Weasel coffee

If you are travelling around Southeast Asia, chances are that you will visit a coffee plantation at some point. Supporting local farmers is important, but there is a dark side to the roasting process.

In Vietnam, coffee is a serious business. Second only to Brazil, it exports the most grounded coffee of any country in the world. The most expensive coffee you can buy is called Kopi Luwak, otherwise known as ‘weasel coffee’ which retails at around $40-$100 a cup. This coffee is touted as ‘exclusive’ since the way it is harvested means that there is a limited supply.

A man slow roasts coffee beans in Bali

Wild luwaks are palm civet cats that select the ripest coffee cherries as part of their diet. The beans are not fully digestible, so they pass out almost intact, but with an added ‘musky’ flavour. Through partly digesting the beans using enzymes in its stomach, the acidity is changed and the resulting flavour is supposedly less bitter. Once cleaned, the beans are processed in the same way, but the selling point is that a wild animal has chosen only the best beans for your morning cup.

Coffee does really grow on trees

The problem is that wild luwaks are poached to maintain this story. Caged and force fed a restricted diet of coffee cherries, they are kept in squalid conditions in order to harvest their droppings. Without eating other important foods such as fruit, the animals inevitably become sick. Their naturally shy demeanour means that being on constant display and positioned next to other luwaks causes them further suffering.

Tony Wild, who has been credited with introducing this ‘poop coffee’ to the West, is now championing more sustainable ways to farm. His campaign in 2013 Kopi Luwak – Cut the Crap has garnered over 50,000 signatures to put an end to the practice of capturing palm civet cats for this process. He has called on retailers, including Harrods where he worked, to stop stocking this type of coffee. His book, Coffee: A Dark History, delves into the uncomfortable truths about coffee production, from animal cruelty to colonisation.

Despite the 2013/2014 movement fuelled by Wild that highlighted the plight of palm civet cats in making coffee, the persistent demand for Kopi Luwak means that the farmers have not stopped this practice. When I visited Bali in late 2018, I was surprised to see many road signs still promoting luwak coffee. Despite the backlash against this exploitative method, many coffee plantations still use confined civet cats and even showcase them as part of their tours.

Coffee cherries with visible beans

The thought of eating something derived from dung gives it a queasy appeal for those wishing to try something novel. It is still possible to buy pounds of weasel coffee online, and the influx of fake versions further attests to its popularity. Be wary of any farms that claims to have a ‘sustainable’ method of producing weasel coffee, since any method that inhibits a wild animal or breeds them in captivity is not ethical. Putting profit over the well-being of wildlife is not a sustainable practice.

Since 2014, new legislation and certification has been introduced to reduce the number of caged luwaks. The Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) is used by the Rainforest Alliance to help consumers choose coffee that has been farmed responsibly, and the UTZ also provides a certificate for sustainable coffee production. However, getting your hands on a legitimate bag of weasel coffee can be a challenge since the high retail price attracts many imitators who claim to be certified.

Although awareness of these civet cat farms has increased over the past decade, many tourists may not realise the true price of this coffee. If you are looking for a way to experience culture in Southeast Asia, trying weasel coffee may just leave a bitter taste in your mouth.

Borneo’s big five

You’ve heard of the Big Five in Africa, but have you heard of Borneo’s version?

The first animal on our list was the reason we had travelled to Borneo – the orangutan. The Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is wildlife conservation at its best, with a focus on protecting the orangutans from the deforestation for palm oil production, while preparing them to be reintroduced to the primary forests.

The first orangutan we saw was from the boardwalk, a young male that looked as though its fur was on fire as it caught the early sunlight. With black fingernails, he clasped the branches with finesse as he climbed down to the feeding platform. The orangutans here are not guaranteed sightings, and in fact, the guides said it was a good sign not to spot them as it meant they were foraging for themselves. This brought them one step closer to being re-released into the wild.

We also encountered a giant male with impressive side flanges who seemed to have a monopoly on the larger feeding sight. Swinging from a rope and bellowing, his presence was undeniable. However, a mischievous pig-tailed macaque stole fresh fruit from under his nose undetected.

We would spot three more orangutans outside of Sepilok, solitary individuals who were making their nightly nest high in the canopies, feeding on the fringes of the rainforest, or emerging from the thick canopy above.

Back on the river, it wasn’t long before we spotted animal number two. Our wooden boat lurched down the swollen river, so full of mud that everything below the surface was hidden. Sunning itself on the bank with its jaws open in a menacing pant, it flexed each of its muscular legs before thumping down its thick tail and slipping into the water. Our guides pulled at the motor as we scanned the chocolate river for a sign, but the 3m long saltwater crocodile had disappeared without even a ripple.

On a night tour, we would see dozens of glimmering golden eyes bobbing on the surface, not disclosing the size of the body beneath. On a dawn outing in the boat, a 4m male swam underneath us and rose to let us watch his endless scaly spines submerge once more.

Our third spot came suddenly, as a troop of proboscis monkeys disturbed the outer edges of the rainforest by leaping and shaking the leaves. The males, most famous for their protruding noses, sported potbellies and sat apart from the rest. The females carried younger members of the group, with the same rounded stomachs on show as they jumped to higher branches.

Proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo and are endangered through loss of natural habitat. To avoid being hunted by leopards, monitor lizards and eagles, they sleep on the edge of the rainforest, finding the lightest boughs that will support them. However, one misstep or ill-timed spring could land them in the water, where a hungry crocodile will snap them up instantly.

From the Kinabatangan River, we noticed rope bridges connecting the distant banks. These were introduced by conservationists to provide safe passage for orangutans, but they are inevitably used by other species who are not keen to test the waters.

As we approached the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world, we noticed a chalkboard full of scribbled names of recent sightings. Our hopes of seeing number three were raised for the next morning, but of course, nature is unpredictable.

We set out early to reach the oxbow lake, and saw frogs, silvery langurs and graceful egrets with curved necks. We had seen sombre black hornbills roosted on dead stumps, a pair of ghoulish mating white-crested hornbills, Oriental pied hornbills with their grand casques flying in single file, and we would later see nesting bushy-crested hornbills in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Fourth on our list was the rhinoceros hornbill, with an impressive casque coloured like flames in contrast with its monochromatic plumage. Our guide pointed to a silhouette high on a branch, and as the mist dissipated, its colours were revealed. The male preened himself and its decorative casque swayed elegantly as it moved its beak around.

The final animal on our list was one that our guides said was rather elusive, despite its size. The Borneo Pygmy Elephant is the smallest elephant species in the world, but adult males still reach up to 2.5 metres high. Having already seen so many incredible species, we were content with the peaceful boat ride down the river.

Just as we were about to turn back to the lodge, we heard a splintering crack from the bank. Our guide killed the engine, and we sat in silence, listening to the disturbed water lapping the side of the boat. The sound of snapping again, followed by a glimpse of a grey, weathered trunk.

Before long, a whole herd of elephants was munching its way to the river’s edge. Juvenile elephants playfully chased their elders in circles, before retreating into the rainforest. A scarred male, missing half a tusk, stood apart from the rest. The matriarch of the group, an old female, led the group, and for a moment, we thought she would enter the water. However, she slowly turned and walked back into the treeline, the view clear after they had demolished the undergrowth.

If you would like to experience a wildlife tour in Borneo, we recommend Borneo Eco Tours. Not only do they hire local guides who are experts at spotting wildlife and sharing stories, they are consistently recognised for their commitment to conservation efforts and prioritise the welfare of the animals and local communities.

With any wildlife encounter, sightings are not guaranteed. Seeing an animal in its natural habitat is special, but it is even more so when it is not a given. If you would like to book a wildlife tour, we recommend this 5 day, 4 night experience that is a budget tour including Sukau Rainforest Lodge and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

The hidden waterfall tour, Bali

As I approached the ledge, I passed a painted wooden sign tied to a tree trunk. It read, ‘Never try, never know…Test your adrenaline!’ Before I could reconsider, I bounded forwards. The guide stopped me, telling me I had to do a standing jump rather than a running leap. The stone underfoot was cold and wet. My toes curled instinctively over the ledge as Kroya waterfall spat a frothy stream towards me. “Three…two…one…”


Our driver Wayan was visibly distraught. After a long three hour journey winding our way north, we had suffered a burst tyre and were now sat beside a paddy field, far from the last town. We were relatively close to the secret waterfalls, but for now we were stranded.

We understood his frustration. As we drove past the misty shadow of Mt. Agung, Wayan described how his family, who lived within 6km of the volcano, had been evacuated months before. Living in a shelter with his wife and two children, he explained the difficulties of trying to sleep and continue living while the threat of an eruption loomed over them all. This was back in December 2017, and the volcano continues to erupt with an evacuation zone of up to 9km.

He had tried to return to his house to collect some belongings, but officials had turned him away empty handed. In contrast to the media reports that feared the repercussions of lost trade through lower numbers of tourists, he told us that the locals were praying for the volcano to erupt. Waiting in limbo was more of a punishment than losing everything and having to rebuild their lives.


I stood on the ledge, willing my legs to move. They were now planted stiffly. An uncomfortable tingle had lodged itself in the crux behind my knees and in the space between my fingers. A queue had formed behind me. Counting me down to an anticlimax. Expecting me to jump.

As I weakly stumbled back towards the safety of the rocks, I looked up at my family. They had signed up for a whole day of waterfall adventures, and this was only the first jump at 5m. The rest were much higher, at 10m and 15m respectively.

Morale was slipping. I caught sight of a man clambering down the slippery craggy path from the road. It was Wayan, our driver, who had managed to repair the tyre on his car and was rushing to join us.

I pulled the strap of my life jacket and turned round. I strode up to the edge and looked over briefly to qualm my fear of braining myself on the rocks below. The young guide began to tentatively count me down. I moved my weight from my back leg forwards, then fell through the air, not wanting to let Wayan down.


Next, the guide held me in the stream and my legs flopped before me uncontrollably. I was dangling at the top of Kroya waterfall, 12m high. The life jacket buffeted my head as the water tried to dislodge me from the safety of his grip. I tried to make sense of what he was saying, but the deluge of water was all I could hear.

Before I could take a breath, I was spitting out water. My body was in free flow over the edge. My eyes were open but all I could see was spray. I was temporarily held under, before being promptly spat out. I found myself in the serene pool once more, floating downriver to the next waterfall.

The next jump made the first look like child’s play. At 10m high, you could count a clear second or two before your body hit the water. The cliff edge was decorated with pebble dash which made the launch spot uneven underfoot. I watched my partner Tom jump and reemerge around the bend. The grey shadows of rocks could be seen below, so this needed to be a confident jump outwards to clear them.

I psyched myself up, trying not to overthink it this time. Just head to the edge and go. Never try, never know. As I was preparing to jump, a crippling fear overcame my legs. I spun and held onto the guide’s forearms for support. I was laughing but my knuckles were white. I could not move, not even away from the edge. I looked at my family again, who had already decided they were out. I asked Tom to go again.

He didn’t even blink. He casually walked past me, glanced down, then was gone. He resurfaced with a big grin on his face. While he was in the pool below, I would join him, I decided. The only way down there was to jump.

After resigning myself to the fact that this one was simply too high, I was surprised to find that I was hurtling downwards. Shrieking, I crashed into the water and my bottom was slapped hard. I had forgotten to straighten my legs for impact. I clumsily pawed my way over to Tom, my life jacket bobbing around my neck.

The final jump gives me toe cramp just thinking about it. The last waterfall was 15m high, only accessible using a flimsy dog-chewed rope across the fast river. The undergrowth hid the jagged edge of the rocks leading to the abyss below. The guide did not demonstrate this jump. Our gaze followed the water down. It surged forward with a new urgency, dissipating into vapour as it struck a large pool, inky black in its depths.

I did not even entertain the idea of conquering this fall. The last had left a big impression on me (quite literally, my bum cheeks were bruised). This jump was fifty percent bigger. From up here, time would be suspended for a good three seconds as you plunged downwards.

Yet Tom lined himself up and reassured himself of the landing spot. He glanced sideways at me then leapt past the scratchy undergrowth and just out of reach of the hissing water. He screamed this time, before disappearing into a shock of water.

We craned our necks to see over the side. He had not surfaced in the still lagoon yet. Then, with the power of a champagne cork, he launched up in triumph. “How many people complete this last jump?” I asked the guide as we walked down to join him. “Not many. Not many are that stupid.”

5

In the final part of our journey, we walked back upstream and followed a thin snaking path. The sound of pounding water found us before we set eyes on the Aling Aling waterfall. At 35m high, it was a force to be reckoned with. Spray erupted and hung in the air like mist as the thunderous sound grew deafening. This was a jump that even Tom would not attempt.

Tour company – Pink Gorillaz. The Secret Waterfall tour includes transportation. See website for prices and details.

Travel vaccinations

The flights are booked. You’ve found some accommodation. The travel itinerary is filling up. Maybe you’ve even sorted your travel insurance.

But have you researched whether you need any travel vaccinations, or visited your local travel health clinic to talk about immunisation?

When should I look into getting travel vaccinations?

As soon as possible! The NHS recommends visiting your GP or a private travel clinic at least eight weeks before travelling.

Depending on the country you’re visiting, you may need to book a series of injections beforehand. Some vaccinations need to be administered a certain number of days before you travel to ensure your immune system is ready.

For example, according to the WHO (World Health Organisation), the schedule for the rabies vaccinations differs, but it is usually administered in three separate visits in the space of 28 days.

Likewise, if you need the Japanese encephalitis vaccine, it will be given in three doses.

Can my doctor administer my travel vaccinations?

It depends on whether the clinic is registered to give out immunisations, and which vaccinations you need.

However, if you have any existing medical conditions or allergies, it is a good idea to speak to your doctor first. Similarly, younger and older travellers may be more vulnerable so seek out medical advice.

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or suffer from immune deficiencies, you will need to consult with your doctor before booking an appointment elsewhere.

Where should I go to get my travel vaccinations?

You may be able to see your doctor for the travel vaccinations you need, but they may not have everything readily available since vaccinations have expiry dates, so it is not cost-effective to store them.

Instead, many countries have specialist travel health clinics that offer comprehensive travel vaccination services. It is worth researching online to find a clinic near you.

What do I need to think about?

There are a few important things to consider when planning your itinerary:

  • The country you are coming from
  • The country (or countries) you are heading to
  • The specific areas you’ll visit (i.e. coast, mountains, cities, jungle, etc.)
  • How long you will be there
  • The modes of transport you’ll be using
  • The types of activities you’ll be doing
  • Whether you will encounter wild animals
  • The accommodation you’re likely to stay in
  • The type of weather / season
  • The food and drink you plan to eat

If you are backpacking in more rural areas and planning on eating local, trekking in the jungle and camping outdoors, you may be more susceptible to airborne or waterborne diseases than a holidaymaker who has booked a package deal in a four-star hotel.

Are travel vaccinations necessary?

Vaccinations can be categorised into three types according to WebMD:

  1. Routine – the standard vaccinations for children and adults in your country, usually including tetanus, diphtheria, MMR, influenza, rotavirus, polio, HPV, chicken pox, whooping cough, pneumococcal disease and hepatitis B.
  2. Recommended – additional vaccinations to reduce the risk of contracting diseases that are present in the country you are visiting, such as the rabies, cholera, malaria, tick-borne encephalitis, typhoid fever, hepatitis A/B, Japanese encephalitis, tuberculosis and top ups of tetanus and diphtheria.
  3. Required – in some places in South America and Africa, the yellow fever vaccination and certificate is needed to enter the country. In Saudi Arabia, you must have proof of meningococcal meningitis immunisation administered at least ten days before if you are visiting during Umrah or Hajj. Polio is also now being officially monitored by border controls after outbreaks in Papua New Guinea.

Even if you have had a vaccination before, you may need a booster shot if you are travelling in an area where that infectious disease is known to exist.

Do I have to get the travel vaccinations?

By having the travel vaccination, you are protecting yourself from some nasty infectious diseases that could be fatal if contracted.

Pre-immunisation helps your body to fight off the bacteria or virus before you travel, and will help bolster your immune system by creating antibodies to fend off future attacks.

Vaccinations have successfully eliminated diseases such as smallpox. Immunisation strategies were responsible for saving 10 million lives between 2010-2015 according to the WHO.

However, vaccines are only effective if the majority of us are immunised, in what is referred to as ‘herd immunity.’ When you travel, you must be responsible and ensure that you are fully updated with your vaccinations to reduce any risks of spreading infection.

How much do travel vaccinations cost?

In the UK, some travel vaccinations may be covered by the NHS. If your clinic administers immunisations, the following are free:

  • polio (given as a combined shot of diphtheria, polio and tetanus)
  • typhoid
  • hepatitis A
  • cholera

Before you go, check your GP is signed up to provide NHS travel vaccines. If some are not covered, you can research the costs at your local travel health clinics. Prices tend to vary, so do your homework in advance.

Remember, some additional fees may apply if there are multiple doses required, or if you need a dated certificate of vaccination. It is worth budgeting extra to cover these costs, and allowing enough time to fit in appointments.

It is worth noting that some travel insurance policies will not cover medical expenses if you have neglected to have your travel vaccinations.

What else do I need to prepare?

Prevention is a good way of staying safe and not bringing home more than you bargained for. If you’re visiting an area with a high risk of malaria, it is sensible to invest in some non-DEET insect repellent. If you’re trekking, wearing longer layers and buying a mosquito net is advisable.

Washing your hands before eating is another way of reducing the risk of getting ill, and carrying a small bottle of alcohol disinfectant is an easy way to minimise the germs entering your system. Practicing good hygiene is important for staying fit and healthy while you’re away.

In some places, travellers are advised to only drink from bottled water or avoid street food, particularly meat and dairy products, where the chances of food poisoning may be higher. Pack Immodium in your first aid kit, along with some electrolyte packs to stay hydrated. In case your diet has the opposite effect, pop some laxative pills in there too.

In areas where waterborne diseases may be present, eating soft fruits or salad leaves may result in illness. It is sometimes sensible to only eat fruit that can be peeled to reduce the risks of consuming bacteria that your stomach won’t agree with.

In any place you go, whether travelling or not, it is always sensible to practice safe sex. Protect yourself from unwanted STIs by using condoms every time.

Useful links

For more information on travel vaccinations, please visit the following websites that maintain updated travel advice:

Please note, the travel advice here does not replace the updated and specific knowledge of your doctor or travel health specialist. See them for detailed advice about travel vaccinations before you travel.

Sand dune surfing

Huacachina in Peru is a surreal mirage of a place. Steep golden sand dunes tower over the green lagoon where wading birds parade in the water against blood orange sunsets. Hotels cluster around the water. At sunrise, guests trek 250ft to the top of the slopes, and enjoy the view of the desert for miles around.

Growling dune buggies leap across the sand and launch passengers from their seats. My friends and I decided to tackle these giant shifting hills armed with snowboards for a more eco experience. Here are some things you should know about sand dune surfing:

1) Make yourself sand-proof
Flip flops, t-shirt and shorts might seem appropriate for this terrain, but when you are hurtling down the steep dunes on your belly inches from the sand you will regret not having an extra layer. Ask my arm. Leave your camera at home unless it has a waterproof case.

2) Be realistic
If you’ve never been able to stand on a snowboard, mastering these skills on sand is unlikely. It is possible to board if you have extreme skill, but even then it is much easier to hit bumps and dig your way into an impressive face-plant. It might not look pretty, but you will always win the race if you belly-surf like a rocket down the slope.

3) Wax up
Candle wax is an essential accessory here, so ask your guide to provide you with some. The more time you spend rubbing your board, the faster you’ll speed down to the base.

4) Stick to the plan
Listen to your guide and only hit the slopes that they recommend. My friends and I got carried away and launched ourselves down a series of 200ft dunes, before our guide told us to walk all the way back up a monstrous crumbling hill. It was regrettable.

5) Don’t look down
Some of these dunes are seriously steep, so avoid looking at the tiny ants waiting for you at the bottom. As always, it’s best to go earlier if you’re afraid of heights, and dig your shoes into the sand if you want to slow down.

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Happy surfing!

The hidden canyon of Beji Guwang

Bali’s hidden canyon lies in Sukawati. To find the entrance, we drove down a small street with faded shopfronts. On corners, fat syringes of golden diesel perched in wooden huts. A woman, dressed in yellow lace, balanced a tower of fruit on her head to offer to a nearby Hindu shrine, which was nestled between shops selling sim cards and cans of Pocari Sweat.


We clawed our way onto the rocks that were deceptively smooth, like the skin of black eels. The choking rapids cajoled our limbs to join them as they bulldozed their way down the canyon.

Our two guides, Wayan and Made, had expertly navigated us through so far. They knew the crannies to trust with our weight. They knew which torrents to fight and which to surrender to. They could foresee the rock below our feet, despite the murky depths of the water.

The cliffs of striated rock, shaded like exposed muscle, curved to great heights around us. Thick vines dangled like dreadlocks from toppling trees. As the pale glow of sunlight fizzed brighter, spots of bleach illuminated the brown water we found ourselves in.

Layers of khaki stubble clung to the lower levels and made each step and handhold treacherous, yet we felt the giddiness of adventure stall any fear.

The river launched itself with force between the narrow rocks. The surface of the water was puckered with the strong undercurrents that shot downstream.

We continued through the hidden gorge, feeling with every subsequent step the power of the water. It toyed with us, spinning and pummelling our bodies as we moved forwards.

The rock faces dropped away, revealing a still lake. Turning the corner, we had entered a technicolour scene with the leafy vegetation giving us relief from the dull palette of grey and brown.

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The path, forged by the water, twisted on further. The rocks grew steadily in size, until they were monstrous. Leaving the water, we climbed a steep rock face and squelched our baked toes into the reddish soil beyond.

When we emerged from the canyon, the bleak sunlight stung our eyes. It felt as though we’d spent the last two hours in a cave, shielded by the cold stone.

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We hotfooted it along the path that skirted the paddy field, each row meticulously straight and growing fresh shoots. Our guides retrieved fallen frangipani heads and tucked them behind our ears.

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The canyon tour is becoming more well-known to travellers so locals believe it will not retain its ‘hidden’ name forever.


Name: Beji Guwang hidden canyon tour
Address: GPS -8. 609844, 115. 289898, Sukawati 80582, Indonesia
Website: Bali hidden canyon tourTripAdvisor
Cost: IDR 15,000 ($1.50) for entry each, then IDR 100,000 ($10) for one guide. Guides are compulsory and visitors are not allowed to explore on their own for safety reasons. Larger groups should expect to have a couple of guides to assist them. Tips not included.
Duration: 2 – 2.5 hours
Facilities: Toilets, showers and lockers at the entrance. Refreshment stall near the end.
What to bring: There are lockers so bring a towel and spare clothes to change into afterwards. You will get wet so bring a waterproof pouch for phones/cameras if necessary. The guides will carry some items, such as water and flip flops, in their dry bag. Walking barefoot in the canyon is advisable.
Top tip: Call ahead to check that the canyon is open. After heavy rainfall, the water levels become dangerously high and the canyon is closed to visitors. Some places were deeper than 5ft when we visited so tell the guides if you are a weak swimmer.
Age and fitness level: This activity is for adults only. The route requires good balance and strength, so a general level of fitness is required. For those with knee injuries like me, bring a knee support as it is slippery.
Extra information: Avoid the mini zoo attraction at the end as it does not promote the welfare of the animals. Birds of prey, boa constrictors, flying foxes and lizards are used as ‘props’ for photographs, and the owners encourage tourists to handle the animals. Rather than visiting or giving donations to continue this practice, walk on and buy refreshments from the hut to support the local economy instead.