else. To own something is to own a part of a thing of which you yourself are a part. It’s pointless so therefore they just don’t think of ownership in the way we do.

I hope I explained that correctly, but it was a superb example of how wildly different their mindset is from ours.

The culture museum filled in a few gaps, but by the time we got there Marcel had told us an incredible amount. It really just showed us physical examples of any of the things he’d talked about.

After lunch we hit Yellow River for our boat trip. Our group was joined by quite a few third-party members of the public and a fully-laden boat headed off into the waters. It was slow-paced, but we did see just about everything the captain had hoped we would. Many of the birds I’d already seen at Fogg’s Dam but it was good to get more information about them. And of course, a crocodile put in an appearance right at the end. Around 3.50m long and completely unphased at being shadowed by a boat full of tourists.

Oh, and a young girl pee’d herself at the front of the boat. That was kind of funny as the little sod had tried to steal my cap earlier, then kicked me in the knee when I stopped her. I hope she gets a (mild, easily-treated but marginally uncomfortable in the short term) rash.

After this, it was a bus back to Darwin. Most of the guests slept while I talked to Marcel. Katie, bless her, drove out to the Stuart Highway to get me despite me saying I could walk back to hers.

This was a special day for her and Ben, too. They were handed the keys of their first ever house this morning. I remember that feeling… Along with little Scrappy (their cute puppy) I’m sure they’ll make it a home in no time.

So tomorrow I’m helping Ben pack and transport boxes from their rented place to the new house. My flight to Cairns is at 5am on Wednesday morning so I reckon I’ll be dropped at the airport late on Tuesday night. I’d hardly expect a lift there at 3am! And I suspect this blog post won’t make it online until I get to Cairns either.

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