Ngorongoro Crater and Beyond: Walking with the Iraqw

We spent a little time visiting the Iraqw (pronounced “eeraku”) people in Karatu. Despite the similarity in name, they certainly weren’t related to the Iraqis. Having no idea what other indigenous people there were in the Crater area, we followed along when Muba left us with our local guide. We started off in one of the villages, really a series of ramshackle wooden huts with smouldering hearths smoking up the dark interior to keep the bugs at bay. He gave us a little lecture on Iraqw history – that they had arrived here hundreds of years ago before the Maasai and were farmers living off the rich brown soil of the area. There was some tension between them and the Maasai. It seemed like the two tribes compete for land, one wanted it for farming and the other for pasture land. The Iraqw naturally feel resentful that their more famous countrymen seemed to be given more concessions and government help when they were the ones who were willing to change some of their customs according to government direction. They were especially disgruntled that they had to use less wood for their houses as the government was concerned about deforestation. They roofed them with metal instead of the traditional wood. We soon emerged from the hut and next thing we knew, the local guide said that he was being summoned by the village elders and had to leave. He left us in the charge of his 20 year old son, Selestine.

And off we went on our walk through the valley that was just at the back of the village.

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It was a very easy walk across very brown earth. It was very dry and only the oldupai plants seemed to be growing in profusion.

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I don’t understand where all the water came to carve out this valley as it was so dry. I kept wondering whether water would suddenly gush out and wash us all away like in those crappy made for TV disaster movies.

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It was pretty cool to look at all this stuff about erosion and all, so many years after learning it in geography class. I kept thinking of my friends doing geography. Tricia and Serene, these pictures are for you!

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Another weird thing was how pretty the weeds are here. I asked about this lovely pale yellow flower and whether the cows eat them. Selestine dismissed it as a weed. End of story. I guess a 20 year old has other things on his mind.

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Such as girls. We stopped for our packed lunch at a tired little gazebo inside the grounds of a convenience store/cafe. By now, we were heartily sick and tired of boiled eggs and passed ours to Selestine. He hungrily tore into his own packed lunch. (Muba had passed the guide’s box to Selestine and got a day off – he later told us he enjoyed some ugali, something like polenta, and beef stew at the local cafe.) I’ve never seen anyone beat DC in wolfing down a leg of chicken. To be fair, DC was still sick and he was probably giving Selestine a chance. Selestine then charmed the two girls at the cafeteria by giving them the boiled eggs and chocolate bars we didn’t want.

We also went to visit the Iraqw school. It was such an eyeopener to see that the entire primary school was divided into just two classes – upper and lower primary. The students crammed themselves behind the desks and it’s still a mystery how they learn in such a mixed class. The head mistress showed us what they were learning and there was a question and answer session where they asked where Singapore was and whether we had any farmland. The students were astonished when DC told them that we grow crops by suspending them in the air and spray water with fertiliser at the roots. It was starkly different reality for these students, with their fates tied so closely to their reddish brown earth.

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Then we went past the brick factory. Here’s where the local earth gets pressed into bricks, dried out and then stacked up.

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The hollow at the bottom is then filled with wood and the bricks are fired in this self-provided kiln. It’s a pretty cool concept.

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We then visited Selestine’s house where his mother served us typical lunch fare of beans cooked with maize. It was tasty enough, mainly because there were more beans than tasteless starchy white corn, but the flavour became incredibly monotonous very quickly. It was hard to imagine that this is what they eat three days a meal, every single day. No wonder Selestine bolted down his chicken and boiled egg so quickly!

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Selestine’s father then sang us a few songs, fiddling along on his traditional string instrument with Selestine on the drum and his wife and neighbour accompanying him in dancing and backup vocals. They soon pulled me up and I shuffled awkwardly along. Leave a comment if you’d really like to see the video. It makes me cringe, but at least the song is rather interesting.

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And then Muba pulled up in the van and plucked us back to Endoro Lodge for the evening.

September in Bali: Out of the Water

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I returned to Bali and took a short break from the diving. From my base of Permuteran up in the northwest of the island, I spent a day relaxing Bali’s Lake District, enjoying the cool air at Tamblingan Lake.

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It was lovely to admire a body of water and not feel the urge to dive in. I enjoyed the feeling of the cool air and being warmed by the sun instead of hiding from its much fiercer rays when down by the sea.

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We then headed to Jatiluwih to view the rice terraces. The intense green terraces were a marvel of human ingenuity and tenacity, and the coconut trees up on higher and cooler ground was a surprise to me.

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I was particularly tickled by how entire herds of ducks would take over harvested fields. They were probably scavenging for the scavengers that scavenged on the spent grain and leftover sheaves.

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Going closer, it seemed as if the entire field was quacking in symphony.

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We stopped by at the Botanic Gardens to admire the fountains…

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…  and the various, sometimes rather impressive greenhouses. This one was a desert hothouse, aridly beautiful in the stark light.

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And there were lily ponds galore, with the noon sun reflecting itself in the water.

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Our last stop was the Gitgit waterfall, a picturesque stream of water cascading down into a shallow pool, covering everyone below in a fine mist.

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Again, there was plenty of that wonderful green that made a good break from the diving.

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July in Vietnam: More Motorbike Adventuring

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The motorbike trip took me off the well-beaten Lonely Planet path. Not only did I not find any descriptions of the towns I passed through in the book, I also fell off its map. I still can’t quite place the route we took through the northwest of the country. The first night, I stayed in a nondescript town with only a main street. It could’ve passed for any provincial outpost anywhere in China or the rest of the Southeast Asia. No pictures of that because it just didn’t seem worth it.

But the second night was spent in a charming little village that was back in the Lonely Planet book. Mai Chau lies in a beautiful valley filled with padi fields and its thatched bamboo stilt houses with electric lights and flush toilets were very welcome. Here’s a very relieved me coming into Mai Chau after being absolutely chilled in the drizzle and fog.

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As we set out the next morning, the morning mist had yet to lift. The motorbike laboured a bit as it made its way up the hillside.

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And the spectacular view of Mai Chau valley was revealed. The patchwork of different shades of light green and brown against the deeper green of the surrounding hills was such a sight to remember. It perked me up when I wondered what on earth I was doing suffering muscle and joint pain in the middle of nowhere going God-knew-where.

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It was rare to pass by anyone at all on the road and here, both rider and bullock herder gawked in equal measures.

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Some bits of the road were rather hazardous, especially with the summer rains. There were numerous landslides, one so bad that there was mud everywhere and the original road was impassable. Some enterprising locals cleared paths to get round the worst of the mudslide and extracted a toll for each vehicle that went past.

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On the last day, the road started to get better. We were nearing civilisation!

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But of course not without first passing by some beautiful scenery of the distant hills.

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The early morning light made everything look so clean and fresh.

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It certainly did make everything very much worth it, especially the short stop to stamp off the cramp in my legs and the crick in my knees.

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It was the last I saw of the highlands of Vietnam and I was sad that there wasn’t time to see any more.

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The next thing I knew, the sun had come out in full force and we were in the lowland areas in the southern Hanoi region. This area is characterised by the limestone formations, something like an inland Ha Long Bay.

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It was lovely to be part of the traffic, savouring the country life. We pulled up at a local place for lunch, a simple affair of boiled chicken, rice and herbs served with fish sauce. The chicken was the toughest yet the tastiest I’ve had. Nothing yet has surpassed that amazing concentrated chicken taste from a chicken that probably spent plenty of time running about pecking in the dirt for real grubs and real food.

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I drew nearer to my final destination, greatly anticipating my next stop with the monkeys.

June in Thailand:Deeper into Karen Territory

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We headed out from the village into the newly transplanted padi fields, green shoots pushing out from the dark brown earth.

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Jare explained to us that the charred trees were from the previous growing cycle where the chaff was burnt in the fields to break down the nutrients quickly for the next batch of seedlings. The trees were collateral damage, a testimony to the impact of man on nature.

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There was also the occasional little hut dotting the valley, made as rest huts for the tired farmer.

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In one of these huts, Jare and Kiat found a traditional headpiece worn by the villagers to protect them from the elements. It shields the head, neck and back from the fierce sun and offers some relief from the incessant drizzle so characteristic of that season. It wasn’t too uncomfortable, but the moment it started pouring again, I was back in the humid poncho!

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Soon, we moved further away from the village where it was too far away and not worth the effort for the villagers to farm. Here, the valley gave way to an incredible spectrum of green, Nature showing us the inadequacy of our own paints and colours.

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Even more beautiful were the little splotches of bright colour on the way, including this pretty pink flower that came into our path all of a sudden.

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Jare pointed out various weird and wonderful creatures, including this cow-horned insect, a beetle of some sort. It’s amazing how long and curved its antennae were and the odd mask-like back with black dots on white looked so out of place.

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In direct contrast was the stick insect Kiat coaxed onto his parang. I’d not seen one before except in pictures, and it was almost a shock to see how, well, stick-y this fella was! The details were amazing, even down to a little knob of a shorn off branch on the top.

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Soon, we reached our destination for lunch, another village nestled in a valley, this time a little lower so there were plenty of coconut trees.

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Here, they were a little bit more old school, with shrunken skulls from the way back in the days where they dried enemies’ skulls and hung them up to ward off evil and other enemies.

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The strangest thing was sitting around the stove slurping up the instant noodle lunch Jare cooked for us, watching the skulls stare out at us from their empty sockets.

June in Thailand: Trekking in Karen Country

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After the first village, we headed into Karen country proper, passing through jungle tracks well-known by the locals. Here Jare and Kiat pointed out a tree that was used as a lookout to survey the surrounding environment. Having checked in with the village headman and knowing the local news of the area, there was no need to climb the tree to check things out. Anyway, we were already well forewarned that the weather for the area was set to be very wet and to be prepared for our parade to be rained upon.

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Already, the clouds were starting to roll into the valley. We walked up and down the green, green slopes, some of which were terraced to grow rice.

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Trekking involved tramping up dry slopes in the secondary forest before it started raining and when it started raining, trying not to slide back down the same, now muddy, slopes. After a hairy moment where Kiat had to push and prop me up to stop me from sliding down a good few metres,  Jare cut each of us a bamboo walking stick. By now the skies started to intermittently open on us and there were only a few moments where it was lovely enough to take photos.

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We had to climb over a few hills to get to the next village to spend the night and the view from the top down into the valleys were nothing short of beautiful. One highlight of the trek was the view: the fabulous panorama of the valley below, complete with the sight of two rivers merging into the Salawin River, clouds blowing past us as we trudged on.

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There were plenty of buffalo about. I’m still not sure whether they were wild or loosely belonged to a particular village.

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Downslopes were harder, especially in the mud when it started raining again. The good thing is that we had plastic ponchos that stopped our bums from getting too dirty. The bad thing was that the poncho also made it more slippery when we fell . One funny moment came when Tom slipped and fell on his bum, sliding forward so fast that he managed to kick me off my feet too, resulting in two people whizzing downhill. Jare and Kiat were very amused by my shriek of surprise and subsequent whingeing. At least it got us down the hill slightly faster.

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Occasionally, we halted for a break and sometimes there were little rest huts along the way. These were built for villagers to take a break from the day’s labour in the fields.

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We were very thankful to chance across one when the rain got especially heavy, and we huddled damply and very humidly there till the rain eased off.

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Still, being out in nature had its charm, especially when the clouds parted slightly…

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… and when they revealed the incredibly verdant hill range below.

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Despite the rough going and difficult terrain, we made it up there in one piece and were overjoyed to cover the last stretch that stood between us and bed.

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A Rather Impressive Roast Beef Lunch

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I had a joint of beef sitting in the freezer that was crying out to be turned into a lovely Sunday lunch. It’d been a long time since I’d last entertained, so I thought I’d make it slightly more elaborate than normal. I started off with bacon and watercress soup, then served the beef with mushrooms in red wine, roast pumpkin (DC’s helper made it so I don’t have the recipe), green salad and horseradish garlic cream sauce. To top it all off, I served a very successful tropical plate trifle. It was boozy, it had pineapple and passionfruit in it, it had cream, it was amazing.

So let’s start from the beginning. DC and I headed out to Choa Chu Kang the day before in search of fresh ingredients. Too bad about the poor selection at the farmer’s market, as we ended getting most of the stuff from Cold Storage at Jelita in the end. I made the soup, mushrooms and cake base the night before so that there wasn’t much work to do in the morning, just the beef and assembly work.

Here’s the beef just out of the oven, adorned by an afterthought of DC’s Irish breakfast sausages. (The sausages were from Cold Storage, we’re not yet so hardcore that we make our own sausages!)

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We reluctantly let it rest till our guests arrived and got on to reheating the soup and checking the flavourings of the sauces. Eeyore, Wei and WW arrived first and we got on with the soup. To our surprise, watercress and bacon soup went incredibly well with some homemade prawn-flavoured keropok lying around. We couldn’t help but mop up jade liquid with coral crisps, proclaiming all the way that there wouldn’t be space for the beef at the rate we were going through the bucket of keropok. By the time Shinta and KK arrived, the bucket had dwindled to half its original.

As KK and Shinta tucked into their soup, the rest of us went ahead with the main course. It was so good we almost didn’t leave enough for the latecomers. Luckily, those two eat fast and soon caught up with us as they bagged their share of the good stuff.

And then came dessert. Oh my was it good. There was the tang of lime and passionfruit, the fragrance of Silver Valley pineapple, soft voluptuous cream and a generous shot of booziness. No one uttered the customary complaint of how fattening dessert was. In fact, Eeyore protested when I suggested waiting a while to digest first before serving dessert.

A testimony to how good it was? There was hardly any talking at the table, only chomping and semi-civilised requests to pass dishes around, followed by satisfied grunts and sighs. We finished lunch in a record half hour, including a Bordeaux and a Spanish dessert wine to round it all off. Then we proceeded upstairs to fall asleep while Shinta and Eeyore battled it out on Wii Super Smash Bros.

Hungry yet? Now for the recipes.

Roast Beef

Ingredients:

1.5 kg joint of ribeye
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
4 good quality sausages (optional)

Method:

  1. Slather the thawed beef generously with black pepper and leave to marinate overnight.
  2. Remove joint from fridge at least 2 hours before cooking. Preheat the oven to 210 ºC.
  3. Rub the outside generously with olive oil and salt, place in a foiled roasting tin. Surround with sausages.
  4. Roast for 30 minutes at 210 ºC then turn down to 160 ºC for another 30 minutes. Like this, you’ll get it medium. (See picture.)
  5. Remove from oven and allow joint to rest for at least 20 minutes before carving. Serve with the other yummy stuff.

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Mushrooms in Red Wine

Ingredients:

80 g butter
6 onions or shallots, sliced
2 punnets brown mushrooms, sliced
200 ml dry red wine

Method:

  1. Melt the butter and cook the onions gently till soft.
  2. Add the mushrooms and on slightly higher heat, cook till most of the butter is absorbed.
  3. Turn up the heat and pour in the red wine.
  4. Allow to bubble for about 10 minutes or till mushrooms are nicely tender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Horseradish Garlic Cream Sauce

Ingredients:

2 heads of garlic
1 pot cream
1 tbsp horseradish powder

Method:

  1. Roast the garlic in a pre-heated oven at 120 ºC for an hour or till soft.
  2. Cut the base of the garlic head and squeeze out the pulp into a mortar and pestle. Mash till smooth.
  3. In a pot, combine the garlic and cream and warm gently. Do not let boil.
  4. Mix in the horseradish powder and season to taste.

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Tropical Plate Trifle

[syrup-soaked cake]

Bake the cake here using lime zest instead of tangerine. Use the juice from 5 limes and 100 g of icing sugar for the syrup. Add a touch more icing sugar if you like it less sour.

[cream]

Whip the i small tub whipping cream with 2 tbsp icing sugar and 50 ml dark rum till you get soft peaks. Chill in the fridge immediately.

[fruit topping]

Add 2 tbsp of dark brown sugar to 3 pulped passionfruit, stir and chill in the fridge. Chop Silver Valley pineapple into smaller chunks than the photo (I was too lazy to cut them smaller) and chill.

[assembly]

Arrange thick slices of the cake on a suitable plate, scatter with a couple tbsp of dark rum, then dollop the rum cream lavishly over. Pour over sugared passionfruit pulp then sprinkle with pineapple pieces. Serve to oohs and aahs.

All recipes serve 7, with leftovers.

Singapore-Style Farmer’s Market

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There’s this place in Choa Chu Kang called Farmart that bills itself as a farmer’s showcase of sorts. DC and I went there to check out the fresh produce as I was going to cook Sunday lunch for the usual suspects. It wasn’t quite the fruit and veg bonanza I expected as only one measly store sold sweet potato leaves and another one sold two types of fruit. The rest of the stores sold eggs, fresh fish, honey, quail and quail eggs, local pastries and wheat grass juice. There wasn’t a huge selection but the offerings were all very fresh, particularly the live fish on sale.

We stumbled across a small stand selling incredibly sweet Silver Valley pineapple and excellent mangosteen. The pineapple came from the same man selling pineapple at the goat farm in Lim Chu Kang and it’s sweet and aromatic, better than the Sarawak varietal. The mangosteen came in large net bags with the dark purple skin glistening brightly at us, beckoning us to buy. These were very good too. The seller claimed that they were so good only one in a hundred were bad. True enough, all of the ones I had were excellent, just the right balance of sweet and sour.

We then proceeded to Cheng’s Seafood Village within the same compound for lunch. DC’s idea of a simple lunch was horfun, stir-fried vegetables and a large heap of butter prawns. The cooking here is good. They use good stock liberally in the food. The vegetables were fragrant with lots of yummy stock and the horfun noodles were pre-fried so that each ribbon of noodle was slightly charred. Very well done. I also quite liked how there were  some little surprises such as the mussel in the horfun. What DC didn’t like was a mushy prawn. You win some you lose some I guess.

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DC claimed that it was good enough that he ordered butter prawns as the unhealthy alternative would be the oat prawns. I think I can safely say that DC is rather insatiable, perhaps more so than me. The moreish prawns were coated in an almost sweet butter crisp and were fried till just right. They were excellent even eaten shell on.

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Cheng’s Seafood Village
67 Sungei Tengah Road Unit 43
Tel 6892 5590