#43 Saturdays Are For Coffee + Hiking – Labrador Park

Saturday. Time for something that excites the taste buds, and yet something fun to do that can burn the calories directly off without keeping it in the system. Zero guilt, double the fun. Let’s go!

I wanted to create an itinerary where I’d start off by getting a coffee (to wake up and get a boost) and some dessert (to please my tummy), and then sweat it all out in a satisfying way. So in my search for a start-off fuelling point to grab my cuppa joe and sugary treat before hitting the road, I stumbled upon this café. Just minutes away from one of the starting points of the Mount Faber Trail, it was not only convenient for our coffee-and-hike mission, but also unique in its own way.

That’s how we began with gusto at at Old Habits (Block 38 Telok Blangah Rise) for our obligatory sugary top up of energy. The name of the game here is all things vintage… except their menu which is refreshingly contemporary.

Chock-a-block of old-school stuff

We ordered the signature dessert item which required us to be patient and wait for it to be freshly cooked. But fret not, the café is chocked full of strange knick-knacks and colourful curios – from vintage posters to decades-old Nintendo cartridges to phased-out old road signs plucked from the middle of nowhere to a plastic purple Grimace toy (those that came with a Happy Meal) next to the cash till, there are plenty of things to poke around at while you wait for your food to arrive. Continue reading

#42 Up Java’s Big Boss Semeru in 2D1N – Volcano Weekend Part 2

Climbing Mount Semeru was insanely difficult especially since it was my first official volcano trek. In fact, I was pretty sanguine because I had no idea what I was in for. Sometimes that sort of ignorance can be bliss since I would’ve fretted endlessly. With three weeks between having decided and actually going, even bringing the gym game super strong was barely cutting it for me. If you are a seasoned hiker who have done other volcanoes and a couple of multi-day treks, you should have no problems. In any case, the trail towards Semeru is mostly dry and through temperate forest, which is more enjoyable for me than rolling around huge buttress roots in a tropical forest which is often dim and muddy. At 3,676 metres above sea level, Semeru is the highest volcano on Java, and the 3rd highest in Indonesia.

Hillsides spewing gases - taken on the way back to Cemoro Lawang from Ranu Pane

Our trek up Mount Semeru to the Mahameru summit was a 2D1N journey. A few people have asked me if it was possible with the condensed itinerary, since this trip was commonly advertised as 3D2N, and the answer is yes!

(This is the fast and furious version as some of us cannot take too many vacation days and a longer trip was out of our budget. There is the usual version at 3D2N, where you set up camp at Ranu Kumbolo before continuing on again. Skip to the end of this post for the itinerary.)

Having a good night’s sleep the night before is crucial, since the next evening with no proper bed and the anticipation of the summit attack we barely got any sleep. On the day of the hike, we started out bright and early at around 8, with the Jeep picking us up from our hotel. We passed the Bromo entrance and continued on down toward the Sea of Sand, and then went a bit further.

We had two pit stops on this Jeep ride – the first one is the Whispering Sands and the second one is Teletubbies Hill, before moving on to our actual starting point of the hike – Ranu Pane.

These sands don't really whisper but they do get into your eyes!!!

The Whispering Sands, or Pasir Berbisik. There was a lot of ash and sand swirling in the air and we could not see further than 50 metres, let alone the actual horizon. We didn’t hear any whispering from the sand, just excited shouts of other tourists jumping off their Jeeps. The Mad Max sensation of crossing the desert was stronger here. After a few photos, we were choking on the sediment-filled air and happy to move on.

The Jeep lurched and jerked and rattled on. Continue reading

#41 Sunset at Bromo – Volcano Weekend Part I

Don’t be fooled: Volcanoes are dangerous things. Yet it’s not that common – at least not in Indonesia – to find a place where you can watch lava flowing down the slopes at close range. From far, you see gentle white plumes of smoke shaped like angels and it could appear like it’s snowing on a perfectly warm day. Get close enough, they rain down acrid flakes of nostril-clogging ash which obscure your vision and deliver enough sulphuric gases guaranteed to make your lungs very unhappy.

My friends and I went on a 3D2N journey to see two stunning volcanoes in East Java – Mount Bromo and Mount Semeru. These two neighbours may be next to one another but they can’t be more different.

From Singapore, it’s a short 2.5 hour flight to Surabaya, a popular base in East Java where adventure seekers and hiking enthusiasts go off to bag some volcanoes. Think of Bromo as your eager-to-please photo-friendly destination, and Semeru as a gruelling scale-me-if you dare royal challenge.

We wanted to fit our trip into 3 days – but if you have more time, go ahead and plan a more breathable itinerary. We landed in Surabaya at around 9.30am and reached Cemoro Lawang via airport transfer (courtesy of our hotel – SM Bromo) by 2.30pm. With the relatively smooth traffic, it took 4.5 hours to reach the hotel. Instead of waiting till the next morning for the sunrise, we opted to see Bromo at sunset.

We set off around 3pm and walked 5km from our hotel to the entrance of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park, a mostly-uphill walk that took us 45 minutes. We were treated to some pretty scenery of onion fields and rice patches like this one here.

Onion fields galore!
We stayed at SM Bromo Hotel and had a wonderful experience. We paid 200k IDR per person for one night’s stay. For this price we had hot water & good pressure in the shower, freshly prepared hot breakfast with tea/coffee included, plus great service, new and clean facilities and the smooth and efficient airport transfer. So I would say it’s more than value for money! The trade off is that it can be quite far from the entrance – this 5km can be done by Jeep too – so you decide. Note that there are a few hotels that are directly next to the entrance, which is a mere 5-minute walk to the entrance, but I read too many negative reviews to risk staying at those.

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#35 In The Heat Of Mount Papandayan, Indonesia

Mount Papandayan is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when people plan a trip to a volcano. With more than 120 volcanoes all over the Indonesian archipelago, it’s only natural that a lot of gunung apis get completely sidelined and ignored by tourists and visitors. While every volcano may have something interesting to offer, there are definitely a few that stand out because they are well-linked to cities, have more media coverage, better tourism infrastructure and better marketing, and/or are simply more beautiful, at least in the conventional way, than others, like Bromo, Ijen, Rinjani and Merapi, to name the popular ones.

Located in a highly tectonically active region, Indonesia is the go-to place to experience the raw and potentially dangerous beauty of these lava-spewing devils. So it’s a good thing that a volcano lover like me is living a short plane ride away from these hot spots. I was planning a trip to Bandung and as usual one of the first things I started hunting down is somewhere to go absorb the great outdoors. Tangkuban Perahu came up tops in searches, but the reviews about pushy touts and heaving crowds totally put me off. No matter how gorgeous a place is, it defeats the whole idea of invigorating oneself in Mother Nature when all the crowd-fighting just sucks the life out of you.

We booked a day tour via our hostel in Bandung. The sun rises earlier here in Bandung than in Singapore, and there’s traffic to beat, so we left a little past 7am. We passed small non-descript towns that resembled one another – mobile phone stalls, roadside hawkers selling bakso and batagor, vegetable sellers, and witnessed the occasional cluster of goats tied to wooden posts awaiting their fate of being sold and slaughtered. It was the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Adha. After two and a half hours, the driver brought us to Garut, a sleepy village near the volcano, to meet our guide Danny, and then we bounced for 20 minutes on rocky, bumpy terrain up to the foothills of Mount Papandayan. Danny told us that this volcano is classified as Type A, meaning it can “blow anytime”. Not very reassuring to say this now, especially since we are just about to climb up. The last time it blew its top was in 2002, and he seemed confident that volcanic eruptions of this kind is a once-every-100-year event so it “shouldn’t” happen again. Something from my geography undergrad days tell me this theory is flawed but I tried not to dwell on it, considering my penchant for entertaining irrational fears.

Do we want the standard route or “Danny’s Special Route”? asked Danny our guide. We figured we hired him to show us something ‘interesting’ so Danny’s way it is. Little did we expect to be literally walking on sizzling hot ground!

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

Panoramic view at Mount Papandayan

The first part of the “Special Route” was a shortcut through a series of skin-grazing, low-lying shrubs. Around 40 minutes later, we arrived at a vantage point to admire the spectacular view. The initial ascent was steep and I had to pause a few times before reaching the ‘top’, which was one of the accessible summits (not the ultimate one). Here we enjoyed panoramic views – looking far and wide, we could see all the way down to the flat rice plains and another mountain, Gunung Cikuray, in the distance. Down below, a trail of backpack-wielding hikers was making its way up to the other side of the volcano where apparently you could camp overnight on a grassy clearing.

Time to explore sulphur-emitting geysers, colourful ribbons of water, cascades of steaming hot liquid, and bubbling mud holes! Continue reading

#33 Off Peak Travel and Hiking in Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque fishing villages,
Far away from the world,
by the Mediterranean.

Off peak travelling has its obvious perks – less to pay for accommodation, no jostling at the ‘perfect photo spot’, and best of all, having plenty of beautiful spaces all to yourself. But then it’s also the season for locals to hoof it to their own holidays – meaning shops and restaurants are more likely to close, and it would be just the right time for maintenance works to take place – which could mean unexpected closures and potential disappointment, not to mention disrupting your itinerary (if any) and travel expectations (naturally).

Something’s gotta give, unless you perpetually hunt down the sweet spot of shoulder seasons, you’re bound to bump into either extreme. I used to shun travelling during the off time, because in my mind I would have painted a lovely picture of strolling down a cherry-tree lined promenade in Tokyo (did not happen) or a spectacular sunrise at Yosemite (did not happen either), and I have this immense fear that my experience is not nearly complete if the product didn’t look exactly like what was shown to me on paper. I’m telling you, these are silly preoccupations that the sooner you get over, the better off you are.

Most people ogle at the pretty-as-pink villages but take some time to admire the breathtaking Ligurian coastal scenery found in Cinque Terre.

Most people ogle at the pretty-as-pink villages but how about taking some time to admire this breathtaking Ligurian scenery?

Cinque Terre between Christmas and New Year’s is something I’d consider off peak. People do go away on these dates, but I’d imagine most Europeans would be shredding snow and ice on Alpine slopes or sipping Chang beer on Thai beaches, while travellers from faraway lands would choose to go to places like Vienna or Hamburg, which are still sexy as hell when drowning in ankle-deep snow. I imagine that mainstream hikers would not find joy in bagging Cinque Terre hills in 10°C weather and the chilly winds on the slate-gray beaches would also make damn sure you won’t be frolicking in your bikini or board shorts (unless you are Scandinavian or suicidal), either.

Still, those are my guesses. Proof came in the form of having to drive around for more than an hour looking for somewhere to eat dinner on our first night in the Cinque Terre area. You might say, well we wouldn’t have a problem if we’d chosen to stay in Riomaggiore – but for me that’s considered cheating when you make things too easy. We ended up at a pretty decent pizza place (oh wait, it’s Italy) on the outskirts of Sestri Levante – the kind where everybody just pops in to pick up their takeaway pizzas and the doe-eyed pizzaioli spend a lot of time baking pizzas with just one another. We wolfed down the slices in the car, for fear the pizza guys might want to make conversation (no, not really), then drove back in the pitch-dark, winding mountain roads.

We stayed at the Perla del Levante hostel in a perched little village called Ravecca, still nearby but considered totally off the touristy trail (~42km to drive to Riomaggiore). The hostel has a terrace where you can enjoy a great ocean view and hear the sound waves crashing down below. We could also park our car for free at a nearby roadside.

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