Wrangell Saint Elias & Southeastern Alaska

From Homer, we drove back through Anchorage to Copper River and enjoyed views of the beautiful Glenn Highway. The most impressive sight was the Matanuska Glacier and we had our closest call to running out of gas. Less than a gallon left!

After a night on the Copper River, we drove to Chitna, the gateway to Wrangell Saint Elias National Park. The small town consisted of a tavern, post office, hotel and a few homes. The hotel was full, however, the owner let Stacia work and sleep in their greenhouse, while Dan slept in his truck. Meanwhile, Nick and Hannah went on a backpacking trip up to Dixie Pass. This 22-mile round trip hike is one of the only backcountry trips accessible without a plane. Only half the route had a trail and there were many creek crossings. Nick and Hannah not only camped in a beautiful spot, but also saw mountain goats, bald eagles, and a mink.

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The next day we finished our drive to McCarthy/Kennicott. This small old mining town is now a national historic site. We walked through the Kennicott mill and on the Root Glacier outside of town. We enjoyed the local scene at ­­­­the Roadside Potatohead and watched chunks of ice run down the river. This area definitely deserved more than two nights, but the 60 miles of dirt road on the motorcycles made the drive worth it.

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Next, we drove the Valdez and spotted the only wolf of the trip! We spent time by the harbor and at the Maxine & Jesse Whitney Museum in the local college. The next day, we went back north to the northern entrance of Wrangell St. Elias at Nebesna road. We spent the evening at an original homesteader’s cabin. Steve and Joy moved from Nebraska in 1986 and claimed a plot of land, the last place to allow homesteading in Alaska. This couple was definitely an inspiration and a measure of what hard work can achieve. We picked delicious vegetables from their greenhouse and learned about Steve’s trapping work. Nick, Hannah, and Dan drove to the end of the Nebesna road and back, enjoying stream crossing, beautiful scenery, and the Nebesna Roadhouse.

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Our final long drive of the trip was 500 miles to Haines back through BC. This was one of the most scenic drives of the trip and largest change in scenery in a day. Just before Haines, we got to see our first salmon wheel actually running on the trip. Haines was our favorite town in Alaska due to its history and small-town feel.  Stacia even ran into a friend from college who was there filming for work. We stayed in one of the original officer’s homes at the fort built in 1904. During our full day in town, Stacia and Nick hiked up Mt. Riley to see the view of Lynn Canal.

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Next, we took a ferry to Skagway, which immediately disappointed us with the crazy cruise ship scene. We escaped to our campsite 7 miles out of town and spent our free day rock climbing, while Dan rode to Atlin, BC. From Skagway, we took the ferry to Juneau and camped at Mendenhall Campground with direct views across to the glacier. However, the next day we took a flight to Gustavus to see Glacier Bay National Park. While this area of Alaska deserves a lot of time, we spent these days rushing to see as much as possible before our ferry back to Washington.  Gustavus has a population of 435, has 3 antique gas pumps in the center of town, and fields of fireweed lining the road.

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We returned to Juneau and the city began to grow on us due to its manageable size, quaint neighborhoods, and accessibility to the forest. We watched a 16-year-old black bear catch sockeye salmon near our campsite. Only 2% of all salmon hatched live to spawn, so the salmon we saw were watching were the champions.

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From Juneau, we loaded the ferry which would take us to Bellingham in 4 days. We first stopped in Sitka where we walked through the ­­­­­Sitka National Historic Park, took in Totems, and walked along the harbor. Our last stop in Ketchikan was a letdown as it was extremely built up to support the cruise ships. We were able to escape town and hike through the rainforest and visit the Totem Heritage Center. We slept on the deck of the ferry and spotted 10 humpback whales bubble feeding before arriving back to the lower 48.

Good Finds:

Nabesna Road – Huck Hobbit’s Homestead

Haines – Sarah J’s Coffee & Eatery

Skagway – Dyea Campground

Juneau – Mendenhall Glacier Campground, The Rookery, Pel’meni & Alaska State Museum and Library

The Kenai Peninsula

We left Anchorage and headed south around the Turnagain Arm to Hope. Dan and Hannah had a blast whitewater rafting class V rapids, while Nick and I prepared dinner (chicken & tofu). The porcupine campground offered a remarkable mountainous view and around 6 pm, the bore tide filled the arm within 2 minutes.

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Next, we drove to Whitter, a secret military installation from WWII and a very strange place. After the Japanese attack on the Aleutian Islands, the U.S. wanted a remote base as inaccessible as possible. Previously only accessible via boat and train, the two-mile tunnel blasted out of granite is now open to cars. We explored the underground tunnel systems and grocery store/ tsunami museum. Before leaving, we hiked up to Portage Pass where we were rewarded with a 360 view of the glaciers and bay. It definitely felt like life in Whitter was rough. 80% of the 200 permanent residents live in the WWII-era Begich Towers pictured below.

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Our next stop was Seward, where our campground, although crowded, was perfectly located between town and Resurrection Bay. We spent a day on a boat in the Kenai Fjords National Park, created in 1980 to protect 587,000 acres of wilderness. We were lucky to watch ice calve off from glaciers and spotted Humpback Whales, porpoises, sea otters, sea lions, puffins, and bald eagles.

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The next day, I did some work while Hannah and Nick tried their luck at fishing. Nick caught a Silver Salmon, but they both were disappointed to learn about the declining fish population.

Before heading to Homer we stopped outside of Soldotna where Nick, Hannah, and I spent 2 days backpacking to the Upper Russian Lake. A few miles into our first day we stopped to observe salmon ladders where we watched salmon rapidly hucking themselves at rapids and rocks as their only hope for survival. For the remainder of the day, we hiked through tall grasses (6 ft.) and meadows. The hundreds of bear prints, scat, and claw marks were at first startling until we realized the bears were everywhere and seemed more scared of us then we were of them. We saw an enormous moose rack hiding in the meadow pictured below. The mosquito presence was, as always, extreme and it seemed you couldn’t breathe without inhaling some. At camp, we watched the sunset over the Upper Russian Lake (there are about 3 hours of relative darkness now that we are more south), a mom guiding her 17 ducklings in the lake, and 3 immature bald eagles the size of dogs (70 pounds?) preparing to snatch a duckling meal. The second day we walked through wildflowers and the trail widened into a more forested area.

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We were picked up at the trailhead and drove through Soldotna to Homer. Homer offered water views with glaciers and active volcanoes in the backdrop. On our first full day, I explored the farmers market and did some work while the Loebs took a bush plane to see Coastal Brown Bears (I had the opportunity to go the next day).

They got within 10 feet of the bears and their experience sounded like a highlight of the trip. I set Nick up to fail by giving him a dead camera battery so although he caught some amazing photos, the guide, Joe, shared the real beauties with us (bottom 3 photos).

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The next day we visited the Pratt Museum and learned about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and local wildlife. We walked the beach, historic town, downtown, and spit before I headed to my bear tour. Although I wasn’t able to get as close to the bears as the Loebs, the flight was the highlight of my trip. Flying over active glaciers, watching the clouds roll over the peaks, seeing bears fishing below the plane, and bumping around in bad weather made for an excellent evening.

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Homer really grew on us, it was a funky place, but as always, we had to pack up and get back on the road. Good Finds: Two Sisters Bakery, Fresh Sourdough Express, and Hermit’s Rare & Used Books

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Denali & Anchorage

Due to the road being narrow and unpaved, Denali National Park only allows visitors, past a certain point, to travel via bus. We decided to take the bus 92-miles to the end, arriving at an old mining settlement, Kantishna.

Although the weather was overcast and prevented us from seeing Denali (only 1/3 of visitors ever get to see Denali) it was ideal to spot wildlife. On our 12-hour drive, we saw 6 mom Grizzly Bears, each with 2 cubs, totaling 18 different bears. We watched a mom flop on her back with her feet in the air and let her two, 200-pound babies climb on top of her and nurse. The driver told us that the male bears stay away from the road and the female bears have learned this, therefore spending the majority of their time near the road to protect their cubs. We also saw a fox, 7 moose, over 50 Caribou, and over 50 Dall sheep. We got off the bus to hike the Savage River Ridge and took in the beautiful mountains and intense winds.

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With heavy rains, we decided to call off our Kesugi Ridge backpacking trip and spent 3 night at Dan’s friend’s cabin. 19-miles down a dirt road there were not many residents, however, the word quickly got out that kids (referring to us) were in town. Within minutes of arriving, a family of 6, with kids ranging from 6-12, spent hours with us. Although disappointed we were not younger, the kids told us we were still fun.

On our last morning in the Denali area, the clouds finally broke and we felt lucky that we got a beautiful view of Denali from the cabin. We drove into Talkeetna and were thrilled our flight was not canceled. We took an hour-long flight in a bush plane up into the mountains with breathtaking glacial views. We even saw 2 chinooks sitting at base camp.

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After our flight, Nick, Dan, and I took the bikes up Hatcher Pass while Hannah drove the truck and trailer to Anchorage. The dirt road followed a windy crystal clear river up through the Tundra. A paraglider flew 50 feet above up us and the combination of grassy meadows, icy glaciers, and rocky ridges made for a great alpine pass. We stopped by Independence Mine State Historical Park, an abandoned gold mine sprawled in the valley that was built in the 1930s.

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We made it to Anchorage, which seemed pretty run down. We stayed at a motel on the outskirts next to the correctional facility, homeless shelter, and Mega Store. It was upsetting to see so many homeless and drunk on the street and intense police activity.

On our first full day in Anchorage, Nick, Hannah, and I left and headed back toward Hatcher Pass to rock climb. Arch Angel Valley is home to some of the best quality trad single pitching in Alaska.  In the tundra, down a trail, across a river, and up a scree field, the views and climbing were unbeatable.

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The next day, Hannah and I hunkered down to submit job applications while Nick and Dan explored the Anchorage Museum. Nick even ran into one of his old co-worker at the museum! In the evening, we drove down the Turnagain Arm to watch the amazing bore tide quickly fill the arm with one wave.

The next morning, we packed up and headed for the Kenai Peninsula.

Australia

We were welcomed to Australia by an immigration officer at the Sydney airport. He said, “There are six things you need to know about Australia. The first, if you see a snake, it’s poisonous and will kill you. The second, if you see a spider, it’s poisonous and will kill you. Third, if you see jellyfish, they are poisonous and will kill you. Tiny purple octopus, same thing. The last two things I’ll let you figure out.” Unfortunately, Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I were never able to figure out his last two points, but luckily we weren’t killed by poison.

Flying from NZ back to the East Coast consisted of flying to Australia, Hawaii, Vegas, and Minneapolis to Dulles. Thus, we decided if we had to fly through Australia we should extend our layover. This gave us 9 days to explore the enormous country. Sydney was a modern, clean and hip city. It’s tall skyscrapers and bay front downtown reminded Nick and I of Singapore. Although we loved New Town, a young and trendy neighborhood, I realized my previous fascination with hip cities had faded. It seemed to lack the history and culture smaller cities like Dunedin in New Zealand maintained. Around Sydney, we spent time exploring the famous opera house, which was actually compiled of three small separate buildings. We ate some delicious food and visited with our friend Faye, that Nick and I spent 2 weeks with in Mongolia. While I went to work with Faye; Nick, Larry, and Kaitlin bowled on the beach and walked along the coast from Bondi and Bronte.

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Sydney Opera House

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We rented a car and left Sydney to road trip towards Melbourne. The highlight of the road trip was ocean pools an hour outside of Sydney. Known for the figure 8 pool, these pools were created from the ocean waves crashing on limestone. The crystal clear water was beautiful, and cold. As we left, another guy entered the pool and a huge wave crashed over the rocks. He was lost underwater and his friends were also pushed down under the wave. Everyone was fine but it was a reminder of the waters strength.

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Figure 8 Pool

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We spent the next few nights camping and days hiking to various view points. We hiked along the coast at Hicks’s point and enjoyed secluded beaches. Every evening, around dusk, thousands of kangaroos hopped around the surrounding fields and we had to avoid them on the road. We eventually left the coast and drove through the outback. This dry landscape was my favorite. The gold fields were dotted with sheep and cattle and rolling hills for as far as the eye could see.

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Hiking the coast at Hick’s Point
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Nick loves taking photos of me after an argument

We returned our car and took a 12 hour train to Melbourne. We CouchSurfed on the 47th floor of the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Sleeping next to clear glass walls that overlooked the city and barbecuing on the balcony we felt extremely fortunate. Our host was extremely interesting and we spent time philosophizing, taking photos (as he is a photographer) and visiting the pub downstairs. It was an extremely unique experience and an exciting place to spend our last 2 nights traveling.

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Queen Victoria Market Street Art
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Melbourne
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View from our CouchSurfing’s apartment (47th floor)

 

This trip has been amazing and Nick and I were sad to be leaving. Thankfully, we had 36 hours of transit to reflect before surprising my folks in PA!

Recommendations:

Messina (Sydney) – gelato (the lychee coconut was amazing!)

Lentils As Anything (Sydney) – a nonprofit volunteer run restaurant with delicious food and pay by donation

Queen Victoria Market (Melbourne) – an enormous meat, cheese, honey, spice, produce and chotchkie market.

 

South Island

After arriving in Picton, Stacia, Larry, Kaitlin and I drove to Nelson before stopping and making lunch in town. The drive was diverse with mountain peaks and wineries lining the road. Nelson was a very quaint town with many pubs and cafes. We enjoyed free parking and Wi-Fi all over town before moving on to Motueka, the gateway of Abel Tasman National Park.

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The Abel Tasman Coast Track is 72 km of ocean views traditionally hiked over 5 days. We decided to spend 2 days hiking the most scenic 45 km with Larry and Kaitlin going the opposite direction to the shuttle our van back at the end. The first day went perfectly with sunny weather and idyllic views of craggy green coastline. Stacia and I had to time our hiking in order to arrive at the Awaroa Inlet at low tide to cross. We arrived with enough time and crossed in knee-deep water and met Larry and Kaitlin at Bark Bay for camp. We enjoyed a pho dinner and jumped in our bags early to avoid the cold.

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Abel Tasman Hike

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The next morning we soaked in the beachfront view before continuing our hike. We waited for Larry and Kaitlin past dark and began to suspect something was wrong. I hiked to cell service and received a message stating that they’d been in an accident. Thankfully no one was hurt, however a new driver took out the front side of our campervan. After changing our plans, driving to Christchurch, switching out multiple vehicles and paying for the damage, calling it a nuisance would be an understatement.

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Beachfront property

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Drive to Christchurch

Stacia took the 3 days we needed to wait for a new van to visit an old friend and do some MBA work. She explored Christchurch and said the city’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake was still very present. Larry, Kaitlin and I drove west to hike Fox and Franz- Joseph Glacier.

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Lake Matheson
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Mt. Tasman & Mt. Cook

We returned to Christchurch to pick up Stacia and our new van. We were snowed in for an evening, however eventually made it to Otago. We Couchsurfed in Dunedin and had a blast. We watched NZ movies with our host and she shared with us her library on NZ food, beer and culture. We spotted multiple sea lions and 2 yellow-eyed penguins at Sandfly Bay.

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Campervan keys, couchsurfing keys & possum ball (threat to NZ)
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Can you spot the penguin?

From Dunedin, we drove to touristed Queenstown, which reminded Stacia and I of any posh Colorado ski resort town, like Breckinridge or Beaver Creek. I took a day to ski at Treble Cone and Larry and Kaitlin hiked around Wanaka Lake.

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Lake Wanaka

Our last stop in New Zealand was Stacia and I’s favorite. After working for Point6, a merino wool outdoor clothing company in Colorado, Stacia made friends with their wool supplier in NZ. Stacia and I had both brought 2 pairs of Point6 socks on our yearlong backpacking trip and they are still in perfect condition. We were thrilled to see where the wool came from and visit Kirsty, Simon and their 3 boys at Glenbrook Station. We were shown not only their 7,000+ sheep, but also their cattle, chickens, dogs, fields, garden and wool shed. The evening light lit up the snow-covered mountains and it felt like we reached utopia. We were taught about different breeds of sheep, micron, burrs and rots. I was admiring sheep, while wearing their wool and later that night, eating their meat. We were thankful for Kirsty and Simon’s hospitality and sad to leave but excited for our last adventure, Australia.

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Getting ready to feed the dogs

Reccomendation:

Best pies in New Zealand: Fairlie Bakehouse – Fairlie, NZ

North Island

Arriving in Auckland, NZ was a big change. After traveling in South Asia for 9 months, we had become accustomed to the disorganized traffic, warm weather and cheap eats. Immediately upon arriving I changed from my flip flops and shorts to boots and pants. Stacia and Larry’s boots along with our tent had to be thoroughly cleaned in a lab before being allowed through biosecurity. We were quickly picked up by Lucky Rentals and given our new home, a 2005 converted Toyota Hiace campervan. With two double beds, stovetop, sink and fridge, this was the perfect NZ road trip machine. After stocking up on groceries, we walked around Auckland and enjoyed the view from One Tree Hill. Auckland was a manicured, green, and surprisingly large city. To escape expensive accommodations, we left town and freedom camped (parking in unpopulated areas) on the way to Hamilton. The night was a surprisingly warm 42 degrees.

In the morning, we explored the Hamilton gardens which was repurposed from an old landfill and represented a dozen countries. Their was a Japanese, Chinese, and Indian garden, all of which well represented the gardens Stacia and I have seen on our travels. Hamilton was one of a half dozen small quaint towns we drove through with many coffee shops and small markets on the way to Waitomo. Waitomo is one of a handful of places in NZ you can see glow worms. We spent 45 minutes exploring a cave, culminating in a boat ride under thousands of luminescent worms. After the caves, we took a scenic drive passing caves, a natural rock bridge and waterfalls to camp on the west coast.

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Ngaru Pupu Point

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In the morning, we explored a beautiful black sand beach connected to our camp by a 100 meter pedestrian tunnel. After walking the beach and making our feet thoroughly numb we drove the 3 hours to Lake Taupo. This lake is a hotspot of geologic activity. A geothermal and hydropower site produces %15 of the electricity for the entire country. We spent the afternoon bathing in a hot stream and viewing the Huka Falls.

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We woke up early at the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This popular day hike enjoys views of a apocalyptic volcanic landscape over 20 km. We stoped to enjoy views of Tongariro National Park, the emerald lakes and various craters. After hiking, we started our drive to Wellington which zig zagged through lush green farm land dotted by sheep.

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Emerald Lakesa

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The next day, we drove directly to Mt. Victoria to enjoy views of Wellington before going to the Te Papa Museum. Larry and Kaitlin enjoyed a day at some wineries near Wellington while Stacia and I did some work at a coffee shop. We camped on the coast south of the city.

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Wellington

The following day, we woke up early to take the interislander ferry to the South Island. This was by far the most beautiful ferry I have ever taken, moving from open ocean to a mountain lined bay on the way to Picton. The ship resembled more of a cruise ship then cargo ferry. We were eager to explore the South Island.

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First impressions:
– Wellington is a less crazy version of San Francisco
– New Zealand is a more organized version of the States
– Unlike the U.S. the cops are no where to be found
– Free public restrooms can be found on every block
– Most towns offer free wifi
– Freedom camping is easily accessible

Food:
– meat pie
– Fish and chips
– Feijoa
– Vegimite
– Flat white
– Yams
– Kumara

Jakarta & Yogyakarta

Jakarta was polluted and congested. We spent the majority of our time bussing to and from bus stations trying to arrange our transport for the next day to Yogyakarta. We were traveling during the busiest time of year, Eid Al Fitr. Everyone was leaving the city to spend time with their family and a news crew was covering the mayhem at the station. The next day we spent 19 hours on the road, only to travel 550 km (340 miles).

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Jakarta Cathedral

We arrived to Yogyakarta (Jogja) just in time to meet up with our CouchSurfering friend, Isa, and celebrate the end of Ramadan. We went to a local parade in Yogyakarta with lots of kids, costumes and floats. Of the 30 mosques that performed in front of judges, a story that stood out to me most was about terrorism. It started with kids being beaten and killed with cardboard guns and swords by teenage terrorists. Their tank float followed with fireworks. The message was simple, people associate Islam with terrorism, but 95% of people killed by terrorists are Muslim.

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The next morning was Ek and Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I went to the local square to watch early morning prayer. 5,000 individuals filled the green. It reminded me of Easter in the US in that families were dressed to the T in matching custom fabrics. The genders separated, men to the front and women to the back. Everyone laid out a piece of newspaper and proceeded to place their personal carpet on top. Women put on loose fitting coveralls, which hid their colorful new outfits. After a few minutes prayer was over and all that was left was a field full of crumpled newspapers and street food vendors.

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Morning Payer

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We enjoyed some amazing meals and different variations of local coffee. Whether we bought juicy sweet tofu off of a women selling fried goods from a basket on the street or were sitting on mats on the sidewalk we had a blast. Young musicians played guitar and violin and we enjoyed walking around the old dutch quarter. Below is a list of local foods and drinks.

  • Local coffee (kopi):
    • kopi luwak (civet coffee) – expensive, full bodied, cat poop coffee. The local palm civet, catlike animal, eats coffee berries, and passes the inner pit through its digestive system intact. The stomach enzymes are believed to add value to the flavor of the coffee.
    • Java coffee (named after the island of Java)- ground into powder and drank as the grounds settle
    • kopi joss (charcoal coffee) – My absolute favorite. Powdered local grounds were spooned into a glass cup and mixed with water. Then a red hot charcoal was placed right in the coffee. It has a perfect roasted flavor.
      Spiced coffee
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Bottom Right to Left- Poop, Cleaned Poop with Rice, Washed Poop      Top Left to Right- Baked Beans, Roasted Beans, Ground Beans
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Pet Civet
  • Local dishes:
    • gudeg – young jackfruit, coconut milk curry, fried tempe, peanuts, chicken, water spinach and rice
    • nasi langgi – coconut sticky rice with with fried tempe wrapped in a banana leaf
    • sweet fried tofu/ tempe – perfectly juicy soy made with palm cigar, tamarind, cloves and shallot
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Gudeg

After the morning prayers Larry and Kaitlin went to the beaches south of Yogyakarta which they reported were very nice despite it being low tide with a lot of rocks.

Nick, Larry and Kaitlin visited both Prambanan and Borobudur temples. Prambanan is a 9th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva the god of destruction. The temple was comprised of one main temple for Shiva and his reincarnates. The outer temples were dedicated to children and wives. The panels around the sides of the temple told the stories of the Hindu epics and were in remarkable shape being 1200 years old. The temples were abandoned in the 10th century and collapsed in an earthquake in the 16th century. They were only refurbished in the last 60 years and later dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the Prambanan they went to Plaosan a temple dedicated to the Buddhist queen of one of the Hindu kings. This marriage is what reconciled the conflict between the Hindu and Buddhist cultures 1200 years ago.

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Shiva
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Story Panel
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Temple

The following day Nick, Larry and Kaitlin went to a Borobudur the main Buddhist site for the Empire that fought against the Hindus at Prambanan. Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. With over 500 meditating buddha statues and 2,600 relief panels telling Buddhist stories, it was a very impressive site. Pilgrims come from all Buddhist countries to pay homage to one of the greatest Buddhist empires of history. The introduction of Islam and the collapse of the Buddhist and Hindu empires led to the abandonment of both these sites less than 150 years after being built.

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Sunrise Above Temples
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Sunrise Buddha
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Volcanoes of Java

Unfortunately, I stayed back to work on my summer assignments for my MBA. Nick has done an impeccable job planning and I like to believe I’ve done a great job documenting the trip. However, to give me time to focus on my schoolwork, Nick has agreed to write the remaining blog posts for NZ and Australia, whoop whoop! Stay tuned.

Restaurant Recommendations:
Via Via – impeccable western and Indonesian food, amazing atmosphere and even better wifi
Gudeg Tugu – chicken or tofu gudeg, our favorite meal in Indonesia
The House of Raminten – we didn’t make it here as it was closed for Ramadan, but it came highly recommended by our Couchsurfer

Aceh State

Pulau Weh (Iboih)

Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I headed north passing through Medan and Banda Aceh, before taking a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh. The town of Iboih was half developed and most everything was closed due to Ramadan. However, this didn’t cause any problems as we spent the majority of our time underwater. Known to be the best place in the Indian Ocean to dive, it’s unnecessary to say that we had a blast. Larry, Kaitlin and Nick went on multiple fun dives, while I completed my open water diver certification. Although a small achievement, I was extremely proud of myself for getting over my fear of scuba diving. After a handful of dives, we spotted: reef shark, sting rays, moray eels, turtles, puffer fish, octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchins, lionfish, catfish, rainbow fish, and a million other unknown colorful creatures.

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Moray eel

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Put your hands in the air if … you’re Kaitlin under water

On some of my dives, I saw motorbikes and cars sitting on the ocean floor as a result of the 2004 Tsunami. We spoke with Norma, the owner of our bungalow, about the affects the Tsunami had on a Pulau Weh. She said that 11 people had died, the island wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Banda Aceh where over 61,000 people were killed. She told us that the people on the island stopped eating fish because they were finding human parts in them and that they began to eat a lot of dried sting ray as so many washed up onto shore. She made it clear that the natural disaster was tied to religion, she mentioned people being saved maybe because they were good muslims and mentioned how she didn’t see many children in the mass graves, she didn’t know why, maybe they were spared. She remembered people climbing up coconut trees and after the destruction, individuals from Medan coming and stealing family land from the deceased. The destruction on Sumatra was unimaginable and we were looked forward to learning more in Banda Aceh.

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sunrise from our bungalow
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Aceh State (Sharia Law)
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bungalow betches

Banda Aceh

We all like to think that we are open-minded and have global perspectives, however we all make preconceived notions, and I am no different. After watching a VICE episode filmed in Banda Aceh about Sharia Law, to be honest I was a little nervous about visiting. I recalled them interviewing a man who had pledged his alliance to ISIS and the strict law that forbid public display of affection, western dress, non- conservative dress, drugs and alcohol, the meeting of non- married couples, and homosexuality. The episode showed a man receiving 80+ canes in the town square for breaking what felt like a petty crime. I checked the state department site to make sure there were no dangers for tourists and was eager to learn more about these differences. It turns out, it felt just like many other Southeast Asian cities. It wasn’t dangerous and didn’t feel oppressed. We had to be mindful of our actions, dress appropriately, and avoid eating in public due Ramadan. However, wherever you travel you should be respectful of the local culture and religion. Locals were friendly and shouting, “Good morning!” and “What’s your name?” as they sped by on their motorbikes. We thoroughly enjoyed the wealthy city (from oil) and explored the markets and many colorful fishing boats.

On our first night, we met up with a CouchSurfer who took us out for street food and when his phone flashed 6:40, we heard the mosque sirens and broke fast. He left for 2 hours to pray and we reunited around 11 pm. He picked us up with his friends to eat a second meal as most individuals fasting eat very late then again at 4am before prayer. We ate Aceh noodle soup with seafood and drank juice that consisted of avocado, jackfruit and coconut. He showed us around the Masjid Raya, which was the most beautiful mosque I have seen on our travels. The intricate marble screens were beautiful, the complex was enormous and it was immaculately maintained. 12 umbrellas modeled after those in Medina (Saudi Arabia) made it feel very modern. We learned that the small Banda Aceh airport, which offers 6 flights a day, has 2 direct flights to Medina per week. Our CouchSurfer told us how difficult and expensive it was to make a pilgrimage there or to Mecca, but anyone that did was extremely lucky.

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Masjid Raya in Banda Aceh
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Google image of Medina
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CouchSurfing with new friends
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marble screens
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Fulfill the call to prayer, pray, uphold Islamic law

The next day, Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I visited the Tsunami museum, which was not only well done, but also heart wrenching. Between fighting with the Dutch, a civil war and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, this city had a hard history. As we entered the museum we walked through a dark hallway with 98 ft. walls of dripping water, this represented the height of the waves in Aceh.

  • Both earthquake epicenters (9.2 magnitude and 7.5) were only 250 km from the state of Aceh, however its affects were seen in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Maldives, Somalia, Malaysia and Seychelles.
  • Of the 250,000 people that were killed from the tsunami, 61,000 were in Banda Aceh.
  • Similar to stories we heard in Sri Lanka, locals walked out on the exposed ocean floor collecting fish, unsure of what was happening. The ocean receded 900 ft. before the initial 98 ft. wave crashed the shore.
  • 4 mass graves are located in Banda Aceh, where the victims of the tsunami rest.
  • In Aceh history, tsunamis are known as le Beuna, a warning from Allah to all of human society to get back to the right side of life.
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Most Indonesians took the tsunami as a sign from God
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A 65 ton boat stranded 1 km from the river stuck on top of a house, saving 59 people.
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A 2,600 ton electric generator ship that was washed 2.5 km from the coast, now stranded in a residential neighborhood

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We would have loved to spend a few more days in Banda Aceh (and in every other town we’ve visited in Sumatra) but had to catch our flight to Jakarta. We boarded the plane to an announcement stating, “Any trafficking of drugs will end in the penalty of death.” It was obvious that all of our bags had been thoroughly searched as zippers were opened, clothes were moved and books pages were ripped.

Recommendations:

Olala & Oong Bungalows (Iboih) – both offer cheap accommodations with great meals; also try Dee Dee’s Kitchen next to Rubiah Divers

Rubiah Tirta Divers (Iboih)- the only locally owned dive shop on the island, you get lots of personalized attention, but don’t expect the staff to start early. They offer great Ramadan specials, open water PADI certification 3,200,000 rupiah ($240)

Ramadan street food (Banda Aceh)- at 4pm (only during Ramadan) the streets are lined with delicious sticky rice, sweets, fruit soup, noodles, fish curries, fried tofu, peanut salad and fruit. By 6pm, everything is sold out and everyone is closing shop. Take it to go and eat in private or wait until sunset to eat with the locals.

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Ramadan street food
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fruit soup

North Sumatra

Not only is Lake Toba the largest lake in Southeast Asia, it is the largest volcanic lake in the world. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I spent 2 days relaxing around the sleepy town of Tuk Tuk and were thankful we were not visiting during high season. We observed a local wedding, enjoyed local coffee, and (they) ate fresh water fish and crawfish. Lake Toba is home to Christain Batak people; we visited execution sites as Bataks practiced ritual cannibalism until 1816. We drove by numerous churches, tombs and traditional Batak homes. It felt like traditional homes were the affordable housing option for lower income individuals. The newer more elaborate Batak homes seemed to be built solely for tourism. We rented a motorbike, drove along the “coast” and visited some extremely hot, hot springs. The lush and volcanic landscape reminded Larry and Kaitlin of Hawaii.

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Lake Toba
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traditional Batak homes

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hot springs
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local wedding celebrations
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Larry & Kaitlin at Lake Toba

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We headed north to Berstagi, a small hill town that sat among volcanoes and that we came to cherish. The volcanic soil made it ideal for growing produce and we passed fields of cabbage, green onion, pineapple, orange, and coffee. Exploring the markets and street food were among our favorite activities. The highlight of our time spent in Berstagi was hiking Gunung Sibayak (volcano). We began hiking at 4 am in order to catch a beautiful sunrise. The crater and fluorescent yellow vents were a sight but nothing in comparison to the view across the valley of Gurung Sinabung (2,450 m). As I was posing for photos with some locals, Nick shouted “Look behind you!” Black smoke began to rise from the massive volcano, it was an eruption. For anyone that knows me, I began to slightly panic. I looked at the girls that I was taking photos with and asked if this was normal. They said no and that they were scared. Little did I know that it is an extremely active volcano and has small eruptions 2-5 times a day. I was being punk’d! The most recent large eruption was in May 2017 where 2 aid workers were killed trying to rescue residents. We hiked down the volcano’s backside through lush jungle and soaked in some hot springs at the bottom.

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Gurung Sinabung (2,450 m)

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On top of Gurung Sibayak
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BATMAN – bats sold at the local market (most often eaten in soup)
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bathing at the hot springs

Recommendations:

Sibayak (Lake Toba) – budget friendly rooms right on the lake, when you are ready to leave, simply flag down the ferry.

Wisma Sibayak (Berstagi) – cute rooms for 60,000 rupiah ($4.50) tucked off of main street, excellent find and strong wifi.

Family Baru (Berstagi) – try the coffee, ginger & egg white drink, you can’t go wrong with any of the food.

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kopi telor kocok – raw egg, ginger & coffee

West Sumatra

After taking a 3-month break from Southeast Asia, it was nice to return. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I purchased the cheapest flights from Kathmandu to Indonesia and landed in Padang (West Sumatra). The rice paddy fields, fresh fruit, street food and paved roads were back! 90% of Indonesian’s population is Muslim and it felt like we drove by a beautiful mosque every 5 minutes. Almost every woman wore a hijab and during the call to prayer you could hear it from every direction. The handful of Westerns we saw at the airport and in Padang had a surfboard in hand and was headed to the islands.

As we explored the clean, quant city during the day, it felt dead. Most of the restaurants were closed or had fabric veiling the door. We saw signs in Indonesian which translated to special service non-Muslims. This confused us. We walked along the river then near the ocean. Locals honked and screamed “hello.” Students interview Kaitlin to practice their English and the Indonesians smiled at us curiously. We laughed at the local mode of transportation, opelets, which were souped up vans with tinted windows, rims, and a pounding base. By 2 pm, large tables were set up along the road selling bags of noodles, sweets, and other foods “to-go”. We all took a nap, tired from only getting 2 hours of sleep during our transit and returned back to town for dinner. It felt like we were transported to a young hip city! There was street food everywhere and teens hung out at coffee, grass jelly juice, noodle, and meat kabobs carts. Then it clicked. All of these unique things were happening because we had arrived halfway through Ramadan, the largest Muslim holiday of the year. Although this eventually caused small complications with access to food, appropriateness of eating in public, increased traffic, and increased ticket fares; we were excited to experience the holiday.

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The next day, we took a bus to Harau Valley, often called the Yosemite of Asia. Tall walls of metamorphic rock lined the sides of the valley. Nick and I were looking forward to climbing, however the only rental shop was unfortunately closed due to the holiday. We stayed at Adhi Homestay, a cute cluster of bungalows that sat among waterfalls, flooded rice fields and fruit trees. We heard fruit constantly dropping out of trees, and enjoyed all sorts of fruit, including: bananas, jackfruit, passion fruit, wild guava, cacao, durian, soursop, dragon fruit, milk fruit, breadfruit, tamarillo, jicama, salak and coconuts. We ate our weight in passion fruit and I helped a girl climb a large tree to pick them. At 6:30 pm we heard a loud siren. Coming from Hawaii, Larry thought this was a tsunami siren. It followed with many call to prayers that echoed off the valley walls. This was the siren that marked sunset and those fasting were now allowed to eat. We learned that Muslims refrain from eating, drinking water, smoking cigarettes, and other worldly possessions (including sex) from sunrise (4:30am) to sunset (6:30pm). However, children and menstruating women do not participate the entire month.

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We spent a day relaxing, exploring nearby villages and taking a cooking class. We learned how to make chicken (young jackfruit for the veg option) rendang, a local Indonesian dish that is similar to a korma curry. We also made an eggplant and tempeh dish, and learned that tempeh originated in Indonesia. Unlike tofu, which is pressed soy milk (using mature soybeans (gold in color)), tempeh is made up of the entire bean, compressed. We also made some fried vegetable patties and banana jackfruit patties. We ate dinner with locals and foreigners and Nick, Larry and I had our cards read by a spunky local who had some surprisingly accurate things to say.

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On our last day in the valley, we hiked a steep ascent to enjoy a panoramic view. Volcanoes in the distance peaked out behind clouds and we could hear the call to prayer from the mosques below. The majority of the green valley consisted of flooded rice fields and fisheries. We observed henna, chili, clove and cacao growing. We saw a scary scorpion the size of my hand, but thankfully no snakes. Indonesia is notorious for its pythons. A few months ago a farmer disappeared in Sulawesi only to be found in the belly of a python nearby. Our guide informed us that this was rare, however in West Sumatra snakes eating children have become a pressing issue. The government has made it legal to hunt snakes for the local’s protection. We continued hiking through the jungle, crawled through caves and swam in waterfalls. Another surprising fact we learned was that Harau Valley was based off of a maternal society. Men had to pay a female’s mother to marry and it usually costs 16,000,000 rupiah ($1,200). It’s difficult for a man to find a wife as she must be in another group, approved by the village chief, and the man must be able to afford the dowry proposed by the mother. If a man is wealthy, like in many Asian countries, he can have many wives.

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That evening we took 3 modes of transportation to Northern Sumatra and traveled 515 kilometers (300 miles) in 16 hours.

Food:

Sari Rosa – similar to lunches in Myanmar, this local shop serves a dozen of small veg and non beg options and rice, you pay for the dishes you eat.

Try buff (water buffalo) or chicken rendang, chili grilled fish and abundance of tofu and tempeh. During Ramadan, sweets can be found everywhere. Try the fruit soup, green rice flower balls covered in fresh coconut and filled with palm sugar, butternut squash sweets or a pink coconut milk soup with tapioca squares.

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