Visiting Prambanan

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A visit to Jogjakarta is incomplete without seeing the massive temple complex that sits just on the edge of town, forty minutes or so by bus from the center. Prambanan is a towering and expansive series of Hindu temples, thought to have been erected during the 9th century when the ruling dynasty of Indonesia shifted from Buddhism to Hinduism and answered the Buddhist temple of Borobodur with Prambanan.

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Photos do little justice to the feeling of the place. Unlike Borobodur where you can scale the temple itself so that it seems smaller the closer you get, Prambanan offers no such relief. The nine central towers do exactly that – they tower over you and climb to incredible heights. In my opinion the eye is fooled even further by the shape of the towers themselves, dwindling to needle-like peaks which seem all the further away.

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Each spire has a set of stairs leading up about halfway, leading to a path encircling the temple and a door into the tiny inner chamber. The path takes you through a relief carved religious story or legend. This is a photo of the tree of heaven, a common theme in many Indonesian works.

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Inside each spire is supposed to be a deity or their representation though most of the statues are missing.

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The surviving ones are treated with care, though many are replicas and the originals are housed in museums. The outsides of the temples are covered in carved statues and faces, often better preserved than the shallow reliefs inside.

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The temple area includes four separate temple complexes – Prambanan, Lumbung and Bubrah temples, and the Sewu temple. All four are in various states of repair, having been historically plundered for stones and statues and in recent times suffering damage from earthquakes. Prambanan once housed many temples of various sizes in concentric squares. Now only the central temples stand, and a few of the smaller outer temples. The rest are waiting in piles to be rebuilt.

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We saw reconstruction teams working on putting some of the smaller temples back together. Fitting the pieces together in the correct order and making the structure stable again is hard work. Not only is the location not marked, but each piece weighs a ton. Maybe not literally, but heavy enough that one person can’t lift it.

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For all the wonder that is Prambanan, the other temples deserve a visit. They are smaller in both area and height, but offer more diverse temple styles, statues, and reliefs without the crowds of tourists. When we went over to Sewu temple, there was literally no one else there.

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Here you can see not only more of the art and architecture, but also of the destruction wreaked on the temple site by the earthquake. These temples were once fully repaired, now awaiting time and funds.

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The Sewu complex is full of statues, usually damaged in various ways.

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It houses reliefs waiting to be put in their proper place.

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And is a storage grounds for spare spire tops and temple stones, intended either for their original location or to fill in a partially complete temple.

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For tourists who stand out : be prepared for the local crowds. As with all other attractions we visited in Indonesia, groups and individuals stopped and asked us to take a photo with them. Sometimes this meant a selfie, other times it meant we were going to be in some classes’ travel photos. It’s exciting and fun, but eventually I get tired of it. Natalie does a bit better with photo stamina.

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Finally, a few last shots of the entire complex. We found the entire day to be completely satisfying. A quick breakfast, temples and tourists, and a bit of haggling at the end. Be prepared with water and a bit of people stamina, and come as early in the day as humanly possible – the grounds get sweat-and-sunburn hot quickly, and there’s a lot of walking to be done.

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Bogor part 2 : Bogor’s Gardens

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Bogor’s Botanical Gardens were founded in 1817 and continues to function as a botanical research facility to this day. For casual visitors it’s functionally the city park, with wide walkways, plentiful benches, and lots of shade. Because of the nearly year-round rains in Bogor, the garden is prime territory for tropical and rainforest plants, so the look and feel is quite different from a usual city park.

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Many of the trees in the garden are marked, both for their interesting characteristics, and their particular dangers. This lychee tree, for example, was planted in 1823, about 15 years after the garden was founded, and has a tendency to drop branches from overhead.

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Inside but separate from the botanical garden is the Presidential Palace complex. I’m not entirely sure what goes on here, but there’s a huge fence, lots of security, and some impressive buildings.

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The president also keeps a herd of deer in the compound. They were mostly uninterested in us and seemed generally pretty bored.

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All around the gardens are interesting flora – Natalie got a great shot of these mushrooms.

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And we got to see our old friends the cacao fruit! Sadly these were scientific specimens and government property so no picking. They were also very unripe judging by their color.

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We even saw some local fauna – a small family of cats.

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Indonesia, and these gardens in particular, are famous for being the origination point of the palm oil industry in Asia. Four seeds from a West African Palm were brought over and planted, and from these trees grew the local industry. Indonesia is now one of the leading producers of palm oil and it plays a huge part in their economic and export agenda.
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We found the garden in a confusing state of clearly cared for and nearly abandoned. While the plants and trees were flourishing, and the main walkways of the park well maintained, there were plenty of small gardens or fountains dotting the park that seemed left to the elements.

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From the park there’s a great view of the river running through the city – beautiful and wide, and unfortunately very full of trash.

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Despite the fountains being dry or clogged, and some of the smaller walkways overgrown with plants, it’s still a beautiful place to visit. The jungle within a park is quite a sight, unequalled by any other city park we’ve visited.

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As for our continued adventures, Bogor’s gardens is where I lost my small folding umbrella, not even a full day after purchasing it. I was very mad at myself over this, and spent a bit of time looking around for it to no avail. With our newly learned “payung” – the Indonesian word for umbrella – we wandered various convenience stores looking for a replacement. On the way back to the train station we met a man who was so eager to find us an umbrella, he ran to the corner store we had just checked and returned with the large umbrella we had already passed on. Despite his desire to help and make a sale, we eventually had to wave goodbye and walk away, but only after the virtues of the umbrellas he had on hand were extolled. Between that and haggling for bracelets, Indonesia marked a strong return to the haggle and hard sell of South America which was noticeably missing during our time in Australia and New Zealand.

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Bogor part 1 : The market

One of the nearby places-to-see, just outside of Jakarta, is Bogor. Bogor is the sixth largest city in the Jakarta province and is a bit of everything, but mostly a cultural and tourist center. It’s famous for its sprawling garden park and numerous museums, and serves an industrial and transit hub for the area. Getting there is amazingly easy – there are a lot of commuter trains that run between the cities, similar to light rail or metro trains instead of the long-haul style. We took ours from the station nearest our hostel, Jakartakota.

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Workers mop and sweep the train during major stops.

About an hour out, and we arrive. Bogor is supposed to be ever so slightly cooler than Jakarta so a lot of Jakarta’s residents use it as a weekend getaway. We got off the train and began our wide-eyed exploration.

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 A family gets off the train with us.

Greeting us right out the gate was this view of the station’s ojek parking. The country runs on these things, and while it’s obvious there are tons of them just from watching the traffic, this sea of motor bikes is hard to fathom.

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Motorbike parking at the train station.

Next up, getting me a snack. The delicious banana and nutella sandwiches I’d been having for breakfast were not enough today, so the first food cart in our path was it. It turned out to be exactly like a scallion pancake, minus the scallion. Hot, oily, and delicious.

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My plan for the day was to take us through the market to see and smell, then off to an out of the way noodle vendor for lunch, and then to the famous gardens for an afternoon stroll. The market is about twenty minutes on foot from the station, and along the way I really, really, had to use the bathroom. In a very interesting tourist-only experience, I walked into a large bank and asked if they had a restroom I could use. The guard laughed and walked me out the security hut to let me use theirs. I am almost entirely sure there was a pay toilet somewhere nearby and a local would have been told to go there. In Indonesia being an oddity and clearly foreign confers a good deal of leeway and assistance, and it’s important to not abuse that.

Shortly after this experience of gratitude and mild embarrassment, we came upon a food stall selling what looked like little cakes. Natalie was not interested but I got one. It turned out to be a type of coconut cake, heavy on the coconut. They come out as disks and the vendor cuts them in half and sells them in a bag. I never got the name of this dessert, but it was delicious, and there’s a recipe for something that looks a lot like it here.

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Continuing on our journey we had to cross a mighty big street. Not much bigger than the ones in Jakarta but with traffic going every which way. Despite being used to the standard crossing style from our practice in the city, we hesitated and two officers decided we foreigners needed help. They might have been right. Luckily several other people took advantage of the stopped traffic to cross so we weren’t totally alone. The officers chatted with us for a bit, asked where we were from and where we were going, and told Natalie to hold the camera tight for fear of pickpockets. Then the senior officer asked for a picture! That interaction was great fun, and we headed to the market.

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I am very tall for Indonesia.

Much like South America’s markets, this was a stall-to-shack lined street selling anything and everything edible. The street here were pretty bad – mostly worn cement and dirt. Ojeks and vans had a habit of coming through at regular intervals to block up the street.

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Turning down a quieter street revealed a more cramped but also more interesting side of the market. Here there were only ojeks riding down the road.

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And instead of the previous main stalls of large-quantity vegetables, we met young people selling spices, fruits, and foods of every variety. Every stall we went by was another chat, another set of where why hows, and often a very agreeable picture session. One lady with an amazing smile declined to have a picture taken, saying she wasn’t done up today. These three kids spent the most time talking to us and seemed to have an incredible amount of energy and sense of humor.

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Out of the market and way, way, way down the road, we came to Soto Mie Ciseeng, the noodle place I’d found out about. The food was great but the walk was very long and hot. I’m not sure I’d go back knowing there’s Mie Ahin just around the corner from the hostel.

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The owner was extremely friendly and talked with us while we ate. His business seemed to be doing well judging from the flow of people in and out of the restaurant.

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Our final stop before the gardens was at a cart selling neon-colored jelly and biscuit sticks in a brown liquid. Natalie was caught – what was this strange soup? It’s called sekoteng, and it’s dessert.

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Warm, sweet, and full of different textures. It also comes on ice, but anything iced has a decent chance to cause stomach upset so we went with the boiled version.

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As we ate we had a good view from the vendor-side of the cart. During business hours all of these jars and bowls and jugs are splayed out for display and access, but at night every last one goes somewhere in the cart, what can be folded is, and the cart is packed away until the next day.

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Next time : Bogor’s garden.

Australia, the foods we’ll miss.

Sushi.

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Sushi is not what we thought we’d be eating when we got to Australia – it’s expensive, slow, sit down dining. Australia has fixed all of these problems, and sushi-to-go shops sell rolls of every variety for a dollar or two. Not tiny slices of a roll, but full length, half-a-meal rice and seaweed wrapped slices of fish. It’s good sushi too. Not master-sushi-chef good, but on par or better than a nice sushi place. We loved getting our fish fix this way, and any time we were out sushi inevitably made it into our diet. It was just a super convenient way to get fresh, light food, and we really, really hope these things make it stateside by the time we get back.

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Kangaroo meat.

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We forgot to snap a picture of the raw meat, it’s very red and very lean. This is kangaroo chili.

In the US kangaroo is an unheard of meat. It’s expensive, hard to find, and not super fresh. Once again, Australia to the rescue. Kangaroo are a pest in this wonderful land, and the government gives out licenses to hunt them. In fact, the entire population suffers if they’re not kept under some check, since they have only dingos and humans as natural predators. Hence, plenty of kangaroo meat to go around – just don’t be surprised if you find a bit of bullet in your slice. The only kangaroo you can eat is wild hunted – farming the national symbol is unsurprisingly not allowed.
The meat is lean and the taste is gamey, somewhere between really meaty beef and buffalo. It’s easy to cook, goes well in all sorts of dishes, and is very often on sale. The iron-rich aroma and slightly tangy taste will live long in our memories.


Vegemite.

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An entire aisle of savory flavor goodness.

Delicious salty malty tangy bread in a jar, or vile sour yeast paste. I love it, Natalie hates it. It tastes like concentrated russian kvas or some sort of soy sauce paste. I like it on toast, plain. Most Australians seem to prefer it with butter. My initial steps were something like half a teaspoon for a slice of bread, if that. I wound up going straight to a full teaspoon and up once I got a hang of the flavor. There is definitely such a thing as too much vegemite, so a tiny jar of it lasts a good long while.


Doughnut Time

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Unique to the east coast of Australia is a small chain of donut shops that serve a small but very interesting selection of donut creations, including a set of vegan donuts. If you’re in the area they’re worth a stop, and have very cool toppings like strawberry cheesecake, honeycomb and crumbcake, and strawberry and passionfruit. The picture is worth way more than these words, the donuts are decidedly creative and delicious.

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My favorite, light and fluffy with a tart passionfruit flavor.
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Minimal selection, tons of flavor.
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Doughnut time, come on and grab your friends…

San Churro.

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With whipped cream or without. But definitely with.

Once a single store serving fresh, plump churros and thick hot chocolate, the San Churro store has expanded into a chain. We visited the Bondi Beach one regularly, mostly for the chocolate pick-me-up after a long swim. The churros feel like a necessary part of the experience but have gone a bit thin and crunchy compared to the olden days. The hot chocolate is as thick and delicious as ever. They offer a spicy hot chocolate which I accidentally got once – it’s not my cup of chocolate, but the mild kick was an interesting sensation. For me, the really amazing trick is the spoon standing straight up in the chocolate. I’ve never seen chocolate like that before, and I would really like to have it around during winter or, really all the time.


Bundaberg.

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It’s true that the US has Bundaberg, mostly the original ginger beer flavor. The products not available are the rest of the lineup, including the hard-to-find winter ginger beer which is full of christmasy flavor goodness. Bundaberg is nigh omnipresent in Australia. Available in almost any store (at least where we looked) where it takes up a whole chunk of the soda section, it’s also found in most eateries in the drinks fridge right next to the Coke and Fanta. It’s not a great idea to go overboard on it since it’s still a sugar filled soda, but any flavor whenever you want? Australians (and New Zealanders) have it made.


Tim Tams.

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The brown ones are the originals, there are a ton of different flavors now.

Milk chocolate covering two malt biscuits with chocolate cream filling in the middle. They’re very good, and they’re apparently iconic for Australia. Sold since 1964, they have a wide following in Oz and now come in a variety of flavors. The black forest cherry or caramel versions are pretty good, but I think the original is the best. We stocked up during a sale – about two dollars per pack of six. Otherwise they’re a bit pricey at three to four dollars. The famed “Tim Tam Slam” is something I thought our friend made up as a joke, but apparently it’s a real thing. Take a Tim Tam, bite off both ends, and use it like a straw to suck up your favorite drink, usually tea, coffee, or milk. It’s great silly way to drink your milk. I’m not sure the slam method is any better tasting than just eating the thing, but it sure is fun.


Meat pies.

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They’re iconic in the UK, but Australia and new Zealand also have a claim to meat pies, available basically everywhere, all the time. Australia gets the final credits for this one, since it was the last place we ate them and they have a kangaroo filled pie. In general though New Zealand seems to have a slightly larger variety and higher availability.

Roadtripping in Australia

What is roadtripping in Australia like, you might ask. Great news! We did it and we can tell you.

IMG_9932 This wasn’t outback roatripping, which is a whole ‘nother bag of rocks. This was Queensland coast roadtripping. First, there are sometimes farmer’s markets, and if you get lucky they take place at the right time and place to grab some delicious food for later. We went to a market on the Sunshine Coast, a very relaxed and family friendly place. We were not expecting a large variety of bananas, but bananas we got. Very tasty ones too.

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We definitely were not expecting to try some of the nicest cheeses we’ve had in a while. Australia is not especially well known for cheese, and White Gold Creamery has set out to correct this issue. They homebrew their cheese varieties, experimenting for months at a time until something good comes up. Their stated goal is not to compete with the super-market cheese aisle, but to offer different varieties and pleasant twists on famous styles. Natalie went straight to the mushroom-ripening brie, which gets a stronger and stronger mushroom taste as it ages. They also offered cultured butter – butter that has been to the opera – and we took a block to go with us.

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After shopping around we went behind the market to a local park full of man-made lakes. A mid-morning swim was in order. No pictures of the lakes were taken, suffice to say every park would do well to have a couple. Next, there are sometimes very big things along the way. Australia is kind of famous for this in fact, having about one hundred and fifty big things in the country. Our big thing visit was the Big Banana. We brought out some of the regular-sized bananas for scale.

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If you’re lucky you’ll meet your hair spirit animal. I met mine at a farm/restaurant along the coast. The restaurant was pretty expensive, but they have a free-pick macadamia nut orchard, so that was cool. We grabbed a handful and Natalie got these pictures of me and this yak.

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On any good Australian roadtrip, there will be meat pies. We searched high and low and googled for the best place to get some. Off the highway a bit sits an old house that is actually a restaurant inside, Fredo’s Pies. There the very kind cashier gave us a pile of meat pies and best wishes for the road. These were amazing, flaky and chewy with the meat cooked for hours till it was tender and delicious. The kangaroo pie is the specialty to try.

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R stands for ‘Roo.
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H stands for I don’t remember but it was delicious.

The last thing to see along the road is the sunset. These tend to be, almost universally, amazing in Australia. The open skies lend themselves to great cloudscapes and the sunset paints them in fantastic colors. Our night was rainy and we took the sunset photos from the car, so the amazing doesn’t translate so well, but we were treated to a 20 minute red and orange light show on the road.

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Baby. Sea. Turtles.

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It turns out that very near Bundaberg, only about an hour’s drive, is a sea turtle birthing grounds and science station. One of my favorite animals, and bam! There they were hatching and hey! They give tours and wow! We’re right in the area and.. oh they’re booked? Oh. Oh but someone cancelled? Really? We can get a spot? Oh my god that’s great! Thank you!

And so we got very, very lucky.

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Mon Repos is a national park where the largest concentration of sea turtles nest in Eastern mainland Australia, with a special focus on the loggerhead turtle. Outside of their scientific work, the center engages with the community at large by offering nightly tours to see the turtles hatching. A ticket costs about $12 AUS a person and it all goes to caring for the sea turtles and their environment. This is a fantastic experience and I recommend it as just about the best thing you can do in Australia. Others may disagree, but baby sea turtles! When we arrived the parking lot was semi-full and a small crowd of people waited in a loose line in front of the center.

Two things. One, the line wasn’t needed – the staff would call up people in order of their sign-up sheet. Two, the only thing more abundant than excited people are the mosquitoes. Just an unbelievable number of mosquitoes. The repellent does nothing except taste awful, don’t even bother. There is, however, a lovely old man who runs the only food stall there, and his fish and chips are pretty good. A+ for an otherwise difficult wait.

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Darkness falls and the staff starts calling out names. How this works is, volunteers from the center are combing the beach, looking for hatching clutches of eggs. When they spot one, a group of about 10 people get called in to watch the turtles hatch and make their way down the sand to the water. You get your group sticker, and you wait. If you’re the last group, like we were, it can be a bit agonizing and the hours go by and you wonder if they’ll find a fifth encounter for the night. They usually find many, but sometimes, sometimes.

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We explored the museum for a bit, watched a documentary on the turtles and the center, and waited. After some indefinite amount of time, we were breathlessly called in. They’d found a rare late-night hatching! The staff there really is excited to show visitors the turtles. We walked down the beach, turning off our lights as we hit the sand. From there we walked about five minutes to a small nest where our guide was waiting. She told us about the relative rarity of the encounter, the state of the eggs, and what to look for.

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Initially she thought there were only two turtles left in the clutch – the rest had long since headed to the sea. It turned out there were five in total, with one unfortunately not long for this world. Our guide picked up the turtles and let us touch their fins and backs. Feeling the baby sea turtles flipper pulling against my hand is and will remain one of the purest moments of joy I have experienced. Somewhere between the Lion King’s Circle of Life and a David Attenborough nature documentary, everything else faded for this one perfect moment. It might not be the same for everyone, but for me, apparently this was it.

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But wait, there’s more! While we were looking at the turtles up close, another hatching started mere meters away from where we were. The guide had a terrible time controlling our group, unfortunately, but no turtles were stepped on and very quickly we lined up a few feet away from their line of travel. And travel they did, remarkably quickly for such small animals, yet terribly slowly in the grand scheme of things.

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It was interesting to see how greatly they are affected by light. Our guide used their flashlight to guide them to the water, but they will follow any bright light pretty mindlessly. This is the reason the center fights tooth and nail for blackouts and light restrictions in the breeding area – anything, even light from a house window, will set them in the wrong direction.

We watched the clutch make their way to the water, about twenty to thirty turtles. Amazingness (and luck) for the night being over, we walked back to the center, then the car. At this point we were beat, so I found a nearby park that seemed to allow camping, and camp we did.

A great thanks to the staff and volunteers at Mon Repos for offering this experience to the public and making our night an amazing one. For anyone interested in visiting, information can be found here.

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First stop : Bundaberg!

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Getting a car is de-facto required to explore Australia, especially at your own pace. The country is huge and the infrastructure between cities doesn’t suit stopping in the middle to see what awesome lurks there. We took advantage of a “relocation rental” where a rental car company rents you, the savvy traveller, a car for very, very cheap. In exchange, you drive it from one city to another, ideally your starting and ending cities. We found one from Brisbane to Sydney and went with it.

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Look at all that wonderful sleeping space!
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And all the junk that has to go in it…

“It” turned out to be a monster of an outback vehicle, equipped with a reserve fuel tank, fridge, and full camping kit for four people. The pros were : lots of room, decent mileage, lots of traction. The cons were : huge driving hazard, way too much gear taking up all of that wonderful space, high cost of all the diesel we used. On the road we went, using Australia’s convoluted freeway toll system, but our destination was worth it. Bundaberg. Land of.. not much, as it turns out, except for the sweet, memories of childhood laden syrup known as Bundaberg Ginger Beer. What follows may read as an advertisement for them, it’s not. I just really, really like their sodas. They’re great.

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Visiting the “Barrel” as their center is known was a huge draw for me, and we even went out of our way north, away from Sydney, to see it. Was it a giant barrel of a building? Yes. Was it full of delicious soda? Yes. Did the very friendly staff offer samples of all their wonderful varieties most of which I had never heard of? Yes!

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Ingredients lovingly laid out on the bar for you to sniff.

They also had a short tour for a small fee, but we opted not to go. The samples and machinery on display were more than enough for us. Natalie really like the grapefruit, and I was a great fan of the lime and bitters. We both actually like the seasonal special winter brew the best, ¬†tasting of cardamum and cinnamon and all those other good winter spices, but that one wasn’t on tap. Though you don’t have to buy anything for the tasting, you might want to grab a bottle closer anyway – they’re great for traveling since they can close just about any glass bottle.

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Yes, you do get to try each and every one of them.

Fear not fellow Bundaberg lovers, their lineup is coming more and more to the States, which is their fastest growing market. Hurrah! Except for the cola they make specifically for a reseller who only operates in Australia/NZ. Too bad really, it’s quite tasty.

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