Everybody loves Byron Bay. Don't they? It was recommended by our friends and family, and the guidebook. We decided to skip a few towns on the way, mostly due to the brisk weather down south. Leaving Taree at 21.30 on the train after a few hours on the coach from Tea Gardens, near Port Stephens, the journey took all night. We alighted at 'Casino' at 04:10 for a subsequent coach journey to Byron Bay, finally arriving approx 06:15 in the rain. Finding a good early morning cafe, especially with free wifi, was very fortunate and we settled in to plan our stay.
Following our day trip to the Hunter Valley it would have been very easy to stay another night in Newcastle to recover from all the wine tasting, but instead we asked our tour guide and bus driver to drop us back off at the bus station, not the hostel, so that we could catch the 8pm bus bound for Port Stephens.
Following the good advice of our host at 'Backpackers by the Beach', we splashed out ($55 each) on a one-day tour of the Hunter Valley Wine Region. With hindsight this was definitely a better option than trying to do it independently, especially in one day. We joined a tour on a Friday, the day before expected hordes of weekenders from Sydney. Having the luxury of being able to compare this experience to our honeymoon in the Champagne region, we lapped up numerous samples, and presumably a cover charge was included in our tour price. In one winery we supped 16 samples.
If the rest of the East Coast is as good as this then we're in for a good time. The people in Newcastle are really proud of their town, which is obvious. We checked into one of the best backpacker hostels we've stayed in so far (if only the wifi was free...) and had two free 'backpacker' dinners with after-dinner quiz, followed by a live music on one night, and a free bottle of 'champagne' (Tyrell's sparkling wine from the Hunter Valley) on another night; won not with our general knowledge, but for having the best team name; 'Enjoy Coca-Koala'.
By now we had had enough of the hustle and bustle of city life, and the druggies, homeless and drunks in the Kings Cross area of Sydney, so we decided to take a day trip out to get away from it all. It was a good decision and we ended up having a lovely relaxing day out, where we began to fall in love with Sydney after the false start.
I didn’t really like the first 24 hours as it just looked like we'd arrived home to a rough part of London/Edinburgh/Manchester, especially with suburbs of identical names, and our glimpses of the harbour bridge during our transfer from the airport were underwhelming.
Singapore airport is massive, similar in style to how I remember Frankfurt from my European travelling days. Life just seemed to get easier for us on arrival. No language or communication issues, and everything was well signposted, sophisticated, and intuitive. We were back in a well-developed modern metropolis, with sleepy Brunei behind us.
Our day trip out to the Ulu Temburong National Park started with the alarm clock going off at 7am, as we had to meet with our guide for the day just down the road at 7.30am. We were pleasantly surprised to find that we were the only people booked on the tour and that we had our own private guide for the day. First stop was the boat quay where we boarded a speedboat bound for Bangar. This ride soon woke us up! 45 minutes of action straight out of a James Bond film. It was ace. Our guide impressed us with the necessary facts: we were travelling at speeds of up to 80kmh.
First Impressions of Bandar Seri Begawan in Brunei were similar to those of Kuala Lumpur, i.e. nicely developed, clean, orderly, and friendly. My expectations of immense oil wealth, extravagantly invested into a thriving commercial economy were still intact, but not for long!
There wasn't much choice of accommodation for the budget backpacker in town. We settled for the only town centre option; a Chinese-run (basic but clean) old converted warehouse. The bed was less itchy than other places we've stayed in, but the tiny ants still drove me mad!
After our strenuous successful efforts in climbing Mount Kinabalu, we were more than ready for some rest and relaxation to allow our tired muscles to repair themselves. We found this in the Manukan Island Resort.