Through The Eyes Of A Local : The Hidden Secrets Tour Melbourne

Melbourne is an interesting city, full of things to see and do at every corner. While it’s great to explore and discover hidden gems on your own, some travellers might prefer having a guide to show them secret spots that only the locals would know.

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Enter Hidden Secrets Tour Melbourne, a walking tour established in 2004 that aims to uncover a side of the city not usually seen beyond the usual tourist hotspots. There are several itineraries to choose from, depending on your areas of interest, and a tour will usually take around two to three hours to complete. Ideal for those who are short on time, or just want a quick glimpse into Melbourne as it is for Melburnians!

I was in town earlier this year for a media trip, and our organisers booked us a tour which was a good mix of coffee, food, arts and culture. Right from the get-go we got a map and a mug (which can be used for coffee along the tour), which I felt was really thoughtful of them (and environmentally-friendly as well!).

LANEWAYS

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Inseparable from the city’s identity is its laneways; narrow streets once used for horses and cargo. They gained a reputation for seediness in the days after the Gold Rush, but are now considered cool, hip places, filled with hole-in-the-wall eateries, bars, indie art galleries, jewellery stores, boutiques and more. There are over 40 laneways in Melbourne. Our tour brought us to AC/DC Lane, named after one of the biggest rock bands to come out of Australia.

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I came here on my own a couple of days ago, but it was nice to come back with a guide. Wouldn’t have noticed otherwise details like these shoes hanging from cables. Apparently since the laneways were known to be slums / shady places, the shoes were used to indicate that drugs were sold at a particular place!

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A short walk away was Strachan Lane, which was marked by a large mural by local artist adnate.

 

Koko Black

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Chocolate lovers will want to stop by Koko Black, which offers premium chocolates in a phenomenal range of flavours: you name them, they’ve got ’em. Started in 2003, you can find Koko Black’s flagship store in the Royal Arcade, as well as in major cities in Australia.

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Aside from nicely packed gift boxes that make for ideal souvenirs, the shop also carries individual pieces, each lovingly handcrafted to sweet perfection.

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Tasting board.

La Belle Miette 

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The sweet adventure didn’t end there, as our guide brought us a few doors down to La Belle Miette (Beautiful crumb in French), which specialises in macarons, bon bons and chocolate drageés. Everything about this cute-looking shop exudes Parisian chic, from the heart-shaped chairs to the cute storefront decor and elegant white counters within.

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Too pretty to be eaten! Expect top notch quality as only premium ingredients are used to make the macarons, such as pure fruit purees, vanilla beans, Girgar butter and chocolate exclusively from French chocolate house Cacao Barry and Belgian Callebaut.

Sensory Lab

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Our next stop was Sensory Lab, which felt like a true hidden gem. Tucked away from the main street, it was nevertheless packed with customers. Got a taste of awesome Melbourne coffee (which is world-famous, by the way!) in our mugs before moving on.

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More beautiful murals. It’s easy to stumble across these while walking around Melbourne – just pop into any alleyway and be surprised.

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The shops here are so picturesque / cool-looking I think I could dedicate an entire photo album just for them.

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This is an interesting one! The Waiter’s Restaurant is a pasta speakeasy that dates back decades; at least to the 1940s. The story goes that Italian, Greek and Spanish waiters would come to the restaurant after their shifts to play cards and drinks, hence the name. Its reputation grew, and soon became a meeting place for people from all walks of life, from politicians and journalists to the local gang members. The Waiters have served generations of Melburnians, and their signatures include ox tail, chicken liver and spaghetti bolognese. This sounds like one of those places I’d gladly queue up for !

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Another classic establishment founded in 1950, Pellegrini‘s reputation is legendary. Started by the Pellegrini brothers, the cafe initially served the Italian migrant community. But the shop’s close proximity to the theatre district meant it was soon pulling an intellectual arts crowd. The cafe was later sold off to another pair of Italian migrants, but the offerings and menu, as well as the decor, have largely remained the same.

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Arts is a big thing in Melbourne, as evidenced by its East End Theatre District, home to no less than six major theatre and production houses, some of which date back over a 100 years. Here, plays and world-class shows are regularly staged. Must be great to be a Melburnian and have such convenient access to all these great art shows!

With that, we concluded our Hidden Secrets Tour of Melbourne! It was certainly an eye opening experience, and we discovered many little gems along the way. Our guide provided plenty of information, although I did get the feeling that we were being rushed despite still being within the stipulated time – perhaps she had another tour to conduct. Anyways, I’d highly recommend booking one of their tours if you’re ever in the city. 🙂

Bookings can be made here.

Mercedes Benz X Mike Horn: Hungry For Adventure

*I went for this event last year, and it was embargoed until I could publish the interview for our February issue. Then I kind of lost the mood to write and it just laid there in my drafts section for months. But here we are. 

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Last November, I was invited as part of a Mercedes Benz media event, dubbed Hungry for Adventure. It was a collaboration with South African-born Swiss adventurer Mike Horn, who was in Malaysia with his seafaring vessel, the Pangaea, which boasts a special engine made for him by Mercedes Benz (They also sponsor his G-Wagon offroad vehicles, which he takes on his adventures).

Prior to the event, I had never heard of Mike Horn. By the end of it, I was left wondering why the hell I had not. The man is a legend. I was truly awed by his spirit, the journeys he has been on, and how inspirational he is.

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Our group congregated at EX8 in Subang Jaya, where we were each given a Mercedes Benz Coupe to test drive all the way to Port Dickson omg.

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Most of the media were placed in pairs ie one driver + navigator, but I was somehow the odd one out and had a car all to myself. Thinking it would be just like any other car, I was in for a surprise because most of the controls were on the opposite side ie signal on the left, gear change on the right. Which resulted in a lot of confusion because I had no navigator and basically had to use Waze + try to figure out the controls + drive at the same time.

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The vehicle lacks the usual handbrake/gear shift box that normal cars have next to the passenger seat. Instead, the handbrake is a lever that you pull on the right side, and the gear change mechanisms are on the steering wheel.

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It was quite intimidating to drive such an expensive car, and I worried all the way until we got onto the highway, where there were less cars and just a straight road from start to finish. That being said, you can really feel the difference in terms of comfort, stability, power, speed, everything. Ah, well, maybe I can afford this in another life lol.

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We arrived at Avillion Admiral Cove in Port Dickson an hour later. Horn was waiting for us onboard the Pangaea, his yacht which has traversed the world and where he and his crew spend weeks, sometimes months on end, at sea. The boat couldn’t dock at the marina, so we had to take a smaller vessel out. It started to rain and the bumpy sea ride didn’t help with my seasickness.

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Approaching Pangaea. This boat has been with Horn all the way to Antarctica, where in February 2017, he became the first person in the world to complete a solo journey across the continent, covering 5,000km over a span of 57 days.

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The man himself, Mike Horn. Tall and handsome, this rugged adventurer is in peak physical condition despite being in his 50s. He has traveled the world since he was in his 20s and seen things most of us have only dreamed of, but is remarkably down-to-earth and friendly. He took us on a tour of his impressive ship, which was like a trailer equipped with everything – kitchenette, toilets, rooms, showers, even a conference room!

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I really wanted to stay because the yacht was going out to sea for an hour, but the seasickness caught up with me and I threw up three times before calling it quits. Followed a group of other media, who like me, had no sea legs, back to the marina in the small boat we came in and waited for the rest of them to return lol.

Horn gave a talk that night about his experiences and man, can he really tell stories. It was so inspirational to listen to him relate about his adventures, the dangerous situations he has faced, the seemingly insurmountable odds, and how he overcame them. After hearing his stories, I was left feeling like my life is super vanilla, and that I need to go out there and do something more. Horn is a man that not only goes around saying “Live your life” – he truly does it. I think many of us go through our entire lives without truly living, and what he’s  essentially saying is that we should live it to the fullest – not necessarily in travel, but in anything that we wish to do.

A video of Horn attempting to climb K-2 in Pakistan. He showed us photos of his travels and I was stunned that there would be any place on earth that could be this beautiful.

To read my interview with Horn, click here.

Travelogue Borneo: Leaving Bario + Best Kolo Mee/Goreng Pisang in Miri, Sarawak !

Our four-day stay in Bario came to an end too soon! We spent the morning soaking in final sights, smells and sounds of the long house, which was in a lull after the previous night’s festivities. After breakfast, we hopped onto the back of a pickup truck and headed for the airport.

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Bidding adieu to the cool weather, clear blue skies and beautiful mountains. 😥 Was already dreading the crazy traffic jams and stressful workload waiting back home.

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We got to the airport early, where we had… guess what? Maggi! This was recommended by Captain Mendoza, the pilot who flies the MASWings service between Bario – Miri: he says he always has a bowl before flying off ! It was, if you can believe it, tastier than the one we had in town. The noodles were done perfectly with a springy, al dente texture, topped with a crisp fried egg and with just the right amount of seasoning and soup consistency. Who knew instant noodles could be so amazing?

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There was a slight drizzle before take off, and during our flight back we saw multiple rainbows. It was my first time seeing rainbows from up above, formed in perfect arcs. It was amazing. The swathes of green hills were like a giant tapestry, and the floating clouds cast moving shadows over them. 

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A beautiful U-shaped bend that we flew by which had distinct, inky black water, in stark contrast to the milky tea-colour of the adjacent river.

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After 50 minutes, we touched down at Miri airport. Once we arrived, the messages started pinging in and everyone couldn’t keep their eyes off their phones. :/

Had a lot of time to kill before our flight back, so we took an Uber to a restaurant called Awang Mahyan Corner, which was recommended by one of the staff at the airport for its kolo mee.

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A specialty in Sarawak, kolo mee (literally ‘dry’ noodles) is characterised by its springy, al dente texture, and is served tossed in a light sauce instead of dark soy sauce which is more popular in Peninsula Malaysia. They are usually served with a side of soup, and topped with bits of meat, fried onion and spring onion for crunch. The version here did not disappoint, with the right balance of flavours. I especially liked the springiness of the noodles! 🙂

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Forgot the exact name of the dish but the place is also famous for its fried chicken done ayam-penyet style, served with an assortment of vegetables. Crispy and tender!

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Just outside the restaurant is a small stand selling goreng pisang (fried banana). The version here is topped with cheese and a thick, caramel-like syrup. Extremely addictive. The banana and syrup’s sweetness is balanced out by the slight saltiness of the cheese, and crispy batter goes well with the softness of the fruit on the inside. I could easily polish off two plates by myself lol.

 AWANG MAHYAN CORNER

1068-1077, Jalan Bintang Jaya 1, Bintang Jaya, 98000 Miri, Sarawak. 

**Halal 

 

 

Travelogue Borneo: Hardcore Hiking in Bario – 11 Hours In A Sarawak Jungle

I’ve never been hiking. 

Ever since a back injury in my teens, I’ve laid off extreme physical activity. The most I’ve ‘exerted’ myself is an hour at the gym, and that’s on a stationary exercise bike lol.

I was in Bario, Sarawak recently, and the media group I was with decided to visit one of the Eco-Shelters that Volvo Malaysia had erected for hikers and locals along the Bario Ancestral Trail, as part of a CSR project.

I was apprehensive. The only experience I had with the jungle was a school camping trip in Pahang back in Form 3, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant for this through-and-through city girl. Top that with me being a total klutz, and we have a recipe for disaster. After repeatedly asking our Kelabit guide about the trek’s difficulty (he described it as 4-5 hours, moderate) and against my better judgment, I decided to join. We were invited here to write about the CSR project, so the least I could do was go and look at one of the eco-shelters and take some pictures. (Ever the dedicated journalist? :P)

It would turn out to be an… unforgettable experience. 

Batu Lawi. Credit: Bruno Manser Foundation

The Bario Ancestral Trail: So called because it was used by the Kelabit people since ancient times, the ancestral trail totals 25km, and takes hikers and locals through thick tropical jungle and hilly terrain up to Batu Lawi, a twin-peaked mountain considered sacred to the Kelabit as well as the Penan who inhabit the region.

Shrouded in legend and myth, the mountains rise up high over the landscape, acting as beacons for locals and travelers. In fact, World War II pilots flying over the region used it as a marker to locate the Bario settlement, since they would have only seen a carpet of green hills otherwise. Today, the entire hike from Bario – Batu Lawi takes 5-6 days (for the locals) to complete.

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We set off from the village around 9.30AM. The initial walk was easy, since the paths were wide and flat. Along the way were paddy fields and small clusters of homes along the way. The fresh air and beautiful scenery kept us in high spirits.

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Cutting through a muddy paddy field.

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And getting stuck.

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Shoes/pants ruined within an hour lol. I didn’t have proper hiking shoes, so our guide, Julian, suggested we wear rubber ones from the long house. It was a tight fit but I thought it would be fine. Little did I know I would sorely regret this later lol.

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Cute auntie about to head out to the fields.

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We then started venturing deeper, into the actual trail. Our guide Julian picked some forest fruits for us to taste. It was sour and tart.

I think if I’m ever stranded in a jungle, alone, I would just die within 24 hours lol. I wouldn’t know where to get water, or food, which way to head to, etc.

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Crossing a pipe, which channeled water from the river to the fields below.

The trek started off light and easy, before it quickly became a challenge. This wasn’t a nice little forest like those you see in books or Western films, with sparse trees and gentle vegetation. This. Was. Hardcore.

Everything was wet and dewy, the air was moist and humid, and the jungle floor teemed with small life: ants, insects, centipedes. Occasionally we would hear a bird call in the distance, or catch a glimpse of squirrels.

Not only were parts of the hill extremely steep, it was also slippery/muddy so I had to rely a lot on my balance. This tired out my legs quickly. The path was not always clear of plants and Julian, who was walking in front, would hack and slash away with a machete to clear it up. Sometimes, thorny vines would latch onto us as we crashed through the brush, digging in and drawing blood. There were parts where we had to cross haphazard log bridges with a sheer 50-foot drop into a ravine below. It was narrow so everyone had to go in single file.

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Nature’s drink! Bamboo plants have lots of water stored within.

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Tree with striking bark coloration.

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Along the way, we were beset by leeches. They seemed particularly fond of my blood, because I was bitten by no less than fifteen. Another guy in my group also suffered the same fate. There are two types of leeches – the ‘ngau kei’ aka the black ones that fall off when they’ve had their fill, and the thin, tiger leeches which are persistent little buggers Since I wasn’t wearing high socks, they climbed into my pants and up my… thigh. Like really high. More on that later though.

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After several hours, we reached a small waterfall where we stopped for a quick packed lunch.

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Water was cold and crystal clear!

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Then it was back to the jungle again. We were making very slow progress, and debated whether to continue the trek to the Eco Shelter or to turn back. Even some of the more experienced trekkers among us said the trail was ‘difficult’, so I knew it wasn’t only me being a newbie/pansy: it really WAS tough.

I was already tired then, having trekked for seven hours. But since everyone decided to push on, we pushed on. Around 4 pm, the EcoShelter finally loomed into view.

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Funded by Volvo Malaysia and built by the local Kelabit villagers with the help of the nomadic Penan tribe who live in the region, the wooden shelters are basic, with a simple toilet/shower that uses a rainwater harvesting system. There are five shelters in total, spaced 5km apart. The idea was to provide a place for ecotourists and locals heading up the ancestral trail with a place to rest, since the entire trip would take days.

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We actually headed to Shelter 2 instead of 1 because we were moving very slowly and this was closer. Went inside, stripped, and asked the ladies to help me check for leeches. I was horrified to find one had crawled very close to my hoo-ha. It had fallen off, but it was so close my underwear was soaked with blood, as if I had my period. .___.”

Gave me nightmares for days

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Group photo ! We didn’t rest for too long because night was approaching and we had to exit quickly. At this point, I was still feeling okay, but about an hour into the return trip, exhaustion crept in.

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The way was mostly downhill, and my legs were so tired they didn’t seem to want to listen to me and started shaking. It was extremely frustrating – if you’ve ever had a body part not listen to what your brain tells it to do, you’ll know what I mean. It didn’t help that I hadn’t had any training or even experience hiking, so it was like going from 0-100. I ended up stopping, sitting down on the ground and bursting into tears. The rest of the group were very patient and encouraging: since my body was overheating, they fanned me and gave me water, while Julian, the guide, held my hands throughout the return journey.

The tight shoes were pinching my toes – it hurt every step of the way and I was wheezing like a stuck pig, but when you’re at that point, you give up caring about how you look lol. I asked Julian what would happen if I really couldn’t walk anymore and he said he’d have to carry me out. I thought about it and decided I’d just press on, mostly coz I’m as heavy as a man and he’d have a hard time carrying + guiding the others (although we did have a backup guide, Agan, walking at the back).

I did an interview with South African explorer Mike Horn a couple of months back, and he quoted something about his solo trip across the Antarctica (the first man to do so without a team): when his ship left him at the shores and he was faced with the next 5,000km to cross, he knew that the only way to get out alive would be to reach the other side. That crossed my mind as I sat bawling on the forest floor of a Sarawak jungle. Of course, I didn’t believe I was going to die, but I didn’t want to be stuck overnight in a forest and I knew there was no way out but forward, so I forced the legs to move one step at a time, one foot in front of the other.

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Clambering over fallen logs.

I spent most of the last three hours slipping and sliding rather than walking, because my legs simply did not want to listen to my brain anymore.

After what felt like forever, we finally arrived at a cow paddock on the edge of the jungle, where our guides radioed for a truck. What was supposed to be a five hour in-and-out trip took us a solid 11 HOURS. 

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While waiting, I looked up and was greeted by an amazing sight: a beautiful night sky strewn with stars, like diamond dust in an ink pool. Definitely not something you’ll see in the city! The view took my breath away (or maybe it was the exhaustion? lol) and I realised what I had accomplished. Unfit chick with no hiking experience (or much sporting experience, for that matter), conquered a hardcore trail that even experienced hikers called tough. If that’s not something to tell the grandkids, I don’t know what is.

Course, I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to do this again anytime soon (or ever?) lol. 

When the truck pulled up to the long house, we were fussed over (and mildly scolded)  because they were worried and had sent some of the villagers after us, fearing that someone had been injured. My advice for tourists: don’t pull an Eris and go with zero training and without the proper equipment – this is no Broga Hill. Seriously. This is some hardcore sht.

But man, was it unforgettable.

 

 

**Photos not watermarked courtesy of: Ed Junaidi, Dishen Kumar, Zaharis Khuzaimah 

PS: A testament to my un-athletic-ness (is that a word?) – both my toenails got infected because of the blunt trauma/force from the shoes. The left one leaked pus, the other turned black and had a pool of blood under the nail lol. After some meds the left one seemed okay, but today the entire nail bed came out fahk. So now I have no toenail on my big toe wtf. I guess it’ll take a few months to grow it out again. I hope the right one doesn’t fall off too lol. 

 

 

Sneak Peek: Bario Trip!

Hey guys! I know I haven’t been posting this last couple of days been busy rushing stuff for work 😦 but here’s a video by a fellow media colleague who went on the trip. Also, my leg with the leech has officially gone on national TV, hahahaha.

Credits to @AstroAwani and Dishen Kumar 

Will post more about the trip soon! 🙂

 

 

Back from Bario!

Hey guys!

I’m back from my trip to beautiful Bario in Sarawak ! 

One word: Memorable. 

In which I mean that I broke down in the middle of the jungle after an 11-hour hike, and the local tribesmen had to organise a search and rescue team because we were 6 hours late and they thought someone had gotten injured. Also, a leech nearly crawled up my hoo-hah, my toes are now infected and I will never look at regular life (complaining about being stuck in traffic pales in comparison to a near-death experience of losing your foothold in the middle of a tropical jungle with a 100-foot drop to the side) the same way again.

On another note, I am so touched by the kindness and hospitality of the local Kelabit people, who took us in as not just guests, but as part of their family. Also, longhouses are cool – you get to sit around a tetel (kitchen), and listen to the elderly uncles and aunties tell stories while warming your hands over the fire. Can’t wait to share the stories with you guys!

That’ll have to wait though: lots of things to do now that I’m back.

 

 

 

Next Adventure: Off to Bario, Sarawak !

Hey, guys! New year, new adventure !

First trip of the year and I’m off again (for work) to Bario, home to the Kelabit, the smallest tribe of indigenous people in Sarawak. They live high up in the mountains where farming is the main source of income. Travel by 4WD from the nearest big city, Miri, is a whopping 11 hours through logging trails and jungles, but thankfully we won’t have to be bumped and bruised coz we’ll be flying in with the rural air service by MASWings.

Credit: Public Domain

I’m quite excited about the trip as it’ll be my first time in Sarawak (visited Sabah last year – read about it here). Also, it sounds kind of rugged – hiking up the mountain, travelling in 4WDs on uneven roads, no water heater, cold weather, mozzies, that sort of stuff. I’m not really a backpacker – I like my creature comforts – so let’s hope I don’t fall sick after. I’m sure the experience will be worth it. 😀

There’s no cell phone reception in Bario so I can also kiss the Internet goodbye for a couple of days. In the meantime, enjoy the scheduled posts and I’ll be back soon! 🙂

Review: Fresh & Rustic Country Food @ Ruffy Produce Store, Ruffy, Victoria

Hey guys!

It’s our second day in Australia and we’re making our way on the food and wine trial across Victoria, well known for its vineyards, farmsteads and rural towns. We kicked off with a wine tasting (at 10am, no less!) in Avenel, before hopping into the car for our next destination: the outback town of Ruffy in Strathbogie Shire, 175km from Melbourne. As our car drove through segments of hills, bush and fields peppered with sheep and cattle, we took in the sights of occasional creeks and ponds against a vast expanse of blue sky. The scenery was gorgeous.

Finding Ruffy was a difficult task (coverage is tricky out here), as road signs are small and can easily be missed. We often found ourselves on roads like these that were completely empty. Trees on both sides formed a shady arch over the road, shielding us from the sun. Nice to drive through in the day, but I’d hate to be stuck here with no street lamps in the night, with kangaroos or wild dingos about.

When we finally pulled into town, we weren’t sure if it was the right place – there seemed to be nothing other than a couple of buildings. But that’s Ruffy for you – with a population of 300+, it’s a small place where the communal spirit is strong, and everyone knows every one else.

Public hall, where town meetings and events are held.

Former school turned community centre.

One of the main ‘attractions’ in town, so to speak, is the Ruffy Produce Store – which was what we drove all the way out here for. Popular among locals for its home-cooked meals and fresh produce, the rustic establishment had a comfy, laid back vibe to it; the kind where families go to share a hearty Saturday brunch with dogs at their feet. The outdoor area, surrounded by shady oak trees, felt like a dining space in a country home’s back yard, with umbrellas and mismatched tables and chairs.

We checked out the store, which looked just like someone’s living/dining room if not for the counter stacked with baked goodies and items for sale. The back area even had a dry kitchen where they run events/classes.

I wouldn’t mind living here 😛

Warm, cosy interior.

Freshly baked cakes and pastries lure visitors with an enticingly sweet call.

Since it was a beautiful day, we opted to sit outside. The menu has a limited number of items, but hey, it’s better to have a few that hit the mark rather than many that don’t, right? Our guide, T, opted for the humongous Posh Burger, made from  succulent grilled beef patty, crisp bacon strips, caramelised onion, aioli, tomato, mustard sauce, cucumber pickles and lettuce on a soft brioche bun, served with lightly salted potato wedges. I’m not a big fan of ‘tower’ burgers because I believe that you should be able to eat everything in one bite, but the flavours were great and came together well, especially the juicy meat patty.

I went for some carbs in the form of their home made Ravioli. Simple but tasty, the dumpling retained its al dente texture and had just the right amount of sauce clinging to each parcel. T is Italian and even he gave it the thumbs up. It just tasted like good ol’ fashioned food, no frills, nothing fancy.

Desserts were next. The orange cardamom had lovely flavours, but the cake’s texture was a little too wet for my liking.

Lemon tart on the other hand was excellent; zesty, tangy with the right balance of sweet and zing, flaky and crumbly pastry crust, topped with delightfully fresh cream.

We left with our tummies well filled and satisfied from the hearty meal. For travelers venturing into the region, the store is a gem seemingly in the middle of nowhere and a side trip worth taking.

RUFFY PRODUCE STORE 

26 Nolans Road, Ruffy, Victoria

Operating hours: Friday: 11am/6pm, Saturday – Sun (8am – 4pm) 

Phone: +61 3 5790 4387 

ruffy.com.au