We’re off again for five weeks. We’ve decided that, while we can, we had better explore the more adventurous countries still on our “to do” list, as Murray is now 76.
We have booked a 19-day “Best of Ethiopia” trip with “Intrepid Travel” for A$5,620 each (we’re finally starting to accept the cost of group travel versus independent travel). We’ve added a couple of days in Singapore at the beginning, and have added a couple of weeks in Ras Al Khaimah (another UAE country), Oman and Dubai to the end of it.
Our flights are booked with Qantas, for A$3,977 for the two of us, with the flight to Singapore being operated by them, but all the other flights are operated by Emirates, which should be interesting as they have a very good reputation, and we’ve never flown with them.
We have arranged two non-simultaneous houseswaps while we are away – an Australian couple living in Ubud, Bali are staying in our unit for a month, and a couple from Newham, England are staying for a week, which promises some good holidays in the future, but in the meantime it means we have to do a major spring clean before we go.
At midnight on the night before our flight, Dianne is doing some last-minute things on the internet, when she gets an email from a 74-year old lady in Belfast, Ireland who is adopted. She found her mother about 10 years ago, but knows nothing about her father other than that he was an Australian wing commander in the Second World War. She has just had her DNA done, and comes up with a match with Dianne that looks like she is a second cousin. The fact that I was in Australia excited her, as I could be linked to her unknown father. I obviously can’t just go to sleep after this, and after an hour or so I come up with a very likely prospect for her father, which turns out to be correct. (Post script – I do a fair bit of research while we’re away, and after we come home, and finally unite her with a half-brother and half-sister (who are also my second cousins who I have never met). They are now all in constant touch, and planning to meet later in the year.)
Luckily our flight is not till 11.30am, so get some sleep before we have to get up.
Thursday 17 January 2019 Sydney-Singapore
We finish up our unit cleanup and head to the wharf early for our chosen ferry, but miss an earlier one by minutes, so catch up on internet on the wharf, and then the ferry. Miss an airport train by minutes, but make it to the airport in plenty of time, and use our Opal card with no hassles about cash contribution at the airport turnstiles. We note a backpacker who is forced to go back and pay. The Government may have managed to close the travel now, pay never scam, where people used anonymous cards with only a dollar or so on them, thus avoiding the gate fee of A$14.30, or A$12.80 for seniors.
The Qantas bag drop system is all new, and even though we have checked in on line we still have to scan our passport and on-line boarding pass, get bag labels which we have to stick on ourselves, a couple of different bag receipts, and our cardboard boarding passes, then load our own bags onto the conveyor system. It works well enough for the computer semi-literate, once you know, but the whole system is highly dependent on no computer glitches or hacking.
Every time we go to the airport there is something new, but not necessarily better. Murray’s new passport, purchased, among other reasons, to correct a scanning bug in the old one, still needs re-scanning. The queue for GST refund took over half an hour for one item. There were a lot of Asians with reams of receipts, a lot of them long ones like from Coles/Woolworths. We suspected it could have been for the baby formula scam, but wondered how they would do it as they are not showing the goods they’ve purchased (like we did with our new Ipad). The operator explained that Customs has an offsite office for bulky items where the receipts get stamped.
Have our first McDonalds of the trip with a light breakfast to tide us over. The new Macdonald site is a lot more convenient, with cooking on the floor above and a whiz-bang conveyor system to bring down orders, but the menu seems to be pretty limited. Flying Qantas certainly gets you a convenient gate position, but you still have to run the gauntlet of the Duty Free mega-mall. Boarding was orderly, but the queue wound all around the gate seating area, so we decided to remain seated until nearly everyone had passed through the gate, but we still got caught out, as the queue continued, hidden, down the long, zig-zag ramp to the aircraft.
The flight was pretty smooth, with only a couple of seat-belt warnings, the entertainment range quite good, the touch screens seem to have improved, but the earphone plugs were the same inadequate design, having to be held in the right place to get both ears working. The food was only fair, and not a lot of it, but the passionfruit-coconut Weiss bars, although not elegant, were tasty.
We arrive at 16.45 local time. Changi Airport is efficient, with a very short taxi to the gate, reasonable queues at Immigration, minimal Customs, and minimal baggage delay.
We first went to Singapore in 1977, when it was really interesting. It then went through a stage of being pretty boring, but since then they’ve spent a lot of effort improving it. It’s been quite a while since we were last here, and we want to explore the new Marina Bay area with the Gardens by the Bay and the Cloud Forest. We’ve booked two nights at the Fragrance Hotel, Riverside at Boat Quay for A$115 per night, the closest (two to three kilometres away) reasonably priced hotel we could find.
It is a pretty long walk to the Skytrain to get to the Terminal with the subway connection, but still pretty efficient. There are not a lot of city maps or subway route maps about, so it takes a while to sort out the closest subway station to our hotel, and the route to it, but are helped by a very friendly staffer to use our stash of Singapore dollar coins to get two $2.60 tickets to take the Airport shuttle to Tanah Merah, then the East-West line to Outram Park, then the North East line to Clarke Quay. We had not anticipated travelling in peak hour through the centre of the city with our baggage, and although we managed to get seats given up for us, exiting the carriages with bags through the mass of people is a trial. At Outram park, in the long transfer tunnels we miss the signage, and end up where we started, but are put on the right track by a helpful local. We haven’t got the latest version of maps.me sorted yet. Since it changed hands (or maybe just became more commercially oriented) it seems to be a lot more internet-dependent, and we take a while to sort out our directions after exiting the station, but eventually find our Fragrance Hotel-Riverside quite close. Back in 1976, we couldn’t imagine a hotel being named thus, but the river is a lot cleaner now than it was then. Maybe the name comes from being in Hong Kong Street.
Check-in without incident, and find ourselves upgraded to a room with a window, with back-alley and skyscraper views. The room is cosy, but clean and functional, with good single beds, bathroom, TV and good internet connections.
A$1 = S$0.96
After a break in the room, we decide to go out and look at the river walk, after dark, with a plan to find a bit of food so as not to go to bed hungry, and to have a quick look at the river. Walking down Hong Kong Street, past a lot of very flash parked cars, we find ourselves in Chinatown, with a fair selection of eating possibilities. We find a narrow restaurant, with a lot of locals eating, and an enthusiastic operator with an illustrated menu. He keeps pushing the chili-crab, and a lot of the locals are having it, using gloves or plastic smocks to control the fallout, but we settle for honey pork, vegies with seafood, rice and a can of lemon soda with ice. The meal is quite good, and at $24, not particularly cheap, with the Singapore dollar being above par with the Oz, but still good value.
We walk on to find the river, and are about to cross the road at the bridge, at some risk, when Dianne notices others using an underpass which leads directly onto the River Walk. We have definitely chosen an excellent spot to stay.
By now, it is fully dark, and we get some good photos of the night lights and river reflections all the way down to the Brunel-style suspension bridge at the imposing new-colonial Fullerton Hotel. We pass a continuous strip of restaurants and bars with river terrace dining tables along most of it, and occasional gaps for waterfront access. Towards the end, across the river from Raffles Hotel, there is an area with ghats down to the water, and no restaurants. We decide against carrying on further to Marina Bay, as this would be tomorrow’s expedition, and return via One Raffles Place, Battery Rd, and back home through Chinatown, in drizzling rain which has become heavy enough to use the umbrellas.
Murray calls it a night just after 12.30 AM, Sydney time, after posting some photos, Dianne half an hour later. Have the usual problem in the night – too hot for no AC, too cold with AC but without bed covering, too hot under the doona, but survive.
Friday 18 January 2019 Singapore
Early breakfast on apples and carrots left over from out home snack pack, plus hotel coffee for Murray. Look out our window onto a pretty bleak-looking day, with rain on the window and a very grey sky.
After sorting ourselves out and establishing the plan for the day as walking via Chinatown to the Marina Bay complex, we set off down North Bridge road as far as a major display of paper sculptures of pigs along the road, giving us a clue to what Chinese New Year is about to celebrate. We pass some very interesting architecture, with horizontal striations very much like natural sandstone weathered stacks, and a strong emphasis on vertical gardening. We divert into interesting side streets in the market area, stop for a traditional rice-and-pork and rice-and-duck breakfast with a good mango juice and a very ordinary papaya juice, for about $12. We find the Chinatown MRT, handy for future reference, as we have changed trains here below ground. We also do a search through the multi-story market building for gaffer tape for our failed new Ipad cover, without luck. Our random path takes us up Ann Siang Hill through interesting streets to a dead end at the historic Businessmen’s Entertainment Club, and down through a park to a major Buddhist temple, Thian Hok Keng, then head more-or-less directly towards Marina Bay.
We deviate from the map path into more interesting street and find ourselves near One Raffles Place, where we were last night. Find a very large traditional-style market building full of restaurants, bars and seating for the lunchtime crowd. Find we’ve changed direction, and have to re-orient to keep going towards Marina Bay, finally emerging onto a large park fronting a broad expanse of water, with the iconic triple tower of the Marina Bay Sands complex across the water, together with the lotus-shaped Science Museum, the large Ferris Wheel, and the now ageing Durian building (finished in 2001 and officially known as Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay). We negotiate an arcade through the basement of a large, new office building to get to the shore line, where we see in the park large umbrella structures with solar panels and solar-powered fans for those seated below.
We walk around the water, past the Red Spot Museum and a large fun park to get to the long, curved roofed podium structure for the three towers. We take plenty of photos, as it is all pretty spectacular, and of particular interest is the “Rain Oculus” artwork (completed in 2011) which functions as both a skylight and a rain collector. A large whirlpool forms inside a 70-foot diameter acrylic bowl and falls 2 stories to a pool below. The rain water is recycled back to the whirlpool and also fills a canal that runs through the atrium.
We know we have to cross a major freeway to get to the Supertree grove of the Gardens by the Bay, so Dianne looks for overpasses, and we eventually find a very long escalator cantilevered off the walls of the atrium, which leads to an external walkway at high level over the freeway, and to a vantage point with views of the gardens, the Supertrees, and the high arched pavilions over pay- for-view displays.
As we’re coming back here later in the day to see the sunset and night lights (we have tickets to the Marina Bay Sands SkyPark Observation Deck, usually $20 for seniors, but purchased with 2,840 each, frequent flyer points that were about to expire) we decide to head back to our room for a rest, so make our way to the Bayfront MRT Station, and home via Chinatown and Clarke Quay stations, finding out a bit more about stations with the inward and outward platforms for the same Metro line being on different floors, rather than side-by-side, and finding a lot of exit options from Clarke Quay, but only one being useful.
After a rest break we head out about 6PM, taking the MRT straight to Bayfront, and follow the signs the full length of the complex to where we have to show our printed tickets for access to the viewing area on the horizontal lozenge which connects the three towers. We have a surprisingly short wait, and are whisked to the 57th floor, to find a timber decked promenade most of the way around the north east end of the buildings, with glass balustrades, and some glass barriers above, but mainly wire barriers for uninterrupted viewing or photography. There are a lot of people sitting down against the balustrades, saving places for the sound and light shows later, but there are still plenty of vacant places to stand and observe. We walk around to the west side and up a staircase to the next level, which has the bars and restaurants, plus the swimming pool further along to the SW. We can’t reach the swimming pool, but can take photos along the length of it.
We set up on the west side to wait for sunset and the lights of the city to come on, take a lot of photos across to the city and down to the Marina. Dianne buys a pretty ordinary hot dog, and three tiny sausage meat sate sticks which take a while to cook, and a lot to pay for, but they keep the wolf from the door.
From here we can look down on the river and inner city, and can see the Clarke Quay Central shopping centre sign, visible only a hundred metres away from our hotel window. It looks remarkably well-placed from here. Murray is in the middle of taking a panorama video of the city when Dianne comes back from a fact-finding mission to say the sound-and-light show at the Supertrees is starting, so he relinquishes a prime position to take his chances on the far side, where the sound-and-light show has already started. The “trees” are covered in computer controlled lights, looking like an elaborate fireworks display, but are a long way away, too far for any of the sound to carry, and too far for the spectacular size of the Supertrees to be obvious. While we are there we talk to some young contractors from Oz and NZ, working over here. They are happy with the place they were staying, and a bit amazed to be supplied with loaned smart phones for the duration of their stay.
Back on the city side, the lights of the city buildings and the car lights on the expressway are showing up clearly, and Murray manages to get a place at the edge leaning over a couple of girls who are sitting down against the glass balustrade. A crowd has gathered at the waterfront to watch the fountain and light show, and probably gets a better view than us, as we are looking directly down on the water spout display, and they probably have a clearer view of laser images projected onto the water sprays.
As soon as the fountain display finishes, we move to the lift with some haste, beating the crowd and getting in the second lift load going down. We follow directions to the Marina Bay Gardens, missing the escalators we had used earlier in the day, and crossing under the highway in a very long and wide tunnel which emerges near the lake in the gardens. We cross the lake on a foot bridge, taking photos of the monster chrome plated dragonflies hovering over the lake, and the Supertrees reflecting on the water. We arrive in the centre of the grove of trees a few minutes before the next sound-and-light show, and are able to find a spot on the paving to lie down and look up at the trees for the performance, which sounds a bit strange, but was the “done thing” for lots of people. The sound and light show is excellent, with spectacular light variation in the trees, plenty of volume in the sound, and a good selection of the popular classics. Was quite stirring and definitely the highlight of our time in Singapore.
After the performance, we find our way to the smaller Supertree grove and the massive “Cloud Forest” and “Flower Dome” pavilions at the water’s edge then take the long walk past the lake to another long walk through the tunnel to the MRT. Here we learn the lesson of always putting more money than you immediately need on the MRT card, as there are long lines at the ticket machines. Murray stands in the queue while Dianne goes foraging for shorter queues, after a knock-back at the manned ticket booth, coming back with two new tickets just as Murray reaches the head of the queue.
Back at Clarke Quay, we try a different exit from the station, and end up at Clarke Quay proper, down by the river, with pounding disco music coming across the water, a brightly lit bridge and bum-boats, and a selection of bars and restaurants. We decide we are hungry enough for another meal, so cross under North Bridge Road, and go looking for a cheaper style eating house Dianne had seen yesterday. We find it quite close to the end of our street, after passing the high priced place we had our first meal, and have a very satisfactory Duck-and-rice and a crisp skinned something with rice, plus two excellent lime drinks for less than $10. After some homework, trying to co-ordinate a meeting with Murray’s nephew and his wife, who are in Singapore on the way back from the Maldives, we hit the sack about 12 midnight local time.
Saturday 19 January 2019 Singapore to Dubai
The morning looks pretty grim, looking out at 8 AM, but at least there is no rain on the window. As we are still trying to arrange a meeting, we delay going out, but finally weaken and Murray goes down for yoghurt and coffee “flavoured” milk to quiet the hunger pangs.
The plan of the day is to go to Sentosa Island, and we decide to pack and book out before we do our expedition, as our flight is not till 9pm tonight. This means carrying more gear with us than we would have preferred, but it leaves us with no deadline apart from getting to the airport before 6PM. It is a straight shot from Clarke Quay to Harbour Front, the nearest MRT to Sentosa, but we have a false start, Murray wanting to retrace our last successful exit from Clarke Quay station, Dianne wanting to use a different one. Either way, it is a long walk through tunnels to get to the ticket machines.
The Harbour Front MRT station is in a large shopping mall, VivoCity, with some directions to the Sentosa Broadwalk, but none of them particularly helpful, so we climb through the complex to an open air plaza leading to the waterfront, and a possible route to the island. Our progress is halted by hunger, as there is a large food court on this level, and after checking it all out, we settle on our staple “something with rice”, and a couple more of the lime drinks. After the meal, and a check for tickets on the monorail, aborted because the ticket machines are out of action, and there is a big queue at the ticket booth, we walk across the plaza, to a covered walkway, but it is still quite an effort, as the sun has come out, and the weather is hot AND muggy.
From the waterfront we can see smaller cruise boats to the right, and a long causeway to the left, with a monorail track and a covered walkway, so we take an escalator back into the air conditioned shopping centre, and walk through to pick up the start of the walkway. It turns out that there is an actual bridge here, at low-level, and looks like a causeway, but has a strong tidal flow of clean water under it. The walkway is being reconstructed with moving walkways, but not all of them are finished yet, so we are pretty hot and sweaty by the time we get to the island.
It is an ageing (built in 1972) poor-man’s Disneyland, with fun park rides, restaurants and bars, a casino and a Universal Pictures theme park, all looking a bit dated, but the island has some good topography, so we follow pathways and escalators past the massive Merlion and up to the lookout, which turns out to be the lookout you are having when there is nowhere to look. On the way back, we follow a path at the base level of the Merlion down towards the beach. The wide walkway has a watercourse down the centre in the form off a mosaic tiled rainbow serpent, and is quite attractive.
We walk a long way down hill, beside the monorail tracks and are pleased to see the monorail is active, and goes all the way to the beach. We stop at the monorail station one stop short of the beach, but can see it. The sand and water look quite clean and attractive. We have been told that the return trip on the monorail is free, and are pleased to find this is a fact, as we are running short on cash, and plan to leave with a minimum of stray coins.
The monorail carriages are standing-only, so Murray only manages a couple of quick industrial photos from it. Back at VivoCity, we check our cash, find we can afford another pork-and-rice, then head for the MRT, but ticketing is complicated because we only have a $10 note and some coins, and the machine will not take 10’s. We just make it on coins, then Dianne goes to the ticket office and changes the 10 for two fives to get us to the airport after picking up our bags at the hotel.
Back at the hotel, we do internet in the cool lobby, use the loo, recover our bags in spite of losing the ticket, then do the long haul with the bags to Clarke Quay station. Take the short leg to Outram Park, then manage to get seats on the east-west line all the way to the change at Tanah Merah, and for the two stops to Changi airport.
After taking the SkyTrain to Terminal One, we arrive at Emirates just as they are opening check-in, and are shepherded through the automated bag-drop by a helpful attendant who has only us as customers. After an uneventful passage through immigration and security, we are able to sort out what Gate Jeff and Jennifer (nephew and wife) have to be in, so lay in wait there, but never see them, so return to our proper gate to find a long queue waiting for the doors to open. Oh the joys of being on an Airbus A380 super-jumbo with 500+ passengers! We move on to seating with power where we can keep an eye on the queue, and join it when we see the passengers passing through to security checking and seating in the gate lounge.
Seating is pretty orderly by groups. We have a misread on our group being called, but the delay is only minimal. We find ourselves in a row of four with two empty seats. The man in front warns us he will be putting the seat back, and we talk to him for a while as the plane is loading. He is from Newcastle, England, retired, but is travelling as a partner for his still-employed wife. It is looking pretty good for us till a large man who smells of liquor shifts from his allocated seat to the far end of our row, limiting our options. He says he moved because a large woman sitting behind him objected to his seat being reclined. He may be right, but that doesn’t help us, and he won’t move.
The plane has very noisy machinery below us, and seems to be cart-sprung, as we have a very rough and noisy takeoff, but it settles down to a pretty quiet flight. The entertainment possibilities are extensive, and Murray manages to see the missed end of Mission Impossible-Fallout from the last flight, and a fair bit of Breath. After a real meal with entree, bread roll, chicken cacciatore main and chocolate mousse dessert, with a good, sweetish white wine, followed by coffee, we settle into entertainment before calling it a night. Murray has seen an empty row of four seats further back, so gives up his seat so Dianne can have three, and stretch out. However, it turns out the reason why the seats are vacant is that they are in a bulkhead row, and the arm rests, which hold the table and entertainment, do not move. Murray manages to get some sleep, but at the expense of a sore neck from sleeping sitting up. When Dianne is up and about, and after a pretty dry chicken roll breakfast, Murray is able to see most of the second half of Breath, with sound this time because there were no earphones in the bulkhead seat.
Sunday 20 January 2019 Dubai (UAE) to Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
We arrive in Dubai at 1am local time, or 8am Sydney time. Landing is surprisingly heavy and swervy for a 500 tonne plane, and once again very rough and noisy. Security checking for incoming transit passengers is pretty thorough, but there is no passport or boarding ticket check. With 8 hours to kill, we look for sleeping options in the enormous terminal, and the best we can see on Level B of Terminal 3 (Emirates) is semi-lito reclining seats, placed in a busy pathway and mostly occupied. We ask a uniformed attendant who directs us down to Level C, which has seats available, but again fronting a busy corridor, and with no electricity charging options.
We manage to get some sleep, interrupted by the noise of electric carts passing at high speed, conversations of people walking past and a door alarm across the other side of the concourse. Murray is still suffering from sitting up, sleeping neck syndrome, so gives up and starts Facebook on the phone, and typing on the computer, made very uncomfortable by the seat design. It is also bitterly cold, maybe through a desire by the authorities to flaunt their AC capacity in a red-hot climate. Later, he leaves all his spare gear with Dianne and transfers to a nearby conventional seat with a power connection.
Nearer to our departure time of 9.25am local time, we go to find our gate, and find that boarding has started early, as we are using a shuttle bus. This time we are in twin seats down the back, convenient to the loos, and giving us a window and an aisle. We fly out over the coast, almost directly over the Burj-al-Arab hotel, with the palm complexes, new and old, off to the west. There is a lot of ground haze, but we manage a few photos over flat desert before crossing bare, rugged mountains on the border of Oman, then crossing the coast in a wide arc, presumably to avoid the war zone in Yemen. The seatback display of the aircraft track tells us we are crossing the coast over Somaliland. The whole coastal area is basically sand, but as we get inland, on rising terrain, we start to see farming with a pattern of long, rectangular fields, and scattered villages, mostly built on isolated hills, with presumably poorer soil. Everything is brown or grey, with no sign of greenery, but then, we have chosen the dry season.
As the land rises we start to see flat land with deep fissures leading into dry watercourses, and any flat land is used for farming, with the same isolated villages. It is hard from our altitude to gauge how steep the terrain is, but any roads we see are very convoluted. Closer to Addis, the farming pattern is repeated right up to the edge of the city, which is remarkably large, with large areas of concentrated high-rise, and other areas of closely packed single story houses. Everything is very grey, probably covered with dry-season dust, and there is not a lot of bright green. There appear to be two airports, but we cannot see the one we will be using until we land.